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


“My theory is that the murderer couldn’t trap one of them in the base camp and that that one took a shuttle and flew off. There must have been a chase, and that plain is where they met up,” the captain replied. “We’ll know in a little while, because we’re al-most there.” Being in a lifeboat with a major spatial propulsion unit, Brazil was able to make the long trip by going back up info orbit and braking back down again. Thus, the nine-hour journey was reduced to just a little over ninety minutes. He braked to the slow-est speed he could maintain as they cleared a last mountain range and came upon a broad, flat plain. “There they are!” Vardia almost shouted, and they all looked ahead at the two craft, small silver disks in the twilight, shown prominently at the edge of a slight discoloration in the plain. Brazil circled around the spot several times. “I can see no one,” Hain reported. “Not a sign of life, not a pressure suit, nothing-They may still be in the craft,” he suggested. “Okay,” Brazil replied, “I’ll set down a few hundred meters from them. Hain, you stay back just outside this boat and cover me. The other two of you stay inside. If anything happens to us, the mother ship will reclaim the boat.” There was a soft bump, and they were down on the surface of Dalgonia. Brazil reached into the broad, black belt he wore on the outside of his pressure suit and removed one of two pistols and handed it to Hain. The pistols didn’t look like much, but they could fire short pulses of energy at rates from one per sec-ond to five hundred per second, the latter not doing much for aim but able to spread things enough to knock off a small regiment. There was a stun setting that would paralyze a man for a half hour or more, but both men placed their weapons on full. There were seven ugly bodies far to the south. Brazil eased out of the hatch in the eerie silence of a near vacuum, and, keeping the two shuttlecraft al-ways in view, moved to cover behind the lifeboat. That was a relatively safe haven. Since the boat had


been built to take a tremendous amount of stress and even friction, it would be impervious to any weapons likely to be in the hands of their quarry. Ham emerged shortly after, having more trouble climbing down with his bulk despite the weak gravity. He chose a position Just forward of the nose where he

was mostly sheltered but could still use the edge of the boat to steady his pistol. Brazil, satisfied, moved cautiously forward. He reached the nearest craft in less than two minutes. “No sign of life yet,” he told them. “I’m going to climb up on top and have a look inside.” He mounted the rail-type ladder along the side of the shuttle and walked over to the entry hatch. “Still nothing,” Brazil reported. “I’m going in.” It took only another three minutes to get inside and find nobody home. He then repeated the sequence with the second craft and found it empty too, although this one showed signs that somebody had spent many hours there. “Come on up, anybody,” he called. “There’s no one here, or for many kilometers around. See what you make of it.” Hain told Wu Julee to join him. Vardia climbed out last, and they all went over to the captain, who was standing near the second shuttle and looking anxiously at the ground. Brazil noted with some amusement that Vardia clutched her nice, pretty sword. “Look at the ground here,” he said, pointing to the tracks of a person in a pressure suit coming up to a point at which the dust around was greatly disturbed for a large area. “What do you make of it. Captain?” Hain asked. “Well, it looks as if my theory’s right, anyway. See—the first one was here, then saw the second one land, and he hid out on the back of the shuttle. When the pursuer—the guy who landed second I assume was the murderer—found nobody home, he walked around to here”—Brazil gestured at the mottled dust thrown about—“and was jumped by the first person from on top. They fought here, then one took off across the plain, the other in pursuit. See how we get only the toe tracks coming out of the fight scene?”


