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


The “Mumie grunted, and said, in Confederacy, “Ah! Awake, I see! Don’t try to move yet—I want to let you down easy before that. No! Don’t try to talk! You can’t, so don’t bother.” The creature walked a few steps in front of him and sat down tiredly on the grass. “I haven’t slept in over a day and a half,” the Mumie said with a sigh. “It feels good just to relax.” He shifted to a more comfortable position, and considered where to begin. “Look, Nate,” he began, “first things first. You know I’m an Entry, and I’ve been told I’m not the first one who knew you that you’ve run into here. It kinda figures. Well, if your mind can go back ninety years, you might remember Shel Yvomda. Do you? If so, shake your head.” Brazil thought. It was an odd name, he should remember it—but there were so many people, so many names. He tried to shrug, found he couldn’t, and so moved his head slowly from side to side. “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. They call me the Elder Grondel now, Elder because I’ve lived longer than fifty years here and that makes for respect. Grondel is their name—means The Polite Eater, because I continue to be civilized. I’m one of two people in Murithel who can still speak Confederacy. We would have lost it, except we ran into each other and practice for old times’ sake. Well, enough of that. I guess I’d better tell you what happened. You aren’t gonna like this, Nate.” Brazil was stunned, but he accepted the situation and understood why they had done it and why they had thought it necessary. He even felt a deep affection for Cousin Bat in spite of the fact that he had fouled up the works. As they sat there, the last of the drug wore off, and he suddenly found himself free to move. He looked as far down as possible first, and thought, crazily, This is what Wuju must have seen when she first appeared in Dillia. Long, short-furred legs, much more graceful than hers, with dark hooves.


He turned his head and saw his reflection against the tent nearby. He was a magnificent animal, he thought with no trace of humor. And the antlers! So that’s why his head felt so funny! He tried to move forward, and felt a tug. The Mumie laughed, and unfastened him from the stake. He walked around on four legs for the first time, slowly, just around in circles. So this is what it feels like to be changed, he thought. Strange, but not uncomfortable. “There are some hitches, Nate,” Grondel said. “It’s not like a transformation. The body you have is that of a great animal, but not a dominant species. You’ve got no hands, tentacles, or any other thing except your snout to pick things up with, and you’ve got no voice. These antelope are totally silent, no equipment to make a noise. And your only defenses are your speed —which is considerable, by the way, cruising at fifteen or more kilometers per hour, sprints up to sixty—and a tremendous kick with the rear legs. And the antlers —those are permanent; they don’t shed and won’t grow unless broken off.” Brazil stopped walking and thought for a while. Arms he could do without if necessary, and the rest— but not being able to talk bothered him. Suddenly he stopped and stared at himself. All the time he had been thinking, he had been automatically leaning over and munching grass! He looked back at Grondel, who just was watching him curiously. “I think I can guess what you just realized,” the Mumie said at last. “You just started munching grass without thinking. Right?” Brazil nodded, feeling stranger than before. “Remember—you, all of that inner self that’s you —was transferred, but it was superimposed on the remarkably dull antelope brain and nervous system. Superimposed, Nate—not exchanged. Unless you directly countermand it, the deer’s going to continue acting like a deer, in every way. That’s automatic, and instinctive. You’re not man into deer, you’re man plus deer.” Brazil considered it. There would be some prob-223

