Chapter 1 2 3

The Run to Chaos Keep

Copyright 1998
ISBN: 0671-57799-9
Publication March 1999
ORDER

by Jack L. Chalker

The Demons at Rainbow Bridge

An anguished, ghostly spectre trapped in Hell had summoned them to this remote place, and, worst of all, it was a collect call.

"All ships . . . any ships . . . Exchange registry . . . This is Research Vessel Wabaugh. Coordinates based on special map frontier zone one one four eight two stroke five. Coordinates are Rainbow Bridge. Send assistance fast. They’re all dead. They’re all in there with the demons and they’re all dead. Only one left. Can’t leave. Approach with extreme caution! Power adequate for maintenance only. Any Exchange registry. Approach with caution. Demons at Rainbow Bridge! Coordinates . . ."

The blue and green world below them looked so tranquil, so placid, that it seemed as if nothing could disturb its quiet beauty, but they were an Arm of the gods of the Mizlaplan, a holy gathering in Inquisition assembly, and they had already risked much to get this far.

Although, by treaty, the Mizlaplanian survival suit was officially categorized as "gold in color," that was simply to get around different racial perceptions of color. The suits were not shiny, but rather dull, more a darker shade of yellow with just a bit of orange than golden. The form-fitted suits, customized for each individual, differed only in detail from those used by the other two great empires, the Mycohl and the Exchange, but for color, of course. Captain Gun Roh Chin, master of the Mizlaplanian freighter Faith of Gorusu, graduate of the Naval Institute, now an Instrument of the Arm of the Holy Inquisition, looked at them all in their fairly bright suits and wished that the diplomats had insisted on charcoal; he felt like a beacon in the damned thing, or a very good target. They had been forced into this desolate and isolated frontier sector of space on orders; to get here, they had been forced to cross Mycohlian space at its narrowest point, and, narrow or not, were two empires away from home and doubly illegal.

Even though Chin timed his drop and his thrust perfectly, it took him close to thirty precious minutes to maneuver up to the Exchange ship, and, when he did, he found it with beacons and running lights off and no sign of power.

The ship was an impressive sight nonetheless, framed against the blue-green and white backdrop of the planet below; clearly a research and supply, rather than military, vessel, it floated suspended between the planet and the stars, looking very, very lonely.

"It doesn’t look damaged," Krisha the Holy Mendoro, the dark beauty who was both priestess and Arm security officer, noted, trying to see what detail she could. "I am telepathically scanning, and I get nothing at all."

"Nor I," added Savin the Holy Peshwa, who was a powerful empath. Empaths often received things at far greater distance than telepaths, although, in both cases, they weren’t expecting to feel or monitor anything intelligible—just some sign that there was life aboard. "It feels like a dead ship."

Savin was a Mesok, a huge humanoid creature with a hard, rubbery reptilian skin, nasty yellow eyes like some giant cat’s, with big, bony hands whose fingers and toes ended in suckers at their tips, and big, bony, dish-like ears that seemed glued onto the top of his angular head. He was a fearsome-looking one, all green and black, with enormous teeth that showed even with his mouth closed, and his very sight was intimidating as a vision of Hell. There wasn’t one of them who didn’t give prayers of thanks every time they looked at him that he was on their side.

Manya the Holy Szin looked up from her instrument cluster. "It is a dead ship," she told them. "No power levels at all. Even the emergencies have been drained. Only the broadcast emergency transponder, which is opposite the planet’s surface, shows any energy at all. It is inert. No life forms, no internal power. We will have to cut through an airlock just to board her."

Manya, the science officer of the Arm, was a Gnoll—short, squat, barrel-chested gnomes with snake-like forked tongues, huge pointed ears that stuck up on both sides of their heads, and with gray skin like an elephant’s hide and twice as tough. But they and Terrans could eat the same foods, tended to share a liking for sweets, had similar biological systems, and weren’t as far apart in the evolutionary way as they seemed on the surface.

"You’re certain of that, Manya?" Morok pressed her. "No life, no internal power? It can’t just be shielded?"

Morok the Holy Ladue was tall, frail-looking, and quite bird-like in appearance, his tiny hands at the end of the long, leathery wings that could actually be used to fly—in the right gravity and environment—and the leader of the Arm. Still, there was also something reptilian about him, at least subjectively to Terrans, and this came across in his constant cool, seemingly dispassionate manner.

"No. If there were any attempts at shielding of that sort then the shields themselves would register," the science officer replied. "There is nothing alive aboard. Even its computers are out."

"Somebody survived whatever it was," Krisha noted. "Somebody sent that message along with the distress beacon."

"Yes, but how long ago?" Gun Roh Chin asked her. "Many days, certainly. Perhaps longer. With life support down, they might not have been able to find a way to keep going. They might have lost hope after nobody came. They might have gone mad."

Savin’s huge eyes scanned the surface of the research vessel. "Holiness—the escape pods are still intact as well. Not a one has been fired. Not even the ones away from the surface that show some trickle charge—enough to use manually."

"Yes? So?" Morok was more spooked than irritated. They all were.

"Holiness—at least a few near the transponder are almost certainly usable, power drain or not. They weren’t used. The first implication is that whatever happened here happened very quickly and to everyone. Everyone but one. He, she, it—whatever—survived, possibly by being in the only place near the transponder that’s still active, and was possibly only knocked out when everyone and everything else went. They would likely not have a huge crew on this sort of ship anyway. That person is not aboard now, or, if aboard, died there. Died there right next to a getaway system. Or got away without using the pods."

Gun Roh Chin nodded. "The pod would have taken him to the nearest survivable planet. We assume that they wouldn’t assign races to this who couldn’t survive down there, since the climate, atmosphere, and the like have measured safe for us. It would have taken our survivor to the surface, with enough supplies and shelter for a month or more. That means . . ."

