Volume 4 of
THE SAGA OF THE WELL WORLD
This one is for the old gang:
Alan Mole, Harry Brashear,
Mike Leib, John Yox, and
Bernard Zerwitz, all of whom,
including me, turned out a hell
of a lot better than anybody
would have had a right to expect. . . .
Parkatin, on the Frontier
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN FAR EASIER FOR HAR BATEEN to conquer the world if he had had a cold. Unfortunately, the Dreel automatically cleaned up the bodies they used; so this time conquest had to be the hard way.
Slabansport was a typical frontier capital; the spaceport was small but modern, mainly used by orbital shuttles ferrying imports from the huge freighters that called regularly. Near it, of course, were the bars and dives common to any port, as well as the warehouses, shipping centers, and local headquarters of the companies that fueled the opening of the frontier. The town itself, the largest on Parkatin, held barely twenty thousand. That would change, of course; already the burnt, brown deserts had bloomed for a thousand kilometers around Slabansport as imported soils and pipelines from distant water sources provided the moisture it craved. Parkatin was a hot, dry world, but it had water vapor and convection thunderstorms, and it would make a home for another billion humans in another generation or so.
Not, of course, for the benefit of humanity if the Dreel had anything to say about it. Colonies of them were there now, looking through Har Baleen’s eyes at the seedy little bar just off the spaceport, so confident of success in breeding these animals and expanding to provide a massive new living spot on Parkatin for Dreel colonies which would inhabit and interact through the host animals in the same way that the Dreel were now using the body of Har Bateen.
The Dreel were incredibly complex organisms, yet the smallest organic life known to exist in the galaxy, perhaps the universe. They lived by the billions in the brain and blood and tissue of other organisms in a communal one-ness of self; all other organisms were mere animals to house more of them as far as they were concerned.
Har Bateen walked into the bar and took a stool at the wooden rail itself. There weren’t too many customers yet. No ships were in port, but at least two were due over the next day or so, and that was really why he was there. Parkatin would be simple to overcome. It was here, through spaceterminals like Slabansport that travelers to other worlds—some in systems still unknown to the Dreel—passed. And one of those, sent home with the Dreel, meant a whole new planetary conquest operation.
Because ships were due, a full staff was on hand; prostitutes and gamblers and fast-buck artists were around, waiting, waiting for their “marks” which would include not only crew and passengers from the ships but also those who would arrive to unload and distribute the new goods.
Bateen ordered a drink and flashed a big roll as he paid for it, tipping much too generously. That drew some stares from the waiters, and a dozen minds were already mulling over the best approach to the well-heeled sucker.
Finally, it was Roza who made the first move: Roza, the queen of the local prosititutes, who still looked damned attractive despite her years and the hard life and who was so tough the others would stand back rather than challenge her right to the “mark.” He had a big roll; there would be plenty left for other people. She slid silently up to him and sat, relaxed, on the stool next to his. “Buy me a drink?” she asked in a voice both low and sexy.
He smiled outwardly and inwardly, nodded, drained the last of his, and ordered for the two of them. The bar system was a standard one; the women, the men, the gamblers and whores, all worked for the place. The drinks arrived, his at least a dozen times more potent than normal and laced with an aphrodisiac. Hers was basically colored water.
They drank together and he went through the motions. Good scouting was essential to missions like this; some of the Dreel among his colony carried knowledge from the earliest takeovers to the latest tests on human subjects, and all such information was at Har’s fingertips. As the Dreel divided to form new colonies the parent members imparted their information to the offspring. How, this Dreel colony mused with total confidence and satisfaction, could any mere animal compete with an organism like theirs? None ever had—and these would be no exception.
And so he went through all the motions, did the proper rituals, said and responded to the right code words, and within a short time the two were off to the back room of the bar. On the way the Dreel cleansed Har’s internal system of the drugs and other contaminants, but slowly, through the pores. He would smell less than wonderful, but even if she were to notice she’d still go through with it.
