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


but had no trouble understanding others with their singsong chirping so alien to her. The two she had been following took a side path down toward a large grouping that was gathered in a particularly attractive spot. It was a pastoral setting of multicolored flowers and bushes alongside a fast-flowing stream. She stopped at the junction of the main road and the access trail to the lake, partially blocking the side trail. Someone came up behind her and brushed past her, making her conscious of her blocking. “I’m sorry,” she said automatically and stepped to one side. “That’s all right,” the other replied and continued on. It was almost a full minute before she realized that she had spoken and been understood! She hurried after the being who had spoken, now far ahead. “Wait! Please!’” she called after the creature. “I need your help!” The other stopped and turned, a puzzled expression on it. “What seems to be the trouble?” the creature asked as she came up to him. “I—I am lost and confused,” she blurted out to the other. “I have just—just become one of you, and I don’t know where I am or what I’m supposed to do.’* Realization hit the other. “A new Entry! Well, well! We haven’t had an Entry in Czill in my lifetime! Well, of course you’re confused. Come! You shall sleep with us tonight and you will tell us of your origin and we’ll tell you of Czill,” it said eagerly, like a child with a new toy. “Come!” She followed the creature down to the grove. It moved very quickly, and eagerly gathered its companions as fast as possible, excitedly telling them that they had an Entry in Riverbend, as the camp was apparently called. Vardia took all the attention nervously, still bashful and unsure of herself. They gathered around asking questions by the hundreds, all at once, each one canceling out the others RO in the general din. Finally, one with a particularly strong voice appealed for quiet over the noise, and after some work, got it. “Take it easy!” it shouted, making canning gestures. “Can’t you see the poor one’s scared to death? Wouldn’t you be if, say, you went to sleep this night and woke up a Pia?” Satisfied, it turned to Vardia and said gently, “How long have you been in Czill?” “I—I have just arrived,” she told them. “You are the first persons I’ve talked to. I wasn’t even—well, I wasn’t sure how.” “Well, you’ve fallen into the worst pack of jabbering conversationalists,” the one with the loud voice said, amusement in its tone. “I am Brouder, and I will not try to introduce everyone else here. We’ll likely draw a bigger and bigger crowd as word of you gets around.” It was interesting, she thought, that such weird whistlings and clickings should be instantly translated in her mind to their Confederacy equivalents. The creature’s name was not Brouder, of course—it was a short whistle, five clicks, a long whistle, and a descending series of clicks. Yet that was what the name said in her mind, and it seemed to work in reverse as well. “I am Vardia Dipio Twelve Sixty-one,” she told them, “from Nueva Albion.” “A Comworlder!” someone’s voice exclaimed. “No wonder it wound up here!” “Pay the critics no mind, Vardia,” Brouder told her. “They’re just showing off their education.” That last was said with a great deal of mysterious sarcasm. “What did you do before you came here?” someone asked. “My job?” Vardia responded. “Why, I was a diplomatic courier between Nueva Albion and Coriolanus.” “See?” Brouder snorted. “An educated one!” “I’ll still bet the Apprentice can’t read!” called out that one in the back. “Forget the comments,” Brouder urged her with a wave of its tentacle. “We’re really a friendly group-81

I was—is something the matter?” it asked suddenly. “Feeling dizzy,” she replied, the ground and crowd suddenly reeling a bit. She reached out to steady herself on Brouder. “Funny,” she muttered. “So sudden.” “It comes on like that,” Brouder replied. “I should have thought of it. Come on, I’ll help you down to the stream.” It took her down to the rushing water, which had a strangely soothing effect on her. It walked her into the water. “Just stand here a few minutes,” the Czillian told her. “Come back up when you feel better.” Automatically, she found, something like tendrils were coming out of small cavities in her feet and were digging into the shallow riverbed. She drank in the cool water through them, and the dizziness and faint-ness seemed to evaporate. She looked at the riverbank and saw that they were all watching her, a line of fifteen or twenty light-green, sexless creatures with staring eyes and floppy leaves on their heads. Feeling suddenly excellent once more, she retracted her tendrils and walked stiffly back to the bank. “Feel all right now?” Brouder asked. “It was stupid of us—you naturally wouldn’t have had much water in you. You’re the first Entry in some time, and the first one ever for us. Please, if you feel in the least bit strange or ill, let us know. We take so much for granted.” The concern in its voice was genuine, she knew, and she took comfort from it. Ail of them had looked concerned when she had been out in the river. She really felt she was among friends now. “Will you answer some of my questions, then?” she asked them. “Go ahead,” Brouder told her. “Well—these will sound stupid to you all, of course, but this whole business is entirely new to me,” she began. “First off, what am I? That is, what are we?” “I’m Gringer,” another approached. “Perhaps I can answer that one. You are a Czillian-The land is called