"It means," Krisha finished for him, "that he chose to die, either horribly or by his own hand, rather than go down to that world."

"There is a shuttle missing," Morok noted. "I saw its empty nesting bay on the underside."

"Within range of whatever it was, though," Savin pointed out. "I would assume that the shuttle was on the surface with the main scientific party. Since whatever killed this ship came from down there, I think it highly unlikely that anyone there risked flying up here to get that survivor off. Or was able to."

"Do you want to board her?" Chin asked them.

"Yes," responded Morok, "but not now. If there is no life aboard, we must first determine if there is still life below."

"Well, there is surely something below," Manya commented. "The energy pattern on the ship clearly indicates that it took a jolt of almost inconceivable power, pure energy, from a point below on the surface. It shorted out all the systems, shorted the computers, and most likely electrocuted almost everyone. Our survivor was probably the only one in some sort of insulated situation and so did not get the full jolt."

"If I am to be electrocuted, I should rather know who is doing it to me, and why," Morok said in a flat, hollow tone.

"Take it down, Captain. Land at their camp below. Everyone check suits and weapons. Yes, again. Now!"

It wasn’t difficult to find the camp below. It was a world covered with trees and seas, but the camp appeared to be the only sign of any animal life on it. There were a number of temporary, prefabricated structures down there as well as parabolic communications antennae all of which were easy to spot.

"A standard scientific field station, not much different than the way we would do it," Manya told them. "The only thing I cannot understand is that large—house, or building, or whatever it is. It is of a totally different design than the others and looks quite permanent. In fact, it almost looks as if it were tooled from a single, unimaginably huge quartz-like crystal."

"More likely the object under study," Morok guessed. "Is it the odd light or my eyes, or does that—thing—seem slightly different, almost as if it moved?"

"I have been plotting it," Manya reported. "It does change, somehow. Not really in mass or even dimensions, but subtly, in detail."

"Could it be alive?"

"It might be—but if it is, it is like nothing we know as life in any form. I simply do not know what it is, and I suspect that they didn’t, either. That is why they are here."

"The base station has normal power," Chin noted. "Looks rather cozy, in fact. But we’re not being scanned by anything I can detect. It’s as if everybody down there is asleep. Ah—see! Their shuttle’s there, in that clearing. I think I can put down close to it. No use in sneaking up. If anything’s left alive down here, it certainly knows we’re here by now and should come out and welcome us with open arms."

There was no welcoming committee. They put on their helmets, pressurized, and went out, even though all the instrumentation said that the air was perfectly safe and the temperature was quite pleasant. Until they knew more, none of them wanted to take anything for granted.

"Dead like the ship," Krisha said. "Nothing. I get nothing at all. Savin?"

"The same, although I do get some very odd intermittent sensations from the area of that object there. I can’t really explain the sensation. It’s not like anything I have ever experienced before. Whatever it is, I do not think it is directed at us."

"That will have to do for now," Morok told him. "Check out their shuttle first, then the prefabs, one at a time. Use caution, keep weapons drawn."

Gun Roh Chin took the shuttle. It wasn’t difficult to enter, and, inside, he found it rather bizarrely arranged but nothing he could not have figured out. It was clearly not designed to be flown by humans, although there were two human-shaped seats in the rear. The rest he put down to different designs and a different shuttle design philosophy. Still, he could tell almost from the moment he entered that it was powered, fully charged, and could be operational with a few flicks of a few switches.

"Shuttle is perfect and operational," he reported through his helmet radio.

"Then it could have picked up our survivor," Morok came back.

"Unlikely. Without power up there, they’d have had to cut away the outer airlock faceplate to get to the manual controls. They didn’t. This thing was here before and it’s been here all the time."

"The square prefab! Come quickly!" Krisha shouted.

They were all there on the run as soon as they got their bearings, piling into the door and then stopping dead just inside.

"May the gods embrace their innocent souls and reincarnate them to a life of peace," Morok intoned.

Gun Roh Chin was not prayerful. Even protected from the stench by his suit, he still wanted to throw up.

Savin bent down over a bloody form. "Krisha, exobiology is not my strong point, but isn’t the human heart mounted roughly in the central chest cavity?"

Krisha swallowed hard. "Yes, roughly. What . . . ?"

The huge Mesok grabbed a shock of white hair atop the head of a Terran corpse; its face locked in a horrible and grotesque death mask, and yanked it up unceremoniously so that the chest was exposed.

The central area of the chest had been literally torn open, as if by some wild creature, possibly, even probably, while the man had been still alive. They all caught their breaths, but Manya scurried over and began using her portable instruments to examine the awful-looking wound. Even the tough, fanatical Gnoll seemed a bit shaky, though.

"It . . . has been torn from his chest," she managed. "Several of the others have equivalent mutilations. Something with great strength just pushed them down, like a child’s plaything, and either ripped or tore key organs out of them."

"How long have they been dead?" Morok asked her.

"Seven days at least. This happened at least seven days ago. The bodies are dried up and beginning decomposition."

Gun Roh Chin wanted to avoid the sight of the research party, its nice little lab smeared in red human blood, and Zalerian green, and gray, and purple, and other colors of other races who had been here. He walked over to the far side of the lab and began to examine a huge hole that had seemingly been smashed into the wall around what had once been a window. He pushed away where the debris had bent inward and looked out at the strange, slightly changing, translucent structure just beyond.

In the small administration hut there was much the same, only here the door had simply been kicked or blown in. Here, too, were apparently several armed security officers, and this apparently had been, along with a couple found outside, the only armed members of the party. Some had clearly gotten off a lot of shots, and they looked, even in their present condition, to be the kind who didn’t miss.