lems, then, particularly since he was a brooder, given to introspection. What did a deer do? Ate, slept, copulated. Hmmn-i… . The last would cause problems. There were, as Grondel had said, many hitches. How do I fit inside this head? he wondered. All of my memories—more, perhaps, than any other man. Weren’t memories chemical? He could see how the chemical chains could at least be duplicated, the brain-wave pattern adjusted—but how did this tiny brain have room for it all? “Nate!” He heard a call, and looked up. Grondel was running toward him from whatever distance this fish-eye vision couldn’t tell him. He would get used to it, he thought. He had moved. As he brooded, he had wandered out of the camp and over almost to the herd! He turned and ran back to the camp, surprised at the ease and speed with which he ran, but he slowed when he realized that the distorted vision would take some getting used to. He almost ran the Murnie down. He started to apologize, but nothing came out. The Murnie sympathized. “I don’t know the an-swer, Nate. But get used to it before doing anything rash. Your body’s either dead or it’ll be even better the longer you give it in Czill. Heyl Just thought of something. Come over here to this dirt patch!” He followed the Murnie curiously. “Look!” Grondel said excitedly, and made a line in the dirt with his foot. “Now you do it!” Brazil understood. It was slow and didn’t look all that good, but after a little practice he managed to trace the letters in the dirt with his hoof. “WHERE is WUJU?” he traced. “She’s here, Nate. Want to see her?” Brazil thought for a second, then wrote, very large, “NO.” The Murnie rubbed out the old letters so it was again a virgin slate. “Why not?” he asked. “DOES SHE KNOW ABOUT ME?” Brazil WTOte. “Yes. I—I told her last night. Shouldn’t I have?” Brazil was seething; a thousand things raced through his mind, none of them logical.


“DON’T WANT,” he had traced when he heard Wuju’s voice. “Nathan?” she called more than asked. “Is that really you in there?” He looked up and turned. She was standing there, looking awed, shaking her head back and forth in disbelief. “It’s him,” Grondel assured her. “See? We’ve been communicating. He can write here in the dirt.” She looked down at the marks and shook her head sadly. “I—I never learned how to read,” she said, ashamedly. The Murnie grunted. “Too bad,” he said. “Would have simplified things.” He turned back to Brazil. “Look, Nate, I know you well enough to know that you’ll head off for Czill as soon as you’re confident of making the trip. I know how you feel, but you need her. We can’t go, wouldn’t if we could. And somebody’s got to know you’re you, to keep you from stray-ing, and to do your talking for you. You need her, Nate.” Brazil looked at them both and thought for a min-ute, trying to understand his own feelings. Shame? Fear? No,dependence, he thought. I’ve never been dependent on anyone, but now I need somebody. For the first time in my long life, I need somebody. He was dependent on Wuju, almost as much as she had been dependent on him in the early stages of their relationship. He tried to think up logical reasons for that not be-ing the case, to rationalize his feelings, but he could not. He traced in the dirt, “BUT I’M NOW BIGGER THAN you ARE.” Grondel laughed and read it to her. She laughed, too. Then he wrote: “TELL HER ABOUT DEER PART.” Grondel understood, and explained how Brazil was really two beings—one man, one animal—and how he had already lapsed into deer while thinking. She understood. When still, such as during the night,


he would have to be staked like a common deer to keep him from wandering away. And he couldn’t even drive his own stake! Dependence. It grated on him as nothing ever had, but it had the feel of inevitability. He hoped fervently that his body was still alive. Grondel had finally collapsed in sleep and was snoring loudly in a nearby tent, Brazil and WuJu were alone for the first time, he suffering the indignity of being staked so he couldn’t wander off. They had worked most of the day on his getting used to the body, adjusting to the vision and color blindness, the supersensitive senses of hearing and smell. The speed in his sprint amazed him and Wuju both. As fast as she had seemed when he was human, she now seemed terribly slow, ponderous, and exhausted while he was still feeling great. He also discovered that his hind-leg kick could shatter a small tree. A few things were simplified, of course. No packs needed now, he could eat what she ate. No drag on speed—he could run as fast as Cousin Bat could fly, maybe faster for short periods. If only he coutd talk! Make some sort of sound! Wuju looked at him admiringly. “You know, you’re really beautiful, Nathan. I hope they have mirrors in Czill.” She still talked mildly distorted, but Grondel had been forcing her to use the old language so much during the past day and a half that it was becoming easier, like a second language. She came and stood beside him, pressing her equine body against his sleek, supermuscled antelope body. She started to rub him, actually pet him gently. His mind rebelled, though he didn’t try to pull away or stop her. I’m getting excited as hell’ he thought, surprised. And, from the feel of it, there was a lot of him to get excited. His first impulse was to stop her, but instead he moved his head over and started nuzzling her neck


