* * *
The looming Well boundary was becoming familiar to them now, but it never ceased to amaze them anyway. They knew that it didn’t stop at the surface but went all the way to some point perhaps a hundred kilometers up in space, and that these energy walls actually sealed in each of the 1,560 hexes on the Weil World. Inside each, almost any limitations might be placed, and also inside each, the entire biosphere might be radically different from just on the other side of the barrier.
Cold, hot, salty or brackish, even the middle of a vast ocean here could hold almost anything, both in environmental and in dominant species terms.
They kept well to the rear and close to the General and the two colonels, who, they knew, would fight if they had to but otherwise would direct from the rear. Not that these guys looked like they needed direction; they were smart and sharp, the really scary kind of soldiers that you knew instinctively were very good at their job. If the rest of Chalidang’s army looked like this, it was no wonder everybody was scared shitless of them.
They pierced the opaque curtain in front of them and swam into Fairyland.
The hex was either quite high in elevation or designed to simulate a continental shelf, since it was relatively shallow and required an immediate steep climb to get to the “level” of the place, even though they’d begun atop a high plateau in Yabbo. Anybody wanting to secure the borders could certainly use that shelf and drop to good advantage, particularly if it held all around.
The land that stretched out before them was linked more closely to the sun than any other underwater realm they’d encountered before. The whole sea floor was a riot of sunlit shapes and colors, twisting, turning, some places with crevices, others with craterlike holes or caves, but all of it just covered in life.
The land itself was made up of things that had once been alive. When they died, they died in place, and were soon covered by the next generation of living things, which then died and were covered, and so on. Now rising hundreds of meters from the sea floor, the bottom layers, tens of thousands of years worth or more, had been compacted into rock that retained much of the color and texture of the living stuff on top.
“Be careful and stay out of contact with the reefs themselves,” the General warned them. “Coral is an animal, a carnivore, in fact, and there are lots of surprises even uglier living among and within the stuff. Nothing here may be what it seems, and all of it is dangerous.”
Wow! Now that was a real confidence builder! Ari commented. I’m going to sleep better tonight knowing everything here is out to eat me.
Coulda been worse, she reminded him.
Core wanted us here on our own, remember, and I don’t recall her sending us a briefing book.
They saw many demonstrations of what Mochida warned them against as they traveled along and just above the reefs that seemed to stretch out forever in front of them. Nasty heads of very large creatures full of teeth emerged from concealed holes in the reef and gobbled up fish as they swam past. Even schools of big fish weren’t immune; things that looked like the gently waving but at least permanently planted coral suddenly moved, showing themselves instead to be all poisonous tentacles, grasping and paralyzing and then drawing in fish half their size.
The beauty was not merely skin deep, it was a deliberate trap for the unwary.
Still, thousands of fish and crustaceans and creatures they couldn’t classify darted in and out of the coral, used it for protection, or even fed off the smaller creatures, down to plankton-sized levels, and off some of the coral itself in a few cases.
The coral was set up in colonies, with relatively barren gaps of lower rock and sand between, but it was more continuous than a set of islands. The gaps were brief, and it seemed only the larger fish and good-sized predators left one to go to the next.
Nor were any two beds exactly alike; some creatures were found only in one area and not in another, while the colors and even the types and shapes of coral changed as well.
It was easy to be mesmerized by the beauty and complexity of it all, but so much kill or be killed was going on that it kept jolting you back to reality.
So which are the Sanafeans? Ari wondered, and received a mental shrug from Ming.
Ahead, the commando squads fanned out, forming a nearly V-shaped formation with top officers inside the V. It was clear from the lack of serious attention they were paying to the pageant unfolding below them that the natives were not these pretty carnivores or concealed sea snakes.
“What do the natives do here that requires thinking at all, on more than the survival level?” Ming wondered aloud. “It doesn’t seem like there are any built structures, no roads, no signs of what we think of as civilization at all.”
“They manage the place, more or less,” the General replied. “Oh, they cultivate their own reefs and try and outdo each other in artistic skills, something that is certainly lost on me, and they herd and cross-breed to ensure species survival and balance, and the rest of the time they fight each other, except when they’re meditating upon and worshiping their gods. They don’t quite make sense to the likes of us, but I’ve learned to accept that as just the way things are between many species. I doubt if we make any sense to them, for example.”
