“I want to point out something to you, although you’ll not be here long enough to really appreciate how paranoid you can get in this town,” the consul said as he stepped on. After a moment’s hesitation, she did likewise, and gripped the small handrail.
The city might have seemed majestic, even beautiful to some, but to her it felt unnatural, wrong, claustrophobic. She didn’t like it one bit. It wasn’t right to cram so many people into such a small space. It was filled with a thick atmosphere of the most awful odors, and a cacophony of sounds that made her head hurt.
“See those small posts every fifty meters or so alongside the walkways?” the Pyron asked.
She looked and nodded. There was so much filling every view that she’d barely noticed them.
“Well, on each are tiny little high-resolution cameras showing what’s going on in all directions. At all times when you are anywhere in this city, and maybe in this whole godforsaken country, you are being watched. Inside every building, every corridor inside the buildings, same thing.”
“Goodness! Why? And by who?”
“Alkazarian Security Police and their watch computers, which are programmed to alert them to anything suspicious. By their standards that means two people whispering who can’t be picked up by their hidden sound monitors. We found them embedded in our offices and in our diplomatic quarters, which is highly improper and illegal, of course, but they deny it and it’s their city. It’s our belief that there isn’t a single place you can go, or anything you can say or do here, that isn’t monitored. Of course, we have our own ways of blocking the ones inside our diplomatic areas, but otherwise even going to the toilet, pardon, is a public act to them.”
“How can anyone live like that?” she asked him.
“Because they have no choice. The foreigners here, like us, and many of those you see all over here, are here because it’s their job and it’s money. The pay is exceptional here because of the stress, but you can tune it out, take it for granted after a while, kind of build your own safeguards and go about your business. The services of a great city are here as well. Entertainment zones, any kind of goods or services one might desire, even if illicit, plus many of the comforts of home, major shopping with no tariffs, all that. And all completely safe. There are no murders here, no theft to speak of, not even much littering. Not when they’re watching. In an odd way, it makes my job easier as well. If one of my people vanishes, I know immediately that the Alkazarian government has him or her because they are the only ones who could.”
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be here under these conditions!”
“Well, they are a bit more tolerant of us foreigners,” the consul told her. “They can’t have the absolutely free hand they have with their own people, poor devils, because they know that if they got too nasty or intrusive, we’d simply all pack up and leave. It’s a wonderful natural harbor at a convenient spot, but it’s not the only one, and it’s not a place that is essential, only convenient. There is a difference. And if we pack up and leave, well, they are a high technology hex, it is true, but they are resource poor. Without the import of raw materials and the export of sophisticated manufactured goods at cheap prices, it would quickly become a very bleak place indeed. Ah, we switch here to the diagonal belt on the right side. Not much farther.”
Once he’d pointed out the cameras, she couldn’t get them out of her mind. What kind of people would create such a system, and what sort of people would willingly live under it? A very frightened and insecure system, surely. A meter tall and only of average strength . . . She wondered if perhaps they were petrified of the outside world just walking all over them. And petrified that, if they did not keep their own people even more cowed, such leaders might well be eaten by their citizens.
The walkways ended at junctions, and there was then a short platform from which other walkways going in different directions began. It was a very efficient system, if you knew where you were going.
Where they were going turned out to be a section that actually had a few trees and an angle that permitted sufficient sunlight to keep them from dying. In this small area the buildings were not huge, but businesslike in size, although each had a different design echoing the flavor of the high rises. The one that they got off at was an imposing structure, a cluster of buildings merging into one another, each shaped somewhat like a common beehive.
“This is the Consulate of Pyron,” her host informed her. “Once inside, you will not be photographed or recorded, and you’ll be legally on Pyron soil. You’ll stay here for the day and night, and then we’ll get you on your way early tomorrow morning, if that is all right.”
“Yes, of course,” she answered, knowing but not letting him know that she had detected the lies among the truth. She was no less under observation in there than out here; she was just switching observers from the Alkazarians to the Pyrons.
It had not occurred to her to ever ask anyone what sort of government these people had in their homeland. She supposed it was just more naivete—that the ones on her side weren’t the ones she had to worry about. She wondered if that was a true assessment of the situation. If this venerated object were assembled, would its power be any less tempting to those who wished to stop Josich from doing it?
