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

Unable to get any information on anything else, let alone help, they held a conference to decide just what to do.

“You should both go home through the big gate,” Alowi told them. “It will take you home, I know, in very quick time, as they say.”

“But dear! What will you do?” Anne Marie asked, worried.

“I will do what I must. I will never return to Erdom. Never. With no husband or family, I have no wants or needs. So far I have been able to eat the grasses, leaves, berries, fruits, and such that grow in these lands. I cannot starve. My body seems most adaptable. I have become accustomed to the chill nights here to the point where the coat is now uncomfortable, so I need no clothing. I will search as I can; if I find him, that is fine, and if I do not, nothing is lost.” “But you cannot even speak to people! You have no translator!” Tony pointed out. “You do, and I do not see that it has helped you much. In truth, I do not expect to find him. I expect to wander this world, or as much of it as can be wandered through, taking little from it and seeing what is seeable. Sooner or later I will find a place for myself or I will die. Either way, it is the most I can expect.”

“But you’re talking about living like an animal! Anne Marie exclaimed. “You are better than that! Not to mention the fact that by your own admission you are defenseless against the horrid beings that are a part of this world. It is a death sentence either way.”

“I will never go back to Erdom,” she repeated, “but I will die an Erdomese. Those are facts. I choose my own course. It is more than any Erdomese woman has been able to do before.”

Anne Marie sighed. “Then we shall simply have to contact our embassy in Zone and tell them the situation and location. Then we will find some part of this land that has some decent pasture and a few trees and wait them out.” “Or wait until they throw us out,” Tony noted.

“Then we will leave, but only far enough to find some hospitality elsewhere,” Anne Marie proclaimed. “I positively refuse to abandon this poor child to the wolves!”

Tony sighed. “Don’t overdramatize, Anne Marie. There are no wolves in a place like this except perhaps the foul creatures who run the place. But we must also be practical. If we remain, we need to find some sort of work, and this is a high-tech hex surrounded by others that are not.”

“But the closest ones are water!”

“True, but what of that? If a ship cannot come in to high-tech, then there is at least some point where it must be handled by the old means. Compared to one of our men we are not very strong, but the closest of our men is probably half a world away. In these parts we are probably quite strong, and even if we cannot lift what is required, we can certainly pull great weights.”

“And Alowi?”

Tony shrugged. “She can cook. And supervise if need be. If we must remain in this godforsaken country, let’s try and make the best of it.”

This time it was Anne Marie who was doubtful. “But for how long?” Tony shrugged. “Until one or more of us goes crazy or gets fed up or something breaks. It is better than this. Who knows? The council might at least extend us some seed money. It was they, after all, who got us into this.” “Oh, Tony! You’re such a dear! You’re making me feel guilty about dragging you along on this!”

“I have never been dragged,” Tony responded. “I followed of my own free will, and I stay for the same reason. And when all hope is gone, then I will go home the same way!”

Anne Marie squeezed Tony’s hand and then kissed her. “Of course you will, dear!”

If there had been no hope, they would have headed home long before this, but the problem was, as Anne Marie put it, they had been placed on hold but no one had hung up on them. Anne Marie noted that in spite of many areas where the Well World seemed futuristic to the point of being magical, the lack of any way to fly or even send signals any great distance between the worldlets led to everything more or less moving at, at best, a nineteenth-century pace. Nobody was ever in a hurry here, it seemed, unless it was to do evil, and so long as they were no threat, even evil seemed willing to leave them alone. The council, still divided over exactly what course to take and thus taking very little, or so it seemed, asked them in fact to stay on “in the Agon region.” They advanced the Dillians some credit and even found the pair a job of sorts, although not quite what they had in mind. Hexes in the region produced a variety of products that were of great interest to Dillia, but it had never been practical to manage much trade with nations so far away without some sort of permanent trade office coordinating things locally. Dillia was half a world distant-almost five thousand kilometers away over a vast stretch of water going west from the Ocean of Shadows and across the entire Overdark. Deals could be made in Zone in the traditional way, but without somebody on site, there was no way to guarantee quality, compare prices and deals, and put everything together. Dillians had never been the sort to relish staying long periods of time in remote and alien lands, and so they’d pretty much had to accept the traditional “take it or leave it” deals from their nearer neighbors. Merely the threat of competition could only help, and here were two who wanted to remain, at least for a significant period of time.

Dillia itself was something of a hotbed of semitech innovation, conservation plans and concepts, and agricultural management, particularly forestry, and had much to trade in areas most nations largely ignored. In exchange, it needed steam vessels, particularly for internal lakes and rivers, and other heavy industrial items either impossible or impractical to make at home. Dillians also had a taste for things that could not be grown locally, including many tropical and subtropical products, coffee, tea, cocoa, and tobacco. The Dillian government was more than happy to set Tony and Anne Marie up as a trade office and see what they could do.

