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´╗┐Title: Lion Loose
Author: Schmitz, James H., 1911-1981
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Lion Loose" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                         Transcriber's Note:

  This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact & Fiction October 1961.
  Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright
  on this publication was renewed.



                                 LION

                                LOOSE


                         By JAMES H. SCHMITZ


     _The most dangerous of animals is not the biggest and
      fiercest--but the one that's hardest to stop. Add
      intelligence to that ... and you may come to a wrong
      conclusion as to what the worst menace is...._


                     _Illustrated by Schoenherr_

       *       *       *       *       *



For twelve years at a point where three major shipping routes of the
Federation of the Hub crossed within a few hours' flight of one
another, the Seventh Star Hotel had floated in space, a great golden
sphere, gleaming softly in the void through its translucent shells of
battle plastic. The Star had been designed to be much more than a
convenient transfer station for travelers and freight; for some years
after it was opened to the public, it retained a high rating among
the more exotic pleasure resorts of the Hub. The Seventh Star Hotel
was the place to have been that season, and the celebrities and fat
cats converged on it with their pals and hangers-on. The Star blazed
with life, excitement, interstellar scandals, tinkled with streams of
credits dancing in from a thousand worlds. In short, it had started
out as a paying proposition.

But gradually things changed. The Star's entertainment remained as
delightfully outrageous as ever, the cuisine as excellent; the
accommodations and service were still above reproach. The fleecing, in
general, became no less expertly painless. But one had _been_ there.
By its eighth year, the Star was dated. Now, in its twelfth, it lived
soberly off the liner and freighter trade, four fifths of the guest
suites shut down, the remainder irregularly occupied between ship
departures.

And in another seven hours, if the plans of certain men went through,
the Seventh Star Hotel would abruptly wink out of existence.

       *       *       *       *       *

Some fifty or sixty early diners were scattered about the tables on
the garden terraces of Phalagon House, the Seventh Star Hotel's most
exclusive eatery. One of them had just finished his meal, sat smoking
and regarding a spiraling flow of exquisitely indicated female figures
across the garden's skyscape with an air of friendly approval. He was
a large and muscular young man, deeply tanned, with shoulders of
impressive thickness, an aquiline nose, and dark, reflective eyes.

After a minute or two, he yawned comfortably, put out the cigarette,
and pushed his chair back from the table. As he came to his feet,
there was a soft bell-note from the table ComWeb. He hesitated, said,
"Go ahead."

"Is intrusion permitted?" the ComWeb inquired.

"Depends," the guest said. "Who's calling?"

"The name is Reetal Destone."

He grinned, appeared pleasantly surprised. "Put the lady through."

There was a brief silence. Then a woman's voice inquired softly,
"Quillan?"

"Right here, doll! Where--"

"Seal the ComWeb, Quillan."

He reached down to the instrument, tapped the seal button, said, "All
right. We're private."

"Probably," the woman's voice said. "But better scramble this, too. I
want to be very sure no one's listening."

Quillan grunted, slid his left hand into an inner coat pocket, briefly
fingered a device of the approximate size and shape of a cigarette,
drew his hand out again. "Scrambling!" he announced. "Now, what--"

"Mayday, Quillan," the soft voice said. "Can you come immediately?"

Quillan's face went expressionless. "Of course. Is it urgent?"

"I'm in no present danger. But we'd better waste no time."

"Is it going to take real hardware? I'm carrying a finger gun at the
moment."

"Then go to your rooms and pick up something useful," Reetal said.
"This should take real hardware, all right."

"All right. Then where do I go?"

"I'll meet you at your door. I know where it is."

When Quillan arrived, she was standing before the door to his suite, a
tall blonde in a sleeveless black and gold sheath; a beautiful body, a
warm, lovely, humorous face. The warmth and humor were real, but
masked a mind as impersonally efficient as a computer, and a taste for
high and dangerous living. When Quillan had last met Reetal Destone, a
year and a half before, the taste was being satisfied in industrial
espionage. He hadn't heard of her activities since then.

She smiled thoughtfully at him as he came up. "I'll wait outside," she
said. "We're not talking here."

Quillan nodded, went on into his living room, selected a gun belt and
holstered gun from a suitcase, fastened the belt around his waist
under the coat, and came out. "Now what?"

"First a little portal-hopping--"

He followed her across the corridor and into a tube portal, watched as
she tapped out a setting. The exit light flashed a moment later; they
stepped out into a vacant lounge elsewhere in the same building,
crossed it, entered another portal. After three more shifts, they
emerged into a long hall, dimly lit, heavily carpeted. There was no
one in sight.

"Last stop," Reetal said. She glanced up at his face. "We're on the
other side of the Star now, in one of the sections they've closed up.
I've established a kind of emergency headquarters here. The Star's
nearly broke, did you know?"

"I'd heard of it."

"That appears to be part of the reason for what's going on."

Quillan said, "What's going on?"

Reetal slid her arm through his, said, "Come on. That's my, hm-m-m,
unregistered suite over there. Big boy, it's very, very selfish of me,
but I was extremely glad to detect your name on the list of newly
arrived guests just now! As to what's going on ... the _Camelot_
berths here at midnight, you know."

Quillan nodded. "I've some business with one of her passengers."

Reetal bent to unlock the entrance door to the indicated suite. "The
way it looks now," she remarked, "the odds are pretty high that you're
not going to keep that appointment."

"Why not?"

"Because shortly after the _Camelot_ docks and something's been
unloaded from her, the _Camelot_ and the Seventh Star Hotel are
scheduled to go _poof!_ together. Along with you, me, and some twelve
thousand other people. And, so far, I haven't been able to think of a
good way to keep it from happening."

Quillan was silent a moment. "Who's scheduling the poof?" he asked.

"Some old acquaintances of ours are among them. Come on in. What
they're doing comes under the heading of destroying the evidence."

       *       *       *       *       *

She locked the door behind them, said, "Just a moment," went over to
the paneled wall, turned down a tiny silver switch. "Room portal," she
said, nodding at the wall. "It might come in handy. I keep it turned
off most of the time."

"Why are you turning it on now?" Quillan asked.

"One of the Star's stewards is working on this with me. He'll be along
as soon as he can get away. Now I'll give you the whole thing as
briefly as I can. The old acquaintances I mentioned are some boys of
the Brotherhood of Beldon. Movaine's here; he's got Marras Cooms and
Fluel with him, and around thirty of the Brotherhood's top guns. Nome
Lancion's coming in on the _Camelot_ in person tonight to take charge.
Obviously, with all that brass on the job, they're after something
very big. Just what it is, I don't yet know. I've got one clue, but a
rather puzzling one. Tell you about that later. Do you know Velladon?"

"The commodore here?" Quillan nodded. "I've never met him but I know
who he is."

Reetal said, "He's been manager of the Seventh Star Hotel for the past
nine years. He's involved in the Beldon outfit's operation. So is the
chief of the Star's private security force--his name's Ryter--and half
a dozen other Star executives. They've got plenty of firepower, too;
close to half the entire security force, I understand, including all
the officers. That would come to nearly seventy men. There's reason to
believe the rest of the force was disarmed and murdered by them in the
subspace section of the Star about twelve hours ago. They haven't been
seen since then.

"Now, Velladon, aside from his share in whatever they're after, has
another reason for wanting to wipe out the Star in an unexplained
blowup. There I have definite information. Did you know the Mooley
brothers owned the Star?"

"Yes."

"I've been working for the Mooleys the past eight months," Reetal
said, "checking up on employees at Velladon's level for indications of
graft. And it appears the commodore had been robbing them blind here
for at least several years."

"Sort of risky thing to try with the Mooleys, from what I hear,"
Quillan remarked.

"Yes. Very. Velladon had reason to be getting a little desperate about
that. Two men were planted here a month ago. One of them is Sher
Heraga, the steward I told you about. The other man came in as a
bookkeeper. Two weeks ago, Heraga got word out that the bookkeeper had
disappeared. Velladon and Ryter apparently got wise to what he was
trying to do. So the Mooleys sent me here to find out exactly what was
going on before they took action. I arrived four days ago."

She gave a regretful little headshake. "I waited almost a day before
contacting Heraga. It seemed advisable to move very cautiously in the
matter. But that made it a little too late to do anything. Quillan,
for the past three days, the Seventh Star Hotel has been locked up
like a bank vault. And except for ourselves, only the people who are
in on the plot are aware of it."

"The message transmitters are inoperative?" he asked.

Reetal nodded. "The story is that a gravitic storm center in the area
has disrupted transmissions completely for the time being."

"What about incoming ships?"

"Yours was the only one scheduled before the _Camelot_ arrives. It
left again eight hours ago. Nobody here had been let on board. The
guests who wanted to apply for outgoing berths were told there were
none open, that they'd have to wait for the _Camelot_."

She went over to a desk, unlocked a drawer, took out a sheaf of
papers, and handed one of them to Quillan. "That's the layout of the
Star," she said. "This five-level building over by the shell is the
Executive Block. The Brotherhood and the commodore's men moved in
there this morning. The Block is the Star's defense center. It's
raid-proofed, contains the control officers and the transmitter and
armament rooms. About the standard arrangement. While they hold the
Executive Block, they have absolute control of the Star."

"If it's the defense center, it should be practically impossible to do
anything about them there," Quillan agreed. "They could close it up,
and dump the air out of the rest of the Star in a minute, if they had
to. But there must be ... well, what about the lifeboats in the
subspace section--and our pals must have a getaway ship stashed away
somewhere?"

"They have two ships," Reetal said. "A souped-up armed freighter the
Brotherhood came in on, and a large armed yacht which seems to be the
commodore's personal property. Unfortunately, they're both in subspace
locks."

"Why unfortunately?"

"Because they've sealed off subspace. Try portaling down there, and
you'll find yourself looking at a battle-plastic bulkhead. There's no
way of getting either to those ships or to the lifeboats."

Quillan lifted his eyebrows. "And _that_ hasn't caused any comment?
What about the maintenance crews, the warehouse men, the--"

"All the work crews were hauled out of subspace this morning," Reetal
said. "On the quiet, the Star's employees have been told that a gang
of raiders was spotted in the warehouse area, and is at present
cornered there. Naturally, the matter isn't to be mentioned to the
guests, to avoid arousing unnecessary concern. And that explains
everything very neatly. The absence of the security men, and why
subspace is sealed off. Why the Executive Block is under guard, and
can't be entered--and why the technical and office personnel in there
don't come out, and don't communicate out. They've been put on
emergency status, officially."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Yunk," Quillan said disgustedly after a moment. "This begins to look
like a hopeless situation, doll!"

"True."

