They had fused his hands to form hoofs and, after castration, had filled him with female hormones that had produced grotesque travesties of Erdomese breasts. Yet now the breasts seemed to have shrunk away while the legs and hooves seemed to have solidified and changed. Through the fragmented and confused mental haze he was in, he realized at some point that he was very, very different from what Campos had intended or how he’d started out under the hands of those maniacal butchers.
His vision was weak, distorted, and without color, but it had tremendous contrast abilities. It was hard to imagine that there were this many scales of gray. Vision was short-range but sharp straight on, but there was little if any peripheral vision to speak of. To see something to the side, he had to move his head rather than his eyes. It took some getting used to once he started to try to use his vision again for more than spotting things to step over. Anything outside a two-to seven-meter range was a gray blur. This was true day or night, although night was more comfortable. Bright light, even reflected, blinded him for a minute or more after he turned to avoid it. Hearing and smell were much more trustworthy than sight.
I’ve become some kind of a horse, he realized after a while. Not any horse he knew, but close enough. The forelegs were true forelegs, the front hooves true hooves, and the joints angled like a horse’s joints. Everything was proportional, comfortable, balanced. His nose and mouth had elongated and combined into an equine head, and somehow he’d grown a long bushy tail. His ears felt funny, too, but he couldn’t tell why. The one thing he still had as before was the horn.
A unicorn, he thought at last, the old vision coming from deep in the past. But a unicorn with no interest in virgins; most definitely a gelding. How did it happen, and how long had it taken? No way to know, but it was likely that those butcher bastards had access to technology far in advance of mere mutilation, perhaps some kind of rapid genetic manipulation.
Still, how rapid was “rapid”? Not only were the days under the drug’s influence a blur, but even when his mind had returned, his sense of time had not. When he was hungry, which seemed to be most of the time, he ate large quantities of grass and bushes and whatever else looked green and tempting. He wondered how much he weighed. He didn’t seem all that much bigger, certainly not true horse size. Probably the size of a Shetland pony, but perfectly proportioned. The thought of the virgins made him aware of just what had been removed. He remembered Alowi fondly but could not even recall what kind of sexual attraction she’d had. It was more than the loss of ability or desire; he seemed to have totally lost even the memories of the feelings that sexuality had brought, human or Erdomese, male or female.
He knew the lack of it should have bothered him, but it didn’t; instead, it only bothered him that there was now a hole somewhere inside him where something once valued and prized had been, something now utterly excised. It was in many ways the same as the loss of any sense of time and, oddly, no more disturbing or important to him.
There was a certain satisfaction in that. To deny him sexuality had been the heart of Campos’s revenge. That he neither missed it nor gave it any more thought after this was another slap in the bastard’s face.
He had become a unique animal but a consistent one. It was stupid and meaningless to dwell on anything he lacked, particularly something that was now no more than a set of definitions for how a species reproduced itself. If he could get a better handle on what it had once meant or felt like, perhaps he would think it a tragedy, but for now it seemed somehow-liberating. When one was without sex, one had no stereotyping, no fears or expectations based on a factor that did not apply to one, and when one was one of a kind, as lonely as that might become, there were neither expectations nor fears from peers. It was gone, every last bit of it, and being gone, it took with it all sense of deprivation or loss. It was irrelevant. “Relevant” was learning everything there was to learn about what he now was and how he interacted with everything else. The scent he followed, whose slightest trace he could pick out of hundreds of others, he soon realized was the scent of his own excrement. It interested rather than revolted him to discover that he had virtually no bladder or bowel control. It came out when it was ready and had to, but only when he was in motion, never when he was still or asleep. Once discovered, that fact, too, was simply discarded and not thought of again because it didn’t matter. That was how he was, period.
