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(Enter Datham Hain, Asleep)

Datham Hain had entered the gate with a false sense of bravado, but he was scared to death. He had nightmares of awful proportions, bringing forth every fear in his long life. These surfaced as the Markovian brain picked, analyzed, and classified each subject according to some long-lost, preset reasoning.

He awoke suddenly, with a start, and looked around. It was the strangest look in his experience.

He realized immediately that he was now colorblind, although instead of merely the blacks, whites, and shades of gray, there was a mild sepia-tone effect that made certain things look fuzzy and others stand out. His depth perception was remarkable, he realized. At a glance he could tell exactly how far everything in view was from everything else, and his vision seemed to be enlarged to a 180-degree field. That was amazing, as amazing as the view itself.

He seemed to be on a ledge overlooking an incredible landscape far below. The land was bleak and sandy, broken only by hundreds of cones that looked almost like perfectly formed volcanoes. He strained to get a better look, and found, suddenly, the scene magnifying itself, each time by a factor of two. As it did, a hardly noticed hairline-split midway in his vision also magnified, so that it became a huge bar separating the scene into right and left views. It was as if he were peering through two windows while standing in front of the post that separated them.

There were things down there, and they were moving. Hain stared in fascination at them, a corner of his mind wondering why he was fascinated instead of horrified or repelled. They were great insects, ranging in size from one to almost four meters long, the median height being almost a meter. They had two large, apparently multifaceted eyes fixed, like a fly's, forward in the head. Below the eyes were huge mandibles flanking a mouth resembling a parrot's beak. With surprise he saw one creature stop while a long, snaky black tongue emerged to clean the face.

The body was oblong and seemed to have hair on it—the resolution of Hain's vision was so fine that he could almost count the hairs. And yet—yes, flush against the body in the hair were wings, several pairs of them. The rear of the body exposed a barren, bony tip that undoubtedly was a stinger.

Hain tried to imagine the fate of anyone stung with something that size.

The head seemed to be on a hinge or circular joint, as some of the creatures moved it slightly in one or another direction.

For the first time he saw the feelers, giant things that seemed to have a life of their own, moving every way but forward—including straight up. They ended in hair-covered nodules.

The eight legs were thick and were also covered with hair, longer and down-angled. They were multijointed, and he saw a pair of the creatures using their forward legs like hands to move a rock away from a pathway it was blocking. He could see that the tips were not hair but spikelike and were covered with a secretion that looked sticky.

The insects moved with amazing speed sometimes, and, every once in a while, one would take to the air briefly. Apparently they couldn't fly very far with all that weight, but could manage a short hop when they felt like it. As Hain watched, he saw that some of them were operating machines! One looked like a snowplow, and it was clearing dust and debris from the roadways as it was pushed forward; others seemed to have no obvious purpose.

With the realization that these were not animals but one form of sentient life on the Well World, something else hit, as well. He tried to turn his head to see himself, but could not. He opened his strangely rigid mouth and stuck out his tongue. It was more than three meters long, as controllable as an arm, and covered with an incredibly sticky substance.

I'm one of them, he told himself, more in wonder than in fear.

He raised his head up and brought his two forward legs into view. He had been right, he saw. Three joints, all bendable in any direction. The tips were spikes; like hard rubber, and he experimented by reaching out and picking up a small rock. As his legs touched the rock, a sticky secretion gave him a grip. When he let go, the secretion turned to a solid film and fell away like used skin.

He noticed immediately that, when the dropped rock hit, he did not hear it. Rather, he felt it, as a sharp, single pulsation. The antennae, he told himself. They sense air movement, but not as sound.

Suddenly he was aware that he was getting thousands of tiny pulses through them, and, incredibly, he almost sensed the source and distance of each.

This has possibilities, thought Datham Hain.

Using his tongue he surveyed his own body, being careful not to come near the stinger at the rear which he now realized he could feel when he wanted to. No use in possibly poisoning myself this early in the game, he thought cautiously.

He was about three meters long and almost a meter high, he discovered. About medium-sized for those creatures down there.

He flexed his wings—six pairs, he found—long but looking extremely thin and frail to support his weight. He decided he wouldn't try them out until he knew more about his anatomy. Even birds have to be taught to fly, he thought, and sentient creatures probably had less instinct—if any at all—than the lower species.

