She understood what he meant. Why did Josich get to remain pretty much the same creature while they were translated into such a different race and biome? It didn’t seem fair. In fact, it didn’t seem like the system here at all.
You know—I never thought of this, but if Josich had come in as a male, then he’d have been a dead shellfish. They already had an Emperor, and the bloodline was pretty firmly established. But as a female, as essentially a courtesan and vamp, as a she, Josich was able to worm her way right into the social structure. A social structure that’s probably not too far off the Ghoman style, either, judging from what we’ve been told. Jeez. It’s almost as if the bastard somehow managed to plan it this way!
It was a sobering thought, and if it contained even a gram of truth, it was unsettling. How come the Well did things fairly randomly for everybody else but basically cooked to order for the Ghoman monarch?
What do you think? Could we take one that size in a fight? she wondered.
Sure. Just give us a fully charged and operable laser rifle and it’s no sweat. Hand-to-tentacle, though, I think we’re outnumbered ten to two.”
The creature was above them, perhaps five levels up, and they feared for a moment that it would go all the way and find the cut, but it was after something else entirely, and they couldn’t see what it was.
You notice how cold to the touch some of these are? Ari asked her. It’s like they have refrigeration units or something. But that was impossible, not in a semitech hex. Or was it?
Now that Ari pointed it out, they did all seem cold to the touch, yet the water temperature wasn’t that bad, at least to a Kalindan.
They both suddenly realized that this was quite unusual in and of itself. Yabbo was a warm water hex, and Kalinda’s water was quite cold. This was more Kalindan temperature than Yabbo, yet there was filtered water allowed to enter and leave the dome in an automatic manner, as with the Kalindan consulate down the street.
These supercooled crates were the ice in the giant glass bubble.
But how could you maintain it in this kind of hex?
Has to be some kind of chemical doing it, perhaps a chemical bath, Ming guessed. They want to keep something frozen yet in a place you’d never expect it to be.
Well, I surely don’t think it’s fresh veggies, and if it’s Ghoman food, then where’s the army to eat it?
There was no longer any question about it. They had to somehow see the contents of at least one of these containers.
There seemed to be half a dozen people inside what they were now thinking of as the warehouse, at least half of them Chalidang. This was unsettling because they had not seen any Chalidangers in Yabbo before, even in their long stakeouts, nor did the nasty creatures maintain any official presence within the hex. Conversation amongst the warehouse crew didn’t help; they were simply not close enough for the translator to accurately pick up and translate the sounds into coherent phrases, although the occasional word drifted up to them, some of which raised as many questions as they answered.
For one thing, at least one of them either was an army general, or else they spoke a lot about generals. The latter seemed unlikely, but what would a high-ranking officer of such a faraway force be doing here? They were much too valuable to risk in some simple clandestine spy operation. Generals either fought battles or remained in headquarters plotting strategies. They didn’t show up in the middle of nowhere with no force at all.
The other familiar word that shot out from the usual banalities was “Kincaid.” It was only said once, and never repeated, so they weren’t sure they had heard it right, that it wasn’t just a coincidental combination of sounds, but it seemed more likely to be what they thought.
One thing was clear: Core had been wrong to ignore this place. Something big was being set up here, something very nasty.
When the dark, tentacled shape again descended, passed them, and rejoined the others below, they rose a bit and went over for a closer examination of the crates. There was enough light from the lower areas bleeding up to allow for some vision, but for the life of them, neither could figure out how the things were fastened together. It seemed they’d been cast in a single, seamless, solid form. But even with the cold, they did get a different sense as they passed over them, a sensation they had almost missed because of that very chill and because it was simply too pervasive.
Whatever was inside was emitting an electromagnetic field very similar to a bottom-feeding fish that might take flight by burying itself in the sand. But these cases would hold some very large fish.
Ming had an awful thought. Ari, about how big would you say that Chalidanger was?
He thought a moment. Maybe two meters, not counting the mostly retractable tentacles. Why?
And how big would you say each of these crates is?
He saw where she was going with this. Oh, no! You’re not suggesting that each of these contains a Chalidang soldier?
Well, it fits. And I know of some races back in the universe that can be put into deep cryogenic sleep for an almost indefinite period with no harm.
Yeah, but that’s using the highest of high-tech devices to maintain and monitor them, and even then, only certain races could do it and not be killed or at least brain damaged. You’re suggesting we have a ton of Chalidang’s finest here packed in little more than dry ice.
I wish we knew more about the Ghomas, damn it! I mean, suppose they could use that highest of high-tech to create these devices and seal in the quick frozen soldiers, then ship them here. If the freezing could be maintained on a chemical basis, and if they could be awakened by a chemical additive or antidote, well, it might make sense.
