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


should take a shower before dinner. No, he decided, I had one only five days ago; I’ll just use deodorant. He picked up the book he had been reading off and on, a blood-and-guts romance on some faraway planet published centuries ago and produced in fac-simile for him by a surprised and gratified librarian. He called librarians his secret agents because he was one of the very few who read books at all. Librar-ies were usually single institutions on planets and were patronized by only a very few. Nobody wrote books anymore, he thought, not even this garbage. They dredged up whatever information they needed for reference from the computer terminal in every household; even then the vast majority were the vocal types that answered questions. Only the technocrats needed to read. Only barbarians and wanderers read anymore. And librarians. Everybody else could just flip a switch and get a full, three-dimensional, sight-sound-and-smell creation of their own fantasies or those of a crew of dedicated fantasists picked by the government. Pretty dull shit, he thought. Even the people were bred without imaginations. The imaginative ones were fixed—or gotten rid of. Too dangerous to have a thinker unless he thought the government’s way. Brazil wondered idly whether any of his passengers could read. The Pig probably—his name for Datham Hain, who looked very much like one—but he probably only read up on the stuff he sold or some mundane crap like that. Maybe a manual on how to strangle people twenty ways, he thought. Hain looked as if he’d enjoy that. The girl with him was harder to figure. Like Hain, she obviously wasn’t from the communal factory worlds—she was mature, maybe twenty or so, and, if she didn’t look so wasted away, she might be pretty. Not built, or beautiful, but nice. But she had that empty look in her eyes, and was so damned servile to the fat man. Wu Julee, the manifest said her name was. Julie Wu? mused a corner of his brain. There it was again! Damn! He tried to grab onto the source of the thought, but it vanished.


But she does look Chinese, said that little comer, and then the thought retreated once again. Chinese. That word meant something once. He knew it did. Where did those terms come from? And why couldn’t he remember where they came from? Hell, almost everybody had those characteristics these days, he thought. Then, suddenly, the thought was out of his mind, as such thoughts always were, and he was back on his main track. The third one—almost the usual, he reflected, ex-cept that he never drew the usual, permanently twelve-year-old automaton on his trips. They were all raised and conditioned to look alike, think alike, and believe that theirs was the best of all possible worlds. No rea-son to travel. But Vardia Dipio 1261 was the same underneath, anyway: looked twelve, was flat-chested, probably neutered, since there was some pelvic width. She was a courier between her world and the next bunch of robots down the line. Spent all her time doing exercises. A tiny bell sounded telling him that dinner was served, and he got up and ambled back to the wardroom. The wardroom—nobody knew why it was called that—merely consisted of a large table that was permanently attached to the floor and a series of chairs that were part of the floor until you pulled up on a little ring, whereupon they arose and became comfortable seats. The place was otherwise a milky white plastic—walls, floor, ceiling, even tabletop. The monotony was broken only by small plaques giving the ship’s name, construction data, ownership, and by his and the ship’s commissions from the Confederacy as well as by his master’s license-He entered, half expecting no one to be there, and was surprised to see the two women already seated. The fat man was up, intently reading his master’s license. Hain was dressed in a light blue toga that made him look like Nero; Wu Julee was dressed in similar fashion, but it looked better on her-The Comworlder, Vardia, wore a simple, one-piece black robe. He noted


