She closed her eyes again, and almost immediately there was the sound of small explosions all around, like large light-bulbs bursting one by one. As each sounded, one of the small mounted cameras seemed to explode and fly apart.
She was right. There were a lot of cameras. O’Leary sympathized with her headache problem.
“All right, now we can talk and nobody can ever prove it,” Har Shamish said to the official. “The others—what did they look like?”
“One was a spider!” the terrified little creature almost squeaked. “A big, huge spider. The others were normal size, but very unlike anything we know here. Bent over, hairy, but in some ways like her.”
Jaysu realized that “normal size” to the officer was his size. “They had wings? And were covered with fur?”
“Yes, yes! That’s it!”
“Wally. Wally and his companions.”
“Figures,” O’Leary muttered. “So, what did they unload from the car in back?”
The little man was so terrified that it never occurred to him to ask how they could have known about any of this.
“Big crates. I don’t know what was in them. They were consigned here, to be transshipped to Quislon. They loaded them on a motorized cart and went away, south. The border is only about ten kilometers due south of here.”
“You have no idea what was in them?”
“No! I swear! They did not open them!”
O’Leary looked around. “Anything powered and reasonably fast available that we can take to the border? And I mean now! Before the army shows up to find out why they can’t see us?”
“There’s a small maintenance vehicle over there! Simple electric, fast. Take it, please!”
O’Leary went over to the other side of the platform and looked at the thing. It wasn’t a familiar design but looked straightforward enough. Basically a flat bed, no stakes, about three meters square, and a driver’s seat up front that was too small to be comfortable. The thing seemed to work by hitting a forward or reverse button and then steering with an oversized joystick.
“If this runs out of fuel before we reach the border, then you will wish you were executed,” he warned the security man. “Because, no matter the risk to me, if you’re betraying us again, you will discover what it is like to be eaten alive and slowly dissolved.”
The security officer stiffened, then fainted dead away.
Shamish and Jaysu walked over to the little cart and managed to get onto the back. There wasn’t much to hold onto except the guardrail separating the driver from the flat bed, but it would do.
“Think you can handle it?” the vice-consul asked the agent.
“I don’t think it’s a problem. All set?”
“Yes, as much as we can be.”
“All right, here goes!”
The front panel lit up, and he pushed the top of the two buttons and eased the joystick forward. The thing moved, slowly, out of the loading dock area and into the warehouses beyond. They could see the street on the other side, and were to it in a moment. Then, abruptly, they stopped.
“Something wrong?” Shamish asked him.
“Yeah. Which way is south?”
There wasn’t much sky to get a solar fix, and they couldn’t read the local signs. Worse, all of them abruptly realized that they’d never asked the little creature if this in fact was where they were supposed to be.
Had to be, they finally decided. Otherwise why would Wally have been here?
Har Shamish said, “To your right! See the hex marker?”
“Yes! Oh—I see! International border sign. How thoughtful!”
And they were off into the night, feeling all right, but knowing there were enemies in front of them and, almost certainly, Alkazarians heading toward them from the rear who would be no pushovers.
“It’s time to get out of this rotten, stinking place,” Har Shamish muttered, as much to himself as to Jaysu. “Besides, on top of everything else, it’s too cold!”
The rail head wasn’t much of a town, and they were soon out on a smooth, paved, but narrow road. If the hex sign and arrow could be believed, it would bring them to the hoped-for Quislon border.
Jaysu could hardly see in this darkness, but she looked back and also up worriedly. “Do you think they are actually pursuing us?”
“Not vigorously,” Shamish replied. “If they really wanted to catch us, they’d have air units here now harassing us and blocking our progress. That makes me think that the little bastard—pardon—will be all right. They all put their necks out to lay this trap for us at this end, and I suspect our friend Wally paid handsomely to allow it to happen here. The Alkazarian government certainly has been helping them, but they’re too nationalistic and too paranoid to bring it to this deliberately from the national level. They didn’t have to do it at all. No, our buddies up front bribed some local big shot who will now be far more concerned with covering his rear end than in coming down hard on anybody, even us. By the way— that was a slick trick and a lifesaver, what you did. Do you have any more powers we don’t know about?”
“I do not think that I have these powers, since I have not known of them until I needed them,” she answered. “Rather, I believe the divine is working through me.”
He sighed. “Suit yourself. But I sure wish we knew what dear old Wally got shipped all the way up here, so big and so bulky that he needed to import some soldiers with him to do heavy lifting.”
