I actually let them put something into me, too! My God! Am I going to turn into one of these things?
She told herself to calm down, that they wouldn’t have been crazy enough to try anything like that and risk exposure, but she couldn’t quite convince herself. I’m going to be a paranoid hypochondriac for months, she admitted ruefully to herself.
She tried to pull herself together. “Are they-natural? I mean, do they seem, well, normal in the sense of being put together right?”
“Well, as far as we can tell, they’re all sexless,” the sergeant told her. “Of course, with those, who could tell what’s really missing?
Julian thought of Lori and Mavra Chang. Couriers? Like these monsters? “I want to talk topside if I can,” she told the sergeant. “They told me that my Dillian companion couldn’t get down here. I’d like to contact her if I could. I need to compare some notes. Is that possible?’
“Could be. I’ll call the command center and see if they have a channel open.” Inside of five minutes she was talking to Tony. “Where are you?” she asked the centaur.
“If you’re where they said you were, I’m probably about five meters on top of you,” Tony told her. “What’s the situation?”
As quickly and as adequately as she could, she described what she’d seen and her thoughts on the missing pair.
“I agree, but we must remember that these poor wretches were probably their own people being punished for failures, while Lori and Mavra were objects of revenge. I can see them perhaps making Lori one of these poor creatures, but I cannot see Campos doing that to Mavra Chang. If I remember Lori’s account of his adventure in the jungle, I can see why Campos would want some revenge, but not the kind of long-term suffering that would be due to Mavra. I know something of the code and the way people like Campos think. It was that sort of person that caused me to stay away from my native country until democracy was restored there. Lori was a point of honor, a detail, even though an important one. But Mavra Chang by direct action impacted personally on Campos. She stopped his attempted rape, she kidnapped and dragged him in the jungles, and then she caused him to wind up here. No, Mavra Chang would be special, someone who would have to be in permanent hurt and humiliation, available for frequent lifelong scorn. Considering what you have told me, who knows what these people were capable of?” Tony thought for a moment. “A pet, perhaps. A dog or cat or whatever would be appropriate but not too obvious. Something that could be walked on a leash through a public park. You see what I am getting at?” “Yes, I’m afraid I do,” Julian replied.
“Someone should be able to remember Lori and what they turned him into,” Tony said confidently. “They are still in a state of shock, but interrogations should bring results. That is a big place, but it is not that big, and I would suspect that the permanent staff knows pretty much what is going on throughout the place. But Mavra-I fear that unless we can get into that computer and find out precisely what they did or unless we can crack those two butchers open, we will have to reach Mavra by going through Juan Campos.”
“I’ve never met this person,” Julian told her, “but I am beginning to think that I want to meet her. Preferably in a nice dark alley …”
In a hex with the kind of technology that could put a very powerful computer into something the size of a claw, the computer center was incredibly huge. How much information did they have here? What could these rooms of memory cubes, each capable of holding trillions of facts, possibly contain? More than, merely all the data on the drug business, that was for sure. Blackmail on thousands of leaders in every hex they went to? Biological information on every single race, with details on how to make something for each that would addict them? Probably, Gus thought. At least that.
He was as surprised by the size of the place as he was by its emptiness. He’d expected at least a few people here, just to make certain that this stuff didn’t fall into anybody’s hands, but the place was completely deserted. Or was it?
Over there-a terminal of some sort and something, something large but indistinct, sitting at it …
Colonel, what the hell are you up to? Jeez! The Leeming was huge, a blob fit for the horror movies almost. At least twice the size he’d been a few hours earlier, anyway.
The large projection-type screen above the terminal booth was alive with flashing data. Gus couldn’t read any of it and was surprised that the colonel seemed to be able to do so. Come to think of it, even if the old boy had somehow mastered the writing, how the hell had he gotten past the security system and inside to the data?
And suddenly, with the cynicism born of covering countless wars and tragedies, it all fell into place.