CziII, and while that explains nothing, it at least gives you a label.” “What does the name mean?” she asked. Gringer gave the Czillian equivalent of a shrug. “Nothing, really. Most names don’t mean anything these days. They probably all did once, but nobody knows anymore. “Anyway, we are unusual in these parts because we are plants rather than animals of some sort. There are other sentient plant-beings on the Well World, eleven in the South here and nine in the North, although I’m not sure those are really plants as we understand them. We’re a distinct minority here, any-way. But there are great advantages to being in the vegetable kingdom.” “Like what?” she asked, fascinated in spite of herself. “Well, we are not dependent on any sort of food. Our bodies make it by converting light from the sun, as most plants do. Just get a few hours of real or artificial sun a day and you will never starve. You do need some minerals from the soil, but these are common to much of the Well World, so there are few places you can’t get along. Water is your only need, and you need it only once every few days. Your body will tell you when—as it did just now. If you get into a regular routine of drinking, you will never feel dizzy or faint nor will you risk your health from its lack. There is also no sex here, none of those primal drives that get the animals in such a neurotic jumble.” “Such things have been minimized on my home planet,” she responded. “It would appear from what you say that I will not find this place that far from my own social concepts. But, if you have no sexes, do you reproduce by some artificial means?” The crowd chuckled at this. “No,” Gringer responded, “all races on the Well World are self-contained biological units that could survive, given certain ecological conditions, without any aids. We reproduce slowly, for we are among the oldest-lived folk on the planet. When something happens to require additional population, then we plant ourselves for an extended period and produce


another of ourselves by fission. This is far more practical than the other way, for everything that we are is duplicated, cell for cell, so that the new growth is an exact copy that contains even the same memories and personalities. Thus, even though you will wear out in a few centuries, you will also live forever—for the growths are so identical that not even we are certain which one is which.” Vardia looked around, studying the crowd. “Are there any such twins here?” she asked. “No,” Gringer replied. “We tend to split up, stay far apart, until the years make us into different folk by the variety of experiences. We live in small camps, like this one, drawn from different occupations and interests, so that the camps provide a wide range of folk and keep things from getting too dull.” “What do you do for work?” Vardia asked. “I mean, most—ah, animal civilizations are devoted to food production, building and maintaining shelters, educating the young, and manufacturing. You don’t seem to need any of those things.” “This is true,” Brouder acknowledged. “Freed from the animal demands of food, clothing, shelter, and sex, we are able to turn ourselves to those pursuits to which other races must, because of the primacy of those needs, devote only a small part of their endeavors.” Vardia was more puzzled than ever. “What sort of activities do you mean?” she asked. “We think,” Brouder replied. “What Brouder means,” Gringer cut in, seeing her uncomprehending look, “is that we are researchers ‘ into almost every area. You may think of us as a giant university. We collect knowledge, sort it, play with problems both practical and theoretical, and add to the greater body of knowledge. Had you followed the main road in the other direction, you would have come upon the Center, which is where those of us who need lab facilities and technical tools work and where people following similar lines meet to discuss their findings and their problems.” Vardia’s mind tried to grasp it, and could not. “Why?” she asked.