Vardia was already following the tracks out onto the plain. Suddenly she stopped short and stared, incredulous, at the ground. “Captain! Everyone! Come here!” she called urgently. They rushed up to her. She was pointing at the ground immediately ahead of her. The fine dust was thinner here, and the rock changed color from a dull orange to more of a gray, but at first they didn’t see what she meant. Brazil went over and stooped down. Then it sank in on him. At the place where one man had stepped, just where the two strains of rock met, there was half a footprint. Not the running type—it was angled, so that a little less than half of a grown man’s footprint, pressure suit pattern and all, was visible in the or-ange. Where it met the gray, there was unbroken dust. “How is it possible. Captain?” Vardia asked, awed for the first time in her life—and not a little scared. “There must be an explanation. It’s a freakish thing—but I’d believe almost anything after all we’ve seen. I’m sure we’ll find their prints continue farther on. Let’s see.” They all walked onto the gray area for some distance. Vardia suddenly looked back to make certain that they were making footprints, and was relieved to see that they were. Suddenly she stopped short. “Captain!” she exclaimed, that toneless voice suddenly tinged with panic and fear. The rest caught it, stopped, and turned. Vardia was pointing back at the ships from which they had come. There were no shuttlecraft. There was no lifeboat. Only a bleak, unbroken orange plain stretching off to the mountains in the distance. “Now what the hell?” Brazil managed, looking all around him to see if they had somehow turned around. They hadn’t. He looked up to see if he could spot anything leaving, but there was nothing but the cold stars as darkness overtook them. “What happened?” Hain asked plaintively. “Did our murderer—” “No, that’s not it,” Brazil cut in quickly, a cold chill


suddenly going through him. “No one person—not even two—could have managed all three craft, and nobody but me could have lifted that lifeboat for another two hours.” There was a sudden vibration, like a small earth-quake, that knocked them all off their feet. Brazil broke his fall and held on in a crouch on his hands and knees. He looked up suddenly. The whole area seemed bathed in eerie flashes of blue-white lightning, thousands of them! “Damn me for an asshead!” Brazil swore. “We’ve been had!” “But by whom?” Vardia called out. Wu Julee screamed. Then there was nothing but darkness and that weird, blue lightning, now laced, it appeared, with golden sparks. They all felt the sensation of falling and turning and twisting in the air, as if they were dropping down some bottomless pit. There was no up, no down, nothing but that dizzy sensation. And Wu Julee kept screaming. Suddenly they were lying on a flat, glassy-smooth black surface. Lights were on around them, and there seemed to be a structure—as if they were in some building, like a great warehouse. Things didn’t stop spinning around for a while. They were dizzy, and sick. All but Brazil threw up into their helmets, which neatly and efficiently cleared the mess away. A professional spaceman, Brazil was the first to recover his equilibrium. Then he steadied himself, half sitting up on the black, glassy floor. It was a room, he saw—no, a great chamber, with six sides. The glassy area was also a hexagon, and around it stretched a railing and what appeared to be a walkway. A single great light, also six-sided, was suspended above them in the curved ceiling. The place was huge, Brazil saw, easily large enough to house a small freighter. The others were there. Vardia, he saw, was already sitting up, but Wu Julee, it appeared, had passed out. Hain just lay on the floor, breathing hard. Brazil struggled to his feet and made his way unsteadily to Wu


Julee. He checked and saw that she was in fact still breathing but unconscious. “Everybody all right?” he called. Vardia nodded and tried to rise. He helped her to her feet, and she managed. Hain groaned, but tried, and was game about it. He finally managed it. “Just about one gee,” Brazil noted. “That’s interesting.” “Now what?” asked Datham Hain. “Looks like some breaks in that railing—the closest one is over there to your right. We might as well make for it.” Taking their silence for assent, he picked up Wu Julee’s limp body and they started off. She weighed hardly anything, he noted, and he wasn’t a particularly strong man. He looked down at her, sorrow in his eyes. What will happen to you now, Wu Juice? But I tried! God! I tried! Her eyes opened, and she looked up into his through the tinted helmet faceplates. Perhaps it was the gentle way he carried her, perhaps it was his expression, perhaps it was just the fact that she saw him and not Hain, but she smiled. She got much heavier about halfway there, he noted, as his body was drained of the adrenalin that had pumped into him during the—fall? Finally he was straining at the weight, although she weighed no more than half what she should. He finally admitted defeat and had to put her down. She didn’t protest, but as they continued to walk she clung tightly to his arm. No matter what, Hain no longer owned her. Steps of what looked like polished stone led up to the break in the rail—six of them, they noted. Finally they were all up on some kind of platform from which a conveyor belt stretched out. But it was not moving in either direction. They all looked to the captain for guidance. For the first time in his life, Nathan Brazil felt the full weight of responsibility. He had gotten them into this—never mind that they had talked him into it, it was his responsibility—and he didn’t have the slightest idea what to do next.


