“Clear,” Ari responded.
“Now, the reason for all this is that, obviously, I haven’t the personnel nor the method of restraining you. I need to let you go but to be able to count on your presence here and your friendly cooperation. Even when we are a much larger force, which will be quite soon now, I will not be able to guard you. Now, you may be the type to take a chance. Get out, take the pneumatic express back to Kalinda, hop a speeder, get to a central hospital, and plead for help, all in twelve hours. It would be difficult, but you might make it, and we’re not going any farther from your capital than we are now. If you did get there, they’d hook you up to all these dehydration and liquid feeding tubes and such and then they’d put you unconscious for a week or so until your system was back to normal. It might work, but that three-day period can have strange effects on the brain. Misfirings, permanent memory loss in some areas, all sorts of things. You’ll certainly lose something, but you’re almost certain to wind up merging into a single individual. When the brain is forced to rewire, it is hardly going to maintain this neat division. It’s up to you, but I offer it to you as a sporting man. I won’t spare anyone to chase you down, but if you lose your nerve, you’ll get nothing more from me if you fail.”
General Mochida was a very good security chief indeed. Hit us right where it hurts the most, Ari noted.
You said it, Ming responded. Damn it! It’s not fair, at least not to me, she grumped. I mean, I was already violated in just about every way by your damned uncle, and now here I am, a victim again!
Hey! I’m in the same boat, remember!
Yeah, but you deserve to be! If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have had to go through all that shit the first time!
Like I could have done anything about it? Besides, you were the cop, the big hero type. It was your job to stop him. And remember, no matter what, if I hadn’t knocked you out and gotten you into that lifeboat, you’da been dead when it blew up!
This is supposed to be an improvement? It’s more like a continuation of the same thing! I mean, for all we know your uncle’s still out there someplace cutting throats for fun, and there’s old Josich apparently right on his, her, or its schedule for whatever the bastard had planned in the first place, even if he did get rushed a bit. And here we are, still the victims.
Yeah, Ari agreed, giving a mental sigh. Here we are, all right.
A couple of hours later they finally got around to undoing their bonds, and they’d been restrained so long and undergone such a physical ordeal in the forced withdrawal that it was very hard to get moving again and regain full control of their muscles. They knew they were going to ache for days.
Mochida was either supremely confident in his judgment of them and their willpower, or he didn’t care anymore. They watched as the three large soft-shelled creatures shifted carton after carton until they seemed to have them in a definite order.
In a way, this is almost funny, Ari noted.
I don’t see the humor.
Consider—what would we be doing if we hadn’t been captured? Trying to find an easy way into Sanafe to find out what Chalidang was up to, right?
And what are we doing now? Watching the Chalidangers prepare to move to Sanafe and pull whatever they’re going to pull. And for all that drug business, what could we tell Core even now that we haven’t already told her?
It did seem ironic, but considering their situation, Ming could not feel amused.
Two days later they assisted in returning some frozen calamari to life.
“The process isn’t all that unusual,” the sergeant major explained to them. “The difference is that we had to adapt to a semitech hex where the normal computer controls just weren’t going to work. We used the highest tech cryogenic gear to create their state of suspended animation, but instead of putting them in the normal storage cells, our design team came up with these. The materials and workmanship are beyond anything a semitech hex could produce, but they weren’t produced here. The same way as you Kalindans have built that pneumatic railway of yours, we can make things there and, if they don’t require any of the forbidden technological sources to work, they come in and function just fine. Now, though, comes the tricky part. We’ve tapped into the steam vents used in the pneumatic system, and by doing so we’ve got fairly good control of our storage water temperature, but each of these must still be warmed slowly to a precise point, then the liquid drained into tanks and replaced with regulated steam.”
“Do you think this kind of thing will work?” Ming asked skeptically.
“Oh, yes. It worked on me, didn’t it?”
There was no good reply to that, so they did what was asked of them in hooking up various hoses and pushing forward needed equipment, and let the sergeant do his business.
Still, Ming was skeptical. “Even if this works,” she noted, “it’s gonna take weeks to properly thaw out this crowd.”
“Not at all,” the General responded behind them. “Once we get a few out and restored to functionality, they will be able to handle more of it, and so on. We allowed an extra two days over training for full recovery from the process, but other than that we were able to have everyone treated and functional within five very crowded or seven much less crowded days. We will do it as quickly as we can for the simple reason that we have limited supplies and even more limited space here. These are among our best, but they are not among our nicest folk, and while they can go hungry for days and days under highest stress conditions, that level in a hex like this, full of easily available and totally vulnerable food, would make it difficult to control them. No, we move as quickly as possible. We must be in Sanafe in seven days.”
To their fascinated observations, the process did indeed seem to work. It was amazing how large a creature they could get out of those boxes, considering that they all had rigid exo-skeletons, but these were soldiers born and bred, and probably genetically engineered. And if Mochida and the others had nasty mouths and cold, huge eyes, this crew, once it regained full consciousness and movement, seemed to hate everything and everybody they looked upon, even each other.
But they clearly feared General Mochida.
