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


On the ninth day when she needed water again, she discovered she had little control over herself. Every forward movement seemed to be countered by the twin now almost fully developed on her back. Even her thoughts ran confused, every thought seeming to double, echoing in her mind. It took immense concentration to get to the water, and, in getting out, she fell. She lay there for some time, feeling embarrassed and helpless, when she suddenly realized a curious fact, a thought that echoed through her mind. I’m I’m seeing seeing in in both both directions directions, her mind thought. Getting up was beyond her, she knew, and she waited most of the afternoon for help. The confusing double sight didn’t help her, since both scenes seemed to be double exposures. She tried to move her head, but found she couldn’t without burying it in the sandy bank. Finally, an hour or two before sunset, others came for rooting and pulled her out and helped her back to a rooting spot. The tenth day was the worst. She couldn’t think straight at all, couldn’t move at all, couldn’t judge scenes, distances, or anything. Even sounds were duplicated. The sensation was miserable and it seemed to go on forever. On the eleventh day nothing was possible, and she was in a delirium. About midday, though, there was a sudden release, and she felt as if half of her had suddenly, ghostlike, walked out of her. Everything returned to normal very suddenly, but she felt so terribly weak that she passed out in broad daylight. The twelfth day dawned normally, and she felt much better, almost, she thought, euphoric. She uprooted and took a hesitant step forward. “This is more like it!” she said aloud, feeling light and in total control again. And, at exactly the same moment, another voice said exactly the same thing! They both turned around with the same motion. Two identical Vardia’s stood looking, amazed, at each other. “So you’re the twin,” they both said simultaneously. “I’m not, you are!” they both insisted.


Or am I? each thought. Would the twin know? Everything was duplicated. Everything. Even the memories and personality. That’s why they kept say-ing and doing the same things, they both realized. Will we ever know which is which? they both thought. Or did it matter? They both came out of the same body. Together they set out for the Center. They walked wordlessly, in perfect unison, even the random gestures absolutely duplicated. Communication was unnecessary, since each knew exactly what the other was thinking and thought the same thing. The procedure was well established. Once at the reception desk, they were taken to different rooms where doctors checked them. Pronounced fit and healthy to go back to work, each was assigned to a part of the project different from that she had previously been working on, although with similar duties. “Will I ever see my twin again?” asked the Vardia who was in Wing 4. “Probably,” the supervisor replied. “But we’re going to get you into divergent fields and activities as quickly as possible so each of you can develop a separate path. Once you’ve had a variety of experiences to make you sufficiently different, there’s no reason not to see each other if you like,” In the meantime the other Vardia, having asked the question sooner and having received the same answer, was settling in to a very different son of position, even though the basic computer problem was the same. She began working with a Umiau, for all the world identical to the one she had talked with along the riverbank. Her name—Vardia’s mind insisted on the feminine for them even though they were neither— and both—was Endil Cannot. After a few days of feeling each other out, they started talking as they worked. Cannot, she thought, reminded her of some of the instructors at the Center. Every question seemed to get a lecture. One day she asked Cannot just what they were looking for. The work so far consisted of feeding legends and old wives’ tales from many races into the computer to find common factors in them. “You have seen the single common factor already,


