“No, it’s a fair question,” Kurdon said. “My feeling is that they will not break their own end of the bargain. They are a strange lot, but they have an odd sense of honor and consistency. In all these years they never once touched anyone who stuck to the agreed-upon routes, although frankly, I’d not like to test them too much right now. There’s some evidence that a number of higher-ups had emergency escapes down to the stable area just in case, and since we didn’t nab them, we must assume they got away into Liliblod as well. Best case I suspect is that he’ll eventually turn up, possibly after getting over confusion over all the new people there. Worst case is that he met up with some of these fleeing bigwigs and was turned around and pointed back toward Clopta. If that is the case, he should be snared when we move on the gang there. They can hardly send him back again. To what purpose?”
“They might kill him!” Julian said worriedly.
Tony shook her head. “Not Campos. She’s not the type. She’s more likely to put him in a horse stable, if they have such things in Clopta, and ride him around the park on nice mornings.”
Kurdon nodded. “That is our assessment as well.”
“But what about Mavra Chang?” Tony asked him. “You said a bird?” “Yes.” Again a hand went into the case and brought out a picture. “Probably something like this. It’s an even greater work of art than this Lori, in a way. You see, that’s a real creature, albeit a rare one from a hex far away from here. A real bird. The only thing that’s different is the size of the braincase, which was accomplished with some clever bioengineering. Campos wanted her mentally intact, to know.”
“Odd-looking thing,” Gus noted. “Kinda like an owl, but with a long bill and pretty colored feathers.”
“It’s flightless,” Kurdon told them. “The wings have completely vanished. It is also quite large-about a meter high, and it can weigh upward of thirty-five kilos. It spends basically all its time rooting with that long, curved bill and sticky tongue, eating mostly insects. It needs to eat a great many of them, but it can also eat raw meat and even a little grain if need be. It is nocturnal, practically blind in daylight, which, aside from its size, is its only defense. The legs are too short and stumpy for speed. I doubt if it can run at all. Sort of like walking on your knees. They made certain she wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
“The poor dear!” Anne Marie exclaimed.
“Will you be able to do anything for them, all things considered?” Julian asked him. “I mean, you said this was genetic data here, and I went to those-those doctors myself. They said doing it more than once could lead to instability, deformity, death.”
“Hard to say, with our two most knowledgeable experts among the missing,” Kurdon noted. “Probably we can do very little. What we can do is outfit them with translators that restore their communication with the outside world. At least that will give them some voice again in how they want to cope and some help in doing it.”
Julian thought about the pair. Another couple of one-of-a-kinds, she thought. The population of her mythical dream island was growing.
“Well, we should be able to get them when we get Campos,” Kurdon assured them. “Shouldn’t you send ahead and have them arrested now?” Julian asked him. ‘Too risky. Clopta is not Agon, and without a bit more authority from that nice big computer, it’s not dependable. Remember, even the two maniacs who created this managed to escape us, and that was here, in our own backyard.” “Shouldn’t we be off, then?” Tony asked him. “I mean, it’s likely some of those escapees are even now heading toward Clopta with the news of the raid. They may go underground before we can get to them.”
“Liliblod is the same size as Agon, and they are on foot,” Kurdon reminded them. “We, on the other hand, will bypass Liliblod and sail directly into Buckgrud, the Cloptan main port city, which is where our quarry happen to live. Besides, even with what happened here, I am pretty sure they’ll still feel safe in Buckgrud, which the cartel more or less owns and operates, and under the protection of their own bought politicians.”
“I hope you’re right,” Julian said, looking at the photo of the new Lori. “It must still be awful for them now. I’d hate to get this close and lose them.” “Don’t worry about it,” Gus said confidently. “I mean, hell, the hexes aren’t really huge, and outside of their native hex they’ll be easy to spot. Hell, I bet Juan Campos looks like Daisy Duck.”
Julian nodded. “A very dangerous Daisy Duck.”
Juana campos was made up and dressed to kill-if one was a Cloptan male. In fact, it was the large eyes and pliant oversized bills that gave Cloptans a ducklike appearance, but they were not related to ducks, nor were they exactly birds in spite of the featherlike covering-rather, they were egg-laying mammals that incubated the eggs in the marsupial-like pouches which both males and females had. Aside from the oversized heads, the body shape was quite humanoid, the female’s particularly so, although the males tended to be more pear-shaped and actually rather dull-looking. The females even had thick, lush hair growing from their heads, while the males were universally feather-topped and rather bald. The females even tended to be taller than the males, but while short, squat, and fairly ugly as a rule, the males were built like tanks and abnormally strong for their size. Much of their bodies was protected by invisible but quite effective thick, bony plates right down to the genitalia.