Brouder and Gringer both showed expressions of surprise. “Why what?” Gringer asked. “Why do you do such work? To what goal?” This disturbed them, and there were animated conversations through the gathered crowd. Vardia was equally disturbed by the reaction to her question, which she had considered very straightforward. She thought perhaps she had been misunderstood. “I mean,” she said, “to what end is all of this research? You do not seem to use it yourself, so who is it for?” Gringer seemed about to have a fit of some kind. “But the quest for knowledge is the only thing that separates sentient beings from the most common grasses or lowest animals’” the Czillian said a bit shrilly. Brouder’s tone was almost patronizing, as if addressing a small child. “Look,” the researcher said to her, “what do you think is the end result for civilization? What is the goal of your people?” “Why, to exist in happiness and harmony with all others for all times,” she replied as if reciting a liturgy —which is what it was, taught from the day she was produced at the Birth Factory. Gringer’s long tentacles showed agitation. Its right one reached down and pulled up a single blade of the yellowish grass that grew for kilometers in all directions. It pushed the long stalk in front of her, waving it like a pointer. “This blade of grass is happy,” Gringer stated flatly. “It gets what it needs to survive. It doesn’t think or need to think. It remains happy even though I’ve pulled it up and it will die. It doesn’t know that, and won’t even know it when it’s dead. Its relatives out there on the plains are the same. They fit your definition of the ultimate goal of civilized society. It knows nothing, and in perfect ignorance is its total perfection and its harmony with its surroundings. Shall we, then. create a way to turn all sentient beings into blades of field grass? Shall we, then, have achieved the ultimate in evolution?” Vardia’s mind spun. This sort of logic and these kinds of questions were outside her experience and her orderly, programmed universe. She had no an-85

swers for these—heresies, were they? Cornered, but as yet unwilling to give up the true faith, she regressed. “I want to go back to my own world,” she wailed plaintively. Brouder’s expression was sad, and pity swept the crowd, pity not only at her philosophical dilemma but also for her people, the billions blindly devoted to such a hollow goal. Its rubbery tentacle wrapped itself around hers, and pulled her back into the reddish-brown, upturned soil of the camp. “Any other questions or problems can wait,” it said gently. “You will have time to leam and to fit here. It is getting dark now, and you need rest.” The shadows were getting long, and the distant sun had become an orange ball on the horizon. For the first time since waking up, she did feel tired, and a slight chill went through her. “Except under the artificial light of the Center we are inactive in darkness,” Brouder explained. “Although we could go indefinitely there, we need the rooting to remain healthy and active. We gain minerals and strength from it, and it is also necessary for mental health.” “How do I—ah, root?” she asked. “Just pick a spot not too near anyone else, and wait for darkness. You will see,” Brouder told her. The Czillian pointed out a good spot, then moved about five long paces from her. Vardia just stood there for a while, looking at the small community in the gloomy dusk. She discovered that, although her eyes remained open, she was having trouble seeing. Everything looked very dark, as if she were peering throush a piece of film that was badly underexposed. Then she felt the myriads of tiny tendrils in her feet creep out in response to some automatic signal and extend deep into the loose soil. The chill and tiredness seemed to lift, and she felt a warmth rising within her. Every cell of her new body seemed to tingle, and she was consumed in an orgasmic feeling of extreme pleasure that canceled out thought. All over the hex of CziH. all who were not working


in the Center were similarly rooting. To an alien observer, the land would be punctuated with over a million tall, thick vines as motionless as the trees. And yet the landscape was not motionless. Millions of nocturnal insects set up a chorus, and several small mammals scurried around looking for food and, in the process, moving, aerating, and fertilizing the soil. They provided the carbon-dioxide-from-oxygen conversion needed for atmospheric balance in this hex. The teeming legions of life coexisted with the daylight Czillians in perfect balance. They existed under the thousands of stars in the night sky the sleeping plant-people could not see. Because her eyes were lidless she saw the awakening even as she underwent it. It was strange to come out of that infinitely pleasurable sleep and see the morning simply fade in. Several of the others were in her field of vision, and she saw that the sleeping position was very stiff. Tentacles ran down and al-most blended with the trunk, the legs almost forming a solid front. She noted absently that picking one’s spot for the night was more important than had been first indicated. The unrooting was apparently triggered by the sun’s rays falling on the single leaf atop the head, so the more objects scattered about blocked the sun’s first rays, the slower one was to be freed. She felt her own tendrils retract and suddenly she could move freely, as if a paralysis had worn off. Brouder came up to her. “Well? Do you feel bet-ter?” it asked cheerfully. “Yes, much,” she replied, and meant it. She did feel better, her fears and insecurities fading into a tiny corner of her mind. For the first time she noticed that Brouder wore a neck chain similar to the ones on the two she had followed. Now she looked at the tiny object suspended from it. It was a digital watch. Brouder looked at it and nodded. “We’re early,” it said, then looked somewhat sheepish. “I always say that, even though we always wake up at the same time.”


