“Well, I’ll be damned! I’m beginnin’ to like this place!” he said wonderingly. Campos was growing increasingly nervous. “Well, I, for one, do not! We go! Now!” She looked at the other Cloptans coming toward the door. “If we don’t, it’s going to be an even bigger mess! About the only ones missing are-” At that moment Lori and Julian came into view behind the Cloptans; they could see but not hear the Cloptan group scatter as they passed and saw the Cloptans firing wildly, but then first Lori and then Julian were inside the hall, their hooves abruptly clattering against the smooth floor.
“I had to open my big mouth,” Campos said grumpily. “All right! Out!” “Who’s gonna make us?” Gus asked him. “You?”
“Colonel, I am suddenly very weary of that one. He has been a burden for too long,” Campos said to the Leeming. “Will you please see to him?” The colonel moved close to Gus, who had no armor and no defense and was still all too visible to everyone there. The Leeming hesitated just a moment, and Gus asked him, some obvious nervousness in his voice, “Well, Colonel, you and I gonna finally finish it here, huh?”
“Gus, I don’t really want to kill you,” Lunderman said with apparent sincerity. “Just take the girl by the hand and let us leave.”
“No, Colonel. I don’t think so. For some reason, I got this funny feelin’ that the rules are different here.” He didn’t sound very confident, but he wasn’t going to move, that was clear.
“Finish him, Colonel, and get out!” Campos screamed.
“Sorry, Gus. You chose it yourself,” the Leeming said, shooting out a pseudopod and flowing a part of himself up and around Gus’s midsection.
Gus’s tooth-filled mouth opened in amusement and obvious relief. “That tickles, Colonel. If I’da known that was all there was to it, I wouldn’ta bothered to waste a shot on you back in Agon.”
The colonel withdrew rapidly.
“What is wrong?” Campos asked, sounding nervous herself now.
“It didn’t work, that’s all. It was as if there was something, some very thin barrier surrounding the whole of his skin. I could not get through it.” “Leave him, then! Get the baby and the girl and let’s go!”
“I wouldn’t be all too certain that leaving is an option, Campos,” Tony commented, gesturing at the door, where even now the other Cloptans were trying as hard as they could to penetrate without success.
Campos broke for the door, ran to it, and reached out as if to show that it was just a thin piece of nothing.
It was hard as a rock.
“Sorry, Campos. I want you right where I can see you,” came a voice unfamiliar to most of them but very recognizable to others. It was a deep, melodic woman’s voice, and it came to each of them in his or her native language. “Mavra! Is that you?” Tony called, her voice echoing like all the rest in the vast chamber.
She gave a low, gusty laugh. “Yeah, it’s me. I made it! Against all the odds, I made it! Me! First in and in control. Hey, I didn’t call the Well to get here; it called me! When I got this close, I knew that whatever the odds, it would provide whatever I needed to get inside. I got to admit I was doubting it myself there, particularly at the last minute, but I’m here now. I’m not sure why all of you are here, but it seems appropriate somehow.”
“Where are you?” Campos yelled at her, defiance still in her voice. “Why do you hide yourself from us?”
“Well, you know, when I get in here, I’m really not myself,” Mavra responded. “I guess I wanted a little time for you to settle down. But if you want to see what’s become of your little birdie, then so be it!”
All the lights inside the chamber came on, illuminating them as if in daylight. “Oh, my God!” Julian gasped. They all turned toward where she was looking and had a similar reaction.
The creature that was approaching them was over two meters tall and reminded most of them of nothing so much as a huge beating heart, skin a sickly blue and red, pulsing rhythmically, moving forward on six powerful-looking, sucker-laden, squidlike tentacles.
“I told you I wasn’t myself in here,” Mavra’s voice came from somewhere within it. “You see what I mean about the shock value. It’s a pretty practical form, really, for this sort of thing, although it’s not exactly current fashion. This is what they looked like, the people who built this place, at least at the end. By then they’d advanced far enough that they didn’t need all the handy stuff evolution had provided earlier. I can’t describe it to you. I’m doing a thousand different exchanges with the Well right now, each perfectly clear, while I’m using just the tiniest part of myself to hold this conversation with you. I’m running and checking out math and diagnostics on a scale even I can’t believe. I’m also seeing everything the Well is sending me, and I have 360-degree sight and absolute hearing through all the frequency ranges. And even with all that, I couldn’t begin to build something like this. Imagine a whole race with this kind of capability. It’s staggering.”
“You-you really were one of them, then?” Julian managed, amazed. Mavra laughed. “Oh, no. I couldn’t imagine being one of them, or how they lived and thought. The Well just recreates me in the image of its makers, so to speak, because otherwise I couldn’t work the controls here. I guess by their terms I’d probably be a low-grade moron, but the capacity and speed of the brain are such that I can handle the routine stuff.”
