Chalker, Jack L. – Well of Souls 01 – Midnight at the Well of Souls

Midnight at the Well of SoulsMidnight at the Well of Souls On “Earth,” a Planet Circling a Star Near the Outermost Edge of the Galaxy Andromeda Paradise, Once Called Dedalus, a Planet Near Sirius On the Frontier—Harvich’s World Aboard the Freighter Stehekin

Dalgonia MASS MURDERS ARE USUALLY ALL THE MORE SHOCK-ing because of the unexpected settings and the past character of the murderer. The Dalgonian Massacre is a case in point. Dalgonia is a barren, rocky planet near a dying sun, bathed only in a ghostly, reddish light, whose beautiful rays create sinister shadows across the rocky crags. Little is left of the Dalgonian atmosphere to suggest that life could ever have happened here; the water is gone or, like the oxygen, now locked deep in rock. The feeble sun, unable to give more than the deep reddish tint to the landscape, is of no help in illuminating the skyline, which was, despite a bluish haze from the in-ert elements still present in it, as dark as the shadows. This was a world of ghosts. And it was haunted. Nine figures trooped silently into the ruins of a city that might easily have been mistaken for the ‘rocky . crags on the nearby hills. Twisted spires and crumbling castles of greenish-brown stood before them, dwarf-ing them to insignificance. Their white protective suits were all that made them conspicuous in this darkly beautiful world of silence. The city itself resembled nothing so much as one that might have been built of iron aeons before and subjected to extensive rust and salt abrasion in some dead sea. Like its world, it was silent and dead. A close look at the figures heading into the city would reveal that they were all what was known as “human”—denizens of the youngest part of the spiral arm of their galaxy. Five were female, four male, the


leader a thin, frail man of middle years. Stenciled on his back and faceplate was the name Skander. They stood at the half-crumbled gate to the city as they had so many times before, gazing at the incredible but magnificent ruin. My name is Ozymandias. Look on my works ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains…. If those words from a poet out of their near-forgotten past did not actually echo through each of them, the concept and feeling of those lines did. And through each mind, as they had through the minds of thousands of others who had peered and pecked through similar ruins on over two dozen other dead planets, those endless and apparently unanswerable questions kept running. Who were they who could build with such magnificence? Why did they die? “Since this is your first trip as graduate students to a Markovian ruin,” Skander’s reedy voice said through their radios, startling them out of their awe, “I will give a brief introduction to you. I apologize if I am redun-dant, but this will be a good refresher nonetheless. “Jared Markov discovered the first of these ruins centuries ago, on a planet over a hundred light-years distant from this spot. It was our race’s first experience with signs of intelligence in this galaxy of ours, and the discovery caused a tremendous amount of excitement. Those ruins were dated at over a quarter of a million standard years old—and they were the youngest discovered to date. It became obvious that, while our race still grubbed on its home world fiddling with the new discovery of fire, someone else—these people—had a vast interstellar empire of still unknown dimensions. All we know is that as we have pressed inward in the galaxy these remains get more and more numerous. And, as yet, we haven’t a clue as to who they were.” “Are there no artifacts of any sort?” came a disbelieving female voice. ‘? “None, as you should know. Citizen Jainet,” came the formal reply in a mildly reproving tone. “That is what is so infuriating about it all. The cities, yes, about which some things can be inferred about their builders, but no furniture, no pictures, nothing of an even remotely utilitarian nature. The rooms, as you will see, are quite barren. Also, no cemeteries; indeed, nothing mechanical at all, either.” “That’s because of the computer, isn’t it?” came another, deeper female voice, that of the stocky girl from the heavy-gravity world whose family name was Marino. “Yes,” Skander agreed. “But, come, let’s move in-to the city. We can talk as we go.” They started forward, soon coming into a broad boulevard, perhaps fifty meters across. Along each side ran what appeared to be broad -walkways, each six to eight meters across, like the moving walkways of spaceports that took you to and from loading gates. But no conveyor belt or such was evident; the walkways were made of the same greenish-brown stone, or metal, or whatever it was that composed the rest of the city. “The crust of this planet,” Skander continued, “is about average—forty to forty-five kilometers thick. Measurements on this and other worlds of the Markovians showed a consistent discontinuity, about one kilometer thick, between the crust and the natural man-tierock beneath. This, we have discovered, was an artificial layer of material that is essentially plastic but seems to have had a sort of life in it—this much, at least, we infer. Consider how much information your own cells contain. You are the products of the best genetic manipulation techniques, perfect physical and mental specimens of the best of your races adapted to your native planets. And yet, for all that, you are far more than the sum of your parts. Your cells, particularly your brain cells, store input at an astonishing and continuing rate. We believe that this computer beneath your feet was composed of infinitely complex artificial brain cells. Imagine that! It runs the entirety of the planet, a kilometer thick—all brain. And all,


