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


power. We have powers we choose not to reveal at this time. We have no wish to interfere in your petty goals, wars, sex, politics, or anything else. Our goal is simply to make certain that no one ever gets into that control center again.” “Well, so you say,” Skander replied skeptically. “But the fact remains that, for now, you’re our only hope of getting out of here and getting away from the bugs.” “Remember that!” The Rel said. “I am your only protection. And—oh, yes, for some additional measure of protection, I would suggest that Czillian Vardia change its name for the entire expedition, and that you both remember to use that different name. I will make certain that our companion does not know your identity, either.” “But why?” Vardia asked, particularly puzzled now. “Who is this companion.” “A greatly changed and mentally preconditioned Datham Hain, the fat man of your party,” The Rel told her. “It would be better if it did not know that one of our party knows everything about its past activities. Although a conditioned slave, deep down Hain is still Hain. I suggest you remember what it did to others before, what kind of person it is.” “Oh,” was all she could manage. She thought for a moment. “Then I’ll call myself Chon, which is a common name in Czill, and easy to remember and respond to.” “Very good,” The Rel replied. “Remember it. We will leave as soon as possible. In the meantime, may I remind you of several facts. First, let me point out, Dr. Skander, that there is little water in this land. These people can move on the ground at close to ten kilometers per hour, up to twice that in the air; and they have nasty stingers. As for you, Czillian, move out of the sunlight and you’ll root. You know that. That lamp is all that keeps you awake. The light here is not intense enough on its own to keep you awake.” And with that it glided out the door.


Skander beat her fist on the hard ground, and Vardia stayed still, but the message had been received and understood. There was no escape. Murithel—One Hour from Dawn WUJU HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH THE UNEVEN, ROCKY ground, but they had managed to advance more than forty kilometers into the hex without meeting any of its dominant life form. There was a nutter of wings and Cousin Bat landed just ahead of them. “There’s a fairly good cave with rock cover a little farther up,” the dark one whispered. “It’s a good place to make camp. There’s a small tribe of Mumies over on the other side of those trees, there, but they look like a hunting party, likely to stay on the plains and river basin.” Brazil and WuJu looked where the bat pointed, but could see nothing but pitch darkness. Cousin Bat led the way up to the cave. It was already getting light when they approached it, and they lost no time at all in getting in. It was a good location, high up on the cliff atop some ancient rock slide. They could see for kilometers but, thanks to the shape of the rocks and boulders around the cave, could not be seen from the plain below. It was damp and had a small family of tiny, toadlike reptiles living there, but these were quickly chased. It wasn’t all that deep a cave, but it would hide the three of them. “I’ll take the first watch,” Brazil said. “Wuju’s dead tired now, and you, Bat, have been flying around half the night. All I’ve been doing is riding.” They agreed, and he assured them he would call Wuju when he was too tired to carry on. Brazil took a comfortable perch near the cave mouth and watched the sun rise.


Still light-headed over this air, he thought. It was obviously quite different in composition from what he was used to, although he had been through worse getting to Dillia from his own illfated Hex 41. Much richer in oxygen, lower in nitrogen, he decided. Well, the other two had gotten used to it and he would, too, in time. The air was cool and crisp but not uncomfortable. Probably eighteen degrees Celsius, he thought, with high humidity. The threatened rainstorm still looked threatening, but hadn’t materialized yet. The sun was well over the distant mountains when he saw his first Murnies. There they were—a small bunch, less than a dozen, running with spears after a deerlike creature. They were over two meters high, he guessed, although it was hard to figure at a distance. They were almost rectangular, a uniform light green in color, very thin—incredibly so, for he almost lost ones that turned sideways. They were kind of lumpy, looking at the distance something like light-green painted bushes. Two arms, two legs—but they melted into a solid when one stood straight and still. He was amazed that he could see some features from this far away. Their big yellow eyes must be larger than dinner plates, he thought, and those mouths —huge, they seemed to go completely across the body, exposing a reddish color when they were opened wide. And they had teeth—even from here he could see they were pointed daggers of white of a size to fit those mouths. They were sloppy hunters, but eventually they cornered the brownish deer-thing, surrounded it, and speared it to death. Don’t they ever. throw the spears? he wondered. Maybe those thin, wide arms couldn’t get enough strength or balance. As soon as the creature fell, they pounced upon it, ripping pieces of it and shoving it into their mouths, fighting each other to get extra bites. Those hands must have pretty good claws to tear like that, he thought. In just a few minutes, they had finished off the en”


