home   |   А-Я   |   A-Z   |   меню


CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

There was another little period of time there that I'd just as soon forget. The next days passed, but they took a long time doing it. Pirraghiz clucked over me and tried to cheer me up. She proposed entertainments, promised that Beert would soon come back with good news, produced tasty new meals-she did everything she could to cheer me, but I didn't cheer. I was trying to adjust to the fact that I was marooned in this place for the rest of my life, while my world was going to hell… and there was nothing I could do about it.

I think I was a big frustration to Pirraghiz. She deserved better. She was my maid, valet, cook, and washerwoman and all-day-long companion. Life with her around was like living in a five-star luxury hotel, with my personal Jeeves to care for all my needs. If she had a life of her own, she didn't let it interfere with her total attendance on me. She washed and mended my ragged clothes. She tended my chamber pot, whisking it away to be sterilized and cleaned before I had to use it again. She fed me about as well as I had ever been fed in my life-found new ways to improve the preserved swill from Starlab and added to it actual fresh vegetables, salads, soups, little cakes dripping with something like fruit-flavored honey. There was even milk. It didn't come from an actual cow, of course, because there weren't any of those within many light-years, but it was a sweetish, butterscotch-colored fluid that came, Pirraghiz said, from the females of one of the other captive species.

That startled me. "Don't they object when you take their milk away from them?"

She wagged her great head reprovingly. "Don't be foolish, Dannerman. It is not 'taken.' It is bartered. They give us things we do not have, and we give them things of ours in return. These females are well repaid for what they have in plenty to spare."

I looked again at what was in my cup. But it still tasted good, and while I was checking it out Pirraghiz saw an opportunity. "I am glad that you are taking an interest in this, Dannerman. Would you like to know more about the other captive species?"

I considered that for a moment, then shrugged. "Why not?" I said, meaning, since I was going to be stuck here for the rest of my life, why not find out what that life was going to be like?

Pirraghiz beamed. "That is good, Dannerman. I thought you might feel so, and so I have prepared something for you. Wait one moment." She disappeared into her own room, and when she came back she was carrying the familiar helmet.

It wasn't what I had expected. I protested, "I've already seen all I need to see of what's happening back home."

"Oh, Dannerman," she sighed. "Do you think it was only your people who were bugged? That is not so. Sentient beings of many, many different species have worn the transmitters, species you have never seen, of kinds you cannot imagine, including some of those who shared captivity with you. I could not find all of those in the records," she said apologetically, "but I have selected a single individual from eight different species. Some of the species are here, some are not. Later on I can add others if you wish."

She waited for me to make up my mind. I hefted the helmet for a moment, indecisively. Curiosity won. Gingerly I put it on and pulled down the flaps. I heard Pirraghiz's voice giving last-minute instructions-"Simply say 'next' when you want to go to another subject, Dannerman, and I will make the change for you." And then the helmet took over.


I was no longer myself. I wasn't in my chamber in the Horch nest.

I was surrounded by total blackness. There was nothing to be seen, smelled or felt, except that there before me, not two meters away, was an image of a creature that looked like a frog with the mouth of an alligator. Its skin was as fuzzy as a peach, and more or less the same color. On one bony arm it wore a thing like a wristwatch, but that was glowing with a pale blue light, and there were three golden bracelets on the other. It was dressed in tunic and leggings of a shimmery, silky material. It had four large ears on each side of its elongated head, and a cluster of bright pink feathers topping it off-probably a hat or a decoration, I thought, since the feathers didn't seem to be growing out of the creature's skull.

It wasn't moving at all. I figured that out easily enough; what I was looking at was just a picture, showing me what the first species Pirraghiz had selected for my viewing pleasure looked like; and in a moment the blackness winked away.

Now I wasn't looking at the creature anymore. Now I was that creature. What I was looking at-and smelling and hearing and feeling-was a warm, sunny seaside. Gentle ocean waves were breaking on a pebbly beach, where two or three ungainly-looking catamarans were drawn up. I was sitting-squatting, actually- on the side of another catamaran, eating something that crunched in my jaws and tasted richly of blood. I was not alone. There were two other alligator-frogs just below me on the beach, doing something or other with large nets-repairing them, I supposed. I was looking particularly at one of them, and it was giving me occasional sidelong glances in return. I was conscious of a kind of warm stirring that felt like sexual tension as I looked at-I guess, at her. Unless, of course, that one was male and the body I was inhabiting was female, but I could think of no good way of checking that.

