IT WAS A BLEAK LANDSCAPE, MORE LIKE THE SURFACE OF ANOTHER planet than any of the hexes he’d seen so far. The land was reds and yellows and purples, with distorted and menacing shadows. More disorienting was that there were no flat places; he was always going up or down. In some ways it reminded him of a frozen ocean in the midst of a storm.
There was water here, though not a lot of liquid on the surface. Beneath it, water was evident; and here and there on the taller hills and on the distant mountains there was plenty of glistening snow.
Then there was the wind.
It whistled through the cracks and crevices, the dips and valleys, always present, always singing its eerie songs. It actually interfered with his deceptively good hearing. More important, he could taste the wind. It brought him a great deal of information, but it was distorted, chopped up and mixed as things should never be mixed by the infinite number of paths that wind took before hitting him. It made the information less useful than he’d have liked.
Still, this was just the sort of place his own kind was good at operating in. Having eaten before entering this desolate hex, he had no particular need of food for perhaps a week or more. He could survive with what little moisture condensed at night on the rocks. His eyes could adjust almost instantly to the changing light from the land and its eerie and unnatural sunlight, or operate by the light of just a few stars.
In some ways Pyrons resembled nothing so much as giant cobras. Certainly the enormous head—with its exotic eyes and pulsating hood—gave that impression, and the tongue— with its added sensors that could literally taste the air and parse its odors—darted in and out as necessary. Beyond the hood, though, were a series of thin, tentaclelike arms ending in small serrated pincers, and along its back were two folded leathery appendages that seemed to be wings. In fact, Pyrons weren’t fliers, but could glide from heights if they had to. Their wings were primarily repositories for even more specialized sensory organs, and also had the ability to gather and amplify sounds from very far off. Under optimum conditions, he could receive certain signals specific to him across an entire hex, even if that hex were Pyron itself and filled with millions of his kind receiving similar signals.
He had the wings folded now because the windy conditions here made them more trouble than they were worth. His people had a listening post just inside Quislon that he could use for a help call or to report what he could if he himself was unable to make it back. They would send anything new to him at a prearranged time of day, but that was the limit of his technological abilities here. Pyron was a semitech hex in which only what could be directly powered was allowed. The technology here was very basic indeed. If they had anything as advanced as waterwheels, they were buried well underground, although now and again he’d come across a windmill, apparently pumping water up to usable levels.
The Quislonians didn’t much show themselves on this bleak surface, either, although in areas of dense population one could see their pyramids of stone, brick, or mud. The natives had to spend a good deal of time building and maintaining the structures—some of which were impressive in size, but all of which were under constant attack from weathering. He’d seen little activity around, but he could occasionally hear them when going over the ground around a group of pyramids. They made rustling and chattering high-pitched sounds. It seemed as if, just below him, there was a constant rush hour.
Maybe there was. His briefing books said the Quislonians resembled an insectlike hive society, although unlike any he’d ever known. He was assured that a single Quislonian, while remaining part of the collective hive, could still converse on things like the weather or the state of the world’s economy. It was just impossible to be sure if he were indeed talking to an individual or to all of them.
Yet that sort of thing wasn’t uncommon among all the races of the Well World he’d been in contact with, including his own. He had found the superficial civilization fairly straightforward, but just below the surface there were whole layers of culture and belief systems that he hadn’t grasped or been given access to yet.
The Pyrons were individuals, bisexual, and, despite their appearance, warm-blooded. He didn’t feel they were nearly as alien as these people.
The pyramids sure weren’t the kind he’d seen on a hundred worlds where critters instinctively built structures from natural elements as homes or forts. No, the Quislonians clearly built these as buildings. However, since their whole city structure was underground, they couldn’t be using them the same way other folks did. Although the structures were similar, each one had something individualistic about it. He’d not seen two exactly the same.
Occasionally the top stone would be left off, creating a small flat top; other times there would be a small square or rectangular or triangular building on it. They were made of different materials and used planned color schemes, often with what were, to him, abstract designs on their sides. There were step types, blocky types, smooth types. The best guess from those who’d sent him was that each represented a family or clan or perhaps a complete tribe within the city.
