Chalker, Jack L. – Well of Souls 06




This has to be for Marg and Joe Brazil

and their son, Nathan, who didn’t know about me until after they named him,

but who prove that all those folks

who said years ago that “Nathan Brazil” was

such an implausible name.

Now we know that Nathan Brazil is a Canadian.

That’s a fact. A Canadian fact.

Sorry Nathan’s not in the book, but . . .

Now, then, any Mavra Changs out there?

Asswam Junction, Near the Crab Nebula

monsters are not always so easy to spot, and when they walk among you they often do so with a smile, and when they become what they are underneath the glare, you don’t really know what’s happened. And when a monster has friends and followers and sometimes even worshipers, it can become far more than a single dark blot of evil on the fabric of time; then it has the capacity to suddenly rear off and carry even the most innocent straight to Hell, or to do even worse and take your own existence and extend Hell to that as well. This is a story of monsters and maidens and the walking dead. The fact that it begins on a starship only drives home the point . . .

He had the smell of death and the look of the grave in him. Everyone could sense it, almost as if he were somehow broadcasting the cold chill that those of any race who en­countered him instantly felt.

He’d been handsome once, but long ago. Now his face was badly weathered, wrinkled, and pockmarked, and there was a scar on one cheek that didn’t look to be the result of a slip in some friendly fencing match. His eyes were deep, sunken, cold, and empty, his hair thick but silver, worn long and looking something like a mane.

It was eerie when he walked past the small group of pas­sengers in the waiting lounge; they were of perhaps a half-dozen races, some inscrutable to others and tending to hold far different views of the universe and all that was in it, yet when he passed, every one of them reacted, some turning to look, some turning away, and some edging back as if the mere touch of his garment would bring instant death.

A Rithian watched him walk down the hall toward the vendor hall, its snakelike head and burning orange eyes almost hypnotized by the figure now going farther away. “I had not believed that he could draw so much more of the nether regions than he already had long ago,” it muttered, almost to itself.

The Terran woman shook off a final chill, turned and looked at the creature who’d made the comment. “You know him?” she asked.

“I knew him,” the Rithian answered, finally bringing its face back down to normal by distending its long serpentine neck and looking over at the woman instead. “At least, I have seen him before, long ago, and I know who he is. I am surprised that you do not, he being of your kind. He is cer­tainly a legend, and, someday, he will be a part of your mythology I suspect. I hope he is not on our liner.”

She shook her head, trying to get a grip on herself. “I—I don’t think I ever felt anyone so—so evil.” She actually started to say “inhuman” but realized how inappropriate that would be in present company.

“Evil? Perhaps. It is impossible to know what he has become inside, and to what he’s sold his soul. But he is not precisely evil. In fact, he seeks an evil, and until he finds it and faces it and either kills it or it kills him, he cannot rest or ever find peace. He is Jeremiah Wong Kincaid. Does that name mean nothing to you?”

She thought hard. “Should it?”

“Then what about the scouring of Magan Triune?”

It was history to her, ancient history from the time of her parents at least, and thus the kind of thing you didn’t tend to dwell on later in life unless you liked to wallow in the sick and violent history of humanity. She only vaguely recalled it even now. “Something about igniting the atmosphere of a planet, wasn’t it? So long ago . . .”

“The atmosphere of a planet with six billion souls upon it, yes. Six billion souls who had been infected with a most horrible parasite by a megalomaniac would-be conqueror of the Realm, Josich the Emperor Hadun. A Ghoma, you might recall. A creature of the water, really. He’d found a way, the only known way, to conquer whole worlds composed of various races alien to him, and to even control environments he could not himself exist in without an environment suit.

Tiny little quasiorganic machines, like viruses, transmitted like viruses as well, who could remake and tailor themselves for any bioorganism, any place, anywhere, and turn whole populations into slaves. There was no way to cure them; the things were more communicable than air and water. Isolate them, and they killed the hosts, horribly. Let them go, and a whole planet would be devoted to infecting everyone and everything else. It was the greatest horror our common his­tories ever produced.”

She shivered, remembering now why she’d not liked that kind of history. “And this Kincaid—he was a part of this?”

“A liner was intercepted and boarded. Everyone on it was infected. It was only because of security systems that it only reached Magan Thune before being discovered and dealt with. There are such horrible distances in space for even messages and warnings to cover, and you cannot station naval ships with great firepower at every one. We—all our races—breed a bit too much for that. Kincaid was com­mander of a small frigate, an escort naval vessel used in frontier areas. He’d come to the sector to meet his mate and children, and have some leave on some resort world. He wasn’t supposed to come to Magan Thune at all, but went to check when the liner was late making its next port of call.”

