Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the United States copyright on this publication was renewed.
BY JAMES H. SCHMITZ
AUTHOR OF THE WITCHES OF KARRES
(ORIG. TITLE: A TALE OF TWO CLOCKS)
MEET TRIGGER ARGEE....
Half a block from the shopping center, a row of spacers on planet-leave came rollicking cheerily toward her.... Trigger shifted toward the edge of the sidewalk to let them pass. As the line swayed up on her left, there was a shadowy settling of an aircar at the curb to her right.
With loud outcries of glad recognition and whoops of laughter, the line swung in about her, close. Bodies crowded against her, a hand was clapped over her mouth. Other hands held her arms. Her feet came off the ground and she had a momentary awareness of being rushed expertly forward.
There was a lurching twist as the aircar shot upward.
SHE'S ABOUT TO ENTER THE MYSTERY OF HER LIFE, IN
* * * * *
Also by James H. Schmitz
THE DEMON BREED THE UNIVERSE AGAINST HER
ACE SCIENCE FICTION
* * * * *
JAMES H. SCHMITZ
A Division of Charter Communications Inc. A GROSSET & DUNLAP COMPANY 360 Park Avenue South New York, New York 10010
Originally published as A TALE OF TWO CLOCKS
An ACE Book
Cover art by Bob Adragna
First Ace printing: May 1979
Printed in U.S.A
* * * * *
This book is dedicated affectionately to my father
* * * * *
It was the time of sunrise in Ceyce, the White City, placidly beautiful capital of Maccadon, the University World of the Hub.
In the Colonial School's sprawling five-mile complex of buildings and tropical parks, the second student shift was headed for breakfast, while a larger part of the fourth shift moved at a more leisurely rate toward their bunks. The school's organized activities were not much affected by the hour, but the big exercise quadrangle was almost deserted for once. Behind the railing of the firing range a young woman stood by herself, gun in hand, waiting for the automatic range monitor to select a new string of targets for release.
She was around twenty-four, slim and trim in the school's comfortable hiking outfit. Tan shirt and knee-length shorts, knee stockings, soft-soled shoes. Her sun hat hung on the railing, and the dawn wind whipped strands of shoulder-length, modishly white-silver hair along her cheeks. She held a small, beautifully worked handgun loosely beside her—the twin-barrelled sporting Denton which gunwise citizens of the Hub rated as a weapon for the precisionist and expert only. In institutions like the Colonial School it wasn't often seen.
At the exact instant the monitor released its new flight of targets, she became aware of the aircar gliding down toward her from the administration buildings on the right. Startled, she glanced sideways long enough to identify the car's two occupants, shifted her attention back to the cluster of targets speeding toward her, studied the flight pattern for another unhurried half-second, finally raised the Denton. The little gun spat its noiseless, invisible needle of destruction eight times. Six small puffs of crimson smoke hung in the air. The two remaining targets swerved up in a mocking curve and shot back to their discharge huts.
The girl bit her lip in moderate annoyance, safetied and holstered the gun and waved her hand left-right at the range attendant to indicate she was finished. Then she turned to face the aircar as it settled slowly to the ground twenty feet away. Her gray eyes studied its occupants critically.
"Fine example you set the students!" she remarked. "Flying right into a hot gun range!"
Doctor Plemponi, principal of the Colonial School, smiled soothingly. "Eight years ago, your father bawled me out for the very same thing, Trigger! Much more abusively, I must say. You know that was my first meeting with old Runser Argee, and I—"
"Plemp!" Mihul, Chief of Physical Conditioning, Women's Division, cautioned sharply from the seat behind him. "Watch what you're doing, you ass!"
Confused, Doctor Plemponi turned to look at her. The aircar dropped the last four feet to a jolting landing. Mihul groaned. Plemponi apologized. Trigger walked over to them.
"Does he do that often?" she asked interestedly.
"Every other time!" Mihul asserted. She was a tall, lean, muscular slab of a woman, around forty. She gave Trigger a wink behind Plemponi's back. "We keep the chiropractors on stand-by duty when we go riding with Plemp."
"Now then! Now then!" Doctor Plemponi said. "You distracted my attention for a moment, that's all. Now, Trigger, the reason we're here is that Mihul told me at our prebreakfast conference you weren't entirely happy at the good old Colonial School. So climb in, if you don't have much else to do, and we'll run up to the office and discuss it." He opened the door for her.
"Much else to do!" Trigger gave him a look. "All right, Doctor. We'll run up and discuss it."
She went back for her sun hat, climbed in, closed the door and sat down beside him, shoving the holstered Denton forward on her thigh.
Plemponi eyed the gun dubiously. "Brushing up in case there's another grabber raid?" he inquired. He reached out for the guide stick.
Trigger shook her head. "Just working off hostility, I guess." She waited till he had lifted the car off the ground in a reckless swoop. "That business yesterday—it really was a grabber raid?"
"We're almost sure it was," Mihul said behind her, "though I did hear some talk they might have been after those two top-secret plasmoids in your Project."
"That's not very likely," Trigger remarked. "The raiders were a half mile away from where they should have come down if the plasmoids were what they wanted. And from what I saw of them, they weren't nearly a big enough gang for a job of that kind."
"I thought so, too," Mihul said. "They were topflight professionals, in any case. I got a glimpse of some of their equipment. Knockout guns—foggers—and that was a fast car!"
"Very fast car," Trigger agreed. "It's what made me suspicious when I first saw them come in."
"They also," said Mihul, "had a high-speed interplanetary hopper waiting for them in the hills. Two more men in it. The cops caught them, too." She added, "They were grabbers, all right!"
"Anything to indicate whom they were after?" Trigger asked.
"No," Mihul said. "Too many possibilities. Twenty or more of the students in that area at the time had important enough connections to class as grabber bait. The cops won't talk except to admit they were tipped off about the raid. Which was obvious. The way they popped up out of nowhere and closed in on those boys was a beautiful sight to see!"
"I," Trigger admitted, "didn't see it. When that car homed in, I yelled a warning to the nearest bunch of students and dropped flat behind a rock. By the time I risked a look, the cops had them."
"You showed very good sense," Plemponi told her earnestly. "I hope they burn those thugs! Grabbing's a filthy business."
"That large object coming straight at you," Mihul observed calmly, "is another aircar. In this lane it has the right of way. You do not have the right of way. Got all that, Plemp?"
"Are you sure?" Doctor Plemponi asked her bewilderedly. "Confound it! I shall blow my siren."
He did. Trigger winced. "There!" Plemponi said triumphantly as the other driver veered off in fright.
Trigger told herself to relax. Aircars were so nearly accident-proof that even Plemponi couldn't do more than snarl up traffic in one. "Have there been other raids in the school area since I left?" she asked, as he shot up out of the quadrangle and turned toward the balcony of his office.
"That was just under four years ago, wasn't it?" Mihul said. "No, you were still with us when we had the last one.... Six years back. Remember?"
Trigger did. Two students had been picked up on that occasion—sons of some Federation official. The grabbers had made a clean getaway, and it had been several months later before she heard the boys had been redeemed safely.
Plemponi descended to a teetery but gentle landing on the office balcony. He gave Trigger a self-satisfied look. "See?" he said tersely. "Let's go in, ladies. Had breakfast yet, Trigger?"
Trigger had finished breakfast a half-hour earlier, but she accepted a cup of coffee. Mihul, all athlete, declined. She went over to Plemponi's desk and stood leaning against it, arms folded across her chest, calm blue eyes fixed thoughtfully on Trigger. With her lithe length of body, Mihul sometimes reminded Trigger of a ferret, but the tanned face was a pleasant one and there was humor around the mouth. Even in Trigger's pregraduate days, she and Mihul had been good friends.
Doctor Plemponi removed a crammed breakfast tray from a wall chef, took a chair across from Trigger, sat down with the tray on his knees, excused himself, and began to eat and talk simultaneously.
"Before we go into that very reasonable complaint you made to Mihul yesterday," he said, "I wish you'd let me point out a few things."
Trigger nodded. "Please do."
"You, Trigger," Plemponi told her, "are an honored guest here at the Colonial School. You're the daughter of our late friend and colleague Runser Argee. You were one of our star pupils—not just as a small-arms medallist either. And now you're the secretary and assistant of the famous Precolonial Commissioner Holati Tate—which makes you almost a participant in what may well turn out to be the greatest scientific event of the century.... I'm referring, of course," Plemponi added, "to Tate's discovery of the Old Galactic plasmoids."
"Of course," agreed Trigger. "And what is all this leading up to, Plemp?"
He waved a piece of toast at her. "No. Don't interrupt! I still have to point out that because of the exceptional managerial abilities you revealed under Tate, you've been sent here on detached duty for the Precolonial Department to aid the Commissioner and Professor Mantelish in the University League's Plasmoid Project. That means you're a pretty important person, Trigger! Mantelish, for all his idiosyncrasies, is undoubtedly the greatest living biologist in the League. And the Plasmoid Project here at the school is without question the League's most important current undertaking."
"So I've been told," said Trigger. "That's why I want to find out what's gone haywire with it."
"In a moment," Plemponi said. "In a moment." He located his napkin, wiped his lips carefully. "Now I've mentioned all this simply to make it very, very clear that we'll do anything we can to keep you satisfied. We're delighted to have you with us. We are honored!" He beamed at her. "Right?"