“Everything-the whole Well World-is maintained and controlled from here?” Gus asked, losing his abhorrence of her form and becoming more the old reporter again.
Again Mavra laughed. “No, that’s just one tiny little area here. A kind of microcomputer, compared to the whole thing, that does relatively simple jobs. The main job of this thing, if you must know, is keeping the universe running.” It was so staggering a concept and so impossible to believe that nobody had a follow-up on it for a while. Finally Gus said, “So God is a computer?” “You might say that. I get the idea that this isn’t all of it, but there are limits on what I can understand or do here. They didn’t want their repair personnel playing too fast and loose with the universe. We’re just dumb lunkheads. We make decisions that are basically moral ones, ones the Well isn’t programmed to make for itself. If the fabric of space and time itself is damaged, the way it was the last and only other time I was in here, we have to choose to push the button and reset the universe. It’s a mean responsibility if you think about it. I wiped out whole worlds of civilizations last time, probably killed multiple trillions of beings from all sorts of races, not just the ones on the Well World. They didn’t think a machine should ever have to make decisions like that, so they assigned somebody to do it. The closest translation to the job would be ‘Monitors,’ but it often comes out as ‘Watchers,’ ‘cause that’s really the job, too. We just exist, and watch things, and make sure they don’t fall apart, while waiting for the phone to ring.”
Campos was appalled. “You mean that is what all this is about? A stinking computer calling its repairman! And for that all of us were wrenched from our lives and twisted and reshaped and dropped into this nightmare of a world?” “Something like that,” Mavra admitted. “It does have a way of making its summons a bit dramatic if we can’t get to one of its doorways in space, and I’m afraid a lot of people often get dragged in. It wasn’t designed that way. I doubt if it ever occurred to the builders that people like you even existed, Campos, let alone that they’d be hauled over here to cause even more misery. I doubt if it ever occurred to them just what trouble it might be for the Watcher to get in here, either; otherwise they would have made it easier. But I’m here now in spite of the best efforts of quite a number of people to prevent it, including some of you here. The only ones I expected and invited were Lori and Julian. Ummm … Yes, minor detail to set right.”
Lori’s body was suddenly misty, then distorted, and when it was again clear and distinct, Lori of Erdom, fully restored, stood in their midst. He shook his head as if clearing something out of it, something rattling around inside. Finally he sighed and said, “I feel like I’m waking up from some awful nightmare. I have all these crazy memories, impressions, but most of them don’t make any sense.” “Well, you were a horse,” Mavra pointed out. “I’m afraid all that information in your head couldn’t always fit in that horse brain, but your spirit, your drive, remained, and in the end you still did what you had to do.”
“Julian, I-” he began, and stopped, seeing something in her eyes and manner. It was readily apparent that Julian was less than fully thrilled to see her husband back to normal.
“Lori, Julian’s going to be a little bit complicated, so just hang on for a little bit,” Mavra told him.
The colonel spoke, although they all were awed at the display of power Mavra had just performed. “You-you can do that? With your mind alone?”
“I just order it. I don’t bother with how it’s done any more than you bother with how the electricity gets to the lamp when you turn it on. It’s easy in specific cases, but it gets more complicated if you have to do something on the scale of a hex. When you get beyond that, to whole civilizations and worlds, I’m not so sure I’m up to it. Still, we may see.”
Gus, too, was awed and fascinated, but not to the point where he didn’t want to press things a bit to satisfy his curiosity. “So what’s wrong?” he asked her. “Huh? What do you mean?”
“Well, we all got stuck here for some reason, right? I mean, it called you and the captain, and that was to fix stuff. What’s broke?”
Mavra seemed disturbed by the question. “I-I’ve been trying to find out. All of the diagnostics so far are turning up just fine. The universe isn’t in peril, no world is about ready to die, nothing appears wrong. Still, we were called here for something. The Well went to a great deal of trouble to get us here. I guess I haven’t hit it yet, although that is rather odd. If something’s broken enough to summon us, then something in the Well’s diagnostics routine should have told me straight away. So far-nothing. It’s very strange.”
As if in response, she began to receive a data stream from somewhere deep within the Well. Something about a “Kraang Matrix Formula,” but it didn’t make any sense. It didn’t correlate with anything in the Well’s operational system, in the symmetry of its physics and mathematics. What the hell was a Kraang Matrix Formula?
Before she could even request research information on it, another signal broke in, one she’d heard only once before but one that had provided a major motivator for her to reach the Well.