idly that Wu Julee seemed to be in a trance, staring straight ahead. Hain completed reading the wall plaques, then returned to his seat next to Wu Julee, a frown forming on his corpulent face. “What’s so odd about my license?” Brazil asked curiously. “That form,” Hain replied in a silky-smooth, disquieting voice. “It is so old! No such form has been used in my memory.” The captain nodded and smiled, pushing a button under his chair. The food compartments opened up on top and plates of steaming food were revealed in front of each person. A large bottle and four glasses rose from a circular opening in the middle of the table. “I got it a long time ago,” he told them conversationally, as he chose a glass and poured some nonal-coholic wine into it. “You have been in rejuve then. Captain?” Hain responded politely. Brazil nodded. “Many times. Freighter captains are known for it.” “But it costs—unless one is influential with the Council,” Hain noted. “True,” Brazil acknowledged, talking as he chewed his synthetic meat. “But we’re well paid, in port only a few days every few weeks, and most of us just put our salaries into escrow to pay for what we need. Nothing much else to blow it on these days.” “But the date!” Vardia broke in. “It’s so very, -very old! Citizen Hain said it was three hundred and sixty-two standard years!” Brazil shrugged. “Not very unusual. Another captain on this same line is over five hundred.” “Yes, that’s true,” Hain said. “But the license is stamped Third Renewal—P.C. How old are you, any-way?” Brazil shrugged again. “I truthfully don’t know. As old as the records, anyway. The brain has a finite capacity, so every rejuve erases a little more of the past. I get snatches of things—old memories, old terms —from time to time, but nothing I can hang on to. I


could be six hundred—or six thousand, though I doubt it.” “You’ve never inquired?” Hain asked curiously. “No,” Brazil managed, his mouth full of mush. He swallowed, then took another long drink of wine. “Lousy stuff,’* he snorted, holding the glass up and looking at it as if it were full of disease cultures. Suddenly he remembered he was in the middle of a conversation. “Actually,” he told them, “I’ve been curious as to all that, but the records just sort of fade out. I’ve out-lived too many bureaucracies. Well, I’ve always lived for now and the future, anyway.” Hain had already finished his meal, and patted his ample stomach. “I’m due for my first rejuve in another year or two. I’m almost ninety, and I’m afraid I’ve abused myself terribly these past few years.” As the small talk continued, Brazil’s gaze kept falling to the girl who sat so strangely by Ham. She seemed to be paying not the least attention to the conversation and had hardly touched her food. “Well,” Brazil said, suppressing his curiosity about the strange girl, “my career is on that wall and Citizen Vardia’s is obvious, but what takes you flitting around the solar systems, Hain?” “I am—well, a salesman. Captain,’ the fat man replied. “All of the planets are somewhat unique in the excesses they produce. What is surplus on one is usually needed on another—like the grain you have as cargo on this fine ship. I’m a man who arranges such trades.” Brazil made his move. “What about you. Citizen Wu Julee? Are you his secretary?” The girl looked suddenly confused. That’s real fear in her eyes, Brazil noted to himself, surprised. She turned immediately to Hain, a look of pleading in her face. “My—ah, niece. Captain, is very shy and quiet,‘ Hain said smoothly. “She prefers to remain in the background. You do prefer to remain in the background, don’t you, my dear?” She answered in a voice that almost cracked from


disuse, in a thin voice that held no more tonal inflection than Vardia’s. “I do prefer to remain in the background,” she said dully, like a machine. A recording machine at that— for there seemed no comprehension in that face. “Sorry!” Brazil told her apologetically, turning palms up in a gesture of resignation. Funny, he thought to himself. The one who looks like a robot is conversational and mildly inquisitive; the one who looks like a real girl is a robot. He thought of two girls he had known long ago—he could even remember their names. One was a really sexy knockout—you panted just being in the same room with her. The other was ugly, flat, and extremely mannish in manner, voice, and dress—the sort of nondescript nobody looked at twice. But the sexy one liked other girls best, and the mannish one was heaven in bed. You can’t tell by looks, he reflected sourly. Vardia broke the silence. She was, after all, bred to the diplomatic service. “I think it is fascinating you are so old. Captain,” she said pleasantly. “Perhaps you are the oldest man’ alive. My race, of course, has no rejuve—it is not needed.” No, of course not, Brazil thought sadly. They lived their eighty years as juvenile specialist components in the anthill of their society, then calmly showed up at the local Death Factory to be made into fertilizer. Anthill? he thought curiously. Now what in hell were ants? Aloud, he replied, “Well, old or not I can’t say, but it doesn’t do anybody much good unless you’ve got a job like mine. I don’t know why I keep on liv-ing—just something bred into me, I guess.” Vardia brightened. That was something she could understand. “I wonder what sort of world would require such a survival imperative?” she mused, proving to everyone else that she didn’t understand at all. Brazil let it pass. “A long-dead-and-gone one, I think,” he said dryly. “I think we shall go back to our rooms. Captain,” Hain put in, getting up and stretching. “To tell the


