After Julian ate some fruit that she found on the forest floor, she went into the pool and tried to wash out as much of the mud as possible. It usually wasn’t a good idea for an Erdomese to take a bath of this scale, but once in a while didn’t hurt and this was certainly necessary. It was also damned cold water, which meant she had no urge to linger.
Still, she did feel better when she got out and was more her old self again, although there did seem to be places where the mud would never wash out. What she really needed, she thought, was dryness, the heat and near absence of humidity for which her body was designed. Thoughts of the desert and its feel and its beauty had crept into her mind off and on of late, particularly while she was just sitting there in Agon. As much as it would kill her, she could not banish Erdom’s call to its own. She very much wanted to go back there, but not like this and not while that foul system endured.
She wondered if Lori felt it, too, or whether he felt much of anything. Clearly the two of them had hatched this escape plot, but did that mean that they could understand each other? Somehow she doubted it, at least on a verbal level. They hadn’t exactly been making bizarre sounds at one another, anyway. Think, Julian, think! You may not be much good at anything else, but you are very good at thinking!
That had been her trouble in the beginning, she realized now. Unable to face her position and limitations, she’d stopped thinking and started to let others do all her thinking for her. That was exactly the wrong way. Thinking things through, learning all that could be learned, solving problems and delivering solutions-these were things not everybody was very good at. If she couldn’t physically, psychologically, or culturally carry them out, there was always someone who could.
What about writing? Translators did nothing about writing ability any more than they covered up one’s previous language skills. They were an enhancement to vocal communication, that was all. She looked around for a stick, found one, and went back over to Lori. She might not be much at writing with those hands, but she sure as hell could block print.
In the mud near the pool she scratched, in English,
CAN U READ THIS?
Lori watched, then came over and looked down at it. It was so hard to dredge up those old skills, but he managed. It was a little easier than it had been with Mavra; at least this was English. He nodded his head.
Julian was excited. At least there would be some way to get through. R U OK?
Yes. It was an absolute answer to a relative question, but there wasn’t any way to add qualifiers.
WHAT DO U WANT TO DO?
That was a deliberate attempt to provoke him into finding some way to get a more complex answer back. He understood its purpose but wondered how the hell he could do it. He tried writing with the stick in his mouth, but it wasn’t any use. Then he tried scratching in the mud with his hoof, but that didn’t really produce anything intelligible, either. Finally, he gave a big sigh and shook his head negatively.
Maybe Mavra would be better for this, Julian thought. But what language did they have in common?
In an instant she realized that would be a good test of whether they actually had a chance or were just adrift until caught or killed. If Mavra knew the commercial standard language that Julian had spent so much time in Agon studying …
It was some time before Mavra had her fill and wandered back. She couldn’t help but wonder at how those two were reacting to one another. Julian needed the old Lori, and the old Lori was gone. She approached where they were resting and saw the regular scratches in the mud. She hadn’t thought Julian capable of it; maybe she’d changed personalities yet again since the last time they’d been together. Julian had been dozing but awoke when she sensed someone nearby. Spotting Mavra, she reached for the stick and then went over and smoothed out the mud. The basically ideographic Well World standard commercial language was versatile but not easy, and she had only a limited command of it. Still, Mavra could have no better command of it than she if Mavra were just another person from Earth. But if she was who she claimed to be …
CAN YOU READ THIS? Julian scratched, then carefully placed the stick in Mavra’s bill. Mavra went over and looked at the writing and was so surprised at what she saw that she almost dropped it. How the hell did Julian learn that! Don’t ask stupid questions you can’t get answered, Mavra, just answer if you can.
I CAN READ IT, Mavra scratched back. It looked awful compared with Julian’s, but it was sufficient.
WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
Mavra wrote back, RUN LIKE HELL.
Julian laughed. If somebody could give an answer like that after being like this for so long, she was something special indeed.
Mavra took the stick. HEAD NORTH THEN WEST TO AVENUE.
Avenue? What was an avenue here? It was a formal and distinct ideograph all its own; that indicated an important noun, a real place.
GET IN WELL. MAKE THINGS RIGHT, Mavra Wrote.
