Gen Taluud really hadn’t thought about it, but what the creature had said made a lot of sense. “Go on.”
“Let me tell you what they firmly believe about Mavra Chang,” the colonel said calmly. “And I’ll also tell you about my experiences with a man of the same race. A man named Nathan Brazil.”
Taluud listened, fascinated, not knowing whether to believe this stuff. Still, it was clear that the big shots, the rulers and politicians behind all this, were totally convinced, and they had greater resources than he did. Still, it was hard to swallow.
“You really believe all that crap about her, Colonel? Honestly? And this guy who they think is some kind of ancient god, too?”
“Does it matter, sir?”
“Huh? Whatddya mean?”
“Let’s assume it’s all true. Every word of it. You could never make a bargain with that sort of creature. Even if you thought you had a deal, once inside, at the all-powerful controls, what would bargains with mere mortals count for? How would you enforce the bargain? You see what I mean. There is no way we can allow her to actually get in, so it doesn’t matter if I believe it or even if it is true. It doesn’t matter if you believe it, either. They believe it. The raid and the massive actions still to come here prove that.”
“Yeah, so what? What’s that get us?”
“Perhaps a lot. If they got her, they’d just lock her away under guard with Brazil and try to keep them there until all that we know passed away. But what if we had her? You and I, together. What if we had her and she was salted away safely in a place only we knew? Think of the possibilities. What do you want to be? Emperor of Clopta? Governor general of the district? Permanent chief councillor? No running, no fear of the law at any time because you are the law, secure in the position because if they don’t give you everything you want, if they even dare to act against you, you can give one order and Chang will get into the Well. You see the potential? You are a powerful man, but only in this city and to a lesser extent in Clopta. Like me, you still take orders from those higher up. The kind of people who are now selling you down the river, as it were. Isn’t it tempting to turn the tables and have them deferring to vom?” It was a masterful scheme, absolutely brilliant. Taluud’s estimation of the colonel went up a great deal in just that one moment. Only one thing made him hesitate.
“All very well, Colonel, but what do you get out of this? What’s to stop you from just eating me and becoming ruler of the world yourself?” The colonel was ready for that one. “For one thing, I don’t want to be ruler of the world. I think it would be far too much work to be fun. Much better to be an adviser to that ruler and have his ear when needed. No, sir, I don’t want that. But you see, all my life I have taken orders. All my life I have served governments and cartels and bowed to Don Francisco this and General Hernando that. It’s been no different here. I do their dirty work, I cover up their mistakes, and still I am dependent on others. I am a man of modest and humble beginnings. The army of my native land on my native world saved me from poverty and starvation. I worked my way up, doing whatever was necessary, whatever could advance me. I did not have the relatives, the connections, or the old military school ties that counted. Finally, with the air corps, I managed to attain basically the level I am at again here-but I was still subject to miserable pay and the whims of my superiors, always with the sword at my neck. One of those-those high-and-mighty generals could in an instant declare me dangerous or push me aside. When I got here, I had certain unique qualities and experience and managed to achieve this level rather quickly, but I am still the servant, the outsider. I am not a native. I can never be at the top.”
“What do you want, then, Colonel?” Taluud asked him with growing interest, wondering if he could trust any of this.
“I want to be the grand leader of Leeming, the most supreme general and president for life. A modest position of power compared to what you might attain but more than enough for me. There are certain-characteristics, if you will-of a Leeming that have the potential for me to live a very long time and for a part of me to live on almost forever. Within my own land I would be absolute ruler. You would have all the rest.”
Taluud thought it over. Maybe the slime was telling the truth, maybe he wasn’t, but Gen Taluud hadn’t lived this long without being able to judge when a fellow as unencumbered with morals as he himself told stories like that. Besides, he could always get the bastard fried if it looked wrong.
“Very tempting. Colonel. Very tempting, indeed. But we’re missing one thing to make such a deal, and that’s this what’s her name. We don’t even know where she is or, at the moment, what she is.”
“I know. Both from the computers and from the medical records of those curious doctors. She is an anuk, a very large wingless bird. They were quite proud of her; the genetic remake was so complete, she is said to be capable of reproducing-as an anuk, of course.”
Taluud’s cigar almost dropped from his fingers. “A what? A bird? How big a bird do you mean?”
“Oh, a meter, give or take a bit. About this high, I would say.” A pseudopod shot out and hovered in the air.
“Why, that lyin’, double-crossin’ bitch! I’ll fry her ass for this! Nobody does this to Gen Taluud!” He picked up the communicator. “Get me Campos. Now! No-wait a minute! Go over there and pick her up-personally. I want her here in ten minutes, you hear?” The communicator slammed down.