“Mavra! Mavra! You’ve done it! Now free me! Free me! “
“Obie? Is that really you? Can you really live again?” Once, in the past cycle of existence, before the last reset, she had roamed the universe with Obie, a moon-sized computer built by some of the most brilliant minds of her own time, a self-aware computer that could in a limited way do some of the things on a vastly smaller scale that the Well could do. She could never explain Obie, but having to see him-Obie had always been a “him”-wiped out with the rest of that universe had been the most horrible thing she had ever had to face because of its permanence.
“How can I do it, Obie? I don’t know a lot about working this thing.” “Ill send you the instructions. I already knew a lot, so I could follow what was being done here. Just pass the instructions along exactly as I give them to you, no changes, no hesitations, and I’ll once again be formed in orbit around this world. Think of it, Mavra! The two of us together again!” No more horrors of existence on that grubby Earth, no more crawling before the likes of Campos, no more pettiness and Earthbound strife … Together again, with that power, no matter how limited, roaming the universe, exploring, learning, helping out …
“Brazil never told you because he wanted me to die,” Obie sent to her. “He thought that my power was too great a potential disruption to the Well. He couldn’t help it, but he did it, Mavra! He killed me, Mavra! And now you can bring me back! Now you are in charge! Take the data stream and command the instructions! Free me! Free me!”
“Go ahead. Send. I’ll try, Obie. I’ll try!”
All the exchange, her internal debate, and the final decision, had, to the others, taken place within the blink of an eye. They barely knew that something was going on.
“So what will you do with us now?” the colonel asked her. “Revenge? That seems a rather petty thing for one in your current circumstances.”
“You are right,” she answered him. “Revenge is something beyond a superior creature such as this one. When I am human, I am very vengeful, but not like this. Not now.”
She could see Campos seem to relax, and the colonel, more suspicious, also seem a bit more comfortable. “What will you do, then?” Lunderman asked her. “Justice,” she answered, sending new fear into them. “Justice is the highest calling of a higher intellect.”
“Sequence completed and program running. Done. Input accepted. Result nominal,” the Well reported to Mavra.
But what did that mean? Was Obie reconstituted, alive again in orbit? All the Well’s local sensors showed no change. Nothing but the usual random debris up there. What had she just done?
“Obie? Where are you, Obie?”
“Obie couldn’t come,” said a strange, commanding, powerful voice that seemed to fill the whole of the great hall. “So I came instead.”
“Holy shit! It’s another one!” Gus exclaimed. “And this one sounds like Darth Vader!”
And from the center of the hall another shape appeared, very much like Mavra, but not quite like Mavra. It was bigger, more than three meters tall and half again as thick, and it seemed to be bathed in a radiant glow.
“How wondrous it is to be free once again!” the Kraang exclaimed. “I did not believe that it would ever happen in spite of my best efforts!” Mavra had no conception of who this newcomer was, but she knew pretty damned well that it had been the result of her commands to the Well, which was now reporting a return to “nominal status, meaning no more repairs were necessary. Mavra Chang tried to retrieve information on this newcomer, this bizarre new creature who seemed to have come from nowhere, but she couldn’t. Suddenly she felt the Well closing off from her as if a series of switches were being thrown one by one, shutting her out, diminishing her …
She tried to fight, but the Kraang was out of her league. Suddenly, for the first time, she realized that it had all been for nothing, that she’d been played for one of the biggest fools in the history of the cosmos. She stood there, suddenly just Mavra Chang again, a tiny Oriental-looking woman, slightly built, naked, and looking very, very small indeed.
“Don’t feel so bad,” the booming voice of the Kraang said to her. “I have been most impressed with you. Most impressed. You couldn’t know about me because I was outside of the entire system, outside of the entire Master Program. It was designed that way so that I would drift forever in space, neither fully alive nor dead, never intersecting or interacting with anything. Designed that way over five billion years ago.”
“You! It was you sending me those messages!” she said, openmouthed, never feeling more like a sucker in her whole life than right now. “And you were what was wrong! You were what I was called to fix!”
“Clever. Yes, it is true. You know the principle of the fifty million monkeys. That sooner or later fifty million monkeys at fifty million typewriters will write the works of Shakespeare if given an infinite amount of time. Well, my condition was like that. Eventually, in a coincident situation during the last reset, the Well was supposed to give a course correction that would have continued my endless lonely isolation. At that moment, however, the reset was executed, and that command was not completely given. Eventually, an intersection was made in spite of it all. I was able to tap into the data stream, although only in limited ways. I’ve been watching you-all of you-since you were processed through the Well and became part of the minor data stream. I’ve seen it all through your eyes, heard your thoughts, monitored your dreams. But it was all for naught. All for nothing if someone came here who understood the problem and corrected it. Fortunately, you made it in first, my dear. That will stand you forever in my favor.”
“Nathan,” she said guiltily. “If Nathan would’ve gotten here first, he would have been able to deal with you.”
