I never learned Beert's age, but there was something boyish about him. All the way up the steps he was hissing softly to himself- it was almost a chuckle-and darting his head, almost teasingly, toward mine. But he didn't speak until we were in my room and the door was closed. I was feeling pretty cheerful myself, partly contagion from Beert, partly the thought of all those Horch secrets waiting for me in his lab.
Then he lifted the lid of the wicker basket. "This is something you may use while Pirraghiz and I are gone," he said happily.
He took something out of the basket. I recognized it at once and suddenly was not happy at all. It was one of those Beloved Leader helmets. I jumped back, snarling, "No!"
That blew Beert's own cheerful mood. He darted his head at me incredulously. "You do not wish this? Oh, wait. Perhaps I understand. Are you thinking of the way the interrogation machines used this device? No, I am not giving you this for that purpose. I do not intend to cause you pain. Indeed, you can operate it for yourself. See, here are the selectors."
He flipped up the little tab on the side of the helmet, exposing its nest of colored grooves, as though he were revealing a great secret. It wasn't news to me, though. "I've seen this already," I told him. "Rosaleen Artzybachova was tinkering with one like it while we were captives."
That surprised him. "Did she so? I was not aware of this. Was she able to operate the helmet satisfactorily?"
"Well, no. Not very."
He wagged his long neck at me. "Indeed I think she would have had great trouble doing so. The selectors are designed for tinier digits than yours-the talons of your Dopey, or of one of Pirraghiz's people. Let me see if I can find some implement you can use-"
While he was scrabbling in the basket I took the little ceramic toothpick Pirraghiz had given me out of my pocket. "Like this, you mean?"
He swooped his head down almost to touch it, then peered up at me. "You astonish me sometimes, Dan. Yes, that will do." He took the little splinter out of my hand with the end of one arm-it split, like an elephant's trunk, to pick it up securely.
I said, "Isn't this a Beloved Leader device?"
"No longer," he said absently, tweaking the colored lines. "It is now ours." He had pressed the helmet against his belly, and seemed to be staring at nothing. Then, sounding satisfied, he said, "Yes, here it is. See, Dan-" holding up the helmet for me to look at. "I have accessed some of their records for you. You can change from one to another if you wish, but activate only the green selector, otherwise you will be in other files and it will be difficult for you to return to the ones of interest. Do you remember how to put the helmet on?"
I did. I held the thing warily, unable to forget what it had done to me with the Christmas trees.
But was Beert likely to be playing unpleasant tricks? I hoped not. I swallowed. I pulled it over my head, snapped the eyeshades in place-
And, just as before, I was instantly in another place.
I was on a familiar street in New York City. Vendors lined the sidewalk. I had stopped at one of the stalls. I was picking up bits and pieces of the kitschy merchandise this one had to offer, and I felt strange. I felt female. My body was not the one I had been born with; it was tightly bound at the breasts, and when I saw my hands the nails were bright orange and one finger bore a ring like a dragon, with wings outspread. Female hands, all right. Certainly not my own. I-she- seemed to be interested in an old-fashioned wristwatch with the hands of Mickey Mouse pointing out the time, but when the vendor spoke to her she put it back and turned away.
As always with the helmet, I was there. I saw everything this body looked at, I felt everything she touched. I smelled a faint wisp of roasting lamb from a pita joint on the corner, and heard the scream of sirens from somewhere nearby-fire, ambulance, police car, I could not tell which, and the body I was occupying was not interested enough to look.
I pulled the helmet off my head, confused. "What am I looking at?" I demanded.
"Keep looking," Beert advised. "You will see someone you know well, so the other Dan said. These events are not happening now," he added. "These are recordings of transmissions which were received some time ago. See it for yourself."
Hesitantly I put the helmet back on. The body I was wearing glanced at her own watch and, now hurrying, crossed the street and turned a corner.
I recognized the entranceway. It belonged to the midtown office building that held the Dannerman Astrophysical Observatory, my grandfather's legacy to immortalize his name, where I had once gone to work for (and spy on!) my cousin Pat. The body announced herself-the name meant nothing to me-to the floor guard-new since my time-and while she waited for him to call her escort, she was covertly eyeing the man.
I realized that I was looking at a man through the eyes of a woman, and it was instructive to see where her eyes went: face, shoulders (he was pretty solidly built), with special attention to the region of the crotch, both front and back.
Then some other man I didn't recognize came down, passed her through the turnstiles, into the elevator, up into Pat's waiting room, and there I saw people I knew quite well.
As I entered the room, Pat's receptionist, Janice DuPage, got up from her desk and greeted me with a quick hug. "Sorry I'm late," I-"I"-apologized, and Janice said:
"That's all right. Just let me sign out and then we can go."
Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Pete Schneyman, just glancing at us as he passed through the reception room. And while Janice was picking up her purse and checking her makeup, the elevator door opened again. The person who came out was someone I knew very well indeed.
It was Dr. Patrice Adcock. My cousin. My Pat. The Pat I loved. The Pat I had lost.
My hostess's eyes were studying her, too, in her own way, while Janice said, "You remember my friend from the cruise? The one I didn't take?"
There was an edge to her voice, as of some remembered grievance, but Pat only said, "Of course." She shook hands, shook her hand. I was actually touching the warm, firm hand of the woman I loved. And then she turned away and went into her own office and I tore the helmet off my head.
"What is this?" I demanded. "Whose body was I in? Was it Patrice?"
"It was not any one of your party," Beert said heavily, his neck hanging low. "Other humans were implanted with the transmitters."
I scowled at him. "How could that be?" Then a particularly nasty thought crossed my mind, and I said, "Unless-"
Beert's little snake head swung toward mine, looking into my eyes. "Yes, Dan," he said. "The Others have reached your planet now."