“Then why wear a watch?” she asked. “It is a watch, isn’t it?” “Oh, yes,” the Czillian affirmed. “I need it to tell me the time and day so I can make my meetings at the Center. It’s been hectic lately, and I am always afraid that I’m going to get trapped and not be able to come home nights.” “What are you working on?” she asked. “A very strange project, even for this place,” came the reply. “We are attempting to solve a probably unsolvable riddle that is endemic to this world—a great deal of the Center is devoted to it right now. And the worst part is that most of us feel it is unsolvable.” “Then why bother with it?” she asked. The Czillian looked at her, a grave expression coloring its body movements. “Because, while we are the best equipped to work on the problem, others are also at work on it. If there is any chance it is solvable, the ultimate knowledge will be ours. In others’ hands, that knowledge might threaten the very survival of us all.” Here was something Vardia could understand, and she pressed her new friend for more information. But the Czillian dismissed further inquiry for the time being. She had the strong impression that the work was of too high a grade for her to be trusted, even though she was now one of them. “I am going to the Center now,” Brouder told her. “You should come with me. Not only will that give you a chance to see a little of our country—it’s your country now, you know—but only at the Center can you be tested and assigned.” She agreed readily and they started off, back down the road she had followed the day before. As they walked, Brouder pointed out the land and vegetation and sketched out the country for her. “Czill is six hundred fourteen point eight-six kilometers across, as is every other hex on the Well World except the equatorial hexes.” She marveled at the knowledge that the measurement it used bore no reh”onship to the metrics of


her own world, yet was translated to the decimal points instantly inside her head. “We have, of course, six neighbors, two of which are ocean species. Our seven great rivers are fed by hundreds of streams like the one at our camp. The rivers in turn empty into a great ocean—one of three in the South—covering almost thirty hexes-This one of ours is the Overdark Ocean. One of the sea folk is a marine mammal, half-humanoid and half-fish. They are air-breathers, but live most of their lives underwater. They are the Umiau, and you might run into a few at the Center. We are always cooperat-ing on a number of projects, particularly oceanographic studies, since we can’t visit their world except in pressure suits. The other ocean species is a nasty group called the Pia—evil characters with great brains and humanoid eyes. But they have ten tentacles with slimy, adhesive suckers and a gaping mouth with about twenty rows of teeth. You can’t really talk to them, although they are quite intelligent. They tend to eat anybody not of their race.” Vardia shuddered, imagining such horrors. “Then why don’t they eat the Umiau?” she asked. Brouder chuckled. “They would if they could, but, as with all hexes near antagonistic species on the Well World, natural limitations are designed into the system. The Umiau’s land is near the mouth of three rivers and the low salt content isn’t to a Pia’s liking. Also, the Umiau do have certain natural defenses and can swim faster and quicker. They’re in some kind of uneasy truce now, anyway, since the Umiau, although they aren’t fanatical about it, can and will eat Pia, too.” They remained silent for a while, until they came to a major fork in the road. “We go to the left,” Brouder said. “Don’t ever go down that right fork—it leads to the camps of the diseased and isolated.” “What sort of diseases?” she asked uneasily. “About the same number as anywhere else,” Brouder replied. “But every time we discover an im-munizing agent, something new mutates in the’viruses. I wouldn’t worry about it, however. The