tire deer-thing, which must have weighed at least 150 kilos, he guessed. They even ate the bones. When they finally picked up their spears and went off down the plains, there was no sign of the prey they had eaten except a tom-up patch of dirt and grass. Seven days, he thought. At the rate we’re going, seven days in their country. And that’s if everything goes right. And there’s bound to be lots more of them, a lot thicker group. No problem alone, of course. Even easier with Cousin Bat, whoever he worked for. Why the hell did I allow her to come along? Why had he? That act of courage in taking off her pressure hel-met in Zone? Was that what he liked in her, deep down? Pity, maybe. Certainly that had motivated him at the start. Thinking back, he kept remembering how she had clung to him in Zone, looked to him for support, de-fying Hain even that close to the end. What was love, anyway? he mused. She said it was caring, caring more about someone else than about yourself. He leaned forward and thought a minute. Did he really, deep down, care if the Mumies got the bat? He realized he wouldn’t shed a tear for the creature. Just one more m a long list of dead associations. Was he going to Czill because Vardia was kidnapped? No, he decided, luck of the draw, really. He was go-ing to Czill because it was the only lead he had to Skander, and that project was—well, wasn’t that car-ing? What’s it to me if Skander takes over and remolds the universe in his own crazy image? He had met a lot of nice people, happy people, old friends and new acquaintances, in his long life and here on the Well World. He cared about them, somehow, even though he knew deep down that, in a pinch, they probably wouldn’t do the same for him. Maybe it’s for that unknown one who would, he thought. Nathan Brazil, ever the optimist. Had anybody ever cared?


He thought back, idly watching a much larger group of Murnies chasing a fair-sized herd of the deer-things. How many times had he been married, legally or socially? Twenty times? Thirty? Fifty? More? More, he thought wonderingly. About every century. Some had been nice lookers, some real dogs. Two of them had even been men. Had any of them really cared about him? Not one, he thought bitterly. Not one, deep down in their selfish little hearts. Lovers, hell. The only friends who hadn’t betrayed him in some manner or the other were those who hadn’t had the chance. Would he really care if the Murnies ate him? Just tired, the centaur had said. Tired of running, tired of jumping at every little noise, I’m tired, too, he thought. Tired of running nowhere, tired of that tiny belief, often foresworn, that somewhere, somewhere, was someone who would care. If all that were true, why did he care about the Murnies? Why did he feel fear? The wild ports, the happy drugs, the whores and dives, the endless hours alone on the bridge. Why have I lived so long? he asked himself. Not aging wasn’t enough. Most people didn’t die of old age, anyway. Something else got them first. Not him. He had always survived. Banged up, bleeding, nearly dead thousands of times, and yet something in him would not let him die. He remembered the Flying Dutchman suddenly, sailing the world’s oceans with a ghost crew, alone but for one short leave every fifty years, doomed until a beautiful woman would love him so much that she would give up her life for him-Who commands the Dutchman? he asked the winds. Who curses him to his fate? It’s psychology, he thought. The Dutchman, Di-ogenes—I’m all these people. It’s why I’m different. All those millions over the centuries who killed themselves when nobody cared. Not me, I’m cursed. I can’t accept the universality of shallow self-interest.


That fellow from—what was the name of that country? England. Yes, England. Orwell. Wrote a book that said that a totalitarian society sustains itself by the basic selfishness of everybody. When the chips were down, his hero and heroine betrayed each other. Everybody thought he was talking of the fears of a future totalitarian state, Brazil thought bitterly. He wasn’t. He was talking about the people around him, in his own enlightened society. You were too good for this dirty little world, he had said, but he had stayed. Why? In failure? Whose failure? he wondered, suddenly puzzled. He almost had the answer, but it slipped away. There was movement in back of him and he jumped and jerked around. Wuju came up to him slowly. He looked at her curiously, as if he had never seen her before-A chocolate brown girl with pointy ears welded to the working half of a brown Shetland pony. And yet it worked, he thought. Centaurs always looked somehow noble and beautiful- “You should have called one of us,” she said softly. “The sun’s almost straight up. I thought you were asleep.” “No,” he replied lazily. “Just thinking.” He turned back to gaze over the valley, now seemingly swarm-ing with Murnies and deer-things. “About what?” she asked casually, starting to massage his neck and shoulders. “Things I don’t like to think about,” he replied cryptically- “Things I hid away in little corners of my mind so they wouldn’t bother me, although, like all ghosts, they haunt me even when I don’t know it.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “I do love you, Nathan,” she whispered. He got up and walked toward the back of the cave, patting her gently on her equine rump as he did so. There was a puzzled half-smile on his face, and he said, as he stretched out near Cousin Bat, in a voice so low it was really to himself, “Do you, Wu]u? Do you, really?”


