tone. “Vamett killed them. But, what of it? Would you have preferred to open this world to the Corns?” “So that was it,” Brazil said sadly. “The seven died because you feared that their governments would get control. Skander, you know who killed them, and / know who killed them, but even beyond that is the fact that they needn’t have died even for so dubious a rea-son. The Gate would not have opened for them.” “Of course it would!” Skander snapped. “It opened when Vamett and I found the mathematical key to the computer. And it was still open for you and your party to fall through!” Brazil shook his head slowly. “No, Skander. It opened only because the two of you wanted it to open. That’s the key, you know. Even though you didn’t know that the Gate didn’t lead to the Dalgonian brain, but to here, you knew that some sort of Gate must exist and you wanted desperately to find it. You had already decided to kill Vamett and the others before you found it. Vamett knew it. He had a desire to find the Gate, and the fear of death to fix it. That’s what opened it up, not your mathematical discoveries. It hadn’t opened since the Markovians, and it wouldn’t have opened again unless the conditions were right.” “Then how did you fall through?” Skander retorted. “Why did it open for you?” “It didn’t,” Brazil replied evenly. “Although I should have known it was there.” “But it did open for us, Brazil,” Hain put in. “Not for you, Hain, or for me, or for Vardia, either,” Brazil told them. “But, within our party, there was one person who had lost all hope, who wanted to die, to escape fate’s lot. The brain, sensitized to such things, picked this up and lured us to Dalgonia with the false emergency signal. We went up to where the shuttles left by Skander and Vamett were still parked, walked out onto the Gate floor, and, when Wu Julee was well within the field, the Gate triggeredsending all of us here.” “I remember you, now!” Skander exclaimed. “Var-dia told me about you while we were imprisoned in The Nation! She told me how the ships seemed to vanish. When I heard all that, I assumed you had en-301
gineered the whole thing, that you were a Markovian. The evidence fitted. Besides, it stands to reason that you don’t leave a control group like those on the Well World without someone to monitor the control.” “The fact that it was the girl and not Brazil who triggered the Gate doesn’t necessarily invalidate your conclusions, Doctor,” came a smooth, husky voice be-hind them. They turned to see the huge form of Serge Ortega, all five meters of snake and two meters of his thick, six-armed body. “Serge, I should have known better,” Brazil said good-humoredly. All six arms of the Ulik shrugged. “I have a pretty good racket here, Nate. I told you I was happy, and I am. I have most of the embassies at both zones bugged, and the conversations recorded. I find out what*s happening, who’s doing what to whom, and if there’s anything of interest to me and to my people I act on it.” Brazil nodded, and would have smiled if the stag body allowed it. “It was no accident that you were the one who met us, was it? You already knew I was there.” “Of course,” Onega replied. “Small cameras in-stalled in two or three points around the Well go on whenever someone comes through. If they’re old-human I get there first. Nobody cares much, since the Zone Gate randomly assigns them to other hexes.” “You didn’t meet me when I came through,” Skander pointed out. Ortega shrugged again. “Can’t live in the damned office. Bad luck, though, since I then lost sight of you for a long time. These others were already in and assigned before I managed to track Vamett down, although the Umiau are so lousy at secrecy your cover was blown about a month after you came.” “You’ve been following me since Czill, haven’t you, Serge?” Brazil asked. “How did you manage it?” “Child’s play,” the Ulik replied. “Czill has a high technological level but no natural resources, and some problems in handling hot metal anyway. We supply parts for their machineswe and many others only ours have slight modifications. A resonator for the