Make things right… Right for whom? Julian wondered. Still, it was the answer she had both hoped for and expected.
GO BY NIGHT, SLEEP BY DAYS, Julian suggested.
THEY WILL BE WAITING FOR US.
They? Campos? The colonel? The Dillians? who is
EVERYBODY. ARMIES. WHOLE WORLD.
That was alarming. NO OTHER WAY IN?
MANY. LONG WAY. TOO LONG.
ONE HEX LENGTH N, HALF WEST.
That meant maybe 250 miles north, give or take, and half that west. A really long way to go on foot, and with nothing but themselves and their wits. She had thought, or at least hoped, that they had traveled farther by train, but she hadn’t really paid attention to the map, and Mavra probably was guessing, too. It could be less. Or more.
you will get in, she scratched to Mavra. Somehow or another we have to. They’d be corning for them, that was for sure, but even Julian knew that the odds of catching anybody in this environment were as slim as the odds of their actually pulling this off. On the other hand, at least there wouldn’t be a lot of talkative natives.
Or would there? All this way and she still hadn’t the slightest idea what the natives of this hex really were.
She got up and started looking around. They hadn’t come very far, that was for sure, but they’d come some way inland. Did the natives leave the forest as wilderness and cluster in places off the beaten track?
The trees were huge, creating a vast canopy of green above. There were scads of insects, both crawling and flying, and while they looked suitably bizarre and like nothing on Earth, they were clearly recognizable as insects. There might be birds, but if so, they remained pretty high up and weren’t apparent. About the only really odd thing was a kind of vine that seemed to grow in thick clumps down the trees, giving them almost the appearance of wearing skirts. She wondered how strong the vines were. The rope solution for keeping Mavra on Lori’s back wasn’t a good one, but the vines might give her more flexibility. Julian went over to a low-hanging mass of them and examined them. The vines looked back.
She was so startled, she backed away. There were eyes of a sort on the ends of those things! Or at least they sure looked like eyes, one per vine ending. And now the vines moved in a cluster. Quite slowly and lazily, yet as deliberately as snakes, which they reminded Julian of.
She walked a bit to the right, and the clump of eyes slowly followed her. Back to the left, the same. She wasn’t imagining it!
Were they all part of a single organism, part of the tree, or parasites on it? Some sort of plantlike worms, perhaps? She’d better find out, she decided, because now that this bunch had blown their cover, as it were, all the vines on all the other trees were looking at her, too.
This may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in a lifetime of dumb things, she thought furiously, but it’s worth a try.
“Hello.” she said. “We are strangers here, brought here by others. Bad people we are now trying to escape from. We don’t want to harm anything, but we do not know the rules here. Are you the Lebans?”
Did translators work even on plants? Or was she talking to a common variety of parasitic worm with no more intelligence than any other worm?
The vines got very agitated and seemed to speed up their motion, curling in and out, back and forth among one another until it looked like they were caught in some sort of windstorm. The other clusters on other trees were doing much the same.
It’s almost like they’re talking with each other, discussing me, she thought, still not sure if she wasn’t just imagining this. She looked nervously upward into the trees for perhaps a giant open mouth at the end of the tendrils, but while they did vanish into the upper reaches of the tree, there was no clear body to them.
But how were they talking, if that was what it was? While the translator might be able to get through to them if, presumably, whatever they were attached to had some way to hear or feel vibrations, what if they communicated by a totally different means? That was still assuming that she was talking to Lebans. Now is the kind of time when I wish I could confer with the others, she thought. There was suddenly the sound of a wind, although she could feel no air moving against her skin.
Then there came a deep, melodic bass tone that seemed to come from within the tree itself. Incredibly, it seemed to be forming words, although they were a bizarre-sounding monotone, like trying to listen to conversation from the world’s largest one-note tuba.
“You may pass in safety,” the voice seemed to say. “Do not touch the vines. Do not harm the trees. Eat what you will of the forest floor but pick nothing.” She wasn’t crazy! These were the Lebans! “We will obey all of your rules. I promise,” she told the clusters of eyes. “We go north by night to the equator beyond your lands.”