Each trip through the dim forests of Liliblod found him growing more and more comfortable with this new form and thinking about things that were important rather than dwelling on his twin pasts, both of which seemed to have decreasing relevance or even interest to him. Instead, he concentrated on developing his superior sense of hearing, which could pick out the song of a distant bird or a chorus of sonorous insects with ease, and in determining and cataloging what each sound meant. Similarly, classifying every scent, every odor, analyzing not only the ground and trees but the very breezes, provided vital information once he’d matched scent to source. Since there was a mind behind that classification system and nothing else to do but walk, smell and sound proved to be more precise than sight had ever been.
He knew he’d have to become an expert at this, since the same line of thought told him that he would have no choice but to escape as soon as he felt it was safe to do so. Not that he had any illusions about the rest of his life even if he did get away. He would neither understand nor be understood by anyone else, he had no hands or tentacles with which to write, and he didn’t know how to read any native languages. He’d be an animal, period, able to perhaps study and explore for the sake of knowledge but not to interact. It wasn’t what he would really want, but it was absolutely preferable to staying where he was. Death was better than that and more moral, but somehow he didn’t want to die. Not now. Not yet.
The fact remained, though, that he was carrying a drug that allowed evil people to poison other people, to steal their very minds and souls, and he simply could not continue to be a part of that. He felt bad about what he’d already carried for them, but to continue to serve them once he felt confident enough to get away was unthinkable. And, too, his careful studies of Liliblod had revealed something of the nature and nastiness of its inhabitants, and he knew that when someone got a whim or when he was older or perhaps got sick or hurt, those who now worked him would not hesitate to feed him to those damned tree-dwelling monstrosities.
He’d seen them clearly only once, although he knew their sounds and scents and knew that they were always there, high up above, a thought that also made escape seem attractive. Accompanied by one of his handlers, he had carried in a huge load of what smelled like monstrous chocolate bars. Part of the payoff, he understood, for the creatures keeping the back trails used by the couriers open to the drug runners and no one else. And down they’d come, from the very tops of the trees, where their vast ropelike webs created almost a roof over the hex. Huge spiderlike creatures the size of a ten-year-old child, with eight hairy legs that ended in small but malleable pincers and bright, shiny brown bodies topped by demonic heads with gaping mouths and hateful, bright red eyes. He and the handler left as quickly as possible, since chocolate had been known to send the Liliblodians into a frenzy of uncontrollable and often violent behavior. All female, the handler had told him. The tiny, mindless, wormlike males crawled literally into the wombs and were sealed inside, their outer skins dissolved by special juices releasing the sperm, and the remainder provided the food for the brood until they were ready to be hatched.
It was not a nice thought that so many of them, perhaps tens of thousands, were clustered up there and could drop down at any moment if the bargain suddenly seemed not to their liking. That was why they used “mules” like Lori for most of the work.
No, there would have to be an escape, and if this trail went only from Agon to Clopta, then his escape would have to happen at one of the ends of the route. He was pretty sure that there was no real escape in Liliblod.
He wished he knew what had become of the others. Although he felt no physical attraction, poor Alowi, or Julian, was still as close a friend as he had here, and without him she was in a real mess. She would never go home, but she might well kill herself, and that was the most worrisome thing of all. The Dillians were probably well out of it-he’d never really understood why they were in it in the first place, except that they’d once been human and were at least still a bit human, as were the others. Still, they had potential lives back in their home hex and no stake in this affair. And then there was Mavra Chang. If they had done this to him, what had they done to her? Or was that a long-term concern? Didn’t Mavra claim that she could not be killed, that anything injured or lost would regrow, that no damage was permanent to her? Sooner or later, no matter what monster they’d made of her, they’d have to take her to that Well, whatever it was. They’d have to risk it, whoever “they” might be, because the other fellow might get there ahead of her if they didn’t. Then she would be in real trouble, but then, whoever had Chang and hadn’t at least made the attempt would probably be in worse shape.
Well, there was little chance he’d ever find out how any of them had made out. It was enough to try to figure out how and where to escape.
Agon would be better geographically; it hadn’t seemed overly developed for a high-technology hex, and there was a lot of rough country in the north, and it was connected, if he remembered correctly, to other hexes for vast distances. The trouble was, he wasn’t ever technically in Agon; the cleverly concealed entrance to the headquarters was in Liliblod even though the whole underground complex was under Agon’s soil. It wouldn’t be much of a run to bypass it, but there were so many guards and so much in the way of defenses that it was a sure route to capture and disaster.