“Might they be some sort of terrible weapon? I do not think anything is beyond him if it is in his assignment. He is not evil in Mr. O’Leary’s sense, I do not think, but he is totally, absolutely, the most completely amoral individual I have ever encountered. Life to him is a game, and he plays it with great joy. He does not care who he works for, or who he hurts or helps, nor how many might be injured or killed, but he does not deliberately seek to do that, either. He lives life as a series of challenges, the more impossible the better. Right now, I believe he is having a great deal of fun.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be a weapon,” Har Shamish assured her. “At least not anything on the scale we’d think of if the challenge was in Alkazar, say. Quislon is a nontech hex, like your own. Nothing will work there that wouldn’t work in Ambora.” The great head shook slowly from side to side. “Big crates. What in the world would he be taking into a nontech hex that would be that huge or complex? And for what?”
“We know one thing, at least,” O’Leary called back from the driver’s seat. “We know he’s after the piece of the Gate, and we know the only time and place that he can reasonably get access to it. I’ve been there. Talk about impossible! If that spidery son of a bitch can pull this off there, with half the population of Quislon looking on, and us there expecting something at every turn, then maybe he deserves to get it!”
The road ended in a large circle with a great deal of room for parking. Inevitably, there was a substantial Customs station there as well, and it looked well-lit. O’Leary pulled over just short of getting into easy viewing range by the station and stopped the cart.
“Well, we might have known that,” he said. “So, what do we do from here? Walk?”
“They’re certain to have a major fence system along here, maybe with robotic sentinels,” Har Shamish said. “I think our best bet is just to ride up there, present our documents and demand to go through.”
O’Leary stared at him. “You’re kidding! They’ll have to know what we did back there, and these guys won’t be so loyal to the local government. You really think they’re just going to let us out?”
“I do. Or, at least, better we are trying as aliens to leave than to stay. I think they’ll be glad to be rid of us. If they know, if they’ve been notified, then we’ll have to deal with them some other way.”
“I say we just use the rifles and blast through,” the cop said, reaching down for his.
“I suspect they’d repel any weapons fire. No, I think we just go through and that’s that. These guns are no good once we cross the border anyway, so I say we just toss ’em.”
Jaysu looked out at the station only a half kilometer away. “I could fly over that thing,” she told them. “And over the border, too.”
“You probably could, but the question is, would their automated equipment target you and shoot you down if you tried? Or could it?” O’Leary was beginning to wonder about her powers.
“Possibly. Possibly not. I do not know. However, I agree with Har Shamish. Throw the rifles away. I do not believe that these ahead will be any different in kind or nature than the others. I simply will not permit them to act against us.”
O’Leary sighed. “I hate to do this, but . . .” He flung the rifle off into the night. After a moment, Har Shamish did the same. They were now effectively dependent on the priestess, but they had seen what she could do. O’Leary put the cart in drive and headed toward the station.
There was no point in driving through to Quislon, since the cart would be nothing more than a lump there. He parked it neatly in the parking area, and all three of them got out and walked toward the gate, which had all sorts of ominous-looking warnings none of them could read. It also had the universal hex symbol, though, and a twin cut through the bottom segment a bit to the west of center.
You are here, O’Leary thought. He hoped that it was indeed Quislon on the other side. With the hex boundary there and little starlight, what he could see through and across it could have been just about anywhere.
Neither of the Pyrons were too confident relying on Jaysu’s newfound powers, but they also didn’t think they had much choice. And if she was confident of them, then they had to go along, since she was the reason they were there.
She looked around at the complex before following them up to the passage through to the border, then caught up to the pair. “How does this power get out here?” she asked them.
Shamish looked around. “Broadcast is the most common method, but I don’t think these characters would use it. Too paranoid. Underground cable would be my best guess.”
She focused on it for a moment and saw it in her mind’s eye, coming down beside the road, a living snake of flame.
“Let us proceed,” she told them, keeping that flow in one corner of her mind.
The way was barred by a tall electrically operated gate. Beyond it was a tunnel of sorts, with fencing five meters high going down the suddenly primitive dirt road on both sides and even across a roof. A second gate was at the far end, thirty meters farther on, operated, it seemed, by the same set of controls.
The silver and black officer looked just like all the others, but more nervous. Still, he didn’t appear threatening, and Jaysu felt no direct danger to any of them from him. He did seem almost surprised to see them, though, as if he never would have thought they would try a legitimate exit.
They handed them over, wondering just what his instructions were.
He looked at them, then at the papers, then back at them. “You are taking nothing with you that you did not bring into Alkazar?”
“Nothing whatsoever,” Har Shamish answered. “Our sole purpose was to reach Quislon.”
“Very well. You understand that these papers are not valid for reentry?”
