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


Looking back, she could see nothing but billowing, snowy fog. In any other direction, the spectacular night sky of the Well World shone cloudlessly around them. “We might as well camp right here,” he suggested. “Not only am I too tired to go any farther, but there’s no use chancing unfamiliar territory. Anything that might cause us problems is unlikely to be this close to the border, and we always have a convenient if chilly exit if we find any real problems.” “It’s hard to believe,” she said as he unstrapped the pack and removed a couple of towels, wiping his face and hair, then starting to give her the much more difficult rubdown. “I mean—coming out of that awful storm and into this—winter to summer, just like that.” “That’s the way it can be,” he replied. “Sometimes there’s no clear dividing line, sometimes it’s dramatic. But, remember, despite the fact that things interlock on this world—tides, rivers, oceans, and the like—each hex is a self-contained biological community.” “AH of a sudden I’m starting to sweat,” she noted. “I think I’ll take these heavy fur clothes off.” “I’m ahead of you,” he responded, drying her rear and tail. She twisted around and saw that he had removed almost all of his clothing. He looks even punier naked, she thought. You can just about see every rib on his body, even through that carpet of black chest-hair. He finished and came around to her front. Together they stood and looked at the landscape eerily illuminated in the bright starlight. “Mountains, trees, maybe a small lake over there,” he pointed out. “Looks like a few lights off in the distance.” “I don’t think we’re on the road,” she commented. They seemed to be on a field of short grasses. She reached down almost automatically and picked a clump. “I’m not sure you ought to eat that right now,” he warned. “We don’t know all the ground rules here.” She sniffed the grass suspiciously. Although Dillians were moderately nearsighted, their senses of smell


.and hearing were acute. “Smells like plain old grass,” she said. “Kind of short, though. See? It’s been cut’” He looked at the stuff and saw that she was right. “Well, this is logically either a high-technology hex or a nontechnologicat one, judging from the pattern I’ve seen,” he noted. “From the looks of things, it’s high.” “The grass has been cut in the last day or two,” she observed. “You can still smell it.” He sniffed, but didn’t notice much, and shrugged. He never had much of a smeller despite the Roman nose, he thought. “I’m going to chance it,” she decided at last. “It’s here, and I need it, and we have two or three days be-fore we’ll get through here.” She took about three steps, then stopped. “Nathan?” “Yes?” “What kind of people live here? I mean, what—” “I know what you mean. I couldn’t get a really good description out of anyone. It’s not the most traveled route, mostly a through route. The best I could get was that they were two-legged vegetarians.” “That’s good enough for me,” she replied, and started picking clumps of grass and chewing them. “Don’t get too far away!” he called. “It’s too damned hot to build a fire, and I don’t want to attract the wrong people. We might be—probably are—trespass-ing.” Satisfied as long as he could still see her, he stretched out the furs to dry and stripped completely. After discovering that some of the grass was stiff and sharp, he spread the three wet towels out to form a mat, then got out a couple of large bricks of cooked confection he had bought back in Donmin. He sat on the towels and ate about half of one bar, which was hard and crunchy but filling, and then came down with a terrible candy-thirst. He reached for the flagon containing water, but decided to leave its half-empty contents if he could. No telling what the water was like here. He got up and went over to the border, only a few meters away. He could hear the howling winds and see the blowing snow. Some of the cold radiated out a


few centimeters from the border. He got down on his knees, reached into the cold, and came up with a handful of snow. That did the Job. He went back and stretched out on the towels. He still ached from the day’s ride, but not nearly as bad. He knew the pain would come back when he mounted the next day, though. Maybe in three or four days he would get used to riding-By his own estimates, they were still almost nine hundred kilometers from the Center. She came back after a while and surveyed him ly-ing there on the towels. “1 thought you’d be asleep,” she said. “Too tired to sleep,” he responded lazily. “I’ll get off in a little while. Why don’t you get some? You’re doing all the work, and there’s a lot yet to do. In the next few days we’ll sure find out if they have pneumonia on this world.” She laughed and the laugh developed into a major yawn. “You’re right,” she admitted. “I’ll probably fall over in the night, though. Nothing to lean on here.” “Ummm-humm,” he half-moaned. “Can you sleep lying down?” “I have, once or twice, mostly on the end of drunks,” she replied. “It’s not normal, but if I don’t crush my arm, I can. Once we go to sleep we’re just about unconscious and unmoving for the night.” She came up close to him and knelt down, then slowly rolled over on one side, very close to him and facing him. “Ahhh …” she sighed. “I think this is going to work, tonight, at least.” He looked at her, still half-awake, and thought, Isn’t it funny how human she looks like that? Some of her hair had fallen over in front of her face, and, on impulse, he reached over and put it in back of her gently. She smiled and opened her eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” he whispered. “That’s all right,” she replied softly. “I wasn’t really asleep. Still ache?”


