“Yes, isn’t it?” the Chalidanger responded, still sounding amused. Ari was fascinated to see that, in the center of the tentacles, there wasn’t the beak generally associated with squid and nautilus and like creatures, but an actual mouth, round and containing row after row of sharklike teeth. That, he decided, was what made the Chalidangers different from the animals: the higher order chewed its food and pronounced its words carefully.
“I, by the way, am Colonel General Mochida of His Majesty’s Army Intelligence Service. In fact, I’m the commander of that service in normal times, but this operation was so much my baby, as it were, I just couldn’t stand to keep away. The others here are my aide, Colonel Kuamba, Sergeant Major Subich, and Warrant Officer Ladoch. I know you are wondering how the devil it matters since you can’t tell us apart, but the insignia on the body shell tells all. Officers have a single insignia in the center of their spirals, noncoms and soldiers along the outer edge with an identical Imperial design in the center. The starburst on my spiral along with the circle inside it makes me a colonel general. Kuamba has only the circle, so he’s a colonel, a far distance from colonel general. The warrant has the half starburst on the outer shell, and the sergeant the fan insignia of the highest noncom rank. Just so you know. I do not like being called ‘Sergeant,’ and I assure you that the other two officers here also do not wish to be confused.”
“Um, yeah, thanks a lot, General. You’ll pardon me, though, if I don’t give a shit, since I’m tied down and trussed up like a beast to slaughter.”
“Ah, yes. Well, we will change that, I promise you. We haven’t had time to search the supply lists here and find what we need, but I promise, once we do, you will be untied and able to move about normally. It’s hard to find things when you can’t use your computers, and efficiency suffers. We also can’t use our usual methods for restraining—guests—in this primitive environment, so we must use subtler means. The sergeant major assures me that he will find it at some point today or tomorrow, and then we’ll be able to take those nasty chains away.”
What do you think he’s gonna do? Can’t do an implant, it wouldn’t work here. Ditto remote control electroshock. Ming was more worried about the method than that they had something in mind they believed in.
I suspect we’ll find out soon enough, Ari said glumly. Remember these guys’ reputations, andJosich’s in particular.
The general shifted and flexed his tentacles. “I find this fascinating, you know. Are you two speaking to one another now? I suppose it’s something like telepathy, or do you pretty much just know what the other one says?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Come come! Madam Ming Dawn Palavri, I believe, and Mr. Ari Martinez, nephew of the infamous Jules Wallinchky, the greatest criminal of your generation. Oh, come! Come! As I told you, I am the Chief of Staff for Army Intelligence. Besides, you did not make it a matter of state secrecy, you just didn’t remind anyone of it. We don’t need to plant agents in Kalinda for that sort of thing, you know. You can look it up in the Zone archives. As for Wallinchky, well, the Empress is extremely impressed with him and speaks of him quite often.”
Ari came to the fore. “You know where he is? He’s alive?”
The tentacles wriggled in delight. “Well, well! Mr. Martinez, I presume. You really do sound different from one another, and even the body shifts a bit in the way it holds itself, even at rest. Incredible. I have seen multiple personalities before, but it was always because someone was mentally ill. I’ve never seen two healthy and independently developed minds in the same body. It must be—cozy. Or is it frustrating? I do hope you’ve come to like each other.”
“My uncle—he’s alive?”
“I believe he made it, yes. And he’ll pop up sooner or later. Such people as that one can never be kept down. He’s not a factor in our business, however. Breathers of air have a great deal of trouble operating down here, and never in a clandestine manner. You two used to be air breathers, didn’t you? I cannot imagine suffering the limitations of such an existence. You would have to be in zero gravity in order to experience what we take for granted.”
“It was good enough, if we had our separate bodies,” Ari told him, feeling more like a cross between a specimen and a trained pet animal. “Still, I have to admit, this is not a bad way to live. Some things are the same, though.”
“If you’re captured and tied up by your enemy, then it’s no fun at all.”
“But why should we have to be enemies?” the general asked him. “What is so terrible about us? You were employed by your uncle, I believe, and that almost certainly meant that you did all sorts of things without a single reference to any sort of moral compass. Am I right? Yes? You probably didn’t kill people, but your actions or orders most likely caused people to be killed, or worse. I saw the condition of the lady when she arrived in Zone, courtesy of the recordings we always make of immigrants. I am no expert on air breathers or their appearance, but simply comparing the lady to the rest of you, I can say that the word ‘automaton’ comes to mind. The only difference between you and us is that you almost certainly have a good reason why you did, or did not do, everything you ultimately perpetrated. Well, people, so do I.”
