Brazil was silent for a bit, thinking over what she’d said and sifting it in his mind. “In primitive societies I don’t see a way around it, really. With their lives so very short, they built their societies to ensure propagation. ‘Women and children first’ was the old rule, and women were noncombatants because each woman could bear a child only once every nine months while one man could impregnate one woman a day. It’s ironic, really, that much of this evolved more than anything else out of the basic social realization that men were expendable. Even conquering armies would slay all the men but carry the women off. There were exceptions, of course-there always are. But we can’t be the exceptions in any of those societies; sooner or later somebody will notice that everybody else is aging, growing old, and we aren’t. The exceptions-Hypatia, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc-they get written up in history books.”
“Yeah, and most of them die violent deaths at young ages, anyway,” she noted. “I looked for the Amazons in Greece but never really linked up with them. I think I’d have been a little small for their lot, anyway. The only place I did find any peace and equality was on a little island off the coast of southern Greece that was an all-woman society, but it turned out to be a lot more boring and more a matriarchy than I figured. Besides, I didn’t ‘look’ right to them. I was accepted as a guest, but I couldn’t stay, not with these features. I began to wonder, though, whether you had to have an all-female army or an all-female society to just get some sense of freedom.”
“And when you found it, however basic, in the Amazon rain forests, you just stayed. Yeah, I can understand the situation, but it’s not quite the good and easy life being a man, either. Still, you should have come out and taken a look once in a while. Things changed, dramatically. Not all the way, but a lot better, even in my namesake Brazil and more to the north in America and in Europe.”
“I found that out with Lori and Julian. A woman astronomer and professor, a guy who flew in spaceships … It was so damned slow, and then everything seemed to happen in a hurry. But by that time I was so isolated, so set, and had been doing it for so long, I barely remembered any other life. And all I saw there was women’s pain, and heard stories of more of it, and I had no desire to move.” “Urn, excuse me,” the colonel interrupted. “I hate to intrude, but just where are we going? And why?”
“Just come down the moving ramp here and follow,” Brazil said in an irritated tone. “We’re going down to the control room so we can decide just what the hell to do with all of you.”
Campos crossed herself.
The moving walkway went down into the bowels of the planet. Every once in a while it would take them right through a hexagonal portal of deepest black, as if going into a tunnel, only there was no tunnel there. They quickly became aware that every time they did that, they moved a tremendous distance in a very short time.
Finally they reached Brazil’s destination, going through a bizarre workshop whose size was on a scale that dwarfed their imaginations. Everything was massive, was apparently working, and looked as if it had been built two days earlier and cleaned just before they arrived.
There were openings all around in a massive hexagonal shaft, not just on their level but going up and down as far as they dared look. The openings were marked because they were not hexagons but great semicircles, and inside each was darkness-darkness but not inactivity, as countless small bits of energy flew and routed and shot around almost as if they were tiny galaxies in accelerated motion. They went in between two such openings and down a short corridor and found themselves in a room that bore no resemblance to any they’d seen before. The wall was filled with tiny triangular shapes, each with a unique code on it in some kind of luminescent dots. In the center were two very strange looking pedestals, and as Brazil glided to one and crawled into it, it was suddenly obvious that these were in fact chairs for the race that had worked here. Mavra, still human, pulled herself up on the other one and sat cross-legged on it, looking at the others. They in turn all stood looking back at them, both fearful and nervous.
“You’ll pardon me if I have to remain in this form,” Nathan Brazil said to them. “I need to do that to interact with and control the machinery with any precision. I think we ought to conclude our business as quickly as possible now, and we’ll start with the easy ones. Tony? Anne Marie? You got what I promised you back in the hills west of Rio that night. You got yourselves involved early with the wrong folks, but you also stuck with Julian and saw the consequences through. I can only ask you what you want to do now.”
Tony and Anne Marie both frowned. “Just what exactly do you mean, Captain?” Tony asked.
“Just what I said. Would you like to return to Dillia?
Would you rather go to where the Dillian project wound up? A world still a bit primitive but civilizing fast, much like our old one in that regard, in which your present kind are the dominant species? Or would you rather be someone, something else? Tony a man again, perhaps?”
