Midnight at the Well of Souls - By Jack L. Chalker


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