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<<< Chapter 3 >>>

The Representative Sample

I suppose it was a narrow-minded assumption on my part, imaginary reader, that they weren't friendly. Maybe the Rotary Club welcome wagon in this neck of the woods just had a thing for cloaks, and in a few minutes we'd all be taking a pleasant flying saucer ride for lemonade and hot dogs. Yet something in my gut was screaming that they meant us no good, and I acted accordingly- I jumped to my feet.

By the time I was five feet off the ground, I realized that I wasn't merely light-headed or confused from the crash- someone had most definitely turned down the gravity. I twirled in mid-air, came down soft as a feather, and then leapt again, soaring straight over the Doc. I didn't mean to directly attack the platoon of cloaked figures, but I guess that's how it looked- one very excited earth woman, arms flailing, coming at them from eight feet in the air.

The armored strangers were ready for me. Several of them were equipped with catch-poles, ten or twelve feet long, ending in mechanical clamps that were slammed shut on my arms and legs with sinister hissing snaps. The clamps were padded, but their grip was painfully firm- I doubt I could have struggled free without losing my clothes and a lot of skin into the bargain. Using the leverage of their poles, my assailants slammed me back down to the sand and held me there like a captive animal.

"Hey," I snarled, "Hey! What the hell do you guys think you're doing?"

"Miss DeVere," shouted Soames, "Are you all right? I can barely- why, what the...!"

They caught the Doc with clamps around his arms. Two of them hauled him up, actually lifting him off the ground, while a third came forward with a device that looked like an atomic-age butterfly net- a glass hemisphere on the end of a long stick. They slapped that thing down over the Doc's head, muffling his protests, and an instant later his features were obscured by a jet of dark purplish vapor that rapidly filled the glass bubble. He kicked spasmodically and went limp.

"Oh, you sons of- oh no, you had better not!" I yelled. The wielder of the vapor dome lifted the device from the Doc's head, and the dark stuff dissipated into the air. Doc was out cold- and now the guy was coming for me. "Can any of you understand what I'm saying? There's no need for whatever you're doing- there's no need!"

I fought back desperately, but the four fellows working the catch-poles had them up at shoulder level and were leaning into them hard. The transparent dome slapped down over my head, and I tried to hold my breath as the purple gas sprayed into my face, but it got up my nose in an instant and tickled fiercely. I sneezed, gagged, and gasped reflexively, and that was it- the stuff slid down my throat, cold and oily and itchy as hell, and I was tumbling into blackness before I even had time to be disgusted.

*****

That was no momentary flutter of consciousness. I was out for a good long time.

And then...

Well, here's an experiment you can try at home, imaginary reader. Mix a pound of old roofing nails with some gravel and a bag of flour. Open the hood of the nearest car, pop the cap on the oil reservoir, and dump it all in. Close her back up, turn the key in the ignition, then sit back and observe the results.

That was about how my head felt when I next came to, and found myself (sans jacket) on the cold, hard floor of a new accommodation. It was a cell, and it wasn't pretty- every surface was made of dull blue metal, and there wasn't a bed or a window or even a door to be seen. A soft rattling hiss from a network of dark holes in one corner of the ceiling told me I had ventilation, at least. The air was cool and dry and smelled faintly of machine oil.

"Oh my god," I muttered, and rolled onto my back. I would have been hard-pressed to invent a room with fewer comforts than the one in which I now found myself, but with the shape my head was in, that cold hard alien metal floor felt softer than a baby duck's butt. I resolved to do nothing but lay there for a while and watch the walls wobble.

"Ah, your consciousness returns," said a soft voice from somewhere behind me.

I rolled over and noticed, for the first time, the little fellow sitting in a far corner of the cell, calmly watching me with his legs folded beneath him.

The little red not-human-at-all fellow.

I wish I could tell you, dear reader, that I had some kind of bold John Carter moment, that I leapt to my feet and shrugged off my illness and stood tall and proud as humanity's ambassador to wherever the hell I was. But that's not what happened.

"Holy Jesus, I'm not dreaming," I whispered, clutching my head as I stared at my cellmate. He was humanoid, dressed in a pale brown robe, and sitting there as calm as a garden statue. He had gnarled, leathery skin, the color of old dried blood, and wide dark eyes like wet slices of black olive, and when he blinked it was like elevator doors sliding shut. Even over the faint noise of the ventilator I could hear those membranes sliding together with a little rustle like shuffled paper.

And I was afraid.

It hurts to write that, but I was. All my life I had longed for a moment like this, whether I knew it or not. Hadn't I climbed the Tower of the Elephant, taken a starship to Trantor, fought my way across Barsoom? Blown whole solar systems out of existence staring into the three-dimensional displays of the Lensmen? Hadn't I taken those journeys and done those deeds a thousand times in my own mind, longing for strangeness and adventure and contact with things beyond? Well, the real deal, the honest-to-god moment of that contact, was staring me in the face... and all I could do was lie there and feel the tears tickle the edges of my eyes.

"Blueworlder," said the little red man- and when I say little, I mean I had twenty or thirty pounds on him, easily- "your eyes are discharging moisture. This one's duty is to rehydrate you. Further loss prior to completion of this one's task would cause this one consternation."

