THE JOURNEY THROUGH KALINDA WAS NOT THE TRIUMPH ARI and Ming had hoped it might be. They were kept on a fairly short leash and used as apologists for allowing the force through. They were, however, happy to see that home hadn’t yet become a Chalidang colony, no matter what the threats. Topside, Kalindan pilots, aided by computer contact with the information base below, took complete control of the big Jerminin ship. A large military presence was not felt to be needed here; Kalindan army personnel shadowed from below, and could quickly sink the vessel if they didn’t continue to receive the correct codes every quarter hour from the pilot and her staff.
As the force moved toward Jinkivar and the Zone Gate, however, General Mochida was allowed communications to and from his embassy in Zone via the messenger system, and with high-tech communications, this was fairly quick.
“At least we know what Jeremiah Wong Kincaid actually is now, and that will help quite a bit,” he told his aides.
“Yes, sir?” the colonel responded, interested.
“He’s a Zazalof. They are from one of the deformed hexes along the Equatorial Barrier. They’re not well-known, nor much more sociable than the Sanafe, but they were always in the books. It’s just that so few had been seen in modern times, or at least known to have been seen, that it was difficult to match him up. Makes sense, though.”
“They’re metamorphs. They can scratch you, take some sample of skin or even excrement, and use the cellular chemistry inside that makes you who and what you are to create an apparent duplicate of you. It takes them about three days to do it, and the size must be close, that sort of thing, but they can do it, and maintain it for another couple of days. Long enough to get into or out of a good many areas and do nasty business. They are much more dangerous when they’re simply trying to blend with existing inanimate objects, like a wall, or a piece of that coral back there, or something like that. Since the look and feel is the same, they can do this in a relatively short time and wait until prey goes by. That’s all he did in the Zone tunnel. In most of the other cases, he’s masqueraded, but I’ve noted that he’s never attempted the masquerade of a person of any race in a high-tech environment, only in semi-and nontech hexes. I think that’s because it’s only a surface duplication; sophisticated security devices and, of course, passwords and the like, are threatening. He’s dangerous, but he’s manageable.”
“Why haven’t we heard of these people before?” the colonel asked him. “I mean, surely we cross-checked in the databases and the like.”
“True, but we were limited by our own vision, which was of the monstrous silicatelike creature he’s allowed us to see. Also, the average Zazalof isn’t aggressive; they simply wait, and whatever they need comes by. They don’t fight each other and they don’t fight outside their hex. Some sort of religion thing. So, we simply didn’t think of them. Now we know, though. I’m afraid our captain got their abilities but still hadn’t got religion. Now that we know what he is, perhaps we can put the fear of God into him after all.”
“But what would we use to kill him?”
“Energy. Fry him. Full power with a rifle, even an energy pistol at close range, electrocution, you name it. He’s more vulnerable on the surface since, like all carbon-based life-forms, he’s mostly made up of water, even as you and I are. In air, put a flammable on him and set him on fire and that’s the end of him. Not something we can do, but it’s already on the ‘to do’ list of our friends and allies.”
The colonel wriggled his secondary long tentacle in the Chalidang equivalent of a nod. “Any news on the Quislon front?”
“Not yet. We may not know until we get to Zone, if then. I certainly hope that it was successful.”
Ari and Ming took all of this in, but could do nothing. If Kincaid was what they said, he was certainly doubly dangerous and couldn’t complain that the Well computer hadn’t given him the appropriate form for his business. Still, it did little to help them.
They were, however, the object of diplomatic unease when a Kalindan army officer approached and demanded to speak to the Kalindan with them, and alone. At first the General was disinclined to do so, but in the end he remembered where he was, looked at the loaded guns all around pointed at him and his men, and allowed it, but warned them to say nothing, or else.
They swam cautiously up to the officer. “Yes, what is it?” Ming asked her.
“I have a message.”
“Core sends her best and apologizes for putting you in this situation, but it was necessary. She wants you to remain with them until Zone, after which you will be met and taken to the Kalindan embassy, no matter what the Chalidangers say or protest.”
They thought a moment, even argued a bit, but finally replied, “We can’t. They’ve got us on a drug of some kind.”
“Yes, we know. It will be taken care of. But you must reach the embassy. Core believes the showdown and finish of this will happen within three days. All of your compatriots are gathering. You must be there and report. You must trust that we can handle your personal problem.”
They gave no promises, but rejoined the Chalidangers, still wondering how much nerve they really had.
The General, of course, demanded to know exactly what was said.
“They said they didn’t care what our problems were, that we were to report immediately to our embassy. They also said they believed this whole matter would come to a head within three more days. Nothing more. What do you expect? They knew we’d have to tell you.”