Let’s get real here for a minute, he objected. You’re suggesting that Chalidang freeze-dried a small army and then is mailing it bit by bit to this storage depot?
Hey, they launched an invasion army with full naval support before, and it telegraphed their every move and they got their tails whipped. Think about it. Your best soldiers, your highest trained, all thawed out and suddenly appearing in a hex near you.
Ari thought about it. If true, it was diabolically clever and very much up to Josich’s reputation, yet he couldn’t buy it. I mean, how many crates are here, stacked one on top of the other? A few thousand at best. Not enough to defeat a professional army of defense, even one like ours.
He was right about that, she had to admit. So, not an army of conquest. Clandestine? Sabotage? Or maybe less a conquering army than an army of occupation? Now that was even more unsettling.
So, if you’re right, they’ve got a pretty good force here, they’re running out of room—so this must be pretty close to the max—and they’ve thawed out a general and two aides. That suggests that whatever they’re going to do, they’re going to do it pretty damned soon.
there was a certain peace to the open ocean at night.
Jaysu didn’t like the big ship, even though it was designed for comfort and convenience. She hadn’t been taught to appreciate such things; they were a sign of laziness and decadence, an attempt to make heaven out of the here and now without any real sense that there was something higher or greater.
Out here, on the open deck at night, she could appreciate what was really important.
Normally hazy, the sky was for some reason crystal clear over the Cobo deeps this night, and on the Well World, the clear night skies were taken for granted by most of the people. Not by her; never by her.
The spectacular sight of millions of stars forming a vast pattern in the sky was good enough, but the swirls of gases and clouds of interstellar material made a clear night a wondrous sight of the heavens.
She had mentioned this at dinner, and one of the passengers—an officious fellow who looked like an orange, vaguely humanoid fish, but was actually a creature of some desert hex—started going on about being in the midst of a globular cluster and adjacent to spectacular twin nebulae that caused such a lit and crowded sky, and on and on and on without any sense of the poetry of the gods inside him. She hadn’t any idea what a globular cluster might be, let alone nebulae, but she could see the handiwork of powers greater than she just by looking up, and that work was of great beauty.
She did understand, and accept, that each of those was a sun like the one that rose every day, and that around some of those far-off suns there might well be planets, and perhaps even planets with highly developed life-forms, but that was an easier part of her cosmology than reducing beauty to chemical compounds.
She had long gotten her sea legs, as the crew called it, and no longer even thought of the motion of the ship. Fliers would more easily adapt, she knew, because balance was all-important to them, but she still would have preferred to be up there than down here.
She’d thought she lost the wonder of flight when she’d accepted her calling to the priesthood; to have it back and not use it seemed somehow sacrilegious, even though she knew it was just her own impatience.
Carefully using the stretched rope lines for safety’s sake, she managed to easily walk around the great vessel and up and down its stairs and decks. It was difficult to think that it had somehow been built, and by the hands and perhaps tentacles and claws of many races working as shipwrights.
The boat—no, it was a ship, as one of the crew had explained, since it had a solid superstructure and was stabilized by ballast, whatever that meant—was surprisingly uninhabited for something so huge. Oh, there were cabins capable of holding hundreds of people from a vast number of races, but most were unoccupied. That was not the standard for some routes, it was said, but for this particular run the demand for passengers was always low, while the cargo, which was still the main reason for such a ship’s existence, was packed as solidly as it could be. This was because all of the great ocean ships followed one of a very few standardized designs, all of which allowed for some passenger transits and services to match. It was just that where this ship was going, few wanted to travel, and fewer were welcome to travel to them.
She could understand that. Nobody traveled to Ambora, nor would they be welcome if they did, and she had seen at least one Pyron, and the thought of a whole nation of those giant snake creatures wasn’t exactly the kind of place most people would be anxious to pay money to visit. There wasn’t a whole lot of tourism on the Well World anyway; travel tended to be for business, although a ship like this could and sometimes was used by large groups for local functions and recreational use.
So, hundreds of cabins but only a few dozen passengers. It made the great ship seem somehow empty, and, at night, a little creepy. That was another good reason why she liked being outside during this period. So long as there was access to the skies, she felt she could cope with almost anything, even though the great map in the lounge showed them to be far from land, headed for a long stretch where anything solid would be most likely beyond her flying range. It was not a good thought, nor a secure one.
