Chalker, Jack L. – Watchers at the Well 03 – Gods at the Well of Souls

Lori had tried to keep track of how long the nightmare journey had taken, but either exhaustion or the creeping dullness in his mind had made it impossible. It certainly seemed like forever, particularly with that very heavy bastard on his back urging him on and making him miss needed water and food stops. Still, the guy had to sleep and drink, too, so there’d been just enough of a break to survive. How much did these ducklike things weigh, anyway? Still, once in the warehouse, he’d slept the sleep of the dead, and when he woke up, still feeling pain in every joint, he was at least able to eat and drink. Still totally confused by what had happened and why he was back here instead of there, he nonetheless started to get the idea that things weren’t normal on this end, either. There were lots of Cloptans around, including many he’d never seen before. They were all frantically loading stuff into huge vans that pulled up one after the other, and he realized that they were emptying the place. Maybe the good guys finally won one, he thought hopefully. Not that it would do him much good. They were clearly just shifting operations for a while, and where did mat leave him? Either they’d shoot him or they’d take him with them to put on some other courier run. It wouldn’t even matter if somebody found him. What would they see? A nice little horse with a horn, that was all. Too small for real horse work and, as a gelding, not handy for any other reason. How could he even contact somebody else to tell them he was more than he seemed? More important, would it make any difference? It was getting harder and harder to remember things. Not just little things, big things. Before he was a horse he’d been a man, but a man who did what? He had memories of a desert and some tent towns and a city by a big wall, and he remembered a woman of the same race, but even she was kind of blurry. And before that there had been someone, something else, but that was so distant and so confusing, he wasn’t sure about it. He tried frantically to think, to remember. I’m not a horse! I’m a … But he was a horse. He couldn’t get around that. No matter who or what he’d been, he was now a horse. He was always going to be a horse. What was the use of fighting it, of dredging up those old memories, of worrying about things that he could not do anything about?

Someone .. . somebody else … had struggled with a big change, and it had driven them nuts. The woman. And when they’d stopped fighting and accepted who and what they were, they were finally able to find some happiness, to stop torturing themselves.

Maybe that was it. Maybe he should just stop trying to be anything else and accept it. Stop the thinking, the remembering, the deep thoughts. Just … live. If he was going to just be a horse, what would his wants be? Food, water, sleep, and maybe a little care and grooming by somebody nice. What else could he ever want or need? Nothing these men had. Nothing anybody had that he could imagine.

Then why did he feel such a sense of loss? That was why he’d been searching around in those memories, but while he could come up with all sorts of memories, episodes, and mental pictures, he couldn’t come up with anything any of those past lives had offered that seemed at all important or interesting to him now. All it seemed like was an endless search to find things he hadn’t had. But he’d never really found them, he knew that, because he had never been sure what he wanted.

And now, here he was, and he knew exactly what he needed and wanted, and the simple things on the list didn’t go beyond the basics. Maybe what he’d lost were all those problems and worries. His big problem now was that he hadn’t been thinking like a horse.

With that idea in mind, he drifted back to sleep, but it was a lot easier to decide on this course than to stop the dreams.

The Quilst were a kind of cross between animals and plants, it seemed. The pictures made them look like walking, talking turnips who ate dirt. They weren’t said to be particularly hostile, but they didn’t really build roads and seemed to spend most of their time training hordes of insects to do stuff. Maybe the data was true, but the fact that the Quilst hadn’t even put a Zone ambassador down south in recent memory meant that if the information was out of date, she was up the creek there.

The Betared were those horrid little bear things. They were well involved with the cartel at the highest levels, but they all had the temperaments of Genny on a bad day. The Mixtim looked like giant multicolored grasshoppers, but they supposedly had taken steam energy to its highest levels. They were so totally omnivorous that they could, and did, eat almost anything, but aside from often disturbing visitors with their culinary tastes, they weren’t threatening and were very civilized, if specialized, like lots of insect cultures. She’d never seen or heard of one with the cartel, though, and they certainly looked like the best of a bad lot. Even if it proved less than inviting even for a getaway, Mixtim was well located with a variety of other hexes available. They’d also take international credits there, which they used for trade, so at least it would provide options. Mix tun it was, then.