“Oh, dear. This is for real and forever, isn’t it?” Anne Marie responded. “I-I’m afraid I don’t know what to say. I’m quite satisfied the way I am. I’m young, healthy, and attractive, and other than being young before, the other two are still very new to me. I hardly feel like second-guessing your computer.” “I have but one regret,” Tony told them. “I regret that in this form I cannot fly again. I did love it, you know. But this is not a bad form, and it has a great deal to recommend it. I never did put much stock in what people looked like on the outside, anyway. Anne Marie is my dearest friend, but I would never even have met her had not misfortune sat so heavily on us both. As opposites, we would of course marry, and our course would be fixed, and that perhaps would be a shame. We would never know our potential or be able to become individuals. I think this machine is perhaps wiser than we. I would never have dreamed of this solution, but it is the one that is right for both of us. As for the Dillian world, it would be fascinating but not, I think, as fascinating as the endless variety right here.” She took Anne Marie’s hand and squeezed it, and the other smiled knowingly.
“Let’s go home, dear,” Anne Marie said softly, and she meant to Dillia. She took the baby and gave it to Gus, who
looked most uncomfortable with it, and after he did what he could to support the child, he looked back to complain to Anne Marie that maybe he wasn’t the right one for this job.
But the two centaurs suddenly weren’t there anymore.
“And now we have you, Colonel,” Nathan Brazil said with a stern tone creeping into his voice. “You have a very
warped view of honor and duty, I think. Anne Marie compared you to Talleyrand. I met Talleyrand once, and I checked to make sure I still had my purse when I left. Still, everything he did, beyond ensuring his own survival, was because he believed that he was doing his best to serve his country and its people. In a sense he was a pragmatic anarchist. He knew that his nation was going to have a government, and he firmly believed that no matter what that government was, it wasn’t the one France truly needed. He was trying to save what he could through it all, and he did a reasonable job, considering the obstacles. But you’re no Talleyrand, Colonel. You never cared about your country or your people. You climbed up from virtually the bottom, and then you forgot what it was like to be there. You didn’t just sell your service to get out. you sold your soul. You never even thought of the people you hauled in during the dictatorship as real people. And you sold your services and honor on the side to some petty drug lords of a neighboring nation whose product infected your own people as badly as those to the north. Then you got here, and what did you do? The Leeming accorded you rank beyond anything a newcomer deserved, and you sold it again-to the same damned types of people! And then you rationalized every single bit of it. You’re amazing, Colonel. You’re the only man I know who sold his soul twice to the same bidders.”
“You are unfair! I never betrayed my country! Never!”
Brazil gave a big sigh. ‘That’s the tragedy, Colonel. You can’t even understand what you did. ‘I didn’t gas the Jews! I just followed Himmler’s orders!’ My, I heard that one enough! No, Colonel, you didn’t betray anybody. And all those homicidal fanatics in Peru got a lot of their money because you arranged transit to Venezuela for their goods. And then those goods went all over the planet and poisoned thousands, tens of thousands. But you didn’t do it. Like those death squads you allowed to go through Rio and Sao Paulo and the other cities of Brazil, killing off all those poor children-children. Colonel!-because they were bad for business. Just tidying up. Doing your duty for God and country, going to confession once a week to be absolved of all your sins. Take the Eucharist on Sunday with a clear conscience.”
“Do not lecture me! You! The mighty immortal! How can you know what it is like to have to fight and starve and claw your way to anything before you die? You know you will survive, ageless, through the generations!”
“Oh, I’ve seen death, Colonel,” Brazil told him. “Death is a very old friend. I admit he’s never come for me, although I had a little glimpse of him when I thought I might not make it here. I’ve seen death clearer than almost anyone. It’s all around me. Always! I see it take everyone, the rich and poor, young and old, innocent and guilty alike. Sometimes I have to run from it. I have to make myself hard in order to stand the view. But I hate it. I hate it more than I hate anything else. Maybe I can’t understand what made you this way, not really, but I can understand that for everyone in your position when you began, most did not make the choices you did. No, Colonel, I reject your thesis.” The colonel drew himself up and became the semblance of the man he’d been, impressive and ramrod straight. “Then we can never resolve this. I am your prisoner. I die with dignity, like a soldier! I will not crawl or beg!” “I’m not going to kill you, Colonel,” Nathan Brazil told him. “I’m not going to kill anybody here, not even Campos, who deserves it more than anybody. I’m going to give you an opportunity you never gave any of your victims. I’m going to give you one last chance to get your soul back.”
The colonel vanished.
Campos was increasingly nervous. “Where did he go?” she demanded to know. “What did you do with him?”
