“Where are we going?” she asked them.
“First we take a boat,” Shamish told her. “That takes us out of Alkazar and their jurisdiction, not to mention some of their prying eyes. Once we’re aboard, I’ll explain the rest. You never know what’s monitored here.”
They eventually reached a low-lying, small boat basin. Most of the boats were fishing craft of various designs, none longer than twenty meters or so, but there were some private craft among them in a small marina. Now it was time to walk. “That’s the boat there,” O’Leary told her, although she could see little except bobbing shapes in the darkness. She followed closely, one of the Pyrons in front, one behind her, relieved that the Pyrons took slow, deliberate steps on their fragile looking legs, which allowed her to keep up even though her feet were killing her after so many days of hard floors, hard woods, and plastic.
As they got closer, she could make out shapes on one of the larger private boats. It was a sleek, streamlined, dark blue and gray yacht, an elaborate sailing vessel, and didn’t have smokestacks at all.
“We use a different power in high-tech waters,” Shamish told her. “In all other cases, we use sail, although there’s a way to stoke a small boiler for emergencies if we must. Just go aboard and find a spot out of the way.”
The Pyron on the boat seemed tense; she could sense them, coiled like springs, ready to strike at any enemy, but when they saw the Pyrons with her, they relaxed and got ready to cast off.
They used no sails for this, letting go fore and aft. Then, before she was even at an out-of-the-way point on the stern, there was a high-pitched whine of engines below. The running lights came on and they eased out of the slip, turned, and headed for the breakwater.
“As soon as we pass that flashing beacon there, we will be safely out of the district and, in fact, Alkazar,” Shamish said, using a thin tentacle emerging from under his hood to point.
“Where are we going, then?” she asked.
“Tonight we’ll head west along the coast, then go ’round the point and down just a few kilometers under sail. That’ll put us in nontech territory for a short while, but it will allow us to turn in and reenter Alkazar via the Corbino River. It parallels the range—the Solarios Mountains, as they’re called through there—and will get us upriver to the limits of navigation at Zadar Station, which is a good 140 kilometers up and in a tropical rainforest. Not too many Alkazarians there, which is excellent, and less snooping, although they still monitor the place with other gadgets and gizmos. We should get a local guide there who’ll take us as far as the point where it will be impossible to avoid the Solarios. Then it’s up and over. At each point we’ll be under intense scrutiny. We will have to be on our best behavior, and also have to depend on corrupt people staying corrupt. If so, we should be to the border and you should be done with this bloody hex in just a couple of days. Now, I suggest you leave the sailing to us and try and get some sleep. We’ll let you know if there’s any trouble.”
That was easier said than done, now that she’d been so rudely roused and marched down here, only to be told that the dangerous adventure was only beginning. Still, she found the sea motion almost welcome now, and while the accommodations below were basic and not designed for anything with wings or anyone who slept standing up, she could manage. With the familiar rolling motions of a gentle sea, but absent any of the noise and vibration she’d become accustomed to, she fell asleep without even realizing it.
She awoke quite late, or so it proved to be once she’d splashed cold water all over herself and made her way up to the deck.
She had thought that she’d slept hardly at all; she ached and creaked as if she hadn’t had a good sleep in days. But when she got topside, she saw that they had not only reached the nontech hex area but had gone through it and were on a river. The sun, too, was not just up, it was almost overhead, signifying that it was close to midday.
She found O’Leary on the afterdeck, unnervingly lying, serpentlike, looking out at the shore. The great head, which was integrated into the body, turned, and those huge orange and black eyes with narrow pupils stared at her.
“Hello,” she called. “Goodness! How long did I sleep?”
“Eleven hours,” O’Leary answered. “You must have been as tired as I was.”
“You slept almost as long?”
“No, I slept for about five, I just need ten or eleven. That’s all right. I’m partly shut down here, and the sun helps recharge me.”
“Where are we, exactly? This is quite unusual to look at.”
“We’re almost ninety percent there,” he told her. “If they hadn’t had to stop a few times for authorization checks, we’d actually be ready to disembark now. Damned officious little teddy bears!”
