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CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Travel in these alien go-machines was no trouble at all. You got in at one place, you came out at a different one. That was all there was to it.

This time the other place was really different. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was a microgravity environment, like Starlab's, where I weighed nothing at all.

No, that's wrong. The first thing I noticed about this "nexus" was that three ugly Horch fighting machines were standing there, looking ready to blow my head off. That's wrong, too, though, because they weren't standing. They were clinging to a network of cables that spanned the bare-metal-walled room we were in, and they hung there in three different orientations-heads up, tails up, every which way up-because the microgravity gave them no place to stand on. Beert, flailing around for something to grab on to, squawked, "Don't shoot!"

Mercifully, they didn't. I still had my twenty-shot in my hand, but I don't think I could have fired it to any effect if they had. Pirraghiz was holding me tight, but Pirraghiz was floating herself until she managed to catch on to a couple of the cables. Then things stopped whirling around for me; such were the advantages of a few extra arms.

By a doorway a couple of the glass robots were tugging the great bulk of the Wet One away. They stopped as we got there. One of them, an unfamiliar Prussian blue, shot out a crystalline tendril in our direction and spoke. "We were not informed of a second transmission. What is your purpose here?"

I didn't have a good answer for that, so I was glad that the question seemed to be aimed at Beert. He didn't look as though he had a good answer, either. He had caught one of the lines to moor himself-upside down relative to me, as it happened-and his neck was darting this way and that worriedly. That had me worried, too. Could he forgive me for shooting up one of his cousins' machines? And if he couldn't, what then?

The only thing I was sure of was that whatever might come after that would not be good news for me.

As inconspicuously as possible, I jammed the gun in my pocket to get it out of sight, but I kept that hand near it, just in case. I was well aware that if Beert said the wrong word, one of those fighting machines would start shooting, and that would be the end of this particular Dan Dannerman. Of course, I would certainly be shooting back. But it wouldn't do any good in the long run, because I wasn't fool enough to think I could defeat the whole Horch race single-handed.

Which would not have kept me from giving it a try.

The machine apologetically repeated its question, and Beert finally bestirred himself. "I am Djabeertapritch of the Two Eights," he said, sounding wretched but determined. "I was a captive of the Others. My ancestors were caught there when the Two Eights planet was invaded, and I am one of their descendants."

The Christmas tree silently processed that information for a moment, then extended one branch toward Pirraghiz and me. "And what are these organisms?"

"They are my servants. Since I am from a lost colony, we have not had machine servers for many generations. I am used to using living species to work for me. The larger of the two was carrying the Wet One; the other is-a volunteer like the Wet One," Beert said miserably, not looking at me. "He is to be transmitted to his own planet to resist the Others."

The machine processed some more, and evidently did some unheard communicating. After a bit it said, "You are welcome here, Djabeertapritch of the Two Eights. The Greatmother of this nest instructs me to provide you with quarters and whatever else you need until she can come to welcome you in person."


Since Beert hadn't blown the whistle on me, at least not yet, my chances of making it back to Earth began to look a little better. That was when I remembered that I didn't want to come back empty-handed. The little copper-mesh bag of goodies I had swiped from Beert's lab was a good start, but I wanted more.

There wasn't much more to be seen. The corridors we were scudding through were starkly bare. I remembered being told that this place, like the prison planet, had fairly recently been captured from the Others; no doubt there had been a lot of wreckage, but no doubt, too, that had been some time ago and the resident Horch had had time to clean up. Nestled in one of Pirraghiz's arms, I had every chance to look around, but there wasn't much to look at.

We, on the other hand, must have been an interesting spectacle for the locals. The two Christmas trees were making easy work of tugging the Wet One along, though the amphibian himself was emitting snuffling noises of discomfort and complaint. Pirraghiz had no trouble carrying me hand over hand along the cables, even though behind us Beert had glumly wrapped both his rubbery arms around one of her huge feet to be towed as well. The corridors weren't entirely empty. Along the way we passed half a dozen of the Christmas-tree robots, who simply got out of the way but showed no sign of interest in us, and one or two living Horch, who did. But, although the Horch goggled at us as we passed, they didn't interfere.

There was a mix-up when we got to our destination. It was in a better neighborhood-some of the rooms were occupied here, and a couple of infant Horch stuck their heads out of the doorways to see the sight-but the room the Christmas tree offered Beert was small. Heaven knows what cattle pen the robot had had in mind for us lesser breeds, but Beert was having none of it. "They must all stay with me," he declared, in a tone that accepted no arguments. The robot didn't offer any, actually. It communed with itself for a moment or two-probably really was communicating with higher authority-and then led us to a larger suite.

It wasn't just large, it was handsomely furnished. It had a central reception area with those Horch bowl-shaped TVs and racks of the Horch glittery-tape books strapped in place so they wouldn't float away, and webbing to hold an occupant in place while he watched or read, and lighting that could be brightened or dimmed with switches that looked like mushroom caps. A couple of short passages led to other rooms, also nicely arranged. Evidently nothing was too good for a Horch who had suffered captivity under the Others.

Our robot guide indicated that the largest of the sleeping rooms was to be Beert's, so we underlings checked out the others. Each had sets of sleep-webbings attached to the walls, a good size for me but nowhere near adequate for Pirraghiz or the Wet One. Pirraghiz didn't complain. The amphibian did. "It is very dry here," it roared. "Is there no water anywhere? And why am I not already on my way to my home?"

I left Pirraghiz to try to placate him. I could hear Beert in his own room, talking to the robot, but I didn't want to see Beert just then, so I explored. What I was really looking for was some small additional bits of Horch technology to add to the store in my bag, but there wasn't much of that. I did find a nifty zero-G toilet-luckily, because the need was getting acute. Whether the technology was Horch or Beloved Leader, I couldn't tell, but it was kilometers better than anything on Starlab. I would have been glad to take that along if I could. Since I couldn't, I made do with another couple of the glitter-tape books.

When I got back to my room, Beert's Christmas tree was relieving the Wet One of his weapons and gadgets to stow away.

Then it came to me, a branch extended meaningfully. I hesitated, but Pirraghiz commanded, "Give the weapon to it," and I passed over my twenty-shot. When it had put the gun away I marked the place, but it was as well there as in my pocket, for the time being.

Then the Christmas tree ordered us into Beert's room. I found him nervously rubbing at a stain on his tunic, his long, supple neck dancing all around his body as he checked his outfit-like a debutante about to be presented to the queen, I thought, and found out how close I was. "It is the Greatmother of this nest," he told me. "She is actually coming here herself to see us! Be very respectful to her, Dan-and when she has gone, you and I have much to talk about."


CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER THIRTY



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