Now how do I get down off this ledge? he wondered. Finally, he decided to experiment, moving his body close to the edge. As his front legs touched the side they secreted that substance and stuck, he saw with satisfaction.

Emboldened, he pushed off and started walking down the side.

Doing so was incredibly easy, he found, confidence growing with each step. He realized he could probably walk on a ceiling, if the sticky stuff would support his weight. The main problem would be getting used to the fact that there was so much of him in back of his head. The legs worked in perfect coordination, as if he had been born with them; but the body was hard and rigid, and took some practice to maneuver without spilling end over end.

It took several minutes to descend the low cliff, although he realized that, with practice, he could probably come back and do it in seconds. Once down, he faced a problem that his reason wouldn't solve for him. He wanted to get introduced quickly, to get settled in here, and to check out the sociopolitical system, the geography, and the like. Also, he was feeling hungry, and he hadn't the slightest idea what these creatures ate.

But how did they communicate? Not only language, but even the means weren't all that apparent.

Well, that Ortega had said that the brain would provide for such things, he told himself; but he was exceedingly nervous as he approached one of the creatures coming down the road.

The other saw him and stopped.

"What are you doing just standing there, Markling?" the newcomer challenged sternly. "Don't you have any work to do?"

Hain was stunned. The language was a series of incredibly rapid pulsations transmitted in some way from the creature's antennae to his own, yet he had understood everything! All but the last word, anyway. He decided to try to talk back.

"Please. I am newly born to this world, and I need help and guidance," he began, then felt his own antennae quiver incredibly quickly as he talked. It worked!

"What the hell?" responded the gruff stranger, although not really in those terms. Hain's brain automatically seemed to translate into familiar symbols. "You sick or something?"

"No, no," Hain protested. "I have just come from Zone, where I have just awakened as one of you."

The other thought about that for a minute. "I'll be damned! An Entry! Haven't had one in over ten years!" Suddenly the old skepticism returned. "You're not just saying that to shirk, are you?"

"I assure you that I am what I say, and that up until a very short time ago I was of a totally different race and form."

"You adjust pretty well," the other noted. "Most of 'em have the creeping fits for days. Well, I'll take you over to the nearest government house and it'll be their problem. I have work to do. Follow me." With that, it started on down the road, and Hain followed.

His guide was almost a third larger than he was, Hain saw. Most of the creatures he passed seemed to be about the same size or smaller than he. A few big ones were around, and they seemed to be the bosses.

They walked past several of the huge cones, then up the side of one that looked no different from the rest and into the hole on top. Hain noted that the opening was so even because it was rimmed with metal, like an open hatch. He almost lost his nerve on entering. The aboveground part of the cone, about ten meters worth, was hollow to the outside structure. They were not only walking down, but at an angle.

When they passed ground level, they walked onto a floor which was also some kind of metal. Tunnels lined with tile, with neon or some similar lighting stretching down in long tubes, led away like spokes on a wheel. They were wide enough to hold two of the creatures abreast, and they passed several as his guide led him down a near one.

Doorless openings into large chambers filled with all sorts of strange stuff, often with dozens of the creatures working, were passed before they reached one with a hexagon in lights over the doorway. Inside the hex was a wide gray ring, then a smaller black one, then a white dot. It reminded Hain with some amusement of the view of his guide's posterior, with its menacing stinger.

Several small and medium-sized creatures were working, apparently at some sort of paperwork, Hain noted with curiosity. Huge printing machines, like typewriters, were all over, with television screens displaying what the creatures, using their forward legs, were typing on a strange keyboard. The keyboard was a series of apparently identical cubes, forty or fifty of them, which lit momentarily as they were touched. A crazy dot pattern emerged on the screens in no apparent logical order or pattern. When the screen was filled, a hind leg would kick a large stud and the screen would go blank—and they would be back to typing again.

So I can't read the language, Hain noted to himself. Well, can't have everything.

The guide waited patiently until somebody noticed him and looked up from its keyboard.

"Yes?" asked the worker and the communicated tone was one of irritated nastiness.

"Found this Markling on the road, claims to be an Entry," said the big guide in that same annoyed tone he had used with Hain.

There was that word again. What in seven hells was a Markling, anyway?

"Just a moment," the clerk or whatever it was said, "I'll see if His Highness will see you."

The office worker went into a side door and stayed several minutes. Hain's hunger was increasing, and so was his apprehension. A hereditary empire, he thought. Well, it could be worse.

