And thus it was that the party learned of the aerial accomplishments of the Verionites.
It was the source of endless fascination to the party to watch them take off and fly like that, and the bored soldiers were more than overjoyed to show off, explain things, and particularly emphasize the problems and dangers of doing it so near the barrier and the border, where wind and such could cause serious problems or even disasters. “We’ve scraped up more than one from the bottom of the Avenue,” one private told them. “Messy.”
“I’d think you’d just sail right over to Ellerbanta,” Tony commented. “Oh, sure, that’s what you try to do, but it’s not that easy ‘cause you don’t have a lot of height from this point. That area right in there between the borders ain’t all that wide when you’re flying, it’s true, but it’s dead air. You start to sink like a stone, and you don’t have much tolerance between those walls for landing. You hit one, or the barrier, and it’s all over.” Tony and Anne Marie had been given a good deal of freedom, and they made some use of it. Even Campos seemed to have tired of them as prisoners; she and the colonel more than once tried to talk them, rather nicely and almost as equals, into simply heading over to Ellerbanta. taking a train to the capital, and using the Zone Gate there to go home. There was nothing more here they could do and very little that they could do to Campos or the colonel, in spite of all. “And Terry and Gus?” Anne Marie asked them. “Gus knows that as soon as he’s recovered enough, he’s out of here,” Campos told her. “As for Terry, she remains here with me. We are old acquaintances, she and I, and I feel sorry for her.” “She of all people should be sent home now!” Tony argued. “She’s going to have that baby any day now!”
“She is a strong, healthy girl. She will do all right,” Campos told them both. “Back home in Peru I have been at many home births. It is the way of my people in the backcountry. More than once I assisted doctors of Shining Path with such things. What few things are needed I have had brought here thanks to the ingenuity of our host countrymen.”
“Well, I’m not about to leave until she’s through it!” Anne Marie told her adamantly. Campos shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Terry had ridden with them and watched all this in growing confusion and uncertainty. At least Gus seemed better, although still in great pain, and it almost seemed as if the two centaurs were completely out of danger. She knew she was still in danger, but she could do little about it. Running away wouldn’t do anything but maybe make them hurt Gus. Besides, she couldn’t run or even ride right, not anymore. She had trouble sleeping; every time she changed position, it woke her up. She couldn’t walk far or easily; it was more like a waddle, and it was very tiring with this big, hard, increasingly heavy lump in her belly. Her nipples hurt, her breasts seemed swollen, and she had to pee every ten minutes. It didn’t take anybody smart to see that she wasn’t going anywhere.
She, too, was getting pains and the weirdest feelings down there, where they said the baby would come out. She couldn’t imagine a baby coming out of that little place, but if they said it did, then maybe somehow it did. After a day or two the pains got worse and more frequent, and those strange feelings got even stronger. It was a kind of pain like no other she could remember, and she got very worried about it. Anne Marie tried to reassure her, telling her that it was all normal and that all women who had babies went through this. But Anne Marie had never had a baby. She’d been too sick. Even she couldn’t know how awful an experience this was turning into and how it seemed to keep dragging on and on.
Early one morning, when she was walking from the pit toilet back to the tent for the umpteenth time, she felt something different, and all of a sudden all sorts of smelly, gushy, yucky watery stuff was flowing out and down her legs. She knew that she hadn’t peed again and that it hadn’t come out of there, and it confused and frightened her enough that she went to Gus, who was just lying there as usual, and pointed.
Gus hadn’t much experience in this himself, but he knew something had happened, and he called for Anne Marie and Tony.
“Why, I believe her water’s broken!” Anne Marie said happily. She turned and looked straight into the concerned Terry’s eyes. “That means the baby will come very soon now. Not much longer. Hold on. girl! Hold on!”
That was going to be really hard, because the pains were coming back now full force, a lot stronger and a lot more often.
