Read an Excerpt
Midnight At the Well of Soul
By Jack L. Chalker
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-3522-2
Mass murders are usually the more shocking because of the unexpected settings and the past character of the murderer. The Dalgonian Massacre is a case in point.
Dalgonia is a barren, rocky planet near a dying sun, bathed only in a ghostly, reddish light, whose beautiful rays create sinister shadows across the rocky crags. Little is left of the Dalgonian atmosphere to suggest that life could ever have happened here; the water is gone or, like the oxygen, now locked deep in rock. The feeble sun, unable to give more than the deep reddish tint to the landscape, is of no help in illuminating the skyline, which was, despite a bluish haze from the inert elements still present in it, as dark as the shadows. This was a world of ghosts.
And it was haunted.
Nine figures trooped silently into the ruins of a city that might easily have been mistaken for the rocky crags on the nearby hills. Twisted spires and crumbling castles of greenish-brown stood before them, dwarfing them to insignificance. Their white protective suits were all that made them conspicuous in this darkly beautiful world of silence.
The city itself resembled nothing so much as one that might have been built of iron aeons before and subjected to extensive rust and salt abrasion in some dead sea. Like its world, it was silent and dead.
A close look at the figures heading into the city would reveal that they were all what was known as "human"-denizens of the youngest part of the spiral arm of their galaxy. Five were female, four male, the leader a thin, frail man of middle years. Stenciled on his back and faceplate was the name Skander.
They stood at the half-crumbled gate to the city as they had so many times before, gazing at the incredible but magnificent ruin.
My name is Ozymandias. Look on my works ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains....
If those words from a poet out of their near-forgotten past did not actually echo through each of them, the concept and feeling of those lines did. And through each mind, as they had through the minds of thousands of others who had peered and pecked through similar ruins on over two dozen other dead planets, those endless and apparently unanswerable questions kept running.
Who were they who could build with such magnificence?
Why did they die?
"Since this is your first trip as graduate students to a Markovian ruin," Skander's reedy voice said through their radios, startling them out of their awe, "I will give a brief introduction to you. I apologize if I am redundant, but this will be a good refresher nonetheless.
"Jared Markov discovered the first of these ruins centuries ago, on a planet over a hundred light-years distant from this spot. It was our race's first experience with signs of intelligence in this galaxy of ours, and the discovery caused a tremendous amount of excitement. Those ruins were dated at over a quarter of a million standard years old-and they were the youngest discovered to date. It became obvious that, while our race still grubbed on its home world fiddling with the new discovery of fire, someone else-these people-had a vast interstellar empire of still unknown dimensions. All we know is that as we have pressed inward in the galaxy these remains get more and more numerous. And, as yet, we haven't a clue as to who they were."
"Are there no artifacts of any sort?" came a disbelieving female voice.
"None, as you should know, Citizen Jainet," came the formal reply in a mildly reproving tone. "That is what is so infuriating about it all. The cities, yes, about which some things can be inferred about their builders, but no furniture, no pictures, nothing of an even remotely utilitarian nature. The rooms, as you will see, are quite barren. Also, no cemeteries; indeed, nothing mechanical at all, either."
"That's because of the computer, isn't it?" came another, deeper female voice, that of the stocky girl from the heavy-gravity world whose family name was Marino.
"Yes," Skander agreed. "But, come, let's move into the city. We can talk as we go."
They started forward, soon coming into a broad boulevard, perhaps fifty meters across. Along each side ran what appeared to be broad walkways, each six to eight meters across, like the moving walkways of spaceports that took you to and from loading gates. But no conveyor belt or such was evident; the walkways were made of the same greenish-brown stone, or metal, or whatever it was that composed the rest of the city.
