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

It hardly mattered to him anymore if they even got there. Seeing Julian and being so dependent on her all this time could only remind him of what he had lost. Considering how she’d handled herself so far, she needed him or anything he might do other than carry Mavra about as much as he needed a sewing kit. He didn’t even have desire, only a sense of guilt and loss.

For Julian, although taking it one day at a time, there was a sense of the endgame in this. She hadn’t the slightest idea if they could get Mavra into this Well place or not or what would really happen if they could, but either they would or they would not. If they did, then at least victory would be denied the evil people both from Earth and from this world. If they couldn’t, she was pretty sure they’d not be given a second chance at it.

Anything you desire. That had been Mavra’s promise to them. Anything you desire. A nice phrase, that, but what did it mean? Was it like the ancient genie, granting wishes? That was always an easy one in fairy stories. They wished for wealth and romance and happily-ever-after endings. It wasn’t that simple in real life. It particularly wasn’t simple for her. She’d had a series of shocks and psychological changes that almost outdid her physical ones, and they’d even messed with her mind with her own consent.

What did Julian now, today, really desire? Not to go back, to become Julian Beard again. For all his glamour, she hated his stinking guts. Still, why had that earliest incarnation wanted to become an astronaut? Because of a need of adventure, of challenge, the excitement of the new frontier. That much remained of him, she thought. She didn’t want a happily-ever-after ending; she wanted new challenges, new chances to do something different, worthwhile. Erdom was hardly the place for that, permanently and happily stuck as it was in a kind of bizarre variation of the permanent twelfth-century Earth. And yet she’d come to like who she was and what she was and dreamed of the desert lands that she’d hated when she’d been there.

It seemed as if there had always been something tearing at her since she’d been here. Male, female, master, slave, rebel, wife, loner, lover of the herd. The way they’d rearranged her head, she could never go back; the society would burn her at the stake as a witch. But if it could somehow be countered or removed, she’d become that servile little wimp again, and that she didn’t want, either. What if she could go back as an Erdomese man? It solved most of the conundrums, but the trouble was that she didn’t want to be a man, not anymore. She’d been one once, and while he’d loved it fine, she didn’t think very much of him now, and that was just what she would become. Look at what it had done to Lori, whose own contrasting Earth background was the opposite of hers. She didn’t exactly want that guy back, either, let alone want to become another one. There was a real catch in that three-wishes business that the fairy-tale writers hadn’t ever faced. In order to make decent use of them, one first had to know what to wish for.

On the third day they passed near another small town and then another. The roads, which they stayed off but which they watched carefully, seemed to grow more frequent, wider, and better maintained, not to mention more crowded. And on the third day they also saw that pigs could fly.

The last thing anybody would have expected to come across in even the most sophisticated high-tech hex was an airport, but that was exactly what it was. There was even an unmistakable wind sock on a large reflective pole. Making camp in some trees not far from it because the timing was right more than because they wanted to be this close in, they actually could watch it in operation. There were two types of fliers: the aircraft and the kites.

Watching a kiter take off was something of an amazing sight. Strapped underneath a massive width of a canvaslike material, the hoglike Verionite was then placed on a wheeled dolly. Then a team of the big, lumbering creatures that Julian had dubbed bigfoots were brought out, hitched as if they were pulling a cart. When the omnipresent wind was right, someone gave a signal, and the four-bigfoot team would start lumbering down a cleared path, gaining speed until they were running flat out. This plus the wind would catch the leading edge of the kite, and it would rise into the air, the dolly dropping away, and up it would go, breaking free of the ropes or whatever they were that the bigfoots used to pull. In fact, once aloft, the kite fliers seemed to have some sort of rudder control and perhaps ways of seeing the wind currents aloft, which must have been pretty tricky from what Julian could see. She had been a pilot once, too, and had done some hang gliding off Maui, so she knew that this would have been nearly impossible, no matter what the design of the kite, under Earth-type conditions. But this wasn’t Earth, nor was it supposed to simulate the Earth. It was simulating some other world somewhere else.