“We have heard what the others have done,” the monotonous horn responded. “They will not find you in Leba if you give Leba respect.”
“It is a very pretty place,” she said, trying to butter them up a bit, still wondering if they were the vines, the trees, or something inside the trees and out of sight. “But it is not our place. We would not harm it, and we need to leave it. Um … You wouldn’t happen to know which way is north?” The vines swirled, curled, and then pointed off in one direction. “Thank you,” she told them. “I must get some sleep now. We have a long way to go.” “You will not be disturbed,” the voice promised.
The vines slowly subsided in their rhythm, then hung limp and still once more. It was very odd, but she felt like she could sleep here now. She wasn’t exactly sure why and she probably could never explain it to the others, even if they’d believe it, but she felt suddenly more secure, no longer watched but rather watched over.
If you are polite to the Lebans and show respect, they are very friendly … Somehow she’d just have to make do with the ropes.
She wondered what would happen to somebody who wasn’t polite and respectful. The ones who would be after them might be such people. One could certainly outrun a Leban, but one couldn’t run out of them. She wondered just how strong those tendril-like vines could be …
Somehow Anne Marie was not surprised to see three Cloptan men and the colonel ride out and three Cloptan women and the colonel ride back in. “Ever the Talleyrand type, aren’t you, Colonel?” she said with acidic sweetness. “What’s she talking about?” Juana Campos asked him suspiciously. ‘Talleyrand,” the colonel explained, “was a pragmatist in royalist France. A minor functionary, he saw the French Revolution coming and, when it happened, helped the revolutionaries find royalists and arrest them. He survived the reign of terror, survived the excesses, and in the end supported a young officer named Napoleon who became emperor himself and made Talleyrand a count. When Napoleon faced defeat, he negotiated with the old royalists and brought them back to power. He died a wealthy and respected statesman, in bed, of old age, but he never betrayed those he served or lost his honor, which is why they all trusted him. I do not consider her comment an insult but rather a compliment.” The two gunmen were more shocked and not as understanding. That had to be put right immediately.
“Listen, you two, you are very fortunate to have been here!” Juana Campos told them. “You are still alive and you have futures, if you wish to take the colonel’s example. Taluud is dead. His empire in Clopta is even now being crushed. You have a choice to make. Serve me in the same way you served Taluud and you will prosper and be high in the new organization I will build when this is over. Choose wrongly and I will allow you to enjoy the colonel’s embrace. I do not need you for controlling this lot, but I can certainly use you.” The two men didn’t like it; their own world was being turned upside down in the same way their captives’ had been. Still, the alternative was certainly worse. “All right, ma’am. We’ll stay with you,” one said.
She nodded. “You will take orders from me and from Kuzi here as if she were speaking my own words. You will keep your manners intact as regards all three of us and will keep your hands off. Be faithful, and your rewards will be great. Hesitate, foul up, or betray us, and you will be dead. Remember that if you are testing any of us with your manly strength, you are also testing that strength against all of us, including the colonel. You understand that? Do you understand that?”
“Yes, ma’am,” they both said.
“You call them ‘ma’am.’ You call me ‘boss.’ “
Campos looked around and saw Terry. For her part, the girl was totally confused as to what had gone on, but she understood that Gus had been hurt and that those who had hurt him were now in control. Of them all, though, it was Campos who terrified her. There was something there, inside her, something awful, particularly when she looked at Terry. It was not something that could be explained but rather something that was intrinsic, something ancient, something rarely glimpsed. The colonel had elements of it, and so had the duckmen, but in Campos it was not hidden, it was not partial, it was the essence of her, and it was frightening.
It was pure, uncompromised, unequivocated evil.
And yet somehow, while she felt Campos’s particular evil whenever she looked at her, she also sensed that at least for now. that evil was not a direct threat. Not yet. For some reason Campos did not want to harm the baby. Campos felt such satisfaction at finally having Terry in her clutches that it was a moment before she realized that something was wrong. The two Dillians, the girl, the big monster in the shed …
“Where is the other? The Erdomite?”