“Teddy bears. That’s what they look like. Back where I came from, they used to give children toy stuffed bears that looked a lot like these critters, and they were called teddy bears for some reason. Don’t know why—they just always were. Some things are like that. Anyway, that’s the way I think of ’em. Teddy bears gone bad.”
She looked out at the riverbank. Although they’d said it was a huge river, it looked relatively narrow by Amboran standards, at least at this point. Perhaps it had been much wider downstream.
The banks on both sides were covered with jungle, and so thick that only more jungle was visible in between. The river itself was about sixty meters across at this point, substantial but not impressive. The heat and humidity, too, were very high, but not worse than much of Ambora.
“Have you been through here before?” she asked him.
“No. I’m going by briefings, maps, and whatnot. Shamish was here once before, so he tells me, but never has been inland Up the Wall, as even the locals call it.”
“The big mountains. They always strike everybody, even the natives, like some kind of massive stone wall. Don’t they seem like that to you?”
She looked off in the distance. The range was never far away anywhere in Alkazar, it seemed, and right now it seemed not much farther, jungle or not, than it had back in the city.
She sensed a tremendous life force all around them, though, and it puzzled her, since all she saw were insects, most of which seemed uninterested in them. They smelled wrong, probably.
All along one bank were thick groves of trees, not planted but still well-spaced, as if in a garden. The limbs were filled with dark shapes that looked like huge melons, but she got the impression that they were not a vegetable.
“What are those things growing from the trees?” she asked him.
His head went up and he saw what she was referring to.
“Oh, they’re not growing on the trees, they’re sound asleep,” he responded.
“Some sort of fruit bat. Big flying mammals, nasty sharp teeth, but they sleep all day and only come out to feed at night. Don’t worry about them, though. They’re mostly nuisances, not threats, although they can get irritated and dive-bomb somebody they think is a threat. I’ve seen them or their relatives several places on this world. You don’t have bats in Ambora?”
“I do not remember any.”
“Well, these are fruit eaters. They eat a lot of fruit, true, but mostly stuff that the locals don’t like and which won’t keep to ship to anybody who might anyway. Vegetarians with an attitude. Hopefully we won’t make them mad, and this will be the only time we’ll know they’re here.”
“The more I see of the outside world, the more I am wedded to Ambora,” Jaysu said with a sigh. “It seems that everywhere else there is only strangeness with an undercurrent of ugliness.”
O’Leary gave a humorous snort. “Well, yeah, maybe, but I tend to think that other folks from other areas would find something to react the same way to in your own home. It’s simply what you’re used to and what you’re comfortable with. Me, I don’t want a life that’s cloistered, never did. My mother always had hopes I’d become a priest. Instead I became an interstellar cop. Same business—seeking out evil where it lies and exposing it—only I didn’t have the limitations of a priest in dealing with it once I found it. It just seemed more satisfying when you could shoot back.”
She didn’t see it that way. “I believe that those who serve the gods do so in their own way, it is true, but I disagree that we are in the same business. My job is saving souls. Yours, from its sound, is avenging them.”
“Well, I don’t see much wrong with that, since if they need avenging, they are past caring about your part,” O’Leary argued. “Still, I’ve always found it fascinating that most people, even those faced with the most horrible of things, don’t really believe in evil. They believe in God, and sometimes in punishment and in redemption, too, but they don’t believe in Hell. Even you. You rent space in Heaven. A cop, now, he lives in Hell, and he knows better. There is evil in the world, priestess. It’s real. There is evil, pure and absolute, and there are those who serve it. I’ve seen far more of it than of Heaven and sainthood. You are going to see some of it, I think, before this is over. I hope you’re ready for it.”
“I’ve already seen some very bad people,” she reminded him.
“No, you’ve seen evil’s shadows. You haven’t really seen it yet.” He paused. “Breakfast? We’ll be there in another hour, so it might be best to get something inside you now.”
She was startled by his casual turn of conversation. “Yes, I would like that.”
She had barely consumed some melon, cereal, and juice when there was a cry from the wheelhouse and they slowed to approach a dock on the side of the river closest to the mountain wall.