Now a haircut, and a dye job, some practical working clothes, and a bit of an identity switch, and she’d be ready to reclaim her little living treasures. She hoped the zoo wouldn’t be too sticky about it, but if they were, then there were other ways.

First, though, she went down to the warehouse, which was getting pretty well cleaned out. “Moving the stuff offshore mostly, to islands and to boats, until this blows over,” one of the supervisors told her.

“I called earlier. They said you had a courier come in, looks like a pony?” “Yeah, he’s in the back there. We have no instructions on what to do with him.” “I’ll take him,” she told them. “Mister Taluud is looking for specific couriers for some reason and doesn’t want any harmed or lost until he finds what he’s looking for. I’ll take full responsibility.”

The supervisor shrugged. “Fine with me. One more worry off my shoulders. But what are you gonna do with him, lady? You can’t put a horse up in downtown Buckgrud, and you sure can’t take him into an apartment.” She laughed. “Let that be my problem. Just show me to him.”

Lori was only half-asleep when Campos walked into the rear stall area, and when his vision cleared and he saw who it was, he felt sudden fear and loathing. This was not the kind and gentle groom of his needs!

“Hello, Lori,” Campos said, almost as if she were greeting an old friend. “Time for us to go.”

It was so strange to hear words, whole sentences, that he could comprehend that it shocked him out of his stupor for a bit. “Go where?”

“Oh, you can still speak! Well, that will make things even easier.” But he couldn’t, not like before. He no longer had the physical equipment to make the variety of sounds necessary for the translator to pick up. Still, the device worked by direct implant into the brain, so as long as something came out, however much it was like a whinny or a gurgle, the whole thought came through.

“We have to leave this place soon. Tonight, I hope. I have much to do myself, but I have a place for you to stay until I am ready. I’m taking you to a nice park where you’ll be tied up but able to eat and drink and relax in the open air. There’s a nice old fellow there who’ll see that you’re all right until I can come back for you. It’s a very nice day to be outside, anyway. Later on we’re going to take a train ride, at least part of the way. Right now, just you, me, and our old mutual friend.”


“Yes, indeed. I wouldn’t dream of leaving without the pride of my little collection!”

Mavra Chang was not having a very pleasant existence, but she was in far more command of herself than Lori had been.

Then again, Lori had never been this low before. Mavra, as she was remembering, had been so low sometimes that this seemed downright optimistic. And of course, Lori might not have much of a future. Mavra knew she’d have that, or at least she hoped so, depending on where the hell Nathan was.

That was her greatest fear. If Nathan had made it inside the Well, maybe she was stuck like this and doomed to die. Somehow, though, she didn’t believe it. She was still getting information, memories from the Well data base as she thought of them, and going over bits and pieces of her past long forgotten. Nathan sure as hell would have cut that if he’d already been there.

Maybe he was having as much trouble as she was, she thought hopefully. Still, this was not a promising beginning. The Buckgrud Zoo was state of the art, but that meant that she’d been placed in a large area with few places to hide. A large, fake, hollowed-out tree was the only real place of escape, but it had little in the way of maneuvering room inside it. Around it was an area about ten meters square with a heavy glass or glasslike window on one side and very dark walls on the other three. The lighting let people see inside but to her looked like a cloudy night.

The glass was coated with some sort of nonreflective substance, and she could not see herself in it or see much beyond, although if she went up very close, she could barely make out a variety of overdressed giant ducks gawking at her. She couldn’t help wondering how many times, if any, Campos had been by just to gloat. There was water in a simulated spring and small pool, and there was food. That was the worst part, the food. Live insects, mostly worms and crawlers, were introduced several times a day, along with an occasional carcass of something that might have been an unfortunate zoo accident or roadkill for all she knew. The problem wasn’t that she was going around gulping down the squirming critters or picking at the festering dead meat. She’d long since passed the point of being revolted at that aspect.

The problem was, she really liked them.