“I always wondered how you got so much authority and power so fast, Colonel,” Gus said loudly, his deep voice echoing slightly off the walls. The colonel was startled. “Gus? How did you get here so quickly?” “This is Education Day, Colonel, at least for me. Today I found out things about myself I never knew before, and I also found out why the Dahir have such a strict and pacifistic religion and don’t want their people wandering all over this world. We’re killers, Colonel. Natural killers. It’s in the blood, in the genes, the hormones. We enjoy it. I enjoy it. It’s a tough thing to keep down once you’ve started doing it. That’s why the Dahir faith is so strict and life there so god-awful boring. It’s the only way to keep us civilized. Nothing worse than a natural killer you can’t see wandering around, is there?” “You are a rational man, Gus. You only have killed your enemies.” “That’s true, but I have a strange feeling that it’s going to be very easy to be defined as an enemy of mine from now on. But I haven’t told you the whole story yet, Colonel. Education Day is still ongoing. I learned the best part just by stepping in here and watching you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing this big, no operation this slick and this huge, could possibly get to be this way on its own, and I don’t care what drugs they sell or how much money they spread. We ain’t talkin’ just a gang here. We’re talking governments, or parts of governments, at the highest levels. Presidents and kings and dictators and probably South Zone councillors as well. Not that they were in on the details, of course. I doubt if they were ever here or even imagined how some of their money was spent, but in on the top levels of control. Not all of ‘em, sure. Not even a majority, ‘cause what sense would that make? They didn’t care about the details. They were busy using that power to weaken and take over governments of hexes they didn’t even know how to pronounce. Control economies, trade, you name it. Pretty soon the whole Well World’s workin’ for them and it don’t even know it. It must’ve drove ‘em crazy when they figured out they had to sacrifice this place, but their little underlings did something, and they can’t afford to even let their own people know what it was. Uneasy lies the head, huh, Colonel?”
“Go on, Gus. You are quite entertaining.”
“So it’s going along really good, and then, suddenly, wham! Here’s the legendary Nathan Brazil unmasked, and he’s headed for the internal works sooner or later. They can’t kill him, so they try and slow him down, make him feel comfortable, that kind of thing, while they consult and figure out what the hell to do. I mean, they can’t let him get inside, can they? If they do, he’ll see their racket right away and queer it. I can just imagine the nightmares. And then it’s not just one of ‘em but two. Either one’s the worst thing anybody could imagine. Both together might be unbeatable. Two unkillables. But they’re pretty clever. The two clearly haven’t seen each other since the last ice age on Earth, so it’s easy to make each of ‘em think the other’s out to get them. They won’t get together then even if they could. But how to keep them from getting up to the equator? That’s the other problem.”
“It is quite an amazing fantasy you weave, Gus. You should have quit news and gone into the cinema.”
“It gets better. You, for one, are there as a member of a race that was one of the insiders. The Leeming. Somehow, right off, they see you as just the kind of guy who’s perfect for them, but you can create a friendly, human face. All the power, all the authority-and one job. Just keep Brazil happy and anywhere but heading north and always where you can find him. I don’t know why you didn’t just have him arrested and jailed right off, but I can think of a number of reasons.”
“For one thing, Nathan Brazil is a legend, a part of mythology, like Odin and Jupiter back home. Bringing a sufficient number of leaders to the conviction that he was more than that and that he was a possible threat to the Well World’s very survival takes time. The last is next to impossible, really. No one fears the repairman; they welcome him. They fear the demolition man, and they fear their gods. Ironically, Brazil himself tipped the scales on the required religious conversions merely by surviving what no creature of his makeup should possibly survive. And the more he recovers, the more nervous they will get. They will endlessly debate how to enforce any deal or bargain they can make with him, but who can truly make such demands of a god once that god is on his throne? So they will keep him locked up. There is your story. One day he may escape, but by that time they will be long dead.”
“Uh huh. And who had your job with Mavra Chang?”
“You would not believe me.”
“The Dillian twins.”
“I don’t believe it!”
