Chalker, Jack L. – Well of Souls 07

“I know who you were, at least in part. A bit of the person­ality remains. What I don’t know is how much you can under­stand, or will accept. I am not a mystic, nor am I much of a believer in gods and supernatural occurrences. You under­stand that?”

Jaysu sensed the Kalindan’s discomfort but ignored the skep­ticism. “Who was I?”

“Your name was, rather ironically, Angel. Angel Kobe,” Core told her, pronouncing it Ko-bay, as the original had. “They told me that the Well of Souls sometimes exhibited what some people thought of as a sense of humor. You were called ‘angel,’ and now you are becoming one.”

The sound of the name stirred something within her. It sounded familiar, like some comfortable garment she’d al­ways had but had lost and now discovered again. There was also something else, something just beyond her that stirred at its sound, but she could not hold on to it long enough to understand anything about it. Best to continue.

“What was I—back there?”

“What you are now. A mystic. Priestess, nun, reverend, minister, whatever. Different religion, different god, but it’s rather astonishing how the job remains pretty much the same regardless.”

“I had a flock? I was a spiritual adviser?”

“Well, not exactly. You were too young for that, but you were on your way to doing that, yes. You were born and raised into a kind of religious order, and that was what you were to be and, in fact, what you wished to be. So, in a sense, what you have here is very much what you would have had if you had never found the Well World, only without wings.”

That startled her. She’d never considered that she hadn’t been of the same people. “Can you show me what I used to look like?”

Core shrugged. “I can show you roughly what you looked like. At least, I can show you a picture of a young female of the same race.” She turned in the chair, and gnarled, webbed hands reached out for a console and pressed a sequence on a control panel. “Type forty-one, female, age approximately sixteen,” she ordered. The screen above the console flickered, and then on the screen there was a three-dimensional color picture of a young Terran-type girl, totally naked and unadorned. This was a classification file, not a travelogue.

She studied the photo, fascinated. The girl looked so— bare, so vulnerable. No wings, no talons, funny flat feet, hair that could only be decorative considering where it was. She was not impressed.

“That is what I was?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“And that is also what you were?”

Core coughed nervously. “No, not exactly. The others that you met here, most of them were either males or females of that type, although not all.”

“I thought you were a different sort of creature than the others. There is a different sense about you. I sense a deep alienness that goes beyond the various races of this world. If I may ask—just what were you?”

Core sighed and turned back around to face her. “If you must know, I was a machine. It will do no good to explain fur­ther since it is a far different sort of machine than you know of here. Closer to this computer that I am using, but different. Far worse than this computer, really, because, like it, I had to obey whatever commands were given me, but unlike it, I was self-aware. I could think, I could analyze and make judg­ments, and that was bad since I had to carry out my orders even if I knew they were evil.”

“Were they? Evil, I mean?” She had the distinct sensation that Core didn’t have the same sort of value judgments that she had.

“Yes and no,” the Kalindan admitted. “I was detached from good and evil. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t influence much on my own, so I was left to think a lot but not observe behavior. I knew the definitions of right and wrong but had no moral compass, no moral sense.”

“And do you now?” the Amboran asked, wondering why she was making uncomfortable the only one she thought could help her. Maybe it was just in her nature to minister, she thought, but then again, maybe it was an attempt to find out if, by befriending or being befriended by this creature, she might not be selling her soul.

It was a question Core had been thinking long and hard on. “In one sense, yes. But I have a lot to learn and still limited experience. There are many things I like about this body, about being truly alive, but there are also things that frustrate and disturb me. I am trying to learn.”

It was an honest answer; she could sense that. She under­stood by now that nobody could lie to her, not really. Oh, they could tell lies, but she would always know. Odd how she could read even alien intent with absolute certainty yet be un­able to get beyond and into the inner mind and soul of even one of her own people.

But Core—Core was unique, at least in her experience. In many ways an empathic scan brought that cold empty intel­lect to the fore and screamed that she was still a machine in­deed. And yet . . . and yet . . . even since the last time they’d met, there was something more, something else there, some­thing more—human, used in that broad sense of covering any sentient beings. Core indeed was something of a counter­point, yet kin to her. The Kalindan was turning into a human, and deep down, although Jaysu tried desperately to hide it even from herself, this frightened her as much as she was frightened of becoming more than she could handle.

There was reassurance in that.

“What am I becoming?” she asked the Kalindan pointedly.

“I have no idea,” Core replied honestly. “However, I would say that you are getting close to it. There is great power in you, the kind of power that was attributed to angels in the an­cient religions. Physical strength and near supernatural power. You know it, and you are mostly worried that you can’t handle that kind of power. Am I correct?”

“That is as close as I can get, yes,” she admitted.

