GODS OF THE WELL OF SOULS
This one’s expressly for
David Whitley Chalker and Steven Lloyd Chalker-To the future, wherever it leads!
A Few Words From the Author
THIS IS THE THIRD AND FINAL BOOK IN THE NEW WELL WORLD project. The Watchers at the Well, which began with Echoes of the Well of Souls and continued in Shadow of the Well of Souls. It completes the massive novel.
If you’ve just come across this and haven’t read the other two, you should immediately look for them where you found this copy. Any reputable, responsible, intelligently run bookstore should have the previous two so that anyone happening on the third one by chance doesn’t have to hunt for them just to read the entire work. If they don’t, tell them what they aren’t and find a better bookstore!
There are also five original Well World books. You don’t need them in order to read Watchers, but it would be a good idea to start at the beginning. The first was Midnight at the Well of Souls, followed by (in order) Exiles of the Well of Souls, Quest for the Well of Souls, The Return of Nathan Brazil, and Twilight at the Well of Souls. All are still available from Del Rey Books, and don’t let any book dealer tell you differently!
The Well saga now spans sixteen years, although with a twelve-year break. Will there be any more? None are intended, but I didn’t intend to write this one, either, and I’m quite pleased with it.
Those of you who have been waiting, I’ve planted some good action, added a lot of nasty plot twists (but you were ahead of me on those already, right?), and tied up all the loose ends in nice, neat knots. You may not like all the things I do (I am expecting some adverse reaction to the very last one), but they are, I assure you, carefully and logically thought out. And if, along the way of entertaining you, I’ve raised a few points and made you think a little, well, that’s fine, too.
And now (drum roll, curtain up) here’s the way it works out … Jack L. Chalker Uniontown, Maryland August 1993
Heading Toward Andromeda
The Kraang had been wondering much the same thing. The limitations placed on it still prevented it from direct contact with beings on the Well World unless, thanks to the happy accident that allowed it net access, someone was in the transitional stage, totally energy within the net in midtransmission. Otherwise it was strictly read only, and that was proving less amusing now than frustrating.
Monitoring the lives and thoughts of these beings had reawakened in the Kraang a feeling it had thought long dead, a taste of what it was to be alive again. It wanted that now more than anything; the lust for it was cracking its heretofore absolute self-control, bringing back longings that it had believed it had long outgrown.
The Well perceived no threat to itself or its master program; it only desired that what it considered an anomaly-the relinking, however tenuous, of the Kraang to the net-be rectified. A simple matter, really, for anyone capable of plugging into the net; not even seconds to find, comprehend, and repair, cutting the Kraang off once more from the system. Brazil was the threat-he’d been there many times, been changed into the master form, and would hardly even think twice about it. He’d do whatever the damned Well said and be done with it, and he would understand the threat sufficiently to be impervious to the Kraang’s entreaties and offers. There was nothing Brazil really wanted except, perhaps, oblivion, and the Kraang wasn’t so certain that the captain would really take it if it were offered in any event. Brazil was so damned .. . responsible. Duty above all.
No, if the Kraang were to effect a return, it would be Mavra Chang. Human, inexperienced, self-involved, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or mission. Mavra Chang would listen before she acted and believe what she wanted to believe. She was certainly tough, no pushover, but she was far too-human-to blindly obey the dictates of an ancient race she neither knew nor understood. According to the data, she’d been close to being a goddess before, going from world to world, taking many forms, playing both explorer and missionary to the misbegotten.
The Kraang could deal very comfortably with an activist.
Brazil was at the moment romping in mindless joy with that silly girl on that speck of land in the ocean, but the Well would never leave him there. If Mavra Chang’s progress to the Well had been stopped, then Brazil would again get the nomination and be forced to accept. The longer there was no movement or probability of movement by Chang, who was by far closer to the Well gate than Brazil, the more likely the Well would be forced to make the switch. The others would never find her, and it would be all the worse if they somehow did track down Campos but never recognized Chang in her current form.
