“I MUST SAY THAT THIS IS UNPRECEDENTED. I SHALL CERTAINLY complain to the line about this!” Algensor, the Kehudan, was still muttering. The silvery buglike creature had just learned that the long route the Bay of Vessali normally took, which swung out and passed briefly through her native hex before swinging back in toward Pyron, had been altered without warning.
They had come through the hurricane with some damage, but apparently the kind of damage the crew considered “normal” for that type of run, and they managed to clear the “short leg” of Mogari in under two days instead of the usual four or five for a nontech hex. Once the boilers had been brought back up and put back on line, it appeared that all was getting back to normal. It wasn’t until they passed through Kodon and Suffok and entered the high-tech hex of Magid that the announcement had been made of a course change.
In fact, even Jaysu had been unaware of any changes until, passing by the purser’s office one afternoon, she’d overheard the Kehudans complaining loudly.
“I am sorry, madam, but we have a technical problem and need to put in at a high-tech repair yard,” the little purser was saying. “Can’t safely make it the normal route, nope nope.”
“That is what your line always says when it wants to deviate from a route!” Algensor responded huffily. “I have a schedule, too, you know!”
“Can’t do anything, sorry, sorry, nope nope,” the purser continued. “You can complain to the captain, but we’ll still land in Alkazar tomorrow morning. We’ll get you on another ship as soon as possible, all free, yep yep.”
“Surely I cannot be the only one inconvenienced by this!”
But according to the purser, she was the only one. About a third of the cargo would be offloaded in Alkazar because it could be transshipped inland as easily from there as from Pyron, and the rest would be dropped off at the Pyron stop as usual. By unloading so much in Alkazar, in fact, they could take on some new cargo they hadn’t planned on getting.
Jaysu was confused by this.
“You must stop thinking of those hexes out there as empty sea,” Wally tried explaining to her. “They are as much ship’s destinations, or at least potential destinations, as ports. Cargo can be lowered to them and raised to the ship. There just wasn’t much business out there this trip, so they decided to change routes. Very fortuitous, in fact, for me and my associates, as we’d much prefer Alkazar to Pyron.”
She was surprised. “You will be getting off there, then?”
“Indeed yes, unless there is some hitch that develops. The Alkazarians, frankly, are somewhat xenophobic. They maintain the port and there is an entire multiracial colony and yard there, but nobody is allowed outside of the port region. It’s a kind of little hex unto its own. Getting permission to cross into the country proper can be a problem, although I believe I can get those clearances. It will save time.”
She was puzzled. “If they deal with everyone in a shipping port, why do they not like anyone elsewhere?”
The spider creature never ceased being amazed at her naivete. “My dear, they want what other places make, and they have things to export so they can pay for them. But beyond that, it is a sad country for a high-tech hex. A rigid military dictatorship, harsh and ruthless. It has been called a computerized madhouse, but it’s the people who are mad, or so I’m told. I haven’t been here before, but I’ve been in places like it.”
“What makes you think, then, that such people would allow you to cross?”
Wally paused a moment, then responded, “Well, let us just say that we are working for clients that have the respect of the locals here. Not friends, not allies, but, well, ‘respect’ may well be the correct word. Never mind. It is all just silly politics.”
“It is too bad that I, too, could not use their space. It would make my journey shorter, and I am so very anxious to get off this ship.”
“I wish I could help you, but I’m afraid I’m helpless in this situation. I’m going to be fortunate to get them to let me and my associates through. You understand.”
He was lying, but not in a way that threatened her. She had the strong impression that Wally had arranged this little detour in advance. She wondered how much it had cost his employers.
A mosaic of the eastern ocean and the ship’s regular routes was on the rear lounge wall. It had been one of the few points of interest for her in the otherwise boring passage, save the time she stared out at a hurricane.
She couldn’t read the map, of course; she doubted if she’d ever understand those odd squiggles and designs. Still, she knew which one was Ambora, and which one was Quislon, and the three types of hexes were color coded, so, if everybody was right, they were going to put in on the northwest point of Alkazar, one hex north of Quislon. There was a nontech hex between Magid and the hex leading into Pyron, though, which meant a few wasted days sailing past where she wanted to go so that she could put in, travel through half of Pyron, and then back halfway through Quislon toward Alkazar again. It didn’t make much sense. It would also get her to where she was supposed to be going only in the nick of time, and even then only if all went just perfectly, and if this diversion was truly the result of bribes rather than damage. Otherwise, she might not even be able to make Pyron in time, and would have done all this for nothing.
There was no sense of being near land throughout the day, but Jaysu could almost smell it. The birds also tended to show up in far greater numbers than at sea, and there were large fish and marine mammals both in the water, following, or even playing a game of derring-do ahead of the great ship.