“If you must know, I believe that there is a threat to both the Well World and to the Realm, the great Commonwealth from which we originally came. It is related, and the Well re­quires people like us to meet that threat. I think you and I are a part of stopping it.”

The records were obscure, but between the factual data and the legends and myths, a coherent frame for the way the Well worked was becoming clear. Somewhere, out there, was one creature, possibly more than one, either a Maker restricted to the kind of physicality as everybody else, who could in fact come here and repair the Well if it malfunctioned.

But they were there only for malfunctions and breaches of the Well if any existed. Otherwise, the Well ran as it was de­signed to do.

And it was designed to allow the myriad races who had been developed here by the Makers—in times so ancient as to be beyond anyone’s memory to develop in their natural places in the universe—to evolve, grow, mature. If they died out, well, so be it. If they reached the stars, all the better. Overall, though, they were nurtured, not managed, by the Well, which simply maintained conditions that would allow them to de­velop. Whether they did was up to them.

There was, however, one area where the Well intruded— when some sort of external disruption would screw up the experiments. When that condition occurred, Core was con­vinced that the Well could and sometimes did manipulate probabilities to the extent of putting in place those people who could keep the experiments, the development of the races, from being “contaminated,” as it were. The Well did this by creating conditions that allowed the experiments to defend themselves. No more. Anything else would create a counterforce that would be as much of a contaminant as that which they were formed to prevent.

Those who had come from the Commonwealth—as un­likely a group as Core could have imagined—were the counterforce. They had the means, but only if they applied themselves and actually stopped it.

Josich was the contaminant. There was no doubt about that.

Or were they truly the ones intended to stop the monster, rather than some offworlders who just fell through? Core had worried about that, and about the whole theory of interven­tion, but there was no way to prove things one way or the other. It didn’t matter anyway; if they could stop Josich, then they had to do it. There were higher obligations even if the Well had nothing to do with it.

Sitting here, looking at “Jaysu,” though, it was hard to imagine that the god machine hadn’t come up with some­thing very original. Core had always thought itself to be at least a demigod in status because of the range of knowledge it had and the enormous resources it could control back when it was a machine. Now, even with those capabilities gone save from memory, the former computer was forced to admit that, next to the Well, it had been so minor as to be insignificant.

Now, as a Kalindan, she often wondered if the limita­tions she faced, the aches and pains she endured, and the comparisons to what she once had been, weren’t very much like what the Makers would have felt after processing them­selves through the Well.

“Madam Core?”

“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry, my dear. I get reflective once in a while, I’m afraid. It is the habit of an old recluse. I’m physi­cally just another Kalindan now, it is true, but mentally there is still a part of me that I cannot let go of nor explain to others.”

She nodded. “You are as afraid of losing your loneliness as you are desperate to get rid of it. It is a very sad paradox.”

“Eh? That’s an interesting way of putting things. I’ll have to think on that one. Still, let us get back to the problem at hand. What do you want of me that I can give you?”

“I want to know where I should be. I have to believe that I am undergoing this—this metamorphosis or whatever it is, for a reason. I have been given great power in order to do something, but the ones who have bestowed this upon me have not told me what it is I am supposed to do.”

“And you come to me for the answer? Jaysu, nothing in creation is all one thing or the other, not even good or evil, al­though I admit that nobody has figured out anything good in Josich’s nature. Still, he, or she, or whatever, is just a creature like you. Born of parents in some far-off place, raised one way, now here and playing out what is deep within its soul. The Well and the Makers are the closest things to gods that I have come across that I can accept, and the former is only in­terested in maintaining a status quo, and the latter didn’t give a damn about us. In one way I envy you your faith, because it convinces you that there truly is destiny. Because I’m a ratio­nalist, though, I can’t tell you what to do. I do welcome you to our fight and cause simply because I feel that all of us are uniquely endowed to combat this menace. Right now, though, the only air-breathing freelancer I have available is O’Leary, and somehow the idea of an angel with a serpent seems oddly wrong.”

She frowned. “I remember him from that meeting. The snake is not a good figure in our faith, you know. Still, I did not sense evil in him.”

“Nor in your old one,” Core told her. “O’Leary, however, is a very good man, born of the same race as Angel Kobe.”

“That explains it,” she responded. “He has a different soul. The body changes, the soul remains the same.”

Core decided not to ask her if she believed that sentient machines had souls, or whether she believed that Angel’s soul was really inside her. Core suspected where Angel’s soul, such as it was, really resided right now. Those things, how­ever, would only complicate matters.

“Do you think you could work with him, then?”

She seemed startled. “Work with him? In what way?”

