It was impossible to tell how much time was passing as they rolled along, but if they were going almost anywhere within the hex, they certainly were not about to spend a long time cooped up, not at the evident speed the train was making.
“You don’t have a watch?” O’Leary asked Shamish, a bit surprised.
“I did, but the security agent at the Zadar docks took it. You mean you don’t have one?”
“I carried one of those self-winding things that supposedly works anywhere, but I lost it someplace weeks ago. Doesn’t much matter, unless we stop, of course.”
Jaysu looked over at them. “You think they might just leave us here? After all we’ve come through?”
“Well, probably not,” Shamish admitted. “I mean, my consulate knows I’m making this trip, and I’m expected back within a certain period. Still, they can trump up anything they want around here and stall for ages. They know as well as anybody that nobody’s going to declare war over one missing vice-consul. No, this is the risk we decided we had to take to cross Alkazar. We’re in their hands, and nobody else can help us or reach us. Still, I’m not too worried. They could have taken us or polished us off in a lot of places, and they are well-known for not showing foreigners who have to come up here any more of their dear inner homeland than they possibly can. You can see why just from the glimpse we had of it. They’ve raped it. Little grows there now, they are unlikely to have sufficient food stock to feed that kind of population, and they have to import almost anything in that area. In the end, they need us and the goodwill and trade we provide more than we need them. It’s just closer to buy the raw materials from them than elsewhere, but if we don’t ship them everything from fodder for their feed animals to often the animals themselves, well, it wouldn’t take long.”
She had been in this now long enough to begin thinking on a wider scale. “But does that not make them vulnerable to pressure far beyond what it should? You would not have to make war on such a place; a simple blockade would do it, would it not?”
“Easier said than done, a blockade,” Shamish told her. “Still, it wouldn’t take a lot of disruption of trade to cause real rumbles here, it’s true. It’s another reason why I think we’re going where we want to go. Chalidang can shake them, but Pyron is much, much closer. They were leaning more toward the Chalidang Alliance, until Ochoa anyway, because they’re kind of soulmates of those squid. Winning that battle has tipped things back our way. My sense is that they’re playing a balancing game, ready to tip to whoever seems likely to win. If they take us through, then they do something for them, and when a winner emerges, they pop up and say they were with you all along.”
She shook her head in wonder. “All this cynicism, dishonesty, double dealing. And for what? To preserve what we saw of places like this? It makes no sense!”
“That’s right,” O’Leary agreed. “It makes no sense. It doesn’t make any greater sense in the rest of the galaxy, or maybe in the rest of the universe, for that matter. It’s the way things work. It’s why folks like you have respect and the jobs you do, really. People are always looking for sense, and religion provides both sense and a feeling of comfort.”
“But you do not believe in the divine.” She said it as a statement, not a question.
“I have seen too much. Like I said down below, I believe in evil, in the opposite of your ‘divine,’ so to speak. I’ve seen it everywhere. I’ve not seen much of the good side, though.”
“You must have had a sad upbringing yourself,” she said.
He sighed. “My parents were both god-fearing sorts, but even though I was raised in my father’s faith, they were quite different in their religious backgrounds. So different, in fact, that they were killed by the followers of one side for intermarrying and seeming to be happy and successful in spite of it. They were ordered to take sides. But they were both sides, you see, and they had settled their own religious war in the best of ways. So they were killed.”
“How horrible! How old were you when this happened?”
“Old enough to track down the ringleaders and dispatch them the way they had my parents. And then I left my home and never returned, cursing it forever, and I finished my schooling on a world that had few of my kind there, and then I became a cop. It was only after that that I really saw what true evil could be. Spare me the prayers and the sermons—I had enough of nuns and priests in my youth. If there’s salvation, I’m too old for it. But there might still be a measure of justice. In a sense, I’ve pursued some very evil people all the way to this world. Two of us have, in fact, the other far more twisted inside than me. But if we can get them, we’ll get them.”
Shocked at what he said, she did not continue the conversation, yet she couldn’t help but reflect how little difference there was, deep down, between the policeman and the coldblooded criminals he hunted, almost as if you could have found him on the other side with just one slight added twist of fate. Was it, perhaps, the same for his quarry? Was the evil he fought as fanatic? Was he, in effect, hunting his darker self?