“I only need to know,” she told him, “when I can fly again. I have physical as well as emotional needs to do so, having been unable to do it for so long now. I have no other way to work off the energy, and I am feeling out of sorts because of that.”
“I apologize for that,” the consul answered, apparently sincerely, “but it must remain a sacrifice until you are out of this country. They will kill anyone who flies over any of their land except their own vehicles. Once you are in Quislon, there should be no problems, and it is a nontech hex anyway. In fact, we are banking on you being able to fly to the capital, as it will get you there before anyone else from the ship might reach it.”
“From the ship? You think they are heading there?”
“I think insofar as your spider friend and his companions, you can wager money on it and be certain of winning.”
general mochida happily demonstrated his unique method of ensuring that he now had two loyal traveling companions. It was, in fact, a small spiny sea creature that seemed to have too many eyes and not much else but which, by its markings, clearly showed that anyone or anything thinking of eating it should think twice or be poisoned. It was not, however, a creature that Ari and Ming had seen before.
“It’s a gunot,” the General explained cheerfully. “They freeze rather nicely and revive just as quickly—rather simple little things, really—and we have a lot of them here because they are so useful around Kalindans. It seems that the poison the little creature gives off, and, in fact, is just full of, is toxic to all the creatures in its own native hex but not to others. It was discovered, though, quite by accident, that instead of killing Kalindans, it gave them a marvelous boost. The chemistry is very near but not identical to a key enzyme in the Kalindan brain, and when it is introduced into the Kalindan bloodstream, it actually replaces that enzyme. Do not be alarmed. It does a better job than nature, and when it moves into the brain it makes everything feel very, very good. That was the key to its long-ago discovery, in fact. Kalindan medical personnel were looking for a drug that would aid in the cure of certain psychological illnesses. It worked, but was never introduced because, you see, in about twelve hours the body’s defense mechanisms expel the foreign substance. Unfortunately, it takes about three days for that same body to make more of the natural type, and I have had it described to me that those three days are as close as you can come to a descent into Hell. You see where this goes, of course. There was quite a black market in the stuff long ago, until the gunot were almost threatened with extinction, but then they developed an easy test for its presence and managed to stamp things out.”
Holy shit! He’s gonna addict us to a drug! Ming exclaimed to Ari.
Can’t work! Only a true designer drug from the best of labs can addict somebody in one shot!
Maybe for Terrans, but we ain’t Terrans, remember?
There wasn’t that much that could be done about it in any event.
The sergeant major approached with a gas-powered injector that would work in the semitech environment. It was already filled with a very unpleasant-looking yellow bile-colored liquid, and with no hesitancy whatsoever he injected it right into the tail at the hip.
There was a slight sting but nothing major, but they held their breath waiting to see what the stuff would do to them.
“It’s too bad, really, that there are so few of these little devils left, and they refuse to breed in captivity. We’ve tried cloning but the power’s diluted, and we’ve tried mixing the stuff in the lab but it can take dozens of shots before any addictive qualities appear. If we could just make it at will as we do other substances, we could have every single Kalindan under our complete control in a matter of months without a shot being fired. Still, it’s useful when you want to turn someone from enemy to ally, or to keep someone close.”
You can only tense up for so long before you relax after nothing apparently happens. This was what was going on with them, at least as far as they could tell. If it supposedly went to work quickly, then something was wrong.
In fact, all the tension, all the fear, seemed to be ebbing from them, and small sensations of pleasure and contentment, like small waves on a pond, came at them one after the other. It finally occurred to both of them that this indeed was the drug, but it felt so good, the ripples almost orgasmic, that they could not bring themselves to resist, nor did they want to.
“It’s working quite well,” the sergeant commented. “You can see how relaxed they are, sir.”
“I can’t tell one of those fish faces from another, Sergeant, let alone tell what constitutes a happy demeanor, but I will take your word for it. You may go back and assist the colonel in final inventory and preparations for executing Operation Grail. I have to get our friends to send a few dispatches home and then pick up our mail, but I have a very good feeling about this.”
“I’m not worried, sir,” the sergeant told the General. “These people, all these races, seem woefully naive when it comes to any sort of covert action, and they are disunited.”
“They gave our forces a pretty good whipping at Ochoa, Sergeant,” Mochida reminded him.