“I sent him back.”
“Back! Back where?”
“Home. To Brazil. In a little while he’ll wake up and discover where he is. He’ll find that a few things have left him. The knowledge that comes from education, reading, writing, a wide vocabulary, other languages, that sort of thing, but he will know. He will know even though where he will wake up is in a corrugated box in a garbage dump on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. He’ll be a child again, but this time an orphan dressed in rags, along with all the other such people who try to survive day to day on the garbage of the well-to-do whose homes they can see way off in the hills and in the downtown high-rises. The original child died of exposure and malnutrition the instant he went into the body. He won’t die, though. Not right off. Not if he moves fast enough and hides well enough. It’s lower than he’s ever been. It’s about as low as you can be. And I’ve given him an added little factor, an added degree of difficulty, so he can have a real appreciation of those he never saw in life except as victims. The child I chose from far too many available to me is a nine-year-old girl.” “You bastard!” Campos cried. “And what will you do to me? The same sort of miserable thing? Well, go ahead! No matter what you do to me, I shall always be a Campos! Not even being a female duck could stop me! You better kill me or I will rise from whatever depths you plunge me into! And unless you wish to bathe your own hands, or whatever they are, in innocent blood, remember that there is still a Campos here!”
“No there’s not,” Brazil responded. “The baby’s father is Carlos Antonio Quail, a sergeant in the Brazilian Air Force, and the union wasn’t even forced.” Before Campos’s expression had even fallen at this, Brazil added, “And I just love challenges!” And with that. Juana Campos vanished as well.
Mavra looked at him. “Well?”
“What did you do to the SOB? I think he was right, by the way. I didn’t kill him when I had the chance, and look at the horrors he caused here. I was never really positive before, but now I know that there really are some people so totally evil that you just can’t teach them.”
“Who said anything about teaching? Maybe I’m wrong, but he gave me a challenge and I accepted. I sure wouldn’t put her in a box in Sao Paulo. In ten years she’d probably have the most vicious girl gang in that city. Still, let’s see.” “You’re not going to tell me?”
“Later. We have other business before we can get to our business.” “At least-the kid really isn’t his?”
“No. That’s how Terry diverted attention from the meteor while you and the others got through. It was your own plan, remember.”
“Urn, yeah. I’m not feeling so great about that now. Still, I’m glad to know it hasn’t got any trace of the Campos bloodline.”
“Yeah, what’re you gonna do with this kid?” Gus asked them. “I’m getting real nervous just trying to hold him right, and he’s pissed all over me once already!”
“Patience, Gus, we’ll get to you,” Brazil said lightly to the Dahir, and then turned his attention more to Mavra. “Well? You’re the one who made the promises to Lori and Julian.”
She shrugged and looked at the Erdomese, who both felt that they were present at the Last Judgment. “I promised you two anything you wanted if I got here. Well, I’m here.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know what to ask for,” Lori responded. “I’ll tell you what I would want, or at least I think I do, but I can’t say how. I put a lot of time and effort into my field because I loved it. Maybe I was trying to prove something to myself, maybe I was trying to excel as a woman in a man’s field, all that, but the bottom line was that there were a lot of places I could have done that. When I got here, I enjoyed being a man in a man’s society for once, but it was a society I didn’t want to live in. I could look at the stars, more than I’d ever known, through Erdom’s bright, clear skies, but I couldn’t study them. I couldn’t work in physics at all. The most I could be, under optimum conditions, was muscle. A strong arm with a sword. I wanted more than that. I had more than that back home. I like this form, its strength, its power, the absence of the kind of fear Mavra told you about, but what good is it if it’s all you are or can ever be? The only thing of real value I got out of Erdom was Julian.”
