It wasn't easy for me to reconcile myself to spending the rest of my life-what might be a very long life-marooned with the Horch in this place. I tried to think of things I might usefully do. I couldn't think of any. Then I began to think of things that might make it more bearable for me. I'm not too proud of some of those, but-hell! For the first time in my life, I was defeated. I could see no way of helping anyone else, so my ideas began to get pretty selfish.
When Beert finally showed up, bubbling with good news, I made up my mind to try one of those selfish ideas out on him. All excitement, he told me the Greatmother would see me at last, and I put it to him. "That's great, Beert," I said, "but I've been thinking about something."
I don't know what Pirraghiz had told him about my state of funk. Everything, I guess, and he didn't seem patient with it. "About what?" he demanded.
"About a favor you could do me if you wanted to. If those other Horch let you have me as a, well, a pet… do you think they'd allow you to have another one?"
The snaky neck twisted around so that his eyes could peer into mine. I think I had hurt his feelings. "I do not like to ask my cousins to 'allow' me things, Dan. I do not understand what you mean."
"I mean Pat Adcock."
"Ah," he said. Well, it wasn't "ah," exactly, but it was the same sort of exhalation of breath, indicating that he comprehended. The breath was warm on my face. "You wish me to have a copy of your sexual partner made for you, is that it?"
His tone sounded disappointed in me. It made me defensive. "Is that too much to ask?"
He paused, the sinuous neck curling and straightening thoughtfully. "I don't know if it is too much. Tell me why you want this."
Now he was making me angry. "Why do you think? Because I'm frustrated and lonely and hopeless, that's why!"
"And you think it would make you happier to copy someone you care about, who then would herself become frustrated and lonely and hopeless?"
Well, it sounded all different when he put it like that, but he didn't give me a chance to try to defend myself. He took me firmly by the arm with one of those sinewy tentacles of his and said, "We will speak of this later, Dan, but now we must go. We must not keep the Greatmother waiting."
The Greatmother kept us waiting, though. We trudged to the topmost level of the nest, where a subadult Horch let us into a room, far larger than my own and with many more furnishings. There an ancient female Horch lay sprawled on an immense bed. She had an ungainly thing like a huge metallic corset wrapped around her midsection. It could not have been comfortable to sleep in, but she wasn't sleeping. Her long neck dangled limply off the side of the bed, her eyes half open but unseeing.
I whispered to Beert, "Is she all right?"
"Shh! Of course she is all right. She is simply accessing certain files. Her belly viewer is a thing like your helmet, do you understand?"
I did-after the moment it took me to figure out that the belly was where Horch kept their brains, since of course their heads were too small. I kept looking at Beert to see if he seemed to be getting receptive to my request, but his head was down low, staring at the floor. I couldn't tell what he was thinking; and just as I was making up my mind to ask him again, the Greatmother stirred. Her limbs straightened. Her head lifted to gaze at me, while her arms snaked down to the latches of her viewer.
That was the cue for Beert to spring forward to help her. When she had the thing unlatched he carefully stowed it away in its wicker container, turned his head toward me and said proudly, "The Greatmother will speak to you now."
The first thing she did was to direct Beert to lay out some food and drink for us. While I was munching on the only part that looked familiar she explained to me that she had been viewing some of the scenes of our life as captives of the others. It was all like a silent film for her, since she couldn't understand any of our talk, but Djabeertapritch had filled her in and she was full of questions. Did the Old Female Rosaleen Artzybachova possess among us the rightful dignity and authority that she herself had in her nest? Had I in fact bred with the young female Pat Adcock-that is, with one of the three young female Pat Adcocks-and if so, what had led me to choose that one over the identical other two? And if breeding was desirable, why had the Old Female not assigned a Pat to each of the other two males in our party so that all three might become pregnant?
When I told her there would be no young coming from our quick idyll, the idea of contraceptives startled her. "But why would this Pat not wish to gestate?" she asked incredulously.
