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


attain it. They studied the problem and came up with no solutions. Finally, the best amplified Markovian minds concluded that, somewhere in their development, they’d lost something—the true fulfillment of the dream. The social equation did not balance, because it lacked some basic component. One plus two plus three equals six, but if you don’t have the plus two in there, it can’t possibly reach more than four. “Finally, they came to the conclusion that they were at a dead end, and would stagnate in an eternal orgy of hedonism unless something was done. The solution seemed simple: start over, try to regain the missing factor, or rediscover it, by starting from the beginning again. They used a variety of races and conditions to restart, none Markovian, on the idea that any repetition of the Markovian cycle would only end up the same.’* “And so they built this world,” Vamett put in. “Yes, they built this world. A giant Markovian brain, placed around a young but planetless sun. The brain is the planet, of course, everything but the crust. Gravity was no problem, nor was atmosphere. They created an outer shell, about a hundred kilometers above the surface. The hexagons are all compartments, their elements held in all directions by fields of force.” “So it was built to convert the Markovians to new forms?” Skander asked. “Double duty, really,” Brazil told them. “The finest artisans of the Markovian race were called in. They made proposals for biospheres, trying to outdo one another in creativity. The ones that looked workable were built, and volunteers went through the Zone Gate and became the newly designed creatures in the newly designed environments-Several generations were needed for even a moderate test—the Markovians didn’t mind. A thousand years was nothing to them. You see, they could build, pioneer-style, but they were still Markovians. A lot of generations bom in the biome and of the new race were needed to establish a culture and show how things would go. Their numbers were kept relatively stable, and the fields of force were much more rigid then than now. They had to live in their hex, without any real contact with other hexes. They had to build their own worlds.”


They were riding down now, at a deceptively steep angle. Down into the bowels of the planet itself. “But why didn’t the first generation establish a high civilization?” Varnett asked. “After all, they were just like us, changed outside only.” “You overestimate people from a highly technological culture. We take things for granted. We know how to turn on a light, but not why the light comes on. None of us could build most of our artifacts, and most civilized races become dependent on them. Suddenly dumped in a virgin wilderness, as they all were, they had no stores, no factories, no access to anything they didn’t make themselves out of what was available. A great many died from hardship alone. The tough ones, the survivors, they built their own societies, and their children’s societies. They worked with purpose—if the test failed, then they died out. If they succeeded— well, there was the promise that the successful ones would someday go to the Well of Souls at midnight, and there be taken to a new world, to found a new civilization, to grow, develop, perhaps become the progenitors of a future race of gods who would be fulfilled. Each hoped to be the ones whose descendants would make it.” “And you were here when that happened,” Wuju said nervously. “I was,” he acknowledged. “I assisted the creator of Hex Forty-one—One Eighty-seven, the hundred and eighty-seventh and last race developed in that hex. I didn’t create it, simply monitored and helped out. We stole ideas from each other all the time, of course. Dominant species in one hex might be a modified pattern of animals in another. Our own race was a direct steal from some large apes in another hex. The designer liked them so much that not only did the dominant race turn out to be apes, but they were almost endlessly varied as animals.” “Hold on, Brazil,” Skander said. “These others might not know much about things, but I’m an archaeologist. Old Earth developed over a few billion years, slowly evolving.” “Not exactly,” Brazil replied. “First of afl, time was altered in each case. The time frame for the develop-322

ment of our sector was speeded up. The original de-sign produced the life we expected, but it developed differently—as giant reptiles, eventually. When it was clear that it wouldn’t do to have our people coexist with them, a slight change in the axial tilt caused the dinosaurs to die out, but it placed different stresses on other organisms. Minor mammals developed, and to these, over a period of time, we added ours to replace the ones logically developing in the evolutionary scale. When conditions seemed suitable for us, when apelike creatures survived, we began the exodus. Soon the temperate zones had their first intelligent life. Again, with all the resources but nothing else-They did well, astonishingly so, but the long-term effects of the axial tilt produced diastrophism and a great ice age within a few centuries. Our present, slow climb has been the product of the extremely primitive survivors of those disasters. So, in fact, has it been with all your home worlds.” “Is there a world, then, or a network of worlds of the Akkafians?” Hain asked. “There was,” Brazil replied. “Perhaps there is. Perhaps it’s larger and greater and more advanced than ours. The same with the Umiau, the Czill, the Slelcronians, the Dillians, and others. When we get to the Well itself, I’ll be able to tell you at least which ones are still functioning, although not how, or if they’ve changed, or what. I would think that some of the older ones would be well advanced by now. My memory says there were probably close to a million races created and scattered about; I’ll be curious to see how many are still around.” They had been going down for some time. Now they were deep below the surface, how deep they couldn’t say. Suddenly a great hexagon outlined in light ap” peared just under them. “The Well Access Gate,” Brazil told them. “One of six. It can take you to lots of places within the Well, but it’ll take you to the central control area and monitoring stations if you have no other instructions-When we get to it, just step on it. I won’t trigger it until everyone is aboard. In case somebody else does, by