average Czillian life span is over two hundred and fifty years, and if nothing serious happens to change that, you’ll twin several times anyway. The population’s a stable million and a half—crowded, but not so much that we cannot have empty spaces and camp room. Our births and deaths are almost exactly even —the planet’s master brain sees to that. Besides, since we don’t really age in the sense most other things do, and since we can regenerate roost of our parts that go bad or get injured, there’s naturally a constant death factor to keep the population in bounds. The master brain only interferes in critical situations.” “Regenerate?” Vardia asked, surprised. “Do you mean that if I lose an arm or leg it will grow back?” “Just so,” Brouder affirmed. “Your entire pattern is held within every cell of your body. Since respira-tion is direct, through the pores, as long as your brain’s intact, you’ll come back. It’s painful—and we don’t experience much pain—but possible.” “So the oniy area I have to protect is my head,” she remarked. Brouder laughed a high, shrill laugh. “No, not your head, certainly not! Either foot,” it said, pointing to her strange feet that looked like inverted bowls with spongy lids for soles. “Do you mean I’m walking on my brains?” she gasped incredulously. “Just so, just so,” affirmed Brouder. “Each controls half of your body, but each has the total content of the body’s input, including thought and memory. If we were to chop you off at the bottom of the stalk, your two feet would dig into the ground and each would sprout a new you. Your head contains sensory input neural circuits only—in fact, it’s mostly hollow. Chop it off and you’d just go to sleep and dig in until you grew a new one.” Vardia marveled at this news as much as she had at Ortega back at Zone. But this isn’t some alien creature I just met, she told herself. It is me it is talking about. “There’s the Center,” Brouder said as they came over a rise.


It was a great building that seemed to spread out for kilometers across the horizon. There was a great bubble in the center that reflected light like a mirror, then several arms—six of them, she noted with dry amusement—made of what appeared to be transparent glass—spread out symmetrically. She saw skyscrapers of the same transparent material, a few twenty or more stories, rising around the bubble and opposite the tips of the arms. “It’s incredible!” she managed. “More than you know,” Brouder replied with a touch of pride. “There our best minds work out problems and store the knowledge we obtain. The silvery rails that thread through the walls and ceilings are artificial solar light sufficient to keep us awake and fed through the night, and if you look to the horizon you’ll see the River Averil coming in. The Center’s built over it, giving us a constant water source. With light and water provided—and some vitamin baths— you can work around the clock for seven to ten days. But sooner or later it catches up with you and the longer you stay awake the longer you will have to plant in the end.” Something made her think of Nathan Brazil and that book he had been reading, the one with the lurid cover. “You have a library here?” she asked. “The best,” the other boasted. “It has everything we’ve ever been able to collect, both from our studies on this planet and from Entries like yourself who provide history, sociology, and even technical information.” “Any stories?” she asked. “Oh, yes,” came the reply. “And legends, tales, whatever. The Umiau are particularly fertile in that department. The river’s how they get up to the Center.” “What keeps the Pia away, then?” she asked apprehensively. “They can’t take fresh water, and they’d have to breathe it, remember? The Umiau are mammals so they don’t care what sort of water they’re in.” Brouder went on to explain the social structure of


the Center. It was headed by a small group of specialists called Elders, not because they were old but because they were the best in their fields. Below them were their assistants, the Scholars, who did the research and basic project work. Brouder was a Scholar, as was Gringer. Under them were the Apprentices who learned their fields and waited for their chance to prove themselves and advance. The bottom level was the Keepers—the cleaners, gardeners, and technicians who maintained everything so that everyone could get on with his work. The Keepers chose their own lives and professions and many were retired upper-level folk who had decided they had gone as far as they could, or who had reached dead ends. But some just liked to do what they did. Brouder took her inside and introduced her to a Scholar whose name was Mudriel. Basically, the Scholar was an industrial psychologist, and over the next several days—weeks, in fact—Vardia was kept busy with interviews, tests, and other experiments to see her total profile. In addition, they began to teach her to read the Czillian language. Mudriel, in particular, was pleased with the speed and ease with which she was mastering it. Every evening they sent her out to a special camp near the Psych Department but out of the shade of the building. The nights saw a strange forest grow up on all sides of the Center as thousands of workers of all ranks came out and rooted. Some stayed rooted for days, even several days, sleeping off long, around-the- clock stints at work. Vardia seemed to be Madrid’s only customer, and she remarked on it. “You are the first Entry to be a Czillian in our lifetimes,” Mudriel explained. “Normally, I study various departments and workers to see if they are ruining their health or efficiency, or are misplaced. It happens all the time. Sometimes, whenever possible, we bring Entries from other hexes here for de-briefing. When that is not possible, I go to them. I am one of perhaps a thousand, no more, who has been in the Northern Hemisphere.”