She was suddenly appalled. “He was the one who ignited the atmosphere?”

“No. He was spared that. Much too junior for such a thing. That took a task force. All he could do, upon dis­covering what was taking place, was to deal with any spacefaring craft, to ensure none got away. That, of course, included the liner . . .”

She sat down, not wanting to think about it anymore but forced to do so anyway by the sheer magnitude of the tragedy the Rithian was relating and the knowledge that it was true.

He’d had to wipe out his whole family. Almost certainly he’d done more than give the order. He would have been human; he couldn’t have allowed anyone else to do it for him while he watched.

“Only months after, they figured out how it all worked,” the Rithian continued. “They discovered the shifting band of frequencies by which the things communicated with each other, with others in other bodies, and with the command. Block them, work out the basics of what had to be a fairly simple code to be so universal and require so little band­width, and then order them to turn themselves off after restoring normalcy to their hosts. There were recrimina­tions, trials, insistence on affixing blame. Nobody blows up a liner, let alone a planet, without the highest orders, but the public wanted heads. They second-guessed from screeching journalism, demanded to know why containment wasn’t an option, and so on. Never mind that one major industry of Magan Thune was the construction of deep space engines. That’s why the Conqueror had wanted it. And a hundred planets within days of there with possibly half a trillion souls.”

She tried to put the vision out of her mind. Thank God she never had to make those kind of choices! “And he’s been like that ever since?”

“That and more.”

“I’m not sure I wouldn’t have killed myself after that,” she mused.

“He might have,” the Rithian responded, “and some say he all but did anyway. You saw him, felt him, as did I, and I do not believe we have a great deal physiologically in com­mon, and perhaps culturally even less. There are things that are universal. But he will not die. He will not permit himself to die. I believe he has been through a rejuve or two. He has unfinished business. He cannot leave until it is completed.”

“Huh? What—What kind of business could he still have?”

“They never caught Josich the Emperor Hadun, you know. He is deposed for a great amount of time, and some say he is dead, although if Kincaid is not dead, then neither is Josich. One will not go without the other. Many say instead that Josich has become the emperor of the criminal underground, and that he is the source of much of the evil on countless worlds even now. Sixty years and Kincaid still hunts. That is why I hope he is not going on the same ship as we. If Kincaid could but guarantee the death of Josich, he would willingly take all of us with him. I would prefer he walk a different path than myself.”

But Kincaid was already returning to the departure lounge, and it was clear this was going to be an interesting trip.

* * *

The tale of the haunted man involved what the Rithian had called a “liner,” but even in those days that designation was for the rich and powerful only. Transport, then and now, was more complex than that for most travelers, and even now it was someone very rare who’d been off his or her own native world, and even fewer who had ever left their solar system. Travel was expensive, often long, and, in most people’s cases, unnecessary. And with more than forty races in the Realm and perhaps two dozen others that interacted with it, it wasn’t all that easy to support them in ecofriendly quar­ters for the weeks or months a trip might involve. Even with such as the Rithians and Terrans, who comfortably breathed each other’s air and could in fact eat each other’s foods, there were sufficient dramatic differences in their physical requirements to make things very complex.

The money in deep space travel was where it had been in ocean travel and river travel and rail travel in ancient times. The money was in freight. The money was always in freight. That was why ships that went between the stars resembled less the fabled passenger liners of oceanic days than trains, with powerful engine modules and an elaborate bridge that could oversee the largely automated operation, and then, forward of this, were coupled the mods of freight and then the passenger modules designed for various life-form re­quirements. Robotics and a central life-support computer catered to them; for a considerable fee one could have a real live concierge assigned, but this was mostly for status.

The larger races, the ones that, in the Rithian’s terms, bred fastest, almost always would have an entire dedicated module for their comfort, often with amenities and social interaction between passengers. Some were split modules, with common lounges and services, for those like the Ter­rans and Rithians, who could be comfortable together and didn’t have a long history of mistrust. Those who traveled pretty much alone, the one-of-a-kinds and small groups who also had special needs, had it worst of all. They were pretty well confined to their cabins, isolated save for the computer and communications links.

The ships never came to a planet. They would dock in orbit around the various worlds, and then the modules due for unloading, freight and people, would be separated and mated to specific offloading ports. Automated ferries would take the people from the floating spaceports down to various destinations on the planet below; tugs would remove the specialized containers from the modules of freight, where customs would inspect them and approve them, and then they would be taken down to where they were needed and replaced with ones from the planet’s surface.

