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


my ass. I wanted to give you a little bit more, to make it a little easier on you than it was for me.” “Just how long ago did you drop here, Citizen Ortega?” Vardia asked. “Well, hard to say. Well over seventy standard years—they still use the same years, don’t they, Nate?” Brazil nodded affirmatively, and Ortega continued. “It was during a low-colonist period, and I was gunrunning to a placer strike on some asteroids out beyond Sirius. I dumped them fine, avoided all the cops, but ran into some damned conduit out in the middle of deep space, before I could go FTL or anything- I’m told that most—maybe a majority—of the gates are on planets, and maybe this was one, too, at one time. Maybe all those asteroids were once a Markovian planet that broke up for some reason.” “How long has this place—this planet—been here, Serge?” Brazil asked- “Nobody knows. Longer than people were people, Nate. A coupl’a million years, it appears. Since the oldest folk in the planet’s oldest race are only four hundred—and they’re at death’s door—the ancient history of the place is as shrouded in mystery and my-thology as our own. You see, all this involves the Markovians—any of you know about them?” “Nobody knows much,” Brazil replied. “Some sort of super race that ran its planets from brains beneath the surface and died out suddenly.” “That’s about it,” Ortega acknowledged. “They flourished, scientists here think, between two and five million years ago. And they were galaxy-wide, Nate! Maybe even more. Hard to say, but we have a lot of folk dropping through whose knowledge of the universe doesn’t match anything we humans know. And that’s the weirdest thing—a hell of a lot of them are close to human-1* “In what way do you mean that. Serge?” Brazil asked. “Us-human or you-human?” Ortega laughed. “Both. Humanoid would perhaps be a better term. Well, first let me show you what you’re in for, and I’ll add the rest as I go along.” The snakeman dimmed the lights, and a map show-61

ing two hemispheres flicked on the screen. It looked like a standard planetary map, but the two circles were filled with hexagons from pole to pole. “The Markovians,” Ortega began, “who were nutty over the number six, built this world. We don’t know why or how, but we do know what. Each of their worlds had at least one gate of the kind that transported you here. You are now at the South Polar Zone, which doesn’t show accurately here for obvious reasons. All carbon-based life comes here, and all of the hexes north of us to that thick equatorial line are carbon-based or could live in a carbon-based environment. The Mechs of Hex Three Sixty-seven, for example, aren’t carbon-based, but you could live in their hex.” “So the North Polar Zone takes care of the biologically exotic, then?” Hain asked. Ortega nodded. “Yes, there are the true aliens, be-ings with which we have literally nothing in common. Their hexes run down to the equator on the north hemisphere.” “Is that black band at the equator just a map dividing line or is it something else?” Vardia asked curiously. “No, that’s not just on the map,” Ortega told her, “and you were sharp to notice it. It is—well, the best I can describe it is that it’s a sheer wall, opaque and several kilometers high. You can’t really see it until you’re at it, outside the border of the last hex by a hair. You can’t get past it, and you can’t fly over it or anything. It’s just, well, there. We have some theories about it, of course, the best one being that it’s the exposed part of the Markovian brain that is, it seems, of the entire core of this planet-The old name for it seems to be the Well of Souls—so it probably is just that. There’s an old adage around here: ‘Until midnight at the Well of Souls,’ which you’ll probably hear. It’s just an old ritual saying now, although it may have had some real meaning in the distant past of prehis-tory. Hell, if that’s the Well of Souls, then it’s always midnight somewhere!” “What do the hexagons represent?” Hain asked. “Well, there are fifteen hundred and sixty of them


