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


Ivrom “THIS TURNING YOU ALL BACK INTO WHAT WE THINK of as human has some definite drawbacks,” Nathan Brazil, still a giant stag, complained as they walked up the beach. The packs were on him, since none of the other three could now manage the heavy load. “You think you have problems,” Wu Julee responded. “We’re all stark naked and none of the clothing in the packs fits anymore.” “Not to mention feeling hunger, and pain, and cold again,” Vardia put in. “I had forgotten these sensations, and I don’t like them. I was happier as a Czillian.” “But how is it possible?” Wuju asked. “I mean, how could things done by the Markovian brain be so undone?” “Why not ask Vamett?” Brazil suggested. “He’s the brain that got this mess started, anyway.” “You all are yelling about trivialities,” Vamett sulked. “I could fly. And before I set out to catch you, Brazil, I experienced sex. For the first time, I experienced sex. Now I’m back in this retarded body again.” “Not that retarded,” Brazil responded. “You were arrested chemically, but that’s all out of your body now. Just as the sponge is out of Wuju. You should mature normally, in a couple of years, depending on your genes and your diet. Good looking, too, if I remember rightly, since you’re based on lan Vamett. I remember him as one hell of a womanizer—particularly for a mathematician.” “You knew lan Vamett?” the boy gasped. “But— he’s been dead some six hundred years!” “I know,” said Nathan Brazil wistfully. “He got


caught up in the great experiment on Mavrishnu. What a waste. You know it was a waste, Vamett—I saw your Zone interviews.*’ “There has always been trouble with Vametts on Mavrishnu,” the duplicate of the great mathematician, made from cells of the long-dead original’s frozen body, said with a gleam in his eye. “They tried three or four early on, but I’m the first one in more than a century. They needed him again, at least, his potential. I wasn’t the first to interrupt Skander at his real work and inquiries—a lot of skillful agents put everything together. They were. raising me for a different, more local set of problems, but I was already proving to be, I think, too much of a problem. They set me up on Dalgonia to see if I could crack Skander’s work, figuring that whether I did or didn’t they could get me when I returned.’* The group continued talking as they walked down the beach, unhampered—as the charge to the Faerie required—by any obstructions, “How much do you know, Vamett? About all this, that is,” Brazil asked. “When I saw the cellular sample of the Dalgonian brain in the computer storage, I recognized the mathematical relationship of the sequence and order of the energy pulses,” the boy remembered. “It took about three hours to get the sequence, and one or two more to nail it down with the camp’s computers. I only had to look at the thing to see that the energy waveforms represented there bore no resemblance to anything we knew, and the matter-to-energy-to-matter process within the cells was easily observed. I combined what I saw with what we theorized must be the reason the Markovians had no artifacts. The planetary brain created anything you wanted, stored anything you wanted, on demand, perhaps even by thought-That gave me what was going on in that relationship, although I still haven’t any idea how it’s done.” Vardia was impressed. “You mean it was like the spells on us here—they Just wished for something and it was there?” “That’s how the magic works here,” Vamett affirmed. “The only way such a concept is possible is


if, in fact, nothing is real. All of us, these woods, the ocean, the planet—even that sun-—are mereiy constructs. There is nothing in the universe but a single energy field; everything else is taking that energy, transmuting it into matter or different forms of energy, and holding it stable. That’s reality—the stabilized, transmuted primal energy. But the mathematical constructs that are so stabilized are in constant tension, like a coiled spring. The energy would revert to its natural state if not kept in check. These creatures —the Faerie—have some control over that checking process. Not enough to make any huge changes, but enough to change the equation slightly, to vary reality. That’s magic.” “I don’t understand what you’re saying too well,” Wuju put in, “but I think I get the basic idea. You’re saying that the Markovians were gods and could do or have anything they wished for, just like that.” “That’s about it,” Vamett admitted. “The gods were real, and they created all of us—or, at least, the conditions under which we could develop.” “But that would be the ultimate achievement of intelligence!” Vardia protested. “If that were true, why did they die out?” Wuju smiled knowingly and looked to Nathan Brazil, once the only human, now the only nonhuman in the party, who was being uncharacteristically silent. “I heard someone say why they died,” Wuju replied. “That someone said that when they reached the ultimate, it became dull and boring. Then they created new worlds, new life forms here and there— and all went off as those new forms to start from the beginning again.” “What a horrible idea,” Vardia said disgustedly. “If that were true, it means that even perfection is imperfect, and that when our own people finally reach this godhood, they’ll find it wanting and die out by suicide, maybe leaving a new set of primitives to do the same thing all over again. It reduces all the revolutions, the struggles, the pain, the great dreams


