“Lady, that’s some mean kick you got,” the first one commented to her. “I think you broke its neck and maybe its back.”
“Yeah,” the other agreed with grudging respect. “That guy must’ve weighed three times what you do, and he flew.”
She was beginning to calm down a little and realize what she’d done. Now, where had that come from? It had been so natural, so automatic, she hadn’t even had time to think before it was over, but she sure hadn’t known she could do that. Maybe she’d been the one to underestimate the Erdomese female. The only thing was, she couldn’t stand back up. She was locked in the four-footed position. She didn’t mind that much; it was both comfortable and natural, and she used it often by choice, but now she guessed that it was part of the defense built into her. About the only problem was, it made her slightly shorter than the Agonese, even with her head up and forward on her long neck. Oh, well.
She felt suddenly terrific-euphoric, even. She’d actually done something! She wasn’t as defenseless or helpless as she’d thought!
Not wanting to admit that at the moment she couldn’t get back up, she said confidently, “I think I’ll go the rest of the way on all fours, boys. I don’t think my arms could take too many more bounces like that.”
They watched her go on with obvious respect in their eyes.
“I hope my wife doesn’t have any hidden tricks like that,” one of them said. The other felt his own throat. “Yeah.”
Gus carefully scouted the stairway down to the second level. It was quite dark, and even his night-adjusted eyes had a problem with it, but there were small bumps of yellow rights running down both sides, powered by some internal source, that made footing not a problem. Seeing was something else again, but the sterile, flat walls carried sound well, and he could hear nothing close by. If they were waiting for company, those on the second level certainly weren’t doing it on the stairs or landing. Gus figured that they would expect a grenade to be tossed down the chute here, and with the echo, nobody would last very long. Most likely they would be waiting beyond the doors to this level. While they might not be able to see Gus, they could certainly expect the door to open and probably wouldn’t wait to find out who or what had opened it. He pressed up against the door and could hear voices which made him pretty sure that a nasty welcome awaited.
“Armed party probably barricaded just beyond the second level doorway,” he reported into the mike. “No way I can open it without exposing myself. Stairs clear to level two.”
“All right. Why not move down and check the bottom level, then,” came a tinny-sounding voice near his ear. “If the stairs are clear, we won’t give them a warning by blowing anything there. I’m sending down an advance party now to take out whatever’s behind the door. If you can get into the bottom level safely, use your own judgment. Otherwise proceed back to two after the opening is secured.”
“Okay. Heading down.”
The bottom looked like the second level, but unlike there, he couldn’t hear any signs of life on the other side. Okay, Gus, how lucky do you feel? he asked himself. Are you Clint Eastwood or Mickey Mouse?
Mickey Mouse, he answered himself, but he was still tempted to try the door. Once inside, he’d be virtually invisible to whoever and whatever was there. He heard the commando team come down to the second door above him. There would surely be some explosions and shooting before too long. Maybe, just maybe, if he could open the door and get through quickly at the same time they opened up above, it would panic and confuse anybody with a bead on the door. Hell, it was either that or get his eardrums broken sitting there. He took hold of the door, then waited. Come on, come on, let’s get it over with! he thought to the commandos above.
Suddenly there was the quick sound of an open door and a big explosion and then the nearly deafening din of weapons fire just above. He pushed back the door, standing to one side, and when it seemed as if nothing was coming out and nobody was nearby, he slipped quickly inside it, leaving it open.
There was emergency lighting here as well, only better than up top. It made the area glow a very dull red, but it was sufficient for him to see and get around. If he remembered the layout, he was now in the area where they kept prisoners. Ahead would be the living quarters, the master kitchen, and then the computer complex.
It definitely had the look of a prison or, more accurately, a dungeon. He found why there hadn’t been a welcoming party for him there immediately. The whole entrance foyer was little more than a giant cage of thick mesh with an electronically operated door at the end. There was no lock, latch, or knob on this side; it clearly was intended to be opened only from the inside. That meant a guard or guards with some kind of surveillance system. He looked around the ceiling and upper wall area in the dim red glow and finally spotted where the camera just had to be. That left him with a problem. If everything sealed when the main power went off and there was always a guard or two inside there, then the guard must be in a sort of in-between cage between prison doors. He might well be trapped in there. In fact, he was pretty sure he could hear somebody moving just beyond. How the hell could he deal with that guy?
He had a thought that was so nutty, it just might work. It was, after all, very thick mesh.
“Hey!” he called out. “You okay in there?” The guard stirred and hesitated, unsure of who this was or whether to respond.