‘“A little,” he admitted. “Lie with your back to me,” she told him. “I’ll rub it out.” He did as instructed and she twisted a little to free her left arm then started a massage that felt so good it hurt. After a few minutes he asked her if there was something he could do in return, and she had him stroking and rubbing the humanoid part of her back and shoulders. Doing so was awkward, but she seemed satisfied. Finally, he finished and resumed his position on the towels. “We really ought to get some sleep,” he said quietly. Then, almost as an afterthought, he leaned over and kissed her. She reached out and pulled him to her, prolonging the embrace. He felt terribly uncomfortable, and, when she finally let him go, he rolled back onto the towels. “Why did you really come with me?” he asked her seriously. “What I said,” she replied in a half-whisper. “But, also, I told you I remember. I remember all of it. How you gambled to save my life. How you held me up in the Well. And—how you came out of your way to find me. I saw the map.” “Oh, hell,” he said disgustedly. “This will never work. We’re two different kinds of creature, alien to each other.” “You’ve been wanting me, though. I could feel it.” “And you know damned well our bodies don’t match. Anything like sex just won’t work for us now. So get those ideas out of your head! If that’s why you’re here, you should go back in the morning!” “You were the only clean thing I ever ran into in that dirty old world of ours,” she said seriously. “You’re the first person 1 ever met who cared, even though you didn’t know me.” “But it’s like a fish falling in love with a cow,” he retorted in a strained, higher-than-normal tone. “The spirits are there but they happen to come from two

different worlds.” “Love isn’t sex,” she replied quietly. “T. of all peo-ple, know that better than nnvone. Sex is just a physical


act. Loving is caring as much or more about someone else than you do about yourself. Deep down inside you have the kind of feeling for others that I’ve never re-ally seen before. I think some of it rubbed off. Maybe, through you, I’ll face down that fear inside of me and be able to give myself.” “Oh, hell!” Brazil said sourly, turning his back to her. In the quiet that followed, they both went to sleep. The centaur was huge. like a statue of the god Zeus come to life, and if mated with the finest stallion. He came out of his cave at the sound of footsteps, then saw who it was and relaxed. “You’re getting careless, Agorix,” the man said to him. “Just tired,” the centaur replied. “Tired of running, tired of jumping at every little noise. I think soon I will go into the hills and end it. I’m the last, you know.” The man nodded gravely. “I have destroyed the two stuffed ones in Sparta by setting the temple on fire.” The centaur smiled approvingly. “When I go, there will be naught but legends to say that we were here. That is for the best.” Suddenly tears flowed from his great, wise eyes. “We tried to teach them so much? We had so much to offer!” he moaned. “You were loo good for this dirty little world” the man replied with gentleness and sympathy. “We came of our own choice,” the centaur replied. “We failed, but we tried. But it must be even harder on you!” “I have to stay,” the man said evenly. “You know that.” “Don’t pity me, then,” the centaur responded sharply. “Let me, instead, mourn for you.” Nathan Brazil awoke. The hot sun was beating down on him, and had he not already been tanned from earlier travels, he would have had a terrible sunburn. What a crazy dream, he thought. Was it touched off


by last night’s conversation? Or was it, like so much lately, a true memory? The latter scared him a little, not because the dream was obscure, but because it would explain a lot—and in a most unpleasant direction. He put it out of his mind, or tried to. Suddenly he realized that Wu Julee was gone. He sat up with a start and looked around. There was a large indentation in the grass where she had been, and some divots kicked up where she had gotten up, but no sign of her. He looked around, noting several things about the landscape. For one thing, they had been fairly lucky. Although the area around was a grassy hill, it sloped down into dank, swampy wetlands not far away. There were odd buildings, like mushrooms, scattered about near the swamp and through it, but no sign of any real activity. He looked back at the border. It was a snowy forest scene that greeted him, but the storm had passed and the sky was quickly becoming as blue there as it was overhead. He walked over to the border, got some snow, and nibbed his face with the cold stuff. Blinking the sleep from his eyes, he turned back to look for Wu Julee. He spotted her at last, coming back toward him at full gallop. He turned and packed the towels away in the pack, removing from the clothing pouch a bundle of black cloth. He unfolded it and looked at it. He had had it made in another hex, awfully nonhuman, but it had seemed right when he had tried it on. The pants fitted, and his feet slipped into shoe-shaped bottoms with fairly tough, leathery soles on the outside. The material was of the stretchy type, and it seemed to adhere to him like a second skin, as did the pullover shirt. He had two of the latter, and chose the one with no sleeves over the other, which had form-fitting gloves. It works, he thought to himself, and fairly comfortable, too. But it’s so form-fitting and so thin I still feel naked. Oh, well, at least it’ll keep the sun out. He wished for sunglasses, not for the first time. But


