THE MASTER COMPUTER THAT WAS THE HEART OF THE ENTIRE planet called the Well World was just a machine; its powers were far too vast to have ever trusted making it self-aware in the sense that it could act outside its makers’ predetermined instructions. And while it was true that machines had infinite patience, they could also have very little if something required was not getting done. Now, as the Kraang continued its assaults and made tiny slivers of inroads into the system, it calculated that the time to solve this problem was no longer inconsequential. In that sense the Well could be said to have become impatient with the progress of events, and when the Well wanted something, it tended to be less than subtle about it.
To summon the two Watchers to see to repairs, it had sent huge meteors crashing into the planet where the Watchers were living. Extricating Mavra Chang so that she had any reasonable chance of success appeared to be very difficult and would require a great deal of subtlety and patience. Going after Nathan Brazil, on the other hand, would not. The fact that Brazil had willingly taken himself out of worldly care was to the Well entirely irrelevant.
Nathan Brazil had been on the Well World for over eleven months, having come in with Tony and Anne Marie. It had been almost seven months since Theresa “Terry” Perez had come through on her own, following Mavra, Lori, Gus, and Juan Campos by a mere hour or so and quickly coming under the influence of the bizarre Glathrielian Way that the race that shared common ancestry with Terry’s had followed. Prepared by the Glathrielians, she had attached herself to Brazil within only a week, and they had been inseparable since. For four months they had been deliberately held up, stalled, far from the goal of the Well Avenue, and then for two weeks they had broken free and escaped across the sea, been reunited with Gus, and then lost him again as they crashed on an undersea reef in a storm.
But on their tiny tropical volcanic island in the middle of a fairy-tale sea, Nathan Brazil and Terry had no concept of the passage of time or any cares or thoughts beyond sheer childish fun. The tropical rain forest on the windward side of the island provided enough wild fruits and vegetables to feed them, and the frequent but brief storms always provided a supply of fresh water. Brazil had opened himself to the Glathrielian Way but not to the elders’ master plan of co-opting him as he entered the Well. There he had remained, happy and carefree, unaware of that nonhuman part of him, that deep alien nature that had thwarted the elders’ control.
The tropical sun had browned him almost as dark as Terry’s natural color, and his hair and beard were long and unkempt, giving him almost a wild man’s appearance. His bare feet were hard and callused, toughened from months of volcanic rock and soil; the day-to-day life of climbing for treetop delicacies and over the craggy rocks had bulked out his muscles.
Terry had not been as active of late, for she’d developed a large, hard belly and some considerable fat and felt unbalanced and odd, but she accepted it as the way things were. Part of the Glathrielian Way was acceptance of whatever was and dealing with it as best one could.
This proved difficult suddenly, though, when they were awakened one morning just at dawn by a series of severe tremors. The ground shook, and trees swayed, and rocks fell from the high mountain. This went on for a day or more, and suddenly a huge piece of the mountain about halfway up the side seemed to collapse, opening a gaping wound from which belched forth steam and black ash. Then beginning what seemed a wondrous light show, a volcanic fountain played against the sky. But the earthquakes continued in increasing frequency and intensity, and from the masses of grainy rock laid down by the fountain there came puffs and plumes of smoke and ash that set part of the forest on fire. They made their way around to the beach on the opposite side of the mountain from the eruption, having to stop or risk falling down with each tremor. Something inside them knew that they had to leave this place, and quickly. But leave for where? And how? There was nothing on all sides but the water. There were other islands, of course, some of which could be seen across the expanse of sea, but they were not as close as they appeared. None would be a problem to reach with a boat or a raft, but they had nothing but themselves. An inner sense of urgency told them that there was little time to consider any alternatives. Reluctantly, they entered the water and made their way out past the reefs, Brazil using his strength to support Terry and keep her afloat. They made it to perhaps a kilometer from the beach and found themselves suddenly carried along on a warm current, able to pretty much just float and let the water do the work, which was more than welcome. The current carried them at a steady pace away from the erupting island and toward the calmer ones beyond. Then a sudden, tremendous explosion hit them like something solid, deafening them both, and they could see the onrushing wall of water from where the island, now a vast and dark mushroom-shaped cloud, had been, a huge tidal wave coming straight for them. It was taller than the tallest trees and with a roar that sounded like thousands of caged beasts roaring at once, and they stopped swimming and watched it come, knowing it was death.
