Outside the interrogation room the Christmas tree waited for a moment while the Horch climbed onto a funny-looking kind of three-wheeled velocipede. He flopped onto it on his back, belly up, with his long neck twisting around so he could see where he was going. Then he whizzed away and we followed.
As before, it wasn't a sight-seeing trip. The machine carried me hugged to its bristly needles, my face pressed so that I could get only gimpses of the scenery, but I recognized it. Dopey was right. The last time I'd seen any of this, it had been shattered and smoking junk, but it was definitely the old Beloved Leaders base, the fires out now and here and there a Christmas tree diligently taking the ruined machinery apart.
The Horch made better time on his tricycle than we did. He was waiting beside it when we arrived and the Christmas tree set me down.
We were at the edge of the built-up base, with that vast, empty, ocher-colored desert in front of us. A different kind of vehicle was parked there, with an alien standing next to it. I recognized the creature as one of the huge, pale, multiarmed ones we called "Docs," but there was something odd about it. It took me a moment to realize what it was; all the Docs I had seen before wore nothing but a kind of jockstrap, while this one was fully clothed.
I turned as I heard a skitter of wheels on pavement behind me-the Christmas tree was skating away, its work here evidently finished-and when I turned back the Horch was looking me over. He sniffed at me with the little nostril slits in his pointy snake nose, then drew his head back to stare into my eyes. "You will be all right, I think," he said. "This medical sapient will take you to a safe place and care for you."
He signaled to the Doc, who picked me up, more gently than the machine, and held me as the Horch came over for a last word. I could feel the breath from its mouth as his head stretched toward me. "Perhaps you will want a name for me. You can call me Beert-" trilling the r, clipping the final t. "It is the short form of my name, as yours is Dan. Another one called me that before he died."
I was practicing saying the name for myself when he got to the last part. Then I opened my mouth to ask about this "other one," but Beert wasn't listening. "Yes, you say my name quite well. No questions now, please. I have duties to attend to, but I will come to you when I can. In any case, everything will be explained to you, if you survive."
If you survive. These creatures from other planets were great at dropping conversation-stoppers on me.
Helping me to survive appeared to be the Doc's job. He didn't speak, but he laid me down on a bench in the vehicle and began to palp my throat, belly, groin, skull. I didn't see him do anything to make the vehicle start, but while he was poking at me the door closed, the car lurched and, evidently on autopilot, we began to glide away on its air cushion.
The Doc rolled me over and began doing something radical to the small of my back. It didn't hurt, but it felt unwelcome. Then it began to feel a little better.
If I had been a little less bone-weary-frazzled, I might have tried to see where we were going. I didn't. There were no windows operating in the car, and besides, the Doc's ministrations were making me feel a little bit relaxed, for the first time in quite a while.
So I suppose I fell asleep. At least I was surprised when the door opened and I realized the car had stopped.
Another Doc peered in. The two of them, my medic and the new one, mewed at each other in a high-pitched language I had never heard before. Then they helped me out of the car.
I was standing in bright sunshine, with half a dozen of the Docs gathered around to stare at me. The new one spoke. "You are Dannerman," he informed me-well, more accurately, she informed me; it wasn't until a little later that I got the genders straight. "My name is…"
Was something I had a lot of trouble pronouncing, much less writing down; it started with a kind of baritone purring sound, then something like clearing the throat, and at the end finishing with a deep-toned hiss; the closest I can come is "Pirraghiz." "You are safe here," she went on. "Do you know what this place is?"
I frowned at her. She was rapidly making my pleasant languor evaporate, and that struck me as a stupid question. How would I know what it was?
Then I looked around more carefully, and I did.
There were a couple of strange-looking buildings that I knew I had never seen before. Shiny. Yellow, like the chinaware walls of the interrogation room. Five or six meters high and sort of elliptical in plan, with sides that tapered up from the ground. What they reminded me of mostly was pictures I had seen of the ancient Civil War ironclad, the Merrimac, and they were not in the least familiar.
However, that wasn't all that was in sight. There was a little stream not far away, crossed by stepping-stones. There were trees in the distance. There was something that looked like a primitive stone fireplace. And there was a tepeelike thing that wasn't exactly a tepee. The last time I'd seen any of those, Jimmy Lin had given them a name. He called them "yurts."
"Oh, my God," I said, because, yes, it was a very familiar place. "I lived in those yurts when I was a captive of the Beloved Leaders."
"That is correct," Pirraghiz told me gently. "You lived here before. Now you will stay here again while we feed you and try to make you well."