The Barony of Azkfru, Akkafian Empire THE BARON WAS, IF ANYTHING, MORE MAJESTIC THAN before, and Datham Hain was at her lowest ebb, at the brink of suicide from weeks now in the dung pits. “You have your name back, now. Mar Hain,” the baron pronounced in that godlike tone he had. That was a small gesture, yet to Hain it was as momentous as being crowned supreme ruler of the galaxy, for it restored a measure of her self-respect. It also bound the Entry all the more to the baron, from whom all blessings flowed. “I have now a task for you, of the utmost difficulty,” the baron told her. “It will require loyalty and devotion, as well as all of your intelligence and cun-ning. If you fail me, you are lost forever; if you succeed, you shall sit beside me in an honored place as chief concubine of, not your baron, but at the very least the emperor, perhaps not only of this empire.” “You have but to instruct this humble slave and I will obey though there be no reward and the cost be my life,” Hain groveled. I’ll bet, the baron thought sarcastically. Once more he regretted having to trust such a one as this on so important a mission. Blast that Northerner! Yet, The Diviner had so far been a hundred percent correct on everything, and he dared not go against the creature, at least not until the final moments. “Listen well, Mar Hain,” the baron said carefully. “Soon you wiil meet three aliens. You will have a translation device implanted so that you can follow all conversations. Also, two of them are Entries, and may be able to communicate in the nontranslatable tongue of your old life—so it is better if you feign both ignorance and stupidity whenever possible.


“You will be going on a great journey together. Now, here is what you are to do….” “Those filthy bugs!” Vardia, now calling herself Chon, exclaimed as they set her down on a road with the others and flew off, making irritating buzzing noises as they did so. “Let’s have no racial slurs,” Hain said sternly. “They think even less of you, and they are my peo-ple.” “Come on, you two, cut it out!” Skander snapped. Unable to walk, they had built a saddle which left the mermaid perched only mildly comfortable atop Hain’s back- “We have a long and probably difficult journey ahead of us. Our lives may depend on each other, and I don’t want all this carping!” “Quite so,” The Rel agreed. “Please remember, you two, that although you were kidnapped, we all have a common goal. Save all disputes for the time we reach our goal, not during the journey.” They were at the imperial border, manned by bored sentries. The change in the landscape was tremendous. The arid, hilly, pinkish-gray land of the Akkafians ended abruptly as if there were some physical barrier, perfectly straight, stretching from horizon to horizon. “All of you put on your respirators,” The Rel instructed, needing none for itself. They still didn’t know if it breathed. Hain’s was bulky, the great insect looking as if she were wearing some sort of giant, distorted earmuffs behind her eyes. Vardia’s hung on a strap around her neck and was attached to her lower legs by two cables ending in needles which were inserted in her skin. Skander’s was a simple mask over mouth and nose, with tubes leading to a tank also on Hain’s back. Vardia’s alone contained not an oxygen mixture but pure carbon dioxide. There was a mechanism by which the waste contents in her canister could be exchanged with those of Skander and Hain. The hex they faced was bleak enough; the sky showed not the various shades of blue common to much of the world, but an almost irritatingly bright yellow.


