“But they know it’s more than that.”
“Yes, they do. But they can lie, and usually love doing it. Just keep telling yourself to never volunteer information. That is almost always sufficient.”
Eggy was clearly not the religious type, nor comfortable with those who were. He couldn’t help wondering if this priestess wasn’t going to wind up spider dinner, unable to protect herself. He’d never seen such a helpless young thing before, at least unless it was a dumb fish swimming toward an Ixthansan hunting pack.
“Have your spider and winged apes dropped where they are getting off?” Eggy asked her.
“They are being met at sea, as I understand it,” she replied. “Only I get the idea from the time line expressed that they will be leaving close to either Quislon or Pyron.”
“Yes, that fits. They’re after the Quislon part of the Straight Gate. Well, they won’t find this as easy as Pegiri, but I won’t underestimate this sort.” He reached into a natural pouch in his abdomen, something she’d not suspected was there, and brought out a tiny object which he held out for her to take. She did so, and examined it.
“You know what that is?”
“No, not really,” she admitted.
“Well, it’s a camera. Takes pictures that can be printed or digitized. It’s quite simple. You just hold it in your hand so that that little gemlike spot isn’t covered, and point that spot at whoever or whatever you want to photograph. Squeeze here, and the picture is taken. We want you to take pictures of our spider friend, his henchmen, and, for that matter, anybody else you don’t feel is a saint who’s aboard. Don’t worry about whether the subject’s in the picture or anything like that. It’s a very smart little camera and it knows what we want. When you’re done, someone, maybe me, probably somebody else, will pick it up and take it off to a hex Gate, where it’ll go to Zone. There they can identify and check out everybody. Can you do that?”
“I—I suppose so. Anything else?”
“Well, first you must take the photos in a high-tech hex, so please take them in Cobo if you can, and don’t bother in a nontech or semitech environment because the thing won’t work. Second”—he reached back into the pouch and took out a small plastic-looking device, a wafer-thin hexagonal block with a red area in the top center—”take this. When you’re alone in your cabin and are sure nobody is lurking about, press this red spot. It will give you a general briefing. Use this tonight if you can, too. Don’t worry about security, except being overheard—once you use it the first time, it will respond only to your touch. When you don’t need it anymore, toss it overboard. No, I’m not joking. It will dissolve long before it hits anything and it won’t foul the water.”
She took it and stared at it, wondering if it was even moral to use such devices. Finally she decided that, after all, she had been the one who volunteered, and she put it in her small belt purse.
Eggy bobbed his head, apparently in satisfaction. “Got to go now. Being on land like this for very long makes me itch, even if it is just a ship. Any message you want to send to Core while I’m here?”
She thought. “No, nothing I haven’t said. I thank you for this, though. It gives a bit of purpose to the day.”
“And that’s literal,” he reminded her, waddling back toward the door. “Remember, you’ll be out of Cobo and into a semi-tech environment on this route in only thirty-two hours unless they’re forced to reduce speed. Get it done, and good luck to you!”
“I do not believe in luck,” she told him as he left the interior of the ship. But I do believe in destiny, she added to herself.
“Although not true bugs, having spines and some internal structure as well as a soft but naturally protective exoskeleton, they have a communal insectlike social organization that is centered in underground complexes,” the voice from the small hexagonal player informed her. “Place this unit on the floor and step back at least one meter,” it instructed.
She was puzzled, still fascinated by the idea of voices from tiny little wafers, but she did as instructed.
As soon as she stepped back, an image formed in the air directly over the tiny thing. It was not a tiny image, but about half life size, and it startled her and triggered her panic reflex until she caught herself and realized that it was just a picture.
“This is a Quislonian,” the voice informed her. “Most of them look just like this. There is no specialization, as there is in the insect world, for example.”
The thing was really ugly, and she had to pull all of her training from within to keep from being revolted by it. A giant segmented scorpion with a drooling mouth and a lot of feet wasn’t exactly her idea of a friendly race. They were more gruesome than the big spider, which, at least, had texture and color and a sense of individuality.
“The Quislonians are organized into tribal groups each led by a prince. The prince is the only male in the tribe; all others are sacrificed to their gods shortly after birth. The prince spends most of his time impregnating the others of his tribe; otherwise he acts both as high ruler and as high priest, although both roles are essentially ceremonial. There is a council of senior wives, headed by the prince’s mother, who organize the daily lives and activities of the colony and dispense aid and favors in the name of the prince. Princes do look different from the females; you will recognize one in a moment if you get to speak to one. It is most likely you will deal with, at best, the Prince Mother. Prince Mothers are identified because they dye their bodies the colors of the tribe, and the dye patterns indicate rank within the hierarchy. Only the Prince Mother also has a dyed head.”
The image changed, and she saw the same creature essentially colored, with each of the segments a different color. She suspected that the order of the colors indicated the rank and perhaps title within the tribe, but it would be a code she’d never try to crack.