When it struck, their world became all water and whirling forces and then oblivion.
The Well had issued its wake-up call to Nathan Brazil.
The island exploding, the rushing wall of water, then . .. What? She awoke as if from some strange dream, much of which had been very nice yet only dimly remembered, like some great childhood treat now far in the past and unrecoverable.
But watch that last step, she thought. It’s a dilly.
She sat up painfully, groaning and stretching. She felt as if she’d been beaten to a pulp by some gigantic fist, but just as everything seemed bruised, nothing seemed broken.
The beach was warm and wet. It was made of yellow sand, the kind built up from the discards of coral reefs over thousands upon thousands of years, but it was soft and somewhat comfortable.
She shook her head, trying to clear it, trying to think. She remembered a tremendous bang and a big wave but nothing afterward.
And nothing before.
It was as if she’d just suddenly come into existence here on this beach. A big bang and here she was.
It was quite dark, but out in the water she could see a million lights underneath the gentle waves, burning with a multitude of colors and shapes and patterns that she knew couldn’t be anything from nature, although she didn’t know how she knew. And on the water, too, in the distance, things seemed to float, lights up upon the water rather than deep below it.
Boats, she understood at once, although again she had no idea where this information was coming from.
I’ve lost my memory, she realized. Something, some accident or shipwreck or something like that caused me to lose my memory. She had no idea who. or where, or even what she was.
She ran her hands over her body in the dark. It was a woman’s body. It wasn’t that this was wrong so much as basic information about herself that she had had no sense of before. Somehow, she hadn’t seen herself as a woman, and there was a sense of wrongness about it somewhere deep inside her.
She knew so many things! There were all sorts of facts and behaviors and other pieces of information swirling around in her head, yet about herself she had no information at all. No past, no memories of actually being anywhere, doing anything, interacting with anything or anybody at all. I am a woman became the first, and so far only, definition of herself as an individual. It seemed to her that there had been Another somewhere, somebody very important. A girl … Another girl? That didn’t seem right. But who and what? She cast about with her mind, never even considering speech, but there was no response from the immediate area. She was alone on the beach, without memory, without anything at all, in a place she couldn’t remember for reasons that were a total mystery.
Perhaps … Perhaps out there, among the floating lights? She cast a mental net and caught far more than she expected. Thoughts … Lots of thoughts from what seemed to be lots of different creatures. Their words, then-very sounds would mean nothing to her-she knew that-but thoughts were assembled from stored information into holographic concepts before they were translated as sounds, and those she could pick up if she concentrated.
The power came naturally to her, although something inside said that it was a new thing, something she hadn’t done before, yet something she had done before. That didn’t make sense. Nothing really did.
It seemed somehow indecent to peek into their thoughts, to see who was tired, who was bored, and who was thinking of killing the captain. Indecent but kind of fun, too. Some thoughts, though, were a lot harder to figure out than others; some of those creatures out there weren’t even close to her form, and their thinking wasn’t much closer, either.
She cast about for others of her own land but found none. Wherever she was, she was more than merely unique in her own psyche; she was one of a kind. No, that wasn’t true. There were others. Something told her that. Men, women, children … But not here.
In the general casting about, though, she found spots where in fact not only words but complete sentences came through to her as if spoken in her native tongue-whatever that was. But it took some mental fine-tuning until she could fully understand those thoughts, kind of like tuning a radio.
Tuning a radio? Where had that come from? God! She sure knew a lot for somebody who couldn’t remember anything except what was discovered by direct examination. Maybe they knew. Maybe they were looking for her. If so, she’d better find out if it was in her best interest to want to be found.
“… Still getting reports from the Dlubinians that there is a great deal of damage and loss of life below …”
Those underwater lights. There were people of some kind who lived down there! If that explosion that seemed to start her existence wasn’t just some metaphysical memory, then … Oh, God!