Perhaps each represented a single mass mind within a hive?
That would make the place he was moving into now the home of maybe tens of thousands of Quislonians but only. . . hmmm . . . one, two, three, four—seven “individuals”? Interesting idea, if true. It still amazed him that, after all the hundreds of thousands of years since this world had been built by the Ancients, there were any questions at all about other races and cultures, let alone ones that were neighbors. Of course, Pyron and Quislon hadn’t exactly been friendly for much of that time.
The Quislonians, it seemed, made excellent one-course dinners for the Pyrons.
That, of course, was in the past. Everybody was so civilized now. Still, he could understand why Quislonians never felt completely comfortable around the Pyrons, and why, therefore, he was out here in the middle of nowhere all alone instead of with local experts.
If he were some sort of throwback, he might swallow a few dozen of them, but they would overwhelm him. When predator seeks an accommodation with past prey, it’s always essential that the former prey at least feel that they have the advantage.
The more he got in among the buildings, the more he realized how large a complex this particular one was. His pyramid count had been shockingly low; coming over a rise, he saw the tops of all sorts of pyramids going out in all directions as far as he could see, flanking a huge mountain right in the center of things.
It appeared to be the remnants of some ancient volcanic extrusion; it was coal-black in a land of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples, and it was a solitary behemoth, rising perhaps nine hundred meters into the sky and stretching out for several kilometers at its base. Although rough-hewn and irregular after being weathered for so long, it kept the vague shape of a pyramid. Whether it had been carved by the labor of millions or it simply had weathered into its current form was impossible to guess, but it gave an idea as to why the shape so dominated here.
There were higher if more conventional mountains in the ranges to the north and to the west, but this was the sort of freak of nature that started religions in places. His briefings said it was called simply the Center, and that somewhere at its base was the Quislon Zone Gate going right into it. Now that’s one to give a shaman power!
Somewhere here, too, was a sacred relic, something these creatures venerated as much or more than the pyramids and the Center. Nobody knew why they thought it was sacred, but it always translated that way, with awe and veneration attached.
How did one disguised in the shape of a past enemy gain information about such a venerated object? He wasn’t sure. He only knew that agents of the Chalidang had been sparing no expense on research in Zone and elsewhere to find things that appeared to resemble what the old records said was the Quislon sacred object. He had to find out just what this meant before the forces so recently defeated could regroup and move on it.
There wasn’t much else to do. Guessing that the three major finishes of pyramids represented specific classes or castes, and that, from the elaborateness of the side designs, smooth outranked rough or steep, he chose the largest tall, smooth, ornate pyramid he could find closest to the sacred mountain. He circled around, using all his senses, spreading his wings for the first time to use everything in his arsenal. After a few minutes he sensed a thermal difference between the rest of the pyramid and the outside air at ground level. There were other such spots all over the place, which probably were vents of some sort, but this one was different. This one, he was positive, had to be a door.
It was shaped like a hexagon.
There seemed nothing else to do. Moving up to it, Genghis O’Leary extended one of his long, thin arms and knocked as hard as he could.
He felt a little foolish doing so; the surface of the pyramid looked and felt like any of the other pieces of polished rock used to sheath the exterior, although it was well off center. The only reason he thought it might be a disguised door was the thermal pattern. Even if it was, who could hear a knock like this on that kind of rock? He was pretty good at crushing, but those old jackhammer fists were history, left with wherever his old body might be, if it was at all.
He could hear, though, that they knew he was out here. Most likely they had some sort of system that had kept him under observation ever since he entered this place, waiting to see what he was going to do. He counted on it, in fact.
There was a pause, as he’d also expected. More rustling went under him and up and into the pyramid’s base. The stone seemed to jiggle, then it moved. In an elaborate groove system. It was pulled in and slid into a carved notch in the much thicker stone to his right. There was a sudden blast of warm air, and a Quislonian emerged from the apparent darkness beyond.
