Jack Chalker: Midnight at the Well of Souls

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Jack Chalker Midnight at the Well of Souls
  • Название:
    Midnight at the Well of Souls
  • Автор:
  • Издательство:
    Del Rey / Ballantine
  • Жанр:
    Фантастика и фэнтези / на английском языке
  • Год:
    1977
  • Язык:
    Английский
  • ISBN:
    0-345-25768-5
  • Рейтинг книги:
    4 / 5
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Midnight at the Well of Souls: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Entered by a thousand unsuspected gateways—built by a race lost in the clouds of time—the planet its dwellers called the Well World turned beings of every kind into something else. There spacefarer Nathan Brazil found himself companioned by a batman, an amorous female centaur and a mermaid—all once as human as he. Yet Nathan Brazil’s metamorphosis was more terrifying than any of those… and his memory was coming back, bringing with it the secret of the Well World. For at the heart of the bizarre planet lay the goal of every being that had ever lived—and Nathan Brazil and his comrades were… lucky?… enough to find it!

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Jack L. Chalker

Midnight at the Well of Souls

This book is for Roger Zelazny, Mark Owings, Applesusan, Avedon, and Suzy Tiffany for entirely different reasons.

DALGONIA

Mass murders are usually the more shocking because of the unexpected settings and the past character of the murderer. The Dalgonian Massacre is a case in point.

Dalgonia is a barren, rocky planet near a dying sun, bathed only in a ghostly, reddish light, whose beautiful rays create sinister shadows across the rocky crags. Little is left of the Dalgonian atmosphere to suggest that life could ever have happened here; the water is gone or, like the oxygen, now locked deep in rock. The feeble sun, unable to give more than the deep reddish tint to the landscape, is of no help in illuminating the skyline, which was, despite a bluish haze from the inert elements still present in it, as dark as the shadows. This was a world of ghosts.

And it was haunted.

Nine figures trooped silently into the ruins of a city that might easily have been mistaken for the rocky crags on the nearby hills. Twisted spires and crumbling castles of greenish-brown stood before them, dwarfing them to insignificance. Their white protective suits were all that made them conspicuous in this darkly beautiful world of silence.

The city itself resembled nothing so much as one that might have been built of iron aeons before and subjected to extensive rust and salt abrasion in some dead sea. Like its world, it was silent and dead.

A close look at the figures heading into the city would reveal that they were all what was known as “human”—denizens of the youngest part of the spiral arm of their galaxy. Five were female, four male, the leader a thin, frail man of middle years. Stenciled on his back and faceplate was the name Skander.

They stood at the half-crumbled gate to the city as they had so many times before, gazing at the incredible but magnificent ruin.

My name is Ozymandias.
Look on my works ye mighty,
and despair!
Nothing beside remains…

If those words from a poet out of their near-forgotten past did not actually echo through each of them, the concept and feeling of those lines did. And through each mind, as they had through the minds of thousands of others who had peered and pecked through similar ruins on over two dozen other dead planets, those endless and apparently unanswerable questions kept running.

Who were they who could build with such magnificence?

Why did they die?

Since this is your first trip as graduate students to a Markovian ruin,” Skander’s reedy voice said through their radios, startling them out of their awe, “I will give a brief introduction to you. I apologize if I am redundant, but this will be a good refresher nonetheless.

“Jared Markov discovered the first of these ruins centuries ago, on a planet over a hundred light-years distant from this spot. It was our race’s first experience with signs of intelligence in this galaxy of ours, and the discovery caused a tremendous amount of excitement. Those ruins were dated at over a quarter of a million standard years old—and they were the youngest discovered to date. It became obvious that, while our race still grubbed on its home world fiddling with the new discovery of fire, someone else—these people—had a vast interstellar empire of still unknown dimensions. All we know is that as we have pressed inward in the galaxy these remains get more and more numerous. And, as yet, we haven’t a clue as to who they were.”

“Are there no artifacts of any sort?” came a disbelieving female voice.

“None, as you should know, Citizen Jainet,” came the formal reply in a mildly reproving tone. “That is what is so infuriating about it all. The cities, yes, about which some things can be inferred about their builders, but no furniture, no pictures, nothing of an even remotely utilitarian nature. The rooms, as you will see, are quite barren. Also, no cemeteries; indeed, nothing mechanical at all, either.”

“That’s because of the computer, isn’t it?” came another, deeper female voice, that of the stocky girl from the heavy-gravity world whose family name was Marino.

“Yes,” Skander agreed. “But, come, let’s move into the city. We can talk as we go.”

They started forward, soon coming into a broad boulevard, perhaps fifty meters across. Along each side ran what appeared to be broad walkways, each six to eight meters across, like the moving walkways of spaceports that took you to and from loading gates. But no conveyor belt or such was evident; the walkways were made of the same greenish-brown stone, or metal, or whatever it was that composed the rest of the city.

“The crust of this planet,” Skander continued, “is about average—forty to forty-five kilometers thick. Measurements on this and other worlds of the Markovians showed a consistent discontinuity, about one kilometer thick, between the crust and the natural mantlerock beneath. This, we have discovered, was an artificial layer of material that is essentially plastic but seems to have had a sort of life in it—this much, at least, we infer. Consider how much information your own cells contain. You are the products of the best genetic manipulation techniques, perfect physical and mental specimens of the best of your races adapted to your native planets. And yet, for all that, you are far more than the sum of your parts. Your cells, particularly your brain cells, store input at an astonishing and continuing rate. We believe that this computer beneath your feet was composed of infinitely complex artificial brain cells. Imagine that! It runs the entirety of the planet, a kilometer thick—all brain. And all, we believe, attuned to the individual brain waves of the inhabitants of this city!

“Imagine it, if you can. Just wish for something, and there it is. Food, furniture—if they used any—even art, created by the mind of the wisher and made real by the computer. We have, of course, small and primitive versions now—but this is generations, possibly millennia, beyond us. If you could think of it, it would be provided!”

“This Utopian Theory accounts for most of what we see, but not why all this is now ruins,” piped in an adolescent male voice, Varnett, the youngest—and probably brightest—but unquestionably the most imaginative of the group.

“Quite true, Citizen Varnett,” Skander acknowledged, “and there are three schools of thought on it. One is that the computer broke down, and another is that the computer ran amok—and the people couldn’t cope either way. You know the third theory, anyone?”

“Stagnation,” Jainet replied. “They died because they had nothing left to live for, strive for, or work for.”

“Exactly,” Skander replied. “And yet, there are problems with all three suppositions. An interstellar culture of this magnitude would have allowed for breakdowns; they’d have some sort of backup system. As for the amok theory—well, it’s fine except that every sign shows that the same thing happened at once, all across their entire empire. One, even several, okay, but not all at the same time. I am not quite willing to accept the last theory, even though it is the one that fits the best. Something nags at me and says that they would have allowed even for that.”

“Maybe they programmed their own degeneration,” Varnett suggested, “and it went too far.”

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