the first group he had hit who made them were the Dillians, and the smallest was a bit too large for him. Wu Julee came up to him at that point, looking excited. “Nathan!” she called, “I’ve been out exploring and you’ll never guess what’s over the next hill!” “The Emerald City,” he retorted, even though he knew that expression would draw a blank look. In fact, it went right past her. “No! It’s a road! A paved road! And it has cars on it!” He looked puzzled. “Cars? This close to the border? What kind of cars?” “Electric ones, I think,” she replied. “They don’t go all that fast, and there aren’t many of them, but there they are. There’s a little parking lot up by the border-The Dillian roadhouse is a hundred meters or so farther on!” “So we did miss it in the storm and got off the track!” he said. “They must supply the roadhouse with various things, and use the roadhouse as a business base. Funny you never heard of them.” “I’ve been uplake all my time here,” she reminded him. “The only others I ever heard about were the mountain people, and I never saw any of them.” “Well, what do these people look like?” he asked curiously. “We’ll have to travel through most of their hex.” “They’re the strangest—well, you’ll have to see. Let’s get going!” He strapped the pack on her and climbed aboard. She seemed particularly happy and eager and, well, alive this morning, he thought. They moved along at a fast clip, and the old pains came back almost immediately, although he was getting to the point where he was going up when she was and down when she did. It helped a little, but not much. They cleared the top of the hill in about five minutes, and he saw immediately what she meant. A half-dozen vehicles were parked in a little paved area near the border. They were mostly open, except for one with


a roof of canvas or something like it. None of them had seats, and, from the looks of the one with the top, their drivers were very tall and drove by a two-lever combination. The road was wide enough for one car to pass another, and it had a white line painted down the center of the black surface. She stopped near the lot. “Look!” she said. “Now you’ll see what I mean by weird people!” And she was most definitely right, Brazil decided. The last time he had seen anything remotely resembling it was on a long-ago, month-long bender. Imagine an elephant’s head, floppy ears and all, but no tusks, with not one but two trunks growing from its face, each about a meter long and ending in four stubby, jointless fingers grouped around the nostril opening. Mount the head on a body that looked too thin to support such a head, armless and terminating in two short, squat, legs and flat feet that made the walker look as if he were slightly turning from side to side as he walked. Now paint the whole creature a fiery red, and imagine it wearing green canvas dungarees. Nathan Brazil and Wu Julee didn’t have to imagine it. That was exactly what was walking at a slow pace toward them. “Oh, wow!” was all he could manage. “I see just what you mean.” The creature spotted them and raised its trunks, which seemed to grow out of the same point between and just below the eyes, in a greeting. “Weli, hello!” it boomed in Dillian in a voice that sounded like an injured foghorn. “Better weather on this side of the line, hey?” “You can say that again,” Brazil responded. “We al-most got caught in the storm and missed the roadhouse. Spent the night over in the field, there.” “Heading out, then?” the Slongornian asked pleasantly. “Going to tour our lovely country? Good time of year for it-Always summer here.” “just passing through,” replied Brazil casually. “We’re on our way to Czill.” The friendly creature frowned, which gave it an even