“Cm’on! I’m one step ahead of them bastards upstairs. They’re gonna blow through here like butter with all the artillery they got, and right now I’m gonna be right in between ‘em like the filling in a sandwich!”
The guard was more scared than suspicious. “You’re with us?”
Gus gave a loud, impatient sigh. “If I was with them, this door would be blowing up about now. C’mon, man! It ain’t much, but it’s the only chance I got!” The guard still hesitated. “I got my orders. If the power goes, nobody in, period. Not without an okay from the boss or security.”
“What the world you think this is, you dumb ass? It’s the cops. It’s a whole damn army. They already got the top level, and they’re working on the lab level now. We’re finished. All you can do is either make a break with me if we can or stay and die.”
“Ain’t gonna break out from this level!” the idiot said, almost with pride. “No? Well, then we can fight or give up. If you gotta give up, you don’t want to be the guy who’s handy when they start checkin’ the cells. Huh? Now, stop clowning and let me in!”
“I-I-I dunno. I don’t know what to do.”
“Anybody come up and reinforce you?”
“N-no. They all lit out for the front.”
“Leaving you here to either buy ‘em more time or take the fall. You’re a sucker. I don’t have any more time for this. I’m gonna open up on this door, and either it’s gonna give for me or I’ll run out of ammo. Maybe if I cut through this cage with this needier, I’ll accidently hit the dumbest asshole in this whole complex.”
“I-no. I, er-don’t do that! Here!”
There was a fumbling sound and the turning of a manual key and a wheel, and the door swung open. Gus entered and found a sorry-looking little guy in a black outfit sitting there on a stool with a big energy rifle cradled in his lap. He was a little twerp, like an anemic otter in full dress, and he actually had a tiny pair of glasses sitting on his snout.
“W-well? Why don’t you come in?” the guard asked, the rifle coming up. “Right here, you dumb shit!” Gus shouted in his face, grabbing the rifle and bringing the stock down hard on his head. The guard collapsed in a heap, and Gus, rather than worrying if the little guy was dead or alive, felt a little thrill of satisfaction.
“Sucker,” he said, checking the rifle and seeing that it was still in good shape. He decided it was handier than the little pistol if he could manage to hold on to it.
The inner door was easy to open, although the wheel was hard to turn with his small and relatively weak arm muscles. Finally the lock clicked and he was able to pull it open.
Inside was a long and ugly chamber of horrors.
he hadn’t done it, and it made him feel worse than ever. He’d actually had the chance back there in Clopta, and he hadn’t done it. He’d meekly gone back over the border and started following the same old trail, just as before. What bothered him most was that he was well inside Liliblod before he realized that he hadn’t done it or even remembered what he’d intended to do. It was almost as if he could have his opinions and dream his dreams, but he could only act on what he was told to do.
Maybe it’s still going on, Lori worried. Maybe just changing me physically into a packhorse isn’t the end of it. What if even my brain is becoming more horse than human?
The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that this was the case. He could think frantically and hard, even plan, but for how long at a time? Was he thinking slower, or were there very long stretches of time when he just didn’t think at all? He’d made this trip countless times, over and over, but how many times and for how long? He didn’t know. How long did it actually take him to walk the trail from Clopta to Agon? Again, he didn’t know, not even how many days it might be. How long had it been since he’d meekly walked back in? Was it today? Or yesterday? Or was it further back than that?
He had no idea.
There were times when he was totally lucid, remembering a lot of specifics about everything, and there were other times when he couldn’t remember much at all. Why, just back there, when he had thought of escaping, he had remembered most of a map and how to get around. He knew he had. But try as he might, he couldn’t get that information back now.
He had been losing it little by little, piece by piece, and he hadn’t even realized it until now. Maybe the process was speeding up. Maybe it was nearly done. How many facts could a horse’s brain hold? Not too many, because it didn’t need to hold all that many. He ate, he slept, and he walked the same trail. Could it be that deep down that was all he really wanted to do? Or was it that he no longer had the will to do anything different and was making excuses? That his old self said “Fight!” but his current self wanted only peace and contentment? How much of him was gone, and how much had he himself pushed away so he couldn’t make use of it?
He didn’t even know how long he had mused on these depressing topics, but it was quite a while.
One thing he suddenly did know was that he wasn’t far from the end now. Close enough from the scent that he could smell and taste the hay and oats and other good stuff they had at the headquarters, far better than just grass. He usually stopped after dark and slept till morning, but he was close and he didn’t really need to see all that much to make it. Not far, not far … Suddenly, ahead, there was a massive explosion! The noise startled him so much, he reared back and shook his head in disbelief. And then came the sounds of guns firing and loud shouting by lots of people.
