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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Dopey had always preferred being carried by a Doc to walking. I could see why. Pirraghiz held me comfortable and secure, and the ride, despite those elephant legs of hers, was rapid and just about jolt-free.

As we left the beaten path to cross over into Horch territory, she had to push her way through wet brush. Considerately she pushed the soggy branches away from me with one or another of her spare arms. Then, as we passed that invisible dividing line where weedy trees gave way to shrubs, we were in Horchland.

The difference between the two compounds was the difference between wilderness and civilization. Behind us was jungle. Ahead, neatly cultivated cropland. We came out onto a dirt road that bordered a couple of hectares of green stalks of grain, shoulder-high-I don't mean Pirraghiz's shoulder, of course. Between the rows two snaky heads popped up to stare at us in astonishment. Pirraghiz paid them no attention, but turned left on the road and loped along.

Although the road was dirt, it was smooth and almost rutless, even after the rain. Obviously the Horch were careful about keeping their place tidy. A kilometer or two ahead I could see something that looked like a huge, six-sided barn, but before we got there I heard a whirring noise from behind us. Pirraghiz didn't bother to look behind. She just moved courteously over to one side, allowing a vehicle to shoot past us. It was a three-wheeled cart, a little like the one Beert had used when he rescued me from the interrogation chambers. That one had had a motor, though; this one was pedal-driven by its occupant-one of the Horch who had gawked at us from the cropland, I supposed. He lay flat on his back, feet pumping at the pedals as fast as he could, while his neck swayed back and forth between staring at us and watching the road ahead.

As we got closer to the barnlike structure I could see that it was a kind of wickerwork tenement, four or five stories tall, with porches jutting out at every level. Some of the porches were enclosed in coarse screens, others open to the sky. I could see figures on some of them, perhaps taking the air. The whole thing looked like something some tribe of aborigines might have built for themselves out of willow withes and bamboo, in the days before the European colonizers came along with their whiskey, guns, row houses and syphilis.

It was the biggest structure in sight, but it wasn't the only one. I began to see sheds nearby, and a couple of peculiar trees, all circled by little clusters of flowering bushes for decoration. The trees were branchless until near the top, where they spread out in a crown like royal palms. The most peculiar thing about the trees was that they were all bent at a sharp angle from the ground up, and all at the same angle. There was something that looked like a wicker band shell-people were moving around it- and, as we moved toward one side, behind the main building a smaller structure appeared of a wholly other kind. This one wasn't wicker. It was made of the same glossy ceramic stuff as my former cell, though this was pinkish in color. A pair of the Horch Christmas trees were industriously unloading some sort of equipment to take inside it.

I wasn't pleased to see them there, but Pirraghiz paid them no attention. She set me down carefully. "Wait, Dannerman. I will see if Djabeertapritch is here."


She left me standing in a plot of damp, spiky grass; I suppose the Horch equivalent of a front lawn. There were low wicker benches scattered around-unoccupied- and a few smaller trees with buttercup-yellow blossoms. Although the robots weren't paying any attention to me, I was uncomfortable in their presence. I walked a little way around the great house to get out of their sight. When I looked up the woven-sapling side of the building, I discovered that someone was looking back at me. Three or four of those snaky heads were peering over the side of one of the porches. I waved, but the only response I got from them was to pull hastily back, some completely out of sight, one still staring at me with just the nose and eyes showing.

As long as I was here, I told myself, I should be keeping my eyes open for the kind of information the Bureau would want to hear when (I didn't let myself say "if") I got back. The trouble was, there didn't seem to be very much sensitive information lying around.

So I made do with what was available. To start, I heard shrill soprano singing coming from nearby. It was that band-shell thing, and it seemed to be functioning as a kind of Horch kindergarten. Eight or ten tiny Horch infants danced around as they sang, waving their sinuous arms and necks more or less gracefully. The two littlest ones weren't dancing. They lay on their backs in tiny wicker baskets, looking like some kind of musical calamari as they waved their limbs and piped along with the others. There was one adult with them to conduct the performance. By the swellings under her jumpsuit I judged she was female.

She moved quickly to interpose herself between me and her charges, thrusting her head toward me suspiciously. "What are you?" she demanded.

That wasn't an easy question to answer. Before I had figured out how to describe myself, she gave the neck-twist that was like a human nod. "Yes, now I remember. You are Djabeertapritch's new pet."

I didn't respond to that. I was digesting the implications of that word, "pet," and anyway, she was still talking. "Please go away. You are distracting the children and they must prepare to sing for the Greatmother." Her tone was commanding, and she gestured accordingly.

She was right. All the children had stopped what they were doing to goggle at me. I apologized. "I'm sorry if I interrupted you. I'm just waiting for Beert-for Djabeertapritch, I mean."

"You should not wait here," she said crossly. I might have argued, but then I saw two Horch ambling around the perimeter of the building toward us. They seemed in no hurry. They weren't looking in our direction at all; they were in animated conversation with each other, their necks winding close together except when they paused to examine some detail of the building's structure.

There was something about them that was different. It took me a moment to figure it out, and then I had it. It was the way they were dressed. All Horch seemed to like to ornament their round little bellies, but not all in the same way. Beert, as well as this teacher-Horch and the little ones in her class, sported a circle of colorfully embroidered fabric there. These two were dressed like the female I had seen with Beert in the interrogation room; their belly bowls were shallow domes of bright metal, as shiny as chrome.