Some spaceports weren’t around planets at all, and were in fact in deep space, floating artificial worlds, sometimes many kilometers in size, composed of similar customized modules around a central core. These were transfer points, the equiva­lent of the old railroad junctions and yards, where passengers would “change trains,” as it were, and freight would be redi­rected. These had their own centralized governing authori­ties, their own offices, shops, stores, hotel accommodations for all known races, emergency hospital services for all of those races as well, and much more.

The one they were now on was called Asswam Junction. It wasn’t as huge as some of the others, being a bit off the busiest shipping lanes, but it was plenty big enough, with all the services and amenities. Many in the passenger lounge had been there for days or even weeks, waiting for their connec­tions, which might well only take them to another junction.

There were perhaps twenty in the departure lounge, of which a dozen were Terrans. This was basically a transfer point along the Terran Arm of the Milky Way, and it was only natural that they would be the majority. Another four were Rithians, who inhabited the same region; three were Mallegestors, a mottled, tan-and-white elephantine race with enormously thick skin and a series of mean looking horns, who, nonetheless, also could share the same atmo­sphere and general requirements of Terrans and Rithians; and one was Geldorian, a small, lithe, furry weasel-like race, that looked more like an escapee from a pet store than a sentient being, save for the fact that it tended to smoke some odd substance in what seemed to be an oversized cala­bash pipe, and had a bulky purse over one shoulder.

Neither the Mallegestors nor the Geldorian were anything like local; how they’d wound up over in this sector of space only they could know. Still, a single module with common areas would do for all of them.

Below, at other gates, there could be others boarding this liner as well, and they might not ever know it. At least a dozen races within the region were water breathers, and several more breathed really unpleasant stuff like methane. They might well travel the same way on the same composite ship, but they were not the sort of folks you’d ever actually meet, or, in some cases, want to meet.

There was a Terran purser at the gate with maps and instruc­tions. The gate could have been automated, of course, and in most cases was, but it had been found over long experience that when boarding and getting off, people wanted somebody to ask questions of and talk to someone who had some exper­tise and authority, even if it wasn’t really necessary.

The purser, in fact, was really nothing more than a gate attendant. He would not even be going along with them, and would probably do this two or three times during the day for different departures.

Still, there he was at the boarding ramp, behind a small desk, smiling and checking out things on a computer screen. Something flashed on the board in front of him, and abruptly he was all business. They all put in what resembled little hearing aid devices, having no need to look at the cartoon graphic showing how to do it for all the races present that ran on the screen above the purser. After observing them, the purser picked up a small headset, put it on, and then punched in a code on the control board in front of him.

“Citizens of the Realm, I welcome you to Flight A3744X5. This is a nonstop to Crella Six spaceport, then on to Hasi­moto Junction. The time to Crella Six is eleven days six hours, and there will be a twelve hour layover there before proceeding for sixteen days ten hours to Hasimoto Junction. Those disembarking at Crella Six should have their pass­ports and other travel documents in order and on their per­son, as they must be submitted to immigration authority here before you can board. Those going on to Hasimoto Junction will require only their through ticket, as the auto­mated systems will not permit you to disembark at Crella Six.”

The voice was pleasant, professional, friendly. It was being delivered in Asparant, the language of interstellar commerce and trade that was the standard on all the Junc­tions and spaceports. There it went to a computer, which translated it and sent it to each of the earpieces in the lan­guage and dialect of the individual wearer.

“Once you submit your travel documents and/or ticket, and it is validated and approved,” the purser continued, “you will receive your cabin assignments and master keys, one for each person. These keys will operate only your cabin entrance, and after being used the first time, can be used only by the bearer. A map showing where your cabin is and how to get to it will be furnished with the key. Once you are approved, please collect key, map, and documents and pro­ceed on board and to your cabin. All luggage should have been delivered there by now, so please check, and if any­thing is missing report it immediately via the ship’s phone. Once you leave, there is no telling how long it might be before we could get anything left behind to you!”

The speech was stock and they’d all heard it before, but it was welcome nonetheless because it said that they were on their way.

Angel Kobe looked over at the Rithian, who was shuffling through his document pouch and checking with the rest of his party, then she looked around for Kincaid. He was there, paying no heed to the purser—he hadn’t even inserted his little earpiece—and with ticket in hand, he also appeared to have little interest in his fellow travelers. Whatever he was doing on this run, it clearly had nothing to do with anybody else here.