“Shouldn’t she be lyin’ down?” a concerned Gus asked Anne Marie. “If she wants to,” the centauress replied. “Otherwise, let her stand or sit or whatever. In one sense she’s better off than in some hospitals where those stupid male doctors don’t let women stand up or sit and treat this like it’s some kind of illness. It’s not an illness, it’s the miracle of birth, quite natural, and about as amazing as anything that has happened to us.” Over the next few hours the pains got even worse, and they just kept coming and coming. She was getting to the point where she no longer cared about anything, not even the baby. She just wanted it over with.
“Get Campos in here,” Anne Marie instructed.
Tony looked at her oddly. “Campos?”
“He claimed he could deliver a baby and had before. I haven’t. You certainly haven’t. And I don’t want that nasty colonel within a mile of this.” “But-the way Campos thinks of her! She could kill the child!”
“She won’t. I’ve talked to her. She thinks the child is hers. Don’t argue! Get him! Now!”
It was the most miserable, painful time of Terry’s brief memory, worse than anything, worse than dying. The pain, the exhaustion, the people yelling at her-she began to hate them all. And it went on. and on, and on … “Push! Now push!” someone was telling her, and she felt as if she didn’t have enough energy to do anything else at all, but she pushed .. .
And then the girl who never said a word, never uttered much in the way of sounds at all, screamed. Screamed with a length and depth that were almost unbelievable and sent panicky nearby Verionite soldiers running for their weapons. It felt as if she had passed a stone the size of a watermelon, but now, suddenly, it was over. Somewhere off in the distance she heard the incongruous sound of a baby crying, but then she simply passed out.
“Santa Maria! It’s a boy! A big one, too!” Campos shouted with unrestrained glee. She carefully clipped the umbilical cord with a small clamp she’d gotten from the Verionites, then washed off and wrapped the baby, a rough and tumble type who clearly didn’t want to be out in this weird, cold new environment at all. Anne Marie took care of the placenta and otherwise cleaned up the mess. “Poor dear! She’s passed out, totally exhausted.”
“Shouldn’t wonder,” Campos commented. “Twelve hours. All But here is the result, and not a blond hair or blue eye to be seen. These are Latin features on the child! You see? No Mister Gus with his lily-white north in him! She laughed. “Even here, in this place and in this muddled mess, a new Campos is born!” “Well, don’t kill him by taking him all over and showing him off!” Anne Marie scolded. “Give him to me. He should be here when she comes to, and she will have to nurse him, considering the conditions here. You can go brag all you want. I’ll take care of things at this end.”
Actually it was Tony, who had remained nearby through it all, who had the worst reaction. She wasn’t at all sure now that she wanted to have children, not one bit.
Gus was not one to be put off by the fact that it wasn’t his child. In fact, it had never once occurred to him that it might be. He’d almost injured himself all over again when he’d heard that scream, but when he heard the baby’s cry, he’d sat back down again.
He wasn’t at all sure if it was or wasn’t Campos’s kid, either, but he was glad that Campos thought so. It would keep Terry safe for quite a while longer. The fact that mother and baby were doing fine was enough for him.
It took another three days for Mavra, Lori, and Julian to reach the camp at the end of the Avenue, but they’d managed an epic cross-country trek without, they felt, once being detected, and that was something of a victory in and of itself. By that time Julian had a very good idea of what Mavra had in mind, and she wasn’t at all sure that it was any crazier than simply rushing the place. In the wee hours of the morning Julian crept in and examined the soldiers’ little airport. It was dead quiet, the bigfoots asleep out in the field and everything quite still. There wasn’t even a guard on the place, because what purpose would that serve here?
There were several of the kites in a storage shed, and all of them looked like they’d seen a lot of work. Still, they looked about as reasonable as one could expect, and the belts and such would probably hold Mavra if, of course, she could steer it by head movements.
She brought Mavra in to examine them, and the bird woman looked at them long and hard. Finally she nodded.
