03. masters of flux and anchor

 

SOUL RIDER III: MASTERS OF FLUX AND ANCHOR

Jack L. Chalker

 

Copyright © 1985 by Jack L. Chalker

ISBN: 0-812-53281-3

e-book ver. 1.0

 

 

 

For Tim Sullivan, in the hope and expectation that

he will hit the big time, a giant spectacle with a dash of byap!

 

 

 

1

POWER AND INFLUENCE

 

 

 

If evil looks ordinary, even mundane, until it is too late, then Zelligman Ivan looked more ordinary than most. He was a small, thin man of apparent middle age. with a long, drawn face that had a chin far too large, a beak-like nose, two beady little brown eyes, and short gray hair. His beard was a close-cropped goatee only slightly less gray than his hair, and his thin, short moustache was both small and gray enough to be invisible from any distance. He wore the clothing of a respectable Anchor, a brown corduroy suit and string tie, with faded brown dress boots and a peculiar formal round hat, and he sat on a horse upright and unmoving. Overall, Zelligman Ivan riding through Flux was a comical sight, but there was nothing at all comical about the man himself.

They watched him come, as only those who live in Flux and are driven mad by it can watch, and they licked their lips. They were mad and they were deadly, but they were not stupid. Stupid people do not last long in Flux. Any man riding alone in Flux could read the strings, the multicolored bands of energy that were the roads through the reddish, crackling nothingness of the void. And anyone riding alone had to be a wizard, for without power you were quickly dead. This, too, they took into account, but again it didn't bother them severely. There were wizards and there were wizards.

Ivan had no idea they were there until they struck. Sounds traveled only a short distance in Flux before being smothered, and visibility was always quite limited, as in a thick fog. Suddenly from all around him rose horrible shapes, gigantic shapes that reached upwards of ten meters or more. Growling, drooling, snarling monsters that looked frighteningly real. His horse stopped and reared back in panic, and it took all his effort for a moment to keep from being thrown, but he managed to calm the frightened animal and look around at the threatening horde of hissing and slobbering horrors.

He smiled.

Ivan knew that these were mere projections, a false wizard's convincing and threatening show of his or her own imagination without real threat. He had a rifle in his saddle but did not draw it, instead waiting for the attackers to tire of this and show themselves.

They moved in on him slowly, warily, but with deter¬mination. A dugger cult, he saw, fifteen or twenty of them; all misshapen by their own inner fears. All were naked, howling savages, so deformed that it was impossi¬ble to tell their sex or their original looks, save one, who was dressed in tattered hides. That would be the leader. They all left no doubt that their intent was more than to rob; they were quite ready to pounce on him and eat both him and his horse.

He traced a small circle with his hand, and the advanc¬ing creatures stopped. He watched them strain against nothing, an invisible barrier he had simply decreed into existence. Some gave up and turned to retreat, but found an identical barrier to their rear.

Ivan surveyed them imperiously, then pointed at the leader. "You!" he called out, in a thin, nasal voice that nonetheless had the confident ring of command in it. "Come forward!"

The leader looked nervous, but realized that he was trapped and had to deal with a new situation. He ap¬proached the invisible barrier and seemed almost surprised to see that it gave way for him—but when the others tried to follow, they were stopped cold.

Close in, the leader showed himself to be a creature with a round, ugly face that had all the right features in distorted positions. The eyes were huge and bulging, and the mouth sagged on one side, revealing sharp, pointed teeth. The leader stopped before Ivan.

"Can you speak?" the man on the horse asked calmly.

"Oh, yes, sir," the cult leader responded. "Gody speak real good."

"I'm sure," Ivan commented aloud, mostly to himself. He noticed that the dugger held a small object in his hands, almost fondling it. "You're not frightened of me?"

"Gody fears none!" the creature responded. "Gody true wizard with this!" He held up the object and looked at it, and from it sprang a powerful beam of pure energy, racing straight at the rider.

Ivan had been prepared for it. He held up his hand and casually deflected the ray; and suddenly, it was gone. Gody looked concerned, then puzzled.

"I know those toys," the rider said scornfully, "although goodness knows where you picked one up." They were, in fact, small Flux power amplifiers created from the models of the huge ones built years ago by his old associate, but they were strictly rationed and carefully controlled. "They are adequate for some things, but they have a weakness."

Gody looked down at the little cube, not quite under¬standing why it didn't work. Suddenly the top flew off, and a huge number of paper streamers flew out in all directions. The dugger chief yowled in fury.

