Well of Souls
Jack L. Chalker
THIS IS THE SECOND AND FINAL PART OF A SAGA OF THE WELL World. I think you’ll find it a bit different from the past ones while still keeping the same fun. The first book we called Currents of the Well of Souls, and the whole project is The Sea is Full of Stars. You’ll see the meaning of the various names as you read.
If, perchance, you missed the first one, it should be available at all reputable booksellers, stores, superstores, etc. Any intelligent, competently run bookselling operation would have it on hand when the second one comes out, so if it isn’t there, you know what to say to the proprietor. You should read them in the order they were written; otherwise it completely spoils the surprise and, because there is a minimum of recap here, you might even get confused as to who’s who. So, please, buy this one now and the first one, too, huh? People who read fiction for pleasure are a vanishing breed of high order intellectual. We need you.
ambassador dukla’s almost equine face pulsed as he breathed the water of his longtime ambassadorial home. Most of those he addressed were no more likely to read his mood or expressions than they could read it on a rock’s, but there was no mistaking the tone the telepathic translator module carried through to the allied hexes.
“The Chalidang ambassador has been replaced, as you know,” Dukla began, sounding cheerful. “My suspicion is that he either did not go home or he is home for good. The Emperor and Empress there are having quite a purge.”
Those watching in both air- and water-breathing ambassadorial chambers gave their own equivalents of nods or knowing chuckles. Not only did the Chalidang rulers have vicious tempers, they were known to go into serious rages and eat the nearest person alive, slowly, limb by limb. It wasn’t just personal, it was almost traditional.
“The official protests, of course, have been coming in fast and furious as well—not just from the Chalidang, but also from the Jirminins and the Quacksans. Both lost quite a bit more in the Battle of Ochoa than the pride their rulers lost— for all that means to the bastards. It centered mostly on my using my authority to allow Ochoan armed troops inside Zone as part of the battle. They are waving the treaty like never before, even though they ignore it whenever it doesn’t suit them. They have called for an impeachment of me and my office, and for my immediate recall with censure, and, of course, they want all sorts of reparations. As usual, these things are being negotiated under the table, even as they bluster, but I wanted to let you know ahead of any Council convenings that a deal is already shaping up.
“Technically, the Ochoans were here primarily as a deputized force of the Zone Council—as all of our races who participate do from time to time. They were empowered to prevent hostilities and to prevent Zone’s use in influencing the course of a conflict. The complaintants see it differently. The fact that the Kalindans gave over their assignment to the Ochoans is in order, but I’m afraid the Ochoans aren’t good for long periods underwater, no matter how well they fish.”
The Ochoan ambassador, who knew he owed the continued existence of his nation in part to the courage of this strange creature and its sense of right and wrong, had guessed that this was coming, but he didn’t like it anyway. “So they are taking the easy way out, I suppose?” he said. “Much easier than making a moral choice. They justify their action in using Zone as a planned military escape route because of our action, in support of Kalinda’s authority, to stop them. The invaders are disarmed and sent home. We are already home, so that is moot, although we did go home fully armed. And you take the political fall.”
“That is an accurate summary,” Ambassador Dukla acknowledged. “I knew this was probable when I did it. Do not worry. My homeland does not eat its recalcitrants. Fortunately, we are vegetarians. And it shall be nice to be home once more in my native land. I have an estate that is a gorgeous coral reef, nicely designed by me and my kin. I truly have missed it. In a year or two, when things quiet down and memories fade and the rage of nations is elsewhere, I’ll quietly be let back into the government, probably as an adviser or deputy minister.”
In the Kalindan embassy, the twin-minded Ari and Ming watched while reclining in comfort just beneath the water, along with the very strange one called Core, who appeared to be the self-aware portion of crime lord Jules Wallinchky’s computer, designed to run his faraway museum and retreat. For the moment, Core was on their side, but there was no precedent for such a creature, not even in its own memories, and nobody knew just what it might do or become.