In Clopta, women were literally soft and men were literally hard. Gen Taluud was built like a bank vault and had a face to match. Ugly, raw, with a curl on one side of his bill that revealed the otherwise seldom visible sharp teeth lining the inside. He looked like the kind of Cloptan who might walk right through a wall, and he radiated that kind of toughness even when saying nothing. He had spent twenty years doing all it took to become the top man in Buckgrud, the man who owned the mayor and the provincial governor and whose very word was law. But it hadn’t been merely by strong-arm tactics, bribes, double crosses, and murders that he’d risen to the top; he was anything but the stupid muscle he appeared to be.
He’d initially gotten interested in Campos simply out of curiosity, someone who had once been something entirely different. That made her exotic and interesting, and the fact that she also had a hell of a figure didn’t hurt. Campos had initially been appalled at the circumstances the Well had forced upon her but also realized that this was a golden opportunity, maybe a chance to rise high and fast in spite of the changed circumstances and in a way overcome the sexual change and get both power and protection. She’d learned, observed, and played the part Gen Taluud expected of his mistresses. Campos recognized the Taluud type immediately as the same sort of boss his father and other cartel members had been back on Earth, and she also understood the business. The only one who’d stood in her way once she’d accepted the situation and her own self as permanent had been Taluud’s longtime existing mistress, who wanted no rivals. But when she’d tried a hit on Campos and failed, thanks to Campos’s own experience, she had become easy to handle. Campos had pulled the trigger on the woman herself and disposed of the body in a time-honored way so that it would never be found.
If Taluud suspected or knew, he never said, but instead of being upset, even forlorn about the loss of a longtime companion under mysterious circumstances, he’d given Campos a free ticket to the top and treated her with a fair amount of respect, in some cases giving her the authority usually reserved for his lieutenants. Campos understood the bargain. So long as she was at his beck and call, jumped when he snapped his fingers, and served him loyally, she otherwise had nearly free rein within the organization. Still, service to him could be unpleasant sometimes, as the big man was fond of rewarding certain underlings and bigwigs with his girl’s services for an evening or two. But with no assets other than the body and a shared ruthlessness, she’d learned to use that, too, to build a ring of powerful friends in the organization that might well outlast even Taluud.
But no matter what else she had planned or what she felt like or wanted to do, when the big man called, which he could at any hour of any day, she was expected to drop everything and show up, always looking her very best. This was just such a time. The fact that it was three in the morning on a weekend did not mean anything particular to her. Taluud was in his penthouse, clothed in a fancy dressing gown, sitting in his big, overstaffed chair and puffing on an imported cigar. The cigar was as much a badge as a habit; he went through a dozen a day, and a box of them was close to the average annual wage of a Cloptan. Around him were a half dozen fully dressed lieutenants, all of whom she’d known intimately in the past, and one fellow in the chair opposite who was anything but properly dressed and looked like he’d just crawled out of a sewer after battling angry crocodiles. Other than Taluud, he was the only one seated, which was unusual only in that usually nobody sat in Taluud’s inner sanctum but he. She stood there, taking in the scene and wondering what it was all about. Taluud in turn looked straight at her and took his cigar from his mouth to use as a pointer. “Glad you could get here so fast, doll. This guy here is Sluthor. Up until a few days ago he was transport chief at the complex. He tells me a goddamned army just blew it to shit.”
Campos’s lower bill dropped a bit. “But Genny, that’s impossible?’ A clenched hand came down so hard on the coffee table that the table almost broke. “You bet it’s impossible! Not only was that place a fortress, but we owned the Agon military!” he shouted. “But it did happen! And only a few of our people got away. They’re struggling in now from Liliblod in ones and twos, all looking at least as bad as Sluthor here. I been on the communicator the last two hours to the capital, and you know what, nobody’s in who knows nothin’! You hear me, doll? Nobody’s in! To me!”
