* * *
They had pleaded and cajoled and done everything they could except declare war, but the Quislonians were adamant: there were to be no Pyrons within the holy circle, which could well be kilometers deep. They could go through the Gate after the ceremonies were completed, but not until then.
Jaysu sympathized, but could also understand. “Deep down, it is impossible for them to totally trust one who has this tiny corner, however subconscious, in which they think of their hosts as dinner,” she noted. “Still, they have agreed to allow me to stand at the foot of the path, although not on it, and I can launch myself into flight any time if trouble occurs.”
“Yeah, but dear Wally’s gotten to know you pretty well,” O’Leary replied. “And if it’s you or the artifact, he’ll take the artifact. You have no idea what kind of ransom Chalidang will pay for this one. Long before Josich appeared, they were gathering pieces and trying to figure out how to snatch others, but they didn’t even have a viable contingency plan for this one. The best one was poison gas, but any gas they could make that would kill Quislonians would eat through any protective gear known. I wish we’d been able to get close to those crates and open them, but those flying little nasties smelled us out and we had to run.”
“What do you think is in there?” she asked them both.
“My best guess is a glider of some kind,” Shamish replied, “but if it’s a glider, how’s he slow it down enough to do a snatch, let alone control it on that mountain with those volcanic heat-driven winds?”
“If it is a glider,” Jaysu said, “I can easily intercept it, even with those little creatures about, and I can warn or even get between it and the two on the mountaintop. I cannot see how it can succeed.”
O’Leary looked out at the horizon. “Well, we’ll know one way or the other in about nine hours,” he told them. “One way or the other.”
It was a long but in many ways a spectacular nine hours. They came, it seemed, not only out of the pyramids, but out of the very ground itself, and from all points within the range of sight. They came walking in a slow, deliberate cadence, as close as one could be to another, filling in the entire area around the Holy Mountain within two hours after dark. And it was done without even a stumble, although there were millions of Quislonians out there, not just glowing, but singing.
Not that the music was melodic to Pyron ears, or to Jaysu, but it was clearly sacred music, communal music, heard on far more planes than they could know.
Even the mountain seemed somehow aware of its special purpose that night, throbbing, hissing, steaming, rumbling, with lava showing in two secondary caldera along the side and running down heretofore hidden lava tubes into a basin far below the surface.
Jaysu was so enthralled by the spectacle, she had to keep bringing herself mentally back to why she had been sent here. Not just to commune with and learn from these people, as she’d done, but also to prevent at all costs the theft of their most holy artifact.
“Expect a diversion,” O’Leary had warned, maybe several, but it didn’t seem possible that anyone could get close enough. The little monkey things could fly, but this mass would not be stampeded even if they bombed it. It would be as if you stuck a pin in your hand. Painful, annoying, but it would not divert the purpose nor cause the chaos it might in any other crowd.
What could Wally be thinking? Looking out at this sight and taking in the pureness of a totally spiritual gathering, Jaysu wondered if everybody hadn’t gotten it wrong, if perhaps Wally wasn’t going to make a play, not here, not in front of all these worshipers joined in a communion that prevented panic.
In sight of millions of the self-illuminating creatures around the great active volcano, united and in joy and absolute fellowship, she could not imagine what might be done by a great army, let alone a few creeps and a giant spider.
And now she saw the Emperor emerge, the first time she’d seen a rare Quislonian male. He was—small, quite small, perhaps half the size of his chief wife and High Priestess. In theory, the Emperor was absolute, all powerful, to be obeyed unto death and beyond, but in practical terms he was simply a sperm machine impregnating the royal court, just as the lone males who were the “princes” of each principality did the same for their groups. Genetic diversity wasn’t all that great, but since no male could become a prince of his own tribe, there was apparently enough diversity.
The Emperor might have been small, but he didn’t look feeble. In fact, in contrast to the females, whom he basically resembled, when he emerged he stood on just his hind legs, which raised his head above the crowd, and walked bipedally, something she doubted that any of the females could do. He turned, reached down, and came up with something that looked disappointingly mundane. It seemed to be made out of plastic, although she was certain it wasn’t; a thick, straight beam with two locking mechanisms of some kind on either end, a curved side and a flat side.
That was it? What brought them all here, what wars had been fought about? Lives had been lost over it, many lives, and, she thought, somehow it should look grand.
“Behold the piece of the Straight Gate, by which the Ancients created Creation!” the Emperor called out, speaking loudly, although he did not speak to them as individuals, but collectively, and so as the nearest heard, so did they all.
They made a pair, the tiny Emperor on his odd hind legs, and the grub like but larger and more majestic First Wife and High Priestess, who was as much a guard as a companion.
She ran things here, that was clear, as she ran this ceremony, ensuring that the Emperor said and did exactly what he was supposed to.
It would be a long walk up the mountain, taking them probably two or more hours just to get to a small, specially built platform above the Zone Gate where some exceptionally strong Quislonians could use a rope and pulley system to carry the royal ones the rest of the way.
Jaysu had seen them build it, and it was quite simple, really. A basketlike platform with a guardrail, firmly attached to strong ropes or cables connected to a huge wheel at the foot of the mountain and another wheel far at the top. Once on the platform, the strong ones who were at the top already would move down the side, pulling the rope and causing the platform to rise. When they reached the bottom wheel, the royal couple would be at the top. Afterward, the strong ones would reverse the march, holding on as the platform descended.
Jaysu looked around at the pageant and was enthralled; she fought not to be entirely overcome by the spirituality of the gathering. She had officiated at local services, and attended some major ones in her training, but had never felt this wave of rapture from millions of souls all at once.
