I knew my new life with the Bureau was not going to be any bed of roses. I found out just how tough it was going to be as soon as I was awake. I was eating the breakfast an orderly had delivered-a lot less pleasing than the last human breakfast I had had, with its room-temperature eggs and not-quite-crisp bacon- when my TV screen beeped at me and displayed my schedule for the day:
0800-0915 Debriefing, solo
0915-1000 Break and medical
1000-1130 Debriefing with Horch
1430-1500 Debriefing, submarine, with Docs
1500-1715 Translation, technical, with Docs
1715-1730 Break and medical
1730-1930 Debriefing, solo
2100-2200 Debriefing, submarine, with Docs
2200-2230 Administrative conference
2230 Medical, and retire for night
It looked pretty formidable, apart from that one surprising exception. When Hilda came to hustle me over to Debriefing, solo I said gratefully, "I guess you do have a heart, Hilda. Thanks for that long lunch hour."
"Oh, that," she said, turning slightly to see if we were alone. We weren't. She was silent for a moment, then said in a lowered tone, "Yes. Well, I'll explain about that part when we come to it."
That was the Hilda I knew. There was going to be a catch to her generosity. And, of course, there was.
We got through Debriefing, solo, with its million questions about Beert's lab and Horch technology in general, and Break and Medical-five minutes for me to go to the bathroom, ten more for a couple of medics to peer down my throat and squirt something nasty-tasting into it so I wouldn't lose my voice-and Debriefing with Horch, where they asked the same sort of questions of Beert, with me translating. And, of course, wherever we went, our entourage trailed along.
The linguists did their best to stay out of the way, but we now had an additional group keeping us company, mostly United Nations MPs. They didn't wear blue berets like the technicians, they wore blue helmets, and they were everywhere, watching everything, muttering reports into their pocket screens, acting suspicious of everything that was done with the Scarecrow stuff. (Suspicious of the Bureau! How very strange. I couldn't think why.)
But they didn't stay with us when the questioning of Beert was over. Hilda shooed them off. "Agent Dannerman must have his time for relaxation," she said firmly, and they went. As soon as they were out of sight she turned to me. "We're going," she said briefly. "Bring your Horch friend along."
"What-" I started to ask, but didn't bother finishing. Hilda wasn't answering questions just then. I sighed and told Beert to come along, and when he asked what I would have asked, I just shook my head. A couple of Bureau cops were waiting for us, and they led the way to an outside door. A van was waiting for us there; and when it had taken us to the chopper pad, a helicopter was waiting for the van.
Then I guessed.
"We're going to Arlington, aren't we?" I asked Hilda.
And all she said was, "Where else?"
Well, we did get lunch there, such as it was. It amounted to no more than the trademark Bureau sandwiches and coffee for me, and a few scraps of what looked like stewed rhubarb for Beert, all that Pirraghiz had been able to sort out in the time available. We weren't given much time to enjoy it, either.
The Bureau's forensic laboratory was built to do whatever might be needed in any Bureau operation-everything from dissecting a spray bomb full of radionuclides in its containment ovens to analyzing the toxins in an assassin's needle-tipped umbrella or picking apart the linings in a smuggler's suitcase. The place they gave us to eat in smelled of ancient ashes and acids, but nothing was going on there at the moment but our lunch. Nor was much happening in most of the lab chambers we passed on the way in, but when Hilda informed us lunchtime was over and escorted us to a locked wing of the lab, there was plenty. At three or four work stations technicians-all Bureau people, not a single blue UN beret in sight-were delicately prizing apart pieces of the wrecked Scarecrow fighters. At a couple of other benches the objects being examined were the bits and pieces I had stolen from Beert and Pirraghiz-her books, his instruments. Beert snorted sadly as he saw them, but Hilda didn't let us linger. "Keep moving," she ordered. "We're going to see the live ones."
The Bureau wasn't taking any chances with the live ones. The room the fighting machine and the Christmas tree were in was steel-walled. A couple of senior Bureau technicians were waiting for us, gathered around a monitor screen that let them see inside. There a pair of Bureau sharpshooters were covering the machines from separate angles in case either of them made some sudden hostile move. They weren't making any, apart from an occasional twitch.