“I gather you already know the location of our quarry,” the colonel commented. “How convenient.”
“Yeah, maybe. Seems to me she said she’d given it away to someplace, but I can’t remember. Don’t matter. She’ll tell me anything I want to know soon enough.” The communicator rang, and Taluud picked it up. “Yeah? What! Well, what about the other two broads? Them, too? Shit!” He looked back at the colonel. “They flew the coop! All three of ‘em flew the coop! Like they can hide from me!” “I would not underestimate this Campos. I have information that on the old world Juan Campos was in some ways an equivalent to you here.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, but he ain’t got no control. I never trusted guys who got to be big because their father was big. You work yourself up, you don’t have to prove nothing.”
“My point exactly with my own case,” the colonel noted. “We agree on a great deal, sir. I believe this could be an excellent partnership.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“She gave the bird to the zoo!”
A few calls brought the news that the zoo, too, had someone missing. He was back on the communicator again.
“Look, how tough can it be? Three broads and a bird the size of a teenage kid. You put the word out. Naw, they probably are outta here by now, maybe on a ship-check all the docks and passenger and cargo manifests. Also check the trains, border controls, you name it. They got to be somewhere, and I want the ‘where’ and fast, hear?”
“I admire the way you move on things,” the colonel said approvingly. The communicator signaled, and Taluud grabbed it. “Yeah? Well, you get movin’ on this other thing. As soon as you find ‘em, you get a dozen of your best men and meet me. We’ll go after ‘em personal. Then we pull the plug. Hear? First we want them girls. Period.”
“What was that about, if I might ask?”
“Your buddies from Agon are here. They’re in the capital right now, armed with lots of information on certain political types, and they’re gonna have a pretty free ride by tomorrow. The rats are deserting the ship up there and fallin’ all over themselves to be helpful.”
“My-‘buddies,’ as you call them. I assume this is the centaurs, the Erdomite, the Dahir, and the Glathrielian girl?”
“Yeah, yeah. Them and that holier than thou Kurdon, too. I knew we shoulda made him have an accident years ago! Well, that’s what I get for bein’ a softy! No more!”
“This-bird. It was well known?”
“Yeah, around here, anyways. It was so weird-lookin’, anybody who saw it remembered it. Shit! Right under my nose! Right under my fuckin’ nose! “If even the more common elements in your own organization will remember it even slightly, it is serious. And she was last in the zoo, too … Probably on display. That means even more will remember. Honest, upright folks. We will not be too far ahead of them, I fear.”
“Maybe not. But if it’s always ahead, I’ll settle for a few steps. The only one’s gonna laugh at the end of this is the one who winds up with the bird, right?”
“I would say that was a fair statement.”
“Then we get there first.”
“What of these other two females? Might they be with Campos? How much of a problem might they be?”
“They’re all looks, no brains. Campos was the one with the looks, brains, and guts. I don’t know how she even got the other two to go along, but they’re dumb enough to fall for a lot of stuff. Well, I’ll fix all three of ‘em when I get a hold of ‘em!”
The communicator signaled. “Yeah? What? Oamlatt? That’s on the border with Mixtim! You sure she crossed over there? Absolutely positive? Yeah, well, it’s a lead. Let’s get on it. We got anybody in Mixtim that’s handy? Shit. Well, it shouldn’t be brain surgery to find information. See what you can find out, if you can find anybody there who remembers a second woman, or a big bird, or whatever. Call me back.” The boss turned to the colonel. “Mixtim.” “Problems?”
“One of the girls-not Campos, one of the others-arrived this morning. I said the other two weren’t all that bright. She made a call back here just so’s her sister wouldn’t worry about her. They’re sure she went over into Mixtim at the Oamlatt border crossing. It’s a rail intersection and trade center. Makes sense.”
The communicator buzzed.
“Yeah? A black pony? That don’t sound like no bird!”
“Wait a minute!” the colonel said in an urgent tone. “Ask them if the pony had a horn on its head.”
“Hold it. Did the horse have a horn on its head? How do I know? Stickin’ up, I guess.” There was a pause. “It did!” Taluud looked over at the colonel. “Okay, it did. So?”
“The other one. She’s taking both of them with her!”
“You get to work on the Mixtim side. See if you can get any information on trains and such. I want to know where they bought tickets to, hear?” He pressed a button on the communicator, then redialed another number. “All right, we’re on ‘em. Have your team meet me at Central Station. Call ahead to Oamlatt and make sure we have supplies for a long trip and the fire-power we’ll need that’ll work there. Yeah, Oamlatt. They went into Mixtim, and we’re gonna have to go get ‘em. You meet me at the station after gettin’ that set, you hear? I’m pullin’ the plug.”