Trigger smiled. "If you say so. And thanks very much for all the lovely compliments, Doctor. But now let's get down to business."
Plemponi glanced over at Mihul and looked evasive. "That being?" he asked.
"You know," Trigger said. "But I'll put it into specific questions if you like. Where's Commissioner Tate?"
"I don't know."
"Where is Mantelish?"
He shook his head. "I don't know that either." He began to look unhappy.
"Oh?" said Trigger. "Who does know then?"
"I'm not allowed to tell you," Doctor Plemponi said firmly.
Trigger raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
"Federation security," Plemponi said, frowning. He added, "I wasn't supposed to tell you that either, but what could I do?"
"Federation security? Because of the plasmoids?"
"Yes.... Well.... I'd—I don't know."
Trigger sighed. "Is it just me you're not supposed to tell these things to?"
"No, no, no," Plemponi said hastily. "Nobody. I'm not supposed to admit to anyone that I know anything of the whereabouts of Holati Tate or Professor Mantelish."
"Fibber!" Trigger said quietly. "So you know!"
Plemponi looked appealingly at Mihul. She was grinning. "My lips are sealed, Trigger! I can't help it. Please believe me."
"Let me sum it up then," Trigger said, tapping the arm of her chair with a finger tip. "Eight weeks ago I get pulled off my job in the Manon System and sent here to arrange the organizational details of this Plasmoid Project. The only reason I took on the job, as a temporary assignment, was that Commissioner Tate convinced me it was important to him to have me do it. I even let him talk me into doing it under the assumed name of Ruya Farn and"—she reached up and touched the side of her head—"and to dye my hair. For no sane reason that I could discover! He said the U-League had requested it."
Doctor Plemponi coughed. "Well, you know, Trigger, how sensitive the League is to personal notoriety."
The eyebrow went up again. "Notoriety?"
"Not in the wrong sense!" Plemponi said hastily. "But your name has become much more widely known than you may believe. The news viewers mentioned you regularly in their reports on Harvest Moon and the Commissioner. Didn't they, Mihul?"
Mihul nodded. "You made good copy, kid! We saw you in the solidopics any number of times."
"Well, maybe," Trigger said. "The cloak and dagger touches still don't make much sense to me. But let's forget them and go on.
"When we get here, I manage to see Mantelish just once to try to find out what his requirements will be. He's pretty vague about them. Commissioner Tate is in and out of the Project—usually out. He's also turned pretty vague. About everything. Three weeks ago today I'm told he's gone. Nobody here can, or will, tell me where he's gone or how he can be contacted. The same thing in the Maccadon Precol office. Same thing at the Evalee Home office. Same thing at the U-League—any office. Then I try to contact Mantelish. I'm informed he's with Tate! The two of them have left word I'm to carry on."
She spread her hands. "Carry on with what? I've done all I can do until I get further instructions from the people supposedly directing this supposedly very urgent and important project! Mantelish doesn't even seem to have a second in command...."
Plemponi nodded. "I was told he hadn't selected his Project assistants yet."
"Except," said Trigger, "for that little flock of Junior Scientists who keep themselves locked in with the plasmoids. They know less than nothing and would be too scared to tell me that if I asked them."
Plemponi looked confused for a moment. "The last sentence—" He checked himself. "Well, let's not quibble. Go on."
Trigger said, "That's it. Holati didn't need me on this job to begin with. There's nothing involved about the organizational aspects. Unless something begins to happen—and rather soon—there's no excuse for me to stay here."
"Couldn't you," Plemponi suggested, "regard this as a kind of well-earned little vacation?"
"I've tried to regard it as that. Holati impressed on me that one of us had to remain in the area of the Project at all times, so I haven't even been able to leave the school grounds. I've caught up with my reading, and Mihul has put me through two of her tune-up commando courses. But the point is that I'm not on vacation. I don't believe Precol would feel that any of my present activities come under the heading of detached duty work!"
There was a short silence. Plemponi stared down at his empty tray, said, "Excuse me," got up and walked over to the wall chef with the tray.
"Wrong slot," Trigger told him.
He looked back. "Eh?"
"You want to put it in the disposal, don't you?"
"Thanks," Plemponi said absently. "Always doing that. Confusing them...." He dropped the tray where it belonged, shoved his hands into the chef's cleaning recess and waved them around, then came back, still looking absent-minded, and stopped before Trigger's chair. He studied her face for a moment.
"Commissioner Tate gave me a message for you," he said suddenly.
Trigger's eyes narrowed slightly. "When?"
"The day after he left." Plemponi lifted a hand. "Now wait! You'll see how it was. He called in and said, and I quote, 'Plemp, you don't stand much of a chance at keeping secrets from Trigger, so I'll give you no unnecessary secrets to keep. If this business we're on won't let us get back to the Project in the next couple of weeks, she'll get mighty restless. When she starts to complain—but no earlier—just tell her there are reasons why I can't contact her at present, or let her know what I'm doing, and that I will contact her as soon as I possibly can.' End of quote."
"That was all?" asked Trigger.
"He didn't say a thing about how long this situation might continue?"
"No. I've given you the message word for word. My memory is excellent, Trigger."
"So it could be more weeks? Or months?"
"Yes. Possibly. I imagine...." Plemponi had begun to perspire.
"Plemp," said Trigger, "will you give Holati a message from me?"
"Gladly!" said Plemponi. "What—oh, oh!" He flushed.
"Right," said Trigger. "You can contact him. I thought so."
Doctor Plemponi looked reproachful. "That was unfair, Trigger! You're quick-witted."
Trigger shrugged. "I can't see any justification for all this mystery, that's all." She stood up. "Anyway, here's the message. Tell him that unless somebody—rather promptly—gives me a good sane reason for hanging around here, I'll ask Precol to transfer me back to the Manon job."
Plemponi tut-tutted gloomily. "Trigger," he said, "I'll do my best about the message. But otherwise—"
She smiled nicely at him. "I know," she said, "your lips are sealed. Sorry if I've disturbed you, Plemp. But I'm just a Precol employee, after all. If I'm to waste their time, I'd like to know at least why it's necessary."
Plemponi watched her walk out of the room and off down the adjoining hall. In his face consternation struggled with approval.
"Lovely little figure, hasn't she?" he said to Mihul. He made vague curving motions in the air with one hand, more or less opposing ones with the other. "That sort of an up-and-sideways lilt when she walks."
"Uh-huh," said Mihul. "Old goats."
"Eh?" said Doctor Plemponi.
"I overheard you discussing Trigger's lilt with Mantelish."
Plemponi sat down at his desk. "You shouldn't eavesdrop, Mihul," he said severely. "I'd better get that message promptly to Tate, I suppose. She meant what she said, don't you think?"
"Every bit of it," said Mihul.
"Tate warned me she might get very difficult about this time. She's too conscientious, I feel."
"She also," said Mihul, "has a boy friend in the Manon System. They've been palsy ever since they went through the school here together."
"Ought to get married then," Plemponi said. He shuddered. "My blood runs cold every time I think of how close those grabbers got to her yesterday!"
Mihul shrugged. "Relax! They never had a chance. The characters Tate has guarding her are the fastest-moving squad I ever saw go into action."
"That," Plemponi said reflectively, "doesn't sound much like our Maccadon police."
"I don't think they are. Imported talent of some kind, for my money. Anyway, if someone wants to pick up Trigger Argee here, he'd better come in with a battleship."
Plemponi glanced nervously across the balcony at the cloudless blue sky about the quadrangle.
"The impression I got from Holati Tate," he said, "is that somebody might."
There was a tube portal at the end of the hall outside Doctor Plemponi's office. Mihul stepped into the portal, punched the number of her personal quarters, waited till the overhead light flashed green a few seconds later, and stepped out into another hall seventeen floors below Plemponi's office and a little over a mile and a half away from it.
Mihul crossed the hall, went into her apartment, locked the door behind her and punched a shield button. In her bedroom, she opened a wall safe and swung out a high-powered transmitter. She switched the transmitter to active.
"Yes?" said a voice.
"Mihul here," said Mihul. "Quillan or the Commissioner...."
"Quillan here," the transmitter said a few seconds later in a different voice, a deep male one. "Go ahead, doll."
Mihul grunted. "I'm calling," she said, "because I feel strongly that you boys had better take some immediate action in the Argee matter."
"Oh?" said the voice. "What kind of action?"
"How the devil would I know? I'm just telling you I can't be responsible for her here much longer."
"Has something happened?" Quillan asked quickly.
"If you mean has somebody taken another swing at her, no. But she's all wound up to start swinging herself. She isn't going to do much waiting either."
Quillan said thoughtfully, "Hasn't she been that way for quite a while?"
"Not like she's been the last few days." Mihul hesitated. "Would it be against security if you told me whether something has happened to her?"
"Happened to her?" Quillan repeated cautiously.
"To her mind."
"What makes you think so?"
Mihul frowned at the transmitter.
"Trigger always had a temper," she said. "She was always obstinate. She was always an individualist and ready to fight for her own rights and anyone else's. But she used to show good sense. She's got one of the highest I.Q.s we ever processed through this place. The way she's acting now doesn't look too rational."
"How would she have acted earlier?" Quillan asked.