Whatever had come out of that thing and killed them was hardly subtle; it had just come, on and on, oblivious to anything that they could do.

He had been around, seen hundreds of worlds and races, seen violence and cruelty as well as gentleness and good, but he had never seen anything like this.

"Something big," Kelly Morgan had told him. Something perhaps too big, even for them.

Krisha called to him. "Captain, I hate to ask, but I need you. We’ve found the depository recordings and none of us can read the writing to tell which is which."

He returned to the ultimate horror scene, noting how peaceful and gentle this place was, how quiet, and re-entered the lab.

He scanned the cabinet full of small labeled cubes she’d found, then picked one out. "This is a good place to start," he told her. "It says ‘Preliminary Report on Remote Autopsy of Unknown Forms.’ "

"There’s a player in the office over there," she told him. "And no bodies. The recording system is different than ours. I’m not certain I know how to work it."

He took it, went into the office, which looked as if it had just been left for a moment by its occupant, then found the small previewer machine. "It’s not difficult," he told her. "It’s just that instead of the full-blown presentation we get a small representation on the viewer plate, there. Switch your suit to translate standard Exchange."

The power was on; he simply turned on the machine, inserted the cube label side out, and pressed the large actuator touch switch.

Much of it was simply a dictated interim report to some superiors back home, probably a record copy, but the small, three-dimensional images it projected of the research materials told them something.

"Subject A is a male of the species, 2.4381 meters tall, weight estimated at two hundred forty to two hundred sixty-eight kilograms. It won’t be possible to totally eliminate the material in which they are embedded without extraction from the estimations. Sorry. The main body surface area is very tough, very dense. The skin is at least 1.2 centimeters thick, more aptly described as a ‘hide’ than mere skin, and various vital areas seem further protected by bony plates at or very near the exterior. Both hands and feet are overly large in proportion to the body and are hairless, with that mottled texture consistent and the palms probably rock hard to the touch although they certainly bend and flex in the expected manner. The talons at the ends of the fingers are suited to ripping and tearing flesh, consistent with the teeth, which contain no herbivorous molars at all. They are true flesh-eating carnivores, no question."

"By the gods," Krisha intoned under her breath as the long-dead voice went on. "I am looking at the scans but they mean little to me."

"Or me," Chin agreed. "Manya?"

The Gnoll seemed to be trembling visibly, her eyes rapt on the small viewing plate, intoning prayer after prayer.

Krisha looked somewhat stricken herself and looked up at Chin. "Her mind keeps saying ‘Demons! Demons! They have awakened Hell personified.’ "

"Manya!" Morok shouted at her.

The science officer seemed not to notice, then pointed a gnarled finger at the projection. "There! The full scan! Now they will pull back and restore it!"

The tiny figure, still a computerized diagram, now showed a full figure. Humanoid, big—bigger than Savin by a head—and, slowly, more and more detail was overlain as the voice continued to drone on with its observations.

"Oh, gods of eternity protect us!" Savin prayed. "Manya is right. Look! Look!"

Gun Roh Chin had to admit that even the hair on the back of his own neck seemed to be tingling as he saw what they had found.

The creature didn’t look quite the way his own religious teachers had pictured them, but it was still clearly recognizable, from the small horns on its head to the dull red eyes, fanged mouth, even the cloven hooves.

There could be no question in his or anyone else’s mind that he and they were looking at—not a representation, not an abstract estimation, and not someone’s imagination, but a real, three-dimensional photograph of an actual, in the flesh, classical demon.

"There must have been bodies in that thing," Chin commented dryly, his feelings at the moment impossible to describe. "They thought they were dead. They put a lid on this because they knew the effect this sort of discovery would have on not just our religion or even the Mycohl’s, but their own myriad faiths as well."

They could see the scene now: these cold, pragmatic, utterly materialistic scientists with their faith firmly rooted in what could be seen, felt, touched, and demonstrated, excited by the discovery of what must have been a burial place, intact, for what might have been the galaxy’s earliest space-faring civilization. They had poked, probed, scanned, and done everything they could for weeks, probably months, to learn what they could before physically attempting to disturb or remove the remains, just in case exposure to air or light might cause damage or deterioration.

Finally, though, they had all they could from their instruments, their data filling those recording cubes and probably being beamed back to the highest levels of the Exchange. Finally, there came the point where they could do no more without physically extracting the bodies from whatever sarcophagi they lay in.

And the sleepers had awakened and wreaked horrible vengeance on those who had defiled their tomb and disturbed their sleep.

"I almost hesitate to ask this," Gun Roh Chin said at last, his throat curiously and almost painfully dry, "because I’m not sure I want to know the answer, but it must be asked."

"Yes?" Morok responded, watching in added horror as a second scan was being dispassionately discussed on the tape.

"They were suspended, not dead. They were freed, awakened, whatever. They came out and they killed all these people and somehow also fried the ship up there. Then what?"

"Uh? What do you mean?"

"Where did they go next?"

At that moment there came a roaring noise from outside. In their current mental shape they snapped all weapons to ready and they ran out, leaving the recording playing.

Near both the research shuttle and their own, they could see another, differently designed shuttle landing.

"The Mycohl!" Chin swore. "I’d forgotten about them! Just what we really needed right now!"

"Weapons, everyone!" Krisha snapped, pulling her pistol. She looked around. "Captain–could our own people play that cube?"

"Uh—yes, I suppose so. If we can break diplomatic codes I see no reason why we couldn’t view a standard cube. The machine can be purchased almost anywhere in the Exchange."