have you not?” Cannot replied tutorially. “What, then, is it?” “The phrase—I keep hearing it off and on around here, too.’* “Exactly!” the mermaid exclaimed. “Until midnight at the Well of Souls. A more poetic way of saying forever, perhaps, or expressing an indefinite, like: We’ll keep at this project until midnight at the Well of Souls—which seems likely at this rate.” “But why is it important?” she quizzed. “I mean, it’s just a saying, isn’t it?” “No!” the Umiau replied strongly. “If it were a say-ing of one race, perhaps even of bordering races, that would be understandable. But it’s used even by Northern races! A few of the really primitive hexes seem to use it as a religious chant! Why? And so the saying goes back as far as antiquity itself. Written records go back almost ten thousand years here, oral tradition many times that. That phrase occurs over and over again! Why? What is it trying to tell us? That is what I must know! It might provide us with the key to this crazy planet, with its fifteen hundred and sixty races and differing biomes.” “Maybe it’s literal,” Vardia suggested. “Maybe people sometime in the past gathered at midnight at some place they called the Well of Souls.” The mermaid’s expression would have led anyone more knowledgeable in all-too-human emotions to the conclusion that the dumb student had finally grasped the obvious. “We’ve been proceeding along that tack here,” Cannot told her. “This is, after all, called the Well World, but the only wells we know of are the input wells at each pole. That’s the problem, you know. They are both input, not opposites.” “Must rtiere be an output?” Vardia asked. “I mean, can’t this be a one-way street?” Cannot shook her statuesque head from side to side. “No, it would make no sense at all, and would invalidate the only good theory 1 have so far as to why this world was built and why it was built the way it was.”


“What’s the theory?” Cannot’s eyes became glazed, but Vardia could not tell if it was an expression or Just the effect the Umiau had when closing the inner transparent lid while keeping the outer skin lid open. “You’re a bright person, Vardia,” the mermaid said. “Perhaps, someday, I’ll tell you.” And that was all there was to that. A day or two later Vardia wandered into Cannot’s office and saw her sitting there viewing slides of a great desert, painted m reds, yellows, and oranges -under a cloudless blue sky. In the background things got hazy and indistinct. It looked, Vardia thought, something like a semitransparent wall. She said as much aloud. “It is, Vardia,” Cannot replied. “It is indeed. It’s the Equatorial Barrier—a place I am going to have to visit somehow, although none of the hexes around it are very plentiful on water, and the trip will be hard. Here, look at this,” she urged, backing the slides up several paces. She saw a view taken through the wall with the best filters available. Objects were still indistinct, but she could see just enough to identify one thing clearly. “There’s a walkway in there!” she exclaimed. “Like the one around the Zone Well!” “Exactly!” the mermaid confirmed. “And that’s what I want to know more about. Do you feel up to working through the night tonight?” “Why, yes, I guess so,” she replied. “I’ve never done it before but 1 feel fine.” “Good! Good!” Cannot approved, rubbing her hands together. “Maybe I can solve this mystery tonight!” Stars swirled in tremendous profusion across the night sky, great, brilliantly colored clouds of nebulae spreading out in odd shapes while the starfield itself seemed to consist of a great mass of millions of stars in swirls the way a galaxy looked under high magnification. It was a magnificent sight, but one not appreciated by Vardia, who could not see it with her coneless eyes as she worked in the bright, artificial


day of the lab, or by unseen onlookers out in the fields to the south. At first they looked like particularly thick grains of the wild grasses in the area. Then, slowly, two large shapes rose up underneath the stalks, shapes with huge insect bodies and great eyes. And—something else. It sparkled like a hundred trapped fireflies, and seemed to rest atop a shadowy form- “The Diviner says that the equation has changed unnaturally,” said The ReL “Then we don’t go in tonight?” one of the Akkafian warriors asked. “We must,” replied The Rel. “We feel that only tonight will everything be this auspicious. We have the opportunity of an extra prize that increases the odds.” “Then the balance—this new factor—is in our favor?” asked the Markling, relieved. “It is,” The Rel replied. “There will be two to carry back, not one. Can you manage it.” “Of course, if the newcomer isn’t any larger than the other,” the Markling told The Rel. “Good. They should be together, so take them both. And—remember! Though the Czillians will all sleep as soon as the power-plant detonator is triggered, the Umiau will not. They’ll be shocked, and won’t see too well or get around too much, but there may be trouble. Don’t get so wrapped up in any struggle that you sting either of our quarry to death. I want only paralysis sufficient to get us back to the halfway island.” “Don’t worry,” the warriors assured almost in uni-son. “We would not fail the baron like that.” “All right, then,” The Rel said in a voice so soft it was almost lost in the gentle night breeze. “You have the detonator. When we rush at the point I have shown you, I shall give a signal. Then and only then are you to blow it. Not sooner, not later. Otherwise the emergency generators will be on before we are away.”