more comical aspect that was hard to ignore. “Bad business, that-Read about it last night.” “I know,” Nathan replied seriously. “One of the victims—the Czillian—was a friend of mine. Ours,” he quickly corrected, and Wu Julee smiled. “Why don’t you go into the roadhouse, have breakfast, and try to bum a ride through?” the creature suggested helpfully- “All of these trucks’ll be going back empty, and you can probably hitchhike most of the way. Save time and sore feet.” “Thanks, we’ll try it,” Brazil called after the Slongomian as that worthy climbed into the covered truck and started backing it out, controlling the steer-ing with a trunk on each lever. The truck made a whirring noise but little else, and sped off down the road at a pretty good clip. “You know, I bet he’s doing fifty flat out,” he said to Wu Julee as the truck disappeared from view. “Maybe we can move faster and easier than we figured.” They walked over the border to the incongruously snow-clad roadhouse. The cold hit them at once, Wu Julee being unclad except for the pack, and his clothing not much more than protection from the sun. They ran to the roadhouse, and she was inside almost a min-ute ahead of him. Five Slongornians stood at a counter shoving what appeared to be hay down their throats with their trunks. One drained a mug of warm liquid somewhat like tea and then squirted it into its mouth. The inn-keeper was a middle-aged female Dillian who looked older than her years. Two young male centaurs were sorting boxes in the back, apparently arranging the deliveries the Slongornians had made. And there was one other. It’s a giant, man-sized bat! Brazil thought, and that is what it did look like. It was taller than he was by a little bit, and had a ratty head and body with blood-red eyes; its sharp teeth were chewing on a huge loaf of sweetbread. Its arms were slightly outstretched and they melded into the leathery wings, the bones extended to form the structural support for the wings. It had long, humanoid legs, though, with a standard knee covered in wiry black hair like gorillas’ legs, and end-170

ing in two feet that looked more like large human hands, the backs covered with fur. The thing was obviously double-or triple-jointed in the legs, since it was balanced on one with no apparent effort while holding the loaf in the other, the leg brought up level with the mouth. The creature seemed to ignore them, and no one else in the place seemed to pay any attention. They turned and ordered breakfast, a thick porridge in a huge bow! served steaming hot with wooden spoons stuck in the stuff. Wu Julee just ordered water with it, while Nathan tried the pitch-black tea. It tasted incredibly strong and bitter, and had an odd aftertaste, but he had found from the days he had spent in Dillia that the tea woke him up and got his motor started. It didn’t take long for one of the Slongomian truck drivers to strike up a conversation. They seemed to be an extraordinarily friendly and outgoing people, and when curious about this strange-looking one in their midst felt no hesitancy in starting things off. Between comments about the weather, the porridge, and the hard and thankless life of truck drivers, Brazil managed to explain where he was going and as much of his reason as he had told the one in the parking lot. They sympathized and one offered to take them the nineteen kilometers to his base in the nearest Slongomian city, assuring them that they could probably hitch rides from terminal to terminal across the country. “Well, Wu Julee, no exercise and no aches today,” Nathan beamed. “That’s nice,” she approved. “But, Nathan—don’t call me by that name anymore. It’s somebody else’s name—somebody I’d rather not remember. Just call me Wuju. That’s Jol’s nickname, and it’s more my own.” “All right,” he laughed. “Wuju it is.” “I like the way you say it,” she said softly. He reflected to himself that he didn’t feel comfortable with the way she had said that. “Excuse me,” said a sharp, nasal, but crystal-clear voice behind them, “but I couldn’t help overhearing you on your travel plans, and I wondered if I. could tag along? I’m going in the same direction for a while.”


They both turned, and, as Brazil expected, it was the bat. “Well, I don’t know …” he replied, glancing at the willing truck driver who cocked his head in an unmistakable why-the-hell-not attitude. “Looks like it’s all right with the driver, so it’s all right with us, ah—what’s your name? You’ve already heard ours.” The bat laughed. “My name is impossible. The translator won’t handle it, since it’s not only a sound only we can make but entirely in the frequencies be-yond most hearing.” The creature wiggled his enormous bat ears. “My hearing has to be acute, since, though I have incredible night vision, I’m almost blind in any strong light. I depend on my hearing to get around in the day. As for a name, why not call me Cousin Bat? Everyone else does.” Brazil smiled. “Well, Cousin Bat, it looks as if you’re along for the ride. But why not just fly it? Injured?” “No,” Cousin Bat replied, “but this cold’s done me no good, and I’ve traveled quite a distance. Frankly, I’m extremely tired and sore and would just as soon let machines do the work instead of muscle.” The bat went over to settle his bill, paying in some kind of currency that Brazil guessed was valid in Slongorn, which would be used to pay for the supplies. He felt a sudden, hard pressure on his arm, and turned. It was Wu Julee—Wuju, he corrected himself. “I don’t like that character at all,’* she whispered in his ear. “I don’t think he can be trusted.” “Don’t be prejudiced,” he chided her. “Maybe he feels uncomfortable around horses and elephants. Did you have bats on your home world?” “Yes,” she admitted. “They were brought in years ago to help control some native bugs. They did, but they were worse than the bugs.” Brazil shook his head knowingly. “I thought so. Well, we’ll meet some even more unpleasant characters along the way, and he seems straight enough. We’ll find out. If he’s honest, he’ll be a great night guard and navigator.”