with his muzzle. She leaned forward, so his antlers wouldn’t get in the way. Is it the animal, or do I want to do this? a comer of his mind asked, but the thought slipped away as irrelevant, as was the thought that they were still two very, very different species. He stroked her equine back with the bottom of his snout and got to the bony hind end. She sighed and slipped off the leash that was attached to his hind leg. They continued. This was a crazy, insane way to have sex, but the deer in him showed him how. Wuju finally had what she wanted from Nathan Brazil. Brazil awoke feeling really fine, the best in many long years. He glanced over at Wuju, still asleep, although the sun had been up for an hour. Isn’t it funny, he thought. The transformation, the commitment, the crisis, and the way those people had served me have all come together to do what nothing else had. He remembered. He remembered it all, all the way back. He understood, finally, what he had been doing be-fore, what he was doing now, why he survived. He considered the vessel he wore. Not of his own choosing, of course, but it was serviceable if he could just get a voice. How great a change to know it all! His mind was absolutely clear, certain, now that everything was laid out before him. He was in total control now, he knew. Funny, he thought, that this doesn’t change anything. Knowledge, memory, wisdom aside, he was the culmination of ail of the experiences in his incredibly long life. Nathan Brazil. He rolled the name around in his mind. He still liked it. Out of the—what?—thousand or more names he had had, it had the most comfortable and enigmatic ring. He let his mind go out across the land. Yes, definitely some sort of breakdown. Not major, but messy.


Time dulls all mechanisms, and the infinite complexity of the master equation was bound to have flaws. One can represent infinity mathematically but not as something real, something you can see and understand. And yet, he thought, I’m still Nathan Brazil, still the same person I was, and I’m here in Murithel in the body of a great stag and I’ve still got to ge^ to the Well before Skander or Vamett or anyone else does. Czill. If what he had heard was right, they had computers there. A high-technology hex, then. They could give him a voice—and news. Grondel emerged from a tent and came over to him. He strained at the rope on his left hind leg, and the Mumie understood and freed him. He went immediately to the big patch of bare dirt that was his writing pad. Grondel followed, grumping that he hadn’t had anything to eat yet, but Brazil was adamant and anxious. “What’s on your mind, Nate?” he asked. “HOW FAR HERE TO CZILL CENTER” Brazil traced. “Already, huh?” Grondel muttered. “Somehow I knew it. Well, about a hundred and fifty kilometers, maybe a little more, to the border, then about the same into the Czillian capital. I’m not sure, because I’ve never left this hex. We don’t get along well with our neighbors, which is fine with us.” “MUST GO,” he scratched. “IN CONTROL OF SELF NOW. IMPORTANT.” “Ummm… . Thought you weren’t going there across Murithel for a vacation. All right, then, if I can’t dissuade you. What about the girl?” “SHE COMES TOO,” he scratched. “WILL WORK OUT EASY CODE FOR BASIC STUFF, STOP, GO, EAT, SLEEP, ETC.” And that was the way they worked it out, Brazil thinking of as many basic concepts as he could and using a right leg, left leg, stomping code for them. Twelve concepts were the most he could work on short notice without fear that she would mix them up. He also had to assure them several times that he would not wander away or stray again. She accepted it, but seemed dubious. They ate their fill of the grasses. Grondel would