That left Clopta, which seemed almost paved over from the moment one reached the border, as overdeveloped as Agon seemed just right. But the warehouse there where the trail ended was well within the border and was in the middle of what appeared to be an industrial district. Most of the time a handler was right there, waiting, but every once in a while they missed him, and he would have to make his way several blocks along dark back alleys between warehouses and factories to the rendezvous. If they did it again, he would go. He felt as ready as he would ever be, and the alternatives seemed increasingly bleak. They wouldn’t expect it; they thought he still needed that drug.
He was always surprised when he reached the border, even though he could smell a bit of Clopta as he grew near. With no time sense and no more drug craving, he never seemed to know how long he’d been on the trail or just how far along it he might be. It was daylight by the time he reached it this time, and that meant he would have to stop and wait. There were clear instructions that under no circumstances was he to enter Clopta in daylight or while there was any traffic in the immediate area.
The hex boundary remained the most dramatic feature of the Well World, even now. It appeared to his altered eyes as a thin but infinite piece of semitransparent gauze at which the endless Liliblodian forest stopped with amazing suddenness, replaced by a brightly lit but sterile-looking mass of metallic buildings. It was hard to look at them too long; sunlight would catch some window or piece of polished metal, and he would be suddenly blinded. Muffled sounds of much activity came through the barrier: sounds of machinery operating, men yelling, vehicles going this way and that, huge doors sliding open or closed-all the sounds of a manufacturing district, although what they made there he did not know.
They had built right up to the boundary, too. Space was at a premium in lands with rigidly fixed borders, and they used it well. Most likely this had always been an industrial district; it was possible that the whole border with Liliblod was this way and that all heavy industry was concentrated in a strip. If he had these kind of neighbors, that was what he would do. He certainly hoped that it was so. It might mean that the rest of the hex was a lot more livable and perhaps had trees and forests into which he could disappear. If no one met him, it would make sense to go right, then left, keeping to the alleyways but off the trail. That would take him into the hex and away from any sort of activity. The trail had only ten or so meters in the open before it went into a thin alley between two tall, smelly structures. It did have to cross a few broader streets, some with loading docks on either side and a set of rails going down the center-he had to watch his step in order not to get a hoof caught in the gap. But the trail mainly kept to the back alleys and side streets until it reached the one warehouse where things went on after dark that were probably unknown to those who worked in the area during the day.
He hadn’t seen Campos, there or anywhere else, since the first couple of runs right at the beginning. Apparently she was satisfied enough by her first visits and didn’t need to see much more. It didn’t matter, anyway. Some things of an emotional nature had not been excised, and one of those, now that the drug had no more hold, might well cause him to impale a certain person on his horn no matter what the cost to himself and any future he might have, no matter how bleak. That might well be worth it.
I’ll bet Mavra spends at least a little bit each day regretting she didn’t listen to us and kill the little turd or at least leave him to the mercies of the People.
He ate and slept most of the day, waking up occasionally but not for long and mostly to eat some more. It seemed like no time before the shadows fell and night came upon the Well World.
He went close to the boundary but didn’t yet cross. He wanted all the sounds to vanish into the distance first.
Maybe this is it, he thought anxiously. Maybe nobody will show this time. But somebody did. No Cloptan except someone expecting him would ever go through that barrier in this direction, not unless it was on one of the main roads. The spider bitches would just love a little duck.
He recognized the little man by his scent. The Cloptan was a decent sort as handlers went, not too bright and very loyal but not cruel to the mules, either. He looked like some bastard relative of Gladstone Gander, except that he wore pants.
“Ah, it’s you, is it?” the man, whose name was Banam commented, although it sounded like nothing but deep melodic rumblings to Lori. “Well, you can come along now. It’s a holiday here tomorrow and everybody’s taken off early, anyway. I’ll just get my pushcart and follow you in as usual.”