“… No previous indication of volcanic activity in the area in any recent period, and it’s monitored as closely as you can in a semitech hex …” Some of that made sense, some of it didn’t. A volcano-that would account for .the explosion and the big rush of water that had followed. If she were anywhere in that area, she would have been hit with tremendous shock. That had to be it. But it didn’t explain anything else.
She listened for quite some time, gathering details of what had happened but clearing up her own personal mystery not one bit. Had she been on a boat, or on an island, or what? Not alone, surely. Not out here in this strange and alien place. But if not alone, then with who? How? And why?
The aches and pains made it impossible to just sit there. She began massaging the stiffness and found herself somehow mentally surveying her physical condition. Bruises, twists, all that, but nothing serious. As each region was surveyed, she dampened down the pain there and went on. Only one area stymied her, the area around her abdomen. It seemed odd, at once detached and yet not detached, but certainly different. Well, it wasn’t anything she could figure out now. She was aware that she was using, almost matter-of-factly, powers that were extremely unusual, powers that even she hadn’t realized were there. But she thought nothing about using them.
She felt a strong urge to pee and then find something to eat and drink, if she didn’t have to wander too far in the darkness. She certainly hoped that there was some sort of food and water on the island; otherwise a lot of choices would be made for her right off.
Her body felt clumsy, unfamiliar, and it took some getting used to before she felt confident enough to really try much. She wished it were light; there was nothing but darkness beyond the beach and no way of telling what might be waiting for her there.
Almost at once, unbidden by any conscious thought, the darkness was replaced by endless colors, all soft pastels with occasional flashes of brightness, and without a lot of difficulty she began to make out which were trees, which bushes or flowers. She intuitively understood that other colors represented living things great and small. It seemed magical, a counterpoint to the great lights beneath the waves in back of her, but after a while she realized it didn’t help. This new form of vision didn’t show rocks or fallen dead timber or other hazards. Best to stay out of the jungle until she knew it better and was more comfortable with the way her body moved.
Instead of going inland, she walked along the beach, not quite sure what, if anything, she was looking for, but the terrain was at least manageable by the light of the spectacularly bright starry sky. Here and there were great rocks-perhaps spewed by volcanoes, perhaps eaten away by the sea-and all sorts of wood and shells and coral washed up and deposited on the sandy shore. Walking closer, she thought she heard something, a gurgling sound, almost drowned out by the sound of nearby breakers. In a couple of minutes she found it-a tiny spring coming out of the rocks and jungle, cutting its way through the sand, and flowing into the great sea beyond. She got down on her knees, cupped her hands, and brought some to her lips. It was fresh! At least she would not die of thirst! It was lukewarm, but she splashed some on her face to wash away the last of the cobwebs that seemed to be lurking in her mind.
She drank her fill and got up unsteadily and went on down the beach, feeling a little better. After a few minutes more the beach ended, tapering to a stop around a fair-sized cove. There was a large rectangular box where the last of the sand vanished, clearly there to be accessible by land or sea, and she went to it. It was the first artificial thing she could remember ever seeing. For a moment she hesitated to get close to it, let alone touch it. When everything was an unknown, then everything was a potential threat, if not directly then because of her own ignorance of the world around her. It was such an odd feeling to have a lot of facts in her head but not be able to relate them to anything until she had some logical reason to do so.
She realized on at least one level that this was the next step in defining herself. She’d exercised caution and stayed out of the forest not out of fear but for very practical reasons. She was afraid of this box, though, just as she was afraid of the boats out there and the creatures on them. Now she had to decide if she was going to let that fear rule her and hide out from everything or if she had the guts to explore and discover new things. That really wasn’t a choice; she did not like being alone and without any memories in a place she had no knowledge of.
Cautiously, she approached the box until she stood right next to it, examining it as much as she could in the starlight. It seemed featureless, colored some kind of bright yellow except for a bunch of marks in a dark shade etched into the front of it. Those marks made sense to somebody-what was it? Writing. Yes, writing. But they might as well have been just marks to her.