And then he held out a little bowl of water, polite as you please. Just the sight of it gave me enough strength to slide up on my elbows- I was aided here once again by the milder gravity of my new locale, which compensated for my awful weakness. Had I felt like this after the crash? I'd been in pain, but surely not like this... although my head was a primary culprit, what I had was everywhere. My muscles were rubbery, my back ached, my mouth was dry and sour, and my throat burned- honestly, it felt like I'd caught malaria, and someone had tried to cure me by running me over with a truck.

"Thank you," I whispered, and crawled close enough to take the little bowl. It was clay, smoothly finished but undecorated. The water in it was flat and tepid and tasted like it had been flavored with engine rust, but I drank it down like it was god's private reserve of the really hard stuff.

"This one is entitled to no gratitude," said the red guy. My fear of him was rapidly dissolving. Despite his alien appearance, the little fellow radiated an absolute lack of menace, more acutely than just about anyone I'd ever met.

"Why do you keep calling yourself that? You got a name?" I laid back and felt that wretched warm water sliding down my gullet, and like a parched sidewalk weed I swear that I firmed up a bit with every drop that soaked in.

"Self-acknowledgement is disallowed for this one."

"You can't say your own name?"

"This one is a functionary. This one's designation is Functionary."

"You can't even say 'I' or 'me' or 'my?'"

"Such a liberty would be unthinkable, blueworlder."

"Blueworlder," I mused. "You must mean Earth? The planet with the oceans? Where are we now, if we're not on the, ah, blue world?"

"Ours is the world next farthest from the sun."

"Mars," I whispered. That would sure explain the difference in gravity. "But... Mars! Damn. That's... I can't remember how many millions of miles. How did I get here? And how do you know where I come from? Have you met, ah, blueworlders before?"

"The All-Sovereign commands powers this one is not worthy to comprehend," said the little man, and when he spoke the phrase All-Sovereign he lowered his eyes to the floor in a quick sort of bow. "You have been drawn here to meet his requirements."

"Drawn here to meet someone's requirements?" I didn't like the gist of that at all. "Is this All-Sovereign gonna put us back when we're finished? Because unless I miss my guess, right now the Civil Air Patrol is out buzzing the hills looking for the wreck of my airplane. Right now, some poor guy in Paducah is wondering where the hell he's gonna find another doctor!"

"If you would accept this one's suggestion, for the sake of your peaceful deportment, avoid reflection on your previous existence. Such reflection can only cause you unnecessary distress."

"Peaceful deportment? Look, the last thing on my mind right now is maintaining some sort of peaceful damn deportment! I mean, what is this? Am I in quarantine? Is this how you people treat visitors from other planets? What the hell happened to the man who came here with me?"

"All of your fellow blueworlders are part of the representative sample, and are being held for interrogation."

So, this was no quarantine, no big misunderstanding, no diplomatic snafu, to be followed by dinner and drinks and formal apologies to Congress. I was a prisoner, locked in a cell because someone absolutely wanted me there. Suddenly, a light bulb that had previously been pretty dim sizzled to life above my head, and I finally asked the very first question that should have jumped into my mind.

"Hey, where the hell did you learn English?"

"This one is not speaking your language, blueworlder. Neither are you speaking Thoravedic. You were made to inhale the spores of a pan-linguistic mycomatrix."

"That sounds awfully impressive, little guy. John Campbell'd give me six cents for that. But what the hell does that mean, exactly?"

"The spores have taken root in your nervous system and formed symbiotic nodules. This facilitates effortless communication with other sentients exposed to the matrix. All civilized inhabitants of the All-Sovereign's domain have been given the spores, including this one."

"Symbiotic nodules," I muttered, feeling a shudder of revulsion pass through my body. "Jesus. You people infected me with some sort of telepathic space yeast. Not only am I not dreaming, I'm in a damned Hal Clement story! God, that must be why I feel like I'm getting over a fever."

"Yes. Your physiology reacts unpleasantly to the introduction of the matrix. For that reason, it was administered with an anesthetic vapor, the after-effects of which should now be dissipating."

"That's your story," I groaned. In truth, the water had given me back some strength, and while the general ache was diminishing, it wasn't doing so with anything resembling polite haste.

"Blueworlder," said the red fellow, "if you have recovered sufficient strength, would you care to reabsorb the nutrients you disgorged during your earlier distress?" He produced another clay bowl, and this one contained a pinkish-yellow mess that was just growing a sort of soft crust on top. My stomach did a ballet routine when I realized what it was. No wonder I'd woken up with such a horrendous taste in my mouth.

"Good lord, no. We don't, uh, re-absorb... discarded nutrients... uh, not in that fashion."

"This one apologizes. This one's understanding of your physiology is limited."

"You got anything else to eat around here?"

"No. This one gathered your discarded nutrients merely as a courtesy while you were unconscious. No undigested food will be provided."

"Well, you people make Huntsville look like a bed and breakfast. Can I convince you to slip something in your pocket for me at dinner tonight?"

"This one has not expressed himself clearly. There will be no fresh nutrients for yourself or for this one. Neither of us will require them."

"What? What the hell are you talking about? Unless that pan-fried fungus matrix fixed it so I've kicked the food habit, I'm gonna need to eat-"

"Not within the time frame of your required service to the All-Sovereign."