“Sound will travel, but slowly and with great distortion,” The Rel told them. “The atmosphere has enough trace elements to allow us to get by with such simple devices, but that is mostly due to seepage—the other hexes surrounding it naturally leak a little. We will be able to refresh our tanks from supplies along the way, but under no circumstances remove your masks! There are elements all about which will not harm your exteriors but will, nonetheless, cause physical problems or even death if taken in great quantities in the lungs for any period of time.” Vardia looked out over as much of the landscape as the glare permitted her to see. A very jagged, burnt-orange landscape, filled with canyons and strange, eroded arches and pillars. What erodes them? she wondered idly. And what sort of creatures could live in such a hostile place? Carbon-based life? All the South was supposed to be, yet there could be nothing carbon-based about anything able to stand such a place. “Ham,” The Rel instructed, “remember to keep your beak tightly shut at all times. You don’t want to swallow the stuff. And, Skander, keep that blanket tightly on your lower parts and you’ll get and retain enough moisture to keep you from drying up. The respirator’s been designed that way. All set? Then, any last-second questions?” “Yes, I have a couple,” Vardia said nervously. “What sort of creatures will we meet, and how will we possibly cross this place and survive?” “The creatures are basically autonomatons, thinking machines,” The Rel replied. “This is a high-technological hex; more so, in fact, than the one we’ve been in. The only reason they coexist is that the Akkafians couldn’t exist here for very long, nor is there anything of use to them in The Nation, while the people of this hex would break down in an atmosphere more conducive to your form of life-Come! We’ve wasted enough time! You’ll see how we survive as we go along.” With that The Diviner and The Rel floated quickly across the border. Vardia, a helpless feeling inside


her, followed; and Hain and Skander brought up the rear. Skander and Vardia both had the same impression: as if they were suddenly in an environment of kero-sene. The odor permeated their bodies and penetrated their breathing. The atmosphere also felt heavy, almost liquid; and, while invisible, it rippled against their bodies like a liquid, even though it was plainly a gas. Moreover, it burned slightly, like a strong alcohol. It took them awhile to get used to it. The Rel paced them at close to Vardia’s maximum stride; Hain followed at the same pace, between eight and ten kilometers per hour. In less than an hour they came upon a paved road, although the paving stone looked like a single long ribbon of smoothly polished jade. And, as with most roads and trails in the various hexes, this one contained traffic. The first thought they all had was that no two denizens of The Nation were alike. There were tall ones, thick ones, thin ones, short ones, even long ones. They moved on wheels, treads, two, four, six, and eight legs, and they had every imaginable type of appendage and some not very imaginable as to purpose. Although all obviously machines of dull-silver metal, all looked as if they had been fashioned in a single stroke. No bolts, joints, or any other such were visible; they bent and flexed the metal like skin, and in any way they wanted. Vardia understood and marveled at this. Each one was made for a single purpose, to fulfill a single need of the society. It was built to order to do a job, and this it did where and when needed. It was, she thought, the most practical of all the societies she had seen, the perfection of social order and utilitarianism—a blend of the best of the Comworlds’ concepts with the lack of physical dependencies of the Czillians. She only wished she understood what the people of The Nation were doing. There were structures, certainly, more and more of them as they went on. Some were recognizable as buildings, although as varied and oddly shaped as the inhabitants of this strange land. Other structures


seemed to be skeletal, or spires, twisted shapes of metal, and even apparently girders of some sort arranged in certain deliberate but baffling ways. Func-tionally built workmen rushed to and fro. Some were building, of course, but many seemed to be digging holes and filling them up again, while others carried piles of sand from one point and dumped them to form new piles of sand elsewhere-None of it made sense. They continued to follow The Diviner and The Rel. They went on through this landscape for hours without stopping and without any of the creatures taking the slightest notice of them. More than once, in fact, both Ham and Vardia had had to move out of the way quickly to avoid being run over by some creature or by the creature’s load. They came upon a building that seemed to be made of the same stuff as the creatures themselves, but was shaped something like a large barn. The Diviner and The Rel surprised them by turning in at the building’s walkway. It waited until they were all at the rather large sliding doorway, then glided up to a very large button, then back, up again, and back again. “Do you wish me to push it?” Vardia asked. The response sounded like garbled nonsense to her own ears. The Rel jumped up and down, and The Diviner’s lights blinked more agitatedly, and so Vardia pushed the button. The door slid aside with entirely the wrong sounds, and the strange creature that led them glided inside. They followed and found themselves in a very large but barren chamber. Suddenly the door slid shut behind them, and they were in total darkness, illuminated only by the oddly nonillunu-nating blinks of The Diviner. They had gotten so used to the strange sensations produced by the atmosphere of the place that the gradual absence of them was almost as harsh as their original exposure to them. There were whirring, clicking, and whooshing noises all around them, going on for what seemed to be several minutes. Then, finally, an inner door slid open to reveal another large barren chamber, this one lit by