She resigned herself, and the matter was settled for the moment. Actually, Brazil had an ulterior motive. With Cousin Bat around, there was less likelihood of the emotions of the night before getting aired or strengthened, he thought. The ride was uneventful. Cousin Bat took the floor next to the Slongornian driver and promptly went to sleep, while Wuju and Brazil sat in the rear bed, the only place she could fit. The Slongornian city was modem enough to have traffic jams as well as signals and police. Had it not been for the mushroom-shaped buildings and the total incongruity of the inhabitants, it would have been very comfortable. They waited there for two hours before another truck going in their direction was sufficiently empty to fit Wuju in the back, and even then she was uncomfortably cramped. Still, it was faster than her own speed, Shortly after nightfall, they were more than halfway across the hex. Cousin Bat was wide awake by this time. Since there were no inns that could accommodate someone of Wuju’s size and build, they made camp in the field of a friendly farmer. The bat had looked like a cartoon version of a vil-lain by day, but in the dark he took on a threatening aspect, his red eyes glowing menacingly, reflecting any light. “You going to fly on now. Cousin Bat?” Brazil asked after they were settled. “I will fly for a while,” the creature replied, “partly for the exercise, and partly because there are some small rodents and insects roaming about here. I am sick and tired of wheat cakes and the like. My consti-tution is not constructed for such fare. However, Murithel, which is the next hex, is a bit nasty I’m told. I’ll stick with you to Czill, if you’ll have me.” Brazil assured him he would, and the bat leaped up into the evening sky with a flurry of leathery wings and vanished. “I still don’t like him,” Wuju insisted. “He gives me the creeps.”


“You’ll have to get used to him,” he told her. “At least, until I find out what his game is.” “What?” she yelped. “Oh, he’s a phony, all right,” Brazil said. “Remember, in the old life I was nothing much but a truck driver like these folks here. 1 was even delivering grain. Truck drivers see a little of everybody and everything, know isolated facts about all sorts of things from the people they run into. They knew where our flying companion’s home hex was. It’s nine hexes north-northwest of here—almost exactly the opposite direction to the way we’re going, at least the wrong point on aV.” “Now who’s getting nervous?” she retorted. “He could be going someplace on business. He certainly hasn’t told us much about what he does.” “I know what he does,” Brazil replied evenly. “One of the other drivers saw him flying south, toward Dillia, two days ae;o.” “So?” “He was coming to meet us, Wuju. He stayed at that roadhouse knowing we’d have to come that way to get to Czill. He almost missed us in the storm, but we managed to blunder into him anyway.” “Then let’s get away, Nathan. Now. He might—kill us, or kidnap us, or something.” “No,” he said thoughtfully. “Nobody goes that far out of his way to kill somebody. You just hire it done and that’s that. [f it’s kidnap, it’s the same gang that got Vardia and Skander, and if we joined it would solve one of my problems. But I smell something different here—f don’t think he’s one of their side, whoever they are.” “Then he’s on our side?” she asked, trusting his judgment. Nathan Brazil turned over on his towels and yawned. “Baby, you better remember now that the only side anybody’s ever on is his own.” He slept far better than she that night. Cousin Bat, looking tired, woke them up in the morning, but it was hours before they got a ride, and they made poor time. Brazil was plainly worried. “I’d hoped to get to the border before nightfall,” he


told them, “so we could see what was what tomorrow. Now, we won’t get there until midday, and not really in until nightfall.” “That suits me,” the bat replied. “And both of you can make do in the dark. 1 suggest we make the bor-der, look over the terrain, but not enter until darkness falls. Better to keep to the dark for movements.” Brazil nodded approval. “Yeah. At least that’ll put the Murnies on the same footing, and with your eyes we ought to be able to even out the odds.” Wuju looked alarmed. “What are the Murnies?” she asked. “I see we’ve got the same information,” Cousin Bat said. “The Murnies are the folk of Murithel, of which we have over three hundred kilometers to traverse. They are a nasty bunch of carnivorous savages that seem to be half-plant and half-animal. They’ll try to eat anything that doesn’t eat them.” “Can’t we go around them, then?” she asked, appalled at the idea of crossing such a land. “No,” Cousin Bat replied. “Not from here. An arm of the ocean comes in to the east, and from what I’ve heard of the Pia we’ll take the Murnies on dry land. To go up the other way we’d go through Dunh’gran, a land of nicely civilized flightless birds, but then we’d have to cut through Tsfrin, where the giant, crablike inhabitants are quite antisocial—not to mention armor-plated—and down in through Alisst, about which I know nothing. Not to mention about fourteen hundred kilometers.” “He’s right, Wuju,” Brazil said. “We’ll have to try to sneak through the Murnies.” “Any weapons?” Cousin Bat asked. “I’ve got a light-pistol,” Brazil told him. “In the pack, there.” “No good,” the bat replied. “Nontechnological hex, Those great weapons are never any use where you need them.” Brazil rooted around in the pack and pulled out a gleaming short sword. Looking at Wu Julee, he asked, “Remember this?” “It’s that Corn girl’s!” she exclaimed. “So’that’s


