“Highly unlikely,” Core said, thinking things through rapidly. “They’re long-lived, but the royal family of the Hadun is more wedded to genealogy than the Chalidangers, and Josich was undisputed Emperor. No, he was born and raised in our native neck of the woods. But think of what we’ve said here—that this has been the object of many wars over time here and was almost a mystical legend. No, not Josich, but an ancestor. An ancestor who took the other one through but lost control of it, probably rather early, and was stuck. If he still did well on Ghoma, and if he passed down this knowledge, then the rulers of the Hadun may have been looking for this thing on their end for generations. Finally, somehow, somewhere, Jules Wallinchky found it for them, and it meant nothing to him. Perhaps he simply acquired it in one or another of his illegitimate or even legitimate businesses. He certainly exacted a tremendous price for it.”
“Perhaps too high a price,” Tann Nakitt noted. “Is there any word on him? I thought that if he’d lived we’d at least have heard that he’s alive.”
“Nothing, but that means little. Do not underestimate him. If he wanted to remain hidden, I believe he could do it, no matter what the complexity. And if he is alive out there, he’s definitely going to be madder than hell. At Josich, at us, at the whole universe, even as he would revel in starting off young and in perfect health again. With Kincaid also out there, we’d have three insane megalomaniacs running around loose, untroubled by morals, ethics, those sorts of things. No, for all our sakes, I certainly hope he did not survive, but I have always gone under the assumption that he’s out there somewhere. If he is, I do not want to meet him or speak to him.”
“Huh? Why not?”
“Because I was created as his slave. I did much that was evil in his name and by his orders because I could not disobey him. I have no idea if the programming string was snapped when I came here or not. Certainly he probably was and perhaps is unaware that I am what I am. But if he should find out, I have no way of testing whether I would be forced to be his unwilling slave once again.”
“We have word out all over,” the Ochoan ambassador assured Core. “If he’s out there, we’ll find him. All newcomers, no matter how capable, stick out for a little while, unless they become a creature immobile and alien enough to be incapable of becoming a threat.”
“Indeed? Then you know what Kincaid is?”
The ambassador hesitated a moment. “Yes, I do. And Chalidang will either dig it out or figure it out as well. Not that it will give Josich any comfort, but it may make her even more impatient and desperate. Kincaid is a hell of a threat to the Emperor, perhaps more than we are, but as they gain knowledge, they may be able to contain or even trap him.”
“So? What is he?” O’Leary and Nakitt asked almost as one.
“That remains a secret for now, in the hope that it will cause Chalidang to remain nervous for a while longer. Eventually they’ll figure it out, but until then it keeps them on their guard and perhaps throws them off. We made an agreement with Citizen Kincaid. He does no more revenge in Zone, and we few keep his secret.”
“You can’t trust his word,” O’Leary warned. “He’s a lunatic with only one mission in life.”
“He’ll keep his word to us. Otherwise, we’ll exchange his invisibility for a very large target and drop him at the Chalidang embassy.”
Abudan, Capital of Yabbo
NOW THAT WAS A RIDE! MlNG’S ENTHUSIASM WAS NOT MATCHED by Ari, who shared everything with her except her soul.
I feel like I’ve been beat up, stuck in a garbage disposal, and run through a grinder, Ari grumped.
The steam-powered cars had pretty obviously not been built for Kalindans, but even if they had been, he doubted that he’d have liked them. He had never been much for simulators, roller coasters, or anything else that wasn’t extremely comfortable. While he’d always understood why people like pilots had to go through stuff like that, he’d never understood why others thought people like him would enjoy such things just for laughs.
Party pooper! I sure won’t get any fun sharing a body with the likes of you!
Maybe not, but you’ll grow older and also keep your dinners down.
Traveling in the cars was like being packed into an aerated tin can and shot from point to point out of pressurized guns, and it was fast. Abudan, the capital city, was almost in the dead center of the hex, or roughly two hundred kilometers from the border. Under normal circumstances that was quite a swim. With all this murky soup they called water, it would have been several days of slow and miserable work. Now, here they were in only six hours, although the aches and pains were beginning to show.
Nor were they the only Kalindans to take this route. Possibly because of the slow going and low visibility, almost all the neighboring hexes seemed to use it. Since the Kalindans were fabricating and assembling a good deal of both the large and local systems, there were a lot of them around.