“I believe that some sort of military operation is about to be launched on the nation of Quislon. The inhabitants are very unlike any of our team, and they greatly distrust anyone from Pyron, such as Mr. O’Leary, because historically Py­rons used to make sport and hunt and eat the inhabitants of Quislon. That has made it difficult for us to deal with them in any meaningful way. But the folk of Quislon have an odd reli­gion that venerates a number of sacred objects, and one of these is, we believe, part of a machine that, when assembled, will give Josich horrible, perhaps unstoppable, power. In ten weeks they will celebrate a festival on their sacred mountain that involves this object that Josich would do anything to get. I believe that she will do anything to get it. Something is up, partially involving military action of some limited nature, but we haven’t yet determined what. I can arrange for a ship to pick you up anywhere along the Amboran coast. You tell me where, and I’ll make sure they are there. Because you can fly, an anchorage wouldn’t be necessary, just a rendezvous point. It will be a long sea voyage, but during that time I will try and feed you every bit of information we have on Quislon and the festivals and what action is being taken against them. You will be well-briefed by the time you meet O’Leary.”

She was startled. “And then what?” She could not imagine herself actually fighting someone, physically harming an­other, even a Josich type. It would be a violation of all she be­lieved in.

“O’Leary and others will do the military part, but you will need to get through to the Quislon religious leadership. They must trust us and take precautions. You will be our bridge. I won’t minimize things. If you fail, it will be very dangerous for you, and if you are there at all, it might put you in the middle of a nasty and violent fight. But a lot of lives are at stake here, far more than even the whole of Quislon or of our team. Josich must not get that object. It is safe so long as it is deep within the underground cities of Quislon where none but they can go, but if they bring it to the surface for their fes­tival, it is certain to stir an attempt to take it. They won’t listen to O’Leary, or trust him sufficiently to change any plans. You must convince them. Failing that, you both must ensure that, no matter what the Chalidang Alliance attempts, they will fail. It seems a mission for which you are well-qualified, reli­gion to religion. Want to give it a try?”

She barely hesitated. “Yes, I believe I would,” she told her.

Core nodded. “I’ll set everything up, then.” She thought a moment. “You know, maybe there is some sort of divine in­tervention here. Until you showed up, I hadn’t worked out any way at all I could act on this problem.”

She had spent the better part of a week in prayer and fasting, trying to find some guidance, some sign that, at least, she was doing the right thing, but no matter how much she pleaded for divine advice, nothing came.

She ultimately decided that fighting evil was part and par­cel of the job, and that if she turned her back on that fight be­cause it was elsewhere in the world, then she would be as guilty of allowing it to fester and grow as if it were coming Ambora’s way. In fact, the way the strange creature Core explained it, Ambora would sooner or later be consumed in the same evil wash as the rest of the world if they didn’t stop this now.

She wished she felt up to the task. What, after all, was she? She had no memories of a past life, no memories of growing up in this life. No sense of family, of parents and siblings, of much of anything at all. She had awakened fully grown but without experience on these very cliffs, and she’d been taken in and tutored by the clan High Priestess who seemed to sense in her some special destiny but could not explain it.

The name Angel Kobe troubled her, too, primarily because it struck no true chord within her. She didn’t know that woman, nor anyone else by that name, and even though there seemed an odd sensation that she had somewhere heard that name be­fore, that was all it was. There was nothing to grab on to, no background, no self-image, no sense that she was ever any­thing but an Amboran.

It wasn’t fair, she thought, not for the first time, as the winds blew across the rocks and the waves below crashed in endless parade upon the rock walls. The others remembered. Core said she’d been a machine, which was impossible to be­lieve, but even if she no longer was what she had been, there was still a past, a memory, a continuity of identity, and Core was who and what she was by choice.

The others who had gathered there for what was clearly the start of a war council also knew who they were and who they had been. Perhaps they were not here by choice, but they had a sense of identity, of a past, of a connectivity to that past.

They were whole people.

Why not her? Why was she, and she alone, the one cast fully formed with nothing solid to plant her feet in? She had asked Core that, and gotten the impression that Core was ly­ing when she said that she did not know, but it was a lie tinged with some guilt, as if Core had somehow been a cause of it; yet she’d clearly gotten the sense that Core was as surprised as she that she existed at all, let alone like this, and that it wasn’t guilt that kept Core from telling her the reasons, but more the fact that the Kalindan simply had no way to explain it.

Somehow, she thought, the others had come through with bodies and souls. Core had come through with a body, but it was uncertain whether or how a machine could have a soul, while she . . .

Angel’s soul had come through but not her body.

There was a sort of symmetry there. Core, the body with no soul, and she, the soul with no prior body.

And now, unprepared for any of this, uncertain of anything at all, still without an anchor or even a confidant, she had somehow wound up volunteering to get involved in their war.