truth, the only thing more exhausting than doing something is doing nothing at all.” Julee rose almost at the same instant as the fat man, and they left together. Vardia said, “I suppose I shall go back as well, Captain, but I would like the chance to talk to you again and, perhaps, to see the bridge.” “Feel free,” he responded warmly. <1! eat here every mealtime and company is always welcome. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll eat and talk and then I’ll show you how the ship runs.” “I shall look forward to it,” she replied, and there even seemed a bit of warmth in her flat voice—or, at least, sincerity. He wondered how genuine it was, and how much was the inbred diplomatic traits. It was the sort of comment that was guaranteed to please him. He wondered if he would ever know what went on in those insect minds. Well, he told himself, in actual fact it didn’t make a damned bit of difference—he would show her around the ship and she would seem to enjoy it any-way. When he was alone in the wardroom, he looked over at the empty dishes. Hain had polished off everything, as expected, and so had Vardia and he— the meals were individually prepared for preference and body build. Julee’s meal was almost untouched. She had merely played with the food. No wonder she’s wasting away, he thought. Physically, anyway. But why mentally? She certainly wasn’t Hain’s niece, no matter what he said, and he doubted if she was an employee, either. Then, what? He pushed the disposal button and lowered the chairs back to their floor position, then returned to the bridge. Freighter captains were the law in space, of course. They had to be. As such, ships of all lines had certain safeguards unique to each captain, and some gim-micks common to all but known only to those captains. Brazil sat back down in his command chair and looked at the projection screen still showing the virtually unchanging starscape. It looked very realistic, and


very impressive, but it was a phony—the scene was a computer simulation; the Balla-Drubbik drive which allowed faster-than-iight travel was extradimensional in nature. There was simply nothing outside the ship’s energy well that would relate to any human terms. He reached over and typed on the computer keyboard: “I SUSPECT ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES. SHOW CAB-INS 6 ON LEFT AND 7 ON RIGHT SCREEN.” The computer lit a small yellow light to show that the instructions had been received and the proper code for the captain registered; then the simulated starfield was replaced with overhead, side-by-side views of the two cabins. The fact that cameras were hidden in all cabins and could be monitored by captains was a closely guarded secret, though several people had already had knowledge of the accidentally discovered bugs erased from their minds by the Confederacy. Yet, many a madman and hijacker had been trapped by these methods, and Brazil also knew that the Confederation Port Authority would look at the recordings of what he was seeing live and question him as to motive. This wasn’t something done lightly. Cabin 6—Hain’s cabin—was empty, but the missing passenger was in Wu Julee’s Cabin 7. A less-experienced, less-jaded man would have been repulsed at the scene. Hain was standing near the closed and bolted door, stark naked. Wu Julee, a look of terror on her face, was also naked. Brazil turned up the volume. “Come on, Julee,” Hain commanded, a tone of delightful expectancy in his harsh voice. There was no question as to what he had in mind. The girl cowed back in horror. “Please! .Please, Master!” she pleaded with all the hysterical emotion she had hidden in public. “When you do it, Julee,” Hain said in a hushed but still excited tone. “Only then.” She did what he asked. Less-experienced and less-jaded men ‘would have been repulsed at the sight, it was true. Brazil was becoming aroused.


