The newcomer was Beert, all right. When I went to the door of my room and peered down the circular stairway, I saw him coming up, the ropy neck pointed straight at me. He called, "I did not think you would come here without authorization, Dan."
He sounded aggrieved. I didn't want him angry at me, but I stood my ground. I said, "I'm well now, Beert. I didn't see any reason to wait."
He came up and stood beside me, his pointy little face only centimeters from my own. "You do not know all the reasons for what I do, Dan," he said glumly, and waved me into the room. He closed the door behind us and sat on the edge of the bed, regarding me. "The Greatmother did not expect you yet," he sighed. "I will have to apologize to her."
Greatmother? That was the second or third time I'd heard her mentioned, and she sounded important. "I'm sorry if I got you in trouble," I apologized.
He waved the apology away with both sinuous arms. "I am not in trouble, Dan, but it is not appropriate for things to happen in the nest that the Greatmother doesn't know about. Where is Pirraghiz?"
"She went back to get some stuff. It isn't her fault, Beert. It was all my idea."
"Yes, I had supposed so," he said moodily. "It has been observed that your species is often unruly." He thought for a moment, long neck swaying, and then said, "You see, Dan, I am engaged in a number of discussions with the cousins. I had to leave them to come here, and I cannot stay very long. Perhaps we can spend a little time together, but first I must speak with the Greatmother about your presence here. Can you remain in this chamber while I make arrangements for you?"
"Sure I can, but I'd rather-"
He was waving both arms and the neck at me again. "Please, Dan. Do not be still unruly. It will not take me long. Stay here."
When he came back he looked less fussed. "The Greatmother extends you the courtesy of the nest," he told me, sounding pleased about it. "When she has time she wishes to meet you in person, but when that may be, I cannot say. Do you need to eat?"
Actually I had been beginning to think of food, but I shook my head. "Pirraghiz doesn't want me eating anything until she comes back to check it out."
"Yes, that's wise. Very well. I'm afraid everyone is quite busy, since we are so shorthanded now, but I think I have something that will occupy you until Pirraghiz shows up. Come, first I will show you the parts of the nest."
He did, too. From where we stood on the landing he showed me the door to something he called the Repository of the Nest-a sort of library, I gathered. We looked in on the children's dormitory, where a dozen or so little ones were taking their naps- the same ones I had seen at the band shell, I thought, because the female who was standing guard over them was familiar. Beert told me her name. He told me the names of all the five or six Horch we met along the way, but I didn't retain any of them. They all greeted Beert with friendly respect, sometimes intertwining necks. Even the teacher-guard. They seemed to be an affectionate bunch.
When we were on the ground floor Beert paused at the entrance. He slapped the accordion door with one arm and said, like any suburbanite with a new split-ranch, "What do you think of our nest then, Dan?" When I told him, as politely as I could, that it was very nice, but it struck me that wicker was a peculiar choice of materials for building a multistory habitat, he said in surprise, "But we could work only with what we had, Dan. The Others gave us nothing."
"The ones you call the Beloved Leaders. When they dumped our ancestors here we had no tools, no machines, only our bare arms and teeth. Do you not think we did well? Every section of the nest reinforces every other. It has stood for many generations like this, and will for generations more."
"Unless there's a fire," I said.
That amused him. "But there is no fire in the nest, ever," he said, and led me to the shed that was used for cooking and eating. This one was made of clay bricks like adobe-and as likely to wash away in the first rain, I thought, but he showed me how the clay was covered with some sort of vegetable sap to protect it from the weather. A meal was being prepared. Though the smells were unfamiliar, they were definitely food, and I was beginning to wish that Pirraghiz would get back. The two Horch doing the cooking were friendly but busier than any two persons needed to be, chopping up vegetables, grinding tubers in a mortar, tending their cooking fires. When I asked Beert if everyone always worked so hard around here, the question seemed to disturb him.
"Not always," he said moodily. Then he sighed. "We do not have enough people for all the work," he admitted. "The farms to be tended, the children to be cared for, the nest to be kept in repair. Before we were-" He hesitated over the next words. "Before we were set free, it was different. Then there were enough of us to do all that needed to be done, and to have time enough to rest, and to study, and to do all the other things we enjoy. But now many of us have left the nest."
"To go where?"
His head darted around uneasily. "When the cousin Horch freed us they offered to take us out of here. Many nest-siblings went to the planets of the cousins. They wanted to see what a life of leisure was like, with machines to tend to all the drudgery.
This was natural enough, Dan. They had every right to do so, and the Greatmother did not object."
"But you didn't go?"
"It is my nest," he said simply, and then glanced at the shadow cast by one of those bent-over trees. "But look at the time! I must hurry."
The penny dropped. Of course. The trees had been coaxed to grow in that direction so that they could function as gnomons in vast sundials, the eight bushes planted around them marking the Horch equivalent of the hours of the day. I was so struck by the ingenuity of the system that I hardly heard the rest of what Beert said. Which was: "I have something to give you before I leave."
He wrapped one of those arms around my shoulders-it was warmer than I had expected-and led me to the pink structure. The two Christmas trees I had seen before were standing immobile not far away, but Beert ignored them. He seemed in good spirits, if rushed. "This is my personal laboratory," he said with pride.
I looked at it, and at him. "Does that mean you're some kind of a scientist?"
"Scientist? No, Dan. I am a student. All I hope to learn is what the cousins already know, and this is where I try to learn it. The thing I wish to give you is in the laboratory, but there are delicate machines here; it is better if you don't come inside until you know enough about them to take care. Wait just a moment."
He unlocked the door-at least, I guess that was what he did; he pressed both arms against the door in a complicated, sine-wavey pattern, something like an identification signature, I suppose; anyway, the door opened. Lights sprang up inside, and he went in.
I peered after him.
Beert had been right about the machines. The place was full of them, in all stages of completion. It looked like the way he had been learning his cousins' science was by taking some of their gadgets apart and rebuilding them.
More important, it also looked like this was the place I had been looking for. If there were secrets of Horch technology for me to steal and take back to the Bureau, there was a whole treasure trove of them right here.
And he had implied that, sooner or later, I would be allowed to examine them more closely.
It was the most hopeful thing that had happened to me since Beert rescued me from the torturers. The only sour note was those two Horch robots. Most of their twigs were retracted, but I knew they could spring into action at any moment.
When Beert came back, carrying something in a wicker basket, he saw me watching them uneasily. "Do not worry about the robots, Dan," he reassured me. "You are here with the permission of the cousins, and there will be no problem. The cousins have been very kind. This laboratory could not have been built without their help. Now let us go back to your chamber."