Mihul considered. "She would have been very annoyed with Commissioner Tate," she said. "I don't blame her for that—I'd be, too, in the circumstances. When he got back, she'd have wanted a reasonable explanation for what has been going on. If she didn't get one that satisfied her, she'd have quit. But she would have waited till he got back. Why not, after all?"
"You don't think she's going to wait now?"
"I do not," Mihul said. "She's forwarded him a kind of ultimatum through Plemponi. Communicate-or-else, in effect. Frankly, I wouldn't care to guarantee she'll stay around to hear the answer."
"Hm.... What do you expect she'll do?"
"Take off," Mihul said. "One way or the other."
"Ungh," Quillan said disgustedly. "You make it sound like the chick's got built-in space drives. You can stop her, can't you?"
"Certainly I can stop her," Mihul said. "If I can lock her in her room and sit on her to make sure she doesn't leave by the window. But 'unobtrusively?' You're the one who stressed she isn't to know she's being watched."
"True," Quillan said promptly. "I spoke like a loon, Mihul."
"True, Major Quillan, sir," said Mihul. "Now try again."
The transmitter was silent a few seconds. "Could you guarantee her for three days?" he asked.
"I could not," said Mihul. "I couldn't guarantee her another three hours."
"As bad as that?"
"Yes," said Mihul. "As bad as that. She was controlling herself with Plemponi. But I've been observing her in the physical workouts. I've fed it to her as heavy as I could, but there's a limit to what you can do that way. She's kept herself in very good shape."
"One of the best, I've been told," said Quillan.
"Condition, I meant," said Mihul. "Anyway, she's trained down fine right now. Any more of it would just make her edgier. You know how it goes."
"Uh-huh," he said. "Fighter nerves."
"Same deal," Mihul agreed.
There was a short pause. "How about slapping a guard on all Colonial school exits?" he suggested.
"Can you send me an army?"
"Then forget it. She was a student here, remember? Last year a bunch of our students smuggled the stuffed restructured mastodon out and left it in the back garden of the mayor of Ceyce, just for laughs. Too many exits. And Trigger was a trickier monkey than most that way, when she felt like it. She'll fade out of here whenever she wants to."
"It's those damn tube portal systems!" said Quillan, with feeling. "Most gruesome invention that ever hit the tailing profession." He sighed. "You win, Mihul! The Commissioner isn't in at the moment. But whether he gets in or not, I'll have someone over today to pick her up. Matter of fact, I'll come along myself."
"Good for you, boy!" Mihul said relievedly. "Did you get anything out of yesterday's grabbers?"
"A little. 'Get her, don't harm her' were their instructions. Otherwise it was like with those other slobs. A hole in the head where the real info should be. But at least we know for sure now that someone is specifically after Argee. The price was kind of interesting."
"What was it?"
"Flat half million credits."
Mihul whistled. "Poor Trigger!"
"Well, nobody's very likely to earn the money."
"I hope not. She's a good kid. All right, Major. Signing off now."
"Hold on a minute," said Quillan. "You asked a while ago if the girl had gone ta-ta."
"So I did," Mihul said, surprised. "You didn't say. I figured it was against security."
"It probably is," Quillan admitted. "Everything seems to be, right now. I've given up trying to keep up with that. Anyway—I don't know that she has. Neither does the Commissioner. But he's worried. And Argee has a date she doesn't know about with the Psychology Service, four days from now."
"The eggheads?" Mihul was startled. "What do they want with her?"
"You know," Quillan remarked reflectively, "that's odd! They didn't think to tell me."
"Why are you letting me know?" Mihul asked.
"You'll find out, doll," he said.
* * * * *
The U-League guard leaning against the wall opposite the portal snapped to attention as it opened. Trigger stepped out. He gave her a fine flourish of a salute.
"Good morning, Miss Farn."
"Morning," Trigger said. She flashed him a smile. "Did the mail get in?"
"Just twenty minutes ago."
She nodded, smiled again and walked past him to her office. She always got along fine with cops of almost any description, and these League boys were extraordinarily pleasant and polite. They were also, she'd noticed, a remarkably muscled group.
She locked the office door behind her—part of the Plasmoid Project's elaborate security precautions—went over to her mail file and found it empty. Which meant that whatever had come in was purely routine and already being handled by her skeleton office staff. Later in the day she might get a chance to scrawl Ruya Farn's signature on a few dozen letters and checks. Big job! Trigger sat down at her desk.
She brooded there a minute or two, tapping her teeth with her thumbnail. The Honorable Precolonial Commissioner Tate, whatever else might be said of him, undoubtedly was one of the brainiest little characters she'd ever come across. He probably saw some quite valid reason for keeping her here, isolated and uninformed. The question was what the reason could be.
Security.... Trigger wrinkled her nose. Security didn't mean a thing. Everybody and everything associated with the Old Galactic plasmoids had been wrapped up in Federation security measures since the day the plasmoid discovery was announced. And she'd been in the middle of the operations concerning them right along. Why should Holati Tate have turned secretive on her now? When even blabby old Plemponi could contact him.
It was more than a little annoying....
Trigger shrugged, reached into a desk drawer and took out a small solidopic. She set it on the desk and regarded it moodily.
The face of an almost improbably handsome young man looked back at her. Startling dark-blue eyes; a strong chin, curly brown hair. There was a gleam of white teeth behind the quick, warm smile which always awoke a responsive glow in her.
She and Brule Inger had been the nearest thing to engaged for the last two and a half years, ever since Precol sent them out together to its project on Manon Planet. They'd been dating before that, while they were both still attending the Colonial School. But now she was here, perhaps stuck here indefinitely—unless she did something about it—and Brule was on Manon Planet. By the very fastest subspace ships the Manon System was a good nine days away. For the standard Grand Commerce express freighter or the ordinary liner it was a solid two-months' run. Manon was a long way away!
It was almost a month since she'd even heard from Brule. She could make up another personal tape to him today if she felt like it. He would get it in fourteen days or so via a Federation packet. But she'd already sent him three without reply. Brule wasn't at all good at long distance love-making, and she didn't blame him much. She was a little awkward herself when it came to feeding her personal feelings into a tape. And—because of security again—there was very little else she could feed into it. She couldn't even let Brule know just where she was.
She put the solido back in its drawer, reached for one of the bank of buttons on the right side of the desk and pushed it down. A desk panel slid up vertically in front of her, disclosing a news viewer switched to the index of current headlines.
Trigger glanced over the headlines, while a few items dissolved slowly here and there and were replaced by more recent developments. Under the "Science" heading a great deal seemed to be going on, as usual, in connection with plasmoid experiments around the Hub.
She dialed in the heading, skimmed through the first item that appeared. Essentially it was a summary of reports on Hubwide rumors that nobody could claim any worthwhile progress in determining what made the Old Galactic plasmoids tick. Which, so far as Trigger knew, was quite true. Other rumors, rather unpleasant ones, were that the five hundred or so scientific groups to whom individual plasmoids had been issued by the Federation's University League actually had gained important information, but were keeping it to themselves.
The summary plowed through a few of the learned opinions and counteropinions most recently obtained, then boiled them down to the statement that a plasmoid might be compared to an engine which appeared to lack nothing but an energy source. Or perhaps more correctly—assuming it might have an as yet unidentified energy source—a starter button. One group claimed to have virtually duplicated the plasmoid loaned to it by the Federation, producing a biochemical structure distinguishable from the Old Galactic model only by the fact that it had—quite predictably—fallen apart within hours. But plasmoids didn't fall apart. The specimens undergoing study had shown no signs of deterioration. A few still absorbed nourishment from time to time; some had been observed to move slightly. But none could be induced to operate. It was all very puzzling!
It was very puzzling, Trigger conceded. Back in the Manon System, when they had been discovered, the plasmoids were operating with high efficiency on the protein-collecting station which the mysterious Old Galactics appeared to have abandoned, or forgotten about, some hundreds of centuries ago. It was only when humans entered the base and switched off its mechanical operations that the plasmoids stopped working—and then, when the switches which appeared to have kept them going were expectantly closed again, they had stayed stopped.
Personally, Trigger couldn't have cared less if they never did move. It was nice that old Holati Tate had made an almost indecently vast fortune out of his first-discovery rights to the things, because she was really very fond of the Commissioner when he wasn't being irritating. But in some obscure way she found the plasmoids themselves and the idea of unlimited plastic life which they embodied rather appalling. However, she was in a minority there. Practically everybody else seemed to feel that plasmoids were the biggest improvement since the creation of Eve.
She switched the viewer presently to its local-news setting and dialed in the Manon System's reference number. Keeping tab on what was going on out there had become a private little ritual of late. Occasionally she even picked up references to Brule Inger, who functioned nowadays as Precol's official greeter and contact man in the system. He was very popular with the numerous important Hub citizens who made the long run out to the Manon—some bent on getting a firsthand view of the marvels of Old Galactic science, and a great many more bent on getting an early stake in the development of Manon Planet, which was rapidly approaching the point where its status would shift from Precol Project to Federation Territory, opening it to all qualified comers.
Today there was no news about Brule. Grand Commerce had opened its first business and recreation center on Manon, not ten miles from the Precol Headquarters dome where Trigger recently had been working. The subspace net which was being installed about the Old Galactic base was very nearly completed. The permanent Hub population on Manon Planet had just passed the forty-three thousand mark. There had been, Trigger recalled, a trifle nostalgically, barely eight hundred Precol employees, and not another human being, on that world in the days before Holati Tate announced his discovery.