He looked at the colonel. “You like bugs?” he asked.
“Depends. Raw, boiled, or fried?” Colonel Lunderman responded.\ “Everybody’s flown the coop,” Kurdon told them. “It was to be expected, but I am still disappointed. At any rate, we’ve broken the main connection for this entire region for quite some time, and we have enough on the local boys both here and in Agon that it’s unlikely to be restored on a scale like this in the near future.”
“You mean you’ve actually destroyed the cartel?” Julian asked, somewhat awed at the concept. “Because of us?”
“Because of you we have hurt them, yes,” the inspector agreed. “And we have given two hexes and perhaps many more in the area a breath of fresh air and cleanliness, which is more than I dared to hope when this began. As to the cartel, though, no. It is damaged but far too large and too spread out to be killed. To truly kill it we would need a means to get at the ministers of many governments, to clean house at the very top. What we have gained is a bit of local joy and some pride; we have finally hurt them. But destroyed them? Hardly. You cut off a few heads from this kind of monster, it still has far more heads than it needs. You cut off all its heads and somehow it grows new ones. Just winning a battle of this magnitude is incredible, but the war? No. Take it from a career policeman. So long as there are greedy and power-hungry people at the top and corruption festers, you cannot win. You play to tie, that is all.” It was pretty depressing looked at that way.
“What about Mavra and Lori?” Gus asked him. “I mean, that was part of the reason for all this.”
“Yes, it is, and the council is still very anxious to have them. But there is a limit to what I can do myself, and I am already overburdened here. My main concern is my own country, as you must understand. If I cannot cure the worldwide cancer, I can at least try my best to ensure that Agon becomes fully cancer-free. You will have whatever funds and authority you require and the aid of any official that you contact. It would be better to work through the locals on this, anyway. They know their own territory.”
“That certainly helps,” Tony told him, “but I gather you mean that we’re on our own from this point.”
“Hardly. As I say, this remains a top priority with the council. You will find cooperation along the line in most civilized areas, and we now have descriptions and bulletins going out from Zone to governments throughout the Well World. Make no mistake-we will find them.”
“I want Campos,” Gus said with a low growl. “I want Campos bad.” “Then your next stop is Mixtim,” Kurdon told them. ‘Take the train to Oamlatt. I’ll arrange for Cloptan authorities there to brief you on what we know so far. After that, you will have to pursue. Please do so. If they are chased, then they cannot stop, and if they do not stop, they are bound to be seen and reported. If they do stop, you will be on them. I have seen you all work now, and I have every confidence in your abilities to do the job.”
Gus sighed and looked at Terry. Damn it, he knew he should stop, but they were so very close. And for Terry’s sake as well as his own, he wanted Campos. He wanted to eat her alive.
IN THE ANCIENT TIMES WHEN THE WELL WORLD WAS OPERATED as a biological and social laboratory rather than simply existing, there was the problem of simulating the limitations of real planets that would logically evolve such races and ecosystems. In many cases that meant placing limitations within the hexes on everything from the losses in electrical signals over a distance or whether certain levels of technology would work at all. The semitech hexes had the most variations, but in all such places the great emphasis had been on steam. Mixtim had a generally flat landscape and a somewhat dry continental climate where the rains were seasonal and the rivers broad, fairly shallow, and winding. It was a land best suited for growing hardy crops, mostly grains, but without the practical use of rivers to move large quantities of harvest from where it was grown to where it was needed.
The answer had been a vast network of steam-powered locomotives pulling long trains of produce to and from major population centers and also to ports of entry with neighboring hexes, where it could be traded for goods either impossible to manufacture or not worth the trouble to make within the hex. They were sleek, fast trains like nothing ever seen on Earth, but they had the unmistakable sound and fury of the classic steam engine. The network was particularly remarkable because of the inability to use a telegraph or maintain the integrity of an electrical signal through the tracks. Nonetheless, they had a fine safety record, and the trains of Mixtim ran on time.
In fact, it almost seemed as if the whole population were involved in running or servicing the trains. While the trains occasionally passed clusters of high twisted mounds filled with teeming denizens of the insect world, after more than two hours there wasn’t a sign of a major city and the villages they passed were more likely trade centers and farming communities. On the other hand, there appeared to be one every time two different rail lines crossed, and there were an awful lot of rail lines in Mixtim. Juana Campos was counting on that and the fact that they had little in the way of computers or even written records for nonroutine shipments. Everything like that was more or less off the book. The natives crammed into cars and resembled festering colonies, but there was little provision for visiting travelers. On the other hand, the Mixtimites had plenty of surplus boxcars along every siding, and it was no problem at all to hook one on for special purposes.
