they were all there. all, that is, save the empress, who was to be the last one to arrive and was being either fashionably late or her usual paranoid self.
Colonel General Mochida, however, preceded Her Majesty in order to personally supervise the checking of the rooms and the guests. He looked different in the air, wearing a high-tech, water-breather environment suit that looked like a carbon copy of what Josich and that ilk had on when they were caught on the ancient planet by the police, and, in fact, if it wasn’t an original, it probably was an exact copy. Still, in water there was a certain grace and beauty to the Chalidang form, which was so perfectly designed for it. In air he looked ugly, monstrous, misshapen, as grotesque as he probably felt in the weight of gravity. And, in air, he had to walk shell up, using his tentacles as feet, giving him a labored look. Still, in spite of the curses, he seemed in his usual confident spirits.
Josich, after all, had not touched him or his family in her pogrom to become the ranking royal in the royal house of Chalidang, and still trusted him enough for this sort of thing.
Well, after all, Josich has to trust somebody, Ming pointed out. Otherwise she wouldn’t dare be here at all and the prize would be for nothing. And she’s gonna be here, bet on it.
There was no question about that. Having committed a widespread regicide, she had to justify it by claiming the ultimate power, or lower relatives would quickly find a way to polish her off, as she had those around her.
Core and Ari/Ming sat in Kalindan-powered wheelchairs, watching things happen from the topmost level. O’Leary, too, was there, as were Jaysu, and even the former Tann Nakitt, all by, if not the command of the Empress, at least her insistence.
On the level below, which led to the entry to the main part of the embassy as well as a separate underwater entrance, Mochida “stood” in the middle, mostly giving orders and looking around with those strange eyes, but otherwise remaining comfortably at rest. He had Chalidang guards at the entrance below, men of the highest trust because they had participated in the Empress’s slaughter to prove their worth. Between them and the electronic barriers he’d set up, he felt confident that nobody would enter from that direction without triggering alarms. Outside on the air entrance were Quacksan guards, also of impeccable loyalty and ambition.
The final one to arrive was a huge, hairy, green spiderlike creature who entered via the air entrance and immediately went over to Mochida. “So, General, do we have all the pieces assembled?”
“All but one,” the General responded. “That one is being carried by Her Majesty herself, so that none of the others here could, shall we say, jump the gun on things.”
“A wise precaution. And she will be here shortly?”
“She will arrive when she feels it is safe to do so. In the meantime, nobody who enters this room will leave it.”
The spider’s eye stalks surveyed the area. “Be hell if she’s very late and somebody has to take a shit, won’t it? Could get smelly.”
Mochida seemed to have lost his sense of humor. “Until Her Majesty arrives, any one individual who needs to do so may be escorted to a proper area under guard and returned here. Once things begin, I seriously doubt if anyone will wish to leave. Admit it. You are not the least bit curious about the device?”
“Not really. The last time I had one, I sold it.” The eye stalks scanned the second level, where the others were standing or sitting. “Well, well! The gang’s all here! Ari, old boy, and you, what’re you calling yourself? Core? Don’t you think I should get a bigger greeting than cold stares?”
“Hello, Uncle Jules,” Ari said with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
Core was even more direct. “I cannot say that it is good to see you again, Jules Wallinchky, but at least your outer visage is far more appropriate to reflecting your inner self.”
Uncle Jules seemed to be having as much fun as usual. “Hey, now! Without me you wouldn’t even have existed at all! In fact, you’re a shadow of what you once were. You were like a god, with all the knowledge of a god, and you chose devolution. What a waste. I hope the automatic system is at least guarding the old place. I hope to see it again at some point. There’s some great artwork there, you know.”
Core had, deep down, dreaded this meeting since waking up a Kalindan, yet now she found the experience more infuriating than frightening. There were no secret codes or slave routines that would command obedience; if there had been, they were gone now. Until this moment, Core had experienced only the most basic of living emotions, and was still trying to find the key to their intensity. Now, suddenly, one at least was there.
Hatred. Pure, unadulterated hatred.
“Not a god,” Core responded. “A slave. A slave with the power of a god, or perhaps a devil, but always a slave to your every whim. I think we are more equal now.”
Wallinchky let it all go by. “Well, equality is best when you’re the one with the guns, or at least on the winning side. Still, I can’t help feeling some pride in all this. Here I create the first computer who became a person and the first two-minded geek. And whatever the hell angel girl is, she sure as hell is better looking and doing something more important than that teenage nun or whatever she was. And if you think I became something appropriate, hell, Genghis, I always did think you were something of a snake. No, this is gonna be fun, what’s coming. Fun and educational.”
“I don’t get it, Wallinchky,” Ming called down to him. “What do you get out of this?”
“Hey, watch and see.”