“The tribes are autonomous,” the voice continued, “but all are subject to a single tribe that is at the pinnacle of society because it controls access to a central volcano that forms the core of their worship. It is active, but erupts with slow, thick lava that is rarely explosive and flows with slow deliberation. They, and most others, could outrun it. It is not, of course, constantly erupting, but there is always lava in the central crater. They appear to believe that their god or gods lives in the crater and can control it. You may take that as you will. Know, though, that the volcano also sits at the geographic center of the hex, which means that the Zone Gate actually emerges from the side, and access to it is also via the premiere tribe, whose sole function is religious. The male there has a title that translators make as ‘King,’ and his mother is the ‘Queen Mother,’ but there are, again, religious offices that are more important. They generally leave the more secular tribes alone, but a pilgrimage is required once a year, at which time high rites are done in a massive religious exercise around the volcano. This is what you are going to attend, and it is also where what our enemy wants and we must protect what is most vulnerable.”
She wasn’t at all sure she liked this, and understood why Core had withheld the nature of these people until she was committed to go. She had felt that, within certain limits, there was a commonality of culture at its most basic level between even the likes of those water-breathing Kalindans, the ones she’d met on board, and the others who allegedly came with all of them to this world. But these—these were not only physically unlike anything else she’d seen or known, they appeared to have a belief system that would be very difficult to accept. How could a race as ancient as the others on this world still be worshiping a volcano and throwing its men into it?
Why did Core, who seemed to know at least a little bit about everything, think that Amoboran beliefs were compatible enough with these people as to create a dialogue between she and them? Oh, she could see why they hadn’t had much luck with these people, but, she thought, ones like Core were cold in a different way than the evil ones aboard this vessel, but spiritually empty nonetheless. Core had once been a machine, and she could well believe it. To those with no souls, all religion would look pretty much the same.
Almost as if it could read her mind, the voice continued, “Do not dismiss the Quislon religion as some sort of primitive sacrificial cult. It is quite sophisticated, but it does have its unpleasant aspects, we realize. The sacrificial part certainly seems extreme, but in one sense it is no different than another religion’s commandments on dietary laws or cleanliness rituals where a social good—such as making sure a population didn’t eat things that made them sick—is incorporated into a belief system so that it is universally enforced. The society, physically and even in its genetic design, cannot tolerate multiple males. They are smaller, weaker, and will not live long without a great deal of attention, but they are essential for the equivalent of sperm. Rather than watch most of them die very young for lack of what would be required to sustain them as social invalids, a ritual exists so that their inevitable deaths are given meaning while not impacting on the very limited resources their harsh land provides them. Genetically, biologically, only one of them is going to survive and prosper.”
In one way she could understand this, but in a more basic sense she still couldn’t get past tossing live babies into steaming lava. It was something she would have problems with even though she accepted the explanation.
The fact that they had no choice from their biology and geography did not make it right, but it did not make it evil, merely tragic.
“I am preprogrammed to answer questions in some detail about this subject,” the voice told her. “However, we must remind you that we can only function in a high-tech hex, and there is not a great deal of time for that on this journey.”
She was uncomfortable speaking to what she knew was a machine. She did not like to think that a machine could think in such a fashion. Still, time was running short.
“What is the object that your people do not want stolen and that these creatures worship?”
“It is a piece of a device known as the Straight Gate. Although Chalidang claims it was a device invented by one of their own a thousand or so years ago, in fact its composition and method of power and operation, plus obscure accounts that go back as far as we have coherent records, suggest that this was a device of the Makers, the ones who created and populated this planet. It is thought to be a tool of theirs that was somehow left and later discovered by descendants of those who were here at the start. This is why it is venerated by the Quislonians. They incorporate the Makers into their complex cosmology, and thus this would be the most sacred of all objects known.”
“Did they just find it? How did they get it, or is that known?”
“The device disassembles. From the earliest times it appears that wiser heads believed it too dangerous to be used by anyone here, and so it was taken apart and distributed to those races that would be most likely to both venerate it and also keep it from being reassembled. It has been assembled at least once in the known record, by a Chalidang Emperor named Hadun approximately 1,022 years ago. The Chalidang were one of the races given a part to protect, but, of course, politics and attitudes change over time and with leaders. He fought a war that appeared to be aimed at the impossible: the conquest of the Well World. It is possible to conquer but never to hold it. The races and biomes are simply too different, and designed so that no one race could extend supplies over that large an area for any length of time. In point of fact, it was to secure the pieces of the Straight Gate, which he did.”
“And he put it together? What happened?”
“Unknown. He and most of his court vanished and were never seen or heard from again. It was believed they went into another dimension and were lost. In the power vacuum, the enemies of Chalidang attacked and defeated it and took back and redistributed the Straight Gate pieces. Chalidang royalty afterward always called itself Hadun, almost as if it were a title rather than a name.”