Campos was the key. Such a limited mind! Not stupid, not by the likes of the races there, but sadly warped. Campos was so enjoying her revenge and was comfortable enough in an environment not all that different from the one back on the home planet that had bred and shaped her, that she was in danger of losing sight of the ultimate game. The Kraang had not counted on her adjusting, though, and that was the real problem. Since Campos had been a male from a background that had little value for women, the Kraang had been certain that she would be driven to the Well to reclaim her manhood.
It wasn’t happening.
If Campos had gotten hold of Mavra Chang earlier, it would have, but the Well had its own ways of subtly adjusting a subject to a form. The brain chemistry, the hormonal balances, and being completely immersed in a new culture eventually took hold. A transformation that seemed horrible when first discovered began to seem normal; prior life and existence were distanced in the mind as it adjusted, becoming more and more remote. If one were to go mad from the process, it tended to happen rather quickly; otherwise that barrier the mind erected became progressively insubstantial until it either shattered, as in the case of Lori and Julian, or, as in Campos’s case, just slowly evaporated to nothingness. Without even realizing it, or perhaps admitting it to herself, Juan Campos no longer thought it odd. or even wrong, to be female, let alone a Cloptan female. She had managed in a relatively short time to gain a fair amount of power and influence, in part because she was attractive to male Cloptans who already had that power and influence, and she was actually enjoying it. Experience counted. The Well might have played a joke on Campos by making her female, but it also had dropped her into a totally familiar milieu. Being the tough girlfriend of a drug lord wasn’t much different from being the son of one. and the knowledge and ruthlessness actually made her a valuable asset to the organization. After that first month she hadn’t even experienced much of the fear and insecurity that being a woman in such a society inevitably produced; everybody dangerous knew how suicidal it would be to mess with the boss’s girl and how vicious that girl could be if she perceived one as a threat.
Not that Campos didn’t want to get at all the power the Well represented; it was just that she was smart enough to know that before she let Mavra Chang near the Well, her control had to be ironclad. And until Juan Campos figured out how to do that or was forced by circumstance to gamble, she’d keep things pretty much the way they were.
It was frustrating to the Kraang. If only Campos would go through a Zone Gate. Then some contact, some influence, could be attempted. But Campos wanted no part of those Gates if she could avoid them. She remained where she could ensure protection.
Somehow there just had to be a way to kick Campos in the ass. There just had to be!
But until and unless it found a way to make contact, the Kraang knew it had to depend on forces beyond its control. The psychotic former Julian Beard-now turned into a complaisant wife for that female astronomer turned male swordsman who was now gelded and trapped as a courier for the Cloptan drug ring-was showing some promise, after all. Aided by the Dillians, who were somewhat in the pay of the Zone Council, she might well disrupt things sufficiently to cause a major move. When one no longer cared if one lived or died unless one attained one’s objective, it made for a spicy and dangerous time for all those in one’s way. The threat there was the Dillians. If they did come upon Mavra Chang by some miracle, helpless though she was, would the Dillians’ first loyalty be to their former Earth comrades or to their new leaders and lives? Unknown to any of them, forces were moving in on the region and the situation was getting very, very dicey as the council and the various hexes weighed their own options. If they captured Chang, no matter what her form, while the surprisingly resourceful Gus liberated Brazil, everything could go wrong. Of course, there was always the colonel …
Possibilities! Far too many! This was getting much more difficult than the Kraang had originally thought. And there were far too many ways for things to go wrong …
Buckgrud, Capital of Clopta
lately, IT was always pretty much the same dream. A dense, living forest filled with strange, twisting plants shimmered in a nearly constant but gentle breeze. Not familiar in any waking sense, yet familiar somehow to her in her dream. Comforting, safe, secure.
She would awaken into this living darkness in the Nesting Place, along with many others of her kind, and then proceed out from the hollow tree and onto the forest floor. Most of the night would be spent in the hunt, sometimes searching out and sometimes lying in wait as still as one of the bushes that were all around, waiting for prey to venture forth. Tiny animals, large insects, it didn’t matter, so long as it was alive and small enough to be swallowed whole. There was always plenty of prey, for they bred all the time, or so it seemed, but much needed to be eaten to satisfy, and it was a task that consumed much of the night. There was no particular fear on her own part, though; there were no natural enemies in this forest for such as they, and the Big Ones who lived among the treetops ate no flesh and seemed appreciative of the service she and her kind did in keeping the crawling things in check so that they could not become so numerous as to threaten survival. She knew each by the scent and by the sounds it made.