The city itself was huge, at least on the scale of Kalinda’s own capital of Jinkivar. It seemed even larger because it was low to the ground. Few buildings rose more than four stories, yet the population was approaching a million of the lobsterlike Yabbans. They were by no means reclusive, either, going to and fro in such great numbers that they seemed a steady stream filling the streets. They tended to keep to the bottom. Rising only as required allowed fish and related creatures who preferred swimming—a group that included Kalindans— the upper reaches.
Where are they going? Ari wondered.
Maybe it s rush hour, Ming responded, taken aback herself. The place seemed so damned busy, even by the most active and crowded of Terran standards, let alone Kalindan ones.
“First time in the city?” a voice asked them. They turned and saw a portly Kalindan with both a backpack and large travel case emerging from the station.
“Yes,” Ming responded. “It’s all so—overwhelming. What do they all do?”
The other laughed. “That is a question no one dares ask, not because it’s any mysterious plot but because one of them might stop and try and explain it all to you. I assure you, after that you will be totally confused. I think our translators and certain common traits involving commerce and trade blind us to the fact that all of us are truly alien species to the others. Cheer up! They’re friendly!”
She laughed. “I gathered that much.”
“Where are you staying? Do you know your way around the city?”
Ming hesitated. They had no plans. “We hadn’t really thought of it. The budget is tight, though.”
“I see! You young people! I suppose the parents decided while you waited for some university slot you should see a bit of the world, eh?”
“Something like that.” It was also hard getting used to having a teenager’s body—albeit a very different body than the ones they’d grown up in. The Well World essentially reset newcomers, not to a child—that would have insulted their intelligence and been another hurdle to handle—but as a postpubescent young adult. The others had been similarly deaged, as it were, although with a few races it was hard to tell.
“Well, this is certainly the direction in spite of the problems. Come with me! There’s a sort of Kalindan colony here under a filtered dome. I’ll take you there. If worse comes to worse, you won’t be the first or last to sleep at the top of the dome!”
They followed the Kalindan, wondering about the friendliness of their fellow country people.
I don’t remember folks back in Kalinda being all this friendly and helpful, Ari noted.
Me, neither. I have memories of being tossed around and locked up a lot. It might just be that we’re all in a foreign land, or it might be something else.
You think we’re being led?
Maybe. Or maybe both of us have just been in the undercover business too long. Either way, it gets us where we need to go.
“You lead and we’ll follow, Citizen . . . er?”
“Mitchuk. I’m an engineering technician specializing in epoxies.”
“Glues. Cements. Sealants. Things that stick to one another forever. You just rode one of the trains. Can you imagine what would happen if any of those seals had come apart in transit?”
You mean they didn’t? “Uh, yeah. I suppose. I never really thought about it.”
“Well, that’s the part of my job that’s both satisfying and a bit frustrating. I know if I did it right, lives are safe due to my work. Still, if I do it right, nobody ever notices the work, which is quite difficult and demanding. If you do it wrong, of course, you lose all that satisfaction and, well, you wind up heading the news in at least two hexes.”
Like the other Kalindans who worked in the hex, Mitchuk swam much faster and more confidently than they did, but they managed to keep up, going perhaps ten meters over the roofs of the tallest structures in the city and avoiding much of the mob below. The site of those vast hordes packed in and going this way and that on unknown missions reminded them less of underwater denizens than, again, of an insect colony. It was also noisy, but the din was steady and at a reasonable level. They quickly learned to tune it out.
They went right through the center of the city and found the only point where Yabbans weren’t densely packed. It was a large hexagonal building with a domelike roof. Even though they couldn’t see inside, they knew what had to be there. Just as in all the other hexes, there was a single large hexagonal opening of impenetrable dull black, made of nothing and built into nothing. It simply—existed.
The Zone Gate.
Passing through it or any Zone Gate would take denizens of the Well World to an entry point in South Zone appropriate for the life-form in terms of atmosphere, pressure, and so on. It would take them nowhere else, and the other Gates within South Zone—save the one to North Zone that only the experts dared—would bring them back home to their own hex through its Zone Gate.
They headed due south now. In the distance they could see a series of dome-shaped structures, clear as glass, even through the murk. The fact that there were several surprised them more than their existence; it might be understandable that Kalindans would be housed apart from the alien mob they did business with, if only for their own sanity, but what were the others? Most of them they couldn’t see through, and one was black as pitch.
“What are the other domes?” Ming called to Mitchuk.
“Oh, that’s Embassy Row, as it were,” their guide explained. “Most hexes don’t maintain in-hex consulates, but the Yabbans do so much business with other hexes that it is often easier to deal with basic things locally rather than go back and forth to and from Zone. It’s particularly expedient when some of the races are from far away, so that getting back here from Zone could present a real effort. In fact, we’re the only more or less local one there, thanks to the large number of people we have living here.”
