I didn't get a chance to talk to Been after his sleep. I didn't get much sleep for myself, either, because Pirraghiz woke me up to tell me that the Greatmother's banquet was just about to happen and we'd better get a move on.
I could have wished for a little more warning. I really needed to talk to Beert, but when I tried to grab him he simply waggled his neck at me. "Later, Dan," he said, sounding distracted and not really all that interested. "We can't keep this Greatmother waiting." I was also conscious of really beginning to need a bath, and there wasn't anything of that sort in the chambers they'd given us. So, unwashed, I followed Beert and the Christmas tree along the roped passages, hoping that the Horch sense of smell was not acute. Because I was sure I was a lot less than fragrant just then.
I could hear the noise from the feast long before the banquet hall was in sight.
The hall was shaped like a pyramid-well, like a tetrahedron, with four triangular sides, none of which was either a floor or a ceiling-and it was big. It had to be. There were at least forty Horch present. They weren't sitting. They weren't even doing what Horch do instead of sitting down like a human being. They just hung there, clipped to one or another of the brightly glowing cords that were stretched across the volume of space, like strands of a 3-D spiderweb. And they were very loudly singing.
It is hard to say what a Horch group sing sounded like. It was a little like the howling of a pack of constipated wolves, a little like hogs grunting ferociously as they battled for tidbits in a pen. The big difference was that the Horch were doing all that in unison, and that there were lyrics to the tune they sang. They sang of the Greatest of Greatmothers, and of the undying delights-or of the later-on undying delights, that is, after they'd finished whatever other dying they had to get there-of living forever, cherished in the Greatest of Greatmother's love. Does that sound awful? Sure it does. It was.
They hadn't waited for us to arrive. They were eating as they sang. A squad of the glassy robots were busily slithering along the cords, hand over hand-well, branch over twig-to serve the diners with great gobs of something that looked like pink mashed potatoes, only gluey enough to hold together in a ball; clusters of figlike fruits that probably weren't fruits at all, because they were squirming; hinged food dishes containing stuff that I couldn't see, but could smell when the nearest Horch opened theirs; mesh bags of what might have been nuts or vegetables or-well, anything at all. All I could see through the mesh was varicolored lumps of God knew what. The other thing the Horch were doing was drinking, out of bagpipe-looking bladders with spouts on one end. The Horch took the spouts in their triangular little mouths when they wanted a drink, and then some of them pointed the spouts at friends nearby and squeezed. For fun, I guess. The thin streams of yellowish liquid, looking unpleasantly like urine, splashed when they hit another Horch and kept on going when they missed. It didn't matter which they did, though. The Christmas trees were diligently sucking the spilled liquid out of the air as they passed. These masters of the universe were having their fun at a kind of college fraternity brawl. I guess the overworked robots weren't enjoying it, but probably they weren't programmed to enjoy anything anyway.
Our personal robot first escorted Beert to the heart of the web. The Greatmother was there and eating industriously, pausing in her own consumption only, now and then, to stuff some particular delicacy into the mouth of her least grandson, Kofeeshtetch. Having their mouths full didn't keep them from singing along, welcomingly waving Beert to join in.
Pirraghiz and I weren't included in the invitation. We weren't given the good seats, either. A pair of serving robots dropped their waitering duties long enough to tug us to webs at one vertex of the tetrahedron. Then they scuttled away to fetch fresh delicacies for the Horch.
We weren't alone there. There were three or four Horch nearby, singing along lustily with the others though they couldn't have been very high ranking-our place was the exact equivalent of a table by the kitchen door in a human restaurant, even to the procession of serving robots that streamed back and forth past us. Our neighbors didn't stop singing. They darted their heads to glance at us as we arrived-not cordially. I could almost hear them asking each other what cretin had invited these nasty-looking lower orders to the feast. Especially ones who smelled as strange as Pirraghiz and, no doubt, me.
We weren't totally neglected. After a few moments the robots began dropping tidbits off for us, too. First there were a couple of net bags containing some of those things like green plums I remembered from my interrogation days, then a wine sack, then two lumps of that pink dough. They didn't hand them to us. They attached them, somehow, to the cables we were clinging to. I didn't see how, exactly, because I was trying to figure out what was going on up in the high-rent district.
The Greatmother's party wasn't singing anymore. The least grandson seemed to have left the group, but I could see Beert and the Greatmother talking to each other, necks intertwined in deep conversation. I was pretty sure what they were talking about. It was me. Every once in a while one or both of them would dart their heads in my direction, but what was being said, I couldn't guess. I could only hope that it had nothing to do with my destruction of valuable Horch machinery at the Eight Plus Threes.
Pirraghiz interrupted my fairly apprehensive thoughts about that by poking my shoulder. "Eat," she said.
