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CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

The talk with Beert didn't get off to a good start. What was on my mind was why we were so far from anything at all; what was on his was wonder about who this previously unknown "someone" might be. It turned out quickly that he couldn't answer my question, and naturally I hadn't a clue about his. So we got serious. I said, "I'm sorry if I got you in trouble, Beert."

He gave me one of those nose-to-nose looks for a moment, then pulled away. "You should not have destroyed one of the cousins' machines," he said, sorrowfully judicious. "The rest is my fault. Now show me what you have in that bag."

He caught me by surprise that time, but I sighed and retrieved the bag. There are times when you just have to throw in your hand and take what's coming to you.

When I loosened the drawstring and shook it gently, its contents spilled out: all the little odds and ends of Horchware that I had surreptitiously filled it with, tools stolen from Beert's laboratory, a batch of Pirraghiz's tapes and the ones I had taken from the room here. I had been careful when I opened it, but the things began to fly around the room. I caught as many as I could, and Beert reached out for others. He stared at the first one that came his way, a black oblong with rows of dimples along its side. "This is mine!" he said. I didn't answer, and he darted his head toward me. "You took it from my workshop!" I didn't say anything to that, either. I was busy cramming the loose items back in the bag. Beert didn't stop me. He even handed a couple of them back to me, but he wasn't meeting my eyes anymore. When I had everything stowed away again I cleared my throat.

"I didn't want to tell you about these things," I said.

"No, you would not," he agreed. "These are Horch technology! They came from the cousins. I did not think you would try to take such things with you. I do not think my Greatmother would approve."

I said miserably, "I didn't like doing it, Beert, but what choice did I have? Do you remember what you said? That in my place you would fear the cousin Horch as much as the Others? Well, I do!"

Beert gave me a look I couldn't read, then turned away. Well, "twisted away" is a better way to put it. He corkscrewed his neck around itself until it came to rest with his chin on his shoulder, or what would have been his shoulder if he'd had one, looking away from me. "I need to think," he said. "Leave me, Dan."

And I did.


Pirraghiz insisted that I eat, so I did.

Then she urged me to sleep, because there was no knowing when I might get the chance again, so I tried to do that, too. Sleep didn't come quickly, though. What made it difficult was my conscience.

The difficulty was that although this Beert was a weird-looking creature with a snaky neck and the face of a rattlesnake- not to mention that he was also a member of that race who had just finished murdering a whole bunch of my fellow humans, one of whom (or several of whom) had been me-in spite of all that, he was something else. He was one of the only two friends I had left, anywhere in this part of the universe. And I had put him in the deep shit, and had every prospect of getting him in deeper still.

You might ask how I could do something like that to a friend.

I guess the only proper answer would be "practice," because actually I had had plenty of experience along those lines. Betraying friends was basically the job description of what I did for the National Bureau of Investigation. We called it "infiltration." In order to get the goods on some gang of criminals or terrorists- or whatever-my first step was to make some new friends, who would remain my friends just as long as it took me to get the evidence that would put them in prison for most of their adult lives.

I had never had much of a problem with my conscience in those days, because those "friends" weren't friends at all. They were bad guys, and they needed to be put away. But Beert wasn't a bad guy. Neither was my other new friend, Pirraghiz. And I was definitely screwing up her life, too.

So I didn't get much sleep, hanging on to the webbing in my alien room in this alien thing called a "nexus." Neither did anyone else, because it wasn't long until one of the Christmas trees poked in on me and announced, "The channels for the Wet One have been accessed. It may proceed now to its transmission."


CHAPTER THIRTY | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO



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