“I-I don’t understand.” Campos had a very bad feeling about this that had little to do with the mere loss of even such a wonder as the complex. “Well, neither do I. I got one of our people in the capital to go into Zone and get some face-to-face answers, but he ain’t back yet. Too soon to get many details, but we got some basic stuff from Sluthor and the others straggling in. It ain’t just the loss of the complex-we can always build more-and nobody there was so important we couldn’t afford to lose ‘em, but how in the name of the six hells of Dashli did they have the fuckin’ guts to do this?”
Slowly, through the big man’s tirades, what little was known came out. They’d suspected for some time that something was up, something not at all good, but they’d never expected anything on this scale. This kind of scale would take approval by and the active support of the council, yet nobody on it had warned them or tipped a hand. Instead, they’d given full authority and support to the raiders under an overzealous cop who’d been neutralized, or so it had seemed. Campos thought it over. “Sounds like somebody very big and very powerful but not on our side got the idea that some of the council was bent,” she suggested. “And the ones that were had to save their own tails by letting this go through. If they’d tipped anybody, it would have been a sure sign they were bent, so they had to let it go. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Taluud nodded approvingly. “That’s what I figure, too. The question is, Just how much and how many are they willin’ to sell out to cover themselves? They had their own man, one of them jelly blobs from the south, in on it. Probably to get in there and protect their asses by deleting the records. That we know because we knew about him before, and he suddenly shows up there just before the raid. The question is, What are the others doin’ there?”
She blinked. “Others? I don’t understand.”
“Them two horse-assed girls, the goat girl with the four tits, and, with the jelly blob, some unknown type ape girl who don’t say a word and somebody else we never got a handle on. Thing is, our people reported to the complex that all these critters had one thing in common: They all knew each other. Even the jelly blob. Word was that every single one of ‘em had come in from offworld and gone through the Well. Just like you.”
Now she understood why she was here and what this was about. “You mean they’re all there? Together?”
“Pretty much. Who knows if there are any missing. We already had run a check on ‘em. The two horse asses and Four Tits got there on one of our courier boats. They been snoopin’ around for months but weren’t much of a threat. Seems they were there lookin’ for somebody-God knows why else you’d stay in that lizard heaven. Somebody snatched off the same courier boat. Another of their own, most likely. Sluthor did a check on the ones that stayed in Agon. None of ‘em seems to have come in with you, and none of ‘em seem to have any connection with you other than comin’ from the same planet once. That goes for the jelly blob, too. That’s in your favor. But I know you went down there and did a lot of checking a while back. Where’s the ones who came here with you?”
She thought a moment, realizing that there was great danger here. The whole truth might cause nasty problems, but a lie could be deadly-or worse. She needed time, and Gen wasn’t giving her any. Maybe a half-truth was best … for now. “I was a prisoner when I was dragged here. You know that,” she reminded him. “Right at that time I hadn’t realized how good I had it, and I was boiling for revenge. Two of the sorry bitches who got me into that fix were on one of our boats and heading right here. I couldn’t resist. I’m sorry, Genny, I just couldn’t resist, particularly after I visited the cells and saw what they were doing down there. It seemed like heaven had delivered my enemies into my hands. I … persuaded Arn Gemalk, who was head of security then, to divert the boat, have them taken off at the pickup point, and delivered to the docs at the complex. I wanted revenge, and just killing them seemed not nearly enough at the time.”
Taluud nodded, interested but not apparently upset at this. “And what did they do to them?”
‘Turned them into couriers, I suppose. The idea was to make them live out the rest of their miserable lives as cutoff monsters serving what they hated.” “And you don’t know what they became or where they are now? The odds are they were the trigger for this-now, don’t worry your pretty self about that! You didn’t do nothing to them I wouldn’ta done myself. Thing was, though, the horse asses were doin’ a favor, trackin’ one of ‘em for the council, so when they were lifted, it went straight to the top. There was too much heat, and after a while they couldn’t stall it anymore. Yeah. This all fits together now. Shit, I wonder if we can find that pair and give ‘em to them. Might take the heat off. Otherwise they’re givin’ the cops and patrol and all the excuse to take us out base by base, station by station.”
“Beg pardon, sir, but even if we could track them down, they will hardly be in a condition to be recognized. Would it make any difference?” one of the lieutenants asked worriedly.
“Yeah, yeah, it would. They wouldn’t like gettin’ back two freaks, but they’d have what they was after, anyway. Provin’ who they were is just a matter of a new translator. Even if somehow they could talk or they got one of them mind-reader races to get through, what could they tell? We’re still in the clear, right? And they get what’s left of who they’re after.”