—everything—to nonsense! It means that life is pointless!” “Not pointless,” Brazil put in suddenly. “It just means that grand schemes are pointless. It means that you don’t make your own life pointless or useless— most people do, you know. It wouldn’t make any difference if ninety-nine percent of the people of the human race—or any other—lived or not. Except in sheer numbers their lives are dull, vegetative, and nonproductive. They never dream, never read and share the thoughts of others, never truly experience the fulfilling equation of love—which is not merely to love others, but to be loved as well. That is the ultimate point of life, Vardia. The Markovians never found it. Look at this world, our own worlds—all reflecting the Markovian reality, which was based on the ultimate materialist Utopia. They were like the man with incredible riches, perhaps a planet of his own designed to his own tastes, and every material thing you can imagine producible at the snap of his fingers, who, nonetheless, is found dead one morning, having cut his own throat. All his dreams have been fulfilled, but now he is there, on top, alone. And to get where he was, be had to purge himself of what was truly of value. He killed his humanity, his spirituality. Oh, he could love—and buy what he loved. But he couldn’t buy that love he craved, only service. “Like the Markovians, when he got where he’d wanted to be all his life, he found he didn’t really have anything at all.” “I reject that theory,” Vardia said strongly. “The rich man would commit suicide because of the guilt that he had all that he had while others starved, not out of some craving for love. That word is meaningless.” “When love is meaningless, or abstract, or misunderstood, then is that person or race also meaningless,” Brazil responded. “Back in the days of Old Earth one group had a saying, ‘What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ Nobody listened then, either. Funny— haven’t thought of that group in years. They said God was love, and postulated a heaven of communal


love, and a hell for those who could not love. Later on that got crudded up with other stuff until the ideas were gone and only the artifacts were left. Like the Markovians, they paid more attention to things than to ideas—and, like the Markovians, they died for it.” “But surely the Markovian civilization was heaven,” Vardia said. “It was hell,” Brazil responded flatly. “You see, the Markovians got everything their ancestors had ever dreamed of, and they knew it wasn’t enough. They knew that something attainable was missing. They searched, poked, queried, did everything to try and find why the people were miserable, but since everything they had or knew was a construct of themselves, they couldn’t find it. They decided, finally, to go back and repeat the experiment, little realizing that it, too, was doomed to failure—for the experiment, our own universe, was made in a variety of shapes and forms, but it was still in their own image. They didn’t even bother to make a clean start—they used themselves as the prototypes for all the races they’d create, and they used the same universe—the one they’d lived in, rose in, and failed in. That’s why their artifacts are still around—the two artifacts they had—their cities and their control brains.” Vamett let out a gasp. “Suddenly I think I see what you mean. This Well World we’re on, if you’re right, not only provided the trial-lab runs for the new races and their environments, and the way of changing everything to match—it was also the control!” “Right,” Brazil affirmed grimly. “Here everything was laboratory-standard, lab-created, monitored, and maintained by automatic equipment to keep it that way. Not all of them—just a representative sample, the last races to be created, since they were the easiest to maintain.” “But our race here destroyed itself,” Varnett protested. “I heard about it. Does that mean we’re out of it? That the best we can do is destroy ourselves, destroy others, or, perhaps, reach the Markovian level and wind up committing suicide anyway? Is there no hope?” “There’s hope,” Brazil replied evenly, “And de-285