It stood about a meter high on all six legs. Its color was an unremarkable pinkish-gray, its skin or possibly soft exoskele-ton had a smooth and slightly wet look to it. Its head was on a retractable neck that appeared to be able to turn most of the way around and rise from a notch in the body—elevating the head another thirty or so centimeters or leaving it facing forward as an extension of the body. It was no beauty: there were four horns, two long, two short, atop an oval mouth that seemed to have wriggling worms where teeth might be, constantly in motion and dripping some kind of wet ooze. O’Leary wasn’t at all certain whether two of the soft horns were eyes and two ears. In the end, except for the sake of politeness, it didn’t really matter.
“What brings you here, Pyron?” the creature asked.
He saw nothing extra move, nor heard much in the way of background sounds save a kind of modulated hum, so he wasn’t sure just how these things spoke, either. If they were group minds, it probably didn’t matter anyway.
“I’m sorry to intrude, but you leave your embassy empty at Zone, giving us no choice but to enter your land to speak with you,” he responded, trying to seem calm and natural. He had the sense and sounds of thousands of these things lurking all around him, not just in the pyramids but also just beneath his feet. They were certainly burrowers and tunnelers. Although he’d had these sensations to one degree or another during the two days traveling here, the danger to him never seemed as acute as it did now. He hadn’t felt this nervous since the night he’d arrested the Commonwealth Security Minister in his own office.
“We have no need for much contact with the outside, and when we do, we initiate it,” the creature responded.
“You are aware of the war just fought to the west of here?”
“We are. It is none of our concern.”
He took a deep breath. “I’m afraid it is. We have been monitoring the communications of the Chalidang Alliance. While much of it is in codes we can’t decipher, we have been able to deduce patterns in their communications that correspond to activities by their agents elsewhere. Recently, a good deal of interest has been shown in Quislon.”
“Deduced, you say. Nothing more?”
“We are good at our jobs, and some of the finest minds on this world are working on this, aided by the most capable computing devices. Even with some subterfuge to confuse us, we feel confident that they are looking very closely at—at a minimum—Quislon, Sanafe, Pegiri, and Regeis. Do you or anyone in your own authorities know why those four radically different hexes would be of interest to Chalidang? Two land, two sea, none close, none the slightest bit related to one another; the only connection we can find is the not very remarkable fact that none are high-tech hexes.”
The Quislonian froze for several seconds, as if thinking or, perhaps, discussing this with others through some kind of link. It startled O’Leary by suddenly extruding two rather hard and mean-looking arms from inside its wriggling mouth. At the end of each of the arms was a series of tiny suckers on softer tissue that extended from the harder mandibles. The Pyron watched in surprise as the creature seemed to begin spitting into the two small tentacles. As it did so, it upchucked a gummy substance which the mandibles furiously shaped and manipulated in a way too fast and too complex to see. Still, between the two softer “fingers,” or whatever they were, there quickly grew, well. . .
A rock. No, not a rock. A slate. A slate as smooth and as polished as the sides of this particular pyramid. And on the slate, with sounds like glass cutters at work, the thing was drawing.
It was finished in just a few minutes, but held it carefully. The slate was drying out fast, but still seemed fragile and a bit wet. The Quislonian turned it around.
The drawing, as precise as any blueprint or engineering drawing O’Leary had ever seen, was of a structure that resembled an old-fashioned mirror or faceless clock, or an award one’s superiors gave in lieu of a bonus—an antique, ornate-looking frame sitting atop a neo-Victorian rectangular base. About the only thing that seemed to relate it to the Well World was that the center part was hexagonal.
“Have any of your people seen this?” the Quislonian asked.
“I do not believe so,” he told the creature honestly. “What is it?”
“It is the most sacred relic of all that has remained in this world,” the creature replied. “You take this drawing back to your people working in Zone and tell them that this is the link. If they do not know it and cannot find it in the records, then all is lost anyway as far as you doing anything with or about it. The Chalidangers know. They say that it is theirs, but it is not. They say that one of their own created it, but that is not true. It was never supposed to exist here in the first place. Note the scoring on it.”
O’Leary bent down and looked at it closely. “It seems to have—oh, nine pieces, from your scoring.”