She was just letting the viewer panel slide back into the desk when the office ComWeb gave forth with a musical ping. She switched it on.
"Hi, Rak!" she said cheerily. "Anything new?"
The bony-faced young man looking out at her wore the lusterless black uniform of a U-League Junior Scientist. His expression was worried.
He said, "I believe there is, Miss Farn." Rak was the group leader of the thirty-four Junior Scientists the League had installed in the Project. Like all the Juniors, he took his duties very seriously. "Unfortunately it's nothing I can discuss over a communicator. Would it be possible for you to come over and meet with us during the day?"
"That," Trigger stated, "was a ridiculous question, Rak! Want me over right now?"
He grinned. "Thanks, Miss Farn! In twenty minutes then? I'll get my advisory committee together and we can meet in the little conference room off the Exhibition Hall."
Trigger nodded. "I'll be wandering around the Hall. Just send a guard out to get me when you're ready."
She switched off the ComWeb and stood up. Rak and his group were stuck with the Plasmoid Project a lot more solidly than she was. They'd been established here, confined to their own wing of the Project area, when she came in from Manon with the Commissioner. Until the present security rulings were relaxed—which might not be for another two years—they would remain on the project.
Trigger felt a little sorry for them, though the Junior Scientists didn't seem to mind the setup. Dedication stood out all over them. Since about half were young women, one could assume that at any rate they weren't condemned to a completely monastic existence.
A couple of workmen were guiding a dozen big cleaning robots around the Plasmoid Exhibition Hall, which wouldn't be open to students or visitors for another few hours. Trigger strolled across the floor of the huge area toward a couple of exhibits that hadn't been there the last time she'd come through. Life-sized replicas of two O.G. Plasmoids—Numbers 1432 and 1433—she discovered. She regarded the waxy-looking, lumpish, partially translucent forms with some distaste. She'd been all over the Old Galactic Station itself, and might have stood close enough to the originals of these models to touch them. Not that she would have.
She glanced at her watch, walked around a scale model of Harvest Moon, the O.G. station, which occupied the center of the Hall, and went on among the exhibits. There were views taken on Manon Planet in one alcove, mainly of Manon's aerial plankton belt and of the giant plasmoids called Harvesters which had moved about the belt, methodically engulfing its clouds of living matter. A whale-sized replica of a Harvester dominated one end of the Hall, a giant dark-green sausage in external appearance, though with some extremely fancy internal arrangements.
She turned. A League cop, standing at the entrance of a hallway thirty feet away, pitched her the old flourish and followed it up with a bow. Excellent manners these guard boys had!
Trigger gave him a smile.
"Coming," she said.
Junior Scientist Rak and his advisory committee—two other young men and a young woman—were waiting in the conference room for her. They all stood up when she came in. This room marked the border of their territory; they would have violated several League rules by venturing out into the hall through which Trigger had entered.
And that would have been unthinkable.
Rak did the talking, as on the previous occasions when Trigger had met with this group. The advisory committee simply sat there and watched him. As far as Trigger could figure it, they were present at these sessions only to check Rak if it looked as if he were about to commit some ghastly indiscretion.
"We were wondering, Miss Farn," Rak said questioningly, "whether you have the authority to requisition additional University League guards for the Plasmoid Project?"
Trigger shook her head. "I've got no authority of any kind that I know of, as far as the League is concerned. No doubt Professor Mantelish could arrange it for you."
Rak nodded. "Is it possible for you to contact Professor Mantelish?"
"No," Trigger said. She smiled. "Is it possible for you to contact him?"
Rak glanced around his committee as if looking for approval, then said, "No, it isn't. As a matter of fact, Miss Farn, we've been isolated here in the most curious fashion for the past few weeks."
"So have I," said Miss Farn.
Rak looked startled. "Oh!" he said. "We were hoping you would be willing to give us a little information."
"I would," Trigger assured him, "if I had any to give. I don't, unfortunately." She considered. "Why do you feel additional League guards are required?"
"We heard," Rak remarked cautiously, "that there were raiders in the Colonial School area yesterday."
"Grabbers," Trigger said. "They wouldn't bother you. Your section of the project is supposed to be raidproof anyway."
Rak glanced at his companions again and apparently received some undetectable sign of consent. "Miss Farn, as you know, our group has been entrusted with the care of two League plasmoids here. Are you aware that six of the plasmoids which were distributed to responsible laboratories throughout the Hub have been lost to unknown raiders?"
She was startled. "No, I didn't know that. I heard there'd been some unsuccessful attempts to steal distributed plasmoids."
"These six attempts," Rak said primly, "were completely successful. One must assume that the victimized laboratories also had been regarded as raidproof."
Trigger admitted it was a reasonable assumption.
"There is another matter," Rak went on. "When we arrived here, we understood Doctor Gess Fayle was to bring Plasmoid Unit 112-113 to this project. It seems possible that Doctor Fayle's failure to appear indicates that League Headquarters does not consider the project a sufficiently safe place for 112-113."
"Why don't you ask Headquarters?" Trigger suggested.
They stirred nervously.
"That would be a violation of the Principle of the Chain of Command, Miss Farn!" Rak explained.
"Oh," she said. The Juniors were overdisciplined, all right. "Is that 112-113 such a particularly important item?"
"If Doctor Fayle is in personal charge of it," Rak said carefully, "I would say yes."
Recalling her meetings with Doctor Gess Fayle in the Manon System, Trigger silently agreed. He was one of the U-League's big shots, a political scientist who had got himself appointed as Mantelish's chief assistant when that eminent biologist was first sent to Manon to take over League operations there. Trigger had disliked Fayle on sight, and hadn't changed her mind on closer acquaintance.
"I remember that 112-113 unit now," she said suddenly. "Big, ugly thing—well, that describes a lot of them, doesn't it?"
Rak and the others looked quietly affronted. In a moment, Trigger realized, one of them was going to go into a lecture on functional esthetics unless she could head them off—and she'd already heard quite enough about functional esthetics in connection with the plasmoids.
"Now, 113," she hurried on, "is a very small plasmoid"—she held her hands fifteen inches or so apart—"like that; and it's attached to the big one. Correct?"
Rak nodded, a little stiffly. "Essentially correct, Miss Farn."
"Well," Trigger said, "I can't blame you for worrying a bit. How about your Guard Captain? Isn't it all right to ask him about reinforcements?"
Rak pursed his lips. "Yes. And I did. This morning. Before I called you."
"What did he say?"
Rak grimaced unhappily. "He implied, Miss Farn, that his present guard complement could handle any emergency. How would he know?"
"That's his job," Trigger pointed out gently. The Juniors did look badly worried. "He didn't have any helpful ideas?"
"None," said Rak. "He said that if someone wanted to put up the money to hire a battle squad of Special Federation Police, he could always find some use for them. But that's hopeless, of course."
Trigger straightened up. She reached out and poked Rak's bony chest with a finger tip. "You know something?" she said. "It's not!"
The four faces lit up together.
"The fact is," Trigger went on, "that I'm handling the Project budget until someone shows up to take over. So I think I'll just buy you that Federation battle squad, Rak! I'll get on it right away." She stood up. The Juniors bounced automatically out of their chairs. "You go tell your guard Captain," she instructed them from the hall door, "there'll be a squad showing up in time for dinner tonight."
* * * * *
The Federation Police Office in Ceyce informed Trigger that a Class A Battle Squad—twenty trained men with full equipment—would report for two months' duty at the Colonial School during the afternoon. She made them out a check and gave it the Ruya Farn signature via telewriter. The figure on that check was going to cause some U-League auditor's eyebrows to fly off the top of his head one of these days; but if the League insisted on remaining aloof to the problems of its Plasmoid Project, a little financial anguish was the least it could expect in return.
Trigger felt quite cheerful for a while.
Then she had a call from Precol's Maccadon office. She was requested to stand by while a personal interstellar transmission was switched to her ComWeb.
It looked like her day! She hummed softly, waiting. She knew just one individual affluent enough to be able to afford personal interstellar conversations; and that was Commissioner Tate. Fast work, Plemp, she thought approvingly.
But it was Brule Inger's face that flashed into view on the ComWeb. Trigger's heart jumped. Her breath caught in her throat.
"Brule!" she yelled then. She shot up out of her chair. "Where are you calling from?"
Brule's eyes crinkled around the edges. He gave her the smile. The good old smile. "Unfortunately, darling, I'm still in the Manon System." He blinked. "What happened to your hair?"
"Manon!" said Trigger. She started to settle back, weak with disappointment. Then she shot up again. "Brule! Lunatic! You're blowing a month's salary a minute on this! I love you! Switch off, fast!"
Brule threw back his head and laughed. "You haven't changed much in two months, anyway! Don't worry. It's for free. I'm calling from the yacht of a friend."
"Some friend!" Trigger said, startled.
"It isn't costing her anything either. She had to transmit to the Hub today anyway. Asked me if I'd like to take over the last few minutes of contact and see if I could locate you.... Been missing me properly, Trigger?"
Trigger smiled. "Very properly. Well, that was lovely of her! Someone I know?"
"Hardly," said Brule. "Nelauk arrived a week or so after you left. Nelauk Pluly. Her father's the Pluly Lines. Let's talk about you. What's the silver-haired idea?"
"Got talked into it," she told him. "It's all the rage again right now." He surveyed her critically. "I like you better as a redhead."
