“Perhaps not, but Cloptan society isn’t as traditional as most. Women have some real power there, in the government and in the rackets, too, it seems. I would say that whatever was done to him was compensated for by the society in which he found himself. He’s come a rather long way to be influential in such an operation so quickly. Campos is the sort to have a deadly grudge against this Mavra Chang?”
“Yeah, he would, at least in his own mind. I was sick or drugged for most of it, but I remember enough, so I’m pretty sure he does, too. I want in on this one, Colonel. I want to see Campos squashed like the bug he is.”
“I had hoped that you would say that. I should like to bring the girl along as well. Protected, of course, and well out of the action, but even if she can be of little help, the detective in charge says that he would like her up there.” “Huh? I hadn’t really considered it much. Of course, I guess if I’m not gonna just send her back to that Glathriel forever, at least not yet, she has to stick with me. She trusts me pretty good, but-I dunno. I guess she could be sent back by any Zone Gate, so there’s no real rush in that regard, but I’m not sure I want to get her exposed and active too much right now. Why would this drug agent want Terry?”
“He does not say. The only way to know is to go up there and ask him. But why do you have such concern over the girl now? She has certainly managed to take care of herself with minimal help so far, and even if she has lost her memory, she still has her unique abilities.”
“Damn it, Colonel, she’s gonna have a baby in like a month and a half. That’s why. What if she goes into labor? What if she gets stressed or even accidentally hurt and the kid gets killed? She’s no immortal.”
The colonel thought a moment. “That does complicate things, I do agree. And yet Agon, and Clopta if we have to go there, are both high-tech hexes, and I believe she would probably be as safe as or safer in one of them than she would be back in that primitive no-tech homeland. You’ve seen the medicine available here already.”
The colonel knew that Gus was only easing his conscience, that he very much wanted both to go and to keep the girl with him, pregnant or not. Gus would have to face the birth sooner or later anyway; it seemed pretty obvious he wasn’t going to send her back to what was tantamount to oblivion forever. Somehow, deep down, it was obvious that Gus still clung to the belief that Terry, his old Terry, might well be down there someplace, buried deep inside that girl’s head. Until he was absolutely convinced that this person was forever but a memory, if he ever was, he would cling to her out of honor, out of friendship, and because it was the only thing that kept the Dahir himself going.
There was, of course, no purpose in telling Gus at that point that what the Agonite cop wanted her for was bait.
Near the Liliblod Border
She knew Gus was troubled by something, something concerning her, but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, dig down to find out why. It just wouldn’t be right somehow, and besides, she might not understand it, anyway.
She liked Gus a lot. She trusted him absolutely, maybe the only one she’d met so far that she could say that about. Oh, she trusted that nice doctor, too, but the doctor was way, way too smart for her to really feel comfortable with. It was nice being able to actually talk to somebody, but most of the time she couldn’t follow what the doc was saying, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Deep down she was just an interesting patient to the doctor, but Gus really cared about her, although why he did was still a mystery to her.
She had come to terms with the fact that most of the world was and would remain a mystery to her; most everybody seemed a lot smarter than she was, and after a while she realized that would be the way things were and accepted it. It wasn’t as if she had anywhere she wanted to go or anything she wanted to do. It would have been easier on Gus if she could speak, but the doctor thought that the Glathrielian business had done something to the area of the brain that controlled vocalization. She could make some sounds, but they were just sounds, not words. This was something else that might or might not reconnect, depending on how she developed from this point. Because she could understand others, or mast others-there were some creatures that seemed a total blank to her but not many-Gus had worked out what was still a simple sign language for her. It was okay for the obvious basics, but it would hardly serve as an alternative language.
Gus finally decided he had to tell her the situation, no matter how much she might or might not understand. The concept of pregnancy proved less difficult than he imagined; some mental pictures, along with a simple child’s version of how it worked, seemed to get the message across.
