Chalker, Jack L. – Well of Souls 07

She pointed to the roostlike sleep box and set the thing on fire, and managed to hit the cabin door. But when she aimed at Jaysu, the gun would not fire.

“Then I’ll get you with poison!” the Kehudan snarled, and started toward Jaysu, who was only a few meters away. But Algensor’s ample feet didn’t seem to work. She strained, but she couldn’t move toward the Amboran.

Now it was the would-be assassin’s turn to panic. “You! You’re doing this to me, aren’t you?”

“My oaths will not allow me to let someone harm another, but basically it is simply instinct. I am reacting to your threat.” Jaysu turned, picked up her pack, checked for a few basics, and deciding that anything she didn’t have she could replace or do without, put it on.

“Then you’re not going to kill me?”

Jaysu sighed and shook her head in pity. “I cannot deliber­ately harm another thinking being,” she told the Kehudan. “Still, if you tell me who sent you, or hired you, to do this, I will allow you to walk out of the cabin and off the ship when it docks.”

Algensor wasn’t fully cowed, although she was defeated. “Foolish girl! Don’t you realize that almost every passenger on this ship works for your enemies?”

“I suspected as much, but it seemed too much trouble to go to just for me. I simply wish to know what it is that allows you to try and take my life when I am no threat to you. Reward? At the command of your people? Some cause?”

“Most of us work for reward,” the Kehudan admitted. “But some of us also work for our governments. Mine is terrified of the alliance that has grown up so quickly around Chali­dang, and the way we live, just atop the waves, makes us very vulnerable to any sort of military attack. It was they who in­structed me that you were not to get off this ship. You have stopped me, but I do not see how you are going to stop the others.”

“The same way,” Jaysu responded matter-of-factly. “Now I wish you to remain here until we are at the dock. Once we are in port, you may emerge and leave the ship so long as you do not have hold of that weapon. The weapon must stay here.” She turned and opened the door, then looked back, seeing in the light flooding into the cabin the silvery insectlike creature that was to have killed her, and a very nasty looking thing in her tentacles that must be the pistol.

“It was a message from the Pyron chief in this place we are going to,” Jaysu said. “All it said was that I was to get off the ship and be met there. Happy now?”

And with that, Jaysu stepped out of the cabin and let the door close.

She did wonder how long it would take before the Kehudan stopped fighting and dropped the pistol so she could leave, but it wasn’t really her affair.

Jaysu still could not understand why they were all so afraid of her. What could she do? She didn’t even understand why Core thought she could be of value in this affair.

She wasn’t completely confident, either, in her ability to remain alive through it. True, she had little to worry about in these kinds of situations, but here, in high-tech areas, she was still vulnerable to long-range weapons fired without warning. She would never detect the hostile intent in time, let alone pick it out.

She had no desire to remain in a high-tech hex for long. Not now, particularly.

She wondered if Wally would try and pounce on her. She decided that being out on deck was no more or less dangerous than being inside. On deck, someone in one of those boats might take a shot at her, but inside, well, Wally had been the one creature she’d not detected fully until he’d moved. Best not to give him any advantage.

When she got back to her viewing area just below the wheelhouse, she saw the pilot boat coming out to meet them. It was an ugly little craft, dull gray and with a gun of some kind mounted forward. It didn’t look like the kind of craft anyone would use just to take a harbor expert out and back; it looked more like a craft you’d run up rivers and through har­bors looking for criminals or smugglers.

If the Alkazarians were as ugly and mean-looking as their craft, she could see why everybody was nervous about them.

But as it turned out, they weren’t. They were, if anything, downright cute.

Averaging only a bit over a meter high, the Alkazarian crew of the pilot boat looked like nothing so much as flurry little animated toy bears or bear cubs. They were, in fact, bipeds, with short three-fingered hands with opposable thumbs, but otherwise they were darling little things, with blow-dry fluffy brown fur, little black button eyes, and everything else that said ursine. The black uniforms with leather belts and lots of braid, and the little hats that sat between their pointed ears, added to the comic effect, and they leaped and jumped around like small children preparing to match speed and direction with the large ship, from which a metallic stairway had been lowered.

