“Not at all,” the Kraang responded. “Why, right now I can see that you are contemplating either suicide or some futile and fatal heroic gesture to ease your conscience. The colonel is trying to figure out the best way to ingratiate himself with me, as always the pragmatist. Campos is a bit torn between her Catholic upbringing and her lust for power which she finds potentially vast in my service. The Dillians are aghast but fatalistic. Lori and Gus are curiously similar in their desires to just be out of all this, although Gus is far more offended by me than Lori. And Julian-my pretty Julian has been on the verge of suicide since she got here and is still confused about her purpose, her role, and how she could possibly fit in anywhere at all. Let me demonstrate how easy it is.”
Julian was suddenly bathed in an unearthly glow, a radiance that gave her a nearly supernatural look. Subtly, she was changing, not from being an Erdomese but into the absolutely ideal image of the Erdomese female, a change so perfect, so precise, and so beautiful that even those who weren’t Erdomese could see it and even feel it. And upon her face was a look like no other, an expression of total and abject worship, of complete and utter innocence and joy. She fell down and prostrated her new self before the Kraang.
“And you shall henceforth be called Sowacha. which in Erdomese means ‘Daughter of Heaven,’ and all who see you and speak with you will know that your name is of me and my power and that you wield it in my name and with my authority,” the Kraang intoned. “You will seek counsel only of me and return to your land as my servant and agent. I shall bless and protect you, and you shall be unsullied, without blemish or sin, and the church, and the land, shall know you as one who is my own. You shall lead the people in my name, and in my name you shall remake the land and people as I command.”
“Yes, my lord and master,” she responded, never getting up or looking up. “You see?” the Kraang said to the others. “It really is that easy. I do not need or require your loyalty or your consent. It is merely a matter of reprogramming your rather simple minds.”
The others were frightened to death by the demonstration, but Mavra Chang was just consumed by anger. She moved to rise but found she was frozen, stuck where she was. She couldn’t outthink the Kraang; he had the whole damned Well at his beck and call thanks to her.
Damn it! The bastard had won! When he finished his ego trip, they’d all march out of here like Julian, slaves to the Kraang, devoting all their lives and thoughts and energies to whatever he wanted. And there wasn’t a single damned thing they could do about it!
Suddenly, out of the darkness, the baby cried. They had all forgotten about Terry and the child. Even the Kraang for some reason hadn’t included her in his survey of the group. Now, though, all the attention was diverted to the small, dark girl with the infant.
She walked steadily out of the shadows, looking expressionlessly at the Kraang. When she got to Anne Marie, she stopped, looked up at the Dillian, and said, “Anne Marie, take the baby. I think I’ve had just about enough of this egomaniac’s bullshit.”
If anything could shock them more than the Kraang and his demonstration of pure power, it was Terry speaking and speaking so determinedly.
‘Terry?” Gus managed, but even though it was Terry’s body and Terry’s old voice, it just didn’t sound like Terry. It sounded like . .. like . .. The girl went up to a stunned and frightened Juana Campos, reached in her pocket, and pulled out the last of Gen Taluud’s cigars, biting off the end and sticking it in her mouth. She didn’t strike a match; she just pointed at the end, and it burst into flame.
If anybody was more shocked than all the people present, it was the Kraang. “Ahhh … That’s so much better,” said the girl after a few puffs on the cigar. “You can’t believe how I missed these. Pure Ambrezan. That Taluud was a scumbag but he definitely had good taste.”
The Kraang stood there on its tentacles, saying nothing, moving not at all. but the heartlike pulsations of its body were reaching a fever pitch. “Keep trying, Kraang. If you try hard enough to control me, then you might just bust something. You’re still flesh and blood, you know, renewable or not.” The Kraang was suddenly aghast, his enormous triumphal return spoiled by an anomaly his great brain could not understand, comprehend, or get data on. Massive quantities of data were going by at the speed of light itself, but the Kraang was coming up totally empty, as empty as Mavra had been in trying to find out about the Kraang.
“You weren’t the only one, you know,” Terry said, letting some ash fall to the floor. “I took a different route. I always was a better programmer than you.” “YOU! It’s-impossible!”
“Not impossible, just damned hard. I just gave birth to a goddamned baby, for Christ’s sake! Not even Mavra’s had to undergo that wonderful experience! It was hard as hell switching in and out to keep me out of the data stream you were monitoring. Fortunately, the Well measured the probabilities of Mavra getting here first and factored in a few extra wrinkles. Those damned Glathrielians thought they were going to control me with their powers, but all they did was hand them to me to use. Handed them to me just as the Well figured when I rotted lazily back there in Ambreza instead of coming immediately to answer its call, in the person of one very fascinating and exceptional young woman named Theresa Perez. And it still had to explode a damned volcano under me to get me to do what I should’ve done right off! I’m as crazy as you are, Kraang, and just as much a shirker of responsibility, but I’m here now!”