She walked down to the main deck and forward to the bow area. It was the least congested in terms of ropes and masts and the like, although it was littered with all sorts of things on the deck itself, including small cranes and winches and stuff she couldn’t imagine the use for. With the swift forward motion of the ship, even with the roll and rising and falling motion of the bow, it would be easy to take off into the night sky.
The noise of the ship slicing through the great waters masked other sounds, if any existed, save the rattle of things around her caused by the ship’s movement and vibration from the big engines.
In spite of the clear night, the sea was hardly gentle; the stiff winds had created a choppy sea, and though the main deck was quite a bit higher than the water, there were points where the bow seemed to dip. There was then an odd shifting feeling, and it seemed the waves would break over the bow and onto the deck. They never quite seemed to make it, but she involuntarily reached out to take hold of the safety guide rope and began to wonder if she shouldn’t go inside after all.
The bow dipped again, and some spray came over it and wet down the area forward of the superstructure, making her nervous enough to edge back and look for the closest main door inside. Suddenly, when the bow was at its low point, something dark and fairly large seemed to launch itself out of the waves and onto the deck, where it landed with an inglorious splat. She stepped back against the rail and for a moment weighed the odds of flight versus making the closest ship’s entryway.
The creature appeared momentarily stunned, then swore in a loud voice, “Damn! I hate it when I do that!” It shook its head as if to clear it of cobwebs, grabbed for the rope and pulled itself erect.
Her night vision was not the best, but the creature now loomed in the darkness, taller than she was, a kind of dark blob sitting atop a slightly smaller blob. What made it stand out and seem threatening, though, wasn’t the size or shape, but the eyes, which reflected even the small amount of light there and seemed to shine. It was eerie and unsettling.
The creature saw her. “Terribly sorry,” it said, sounding sincere. “Didn’t mean to be so dramatic, but my biggest problems are always the landings. Hadn’t guessed anyone would be out and about on deck on a night like this anyway, and particularly not you.”
She was still nervous and resisting the urge to fly or otherwise flee, but she summoned up her courage. “You know me?”
“Well, bless my soul! Never laid eyes on you in my life. Don’t have to, though, if you’re the only Amboran on this vessel.”
“I am Jaysu, Priestess of—”
“Oh, I know that,” the creature responded. “Pleased to meet you. Name’s Zicanthripes, but most everyone calls me Eggy. Terribly undignified, I know, but I’ve gotten used to it.” He paused for a moment, then seemed to realize that he’d neglected some vital piece of information, or, perhaps, assumed more than he should have. “I’m your contact. I’m from Core.”
“You—You are of Cobo, then?”
“Oh, goodness me! No! These chaps live so far down I’m not terribly certain what they are! If they even were in the top layers of the ocean here they’d fall apart. Deep pressure types, y’see. No, I’m an Ixthansan. As air breathers, we don’t use much of anything the folks of Cobo want or need, but since the ocean is our element, we can use the waters and the life that’s only in the upper fifty meters or so of the ocean. We’re also from a nontech hex, which is kind of limiting, so it’s handy sometimes to have base ships in Cobo where we can do some fancy things. It’s a treaty, y’see. We don’t use our depths at all, couldn’t even get down that far without being crushed like a spoiled grape, but they can use even a nontech region for whatever sort of agriculture they do. So, we have a deal. They get free use of our bottom and we get free use of their top. Works out fine.”
“You—You are a marine mammal, then? I do not see well in this darkness.”
“Oh, goodness no! I suppose our ancestors were birds, possibly like yours. There’s a mild similarity in the way we’re built. The difference is that you fly in the air and we fly in the ocean.”
Eggy stepped forward so the light from the nearby forward lounge windows caught him and she could finally make him out.
He didn’t walk very well; it was actually a highly comical gait, the legs too short for more than waddling along. The feet were birdlike, though, but like aquatic birds, wide and webbed with long curved claws at the end. He also had wings; stiffer, barer than her own, and situated along the sides of the torso. Unlike her, though, the wings were also hands, the tips ending in grotesque fingers after the bones had first curved around to form and support the wing. The neck was short but flexible, and the head far more avian than humanoid, as hers was, with a flexible, dark-colored bill that was perhaps half the width of a duck’s in proportion to the body, yet resembled a duckbill more than anything else. The nostrils were atop the bill, and in back of the whole thing were two large eyes that resembled not a bird’s so much as a cat’s eyes, changing with and reflecting the light. It appeared smooth and inky black, but when it waddled a bit closer, it looked like short fur. It was neither bald nor fur-covered, though; they were densely packed feathers.
“You look a tad uncomfortable,” Eggy commented. “Why don’t we go inside and talk for a bit?”