She reached out hesitantly and touched it, then immediately pulled away as if it were some burning hot fire. Nothing happened. Emboldened, she ran her hands over it and around it and found in the top a series of indentations with small marks inside each one. Touching one didn’t seem to do anything, so she ran her finger along each in turn.
There was a sudden, terrifying woosh! from the box that so startled her, she fell over backward, then scrambled away on hands and knees, staring. The box lid rose up as if being opened by a giant hand until it was a bit more than straight up; pulses of light began emanating from it, aimed toward the sea. As suddenly as it started, the flashing stopped and the light burned steadily. After perhaps a quarter of an hour of staring, waiting for some horror to climb out, she finally felt bold enough to go back carefully and see what she’d done. Curiosity was outweighing fear; if that light or whatever it was kept going, somebody would see it and come anyway, so she might as well check it out before they did. The box was a bit more than a meter high and deep and perhaps two meters long. Conscious for the first time that she wasn’t very tall, she stood on tiptoe and peered in.
It was full of more boxes.
Big boxes, little boxes, square boxes, long thin boxes-boxes and boxes. She wondered if she could pull herself up and stand inside and whether it was a good idea to do so. That lid might well come back down …
The inside of the lid itself was a long, very shiny surface with a bar of bright glittering lights along the top and both sides. The light was irritating, but that shiny surface inside was very, very tempting. Angled just enough that it showed no reflection of her head at ground level, it would certainly do so if she were at or near its height.
She looked back out at where the beacon was shining and scanned the area. Lots of thoughts out there, as before, but no signs that anybody had yet seen, let alone was coming toward, this new beacon. Not yet.
She had to risk it. She just had to. She tried various ways of pulling herself up and into the box, but while she’d get close, she just couldn’t seem to manage it. After a few minutes of frustration she remembered the driftwood nearby and went and carried some thick loglike pieces over to the box and stacked them one at a time. She was winded after a while, but she managed to build herself enough of an unsteady pile to get high enough to pull herself the rest of the way into the box.
Standing on the smaller boxes in the center of the big one, she could see herself from the thighs up in the smooth mirror of the lid’s interior surface. Staring back at her was the unfamiliar face of a very young woman, perhaps no more than midteens, with big brown eyes and finely wrought, attractive features, the hair thick and black and curly, making a frame around her face. The face did show definite chubbiness, although it did not detract from her overall pleasing looks. The weight also showed in large fatty breasts and in a fat ass and thighs, and there was a fair bulge of a tummy centered on the navel that didn’t seem as natural-looking as the rest of her and was clearly the cause for her feeling ungainly when she walked. She stared and stared at the image in total fascination as it was illuminated by the beacon lights around the lid. It was the face and body of a complete stranger. And yet it was her face, her body without a doubt. Who are you, girl? she wondered. And how long will it be before I am no longer surprised to see you staring back at me? Reluctantly she tore herself away from the image and concentrated on the boxes. Most used the same system-one put a finger in some indentations one at a time in a line, and it hissed and opened. Clearly the seals weren’t designed as locks but rather to keep them from being opened and unsealed by accident, waiting until somebody needed them.
Some of the stuff inside the boxes was weird, some of it was bizarre, and some of it was downright disgusting. However, one box contained what smelled like cake, and in fact, it tasted like plain yellow cake; another held hard biscuits, and yet another had something that looked like a miniature loaf of baked bread but turned out to have the taste and consistency of soda crackers. There was also, in one larger container over in the corner, a deep box that contained a liquid-one of the terms flying around in the back of her head leapt out at her: “beer.” After the cakes and biscuits and crackers, she drank a fair amount of it.
When she finished, she was feeling a little light-headed and had to pee again, and she realized she had to get out. Piling up boxes got her to the top, but turning around and getting down to the logs and from there to the sand proved challenging.
