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TWENTY-ONE

"Espionage and information gathering is a time honored method to prepare for a conflict."

-N. HALE

"Levitate, Master Skeeve," Zol whispered urgently. "I have never seen you so agitated."

I took his advice. The tray of refreshments in my hand, full of precious china set on delicate crocheted circles alongside crisp napkins that were obviously produce of this facility, immediately stopped rattling. The thread of magik literally lifted it out of my hands and moved it easily from the serving area of the cafeteria toward a table with available seats.

"Sorry," I offered sheepishly. "For a moment I was brought back to my childhood. My aunts and grandmothers always had things like this. They made me carry it, to show what a good little boy I was, then yelled at me when I broke something."

'There is no harm in giving you a standard to which they wish you to live up," Zol lectured, sternly, "but it is never fair to exceed the physical abilities of the person one is teaching." "They meant well," I defended them faintly, but to be honest I was thinking not just of my female relatives, but of my friend, mentor, teacher and partner Aahz.

He always pushed me to the levels that he knew I could reach, even though at the time I was certain he must be wrong. He had tried to dissuade me from undertaking this mission, and I had ignored his advice. Had he known that I was overstretching myself? I hoped not. I found myself both missing his company and dreading our next meeting at the same time.

After some urging Parrano had taken us on a tour through the shop floor section of the factory. My first view of a thousand Wuhses embroidering was nearly enough to make me turn tail and run back to Klah. It was the most spectacularly boring enterprise I had ever seen. The hands holding the needles rose and fell, rose and fell in a spiky tidal motion. You could literally hear a pin drop as occasionally one of the sewers dropped a fastener on the ground.

This was the main support of the Wuhs economy? If I hadn't already known that the Pervects had another concern going somewhere, I would have thought they were insane relying upon what Aahz called "tchotchkes" and "schmattes" to provide a livelihood for thousands of families, not to mention turning a profit for the Ten.

Row after row of workers, stitching by hand or running a length of cloth through a pixie-powered machine, turned out pile after pile of white, cream, pink and yellow tea towels. I didn't think there was that much tea served anywhere in all the dimensions.

We looked in every door and under every single thing in all of the rooms we visited, but there was no sign of Wensley. Many of the people knew him, but no one had seen him since the day of the riot. Everyone was convinced he was dead. I didn't want to believe it.

Some of the goods the Wuhses made were for sale in the cafeteria. Bunny and Tananda went eagerly to look over the offerings while Zol and I got some refreshments. We sat down at a table full of Wuhses, and I tried to draw them into conversation.

"So what do you do?" I asked for the forty-third time, no longer caring if I got an answer.

"I tat lace table runners," twinkled a little white-haired granny, her hands going together and moving as if she was holding a shuttle and spool. I always noticed that when you asked someone how they did something, they would tell you verbally and describe it through body language. She bit off an invisible knot, then her horizontal-slitted eyes peered at me sharply. "You look like you could use some decent table linens, visitor. Look for my name on the tags, and you'll be sure of the most basic quality."

"Thanks," I smiled, trying to sound appreciative, though lace table runners would be as useful to me as water-soluble handkerchiefs.

"How about you?" I inquired of a blunt-faced male with a pot belly. He took in a breath suddenly, as though my question had called his mind back from far away.

"What?"

"What do you do here?" I inquired.

"I embroider tea towels," the Wuhs intoned dully. "I sew daisies and jonquils. I like yellow."

His hands started to go through the inevitable display of his art. I watched curiously, as instead of the motions of drawing a needle up and down, he seemed to be stacking various items on top of one another, stretching overhead and dragging down a pencil-like device to touch the items then letting it go. Next, both hands reached to his left and came back holding an invisible cylinder which he set down over the parts already before him, screwing it down and finally hitting an unseen plunger a couple of times with the palm of his hand.

"What kind of tea towel is that?" I asked Zol.

"I like purple," uttered the Wuhs next to him, mechanically. "I do very fine lilacs and lavender sprays." But the motions he went through were the same as the blunt-faced male.

"Do you know, Master Skeeve," Zol replied, after a few moments study, "it's no kind I've ever seen before."

"I sew roses," a third Wuhs began.

"I make leaf motifs."

"We missed something," I muttered to Zol. "We have to go back in there and find out what is going on."

Tananda leaned over my shoulder at that moment. She had an armful of linens, and pretended to display one for me.