ride WuJu with them to the border. Though Nathan was safe as a branded, purebred stag, she was not. A Mumie accompanying them would ease her passage. They followed the stream, passing first the spot where his body had lain, the mud and bottom still disturbed from the action. They made exceptionally good time, and Brazil enjoyed the experience of being able to move quickly and effortlessly, so powerful that the mud couldn’t trap him, nor could the brisk pace tire him. He just wasn’t built for riding, though; and WuJu had to carry Grondel, which slowed her more than usual. It didn’t matter. They made the border shortly after dark on the second day. On the morning of the third, after Grondel had refreshed Wuju on the stomp code, they bade him good-bye and crossed into Czilt. The air was extremely heavy with an almost oppressive humidity, the kind that wets you with a fine, invisible mist as you move through it. The air was also oppressive with carbon dioxide, which seemed to make up one or more percent of the atmosphere, although oxygen was so far above their previous norms that it made them feel a little light-headed. Were it not for the great humidity, Brazil thought, this would be a hell of a place for fires. As it was, he would be surprised if a match would bum. They ran into Czillians soon enough, strange-looking creatures that reminded him of smooth-skinned cac-tuses with two trunks and carved pumpkin heads. Neither he nor Wuju had a translator now, so communication was impossible, but at the first village cen-ter they reached, they managed a primitive sort of contact. The place looked like a great, transparent geodesic dome, and was one of the hundred or more subsidiary research villages outside the Center. The Czillians were surprised to see a Diltian—they knew what Wuju was, but as far as any could remember none of her race had ever reached Czill before. They regarded Brazil as a curiosity, an obvious animal. About the only thing WuJu could get across to them were their names. She finally gave up in frustration and they continued on the well-maintained road. The


Czillians sent the names and the information of their passage on to the Center, where it was much better understood. Brazil paid a lot of attention to WUJ’U, and their lovemaking continued nightly. She was happy now and didn’t even wonder how Brazil, who led, was picking the right direction at every junction as if he had been there before. In her mind the only question that mattered was about his human body. She felt a little guilty, but she hoped the body would not be there or would be dead. She had him now, and she didn’t want to lose him. Late in the morning of the second day, they came to what was obviously the main highway of the hex, and followed it. It was another day and a half before they got to the Center, though, since it was not in the center of the hex as Grondel had thought, but was situated along the ocean coast. They arrived Just as darkness was falling, and Brazil stomped that they would sleep first. No use going in when there was only minimum staff, he thought. As he made love to her that night, part of her mind was haunted. The rest of Mm is inside that building, she thought, and it upset her. This might be their last night. Cousin Bat woke them up in the wee predawn hours. “Brazil! Wujui Wake up!” he shouted excitedly, and they both stirred. Wuju saw who it was and greeted him warmly, all her past suspicions forgotten. Bat turned to Brazil unbelievingly. “Is that really you in there, Brazil?” Brazil nodded his antlered head affirmatively. “He can’t talk, Cousin Bat,” Wuju explained- “No vocal cords of any kind. I think that upsets him more than anything else.” The bat grew serious. “I’m sorry,” he said softly to Brazil. “I didn’t know.” He snorted. “Big hero, pluck-ing the injured man from the Jaws of certain death. All I did was make a mess of it.” “But you are a hero!” Wuju consoled him. “That was an incredibly brave and wonderful thing.” Well,


there was no avoiding it. The question had to be asked. *‘Did he—is his body still alive?” she asked softly. “Yes, it is, somehow,” Bat replied seriously. “But —well, it’s a miracle that it’s alive at all, and there’s no medical reason for it. It’s pretty battered and bro-ken, Wuju. These doctors are good here—unbelieva-ble, in fact. But the only thing that body will ever be good for is cloning. If Brazil were returned to it, he’d be a living vegetable.” They both looked at Brazil expectantly, but the stag gave no indication whatsoever of emotion. Wuju tried to remain normal, but the fact that a great deal of tension had suddenly drained from her was obvious in the lighter, more casual tone she used. “Then he’s to stay a deer?” “Looks that way,” Bat responded slowly. “At least they told me that the injuries were already too severe for me to have caused the final damage. They can’t understand how he survived the Murnie blows that broke his neck and spinal column in two places. No-body ever survived damage like that. It’s as good as blowing your brains out or getting stabbed through the heart.” They talked on until dawn, when the still landscape suddenly came alive with awakening Czillians. Bat led them into the Center, and took them to the medical wing, on the river side. The Czillians were fascinated by Brazil and insisted on checking him with electroencephalographs and all sorts of other equipment. He was impatient but submitted to the tests with growing confidence. If they were this far advanced, perhaps they could give him a voice. They took Nathan down to a lower level after a while and showed him his body. Wuju came along, but one quick glance was all she needed and she rushed from the room. They had him floating in a tank, attached to hundreds of instruments and life-sustaining devices. The monitors showed autonomic muscle action, but no cranial activity whatsoever. The body itself had been repaired as much as possible, but it looked as if it had


