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


swiftly but rather shallowly over a rocky bottom seen clearly through the greenish tinge to the water’s surface. Here and there, she saw logs and remnants of logs that had fallen due to weathering or age. Many were covered with mossy yellow-green growths and several were nurse trees, their dead and decaying limbs providing a haven from which newer trees of a different type were growing. Small insects hummed and buzzed all around, and she watched them curiously. A sudden crackle of underbrush made her turn with a start. She saw a small, brown-furred mammal with a rodent’s face and a broad flat tail jump into the stream carrying a twig in its mouth. Her eyes followed it until it made the opposite shore and ran into the underbrush formed by swampy weeds and long grains of grassy plants diagonally opposite her. Still acting without conscious thought, like a newborn child seeing the world for the first time, she went up to the stream just far enough down that she wasn’t caught in the spray from the great falls. She looked down at her reflection. She saw the face . of a young woman barely in her teens, a face that looked back at her. Not beautiful, but pleasant, with long brown hair falling down. over small but well-formed breasts. She reached up with one hand and brushed back the hair on one side. Her skin was a light brown, her palms a slightly lighter color but seemingly made of a tougher skin. I’ve got pointy ears, she thought, seeing them revealed by the brushed-back hair. And they were pointed, the insides a soft pink. Although not really large, she realized that they would probably protrude slightly if she stood perfectly erect. On some sort of impulse, she tried to wiggle her ears—and they moved noticeably! Then she looked down at her body. At the waist the very light down that began just below her breast thickened into hair of the same color as her skin. Her eyes moved down to two stocky legs that ended in large, flat hooves. That’s strange, she thought. Hooves and pointed ears that wiggle.


For no reason in particular she turned her body at the waist almost halfway around, and looked in back of her. A long, sturdy-looking equine body supported by two hind legs was clearly visible—and a tail! A big, brushy tail she found she could wiggle. What am I? she thought in sudden fear. Where is this? She tried to remember, but could not. It’s as if I was just bom, she thought. I can’t remember anything. Not my name, not anything. The reflection and the body looked totally strange to her. I remember the words, she thought. I know that this is a stream and that is a waterfall and that that person in the water is a reflection of me, and I’m a young girl. She hadn’t even realized she was a girl until then. There was a term for this, she thought, and she tried to remember it. Amnesia, that was it. People who couldn’t remember their past. Somehow she felt that she had never been to this place before, and that something was different about her, but she couldn’t think of what. She Just stood there by the edge of the stream for several minutes m stunned silence, not knowing what else to do. Several insects buzzed around her rear, and with an automatic mo-tion she brushed them away with her tail. Suddenly her ears picked up the sound of laughing —a girl and a boy, she thought. They were coming down the trail! Quickly, almost in panic, she looked around for a place to hide, but found none before the pair came trotting down the path. They look like the top half of people stuck onto the bodies of working ponies, her mind thought. Her face turned quizzically at the thought. What were people anyway, if not these? And what were ponies? The two beings were not really large, but the boy was almost a head taller and proportionately larger than the girl. The male was a golden color, with silver-white hair down to his shoulders and a full beard, neatly trimmed, of the same color. The girl, curiously, was a mottled gray mixed with large black spots, and this coloration extended to her upper


torso. Her hair was a mixed gray and black, her gray breasts much fuller than the amnesiac onlooker’s. No navels, she thought inanely. We don’t have na-vels. The pair saw her and stopped almost in midlaugh. They surveyed her curiously, but without any trace of hostility or alarm, “Hello!” called the boy—he looked no more than fourteen or fifteen, the girl about the same. The voice was a pleasant tenor, with a slight, indefinable accent. “I don’t think we’ve seen you here before.” She hesitated a moment, then replied hesitantly, “I—I don’t think I’ve ever been here before. I—I just don’t know.” Tears welled in her eyes. The two centaurs saw that she was in some distress and rushed up to her. “What’s the matter?” the girl asked in a high” pitched adolescent voice. She started to cry. “I don’t know, I can’t remember anything,” she sobbed. “There, there,” the boy crooned, and began to stroke her back. “Get it all out, then tell us what’s going on.” The stroking had a calming effect, and she straightened up and wiped her eyes with her hand. “I don’t know,” she managed, coughing a little. “I—I just woke up down the trail and I can’t remember anything—who I am, where I am, even what I am.” The boy, who was even larger in comparison to her than he was to his companion, examined her face and head, and felt the skull. “Does it hurt anywhere when I do this?” he asked. “No,” she told him. “Tickles a little all over, that’s all.” He lifted up her face and stared hard into her eyes. “No glaze,” he commented, mostly to himself. “No sign of injury. Fascinating.” “Aw, come on, Jol, what’d you expect to find?” his companion asked. “Some sign of injury or shock,” be responded, al—