“Mine most certainly is!” Shamish protested. “However, as it happens, I have decided to proceed home after this and so won’t be using them. Still, I am accredited as a diplomat to Alkazar.”
“To Kolznar Colony, not to the country proper,” the official responded. “However, as you say, it is moot.” He wrote something on his electric pad, then proceeded to remove several of the sheets from their papers that had been added when they’d entered, and handed the papers back. There was a buzzing sound, and the nearest gate slid back, revealing that last thirty meter gauntlet.
“Proceed,” the little bearlike creature said, and they walked through. The buzzing sound came again, and the gate closed behind them.
It was claustrophobic in the cagelike tunnel, walking in the reflected light.
“I was right,” Shamish commented. “One high fence, passive, then a killer fence in the middle. One more passive will be over here at the other gate.”
They reached the second gate, and waited for it to open. And waited. And waited. ..
“I have a bad feeling about this,” O’Leary muttered.
Jaysu did not know where the danger was coming from, but she felt it, and knew it was time to act. She took hold of that current of living energy she’d identified and kept track of and mentally pushed against it.
There was a tremendous crackling sound, and sizzling, as if things were frying, and then all the lights went out and they were totally in the dark, including her. In fact, she was now completely blind in the conventional sense, but she could still “see” her companions in other ways, and the sudden panicking little creatures in the building behind them.
The two Pyron weren’t blind at all. “Quick! Can you force the gate?” Shamish called to O’Leary.
“I—I think so,” the agent grunted, pushing hard against it and rattling it.
Shamish came up and added his considerable weight and strength to it, and they started pounding against it.
The gate began to buckle, and then, with one mighty coordinated push, they got it partly bent outward.
“There’s enough room to squeeze through!” O’Leary cried. “Come on, ma’am! Try and get through!”
“I cannot see!” she protested. “I can only see the living!”
She felt around, using their tentacles for guidance, and managed to find the hole, but squeezing through it with her wings proved difficult. Finally, she felt herself being pushed to the ground, and while one of the Pyrons pushed against the gate, the other pushed against her feet.
There were a lot of feathers left around, but now O’Leary managed to squeeze through the bent corner of the gate and was able to help Shamish through. Getting up, they helped the Amboran to her feet and made for the border, just a meter or two away.
She felt a pain, like burning, on one wing, but only wanted out of that horrible place and she went forward.
The temperature immediately changed. It was warmer, yet the air was much dryer, a desertlike feeling to it, and overhead, quite suddenly, the sky was clear and well-lit.
“You can fly all you want to now, if you can,” Shamish told her. “You’re in Quislon.”
She looked back, shaken, at the blackness she’d caused beyond the border. “That is an evil place, if you wish to define evil, Citizen O’Leary,” she commented.
“I think it is, but it still can’t hold a candle to some. I wonder what the devil they were going to do with us once they had us trapped?”
“The energy—the power in the wires? Citizen Shamish called it a killer fence, the one in the middle? That same energy was also all around the cage. They were going to connect it so it would run through the cage as well. I could see them doing it.”
O’Leary burned with anger. “Those bastards were going to electrocute us?”
She sighed. “I could not, of course, permit that to happen. When the one inside threw the switch, and the power started toward us, I simply, well, threw it back . . .”
“Thus shorting out the security fencing, the station, and maybe if we’re lucky, the town and the train yard as well.” O’Leary sighed. “Well, at least that’s that. None of us will have to go back there again, and if you, Shamish, want to go back to Kolznar by ship, you can make them most uncomfortable.”
“I think my vice-consular days there are past,” the diplomat commented sourly. “I think I’ll pick a different assignment next. But come! This is a desert, and we have a very long way yet to go.”
Jaysu shook her head. “No, I must rest, and nearby,” she told them. “I cannot see properly to do much in this place, and I need to meditate and sleep and allow my body to repair itself.”
“It’s two hundred kilometers to Quislon Center,” O’Leary reminded her. “And the desert sun here is very, very hot.”
“Then why don’t you go on?” she suggested. “You can make your best time now, even this late. In the morning I shall catch up to you. It is basically south, then I will feel the tug of the Gate and head for it. They have a Gate in the middle of the hex, do they not?”
“Yes, that’s the system for all of them,” Shamish agreed. “But see here, it’s our job to accompany you!”
O’Leary sighed. “She’s got a point, you know. She can fly now, maybe even make the whole distance in a day, two at most. We’ll be six days reaching Quislon Center.”
“But we’re bodyguards as well!”
O’Leary chuckled. “Yeah? And who’s been saving who tonight? I think the little lady can take care of herself. Besides, I’d like to know just what the heck is in those crates, wouldn’t you?”