After she finished, Wu Julee continued to plead with the fat man to give it to her. Brazil waited expectantly, half-knowing what it was already. He just had to see where it was hidden and how it was protected. Hain promised her he would go get it and then donned the toga once more. He unbolted the door and appeared to look up and down the hallway. Satisfied, he walked out to his own cabin and unlocked the door. The unseen watcher turned his gaze to Cabin 6. Hain entered and took a small, thin attache case from beneath the washbasin. It had the high-security locks, Brazil noted—five small squares programmed to receive five of Hain’s ten fingerprints in a certain order. Hain’s body blocked reading the combination, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway—without Hain’s touch the whole inside would dissolve in a quick acid bath. Hain opened the case to reveal a tray of jewelry and body paint. Normal enough, and the tray seemed deep enough to fill the whole case. No customs problems. Working a second set of fingerprint-coded combinations through the thin plastic which hid the additional guards, the tray came loose and appeared to be floating on something else. The fat man lifted the tray out. For the first time Brazil noticed that Hain had on some thin gloves. He hadn’t seen them being put on— maybe they were already on during the scene he had just witnessed—but there they were. The fat man reached in and picked out a tiny ob-ject that almost dripped with liquid. The rest of the case bottom, Brazil could see, was filled with the stuff. His suspicions were confirmed. Datham Hain was a sponge merchant. The contraband was called sponge because that was what the stuff was—an alien sponge spawned on a distant sea world now interdicted by the Confederacy. The story came back to Brazil. A nice planet, mostly ocean but dotted with millions of islands con—


nected in a network of shallows. A tropical climate except at the poles. It looked like a paradise, and tests had shown nothing that could hurt the human race. A test colony—two, three hundred people—was landed on the two largest islands for the five-year trial, as per standard procedure. Volunteers, of course, the last remnant of frontiersmen in the human race-If they survived and prospered, they owned the world—to develop it or do with it what they would. But because man’s test instruments could analyze only the known and the theoretical, there was no way to detect a threat so alien it hadn’t even been imagined. That was the reason for the trial in the first place. So those people had settled in and lived and loved and played and built on their islands. For almost a month. That was when they started to go mad, the peo-ple of that colony. They regressed—slowly, at first, then increasingly faster and faster. They turned into primitive beasts as the thing that had caught them ate away at their brains. They became like wild apes, only without even the most rudimentary reasoning ability. Finally they died, from their inability to cope with even the basics of eating and shelter. Most drowned; some killed one another. And out of their bodies, eventually, grew the pretty flowers of the island, in new profusion. Scientists speculated that some sort of elemental organism—based not on carbon or silicon, but on the iron oxides in the rocks of their pretty island—inter-acted through the air not with them but with the synthetic food rations they brought to help them until they could develop their own native agriculture. And they had eaten it, and it had eaten them. But there had been one survivor—one woman who had hidden in the huge beds of alien sponge along a particularly rocky shoreline. Oh, she had died, too— but almost three weeks later than the others. When she no longer returned each evening to sleep in the sponge bed. The natural secretions of the sponge acted as a retardant—not as an antidote. But as long as a victim had a daily intake of the secretion, the mutant strain


seemed inactive. Remove the substance—and the degenerative process began once again. But scientists had taken some samples of the mutant strain and of living sponge with them to study in their labs on far-off worlds. All of it was thought to have been destroyed afterward—but evidently some had not been. Some had been taken by the worst of elements and was developed in their own labs in unknown space. The perfect commodity. By secretly introducing the stuff into people’s food, you gave them the disease. Then, when the first symptoms came and baffled all around you, the merchant would come. He would ease the pain and cause normality by giving you a little bit of sponge—as Hain was administering a dose to Wu Julee at that very moment. The Confederacy wouldn’t help you. It maintained a sponge colony on that interdicted world for the af-flicted, where one could live a normal, if very primitive, existence and soak each night in a sponge bath. If, that is, the victim could be gotten there before the disease became too progressive to bother. The sponge merchants chose only the most wealthy and powerful—or their children, if their world had families of any sort. There was no charge for the daily sponge supply, oh, no. You just did as they asked when they asked. There was even the suspicion that so many rulers of the Confederacy were hostage to the stuff now that that was the reason no real search for an antidote or cure had ever been started. For power was the ultimate aim of the sponge merchants. Nathan Brazil wondered who Wu Julee was. The daughter of some big-shot ruler or banker or indus-trialist? Maybe the child of the Confederacy enforcement chief? More likely she was a sample, he thought. No use risking exposure. She was his absolute slave, no question. The disease had been allowed to incubate in her just short of that critical point when the stuff multiplied exponentially. Human, yes, but probably already with her IQ halved,