"Let's see now--"

Reetal interrupted, "There is one portal still open to subspace.
That's in the Executive Block, of course, and Heraga reports it's
heavily guarded."

"How does he know?"

"The Block's getting its meals from Phalagon House. He floated a diner
in there a few hours ago."

"Well," Quillan said, brightening, "perhaps a deft flavoring of
poison--"

Reetal shook her head. "I checked over the hospital stocks. Not a
thing there that wouldn't be spotted at once. Unless we can clobber
them thoroughly, we can't afford to make them suspicious with a trick
like that."

"Poison would be a bit rough on the office help, too," Quillan
conceded. "They wouldn't be in on the deal."

"No, they're not. They're working under guard."

"Gas ... no, I suppose not. It would take too long to whip up
something that could turn the trick." Quillan glanced at his watch.
"If the _Camelot_ docks at midnight, we've around six and a half hours
left, doll! And I don't find myself coming up with any brilliant
ideas. What have you thought of?"

Reetal hesitated a moment. "Nothing very brilliant either," she said
then. "But there are two things we might try as a last resort."

"Let's hear them."

"I know a number of people registered in the Star at present who'd be
carrying personal weapons. If they were told the facts, I could
probably line up around twenty who'd be willing to make a try to get
into the Executive Block, and take over either the control offices or
the transmitter room. If we got a warning out to the _Camelot_, that
would break up the plot. Of course, it wouldn't necessarily save the
Star."

"No," Quillan said, "but it's worth trying if we can't think of
something better. How would you get them inside?"

"We could crowd twenty men into one of those diner trucks, and Heraga
could take us in."

"What kind of people are your pals?"

"A few smugglers and confidence men I've had connections with. Fairly
good boys for this sort of thing. Then there's an old millionaire
sportsman, with a party of six, waiting to transfer to the _Camelot_
for a safari on Jontarou. Old Philmarron isn't all there, in my
opinion, but he's dead game and loves any kind of a ruckus. We can
count on him and his friends, if they're not too drunk at the moment.
Still ... that's not too many to set against something less than a
hundred professional guns, even though some of them must be down on
the two ships."

"No, not enough." Quillan looked thoughtful. "What's the other idea?"

"Let the cat out of the bag generally. Tell the guests and the
employees out here what's going on, and see if somebody can think of
something that might be done."

He shook his head. "What you'd set off with that would be anywhere
between a riot and a panic. The boys in the Executive Block would
simply give us the breathless treatment. Apparently, they prefer to
have everything looking quiet and normal when the _Camelot_ gets
here--"

"But they don't have to play it that way," Reetal agreed. "We might be
dead for hours before the liner docks. If they keep the landing lock
closed until what they want has been unloaded, nobody on the _Camelot_
would realize what had happened before it was too late."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a moment's silence. Then Quillan said, "You mentioned you'd
picked up a clue to what they're after. What was that?"

"Well, that's a curious thing," Reetal said. "On the trip out here, a
young girl name of Solvey Kinmarten attached herself to me. She didn't
want to talk much, but I gathered she was newly married, and that her
husband was on board and was neglecting her. She's an appealing little
thing, and she seemed so forlorn and upset that I adopted her for the
rest of the run. After we arrived, of course, I pretty well forgot
about the Kinmartens and their troubles.

"A few hours ago, Solvey suddenly came bursting into the suite where
I'm registered. She was shaking all over. After I calmed her down a
bit, she spilled out her story. She and her husband, Brock Kinmarten,
are rest wardens. With another man named Eltak, whom Solvey describes
as 'some sort of crazy old coot,' they're assigned to escort two
deluxe private rest cubicles to a very exclusive sanatorium on
Mezmiali. But Brock told Solvey at the beginning of the trip that this
was a very unusual assignment, that he didn't want her even to come
near the cubicles. That wouldn't have bothered her so much, she says,
but on the way here Brock became increasingly irritable and
absent-minded. She knew he was worrying about the cubicles, and she
began to wonder whether they weren't involved in something illegal.
The pay was very high; they're both getting almost twice the regular
warden fee for the job. One day, she found an opportunity to do a
little investigating.

"The cubicles are registered respectively to a Lady Pendrake and a
Major Pendrake. Lady Pendrake appears to be genuine; the cubicle is
unusually large and constructed somewhat differently from the ones
with which Solvey was familiar, but it was clear that it had an
occupant. However, the life indicator on 'Major Pendrake's cubicle
registered zero when she switched it on. If there was something inside
it, it wasn't a living human being.

"That was all she learned at the time, because she was afraid Brock
might catch her in the cubicle room. Here in the Star, the cubicles
were taken to a suite reserved for Lady Pendrake. The other man,
Eltak, stayed in the suite with the cubicles, while the Kinmartens
were given other quarters. However, Brock was still acting oddly and
spending most of his time in the Pendrake suite. So this morning,
Solvey swiped his key to the suite and slipped in when she knew the
two men had left it."

[Illustration]

"She'd barely got there when she heard Brock and Eltak at the door
again. She ran into the next room, and hid in a closet. Suddenly there
was a commotion in the front room, and Solvey realized that men from
the Star's security force had arrived and were arresting Brock and
Eltak. They hauled both of them away, then floated the cubicles out
and on a carrier and took them off too, locking the suite behind them.

"Solvey was in a complete panic, sure that she and Brock had become
involved in some serious breach of the Warden Code. She waited a few
minutes, then slipped out of the Pendrake suite, and looked me up to
see if I couldn't help them. I had Heraga check, and he reported that
the Kinmarten suite was under observation. Evidently, they wanted to
pick up the girl, too. So I tucked her away in one of the suites in
this section, and gave her something to put her to sleep. She's there
now."

       *       *       *       *       *

Quillan said, "And where are the prisoners and the cubicles?"

"In the Executive Block."

"How do you know?"

Reetal smiled briefly. "The Duke of Fluel told me."

"Huh? The Brotherhood knows you're here?"

"Relax," Reetal said. "Nobody but Heraga knows I'm working for the
Mooleys. I told the Duke I had a big con deal set up when the
_Camelot_ came in--I even suggested he might like to get in on it. He
laughed, and said he had other plans. But he won't mention to anyone
that I'm here."

"Why not?"

"Because," Reetal said dryly, "what the Duke is planning to get in on
is an hour of tender dalliance. Before the _Camelot_ arrives,
necessarily. The cold-blooded little skunk!" She hesitated a moment;
when she spoke again, her voice had turned harsh and nasal, wicked
amusement sounding through it. "Sort of busy at the moment,
sweetheart, but we might find time for a drink or two later on in the
evening, eh?"

Quillan grunted. "You're as good at the voice imitations as ever. How
did you find out about the cubicles?"

"I took a chance and fed him a Moment of Truth."

"With Fluel," Quillan said thoughtfully, "that was taking a chance!"

"Believe me, I was aware of it! I've run into card-carrying sadists
before, but the Duke's the only one who scares me silly. But it did
work. He dropped in for a about a minute and a half, and came out
without noticing a thing. Meanwhile, I'd got the answers to a few
questions. The bomb with which they're planning to mop up behind them
already has been planted up here in the normspace section. Fluel
didn't know where; armaments experts took care of it. It's armed now.
There's a firing switch on each of their ships, and both switches have
to be tripped before the thing goes off. Part of what they're after is
in those Pendrake rest cubicles--"

"Part of it?" Quillan asked.

"Uh-huh. An even hundred similar cubicles will be unloaded from the
_Camelot_--the bulk of the haul; which is why Nome Lancion is
supervising things on the liner. I started to ask what was in the
cubicles, but I saw Fluel was beginning to lose that blank look they
have under Truth, and switched back to light chitchat just before he
woke up. Yaco's paying for the job--or rather, it _will_ pay for the
stuff, on delivery, and no questions asked."

"That's not very much help, is it?" Quillan said after a moment.
"Something a big crooked industrial combine like Yaco thinks it can
use--"

"It must expect to be able to use it to extremely good advantage,"
Reetal said. "The Brotherhood will collect thirty million credits for
their part of the operation. The commodore's group presumably won't do
any worse." She glanced past Quillan toward the room portal. "It's
O.K., Heraga! Come in."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sher Heraga was a lean, dark-skinned little man with a badly bent
nose, black curly hair, and a nervous look. He regretted, he said,
that he hadn't been able to uncover anything which might be a lead to
the location of the bomb. Apparently, it wasn't even being guarded.
And, of course, a bomb of the size required here would be quite easy
to conceal.

"If they haven't placed guards over it," Reetal agreed, "it'll take
blind luck to spot it! Unless we can get hold of one of the men who
knows where it's planted--"

There was silence for some seconds. Then Quillan said, "Well, if we
can't work out a good plan, we'd better see what we can do with one of
the bad ones. Are the commodore's security men wearing uniforms?"

Heraga shook his head, "Not the ones I saw."

"Then here's an idea," Quillan said. "As things stand, barging into
the Executive Block with a small armed group can't accomplish much. It
might be more interesting than sitting around and waiting to be blown
up, but it still would be suicide. However, if we could get things
softened up and disorganized in there first--"

"Softened up and disorganized how?" Reetal asked.

"We can use that notion you had of having Heraga float in another
diner. This time, I'm on board--in a steward's uniform, in case the
guards check."

"They didn't the first time," Heraga said.

"Sloppy of them. Well, they're just gun hands. Anyway, once we're
inside I shuck off the uniform and get out. Heraga delivers his
goodies, and leaves again--"

Reetal gave him a look. "You'll get shot down the instant you're seen,
dope!"

"I think not. There're two groups in there--around a hundred men in
all--and they haven't had time to get well acquainted yet. I'll have
my gun in sight, and anyone who sees me should figure I belong to the
other group, until I run into one of the Brotherhood boys who knows me
personally."

"Then that's when you get shot down. I understand the last time you
and the Duke of Fluel met, he woke up with lumps."

"The Duke doesn't love me," Quillan admitted. "But there's nothing
personal between me and Movaine or Marras Cooms--and I'll have a
message for Movaine."

"What kind of a message?"

"I'll have to play that by ear a little. It depends on how things
look in there. But I have a few ideas, based on what you've learned of
the operation. Now, just what I can do when I get that far, I don't
know yet. I'll simply try to louse the deal up as much as I can. That
may take time, and, of course, it might turn out to be impossible to
get word out to you."

"So what do we do meanwhile?" Reetal asked. "If we start lining up our
attack group immediately, and then there's no action for another five
or six hours, there's always the chance of a leak, with around twenty
people in the know."

"And if there's a leak," Quillan agreed, "we've probably had it. No,
you'd better wait with that! If I'm not out, and you haven't heard
from me before the _Camelot_'s actually due to dock, Heraga can still
take the group--everyone but yourself--in as scheduled."