spair, too. That religion of Old Earth I told you about? Well, those who believed in it had the idea that their God sent his son, a perfect human being filled with nothing but goodness and love, to us humans. Son-of-God question aside, there really was such a person born—I watched him try to teach a bunch of people to reject material things and concentrate on love.” “What happened to him?” Wuju asked, fascinated. “His followers rejected him because he ‘wouldn’t rule the world, or lead a political revolution. Others capitalized on his rhetoric for political ends. Finally he upset the established political system too much, and they killed him. The religion, like those founded by other men of our race in other times, was politi-cized within fifty years. Oh, there were some devoted followers—and of others like this man, too. But they were never in control of their religion, and became lost or isolated in the increased institutionalizing of the faiths-Same thing happened to an older man, born centuries earlier and thousands of miles away. He didn’t die violently, but his followers substituted things for ideas and used the quest for love and perfection as a social and political brake to justify the miseries of mankind. No, the religious prophets who made it were the ones who thought in Markovian terms, in political terms—the founder of the Corn, for example, saw conditions of material deprivation that made him sick. He dreamed of a civilization like that of the Markovians, and set the Corn on its way. He succeeded the best, because he appealed to that which everyone can understand—the quest for material Utopia. Well, he can have it.” “Now, hold on, Brazil!” Varnett protested. “You say you were there when all these people were around. That must have been thousands of years ago. Just how old are you, anyway?” “I’ll answer that when we get to the Well,” Brazil responded. “I’ll answer all questions then, not before. If we don’t get to the Well before Skander and whoever’s with him, it won’t make any difference, any-way.” “Then they could supplant the Markovians, change the equations?” Vamett asked, aghast. “I at one time


thought I could, too, but logic showed me how wrong I was. My people—my former people, those of the night—agreed with me. It was only when word came that Skander might make a run for it that they decided to send me to head him off. That’s why I joined up with you, Brazil—you said you were going to do the same thing back in Zone. Our mysterious infor-mant told us to link up with you if we could, and I did.” “Now how could—” Brazil started, then suddenly was silent for a moment, thinking. Suddenly the voice box between his antlers gave off a wry chuckle. “Of course! What an idiot I’ve been! I’ll bet that son of a bitch has bugged every embassy in Zone! I’d forgotten just what kind of a devious mind he had!” “What are you talking about?” Wuju asked, annoyed. “The third player—and a formidable one. The one who warned Skander against kidnap, got Varnett to link up with me. He knew all along where Varnett, here, and Skander were. He just wanted to be there for the payoff, as usual. I was his insurance policy, in case anything went wrong—and it did. Skander was kidnapped, and out of control or immediate surveil-lance. At least he has managed to delay one or another party on the way to the Well so that we’re supposed to get there at about the same time—where he’ll have a reception party waiting for us. He warned Skander so I’d have time to get to Czill, about even with them on the other side of the ocean. When we were trapped with the Murnies, he pulled strings to get the Czillians to put pressure on The Nation to bottle them up until we were even again! I don’t wonder that he might have some influence with the Faerie—maybe the Skander party somehow got bogged down, too!” “Who the hell are you talking about, Nathan?” Wuju persisted. “Look!” Brazil said. “There’s Ghlmon, the last hex before the equator! See the burned-out reddish sand? It goes across two hexes in width, a half-hex tall.” “Who?” Wuju persisted. “Well,” Brazil replied hesitantly, “unless I am


wildly mistaken, somewhere out in that sunburned desert we’ll meet up with him.” “Are we going to cross the border today?” Vamett asked, looking at the sun, barely above the horizon. “Might as well,” Brazil responded. “It’s going to be pretty tough on all of us there, so we’d better get used to it. The heat’s going to be terrible, I think, and my fur coat’s going to be murder, while your naked skins will be roasted. So we’d better push on into the night as much as we can, following the shoreline as we have. Days may be unworkable there.” Wuju had an infuriated look on her face, but Brazil speeded up, forcing them into a jog to keep up, and within a few minutes they crossed the border. The heat hit them like a giant blanket, and it was humid, too, this close to the ocean. Within minutes of crossing the border, they had slowed to almost a crawl, the three humans perspiring profusely, Brazil panting wildly, tongue hanging out of bis mouth. Finally, they had to stop and rest. Dusk brought only slight relief. Wuju looked again at Brazil with that Fd-like-to-kilt-you expression. Hot, winded, the sand burning her feet and, when she sat down, her rear, she remained undeterred. “Who, Nathan?” she persisted, gasping for breath. Brazil’s stag body looked as uncomfortable as any-one’s, but that mechanical voice of his said evenly, “The one person who could know for certain that I would go after Skander, and that I would get to you in Dillia before going anywhere, was the only person who could tell Vamett where to find me and why. He was a pirate in the old days. You couldn’t trust him with anything if he could make a shekel going against you, yet you could trust him with your life if there were no profit in it. That’s what I forgot—the stakes are high here; there’s a bigger profit potential than anyone could think of. He told me I could get help from everyone of all races, but trust none—including him, as it turned out. Although he figured I wouldn’t think of him as an opponent since we’d


