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Twilight at the Well of Souls
By Jack L. Chalker
Baen BooksCopyright © 1980 Jack L. Chalker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSouth Zone, the Well World
"A Morvath squad reports it definitely just killed Nathan Brazil," the Czillian said wearily, limbs drooping and pumpkinlike head somehow conveying a note of exhaustion as well.
Serge Ortega sighed. "How many does that make today?"
"Twenty-seven," the plant-creature responded. "And it's early yet."
Relaxing, Ortega sat back on his great serpentine tail and shook his head. "You have to admire the genius of it, though. He knew the Well World Council would never dare let him back in. So he gets surgeons back in the Com to remake a bunch of people roughly his size and build and sends them through. Got to admire it. Got to admire the guts of the people who let such a thing be done to them, too-unless they're damned naïve or just damned fools."
The Czillian's vineline tentacles formed a very human shrug. "No matter. What does it get him? We just kill every one that comes through, anyway-and we know he has to come through looking pretty much the way our photos say he looks. Even if he should get by in some kind of disguise, we know he has to show up in Ambreza-and that hex is an armed camp with wall-to-wall watchers. How could one of known appearance, naked, shorn of disguise, ever hope to eludethem?"
"You don't know Brazil," Ortega responded. "I do. Now, stop thinking like a computer for a moment and start thinking like a pirate. Nate's a nasty, clever pirate-almost equal to me in the way be thinks. Smart, Grumma. Real smart. He understands us, the way we think, the way we react to things-look how easily he figured he'd need all this window dressing to sneak in. Now, he certainly realizes that we would expect him and lay a snare. If you guessed that far in advance of putting this plan into action, and you knew the limitations, when would you arrive in the Well World?"
The Czillian considered that one a moment. "I cannot say. Wait, perhaps, until we're so sick and tired of killing imitations that we stop?"
Ortega shook his head firmly from side to side. "Never. Too risky. Communication between the Well World and the rest of the universe is strictly one way. He'd have no way of knowing when we reached that point-or if we'd ever reach it. Uh uh. Not like Nate to take that kind of a risk when the operation's so important."
"When, then?" The Czillian was curious. Coming from a hex whose social system resembled a great university, the creature was well versed in the most esoteric knowledge, but its life had been a sheltered one and this sort of devious thinking was beyond its experience.
"I keep wondering about the others, the first through," Ortega told Grumma. "Okay, so you send your key people in first so they get through. That makes sense. If we'd known something was up on this scale ahead of time, we'd have stopped the plan right there. And the Chang girl-why did she actually stop in here to see me? Old times' sake? She has more reason to kill me than anything else-and she's one of my kind, too. No idle curiosity, either. The risk was too great that I'd smell a rat. Uh uh. Why come in, introduce herself, then tell me there was this great plot in the works and that Brazil was coming back?"
The Czillian was patient but only to a point. "All right. Why?"
Ortega smiled admiringly. "It came to me only this morning, and I could ram my head against a wall for not catching on sooner. She did it for several reasons. First, she sounded me out on how I'd feel about all this and got a measure of what power I might still have here. Second, she guaranteed that this sort of operation-a hunt for Brazil-would take place."
"But that would doom Brazil," the Czillian pointed out.
The sickly grin widened. "Not if Nathan Brazil was already here, ahead of them all. We'd waste so much time hunting for him, we'd never look for him in Ambreza until it was too late. Want to bet?"
"Do you have any proof of this?" the Czillian asked skeptically.
"It's the old shell game," the snake-man continued, partially ignoring the question. "You take three shells, put a pebble under one, then shuffle them in such a way that you misdirect the sucker. He thinks he sees the shell with the pebble move to the right, but that's Illusion. The pebble's stayed in the middle. That's what happened this time. First the pebble-Brazil-slipped in, then we were left staring at the shuffling of empty shells."
"But do you have any proof?" the Czillian persisted.
Bushy eyebrows rose. "Proof? Of course. Once I realized that I'd been had, it was simple." Ortega reached across his U-shaped desk and his lower right hand pushed a combination of buttons on a small control panel. A screen on the far wall flickered to life, showing a still of the great Well Gate chamber through which entered all who fell into the teleportation gates of the long-dead Markovians. Cameras had been set up in there for as long as any could remember so that no one would enter without being seen and given his introduction and orientation to the Well World.
Images flickered across the screen; strange shapes from twenty or more different worlds, their only commonality their carbon-based structure. Non-carbon-based life automatically went to the North Zone.
"We're going backward," Ortega told his associate. "Backward from the point at which Chang and her friends came through."
"How far back in time are we now?" the plant-creature asked, while examining the image of a spindly structure seeming without head, tail, or limbs.
"Three weeks. I went back further than that. There! There's the one I was looking for!" One of Ortega's six arms shot out and stabbed a button, freezing the picture. "That, my friend, is Nathan Brazil," he said flatly.