accident, just wait for the light to come back on and step on again. It’ll work.” They did as instructed, and when all were on the Gate, all light suddenly winked out. There followed a twisting, unsettling feeling like falling. Then, suddenly, there was light all over. They stood in a huge chamber, perhaps a kilometer in diameter. It was semicircular, the ceiling curving up over them almost the same distance as it was across. Corridors, hundreds of them, led off in all directions. The Gate was in the center of the dome, and Brazil quickly stepped off, followed by the others, who looked around in awe and anticipation. The texture of the place was strange. It seemed to be made up of tiny hexagonal shapes of polished white mica, reflecting the light and glittering like millions of jewels. After they stepped off the Gate, Brazil stopped and pointed a tentacle back over it. Suspended by force fields, about midway between the Gate and the apex of the dome, was a huge model of the Well World, turning slowly. It had a terminator, and darkness on half of its face, and seemed to be made of the same mica-like compound as the great hall. But the hexagons on the model were much larger, and there were solid areas at the poles, and a black band around its middle. The sphere seemed to be covered by a thin transparent shell composed of segments which exactly conformed to the hexagons below. “That’s what the Well World looks like from space,” Brazil told them. “It’s an exact model, fifteen hundred sixty hexagons, the Zones—everything. Note the slight differences in reflected light from each hex. That’s Markovian writing—and they are numbers. This is more than a model, really. It’s a separate Markovian brain, containing the master equation for stabilizing all of the new worlds. It energizes the Well, and permits the big brain around us to do its job.” “Where are the controls, Nate?” Ortega prodded. “Each biome—that is, planetary biome—has its own set of controls,” Brazil told him. “This place is honeycombed with them. Each hex on the Well World is controlled as a complement to the actual world. Most


controls, of course, do not have corresponding hexes. What we’re left with today are the last few hexes created and some of the failures—not necessarily the ones that died out, but the ones that didn’t work out. The Faerie, for example. Some of them snuck into the last batch of transits, and several of the others who were leftovers from closed and filled projects, some Dillians, some Umiau, and the like, who wanted to get out of the Well World and thought they could help, came, too. Not many, and they were disrupted by civilization’s rises and falls, and became the objects of superstition, fear, hatred. None survived the distance on Old Earth, but we didn’t get many to begin with, and reproduction was slow. But, come, let’s go to a control center.” He walked toward one of the corridors on his six tentacles, and they followed hesitantly. All of them held their pistols tightly, at the ready. They walked for what seemed an endless time down one of the corridors, passing closed hexagonal doors along the way. Finally Brazil stopped in front of one, and it opened, much as the lens of a camera opens. He walked in, and they followed quickly, anxious not to lose sight of him even for a moment. The room lit up as they approached. It was made of the same stuff as the great hall and the corridors. There were, however, walls of obvious controls, switches, levers, buttons, and the like, and what looked like a large black screen directly ahead of them. None of the instruments held any sort of clue as to what they were, or had anything familiar about them. “Well, here it is, and it’s still active,” Brazil announced. “Let me see,” he murmured, and went over to a panel. Their faces showed sudden tension and fear, and all of the pistols were raised, trained on him. The Diviner’s blinking lights started going very, very fast. “Don’t touch nothin’, Nate!” Ortega warned. “Just checking something here,” Brazil responded, unconcerned. “Yes, I see. In this room is the preset for a civilization that has now expanded. It’s interstellar, but not pangalactic. Population a little over one and a quarter trillion.”


