This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or are used fictitiously.

For Betty Anne, as always




We were actually on our way home when it happened. We didn't have any doubt that that was where we were going, and we were, boy, ready. We had been months and months in the captivity of a weird alien creature from another world, the one we called Dopey. He was alien, all right. He looked sort of like a large chicken with a kitten's face and a peacock's tail, and he had kidnapped the lot of us-snatched us right out of the old Starlab astronomical satellite and thrown us into some kind of space-traveling machine that whisked us from hereto some unbelievably distant there in no time at all. And there was where Dopey kept us, in one damn miserably uncomfortable prison or another, on this unpleasant planet we had never heard of before.

That was a truly nasty experience, but, the way it looked to us at the time, it was over! Against the odds, we had escaped! Our chance to get away came when some rival gang of nonhumans, these ones called the 'Horch,' invaded our prison planet. In the confusion we fought our way to the matter-transmitter thing, and jumped in, and were on our way home. I was the last to climb into the machine…

And I saw the pale lavender flash that meant it was working…

And I came out again…

But I wasn't home at all. The place I was in didn't look at all like Starlab. A pair of those silvery-spidery Horch wheeled fighting machines that had been trying to kill us were standing there, not half a dozen meters away. This time they weren't shooting at me, though. If they had been, I couldn't have shot back, because something I couldn't see grabbed me from behind-no, enveloped me, in an all-points hug that didn't let me move a muscle-as I heard the machine's door open again.

Dopey spilled out on top of me, plume all ruffled, little cat eyes glaring around in terror. He took one look at the machines and began to shake. Something hard and painful was pressing behind my right ear. I managed to yell a question at Dopey; and just before the lights went out he sobbed an answer: 'Agent Dannerman, we are in the hands of the Horch.'

And that was the nastiest, the very nastiest, moment of all.




When I woke up I was lying on a hard, glassy floor. My head felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat to it.

I kept my eyes prudently closed for a moment. I listened, trying to figure out where I was and what I was doing there. All I heard was an occasional skritchy-tinkly sound, like an incomplete set of cheap wind chimes, and now and then a faint whir that sounded a little like skate wheels on a hard floor.

That told me nothing useful, so I took the plunge. I opened my eyes and scrambled to my feet. That made my headache worse, but was the least of my immediate worries. I was in serious trouble.

The room I found myself in was smallish and square, with shiny walls that looked as though they were made of some sort of pale yellow porcelain. There was nothing on the walls-no windows, no decorations-only a couple of doors, both securely closed.

I was not alone in the room.

Two bizarre machines were hovering over a small chest, made out of the same primrose chinaware as the walls. They weren't the spidery Horch fighting machines I'd seen before. What they looked like, more than anything else, was a pair of squat, crystalline Christmas trees. They had spiky glass branches coming off a central trunk, and twigs off the branches, and needles off the twigs-yes, and littler needles coming off the needles, too. For all I knew there were still littler needles than those as well, but I didn't see them. Each of the machines was topped off by a sort of glassy globe, where the angel should have been on a proper Christmas tree, and these were faceted and glittery, like the rotating mirror spheres people rent to cast little spangles of light around a dance floor. One of the things was a pale green, the other a rosy pink. It seemed to me-that was hope speaking, not wisdom-that they looked pretty fragile. Whatever they were up to, I thought, I would have something to say about, because one swift kick would shatter a quorum of their glassy needles.

I was quite wrong about that, of course.

They evidently took notice of the fact that I was awake. The green one did something queer with some of its needles. Clusters of them rearranged themselves, fusing into colorless, faintly glowing lenses pointing in my direction, while the other extended a branch toward something I couldn't see inside the porcelain box.

I must have made a sudden move, because there was a quick, new pang from my head. I reached up to touch the part that hurt and made an unpleasant discovery. Something that didn't belong there was just behind my ear. It was ribbed and hard-surfaced, and faintly warm to the touch, like my own flesh. It seemed to be embedded in my skin. It hadn't been there before, and I didn't like it.

That was when the littler one-its needles were like slivers of shell-pink glass-rolled up close to my face, waving its nearest sprig of needles under my nose.

Then it really surprised me. It spoke to me. It said, 'You will be asked questions. Answer them quickly and accurately.'

That put a different face on things.

I know it sounds peculiar, but when the machine said that to me it actually made me feel a bit better. Interrogation was something I understood, having done plenty of it myself. I spoke right up. I said, 'My name is James Daniel Dannerman. I am a citizen of the United States of America and a senior agent of the American National Bureau of Investigation. I have been a captive of the Beloved Leaders, who are your enemies as well as my own-'

The Christmas tree unhurriedly stuffed a fist of needles into my mouth to shut me up, and the needles weren't fragile at all. They were curiously warm. They didn't hurt, but it was like being gagged with a mouthful of steel wool. It said, 'You have not been asked those questions. Answer only the questions you have been asked.'

I'm not sure what I tried to say in response. With that glassy bird's nest stuffed in my mouth it only came out as 'wumf,' but it made the thing remove the needles from my mouth and speak again.

'You will now supply information,' the machine said, 'concerning the conspecific persons you identify as

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