They would not do it tonight, but they would certainly do it quickly. It was much too dangerous around here to stay long.
The other question was how to launch and how to get Lori and Julian in with her. In that regard, there was nothing much she could do except use them to get her aloft, and then, if she managed to gain altitude in the darkness and make the proper turn, they would just have to rush full speed through the camp and down the ramp as soon as Mavra vanished inside the Avenue walls. If Mavra was through, they’d get through. If she wasn’t, what difference would it make? The next morning they tried as best they could with the writing system they’d developed to make whatever plans they could.
“You are sure you can fly it?” Julian wrote.
“I am sure I can. I understand the principle. If I can maneuver the front struts with my head and beak, I can do it.”
“This is crazy,” Julian told her. “We could do as well by just rushing them with you on Lori. They are sloppy, not on guard.”
“No,” Mavra scratched. ‘Too risky. Bad guys will try anything to stop me, even killing you. If I am not with you, they won’t. They will be trying for me.” “When do you want to do it? We do not even have a watch. How do we know when it is time?”
“Guard changes,” Mavra told her. “Last night they had two after dark. Second was at time the door opened. We go on second guard change.”
“The odds are very poor.”
“The Well will not let me fail. Watch out for yourselves, not me.” She was so confident that this insane, harebrained scheme would work that Julian almost believed it.
Even so, it was hard as hell to get to sleep just thinking about it. All this way, all this accomplishment, and for what? How much training and experience did it take for those Verionites to fly those flimsy things? What did they know or what might they see in the wind currents that was unknown to Mavra? Could she and Lori even provide enough speed to get lift at all?
And most important, what was she most afraid of? That she’d fail? That Mavra would fail? Or that Mavra would succeed?
Would the wonderful wizard have a heart, a brain, and courage to give away? Or would it just be a small woman behind the curtain pulling levers? At least Dorothy had had an idea of what she wanted, as had her companions. And she’d never had to fly an unfamiliar aircraft just to get there. She’d even missed the balloon, hadn’t she? And all she’d had to do was click her heels together three times …
This was gonna be a hell of a lot more complicated, and who knew what all the assembled wicked witches would have ready to stop them?
They’d seen the centaurs, of course, Campos and her bunch, and the colonel, as well as the brutal-looking if rather sloppy soldiers. At least nobody seemed to want to camp out down there at the bottom of the Avenue. It was just too lonely, too spooky, and too bereft of water and other necessities.
There had been no sign of Terry or Gus; they could only hope that nothing bad had happened to either of them.
Maybe that was enough reason for this crazy business, Julian thought. It’s too crazy to work, and it’s too risky as well, but if it does …
At least they might be able to get even.
For all the agony, Terry had delivered quite cleanly. Campos had been ready with a borrowed and boiled scalpel, but it hadn’t been needed. When the baby had decided to come, it had come, with Terry sitting mostly in an oversized Verionese chair, gravity doing much of the final work. There was also no real sign of tearing, although there almost had to be some inside.
The girl, they decided, was a hell of a quick healer.
She awoke about an hour after the birth, feeling as if she’d just delivered boulders. Then she was handed the baby and the baby was placed gently to a breast, started to suck, and really gorged himself.
By the next afternoon she’d slept off a lot of it and was feeling remarkably better and a lot thinner and lighter to boot. She kept the baby with her at almost all times, except when Campos wanted to see it or show it off, and, wrapped in a soft blanket, the baby seemed quite content.
The second day, as she grew more ambitious, walking with the baby along the barrier, always accompanied by someone, she seemed to grow more and more interested in the Avenue. That evening, after dinner and feeding the baby, she went out accompanied by no less than Campos and Tony, the latter just because she didn’t trust anybody around the girl. Terry surprised both the guardians by going through the barrier and partway down the ramp, holding the baby gently. Campos stared at her, wondering. “Sometimes I think she can see inside there, see what we cannot,” he remarked as much to himself as to Tony. “I wonder what draws her to it. Does she see or hear something, perhaps?”