been through a meat grinder. Right leg almost torn off, now sewn back securely but lifeless in the extreme. The giant, clawed hand that had ripped the leg had also castrated him. Brazil had seen enough. He turned and left the room, climbing the stairs back to the clinic carefully. They were not built to take something his size and weight, and the turns were difficult. He didn’t fit in the elevators, which were designed for Umiau in wheelchairs. Having a 250-plus-kilo giant stag walk into your office can be unsettling, but the Czillian doctor tried not to let it faze it. The doctor heard from Bat, who had heard it from Wuju, that Brazil could write. Since soft dirt was one thing that was very plentiful in Czill, it had obtained what appeared to be a large sandbox filled with dry, powdery gray sand from the ocean shore. “What do you want us to do?” the doctor asked. “CAN YOU BUILD ME VOICE BOX,” Brazil scratched. The doctor thought a minute. “Perhaps we can, in a way. You might know that the translator devices, which we import, sealed, from another hex far away, work by being implanted and attached to neural passages between the brain and the vocal equipment— whatever it is—of the creature. You had one in your old body. We now have nothing to attach the translator to in your case, and putting anything in there would interfere with eating or breathing. But if we could attach a small plastic diaphragm and match the electrical impulses from your brain to wires leading to it, we might have an external voice box. Not great, of course, but you could be understood—with full translator function. I’ll tell the labs. It’s a simple operation, and if they can come up with anything, we might be able to do it tomorrow or the next day.” “SOONER THE BETTER,” he scratched, and started to leave to find Bat and Wuju. “Just a minute,” the doctor called. “As long as you’re here, alone with me, I’d like to take up something you might not know.” Brazil stopped, turned back to it, and waited expectantly.


“Our tests show you to be—physically—about four and a half years old. The records show that the average life span of the Murthiel antelope is between eight and twelve years, so you can expect to age much more rapidly. You have four to eight more years to live, no more. But that is at least that many years longer than you would have lived without the transfer.” It stopped, looking for a reaction. The stag cocked his head in a gesture that was unmistakably the equivalent of a shrug. He walked back to the sandbox. “THANKS ANYWAY,” he scratched. “NOT RELEVANT,” he added cryptically, and left. The doctor stared after him, puzzled. It knew that everyone said Brazil might be the oldest person ever to live, and certainly he had shown incredible, super-human life and stamina. Maybe he wants to die, it mused. Or maybe he doesn’t think he can, even now. The operation was a simple one, performed with a local anesthetic. The only problem the surgeon had was in isolating the correct neural signals in an animal brain so undesigned for speech of any kind. The computers were fed all the neural information and some samples of him attempting speech. They finally isolated the needed signals in under an hour. The only remaining concern was for the drilling in the antlers, but when they found that the bony growths had no nerves to convey pain, it simplified everything. They used a small Umiau transistor radio—which meant it was rugged and totally waterproof. Connections were made inside the antler base, and the tiny radio, only about sixty square centimeters, was screwed into the antler base. A little cosmetic surgery and plastic made everything but the speaker grille blend into the antler complex. “Now say something,” the surgeon urged. “Do it as if you were going to speak.” “How’s this?” he asked. “Can you hear and understand me?” “Excellent!” the surgeon said enthusiastically, nibbing its tentacles in glee. “A landmark! There’s even a suggestion of tone and emphasis!” Brazil was delighted, even though the voice was


