Authors: Jack L. Chalker
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Adventure, #Space Opera, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction; American, #Short Stories, #High Tech
Hawks had refused to help the ambitious Lazlo Chen in his quest to find the five gold rings that could break Master System’s hold over humankind —and that refusal had landed him on the deadly prison planet Melchior.
But when Hawks and some fellow prisoners engineered a bold escape, it seemed almost too easy. Hawks guessed that Chen was pulling the strings, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was another, greater power involved.
And that scared him.
Now the stakes were rising, and Hawks was more determined than ever to find the gold rings. But Master System was out to capture him, and Chen was trying to follow him—and the only place his small band of rebels could hide was smack in the middle of pirate territory...
FIRST TIME IN PRINT
Reba Koll leapt at Sabatini. Their merged bodies became a single, seething mass of amorphous flesh; it writhed and wrinkled like some great monster, and slowly a form began building out of the center.
At first it was a head, humanoid but hardly human, with bloated, puffy flesh and no hair or features. Then the torso started to emerge, then the waist, and finally thick, sturdy legs. Subtly the skin texture and muscle tone changed, becoming flatter, harder, and more natural. Very slowly but steadily the rest of the detailing came in.
The figure shuddered, then breathed deeply. The eyes opened, and the new Sabatini looked at them.
By Jack L. Chalker
Published by Ballantine Books:
THE WEB OF THE CHOZEN
AND THE DEVIL WILL DRAG YOU UNDER
A JUNGLE OF STARS
DANCERS IN THE AFTERGLOW
THE SAGA OF THE WELL WORLD
Midnight at the Well of Souls
Exiles at the Well of Souls
Quest for the Well of Souls
The Return of Nathan Brazil
Twilight at the Well of Souls: The Legacy of Nathan Brazil
THE FOUR LORDS OF THE DIAMOND
Lilith: A Snake in the Grass
Cerberus: A Wolf in the Fold
Charon: A Dragon at the Gate
Medusa: A Tiger by the Tail
THE DANCING GODS
The River of Dancing Gods
Demons of the Dancing Gods
Vengeance of the Dancing Gods
THE RINGS OF THE MASTER
Lords of the Middle Dark
Pirates of the Thunder
A Del Rey Book
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1987 by Jack L. Chalker
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States of America by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 86-91384
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition: March 1987
Cover Art by Darrell K. Sweet
For Judy-Lynn del Rey,
a unique giant in a field
dominated by pygmies,
for all that I am today.
I wish you’d stuck around for the climax.
INE HAD DIED IN THE FIGHT, NINE GOOD FRIENDS AND
family members. From her haven in the small hollow escape pod attached to the great tree, she stared out into the rain, but she could see little more than water and mist. The tears began to flow as a dark shape seemed to move in the grayness outside. She raised the pistol but did not fire; the shape paused a moment, then moved on past the tree.
She knew that it had somehow still missed her, but it was heading for the nearby compound where twenty more would be taken by surprise as her party had been—and possibly slaughtered for not telling the thing what they did not know.
Its pause between her escape and its pursuit certainly meant that it had beamed a full account of the progress to date to its master module, in orbit somewhere above. Its programmers would make certain she never left this cursed world, and if she destroyed it they’d send another Val, and another, until they got her—no matter what the cost.
How many lives, both human and Sakanian, was she worth? How many would be massacred for her? And for what? Sooner or later they would get her, and even if she could elude them indefinitely in this mess of a world she could do no more useful work.
With a sigh, she crawled out of the pod and into the rain. The thing had not gone far and was easy to track, and she was amazed at her sudden calmness. Sensing it was being followed, it stopped and waited, a large, hulking, obsidianlike humanoid that was plastic enough to become whatever it needed, and now needed to be nothing more than itself.
She stepped into the clearing and faced the Val from a distance of five meters or so, her pistol still pointed at it.
“I have been waiting for you, Ngoriki,” the Val said in a voice that sounded somewhat like her own, but full of stoic self-confidence.
“I know. I can’t let you kill any more innocent people.”
“Yes. Inside me is a record of you, you know. I fully understood what the action would do to you. I very much regret having to do it, but there seemed no other way. I had tried the traditional approaches and nothing else seemed sure.”
She felt suddenly furious, and her grip on the pistol tightened. “You
How dare you! How can you regret? You are a machine, a soulless monstrosity! You don’t
You don’t know what that did to me! You’re nothing but a machine carrying out your programming, no matter what the cost!”
“You are both right and wrong,” the machine said. “It is true that I am a construct, carrying out my master programming instructions—but so are you. I am made of different stuff, in a different way, than you, and, unlike you, I know my creator and my engineers. Human beings are programmed by their biochemistry more than you would like to believe. I think—and that makes me an individual. I am not free, but neither is humanity.”
“Yes. That’s what you’ll do to me, isn’t it? Reprogram me. Perhaps that is what sets us apart, then. I have a yearning to be free, and you see that yearning as only a flaw in my own genetics.”
“No,” the Val responded. “We have a disagreement, that is all. This is not a good, let alone perfect, system we have, I grant that. It is merely a better system than the alternatives. It saved the race of humankind and many other races from inevitable self-extinction. Having saved them from their demise at their own hands, it now saves them from extinction at the hands of others. Survival outweighs all other considerations. If one survives, one has opportunity and hope at some point for changes for the better. If one does not survive, nothing else matters.”
“Damn it!” she screamed at him. “You have everything I was inside you!
I am innocent of what I was charged!”
The Val almost seemed to sigh. “Yes. I know. That more than anything has made this so difficult for me. We hate to get the rare innocent to track, yet we must. Do you know why we are called Vals? After a character in ancient Earth literature, one Jean Valjean. He stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and received life at slave labor as his punishment. He escaped, became great, and did only great things for others, yet he was hunted relentlessly and brought down all the same. The name is that of the victim, not the pursuer. The greater good for the greater number requires that the system work. An individual injustice here and there is inevitable, but so long as the trial is fair and the conviction proper, the system must be served, for otherwise there is chaos and disorder, and the masses will suffer. Better one than the many, as painful as that may be.”
“You bastard! Where does justice and mercy fit into all this?”
“Is it mercy to spare one so that a thousand be killed? The system ensures survival. Without survival, justice and mercy are irrelevant, as well. Therefore, they are irrelevant here.”
The pistol dipped down, and she felt the tears returning. “But—without justice and mercy, why survive at all?” she asked.
She suddenly raised the pistol, ready to fire, but the Val had anticipated her and was quicker. A snakelike tentacle suddenly shot from its midsection and struck her once, hard, on the side of her head. She cried out, then crumpled. It retracted the tentacle, then went over to her and gave her a quick examination. She was out cold.
different,” the Val said aloud. “I have often wished, in circumstances such as this, that I, too, could cry.”