“It is understood,” the Markling assured the Northerner. “The Diviner indicates that they are both there and otherwise alone in their working place,” The Rel said. “In a way, I am suspicious. This is too good fortune, and I do not believe in luck. Nonetheless, we do what we must. “All right—now!” Dillia-Uplake WU JULEE GROANED AND OPENED HER EYES. HER head was splitting and the room was spinning around. “She’s comin’ around!” someone’s voice called out, and she was suddenly conscious of a number of peo-ple clustering around her. She tried to focus, but everything was blurry for a few moments-Finally, vision cleared enough for her to see who each was, particularly the one non-Dillian in the crowd. “Brazil!” she managed, then choked. Someone forced a little water down her throat. It tasted sour. She coughed. “She knows you!” Yomax yelled, excited. “She remembers things agin!” She shut her eyes tightly. She did remember— everything. A spasm shook her, and she vomited the water. “Yomax! Jol!” she heard the Healer’s voice call. “You louts take her behind! Captain Brazil, you pull; I’ll push! Let’s try and get her on her feet as soon as possible!” They fell to their tasks and managed to pull it off with several tries. No thanks to me, Brazil thought. Man! These people have muscles! She was up, but unsteady. They put side panels


padded with cloth under her arms and braced them so she could support herself. The room was still spinning, but it seemed to be slowing down. She still felt sick, and started trembling. Someone—probably Jol —started stroking her back and that seemed to calm her a little. “Oh, my God!” she groaned. “It’s all right, Wu Julee,” Brazil said softly. “The nightmares are past, now. They can’t hurt you anymore.” “But how—” she started, then threw up again and kept gagging. “All right, all of you outside now!” the Healer demanded. “Yes, you, too, Yomax! I’ll call you when I’m ready.” They stepped out into the chill wind. Yomax shrugged, a helpless look on his face. “Do you drink ale, stranger?” the aged centaur asked Brazil. “I’ve been known to,” Brazil replied. “What do you make it out of?” “Grains, water, and yeast!” said Yomax, surprised at the question. “What else would you make ale out of?” “I dunno,” Brazil admitted, “but I’m awfully glad you don’t either. Where to?” The three of them went down the main street, Brazil feeling like a pygmy among giants, and up to the bar, front on now. The place was full of customers—about a dozen— and they had trouble squeezing in. Brazil suddenly became afraid that he would be crushed to death between equine rumps. The conversation stopped when he entered, and everyone looked at him suspiciously. “I just love being made to feel welcome,” Brazil said sarcastically. Then, to the other two, “Isn’t there a more, ah, private place to talk?” Yomax nodded. “Gimme three, Zoder!” he called, and the bartender poured three enormous steins of ale and put them on the bar. He handed one to Jol and the other to Brazil, who almost dropped it when he found out how heavy the filled stein really was.


Using two hands, he held on and followed Yomax down the street a few doors to the oldster’s office. After Jol stoked the fire and threw some more wood in, the place seemed to warm and brighten spiritually as well as literally. Brazil let out a long sigh and sank to the floor, resting the stein on the floor beside him. As the place warmed up, he took off his fur cap and coat. Underneath he didn’t seem to be wearing anything. The two centaurs also took off their coats, and both of them stared at him. Brazil stared back. “Now, don’t you go starting that, or I’ll go back to the bar!” he warned. The Dillians laughed, and everybody relaxed. Brazil sipped the brew, and found it not bad at all, although close to two liters was a bit much at one time for him. “Now, what’s all this about, mister?” Jol asked suspiciously. “Suppose we swap information,” he offered, taking out his pipe and lighting it. Yomax licked his lips. “Is that—is that tobacco?” he asked hesitatingly. “It is,” Brazil replied. “Not very good, but good enough. Want some?” Yomax’s expression, Brazil thought, was as eager and unbelieving as mine was when I saw that steak at Serge’s. Was that only a few months ago? he asked himself. Or was it a lifetime? resembled a giant corncob and proceeded to fill it. Yomax dragged out an old and battered pipe that Lighting it with a common safety match, he puffed away ecstatically. “We don’t get much tobacco hereabouts,” the old man explained. “I never would have guessed,” Brazil responded dryly. “I picked it up a fair distance from here, really —I’ve traveled nine hexes getting here, not counting a side trip to Zone from my home hex.” “Them rodent fellas are the only ones in five thousand kilometers with tobacco these days,” Yomax said ruefully. “That where?” Brazil nodded. “Next door to my home hex.”


