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CHAPTER FIVE

The biological-needs room was a twin of the one I'd just left: bare walls of the same yellow chinaware, no windows, no pictures. The big difference was that there were three doors instead of two-all securely locked against my immediate attempts to open them-and in addition to the chinaware chest against the wall (also unopenable by me), there was a pile of food on a low chinaware table.

The food at least was familiar. I had seen it all before. In fact, I had seen a lot of it. We had been living on identically that same grub for months, me and Pat, in all her copies, and Rosaleen Artzybachova and Jimmy Lin and Martin Delasquez. Apart from a few unfamiliar and unappetizing ropy twists of something smelly and purplish, it was the food Dopey had copied for us when we were his prisoners, duplicated from the stores on the Starlab orbiter we had been snatched from. Apples. Corn chips. Heaps of dried or irradiated meals in cans and jars and cartons, every one of which I was totally sick of. When I first saw that pile of rations it made me suddenly aware that I was, as a matter of fact, pretty hungry. When I realized it was the same boring stuff I'd eaten much too much of already, a lot less so.

There were a couple of jugs of water beside the stack of rations. I took a swig out of one of them-it tasted flat, as though it had been distilled-but while that relieved one biological need, it just made another one worse.

I had to pee.

I looked doubtfully at the floor. When we were captives of Dopey and his Beloved Leaders, our cell had this trick floor that doubled as a sewage-removal system. Any waste that hit the floor was absorbed and carried away without leaving even a stain. Even human waste.

This canary-yellow porcelain stuff was something else again. It didn't look promising. However, nature was not to be denied. I selected a corner of the room and let fly; and when I was through I watched, without much optimism, to see if the urine would seep away.

It didn't.

I said, "Shit." All right, that's a trivial thing. But it was one more damn blow, on top of a lot of others. You have to remember that, just hours before, my future had seemed really bright: home, safe, with the dear Pat Adcock I had just discovered I loved.

But I wasn't home. I wasn't safe. Pat was God knew where, and I was worse off than ever. Literally, now I didn't even have a pot to piss in.

So I did the only thing I could do. I fell back on my Bureau training.

I took a deep breath. I crammed some corn chips into my mouth, popped open a random jar (chicken a la king, it was, and really unpleasant in its cold and slimy state). I looked around the room to see if any curious eyes were observing me-didn't matter if they were, of course-and I began to tap systematically at the walls and chest and doors.


Now, why did I do that?

It wasn't out of any real hope. I didn't see that I had an ice cube's chance in Hell of ever getting back to NBI headquarters in Arlington with whatever odd bits of information I might learn through all this poking and prying. I did it anyway, because it was my job.

Back in basic training, the meanest of my drill instructors had explained that to us, while we were lined up, as sweating and stinking and sodden as we were, right after the obstacle course and just before the five-kilometer run. DIs rarely show sympathy.

This one had none at all. "What are you, tired? You don't know what tired is yet. You assholes are gonna be a lot worse off than this before you've put your twenty years in! Times you're gonna be exhausted and shitting your pants, but that don't let you off nothing. Whatever happens, whatever the bad guys do to you, you do your job. If they beat the piss out of you, if they cut off your balls and gouge out your fuckin' eyes, you don't forget what I'm saying. You ain't paid to give up. You're paid to keep on doing what you're missioned to do, so, if there's a miracle and you get out alive, you can report on every goddam thing you see and hear. Any questions?"

I was stupider in those days. I said, "Sir! How are we going to see anything if they've gouged out our eyes?"

She had an answer for that. She said, "You! Fall down and gimme thirty!"

So-having nothing promising to do-I did what I coulddo.

I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out of this place, and find some way to get back to the transit machine, and zap myself back home. I didn't quite see how I was going to arrange that, but the first step was to gather information.

So I tapped the walls and tried the doors every way I could think of. The doors stayed locked. They were perfectly ordinary doors that swung open on hinges the way a door should do- nothing exotic or super high-tech, except that they didn't seem to have any handles. However I pushed or kicked them, they didn't move. Neither did the lid of the chest, when I went back to that. I didn't give up. I rummaged through the pile of food to see if there was anything hidden under it, and I even took one fairly nauseating taste of the purplish stuff, and I pulled and tugged at the unknown object behind my right ear, trying to figure out what that was all about. I could tell a few things about it. It was about the size of a pigeon's egg. It was smooth-surfaced, either metal or ceramic-when I tapped my fingernail against it, it sounded more ceramic than metal, but I couldn't be sure. It was ribbed, and the skin of my scalp seemed to have grown right around it as though it belonged there, the way your gums surround your teeth.

But that was all I could tell about the thing. So I went back to my tapping and probing, because, even if there wasn't any drill sergeant around to make me do push-ups if I didn't, that was my job. And while I was hard at it, nibbling at some kind of dried fruit bar while I did, one of the doors opened. It let in another couple of those glassy robots-one bronze, one cherry red; I didn't think I had seen either of them before-along with my former captor and present traveling companion, the little alien creature with a body like a peacock and a face like a nasty-minded cat, Dopey.


The robots stood silently communing for a moment, but I didn't see what they were up to. I was looking at Dopey. It was clear that the ugly little creature had been having at least as hard a time as I. His decorous little muu-muu was stained and, where it opened for his peacock plume, it was shredded. The plume itself was muddily dark, with none of its usual shifting iridescent colors. Dopey's fur had stains of its own, his belly bag was missing and he was wearing a decoration I hadn't seen before. It was ribbed like my patch and gold in color, which my own might well have been since I couldn't see the thing. The only difference was that his patch was on top of his head instead of behind one ear. He gazed at me blearily out of those kitten eyes and groaned.

"We are in terrible trouble, Agent Dannerman," he informed me. Then he waddled over to the food and began attacking the purplish stuff without another word.

I didn't need to be told that we were in trouble, but there was a good side to it. Now I had someone I could talk to without penalty.

What stopped me was the presence of the Christmas trees. I eyed them warily, but they were ignoring me. They had busied themselves with domestic chores. The cherry-colored one was mopping my little pool of urine from the floor, while the other did something to the porcelain chest that opened it up. Inside the chest was a heap of something that looked like oatmeal. The bronze one tapped the side of the chest with a thrust of branches and pointed another cluster at me. "This is to contain your excrements," it said. "Do not continue to soil the floor." And then the two of them left.


I had been a captive before, but this was the first time I had been given a litter box, like some old lady's pet cat. The place was full of humbling experiences.

But we were alone, and it was my chance to talk to Dopey. I followed him to the food stacks and said, "All right, as you say, we're in trouble. But where are we in trouble? And how did we get here?"

He chewed greedily for a moment before he answered. Or didn't answer, actually. He said, still chewing, "If you have eaten all you wish, Agent Dannerman, you would be well advised to sleep now. You may not get many opportunities."

Well, I knew that, but what he said sounded odd to me. I couldn't quite think why. Then I realized that Dopey had spoken to me in English.

That was when I became aware that I hadn't been speaking English with the Christmas-tree machines. I had been talking to them in their own chirpy language, of which, I could have sworn, I had never known a single word.


CHAPTER FOUR | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER SIX



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