"So do I." Oops, Trigger thought. Security, girl! "So I'll change back tonight," she went on quickly. "Golly, Brule. It's nice to see that homely old mug again!"
"Be a lot nicer when it won't have to be over a transmitter."
"Right you are!"
"When are you coming back?"
She shook her head glumly. "Don't know."
He was silent a moment. "I've had to take a bit of chitchat now and then," he remarked, "about you and old Tate vanishing together."
Trigger felt herself coloring. "So don't take it," she said shortly. "Just pop them one!"
The smile returned. "Wouldn't be gentlemanly to pop a lady, would it?"
She smiled back. "So stay away from the ladies!" Somehow Brule and Holati Tate never had worked up a really warm regard for each other. It had caused a little trouble before.
"Okay to tell me where you are?" he asked.
"Afraid not, Brule."
"Precol Home Office apparently knows," he pointed out.
"Apparently," Trigger admitted.
They looked at each other a moment; then Brule grinned. "Well, keep your little secret!" he said. "All I really want to know is when you're getting back."
"Very soon, I hope, Brule," Trigger said unhappily. Then there was a sudden burst of sound from the ComWeb—gusts of laughing, chattering voices; a faint wash of music. Brule glanced aside.
"Party going on," he explained. "And here comes Nelauk! She wanted to say hello to you."
A dozen feet behind him, a figure strolled gracefully into view on the screen and came forward. A slender girl with high-piled violet hair and eyes that very nearly matched the hair's tint. She was dressed in something resembling a dozen blossoms—blossoms which, in Trigger's opinion, had been rather carelessly scattered. But presumably it was a very elegant party costume. She was quite young, certainly not yet twenty.
Brule laid a brotherly hand on a powdered shoulder. "Meet Trigger, Nelauk!"
Nelauk murmured it was indeed an honor, one she had long looked forward to. The violet eyes blinked sleepily at Trigger.
Trigger gave her a great big smile. "Thanks so much for arranging for the call. I've been wondering how Brule was doing."
Wrong thing to say, probably, she thought. She was right. Nelauk reached for it with no effort.
"Oh, he's doing wonderfully!" she assured Trigger without expression. "I'm keeping an eye on him. And this small favor—it was the very least I could do for Brule. For you, too, of course, Trigger dear."
Trigger held the smile firmly.
"Thanks so much, again!" she said.
Nelauk nodded, smiled back and drifted gracefully off the screen. Brule blew Trigger a kiss. "They'll be cutting contact now. See you very, very soon, Trigger, I hope."
His image vanished before she could answer.
She paced her office, muttering softly. She went over to the ComWeb once, reached out toward it and drew her hand back again.
Better think this over.
It might not be an emergency. Brule didn't exactly chase women. He let them chase him now and then. Long before she left Manon, Trigger had discovered without much surprise, that the wives, daughters and girl friends of visiting Hub tycoons were as susceptible to the Inger charm as any Precol clerks. The main difference was that they were a lot more direct about showing it.
It hadn't really worried her. In fact, she found Brule's slightly startled reports of maneuverings of various amorous Hub ladies very entertaining. But she had put in a little worrying about something else. Brule's susceptibility seemed to be more to the overwhelming mass display of wealth with which he was suddenly in almost constant contact. Many of the yachts he went flitting around among as Precol's representative were elaborate spacegoing palaces, and it appeared Brule Inger was soon regarded as a highly welcome guest on most of them.
Brule talked about that a little too much.
Trigger resumed her pacing.
Little Nelauk mightn't be twenty yet, but she'd flipped out a challenge just now with all the languid confidence of a veteran campaigner. Which, Trigger thought cattily, little Nelauk undoubtedly was.
And a girl, she added cattily, whose father represented the Pluly Lines did have some slight reason for confidence....
"Miaow!" she reproved herself. Nelauk, to be honest about it, was also a dish.
But if she happened to be serious about Brule, the dish Brule might be tempted by was said Pluly Lines.
Trigger went over to the window and looked down at the exercise quadrangle forty floors below.
"If he's that much of a meathead!" she thought.
He could be that much of a meathead. He was also Brule. She went back to her desk and sat down. She looked at the ComWeb. A girl had a right to consider her own interests.
And there was the completely gruesome possibility now that Holati Tate might call in at any moment, give her an entirely reasonable, satisfactory, valid, convincing explanation for everything that had happened lately—and then show her why it would be absolutely necessary for her to stay here a while longer.
If it was a choice between inconveniencing Holati Tate and losing that meathead Brule—
Trigger switched on the ComWeb.
The head of the personnel department of Precol's Maccadon office said, "You don't want me, Argee. That's not my jurisdiction. I'll connect you with Undersecretary Rozan."
Trigger blinked. "Under—" she began. But he'd already cut off.
She stared at the ComWeb, feeling a little shaken. All she'd done was to say she wanted to apply for a transfer! Undersecretary Rozan was one of Precol's Big Four. For a moment, Trigger had an uncanny notion. Some strange madness was spreading insidiously through the Hub. She shook the thought off.
A businesslike blonde showed up in the screen. She might be about thirty-five. She smiled a small, cold smile.
"Rozan," she said. "You're Trigger Argee. I know about you. What's the trouble?"
Trigger looked at her, wondering. "No trouble," she said. "Personnel just routed me through to you."
"They've been instructed to do so," said Rozan. "Go ahead."
"I'm on detached duty at the moment."
"I'd like to apply for a transfer back to my previous job. The Manon System."
"That's your privilege," said Rozan. She half turned, swung a telewriter forward and snapped it into her ComWeb. She glanced out at Trigger's desk. "Your writer's connected, I see. We'll want thumbprint and signature."
She slid a form into her telewriter, shifted it twice as Trigger deposited thumbprint and signature and drew it out. "The application will be processed promptly, Argee. Good day."
Not a gabby type, that Rozan.
If not gabby, the Precol blonde was a woman of her word. Trigger had just started lunch when the office mail-tube receiver tinkled brightly at her. She reached in, took out a flat plastic carrier, snapped it open. The paper that unfolded itself in her hand was her retransfer application.
At the bottom of the form was stamped "Application Denied," followed by the signature of the Secretary of the Department of Precolonization, Home Office, Evalee.
Trigger's gaze shifted incredulously from the signature to the two words, and back. They'd taken the trouble to get that signature transmitted from Evalee just to make it clear that there were no heads left to be gone over in the matter. Precol was not transferring her back to Manon. That was final. Then she realized that there was a second sheet attached to the application form.
On it in handwriting were a few more words: "In accordance with the instructions of Commissioner Tate." And a signature, "Rozan." And three final words: "Destroy this note."
Trigger crumpled up the application in one hand. Her other hand darted to the ComWeb.
Then she checked herself. To fire an as-of-now resignation back at Precol had been the immediate impulse. But something, some vague warning chill, was saying it might be a very poor impulse to follow.
She sat back to think it over.
It was very probable that Undersecretary Rozan disliked Holati Tate intensely. A lot of the Home Office big shots disliked Holati Tate. He'd stamped on their toes more than once—very justifiably; but he'd stamped. The Home Office wouldn't go an inch out of its way to do something just because Commissioner Tate happened to want it done.
So somebody else was backing up Commissioner Tate's instructions.
Trigger shook her head helplessly.
The only somebody else who could give instructions to the Precolonization Department was the Council of the Federation!
And how could the Federation possibly care what Trigger Argee was doing? She made a small, incredulous noise in her throat.
Then she sat there a while, feeling frightened.
The fright didn't really wear off, but it settled down slowly inside her. Up on the surface she began to think again.
Assume it's so, she instructed herself. It made no sense, but everything else made even less sense. Just assume it's so. Set it up as a practical problem. Don't worry about the why....
The problem became very simple then. She wanted to go to Manon. The Federation—or something else, something quite unthinkable at the moment but comparable to the Federation in power and influence—wanted to keep her here.
She uncrumpled the application, detached Rozan's note, tore up the note and dropped its shreds into the wall disposal. That obligation was cancelled. She didn't have any other obligations. She'd liked Holati Tate. When all this was cleared up, she might find she still liked him. At the moment she didn't owe him a thing.
Now. Assume they hadn't just blocked the obvious route to Manon. They couldn't block all routes to everywhere; that was impossible. But they could very well be watching to see that she didn't simply get up and walk off. And they might be very well prepared to take quite direct action to stop her from doing it.
She would, Trigger decided, leave the method she'd use to get out of the Colonial School unobserved to the last. That shouldn't present any serious difficulties.
Once she was outside, what would she do?
Principally, she had to buy transportation. And that—since she had no intention of spending a few months on the trip, and since a private citizen didn't have the ghost of a chance at squeezing aboard a Federation packet on the Manon run—was going to be expensive. In fact, it was likely to take the bulk of her savings. Under the circumstances, however, expense wasn't important. If Precol refused to give her back her job when she showed up on Manon, a number of the industrial outfits preparing to move in as soon as the plant got its final clearance would be very happy to have her. She'd already turned down a dozen offers at considerably more than her present salary.
So ... she'd get off the school grounds, take a tube strip into downtown Ceyce, step into a ComWeb booth, and call Grand Commerce transportation for information on the earliest subspace runs to Manon.