what that damned thing was that kept hitting me on the side! How in the world did you wind up with it?” “It was left in Serge’s office at Zone,” he reminded her. “I went back there a few days after arriving in my home hex. I found the Zone Gate, dodged Ambreza guards, and Jumped in, managing to get word to Ortega before those giant beavers made me into a domesticated pet. Old Serge gave it to me. Said’ it might come in handy. Ever used one?” She looked at it strangely. “I—I don’t think I’ve ever even killed a bug. 1 don’t know if I could.” “Well, you’ll have to find out now,” he told her. “Your arm muscles and speed make it a better weapon for you than for me.” “What will you use, then?” she asked. “Five thousand safety matches and a can of flam-mable grease,” he replied cryptically. “You’ll see. What about you. Cousin Bat?” “Carrying a weapon would keep me off-balance, but I can always pick and drop rocks,” the creature replied. “Besides, my teeth and my airborne punch are extremely effective.” “Okay, then,” Brazil nodded, reasonably satisfied. “We’re as good as we’re gonna get. Remember, our best hope is no fight at all—to sneak through and that’s that.” Wuju took the sword and tried a few awkward thrusts. She didn’t look sure or confident. “What— what do I aim at if I have to use it?” she asked uncertainly. “The head’s always the best,” Cousin Bat told her. “Even if it isn’t the brain, at least it’s the eyes, nose —things that matter. A second choice is the genitals, if any.” No roads led to the Murithel border, and they had to walk the last several kilometers in the dark. “We’ll stay on this side through tomorrow,” Brazil said tensely. “Then, near sundown, we’ll go.” They spent the night talking, except for an hour or so when Cousin Bat left for his nightly feeding. Brazil tried to keep Wuju awake most of the night,


so they would sleep the following day, but well be-fore the night was half over she had succumbed. He decided to let her sleep, and spent the earlier hours talking to the bat. The creature was easy to talk to, but gave little useful information and rather glib lies. Brazil resisted the temptation several times to come right out and ask Cousin Bat who he really was and what he wanted, but never quite got to the point of doing so. Both finally were asleep by morning. Wuju was up first, of course, but she didn’t stray far from them. Brazil slept until almost midday, and Bat finally had to be awakened later on when he showed every sign of sleeping until dark. Murithel was clearly visible from their camp. It didn’t look very menacing; in fact, it looked beautiful. Brazil had one of those uneasy memories again. He remembered a place long vanished and forgotten. He’d been standing on a barren hill overlooking some rough but scenic landscape. A couple of thousand meters from that hill ran a line of trees lending color to the landscape. What he could see of Murithel reminded him of that long ago day, and gave him the same feelings, for the river that had fed those trees was something called the Little Bighorn, and a few years before he had seen it, others had as well. He bet that that landscape had looked as quiet and peaceful as this one did to that general who came into primitive territory. How many Indians are behind those rocks and trees? he asked himself. The landscape was formed of low. rocky mountains and rolling hills, some made up of bright orange rock eroded into strange and eerie patterns. Others were more a dull pink, with clumps of trees here and there and grass on the tougher portions. A line of trees betrayed a small river or stream off to their left. The sky was cloudy and the sun reflected strange shadows off the landscape.


