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chapter 7
 I might as well have joined the Marine Corps instead of the Treasury Department, Orison thought, resting her fists on her knees. She had no weapons now, nothing to help her break out from this steel-shuttered cellar. What's more, the only clear evidence she had of the crime these extraterrestrials were plotting was a single counterfeit twenty-dollar bill wadded up in her hand. It looked entirely genuine, she thought. It was perhaps too perfect for her purpose. It was quite possible that this bill could be established as a counterfeit only by the unlikely discovery of a genuine note with the same serial-number. The paper-makers and chemists of Chilif, the engraving millions of Microfabridae, had done their work too well. Suddenly, across Orison's field of regard there danced dozens of brilliant, five-pointed stars—over the weapons-carriers and the tanks, the jeeps and the two lolling guards, the concrete floor and the steel doors. Orison rubbed the heels of her hands into her eyes, but the stars were still there. "Don't worry," someone said. "I painted the stars on the backs of your eyes only to get your attention." The stars disappeared, and Orison heard again the music of the Microfabridae, a singing almost unhearable.
"Who's that?" Orison demanded, her voice uncertain.
"Don't speak. You'll frighten the guards," the mysterious voice said. "We have had long association, Orison. It was I who, so close in empathy with you, prevented your eating lobster, for example. Earth's lobster is a distant relative of mine. I could not see you ingest one without feeling deep qualms. And it is to me you have been reading, filling my mind with knowledge and amusement while I was engaged in the dull work of projecting the images of currency to the Microfabridae at work at their printing-plates. I am known as Elder Compassion, and I am your friend."
"And Dink's friend?"
"His especially," the voice said. "Our business right now is to help you escape. We must know exactly where you are, Orison."
"I'm in the basement of the National Guard Armory," Orison said softly. "Where are you?"
"I'm on the ninth floor of the Bank building," Elder Compassion said. "Yes, that means telepathy, of a weak and uncertain sort. I am not one of the true telepaths, those gold and mighty minds I can hear trumpeting in the night. I can but whisper, and eavesdrop a bit in minds that let me. And is the fact that I speak within your ear and listen to the currents that make words within your mind so much more mysterious than your pillow that whispers?"
"Tell me what to do," Orison said.
"Look at the entrance of your basement," Elder Compassion said. Orison stared at the steel doors at the top of the ramp. "Yes, Dink. You're in the right place." The inner voice ceased for a moment; and into Orison's mind flashed a picture of those doors seen from outside. An automobile was parked a dozen feet from the door. Dink's car! Wanji was at the wheel and Dink, grandly uniformed, was beside him. A pink, animate thread dipped down from the trunk of the Rolls and began working its way toward the steel doors. Microfabridae, Orison guessed. Then the picture in her mind flicked off, and she was alone again.
She watched the doors at the top of the ramp.
For ten minutes or so, there was nothing new to be seen. Then—a pinpoint of light, a tiny movement. "Look away," Elder Compassion said within her. "We don't want to make your guards suspicious."
From the corner of her eye Orison could see the thin pink line approaching the Sherman tank upon which one guard was sitting, at ease but alert. The line of Microfabridae split into two columns, and one set out toward the second guard, seated in his weapons-carrier, facing the little room where C Company's commanding officer was imprisoned.
Orison knotted her fists to keep from screaming, reminding herself that these creeping things weren't spiders. She heard, faint at first, but growing at the edge of her consciousness, the song of the Microfabridae. The twin columns were thicker now. It seemed impossible that the guards hadn't yet seen them. A living thread oozed up the side of the tank and busied itself a moment at the guard's ankles.
"What's going on?" the captain, Orison's fellow-prisoner, shouted from his hidden cell.
"Mmmmf," the guard assigned to the captain replied. Then he was entirely silent.
Orison stood. Her own guard was strapped to the steel of his tank by a hundred strands of Lilliputian thread. A thin net of the stuff, fine as angel-hair, covered his mouth. The second guard, in the weapons-carrier, was bound in the same manner. He stared at Orison and moved his jaw, but could say nothing. "They'll not be injured," Elder Compassion told her. "It is impossible for me to allow a living being to be hurt. Now, go look at the man who just called out."
Orison went to the cell where the Captain was, avoiding as she walked the pools of Microfabridae scattered about the floor. The man stood in a barred room, evidently designed as the toolroom of the motor-pool, his hands around the bars. "Good afternoon," he said. "What's going on here?"