we believe, attuned to the individual brain waves of the inhabitants of this city! .“Imagine it, if you can. Just wish for something, and there it is. Food, furniture—if they used any—even art, created by the mind of the wisher and made real by the computer. We have, of course, small and primitive versions now—but this is generations, possibly millennia, beyond us. If you could think of it, it would be provided’” “This Utopian Theory accounts for most of what we see, but not why all this is now ruins,” piped in an adolescent male voice, Varnett, the youngest—and probably brightest—but unquestionably the most imaginative of the group. “Quite true. Citizen Vamett,” Skander acknowledged, “and there are three schools of thought on it. One is that the computer broke down, and another is that the computer ran amok—and the people couldn’t cope either way. You know the third theory, anyone?” “Stagnation,” Jainet replied. “They died because they had nothing left to live for, strive for, or work for.” “Exactly,” Skander replied. “And yet, there are problems with all three suppositions. An interstellar culture of this magnitude would have allowed for breakdowns; they’d have some sort of backup system. As for the amok theory—well, it’s fine except that every sign shows that the same thing happened at once, all across their entire empire. One, even several, okay, but not all at the same time. I am not quite willing to accept the last theory, even though it is the one that fits the best. Something nags at me and says that they would have allowed even for that.” “Maybe they programmed their own degeneration,” Varnett suggested, “and it went too far.” “Eh?” There was a note of surprise but keen interest in Skander’s voice. “Programmed—planned degeneration! It’s an interesting theory, Citizen Varnett. Perhaps we’ll find out in time.” He motioned and they entered a building with a strange, hexagonal doorway. All the doors were hexagons, it appeared. The interior of the room was very large, but there was no sign as to its purpose or function. It looked like an apartment or a store after the tenants had moved out, taking everything with them. “The room,” Skander pointed out to them, “is hexagonal—as the city is hexagonal, as is almost everything in it if you see it from the correct angle.- The number six seems to have been essential to them. Or sacred. It is from this, and from the size and shape of the doorways, windows, and the like—not to mention the width of the walkways—that we have some idea of what the natives must have been like. We hypothesize that they were rather like a top, or turnip shape, with six limbs which may have been tentacles usable for walking or as hands. We suspect that things naturally came m sixes to them—their mathematics, their architecture, maybe they even had six eyes all around. Judging from the doors and allowing for clearance, they were about two meters tall on the average and possibly wider than that at the waist—which is where we believe the six arms, tentacles, or whatever were centered, and’that must be why the doorways widen at that point.” / They stood there awhile, trying to imagine such creatures living in the rooms, moving up and down the boulevards. “We’d best be getting back to camp,” Skander said at last. “You will have ample time to study here and to poke into every nook and cranny of the place.” They would, in fact, be there a year, working under the professor at the University station. They walked quickly in the lighter gravity and reached the base camp about five kilometers from the city gates in under an hour. The camp itself looked like some collection of great tents of a strange circus, nine in all, bright white like the pressure suits. Long tubes connecting the tents occasionally flexed as the monitoring computers continually adjusted the temperature and barometric pressure that kept each inflated. On such a dead world little else was needed, and the insides were lined to make punctures almost impossible. If any such did happen, though, only those in the punctured area would be killed; the computer could seal off any portion of the complex. Skander entered last, climbing into the air lock after