most in a clinical tone. “Here, girl, stick out your tongue. No, I mean it. Stick it out.” She did, feeling somewhat foolish, and he examined it. It was a big tongue, fiat and broad, and a gray-pink in color. “All right, you can stick it back in now.” he told her. “No coating, either. If you’d have had some kind of shock or disease, it’d show.” “Maybe she’s been witched, Jol,” the spotted gray centaur suggested, and drew back a little. “Maybe,” he conceded, “but, if so, it’s nothin’ to concern us.*’ “What d’you think we oughta do?” his girlfriend asked. Jol turned and for the first time Julee saw he had some kind of saddlebag strapped around his waist. “First we take our shower,” he answered, removing an irregular bar of what must have been soap, some cloths, and towels from the bag, then unstrapping it and letting it fall to the ground. “Then well take our mystery girl here to the village and let somebody smarter than we are take over.” And they proceeded to do Just that. After some more hesitation, she joined them, following their actions and sharing a towel. “You don’t have to get too dry,” the girl, whose name was Dal, told her. “You’ll air-dry pretty good.” Together the three of them set on back down the trail. As they left the forest the village and lands beyond came into view. It was a beautiful land, she thought. The stream flowed out of majestic, snow-capped mountains which spread out on both sides to reveal a rich valley and gently rolling hills. The village—a collection of rough but sturdy log buildings by the side of a blue-green lake—bustled with activity. The fields were properly plowed and planted, and she saw a few centaurs checking and tending between stalks of unknown grain-The whole place didn’t seem as if it could support,


or had, more than a few hundred people, she thought and commented on that to her companions. Jol laughed. “That proves you must be from downlake,” he said. “Some pretty big communities down there. Actually, there’s close to a thousand in the valley, here, but we’re spread out all over the landscape. Only fifty or sixty live in town all the time.*’ The main street was broad and maintained much like the trails, of which she had seen quite a few, a thick covering of sawdust making the paving. Most of the buildings had an open side facing the street. The largest building was the first one they reached. It contained a huge forge on which several male and female centaurs worked hot metal. She saw with curiosity one woman lift a hind leg while a brawny male, wearing a protective bib, hammered something on her foot, apparently painlessly. Other buildings proved to be stores selling farm implements, seed, and the like. There was even a barbershop and a bar, closed at the moment but unmistakable in its huge kegs and large steins. “Is it always this warm and humid here?’* she asked Jol. He chuckled again in that friendly way he had about him. “No, this is a four-season hex,” he explained enigmatically. “Then we all get out our gam-mot fur coats and hats and gloves and romp in the cold snow.” A gammot, she discovered, was one of the large rodents she had spied down by the stream. “It must be a huge coat,” she remarked, and Dal and Jol both laughed. “You really do have amnesia!” Dal responded. “The hair on our bodies and a nice, thick layer of fat put on in summer and fall are pretty good insulators. Only our hairless parts need protection.” “You can see the fireplaces and chimneys,” Jol pointed out. “In the fall the fronts are put back on and they become warm as today inside.” Julee started to ask what happened when it rained, but she saw that the roofs and ledges were angled and the buildings so placed that it would take a really terrible storm to get much rain inside.


