“You really had hair this long?” Ari managed.
There was a sound between thunder and a hiss, and they both turned and their expressions faded. There was the mirror image of the Straight Gate, and, on the other side, Josich of Chalidang, looking less than amused.
“You now have a sample of the power of this device,” the Empress told them. “And we do not have to make you what you were, so please remember that. We did this as a demonstration of power and as a convenience to our purposes. If you want to be restored to your own bodies, and, particularly, if you want to get off that desolate rock in your next lifetime, you will do what I say.”
“What do you want us to do?” Ari asked her.
“Young nephew of Wallinchky, you know this compound. We wish you to survey it and check it out and ensure that it is still secure, that no one else is there, and you will try and determine how the Gate got to be where it was. The other will help you. When you find out things, send the other with a report, even a partial report. We will be waiting.”
Jules Wallinchky watched the whole thing in astonishment. This was better than he ever imagined, and his real problem was not letting Josich know it. Still, he couldn’t help commenting, “You could send me over. I could find out everything in there in minutes.”
“Yes, dear Jules, we are sure that you could, but we find you in person to be, well, a bit more like us than we expected, and we would not send us if our positions were reversed without a lot more need.”
Ming and Ari were happy to be out of sight of the monstrous creature, and happy as well to suddenly be individuals again after all this time, even if Josich had deliberately scrambled them.
“She might have made a mistake,” Ming commented. “If I could shut this down right now, it wouldn’t bother me at all to stay this way. Jeez! I was good-lookin’!”
“Before the past year and a half or so, I would have fought like hell against the idea, but frankly, right now I’d go along with it.” All of Ari was inside this new mind, but from the Kalindan time, when thoughts and even dreams were shared, there was a fair amount of Ming mixed in as well, and the reverse was also true, as they both knew. In fact, it was still fairly easy for both of them to know what the other one was thinking.
Ari went into the computer control center, which was also a very comfortable lounge, and while Ming dialed up some drinks from the old days, Ari sat at the console.
“Computer, Security Code Picasso Seven, Michelangelo Four-one, Titan Six-twelve,” Ari said to the console.
“Access denied,” the computer responded. “Invalid eye, hand, and voice print.”
“Argh! Ming, you’re going to have to do it. It’s looking for my body or Uncle Jules’s original one.”
Ming sipped on a favorite cocktail she’d long reconciled to never tasting again and handed another to Ari. She then sat down and, with his prompting, went through the same sequence.
“Access denied,” the computer responded. “Eye and hand information does not match voice print on file.”
Ming sighed. “I suppose we could sit here and try my acting abilities at getting the voice right, but I’m not sure we could. It can tell there’s something wrong with me. I think that’s what it was designed to do.”
“Right. Tell you what. I’m going to check on the old human staff area and see if they’ve been stuck here all this time or got polished off or managed to get out or what. I’ll meet you back at the thing in a few minutes. Okay?”
“Go ahead. I’m gonna finish my Zerian smokehouse here, and then I’ll head back up. Doesn’t taste quite the same as I remember it, but it’s still good enough. I think your taste buds aren’t as high-class as mine.”
“Says you,” Ari retorted, patting Ming on the behind, and then he was off.
Ming got up, walked around to the console, and saw in it a reflection of the young Ari’s body. “God!” she said aloud. “I’m back to being Terran again, I’m in a young guy’s sexy body who’s hung like a horse, and ten to one I’m gonna wind up back on the Well World turned into a fish.”
She put down the empty glass and walked back out into the hall. It was odd. She’d gotten so familiar with this place during her slavelike captivity that she knew it backward and forward, yet it didn’t seem quite right somehow. Oh, it was the same place, taken care of by the cleaning and maintenance systems, but there was something odd about it. Like a feeling of being watched. Almost like Core had never left.
She slowly walked back up to the Straight Gate, which looked precisely the same as the one she’d come through, and she could see Josich there, framed in the hex.
“Well?” Josich demanded.
“There is nothing to report. So far there is no sign of life, but also no sign of a breach of security. We can’t access the computers, though. The system won’t believe that I’m Ari or that Ari is me. That’s what you get for buying too good a security system.”
“There are overrides, but only from inside,” Wallinchky’s voice came to her. They all sounded odd, almost mechanical, unlike what she’d been used to. She realized then that the translator hadn’t come with them; she was speaking the old Confederacy speech and their translators were changing it and then translating back. Without a translator of your own, the voices did not convey nearly the nuances and emotions as when both speakers had them.
