Tony removed the cube and pressed her thumb firmly on the one side that had an inlaid red surface. The cube took a few cells of skin, compared them with the genetic code it carried, seemed satisfied, then said in a voice that came through as a soft and pleasant woman’s voice, “Please do not play the rest of this inside your home. Take it to an open area well away from any others, particularly natives, and repeat the process. The cube contains a small zonal scrambling device that will cover an area about three meters square, so be close to it. The message will play only once, erasing itself as it plays, so pay close attention. When done, burn the cube in any open fire. The message will now pause until you take these precautions, and you will not hear this preamble again.” “My goodness!” Anne Marie exclaimed. “Sounds rather serious, doesn’t it?” “It certainly sounds as if something, at least, is going to happen,” Tony agreed. “Let’s take the precautions and go down to the jetty and see what they have to say.” She paused a moment and had a puzzled look. “I wonder why that many precautions. Surely they do not think that even this tent is bugged-could they? I mean, who would bug us?”
“Someone who is certainly near death from boredom,” Anne Marie responded. “Still, let’s do this cloak and dagger business by the rules, dear.” They all left the tent and went down perhaps two hundred meters to the jetty, where the gentle ocean water, softened by far-off undersea reefs, lapped against the sides. It was a nice, bright day, warmer than usual and with a gentle wind. There was nobody else around close enough to observe them. The three gathered close, and Tony took out the cube and pressed again on the red area. “This is Ambassador Aliva speaking for the Special Committee,” said the female voice in Dillian, which the two centauresses understood directly and made an extra authenticity check possible as well. “We have evaluated our report on this clinic and its specialists, which coincides with intelligence from other sources, and we believe that you have stumbled on the key to the disappearances and also to why action is now mandated. As a result, we have arranged for an Agonite whose character is beyond question and who has both knowledge and authority in combating this criminal syndicate to assume command of a special unit that will follow up this lead.
“His name is Janwah Kurdon, and he is an officer in the Agonese Secret Police. Please do not be put off by this; Kurdon has been in something like an exile since mounting a campaign against the syndicate and being blocked by corrupt higher-ups. We have arranged for his restoration of rank and position, and it is understood that any Agonite official who gets in the way of the special unit will be placed under suspicion by the Zone Council of aiding and abetting interhex criminal activities. It is very likely that they will do their best to stay out of your way to avoid even the slightest hint of corruption, but it is inevitable that they will use their own people to try to anticipate your actions and report them to the criminal gang. Agon itself has become too industrialized to be self-sufficient in food; it is also clearly understood that anything less than government cooperation could mean a blockade and embargo. We have already notified the government of this and have heard the protests, but we have the votes here on our side.”
“Goodness!” Anne Marie said. “They can certainly knock heads if they decide they want to!”
“You may, if you wish, become part of this special unit, but understand that the personal danger is very great, that this cartel is totally ruthless, and that while we can act against officials and the nation if need be, we cannot protect you individually. Also, you must accept Agent Kurdon’s complete authority and act only under his orders. Otherwise, you will have to leave the country and return home or go elsewhere. You may also not travel to Liliblod or Clopta without being under the unit’s authority; the former does not consider what the gang does a criminal act and operates under a different and not altogether scrutable logic, while the latter is at least as corrupt as the government of Agon and far less competent. As we cannot protect you and as you must suspect Kurdon is less than excited about being saddled with those he considers both aliens and amateurs, nothing will reflect on you if you choose not to continue, and you will be informed of any results. However, if you do accept the terms, complete what business you might have yet to do and meet the special unit in Subar, the northern city where you first made contact with us, in precisely four days. Go to the Central Prefecture there and simply ask for Agent Kurdon. He will then brief you on what will be happening next.”