ever so slightly delayed from the thought, something he would have to get used to. His new voice sounded crazy to his ears, and did not have the internal resonance that came with vocal cords. It would do. “You’ll have a pretty big headache after the anesthetic wears off,” the surgeon warned. “Even though there are no pain centers in the antlers, we did have to get into the skull for the little wire contacts.” “That won’t bother me,” Brazil assured them. “I can will pain away.” He went out and found the bat and WuJu waiting anxiously in the outer office. “How do you like my new voice?” he asked them. “Thin, weak, and tinny, very mechanical-sounding,” Bat replied. “It doesn’t sound like you at all, Nathan,” Wuju said. “It sounds like a tiny pocket radio, one that a computer was using. Even so, there’s some of you in it—the way you pause, the way you pronounce things.” “Now I can get to work,” Brazil’s strange new voice said. “I’ll have to talk to the Czillian head of the Skander project, somebody high up in the Umiau, and I’ll need an atlas. In the meantime, Wuju, you get yourself a translator. It’s really a simple operation for you. I don’t want to be caught in the middle of nowhere with you unable to talk to anybody again.” “I’ll go with you,” said the bat. “I know the place fairly well now. You know, it’s weird, that voice. Not just the tiny sound from such a big character. It doesn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular. I’ll have a time getting used to it.” “The only part that’s important is your calling me a big character,” Brazil responded dryly. “You don’t know what it’s like to go through life being smaller than everybody else and suddenly wind up the largest person in a whole country.” Brazil felt good; he was in command again. They walked out, and Wuju was left alone, internally a mass of bewildering emotion. This wasn’t turning out the way she had thought at all. He seemed so cold, so distant, so different—it wasn’t Nathan! Not


the voice, she thought. It was something in the voice, a manner, a coldness, a crispness that she had never felt before. “Get a translator” he had told her, then walked out to business without so much as a good-bye and good luck. “I want to go down to the old body one last time,** Brazil said to the bat, and they made their way down the stairs to the basement room. Bat, too, had noticed a change in his manner, and it disturbed him. He wondered whether the transformation had altered or changed Brazil’s mind. Some forms of insanity and personality disorders are organic, he thought. Suppose the deer brain isn’t giving the right stuff in the right amounts? Suppose it’s only partially him? They walked into the room where his body was floating, still alive according to all the screens and dials. Brazil stood by the tank. Just looking at the body, for quite some time. Bat didn’t interrupt, trying to imagine what he would be thinking in the same circumstances. Finally Brazil said, almost nostalgic in tone, “It was a good vessel. It served me for a long, long time. Well, that’s that. A new one’s as easy as repair this time. Let it go.” As he uttered the last word, all the meters fell to zero and the screens all showed a cessation of life. As if on command, the body had died. Brazil turned and walked out without another word, leaving Bat more confused than ever. “There’s no question that Skander solved the rid-dle,” the Czillian project chief, whose name was Manito, told Brazil and Cousin Bat. “Unfortunately, he kept the really key findings to himself and was very careful to wipe the computer when he was through. The only stuff we have is what was in when he and Vardia were kidnapped.” “What was the major thrust of his research?” Brazil asked- “He was obsessed with our collection of folklore