“They didn’t know anything about the rest, unlike myself. They were just given an all-expenses paid chance to see the Well World if they would simply make a few reports on the location and whereabouts of one Mavra Chang as things went along. They didn’t know Chang, and they were made just aware enough that she was more than she seemed and something of a threat to peace, stability, and order. Armed with that, it was rather easy to make her miss connections, foul up her bank accounts, that sort of thing. And unlike the captain, who truly gave me the slip, she actually contracted with those very forces which wanted her out of the way to carry her here. It was Brazil we were worried about. We didn’t give a thought to Chang. Now, though, we find that Chang is not here. Somehow she slipped through our net and into the hands of a minor player about which we know very little overall but whose mental profile in the records indicates that she would do almost anything to keep Chang out of anyone’s hands but her own.” “That still bothers me, Colonel. You know where Campos lives. You could have gone there at any time and forced her to show you Chang, but you didn’t. You went through all this, which must cost them plenty.”
“It did. It is painful and a real setback,” the colonel admitted. “But you still fail to appreciate both Campos and the man she ingratiated herself with. If one inkling, one thought that Chang might be another Brazil entered his mind or the minds of his associates, they would vanish, and Chang with them. The hold they would have over the entire international organization would be nearly absolute. Surely you must see that. Chang must never be the object of all this except to such as we. And when we bust them, headed by fearless and incorruptible policemen like Inspector Kurdon, even they will have no suspicion until Chang is in our hands and locked away in Zone next to the captain with the so-pleasant name.”
“And now you’re here finding out exactly what they did to her, what monster they turned her into, and precisely where she is. And after that, making certain that nothing in that computer will ever be read by the inspector or anyone else. Tell me, Colonel-how’d you learn to read that stuff so quickly? And how’d you learn how to use their computer system? You ain’t been here much longer than me.” “Long enough, my friend. Besides, we Leeming have more than one way to learn things. In fact, with certain kinds of races, which make up close to ten percent of the south’s racial makeup, we don’t have to do anything more than feed. You can see by my size that I’ve been a very gluttonous soldier.”
“You mean you can learn stuff by eating somebody?” Gus was incredulous. The colonel chuckled. “Friend Gus, you are on an impossible world full of impossible creatures such as the two of us, turned into a big colorful lizard who can not be seen unless he wants to be, discussing a worldwide takeover conspiracy for which there remains no proof at all and which you only learned about because of a hunt for two demigods. And you find my alternative learning method unbelievable?”
He had a point there, Gus had to admit. He kept his rifle on the colonel, but he expected a trick any time now. The colonel hadn’t moved, but did he seem suddenly more like his old self in size? Or was that imagination? “You’re a rotten son of a bitch, Colonel,” Gus told him. “You had a second chance here, a real chance of a new life and a fresh start, and you decided to remain what you were back on Earth. Don Francisco must have paid you pretty good, too, I suspect.”
“Not nearly enough, but after the return to democracy there were problems for many of us, and we had to find alternative sources of income to maintain ourselves and our families in the style to which we had become accustomed. This is not the same thing. This is the equivalent of military rule, which we imposed to prevent the communists from dominating our beloved land. In that I followed orders and remained true to my country. I am doing so again, and I feel that it is a new start for me. Again I have honor. Again I serve my country and my people.”
That shimmery SOB was shrinking! Gus shut up and moved back toward the entrance. It was barely in time; a thin layer of goo rose up and grabbed for him as he moved.
Nice try. Colonel. You are better than I gave you credit for, Gus thought, nervously eyeing his narrow escape. If the colonel had kept him talking just another thirty seconds, he’d have been history!
“Gus? Where are you?”
Ready to take aim on your slimy guts the moment you pull yourself together, you fat pig, Gus thought, but he remained silent but vigilant.
“I’m sorry, Gus. I won’t make another stab at you,” Lunderman assured him. “Look, no one will believe your story, not even Kurdon. You have no place to go and no way to act on what you know. You can’t win, not against this kind of power. But you don’t have to lose, either. You are a very resourceful man, Gus. Very resourceful. Just as they found a place for me, they can find one for you. Anything you want. What have you to look forward to, anyway? You can’t go home-particularly now. You know that yourself. The Dahir church would probably have you sacrificed to keep from corrupting the rest of the flock. You are both a man and a creature without a country, Gus. But with your unique talents and awakening appetites you needn’t be an unhappy one.”