“One more thing,” the message concluded. “Do not return to that clinic or contact the staff there again even if something is scheduled or they call and ask to see any of you. Make any excuse, but do not go. Operations are already under way as regards them that you might only jeopardize or, worse, alert the staff about. For the record, the cover story is that we believe genetic reengineering is being employed to possibly replace or enslave existing officials or whole populations and we are going after the proof of that. Under no circumstances is anyone, least of all the gang, to suspect that we are after more than that. We have also planted information that your two missing comrades have vital information for the council and that if they are located, in any form, and the reengineering stopped, we will not act further against the organization. We can only hope that this will buy them their lives, or at least enough time to locate them.
“May the blessings of all the gods be with you in this endeavor. This message is at an end. Please bum this cube and do not attempt a replay. The message in it is already gone, but another attempt will produce nasty consequences. Farewell.” “I’m not sure I liked the last of that,” Tony commented. “It really sounded like a rather formal kiss-off. Like she never really expected to hear from us again.” “Well, we will just have to surprise her, won’t we, dear?” Anne Marie responded, then looked over at Alowi. “Well! Why so glum? This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Alowi nodded, but slowly and hesitantly. This was what she’d wanted all along, of course. So why did she feel so little like following up on it? Lori, after all, had saved her life at the start of all this and for a very long time had been her only friend.
“I am glad something is happening, of course,” she answered lamely, “but, well, I am just concerned. Concerned about what we might find, where this is all leading. I will be all right.”
But it was more than that. After the Dillians began their preparations to shut down their trade operation, leaving her to begin the packing-up process, she tried to put her finger on it. She really did know at least a part of her problem, and it was tough trying to get around that. Lori wasn’t just a friend, he was her husband, and the last thing she wanted right now was a husband, now or ever again. Memories of long conversations, the sharing of intimacy down to her very soul with him, now seemed distant and colored with an unpleasant veneer that seemed somehow impossible to remove.
She certainly wanted Lori liberated, but their relationship couldn’t be like it had been even if by some miracle he was unchanged or could be restored to his previous form. Particularly not in that case … A whole litany of things that had attracted her and turned her on to him in the past now seemed in retrospect to be the opposite. Even his personality, mannerisms, the way he interacted with her and with others seemed distant, alien at best, and in some ways downright repugnant to her.
Finding him a malformed invalid seemed at least less threatening to her, and she felt awful for thinking that thought. Even so, she felt no duty toward him, no real attraction at all.
She had been happiest right here, with Tony and Anne Marie, free to explore her own potential without any feelings of repression or any demands she didn’t like. Tony and Anne Marie had remained for her sake, and she loved them for it, and while she knew deep down that this arrangement could never be permanent, she didn’t want it to end.
One had to have been on both sides of the sexual boundary to know just how defining the roles were, how they shaped and misshaped people. Seen from Alowi’s perspective, she hated, despised Julian Beard. He’d been swaggering, loutish, and self-centered to a fault, committed to his own goals but seeing no commitment toward others-it was no wonder he couldn’t stay married to anybody. Yet she saw the essence of all that was wrong in him in just about every male she’d met or could think of, regardless of race. It was almost as if every quality she valued seemed lacking in every male yet present in the vast majority of females. Lord-Lori by the end had been no more a former woman than Alowi had been a former man. Instead he’d become more and more like … Julian Beard. Here, during this period, she’d also discovered something else. She liked herself now. First she had struggled to expunge all that was Julian from inside her, then she’d become someone else, a creature with no ego or sense of self-worth unless it was defined by what she could do for Lori. That creature, too, was gone, and for the first time she was an individual again with the qualities and capabilities she desired. She didn’t want to be anyone else. Here the heavy weights placed upon her by her past and by the Well World and Erdomese culture and biology had been lifted, revealing a real person. Now it seemed as if some of that weight was being forced back upon her, and there was nobody else who could understand her problem.
It had to be done, of course, but it seemed as if freeing Lori was the worst thing that could happen to her.
If everyone elsewhere noted that the Dillians were genetic twins, it was harder for them to tell one Agonite from another. That meant that the creature who showed up at the police station in Subar where they’d been instructed to check in looked very much like all the other natives, except that he wore a yellow sleeveless shirt and a pair of baggy denimlike trousers. It was clear from the reaction of the police in the station, though, that he was far more important than he looked.