“It looks as if anyone dishonest could steal anything he wanted here,” Julee commented. They both stopped and looked at her strangely. “That just isn’t done here—not by any Dillian,” he huffed. His reaction startled her, and she apologized. “I— I’m sorry. I don’t know why I think like that.” “We do get some alien traders from other hexes in once in a while and they’ve tried taking stuff,” Dal put in to defuse the issue. “Won’t do ‘em no good here, though. Only way in is by the lake—forty kilometers, almost as deep as it is long. Nobody can beat us in the woods, and anybody who wants to climb six kilometers of mountain at steep grade and below zero temperatures would lose more than he could take.” They reached a small building about two-thirds of the way down the thirty or so buildings of the town’s lone street. A wooden sign hung on a post, a hexagonal symbol of two small trees flanking a huge one, burned in with some son of tool. Inside stood an elderly centaur with long, white hair and unkempt beard reaching down below his nipples. He had once been coal black, she realized, but now the body hair was necked with silvery white. He would look very officious standing there at his cluttered desk, she thought, amused, if he wasn’t sound asleep and snoring loudly. “That’s Yomax,” Jol told her. “The closest thing we’ve got to a government in the village. He’s sort of the mayor, postmaster, chief forester, and game warden here. He always opens up at seven o’clock like the duty book says, but since the boat doesn’t get in until eleven-thirty, he usually goes back to sleep until just before then.” He yelled, “Hey! Yomax! Wake up! Official business!” The old man stirred, then wiped his eyes and stretched, not only his arms but also his entire long body. “Hmph! Whazzit?” he snorted. “Some damned brat*s always foolin’ with me,” he muttered, then turned to see who stood there.


His eyes fixed on Wu Julee, and he suddenly came fully awake. “Well! Hello!” he greeted in a friendly but puzzled tone. “I don’t remember seein’ you around before.” “She’s lost her memory, Yomax,” Jol explained. “We found her down by Three Falls.” “She don’t know nothin’ about nothin’,” Dal put in. “Didn’t even know ‘bout winter and coats and all.” The old man Crowned, and came up to her. Ignoring Jol’s protests that he had done it already, Yomax proceeded to go through the same examination Julee had had earlier—with similar negative results. Yomax scratched his beard and thought. “And you don’t remember nothin’?” he asked for the fifth or sixth time, and for at least that many times she answered, “No.” “Mighty strange,” he said. Then, suddenly, he brightened. “Lift your right foreleg,” he instructed. She did, and he grasped the hoof firmly and turned it up. “I think she’s been witched,” Dal maintained. “Com’mere and lookit this,” Yomax said softly. The other two crowded in to see. “She ain’t got no shoes!” Da! exclaimed. “Not only that,” the old one pointed out, “there’s no sign that she ever had any.” “Don’t prove nothin’,” Dal persisted. “I know lots’a folks what don’t wear shoes, particularly upvalley.” “That’s true,” admitted Yomax, dropping the leg and straightening up, for which Julee was thankful. She felt circulation start to return. “But,” the old centaur continued, “that’s a virgin hoof. No deep stains, no imbedded stones, nothing. Hers are like a newborn’s.” “Aw, that ain’t possible,” Jol said scornfully. “I told ya she was witched,” Dal insisted. “You two get along and do your chores or whatever,” Yomax told them, waving them away with his hands. “I think I know at least part of what this is about.” They left reluctantly and then started to return. Yomax had to bellow at them several times.


“Now, then, young lady,” he began, satisfied of some privacy at last, “let mŤ throw some names at you-Let’s see if any of ‘em strike a bell.” “Go ahead,” she urged him, intrigued. “Nathun Brazzle,” he began, trying to make do with the strange names on a paper he had fished from a crowded drawer in his desk. “Vardya Dipla Twelve Sixty-one. Dayton Hain. Wo Jolie. Anything” She shook her head slowly from side to side. “I’ve never heard any of those names before,” she told him. “At least—1 don’t think so.” “Hmmm …” the old man mused. “I’m sure I’m right. Only possible explanation. Well. tell you what. Got one test when the boat comes in. Old Entry from the same neck of the woods as these folks— ten, fifteen years ago. He pilots the ferry now, since old Gletin refused to see how old he was and went overboard in a storm ‘couple years back,” Yomax told her. “He’ll still remember the old language. I’ll git him to spout some of that alien gibberish at ya, and we’ll see if ya understand it.” They passed the time talking until the ferry arrived, the old man telling about his land and people with pride and affection. During the course of his rambling but entertaining memoir/travelogue, which she was sure was almost half-true, a great many facts emerged. She learned about the Well World, and what the hexes were. She learned about Zone and gates, and the strange creatures that wandered around. She found that, although the Dillians lived to be well over a hundred Well World years on the average, the population was relatively small. Females went into heat only every other year, then only for a short period, and invariably bore but a single young—which had about an even chance of surviving its first year. If you made it through puberty, about a twenty percent chance, then you would live a long life— because you would already be immune to most of what would kill you. The various colors—Yomax said there were hundreds of combinations—of the people didn’t seem