“Wouldn’t they soon be in agony from lack of their variety of the weed?” Campos asked him. “It might not be much of a victory to hand them over.” “Even dead, they’d be found,” Taluud noted. “But the weed’s no problem. We found that the ones who go through that monster stuff get immune to it over time. Don’t matter. We got much better control by that point, anyway.” So they don’t need the drug anymore. Interesting. ”But how would you tell who and what they were, let alone where?” Campos asked him. “I mean, once they’re processed, I thought they were just assigned and all traces of them erased.” “Yeah, well, they don’t exist, true, but people got memories. Maybe they can’t be found, maybe not,” the boss responded. “How many we done of these? A hundred, give or take. Not too many, and there was always a contingency plan just in case for a lot of things, including them doctors. Sluthor says they were in their clinic on the coast and not at the complex when it was raided. If they managed to give their tails the slip before the cops moved in, they’ll be on a courier boat right now headin’ for a safe hideout west of here. They may have to dodge some patrols, but they should be there before any muscle gets in these parts, and maybe they remember these two. Neither of them was from races we see anywhere in these parts, if I remember. You remember what they were, doll?” “One was a male from somewhere far off; I think it was Erdom or something like that. The other was still the same as when she left our old world. I understand they’re called something here, but nobody seems to know much about them.” “Glathrielian,” Sluthor said tiredly. “I’ve been trying to think of it myself. That’s what they called the apelike female who came in with the Leeming.” Campos was suddenly very interested, enough to dampen her fear although not enough to make her disregard the sense of danger. “This was a female of the same type? Dark skin, perhaps, no body hair to speak of except on the head and crotch?”
“Yes, that is pretty much a good description of the pictures I saw. Do you know her, then?”
“Yes, I know her. She is the one I truly hoped to get my hands on, but she was not with the others.”
“Well, you lay off her now, period!” Taluud told her firmly. “She’s untouchable. History. They may even have an idea that she’ll draw you out. You don’t go near her, you hear me? We may all have to disappear for a while until this blows over. Keep your bags packed and be ready for a call. They lure you with her and nail you, the next stop’s right here!”
“I doubt if I’d get the chance at her unless it was a trap,” Campos sighed. “Still, it’s too bad. I could have had such fun with her.”
“What’s the point? Sluthor here says she don’t talk and is like some brain damage case. Besides, it’s gonna be a while before we can use those docs again no matter what.”
Campos nodded. “I know. But she’s unchanged, and I know from the other that the weed will work particularly well with that kind. Make her an addict, put her on a leash, walk her around like a pet … It would be very satisfying.” “Yeah, well, get that out of your head now. No personal vendettas while we got bigger trouble. Besides, you already got a pet. That big ugly bird, right?” “No, I gave her to the zoo,” Campos told him, suddenly nervous that two and two would be assembled in the room. “They are quite rare, and the zoo is going to breed her.”
Fortunately, it never occurred to the gang leader to consider that the process didn’t always create monsters or sterile mules, either. “Yeah, well, no more of that. We got enough trouble from this missing pair if we’re guessin’ right. All we need is a third to vanish and we may have to bury ourselves, and I do mean bury.”
“I wouldn’t dream of doing anything without your permission, Genny. You know that.”
“And you better hadn’t, not anymore. Still, bad as it is, we got a few days to play with here; let’s not panic. Ain’t no raiding army in Clopta yet-they couldn’t keep that from me. Figure if they didn’t find their friends in the complex, then this is where they’ll head, though. Take ‘em a few days to sweat the details, a few more to get here by boat, a few more than that to set up things so’s they can move here. We got at least a week. If they got away, them docs should be in before that, so we may get a jump on the law in finding that missing pair. Also send out the word. Anybody who remembers them when they was in the complex or being seasoned, they tell us just what they are and where they might have gone. Get on it!”
There was a chorus of “Yes, sirs!” and it was clear that the meeting was over. Campos remained for a bit, wondering if Taluud had anything else for her and hoping to get more information, but the boss dismissed her. “Get lost, doll. Go home, pack, and stay close to the phone. I got calls to make.” She turned and walked out.