Suddenly terrified of what lay beyond, he stopped right on the trail and just stood there, unsure of what to do.
The tumult ahead died down after a while, but not the one overhead. The tops of the trees were alive with hissings and buzzings and sheer rage, and he heard those things begin to move along the treetops, move toward the border and the noise.
Suddenly two figures, a Cloptan man and a Zhonzhorpian, came running toward him on the trail. He tried to back up and back off a bit to let them by, but suddenly a flashlight beam caught him square in the face.
The two men were out of breath, were half-dressed, and looked to be in a terrible way. Soon they began arguing and then shouting at one another, and after a moment the Cloptan took something from a case he was carrying and a bright white beam caught the Zhonzhorpian full and enveloped him; suddenly the tall crocodilelike creature was no more.
The Cloptan then approached Lori, and he was even more terrified after seeing what had happened to the other, surely a companion rather than an enemy. The Cloptan patted him on the side, trying to reassure him with the gesture and meaningless talk, and oddly, it did have a calming influence on him. Then the Cloptan climbed up on his back and latched the case to the saddlebags while keeping the gun in one hand. Firmly, the rider turned Lori around, away from the end of his journey and back toward where he’d come from. Cloptans weren’t horribly heavy, but this was going to be one heck of a walk. He wished he knew what had happened back there, but whatever it was, it sure wasn’t good.
“Lieutenant, I think you better get some men down to the third level as quick as you can,” Gus said into the mike. “I left the door open. I think I killed the lone guard, but if he isn’t dead, he’s too dumb to do anything but give up.” “What’s the matter? What did you find?”
“Monsters. Monsters in the basement. You might want the inspector down here as well. If Agon doesn’t have capital punishment, I think it will by tomorrow.” There was silence for a moment, then the officer said, “All right. I’ll send a squad down and relay your message. Will you wait for them?”
Gus looked around and shivered slightly. “I don’t think so. The guard station at the other end is empty, but the door’s locked. I think I can blast through it, though, now that I’ve seen how the doors are made. I’ll report when I can.” “Resistance on the second level was light after that initial barricade. It’s mostly labs, and it looks like they ran when things started happening. Watch yourself, though. Any of them that didn’t come up to level one are pretty likely to be down there-and desperate.”
The cells were of the highest quality for dungeon cells. High-tech, Gus thought. State of the art. Thick, shockproof, probably bullet-and rayproof doors made of some material that nonetheless was totally transparent save for the electronic locks and a small slit for feeding prisoners not otherwise restrained inside. There were 1,560 races, it was said, on the Well World, and he’d seen only a tiny fraction of them. And even though many were bizarre in the extreme, none of them could be as bizarre as some of the creatures in the cells. Hybrids, genetic mutations, people whose own bodies were in the process of reforming themselves into the visions of insane designers. Some screamed, some cried out, others sobbed, but he could not help them or look at them.
Now, what the hell does any of this have to do with a drug ring? he wondered. Designer creatures. For what? Designer jobs? Animals with the smarts of humans to avoid detection, follow complex orders? Traitors, people who’d failed in their work for the gang, now forced to become monsters at the beck and call of their masters? Why kill them when they could be turned into something useful? Recycling taken to its ultimate degree.
There were a few that weren’t like that, but they weren’t much better off. Chained to walls, scarred, ripped open but still alive in agony … They must have had information somebody wanted. At least it was more familiar. He’d seen this sort of stuff back on Earth in central Africa, in the Middle East, and in a few of the less pleasant Far Eastern beauty spots. In some ways the mentality was the same no matter where you went, even here. The others, the monsters-that was just a high-tech extension of the same idea. New toys for the depraved. The idea of a Campos with this kind of power was disturbing. The original incarnation was bad enough. Gus remembered what a big-time syndicate boss had told him once. It wasn’t about money. Money was rarely a concern after a short while. It was all about power.
“Hey, Lieutenant, you got a news crew here in Agon?” he asked through the mike. A moment later, after a request to repeat the question, the answer came. “Yes. Several.”
“Well, get ‘em down here when you can. Let ‘em see this, photograph it, broadcast it. Even though it’ll make every viewer sick to their stomach, it’ll legitimize this raid and your government more than anything else. Some of those corrupt bastards who protected this place all these years should watch it, too. And if they don’t know how to cover it right, call me. I’m an expert.” He reached the jail door at the other end. Knowing where the locking mechanism was, he fired the rifle on full blast, holding it steady until the lock turned first black, then red, and finally white. He released the trigger, then reared back on his tail and kicked with both powerful feet. The door resisted the first time, but the second kick saw it move back. He had been so angry, he saw he’d actually bent the material.