some kind of indirect lamps in the ceiling. They went in. “You may remove your breathing apparatuses now,” The Rel told them clearly. “Skander, will you pull Mar Hain’s up and off? Thank you. Now, Hain, can you gently—gently—remove the two tubes from Citizen Chon’s legs? Yes, that’s right.” They all breathed in fresh air. It was stuffy, weak, and slightly uncomfortable to Vardia; to the others, it was exhilarating. “You’ll be all right in a little while, Citizen Chon,” The Rel assured her. “The atmosphere is mostly pure oxygen, with just a trace of carbon dioxide. This will be added, both from our companions and artificially, in a little while.” There was another hissing sound, and one of the metallic creatures came out of a side door that had been almost invisible in the back wall. It was humanoid, about the same height as Vardia’s 150 centimeters, and was featureless except for a triangular screen on the head. “I trust all is satisfactory?” it said, in a voice pleasantly and unexpectedly filled with human tonality. It sounded, in fact, like an eager, middle-aged hotel clerk, far more human than The Ret’s monotone. “The green one, there, the Czillian, is a plant, not an animal,” The Rel told the creature. “It requires carbon dioxide of at least point five percent. Will you raise the level? It is in much discomfort.” “Oh, I am so very, very sorry,” the robot replied so sincerely that they almost believed it. “The matter is being adjusted.” Just like that Vardia could sense a difference, growing with every minute. She found it much easier to breathe, and the feeling that she was going to black out evaporated. Obviously these things were all linked together. The Czillian marveled at their efficiency, quietly envying their unity.

“What environments do you require?” the creature asked. “Types Twelve, Thirty-one, One Twenty-six, and Thirteen Forty,” The Rel told it. “Adjoining, with private intercom, please.”


“It is being prepared,” the robot assured them, and bowed slightly. “What sort of a place is this?” Skander asked sharply. The robot reared back, and Vardia swore that its featureless face had a shocked expression to match the tone of the reply. “Why, this is a first-class transient hotel, of course. What else?” One at a time they were taken to their rooms by small wheeled robots with place for luggage and the like. They put all their gear in storage, except for the air tanks, which were ordered cleaned and refilled, with particular attention to Vardia’s getting the right gas. Strong hands lifted Skander gently out of the sad-dle and onto the back of one of the carts. The scientist found herself traveling at high speed down a lighted tunnel, and deposited next to a room with no apparent exterior markings. It opened automatically, and the cart glided inside and stopped. Skander was amazed. It was a swimming pool, with a dry slope going gently down into blue water which became deeper and deeper as it went toward the back of the room—the pool was perhaps fifteen meters long by about ten wide. In the water, clearly visible, were several small fish of the kind the Umiau liked the most, and clumps of the blue-green seaweed that was the other staple of their diet. Skander rolled off and happily plunged into the water. It was only about four meters deep at its deepest point, but it felt wonderful. The little cart left, the door closing behind it. It returned for Hain, who was too large for it. Another cart appeared in seconds, and the two, working in concert, took Hain down the same tunnel to the next door, which was furnished in the wgrt fur of the best nobles and was stocked with a nice supply of the juicy white worms. Next, Vardia was taken to a room that had a rich black soil and good artificial sunlight. The room even had a chain dangling from its center, labeled, in


Czillian, Pull for darkness. All guests awakened in eight hours after darkness pulled or twelve hours after occupancy. There was a small pool of clear water in the corner, and even a small desk with paper and pen. She guessed from her own surroundings what the others’ must be like, and only wished she couid see The Diviner and The Rel’s room. That would almost certainly tell more about the mysterious creatures than anything seen so far. There was a mild crackling sound in their rooms, and then The Rel’s odd, toneless voice came to the other three. “Please enjoy this night at the baron’s expense,” it said. “Tomorrow I shall arrange transportation for us which will take us to the border. We shall not have such pleasant and easy accommodations after this, so enjoy it. After tomorrow, things get tough.” Vardia took a long drink and then sank her roots into the rich soil that felt incredible, indescribable. With a feeling of total well-being, she turned off the lights. Skander was the last to sleep, since the Umiau had been cooped up in the saddle harness and was enjoying the freedom of the waters. At last she, too, crawled up the bank and pressed the light switch on the wall-Each of them slept soundly (except possibly for The Diviner and The Rel, who didn’t seem to need it—the others weren’t sure), and all were awakened not only by the automatic turning on of the lights but by the voice of The Re). The creature conveyed emotion for the first time, not by tone but by the sharp, fast, excited way it spoke. “Something is terribly wrong!” it told them. “We are being detained for some technicality! We cannot leave today!” “Do you mean,” Skander’s voice came to all of them in a tone of almost total disbelief, “that we’re under arrest?” “It would seem so,” replied The Rel. “I cannot understand it.”