“Hard to say,” Tony responded, but she, too, had noticed it. The girl hadn’t shown the slightest interest in the wall or the Avenue in all the time they’d been there, but now, after the baby had been bom, it was, next to the child, the only thing that really fascinated her.
Later on Campos discussed this with the colonel. “You would almost swear that she saw inside,” she told the Leeming. “That she thought that she could just walk right through.”
“She is such a strange one,” the colonel responded.
Campos was not ready to let it go at that. She’d watched her face staring into that blank wall too often now.
“I wonder what would happen if we did take her there when the door opens,” she mused. “What if that ‘rewiring’ or whatever they did to her back in that so-called human hex tuned her to the signals in there? What if it is some sort of mental signal, some frequency that is denied those of us created by its machinery?”
“You are actually suggesting that she might be able to walk through?” The colonel thought about it. “I find that highly dubious, but even if she could, what good would that do us? She is such a simple sort now. She wouldn’t know what to do once she was in there, I shouldn’t think. I often wonder if we would or if even the controls would be so alien or so beyond our ability to understand.”
“I grow very tired and very bored here,” Campos told him. “I began to think that our quarry is never going to appear or certainly that they are not going to appear here. Perhaps they have more patience than we thought. Or perhaps they weren’t as good as we thought they were. There have been no signs, no signals, no reports. It is as if this world swallowed them up.”
“I share your frustration, but what can we do? If we give up now, it has all been for nothing.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps I am just playing mental games with myself to keep from going insane with boredom. I just wonder, though, what would it hurt to take her down there when the door opens up tonight? If she walks in, she walks in with us. With all of us, perhaps. As you say, it is probably incomprehensible to us, but what of that? If she could just walk through, and we with her, in front of the amazed stares of the guards! Think of that! We would not need Mavra Chang at all to work our will! Inside, then out. We two and the girl. That alone would be enough to cause terror in the highest places, yes? And only we would know that we did not do a thing!”
“It is foolishness. You are simply letting a poor unfortunate girl throw you.” “Still, think of it. If she could, and we did, I would be right, would I not?” “Well, yes, but …”
“But what? She is almost certainly not going to be able to do it. I admit that. But where is the harm in trying it? Just once?”
“And who would be down there with her?”
“Just us. She, we two, and the baby, of course, which she, as a good mother, keeps with her. If we can get in, I would like that baby to go in as well. Think of the possibilities. Think of what powers we could claim for that child! Why, there would be cults built around the child! More power to those who control the growing child than from any drugs, because there is no product to move except belief. Campos the god-child! And Madame Campos, the only creature known in the history of the universe to be both a father and fully female! And you, the high priest of it all. Makes you think, does it not?”
“Well, I will only say that if you want to be humored, I will go along. But do not be too crushed if nothing at all happens at midnight. I still believe Mavra Chang will eventually show up here and that she, not this foolishness, is the key to it all.”
“Worth a try, though, no?”
“Whatever you say. On the other hand, on the off chance that this impossible idea actually works, have you considered that we might not be able to get back out of there?”
“You do not need to come.”
“Oh, no, I did not say anything about that. I will be there with you, I assure you. If there is the chance of anything happening, even a change in the texture of the wall or the transparency of its opening, I should like to be there to see it.”
Tony watched the evil pair talking and went over to Anne Marie. “I don’t like it. Those two are up to something, and whenever they are up to something, it is always bad for everyone else.”