constantly in mild pain that started to grow as the effects of the sponge antitoxin wore off. An effective demonstration, which would keep the merchant from having to infect some innocent and let things run their full course. That was done, of course, when necessary—but it wasn’t good to have a long period of time when it would be obvious to the agents of the Confederacy that a sponge merchant was at large. He wondered idly why the girl didn’t commit suicide. He thought he would. A victim is probably too far gone to consider it by the time he realizes it is the only option, he decided. Brazil looked back up at the screens, Hain had repacked the case and stored it and was preparing to go to sleep. Clever, that case, the captain thought. Sponge is extremely compressible and needs only enough seawater to keep it moist. It even grew in there, he thought. As samples were dispensed, new ones would replace it. That was the reason only the minimum was ever given to a victim—get hold of enough of it, unused, and you could grow your own. Wu Julee was lying on her own bed, one leg draped down on the side. She was breathing hard but she had a sort of idiot’s smile on her face. Relief for another day, the little sponge cube swallowed, the body breaking down the evidence. Nathan Brazil’s stomach finally turned. What were you, Wu Julee, before Datham Hain served dinner? he mused. A student or scholar, or a professional, like Vardia? A spoiled brat? A young maiden, perhaps one day expecting to bear children? Gone now, he thought sadly. The recordings would nail Datham Hain clean—and the syndicate of sponge merchants would let him hang, too. Most he had ever heard of were compulsive suiciders when subjected to any psych probes or the like. They would get nothing from him but his life. But Wu Julee—without sponge, she needed eighteen days from where they would be at absolute flank speed to make that damned planet colony, and she was already near or at the exponential reproductive stage. She would arrive a mindless vegetable, unable to


do anything not in the autonomic nervous system, having spent most of the voyage as an animal. A day or two after that, it would eat her nervous system away and she would die. So they wouldn’t bother. They’d just send her to the nearest Death Factory to get something useful out of her. They said Nathan Brazil was a hard man: experienced, efficient, and cold as ice, never a feeling for anything but himself. But Nathan Brazil cried at tragedy, alone, in the dark, on the bridge of his powerful ship. Neither Hain nor Wu Julee came to dinner again, although he saw the fat man often and kept up the pretense of innocent friendship. The sponge merchant could actually be quite entertaining, sitting back in the lounge over a couple of warm drinks and telling stories of his youth. He even played a fair game of cards. Vardia, of course, never joined in the games and stories—they were things beyond her conception. She kept asking why they played card games since the only practical purpose of games was to develop a physical or mental skill. The concept of gambling, of playing for money, meant even less to her—her people didn’t use the stuff, and only printed it for interplanetary trade. The government provided everyone with everything they needed equally, so why try to get more? Brazil found her logic, as usual, baffling. All his life he had been compulsively competitive. He was firmly convinced of his uniqueness in the universe and his general superiority to it, although he was occasionally bothered by the universe’s lack of appreciation. But she remained inquisitive and continued asking all those questions two cultures could never answer for each other. “You promised days ago to show me the bridge,” she reminded him one day. “So I did,” he acknowledged. “Well, now’s as good a time as any. Why don’t we go all the way forward?”


They made their way from the aft lounge, along the great catwalk above the cargo. “I don’t mean to pry,” he said to her as they walked along, “but, out of curiosity, is your mission of vital importance?” “You mean war or peace, something like that?” Vardia responded. “No, very few are like that. The truth is, as you may know, I have no knowledge of the messages I carry. They are blocked and only the key from our embassy on Coriolanus can unlock whatever I’m supposed to say. Then the information will be erased, and I will be sent home, with or without a message in return. But, from the tone or facial expressions of those who give me the messages, I can usually tell if it’s serious, and this one certainly is not.” “Possibly something to do with the cargo,” Brazil speculated as they entered the wardroom and walked through it this time and out onto another, shorter catwalk. The great engines which maintained the real-universe field of force around them throbbed below. “Do you know how bad things are on Coriolanus?” She shrugged. “Not too bad, I understand. No widespread famine yet. That will happen months from now, when the harvest doesn’t come in because the rains didn’t come last season and the ground is too hard-Then this cargo will be needed. Why do you ask?” “Oh, just curious, I guess,” he responded, an odd and slightly strained tone in his voice. They entered the bridge. Vardia was immediately all over it, like an anxious schoolchild. “What’s this?” and “How’s that work?” and all the other questions poured from her. He answered as best he could. She marveled over the computer. “I have never seen one that you must write to and read,” she told him with the awe reserved for genuine historical antiques. He decided not to respond that people these days were too mechanical for him so he couldn’t bear to have a real mechanical person around, but instead he replied, “Well, it’s what you get used to-This one’s just as modern and efficient as any


