There was a distant added noise now, a roaring sound, and it seemed to be getting louder, until it virtually shook the whole chamber. Then there was a chunk! that shook the floor so hard it almost made them lose their footing, and then hissing, like gas venting from cylinders, although it wasn’t venting their way. They heard a hydraulic sigh, then a Klaxon alarm sounded and the great door in front of them slid to one side, into the rock.
The chamber it revealed was well-lit, and had more of the rails and grooves about its sides. It was also quite deep, going back six or more meters. They could move very large, heavy containers through it, that was clear.
The ceiling bristled with cameras, and when a loudspeaker said, “Passengers, please enter and proceed all the way to the rear of the car,” they obeyed, more curious than nervous.
At the rear, they stepped over a bar that clearly was there to keep containers from coming farther back, and then there were two sets of ladders with handrails up a couple of meters to a platform containing seats, benches, and the like. For the small Alkazarians, it was the kind of area they could move thirty or forty people.
“If you cannot sit or otherwise belt in, then go to the sides and hold tightly to the railings there,” the public address voice told them. “Once under way, you may relax pending our warning, but be prepared to grab the rails again if instructed.”
They did as they were told. Hearing warning beeps from outside, they looked, and saw several short containers being pushed into the front of the car, using the grooves on the side. Yellow-clad workers scrambled to stop them and lock them in place, and then yelled signals to one another. Finally, a half-dozen Alkazarians came back to the passenger platform and, without even looking at them, sat down and buckled themselves in to the chairs.
There was a second Klaxon sound from outside, and some kind of announcement that they could not make out, and then the door closed. When it did, a second door rolled down and closed too, locking with a series of chunks, cutting them off. Finally, there was that hydraulic sound and the sound of rushing air.
“They’re pressurizing this cabin!” O’Leary said wonderingly.
“Maybe we should enjoy it while we can,” Shamish suggested. “If we go up there, the air’s going to be mighty thin.”
There was a sudden eerie silence, and then, incredibly, they felt themselves begin to move upward, slowly at first, then with increasing speed.
“It really is a lift!” O’Leary breathed. “I’ve been in ones in some mighty tall buildings before, but never one that went this far up!”
Jaysu wondered just how far up it would be. At least she was made to fly with the clouds. And in this case, what would be at the other end?
IT WAS ALMOST COMICAL TO SEE THOSE HUGE CREATURES WITH their soft spiral shells and many tentacles boarding the special pneumatic train line in the northern part of Abudan, and being sucked away one at a time by controls operated by Kalindan engineers who’d built the line as per instructions and never asked what it was for. They were intimidated and not a little scared by the sight of these strange creatures, but Yabban officials were also there to ensure that all went smoothly.
Somehow, I never expected to see anybody use one of these things without being inside a protective car or capsule, Ming commented.
But they are protected inside, Ari noted. They’re completely withdrawn into those shells, even the eyes fully retracted. They’re better protected than we’ll be.
Even so, it was amusing to forget their situation, and also just who these creatures were and what they were bred to do, and just watch them being shot off into the vacuum, tumbling and looking like they were in zero gravity until they hit the first bend and got bonked around. In two hundred kilometers there would be a lot of bounces. Since the Chalidang shell was soft and pliant, it was doubly impressive. That must be awfully tough skin and thick internal bones, they both agreed.
I wonder just how scrambled they’re gonna be when they get there, Ming mused.
I’m more awed that they’re doing this without water, Ari responded. Nothing can hold its breath for that long. I wonder how the hell they breathe?
Has to be some kind of gadget. They’re getting packs of stuff as they get to the front of the line, and since we know it can’t be weapons or other implements of war, it’s probably some kind of recirculator. Hell, I never figured out where they breathed from as it is!
It turned out that it was the common soldiers who were sent off in this unceremonious fashion; the officers climbed into form-fitting, bubble-shaped vehicles. The sergeant major, too, got a bubble, as did the warrant officer and the colonel. General Mochida sent all the officer and senior NCO types ahead, staggered in between enlisted personnel so there would be supervisors at each of the stops to reorganize the men, check them out, and get them back on their way.
“I’m afraid we didn’t anticipate you,” the General told them, “and so we don’t have a car that will properly transport you. The standard cars are too small for this line, you see.”
“That’s all right. Just leave the drug and we’ll happily stay right here,” Ari told him sincerely.