It made sense, and also made them more curious about the ones they couldn’t see through. “What’s that blacked-out one over there?”
“Oh, that’s Bliston. They’re a kind of surly, paranoid bunch. I guess I would be, too, if my home were that close to Chalidang.”
Interesting. A blacked-out area controlled by somebody whose relatives were all near Chalidang could hardly be ignored. “What do they look like?” Ming asked their guide.
“Worms, sort of. Worms with hands on both ends. You’ll see. Everybody meets everybody over here occasionally.”
“What do they trade with the Yabbans?”
“I’m not quite sure. Some sort of unique chemicals that the Yabbans use for some of their agriculture, I believe. You can ask around, I suppose, if you’re that curious.”
They were, although it seemed an awful long way for Yabbo to go to get fertilizer.
Some of the other domes weren’t as transparent when they got up close. All had buildings inside them, but a few had structures that literally filled the domes so that, even though you could see inside the outer shell, you still had no idea what was going on beyond that.
There were a number of different races moving in the consulate area, none of whom looked familiar. There were large, colorful sea-horse-like creatures whose lower part ended in a kind of fanlike hand; octopuslike creatures with periscope eyes that popped up from the center of their body mass and seemed to be able to look any which way at once; and jellyfish things with semitransparent umbras showing large, complex brains as if through an X ray, and with varicolored tentacles hanging down. Ari suspected that the brain wasn’t nearly as exposed and vulnerable as it appeared, and that many of those hanging tentacles, so seemingly random, had specific purposes, from senses to defense.
Yeah, but a good bullet or spear in that brain would still do one of them in, Ming noted.
Maybe. But that can also be said of us, you know.
She hadn’t thought of that. Good to remember, if we feel the inclination to go poking into worms’ nests, Ming commented nervously.
Well, if they’re worms, they’ll probably just swallow us whole.
With hands at both ends, they’re probably master stranglers.
They now approached the largest and busiest of the domes—the Kalindan consulate—easily identified by both the home-style architecture and layout inside and the number of Kalindan shapes. The only unusual thing was the scarcity of garish multicolored electric lights; there were some, but they were muted, and powered by chemicals rather than electricity, which was not permitted here.
The fine series of mesh gates they went through served a number of purposes. The one that meant the most was that, quite startlingly, the water cleared, and much of the gunk and irritation that was in Yabbo’s seas vanished.
“We can’t do much about the infernal temperatures here,” Mitchuk told them, “but at least in here we can breathe. We had one devil of a time figuring out how to keep the water cleaned and aerated, but the system’s held up quite well. Most of our people come here as often as they can simply to get their heads cleared out.”
It was as if a tremendous tension was suddenly lifted once they were completely inside the consular dome; from breathing in short gasps they were now suddenly free to take in the water in a constant stream without getting clogged. Even their eyes no longer stung.
Inside, it was something of a mini-Kalindan town, complete with hotel, a Kalindan-style saloon, and even a restaurant, which seemed redundant, considering the nutrient-rich waters just outside. Still, they understood. Just because you could have all the plain yogurt and tofu you wanted didn’t mean you wouldn’t pay a fortune for a filet mignon. The sea life of Yabbo was the yogurt and tofu analogy, and Kalinda had something of a cuisine that dealt not only with presentation, but with spices and preparation.
Too bad we probably can’t eat in there, Ari said wistfully. I can just imagine what even a fillet of sagu on Mazurine grass costs in a place like this.
This wasn’t the first time the lack of any significant expense account got in their way, nor, they both knew, would it be the last. Still, they had a little money, and the saloon looked inviting both as a place to get something decent and also to get the lay of this new land.
“Will you join us below?” they asked Mitchuk, knowing they owed her but, financially, hoping she’d turn them down, which she did.
“No, no. I have much to do. I’ll need to be at the hotel for an appointment in less time than it will take me to do the other things. Go in, enjoy! Perhaps we’ll see each other later on!”
They watched her swim off, the long purple mane waving in the small currents.
She was never born a man, Ari commented. Not with those moves.
Yeah, I know. Bad enough to feel horny around here. Even worse when everybody’s suddenly the same sex. Frustrating.