"They are just machines," Ivan explained patiently. "A good wizard has no more trouble with them than with guns and knives."

Gody knew when he was licked. "Sorry, sorry. Master. Will not trouble you further. . . ."

Ivan thought for a moment. "You're not really hungry, if you had that box, so this was just for the principle of it. Tell me—do you know this area of Flux well?"

The dugger looked confused, but at the moment was willing to go along with whatever the wizard said. "Yes, Master. Know from Anchor to Hellgate to Anchor again. Can read strings, can Gody, with. . . ." He looked down sadly at the box.

"I will restore your little toy," Ivan told him.

"Oh, thank you, Master! Kind Master!"

"I will give you even greater power than you have dreamed of. But for this, you must perform a task for me."

Gody was very interested now. "Anything, Master! Name it, Gody do!"

"Very well. Attend me, I will give you powerful spells, and yet another toy. The task I set for you is very dangerous, so you must do it exactly as I say. I will tell you how to capture a powerful wizard. You are to do so, and then take the wizard where I say. I will know when you have done this, and I will give you power."

"Tell! Gody and his people will do as you command!"

"I know you will," Ivan responded. "My spells will guarantee it. If you serve me well, there are great rewards for you. I may have other tasks for even greater rewards. But if you do this wrong, you and your people will die horribly. You understand?"

"Gody understand. Master, oh, yes. But—what you doing out here, such powerful wizard?"

"Fishing," replied Zelligman Ivan. "And I caught what I was after."

 

 

 

2

DYNAMICS OF DISTURBANCE

 

 

 

"In the old days, folks knew they were at war as soon as the first attack was launched," remarked Mervyn, high wizard of World, chairman of the Nine Who Guard. "Now, it seems like we damn near lost the war before we even know we've been shot in the back." He nudged his brown horse a bit to increase the pace.

His companion was a strikingly beautiful woman, dressed all in the black of stringers, and wearing a gunbelt with two large and menacing black revolvers perched one per hip. She was very tall and slim, but a flex of her muscles showed strength in both arms and legs that few men could match. Her skin was a smooth chocolate brown, her eyes large and jet black, her hair and brows a striking silvery white that provided both a startling beauty and a stunning contrast. Unlike most female stringers, she wore her hair long, letting its silver gleam down her back halfway to her very trim waist. Her horse, too, was of the blackest black, but the mane of the large beast was the same silver as her hair. Clearly she was a stringer wizard of some power,  and,  therefore,  one to be avoided by all  sane people.

"Surely it is not as bad as all that," she responded to the old man's comments. "Any plot unmasked before it is completed is a failure."

"Perhaps. I hope you're right. But a plot is only a failure when it fails. You're good, and you've got much talent and experience, but I fear you are very young, my dear. I am over seven hundred now. Seven hundred years of fight."

She looked at the small, frail-looking man in the green robe and sandals, the wizened bearded face and long, scraggly strands of white hair flanking a bald pate making him look every bit as old as he claimed to be. and shrugged. "A winning fight," she noted.

He shrugged. "I can win a thousand times. Ten thousand. They only need to win it all once. I'm getting very old for this, maybe too old."

"You only look that way because you like the image," she taunted. "You could look and feel like anything or anybody you wanted, as can I—and I don't have half your power over Flux."

"Yes you do. In fact, I'd say your potential is as great as anyone's I have ever known, but that's true of most genuine wizards. If you can handle the Flux, you can handle it easily and in any way you want. It's the mind that makes the difference—intelligence, experience, and knowledge, which are the keys to anything. Your mind, for example, keeps you from such totality of control. Not your intelligence, certainly, but the way you see yourself and your place on World. You are content in the Guild and with what it offers; you are not one to sit for ages in study and practice as I have, perfecting your talents. You inher¬ited your looks and your power from your mother, but there is too much of the father in your soul."

She chuckled. "He was never more than a false wizard, a conjuror of illusions with no substance. But he feared no wizard and killed the strongest. That tells me more about where real humanity lies than creating my own little world and playing goddess so long that I get to believe my own publicity."

He shrugged and changed the subject. "Have you en¬countered any Soul Riders in your travels?"

She nodded. "Yes, three in fact. They seem to stick close, one to a cluster, or, perhaps, one to a Hellgate."

"No, one to an Anchor. Twenty-eight in all, in fact. Tell me—what did you think of them?"