Neither of them was under any illusions that this was a permanent job or that the opportunity wasn’t created because, for reasons of its own, the Zone Council saw some value in keeping them in the region at that time, but as it served everyone’s purposes, there were no objections.

Alowi was not so fortunate. She was nothing to Dillia, of course, and even less to Erdom, who clearly was disinterested even in whether or not one more female came back at all. Nor did the council as a whole see any use for her. So she became basically the Dillians’ housekeeper, keeping their new home clean, cooking the meals, and doing other chores, all of which was made much easier by being in a high-tech hex where things not only worked smoothly, they seemed in some ways futuristic compared to Earth.

Because she had no translator, Alowi spent the time studying and learning Agonese, a language that sounded bizarre but that, she soon discovered, followed a pattern not too different from some Earth tongues. It was soon clear that Julian Beard was not dead inside her brain but merely dormant; it was in fact Beard’s knowledge of Japanese that gave her the clue to understanding Agonese. Not that they resembled each other in obvious ways, but the structure wasn’t all that different.

The trade mission had some initial frustration but then some startling successes. Tony was adept at business, and Anne Marie seemed able to spot a con or a sucker deal almost instantly and knew just when to give in on a negotiation. The initial commissions weren’t huge, but they no longer had to worry about going broke.

They used some of the first money to buy Alowi a translator. She made no objections this time, spending much of her time doing a great deal of studying, using the Agonese computer libraries. Their written language was actually pretty basic; for a high-tech society, it appeared that they were surprisingly illiterate and used voice and picture technology for all their information sources. Her greatest frustration lay in her inability to really use her hands; the oversized split hooves proved unable to push even a few small buttons on a console, but she managed by gripping a wooden stick and using that instead. There was an ancient language of commerce on the Well World that had evolved to cover just about every conceivable situation. It was a written language only-translators filled the gap for spoken tongues-and it had arisen from a pictorgraphic alphabet so ancient, nobody now knew its origins. It was extremely complexit had to be to cover so many tiny worldlets and so many varying races-but it was used on virtually all interspecies documents and everything from contracts to treaties. If one could learn it, there was nothing really closed to that person. To Tony, its sheer complexity made Mandarin Chinese, with its mere thirty thousand or so characters, seem like child’s play, and he barely tried before giving up. Anne Marie didn’t try at all, noting that the English had never had to learn other people’s languages and she did not intend to start. Alowi, however, managed to read many basic texts at the end of only three months.

It had been learning Agonese that had been the key. With both Agonese and Erdoma to go by, she was able to isolate and assemble key concepts from the two totally different languages and see how the trade language accommodated the concepts of both. It still wasn’t easy, but it seemed, well, obvious to her, and it had already become merely a matter of memorizing vocabulary.

Tony in particular was impressed. While still back on Earth she’d considered herself something of a linguist, which was useful for an international airline pilot. In addition to her native Portuguese and essential English for aviation, she knew Spanish, French, and German well enough to converse and read a newspaper. This, however-this was Sanskrit as written by a mad chicken that had gone amok in an ink factory.

“You can really read this?”

Alowi shrugged modestly. “Enough. What I do not know, I can usually interpolate. I think that if I were writing books or treaties, I would need several more years, and about a third that applies to specific races and hexes that I cannot imagine would require some context for me to understand, such as going there and talking with them. But yes, I can make do in it. I will never write it, though. With these hands I can stir, chop, pick up, do quite a number of things, but only those things which can be done with broad motion and much toleration for error. To make these fine marks with pen or brush, where slight deviations change whole meanings-no. Even doing block English letters is crude, much like a child just beginning to learn them.”

“Then why go through all this?”

“Because the one thing that works as well as before, perhaps better, is my brain. It is odd-I seem to be able to concentrate as I never could before, to grasp and memorize things easily that before would have been much more difficult. I have always been a good learner, but I do not know why it is suddenly much easier. What is not so easy is chemistry.”


“This body was built for sensation. It demands things, and the cravings can become overpowering at times. I have compensated with creativity and with some unconventional use of objects I have picked up in stores here, but it is not the same as the real thing, and the only place I can get what I truly need would also almost certainly give me a lobotomy. Erdomese just are not built to be loners. I know that now. I have been kidding myself all along. So I cannot go back, but if I do not go back, I will go mad.”

Tony sighed. “So what are you going to do? We’re here mainly because of you and because we hope to find out what the hell happened to the others, but time is dragging on and on. The council is only certain that nobody has yet entered the Well. There are certain places at the equatorial barrier, called Avenues, where anyone who knows how-and only two people on this world do-can get in, and those are all carefully monitored. It is almost as if one of those hex gates opened and swallowed the two of them.”