The secondary door had been left open, since it was never designed to be more than a security lock for people wanting in. As he went through it, shots rang out all around and tracerlike needier rays rained down on him. For a moment he thought they could see him, but then he realized that they were just firing blindly at the sound.
“Hold your fire, you idiots!” somebody called. “Don’t waste energy! Wait until they actually come through!”
Good advice, Gus thought with nervous release. They wouldn’t have had to do much more of that before they’d have winged or even killed him. Blind shots were his worst enemy.
They’d overturned tables, beds, sofas, everything they had, and made a pretty fair barricade. This was not going to be easy, and he was suddenly acutely aware that he was between them and the commandos he’d just urged to come down behind him.
There didn’t seem to be much of a choice. He picked a weaker and less sturdy part of the barricade, went over to it, took a deep breath, then simply charged in with a roar, making furniture and appliances fly all over the place. The gunmen were so startled that the ones closest to him pulled back in total fear, while the ones on the other side again opened fire on the now-deserted corridor.
He didn’t wait for them to figure out what was going on. He was, after all, a very large target even if invisible. He opened up on the fleeing men with the rifle, forgetting he still had it on maximum. The whole corridor was bathed in white energy, and those caught directly in the beam were disintegrated, while those farther away found their clothing and skin in flames.
He turned to the others who were just turning to bear on him and charged into them with a hideous roar that echoed terrifyingly down the corridor, so close in and so violent that they had no chance to use their weapons. There was no rifle this time; Gus’s huge reptilian jaws opened and closed with savage fury as his targets futilely struggled and fought to break free. One down … Two … Three … Where the hell was four?
Running down the hall right into the cells, where he would undoubtedly find a welcoming party by now.
His mouth was dripping with blood in three colors, and there were pieces of people from three races all over the place, but nothing alive. And the funny thing was, he felt great! He looked around on the floor and didn’t see his own rifle but saw a furry dismembered hand still clutching a nearly identical one and pried it away.
Staff living quarters and kitchens. He could just walk right through them to where he really wanted to go, but he didn’t think he would.
He wondered what the current record was for the Agon commandos for killing these turds and also whether it was possible for him to break it. The ghost of his old Lutheran pastor shattered in his mind. Hell, he was really starting to enjoy this!
Julian’s walk back to what they had called the “stable” entrance had calmed her somewhat, and she was finally able to relax enough to stand on two legs again. She wasn’t sure just what they were bringing her this far away to look at, and when she saw, she still wasn’t quite sure.
“What are they?” she asked an Agonese sergeant.
“Beats us, ma’am. We were told maybe you could tell us. We ran ‘em through our own system by shooting video up to the command center, but they can’t place them, either, at least not by species or hex.”
They looked mostly like horses and mules, but not quite. No two were nearly alike beyond the basic form, but no two rang exactly true, either. She could see what the Agonese meant and why they hadn’t really been able to explain it. There were tall ones and short ones, big ones and little ones. They divided first into two classes which she thought of as equine and elephantine. The equine had thin legs of varying lengths, balanced torsos, and heads on long necks. They tended to have camouflagelike colors, dull and mixed, with lots of browns and olives. Hair was short or long; tails were optional and of varying lengths and designs. The heads, though, were what caught her attention. They all looked different, and many of them looked unsertlingly like caricatures of the faces of some Well World races.
The elephantine were more bizarre, with very thick legs; wide, round padded hooves; and large, squat bodies that tended to be hairless and dull-colored, with pink or gray or mottled variations, as if they’d once had hair but it had fallen out. They, too. had faces, but the faces-again all different and with some hint of familiarity-were virtually looking out from the top front of the torsos without distinct heads or necks. She couldn’t imagine how they fed. The worst thing was, they all looked at her and the others with eyes that seemed very intelligent indeed and expressions, when they were capable of them, of extreme sadness.
“Did you capture anybody alive from this area?” she asked them. “Yeah, but they haven’t been too talkative yet. We asked them what these things were and why they were here, and all they said was that it wasn’t their area but they thought they were couriers.”
“Yeah. Apparently this is a fairly new batch still being trained. They have some that run through Liliblod to Clopta, but most of them go to other areas where they can run stuff by night through backcountry areas without being seen.” “Do they make sounds?”
“Uh huh, but they’re just crazy screeches or bellows. Nothing intelligible, even on translator, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
She was thinking worse than that. She was thinking of those two doctors she’d gone to see with their miracle experiments and records that had included information on Glathrielians and Erdomese.