“Yes, sir, but there were no Chalidangers engaged there nor on site to provide competent generalship. Besides, they have to win every time. We only have to win once in each engagement. I’ve been in the service thirty years, sir, and I’ll always take conditions like that!”
They had a blissful semi-sleep for an hour or two, and then began to awaken and come out of it. Not that they didn’t still feel very good, but they were beginning to think on their own again.
It does work, doesn’t it? Ari sighed.
I’m afraid it does. I wonder how much willpower and pain threshold we have? That’s what he’s gonna find out, you know. My feeling is, if we can’t stand it the first time, with only one dose of the crud, then we’re stuck. You know it and I know it and so does Mochida.
Yeah, Ari responded, knowing just how little of a threshold he’d always had before for such things. If he’d been more tolerant of pain, he might well have risked not working for his dear, departed uncle and turned out to be a much better person, but he knew that for him pain avoidance took precedence over character building every time.
Ming was a lot stronger on that score, but she knew that she’d never experienced something like this before. Intoxicants? High? Recreational drugs? At one point or another she’d had them all, usually but not exclusively in the performance of her duties as an undercover cop. Still, the ease with which Jules Wallinchky had turned her into a robotic bimbo had, deep down, shaken her self-confidence to its core, and Ari’s presence was no great help in rebuilding it. Taking risks was one thing, but something like this . . . She’d seen too many good, kind, decent people enslaved by this sort of dependency. When it was just willpower, she was always confident, but when it was also biochemistry, that was a very different thing.
The General was a Chalidanger, born and raised, who’d risen to this very high level, which almost certainly meant that, in addition to all his culture, breeding, good taste and education, he was also totally without conscience and probably as much of a sadist as Jules Wallinchky had been.
The sergeant basically hand-fed, or at least tentacle-fed, them during this period, and otherwise everybody seemed to ignore them completely. They were still bound, though, which meant that the Chalidangers weren’t yet certain that the drug would do their dirty work. The General, in fact, was nowhere in sight, and appeared to have done what he had taken great care not to do before: left the dark protective dome.
To Ari and Ming that could only mean that whatever was being planned was in its end stage and concealment was no longer a primary objective.
There were no timepieces around, and the two of them could only lie there and amuse each other with word games and such to pass the time, or reflect on anything except their current plight. Still, in the back of their minds the impending twelve-hour mark was never completely banished from their thoughts, nor the frustration of knowing that Core had been properly warned of all this yet had dismissed them and their reports. Had Core acted, they might not be here and in such danger now!
Mochida was gone a very long time, but finally there was a sound, and a dark shape reentered the dome.
“It is on schedule,” he announced to the other two. The supply ships will be in position in eleven days. As far as can be determined from our spies down here and at Zone, the ships and their cargoes have not been linked and are under no particular watch. We’ve also been in constant contact with the embassy of Sanafe, and they appear more likely to see things our way after noting just how many of their own neighbors are falling under our sway. They’re too proud to just give it away, unlike those spineless Pegiri, but it shouldn’t take much more than a forceful demonstration under their own home conditions to convince them that being our friend is far better than being our enemy.”
“So we might not have to fight, sir?” The sergeant sounded disappointed.
“Oh, I think we’ll have to undergo a minor action. The good citizens of Sanafe are themselves something of a warrior class, albeit on a lower, more tribalized level. I think they may give us a good scrap, but they aren’t organized enough to give us a war and overwhelm us. No, I think it’ll be quite a good battle, yet a symbolic battle, a demonstration, as it were. Get their respect and they’ll deal.”
“Aren’t you afraid that somebody back home is going to take over your job while you’re stuck out here in the boondocks, General?” Ari called to him.
The General turned and trained one eye on them. Clearly he wasn’t interested in them as yet, but he felt he had to answer.
“I think not. Don’t get your hopes up, anyway. Anyone who could replace me would be far worse than me in every respect, including toward the likes of you. Besides, what’s the difference who’s doing what at home? Either I’m going to be killed in this operation or, more preferably and likely, I’m going to be something of a heroic figure and, at the same time, in possession of something the Royal Family wants very, very badly. Although it’s a Chalidang tradition, I see no evidence at the moment that my primary threat is to my back.”