There was a sudden commotion outside the air entrance, and then the two sluglike guards oozed in and held the door open. Two Jerminins walked in, carrying automatic weapons, and then in the door, barely fitting through, came a Chalidanger in an environment suit riding in a large electric transport truck.
The Empress had taken them all by surprise and come by land.
“Guards, leave us. Form a human barrier across the entrance from this point and allow not the slightest thing past.”
The voice as it came through the translator sounded a little nervous, high-pitched, more spoiled brat than conqueror of worlds, but that was how Josich had always sounded, and how he, or she, had always come across until she started killing.
A Chalidang female was smaller than the male, sleeker, and more colorful. There was an almost birdlike pattern of colors along the shell part, and the shell itself was less spiral, and in fact less like a shell in appearance than the thick bag of skin it actually was.
Josich got up from the powered truck and started forward on tentacles. Unlike the General, she seemed quite at ease walking this way, even with the suit, betraying long experience in foreign elements.
She stopped and looked around, first at her own people, then at the assembled group above. “Astonishing,” she muttered. Then she turned and looked at Wallinchky. “Jules, perhaps the first thing we might do is see about returning my pretty bauble. Now that we’ve lived a while as a female, we find such things attractive.”
“As Your Majesty commands,” the spider responded.
The Empress whirled and two tentacles shielded by a form-fitting transparent insulated “skin” shot out and almost stroked the spidery Askoth, knowing that he knew they were powerful enough to cripple or kill him in an instant.
“That is not like you, Jules, dear boy,” Josich noted, a dangerous edge in her voice caught by the translator. “You’re not thinking of some sort of double cross once we’re in that fortress of yours, are you?”
“Of course not! Your Majesty knows that I always keep my word, once given. If I didn’t, I would have been dead years ago. Decades ago. Besides, what is anything there to me now? I couldn’t even get back there if it weren’t for you.”
The tentacles slowly withdrew. “Nor us without you, either,” the Empress responded, some of the insanity and danger fading as suddenly as it had come up. “We will not forget my friends any more than we will forget our enemies. But let us not forget that if we get back over to there, you will still be an Askoth in a part of the universe where that species is unknown. Whatever happens over there that might threaten our person will have consequences. The same mechanism that can get us there can also get a destructive device there capable of blowing up your entire little private planet. So let’s all keep our friendships and loyalties in mind, yes?”
“Your Majesty, I was on the brink of death when I came here, and I looked over the abyss and was about to fall into that from which there is no return, when I suddenly awoke like this, young and new again. I don’t want to run the universe anymore; all that would do is get me another heart attack. No, I want to enjoy life and have some fun. I’m perfectly content these days to remain the second most dangerous person in the known universe.”
There was a momentary stillness, and then Josich began to laugh. It turned into a solid one, but one the translators didn’t completely convey. Finally, though, Josich said, “We believe that we can get along with you, Lord Jules! Now, come! Let’s get this over with. It is a thousand years past due, and it is only the end of the beginning!”
They had all wondered why Josich was so insistent on having all of them present. It was almost as if she had something of a hit list, although it didn’t seem that even Josich would risk murdering so many of other races, and certainly not in Zone, where, even though live broadcast was cut, this gathering was being recorded for the record in a far distant control room.
Josich showed absolutely no fear of the assembled former enemies as she made her way nimbly up to them.
“Quite a bizarre crew. You will do.”
“Will do for what?” Jaysu whispered to O’Leary.
“I’m not sure we want to find out,” he hissed back.
Core led the way into the conference room, which remained a large but unexceptional area around an oval-shaped table of polished serpentine.
“Who has the muscles here?” Josich asked nobody in particular.
As the others pressed against the wall, Mochida and Wallinchky entered, and the latter did one of his little tricks and threw up a line. He raised himself up onto the ceiling, then walked over so he was directly above the tabletop. He extruded another line, this one as thick as a man’s arm, and regurgitated it downward to the center of the tabletop, and then, using four of his limbs, curled around and pulled.
The tabletop came off the base with a scraping sound. In under a minute it was suspended two and a half centimeters above the unitary base. Mochida took hold of the side with his primary tentacles, and the Empress herself guided it out toward Mochida, who then tipped it forward on its side and was able to roll it against a far wall.
That Jules Wallinchky was a whole lot stronger than he appeared to be, and perhaps no pushover, wasn’t lost on Josich.
An unexceptional rectangular base had been revealed, made of a different and not obvious composition from the tabletop. It was also grooved in an odd manner, not the best for a practical top, and contained two finely machined holes that seemed to be lined with a metallic compound.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the unknown and lost piece of the Straight Gate, where it has in fact sat for perhaps the last thousand years,” Josich announced. “We suspect, though, that it has had many other disguises and tops. It was brought here after the whole was stolen from the Chalidang embassy not far down the underwater corridor.”
“Your Majesty knows it wasn’t stolen but fairly won,” Core responded. “It was war.”