“Well,” he began, “if we stay here we starve to death, or run out of air—or both. We may do so any-way, but we at least ought to see what we’re into. There has to be a doorway out of this place.” “Probably six of them,” Hain said caustically. Brazil stepped out onto one of the conveyors, and it suddenly started moving. The movement was so unexpected that he found himself carried along farther and farther away from the rest before anyone could say anything. “Better get on,” he called back, “or you’ll lose me! I don’t know how to stop this thing!” He was receding farther and farther, when Wu Julee stepped on. The other two immediately did likewise. The speed wasn’t great, but it was faster than a man could walk briskly. A larger, broader platform loomed ahead before Brazil could see it. So he slid off onto it, stumbled, fell down, and rolled halfway across. “Watch out! Platform coming up!” he warned. The others saw the platform and him in time to step off, although each one nearly lost his balance in the attempt. “Apparently you’re supposed to be walking on the belt,” Vardia said. “That way you just walk onto the platform. See? There are actually several belts just before the platform, each one going at a slightly slower speed.” The belt suddenly stopped. “No doorway here,” Hain noted. “Shall we press on?” “I suppose so—whoops!” Brazil exclaimed as he was about to step out. The other belt had started in the reverse direction! “Looks like somebody’s coming to meet us,” Brazil said jokingly, a tone that didn’t match his inner feelings at all. Even so, he pulled and checked his pistol, noting that Hain was doing the same. Vardia, he saw, still held onto that sword. They could see a giant figure coming toward them. and all stepped back to the rear edge of the platform.


As the figure came closer, they could see that it was like nothing in the known universe. Start with a chocolate brown human torso, incredibly broad, and ribbed so that the chest muscles seemed to form squarish plates. A head, oval-shaped, equally brown and hairless except for a huge white walrus mustache under a broad, flat nose. Six arms— in threes, spaced in rows down the torso—extremely muscular but attached, except for the shoulder pair, on ball-type sockets like the claws of a crab. Below, the torso melded into an enormous brown-and- yellow-striped series of scales leading to a huge, serpentine lower half, coiled, but obviously five or more meters in length when outstretched-As the creature approached the platform, it eyed them with large, human-looking orbs punctuated with jet-black pupils. As it reached the edge of the platform, the lower left arm slapped the rail. The belt stopped Just short of the platform. Then, for what seemed like forever, they just stared at each other— these four humans in ghostly white pressure suits and this creature of some incredibly alien spawning. The alien finally pointed to them, then with its top pair of arms made a motion to remove their helmets. When it saw they made no move, it pointed again to them, then did what appeared to be a deep-breathing exercise. “I think it’s trying to tell us we can breathe in here,” Brazil said cautiously. “Sure, he thinks so, but what does he breathe?” Hain pointed out. “No choice,” Brazil replied. “We’re almost out of air anyway. May as well chance it.” “I do,” came the unexpected voice of Wu Julee, and, with that, she unfastened her helmet—not without some trouble, for her coordination was shot. Finally the helmet fell to her feet, and she breathed in. And continued breathing. “Good enough for me,” said Vardia, and she and Brazil did the same. For a short time Hain continued to resist. Then, finally assured that everyone was still breathing, he removed his as well.


The air seemed a bit humid and perhaps a little rich in oxygen—they experienced a slight light-headed- ness that soon passed—but otherwise fine. “Now what?” Hain asked. “Damned if I know,” Brazil replied honestly. “How do you say hello to a giant walrus-snake?” “Well I’ll be goddamned!” exclaimed the walrus-snake in perfect Confederation plain talk, “if it ain’t Nathan Brazil!” Zone (Enter Ghosts) NONE OF THE GROUP COULD HAVE BEEN MORE stunned than Nathan Brazil. “Somehow I knew you’d wind up here,” the creature continued, “Sooner or later just about every old-timer does.” “You know me?” Brazil asked incredulously. The creature laughed. “Sure I do—and you know me, too, unless you’ve had one too many rejuves. I know, had the same problem myself when I dropped through the Well. Let’s just say that people really change around here, and let it go at that. If you’ll follow me, I’ll make you more comfortable and give you some orientation.” With that the creature uncoiled backward, then recoiled at a length about two meters back on the belt. “Step aboard,” it invited. They looked at Brazil. “I don’t think we have much choice,” he told them. Then, noticing Haul’s pistol still drawn and pointed, he said to the fat man: “Put that popgun away until we find out the lay of the land. No use in getting popped yourself.” They stepped onto the belt, which started not when they boarded but only after the rail was given another slap by their alien host. For the first time they could