"The spy-eyes are all turning this way, handsome. Should we do something about them?" I started to turn to look, but she gripped my shoulder with iron fingers. "Don't look this way. Not with your own face on."

I felt icy fingers running down my back. Hastily, I reached out with my mind for the nearest energy line. Fortunately, there was a strong one running through the building, a possible reason the Pervects had chosen to build on this site. There was no time to warn Bunny. I saw the look of puzzlement on the face of the Wuhs serving her at the kiosk as she changed from a Klahd to a Wuhs in the middle of the transaction. Not an everyday occurrence for either one of them, but my assistant handled it with aplomb.

She put her hands to her cheeks and felt them. "Oh, my! My illusion spell wore off! I've got to go now."

She hurried to our table and handed me her purchases. "Shall we go now?" she urged pointedly.

Zol and I were already standing. The Wuhses who were still "assembling" tea towels that weren't tea towels paid no attention, but the keen-eyed old female watched us with interest. We started edging toward the door.

When my hand touched the knob, a klaxon began to blare out. "Intruder alert! Intruder alert! No one is to leave the building. Repeat: no one is to leave the building."

I heard a rumbling noise, and felt a drain on the energy line below my feet. One of the Perverts must be in the factory.

"How do we get out of here?" Bunny asked.

"Not easily," Tananda asserted. "This place seals up tighter than a drum."

I glanced around. "Just start walking toward the exit."

As I said that, sheets of metal slid down and sealed off the doors and windows of the cafeteria. I reached for the D-hopper. "Where shall we meet? If there's any possibility they can zero in on where we've gone I don't want them following me home. K—I mean, my dimension can't handle it."

"Kobol," Zol suggested promptly. "Meet you there."

The little gray man vanished. The Wuhses broke into shrieks and cries of alarm. They immediately stampeded toward the metal-covered door and started pounding on it.

"So much for an unobtrusive departure," I mourned, and started to dial the D-hopper. At that moment the wall behind the sales kiosk opened up, and a stocky Pervert female in a coverall stamped through. She made straight for us.

"You!" she shouted, pointing at us. "Come here! I want to talk to you!"

Without hesitation, I grabbed Tananda's and Bunny's hands and yanked them into the mob of bleating, milling Wuhses. Where was that line of power? I summoned up as much energy as I could and stored it inside me.

I felt a touch of power on the back of my neck like a clamp attached to a derrick. The Pervert was trying to pull me towards her! Knowing how much her species hated fire, I flung a ball of crackling heat over my shoulder at her. She ducked, swearing, as a hundred tea cozies shaped like sunflowers burst into flames. Her spell let go.

As soon as I was free I burrowed deeply into the crowd. I noted as many of the faces as I could then, in my mind, I erased the Wuhs features we had just assumed, and exchanged them for new ones. The Pervert could not easily identify us now. She would have to grab everyone, and by then, I intended to be long gone.

"Skeeve!" Tananda hissed, looking about her for me.

When I put a disguise spell on others, they see themselves with their new faces, but I still see them as they really are. I set the D-hopper for Kobol, threw one arm around Bunny, and grabbed Tananda's wrist with my other hand. As the Wuhses whimpered in terror about the angry Pervect and the burning display, I pushed the button.

Niki grabbed a can hanging from a string on the wall and shouted into it.

"We've had a security breach! Spies! Two Klahds, a Trollop and an I don't know what it was! I think we've found our magician."

In a moment a voice crackled in her ear. "Did you catch them?"

"No, they boogied out of here. Someone or something must have tipped them off." She glared around the room at the Wuhses, now all plastered against the far wall in terror. "I'm going to find out who."

"We're already working on it," Caitlin replied. "Over and out."

"Who were they?" Loorna roared at the Wuhs.

After they had hung up with Niki, the Ten had opened the snow globe prison on their table and restored the Wuhs inside it to full size. The rabblerouser who had actually invaded the castle and led a thousand of his countrymen into the Pervect Ten's very own headquarters didn't look like such a hero now. His vest and trousers were torn, his pale hair and face dirty, and his white shirt showed the effects of having been lived in for a week straight. Vergetta's keen nose wrinkled at the smell he emitted. She snaked up a cluster of power and threw it at him. There. Dry-cleaned, no charge. Loorna tossed her a grouchy look, but Vergetta ignored it. Why should they all suffer for the length of time it took to wring information out of the Wuhs?