“And these people are trying the same thing again?”
“More or less. They are not attempting to conquer the whole world, simply to secure the pieces once more. It is believed that this time they know what the thing is and how to use it.”
“And what is it?”
“All of its capabilities are unknown, but we must deduce the worst from the fact that the Ghoman, a race in the Corish Galaxy, which some races there call the Milky Way, are definitely descendants of the Chalidang; that the last Ghoman emperor we know was called Josich the Emperor Hadun; and that it is this very Josich who secured a device not very different from the assembled Straight Gate there and is now here as the Chalidang Empress.”
She was startled. “He became a she?”
“It is unknown if this was deliberate, but it allowed Josich to move into power here with great speed, as there was already a Hadun Emperor. As Empress, Josich is, by the standards of Chalidang, apparently everything a male Chalidang could dream of. Core suspects that this means the transformation was in fact deliberate and preplanned. Since no one has ever been able to direct and preplan an entry to the Well World in known history, this implies that the power of the Straight Gate is massive indeed.”
“Well, if she’s already got one, why does she need another?”
“She hasn’t ‘got’ one. That one is back on the world she left to come here. We believe it is part of a set. The other is the one that could be assembled here. If it is, it appears that it could confer unbelievable power on the operator. Perhaps a passage back and forth as anything one wishes. Perhaps worse. Perhaps the user of such a device is recognized incorrectly by the Well master computer as one of the Makers. It does not matter what it does, really. If it gets in the hands of someone as ruthless as Josich, and if Josich, as it seems, knows how to use it, then Josich will have so much power she will become, for all intents and purposes, a god. This has been determined by most races here to be a bad thing. Josich, in her home galaxy and system, was known to destroy whole inhabited worlds that displeased her.”
Jaysu was stunned, but now, at least, she understood why the gods of Ambora had selected her and endowed her with unnatural powers. She felt both humbled and unworthy of the job. Why her? Could it be that her whole existence was designed for this challenge? That she had to be an empty vessel so she could be given this great power and the training and discipline to use it?
In her past life, Core had said, she had also been a cleric. Perhaps this truly was a divine commission. She could not refuse it, of course, but that didn’t stop her from feeling that somebody else had to be better at this than she.
“One more question,” she said to the small object on the floor.
“Is it true that if we deny Josich just one segment, it will not work? That we only need to keep one part away from her to win?”
“Yes—and no. Yes, she can do nothing without all the pieces. No, it will not be a victory, since it has proven impossible to even destroy the pieces. The Quislon dropped theirs into the volcano long ago, and it spit it back out somehow. Keeping it disassembled is the constant task, at least until Josich is dead. It is unlikely that she would tell anyone else how to use it. Then they wouldn’t need her anymore, you see.”
It had actually been a very nice period, this passage through a high-tech hex aboard a ship designed to carry a massive amount of cargo of all sorts and a large complement of beings of different races and requirements, and which had far fewer passengers than it was set up to cater to. This meant you could get anything you wanted, and you had free rein of a ship that seemed as vast as a small country.
While in the high-tech mode, anything special that any of the races aboard wanted could be accommodated; she wasn’t sure how it was done, but she decided to test their seemingly boastful claims with a couple of Amboran vegetarian dishes that required very rare ingredients native only to small parts of the hex, and they served them to her within minutes, perfectly done. The others aboard seemed to have equal success with their own culinary requirements. Some who wore various clothing or uniforms got new fittings that looked tailor-made; it seemed anything you asked for could be provided by the attentive staff. This made for congenial passengers; even Wally and his two nasty henchmen were on their best behavior.
But it was a short-lived joy.
Jaysu had no idea if she’d managed to take the pictures requested, but she’d done what she was instructed to do. It was only when they were about to leave Cobo that she remembered the instructions about what to do with it. She therefore went on deck shortly before dawn, looked around at the nothingness of the sea, and obligingly threw the camera into the ocean. She had no idea how they would find it, but she suspected that some underwater races, or perhaps the Ixthansans, were shadowing the big ship, and that they had some sort of device that would tell them when the camera was dropped. At any rate, she’d followed instructions, and it was now their problem.
It was so close to dawn that she decided to hold her morning devotionals on deck rather than go back to sleep. Her rituals, mostly to calm and strengthen her and to allow her to plead with the gods to remain with her and not forget or abandon her, were not complex, but also not entirely silent, and yet out of respect were best done outdoors if not in a temple or at an altar.
There wasn’t much wind, except the breeze generated by the great ship, and the sea seemed unusually calm for Cobo, so being on the forward deck just below the wheelhouse was a perfect place to do her rituals.