That made Hilda ask why they were doing that, and when I asked Beert he said somberly, "They are simply running routine systems checks, to be sure everything is functioning in case of need. There is nothing to fear."
She mulled that over for a moment, then sighed. All she said was, "Let's get on with it."
When we were inside the chamber the sharpshooters came to attention. "You have to stay out of our line of fire, Brigadier," one of them warned.
"Yes, yes," she said testily, but she obediently rolled to one corner of the room and let the technicians take over.
They knew what they wanted. Evidently they had studied everything I had said in debriefing about what the Christmas trees were capable of, and one by one they asked to have the machine put through its paces: extend branches down to the tiniest twiglets, display its recording lenses, speak. One of the techs was recording every move while the other gave me orders. Which I passed on to Beert to repeat, until he got tired of that and sulkily told the Christmas tree, "Do as Dan orders." Then it went a little faster… but still interminable.
When they had seen everything the Christmas tree could do-at least twice-they turned to the fighting machine. That made the sharpshooters more nervous, but the machine obediently turned, moved and displayed its weaponry for a good twenty minutes. Then the technicians paused, looking at each other. "We'd like to see it fire its weapons," one of them said. "Do you think we could take it out to the range?"
"You damn well could not," Hilda barked from her corner. "Neither of these things is leaving this room."
The tech sighed. "All right, but we need to know its effective killing distance, firing rate, all that sort of thing."
But when I asked Beert those questions all I got from him was some violent neck-twisting. "Do not forget, Dan," he said obstinately, "I came late to this world of high technology. I know nothing of weapons."
I wasn't sure I believed him. I didn't want to call my old friend a liar, though, so I simply translated his words with a straight face. The way I looked at it, Beert was entitled to an occasional lie when his conscience didn't want him to tell the truth. After all, he had given me pretty much the same kind of slack when I was in his nest.
When it was time to leave I was surprised to see that we'd had an audience. Marcus Pell was standing outside the cell, watching the machines on the monitor. He gave me a quick look. "I remind you, Agent Dannerman, that none of this is to be spoken of to anyone, especially those UN people. This is a Bureau matter. The only person outside the Bureau who knows anything about it is the President of the United States."
"Yes, sir," I said, a little surprised that he had bothered to take the President into his confidence.
Inside the cell the machines were twitching slightly again, and he jerked a thumb at them. "Do they have to be doing that?"
"Beert says it's just systems checks," I told him, though I knew he had been told that before.
"Well, I don't like it," the deputy director said. "Can't he turn them off?"
When I put the question to Beert it seemed to bother him. He studied my face at close range for a moment before he said glumly, "Yes, Dan, I could do that. Why should I?"
"Because they scare the hell out of some of the people here."
"I do not mind that that is so, Dan. Do you remember that I am alone on this planet? These machines are the only security I have."
"It isn't much, Beert," I told him. "First suspicious move either of them makes, the guards will destroy it."
"Even so," he said flatly, closing the discussion. So I told the deputy director:
"He can't do it."
He didn't believe me. "So what was all that palaver about?" he demanded.
"He was telling me all the reasons he couldn't do it. I didn't understand most of it."
He gave me one of those deputy director looks. "Do you know what I think, Dannerman?" he asked. "I think your pal isn't being entirely frank with us. Maybe he needs a little encouragement."
I didn't like the way his mind was going. "If you're talking about beating the piss out of him, that's against Bureau policy, isn't it?"
"Only against human beings, Dannerman. Nobody ever said anything about space freaks."
It was impossible for me to tell how serious he was. So I reminded him that not only was Beert a good friend to whom we owed a debt, but we knew so little of his anatomy that torture might kill him. He sniffed, meaning I did not know what. "Time's up," he said. "You're needed back at Camp Smolley." And that was all he said.
On the way back we had to wait for the dolly to lift Hilda into the chopper. I took advantage of the moment of privacy to try to get back on the sort of fellowship I owed Beert. I tried to tell him I knew how he must be feeling, but he didn't let me get very far.
"Do you indeed, Dan?" he asked angrily, but then collected himself. "I suppose you do. Do not concern yourself about it. This is my personal worry, not yours."
"What worry do you mean?"
He waved both arms and neck unhappily. "It is simply that I feel I may have made a mistake. I think I will never see my Greatmother again… and that may be as well, for I think she would not approve."