She couldn’t help but wonder if he thought of them at all, except as objects, perhaps. There were eight non-Terrans in the lounge, but the only really alien life-form was standing right there looking like a Terran man.

What was he doing here? What was he doing, period? Was he pensioned and spending all his time hunting this monster, who must be well-hidden and well-protected and in a biome the hunter couldn’t ever really pierce? What would be the result if this creature was discovered living the good life down deep in some planetary ocean and giving orders to its minions? Kincaid would have to go down in an environ­ment suit just for starters, and he’d be in unfamiliar territory against a probably well-guarded foe who felt completely at home there. Blow up the whole planet, perhaps? But then how would the hunter ever really know if the quarry was dead, or sheltered and ready to depart once conditions al­lowed, or, worse, had already left before the attack? She considered this while waiting not two people behind him in the queue for validation and boarding, and felt both curious and a bit sorry for the man. He was hunting Moby Dick and he didn’t even have a harpoon or a ship.

She reached ticketing, inserted her documents, then placed her hand in a cavity inside the console. A slight tingling sen­sation resulted, and then she felt a swipe of something across her thumb as the boarding computer took some dead cells from the surface of her skin and compared the generic code to that registered on the documents. It took only a few seconds, and she received a green boarding arrow and her documents back, along with a map of the module and a small book with descriptions of the facilities available, the services, and the numbers to contact for any of her needs, with her own cabin number printed on the front.

The boarding process was more than just a validation, though; it was also the cue to the documents and terminal computer to upload all the information it had on the pas­senger to the local computer governing the module itself. The computer would know who was who, what their re­quirements and preferences were, medical needs, every­thing, even the language and translation routines required. She would be automatically given access to her own cabin and to the corridors and public areas; she would be pre­vented from entering any area that might not be good for her health or the ship’s routines. In a sense, you were back in a sort of womb, and Mama was always around whether you wanted her there or not.

For a mixed race module, it was nicely full service. You could have your meals in your room, or go to a pleasant, inti­mate little cafe where no race would be visible to you eating something that would make you lose your lunch. There was a bar and lounge, a small gymnasium with equipment for every physiology, and a holographic staff that couldn’t really do much but would provide company and conversation if need be.

The cabin was quite spacious. She’d arrived on a more local type of vessel where passengers weren’t always the rule, and the quarters and amenities had been extremely cramped and limited in most ways. This was almost like a luxury hotel suite, with a sitting room, bedroom, full bath and shower, in-room entertainment, a direct virtual reality link for really going where you otherwise couldn’t and expe­riencing things you might not otherwise experience, and all the rest. There was even an octagonal window showing the immediate complex, although the window was really a wall screen that connected to external ports. For most of the trip it would be a mirror, and more useful for it.

The bottom line was, passenger travel in the age of inter­stellar civilizations did what passenger services always did in times past: it provided as many ways as economy and technology permitted to kill time and give you the illusion that you weren’t just sitting around bored.

Angel looked back at the cabin door and saw a display over it. Right now it was counting down toward 00:00:00, the time of departure, after which it would reset to the days, hours, and minutes until docking at the next stop.

It was all so new to her, and so wonderful. She’d seen most of the technology, of course, but she’d never dreamed of this level of luxury travel. She only wished that some friends or family were here to enjoy it with her. That, however, couldn’t be, and was the one real drag on an otherwise wondrous journey that she nonetheless knew she’d remember the rest of her life.

There was still almost an hour until departure. She de­cided to shower and freshen up and put on something light­weight and comfortable, then explore the module. It was, after all, going to be home for quite a while.

She saw a glowing red light on her desk console, and, realizing it was a message alert, pressed it.

“Captain Melak Dukodny of the City of Modar speaking to all guests,” came a pleasant if slightly stiff voice. “I wel­come everyone who is joining us on this leg of our journey and invite you all to a reception in the main lounge. The reception will begin fifteen minutes before departure, but you may come down at any time after that, and I will join you shortly after we make the jump into null-space. Since this is a Junction board, none of you will be experiencing this for the first time, and I anticipate nothing you haven’t seen, heard, or felt before. Dinner will be served beginning one hour after jump, although, of course, you may order anything at any time from room service. At 2200 ship’s time tonight there will be a general talk in the lounge of all of the features available in your module, as well as information in case of emergencies. All passengers who have not attended a briefing aboard this ship are required to attend. Thank you, have a pleasant trip, and I hope to greet each and every one of you later this evening.”

The red light went out.

It sounded like a full evening. Well, if she was going to shower and change and still go through it all, she’d better get started, she decided.