“You want to give me one? Or Ari? At least we can ask the computer what’s going on.”
“Give them one!” Josich snapped, but it wasn’t Wallinchky who answered, it was Core.
“Tell the system Emergency Priority Override Matthew Mark Moses Mohammed Stoke Da Vinci Rembrandt Rodin. Can you remember all that?”
“I’ll try.” She repeated it several times, making mistakes, but finally got it. She always had a knack for memory, even if it made no sense at all.
She ran back into the computer room, sat down at the console and repeated the entire string before she could screw it up. Even so, it took three tries before the computer announced, “Accepted. Instructions?”
“Computer, identify me as Ari Martinez y Palavri, record new voice print to match hand and eye.”
“Cross-link identity and accept female other as Ming Dawn Palavri y Martinez. Accept either as valid.”
“Computer, are there any Terrans or other races resident on this world or inside this compound at this time?”
“Six remaining staff members were extricated by escape capsule eleven months ago. Since then no others inside compound. A landing was made on the far side, but no attempt was made to breech the compound.”
“Computer, then who brought the device sitting in the hall inside the airlock to where it now sits?”
“From the ship docked at the airlock?”
“There is no ship docked at the airlock.”
“What!” Then, suddenly, she remembered. O’Leary had left the compound! He’d landed somewhere else and came upon them that way. But if O’Leary’s ship was down outside, on the surface somewhere, then . . .
She had a strange feeling about this all of a sudden.
Ari came back and looked in. “I went back to the Gate, but they said you’d gotten a code and come back here. There’s nobody here. Period. Uncle Jules had an escape pod even I didn’t know about, and the others took it. Whether they’re frozen stuff someplace or in custody or whatever, who knows?”
“I authorized both of us, but I don’t like this. At least we can access it if need be. That might give us an edge. I’d say let’s go report and tell them it’s all clear.”
There wasn’t much they could do, as usual. Dismantling the Gate on this side, assuming they could do it with Josich operating things, would only trap them there awaiting Josich and the rest, who would still be able to get there the hard way from the home world of the Ghoma, as much of a wreck as that world was now. And Jules, in a custom environment suit, could still bring the codes to access the place from space.
They still found it tempting, because it would probably take them years to get here, but there was something creepy about the place that hadn’t been there before, even when its creepy lord and master had been in charge.
“Codes need to be sent,” Josich said with irritation. “Our people must get through and dock. Once we have possession of both ends, we can come and go where we please and as anything whatsoever that we please. This time, though, we will remain on this side of the direct link, and thus control it. Wallinchky, you will have to set up things on the other side. We will need at least a limited water environment, like this embassy, on that side as well.”
“Are you kidding, Your Majesty? That would take a huge matter conversion! Not to mention preparing the tank and so on. It’s a barren asteroid.”
“Nevertheless, you can do it. Your equipment is capable of it. Must I send your former computer brains here back to do it for you?”
Core sat up straight. “No! You can kill me and be done with it, but I will not return to that machine!”
“Very well, then. You can advise us on what the computer there is capable of, and remain useful, or we can simply do away with you at this point. Choose!”
“It can be done. It will take a while, but it can be done. Easier if it’s done from that side, but it’s possible.”
“All right, Jules, then that is your task. Would you like to go home?”
“I am at Your Majesty’s command,” Wallinchky responded.
“Take the angel, the cop, and the traitor with you,” she commanded. “I do not wish to watch my back.”
Tann Nakitt looked up at her sharply. “I am no traitor! I had nothing to do with this! I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time! And I have no desire to go back there to that life.”
“Oh, yes. You’ve become a happy little whore.”
“You should know how that goes.”
A tentacle slapped the Ochoan so hard that it flung the little creature against the wall and almost knocked her cold.
“Go! All three of you! General, you and Core will remain with us here. And tell the guards to send in suitable food for the three of us!”
“At once, Majesty,” the General responded.
The Amboran stared at the hex and its scene and frowned. “I don’t—”
“Go ahead. You are of no use to me, but you are an unknown quantity even among your own people. For now, I would prefer you over there.”
Jaysu stepped up, uncertain, leaned down and stepped through, her wings clearing the boundaries.
Stepping out on the other side, she had not changed a bit, to her great relief.