Mochida chuckled. “No, my young friends, I don’t think so. I’m afraid we’re going to have to strap you into one of the officer bubbles as best we can and send you just ahead of me. I’ll be the last one out. Don’t worry—the bubbles have sufficient oxygenated water that they can take you a good distance. In our case, we can store enough water inside cavities in the body to take us a considerable distance, quite an advantage in the field at times, particularly in areas where oxygen is low.”
They stood by until the line went down. It took hours, and through one cycle of their shot, before they saw the end of things. This was not an efficient way to move troops, but it sure was sneaky.
And don’t forget, the consulate here isn’t gonna be sending any notices home, Ming pointed out.
Maybe not, but I’ll still bet you Core knows by now. There are a lot of Kalindans around here in the construction gangs, and a few races that seem to be involved in this business back in the diplomatic zone.
Huh. You’re right, of course. Isn’t that funny, though? It never occurred to me until you brought it up that we might not be the only spies around here. You think maybe Core dismissed our report because it was old news, and only worded it that way to help protect us?
Could be. In any event, we went ahead and failed to protect ourselves anyway. Not much we can do about it now.
But—don’t you see? If it’s old news, then the Sanafeans have got to know! They’d be tipped! That means they’ll be ready for this invasion, or whatever it is.
Maybe, but I don’t remember anybody pointing out a Sanafean to us, do you? And they are standoffish and hate Kalindans. Would you believe a Kalindan ambassador if you were them? Hey, look, Chalidang quick-froze a bunch of solders, and they’re going to invade. See what I mean ?
Ming did, and knew he was right. They would certainly have been forewarned, but the odds were that they wouldn’t believe it. Even if they did, they were some kind of tribal types with little central government and no national army. Just professional meanies, more or less. They might be fighting wildmen, but against a disciplined force of pros . . . Well, it didn’t seem likely they had much chance.
“It would have been much easier if we’d just taken Ochoa,” Mochida said. “The water hex between it and Sanafe is high-tech, and we could have remotely deployed an awful lot of stuff, not to mention using the harbors and forts for a central supply base. Still, this will do. Ah! It’s almost our turn. After you, please!”
They looked at Kalindan faces operating the terminal and still working on assembly of the last part of the line, and some of the Kalindans looked back. Some seemed surprised, but nobody came over to speak to them, let alone ask them who they were, why they were with these creatures, nor made an offer to take messages back.
Finally, it was their turn.
Strapping them in was less of a challenge than even Mochida had feared. There was an alternate restraint using netting and belts that was just made for Kalindans, simply because it was Kalindans doing much of the testing of the bubble cars and the system itself.
The netting pressed them flat against a padded lower back wall and held them tightly, and not very comfortably, although they were no more uncomfortable than they’d been on the regular line getting here.
And then the bubble was closed, the hatch turned and locked down, and they were pushed up onto the main tube line, to what appeared to be a solid wall.
A Kalindan operator turned a huge wheel, and suddenly the “wall” fell back, revealing a long tunnel, and they were violently sucked into the system.
It was as noisy and uncomfortable as before, but faster, much faster. The new improved model, both of them thought without much enthusiasm. It was bumpy, vibrated like hell, and if they tried to shift their weight even for comfort’s sake, it started a spin that was hell to stop. Still, it worked. And how! It worked . . .
With stops for transfers and to renew the water in the bubble, it took some time, but the effective speed over the journey was nonetheless impressive, averaging close to fifty kilometers per hour. That put them at the border only about four and a half hours from when they’d left.
In each case they arrived just ahead of the General, who seemed to be having the time of his life. He hadn’t arrived frozen, but had come in as they had, undersea, as it were, but his size had prevented him from taking the suction express to the capital. Now that he finally was on one designed for him, he was like a kid on an amusement park thrill ride who simply wanted it to keep going.
It ended several kilometers from the border. The region was dark and there was an unpleasant sulfurous taste in the water that burned as they breathed it.
Damn it! They might be super warriors born, bred, and trained, but we aren ‘t! Ari grumbled.
It sure ain’t the restaurant on the City of Modar, is it? Ming agreed.
Not only did breathing sting, but it also stung their eyes and any open sores they had. It was damned uncomfortable.
The water was murky, too, not from organic creatures, but from turbulence and minerals escaping from hot fumeroles and, here and there, red-hot seeping lava vents.
There was a surprising amount of life around the vents, and even the life-forms that gathered around the heat and steam seemed like little monsters rather than genuine creatures of the sea.