By the time she emerged at street level from the private elevator, she’d already started to think about things on her own. What if somebody remembered that she had been there for the whole process? What if the doctors had backup records or clear memories of just what they had done? Taluud was no dummy; he would figure out that she’d been holding out on him and already knew the information he wanted. Then life would get really unpleasant. But she didn’t want to turn them over, particularly not Mavra Chang. Campos wasn’t fooled by the drooling servile act, not now that she knew that the bird bitch wasn’t even addicted anymore and had never let on. Chang in the zoo or under her control was one thing: Chang with a voice and a mind was something else, even if she stayed a bird. There was something too familiar, deep down, about that bitch. Given the chance, Mavra Chang would spare nothing to arrange a similar fate for Juana Campos. But why was the council, the kind of United Nations of this world, so worked up about Chang and the Erdomite? The Erdomite was just somebody with that news crew; he couldn’t be important in the long run to anybody. But Chang-that “goddess” stuff, playing jungle Indian high priestess …
She had been pretty damned sophisticated when she had gotten here. Those Indian bitches had thought that she was immortal, that she’d been there like forever. Stupid superstition from the dumb-ass Stone Agers? It had seemed so. But what if …
What if those rumors of her being some kind of creature who could work the whole damned Well World had been true? They’d recalled the wanted bulletins, said she was just a minor player for the guy they were really looking for. but maybe that was a blind.
First they said she was some kind of real god if she got inside, then they said she wasn’t really. What if the first story had been true? What if Mavra Chang could somehow get inside whatever ran this world and do pretty much whatever she liked to everybody and everything? And they got afraid that somebody else, somebody like Genny, would snatch her and somehow make her do what Genny wanted when she was there …
That would explain everything that had happened, wouldn’t it?
If they find out my birdie is Mavra but don’t figure out the rest, they’ll give her back. Sooner or later she’ll get away, get in there, one way or another, but they won’t care what she orders for a Juana Campos.
In the hands of Genny and the cartel things might be even worse. Even if she could somehow talk her way around the deception, which was highly questionable, they would be playing for all the power, not her. A world remade by Genny wouldn’t be a fit place for anybody. Not with that kind of power. He’d go nuts. If he made a deal and they ran things together, it would be even worse. Two nuts. And no place at all for Juana Campos.
But what to do? What to do? In a couple of days, a week at best, it would be out of her hands if she just let events take their course.
Wait a minute! Maybe there is a way out of this! She walked down the darkened, rain-slicked street, deserted at this hour, the only sound the sound of her heels clicking on the hard pavement.
What if she did her own vanishing act? By the time Genny figured it out, the shit would be hitting the fan here. And if she had her two treasures with her, there’d be nothing to stop the cops. They’d come after the organization here like that army’d gone through the complex she’d thought impenetrable. Looking for her, most likely. If she’d checked up on them, they had to know that she was here. They had probably already figured it out; they just needed the clout to come after her.
But what if neither she nor they were here? The cartel would be underground for quite a while, particularly in this region. But to where? And how? Liliblod would be out of the question. She’d never felt comfortable in that creepy place, anyway, and right now it’d be even worse. Likewise, nowhere in Clopta would be safe. By ship? Too risky, and if they tracked her, she’d be trapped with the goods. Due north was Quilst. She didn’t know much about it, but it was nontech, so it would be damned hard to trace her, and she was pretty familiar with roughing it in primitive conditions far worse than she’d seen here. Lori ate mostly grass and shrubs now, and Mavra ate bugs and carrion. Not a real supply problem. Lori could haul stuff, and if it got so Mavra couldn’t find anything to eat, then Lori might be a good feed if need be. But what if the Quilst was as nasty as or nastier than Liliblod? She needed to know. There were semitech hexes to the east and west, which might do. She needed information, and the first thing to find out was if Lori was an option at all. She didn’t have much time-maybe a day or two. First thing to do was to check on Lori. If he wasn’t in when she was ready to leave, the hell with him. She’d get a real horse or something like it. A few weeks, or maybe months, away, just marking time, would be worth it. After they’d scoured Clopta and Genny and his gang were history, she could come back. Maybe not to Buckgrud but to one of the other big cities where she could lose herself or, better yet, to the northwest, where there were farms and ranches. She had a number of IDs in the system. Cut and dye her hair, do a few other things, and she might just get away with it. If she had Terry in her clutches, it would be just perfect, but one couldn’t have everything. Not yet, anyway.
The clicking of her heels sounded for all the world like the ticking of a clock. A clock counting down the window of opportunity …
She had a lot of calls to make.