At any rate, once aloft, the pilot had lift, could get up farther, and could clearly steer. The amazing thing was how the device kept climbing until he was just a speck in the distant sky. Watching the aerodynamics of the thing, though, Julian had to wonder if under these conditions a skilled and highly trained pilot might not be able to stay up there for hours and possibly cover a fair distance.

Even Mavra, who piloted spaceships and other craft far more sophisticated than anything Julian had ever more than dreamed of, was impressed. Even with the level of automation in her day, there were minimal atmospheric flying skills that had to be learned before one was allowed to pilot a massive spacecraft. There was another kind of flier as well. This was an oblong gondola supported by a matching hot air balloon suspended over the top of it. One Verionite was in the gondola, controlling the flame, although it was unclear just what the source of that heat might be or how they managed to get a sufficient amount of it in a controllable and obviously compressed form to allow for the level of controlled blasts he could give it.

And then there was the bigfoot pedaling the bicycle. It was an absurd sight, but its logic was pretty clear. Once the gondola lifted off-with the bigfoot, obviously trained to do this without panicking, sitting strapped in the seat at the front-the man at the flame gave a command and the creature began pedaling. This in turn started a large propeller at the rear, sheltered in a frame with a vertical rudder that the man at the flames appeared to be able to control using a long pole.

Once aloft, with these winds, the balloon would have been at the mercy of the currents and would have picked up speed; the bigfoot, however, was able to overcome this, and its energy and the prop in the back provided a forward momentum that looked as if it might reach, oh, three or four kilometers per hour in the face of the wind. Altitude was controlled by the fire and the master gave the craft direction by manipulating the rudder poles. The thing could actually travel. Julian suspected that the winds blew at different speeds and levels at low altitudes and that, again, an expert pilot could find the right one for wherever he wanted to go, attaining maximum speed. At that rate, he could make the equator in just a couple of long days or almost anywhere in this land in four. Not fast, no, but that thing could carry a limited cargo, such as mail, packages, and news, at a speed that a nontech civilization could hardly match on the ground. Such a system would be vital for emergencies and would make communication practical. It bound the hex together, she guessed. It also meant that if there was a wanted poster out on them, as there almost certainly was on Lori and Mavra, the odds were that there weren’t many in Verion who didn’t know about them.

It also made travel by night a good decision, virtually essential, as they were clearly moving toward a denser population center.

On day five they were on the outskirts of a major city, where the skies were filled with flying pigs in variations of the two devices they’d seen at the airport but with such a variety of color and design that it was clear that the Verionites had a far different aesthetic sense than Julian.

More dramatic, off well beyond the city on the farthest horizon, was a solid dark line, easily seen through the more prairielike and less obstructed land that the hex was becoming. It wasn’t much, but it was too regular and too consistent to be either natural or an optical illusion. Still forty or fifty miles from them, it was nonetheless visible. The equator!

The position of the sun told them that they had been heading more or less true northwest, which meant that as of now, they were less than a week away from the Avenue. Mavra had given up trying to explain or describe the Avenue to Julian in scratch writing. Apparently she would just have to go there and see it for herself. The only thing Julian got was that it was sunken, like a very broad culvert, flat on the bottom, smooth on all sides, and that it led to one of the doors into the Well.

That meant no cover and low ground at a point when forces could be all along both sides shooting down at them. All kinds of technology would work there, but it wouldn’t matter. When they were exposed on the floor of the thing, Julian knew that rocks could get them, never mind bullets. Nor, Mavra informed her, could one just enter the Well even if one made it to the doorway. “Automated. Opens only at old shift change,” she told Julian. “Midnight.” “Can anybody enter it at midnight?”

“No. Only authorized. You come in with me. I am authorized.”

“How long does the door stay open?”

“About fifteen minutes unless I close it first.”

Julian sighed. “So we have fifteen minutes to get down there, run a gauntlet, and somehow get inside without them killing or capturing us. It’s impossible!” “See layout, defenders first. Then we’ll see. I think I may have a way.” “You want to give me an idea of how you’re going to do it?”

“Wait. When I know it is possible, then I tell you.”