been good friends and I owed him. He was almost right.” Understanding hit her at last, and she brightened. “Ortega!” she exclaimed. “Your friend we met when we first entered Zone!” “The six-armed walrus-snake?” Vardia put in. “He’s behind all this?” “Not all this,” came a voice behind them—a clipped, casual male voice that carried both dignity and authority. “But he still is happy everything has turned out right.” They all whirled. In the near-darkness, it was hard for any of them to see properly, but the creature looked for all the world like a meter-tall dinosaur, dark green skin and flat head, standing upright on large hind legs, while holding a curved pipe in a stubby hand. He also appeared to be wearing an old-fashioned formal jacket. The creature puffed on the pipe, the coals glowing in the dark. “I say,” it said pleasantly, “do you mind if I finish my pipe before we travel? Terrible waste otherwise, y’know.” West Ghlmon THE FOUR OF THEM LOOKED CURIOUSLY AT THE strange creature. Brazil could only think that he should have been in Alice in Wonderland. The others took the appearance of the new arrival more calmly, having grown used to strange creatures and strange ways by this time. “You were sent by Serge Ortega?” Brazil asked evenly. The creature took its pipe out of its mouth and assumed an insulted expression. “Sir, I am the Duke of Orgondo. This is Ghlmon. The Ulik have no authority


here. They are merely our neighbors. We were approached only a few days ago by Mr. Ortega about this matter, and we are, of course, much concerned. The Ulik interest is—well, frankly, closer to ours. We know them and understand them. We’ve gotten along for thousands of years with them. With their help we managed to survive when the environment here changed and the soil turned to sand. But all of you—Mr. Or-tega included—are here at our sufferance, and we will brook no intrusions into sovereignty.” “What’s he saying?” Vardia asked, and the others added their confusion-For the first time, Brazil realized that now they could understand only people with translators and those speaking Confederacy. Their own translators had gone along with their former bodies. “Pardon me. Your Grace,” Brazil said politely. “I will have to translate, for, I fear, my companions have no translators.” The lizard looked at the three humans. “Hmmm…. Most curious. I had been told to expect a Dillian, Czillian, and a Creit. We heard that you would be an antelope, and that so far is the only correct information. You are Mr. Brazil, are you not?” “I am,” Brazil replied. “The male is Mr. Vamett, the female with breasts is Wuju, and the undeveloped female is Vardia. We did, after all, have to come through Ivrom. That, in itself, is an accomplishment, I should think—to have come through unaltered would have been a miracle.” “Quite,” nodded the Ghlmonese. “But we had no doubt you would come through, although there’s been hell to pay for the three days you disappeared. We figured you’d been bewitched, and started moving some diplomatic mountains to find who had you.” “Then that bewitching stuff wasn’t part of Ortega’s tricks?” Brazil responded. “He seemed awfully confident we’d get through.” “Oh, no, he figured that you would get stuck,” the duke replied casually- “But we of Ghlmon are more adept at the arts than those filthy savages in Ivrom. It was only a matter of finding you. We already had the other party, so nothing was disturbed no matter how long it took.”