translator, for example, takes only one almost invisible extra circuit to broadcastif you know the right frequency. The range isn’t fantastic, but I knew where you were, and in most instances mutual back-scratching, past lOU’s, and the like were all that was needed. I think I know what you are, Nate, and I think you know you should play the game my way.” “Or you’ll kill the others?” The snakeman looked hurt, but it was exaggerated. “Why, Nate! Did I say any such thing? But, regardless, I have Skander. here, and, if all else fails, Vamett. I’d prefer you, Nate. I don’t think you’re any different from the Nathan Brazil I’ve known all these decades. I’m willing to bet that that personality of yours isn’t a phony front or a construct, but the real you, no matter what your parents were. You know me better than anybody, so you know my actions and what I’ll do in any case. Will you lead the party in?” Brazil looked at his old acquaintance for a moment. “Why everybody. Serge? Why not just you and me?” he asked. “Ah, come on, Nate! What do you take me for? You know how to get in; I don’t. You know what’s in thereI don’t. With the others I get an expert check on your actions and descriptions, and a little insurance from their own self-interest. The Northerner, here it’s working for a group so different from any of us I can’t figure out anything about them. Nonetheless, like Hain, here, and the plant, they’re all looking out for their own interests. So are your people, really. Nobody’s going to let anybody else get the upper hand. You’ll all even be armedarmed with pistols that can kill any of you, but can’t kill roe. I’ve taken immunity shots from Hain’s stinger, so that’s no threat, and I am so much physically stronger than any of you that I’ll be happy to take you on. Nate knows how quick I can move. Brazil sighed. “Always figuring the angles, aren’t you. Serge? So tell me, if this was your game all along, why did we have to fight and walk so far? Why not just get us all together and bring us to this point?” “I hadn’t the slightest idea where you were going,” replied Ortega honestly. “After all, Skander was still
looking, Vamett had given up, and nobody else knew. So I just let the expeditions lead me here. When it became clear where both expeditions were headed, I arranged to slow things down until I could get here ahead of you. Easier than you thinkZone Gate to Ulik, then over. Hell, man, I’ve been to that Equatorial Zone hundreds of times. There’s no way in that anybody’s ever found, and a lot have tried over the years.** “But we now know that the entrance is at the end of The Avenue,” The Rel said suddenly. “And, from Skander, I perceive that the time of entry is midnight” “Right on both counts,” Brazil admitted. “However, that knowledge alone won’t get you in You need the desire to get to the Well center, specifically, and a basic equation to tell the Well you know what you’re doing.” “The Vamett relationship,” Skander said. “The open-ended equation of the Markovian brain slides. That’s it, isn’t it?” “Sure,** Brazil acknowledged. “After all, it wasn*t supposed to keep any Markovians out. The conditions of this world are such that the relationship is simply indecipherable. It’s only one in a million that the two of you discovered it, and almost one in infinity that you’d get to where you could use it. You could never have used it on Dalgonia since it requires an answer for completion, an addition. It’s sort of ‘What is your wish?’ and you have to give that wish in mathematically correct form. In this case, though, the simple completion is done by the brain if you ask the question the reverse.” “But if he is a Markovian, why could he not just contact the brain and save himself all the problems he’s had here?” the Slelcronian asked. Brazil turned to the plant person, a puzzled tone in his voice. “I thought you were Vardiabut that tone just doesn’t sound like her.” “Vardia merged with a Slelcronian,’* The Rel explained, telling of the flower creatures and their strange ways. “It is possessed of a good deal of wisdom and some fairly efficient mental powers, but your friend is such a tiny part of the whole that the Czillian is essentially dead,” The Rel concluded.
“I see,” Brazil said slowly. “Well, there were too many Vardias here anyway. Ours is the original back to human, again.” He turned to Serge again. “So are Wuju and Vamett.” “Vamett?” Skander sat up suddenly, spilling water. “Vamett is with you?” “Yes, and no tricks, Skander,” Ortega warned. “If you try anything on Varnett I’ll personally attend to you,” He turned back to Brazil. “That goes for you, too, Nate.” “There will be no problems. Serge,” Brazil assured him tiredly. “I’ll take you all inside the Well, and I will show you what you wantwhat you all want. I’ll even answer any questions you want, clear up any uncertainties.” “That suits us,” Ortega responded, but there was a note of caution in his voice. The Avenueat the Equator THE JOURNEY UP THE AVENUE HAD BEEN WITHOUT event, and none had tested Ortega’s defenses. They were all going where they wanted to go, and, as the Ulik had said, each one had his own selfish interests at heart. All during the journey Brazil had been talk-ative and friendly, yet there was a sadness deep within him they could all feel, although he tried to laugh it off. The four members of Brazil’s party kept to themselves. Hain kept looking at Wuju strangely, but bided her time, and Skander seemed resigned to Varnett’s existence in the party. And now, in the afternoon’s waning sun, they stood at the Equatorial Barrier itself, imposing and seemingly impenetrable. It was like a wall, partially translucent, that rose up until it merged with the deep blue, cloudless sky. The barrier itself didn’t look thick, and felt smooth and