It was too weighty a question for these circumstances, but precisely the kind of moral questions she found most fascinating in study and meditation.
“We’re slowing down,” Shamish commented, and the other two immediately felt this as well.
“A scheduled stop, perhaps?” O’Leary wondered. “Or have we arrived at our destination, whatever that is?”
“It better be the freight yards at Borol,” Shamish replied. “If it isn’t, then we are betrayed.”
The train glided to a smooth stop, barely jerking the car at all.
“Magnetic levitation train,” Shamish told them. “No friction. When you stop, you just turn off the power and the thing’s a brick.”
The car was solid enough that outside sounds didn’t penetrate, so they had no way of knowing just who or what might be out there. It made them all nervous, and Jaysu closed her eyes and tried to project her senses outside and around the car now that it was stopped.
“Lots of people running about, apparently all Alkazarians,” she said. “No—wait. Not all. There are—others out there. At least three, maybe more. They are in back of us, concerned with another car.”
She suddenly had both their absolute attention.
“You can sense that?” O’Leary asked, amazed.
“I can see it, but the vision is very different,” she responded. “I cannot, for example, tell you anything physically about them, only that they are not natives and they are quite agitated, in some great hurry. They are, I believe, offloading some very large crates from one of the boxcars.”
“At least they can get the door unlocked,” Shamish mumbled.
“They’re done with their heavy lifting. There are five of them, or so it seems. The natives are ignoring them completely. Now they are talking among themselves. I cannot hear at this distance, nor would the translations come through anyway, so I have no idea what they are saying, only that it seems they are splitting into two groups. Three of them are going off with whatever goods they unloaded. Two more are— I believe they are headed this way! They are cold, businesslike but cold, and a bit nervous. One stops a native, says something, perhaps passes something to it, and the natives are now all walking away from us. I do not like this.”
O’Leary looked over at Shamish. “I think our Alkazarians just took sides.” He looked around. “Any chance of smashing those lights out?”
“Maybe, but what good does that do us? They control the exit, remember, and these little bastards refused to let us have any weapons.”
“You wish the lights to be out?” she asked them.
“Well, it would help when they open that door to have it dark in here. Dark and quiet,” O’Leary told her. “That way they can’t be positive we’re here, not without taking a chance.”
She looked up at the far light and it went out. Her head whipped around, birdlike, and the other light went out.
“Well I’ll be . . .” Har Shamish breathed.
“You are full of surprises, aren’t you?” O’Leary added.
Even to myself, she thought, surprised. Until that moment she had no idea she could do that, either.
“Can you break the bomb if they toss one in here?” Shamish asked her. “And maybe their weapons as well?”
“I will not permit their weapons to fire. Beyond that I can do nothing. I can act only in defense.”
“That should be enough,” hissed Genghis O’Leary. “To the side with the door. Make sure you can’t be seen by the light from outside when they open it!”
There was a series of rapid clicks across from them, which helped her orient where the door was and move as instructed.
It was just in time. The door opened and slid back, and light flooded into the center of the car, but revealed nothing.
The pair outside stood there waiting a few moments, as if unsure what to do. Then one said, through a translator, “All right. Very clever, very impressive. Now you will either come out or we will close the door and scramble the combination. We can have this car put on a siding for the next six months if need be.”
Liars, she thought, but didn’t say it. Even without her empathic senses, sheer logic said they were issuing empty threats. If they could have done that, they would have, and not subjected themselves to any risk or potential international incident. It would just be an “unfortunate accident.” That also implied that not all the Alkazarians here were corrupt, only a few officials.
They waited a short while longer, then one of them said, “Okay, close it back up.”
At that point Jaysu decided this wasn’t a game worth playing. Thankful for the light from outside, she walked over and actually framed her form in the car doorway.
They were new sorts of creatures for her, like giant bipedal bugs with shiny chocolate-brown exoskeletons, feelers, and, as incongruously as the Alkazarians, some sort of uniform. Both also had nasty-looking rifles in their hands, and they were both pointed directly at her.
“Come down and tell your associates to come out as well,” the creature on the left instructed.