What she didn’t like was how even the apartment and its window had offered more attractions than this dump, which was so boring, it risked driving her into the madness she’d been fighting all this time. The only entrance or exit was at the top of the cage, a good four meters beyond her head. The occasional cage attendant would come in now and then on a rope ladder, which was impossible for her to manage, without arms to hold on to it with. The ladder was taken up when they left, anyway. The glass was as thick and unbreakable as she’d ever seen, and there wasn’t a chance of getting through it.

She was even more worried that they were going to breed her with a male, as Campos had threatened. It was what zoos did, after all, but what would it do to her? She still had her mind, she could think as a human even if the thoughts were dulled by who knew how long in this incredible boredom, but if she just let her mind wander into fantasy, the bird genes just took over. What if they brought in a male whatever it was and she got knocked up? Would she start building -a nest and sitting on eggs and thinking about little squawkers? The Well was notorious for not making it easy, but damn it, it shouldn’t make it impossible. But try as she might, she hadn’t been able to see a single way out of this mess.

What was even more depressing, was that if there was a way for her to get free, flat out she could make maybe a hundred meters an hour, and not for very long. She would also need to spend a lot of time keeping the metabolism going with food. No wonder this bird was rare. Figuring at maybe a kilometer a day if she was lucky, she could make the Avenue and the equator in, oh, maybe three or four years under absolutely perfect conditions. Yeah.

And so she was quite startled when, in the early evening after the zoo had closed for the day, she heard the cage door open and saw not the usual attendant or the vet but the new model Campos climb down the ladder.

“Hello, my pretty birdie,” she said with mock concern. “You needn’t play with me. I know you don’t need the drug anymore, and I’m not someone to trifle with right now.”

“Are you here to taunt me?” Mavra asked her, despondent as ever. “Oh, my, no! In fact, I am here as your liberator, believe it or not. It seems that you have become too popular for your own good and are far too valuable to be left in a musty old zoo. We are going on a little trip, you and I, along with my other pretty little treasure, and we will not be back for quite a while.” “You’re taking me out of here?” Mavra’s heart soared, even though she didn’t expect to be going to a nicer place.

“Yes, indeed. In fact, Algon, he’s a nice attendant here, will help you up out of the cage. He is a sucker for a pretty face and a few credits. Here. Get into this netting, and then I will tell him to pull you up.”

Mavra suddenly felt a little contrary. “You can’t lift me. What if I refuse?” “Refuse? You mean you like it in here?”

“Not particularly, but they feed me regularly. You wouldn’t go to all this trouble if you just needed to skip town. Somebody’s got a line on what you did to me, haven’t they?”

“You are quite sophisticated for a jungle primitive, aren’t you? Yes, my precious, they are looking for you, but it will do you no good to hope. Even if they found you, you would just be kept here in a cage much like this. They might even keep you right here, although with a much better lock. I suspect, however, they would take you south, perhaps very far south. I, on the other hand, am going north, at least for now. Better the devil you know than the devil you do not.” Her tone grew suddenly lower, more menacing. “Besides, you little shit, if you don’t do it right now I will take one of these rocks, beat you into unconsciousness, and roll you into it. Now, get in!”

Mavra didn’t have any doubts about Campos doing exactly that, so she complied. Out and going north … There was some hope again. Maybe she was too hard on the Well. One had to have patience with the gods before they answered one’s prayers. Algon took her, still in the netting, and placed her in a box with air holes that sat on a rolling cart. Soon they were out into the night air and, with Algon’s passkey, out of the zoo and onto the street. The air felt good, although she was frustrated at being so completely and literally boxed in. For somebody sneaking out of town, Campos certainly had a lot of help that could reveal her plans no matter what bribes she’d paid. First she was put in the back of a small truck that was certainly driven by somebody else, since Campos remained with her. There were also a number of cases and a steamer trunk. They stopped after a while and shortly loaded on what certainly sounded and, from the tiny bit visible through the air holes, looked for all the world like a small horse.

“You’re sure you’re not too conspicuous?” Mavra commented, but it was ignored. More hands unloaded them, and then the box was opened, but only to cut away the netting and transfer Mavra to an even larger box, one apparently designed to transport live animals. Inside was a fair quantity of raw meat and a gadget that would give her water in small amounts.

“Just relax,” Campos told her. “You will be in there for a long time, but we shall meet up again before you run out of food and water, I promise you.” “Meet up again? Where are you going?”