glassy to the touch, yet it had withstood attempts by many races on both sides to make as much as a mark on it. It went off to each side of them from horizon to horizon, like a giant, nonrefiecting glass w3ll. The Avenue seemed to merge into it, and there was no sign of any small crack, fissure, or even juncture of the odd paving of The Avenue with the surface of the barrier. They seemed to become one. Brazil went up to the wall, then turned to face them. They waited expectantly. “We can’t enter until midnight, so we might as well be comfortable,” he told them. “Do you mean twenty-four hundred?” the real Var-dia asked. “No, of course not,” Brazil replied. “For one thing, the Well World’s days are about twenty-eight and a quarter standard hours, as you know, so the time twenty-four hundred has no meaning here. Midnight means exactly thatthe middle of the night. Since a total day is exactly twenty-eight point three three four standard hours, and since the axis is exactly vertical, that means the light period is fourteen point one six seven hours, and so is the darkness. Midnight, then, comes seven point zero eight three five hours after sunset. The figures were determined by physical necessity when building the place. They just came out that way. Believe me, Markovian clocks were quite different from ours, and the time could be precisely determined.” “Yes, but how will we determine it?” The Rel asked. “There are a couple of timepieces here, but they are by no means that exact.” “No need,” Brazil assured the Northerner. “Hain, fly up to the surface there and watch the sun. When it vanishes to the west, then tell us immediately. Be con-servativeerr on the side of sunlight. We’ll check watches for seven hours from that point. After that, we can simply wait to open the wall. We’ll have only about two minutes, so it’s important that everyone goes as soon as the wall opens. The ones who don’t will be left out here.” “What about the atmosphere inside?” Skander asked. “We have only a few pressure suits here.”
“No problem there, either,” Brazil responded. “All of us are compatible with the oxygen-nitrogen-carbon mix that’s common, in one sense or another, with the sectors on both sides of The Avenue. There will be a compromise adjustment, but while the mixture might make a few of us temporarily light-headed, it shoudn’t pose any problem. This system will automatically fol-low us, section by section, as we go down. The only problem we might have, and it’s minor, is some strongly differing gravitational pulls due to the lines of force flowing from here. None will be a real problem, just uncomfortable occasionally.” His explanation seemed to satisfy them, and they sat down or otherwise relaxed, waiting for the proper time. “Are you reallyreally me?” Vardia hesitantly asked the Slelcronian, who was awake only because of a small, lamplike gadget fastened over the headleaf. The Slelcronian paused and thought carefully. “We are you, and we are more than you,” it replied. “All your memories and experiences are here, along with the millions of the Slelcronians. You are a part of us, and we are a part of you. Through the Recorder, you are a part of the total synthesis, not just the isolated portion in this body.” “Whafs it like?” she asked. “It is the ultimate stage to which any can aspire,** the creature told her. “No individuality, no personality to corrupt. No Jealousy, greed, anger, envy, or those other things that cause misery. All alike, all identical, all in communion. As plants we require nothing save water and sunlight, and carbon dioxide to breathe. When another is needed, we make a seed and mate it to the Recorders; it grows, and immediately after bloom becomes as we. The Recorders do not think, and get their food from our bodies.” “Butwhat do you do?” she asked curiously. “What is the purpose to your life?” “Universal happiness in a stable order,” the Slelcronian replied unhesitatingly. “Long have we yearned to spread the synthesis. Now, through this body and your experience, we can return to Czill and multiply.