“If it’s a high-tech civilization, then it is not ours,” the Slelcronian said with some relief. “Not necessarily,” Brazil replied. “The tech levels here on the Well World were not imposed on the outside at all. They were dictated by the problems you might find in your own world. A high-tech world had abundant and easily accessible resources, a low-tech much less so. Since the home world had to develop logically and mathematically according to the master rules of nature, some worlds were better endowed than others. By making the trial hex here a low-tech, no-tech, or the like, we simply were compensating for the degree of difficulty in establishing technological civilization on the home world, not preventing it. We made them develop alternatives, to live without technology so they’d be better prepared on their home worlds. Some did extremely well. Most of the magic you find here is not Well magic, but actual mental powers developed by the hexes to compensate for low-tech status. What they could use here, they could use there.” “The Diviner says you are truthful,” The Rel commented, one of the first things the Northerner had said since they set out. “The Diviner states that you were responsible for its prophecy that we would be here.” “In a way, yes,” Brazil replied. “When I went through the Zone Gate, the Markovian brain recognized me as a native of Hex Forty-one and sent me there. However, in its analysis, it also found what I, myself, didn’t know—that I had an original Markovian brain-wave pattern. It then assumed that I was here to give it further instructions or to do work. When it concluded this. The Diviner, extremely sensitive to such things, picked up the message, however garbled.” He paused, and that central mass tilted toward them a lit-tle. “And now,” he said, sadness in his voice, “here we are, in the control center, and you’ve all got fear on your faces and your guns trained on me.” Even you, Wu Julee, he thought, immeasurable sadness coarsing through him. Even you “I tried to give mankind rules for living which would avert a second disaster like the first, would keep it from


self-destruction. Nobody listened. Nobody changed. Type Forty-one was badly flawed—and it beat the odds anyway, this time. It made its way to the stars, and that was an outlet for its aggression, although, even there, even now. its component parts are looking at ways to dominate one another, kill one another, rule one another. And the drive for domination is there even in the nonhumans, you. Northerner, and you, Slelcronian. Look at you all now. Look at yourselves! Look at each other! Do you see it? Can you feel it? Fear, greed, horror, ambition burning within you, consuming you! The only reason you haven’t killed one another by now is your common fear of me. How dare you condemn a Ham, a Skander—a society? How dare you? “How many of you are thinking of the people these controls represent? Do you fear for them? Do you care about them? You don’t want to save them, better their lives. That fear is inside you, fear for your own selves! The basic flaw in the set-up equation, that burning, basic selfishness. None of you cares for any but yourself! Look at you! Look at what monsters you’ve all become!’* Their hearts pounded, nerve ends frayed. The Diviner and The Rel were the first to respond. “What about yourself, Nathan Brazil?” The Rel chimed- “Isn’t the flaw in us simply a reflection of the flaws in yourself, in your own people, the Markovians, who could not give us what we lack because they did not themselves possess it?” Brazil’s reply was calm, in contrast to his previous outburst. “The Markovians wanted to live in this universe, not run it. They had already done that. Destiny was a random factor they believed necessary to the survival of us all. That’s why they closed down the Well None of us would be here except for a freak set of circumstances.” “Where are the controls, Nate?” Ortega asked. “We’ll find them ourselves,” Ham snapped. “Vamett cracked the big code, he should be able to crack this one, too.” Brazil’s voice held deep sorrow. “Pride is a weak-y>n ness of all things Markovian, and you’re a reflection of it. Now, if you’ll ease up and allow me one touch on the panel in back, I’ll show you the controls. I’ll tell you how to operate them. Let’s see what happens then.” Ortega nodded, pistols at the ready. Brazil reached out with a tentacle and touched a small panel behind him, The large black screen went on—but it wasn’t exactly a screen. It was a great tunnel, an oval stretching back as far as the eye could see. And it was covered with countless tiny black spots, trillions of them at the best guess. And between all the various black spots shot frantic electrical bolts in a frenzy of activity, trillions of blinking hairline arcs jumping from one little black area to another. “There’s your controls,” Brazil said disgustedly. “To change the ratios, all you have to do is alter the current flow between any two or more control spots.” He looked at them, and there was the deepest fear and horror on their faces. They’re afraid of me, he thought. All of them are in mortal fear of me! Oh, my God! Wuju who loved me, Vamett who risked his life for me, Vardia who trusted me—all afraid. I haven’t harmed them. I haven’t even threatened them. I couldn’t if I wanted to. How can they ever understand our common source, our common bond? he thought in anguish. We love, we hate, we laugh, we cry, live— that I am no different from themselves, only older. But they did not understand, he realized. I am God to the primitives, the civilized man of great power at a point where knowledge is power, surrounded by the savages. That’s why I’m alone, he understood. That’s why I’m always alone. They fear what they can’t understand or control. “One control panel,” he said softly. “One only. What are a few trillion lives? There is their past, their present, their potential future. All yours. Maybe their equation is the basis for one or more of you in this room. Maybe not. It’s somebody’s. Maybe it’s yours. Okay, anybody, who wants to touch the first and second control spots, change the flow? Step right up! Now’s your chance to play God!”