Murkhel— Somewhere in the Interior “WE’RE IN SOME KIND OF TROUBLE,” NATHAN BRAZIL said half under his breath. For three days now they had moved along the rocky mountain ledges, mostly under cover of darkness guided by Cousin Bat’s exceptional night vision and inbred sonar. They had passed hundreds, perhaps thousands of the bloodthirsty Mumies, often coming close to their villages in the dark, quietly working around their dulled campfires. They had been exceptionally lucky, and they knew it. But now they had run out of mountains. The mountains—hills, really—ended abruptly in a jagged cliff, stretching off at an angle away from the direction they had to go. Ahead, toward the east, flat, unbroken prairie spread out to the horizon. The land was still dry this time of year, yet yellow grasses topped with pinkish blossoms carpeted the prairie. Also covering the plains were herds of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of the antelope that were the Murnies’ staple diet. Murnie camps also dotted the plains, in small groups of three or four skin tents, never more than seven groups in a bunch, arranged in a circle. Even as Brazil looked at the scene, appreciating their position, something, some wrongness ahead of him, nagged at his mind. “How the hell are we ever going to get through them?” Wuju asked nervously. “We can’t fight them all, even in the dark.” “Well, let’s camp here for the day,” Cousin Bat suggested, “and tonight I’ll take a trip across and see how far we really have to go to reach cover. Maybe you’ll think of something by the time I get back.”


They agreed it was the only thing they could do, so they carved out a niche in the rocky ledge and tried to sleep, first Brazil on guard, then Bat, and finally Wuju. The sequence was almost a routine by now. Nathan Brazil was dreaming more of his strange dreams when he felt hands gently shaking him. “Na-than!” Wuju whispered urgently. “Wake upi It’s al-most dark!” He got up and tried to shake the sleep, from his eyes. He was dizzy and upset from the small amount of food he had allowed himself from the dwindling supply in the packs. The deprivations were taking their toll on him. Wuju had it almost as bad, since there was precious little grass on the trail for one of her bulk. Yet she had never complained. They all smelled like concentrated sweat and feces, and Brazil wondered idly if Murnies had good smellers. With no baths for three days and only leaves for toilet paper, he was certain that, in reverse circumstances, he could smell his party five kilometers upwind. Cousin Bat was already waiting for the sun to sink completely behind them. Brazil went up to him quietly. “You ready. Bat?” he asked the night creature. “Not bad,” came the reply, “The wind’s wrong. If that plain’s too broad I might have to come down at least once. I don’t like that.” Brazil nodded. “Well, I want you to land if possible, or at least skim close enough to get me a handful of those weeds.” “Got something in mind?” the other asked. “Maybe,” he replied. “If we’re lucky—and if we don’t have to run to the border.” “I’ll see what I can do,” the bat replied dryly. “We’ve got to clear this bunch in one sweep, you know. Once committed, we’ll have no place to hide.” Brazil looked at the creature strangely. “You know, I can’t quite figure you out,” he said. “What’s to figure?” Bat replied. “It’s my neck, too, you know.”