making certain that none of his charges or major equipment was left outside. By the time the lock equalized and allowed him into the entry tent, the others were already all or partially out of their pressure suits. He stopped for a minute, looking at them. Eight representatives from four planets of the Confederation —and, except for the one from the heavy-gravity world, all looked alike. All were exceptionally trim and muscular; they could be a gymnastic team without any imagination. Although they ranged in age from fourteen to twenty-two, they all looked prepubescent, which, in fact, they were. Their sexual development had been genetically arrested, and would probably continue that way. He looked at the boy, Varnett, and the girl, Jainet—both from the same planet, the name of which eluded him. The oldest and the youngest of the expedition, yet they were exactly the same height and weight, and, with heads shaved, were virtually identical twins. They had been grown in a lab, a Birth Factory, and brought up by the State to think as identically as they looked. He had once asked why they continued to make both male and female models, only half in Jest. It was, of course, a redundancy system in case anything happened to the Birth Factories, he had been told. Humanity was on at least three hundred planets, and of those all but a handful were on the same line as the world that had spawned these two. Absolute equality, he thought sourly. Look alike, behave alike, think alike, all needs provided for, all wants fulfilled in equal measure to all, assigned the work they were raised for and taught that it was the only proper place for them and their duty. He wondered how the technocrats in charge decided who was to be what. He thought back to the last batch. Three in that num-ber came from a world that had even dispensed with names and personal pronouns. He wondered idly how different the human race was at this point from the creatures of the city out there. Even on worlds like his own home world it was like this, really. True, they grew beards and group sex was the norm, something that would have totally shocked these people. His world had been founded by a group


of nonconformists fleeing the technocratic communism of the outer spiral. But, in its own way, it was as conformist as Varnett’s home, he thought. Drop Vamett into a Caligristian town and he would be made fun of, called names, even, perhaps lynched. He wouldn’t have the beard, or the clothes, or the sex to fit into Caligristo’s life-style. You can’t be a nonconformist if you don’t wear the proper uniform. He had often wondered if there was something deep in the human psyche that insisted on tribalism. Peo-ple used to fight wars not so much to protect their’own life-style but to impose it on others. That’s why so many worlds were like these people’s —there had been wars to spread the faith, convert the downtrodden. Now the Confederacy forbade that —but the existing conformity, world to world, was the status quo it protected. The leaders of each planet sat on a Council, with an enforcement arm capable of destroying any planet that strayed into “unsafe” paths and manned by specially trained barbarian psycho-paths. But these weapons of terror could not be used without the actions of a majority of the Council. , It had worked. There were no more wars. They had conformed the entire mass of humanity. And so had the Markovians, he thought. Oh, the size and sometimes the color and workmanship of the cities had varied, but only slightly. What had that youth, Vamett, said? Perhaps they had deliberately broken down the system? Skander’s face had a frown as he removed the last of his pressure suit. Ideas like that marked brilliance and creativity—but they were unsafe thoughts for a civilization like the one the boy had come from. It revived those old religious ideas that after perfection came true death. Where could he have gotten an idea like that? And why had he not been caught and stopped? Skander looked after their naked young bodies as they filed through the tunnel toward the showers and dorm. Only barbarians thought that way.