The scent from a small mound nearby told her that there were delicacies inside; she moved to it, and her powerful claws dug into it, and she bent down so that her long, sticky tongue could go inside and sift through and find and draw the little Insects Into her beak …
It was near dusk when Mavra Chang awoke. She slept more than she was awake now, it was true, but that was blessed relief in more than one way. It not only meant escape from the sadism and torments of Juan Campos, when, of course, the Cloptan was awake and not busy with other things, it also was relief from the strange and unpleasant sensations that seemed unending.
There were feverish flushes, dizziness, unexpected pains of varying degrees in various places, and, above all else, a nearly universal itch that was driving her crazier than Campos ever could.
At first she thought that the sadistic surgeons employed by the drug cartel had been butchers as well, but over the passing weeks she had come to realize that it wasn’t that, either. Something-strange-was happening to her, something even someone with her vast life and long experience in what evil could do had never undergone before. Still, that life allowed her to understand to a degree what was happening, if not exactly why.
She had been surgically altered, mutilated, disguised, but that was only the start of it. She had become other creatures before, but always the way the Well did it: quickly, without pain or sensation. She was becoming another creature again for the first time since she had last been on this world, but by a different method, and slowly by the standards of the Well but with astonishing speed by any other means.
She knew that now for several reasons, not the least of which was that what the surgeons had removed, such as her arms, had not even begun to grow back. She recalled that sensation well. Her body was changing. Grafted feathers were being replaced by real ones just as colorful and even more dense. Her center of gravity had moved down, and her midsection had thickened, while her head seemed to be enlarged and set flush on the shoulders, but with a neck that could pivot the head amazingly far. All this had been at the cost of an already shortened height; she was now a bit under a meter tall, but somehow she knew she would grow no shorter.
Her backbone had become increasingly limber, to the point where she could bend backward and almost touch the floor with the top of her head while still standing or lean forward so effortlessly and with such good balance that she could touch the floor with her beak.
From that vantage point she could see that her stubby, mutilated legs were rapidly changing into huge, thick drumsticks; the rather stupid feet they had fashioned for her now were solid, enlarged, and black and were gaining almost the prehensility of long, thick fingers, with sharp needlelike nails developing at the tips. Even the large, curved beak they had fashioned over her mouth was no longer the crude but effective graft; her tongue, now thin and greatly elongated, told her that beyond the beak was the gullet. Bright light blinded her, and even normal daylight was pale, washed out, and difficult to see in, yet the darkness glowed with sharpness and detail. Through the beak, countless strange odors came to her, each somehow separate even when mixed, and it was a bit of a game to try and identify and classify them. It was something to do. The same went for sounds, although she could understand nothing of speech. She could understand only Campos, and then only when Campos directed something specifically at her; only Campos’s translator could accept the eerie clicks and moans, some from deep in Mavra’s chest, that passed for her speech. That little gift of a dedicated translator remained, but she was glad of it somehow in spite of her hatred of Campos. She knew that the sounds she could make were really bird sounds, animal sounds, not any sort of intelligible language to any race. The animal urges disturbed her more. She could no longer physically tolerate any vegetable matter. Campos had been feeding her raw, bloody meat strips, it being a bit too civilized in the city to go pick up a carton of worms or grubs, even if Campos would have entertained the idea of live creepy crawlies in her nice apartment. Although Cloptans resembled giant humanoid ducks, they were omnivores and even had tiny rows of teeth inside those remarkably elastic, oversized bills of theirs.
Campos had hardly failed to notice the metamorphosis: it was happening at a rate that could not be seen by the naked eye but fast enough that something new would be evident between the time she left in early evening and the time she returned to sleep.
Now she came in the door and turned on the light, washing out Mavra’s vision. The door slammed, and the Cloptan kicked off her shoes and threw a purse on the chair.