She was fascinated by that. A little person growing inside her that would someday pop out and then grow up to be a big person. It made sense and answered a few questions she’d had about how all these people got there and why some were small and some were large, but she never wondered about how one got that way. “Now that you know,” Gus told her as gently and simply as he could, “you will have to be careful. Things could hurt you, or the baby, or both. You could go back to the people who are like you and be safe, or you can stay here. But if you stay here, there is a chance you or the baby could be hurt. You understand that?”
She nodded. She had picked up graphic images of what her people were like from Gus, the doctor, and others, and she didn’t think she would like that life. Gus couldn’t come, and she knew from his mind that if she went back, she couldn’t talk to or hear anybody else but her own kind. She didn’t like that idea at all. Not only did she want to stay with Gus, Gus’s own thoughts about the way her people lived came through as something scary. She let him know that she understood he was worried about her and the baby and that he didn’t want her to go.
It didn’t ease his conscience, but it helped him go with the flow of events and accept that, risks or not, she was staying. He had the distinct idea that no matter what the colonel had said, they wanted her for something and wouldn’t let her go in any event. He didn’t want to be conned by these types; he knew them all too well. If she was going to be put in harm’s way, then he was going to be there for her.
That afternoon they met the colonel at a sleek, silvery transport station and boarded a magnatrain for the north. She found the station itself to be a place of wonder, and the train was really neat.
“I spoke to Inspector Kurdon before we left,” the colonel told Gus. “He seems quite happy to have us, and he’s particularly interested in you. He thinks your little talent might well be very useful to him.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Gus responded. “It’s handy, yeah, but it’s not as much as it seems to other people. If they have the equivalent of a television scanner, I’d show up on it, and I’ll trip any alarms. This place has got to be guarded like Fort Knox. It’s not like I can just walk in there and do what I want.” “Agreed. But I’m sure he has something in mind and knows all that. Well, we’ll see this evening, won’t we?”
They pulled into the northern terminus station at Subar about an hour after dark. The welcoming committee wasn’t that hard to spot. Two Dillians and an Erdomese female stood out from the Agonite crowd as much as or more than they did.
“Oh, my! There’s only that gruesome blob and that poor girl!” Anne Marie exclaimed. “I thought there was another!”
Julian looked at the Leeming oozing off the train and frowned. “I see that Colonel Lunderman hasn’t changed a bit. It’s just that you can see him so much more clearly now,” she commented dryly.
“Greetings, my fellow expatriates, greetings!” the colonel said with his usual oily tones. Gus had wondered if Lunderman could say “Good morning” without sounding insincere. “I am Colonel Lunderman, and we might as well get the usual shock over with right off the bat. Say hello, Gus.”
All three of the others were somewhat startled when the Dahir did just that. To have a huge dragonlike multicolored creature suddenly appear where one hadn’t really noticed it before was always startling.
“Strictly defense,” Gus assured them. “We’re too big and bright to hide, so we have this ability. You’ll get used to it. I can’t turn it off.” Julian recovered first. “Whew! That’s some trick! Could have saved us a lot of trouble if we’d had something like that!” She looked over at the colonel. “You’ve come a long way since we last met, Lunderman.”
“And changed a good deal. I would not have known you at all. Captain Beard.” While forewarned, the colonel in fact was amazed at the transformation in the person he’d known. In voice, tone, movements, manner-in virtually every category there wasn’t a trace of the Julian Beard he remembered in the Erdomese female he addressed.
“Julian, Colonel. Just Julian,” she responded, grim-faced. “Captain Beard is dead, or as good as dead. Think of me entirely as you see me. I have buried him forever.” Too bad the same didn’t happen to you, she added to herself. If she’d despised the human colonel, she positively loathed what she was seeing now. Gus, too, made her feel very uncomfortable. He was creepy. She turned to the third, silent member of the party and softened immediately. “And this must be Terry.” Terry smiled at her, capturing the sudden warmth inside the Erdomese. She was very pretty and seemed smart and strong, too. Terry couldn’t figure out why Gus wouldn’t produce the same friendly feeling, but it wasn’t anything she could do much about right now.
The four-legged blond twins were also beautiful but not easy to catch thoughts from. Their thinking seemed to go back and forth between one and the other so that it was almost as if they were the same person in two bodies. Trying to follow it made her head hurt, and she turned back to Julian.