Lori was used to people speaking to him when he couldn’t understand a word. In a way, he was even more cut off than a real horse, since even real horses could pick up a few common sounds or terms. It was the worst part of it all, an utter loneliness that came from having no way to truly communicate with anyone except, of course, the absent Campos.
There was a pronounced difference in air pressure when he penetrated the boundary and also a marked rise in humidity. He couldn’t tell much about the temperature, though, except that Banam wore only a light jacket, so it probably wasn’t very cold. That was another tiling Lori seemed to have lost; he wasn’t very aware of, or very sensitive to, temperatures of any sort. Early on, Clopta had been cold enough for him to see people’s breaths, but he’d barely felt a thing.
His hooves clattered against the paved street, echoing off the close-in walls. He’d been a bit annoyed that they hadn’t shoed him, since there was always the danger of a split hoof, but now he was glad of it. There wouldn’t be any blacksmiths able to provide the service if he cut out.
“Your design’s been a big hit with the bosses, I hear,” Banam commented chattily, never knowing if he could be understood or not and really not caring all that much either way. “I watched you change over the past coupla months from a real mess into a pretty slick-lookin’ animal. Heard ‘em say they’re gonna do it to anybody who can stand the operation or whatever it is. Ain’t for everybody, of course. They’d need black magic to make me into somethin’ like you, I think.” He chuckled at the thought. “Only thing different‘11 be that horn. No horns on the others. Makes some of ‘em kinda nervous, y’ know. Dunno why.”
The old fellow just kept chattering as they came up to the warehouse and the end of the trail. Then Banam walked to the front and pushed a series of numbers on the security lock. There was a sudden rumble, and the door slid up, allowing them to enter.
It was pitch dark inside, as always, but when the door came back down and settled with a crash, the lights came back on automatically. No sense in shining a beacon to the world that something was going on here.
They had a sort of stall for him in the back, reached through a maze of shelves, boxes, and palettes and well hidden from view even when the day shift was in. There were a couple of bales of hay there, a tub with water in it, and some thick straw on the floor. That was pretty much all he required. Banam unhooked the cinch and let the packs drop before he went into the stall area. He fumbled inside, removed a greasy-looking cube, and put it over on top of the hay. ‘There’s your big reward, fella. Enjoy. I gotta get help and get this up to the boss.”
It was the drug, of course, and now it smelled and tasted as bad as it looked and did nothing for or to him, but he had to keep eating it just to make sure that they didn’t suspect.
The one thing that seemed certain was that it would be another round trip before he could escape. Or was it? Had he been thinking the wrong way, perhaps? They almost always accompanied him back to the border but no farther. If he hugged the border and walked down quite a ways, he might well be able to escape on the way back. It made more sense than the other way, and the thought excited him. If he escaped just after leaving here, then they wouldn’t expect him at the other end for quite a while. They might even write him off as having been injured and thus made a banquet of by the Liliblodian locals. Now, that seemed to make real sense!
He tried hard to remember the maps. Clopta. Liliblod, and Agon were all on the coast. That meant Liliblod would be the border along this segment of the hex, going-what?-probably northeast. Southwest would mean the ocean, and that was no good, and north would most likely take him through the heart of Clopta, not a good option. In a high-tech hex it would be impossible to remain hidden forever. If he only knew how far along the border they were! It might well be shorter going north if they were near the point where three borders came together. Best not to take that much of a chance, though. Stick close to the border, check every once in a while, and go when it no longer smelled of spiders. After that it would be time to stop running and start exploring until he came up against something with an appetite as bad as a Liliblodian that he couldn’t outrun or impale.
No. Wait a moment. There was a potential destination, wasn’t there? The same one they’d had since the start. That place, that break between the hexes at the equator where those who knew how might be able to enter the inside of this strange planet. If anyone got there and could get inside, he wanted to be there. It was the longest shot in the universe, but it was all he had. If he could just survive, get up there, get to that entrance-way, and wait, no matter how long it took …
It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. It was somewhere to go and something to do, and it was at least a sliver, no matter how microscopic, of hope.