Alowi nodded. “I know. I truthfully have expected to hear the worst, but I never expected to go this long and hear nothing. That makes it all the harder.” She paused a moment. “Do you remember the clinic here that had some doctors of other races as well as Agonese? Where I got the translator?”

“Yes, it mostly serves the ships’ crews and passengers and other travelers passing through. There are stories that the doctors are here because they cannot go home, that they are wanted for some sort of criminal activities. Certainly they can’t support all this high-tech equipment off what they’re paid to fix broken legs and such every once in a while. I did not like the feel of the place when we took you there. Why?”

“The locals tell tall stories about them. About how they do terrible experiments and create horrors, but they are protected because they leave the Agonese alone. It is also said they are of use sometimes to the government and perhaps to criminal gangs. I do not like them one bit, but I have been thinking of going to them. Only faint hope that perhaps my Lori could be found has stopped me.” “Why? Are you sick?”

“As I said, I have-problems. They are the only ones with a data base on all the races, including mine, within who knows how far. Their practice here is certainly honest and above board or they would have been forced to move elsewhere. I have been thinking of going to them and asking if there was something they could do to help me control this or damp it down. When you find yourself not merely sweeping with a broom but making love to it, it is time something was done. I have no money, and they are unlikely to be cheap. I am ashamed that I must ask you if you will cover my bill if I go there.” “Well, yes, of course-if you’re sure. But I don’t like it, and I know Anne Marie won’t, either. If even part of their reputation is true, you could wind up far worse off than you started.”

“I’m aware of that, but this will not be some hapless captive coming into their clutches. You will know that I am going there, and it will be all up front. It is not likely that they could stand to create a monster in public, let alone have a distinctive patient vanish, and I will know the options and be able to choose which or whether to do anything at all.”

“Very well, then, dear, go to them. I fear as much for your mind and soul as for your body, though. I have already seen you undergo so many personality changes, I am not sure who exactly I am talking to sometimes, if you will pardon my saying so.”

Alowi smiled. “I understand. In fact, I understand a lot more about myself than I did. The truth is, I think those all were different people, or different parts of me, all mixed up inside. It has taken me a long time, and many shocks, to put any of it together. Julian Beard is essentially dead. I have all of his knowledge, but I have no direct memories or feelings of being him. It is more like-well, viewing a very long motion picture of somebody’s life. It is very odd. I know every detail, but not as if I had actually done it. Rather, it is as if I had been standing there, ghostly, watching it all being done. I can think about how to do things with soft, five-fingered hands, but I cannot really imagine having such a hand. When I look in a mirror, what is reflected there is me. And the odd thing is, I like what I see. Nothing else-computes, you might say. I hate the Erdomese government, church, and system, and I cannot say that I wish I had been born with the freedom a man has there, but I am who and what I am, and I am comfortable with that. I just wish they would be. So, for better or worse, I am Alowi and I am too damned smart to go home.”

“I-I suppose I understand. At least as much as I could without being you. Certainly I have undergone something much milder myself. I know how to fly a 747, but the knowledge seems academic now, not personal, even though it was what I loved more than anything else. Somewhere, near the end of that last long voyage that left us here, I just suddenly woke up one day and felt absolutely comfortable and normal, not just as a Dillian but as a woman and a woman with a twin sister. And it did not even disturb me-I didn’t fight it at all. When I finally admitted this to Anne Marie back in Liliblod, I found that she felt the same. Since then I haven’t even dreamed of the past, although I have had a few nightmares involving being on a ship at night. Yes, perhaps I can understand, to a degree at least.”

You have changed more dramatically than that, starting from when we set out, but it has become a real change since we have been here.”

“Huh? In what ways?”

“No matter how identical you looked, it was always easy to tell you apart. Anne Marie was more of a motherly type, and she had many affectations that came out in how she spoke and even moved. You moved very differently, with a bolder, prouder manner, a tough, more masculine way of speaking, that sort of thing. If you bumped yourself, you would curse; Anne Marie would say, ‘Oh dear!’ or something equally quaint. As we went along, I began to notice that the two of you were growing more and more alike. You lost a degree of that masculinity, began to move in more feminine ways, while Anne Marie seemed to pick up that part you lost, becoming tougher and more confident. You have added more feminine words, and she has dropped some of her more obvious old-fashioned quaintness. You now pay attention to jewelry, cosmetics, hair, that sort of thing, even though you are hardly doing it for her or for some man. You are doing it for yourself, and it is exactly why she does it. And then there are the half conversations.”