“Don’t think I remember it,” the old official prodded curiously. “Except that you look like us, sort of, from the waist up, I don’t think I ever seen your like before.” “Not surprising,” Brazil replied sadly. “My people came to a no-good end, I’m afraid.” “Hey! Yomax!” Jol yelled suddenly. “Lookit his mouth! It don’t go with his talkin’!” “He’s using a translator, idiot!” snapped Yomax. “Right,” the small man confirmed. “I got it from the Ambreza—those ‘rodent fellas’ you mentioned. Nice people, once I could convince them that I was intelligent.” “If you and they was neighbors, why was that a problem?” Jol asked, The sadness crept back. “Well—a very long time ago, there was a war. My people were from a high-tech hex, and they built an extremely comfortable civilization, judging from the artifacts I saw. But the Ufestyle was extremely wasteful—it required enormous natural resources to sustain—and they were running out, while the by-products curtailed good soil to the point where they were importing eight percent of their food. Unwilling to compromise their life-style, they looked to their neighbors to sustain their culture. Two hexes were ocean, one’s temperature was so cold it would kill us, two more weren’t worth taking for what they had or could be turned into. Only the Ambreza Hex was compatible, even though it was totally nontechnological. No steam engines, no machines of any kind not powered by muscle. The Ambreza were quiet, primitive farmers and fishermen, and they looked like easy prey.” “Attacked ‘em, eh?” Yomax put in. “Well, they were about to,” Brazil replied. “They geared up with swords and spears, bows and cata-pults—whatever would work in Ambreza Hex—with computers from home telling them the best effective use. But my people made one mistake, so very old in the history of many races, and they paid the price for it.” “What mistake was that?” asked Jol, fascinated. “They confused ignorance with stupidity,” the man


explained. “The Ambreza were what they appeared to be, but they were not dumb-They saw what was coming and saw they had to lose. Their diplomats tried to negotiate a settlement, but at the same time they scoured other hexes for effective countenneas-ures—and they found one!” “Yes? Yes? And that was …?” Yomax prompted. “A gas.” Brazil said softly. “A Northern Hemisphere hex used it for refrigeration, but on my people it had a far different effect. They kidnapped a few people, and the gas worked on them just as the Northerners said it would-Meanwhile the only effect on the Ambreza was to make them itch and sneeze for a while.” “It killed all your people?” asked Yomax, appalled. *‘Not killed, no—not exactly,” the small man replied. “It made, well chemical changes in the brain. You see, just about every race is loosely based on, or related to, some animal past or present.” “Yup,” Yomax agreed. “I once tried to talk to a horse in Hex Eighty-three.’* “Exactly!” Brazil exclaimed. “Well, we came from —were a refinement of, really—the great apes. You know about them?” “Saw a few pictures once in a magazine,” Jol said. “Two or three hexes got kinds of ‘em.” “That’s right. Even the Ambreza are related to several animals in other hexes—including this one, if I recall,” Brazil continued. “Well, the gas simply mentally reverted everyone back to his ancestral animalism. They all lost their power to reason and be-came great apes.” “Wow!” Jol exclaimed. “Didn’t they all die?” “No,” Brazil replied. “The climate’s moderate, and while many of them—probably most of them—did perish, a few seemed to adapt. The Ambreza moved in and cleared out the area afterward. They let them run free in small packs. They even keep a few as pets.” “I ain’t much on science,” the old man put in, “but I do remember that stuff like chemical changes can’t