“So why do you have to fight them? Respect, by their rules?”
“Something like that. In fact, one of their trophies for beating another clan in a fight is something we require. They don’t know the significance of it beyond the trophy stage, but we do.”
“Ah! I see! So you beat them and they give you the thing, huh?”
“Something like that. Ho! Stay back and be careful! We’re about to be challenged!”
He broke off and darted back to his position just behind the colonels in the V, which had now come to a sudden, tense halt and was clearly waiting for something to happen.
I don’t see anybody. Do you?
Ming was amused. Like I can see what you don’t? I—uh-oh! Wait a minute. . .
The Sanafeans were not coming from the riot of coral below, but from the near surface above. Big black shapes that seemed to be huge oval mouths with wings on them.
“Send up the buoy!” the General ordered, and immediately one of the colonels removed something from his pack and pulled a tab. It inflated with compressed air and rose to the surface, trailing a long thin line which the colonel now hammered into the nonliving coral base below with just one blow.
“Sweet Jesus! How many of those things are there?” Ari wondered aloud. The Sanafeans seemed to suddenly fill the field of view above and in front of them. Ten, twenty . . . maybe a hundred or more of the things.
They could now see that they resembled not winged mouths, but giant manta rays. The mouths, though, protruded and had vicious-looking fangs on both sides, leaving little to the imagination as to what else might be hidden inside. They also had long, very thin prehensile tails the equal of their body length, and at the end of each tail was a spread of what might be called three “fingers,” with an extended and controllable opposite “lip” that worked like an ultrawide thumb.
“Stop and turn back, invaders, or we will destroy you!” the huge, leading Sanafean thundered. Through the translator, he sounded supernatural and authoritarian; the voice of the underwater god.
One of the junior officers at the point of the V responded: “Who speaks like this to the forces of mighty Chalidang, Empire of the Overdark, lords of all they wish to rule?”
The kid was pretty good at this, they had to admit. Rehearsed or not, it was the proper response.
“I am Kobilo, High Lord of the Tusarch, invader. These are our lands and no other, not Sanafean nor foreign. We kept to our lands and demanded nothing of you or yours. You are the invader here. You must turn back or we must destroy you.”
“We have no fight with the Tusarch,” the lieutenant responded. “We regret that we must pass through and disturb their lands. It is necessary, but only to reach the Paugoth. We know of no other way to get there. Will you permit us passage over your lands to theirs?”
“Paugoth? Paugoth?” The clan leader seemed insulted. “What would you want with the likes of them!”
“We wish to challenge for the Trophy. They have it, you do not.”
That forced the old ray to think a moment. “What makes you think you could beat them? We couldn’t, last games, nor could anybody else. And you’ll need more than that fancy armor and smart parading to take them, too. Why, I don’t even believe you can take us.”
“We will fight you if we must, for there is no honorable way to do otherwise, but we do not wish to do it, and it might harm our strength even if we do prevail here, so that the Paugoth may well win because of the demands of the Tusarch. This is your choice. We fight here, now, and the survivors either press on, if it is us, or turn back, if it is you who prevails. But you must be told that the Chalidang can neither give nor accept quarter. Even if you win, how long will it be before there are enough Tusarch again to seriously challenge other clans? Let us pass and, win or lose, it will be the Paugoth who will have this problem.”
That was a wrinkle the old boy hadn’t thought of. In a no-quarter fight, he was outnumbered here, and facing a foe he didn’t know with weapons he was unsure of. If he lost, and he might, he’d just been told that the fight wouldn’t be like a clan fight; these aliens would kill all. If they were the suicidal fighter type—and they looked the part—then even winning would be very costly. He also noted the black shape that was closing in on that released buoy on the surface. If they had surface ship support, it could get really ugly and maybe even mess up the coral.
By the twenty-nine Hells, let ’em mess up Paugoth’s coral!
“All right,” the Elder said at last. “I’ll give you passage in to Paugoth. But if you’re pulling a fast one, if you do not fight them, then we will join with other clans and ensure that you have a far bigger fight. Understood?”
“Yes. The terms are acceptable. We can go on our own, but we would appreciate a guide to smooth things through to the Paugoth, and who would also ensure that we do not somehow trespass on your property nor do it harm.”
The Elder seemed impressed, and even Ari and Ming were giving even more respect to the General’s scouting and homework.