I was about to say something really obnoxious and un-ladylike, when the lighting in the cell changed. I couldn't actually tell where the new illumination was coming from, but a dull red light flashed three times. The little guy immediately rose to his knees and folded his hands in front of him. Maybe I was meant to do the same, but I think you'll understand, imaginary reader, if I say that my reserve of cooperative spirit had suddenly dwindled to quantities best sought after with a microscope.

There was a rumble and a loud hydraulic hiss, and the wall directly opposite the little guy simply vanished, flung aside in the blink of an eye by a mechanism more powerful and precise than anything I'd ever seen on earth. Startled, I rolled over, wobbled to my feet, and put my back against one of the remaining walls. Outlined in a brighter red exterior light were at least a dozen imposing figures- more of the guards or soldiers that had met Doc Soames and myself when we'd arrived on Mars.

Seeing past their gear and uniforms, I could now spot the Martian-ness of their frames, a kinship with the little fellow who'd given me water, though the guards were taller and far more robust. Their heads were slightly larger than a human's, and their shoulders a touch wider, though my overall impression was otherwise one of narrowness. Their limbs were longer and thinner than ours, and their waists were the sort of hourglasses every girl is supposed to dream of.

They wore tight black and gray uniforms with ribbed cuirasses of metal foil, and I finally got a good look at the masks they wore- thin, heavily stylized iron half-masks that covered their lower faces, but not their gleaming black eyes. Above those they wore black hoods, held in place with slim iron circlets around their foreheads.

All but the one in the lead were carrying carbines of some sort, polished black weapons with tapering barrels and heavy butt-stocks.

"Rise, functionary," said the leader, and the little brown-robed guy did, slowly and meekly. "We have observed the fulfillment of your task."

"Farewell, blueworlder," said the functionary. "This one has found his brief time in your company a most atypical diversion."

"Uh, you're welcome," I said. "Guess I'll see you around."

"No," said the little red guy, very quietly.

The leader of the guards gestured, and one of his men stepped forward, pointing his weapon at the functionary. My guts turned to ice.

"No need to waste a dessicator charge," said the leader.

"Of course, Squadmaster," said the advancing guard, reversing his weapon with one smooth motion.

"Blueworlder," said the little guy hurriedly, "this one... this one's name used to be-"

He was silenced by a gun-butt to the skull. Knocked clear off his feet, he fell against the back wall of the cell, where his attacker- his murderer- made sure of the job with three more swift, precise blows. I stood there, shocked stupid, while the killer wiped his gun clean on the brown robe of the crumpled little guy. The stuff he wiped off looked as red as anything I had in me.

And that, imaginary reader, is how I got my first really clear notion of just what sort of Wonderland I'd stumbled into on this side of my own personal rabbit hole.

*****

"You bastards," I whispered, "you bastards, he didn't do anything to you, he was the most harmless god-damn guy I ever-"

"Functionaries are not permitted to survive communication with blueworlders," said the Squadmaster in an even, reasonable tone of voice, like a shoe-store attendant explaining to me why my choice of color was out of season.

"Well, Jesus, why put him in my cell, then? Why not warn me? I could've kept quiet if it was so damned important to you-"

"He was never important." The Squadmaster gestured again, and several of his men stepped up behind him, facing me. "Now, will you behave reasonably?"

He had my answer when I flew across the cell at him, arms outstretched. Dizzy or not, I was livid, and I did something I thought was clever- I bent low and minimized the arc of my leap. Unfortunately, the Squadmaster was nobody's fool- he caught my arms with his own. My momentum carried us into the wall behind him, where we grappled furiously. I could sense his men moving in behind us.

"Leave her," he said, more calmly than I would have expected. "She clearly requires an education."

"I have one, you piece of crap," I said. "Tells me that I grew up on a planet with twice your gravity. You might not be so pleased with yourself in a moment or two."

Now, that wasn't part of my formal education, mind you. That was from the Edgar Rice Burroughs School of Cards To Play When Desperately Fighting For Your Life On Mars, from which nearly every science fiction reader I knew had taken correspondence courses. The odds were good that whatever advantages of size or sex he might have over me, my strength and sturdiness would be totally disproportionate to my frame, like a Martian who'd spent every moment of their life exercising inside a suit of heavy weights.

"True, the blue world has left you accustomed to a much heavier gravity," said the Squadmaster, grunting with exertion for the first time, "but I think you'll find that Thoravedic muscle tissue... is several times more efficient than your own."

As he spoke, he strained fiercely against me, matching my strength and forcing my arms away from him. I lost my devil-may-care grin.

"I've seen blueworlders dissected," he whispered.

"Happy to return the favor," I said. I feigned weakness for a split-second, then yanked my right arm out of his grip and slammed it hard against his slender neck, curling my thumb and fingers around it and squeezing for all I was worth. "Long as we're exchanging... science lessons... I'd bet good money that you've also got light, hollow bones... fragile... like a bird!"

It was a good bet, and maybe given enough time I could have snapped that neck like a turkey's wishbone, but the Squadmaster possessed something else I didn't- a rigorous education in hand-to-hand combat- and he was through playing with me.

He drove a knee into my stomach, knocking the wind out of me, and while I was still dealing with that surprise, he slipped out of my grip and pivoted like a Judo fighter. I flew into a wall and landed badly, banging my head against the cold metal. There was no more forbearance after that. I was hoisted up by four or five of the guards, my hands were wrenched behind my back, and I felt some sort of metal cuff slapped around my wrists and fastened tight.