There weren’t any drinks in a Kalindan bar, of course; the idea of drinking would be ludicrous to a water-breathing race. Still, the solids—created both from organic substances and by artificial ones—served the same purpose as alcoholic drinks and mild recreational drugs in their old Terran culture. You ate some. Others were put in the mouth and allowed to slowly dissolve while the drugs moved through the system and out the gill-like structures. They both knew how to use them, but they weren’t used to their particular effects, nor had they tried more than a fraction of them. More important, from their point of view, was knowing how to take one with minimal effect, or no effect at all. That was the real trick to getting information in a bar.
Day and night meant little in Kalinda, which was deep enough to find the change of light irrelevant. Yabbo was high, and the topside limit was close enough that there was a sense of the passage of time through the amount of available light. Even so, like all but a handful of underwater races, it was considered handy, not something one established a society around.
Still, like Kalinda, the Yabbans had fairly well-developed eyes, and thus they appreciated a reasonably well-lit area. With their semitech capabilities and rich volcanic sources of energy, they had a system of gas lights throughout the city that made it look exotic. Inside the Kalindan dome, though, these same gas jets, sealed in special ball lamps with only a source for the gas and a tiny bit of oxygenated air to enter, were used to illuminate the interiors. In the case of the bar, the large glowing orbs were all over the place, and yet gave it a dull, half-lit look and feel. It was good enough, particularly for a saloon.
It didn’t take them twenty seconds after entering the place to sense that something very odd was there as well.
Ari, there are Kalindan men here! Ming breathed. With a lot of sexual foolery going on, as there always was in places like this, the biochemistry of sex was easily smelled in the water.
So that’s what that is! Hey! No fair! We were supposed to be guys, too, remember?
More important, it means that whatever did the change in Kalinda is limited to the hex.. The guys here didn’t change.
Yeah, and I bet none of ’em are in any hurry to go back to home sweet home, either, Ari commented sourly. Still, I wonder if this means we’ll change back once we’re here?
Maybe, but I doubt it. I think that whatever you are when you leave home is what you stay. It sure means that these guys are havin’ a field day. All the replacements are female, no added competition.
Well, at least we know what’s turning us on, Ari commented. All those male hormones in this compact little place.
Yeah. I think maybe you should just relax and let me take control for a while, Ming suggested. At least I’m in my element here.
I’ll bet you are. I’ve seen you in action, although not exactly from this vantage point.
The bar was not crowded, but there were a dozen or so Kalindans—maybe five males, seven females. Ming wasn’t looking for just anyone; she had two categories of targets in mind, one for business, one pragmatic. The lonely and talkative sort would be useful for business; lonely and well-heeled would beat sleeping at the top of the dome if such a one were here and available.
Even back in the old days, when Ari was a male Terran and Ming a female, and with all the high-tech options for super sex without complications, it still often boiled down to a lonely man or woman in a bar far from home. The fact that she’d been a cop and he’d been an agent for a criminal organization was irrelevant; they both still had the same job, just different moral compasses.
It had been long enough since they’d seen a male Kalindan, and in fact male and female Kalindans didn’t look that different. The genitalia were essentially concealed until put into active use, as it were; both sexes had egg pouches that could be used to nurture an egg until it hatched; and both could nurse a new hatchling if the egg had been more than a few days in the pouch. But though other races couldn’t tell the sexes apart, there was no confusion among Kalindans.
Ming had barely begun to survey the field when a guy she’d hardly noticed drifted toward her with the clear intent of putting the moves on her.
“You are new here,” the man stated.
“Yes, new here, new in Yabbo,” Ming responded. “Does it show that much?”
“You are far too young to be here on any sort of work contract, and I know just about all the regulars and their families here. Nothing mysterious,” the man replied. “I am Kalimbuch. My official title is Deputy Consular Officer for Trade, which is a fancy way of saying that I am a government accountant. My job is to log the business we do, particularly the new business. I keep an eye on trade balances as well as, of course, ensuring that what gets into Kalinda is what we wish to get in, and what we wish to stay out stays out.”
Ming had a cover story ready, partially prepared by others back in Kalinda and then amplified by conversations and reactions with those they’d met on the way. “I am Mingchuk. I have passed all my exams and decided to travel while waiting for the university lists to open.”
“Ah! I thought as much! What district are you from?”
“Well, Jinkinar as much as anywhere. My family was military, and we were posted to different missions. In truth, I know more about some faraway places than I do my own native land and region, which is why I’m using the time this way.”
There. That should cover any slips on local families and geography. If anybody asked about some of the foreign hexes she’d visited with her “military adviser” parents, she could make up something convincing since she knew a lot of races from her previous life who had counterparts here. Chances were, nobody who asked about them would know truth from falsehood anyway.