"Why everyone but me?" Reetal asked.

"If nothing else works, you might find some way of getting a warning
to the liner's security force after they've docked. It isn't much of a
possibility, but we can't afford to throw it away."

"Yes, I see." Reetal looked reflective. "What do you think, Heraga?"

The little man shrugged. "You told me that Mr. Quillan is not
inexperienced in dealing with, ah, his enemies. If he feels he might
accomplish something in the Executive Block, I'm in favor of the plan.
The situation certainly could hardly become worse."

"That's the spirit!" Quillan approved. "The positive outlook--that's
what a think like this mainly takes. Can you arrange for the diner and
the uniform?"

"Oh, yes," Heraga said, "I've had myself put in charge of that detail,
naturally."

"Then what can you tell me about the Executive Block's layout?"

Reetal stood up. "Come over to the desk," she said. "We've got
diagrams."

       *       *       *       *       *

"The five levels, as you see," Heraga was explaining a few moments
later, "are built directly into the curve of the Star's shells. Level
Five, on the top, is therefore quite small. The other levels are
fairly extensive. Two, Three, and Four could each accommodate a
hundred men comfortably. These levels contain mainly living quarters,
private offices, and the like. The Brotherhood men appear to be
occupying the fourth level, Velladon's group the second. The third may
be reserved for meetings between representatives of the two groups.
All three of these levels are connected by single-exit portals to the
large entrance area on the ground level.

"The portals stood open when I went in earlier today, and there were
about twenty armed men lounging about the entrance hall. I recognized
approximately half of them as being members of the Star's security
force. The others were unfamiliar." Heraga cleared his throat. "There
is a possibility that the two groups do not entirely trust each
other."

Quillan nodded. "If they're playing around with something like sixty
million CR, anybody would have to be crazy to trust the Brotherhood of
Beldon. The transmitter room and the control officers are guarded,
too?"

"Yes, but not heavily," Heraga said. "There seem to be only a few men
stationed at each of those points. Ostensibly, they're there as a
safe-guard--in case the imaginary raiders attempt to break out of the
subspace section."

"What's the arrangement of the ordinary walk-in tube portals in the
Executive Block?"

"There is one which interconnects the five levels. On each of the
lower levels, there are, in addition, several portals which lead out
to various points in the Seventh Star Hotel. On the fifth level, there
is only one portal of this kind. Except for the portal which operates
between the different levels in the Executive Block, all of them have
been rendered unusable at present."

"Unusable in what way?"

"They have been sealed off on the Executive Block side."

"Can you get me a diagram of the entry and exit systems those outgoing
portals connect with?" Quillan asked. "I might turn one of them usable
again."

"Yes, I can do that."

"How about the communication possibilities?"

"The ComWeb system is functioning normally on the second, third, and
fourth levels. It has been shut off on the first level--to avoid the
spread of 'alarming rumors' by office personnel. There is no ComWeb on
the fifth level."

Reetal said, "We'll shift our operating headquarters back to my
registered suite then. The ComWebs are turned off in these vacant
sections. I'll stay in the other suite in case you find a chance to
signal in."

Heraga left a few minutes later to make his arrangements. Reetal
smiled at Quillan, a little dubiously.

"Good luck, guy," she said. "Anything else to settle before you start
off?"

Quillan nodded. "Couple of details. If you're going to be in your
regular suite, and Fluel finds himself with some idle time on hand, he
might show up for the dalliance you mentioned."

Reetal's smile changed slightly. Her left hand fluffed the hair at the
back of her head, flicked down again. There was a tiny click, and
Quillan looked at a small jeweled hair-clasp in her palm, its needle
beak pointing at him.

"It hasn't got much range," Reetal said, "but within ten feet it will
scramble the Duke's brains just as thoroughly as they need to be
scrambled."

"Good enough," Quillan said. "Just don't give that boy the ghost of a
chance, doll. He has a rep for playing very unnice games with the
ladies."

"I know his reputation." Reetal replaced the tiny gun in her hair.
"Anything else?"

"Yes. Let's look in on the Kinmarten chick for a moment. If she's
awake, she may have remembered something or other by now that she
didn't think to tell you."

They found Solvey Kinmarten awake, and tearfully glad to see Reetal.
Quillan was introduced as a member of the legal profession who would
do what he could for Solvey and her husband. Solvey frowned prettily,
trying very hard to remember anything that might be of use. But it
appeared that she had told Reetal all she knew.

       *       *       *       *       *

The blue and white Phalagon House diner, driven by Heraga, was
admitted without comment into the Executive Block. It floated on
unchallenged through the big entry hall and into a corridor.
Immediately behind the first turn of the corridor, the diner paused a
few seconds. Its side door opened and closed. The diner moved on.

Quillan, coatless and with the well-worn butt of a big Miam Devil
Special protruding from the holster on his right hip, came briskly
back along the corridor. Between fifteen and twenty men, their guns
also conspicuously in evidence, were scattered about the entrance
hall, expressions and attitudes indicating a curious mixture of
boredom and uneasy tension. The eyes of about half of them swiveled
around to Quillan when he came into the hall; then, with one
exception, they looked indifferently away again.

The exception, leaning against the wall near the three open portals to
the upper levels, continued to stare as Quillan came toward him,
forehead creased in a deep scowl as if he were painfully ransacking
his mind for something. Quillan stopped in front of him.

"Chum," he asked, "any idea where Movaine is at the moment? They just
give me this message for him--"

Still scowling, the other scratched his chin and blinked. "Uh ...
dunno for sure," he said after a moment. "He oughta be in the third
level conference room with the rest of 'em. Uh ... dunno you oughta
barge in there right now, pal! The commodore's _reee-lly_ hot about
somethin'!"

Quillan looked worried. "Gotta chance it, I guess! Message is pretty
important, they say--" He turned, went through the center portal of
the three, abruptly found himself walking along a wide, well-lit hall.

Nobody in sight here, or in the first intersecting passage he came to.
When he reached the next passage, he heard voices on the right, turned
toward them, went by a string of closed doors on both sides until,
forty feet on, the passage angled again and opened into a long,
high-ceilinged room. The voices came through an open door on the right
side of the room. Standing against the wall beside the door were two
men whose heads turned sharply toward Quillan as he appeared in the
passage. The short, chunky one scowled. The big man next to him, the
top of whose head had been permanently seared clear of hair years
before by a near miss from a blaster, dropped his jaw slowly. His eyes
popped.

"My God!" he said.

"Movaine in there, Baldy?" Quillan inquired, coming up.

"Movaine! He ... you ... how--"

The chunky man took out his gun, waved it negligently at Quillan.
"Tell the ape to blow, Perk. He isn't wanted here."

"Ape?" Quillan asked softly. His right hand moved, had the gun by the
barrel, twisted, reversed the gun, jammed it back with some violence
into the chunky man's stomach. "Ape?" he repeated. The chunky man went
white.

"Bad News--" Baldy Perk breathed. "Take it easy! That's Orca. He's the
commodore's torpedo. How--"

"Where's Movaine?"

"Movaine ... he ... uh--"

"All right, he's not here. And Lancion can't have arrived yet. Is
Cooms in there?"

"Yeah," Baldy Perk said weakly. "Cooms is in there, Quillan."

"Let's go in." Quillan withdrew the gun, slid it into a pocket, smiled
down at Orca. "Get it back from your boss, slob. Be seeing you!"

Orca's voice was a husky whisper.

"You will, friend! You will!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The conference room was big and sparsely furnished. Four men sat at
the long table in its center. Quillan knew two of them--Marras Cooms,
second in command of the Beldon Brotherhood's detachment here, and the
Duke of Fluel, Movaine's personal gun. Going by Heraga's
descriptions, the big, florid-faced man with white hair and flowing
white mustaches who was doing the talking was Velladon, the commodore;
while the fourth man, younger, wiry, with thinning black hair
plastered back across his skull, would be Ryter, chief of the Star's
security force.

"What I object to primarily is that the attempt was made without
obtaining my consent, and secretly," Velladon was saying, with a
toothy grin but in a voice that shook with open fury. "And now it's
been made and bungled, you have a nerve asking for our help. The
problem is yours--and you better take care of it fast! I can't spare
Ryter. If--"

"Cooms," Baldy Perk broke in desperately from the door, "Bad News
Quillan's here an'--"

The heads of the four men at the table came around simultaneously. The
eyes of two of them widened for an instant. Then Marras Cooms began
laughing softly.

"Now everything's happened!" he said.

"Cooms," the commodore said testily, "I prefer not to be interrupted.
Now--"

"Can't be helped, commodore," Quillan said, moving forward, Perk
shuffling along unhappily beside him. "I've got news for Movaine, and
the news can't wait."

"Movaine?" the commodore repeated, blue eyes bulging at Quillan.
"Movaine! Cooms, who _is_ this man?"

"You're looking at Bad News Quillan," Cooms said. "A highjacking
specialist, with somewhat numerous sidelines. But the point right now
is that he isn't a member of the Brotherhood."

"_What!"_ Velladon's big fist smashed down on the table. "_Now_ what
kind of a game ... how did he get _in_ here?"

"Well," Quillan said mildly, "I oozed in through the north wall about
a minute ago. I--"

He checked, conscious of having created some kind of sensation. The
four men at the table were staring up at him without moving. Baldy
Perk appeared to be holding his breath. Then the commodore coughed,
cleared his throat, drummed his fingers on the table.

He said reflectively: "He could have news--good or bad--at that! For
all of us." He chewed on one of his mustache tips, grinned suddenly up
at Quillan. "Well, sit down, friend! Let's talk. You can't talk to
Movaine, you see. Movaine's um, had an accident. Passed away suddenly
half an hour ago."

"Sorry to hear it," Quillan said. "That's the sort of thing that
happens so often in the Brotherhood." He swung a chair around, sat
down facing the table. "You're looking well tonight, Fluel," he
observed.

The Duke of Fluel, lean and dapper in silver jacket and tight-fitting
silver trousers, gave him a wintry smile, said nothing.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Now, then, friend," Velladon inquired confidentially, "just what was
your business with Movaine?"

"Well, it will come to around twenty per cent of the take," Quillan
informed him. "We won't argue about a half-million CR more or less.
But around twenty per."

The faces thoughtful. After some seconds, the commodore asked, "And
who's we?"

"A number of citizens," Quillan said, "who have been rather unhappy
since discovering that you, too, are interested in Lady Pendrake and
her pals. We'd gone to considerable expense and trouble to ... well,
her ladyship was scheduled to show up in Mezmiali, you know. And now
she isn't going to show up there. All right, that's business. Twenty
per--no hard feelings. Otherwise, it won't do you a bit of good to
blow up the Star and the liner. There'd still be loose talk--maybe
other complications, too. You know how it goes. You wouldn't be happy,
and neither would Yaco. Right?"