Because Magid was a high-tech hex, the last day before hitting port was a very comfortable one. Alkazar, too, was a high-tech hex, so communications and navigation exchanges were possible ship-to-shore.
They were due to land in the very early morning hours, but all passengers were assured that they would not be required to waken, let alone leave the ship, until at least three hours after sunup. Representatives would meet them dockside after breakfast and take them to temporary housing or arrange for alternative passages.
She wondered who or what would contact her, or if she was just stuck in the clutches of the shipping line. She’d thought it odd that, after that first dramatic encounter with the Ixthansan, Eggy, she’d not been contacted again at any time by anyone.
Jaysu was out enjoying the air when she saw the two little creatures who were associates of Wally on the forward rail, where she generally liked to stand. Maximum inward breeze, good speed, where you’d want to be if you had to fly in a hurry off this deck.
She hadn’t liked either one and had stayed away from them. They radiated evil, and didn’t disguise their nastiness nor their seeming contempt for her.
The little apelike creatures, each no more than a meter tall, with their cherubic black wings and outlandish uniformlike clothes, did not look threatening, but neither she nor many of the other passengers and crew needed any kind of sixth sense to think them dangerous.
They chattered away to each other in a kind of native code that nobody’s translator ever picked up and straightened out; it was apparently designed with some sort of security in mind. Then, as she watched, the pair turned, climbed up on the top rail side by side, holding on with those large feet that looked exactly like their hands, and worked the same as well, and, to her astonishment, launched themselves into the air.
Until now, she’d never been convinced that creatures with such wings could truly fly, but clearly they could and did, and quite well, too, although they used a great deal of energy flapping those wings in order to get away from the influence of the ship and into updrafts. Once there, however, they needed just a little correction now and then, and otherwise were sailing with the birds.
She hadn’t realized until then how much she wanted to do that, as well, but it was unlikely she’d get the chance where they were heading now. She watched them circle the ship once, gaining altitude and then setting off due south, the same direction the ship was traveling, until they were quickly out of even her best telescoping sight.
It didn’t take a genius to know where they were going now that they had indeed left. Going ahead to this Alkazar, probably getting there hours ahead of the ship, and thus beginning the process of arranging passage through the mysterious place.
She wondered what it must be like, this Alkazar, that could maintain a major port and had all of these high-tech luxuries yet sounded like such a sad and perhaps evil place.
Perhaps those luxuries, those machines that could do things better than people could, were good for the body but not the soul, she thought. Maybe they were the corruptors. She didn’t have enough experience to know for sure, but she had the feeling that she’d find out soon enough.
After a fine meal and a walk and stretch on the deck, she still couldn’t see land, but there were more than just birds now to tell her that they were coming in.
Now there were boats. Small ones, generally, although a couple looked elaborate and even had smokestacks. All seemed to be engaged in fishing at some level, indicating that whoever lived in Magid was more likely on the bottom of the sea than near the top, and that these waters were filled with wildlife from that ocean.
The boats varied in design, and she noticed that almost all of them were crewed by single race crews, not the polyglot that staffed the Bay of Vessali. Most were strange to her, although she recognized a few sleek, smooth, black vessels as being from Pyron. The strange creatures that seemed both giant snakes and men were hard to miss.
Others included creatures with shells, creatures with lots of tentacles, creatures that seemed to ooze up and down masts and in and out of the water, tall creatures with big snouts, floppy ears, and black noses, and even two that were clearly Ixthansan. She stared at each of those as they passed, wondering if Eggy or someone affiliated with him was on either, but she knew that was unlikely. To be here, Eggy would have had to travel the same distance as she, and through that storm or the long way around it. Still, if that race was allied with Core’s group, then one or both of these small fishing vessels might well be more than it appeared.
She was still standing there, staring at them, and noticing that they were often staring at her, too, if they spotted her, when the purser found her.
“Pardon, missy. Got radio message for Madam Jaysu, yep yep.”
She frowned. “What is a radio?”
“Thing that sends talk or code through the air. Easy way to get messages, other stuff, when in high-tech areas, yep yep. Since both Magid and Alkazar are high-tech, can get messages back and forth, no problem, nope nope.” He held out a small tray with an envelope on it.
She took the envelope and opened it, but then sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I do not know how to read this.”
The little creature seemed almost embarrassed to hear that. “Sorry. Give. With your permission, I’ll read?”
“Please do,” she invited him. She had no bad feelings about being illiterate, contrary to what the purser thought. She couldn’t see much use for it anyway.
“It is from the Pyron consul in Kolznar Colony. That’s where we’re going. Big port of Alkazar.”
“The Pyron council?”
“Nope nope. Consul. Like junior ambassador. Ambassadors all in Zone, but sometimes have consuls in other countries where business is done. Faster.”
“Well, what does this consul say?”