Anne Marie looked over at the two, perhaps ten meters away, and nodded. “I agree. And anything they might be up to might well not be good for Terry and that sweet little baby, either. I think we’ll keep a good watch on her tonight.” The Well had sent meteors to summon them and bring them through; it had slowly, subtly manipulated probabilities to ensure mat at least one Watcher would come to it. It had used all its tricks, major and minor, to accomplish the simple goal that its ancient, automated instructions required of it, and because it was a machine, it had used a circuitous route that would be inexplicable to the linear thinkers who had been the targets of its convoluted, bizarre program. Now all the sequences were run; now all the mechanisms were in place. Even Nathan Brazil, who knew it best of those alive, had tried to fight it in the past and failed, but while patient, the Well would never be denied. Now all the means and methods were in place, the players assembled, each well suited to do what was required to accomplish the Well’s own ends, although they themselves were unaware of it. And only Mavra Chang had confidence in it even though she could not feel its hand.
It was time.
The wind was up, blowing directly in their faces across the flattened field. Mavra Chang had examined and even played with the large kite under which she was now strapped but had refused a test flight. Much too risky, too much chance of a crash, and no chance then to make another attempt. One shot for everything. Fifteen minutes of window, fifteen minutes to win the game, set, and match in spite of all the forces arrayed against her. The only thing she was certain of, though whether the knowledge came from her own ancient experience or had been fed to her by the Well, was that a hang glider was guided not with hands and feet but with subtle shifts of the pilot’s weight. She was lighter than any of the natives of the hex, but she was sure she weighed enough to maneuver the craft, perhaps higher and faster than even the creatures for which it had been designed. It was more than a hope; it was a necessity that it was true. Julian watched, only half-concealed in the brush, and frowned as she saw Terry come out, carrying something indistinct in her arms, flanked by both the colonel and Juana Campos. The latter was even smoking one of Taluud’s cigars, the puffs of smoke rising and dissipating in the wind. She was happy to see Terry; it allayed one of her worst fears. Still, what were those villains doing with her? And-wharf They were walking through the border, down the ramp to the Avenue! What the hell?
She checked the guards who stood overlooking the vast alien entryway below, bathed in the night glow of the Avenue’s strange luminescence, and saw them getting nervous but not yet moving.
Now the Dillians were moving toward the Avenue rampway! One of them halted, then the other, and they conferred for a moment. Then one trotted over to a large tent nearby and entered, the other waiting at the start of the ramp, dividing her attention between the tent and what was going on below.
The one in the tent emerged with something large and strange-looking on her back. Could that be Gus? Why take him down there? And why was he so visible? Something was definitely wrong. There were four Cloptans as well, two males and two females, and they began heatedly conferring with each other, then they checked their guns, and they, too, were heading down!
My God! Julian thought. Who’s next? The whole damned Verionese army? Her eyes went back to the guards, who were visibly nervous at the sight of so many people going down into the Avenue. One of them shouted something, but if there was a reply, Julian couldn’t hear it.
Over to one side there was activity in the Verionese army camp. She thought of calling the whole thing off for the night, but Mavra was already strapped in, Lori was hitched up, and it was all ready to go. Mavra would never understand or forgive her if she didn’t launch now, but maybe this was all just as well. If Mavra saw the assemblage down there, she might abort the thing herself. At least, Julian hoped so. This was getting ridiculous, and there was no way to warn anybody!
She frantically considered trying to write something that Mavra could read, but now the activity from the army camp revealed itself as the changing of the guard; two privates and an officer or sergeant were marching over to relieve the two agitated guards.
She had no choice and no time! There was absolutely nothing she could do about this!
Oh, my God! Here we go!
at the Well of Souls
Julian raced for the field, saw where Lori was set up, and barely checked to see if Mavra was okay. It didn’t matter anymore. Either it went right or it was over.
She pulled up next to Lori, fumbling with the stupid makeshift pull strap. She finally got it, took a deep breath, and tried to get hold of herself, then clamped it around her neck and shoulders. She turned, lined up with Lori on all fours, then said, “NOW!”
Lori might not have understood the word, but the intent and emotion were clear. He kicked into action, and the two of them suddenly felt the straps tighten and then something dragging along behind them. There was no chance, no way, to look and see if it was working; they just had to keep running at full gallop and hope for the best.