He then proceeded to ignore them once more while working with the other two. Watching a general doing heavy lifting, and moving around huge crates with the others, impressed them both. There was nobody comparable that they could think of in any of the armed forces back in the Confederacy, let alone in Kalinda or in the other forces they’d seen on the Well World, who would be at that rank and level and yet do that kind of work. It just wasn’t done.
Clearly, whatever this operation was, meant everything to the General and his Emperor and Empress. So important that a failure in this enterprise meant that the General would suffer the fate of all who failed the Royal Family. Why wind up being eaten alive while waiting back in some office in Chalidang, then? Better to succeed or die in the field. That much they could understand.
The fact that General Mochida was clearly enjoying himself in this was a little harder to comprehend. Warrior class be damned, generals didn’t put themselves on the firing line, and security chiefs didn’t do the operations they planned themselves. Mochida had clearly missed being out in the field.
They didn’t need a clock to tell them that the twelfth hour was looming. They could feel it, and just that sensation and the fear it raised was enough to undermine their confidence.
I hate to say this, Ari commented ruefully, but I think the old bastard really knows his business.
The sensations began as waves of nausea that increased in power and frequency with each incidence. When it seemed that the nausea was so awful you couldn’t imagine it getting any worse, the pains started, first in every joint, then joined by regular but not constant muscle spasms that caused their tail to jerk and their back to twist.
It wasn’t a fast descent, but a slow one, taking quite some time to build but making you aware of every second of it and dreading the next wave of horrors, which you knew would be worse.
They held out as best they could, but after another long period the hallucinations started. They were every nightmare either of them had had as a Terran or a Kalindan, every fear made apparent flesh, every guilt suddenly rising from the deepest of two subconscious minds and attacking them both jointly and individually. Every negative thought was recalled, every negative emotion relived and doubled and redoubled.
There was no question in either of their minds that the continual build of this round would come close to driving them both mad. Couple it with whatever had to come next, considering it took days to replace the missing enzymes, was the greatest fear of all.
The only thing making them hold on was a deep down dedication not to be the first one to break. But as things went on and on and they were writhing and shrieking in terror, and in one case convulsing so severely that one of the locked-down restraining straps actually broke, both of them began to wonder if they weren’t being more than a little stupid.
They were almost at a consensus that this had gone beyond the point where either could tolerate it, and the only choices were death or surrender, when they felt everything melt away and that feeling of pleasantness return. It did not, however, wash away the memory of the pain and terrors they had been undergoing for so long.
They did not lapse into a euphoric state this time, but they did feel much, much better, and they shivered as the effects of the withdrawal ebbed from the physical part of their body.
“Not too bad at all,” General Mochida commented. “I am actually impressed. I suspect that both of you were quite impressive in your original bodies and native habitats, as it were. That’s almost an hour you held out. Most Kalindans who have been introduced to our cute little friend’s bodily juices are simpering fools within ten to fifteen minutes. Still, everybody breaks, you know. There is no such thing as the person who cannot be broken in one way or another.”
“You included,” Ming snapped.
He didn’t take it personally. “Almost certainly, although it’s never been put fully to the test. Maybe it will be, but it will be by some other method. And, from now on, it will not be you who will do it.”
“We didn’t break,” Ari answered proudly. “We might have, but not when the new dose was given. Not by then.”
“Actually, you did,” the General responded. “At least one of you did. You screamed out a plea for it, and as you were in no condition to be rational enough for me to follow it up, I gave what you asked for. I’m very good about that, you see. Just keep me happy and I’ll keep you happy. Nothing major. I’m not talking of enslavement or degrading stuff or even killing your friends. You simply remain with us, you help us out on minor housekeeping matters, and you don’t feed information back to Core or anyone associated with the creature without letting me know first. Otherwise, for now, I want you just as a cooperative observer. I’m not asking that you change sides to mine, only that you switch from the old side to, shall we say, a friendly neutral. It is understood, though, that if you betray me, if you do things against our interests, there will be a price. In that case I may ask you to kill someone, or betray someone, or something equally unpleasant to you. And if you screw up my operation in any substantial way, I will cheerfully nail you to the nearest wall and watch you go completely and utterly mad, and then I’ll send you home as an object lesson. Clear?”