and legends. Worked mostly with those, and keying in the common phrase: Until midnight at the Well of Souls.” Brazil nodded. “That’s safe enough,” he replied. “But you say he dropped that line of inquiry when he returned?” “Shortly after,” the Czillian replied. “He said it was the wrong direction and started researching the Equatorial Barrier.” Brazil sighed. “That’s bad. That means he’s probably figured the whole thing out.” “You talk as if you know the answer, too,” the project chief commented. “I don’t see how. I have all the raw data Skander did and I can’t make sense of it.” “That’s because you have a puzzle with millions of pieces, but no concept of the size and shape of the puzzle even to start putting things together,” Brazil told her—he insisted on thinking of all life forms that could do the act of reproducing, growing a new being, as she- “Skander, after all, had the basic equation. There’s no way you can get that here.” “I can’t understand why you let him use you so,** Bat put in. “You—both races—gave him a hundred percent protection, cooperation, and access to all the tools he needed without getting anything in return.” The Czillian shook her head sadly. “We thought we were in control. After ail, he was a Umiau. He couidn’t exist outside his own ocean because he couldn’t travel beyond it. And there was, after all, the other—the one who disappeared. He was a mathematician. Whose data banks was he consulting? Was he brilliant enough not to need them? We couldn’t afford not to back Skander!” “Any idea where they are?” Brazil asked. “Oh, yes, we know where they are—fat lot of good it does us. They are currently being held captive in a nation of robots called, simply enough, The Nation. We received word that they were there, and, since we have a few informational trades with The Nation, we pulled in all our lOU’s to hold them there as long as possible.”


Brazil was suddenly excited. “Are they still there? Can we get them out?” “Yes, they’re still there,” Manito replied, “but not for long. There’s been hell to pay from the Akkafians. Their ambassador, a Baron Azkfru, has threatened to bomb as much of The Nation as he can—and he can do a good deal of damage if that’s all he’s out for. That’s the line. They’ll be released today.” “Who’s in the party?” Bat asked. “If it’s weak enough we might be able to do something yet.” “We’ve thought of that already,” the Czillian responded. “Nothing that wouldn’t get our person killed along with the rest. Aside from Vardia and Skander, there’s an Akkafian—they are huge insects with great speed, the ability to fly, and nasty stingers, and they eat live prey—named Mar Hain, and a weird Northerner we know little about called The Diviner and The Rel. If they’re one or two I can’t find out.” “Hain!” Brazil exclaimed. “Of course, it would be. That son of a bitch would be in the middle of anything dirty.” “You know this Hain?” Bat asked curiously. Brazil nodded. “The gang’s all here, it looks like.” He turned to Manito suddenly. “Did you bring the at-las I asked for?” “I did,” the Czillian replied, and lifted a huge book onto a table. Brazil walked over to it and flipped it open with his nose, then started turning pages with his broad tongue-Finally he found the Southern Hemisphere map and studied it intently. “Damned nui-sance,” he said. “Antelope don’t need very good vi-sion.” “I can help,” the Czillian said, and walked toward the stag. “It is in Czillian, anyway, which you can’t read.” Brazil shook his head idly from side to side. “It’s all right. I see where we are now, and where they are. We’re about even—two hexes up on this side to the Ghlmon Hex at the northern tip of the ocean. They’ve gotten two up the eastern side of the same ocean to pretty much the same spot.” “How can you possibly know that?” the Czillian


blurted out, stunned. “Have you been here before? I thought—” “No,*’ Brazil replied. “Not here.” He nipped a few more pages, studying a close-up map of a particular hex. Then he flipped again, studied another, then to yet another. All in all, he carefully examined five hexes. Suddenly he looked up at the confused Czillian. “Can you get me in touch with some Umiau big shot?” he asked. “They owe us something for Skander. They’ve got Slelcron, which is a nontech hex and so is fine from our point of view, and Ekh’l, which could be anything at all these days-We’ve got Ivrom, which I don’t like at all, but there’s no way around it, and Alissll, which will make Murithel look like a picnic. We can contend with Ivrom, I hope, but if we went through the Umiau hex, on a boat of some kind, we could avoid the nasty one and maybe even gain some time on the others. If they stick near the coast—and I think they will, because those are the best roads by far—we might just beat them there and intercept them here,” he pointed with his nose to the map, “at the northern tip of the bay here, in Ghlmon.” “Just out of curiosity,” Bat said, “you said that the Umiau were warned the first time about a kidnap try on Skander. Now, you said you heard they were in The Nation. Who told you those things?” “Why, we don’t know!” the Czillian answered. “They came as, well, tips, passed in common printer-machine type in our respective languages, to our ambassadors at Zone.” “Yes,” Bat persisted, “but who sent them? Is there a third set of players in the race?” “I was hoping you could tell me that,” Brazil said flatly. Bat’s eyes widened. “Me? All right, I admit I knew who you were back in Dillia, and that I joined you on purpose. But I don’t represent anyone except myself, and the interests of my people. We got word the same way the Czillians and Umiau did, at Zone. Said where you’d be, approximately when, and that you were go-ing after Skander and Vamett. We couldn’t find who sent it, but it was decided that we had a stake in the outcome. I was elected, because I’ve done more trav-238

