“I mean, out there, among the stars. I know there are civilizations out there—some of them fall into Gates and wind up here. But they’re not under the control of a computer-regulated biosphere. I wonder how they control their population, that’s all.”
She laughed. “They don’t. Some of them just keep over-populating until famine and war and disease pare them down, and others have been known to virtually die out because they stop reproducing at all.” It was only after she said this that she realized it was information she shouldn’t have known. So much for undercover. It had to be this blue stuff . . .
“Indeed? And how do you know this?”
She tried to clear away the brain fog and recover. “We had two outsiders appear as Kalindans not long ago, and my parents were among those who had to evaluate them and where they would fit into our society. I had a chance to talk to them myself. A lot of chances, really, since they were held for so long by the security forces because they didn’t know what to do with them. Just hearing about their worlds made it clear that things go their own way out there.”
Quick thinking, Ari told her. Wonder if he’ll buy it?
Kalimbuch made a face. “How terrible to live like that! It makes situations like the one we’re now in bearable, knowing that the Well will correct things over time. Life is chaotic enough for all that here; I can’t imagine adding more randomness to life.”
She shrugged. “I dunno. This world was set up to develop and test races for real places out there, and, I mean, there has to be some reason for intelligence.”
“Well, think about it. Most species aren’t really intelligent, let alone civilized. It’s all just food-chain stuff. Why are we smart? Why do we build cities, create all sorts of projects and all that? I mean, if the idea is just to keep the race going, then giving us sharp teeth and nasty dispositions would be enough.
Intelligence, too, is a survival trait. I’m not sure we’d ever have developed it on our own in Kalinda, but it’s obviously needed on the world the Makers were intending to send us to. You’ve got to figure that the home world out there was a pretty mean place if we had to develop the smarts and tools and weapons and all to make it. Of course, I wonder if we did?”
“Make it. I mean, have you ever heard of any of our kind coming here from the stars? You’ve got to wonder if our kind made it out there even with the smarts.”
Kalimbuch thought a moment. “There were stories, tales, but no, I can’t recall anyone who have come through resembling us.” It struck him then what she’d been saying. “Oh, my goodness! Then we—we might be it for our people!”
“Exactly. You never know, though. My parents said that far fewer water breathers came through than gas breathers by maybe four or five to one. They just might not have developed spaceships yet.”
“Urn, yes. I suspect you’re going to give them fits at university. Providing you get there, of course.”
She suddenly tensed, in spite of the mild drug. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, our instructions are that all female Kalindans outside of the country are to remain outside, and that it is every Kalindan’s duty to bear children, particularly males. That means remaining outside for the term. Perhaps longer. That’s what the Yabbans are worried about, you see.”
“You mean we won’t be allowed back? But that’s absurd! We came from the border only a day ago and there was a lot of cross-border traffic!”
“Yes, but official business, including commerce, must continue even in the emergency. For females, this applies primarily to those who are not here on a governmental or commercial mission or who aren’t essential to one. Like you, in fact. Our government states that it is your patriotic duty to copulate and bear young outside of the hex. It is for the preservation of our race and culture.”
“I thought you just finished telling me this was a natural occurrence!”
“Perhaps it is. I do not make these decisions. I merely am here to help pass them along and, if need be, enforce them.”
Now, that was the damnedest, boldest pickup line I ever got in my whole life! Ming said mentally to Ari after she managed to act shocked and shy enough to get away from the consul on the make.
They were now up high, at the top of the dome, where the folks without money for comfort could stay, kind of like a public park.
I’m not sure it was a line, Ari told her. We saw a number of women in and around here since then, and I’ve yet to see one who’s not carrying an egg or a kid.
You’re joking! I’m not patriotic enough for that yet, I can tell you!
Well, neither am I, although neither of us are anything like virgins.
We are in this body!
Well, yeah, but we’re still old pros, let’s face it. No, I been thinking that maybe we got this assignment all wrong.
Huh? You mean they sent us over here to get knocked up and stuck being Mommy?
Yeah, more or less. Core’s bottled up in Zone but also isolated from the hex and what’s going on there. We were the ones with the contacts in other hexes, the added agenda, and the ability to talk to folks outside Kalinda if somebody was pulling a fast one. Get us stuck over here hatching kids, and you pretty well neutralized us, didn’t you?
Ming thought about that one for a while. So what could we do, really, to spoil anybody s takeover? We’re still the outsiders.
I don’t know, but somebody thinks we’re a danger to them. Be interesting to find out who and why.