Had the Confederacy guessed what he was up to here? Was Vamett not the innocent student he was supposed to be, but the agent of his nightmares? Did they suspect? Suddenly he felt very chilly, although the temperature was constant. Suppose they all were… . Three months passed. Skander looked at the picture on his television screen, an electron micrograph of the cellular tissue brought up a month before by the core drill. It was the same pattern as the older discoveries— that same fine cellular structure, but infinitely more complex inside than any human or animal cell—and so tremendously alien. And a six-sided cell, at that. He had often wondered about the why of that—had even their cells been hexagonal? Somehow he doubted it, but the way that num-ber kept popping up he wouldn’t disbelieve it, either. He stared and stared at the sample. Finally, he reached over and turned up the magnification to full and put on the special filters he had developed and refined in over nine years on this barren planet. The screen suddenly came alive. Little sparks darted from one point in the cell to another. There was a minor electrical storm in the cell. He sat, fascinated as always, at the view only he had ever seen. The cell was alive. But the energy was not electrical—that was why it had never been picked up. He had no idea what it was, but it behaved like standard electrical energy. It just didn’t measure or appear as electricity should. The discovery had been an accident, he reflected, three years before. Some careless student had been playing with the screen to get good-looking effects and had left it that way. He had switched it on the next day without noticing anything unusual, then set up the usual energy-detection program for another dull run-through. It was only a glimpse, a flicker, but he had seen it —and worked on his own for months more to get a


filter system that would show that energy photograph-ically- He had tested the classical samples from other digs, even had one sent to him by a supply ship. They had all been dead. But not this one. Somewhere, forty or so kilometers beneath them, the Markovian brain was still alive. “What is that. Professor?” Skander heard a voice be-hind him. He quickly flipped the screen off and whirled around in one anxious moment. It was Vamett, that perennial look of innocence on-his permanently childlike face. “Nothing, nothing,” he covered excitedly, the anxiety in his voice betraying the lie. “Just putting on some playful programs to see what the electrical charges in the cell might have looked like.” Vamett seemed skeptical. “Looked pretty real to’ me,” he said stubbornly. “If you’ve made a major breakthrough you ought to tell us about it. I mean—” “No, no, it’s nothing,” Skander protested angrily. Then, regaining his composure, he said, “That will be all. Citizen Vamett! Leave me now’” Vamett shrugged and left. Skander sat in his chair for several minutes. His hands—in fact, his whole body—began shaking violently, and it was a while before the attack subsided. Slowly, a panicked look on his face, he went over to the microscope and carefully removed the special filter. His hand was still so unsteady he could hardly hold on to it. He slipped the filter into its tiny case with difficulty and placed it in the wide belt for tools and personal items that was the only clothing any of them wore inside. He went back to his private room in the dorm section and lay down on his bed, staring up at the ceiling for what seemed like hours. Vamett, he thought. Always Vamett. In the three months since they had first arrived, the boy had been into everything. Many of the others played their on-duty games and engaged in the silliness students do,


but not he. Serious, studious to a fault, and always reading the project reports, the old records. Skander suddenly felt that everything was closing in on him. He was still so far from his goal! And now Vamett knew. Knew, at least, that the brain was alive. The boy would surely take it the step further—guess that Skander had almost broken the code, was ready, perhaps in another year or so, to send that brain a message, reactivate it. To become a god. He would be the one who would save the human race with the very tools that must have destroyed its maker. Suddenly Skander jumped up and made his way back to the lab. Something nagged at him, some suspicion that things were even more wrong than he knew. Quietly, he stepped into the lab. Vamett was sitting at the television console. And, on the screen, the same cell Skander had been examining was depicted with its energy connectors clearly visible! Skander was stunned. Quickly his hands reached for the little pocket in which he kept his filter. Yes, it was still there. How was this possible? Vamett was doing computations, checking against a display on a second screen that hooked him to the math sections of the lab computer. Skander stood there totally still and silent. He heard Vamett mumble an as-sent to himself, as if some problem he had been running through the computer had checked out correct. Skander stole a glance at his chronometer. Nine hours! It had been nine hours’ He had slept through part of his dark thoughts and given the boy the chance to confirm his worst nightmare. Something suddenly told Vamett he wasn’t alone. He sat still for a second, then glanced fearfully around. “Professor!” he exclaimed. “I’m glad it’s you! This is stupendous! Why aren’t you telling everyone?” “How—*’ Skander stumbled, gesturing at the screen. “How did you get that picture?” Vamett smiled. “Oh, that’s simple. You forgot to