Mavra’s head came up, and she stared at the girl. “Nathan? Is that really you?” In an absolute instant, without any sense of any time passing between, the girl was suddenly gone and in her place stood another being, a being slightly smaller than but otherwise identical to what Mavra had been and what the Kraang was now. And in one tentacle it still held the burning cigar. The tentacle shot over to a frozen Juana Campos and stuck the cigar in her mouth. “Here,” Brazil said. “I don’t like to see cigars that good go to waste.”
The Kraang was appalled at the vision. “It really is you! How-how is it possible? I had everything, everything factored in! There was no mistake!” “Sure there was. As soon as you bought my line on the life history I gave to Gus the same way Mavra bought your disinformation about Obie and Brazil,” Brazil responded. “I was just another amateur, just like her, only more experienced. Isn’t that what you said not long ago? A universe recreated by amateurs? Did you really think I’d leave the Well so unprotected? I never did figure out what happened to you, but I always figured that if I beat the system, then others must have, too. In a way I’m glad it was you this time. Mathematicians are so damned logical.”
Only Gus among them had the nerve to inject himself into a discussion between two gods. “So what were you?” he asked.
Brazil chuckled. “Me? I was an artist!
“This is more an inconvenience than a defeat,” the Kraang told him. “I have full access to the Well. If I cannot touch or harm you, neither can you do anything to me! At the moment we are at a standoff. But I know from your own histories stored here that you cannot exit the Well on your own as you are. I can! You must remain here, imprisoned in the Well alone, forever, just to retain your access and retard my project. Every god must have a devil, I suppose. We will play a game. I will go everywhere, and you will try to stop me from doing anything you do not like. But you must do it from here! Yourself! I, on the other hand, will be free to ride the whole of the trans-spacial nets and roam the stars! I can be anywhere, anything, any time I wish to be. And eternity is a very long time.”
‘Tell me about it,” Brazil said sourly. “Still, as much as I hate to spoil your godhead and coronation or even your lofty dreams, I’m afraid you’re going to be in for a very, very big shock. Still, you want to leave, leave. Go ahead. I won’t even try to stop you. You know where the exit is and how to use it. Go on, go ahead. Try to be a god. You’ll quickly see how boring and silly it gets.” The Kraang thought that Brazil was being too smug and overconfident, and he knew enough not to trust anything the other said or claimed, particularly now. But try as he might, cross-indexed and fully researched, the Kraang could find absolutely nothing that Brazil had left as any sort of trap.
“Lost your nerve, have you, Kraang? Pretty poor performance for a god to lose his nerve. Of course, you can stick around here. Plenty to do, I suppose. Been five billion years and then some since we matched wits with some of those games that are still in the core system. Or do you remember that you used to beat me all the time when we were setting up but after a while you couldn’t beat me ever again? That’s because you never were willing to take risks. You had a grasp of math that’s truly godlike, but you never, ever went against the probabilities. Even your clever exile trick was done with a keen eye to probabilities, given the limits placed on you. I cost you this round at the last minute by taking some risks, but maybe you’ll win the next time. It’ll relieve the boredom, anyway.”
The Kraang seethed with anger and frustration, but he had been trying any number of combinations and at no time could he supersede Brazil’s command of the Well. While they had been talking in normal time, a massive battle of intellects throughout the computer that took up the entire inner surface of the Well World had been going on, a battle of such speed and complexity that those who watched could never have comprehended or described it.
Mental thrust … parry … access denied … backdoor … access denied … wall off… sector not available … Even in his enhanced form, the battle wasn’t easy for Brazil nor was the outcome certain. In a sense, both he and the Kraang were equals here, equals before the Well computer, equals in knowledge, skill, and the ability to use the vast power and ultra-complex engineering of the master world, at speeds and on dimensional planes that were far beyond mortal comprehension. It wasn’t one parry, one thrust, one end-around attempt, but thousands … millions … quadrillions all at once, like some vast chess game at superlight speeds with unlimited pieces.
Whole lifetimes of mental battle had taken place in the space of one second in real time. Brazil realized that he’d been far too cocky, far too confident in his power here. He’d forgotten what it was like to come up against an opponent of his native race, one fueled by eons of hatred and a lust for power. I’ve become too much a man, Brazil thought worriedly. He could not sustain a defense against the level of sheer emotion that had been stored up in the Kraang for so very, very long.