They walked down a dungy corridor and he could see the occasional shapes of others, both male and female, resting, waiting in small rooms and cubicles, junior to Roza, but employees all the same. That was good, according to plan.
By getting there early, before the crowd, and flashing the roll, he’d been assured of getting the boss in such traffic. Take over the boss and then let the boss work on the underlings. Then, when the off-worlders came for their services they would actually pay to be taken over as new Dreel hosts. A perfect set-up.
The Dreel adapted quickly to any new host organism, but after that future generations would settle into the predetermined pattern. In the case of those inside Har Bateen they were most comfortable at thirty-seven degrees Celsius; too much lower, even a degree or two, would kill them. Something like kissing, though, was just perfect.
They reached a room, obviously hers because it was large and spacious and comfortable in comparison to the monastic cells of her underlings, and she quickly stripped and asked, coyly, “Okay, how do you want it?”
He smiled. “Let’s just kiss for starters,” he suggested.
He pulled her body to him, leaned down slightly and kissed her. She opened her mouth wide as did he, and tongues met, saliva was exchanged.
And with it went about ten thousand Dreel.
He kept at it a while, to make certain the transfer was complete, then continued in the normal manner she would expect, as the colony checked out its new host, found the right cells and nerves and message centers, and began a cycle of rapid reproduction to permit ease in takeover. Using the proteins in her body, they could duplicate themselves every thirty seconds, although to do so for very long would invite weakening her, perhaps even killing her. The mathematics loci of the Bateen colony had already done the calculations for exactly how much they could get away with.
In the meantime, Har Bateen continued the sexual play. They were several minutes into it before he detected an unnatural convulsion inside her. In the first ten minutes the Dreel had increased inside her to almost forty-one thousand in number.
Born with full knowledge, they wasted no time getting to their posts inside the body, riding the circulatory system around to where they were most needed, the brain and spinal column.
She suddenly released him and went limp, a puzzled expression on her face; she looked drawn, slightly worn and perspiring, as the Dreel used more and more of her own materials to duplicate themselves.
” ‘Scuth me,” she gasped, voice slurred, “I—I don’ feel so good. Feel funny . . .”
He rolled away from her, off the bed, and stood, watching her with satisfaction. Her body was convulsing now, as nerves and muscles were placed under different control and tested. She jerked spasmodically on the bed, first as if in an epileptic fit, then, slower now, with more care, like a puppet on thousands of strings.
And then she was still, breathing hard but otherwise quiet. He went over to his clothes and took out a plain white box inside of which were a number of thick, chewy cakes. He brought them to her and offered them wordlessly.
She sat up unsteadily and reached out, took one of the cakes, and ate it greedily. In a very short time she’d consumed the whole box. There wouldn’t always be time to replace the metabolized materials quickly, but the key transfer had to be in the best shape. The others—well, that was the risk of being a soldier.
Finally she finished and looked up at him. “We are in complete control,” she assured him in language the woman Roza had never known much less heard before, a language so alien it seemed hardly possible to be coming out of a human throat.
“It is good,” he responded in the same tongue, then turned and dressed. In a moment she did likewise. He watched her critically, trying to detect any flaws, any differences, but there were none to his eye. Her walk, her manner, all were down pat. Nor would she slip in more personal ways. The personality, the psyche, the spirit or whatever you call it of Roza was dead; but her memories, locked in the protein molecules of her brain, were still there. She knew everything that Roza had known, yet more, for the Dreel had ready access to all of the brain.
He started to leave but she stopped him. “Best to wait another ten minutes,” she cautioned in her old, human tongue. Even the accent was perfect. “Podi and the others would get suspicious if we pulled that fast a ‘quickie’.”
He nodded understandingly. “You know best,” he admitted and sat down on the side of the bed.
It was a deadly slow way to conquer a world, but it was most effective.
The hot sun beat down on the body of Har Bateen as he left the little bar. He was oblivious to heat, oblivious to anything that did not cause permanent harm to the host and habitat of the Dreel. He walked toward the spaceport, noting with satisfaction the large crowds of dockworkers gathering with their machines to unload as the first of the big ships came in. The large freighter shuttles sat humming on the pads, waiting for word that a mother ship was in orbit and ready to unload.