Well, that answer’s not here, it’s back home. And do you want to stick around as a target for every guy on the make who hangs around here? Particularly when they’ll all soon be waving papers from home and crying that romantic ballad, “Duty to the race!”
Ari found that idea both amusing and frightening. No, I don’t, but we have to consider that the other things we discussed earlier today with our diplomaniac was exactly what Core asked us to spot, look into, and report. The Yabbans aren’t going to seriously piss us off if they can avoid it—we’re next door, and will be next month and next year. They’d try and make deals with us. The fact that the consul felt they might be ready to take a hike means they already have set up alternate supplies or felt that they would still be able to get what they needed from Kalinda no matter what they said and did. And the only reason they would do that is if they thought we were already toast. Like it or not, here is where the first part of the job is for us. We’re stuck, at least until we can get some answers.
Great, she sighed. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Well, okay, let s get some sleep, then. We’re gonna have to be in great shape to outrun the guys and still be in decent enough condition to snoop.
figures rose out of the water like ancient gods ready to stalk the land. They moved silently and swiftly for such apparently massive creatures, oblivious to the air and the darkness, then through the gentle surf and onto the land in tight formation.
The region was called the Barrens by the natives, not because it was truly so, but because the thick growths and fetid shallows and mud made it useless for anything productive.
These newcomers from out of the sea were not natives, but they knew just where they were, and they were prepared for the grim land beyond.
Just a few steps onto the driftwood-strewn beach they fanned out and then stopped, and there was a great deal of hissing from them. Thick arms came up and pressed studs that broke seals. They stepped out of their suits, which had ceased to function when they crossed the true border from Baisatz into Pegiri, and thus had also passed from high-tech to the more restrictive semitech conditions.
The creatures still had a kind of artificial look to them even without any external wear; dark, blocky shapes with artistic designs for faces drawn in broad strokes of dull gold against black. The skin was actually leathery if touched, and the golden design was as much decorative as it seemed, although there was speculation that it had a role in courtship and mating back in the long-ago times of its creation. Now it served as misdirection, so that most observers would never notice the deeply set black eyes or slitlike ears, nor its black-lined mouth. Breathing was through a blowhole near the top of the head, although these creatures were of land, not of the sea.
Most striking about them was that they seemed to be made of squares and rectangles, their two arms terminating in mean-looking sharp pincers.
The leader wore a belt pack. He reached down into one of the packs with his claw and brought out a small notebook made for his requirements and thus easy to manipulate with just the claws. He consulted it, then looked at the junglelike rainforest beyond the beach, and finally up at the stars. Finally he said, in a voice that was extremely deep yet oddly distorted, as if he were speaking at least partially underwater, “To the right five degrees and in. There should be a track there that we can use.”
Others in the squad moved forward, their gait oddly mechanical and plodding, yet sufficient for their needs. To a trained Well World biologist it would have instantly been clear that these creatures came from a biosphere with a significantly heavier gravitational pull than Pegiri’s.
“Rifles at the ready, but you may shoot only if ordered to do so or if fired upon, and for no other reason. Clear?”
The others murmured assent. They had gone over this in drills so many times that the real thing seemed almost an anticlimax.
They were ten in number, a typical small squad with one officer, a noncom, and eight carefully chosen soldiers. The fact that they more properly lumbered forward than deployed in crisp fashion was more a result of the alien conditions in which they found themselves, rather than a commentary on their own efficiency or effectiveness.
The rifles weren’t the tough, lightweight energy weapons they were used to, but the kind that shot explosive projectiles. The clips each held fifty rounds, and, depending on the setting of a side lever a claw top could easily manipulate, they could either fire single shot, as they were set to do right now, or fire all fifty in an effective twenty-five-degree arc in front of them in less than a second. These weren’t the best weapons, but they were the ones that worked here, in semitech Pegiri.
Not that there was supposed to be any fighting or shooting. Not in this operation. They were there to pay for and retrieve a certain object that had been offered to them, and not to take it by force. There was little they could do to inflict harm should a large force oppose them; they were more like bank messengers than soldiers. The guns were there to protect against thieves and banditry and perhaps treason, but not against the Pegiri army.
It shouldn’t come to that. This was supposed to be a nice, easy mission with no rough stuff anyway. Of course, those were the ones that always seemed to come up and bite you.
It was exactly that kind of pragmatic pessimism that kept them alert and nervous as they moved inland. They knew that most of the weapons that could be deployed against them here would have little effect on their thick hides and dense body mass, but no one could be sure until a soldier caught one in the body or head and lived to tell about it.