be passed on. Surely their children didn’t breed true as animals.” “The Ambreza say that there has been slow improvement,” answered the small man. “But while the gas has to be extremely potent to affect anybody else, it appears that the stuff got absorbed by just about everything—rocks, dirt, and everything that grows in it or lived in it. For my people, the big dose caused initial reversion, but about one part per trillion keeps it alive. The effect is slowly wearing out. The Ambreza figure that they’ll be up to the level of basic primitive people in another six or seven generations, maybe even start a language within five hundred years. Their—the Ambreza’s, that is—master plan is to move the packs over into their old land when they start to improve. That way they’ll develop in a nontechnological hex and will probably remain rather primitive.” “I’m not sure I like that gas,” Yomax commented. “What worked on them might work on us.’* He shivered. “I don’t think so,” Brazil replied. “After the attack, the Well refused to transport the stuff anymore. I think our planetary brain’s had enough of such things.” “I still don’t like the idea,’ Yomax maintained. “If not that, then somethin’ else could get us.’ “Life’s a risk anyway, without worrying about everything that might happen,” Brazil pointed out. “After all, you could slip on the dock and fall in the lake and freeze to death before you got to shore. A tree could fall over on you. Lightning could strike. But if you let such things dominate your life, you’ll be as good as dead anyway. That’s what’s wrong with Wu Julee.” “What do you mean?” Jol asked sharply. “She’s had a horrible life,” Nathan Brazil replied evenly. “Bom on a Comworld, bred to do farm labor, looking and thinking just like everybody else, no sex, no fun, no nothing. Then, suddenly, she was plucked up by the hierarchy, given shots to develop sexually, and used as a prostitute for minor visitors, one of whom was a foreign pig named Datham Hain.”


He was interrupted at this point and had to try to explain what a prostitute was to two members of a culture that didn’t have marriage, paternity suits, or money. It took some doing. “Anyway,” he continued, “this Hain was a representative of a group of nasties who get important people on various worlds hooked on a particularly nasty kind of drug, the better to rule them. To dem-onstrate what it did if you didn’t get the treatment, he infected Wu Julee first and then let the stuff start to destroy her. There’s no cure, and on most worlds they just put such people to death. Most of those infected, finding their blood samples matching Wu Julee’s blood, played Hain’s game, taking orders from him and his masters. “The stuff kind of does to you, but very painfully, what that gas did to my Hex Forty-one, only it also depresses the appetite to nonexistence. You eventually mindlessly starve to death.” “And poor Wuju was already pretty far gone,” Jol interpolated. “In pain, practically an animal, with all that behind her. No wonder she blotted all memories out! And no wonder she had nightmares!” “Life’s been a nightmare to her,” Brazil said quietly. “Her physical nightmare is over, but until she faces that fact, it still lives in her mind.” They just stood there for several minutes, there seeming to be nothing left to say. Finally, Yomax said, “Captain, one thing bothers me about your gas story.” “Fire away,” the man invited, sipping more of the ale. “If that gas stuff was still active, why didn’t it af-fect you, at least slightly?” “I honestly don’t know,” Brazil responded. “Everything says I should have been reduced to the level of the hex, including Ambreza chemistry. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t even physically changed to conform to the larger, darker version of humanity there. I couldn’t explain that—and neither can the Ambreza.” The Healer stuck her head in the door, and-they turned expectantly.