We shall work with the devices of Czill to create a synthesis of animal with plant. We shall expand, eventually, to the Well World, and, with the aid of the Well, to the comers of the universe. All shall become one with the synthesis, all shall enjoy perfect equality and happiness.” She thought a minute. “And what if you can’t do it with the animals?” “We will,” the Slelcronian replied confidently. “But, should it not be so, then the superior shall eliminate the inferior, as it is in the laws of nature since the beginning of time.” This isn’t me, she thought. This can’t be me. Or or is it? Is this not what my society strives for? Is this not why we clone, why genetic engineering is eventually planned to make everyone identical, sexless, equally provided for in every way? A sudden question struck her, and she asked, “And what will you do once you have accomplished this all-encompassing synthesis? What then?” “Then there will be perfection and harmony and happiness,” replied the Slelcronian as if reciting a litany. “Heaven will be ours and it will be forever. Why do you ask such a question? Are we not you? Did you not in fact accept the offered synthesis?” The question disturbed her, for she had no answer. What had changed? How had the paths of Vardia I and II differed so radically in the last few weeks that such a question would even occur to her? She turned away, and her eyes fell on Wu Julee and Nathan Brazil. They had some sort of symbiotic relationship, she thought-It was observable, no matter what form they had been in. When he could have clearly escaped the Ivrom spell, he had risked himself to free her. She sat down, the chill of the night making the hard-ness of The Avenue feel like an ice cube on her bare behind. What had she seen that her sister had not? Emotion? Love? Some different sort of relationship? Kindness? What? What had her sister seen? A nation of great bugs all out to do each other in and lord it over the others.
Hain. Skander. That weird Northern creature. A world of machines. They represented something far different from Nathan Brazil, Wujuand Varnett, with guilt over seven dead people he probably couldn’t have saved anyway. Guilt over doing the right and proper thing? Impossible! Yetshe remembered him com-ing in in the early morning, carrying Brazil’s battered and broken body. Exhausted, weak, half-crazed from the burden, yet unwilling to sleep or eat until Brazil had been tended to. Standing over that body, only technically alive, and weeping. Why? She thought again of the Slelcronian and its dreams. The perfect society. Heaven. Forever. The Markovians had it, had the ultimate in material existence. And they had deliberately wrecked it for death, misery, pain, and struggle on countless worlds in countless forms. What was perfection, anyway? What did the Markovians lack that gave the lie to the grand dream? They forgot how to love, Brazil had said. But what was love? Have we already forgotten it? The thought upset her, and she couldn’t explain why. For the first time in her life, she felt alienated, alone, outside, left out. Cheated. And she had no idea what was missing. For the first time, and perhaps the first of any being on the Well World, she knew what it must have been like to be a Markovian. Was this, then, what Nathan Brazil felt? Was this why he felt he was cursed? Did he live all those millennia searching for the missing factor in the Markovian dream, hoping that someone would discover it? But, no, she concluded. He knew what it was. He had tried to explain it. Suddenly she shivered, but not from the chill. She had never thought, never brooded like this before, never faced the chill of reality before. Oh, nonexistent, uncaring gods! she thought bit—
teriy. What a curse more horrible than anything imaginable. Suppose Nathan Brazil had what was missing, deep insideand no one else did? “Hello, Vardia,” said a voice behind her. She turned with a start, and saw Wuju standing there. “You’ve been sitting there looking strange for the longest time.” She smiled weakly, but said nothing. Wuju smiled and sat down beside her. “Yikes! This pavement’s cold!” “If you just sit you don’t notice it,” Vardia told her. “Everyone’s so somber and serious now,” Wuju noted. “Even me.” Vardia looked at her strangely. “It’s the mission the end of the mission. In there is anything you want. Just wish for it. And all of us are going in. I don’t know about anyone else, but I just discovered I don’t know what to wish for.” “I wish we weren’t going,” Wuju said grimly. “If I had one wish, it’d be that this never had to end. Here this journey, Nathan, all of you. It’s been the happiest time of my life. I’m afraid that nothing will be the same after we’re in there. Nothing.” Vardia took her hand and patted it. Now why did I do that? she wondered, but she continued doing it. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,*’ Vardia said calmly. “I only know that I must change. I have changed. Now I must understand how and why.” “I don’t like this at all,” Wuju responded in that same tone of foreboding. “I don’t like the idea of things being changed by a whim. No one should have that kind of powerleast of all these sorts. I don’t like being a figment, an afterthought. I’m scared to death. I told Nathan, but he Just shook his head and went away. I don’t understand that, either. I can face death, nowand evil, too. But I can’t face the fear of what’s in there. Not alone.” “You’re not alone,” Vardia said with a gentleness that surprised her. Wuju looked over at Brazil, standing facing the wall, unmoving, stoic, alone. She started to tremble. “I can’t face it alone!” she wailed weakly.
