The cabin was surprisingly roomy, but basically a rectangle containing no notable luxuries. The purser showed her how to open or close vents to the outside air so that cool breezes could get in and hot air inside could escape without the rest of the weather intruding, and how to raise and lower the oil lamp. Both were unnecessary, as a blower system cooled the room, and the molding along the ceiling was glowing quite adequately to light the whole room.
“Those only work in high-tech hexes,” the purser told her. “Otherwise it’s the oil and natural air venting. We find, though, that if you keep your doors and vents closed and don’t use the door much, it’ll keep a long time, even overnight, yep yep.”
There was a sink and basin, but no bath or shower, not that she would use them anyway. There was also a strange modular structure that turned out to be a kind of building block toilet. Each of the pieces fit together in a lot of different ways, and thus a large number of races could be accommodated by these shape adjustments. At the bottom, though, was a deep black hole and the sound of constant water going through. She was fascinated by the ingenuity. Apparently there was some kind of filtered intake that forced water through a network of pipes, the water moving constantly by some kind of gravity feed and the forward energy of the ship. No matter what sort of hex they were in, the toilets constantly flushed, or, perhaps, in deference to those living below, it all went to some place mysterious and unpleasant in the bottom of the ship to be emptied in port service.
She was also impressed when the purser showed her how to get water out of a pipe that hovered over the basin. “Comes from tanks up top,” he told her. “Always fresh, always pure.”
It was clear by the discolorations on the floor rug and on the walls that furniture had been moved out for her. Instead, against one wall was a sand pit with rough wooden logs crossing through it, an arrangement very much like the kind they had in Ambora. There was also a meter-high chest with drawers and a smooth top that could be used should she wish to stow anything. It was spartan, but exactly what she needed.
She thanked the purser, who bowed slightly and left, closing the door behind him. For the first time, she was alone, and she felt a bit better and safer. She liked the location. Opening the door, she was in an area where she could probably take off without killing herself, and if she could make it forward of the bridge, she could launch into the wind, which would be almost ideal. The cabin felt comfortable, the roll minimized just as the purser had promised, and with no compartments save the water closet, she felt reasonably secure.
That spider thing still gave her the creeps in spite of its manners, but she was beginning to feel that she could actually do this.
She wondered who aboard was her contact and what it would look like. There was certainly plenty of time to find out. Right now, though, she felt more of a need for prayer and meditation than social interaction. This was going to be a long voyage.
THE ONLY THING KEEPING THEM THERE WAS THE BLACK DOME, and they knew it. Still, they couldn’t remain there much longer without things taking a decidedly inconvenient turn.
If Mitchuk comes around one more time with champagne and bonbons, I’m gonna puke, Ari commented sourly.
Oh, don’t be such a party pooper, Ming responded. Besides, I’m not sure what champagne or bonbons would do to our constitution these days. And, well, he is kind of cute, in a silly little way.
Can the romance, this is business, he reminded her. Besides, if that guy’s cute then fish are works of art.
Look in the mirror lately, doll? We are fish. Sort of, anyway.
Yeah, well, maybe you’ve adjusted to this better than me. I mean, back in the old days we’d have taken one look at a Kalindan and ran screaming from the monster from the deep. Now they seem like normal folks, and even my dreams of those days somehow have everybody looking like the Swamp Creature from Planet Hell.
You apparently saw too many bad cinemas, kid. But, in fact, Ari was right, and she knew it. From the old Terran perspective, Kalindans were holy horrors, yet now, Mitchuk did look like a cutie to her, damn it. It was perhaps the only thing mentally the Well did to adjust you to a new environment. You looked at it, and yourself, in wonder rather than in shock and horror, and quickly adjusted to it.
For that matter, Kalindans didn’t look all that distinctive. It was more a matter of attitude, of carriage, of the body language and actual language, than any specific physical differences. They all were humanoid, averaged about two meters in length, had wide, round, light-sensitive eyes with double lids—one of which was transparent—and they had rounded, fishlike heads on humanoid necks, skin like a crocodile’s, a rubbery dorsal fin and a shark’s tail, and they were dark green tinged with yellowish spots here and there. Not the popular idea of a mermaid, definitely. In fact, you couldn’t even point to a Kalindan on a sexual basis, since at least once in their lives, sometimes more than once, just about every Kalindan changed sex. The fact that within the hex just about all of them were changing to the same sex at the same time made them even less physically distinctive.