on the planet,” Ortega replied. “Nobody knows the reason for that, either, but at least the figure only has one six in it. Each hex is identical in size—each one of the six sides is just a shade under three hundred fifty-five kilometers, and they’re a shade under six hundred fifteen kilometers across. Needless to say they didn’t use our form of measurements when they built the place, and we don’t know what system they had, but that’ll give you an idea in our terms.” “But what’s in the hexes?” Brazil prodded. “Well, you could call them nations with borders,” Ortega replied, “but that would be understating things. Each is a self-contained biosphere for a particular life form—and for associated lower life forms. They are all maintained by the Markovian brain, and each is also maintained at a given technological level. The social level is left to whatever the inhabitants can develop or want to have, so you have everything from monarchies to dictatorships to anarchies out there.” “What do you mean technological level?” Brazil asked him. “Do you mean that there are places where there are machines and places where there are not?” “Well, yes, that, of course,” Ortega affirmed. “But, well, you can only get to the level of technology your resources allow within the hex. Anything beyond it just won’t work, like Hain’s pistol yesterday.” “It seems to me that you would have been populated to death here,” Brazil commented. “After all, .1 assume all creatures reproduce here—and then the Markovian brains keep shuttling people here as well.” “That just doesn’t happen,” Ortega replied. “For one thing, as I said, people can die here—and do. Some hexes have very cheap life, some species live a comparatively short time. Reproductive rates are in accordance with this death rate. If populations seem to be rising too high, and natural factors—like catas-trophes, which can happen here, or wars, which also can happen, although they are not terribly common and usually localized—don’t reduce the numbers, .well, most of the next batch is simply born sexually normal in every way yet sterile, with just a very small num-ber able to keep the breed going. When attrition takes its toll, the species goes back to being born fertile.


Actually the population’s pretty stable in each hex— from a low of about twenty thousand to a high of over a million. “As for Entries like you—well, the Markovians were extensive, as I said, but many of their old brains are dead and some of the gateways are closed forever for one reason or another. Others are so well disguised that a one-in-a-trillion blunder uke mine is needed to find the entrance. We get no more than a hundred or so newcomers a year, all told. We have a trip alarm when the Well is activated and some of us take turns on a daily basis answering the alarms. Sheer luck I ran into you, but I take a lot of turns. Some of the folks here don’t really like newcomers and don’t treat them right, so I take their duty and they owe me.” “There are representatives of all the Southern Hemisphere races here, then?” Vardia asked. The snakeman nodded. “Most of them. Zone’s really a sort of embassy station. Distances are huge, travel is long here, and so here at Zone representatives of all of us can meet and talk over mutual problems. The Gate—which we’ll get to presently—will zip me back home in an instant, although, curse it, it won’t zip anybody back and forth except from here to his own hex. Oh, yes, there’s a special chamber for Northerners here and one for us up at the North Zone just in case we have to talk—which is seldom. They occasionally have something we are short of, or our scientists and theirs want to compare notes, or some-such. But they are so different from us that that’s rare.” Brazil wore a strangely fixed expression as he said, “Serge, you’ve spelled out the world as much as you can, but you’ve omitted one fact I think I can guess —how did a little Latin shrimp like you become a six-armed walrus-snake.” Ortega’s expression was one of resignation. “I thought it would be obvious. When you go out the Gate the first time, the brain will decide which hex could stand a person or four and that’s what you will become. You will, of course, also wind up in the proper hex.”


“And then what?” Hain asked nervously. “Well, there’s a period of adjustment, of course. I went through the Gate the way Nate remembers me, and came out in the land of the Uliks looking like this. It took me a little while to get used to things, and longer for everything to sort itself out in my head, but, well, the change also produces an adjustment. I found I knew the language, at least all the analogues to my old one, and began to feel more and more comfortable in my new physical role. I became a Ulik, Nate, while still being me. Now I can hardly remember what it was like to be anything else, really. Oh, academically, sure —my mind was never clearer. But you are the aliens-now.” There was a long silence as they digested the information. Finally, Brazil broke it and asked, “But, Serge, if there are seven hundred and eighty life forms with compatible biospheres, why hasn’t there been a cosmo-politanism here in the South? I mean, why is everybody stuck in his own little area?” “Oh, there is some mingling,” Ortega replied. “Some hexes have been combined, some not. Mostly, though, people stick to their own areas because each one is different. Besides, people have never liked other people who were different. Humanity—ours and everybody else’s, apparently—has always found even slight pre-texts to hate other groups. Color, language, funny-shaped noses, religion, or anything else. Many wars were fought here at various times, and wholesale slaughter took place. Such things are rare now—everybody loses. So, mostly, everybody sticks to his own hex and minds his own business. Besides, there’s the factor of commonality, too. Could you really be good bud-dies with a three-meter-tall hairy spider that ate live flesh, even if it also played chess and loved orchestral music? And—could a society based on high technology succeed in capturing and subjugating a hex where none of its technology worked? A balance is kind of maintained that way—technological hexes trade for needed things like food with nontechnological farm hexes where society is anarchistic and only swords will work.” Vardia looked up, eyes bright, at the mention of swords. She still had hers.