She'd reserve a berth on the first fast boat out. In the name of—let's see—in the name of Birna Drellgannoth, who had been a friend of hers when they were around the age of ten. Since Manon was a Precol preserve, she wouldn't have to meet the problem of precise personal identification, such as one ran into when booking passage to some of the member worlds.
The ticket office would have her thumbprints then. That was unavoidable. But there were millions of thumbprints being deposited every hour of the day on Maccadon. If somebody started checking for her by that method, it should take them a good long while to sort out hers.
Next stop—the Ceyce branch of the Bank of Maccadon. And it was lucky she'd done all her banking in Ceyce since she was a teen-ager, because she would have to present herself in person to draw out her savings. She'd better lose no time getting to the bank either. It was one place where theoretical searchers could expect her to show up.
She could pay for her ship reservation at the bank. Then to a store for some clothes and a suitcase for the trip....
And, finally, into some big middle-class hotel where she would stay quietly until a few hours before the ship was due to take off.
That seemed to cover it. It probably wasn't foolproof. But trying to work out a foolproof plan would be a waste of time when she didn't know just what she was up against. This should give her a running start, a long one.
When should she leave?
Right now, she decided. Commissioner Tate presumably would be informed that she had applied for a transfer and that the transfer had been denied. He knew her too well not to become suspicious if it looked as if she were just sitting there and taking it.
She got her secretary on the ComWeb.
"I'm thinking of leaving the office," she said. "Anything for me to take care of first?"
It was a safe question. She'd signed the day's mail and checks before lunch.
"Not a thing, Miss Farn."
"Fine," said Ruya Farn. "If anyone wants me in the next three or four hours, I'll be either down in the main library or out at the lake."
And that would give somebody two rather extensive areas to look for her, if and when they started to look—along with the fact that, for all anyone knew, she might be anywhere between those two points.
A few minutes later, Trigger sauntered, humming blithely, into her room and gave it a brief survey. There were some personal odds and ends she would have liked to take with her, but she could send for them from Manon.
The Denton, however, was coming along. The little gun had a very precisely calibrated fast-acting stunner attachment, and old Runser Argee had instructed Trigger in its use with his customary thoroughness before he formally presented her with the gun. She had never had occasion to turn the stunner on a human being, but she'd used it on game. If this cloak and dagger business became too realistic, she'd already decided she would use it as needed.
She slipped the Denton into the side pocket of a lightweight rain robe, draped the robe over her arm, slung her purse beside it, picked up the sun hat and left the room.
The Colonial School's kitchen area was on one of the underground levels. Unless they'd modified their guard system very considerably since Trigger had graduated, that was the route by which she would leave.
As far as she could tell they hadn't modified anything. The whole kitchen level looked so unchanged that she had a moment of nostalgia. Groups of students went chattering along the hallways between the storerooms and the cooking and processing plants. The big mess hall, Trigger noticed in passing, smelled as good as it always had. Bells sounded the end of a period and a loudspeaker system began directing Class so and so to Room such and such. Standing around were a few uniformed guards—mainly for the purpose of helping out newcomers who had lost their direction.
She came out on the equally familiar big and brightly lit platform of the loading ramp. Some sixty or seventy great cylindrical vans floated alongside the platform, most of them disgorging their contents, some still sealed.
Trigger walked unhurriedly down the ramp, staying in the background, observing the movements of two ramp guards and marking four vans which were empty and looked ready to go.
The driver of the farthest of the four empties stood in the back of his vehicle, a few feet above the platform. When Trigger came level with him, he was studying her. He was a big young man with tousled black hair and a rough-and-ready look. He was grinning very faintly. He knew the ways of Colonial School students.
Trigger raised her left hand a few inches, three fingers up. His grin widened. He shook his head and raised both hands in a corresponding gesture. Eight fingers.
Trigger frowned at him, stopped and looked back along the row of vans. Then left hand up again—four fingers and thumb.
The driver made a circle with finger and thumb. A deal, for five Maccadon crowns. Which was about standard fare for unauthorized passage out of the school.
Trigger wandered on to the end of the platform, turned and came back, still unhurriedly but now close to the edge of the ramp. Down the line, another van slammed open in back and a stream of crates swooped out, riding a gravity beam from the roof toward a waiting storeroom carrier. The guard closest to Trigger turned to watch the process. Trigger took six quick steps and reached her driver.
He put down a hand to help her step up. She slipped the five-crown piece into his palm.
"Up front," he whispered hoarsely. "Next to the driver's seat and keep down. How far?"
"Nearest tube line."
He grinned again and nodded. "Can do."
Twenty minutes later Trigger was in a downtown ComWeb booth. There had been a minor modification in her plans and she'd stopped off in a store a few doors away and picked up a carefully nondescript street dress and a scarf. She changed into the dress now and bundled the school costume into a deposit box, which she dispatched to Central Deposit with a one-crown piece, getting a numbered slip in return. It had occurred to her that there was a chance otherwise of getting caught in a Colonial School roundup, if it was brought to Doctor Plemponi's attention that there appeared to be considerably more students out on the town at the moment than could be properly overlooked.
Or even, Trigger thought, if somebody simply happened to have missed Trigger Argee.
She slipped the rain robe over her shoulders, dropped a coin into the ComWeb, and covered the silver-blonde hair with the scarf. The screen lit up. She asked for Grand Commerce Transportation.
Waiting, she realized suddenly that so far she was rather enjoying herself. There had been a little argument with the van driver who, it turned out, had ideas of his own about modifying Trigger's plans—a complication she'd run into frequently in her school days too. As usual, it didn't develop into a very serious argument. Truckers who dealt with the Colonial School knew, or learned in one or two briefly horrid lessons, that Mihul's commando-trained charges were prone to ungirlish methods of discouragement when argued with too urgently.
The view screen switched on. The transportation clerk's glance flicked over Trigger's street dress when she told him her destination. His expression remained bland. Yes, the Dawn City was leaving Ceyce Port for the Manon System tomorrow evening. Yes, it was subspace express—one of the newest and fastest, in fact. His eyes slipped over the dress again. Also one of the most luxurious, he might add. There would be only two three-hour stops in the Hub beyond Maccadon—one each off Evalee and Garth. Then a straight dive to Manon unless, of course, gravitic storm shifts forced the ship to surface temporarily. Average time for the Dawn City on the run was eleven days; the slowest trip so far had required sixteen.
"But unfortunately, madam, there are only a very few cabins left—and not very desirable ones, I'm afraid." He looked apologetic. "There hasn't been a vacancy on the Manon run for the past three months."
"I can stand it, I imagine," Trigger said. "How much for the cheapest?"
The clerk cleared his throat gently and told her.
She couldn't help blinking, though she was braced for it. But it was more than she had counted on. A great deal more. It would leave her, in fact, with exactly one hundred and twenty-six crowns out of her entire savings, plus the coins she had in her purse.
"Any extras?" she asked, a little hoarsely.
He shrugged. "There's Traveler's Rest," he said negligently. "Nine hundred for the three dive periods. But Rest is optional, of course. Some passengers prefer the experience of staying awake during a subspace dive." He smiled—rather sadistically, Trigger felt—and added, "Till they've lived through one of them, that is."
Trigger nodded. She'd lived through quite a few of them. She didn't like subspace particularly—nobody did—but except for an occasional touch of nausea or dizziness at the beginning of a dive, it didn't bother her much. Many people got hallucinations, went into states of panic or just got very sick. "Anything else?" she asked.
"Just the usual tips and things," said the clerk. He looked surprised. "Do you—does madam wish to make the reservation?"
"Madam does," Trigger told him coldly. "How long will it hold?"
It would be good up to an hour before take-off time, she learned. If not claimed then, it would be filled from the last-minute waiting list.
She left the booth thoughtfully. At least the Dawn City would be leaving in less than twenty-six hours. She wouldn't have to spend much of her remaining capital before she got off Maccadon.
She'd skip meals, she decided. Except breakfast next morning, which would be covered by her hotel room fee.
And it wasn't going to be any middle-class hotel.
There was no one obviously waiting for her at the Bank of Maccadon. In fact, since that venerable institution covered a city block, with entrances running up from the street level to the fifty-eighth floor, a small army would have been needed to make sure of spotting her.
She had to identify herself to get into the vaults, but there was a solution to that. Seven years ago when Runser Argee died suddenly and she had to get his property and records straightened out, a gray-haired little vault attendant with whom she dealt with had taken a fatherly interest in her. When she saw he was still on the job, Trigger was certain the matter would go off all right.
It did. He didn't take a really close look at her until she shoved her signature and Federation identification in front of him. Then his head bobbed up briskly. His eyes lit up.
"Trigger!" He bounced out of his chair. His right hand shot out. "Good to see you again! I've been hearing about you."
They shook hands. She put a finger to her lips. "I'm here incog!" she cautioned in a low voice. "Can you handle this quietly?"
The faded blue eyes widened slightly, but he asked no questions. Trigger Argee's name was known rather widely, as a matter of fact, particularly on her home world. And as he remembered Trigger, she wasn't a girl who'd go look for a spotlight to stand in.
He nodded. "Sure can!" He glanced suspiciously at the nearest customers, then looked down at what Trigger had written. He frowned. "You drawing out everything? Not leaving Ceyce for good, are you?"
"No," Trigger said. "I'll be back. This is just a temporary emergency."