Julian gave him a humorless smile. “And that’s what I am, even to you. A ‘thing’ of value,” she noted. “I can’t blame you any, really. When we came through that hex, that matriarchy, where the women ruled supreme and the men were no more than objects, there was no real difference. I’m still not even sure if I think like a woman, really, or like a guy who was forced to take what he dished out. I know that most women can’t see the serious problems that men have in society-their lack of freedom-and part of that is that they don’t want to. When you’re down, you resent the ones that are higher up. When you’re a higher-up, you forget what it was like to be down. And neither side can ever really come together. Me, I’ve got the impossible problem. I finally came to terms with this shape and form and sex. I like it. I like the way I look, the way I feel, and I’ve found I can do things many of the men couldn’t. But I don’t want to go back to being a piece of property, a ‘thing of value,’ without a voice, without rights, without even the freedom to think serious thoughts. I was a scientist, too, you know. I kept faith because I needed Lori, and he needed me, but, let’s face it, I don’t need Lori anymore.” Lori seemed shocked at the statement Julian made and shook his head sadly. He didn’t understand this at all. Mavra shook her head sadly at Julian. “You’re wrong. You’re still wrong. You’ve been through all this, more experiences and more damned personalities than most folks could ever imagine, and you haven’t really learned a thing. A person alone who needs nobody else isn’t a whole person at all. Even the plant creatures here interact. And I don’t know anybody, except maybe Nathan and myself, who needs somebody more than you do. In a sense, the Kraang was right about you. What don’t you like about Julian Beard? That he was self-centered, egotistical, that he saw everybody else as kind of props in his life? I got that much from you the moment you stepped in here, but he wasn’t a bad man, just vain and selfish to the core. The Well took that away from you, and in a vain and selfish fit you decided death was better than not being the center of the universe. Lori rescued you from that, but he didn’t make you the center of the universe, either. Within the limits of that atrocious society he tried to make you a partner, but you couldn’t stand it in the end. You couldn’t survive that way, or at least you didn’t want to, and you couldn’t survive any other way. You were so desperate to break free that you let those butchers mess with your mind even though you had a pretty good idea that they’d mutilated Lori and me. You were relieved when you found Lori as a horse. That put you in the center again, the one controlling him. Even then you needed his guts to get here.” Mavra sighed and looked over and up at Nathan’s pulsating bulk. “Well? You got the big brain right now. What do you think?”
“I think that while we’re going to have to correct Erdom a bit, these two just don’t belong in a nontech environment,” Brazil commented. “On the other hand, a kind of compromise that you sort of suggested with your comments and a few things said elsewhere here present a possibility.”
“That I suggested?” Mavra came back, puzzled.
“Yeah. It’s going to take some really major work here, though. Let me see. Gus? You’ve been the most solid one through this whole mess. If there’s anyone I’d want with me in a nasty situation, it would be you. You’ve also got more moral sense than the rest of the bunch put together.”
“Nice to hear,” Gus told him. “But it don’t count for much, does it? I’m a big, fat lizard holdin” Terry’s baby, but all that time I thought I was stickin’ by her, it turned out to be you.”
“No, you’re wrong, Gus,” Brazil told him almost tenderly. “She was there. I had to hide myself so thoroughly that not a trace of my true self emerged. Occasionally I had to switch back and forth between that damned rehab tank in Agon and her body. She knew, Gus. She was there all along.”
“Until your comin’-out party. Where is she now?” he asked.
“In that body, my old body, which has healed with astonishing speed, at least from the point of view of the medical people there. They’re the ones keeping her sedated for the moment. In fact, they’ve taken it out of the tank, restrained, still sedated, and have transported it to the Agonese capital for shipment through the Zone Gate there. I’m afraid they’re in for a nasty shock this time. That body’s linked to me. Everything they’ve done to it I’ve known, felt, just as if I were still in it. I’ve deliberately kept it alive and healing. When it comes through the Gate, oh, almost any minute now if my timing’s right . .. One of the hexes in the floor of the control room turned black, and a figure was suddenly there, as if faded in. It was Nathan Brazil’s own body, with long, wildy flowing hair and beard, lying stark naked on the floor.
The body stirred, sat up, and looked around, a very confused look on its face. “What? Who … ?” it asked in his voice, then saw Brazil in his native form and scrambled backward.
“Come on, Terry! We didn’t go through all that together to be put off by looks, now, did we?”
The figure frowned, then got unsteadily to its feet, eyes on the pulsating creature. “You-you’re-him! You are him!” Then, suddenly aware of the beard and other odd feelings, it said, “Or am I him? This is crazy!”
“You played around inside me before,” Brazil reminded her. “Now we’ll have to keep you there for a little bit. Don’t worry, it’ll all work out.” “Terry?” Gus said hesitantly. “Is that you in there? I mean, if it is, you can talk!”
“Yeah, I-what happened to me, anyway? I followed those signs into that swamp, and then there were these people, and then everything seemed to be all different all of a sudden. I-I remember all of it, I think, but half of it doesn’t make any sense! Neither does this, for that matter!”