"There," said the Squadmaster. "We have given you something of an education, blueworlder. Now you will come with us to the Sciences Section, where you will be allowed to return the favor."

*****

It's not easy to stare in awe at the wonders of a society that's just given you a glimpse of its underlying cruelty. When I think back on those first few steps outside my prison cell, I'm reminded of my feelings toward the Germans at the end of World War II. The first human rockets to scrape the edge of space were built by the slave labor of a state that had turned murder into an industrial process- a beautiful and worthy ambition hatched from perverse brutality. Think about something like that long enough and you'll drive yourself crazy.

Dissonance, I think, is the word I might be looking for. Well, imaginary reader, when I got my first few glimpses of the scale of Martian engineering, I had dissonance in spades.

The detention complex was built much like a lock-up back on earth, with rows of cells opening onto railed walkways. I could see closed cell doors to my right and left. The major difference was that the walkways were under open air, not the roof of a prison building. In fact, I was looking out at a smooth orange-red cliff face, across an intervening gap of about two hundred yards.

The sky above was the same jet-black, star-studded wonder I remembered from my arrival- and in the space below the gap was nothing, nothing but empty air, down to a darkened red plain at least a mile below. I swayed with a sense of vertigo that I had never once felt behind the controls of an airplane.

I was marched to the center of the walkway on my cell level, and turned to face the cliff wall. There was a tall fortress-like structure clinging to the rocks across the way, well-lit by a sinister red glare, and I could spot at least two dozen Martians moving around or standing guard beside objects that bore more than a passing resemblance to spotlights and heavy guns.

"We have the last blueworlder," said the Squadmaster, seemingly to thin air. "Bring us over."

From the fortress, a bridge exploded. Twenty feet wide, it shot across the gap with unthinkable speed- the length of two football fields was spanned as fast as I could snap my fingers, without any noise but a smooth whoosh of displaced air. The massive black tongue of metal, which had no visible supports, locked instantly into place beneath our walkway without so much as a bang or a shudder. I flinched in delayed reaction but the guards were already hauling me forward, across the wide gap.

I felt a cool breeze against my cheeks, and I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I needed to say something smart-assed to relieve my own creeping sense of awe. "Bet this is an uncomfortable duty station when the weather turns ugly, eh, fellas?"

"There's no weather up here," said the Squadmaster with a hint of smugness. "It's not allowed."

Well, hell. To that, I just plain had no response.

I didn't cause any physical mischief on the walk across the bridge- the thought over going over one of those un-railed edges and falling to my death somewhere in the Martian darkness was awful. I did manage to turn my head and catch a wider glimpse of where we'd come from, however.

I'd been in a room on one of the uppermost levels of a big rectangle of cells, about ten levels high and twenty, maybe thirty cells across on each level- I couldn't stop for a precise count, of course. But the most striking fact about the cell block was that it was built atop a smooth metal pylon, leading all the way down to the vast plain below- a relatively little box perched atop a sky-scraping needle.

My god, Alcatraz was as open as a weekend kiddie Bible camp by comparison.

Beyond the spire-top prison was the sweeping arc of a high-walled starlit valley, not just a few miles across but quite plainly an order of magnitude more vast. On earth, I was sure, I would have seen the view fading into mist or clouds, but in this cool, dry air where weather was "not allowed," I could see all the way to the opposite side. There were no other artificial structures visible upon the valley floor, but I could make out dark silhouettes sliding across the stars above us- air vessels of some sort, though how huge or high up, there was just no telling.

Soon enough we were nearly across the chasm, and I saw that my guess about the function of the objects dotting the exterior of the fortress had been correct. Every Martian in view wore some variation of the uniform of my guards, and several teams of them were manning light artillery the rough size and shape of Bofors guns. These weapons were in swivel turrets that had no trouble tracking us as we traversed the bridge. The news for anyone contemplating a skedaddle from that prison just kept getting better and better.

*****

Once inside the fortress, I was led up corridors and stairs, across wide mechanical bays, past barracks and vaults and rooms where dozens of Martians sat concentrating on the gleaming readouts of machines well beyond my powers of identification. Despite their mastery of physical engineering my captors seemed to have no qualms about old-fashioned exercise... or perhaps I was merely being singled out for a bit of softening up before my interrogation. At any rate, we walked for quite a while, and while some of my attention was focused on simply maintaining a dignified stride and not bouncing in the air with every step, I was able to make a few useful observations.

Wherever I was, it was an armed camp- at every turn there were more guards, more varieties of uniform, more weapons. Furthermore, the whole place struck me as some sort of active operations center. There was no lounging and no laughter. Everyone seemed to have a place, or to be moving with a firm purpose. There was a tension in the air that even my alien senses could pick up.

Also, while I could see lines of angular symbols everywhere, on walls and doors and electronic viewing screens, they meant absolutely nothing to me. The most logical conclusion (and experience eventually proved me sadly correct, imaginary reader) seemed to be that the linguistic spores I'd inhaled only translated the spoken word. Until I got a chance to hit the books the old-fashioned way, anything a Martian wrote down was doomed to be as much gibberish to my eyes as Mandarin Chinese would have been to his.