That was all the explaining she had to do. Four minutes later she had her money. Three minutes after that she had paid for the Dawn City reservation as Birna Drellgannoth and deposited her thumbprints with the ticket office. Counting what was left, she found it came to just under a hundred and thirty-eight.
Definitely no dinner tonight! She needed a suitcase and a change of clothing. And then she'd just better go sit in that hotel room.
The street level traffic was moderate around the bank, but it began to thicken as she approached a shopping center two blocks farther on. Striding along, neither hurrying nor idling, Trigger decided she had it made. The only real chance to catch up with her had been at the bank. And the old vault attendant wouldn't talk.
Half a block from the shopping center, a row of spacers on planet-leave came rollicking cheerily toward her, uniform jackets unbuttoned, three Ceyce girls in arm-linked formation among them, all happily high. Trigger shifted toward the edge of the sidewalk to let them pass. As the line swayed up on her left, there was a shadowy settling of an aircar at the curb to her right.
With loud outcries of glad recognition and whoops of laughter, the line swung in about her, close. Bodies crowded against her; a hand was clapped over her mouth. Other hands held her arms. Her feet came off the ground and she had a momentary awareness of being rushed expertly forward.
Then she was in the car, half on her side over the rear seat, two very strong hands clamping her wrists together behind her back. As she sucked in her breath for a yell, the door snapped shut behind her, cutting off the rollicking "ha-ha-ha's" and other noises outside.
There was a lurching twist as the aircar shot upward.
The man who held Trigger's wrists shifted his grip up her arms, and turned her a little so that she could sit upright on the seat, faced half away from him. She had got only a glimpse of him as he caught her, but he seemed to be wearing the same kind of commercial spacer's uniform as the group which had hustled her into the car. The other man in the car, the driver, sat up front with his back to them. He looked like any ordinary middle-aged civilian.
Trigger let her breath out slowly. There was no point in yelling now. She could feel her legs tremble a little, but she didn't seem to be actually frightened. At least, not yet.
"Spot anything so far?" the man who held her asked. It was a deep voice. It sounded matter-of-fact, quite unexcited.
"Three possibles anyway," the driver said with equal casualness. He didn't turn his head. "Make it two.... One very definite possible now, I'd say!"
"Better feed it to her then."
The driver didn't reply, but the car's renewed surge of power pushed Trigger down hard on the seat. She couldn't see much more than a shifting piece of the sky line through the front view plate. Their own car seemed to be rising at a tremendous rate. They were probably, she thought, already above the main traffic arteries over Ceyce.
"Now, Miss Argee," the man sitting beside her said, "I'd like to reassure you a little first."
"Go ahead and reassure me," Trigger said unsteadily.
"You're in no slightest danger from us," he said. "We're your friends."
"Nice friends!" remarked Trigger.
"I'll explain it all in a couple of minutes. There may be some fairly dangerous characters on our tail at the moment, and if they start to catch up—"
"Which they seem to be doing," the driver interrupted. "Hang on for a few fast turns when we hit the next cloud bank."
"We'll probably shake them there," the other man explained to Trigger. "In case we don't though, I'll need both hands free to handle the guns."
"So?" she asked.
"So I'd like to slip a set of cuffs on you for just a few minutes. I've been informed you're a fairly tricky lady, and we don't want you to do anything thoughtless. You won't have them on very long. All right?"
Trigger bit her lip. It wasn't all right, and she didn't feel at all reassured so far.
"Go ahead," she said.
He let go of her left arm, presumably to reach for the handcuffs. She twisted around on him and went into fast action.
She was fairly proficient at the practice of unarmed mayhem. The trouble was that the big ape she was trying the stuff on seemed at least as adept and with twice her muscle. She lost a precious instant finding out that the Denton was no longer in her robe pocket. After that she never got back the initiative. It didn't help either that the car suddenly seemed to be trying to fly in three directions at once.
All in all, about forty seconds passed before she was plumped back on the seat, her hands behind her again, linked at the wrists by the smooth plastic cords of the cuffs. The ape stood behind the driver, his hands resting on the back of the seat. He wasn't, Trigger observed bitterly, even breathing hard. The view plate was full of the cottony whiteness of a cloud heart. They seemed to be dropping again.
One more violent swerve and they came flashing out into wet gray cloud-shadow and on into brilliant sunlight.
A few seconds passed. Then the ape remarked, "Looks like you lost them, chum."
"Right," said the driver. "Almost at the river now. I'll turn north there and drop down."
"Right," said the ape. "Get us that far and we'll be out of trouble."
A few minutes passed in silence. Presently Trigger sensed they were slowing and losing altitude. Then a line of trees flashed by in the view plate. "Nice flying!" the ape said. He punched the driver approvingly in the shoulder and turned back to Trigger.
They looked at each other for a few seconds. He was tall, dark-eyed, very deeply tanned, with thick sloping shoulders. He probably wasn't more than five or six years older than she was. He was studying her curiously, and his eyes were remarkably steady. Something stirred in her for a moment, a small chill of fear. Something passed through her thoughts, a vague odd impression, like a half aroused memory, of huge, cold, dangerous things far away. It was gone before she could grasp it more clearly. She frowned.
The ape smiled. It wasn't, Trigger saw, an entirely unpleasant face. "Sorry the party got rough," he said. "Will you give parole if I take those cuffs off and tell you what this is about?"
She studied him again. "Better tell me first," she said shortly.
"All right. We're taking you to Commissioner Tate. We'll be there in about an hour. He'll tell you himself why he wanted to see you."
Trigger's eyes narrowed for an instant. Secretly she felt very much relieved. Holati Tate, at any rate, wouldn't let anything really unpleasant happen to her—and she would find out at last what had been going on.
"You've got an odd way of taking people places," she observed.
He laughed. "The grabber party wasn't scheduled. You'd indicated you wanted to speak to the Commissioner. We were sent to the Colonial School to pick you up and escort you to him. When we found out you'd disappeared, we had to do some fast improvising. Not my business to tell you the reasons for that."
Trigger said hesitantly, "Those people who were chasing this car—"
"What about them?" he asked thoughtfully.
"Were they after me?"
"Well," he said, "they weren't after me. Better let the Commissioner tell you about that, too. Now—how about parole?"
She nodded. "Till you turn me over to the Commissioner."
"Fair enough," he said. "You're his problem then." He took a small flat piece of metal out of a pocket and reached back of her with it. He didn't seem to do more than touch the cuffs, but she felt the slick coils loosen and drop away.
Trigger rubbed her wrists. "Where's my gun?" she asked.
"I've got it. I'll give it to the Commissioner."
"How did you people find me so fast?"
"Police keep bank entrances under twenty-four hour visual survey. We had someone watching their screens. You were spotted going in." He sat down companionably beside her. "I'd introduce myself, but I don't know if that would fit in with the Commissioner's plans."
Trigger shrugged. It still was quite possible, she decided, that her own plans weren't completely spoiled. Holati and his friends didn't necessarily know about that vault account. If they did know she'd had one and had closed it out, they could make a pretty good guess at what she'd done with the money. But if she just kept quiet, there might be an opportunity to get back to Ceyce and the Dawn City by tomorrow evening.
"Cigarette?" the Commissioner's overmuscled henchman inquired amiably.
Trigger glanced at him from the side. Not amiably. "No, thanks."
"No hard feelings, are there?" He looked surprised.
"Yes," she said evenly. "There are."
"Maybe," the driver suggested from the front, "what Miss Argee could do with is a shot of Puya. Flask's in my coat pocket. Left side."
"There's an idea," remarked Trigger's companion. He looked at her. "It's very good Puya."
"So choke on it," Trigger told him gently. She settled back into the corner of the seat and closed her eyes. "You can wake me up when we get to the Commissioner."
* * * * *
"In some way," Holati Tate said, "this little item here seems to be at the core of the whole plasmoid problem. Know what it is?"
Trigger looked at the little item with some revulsion. Dark green, marbled with pink streakings, it lay on the table between them, rather like a plump leech a foot and a half long. It was motionless except that the end nearest her shifted in a short arc from side to side, as if the thing suffered from a very slow twitch.
"One of the plasmoids obviously," she said. "A jumpy one." She blinked at it. "Looks like that 113. Is it?"
She glanced around. Commissioner Tate and Professor Mantelish, who sat in an armchair off to her right, were staring at her, eyebrows up, apparently surprised about something. "What's the matter?" she asked.
"We're just wondering," said Holati, "how you happen to remember 113, in particular, out of the thousands of plasmoids on Harvest Moon."
"Oh. One of the Junior Scientists on your Project mentioned the 112-113 unit. That brought it to mind. Is this 113?"
"No," said Holati Tate. "But it appears to be a duplicate of it." He was a mild-looking little man, well along in years, sparse and spruce in his Precol uniform. The small gray eyes in the sun-darkened, leathery face weren't really mild, if you considered them more closely, or if you knew the Commissioner.
"Have to fill you in on some of the background first, Trigger girl," he'd said, when she was brought to his little private office and inquired with some heat what the devil was up. The tall grabber hadn't come into the office with her. He asked the Commissioner from the door whether he should get Professor Mantelish to the conference room, and the Commissioner nodded. Then the door closed and the two of them were alone.
"I know it's looked odd," Commissioner Tate admitted, "but the circumstances have been very odd. Still are. And I didn't want to worry you any more than I had to."