Julian shook her head, wondering if any of this was worth what she’d gone through the past couple of weeks. If it was anything like it was described, it was absolutely insane to even attempt to enter. Even if Mavra Chang were who and what she claimed, it made no difference. Until she was inside, she was just a big, heavy helpless bird who couldn’t outrun a child. This whole business had to have driven her insane; that was the only explanation for why she even could think that she might get in there.

Mavra understood Julian’s attitude, but she could feel the Well, feel the contact with its power and even some of its knowledge at this point. The Well knew where she was, knew that she was close.

And the Well had gone to a great deal of trouble to get her here. With Nathan out of it in some southern hospital and Mavra this close, it wasn’t going to let her get away now, of that she was certain.

The Avenue

CAMPOS AND THE COLONEL HAD TRIED EVERY MEANS THAT they could think of to find some sign of the missing trio in Leba, even bringing in expert trackers from other hexes that the colonel knew about, but to no avail.

The Lebans themselves had seemed singularly unimpressed by their problem and had declared themselves neutral and uninterested in the affairs of other creatures. Not even Campos or the colonel could think of anything to offer them that might tempt them into cooperation.

There were times when some of the animals brought in seemed to pick up a scent, but it always led to a dead end, with the creatures going around in confused circles. At one point the colonel swore that if he didn’t know better, he’d swear that someone was pulling a drag over the “foxes’ ” trail, confusing the scent and leading them away, but he couldn’t imagine why anyone would do that or how he could without betraying himself. He finally decided that the land was just not conducive to finding the fugitives’ trail.

Score one for the prey, they both were forced to admit. On the other hand, the endgame was what counted.

The colonel had hoped, though, to avoid the endgame simply because he was none too secure about showing up in his old role. Kurdon had certainly put out the word on his betrayal at the complex; it was unlikely that he’d have real authority even if his friends in Zone were able to keep the law off him with some cover story.

More than that, they would have to deal with armed soldiers whose loyalty was to their own hex and then to the Zone Council and not to any third parties. And there was always the chance that in spite of threats with real teeth in them, their captives might be able to betray their real status as prisoners to the army personnel at the Avenue.

Campos, too, wasn’t pleased with that prospect. “I think perhaps we should get rid of them now, before they can cause trouble later,” she suggested. “All except the girl, of course. If we cannot control the likes of her, no matter what her wishes, we do not deserve to be in this game in any case.” The colonel, however, didn’t like the idea of finishing them off. “We can’t do it here,” he explained. “The executions would be witnessed by Lebans no matter where we did it, and the Mixtim are under their protection as well. I don’t know what all those tentacles could do, but I do know that if we got out alive at all, a message would somehow be sent to Zone, and we would be as wanted as the ones we chase. This isn’t Clopta, after all. There are times when diplomacy and a light touch might yield better results than the heavy boot. Bring them along. If they cause trouble, we can dispose of them when we get to Verion. But consider this: The Dillians and the Dahir still have the official weight of the Zone Council on their side. They can legitimize us with the army. So long as one or more of their companions are within easy range of either of us, I think they will go along.”

Campos frowned. “You are not playing both sides again, are you, Colonel?” she asked suspiciously.

“I took an oath and I meant it! This is not some sordid drug business here; it is for the highest of stakes! This will be very, very tricky no matter what we do!”

Campos thought it over. “All right, Colonel, I will play it your way for now. Please just make certain that I do not see you changing sides once again.” “I swear to you … !”

“Never mind. We have wasted far too much time here. Let us get the party together and head out for this Avenue, whatever it is. But remember, Colonel, if they betray us at the last moment, they have nothing on me at all of a criminal nature. What have we done? Fled a drug baron and defended ourselves against a monster and the baron and his henchmen? Gone where I have a right to go? Taken these people where they wished to go, anyway? You see?”

“You are forgetting that the condition those two are in was your doing,” the colonel pointed out. He did not point out that the only witness to his treason was Gus, who could hardly afford public charges and testimony in Zone because it would mean leaving Zone and exiting in Dahir, a place that very much wanted him back to ensure that he would not leave again.