“Eight. The contents of the hexagon are not, properly speaking, a piece of it. It appears that we are more involved than we believed. We would suggest that you do not show this around where the enemy might see it, but keep it within your circle. Place it in your pack—it is now hard enough and will not break—and show it only to those at the very top of your own alliance of whom you are absolutely certain. If they are as wise as you say, then they will know what to do.”
O’Leary reached out and took the slate, which had a substantial rocklike feel to it and was surprisingly heavy. He placed it in his backpack without looking, confident that its weight and the fact that it was between his supplies and his back protected it as well as it could be.
“What about you?” he asked. “If you are now more involved in this matter than you previously believed, you cannot go it alone. This is a very long reach for them, but they have the power and they are utterly ruthless.”
“Yes. We know. This is not a matter of instant conversion, nor does it demand immediate answers. We will confer among ourselves and then let you know. Is Pyron coordinating this?”
“Um, no. The Kalindan embassy is the center of much of it, although Kalinda itself is not considered secure. It is best to deal with the Ochoan embassy if possible, as they have just fought a costly and bloody war with these people and defeated them. I would suspect that there is not an Ochoan who did not lose someone in it, and that makes them very secure indeed. Yes, I’d say that would be the best bet. Communicate through the Ochoans. They will ensure that whatever is said is secure and that it reaches only those who we are certain of.”
“So be it. We shall be in touch. We shall also begin checking daily for urgent messages at the embassy courier drop at the Zone Gate.”
And alien species won’t have to be walking all over our land, he thought knowingly. These folks did not like visitors, and clearly resented his presence even though he brought them vital information. He wouldn’t do it himself, for ethical reasons, but he was beginning to see why it was so easy for the Pyrons in the past to eat these slimy characters rather than talk to them.
“I’ll report in and drop this sketch right away, if I may use your Zone Gate,” he told them.
There was another pause, and he could have sworn he almost heard, in his head, a kind of collective gasp when he asked this. A Pyron! At the sacred mountain!
He wasn’t sure if it was a real reaction he’d “heard” or simply something he was sensing in the creature’s tone and reactions stemming from his long years as a detective. Funny, though. He would never have thought of a collective mind as religious.
Still, it might be time to show off a little and see if he could put them at ease.
“I was not born of Pyron,” he told the creature. “I am relatively new here, in fact. I came from a different race and perhaps a different galaxy—it is impossible for me to know how far—through the gateway of the Ancient Ones. I had no choice of race to become.”
He wasn’t sure if that would mean anything to them, or be relevant, but he thought it might make him seem less like the old menace.
It did seem to have an effect.
“No Pyron has any choice of what race it is,” the Quislon-ian noted. “Any more than we do. Still, your point is that you are not born of the Well World?”
“Not originally. Nor of this race.”
“We have heard of such, but have never seen one. That explains why your manner and auras differ somewhat from the rest of your kind. There are more of you in this?”
“Yes. Many of us came in at once, from the same cause, and we are all involved in this to one degree or another. I am the only one who became a Pyron. We are the ones we trust.”
“Most interesting. Was one of you of Chalidang?”
That surprised him. “No, not of us, although it is true that some of Chalidang came in ahead of us and we were in a way chasing them. They were our enemies then, and they remain our enemies now.”
“There was a vibration, a sympathetic reaction in—never mind. It is becoming clearer now, and much more dangerous than it was even moments ago. We have decided you must be allowed the use of the Gate this once. Not because you are our friend or ally, but because we have the same enemy above all others. Tell us, out of curiosity—are you religious? Do you believe in the forces of good and evil in conflict?”
It was an odd question. “I was raised that way, yes. I’ve seen so much and learned so much that it grows more and more difficult to keep the faith of my fathers real in my mind.” It was the most honest he’d ever been with anybody on that subject.
“Know this, then. There may or may not be gods beyond those who created this world and what is upon it. That is unknowable and often beside the point. But there is a creature of pure evil, and you are pursuing that creature now. Do not take it lightly. It has destroyed far greater than any of us over the millennia. It may even be the force that drove the Makers— those you call the Ancient Ones—insane. That is the enemy we face. We call it the Heart of Evil. Your associates will not believe in the Heart, nor will they accept what we say as anything other than silly mysticism, but we must tell you anyway.”