If not this trip, then the next. The first time they gave him an opening, he had to have the guts to take it. To get away, to get free, that was the first objective. Then, once safe, use the sun as a guide and head north all the way to the barrier, which he assumed was much like the barrier that formed the southern boundary of Erdom. Then west, toward where the sun rose on this backward-turning world. West until there was a door.
If not this trip, then the next. Or the next. Whenever it was possible. As hopeless as it all was, it was the only thing he had.
ALOWI HAD WALKED HOME FROM THE CLINIC FEELING NERVOUS and uncertain about what she had done. Nearing the place where she and the Dillians were staying, essentially a huge tent struck on some deserted landfill north of the city, she began to feel light-headed, and by the time she was inside, she had the start of a serious headache. Dizzy and sick, with a throbbing head, she lay down on the pillows in the rear area of the tent and pretty much passed out. More concerned and suspicious of everything were the Dillians, who found her out cold and decided that there was no purpose to rousing her. Some of this was to be expected from a radical injection, but as Doctor Drinh had feared, they were also quite suspicious at what Alowi had told them about the capabilities of the process. While Tony took care of some business at the port, Anne Marie put in a call to the capital.
While embassy operations on the Well World were best handled within Zone, most hexes had small offices whose function was to pass messages to and from Zone via Well Gate couriers. Reciprocity gave any race the right to use the service of any hex at all, and under diplomatic seal. It wasn’t beyond being compromised, but it was effective, and any hex found compromising the system would of course lose its own rights and privacy.
Anne Marie had no intention of giving an oral report but used a recording cube of the type standardized by Zone and put it under a password that was known on the other end only to the Dillian ambassador. She dispatched the cube via messenger service on the next train to the capital, where someone alerted by her call would pick it up and stick it in the next courier pouch. She had no idea who would ultimately hear the report and no real hope that those bureaucrats could decide on whether they had to go to the bathroom, let alone anything important, but it was worth trying.
In the message she had simply summarized Alowi’s experience to date and related the claims of Drinh and his reputation and voiced her suspicions with hope that all this would be relayed to the inner council committee that was in charge of the “immortals problem,” as they so euphemistically put it.
At least the committee had proved honest and reliable. While it had been next to impossible to sit on the rumor that the ancient and legendary Nathan Brazil might be back, the fact that Mavra Chang might be an immortal equal to Brazil had been suppressed to a remarkable degree. The most that seemed to have leaked was that Chang was wanted because she had known Brazil and might prove useful in motivating the mysterious man to make a deal. Brazil, however, remained the real target for all the factions out there nervous about either his possible powers or his potential; Chang’s cover story had been increasingly reinforced to the point where no one outside the council took her as more than a minor player, of no great advantage unless one had Brazil and perhaps not even then. Now, with the readily recognizable Brazil missing for so long and the Avenues well covered, even the mild hue and cry of earlier times had faded. Most believed him a fable and the missing man simply a man, no more or less, a man who had caused stupid panic and rumors and who was now probably dead. The council was doing a nice job of covering up, but it had neither of its own objects in sight, let alone in hand. Brazil had vanished and was possibly at least neutralized as far as could be surmised from current information, and Chang had been abducted by the drug cartel and was undoubtedly a prisoner or worse by now. The fact that the drug lords had done nothing with her, though, indicated that they didn’t know who and what they had, and it was feared that any attempt to find her might just tip them off to a key to potentially vast powers.
It was for this reason that they had allowed nothing to be done, since that was what they preferred as a normal course of action, anyway. Now, though, the report from Anne Marie caused a great deal of concern. If the drug lords had worked their usual tricks on Mavra Chang, she could literally look like just about anything; if she really was Brazil’s equal, then she could not be killed and thus eventually had the potential to get free-or, worse, break under the strain and try to make her own deal with the drug lords out of desperation. If Mavra Chang no longer bore any resemblance to Mavra Chang, then the guards at the Avenues had nothing at all to go on, and they could hardly be obtrusive about barring all and sundry from those equatorial entrances without tipping the game to everyone.