"Very little, really. They rode inside wizards of varying types, with no clear preference so far as I could see. The hosts gave off curious double auras, and were difficult to truly focus on with magic, but the wizards did not seem extraordinary or even very ambitious."

"Ambition comes when the masters of the Soul Rider command it, and not before. I've studied one closely in my cluster the past century, and there is no question that the Soul Rider is as much a tool of something or someone else as the host is of the Soul Rider itself.''

"I shouldn't want one, then. Bad enough to have some¬thing influencing your life. Worse to know that they, too, are but puppets of yet another. Who? The goddess of the Church, or something greater?"

"Greater, I think, and lesser as well. The Riders are creatures of pure energy, minds without bodies, that's for certain. Their number and their deeds are too well ordered and well reasoned to be random, yet they are individualis¬tic enough that I cannot see them as conjured beings. More than once I've touched their thoughts, and touched briefly as well the orders from their masters, but it only com¬pounds the mystery. The mathematics of it is both very simple and very complex, as all of the messages consist of only two distinct parts. There is only on and off, open and close, yet the messages are impossibly complex and impossible, too, to translate or decipher."

"On and off," she mused. "Sounds like a machine."

"That was my very thought. If machines could think, this is what it would be like. That has driven me to despair, that thought. If the gods are machines, then where are they? Who built them? And to what purpose?"

"Perhaps to no other purpose than keeping the Hellgates closed," she suggested.

"I have thought of that, but it brings up unpleasant implications. If that is their sole purpose, then their mis¬sion is to keep us down at all cost, to make certain we do not interfere. We are learning now at a great rate, Sondra. The Codex has given us much, and sooner or later we will find the missing books, those which give the answers to the really big questions. What then? Will they turn on us as the enemy and slap us down to barbarism as they might well have done before?"

"Don't worry so much. Those books probably don't even exist anymore."

"They exist," he said gravely. "Years ago one of the Seven, Coydt van Haas by name, had collected enough of them to do wonders. With them he built the great amplifi¬ers that increased an ordinary wizard's power a thousand¬fold. With them he created a demented revenge, and resurrected long-dead beliefs and attitudes. With them he revealed enough to destroy the foundation of a revolution. And that was only a smattering of what those books must contain."

"My father killed Coydt almost twenty years ago," she pointed out. "If they exist, they're in the hands of the Seven."

"No. I know just where they are, and who has them, but it does neither me nor anybody else much good. They are in the hands of the New Eden Brotherhood, and they are hidden and guarded well. Occasionally scraps are fed out to keep their alliance firm with wizards they need, but that's about all."

She made an expression as if smelling a foul odor.

"Those maniacs. Why do we stand for it? Half of World would unite to crush them."

"Indeed. You find the Brotherhood distasteful, then?" She looked over at him strangely. "Not merely distaste¬ful—repugnant. Do you mean you approve of it? Women treated as subhumans, as animals?"

"I neither approve nor disapprove, but I wonder how strong your dislike would be if the sexual situation were reversed? No, don't get so angry—hear me out first. World is dominated by those with the power, both political and Flux power. You said it yourself—wizards who act like gods get to believe they really are. Three out of five of the most powerful wizards are female. I can name you a half a dozen that simply reverse the Brotherhood's philosophy, but ninety percent specialize in dominating, limiting, and oppressing their populations, although not in sexual ways. Some are more benevolent than others, but all are no more than variations on what the Brotherhood has done, perhaps substituting some other group for women as the oppressed, or being democratic about it and oppressing everyone. Are they as repugnant to you? Or do you even think about them that way?"

"But the Brotherhood is not in Flux; it's in Anchor!"

"And what difference does that make? Not too many generations ago a small cadre of women in the Church decided who among the young population would be sold as slaves in Flux, and carefully and completely controlled everyone left. Their control was more subtle, but no less authoritarian or complete. When it was finally rotting and begged replacement, it was a woman who did it, and the control was no less complete for having nobler motives. The Reformed Church was out to do what it said—reform the existing church to eliminate corruption. It did not question the order of things."

"But you have put your finger on an important differ¬ence," she noted. "I agree that Flux is one thing, because either you have the power or you must depend on one that does, but Anchor held at least the possibility of change, of revolution. When that is taken away, when Flux comes to Anchor, there is no hope."