The General thought it over. “Well, why not? I don’t think it will matter much in the end.”
They were astonished. “You mean that?”
“For now. But we will meet again. Count on it. And very, very soon.”
CORE WAS HER, OR ITS, USUAL SELF, WHICH MEANT ENIGMATIC and slightly cold. Still, she looked over the returning Kalindan duo with some satisfaction.
“So at last you’ve met the Chalidang,” she said simply. “What did you think of them?”
“They were exactly the same as the Ghomas back home in the Confederacy,” Ari responded. “Ming hadn’t run into them before, but I had, and I can tell you that if there’s a difference, it’s mostly in how they display rank.”
“Indeed, it takes more than a thousand years to evolve any significant differences,” the former computer agreed. “And what did your general say about the Straight Gate?”
“That they had all but two parts, and one of those parts they expected to get from their agent in someplace that sounded like Quiz Show or something any time now.”
“Quislon,” came a deep voice behind them. They turned and saw the cobralike bulk of a Pyron standing in the doorway of the air portion of the embassy reception room. “It’s called Quislon, and they got it but good. The slickest thing I ever saw. Put old Jules back in the prime of life and there’s no stopping him.”
Ari and Ming both felt a sudden chill. “Jules?”
“Yes, Jules,” Genghis O’Leary replied. “Jules Wallinchky. I believe you know him.” It was an attempt at gallows humor.
“So he is alive!”
“Uh-huh. And in the body of a three-meter, greenish-haired spider. Don’t feel bad. We didn’t figure out it was him until far too late.”
“Isn’t this where we came in?” Ming said, shaking her head. “I mean, we started this business with Jules getting some kind of what we now know was a Well Gate and selling it to Josich. Now here’s Jules working for Josich and bringing in a part of the same sort of thing!”
“Not precisely,” Core put in. “There are two gates. One takes you to the other, and vice versa. If there is only one, and you carry the other through, then you’re sent to the proper location for your race in the universe. That’s what happened to Josich’s ancestor. He set up the Straight Gate, but it wasn’t straight because there was no other end. The things were designed so the creators of the hexes could go back and forth, check on how well their model was proving out in the real universe, and do so without attracting any attention to themselves. It’s impossible to know for sure, but the general feeling is that they were all supposed to be turned in and locked away someplace in storage deep beneath us. For some reason or another, the Chalidang set wasn’t recovered. The best guess I can make is that something happened and the Ghoman Gate was left there. It is possible that the creator of that race did not return here for some reason and simply forgot it. That left the other one here. At any rate, both were well-hidden, possibly disassembled, and forgotten, until around a thousand Well years ago, when the one in Chalidang was unearthed. They didn’t know what it was, but they couldn’t bend it, break it, and it withstood all analysis. It was inert until they brought it here, to Zone. Suddenly the center of the thing was no longer merely a hole in the object but a hole between the two Gates. You’ve seen the generals. You can imagine what they thought when they figured out what it was they were seeing, and you can imagine the ambition of the Emperor of the time. They sent part of their army and its even then sophisticated weapons to Ghoma, and, securing a foothold, the Emperor himself came through. At that point it occurred to someone else in the Royal Family that if the thing were turned off, then someone else, perhaps from their branch of the family, would be Emperor of Chalidang. All they had to do was take it from Zone back to Chalidang. Simple. No power.”
“So the Emperor was trapped in Ghoma with a fair amount of his army, and in the vacuum left here, the enemies who’d been fighting Chalidang closed in and took the capital,” O’Leary surmised. “It doesn’t pay to start a new war before finishing the old one.”
“Well, it was something like that,” Core admitted. “The records aren’t clear. It seems they were trying to secure a large safety area here, perhaps before they left for good, or perhaps because they needed something the neighbors had. In any event, the result was that they won Ghoma and lost Chalidang. The device was taken and disassembled and given to races that, at the time, it was felt would never give up their parts. Then a fair amount of work went into wiping out the actual background of the war, making it seem a war of conquest that failed due to supply lines and such, and all trace of the Straight Gate was erased, except, of course, from memories and oral traditions. That is, all traces were erased on this side.”
“So Josich continued his ancestor’s traditions as conqueror, and he also had the information on the Straight Gate that the rest of us didn’t,” Ming put in. “But they lost it somewhere back home, too?”
“Yes, they lost it in one of the incessant interstellar wars they waged when they moved it for safekeeping, and it fell into the hands of others after Josich was beaten and had to disappear. He’s been trying to get it back ever since, and finally, thanks to Jules Wallinchky’s desire for the largest known precious gemstone in the galaxy, he got it. He never used it, though. That would have brought the other one here intact to the Chalidang embassy,” Core told them. “Instead, O’Leary’s attack on them when they were just setting it up caused them to inadvertently activate a Well Gate just as you all did. Everyone was swept in here, and the Straight Gate was left there. We only now learned what became of it.”