As the sun came up, Jaysu felt the great steam engines below throttle back and the ship slow to a crawl. There didn’t appear to be a reason; it was a beautiful day and, aside from a few fluffy clouds, there was high visibility. She became aware of a lot of activity behind her then; much shouting, doors slamming, winches turning, and so as soon as she completed her devotionals, she went to the side to see what was going on.
It seemed as if the entire crew, those not on the steward’s staff anyway, was out and on deck, manning the ropes—the “rigging” they called it—and even climbing the huge masts. Belowdecks she could feel the vibration and hear the noise of great machinery going into action. Just above, the first mate, whom she’d met over dinner once, looked serious, despite the comic opera uniform that seemed designed for a far different creature than the squat, bipedal elephantine mate whose hands were at the end of a twin trunk. Mr. Scofflet, though, was all business, and had the kind of blasting voice to prove it, shouting a command here, another there, as the rest of the crew prepped the ship.
Algensor, a Kehudan passenger she’d rarely spoken to, came on deck. The Kehudans looked delicate enough to be blown away in a stiff breeze; their hex was all water, yet they were air breathers—silvery, heart-shaped, insectlike beings with thin, inverted V’s for legs. It was said they lived and even built somehow on the surface of the waves. Algensor was on her way home even though the ship spent very little time in her home hex’s waters. Now, after saying virtually nothing to her or most anybody since Jaysu had boarded, the silvery creature wanted to talk. Jaysu had trouble reading the Kehudan ‘s empathic elements, which were so contradictory as to be meaningless.
“They are preparing for Mogari,” Algensor said out of the blue.
“Mogari?” Jaysu repeated, shaking her head, a bit ashamed of her ignorance.
“We are about to hit what mariners call the Eastern Wall,” the Kehudan explained. “Along here there are a sequence of nontech hexes joined so that it is impossible to avoid one without sailing a thousand kilometers around. Since ships of this size and weight are not good sailboats, they avoid non-tech hexes when possible save as destinations. Thus, the ship slows, the machinery below redistributes cargo and ballast so it is as optimized for sail as possible, and the boilers are brought down to a simmer, as it were, from a boil. They cannot afford to let them go out, but the steam pressure must be constantly vented or it will blow up in a nontech environment. It cannot reach the aft propellers and drive the ship forward. You may boil water in a nontech hex, but if you try and route it, it will blow up, and so you must vent it harmlessly.”
“I am well aware of this principle,” she told the silvery creature. “My own home allows no machinery that is not powered by wind, water, or muscle directly.” It had not, however, occurred to her that what didn’t seem much of a problem at home would be a serious problem to a ship of this size and weight.
“The crew is professional enough,” Algensor noted approvingly. “The problem is speed and handling. We will be at the mercy of the winds, and, after entering, our speed will be cut from a bit more than twenty kilometers per hour to perhaps six or seven. We will spend as much or more time going down a mere single edge of Mogari as we did to sail all the way here from where you boarded, perhaps much more. Then we will gain power back and turn sharply southwest. It will be sailing the wrong way, almost, for where the ship is bound, but it will be speedy and will allow them to route the rest of the way almost entirely in hexes where the engines can be used. Once the Wall is cleared, though, it will be ten days or so to landfall in Pyron. I, of course, shall be gone by then.”
Jaysu wasn’t cheered by the news. Ten days! How was she going to stand it? Still, if it could be mostly in high-tech hexes, she could adjust. Or was that sinful decadence creeping in? Was her faith really that shallow? She hoped not.
She turned at the cry of the mate to the crew and saw the hex wall looming ahead. It looked just like all the others, a kind of dark, shimmering mass that you could nonetheless see through, and which seemed to go all the way to heaven and from horizon to horizon.
With the crew positioned all through the masts and rigging, she was surprised to see the ship suddenly roar into life, as if revving up to maximum speed. It took a kilometer or so, but it was getting up a head of steam when it reached the wall. Then all power was cut, and it seemed as if the world suddenly stood still as the vibrations of the engines and from equipment below shut down.
The ship slid through the hex wall and the quiet became even eerier. It was as if someone had suddenly made them all deaf and without a sense of feeling, but there was the sound of wind and wave and the bow breaking through surf.
And then the loudest series of noises she had ever heard threatened to make her deaf for real, as three stacks blew their ship’s whistles full and didn’t seem to let up. Getting a headache from the terrible noise, she almost ran back inside. Even the sliding door didn’t mask the noise completely, but at least it was no longer deafening.
The little purser was coming from the dining lounge at that moment, apparently lighting the internal oil lamps. He saw her and immediately guessed what had happened.
“So sorry,” he called to her, and her eardrums were so shocked he sounded a million kilometers away. “Should have warned you. Got to do that. Let steam out. Otherwise we go bang really fast. They won’t do it forever. Just have to get pressure down. Once the boilers are down to minimum, they only do it twice a day, at breakfast and at dinner, and not for so long.”