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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

The air-cushion van that took us to the old Beloved Leader base was big, but the eleven or twelve hundred kilograms of us, of one species or another, crowded it pretty tight. Beert's Christmas tree stood at the central control pedestal. Pirraghiz and Mrrranthoghrow sat one on each side of the vehicle, I guess for balance. The Wet One had the rear seat all to himself, while Beert and I were in front. Beert wasn't talking, his neck glumly waving from side to side, and I didn't press him. I took a piece of the stuff Pirraghiz had given me out of my pocket and began to eat it-it looked like a carrot, and crunched like one, but it had a sort of lemonade flavor.

Beert suddenly darted his head toward the copper-mesh bag between my feet and then up to confront me in my face. "What have you got there?" he asked suspiciously.

"Extra food," I said-untruthfully. I don't think I convinced him. To take his mind off it I jerked a thumb at the Christmas tree. "Do we have to have that thing with us?" I asked.

"It will carry the gear for the Wet One," he said grumpily, "and it will go with him to the nexus in case there are any problems." But he let it go at that, and then we were arriving.

We climbed a rise in that rust-red rock desert that seemed to be the prison planet's natural state, and the dilapidated buildings of the base were right in front of us. They looked naked. The Horch hadn't bothered to replace the silvery energy dome of the Beloved Leaders. The place looked like, and was, not much more than a junkyard of damaged Beloved Leaders machines.

As soon as we stopped, the Christmas tree silently gathered all the Wet One's possessions, guns and scrambler and ammunition boxes, and led the way outside. "Pick him up," Beert ordered, and Mrrranthoghrow obeyed. The Wet One was a lot of mass, and ungainly to handle, but the Doc lifted him and carried him out of the car, puffing slightly with the effort as Pirraghiz followed. Beert and I got out just behind them. Then, as the two Docs moved out of the way, I saw what was standing just inside the building line.

I froze. A silvery Horch fighting machine was poised there between a wrecked, man-high purple cylinder and a heap of coppery junk that might once have been anything at all. I knew all about those fighting machines. Two of them had done their best to kill me and all the others as we tried to escape the first time, and they had come pretty close. The good part was that they had turned out very vulnerable to a gunshot, having been designed to expect more sophisticated weapons, but that was not of immediate importance since I didn't have a gun. My adrenaline surged.

But the machine wasn't paying any attention to us. It stood like a statue on its spidery, wheeled legs, evidently abandoned there when the fighting was over. I breathed again, but I kept my eye on it as I sidled past, and that was what kept me from seeing the other Christmas tree, the one that was barring our path.

The first I knew of it was the sound of its little roller-skate wheels, but as I looked around it spoke. "Stop there," it ordered.

It didn't look hostile. Its needles were mostly retracted, but it didn't look as though it wanted to get out of our way, either. Beert shouldered his way past our own Christmas tree to confront it. "This Wet One is to be transmitted to his own world, for which the Greatmother of the Eight Plus Threes has given permission," he told it. "It cannot walk well on land, so these persons are here to carry it."

There was another noise of wheels coming from somewhere nearby, deeper and louder than a Christmas tree's skates, but the robot paid no attention. It extended a branch of needles toward me. "What is the reason for this other organism being here?" it asked.

If the question was meant for me, I didn't answer it. I was squinting down the passage, where a pair of those Horch three-wheeled velocipedes were rolling toward us. Each cart carried a single cousin Horch, their belly plates gleaming and their necks extended in curiosity toward us. I was wondering if my whole plan was going to collapse right there.

Beert answered for everyone. "This other organism is my project, for which the Greatmother has also given permission. I am investigating whether such a primitive person could learn to use advanced technology, or whether he is at too low a level to be a possible ally against the Others."

Whether the Christmas tree was buying that, I couldn't tell, but it didn't matter. One of the cousin Horch spoke up. "We have been called for nothing. It is only Djabeertapritch's puppy."