“It’s still in my ship,” O’Leary told them, “which, in turn, is parked at Jules’s hideout. Assuming things are still intact there, something I very much doubt, then it’s still there as well. We had no idea what it was, but it was seized as contraband. We did know it was what Josich paid for, and at that price, we figured it had to be something very important. I was going to bring it in for analysis and testing. Where it is now and who’s got it, well, I haven’t any idea.”
“But that means if they build the one here and go, they’ll wind up in O’Leary’s ship or the police labs or whatever, won’t they?” Ari said. “I mean, what’s the problem with that? It won’t even be in water. Maybe the bastards will suffocate.”
“No such luck,” Core told them. “The current Chalidang environment suit is every bit as good as the one you remember. Besides, it is entirely possible that Gate is still exactly where it was left, and, since it’s not on a Well energy point, it’s inert. Take it out and set it up on the Well Gate that caught all of us, and you have half the system. A Straight Gate right to the hex Gate of your closest ancestor here without going via Zone and the Well. That is dangerous. Our task is not just to stop this one from being used to evacuate half of Chalidang to Josich’s Imperial hideout back in the Confederacy, but to also ensure he doesn’t have both halves when he does. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, or if we can, but that’s the problem now.”
“Let me get this straight,” Ari said, shaking his head. “If they get both ends, they can go from here to there as easily as we go from Kalinda to Zone and back? They can transfer technology and anything else as well?”
“And they could even exile enemies. Imagine an unprepared Well Worlder of any race suddenly being exiled to the planet in the universe where its ancient ancestors first developed. Imagine the reverse. There may even be powers in the thing we don’t know about. Josich’s ancestor went from Chalidang to Ghoma because that was what he wanted and expected. I am concerned, though, that the legends say the Makers could go to and from their creation unnoticed. Bad as it is, I fear there may be even uglier surprises inside it.”
“Urn, pardon me, Core, but we’ve been kept prisoners by being forcibly addicted to a pretty strong drug,” Ming pointed out. “Unless you want us to go screaming to them for relief and spill our guts on this, maybe you should do something about it?”
“Oh, yes, yes. No problem. Go under and see the medical section. Tell them to give you the series I discussed with them. You’ll be back to normal in no time.”
“Huh? It’s that easy? You mean we were bluffed by Mochida?”
“In a way. What he told you was the truth, you see. We’ve never been able to synthesize the drug sufficient to allow maintenance. However, it works by replacing a few complex natural enzymes in the brain, and those we can and do synthesize. These shots won’t give you those waves of pleasure—in fact, I’m told you’ll feel something of a letdown, and a bit drained of energy for a while—but just keep getting these shots for the next few days as needed and you’ll be back to normal in no time.”
Ari and Ming went under into the main water part of the two-level embassy to get their treatment, leaving O’Leary alone with Core.
“You are still troubled,” the detective noted. “They still lack the piece that no one can find.”
Core looked up at him. “O’Leary, you are a ray of sunshine. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of a terrible storm. If I know where the thing is, I’m sure Josich has figured it out by now.”
“Most obvious thing in the world when you put all the parts together. And we know that even one of the Straight Gates works because while everyone else in Josich’s crew got normally processed through Zone, the Emperor did not. There is no record that he came through here at all. And he winds up in the same race and in the right hex, only with his sex changed and, apparently, an absolutely irresistible female set of charms for a Chalidang, anyway. Conclusion: the rest came through the Well Gate, but Josich jumped into the also activated Straight Gate. It works. And he arrived in full environment suit. They’ve been manufacturing them for months now. He had everything worked out, even the sex and culture angles.
The only thing he didn’t figure on was your force jumping him so that he was the only one able to use the small but direct route and remain Ghoman. Still, he’s done what he set out to do. I expect his representative here either today or tomorrow. I expect the—’Empress,’ I suppose is the proper term at the moment—here in two to three days if she hasn’t gotten totally paranoid over Kincaid.”
“Here? You mean in Zone?”
“I mean in this very embassy. Quite likely in the room we once used for a meeting upstairs.”
“Genocide, as usual. Josich’s favorite hobby, you know. I had thought that this massive sex change on the part of the Kalindans might be natural, or periodic, but it’s not. It’s an agent, probably genetically engineered, probably subviral in size, that triggers the permanent sex change, a trait that is otherwise a survival skill for the Kalindan race. It is ironic that it is now being used as a weapon.”
“You mean . . . ?”