to meld with interbreeding, she was told, since all color genes were recessives. “Rank comes with age,” Yomax told her. “When you get too old to plow, or build, or chop and haul wood, they put you in charge of things. Since nobody likes to admit they’re old when the job’s so little— you saw how much respect I got from the young ones—I wound up bein’ about everything the village needs.” The mother was the ultimate authority in child-rearing, he explained, but the family group shared moral responsibility. Since customs like marriage and inheritances were unknown—everything was simplistically communal—people formed family groups with other people they liked, without much regard to sex. The groups were mostly traditional now, but occasionally new ones of three to six would be formed by the young after puberty. The entire hex was a collection of small towns and villages, she learned, because of the low birthrate and also because of innate limits on technology here. Anything more ambitious than the most basic steam engine just wouldn’t work in Dillia. That kept things extremely simple and pastoral, but also stable, peaceful, and uncluttered. “In some hexes you can’t even tell what sort of place it once was,” Yomax told her. “All them machines and smelly stuff, everybody livin’ in air-conditioned bubbles. Then they want to come here to get back to nature! They do some tourist business in other parts of the country, but this place is so isolated nobody’s discovered it yet. And, when they do, they’ll find us damned hostile, I can tell you!” With that impassioned statement, there came the long, deep sound of a steam whistle, its call echoing across the mountains. Yomax grabbed a simple cloth sack tied with twine and invited her down to the lakefront about 150 me-ters from town. She saw a simple wooden wharf with several huge posts, nothing more. A few townspeople waited just off the dock, apparently having business downlake or awaiting passengers. Coming up on the wharf was the strangest craft she


had ever seen. A giant oval raft, it looked like, with another raft built on top of it and supported by solid log cross-bracing. In the middle was a single, huge, black boiler, with a stack going up through the second tier and several meters beyond, belching white smoke. A single centaur, black and white striped all over, a crazy-looking broad-brimmed hat on his head, stood at a large wheel, which was flanked by two levers. The levers went down through to the boiler level and seemed to do nothing but signal a brown centaur-engineer to turn some control or other on the boiler. The boiler was attached by what looked more like thick rope than chain to a small, wooden paddle wheel in the back. About twenty varicolored Dillians stood on the first deck, some between oaken trunks full of unguessable cargo. Under the cross-bracing there seemed to be a counter and some kegs and steins. A large bale of grain flanked it. Wu Julee could guess that this was the snack bar. She had already had a brunch with Yomax and discovered that the centaurs were herbivores who occasionally cooked various dishes but mostly ate raw grains and grasses grown in their fields. Tasted good, too, she had found. Ropes from wooden posts on the side of the primitive steamer were tossed to a couple of villagers on the dock who tied the boat off. Satisfied, the captain went to the back and came down an almost disguised grooved ramp to the first deck. Yomax tossed the mail to a crewman who idly threw it toward the center of the boat. The captain picked up a similar sack and jumped off to the dock, clasping hands with Yomax and then handing the old official the sack. Yomax introduced the steamer captain to Wu Julee. “This here’s Klamath,” the old man told her. “Not a proper name for a good DiHian, but he was born with it.” “Please to meet you, Lady urn . , .?” The captain’s expression prompted a lead. “She don’t know her name, Klammy,” Yomax explained. “Just kinda showed up all blanked out eariy