Campos looked over at the corner where Mavra stood, held there by a strong chain fastened to an anklet and to a welded-on socket in the wall, allowing perhaps a meter’s movement one way or the other.
“Ah, my pet! And how are you this evening?”
“Food, master! Please! Food! Birdy begs you!” The worst part was, she no longer even felt humiliated by begging. It said something about Campos’s mind-set, though, that she had insisted on being called “master,” not “mistress.” “In a minute, my sweet. I need to freshen up and get a drink. It is going to be a long evening, I fear.”
“Please, master! Feed Birdy!”
“Shut up! No more, you miserable little shit or I might just forget to feed you at all!”
It was not a threat to be taken lightly. The craving for food after sunset was overwhelming, more even than the craving for the exotic Well World drug that Mavra’s made-over body no longer needed or even noticed. Mavra had not, however, volunteered that fact.
Campos went into the bathroom, and after an agonizing wait there was the sound of a toilet flush and then water running. Finally the Cloptan emerged, now naked.
Although it was nothing unusual now, the first sight Mavra had had of Campos naked had been something of an odd feeling. The shape was very human to a point, but even the breasts were covered with countless tiny white feathers except at the very tips. The shoulders were unnaturally squared off, it seemed, the arms and thinly webbed hands oversized for the body. The neck was quite long and thin to be supporting that oversized head. Below the waist it became more birdlike, with a definite rounding, almost turnip-shaped, with the turnip top angled back and slightly up, becoming short but large tail feathers. The legs extended straight down, a golden yellow color, and ended in two wide, thickly webbed feet that could still be consciously rolled up and fit into shoes.
She shared the huge apartment with two Cloptan females who were apparently attached to other drug cartel kingpins, but they stayed away from the big bird’s area and Campos rarely referred to them or appeared to interact much with them. They ignored their roommate’s “pet” and gave it a wide berth and seemed otherwise to be fairly typical of their type.
There had been more than a few naked males in as well. If they were representative of the race, they tended to be larger, chunkier, with almost wrestler builds, bent a bit forward on the hips in a slightly more birdlike fashion but without much in the way of tail feathers at all. Male genitalia weren’t visible at all; they were apparently hidden by a thick clump of feathers growing forward between the widely spaced legs, which explained why they all seemed to be bowlegged.
Campos went to the cold storage compartment and took out a box of something, then popped it in a fast defroster that might have been operated by microwaves or some other means.
“Ah! I should tell you that I got word today from those nice doctors who made you so very pretty for me.” the Cloptan said as the defroster whirred in the background. “They said you were genetically reprogrammed using the actual genetic code of a real bird in a hex very, very far away. I forget the name, but what does it matter? They said not to worry, that you would still be able to think and remember but that you’d also have all of the bird’s instincts. They even said that by three months or so you would be so physically like this bird that you would even be fertile!” She laughed. “Just think! The zoo here doesn’t have any of your birdie kind, but you’re on their wish list, and the other girls here still seem a bit frightened of you and keep trying to talk me into getting rid of you.”
Mavra said nothing. Anything she could say would only cause trouble. “Just think of it!” Campos went on, enjoying herself. “The nice zoo people say that if they had you, they could secure at least the loan of a male of the species. That might be quite the answer here. I won’t have to worry about your care or suffer your presence here, but you’ll be secure and in a happy little nest I can visit any time. That would be very amusing, seeing you sitting there hatching eggs, knowing that all your children would be birdbrains. Would you like that?”
“Whatever master wishes Birdy will do,” Mavra responded as if by rote, eyes on the defroster. “You bet your sparkly feathered ass you will!” It was far from hopeless, but how the hell she would get this stupid asshole to head for the Well was something Mavra Chang was far from figuring out yet. The zoo wasn’t a very appetizing new destination, but maybe it would provide some way out. Zoos didn’t usually plan on animals being as smart as humans.
Somehow, some way, she had to get to the Well. She was building up too long a list of people to get even with to fail.
a City in Northern Agon
IT WAS A REGION OF THICK FORESTS AND ROLLING HILLS, WITH mild days and chilly nights; if it hadn’t smelled something like an overcooked egg, it might have been very pleasant.
