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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

As my strength began to come back I got serious about my duties as an agent of the NBI. I would need to be in the best possible physical shape if an opportunity to escape ever turned up, so I began systematic exercises. That worried Pirraghiz a little at first because she wasn't sure doing jump-squats was good for me, but she finally stopped objecting. And I got more diligent about spying again.

Pirraghiz had the right of it when she said I'd seen about as much of the compound grounds as there was to see. The inside of their two-story longhouses was a different matter. There might well be some kinds of technology there that were worth knowing about, so I spent some time pondering over them.

I figured out what some of the domestic appliances were for easily enough. The desk was a desk-probably. Its surface was a mosaic of squares the size of my palm, but it had nothing on it except some stacks of my food rations, and no drawers to open. The bowl-shaped object that stood on its rim in the wall turned out to be a kind of TV, though I didn't know how to turn it on. The stubby, purring cylinder on the floor was, as I had guessed, a kind of air conditioner. It had some unfamiliar features: It not only wafted warm air into the room when the night grew chilly, and cool air in the heat of the day, but the scents that came out of it varied with the temperature of the air. They smelled meaty and almost sweaty at night and like fresh-cut greenery during daylight.

That was interesting, but not the kind of thing the Bureau would be wild to hear about-assuming I ever got the chance to see Arlington again. The real puzzle about all this machinery was where the power came from. There weren't any wall outlets, or cables going to them; but they kept on going anyway.

I found Pirraghiz outside and asked her about it. She didn't seem to object to my curiosity, but she wasn't much help, either. She seemed preoccupied, gazing toward the stream where two other Docs were standing. "I am only biomedical, Dannerman," she explained. "I know nothing of mechanical things. Mrrranthoghrow might know."

"And who is Mrr-Mrrran-"

"Mrrranthoghrow, Dannerman. He is a friend. He comes here sometimes, and you can ask him if you like. For now, would you like me to show how the picture bowl works?"

She was still gazing toward the creek. "Yes, please," I said, and then I saw what she and the other Docs were looking at. I thought at first that it was one of the flat rocks that were used as stepping-stones across the water, though this one was of an odd greenish color.

Then the rock moved. It erected stalked eyes to peer at the nearby Docs. Then it raised itself on short, splayed legs and walked away.

I turned to Pirraghiz. "What the hell was that?'

"Ah," she said, understanding. "You have never met a Shelled Person before, have you?" And when I asked what a Shelled Person was doing here among the Docs, she was amused. "Is that hard to understand, Dannerman? All we species were enslaved one way or another by the Others. Why should we not talk to one another now and then?"

That sounded interesting. "Can I talk with them, too?"

"Not in this case, no. She has no language you could understand. Some of the other species do, and if one comes here, I will tell you. Now I will show you how to work the picture bowl."


Turning the picture bowl on was easy, once you knew how. I had been looking for controls on the bowl itself, but there weren't any. They were in the desk. You moved a section of the top aside in the right way, and it uncovered a sort of clockface, tiny holes arranged in a circle with what might have been numbers inscribed over each. The numbers were meaningless to me. The little holes weren't much help at first, either. Pirraghiz showed me how they worked by delicately extruding a claw to poke into them, but I didn't have a claw.

The first thing Pirraghiz showed me in the bowl was the planet we were on. It appeared like a globe, in three dimensions, in the bowl, and she showed that it could be rotated or zoomed in. "This is where we are," she announced, pointing with a lesser arm.

It looked like a park, seen from above. I recognized the familiar hexagonal patterns that had been enforced by the Beloved Leaders' energy walls, imprisoning each group of us in our own little space. Now those walls were vanished, but lines of abrupt discontinuities in the kinds of vegetation showed where they had stood.

Some of the plants looked to be in bad shape, and when I said as much to Pirraghiz, she said, "Of course, Dannerman. When the shield was down the radiation killed many things, and not simply plants." There had been nine captive species in the zoo of the Beloved Leaders. Some of them had come from worlds with a higher concentration of oxygen than this place, and so extra allotments had been routinely pumped into their enclaves. When everything broke down the oxygen stopped, and one whole species-Pirraghiz called them Tree-Livers-had gasped and died. Two others had needed extra humidity for their health, which had been supplied in the same way. Most of those species had survived. "But they are not comfortable away from their own areas," Pirraghiz informed me. "So you will not see them here."

I stared at the picture of the planet. Outside of the enclaves everything around was the rust-colored, arid rock and sand. It was not an attractive planet. "Why do you suppose the Horch bothered to take this place over?" I asked.

Pirraghiz sighed. "I do not know. The Horch do not tell us everything. Simply because the Others had it, perhaps."

"And why did the Beloved Leaders have it in the first place?" I asked, covering a yawn.

"Perhaps because it is so hostile to living things. Apart from their preserves, there was no place on it for the captive species to escape to," she said, but she hadn't missed the yawn. "Are you overtired again?" she asked fretfully. And then, "Hold still."

She pinched a fold of my belly flesh in her surprisingly gentle paws, the claws considerately retracted. The results made her give a disapproving lip-smack. "You must gain more body fat, Dannerman. You must eat more."

"I'm getting pretty tired of corn chips and spaghetti Bolognese," I complained.

She said defensively, "I added water and heated it, precisely following the instructions on the container." I shrugged. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned off the picture bowl. She opened some of the food containers that had come from the Starlab store and, one by one, fished out a tiny crumb from each. She tasted them experimentally.

"I see," she said at last. "Wait for a moment, Dannerman."