“My name is Chief Inspector Janwah Kurdon,” the newcomer told them, “of internal security.”
“We are-” Anne Marie started, but the newcomer waved her off.
“I know who you are. I know who all three of you are and how you came to be here. What I don’t know is why you are here in Agon or still anywhere in this region. After all this time, I’d think that you would have grown weary and be on your way home by now.”
Anne Marie gestured toward a sullen Alowi. “She has lost her husband. In her culture that is about as close to being killed as you can get. Her honor demands that she find him or, for her, life would not be worth living. Since she’s alone and friendless and because we don’t like being pushed around and, yes, betrayed ourselves, we’ve remained with her.”
Alowi said nothing. She didn’t want to disillusion the Dillians or make them feel as if they’d wasted their time for nothing, and frankly, she’d taken an instant dislike to this chunky little reptile.
The secret policeman sighed. “So what did you think you could do?” “Us? Probably not much. Not without a great deal of help, anyway. On the other hand, we must do something. Even if we fail, we can’t simply let this go. Surely you understand that.”
“I understand that you were stuck in a strange country with no resources and you actually thought you could find and take on one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the history of the Well World,” Kurdon replied. “Amateurs,” he sighed. “You realize, I hope, that these people will kill at the drop of a leaf and that they can do things far worse than death.”
“We more or less assumed that, yes,” Tony put in. “We are not unfamiliar with such groups. They exist on our original native world as well.” Kurdon glanced around. “Come. We will walk a bit together. It is a nice afternoon for the highlands.”
They walked from the police station, one of the few buildings that was large enough for the Dillians to comfortably enter, and out into the street, following the inspector. For a while he said little except to comment on the nice weather and give a little inconsequential local history, but eventually they reached a large public park. Some locals were there playing various games or sitting around, but much of the area was empty in the predinner hour and the inspector was able to find a large area without trees or nearby people.
“I prefer to discuss other things in settings like this,” he told them. “Of course, we can still be spied upon, but it is much more difficult to do so without being obvious. Subar is a nice peaceful city, but it is also one of our most corrupt.” He reached into his pocket and brought out a small conical device that seemed to have no features except a red tip, which he pushed. “This will keep anyone from overhearing us by electronic means. Not totally foolproof but more than adequate here, as I know from experience.”
“I take it that we are in the midst of our enemies,” Tony said nervously. “You are in their hometown, as it were, at least the homegrown sort. They live here, work here, do many good and charitable works, and launder their cut of the illegal money through the banks here, which are among the richest and most successful in the nation. They used to be very good at what they do, but in recent months they have become even more efficient and creative. We believe that it is because another of your origin species has affiliated with them. Do you know the name of Campos?”
Both Dillians nodded in unison. “Mavra Chang spoke of him. A vicious man, she said. Is that what this is about?”
“Man? Interesting …” The security man thought for a moment. “As to the other-yes, I believe that it is exactly what all this is about. In fact, it explains much that was puzzling, particularly why both of your friends were kidnapped. Chang we could understand-there are reasons I believe you might be aware of why such an organization might like to get hold of her, although it seems they don’t know just who or what they’ve got or they’d have done something with her by now. It was the Erdomese that puzzled us. Now it becomes much clearer. Not politics, not power in the sense that we’d originally thought. Revenge. Pure revenge. How typical of that type. Reassuring in a way, too.” “How’s that?”
“We have no particular drug problem here. Can you guess why that might be?” Tony saw his point at once. “Because they are protected here. The government and the cartel have an agreement.” Kurdon nodded. “Exactly. It is not official and is never mentioned, but it exists. Not everyone is involved, of course, but they have clever ways of getting around just about anything. Once, a year or so ago, I came very close to breaking some of the big shots involved in it. Their laboratories and most of their operation are run out of a vast headquarters complex not very far from here, along the border with Liliblod. I had everything ready to go and spread out for my superiors to approve. We would have gone in with an army team and cleaned them out. Instead, I found my plans and papers confiscated, my informants met quick and untimely deaths or simply vanished, and I was made division chief of the coastal watch unit in the southeastern city of Magoor. Nobody said I’d done a poor job or that I wasn’t right; technically the new job was a promotion in pay and authority-but a shift away from all my previous investigations and contacts. I wasn’t stupid, and I knew the choice was to accept or follow my informants. I am still a young man.”