dump the computer memory when you closed up. This is what you were looking at, which the computer held in new storage.” Skander cursed himself for a fool. Of course, everything on every instrument was recorded by the computer as standard procedure. He had been so shook up by Vamett’s discovery of his work that he had forgotten to dump the record! “It’s only a preliminary finding,’ the professor managed at last. “I was waiting until 1 had something really startling to report.’ “But this is startling!** the boy exclaimed excitedly. “But you have been too close to the problem and to your own disciplines to crack it. Look, your fields are archaeology and biology, aren’t they?” “They are,” Skander acknowledged, wondering where this conversation was leading. “I was an exobi-ologist for years and became an archaeologist when, I started doing all my work on the Markovian brains.” “Yes, yes, but you’re still a generalist. My world, as you know, raises specialists in every field from the point at which the brain is formed. You know my field.” “Mathematics,” Skander replied. “If I recall, all mathematicians on your world are named Vamett after an ancient mathematical genius.” “Right,” the boy replied, still in an excited tone. “As I was developing in the Birth Factory, they imprinted all the world’s mathematical knowledge directly. It was there continuously as I grew. By the time my brain was totally developed at age seven, I knew all the mathematics, applied and theoretical, that we know. Everything is ultimately mathematical, and so I see everything in a mathematical way. I was sent here by my world because I had become fascinated by the alien mathematical symmetry in the slides and specimens of the Markovian brain. But all was for nothing, because I had no knowledge of the energy matrix linking the cellular components.” “And now?” Skander prodded, fascinated and excited in spite of himself. “Why, it’s gibberish. It defies all mathematical logic-It says that there are no absolutes in mathematics’


None! Every time I tried to force the pattern into known mathematical concepts, it kept saying that two plus two equals four isn’t a constant but a relative proposition!” Skander realized that the boy was trying to make things baby-simple to him, but he still couldn’t grasp what he was saying. “What does all that mean?” he asked in a puzzled and confused tone. Vamett was becoming carried away with himself, “It means that all matter and energy are in some kind of mathematical proportion. That nothing is actually real, nothing actually anything at all. If you discard the equal sign and substitute ‘is proportional to’ and, if it is true, you can alter or change anything. None of us, this room, this planet, the whole galaxy, the whole universe—none of it is a constant! If you could alter the equation for anything only slightly, change the proportions, anything could be made anything else, anything could be changed to anything else!” He stopped, seeing from the expression on Skander’s face that the older man was still lost. “I’ll give a really simple, basic example,” Vamett said, calmed considerably from his earlier outburst. “First, realize this if you can: there is a finite amount of energy in the universe, and that is the only constant. The amount is infinite by our standards, but that is true if this is true. Do you follow me?” Skander nodded. “So you’re saying that there is nothing but pure energy?” “More or less,” Vamett agreed. “All matter, and constrained energy, like stars, is created out of this energy flux. It is held there in that state—you, me, the room, the planet we’re on—by a mathematical balance. Something—some quantity—is placed in proportion to some other quantity, and that forms us. And keeps us stable. If I knew the formula for Elkinos Skander, or Vamett Mathematics Two Sixty-one, I could alter, or even abolish, our existence. Even things like time and distance, the best constants, could be altered or abolished. If I knew your formula I could, given one condition, not only change you into, say, a