“And, of course, in some hexes there are some pretty good sorcerers—and their spells work!” Ortega warned. “Oh, come on,” Hain said disgustedly. “I am willing to believe in a lot—but magic? Nonsense!” “All magic means is a line between knowledge and ignorance,” Ortega responded. “A magician is someone who can do something you don’t know how to do. All technology, for example, is magic to a primitive. Just remember, this is an old world, and its people are different from anything in your experience. If you make the mistake—any of you!—of applying your own standards, your own rules, your own prejudices to any of it, it will get you.” “Can you brief me on the general political situation, Serge?” Brazil requesied. “I’d tike to know a lot more before going out there.” “Nate, I couldn’t do it in a million years. Like any planet with a huge number of countries and social systems, everything’s in a constant state of flux. Conditions change, and so do rulers. You’ll have to learn things as you go along. I can only caution that there is a lot of petty warfare and a lot of big stuff that would break out if one side could figure out a way to do it. One general a thousand years or so ago took over sixty hexes. But he was undone in the end by the necessity for long supply lines and by his inability to conquer several incompatible hexes in his backneld that eventually were able to slice him up. The lesson’s been well learned. Things are done more by crook than hook here now.” Hain’s eyes brightened. “My game!” he whispered. “And now,” Ortega concluded, “you must go. I can-not keep you here more than a day and justify the de-lay to my government. You cannot put off leaving indefinitely in any case.” “But there are many more questions that must be answered!” Vardia protested. “Climate, seasons, thousands of needed details!” “As for the climate, it varies from hex to hex but has no relationship to geographical position,” Ortega told her. “The climate is maintained in each case by the brain-Daylight is exactly fifty percent of each full day anywhere on the globe. Days are within a few


hours of standard, so that’s fourteen and an eighth standard hours of day and the same of night. The axis is straight up—no tilt at all. But it will vary artificially. But—see! I could go on forever and you’d never know enough. It is time!” “And suppose I refuse?” Vardia challenged, raising her sword. With that same lightning-quick movement that had marked the previous day’s fight, Ortega’s snake body uncoiled like a tightly wound spring, snatched the sword, and was back behind the desk in less than half a second. He looked at her sadly. “You have no choice at all,” he said quietly. “Will you all now come with me?” They followed the Ulik ambassador reluctantly but resigned. He led them again down that great, winding corridor through which they had entered the day be-fore, and it seemed to them all that their walk would never end. Finally, after what was about half an hour, they found that the corridor opened into a large room. Three sides were bare, plastic-like walls similar to those in Ortega’s office but without any pattern. The fourth looked like a wall of absolute black. “That’s the Gate,” Ortega told them, gesturing to the black wall. “We use it to go back and forth between our own hexes and Zone, and you will use it to be assigned. Please don’t be afraid. The Gate will not alter your personality; and, after the adjustment pe-riod, you will find that you are even better, mentally, than you were. For the little girl, here, passage through will mean the restoration of normality, cure of the addiction, and a correction of whatever imbalances they used to limit her IQ and abilities. Of course, she may still be a rather dull farm worker, but in no event will she be worse off than she was before she was addicted.” None of them rushed into the Gate. Finally, Ortega prodded them. “The doorway be-hind you is closed. No one, not even I, may re’enter Zone until he first goes to a hex. That’s the way the system works.” “I’ll go first,” Brazil said suddenly, and he took a