She was surprised to see not a plantation or primitive village, but a small city here, complete with powered vehicles, modern buildings, some cranes on a modern dock, and the ubiquitous black patrol boats of the Alkazarian police.
“Why do they need to be all the way up here?” she asked, wondering aloud.
“They’re everywhere here, in those boats, in cars, in helicopters,” Har Shamish replied. “These little creatures don’t even trust each other. There’s a whole department whose job it is to spy on the police. And doubtless another department that spies on that department. My advice to you is to keep as quiet as possible and answer only what they ask, if and when they ask anything. Assume that anything you say is being monitored and recorded. Fortunately, you should only have to endure this for another day and a half. They are generally efficient in day-to-day operations.”
The buildings were not as tall as the ones back in Kolznar; most were no more than four or five stories, some smaller. The city, also much smaller, was more like those on Ambora, with five to seven thousand people living and working there. But because these were Alkazarians, Jaysu and the Pyron who accompanied her had to cope with things built on a much smaller scale. Roofs, even thatched types over poles or stakes, tended to be on the order of two to two and a half meters high, which was acceptable, but the doors were often too low, forcing them all to dip or duck, and many were too narrow for someone who had such large wings, folded or not.
They had to run the usual gauntlet of black-uniformed officials, but Har Shamish took the lead and eased things through. Jaysu suspected he had passed small gems as bribes; she’d seen the small bag of the stones, but never actually saw them pass between him and any Alkazarian.
Still, the official greeting was more mock formal than real.
“I have no family. I am an orphan. That is my only name.”
“I see. Occupation?”
“High Priestess of the Clan of the Grand Falcon.”
That stopped him, but only for a moment, as he cleared his throat and then wrote down something on his little electronic pad.
Before she could get that one wrong or muck something up, Shamish turned and said, “Transit to Quislon, direct, no stops desired on our end,” he told them.
“You have travel documents?”
Shamish produced them for everyone from some compartment deep within the hood. The official looked them over. “You will not be staying in Zadar, then?”
“If our guide is here, then the answer is no,” Shamish assured him. “We are in something of a hurry.”
There were all sorts of stamps and little meaningless slips of paper and such, and even one that had each of their pictures on it, for all the good it would do them in trying to figure out which Pyron was which. She got the idea that these little creatures didn’t really care who they were or what they wanted to do or anything else, or even about what they themselves were doing. It was just what they did.
Finally handed a messy stapled book of paper forms, and told to never let them out of her sight and to instantly produce them on the demand of any Alkazarian, she and the others were waved through.
Waiting just on the other side of the official station was an Alkazarian wearing a hard, round hat and mud-colored clothing. He was large for an Alkazarian; not so much taller as wider, although he was by no means fat. She wondered if he actually did look distinctive or if she was starting to tell subtle differences between the Alkazarians.
“Welcome! Welcome, my friends!” he boomed, although he had the same squeaky voice the others did, and it made their natural bombastic tendencies seem comical. “I am Vorkuld, and I am to be your guide up to the Wall. May I see all your papers, please?”
Having just gone through the line and received them within sight of Vorkuld, this was one of the most ridiculous requests she could think of, but she looked into Shamish’s eyes, understood the caution she saw there, and handed everything over.
Vorkuld made a show of looking through them, but he clearly wasn’t reading anything. It wasn’t like there were many other giant snake-men or winged bird-women in the neighborhood.
She realized, then, that he wasn’t enthusiastic about it himself, but was doing it so he could be seen to be doing it. It must be awful living in a place where you had to assume that your every action or comment would be graded pass or fail, she thought, and she had that flash of the terrible hunting dream in her mind to suggest what might happen if you did fail too often.
He handed back the papers and was just going to say something when Har Shamish said to him, “And, of course, now you will show me your papers.”
The Alkazarian was startled by this, but reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a flat billfold and handed it over. It had a form inside with all sorts of official stuff on it, as well as his photo in a realistic three dimensions. Shamish seemed to study it, and then, as the little guide was getting nervous and impatient, handed it back.
Jaysu’s opinion of the security man went up several notches with this. It was nice to put them on the defensive once in a while. She would never have thought of it.
