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The Guardian of the Artifact Vault atop the City

"Please, may I have access to the inner chamber?" the Ducissa asked politely. She was sitting on the steel paneling, her ankles beneath her, her skirts spread around her on the grimy surface, so that she could look directly into the guardian's 'face,' its tiny visage glowing in vibrant colors on the inset panel.

"Access to the artifact vault may not be granted, Your Grace," the tinny voice said as the face animated as if to speak the words.

"How may access be granted, sir?" she asked.

"It may not," said the machine.

She sighed.

She had been at this for the better part of two days. She finally thought that perhaps asking nicely was the answer. She wouldn't put it past her father to come up with such a thing, but it didn't seem that this would work either. She frowned at how dirty her skirts were getting, as they flapped against the panels and rivets in the winds. Oh well, it was just cloth, she had dozens more similar outfits. Soon none of it would matter. The trappings of royal life would seem frivolous in a city that had turned against her. It was only a matter of hours now, at most. For all she knew, they were prowling the streets for her right then. She might as well take off her breather and let the poisoned air into her lungs.

She turned away from the small face on the panel, and slumped back against the vault door next to it, stretching her legs out before her. It was probably not a particularly dignified pose, but she didn't care. She looked back over the fuselage of the great aerostat. She could see the hatch she used to get out here, and in the distance, she saw a forest of various protrusions from the steely surface, water collectors, solar panels, windmills, transmitters, satellite dishes, weather sensors; thousands of spikes and poles and branching racks.

Inside, nearly a quarter-mile beneath her present perch, was The City. Her city... well.... Her father's city. Since his death she had proved to be a less than competent ruler, or at least, a less than popular one.

"You're killing me, you know?" she said, turning her head slightly toward the guardian's display panel.

"I do not, Ma'am," it said.

"It's true. I have enemies in the city. They seek to tear me down; probably, they want me dead."

"That is unfortunate."

She gave a humorless chuckle, "The contents of this vault could save me from them."

"The contents of the vault are indeed powerful."

"I probably wouldn't even have to hurt anyone," she said. "Just being seen carrying my grandfather's acuity cannon back to the palace would be enough to re-secure my place at the head of The City."

"Access to the acuity cannon may not be granted, Your Grace."

"I think I'm finally willing to admit that's true." She stared out over the fuselage for a long moment, the wind tugging her clothes and hair in every direction, though the vault itself shielded her from the full strength of it. "Can you at least tell me why?" she asked.

"Insufficient information," the voice said.

"Tell me about it," she said wryly. "What I mean is: Why bother? Why would my father build a vault to house all of The City's most valuable artifacts and weapons, but leave no way to access it? Why not just toss all of them overboard?"

"Your father wished to retain these artifacts in case they were needed in a time of great emergency."

She huffed, "And if that day of great emergency had come, how would my father have accessed the vault?"

"Access to the artifact vault may not be granted, Ma'am."

She let her head thump back against the large, metal door. She closed her eyes. It was peaceful up here, if she ignored the acrid smell of the air coming through her breather, and the danger that awaited her in the city below. Without opening her eyes, she asked, "If a door cannot open, is it still a door?"

"Yes," the guardian said

"There's nothing here."

The guardian did not respond.

"That's right isn't it?" she asked, opening her eyes, and turning to look sidelong at the guardian again.

"Insufficient Information."

"The vault is empty, or rather, it's not really a vault. It's just you. My father did just toss the artifacts overboard, didn't he?"

"Negative, Ma'am. The City's artifacts are stored within this vault, and I am its guardian."

"How do you know that information?" she pressed.

"It is part of my core programming."

"But did you actually see the artifacts being placed in the vault?"

"My system has no input devices which could have performed that function."

"So, you don't know if there is anything actually here."

The guardian took a moment in answering, as if hesitant. "The City's artifacts are stored within this vault, and I am its guardian."

The Ducissa took a deep, foul-tasting breath. "There is nothing here," she repeated. "Whatever the next few hours bring; I will have to face it without my family's toys." She stood then and tried to straighten her skirts, but it was useless to attempt in the wind. Instead she stood very straight, and turned to the vault door. "Thank you, Guardian," she said bowing slightly, "for your continued loyal service."

"Yes, Ma'am," was all it said.

She turned and strode toward the hatch, struggling not to be knocked off balance by the winds. Behind her, the guardian continued its long vigil.

About the Author
CB Droege is an author and poet from the Queen City living in the Millionendorf. His influences include Philip K. Dick, Bill Bryson, Isaac Asimov, David Sedaris, and Roger Zelazny. He loves wizards and time-travel, but has an irrational distaste for time-traveling wizards. His latest book is RapUnsEl and Other Stories. He recently edited Starward Tales: An Anthology of Speculative Legends. You can find him online at cbdroege.com.