Two Sanafean warriors, sons of the elder, were delegated to escort them through without delay. It appeared that the clan boundaries weren’t all that big, and that the next one over was where they wanted to be. More good scouting from the General.
Mochida was in fact very pleased by it all. He drifted back to them and said, “Well, we got by that one. Had I not gotten all this force here surreptitiously, we’d have had to fight for every millimeter of ground. As it is, we’re going to be where we want to be with no losses and no problems in under two more hours. Right about midday, 1 would say.”
“He sure caved fast when he saw that ship up there,” Ari commented.
“Oh, it wasn’t the ship. Remember, they only just gave their word that they would get us to the lands of the Clan Paugoth without interference and let us fight them. They didn’t say anything about letting us back out.”
IT WAS ONE OF THE LARGEST ELEVATORS ANYONE HAD EVER conceived to build, and it went up inside the great granite mountain from the near-sea-level jungles, not to the top of the great mountain peaks, but to a point where it was practical to bore in an exit tunnel.
The ride itself was surprisingly smooth, with just a little bit of vibration, although there was no question that they were moving, and that someone or something was actually driving the tractor-trailer-sized car, because you could feel it slow down and then speed up again. When it finally slowed for good, eardrums of those who had them had popped several times, but, more interesting, the pressure inside also seemed to be varied.
“As an old pilot, I’d say they slowly pressurized us to the exit pressure before they started,” Genghis O’Leary noted. “Or, at least, they did most of it then, and gradually lessened it still more as we rose. It’s pretty slick.”
“Makes you wonder why they didn’t build it at Kolznar, though, and save all the upriver shipping and jungle transit,” Har Shamish put in.
“They probably took advantage of some ancient caves and lengthy cracks or faults,” O’Leary surmised. “I think they put it where the engineers said they had to. More to the point is why they wouldn’t run a railroad or good automated shipping road from the port to here.” He sighed. “Well, I suppose they had good reasons. Anybody who can design this would have better reasons than I could come up with for doing most anything!”
That thought was disquieting to all three of them, for they didn’t like this hex one bit, and, bribes and favors or not, it didn’t like them much, either. It was a reminder that the whole society was very much like the appearance of the natives: it looked small, weak, insignificant, often comical, but it masked a very nasty reality.
Unlike below, where the passengers walked, there was enough distance above that some kind of transport was needed. What the Alkazarians had built was a kind of small train sized for Alkazarians. Still, by kneeling, Jaysu managed to get uncomfortably ensconced aboard one of the small, spartan, open-air cars all to herself, while the two Pyrons were able to share another. The crew in yellow were busy shepherding the containers off, then hooking up small motors of some sort to them so they floated along the grooved path paralleling the train, driven by just one of the creatures per container. The rest, apparently, awaited a new shipment to bring back down.
There had been an exit station, and, like the one down at the bottom, this one took another blood sample and comprehensive picture and apparently compared it to what it already had. At least they managed to pass through fairly quickly, although Har Shamish wondered how, if there were any hitches, he was going to bribe a machine.
Although the train was fairly fast, it was bouncy and things were not well-lit. More than once, Jaysu, in a miserable crouching position, felt as if she were going to be flung off. She would have screamed at the train driver except there didn’t seem to be one. It was all automated.
Just when she was so cramped and bruised she felt she couldn’t stay on the little train a moment longer, it burst into the open, revealing the interior of Alkazar spread out before them.
It was as ugly as sin itself. Vast regions were covered with industrial complexes belching all sorts of gases into the air; dreary buildings were covered in soot, and even the new ones were painted drab colors; and the whole thing reflected against the clouds like a vision of Hell from almost any religion.
At the small platform where the train ended, two Alkazarians in black with gold trim awaited, their sleeves sporting an emblem resembling crossed lightning bolts. They were clearly waiting for them.
She needed some help getting out and to her feet, and the waiting creatures moved not at all to help her. It was left to one of the Pyrons to offer a tentacle and a pull.
Har Shamish went up to the nearer of the two officials. “I am the Pyron vice-consul,” he said, “and this is Citizen O’Leary, in the service of the king, and Jaysu, an Amboran who is under our diplomatic umbrella. I assume there are no problems in clearing us to the border as quickly as possible?”