“You’re not alone,” Vardia repeated, squeezing her hand tighter. Elkinos Skander watched the two women with interest. So the robots have retained a little humanity after all, he thought with satisfaction. But it’s buried so deep within them that it took the Well World to bring any of it out. And for what? Things weren’t working out quite the way he had planned at all, but except for the Slelcronian and, perhaps, that Northerner, it was all right, particularly if the robots like Vardia could feel. Surely they wouldn’t object to his requests of the Well. He looked over at Ham, motionless in the darkness. “Ham? You awake?” Skander asked softly. “Yes. Who could sleep now?” came the bug’s response. “Ham, tell me. What do you expect to get in there? What do you want of the Well?” Ham was silent for a moment. “Power,” she replied at last “I would make the Baron Azkfru emperor of the Well World, this galaxy, perhaps the universe. But, with this mob, I’ll settle for his being emperor for the longest of time in Akkafan, with such other power left to future effort. My Lord, the baron, can do anything except fight this machine.” Skander raised his mermaid’s eyebrows in surprise. “But what do you get out of it?” “I shall be the baron’s queen,” Hain replied excitedly. “I shall be at his throne, second only to him in power. I shall bear the broods that will rule for eternity, the product of Azkfru and myself! The workers, even the nobles, shall defer to me and my wishes, and envy me, and my subjects will sing my praises!” Hain paused, carried away by her own vision. “I was born in a run-down shack in a hole called Gorind on Aphrodite,” she continued. “I was unwanted, sickly. My mother beat me, finally cast me out into the mud and dust when she saw I’d never be a miner. I was nine. I went into the city, living off the garbage, stealing to make do, sleeping in cold back doorways. I
grew up grubbing, but in the shadow of the rich, the mineowners, the shippers from whom I stole. One day, when I was fifteen or so, I raped and killed a girl. She struggled, called me namestried to scratch me, like my mother. They caught me, and I was about to be psyched into a good programmed worker when this man came to see me in my cell. He said he had need of people like me. If I agreed to serve him and his bosses, he would get me out.” “And you accepted, of course,” Skander put in. “Oh, yes. I went into a new world. I found that the rich whom I’d envied dreamed of greater riches, and that power came not from obeying the law but from not getting caught. I rose in the organization. I ate well, grew fat, ordered people around. I havehad my own estate on a private world of the bosses. Staffed all by women, young women, held to me by sponge. Many were slaves; others I had reduced to animals. They roam naked in the forest on the estate, living in trees, eating the swill I put out for them like barnyard animals.” Skander had an eerie feeling in his stomach, yet he followed Ham’s statements with morbid fascination. “But that’s gone now,” Skander said as calmly as he could manage. “Not gone,” Ham replied, agitated. “I will be mother now.” There was nothing Skander could say. Pity was for what Hain was or could have been, not what the creature was now. “What do you want out of all this, Skander?” Hain asked suddenly. “Why all this trouble, all this effort? What do you want to do?” “I want to restore humanity to itself,” Skander replied fiercely. “I want to get rid of the genetic engineers, the philosophers of political sameness on the Comworlds. I want to turn us around, Hain! I want to make people human again, even if I have to destroy civilization to save mankind. We’re becoming a race of robots, Hain. We wipe out the robots or we abdicate the universe to other races. The Markovians died of stagnation, Hain, and so will we unless ifs stopped!” Hain had never liked fanatics, saviors, and Vision-312
aries, but there was nothing else to do but talk. “Tell me, Skander. Would you go back? If you could, I mean. Suppose you get your wish. Would you go back or stay here?” “I think I could end my days here if I got what I want,” Skander replied honestly. “I like this place the diversity, the challenges. I haven’t had time to en-joy being Umiau. But, then, I’d like to see what our little race would be if my plan were fulfilled. I don’t know, Hain. Would you go back?” “Only as the Queen Mother of the Akkafians,” Hain responded without hesitation. “At the side of my be-loved Lord Azkfru. Only to rule would I return, Skander. For nothing less.” Ortega slithered over to them. He had small pistols in his hands, and he put one next to Skander and the other in front of Hain. “Pistols for all,” he said lightly. “Nice little energy jobs. They will work in there, like in any high-tech hex. They’ll work on everybody except me. A dandy little circuit prevents that.” Skander reached over, picked up the pistol, felt