The most interesting discovery of all was that I was swimming in a sea of masks. At first I'd taken the iron coverings on the lower faces of my guards as some sort of flourish to their uniforms, perhaps for the sake of intimidating prisoners. But as we moved deeper and deeper into the complex, I didn't see a single uncovered Martian face. There were full iron masks, cloth masks, copper masks (some with a greenish patina), and even the occasional gleaming silver mask. The precise meaning of all the various styles and compositions of the masks was beyond me, but I didn't think it was a coincidence that the only other naked features I'd seen had belonged to a fellow occupant of a jail cell.

Unless I missed my guess, style on Mars meant never having to show the world your real face.

*****

The room I was eventually taken to was high up in the fortress, so high that my guards had to relent from their apparent desire to march me into the floor. They shoved me into an elevator that was large enough to hold a garden party. This device, which was glass-fronted with an exterior view, moved almost as swiftly and soundlessly in the vertical plane as the prison bridge had exploded horizontally... though I could detect only the faintest sense of acceleration in my gut, and no change in air-pressure at all.

We were in motion for nearly a minute, and as we rose, I could see once again across the incredible valley, though my prison was now well below us, and it grew much smaller as the moments passed.

This was when I got my first good look at the dark shapes occulting the stars. They were irregular, bulbous cylinders, completely dark below but lit from above with what I assumed were navigational lights. As we came abreast with them, I spotted superstructures, gun emplacements, and a variety of strange antennae on their upper surfaces. The vessels were easily the size of aircraft carriers, and they drifted in the sky with the majestic grace of Zeppelins, though nothing about them looked as soft or flimsy as a gasbag.

At last, the elevator came smoothly to a halt and a small door opened onto the chamber that had been set aside for my interrogation.

*****

It was a hemisphere, about a hundred feet in diameter, enclosed from floor to ceiling in blue metal shutters, so the general effect was like being inside an unbudded metal rose. In the middle of the smooth floor was a single reclining seat, heavily padded, much like a dentist's chair- though not even the worst dentist in Abilene had ever needed anything like the heavy steel shackles hanging open for my legs and hands.

I suppose I twitched nervously, or maybe my personal goon squad was just used to their prisoners getting edgy when they saw the accommodations. I was carried bodily to the chair and held down by the weight of a dozen strong arms while the handcuffs were removed and the chair clamps were slammed over my ankles and wrists. Once I was secure, the guards spread out in an arc, standing easy but alert, with their weapons ready.

"Oh, yeah, better keep those guns on me, idiots." I muttered. "I bet I could be out of these cuffs in just nine or ten hours if I really felt like it!"

If Martians smirked, that Squadmaster was smirking behind his mask, I just knew it. I settled my head back against the padded chair and sighed- nothing about the situation was good, but at least my post-mycomatrix hangover was still gradually fading.

There was a whirr and a hiss, and a circle of golden light appeared in the metal floor about ten feet to my right. A Martian in a twilight-blue robe and a greenish copper mask rose out of the circle, which closed beneath him without leaving a visible seam.

"Squadmaster Mathrel," said the newcomer, "your guest seems to have lit a fire of curiosity at a rather high altitude."

"Sir?"

"Exarch Thrail wants a word with her. Personally."

"Thrail? Coming here?"

"As we speak."

The blue-robed Martian walked over, placed a hand against my chin, and tilted my head slightly back. The features of his mask were a sterile caricature of the facial structure I'd seen on the murdered functionary- wide dark eye slits, long narrow nose, high cheekbones and a dark slash for a mouth. I thought it looked a bit smug. "Yes," he said, "I can see it really is a her this time. My compliments."

"It's easier to tell when they're younger, sir," said the Squadmaster. "Must I hear about that incident for the rest of my-"

"Until you outrank me, yes," said the newcomer, and he made a rhythmic clicking noise with the back of his throat, a noise that I would eventually find out was the Martian equivalent of a chuckle. He then ran his fingers lightly through my hair, and I flinched. That got me a soft pat on the shoulder.

"Be at ease, blueworlder. I'm Synthesist Avila, Sciences Section. Your time here could pass very smoothly... if you can avoid any outbursts of ill temper."

"I'll see what I can do. You sure you gotta run your damn hands all over me?"

"Forgive me. I'm your medical advocate, here to monitor your physical well-being."

"Really? Well, watch yourself. Your buddy in black likes to beat people to death for doing me favors."

"Ah. I take it you crossed paths with a functionary. What an unfortunate waste of resources."

"Resources? Oh yeah, resources. Like a heart and soul, you piece of-"

The door from the elevator slid open, and I lost my train of vulgarity. Avila and Mathrel spun toward the door, snapping to attention in a very earthly fashion, with their hands folded in front of them. Mathrel's men threw their weapons over their shoulders and composed themselves just as fast.

The first thing through the door was a file of soldiers, and I say that deliberately- my immediate impression was that they were a different sort of bird altogether from Mathrel's bunch. They wore long gray cloak-coats, just like the welcoming committee that had captured myself and Doc Soames. Their masks were still iron, but they were full-face, and their weapons were larger and more powerful-looking, real Buck Rogers numbers. There were eight of them, and they split into two lines, forming a corridor for the big shot that came after them.