If there was a chance of locating Mavra Chang, the committee knew, then it had to be taken. But patiently and with sufficient safeguards, no matter how ruthless, to keep the true value and nature of the quarry from those who might use her.
Once they decided that they had to move, they wanted to move yesterday, but it had to be done right. Still, it seemed to them that their long lag time had finally run out.
“The Dillians in Agon will almost certainly move on this if we do not,” one councillor argued. ‘This cannot be left to amateurs. If they move, they will certainly fall into the hands of the cartel, who will be merciless in finding out why they were willing to make such a risky move. If the cartel even suspects Chang’s true value, all could be lost.”
“True,” another agreed, “but neither can we leave them out, unless we want them disposed of.”
The Dillian ambassador objected. “That is out of the question! Only if the future of the Well World and our authority were clearly at risk would we permit that! Besides, if Chang now looks nothing like she did, they may well be the only ones who could establish that a suspected being is Mavra Chang. Remember, two were taken, and we have no way of telling if we capture one just which one we have. We agree, however, that this is no job for amateurs alone. Who do we have in the region?”
“The Agonese authorities are compromised,” another pointed out. “That leaves only that immigrant Leeming and the renegade Dahir in the area, both trying to find Brazil. The Leeming has proved reliable and has some feel for this sort of work-”
“But he lost Brazil!” the first councillor pointed out. “He enjoys the work but clearly isn’t all that competent at it!”
“And we are, I suppose?” the Dillian retorted. “We’ve managed to lose both of the immortals while we engaged in endless debate and delay. Still, I agree that a native, one of us who is beyond reproach, must be in charge. Preferably someone who knows the area and has familiarity with the drug cartel. Any candidates?”
The problem was fed to the Zone computers, and after a process of elimination, one name, and only one, stood out. “Now the only trick is to prepare a cover story for going after Chang,” the Dillian ambassador said, nodding. ‘That and convincing the Agonese government to give him full authority in this matter without their corrupt elements tipping off the cartel.”
“That,” said another, “will be far easier than what we are asking this fellow to do!”
Anne Marie, however, had finally galvanized the council into action. The long wait was about to end.
For their part, the Dillians, knowing nothing of this, waited to see what the disreputable clinic might have done to poor Alowi.
The answer, at least from their point of view, seemed to be nothing more than what had been claimed. Alowi seemed more content with herself and more confident and no longer seemed troubled by runaway inner drives.
No one, of course, was more nervous about this than Alowi herself. Becoming a guinea pig possibly at the hands of one’s enemy was an act of desperation but reasoned action nonetheless.
At first she simply felt, well, normal, and for a while that was enough. Those inner urges, those bouts of losing control, of nearly sick cravings, seemed to vanish while leaving little in their place. This was not, of course, normal to an Erdomese, but it seemed normal in almost any other context. She felt, well, much like Tony and Anne Marie seemed to feel, or Mavra. She was simply herself, but in complete control, not needing anything just to remain sane. Free. Free to study, free to learn, free of any thought of returning to Erdom. Yet when she looked at herself in the mirror, she liked what she saw. If anything, she liked it more than she had, felt more comfortable about the person who stared back at her. Although those urges and emotions had at times been overwhelming and omnipresent for what had seemed forever, it now was difficult, even impossible, to remember what that had felt like. She felt every bit a female, no less than before; certainly she didn’t feel sexless or frigid or an “it.” And yet, well, those things she’d gathered around or made or picked up in the markets that were so obviously phallic now seemed pretty silly. She wasn’t quite sure just what sort of change other than allowing her independence the doctors had wrought, but if this was the extent of it, well, it was something she could surely live with and might have died without.
Tony came back from the city with what she hoped was an answer to Anne Marie’s report of only a few days before. Anne Marie, at least, was excited. “This is the first time they ever sent a reply to one of our reports! And so quickly, too! Perhaps they’ve found something out! Play it!”