"We're getting out," Orison told him.
"Ask him if he can drive a tank," Elder Compassion whispered to Orison. "Those steel doors are too well built to be quickly opened by our little locksmiths."
"Can you drive a tank, Captain?" Orison asked.
"Miss, I piloted one of those M4E8 Sherman's across Europe sixteen years ago. I've still got the strength to pull a landrel. But you'll have to get me out there to do it; because there isn't room in this cell."
"I'll get you out," Orison promised.
"You want the Microfabridae to chew through the lock?" the voice-in-her-head asked gently.
"That's what I had in mind," Orison said.
"I know," Elder Compassion said. "Please look at the lock, so that I may direct our little friends to it."
Orison gazed at the lock. A line of Microfabridae snaked up the steel door-frame and entered the keyhole. From inside the door came a chittering sound, like a clock gone berserk. Then the crustacea reformed and marched down the door to the floor. Orison pressed the door-catch. The eviscerated lock gave way.
The captain stepped out to stare at the Microfabridae. "Miss," he said, "you and I could make a fortune with a team of those trained termites. There isn't a bank in the country that could stand up against us."
"It's been thought of," Orison said. "Help me get this man down from the tank, please, and we'll be on our way." Between them they lifted the cocooned guard, wrapped like a larva in Microfabridaean silk, to the cot, the little workers snipping with their chelae the threads that had bound him to the steel.
"Can you unlock the steel doors?" Orison asked.
"I don't have the key," the Captain said.
"Then we'll have to go through them," Orison said. "Can we do it?"
"We've got thirty-five tons to roll up that ramp," the captain said. "If we can't bust out with a punch like that, shame on us. Seems kind of rough on the taxpayers to bulldoze through that expensive door."
"If we don't make it out of here, those taxpayers may find themselves paying their thirty per cent to someone less friendly than Uncle Sam," Orison said. She clambered up the side of the tank and tugged at the hatch.
"Let me," said the captain. He opened the hatch and dropped inside. "You sit here to my right. We're going out the hard way, and buttoned up." He closed the hatch, then reached over his left shoulder to tug the master battery switch, squeezed together the twin butterfly switches on the panel and grabbed hold of the steering-landrels. "Hold on, Miss. We're headed for sunlight."
The Sherman's thirty-five tons were rolling along at ten miles an hour when its bow met steel. Concrete splinters flew from the sides of the door, which crumpled as the tank fisted into its middle. The door broke free of its supports and slammed outside, forming a deckway over which the treads of the tank crunched. The captain killed the engine and opened the hatch. He boosted Orison out, and followed her.
"Orison! Over here!" Dink Gerding shouted. Orison leaped from the tank and ran toward the Rolls-Royce. "Get down!" Dink shouted again. He ran to seize her, and threw her to the ground. "And stay down!" He was up, drawing his sword. There was a crash. A smear of lead appeared on the concrete beside Orison. Dink, bellowing rage, was running down the ramp into the armory basement, his sword raised.
Kraft Gerding stood at the head of his troops at the foot of the ramp. In hand he had an Army .45. He shouted to his men, a dozen purple-ears, dressed in fatigues, each as big and ugly as the two who'd been guarding Orison and the Captain. They strained forward to follow him—but fell like ten-pins, tripped up by strands of web knitted between their ankles by fast-working Microfabridae. "Don't stop him, Elder Cousin!" Dink shouted, his words evidently meant for the mysterious brain-guy, Elder Compassion, in the ninth floor of the Taft Bank Building. "This I must do," Dink said.
Kraft Gerding dropped the automatic and slicked his sword from its scabbard. The blade, Orison saw, rising to her feet, was by no means an ornament. It looked most naked and competent. Dink advanced upon his brother, each holding his sword at the ready like scorpions ready to do battle. "It would distress me to wound you, elder sibling," Dink said.
"Lese majesty or no, my liege," Kraft shouted, "I intend to chop you to stew-meat!" Their blades met and clashed, the swordsmen taking the shock of their contact with skillful springing of their arms and shoulders. Behind the clash of steel, Orison heard a new sound, the scream of a siren. A second siren called out, and both grew louder. "The police!" Wanji shouted. "Stop it, Sires!"
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