She knew she should be laughing at their cute antics, but her other senses were almost screaming at her to ignore ap­pearances. These little creatures radiated a cold, hard evil, an inner soul that recognized only fear and the instigation of fear as valid emotions. Even Wally hadn’t been as dead inside as any of those little creatures.

Still, as an Alkazarian in a particularly ornate decorated uniform walked to the side of the boat and then, after judging distance and motion, made an effortless leap to the stair and started up, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the others. Impres­sions flooded into her mind, ugly impressions, like those of a nightmare. Fleeting images of these little creatures running in crazed packs, thrilled by the chase, then taking one of their own and killing them and—eating their own! Cannibals? It was—ghoulish.

They had high technology, trade, all this. Why would they revert to savagery, and with such enjoyment?

She hoped she was seeing some vestigial memory of an an­cient past, but deep down she knew she was not. The ones on that boat had been in that pack, and had eaten of their own, and to them it was not an unpleasant memory.

She didn’t like these little creatures one bit.

In fact, she was beginning to wonder if there were any alien creatures, by which she meant not Amborans, that she could trust. She’d met few here, although the little purser and the crew in general had treated her well. Still, that was their job.

Could it be that the only ones she could truly trust in all this were the sinister looking Pyrons?

Land was visible now, dead ahead, a definite shoreline, and almost dead center in it, a tall mountain range that looked not unlike home. It did not seem to stretch from horizon to hori­zon, though, but was sharply vertical only in that central area and then tapered away on both sides. It was odd-looking, and the ship had to move in much closer in order for her to realize that it was a V-shaped formation whose base reached the coast but fanned out from it diagonally inland.

It was the tall center of that mountain at the base of the V that they were headed for, and soon it began to dominate the skyline to the south. It was not volcanic; there were layers of rock going up into the sky for several kilometers, the tallest mountain she’d ever seen by far, and the rest of the range was just about as tall.

It was quite warm at the surface, even hot, but there was snow up on those peaks, and from various points along the mountainside there were hundreds of waterfalls.

The mountain did not quite reach the sea; instead there was a half bowl at the base that was not much above sea level but was hundreds of square kilometers in size, and it was not empty.

The city at the bottom of the mountain had its own landscape, this one artificial, consisting of large scale docks, even dry-docks, giant warehouses, and, beyond the waterfront, densely packed high rises that went back almost to the mountain itself and off on either side as far as she could see.

It was a huge, bustling, dramatic, modern city that did not look like it belonged there. It was difficult to believe that creatures such as the Alkazarians could have built it.

There was certainly an inconsistency of styles. Buildings were very different from one another, in shape, in form, in color, in every way she could think of save that they were al­most all high rises. It was almost as if a portion of Zone were built not inside enclosed and fixed quarters, but along this harbor, each race carving out its own little piece of itself.

And, of course, she realized that this was exactly what she was seeing. The Alkazarians might own the place, but it wasn’t theirs in spirit. It was, rather, a place that existed be­cause the creatures of the hex realized what a profitable loca­tion they had.

She looked back and up to the bridge area and saw the little Alkazarian, probably standing on a box or something to see, on one of the outside “wings” next to the wheelhouse, bark­ing orders in a high-pitched voice to the helmsman inside. Occasionally he’d jump down and vanish inside, then run back out again, and it was apparent that he was running the ship now.

She was glad somebody was. The harbor was so crowded with ships big and small, and more boats of all sizes than could be counted, that she didn’t see how they were going to come in without hitting things.

Like the buildings and the fishing vessels offshore, it seemed there were a hundred races here, each in their unique vessels. To her surprise, there were even two other large steamers in the same class as the Bay of Vessali in port; the Bay, in fact, was heading for a long pier that would put her in back of an­other similar ship and on the other side of a third. The major differences were in the colors on the superstructures and smokestacks, and the flags that flew from the sterns.

They slid in smoothly, and more Alkazarians in dull blue uniforms with no particular adornment threw ropes up to places where Bay crewmen were perched to fix the big ship in place. The engines were cut; movement suddenly stopped, save for a small jerkiness as the ship struck the dock while straightening out. Then there was one long, deafening blast on the steam whistle that seemed to go on forever, and it was over.

She heard yells and the sounds of engines from the other side of the big ship. Curious, she went over there and saw sev­eral small, squat, ugly little boats with single stacks going away, back out into the harbor. It was only then that she real­ized how the big ships docked: they were guided in by the little boats.