“Come,” Julian told them all, even though her attention seemed to be drawn more and more to Terry. “This is not the place to speak of things. You never know who or what’s around. Let’s get to the people running the show, and then we can all fill each other in on everything.”
Gus looked around the station with the experienced eye of a professional cameraman. It wasn’t very crowded, and all the Agonese looked the same anyway except for size and dress, but he could spot the shadows and the tails. They had a way of not looking at a person and not being even curious about that person that made them stand out to a professional’s eye in the same way they did in a crowd back on Earth. He wondered which were from the cops and which were from the bad guys, but there was no way to tell that. The breed was made in the same factory.
Inspector Kurdon proved to be another of the same type, but very dry and very professional. He greeted them almost perfunctorily, and Terry couldn’t help but feel that he, too, had more of an interest in her than in the others for some reason, although there was no sense from him of the friendly, warm interest radiated by Julian.
“I know you all want to compare notes, so I won’t keep you long,” he told them. “My people will be able to provide appropriate if not very exciting meals for all of you. I’m not going to tell you to get an early rest because the later you go to sleep and the later you wake up tomorrow, the better. We are going in tomorrow night, but not until nearly midnight. Surprise will be very important to this operation.”
“Surprise? With all these people and all this security you think you really fooled ‘em, Inspector?” Gus asked him.
Kurdon looked at Gus with a bit more respect. “You are absolutely right in that sense. We can hardly hide the fact that something is up here, but our intelligence assures me that they still can’t figure out what it is. My advantage is that they really believe the headquarters to be both politically and physically secure. Even if they think that we’re moving against them, it doesn’t mean as much as you might believe. First of all, we are not after drugs or even criminals of any sort. We’re after their computer records, which are not easily transportable.”
“Won’t they just erase them the moment your people break in?” the colonel asked. “Maybe, but they have no equivalent to this headquarters anywhere else. I’m sure they have backups, but they aren’t linked because such a link can’t be run through other hexes and they can’t be stored here and be totally secure from us. Putting this headquarters out of operation will severely cripple their entire operation worldwide. It might be months, more likely years, before they get things running with any degree of efficiency again, and not without great cost in the interim. A lot of other hexes, not to mention the Patrol, have been wanting to move on this, but they couldn’t so long as Agon and Liliblod allowed this center to continue. If it’s destroyed, they will move, and the politicians in their pockets will scramble to be on our side all of a sudden. For that reason, I believe they will try not to erase the active records but rather depend on their own security to keep us from getting to the information. Then, when it blows over, they could have their own people mixed in with our crews and download and recover what they need. That is not going to happen. I believe we can crack their codes, but whether we can or not, the computers there and all their data will be either in our hands or completely destroyed.” “You sound pretty confident you can get it,” Julian noted with skepticism dripping from her tongue. “What if you can’t?”
“The drug business is the inspector’s problem,” the colonel told her. “Our interest is quite different. Some suitable prisoners, people who work there routinely day in and day out, should be what we need, although getting access to the records would make it simpler and surer. If our quarry is in there, we will have her. If not, we need to know where she might have been taken.” “If they don’t just kill her when you break in,” Gus put in.
“If they can kill her, she’s not who we are interested in,” the colonel responded coolly. “However, I have already seen enough evidence on my own to suspect that this is not a problem.”
“Yes, but Lori isn’t some superman!” Tony pointed out. “We could be killing him!
Kurdon looked up impatiently at the Dillian. “We have been through this already. Everything we know suggests that if we cannot free him, he’s probably better off dead. He is certainly addicted to a particular mutation of this drug in any event, which will cause enough of a problem. I am open to any suggestions on making it safe, but so far I’ve heard none. Until I do, this matter is closed. Now, if you will excuse me, I still have a lot of preparation to do. If there are no further questions, you should go and get acquainted and eat and finally sleep.”
“Just one question,” Gus said. “How you gonna get in there?”
The impassive turtlelike head looked straight at him. “Come tomorrow night and you’ll see.”