Vamett walked carefully over to the opening, breathing hard, sweat pouring from his body. “Go on,” Brazil urged. “Do your stuff! You might cancel out somebody, maybe a few trillion somebodies. You’ll certainly alter someone’s equation in some way, make two and two equal three in somebody’s corner. Maybe none of us will be here. Maybe none of us will ever have been here. Go on! Who cares about all those people, anyway?’* Vamett stood there, mouth open, looking like a very frightened fifteen-year-old boy, nothing more. “I—I can’t,” be almost sobbed. “How about you, Skander? This is where you wanted to be. And you, Hain?” His voice rose to a high, excited pitch. “Diviner? Can you divine this one? Vardia? Serge? Wuju? Slelcronian? Any of you?” “In the name of God, Brazil!” Skander screamed. “Stop it! You know we don’t dare do anything as long as we don’t understand the panel’s operation!” “He’s bluffingi” Ham snarled. “I’ll take the chance.” “No!” Wuju screamed, and swung her gun around on the great bug. “You can’t!” “I’ll even show you how.” Brazil said calmly, and took a step. “Nate! Stay away from there!” Ortega warned. “You can be killed, you know!” Brazil stopped, and the pulsating mass bent toward Ortega slightly. “No, Serge, I can’t. That’s the problem, you see. I told you I wasn’t a Markovian, but none of you listened. I came here because you might damage the panel, do harm to some race of people I might not even know. I knew you couldn’t use this place, but all of you are quite mad now, and one or more of you might destroy, might take the chance, as Hain just showed. But none of you, in your madness, has thought to ask the real question, the one unanswered question in the puzzle. Who stabilized the Markovian equation, the basic one for the universe?” There was a pumping sound, like that of a great heart, its thump, thump, thump permeating them. Their own hearts seemed to have stopped, all frozen in an eerie tableau. Only the thumping seemed real.


**I was formed out of the random primal energy of the cosmos,” Brazil’s voice came to them. “After countless billions of years I achieved self-awareness. I was the universe, and everything in it In the aeons I started experimenting, playing with the random forces around me. I formed matter and other types of energy. I created time, and space. But soon I tired of even those toys. I formed the galaxies, the stars, and planets. An idea, and they were, as congealed primal energy exploded and flung transmuted material outward from its center, “I watched things grow, and form, according to the rules I set up. And yet, I tired of these, also. So I created the Markovians and watched them develop according to my plan. Yet, even then, the solution was not satisfactory, for they knew and feared me, and their equation was too perfect. I knew their total developmental line. So I changed it. I placed a random factor in the Markovian equation and then withdrew from direct contact. “They grew, they developed, they evolved, they changed. They forgot me and spread outward on their own. But since they were spiritually reflections of myseif, they contained my loneliness. I couldn’t join with them as I was, for they would hold me in awe and fear. They, on the other hand, had forgotten me, and as they rose materially they died spiritually. They failed to grow to my equal, to end my loneliness. Their pride would not admit such a being as myself to fellowship, nor could their own fear and selfishness allow fellowship even with each other. “So I decided to become one of them. I fashioned a Markovian shell, and entered it. I knew the flesh, its joys and its pains. I tried to teach them what was wrong, to tell them to face their inner fears, to rid themselves of the disease, to look not to a material heaven but within themselves for the answers. They ignored me. “And yet the potential was there. It is still there. Wuju’s response to kindness and caring. Varnett’s self-sacrifice. Vardia’s need for others. Other examples abound, not just about us, but about all our people. The one who sacrifices his life to save others. The com-330