The commodore's massive head turned back to Cooms. "How well do you
know this man, Marras?"

Cooms grinned dryly. "Well enough."

"Is he leveling?"

"He'd be nuts to be here if he wasn't. And he isn't nuts--at least,
not that way."

"There might be a question about that," Fluel observed. He looked at
the commodore. "Why not ask him for a couple of the names that are in
it with him?"

"Hagready and Boltan," Quillan said.

Velladon chewed the other mustache tip. "I know Hagready. If he--"

"I know both of them," Cooms said. "Boltan works highjacking crews out
of Orado. Quillan operates there occasionally."

"Pappy Boltan's an old business associate," Quillan agreed. "Reliable
sort of a guy. Doesn't mind taking a few chances either."

Velladon's protruding blue eyes measured him a moment. "We can check
on those two, you know--"

"Check away," Quillan said.

Velladon nodded. "We will." He was silent for a second or two, then
glanced over at Cooms. "There've been no leaks on our side," he
remarked. "And they must have known about this for weeks! Of all the
inept, bungling--"

"Ah, don't be too hard on the Brotherhood, commodore," Quillan said.
"Leaks happen. You ought to know."

"What do you mean?" Velladon snapped.

"From what we heard, the Brotherhood's pulling you out of a hole here.
You should feel rather kindly toward them."

The commodore stared at him reflectively. Then he grinned. "Could be I
should," he said, "Did you come here alone?"

"Yes."

The commodore nodded. "If you're bluffing, God help you. If you're
not, your group's in. Twenty per. No time for haggling--we can raise
Yaco's price to cover it." He stood up, and Ryter stood up with him.
"Marras," the commodore went on, "tell him what's happened. If he's
half as hot as he sounds, he's the boy to put on that job. Let him get
in on a little of the work for the twenty per cent. Ryter, come on.
We--"

"One moment, sir," Quillan interrupted. He took Orca's gun by the
muzzle from his pocket, held it out to Velladon. "One of your men lost
this thing. The one outside the door. If you don't mind--he might pout
if he doesn't get it back."

       *       *       *       *       *

The fifth level of the Executive Block appeared to be, as Heraga had
said, quite small. The tiny entry hall, on which two walk-in portals
opened, led directly into the large room where the two Pendrake rest
cubicles had been placed. One of the cubicles now stood open. To right
and left, a narrow passage stretched away from the room, ending
apparently in smaller rooms.

Baldy Perk was perspiring profusely.

"Now right here," he said in a low voice, "was where I was standing.
Movaine was over there, on the right of the cubicle, and Cooms was
beside him. Rubero was a little behind me, hanging on to the
punk--that Kinmarten. An' the Duke"--he nodded back at the wide
doorspace to the hall--"was standing back there.

"All right. The punk's opened the cubicle a crack, looking like he's
about to pass out while he's doin' it. This bearded guy, Eltak, stands
in front of the cubicle, holding the gadget he controls the thing
with--"

"Where's the gadget now?" Quillan asked.

"Marras Cooms' got it."

"How does it work?"

Baldy shook his head. "We can't figure it out. It's got all kinds of
little knobs and dials on it. Push this one an' it squeaks, turn that
one an' it buzzes. Like that."

Quillan nodded. "All right. What happened?"

"Well, Movaine tells the old guy to go ahead an' do the demonstrating.
The old guy sort of grins and fiddles with the gadget. The cubicle
door pops open an' this thing comes pouring out. I never seen nothin'
like it! It's like a barn door with dirty fur on it! It swirls up an'
around an'--it wraps its upper end clean around poor Movaine. He never
even screeches.

"Then everything pops at once. The old guy is laughing like crazy, an'
that half-smart Rubero drills him right through the head. I take one
shot at the thing, low so's not to hit Movaine, an' then we're all
running, I'm halfway to the hall when Cooms tears past me like a
rocket. The Duke an' the others are already piling out through the
portal. I get to the hall, and there's this terrific smack of sound in
the room. I look back ... an' ... an'--" Baldy paused and gulped.

"And what?" Quillan asked.

"There, behind the cubicles, I see poor Movaine stickin' halfway out
o' the wall!" Baldy reported in a hushed whisper.

"_Half_way out of the wall?"

"From the waist up he's in it! From the waist down he's dangling into
the room! I tell you, I never seen nothin' like it."

"And this Hlat creature--"

"That's gone. I figure the smack I heard was when it hit the wall
flat, carrying Movaine. It went on into it. Movaine didn't--at least,
the last half of him didn't."

"Well," Quillan said after a pause, "in a way, Movaine got his
demonstration. The Hlats can move through solid matter and carry other
objects along with them, as advertised. If Yaco can work out how it's
done and build a gadget that does the same thing, they're getting the
Hlats cheap. What happened then?"

"I told Marras Cooms about Movaine, and he sent me and a half dozen
other boys back up here with riot guns to see what we could do for
him. Which was nothin', of course." Baldy gulped again. "We finally
cut this end of him off with a beam and took it back down."

"The thing didn't show up while you were here?"

Baldy shuddered and said, "Naw."

"And the technician ... Eltak ... was dead?"

"Sure. Hole in his head you could shove your fist through."

"Somebody," Quillan observed, "ought to drill Rubero for that stupid
trick!"

"The Duke did--first thing after we got back to the fourth level."

"So the Hlat's on the loose, and all we really have at the moment are
the cubicles ... and Rest Warden Kinmarten. Where's he, by the way?"

"He tried to take off when we got down to Level Four, and somebody
cold-cocked him. The doc says he ought to be coming around again
pretty soon."

Quillan grunted, shoved the Miam Devil Special into its holster, said,
"O.K., you stay here where you can watch the room and those passages
and the hall. If you feel the floor start moving under, scream. I'll
take a look at the cubicle."

       *       *       *       *       *

Lady Pendrake's cubicle was about half as big again as a standard one;
but, aside from one detail, its outer settings, instruments, and
operating devices appeared normal. The modification was a recess
almost six feet long and a foot wide and deep, in one side, which
could be opened either to the room or to the interior of the rest
cubicle, but not simultaneously to both. Quillan already knew its
purpose; the supposed other cubicle was a camouflaged food locker,
containing fifty-pound slabs of sea beef, each of which represented a
meal for the Hlat. The recess made it possible to feed it without
allowing it to be seen, or, possibly, attempting to emerge.
Kinmarten's nervousness, as reported by his wife, seemed
understandable. Any rest warden might get disturbed over such a
charge.

Quillan asked over his shoulder, "Anyone find out yet why the things
can't get out of the closed rest cubicle?"

"Yeah," Baldy Perk said. "Kinmarten says it's the cubicle's defense
fields. They could get through the material. They can't get through
the field."

"Someone think to energize the Executive Block's battle fields?"
Quillan inquired.

"Yeah. Velladon took care of that before he came screaming up to the
third level to argue with Cooms and Fluel."

[Illustration]

"So it can't slip out of the Block unless it shows itself down on the
ground level when the entry lock's open."

"Yeah," Baldy muttered. "But I dunno. Is that good?"

Quillan looked at him. "Well, we _would_ like it back."

"Why? There's fifty more coming in on the liner tonight."

"We don't have the fifty yet. If someone louses up the detail--"

"Yawk!" Baldy said faintly. There was a crash of sound as his riot gun
went off. Quillan spun about, hair bristling, gun out. "What
happened?"

"I'll swear," Baldy said, white-faced, "I saw something moving along
that passage!"

Quillan looked, saw nothing, slowly replaced the gun. "Baldy," he
said, "if you think you see it again, just say so. That's an order! If
it comes at us, we get out of this level fast. But we don't shoot
before we have to. If we kill it, it's no good to us. Got that?"

"Yeah," Baldy said. "But I got an idea now, Bad News." He nodded at
the other cubicle. "Let's leave that meat box open."

"Why?"

"If it's hungry," Baldy explained simply, "I'd sooner it wrapped
itself around a few chunks of sea beef, an' not around me."

Quillan punched him encouragingly in the shoulder. "Baldy," he said,
"in your own way, you _have_ had an idea! But we won't leave the meat
box open. When Kinmarten wakes up, I want him to show me how to bait
this cubicle with a piece of sea beef, so it'll snap shut if the Hlat
goes inside. Meanwhile it won't hurt if it gets a little hungry."

"That," said Baldy, "isn't the way _I_ feel about it."

"There must be around a hundred and fifty people in the Executive
Block at present," Quillan said. "Look at it that way! Even if the
thing keeps stuffing away, your odds are pretty good, Baldy."

Baldy shuddered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Aside from a dark bruise high on his forehead, Brock Kinmarten showed
no direct effects of having been knocked out. However, his face was
strained and his voice not entirely steady. It was obvious that the
young rest warden had never been in a similarly unnerving situation
before. But he was making a valiant effort not to appear frightened
and, at the same time, to indicate that he would co-operate to the
best of his ability with his captors.

He'd regained consciousness by the time Quillan and Perk returned to
the fourth level, and Quillan suggested bringing him to Marras Cooms'
private quarters for questioning. The Brotherhood chief agreed; he was
primarily interested in finding out how the Hlat-control device
functioned.

Kinmarten shook his head. He knew nothing about the instrument, he
said, except that it was called a Hlat-talker. It was very unfortunate
that Eltak had been shot, because Eltak undoubtedly could have told
them all they wanted to know about it. If what he had told Kinmarten
was true, Eltak had been directly involved in the development of the
device.

"Was he some Federation scientist?" Cooms asked, fiddling absently
with the mysterious cylindrical object.

"No, sir," the young man said. "But--again if what he told me was the
truth--he was the man who actually discovered these Hlats. At least,
he was the first man to discover them who wasn't immediately killed by
them."

Cooms glanced thoughtfully at Quillan, then asked, "And where was
that?"

Kinmarten shook his head again. "He didn't tell me. And I didn't
really want to know. I was anxious to get our convoy to its
destination, and then to be relieved of the assignment. I ... well,
I've been trained to act as Rest Warden to human beings, after all,
not to monstrosities!" He produced an uncertain smile, glancing from
one to the other of his interrogators. The smile promptly faded out
again.

"You've no idea at all then about the place they came from?" Cooms
asked expressionlessly.

"Oh, yes," Kinmarten said hastily. "Eltak talked a great deal about
the Hlats, and actually--except for its location--gave me a fairly
good picture of what the planet must be like. For one thing, it's an
uncolonized world, of course. It must be terratype or very nearly so,
because Eltak lived there for fifteen years with apparently only a
minimum of equipment. The Hlats are confined to a single large
island. He discovered them by accident and--"

"What was he doing there?"