I ran through all the reasons in my mind and settled on one that she might view sympathetically. "We did not wish to bear a child to suffer captivity in a place far from home," I said, and saw Beert's head swerve toward me thoughtfully.
She wriggled her neck at me in gentle reproof. "If our ancestors had thought that way when our planet was overrun, you and I would not be having this conversation. Life is worth saving, Dannerman. Offspring are worth having. Always." She flipped her neck in a complicated curve, and then asked politely, "Has Djabeertapritch told you all you want to know about our nest?"
"Not everything," I said, and then I hesitated for a moment. Maybe I was a little annoyed with Beert for not promising to make me a Pat, but I didn't feel like being tactful. I said, right out, "I know this is a sensitive matter, but is it true that you don't get along with your cousins in the Beloved Leader base?"
Beert gave me a shocked, warning hiss, but the Greatmother answered at once. "We are all one folk, Dannerman. It is, however, true that some of the ways of our cousin Horch have changed greatly in the long, long time we have been separated from them, while this nest has kept to the old ways."
"The ways of your home planet?"
"Of our particular home planet, the Two Eights. There were many planets inhabited by our species when we were taken, Dannerman, and each had its own customs. Now there are even more. The Two Eights was one of the newest and smallest at the time, with only eight sixty-fours of sixty-fours of sixty-fours of sixty-fours of inhabitants." I calculated quickly: something less than 150 million. "Most of the other Horch planets were much larger. When the Others came-But perhaps Djabeertapritch has told you all this?"
"Not all, I think."
She gave Beert that quick, reproving neck-twist. He said hastily, "I have been busy with the cousins, Greatmother, as you know."
She patted his arm affectionately. "Of course. Well, you know, Dannerman, that all through our star-going history we Horch had met many strange species, a few of them nearly sentients. Those we always treated with kindness-as, you have seen, we in this nest have treated you yourself, Dannerman. When the Others' scoutship came to our world it was the first time another species had come through space to us. The ones who came to us were not the Others themselves. The Others were too frail to come to the surface of our planet, but they sent their subject species, and those were welcomed. All that they asked was given to them. They did tell us of the Eschaton; that was one gift of the Others. It was the only one."
She looked inquiringly at Beert, who was twitching restively. "They also gave us death," he growled.
She sighed. "Yes, that is so. It is what the Others often give, and they have many ways of giving it. They alter the reaction of a star, so that it goes nova, or change the orbit of a small planetoid so that it collides with the planet they would destroy. They can bring about an emission of poisonous gases from a planet's oceans if they choose. Or they can do what they did to our Two Eights. In their laboratories the Others developed a terrible new disease made out of the proteins of our own bodies, and they spread it secretly among us, and we began to die. Many, many of the people of our planet died. Nearly all. On the Two Eights fewer than sixty-four sixty-fours survived. Those were the ones who were brought here, and we are their descendants. Or," she corrected herself somberly, "the descendants of those who survived what happened here. The Others interrogated our first generations without mercy. Many of us died here as well, usually in great pain. Even when we no longer had any information to give, we were still valuable to the Others, because we were still genetically Horch. So from time to time they seized numbers of us and carried them away, to test new diseases and weapons on them; and that is what our lives were like, Dannerman, for eights of generations-until our cousins of the Eight Plus Three came and set us free."
Abruptly the Greatmother sat straighter on her bed. Her head sprang up to mine, until her pointy, hard-skinned nose was almost touching my own.
"Now I will give a more complete answer to your question, Dannerman. The Eight Plus Threes have treated us very well; they shared everything they have with us, and they offered to take anyone who wished to a Horch planet to live. Most of my nest did go, willingly. A few of us did not. Our cousins have had a long history of struggle and warfare, which we did not share. It has changed them, as our lifetimes of captivity have changed us. We in this nest wish to make a different life for ourselves, though we do not know how.
"But we intend to try.
"What you must remember is that we are all still Horch, Dannerman. We will never do anything to harm our cousins. Djabeertapritch understands this well. You must understand it, too."