chair, but alter all events so that you would have al-ways been a chair!” “What’s the condition?’* Skander asked nervously, hesitantly, afraid of the answer. “Why, you’d need a device to translate that formula into reality. And a way to have it do what you-wished.” “The Markovian brain,” Skander whispered- “Yes. That’s what they discovered. But this brain— this device—seems to be for local use only. That is, it would affect this planet, perhaps the solar system in which it lies, but no more. But, somewhere, there must be a master unit—a unit that could affect at least half, perhaps the whole, galaxy. It must exist, if all the rest of my hypothesis is correct!” “Why must it?” Skander asked, a sinking sensation growing in his stomach. “Because we are stable,” the boy replied, an awe-struck tone in his voice. Only the mechanical sounds of the lab intruded for a minute after that, as the implications sank home to both of them. “And you have the code?” Skander asked at last. “I think so, although it goes against my whole being that such equations can be correct. And yet—do you know why that energy does not show by conventional means?” Skander slowly shook his head negatively, and the mathematician continued. “It is the primal energy itself. Look, do you have that filter with you?” Skander nodded numbly and produced the little case. The boy took it eagerly, but instead of placing it in the microscope he went over to the outer wall. Slowly he donned protective coveralls and goggles, •used in radiation protection, and told Skander to do likewise. Then he sealed the lab against entry and peeled back the tent lining in the one place where it covered a port—not used here, but these tents were all-purpose and contained many useless features. The baleful reddish landscape showed before them at midday. Slowly, carefully, the boy held the tiny fil-ter up to one eye and closed the other. He gasped. “I was right!” he exclaimed. After a painful half-minute that felt like an eternity, he handed the little filter to Skander, who did the same.


Through the filter, the entire landscape was bathed in a ferocious electrical storm. Skander couldn’t stop looking at it, “The Markovian brain is all around us,” Varnett whispered. “It draws what it needs and expels what it does not. If we could contact it—” “We’d be like gods,” Skander finished. Skander reluctantly put down the filter and handed it back to Varnett, who resumed his own gazing, “And what sort of universe would you create, Varnett?” Skander almost whispered, reaching under the protective clothing as he spoke and pulling out a knife. “A mathematically perfect place where everyone was absolutely identical, the same equation?” “Put your weapon away, Skander,” Varnett told him, not taking his gaze from the filtered landscape. “You can’t do it without me, and if you think about it you’ll realize that. In only a few months they’ll find our bodies and you here—or dying in the city—and what will that get you?” The knife hesitated a long moment, then slowly slid back into the belt under the protective garment. “What the hell are you, Varnett?” asked Skander suspiciously. “An aberration,” the other replied. “We happen, sometimes. Usually they catch us and that’s that. But not me, not yet. They will, though, unless I can do something about it.” “What do you mean, an aberration?” Skander asked unsurely. “I’m human, Skander. A real human. And greedy. I, too, would like to be a god.” It had taken Varnett only seven hours to crack the mathematics, but it would take a lot longer to make the Markovian brain notice them. Their project was so intense that the others began to take notice and inquire, particularly the research assistants. Finally, they decided to take them all in on it—Varnett because he was certain that, once in contact with the Markovian brain, he could adjust the others to his version of events, and Skander because he had no choice. WTiile


they worked the lab, the others combed the city and, using small flyers, the other cities and regions of the planet. “You are to look for some sort of vent, entrance, gate, or at least a temple or similar structure that might mean some kind of direct contact with the Markovian brain,” Skander told them. And time went on, with the others, good Universal-ists all, looking forward to carrying the news back to the Confederacy that the perfect society was within man’s grasp. Finally, one day, only two months before the next ship was due in, they found it. Jainet and Dunna, one of the research assistants, noticed through the large filters they had constructed for the search that one tiny area near the north pole of the planet was conspicuous by the absence of the all-pervasive lightning. Flying over to it they saw below them a deep hexagonal hole of total darkness. They were reluctant to explore further without consultation, and so radioed for the rest to come up, “I don’t see anything,” Skander complained, disappointed. “There’s no hex hole here.” “But there was!” Jainet protested, and Dunna nodded in agreement. “It was right there, almost directly over the pole. Here! I’ll prove it!” She went over and rewound the flyer’s nose camera recording disk a little more than halfway. They watched the playback in skeptical silence, as the ground rolled beneath them on the screen. Then, suddenly, there it was. “See!” Jainet exclaimed. “What did I tell you!” And it was there, clearly, unquestionably. Varnett looked at the screen, then to the scene below them, then back again. It al] checked. There had been a hexagonal hole, almost two kilometers across at its widest point. The landmarks matched—it was at this spot. But there wasn’t a hole there now. They waited then, almost an entire day. Suddenly the flat plain seemed to vanish and there was the hole again. They photographed it and ran every analysis test on it they could. “Let’s drop something in,” Varnett suggested at last.