He smiled. "And for two thousand years Anchor was more stable and less revolutionary than Flux. The people of Anchor were very unhappy at the system, yet they endured it and did not question it to any threatening degree. See how easily the newly recombined Church has reestab¬lished authority? The people are not happy, but their reli¬gion teaches that unhappiness, pain, and suffering is their lot until they attain Heaven. The women of the Brother¬hood are happy and contented with no thoughts of Heaven."

"Because they have been brainwashed and Flux-changed into it!"

"Ah, yes. Yet some people take drugs to chemically induce a happiness they cannot otherwise achieve; others drink to excess for the same reason. Still others throw themselves into religious frenzies in a bout of self-intoxication. All are seeking happiness. But happiness, even Heaven, is the absence of further progress. When one is happy, one wants no more than that, and will spend his life in a search to keep the brain's pleasure center perma¬nently on. It is the essence of humanity. We learn, we progress, by our unending quest for eternal happiness—yet should we achieve it, it all stops."

Sondra shook her head as if to clear it. "You make the world seem ugly and upside down."

"The world is ugly, but only viewpoints on it are upside down, not the world itself. All I am saying is that people pursue happiness in order to obtain it, then try to force it on everyone else. That's the way of things. I do not like the Brotherhood, but I also do not like most of World. That's why I tend to keep apart from it as much as possible. When I was forced into active long-term partici¬pation in it, during the reign of the Empire, I found myself acting just as ugly and ruthless as the other wizards. I didn't like it."

"You'll not eliminate my hatred of the Brotherhood with cold logic, even of the irrefutable sort." she told him.

"I know," he sighed. "That's why people still fight wars."

 

 

World had changed much in only twenty years, but it was arguable whether it was for the better or worse. The way. Mervyn thought, the position on that question de¬pended on just what you wanted.

Cass had broken the grip of the old Church by splitting it in two, and uniting opportunistic Fluxlords and Anchors chafing at the old system to create an empire that had at its height spanned more than half of World. In the end, though, the Empire spread itself too thin. Internal jealou¬sies and love of power cracked the empire in various places. While Mervyn and others of the most powerful wizards attempted a unified governmental authority, in the end the glue that held the Empire together and drove it onward had been the will of one woman: Cass, Sister Kasdi the warrior-saint. And so the enemies of Empire, led by Coydt van Haas, had set a trap for her, a trap she escaped—but at a great price.

Coydt had been stronger; he had, in fact, defeated her in a test of wills, and only a shotgun blast from a cynical stringer seeking revenge had allowed her to triumph, her self-confidence shaken. But in his death throes, Coydt had achieved his aim, for he removed from her all of the spells that bound her, that made her the saintly leader, leaving her open to more human feelings, desires, and needs. Already wilting under the enormous weight of her responsi¬bilities, she had taken her drive from the fact that she could enjoy no alternatives. With those spells removed, the choice of going back to that miserable life was impossible. She had retreated to a Fluxland with her daughter, Spirit, who had been cursed to neither speak nor understand, and to be forever forbidden all tools and artifacts.

With them had gone her grandson, Jeffron, whom Cass and the agents of Mervyn would raise.

And with the "death" of Sister Kasdi and the with¬drawal of Cass, the Empire had quickly crumbled. The conciliatory leader of the old, original Church met with the highest priestesses of the Reformed Church, and after much argument and tribulation they hammered out a con¬cordat which reestablished a single Church once more under a single set of doctrines that incorporated the funda¬mental changes of the Reformers with the basics for which the old Church had fought. None could lead the Church, or become a High Priestess of a temple, or minister directly to the people, without the Vows of Sanctity undertaken by binding spell. Those involved in other aspects of the Church, such as administration and research, were not so encum¬bered unless they wished to be. The Church had become far less corrupt, but had strengthened its grip, for it ex¬tended to parts of Flux as well as to Anchor.

Hope, the Fluxland created by Kasdi as the source of the Reformed Church, had slowly dissolved without her force of will. Work on compiling all of the ancient writings and attempting to interpret them, a project called the Codex, had been moved to Holy Anchor, where a Queen of Heaven elected by the temple High Priestesses ruled as chief administrator.

Much had been learned from the Codex, but researchers were bound by spells to reveal nothing except through the Church, which kept tight controls. Much of the work was suppressed, either as heretical or as too dangerous and disruptive. Science, however, began to be encouraged in Anchor, where understanding of the devices that main¬tained them was now deemed crucial. Many of the key scientific works, though, were missing from the Codex, and scientists who went off on tangents not approved by the Church found themselves stepped on rather hard. The Church was interested in the practical. Still, the last twenty years had brought revolutionary changes.