hear noise—giant blowers, it sounded like, echoing throughout the great hall. The belt itself gave off its own steady electric hum. “Do you—eat what we eat?” Hain called out to the creature. The alien chuckled. “No, not anymore, but, don’t worry, no cannibals around, either. At least, not Type Forty-ones like you-But I think we can round up some food—some real food, maybe the first in everybody’s except Nate’s whole life.” They rode around three belts until they came to a platform much larger than the others. Here the walls curved and twisted away from the Well. Brazil could see why the configuration hadn’t been visible from afar. Then they followed the snakeman—no mean trick, they found, with its enormous serpentine body—down a long corridor. They saw other corridors branching off, but they traveled over a thousand meters before they took one. It led into a very large room set up something like a reception area. Comfortable, human-style chairs with plush cushions abounded, and a plastic wall covering was decorated with flowers. Here, such amenities seemed as incongruous as the alien would seem to their worlds. The creature had a sort of desk, semicircular in shape and seemingly form-fitted for him to coil comfortably behind. It held only a very ordinary-looking pen, a small pad of paper, and a seal—hexagonal of course—seemingly solid gold cast in clear plastic. The seal featured a snake coiled around a great cross, and it had a superscription around the edges in a script unfamiliar to any of them. The snakeman lifted up a small part of his desk top to reveal an instrument panel underneath of unfamiliar design and purpose. A large red button was most prominent, and he pushed it. “Had to reset the Well,” he explained. “Otherwise we could get some nonoxygen breathers in and’ they’d be hung up in storage until somebody remembered to press the button. Let me also punch in a food order for you—you always were a steak-and-baked-potato man, Nate. So that’s what it’ll be.” He punched some


buttons in sequence on the console, then closed it. “Ten or fifteen minutes and the food will be here— and it’ll be cooked right, too. Medium, wasn’t it, Nate?” “You seem to know me better than I do,” Brazil replied. “It’s been so long since I had a steak—maybe almost a century. I’d just about forgotten what one was. Where did you know me, anyway?” A broad yet wistful smile crept across the creature’s face. “Can you remember an old bum named Serge Ortega, Nate? Long ago?” Brazil thought, then suddenly it came to him. “Yeah, sure, I remember him—but that was maybe a hundred years ago or so. A free-lancer—polite name for a pi-rate,” he explained to the others. “A real rascal. Anything for a buck, was wanted almost everywhere— but a hell of a character. But you can’t be him—he was a little guy, from Hispaniola, before they went Corn and changed the place to Peace and Freedom.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” the creature responded sadly. “That means my people are dead. Who was the mold? Brassario?” “Brassario,” Brazil confirmed. “But all this explains nothing!” “Oh, but it does,” the snakeman replied. “Because I am Serge Ortega, Nate. This world changed me into what you see.” “I don’t see what’s wrong with factory worlds,” Vardia interjected. They ignored her. Brazil looked hard at the creature. The voice, the eyes—they were dimly familiar, somehow. It did re-mind him of Ortega, sort of. The same crazy glint to the eyes, the same quick, sharp way of talking, the underlying attitude of amused arrogance that had got-ten Ortega into more bar fights than any other man alive. But it had been so long ago. “Look here!” Ham put in. “Enough of old home week, Ortega or not Ortega. Sir, or whatever, I should very much like to know where we are, and why we are here, and when we shall be able to return to our own ship.” Ortega gave that evil smile. “Well, as to where you are—you’re on the Well World. There’s no other name