And yet either of them could spot and identify individual Kalindans at a good-sized distance with no problem at all. They just couldn’t explain, even to each other, how they did it.
Ming, Ari decided, had acclimated to this new world and life far better than he had, and he had mixed feelings about it. He didn’t want to acclimate much more than he had, but, stuck in the same body with her, he wasn’t in a position to go off on his own. He sensed that Ming wanted to be a little adventurous with these amorous males armed not just with male libidos, but government decrees as well—to justify their lust—but, hell, neither he nor she were even sure how the Kalindans made out with each other. It sure wasn’t touchy-feely, not with this skin.
Nothing had made the differences between them more pronounced than their individual reactions to accepting themselves as members of this new society. Even as they seemed to share each other’s thoughts and became more knowledgeable about one another than any two people probably had ever been, their personalities still clashed, keeping them distinct. In fact, both suspected that they clung desperately to vestiges of individualism in a last battle to remain themselves.
Neither of them wanted a merger; they both preferred a partnership. But deep down they both understood that the merger was inevitable; either they did it, or they would grow to hate rather than love one another, and in the end go mad.
And yet, both their personalities were too strong to accept it as an inevitability, and so they fought against it.
Damn Core! The computer had stolen their other body, and divorced another mind from its rightful body as well. An individual was the sum total of memories and experiences of its lifetime plus the physiological factors. That angelic girl had the physical, but had been shorn of her memories and experiences; they had the memories and experiences of two, but lacked separate physical containers. All because the computer wanted desperately to become a real live boy . . .
This experience was giving Ari a newfound sense of ethics. He’d never dreamed that he had such a thing or could acquire it. Perhaps he was getting it from Ming, he thought. He didn’t like it; it was an uncomfortable fit, all the more so for being unavoidable once you had it. It might explain the otherwise incomprehensible gulf between most cops and most crooks. They both were in the same sort of business, but for the same risks, one paid a hell of a lot better than the other.
Ming sensed Ari’s turmoil, and to some extent shared it, yet she knew he had to work it out for himself or it would mean nothing in the end.
It’s not easy to figure out who the good guys are, is it? she commented. I know the problem. And even if they’re on your side, some of the amoral middle aren’t that hot, either. The only thing you can do is decide on who’s absolutely evil. At least you can go after them with some sense of feeling.
Which brought them back to the mystery of the black dome.
There was traffic in and out, that was for sure. Not just non-Yabban creatures, but also large crates of varying shapes and sizes. The races managing the operations seemed innocuous enough, but they all definitely had some home relationship with Chalidang. No Chalidangers or their allies had made any sort of appearance in the diplomatic compound, but there was little doubt that they were behind whatever was in that dome, and that, with a combination of diplomatic immunity and large scale bribery, the Yabbans didn’t care what they were doing there.
You couldn’t get much of anything out of the Yabbans themselves. They seemed pleasant and ordinary enough, but she and Ari got the impression that the translator conveyed an inaccurate picture of what they said and meant, not only because the Yabbans’ actions often didn’t quite mesh with the words, but also because their lives were simply so, well, alien. Kalindans might well look very different than Terrans and live in a biosphere where up and down had little meaning, but they were still closer, socially and culturally, to Terrans than the Yabbans were.
We can’t put this off any longer, you know, Ming pointed out to him after a week in the compound.
I know. The decrees and all that. I think we have to move on, and quickly, he agreed, hoping she meant before any assignations, not after.
But not until we get a look inside that black dome, she replied.
There was no night or day down there; Yabbo was shallow enough that some sunlight penetrated, but not enough to give more than a sense of the passage of time now and then. Like most undersea realms where one had some eyesight, Yabbo depended on chemical-based illumination, and some biochemical illumination as well, and didn’t need the great light from above.
That meant, like most underwater civilizations, there was less sense of night and day, work time and rest time, than there was a continuous existence divided into shifts. That was fine for Yabbans, and no problem in everyday life to the foreigners who lived and worked there, either, but it was difficult for Ming and Ari to figure out the best time to sneak into the black dome.