With the understanding of Flux energy as just one form of all other energy, a form that could be modified, redirected, and controlled, many of the Anchors were in the process of being wired for full electrical power, not just the capital cities as in the old days. Wireless telecommunication based on the temple intercoms was also under development, linking all parts of an Anchor instantaneously. But no one had yet discovered a way to communicate Anchor to Anchor, for the Flux squashed and suppressed all forms of elec¬tronic broadcast signal. The standard of living for the average man and woman of Anchor had improved substan¬tially, but these new developments put them ever more securely under the absolute control of the Church.

The breakup of the Empire had worried the Nine Who Guard most of all, for it left the mysterious Hellgates insufficiently guarded. They coped as best they could, using the Flux power amplifiers built by Coydt van Haas to create virtual walls around the Flux entrances to the gates, walls maintained by priestess-wizards under saintly vows, and by the defenses of the Hellgates themselves. The weak point was the other entrance, the one that al¬lowed someone in each Anchor temple to travel directly to the gate itself, bypassing the defenses. There was no real answer, for new energy weapons could dissolve concrete as easily as anything else, so the Nine had decided to be content with an incorruptible Church devoted to eternal vigilance. It was true that forces had previously defended the Gates from entry via Flux, but not only Cass and Spirit but even Coydt had managed to bypass them.

Of course, not all Anchors were under Church control, and only a small part of Flux; but the Seven Who Wait, also known as the Seven Who Come Before, needed ac¬cess to all the Hellgates at once to open them as they were determined one day to do. Control by the Nine of just one was sufficient to keep them from their work. Mervyn knew this, but had called a meeting anyway, an unprecedented one, to discuss the problems.

All Nine were there, which was the fact without precedent. They met in a tiny Flux pocket so secure that none could even guess its presence, let alone penetrate it, and they listened intently to the old wizard's comments.

"We have become too complacent of late," he chided them. "While we have sat and done little, the enemy has been actively on the march with their characteristic sub¬tlety and with uncharacteristic precision and coordination. A new empire has been created under our very noses, one in the hands of our enemy."

He spread out a map of World showing the Anchors in their characteristic clusters. "This is a copy of an ancient map, but it will do for our purposes. The letters are in the ancient tongue, but mostly correlate with the names the Anchors have today."

Krupe, the fat, bald wizard in brown satin robes, looked down at the map and frowned. "Curious. If we use the ancient language, there's almost the full old alphabet repre¬sented there," he noted. "Funny I never really saw that before." He stared again at the map.

 

S          T

H   2   J            I   6   K

U         V

 P                      Q                      NG    R

------HQ   I    F           C   3   G           A   5   D           O   7   E---

W        X         Y         Z

                                                    L

N 4 B

   M

 

 

"The dotted line is the equator, the numbers are the Hellgates." Mervyn explained needlessly. "As to the al¬phabetical list, I saw that long ago, but it is in a haphazard order and seems to mean little except to denote the first letter of the old language versions of the names. 'HQ' is often an ancient abbreviation for 'headquarters,' and is appropriate, since that is Holy Anchor today. Why Tezgroph should be designated by 'NG' is something we may never know, as I have found no correlation of those two letters with any standard abbreviation. Still, there is World as we know it. All the rest is Flux."

"So? As you say. it is common knowledge," remarked the dark and enigmatic Serrio, one of the two of the Nine not assigned to guard a specific Gate and cluster but free-roaming, to add extra strength where needed. "I could draw it in my sleep. Why show us this?"

"Patience. The nonstandard symbols might have been strange to some of us. However. I draw your attention to the fact that the northern, eastern, and western clusters are firmly under our, and Church, control. The center and south are not, including my own."

The small, exotic wizard Kyubioshi shrugged. "It is not necessary for us to control all seven, as you know. As for the rest, they are a mixture, a hodge-podge of independent Anchors, some under Church control, some under the control of odd groups and factions, as are the Fluxlands inside and between. We agreed long ago, at the breakup of the Empire, that this was to be desired."