The city and the mountain behind, which rose to impos­sible heights in the sky creating a virtual wall, were now all that she could see forward. She decided it might be time to get off the ship, but wasn’t sure how to do it. She’d not gotten on in the usual way, and she’d never been in a port before, and it only now occurred to her that she didn’t know where the door was.

One of the crewmen, an octopuslike creature, only it breathed air, was oozing down from the rigging nearby. She approached it and called out, “Excuse me, but how do I go off?”

The creature stopped, two eyes within the fluid mass seemed to float until they were looking at her, and it replied, from somewhere within, “One deck down, this side, madam. Don’t worry—you will see it. Just use the center stairs.”

She thanked it, walked back along the deck and went in amidships and down the central staircase one deck. The crew­man was right. Most of the other passengers were already there, along with the purser and chief steward. She didn’t see Algensor, but Wally was prominent.

“Attention, please!” the purser shouted, and after several attempts they did quiet down. “Please excuse this problem! If you need to go on immediately to another destination, or have no travel documents, then inform the company agent at the bottom of the gangplank and we will arrange to put you up until we can transfer you. If you have your documents, pro­ceed to Tolls and Tariffs inside the terminal. From there, go to our office inside and we will arrange for your stay here and passage to your final destination. Thank you!”

All the affectations the little creature had in his speech and manner seemed to vanish. She doubted if that had been an act; rather, this was duty overriding habit.

She wasn’t sure which category she was in, and looked through the small bag she wore. They had sent her some pa­pers, but since she couldn’t read them, she had no idea what they might be, other than the credit voucher that had been used for passage and might still be worth something here. Supposedly that’s how they did things between hexes, with these vouchers.

One of the papers did look official, though, and even had a very bad and grainy black and white picture of her face she could hardly recognize. She suspected it was a travel docu­ment, but decided to ask.

None of the other passengers seemed surprised to see her, at least not from her scan. She wondered if Algensor had taken matters into her own hands without explicit orders. Certainly the Kehudan hadn’t radiated a threat earlier in the voyage.

Wally seemed to radiate some odd pleasure at seeing her, as if he hadn’t expected her to live but was, for some reason, glad she still did. It was curious. She still hadn’t figured him out, at least in relation to herself.

The gangplank wasn’t all that stable and seemed to move a bit up and down, but it wasn’t far from the door in the ship’s side to the dock, and she managed.

The creature on the other side was another of the elephan­tine types, like the first mate, with the two-handed nose trunk and funny little uniform. She began to suspect that these crea­tures were in fact the owners of the ship and the line, although you could never be sure about such things. Still, this one tow­ered over her.

“Excuse me, but I do not know if I have the proper papers or not,” she told him, offering the one with her picture.

The split trunk twitched, one of the “hands” took the paper and brought it up to his eye level. He read it for a moment, then offered it back.

“This should be sufficient,” he told her. “Most hexes don’t even require this sort of nonsense, but this isn’t most hexes. Proceed on down the pier and into the building at the end. Just be polite and show this to the Alkazarian at the en­trance. When you clear, go to our office.”

She thanked him, and, clutching the paper, walked down the pier, past not only her vessel but the one in front. Just when she wondered if she’d walked too far over hard ground, she was at the entrance.

This Alkazarian looked like the others, but he radiated sus­picion and disdain. Still, he seemed taken aback by her. “And just what are you?” he asked officiously.

“I am Jaysu, High Priestess of the Great Falcon, an Ambo­ran,” she responded.

“That right? Huh! That’s some set of wings there.” He looked at the paper and seemed to read every single word of it. Finally, he nodded to himself, took out a fancy printed rectangular sheet, stamped it, wrote something on it, then stapled it to the sheet and handed it back.

“Don’t lose this,” he warned her, “and show it on demand to anyone in authority, which means anyone of my race. You can do nothing here without it. When you leave the country, you must surrender this paper to the official on the way out along with any others you might get or they will arrest you. Please do not take this lightly. Next!”

And with that she was through. Still, the speech was a little scary; she carefully folded the paper with its attachment, put it in her travel case and sealed it tightly. The last thing she wanted was to be arrested in a place like this.

She looked for the steamer company office, but instead saw a Pyron standing not too far away, looking at her with those serpent’s eyes.