“Our message indicated as much,” Anne Marie told him. “But I must say it doesn’t sound very encouraging.”
“On the contrary. A few days ago I was called to the capital and told to stand by. Much of my original paperwork mysteriously reappeared. Then, yesterday, I was promoted to chief inspector, given a great deal of power and authority, briefed on your situation, and told to form a special unit and proceed here. Some very important government ministers whose honor has not been for sale have been involved in the watch for these two alleged immortals that the council at Zone has been most concerned about. They lost not one but both of them. Then word comes that two creatures were taken off a courier boat by agents of the cartel just off the northwest coast, and the remainder of the party fits the description of three members traveling with the Chang woman. The three of you are rather difficult to mistake in this region. Everyone from the ministers to the council was initially panicked that Chang had fallen into the hands of the best organized criminal organization on the Well World. Then, for months-nothing. The only logical conclusion was that the ones who had Chang had no idea who or what they had and for some reason hadn’t even bothered to interrogate them in the manner that they have of extracting your closest secrets. Why? The bottom line was that they felt any search or heavy pressure would simply alert the still-ignorant criminals of the value of their captive. Now we know why. A revenge kidnapping probably arranged directly by Campos without any of the higher-ups even being aware of it.”
“But surely someone would know!” Tony exclaimed. “Or at least notice!” “Not necessarily. You have no idea of the range and scope of their operations. It probably seemed quite routine for the people at the headquarters, and it is not healthy to ask questions. Now, I ask you: If you were Campos, bent on revenge and now having the means, and you had seen or heard of what services these so-called physicians could and probably routinely perform for the gang, what would you do? Campos was once of the same race as your birth race. You tell me.”
“Turn them into monsters. Unrecognizable, tortured, probably addicted,” Tony said flatly.
“Why not just torture them to death? Wouldn’t that satisfy?”
“I do not know this Campos, but I know his type,” Tony told the agent. “He would not want to just kill them, even painfully. If he had the means, he’d want to see them in a continual torture, to spread his sadistic revenge out over a very long time. They could be killed any time, but until then … no. He would want to enjoy it.”
“I thought as much,” Kurdon said, nodding. “It is not common here, thank heavens, but it does occur. That is another reason why Campos got away with it so far. It is not a common attitude in Agon or Clopta; both races are far more pragmatic. They torture for information, kill when someone is in the way or no longer useful, but this sort of prolonged torture for personal gratification isn’t something they would think of doing. Risky and wasteful. We have found that your doctor friends were mostly using such creatures for experimentation and eventually doing away with them but that they did some pragmatic work as well, primarily in converting creatures into couriers. I wondered why two women were targeted, since clearly only one was of interest to them if they suspected her true nature, and now you have told me that what I suspected is true. It is something I did not bother to suggest to those who are suddenly my friends.” “Couriers?” Tony repeated. “Why turn people into couriers? Couldn’t anybody do that?”
“Not this type. They are designed-reengineered as couriers, dedicated to that specific task, while being physically limited from doing much else. Essentially pack animals smart enough to be autonomous yet limited enough that they had nowhere else to go and nothing else they could do.”