"W-w-who, dear lady?" he panted. "I d-d-don't know who you're talking about."

Vergetta, in her seat next to Caitlin's computer, groaned. That was all they had managed to get out of him: evasions and bad grammar. Apart from his name, of course, which was Wensley. "That's whom, bubalah. I don't know about whom."

"Shut up," Loorna snarled at her senior. She turned back to the prisoner. "Answer the question!" She grabbed the chattering male by his shirt front and shook him. "Where do they come from? What do they want?"

"They've got some kind of chutzpah, walking right into our place without a by-your-leave," Vergetta declared. "Must be pretty confident, or pretty dumb. I'll take votes either way."

"So?" Loorna demanded, as designated interrogator, "Who are they? Industrial spies? What's your connection with them?"

"What makes you think this sorry little sheep has anything to do with transdimensional travelers?" Oshleen asked, in a bored voice, filing her nails with a twelve-inch rasp. "Plenty of people know we're here. When we started having to seek out venture capital to try and recoup our losses we had to let them know where we were. Niki's intruders could be industrial spies who are taking advantage of the fact that we are having some unrest to rip us off."

"It could be bill collectors," Tenobia grumbled. "I told you these stupid Wuhses would spend us out of house and home."

"They usually send a notice before showing up," Osh- leen reminded her, "and I've been keeping them placated with small payments. It has to be that wizard."

"It's a coincidence! It's snoops from some other concern on Perv."

'The timing's suspicious," Loorna retorted, dropping her prisoner to confront Oshleen. "I've been around a long time, and I don't believe in coincidences."

"What were they looking for?" Paldine asked. "I've kept my research hush-hush. The dimensions where we're planning to sell this gadget haven't got enough magik to blow their noses, let alone shake Niki on her own ground. There's a high-powered wizard out there."

"It's probably this Great Skeeve," Charilor interjected. "He's the one who got us locked up on Scamaroni. Well?" she turned to the Wuhs, who cowered in the corner.

"It's bill collectors," Tenobia insisted. "Who knows what the Wuhses bought in the last week? With the treasury empty there's no money for the Wuhses to steal to pay for their purchases. They're looking for saleable assets or collateral."

Loorna lost her patience. She jumped at Wensley and held him high in the air by his collar.

'Talk!" she shrieked. "Where is that damned D-hopper?"

"I don't care if you torment me, foul green viragoes," Wensley choked out, drawing up his narrow chest as far as he could over his little round belly. "I will not betray my friends."

"Oh, now it sounds like he read a book," Charilor sneered.

Caitlin laughed. "What would you know about reading books, you rave queen?"

"Girls!" Nedira snapped. "He's confessing, and you won't even let him speak."

"I am not confessing," the Wuhs protested, then clamped his plump lips shut. The Pervects looked at each other in disbelief. "A Wuhs with a backbone," Vergetta hooted. "I never believed such a thing existed."

"Threaten to tear his legs off," Caitlin suggested.

"Talk, or I'll tear your legs off!" Loorna shouted.

"Now shake him until his teeth rattle."

Loorna shook her fist, and the Wuhs's limbs flailed like those of a rag doll.

"Wait a minute!" she demanded, looking at the youngest Pervect. "Who's conducting this interrogation? You or me?"

"Oh, you can, if you really want to," Caitlin yawned, leaning back in her chair. "I figured as long as you were going by the book I could just coach you. It saves time."

"Why isn't anyone taking this seriously?" Paldine asked. "Our future is at stake here."

"I am. You're pretty brave for a sheep," Loorna hissed right in Wensley's face, "keeping your mouth shut. Got some Dutch courage from somewhere? I don't smell any alcohol on you."

"I need no alcohol. I know I don't have to tell you anything!"

Loorna grinned. "Well, I don't know if you've ever taken a look downstairs in the dungeons of this sweet little palace of yours. You keep talking about how your ancestors were always so peaceful, cooperative and nice, but I'm here to tell you that there is some pretty nasty torture equipment down there that even Pervects would never have thought of using on another living being. I am just on the edge of taking you down there and using some of it on you. Or," she leaned close enough so that the Wuhs could see the gold flecks in her bright yellow eyes, "we'll make you eat some of our food. Talk!"



TWENTY | Myth Alliances | TWENTY-TWO



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