Tony was fascinated by this. “The what?”

“I am sure that neither of you is aware of it, but when you talk to each other, what must seem like whole complicated dialogues are really often sets of unconnected half sentences, words, and such, and often you will finish one another’s sentences.”

“I-I never realized-”

“I did not think you did. Physically you are absolutely identical, I think more so than any natural identical twins could be. Together, over time, while I have sorted myself out, you two have been doing the same, only less dramatically, more slowly and subtly. You are not really Tony anymore, nor is she Anne Marie. You are someone different, an average of the two. Only the difference in your knowledge bases keeps you from being almost one individual in two bodies. That alone will keep you slightly different, which is, I suspect, all to the good. Everyone should have a little something to make them different. But that is the extent of it.”

Tony thought about it, not sure if she was pleased with the idea but seeing the ultimate point, which was the same one Alowi had made about herself: they were who and what they were. One either accepted that and learned to live with it or one killed oneself. Period.

The Well World worked some of the magic; the rest had to be supplied from inside, from the mind and soul.

“Make your appointment,” Tony told the Erdomese. “But make no rash or irreversible decisions.”

Doctor Drinh was an Agonese, and after all this time in the province, learning the language and the culture, Alowi still couldn’t tell one from another without a uniform or badge of rank. He specialized in treating aliens but was a diagnostician and planner. Others, some so alien that they made Erdomese and Agonese look like relatives, did the actual work.

Drinh put the Erdomese profile on the computer, then took samples of blood from Alowi for comparison, then ran them through a myriad of automated tests and looked over the results.

“Well, I can say that your feelings will not get much worse than they are, but they won’t get any better, either. It must make for early marriages and active honeymoons, at least.” He paused. “Sorry if the attempt at humor was offensive.” “No, no,” she assured him. “It is absolutely correct. Child marriage is the norm in Erdom.”

“Yes, but you see, in this sort of thing the tension builds up, releasing an overdose of all sorts of brain chemicals, and it stays pretty well ‘on,’ as it were. You seem extremely intelligent and self-controlled, but I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that if a male of your race, any male, came within your eyesight, you would become, pardon, a whimpering, begging fool. It is inevitable with these sorts of readings.”

“I know that. It is why I am here. The odds of me meeting a man of my race while I am over here are pretty slim, but as you say, I am smart enough to know that I cannot go home and remain so.”

“Just so, just so,” Drinh muttered. “We don’t have much on culture here except those sort of taboo listings so that we don’t do anything to someone that would cause social or mental damage or the like, but I did note that the society is labeled ‘patriarchal.’ So what would you like me to do, assuming it is doable?” Alowi sighed. “I-I need it to be damped down. Some way to put it under control so I can live with it.”

“Well, the most obvious way if you never intend to have children or have any sexual relations with another of your kind would be to remove the sexual organs. It is a radical and permanent solution, but it would cause the hormones and psychochemicals to shut off eventually, and with it all sexual desire.” It was a more radical solution than she wanted, but she couldn’t quite dismiss it out of hand. “It is something to think about if all else fails, but I would rather not. It would change me in other ways, too, would it not?” “Well, I couldn’t know, although I can put in for research notes via Zone and find out. Logic and experience with other races suggest that there would be complications, yes. With someone of your type, basically mammalian, the breasts would sag and be encumbrances, you’d probably get extremely fat, there might be some long-term problems with bone integrity and the like, and your energy levels would tend to be down, at the very least.”

“I like myself as I am. I think I would rather try going for the one problem rather than something that radical.”

He shrugged. “Well, there are drugs that might work, but they would have to be specially formulated for your species-we wouldn’t exactly be expected to stock Erdomese materials-or brought from Erdom via Zone, and either would be expensive and require that they be taken regularly over decades, judging from your apparent physical age. If you are wealthy, well connected, and will be in one spot, like this city, it would work. Otherwise…. And if you came off them, particularly suddenly and dramatically, your system might go wild. There would be a danger of losing all control, of becoming little more than an animal in heat, and how long this would go on until you came back to present levels is impossible to say.”

Alowi was feeling less and less like she had any way out.

“There is a third way,” the doctor went on, thinking. “Radical and somewhat costly up front, although possibly not, depending on how much work is actually involved.”


“Before going further, I must tell you that it is not approved medicine. Strictly experimental, although we have had tremendous successes with it and few failures. I am quite certain that it would work in your case. It has come out of our own research work here.”

“Go on.”

“The process is complex, but basically it is rewriting your genetic code, rather rapidly. Do you understand what that means?”

She was shocked at the idea that they had such abilities, but she nodded. “Yes, I do, at least in its implications. Can you really do it?”

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L