"Well, sir, he came from Hyles-Frisian. He was a crim ... he'd been
engaged in some form of piracy, and when the authorities began looking
for him, he decided it would be best to get clean out of the Hub. He
cracked up his ship on this world and couldn't leave again. When he
discovered the Hlats and realized their peculiar ability, he kept out
of their way and observed them. He found out they had a means of
communicating with each other, and that he could duplicate it. That
stopped them from harming him, and eventually, he said, he was using
them like hunting dogs. They were accustomed to co-operating with one
another, because when there was some animal around that was too large
for one of them to handle, they would attack, it in a group...."

He went on for another minute or two on the subject. The Hlats--the
word meant "rock lion" in one of the Hyles-Frisian dialects,
describing a carnivorous animal which had some superficial resemblance
to the creatures Eltak had happened on--frequented the seacoast and
submerged themselves in sand, rocks and debris, whipping up out of it
to seize some food animal, and taking it down with them again to
devour it at leisure.

Quillan interrupted, "You heard what happened to the man it attacked
on the fifth level?"

"Yes, sir."

"Why would the thing have left him half outside the wall as it did?"

Kinmarten said that it must simply have been moving too fast. It could
slip into and out of solid substances without a pause itself, but it
needed a little time to restructure an object it was carrying in the same
manner. No more time, however, than two or three seconds--depending more
on the nature of the object than on its size, according to Eltak.

"It can restructure _anything_ in that manner?" Quillan asked.

Kinmarten hesitated. "Well, sir, I don't know. I suppose there might
be limitations on its ability. Eltak told me the one we were escorting
had been the subject of extensive experimentation during the past
year, and that the results are very satisfactory."

"Suppose it carries a living man through a wall. Will the man still be
alive when he comes out on the other side, assuming the Hlat doesn't
kill him deliberately?"

"Yes, sir. The process itself wouldn't hurt him."

       *       *       *       *       *

Quillan glanced at Cooms. "You know," he said, "we might be letting
Yaco off too cheaply!"

Cooms raised an eyebrow warningly, and Quillan grinned. "Our friend
will be learning about Yaco soon enough. Why did Eltak tell the
creature to attack, Kinmarten?"

"Sir, I don't know," Kinmarten said. "He was a man of rather violent
habits. My impression, however, was that he was simply attempting to
obtain a hostage."

"How did he get off that island with the Hlat?"

"A University League explorer was investigating the planet. Eltak
contacted them and obtained the guarantee of a full pardon and a large
cash settlement in return for what he could tell them about the Hlats.
They took him and this one specimen along for experimentation."

"What about the Hlats on the _Camelot_?"

"Eltak said those had been quite recently trapped on the island."

Cooms ran his fingers over the cylinder, producing a rapid series of
squeaks and whistles. "That's one thing Yaco may not like," he
observed. "They won't have a monopoly on the thing."

Quillan shook his head. "Their scientists don't have to work through
red tape like the U-League. By the time the news breaks--if the
Federation ever intends to break it--Yaco will have at least a
five-year start on everyone else. That's all an outfit like that
needs." He looked at Kinmarten. "Any little thing you haven't thought
to tell us, friend?" he inquired pleasantly.

A thin film of sweat showed suddenly on Kinmarten's forehead.

"No, sir," he said. "I've really told you everything I know. I--"

"Might try him under dope," Cooms said absently.

"Uh-uh!" Quillan said, "I want him wide awake to help me bait the
cubicle for the thing. Has Velladon shown any indication of becoming
willing to co-operate in hunting it?"

Cooms gestured with his head. "Ask Fluel! I sent him down to try to
patch things up with the commodore. He just showed up again."

Quillan glanced around. The Duke was lounging in the doorway. He
grinned slightly, said, "Velladon's still sore at us. But he'll talk
to Quillan. Kinmarten here ... did he tell you his wife's on the
Star?"

Brock Kinmarten went utterly white. Cooms looked at him, said softly,
"No, that must have slipped his mind."

Fluel said, "Yeah, Well, she is. And Ryter says they'll have her
picked up inside half an hour. When they bring her in, we really
should check on how candid Kinmarten's been about everything."

The rest warden said in a voice that shook uncontrollably, "Gentlemen,
my wife knows absolutely nothing about these matters! I swear it!
She--"

Quillan stood up. "Well, I'll go see if I can't get Velladon in a
better mood. Are you keeping that Hlat-talker, Cooms?"

Cooms smiled. "I am."

"Marras figures," the Duke's flat voice explained, "that if the thing
comes into the room and he squeaks at it a few times, he won't get
hurt."

"That's possible," Cooms said, unruffled. "At any rate, I intend to
hang on to it."

"Well, I wouldn't play around with those buttons too much," Quillan
observed.

"Why not?"

"You might get lucky and tap out some pattern that spells 'Come to
chow' in the Hlat's vocabulary."

       *       *       *       *       *

There were considerably more men in evidence on Level Two than on the
fourth, and fewer signs of nervousness. The Star men had been told of
the Hlat's escape from its cubicle, but weren't taking it too
seriously. Quillan was conducted to the commodore and favored with an
alarmingly toothy grin. Ryter, the security chief, joined them a few
seconds later. Apparently, Velladon had summoned him.

Velladon said, "Ryter here's made a few transmitter calls. We hear
Pappy Boltan pulled his outfit out of the Orado area about a month
ago. Present whereabouts unknown. Hagready went off on some hush-hush
job at around the same time."

Quillan smiled. "Uh-huh! So he did."

"We also," said Ryter, "learned a number of things about you
personally." He produced a thin smile. "You lead a busy
and--apparently--profitable life."

"Business is fair," Quillan agreed. "But it can always be improved."

The commodore turned on the toothy grin. "So all right," he growled,
"you're clear. We rather liked what we learned. Eh, Ryter?"

Ryter nodded.

"This Brotherhood of Beldon, now--" The commodore shook his head
heavily.

Quillan was silent a moment. "They might be getting sloppy," he said.
"I don't know. It's one possibility. They used to be a rather sharp
outfit, you know."

"That's what I'd heard!" Velladon chewed savagely on his mustache,
asked finally, "What's another possibility?"

Quillan leaned back in his chair. "Just a feeling, so far. But the
business with the cubicle upstairs might have angles that weren't
mentioned."

They looked at him thoughtfully. Ryter said, "Mind amplifying that?"

"Cooms told me," Quillan said, "that Nome Lancion had given Movaine
instructions to make a test with Lady Pendrake on the quiet and find
out if those creatures actually can do what they're supposed to do. I
think he was telling the truth. Nome tends to be overcautious when
it's a really big deal. Unless he's sure of the Hlats, he wouldn't
want to be involved in a thing like blowing up the Star and the
liner."

The commodore scowled absently. "Uh-huh," he said. "He knows we can't
back out of it--"

"All right. The Brotherhood's full of ambitious men. Behind Lancion,
Movaine was top man. Cooms behind him; Fluel behind Cooms. Suppose
that Hlat-control device Cooms is hanging on to so tightly isn't as
entirely incomprehensible as they make it out to be. Suppose Cooms
makes a deal with Eltak. Eltak tickles the gadget, and the Hlat kills
Movaine. Rubero immediately guns down Eltak--and is killed by Fluel a
couple of minutes later, supposedly for blowing his top and killing
the man who knew how to control the Hlat."

Ryter cleared his throat. "Fluel was Movaine's gun," he observed.

"So he was," Quillan said. "Would you like the Duke to be yours?"

Ryter grinned, shook his head. "No, thanks!"

Quillan looked back at Velladon. "How well are you actually covered
against the Brotherhood?"

"Well, _that_'s air-tight," the commodore said. "We've got 'em
outgunned here. When the liner lands, we'll be about even. But Lancion
won't start anything. We're too even. Once we're clear of the Star, we
don't meet again. We deal with Yaco individually. The Brotherhood has
the Hlats, and we have the trained Federation technicians accompanying
them, who ... who--"

"Who alone are supposed to be able to inform Yaco how to control the
Hlats," Ryter finished for him. The security chief's face was
expressionless.

"By God!" the commodore said softly.

"Well, it's only a possibility that somebody's playing dirty," Quillan
remarked. "We'd want to be sure of it. But if anyone can handle a Hlat
with the control instrument, the Brotherhood has an advantage now that
it isn't talking about--it can offer Yaco everything Yaco needs in one
package. Of course, Yaco might still be willing to pay for the Hlat
technicians. If it didn't, you and Ryter could make the same kind of
trouble for it that my friends can."

       *       *       *       *       *

The color was draining slowly from Velladon's face. "There's a
difference," he said. "If we threaten to make trouble for Yaco, they'd
see to it that our present employers learn that Ryter and I are still
alive."

"That's the Mooleys, eh?"

"Yes."

"Tough." Quillan knuckled his chin thoughtfully. "Well, let's put it
this way then," he said. "My group doesn't have _that_ kind of
problem, but if things worked out so that we'd have something more
substantial than nuisance value to offer Yaco, we'd prefer it, of
course."

Velladon nodded. "Very understandable! Under the circumstances,
co-operation appears to be indicated, eh?"

"That's what I had in mind."

"You've made a deal," Velladon said. "Any immediate suggestions?"

Quillan looked at his watch. "A couple. We don't want to make any
mistake about this. It's still almost five hours before the _Camelot_
pulls in, and until she does you're way ahead on firepower. I wouldn't
make any accusations just now. But you might mention to Cooms you'd
like to borrow the Hlat gadget to have it examined by some of your
technical experts. The way he reacts might tell us something. If he
balks, the matter shouldn't be pushed too hard at the moment--it's a
tossup whether you or the Brotherhood has a better claim to the thing.

"But then there's Kinmarten, the rest warden in charge of the cubicle.
I talked with him while Cooms and Fluel were around, but he may have
been briefed on what to say. Cooms mentioned doping him, which could
be a convenient way to keeping him shut up, assuming he knows more
than he's told. He's one of the personnel you're to offer Yaco. I
think you can insist on having Kinmarten handed over to you
immediately. It should be interesting again to see how Cooms reacts."

Velladon's big head nodded vigorously. "Good idea!"

"By the way," Quillan said, "Fluel mentioned you've been looking for
Kinmarten's wife, the second rest warden on the Pendrake convoy. Found
her yet?"

"Not a trace, so far," Ryter said.

"That's a little surprising, too, isn't it?"

"Under the circumstances," the commodore said, "it might not be
surprising at all!" He had regained his color, was beginning to look
angry. "If they--"

"Well," Quillan said soothingly, "we don't _know_. It's just that
things do seem to be adding up a little. Now, there's one other point.
We should do something immediately about catching that Hlat."