Mavra wasn’t as prepared for the yank and the move forward as she had thought, and the pull tab that would release the straps fell from her beak. She strained forward, tied into a kite never built for somebody like her, trying to get the last little fingernail-width distance to grab the ring again while rolling forward on her stomach, bouncing on the makeshift carriage.
She felt the kite’s leading edge bite into the wind, start to lift, and then come down again. Then it caught once more, and she felt herself rising free of the carriage and of pressure below. With a last desperate attempt that felt like she was tearing her neck from her shoulders, she got the ring, pulled it, and then, with her head, forced the kite up, up as the straps dropped away. It was a lot trickier, bouncier, and rougher then Mavra had thought it would be. No time to look down, no time for bearings; she had to keep it into the wind and with sheer head and neck motion force it up, up. like climbing stairs in the air. Once or twice she almost lost it and had to use the controls rigged to her feet to roll and stabilize while losing altitude, and it took every single ounce of strength and will to fight the thing and get another updraft and climb, climb, climb all over again …
Suddenly she was well over the whole field and banked south, trying to gain more and more altitude so that she could get some feel for the craft and sight her objective. The nearly absolute blackness had been the equatorial wall; now she was up, maybe several hundred meters, and angled so that she could see much of the landscape beyond.
For a moment the view, the tiny lights, torches, lamps, and glow on the horizon of the capital were hypnotizing. She had forgotten what it was like after all this time . ..
From somewhere, something was giving her more and more the feel of the thing with each moment aloft, how it steered, how it angled, climbed, and dove, and she didn’t fight it. The glider was controlled with very subtle shifts of body weight, and the greatest problem was resisting the urge to overcompensate. As her skill at maneuvering increased so did her confidence. This wingless, flightless bird was soaring now!
She banked back across the field and turned toward the camp and the Avenue. Below her, she could see Julian and Lori going much too slowly, trotting toward the camp. Hurry up! Hurry up, you idiots!
It would be tricky, but she decided to make a single trial pass and see what she was dealing with inside the Avenue if she could. The border kept vision a bit dimmer and less clear than she would have liked, but she thought she could see people down there. That was bad, but she couldn’t afford to risk a second pass. There was some commotion in the Verion army camp, and a lot of soldiers seemed to be rushing to the edge of the abyss, even though some of them were half-dressed.
She couldn’t worry about any of this. Something inside her, or perhaps beyond her, from beyond that equatorial wall was saying, “Now, now! You must come to me now!” She took a wide swath around the camp, the airfield, and beyond, proceeded a bit south again, and steeled herself to make the attempt at the door. It would be dead reckoning, and she would have to guess the distance and descent right the first time. The only sure and reasonable way in was to cross the border, straighten up, and fly directly at the door, hoping she sustained enough lift to reach it and did not crash against the wall or drop like a stone. Below her, Julian had taken her time to get her breath and to disconnect Lori and herself from the other end of those straps. Then she’d started off toward the Avenue, but slowly, at not even a brisk trot. Lori matched her but wondered what was wrong. The messages he’d read said (hat they had to move quickly at this point and that time was of the essence once Mavra was away. What was holding Julian back? Why was she almost slowing to a dead stop? Suddenly he sensed that she was afraid. After all this, she was afraid to take the last gamble herself!
Lori had neither much hope nor ambition for all this, but he damned well wasn’t not going to see it through. He dropped back, reached over, and nipped her on the ass right near her tail. She started and involuntarily speeded up, and now he raced forward, taking the lead, charging as fast as he could go right into the middle of the Verion army camp. For some reason Julian found herself unable to take her eyes off him. She just ran after him, and ran, and ran, right into that camp herself.
The major, the sergeant, and several troopers were all arguing and granting over jurisdiction and procedure and what the hell they were supposed to do. Nobody had ever really gone down there without permission before, and nobody wanted to take the responsibility for doing anything at all. Everybody kept making excuses and passing the buck, with the result that nothing was decided at all. Suddenly somebody yelled, “Watch it! Animals coming!”