“She doesn’t want to fight Kalinda. We’re evenly matched on a high-tech level, but we’re defending and she’d be attacking. That’s why all the interest in securing bases around us. Failing that, they went with this solution, and so far we haven’t found a way around it. It is diabolical. We know it’s there but it seems to hide, just out of reach, or mutate ever so slightly just when we think we’ve nailed it.”
“Then there’s no cure yet?”
“Sure, several, but the end result is sterility, so what’s the good in using it? I have every reason to believe that Kalinda was at the heart of the coalition that defeated Chalidang a thousand years ago. Now they have their revenge. But they better have an antidote and prove it to me beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
“Or I will see to it that it will be well beyond Josich’s lifetime, if she lives another three hundred years, before she finds where I hide the last piece.”
* * *
“You could not hide it. I doubt if you could even move it unobtrusively,” the Baron Uchjin of Dalavia, Lord High Ambassador of Chalidang, scoffed in the underwater reception area of the Kalindan embassy.
“I may already have moved it,” Core replied. “You have no way of knowing that because those who work above are subject to deep security implants. It doesn’t matter anyway. I have it, and it is in such a position that even if you had to wait until every last individual Kalindan was dead of old age, Josich herself would be long dead either from internal causes, or because of the vast treasury we could put up for her death— after all, what would we have to lose by doing so?—or would have been assassinated by Jeremiah Wong Kincaid. In fact, I don’t believe the Well World computer could accept genocide. It would make no sense if the organism involved was of alien manufacture. I am not, however, willing to pay the price to find out. The question is, are you willing to meet our demands?”
“Your demands? What can you possibly demand in your position?”
“We are already feverishly working to ensure that the last Kalindan will outlive the last Chalidanger, and we have years to work on it yet, and no quibbles about funding or resources. Still, I think that if Josich does not get the thing together and working very soon, then all of those negative factors begin to come into play. I offer time. An expedited path.”
“Yes? Go on.”
“First, I want the organism involved and all the notes on its development. How it works and how it can be eliminated short of creating sterility. I want the antidote and demonstrations based on samples we make from it showing that it works. Second, I want the Gate to be assembled here, in the presence of everyone who knows about it. I realize the danger to those who do know and are not on your side, but I believe they should be present anyway, as their lives are even more at risk afterward. They will be unarmed, and the two-in-one and myself will be the only Kalindans present. All my staff will be relegated below. Since we will be two levels in air, and all at a disadvantage either in motion or in suits, there should be no particular danger. Our embassies are not far from one another. It should be fairly simple to do.”
“Indeed, but why should we? The first I can understand, but this second—it is outrageous. It is not what we intend to use the device for at all.”
“I know precisely what you intend to use the device for. But before you do, you will require testing, and I believe there is some mutually beneficial activities we can work out. After that, we will not stand in the way if it is moved to any point.”
The Baron considered it. “I am suspicious, seeing no logic in what you propose, but I will convey it to my government anyway. If they accept, you will have to sever this part of the embassy, making it extraterritorial and not a part of Kalinda. Her Majesty will never consent without the presence of her bodyguard, and everyone else in the room must be known.”
Before they were through, and after many back and forths, even more things were demanded by both sides. A sterilization of the airborne room by trusted members of the Chalidang Alliance so that no living creature might be waiting there, masquerading as a wall or door or chair. And, other than the Imperial Guard and loyal security personnel, absolutely nobody in the room who did not arrive there from Josich’s own known universe.
One of those on the list was Jules Wallinchky. Core found that unsettling, but knew it was one reason why Wallinchky was to be there in the first place.
Core looked around and hoped it would hold everybody.
She well understood why Chalidang would give almost anything to get the Gate up, even cave in to unreasonable demands that almost certainly were part of some scheme to thwart her.
Once the Straight Gate was activated, once it was under full Chalidang control, it simply wouldn’t matter anymore.
It took longer than anyone predicted, primarily because of the demands and proofs that the antidote really worked, and that the agent was clearly identified and destroyed. And when a few males were recreated as this process continued, sperm was extracted and in vitro fertilizations were tried to ensure fertility. Still, even as Josich chafed impatiently, waiting for the prize that might well restore and expand her empire even back in her native galaxy, she understood that the method chosen had been selected by her and applied at her direction. Now she had to live with the price of that method, which was waiting for proof.
When word came almost three weeks later that at least some of the eggs had properly fertilized and that the process was beginning to spread among the population, Josich was reportedly almost ready to invade anyway, but she held off. Instead she waited until she received the official notice from Baron Uchjin that the Kalindans were satisfied with their end of things and that a certain date could now be set.
That very evening, at her orders and instigation, the Imperial Guard murdered most of the highest levels of the Royal Family. As it was happening, Josich was killing, and eating, her Emperor.
Upper Level, Kalindan Embassy, South Zone