The Greatmother did not travel alone. First came a couple of new Christmas trees, dexterously scrambling along the cables and bearing gifts. One had a variety of capsules and clumps of what appeared to be the food Beert had requested, the other a rubbery ovoid the size of a pig. That contained water, and when the Wet One found that out, he begged to have some of it sprayed on him. There wasn't time for that, for the next to enter was the Greatmother herself.
This one was even fatter than the Greatmother of Beert's nest, and a lot more fashionably dressed. She wore silvery body armor that covered not only her belly but nearly her whole torso. It struck me that that had to be uncomfortably heavy. Garments and all, the creature had to mass at least a quarter of a ton.
But not, of course, here. She came floating weightlessly into the reception chamber, towed by a pair of glass robots to save her the bother of swarming along the cables herself. Her long neck was covered with bangles like a Ubangi's, and it was dancing a hula of greeting. The Greatmother gave the most cursory of glances at the clutch of us lesser species, and addressed herself directly to Beert. "I welcome you, Djabeertapritch of the Two Eights," she declared, touching her nose almost to his. "We are glad to have you in our nest, but how does it happen that you come?"
It was clear that Beert was the one she was welcoming. I was sure that if Pirraghiz and I had turned up without a live Horch as company, our reception would have been a lot less hospitable. For Beert, she was different. The Greatmother was thrilled to meet a conspecific who had endured the vile captivity of the Others. She wasn't disposed to question Beert's stumbling explanation of his nest's history and the rapidly invented mix-up that had brought him here, either. Actually his rather creative description of the blunders that had made it happen amused her. She had a superior kind of tolerance of one planet in the Horch federation for another, reminding me of the way Canadians talked about New Zealanders in the British Commonwealth. "Well, what do you expect of a bunch of Eight Plus Threes?" she asked jovially. She cast a mildly disapproving eye at the amphibian and me. "It is odd, however," she added, "that Horch should concern themselves with the problems of lesser species."
"They are more worthy than they seem, Greatmother," Beert said humbly. "Permit me to introduce them-"
She shrugged that idea away impatiently, neck and arms all twisting at once. "My least of grandsons is interested in such other organisms. I am not. But tell me of your captivity, Djabeertapritch. You were allowed no machines at all? But how did you live?"
I am sure Beert had more urgent things to talk to her about than his nest's tribulations, but he was not capable of denying the request of a Greatmother. "We were Horch," he said simply. "We used what we had or could make. For building materials we took clay from the ground and long, thin shoots from the local vegetation-"
I didn't want to hear it all again, so I took a chance. "Excuse me," I said deferentially, addressing Beert. "The Wet One needs water, so if we may withdraw-?"
The Greatmother answered for him; it was the first time she had spoken to me directly. "Go, go," she said irritably. "But leave food for Djabeertapritch; the poor thing must be hungry."
We all crowded into one of the other rooms, or all but Beert and his personal robot, which remained behind to serve him his meal. I had two things on my mind. For one, I knew I was going to have that little talk with Beert before long, and I wasn't looking forward to it. I was definitely looking forward to the other, though. However much I tried to warn myself that there were many hurdles still to get across, I could almost taste the nearness of my escape to Earth. While Pirraghiz was taking charge of the food we had carried away with us, sniffing and tasting each item, I looked around the room for things that might be useful when I got back. By the time she had approved a few things for my meal, I decided there weren't any. But there might be information worth having.
Pirraghiz handed me a collection of fruits and spoke doubtfully to the amphibian. "I do not know if any of this is suitable for you, Wet One."
The Wet One waved a flipper at her. The robot with the sack of water was carefully spraying his rubbery skin, a squirt at a time, like Spanish peasants taking wine from a goatskin, while a second robot was busy mopping up the droplets that splashed away. The Wet One was wriggling with pleasure as his skin welcomed the damp, but it did not distract him from his purpose. "I do not need to eat now," he grumbled, in that thick, muddy voice. "I will eat well when I have been transmitted to my own planet. When will that happen?"
His bath boy-robot answered him. "The channels are being prepared. The Greatmother will give the order to transmit you when she wishes."
I thought that was a good opportunity to try to get some information, so I interrupted. "Can you tell us what kind of a place we're in?"
The spraying robot did not respond, but the one on mop-up detail stopped what it was doing and extruded a glittering branch of twiglets in my direction. "This is a nest of the Four and Ones, formerly occupied by the Others," it said.
That wasn't informative. I said, "I mean, what is it?" That was no better. The robot stood silent and impassive, only the glittering ball at its top flickering unhelpfully. Pirraghiz sighed, put down the loaf of something she was breaking into pieces for me and issued an order.
"Display the appearance of this artifact we are in," she commanded the Christmas tree.
It worked. The thing immediately went to the video bowl, fussed with the controls for a moment and did as commanded. An image sprang up in the bowl. It was obviously a space station of some kind, but what it looked like was a child's impromptu building-block construction, all jagged angles and bits and pieces tacked on. It gleamed of metal, though not very brightly. At first I thought it was a kind of engineering drawing, since it was displayed against a background of solid black, like the images I'd seen of other species in the helmet.
But then Pirraghiz said, "What are those things?" and I saw that the blackness was not quite complete. It was a sky, and not a kind of sky I had ever seen before. It was certainly nothing like the brilliant globular-cluster display of the prison planet. It wasn't even like a starry night on Earth. There were no stars at all. Instead there was a scattering of fuzzily glowing little scraps of light, hard to make out. Most were white, some bluish, one or two a ruddy orange in color. And apart from them there was nothing but blackness-total, unrelieved, unfriendly blackness.
I had not been in love with an astronomer for nothing. "My God," I said, "those are galaxies!"
Ever since the five of us found ourselves on the prison planet, I had been aware that we were far from home. Not this far, though. Not in intergalactic space! Even the globular cluster of stars that surrounded us could have been somewhere within that fuzzy whirlpool of stars that was our own galaxy, but now-
No. We weren't even that close anymore.
I know it's silly. If we had been close enough to see Earth as a star in the sky, say marooned on the surface of Mars, I still would have had no way of getting to it other than one of these alien transit machines. And with the machines, no distance was really far. Wherever I was, I was as close to home as a single step, no matter how many millions of light-years I had to cross to get there.
All the same, it felt different. It felt frightening.
It wasn't until Pirraghiz touched me on the shoulder that I realized I was still staring at that picture in the bowl. "Are you all right, Dannerman?" she asked anxiously. "You aren't eating."
I looked down at the crinkly pale fruit in my hand, then gave it back to her. "I'm not hungry," I said.
"You should eat," she said, "but if that is not what you want to do just now, perhaps you should go to Beert. Have you forgotten than he wanted to talk to you?"
Well, actually I had, at least for the moment. But it was something that needed to be done, so I headed for the reception room.
I was surprised to find that Beert was still talking; he had just got to the beginnings of the building of the nest and their invention of a kind of paper. And the Greatmother was absorbedly listening still, but when I came in she glanced at me, with the absent look a visitor might give the family cat as it slunk into a room, then shook herself. "I am being selfish, Djabeertapritch," she sighed. "All the nest will want to hear your story. We must have a banquet and sing so that you can teach them what Horch can do, however wretched their circumstances."
"I am honored by your visit, Greatmother," he said, lowering his head respectfully.
"Yes," she agreed. And as her personal Christmas tree began to bear her away she twisted her neck teasingly and added, "You will enjoy the banquet, Djabeertapritch. We will show you someone you have never seen before."