“What’s it like?” she asked. “I understand it’s different.” “That’s the word for it,” Mudriel agreed, and gave a brief shudder. “But we have some just as bad on our side, in one way or another. Ever think of interviewing a Pia in its own domain when ifs trying to be helpful and eat you at the same time? I have.” “And yet you’ve survived,” she said in admiration. Mudriel made a negative gesture. “Not always. I’ve been down to my feet once, practically wrecked for weeks three or four times, and killed twice.” “Killed!” Vardia exclaimed. “But—” Mudriel shrugged. “I’ve twinned four times naturally,” it replied matter-of-factly, “and once when I was left with only my brains. There are still four of me. We stay in the same job and take turns on the travel to even out the risk.” Vardia shook her head in wonder, a gesture more human than Czillian. While most twins were turned to other fields by the Psych Department, ones with critical jobs or super-specialized knowledge and skills often worked together side by side. Vardia met several people at the Center several times to mutual confusion. One day Mudriel called her into its office, where it was thumbing through an enormously thick file. “It’s time to assign you and go on to other things,” the psychologist told her. “You’ve been here long enough for us to know you better than we know al-most any other Czillian. I must say, you’ve been a wonderful subject, but a puzzling one.” “In what way?” Vardia asked. As time went by she had become more and more accustomed to her new form and surroundings, and less and less had felt the social alienation of that first night. “You have normalized,” Mudriel pointed out. “By this time you are feeling as if you were born one of us, and your past life and that which went with it is a purely intellectual memory experience.” “That’s true,” Vardia acknowledged. “It almost seems as if all my past happened to someone else, that I just watched it unfold.” “That’s true of all Entries,” replied Mudriel. “Part


of the change process, when the biological changes adjust and remake the psyche. Much of our personality and behavior is based on such biological things. In the animals, its glands, enzymes, and the like, but with us its various different secretions. Hormonal imbalances in your former race cause differences; by artificially injecting certain substances into a male of your species who was sexually developed, he could be given female characteristics, and vice versa. Now, time has rebalanced your mind with your new body, and it is for the best.” “What puzzles you about me, then?” Vardia prodded. “Your lack of skills,” replied the psychologist. “Everybody does something. But you were apparently raised to be highly intelligent yet totally ignorant. You could carry messages and conversations with ease, yet do nothing else. Your ignorance of much of your own sector amazes us. “You were, in effect, a human recording machine. Did you, for example, realize that in the eighty-three days you’ve been with us you’ve had a longer existence than ever in your short life?” “I—I don’t know what you mean,” Vardia stammered. Mudriel’s expression and tone were of mixed pity and disgust. “They bred you with an extremely high intelligence, but while you grew up, they administered extremely deep programming to make certain you never used it. Over all this was lightly placed the persona known as Vardia Dipio Twelve Sixty-one, a number whose implications are distasteful to me. This made you curious, inquisitive, but only on the surface. You could never act on any information gained, nor did you have any desire to. The persona was mainly to help others feel comfortable. When you reached your destination, an embassy employee would put you under hypnosis, read off the message —and, in the process, wipe your memory. Then the same persona would be reimposed with a reply message, if any. Had you reached Coriolanus, this would have been the case. You now have vivid memories of


your Captain Brazil and the other passengers, and of Dalgonia. All of these would have been gone. Any whom you knew who had previously encountered you would be strangers to you. They would just assume, as you would, that it was another Vardia Dipio they knew. Think back—what do you remember of your life before boarding Brazil’s ship?” Vardia thought back with the clarity and detach-ment she now possessed. She remembered saying good-bye to the Political Office staff, walking out, riding to the spaceport, boarding the shuttle. Nothing before. “I never realized—” she began, but Mudriel cut her off- “I know,” the psychologist said. “Part of the deep program. It would never even occur to you. And you didn’t even know the message you carried, the one that they would go to these lengths to keep private. By programmed exercises you kept yourself in perfect physical condition, and if challenged or cornered you would fight suicidally to free yourself. If trapped, you would have triggered a series of impulses that would have brought about your suicide.” Mudriel saw the mixed apprehension and disbelief in Vardia’s eyes. “Don’t worry,” the psychologist assured her. “We have removed the deep programming. You will re-main you. Would you like to hear the message you carried?” Vardia nodded dully, her mind in a fog. The psychologist took out a tiny translucent cube and popped it into a well in a small recorder on a table nearby. Vardia suddenly heard her voice—her old voice, incredibly, although she no longer possessed the vocal chords to speak that way, saying in a tinny way: “The Commisariat introduces you to Datham Hain, who, with a companion, came on the same ship as the courier. Citizen Hain is on a mission of vital importance to the Commisariat and requires dinner appointments with several Members of the Presidium of Coriolanus, as many as can be accommodated.