"Then take the cube and any other that might look related. Don’t take too long! Manya—you are best equipped to check out our visitors. Go, but no shooting! Do not betray yourself. Let them go past you and wait until we attack. We might catch them all in a crossfire. Practice the telepathic shielding and in the name of the gods keep your emotions in check!"

The Gnoll was still horribly shaken by the sight on the viewer, but she was a professional, and her horror at the sight of a real demon was no greater than her hatred of the Mycohl. She also had a rather unique Talent of her own. It would be quite effective—if she could use her training to block out those of the enemy with other Talents that might betray her.

"There’s too many to carry," the captain told Krisha. "The three I’ve picked, including the one we viewed, will have to do."

She nodded. "Stand back, then." She aimed her energy pistol at the entire library, including the machine, and fired. There was a crackling sound, and what the beam did not disintegrate it melted into unusable form. "Let them get any information out of that!" she sniffed.

She stiffened. "We are being telepathically scanned," she told them.

That meant nothing to Chin, who was a null, the oddest and rarest of Talents. Although possessing no Talent of his own, he was immune to those of any other, something not true even of his powerful comrades. He was equally immune to Krisha’s telepathy, to Savin’s empathic abilities, and even to Morok’s powerful hypnotic abilities. Even Manya could not fool him, although her own Talent was unique to her species. Still, if Morok’s mind were read, or Manya’s, a Mycohl telepath would know he was here just as surely as if he were in full view.

Krisha’s telepathic shields were automatically up. That didn’t mean that someone of reasonable skill and power and the same Talent couldn’t detect her presence, but it certainly meant that they could get nothing from her mind. Morok, Savin, and Manya had fallen back into the somewhat effective methods of chanting prayers, a technique that, with their practice and experience and Krisha’s coaching, also left an enemy telepath not completely in the dark, but with far less information than would be useful. Telepathy, like any other form of communication, had its limits. Among them was its lack of directionality, which could be maintained by a practiced opponent varying amplitude as the mind-reader moved toward or away from them.

Still, if a telepath were good enough, and supported by others to gain the missing information, there was no real hiding. In case the Mycohlian was that good, Krisha was prepared to engage her counterpart mind-to-mind.

Morok’s thin, clawed, four-fingered hand, so tiny in such a large creature, touched her shoulder, and she turned and looked up and into his strange, blood-red round eyes.

"You are the sword of the Arm," Morok told her softly. "So long as that sword is needed, you are but an extension of the whole, a tool of the gods, and Krisha neither exists nor is relevant. There is nothing else; you exist only to protect the whole. No other telepath may defeat you, no hypno bind you."

<They have a hypno! Watch it!>

The words came to her mind as she turned away; coming, she knew, not from the enemy telepath but from the mind of another being cautioned by that telepath.

<Gray shades of Valdus! One of ’em’s just gone colder’n stone!> another, obviously an empath, just said.

<He’s locked in the telepath to single-minded defense,> said a third mind. <That’s very good. Don’t underestimate these fanatics, any of you! I want them! I want them located—now!>

<They are all praying up an assemblage of saints,> the telepath remarked acidly. <I cannot get a real fix, but most of them are ahead, probably in or near that main building. There is another, but it is both closer and less distinct. They are very good at prepared defense. At the moment I can only say that the telepath is most likely Terran. The rest—unclear.>

<We’ll take no chances,> the leader told them. <Desreth, go find them.>

"They are sending someone named Desreth to find us," Krisha reported. "I get no clear image of who or what it is from their minds and nothing from this other at all. Whatever it is, it is a null. They are not taking nearly the precautions to block themselves, but are blocked where it counts. Two Terrans, a male and a female, the former their leader and I presume a hypno. The telepath is a race I do not know but seems large and very grotesque to me. It sees differently than we and depends on other senses more, but thinks in a standard linear pattern. The other is another unfamiliar race and more dangerous, because it can think fully in a form my inadequate mind cannot sort, nor does it see as we see. I can get only occasional flashes of anything close to normal. The null—somehow they have blocked it out."

<Tobrush—watch our back!> the leader commanded. <I am most worried about that loose one somewhere. The rest of you cover the two exits to that main building. We may have caught the rest of them inside.>

Manya had circled around from the main building to a point where she could view both the newcomers and the building which held her comrades. The Mycohl leader was a tall Terran male dressed in the rust-red color of his Empire, tough and muscular, big without any fat, his muscles showing admirably through his skintight suit. He had a cold arrogance that unnerved her; the manner that she had seen before only in "wild" hypnos, whose power over others deluded them into a sense of near godlike ego.

The second was a strange Terran female, also quite muscular, medium height, with the cold yet subtle moves of a jungle animal. There was something, too, wrong with her face; at first Manya had thought that the woman was just superficially Terran and was actually some other race. Now she realized that the Mycohlian woman might once have been a beauty, but her face was twisted and scarred. With the Gnoll’s inability to appreciate the real differences in Terrans without careful study, she thought that this woman somehow resembled Krisha in the essentials—a dark, evil Krisha, a poisonous distillation of all that was sinful in a young woman’s soul.

The third member of the red-clad team was a large creature with a glistening, undulating black body, supported on six impossibly thin legs that appeared to terminate in soft pincers, its face a set of ugly mandibles and large, oval yellow and brown segmented eyes on short, independent stalks. The fourth, about the size of the third, was mostly encased in a gnarled, spiral-like shell of dirty beige, covered with a mass of writhing, thick hairs that seemed to act like tentacles—thousands of tentacles!

