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CHAPTER NINE

Day followed day, and the pointless, endless questioning went on, on the robots' capricious choice of subjects. Childhood games: How many players were necessary for hide-and-seek? Were Little League baseball players paid like their adult colleagues? Theater: What had Christopher Marlowe written besides Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta? What was the function of the chorus in Greek drama?

Those questions puzzled me at first. I certainly knew a lot about theater, because that's what I had majored in in college, but why did they ask me about the parts I didn't know instead of the early-twentieth-century playwrights I had studied?

It took me several days to figure it out, and when I did the answer gave me no pleasure. The robots had asked all the obvious questions already, but they had asked them of some other Dan Dannerman. As Dopey had said, now they were simply filling in the gaps that remained.

Along about then that living Horch dropped in again on my interrogation. This time he didn't come alone.

The Horch who came with him was female. There was no doubt about that. The evidence was clear, because she was suckling an infant Horch with one pendulous breast, though otherwise the two adults were hard to tell apart. They both wore the colorful jerkins, with soft, flexible half-sleeves over their snaky arms. The only difference in their costumes was that her belly was covered not by embroidered fabric but by a shiny metal dome, almost like a medieval knight's helmet if it hadn't been on (he wrong part of her anatomy. When the infant released her breast it dangled over the metal dome until she tucked the breast away and slung the infant under one ropy arm, the baby's little neck swinging foolishly around.

The interrogation had stopped, the robots standing silent and immobile. The two adult Horch paid them no attention. They conferred for a moment, snaky necks almost intertwined and the little rattlesnake heads so close together that I couldn't hear anything. Then the female darted her head in my face. "The least grandson of the Two Eights, Djabeertapritch," she said-I thought that was the name she used, as close as I could make it out-"is of the opinion that your physical state is deteriorating. Is that the case?"

I goggled at her. The last thing I had expected was that a Horch would concern itself with my physical state. While I was puzzling over that, the other Horch took a hand. "It is to your advantage to answer her, Bureau Agent James Daniel Danner-man," he said. "Please respond."

The most startling part of that was the "please," but the other thing that struck me was that, although there was no doubt they were speaking the same language, the male's accent was markedly different. The female's was identical with that of the robots. His was throatier and more drawn out.

I managed to answer. "Yes. They're really giving me a hard time."

"Djabeertapritch is also of the opinion that if you were allowed to rest, however, you might survive indefinitely," the female stated.

I didn't much care for the way that was put, but I managed to answer. "I hope so," I said cautiously, and that was the end of the interview. The two of them marched out without another word, the baby flailing about under its mother's arm, and at once my interrogators returned to life.

"Tell us," Green-glass said, as though there had been no interruption, "why you consider craps a game of skill while roulette is merely chance." And we went right on with the interrogation.


I decided that what the female Horch had said was a good thing, however unattractively it had been put. I almost believed that the Horch were beginning to take an interest in my future. That was encouraging; it suggested that I might actually have one.

But when I saw Dopey again he cackled humorlessly at me. "Do not attribute kindness to the Horch, Agent Dannerman," he advised. "Their motives are their own."

I could see that he hadn't been receiving much kindness from them. His breathing was fast and shallow, and he was clearly in pain. I don't think of myself as a person without compassion. Treacherous little freak that he was, Dopey was still the closest thing I had to a friend anywhere within some distance measured in light-years, and I didn't really want to cause him more suffering.

On the other hand, the thought that I might somehow survive all this had revived my desire to learn whatever might be advantageous to the human race. I said, doing my best to sound sympathetic, "I guess they're forcing you to tell them all kinds of things, Dopey."

"That is a correct assumption, Agent Dannerman."

"Including the things that you wouldn't tell us when we were your prisoners?"

"Including everything. Why do you ask?"

"Because," I said, "if you've been spilling your guts to the Horch robots already, what's the point in keeping secrets from me anymore?"

He considered that grayly for a moment, then gave his wriggly sort of shrug. "Very well, Agent Dannerman. What is it you wish to know?"

I said, "Everything."


"Everything" turned out to include more information than I could grasp in a single session. Since those sessions occurred only at the convenience of the robots, they didn't come very often, either, and they didn't last long when they did. Worse than that, a lot of what Dopey admitted to having told the Christmas trees did nothing for me. I had no particular interest in the dietary needs of the other species who worked for the Beloved Leaders-Docs, fighters, half a dozen other serving races-and when I asked him what part those other weirdos played in the grand Beloved Leaders scheme, his answers made little sense to me.

But the Christmas trees had also asked him in detail about the way he had come to Earth, and that might be worth knowing. It was radio that had done us in. One of the random scouting ships of the Beloved Leaders had detected some early terrestrial broadcasts, and that was the signal they had been looking for. At once the ship changed course, homing in on the radio signals, and we had become targets.

All that took time. How much time, Dopey couldn't tell me with any precision, but from the nature of those first broadcasts-sports events, political speeches, random news programs, and all in AM sound radio only-I figured out that the scout ship had had to be more than a hundred light-years away at the time of:i detection. Which meant something over a hundred years of travel time for the ship. And sometime along the way, as the ship sniffed its way down the electronic scent trail of humanity, Dopey was dispatched to the ship to begin the task of deciphering what those broadcasts were all about.

"Not just one of me," Dopey clarified. "It is what I am f trained for, but the volume of data was too great for a single person to handle. Many broadcasts, from many parts of your planet, and ultimately with vision as well as sound. We eavesdropped on every scrap of voice and picture. Altogether there were seven copies of me, to share the work of deciphering your preposterous number of languages. I do not know what happened to the other six. But I was the one who was tasked to remain on your Starlab orbiter, until you and your party came to investigate."

That was as far as we got in that session, and I was burning with impatience to learn more. When the next chance came, Dopey was looking frailer and closer to his Eschaton than ever. He didn't really want to go on talking to me, but I wasn't willing to let him stop. He told me how the scouting ship had dropped off the pod that attached itself to Starlab, and how they had filled the old satellite with recording and transmission devices. He described the scout ship itself to me-a vessel much larger than Starlab, with a crew of dozens of beings of several different races. And then he became obstinate. "This is all foolishness, Agent Dannerman," he complained. "What is the use of telling you all this, when there is no chance that you can pass it on to your conspecifics?"

I said staunchly, "I'm still alive, Dopey. So there is always a chance."

"But," he said reasonably, "you do not know if your planet still exists. We have no way of knowing how long it has been before these copies of us were made."

I had an answer for that. "It can't be very long," I told him. If it was all over on Earth, they wouldn't still be asking me all those questions."

He looked at me in surprise. "That is not so. You are forgetting, Agent Dannerman, that the Horch and the Beloved leaders wish to know everything possible about all intelligent species. Even the extinct ones. It will make them easier to rule at the Eschaton."


CHAPTER EIGHT | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER TEN



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