Much of the Barrens was water, which was one reason they had been sent on this job. Keeping the guns raised above the water, they could actually be submerged almost to the tops of their heads and still make solid progress, thanks to their blowholes. Their own hex had once been as impenetrable and swampy, but high-tech abilities and a very long time had transformed it into quite a different place, a place for which most of their evolutionary traits were, frankly, irrelevant.
The sun was coming up on the horizon, but it meant little here. The vegetation was so dense that there was little chance of seeing the sky, even if it wasn’t mostly cloudy, and there was a permanent feeling of gloom to the swamp below. They didn’t mind; this was, after all, the kind of thing they were trained for, and they were not uncomfortable in this kind of region. Still, they were surrounded not only by plants and water and mud, but by countless tens of thousands of small, unknown creatures.
The sergeant dropped back and matched stride with the officer. “We are being observed,” the noncom told him.
“To be expected,” the officer replied. “They aren’t any more trusting of us than we of them. And, after all, this isn’t the government we’re dealing with here. It’s a pack of thieves.”
From out of the dense foliage a rumbling, eerie voice sounded, bizarre even through an obvious translator. “That should be sufficient, Squad Officer. Please halt now and we will come to you.”
The officer and his men had never been to Pegiri before, but they knew what sort of creatures lived in it, and it wasn’t all that bizarre a life-form. These creatures—or, at least, the speaker—wasn’t a native.
“Squad! Halt in place! Guard routine!” the officer snapped.
They looked around apprehensively, seeing nothing large enough to be a sentient life-form. The creatures covering them had also either stopped or melted into the bog. Even though they sensed that the others were still there, there was no sign of them.
And then, right ahead of them, a dull green mat of thick swamp grass seemed to rise out of the undergrowth until it stood exposed, standing in the mud.
It was a spider of some sort; an extremely hairy and dull green spider that happened to be almost two meters across, counting the long legs. Instinctively the troopers brought their rifles up, but the officer snapped, “Stand easy! No firing unless I give the order, but stand your ground.”
“Very perceptive, Squad Officer,” commented the voice, which was clearly coming from the huge green spider.
The officer felt vindicated by his instincts and became all business. “Do you have it?”
“Of course I have it. Otherwise there would be no purpose to this. There wasn’t much doubt that I would have any problems, considering that my employer, the one who commissioned the theft, is the owner, the beloved and democratic government of Pegiri. It’s quite clever, really. They can claim that it was stolen and that they had little to do with it, yet they avoid war over it. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to steal something from the owner of a valuable, but usually there’s insurance involved.”
“You will show it to us now!” the officer barked in a commanding voice.
“Easy, there, Squad Officer! I’m not in your little tinpot army, and I absolutely don’t quake in fear at the mention of Josich and that gang. First things first. Do you have the fee?”
The blocky head of the officer turned slightly. “Trooper! Bring up the silver case!”
One of the soldiers came forward and handed his rifle to another to hold, then detached a small box from his uniform belt and handed it to the officer, who turned back to the green spider. “Here it is,” he said, “although I do not see why we should have to pay you as well as the Pegiri.”
“Because I asked for it and I have what you want,” the spider responded. “Look, if you would rather go home without it, I will take it and make it disappear. Then you will find that it will be extremely expensive to recover, far more so than now. I might even auction it.”
“You could have done that now.”
The spider made a clicking sound. “No, no, no! There must always be honor between thieves and scoundrels, my friend! Otherwise we have no credibility. That is why you get the thing and I get the pay. I will certainly be doing more business as this goes along with your own leaders, so why spoil a good thing? Besides, I like to live and enjoy things.”
The officer wondered what such a creature could or would buy with all this pay, but he said nothing about that. “Do you want to examine the contents?”
“Yes, if you please. But it’s so damp and wet here, and I’d not like to think that we would open such a box and then drop it in the water. So, for the moment I trust you. You hand me the unopened box, and I hand you this piece of high-tech furniture. You turn and go back to the beach, and I will examine my pay. If it is there, we will not meet again. If it is not, then you and your men will not get off the beach. It’s rather elegantly simple, don’t you think?”
The idea of a horde of naturally camouflaged giant spiders surrounding and covering them was not a welcome thought.
You wouldn’t get many chances to score a hit with these primitive projectile weapons, and they could drop from anywhere.
“Then I fervently hope that what you requested is in this box,” the officer told the spider. “I, naturally, do not even have the combination that would open it.”