Genghis O’Leary was next, and as he passed through the portal he heard that weird voice in his head say, Form reset, Type Two-two-one. And he fell out onto the carpeted floor of the redoubt, but no longer a Pyron. Instead, he was now a Kalindan, fish tail and dorsal and all, and laboring for air.
“That’s to keep you from getting into any mischief,” Josich told him. “You’ll find spending half your time in a bath and moving around dragging that body by your hands and arms will keep things even.”
Josich went over, picked up the still dizzy Nakitt from the floor, and shoved her through the opening.
Nakitt arrived as a Jerminin soldier, essentially a sexless bipedal antlike creature.
And finally there was Jules Wallinchky. “Why didn’t you change the angel?” he asked. “She’s dangerous.”
“But she’s fascinating, and as ignorant and empty-minded as any we have known. We could build an air-breather religion around such as her. It would make recruiting much easier. Now go. You have things to do, messages to send.”
“What are you going to make me?”
“Oh, nothing serious. Just a bit of incentive.”
The big spider didn’t like the idea, but he knew he had no choice. One shot into his body by any of those tentacles and he was history.
He very much wanted to be writing more history than being consigned to it, so he went.
And, like O’Leary, fell on his face. Only Jules Wallinchky wasn’t a Kalindan. The body was that of a mammal, and the fin was parallel to the torso, but the upper face and body were very, very Terranlike and female, in spite of the blue-green hair.
“Why did you do this to me?” he yelled back at Josich in a melodious female voice.
“You need water to survive in that dry, hostile atmosphere. We think this will give you an incentive not to stall,” the Empress responded. “The race, by the way, is called Umiau. In spite of appearances, the race is single-sexed.”
Jules Wallinchky rolled over on the floor and sighed. “Oh, great! This is gonna be one big pain in the ass. I still have an ass, don’t I?”
Ari looked at all of them. “What a mess! We came off best of the lot, it seems, except for . . . Hey! Where is Jaysu, anyway?”
They all looked around, and the angel-like creature was nowhere to be seen.
“There’s something very odd going on here,” Wallinchky said. “Find her!”
Back in the conference room on the Well World, Josich was feeling pretty good about things so far, but still insecure. “We wish we could move this to our own embassy,” she said, more to herself than to Core. “This is not a good situation, being in your territory. Fortunately, it should be necessary only for a few days, until proper security elsewhere can be arranged for it.”
“Oh? You are going to move it, then?”
“Yes, of course. But we need a situation like this, with both air and water-breather access, and it must be in Zone. We are arranging with an old ally for that situation. It will make life much easier.” She shifted uncomfortably. “I wonder what is keeping General Mochida?”
“Mochida will come and get his in his own good time,” said a deep, rasping voice from above. Both Core and Josich, startled, looked up, where a form emerged from the ceiling and ran down the wall before solidifying into a squared, humanoid-shaped creature with the texture of stone.
“What are you? How did you get in here?” Josich snapped.
“When you’re a plasma being, you can ride in,” the creature responded, “and that’s what I did. It was a simple agreement, one that was quite satisfactory to me. I get Josich, the Empress, in the hour of her great triumphant return to power, and he gets control of the device.”
“Kincaid! You’re Kincaid!”
“At last we meet, Josich, butcherer of worlds. Clever device, that.” He paused a moment. “Kalindan! You stay out of this! This is not your fight!”
“I am a statue,” Core responded, not at all sorry to be one.
“You can’t be here! Not here! Not now!”
“I am here and I have finally come for you, Josich. Go through the portal and they will cut your water recirculator off. Otherwise, come here and I’ll give you the same mercy that you gave my wife and daughters so long ago! God has allowed this, and I have kept His trust!”
Josich scrambled up onto the Gate with the intent of going through, but Core had never seen another being in air move as fast as Kincaid did, almost flowing at the speed of a cannon shot around the wall and striking the power pack and recircu-lators in the environment suit.
Water began to gush out of the suit, and as it did, Josich tried hard to grab Kincaid with any tentacles she could, but the creature retreated as fast as it had approached. In the meantime, Core had jumped forward out of the chair and now lay flat on the floor, wriggling to avoid Josich’s thrashing.
To Josich, the rupture of the suit environment was the same as being caught in a vacuum. Death came, but it came knowingly, and not nearly fast enough.