Well, he didn't say "puppy," exactly. What he said was more like "immature lower-form creature possessed for entertainment," and he sounded amused as he said it. But he went on to the Christmas tree: "He is harmless. Let them pass. Escort them to the transit machine in case they need help."

And the other cousin Horch said to Beert, equally amused, "You are still not used to the blessings of technology yourself, are you, Djabeertapritch? Imagine using organisms to carry another organism! You should have summoned a vehicle." And, with the Horch equivalent of chuckles, the two of them rolled away.


For the benefit of the glass robot, I did my best to look harmless, while, for Beert and the Docs, doing my best to prove the cousin Horch's estimate of me wrong. I hadn't cared for being called a puppy.

What I cared about was that the guard Christmas tree had been instructed to accompany us. It did. It rolled along in silence, apart from the occasional faint jingle of its needles. It paused when we paused, so that Mrrranthoghrow, panting, could turn the burden of the Wet One over to Pirraghiz for a while. It didn't seem to be paying any attention to us, other than that, though the sparkly ball at its top was flickering rapidly. It was just there, and it stayed there until we reached the space where the great green transit machine stood.

Two other Christmas trees stood there, apparently waiting for us. Worse still, one of the spider-legged fighting machines stood immobile against a wall. It seemed to be in standby mode, but I was pretty sure that it would come to life very quickly if needed. The only plus factor among those unwelcome negatives was that there were no living Horch cousins on the scene, but I wished their machines would go away. And they had no apparent intention of that.

When Pirraghiz had set the amphibian down, Beert looked around at the machines. "We have come to transmit this Wet One on his mission," he announced, in case they were interested. They didn't seem to be. I know of no way of telling what a Christmas tree is looking at-one configuration of needles is pretty much like another-but I didn't think they were even watching as Mrrranthoghrow opened a flap on the side of the transit machine and began rearranging its little rainbows of color. Beert's own Christmas tree was busy, too. It was expertly fitting all the Wet One's paraphernalia into its receptacles on the amphibian's body.

There was something I wanted there, so I walked over to where that was going on. The amphibian raised himself up, staring at me with those hippopotamus eyes. I patted his thick body encouragingly. "Good luck," I said, loudly enough so that everyone could hear, at the same time relieving him of one of his guns. That wasn't hard to do, since the holsters were made for quick release. I didn't think anyone had seen me.

Whether the amphibian had, I didn't know. Those electric Medusa snakes around his broad mouth were waving wildly, but not coming close to me. "I wish the same to you," he said thickly, and waddled over to the transit machine.

There was no ceremony. Mrrranthoghrow held the door open. The amphibian climbed in. Beert's personal Christmas tree followed, lugging the ammunition cases. Mrrranthoghrow slammed the door shut and touched one of the colored lights.

And a moment later he opened the door again, and the chamber was empty. The Wet One was on his way.

That was when we came to the hard part.

I picked up my little copper-mesh bag of goodies and strolled to where Mrrranthoghrow was holding the door for me. "We will now transmit this other organism," Beert announced, and everything went bad at once.

All three of the robots spoke up. "No," said the violet one. "We have no instructions for more than one transmission."

"Why did this organism take the weapon from the Wet One?" the greenish one asked.

And the third one, the pale orange jobber that had stopped us in the first place, moved toward me. "What has the organism got in that bag? Has he been stealing from you, Djabeertapritch?"


The whole scheme was falling apart before my eyes. I could not let that happen, not when I was so close. "Wait!" Beert ordered, but the robots weren't waiting, and neither was I. I had the gun in my hand. I got the pale orange robot right in the globe at its top, first shot. I was drawing a bead on the second one when Pirraghiz grabbed me. She leaped into the machine, me and my bag in her arms, mewing at Mrrranthoghrow. Who put his hands on the controls. Beert bellowed in surprise and anger, but he was looking at the fighting machine, which had come to life and was advancing toward us.

I don't suppose Beert was thinking very clearly. What he did was jump into the transit machine with Pirraghiz and me, and the door closed.

I was on my way. To a place very far from Earth, as it happened. But on my way.


CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE



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