“Most efficient use you could make,” Kalimbuch responded. “Might I buy you something as a welcoming libation, perhaps?”
“I—I’m just getting used to such things, having only come of age in the past month,” she responded demurely. “What would you suggest?”
“I know just the thing!” the consul responded, and floated over to the bar where a bored-looking Kalindan female stirred enough to take the order.
“A stuska,” Kalimbuch told her. “And my usual.”
Watch it, Ari cautioned her silently. Remember, I’m in the same body, so if this stuff screws you up I won’t be any help.
I think we can stand one or two of these. Most Kalindans can, and we’ve had some of this stuff before.
Neither of them knew what a stuska was, though.
The bartender came back with two containers, one with a pastel-blue spongy compound, the other a red-and-white-striped concoction that came on a stick. Kalimbuch gestured toward a table away from anyone else, and they drifted over to it and hovered there. Ming was surprised to find that the blue stuff was hers and the thing that looked like a confection was the consul’s. He stuck the thing in his mouth so that only the stick showed, sucking on it as he slowly breathed in the water. She wasn’t sure what to do with the blue stuff, and Kalimbuch quickly realized it.
“Apologies,” he said. “Just take a small piece and pop it in your mouth and chew. Swallow when it gets to be just a substance in the mouth giving nothing else off, and then take some more. It’s quite mild and very flavorful.”
She broke off a small piece, popped it in her mouth, and chewed on it slowly. At first it seemed to release a mostly sweet taste like licorice, but as it dissolved and went back through the gill area, it had a surprising, pleasant kick to it. This was something you went slow on if you didn’t want to get very high very fast.
“Now, then,” Kalimbuch said, settling in and appearing more relaxed, “you must tell me the latest news from Kalinda. As you might guess, it has been a while since I’ve been home. Frankly, the way things are going at the moment, it is hard to say when I can return. All Kalindan men are specifically prohibited from entering the nation.”
“It’s pretty bad,” Ming told him. “There are virtually no births left to go, and no men left to cause them. I hadn’t even known that any men failed to turn until we got here.”
“Well, it’s not much security even with that,” he replied. “I mean, there are about 3,500 Kalindans working throughout Yabbo, perhaps another like number in all the other hexes we send people to. Of those, perhaps a third are men, so it’s about 2,200 men for—what? Two million population back home? I assure you that when I was younger that kind of situation was a fantasy, but the hard reality is that it scares me to death. Scares all of us men, I fear. Those who went back before it was no longer allowed changed, and, apparently, it doesn’t take much time at all in the hex before it happens. We do what we can here, but these domes are not the best places to raise children, and Yabbo’s heavy soup can be dangerous to babies.
The Yabbans are sympathetic, but I’m sure they fear that we’ll be using their land as incubators, and they don’t like that idea at all. There is fear even now that the Yabbans may demand that we all get out if this—situation—continues.”
“Would they do that? I mean, they really need a lot of stuff that we can make and maintain. I’d think service on that steam pressure train and their message system alone—if we don’t service it or make the spare parts, who would?”
Ming took some more of the blue stuff. It was quite nice; it made the tiredness and aches and pains of the trip vanish and gave her a kind of nice buzz.
“Who indeed?” the consul replied. “The plans are now well-known, and any high-tech hex could fabricate the basics when they run out from the spares they have now, which, of course, is a good supply. We were essential once; now we are merely—convenient.”
“What do you think is causing the problem?” she asked him, guessing his thinking.
“Oh, there have been times within the historical record where this has happened in the past,” Kalimbuch pointed out.
She was surprised. “I hadn’t heard that. Everyone seems to think it’s a deep, dark plot.”
“It very well could be. Still, it has happened before. One of the survival traits of our species is our ability to change sex as the population needs dictate, although, of course, most of us never did. At times we grow in population until we have as many people as our nation can adequately feed and house and care for, even allowing for imports. We’re at that point, or close to it, now. When this happens, a shift to all female is quite pragmatic. It stops population growth, of course, but without interfering with any young already developing. When deaths begin to lower the population by attrition, things begin to slowly get back to normal.”
“Interesting. How does it work in other hexes? I’d guess they had to keep their population balanced as well.”
“Well, yes. Normally it’s simply a decline in the birth rate that keeps things on a fairly even level for them. Most don’t have our ability to change sex, and so controlling the birth rate is the only way to do it. One wonders how it would be done in the greater universe.”