For a moment the Alkazarians said nothing, just standing there staring at them. Finally, the first one said, “You may follow us. We are going to put you on a night train as soon as possible. You will come with us and make no comments, nor stop, nor deviate from the route. If you need to ask anything, ask now.” It was not lost on any of them that he did not introduce himself, even by title.
“The lady has not eaten,” Har Shamish told him.
“Indeed? What does she eat?”
“Fruits, vegetables, anything not of flesh.”
“Then she will not find much here and we would waste time trying. You will be at the border in a few hours and you can find something there. We are not equipped for visitors, you see.” He seemed to think a minute, then added, “I might be able to find some water, nothing more.”
“No, let us go,” she responded, feeling the coldness of this pair. “I have fasted far longer than a mere day.” She also wasn’t sure whether the water in this loathsome, smelly place would be drinkable anyway.
“Do you have any recording or photographic equipment?” the official demanded. “Such things are forbidden here.”
“You’ve examined us all the way down to our gullets,” Shamish noted. “You should know better than we that we have nothing of the sort, nor weapons, nor anything else on the forbidden list. Our only interest is in expeditiously traveling to Quislon.”
“Everybody seems to want to go to Quislon all of a sudden. Once you’ve seen it, you will not want to go there again. Very well, come with us.”
They didn’t take them far, for which all were grateful. Not only was the air quite thin, affecting the two Pyrons more than Jaysu, but it was also paradoxically thick, not in density, but with odors most foul. It was getting near dark, but Jaysu swore she could see clouds of yellow, purple, pink, and much worse hanging over the miserable, densely packed region. She couldn’t comprehend how anyone could live in a place like this, let alone survive for long.
They were bundled into the back of a strange wheeled vehicle. Two armed guards with nasty-looking rifles hung off each side of the tailgate, and two more rode on the running boards on either side of the driver’s central cubicle. The truck itself was open, like the crawler’s had been below. Never had she felt so much like a prisoner.
The two Pyrons seemed lethargic, as if drained of much of their energy. She was sure it wasn’t the air, which was thinner than at the surface but not debilitatingly so, and she decided it must be the chill. It was cold up here, and the vast tablelands on the other side of the Wall were also of high elevation. There was no snow on the ground, but there were patches of white not far above them on the mountainsides and in the high passes, and there was a crispness to the air that she found at first bracing but, as the wind blew and the sun set, began to feel raw and numbing to her exposed face and body. This was definitely not fun.
Making things worse were the silent but menacing guards, ard the sights that they passed as well: groups of people, each with their own uniform combinations and armbands and funny hats and the like, all going here or there, all silently, without any sense of joy or relief that one would expect at the end of the day, nor even bantering bad jokes or light-hearted insults as coworkers often did. They were dull-eyed and had gray souls, without life or sparkle, without any sense of more than existence. They seemed like the road crews below; prison inmates, even if they had no evident guards.
Of course, the omnipresent stalks with their tiny pencil-thin cameras and all the rest were as good as any guards. She saw few females about, and, above or below, it struck her that she’d seen no children. The oppressiveness of the place almost overwhelmed her. What a sad little race this was, so bereft of joy or any other feeling that made life worth living. With all their ingenuity and technology, they hadn’t paused to enjoy what they had made, nor let their great machines take the heavy work away, but instead they’d become like the machines they used.
It wasn’t the frozen land that was so bad, but the frozen hearts within.
At least she didn’t sense that Har Shamish was worried about their situation. If she’d sensed that, she might have been close to figuring how to get out of this situation. As it was, she nervously allowed the little creatures to drive them to their train.
It was an even more unusual train than it had been a ride on the truck. It was fairly wide, but had no wheels or crawler treads or anything else that she could see in the well-lit station area. Instead it seemed to wrap itself around a single thick rail or post and just sit there.
Like everything else in this Heaven-forsaken place, it was painted a dull gunmetal-gray and had few markings on it. There was an engine, of sorts, then a passenger car in back, then what appeared to be several enclosed cars used for freight or animals, and, finally, a series of cars that were sealed tightly, contents or purpose unknown.
As soon as their truck stopped, the guards jumped down and took a protective stance around it and finally them, as if they expected an attempt on their life. It clearly didn’t seem directed at them, except perhaps to impress them with their importance.
The officer came around to the back and barked, “You will all get out now! The train cannot be held for you and it is due to depart in seven minutes!”