“The same place you are, only by a different route. I have no time for questions or need to give answers to such as you.” And with that, the box was sealed and began moving again.

Mavra could hear Campos speaking with others, but since the conversation wasn’t directed to her, it wasn’t picked up by the translators.

She was puzzled, no, totally confused. What in the hell was this maniac doing? If Mavra was confused, Lori was even more so. For one thing, two female Cloptans had shown up in the park later that day and had set up for what looked like a horse bath and rubdown. It turned out to be a dye job; his pretty beige and all the rest were now jet black, and his mane and tail were snow white. Even the horn had been painted black, and it still smelled awful.

Then Campos had come with the van, loaded with a number of cases and baggage, and eventually had unloaded it at a freight stop on the Cloptan high-speed train line. He was collared there, and a whole bunch of routing tags were attached to it, then he was led onto a livestock flatcar which also contained a large number of animals that looked like a cross between a cow and a camel but with a kind of rounded, platypuslike bill. In a very short time the train began to pull out into the darkness.

The first time they unloaded Mavra Chang’s box and reloaded it onto another train, she had a glimmer of what was going on.

She was being transshipped over half the damned hex, on one freight, then on another, in a pattern that probably looked like a baby with a crayon had created it. All of the other stuff was being shipped the same way, but on different trains, and it all seemed to be designed to eventually wind up somewhere together. Shipping agents, working from wired instructions, would reroute the packages so that no one would know the final destination or be able to easily trace them.

It was amazing what money and a computer could do, she thought. The fact remained, though, that if she was attempting a getaway with everything, including Mavra, then she was traveling very heavy, and if she stayed in a high-tech hex, they would eventually track her down. That meant lowering the technology standard, but to do so with this much stuff would be pretty rough for a Cloptan female on her own. That one horse certainly wouldn’t do the job. Mavra’s train reached the end point first, and she sat there, now inside a warehouse, the only sounds occasional trains whirring past outside. She wondered what was coming next and how Juana Campos figured on pulling this off. She didn’t mind the wait; that was all she’d been doing for a long time, anyway, but that had been waiting for nothing. Now something was happening. Things were moving again, and so was she.

That was worth waiting for.

Just before dawn some automated equipment unloaded several cartons, and they were placed very near Mavra’s box. She guessed they were the rest of the stuff from the van. Now all that was lacking was the horse.

It wasn’t lacking for long. Just as the sun was starting to come up, Mavra heard the sound of hooves clicking on the hard floor of the warehouse and picked up the unmistakable scent of live horseflesh.

Lori, now tied up to a metal stake near the boxes, was totally confused. All night it was on one train, then onto another, going back and forth, and sometimes, he was sure, on the same train over and over. Unlike Mavra, he didn’t like it or understand it one bit.

None of them had long to wait after Lori at last arrived. Whether on a schedule or because the loadmaster didn’t like having a horse fouling up his nice warehouse floor, a crew entered and began transferring everything once more. In the daylight, even with his poor vision, Lori could see that they were at some kind of border stop. On the other side of the sleek magnetic strip that served as Cloptan train tracks there was a very different looking building and beyond it a very different looking terminal. It was a little hard to see as well, as if he were looking through a discolored gauze curtain. A hex boundary! And not the one to Liliblod, either!

The Cloptan crew and its robotic equipment moved everything across right to the border. The boxes were then put down flush with it and pushed across slowly by small rams that came out from the equipment. Lori alone was led through, feeling the familiar tingle as he passed into a new hex, and then he could see more clearly what was beyond.

It was suddenly chilly. Not cold, but there was a definite chill in the air. and signs of light frost were still around, slow to melt in the rising run. Lori didn’t really feel the cold, but it was still something of a shock. More of a shock was the crew that awaited them on the other side. They were bugs. Huge bugs. And not just huge bugs but bugs of just about all shapes and sizes, the smallest still the size of an alley cat. They were quite colorful creatures, and the two that were enormous, at least two meters long and standing taller than Lori, looked like nothing he’d ever seen even in a nightmare or in the Amazonian jungles. They seemed closest to praying mantises.

