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It wasn't the fact that Gilgam Zinder's lab assistant had a horse's tail that was the oddest fact; the really strange thing was that she didn't seem to think her condition odd or unusual.
Zinder was tall and thin, a gaunt man with gray hair and a long gray goatee that made him seem even older than he was, and more drawn. His blue-gray eyes, bloodshot and surrounded with darkening shadow, showed his overwork. He hadn't thought to eat in more than two days, and sleep had become academic.
The place was a strange-looking lab at that. It was designed something like an amphitheater, with a circular raised pedestal about forty centimeters above the plain flooring that served as the stage. Above the stage was a device hanging like a great cannon but terminating in a small mirror with a tiny point coming out from it.
A balcony surrounded the apparatus; here, along the walls, were thousands of blinking lights, dials and switches, and central consoles, four of them, evenly spaced around the circle below. Zinder sat at one; directly across from him a much younger man in shiny protective lab clothing sat at another. Zinder's lab suit looked as if it had been made in the lastcentury.
The woman standing on the raised disk was an ordinary-looking sort, late thirties and a little dumpy and saggy, the kind that looks far better with proper clothes than nude as she now was.
Only she had a horse's tail, long and bushy.
She looked up at the two men with puzzlement and some impatience.
"Well, come on," she called to them, "aren't you going to do anything? It's cold down here."
Ben Yulin, the younger man, smiled and leaned over the rail.
"Swish your tail awhile, Zetta. We're working as fast as we can!" he called down good-naturedly.
And she was swishing the tail, slowly back and forth, routinely, echoing her frustration.
"You really don't notice any difference, Zetta?" Zinder's thin, reedy voice asked her.
She looked puzzled, then down at herself, running her hands along her body, including the tail, as if to find out what they did.
"No, Dr. Zinder, I don't. Why? Is something about me-different?" she responded hesitantly.
"Do you know you have a tail?" Zinder prompted.
She looked puzzled. "Of course I have a tail," she replied in a so-what's-wrong-with-that tone.
"You don't find that, ah, odd or unusual?" Ben Yulin put in.
The woman was genuinely confused. "Why, no, of course not. Why should I?"
Zinder looked over at his young assistant, almost fifteen meters across the open stage.
"An interesting development," he commented.
Yulin nodded. "Creating bean pots, then the lab-animal stuff, that told us what we could do, but I don't think I was ready for this."
"You remember the theory?" Zinder prompted.
Yulin nodded. "We're changing probability within the field. What we do to something or someone in the field is normal to them, because we've changed their basic stabilizing equation. Fascinating. If we could do this on a large scale ..." He let the thought trail off.
Zinder looked thoughtful. "Yes, indeed. A whole population would be changed and it would never know it." He turned and looked down again at the woman with the horse's tail.
"Zetta?" he called. "Do you know that we do not have tails? That no one else we know of has a tail?"
She nodded. "Yes, I know it's unusual to you. But what's the big deal? I haven't exactly tried to hide it from view."
"Did your parents have tails, Zetta?" Yulin asked.
"Of course not!" she responded. "Now what's all this about?"
The younger scientist looked across at the old one. "Want to go any further?" he asked.
Zinder shrugged lightly. "Why not? Yes, I'd love to do a psych probe and see how deep it goes, but if we can do it once we can do it anytime. Let's check out one thing at a time."
"Okay," Yulin agreed. "So now what?"
Zinder looked thoughtful for a moment. Then, suddenly, he reached over and touched a panel next to a recessed combination microphone and speaker.
"Obie?" he called into it.
"Yes, Dr. Zinder?" the voice of the computer that was in the walls around them replied; a pleasant, professional, and personable tenor.
"You have noted that the subject does not know we have in any way altered her?"
"Noted," Obie admitted. "Do you wish her to? The equations are not quite as stable in that situation but they'll hold up."
"No, no, that's all right," Zinder responded quickly. "How about attitude without physical change? Is that possible?"
"A much more minor alteration," the computer told him. "But, also, because of that, more easily and quickly reversible."
Zinder nodded. "All right, then, Obie. We translated a horse into the system matrix, so you have it completely and you have Zetta completely."
"We don't have the horse any more," Obie pointed out.
Zinder sighed impatiently. "But you have the data on it, don't you? That's where the tail came from, right?"
"Yes, Doctor," Obie replied. "I see now that you were being rhetorical again. I'm sorry."
"That's all right," Zinder assured the machine. "Look, let's try for something bigger. Do you have the term and concept centaur in your memory?"