Core almost got caught by two of the flailing tentacles, but managed to avoid them, the suit saving the Kalindan from bad sucker burns. By the time she’d crawled enough to reach the door, Josich was over in one corner, the flailing and movement becoming progressively slower. As Jeremiah Wong Kincaid had vowed a very long time ago and half a universe away, he watched Josich shudder and the life in the eyes slowly fade as life seeped out of the big squidlike creature until it was gone.
Core managed to pull up to a sitting position and prop herself in the opposite corner. She looked over at the creature who’d just killed the monster of many worlds.
“Would you mind telling me just how you did it?”
“Oh, it wasn’t all that hard.”
“But they did a complete scan, and they knew what you were by then.”
“Right. And that is why I couldn’t come in as a simulation of someone else—everyone sort of knew everyone else in this, or at least somebody knew somebody, and their security was tight. So I came in au naturel, as it were, after the sweep. I came in with the rest.”
“What? How is that possible?”
“I came in on Wallinchky’s back, of course. You didn’t think he’d play second fiddle to Josich, did you? Or that Josich planned on letting him live any longer than he was needed to get Hadun ships down there to pick up the other Gate? So we made a deal. I was the only one who had both motive and a crack at getting to Josich, and he was the only way I could get in.”
“Just exchanging monsters,” Core told him, “and I don’t mean appearances.”
“I know what you mean. But Josich destroyed whole worlds and took from me all that I ever cared about. Wallinchky is a crime lord. He’s a miserable excuse for a person, but he’s kept his word to me.”
“Like he kept his word to Josich.”
Kincaid gave a wry chuckle. “Yes, that is a point, isn’t it?” He looked back over at the dead Josich. “You know, it’s funny. My whole life, my whole being, waking, sleeping, dreaming, has been for this moment. And now that it’s past, it seems like nothing at all.”
“Well, at least I believe you did more than avenge yourself here. I think you may have prevented crimes more heinous than those that drove you to this.”
“Perhaps. I would like to think so.”
“You can complete the task if you will disassemble that Gate and give me at least some of the pieces. It can’t be destroyed, but I think I can buy another thousand years, since with the other one, Wallinchky can only get back here.”
“I understand your position but I cannot do it.”
“What! Why not? Think, man! This in Wallinchky’s hands could make another Josich probable!”
“I gave my word and he gave his. And both of us have kept ours. I cannot betray him like that. I won’t help him, and in fact I will gladly take care of General Mochida on the way out, but the Gate stays up.”
The door opened then, and Mochida was there, carrying something in a box. He started to say, “Your Majesty—” suddenly saw Kincaid and the dead Empress, and with a speed that absolutely astounded Core, he dropped the box and shot backward to the balcony. When Kincaid came out, Mochida pulled a hidden pistol and fired point-blank at him. Kincaid moved with the same speed he had in the conference room. The shot went wide and hissed, melting a piece of wall just to the right of the door.
“Shit!” Mochida swore. Pivoting an eye, he saw the water entrance below, and leaped off the balcony and down to it. It was shallow and he hurt himself going in against the ramp, but he managed to get below while Kincaid was still moving toward him.
“Oh, well,” Kincaid sighed. “He wasn’t that important anyway.”
Core made it out the door in time to see Kincaid walk normally down the ramp and to the water’s edge, then take on a more aquatic shape and glide into the water himself.
The Kalindan punched a communicator. “This is Deputy Ambassador Core. Diplomatic immunity has been reextended to the upper embassy and it is now again a part of Kalinda and under Kalindan control. Please inform and remove all guards from foreign nations and get some people up here to clean up the mess. If they make any arguments, tell them that their Empress is dead, and part of the cause was Chalidang smuggling illegal weapons into our embassy in violation of our truce agreement. Then seal this place off!”
She then dragged herself back inside and tried to make it to the chair, to at least have some decent mobility. The Gate was still on, and she had to decide what to do with it next.
She was so deep in thought that she didn’t notice that she was no longer alone in the room.
“Quite satisfactory, I think,” said Jules Wallinchky. “I barely got myself propped up so I could watch the whole thing. Everybody but poor O’Leary was off chasing after the bird girl, who’s wandering around someplace. It was easy. O’Leary’s still trying to figure out how to move and breathe in that body with those pitiful protolungs of yours. Close go, not the way I figured it exactly, but it’ll do.”
Jules Wallinchky was a very young-looking man, but he was a man, and a Terran to boot. He had been a handsome fellow in his youth, even better looking than his nephew.