This was not the kind of guy you could fool around with, that was clear. Still, Ming came to the fore and responded, “However, I was not a Jules Wallinchky employee. I was a cop and later a captive to his sadistic whims. And your Empress, back there, was considered the ultimate butcher, the destroyer of entire planets filled with sentient beings. There is no higher crime than genocide.”
“I agree,” the general responded smoothly. “I look forward to many discussions on these kinds of topics with you, in fact. You can tell me how your original home world and your original race evolved without wiping out any other species, and how it all came together as one great supernational race without stamping out a single culture or exterminating any primitives. Since it defies everything I ever was taught about the way races develop, it will be fascinating to hear of this one moral exception.”
“Very funny. Ho ho. But a race is supposed to evolve upward. We have progressed beyond that level, while others have not.”
“Indeed? I thought evolution was random. In point of fact, I believe your race has been in space colonization for, oh, many centuries at least, and during that time it’s evolved almost not at all from the point at which it wiped out all the other sentient species back on your birth world. You’re stuck, you see. Evolution happens even here. Most of the races here are different than the ancient records show. Sleeker, stronger, but rarely smarter or less violent, and almost never wiser. We are a warrior race. It invigorates us, renews us, makes us better. Mentally as well as physically, a worthy opponent is to be cherished. I admit that the Empress is a bit, um, unrestrained in that area, but she is not alone, nor the dominant single force in government. She’s damned good at politics, I’ll say that, but rather brutish in war. Wiser heads are managing that part, and she will be satisfied if her objectives are attained.”
“You sure had it all worked out in Ochoa,” Ming taunted him.
He didn’t seem bothered by the comment. “Oh, come now! It was a mass military action in a classic arena, and the situation did not warrant that. Supply lines were too long, intelligence too poor, and so on. We had to allow them to make that one attempt, though, just to establish the General Staff as the place strategy and tactics are developed, not the Imperial Court and its allies. If they’d won, fine. The only land nation in the center of that oceanic region would have been invaluable and made all this unnecessary. But, as we expected, they lost, and, having been handed their beggar’s bowls and taking monstrous casualties, they were much easier to convince that it should be the experts who should do the work.”
“Indeed? And what is that?”
“We’re not out to conquer this world, appearances to the contrary,” the general told them. “For one thing, in the incredibly unlikely event that it could be done, it could never be held. Too many alien races, too many biospheres, too many complexities. No, we’re satisfied to establish protective spheres of influence here and let it go at that. No, we don’t want to conquer the Well World, even if it would be allowed.
“We want to conquer your empire, and all the rest that we can see in the sky. An infinite conquest. Such a concept is too glorious to fail!”
General Mochida enjoyed bantering with his prisoner, but he was a pro. He needed what they knew as well as what had been reported to him, and he had the means to get it, thanks to a number of experiments on unsuspecting Kalindan workers and traitors within the Kalindan hierarchy. And with a Kalindan consulate in his pocket just down the road, as it were, he had no problems securing whatever was needed.
Ari and Ming saw the Kalindan syringe, designed to penetrate even that race’s tough leathery hides, and felt the massive sting as the drug went through and into their bloodstream. It didn’t take long at all to take effect, even though they tried to fight it. Before there was even a backward count often from the technician administering the drug, their thoughts simply died away; their resistance, their fear and anxiety, just seemed to melt into the water. They were perfectly conscious, but not only was there nothing they could do about the questions that were coming, there was no desire inside them to conceal anything. There was no friend, no foe, just a nice feeling of well-being and a willingness to do anything, anything at all, that was asked.
“Too bad we can’t just keep this stuff in their systems with an under skin injector,” the General commented. “It would make occupation a whole lot easier. Are they ready?”
The administrator of the drug, a creature that seemed to be all tendrils with tiny eyes at the end of each, examined their eyes. “Yes, I believe so. The metabolism is quite efficient, though, and the defenses are very good, so I wouldn’t count on much past half an hour, even though they might be partially under for much longer.”
“Very well, so we cut to the chase. Ari, Ming, can you hear and understand me?”
“Yes,” they both responded in such unison that it was the one time when the General had no idea who was speaking.
“Do you know Jeremiah Wong Kincaid?”
“Yes,” they both answered.