“Do you mean that the Ochoans win the war because Dukla had guts and Core had a plan and the guy who made it possible gets kicked in the tail?” This was clearly Ming, outraged.
I thought at least by now you’d have lost that childlike faith in justice and the rewards of goodness in this life, Ari commented mentally.
“Only since I got stuck in the same head as you did, dear,” she shot back.
“It is likely that most of the nations of and around the Overdark are secretly pleased,” Core commented. “It is expedient that someone take the fall, and the ambassador will fall more softly than others. It is a logical result. The important thing is that we have bought some time.”
“Huh? Only that?” Ari responded.
“Only that. No war was won here; please put that idea from your minds. A battle was won. The defeat is considerable, but it involved a less than thirty percent casualty rate to the main two nations. Bad, but seventy percent was able to evacuate either via Zone or in ships, so I would expect that Josich now is formulating plans for everyone who caused him this inconvenience and loss of face.”
“Inconvenience! He was creamed!” Ming exclaimed.
“Indeed? How many Chalidang troops were lost?”
“Huh? None, I guess, except maybe a few to some sniping around the ships. They’re water breathers and this was a land attack.”
“Precisely. His surrogates did the fighting and took the losses, and he still has many allies. Take a look at the map.”
Core rose, floated over to a wall and checked the labels. She withdrew a large scroll, which she proceeded to lay open on a table and clamp down the edges. A small current was applied, which illuminated the tabletop and therefore the map of the eastern Overdark.
“The Quacksans were not used much because their hypnotic powers do not work well against Ochoans,” Core said.
“They were mostly holding troops on the heights. Their army is still intact and barely tested, and their junior commanders now have some real battle experience. The Jirminins took the brunt of the losses, but have well-seasoned troops, who now bear hurt pride and grudges. There are at least eleven more hexes here that either have allied themselves with Chalidang or were easily conquered and turned into allies under some of the relatives of the dear Empress. Still, the bulk of Josich’s troops are water breathers. The Olan Cheen are much too far away to be factored in at this time. What other hex is within the field of fire and would provide a near irresistible target for revenge while also serving some practical military use? Take a look—a good look. You do not need to be a general—nor formerly a computer, I should think—to see the answer.”
They hovered over the table looking at it. “You think they’re gonna come after us next,” Ming said.
“Soon, and with everything they’ve got. They already have some political allies and what historians used to call ‘Fifth Columnists’ installed, many in high places.”
“An ancient term, the origin of which is not worth explaining,” Core replied. “It means people of one nation in high positions who seem quite loyal but who have actually sold themselves for potential power to become agents of the enemy. Josich was always good at corrupting the incorruptible. They’ve already conquered some of the neighboring hexes in that manner. Weak megalomaniacs were placed in charge and given absolute power—so long as they did what they are told if called upon.”
“But we’re thousands of kilometers from them!” Ari objected. “It’s impossible without their tipping their hand way in advance!”
“We are no farther than Ochoa, and our two small islands are the only other land in the entire region. Certainly it’s not the ideal placement that Ochoa offered, but let us take a look at who is in between us and the enemy.” A claw from his webbed hand pointed to the map. It was so much easier to hover over something than to have to sit around it; all three had begun to take for granted the powers of levitation that being a water creature conferred.
“Chalidang, Laskein, Dauwit, S’Coyd, Jovin, Saluda,Yabbo, Kalinda. Seven hexes, approximately sixteen hundred kilometers, or just one hex farther than Ochoa. But, unlike Ochoa, suppose we had a well-financed gang of ambitious egomaniacs keeping us tied up at home? And what if Bludarch is in their hands, here? A land hex only three hundred kilometers from our capital?”
“But that’s a nontech hex. They wouldn’t get much use from it,” Ari commented, staring at the map.