Slowly, groaning, the two Pyrons managed to get down. She jumped down, involuntarily flexing her wings to cushion the jump as she did so. This caused the guards to suddenly whirl about as one and point their rifles menacingly in her direction, but she folded the wings and stared at them and they backed off.
“Follow me!” the officer ordered, and they walked behind him toward the waiting train. As they did, another train from the other direction approached, and she marveled that it seemed to make no sound at all. That didn’t seem right. Even feet made noise when they were put to work.
Har Shamish, in the lead as always, started for the open, warm-looking and well-lit passenger car, but a rear guard snapped something and the officer held up a hand, stopping them. “No, not that car,” he said. “This car!” He pointed to the freight car behind the passenger one.
Shamish was still lethargic, but forced himself to alertness. “I protest! That car is clearly for hauling animals! Are you suggesting that we are animals to be treated as cargo?”
The little officer was ready for him. “No. I am suggesting that, first and foremost, you will not be able to fit in any seats in the passenger car, and we are not in a position to modify it for your onetime requirements, which are, you might recall, a courtesy we extended to your government although we had no profit in doing so save exhibiting our goodwill. Also, your short notice means that all of the passenger seats are taken by our people, who travel only when their duties require it. Your consulate said nothing about reimbursing us for a special train and extra crew. This is the best we can do. Take it, or leave it and we will take you back to the Eastern Lift and you can return to where you came from. And I would suggest you do not take much time in deciding this or arguing any further, since the train will leave in”—he looked at the big digital clock which displayed figures that looked more like animal scratching—”two minutes and twenty seconds regardless.”
Shamish knew they had him. “Very well, we will board, but your government will get a strong protest when I return!”
“You’ve already made it and are so recorded,” the officer noted, gesturing at one of the ubiquitous cameras.
With that, the Pyron vice-consul walked into the freight car, and she and O’Leary had no choice but to follow.
Guards came up, slid the door shut, and they heard an ominous clunk as it closed completely. After a moment two small emergency lights went on, one on each end of the car, allowing minimal sight for her and just enough light for them, but also showing that there were no windows or peepholes. A small compressor whined someplace overhead, and they could feel some air circulation, so they wouldn’t suffocate, but otherwise they were as much in prison as if in a fortified jail.
Some sort of livestock had been transported in the car; it smelled gamey, although it had been as cleaned out as these sort of cars ever were. There was also a soft flooring covered with artificial grass, which gave Jaysu something of a foothold.
O’Leary went to the door and checked it. There was a panel with a series of lights set into the door, a master emergency open switch, but without the code it was impossible to use.
The two small lights blinked, as did the panel, and they started to move. It was so sudden that Jaysu barely had time to dig into the artificial turf and grab onto a reinforcing rod running along the length of the car for stability. The two Pyrons were bowled over by the motion, but landed softly, in serpentine fashion.
The train wasted no time at all once under way. They could feel the acceleration, and, if anything, it increased as it must have cleared the freight yards in the city.
It took her a while to compensate for it, and she didn’t think the two others ever would.
O’Leary flared his hood menacingly in frustration and anger at the treatment, but he got control back quickly. He was an old pro, and losing your temper when you had no way at all to change a situation profited nobody.
Instead the large serpentine head looked around, as if surveying every square millimeter of their prison. “At least we’re not alone as we travel,” he commented sourly.
The other two turned to see what he was looking at, and sure enough, there was a thin, pipelike camera next to the light at the far end. Almost as one they looked to the nearer end and the other light and, sure enough, there was another. Together, they had to cover the entire car.
“I wonder if the passengers are looking at the freaks on screens?” O’Leary mused.
“I doubt it,” Shamish responded. “It’s probably the men in the hidden security office in the engine. They wouldn’t trust ordinary folks.”
“What kind of insanity rules this place?” Jaysu almost wailed. “I mean, I think I have to pass some water. Where do I do it in this thing, and without being watched and recorded?”
“I’m afraid you don’t have any privacy,” Shamish replied. “And as for the where of it, I’d say the far corner of the car is about as much of a toilet as we’re going to get. Cheer up. If they are taking us where we want to go, it will only be a few hours, maybe less at the speed this thing is moving. And somebody, most likely one or more of them, is going to have to clean up any mess.”