“So? Even if they can prove that, which is not a certain thing, how could the poor mistress of a gangster have such authority in the gang in so short a time here on this world? It is hardly an international crime like the running of drugs. Even kidnapping is a local crime here, did you know that? Had I kidnapped or held prisoner a fellow Cloptan, that would be a different story, but these? No, I think not. And as I am certain that you. as usual, always have a way out of a tight situation, the fact is, the way this world is set up, neither of us has committed crimes for which anyone is looking for us other than those we directly committed crimes against.” She considered that and found it highly amusing.

“Come, come! My friend and son of my patron!” the colonel said. “What are we doing, passing blame back and forth to one another? I believe there were 160-odd nations back on the Earth we left, perhaps a few more. There are 780 sovereign and independent nations here, each with its own unique race and needs. Consider how little could get done back on Earth and you have only a shadow of how littLe can truly get done of an international nature here. Without this unpleasantness with Brazil and Chang, they could not have even touched the cartel! What have such as we to fear from such as them?”

“Yes, you are right,” Campos said after a moment. “Well, we will let them live, at least for now. As you say, what can they do?” She paused a moment. “Of course, if those army people get our birdie, then we might just have to commit one of those crimes, you know.”

‘True,” the colonel agreed, “but if that happens, we’ll have Mavra Chang, so what difference does it make? If the king-or queen-is the state, can that person commit a crime against themselves?”

It was a most amusing idea, and both of them laughed.

For the first time on the journey Terry felt really frightened. The images in that Juana’s mind about her were bizarre and nightmarish. She couldn’t imagine what she might have done to deserve such complete and utter hatred, but Juana Campos was scarier than anything she could imagine, even in her surface thoughts. They were also so inconsistent as to be totally crazy. How could Campos on the one hand imagine blinding and maiming Terry and treating her like an animal and at the same time look upon her with genuine concern? It took a couple of days before she realized that Campos’s gentler nature, what there was of it, was directed not at her but at her coming baby. Gus was improving but still in no condition to do very much, and the travel didn’t help his healing at all. There were times when the pain was such that he was very much afraid that he was going to die and other times when it was even worse and he was afraid he wouldn’t die. Still, Terry’s presence kept him from giving up and provided the determination to heal no matter what. He had never expected to still be here this close to the birth and headed away from the kind of medical help that she might well need. He knew of women who still died in childbirth, particularly in Third World countries, and he’d seen too much infant mortality for one lifetime already. He cursed himself for ever agreeing to leave Agon with her as well as for being stupid enough to get shot. Now it was clear that Kurdon had wanted her handy as bait in case Campos had to be lured out of some underground hiding place in Clopta. Well, Kurdon joined a lengthening list of people, including Gen Taluud and himself, who had underestimated Campos. Trouble was, it was no skin off Kurdon’s ass what happened; Gus had paid with a painful, debilitating wound and capture, and Taluud had paid with his life. But it was Terry who might well pay the biggest price unless somehow he could get well enough to save her.

The Dillians, too, felt less than noble about the help they’d been in all this and were pretty well defeated and resigned. A few times one or possibly both might have escaped, but they could hardly have taken Gus and Terry with them, and they had no doubt that either Campos or the colonel would make them pay for any transgression by Tony or Anne Marie.

In point of fact, Tony for one was surprised to be alive at all. It didn’t make a lot of sense not to have killed them, but since they hadn’t, there was at least the possibility of getting out of this with a whole skin. Whether the same could be said for Terry, Mavra, or Lori remained to be seen, but as Anne Marie had commented, “We started this as grown-ups. It would be maddening not to be there at the finish.”

On Taluud’s sturdy horses and with well-provisioned pack mules, they made the Verion border in just three days.

“It would be tempting to run our trackers all the way down this border and see if there is a scent now,” Campos commented, “but whether or not they have gotten here yet is something we cannot say. We wasted so much time back there trying to find them that it is not worth it at this point. Let us push on to this Avenue; I want to see what the devil this setup is.”

“Shall we cross over to Ellerbanta? They are high-tech over there, you know. It would be much easier to travel. We might well be able to ride up on something that has real power and eat decent food again.”

