Naturally, the deputy director blew a fuse. But in the long run he had to admit that if there was any damage to be done by letting me off wearing the babushka, it was done already. And that was the way my life went. Debriefing, translation, more debriefing, more translation… and bed. Apart from the fact that my head was babushkaless now-and that Hilda squeezed twenty minutes in the next day for me to get a haircut and a beard trim-every day the same.
It wasn't all that unlike the days when the Christmas trees were pumping me for everything I knew about the human race.
I did now have better food and a more comfortable bed, and even a little entertainment. There wasn't much variety to the entertainment, though. Every morning I turned on the news channels, and every morning the news was the same. There were stories about plane crashes and stock-market gyrations; there were senators denouncing the opposition party for not responding to the Scarecrow threat vigorously enough, and opposition leaders denouncing those senators for recklessly damaging national unity in this time of crisis. There were sports scores and weather forecasts and about a million other kinds of news items that the media thought worth passing on, but there was not ever a single word of any kind about the captured submarine, the Horch or the unexpected arrival of another Dan Dannerman.
So security was holding. Whatever the faults of the National Bureau of Investigation, it was still outstanding at keeping its secrets buried.
There was something else that wasn't there, and when I had a free moment with Hilda I asked her about it. "Don't they have traffic advisories anymore? I didn't see anything at all about terrorists on the news."
"Oh," she said offhandedly, "those are last year's worries. The nuts've all calmed down, now that they've got something else to worry about. We haven't had a terrorist scare in weeks. Now get a move on, they want us at the submarine."
That stopped me in midthought. "The schedule says we're supposed to be doing solo debriefing," I protested, not liking the sound of a break in the routine.
Hilda wasn't patient. "Let me worry about scheduling, will you, Danno? It's the submarine now. They've got the stuff working."
When we got there Hilda waited outside as I climbed up to the sub's hatch, the linguists trailing as always. As always, the congestion inside the vessel was acute: all three Docs, the linguists, the technicians and me.
But it was worth the crowding. Wrahrrgherfoozh and Mrrranthoghrow had finally finished the job of rebuilding the sub's communications for receiving only-would have had it done a lot faster, Mrrranthoghrow said, sounding aggrieved, if all those Bureau and UN techs hadn't kept getting in the way. Well, I couldn't blame the techs for that. It was their best chance ever to watch people who knew what they were doing in the actual process of repairing a piece of Scarecrow machinery.
The two Docs had done a good job. The display screen was alight again, with all its red dots showing the location of every Scarecrow sub. The pattern wasn't the same as before, as far as I could remember-I hadn't had time for careful scrutiny in the excitement of invading the sub-and Wrahrrgherfoozh confirmed that some of them had changed stations, for what reason he could not say. More important, the two of them had restored the message circuits, so that now we could listen in on communications between the ships. There weren't many of those, though; Wrahrrgherfoozh informed us that crews were discouraged from talking to each other except in emergencies. What did come in were occasional bursts of gibberish which, Wrahrrgherfoozh said, were instrumentation reports that were in a machine code unreadable for any of us, even himself.
"I think they are sensor readings," he said, and explained. "Now and then we would get orders from the scout ship to go to a certain point on the sea bottom, always near a land mass and at shallow depth, and deploy sensors through the forward hatch. Then the sensor readings are automatically transmitted to the scout ship. What do the sensors sense? I do not know that, Dannerman. We simply did as ordered."
That stirred the technicians right up. They demanded to be shown how these "sensors" were extended and controlled, and when Wrahrrgherfoozh had done that they demanded that he extend them. "But not right away," they ordered. "Wait till we get a camera outside so we can see what's happening."
So the techs split up. A couple of them went out for a camera while others handed a portable screen down through the hatch, and all the time they were giving me orders to pass on to Wrahrrgherfoozh about what they wanted him to do, and he was telling them why he couldn't do some of it, and they kept me busy translating back and forth. Then, when camera and screen were in place, it got even worse. The part they most wanted to see was the sensor, but in order to reveal that, Wrahrrgherfoozh had to deploy four or five of the nested handling rods to get them out of the way.