“So what’s the next move now?” Brazil asked calmly. “Oh, you’ll be my guests for the night, of course,” the duke said warmly. “Tomorrow, we’ll get you on a sandshark express and take you to the capital at Oodlikm, where you will link up with Ortega and the other party. From that point it will be Ortega’s show, although we’ll be watching.” Brazil nodded. “This game is getting so crowded you need a scorecard.” He provided a running translation of the conversation so that the others could follow what was going on. Finally the creature’s pipe went out, and it tapped the bowl and shook out the last remains of whatever it had been smoking. It smelled like gunpowder. “Places have been prepared for you,” the duke told them. “Ready to go? It’s not far.” “Do we have a choice?” Brazil retorted. The little dinosaur got that hurt look again, “Of course! You may go back across the border, or jump in the ocean. But, if you plan to stay in Ghlmon, you will do what we wish.” “Fair enough,” the stag replied. “Lead on.” They followed the little dinosaur along the beach in silence for a little over a kilometer. There, by the side of the sea, a huge tent of canvas or something very similar had been erected. A flag was flying from the tent’s center mast. Several Ghlmonese stood around nearby, and tried not to look bored to death. Two by the tent flap snapped to attention as the duke approached, and he nodded approvingly. “Everything ready?” he asked. “The table is set. Your Grace,” one replied, “Everything should be suitable.” The duke nodded and the sentry held back the flap so he could enter and kept it open for the others to pass through. Inside, the place looked like something out of a medieval textbook. The floor was covered with thick carpeting like a handwoven mosaic. Actually made up of hundreds of small rugs, it looked like a colorful series of lumps. In the center was a long, low wooden table with strange-smelling dishes on it. There were no chairs, but


the human members of the party were quickly provided with rolls of blankets or rugs that propped them up enough to make things comfortable. “Simple, but it will have to do,” the duke said, al-most apologetically. “You will find the food compatible —Ambassador Ortega was most helpful here. We didn’t expect you in these forms, of course, but there should be no problem. Pity you couldn’t be entertained in the castle, but that is impossible, I fear.” “Where is your castle?” Brazil asked. “I haven’t seen any structures but this one.” “Down below, of course,” the duke replied. “Ghlmon wasn’t always like this. It changed, very slowly, over thousands of years. As the climate became progressively drier, we realized that we couldn’t fight the sand, so we learned to live beneath it. Air pumps, constantly manned by skilled workmen, keep the air coming in from vents to the surface—which crews keep clear. Sort of like living under the ocean in domes, as I have heard is done elsewhere-The desert’s our ocean —more than you think. We can swim in it, albeit slowly, and follow guide wires from one spot to another, coming up here only to travel long distances.” Brazil translated, and Vardia asked, “But where does the food come from? Surely nothing grows here.” “We are basically carnivores,” the duke explained after the translation of the question. “Lots of creatures exist in the sand, and many are domesticated. Water is easy—the original streams still exist, only they now run underground, along the bedrock. The vegetable dishes here are for your benefit. We always keep some growing in greenhouses down under for guests.” They ate, continuing the conversation. Brazil, not knowing how much the Ghlmonese were actually in on the expedition, carefully avoided any information in that direction, and it was neither asked for nor brought up by his host. After eating, the duke bade them farewell. “There’s a good deal of straw over there for padding if you can’t sleep on the rug,” he told them. “I know you’re tired and won’t disturb you. You have a long journey starting tomorrow.” Vardia and Vamett found soft places near the side


of the tent and were asleep in minutes. Wuju tried to join them, but lay there awake for what seemed like hours. Her insomnia upset her—she was tired, ach-ing, and uncomfortable, yet she couldn’t sleep. The torches had been extinguished, but she could make out Brazil’s large form in the gloom near the entrance. Painfully, she got up and walked over to him. He wasn’t asleep either, she saw-His head turned as she approached. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “I—I dunno,” she replied hesitantly. “Can’t sleep. You?” “Just thinking,” he said, an odd, almost sad tone in his electronic voice. “About what?” “This world. This expedition. Us—not just the two of us, all of us. It’s ending, Wuju. No beginnings anymore, just endings.” She looked at him strangely in the darkness, not comprehending his meaning. Unable to pursue it, she changed the subject. “What’s going to happen to us, Nathan?” she asked. “Nothing. Everything. Depends on who you are,” he replied cryptically. “You’ll see what I mean. You’ve had a particularly rough time, Wuju. But you’re a survivor. Tough. You deserve to enjoy life a little.” He shifted uncomfortably, then continued. “Just out of curiosity, if you had a choice, if you could return to our sector of the universe as anything or anybody you wanted to be, what would you choose?” She thought for a minute. “I’ve never considered go-ing back,” she replied in a soft, puzzled tone, “But if you could, and you could be who and where you wanted—like the genie with the three wishes— what would you choose?” She chuckled mirthlessly. “You know, when I was a farmer, I had no dreams. We were taught to be satisfied with everything. But when they made me a whore in the Party House, we’d sometimes sit and talk about that. They kept the males and females separate—we never saw any males except Party locals and favored workers. We were programmed to be supersexy and give them a hell of a time. I’m sure the male jocks were equally fantastic for the female bigwigs. They shot