The spider’s rear legs came up behind its body and removed something apparently stuck to its fur. A foreleg came up and took the pass from the hind leg, extending a long wooden box to the officer.
“Sergeant,” the officer called, and pointed. The sergeant went up to the spider and tentatively took the box. It appeared to be plain unfinished wood, and had some kind of mucus along one side. This was obviously how it was attached to the spider creature’s body, and it looked and smelled ugly.
The officer then moved up and held out the small box. The spider creature reached out with both forelegs and took it. The legs were complex affairs, he saw, ending in two soft but extremely wide and supple opposing “fingers.” They acted like hands, tentacles, claws, or whatever the creature needed, and, from the deposits in the fur on either side could exude the sticky mucus. The officer suspected that all eight legs were that way, judging from the manner and ease with which the spider had detached and handed over the box.
The officer stepped back as soon as the spider had his box, then went over to the sergeant, who held the box out to the officer.
There was a fairly basic clasp, and the officer undid it and slowly, carefully, raised the lid.
Inside was an odd-looking carved shape that seemed to make no sense at all, not even as “high-tech furniture.” Neither the officer nor any of his men knew what it was or why it was so important, but they knew that securing it was so vital to their leaders that it was their lives and their families’ lives if they botched getting it.
The officer carefully lowered the lid and redid the clasp. It would have to be transferred to a watertight case before they went back, but that could wait. “All right, Sir Thief, I suppose—” he began, then turned and froze.
There was no spider there, nor anyone or anything else, either.
“So be it,” he said, and turned back to his men. “Squad! Remain on guard and at the ready! About face!” They turned, facing back toward the beach a kilometer or two away. “Let’s get out of this place!” the officer added, and took the lead.
From a tree nearby, the spider creature watched them go, then turned and manipulated some small panels on the box in a certain order. The box lid could now be raised upward, revealing the contents inside.
The near perfect precious stones inside would be convertible anywhere on the Well World where there was interhex commerce. It was a fortune. “Much easier than stealing these myself,” the spider creature commented aloud but to itself.
The rest of the small gang he’d assembled for this very easy job were still around, of course, and they would have to be paid off. He’d use the Pegiri government payoff funds for that. These jerks wouldn’t know how valuable the gems in the box were, anyway, and they certainly would never get anywhere near fair market value for them.
The Pegiri looked to him like monkeys with wings and feathers instead of fur. Handy for scouting locales, mapping out approach and getaway routes, that sort of thing. They could fly and he could not. On the other hand, they could not walk up walls nor across ceilings as easily as walking across the floor, as he could, and that skill was much handier for actually stealing things.
One of the Pegiri gang came over to him, jumping from tree to tree but not particularly flying. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh, yes. More than okay,” the spider responded.
“Do you think they’ll use us again like you said?”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll come to me after they see this first piece. Even the Chalidang, who are behind this, would rather gain by stealth than by war.”
“Particularly after they just got their asses whipped,” the Pegirian noted.
The translator issued a sound that it interpreted as a chuckle. “Yes, nicely put. Josich was never one to understand that battles are fought best with the mind and not with brute force. It is why, in the end, he’s always failed.”
“I thought Josich was a she, or don’t that make no difference to squid?”
“They’re not squid, and, yes, it does make a difference to them, and you’re right, my little friend. It just makes no difference to me at this point.”
“That thing gonna kill her for you?”
The spider paused. “No. At least not yet. It’s going to kill one or more of Josich’s friends, allies, and/or former relatives, though.”
“Provided they don’t find the compartment in that box.”
The spider chuckled again. “It won’t matter. That— creature—is quite versatile, quick, and gutsy. You have no idea what it can do in that incarnation. He did amazingly well in his previous one, in fact. Almost got Josich, or so I’m told.”
“And he’s gonna get her now?”
“It is what he exists for. And there’s a substantial team of cheerleaders back in Zone that would love to see him do it. Still, it will be much more difficult after he makes his next kill. They’ll eventually figure out what he is and start taking countermeasures. Even so, I suspect that Josich will sleep most uneasily once it is known. I know I would.”
“Gimme the creeps, that thing.”
The spider smeared mucus on the small box and stuck it on his body almost midway. “And I don’t?”
“Should you, boss? Gimme creeps, that is? You gonna try ‘n’ eat me or something?”
The green spider chuckled again. “No, my friend. I do not eat those who are loyal to me and competent as well. Still, we will not need many of your kind to continue this, and we will have to do some local recruiting to turn this into a real going business. Pick a companion from the others, then we’ll pay the rest off.”