People talk wistfully about wanting a change in their lives, generally meaning something like a better job, a new boyfriend, a week on some island resort-anything at all, as long as it is different. I know the sovereign recipe for that. Just slip one of the helmets on your head and tap into the mind of a truly alien being, and you'll never find anything more different as long as you live. It wasn't just the sights and smells that were different. My borrowed body interpreted them in ways that were completely foreign to me. There was a pervading stink of rotten fish in the air, powerful enough to make me hold my nose if I'd had one to hold. But I wasn't disliking it. It was actually making me hungry. My hearing was far better than ever before. Not only could I hear the distant sounds of insects and the lapping of the waves on the shore, I could hear precisely where they were; the frog's multiple ears were as directional as sonar. I could hear the other alligator-frogs calling to each other-deep baritone hissing, like a dragon's voice-but that was where the helmet's capacities ran out. I couldn't understand a word they said.

Then, flick, the scene changed. I was still in the creature's body, or in the body of one just like him, but I was in a series of different places, doing a variety of different things. Once my host was teamed with another frog, both of them wearing a kind of harness and pulling something that was heavy-but I couldn't see what it was-along a marshy dirt road between stands of head-high rushes. Once he and a couple of others were making a lot of noise-singing together or making threats, I couldn't tell which. Once he was asleep. None of it was very intelligible.

So I called, "Next!"

Frog gone away, blackness all around me. I was looking at another picture. This one was a fat, tentacle-nosed thing the general shape of a hippopotamus, and I knew what it was at once.

I was looking at a Wet One, one of the amphibians that had killed Patrice.

Perhaps, in the interests of scientific curiosity, I should have made the effort to understand what life was like for a Wet One. I didn't. I wasn't ready for going into that particular mind. As soon as I saw it I yelled, "Next!"

It took a moment for Pirraghiz to react-surprised, I guess, that I wanted to cut that one so short. But then I felt the faint scrabbling of her talons as she poked at the controller on the side of the helmet, and I had a new bizarre creature to look at.

I kept going through the roster of diverse, but all nonhuman, beings that Pirraghiz had accessed for me. There was a Shelled Person, like the one I had seen in the compound. Very strange, that experience was, because the Shelled Person seemed to see other living things, like the Docs, as luminous, and it had two distinct ranges of odor-detecting senses, one for in the water and one for on land. I tried a thing that looked like a feathered gorilla, with batlike membranes that joined its arms to its body and let it leap and glide for short distances-on, I guess, a planet with a lesser gravity, because I did not think that would work on Earth. Number Five was a four-legged furry thing that made its home in a cave, with its mate and half a dozen young; why the Beloved Leaders had bothered to bug it, I didn't know, because it certainly didn't look very civilized to me. Number Six-

Number Six I knew very well.

Bewildered, I took the helmet off my head. It was unexpectedly dark in the room-evidently the sun had set while I was in the helmet-but I could see Pirraghiz. She wasn't hovering nearby, as I expected; she was over by the window, pulling the drapes back from the light-givers. She turned around questioningly. "I've just seen Dopey!" I told her. "The one who died."

She said comfortably, "Yes, of course. The talker. Did you simply see his image, Dannerman, or did you go on to experience him?"

"Seeing the image was plenty! He was just the way I saw him last, all tattered and beaten up, with that big turkey-gobbler thing of his drooping and all the colors gone. He's about to die, Pirraghiz, and I don't want to 'experience' any of that!"

"Dannerman, I would not ask you to. I chose that view of the talker on purpose so that it would be easy for you to recognize him. The tapes, however, are from other parts of his life."

I scowled at her. "What parts?"

"Oh, Dannerman. They are parts that I think will interest you. Why do you not put the helmet on and see?"


So there I was in Dopey's body. I knew it was so, because his head, the little cathead, was bent to look at the familiar, golden-mesh belly bag he wore. I could feel his little fingers, inside the muff, fiddling with what might have been a kind of keypad.