Velladon grunted and picked at his teeth with his thumbnail. "It would
be best to get it back in its cubicle, of course. But I'm not worrying
about it--just an animal, after all. Even the light hardware those
Beldon fancy Dans carry should handle it. You use a man-sized gun, I
see. So do I. If it shows up around here, it gets smeared, that's all.
There're fifty more of the beasts on the _Camelot_."

Quillan nodded. "You're right on that. But there's the possibility
that it is being controlled by the Brotherhood at present. If it is,
it isn't just an animal any more. It could be turned into a thoroughly
dangerous nuisance."

The commodore thought a moment, nodded. "You're right, I suppose. What
do you want to do about it?"

"Baiting the cubicle on the fifth level might work. Then there should
be life-detectors in the Star's security supplies--"

Ryter nodded. "We have a couple of dozen of them, but not in the
Executive Block. They were left in the security building."

The commodore stood up. "You stay here with Ryter," he told Quillan.
"There're a couple of other things I want to go over with you two.
I'll order the life-detectors from the office here--second passage
down, isn't it, Ryter?... And, Ryter, I have another idea. I'm pulling
the man in space-armor off the subspace portal and detailing him to
Level Five." He grinned at Quillan. "That boy's got a brace of
grenades and built-in spray guns! If Cooms is thinking of pulling any
funny stunts up there, he'll think again."

       *       *       *       *       *

The commodore headed briskly down the narrow passageway, his big
holstered gun slapping his thigh with every step. The two security
guards stationed at the door to the second level office came to
attention as he approached, saluted smartly. He grunted, went in
without returning the salutes, and started over toward the ComWeb on a
desk at the far end of the big room, skirting the long, dusty-looking
black rug beside one wall.

Velladon unbuckled his gun belt, placed the gun on the desk, sat down
and switched on the ComWeb.

Behind him, the black rug stirred silently and rose up.

       *       *       *       *       *

"You called that one," Ryter was saying seven or eight minutes later,
"almost too well!"

Quillan shook his head, poked at the commodore's gun on the desk with
his finger, looked about the silent office and back at the door where
a small group of security men stood staring in at them.

"Three men gone without a sound!" he said. He indicated the glowing
disk of the ComWeb. "He had time enough to turn it on, not time enough
to make his call. Any chance of camouflaged portals in this section?"

"No," Ryter said. "I know the location of every portal in the
Executive Block. No number of men could have taken Velladon and the
two guards without a fight anyway. We'd have heard it. It didn't
happen that way."

"Which leaves," Quillan said, "one way it could have happened." He
jerked his head toward the door. "Will those men keep quiet?"

"If I tell them to."

"Then play it like this. Two guards have vanished. The Hlat obviously
did it. The thing's deadly. That'll keep every man in the group on the
alert every instant from now on. But we don't say Velladon has
vanished. He's outside in the Star at the moment, taking care of
something."

Ryter licked his lips. "What does that buy us?"

"If the Brotherhood's responsible for this--"

"I don't take much stock in coincidences," Ryter said.

"Neither do I. But the Hlat's an animal; it can't tell them it's
carried out the job. If they don't realize we suspect them, it gives
us some advantage. For the moment, we just carry on as planned, and
get rid of the Hlat in one way or another as the first step. The
thing's three times as dangerous as anyone suspected--except,
apparently, the Brotherhood. Get the life-detectors over here as soon
as you can, and slap a space-armor guard on the fifth level."

Ryter hesitated, nodded. "All right."

"Another thing," Quillan said, "Cooms may have the old trick in mind
of working from the top down. If he can take you out along with a few
other key men, he might have this outfit demoralized to the point of
making up for the difference in the number of guns--especially if the
Hlat's still on his team. You'd better keep a handful of the best boys
you have around here glued to your back from now on."

Ryter smiled bleakly. "Don't worry. I intend to. What about you?"

"I don't think they're planning on giving me any personal attention
at the moment. My organization is outside, not here. And it would look
odd to the Brotherhood if I started dragging a few Star guards around
with me at this point."

Ryter shrugged. "Suit yourself. It's your funeral if you've guessed
wrong."

       *       *       *       *       *

"There was nothing," Quillan told Marras Cooms, "that you could
actually put a finger on. It was just that the commodore and Ryter may
have something up their sleeves. Velladon's looking too self-satisfied
to suit me."

The Brotherhood chief gnawed his lower lip reflectively. He seemed
thoughtful, not too disturbed. Cooms might be thoroughly afraid of the
escaped Hlat, but he wouldn't have reached his present position in
Nome Lancion's organization if he had been easily frightened by what
other men were planning.

He said, "I warned Movaine that if Velladon learned we'd checked out
the Hlat, he wasn't going to like it."

"He doesn't," Quillan said. "He regards it as something pretty close
to an attempted double cross."

Cooms grinned briefly. "It was."

"Of course. The question is, what can he do about it? He's got you
outgunned two to one, but if he's thinking of jumping you before
Lancion gets here, he stands to lose more men than he can afford to
without endangering the entire operation for himself."

[Illustration]

Cooms was silent a few seconds. "There's an unpleasant possibility
which didn't occur to me until a short while ago," he said then. "The
fact is that Velladon actually may have us outgunned here by something
like four to one. If that's the case, he can afford to lose quite a
few men. In fact, he'd prefer to."

Quillan frowned. "_Four_ to one? How's that?"

Cooms said, "The commodore told us he intended to let only around half
of the Seventh Star's security force in on the Hlat deal. The other
half was supposed to have been dumped out of one of the subspace
section's locks early today, without benefit of suits. We had no
reason to disbelieve him. Velladon naturally would want to cut down
the number of men who got in on the split with him to as many as he
actually needed. But if he's been thinking about eliminating us from
the game, those other men may still be alive and armed."

Quillan grunted. "I see. You know, that could explain something that
looked a little odd to me."

"What was that?" Cooms asked.

Quillan said, "After they discovered down there that two of their
guards were missing and decided the Hlat must have been on their
level, I tried to get hold of the commodore again. Ryter told me
Velladon won't be available for a while, that he's outside in the
Star, taking care of something there. I wondered what could be
important enough to get Velladon to leave the Executive Block at
present, but--"

"Brother, I'm way ahead of you!" Cooms said. His expression hardened.
"That doesn't look good. But at least he can't bring in reinforcements
without tipping us off. We've got our own guards down with theirs at
the entrance."

Quillan gave him a glance, then nodded at the wall beyond them.
"That's a portal over there, Marras. How many of them on this level?"

"Three or four. Why? The outportals have been plugged, man! Sealed
off. Fluel checked them over when we moved in."

"Sure they're sealed." Quillan stood up, went to the portal, stood
looking at the panel beside it a moment, then pressed on it here and
there, and removed it. "Come over here, friend. I suppose portal
work's been out of your line. I'll show you how fast a thing like that
can get unplugged!" He slid a pocketbook-sized tool kit out of his
belt, snapped it open. About a minute later, the lifeless VACANT sign
above the portal flickered twice, then acquired a steady white glow.

"Portal in operation," Quillan announced. "I'll seal it off again now.
But that should give you the idea."

Cooms' tongue flicked over his lips. "Could somebody portal through to
this level from the Star while the exits are sealed here?"

"If the mechanisms have been set for that purpose, the portals can be
opened again at any time from the Star side. The Duke's an engineer of
sorts, isn't he? Let him check on it. He should have been thinking of
the point himself, as far as that goes. Anyway, Velladon can bring in
as many men as he likes to his own level without using the main
entrance." He considered. "I didn't see anything to indicate that he's
started doing it--"

Marras Cooms shrugged irritably. "That means nothing! It would be easy
enough to keep half a hundred men hidden away on any of the lower
levels."

"I suppose that's right. Well, if the commodore intends to play rough,
you should have some warning anyway."

"What kind of warning?"

"There's Kinmarten and that Hlat-talking gadget, for example," Quillan
pointed out. "Velladon would want both of those in his possession and
out of the way where they can't get hurt before he starts any
shooting."

Cooms looked at him a few seconds. "Ryter," he said then, "sent half a
dozen men up here for Kinmarten just after you got back! Velladon's
supposed to deliver the Hlats' attendants to Yaco, so I let them have
Kinmarten." He paused. "They asked for the Hlat-talker, too."

Quillan grunted. "Did you give them that?"

"No."

"Well," Quillan said after a moment, "that doesn't necessarily mean
that we're in for trouble with the Star group. But it does mean, I
think, that we'd better stay ready for it!" He stood up. "I'll get
back down there and go on with the motions of getting the hunt for
the Hlat organized. Velladon would sooner see the thing get caught,
too, of course, so he shouldn't try to interfere with that. If I spot
anything that looks suspicious, I'll get the word to you."

       *       *       *       *       *

"I never," said Orca, unconsciously echoing Baldy Perk, "saw anything
like it!" The commodore's chunky little gunman was ashen-faced. The
circle of Star men standing around him hardly looked happier. Most of
them were staring down at the empty lower section of a suit of space
armor which appeared to have been separated with a neat diagonal slice
from its upper part.

"Let's get it straight," Ryter said, a little unsteadily. "You say
this half of the suit was lying against the wall like _that_?"

"Not exactly," Quillan told him. "When we got up to the fifth level,
the suit was stuck against the wall--like that--about eight feet above
the floor. That was in the big room where the cubicles are. When
Kinmarten and Orca and I finally got the suit worked away from the
wall, I expected frankly that we'd find half the body of the guard
still inside. But he'd vanished."

Ryter cleared his throat. "Apparently," he said, "the creature drew
the upper section of the suit into the wall by whatever means it uses,
then stopped applying the transforming process to the metal, and
simply moved on with the upper part of the suit and the man."

Quillan nodded. "That's what it looks like."

"But he had _two grenades_!" Orca burst out. "He had sprayguns! How
could it get him that way?"

"Brother," Quillan said, "grenades won't help you much if you don't
spot what's moving up behind you!"

Orca glared speechlessly at him. Ryter said, "All right! We've lost
another man. We're not going to lose any more. We'll station no more
guards on the fifth level. Now, get everyone who isn't on essential
guard duty to the main room, and split 'em up into life-detector
units. Five men to each detail, one to handle the detector, four to
stay with him, guns out. If the thing comes back to this level, we
want to have it spotted the instant it arrives. Orca, you stay
here--and keep _your_ gun out!"

The men filed out hurriedly. Ryter turned to Quillan. "Were you able
to get the cubicle baited?"