"Indeed," Mervyn agreed. "However, my agents re¬cently have completed a massive task that might have been impossible in earlier times. In compiling a structure of ruling Fluxlands and Anchor leaders on a cluster-by-cluster basis, we find civil control in the Anchors in the hands of just one or two individuals. As always, the government is totally subservient to the Church, but only outwardly. These governments have alliances with Fluxlords, alleg¬edly also supportive of the Church. In tracing the relation¬ships, an effort that has cost many lives, I might add, we came up with some startling information. Ultimate civil power in each cluster seems to reside in a centralized source—one for each cluster. In most cases this central source cannot be traced, but I have traced two. both in the north. Do the names Varishnikar Stomsk and Gifford Haldayne mean nothing to you?"

There was a collective gasp. Both were long-time mem¬bers of the Seven, and their arch-enemies.

Mervyn looked satisfied with their reaction. "Even over in the west, the former Queen of Heaven, Romua Togloss. retains enormous power and loyalty. We have long sus¬pected her of being one of the Seven, as there is some evidence in the old genealogies that she is in fact Rosa Haldayne, Gifford's sister." He looked at each one's eyes in turn. "Anyone seen Gabaye or Tokiabi lately? Anyone know who took Coydt's place in the Seven?"

There was no answer.

"I believe," the old wizard said carefully, "that cer¬tainly four, if not more, of the clusters are in such a position that the existing order could be overthrown in a moment, on orders from the shadowy authority who con¬trols them."

"But they couldn't hold them. We proved that years ago," the tall, stately Hjistoliran noted.

"They don't have to. Once all seven are under their influence, they need only wait until it is time and strike at once, quickly. They can hold long enough for all seven to take the temples and reach the Gates. You can see their enormous influence now. What scientific project takes precedence over all others in the eyes of Church and state?"

They thought a moment. "Inter-Anchor communi¬cations," the tiny, green Talanane said. "Oh, my!"

Mervyn nodded. "And they'll get it, too, if it is possible—and it almost certainly is, or no other safe¬guards against the Seven are really needed."

"Do you believe that they already control all seven, then?" Krupe asked him.

"No. The south is the key, in many ways. The New Eden Brotherhood is not merely a revolt by the have-nots against the Church and World, it is in every sense of the word a religious movement and an expansionist one. Within two years after the collapse of the Empire it had abrogated its treaties and made alliances with very powerful Fluxlords. Within five, it had overrun Anchor Bakha and secured the Fluxlands between. They have developed new and devastat¬ing weaponry that can be used in Anchor, and I believe Anchor Nantzee is in imminent danger of falling, giving them the factories and heavy industry to really expand their program."

"But where are they getting all of this knowledge, all of this new and revolutionary weaponry?" the rock-like Makapuua asked him. "From the Seven?"

"No. If the Seven had such weaponry and knowledge it would have used it long ago. Coydt had amassed a mas¬sive amount of ancient writings over the years, and had whole teams of his people working on them. From those writings he created the Flux amplifiers, and it is from those writings that weapons such as this are springing. Small items of use to Fluxlords are being parcelled out to secure their complete cooperation, but most of it they are keeping for themselves. I daresay the Seven would like to get their hands on those books as much as we would. But. like Matson's shotgun, science is proving more powerful than sorcery."

"Then they must be attacked and stopped at once," Krupe put in. "They must be contained or eliminated."

Mervyn stared at him. "How? The leaders keep to Anchor, where we are powerless, and they are so paranoid and secretive that they are nearly impossible to infiltrate on a high level. What forces can stop them, when they have weapons that in an instant can return an entire army to its Flux components? They are driven and they are ruthless. Bakha was determined to resist them, and it did so to its last ounce of strength. It cost them fully ninety percent of their population. Anchor Logh, or New Eden as they call it, no longer has a population problem. Half of it now lives in Bakha. Far worse, from our point of view, is that they have the same goal as the others—inter-Anchor communi¬cations. And they are unencumbered by the Church's re¬strictions on research. And they barter just enough with unscrupulous Fluxlords to get what they need by magic. Above all, they are pragmatists."

"But at the cost of some of their best minds," MacDonna pointed out, "considering what they do to their women."

"Quite so," Mervyn agreed, "but that is far less a handicap if you have the blueprints for what you need set out in front of you, lacking only the industrial capability to create what you need, Somehow, when they're ready, the Seven will be able to talk their way through to that Gate. Bet on it. The south is even now being handled for the Seven by Zelligman Ivan, one of the best. Like any good snake, he can manage to wiggle through the smallest of cracks. Right now he's thinking of ways to get himself in close to the New Eden leadership. Not inside, but enough to ask a favor when needed."