The society was, as expected, totally communal, so there was no money or other favors exchanged for services, but outsiders were in fact valued and expected to pay, the fees going to whatever local jurisdiction for the purpose of buying imports. Some of these were specialized or customized farm tools and implements or finely machined parts for irrigation systems, and some were as simple as candy and other delicacies.
The largest import, however, was chemical fertilizer, and that made Mixtim and its railroad less than ideal for visitors. The Mixtimites, it seemed, either had no sense of smell or liked the smell of it. The stench of fertilizer was everywhere.
“This is totally gross,” said Audlay, one of the two former roommates with Campos back in Buckgrud, as they sat on a layer of wheat or some kind of grass on the floor of a boxcar heading into the hex.
“Look at it this way. At least we won’t have to worry about gaining weight here,” Kuzi, the other roommate, responded in a tone just short of I-think-I-have-to-throw-up. “Quit complaining!” Campos snapped at them. “I don’t like the smell any more than you do, but what do you want me to do about it? You knew it would be rough when you decided to come along. You also knew when you came that there was no going back. Not for a long while. Now, make the best of it!”
“Yes, Juana,” Audlay responded, sounding almost like a small child. Campos had dominated the other two since she’d moved in six months earlier. They were of an all too familiar type, very much the kind of people the old Juan Campos thought most women were. They seemed to live in fear of almost everything, and in spite of their protests, they liked being dominated. What power and confidence they had they drew from another, and that other was the one whose power they feared. They were both afraid of Campos, but it wasn’t just out of fear that they’d agreed to come along. They both felt that this was the only way out of an existence they didn’t like and one which had no real future. Audlay almost defined the word “bimbo.” If there were two thoughts in that head of hers, they were jumbled from being blown around by the air passing between her ears, Campos thought. Still, she had just enough pride and sense to realize when she was being humiliated, even if she didn’t understand the joke. The men had her do silly, ridiculous things and played all sorts of pranks on her when they weren’t insulting her or slapping her around. She had found herself oddly attracted to Campos from the first, though. There was something inside the strange woman that radiated the power, the authority, and occasionally the attitude of the men she’d known, yet Campos wasn’t a man. The newcomer had often defended Audlay against some of the more oafish lieutenants. A woman capable of standing up to the men and protecting others had been an unbelievably attractive individual, and Campos had shown her all sorts of new and different positions and turn-ons she had never dreamed of before. She would do just about anything Juana said, but not without whining and complaining about it all the time. Kuzi was different. Older and tougher, she was very much the product of a rough and morally ambivalent life and had taken everything she could get. She, in fact, had only one fear, and it wasn’t Campos; she was getting older, and while she was still attractive, every time she had looked at herself in the mirror for the past year or two, she’d seen more and more bloom coming off the rose. Her man was coming by less and less, and fewer others were interested in coming around when they had other, younger women to fool around with. She’d seen the handwriting on the wall and hadn’t liked it one bit. The guys also weren’t exactly young chicks anymore, either, and where did they get off dumping her? She didn’t like Campos all that much, but she saw a lot more there than the men had. The strange newcomer had hated the life almost from the start, and it was clear that she’d been biding her time until she could do something about it. Well, now that the time had come, it was time for old Kuzi to fish or cut bait. Campos regarded Kuzi not much more than she did Audlay, but she did recognize the armor plate that was there. A gun might be as dangerous to them as to anybody else in Audlay’s hands, but there was no question in Campos’s mind that Kuzi could and would blow away anybody she had to.
Still, Campos wished that she had a couple of better and stronger allies than this pair. There just hadn’t been enough time to build the kind of alliances she really knew were necessary before it had fallen apart, and these two were the only ones she could depend on upon such short notice. Still, sitting in a boxcar that smelled like warmed-over shit going through a landscape that was kind of like the Argentine pampas overrun with human-sized grasshoppers and cockroaches, she was under no illusion that she was biding time until something came up that would give her more of a plan.
“What are they all so scared of that damned birdie for, anyway?” Kuzi asked after a while. “And why load ourselves down with that pair?”
“The horse will be handy. He carries things, remember,” Campos responded. “Besides, there is no other animal of that type who can understand a complicated order. As for the birdie, that’s the prize, and I did not really realize it. They are all afraid that my precious little birdie can walk inside this world and play God. Would you believe that?”
”‘That thing?” Audlay commented, her upper beak rippling in disbelief. “She was not always ‘that thing,’ as you say it. Inside is still the brain, the mind, of the person it used to be.”
“So you gonna take her up north, let her go inside, and fix things for us?” Kuzi asked her.
Mavra, still in the box but well within earshot, could not help but note that she was being talked about. “Don’t believe it? Take me up there and I’ll show you how it’s done,” she offered, knowing the response.