Trigger, unmollified, pointed out that the methods he'd used not to worry her hardly had been soothing.
"I know that, too," said the Commissioner. "But if I'd told you everything immediately, you would have had reason enough to be worried for the past two months, rather than just for a day or so. The situation has improved now, very considerably. In fact, in another few days you shouldn't have any more reason to worry at all." He smiled briefly. "At least, no more than the rest of us."
Trigger felt a bit dry-lipped suddenly. "I do at present?" she asked.
"You did till today. There's been some pretty heavy heat on you, Trigger girl. We're switching most of it off tonight. For good, I think."
"You mean some heat will be left?"
"In a way," he said. "But that should be cleared up too in the next three or four days. Anyway we can drop most of the mystery act tonight."
Trigger shook her head. "It isn't being dropped very fast!" she observed.
"I told you I couldn't tell it backwards," the Commissioner said patiently. "All right if we start filling in the background now?"
"I guess we'd better," she admitted.
"Fine," said Commissioner Tate. He got to his feet. "Then let's go join Mantelish."
"Why the professor?"
"He could help a lot with the explaining. If he's in the mood. Anyway he's got a kind of pet I'd like you to look at."
"A pet!" cried Trigger. She shook her head again and stood up resignedly. "Lead on, Commissioner!"
They joined Mantelish and his plasmoid weirdie in what looked like the dining room of what had looked like an old-fashioned hunting lodge when the aircar came diving down on it between two ice-sheeted mountain peaks. Trigger wasn't sure in just what section of the main continent they were; but there were only two or three alternatives—it was high in the mountains, and night came a lot faster here than it did around Ceyce.
She greeted Mantelish and sat down at the table. Then the Commissioner locked the doors and introduced her to the professor's pet.
"It's labelled 113-A," he said now. "Even the professor isn't certain he could distinguish between the two. Right, Mantelish?"
"That is true," said Mantelish, "at present." He was a very big, rather fat but healthy-looking old man with a thick thatch of white hair and a ruddy face. "Without a physical comparison—" He shrugged.
"What's so important about the critter?" Trigger asked, eyeing the leech again. One good thing about it, she thought—it wasn't equipped to eye her back.
"It goes back to the time," the Commissioner said, "when Mantelish and Fayle and Azol were conducting the first League investigation of the plasmoids on Harvest Moon. You recall the situation?"
"If you mean their attempts to get the things to show some signs of life, I do, naturally."
"One of them got lively enough for poor old Azol, didn't it?" Professor Mantelish rumbled from his armchair.
Trigger grimaced. Doctor Azol's fate might be one of the things that had given her a negative attitude towards plasmoids. With Mantelish and Doctor Gess Fayle, Azol had been the third of the three big U-League boys in charge of the initial investigation on Harvest Moon. As she remembered it, it was Azol who discovered that Plasmoids occasionally could be induced to absorb food. Almost any kind of food, it turned out, so long as it contained a sufficient quantity of protein. What had happened to Azol looked like a particularly unfortunate result of the discovery. It was assumed an untimely coronary had been the reason he had fallen helplessly into the feeding trough of one of the largest plasmoids. By the time he was found, all of him from the knees on up already had been absorbed.
"I meant your efforts to get them to work," she said.
Commissioner Tate looked at Mantelish. "You tell her about that part of it," he suggested.
Mantelish shook his head. "I'd get too technical," he said resignedly. "I always do. At least they say so. You tell her."
But Holati Tate's eyes had shifted suddenly to the table. "Hey, now!" he said in a low voice.
Trigger followed his gaze. After a moment she made a soft, sucking sound of alarmed distaste.
"Ugh!" she remarked. "It's moving!"
"So it is," Holati said.
"Towards me!" said Trigger. "I think—"
"Don't get startled. Mantelish!"
Mantelish already was coming up slowly behind Trigger's chair. "Don't move!" he cautioned her.
"Why not?" said Trigger.
"Hush, my dear." Mantelish laid a large, heavy hand on each of her shoulders and bore down slightly. "It's sensitive! This is very interesting. Very."
Perhaps it was. She kept watching the plasmoid. It had thinned out somewhat and was gliding very slowly but very steadily across the table. Definitely in her direction.
"Ho-ho!" said Mantelish in a thunderous murmur. "Perhaps it likes you, Trigger! Ho-ho!" He seemed immensely pleased.
"Well," Trigger said helplessly, "I don't like it!" She wriggled slightly under Mantelish's hands. "And I'd sooner get out of this chair!"
"Don't be childish, Trigger," said the professor annoyedly. "You're behaving as if it were, in some manner, offensive."
"It is," she said.
"Hush, my dear," Mantelish said absently, putting on a little more pressure. Trigger hushed resignedly. They watched. In about a minute, the gliding thing reached the edge of the table. Trigger gathered herself to duck out from under Mantelish's hands and go flying out of the chair if it looked as if the plasmoid was about to drop into her lap.
But it stopped. For a few seconds it lay motionless. Then it gradually raised its front end and began waving it gently back and forth in the air. At her, Trigger suspected.
"Yipes!" she said, horrified.
The front end sank back. The plasmoid lay still again. After a minute it was still lying still.
"Show's over for the moment, I guess," said the Commissioner.
"I'm afraid so," said Professor Mantelish. His big hands went away from Trigger's aching shoulders. "You startled it, Trigger!" he boomed at her accusingly.
The point of it, Holati Tate explained, was that this had been more activity than 113-A normally displayed over a period of a week. And 113-A was easily the most active plasmoid of them all nowadays.
"It is, of course, possible," Mantelish said, arousing from deep thought, "that it was attracted by your body odor."
"Thank you, Mantelish!" said Trigger.
"You're welcome, my dear." Mantelish had pulled his chair up to the table; he hitched himself forward in it. "We shall now," he announced, "try a little experiment. Pick it up, Trigger."
She stared at him. "Pick it up! No, Mantelish. We shall now try some other little experiment."
Mantelish furrowed his Jovian brows. Holati gave her a small smile across the table. "Just touch it with the tip of a finger," he suggested. "You can do that much for the professor, can't you?"
"Barely," Trigger told him grimly. But she reached out and put a cautious finger tip to the less lively end of 113-A. After a moment she said, "Hey!" She moved the finger lightly along the thing's surface. It had a velvety, smooth, warm feeling, rather like a kitten. "You know," she said surprised, "it feels sort of nice! It just looks disgusting."
"Disgusting!" Mantelish boomed, offended again.
The Commissioner held up a hand. "Just a moment," he said. He'd picked up some signal Trigger hadn't noticed, for he went over to the wall now and touched something there. A release button apparently. The door to the room opened. Trigger's grabber came in. The door closed behind him. He was carrying a tray with a squat brown flask and four rather small glasses on it.
He gave Trigger a grin. She gave him a tentative smile in return. The Commissioner had introduced him: Heslet Quillan—Major Heslet Quillan, of the Subspace Engineers. For a Subspace Engineer, Trigger had thought skeptically, he was a pretty good grabber. But there was a qualified truce in the room. It would last, at least, until Holati finished his explaining. There was no really good reason not to include Major Quillan in it.
"Ah, Puya!" Professor Mantelish exclaimed, advancing on the tray as Quillan set it on the table. Mantelish seemed to have forgotten about plasmoid experiments for the moment, and Trigger didn't intend to remind him. She drew her hand back quietly from 113-A. The professor unstoppered the flask. "You'll have some, Trigger, I'm sure? The only really good thing the benighted world of Rumli ever produced."
"My great-grandmother," Trigger remarked, "was a Rumlian." She watched him fill the four glasses with a thin purple liquid. "I've never tried it; but yes, thanks."
Quillan put one of the glasses in front of her.
"And we shall drink," Mantelish suggested, with a suave flourish of his Puya, "to your great-grandmother!"
"We shall also," suggested Major Quillan, pulling a chair up to the table for himself, "Advise Trigger to take a very small sip on her first go at the stuff."
Nobody had invited him to sit down. But nobody was objecting either. Well, that fitted, Trigger thought.
She sipped. It was tart and hot. Very hot. She set the glass back on the table, inhaled with difficulty, exhaled quiveringly. Tears gathered in her eyes.
"Very good!" she husked.
"Very good," the Commissioner agreed. He put down his empty glass and smacked his lips lightly. "And now," he said briskly, "let's get on with this conference."
Trigger glanced around the room while Quillan refilled three glasses. The small live coal she had swallowed was melting away; a warm glow began to spread through her. It did look like the dining room of a hunting lodge. The woodwork was dark, old-looking, worn with much polishing. Horned heads of various formidable Maccadon life-forms adorned the walls.
But it was open season now on a different kind of game. Three men had walked briskly past them when Quillan brought her in by the front door. They hadn't even looked at her. There were sounds now and then from some of the other rooms, and that general feeling of a considerable number of people around—of being at an operating headquarters of some sort, which hummed with quiet activity.
One of the things, Holati Tate said, which had not become public knowledge so far was that Professor Mantelish actually succeeded in getting some of the plasmoids on the Old Galactic base back into operation. One plasmoid in particular.
The reason the achievement hadn't been announced was that for nearly six weeks no one except the three men directly involved in the experiments had known about them. And during that time other things occurred which made subsequent publicity seem very inadvisable.
Mantelish scowled. "We made up a report to the League the day of the initial discovery," he informed Trigger. "It was a complete and detailed report!"