passion there, sometimes almost buried by the over-lying depravity. It peers through—isolated, perhaps, but it is there. And as long as it is there, I shall continue. I shall work and hope for the day when some race seizes that spark and builds on it, for only then will I no longer be alone.” They said nothing for several seconds. Then, quietly, Ortega responded, “I’m not sure I believe all this. I’ve been a Catholic all my life, but somehow God to me has never been a little spunky Jew named Nathan Brazil. But, assuming what you say is true—which I don’t necessarily accept—why haven’t you scrapped everything and started again? And why continue to live our grubby little lives?” “As long as that spark is present, I’ll let things run, Serge,” Brazil replied. “That random factor I talked about. Only when it’s gone will I go, give up, maybe try again—maybe, finally die. I’d like to die, Serge—but if I do I take everything with me. Not just you, everybody and everything, for I stabilize the universal equation. And you are all my children, and I care. I can’t do it as long as that spark remains, for as long as it remains you are not only the worst, but the best of me.” The thump, thump, thump continued, the only sound in the room. “I don’t think you’re God, Nate,” Ortega replied evenly. “I think you’re crazy. Anybody would be, liv-ing this long. I think you’re a Markovian throwback, crazy after a billion years of being cut off from your own kind. If you was God, why don’t you just wave your tentacles or something and get what you want? Why all this journey, and pain, and torment?” “Varnett?” Brazil called. “You want to explain it mathematically?” “I’m not sure I don’t agree with Ortega,” Vamett replied carefully. “Not that it makes much difference from a practical point of view. However, I see what you’re driving at. It’s the same dilemma we face at that control board, there. “Let’s say we let Skander do what he wants, abolish the Comworlds,” the boy continued. “Let’s say Brazil,

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here, shows him exactly how to do it, just what to press and in what sequence and in what order. But the Corn concept and the Comworlds developed according to the normal human flow of social evolution, right or wrong. They are caused by countless past historical events, conditions, ideas. You can’t just banish them; you’ve got to change the equation so that they never developed. You have to change the whole human equation, all the past events that led to their formation. The new line you created would be a completely different construct, things as they would be without any of the crucial points that created the Corns. Maybe it was an outlet Maybe, bad as it was, it was the only outlet. Maybe man would have destroyed himself if just one of those factors wasn’t there. Maybe what we’d have is something worse.** “Exactly,” Brazil agreed. “For anything major you have to change the past, the whole structure. Nothing just vanishes. Nothing just appears. We are the sum of our past, good as well as bad.” “So what do we do?” wailed Skander. “What can we do?” “A few things can be done,” Brazil replied calmly. “You—most of you—sought power. Well, this is power!” With that the Markovian moved toward the control panel. “My God! He’s going in there!” Skander screamed. “Shoot, you fools!” The Umiau fired its pistol at the Markovian. In a second, the others followed, pouring a concentrated energy pulse into the mass sufficient to disintegrate a building. The Markovian creature stopped, but seemed to ab-sorb the energy. They poured it into him, all of them* even Wuju, with great accuracy. He was still there. The Diviner’s lights blinked rapidly, and searing bolts shot out, striking the Markovian body. There was a glow, surrounding the creature in stark outline, and then it faded. Brazil was still there. They stopped firing. “I told you you couldn’t hurt me,” Brazil said. “None of you can hurt me.”


“Bullshit!” Ortega spat. “Your body was torn to ribbons in Murithel! Why wasn’t this one?” “Of course! Of course!” Skander exclaimed excitedly. “This body is a direct construct of the Markovian brain, you fools! The brain won’t allow it to be harmed, since it’s really part of the brain itself!” “Quite so,” Brazil responded. “Nor, in fact, do I have to go in there at all. I can instruct the brain from right here. I’ve been able to do that since we first entered the Well itself. I merely wanted to give you a demonstration.” “It would seem that we are at your mercy, Markovian,” The Rel said. “What is your intention?” *‘I can affect things for anyplace from here,” Brazil told them. “I merely feed the data into the brain through this control room, and that’s that. It’s true there’s a control room for each type, but they are all-purpose, in case of problems, overcrowding when we built the place, and so on. Any control room can be switched to any pattern.” “But you said—” Ortega started to protest. “In the words of Serge Ortega,” Brazil replied, a hint of amusement in his voice, “I lied.” Wuju broke from them and ran up to him, and prostrated herself in front of him, trembling. “Please! Please don’t hurt us,” she pleaded. There was infinite compassion in his voice. “I’m not going to hurt you, Wuju. I’m the same Nathan Brazil you knew from the start of this mess. I haven’t changed, except physically. I’ve done nothing to you, nothing to deserve this. You know I wouldn’t hurt you. I couldn’t.” The tone changed to one not of bitterness, but of deep hurt and agony, mixed with the loneliness of unimaginable lifetimes. “/ didn’t shoot at you, Wuju,” it said. She started crying; deep, uncontrollable sobs wracked her. “Oh, my god, Nathan! I’m so sorry! I failed you! Instead of trust, I gave you fear! Oh, god! I’m so ashamed! I just want to die!” she wailed. Vardia came over to her, tried to comfort her. She pushed the girl away. “I hope you’re satisfied!” Vardia spat at him. “I hope