Finally the clerk reappeared. "His Highness will see the Entry," she said—for some reason Hain automatically thought of his guide as masculine and the receptionist and most of the other workers as feminine. The guide moved forward.

"Just the Entry," said the clerk sharply. "You will return to your duties."

"As you say," the other replied, and turned and left.

Hain gathered up his courage and entered the doorway.

Inside was the biggest creature he had ever seen. But there was something else unusual about him.

The hairs on his body were white.

Hain suddenly realized just how hereditary this monarchy was.

There were some boxes and bags around of more or less conventional design, and one of those typewriters with a much larger screen. Nothing else. The big one reared back on the last four of his eight legs. Hain was impressed and cowed; he hadn't seen anyone else doing that.

"What's your name, Entry?" the big white one demanded imperiously. The tone, Hain realized by now, was conveyed by the intensity of the signal.

"Datham Hain, Your Highness," he replied in the most respectful way he could.

The official ran his tongue over his beak in thought. Finally, he went over to the typewriter and started punching up something—something short, Hain saw, because the screen was still almost empty when the large creature punched the send bar or whatever it was. A moment's wait. Then the screen started to fill with those funny dots.

The official read the message carefully, studying it for several minutes. Finally it turned back to him as he stood there impatiently, needing almost four meters to negotiate the move.

"Ordinarily, Hain, we'd just train and condition you to a position and you'd fit in or die." Hain's heart—if he still had one—sank. "But," the royal official continued, "in this case we have special use for you. Too bad you turned up a Markling, but that's to be expected. You'll be quartered near here—I'll have one of my assistants show you where. There's a commissary three doors down. Most of you Entries come through starving, so go in there and eat your fill. Don't worry about what it is—we can eat just about anything. Wait in your quarters until I get instructions from Imperial Headquarters."

Hain still stood there, digesting all this. Finally, he said, "Your Highness, might I be permitted one question?"

"Yes, yes," the other said impatiently. "What is it?"

"What's a Markling?"

"Hain," replied the official patiently, "life is hard and cheap in the Akkafian Empire. Infant mortality is extremely high, not only from normal factors imposed by nature but for other reasons you'll find out sooner or later for yourself. As a result, to ensure racial continuation, about fifty females are born for every male.

"A Markling is a female Akkafian, Hain. You've had a sex change."

* * *

Datham Hain was led by one of the office staff to the commissary, which proved to be a large room filled with strange animals, plants, and worms, some still alive. Feeding as an Akkafian was not pleasant, at least to Hain's unnormalized psyche, but it was necessary. The creatures frankly didn't taste all that bad—in fact, they didn't taste very much at all, but they filled the void in what seemed to be multiple stomachs. If he didn't think about what he was eating, the changeling discovered, it went down all right.

That tongue, like a sticky whip, was infinitely controllable. Live prey were simply picked up, thrown to the rear sting area to be paralyzed, then held and fed by the mandibles a little at a time through the beak.

Discovering that he was now a she wasn't much of a shock to Hain; the odds were that sexuality was so different among these people that it probably didn't make much difference anyway. What was disquieting was that the males seemed to be in firm charge. The Nirlings, as the males were called, were larger and controlled the government and supervisory positions and the technology that kept them in power. The females, mostly neutered, did the work, apparently compulsively. Hain had seen no evidence of force or coercion; the workers carried out their tasks dedicatedly, unquestioningly, and uncomplainingly. Hain understood the system to a degree. It was not unlike that of the Comworlds, where people were bred to work.

The only trouble, he—no, she—thought, is that I am on the low end of the scale. To be an alien creature, to be totally different—these things she could accept. To be female she could accept. To be a slave to such a system was intolerable.

After feeding they took her to a rest area. This race worked at whatever it did around the clock, and individuals were spelled by others so they would get rest at scheduled intervals.

The staging area rose for several storeys—a large, underground wall of cubicles each of which was just large enough to hold a single creature. About half were filled as they entered, and Hain was assigned a number and told to go into it and wait for instructions.

Hain climbed up the side easily and entered the assigned cubicle. It was warm, and extremely humid, which felt oddly more comfortable than the drier air of the offices. There was a carpet of some sort of animal hair, and a small control panel with two buttons, one of which was depressed. Curious, she pressed the other one. She had apparently found a radio which was broadcasting a series of sound patterns whose pulses were oddly pleasing and calming. A wave of relief swept over her insect body and she found herself drifting off into a dreamless sleep.