Agon was a high-tech hex with just about everything one could expect of modern life. Private cars were banned; there just wasn’t enough room to tolerate them or anywhere to dump the old ones. Still, public transport of just about every kind was available for a very low fee, along with taxis and buses that seemed to glide on air working not only every city and town but every rail and road crossing as well.
The Agonese were a strange lot, looking to Anne Marie like something out of a children’s fairy tale. In fact, they resembled nothing so much as squat turtles without shells, but with very tough greenish-gray hides that might have been at home on elephants or rhinos back on Earth. But unlike those animals they were bipeds, walking on two short, thick trunks of legs that terminated in wildly oversized feet out of the age of dinosaurs. The omnipresent if unpleasant odor was nothing less than their collective body odors, to which they of course were oblivious.
“We are strangers very far even from our native Well World homes,” Anne Marie noted as they approached a medium-sized city, the first they’d seen since making their way south from Liliblod. “We have no choice. We must contact the authorities and ask for help.”
Tony, reluctantly along on this new quest and not liking it a bit, sighed. “You are correct, of course. But it makes me uneasy to do so. Such an operation could not go on in this kind of setting and with this technology without some connivance from high local officials. We are far from the places where the foul stuff is grown and into where it is distributed. This close to the business end, the government official who comes to help us might well be in the pay of those we seek. I would feel more at ease if we could contact our own government. They, after all, sent us on this great expedition in the first place. If we vanish outside their knowledge and contact, then we vanish forever.”
Anne Marie nodded. “Agreed. But there must be a way of getting a message to our people in-what is that place called?-Zone? Where the embassies are. They have telephones, radios, probably much more, here. I think our best course is not to mention any more than we have to at the outset about why we’re here and simply ask as stranded travelers to call our embassy. That would be a reasonable and natural request, wouldn’t it?”
Tony nodded. “We have to do it that way, but something makes me uneasy about it. I still do not feel very clean about our role in this so far, even though we had nothing to do with the current problem. And I was born and raised in a very different society than you. I feel, unfortunately, far more at home with the governments here than I ever did with the British government I very much prefer.”
There were a great many stares as the two large, blond, twin centauresses came into the city, one with an equally exotic if very different creature on her broad equine back. Alowi, the former Julian Beard, had said virtually nothing and seemed almost disinterested in the city or its inhabitants or anything else. Without a translator, she was merely along for the ride in most of the alien environments. That, both Tony and Marie agreed, would be a top priority. The Erdomese would get a translator or give up any thoughts of tracking down her kidnapped husband. There was no alternative. This was certainly a hex with the technical abilities to install one, although it would take more money than any of them had.
In fact, money was going to be the first problem if they remained here in the north. They hadn’t been allowed to take much more than basic packs and provisions when they’d been forced off the ship off the coast of Liliblod, and Mavra had been the dispenser of funds for the group.
They didn’t need much to just survive; although all three preferred nicely prepared and cooked dishes, their constitutions were such that they could survive on grasses and leaves if need be. As for clothing, the Dillians in particular could gallop forty or fifty kilometers a day without even sweating hard, and they at least had been allowed to keep their coats for use in colder climates. Still, they were well aware that they were very far away from anything or anyone familiar, and while they could use the Well Gate in any capital city, it would take them only to their home hexes, not to anywhere they wanted to be. “Not much hope of finding any work around here, either,” Tony noted. “Everything that we could do is automated. If the council won’t stake us, we’re through.” “Yes, I keep worrying that they will thank us for our service and tell us to go home, that they are sending the professionals in,” Anne Marie responded. “Still, their professionals haven’t been any good up to now, have they?” Aside from a small Liliblodian consulate, there was nothing in the way of government offices in this fairly remote city, or much need for it, when cheap, fast magnetic trains could take anyone to the centrally located capital in under an hour and a half. While that also implied that the local cops could have somebody who had some authority there in a matter of hours, it didn’t prove to be that easy. In fact, it almost seemed as if nobody were interested in doing anything for them except telling them how to get home and suggesting that they do so at the earliest opportunity.