A woman of the gods wasn’t supposed to kill. That wasn’t their purpose. The warriors might, but only in defense of themselves and their clan against external threat. She even had trouble fishing from the air, but it was necessary to sup­plement her otherwise vegetarian diet. The reasons were physi­cal, not psychological or moral. Her body required that she take the lives of some fish and shellfish, and on occasion a small animal. She prayed for them before she hunted, but she’d had to hunt.

Priestesses weren’t supposed to have to do that. Warriors of the clan did that, and offered a portion of their catch to the holy ones. That had always satisfied her moral misgivings about killing other creatures, but now she realized how hypo­critical that position had been-—not just for her, but for all the Holy Order. Was having someone else hunt and kill for you any different, morally, than doing it yourself, or was it worse because it removed you from the act while still requiring the kill?

Something inside told her that she had best resolve this question before too long.

It was one of the oddities of the Well World that one could step into a Zone Gate and be instantly transported to Zone at the pole and back again, but that was the only magical ride you were allowed. Zone had become the place where em­bassies and diplomacy ruled, but it had been designed as a control center for the ancient and long-gone Maker’s grand experiments, a place to monitor and transfer new beings in and possibly out, although none had ever managed that trick in the historical record.

But to keep each biosphere relatively uncontaminated, the only way to travel from one hex, one country, to another was the old-fashioned way. And, in fact, it was harder than on any of the real worlds out there in the vast universe, since each hex was one of three types, two of which imposed great limits.

Ambora was a nontech hex. Energy could be used, of course, but not stored, which essentially limited technology to that of muscle, wind, and water. But ships had to go across the vast ocean that wound its way through the southern hemi­sphere through many hexes of different sorts. To be all sail would be to place them at a commercial disadvantage in semi- and high-tech hexes; to be sail and steam alone would deny them the ability in high-tech places to use radars and similar technological tools that made things safer. The ships, then, tended to be complex amalgams of all three types that could take best advantage of the limitations or lack of it in the places they had to sail through. They tended to be large, and somewhat slow and ponderous, but they and their highly skilled multiracial crews were what tied the vast southern hemisphere together, and often they were the only way to get from here to there.

She had no memories of ever having been on any kind of boat before. For Ambora and the adjacent hexes and the area of sea that embraced it, flying was more than adequate. To fly the more than two thousand kilometers to Quislon or even farther to Pyron, though, was out of the question; nobody had that much strength, nor did the atmospheric content, gravita­tional variables, and many other things remain constant from hex to hex. Going overland was no better choice, even though it was possible to do so. Amboran feet were not designed for long walks and great balance while on the move; they were for short journeys in and out and to and fro, and otherwise to hold on to wherever they needed to be. Even the flightless males whose legs were thicker were only good for local dis­tances; their legs were also too short and stubby and their feet not much wider than the females’.

Core had said that the ship would be called the Bay of Ves­sali, that it would come in close to shore at Point of Lokosh, the southwest angle of the Amboran hex, and that it would be expecting her. He also told her to travel as light as possible, take only what she considered absolutely essential, and that she would have a deck cabin, not for rest, necessarily, but for privacy as needed. The ship would be able to supply meals she could eat, although such ships were known to be utilitar­ian and did not have the finest or freshest cuisine, and she would be met on board by agents of the Alliance, who would have the information she would require as well as necessary funds.

She wasn’t sure about the latter. She’d had the concept of money explained to her but did not truly understand it. She had a lot to learn.

Few ships came in close to the coast in Ambora; it stuck out on a peninsula into the ocean and it had few good harbors and very high cliffs for most of its length, and it traded only a small bit with close neighbors. Ships could remain under full steam if they swung out a bit, and most of them did so. Normally, only small fishing fleets from hexes far away were glimpsed now and again, having been given permission to fish rich waters by the water-breathing hexes that surrounded them.

When the big ship came in sight, slowing even more than usual because of the less than up-to-date charts of the region, she had no doubt that it was for her benefit. It looked like some great monster, belching white smoke from its top and churning the waters below. She could understand sails but couldn’t see how it was moving now. It was another thing to learn.

She felt a sudden dip in self-confidence as it drew ever nearer and she knew that she would have to go to it. The ship would not stop for her; it expected her to fly out and land on it, so as to not unduly disrupt its schedule. It was now or never.

She did not want to go to it, did not want to leave the secu­rity of the only home she could remember, but she knew that she had gone to them and volunteered and that this change in her that made her something of a freak in her own land was for a purpose that must lay initially outside of Ambora. And so she took a deep breath, leaped off the cliff and headed out across the water to the ship.

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Categories: Chalker, Jack L