for it, since that’s exactly what it is. As to where it is —well, damned if I know. Nobody here has ever been able to leave it. I only know that the night sky is like nothing you ever saw before. I spaced almost two hundred years, and none of the extremely prominent features look familiar. At the very least we’re on the other side of the galaxy, or maybe even in another galaxy. As to why you’re here, well, you somehow humbled into a Markovian Gate like me and maybe thousands of others did. And here you are, stuck just like the rest of us. You’re here for good, mister. Better get used to it.” “See here!” Ham huffed. “I have power, influence—” “Means nothing here,” Ortega responded coldly. “My mission!” Vardia protested. “I must perform my duties’” “No duties, nothin* anymore but you and here,” the snakeman said. “Understand this: you are on a world built by the Markovians—yes, I said built. The whole thing: lock, stock, and core. As far as we know, the whole damned thing is a Markovian brain in perfect working order, and preprogrammed.” “I figured we were inside Dalgonia,” Brazil said. “It felt as if we fell down into something.” “No,” replied Ortega, “that was no fall. The Markovians really had godlike powers. Matter transmis-sion was a simple thing for them. Don’t ask me how it works, but it does, because we got a local version here. I wouldn’t understand it if somebody did explain it, anyway.” “But such a thing is impossible!” Hain objected. “It is against the laws of physics!” Ortega’s six limbs shrugged. “Who knows? At one tune flying was impossible. Then it was impossible to leave a planet, then impossible to leave a solar sys-tem, then impossible for anything to go faster than light. The only thing that makes something impossible is ignorance. Here on the Well World the impossible’s a fact of life.” At that moment the food arrived, brought-in on a small cart that was obviously some sort of robot. It went up to each in turn, and offered a tray of hot food,


which, when removed, revealed an identical tray beneath. Brazil removed the cover and just stared for a minute. Finally, he said, in a tone of absolute awe and reverence: “A real steak!” He hesitated a moment and looked over at Ortega. “It is real, isn’t it?” “Oh, yes,” the snakeman assured him. “It’s real enough. The potato and beans, too. Oh, not quite a cow, not quite a potato, and so forth, but so close you’ll never be able to tell the difference. Go ahead, try it!” Hain was already greedily tearing into his, while Vardia looked at the food, bewildered. “What’s the trouble?” Brazil managed between swallows. “Problems?” “It’s quite safe to eat,” Ortega assured her. “There are no microorganisms that will give you any real problems here—not until you go out, anyway. The stuff’s biologically compatible.” “No, no—it’s—” she stammered. “Well, I have never seen food like it before. How do you . ..?” “Just watch me and follow my example,” Brazil laughingly replied. “See? You cut it with a knife and fork like this, then—” They dug into the meal, Vardia getting the hang of it, although she protested several times that she thought the food tasted terrible. But they were all too hungry to protest. Ortega’s eyes fell on Wu Julee, who just sat there staring at the food, not eating at all. “The girl—she is ill?” he asked them. Brazil suddenly stopped eating and looked at Ham, who had already finished and was just letting out an extremely noisy belch. The captain’s face had a grave expression on it, and the fine food suddenly felt like lead in his stomach. “She’s a spongie,” Brazil said softly. Ham’s eyebrows rose, but he said nothing. Ortega’s face, too, turned serious. “How far gone?” he asked. “Fairly bad, I’d say,” Brazil replied- “Deep mental maybe five years old, voluntary action basically emotive only.” Suddenly he whirled in his chair and faced Hain, cold fury in his eyes. “How about it, Hain?” he snarled. “Would you agree?”


Hain^s piggish face remained impassive, his tone of voice seemed almost one of relief. “So you found out. I thought perhaps I was overdoing the routine at that dinner.” “If we hadn’t been trapped on Dalgonia, I’d have had you and her down on Arkadrian before you realized what was what,” Brazil told him, Ham’s face showed both shock and surprise. BraziFs remarks had gotten to him. Then, suddenly, a thought occurred to him and the old, smug self-confidence returned. “It would seem, then, that I have fallen not into a terrible situation, but into a most fortunate one by this—er, circumstance,” he said calmly. “A pity for the lady, though,” he added in mock sympathy. “Why you son of a bitch!” Brazil snarled and leaped at the fat man’s throat, spilling food everywhere. The big man was a head taller and twice the weight of the attacker, but Brazil’s quickness and the sheer hatred in his soul flowed into his arms and hands as they tightened around the other’s neck. Hain thrashed and tried to push the smaller attacker away, but all he managed was to cause both of them to roll onto the floor, the small man still squeezing. Hain’s mouth was open, face red, as he gasped for breath. The expression on Brazil’s face was almost demonic; nothing would keep him from his goal. Vardia watched openmouthed, understanding the situation only in the vaguest way and finding Brazil’s actions, both recounted and current, incomprehensible. In her private universe, there were no people, only cells composing a whole body. A diseased cell was simply eliminated. So there was no place in her mind for one who caused such a disease. Wu Julee watched the two grapple impassively, her meal still on her lap. Suddenly Ortega bounded over his desk and grabbed Brazil with massive arms. The giant creature moved almost too fast for the eye to follow; Vardia was stunned at the speed and surety with which the creature acted. Brazil fought to get free of the grip, and Ortega’s