“You mean we’re gonna leave Pegiri?”
“Yes. For good, probably, for me. Until you get too rich or develop problems and want to come home and enjoy your money, for you. What do you say?”
“I say we go. But what for you want all that money? What you gonna do with it? After so long it’s just keeping score, right?”
“Ah, my friend, that is where your vision fails you. What you want you should be able to buy, period. What you want and cannot buy, you steal, or, even better, have others steal for you. Wealth is meaningless if it just sits. It’s what it can buy that is important. Power. As much power as you can stand to have. That is what money is good for.”
The Pegirian shifted uncomfortably. “Well, maybe. Guess everybody should have a hobby, huh?”
THE DREAMS STARTED SOON AFTER SHE HAD BEGUN TO SENSE the intricate threads and pulsing energies of the Well World. At first they were a torrent of voices, data, scenes, and visions, some wonderful, some so terrible that she awoke screaming from the very sight of them. But as time went on she began to get some selectivity and control over what she was receiving.
The Well, which she continued to think of as some sort of divine creation, albeit a secondary one since it, too, had been created by entities even higher and wiser—a device of the gods, not a god itself—continued to pretty much ignore her. Its job was to maintain the Well World first and foremost, and then to maintain the structures and living creations that had sprung from it and covered so much of the universe; it concerned itself with individuals only when they threatened its basic purpose or if it was somehow damaged and needed attention. Other than that, it was content even if things were not going the way its builders imagined.
There was a question about that, although it was one raised by others of her kind and not herself. It seemed to Jaysu blasphemous to think that she was becoming the superior creation the Well World had been designed to develop and to breed. She certainly acknowledged her power, but she was awed and not a little frightened of it, and in no mood to test it or to use it. Power without the wisdom to use it properly was a very good definition of evil, she thought.
And so she continued to intercept the input and output going from the Well to the universe and back again. Not that she could understand it or follow it, except in those individual dreams and nightmares where occasional coherent thoughts and visions would exist. No organic mind had the speed and capacity to comprehend that vast data stream.
Things were happening to her that were far beyond her understanding, and she could neither stop nor control them. At first it had seemed she’d been anointed by the gods to be elevated to some state that might restore peace to the world, but now she wasn’t so sure. She certainly wasn’t sure that it was the gods doing this to her; if so, it was a more complex god than she had ever imagined.
The worst thing was, it was so lonely, this mysterious process. But how could she even hope to explain to, let alone gain wisdom from, anyone else?
She certainly had to do something, though. She was sure of that. She could feel the reaction of the people, her people, upon seeing her, and it was a mixture of fear and awe. She understood that to keep isolated in the higher altitudes and in the remote mountains was to lay herself open to being considered a god herself, and that was the ultimate blasphemy.
There was no other way for her, no other conclusion that any logic could draw that would change things.
She had to leave Ambora. She had to leave it until she completed this process, whatever it was, and gained sufficient wisdom to understand and know what she was to do then.
Strange as it was, the only one she could consult with on this was an alien in Zone.
Spreading her huge snow-white wings, Jaysu flew inland toward the Zone Gate, not expecting to find answers but hoping for something constructive to do.
Core was astonished at the change in her. Jaysu was truly becoming the classical concept of an angel, purer than pure, whiter than white, and with great power to match. In a sense, Core thought, she was the direct opposite of the one she’d come to for help. Core was still struggling with her new limitations, limits in storage, retrieval speed, and overall capabilities imposed by this physical body, not to mention the distractions the body also offered. Considering her former master and employer, though, there was one difference.
Core had been a demon searching for liberation and accepting mortality to gain it. Jaysu had been a mere girl who was now evolving into an angel and looking for God to give her orders.
Still, it was Core, the old Core, who had made this new person by stealing her mind’s place, and it was Core to whom she’d come for advice.
Core sat in one of the special wheelchairs used when her kind were topside, a special covering over the lower half of her body allowing for a slow but steady application of water. Drying out wasn’t fatal to Kalindans, but it itched like crazy.
“What is it that you want of me?” Core asked the angelic creature.
“I want to know what I am becoming, and why,” she answered simply.
“And you think I can tell you?”
“Perhaps not. But I think that if you do not know, then nobody does.”
Core sighed. “It is a very complex case, my dear. I can’t say for certain, but I have some ideas.”
“You know who I am, at least. Or was.” It wasn’t a question.
The Kalindan shifted uncomfortably in the chair, not from the posture or from being out of the water but from the conversation. She wondered why she was feeling so odd talking to this Amboran girl.