Every Horch head in the banquet hall turned toward one of the vertices of the tetrahedron, where the diners were scrambling to get out of the way. They needed to, for what entered was a procession.
First came a fighting machine in full combat alert, backing into the room with its weapons trained on what followed. That was a couple: a Christmas tree chained to a creature with spindly legs and arms and a head like a jack-o'-lantern. Another fighting machine brought up the rear, also with dead aim on the captive.
I knew what she was at once.
I was in the presence of one of the Others. One of Dopey's Beloved Leaders. A member of the species that, at this very moment, was casually deciding whether it would be more advantageous to annihilate everyone I knew and loved, or turn them into abject slaves.
When Pirrzghiz put one worried arm on me I realized I was shaking. I gave her a nod to reassure her, but I couldn't stop.
I wasn't the only one affected. For most of the Horch this poor captive was old news, but not for Beert. His neck and both arms were stretched out toward her, frozen motionless, and his little snake mouth was open in shock.
The Greatmother made that choking, staccato sound that was a Horch laugh. "Well, Djabeertapritch," she said, delighted with her effect. "How do you like your surprise? Would you like to speak to her? Ask her some questions about how it feels to be a captive, as you were to her people?"
He managed to make a slow, negative shake of his head, but that was it. The female Beloved Leader was not so reluctant. She turned that great, round, scarecrow head toward Beert and spoke through her huge teeth. "I excrete into the mouth of your Great-mother," she said in a shrill, piping, venomous voice. "I will do the same to all of you when the Eschaton comes and you organisms are all shrieking in pain as we trample you under our feet."
She was speaking perfect Horch, far better than Beert's farm-boy drawl. I saw the reason: one of those ribbed, golden scabs tucked under the swell of the pumpkin where it joined the skinny neck. When she leaned forward to hiss at Beert, I saw, too, that the last link of the chain that held her to the Christmas tree had actually been grafted into her flesh. They were taking no chances with this representative of the ultimate enemy.
The Greatmother was switching her head about ominously. I thought for a moment there was going to be a major hissing match between the two of them, if not something more physical. Beert prevented it. He spoke up.
"Prisoner," he said, "the Greatmother called you a fool, but you are an even bigger fool than you know. You will not win. We Horch are stronger and braver and wiser than you, and even the lower species are going to rise against you." He turned to the Greatmother. "Have I permission to speak now?"
She graciously waved her neck in assent, and he began to talk. I hung there in suspense, almost dreading to hear what he was going to say.
He began, "I speak to you from the belly, revered Greatmother, and to all you Horch of the Four and Ones. I am Djabeertapritch of the Two Eights, which is no more."
That was a letdown for me, right there. Beert wasn't delivering any casual talk, it was an oration! I was willing to bet that the son of a bitch had been rehearsing it to himself all along. Discouraged, I slumped back, waiting for him to get to a point, but I was the only one in the room who felt that way. Every one of the Horch had stopped their foolery and were listening with their little mouths wide-open.
Beert seemed to intend to give the whole history of his nest: "When the Horch came to the Two Eights they slew us by the sixteens of sixteens of sixteens, most cruelly and treacherously…" Well, I had heard all of that. And about how the survivors had been taken to the prison planet, and what happened to them there. However, the Four and Ones were eating it up. They hissed and moaned when he spoke of how people from their nest had been studied and used for experimental purposes, and when he came to their rescue by the Eight Plus Threes there were scattered cheers.
I might have cheered myself, because that was when he got to what I wanted to hear. "Then our little nest was free at last. As were the members of those other species whom the Others had imprisoned there. And it is of those other species that I would speak, revered Greatmother."
Now he had my full attention, all right. "Some of you have seen the Wet One, whom we have helped return to his own planet to do battle with the Others who have enslaved it. His species was fortunate-a little fortunate-because their planet still exists. Not all were that lucky.
"You all know the species of the large one with many limbs"-his neck was outthrust toward Pirraghiz-"because some of them were here when you bravely captured this place. Their fate may be the worst of all. Not only were they compelled for a long, long time to be the servants of the Others, but their planet is long lost.
"The planet of the four-limbed one, whose name is Dan, is yet free, but perhaps not for long. The Others have already begun to infiltrate it. Dan wishes to be returned there so that he can help fight them off."
He hesitated, eyeing me with a look I couldn't interpret. Then he said, "Dan's are a simple people, Greatmother. Their machines are crude. They have little wisdom. And they are not a peaceful race. I say only of them that their people are divided among themselves, with many 'nations' which make their own customs and laws, and sometimes actually go to war with each other." Shocked stir among the Horch; Beert went bravely on, overriding the mutterings. "Nevertheless, they do not deserve to be made slaves of the Others. It is not their fault that their limbs are stiff and their brains are imprisoned in a box of bone on their necks. They are not animals. Their brains are in some ways almost the equal of our own. So I ask you to help him in this cause, revered Greatmother, and"-he hesitated, then got it out-"I ask you for more than that. I wish to go with him myself; to do what I can to prevent what happened to my planet from happening to his. Greatmother, will you grant me this wish?"
When Beert finished speaking there was a stir among the assembled Horch. Our nearest neighbors craned their necks to study Pirraghiz and me curiously, silently at first. Then not so silent. One of them abruptly clapped his hinged feeding dish against his belly armor. Then another did. Then they were all doing it, rhythmically, like the kind of we-want-a-touchdown thing that people do at football games. And then they began to sing again, first one or two, then the whole damn collection of them at once.
I don't think it was the same song I had heard before, but I wasn't paying attention to the words. I was staring at Beert.
The guy had taken me by surprise. Not only had he chosen not to denounce me as a capricious destroyer of Horch machines, but what was this about coming to Earth with us? That had never been part of the plan.
I realized Pirraghiz was shaking my leg. I blinked at her. "The Greatmother is beckoning us," she whispered. "I think she wants us to come to her."
They were all looking at us, as a matter of fact, even the Greatmother. As soon as I was close she darted her head at mine, inspecting me at close range far more thoroughly than before. But I was looking at the female Other. At close range I could see that the creature had not had an easy life lately. Her clothing was smudged and torn, and there were recent scars on the bulbous pumpkin face. As Pirraghiz set me down, not two meters away, the Other rattled her chains and hissed venomously at me. The Greatmother didn't even look at her. "I tire of this filth's presence," she said to the air. "Remove her!"
As the crystal robots were dragging the Other away, the Greatmother twisted her neck to look at Beert. "You are determined to do this?" she asked. "To risk your life for the sake of some lower organisms?"
He didn't look at me. "I am determined," he said.
Then she sighed. "It will be done. My least grandson has prepared a plan which we will follow." And added, "You are very brave, Djabeertapritch."
And so he was, in more ways than the Greatmother knew.