His robes were not exactly elaborate, but they were rich and elegantly cut, dark gray bordered with folds of gold, a gold that matched the gleaming perfection of his mask. No patina for this fellow- gold mask, gold circlet, and jeweled pins for the gray hood surrounding his head. He moved with graceful, confident steps, closely followed by two underlings in blue robes and tarnished copper masks like Avila's.

One of them was carrying my flight jacket.

"Exarch," said Avila, bowing from the waist, "welcome to the Sciences Section. Your presence is an unexpected honor."

"Blueworlder DeVere's presence is an unexpected opportunity," said the gold-masked Martian. His voice was deep and smooth and somehow cultured- I suddenly wondered how much power the linguistic spores had to color or even distort my perceptions. Just how impartial was their translation?

"How do you know that name?" I said. "Do I talk in my sleep?"

"Your companion, the blueworlder Soames, was kind enough to name you for us at the conclusion of his interview."

"That a fact? What'd you do, break his kneecaps?"

"Really, Violet, if I may presume to call you that, we seem to have begun this relationship poorly."

"You're a pack of murderers," I said. "You're a bunch of goddamn murdering goons! I didn't ask to come here, and that functionary that got slugged in my cell certainly didn't ask for what he got-"

"Violet," said the Exarch, "if our positions were reversed, I honestly believe I'd be just as disoriented as you are. Our ways must seem utterly strange to you. Might I suggest... might I ask, that you reserve some of your judgment until you've learned more about us?"

"I'm not making any promises."

"Nor do I require them." The Exarch waved a hand at the floor, and about three feet to the right of my chair a wide padded stool popped up into position. He settled himself and his robes into it and drew his legs up beneath him, so that it almost looked as though he were levitating there without support. "Squadmaster, your unit is dismissed. Wait down below with my men until summoned."

"Exarch- ah, Excellency, are you sure that's-"

"Did the words leave my mouth, Squadmaster?"

"Of course. Your will, Exarch."

Mathrel and his boys withdrew to the elevator, followed by the cloaked heavies that had come in with the Exarch. In a moment they were whisked quietly back downward, and were were all alone- just Thrail, his two assistants, Avila, and yours truly.

"Mathrel and his cohorts are a necessary tool," said the Exarch. "Unfortunately, some tools are dull. Your earlier treatment was regrettable. Up here we can be more civilized."

"And yet, somehow, I still find myself shackled to my chair," I said.

"In our gravity, an impulsive blueworlder becomes a cause for general concern."

"You might be more polite than Mathrel and his thugs, Exarch, but frankly, you're still trying to hang a party hat on the fact that I'm a prisoner."

"Avila," said the Exarch, after a moment of silence, "bring our blueworlder a new container of water."

"Immediately, Excellency."

"And release the restraints on her wrists."

"I- ah, yes. Very good, Excellency."

Avila fussed with something behind me. In the meantime, the Exarch's blue-robed underlings summoned stools for themselves out of the floor and perched, much as he had, about twenty yards away. One of them set a wide silver slate on their lap- this was my first glimpse of a Martian electric writing table, the same sort of device on which I'm spilling all of this history for you, my pretend audience- while the other sat quietly holding my jacket, along with a metal package about the size of a shoebox.

"Here," said Avila, appearing at my left with a transparent bowl of water. He waved his free hand over my wrist shackles, and they sprang open. I took the bowl in my hands, and finding it cool to the touch, made the decision to sacrifice a bit of dignity and have a gulp. I figured it was wise to seize what I could and get it in me while it was being offered.

"An adequate gesture of good faith?" asked the Exarch.

"Nicely done," I said, and helped myself to another sip. "Since it really doesn't knock your power over me down by one tiny notch. Thanks for the water, though."

"Avila tells me that your hydration needs are more extreme than our own."

"I'm sure Avila's right." I finished the water off, just in case this conversation had a nasty detour in store, and held the empty container in my lap. It was some sort of light plastic, hardly useful as a weapon. "Now, who are you? What does Exarch mean?"

"Intriguing," said Thrail. "Is the wrong person sitting in that chair?"

"If you'd be willing to settle just a few of my questions," I said, "I might be more willing to handle yours."

In truth, I was barely willing to tell these people my blouse size, but I figured that any chance I had to curb my stark ignorance of their world was worth a little white lie.

"Exarchs," said Thrail, "are the chief lieutenants of the All-Sovereign. Each of us is responsible for one significant aspect of his government. Exarch Vorus, for example, commands the Sciences Section, but your presence here on Mars falls more within my purview."

"And you are...

"Loyalty Section."

"Ahhh," I said. "I think I can read that euphemism a mile away. You're the guys with the long black coats and the secret lists. The night and fog boys."

"The translation spores may be doing neither of us a favor," he said slowly, "but I believe I comprehend your meaning. And yes... I tend to matters of security, public and private."

"You're the Gestapo."

"Be very cautious, Violet, in applying a blue world context to my duties. That phrase you just used did not strike me as flattery."

"I'm sorry." Like hell I was, but if I wanted to pump Thrail for useful information, I guessed it was best not to spit in his face, even if he was wearing that gold mask. "So who or what is the All-Sovereign?"

"Our supreme leader," said Thrail, with what sounded like genuine enthusiasm. "The architect of our salvation. He united the civilized tribes of Mars after generations of pointless warfare. He swept the unworthy onto the sands, and led us in reclaiming our technological birthright."