It was tempting to wade into the crowd, to get close, to try some air contact spreading, but it would be too obvious and the takeover itself would attract too much attention, even stop the unloading. The Dreel didn’t want to do that, not at all.
The pattern had worked for a long, long time. Slowly, with deliberation and infinite patience, a world —world after world—could be taken over without anyone even knowing until it was too late, often without a single alarm being sounded. The Dreel were immortal through their inherited memories passed on to each new generation, but they were not physically immortal nor uncaring about life. If they had been, they would hardly have bothered to take over other places and races at all. Militarily, this was the most life-efficient method they’d ever developed IN their nearly forty thousand years of glorious, unimpeded conquest. And yet each species was different, each race a new challenge. The Dreel loved the challenge of it all more than anything, and each victory was further proof of their superiority to all other lifeforms.
With time to kill, Har Bateen noticed a small crowd gathering curiously around a pair of creatures only one of whom was “human.”
The man was tall and thin and looked as if he’d been through a pretty rough life; baggy trousers and well-worn shoes, a tattered vest over a thin, hairy bare chest; a long, almost triangular face that hadn’t been shaved in a week. His thick, black hair was wrapped in a crude bandana of some sort, almost turban-like.
A true Gypsy, Har Bateen noted with surprise. It was there in the preliminary scouting reports that such a group existed, but just about no one had ever seen one. Not even any of those people gathering around him, Bateen felt sure.
As Bateen wandered closer, curiosity and boredom drawing him to the show just as it had drawn the human beings waiting for the freighters, the Gypsy took an odd sort of reed flute from his pocket and began to play an odd, almost hypnotic tune that caused the other with him to begin a dance.
His companion was strange indeed—about half the man’s height, no more than a meter high, surely—with shimmering blue-green scales along a reptilian body. Two thick legs ending in long, nasty claws supported the torso. He stood upright, although leaning slightly forward, and had two long, spindly arms that ended in tiny, clawed hands. The face was also lizard-like, although it held none of the rigidity of a reptilian head; it was as if a giant lizard had the muscular facial mobility of a human.
Perhaps most incongruously it was clothed in the same sort of baggy garments as the Gypsy, though shoeless, of course—no shoe made could fit those odd, oversized feet. It was as agile as a monkey, and it danced wildly to the haunting melody of the flute, faster, ever faster as the tempo picked up, its long tail acting almost as a third leg in a multi-limbed dance.
But this was only the beginning; it was moving so fast that the sunlight reflected from tens of thousands of scales giving it the appearance of sparkling with as many rhinestones; the effect was brilliant and added to the hypnotic power of the alien music. And now the crowd stood back, awed in spite of itself, appreciating the strange scene.
The lizard now formed an oval with his mouth, an incredible sight on such a serpentine face, and there was the sound of a great amount of air rumbling about somewhere inside. Now it came out in a steady whoosh, and the watchers gasped. Fire! He was exhaling fire and forming patterns with it! Circles, whirls, shapes odd and familiar appeared and vanished in split seconds while the lizard yet danced, a sparkling blur.
The Gypsy continued to play, but as he did his steel-gray eyes rested not on his lizard companion but on the crowd, looking at them one by one. Studying them, analyzing them.
Even the Dreel who were camouflaged inside the body and mind of Har Bateen were captivated. This was beyond their experience and they shared its alien grace and beauty with the others.
And now it was over suddenly, without fanfare, the last note and the last blazing sparkles faded into the hot, dry air so that only memory remained of the haunting, strange performance.
The crowd stood there, transfixed, still stunned by this performance, not saying a word, or acting in any way until, suddenly, one, then more snapped out of his trance and applauded. The applause quickly rose to a crescendo of cheers and whistles as well as clapping.
The Gypsy bowed slightly, acknowledging the tribute, and even the lizard-creature seemed to nod toward each one in the audience in turn. The strange man put his flute away and waited for the appreciation to subside. Finally he said, in a clear but oddly accented low tenor, “Citizens, we thank you, both my friend and I.”