But the fifth—it was the one that struck some terror into her. It alone wore no environment suit, nor did it need one. Essentially a metallic cube, gunmetal gray with occasional streaks of dull bronze, supported on six long, pointed legs; it appeared to shift its shape in some kind of fluid manner as needed. She knew that sort, all right—Corithian! Machine-like, artificially created life of some long-gone civilization, able to change itself into whatever was required or ooze out whatever appendage it needed, it had not only the ancestry of a machine but the soul and morals of one, too. By the time the concentrated full-power firing of the rest of the team’s guns had immobilized it, the rest of that crew of evil would have them!

Instinctively she knew she had to betray herself, at least a little, to give warning. Her mouthpiece was live, and, into it, she said, simply, "Corithian coming!"

The strange, shelled creature with the countless hair-like tentacles suddenly whirled as if on a single wheel, and two stalked eyes suddenly seemed to grow out of the shell and look in her direction. Obviously this one was the telepath.

"Behind us!" it rasped aloud, in an eerie voice that seemed to send chills through Manya. "Female, can’t get more of a fix with that prayer screen. She just warned her congregation of Desreth, though, by radio."

The leader stopped, turned, and stared back into the jungle. "Can you see her?"

"No, and I cannot understand why I cannot," the telepath responded.

The leader chuckled dryly. "Maybe it’s a vegetable. Spray the entire area, full sweep. We might get lucky."

Manya didn’t wait. She opened up on the large creature using her own weapon on wide spread and started moving. Betraying her gnome-like, almost hunchbacked appearance and bulk, Gnolls could move pretty fast when they had to.

The attack caused the Mycohlian team to flatten, and by the time they opened fire, Manya had managed to move around all the way to the parked shuttles. The Mycohl, Manya had seen, had made a major sloppy mistake in landing closest to the camp and leaving their shuttle door open. If they fired in any sort of lethal concentration where they knew she should be, they might just blow the inside of their own craft.

The leader stood, fury clear on his face. "Kalia! Get that creature!" he snapped at the woman. "Tobrush—cover her! If a telepath and an empath can’t root that creature out, we don’t deserve to be here!" He turned to the insectoid creature. "Robakuk—you keep those doors sealed! I’m moving up to go in behind Desreth. Join me as soon as you secure our backs. Let us do this quickly! We are in enemy territory without authority—but so are they. It will be easier to explain this if we alone are left to testify!"

* * *

It had taken more guts than sense to get the Mycohl to this point.

They were a new crew, fresh from training and testing, out in a little ship in the middle of nowhere, performing routine picket duty. All of them understood that they were on probation; all also understood that the alternatives to performing well and impressing their superiors were worse than death in the harsh, Darwinian system of the Mycohl.

There was Josef, their big, handsome Terran captain, sporting his traditional ensign’s big black mustache, absolute monarch of a flea-speck of a picket ship and subordinate to just about everyone else, his swagger reinforced by his inborn talent as a hypno that had solved many problems on his way to even this point, and who, because of that fact, was yet to be tested in a situation where that power was not a deciding factor.

Here was Kalia, whom he’d met while working on an undercover mission to salvage the great feast and carnival of his Lord Squazos from sabotage by jealous rivals. Kalia, who had risen from the bottom, the lowest droi classes of her hive, with an intelligence born of experience, not formal education, determined to show that she was even more ruthless and deadly than any man, her body a finely tuned mass of muscles that most men could only dream of, her once-beautiful face disfigured by a horrible scar gained in that harsh growing-up that she refused to have removed. Josef’s sergeant and as much a weapon as any on the picket ship under his command, she was a powerful empath. She was also illiterate and ignorant of almost anything not directly related to her job, but at that job she was superb.

With them were the Thion Robakuk, whose powerful telekinetic abilities allowed him to move objects almost as large as, and heavier than, he was by sheer force of will, whose race bore more than a passing, if coincidental, resemblance to a common Terran housefly, only wingless and as large as Josef, and the Julki Tobrush, whose snail-like appearance was totally deceiving in that he was neither shelled nor slow; the "shell" was actually a thick organ that served as hide and from which it could create and exude its countless hair-like tentacles that could act either independently or in concert to perform the finest manual tasks, and which could also secrete and even inject an enormous variety of natural toxins and other useful substances. Tobrush was a powerful telepath, a very strong one.

The final member of the team, and the one even they had to admit as a group they understood the least, was Desreth the Corithian. Most of the time it just sat there, usually looking like a meter-and-a-half lump of dull silver; rounded, looking like nothing so much as an oval sculpture of a beetle not quite finished, it was by preference impassive and none too social. None of the Mycohl had ever really understood why the Corithians, who needed nothing obvious from anyone, participated in the Empire at all, but they did, and quite well. Descendants of an ancient robotic race, they had evolved, or perhaps evolved themselves, into a bizarre form where they could repair themselves, protect themselves, and form themselves into whatever was required. Legend said they could not be killed, which, like most legends, was wrong. But they were damned hard to kill, and had to be crushed, dissolved, or melted almost completely.

They were all ambitious—at least all save Desreth, whose motives were always incomprehensible—but they were also aware of how low they were on the Imperial ladder even though already higher than any had ever expected to be. They were on picket duty—routine guard duty, about the most basic and dull activity the Empire required, and in an area not likely to get them into serious trouble.

They were, then, perhaps the worst group to suddenly detect an incursion by a Mizlaplanian ship into Mycohl space and take up pursuit as they discovered, to their amazement, that the invader was making its way across their space toward the Exchange boundary. Interstellar treaty prohibited a chase beyond their boundaries, but Josef had been unable to catch the Holy Scow and had proceeded anyway. Technically, the incursion was an act of war, since their picket ship was a military one on a military mission, and diplomats would have attacks on all sides when they learned of it. Josef was content to let the diplomats fight their battles; he was determined to find out what would cause a Mizlaplanian ship to take such an inexplicable series of actions. If it achieved some wonderful result, all would be forgiven. If it flopped, he’d placed them all in deep shit.