us full of hormones, thought we couldn’t think of anything but sex—and, it’s true, we craved it, constantly, so much so that during slack times we were in bed with each other. “But the Party people,” she continued, “they knew things, went places. Some of them liked to talk about it, and we got to know a lot about the outside world. We’d dream about getting out into it, out perhaps to other worlds, new experiences.” She paused for a mo-ment, then continued in that dreamy, yet thoughtful, somewhat wistful tone. “Three wishes, you said. All right, if we’re playing the game, I’d like to be rich, live as long as I wanted, and be young all that time, and fantastically good-looking, too. Not on a Comworld, of course—but that’s four, isn’t it?” “Go on,” he urged. “Never mind the three. Anything else?” “I’d like to have you under those same conditions,” she replied. He laughed, genuinely pleased and flattered. “But,” he said, serious again, “suppose I wasn’t there? Suppose you were out on your own?” “I don’t even want to think about that.” “Come on,” he prodded. “It’s only a game.” Her head went up, and she thought some more. “If you weren’t there, I think I’d like to be a man.” If Brazil had had a human face, it would have risen in surprise. “A man? Why?” She shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed. “I don’t know, really. Remember I said young and good-looking. Men are bigger, stronger, they don’t get raped, don’t get pregnant. I’d like to have children, maybe, but— well, I don’t think any man could turn me on except you, Nathan. Back in the Party House—those men who came. I was like a machine to them, a sex machine. The other girls—they were real people, my family. They cared. That’s why the Party gave me to Hain, Nathan—I’d gotten to the point where I couldn’t turn on to men at all, only women. They felt, they cared, they weren’t—well, weren’t threatening. All of the men I met were—except you. Can you understand that?”


“I think I can,” he responded slowly. “It’s natural, considering your background. On the other hand, there are many worlds where homosexuality is accepted, and you can get children by anything from cloning to artificial insemination. And, of course, men have just as many problems and hang-ups as women. The grass isn’t greener, just different.” “That might be the fun of it,” she replied. “After all, it’s something I’ve never been—like I’d never been a centaur before, and you’d never been a stag. I know what it’s like to be a woman—and I don’t particularly care for it. Besides, we’re only playing.” “I guess we are,” he responded. “Since we are, would you rather go back to being a Dillian than what you are now? You can, you know—just go back to Zone through the local Gate and back through again. You’ll be readjusted to the original equation. That’s the most common way of breaking spells around here, you know. That’s the way I’d have handled things if I’d had the time back in Ivrom rather than risking that facedown with the Swarm Queen.” “I—I’m not sure I could go back to Dillia,” she said softly. “Oh, I loved being that big and strong, loved the country and those wonderful people—but I didn’t fit. That’s what was driving me crazy in the end. Jol was a wonderful person, but it was Dal I was attracted to. And that doesn’t go over in Dillia socially—and, if it did, it’s impractical.” He nodded. “That’s really what you meant when you told me long ago about how people should love people no matter what their form or looks. But what about me? Suppose I turned into something really monstrous, so alien that it bore almost no resemblance to what you knew?” She laughed. “You mean like the bat or a Czillian or maybe a mermaid?” “No, those are familiar-I mean a real monstrosity.” “As long as you were still you inside, I don’t think anything would change,” she replied seriously. “Why do you talk like that, anyway? Do you expect to turn into a monster?” “Anything’s possible on this world,” he reminded her. “We’ve seen only a fraction of what can happen—


