The two Pyrons continued to doze as they went along; there really wasn’t much else to do. She, however, was created for days, and had just completed a long and hard sleep, and all this was new to her.
Even so, she felt disappointed by the trip, at least so far. When they’d said that it would be travel through a dense jungle, she’d pictured walking down dark trails with natives chopping their way through the dense underbrush. She wasn’t sure where that idea came from, but it seemed romantic. This was just a teeth-jarring ride into a world of total green.
Har Shamish stirred and put his head close to O’Leary’s. “What were you staring at?” he asked, having noted that his companion was fixated on the two Alkazarian females.
“I was just wondering which one of them did it with him and which one of them watched,” the cop whispered back. “And, more to the point, who filled out the paperwork afterward.”
The diplomat gave a low chuckle. “I wish my own position permitted me to wonder things like that aloud.”
At nightfall they came upon a roadblock: a gated house like a toll booth that controlled access to the road. Vorkuld climbed halfway down the truck and talked to the officials within. Finally, one of the black uniforms came up and into the truck and made his way uncomfortably back to them.
“You’d think if they were this paranoid, they’d at least pave the damned road,” O’Leary grumbled.
“Oh, they don’t pave it because it’s harder to maintain paved, not because they couldn’t,” his companion replied. “Potholes, erosion—the bed’s trouble enough keeping up now.”
It was papers time again, and the same old questions, but as usual, the deputy consul managed to be first and to strike some sort of bargain with the official. Like the others, he still went through the motions, but it was clear that he was doing just that and no more.
“After you set up camp, have your guide get your validations from the Warden’s Office,” the official warned them. “Sometimes they forget. No use getting to the Wall and they won’t let you on and up, eh?”
“Thank you, sir, very much,” Shamish responded. “I shall remember you in the future as well for your efficiency and courtesy.”
Jaysu had the weird impression, because they had both raised their voices unnaturally loud, that this was a performance. Vorkuld was soon climbing back up and into the driver’s seat, and as soon as the official got down and the gate went up, he was off.
The “camp” seemed to be some kind of commercial operation, although they all had the impression that the government ran most things. There were permanent buildings, a large modern latrine that would not be suitable for any of the alien visitors, lights and such from electric generators, and some elaborate sites. Several tracked vehicles similar to theirs were parked there, and there were a number of large and elaborate tents erected. There was also a staff that seemed on constant patrol, doing everything from picking up trash to checking out the registrations of everybody they met. These Alkazarians all wore green uniforms.
The two females went into action as soon as they parked, offloading and setting up two large tents, connecting them into some sort of control boxes buried in the ground, then setting up what proved to be an ingeniously designed portable kitchen including refrigerated and frozen foods, cold drinks, and everything else they needed. It was clear from the way the two tiny women handled things that their strength was not an illusion; Jaysu tried to move the portable kitchen unit just a fraction and found that it might as well have been lead.
There was quite a difference in what they ate and what she consumed, though, and she found that she had to excuse herself and eat alone, out of sight not only of the Alkazarians, but of the two Pyron as well.
Since reaching the consulate, she’d not seen any of the Pyrons eat or drink, but she saw what they ate this night, how they did it, and it was not something she was comfortable watching. Her food and drink, however, were fine; apparently, the consulate had made contact ahead using what magic these high-tech hexes could manage, and made sure that she was well provided for.
They’d done it for themselves as well, and she’d seen the two Pyrons eat one large furry animal each. They ate them whole, and, worst of all, they ate them alive. The Alkazarians ate meat, and cooked rarely, but it was properly butchered and prepared meat, such as she’d seen others eat on the ship and at Zone. But the Pyrons—the idea of eating something alive, screaming in terror, was . . .
O’Leary managed to figure out the problem and sought her out after they’d finished. “Sorry. I forget myself sometimes,” he told her sincerely. “Even before I came here, I was someone who lived among different races as well as my own, and I’m just used to things being different. I should have realized.”
“No, no, it is all right,” she assured him, by which she meant it was all right because she understood that this was the way they did it, that it was normal, and that the problem wasn’t really with them but with her. But it wasn’t all right in her gut.
“Before we come across any other things that might be a problem for you, I’ll try and warn you,” he promised. “I’ve got to kick my brain back in gear and think like an alien visitor again. It was careless. At least you will only have to be near us when we eat one more time, probably at the border.”
“Huh? What?” She was wondering if it was still somehow alive, trapped, wriggling inside him, unable to get out. It was silly; she’d feel it if it were. Still, she couldn’t get that absolute terror out of her mind and soul.
“We don’t eat or drink very often, which is why we eat like we do,” he explained. “We will be able to go long and far on just this. And, I promise, you won’t have to see it again.”
