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CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

When I got to Hilda's room she was there, all right, but the medics didn't want to let me in. "She was sleeping," the doctor in charge told me. "We woke her up after we saw the message from the Scarecrows. She's watching a replay now, but she doesn't want any visitors while she's undergoing dialysis…"

I didn't argue with the man. I just pushed him out of the way. As I opened her door I called, "Hilda? Sorry to break in on you, but-"

And then I stopped, because I saw why Hilda Morrisey didn't want any visitors.

I had never seen Hilda like that before. It was bad enough trying to get used to her white-enameled box. This was worse. She was out of her steel-enamel shell, but she still didn't look anything like the Hilda I used to know. She was lying flat on an airbed, with tubes going into her in a dozen places and a sort of steel corset surrounding her upper body. The thing pulsed rhythmically, because it was doing Hilda's breathing for her. Apart from that, all she was wearing was one of those inadequate hospital shifts, and she looked smaller, older and more defenseless than I had ever imagined her before. The sheet that had been thrown over her didn't hide the fact that there wasn't much left of Hilda Morrisey.

But she spoke right up as soon as she saw me. "It isn't going to be a comet, is it, Danno?" she demanded. "It's something to do with the subs, isn't it?"

She had put her finger right on it; it was what I had picked up on as soon as I heard the Dopey speak.

The fact that Hilda was ahead of me again didn't surprise me; she often was, which was what made her bearable as a boss. Her voice did surprise me, though. It was the voice of the authentic Hilda Morrisey. I guess most of the toxins must have been dialyzed out of her blood by then. She still looked terrible, but not pathetic anymore. I said, "I think so, yes. But I want to get something settled first." I hesitated, then got to the point. "We aren't going to kill Beert for them, Hilda. No matter what. I won't let that happen, and that's definite."

She gave me a Hilda Morrisey stare. "Are you giving me orders, Danno?"

"I'm telling you that we can't afford to. He can help us figure out just what the Scarecrows are up to. And," I added, "we'll need that robot of his; it has a lot of information Beert doesn't. So get it flown in from Arlington right away, will you?"

She made a face. "Christ. Marcus will have a fit. All right. I'll give that order, and then I'll tell Marcus about it."

I didn't want to let it go at that, so I insisted. "And you'll tell him not to get any ideas about stalling the Scarecrows by wasting Beert in front of the cameras."

She gave me an opaque look. "Not right away, anyway. Now get the hell out of here so they can take all this crap off me."


Then it got crazy.

While Hilda was getting a team together I took a quick run to the sub. There was only one Doc on listening duty, and it was Foozh. He was jabbering at the duty guard as I came through the hatch, and mewed and whined at me twice as fast as soon as he saw me. Of course I couldn't understand a word, but I could hear the meows and growls that were coming from the speaker. Lots of them. They were busy out there, and when Pirraghiz and Mrranthoghrow got there she began translating at once.

The subs were doing something, all right. They weren't traveling very far; they were pausing at discrete points along the various continental shelves, then moving no more than a kilometer or two and pausing again. Pirraghiz said it sounded like they were depositing things on the sea bottom. What things? She had no idea; the orders from the scout ship never said. For what purpose? She didn't know that, either.

But I had no doubt that it was bad news.

An hour later we had a kind of a task force gathered-me and Been and his Christmas tree, plus eight or nine Bureau specialists. Hilda was there, back in her box, and so was the deputy director; he had taken time out from his witch hunt to bring the robot in person-and also to let me know that this was all my fault, because if I had let him hide Beert away in Arlington, the way he wanted to, nobody would have known he was there.

He was wrong about that, of course-whoever leaked the story would have known about the sub, anyway, with or without Beert. I didn't argue. I spoke to Beert, ignoring everybody else. "Something the Greatmother said has been nagging at me, something about the Others killing off rebellious races by poison gas. Do you remember what it was?"

"Of course, Dan," he said promptly. "It is part of our history. What do you wish to know?"

"What kind of gas? How do they get it to the planet?"

He waggled his neck at me. "It isn't necessary to do that, Dan. On most planets like your own, such poisons are already there in the oceans. They need only to be released."

And when I translated all that, the yelling began. There was no poison gas in the oceans, the experts insisted. There certainly was, Beert said stoutly, because the Greatmother of the Great-mother had said so. All right, snapped the experts, what poison are you talking about?

Naturally, Beert's words meant nothing when he answered. Nor did the robot's, when asked, but the robot had a better way of communicating. It drew pictures for us. A big dot with a little dot near it. A cluster of a dozen big dots, some filled in, some just circles, with six little dots near it.

It was the Bureau's chemical-warfare specialist who figured it out: "They're diagrams of elements! Hydrogen and carbon!" And when the robot said there were four of the second diagram for every one of the first in this poison, the chemist blinked and smote her forehead with her hand and said, "Of course!" It was the first time I had heard the word "methane."


CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE



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