That was easier said than done; I didn't see how I could hang on to the cable and eat at the same time. Pirraghiz solved the problem for me. She had linked herself to the cable with one of her lesser arms. Now she took a firm hold of my leg with another, thus safely mooring me, while she finished picking over the goodies the robots had left us with a couple more. Having six arms certainly had its points.
She drew me close enough to hear her over the noise of the singing, which was getting even more boisterous. "You can eat this," she said, offering me a lump of the pink dough. "Some of the fruits, too, after I pick the seeds out. Not the liquid. Not anything else."
The pink stuff was warm and soft and smelled a little like garlic. I nibbled at it to be polite. Although I was hungry, I still had the hope in my heart, now dwindlingly faint, that before long I would be where I could get a thick steak, with french fries and a few slices of red, ripe tomatoes, and maybe even a bottle of beer…
"Look," Pirraghiz said, sounding surprised.
What she was pointing at was the least grandson, rapidly swinging himself in our direction, looking as though he had something to talk to us about.
He did. As soon as he was near he announced importantly, "I have solved the problem of the order of battle-theoretically, provided it is allowed to occur. Listen attentively."
He didn't have to say that. I was doing it already. He settled himself in, close to my head, and stared into my eyes.
"There are three eights and two of the vessels on your planet," he informed me. "One is considerably larger than the others, so we will not attack that one. To one of the smaller ones, first we will send in two waves of fighting machines, two at a time. I had thought," he said meditatively, "of perhaps using a pair of the warriors of the Others as a deception tactic for the first wave." He surprised me. "You have some of their warriors?" "Of course. Quite a few were still alive, though wounded, when this place was taken. Most did not survive, but some did, even after questioning. Later, when they had been removed from the control of the Others, the Greatmother gave them to me as pets. I possess a number of such creatures," he told me proudly. "I study them to learn what lesser organisms are like, so as to be prepared for dealing with them at the Eschaton. Perhaps sometime I will show some of them to you."
This particular lesser organism was getting impatient. I coughed to get him back on track. "That would be nice, but about your plan-?"
"Yes, the order of battle. I decided against using the organic warriors. Since they are no longer controlled, they have become quite cowardly and I do not trust their fighting skills. So we will use our machines in the first two waves. Then you and your- uh-associate"-he was looking at Pirraghiz-"will go in the third transmission, also armed with copies of your projectile weapons. By then the fighting machines should have neutralized whatever forces the Others have in place. Not many, I think. The Others will not expect us to bother them in a place like that. Then you will be free to act as you wish." I was rapturously hanging on every word. Then he brought me down. "Assuming, of course, that the Greatmother gives such orders. I believe she and Djabeertapritch of the Two Eights are discussing it now."
He twisted his neck to look in her direction. Then he said in sudden alarm, "I believe she is getting ready to speak! I must go! I will talk to you further later on. That is, I will if the project still seems feasible."
I could have wished for fewers ifs and maybes, but I could feel my heart speeding up. Pirraghiz was looking at me curiously. She had certainly heard every word, but if she wanted to say something about the exchange, she didn't have a chance, because just then the singing stopped at some signal I hadn't caught. Everyone was silent. Even the robots paused in their rounds for a moment, as the Greatmother began to speak.
"Nestmates and honored guest," she began-I noticed the "honored guest" was in the singular; Pirraghiz and I were not included. "We rejoice at this time at the reunion of a lost nest with the grand consortium of the Horch. We are greatly, and most pleasantly, surprised to have Djabeertapritch, descendant of our people of the Two Eights, with us. I have made him a promise, which I will keep at this celebration." She darted a coquettish look in Beert's direction. "What I have not decided," she went on, sounding like a teasing Santa Claus with a young child on his lap, "is whether it is better to prolong his suspense a bit longer or to reveal the surprise to him now." That brought on murmurs from the audience. I could hear that some of them were saying, "Now!" while others said, "No, make him wait," and a fair number were speaking what I took to be jocular obscenities. But they were all laughing about it, even the Greatmother. ("I believe they have had a great deal of the intoxicating liquid," Pirraghiz whispered in my ear.)
The Greatmother bent her neck to her least grandson, who was tugging at her arm. I noticed that Kofeeshtetch was hanging upside down relative to her, but she didn't seem to care-well, that didn't matter as much for the Horch as it would for us, since their heads could go every which way.
Then she lifted her head, giggling. "My least grandson asks to have the surprise now," she announced. "Djabeertapritch? Do you agree?"
Beert wasn't doing any of the laughing, seemed to have something serious on his mind, but he rose to the occasion. "I will be pleased with whatever pleases the Greatmother," he said diplomatically.
"Yes, of course. Very well. This surprise is a very great fool, Djabeertapritch. She was unwise enough to come to this place after the fighting had begun, and we did not allow her to leave." The Greatmother paused for dramatic effect, then issued an order to the robots. "Bring the prisoner in!"