"But this is terrible!" Talanane exclaimed. "What you are saying is that the doom we have so long fought is not only coming but is inevitable!"

"Not inevitable. Nothing is inevitable until it is accom¬plished and proven so by hindsight. What I am saying is that we have been badly finessed, outmaneuvered, and outthought. The true danger is not imminent. I would say it is years away, perhaps many years. Finally, though, conditions that have always been right for us are turning right for them. It had to happen, sooner or later. In a way, it's our fault, for the old system served us well and we helped destabilize it. Perhaps not. If indeed the former Queen of Heaven is Haldayne's sister, they already had control of the old Church. Perhaps we made it harder, not easier."

There was an almost collective sigh of resignation. "Then what can we do?" Krupe asked hesitantly.

"We can forget about the other clusters, the ones totally under control, except for what we're doing now, and suggest to the Church that it strengthen its guard at the temples. We should concentrate our own efforts on secur¬ing the center, for if we hold just one Gate we hold them all. Pool our forces. Four of us on the western cluster— Anchors Qwantzee, Chahleh, Gorgh, and Ecksreh, four others on the eastern center—Anchors Tezgroph, Yonkeh, Abhel and Doltah. I don't care if we have to sit, one on top of each temple entrance itself. Plan it out among you. But one must be held at all cost. They can move, but they cannot sustain a move for very long."

"And you?" MacDonna asked him. "Where will you be?"

"I'll be down there with Zelligman, watching him and everything else like a hawk. And if Anchor Logh starts talking even the most idiotic nonsense to Anchor Bakha, you all will be the second to know." His mind was already very much focused on Zelligman Ivan, wondering just what the man was up to now. . . .

 

 

 

3

A LITTLE FAVOR

 

 

 

They never had a name for the small Fluxland Mervyn had created for them north of Anchor Logh, but they never needed one. To Cass it was just "home," and to Spirit— well, names wouldn't mean much to Spirit.

It was a pretty place, a garden with a nice stream and waterfall and plenty of flowers and fresh fruit and vegeta¬bles growing wild. Spirit wouldn't eat cooked food, but little Jeffy had to have some, even though he stayed on his mother's breast for a very long time.

Spirit was a tall, beautiful, slender woman with long auburn hair and a creamy tan complexion. She lived more or less in a world of her own, unable to speak or under¬stand anyone, unable to use or make use of any human-made tools or artifacts. While Coydt van Haas had originally used the kidnapping and spell on Spirit as a way to hurt Cass, and to divert her from his bigger plans until it was too late to stop him, the spell had been broken once, while Coydt was turning their home of Anchor Logh into a male sex fantasy. But she had been so revolted by her old friends' and family's acquiescence to this weird new order of things that she had chosen once again and for all time to return to what she'd been in Flux.

And the Soul Rider continued in her. The strange energy creature lived in some kind of symbiotic relationship with its host, and could only be perceived by powerful wizards like Cass and Mervyn, and then only as a doubled aura.

Spirit was an eternal child, but she had a child. Jeffron, who early on needed his grandmother's care. Cass felt useful and secure during that period, after forty years of stress in which she had almost, but not quite, revolution¬ized World. But she found her patience short and thin, and soon had to depend on those people Mervyn had sent— strange half-animal creatures of Flux and his imagination, creatures who'd once been human—to handle the routine chores.

Little Jeffy was a tiger and a delight, too, but it was clear that this Fluxland, so perfect for his mother, was not a place where he could grow and develop and learn. Ultimately, Mervyn suggested sending the boy to school in an Anchor up north, with later training part-time in Globbus. the Fluxland which trained and developed half the wizards of World. Cass had to agree. For Jeffy had the power, as his parents and grandmother had had before him. and only time would tell how strong he might become. He would be home for frequent visits, of course.

Spirit was sad at this, but seemed to understand why it had to be, and overall took it better than her pragmatic mother. For Cass, the boy's departure simply left her with nothing to fill the days and nights: with no purpose at all.

She brooded. She loved Spirit more than anything, but her daughter's condition made it impossible to get close to her, and was a constant reminder to her of her past.

Cass had been depressed most of her life, but action and events had always served to divert her mind. Now there was nothing, and she sank into a total gloom. Although she was famous over all the world, she considered herself worse than a failure, and made a good case for that judgment. She'd failed at romance, she'd done worse than fail as a parent—she'd exposed her child to the condition she was now in—and her actions had cost so many lives, eventually including the life of her father, the one human being she'd loved above all others. She had led an army that had taken half the planet, something no one else had ever dreamed of doing, yet the Empire stalled and col¬lapsed in ruins when she could no longer lead it, and the old and new Church had reconciled in a way that might have been more honest but was certainly no more progres¬sive.