She was startled to see that all of her clothing and toi­letries had been unpacked and placed in drawers, closets, and the like. On the Queen of Tyre they’d just dumped the bags outside the door. There was even a ship’s clothing dis­penser where you could get a basic utilitarian throwaway, loosely fitted, in case you didn’t want to mess anything up, but for social nights that was unthinkable.

It hadn’t occurred to her that this module had come in with the ship from someplace else and that there might be continuing passengers. So it might well mean more people, and even more races. She wondered just how many were aboard.

The lounge was more crowded than she’d anticipated. It was a very pleasant rounded and sunken space in the center of the mod, and with a nicely done but somewhat schizo­phrenic layout providing comfortable seats for all the races aboard, and indented areas along the curved walls offering various hors d’oeuvres carefully selected as delicacies for various races while being inoffensive-looking to others. The latter wasn’t always possible, but this company clearly knew its business.

Likewise, there were different drinks tailored to the racial makeups, and in the correct proportions and containers. It wasn’t that hard; all food and drink aboard was actually cre­ated by small energy-to-matter converters using various authentic programs supplied by chefs of the various races. In fact, all of them were really eating and drinking the garbage, but it had been nicely reprocessed and one just didn ‘t think of that.

Angel Kobe had been born and raised on a vast farm that used none of this technology, and its farmers only feared the widespread discovery of cheap and easy ways to do the syn­thesizing on a mass scale. Fortunately, it was expensive and high maintenance, and was only possible on spacecraft as a by-product of the life support and propulsion systems.

Although she was in her fanciest evening clothes, she felt much the ugly duckling among the Terrans present. Her feeling of glamour when she’d dressed and made up in the cabin and examined herself in the mirror completely faded when she saw the competition. She would have been the belle of the ball back home, but in this company she was the rube at the prince’s ball. These people wore elegance like a comfortable pair of shoes.

Worse, she felt conspicuously . . . well, alone. Most of the others seemed to be in pairs or small groups. It seemed she was the only single person on the ship.

No, that wasn’t true, but the other one hadn’t shown up yet. Oddly, she almost wished that Jeremiah Kincaid would show up. Once he entered the room, nobody but nobody, would even remember that she existed.

What had begun as an exciting taste of unaccustomed luxury had already turned into a miserable and lonely time, and she knew there was a long time to go yet.

There was a countdown clock in almost every public area, and, as if tuned into her thoughts, it reached all zeros. Al­most immediately a vibration ran through the entire module, and she felt momentary dizziness caused by the switch to internal power and ship’s versus station gravity. At the same time, the circular ceiling became a viewing screen showing the disengagement from the large space station. Angel took a glass of juice, sat down on one of the comfortable recliner chairs, and settled back to watch it. If she was going to be the rube anyway, she decided, she might as well do what she felt like doing.

The grand, kilometers-long space station and freight yard looked utilitarian and not at all glamorous from the outside.

It was big, though; a lot bigger than even she had thought. The freighter she’d come in on hadn’t had this kind of view. She was surprised to see, for instance, that the module was not actually part of the ship, and that the actual City of Modar wasn’t docked at all. It sat in a parking orbit off the station, along with a number of other ships, and was mostly engine and fuel containers. It looked like nothing anyone without knowledge of the system would expect; a gigantic cylindrical mass with huge ramjetlike scoops flanking it all around except right on “top,” where there was a large whale-shaped bulge and rows of lights around it. The rear area had a series of large steering jets arranged around a central yel­lowish core that seemed to pulse regularly. Forward, a seem­ingly endless row of modules almost the size of the ship itself were connected one to the other like children’s build­ing blocks. All of them were basically contoured octagons, but the eight surfaces surrounded a cylindrical core. How long the train of modules went on, she couldn’t guess; it was longer than the vast space station she’d just left, that was for sure.

The train wasn’t yet connected to the engines, but was held there by a couple of small ships using tractor beams. They were so tiny compared to the modules that they could only be seen by their anticollision lights blinking on and off.

The tugs were basically used for maneuvering; out here, a ten-kilometer train of even the heaviest raw materials or fin­ished goods weighed the same as a feather. The longer it was, however, the harder to manage, and there were surely other tugs well along the train to keep it in line.

Their own module was certainly being carried by one or more similar tugs, although they were not visible on the screen.

“You’d best look away if you get the least bit dizzy, until this docking is over,” a pleasant baritone voice commented.

“Huh?” She looked away reluctantly and saw a man in shining brown formal wear with what looked to be a fortune in jewelry on him.

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L