They mustered on a plateau overlooking the hell, where the water had surprising cold spots but the sulfur was less. It was here that the functional but skeletal end of the line had brought them, operated on this end by just a couple of nervous Kalindans who seemed anxious to finish up and get the hell out of there.
The Chalidangers were very impressive in their own way, hovering in formation, precisely in line in three full dimensions: 302, including the General and his staff, warrant officers, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and 244 commandos. They looked tough, sounded tough, but without weapons, they still represented only the largest potential squid fry on the Well World.
To Ming and Ari’s surprise, they saw the sergeant major select out four enlisted men and bring them to a large crate out of which they pulled several thin, lightweight environment suits, or at least that’s what they looked like.
How’d they get sophisticated stuff like those, do you suppose? Ming wondered. And, more to the point, without electrical power or energy packs, how the hell are they gonna operate the suckers?
As it turned out, they had large backpacks attached, which appeared to circulate and filter properly mineralized water through the suit without using a power plant. The movement of just a few of the tentacles, and the natural pulsing of the Chalidang body, was sufficient to force the water through the filters, so cleverly were they designed.
You realize those things mean that they can walk on ships or land? Ari commented, amazed.
Yeah. Just like back home. Only I doubt if the same principles would work for strictly air breathers or most others unless they had all that designed for kinetic energy power. It gives them a major advantage if they need it.
It didn’t take long for them to vanish above, and within a few minutes two of them were descending once more with strong cables. A winch was set up on the rock floor and bolted into the rock by sheer muscle power. Within less than an hour, supplies were being gently lowered on the makeshift system from another ship parked above.
Then came the armor and the weapons.
Extremely nasty-looking harpoons in spring-loaded barrels and stocks designed for Chalidang tentacles; barbed netting that could also be shot from a specially designed spring-loaded gun and expanded when it struck something. There were other equally vicious-looking things that they didn’t recognize but could see that the purpose was lethal.
The Chalidangers had large spiral-shaped shells that undulated regularly back and forth as well as inflated and deflated to meet certain demands. They could even stand some misshaping, but the consistency, while not chitinous, was like the thickest leather and tough enough to resist anything but very direct blows. These shells now received a hard outer shell of some lightweight plastic or polymer material that, Ming wagered, was at the very minimum bulletproof, each “suit” emblazoned with their rank and the Imperial seal of Chalidang. Only the eyes, still protected by their own small compartments on either side, had any exposure at all. The tentacles were the weak point, but someone would have to get an object directly into the mouth to hurt one of them, and while these guys were big, they were also fast and agile in the water.
Now they hovered in formation, divided into squads and companies, waiting for inspection in turn by their lieutenants, captains, and majors, as the General and his colonels looked on.
They looked good.
“Soldiers of the Empire!” the General shouted to them, pride obvious in his voice. “You have suffered much in training, and risked death from an experimental cold process, and now you’ve been shot here in great tubes. Now you are outfitted, and the enemy is not five kilometers to the north. This evening, we will train in full gear here on this plateau. This night you will eat of the best Chalidang can offer. Then you must rest, for tomorrow we will meet one more time like this, just at dawn, and we will go together into Sanafe and glory! We have but one true objective. To attain it, we will require from you a victory. You are ready. The enemy knows we are here but not who we are nor what we can do. Tomorrow, we will show him.”
“Yes, sir!” they all responded as one, sounding eager.
“To your commanders, then! Dismissed!”
As they broke into their component units and set off for their maneuvers, the General shot back over to them. He looked grand in his battle armor, but his men knew that he did not expect to need it.
“What about our battle armor?” Ari asked him.
The General chuckled. “I’m afraid you are observers in this. No weapons, no participation. Just try and stay out of the way and do not interfere in this matter. You know nothing of Sanafe nor who and what is a major threat there, nor do you understand what we are doing and why. You understand that it is dangerous. That’s sufficient.”
“Yeah? Well, what happens if things go bad and we don’t have anybody around who knows to give us that stuff the next time we need it?”
“Then get to the surface and board the ship up there. It might not take you where you’d rather go, but it will have what you require and know what to do with you.”
I’m not sure I liked the way he put that, Ari noted.
Yeah. Me, neither, Ming agreed.
Watching the battle tactics and maneuvers did them little good in figuring out how things would come off in the real world. After all, neither of them even knew what the place five kilometers north looked like, nor anything at all about the inhabitants.
But they knew they would know, perhaps a few hours after dawn tomorrow morning.