And the brave helmeted troops of Verion scrambled to get out of the way as first a pony and then another-pony”?-ran right through them and to the Avenue ramp. Lori found it hard to put the brakes on, but there were four turns and no guardrails in the ramp going down. He only hoped that Julian was behind him and that she wouldn’t push him over.
She did almost fall over the first turn and down into the hard culvert below, but while one leg slipped off the edge, she managed somehow to keep a grip with the other three and scramble back up. She wasn’t thinking at all; she had this irresistible impulse to follow the horse ahead of her, and she was going to do it come hell or high water.
Ellerbantan monitors on the other side were far more comfortable but no less bored than the Verionites opposite. Two of them sat watching control screens more or less, dreaming about anything but being there, when one of them suddenly jerked up and punched the other with a tentacle.
“Look at that! It’s a whole mob going down there from Verion for the midnight show!”
The other one devoted all three eyes to the scene, then relaxed. “Don’t worry about it. See how many races are there? It’s just one of those damned tour groups.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” the other agreed. “Still, it’s funny they didn’t follow the usual routine and come over and warn us.”
“Aw, you know those Verionites. Walk all the way down, across, and back up here just for that?”
“Yeah,” the other sighed in disgust. “If there was something wrong, they’d be here in a flash, shoot off one of those flares or something. Heck, if those were anything more than tourists, they could take ‘em out with arrows.” “My point exactly. So relax,” said the first one, and went back to its daydreaming.
On the Avenue floor the colonel and Tony flanked Terry and the baby and watched with curious apprehension as the great yellowish hex switched on just in front of them.
Terry seemed to think it was funny. She gave a kind of delighted giggle and went right up to it, cradling the sleeping baby as she did so. She approached so closely that she could see her reflection in it, as well as the ghostly reflections of the pair behind her.
“She’s going to do it! She’s actually going to do it!” Campos breathed. “I think she may try,” the colonel agreed. At that very moment Mavra Chang, hoping that ancient instincts and the Well’s own aid hadn’t failed her, crossed over into the Avenue’s space and tried to center herself as she felt the lift give out. She was going forward still and reasonably straight, but there was no way in hell she could climb or in any way pull out of a shallow but definite forward dive.
Ahead, she saw it. The door to the Well! Open! Waiting for her! If she could only stay airborne long enough to make it!
It was going to be very close, and ahead now she could see figures standing there. A Cloptan? Could that be Campos? But who, or what, were the others? Jeez, that almost looked like a human woman just at the door itself. She hoped she wouldn’t crash behind them; that would be the worst result of all, to fail so very close to the goal. But if she didn’t, she risked knocking down the woman. Well, the hell with it! Precious little she could do about it now! What the hell? Suddenly the two Dillians were there, and one of them had a big lizard on her back. Get out of my way! Get out of my way!
She gave a horrendous, panicked screech that echoed through the whole of the Avenue. All of the ones inside heard it and turned, as much in curiosity as in fear. Eyes widened as they saw the huge kite coming, and only Campos had the presence of mind to realize what it must be.
“It’s Chang! Shoot her! Shoot her down!”
Mavra Chang came over the Dillian’s head, so close that Anne Marie’s hair was blown by her passing. The four Cloptans who’d just reached the floor themselves drew their weapons when they heard Campos cry, but the thing was too low. Not only did the Dillians block any decent shot or view, if they shot through them, it would be too late.
The colonel sent out a pseudopod that actually touched the kite, wrenching it a bit, but even though he had hold of it, he was too close to the door and the thing still had too much momentum for such an unthinking chance grab. The girl, having seen what was coming, moved to one side and crouched low so that first the kite went through the door with Mavra Chang still tied under it, perhaps a meter off the Avenue floor, then the colonel was dragged in, too, still clutching it.