And yet they found that communiques passed between Core and them via the Zone Gate courier system yielded little curiosity on the part of the Zone types to find out. It was more an attitude of, well, what could they possibly be doing in the dome that would be a threat inside a hex where the only way you could store electricity for later use was to be born an eel?
Core seemed more interested lately in getting them over to a different hex, one not very far away and, from the alliance’s vantage point, more valuable. The nation of Sanafe was the object of a lot of attention lately, it seemed, for it was rumored to have a piece of the legendary Straight Gate, and that they would not be willing to part with it. If rumors were true, the attack on Ochoa and the subversion of Kalinda and its neighbors was geared to an operation that would indeed wrest this precious object from Sanafe. For its part, Sanafe wasn’t talking at all but had made it clear they would accept any protection they could get.
Sanafe next, but first that dome . . .
They had been near it many times, trying to scout out a way in, to chart the schedule of guards, but so far they’d not found an entry that made them confident of success. They kept trying to think of a way as the pressures on them to do their duty to Kalinda, and bear children, mounted to almost unbearable levels.
Core had not been any help in easing that sort of pressure, either. “Go ahead,” the former computer had written. “It should be a fascinating new experience.”
If it was all that fascinating, then Core should try it and not insist that they do it, Ari thought. It wasn’t bearing a little one that worried him nearly so much as what kind of commitment came after it. Neither of them had ever considered, let alone wanted, kids, but neither was ready to walk away from their own kid and coldly toss it to the fates.
The dome is pretty much like the others, including this one, Ming noted. There has to be a weakness somewhere.
Ari stared at the transparent Kalindan consular dome and suddenly thought of something. It was no bell jar; it was, rather, a geodesic type of dome composed of triangular struts supporting the overall shell to equalize the pressure.
Yeah, so? she prompted. What’s the difference how it’s made?
The difference, my dear, is in that equalization of pressure by use of the geodesic principle, he responded, thinking. It means that if the black dome is similarly constituted, we can drill a damned hole big enough to crawl through into one of the segments without compromising the overall structure. I wonder how thick these things are?
She saw what he meant. Yeah! Be kind of obvious, though, won’t it? I mean, we can’t use laser cutters and the like in this hex.
Might not need it, he told her. Let’s pay a visit now to a construction site. Good old Kalinda, building for Yabbo’s future, right? I wonder what they use to cut and shape things that don’t fit like they should and where they should?
There wasn’t much problem finding what was needed: a tiny gas-powered torch that could cut through almost anything, and some industrial-strength suction cups used to keep things from falling in when you cut through them. The small torch was dangerous, but Ari felt comfortable with it. It was close to some tools his uncle’s shadier associates had used now and then to get to pretty baubles the boss wanted but the owners had been unwilling to sell.
The trick would be to keep the very bright flame from being seen by all and sundry when they used it. It would be tough enough getting close to the top of that dome without being seen by curious folks like guards with nasty guns below.
They were fortunate that the dome was either made of very dark material or had been painted dark on the inside. That left a fairly nonreflective surface that kept the water around it fairly dark as well. With sundown, the top of the dome would be difficult to see.
They found a twenty centimeter loop of industrial plastic that was pliable yet would hold whatever shape you put it in, and this would become their shield. It could be wrapped around their waist, and would look like clothing or an ornament if spotted, yet it could be easily removed and create a decent circular guard for the operation.
At least, that was the way it was supposed to work.
As the light from the far off sun waned, they floated in the compound applying a thick black grease to their body, trying to get it as dark as possible. They wrapped the plastic shield around their waist and put the torch and the suction cup devices into a dark sack. Then they headed toward the dark dome, about three hundred meters farther along in the compound, gliding casually in the water in the hope that they wouldn’t be noticed. As they approached, they slowly rose toward the top of the compound.
The dark dome hadn’t had any particular routine they could pin down, but the sundown shift seemed to consist of fewer creatures than the other two, even if the number of guards remained the same. They waited, hovering nearby, making sure that everybody was in the spots they usually were and that there were no deliveries headed their way. Finally, as the last illumination from above faded, they ever so slowly approached the dome at a level a meter or two below the top of the dome.
This is really amateur night, Ming commented worriedly. How incompetent do these guys have to be to not spot us?