Equal! Equal, damn it! Dead even! Brazil began to see this as an eternal struggle in which strength of will was paramount and patience everything. There was no way he could keep this up forever and he knew it; more, there was no purpose to doing so. There had to be an answer! As it stood, neither he nor the Kraang could make use of this vast power beyond the automatics that served them both. Equals …
There just had to be an answer! Some way in which they were not equals. Some way, no matter how minor, in which Brazil had some kind of edge. And in the countless moves and countermoves between two more ticks of the clock, he had it. It was too obvious; it had been handed him on a platter right at the start. That was why he’d had to endure so much before he suddenly realized that it was there. The one thing that separated the two of them. The one thing that made the Kraang vulnerable. The one thing anyone not so desperate or so close to the problem would have seen immediately.
The Kraang eased back to where he’d appeared, which they now saw was a hexagonal plate embedded in the floor. He moved onto the plate, shimmered, and was gone. Brazil waited there a minute, saying and doing nothing, then relaxed. “Well, I’m glad he’s gone! Yessir, ridin’ those hyperspacial nets . ..” He seemed in great spirits, as if enjoying some little private joke. Then he saw Julian, still the radiant daughter of heaven, although at the moment a wee bit disoriented. She suddenly lost her radiant glow, although he let her keep that perfect Erdomese form. It wasn’t bad, he thought appreciatively. Maybe the Kraang did have a little artist in him, after all.
“Go on back over with the others, Julian. You’ve just been unconverted,” he said lightly.
Mavra could not see why he was in such a wonderful mood. “You-you can just let that monster roam at will out there? After seeing what he can do?” “Oh, come on, Mavra!” Nathan Brazil scolded her. “You know when a con’s working as well as I do. Or at least you used to. I begin to wonder after the one you fell for yourself. Talk about amateurs! You fell for the worst, most basic, most obvious con I could think of-and it almost cost us everything. You’ve got to know deep down that this was one hell of a lot closer than I let him think it was.”
“I understood that much,” she responded. “And I’m aware that an awful lot more probably went on between the two of you than we’ll ever know. Did you really set up the Well so that you’d have to be here if any other Markovian managed to survive?” .
“Well, not exactly, but I think I’ll add that capability now before we leave. You see, the time when we were in here together so long ago. I added a condition that so long as I was around, alive and kicking, you couldn’t enter the Well except in my presence. Until we got here, I had no idea that the Kraang was still around, let alone that he was potentially loose, until you did.” “You what!”
“What are you so sore about? If I hadn’t done that, look at what would have happened!”
“You didn’t trust me!”
Nathan Brazil chuckled. “Hey, kid, you only had your learner’s card. Still do, in fact, considering how this turned out.”
“But-but-what about the Kraang? He’s still out there! And he’s still connected to the Well!”
“Yeah, he is, I guess,” Brazil sighed. “Only even he knew a con when he heard one, and he still fell for it once I realized what his weak spot was. And he’d told me-told us all-just what that one weakness was. He really was a god. He’d almost always been a god, or at least a god, junior grade. Man! Anything you wanted-the energy-to-matter transformers made it for you just like you imagined it! Anything you wanted to be, to experience, to use, to own, to look at. There it was. That’s how I conned ‘em during the Great Transmigration. I became Nathan Brazil, or a reasonable facsimile thereof anyway, in Glathriel, which was a kind of pet project of mine, anyway. I conned ‘em into thinking I’d gone the whole way, that I’d become a Glathrielian. The way I worked it, I showed up as just another guy, even to the Well. The only thing was, the Well had special instructions and links to me. I conned ‘em. Designed it right into the program.” “But the Kraang-”
“Is not designed into the program that way,” Brazil told her.
“Wait a minute,” Lori put in, feeling an immense weight slowly lifting from him. “If he’s not designed in like you or Mavra, then …”
“You got it!” Nathan Brazil responded lightly. “There’s hope for you yet, Lori.” “Well, I don’t get it!” Gus said, “and I don’t see nobody else gettin’ it, neither.”
But Mavra Chang suddenly did, and she started laughing, and the laughter grew so loud and long that it echoed through the great hall and woke up the baby again. “Mind letting us in on this, since you woke up the kid?” Gus called to her. She got control of herself. “Let me see if I got this right. When he left, he rode the hyperspace nets as he said, whatever the hell they are, and he came out someplace, just as he always did when he was back in ancient times. But all those worlds are dead now. They’ve been dead for billions of years. So he’s going to come out on a lonely, barren, incredibly ancient world of the Markovians, and he’s going to see only artifacts and death. He’s probably doing that right now. And then .. .” She started to laugh again and tried to fight it. “And then he’ll have no choice but to move on! He’ll probably have big, big plans, but to do them he’ll have to use the gate that’s there! And when he does …”
Lori suddenly saw it. “He’ll wind up back here!” he finished, openmouthed. “But in Zone. North or south, just like we did. And the only way he can get out is to use the Zone Gate, and that will process him just as it was designed to do so many years ago!”
“Wait a minute!” Gus put in. “Are you tellin’ me that the only place that egomaniacal bastard can go is right back here? And that when he comes through, his only choice will be to be transformed into one of the races here, just like ml So he’ll be as mortal, as ordinary as we are?”