“She’s sleeping now,” she reported. “Really sleeping, for the first time in more than a month. I’ll stay with her and see her through.” They nodded and settled back for a long wait. Wu Julee slept for almost two days. Brazil used the time to tour the village and look at some of the trails. He liked these people, he decided, and he liked this isolated place, cut off from everything civilized except for the one daily boat run. Standing on a ledge partway up a well-maintained cross-country trail, he was oblivious to the cold and the wind as he looked out at the mass of snow-covered mountains. He realized suddenly that almost the whole mountain range was in the next hex, and he speculated idly on what sort of denizens lived in that kind of terrain. After spending most of a day out there, he made his way back to the village to check on Wu Julee’s progress. “She came around,” the Healer informed him. “1 got her to eat a little something and it stayed down. You can see her, if you want.” Brazil did want, and went in. She looked a little weak but managed a smile when she saw him. She hasn’t really changed radically, he thought, at least not from the waist up. He would have known her anywhere—despite the different coloration and the lower body, the pointy ears, and all. She actually looked healthier than she had under the influence of that vicious drug, the product of eating better and of exercising. “How are you feeling?” he asked, idly wondering why that stupid question was always the first asked of obviously sick people. “Weak,” she replied, “but I’ll manage.” She let out a small giggle. “The last time we saw each other I had to look up to you.” Brazil took on a pained expression. “It never fails!” he wailed. “Everybody always picks on a little man!” She laughed and so did he. “It’s good to see you laugh,” he said.


“There’s never been much to laugh about, before,” she replied. “I told you I’d find you.” “I remember—that was the worst part of the sponge. You know, you are aware of all that’s happening to you.” He nodded gravely. “Throughout the history of man there’s always been some kind of drug, and people stuck on it. The people who push the stuff are on a different kind of drug, one so powerful that they are not aware of its own, ravaging, animalistic effect on them.” “What’s that?” “Power and greed,” he told her. “The ugliest—no, the second ugliest ravager of people ever known.” “What’s the ugliest, then?” she asked him. “Fear,” he replied seriously. “It destroys, rots, and touches everyone around.” She was silent for a moment. “I’ve been afraid most of my life,” she said so softly he almost couldn’t make out the words. “I know,” he replied gently. “But there’s nothing to fear now, you know. These are good people here, and this is a spot I could cheerfully spend the rest of my life in.” She looked straight at him, and her youthful looks were betrayed by the eyes of someone incredibly old. “They are wonderful,” she admitted, “but it’s their paradise. They were born here, and they know nothing of the horrors around them. It must be wonderful to be that way, but I’m not one of them. My scars seem huge and painful just because of their goodness and simplicity. Can you understand that?” He nodded slowly “I have scars, too, you know. And some of them are more than I can take at times. My memory’s coming back—slowly, but in extreme detail. And, like Serge said, they’re mostly things I don’t want to remember. Some good times, some wonderful things, certainly—but some horrors and a lot of pain, too. Like you, I blotted them out, more successfully it seems, but they’re coming back now—more and more each day.”


“Those rejuve treatments must have done a lot to your memory,” she suggested. “No, nothing,” he said slowly. “I’ve never had a rejuve treatment, Wu Julee. Never. I knew that when I blamed them for such things.” “Never—but that’s impossible! I remember Hain reading your license. It said you were over five hundred years old!” “I am,” he replied slowly. “And a lot more. I’ve had a hundred names, a thousand lives, all the same. I’ve been around since Old Earth, and before.” “But that was bombed out centuries ago! Why, that was back almost before history!” His tone was casual, but there was no doubting his sincerity. “It’s been dropping like a series of veils, little by little. Just today, up in the mountains, I suddenly remembered a funny, little, Old Earth dictator who liked me because I wasn’t any taller than he was. “Napoleon Bonaparte was his name… .” He slept on furs in Yomax’s office for several days, seeing Wu Julee gain some strength and confidence with every visit. But those eyes—the scars in her eyes were still there. One day the steamboat came in, and Klamath al-most fell in the lake rushing out to meet him. “Nate! Nate!” the ferry captain called- “Incredible news!” From his expression it was nothing good. “Calm down, Klammy, and tell me about it.” He spied a block-printed newspaper in the waterman’s hand, but couldn’t read a word of the language. “Somebody just busted into that university in Czill and kidnapped a couple of people!” Brazil frowned, a funny feeling in his stomach. That was where Vardia was, where he was going next. “Who’d they snatch?” he asked. “One of yours, Vardia or something like that. And a Umiau—they’re sorta mermaids, Nate—named Cannot.” The little man shifted uneasily, chewing on his lower lip.