“It—It wasn’t seeing it that was the problem,” she told him. “It was being almost overwhelmed by the fear exuded by its soul.”
“Everything has a soul. Everything alive, that is. I can see those souls, feel them. I can not shut it out. It is not my purpose to shut it out.”
He realized the situation. “You’re an empath! Well, I’ll be … Well, remind me not to lie to you, I guess. But remember our talk today about good and evil?”
“I don’t want to shield you from too much, not now, not later on. I want you to feel that fear and see those disgusting sights. That is because we are potentially facing evil so strong that you will need to prepare for it. But I will try and warn you. You should not be unprepared. Think you can sleep?”
She sighed. “Yes, I guess so.”
“Well, perhaps you should do so. We’re going to pack up and leave not long after dawn, and we’ve got some rougher riding ahead, or so I’m told. I confess I’m kind of curious, too. We’re the only non-Alkazarians here. The way they stare at us, we may be the only ones they’ve seen for a long time. I wonder how many alien types have ever seen firsthand what’s on top of those mountains and beyond?”
“A hundred more credential checks,” she answered, trying to break the mood. There was not any way around it. He was right. She should get to sleep and try not to dream about it.
She needed to dream of Ambora, and flying above it effortlessly, darting through the clouds . . .
The next morning, bright and early, they were as good as their word, waking everyone at dawn and then fixing a breakfast for Jaysu and the three guides, or whatever they were. Although most bears were omnivores, even on the Well World, the Alkazarians seemed to be strictly carnivorous, although they did enjoy a lot of thick almost black ale and some sort of candied sweets. Breakfast for them was sausages of some sort and very large eggs, which they ate in a variety of ways, including raw.
Others, going in both directions and perhaps to places they didn’t know about, were there as well, but they seemed to be transporting natives wearing different colored uniforms, not paying customers. It appeared that, outside the cosmopolitan cities, everybody wore a uniform that instantly told everyone else their general occupation, and with that, their social and economic class as well. Since leaving Zadar Station, they’d seen no exceptions to this rule.
They packed up and, after the obligatory check of all papers and the quizzing of all members of the group—natives and non-natives alike—were off once more.
The jungle was so thick now that even the sun hardly got through. It was impossible to see almost anything, even the mountains they knew were in the distance.
For a brief period rains came, heavy and relentless. The two females quickly punched up an awning, and the storm hit the jungle canopy and created a lot of sound and fury, and much high-level fog and mist. The torrent, broken by the thick growth, gushed down the trunks of trees and through channels in the branches. A
lot of water struck the ground, but it was localized, and for that the truck awning served quite well.
They were no longer in heavily inhabited territory, and had to yield for no traffic. In fact, after a couple of hours they had not seen another living soul, nor did Jaysu feel any sense of a population out there. There were some individuals here and there, perhaps in twos and threes, but they seemed to flee at the sound of the truck. She wondered if they were fugitives from the system, hiding out and eking out a meager subsistence living in this dense jungle rather than facing some sort of punishment, or perhaps to avoid living in that society. Unless the fugitives, or whatever they were, began attacking travelers, it wouldn’t be worth the time and money to track them down out here.
Just before midday they broke from the jungle onto a broad grassland, and were startled to see how close that mountain wall now was. It lay just ahead, stretching out as far as the eye could see on both sides, shrouded in fog and mist at the top. She had no idea how they were supposed to get up there and over it without flying.
The answer was clearer when they pulled up to a large complex set into the rock of the mountain itself. At first Jaysu thought it was a religious shrine or great temple; it had that look about it, right up to the gigantic colonnades and ornate carved figures of Alkazarians in various classic poses. There was also a busy parking lot, complete with uniformed traffic cops, and a great many of the crawlers—as the passenger trucks were called—all around, some with mud-colored uniformed crews looking fresh and waiting, others spattered with mud or reddish clay dust, looking like they’d come through rough terrain.
All roads on this side, it appeared, led here.
“Why are we here?” she asked the others. “If these people do not like others anywhere else but in towns, then why would they bring us to one of their holy places?”
For the first time Vorkuld laughed, and the two females tittered along with him. “Well, ma’am, it is a hole, all right, but it is not holy, at least not in the sense I take you mean it,” he explained. “This is the Great Western Lift. It was quite an accomplishment to build many years ago, and is also a nightmare to maintain, but it’s saved a great deal of time and effort. Before it was built, contact with the lowland coast was difficult to impossible except by airplane or glider, both of which cost a lot to run and have limited capacities. With the lifts, this one and the newer Eastern Lift in Qualt Province, we are united again. There will be, of course, more formalities, but this is our destination.”