middle arm suddenly came from nowhere and punched the small man hard in the jaw. He went slack, still held aloft in the creature’s strong grip. Freed of his attacker, Hain gasped and choked for air, finally rolling flat on his back and lying there, his huge stomach rising and falling. He felt his neck, where the imprint of Brazil’s murderous hands could still be seen. Ortega began examining the unconscious man. Satisfied that no bones were broken, nor permanent dam-age done, he grunted and put the man down on the floor. Brazil collapsed in a heap, and the snakeman turned his attention to Hain. “I thank you, sir,” Hain gasped, his hand going in-voluntarily to his throat. “You have surely saved my life.” “I didn’t want to do it, nor would I have done so in normal times,” Ortega snapped back acidly. “And if Nate ever catches up to you on the outside, I won’t be there to save you—and, if I am, I’ll cheerfully join him in tearing you limb from limb. But I will not allow such a thing here!” He fumed his attention back to Brazil, who was just coming around-Hain seemed taken aback by the creature’s comments, then saw that his pulse pistol had fallen when they had tumbled and now was a foot or so from him on the floor. Slowly, his hand crept toward it. “No!” Wu Julee suddenly screamed, but Hain already had the weapon, and was pointing it at both the snakeman and Brazil, who was sitting up, shaking his head and rubbing his jaw. Ortega’s back was to Hain, but Brazil suddenly looked up and spotted the gun. Ortega saw him stare and turned to face the fat man. “Now both of you behave and I won’t do anything rash,” Hain told them in that same cool, confident tone he always used. “But I am leaving this charming place right now.’* “How?” asked Serge Ortega. The question seemed to bother Hain, who was used to simple answers to simple questions. “The—the way we came in,” he said at last. “The doorway leads to a corridor. The corridor leads to the Well in one direction—and that is strictly one


way,” Ortega told him. “In the other direction are more rooms like this—seven hundred and eighty of them, in a honeycombed labyrinth. Beyond them are housing and recreation facilities for the types of creatures that use those offices—seven hundred and eighty different types of creatures, Hain. Some of them don’t breathe what you do. Some of them won’t like you a bit and may just kill you.” “There is a way out,” Hain snarled, but there was desperation in his voice. “There must be. I’ll find it.” “And then what?” Ortega asked calmly. “You’re out in a world that is moderately large. The surface area is best expressed as five point one times ten to the eighth power kilometers squared. And you don’t even know what the planet looks like, the languages, anything. You’re a smart man, Hain. What are the odds?” Hain seemed confused, hesitant. Suddenly he looked at the pistol in his hand and brightened. “This gives me the odds,” he said firmly. “Never play the odds until you know the rules of the game,” Ortega warned softly, and advanced slowly toward him. “I’ll shoot!” Hain threatened, his voice an octave . higher than usual. “Go ahead,” Ortega invited, his great serpentine body sliding slowly toward the panicked man. “All right, dammit!” Hain cried, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Hain pulled the trigger again and again. It clicked, making contact with the solenoid firing pin, but did nothing else, Ortega suddenly moved with that blinding speed, and the gun seemed to vanish from the fat man’s hand. “No weapon works in this room,” Ortega said crisply, Hain sat, a stupefied expression on his face, mouth half open. Possibly for the first time in his life that ar-rogant self-confidence was gone out of him. “You all right, Nate?” Ortega shot to the small man, who still sat half-rising, holding his sore Jaw. “Yeah, you son of a bitch,” Brazil replied mushily, shaking his head to clear it. “Man! You sure as hell pack a wallop!”