it. Suddenly the Umiau scientist looked into Ortega’s wide brown eyes. “You expect us to kill each other, don’t you?” he said softly. “You. expect all hell to break out after we get to the Well and learn how it operates. And then you’ll finish off the winner.” Ortega shrugged, and smiled. “Up to you,” he replied calmly. “You can compromise with me, or with each other, or do as you say and shoot. But I will be in at the payoff no matter what.” He slithered away to distribute guns to the others, chuckling softly. “That bastard,” Hain commented. “He hasn’t seen what The Diviner and The Rel can do, has he? Won-der what sort of defense he has for that?” “I think he knows,” Skander responded. “That’s one slick pirate there. He’s counting on us to take care of the Northerner. And, damn his eyes, we have to! We have to, or that blinking little son of a bitch will zap all of us!” “Just be thankful that snake did get transported to
the Well World,” Ham said flatly. “Otherwise, he’d be running the whole damned galaxy by now.” Vamett came over to Brazil, who was still standing facing the Equatorial Barrier. “Brazil?” he said softly. “You awake?” Nathan Brazil turned slowly, looking at Vamett. “Oh, yes, I’m awake,” Brazil told him. “I was Just thinking. I’ve enjoyed this escapade, you know. Enjoyed it a great deal. Now it’s over, ended. And it ends like all the other episodes in my life. So I have to pick up and keep on once again.” Varnett was puzzled. “I don’t understand you at all, Brazil. You’re in the pilot’s seat. You alone know what’s in thereyou do know, don’t you? You have a girl who loves you, and a future. What’s eating you?” Brazil shook his head slowly. “I have DO future, Varnett,” he replied. “This part of the great play is over. I already know the ending, and I don’t like it. I’m trapped, Varnett. Cursed. This diversion helped, but not much, because it brought back too much pain and longing as well. And as for Wuju she doesn’t love me, Vamett. She has a deep need to be loved. She loves a symbol, something that Nathan Brazil did to and for her, something in the way he reacted to her. But she wants of me what I can’t give her. She wants her dream of normality.” He shifted, stretching his legs out in front of him. He continued to face not the others, but the barrier. “I’m not normal, Vamett,” he said sadly. “I can give her what she wants, needs, deserves. I can do it for all of you. But I can’t participate, you see. That’s the curse.” “Sounds like grandiose self-pity to me,” Vamett said derisively. “Why not take what you want if you can do all that?” Brazil sighed. “You’ll know soon enough. I want you just to remember this, Vamett. I want you to keep it in your head throughout all that happens. Inside, I’m no different from the rest of you.” “What would you want, if you could have anything at all?” Vamett asked him, still bewildered.
Brazil looked at the other seriously, sadly. There was agony and torment within him. “I want to die, boy. I want to dieand I can’t. Not ever. Not at all. And I want death so very much.” Varnett shook his head uncomprehendingly. “I can’t figure you, Brazil. I just can’t figure you.” “What do you want, Vamett?” Brazil asked sharply, changing tone. “What would you wish for yourself?” “I’ve thought a lot about that,” the other replied. “I’m only fifteen years old, Brazil. Just fifteen. My world has always been dehumanized people and cold mathematics, I’m the oldest fifteen of my race, now, though. I think, perhaps, I’d like to enjoy life, enjoy a hitman lifeand somehow make my contribution to progress. To stop this headlong rush of the human race into a Markovian hell and try to build the society they hoped would evolve from their tens of thousands of cultures and races. There’s a greatness here in the Markovian Well, a potential unrealized, perhaps, but great nonetheless. I’d like to see it reached, to complete the equation the Markovians couldn’t.” “So would I, boy,” Brazil replied earnestly. “For only then could I die.” “Seven hours!” Ortega’s voice broke through the stillness. “It’s almost time!” His voice cracked with excitement Brazil turned slowly to face them. They were all scrambling to be near the barrier. “Don’t worry,” he assured them. “It’ll open for me. A light will go on. When that light comes on, walk into the barrier. When you do, it’ll be as nothing. Only / will change, but be ready for it. And understand something elseI will lead. I have no weapons, but the Well will give me a form unfamiliar to you-Don’t be upset by it, and don’t get trigger-happy with each other. Once we’re all inside, I’ll take you down to the Well of Souls, and I’ll explain everything along the way. Don’t do anything hasty, because I’m the only one who can get you down with certainty, and I’ll not forgive any breaches. Clear?” “Big talk, Nate,” Ortega said confidently, but there was an unease in his manner. “But we’ll go along if you do.”