“Nonsense. The key isn’t Bludarch. It’s the fact that it’s a peninsula surrounded on five sides by ocean. Cromlin, Saluda, Yabbo—all highrtech or semitech. Formidable. And you’ve never been outside of Kalinda except to Zone, here. You are tending to think, as most do, that because the border of a hex is straight lines, so is its coastline. The Ochoans know better, as should you. Mountain ranges don’t stop at these borders, nor do most other landforms, any more than the Karellian Reef stops because it hits our boundary with Yabbo. Saltwater is saltwater. There’s some change in the vegetation, true, due to its colder waters and different nutrients, but it goes on for another kilometer. By the same token, Bludarch has a great many ports because its rugged coastline extends irregularly in and out of neighboring water hexes. You couldn’t fire a gun or turn on an electric light in Bludarch, but you could dock and service any ship under steam or sail. On the Cromlin side, you could repair a fusion reactor if you needed to. A close-up topographic view of the region shows this. He’s coming. The only question is how, and when.”
“You’ve never been in any other hex, either,” Ming pointed out.
“I don’t have to be,” Core said. “I am used to logic and data and big pictures. However, I also do not have to try some dangerous travel to scout this area. It has been suggested that you might be a very good one to send instead, considering your two for one, um, features—and because the two of you previously had skills in this sort of skulduggery.”
Ming sighed. “Uh-huh. And who suggested us?”
Core shrugged. “I did, but the powers above us thought it was quite a good idea.”
“And why not you?” Ari asked him. “After all, you have all that analytical power. You’ve said it yourself. You had to leave data behind, not logic, so why not accumulate more data, by experience for a change?”
“I cannot afford to take the chance, nor can our alliance,” Core answered without a trace of modesty. “You see, I have some reason to believe that Josich knows who, or at least what, I am. Therefore, I am a priority to be captured, if possible, and killed if not. Remember that Josich was in many ways a confederate and co-criminal conspirator of your— um, Ari’s—uncle Jules Wallinchky. He, or more properly now, she—although that makes precious little difference to a Chalidanger unless they are making more Chalidangers— knew quite a bit about the other criminal empire with which it often had to deal. The Chalidang intelligence network here is as good as those back in our old corner of the universe. Also, I just made a damned fool of them. That counts against me, you know.”
“I can imagine,” Ming responded dryly. “What will you do? Build yourself an armor-plated prison?”
“Being inside a single room is not the same torture for me as it might be for you,” Core pointed out. “Until I arrived here and managed to ‘pull this off,’ I had never moved at all except in that the planet moves. To one who always experienced everything second- or thirdhand, even a very limited life in an organic body is liberation. We have determined that I will do the most good and be the most secure remaining here at the embassy in Zone. I will be able to make use of this sophisticated if very alien computer system, keep an eye on what’s happening, and contact anyone as needed. There is also the pressing problem that all Kalindans who are not already female are turning female. They have been desperately taking sperm from those not yet changed, but analysis seems to show there are no viable male sperm in the samples, either. You can see that if we do not solve that one, the rest is moot. It has been speculated that the Well World master control computer would not permit a species to go extinct, but I believe that this is not true. These were laboratories to prove or disprove racial viability. Dying out is one effect that must be accepted as a valid scientific result.”
That was a sobering thought. “Any race ever died out here before?”
“Who knows? None on record, but some have gone in directions where they might as well have, including your own old form. It is possible that we might not be allowed to drop to zero, but what will result will not be the kind of civilization we know, and we will be more than vulnerable to being displaced. No, we solve it or it is probable extinction. Even if it isn’t, we must act as if it is true. We have no choice. And we need to know if, as now seems logical, it is genocide that we are facing rather than natural forces. What Josich’s scientists can do, we can undo—if we find the agent. In the meantime, we must not put so much in the hands of our enemies. No race should have that kind of control over another.
“No, we have two problems. I must aid in breaking this internal threat, and you must assess the external one.”
“So just what do you want us to do?” Ari asked.