I didn't have good feelings about the metal-wearing brand of Horch. The strollers didn't seem to have noticed me, and I preferred to keep it that way. I nodded politely to the teacher and left, as inconspicuously as I could.

When Pirraghiz found me I was in the middle of a sort of car park of those three-wheeled velocipedes; they were ingeniously put together out of four or five different kinds of wood, wheels, bearings and all. "There you are! You should have stayed where I left you," she scolded. "Now come. The Greatmother has summoned Beert. I will take you to a room that is available, where you can wait for him. And I will go back home to get food for you, and to pick up some of my own things so that I can stay with you here."


The wicker building was wicker all the way through, wicker walls, wicker floors, wicker stairs-and a lot of them-to take us to the upper levels. I marveled at the kind of engineering skills it had taken to create a five-story building out of withes woven together. "They must be pretty good designers," I offered to Pirraghiz, breathing hard.

She looked down at me with concern. "Of course. They are Horch. But are you all right? Should I carry you again?"

I shook my head. I wasn't willing to let her know how quickly I tired, not to mention that the steps sagged and protested Pirraghiz's weight with soft, squeaking sounds. I didn't think it was a good idea to add my weight to hers.

The stairs we were climbing circled an interior courtyard, like the atrium in a five-story Roman villa-if any Roman villa ever got five stories high. Balconies ran all around the inside of the structure at every level, and a few Horch paused in whatever they were doing on them to peer at us. We went up three flights, and I was panting in earnest by the time Pirraghiz reached the right level. She took me to a door-rather like a thick woven curtain- and flung it open. "This is where you will stay," she announced.

The room wasn't anything like the sterile chambers where the Horch machines had questioned me. It wasn't like any place I had ever been in before. I said politely, "It looks fine. I'm glad they had a spare room for me."

"They have very many spare rooms," she said somberly. "There are very few of this Greatmother's nest left. Will you be all right if I leave you alone for a while? It will only be for a little bit, then Djabeertapritch will be here. There is a place to sleep; perhaps you should do that. It will not be long until he arrives, I think," she said again, to reassure me. "You will be quite safe. If you need anything, you can call and someone will come, but do not eat anything until I return with proper food for you."

It had been a long time since anyone had fussed over me in that way. I couldn't help laughing. "Thank you, Mother," I said. "You can go. Honestly. Go!"

She went. But actually I had barely begun to investigate my new room when I felt the wicker floor vibrate again with her heavy tread. When I turned to the door, there she was again, carrying a large pottery bowl. "This is in case you need to relieve yourself while I am away, Dannerman," she said. "Now I will leave again." And she did.


The room the Horch had given me was a good size, maybe three meters by four. The walls were unadorned, except that on the interior ones the wickerwork had been woven together in strands of several varieties of withes, of different colors. The result was rather pretty, almost like an abstract tapestry. The outside walls were made of darker, more robust basketwork, and something like clay had been plastered into the wicker to seal the walls against the weather outside. The door to the balcony outside was made of accordion folds of the same material, and they were ajar. When I stepped out to look around I had a view of farm fields beyond the outbuildings and the curiously bent trees. A stream cut through them-the same stream that went through the old compound, I supposed. There were little rainbow-shaped Japanese-garden bridges over the stream here and there. Oddly, not all the fields appeared to be under cultivation. Some seemed to have been farmed once, but now bore only a scraggle of weeds.

That was all I saw from the balcony, because I didn't stay there long. Adult Horch weighed about as much as I did, and I suppose the builders had allowed some margin of safety. But it sagged disturbingly under my weight, so I stepped back inside. As I did I noticed something I hadn't seen before. Both the doorframe and the outer edges of the accordion doors were thick with some kind of pale purplish mildew.

It was the kind of thing any Earthly housekeeper would scrub away as soon as detected. Were the Horch as sloppy as that? I didn't think so. The stuff seemed to be there for a purpose. There were heavy cloth drapes attached to the lintel and doors. They were rolled back, but it looked as though they could be pulled out to cover the moldy purple stuff.

I put that aside for later thought. Inside the room were the chamber pot and the bed. Their purposes were unmistakable. I used them in turn.

Thankfully, this bed was a lot softer than Pirraghiz's. It was basically a sort of round mattress on the floor, maybe a hundred and fifty centimeters across-just about long enough for me to stretch out. The mattress was covered with something that felt like flannel, and stuffed with little round lumps like bolls of cotton. When I sprawled out on it I meant only to rest and think about what I was going to say to Beert when he arrived, but I think I dozed off.

What roused me was a sound from outside.

It was an airplane. When I got to the balcony to look out it was just landing in one of those untended fields, coming down slow and nearly vertically, like one of the Bureau's VTOLs. It rolled only a few meters, and as soon as it stopped a Horch got out, met by a couple of others who had been standing by.

Was the one who had just arrived Beert? I couldn't tell, but he was wearing the cloth belly patch, while the abdomens of the two who were meeting him glittered metallically in the sunlight. The three of them were having an animated conversation, snaky arms and necks swirling around. I couldn't hear, of course, but I wished I could; some of the flailing arms were pointing toward the building-in fact, to the balcony I was standing on.

I hastily stepped back, more or less out of sight, but it was too late to matter. The three had finished their conversation. One of the shiny-bellied ones climbed into the plane, still yammering at the other. And the one who had just arrived entered the building.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER SEVENTEEN



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