When we left the Greatmother, Beert's bubbly mood was restored. "She likes you, Dan," he said on the way down the staircase, his neck dancing with pleasure. "Now we can act. Do you remember our earlier conversation?"
My heart leaped. "The one about Pat?"
"No, not the one about Pat," he said crossly. "We have had other conversations, have we not? I am speaking about the one in which I told you that you could help another person in a great matter."
As we walked out into the open air, I tried to remember. "Oh, that," I said, disappointed. "You mean the one where you didn't tell me what it was, or what I was supposed to do. How could I forget all that?"
Irony was wasted on him. "Yes, that conversation, exactly," he said abstractedly, glancing at that bent-tree sundial. He frowned. "The person who needs your help will be here shortly, but first we must go to my laboratory, if you don't mind."
I didn't mind. Didn't have much chance to object, either, because Beert was leading me rapidly toward his pink shed. I looked around apprehensively while he was opening the door, but the Christmas trees were absent. When he touched something just inside the doorway, bright lights sprang up, and he said with pride, "This is my personal workspace."
It was certainly something special. There weren't any luminous fungi here. The lights Beert had turned on came from the glowing walls themselves, with additional spotlights that were fixed on specific items, one a workbench, with several gadgets and tools on it, a couple of larger gadgets on the floor-and one other thing.
I swallowed. The other thing stood motionless against one wall, the light sparkling from its million little needles. It was a Christmas tree.
I must have made a sound, because Beert twisted his neck around from where he was taking objects out of a cabinet and tossing them into a basket. When he saw where I was looking, he reassured me. "I have told you that you need not fear the robots. This one in particular; I have taken it apart and rebuilt it, and now it does not even have a channel to the central controls."
"Urn," I said, studying the thing. But it didn't move, so I decided to take him at his word. "Why do you bother?" I asked.
He seemed a little embarrassed, his face held low and not meeting my eyes. "I want to learn all that our cousin Horch know, Dan. It is the only way this nest can ever hope to stand on its own. And," he added, pride returning and his head lifting, "I have even been able to build some instruments for my own use. Like this."
He lifted one of the gadgets from the workbench and held it high. It was a sort of fish-shaped, flattened oval, looking rather like a metallically glittering flounder or sole. "It is a scrambler, Dan. It generates static, which interferes with the communications channels of the Others. Instruments of this sort were very valuable to the cousins when they attacked this base."
I looked at it with more respect. "Valuable" was a conservative word for it; something like it would have come in very useful when we were captives. It wasn't the only thing around, either. Beert's lab was full of high-tech alien gadgets of all kind. It was exactly what I'd been looking for to take back to the Bureau's technicians, when I'd still had hope of that.
But I didn't have that hope anymore.
Beert was still talking. "This particular device is not exactly like theirs; I built it in a different shape, to serve the purposes it is planned for, and had to waterproof it to protect its power." That reminded me. "And it's self-powered?" He stared at me. "Of course. Why would it not be?" "Well," I said, "I've been wondering about that. I've looked at some of your other gadgets, and I don't see any wires."
He made a hissing noise of exasperation. "There are no wires. Each device draws its energy from-"
That wasn't the end of his sentence, it was just the point at which it turned into gibberish and I couldn't understand it anymore. I asked, "What?"
"I said it draws its energy from the garble of the garble garble which is present in the garblegarblegarble."
That was no improvement. I shook my head apologetically. "I guess this translator thing doesn't work as well as I thought," I said, touching the thing behind my ear. "I didn't understand any of that."
He sighed, wriggling his neck regretfully. I said, "If you could just try to explain a little-"
"I did try," he said testily. "You simply do not have the background to understand the words, and I do not have time to teach you just now. The person I wish to help will be waiting for us." He put the scrambler in the basket with the other things and closed the lid, gesturing for us to leave the lab.
Outside, Beert slammed the door behind us and grabbed my arm. I let him lead me toward the stream that went through the grounds of the nest, and there, standing by one of those round little bridges, I saw the person Beert wanted me to help.
It was no friend of mine. The thing was a Wet One, one of the amphibians who had killed Patrice.
I didn't say anything to Beert. Well, maybe that's not true. I think I probably did say something like, "Screw this," under my breath, but I doubt that Beert heard me. I wrenched my arm free from his grip, turned around and walked away, not looking back… for no more than three or four meters.
Then I stopped.
Beert was a funny-looking little dinosaur, and his unpredictably fluctuating moods-his often childish moods-sometimes made that particular little dinosaur difficult to live with. But he had done his best to befriend me. Had, in fact, saved my life, just for starters. And if he was now asking me to help him, even to help him do something for a species I hated-didn't I owe him something?
"Oh, hell," I said, this time out loud, and turned around. Beert was peering after me.
I retraced my steps to the stream bank. "Exactly what is it that you want me to do?" I asked.