this momin’. I think she’s an Entry, and thought may-be you could help.” Quickly he explained his language idea to the captain. “Harder than you think,” the captain replied thoughtfully. “It’s true that I think in the old tongue, but everything’s instantly and automatically translated in and out. It’d be easier if I could write something for her.” Julee shook her head sadly. “I am certain that I never learned to read. I just know it,” “Hmmm… . Well, Yomax, you’re the control,” Klamath said. “It’s going to take a lot of concentration to get out some old word stuff through the translation process, and I’m not really going to know if I’m successful or not. It all sounds the same to me. If she understands it and you don’t, then we’ll have it made.” Klamath took chin in hand in a thoughtful pose, try-ing to think of something he could do to break through the barrier. Suddenly he brightened. “Worth a try,” he said at last, “but even if she doesn’t understand it, it won’t prove much. Well, here goes. “Using the Three KY spectroanalysis program, stellar motion can be computed by phase-shifting observations using the infraspectrometer circuits in the navigational matrix for visual course plots,” Klamath intoned. Suddenly he stopped and turned to Yomax. “How was that?” he asked. “I got maybe one word in four,” the old man replied. “How about the lady here?” Julee shook her head in bewilderment. “A lot of big words but I didn’t understand what they meant.” “Can you remember a big word?” Klamath prompted. She thought for a minute. “Ma—matrix, I think,” she said hesitantly, and, she looked totally perplexed, “phase shifting?” Klamath smiled. “Good old basic navigation man-ual!” he exclaimed. “You’re from my part of the universe, all right. There’s just no equivalent for that stuff in this language.” Yomax nodded, an expression of satisfaction on his face. “So she’s one of the last four.”


“Almost certainly,” Klamath nodded. “Fve been keeping track of them since I know one, at least slightly. He’s almost a living legend among spacers, and we know where he is and where the one called Vardia is. You must be that girl that was sick; that would explain the memory problems.” “Who am I, then?” she asked excitedly. “I want to know.” “Probably a girl named Wu Julee,” Klamath told her. “Wu Julee,” she repeated. The name sounded strange and totally unfamiliar to her. She wasn’t sure she liked it. “I’ll be heading back downlake in an hour or so, and when I get to Donmin I’ll see the local councilman and pass the word along,” Klamath said, “In the meantime, you might as well stay here. It’s about the best place to relax and enjoy things, and that might be just what you need.” Their course of action agreed to, they all went to the local bar. She felt somewhat left out of the conversation after that, and the thick, dark ale made her slightly giddy. She excused herself and wandered out onto the main street. Jol and Dal were there, and, seeing her, rushed up for the news. “They say I’m an Entry,” she told them- “Someone named Wu Juiee. They said I was sick.” “Well, you’re healthy now,” Jol replied. “And whatever you had got cured on the way in. Maybe your memory will come back, too, after a while.” He stopped and fidgeted nervously for a time, glancing once in a while to Dal. Finally the spotted female threw up her hands. “All right, all right. May as well,” she said enigmatically. “Sure it’s all right with you?” Jol responded. “Why not?” his girlfriend replied, resigned. Jol turned back to Wu Julee. “Look,” he said eagerly, “we—Dal and me—we been thinkin’ of putting together our own family, particularly with Dal pregnant and all. There’s so few folks our age up here, and


we aren’t gettin’ along with our own families too good now. Why don’t you come in with us?” Julee hesitated a moment, then replied, “I’d like that —if it’s all right with Yomax.” “Oh, he won’t mind,” Dal replied. “He’s been itchin’ to see us take jobs anyhow, and if we form the group we’ll have to to get our share of the harvest.” And it was that easy. They picked a spot fairly deep in the woods upvalley and started by building a primitive but efficient trail to the site-It required little clearing, but it did wind in and out between the giant trees. Borrowing a large handsaw and with some help from a forester they chopped down two trees near a tiny creek and burned out the stumps. Villagers helped them clear the area and cut up the trees into useful sizes, as well as providing smaller, more useful logs and hauling reddish clay used for insulation. Wu Julee—the others nicknamed her Wuju, which she liked better—threw herself into the work, putting any thoughts of Klamath and governmental problems out of her mind. She hadn’t seen the captain after the first day, since the boat came only once a day and stayed barely over an hour. Weeks passed. They put in the sawdust floor, and built a stone caim to use as a stove and winter heater, fueled with wood left over from the project. The cabin had a large central area with crude tables and a work area, and five stalls—bedrooms, really, with leaning supports, since the Dillians slept standing up. The extra stalls were for Dal’s increasingly obvious new arrival and a spare in case someone else would join them. Jol and Dal took her trapping in the woods, and showed her how to skin and weave the animal furs and the skin from various plants into clothing. Once settled in, she and Jol were assigned to survey and check some back-country trails, particularly noting log bridges that might not stand the weight of winter snows. It was easy and pleasant work, and she enjoyed the peace and natural wonder of the mountains. When winter came they would help dig out snowed-in cabins and ensure safe paths around the small lakeside community. In late summer Dal dropped her foal, large and fully