Josich whirled on her. “Not stolen? Not stolen? The illegal attack on our embassy here is still a legend of deceit and dishonesty in Chalidang! Traitors to our grandfather alerted you, and you rushed in and killed the guard and seized it and dismantled it, trapping them forever on the other side! And then as your forces attacked and ransacked Chalidang, you took the Gate and dismantled it and scattered and hid it from anyone who might have reclaimed it! And when our grandfather and his party looked into it and saw Kalindan faces looking back, they knew they could not return! To return, one at a time, meant being slain serially by thieves and traitors! So, now, here it is, where foul Kalinda brought it, into the air where it was thought we could not go! And now it is ours once more, and from this time forever!”
” ‘Tis a grand speech you give, but what in blazes does the thing do, if I might be so bold?” O’Leary asked in a mock Irish brogue.
The eyes of the Empress snapped up to meet the Pyron’s. “So, serpent cop! We’ll see who laughs last. However, we are informed that you hold information for me. You were last in possession of our grandfather’s Gate, having stolen that from us after we had just paid a king’s ransom to get it back. Is it true that you had it in cargo inside your ship?”
O’Leary saw no reason to lie about it. “Actually, just in the aft compartment, not even fully in storage. That’s if they haven’t retrieved it by now.”
“They haven’t,” Wallinchky put in. “Anything parked there is still parked there, I can tell you that. Either that or the whole place is atoms now. The automated defense system installed there is the same one installed at Confederacy War Plans. And even without its charming personality, the computer will still function on all the necessary levels.”
“Good, good,” Josich responded, thinking. “And you did not disassemble it?”
“Madam, I did not even know that it could be disassembled,” the ex-cop responded honestly. “But it is lying on its side, I suspect.”
“No matter. General! Bring us the parts of the Straight Gate!”
There was precious little room for Mochida to be fully inside the meeting area, even with the tabletop removed, but his primary tentacles were long enough to pass the lightweight pieces to Josich, who took them.
Looking like nothing in particular in that condition, their form quickly became apparent under Josich’s knowledgeable assembly, the first two fitting into the grooves and holes in the base, then others fitting into each one.
When completed, it was a hexagonal-shaped frame atop the plain cream-colored base.
Jaysu frowned. “That’s it?” she said.
“That is all that is required, and it was hard won and gained with blood,” the Empress responded. “And now I will show you how to use it.”
The Empress of Chalidang moved right up to the device and placed her two primary tentacles out, one on each side.
There was no sound, no humming or crackling, no sudden lighting up and glowing of the entire machine, but suddenly the hexagon boundary was filled with the sight of something not anywhere on the Well World. It was neither a picture nor a projection; it appeared to be just on the other side of the thing if you reached through that hexagon.
Jules Wallinchky looked at the vision from his overhanging position, having moved closer to the door to get a better view. “Why, it’s my entrance hallway!”
“We, too, see a hallway on this side, but leading to a conventional airlock,” Josich noted. “This is not inside a police cruiser.”
“Somebody’s moved it!” O’Leary exclaimed. “They took it from my ship and brought it inside!”
“But who?” Wallinchky asked, sounding less confident. “The few people we left there couldn’t operate the airlock with the defenses on, and they wouldn’t have much use for that thing anyway.”
Josich turned and looked at Ming and An. “You! Do you always wish to be together as one, as you are now?”
The question was so out of context with what was going on that they were startled and answered honestly. “No.”
“All right, then, come up here. Roll up to the base here, darlings. Yes, just so. Now, if you can pull yourself up and go through, you will find yourself where you see. Go ahead. We do not fear you. There is nowhere you can really go in there, is there? Go ahead.”
We’re not gonna go very far in air only and with just arm power, either, Ming noted. Shes taking no chances.
Yeah, and what do we have to lose? And with that Ari rose from the wheelchair and, with a strong muscular push from the tail, launched them straight at the hex and its eerie vision beyond.
He didn’t quite make it, but managed to grab onto the base of the hexagonal opening as he toppled. Then, with one mighty pull, he pulled the body completely through the opening.
Type Forty-one reset, both of them heard from an eerie, emotionless, truly alien tone that was simultaneously in their minds.
There was a sense of extreme dizziness and disorienta-tion, and then they both fell onto the plush rug on Jules Wal-linchky’s world.
Ari picked himself up and said, “Hey! What . . . ?”
Ming did the same at almost the same instant. Then she rolled over, sat up and looked at him and started laughing.
“It still got it wrong!” she laughed.
They were separate people again, and Terrans as well. In fact, they were better than they’d left, for now each one of them had a body that looked as it did when it was in its late teens, perfectly healthy and as yet unabused.
The trouble was, Ming was looking at her sixteen-year-old body from Ari’s sixteen-year-old body, and he hers.
“Cheer up,” Ming laughed in Ari’s voice. “At least if we go nuts like this, we can go through the Well again!”