Ortega chuckled. “I was the only man smaller than you once in a bar on Siprianos. I was full of booze and dope, and ready to take on the house, all of whom would have cheerfully slit my throat for the floor show. I just started to pick a fight with the bouncer when you grabbed me and knocked me cold. Took me ten weeks before I realized that you’d saved my neck.” Brazil’s jaw dropped in wonder, and the pain hit him as he did so and he groaned. Still, he managed: “You are Serge Ortega!” in a tone of bewildered acceptance. “I had totally forgotten that….” Ortega smiled. “I said I was, Nate.” “But, oh, man, how you’ve changed,” Brazil noted, amazed. “I told you this world changes people, Nate,” Ortega replied. “It’ll change you, too. All of you.” “You wouldn’t have stopped me from finishing the pig in the old days. Serge.” “I guess I wouldn’t have,” Ortega chuckled. “And I really wouldn’t have now—except that this is Zone. And, if you’ll sit over there, across the room from Hain,” he said, pointing to a backless couch, and, turning to Hain, continued, “and if you will stop all your little, petty games and promise to sit quietly, I’ll explain just what the situation is here—the rules and lack of them, and a few other things about your future.” Hain mumbled something unintelligible and went back over to his seat. Brazil, still nursing his sore jaw, silently got up and moved over to the couch. He sank down in the cushions, his head against the back wall, and groaned. “Still dizzy,” he complained. “And I’m getting a hell of a headache.” Ortega smiled and moved back behind his desk. “You’ve had worse and you know it,” the snakeman reminded the captain. “But, first things first. Want some more food? You spoiled yours.” “You know damned well I won’t eat for days,” Brazil groaned. “Damn! Why didn’t you let me get him?” “Two reasons, really. First, this is—well, a diplomatic legation, you might say. A murder by one En-try of another would be impossible to explain to my


government no matter what. But, more than that, she’s not lost, Nate, and that makes your motive even flimsier.” Brazil forgot his aches and pains. “What did you say?” “I said she’s not lost, Nate, and that’s right. Just as this detour deprived Hain of justice, it also saved her. Arkadrian was no solution, really. Obviously you felt she was worth saving when you decided to detour —but, just here, she’s little more than a vegetable. Obviously Hain was decreasing the dosage as she be-came more and more accustomed to the pain. He was letting her rot out—but slowly enough to make the trip without problems. May I ask why, Hain?” “She was from one of the Comworlds. Lived in the usual beehive and helped work on a big People’s Farm. I mean the dirt jobs—shoveling shit and the like, as well as painting the buildings, mending fences, and suchlike. 10 genetically manipulated to be low—she’s a basic worker, a manual laborer, basically mentally retarded and capable of carrying out simple commands—one at a time—but not of much in the way of original thought and action. She wasn’t even good at, that work, and they used her as a Party whore. Failed at that, too.” “That is a slander of the Corn people!” Vardia protested vehemently. “Each citizen is here to do a par’ ticular task that needs doing, and is created for that task. Without people such as she as well as ones like me the whole society would fall apart.” “Would you change Jobs with her?” Brazil asked sarcastically. “Oh, of course not,” Vardia responded, oblivious to the tone. “I’m glad I’m not anything but what I am. I would be happy at nothing else. Even so, such citizens are essential to the social fabric.” “And you say my people have gone that route,” Ortega said sadly, almost to himself. “But—I would think the really basic menial stuff would be automated. A lot of it was in my time.” “Oh, no,” Vardia protested. “Man’s future is with the soil and with nature. Automation produces social


decay and only that necessary to the maintenance of equality can be permitted.” “I see,” Ortega responded dryly. He was silent for a while, then he turned back to Ham. “But how did you wind up with the girl? And why hook her on sponge?” “Occasionally we need a—a sample, as it were. An example, really. We almost always use such peo-ple—Comworld folk who will not be missed, who are never much more than vegetables anyway-We control most of them, of course. But it’s rather tough to get the stuff into their food, or even to get an audience with members of a Presidium, but, once you’ve done it, you control the entire world—a world of people programmed to be happy at whatever they’re doing and conditioned from birth to blind obedience to the Party. Control the queen and you control all the bees in the hive. I had an audience with a Presidium Mem-ber on Coriolanus—took three years of hard work to wangle it, I’ll assure you. There are hundreds of ways to infect someone once you’re face-to-face. By that point, poor Wu Julee would have been in the animalistic state from progressively smaller doses. She would be the threat to show the distinguished Member what my—er, client, would become if not treated.” “Such a thing would not work on my world,” Vardia stated proudly. “A Presidium Member so infected would simply have you, her, and the Member all at a Death Factory.” Ham laughed. “You people never cease to amaze me,” he chuckled. “You really think your Presidium members are like you? They’re descendants of the early Party that spread out in past, mostly lost, history. They proclaimed equality and said they dreamed of a future Utopia when there would be no government, nothing. What they really wouldn’t even admit to themselves was that they loved power—they never worked in the fields, they never worked at all, except giving orders and trying out plans and novel experiences. And they loved it! And their children’s children’s children still love it. A planetload of happy, contented, docile slaves that will do anything commanded of them. And when that pain starts, less than