"The crust of this planet," Skander continued, "is about average-forty to forty-five kilometers thick. Measurements on this and other worlds of the Markovians showed a consistent discontinuity, about one kilometer thick, between the crust and the natural mantlerock beneath. This, we have discovered, was an artificial layer of material that is essentially plastic but seems to have had a sort of life in it-this much, at least, we infer. Consider how much information your own cells contain. You are the products of the best genetic manipulation techniques, perfect physical and mental specimens of the best of your races adapted to your native planets. And yet, for all that, you are far more than the sum of your parts. Your cells, particularly your brain cells, store input at an astonishing and continuing rate. We believe that this computer beneath your feet was composed of infinitely complex artificial brain cells. Imagine that! It runs the entirety of the planet, a kilometer thick-all brain. And all, we believe, attuned to the individual brain waves of the inhabitants of this city!
"Imagine it, if you can. Just wish for something, and there it is. Food, furniture-if they used any-even art, created by the mind of the wisher and made real by the computer. We have, of course, small and primitive versions now-but this is generations, possibly millennia, beyond us. If you could think of it, it would be provided!"
"This Utopian Theory accounts for most of what we see, but not why all this is now ruins," piped in an adolescent male voice, Varnett, the youngest-and probably brightest-but unquestionably the most imaginative of the group.
"Quite true, Citizen Varnett," Skander acknowledged, "and there are three schools of thought on it. One is that the computer broke down, and another is that the computer ran amok-and the people couldn't cope either way. You know the third theory, anyone?"
"Stagnation," Jainet replied. "They died because they had nothing left to live for, strive for, or work for."
"Exactly," Skander replied. "And yet, there are problems with all three suppositions. An interstellar culture of this magnitude would have allowed for breakdowns; they'd have some sort of backup system. As for the amok theory-well, it's fine except that every sign shows that the same thing happened at once, all across their entire empire. One, even several, okay, but not all at the same time. I am not quite willing to accept the last theory, even though it is the one that fits the best. Something nags at me and says that they would have allowed even for that."
"Maybe they programmed their own degeneration," Varnett suggested, "and it went too far."
"Eh?" There was a note of surprise but keen interest in Skander's voice. "Programmed-planned degeneration! It's an interesting theory, Citizen Varnett. Perhaps we'll find out in time."
He motioned and they entered a building with a strange, hexagonal doorway. All the doors were hexagons, it appeared. The interior of the room was very large, but there was no sign as to its purpose or function. It looked like an apartment or a store after the tenants had moved out, taking everything with them.
"The room," Skander pointed out to them, "is hexagonal-as the city is hexagonal, as is almost everything in it if you see it from the correct angle. The number six seems to have been essential to them. Or sacred. It is from this, and from the size and shape of the doorways, windows, and the like-not to mention the width of the walkways-that we have some idea of what the natives must have been like. We hypothesize that they were rather like a top, or turnip shape, with six limbs which may have been tentacles usable for walking or as hands. We suspect that things naturally came in sixes to them-their mathematics, their architecture, maybe they even had six eyes all around. Judging from the doors and allowing for clearance, they were about two meters tall on the average and possibly wider than that at the waist-which is where we believe the six arms, tentacles, or whatever were centered, and that must be why the doorways widen at that point."
They stood there awhile, trying to imagine such creatures living in the rooms, moving up and down the boulevards.
"We'd best be getting back to camp," Skander said at last. "You will have ample time to study here and to poke into every nook and cranny of the place." They would, in fact, be there a year, working under the professor at the University station.
They walked quickly in the lighter gravity and reached the base camp about five kilometers from the city gates in under an hour.
The camp itself looked like some collection of great tents of a strange circus, nine in all, bright white like the pressure suits. Long tubes connecting the tents occasionally flexed as the monitoring computers continually adjusted the temperature and barometric pressure that kept each inflated. On such a dead world little else was needed, and the insides were lined to make punctures almost impossible. If any such did happen, though, only those in the punctured area would be killed; the computer could seal off any portion of the complex.
Skander entered last, climbing into the air lock after making certain that none of his charges or major equipment was left outside. By the time the lock equalized and allowed him into the entry tent, the others were already all or partially out of their pressure suits.