She didn’t know what he was talking about, but the added formalities were easy to imagine.
But this turned out to be worse than the others, even the entrance ones. There seemed to be so many agencies, so many different official uniforms, so many redundant question and answer tables, that it seemed every Alkazarian was involved in bureaucracy and paper pushing. They wondered who actually did the work, or how much those who did could really accomplish in the few minutes a day they weren’t being questioned, their papers examined, and their motives impugned.
It was understandable that they be given more scrutiny than the usual worker going back and forth here, though, as the officials were fond of telling them, few foreigners were ever allowed to get this far. Even fewer were not expected to immediately return, having had a demonstration of the great ingenuity and skills of the Alkazarians.
“Don’t know what’s going on, don’t want to know,” said one of the last, a silver-and-black-uniformed officer with a nasty looking sidearm, who checked their papers at the entrance to the Great Western Lift. “Been here years without even seeing a foreigner, then two bunches of you creatures show up within hours.”
“Two bunches?” O’Leary repeated. “We are not the first aliens you have seen today?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” the official muttered, trying to find an empty spot on some paper to imprint his own stamp. “Didn’t hear or see a thing.”
“Was one a giant greenish spider?” Jaysu asked him.
“Don’t answer questions, get paid to ask ’em. Don’t like spiders anyway. Okay, you’re done. All three of you proceed down the walk. Stay on the walk and proceed until stopped. If you deviate, you’ll be sorry. Turn back, you’ll be held here, and we got no supplies for aliens. And, above all, don’t ask questions.”
They decided not to press anything further, and entered the great cavern through its carved, ornate entranceway.
The cavern appeared to be an enlargement of some natural one, because it instantly became cooler and a breeze blew steadily against them as they descended. Workmen had done the walls and ceiling, though, so it appeared to be a long artificial construct with marble friezes and ceiling frescoes all along, forming a story or legend. If they were concerned with the sensibilities of the young, it didn’t show, since just within a short walk the marbles left no doubt as to how the Alkazari-ans copulated, among other things. There were also somewhat gruesome hunt carvings, and a panoply of little bear gods and demons, among them a progression from regal types to idealized Alkazarians, larger than the others, who were depicted in various extremely ornate uniforms.
The path was entirely artificial, set in a more natural bed dug into the rock. There were in fact two paths, one for going in on the left and one for exiting on the right. Both were about three meters wide and quite smooth, almost shiny, made out of some reddish substance that gave off a subtle glow so you knew exactly where it was. It was also recessed about fifteen centimeters from the more natural rock base, with regular grooves along the sides and small single rails along the top. It explained some of the crawlers and containers they’d seen just outside. Not only people, but cargo, was moved along these.
Finally they came to an elaborate security station that had but one officer, wearing the same silver and black as the one at the entrance. This station, though, was more automated. As they stepped up and passed through a portal one at a time, a three-dimensional representation of each of them appeared on a plate at a console. It then went through a series of gyrations from skeletal and nervous systems, even checking the contents of the stomach and whatever was inside any bag or article of clothing, few as those were with this trio.
Jaysu found the one of herself fascinating; she preferred not to look at the insides of either of the Pyrons.
They then had to place a hand in a recess under the officer’s watchful eye. She was surprised to feel her palm scraped, and a slight pinprick. When she withdrew the hand, it had a tiny bubble of blood at the prick, although when she sucked it, there was no apparent wound and it didn’t bleed anymore. Each of the snake-men had to surrender a tendril for the same purposes.
“You may pass. Wait in the left waiting area for the lift,” the security officer instructed them.
They went forward, and Jaysu was surprised. “No papers to check?”
“They don’t need to here,” Har Shamish told her. “They now have everything up to and including our genetic codes. From this point on I expect more of those than paper. We’re in their master computers now.”
They walked down to one of two very large doors built into the cave. Unlike the rest, the doors had only some kind of official crest on them, one she’d seen on flags and uniforms, and nothing more. There was no sign of machinery, but they could feel the whole chamber vibrating, and there was a humming noise along with the sound of rushing wind, which was hard to place.
The doors themselves were about four-by-four meters square. There was no indication as to what was behind them, although there was a pillbox enclosure to one side that seemed to have a lot of electronics in it and several operators. The pervasive cameras around the chamber told Jaysu that they wanted them to remember that they were being observed.
“Now what?” she asked the two Pyrons.
“Now we wait.” Shamish responded. “Shouldn’t be long, I don’t think. I didn’t see any big rigs out there, so they aren’t moving much cargo today.”
O’Leary used two tendrils to give a sort of shrug. In this matter, she knew as much as he did.