“You know what they’ve been doing, then!” Anne Marie said excitedly. “We do now. Thanks to you, we were able to wage a clandestine operation in their clinic and tap into their computer banks. Very difficult to break their codes, but Zone has capabilities beyond anything else on the Well World. We found the entire genetic codes of many individuals from a number of races in there, but we found only one male Erdomese and one female Glathrielian in the memory banks. It would take a very long time, however, to match up precisely the original and the changed structure and get a true picture of just what they became. The work is extremely advanced and, I must say, extremely frightening. Frightening enough that this alone has outweighed any loyalty to, and even much of the fear of, the organization in Agon by high officials. This explains my free hand.” “What do you propose to do?” Anne Marie asked him. “I have a clear directive. This Chang is to be found, arrested, and brought to Zone no matter what her shape or form or condition. I may use whatever resources I require to get this done, step on any toes, go through any barriers. When I suggested that this might require going straight through the cartel’s headquarters, they did not even flinch. To not do it ourselves would at this point almost certainly mean it being done in spite of us, with Agon the object of an invading army of other races. There is already a council military man in the south setting up this possibility. I find myself, therefore, with a very strong hand. Our objectives are not quite the same. If we can recover both, well and good, but it should be understood that Chang is my objective.”
“Our first objective is to recover Lori for this poor dear’s sake. We’ve been through a lot together already,” Anne Marie told him. “As for Mavra, well, I don’t see any other choice for us or for her. She is quite a capable individual, and if she must deal with the council, so be it.”
“Agreed. Most pragmatic and satisfactory, actually. You should be aware, though, that they are both unlikely to be anything like you remember them, and it is entirely unclear whether anything can be done for them.”
Anne Marie sighed and looked at Alowi, who seemed still curiously ambivalent about all this, then turned back to Kurdon.
“Somehow I do not think that will stop Mavra Chang,” she told the agent. “Not if half her own stories are true. But …” She decided not to finish now. There was no sense in panicking Alowi, at least not yet.
“When do you move?” Tony asked Kurdon.
“In a few days. I want more information from the local agents here before I begin. I do not underestimate this bunch.”
“What about going directly for Campos?” Tony asked him. “I cannot imagine such a type not having the objects of revenge close by so he could lord it over them.” “Campos is a Cloptan. Out of my jurisdiction. If we turn in a report linking Campos and the kidnapping, it will be out of our hands immediately. Besides, there are dangers to the direct approach. The quarry could go underground in its own home territory or even be killed in such an attempt, in which case we might never find those we really seek. Or our objectives could be destroyed in a final act of vengeance before we can reach them. Remember, too, that they could be literally anywhere, just as long as Campos can get to them. No, when I move on Cloptans on Cloptan soil, I want it to be my party, fast and unexpected, but with the full authority of the council. At the moment I have no idea where Campos even is, except somewhere in the port city of Buckgrud, a high-tech metropolis with a population of more than a million. Think of this as well: Can you honestly tell one Agonese from another aside from size, weight, and clothing? Honestly, now.”
“Uh, um, not without great difficulty, I admit,” Anne Marie managed. “So how do you expect to directly penetrate a criminal organization and pick out the one correct Cloptan from the masses? You see? In the end we will require Cloptan help, but that will have to be very carefully done. I don’t believe that they are even as honest as we are, and that is not going very far. I would prefer we deal with the Cloptans after we strike here. Trust me on this. This is my territory and my profession. It will be difficult enough having to somewhat involve Liliblod. Nobody can really deal with them, and they will not like this at all.”
“It seemed a nice, quiet peaceful place when we went through,” Anne Marie noted. “Yet we keep getting horrid warnings about it.”
“Yes. By the terms of their agreements, the roads are kept absolutely safe for travel. They are not without their own odd vices, and so some commerce is permitted as a concession to their own needs. But they are not-rational-in the sense that we are here. They have a rather egocentric view of the universe and are quite unpredictable beyond certain bounds. The organization pays them well for protection in a sort of currency that they could not legally acquire, and they will not like to see that cut off.”
“Another corrupt government?” Tony sighed.
“You misunderstand. The Liliblodians believe that all other races were put here as their prey. By-consuming- others or, more accurately, the fluids of others, they believe they gather in inferior souls and all the strengths of the prey. The cartel pays them in two ways. It provides live prey for them of the type they love-alien flesh, as it were-and the one other substance which is their own drug weakness.”
“Disgusting,” Anne Marie commented. “Eating live beings for pleasure …” “Yes, it is almost as bad as their own drug of choice. You cannot imagine anything more bizarre than seeing a mass of Liliblodians literally rolling in a chocolate stupor …”