“These were the only ones here. We checked the whole place out thoroughly,” one of the gunmen said.
Campos turned to Tony and Anne Marie. “All right-where is she? And no games!” “We don’t know, and that’s the truth,” Tony told her. “She left us yesterday evening to go to scout for where you might be. She thought you’d head for the tracks and perhaps lay an ambush. We haven’t seen or heard from her since. When she didn’t come back with you, we thought perhaps she was a casualty.” Campos shook her head. “So that was how it was done. While we fought with Taluud, your friend came in and liberated the others.”
“Likely,” the colonel agreed. “We had no knowledge of it. I wouldn’t think she’d be much of a threat otherwise, though. Their women don’t have the proper hands and are not otherwise built for fighting. You are certain that the other two cannot understand each other or anyone but you?”
“I am certain of that, yes. They cannot talk, which means they cannot plot with each other. I see your point. But they are going to be very difficult to track and to catch in this terrain.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. They will feel us at their backs no matter where they run and whether we are there or not. They will zig, and zag, and perhaps get lost a few times, but eventually they will get their bearings. In the end, we know the direction in which they must go. They must go to Verion, then west, to the northwest corner of that place. They have no other choice.”
Campos looked at the Leeming and frowned. “You believe it, then? That if she can get inside, she can become like a god?”
“Until I got to know Captain Brazil, I thought it was nonsense,” Lunderman admitted. “And then, after, when I saw him survive what would have, should have killed anything alive, I was nearly convinced. But it was when talking with Tony here, back before the raid, that I became certain that this is not nonsense.” “Why?”
“You were dragged here. So was Gus. Lori and even the girl here were more or less brought here by Mavra Chang. I and our missing Erdomese fell through by accident. But there is no getting around it. Nathan Brazil walked here, knowingly, of his own free will. He invited these two to come along. He promised them what they achieved. And Mavra Chang, too, took great risks to voluntarily come through. Of all of us, only Brazil and Chang came freely, knowingly. Why? Because they knew what they would find here. And of all of us, only they and the girl here, whose pregnancy prevented a change, remained Earth-human. All the rest of us were dramatically transformed. No, it is beyond chance. And where does that pair try and head once they set out separately, independently? To the equator. To the door inside the world. No, it more defies logic to deny their true nature than to believe in it, however fanciful. They are not human. They have merely chosen to appear that way. Brazil may heal, but he is out of this. Safely away. That leaves Mavra Chang, and I do not believe mat she will let any obstacle stand in her way.”
“She could just wait. Bide her time and wait for Brazil to save her. After all, she cannot know he is a prisoner.”
“No, I believe we took care of that possibility. They are rivals. Each is convinced that the other means to assume total and sole control. As far as Chang is concerned, this race is still on. She cannot afford to wait.” “She’ll know that we know this, too. Is Verion the only door?” “No, there are many, but she will be forced to go for Verion because it is closest. Any other choice means more travel, more hexes, more chances of discovery, and, most of all, much more time.”
“Will it be guarded?”
“There is a token force there. There is one at all of them. Nothing that cannot be handled, though. I have authority with some of the council even now, and those two have authority with others. A nontech hex, a boring and routine guard assignment-it should not be much of a problem.”
“What makes you think we’ll help you?” Tony asked him.
“Several things. First, it is your only hope of returning to Dillia alive. Second, there is still one of your number that you might well be able to help, and that is all you were ever promised. And third and finally, your friends here will need you. We can transport our party and supplies, but Gus either travels with you or he must be disposed of here and now. I would like to keep him around because it will keep the girl in line and certain to stick close to us as well. By the same token, concern for her safety will keep him in line, even if he fully recovers. But you must understand that you are the most expendable of us all.”
Campos looked at the centaurs. “Think about this, Dillians. It would take very little to spoil those pretty looks for good. You will do nothing except what you are ordered to do. You will take no hostile action against us. You will say nothing to others except what we tell you to say or both of your tongues will be cut out. Do anything, anything that displeases me and I will blind you. You are packhorses to me, nothing more. Raise a hand or a weapon against me and you will lose both weapon and hand. Try and escape and I will kill you. If you make it, the ones who remain will suffer your punishment. The girl, for example, does not need eyes or ears or hands to do what I am interested in. She will not leave her strange paramour, and she will be kept close to me and the colonel at all times. Do we have an understanding here?”