As Kurdon expected, the rest of the evening was much more relaxed, with a great deal of talking and comparing stories and experiences. For the first time Gus heard the account of the kidnapping of Lori and Mavra Chang and got a picture of the latter totally at odds with any memories he had of her back in the jungles. In fact, the Mavra Chang who emerged from the descriptions and tales of the twins and from Julian sounded to Gus an awful lot like a female version of Nathan Brazil. This at first glance seemed to make even more mysterious their estrangement from one another, but, Gus thought, often the pairs that seemed to work best together were ones one would never put together on one’s own. A ship with two equally strong-willed captains was a ship that sailed forever in circles.
The colonel was something of the odd man out in the circle. There was something about him that made everybody who met him feel slightly uncomfortable, and aside from some reminiscences with Tony of their shared homeland in their original native Portuguese, the colonel did not participate all that much. He excused himself early, but the rest of them went on talking well into the night. Terry liked almost everybody except the colonel. Somehow this group of very strange-looking creatures seemed very comfortable, very natural. It was something in the way they thought and interacted; no matter how alien they now were physically from one another, they were more alike in the way they thought than any of the other creatures she’d met, including the doctor. It was a familiar, relaxed feeling that was hard to describe, but it was comfortable to her. Somehow, in a way she didn’t quite get, she knew that all these people were her people, the same way she’d felt about Gus from the start. She didn’t really try to follow much of their conversation; it was kind of dull, and a lot of it made no sense to her. They seemed to be able to talk and talk and talk on the same topic over and over without getting bored, but it didn’t matter. The underlying din felt like a warm, safe blanket, a haven from the unknown and truly alien world out there.
Finally, when it was quite late, they couldn’t keep it up any longer. Gus told them that he would find a place suitable for himself and not to worry; Terry was physically best suited for Julian’s tent, which had that floor of soft pillows. Gus couldn’t make Julian out at first. She’d been a guy, Mister Military Recruiting Poster, then was turned into a woman in a society that did not value females, had been rescued from it by Lori, and now, with Lori gone, seemed like a strong but dedicated man hater. It was almost as if she’d literally hated, disowned, and, as she’d told the colonel at the station, killed off every trace of who and what she’d been back on Earth. After hearing the colonel’s description of the old Captain Beard on the train coming north, he hadn’t expected this at all. In a very different way, Julian had reinvented herself as thoroughly as Terry had.
Terry, stay with Julian. I’ll be nearby, he thought in the girl’s direction. She doesn’t like men much, so if you see me inside and she can’t, just pretend I’m not there. Okay? Terry seemed a bit confused but nodded. The inside of Julian’s tent was a veritable Art Deco wonderland of colors and exotic perfume scents, and it even had a full-length mirror tall enough for the Erdomite to see her whole self in. Terry found the whole thing a little dizzying and the scents a bit overpowering, but she got used to them after a while. It was the mirror that fascinated her the most, though.
She’d seen her reflection before, but never her whole body at once, and it fascinated her. She was still not used to that face staring back at her. The thing was, she had no comparison with what she was supposed to look like except Gus’s mental images of the old Terry, and while she could see her in the reflection, it wasn’t anywhere near the same. Chubby, bigger thighs, bigger ass, bigger breasts, and there, the tummy that kind of stuck out and didn’t look like the rest. That’s where the baby is growing, she thought, more in wonder than anything else. She felt it, much like a hard lump inside her, and every once in a while, when lying around or sitting, she felt it move.
Julian watched her for a little while, then came over. “I was told you’re going to have a baby. You shouldn’t be anywhere near here, let alone on this kind of trip. These men don’t care about you or it. I was one of them once, and I know how they think. My husband was a woman once, but the Well World made her a man, and before long he started acting and thinking just like the rest of them.” She sighed. “You’re a fish out of water, just like me. You can’t go home, and neither can I, even to our homes here. When this is over, I’m going hunting for a place for fish out of water. Maybe an island like the one you were stuck on, uninhabited. Maybe a little multiracial place where we could live our lives and just be ourselves without having to be what we’re expected to be.” She paused. “You just stick with me. I’ll see they don’t let you come to any harm.” Terry didn’t think anybody meant her harm, but a place to just live and see the baby grow without all this other stuff sounded pretty nice.