Pretty bad, I admit, Ari conceded. Still, semitech is semitech. No electrical alarms, no fusion-powered super computer guardians, not even decent lighting. Most of those guys down there are from high-tech hexes like ours; you kind of lose your touch for the primitive when you’re brought up with the gadgets.
She hoped he was right. There was so much that could go wrong, including the fact that they’d never gotten close enough to the dome to determine if it was not merely a filtered extension, like the Kalindan consulate, but perhaps a pressurized area. At least they knew it wasn’t filled with liquid; people had gone in and out of it many times as they had cased the place.
They picked the darkest area of the dome, away from the consulate row and facing away from the city, which continued to glow in artificial light. It was, however, a softer light that didn’t have the intensity to outline someone well away from its sources. That much seemed to be going their way.
Choosing an area below the top of the dome allowed them to work without being obvious to anyone in the consular area, and the upper curvature allowed for an angle when they put down and anchored their dark shield. The torch might be obvious from above, which was always a risk, but it would be invisible from the lower, more commonly used levels.
The torch itself was no laser beam; the flame was concentrated and incredibly hot, but it was as much a melter as a cutter. Ming let Ari handle it, and he began to cut in small bits, knowing they would have to secure the piece when it fell and not wanting any part of it to fall down into the dome itself.
The work was also almost blinding; neither of them had anticipated a flame so very bright, and they’d brought everything except dark goggles, since they hadn’t seen any around.
Hurry up, or we’re gonna wind up doing this by touch, she prodded.
You want to do it, take over, he responded huffily. I’m doing the best I can. Just a couple more . . . There! Now we need the suction cups!
They pressed one to the side of the dome, then the other to the center of the cut-out piece. After pulling on them to ensure that they both held, Ari carefully melted through the last few tabs holding the piece onto the rest of the dome.
Finally, he reached down and pulled on the linkage just above the cup on the cutout, and it gave and came straight up and away. They now had a way inside, if they were lucky.
There wasn’t much to see from this vantage point, and bright dots, afterflashes from the torch, were still persistent. Still, at least part of the place was lit with the same chemical lighting used in the town, and they could see that there were some people at the lower, or floor, section of the tank.
You game? she asked him.
We’ve come this far, he replied. Might as well.
It was a very tight fit getting through the cut piece, even after they discarded the shielding. Still, they just barely managed, with a lot of twisting and turning, to squeeze through.
Ari then set the cutout back in place. There was some play because its melted edges no longer would create a real fit, but it would do. The trick was to keep that primordial soup that was Yabbo’s “atmosphere” from coming in. At least the melted areas would give no more entry to the outside than the routine comings and goings by the lower entrance, until they planned to be long gone.
They found themselves in a gigantic warehouse full of modular shelving and form-fitting containers. It was impossible to tell what was in any of them; they were encoded in a type of writing neither could understand, nor would it have done them much good without the meanings for the codes.
There was far too much action below to consider breaking open one or more of them to find out what it was about. Perhaps if they remained and the activity below ceased, it might be possible, but right now there wasn’t much of an emergency exit if they were detected, particularly if they were outnumbered.
And they knew it wouldn’t take much to outnumber them.
So they glided slowly and carefully between the stacks and tried to get down to a point where they could observe without being observed.
They almost met disaster right off. There was a sudden movement from below almost before they could get behind a crate and freeze. A large, dark, menacing shape arose so close to them they could almost touch it. It was, strangely, a familiar sort of figure, even though it had a leathery soft, spiral shell-like body and lots of tentacles, each apparently designed to do a particular job. More distinctive was the eye, which was on a muscle-driven version of a lazy Susan, able to pop out of the soft shell and pivot in any direction, or come far enough out so that, if both eyes were so situated, it would have three-dimensional vision instead of multiple vision.
What the hell? That’s a damned Ghoman! Ari exclaimed.
Ming thought a moment. No, it’s a Chalidang. I’d bet anything on that.
But—But they’re the same! They ‘re absolutely the same!
Maybe. I never was close enough to a Ghoman to be able to tell. I admit, though, that all creatures with ten tentacles, a soft spiral shell, and a unique eye like that look alike to me. So Gamins and Chalidangers look the same, maybe are the same. So what?
So the only thing Josich changed was its sex, which is something we’ve been familiar with here, too. Hmph!