“I will come down, but I believe that if you wish the others, you will have to go up there and get them,” she told the pair. With that she began walking straight toward them.
“Halt! That is far enough!” the one on the right snapped, rifle up and primed.
She kept walking toward them.
They both fired at the same time, point-blank, at a range of two meters and using weapons that had a range of one kilometer.
Their claws kept clicking on the leverlike trigger but nothing happened. She walked right up to them, then between them and past them. Then she stopped, turned, and looked at them both along with the car.
“They can’t both be broken!” one of the creatures snapped. “Not at the same time!”
“If you will just walk away, this will be a closed incident,” she told them. “I have already forgiven you.”
“Like Hell I will!” one snapped, and whirled and ran right for her, close enough to touch her. Only it didn’t. It somehow veered to the left of her, stumbled and fell.
She looked down at the thing. “Such violence! 1 shall not permit it!”
The other one clung tightly to its malfunctioning weapon and stared at both her and its companion yet did not move. It was so confused that it didn’t realize there were now two Pyrons behind it, looking down on it, hoods flaring.
“Jirminins,” Har Shamish said disgustedly. “They won’t spook. They’ll just keep trying and trying until it kills them.”
As if to confirm this, the confused soldier still standing turned and with one motion tried to use the rifle as a club against the nearest Pyron.
Har Shamish’s huge mouth opened, came down on the hapless Jirminin and swallowed it whole. Jaysu was sickened by the sight, yet she knew that the diplomat had spoken the truth. She nodded and turned to the other, just now getting up.
“I am very sad when anything dies, particularly on my account,” she told her companions, “but better for food than for nothing.” In truth, it had been and might remain for a while a crisis of conscience for her, but it had all happened too fast for her to react.
While she was still in semi-shock, O’Leary was on the other soldier in a flash.
“Bleah!” Har Shamish said, making a strange and ugly face. It sounded as if he were going to throw up, but what he extracted with a tentacle to his mouth was the rifle he’d swallowed along with the creature.
He studied the rifle. “Tell me—is it broken, or will it work?”
“It will work, I suppose,” she answered. “But you know I have the same constraints on you as on them.”
“That’s all right. A weapon used in anger is one that failed its job. It’s the threat of it that counts.” He looked around and discovered they had been observed by a whole gallery of Alkazarians, both uniformed railway workers and some security personnel. He picked out the security officer with the highest evident rank and pointed with the rifle. “You!” he shouted menacingly. “Come here!”
The officer came, mumbling apologies and excuses with abandon.
“Oh, shut up!” Shamish snapped. “Nothing here goes on without the security police knowing and approving. And aliens with guns, too! Now, would you like to show your appreciation that you backed the wrong side in this matter, or would you rather I had dessert?”
The Alkazarian’s sharp intake of breath, and the eyes, which looked like somebody having a stroke, gave the answer.
Shamish used the rifle, whose panel said it was fully armed, as a pointer, much to the security officer’s terror. It was nice to put the little bastards on the other side of the fear barrier now and then!
“Now, some answers from you. How did those two Jirminins get here? Who allowed them here with weapons to engage in an act of war?”
“N-N-N-No, Your Excellency! You misunderstand! It was no act of war! They came across the border with their guns! Some took control of the station, then sent these others for you!”
“That’s crap and you know it!” O’Leary started in. “They couldn’t move around here without permission. The whole damned Alkazarian garrison in this area would have been on them with everything they had.” The serpent’s head came down to within centimeters of the security officer’s nose.
“Look, Excellencies! I’m not a high officer! I follow orders! My orders came from my commander, who received his orders from local governmental command! We do not question our orders! We didn’t even like this! Foreigners allowed to have weapons, to use them, within our country! But you must understand—if I am ordered, I must do it or it is I who will be eliminated and replaced by someone who will follow the orders!”
“He is telling the truth,” Jaysu told them. “He does not know anything else.”
Shamish’s head bobbed a moment, then he asked, “All right, then. These two weren’t alone. Who were the others? What did they look like, and where did they go?”
“I— Oh, my! I have a family! I am being watched even now!”
O’Leary had a sudden thought. “Jaysu, could you do for all the cameras around here what you did for the lights in the car?”
“I can try. It may give me a headache. There are a lot of them.”