“Unless he figures it out, sitting there on that world,” Brazil replied. “He might. Probably will, in fact. He was never a dummy, even back then. But then, so what? What’s his choice? To live like he did before, with everything at his beck and call, but alone, on a deserted world, not comatose but fully awake, looking at the skies all the time and not being able to do a damned thing about it. Totally, completely, thoroughly alone.”
“Until somebody conies along in a spaceship,” Mavra said worriedly. “He’s waited this long. He can wait.”
“It’s a pretty big universe,” Nathan Brazil pointed out. “But we can check and see just where he wound up. And maybe, before we leave, we’ll kind of nudge the probabilities of his ever being found a little more toward the infinite. Besides, even if he got off that world by conventional means, he’d be off the net, out of the loop. He wouldn’t dare ever go through a Well Gate. His data links will only be as good as his proximity to one of the ancient worlds, so what will he be? Not a god. At best a very smart freak. I think we can deal with the Kraang. The one absolute guarantee we now have is that at worst he can never be more than a local menace. He can’t get back in here, and he can’t get back on the net. He’s back to reality, just the way he was before he took himself out of the loop. All the old rules apply again.”
“Maybe you’re right. I hope so,” Mavra said.
“And now we can go on to lighter fare,” Brazil told her.
“You mean taking care of this bunch?”
“No, no, something far more of a puzzle than that.”
“Why’d you walk out on me in Babylon?” he asked.
Control Room 27,
Well of Souls
“I WANT YOU ALL TO COME DOWN WITH ME TO MY CONTROL room,” Nathan Brazil told them. “Just follow me. It’s not a long journey, not after the one you all have taken.”
Nobody objected. Nobody was in a position to object much to anything, having seen what one creature like Brazil could do.
“Do you really want to know?” Mavra asked him as they crossed the great hall. “Huh?”
“Do you really want to know why I left you in Babylon, or were you just being your usual self?”
“Yes. Of course I want to know.”
“You can read it from the data stream.”
“Not really. And that’s only the facts, not what’s inside you.” She thought about how to explain it. “Nathan, you really were comfortable there. And in all the other civilizations and cultures we passed through and lived in.” “Well, a few were new to me, but mostly, I’d been there before,” he admitted. “No, that’s not what I mean. You were in your element there. I’m not just talking about it being primitive, I’m talking about the fact that in spite of it all, you succeeded. You talked to tons of people, you ate and drank and sang songs with them, you had no trouble worming your way into their societies and getting what jobs you wanted. You’d already been captain of two trading vessels, one in the Red Sea and the other in the Mediterranean, before we ever reached Babylon.”
“Well, it takes some practice to-”
“No. You’re not connecting in spite of that super brain of yours at the moment. Don’t you see? While you were off with the boys drinking and carousing and telling tall tales, which is where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing, I was stuck back in wherever we were living. Or I was stuck with the other women-most of whom were ignorant, dull, and had never been out of the confines of their native cities or towns-doing the only stuff women were allowed to do. I didn’t fit with them; it’s not my style at all. The roles were so stratified that there was just no way to break out, really do something, interact with the interesting people, who were almost always men because the men got to do the interesting things. After a while I just couldn’t take it. There was a lot to see and do even in that ancient world, but I wasn’t allowed to do it, and your secondhand recountings only made it worse. Women were property in those societies; even at our levels they were expected to stay home and be protected and do womanly things. Break the rules, try something outside of those roles, and you got stoned, burned at the stake, or raped. You’ve never been a woman in those times. You can’t imagine what it’s like.”
“I’ve been a woman for part of this trip, even pregnant, and while it’s different, I can’t say as I can see the problem.”
“You experienced some of the physical aspects but not the social. Nathan, the only man of Terry’s race that you interacted with was, well, you. In fact, it’s much more liberating to be a woman here, particularly if you’re not in your own home hex. To all the other races you’re just another funny foreign creature. They may have hang-ups about their own men or women, but they don’t apply that to other races. You never once had to face the simplest challenge for a woman back on Earth, walking down a dark street at night in a strange city alone. I can’t describe it. I can do the same thing here, just like this, and it’s totally different. Both Julian and Lori understand what I mean, even if Lori kind of forgot it in a power trip that I find totally understandable. Even Campos had a taste of it, for all she learned from it. In my own era I lived with elements of it, but I had more freedom, more opportunity; I could become a spaceship pilot, go where I wanted, and be one of the group singing the songs and telling the stories. On Earth I felt shut out-and there was no relief in sight! It wasn’t any one thing, it was a lot of things. I walked into hell when I walked out on you, but it was no worse than the hell I was stuck in. That’s why, when I finally did get away, I didn’t come back. I couldn’t take that role again. I couldn’t live my life through your experiences.”