They were such a strange and eerie race to look at. She thought of them as serpents who crawled on their bellies, but she saw that they did have legs, partially cloaked by the enor­mous hoods. Still, they looked like giant snakes rearing up and poised to strike, and she wasn’t at all comfortable with their appearance, even though this one was radiating no threat at all. She was going to have to get used to looking only inside these different creatures. Cuddly little bears with the souls of mass murderers; fanged, giant serpentlike creatures who were, if not saints, at least ordinary people: she wondered how those who couldn’t look beneath managed to cope.

The Pyron stepped forward, still moving as if slithering on its belly, even though it wasn’t proportionately long enough to do that. “You are Jaysu? I am First Consul Auglack of Py­ron. You received my message?”

“Yes, yes, sir, I did,” she managed. “It was quite a surprise. In fact, it was a surprise to be here at all.”

“Well, someone should have warned you. They do this all the time, in fact, when they don’t have a cargo in mid-ocean. This is, quite frankly, a very pleasant city overall for a ship’s crew to stay over in when they spend all that time at sea, and they look forward to putting in for minor repairs most times. The company doesn’t mind unless it has business on the wider route. We weren’t positive from the manifest that they were doing it this time, but we were ready if and when they did. Will you come with me, please?”

“Yes, sir. Certainly. But you must bear with me. My race is not built for long walks on this hard ground.”

The consul chuckled. “Hard gr— Oh, you mean the floor! Yes, I can see where your feet aren’t well-suited for that. Well, we will walk as little as we must, I promise. First things first. How do I address you?”

“Sir? I do not understand.”

“You are a cleric of some kind, I know. Clerics tend to have titles beyond Citizen or Madam, just as politicians do. They call me Excellency in my official capacity, otherwise I am just ‘sir’ or ‘mister.’ I know religious leaders who are ad­dressed as Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, Reverend, Doctor, Holiness, Most High, and about a dozen other titles. How should you be addressed?”

“We do not go in much for that sort of thing,” she told him. “Jaysu is fine. My title is important when I am introducing myself or acting in a religious capacity, but it is just a title, just as yours is, First Consul, if I hear right.”

“Very well, then. It is simply important in my post that no one be insulted by those around me failing to use a title of re­spect. If Jaysu is what you like, then that is what we will use. How was the voyage?”

“Not very good, overall. Boring for much of it, then fright­ening in stormy seas. And, of course, that doesn’t even in­clude the attempt to kill me this morning.”

The consul stopped. “I beg your pardon?”

“A Kehudan, Algensor, tried to shoot me.”

“Indeed? And it missed?”

“No, she did not miss. When it came time, she simply could not do it.”

The consul let it go at that, not realizing how literal his guest might be.

“This was the only attempt on you? I mean, not that we expected even that, but there were no others aboard who appeared to have less than noble intentions toward you?”

“There was this one creature, a giant, hairy green spider­like thing, that I knew from the start was not my friend, yet at no time did he act against me or even pump me for infor­mation. He had two hideous little winged henchmen, but they were kept back, or so I had the impression, by their master. Both of them flew off to this city last night.”

“Indeed? That is most interesting. Normally anything that crossed into Alkazar, airborne or otherwise, would have been vaporized without question if detected. Either they landed on a boat just short of the border or they were expected. Most in­teresting. Oh, we received your photographs, by the way. Most useful. I’m sure your spider and little flying things are there, as is the Kehudan. The spider’s the one to watch. He’s been at the scene of other things such as this, and is ab­solutely in the service of Chalidang. We’ve been unable to get anything on his background, which is quite unusual and sug­gests that he might well be an import from outside the Well World whom, for whatever reasons, his new people are keep­ing well-hidden.”

“Well, he called himself Wally,’ if that is any clue. He said I could not pronounce his real one.”

“Probably true. You probably couldn’t pronounce mine, nor I yours, either, but that hasn’t stopped us. Ah, here we are.”

“Here” turned out to be a moving sidewalk just outside the shipping terminal. It appeared that the whole city was cov­ered with these, moving along at a steady but not very fast clip. They were clearly designed as mass transportation; there were some hovering, flying vehicles, all looking very sinister, darting about overhead and going between the buildings and such, but ground transport was via these moving belts.

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L