You are to follow whatever might be his instructions to the letter, without question or hesitation. Keep the courier until at least one such meeting has been arranged, then reprogram it to report on that meeting, said reprogramming to be in Hain’s presence and with his approval. All glory to the People’s Revolution, all glory to its prophets.” The psychologist studied Vardia closely as the recording closed. The ex-courier was obviously stunned and shaken, but that shock treatment had to be administered. All over the Entry’s body, the Czillian read the mental struggle that had to be taking place within. It was a terrible thing to destroy someone’s com-placent world-picture. Finally, the psychologist asked gently, “Would you like to go root and meditate? Take as long as you want.” Vardia shook her head negatively. “No,” she said at last, in a half-whisper, “no, I’m all right.” “I know,” the psychologist soothed. “It is a terrible thing to find the lie in life. That is one reason we are dedicated here to the uncovering of truth. There are societies and people just as bad on this world, maybe even worse. Hain himself is here somewhere, and probably has already fallen in with a bad bunch. Such societies are the enemies of all civilization, and it is with them that we war. Will you join us in the fight?” Vardia stood silent a few moments more. Then, suddenly, something seemed to snap within her, and with a fierceness and intensity that surprised even her she said, “Yes!” The psychologist gave the Czillian equivalent of a smile and turned back to the file it had before it. Picking up a stamp, it brought it down on an empty block on the front of the file. In Czillian it read: Ready for Assignment. The last processing was over, and Vardia Dipio 1261 was extinguished. Vardia the Czillian left the office.


The Akkafian Empire (Enter Datham Hain, Asleep) DATHAM HAIN HAD ENTERED THE GATE WITH A FALSE sense of bravado, but he was scared to death. He had nightmares of awful proportions, bringing forth every fear in his long life. These surfaced as the Markovian brain picked, analyzed, and classified each subject according to some long-lost, preset reasoning. He awoke suddenly, with a start, and looked around. It was the strangest look in his experience. He realized immediately that he was now color-blind, although instead of merely the blacks, whites, and shades of gray, there was a mild sepia-tone effect that made certain things look fuzzy and others stand out. His depth perception was remarkable, he realized. At a glance he could tell exactly how far everything in view was from everything else, and his vision seemed to be enlarged to a 180-degree field. That was amazing, as amazing as the view itself. He seemed to be on a ledge overlooking an incredible landscape far below. The land was bleak and sandy, broken only by hundreds of cones that looked almost like perfectly formed volcanoes. He strained to get a better look, and found, suddenly, the scene magnifying itself, each time by a factor of two. As it did, a hardly noticed hairline-split midway in his vision also magnified, so that it became a huge bar separating the scene into right and left views. It was as if he were peering through two windows while standing in front of the post that separated them. There were things down there, and they were mov-ing. Hain stared in fascination at them, a corner of his mind wondering why he was fascinated instead Of hor-rified or repelled. They were great insects, ranging in