Campos had hit the floor when she’d seen that the kite couldn’t be slowed. As she got up, she watched in amazement as the girl looked at the baby, smiled, and then stepped into the hex opening and vanished.
“No!” Campos cried, and lunged forward, and was herself swallowed up. Tony and Anne Marie looked at each other quizzically.
“I don’t care if you have to throw me, get me the hell in there!” Gus growled at them.
Anne Marie shrugged, and Tony shrugged, and the two galloped right at the opening and went through.
The four Cloptans were totally confused by all this, and finally it was Kuzi who screamed, “I don’t give a damn ‘bout nothin’ no more! I say we follow the boss!” The others nodded, guns still drawn, but as they ran for the door, they were almost knocked down by two horses, or something very like them, running at full gallop toward the Well access. First Lori, then Julian ran right into the thing and disappeared amid some wild but inaccurate firing by the Cloptan guns. Finally Kuzi started for the door, and the others followed, all angry, confused, but determined to go through and find out what the hell was on the other side and why everybody else had disappeared and to where. Kuzi marched right up to the still-outlined door and right into a solid wall that knocked her down and sent the others sprawling in back of her.
The door remained visible for about another minute and a half, and the Cloptans tried just about everything from firing energy weapons and conventional pistols at it to pounding on it, but it did no good. Then it winked out, and they were left alone in the suddenly silent and very deserted Avenue.
“It ain’t fair!” Audlay cried. “Everybody got to go but us!”
at Entrance Hall 9
THE COLONEL WAS TOTALLY DISORIENTED, AND IT TOOK HIM A few moments to disengage from the kite which lay, crashed, nearby and reform himself into a practical shape.
He was most conscious of the silence, sudden and absolute, but he was too experienced to dwell on it at the moment. Instead, he went over to the kite, put out two strong armlike pseudopods, and turned it over.
Its struts were splintered, and it was virtually broken into two pieces: whatever had ridden in on it must have taken a terrible jolt.
But there was nothing in the harness. It looked in fact as if the straps had been burst, as if by something suddenly enlarging to a point where the straps could no longer contain it.
If so, where was it?
He looked around and saw the door behind him, as transparent as glass. He saw the girl check the baby, smile, and walk through into the chamber where he now was, the invisible surface parting as if it were a thin curtain of water. The girl stopped, then looked around in wonder at the whole of the enormous chamber. Then the baby moved and made a sound, and all her attention came back to it.
Now Campos, looking very comical, picked herself up and almost stormed through. She spotted the colonel immediately, paying little mind to the girl. “So? Where is she?” Campos asked, eyeing the broken kite. Her voice echoed in the vastness of the hall.
“She’s not here,” the colonel responded, gesturing toward the underside. “I can’t explain it. It couldn’t have been more than a matter of seconds, a half minute at most, until I was able to regain my composure and check it. I still had hold of it!”
Campos reached into a pocket, took out another in the dwindling supplies of Taluud’s cigars, and lit it. “I don’t like this. I say we go with the original plan and all get the hell out of here before it closes on us!” The colonel looked around at the eerie, empty hallway with its incredibly high, nearly endless ceiling and vast expanse, and said, “I tend to agree. I-” Suddenly, the Dillians burst through the door, Tony with Gus on her back. “Who the hell said you all could come?” Campos snapped at them. “And why bring him?” It was clear she meant Gus.
“Because he asked us to,” Anne Marie answered matter-of-factly. She looked around the great hall, as did Tony, and both gasped at the scale. It made all of them seem like a speck of dirt on a nice, clean floor.
“Well, everybody can turn around and get out right now!” Campos thundered. “All of us!”
“Lost your nerve? So soon?” Gus taunted, then frowned. “Hey! I don’t hurt no more! in fact-”
He rolled off Tony’s back and onto the smooth floor, then looked down at his side. Almost on impulse, he tore off the bandages. Underneath there was nothing but smooth, undisturbed skin. Not even a scar was visible.