you’re pleased with yourself! Do anything you want to me for saying this, but don’t torture her anymore!” Brazil sighed. “No one can torture someone like that,” he replied gently. “Like me, you can only torture yourself. Welcome to the broader human race, Vardia. You showed compassion, disregard for yourself, concern for another. That would have been un-thinkable in the old Vardia. If none of you can still understand, I intend to do something for you, not to you. For the most part, anyway.” He angled to address all of them. “You’re not perfect, none of you. Perfection is the object of the experiment, not the component Don’t torture yourself, run away from your fears. Face theml Stand up to theml Fight them with goodness, mercy, charity, compassion! Lick theml” “We are the sum of our ancestral and actual past,” The Rel reminded him. “What you ask may indeed be possible, but the well of fate has accented our flaws. Is it reasonable to expect us to live by such rules, when we find it difficult even to comprehend them?” “You can only try,” Brazil told it. “There is a greatness in that, too.” The thump, thump, thump continued. “What is that noise?” Onega asked, ever the practical man. “The Well circuits are open to the brain,” Brazil replied. “It’s awaiting instructions.” “And what will those instructions be?” Vamett asked nervously. “I must make some repairs and adjustments to the brain,” Brazil explained. “A few slight things, so that no one can accidentally discover the keying equation again. I’m not sure I’d like to go through this exercise again—and, if I did, there’s no guarantee that some new person might not take that chance, damage the structure, do irreparable harm to trillions who never had a chance. But, just in case, the Well Access Gate will be reset to respond only to me. Also more of an insurance factor has to be added, to summon me if things go wrong.” Skander gave an amazed chuckle. “That’s all?” he said, relieved.


“It is most satisfactory to me,” The Rel pronounced. “We were concerned only that nothing be disturbed. For a short while there, we lost sight of that—but we are back in control of ourselves again.” “Very minor adjustments are possible without disturbing anything,” Brazil told them. “I can’t do anything grandiose without upsetting a few things. I will, however, do some minor adjustments. For one thing, I am going to make sure that nothing like the Ambreza gas that reduced Type Forty-one humans on this world to apes will pass again, and I’m going to slap some local controls on technological growth and development, so that such an adjustment won’t be necessary again, not here. “And, because I can’t bear to see them like that, I’m going to introduce a compound to the Type Forty-one atmosphere that will break the gas molecules down into harmless substances, while at the same time I’m going to make it a nontechnological hex absolutely. I don’t know what they’ll come up with, but I’ll bet it’s better than their current lot.” “What about us?” Hain asked. “I will not change what you are inside,” Brazil told them. “If I do that, you will not have lived at all. To do anything otherwise would be to invite paradox, and that might mess up everything. Thus, I have to deal with you as you are.” Brazil seemed to think for a moment, then said, in a voice that sounded as if it came from thunder, “Elkinos Skander! You wanted to save the human race, but, m the process, you became inhuman yourself. When the end justifies any means, you are no better, perhaps worse, than those you despise. There are seven bodies back on Dalgonia. Seven human beings who died trusting you, helping you, who were victims of your own lust for power. I can’t forget them. And, if I alter the time line, bring them back, then all this didn’t happen. I pity you, Skander, for what you are, for what you could have become. My instructions to the brain are justice as a product of the past.” Skander yelled, “It wasn’t me! It was Vamett! I wanted to save the worlds! I wanted—” And suddenly Skander wasn’t there anymore.


“Where did it go?” The Rel asked. *To a world suited for him as he is, in a form suited to justice,” Brazil responded. “He might be happy there, he might find justice. Let him go to his fate.” Brazil paused a moment, then that huge voice came back. “Datham Ham!” it called. “You are the product of a horrible life. Born in contagion, you spread it.” “I never had a chance except the way I took!” Hain shouted defiantly. “You know that!” “Most products of a bad environment turn out worse,” Brazil admitted. “And yet, some of the greatest human beings came out of such miserable lots and conquered them. You didn’t, yet you had the intelligence and potential to do so. Today, you stand as a contagion. I pity you, Hain, and because I pity you I will give you a localized wish.” Hain grew slightly larger, her black color turning to white. She saw it in the fur on her forelegs. “You turned me noble!” she exclaimed, pleased and relieved. “You’re the most beautiful breeder in the kingdom of the Akkafians,” Brazil said. “When I return you to the palace, you won’t be recognized. You’ll be at the start of a breeding cycle. The Baron Azkfru will see you and go mad with desire. You will be his brood queen, and bear his royal young. That is your new destiny, Hain. Satisfied?” “It is all that I could hope for,” Hain replied, and vanished. Wuju looked at Brazil, a furious expression on her face. “You gave that son of a bitch that? How could you reward that—that monster?” “Hain gets the wish, but it’s not a reward, Wuju,” Brazil replied. “You see, they withheld from their newcomer one fact of Akkafian life. Most Marklings are sterile, and they do the work. A few are raised as breeders. A breeder hatches a hundred or more young —but they hatch inside the mother’s body and eat their way out, using the breeder’s body for their food.” Wuju started to say something, then formed a sim-ple, “Ooooh,” as the horror of Ham’s destiny hit her.