I wouldn’t be tempted if you were giving me a straight offer, Gus thought, but I can see your puddly self flowing all around the floor and in between the consoles, feeling for me even now.
The colonel had grown large, but not that large. It was relatively simple to keep out of his way if Gus just paid attention.
Gus could see a fair amount of him now, but too flattened and too spread out to make a real target. Still, Kurdon had warned the Leeming that he was vulnerable to energy weapons, and that happened to be just what Gus had in his cute little hands. Time for a continuation of Education Day. Gus set the rifle on wide, aimed at the largest concentration of Leeming he could see, and pulled the trigger fast and briefly.
The colonel screamed an unholy scream as part of him fried and vanished. It suddenly occurred to Gus that this might have been the first real pain Lunderman had felt since becoming a Leeming. Reflexively, the rest of the amorphous creature withdrew inward toward the central mass. But where was the central mass now? Gus wondered. Not at the console.
Cat and mouse, Colonel? Gus thought. Suits me fine, but I frankly didn’t think you had the guts.
Lunderman didn’t. Suddenly, across the room in one corner, a great mass rushed upward with tremendous force and speed. It was so fast and so blended against the dark that Gus was slow to react, and by the time he got off a shot, the thing had vanished into the ducting above.
Gus didn’t like the fact that the Leeming was around up there somewhere and nursing both a wound and a grudge, but he could hardly follow that exit. At least the colonel couldn’t see him or anticipate his actions. Even so, the faster he was out of here, the better, he thought. Still, he had to risk some communication. “The colonel was working with the gang,” Gus reported. “I am in the computer room. He was in here erasing records. I shot at him but only winged him. You can’t capture him, but he’s the only one of his kind here, and he can be fried. I recommend a shoot on sight, particularly since he eats people by absorbing them.” Suddenly the magnitude of what he’d done hit him. “And get some people in here really quick,” he added. “Lunderman’s left the computer turned on with the damned security already deactivated!”
The sun had been up for hours when they struggled back to Subar, but all of them felt it had been worth it. Terry almost cried for joy when Gus came back and ran to hug him.
There was no sign of the colonel, but all the entrances and exits were heavily guarded and it was felt that he was still in there somewhere.
Inspector Kurdon looked exhausted but generally satisfied. “Sixty-eight of ours killed or wounded, but at least two hundred of theirs dead and almost a hundred in custody, and we broke that cancer that has been eating into the soul as well as the soil of my nation for far too long. It has been a worthy night indeed.” “What about the computer? Have your people learned anything?” Gus asked him. “Not as much as we might have had the colonel not gotten in there first but far more than I think any of them would have wished. What you caught him doing was unleashing what my computer people call a tapeworm.” The term wasn’t exact, but that was the way it got translated to Gus. “A program that goes in and finds and destroys specific information. A second was ready to load, and a third was found nearby, but thanks to you only the first was run.”
“Any idea of the nature of the information destroyed? Or is that a ridiculous question?” Anne Marie asked him.
“No, it is not altogether ridiculous. We can deduce a little of it, although we have barely scratched the surface of the thing. It will be months before we get everything we can out of that data base, and we need to make certain that no one who does not have the most impeccable honesty gets in there in the meantime. I do not like it that the colonel is still at large in there, but we do not believe he could actually operate the computer. Rather, he knew how to run the tapeworms and where they were stored. In a sense, merely losing what we did is a fair trade for having the security system opened up. We might have learned far less over a much longer period had we had to attempt to crack it.” “And the erasures?”
“Oh, sorry. As I say, by deduction. Political names, big regional names, that sort of thing. We won’t get a payoff or politician’s listing from that, I’m afraid.”
“It’s bigger than you know,” Gus told him. “You wouldn’t believe how big. I got it straight from the colonel.”
Kurdon gave a weary nod. “I believe I know how far this had to have gone just by looking at its scale and by the sheer number of hexes where deletions were made. Do not worry, Gus. It wouldn’t matter if the entire council was corrupt, as they probably are in one way or another. This complex and the computer are in Agon. Agon alone has authority here. And I know who is who in Agon.” “What about Lori and Mavra? Any word on them?” Tony asked, concerned over Julian’s report.