The Czillian stared. The figure on the screen was small and lithe, but it was by no means the sort of creature Grumma knew Brazil to be. A humanoid torso of deep blue ended in hairy, goatlike legs; the satyr's face peered through dark-blue hair and a full beard: two small horns protruded atop the lead.
"That is not a Type 41," the Czillian noted. "That is a 341-an Agitar."
Ortega chuckled. "No it's not. Oh, true, it looks like one, but it's supposed to. A fine make-up job, if I do say so, but Nate probably called in the best costumers in the business on it. The disguise is so perfect it'd fool the Agitarian ambassador here, I'm sure-provided Nate didn't have to demonstrate his electric-shock ability. He counted on nothing but coming in, meeting with the duty officer, receiving the standard briefing, and then being shoved through the Well. Very clever. We'd never even notice. We get two or three of his type every century. Very clever. Insidious."
"Then why are you so sure he isn't just a 341 Entry?" the plant- creature persisted.
"He made a slip," Ortega responded. "One lousy slip. A slip I would never catch until too late-that nobody would catch here in Zone. Deliberate, I think. At least there was no way around it. He didn't know the language of the ... Saugril, I think they call themselves out in the universe. That race and the Com never met, so he couldn't know it."
"You mean in the preliminary interview he spoke something else?" the Czillian pressed, amazed. "And that's what gave him away? But, then, why wouldn't it have betrayed him at the time?"
Ortega chuckled. "How do you and I converse? I'm speaking Ulik, a tongue your rather odd vegetable sound generator couldn't approach. By the same token, your speech is the wrong set of frequencies for me to even hear. Yet we talk normally like this and are understood."
"Ah!" the Czillian's strange pumpkin head came up, its perpetual look of amazement only adding to its body language of understanding. "The translators! Of course! Basically they are telepathic projectors."
The snake-man nodded. "Sure. And for purely diplomatic reasons, we all wear them in Zone. All of us. The master communications system here is only a larger, more sophisticated external version so we can understand the Entries without an operation. He knew it'd take whatever he spoke and translate it into our own languages as if he were speaking ours."
"But isn't that dangerous? Didn't he risk running into a former 341 Entry?"
"Pretty slim, you'd admit," he responded. "And, besides, most races have a number of languages-and things change even more with time and distance. No, he slipped because of the language he used and the fact that I was one of the very few people on the Well World who might recognize it. I have to tell you I needed computer help to defeat my own translator mechanisms."
"And the language?"
Ortega smiled. "It is ancient Hebrew. We had a couple of rabbis come through, and the language is in the data-center computers. It's Hebrew all right-a Type 41 language and one he knows well. Oh, the man is so damnably clever!"
The Czillian shook its head slightly in wonderment. "He is quite an actor," it noted. "Who was the duty officer who processed him?"
Ortega spat. "Me, damn his hide. Me!"
"This means that Brazil arrived before his agents," the Czillian pointed out needlessly. "He was through Ambreza before we even knew anything was amiss. He could be anywhere by now. Anywhere!"
Ortega shook his head slowly from side to side. "No, not anywhere. Ten to one he moved from Ambreza into Glathriel as quickly as possible. He knows the territory well. I think he is the Markovian who designed that particular race. They're still pretty primitive, but that would give him an advantage. Get some dye to make himself a little darker, like the people of Glathriel, some native dress, and he'd fit right in. Lie low until his people could help him out. He'd be conspicuous on the move, remember. He'll need help, native help-or native-looking help anyway. That's our only ace in the hole. Our only one. He couldn't prepare much in advance. Once in, he'd have to hide and wait."
"He seems perfectly capable of hiding out indefinitely," the Czillian noted with unmasked appreciation.
"Hiding out, yes," the Ulik agreed. "But he can't hide out. Not indefinitely. Sooner or later he's going to have to come out of his hidy-hole and move. At the very least he's got something like eight hexes to traverse-well over three thousand kilometers. And we can be sure he'll take anything but the direct route. The only thing he has in his favor now is that we have no idea to which Avenue he's going, or when, or how."
"The only thing," Grumma repeated sarcastically.
"Once he starts to move, he's playing my game," the snake-man continued, oblivious to the other's tone. "Only trouble is, he knows that as well as I do-and he's been a step ahead of us all the way."
"What do we do in the meantime, though?"
"We put people on all the key agents, the ones who came through first. Mavra Chang in particular-she's the best he's got, possibly the most dangerous woman I've ever known. And she thinks like him. Beyond that, I think we must convene an emergency session of the council-North as well as South."
The Czillian appeared surprised. "Is the North necessary?"
"It is. It's their fight, too, remember. And consider this. I have reports of a large number of Entries winding up as Northerners."
"But that's impossible!"