Quillan nodded. "Kinmarten figured out how the thing should be set for
the purpose. If the Hlat goes in after the sea beef, it's trapped. Of
course, if the hunting it's been doing was for food, it mightn't be
interested in the beef."

"We don't know," Ryter said, "that the hunting it's been doing was for
food."

"No. Did you manage to get the control device from Cooms?"

Ryter shook his head. "He's refused to hand it over."

"If you tried to take it from him," Quillan said, "you might have a
showdown on your hands."

"And if this keeps on," Ryter said, "I may prefer a showdown! Another
few rounds of trouble with the Hlat, and the entire operation could
blow up in our faces! The men aren't used to that kind of thing. It's
shaken them up. If we've got to take care of the Brotherhood, I'd
rather do it while I still have an organized group. Where did you
leave Kinmarten, by the way?"

"He's back in the little room with his two guards," Quillan said.

"Well, he should be all right there. We can't spare--" Ryter's body
jerked violently. "_What's that?_"

There had been a single thudding crash somewhere in the level. Then
shouts and cursing.

"Main hall!" Quillan said. "Come on!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The main hall was a jumble of excitedly jabbering Star men when they
arrived there. Guns waved about, and the various groups were showing a
marked tendency to stand with their backs toward one another and their
faces toward the walls.

Ryter's voice rose in a shout that momentarily shut off the hubbub.
"_What's going on here?_"

Men turned, hands pointed, voices babbled again. Someone nearby said
sharply and distinctly, "... Saw it drop right out of the ceiling!"
Farther down the hall, another group shifted aside enough to disclose
it had been clustered about something which looked a little like the
empty shell of a gigantic black beetle.

The missing section of the suit of space armor had been returned. But
not its occupant.

Quillan moved back a step, turned, went back down the passage from
which they had emerged, pulling the Miam Devil from its holster.
Behind him the commotion continued; Ryter was shouting something about
getting the life-detector units over there. Quillan went left down the
first intersecting corridor, right again on the following one, keeping
the gun slightly raised before him. Around the next corner, he saw the
man on guard over the portal connecting the building levels facing
him, gun pointed.

"What happened?" the guard asked shakily.

Quillan shook his head, coming up. "That thing got another one!"

The guard breathed, "By God!" and lowered his gun a little. Quillan
raised his a little, the Miam Devil grunted, and the guard sighed and
went down. Quillan went past him along the hall, stopped two doors
beyond the portal and rapped on the locked door.

"Quillan here! Open up!"

The door opened a crack, and one of Kinmarten's guards looked out
questioningly. Quillan shot him through the head, slammed on into the
room across the collapsing body, saw the second guard wheeling toward
him, shot again, and slid the gun back into the holster. Kinmarten,
standing beside a table six feet away, right hand gripping a heavy
marble ashtray, was staring at him in white-faced shock.

"Take it easy, chum!" Quillan said, turning toward him. "I--"

He ducked hurriedly as the ashtray came whirling through the air
toward his head. An instant later, a large fist smacked the side of
Kinmarten's jaw. The rest warden settled limply to the floor.

"Sorry to do that, pal," Quillan muttered, stooping over him. "Things
are rough all over right now." He hauled Kinmarten upright, bent, and
had the unconscious young man across his shoulder. The hall was still
empty except for the body of the portal guard. Quillan laid Kinmarten
on the carpet before the portal, hauled the guard off into the room,
and pulled the door to the room shut behind him as he came out.
Picking up Kinmarten, he stepped into the portal with him and jabbed
the fifth level button. A moment later, he moved out into the small
dim entry hall on the fifth level, the gun in his right hand again.

He stood there silently for some seconds, looking about him listening.
The baited cubicle yawned widely at him from the center of the big
room. Nothing seemed to be stirring. Kinmarten went back to the floor.
Quillan moved over to the panel which concealed the other portal's
mechanisms.

He had the outportal unsealed in considerably less than a minute this
time, and slapped the panel gently back in place. He turned back to
Kinmarten and started to bend down for him, then straightened quietly
again, turning his head.

Had there been a flicker of shadowy motion just then at the edge of
his vision, behind the big black cube of the Hlat's food locker?
Quillan remained perfectly still, the Miam Devil ready and every sense
straining for an indication that the thing was there--or approaching
stealthily now, gliding behind the surfaces of floor or ceiling or
walls like an underwater swimmer.

But half a minute passed and nothing else happened. He went down on
one knee beside Kinmarten, the gun still in his right hand. With his
left, he carefully wrestled the rest warden back up across his
shoulder, came upright, moved three steps to the side, and disappeared
in the outportal.

       *       *       *       *       *

Reetal Destone unlocked the entry door to her suite and stepped
hurriedly inside, letting the door slide shut behind her. She crossed
the room to the ComWeb stand and switched on the playback. There was
the succession of tinkling tones which indicated nothing had been
recorded.

She shut the instrument off again, passing her tongue lightly over her
lips. No further messages from Heraga....

And none from Quillan.

She shook her head, feeling a surge of sharp anxiety, glanced at her
watch and told herself that, after all, less than two hours had passed
since Quillan had gone into the Executive Block. Heraga reported there
had been no indications of disturbance or excitement when he passed
through the big entrance hall on his way out. So Quillan, at any
rate, had succeeded in bluffing his way into the upper levels.

It remained a desperate play, at best.

Reetal went down the short passage to her bedroom. As she came into
the room, her arms were caught from the side at the elbows, pulled
suddenly and painfully together behind her. She stood still, frozen
with shock.

"In a hurry, sweetheart?" Fluel's flat voice said.

Reetal managed a breathless giggle. "Duke! You startled me! How did
you get in?"

She felt one hand move up her arm to her shoulder. Then she was swung
about deftly and irresistibly, held pinned back against the wall,
still unable to move her arms.

He looked at her a moment, asked, "Where are you hiding it this time?"

"Hiding what, Duke?"

"I've been told sweet little Reetal always carries a sweet little gun
around with her in some shape or form or other."

Reetal shook her head, her eyes widening. "Duke, what's the matter?
I...."

He let go of her suddenly, and his slap exploded against the side of
her face. Reetal cried out, dropping her head between her hands.
Immediately he had her wrists again, and her fingers were jerked away
from the jeweled ornament in her hair.

"So that's where it is!" Fluel said. "Thought it might be. Don't get
funny again now, sweetheart. Just stay quiet."

She stayed quiet, wincing a little as he plucked the glittering little
device out of her hair. He turned it around in his fingers, examining
it, smiled and slid it into an inside pocket, and took her arm again.
"Let's go to the front room, Reetal," he said almost pleasantly.
"We've got a few things to do."

       *       *       *       *       *

A minute later, she was seated sideways on a lounger, her wrists
fastened right and left to its armrests. The Duke placed a pocket
recorder on the floor beside her. "This is a crowded evening,
sweetheart," he remarked, "which is lucky for you in a way. We'll have
to rush things along a little. I'll snap the recorder on in a minute
so you can answer questions--No, keep quiet. Just listen very closely
now, so you'll know what the right answers are. If you get rattled and
gum things up, the Duke's going to get annoyed with you."

He sat down a few feet away from her, hitched his shoulders to
straighten out the silver jacket, and lit a cigarette. "A little while
after Bad News Quillan turned up just now," he went on, "a few things
occurred to me. One of them was that a couple of years ago you and he
were operating around Beldon at about the same time. I thought, well,
maybe you knew each other; maybe not. And then--"

"Duke," Reetal said uncertainly, "just what are you talking about? I
don't know--"

"Shut up." He reached over, tapped her knee lightly with his
fingertips. "Of course, if you want to get slapped around, all right.
Otherwise, don't interrupt again. Like I said, you're in luck; I don't
have much time to spend here. You're getting off very easy. Now just
listen.

"Bad News knew a lot about our operation and had a story to explain
that. If the story was straight, we couldn't touch him. But I was
wondering about the two of you happening to be here on the Star again
at the same time. A team maybe, eh? But he didn't mention you as being
in on the deal. So what was the idea?

"And then, sweetheart, I remembered something else--and that tied it
in. Know that little jolt people sometimes get when they're dropping
off to sleep? Of course. Know another time they sometimes get it? When
they're snapping back out of a Moment of Truth, eh? I remembered
suddenly I'd felt a little jump like that while we were talking
to-day. Might have been a reflex of some kind. Of course, it didn't
occur to me at the time you could be pulling a lousy stunt like that
on old Duke. Why take a chance on getting your neck broken?

"But, sweetheart, that's the tie-in! Quillan hasn't told it straight.
He's got no backing. He's on his own. There's no gang outside
somewhere that knows all about our little deal. He got his information
right here, from you. And you got it from dumb old Duke, eh?"

"Duke," Reetal said quite calmly, "can I ask just one question?"

He stared bleakly at her a moment, then grinned. "It's my night to be
big-hearted, I guess. Go ahead."

"I'm not trying to argue. But it simply doesn't make sense. If I
learned about this operation you're speaking of from you, what reason
could I have to feed you Truth in the first place? There'd be almost a
fifty-fifty chance that you'd spot it immediately. Why should I take
such a risk? Don't you see?"

Fluel shrugged, dropped his cigarette and ground it carefully into the
carpet with the tip of his shoe.

"You'll start answering those questions yourself almost immediately,
sweetheart! Let's not worry about that now. Let me finish. Something
happened to Movaine couple of hours ago. Nobody's fault. And something
else happened to Marras Cooms just now. That puts me in charge of the
operation here. Nice, isn't it? When we found Cooms lying in the hall
with a hole through his stupid head, I told Baldy Perk it looked like
Bad News had thrown in with the Star boys and done it. Know Baldy?
He's Cooms' personal gun. Not what you'd call bright, and he's mighty
hot now about Cooms. I left him in charge on our level, with orders to
get Quillan the next time he shows up there. Well and good. The boys
know Bad News' rep too well to try asking him questions. They won't
take chances with him. They'll just gun him down together the instant
they see him."

He paused to scuff his shoe over the mark the cigarette had left on
the carpet, went on, "But there's Nome Lancion now. He kind of liked
Cooms, and he might get suspicious. When there's a sudden vacancy in
the organization like that. Nome takes a good look first at the man
next in line. He likes to be sure the facts are as stated.

"So now you know the kind of answers from you I want to hear go down
on the recorder, sweetheart. And be sure they sound right. I don't
want to waste time on replays. You and Quillan were here on the Star.
You got some idea of what was happening, realized you were due to be
vaporized along with the rest of them after we left. There was no way
out of the jam for you unless you could keep the operation from being
carried out. You don't, by the way, mention getting any of that
information from me. I don't want Lancion to think I'm beginning to
get dopey. You and Quillan just cooked up this story, and he managed
to get into the Executive Block. The idea being to knock off as many
of the leaders as he could, and mess things up."