other; I tried it on and can handle it easier. Although I have little to do, in an emergency I have to make thousands of split-second decisions-It’s better to use what you can use instinctively in such a situation.” She accepted his explanation, which was partially the truth, and noticed his small library of paperback books with their lurid covers. He asked her if she knew how to read and she said no, whatever for? Certain professions on her world required the ability to read, of course, but very few—and if that wasn’t required, as it certainly wasn’t for her job as a reel of blank recording tape, she could see no reason to learn. He wondered if somewhere they simply had a single Vardia Dipio program, and they read it out, erased the whole thing, then rerecorded it for each trip. Probably, he decided—otherwise, she would have seen bridges before and encountered enough alien culture not to ask those naive questions. Most likely she was just new. It was tough to tell if her kind was fourteen or forty-four. At any rate, he was glad she couldn’t read. He had suffered a very unsettling moment when she had gone over to that computer and he had noticed that he had forgotten to turn off the screen. The computer had been spewing its usual every-half-hour warning to him. UNAUTHORIZED COURSE CORRECTION, it said. THIS IS NOT A JUSTIFIED ACTION. COURSE IS BEING PLOTTED AND WILL BE BROADCAST TO CONFEDERACY AS SOON AS DESTINATION IS REACHED. And she wondered why he didn’t have the talking kind of computer. And so they continued on the new course, all but Brazil and the computer oblivious to their real destination. A stroke of genius, he congratulated himself after Vardia had left-The courier’s answers had eased his conscience on Coriolanus. They would get their grain —just late. In the meantime, Hain would continue to give Wu Julee the sponge, until that day came when they arrived over the sponge world itself. There he would lose two passengers—Wu Julee would have


life, and Ham would be introduced to the colony as a pusher. Brazil didn’t think any Admiralty Board in the galaxy would convict him; besides, he already had the largest number of verbal and written reprimands in the service. Vardia, though, would never understand his reasoning. A loud, hollow-sounding gong brought him out of his satisfied reverie. It reverberated throughout the ship. Brazil jumped up and looked at the computer screen. DISTRESS SIGNAL FIELD INTERCEPTED, it read. AWAIT INSTRUCTIONS. Seeing what the message was, he first flipped off the gong then flipped on the intercom. His three passengers were all concerned, naturally. “Don’t be alarmed,” he told them. “It’s just a distress field. A ship or some small colony is having problems and needs help. I will have to answer the call, so we’ll be delayed a bit. Just sit tight and I’ll keep you informed.” With that he turned to the computer, giving it the go-ahead to plot the coordinates of the signal. He didn’t like the idea at all—the signal had to be com-ing from a place far off his approved course. That invited premature discovery. Nonetheless, he could never ignore such a signal. Similar ones had saved him too many times, and the odds of anybody else intercepting it were more astronomical than bis own odds at happening on it. The ship’s engines moaned, then the throbbing that was a part of his existence subsided to a dull sound as the energy field around the ship merged into normal space. The two screens suddenly came on with the. real, not the fake, galaxy—and a planet. A big one, he noted. Rocky and reddish in the feeble light of a dwarf star. He asked the computer for coordinates. Its screens were blank for a long time, then it replied, DALGONIA, STAR ARACHNIS, DEAD WORLD, MARKOVIAN ORIGIN, NO OTHER INFORMATION. UNINHABITED, it added need—