step toward the Gate. He felt a great hand on his shoulder that stopped him. “No, Nate, not now,” Ortega almost whispered to him. “Last.” Brazil was puzzled, but realized the in-tent. The ambassador had something else to say to him without the others hearing. Brazil nodded and turned to Hain. “How about you, Hain? Or should I go at you again? We’re not in the embassy now.” “You caught me by surprise that time. Captain,” Hain replied with the old sneer. “But if you stop and think, you’ll know I could break you in pieces. Ambassador Ortega saved your life back there, not mine. Yet, I will go. My future is out there.” And, with that, Hain strode confidently to the blackness and, without hesitation, stepped into it. The darkness seemed to swallow him up the moment he entered. There was no other visible effect. Vardia and Wu Julee each stood solidly, not moving from their places near the entrance. Ortega turned and took Wu Julee’s left arm with one of his, urging her on across the room to the dark wall. She didn’t seem to protest until she was very near the darkness. Then, suddenly, she stopped and screamed, “No! No!” Her face turned and looked pleadingly at Brazil. “Go ahead,” he urged her gently, but she broke free ofOrtega’s gentle grip and ran to the captain. Brazil looked into her eyes with a gentle pity that was almost tearing him apart inside. “You must go,” he told her. “You must go. I will find you.” Still she didn’t budge, but tightened her grip on him. Suddenly she was yanked from him with such force and speed that the movement knocked Brazil to the ground. Ortega pulled her away and tossed her into the blackness in one quick motion. She screamed, but the scream stopped as the blackness absorbed her, so abrupt that it was like a recording suddenly stopped in midsound. “This business is a bitch sometimes,” Ortega re—


marked glumly. He turned and looked at Brazil, who was picking himself up off the floor. “You all right?” “Yeah,” Brazil replied, then looked into the creature’s sad eyes. “I understand, Serge,” he said softly. Then, as if to break the mood, his tone took on that of mock anger: “But if you’re going to keep beating the hell out of me I’m leaving here no matter what!” His tone almost broke through the snakeman’s mel-ancholy, and Ortega managed a chuckle. He put his right upper arm out and clasped Brazil to him, and there were tears in his eyes. “God!” the snakeman exclaimed. “How can the greatness in people be so unloved?” Suddenly he relaxed and turned his gaze to Vardia, who had remained motionless throughout the whole episode. Brazil guessed what must be going through her mind now. Raised by an all-embracing state, trained and bred to a particular function, she was simply not programmed for such a disruption of her orderly, planned life. Every day for her had always been a certainty, and she was secure in the knowledge of that sameness and content with the belief that she was performing a useful task. Now she was, for the first time, on her own. Brazil thought for a moment, then hit upon what he hoped was a solution. “Vardia,” he said in his best command voice, “we set out to do a job when we landed on Dalgonia. That trail has led us here to this spot-Now it leads through there. There are seven bodies back on Dalgonia, Vardia. Seven, including at least one of your own peo-ple. There is still a duty for you to perform.” She was breathing hard, the only sign of inner men-tal torment. Finally, she turned and faced the other two, then ran at the blackness of the Gate. And was gone. Brazil and Ortega were alone in the room- *‘What was that about seven bodies, Nate?” the snakeman asked. Brazil recounted the story of the mysterious distress signal, the mass murder on Dalgonia, and the signs of the two who had vanished as they had.