“Ming only—have you had any contact with Kincaid since being on the Well World?”
“Not that I know of,” she answered truthfully.
“Ari, I assume that you would know nothing once here that Ming did not, so you, too, have not had any contact with Kincaid since arriving on the Well World?”
“No contact,” Ari agreed.
“Do you know what race he has become?”
“Yes. Core said that they knew but that they made a deal with him.” Quickly, they explained the arrangement that Kincaid would kill no more in Zone if they ignored his activities elsewhere.
“Interesting. Secrets can be kept if they are really important, it seems. Very well. Let us go on to other business.”
It lasted the full half hour, with a mechanical clock ticking away the minutes. The questions were direct, to the point, and geared toward information, not idle curiosity. The General knew his job well.
He seemed disappointed with their apparent ignorance of just about anything going on, so much so that he almost suspected that he was supposed to have caught them. What good that would do, he didn’t know, but he couldn’t shake that feeling even if he could not get out of them any real threat to him and his operation that they might pose.
“I’m half tempted by my suspicions to program them into marrying little Mitchuk and settling down to have a nice, happy family,” the General remarked to his aide. “Still, if they are some kind of sleepers, then I want to know what’s going on here. Tourmin—you are certain that they cannot lie or conceal from me?”
“Not for another—oh, seven or eight minutes,” the ten-driled technician responded.
“All right. So if they are programmed to any action, they won’t know it themselves. Still, I want them around, if under control.” He turned back to the helpless Kalindan who just floated there, looking at nothing in particular and with an idiot’s demeanor.
“Ming, what are you most frightened of?” he asked her.
“Of becoming one with Ari. Of losing my identity.”
“Ari? Same question.”
“Of becoming one with Ming.”
“Do you dislike her?”
“Then why are you bothered by this?”
“Because I am not Ming. I like her, I may love her, but I do not want to become her.”
“I see. But death is not your greatest fear?”
“This would be death,” Ari responded. “We do not fear the physical death so much.”
“Very well, then. Do you fear me?”
“I respect your position. I do not fear you, nor does Ming.”
“Do you fear Josich?”
“I fear only what Josich might do.”
The General seemed satisfied, even if he had far less information than he’d hoped or expected. “I believe we can let them rest now. Sergeant, did you find the supplies?”
The Chalidang noncom slowly floated down near to them. “Yes, sir. Enough for a couple of months if we only use it on her.”
“Tourmin, you certify that the toxin works on Kalindans?”
“Of course,” said the creature. “If you take oxygen from water, if you have an efficient bloodstream and a heart that moves it, and if you are carbon based, this stuff will work. It is actually pretty simple, not a complex compound. We have found fewer than a dozen races where it appears to have either no effect or the wrong effect. Kalinda is not one of those.”
“All right. Give it to them, and show the sergeant and Mr. Ladoch how to administer it after you are gone. At what interval is it to be given?”
“Actually, it averages once a day, but it does vary between species, and I do not have all the figures for Kalindans in my head,” the creature responded. “However, it is not your problem or your concern when to administer it. I assure you that the subject herself will tell you when.”
“Hmmm . . . Out of curiosity, will it work on us?”
“On Chalidangers? Of course.”
“Then why haven’t I heard of it before? It’s the perfect thing to have in the arsenal of somebody in my business.”
“Expense. It is stable only as a naturally occurring toxin imported from Nyarlath.”
“It can’t be synthesized?”
“So far, only sort of. It can be synthesized, but it tends to break down rapidly, often in a matter of days. In other words, it does not travel well. No one has ever determined what the agent is that causes this, which the synthetic lacks. Most frustrating because, as I said, at its heart it’s a quite simple compound. It may be one of those Well blockages, where it is simply not permitted to be synthesized because of the harm it might do.”
“Interesting. If so, it could be synthesized, and stable if made in the greater universe. Something to look forward to.”
“When do you intend to move your people from here?”
“In two weeks. The Sanafeans are not all that keen about dealing with us and may require a demonstration. Beyond that, we hope that this will not take long once begun.”
“And that would leave only two pieces left,” the colonel commented gleefully. “The one in Quislon and the missing piece.”
“Quislon is being worked on as we sit here,” the General assured him. “As for the missing piece, I have every expectation that I can put my tentacles on it when it is necessary to do so.”
“Then, sir, you know where it is already?”
“Not exactly,” Mochida responded. “But I believe that I know the one who does know, and, quite simply, that is more than sufficient for now.”