The Three Empires each controlled nearly equal segments of the galaxy; each was of roughly equal size, each of relatively equal power, and each could most likely destroy another if it were willing to itself be destroyed and leave everything else to the third. For this reason, Josef understood, he was entirely on his own, and any failures would be laid to him alone.

And still he had followed that Mizlaplanian ship, followed it to a remote solar system off the maps and on the frontier, where the quarry stopped and he could now catch up and see what was so important that they would risk at least as much as he.

"They’re not achieving orbit!" Tobrush reported. "They’re detaching a shuttle on the fly and accelerating out-system!"

 

That pig of a Holy Captain has read my mind! Josef thought angrily to himself. Then aloud he said, "Then he knows, or at least guesses, that we are here."

"We could catch it and cut them off!" Kalia exclaimed excitedly. "I should like to be the one. I have never blown up a spaceship before."

"And you won’t now, either! Not yet, anyway. I’m not worried about that massive hunk of metal and synthetics. It won’t go far because it does have to come in and pick them up—or abandon them. Either is perfectly acceptable to us. We will get him after—if time and circumstances permit. We might waste several hours before we found and destroyed it, giving them time down there."

"So what?" the human woman responded. "Whatever they learn will die with them."

"Do you think they don’t know that? That their gamble has failed? They are fanatics. They will die before they will be taken by us, and they know negotiations are useless. If they find nothing of hope, I would expect them to destroy or damage anything that might be of use to us. I have no intention of giving them that opportunity. I want everyone ready in full survival suit and battle gear. I’m going to put this thing close to that Exchange ship and we are going to see just what is going on there."

"All of us are going?" Robakuk asked, more excited than nervous.

"This ship is fully capable of maintaining itself, flying itself, defending itself, or, if need be, destroying itself to keep from enemy hands. There is nothing that freighter could do to it except present it with an automatic target. Those Mizlaplan shuttles can hold up to nine people depending on the races involved, and the races involved are unknown as of now. I do know that I am not going to underestimate that captain. Full gear—we all go. And don’t get cocky or overconfident. These people are fanatics who will gladly die if they could take one of us with them, and they are not stupid or ill-equipped. Many of them are probably priests, but don’t let that fool you. Almost all the priests they let loose like this are Talents and they’re trained and they’re good. And, most of all, they are going to be there ahead of us. If it were us in their situation, with them coming in on top of us but we have the same kind of lead, what would we do?"

"Traps and ambushes," Kalia responded. "The only chance they’ve got is if they can wipe us out."

"Agreed, and while it’s on unknown ground for both of us, they will know it better than we having been there first."

"I would recommend ordering the ship in standby, with partial shutdown of all but our monitoring codes," Tobrush put in. "It’s tempting to have it close at hand, but if the Exchange shows up while we’re down there we’re in no better shape than they are. If the Exchange shows up first weak and curious but unsuspecting, we can fight our way out. If it shows up in strength, we can then try and talk our way out."

"All right. Agreed. Desreth, you’ve been very quiet."

"I have been considering the odds that the Exchange is already here," the Corithian responded.

"Huh?"

"If they did show up first, they would have detected at least the Mizlaplanian ship before they themselves would be detected. They might well wonder what a Mizlaplanian ship was doing so far from home that it was willing to risk crossing Mycohl to answer a distress signal. In that case, they would lay back and monitor just as we and the Mizlaplanians are doing, until they see what happens. It would be the pragmatic thing, since both of us are now only rather lamely within the law. If we started shooting at one another or going where we have no right going—namely down to the planet—we would then be committing not a rescue mission but overt illegal acts within their territory."

He didn’t like that. "What do the rest of you think? Is the Exchange that devious?"

"They are," Tobrush responded. "Yet I doubt the scenario. The Exchange in strength would have intercepted both of us by now and told us just where to go or else, keeping us well away from that place. They would only lay off in weakness, where they might fear either of us might eliminate them just to save our honor. In that case, they are irrelevant."

"I would prefer they not be around, strong or weak," the captain responded. "Still, it would be interesting, would it not? A three-way battle to the death on a planet alien to all. It would be a magnificent challenge. I should like to think we would win such a battle."

"Agh! Priests and scientists and traders," Kalia scoffed. "It would not even be a contest."

Josef whirled around. "I told you not to underestimate these people!" he snapped angrily. "Do that and you die and take the rest of us with you! I don’t care if those Mizlaplanians believe their souls will become gods by eating grass and rolling in the mud and howling at the stars! One on one, in a real fight, they are most certainly our counterparts. No common freighter captain that I know would have detected us, let alone pulled that maneuver, and he did it coolly, knowing the odds. No matter what the vessel, they wouldn’t send amateurs on a mission like this, and they are no amateurs. Any more stupid bravado like that and I will leave any of you who think that way here with the ship!"

They didn’t really quite believe that anyone, particularly the Mizlaplanians, could be close to their equals, but they shut up because they wanted to go and to prove it.

 

This is where the greenness of the crew begins to show, Josef thought sourly. And, damn it, I’m as green at this sort of thing as they are.

* * *

Kalia moved silently and swiftly toward the Mizlaplanian creature somewhere among the shuttles. Her empathic sense gave her a fair idea of the quarry’s location, but was not exact. Tobrush glided around to the other side, trying to get a telepathic fix, but while the large, snail-like creature was amazingly quick, almost as if it had wheels under that shell, it was not terribly limber and couldn’t crouch down or climb over as she could. Evolution had provided the Julki with all the defenses its race needed on its home world, but Julkis had not been dependent on climbing, hiding, and sheer stealth to survive as had Kalia’s.

