When the Greatmother said "Do it" she didn't mean do it on Tuesday. She didn't even mean do it when the feast was over. Kofeeshtetch disappeared at once, promising to meet us at the transit machine, and then it was maybe five minutes before a pair of Christmas trees came charging along the cords to drag me and Beert away, Pirraghiz following. Cheers broke out as we left, and then another burst of raucous song. I was glad enough not to have to stay for that.
We stopped by the rooms to collect Beert's personal glass robot. That was useful, since it gave me a chance to pick up my little mesh bag of Horch goodies. Beert gave me a dark look but didn't say anything, and we were at the transit machine long before Kofeeshtetch and the troops.
Our Christmas trees deserted us then to fiddle with the machine, and I finally got the chance to ask Beert the question on my mind. "Why, Beert? Why are you coming with us?"
He swung his face partly toward mine, then away. To the air he said, "I want to be able to go back to my own nest."
That didn't make sense. "Why not just jump in that thing and go home?"
This time he did look at me. "And if I did that, what would I tell my Greatmother? That I turned loose somebody who had destroyed a Horch machine, with a bag of Horch material, and no way to know what you do with it? No, Dan. I can't go home yet, though I wish with all my belly I could."
"But-" I began, trying to be reasonable, but then I ran out of time for being reasonable as Kofeeshtetch made his entrance.
The kid had an entourage with him, not only the four deadly Horch fighting machines but a large, ugly alien which had four or five tiny, different aliens clinging to his fur. I had seen them in pictures before, but never alive: the Bashfuls and the Happies, as the comics had named them on Earth.
"I promised to show you my other species," Kofeeshtetch said proudly. "This large being is a warrior of the Others; the little ones are used for delicate work by them. Do not fear the warrior," he added kindly. "He has been freed of his bondage and will do you no harm." Kofeeshtetch allowed us a moment to admire his menagerie, then waved them off and gave one of the robots his orders.
Then he turned to us and got down to business. He extended one arm toward the TV, which the robot had made to display the globe of Earth again, and said: "Of the three eights and two vessels of the Others which are on your planet, I have chosen this one for your mission."
I looked where he was pointing. The thing was down in the Gulf of'Aqaba, of all places. I demanded, "Why?"
He looked almost embarrassed. "It is not near any of the others. Also I liked the look of that funny-looking land mass."
"No," I said strongly, and then remembered to add, "Please. Do you remember what Djabeertapritch said about our many independent countries? Well, that one's in the wrong country." I stabbed at the map, in the vague direction of the East Coast of the United States. "Over here would be better. Can you enlarge this part of the globe?"
The Christmas tree did, and I saw the Eastern Seaboard swell up before me. There were four or five of those ruddy dots between Florida and Newfoundland. The best-looking one was not far from the alligator shape of Long Island, as close to the Bureau headquarters in Virginia as I could get. I pointed at it. "That one… please."
"Oh, very well," Kofeeshtetch said sulkily, and gave an order to the Christmas tree by the machine, which began to fiddle with the controls. "Anyway," he said, brightening, "now it is time!
Remember the order of battle! These two fighters first; they have their orders. Then two more to mop up. Then you, Djabeertapritch, with-ah-the 'Dan.' I wish you all good luck."
Pirraghiz stirred. "Wait a minute," she said. "I'm going too. Also Djabeertapritch will want his own personal robot with him."
Kofeeshtetch gave her an angry look. "It is very foolish to make trivial changes in a battle plan just before the engagement," he complained.
"But it would be better that way," Beert said, his tone placating. "Perhaps my robot could go with the second wave of fighting machines, then us, then-"
"No, Djabeertapritch," Pirraghiz said firmly. "I will go before you. We do not know what the conditions will be when we arrive."
Kofeeshtetch looked at Beert, who nodded agreement then gave up. "All right," he said. "Now, if you're ready? First wave! Go!"
It was the quietest beginning of a battle I can imagine. The first two fighters entered the machine, the door closed; it opened again; the second wave entered with Beert's Christmas tree. It closed.
As Pirraghiz was going into the machine I checked my twenty-shots, one in each hand. Then I remembered something. "Oh, Kofeeshtetch! You were going to tell me what this installation was for."
He blinked his little snake eyes at me, his mind clearly changing gears. He threw a look at the transit machine, already yawning open for Beert and me. "You are upsetting the timetable," he said pettishly. "Why, the installation is for the Eschaton, of course. Now go!"