“Anybody know who?” “Got a good idea, though they deny it. Bunch o* giant cockroaches with some unpronounceable name. Some of the Umiau spotted them in the dark when they shorted out the power at the Center.” Slowly the story came out. Two large creatures resembling giant flying bugs blew the main power plant, causing the artificial sunlight to fail in one wing of the Center. Then they crashed through the windows of the lab, grabbed Vardia and Cannot, and took them away. The leaders of the culprit’s race were con-fronted at Zone, but pointed out that there were al-most a hundred insectival races on the planet and denied they were the ones. Their tight monarchy, resembling a Comworld with fancy titles, was leakproof —so nobody was sure. “But that’s not the most sensational part!” Klamath continued, his voice rising again. “These Umiau got superupset at all this, and one of them let slip the truth about Cannot. “Seems they and the top dogs of the Center had a real secret to keep. Cannot was Elkinos Skander, Nate!” Brazil just stood there, digesting the information. It made sense, of course. Skander would use the great computers of the Center to answer his big questions, getting everything he needed so that, when he was ready, he could mount an expedition under his direction to the interior of the Well World. Power and greed, Brazil thought sourly. Corrupting two of the more peaceful and productive races on the planet. Well, they wanted it all, and now all they’ve got left is their fear, he reflected. “I’ll have to go to Czill now,” he told the ferry captain. “It looks as if my job is starting.” Klamath didn’t understand, but agreed to hold the boat until Nathan could say good-bye to Wu Julee. She was standing unsupported and looking through a book of landscape paintings by local artists when he entered. His expression telegraphed his disquiet. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “They’ve broken into a place a couple of hexes


over and kidnapped Vardia and Skander, the man who might be the killer of those seven people back on Dalgonia,” he told her gravely. “I have to go, I’m afraid.” “Take me with you,” she said evenly. The thought had never occurred to him. “But you’re still weak!” he protested. “And here is where you be-long. These are your people, now. Out there is nothing but worse and worse. It’s no place for you!” She walked over to him and looked down with those old, old eyes. “I have to,” she told him. “I have to heal the scars.” “But there’re only more scars out there,” he countered. “There’s fear out there, Wu Julee.” “No, Nathan,” she replied sternly, using his first name for the first time. She tapped her forehead. “The fear is in here. Until I face it, I’ll die by inches here.” He was silent for a while, and she thought he still wouldn’t take her. “I’m easier to care for than you are,” she pointed out. “I’m tougher of skin, more tolerant of weather, and I need only some kind of grass and water.” “All right,” he said slowly. “Come if you must. You can get back to Dillia through a gate from anywhere, anyway.” “That’s what I’ve got to know, Nathan,” she explained. “I’m cured of sponge, but I’m still hooked on that ugliest drug, fear.” “You sure you’re well enough?” “I’m sure,” she replied firmly. “This will give me what I need.” She put on a coat and they went outside. When they told Yomax and the others that she was going along, the same round of protests started all over again, but her mind was made up. “I’ll tell Dal and Jol,” Yomax said, tears welling in his eyes. “But they won’t understand, neither.” “I’ll be back, old man,” she replied, her voice breaking. She kissed him lightly on the cheek. Klamath sounded the steam whistle. They stepped on the board first floor of the steam-ship and entered the partially closed cargo door that enclosed the lower deck from the colder weather—