“Do a survey of the neighborhood. All six hexes surrounding us are potential paths to our door, not just the obvious. It might not be Bludarch. Josich did not get as far as this or survive this long by being obvious, and the Empress must never be underestimated. There are other land areas not much farther off. You don’t move forces through this kind of distance without a lot of preparation, and Josich’s generals will not make the overconfident error of leaving supply lines vulnerable and stretched again. We have the only land, small as it is, other than Ochoa, between the western continent and the Far East. It is not the best port for them, but it would do. And if an entire enslaved population expanded it artificially, it could become formidable indeed. We need to know how they are coming. We need to know who our friends are, who our enemies are, and how those sitting on the fence will jump if things begin to happen. Follow the preparations. Find the route and follow it. When you have it, get back here and map it out.”
“All by ourselves? You must think a lot of us,” Ming commented. “We may be two minds, but we’re only one body.” And you’re sure painting a target on us, she added to herself.
“You will have an easier time if you do not take a crowd,” Core told them. “You will not, however, be alone in this endeavor. Others are working on this. It is best that none of you know who the others are, not names or even races, until and unless it is necessary to know. That way, no one can betray anyone else. However, anyone you feel you can trust would be welcome. Simply watch your back.”
“I assume that O’Leary and Nakitt will have things going on,” Ari said thoughtfully. “What about the angel girl?”
“O’Leary, Nakitt, and their people are not water breathers. They cannot do what you can, but will be doing much the same on land. And as for the angel, unexpected as that was, I believe that she is evolving. And whether or not she will be a help, a hindrance, or an entirely separate problem has yet to reveal itself.”
“If you look at the histories and the old guides, you’ll find that even the creatures here—all 1,560 races of both north and south—are not the same as they were in past times. Oh, they’re close, but the sleek centaurs of Dillia, for example, seem almost like streamlined, stylized idealizations of their coarse, muscular, and far more brutishly equine ancestors. The same goes for almost every race here. The Kalindan of yesteryear could not breathe air at all for any length of time. They were quite rough, mottled, and more leathery than scaly. There may have been a point after that when we were primarily air breathers, and we are now in the process of losing that ability. Certainly we are primarily of the water. Unlike the mermaidlike race of the west, our tails are vertical, not horizontal, and we have never lost the dorsal. I can give you almost as many examples as races, save for some of the northern ones where nobody could tell. Evolution did not stop simply because it was a limited population. Given enough time, it continues.
“The Amborans, they are quite a bit different than the much more fragile creatures of their past. The males, who are now basically short, fat groundlings, were once winged as well and sleeker. The females, who now have all the muscular power and the wings, at one time were extremely fragile, and once they mated, they lost the ability to fly. They’ve evolved into a much more stable, more survivable biological form. Somehow—perhaps it was partly my doing, partly the sheer empty vessel provided and the magic-masked sophisticated biochemistry of the Amboran priesthood—the ongoing process has been sped up. The angel girl is currently a mutation, but in directions that so far indicate that her development reflects what the race may become in tens of thousands or more years. She is not done yet. What is happening to her might have taken hundreds of thousands of years for the whole race. Then again, she may well be a freak, one of a kind. In either case, if she survives, she may well be one of the most powerful single creatures on the face of this planet.”
“Oh,” was the only thing either Ming or Ari could think of to say.
“We must ensure that she regains or at least retains some toehold, however minuscule, in her past humanity. I hope I did not strip all of it from her. If so, it may well be the Well of Souls that must deal with her, lest she become a god. Until and unless I can be certain of which way she will go, it is essential that she at least feel comfortable with us, that our side is the side of the just. Understand?”
“I think so,” Ari replied, and indeed they both saw the threat. “So, when do we leave, and how do we work out reports and contacts with you and the government?”
“You will report only to me, and to those whom I can code to work entirely for me. The message traffic will be to and from Zone only. I do not believe that the whole of the government is reliable. Some of it would willingly sell us out to Josich. A good share of the rest would surrender rather than face genocide—and, frankly, if that were the only choice, who could blame them? For now, we—those of us who come from other places, who came here knowing one another—are the third force on the Well World, and we damned well better keep it that way.”