Obie thought for perhaps a millisecond. "Yes. But it will take some work to turn her into one. After all, there is the matter of internal plumbing, cardiovascular systems, additional nerve connections, and the like."
"But you can do it?" Zinder prompted, somewhat surprised.
"Two or three minutes," Obie replied.
Zinder leaned over. The girl with the tail was pacing a little nervously on the podium, looking quite uncomfortable.
"Assistant Halib! Please stop that pacing and return to the center of the disk!" he reproved her. "We're about ready, and you did volunteer for this."
She sighed. "Sorry, Doctor," she responded and stood on the center mark.
Zinder looked over at Yulin. "On my mark!" he called, and Yulin nodded.
The little mirrorlike disk overhead moved out, the little point in the center aimed down, and suddenly the entire area of the disk was bathed in a pale-blue light that seemed to sparkle, enveloping the woman. She seemed frozen, unable to move. Then she suddenly flickered several times like a projected image and winked out entirely.
"Subject's known stability equation has been neutralized," Yulin said into his recorder. He looked up at Zinder.
"Gil?" he called, slightly disturbed.
"Eh?" the other man responded absently.
"Suppose we didn't bring her back? I mean, suppose we just neutralized her," Yulin said nervously. "Would she exist, Gil? Would she ever have existed?"
Zinder sat back in his chair, thinking. "She wouldn't exist, no," he told the other. "As to the rest-well, we'll ask Obie." He leaned forward and flipped on the transceiver connecting him to the computer.
"Yes, Doctor?" the computer's calm tone came back.
"I'm not disturbing the process, am I?" Zinder asked carefully.
"Oh, no," the computer replied cheerfully. "It's taking only a little under an eighth of me to work it out."
"Can you tell me-if the subject were not restabilized, would she have any existence? That is, would she have ever existed?"
Obie thought it over. "No, of course not. She is a minor part of the prime equation, of course, so it wouldn't affect reality as we know it. But it would adjust. She would never have lived."
"Then-what if we left her with the tail?" Yulin broke in. "Would everybody else assume she had a tail all along?"
"Quite so," the computer agreed. "After all, to exist she must have a reason, or the equations would not balance. Again, it would have no effect on the overall equation."
"What would, I wonder?" Zinder mumbled off-mike, then turned back to Obie. "Tell me, if that's the case, why do we-Ben, you, and me-know that reality has been altered?"
"We are in close proximity to the field," Obie replied. "Anyone within approximately a hundred meters would have some knowledge of this. The closer you are, the more dichotomy you perceive. After about a hundred meters the perception of reality starts to become negligible. People would be aware that something was different, but wouldn't be able to figure out what. Beyond a thousand meters the dissipation would become one with the master equation, and reality would adjust. I can, however, adjust or minimize this for your perceptions if you desire."
"Absolutely not!" Zinder said sharply. "But you mean that everyone beyond a thousand meters of here would firmly believe she had always been a centaur and that there was a logical reason for it?"
"That is correct. The prime equations always remain in natural balance."
"She's coming in!" Ben called excitedly, breaking off the dialogue.
Zinder looked out and saw a shape flicker into the center of the disk. It flickered twice more, then solidified, and the field winked out. The mirror swung silently away overhead.
It was still Zetta Halib, recognizably. But where the woman had stood, the creature was Zetta now only down to the waist. There her yellow-brown skin melded into black hair, and the rest of her body was that of a full-grown mare of perhaps two years.
"Obie?" Yulin called, and the computer answered. "Obie, how long before she stabilizes? That is, how long before the centaur becomes permanent?"
"It's permanent now, for her," the computer told him. "If you mean how long it will take the prime equations to stabilize her new set, an hour or two at most. It is, after all, a minor disturbance."
Zinder leaned over the rail and looked at her in amazement. It was clear that he had exceeded his wildest dreams.
"Would she breed true-if we had a male?" Yulin asked the computer.
"No," the computer responded, sounding almost apologetic. "That would take a lot more work. She would breed a horse, of course."
"You could make a breeding pair of centaurs, though?" Yulin persisted.
"Most probably," Obie hedged. "After all, the only limit to this process is my input. I have to have the knowledge of how to do it, how things are put together, before I can work something out."
Yulin nodded, but he was plainly as excited as the older man whose life's work this was.
The centaur looked up at them. "Are we just going to stay here all day?" she asked impatiently. "I'm getting hungry."
"Obie, what does she eat?" Yulin asked.
"Grass, hay, anything of that nature," the computer replied. "I had to take some short cuts, of course. The torso is mostly muscle tissue and supporting bone. I used the horse's part for the organs."