Two eyestalks emerged from the Julki’s shell, each extending more than a meter, and it looked around in obvious puzzlement. Unable to conceal its presence, even if protected by the Mycohl shuttle, Tobrush called, "I do not understand. It is here. I can hear it, even smell it—but I see nothing! Is it some tiny thing? Its telepathic defenses are good—my mind fills with the meaningless babble of its prayers, yet I can get no self-image. I have never encountered anything like this before."

Kalia remained silent, moving cat-like among the shadows cast by the shuttlecraft, then still, but she, too, was confused and confusion could mean swift death. Her sense of the Mizlaplanian creature was as strong as Tobrush’s, although thankfully an empath didn’t have to put up with those prayers. The creature they sought was indeed here, somewhere, and quite close. She could feel the quarry’s tension, its mixture of apprehension and—disgust, perhaps, for them. She could also feel its almost fanatical hatred, so complete, so absolute, that it unnerved her a bit to know that it was there.

But where? She peered out from the shadows beneath the overhang of the Mizlaplanian shuttle, her field of vision easily covering one side of the space between it and the Mycohl shuttlecraft, and knew that Tobrush had the opposite field of vision. Between them, there was simply no place for anything to hide, and the metallic walls of the shuttles gave little concealment except at the ends, and the doors were shut tight. Both the telepath and the empath were certain that their quarry was outside, and was effectively trapped in the corridor between the two shuttles, yet—there was nothing there!

<Great Suza! Is the thing invisible?> she wondered, frustrated.

Maybe it was, although she had never heard of such a thing. A fighter had to be a pragmatist; if it was there and they couldn’t see it, then go from there and figure how it was possible later.

Kalia could not read thoughts, but Tobrush could read hers.

<Invisible is not invulnerable or it would not need to become invisible,> she reasoned. <Tobrush, keep your end covered. Snake some tendrils along the ground that would snare someone coming out your way. When you are ready, give me a sign, and I will open up with a wide spray along the whole corridor, keeping it above ground level. Either it will be driven to you or it will be caught in my pattern.>

"Any time!" she heard the Julki call, and almost immediately she opened up with her pistol at wide stun, stepping out quickly as she did so.

Manya had not survived all these years to be taken now by such a maneuver. As soon as Kalia opened up, she brought her own pistol up, knowing that the creature at the far end wouldn’t chance those eyestalks against a wide beam and that the girl firing the pistol would, quite naturally, follow the beam and its results with her gaze. Against the Mizlaplanian shuttle, she was not really in Kalia’s field of vision when the shooting started, and Kalia had to step out in order to cover the full corridor.

Kalia felt the emotions in her quarry rise and took that as confirmation of her plan, stepping out to cover the rest of the field of fire, and suddenly she felt the power of a tremendous blow, as if something very hard and very dense had struck her, sending her down and reeling.

"I see it!" Tobrush cried. "A little Terranoid in yellow!"

It was too late. By the time the Julki could emerge and bring its own weapon to bear, the sight of the fleeing Mizlaplanian was gone, and Kalia’s limp body was the only thing in sight. Worse, Tobrush dared not go to his comrade’s aid; that would have left the Julki exposed to fire from wherever this golden prayermonger was now.

"We’ve got a problem," it reported to Josef by radio. "Kalia’s down and the thing’s escaped! Watch your back! It appears to be able to make itself invisible."

"That’s all we need!" Josef shot back. "We’re set to crash this little party up here. We’ll be back to help as soon as we can. Is she still alive?"

"Yes. It wasn’t a full blow, considering the circumstances. Still, I do not know how badly she is hurt and I can’t follow up yet without exposing myself. Do what you must, but if I were this creature I wouldn’t still be here, I’d be closing in on you now."

Manya, however, had no intention of getting that close in, although she did want to cover her own team’s back. The Talent she had, unique to her race, wouldn’t fool a Corithian for a nanosecond. A variation of the same sort of mental Talents governing telepaths, empaths, hypnos, and the rest, it was hardly invisibility and would fool no machine. The wide field she could broadcast on the t-bands could convince any creature who received on those bands that she was not there, but anyone unable to receive those bands saw her clearly, even a null like Gun Roh Chin. To a Corithian, she would be totally exposed and an easy target.

She made for the cover of the buildings, which helped her protective abilities. Movement, particularly at normal or faster speeds, weakened the clouding power, as had been clear when Tobrush had spotted her making her break. It was a useful and essentially automatic defense under stress, but it had extreme limits, and while she’d more than once wished that the gods had extended that power a bit, she knew the limits precisely.

She could see them now, ready to strike. She couldn’t really tell what the giant bug, as Robakuk seemed to her, could or would do in all this. The forward legs had a specially designed full power rifle it could easily fire for effect, but it seemed somewhat exposed, the pulpy, undulating black body so soft and vulnerable. The thing surely had a Talent that made it more valuable than just being able to stand there like a statue and stare at the laboratory building.

The Corithian, looking now somewhat like a smooth, silvery crab-like creature, appeared ready to charge the far door. As soon as it did, the big man would go through the back, firing as he entered, since his pistol wouldn’t have much effect in a wide spray on his metallic ally. Krisha and Savin would be able to sense this Josef, but the Corithian they could only anticipate secondhand, from the big man’s own mind. It was clear that the plan was to let the Corithian act at its own pace; Josef would follow, thereby not betraying the moment.

Suddenly Desreth took off toward the door with surprising acceleration and hit it full on. The door collapsed inward, and only a second or so behind, Josef crashed through the rear and Manya could hear the sound of firing inside.