Kurdon had his Agonite commanders there as well as the foreigners about three hours after sundown.
“All right, I’ve briefed the advance teams already, and some of this operation is already under way,” he told them. “We’ve taken out every shadow and spy we can’t control, so they’re pretty well blind, and we’re set up with the explosives, drills, and weapons in the forest above the headquarters complex. The raid is set for exactly midnight. At eleven fifty-eight the gang in the market will be out cold from gas being introduced there now, and a team will enter and cut all communications from the subbasement there to the headquarters. That will set off alarms, but at exactly midnight, only two minutes later, the charges and borers will start, and we will blow the main entrance, which is in Liliblod. This may cause a diplomatic problem later, and absolutely no one, and I mean that, is to cross the border. The charge should be enough to bring sufficient materials down on the entrance that it will be blocked. If by any chance it is not, we have sharpshooters just this side of the border to make certain nobody gets out from that end. The only emergency exits they have are into Agon, which will be easy to control since they’re in line with the air exchangers. I want every unit in place behind the borers. Get in there as fast as possible. Stun or freeze anything that moves; kill anything you see that doesn’t immediately surrender. Clear?”
The Agonese, mostly in black armored outfits with helmets and clear faceplates, nodded gravely.
Kurdon turned to the visitors. “There is no sense in risking the girl at this point. One of you should remain back here with her, and there will be a guard here in case there are any nasty surprises.”
“I’ll stay,” Gus told him.
“No, not if you’re willing to come at all,” the inspector responded. “I need that cloaking of yours. The design is such that once we reach the main corridor of each level, we have to use it. Once the obvious resistance is taken out, you would be very useful in scouting ahead and spotting ambushes. Your background says you’ve been under fire before, which makes you even more valuable, since most of my men really haven’t. That true?”
“Yeah, I guess so. If you really need me, I guess so.” Though if I’m gonna stick my neck out a mile, I wish to hell I had a camera and a network to send it to. “Julian, you can ignore a lot, but you have a personal objective in there, and if any of your old memories and reflexes remain at all, you’ve had real military training and experience. Am I wrong?”
“No,” she admitted. “You’re right. This is a little out of my line, though. I was an air officer.” Julian was startled by the offer. She’d never even considered that Kurdon would want her anywhere but back in the rear. Now she found herself nicely trapped by her principles; if he was willing to trust a woman, she could hardly say no.
“You know when to duck and can anticipate how these men will move and how they’ll operate, I think, and that’s enough. For you it’s all volunteer, though. Go or stay.”
“I’ll go,” she told him. She didn’t really relish this any more than did Gus, but it was do it or shut up about what she could or couldn’t handle. “Good. I can’t armor somebody of your type, so you’ll be in the rear of the formation, but I need your eyes, ears, any extra senses you have, and your experience. I’ll outfit you with a small transmitter. Use the troops as a shield and move forward as they do.” He turned to the Leeming.
“Colonel, as the other military man here, I’d like you up with the main corridor force as well,” Kurdon said. “Remember, though, that you’re vulnerable to energy weapons and there’s no way I can armor you, either.”
“We will do as we discussed,” Lunderman replied. “I assure you I will be in no more danger than anyone else.”
“I was in the same air force as the colonel,” Tony pointed out. Flying fat asses like him around with his cronies and equipment to make war on his own people, he added to himself. “Dillians are also excellent shots.”
“Well, maybe, but Dillians are also exceptionally huge targets,” Kurdon responded. “If you want to come, okay, but you’ll be in the rear. I’m not going to let you down there until things are secure enough that you have a chance to survive. Otherwise, you’ll just be in the way. I may need you for interrogation or ED, though.”
“Oh, dear! That doesn’t leave very much for me, does it?” Anne Marie noted. “All right, then, I suppose I’m elected to remain back here with this poor child.” “You can monitor what’s going on from the command post right here,” Kurdon told her.
Anne Marie looked at Tony. “Must you go? I’m afraid I’ve gotten terribly used to you.”