I wasn't comfortable in Dopey's body. His range of vision must have been different from mine, because the colors were odd. I felt odd, too. There was a sort of slow, rhythmic, muscle-flexing sensation at the base of my spine, but in my own body I don't have any muscles there. Perhaps it had something to do with that scaly peacock plume he carried, I thought, and then he looked up.

I caught my breath. What he was looking at was a screen, and on it were four or five figures-human figures-and the nearest of them was me.

It was something from my own life that I was seeing. There were the five of us-Pat and Rosaleen Artzybachova, Jimmy Lin, General Delasquez and myself, when we had first arrived in Star-lab. We had come there-God, it seemed a century ago-in the hope of finding some kind of extraterrestrial technology that would make us rich, and what we were doing was squabbling over the division of the Beloved Leaders stuff we saw all around us. I remembered it well. I saw us yelling at each other, and I saw Jimmy Lin get hit on the head.

And then I felt Dopey's little hands scrabbling in his belly bag. There was a bluish flash on the screen. At once, all five of us stopped cold in the middle of the argument. We didn't fall down. We couldn't, being in Starlab's microgravity. But we went limp. We didn't speak anymore. We began to drift around the space in the orbiter.

Dopey had, somehow, put us all to sleep.

Then he got to work. He glanced back over his shoulder. For the first time I saw that there were two Docs standing immobile behind him, in a cramped little space I had never seen before. They began to move at once.

One of them pushed at a section of wall, which opened before him. The other picked Dopey up and carried him through that hidden door. Dopey's body felt pleased with itself; I could feel the warmth and sensual pleasure that emanated from the great peacock fan that my own body didn't have, but Dopey's did. As we glided down a passage, one mystery was solved. I caught a glimpse of the stenciled sign on the wall we had just come through. It was supposed to be a fuel tank. Dopey had emptied it out and made it into a hidey-hole so he could watch us without being seen.

I think I was in a kind of shock again. What happened next wasn't entirely comprehensible, but I couldn't stop watching. Dopey's Docs methodically lifted all five of us, one by one, and put us into the transit machine. Then, each time, without pause, they lifted us out again and went on to the next one. When we had all been transmitted-and copied!-they went to work on the next stage. One of the Docs held Rosaleen's unconscious form while the other opened a cupboard on the wall. He took out a coppery object the size and shape of an almond, while the first Doc, talons extended, slashed a litde gash in the back of Rosaleen's neck.

I had never seen an implant put in before.

I saw it happen to Rosaleen. I saw it happen to Delasquez and Jimmy Lin, and I saw it happen to me.

And I saw it happen to Pat Adcock, the woman I loved. I could see her, unconscious and limp. I could almost touch her, I yearned for her. And when it was all over I took the helmet off my head and stared blindly at the room around me.


Pirraghiz said something to me, but I wasn't listening. I got up and walked over to the balcony door, slid it open and stepped outside.

It was full night now, and overhead was that spectacular, star-swarming sky. I wasn't looking at that, either. All I was seeing was Pat, once abandoned to Dopey and his Docs on the orbiter, now abandoned, with the rest of the human race, to whatever the Beloved Leaders chose to do with them.

I had never felt more helpless-and hopeless and useless- in my life.

A moment later I felt the wicker floor move in protest, and Pirraghiz stepped out beside me. I wondered for a moment if it would hold her great weight. Then I wondered whether that mattered at all. She said tentatively, "Dannerman? Was I wrong to show you what Dopey did to you on your Starlab?"

I thought that over for a moment, then I shook my head. "It isn't you who are wrong, Pirraghiz. What's wrong is that everything is going to hell and I can't do anything about it."

She said softly, "Yes. I know what you are going through."

That made me turn and stare at her. "Do you? Do you know what it feels like to see everyone I love about to be turned into robots, and to be able to do nothing about it?"

"Of course I do, Dannerman! I knew that for a very long time, for all the time I wore the Others' controller. I was even more helpless than you are now. I did their bidding! I had no hope at all-but then, you see, suddenly the Horch cousins came and I was free!"

"Oh? And do you think there's any chance that somebody will come charging along to help me?"

She looked at me for a long moment. I could see the struggle going on in her mind over what answer to give me.

Honesty won out over compassion. She said somberly, "No. In truth, Dannerman, I do not."


CHAPTER TWENTY | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO



Loading...