They found a spare pressure suit and, hovering directly over the hole, the light on the suit turned on, they dropped it in. The suit struck the hole. “Struck” is the only word they had for it. The suit hit the top of the hole and seemed to stick there, not dropping at all. Then, after hovering a moment, it seemed to fade before their eyes-Not drop, but fade—for even the films showed that it didn’t fall. It simply faded out to nothingness. A few minutes later the hole itself disappeared. “Forty-six standard minutes,” Vamett said. “Exactly. And I’ll bet at the same time gap tomorrow it opens again.” “But where did the suit go? Why didn’t it drop?” Jainet asked. “Remember the power of this thing,” Skander told her. “If you were to get to it, you wouldn’t descend forty-plus kilometers. You’d simply be transported to the place.” “Exactly,” Varnett agreed. “It would simply alter the equation and you would be there instead of here.” “But where is there?” Jainet asked. “We believe at the control center of the Markovian brain,” Skander told her. “There would be one—the same way there are two bridges on a spaceship. The other is for emergencies.” Or male and female members on your planet, Skander had almost said. “We’d best go back and run this all through our own data banks,” Varnett suggested. “After all, it’s been a long day for us anyway. The hole opens and closes regularly. So we can do the same things tomorrow as we can do today.” They all muttered assent at this proposal, and several suddenly realized how tired they were. “Someone should stay here,” Skander suggested, “if only to time the thing and keep the camera running.” “I’ll do it,” Varnett volunteered. “I can sleep here on this flyer and you all can go back in the other two. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. Then someone can spell me tomorrow.”


They all agreed to this, so after a short while everyone but Vamett headed back to base camp. Almost all went to sleep immediately, only Skander and Dunna taking the extra time to feed their records into the data bank. Then both went off to their own quarters. Skander sat on the edge of his bunk, too excited to feel tired. Curiously, he felt exhilarated instead, adrenalin pumping through him. I must take the gamble, he told himself. I must as- – sume that this is indeed the gateway to the brarn. In less than fifty days this crew will be replaced, and they’ll go home to blab the secret. Then everyone will be in, and the Statists of the Confederacy will gain the power. Was that what had happened to the Markovians? Had they become so much a communal paradise that they stagnated and died out? No! he told himself. Not jor them! / shall die, or I shall save mankind. He went first to the lab and wiped all information from the data banks. There was nothing left when he finished; then he wrecked the machinery so none could retrieve the faintest clue. Next he went to the master control center. There the atmospheric conditions were set. Slowly, methodically, he turned off all the systems except oxygen. He waited there almost an hour until the gauges read that the atmosphere was now almost entirely oxygen everywhere in the tents. That done, he made his way carefully to the air lock, anxious not to scrape against anything or to cause any sort of spark. Although nervous at the prospect that one of the sleepers would wake up and make that spark, he took the time to don his pressure suit and then take all the other such suits outside. Next he took from the emergency kit of one of the flyers a small box and opened it. Premanufactured items for all occasions. It was a flare gun. The puncture it would make would be sealed in seconds by the automated equipment, but not before it ignited the oxygen inside. It was over in one sudden flare, like flash paper.