“Says you will not have to stay on ship to Pyron. Consul has arranged for passage to your destination from Kolznar. Says you will be met at pier when we dock. Warns you not to fly to or in Alkazar. Can be big trouble, yep yep.”
That was both good news and bad news. The good news was that she was actually going to get off this thing and hit land! But the instructions not to fly—that was almost crushing. It was inside her, something she had to continually fight not doing even now. To still be a groundling even on land was not something she’d thought would happen.
“How is it that you read the writings of Pyron? Do you read all the tongues of the people you transport?”
“Nope nope. Only read Kuall and Commercand. Commercand is language used by all who travel and trade between hexes. Simple, direct, but all the same no matter what tongue you think in. Makes trade possible. Also used in diplomacy, yep yep. That’s what this note is in. If somebody can write it, odds are there will always be somebody else where you are who can read it.”
“How long until we get in?”
“About two hours, no more, yep yep,” the purser responded, ripping up the note into little pieces and then putting the pieces back into the envelope. She thought it an interesting custom. “May take a little while to dock the ship, though. They’re always busy and it’s tricky. We’ll get pilot in about an hour, yep yep. Then it’s in their hands.”
“Indeed? What is a pilot?”
“Captain with no ship but knows the harbors. Pilot takes over to dock ships in big ports and get them out. Otherwise we crash into things. Very convenient, yep yep.”
She had to agree with that, although the job never would have occurred to her.
She wondered about the little horrors who’d taken off and flown into this Kolznar the previous night. If she could not fly, then why could they?
She decided to go back up to her cabin and get together the few things she had with her, put them in the waist pack, and then watch the landing. It would even be interesting to see this pilot creature; he, she, or it was unlikely to be of Magid, considering, and so would almost certainly be Alkazarian.
She walked back, unlocked the door, and walked in. Almost immediately she sensed a wrongness about it, although she was more curious than afraid, considering how long she’d been aboard and that she knew just about everybody.
The door shut behind her, and she realized that the lamp was out. This wasn’t unusual in a high-tech hex, but normally there was a kind of glowing bar that went on that allowed you to see well enough for the basics. Now, suddenly, it was pitch-black.
She knew she was not alone.
She could have sensed it before, but had not been thinking about such things. Now, though, all her senses were on full alert because of the darkness, and she knew not only that someone else was there, but who it was, and that was a shock.
“That is far enough,” said a familiar voice. “I have in my hands a weapon that can fry you like a roasted bird in an instant, and I see just fine in the infrared, so I can see you as clearly as if we were on deck.”
“Then why do you not use it and kill me? That is what you came in here for,” Jaysu responded, oddly calm and sounding not at all terrified. She realized then that she should have known from the beginning that Algensor, the Kehudan, was not on the up and up. Nobody took a ship to return to their home hex. You just went through a Zone Gate. Some detective she was!
“I need to know who sent you the message you just received, and what it said,” the Kehudan told her, becoming unnerved by Jaysu’s lack of panic.
“I do not believe that concerns you,” she told the agent calmly. Her heightened senses located the creature precisely and saw her with greater clarity than the Kehudan could have imagined. “I think you might as well shoot me.”
Algensor wasn’t prepared for this. “Do you understand what I am saying, foolish shaman? Tell me or I will shoot you!”
“But if I tell you, then you will shoot me anyway, so why give you anything for the deed?”
Jaysu saw the numbers tied to the glowing strings, the numbers she did not understand but did not have to, since the meaning was forming unbidden in her mind. She knew exactly what did what, and it was as simple as moving her own finger.
“Then perhaps I will give you pain,” the Kehudan threatened. “Sear off some of those wings, and perhaps carve off the hands and feet. Talk!”
“You have no idea of pain,” Jaysu told her. “You have no idea what an Amboran must undergo to get to the High Priestess level. I have experienced such pain as you can never comprehend, and I cannot be threatened by it.”
“I don’t know if you’re more alien than I believed or just ignorant and naive, but I have no more time to waste on this. Last chance. What was in the message and who sent it?”
“How should I know?” Jaysu mocked her. “I can’t read, you know.”
Seething with frustration, Algensor pulled the trigger on the energy pistol, aiming at Jaysu’s feet.
Jaysu smiled to herself. “Now what will you do?” she asked the creature.
Algensor was unnerved by the failure of the gun. Clearly, she’d tested it to make sure it was fully energized and operational, but even as she tried to fire it repeatedly, it would not work.
“Try shooting into the toilet,” Jaysu suggested. “Messy, but it will work.”
Algensor was so angry she did just that, firing into the toilet area. There was a crack and a flash that illuminated the cabin for an instant, and the sound of something sizzling.
The Kehudan brought the pistol back up and fired at Jaysu.
Again the pistol refused to work.