lessly. It was plain that nothing he knew could live here. PLOT DISTRESS COORDINATES AND MAGNIFY WHEN DONE, he ordered, and the computer searched the bleak panorama, quadrant by quadrant. Finally it stopped on one area and put it under intense magnification. The picture was grainy, snowy as hell, but the scene clearly showed a small camp. Something just didn’t look right. Brazil parked the ship in a synchronous orbit and prepared to go down and see what was wrong. But first, he flipped on the intercom again. “I’m afraid I’ll have to seal you aft,” he told his passengers. “I have to check out something down on the planet. If I don’t return within eight standard hours, the ship will automatically pull out and take you to Coriolanus at top speed, so you needn’t be worried.” “Can I come with you?” Vardia’s voice came back at him. He chuckled. “No, sorry, regulations and all that. You’ll be in contact with me through this intercom all the time, so you’ll know what’s going on.” He suited up, reflecting that he hadn’t been in one of the things in years. Then he entered the small bay below the engine well through a hatch from the bridge and entered the little landing craft. Within five minutes, he was away. The ship’s computer took him to the spot by radio link, and he was at the scene in under an hour. He raised the canopy—the little craft had no air or pressurization of its own—and climbed down the side, striking the ground. The lighter gravity made him feel ten feet tall. The ship, of course, was kept at one gee for everybody’s convenience. He needed only a couple of minutes to survey the scene and to report his findings back to the ship’s recorders as the passengers anxiously followed his every word. “It’s a base camp,” he told them, “like the kind used for scientific expeditions. Tent-type units, modular, pretty modern—seem to have exploded somehow. All of them.” He knew that was


impossible—and he knew they knew—but those were the facts all the same. He was just wondering aloud as to what could have caused such a thing when he noticed the piled-up pressure suits near what would have been the exit lock. He went over to them and picked one up, curiously. “The suits are outside the area—empty. As if somebody threw them there. The explosion or whatever couldn’t have done it—not without some dam-age. Wait a minute, let me get over to the area of the dorms.” Vardia listened with growing fascination, and frustration that she could see none of it, nor ask questions. “Yuk,” came Brazil’s voice over the intercom. “Pretty messy death. They died when the vacuum hit, if the explosion didn’t get them. Hmmm… . Seven. I can’t figure it out. The place is a mess but the explosion didn’t really do more than rip the tents to shreds. But that was enough.” He moved over to another area that caught his eye. “Funny,” he said, “looks like somebody’s done a job on the power plant. Well, here’s what did it, anyway. Somebody jacked up the oxygen to pure and shut off the rest of the air. Just takes a spark after that. Worries me, though. There are two dozen safeguards against that sort of thing. Somebody had to do it deliberately.” The words sent a chill through all three passengers listening breathlessly to his account. Even Wu Julee seemed caught up in the drama. “Well, I just counted the beds,” Brazil told them, his voice keeping calm but tinged with the concern he felt. “A dorm room for five, another one with three, and a single—probably the project chiefs. Bod-ies in all but the chiefs and one of the fivesome. Hmmm… . There were seven pressure suits. Should have been nine.” They heard him breathing and moving around, but he was infuriatingly silent for the longest period. Finally he said, “Two flyers are gone, so the miss—


ing ones must be somewhere else on the planet. Ifs a sure bet that one of them, at least, killed the oth-ers.” Again the long silence, punctuated only with breathing sounds. All aboard the freighter were holding their breaths. It took no imagination at all to figure out that one, maybe two, madmen were loose on that planet—and Brazil was alone. “Now here’s the strangest part,” the captain reported at last. They strained for every word, cursing him for his maddening conversational tone. “I’ve got-ten to the rescue signal. It’s about a kilometer from the camp, on a low ridge. But it isn’t turned on.” It was almost two hours more before Nathan Brazil was back aboard the ship. He didn’t get out of his suit, although he left the helmet on his chair while he checked the computer. It assured him once again that it was indeed receiving a distress signal from the beacon below. Only Brazil knew that it wasn’t. It just wasn’t possible. He unlocked the aft compartment and made his way back to the passengers, all of whom were seated in the lounge. “So what do you make of it, Captain?” Hain asked seriously. “Well,” replied the other hesitantly, “I’m about to start believing in ghosts. That signal isn’t on. To make sure, I disabled it completely before coming back. But it’s still coming in loud and strong up here.” “There must be another signal,” Vardia suggested logically. “No, there isn’t. Not only is one the standard issue —and everything else there is standard issue—but a computer that can plot a course in deep space through the underdimensions and get you to a particular port on a particular planet in the middle of nowhere doesn’t screw up in plotting the coordinates of a distress signal.” “Let’s proceed on what we do know, then,” Hain suggested. “We know that there is a signal—no, no,