In fact, Ari and Ming were more than eager to get out of the straitjacket they’d been in since arriving on this strange world. Unable to see and enjoy their new, exotic, combined form, they’d been kept effectively prisoner, and treated like freaks—which, both had to admit, they were, under most definitions.
The odd thing was how well the master crook’s somewhat bent nephew and the pretty but tough policewoman had gotten along. Of course, the alternative to getting along was committing suicide. Even so, with the truth of each of their backgrounds known to the other, there was a compatibility they would not have expected. Control wasn’t much of a question; each automatically deferred to the other whenever appropriate. An observer could not tell which one was in charge at any given time. And the ability to have a full dialogue with the other at the speed of thought, without eavesdroppers, was often quite useful.
There was one point of privacy that had driven each of them crazy since they awoke as two different minds in a single body. Neither was ever alone. Ever. Oh, there was a level to which each could withdraw mentally. Nonetheless, the other was always around, always observing. Both felt it, and neither was completely comfortable with it.
Recently, Ming was disturbed by a new wrinkle, one she didn’t yet feel confident enough to bring up with Ari. She was beginning to dream his dreams; to dream things that were related to his old experience but not to hers. There was also a sense of memory leakage that hadn’t been there at the start. At first it had been hardly noticeable. Now, it was common to be thinking over something when, suddenly, a memory or piece of data popped into her mind from what could only have been his half of the brain. No one had discussed the future with them, but she and Ari had overheard some of the medical and psychological types back in Kalinda when they were still specimens. The near unanimous prediction was that they would begin to merge into one. It was supposed to have been slow, and happen without them really realizing it, but that wasn’t the way things were occurring.
Ming knew, and she suspected that Ari did, too.
She didn’t want to be a part of him. To her, it was like dying. What was her would be there, of course, but it wouldn’t really be her anymore, nor him, either. A person was more than the sum of his or her memories.
Even that poor girl whose physical shell should have contained Angel Kobe’s mind but instead had no personal memories at all, Ming thought, was still more Angel than not. Angel’s body had been newly created from a shell of an old mind whose personality had been erased before it ever got to the Well World. Yet much of what Jaysu the Amboran Priestess was could be recognized as the essence of the original Angel Kobe—from the search for spiritual heights beyond the material world, and the drive to serve, as well as the ironic physical incarnation of the poor girl’s birth name.
How Angel Kobe would have loved being that person!
Ming couldn’t help but wonder where those memories, that personality, were now. Most likely nowhere; unlike Angel, Ming never believed in any sort of hereafter or deities.
Core thinks her memories and personality module are still back in the old computer back on Uncle Jules s gallery world, Ari commented telepathically.
Ming was startled. You heard me musing?
Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t know you weren’t doing it for my benefit, or at least without caring if I heard or not.
How much of my thoughts do you get? she asked him, the worry coming back again.
Probably exactly as many as you get of mine. It’s gonna happen. Bound to. There’s really only one brain and central nervous system here. You heard ’em.
For his part, Ari was as insecure as she was, though more resigned. Many times upon awakening from sleep, it took a while before he could remember which one he was. At least once recently he’d awakened thinking he was her. Only when her own consciousness awoke and was clearly Ming did he realize his mistake and suddenly become “Ari” through and through again. Funny, too—her cultural heritage was eastern and mideastern; stoicism and pragmatism were part and parcel of that upbringing. His background was Latin, Greek, and Slavic—emotional, explosive types, expressive and always fighting against the Fates. For all her lack of belief, Ming was more Zen Buddhist deep down than he was Catholic. Yet, he was the accepting one, while she was fighting like hell.
Of course, “stoic” was a Greek word . . .
You want to go see this dump? he asked her.
Might as well. Besides, if I said “no,” you’d go anyway.
Might as well see what the budget is, at least for starters, Ari suggested. In a way, this could be like old times.
No, she responded slowly, sadly. It can never again be like old times.