“I gave you my word. Serge,” Brazil said. ‘Til keep it.” “Look!” the Slelcronian cried. “The light’s gone on!” In back of Brazil a section of the floor corresponding to The Avenue was lit into the Equatorial Barrier. “Let’s go,” Brazil said calmly, and turned and stepped into the barrier. The others, tension on their faces, followed him-Suddenly Skander cried out, “I was right! I was right all along!” and pointed ahead. The others looked in the indicated direction. There were several gasps. Wuju stifled a small scream. The Well had changed Nathan Brazil, just as he had warned. Midnight at the Well of Souls THE CREATURE STOOD AT THE END OF THE AVENUE, where it passed through a meter-high barrier and stopped. It looked like a great human heart, two and a half meters tall, pink and purple, with countless blood vessels running through it, both reddish and bluish in color. At the irregular top was a ring of cilia, colored an off-white, waving aboutthousands of them, like tiny snakes, each about fifty centimeters long. From the midsection of the pulpy, undulating mass came six evenly spaced tentacles, each broad and powerful-looking, covered with thousands of tiny suckers. The tentacles were a sickly blue, the suckers a grainy yel-low. An ichor of some sort seemed to ooze from the central mass, although it was thick and seemed to be reabsorbed by the skin as fast as produced, creating an irregular, filmy coating. And it stankthe odor of foul carrion after days in
the sun. It stung their nostrils, making them slightly sick. Skander began babbling excitedly, then turned to them. “See, Vamett?” he said. “See what I told you? Six evenly spaced tentacles, about three meters tall! That’s a Markovian!” All traces of animosity were gone; this was the professor lecturing his student, in pride at the vindication of his theories. “So you really was a Markovian, Nate,” Ortega said wonderingly. “Well, I’ll be damned.” “Nathan”* Wuju called out. “Is thatthat thing really you?” “It is,” Brazil’s voice came, but not as speech. It formed in each of their brains, in their own languages. Even The Diviner received it directly, rather than through The Rel. Skander was like a child with a new toy. “Of course! Of course!” he chortled. “Telepathy, naturally. Probably the rest, too.” “This is a Markovian body,” Brazil’s voice came to them, “but I am not a Markovian. The Well knows me, though, and, since all lived as new races outside, it was only natural that we be converted to the Markovian form when entering the Well. It saved design problems.” Wuju stepped out ahead of them, drawing close to the creature. “Wu Julee!” Hain shouted insanely. “You are mine!” The long, sticky tongue darted out to her, wrapped itself around her. She screamed. Ortega spun quickly toward the bug, pistols in two hands. “Now, now, none of that, Hain1” he cautioned carefully. “Let the girl go.” He pointed the pistols at the Akkafian’s eyes. Hain hesitated a second, deciding what to do. Finally the tongue uncoiled from Wu Julee, and she dropped about thirty centimeters to the floor, landing hard. Raw, nasty-looking welts, like those made by rope burn, showed on her skin. The creature that was Nathan Brazil walked over on its six tentacles, until it loomed over her. One tentacle reached out, gently touched her wound. The smell
was overwhelming. She shrank from the probe, fear on her face. The heartlike mass tilted a little on its axis. “Form doesn’t matter,” it mocked her voice. “It’s what’s inside that counts.” Then it said in Brazil’s old voice: “What if I were a monster, Wuju? What then?” Wuju broke into sobs. “Please, Nathan! Please don’t hurt mel” she pleaded. “No more, pleasel II just can’t!” “Does it hurt?” he asked gently, and she managed to nod affirmatively, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Then trust me some more, Wuju,” Brazil’s voice came again, still gentle. “No matter what Shut your eyes. I’ll make the hurt go away.” She buried her head in her hands, still crying. The Markovian reached out with a tentacle, and rubbed lightly against the angry-looking welt on her back and sides. She cringed, but otherwise stayed still. The thing felt clammy and horrid, yet they all watched as the tentacle, lightly drawn across the wound, caused the wound to vanish. As the pain vanished, she relaxed. “Lie flat on your back, Wuju,” Brazil instructed, and she did, eyes still shut. The same treatment was given to her chest and sides, and there was suddenly no sign of any welt or wound. Brazil withdrew a couple of meters from her. There was no evident front or back to him, nor any apparent eyes, nose, or mouth. Although the pulpy mass in the center was pulsating and slightly irregular, it had no clear-cut directionality. “Hey, that’s fantastic, Nate!” Ortega exclaimed. “Shall we go to the Well?” Brazil asked them. “It is time to finish this drama.” “I’m not sure I like this at all,” Ham commented hesitantly. “Too late to back out now, you asshole,” Skander snapped. “You didn’t get where you were without guts. Play it out.” “If you’ll follow me,” Brazil said, “and get on the walkway here; we can talk as we ride, and probably panic the border hexes at the same time.” They all stepped onto the walkway on the other side