“I think it’s beautiful,” WuJu said. “But it looks so strange. Even the sky seems to be a lighter blue, with yellows and greens in it. But it’s so rough and rugged—how will we know that we’re going the right way?” “No problem on a clear night,” Brazil replied. “Just head toward the big, bluish-orange neb’Ula. Looks as if it’s clouding up in there, though.” “I agree,” the bat put in, concern in his voice. “We might have some rain. Bad for navigation, bad for flying if need be. It’ll slow us down.” “But it’ll also keep the Murnies down,” Brazil pointed out. “If we get rain, we keep going as long as it’s possible. The Slongornians say that that low pinkish range of hills with the little bit of green goes pretty much northeast for almost half the distance. I’d say we get to it and follow it. Looks as if there may be caves and shelters there, too.” The bat nodded approval. “1 agree. If I were to live in such a place, I’d make my camps and villages along river and stream courses, on the flats but in defensible positions. If we stay away from such places unless absolutely necessary, we might Just make it.” “As close to sunset as possible, I want you to re-connoiter the area from the air,” Brazil told Cousin Bat. “I want to know as much about what’s in there, reasonable paths and the like, before we go.” He went over and pulled the sword out of the pack, and changed his shirt to the long-sleeved one with gloves. With Bat’s help, they tore the shirt he had been wearing, twisted and tied it to make a makeshift scabbard fixed around Wuju’s neck and draped to one side so all but the hilt was in the shirt. “That ought to hold,” he said with satisfaction, “if the sword doesn’t tear through the material and if you remember to hold the cloth when taking out the sword.” Next he removed a small, battered tin and took out something that looked like oily grease. “What’s that?” she asked, curious. “Slongornian cooking fat,” he replied, applying the stuff to his face and neck. “Something in it is like a


dye. Bat’s black and you’re brown, but my light skin will be a giveaway in close quarters. I want to be able to blend in.” Satisfied, they settled back to wait for sundown. The Barony of Azkfru, Akkafian Empire VARDIA REGAINED CONSCIOUSNESS SLOWLY. EVEN WITH the aid of what looked like a sunlamp, it was almost half an hour before she could make any movement at all. The Umiau she knew as Cannot groaned softly. With great effort she turned lier head ? little and saw that the mermaid was having a similar struggle to regain muscle movement. “Son of a bitch!” the Umiau swore in Confederacy plain talk. She would have gasped had she the physical equipment for it. She recognized the dialect at once. though she hadn’t heard it since she was in Ortega’s office in Zone. “You—are—from—the—Confederacy,” she managed, the voice sounding strangely distant and fuzzy. “Of course,” the mermaid growled. “That’s what all this is about. I am Elkinos Skander.” Vardia stretched and flexed, feeling far surer of herself with every passing moment. The Umiau stared at her for a moment, a puzzled frown on her face. “You mean you really haven’t any idea about what’s going on?” Vardia shook her head. “No, nothing.” Skander was thunderstruck. It simply hadn’t occurred to her that anyone hadn’t known at least part of the story. “Look,” she began, “you’re Vardia, right? You came in with that party from Dalgonia?” She


nodded, and the mermaid continued. “Well, I came in a few weeks ahead of you.” Now it was Vardia’s turn to be astonished. “Then you—it was your tracks we followed!” “Indeed they were!” Skander replied and proceeded to tell her the entire story—the discovery, the opening of the gate, even the murders. Only the point of view had changed on the latter. “I returned to the camp instead of staying on station,” Skander lied. “By the time I arrived, this rascal Varnett had already killed them. There was no way out, no chance of holding him off, so I made for the Gate. I hadn’t any real idea where it would take me, or if it would kill me; but I was being chased by a madman. I had no choice. When I arrived, the Gate had not yet opened, and Vamett caught me. We struggled—he was much younger, but I was in far better condition—and the Gate opened beneath us.” He went on and told how they were separated, in-terrogated for several days, and finally allowed to pass through the same Gate she had gone into. “I don’t know what happened to Varnett,” Skander finished. “I woke up a Umiau and damned near drowned those first few hours. The Umiau spotted me and I was taken immediately to government Center by two police. They kept me locked up until I normalized, and while there I was apprised of the unique situation here and of my own new situation. When I heard about the Center and the contacts with your people, we decided to strike a bargain—me with my new people, and my people with yours—to solve the problem of this planet once and for all and,” the mermaid concluded, with a strangely fiery look in her eyes like those of a religious fanatic, “whoever does solve it will control this world at the very least, and perhaps all of them.” “But none of our people has ever sought power,” she objected. “All people seek power,” Skander replied firmly. “Few, however, are ever given the opportunity to grab it.”


