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CHAPTER SIX

Well, I was exhausted and I still had the residual headache, but I figured out the explanation for that fast enough. It had to be the thing they'd stuck on my head that accounted for my sudden fluency in Horch. The important thing was that, in whatever language, I now had someone who might answer some questions for me.

"Just tell me what happened," I coaxed.

He looked at me, and then at the remainder of his meal. Then he made the body-wriggle that was his version of a shrug. "Very well, but you should have deduced it for yourself, Agent Dannerman. When we entered the transit machine we were transmitted to your Starlab, you and I along with the others. But, of course, once a pattern has been constructed in the machine for transmission, it remains available, so that from that pattern copies may be made at any time. As, you will recall, I had previously made copies of your Dr. Adcock for you."

I didn't have to be reminded of that. I remembered everything there was to remember about Pat Adcock.

"Therefore it should not surprise you that the Horch made copies of us so that we could be questioned."

"But where are we? I certainly don't recognize this place-is it some kind of Horch base?"

"It is now," he said sourly. "Nevertheless it is the same base, on the same planet in the same globular cluster that we were in before. I do not know by what treachery the Horch were able to break into our transmission channels, but it enabled them to surprise and occupy this base-at great cost in lives and materiel, of course, but the Horch do not care about such things. Of course, the Horch have obviously made some changes in the structures to suit their own purposes. I assume from the changes that some time has elapsed since we were transmitted."

"How much time?" I demanded. He just did that body-twitching shrug again. I tried another tack. "About the questioning, Dopey. They're asking some pretty funny questions. Wouldn't you think they'd want to know the important stuff about Earth, like our technology, what kind of weapons we have, like that?"

"But they surely know all those things already, Agent Dannerman," he said, looking surprised. "They are simply filling in gaps in the knowledge obtained from the others of us whom they have already copied and questioned. Did you think we were the first?"


As a matter of fact, that was exactly what I had thought. I wished I could go on thinking it, because if they had questioned other copies of Dopey and of me, it was unpleasantly likely that they had also done the same thing, with the same brutal tactics, to Rosaleen and Jimmy and Martin… and to Pat.

To my own Pat.

My own Pat, whom I knew to be a pretty self-willed person when she chose to be. She wouldn't have taken any more guff from the Christmas trees than I had, at first. And then they would have done to her what they did to me.

That was not something I could bear thinking about. While I was thinking about it anyway, because I couldn't help myself, Dopey was going about his own business. He didn't speak to me again. He finished his meal, decorously relieved himself in the litter box, then selected a spot on the floor and crouched down, tucking his head under his plume for a nap.

I couldn't let that happen, because I needed to get the image of Pat being ripped open by a robot out of my mind. I said, "Wait a minute, Dopey."

He pulled his head back out again and regarded me crossly. "You are willful, Agent Dannerman," he complained. "Did you not understand what I said about sleeping when we could?"

"I did, but I wanted to ask you something. Why do they have to torture us?"

That made him wrinkle up his little cat mouth in annoyance. "Because they want truthful answers, of course."

"But can't they just make us do whatever they want?" I touched the ribbed thing behind my ear. "By putting some kind of controller in with this language thing?"

He blinked the cat eyes at me. "Controller?"

"Like the one the Beloved Leaders implanted in you," I explained. "So you would have to do whatever they wanted."

He made an indignant noise and stood up straight on his tiny legs, glaring at me. "You are so stupid, Agent Dannerman! Why do you think I have a controller implanted in me by the Beloved Leaders?"

I looked at him in surprise. "Don't you?"

"Of course not! There is no need for that! I am a rational being, as are all of my people, and so we know where our interests lie." His pursy little mouth was twitching and his plume was angry red, but then he calmed down enough to explain. "The bearers which you call Docs do require such devices to be of value to the Beloved Leaders, because they are very willful beings. The warriors also need to be controlled. The reason for this is that in the course of their duties many of them must inevitably be dispatched to the Eschaton. Although they have been informed that this 'death' is actually a boon, not a tragedy, their natures prevail. They are not able to rid themselves of their instinct for self-preservation which would interfere with their duties. For the rest of us servants of the Beloved Leaders, my people included, self-interest takes a different form. We are glad to obey the Beloved Leaders, because we know what they can do to us if we fail them." He didn't seem sleepy anymore, just scared. His plume faded to a bilious green as he said, "You do not know the Beloved Leaders, Agent Dannerman. You have never even seen one. I have been more fortunate-not once, but three times. One even spoke to me, though not in person, of course. It was while I was monitoring your planet from the orbiter Starlab, and a Beloved Leader addressed me on a screen to give me an order. I was very frightened, Agent Dannerman. If you are not also frightened, it is because you do not understand the immensity of their power, or the consequences of their wrath. Do you really think your pitiful little planet can withstand the Beloved Leaders? It cannot. As I have told you, you are a fool. Their scout vessels found your Earth once. They will find it again, if indeed they have not already done so.

"It is true that these evil Horch and their machines are also extremely powerful. I do not think they will prevail against the Beloved Leaders, though. When the Eschaton comes, I believe it is the Beloved Leaders who will rule. Rule all of us. For eternity. And oh, Agent Dannerman, I have failed them, and so I am very, very frightened of what that eternity will be."


CHAPTER FIVE | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER SEVEN



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