She welcomed that idea, although she asked, “Won’t they find you and charge you for passage?”
He chuckled. “Perhaps they will, as far as it goes, but I’m only here for a bit. I’ll consume nothing costing the line anything, and I’ll make my own exit. If they wish to send a bill to the embassy for a few hours’ passage in mid-ocean, they’re welcome to try.”
It really was a large but ungainly creature, and she couldn’t imagine what it was like in the water. It was difficult to think of such a strange and oddly constructed being as existing comfortably in any environment.
He seemed to catch her thoughts, or was used to others thinking it and guessed at the subject.
“We are designed for the water, as you are truly designed for the air. Unlike you, we don’t need to ever land. Our country is a great mass of floating, living sea grasses that provide all the support we require, which is primarily for laying and hatching eggs. I believe that flying for you is no different than swimming for us. For all the differences in our appearance, you’re about as comfortable aboard this thing as I am. Just imagine being able to fly at all times, finding food, companionship, everything you require, without ever landing save to keep the young safe until they can join you. We’re weightless in our environment, and we can chase down, outrun, or do virtually anything in that element. Gravity is the only enemy, and that’s only when we’re out like this.”
He made it sound almost poetic, and she could at least imagine what it might be like, applying her own joy of flight with never having to fight the pull to earth.
“You have a message for me?” she asked him.
He seemed amused. “I thought it might be the other way around. I’m curious, though. Why do you take my word for it that I’m from Core? I know I frightened you with that entrance, and I’ve said and shown you nothing to indicate that I’m really on the side of the just, but you have accepted it.”
She hadn’t even thought about it. “No one can lie to me without my knowing it, and the truth is always evident to me,” she told him honestly. “If you had been playing me false, I would have known it.”
“Indeed? Never saw my like before, yet you are that confident? If you aren’t being naive, then you’re one of the most dangerous folks to have around in any conversation. Good heavens! Everyone would always have to tell the truth around you! The whole of civilization would be jeopardized!”
She didn’t understand the comment and would have liked to know why he thought her “dangerous,” but she sensed that he was at least partly speaking tongue-in-bill, as it were, and decided not to press the point. There were things that many of these strange creatures said that she knew she’d never truly understand. Instead she decided to get right to business. “So you have no message for me?”
“Oh, a few things, but first things first. I realize you haven’t been aboard here very long, but if you can truly sense the just and the ungodly, then are any of the ungodly aboard? And can you describe them?”
“A large green spider-thing,” she told him. “Pleasant enough, but he radiates an evil I cannot quite describe. I find it difficult to cope with someone who has manners, education, vast experience, even a sense of humor, yet seems to have absolutely no moral sense at all. He seems to divide everyone and everything into ‘useful’ and ‘not useful,’ and I’m afraid that anyone in the second category is pretty much irrelevant to him if they get in his way. He is, I believe, the most dangerous person I have ever met, yet so far he radiates no particular intent toward me.”
“He has a name?”
“He says that we could not pronounce nor understand it. He calls himself Wally.'”
“Interesting. Any companions?”
“Two horrid little creatures that resemble the small apes of the coastal cliffs of Ambora, but they wear clothing and have serviceable wings. I believe they can fly if need be, although not great distances. They also sit around smoking horrible smelling little cigars and giggling at inane things. They are as evil and cold as their spiderlike companion, but I do not think they are very clever, either of them. They work for him.”
“Hmrnm . . . Well, at least you know your enemies. Anyone else?”
“It seems as if everyone on this ship, even half the crew, have some sort of coldness or cruelness in them, but those stand out because they appear to be the ones interested in me.”
“Well, you watch them. We have no idea who the Askoth is, but he was behind the securing of a piece of the Straight Gate only last month. We have to assume he’s working for Chalidang, if not directly, then as a freelance agent, a hired gun. They need some operatives that aren’t of the races in their alliance and can breathe air just to do some background dirty work. Assume that they know you are with us, and also assume that they will not hesitate to move against you, even kill you, if they think you are a threat. I would strongly recommend that you cease doing what you were doing tonight and be very social with the other passengers and crew here as much as possible. You may not like them, but these types do not like to do nasty things around lots of witnesses. Stick to your cover story and stay in well-lit, populated areas.”
“Just as others cannot be false with me, I cannot lie to them,” she told him. “It is not something that I have any choice over. It is a part of my calling.”
If Eggy had shoulders, his motion would have been an easy shrug. “So don’t lie. Just don’t tell them what you don’t have to. You are going to Quislon for religious reasons, and for an exchange of religious thought. That is by no means untrue.”