formed but barely covered in a soft, neutral, downy fur, with reddish, wrinkly skin that made the boy-child look like a wizened old man. Although born looking physically eight or nine in size and proportion—and able to stand, walk, even run within a few hours of birth—the child would be tooth-less for over a year and could only feed by nursing. It needed almost constant supervision, even though hair developed in the first few weeks affording a measure ^ of protection. Bom only with the instincts of a wild an-imal, the boy would have to leam how to reason, to speak, to act responsibly. It was difficult for Julee to get used to at first, since after the first month the child looked like a boy of about ten. But he would look that way for years, they told her, perhaps eight or ten, until puberty. Until then they would be his world; after that, he would have to pull his own load. But this peaceful, almost idyllic existence was interrupted by the start of her nightmares. They often involved racing pain, torture, and an evil, leering monstrous face that demanded horrible things of her. Many nights she woke up screaming, and it took hours to calm her down. She began seeing the town Healer—the Dillian wasn’t a doctor, because they had never been able to talk one into moving up into the isolated wilderness, but she could treat minor injuries and illnesses and set broken bones and the like. Anything really serious required using the old treadmill-powered raft to get the patient downlake. That was not really as difficult as it sounded because there was a fairly strong current that led to the falls at the downlake town. Talking to the Healer helped, but the sleeping powders didn’t. As fall started turning the leaves a riot of colors, and the snow began to creep down from the mountaintops, with occasional cold winds breaking through the still comfortable warm air, she was drawn and looked not at all well. Drinking the warm, potent ale seemed to help for a while, but she was more and more in a state of intoxication which made her less use-ful and harder to live with.


The villagers and her two companions were concerned but felt helpless as she seemed to deteriorate daily. The nightmares became worse and more frequent, the drinking increasing to compensate. She had been there almost twelve weeks, and she was miserable. One particularly chilly day she came from the little bar in a high state of inebriation that even the cold wouldn’t moderate, wandering down to the dock as the steamboat came in. She stared at a figure dressed in rugged furs sitting on the top deck, outside the little pilothouse that had been erected when the season changed. It was alien. It looked human, but had only two legs and no hindquarters. Its features were hidden under a big fur hat, but it seemed to be smoking a pipe—a habit only a few of the oldest around did because of the difficulty of getting the weeds to stuff into it. She wasn’t sure if this was a creature of her drunk or of her nightmares, and she just stared at it. The boat tied up and the creature, or vision, joined the captain in walking down to the first level and onto the dock. Klamath spotted her, and pointed. The funny two-legged creature, so small next to the Dillians, nodded and walked over to her. She drew back apprehensively, stifling a sudden and overwhelming urge to run. The creature approached her cautiously and called out, in Dillian, “Wu Julee? Is that you, Wu Julee?” The voice seemed familiar, somehow. He stopped about two meters from her, took the huge, curved pipe from his mouth, and pulled off the furry headpiece. Wu Julee screamed and screamed, then suddenly seemed to collapse, hitting the ground hard in a dead faint. Klamath and many of the villagers rushed up to her in concern. “Damn!*’ said the creature. “Why do I always have that effect on women?” For the shock of seeing his face had brought it all back to her suddenly and in full force. The only change the Well World had made in Nathan Brazil was his clothes.


The Barony of Azkfru, Akkafian Empire THE BARON AZKFRU WAS FURIOUS. “What do you mean he wasn’t there?” he stormed. The Diviner and The Rel remained impassive and apparently unperturbed as usual. “We had no problems concealing ourselves through the first day,” The Rel reported, “and acted about an hour after nightfall. When we approached the structure where Skander almost had to be. The Diviner sensed a change in the balancing equation. A new factor had been introduced. Skander had been there, but had left.” “What do you mean a new factor?” snarled the Baron. “In the most basic terms,” The Rel explained patiently, “someone knew we were coming and what we were after. So either by direct warning or the indirect action of others, Skander was not there when we were. It was much too dangerous to remain there any length of time awaiting a possible return, so we broke off and returned here.” Azkfru was stunned. “A leak? Here? But, that’s impossible! It couldn’t have been any of my people— they’re too thoroughly under my control. And, if any-one from the Imperial Palace had a reconditioned plant here, I wouldn’t still be alive now. If there’s a leak, it must be on your side.” “It is possible our intentions were divined in the same way we divine the actions of others,” The Rel admitted, “but it is impossible for any in my own leadership to have betrayed us, and you, yourself, saw to the security when we came cross Zone. A release of information on your side remains the most likely explanation.”