Ortega’s expression was extremely grave. “I wish I had known of this ten weeks ago when those two came through here. It would have changed things a great deal in Council.” Brazil’s eyebrows rose. “You know them, then?” Ortega nodded. “Yes, I know them. I didn’t do the processing, but I watched the recordings of their arrival over and over-There was a great deal of debate about them before they went through the Gate.” “Who were they? What was their story?” “Well, they came through together, and one of them was still trying to kill the other on the Well itself when Gre’aton—he’s a Type Six Twenty-two, looks kind of like a giant locust—put a stop to it. A few of the more human-looking boys took over, splitting them up so they didn’t see each other again. “Each of them told a fantastic story, about how he and he alone had discovered some sort of mathematical relationship used by the Markovian brains. Each claimed that everything in the universe was a series of preset mathematical relationships determined by a master Markovian brain. When they were given the standard briefing, both became terribly excited, each convinced that the Well World was the master brain and that they could somehow communicate with it, maybe even run it. Each claimed the other had stolen his discovery, tried to kill the other, and was here to establish himself as god. Of course, each claimed that he was trying to stop the other from doing so.” “Did you believe them?” “They were mighty convincing. We used some of the standard lie-detection stuff and tried some telepathy using one of the North boys, and the results were al-ways the same.” “And?” Brazil prompted. “As far as we were able to determine—and we don’t have the methods for a really scientific study— they were both telling the truth.” “Whew. You mean they’re psychos through and through?” Ortega was solemn. “No, each truly believes he discovered what the code was, and each truly believes the


other stole it, and each truly believes that he’d be good for godhead and the other would be horrible.” “Do you really believe that godhead stuff?” Brazil asked. Ortega turned all six arms into a giant shrug. “Who knows? A number of folk here have similar ideas, but no one’s ever been able to do anything about them. We called a Council—a full Council, with over twelve hundred ambassadors participating. All were given the facts. Everything was debated. “The idea explains a lot, of course. All magic, for example. But it is so esoteric. And, as it was pointed out by some of our mathematically minded folk, even if true it probably didn’t mean anything, since no one could change the brain anyway. In the end, even though a large number of members voted to kill them, the majority voted to let them through.” “How did you vote. Serge?” Brazil asked. “I voted to kill them, Nate. They are both maniacs, and both are possessed of genius. Each believed he could do what he set out to do, and both seemed to believe that it was destiny that, so soon after the discovery, they were brought here.” “More to the point, do you believe it. Serge?” “I do,” the giant replied gravely. “Right now, I think those two are the most dangerous beings in the entire universe. And—more to the point—I think that one of them, I can’t tell which, has a chance of succeeding.” “What are their names. Serge, and their backgrounds?” Ortega’s eyes brightened. “So God in His infinite wisdom allows mercy after all! You do want to get them, and God has sent you to us for that purpose!” Brazil thought for a moment. “Serge, ever hear of a Markovian brain actually, literally, trapping people by sending out false signals or the like?” Ortega thought for a moment. “No,” he replied, “as far as I know it’s always accident or blunder. That’s why so few come. Now do you see what I mean about God sending you to me?” “Somebody sure did, anyway,” Brazil acknowledged dryly. “I wish I could see those films and learn a lot


about them before I tried to find two invisible needles in a planet-sized haystack.” “You can,” Ortega assured him. “I have all the material back in my office.” Brazil’s mouth was agape. “But you told us there was no way back!” Ortega shrugged monstrously again. “I lied,” he said. Several hours later Brazil learned as much as he was going to from the recordings, testimony, and arguments of the Council committees. “So can you give me any leads on this Skander and Vamett? Where are they now? And what?” “Newcomers are pretty conspicuous around here, since there are so few of them and they are so obvious,” Ortega replied. “And, yet, I can give you nothing on either. The planet seems to have swallowed them up.” “Isn’t that unusual?” Brazil asked. “Or, worse, suspicious?” “I see what you mean. The whole planet saw what you saw and heard what you heard. They could have some natural allies.” “Yeah, that’s what I’m most concerned about,” Bra-zil said bluntly- “The odds are that there’s a monstrous race going on here, and that this place is the soul of reason compared to what everything we know would become if the wrong side was to win.” “They could both be dead,” Ortega suggested hopefully. Brazil shook his head in a violent negative. “Uh-uh. Not these boys. They’re clever and they’re nasty. Skander’s almost the archetypal mad scientist, and Varnett’s even worse—a renegade, mob-class Corn. At least one of them will make it, and he’ll have some way to dump his allies afterward.” “You’ll have the help of all the hexes who voted to kill them,” Ortega pointed out. “Sure, Serge, and I’ll use that when I have to. But this is really a lone-wolf operation and you know it. That Council was politically very slick. They could count. Even a hex voting to kill them knew they wouldn’t be killed—so what was the use of their vote?