She'd wanted to travel World, not conquer it, as a girl, but that was next to impossible now. There wasn't much fun in seeing the remains of what she'd built, in finding out that the changes had, after all, been mostly cosmetic. She felt as if she belonged nowhere, a ball adrift after plowing through a perfectly ordered display. Her failure at romance was the one thing she felt desperately.

She took to having long, elaborate fantasies in the gardens, lying there naked and half-dreaming. She was fifty but looked twenty-five, and she had had sex only once in her life. Not that she couldn't have it now, for she was a powerful wizard and all the binding spells limiting her were gone. Yet she feared failure and rejection more than ever, and feared hurting anyone else.

She imagined herself as a voluptuous sex bomb, and knew that she could change herself into that image at any time, but she didn't have the guts to do so. She imagined herself as a man, and thought that had possibilities. She'd always been a tomboy, always looked like a boy, dressed like a boy, and did a man's job, and she was proud of that. She'd spent so much time acting as a boy she just about thought of herself as one. She liked the perfect female form, such as Spirit's, but it just wasn't her, and what attracted her in the men she did find attractive was an aura of strength, of competence, of being in control. Few men she'd met fit that description, and certainly if she took on a male form that quality, to her mind, would be lacking as well. She'd never liked living lies, yet she saw her whole life that way and wasn't about to create another.

Because she'd conquered half a world, creating and running a Fluxland, which she could learn to do through Mervyn, didn't really appeal to her, either. The trouble was, the way her fantasies were, it'd wind up being too much like Coydt's version of Anchor Logh.

She was tempted by drugs, but was immune to them. Yet she did drink, quite a lot. It was pleasant to be drunk and know that one could banish an upset stomach and a hangover with a wave of the hand. She visited Mervyn's Fluxland of Pericles and found in its vast and ancient library many spells for exciting the pleasure centers, and these helped. They stopped her brooding, anyway.

Mervyn kept trying to get her interested in something— the Codex she'd begun to assemble of all the ancient writings, politics, and teaching at Globbus—but nothing really appealed to her after a while. She just drifted aimlessly, wallowing in her guilt and self-pity, feeling her life was over and wasted but unable to bring herself to terminate it.

She thought often of Suzl, made over by binding spell into a gorgeous sex object, and wondered who'd gotten the better of the deal. Coydt had cursed Suzl to everlasting slavery, it was true, but no worse a one than citizens of most Fluxlands endured. And there were compensations. She'd been cursed to eternal beauty, to eternal sex appeal, and, most mercifully, to ignorance so that she would be happy. She had pitied Suzl for that, but Coydt had cursed Cass as well by removing from her every binding spell, setting her aimlessly adrift and showing the lie of all she had built up. One was free, and powerful, the other weak and a slave—-and who was the happier?

Damn Coydt van Haas! He had worked such exquisite, such perfect evil upon World and then died so that he paid nothing for those deeds. He was at peace, and his victims continued to suffer.

And yet, Cass was still wanted. The Church would richly reward anyone who got rid of her. Its leaders feared her return as a renewed and this time perhaps fatal blow to the social structure. All the wizards she'd defeated who still survived wanted her—boiled, fried, or any other way—as did relatives of those thousands killed in her useless wars. None of this worried her. Between Mervyn's powers and her own, home was secure. One could not even find it without an invitation, for no strings led to or from it. And she was a powerful wizard in Flux and a formidable opponent with gun or knife or sword in Anchor.

Yet Coydt had beaten her, and broken her self-confidence forever. She could never be sure anymore just who was the stronger, and that made her reluctant to use her powers.

She had lost all track of time, for it wasn't relevant. Time was measured only in the growth of Jeffron, who now visited less and less frequently. He was a strapping one hundred eighty-two centimeters tall, lean, and muscu¬lar now, with coal-black hair and his mother's green eyes. He was smart and powerful, but seemed rather aimless and impetuous, the sort of young man who knows he looks good and can get whatever he wants, but hasn't decided what yet; willing to try almost anything once, but never satisfied. She loved him, and worried about him, but feared to give him any advice or direction. Who was she to screw up yet another life?