you’ve seen only six hexes, six out of fifteen hundred and sixty. You’ve met representatives of three or four more. There’s a lot that is stranger.” His voice turned grim. “We have to meet the new Datham Ham shortly, you know. He’s a giant female bug—a monster if ever there was one.” “Now his outside matches his foul inside,” she snapped bitterly. “Monsters aren’t racial, they’re in the mind. He’s been a monster all his life.” He nodded. “Look, trust me on this-Ham will get what he deserves—so will everybody. Once inside the Well, we’ll all be what we once were, and then will come the reckoning.” “Even you?” she asked. “Or will you stay a deer?” “No, not a deer,” he replied mysteriously, then changed the subject. “Well, maybe it’s better over. Two more days and that’ll be it.” She opened her mouth to prod, then closed it again. Finally, she asked, “Nathan, is that why you’ve lived so long? Are you a Markovian? Vamett thinks you are.” He sighed. “No, not a Markovian—exactly. But they might as well continue to think I am. I may have to use that belief to keep everything from blowing apart too soon.” She looked stunned. “You mean all this time you’ve been dropping hints that you were one of the original builders, and it was all a bluff?” He shook his head slowly. “Not a bluff, no. But I’m very old, Wuju—older than anyone could imagine. So old that I couldn’t live with my own memories. I blocked them out, and, until arriving here on the Well World, I was mercifully, blissfully ignorant. No mind in history can function long with this much storage in-put. The shock of the fight and transformation in Murithel brought the past back, but there’s so much.’ It’s next to impossible to sort it all out, get a handle on it all. But these memories still give me the edge— I know things the rest of you don’t. I’m not necessarily smarter or wiser than you, but I do have all that experience, all that accumulated knowledge of thousands of lifetimes. That gives me the advantage.” 29fi “But they all think you’re going to work the Well for them,” she pointed out. “Everything you’ve said indicates that you know how.” “That’s why Serge kept us alive,” he explained. “That’s why we’ve been coddled and prodded. I have no doubt that the little voice box on top my antlers has an extra circuit monitored by Serge. He’s probably listening right now. I don’t care anymore. That’s why he could help us, know where we were and what happened to us. That’s why we’re going to meet him; that’s how all this was prepared in advance. Just in case he can’t use me, he’ll use Skander, or Varnett— he thinks.” “I can see why he’d be concerned with you three,” she replied, “but why the rest of us? Why me, for example?” If Brazil could have smiled, he would have. “You don’t know Serge—the old Serge. I’d been so lulled by that talk about a wife and kids I’d forgotten how little this world changes the real you, deep down. Hain —well, Hain is useful to keep Skander in check as well as for transportation. I don’t know who else is along, but be sure they’re there only because Serge has some use for them or he hasn’t been able to figure out how to dispose of them properly.” “But why me?” she repeated. “They must have some tame nasties on the Corn-worlds,” he replied sardonically. “You’re a hostage, Wuju. You’re his handle on me.” She looked uncertain. “Nathan? What if it really came down to that? Would you do what he asked for me?” “It won’t come to that,” he assured her. “Believe me, it won’t. Vamett has already figured out why, although he’s forgotten in his youthful excitement.” “Then what will you do?” “I will lead them all to the Well—Skander can do that anyway, so could Varnett. I intend to show them everything they want. But they will leam that this treasure hunt is full of thorns when they discover what the price really is. I’ll bet you that, once in the control • room of their dreams, they will think the price is too high.”


She shook her head in wonder. “I don’t understand any of this.” “You will,” he replied cryptically, “at midnight at the Well of Souls.” The trip was uncomfortable and bumpy. They traveled on a huge wooden sled with runners. Pulling them swiftly were eight huge beasts they could not fully see—sandsharks, the Ghlmonese called them. Only huge gray backs and huge, razor-sharp fins were visible as they pulled their heavy load and were kept in check by a Ghlmonese driver with reins for each of the huge creatures. The sandsharks were giant mammals who lived in the sand as fish lived in water. They breathed air— a single huge nostril opened whenever their great backs broke the surface—and moved at eight to ten kilometers per hour. By the end of the day the travelers were all sore and bruised, but more than halfway there. They spread rugs out on the sand, and ate food heated by the fiery breath of their driver. There was no problem sleeping that evening, despite the hot air, blowing wind, and strange surroundings. The next day was a repeat of the first. They passed several other sleds carrying Ghlmonese, and occasionally saw individuals riding in huge saddles on the backs of sandsharks. Once in a while they would see a cluster of what appeared to be huge chimneys with crews keeping the openings from being blocked by sand. Far below, they knew, there were towns, perhaps large cities. Finally, near dusk of the second day, structures appeared ahead of them, growing rapidly larger as they approached. These proved to be a network of towers and spires made of small rocks, reaching fifty or more meters in the air, like the tops of some medieval fortress. They slowed, and came to a halt near two towers with a wide gate between. A number of Ghlmonese stood around; others were busy going to or from unknown places. An officious-looking dinosaur, in ornate red livery,