She slipped and fell back, landing on her rear in the sand, but she wasn’t hurt and the whole thing seemed somehow very funny. She tried to get up, but her body responded even more awkwardly than usual, and she finally was forced to crawl on hands and knees. She finally made it perhaps twenty or thirty meters away, back onto the beach but up near the rocks and the start of the jungle. It was all she could manage, and she picked a spot that seemed comfortable. She sank onto the sand and lay there, awake for quite a while but not thinking of anything at all except a vision reflected in a mirror by a glittering of light, of a face and body that said, You don’t know me, but I’m you.
And, for a little while, until sleep took her, it didn’t make any difference.
It had been a typical Dlubine night; clear one minute, fast-moving thunderstorms the next. In between the brief bursts of rain, fog and mist lay in patches all over the open sea, some natural, some the result of activity below the waves, lay where the people of the hex lived. For most of the evening visibility to the west had been obscured by fog, but now it was lifting, dissipating as the first signs of false dawn came upon the ocean. A lookout on the patrol corvette Swiftwind Thunderer spotted a flashing light through the thin mist and called it out to the watch. It was soon verified by other lookouts, and the watch officer located it on the chart. Then it was time to notify the captain. “Sir! Emergency beacon activated on Atoll J6433!”
Captain Haash, a Macphee, stirred from his sleep and opened his blowpipe, cursing semitech hexes and their limitations. “Probably nothing-those things malfunction all the time on their own, and when there are earthquakes and eruptions … Still, might be survivors from a ship that got swamped. What’s the weather like?”
“Squall moving in, sir. Looks to be one of those short but nasty types.” “Hmph! How soon?”
‘Ten, fifteen minutes, no more.”
‘Too short to make a run in and send in a shore party safely. How long to sunrise?”
“About forty minutes, sir.”
“Well, we’ll wait until full light and, when the storm clears, take her over and investigate. No use in getting banged up or beached. I’ll be on the bridge by then. Make to other ships that we’ll handle the beacon so they don’t have to bother.”
The storm hit within minutes with the usual ferocity of small storms in the hex, but it was no volcanic eruption or tidal wave, and the crew was used to this kind of weather by now.
While riding it out was routine, sleeping through it wasn’t much of an option, and it wasn’t long before the captain was pulling himself up through the bridge hatch. It wasn’t easy to catch his mood at this moment, but then, it never was-unless one was another Macphee. His huge eyes always looked as if they were about to rip somebody apart, and beaked creatures always tended to have less physical expression, even those which didn’t also look like a large squid covered from enormous head to halfway down his tentacles with thick brown hair. “What’s that banging I hear?” the captain demanded. “Not sure, sir,” the mate responded. “We mink it might be debris and such from the explosion in the water striking the hull. We can put somebody over to check if you like.” All the cutters had several air-breathing water species aboard for any such eventuality. “Absolutely not! I’ll not have anybody brained by a tree checking to see if we’re being struck by a tree! That hull is tough; it’ll take a few dings.” It was one of the reasons his crew would go almost anywhere with and for the old man. He was as tough as they came in a fight, but he cared about every member of his crew. He’d willingly risk all their lives for good reason, but never for nothing. It was a bargain he had with them, he liked to tell other captains. The Macphee might have resembled squids, but they were not aquatic creatures and the thick hair was not particularly coated. If he fell overboard and could find nothing to hold on to, that waterlogged fur would cause him to sink like a stone. That meant that he had to always sail with a crew that would be anxious to throw him a line just in case …
In a little over a half hour the storm was over, and the captain immediately ordered the crew to check the condition of the ship and see what, if anything, was still in the water near them. Two Effiks, large green and yellow banded insectoids whose legs could stick to just about anything, went over the side and down it, walking around the hull as easily as if they were walking on the deck. The one on the port side suddenly gave a yell. “Here it is! Big sucker of a tree; looks almost like it got launched straight up, it’s in such good shape! Hey! Wait a minute! There’s something stuck in it! An animal, perhaps. Hey! Everybody here!”
There was a general rush to the port side, and two otterlike Akkokeks slid off into the still-choppy seas and approached the big tree cautiously from both sides. Seeing what might have been a leg or some other appendage sticking out of the still-green fronds near the former treetop, they turned upright in the water, bouncing like corks, and hands carefully peeled away the greenery to get a look at the whole creature.