The pair had finally reached the end of the sacred path above the Zone Gate and regally entered the platform. The wife-priestess shut the gate, and the Emperor held the sacred artifact high. Still, from even the closest distance to them allowed by the restraints, there wasn’t a one of them, Quislon-ian or native, who saw more than two small dots rising up in a tiny square, and the whole spectacle was invisible to anyone much farther back than the first rank. The distances were deceiving, but this pair was very far from the crowd.
Suddenly, from two different points in back of the vast throng of worshipers, fireworks shot up, bursting in the sky like multicolored flowers and giving off explosive popping sounds.
O’Leary turned to Shamish. “Part of the ceremony, I wonder, or a diversion?”
Har Shamish suddenly stiffened. “They haven’t even noticed it. Diverted us, though, didn’t it?”
O’Leary turned back to the distant mountain. “Damn! What I wouldn’t give for Jaysu with one half-decent radio right now!”
Jaysu herself didn’t notice the fireworks, which were kilometers distant and far beyond her vantage point. As the royal pair rose, the crowd’s rapture increased so much that it washed over and through her, and she swayed and hummed with them, lost in a moment of pure spiritual ecstasy.
The Emperor and his consort were not immune from this. This was no game of political cynicism, but a most important one of faith that was part of the sacred duties and obligations of a monarch. Feeling the waves of emotion, but remaining aloof, an individual, he continued to raise the artifact in a symbolic show that he knew few of the others could see. It wasn’t just for them, though, but for the Creator and the Ancient Ones and all those who gave so much. See? Look, you mighty gods and creators of all, we have your sacred artifact and we have kept our most holy of vows!
Only, all of a sudden, he didn’t have it.
It was so quick, so sudden, so totally unexpected, that the car continued moving upward for some time before he realized it and could react.
Just overhead, Wally hung from the bottom of the small hot air balloon and reeled the object in with his sticky webbing. Even as he did he shouted, “Push me out, you fools, and then I’ll take out the guards with the gas!”
The two Pegiri pushed hard against the small black-painted balloon, and it swung out so it was almost over the Zone Gate.
As the Emperor shouted “Stop!” to those workers on the pulleys, who were too far distant to hear him through the chanting from the masses, washing up and drowning out everything, two of Wally’s legs hurled small cone-shaped bombs down to where the fierce guardians of the Gate stood watch. The gas hit almost where he’d intended, where he’d rehearsed it elsewhere long before. He saw them quiver and then collapse, as if they were somehow balloons themselves who’d suddenly had the air let out of them. He didn’t get them all, but he got enough of them, and the others were confused as to what was happening and from where any threat might be coming.
And then, directly over the Zone Gate, Wally let go of the balloon and fell a distance that would have killed him had he mistimed it even slightly, or if the winds and the Pegiri guiders hadn’t been exactly on target. But he fell straight into the Zone Gate and vanished. The two Pegiri let go of the balloon, circled around once, and then dove in as quickly as they could.
Jaysu felt the sudden alarm when the Emperor shouted, and she broke free of the religious trance to turn and look upward. She hesitated for a few seconds, not sure what she was seeing, whether it was right or wrong, or whether it would be proper for her to get into the air. In those few seconds of indecision, Wally and his accomplices made their escape.
It had been incredibly risky, and much could have gone wrong, but it hadn’t.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Shamish told her afterward. “Even the Quislonians don’t put any blame on you. He even included you in his plans.”
She was in shock and so filled with tears she just wanted to curl up and die.
“Me?” she managed.
“Yes. He had all that time on the ship to size you up, find your strengths and weaknesses, test you and quiz you without your even knowing it. He realized you were sincerely, intensely religious and that you were an empath. He counted on you, the only one who might screw him up, being overcome by the ceremony. And you did warn them. They have, in the end, only themselves to blame.”
“Small consolation,” she sniffed. “It’s gone.”
“Stolen by the gutsiest, most brilliant criminal mind I think I’ve ever seen,” O’Leary told her. “My God! Except for the fact that he did it himself, the only person I’ve ever known who could have worked out such a wild and simple plan, risky or not, was Jules Wall— Oh, God! Wally. Wallinchky. The son of a bitch made it! And he’s having the time of his life!”
“You must pull yourself together,” Har Shamish assured her. “Now, more than ever, I think you’ll want to make sure they don’t get the last two.”
O’Leary agreed. “And since one’s underwater, deep under, it’s not something even old Jules can handle. And they still don’t know where the last piece is. There’s hope yet.”
She looked up at O’Leary. “You know this—this thief?”
“Oh, I know him well. He’s one of a kind, thank God, or at least one of a kind in a long generation. And he knows me, and Josich, and all the rest of us. Even you, Jaysu, before he even met you.”
“How is that possible?”
“In a strange way, he helped to create you, and Ming and Ari, and Core as well.”
She didn’t understand it and decided it was beyond her. “And now he will give this piece to this evil one?”
“Somehow, I don’t think so,” O’Leary told her. “We’ve got two evil geniuses, which is one more than anyone should have to cope with, and they’re both playing for keeps. The new Jules won’t be a lacky to Josich. No, this game’s still got a long time to run yet, and there are other factors we still don’t know. But it doesn’t alter one major fact, and that is—whether Josich or Jules Wallinchky winds up with the Straight Gate, it’s the same to us.”
Har Shamish agreed. “As much as I would love to go home right now, I believe it is time for all three of us to speak directly with those above us.”
O’Leary gave the Pyron equivalent of a nod. “Yes,” he said, “I hate to give up the geographical advantage, but we all must go see Core.”