“I believe we do, yes,” Tony said gravely. But if I could kill you, even at the cost of my own life, I think I would do it.
“Well, get the big lizard ready to move, then,” Campos instructed. “Even as he is, I want him tied down to the litter at all times, and one of you must always be watching him. With these horses and supplies, where they can go, we can go; where we cannot, I doubt if they could, either. We will track them if we can. If we lose them, we go for Verion immediately. Now, move!”
Julian had no way to mark time in Leba, but it had seemed an interminable journey, made all the more so by her inability to really talk with anybody. Sure, she did some questions and answers with Lori, who seemed to need some mental contact anyway, and some more bits-and-pieces discussions with Mavra by the stick method, but those were almost always to ask specific things or just to keep from going nuts. The Lebans remained friendly and true to their word, but they weren’t exactly conversationalists, either.
The journey had been an extremely rough one, and it wasn’t over yet. The whole place was mountainous and wet, much like the Olympic range of Washington state but without the trails. The Lebans could be counted on to recommend a route or keep them pointed in the right direction but not for much else. They were certainly friendly, though, in their own way; as they’d gone on, the Lebans would often shake fruit right off limbs when nothing obvious was available to eat.
Still, there had been no distinctive landmarks or anything to mark the progress of their journey. After a while one stream valley looked like another, and all the mountains looked pretty much alike as well. It was impossible for someone with her build and hooves to walk bipedally and not lose her balance over and over; still, she’d been walking on all fours so long by this point, she wasn’t sure she remembered how to use just two. Once she’d threatened, even prepared, to go off and live in the wild alone. How stupid that seemed now! Thus, when sunrise neared to mark the probable end of yet another day, Julian, like her companions, was just silently trudging along, coming over yet one more rise. Suddenly she saw something she hadn’t seen in so long, she’d almost forgotten what it looked like.
Sunlight. Sunlight just creeping over the landscape, a little bright on this side, much duller beyond what seemed like a vast semitransparent curtain. The border! It had to be! And if the Lebans hadn’t been playing an enormous practical joke on them, beyond lay Verion.
She shrieked with such delight that Lori stopped, and both he and Mavra looked over, concerned that Julian might be in some trouble. Julian turned to them, put out her forearm, and pointed.
She felt like rushing to it, and the hell with the daylight, but she knew that would be the worst thing to do. If there was sunlight in Verion, then perhaps there were Verionites who were not as friendly as the Lebans.
Best to remain on the same regimen, she knew, although it was hard, really hard, not to push on. That boundary didn’t just mean that they were passing into a new climate, a new land, but the final land, the destination point. And even though it would still take them a great deal of time to reach that destination, they had been safe, almost protected in a way, in Leba, with the natives watching out for them and with plenty of food and water and at least reliable help with the directions. That, out there, was more than just another unknown land and people. Somewhere beyond that final curtain was the enemy. They had no illusions about that, Mavra the least of all. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the Verion Avenue was the only practical choice they could make, and so they’d be waiting there, right near the end, waiting for them to walk into a trap. That was another reason Mavra had insisted they not go elsewhere, though. Verion was a nontech hex; nothing but muscle, water, and wind worked there, as in Erdom. That also meant no radios, no instant communications, no tracking scopes and sophisticated monitoring systems. The enemy knew where they would wind up but not when. They could pick the time and the opportunity.
A lot, then, would depend on the Verionites, whatever they were. Would they be searching for them with a reward for their capture? Would they be hostile to everybody? There was no way to know in advance.
In fact, Mavra had been almost insistent on finding out something about them. If the Verionites were nocturnals, for example, they might do better moving by day and remaining just this side of the border until they were close to the Avenue. The Lebans knew, but it was no use asking them directly. Simile wasn’t always effective in a translator conversation, particularly when one party didn’t have one.