It was an odd turn in the conversation, and it was getting cold and dark. Still, he had to humor them. “Then you’re saying that your belief is that there isn’t a Heaven but there is most certainly a Hell?”
“Not at all. We know nothing of Heaven, if it exists, but we know Hell. This is Hell, and if we do not constantly fight its ruler, we shall be consumed by it. He’s been away, possibly in your area of the universe, for a few thousand years, but he is back here now. We sensed it but did not recognize it without the added facts. You think us mad or quaint or worse, we know, but it does not matter. You are chosen as an instrument, as our people were who fought it long ago. Before this is done, you will know who is mad. You will know.” It paused for a moment, then said, in a very different tone, “Now, come. We will escort you to the Gate, explaining the situation as we go to those guardians farther in. Please do not hesitate and do exactly what we tell you. We assure you that your life depends on it, and we now require that you take that message to your people.”
“You lead, I’ll follow,” he promised, anxious to get out of this cold and spooky place.
Josich as the Devil? There were probably millions who thought so back home, considering all he’d done and the number of lives he’d taken, and he wasn’t very popular on this side by now, either. But—the Devil?
Still, who else could have come in here and wound up ruling an empire and running wars in so short a time?
No, no! Get that crap out of your mind, O’Leary! he told himself. A conqueror, yes. A thinking monster, certainly, in the tradition of all those who’d come before, but just a person. Just another brilliant megalomaniac. Josich can be killed.
But you couldn’t kill the Devil . . .
Ochoan Embassy, Zone
“IT IS AN ANCIENT SACRED SYMBOL,” THE OCHOAN AMBASSADOR told the assembled group, “but it is of no particular significance as far as I know. It’s not sacred to us, certainly, and it is unknown or forgotten by most of the races on the Well World, as far as I can tell.”
“Except,” Core responded, “that it remains something of a sacred symbol to Chalidang, and also to the Sanafe, Regeis, and Pegiri, and, it appears, to Quislon. Sound familiar?”
“But what does that mean, except that Josich and his people are superstitious and want all the gods on their side?” Tann Nakitt asked them. “They attacked us, not any of those others!”
“Ah! But look at the map,” Core came back. “Halfway to Quislon, it’s true, but only one hex from Sanafe. They’re still moving, both by land and sea, for a move from the south, most likely on Kalinda, which is just off Sanafe and which, coincidentally, has islands for anchorages—the only other hex in that part of the ocean that does.”
“But how come there is no noticeable movement against Pegiri or Regeis, both of which are closer and easier to strike?” O’Leary asked.
“The Regeis ambassador is doing everything possible to keep that armed camp to his north looking anywhere but south,” the ambassador sniffed. “They are also not terribly religious.”
“Don’t be too hard on them,” Core told him. “After all, they’re rather mild-mannered creatures that drift around in free floating water. Their colonies wouldn’t last ten minutes against even a small Chalidang force, particularly if Josich didn’t feed her troops for a couple of days. They don’t really have the design to fight, let alone the temperament. As for the Pegiri, well, I get the strong impression that they will be very friendly and do anything for any force they think it’s in their interest to be friendly with. They’re belligerent and a little nasty themselves, but more blowhards than real troopers. They’d love to march in as occupation troops behind the Chalidang Alliance so long as they don’t have to fight hard to take it. Those aren’t exactly folks who think of much as sacred,either.”
O’Leary hissed impatiently. Finally he asked, “But does anybody know just what the devil the thing is?”
There was a pause, and then Core said, “It’s called the Straight Gate. In the areas where it is known at all, it has the elements of all the mystical objects of past civilizations. Ex-caliber, the Lost Ark, the Black Stone of Karnath, that sort of thing. Wars have been fought to possess it before, and that seems to be what we have here now. It disassembles into these eight sections. They are scattered or hidden so nobody can put them together again and have all the magic powers from the assembled unit.”
“Well, yes, but it seems to me you’re overlookin’ one major problem,” the Pyron detective noted.