After, he could see the vacuum-exposed remains of the sleepers whose charred bodies were still in their beds. Seven down, one to go, he thought without remorse. He boarded a flyer and headed toward the north pole. He glanced at his chronometer. It took nine hours to fly back, he had been three doing his work, and now there was another nine to return to the pole. About an hour to spare until that hole opened up again. Enough time for Varnett. It seemed like days until he got there, but the chronometer said just a little over nine hours. As he came over the horizon he searched for Varnett’s flyer. It wasn’t to be seen. Suddenly Skander spotted it—down, down on that flat plain at the pole. He braked and hovered over it. Slowly, in the gloom, he made out a tiny white dot near the center of the plain. Varnett! He was going to be the first in! Vamett detected movement and looked up at the flyer. Suddenly he started running for his own. Skander came down on him, skirting the ground so low that he was afraid he would crash himself. Vamett ducked and rolled, but was unhurt. Skander cursed himself, then decided to set it down. He still had the knife, and that might just be enough. He took the flare pistol which, while it wouldn’t necessarily penetrate the suit, might cause a blinding distraction. He was not a large man, but he was a head taller than the boy and the odds were otherwise even in his mind. Landing near Varnett’s flyer, he got out quickly, flare gun in his right hand, knife in his left. Cursing the almost total absence of light and the fact that he had had to take his eyes off Varnett to land, Skander looked cautiously around. Vamett had. vanished. Before this could sink in, a white figure jumped from atop the other flyer and hit him in the back. He went down, dropping the flare gun. The two figures, rolling across the rocky landscape, grappled for the knife. Skander was larger, but older


and in worse physical condition than Varnett. Finally, with a shove, Skander pushed Varnett away from him and came upon the boy with the knife. Varnett let him get very close; then, as the knife made a quick stab, the boy’s arm reached out and caught the older man’s wrist. The two struggled and groaned in their suits as Skander tried to press the knife home. They were in that frozen tableau when, suddenly, the hole opened. They were both already in it. Both vanished. Another Part of the Field NATHAN BRAZIL STRETCHED BACK IN HIS HUGE, PIL-lowy lounge chair aboard the bridge of the freighter Stehekin, nine days out of Paradise with a load of grain bound for drought-stricken Coriolanus and with three passengers. Passengers were common on such runs—there were actually a dozen staterooms aboard —as freighter travel was much cheaper than passenger ships and a lot easier if you wanted to get where you were going in a hurry. There were a thousand freight runs for every passenger run to almost anyplace. The crew consisted only of Brazil. The ships were now automated, so he was there just in case something went wrong. Food had been prepared for all before takeoff and had been loaded into the automated kitchen. A tiny wardroom was used on those occasions when someone wanted to eat outside of his stateroom or with the captain. Actually, the passengers had more contempt for him than he for them. In an age of extreme conformity, men like Nathan Brazil were the mavericks, the loners, the ones who didn’t fit. Recruited mostly off the barbarian worlds of the frontier, they could take


the loneliness of the job, the endless weeks often without human company. Most psychologists called them sociopaths, people alienated from society. Brazil liked people all right, but not the factory-made ones. He would rather sit here in his domain, the stars showing on the great three-dimensional screens in front of him, and reflect on why society had become alienated from him. He was a small man, around 170 centimeters tall, slight and thin. His skin was dark-complexioned. Two bright, brown eyes flanked a conspicuous Roman nose which sat atop a mouth very wide, rubbery, and full of teeth. His black hair hung long to his shoulders, but was stringy and looked overgreased and underwashed. He had a thin mustache and thinner full beard that looked as if someone had attempted to grow a full brush and hadn’t made it. He was dressed in a loose-fitting but loudly colorful tunic and matching pants, and wore sandals of a sickly green. The passengers, he knew, were scared stiff of him, and he liked it that way. Unfortunately, they were still almost thirty days out and their boredom and claus-trophobia would sooner or later drive them meddling into his lap. Oh, hell, he thought. Might as well get everybody together. They have huddled back in that small lounge in the stern long enough. He reached up and flicked a switch. “The captain,” he intoned in a tenor voice that nonetheless had a gravelly undertone to it, making it sound a little harsh and unintentionally sarcastic, “requests the pleasure of your company at dinner today. It you like, you may join me in the wardroom forward in thirty minutes. Don’t feel put out if you don’t want to come. I won’t,” he concluded, and switched ofE the speaker, chuckling softly. Why do I do that? he asked’ himself for the hun-dredth—thousandth?—time. For nine days I chase them around, bully them, and see as little of them as possible. Now, when I start to be sociable, I blow it. He sighed, then reached over and dialed the meals. Now they would have to come up, or starve. He idly scratched himself and wondered whether or not he

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L