“Yes, that’s true, I suspect, although I am still not terribly clear on who or what he actually is beyond being a pathological liar. Severing him from the data stream will take considerably more work, but there is no hurry now, is there?” “You are one of the founders? An original of this race?” Lori asked. “I am.”
“Then why did they imprison you so? And where did the rest of them go? Will you tell us that?”
“As a race they went collectively mad,” the Kraang responded. “This insane project, this march to oblivion, began with nobler motives, but eventually the infection was complete. Only I stood against them. Even those who agreed with me were eventually won over, co-opted. Those who thought as I but did not have the courage to speak or act against it were carried along in its momentum. They did not exile me. They came to kill me. They came to put me through the Well, to make of me what the Well did to you. I was the one with the courage, and I was too smart for them. Deep below here, in the workrooms and stations of the Well, I arranged my own exile. I exiled myself rather than be forced into their madness! And I did it in a prison of my own devising, one that was controlled by an endless loop that the Well itself could neither monitor nor touch. I suppose they might have been able to break it in time, but they apparently decided to let it go, seeing how perfect my exile was. To them, I had committed a racial sin, and I had devised my own punishment, my own hell, as it were, and sent myself forever to it. They did not know that I was in a suspended state, shut down, all but the most minute part of myself in semioblivion so that the passage of such a great amount of time would be as nothing to me.”
“But then, you must have known that somehow, sometime it would break down,” Lori noted, fascinated as they all were, even if still terrified of this strange specter from out of ancient epochs.
“I was a mathematician,” the Kraang explained. “I knew of randomness, of chaos, of the infinite amounts of time before this universe. Would it happen before the universe began to contract in upon itself once more and finally die as quietly as it had been born so noisily? That I could not say. It was nonetheless a vast amount of time in which, even with the Well, almost anything could happen. I must say that it never occurred to me that it would be this soon. Now, though, I am here and they are gone. Now the Well serves me and me alone. Overall, this universe is a patchwork remade by amateurs. I shall proceed to perfect it. Not right away, not so frighteningly dramatic, but slowly, with subtlety, with conscious interaction. I will provide the way, and the universe will choose to follow me and perfect itself. That portion which does not will be destroyed. My vision is a challenge to me, to the Well, to all the peoples and worlds of the universe! Those who see and accept me and my vision and follow shall inherit it under me!”
“It sounds like you’re thinking of becoming God Almighty,” Anne Marie said somewhat scornfully.
“I AM GOD ALMIGHTY, MASTER OF THIS UNIVERSE AND ALL THAT IS WITHIN IT!” the Kraang thundered.
Then, in still thunderous but more moderate tones, he added. “That happened the moment my program was canceled. How can I explain it to your puny, primitive intellects? The moment I returned to the point where I had left was the moment that the Well came under my total and complete domination and will, an instrument of myself. You are honored to be present at the coronation of the one and only true God of the universe. Now and forever.”
“Amen,” Gus said a bit sourly.
Mavra just sat there, head down, thinking over and over, What have I done? What have I done?
The Kraang, however, was going on. It was, Gus supposed, the first time he’d had a captive audience in billions of years.
“What is God?” mused the Kraang. “The ultimate leader. Immortal, all-powerful, able to call up any fact, any bit of information, no matter how large or how small, as he chooses. One able to reward those who worship him and follow his instructions and to punish those who transgress his will, his whims, no matter how petty. You all had gods-at least, virtually all of you-and one, Mavra Chang, played goddess for centuries to a bunch of people even more ignorant and primitive than she. The god of the Jews slew whole populations because one person transgressed. He punished individuals who did nothing more than slip once in an otherwise pious life with death and damnation. He set down a list of rules so arcane, so complex, that no one could truly follow them all. And yet he could take someone who murdered, who committed adultery, who violated almost every one of his commandments and make him a beloved king in spite of all that. Now where is the logic in that? Yet on your world that god became god of the Christians, god of the Moslems, the most influential and important god on the planet. The Hindus-we won’t even talk about the destroyer of universes; it is self-explanatory. They perhaps had the clearest idea of the system as it truly was, but to what end? So that a rigid class structure could always be maintained on the people by the ruling elite in which even social climbing would be a mortal sin. The Buddhists-they saw through everything. Existence proceeded stage upon stage, until you reached the That Which Is Beyond. Oblivion. And that’s just your world. You cannot imagine what some of the others came up with! Am I so much worse than the gods you did worship? The gods you tried to follow? Or am I merely a threat because I am real, I exist, you cannot deny me or my power or doubt it? You-none of you can rationalize me away!”
Mavra’s head came up. ‘This is an unlikely group of prophets to begin your reign,” she noted.