He was scared, nervous, and yet somewhat excited and didn’t even realize all the old memory connections he was suddenly making again.

A big beetlelike thing crawled up to the pallets on which the boxes rested and with two whiplike hind limbs took the lead pallet and started pulling it effortlessly toward the station beyond. Other, similar creatures did the same with the rest. Finally another, who looked more like a bipedal grasshopper, approached Lori, who shied but couldn’t pull away, being tied to a post. But the thing didn’t eat him; instead, it wordlessly untied him and began to lead him after the boxes.

The railroad warehouse was a wonder of cogs, levers, belts, pulleys, and other such automation, all of which was apparently driven by external steam plants and which rumbled and hissed and gave off occasional steam through vents. Steam also seemed to heat the place, at least somewhat; it was certainly warmer here. Overcoming his fear and revulsion at the sight of the giant insects, Lori began to watch them work with fascination. They all looked so very different, yet he began to wonder if in fact they really were. Each seemed to be physically designed almost as a tool would be designed, to do one or two specific tasks well. The big low ones were the strong-arm types, the longshoremen who could move and lift loads much larger and heavier than they. Sleek, small, fast bugs went up and down the conveyors and pipes, oblivious to whether they were right side up or upside down, apparently checking to make sure that everything was operating properly.

The big praying mantis types were primarily lifters, almost like living dockyard cranes using huge mandibles that form-fitted into specially designed containers. Suppose an insect society, many of which had different specialized varieties anyway, could really breed and design to order or need? Each individual hatched, shaped, and endowed with the capabilities to do specific jobs and serve the whole? That obviously was what was here.

It was an ideal tiling for a nontech hex, but the steam power and degree of automation said this was semitech. The bugs of the industrial age, adapted to fit the new requirements.

If they were as durable and as prolific breeders as most bugs, this was a race that might well be able to survive and even thrive anywhere, under almost any conditions.

Outside, both Lori and Mavra could hear the shrill sounds of steam whistles large and small going off and the rhythmic chug chug chug unique to one kind of mechanical marvel moving about.

Steam locomotives.

Neither was aware of the other’s identity or proximity, although there was little they could have done about it had they known, yet both suddenly shared the same thought.

The crazy dance of the trains might not yet be over.

Another Part of the Field

Gen Ttaluud was very uncomfortable in the presence of the colonel, but he needed information and needed it bad. He might have some business to do with this jelly blob if the answers were right.

“It was a complete disaster,” the colonel told him. “They even managed to prevent me from destroying a great deal of the computer files. Fortunately, I did manage to eliminate information on certain major figures and also some details of the divisions within the hexes such as yours.”

“You think that’ll help me?” Taluud thundered. “Hell, everybody there knows me, and so does everybody here. I ain’t in the quiet part of the business, you know. If they’d flush something as big as the complex down the toilet, they wouldn’t think twice of flushin’ me along with it.” He bit off the end of a cigar and spat it out with such force, it traveled halfway across the room. “So what’s the price, Colonel? What in hell will get ‘em off my back?”

“As you surmised, the pair kidnapped by Campos, and particularly one, Mavra Chang. Find them, rum them over, and you are likely to find the pressure turned well down, so much so that you might well be back in business within six months to a year at best.”

“Then we’ll find ‘em!”

“Um, yes. That is a priority. The question is, Do we really wish to turn them over to the council when we do?”

“Huh? What in hell does that mean? Of course we do. You think I want to be ruined?”

The colonel had considered his course on the journey here, accomplished mostly by sea and not without its own danger. Leemings had great power on land, but in the water they were helpless, and in salt water they could not help but absorb great quantities and sink like stones. Even these amorphous creatures needed to breathe oxygen, and they were not equipped to fashion working gills. “Mister Taluud, have you thought beyond what’s happening to consider why it’s happening? Why our mutual bosses would allow such a catastrophe?” “Savin” their own asses, that’s all, just like everybody else.” “In more ways than one. They are scared. They are frightened of something so much that they are willing to pull down an important part of what they had built with such care and patience. This Mavra Chang isn’t merely someone with a lot of friends. They would never have sacrificed the complex for as simple a reason as that.”

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L