Five hours later they landed in the much larger village of Donmin downlake. Compared to the uplake community, it was a bustling metropolis of fifteen or twenty thousand, stretching out across broad, cleared plains. The streets were lit with oil lamps, although Brazil had no idea what son of unrefined, natural oil they used. It smelled like fish, anyway. He reclaimed a well-made but crude backpack from the shipping office and said good-bye to Klamath, who wished them luck. The packs, Wu Julee found, were largely filled with tobacco, a good trade commodity. One pouch had some clothing and toiletries. Using the tobacco, Brazil managed to trade for some small items he thought they would need, then got a room for them at a’ waterfront inn, where they spent the night. The next day they set out early across the trails of Dillia toward the northeast. She had trouble staying back with him, having to walk in almost uncomfortable slow motion. After several kilometers of particularly slow going, she suggested, “Why don’t you ride me?” “But you’re already carrying the pack,” he protested. “I’m stronger than you think,” she retorted. “I’ve hauled logs heavier than you and the pack put together. Come on, climb on and see if you can keep from falling off.” “I haven’t been on a horse since I went to the first Wilson inauguration,” he muttered incomprehensibly. “Well, I’ll try.” It took him three tries, even with her help, to mount her broad, stocky body that reminded him so much of a Shetland pony. And he fell off twice, to her derisive laughter, when she started to trot. She finally had to put her arms behind her to give him something to hold on to. When her circulation started going, he had to hold on to the much-less-reassuring pack. His own circulation was in no great shape. His legs discovered a hundred new muscles he had never


known before, and the agony almost obliterated the soreness of his rump from bouncing. But they made good time, the kilometers flying by. Near dusk they reached the Dillian border, through the last village and seeing here and there only an isolated farmhouse. It started to snow, but it was only a flurry at first and didn’t really bother either of them. “We’re going to have to quit soon,” he called to her. “Why?” she mocked. “Scared of the dark?” “My body just won’t take much more of this,” he groaned. “And we’ll pass into the Slongom Hex in a little while. I don’t know enough about it to want to chance it in the dark.” She slowed, then stopped, and he got off. Pain shot through him but it was the aching sort, not the driving sharpness of riding. She was amused at his discomfort. “So who couldn’t make the trip because they were too weak?” she teased. “Look at the brave superman now! And we’ve already stopped five times’” “Yeah,” he grunted, stretching and finding that that only made it hurt in different places. “But that was only so you could eat. Lord! Do you people stuff yourselves!” And they did, he thought, consume an enormous quantity to support their large bodies. “Will we have to camp here?” she asked, looking at the darkening woods with no sign of lights nearby. “If we do, we’d better get some good shelter. It looks like the snow may pick up.” “If that road we passed about a kil and a half ago was the turnofE to Sidecrater Village, there should be a roadhouse not too much farther on.” He checked a frayed and faded map he had in the pack. “Why not go back to the village?” she suggested. “Almost eight kils down a dead end?” he replied skeptically. “No, we’ll go on and hope the roadhouse is still in business. But I’ll walk for a while, no matter what!’* As darkness fell the snow did pick up, and started to stick. The wind whistled through the trees, keeping time with the subtle, quiet sound of the snow hitting against trees, bushes, and them.


Visibility dropped to almost zero. “Are we still on the road?” she yelled to him. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We should have come to that roadhouse by now. But we don’t have any choice. We’d never build a fire in this stuff now. Keep going!” “I’m getting real cold, Nathan!” she complained. “Remember, more than half of me is exposed’” He stopped, and brushed the snow off her backside. Insulating layer of fat or not, he realized she couldn’t continue too much longer. “I’m going to climb on!” he yelled above the wind. “Then go on as fast as you can! We’ve got to come to something sooner or later!” They pushed forward, he clinging to her back, but it was slow going against the wind. They continued on for what seemed like hours in the blowing cold and darkness. “I don’t know how much longer I can go on!” she called to him at last. “My ass is frozen solid now.” “Come on, girl!” he shouted. “Here’s that adventure you wanted! Don’t give up now!” That spurred her on, but it seemed hopeless as the snow continued to pile up. “I think I see something ahead!” she shouted. “I can’t be sure—I think my eyes are covered with ici-cles!” “Maybe it’s the roadhouse!” he shouted. “Head for it!” She pushed on. Suddenly, as if they passed through an invisible curtain, the snow was gone—and so was the cold. She stopped suddenly. He got off and brushed the snow from him. After a few moments to catch his breath, he walked back several steps. And back into the blowing snow and cold. He went back to her. “What is it, Nathan?” she asked. “What happened?” “We must have missed the roadhouse,” he told her. “We’ve crossed the border into Slongorn!” Her body began to thaw rapidly, and painfully. Her eyes misted, then started to clear.

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L