Getting there might take help—but once there, every friend I have on this world will seek godhead, and never mind that I don’t know how to talk to the brain. No, Serge, I have to kill both of them, absolutely, ir-revocably, and as quickly as possible.” “Getting where might take help?” Ortega asked, puzzled. “To the Well of Souls, of course,” Brazil replied evenly. “And before midnight.” Now it was Onega’s turn to look stunned. “But that’s just an old saying, like I said before—” “It’s the answer. Serge,” Brazil asserted strongly. “It’s just that nobody has been able to decipher the code and make use of it.” “There is no answer to that. It makes no real sense!” “Sure it does!” Brazil told him. “It’s the answer to a monstrous question, and the key to the most monstrous of threats. I saw Skander’s and Vamett’s eyes light up when they first heard the phrase, Serge. They seized on it!” “But what’s the question?” Ortega asked bewilderedly. “That’s what I don’t know yet,” Brazil replied, pointing his finger at the Ulik animatedly. “But they thought it was the answer, and they both think they can figure it out. If they can, I can. “Look, Serge, why was this world built? No, not the brain; we’ll accept that as bringing some sort of stability to the universe. In fact, if they’re right, we’re all just figments of some dead Markovian’s imagination. No, why all this? The Well, the hexes, the civilizations? If I can answer that, I can answer the bigger question! And I’ll find out!” Brazil exclaimed excitedly, half-rising from his chair. “How can you be so sure?” Ortega responded dubiously. “Because someone—or something—wants me to!” Brazil continued in the same excited tone. “That’s why I was lured here! That’s why I’m here at all, Serge! That’s what makes even the timing! Even-now they’ve got a ten-week start! You, yourself, said as much back at the Gate!”


Ortega shook his head glumly. “That was Just my old Latin soul coming forth, Nate. I’ve been consort-ing with Jesuits again—yes, we have several here, from the old missionary days, came in a single ship and are out trying to convert the heathen. But, be reasonable, man! You never would have found Dalgonia were it not for the detour. You wouldn’t have detoured except for Wu Julee’s presence on your ship, and that could hardly have been planned, let alone your act of mercy.” “I think it was planned. Serge,” Brazil said evenly. “I think I’ve been conned all along. I don’t know how, or by whom, or for what purpose, but I’ve been had!” “I don’t see how,” Ortega responded, “but, even if so, how will you ever know?” “1*11 know,” Brazil said in a tone that was both firm and somewhat frightening. “I’ll know at midnight at the Well of Souls.” They stood once again at the Gate, this time for the last time. “It’s agreed, then,” Ortega said to him. “As soon as you pass through and get oriented, you announce yourself to the local ruler. All of them will have been notified of your coming through, with instructions to render any assistance. But at least one of them is sure to be in league with your enemies, Nate! Are you sure? What if you are swallowed up?** “I won’t be. Serge,” Brazil replied calmly. “Chess-players don’t sacrifice their queens early in the game.” Ortega gave one last massive shrug. “Believe what you wish—but, be careful, my old friend. If they get you, I shall avenge your death.” Brazil smiled, then looked at the Gate. “Is it best to run at it, walk into it, or what?” he asked. “Doesn’t matter,” Ortega told him. “You’ll wake up as if coming out of a long sleep, anyway. May you wake up a Ulik!” Brazil smiled, but kept his thoughts on being a seven-meter, six-armed walrus-snake to himself. He walked over to the gate, then turned for one last look at his transformed old friend. “I hope I wake up at all. Serge,” he said quietly.