“Let me make a few things clear here,” he told each group after a dozen or so at a time were being thawed out and put into recovery exercises. “First, you eat rations, you eat nothing else. The Kalindan over there, for example, is my personal assistant in this region. Anyone who eats her will discover that she will be extracted from his gullet—through the shell. Other lapses in discipline should recall not only our military traditions in such matters but also those of your families back home. This is not a game. You were chosen because you were right for this job, but none of you have really gone head-to-head against an alien foe before nor spent much time in alien nations. Our allies lost thousands dead battling in a strategically placed semitech hex, and they lost. We are but three hundred when we are done, and this is a semitech hex, and our objective is a nontech environment. Our task is hard enough. We don’t need you adding to the burden. Follow orders and this could be an easy task that covers us all with glory. Decide that the enemy is a bunch of silly, soft, inferior primitives who couldn’t possibly do you harm, and you will join the dead of Ochoa. Believe me. As many exercises, war games, and simulations as you have been on, and as long as your training was, it pales before the real thing. I do not believe you can be beaten if you stick together, work as a team, and follow orders precisely. I do believe you can just as easily beat yourselves. Understand?”
“Yes, sir!” they would chant, and go off to help thaw out the others.
The reason for the infiltration method was clear: the Yabbans would never have permitted a large military force to come through their domain. The Yabbans were trying to play both sides and hope to stay out of it, but there was a limit after which they would indeed fight, and the math was on their side. Millions of Yabbans, a few hundred Chalidangers. Yabban losses could be massive, and the Chalidangers would still be wiped out.
But now they were here, and with only two exceptions appeared to have survived the process with no ill effects. The two that didn’t make it were from separate causes; one had a container that clearly leaked out the sustaining cryogenic fluid, and the other was botched in revival.
Mochida seemed quite pleased. He had actually allowed for up to fifteen percent fatalities. Two put him well ahead in bodies.
And their presence was now a fait accompli. The Yabban government was informed as soon as the thawing was well enough along that stopping it would have been a moot point. A surface supply ship from Jirminin was directly overhead and had sufficient supplies to maintain the Chalidang force for the period that they required, and also provide a cover and a conduit for the force below.
Faced with this, the natives were not the least bit pleased, but felt they had little choice in the matter. The force wasn’t big enough to threaten Yabbo or its immediate neighbors, and there had been assurances that no weapons would be provided the force until they were leaving the nation. A Kalindan commission, at Yabbo’s request, had actually boarded the ship above and verified that it contained only food and medical supplies of use only to Chalidang. No weapons.
That, and the fact that the general and the Chalidang ambassador in Zone both assured the natives that the entire crew would be out of there in under seven days, won grudging assent. So long as none of this commando force ate any Yabbans, it seemed as if the bastards had gotten away with it.
Ming and Ari had to wonder what Core thought of all this now that it was public.
Proof? There’s your damned proof!
But how were they going to move the two hundred or so kilometers north to Sanafe without both choking on the thick living soup out there or seeming an imperious army marching through towns and villages, raising resentment?
“You already know, don’t you?” the General responded to the question.
“The pneumatic railroad? But there weren’t any plans to run it to Sanafe, as far as we knew, and in any event, how will you, with those large spiral shells, soft or not, fit inside the tubes?”
The General chuckled. “One of the lines does in fact go that way, and it’s got an unusually large tube diameter,” he told them. “You see, the Yabbans have always felt they were the stepchildren of Kalinda, dependent on your people for all those nice tech-type handouts, the materials themselves, even the building of things like the pneumatic train system. Most of them have thought of themselves as working for the Kalindans since they were born, and that’s not far wrong. Kalinda has always treated most of its neighbors like ignorant colonials, markets rather than equal and sovereign races and nations. We offered them an alternative source of what they needed, as well as international funding, with no strings. They’ve been quite tolerant of us so long as they felt we were working only against the interests of Kalinda and not against them. It’s been a fairly happy arrangement. And now we are going to reap some of the rewards of that association. We’re all going to the one neighboring hex that sealed itself off rather than become a Kalindan dependency. It was a conscious decision. They essentially banded together and threw you all out. That is why we can’t just go in there as we did here and make friends. Not yet. We’d get almost to the point where none of this would be necessary, only to discover that, well, yes it was in the end. To them, the enemy of their enemy is not necessarily their friend but maybe yet another enemy. My intelligence research believes we have the way around this roadblock. If I am right, we will attain what we want, and the damage to Sanafe and its people will be negligible. If I am wrong, well, then we’ll all be dead.” Us, too, Ari noted warily to Ming.
SHE WAS BARELY SETTLED INTO THE PYRON CONSULATE IN Kolznar when she was awakened. It was the middle of the night, and she felt some alarm at the sight of the snakelike creature. Worse, they all looked alike to her, making it impossible for her to tell the friendly consul from the suspicious security chief. She hoped they were all on the same side, otherwise she’d never figure out who was who.
“I beg your pardon for waking you,” the creature said to her, “but I am afraid you must leave now and move toward Quislon with as much speed as possible.”