I'd seen it before, but I couldn't help sneaking looks at the screen as the rods moved. They looked a lot like the tentacles of a squid. I wondered what they were intended for-"to handle objects," Wrahrrgherfoozh had said, but what objects were to be handled, he didn't know; that hadn't come up yet in his orders from the scout ship. That didn't stop the techs from asking him all over again-about the handling tentacles, about the sensor that looked a little like Beert's snaky head and mouth-about everything; and trying to keep up with questions and answers and explanations.
Halfway through, Pirraghiz looked at me curiously. "Tell me something, Dannerman. This is very difficult for you. Why do you not do as I have suggested and implant a translation module in some of these others?"
I glanced at the linguists to see if they were about to become annoyed at a little untranslated chatter. It didn't look that way; they were murmuring to each other and letting the recorders handle our talk. I said cautiously, "I've been thinking about that, but the trouble is that I don't have one to implant. Will you ask Wrahrrgherfoozh something for me? Ask him if it would be possible to build one out of whatever materials are available here."
She looked surprised but obediently mewed at Wrahrrgherfoozh. The conversation between the two of them went on for some time before she reported, "He says, yes, he thinks it may be possible, but quite difficult. Certain metals and other substances may not exist at all here, so they would have to be synthesized, or perhaps cannibalized from other pieces of equipment."
Actually, that wasn't any worse than I had expected. "How long does he think it would take?"
"Oh, very long, Dannerman. Some sixteens of days at least. But why do you wish to make it out of local materials?"
Perhaps the lack of sleep was getting to me, but I was having trouble understanding her questions. "What else, then?"
She waggled her beard at me. "You could use the transit machine, of course."
That made no sense. "You mean send to the Horch and ask them to give us a few dozen of the things? Do you really think they would do that?"
"Certainly they would not, Dannerman, but there is no need. I am not sure," she went on meditatively, "if either Wrahrrgherfoozh or Mrrranthoghrow is skilled enough to simply make a copy of the implant without making a copy of you as well, but that is not necessary. We can simply remove the module from your head-I can do that quite easily and without harm to you. Then we put the device in the transit machine and make as many copies as we like. Then, if you wish, I will put one back on you so that you can continue to talk to us yourself."
I blinked at her. "Make copies?"
"Of course. You have seen that the transit machines have made a number of copies of you, have they not? This one can make copies of the device as well."
That was when the linguists woke up to the fact that there was a lot that I hadn't been putting into English and demanded to know what was going on.
I lied to them. I said, knowing it was going to screw up their recorded comparisons, that she had been telling me at length that Beert had to, absolutely had to, have better food. And then I told Pirraghiz that we would have to continue that discussion at some later time, because right then they wanted us to get on with our work.
I didn't forget about what she said. I just put it aside to ripen at the back of my mind, because it definitely sounded like something I would like to do, sometime. Some other time than now.
Rosaleen hadn't been around the last couple of times I'd been translating Mrrranthoghrow's explanations of his drawings. I had wondered if at last she was following doctor's orders to take a little time off for rest.
She wasn't. Next time I went to the research lab the Docs were late in arriving, but Rosaleen was there already, sitting straight and perky in her wheelchair as she studied some fragment of a Scarecrow gadget under a crystal hood. She looked up and smiled at me. "Oh," she said when I asked about her absence, "it is just some personal business of my own. I've been visiting the Observatory to ask some questions. And oh, yes, Dan, before I forget, just as I was leaving Patrice gave me something to give you."
To my surprise, she reached up and pulled my head down to plant a kiss on my cheek. It was more grandmotherly than sensual, but I found that I appreciated the thought. "Hum," I said, pleased and a little embarrassed. "Thanks." Then I cleared my throat and got back to the subject. "What kind of questions?" I asked.
She looked a little embarrassed, too. "It is simply a notion of mine. Perhaps it is no more than an old woman's foolishness, but still-" She paused to look around for the Docs. They still weren't in sight. "If you are interested, Dan, since we have a moment, let me show you something."