“Well, we’ll dismiss the blame for now,” Azkfru said more calmly, “and proceed from here. What do we do now?” “Skander is still the only link we have to concrete knowledge of the puzzle,” The Rel pointed out. “And, its location is known, if presently unattainable. The Diviner states that Skander’s research was incomplete, and it must return to the learning place sooner or later. We are now attuned to that, and will know when. It is suggested that we bide our time until this Skander is again within our grasp. We did not compromise the plan, we Just about proved it. It is still workable.” “Very well,” growled Azkfru. “Will you stay here?” “We miss our homeland and constructive endeavor,” The Rel replied, “but the mission is too vital. We will remain. Our needs are few, our requirements simple. A dark, bare cell will be sufficient, and an avenue to the surface every once in a while to stand beneath the stars. Nothing more. In the meantime, I would check your own security. It will profit us little if such a thing happens again!” Soon after The Diviner and The Rel were seen to, the baron flew to the Imperial Palace and, securing a Zone pass, returned to his office in Zone. He was confident that he wouldn’t be alive if it were any of his own people, so that left alien intervention—which meant Zone. The offices, even the walls, were practically torn apart. It took almost two days and the destruction of more than half the embassy to find it. A tiny little transmitter inserted in his communications unit in his own office! His technicians examined it, but could be of little help. “The range is such that it would carry to over four hundred other embassies,” one explained to him. “Of the four hundred, almost three hundred are functional and used, and, of those, more than half are technologically capable of creating such a device, while the rest could probably purchase it untraceably, and almost all could place the device during a slow period when you were away.” He had most of his office staff ritually executed any-137

way, not that it made him feel any better—just less foolish. Someone had heard him kill General Ytil. Someone had spied when The Diviner and The Rel had come through, and listened to their initial conversations in his office. No more, he knew. But that was bad enough. Someone else now knew at least what Skander was. He had no choice, though, he realized. He had to wait. Almost fifteen weeks. The Center in Crill VARDIA WAS ASSIGNED A BASIC APPRENTICE’S JOB, DO-ing computer research. She learned fast—almost anything they taught her—even though she couldn’t make a great deal of sense out of her part of the project she was on. It was like seeing only one random page from a huge book. In itself, nothing made any sense. Only when put together with thousands of other pages did a picture finally emerge, and even then the top researchers had the unenviable job of fitting all the pages together in the proper order. She enjoyed the life immensely. Even though she didn’t understand her work, it was a constructive function with purpose, serving the social need. It was a comfortable niche. Here, indeed, is social perfection, she thought. Cooperation without conflict, with no basic needs beyond sleep and water, doing things that meant something. After a couple of weeks on the Job she began feeling somewhat dizzy at times. The spells would come on her, apparently without cause, and would disappear just as mysteriously. After a few such episodes she


went to the central clinic. The doctors made a few very routine tests, then explained the problem to her. “You’re twinning,” the physician said. “Nothing to be concerned about. In fact, it’s wonderful—the only surprise is that it has happened so fast after joining us.” Vardia was stunned. She had met some twins off and on at the Center, but the idea that it would happen to her Just never occurred to her. “What will this do to my work?” she asked apprehensively. “Nothing, really,” the doctor told her. “You’ll simply grow as each cell begins its duplication process. A new you will take shape growing out from your back. This process will make you a bit dizzy and weak, and, near its completion, will cause some severe disorientation.” “How long does the process take?” she asked. “Four weeks if you continue a normal schedule,” was the reply. “If you’re willing to plant day and night, about ten days.” She decided to get it over with if she could. Although everyone else seemed excited for her, she, herself, was scared and upset. Her supervisor was only too glad to give her time off, as she had not worked on the project long enough to be irreplaceable. So she picked a quiet spot away from the Center and near the river and planted. There was no problem during the nights, of course, but during the day, when she had to root by exercising the rooting tendrils voluntarily, she quickly became bored. Except for early morning and just before dusk, she was alone in the camp or else surrounded by unconscious Czillians sleeping off long round-the-clock work periods. On the third day, she knew she had to have water and uprooted to go down to the stream. Doing so was more difficult than she would have thought possible. She felt as if she weighed a ton, and balance was a real problem. She could reach back and feel the growth out of her back, but it didn’t make much sense. At the river’s edge she saw a Umiau. She had seen them at the Center, of course, but only going from one place to another. This was the