an hour after infection, they will do anything to keep alive. Anything.” “Still mighty risky for you, isn’t it?” Ortega pointed out. “What if you’re knocked off by an egomaniac despite all?” Ham shrugged. “There are risks in anything. We lose most of our people as they work themselves up. But all of us are misfits, losers, or people who started at the bottom of society on the worst of worlds. We weren’t bom to power—we work for it, take risks for it, earn it. And—the survivors get the spoils.” Ortega nodded grimly. “How many—easy, Nate, or I’ll clout you again!—how many worlds do you control now?” Hain shrugged again. “Who knows? I’m not on the Council. Over ten percent—thirty, thirty-five, maybe •—and growing. And two new colonies are made for every one we win, so it’s an ever-expanding empire. It’ll be that someday—an empire.” His eyes took on a faraway look, a maniacal glow. “A great empire. Perhaps, eventually, the entire galaxy.” “Ruled by scum,” Brazil said sourly. “By the strongest!” Hain responded. “The cleverest, the survivors! The people who deserve it!” “I hesitate to let such evil into this world,” Ortega said, “but we have had as bad and worse here. This world will test you fully, Hain. I think it will ultimately kill you, but that is up to you. Here is where you start. But there’s no sponge here, or other addic-tives. Even if there were, you’d have fifteen hundred and sixty different species to try it on, and some of them are so alien you won’t even understand what they are, why they do what they do, or whether they do anything. Some will be almost like those back home. But this place is a madhouse, Hain-It’s a world created by madness, I think, and it will kill you. We’ll see.” They were silent for a while, Ortega’s speech hav-ing as unsettling an effect on Brazil and Vardia as on Hain. Suddenly, Brazil broke the silence. “You said she wasn’t lost. Serge. Why not?” “It has to do with this world and what it does to people,” the snakeman replied. “I will brief you later.


But—not only do you change here, but you also get back what you’ve lost. You’ll return to perfect health, Nate, even get back that memory of yours. You’ll even remember things you don’t want to remember. And, you’ll be prepared—programmed if you like— for whatever and wherever you are. Not in the Comworid sense—what you need. This gives you a new start, Nate—but there’s no rejuve here. This is a one-shot deal, people—a fresh start. “But you will die here, sooner or later, the span depending on what you are.” They slept on cots provided by Ortega. All were dead tired, and Brazil was also still smarting from the knockout punch given him by the great creature that seemed to be the reincarnation of his past friend. Hain slept separately from the rest, under lock and key, in an office the location of which was not told to the fiery little captain. Ortega woke them all up the next morning. They assumed it was morning, although they hadn’t actually been outside and, in fact, had no idea what the outside looked like on this strange yet somehow familiar world. An old-style breakfast of what appeared to be normal hen’s eggs, scrambled, sausage, toast, and cof-fee awaited them, served by the same little cart that had brought the previous night’s supper. Brazil noted that the mess from flying food had been carefully cleaned away. Vardia, of course, had trouble with the breakfast. Wu Julee seemed no worse than the night before, and in no more pain, if, indeed, she was in pain at all. With a lot of coaxing from Brazil she managed to eat some of the breakfast. After they had finished and had returned the trays to the little cart, which hummed away on small tires with no apparent guidance. Serge Ortega pressed another button on his little hidden console, causing a screen to drop down at his right. “Time, unfortunately, is limited here—both for you and, because I have a great many other duties, for me as well. When I got dropped into Zone long ago, I had only a brief orientation before I was thrown out on

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L