She spun her chair around and rolled briskly to another workbench. Under a different sort of crystal hood were two objects, one the shape and almost the size of a doughnut, the other looking like a miniature dark brown peppercorn. "The big one," Rosaleen said, "we took from the wreckage of Starlab's matter transporter, the other from a bug. Look here."
She leaned forward and lifted the hood, taking out the bigger gadget. At the same time she rummaged in her pockets and found a magnifying glass, and handed them both to me.
The doughnut was faintly warm, and it made my fingertips tingle. Without the glass it looked faintly spongy, with pits on its surface. Magnified a little, the pits turned out also to be pitted. "It is a fractal object," Rosaleen told me. "Do you know what that is? It means that no matter how much we magnify it, we see the same surface structure repeated, over and over. As far as we can do so, that is."
I hefted it for a moment, then put it back on the bench. I didn't like the feel of the thing. "And you don't know what it's for?"
Rosaleen looked surprised. "Oh, did I not tell you? They are the power source for their Scarecrow machines."
She sighed. "I thought that at first, but Meow-Mrrranthoghrow-says they are not. Or if they are, they are batteries of a kind which never needs to be recharged. Then I thought they might be receivers for some sort of broadcast power, but that means there would have to be some sort of transmitter somewhere. Mrrranthoghrow says-if I understand him-there is not."
She shook her head moodily. "That is what I have been asking the quantum people at the Observatory. You see, there is this thing called Vacuum energy,' about which I know little more than the name. When I ask Kit Papathanassiou he tells me that, yes, it is all about us, everywhere, all the time. Virtual particles spring into being and disappear, vast quantities of them. We cannot detect them, but quantum theory says they are there. They are gone almost as soon as they occur-usually-but some scientists think they do not always disappear. They even think that it is such a Vacuum fluctuation' that caused the Big Bang long ago, and thus created our whole universe."
"I never heard of any of that," I admitted.
"No. I had heard not much more. But when I ask Papathanassiou he says certainly this vacuum energy exists, the theory is quite complete in this respect, but it cannot be tapped for any useful purpose. He is very positive about that. Yet these little things do tap into something, and I wish I knew what that was."
Thoughtfully she replaced the cover over the objects, then looked up. "Ah, here come our Docs."
So we got started late, but we made up for lost time: questions pouring out of the techs, Pirraghiz struggling valiantly to make sense of the answers from Mrrranthoghrow and Wrahrrgherfoozh, me translating both ways. I didn't have much time to think about Rosaleen's worries.
But they did stick in my mind, and there was something else that was bothering me, too. When we had finished the session and I saw Hilda's great white box rolling toward us to take me to my next date, I asked Rosaleen about it. "Isn't that sort of, well, low priority?"
"My interest in how the Scarecrows get their power? But it is of great potential, Dan."
I waved a hand at her. "In the future, sure. But right now the Scarecrows are maybe going to kill us all, and shouldn't we be concentrating on doing something about that? I don't just mean you, Rosaleen. It's everybody. They don't seem to be worried."
She looked a touch offended, but then she put her hand on my arm and smiled. "You are right, Dan. Have you ever read the story by Mr. Edgar Allan Poe called 'The Masque of the Red Death'? It is about the time of one of the great old plagues. All over the city people are dying, but in this one place there is a ball and the people there are dancing and drinking and pretending nothing is amiss-although it is only a matter of time before the plague will come to them and they, too, will die. It is denial, Dan. What you cannot face, you deny. Perhaps it is better to do that than simply to dissipate your energies in useless worrying."
"Well," I said obstinately, "I do worry."
And Hilda, rolling up just in time to catch the end of the conversation, said irritably, "You sure as hell do, Danno, and you make me nervous. How about if you quit worrying and get on with your job?"
Well, she was right, too. But that didn't stop me from worrying. The human race was experiencing some sort of reprieve, sure, but I didn't think it could last.
And, of course, it didn't.