first one she had seen close up, and it Just seemed to be lying there, stretched out on the sand, asleep. The Umiau had the lower body of a fish, silvery-blue scales going down to a flat, divided tail fin. Above the waist it remained the light blue color, but the shiny scales were gone, leaving a smooth but deceptively tough skin. Just below the transition line was a very large vaginal cavity. The Umiau had two large and very firm breasts, and the face of a woman who, were she in Brazil’s world, would have been considered beautiful despite hair that seemed to flow like silvery tinsel and bright blue lips. The ears, normally covered by the hair, were shaped like tiny shells and set almost flush against the sides of the head, and, Vardia saw, the nose had some sort of skin flaps that moved in and out as the creature breathed, probably to keep water out when swimming, she guessed. The long, muscular arms ended in hands with long, thin fingers and a thumb, all connected by a webbing. Vardia stepped in to drink, and, as she did so, she saw other Umiau on and off along the banks, some swimming gracefully and effortlessly on or just beneath the surface. The river was shallow here, near the banks, but almost two meters deep in the center. On land they were awkward, crawling along on their hands or, at the Center, using electric wheelchairs. But, as she saw from the swimmers in the river’s clear water, in their own element they were beautiful. Most, like the sleeper nearby, wore bracelets of some colorful coral, necklaces, tiny shell earrings, or other adornments. She had never understood jewelry as a human, and she didn’t understand it now. They all looked alike to her except for size. She wondered idly if they were all women. Finishing her drink, she made her way, slowly, to the shore. She made large splashes and was terrified she would fall. The noise awakened the sleeper. “Well, hello!” she said in a pleasant, musical voice. The Umiau could make the sounds of the Czillian language, and most of them at the Center knew it. X40 Czilllans could not mock any other, so all conversations were in the Czillian tongue. “I—I’m sorry if I awakened you,” Vardia apologized. “That’s all right,” the Uniau replied, and yawned. “I shouldn’t be wasting my time sleeping, anyway. The sun dries me out and I have a fever for hours af-ter.” She noticed Vardia’s problem. “Twinning, huh?” “Y-yes,” Vardia replied, a little embarrassed. “My first time. It’s awful.” “I sympathize,” the mermaid said. “I passed the egg this cycle, but I’ll receive it next.” Vardia decided to root near the stream for a while, and did. “I don’t understand you,” she told the creature hesitantly. “Are you, then, a female?” The Umiau laughed. “As much as you,” she replied. “We’re hermaphrodites. One year we make an egg, then pass it to another who didn’t, where it’s shot with sperm and develops. The next year, you get the egg passed to you. The third year you’re a neuter; then the cycle starts all over again.” “You cannot abstain, then?” Vardia asked innocently. The Umiau laughed again. “Sure, but few do, unless they get themselves sterilized. When the urge hits, honey, you do it!” “It is pleasant, then?” Vardia persisted innocently. “Unbelievably,” the Umiau replied knowingly. “I wish this was,” Vardia pouted. “It is making me miserable.” “I wouldn’t worry about it,” the Umiau told her. “You only do it two or three times in your very long lives.” The mermaid suddenly glanced at the sun. “Well, it’s getting late. It’s been pleasant talking with you, but I have to go. Don’t worry—you’ll make out. The twin’s coming along fine.” And, without another word, it crawled into the water more rapidly than Vardia would have suspected possible and swam away. The next few days were mostly boring repetitions of the earlier ones, although she did occasionally talk to other Umiau for brief periods.

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L