“Why not just fly over and away? You might not make it all the way in a stretch, but you could pick your own places. Why stick with us?” The bat gave that ratty smile, exposing those triple rows of sharply pointed little teeth. “To tell you the truth, I thought about it a number of times, particularly in the last few days. It’s extremely tempting—all the more so now—but I can’t do it.” “Why not?” pumped Brazil, puzzled. The bat thought for a minute. “Let’s just say that, once before, I was in a position to help some people I knew were in danger. I don’t want more people on my conscience.” “We all have our crosses to bear,” Brazil said in an understanding tone. “Myself more than most.” “It boils down to more than just conscience, Brazil,” responded Cousin Bat eainestly. “I’ve known some other men. They, like me, wanted power, wealth, fame—all the reasons for striving. They’d lie, cheat, steal, torture, even kill for those. I want these things, too, Brazil, but what more right do I have to them than they? Perhaps, though I don’t know for sure, the fact that they would abandon you and I would not makes me superior to them. I’d like to think so.” And with that, as the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the rocks to the west, Cousin Bat took off into the dark. A few seconds later, WUJU sidled up behind Brazil. “What a strange man,” she said wonderingly. He gave a mirthless chuckle. “Bat, you mean? He let his guard down more there than I’d expected. It’s the most personal thing we’ve gotten in all these days. But, no, strange is not the correct word for him. Unusual, perhaps, even uncommon. If he was telling the complete truth there, he’s also a good friend, a particularly nasty enemy—and, quite possibly, one of the most potentially dangerous men I’ve yet met on this planet.” She didn’t understand what he was talking about but didn’t pursue it, either. Something much more important was on her mind. “Nathan,” she asked softly, “are we going to die?”


“I hope not,” he replied lightly, trying to break the mood. “With luck—” “The truth, Nathan!” she interrupted. “What are our chances?” “Not good,” he responded truthfully. “But I’ve been in spots as bad or worse in my long life. I survive, Wuju. I—” His voice broke off abruptly, and he averted his eyes from hers. She understood, and there were small tears in her eyes. “But the people around you don’t,” she finished. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s your cross. How many times have you been a lone survivor?” He looked out into the darkness for a minute. Then, without turning, he said, “I can’t count that high, Wuju.” Cousin Bat returned in a little over an hour. Brazil and Wuju were doing something Just inside the shelter, and he was curious. They looked up from their work as he approached, and Brazil asked the simple but all-important question: “Well?” “Five kilometers, give or take,” the bat replied evenly. “Before you get any farther there’s a steep drop to a river valley, mud sides with slow, shallow water. It’s barely flowing.” Brazil seemed to brighten at the news, particularly of the river’s speed and shallowness. “Can we get a straight run, more or less?” he asked. The bat nodded. “Once we get down, I’ll position you and point you in the right direction. I’ll stay over you once you get started to keep you on the right track.” “Good! Good!” Brazil enthused. “Now, what about the antelope?” “Tens of thousands of them,” the other replied. “Together in big groups. Nothing too near us, though.” “Excellent! Excellent!” Brazil seemed to get more excited with every word. “And now the clincher—did you get some of that grass?” Cousin Bat turned and walked back to where he had landed, picking up a clump of straw with one


foot. Holding it, he hobbled back to them and dropped the grass at Brazil’s feet. The man picked it up expectantly, feeling it, even biting it. It was somewhat brittle, and gave a slight snap when it was bent too far. “Just out of curiosity, what are you doing?” the bat asked. Brazil reached down into a pouch and removed a small handful of the tiny sticks inside. “Safety matches,” he explained. “Haven’t you noticed it, or thought about it, you two? Haven’t you seen out there on the plain?” They both looked at him with blank expressions. “I haven’t seen anything except antelope, Murnies, and grass,” said Wuju, trying to think. “No! No!” Brazil responded, shaking Ms head animatedly. “Not what you see! What you don’t see! Look out there into the darkness! Tell me what you see.” “Nothing but pitch darkness,” Wuju said. “Nothing but sleeping antelope, Mumies, and grass,” Bat said. “Exactly!” Brazil said excitedly. “But what you don’t see, anywhere out there, is something we’ve seen in every Mumie camp we’ve passed up to this point.” They still didn’t see it, and he continued after a pause. “Look, why do the Murnies build campfires? Not to cook their food—they eat it raw, even live. It’s because they think this is cold! And to protect themselves from the dog packs at night, of course. It must be very important to them or we wouldn’t have seen the campfires so consistently. But there are no fires out there on the plains! No dots of light, no sparks of any kind! And the riverbed’s wide but slow and shallow is it flowing. You see what it means?” “I think I do,” Wuju replied hesitantly. “It’s the dry season. Out there on the grasslands, the danger of a brushfire exceeds their fears of the dogs or their desire for warmth.” “It must be like a tinderbox out there,” Brazil pointed out. “If they are afraid of any fire at all, it must be so dry that anything will set it off. If the wind’s right, we can make things so hot for them down

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L