she from one to almost four meters long, the median height being almost a meter. They had two large, apparently multifaceted eyes fixed, like a fly’s, forward in the head. Below the eyes were huge mandibles flanking a mouth resembling a parrot’s beak. With surprise he saw one creature stop while a long, snaky black tongue emerged to clean the face. The body was oblong and seemed to have hair on it—the resolution of Hain’s vision was so fine that he could almost count the hairs. And yet—yes, flush against the body in the hair were wings, several pairs of them. The rear of the body exposed a barren, bony tip that undoubtedly was a stinger. Ham tried to imagine the fate of anyone stung with something that size. The head seemed to be on a hinge or circular joint, as some of the creatures moved it slightly in one or another direction. For the first time he saw the feelers, giant things that seemed to have a life of their own, moving every way but forward—including straight up. They ended in hair-covered nodules. The eight legs were thick and were also covered with hair, longer and down-angled. They were multijointed, and he saw a pair of the creatures using their forward legs like hands to move a rock away from a pathway it was blocking. He could see that the tips were not hair but spikelike and were covered with a secretion that looked sticky. The insects moved with amazing speed sometimes, and, every once in a while, one would take to the air briefly. Apparently they couldn’t fly very far with all that weight, but could manage a short hop when they felt like it. As Ham watched, he saw that some of them were operating machines! One looked like a snowplow, and it was clearing dust and debris from the roadways as it was pushed forward; others seemed to have no obvious purpose. With the realization that these were not animals but one form of sentient life on the Well World, something else hit, as well. He tried to turn his head to see himself, but could not. He opened his strangely rigid mouth and stuck out his tongue. It was more than three meters


long, as controllable as an arm, and covered with an incredibly sticky substance. I’m one of them, he told himself, more in wonder than in fear. He raised his head up and brought his two forward legs into view. He had been right, he saw. Three joints, all bendable in any direction. The tips were spikes, like hard rubber, and he experimented by reaching out and picking up a small rock. As his legs touched the rock, a sticky secretion gave him a grip. When he let go, the secetion turned to a solid film and fell away like used skin. He noticed immediately that, when the dropped rock hit, he did not hear it. Rather, he felt it, as a sharp, single pulsation. The antennae, he told himself. They sense air movement, but not as sound. Suddenly he was aware that he was getting thousands of tiny pulses through them, and, incredibly, he almost sensed the source and distance of each. This has possibilities, thought Datham Hain. Using his tongue he surveyed his own body, being careful not to come near the stinger at the rear which he now realized he could feel when he wanted to. No use in possibly poisoning myself this early in the game, he thought cautiously. He was about three meters long and almost a meter high, he discovered. About medium-sized for those creatures down there. He flexed his wings—six pairs, he found—long but looking extremely thin and frail to support his weight. He decided he wouldn’t try them out until he knew more about his anatomy. Even birds have to be taught to fly, he thought, and sentient creatures probably had less instinct—if any at all—than the lower species-Now how do I get down off this ledge? he wondered. Finally, he decided to experiment, moving his body close to the edge. As his front legs touched the side they secreted that substance and stuck, he saw with satisfaction. Emboldened, he pushed off and started walking down the side. Doing so was incredibly easy, he found, confidence growing with each step. He realized he could probably


walk on a ceiling, if the sticky stuff would support his weight. The main problem would be getting used to the fact that there was so much of him in back of his head. The legs worked in perfect coordination, as if he had been born with them; but the body was hard and rigid, and took some practice to maneuver without spilling end over end. It took several minutes to descend the low cliff, although he realized that, with practice, he could probably come back and do it in seconds. Once down, he faced a problem that his reason wouldn’t solve for him. He wanted to get introduced quickly, to get settled in here, and to check out the sociopolitical sys-tem, the geography, and the like. Also, he was feeling hungry, and he hadn’t the slightest idea what these creatures ate. But how did they communicate? Not only language, but even the means weren’t all that apparent. Well, that Ortega had said that the brain would provide for such things, he told himself; but he was exceedingly nervous as he approached one of the creatures coming down the road. The other saw him and stopped. “What are you doing just standing there, Markling?” the newcomer challenged sternly. “Don’t you have any work to do?” Hain was stunned. The language was a series of incredibly rapid pulsations transmitted in some way from the creature’s antennae to his own, yet he had understood everything! All but the last word, anyway. He decided to try to talk back. “Please. I am newly born to this world, and I need help and guidance,” he began, then felt his own antennae quiver incredibly quickly as he talked. It worked! “What the hell?” responded the gruff stranger, although not really in those terms. Hain’s brain automatically seemed to translate into familiar symbols. “You sick or something?” “No, no,” Hain protested. “I have just come from Zone, where I have just awakened as one of you.” The other thought about that for a minute. “I’ll be

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L