“Go with God, you ancient heathen,” Ortega said. “I’ll be damned,” Brazil muttered, half to himself. “After all these years I might wake up a Gentile.” And, with that, he stepped through the Gate. And in the darkness he dreamed. He was on a giant chessboard, that stretched off in all directions. Seven pawns were down on his side —the white side. They looked like scorched and frozen bodies, lying on blackened cots. Through the mostly faceless field of black pieces, he could see Skander and Vamett, queen and king. Skander was a queen in royal robes, with a scepter in hand. The queen looked around, but could not spot the king. There was Wu Julee, a pawn, out front, and Vardia, a knight with bright sword nashing-Ortega, a bishop, glided by quickly, and was struck by a black rook with the face of Datham Hain. The queen glided quickly, trying not to trip over her long skirts, toward Hain, the scepter ready to strike that ugly, pig face, when suddenly Ortega reappeared and pushed him away. “The black royal family has escaped. Your Highness!” Onega’s voice shouted. “They are heading for the Well of Souls!” The queen looked around, but there was no trace of the enemy’s major pieces. Anywhere. “But where is the Well of Souls?” screamed the queen. “I cannot get to the king without knowing!” A sudden burst of overwhelming, cosmic laughter came from beyond the board. It was giant, hollow, and all embracing. A giant hand gripped the queen and moved it far away to the other side of the board. “Here they are!” the great voice said mockingly. The queen looked around and screamed in terror. The king with Skander’s face was but one square right, and the queen with Vamett’s face was one square up. “Our move!” they both said, and laughed maniacally. Brazil awoke-He got quickly to his feet. Odd, he thought curi—


ously. Fm more wide awake, feeling better, head clearer than I can ever remember. Quickly he examined his body to see what he was. With a shock he looked up around him, to the shores of a nearby lake. There were animals there, and others of his kind. “Well HI be damned!” he said aloud. “Of course! That had to be the answer to the first question! I should have figured it out in Serge’s office!” Sometimes the obvious needed to be belabored. Considering how primitive the place was, Brazil worriedly set out to see if he could find the Zone Gate. Czill—Spring (Enter Vardia Dipio 1261, Asleep) SHE WAS NEVER CERTAIN WHY SHE HAD FINALLY stepped through the Gate. Perhaps doing so was an acceptance of inevitability, perhaps an obedience to authority that was a part of her conditioning. There were patterns of color, running in and out, pulsating in a rhythmic, cosmic heartbeat: yellows, greens, reds, blues—all forming kaleidoscopic patterns, a mechanical ringing sound accompanying the pulses in an odd symphonic monotone. Then, quite suddenly, she awoke. She was on a lush savanna, tall grasses of green and gold stretching out to low foothills in the distance. Some trees, reminiscent of gum trees, dotted the plain, with odd growths that looked like barren stubs of what once had been taller trees showing in some numbers in the distance. With a start, she realized that the stubby trees were moving. They moved in a syncopated rhythm that was most strange. The trunks were actually legs, she realized, and it seemed as if they were all moving in great strides, yet were somehow arrested. It was like


watching a track meet in slow motion. That was deceptive, though; the slower motion was apparently only an illusion, and as she watched, some of them covered pretty good distances in no time. They all seem to have something to do or someplace to go, she thought to herself. Purpose means some sort of civilization, and I need to find out where I am and what place this is before I can get my own purpose clear. She started toward the distant forms. And suddenly stopped as she caught a glimpse of her own body. She looked down at herself in wonder. She was a sort of light green, her skin a smooth, vinelike texture. Her legs were thick and yet long and rubbery, without an apparent Joint. The trunk of her body showed no signs of breasts or of a vaginal cavity; and though her feet were flat bases, her arms seemed to be of the same nature as her legs, only thinner, ending as tentacles rather than as hands. Another, shorter tentacle grew out of the main arm about ten centimeters from its tip. A thumb, perhaps? She found that the rubbery arms worked well either way, being pliant and without apparent Joint or bone, and she felt her smooth backside. No rectum, either, she found. She ran her arm over her face. A wide slit was no doubt the mouth, yet it opened only a tiny fraction. The nose appeared to be a single, fixed, hard hole above the mouth. Growing out of the top of her head was something thin, tough, and about the size of a mortarboard, although of irregular shape. What have I become? she asked herself, feeling fear bordering on panic. Slowly she tried to regain control of herself. Taking deep breaths had always helped, but she found she couldn’t even do that. She was breathing, all right, she could sense that—but that nostril took in only a very tiny part of the air. She realized it was primarily a sensitive olfactory organ; she was breathing by involuntary muscle actions through the pores in her smooth, green skin. After a while her panic seemed to subside, and she