It stopped almost as quickly.

Inside, Josef crouched warily, fearing traps, but he already suspected that he’d bruised his shoulder for nothing. There was a damned hole in the back of the thing you could almost pilot a shuttle through!

"They have escaped," Desreth said needlessly, scuttling over to the hole. "We have made a central error in not totally circumnavigating the structure first."

"We were short, thanks to that rear guard," Josef grumbled, getting up, holstering his pistol, then rubbing his right shoulder and flexing it. "Besides, you sure they just didn’t blow that out while we were setting up?"

"Lieutenant, you should examine this hole in the wall," the Corithian said in that strange, almost electronic monotone of its race. "The section is collapsed inward."

For the first time, Josef was aware of the sight and smell of the decomposing corpses. He went up to one, a race he didn’t know, and could see no signs of any blood or blood-like fluid although its exoskeletal skin had been literally crushed, but there was a fair amount of black and yellow mold on and around the wounds and natural openings.

"They’ve been dead a long time," he commented, thinking. He looked over at the hole in the wall. "Something came in, right through the wall, and just wiped up the place with them."

"So it appears," Desreth agreed. "The records appear to have been methodically destroyed as well, but there are no bodies in the records section. The Mizlaplanians clearly did that, after taking what they thought was important. I had not thought that sort capable of such subtlety. I shall not underestimate them again."

Josef moved cautiously to the hole in the wall and looked out, expecting shots to be fired, but there were none. Very carefully, he looked out and saw that the hole was in a direct line to the other, far more alien, structure behind.

"I wish we’d gotten here first," he muttered. "Or at least that we’d had time enough to tie into those records on the ship. What could do this and not be destroyed itself?"

"Something like a Corithian, perhaps," Desreth suggested, "only larger. Perhaps much larger. Larger and savage, since most of these bodies appear to have no weapons at all, suggesting that they are scientists and that they had no idea that there was anything dangerous here."

"Robakuk?" Josef called through the intercom. "Can you see any sign of the enemy?"

"None. I have monitored your conversation and moved to a point where I can view the escape area. Unless they are all invisible like their rear guard, they are not there."

Manya did not know their language, but she had the idea from their reactions. They’d all gone out, probably through the hole in the wall. She remembered the layout of the camp and realized that if their Talents could no longer pinpoint her Mizlaplanian team, then there was only one place they could have gone.

She didn’t like it, but she knew that, as soon as she could do so without being observed, she had to get in there as well.

Josef was coming to the same opinion. "Clearly these scientists were here studying that structure, and that’s where whatever got them came from. Still, that’s the only logical place the Mizlaplanians could have escaped to with our placement. Tobrush? Can you do a telepathic sweep?"

"Only one now—the same one," the Julki responded. "Up your way somewhere."

"How is Kalia?"

"Coming around. She has some nasty burns but I was able to treat them with my own secretions and with the medical kit from the shuttle. The enemy shot of necessity had to be on wide beam to get her at all, so what energy pierced her suit caused damage only to the external areas. She will not be at maximum efficiency, but she will not have much pain or major disability, although she will probably be slowed and stiff for a while."

"Maybe she should stay at the shuttle," Josef responded. "I don’t like the idea of that other one skulking about here. We could be left without a way off this cursed dirtball. The rest of us are going to have to go into that building or whatever it is up there. That’s where they went."

"I am not impaired!" Kalia snapped angrily. "Our automatic systems protect our shuttle as well as I could, and you know that!"

"You will follow orders—Sergeant," Josef came back.

"You cannot order me left behind!" she protested. "I am entitled to the one who did this to me! I want to disassemble that one, very slowly, to see if I can find out how she did it!"

"Come if you must," the leader sighed, "but if your injuries cause us any problems, you will wish that the shot had killed you." He paused a moment. "Full suits, everyone. We don’t know what’s in there. If whatever hit this place is still there, then the Mizlaplanians will be the least of our problems. Tobrush, Kalia, bring extra energy packs and medikits and meet us here as soon as possible."

"Understood," the Julki responded.

"Do you want Desreth and me to cover the entrance?" Robakuk asked. "We could make certain that the enemy still around here does not get through."

"No. Just keep everyone else covered until we can gather and move up. Leave the entrance unguarded for now."

"What?" The Thion was confused. "But the enemy will get through!"

"I certainly hope so. I’d rather have them all in front of me than be caught in a crossfire. If we can’t nail her out here, then we’ll nail her inside. Understood?"

"Understood."

"And, all of you, listen up!" Josef continued. "I want those who haven’t seen the inside of this place to all see it first before we move up. Use your respirators or the smell will get to you." He sighed and looked back out at the odd, quartz-like structure that seemed subtly to shift as he watched. "Just what I really needed to add to all this. All of us have to go in that one lousy entrance. If we aren’t ambushed and picked off going in, then they’re all dead in there."

"Have you considered the implications of going in?" Desreth asked him. "If they are all dead, then whatever did this is in there, waiting for us as well. If they are not dead, they are waiting to kill us all in an automatic trap."

Josef nodded and sighed. "Yes, I know, but we have no choice. We have violated a frontier border, engaged in a hostile action, all without authority, and at the cost of one injury we’ve done nothing to them, nor even learned what in the Mirkhem Hive is going on here. Better to die quickly here, than return empty-handed and as ignorant as we came and die slowly and painfully to soothe diplomatic feelings."


Copyright 1999 by Jack L. Chalker
Chapter 1 2 3

home_btn.gif (1157 bytes) author_btn.gif (1361 bytes) title_btn.gif (1305 bytes) series_btn.gif (1366 bytes) email_btn.gif (1366 bytes)

Baen Books 02/02/03