“I had a tough time figuring out the Glathrielian system,” Brazil admitted. “If we hadn’t spent all that time together on the island, I might never have gotten it to the level where I could manage what I did. When that volcano blew and I got conked by the tree keeping you from drowning, there was a moment when my human part and all of you merged inside that head. The only part of me that was left in your body was this, the part you could never reach. It took a couple of weeks of healing in that hospital in Agon before my-our-brain began functioning well enough that I reestablished contact and was able to sort us out. Now that my old brain, which repairs itself like the rest of the body, is functioning normally, all that was you can use it. You’re back, even if not quite as you were.”
“I, uh-” Terry reached down and shook his head. “I’ll be damned. I always wondered what it felt like to have one of those.”
Gus cleared his throat, which was a somewhat menacing sound although not intended that way. “Um, Terry. You remember this?”
He went over and looked down at the baby and smiled. “Yeah, I do. Whose is it, anyway? I’m not my own kid’s father and mother, am I? That would be too much!” “No, I’m sterile. I have to be,” Brazil assured her. “Remember your diversion at the meteor back in the Amazon?”
“Oh, him! Damn! Still, he is cute. Let me hold him!”
“Gladly,” Gus responded, handing over the child. “Um-do you remember me, Terry?” “Yeah. You could flip in and out, like, so folks couldn’t see you. For a while you were my only real friend.”
“Terry, that’s Gus,” Mavra told her. “I’m Alama, and that tall furry creature with the horn on his head is Lori.”
Terry gasped. “Oh, my God! Gus? Lori?” He laughed, and it wasn’t at all like Brazil’s laugh. If one knew both Terry and Nathan, one could see Terry in every move and hear her in every spoken word. Finally, still gently cradling the baby, he said, “So we’re all kind of scrambled up here, and we’re all standing here before a talking turnip with tentacles and the queen of the Amazons. If I ever got this story on the air, they’d lock me up in an asylum.”
“Well, that brings up our situation,” Brazil said, finding even himself a bit disconcerted talking to, well, himself. “We have four-actually, now five-people left here, all of whom have problems. The child was born on the Well World to a creature who’d been processed. Because of the laws and limits of probability, the only way I could send you, Terry, and the baby back without making a real mess of things would be to Earth at a point in time after the gate closed. Nine months plus a few days, to be exact. As far as reality was concerned, you’d have spent the whole time as you’d originally planned, in the Amazon jungle with the People. That’s the way the math runs here. Terry alone I could deal with in any way I pleased, but the baby complicates it beyond belief. From your standpoint, you wouldn’t have made that last jump. Instead, you would have stopped short. You wouldn’t remember anything that’s happened here, and you would have spent nine months with the People and had the baby with them.”
“The baby’s a boy, so you’d have to give it up to one of the regular tribes or leave the People,” Mavra pointed out. “I’d leave,” Terry said flatly. “I know.” Brazil told her. “But you would never go back to civilization. You’d join one of the tribes there, and both you and the boy would remain with them. You know that if you ever went back to civilization, you’d be a freak, a ten-minute story for two or three days on your own old network, and then that would be that. You’d stay, you’d have many more children, and you’d grow old watching them grow up as members of the Amazonian tribe.”
“That’s not much of a future,” Terry noted. “It’s a choice. If you stay here, you’ll be racially Glathrielian, but you won’t be rewired again. What limited powers you can use without that, you will retain. Your baby will be safe, too. I’ll see to that. I’m going to keep tinkering with that bunch until I get them right! But they’ve got a long way to go even to get beyond the Amazonian stage themselves.”
“You’re saying it’s jungle or swamp? My choice? Some choice!”
“Not necessarily. I’m going to attempt something that is very, very difficult here. I’ve never done it before, but there’s no reason it can’t be done. In fact, in theory it should be easier than most other things around here because it’s built into the old mechanism. When we started off here, the hex attributes were symmetrical. High-tech to semitech to nontech in repeating radial patterns. Over time, as races proved out, we moved them out to the worlds and built new races that often required different limitations than the previous tenants. Over time it became a jumbled mess like today. But the mechanism for switching them around is still there, still accessible. The effect will be so unnoticed in most places that it’ll take some time to discover it’s been done. Only one of them will know right off, and it’ll most likely destroy their current civilization. As far as I’m concerned, it’s worth bringing them down a notch. Anyway, they’re clever people. They’ll survive.”