let me finish!’* he protested as Brazil was about to cut in. “As I said, there is a signal. It was set or sent by someone who, presumably, is one or both of the peo-ple who survived the—ah, disaster. Someone—or something—wants us to come down, wanted us to find the wrecked station, wants something.” “A malevolent alien civilization, Hain?” Brazil retorted skeptically. “Come on. We’ve got—what?—a

thousand, give or take, solar systems explored to date, with more every year. We’ve found remains of the Markovians—one of their cities is near the camp, probably what the group was investigating—and lots and lots of animal and plant life. But no living, present-day alien civilizations.” “But we’ve done only a trifie!” Hain protested. “There are a billion billion stars around. You know the odds.” “But not here, inside our perimeter,” the captain pointed out. “But, he is right, you know,” Vardia interjected. “Perhaps someone—or something—discovered us.” “No,” Brazil told them, “it’s not that. There is some simple explanation. What happened down there was cold-blooded human murder by one of the team. For what madness, I can’t guess. They can’t get off the planet with what they’ve got. If they don’t starve to death first, their pickup ship will get them.” “You mean you aren’t going to try to find them?” Vardia asked. “But you must! Otherwise some other ship might answer them and the killers might be able to overpower them before they are forewarned!” “Oh, the odds against anyone else hearing that sig-nal are astronomical,” Brazil replied patiently. “I assure you,” Hain said flatly, “that the last thing I wish to do is stalk a murderer on an unknown world. Nevertheless, Citizen Vardia is correct. If we found them, someone else might.” Brazil’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Can you handle a pistol?” he asked the fat man. “Can you?” he asked Vardia. “I can,” Hain replied evenly, “and have.” “That is left to the military caste,” Vardia replied, “but I am an expert with the sword, and I have a


ceremonial one with me. It will puncture a pressure suit.” Brazil almost laughed. “A sword? You?” She ran to her room and came back with a gleaming, handsome blade that glittered as if it were made of the finest silver. “It builds quick reflexes and good muscles,” she explained. “Also, for some reason the sword is traditional in our service.” Brazil’s face grew serious again. “And what about Wu Julee?” he asked, not of her but of Hain. “She goes where I go,” Hain replied cautiously. “And she will, in a pinch, help protect us with her life.” I’ll bet, Brazil thought sourly. You, anyway. There was never any problem of pressure suits; they expanded or contracted to fit almost any known hu-man wearer, although Hain’s did give him a little problem. Each of them had worn one before, at least in the practice drill before the ship left port. They were extremely light, and, once the helmet had been set into place and the seal activated, a person hardly knew he had it on. Air was recirculated and refined through two small, light filters on the side of the helmet. The supply would last for almost a day. In an emergency situation, the lifeboat could recharge the air supply for fifteen people for a month, so there was plenty of air to spare. Brazil led them first to the distress beacon, if only to prove to himself that he was correct. They examined it carefully, and agreed that there was no way it could be sending. But the little lifeboat monitor connection to the mother ship still said it was. So they climbed back in and sped northward, the mystery so pressing on them that they barely noted the Markovian ruins near the camp and along the route. The ship’s computer had located the two missing shuttlecraft on a plain near the north pole, and that seemed the next likely place to investigate. If anyone was left alive, he would be there. “Why do you think they are up there?” Vardia asked Brazil.

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L