“It is tempting,” the colonel agreed, “particularly considering what these Verion hogs think of as high cuisine, but I think not. Our odds of making headway with any guards are far better on this nontech side than on the other, and they will have to come this way.”

In another three days they reached the point where the Avenue intersected the equator. None of them had ever actually seen a Well World wall before; its scope and sheer sense of permanence awed them all. It rose from the ground as if placed there by the hand of some enormous giant, rising up, up, as far as the eye could see. There was a top limit, of course, but it was impossibly high up, and beyond that there rose an energy barrier that still stopped any sort of passage across it.

The southern hemisphere of the Well World was dedicated almost entirely to carbon-based life; the few exceptions were primarily silicon variants that still required much of the same ranges of environment for life and sustenance. The northern hemisphere, on the other hand, was entirely non-carbon-based and in fact had so many varieties that they had their own separate lexicon up there. Most of the northern races, it was said, were so alien that they made little sense to those in the south. Ammonia breathers gazed out on methane oceans, and sulfur oxide breathers found it chilly at a mere ninety degrees Celsius. There were whole regions up there where even crossing from one hex to the next would be lethal to the native of the first, and not a single condition there would support any of the life in the south without an artificial environment. The only way back or forth was by a special gate in the two Zones, north and south. The equatorial barrier kept everybody else, and everything inside the hemispheres, from mixing.

If it wasn’t for the Avenue, there would be no way to tell that this was any sort of unusual place along the otherwise totally smooth, impenetrable wall. The Avenue simply went up to it and essentially merged with it, with no apparent sign of a seam. It was almost as if it continued on through, although there was nothing to show that it did or didn’t.

When they reached it, it was certainly impressive. The border ran right to the edge of the Avenue entrance, and there were cuts every few kilometers where sloping ramps switchbacked down. Campos went a little down one ramp, through the border, and found that the other border, for Ellerbanta, was along the opposite side. The Avenue was a place all its own, broad, smooth, and finely machined, which showed the otherwise invisible artificial nature of this world. Campos took out one of the energy pistols she had, which hadn’t been anything more than a weight since leaving Clopta, and fired it at an angle to the opposite wall, which was impressively far away. The shot hit and seemed to be absorbed by the material. There was no ricochet, not even of the light from the energy beam.

Impressed, Campos tried it on a section of wall right next to the ramp. The same thing occurred, and she then gingerly touched the spot, which showed not even a scorch mark at a beam level that would have atomized the horse. It wasn’t even warm to the touch.

There was no question that even by the standards of the Well World, the Avenue was beyond any of the technologies here and stood like an artifact, perfectly preserved, running straight as an arrow due north as far as the eye could see. Campos had had the same sort of feeling when seeing the great Incan cities and those of the Aztecs and Mayas as well, somehow out of place in their junglelike settings, suggesting another world, another time, and a civilization that could barely be imagined.

At night the Avenue glowed with an eerie light, this one a golden yellow, revealing a pattern in the Avenue floor and walls not so obvious in daylight. By night, by this internal glow, the “street” level seemed to be made up of hexagonal blocks of absolutely uniform size.

“Gives you the creeps, does it not?” Campos said to the colonel, looking down in the darkness.

“I find it astonishing. What incredible creatures they must have been! So far beyond us that we could probably not even imagine their civilization and way of life. This whole world nothing but a laboratory for them. It must have been like Mount Olympus or the angels around the throne of heaven.”

“But still they died out, just as the Incas, but not by conquest,” Campos noted. “Maybe things were not so heavenly, after all, I think. They are dead. Gone. All we are doing is looking at their toys.”

The colonel wasn’t so sure. “Perhaps. But if they left at least one gatekeeper, as I believe they did, then they didn’t think they were going to die out, and they certainly didn’t die out due to external or accidental forces. To reach that height, they had to have destroyed themselves somehow. What was it that they did, I wonder, and why? They certainly didn’t think of it as an end, else why leave a gatekeeper? I wonder if we can even conceive of what they did. I doubt if we could understand it even if one of them explained it to us. Why build a laboratory, set it up this way, and then leave? And where did they go? And why?”