considered what to do. The distant shapes were still going about their business, she saw. She seemed to be on a road of some sort. No matter what, she had to contact those creatures and find out just what was happening. She again started for the figures and found, with some surprise, that she covered the distance—almost a kilometer through the tall grass—in a much shorter time than she would have expected. It was a road, she saw—a dirt track, really, but wide and made up of reddish-brown soil. The creatures using it paid her no attention whatsoever, but she studied them intently. They were like herself, she knew. Those things she couldn’t discover from self-examination were now apparent: two large, round, yellow eyes with black pupils, apparently lidless. She suddenly realized that she hadn’t been blinking her own eyes, and could not, The thing growing out of her head proved to be a single large leaf of irregular shape—no two were alike-The stalk was thick and very short. Its color was a much deeper green than the body and it had an almost waxy texture. Not knowing how to talk to them, and almost afraid to try, she decided to follow the road. It must go •someplace, she told herself. It really didn’t matter which direction—one was as good as the other. She walked onto the road and set off toward the low hills to her left. The road really wasn’t as crowded as she had thought, but at least a dozen—people?— were on the road ahead of her. She gained on a pair, and as she did she became aware that they were talking. The sounds were musical, yet she discovered that she could almost make out what was being said. As she closed to within three or four meters of the pair, she slowed, aware now that she could understand the strange, whispering singsong. “… got into the Bla’ahaliagan spirit-strata stuff, and can’t even be talked to these days. If the Blessed Elder doesn’t get off that crap pretty soon I’m going to transfer over to cataloging.” “Hmmmm… . Dull stuff but I can see your point,” the other sympathized. “Crindel got stuck under


Elder Mudiul on some esoteric primitive game an Entry dropped on us ybout three hundred years ago. Seems it has almost infinite patterns after the first few moves, and there was this project to teach it to a computer. Couldn’t be done. Weird stuff. Almost went off to the Meditations and rotted, Crindel did.” “How’d the Worthy get out of it?” the first one asked. “Mudiul got a virus and it got the Elder quarantined for nine years,” chortled the other. “By the time the Worthy got out the Board had closed down the project and redistributed the staff. The Old One’s got off on whether rocks have souls, and that ought to keep the Worthy out of harm’s way until rot wipes the Worthy.” They went on like that for some time, and the conversation did little to clear up anything in Vardia’s mind. About the only useful fact that came out of the discussion was the obvious limits of third-person- singular pronouns in the language. She noticed that both wore “old chains around their necks as their only adornment of any kind, but, try-ing not to be conspicuous, she couldn’t see what was fastened to them. They had been walking for some time now, and several other things came into her mind-First, the locals seemed to live in communities. She passed groups of them here and there, their numbers ranging from three or four to several dozen. Yet there were no signs of buildings. The ^roupin^s seemed to be like camp circles, but without the fire. Occasionally she could glimpse mv^ternus prtifact1; here and there in the midst of the groups, but nothing large enough to stand out. Some groups seemed to be singing, some dancing, some both, v/hile others were engaged in animated conversations so complex pnd esoteric that they melded into a tuneful chatter like a blending of insects. Also, she was aware very suddenly, she felt neither tired nor hunsry-That was ?. “ood thing, she reflected, since she had no idea what these people ate. She continued to think in her own, old language,

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L