"Sounds swell." I had visions of a Big Brother figure, a rousing fiction, conjured at the push of a few buttons by executive-suite types like Thrail. "He's a real person, flesh-and-blood?"

"As real as you or I."

"Is he planning on dropping by?"

"You're a special case, Violet, but I'm sure you can understand that the duties of the All-Sovereign are even more pressing than those of his Exarchs. However- would you like to see where he is?"

"Sure, I guess."

"Avila, lower the shields."

"Your will, Exarch."

The lights snapped off. The curving blue metal shutters surrounding our dome slid away and vanished in the space between heartbeats- instantly, silently, shockingly, I found myself under the phosphorescent stars again, on a seemingly open platform. The walls previously enclosed by the metal shutters were transparent, to a degree of perfection I would never have believed possible, even for these people.

An agoraphobic probably would have just keeled over right on the spot, like something out of a cartoon- legs straight up, funeral flowers already conveniently clutched in their hands.

The only visible object higher than our platform was the tower I'd seen in my first few moments on Mars- the insanely vast structure of muted red and blue, looming upward, upward, upward- even from our vantage point, I couldn't see the top. If I'd had to guess, I would have said the closest side was about a mile away. It blotted out a significant portion of the sky directly in front of me.

"High Silence," said Thrail. "The citadel of the All-Sovereign."

"Jesus," I whispered. "I saw it from below... I've never even imagined anything like it."

"There is nothing like it. It's the largest structure ever built by thinking beings in this solar system. The All-Sovereign's chambers are twenty-five miles above the mean level of the planetary desert." He made a rapid clicking noise in his throat. "But I'm being disingenuous- High Silence is built on the upper rim of a shield volcano roughly sixteen miles above the plains... so the structure itself is only nine miles high."

Only thirty Empire State Buildings, stacked on top of one another. That was my rough estimate. My slide rule had presumably been destroyed along with my L-2, otherwise, I might've had a strong urge to whip it out and be more precise.

"Sixteen miles," I muttered as another thought occurred to me. "Wait a minute, that's where we are? The ground I've seen, that valley, was actually the top of a-"

"Yes. Detention block pylons are built roughly five thousand feet above the surface of the caldera, facing the western rim wall. The valley you saw is a cold volcanic crater about, oh, eighty miles wide. The mountain itself is four or five times that in diameter."

"Nix Olympica," I said. "That's what it's called... I read an article. Some sort of surface feature you can spot from Earth- don't even need a really big telescope."

"I've heard other blueworlders use that phrase," said Thrail. "We call it something else, of course." More rapid throat-clicking. "The Sovereign Eye. Our civilization was born at its base. Our greatest cities are built into its outer western rim, in the shadow of High Silence."

"Your goons frog-marched me across an open bridge to get me out of my prison," I said. "How the hell is there air up here? Is the gravity-"

"Avila could better answer your abstract concerns about gravity or air pressure," said Thrail. "Suffice to know, we are indeed well above the life-sustaining region of the Martian atmosphere, and we maintain our balmy little envelope by artificial means."

"How in Christ... how can you hide something like this? You must have radio transmissions, city lights- how have we not spotted a civilization as advanced as yours from Earth?"

"Surely that's no mystery," said Thrail. "If you haven't seen us, it's because we do not wish to be seen."

"But-"

"I think I've been more than amiable, Violet. I think it's past time for you to answer a few questions of mine."

"All right," I said. "I'll be as helpful as I can, but I hope you understand- I won't tell you anything about the defenses of my world."

At that, Thrail laughed- Martians might chuckle differently than you or I, imaginary reader, but when something really tickles them, they sound just like us. Thrail was tickled.

"The defenses of your world," he wheezed. "Oh, that alone was worth the trip up here. Blueworlder, you've seen the level of power we can afford to expend on something as simple as an elevator. You see High Silence, right there before you. The All-Sovereign could, if he so desired, wipe every last speck of life from your planet, sterilizing it down to the blackest depths of its oceans, and it would cost him no more effort than you expended drinking your little saucer of water."

"Now that's gotta be crap," I said. "I can't deny you people build some mighty fine things, but if we're that far beneath your concern, why would you even bother with this interrogation bull-"

"The question isn't whether or not you're insignificant," said Thrail. "The question is, are you still insignificant enough to justify continued postponement of your absolute destruction?"

"Oh," I said. "Well, if you put it that way, I can give you some pretty precise information on our flint arrowheads... and we have some mean horse cavalry. And I heard about this one guy who's building a catapult, but that work's not really out of the testing stage yet..."

"Violet," said Thrail, who had gone as still as a statue, "it's no accident that a functionary was waiting for you in your cell when you awoke. I have twenty blueworlders in custody; a functionary was put into contact with each of you. That required twenty executions, and the reactions to those executions told me what sort of beings I'm dealing with."

"So," I said. "Now the mask comes off, in a manner of speaking."

"You didn't really think I was being polite because you deserved it, did you? I have your reaction on file, and now I've spent enough time with you personally to get to know you very well."

"You don't know a damn thing about me!"

"I know you like I know the weather. I'm absolutely certain that in just a moment you'll put your arms willingly back into those shackles for me."