“Such power they had,” Campos breathed. “They would never have given it up willingly. Still, we will never know, eh? Not unless your Captain Brazil wakes up and decides to talk about it.”

“Oh, he has. Gus told me all about it. He claims he’s nothing more than a man who accepted a bargain with the previous keeper, who was so sick of immortality that he simply wanted to die. And that our captain finally had reached that same point himself and had chosen Mavra Chang as a candidate replacement. Apparently she flunked the initiation.”

Campos thought about it. “You know, if that is true, I almost wonder if we could still make some sort of deal with her. What does she owe him or the builders? Think of getting inside, in the control room of this whole thing. It must be like nothing we can imagine, yes?”

“Indeed. But I hardly think she’d be in any sort of mood to keep a deal struck with you, not after what you did to her,” the colonel pointed out. “Even if she kept her word, it would be, I think, like making a deal with the devil. She might make you a queen, all right, but a queen who looked like she does now and with the same limitations. No, I don’t think I’d like to trust her on that. Our original plan is far more practical. In that case, we know the sort of minds we are dealing with and the limits on their power and authority.” “I think you are right,” Campos agreed. “Still, I have to admit that if your captain is telling the truth, then perhaps he did not pick so badly, after all. Consider how far she has come and under what circumstances she has managed to do it. I keep wondering if, considering all that, she will not somehow manage to slip inside.”

“Not if we get there first,” the colonel responded firmly. The soldiers stationed here were Verionites; there had been a larger and more mixed force earlier, but it had been discontinued because of its expense, because of the complaints from other races about the tedium and lack of amenities to no apparent purpose, and because the Verionite government wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of any foreign troops on its soil for any length of time. They were almost laughable, these troops, except that they had a certain imposing look about them up close. Those pig snouts and big, ugly hog faces and tiny, nasty-looking eyes were atop large mouths from which lower canines often protruded, giving them a very fierce look indeed. Their arms were thick, powerful, and muscular, and their hands had very long fingers that ended in sharp black nails.

They were, Juana Campos decided, really wean-looking. They wore metal helmets that came to points and uniforms of a filigreed wool-like material that included crimson jackets, gold buttons, and black trousers with gold stripes. There were perhaps fifty of them at any given time, under a single officer and two NCOs, and they were rotated frequently.

And they considered their orders to be a very big joke. “We’re to stop anybody from going in there” Major Hjazz, the current officer in charge, told the newcomers. “As if they could!”

“There is nothing really there at the end of the Avenue, then?” the colonel asked him.

The major chuckled. “Well, yes. Every night at midnight you’ll see it. It’ll click on, a kind of glow-the usual hexagon, you know. But you can go up to it, bang on it, butt your head against it, anything you want at all. It won’t make a damn bit of difference. It’s still just wall.”

“Indeed. But tell me, when this light is on-can you see anything? Anything inside?”

“You can see for yourself any midnight. There’s tourists come up to see it all the time, both from our own people and from Ellerbanta. Most of the nonlocal races, they come in on tours through Ellerbanta, though, where they got that stuff that makes you soft and lazy. When it’s turned on, you can sort of see something in there, but you can never really make out what it is. They been tryin’ since a lot longer than I been alive, I tell you! Hey, it’s just a light on one of them timers like they use in Ellerbanta. It turns on, stays on maybe fifteen minutes, it turns off again. No big deal. Most folks don’t come back. It’s not much of a show.”

“Well, with your permission, we’ll camp near here for a little while. We were supposed to meet some others here, and it is pretty clear they haven’t shown up yet. They were coming in via your country and on foot, so it might well be a few days, even a week or so, until they get here. It’s vital that we speak to them, so would we be in the way if we stayed around a bit?”

“Naw. Feel free. It’s the off season, anyway. Still, if your friends are recognizable, I could see if they’ve been spotted anywhere along the way and how far they might be from here.”

Hardly, I think, the colonel said to himself, but aloud he said, “‘Indeed? Any runners or riders you might send might not cross their path, and we don’t know their route in any event. We might ask if things drag on, but it’s not necessary at the moment.”

“Oh, we wouldn’t send runners or riders,” the major replied. “We send and receive mail every day by air.”

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L