eling than most of my people. But—me? The third party? No, Brazil, I admit only to not being truthful with you. Surely by now you know that I’m on your side—all the way.” “That’s too bad,” Brazil replied. “I would very much like to know our mysterious helper, and how he gets his information.” “Well, he seems to be on our side,” Bat said optimistically. “Nobody’s on any side but his own,” Brazil snapped back. “Not you, not me, not anybody. We’re going to have a tough enough time just dealing with the Skander party. I don’t want to reach the goal of this chase and have our helpful third party finish off the survivors.” “Then you propose to give chase?” the Czillian asked stupidly. “Of course! That’s what all this is about. One last question—can you tell me the last major problem Skander fed to the computer?” “Why, yes, I think so,” the Czillian replied nervously. She rummaged through some papers, coming up with two. “He asked two, in fact. One was the number of Entries into hexes bordering the Equatorial Zone, both sides.’* “And the answer?” “Why, none on record. Most curious. They’re not true hexes anyway, you know. Since the Equatorial Barrier splits them neatly in half, they are two adjoin-ing half-hexes, each side—therefore, twice as wide as a normal hex and half the distance north and south, with fiat equatorial borders.” “What was the second question?” Brazil asked impatiently. “Oh, ah, whether the number six had any special relation to the Equatorial Zone hexes in geography, biology, or the like.” “And the answer?” “Still in the computer when the unfortunate, ah, incident occurred. We did, of course, get the answer, even though it was on a printout which the kidnap-pers apparently took with them. The material was still in storage, and so we got another copy.”


“What did it say?” Brazil asked in an irritated tone. “Oh, ah, that six of the double half-hexes, so to speak, were split by a very deep inlet all the way up to the zone barrier, evenly spaced around the planet so that, if you drew a line from zone to zone through each of the inlets, you’d split the planet into absolutely equal sixths.” “Son of a bitchi” Brazil swore. “He’s got the whole answer! Nothing will ever surprise me again!” At that moment another Czillian entered the room and looked at the bat and the stag confusedly. Finally she picked the bat and said, shyly, “Captain Brazil?” “Not me,” Bat replied casually, and pointed a bony wing at the stag. “Him.” She turned and looked at the creature that was so obviously an animal. “I don’t believe it!” she said the way everyone did. Finally she decided she might believe it and went over to the great Murithel antelope, and repeated, “Captain Brazil?” “Yes?” he answered pleasantly, curious in the extreme. Captain Brazil? “Oh,” she responded softly, “I—I realize I’ve changed a great deal, but nothing like you. Wow!” “Well, who are—urn, that is, who were you?” he asked, intrigued. “Why, I’m Vardia, Captain,” she replied. “But Vardia was kidnapped by the bugs!” Bat exclaimed. “I know,” she replied. “That’s what’s really upset me.” A Road in the Nation “QUARANTINE, HELL!” SKANDER GRUMBLED, STRAPPED in again atop Main’s back, irritated by the yellowish atmosphere and the discomfort of the breathing apparatus. Her voice was so muffled by the mask that none could understand a word.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Categories: Chalker, Jack L