“Follow me, citizens,” the Alkazarian instructed, and they walked over to an odd-looking vehicle that seemed a cross between an army tank and a truck. It had treads on both sides like a tank, and was painted with a tan, olive, and white camouflage design, but one side was down, forming a ramp, albeit a very steep one, revealing a trucklike interior. The thing had seen a lot of action; it was dinged up badly, some of the paint knocked right off so that there were numerous rust spots, and while it had been hosed down, it smelled of muck and filth.
Vorkuld looked at them. “Well, you two gents—pardon, you are both gents, I take it?—can manage, I think, but you, my dear, don’t look suited for that sort of angle. Can you really fly with them things?”
She nodded. “Yes, I can.”
“Think you can get up enough to get into the back there? That may be the best solution.”
She could and she did, the wind from the wings almost knocking the little guide over. It felt so good, even that little tiny hop, far better than the stretching that was all she’d managed aboard ship. She began to worry that she was so out of practice she’d not be able to get off the ground, but then reminded herself that for many months she could not fly at all and it had made no difference when she’d been given back the gift.
Jaysu was surprised to find that there was not only room for them inside the truck, but also for a large amount of equipment and two other Alkazarians dressed similarly to Vorkuld. The two were smaller than the guide, and seemed to have broader hips in relation to their chests and heads. She realized, then, that she was looking at two Alkazarian females.
“I am Zema, and this is Kem,” said one of them in a voice that seemed impossibly squeaky and high-pitched. “We will be at your service and maintaining the camp tonight. If you need anything, please just order it from either of us.”
In a country where the males were only a meter high, the sight and sound of others who were not only a head shorter but proportionately smaller all around, offering to get you what you needed, was startling. It was even more startling when the two started picking up heavy-looking equipment and restacking it so they would all be more comfortable for a long ride. Unless it was some kind of compensation for being so tiny, the lesson and demonstration were clear: if these little women could lift that kind of weight easily, imagine what Vorkuld could do.
Using a motorized chain drive, Zema closed the side of the vehicle and, after it clanked into place, checked to ensure that it was secure and locked down. Vorkuld then climbed up a ladder on the side, tumbled expertly over into the bed, and, after looking around to see that all were reasonably settled and the gear secured, went forward and settled into a small semicircular compartment at the front of the vehicle. There was a shudder, a whine, and then, slowly, the thing began to move.
It had all happened so fast, from waking up to this, that Jaysu could hardly catch her breath, but she realized that much of this was Shamish’s doing. He wanted this over fast, and he wanted them out of civilization as quickly as possible, too.
The tracked vehicle didn’t go all that fast, and it was an exceptionally bumpy ride, but it was easy enough to get used to its gyrations and sounds. Jaysu did have some problems when the driver cornered; the resulting jerking around in the back meant she had to hold onto something firmly or else tumble.
They saw little of the town, keeping mostly to roads near or along the river. There was a checkpoint at the edge of the place, and, sure enough, they had to stop, present papers, do all that silly stuff again, but it was as pro forma as at the docks.
Once away from town, the foliage came right up to the truck. The road was now hard-packed dirt, but well-maintained, although barely wide enough for just them, and certainly not wide enough to allow for two-way traffic. There were turnouts cut from the jungle brush every few hundred meters to allow things to pass, but clearly, if this road had a lot of traffic on it, they all knew it would be sheer luck backing into one of those.
They did come face-to-face with oncoming traffic, twice. In both cases it was they who yielded, and without protest, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The opposition were enormous carriers, one two city blocks long and articulated in the middle for turns, carrying who knew what from the jungles to the town and probably the port, where barges would await on the commercial side.
Just what they carried remained a mystery, and one she wasn’t sure she wanted to solve. Once or twice they’d pass within sight of huge complexes deep in the jungle, but they looked less like luxurious plantations or commercial farms than like prison camps, complete with ominous towers and dull gray featureless buildings. Once, they passed a group of sad-looking Alkazarians dressed in bright red uniforms, working with machines to keep the jungle trimmed back off the road and to keep the road in good condition and hard-packed. There didn’t seem to be any guards or guns, but she got the impression that these people would not have been there if they didn’t have to be.