“Do it again!” somebody shouted, and there were nods and murmurs. “Yeah, more! More!” others called out, adding to the din.
The Gypsy smiled. “Thank you, my friends, we would be delighted to do so—but we must eat, and my friend here has a bigger appetite than do I. Some token of appreciation—Marquoz!—would be most gratifying.”
At the name “Marquoz” the little dragon snorted, looked up at the man, and seemed to smile—a grotesque smile that revealed the nastiest set of teeth anybody there ever remembered—and then picked up a bag and advanced slowly on the crowd. They started moving nervously back.
The Gypsy laughed. “My friends, do not fear Marquoz! He will not eat you. He wishes only what I wish, money to purchase some more civilized food. Just a coin in his little bag, one coin, gentle citizens, and perhaps we shall have our eats and you another dance, hey?”
The braver ones in the crowd stopped retreating and when the lizard reached them and held out the bag, tossed one or two coins in. It became a torrent after a moment, quickly filling the bag.
“Enough! You are too kind!” the Gypsy called out. “Marquoz?”
The lizard snorted, startling the people closest to him because two puffs of white smoke exploded from his nostrils when he did. Then he turned and brought the bag back to the Gypsy. It was heavy now, and the man was thin, yet the bag somehow seemed to vanish, coins and all, into some hidden nether-space on his person. He smiled, bowed again, and produced the flute once more.
The second performance resembled the first yet was a totally different dance with totally different moves and strange fiery shapes to a different yet no less alien, and exotic, tune.
Har Bateen stood through the second performance, admiring it with the rest. Finally when the applause had died down and the Gypsy protested that Marquoz needed a rest, they started to break up and resume their milling around.
The Gypsy bent down, apparently to inspect the stoic Marquoz, and a large human hand slipped into that of the lizard. Small, spidery clawed fingers tapped idly at the man’s palm. He nodded, then got back up and looked around.
Several people approached to talk to him, admire Marquoz, or ask questions about the strange lizard, but he laughed them away with the excuse that Marquoz had to get out of the hot sun and get a water rubdown. The reasoning seemed a little suspect—the lizard appeared not only comfortable but also more at home in Parkatin’s heat than the humans but they accepted his explanation.
They started walking toward the strip of honkey-tonks and bars, away from the freight docks, two pair of eyes on Har Bateen.
The collective experience of the Dreel made few mistakes; getting tailed was not one of them. Bateen realized the odd pair was behind him—they were hardly inconspicuous in any event. That worried him —first, he’d obviously done something to arouse suspicion and hadn’t the slightest idea what; second, a pair following so obviously meant that others were almost certainly about.
Well, so be it, the Dreel agent decided. Best to see what we’re dealing with, anyway. He led them a merry path up and down streets and alleyways, always trying to spot the ones he knew must be following less obtrusively but never catching sight of them. The Gypsy was obviously Com Police. The Dreel admired the technique even as he was still confused to its method. A Gypsy went anywhere, out into the open, but into the worst places and the worst neighborhoods without attracting suspicion—and even if the man couldn’t take care of himself, his big pet with its thousands of sharp teeth would certainly work against any surprise attacks.
And with that Har Bateen thought he guessed it. So obvious—yet no shadows. Why? Because they knew he wouldn’t lead them anywhere, would only go up and down the dockfront streets. And one of those streets was a trap. They would wait. Wait for Har Bateen to panic and walk or run into the setup. He could try to lose them, of course—but that would be a betrayal of guilt. They could shoot him. He had important things to do; Har Bateen did not want to die at all, but particularly not right now.
He had about a fifteen-meter lead on them, although they were slowly closing on him. That was a lot of space. He chose his alley well, then turned into it quickly, as if making his break.
The Gypsy and the lizard speeded up; it was obvious that the little dragon could far outrun the man, but he stuck with him. They turned the corner into the alleyway on the run—and found themselves in a dead end, with tall buildings on all three sides.