“It is the first minute of the new information age,” the inspector said. “Give us a little time. This is of the highest priority. Get some sleep, all of you! Even 7 am going to attempt it. By the time we awaken, they will have news, perhaps very exact news. Then. I believe, we will be on our way on a journey to the northwest.”
“Clopta!” Gus breathed. “And Campos.” Kurdon nodded. “Also by that time I expect that I will have so many high Cloptan officials terrified of me that I will be carried to this Campos person on a litter with politicians as bearers.” He smiled, the first time any of them could remember seeing such an expression on an Agonite. “It was a very good night.”
By late afternoon, when they struggled back to the command center, most still half-asleep but unable to go any further toward resolving the problem, the trusted technicians inside the computer room had some answers. “A bird and a unicorn,” Inspector Kurdon told them. “Neither are monsters in the sense of the ones we discovered down in the cells. They are in their own ways works of art-if, of course, the results proved equal to the computer estimation. Your friend Lori was something of a compromise, it appears. The original order was for a grotesque, like what we saw. But when they saw the genetic potential and also discovered that Campos was just going to make him a courier like the rest, they had second thoughts. They made the monster part come out early, then later fade as the real program kicked in. .Campos was apparently furious at the start but later decided she liked it after all. At least, there’s no sign of any attempts to do worse again.”
“You got this from the computer?” Julian asked him.
“Not entirely. Our doctor friends seemed to have pulled a very slick vanishing act in the middle of a cordon I’d have sworn was unbreakable, but their assistants weren’t so fortunate. And the assistants know the medical computer quite well and helped with all the detail work. With what we got from the clinic, we were able to go to specific points in the big machine and get virtually a replay of the entire discussion and debate, almost a step-by-step explanation and tutorial. They were sick of making monsters. They wanted to make pretty, living works of art.” He reached into a pouch and pulled out a picture. “Here is what your Lori looks like now.”
The pretty beige pastel colors had been retained, and the hair, and much of the elements of the original Erdomese, Julian noted. Only the body had thickened, becoming less wiry and more equine overall, and the forearms and hands had become traditional horselike legs with fixed hooves much like the Dillians’. The head had been thickened, and the head and face reshaped into a rather cute horse’s head, but retaining the curved horn in the forehead that was the mark of an Erdomese male. Compact, sturdy, cute.
“Kind of like a cartoon Shetland pony,” Gus commented.
Kurdon cleared his throat. “The worst news, I fear, Madame Julian, is that the specifications set down by Campos included that he be a gelding. It was actually designed that way. There are no genitalia at all.”
Julian knew she should have felt shock and grief for Lori, but somehow she felt relief. Still, she noted, “I wouldn’t exactly be the proper mate for a pony, anyway, would I, Inspector?”
“Um, no. I hadn’t thought of that. We also discovered why all the poor wretches we found made only unintelligible sounds. It seems the practice was to install within them a type of artificial translator that intercepts both incoming and outgoing language. Only someone with an identical translator tuned to each individual’s code will be understood by the-pardon-creature, and vice versa. That way, if something happened, if one of them escaped or fell into the hands of the law, they could never reveal anything they knew. And the total sexlessness made them docile, passive, easily trained, and nearly incapable of rebellion. No aggression, no initiative. They may hate it, but they’ll do exactly what they’re told to do.”
Poor Lori, Julian thought, and somehow that very sentiment, spontaneous as it was, made her feel a little better about herself. “Where is he now? Do you know?”
“He was on the Liliblod route, and he was due in Agon either the day we hit the place or today. So far no sign of him, and we can hardly go hunting in Liliblod for him. not for quite a while.”
“They won’t eat him, will they?” Tony asked worriedly. She’d already decided to make a run in to see that stable area for herself when a soldier had given her a pair of night vision glasses and shown her the denizens of Liliblod. That had talked her out of any such foolishness. Giant furry spiders with glowing white death’s-heads dripping with venom …
‘Tony!” Anne Marie scolded.