“Slelcronian!” Brazil pronounced. ‘*You present me with a problem. I don’t like your little civilization personally, and I don’t like you much, either. I’ve adjusted things slightly, so the Recorders now only work with Slelcronians, not with any sentient plant. But you, personally—you’re a problem. You’re too dangerous to be let loose in the technology of Czill; you know too much. At the same time, you know too much of what is here to go back to Slelcron. It occurs to me, however, that you’ve really not altered the expedition in any significant way. If you had not taken over Vardia, nothing would have changed. Therefore, you didn’t— and, in fact, couldn’t.” Nothing seemed to change, but there was a difference in the Czillian body. “So what are you going to do with me and my sister?” Vardia the Czillian asked. As far as everyone in the room was concerned, except for Brazil, the SIelcroman takeover had never happened. Slelcron was merely the funny place of the flowers and the giant bees, and their passage had been uneventful. Even so, the human Vardia had found her sister the Czillian as cold as the Slelcronian had been. She had gone through the same mental anguish as she had before and felt alienated from her sister. Everything was as it had been before. “Vardia, you are your old self, and no longer your sister,” Brazil pointed out. “I think you’d be happiest returning to Czill, to the Center. You’ve much to contribute, to tell this story the way it happened. They won’t be able to make use of what you say to get in, but it may cause the thinkers there to consider what projects are really worthwhile. Go!” She vanished. Now only Brazil, The Diviner and The Rel, Vamett, Wu Julee, Ortega, and the original Vardia were left. “Diviner and Rel,” Brazil said, “your race intrigues me. Bisexual, two totally different forms which mate into one organism, one of which has the power and the other the sensory input and output. You’re a good peo-ple, with a lot of potential. Perhaps you can carry the message and reach that plateau.” “You’re sending us back, then?” The Rel asked. “No,” Brazil replied. “Not to the hex. Your race is on the verge of expanding outward in its sector. It is near the turning point where questions of goals are asked. I’m sending you to your own people on their world with the message I gave you here. The Diviner’s gift will distinguish you. Perhaps you can turn your people, perhaps not. It’s up to you. Go!” The Diviner and The Rel vanished. “Vamett,” Brazil said, and the boy jerked as if he was shot. “What’s in that little bag of tricks for me, Brazil?” he asked with false bravado. “There are degrees of Comworids, some better than others,” Brazil noted- “Yours isn’t too far gone yet. Even Vardia’s can change. The worst of the lot is Dedalus. It went the genetic engineering route, you know. Everyone looks alike, talks alike, thinks alike. They kept males and females, sort of, but the engineers thought of even that. The people are hermaphroditic —small male genitals atop a vagina below. They breed once, in an exchange, then lose all sexual desires and prowess. Each has one child, which is, of course, identical to the parents, turned over to and raised by the state. It’s a grotesque anthill, but it may represent the future. “They don’t even have names there. Obedience and contentment are engineered into them. Yet, the Central Committee retains power. This small group retains its sexual abilities, and the members are slightly different. The population is programmed to obey any one of those leaders unquestionably. The Committee was a perfect target, and they’re controlled by the sponge syndicate. That sort of genetic engineering is, I fear, what the spongers have in mind for everyone eventually—with themselves on top. “I give you the chance to change things. As the Mumies did with me, I do to you. You will be the Chairman of the Central Committee of Paradise, formerly called Dedalus. You’ll be the new Chairman. The old one just kicked the bucket, and you’re now un-frozen to take command. If you meant what you told me, you can kick the spongers out of their most secure planethold and restore that planet to individual mitia-338