Yulin nodded, then looked over at the older scientist, still somewhat dazed by what he'd wrought.
"Gil?" he called. "How about some cosmetic touch-ups, and then we can keep her this way awhile? It would be interesting to see how this alteration works out."
Zinder nodded absently.
With one more pass, Yulin was able to give the new creature a younger human half; he tightened her up and restored what appeared to be youthful good looks.
They were almost finished when a door opened near the old scientist and a young girl, no more than fourteen, walked in with a tray. She was about 165 centimeters tall, but she weighed close to sixty-eight kilograms. Pudgy, stocky, awkward, with thick legs and fat-enlarged breasts, she wasn't helped by dressing in a diaphanous dress, sandals, and overdone makeup, or by the obviously dyed long blond hair. She looked somehow grotesque, but the old man smiled indulgently.
"Nikki!" he said reprovingly. "I thought I told you not to come in when the red light was on!"
"I'm sorry, Daddy," she responded, sounding not the least bit sorry, as she put the tray down and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "But you haven't eaten in so long we were getting worried." She looked over, saw the younger man and smiled a very different sort of smile.
"Hi, Ben!" she called playfully, and waved.
Yulin looked over, smiled, and waved back. Then, suddenly, he was thinking hard. A hundred meters, he thought. The kitchen was about that far away, above ground.
She put her arms around her father. "What have you been up to for so long?" she asked in that playful tone. Although physically adult, Nikki Zinder was emotionally very much a child and acted it. Too much, her father knew. She was overly protected here, cut off from people her own age, and spoiled rotten from an early age by her father's inability to discipline her and everybody's knowledge that she was the boss's kid. Even her slight lisp was childish; often she seemed more like a pouting five-year-old than the almost fourteen she really was.
But, she was his, and he couldn't bear to send her away, to put her in a fancy school or project far away from him. His had been a lonely life of figures and great machines; at fifty-seven he had had clone samples taken, but he wanted his own. Finally he had paid a project assistant back on Voltaire to give him a baby. She had been the first one willing to do it, just to see what the experience was like. She was a behavioral psychologist, and Zinder had had her assigned to his project until Nikki was delivered, then he paid her off, and she left.
Nikki looked like her mother, but that didn't matter. She was his, and during the most trying periods of the project she had kept him from blowing his brains out. She was immature as hell. But he really didn't want her to grow up. Nikki Zinder suddenly heard a woman cough, and she bounded up to the rail and looked down on the centaur.
"Oh, wow!" she exclaimed. "Hi! Zetta!"
The centaur looked up at the girl and smiled indulgently. "Hello, Nikki," she responded automatically.
Both Zinder and Yulin were fascinated.
"Nikki, you don't see anything, er, odd about Zetta?" her father prompted.
The girl shrugged. "Nope. Why? Should I?"
Ben Yulin's mouth dropped open in honest surprise.
* * *
Over a week passed during which they noted various reactions to the new creature. Just about everyone at the center saw nothing unusual in Zetta Halib being half horse; that is, nothing newly unusual. They knew, of course, that she was a volunteer for the biological scientists attempting to adapt people to different forms. They knew she had been manipulated after conception to grow up as she had, and they remembered when she had arrived and recalled the initial reactions.
Everything checked out, of course, except for the fact that none of what they remembered had actually happened. Reality needed to explain her and had adjusted accordingly. Only two men knew the truth.
Excerpted from Exiles at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker Copyright © 1984 by Jack L. Chalker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 17, 2014
I read this series many years ago (over 30?) and it has always been a favorite of mine. It went out of print for many years or I would have read it again earlier. It was just as good the second time around. I am not a big fantasy reader but appreciate more science fiction type work. This series has a bit of both and is exceptionally well written. Be sure to get the whole set before it goes out of print again. It is an EXCELLENT READ!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 26, 2003
I HAVE BEEN READING JACK CHALKER FOR MANY YEARS AND FIND HIM TO BE AMOUNGST THE VERY BEST IN INOVATIVE SF. THE WELL WORLD SERIES IS ONE OF MY VERY FAVORITE EVER. TO TRAVEL IN THE WELL WORLD IS AMAZING. IT IS SO HARD TO DESCRIBE IN A FEW SHORT WORDS. IF YOU LIKED THE 'MATRIX' THEN YOU WILL LOVE CHALKER'S MANY SERIES, AS HE WAS BEHIND THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT-READ THE WONDERLAND GAMBIT SERIES AND YOU WILL SEE.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 27, 2008
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Posted October 27, 2008
No text was provided for this review.
Posted October 27, 2008
No text was provided for this review.