"Really? Well, you can kiss my ass." I folded my arms across my chest. "You want a shot, you got it. Hope you're stronger than your boy Mathrel."

"In eighteen of my detention block cells," said Thrail, "I hold blueworlders that are unknown to you. In the nineteenth, however, I have your physician Soames. By varying the atmospheric pressure within his chamber, I could easily cause him to be made uncomfortable, or seriously injured, or even-"

"Dammit." I threw the empty plastic container on the ground and slid my hands politely back into the shackles, which snapped tight around them instantly.

"You see? I know people, Violet. The first business of Loyalty Section is people, whether blueworlders or red. And you, I'm afraid, are rather inflexible about your principles."

"So this is your game, huh? You don't like my answers to your questions, you're gonna threaten Soames?"

"No," said Thrail. "Having taken your measure, I'm afraid that I wouldn't trust you even under that duress. I require a firmer guarantee of the value of your intelligence."

He waved his hand at the floor again, and an articulated metal pole shot up, holding a transparent, rectangular plastic box. He adjusted it so that it was about level with my chest, and then beckoned to his attendants.

"Zhanazia, come here. Bring your little pet."

The attendant with the metal container rose to their feet and came forward. The box in their hands was about the size of the transparent plastic container in front of me- I put two and two together and started to break out in a cold sweat.

*****

"Every ten of your years," said Thrail, suddenly casual and conversational again, "the Sciences Section draws a representative sample from the blue world. Assorted members of your civilization, who then receive personal interrogation. Their data is meant to enhance and corroborate the knowledge gathered from long-range observation, which is not always as complete as one might hope."

"Why, that just breaks my heart," I said, watching nervously as Thrail's attendant placed one end of her metal box against the far side of the plastic box. The two containers were flush, and fit together with a soft click.

"We aim for a meaningful set of candidates- scientists, military officers, engineers, politicians. However, the apparatus used to seize blueworlders is extremely difficult to calibrate, let alone use. Sometimes, we secure rather worthless samples. On occasion, get get more than we bargained for. You might be such a specimen."

Zhanazia flipped a switch on the metal container, and the near end slid open. The thing that scuttled out into the transparent box was wider than my hand- it was low and reddish-brown and gleaming, with a segmented ovoid body and at least a dozen little legs on each side. It looked like a sort of pissed-off pillbug, but I didn't know just how pissed off until it opened its mouth. It had jaws like two pairs of wire-cutting pliers, dark and sickle-shaped, and each of the four sickles was the size of one of my fingers. I'm not ashamed to admit I swore under my breath.

"Now," said Thrail, "I'd like you to meet another friend brought here from a great distance. In his case, the southern polar deserts. You might notice that he's entirely blind, possessing no visual organs. He does, however, have a very primitive capacity for receptive telepathy. In essence, he sees by sniffing out thoughts."

The creature's jaws pulsed in agitation, and Zhanazia put one of her hands against the plastic box. That seemed to calm it down. Zhanazia removed the metal box and set it out of sight.

"The southern tribes call it the blind demon," continued Thrail. "It certainly doesn't hunt anything much larger than itself, but it has absolutely no qualms about biting when provoked. Its venom is just about the most dangerous on Mars, drop for drop."

"Blueworlder DeVere," said Avila, kneeling on my left, "I must inform you that the protein chains in the creature's venom have a very different effect on your physiology than ours. Diminished lethality with enhanced allergic irritation."

"I think I get it," I whispered. "It's not gonna kill me, and it's guaranteed to hurt like hell."

"Yes," said Thrail. "Oh, yes. Now, because of the blind demon's telepathic nature, a mental sensitive like Zhanazia can actually tame it- keep it subdued, even teach it to perform useful tricks. The ones we use in Loyalty Section have been given... aversion training. They have been conditioned with an irrational, uncontrollable hatred of one particular stimulus, at which they will lash out violently, regardless of anything Zhanazia does."

Thrail tapped the plastic box gently, and nudged it closer to me.

"Our little friend here," he said, "does not appreciate a liar."

"I take back what I said about you, Thrail." I swallowed to get spit flowing as best I could; my mouth had suddenly gone surprisingly dry. "You're really not any more polite than Mathrel. You just happen to have a better tailor."

"I want to see that you comprehend your situation," said the Exarch. "The first demonstration will be harmless. Tell a lie."

"Uh," I said, not very cleverly, "Uh, damn, you're a handsome fellow, Thrail, and I-"

I didn't even get to finish my sentence. The little creature leapt straight at me, jaws wide, and I flinched so hard I damn near wrenched my neck. The blind demon rebounded off the wall of its plastic box, but it struck with enough force to actually move the container and inch or two toward me on the articulated arm. After that, it scrabbled against the plastic eagerly, jaws pumping. It took a few moments for Zhanazia to do whatever telepaths do and get it calmed back down.

"Okay," I said, "Jesus! Okay. I get it. I tell a fib, you pop the door open. Message received, loud and clear."

"Oh no," said Thrail, clicking softly at me. "No, no. Surely you're sharper than that, Violet. Now that you understand that the character of this interview is entirely under your control, there's no need for a door at all."

He waved one of his hands, and without a sound the front side of the plastic box fell open. The blind demon's gleaming jaws twitched, and suddenly there was nothing between it and my neck but a foot of empty air.

Next: Triumph of the All-Sovereign


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