rive. The revolution will be easy—the people will obey unquestionably. Your example and efforts could dissuade others from taking the Dedalus course. It’s up to you. You’re in charge.” “What happens to the new Chairman’s mind?” Varnett asked. “And my body?” “Even swap,” Brazil told him. “The new boy will wake up a bat over in your old hex. He’ll make out. He’s born to command.” “Not that madhouse,” Vamett chuckled. “Okay, I accept.” “Very good,” Brazil told mm. “But, I leave you this out. Should you ever want, any Markovian Gate will open for you—to bring you back here, for good. You’ll be in a new body, so nobody knows what you would wind up as. You’d be here until you died, but you have that option.” Vamett nodded soberly. “Okay. I think I understand,” he said, and vanished. “Serge Ortega,” Brazil sighed. “What in hell am I going to do with an old rascal like you?” “Oh. hell, Nate, what’s the difference?” Ortega responded, and he meant it. “This time you won.” “Are you really happy here, Serge? Or was that just part of the act?” “I’m happy,” the snakeman replied. “Hell, Nate, I was so damned bored back in the old place I was ready to kill myself. It’s gotten too damned civilized, and I was too old to go frontier. I got here, and I’ve had a ball for eighty years. Even though I lost this round, it’s been great fun. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Brazil chuckled. “Okay, Serge.” Ortega vanished. “Where did you send him?” Vardia aeked hesitantly. “Eighty’s about the average life span for a Ulik,” Brazil replied. “Serge didn’t start as an egg, so he’s a very old man. He has a year, five, maybe ten. I wouldn’t put tt past him to beat the system, but why the hell not? Let him go back to living and having f 1ť DO fun. “And so that leaves us,” Wuju said quietly. There was a sudden flicker in the image of the


Markovian, then a sparkling graininess. The shape twirled, changed, and suddenly standing there in front of them was the old, human Nathan Brazil, in the colorful clothes he had first worn on the ship a lifetime ago. “Oh, my god!” Wuju breathed, looking as if she were seeing a ghost. “The God act’s over,” he said, sounding relieved. “You should see who you’re really dealing with.” “Nathan?” Wuju said hesitantly, starting forward. He put up his hand and stopped her, sighing, “No, Wuju. It couldn’t work. Not now. Not after all this. It wouldn’t work anyway. Both of you deserve much better than life’s given you. There are others like you, you know—people who never had the chance to grow, as you did. They can use a little kindness, and a lot of caring. You know the horrors of the sponge, Wuju, and the abuse to which some human beings subject others. And you, Vardia, know the lies that underlie the Corn philosophy. I’ve talked to both of you, observed you both carefully. I’ve fed all this information plus as much data as could be obtained from a readout by the brain while you were in this room. The brain responded with recommendations on what would be best for you. If we’re wrong—the brain and I—after a trial of what I’m going to do, then you both have the same option that is open to Vamett. Just get near a Markovian Gate—you don’t have to jump into it. Just get passage on a ship going near a Markovian world. If you want, the Gate will pluck you out without disturbing the ship, passengers, or crew. You’ll somehow mysteriously vanish. And you’ll wind up in Zone again. Like Varnett, you will have to take potluck with the Zone Gate again. Once here, again, there will be no returning. “But try it my way for a while. And remember what I said about your own contributions. Two people can change a world, if they wish.” “But what—” Wuju started to ask, but was cut off in midsentence. The two bodies didn’t vanish, they just collapsed, like a suit of clothes with the owner gone. They lay there in a heap on the floor.


Brazil went over and carefully rearranged them so they looked as if they were sleeping. “Well, now what, Brazil?” he asked himself, his voice echoing in the empty hall. You go back, and you wait, his mind told him. What about the bodies? he wondered. Somehow he couldn’t just vaporize them. Though their owners were gone, they lived on as empty vegetables. But there was nothing else to do, of course. They were just memories for him now, one a strange mixture of love and anguish. He was prolonging the inevitable. There was a crackle, and the bodies were gone, back to primal energy. “Oh. the hell with it,” said Nathan Brazil, and he, too, vanished. The control room was empty. The Markovian brain noted the fact and then dutifully turned off the lights. On “Earth,” a Planet Circling a Star Near the Outermost Edge of the Galaxy Andromeda ONE MOMENT ELKINOS SKANDER HAD BEEN PERCHED atop Hain’s back, looking at the control room and those in it. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t. He looked around. Things looked funny and distorted. He was color-blind except for a sepia tone that lent itself to everything. He looked around, confused. I’ve gone through another change, he realized. My last one. A rather pleasant-looking place, he thought, once he got used to the distorted vision. Forests over there, some high mountains, odd-looking grass, and strange sort of trees, but that was to be expected. There were a lot of animals around, mostly grazing. They look a lot like deer, he noted, surprised. A few differences, but they would not look out of place on a pastoral human world.

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L