came up to them. “You are the alien party from Orgondo?” he asked gruffly. “They are,” their driver replied. “All yours and welcome. I have to see to my sharks. They’ve had a tough journey.” “Which of you is Mr. Brazil?” the official inquired. “I am,” Brazil replied. The official looked surprised, since Brazil was, after all, still a giant stag, but he recovered quickly. “Come with me, then. The rest of you will be taken to temporary quarters.” He motioned to some other Ghlmonese, also in the red livery, and they came up to escort the party. Although the smallest of the hu-mans was a head taller than any of the guards, no one felt like arguing. “Go with them,” Brazil instructed his group. “There’ll be no problems. I’ll join you as soon as I can.” They had no choice, and walked to the tower nearest them. Brazil turned to the official. “What now?” he asked. “Ambassador Ortega and the other alien party are camped out near the base of The Avenue,” the official replied. “I am to take you to them.” “Lead on,” Brazil urged, unconcern in his voice. The Avenue proved to be a broad trench, thirty or more meters across, that was just beyond the towers and spires. It was also more than fifteen meters below ground level, but, despite only the most rudimentary stone buffers, the sand didn’t seem to blow into the obviously artificial culvert, but over and past it. Broad stone stairs led down to the flat, almost shiny surface below. Brazil had some trouble negotiating the stairs, but finally made it. The buildings of Oodlikm seemed to line The Avenue on both sides, like medieval castles used to be built into the sides of steep river valleys back on Old Earth. There were many stairways and hundreds of doors, windows, and even ports for defense along both sides of The Avenue wall. As for the valley itself, its level, jewellike surface seemed to stretch to the ocean on Brazil’s right, and off to the horizon on his left. Brazil’s hooves clacked on the shiny surface. He


towered over countless stalls selling all sorts of things and over the crowds which gaped at him and made way as he passed. He and his escort walked toward the ocean, past the last shops, and finally to what was obviously a more official, less commercial section, across which had been hastily erected a barricade with a heavy wooden gate and armed guards. The official approached the gate, showed a pass he produced from his coat pocket. After the guards in-spected his pass carefully, the gates opened and they passed through. Inside were more guards—huge numbers, in fact. In the center of The Avenue were an Akkafian, a Czillian, a Umiau in what looked like a square bathtub, and—something else. Brazil studied The Diviner and The Rel, and the last pieces fit into place. The role of the Northerner had been unclear to him from the start, and he knew nothing of the creature’s hex, physically or culturally. He was certain that the thing was at the heart of much of the mischief that had been worked, though. Darkness had fallen, and the stars started showing through. Small gaslights had been lit, giving the entire scene an eerie glow. “Remain with the others,” the official instructed him. “I will get Ambassador Ortega.” Brazil went over to the alien creatures, ignoring all except the Umiau. “So you’re Elkinos Skander,” he said flatly. The mermaid gave a puzzled look. “So? And who or what are you?” “Nathan Brazil,” be replied crisply. “That name means little to you? Perhaps it will be better to say that I am here to avenge seven murders.” The Umiau opened her mouth in surprise. “Seven —what the hell do you mean?” Brazil’s independent eyes showed Skander on the right, and the interest of the other three on the left. The others were all watching the two tensely. “I was the captain of the freighter who found the bodies on Dalgonia. Seven bodies, charred, left on a barren world. None of them ever did you harm, nor was there any reason for their deaths.” “I didn’t kill them,” Skander responded in a surly

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L