She was gone for a lot more than a moment, and when she came back all six arms were carrying packets and clumps of strange-looking vegetable things. "Taste this," she ordered, holding out an object that looked like a small, sky-blue corncob with the kernels removed.

I looked at it with skepticism. "How do I know it won't poison me?" I demanded.

She gave me a surprised stare. "But did you not see me analyzing your food? These are quite compatible with your dietary needs. Also I am right here, in case there is any unexpected adverse effect."

Actually, it wasn't bad, tasting a little like a very mild onion. She opened up a pot of thick stuff the consistency of honey and advised me to dip the cob into it; it was peppery and rather good.

Becoming adventurous, I reached for a fruit she had split open, spiky on the outside, round and reddish within, but she snatched it out of my hands. "One moment, Dannerman. Wait."

Then I saw another way in which those little retractable talons were useful. The fruit was full of tiny greenish seeds. She quickly coaxed them out with her claws, one after another. Then she handed the fruit to me. It was moist and cool, and it tasted vaguely of roasted chestnuts. Pirraghiz looked approving. "Now it is safe, Dannerman, but you must never eat the seeds. The other one of you did, by accident. Perhaps he would have lived if he had not. Now try this-" handing me a sort of lemon-colored potato, "it will make you sleepy, and so you will rest."


The new food was an improvement, and so was the picture bowl. That looked like a spy's dream of a bonanza: I figured I could roam around the channels and learn everything there was to know about the Horch. That was borrowing a page from Dopey's book; it was just what he had done about the Earth when he was monitoring all of our broadcasts from Starlab.

That had worked out for Dopey. It didn't for me. I managed to work the controls with a toothpick-sized scrap of ceramic Pirraghiz found for me. I picked channels more or less at random, not knowing any other way to do it. Most of them were incomprehensible to me. There were a lot of what I supposed were the entertainments of the Horch, something like choir singing, something like No plays. They didn't entertain me. There were scenes of what probably were a number of different planets, or different parts of the same planet. Those had voice-over commentaries, all right, and those might have given me a lot of information if I could have understood them. I couldn't. They were in the high-pitched and totally incomprehensible language of the Docs.

There was certainly data to be got from the bowl. I just didn't know how to go about getting it. And then, while I was scowling at a particularly uninformative view-a pair of Horch were silently playing some sort of board game-the picture bowl beeped at me. The game-players disappeared, and another Horch was staring out of the bowl at me. "Hello, Dan," he said, and I realized it was my friend-or my captor-or, actually, my savior- the one named Djabeertapritch.

Evidently the picture bowl doubled as some kind of communications device. I said guardedly, "Hello, Beert."

If he detected anything in my tone, he didn't show it. He said, "I am sorry I have not been able to visit you in person, Dan. There is much I am trying to learn from our Horch cousins, so 1 must spend much time with them. Also with some projects of my own. We will have more time together when you come to our nest."

It was the first I had heard that he planned to move me again. "When will that be?"

"When you are fully recovered. Are you feeling better now, Dan?"

"Quite a lot," I admitted.

"That is good," he said, sounding as though his mind was elsewhere. "Now there is someone I wish you to meet," he added more briskly, getting to the point. "I have a reason for this. Go outside now. Pirraghiz is waiting to take you to him. Good-by."

That was the end of the conversation. Beert disappeared, and 1 was looking at the Horch game-players again.


When I had turned off the picture howl and climbed down the stairs, Pirraghiz was hurrying toward me. "It is a Wet One, Dannerman," she told me, taking my arm to speed me along. "He has language, so you can speak to him. Come, he is in the creek."

Perhaps that should have warned me. It didn't. We were almost to the stream when I saw that someone was half submerged in the water.

Only it wasn't a someone. It was a slate-gray creature the size of a hippopotamus. It had a writhing Medusa mustache of tentacles around its mouth, and it wore a collar. I knew it well. I tugged myself free of Pirraghiz's arm and walked away, shaking. I couldn't help it.

Pirraghiz came after me, put one hand worriedly on my throat, bent to peer into my face. The great pale face was puzzled. "You are upset, Dannerman. What is wrong?"

I pointed to the amphibian. "That's wrong. Those things murdered a friend of mine. Her name was Patsy, and she's the one who is buried next to the other one of me. She was bathing. She didn't even know there were any of those things in the water, but there was a scuffle and they electrocuted her."

She stood for a moment, looking from me to the amphibian. "So you won't even talk to this Wet One?"

I won t.

"Djabeertapritch wishes it," she wheedled.

"No."

She sighed. "This episode was certainly unfortunate," she said reasonably, "but it is an event in the past. It is true that the Wet Ones use an electric charge for defense, but only when they feel threatened. This one will not attack you, Dannerman."

"I won't give it the chance."

She stood there, looking down at me. "You cannot forgive that incident?"

I shook my head. "Forget it, never. Forgive it-maybe later. But not now."

She was silent for a moment. Then she said sadly, "Then can you forgive me, Dannerman?"

I stared at her. "For what?"

She seemed reluctant to speak, but she sighed again and went on. "You know that there were other copies of yourself and your comrades, and that they were examined physically?"

I did know. I knew what those physical examinations were like, too, because Pat Five had gone through them and she told me. I felt a flush of remembered rage. "You mean they were vivisected," I said.

"Yes, that is true," she said, her tone mournful. "What is also true is that I was one of the ones who did the vivisection, Dannerman."


CHAPTER THIRTEEN | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER FIFTEEN



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