She yawned and tried to shake the lead from her brain. “Now? Why? I know I wasn’t to stay here long, but—”
“There has been an, um, unforeseen development. I am afraid that if you remain here you will either be arrested when you leave the consulate or you will wind up imprisoned here for an indefinite future. We must move quickly! Gather up whatever is yours and come with me. I shall explain the situation on the way.”
She managed, with the help of some cold water from the basin, to get her small kit strapped on and follow him, but she felt miserable, and everything looked like it was being viewed through a curtain of fog and blurry reflections.
The consul was below. She knew it was him because of his manner and his warmer-than-normal—for a Pyron, anyway— empathic signature. “What is going on?” she asked him.
“They were going through cleaning and maintenance on the ship you came in on and they discovered a body,” the consul told her. “Murdered, in a most brutal and ugly fashion, and apparently after some torture.”
“A body! Whose? Where?” She feared that somebody had done in the stubborn Kehudan she’d left in her cabin, for failing to complete her mission.
“An Ixthansan. One of our people. They’ve been shadowing the ship off and on all along. This one was supposedly bringing you information of some importance. We don’t know if they got it or not, but did you?”
“I—I saw one such, a very pleasant fellow, but that was far back, not long after I boarded.”
“Probably not the same one, but a cousin. It doesn’t matter. You were not approached by an Ixthansan at any point after leaving Suffok?”
“No, not a word. I’d been wondering, considering the first contact, why I hadn’t heard from any others.”
“Apparently the second one was discovered, and since then they’ve been laying for them. There should have been three contacts.” The translator gave the suggestion of a resigned sigh. “All right, then. We must move.”
“Surely they do not think that I had anything to do with this! I cannot kill anyone! It is against the very oath of my office and the core of my being!”
“Well, I’m afraid that folks like the Alkazarians think that everybody else is just like them, and in this port they have jurisdiction. Fortunately, that also means they’re corrupt to the core, but that can only reach so far. We need to get you completely out of the Colony District before somebody we missed comes looking, and I suspect that won’t take long.”
“Surely they would not hold me! I had nothing to do with this!”
“Ah, but you’re the one closely connected. They have at least one witness who claims to have seen you speaking with an Ixthansan on the ship, and it’s a witness that isn’t part of any side in this conflict. That must have been the first one. That’s enough for them. And as to not holding you, well, Ambora doesn’t have much of an army or navy, and that’s all they’re scared of here. The justice system actually harkens back to the days of ancient belief systems, when you could be accused of trafficking with evil demons and they’d torture you. If you died, you were innocent. That’s the thinking in criminal inquisitions here as well.”
“But where will I go? I mean, by sea is certainly out, and it is roughly four hundred kilometers overland to Quislon, all in Alkazar. How can I avoid them?”
“Well, some bribes help,” the consul admitted, “but there is also the point that somebody out of their local district jurisdiction is somebody they don’t have to deal with, explain, account for, etcetera. You see what I mean? If we can get you out of this city, we’ll probably not have any problems over it.”
“Let me worry about that,” said another Pyron, from the entry parlor to her right. She turned and saw what at first seemed to be another identical snake-man, but his empathic signature was very different, almost as if he were not truly kin to the others here. It was also vaguely familiar.
“I am Genghis O’Leary. We met at the Kalindan embassy in Zone,” he told her.
“Of course! I was trying to figure out how I could have known you!”
“My apologies for this. I’m even more tired than you are. I’ve been here less than forty minutes, and I’ve slept even less. Still, we Pyrons are more nocturnal types and I can manage. This other gentleman is Har Shamish, Security Officer for the consulate here and quite a capable agent. He will accompany us and smooth things through to the border, as well as acting as a bodyguard of sorts until we reach Quislon. After that, you and I are on our own.”
“You make it sound so threatening. Surely it’s not as bad as all that!”
Shamish said, “I’m afraid, madam, that if we spend any more time here, it will be even worse. There is no way I could fight my way out of this city, and with all those cameras, we certainly can’t sneak out. Let’s go.”
She thanked the consul and bid him farewell, and walked out with the two Pyrons.
The sight on the night vision cameras of the striking winged Amboran flanked by two blocky, sinister, cobralike Pyrons would have startled the most jaded watcher.
She was surprised to find that the odors in the air, the sounds of the great city, all the lights and action, seemed just as vibrant and active at night as in the daytime.
“Big cities never sleep,” O’Leary noted. “They just have different routines for different times.”
“I do not see as well at night as in the day, normally, but I can make do through here,” she told them.
“It’s the lighting. The walkway and building and commercial lighting is so concentrated that it lights up the air over us,” Shamish explained. “It won’t be the same once we get out of the urban area. On the other hand, if your vision is best in daylight, ours is best in darkness, and it takes very little light for us to see perfectly well. We should be a good team.”
Jaysu could barely see the great mountains beyond the city, but she knew they were there by the lack of any sense of life along them save some sleeping birds. As they rode on the moving walkways, she noted that they were paralleling the rock wall rather than heading toward it, and in fact they seemed to be moving slowly back toward the sea, although well away from the harbor where the big ships came in.