“You can’t find Excaliber, if it exists or existed. If the Lost Ark’s real, it’s still hid beyond anyone’s knowledge but God’s. The Black Stone of Karnath might be real, except nobody knows where Karnath is, or even what planet it was supposed to be on. This, on the other hand, appears to be real. Get the pieces and you can build it. That’s a heap of difference from some mythical magical totems. I’d say this thing was a myth based on a real gadget, and who knows what the gadget will do?”
Tann Nakitt stared at the diagram intently. “There’s more than that,” she commented.
“What, my little friend?” O’Leary asked.
“You’ve seen it. Or one like it. I didn’t exactly see it, but I saw its picture.”
“Indeed? In Ochoa? That is fascinating!”
“No, not in Ochoa. Not on the Well World. Think back, O’Leary. You were part of the raid on Josich’s setup back in the Commonwealth. Fill it in. Make the frame a sort of ebony finish, the base black textured marble, and the internal hex some kind of lens, or glassy covering.”
“They said that the hex wasn’t filled—oh, my God!”
“What is the problem, you two?” Core asked curtly, disliking any situation where others had knowledge it did not.
“Josich was playin’ with it when we staged the raid! They were settin’ it up on that dead Ancients’ world when we surprised ’em!”
Nakitt nodded. “And I’m certain that if you showed this to Ming and Ari they would confirm it. They may well have seen it, too. It’s the thing that Jules Wallinchky sold to Josich for the jewels.”
There was a stunned silence. Then Core asked, “But how can that be? The thing can’t be back in the Commonwealth and also here. Besides, why do I have no record of it in my own memory? I handled the background for all of Wallinchky’s dealings.”
“This was barter, and, I suspect, not in your records since you were a fixed unit at the time,” O’Leary told the ex-computer. “You might think back and see that you got those fabulous jewels into inventory with no record of outgo for them.”
“Hmmm . . . You’re right. Still, I had the womens’ memories in storage, even Ming’s. Curious.”
“I doubt if your brain now holds a fraction of the data it once did, as impressive as you are,” O’Leary told it. “Either that or it was information protected even from you without perhaps your boss’s personal codes. It’s not important. The important thing is, what the devil is something venerated here doin’ way back there?”
Once Core accepted as fact that he didn’t know everything, even about Wallinchky’s criminal empire, he was back on a solid mental track. “It wasn’t,” she said. “What you saw cannot be the same thing as Josich is now trying to assemble here, because Josich knows it’s back there. And if we accept that the eight pieces as we see them here are still on the Well World—as I think we must, considering this drawing and the spare-no-resources effort to locate and obtain them—then the obvious conclusion is that there are at least two of them. This device is not a device in and of itself, but only one part of a device. Consider the name.”
“The Straight Gate?”
“Indeed. And a named gate, in the traditions of this world, is a kind of transportation device. You go in one gate, you come out another gate. We all got here that way. We assumed that all of Josich’s entourage got here the same way.”
“We know they did!” O’Leary told her. “We saw it, and had it on video.”
“Indeed? And you saw what you were trained to see. You saw the ancient Gate activated, as ours was, and you saw it transport the others to the entry area here in South Zone. They were all Ghomas, which here are called Chalidang, yet only one remained so, and that was Josich.”
“You’re saying that Josich didn’t come in the same way? That he jumped through this Straight Gate instead?”
“I believe he did, yes.”
“But he still changed sex when deployed on this world,” Nakitt stubbornly pointed out.
“Indeed he did, because he only had one Gate. It stabilized his race, but since he came in through the default entry area, he was added to the population, as it were, as the Well required. Suppose, though, he had the other Straight Gate here assembled, powered up, whatever? If just using one of them can force the system to maintain your racial makeup, then what might two do? Consider the name. Straight Gate. Straight through from any point where you have one end, to any point on this world where you have the other. Your own personal Zone Gate, only you can also use it to go back and forth to your colony home out there among the stars.” Even Core was thunderstruck by the concept.
“We said from the start that Josich seemed to know a powerful lot more than he should have about the Well World, the Chalidang, and such,” O’Leary noted. “You don’t suppose he was originally from here, do you?”