The office clerk noted with some satisfaction that Hain was asleep, then went over to the superintendent's control console at the base of the rest area. The superintendent was emptying the catch trays of waste and other products, and she showed surprise when she recognized a clerk of the baron's household.

"By order of His Highness," the clerk commanded, "the Markling in One Ninety-eight is to be kept asleep until called for. Make certain the pacifier remains on at shift change."

The superintendent acknowledged the order and went into her office. A panel of plastic buttons laid out and numbered corresponding to the cubicles was before her, with many of the buttons lit, including Hain's. The superintendent held down number 198 with one foreleg while punching a small red control off to one side with the other.

Hain was locked into blissful sleep until the button was depressed again.

The clerk expressed satisfaction, and returned to the baron's office to report. The great white Nirling nodded approval and dismissed her back to her desk.

After a while, he went over to his communications console and punched the number for the Imperial Palace. He didn't like to call the palace, since the king and the ambitious nobles surrounding him were unstable and untrustworthy. Barons were low on the pecking order, but they had a much longer survival rate because they were away from the palace. Make your quota and the living was pretty good.

Communication was by audio only, so things had to be spelled out. Although the Akkafians had no ears, they "heard" in much the same way as creatures who did. Sound, after all, is a disruption of the surrounding atmospheric pressure by varying that pressure. Although he had never heard a sound as such, the baron's hearing was better than most creatures on the Well World.

After a long period, somebody at the palace woke up and answered. The Imperial Household was getting sloppy and degenerate, the baron reflected. Perhaps one day soon it would be time for a baronial revolt.

Of course, the titles and such were not the same as human equivalents, but if Hain could have overheard the conversation, it would have been translated much like this:

"This is Baron Kluxm of Subhex Nineteen. I have an emergency topic for immediate transmittal to His Majesty's Privy Council."

"The Privy Council is not assembled," came a bored reply. "Can't this wait, Baron?"

Kluxm cursed silently at the insolence and stupidity of even the household help. The operator was probably one of the king's Marklings.

"I said emergency, operator!" he emphasized, trying to keep his temper from showing. "I take full responsibility."

The operator seemed unsure of herself, and finally decided in good bureaucratic fashion to pass the buck.

"I will transfer you to General Ytil of the Imperial Staff," she said. "He will decide."

Before Kluxm could even reply he heard the relay switch, and a new, male voice answered. "Ytil," it said curtly.

The baron had even less use for imperial military men; they generally went to war with other hexes when shortages developed every few years, and invariably lost them. However, he decided that Ytil would do for the same purpose as the operator had; after he explained the situation, it was somebody else's problem.

"I had an Entry today, one of the ones we'd been told to watch for."

"An Entry!" Ytil's voice was suddenly very excited. The waves were so bad that the general's voice started to give Kluxm a headache. "Which one?"

"The one called Datham Hain. As a common Markling breeder," he added.

Ytil's voice still quivered with excitement, although the last plainly disappointed him. "A Markling breeder! Pity! But to think we got one! Hmmmm. Actually, this might work out to our advantage. I've got to go over my files and recordings of Hain at Zone, but, ifI remember, he's the greedy and ambitious type."

"Yes, that's what my file said," Kluxm acknowledged. "But she was abnormally respectful and quiet while here. Seems to have adjusted to our form extremely well."

"Yes, yes, that's to be expected," Ytil replied. "After all, no use antagonizing everyone. Hain's smart enough to see the social structure and her limits in it right off. Where is she now?"

"In a rest area near my office," Kluxm replied. "She's on lull music and has a full stomach, so she's out for two or three days until hunger sets in again."

"Excellent, excellent," approved Ytil. "I'll call the Privy Council together and we'll send someone for her when we're ready. You are to be commended, Baron! A fine job!"

Sure, Kluxm thought glumly to himself. For which you'll take all the credit.

But credit was not what was on Ytil's mind as the general scurried down the palace corridor after terminating the conversation. He stopped in a security room and picked up a tiny, black, jewel-like object on a large chain. Carefully he placed it over his right antenna and then went down to the lowest level of the palace.

The guards weren't very curious about him; it was normal to have high-ranking military and diplomatic people using the Zone Gate.

The Akkafian general walked quickly into the darkness at the end of the basement corridor.

And emerged in Zone.


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