of the meter-tall barrier. The Avenue’s strange light went out, and another light went on on both sides of the walkway, illuminating about half a kilometer to their left. “The lights will come on where we are, and go out where we aren’t.” Brazil explained. “It’s automatic. Slelcronian, you’ll find the light adequate for you despite its apparent lack of intensity. You can get rid of that heat lamp. Just throw it over the barrier there. It will be disposed of by the automatic machinery in about fourteen hours.” The Markovian’s tentacle near the forward part of the walkway struck the side sharply, and the walkway started to move. “You are now on the walkway to the Well Access Gate,” he explained. “When the Markovians built this world, it was necessary, of course, for the technicians to get in and out. They were full shiftsone full rota-tion on, one off. Every day from dozens to thousands of Markovian technicians would ride this walkway to the control center and to other critical areas inside the planet. In those days, of course. The Avenue would stay open as long as necessary. It was shortened to the small interval in the last days before the last Markovian went native for good, to allow the border hexes some development and to keep out those who had sec-ond thoughts. At the end, only the three dozen project coordinators came, and then irregularly, just to check on things. As any technician was finally cleared out of the Well, the key to The Avenue doors was removed from his mind, so he could not get back in if he wanted to.” They moved on in eerie silence, lighted sections suddenly popping on in front of them, out in back of them, as they traveled. The walkway itself seemed to glow radiantly; no light source was visible. “Some of you know the story of this place already,” Brazil continued. “The race you call the Markovians rose as did all other species, developed, and finally discovered the primal energy nature of the universe that there was nothing but this primal energy, extending outward in all directions, and that all constructs within it, we included, are established by rules and laws of nature that are not fixed Just because they are
there, but are instead imposed. Nothing equals anything, really; the equal sign is strictly for the imposed structure of the universe. Rather, everything is relative to everything else.” “But once the Markovians discovered the mathematical constructs governing stability, why didn’t they change them?” Skander asked. “Why keep the rules?” “They didn’t dare try to tackle the master equations, those governing physical properties and natural laws,” Brazil replied. “They could alter things a little, but common sense should tell you that in order to change the master equation you first have to eliminate the old one. If you do that, what happens to you and the rest of the universe? They didn’t dareso they imposed new, smaller equations on localized areas of the preexisting universe.” “Not gods, then,” Vardia said quietly. “Demigods.” “People,” Brazil responded. “Not gods at all. People. Oh, I know that this form I’ve got is quite different than you’d think, but it’s no more monstrous or unusual than some of the creatures of this world, and less than some. The many billions of beings who wore bodies like this were a proud race of ordinary people with one finger on the controls. They argued, they debated, strove, built, discoveredjust like all of us. Were their physical forms closer to the ones we’re familiar with, you would possibly even like them. Remember, they achieved godhood not by natural processes, but by technological advancement. It was as if one of our races, in present form, suddenly discovered the key to wish fulfillment. Would we be ready for it? I wonder.” “Why did they die, Brazil?” Skander asked. “Why did they commit suicide?” “Because they were not ready,” Brazil replied sadly. “They had conquered all material want, all disease, even death itself. But they had not conquered then-selves. They reveled in hedonism, each an island unto itself. Anything they wanted, they just had to wish for. “And they found that wasn’t enough. Something was missing. Utopia wasn’t fulfillment, it was stagnation. And that was the curseknowing that the ultimate was attainable, but not knowing what it was or how to