He stopped for a minute, looking at them. Eight representatives from four planets of the Confederation-and, except for the one from the heavy-gravity world, all looked alike.
All were exceptionally trim and muscular, they could be a gymnastic team without any imagination. Although they ranged in age from fourteen to twenty-two, they all looked prepubescent, which, in fact, they were. Their sexual development had been genetically arrested, and would probably continue that way. He looked at the boy, Varnett, and the girl, Jainet-both from the same planet, the name of which eluded him. The oldest and the youngest of the expedition, yet they were exactly the same height and weight, and, with heads shaved, were virtually identical twins. They had been grown in a lab, a Birth Factory, and brought up by the State to think as identically as they looked. He had once asked why they continued to make both male and female models, only half in jest. It was, of course, a redundancy system in case anything happened to the Birth Factories, he had been told.
Humanity was on at least three hundred planets, and of those all but a handful were on the same line as the world that had spawned these two. Absolute equality, he thought sourly. Look alike, behave alike, think alike, all needs provided for, all wants fulfilled in equal measure to all, assigned the work they were raised for and taught that it was the only proper place for them and their duty. He wondered how the technocrats in charge decided who was to be what.
He thought back to the last batch. Three in that number came from a world that had even dispensed with names and personal pronouns.
He wondered idly how different the human race was at this point from the creatures of the city out there.
Even on worlds like his own home world it was like this, really. True, they grew beards and group sex was the norm, something that would have totally shocked these people. His world had been founded by a group of nonconformists fleeing the technocratic communism of the outer spiral. But, in its own way, it was as conformist as Varnett's home, he thought. Drop Varnett into a Caligristian town and he would be made fun of, called names, even, perhaps lynched. He wouldn't have the beard, or the clothes, or the sex to fit into Caligristo's life-style.
You can't be a nonconformist if you don't wear the proper uniform.
He had often wondered if there was something deep in the human psyche that insisted on tribalism. People used to fight wars not so much to protect their own life-style but to impose it on others.
That's why so many worlds were like these people's-there had been wars to spread the faith, convert the downtrodden. Now the Confederacy forbade that-but the existing conformity, world to world, was the status quo it protected. The leaders of each planet sat on a Council, with an enforcement arm capable of destroying any planet that strayed into "unsafe" paths and manned by specially trained barbarian psychopaths. But these weapons of terror could not be used without the actions of a majority of the Council.
It had worked. There were no more wars.
They had conformed the entire mass of humanity.
And so had the Markovians, he thought. Oh, the size and sometimes the color and workmanship of the cities had varied, but only slightly.
What had that youth, Varnett, said? Perhaps they had deliberately broken down the system?
Skander's face had a frown as he removed the last of his pressure suit. Ideas like that marked brilliance and creativity-but they were unsafe thoughts for a civilization like the one the boy had come from. It revived those old religious ideas that after perfection came true death.
Where could he have gotten an idea like that? And why had he not been caught and stopped?
Skander looked after their naked young bodies as they filed through the tunnel toward the showers and dorm.
Only barbarians thought that way.
Had the Confederacy guessed what he was up to here? Was Varnett not the innocent student he was supposed to be, but the agent of his nightmares?
Did they suspect?
Suddenly he felt very chilly, although the temperature was constant.
Suppose they all were....
* * *
Three months passed. Skander looked at the picture on his television screen, an electron micrograph of the cellular tissue brought up a month before by the core drill.
It was the same pattern as the older discoveries-that same fine cellular structure, but infinitely more complex inside than any human or animal cell-and so tremendously alien.
And a six-sided cell, at that. He had often wondered about the why of that-had even their cells been hexagonal? Somehow be doubted it, but the way that number kept popping up he wouldn't disbelieve it, either.
He stared and stared at the sample. Finally, he reached over and turned up the magnification to full and put on the special filters he had developed and refined in over nine years on this barren planet.
The screen suddenly came alive.
Excerpted from Midnight At the Well of Soul by Jack L. Chalker Excerpted by permission.
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