“I still can’t see my people wanting to rule the world or whatever,” she said stubbornly. “Perhaps yours, but not mine.” Skander shrugged. “Your people are a mystery to me, just as mine would be to yours. Maybe they only wanted to add the ultimate knowledge. Maybe they still wouldn’t have done it, but for one factor.” “Which is?” she asked, still unwilling to accept what she was hearing. “Varnett, of course. He’s out there; he has the same formulae I do for contacting the brain, and he’s at least as smart, perhaps smarter than myself. We couldn’t take the chance. If anyone was to break the final puzzle and control the brain of this world, it would better be the Umiau—and the Czillians, oŁ course,” the scientist added hastily. “So how did we come to this?” Vardia asked, wav-ing her tentacles around at the barren dirt chamber with its incongruous electrical outlet. “Because I was stupid,” Skander replied harshly. “Someone found out who I was—how I don’t know. But our ambassador at Zone got a warning that someone was out to kidnap me, and so I cleared out and lay low for several weeks. I relied on the fact that most species can’t tell individuals of another species apart. I came back. eventually, using a colleague’s name and office, and tried to complete the last few days’ work. That’s why we were pushing it around the clock. I’d already solved half the puzzle and hoped I could crack the rest. 1 even had you transferred up —not for what you were doing, but because I could talk conversationally to you about the Dalgonian Gate and your own experiences.” Now she was really puzzled. “Why would my experiences be any different than yours?” “Because the Gate should have closed behind us!” Skander exclaimed excitedly. “We—Varnett and I— opened it when we cracked the code. Our minds opened it. But there’s no reason why the thing remained active—if it has. The resupply ship should have been in shortly after you and gone through the same motions—-then most of them should have arrived here.”


Vardia thought back, and told about the strange emergency signal. “‘Another funny thing. I hadn’t really thought about it, but—” “Go on!” Skander prompted. “What was it?” “I—I’d swear that your two ships vanished—just weren’t there—before the Gate opened.” The Umiau was suddenly very excited. “Vanished! Yes, that would explain it! But, tell me, who else was in your party? I glanced at the information but didn’t pay much attention at the time.” “There was a big, ugly fat man, I don’t remember his name,” she recalled, straining. It all seemed so long ago. “He turned out to be a sponge merchant— and he had this girl, Wu something, who was all fouled up on the stuff.” “No one else? Wasn’t there a pilot?” “Oh, yes, Nathan Brazil. A funny little man no big-ger than I was. But old—his pilot’s license was pre-Confederacy!” Suddenly Skander laughed and rocked back against the wall on her long fish’s tail, clapping her hands once in amusement-Vardia didn’t understand at all and said so. “They’ve kidnapped the wrong person!” the Umiau replied, still chuckling. “That’s very interesting. Dr. Skander, but where does that leave us?” came a weird, unearthly yet quiet voice that seemed to be made up of pulses and chimes, although both kidnap victims understood every word. They both turned, as The Diviner and The Rel glided out of a nook hidden in shadows- “What the hell are you?” Skander said, more in wonder than in fear. “We are, I’m afraid, behind your rough treatment and discomfort,” The Rel replied. “You’re not from around Czill,” Vardia observed almost accusingly. “Nothing like you is related to the kind of life we have here.” “We are from the Northern Hemisphere,” The Rel explained. “However, we were obliged, upon learning of Dr. Skander’s mission through means not worth


explaining to you, to forge an alliance. You are in the Akkafian Empire, on the other side of the ocean from Czill.” “Those big bugs,” Vardia put in. “The ones that came through the glass—they’re not …” “They are,” The Rel replied. “I fail to see why that should disturb you. So far we haven’t found much difference in any of you Southern races.” “No difference!” Vardia exclaimed, upset by the comment. “Why, just look at the two of us! And— how can you compare us to those bugs?” “Form doesn’t matter,” observed The Rel. “Only content. I find most of your actions and reactions incomprehensible, but consistent. As for tnose bugs, we’ll have one with us for quite some time, I fear. I have arranged it so that we draw only the weakest link in this society, but it takes no deduction to assume that the creature will be incredibly brave and loyal in our defense until that final moment when we are at the controls of the planetary brain. Then, of course, it will kill us all.” Skander opened her mouth but said nothing. The score was perfectly clear, except The Diviner and The Rel’s role and side. “That’s all very well,” Vardia said at last, “but won’t these people think of that?” “Oh, they will perform what is known as the double cross,” The Rel replied casually in that same, even tone. “But The Diviner’s talents are real. We will make it—all but one of us. We shall do this.” “Which one?” Skander asked quietly. “I have no idea, and neither does The Diviner,” replied The Rel. “Perhaps it’s one of you, or the Akkafian. Perhaps it is we, for no Diviner can foretell its own demise.” They digested that awhile. Finally, Skander broke the new silence. “You say you’re not like us. But here you are, kidnapping me, trying for the same goal as all the other races would if they had the chance. Power is still the name of the game.” “You misunderstand us,” The Rel said. “We have

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L