"Uh uh. We have only 780 hexes here in the South, all in careful balance. The population's maintained, stabilized by the Well so it never exceeds the available resources. It's overloaded already. We're doubling the population, you realize that? And there's no end to them! So the Well's kicked in its emergency system-it's started filling in Northern Hexes as well to distribute the flood tide. And that means Brazil now has loads of Northern followers as well."
"But he can't get past North Zone," the Czillian pointed out. "You know the Well Gates don't work that way."
"I only know that centuries ago a whole shitload of Southerners, Chang included, went North. We can't afford to overlook anything. It'd be just like the son of a bitch to come back to Zone, go to North Zone, then into an Avenue from the other side. Who'd expect it?"
"I'll set the Council session up," the plant-creature responded meekly. "Anything else?"
"Yeah. As quickly as possible, I want reports on Chang and the other two who came in with her. I want to know what they are, where they are, and what they are doing now. Let's move!"
* * *
The Czillian left hurriedly, and the door to the Ulik Embassy at South Zone hissed closed. Serge Ortega leaned back wearily on his massive, coiled serpentine tail and sighed, then turned silent, his six arms folded contemplatively. He rocked back and forth, slowly, as if meditating, although actually he was deep in thought. The silence was absolute.
And then, quite suddenly, it was broken by the sound of someone clearing its throat.
Ortega jumped and whirled, shocked by the sound, then stopped, staring wide-eyed at the intruder, who was lounging quite comfortably on a cotlike couch.
The alien was a Type 41-a human, just as Ortega had once been, but that had been so long ago he had almost forgotten what it was like. Lanky, dark-complected, with a lean, heavily boned triangular face, he was dressed in a plaid work shirt, heavy slacks, and well-worn boots. For a moment Ortega thought it must be Brazil, and a thrill shot through him. But, no, he told himself, Brazil could disguise himself in a number of ways, but he couldn't add fifty or more centimeters, at least not so convincingly.
"Who the hell are you, and how did you get in here?" Ortega asked the newcomer.
The man shifted around and put his arms behind his head, looking comfortable and slightly amused by all this. "Just call me Gypsy," he replied lightly. "Everybody does. Mind if I smoke?"
His insolent manner irritated Ortega, but curiosity overwhelmed all other emotions. "No, go ahead."
Gypsy reached in a shirt pocket and removed a long, thin, Com-style cigarette from a pack, then a small silver lighter, and lit up. Curls of blue-gray smoke rose into the air as he puffed to make sure it was lit.
"Thanks," he responded, putting the lighter away and resuming his comfortable posture. "Filthy habit, I admit, but handy. What with the Ambreza monopoly on tobacco here, they're better than gold."
A coldness crept up and down Ortega's spine. "You have to have heard that at a briefing, probably one by Brazil," he guessed. "The humans here don't look much like you. You have just arrived here. I'm surprised they didn't shoot you."
Gypsy chuckled. "They didn't shoot me because I didn't just arrive at all. I've been here for weeks, in fact. As to how I got here, I came through the Zone Gate."
"Now I know you're lying," the Ulik accused. "The Ambreza wouldn't let any Type 41 through the Gate right now."
"I didn't use the Ambreza gate," Gypsy responded coolly. "I used ... ah, shall we say, a different gate. I'd rather not say which one right now."
The chills were back, although Ortega couldn't say why he believed this man. "That's impossible," he retorted. "The Well doesn't work that way."
"I know it doesn't," the newcomer responded, unperturbed. "If you say so."
"Maybe you had better explain yourself," the ambassador said warily.
Gypsy laughed. "No, I don't think so. Not right now, anyway. But I found your conversation with the Czillian fascinating. You took a lot longer to catch on than we'd figured, you know."
That was the most irritating comment so far, mostly because Ortega had to agree with Gypsy. He didn't like being suckered. He liked to be, and usually was, in control.
"Anyway," Gypsy continued, "I'm here to talk to you. Just talk. As an ambassador, you might say, from the newcomers."
"From Brazil, you mean."
"Him, too," Gypsy admitted. "Mostly you got it doped out right now and we want to know what you're gonna do next."
Suspicion creeped into Ortega. "You're not another Markovian, like Brazil?" he suggested. "I kind of figured if there was one, there were more."
Gypsy laughed. "No, not another Markovian. I'm not even as old as you are, Ortega. And Brazil-well, I'm not sure what he is, but I don't think he's a Markovian."
"He claims to be God," Ortega pointed out.
Gypsy laughed again. "Well, maybe he is. I don't know. And you know what? I don't really give a damn. All I know, all anybody knows, is that he's the only guy around who knows how to work the Well of Souls. That's all that really matters, isn't it? Not who or what he is, or you are, or I am. But, no, that's wrong. What you are counts a little, I think. That's why I'm here."
Excerpted from Twilight at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker Copyright ©1980 by Jack L. Chalker. Excerpted by permission.
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