       *       *       *       *       *

Fluel picked up the recorder, stood up, and placed it on the chair.
"That's all you have to remember. You're a smart girl; you can fill in
the details any way you like. Now let's get started--"

She stared at him silently for an instant, a muscle beginning to
twitch in her cheek. "If I do that," she said, "if I give you a story
Nome will like, what happens next?"

Fluel shrugged. "Just what you're thinking happens next. You're a dead
little girl right now, Reetal. Might as well get used to the idea.
You'd be dead anyhow four, five hours from now, so that shouldn't make
too much difference. What makes a lot of difference is just how
unpleasant the thing can get."

She drew a long breath. "Duke, I--"

"You're stalling, sweetheart."

"Duke, give me a break. I really didn't know a thing about this. I--"

He looked down at her for a moment. "I gave you a break," he said.
"You've wasted it. Now we'll try it the other way. If we work a few
squeals into the recording, that'll make it more convincing to
Lancion. He'll figure little Reetal's the type who wouldn't spill a
thing like that without a little pressure." He checked himself,
grinned. "And that reminds me. When you're talking for the record, use
your own voice."

"My own voice?" she half whispered.

"Nome will remember what you sound like--and I've heard that voice
imitations are part of your stock in trade. You might think it was
cute if Nome got to wondering after you were dead whether that really
had been you talking. Don't try it, sweetheart."

He brought a glove out of his jacket pocket, slipped it over his left
hand, flexing his fingers to work it into position. Reetal's eyes
fastened on the rounded metal tips capping thumb, forefinger and
middle finger of the glove. Her face went gray.

"Duke," she said, "No--"

"Shut up." He brought out a strip of transparent plastic, moved over
to her. The gloved hand went into her hair, gripped it, turned her
face up. He laid the plastic gag lengthwise over her mouth, pressed it
down and released it. Reetal closed her eyes.

"That'll keep it shut," he said. "Now--" His right hand clamped about
the back of her neck, forcing her head down and forward almost to her
knees. The gloved left hand brushed her hair forwards, then its middle
finger touched the skin at a point just above her shoulder blades.

"Right there," Fluel said. The finger stiffened, drove down.

Reetal jerked violently, twisted, squirmed sideways, wrists straining
against the grip of the armrests. Her breath burst out of her
nostrils, followed by squeezed, whining noises. The metal-capped
finger continued to grind savagely against the nerve center it had
found.

"Thirty," Fluel said finally. He drew his hand back, pulled her
upright again, peeled the gag away from her lips. "Only thirty
seconds, sweetheart. Think you'd sooner play along now?"

Reetal's head nodded.

"Fine. Give you a minute to steady up. This doesn't really waste much
time, you see--" He took up the recorder, sat down on the chair again,
watching her. She was breathing raggedly and shallowly, eyes wide and
incredulous. She didn't look at him.

The Duke lit another cigarette.

"Incidentally," he observed, "if you were stalling because you hoped
old Bad News might show up, forget it. If the boys haven't gunned him
down by now, he's tied up on a job the commodore gave him to do. He'll
be busy another hour or two on that. He--"

He checked himself. A central section of the wall paneling across the
room from him had just dilated open. Old Bad News stood in the
concealed suite portal, Rest Warden Kinmarten slung across his
shoulder.

Both men moved instantly. Fluel's long legs bounced him sideways out
of the chair, right hand darting under his coat, coming out with a
gun. Quillan turned to the left to get Kinmarten out of the way. The
big Miam Devil seemed to jump into his hand. Both guns spoke together.

Fluel's gun thudded to the carpet. The Duke said, "Ah-aa-ah!" in a
surprised voice, rolled up his eyes, and followed the gun down.

Quillan said, stunned, "He was fast! I felt that one parting my hair."

       *       *       *       *       *

He became very solicitous then--after first ascertaining that Fluel
had left the Executive Block unaccompanied, on personal business. He
located a pain killer spray in Reetal's bedroom and applied it to the
bruised point below the back of her neck. She was just beginning to
relax gratefully, as the warm glow of the spray washed out the pain
and the feeling of paralysis, when Kinmarten, lying on the carpet
nearby, began to stir and mutter.

[Illustration]

Quillan hastily put down the spray.

"Watch him!" he cautioned. "I'll be right back. If he sits up, yell.
He's a bit wild at the moment. If he wakes up and sees the Duke lying
there, he'll start climbing the walls."

"What--" Reetal began. But he was gone down the hall.

He returned immediately with a glass of water, went down on one knee
beside Kinmarten, slid an arm under the rest warden's shoulder, and
lifted him to a sitting position.

"Wake up, old pal!" he said loudly. "Come on, wake up! Got something
good for you here--"

"What are you giving him?" Reetal asked, cautiously massaging the back
of her neck.

"Knockout drops. I already had to lay him out once. We want to lock
him up with his wife now, and if he comes to and tells her what's
happened, they'll both be out of their minds by the time we come to
let them out--"

He interrupted himself. Kinmarten's eyelids were fluttering. Quillan
raised the glass to his lips. "Here you are, pal," he said in a deep,
soothing voice. "Drink it! It'll make you feel a lot better."

Kinmarten swallowed obediently, swallowed again. His eyelids stopped
fluttering. Quillan lowered him back to the floor.

"That ought to do it," he said.

"What," Reetal asked, "did happen? The Duke--"

"Tell you as much as I can after we get Kinmarten out of the way. I
have to get back to the Executive Block. Things are sort of teetering
on the edge there." He jerked his head at Fluel's body. "I want to
know about him, too, of course. Think you can walk now?"

Reetal groaned. "I can try," she said.

They found Solvey Kinmarten dissolved in tears once more. She flung
herself on her husband's body when Quillan place him on the bed. "What
have those _beasts_ done to Brock?" she demanded fiercely.

"Nothing very bad," Quillan said soothingly. "He's, um, under sedation
at the moment, that's all. We've got him away from them now, and he's
safe ... look at it that way. You stay here and take care of him.
We'll have the whole deal cleared up before morning, doll. Then you
can both come out of hiding again." He gave her an encouraging wink.

"I'm so very grateful to both of you--"

"No trouble, really. But we'd better get back to work on the thing."

"Heck," Quillan said a few seconds later, as he and Reetal came out on
the other side of the portal, "I feel like hell about those two. Nice
little characters! Well, if the works blow up, they'll never know it."

"_We_'ll know it," Reetal said meaningly. "Start talking."

He rattled through a brief account of events in the Executive Block,
listened to her report on the Duke's visit, scratched his jaw
reflectively.

"That might help!" he observed. "They're about ready to jump down
each other's throats over there right now. A couple more pushes--" He
stood staring down at the Duke's body for a moment. Blood soiled the
back of the silver jacket, seeping out from a tear above the heart
area. Quillan bent down, got his hands under Fluel's armpits, hauled
the body upright.

Reetal asked, startled, "What are you going to do with it?"

"Something useful, I think. And wouldn't that shock the Duke ... the
first time he's been of any use to anybody. Zip through the Star's
ComWeb directory, doll, and get me the call symbol for Level Four of
the Executive Block!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Solvey Kinmarten dimmed the lights a trifle in the bedroom, went back
to Brock, rearranged the pillows under his head, and bent down to
place her lips tenderly to the large bruises on his forehead and the
side of his jaw. Then she brought a chair up beside the bed, and sat
down to watch him.

Perhaps a minute later, there was a slight noise behind her. Startled,
she glanced around, saw something huge, black and shapeless moving
swiftly across the carpet of the room toward her.

Solvey quietly fainted.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Sure you know what to say?" Quillan asked.

Reetal moistened her lips. "Just let me go over it in my mind once
more." She was sitting on the floor, on the right side of the ComWeb
stand, her face pale and intent, "You know," she said, "this makes me
feel a little queasy somehow, Quillan! And suppose they don't fall for
it?"

"They'll fall for it!" Quillan was on his knees in front of the stand,
supporting Fluel's body, which was sprawled half across it, directly
before the lit vision screen. An outflung arm hid the Duke's face from
the screen. "You almost had _me_ thinking I was listening to Fluel
when you did the take-off of him this evening. A dying man can be
expected to sound a little odd, anyway." He smiled at her
encouragingly. "Ready now?"

Reetal nodded nervously, cleared her throat.

Quillan reached across Fluel tapped out Level Four's call symbol on
the instrument, ducked back down below the stand. After a moment,
there was a click.

Reetal produced a quavering, agonized groan. Somebody else gasped.

"_Duke_!" Baldy Perk's voice shouted. "What's happened?"

"Baldy Perk!" Quillan whispered quickly.

Reetal stammered hoarsely, "The c-c-commodore, Baldy! Shot me ... shot
Marras! They're after ... Quillan ... now!"

"I thought Bad News...." Baldy sounded stunned.

"Was w-wrong, Baldy," Reetal croaked. "Bad News ... with us! Bad News ...
pal! The c-c-comm--"

Beneath the ComWeb stand the palm of Quillan's right hand thrust
abruptly up and forward. The stand tilted, went crashing back to the
floor. Fluel's body lurched over with it. The vision screen shattered.
Baldy's roaring question was cut off abruptly.

"Great stuff, doll!" Quillan beamed, helping Reetal to her feet. "You
sent shudders down my back!"

"Down mine, too!"

"I'll get him out of here now. Ditch him in one of the shut-off
sections. Then I'll get back to the Executive Block. If Ryter's
thought to look into Kinmarten's room, they'll really be raving on
both sides there now!"

"Is that necessary?" Reetal asked. "For you to go back, I mean.
Somebody besides Fluel might have become suspicious of you by now."

"Ryter might," Quillan agreed. "He's looked like the sharpest of the
lot right from the start. But we'll have to risk that. We've got all
the making of a shooting war there now, but we've got to make sure it
gets set off before somebody thinks of comparing notes. If I'm around,
I'll keep jolting at their nerves."

"I suppose you're right. Now, our group--"

Quillan nodded. "No need to hold off on that any longer, the way
things are moving. Get on another ComWeb and start putting out those
Mayday messages right now! As soon as you've rounded the boys up--"

"That might," Reetal said, "take a little less than an hour."

"Fine. Then move them right into the Executive Block. With just a bit
of luck, one hour from now should land them in the final stages of a
beautiful battle on the upper levels. Give them my description and
Ryter's, so we don't have accidents."

"Why Ryter's?"

"Found out he was the boy who took care of the bomb-planting detail.
We want him alive. The others mightn't know where it's been tucked
away. Heraga says the clerical staff and technicians in there are all
wearing the white Star uniforms. Anyone else who isn't in one of those
uniforms is fair game--" He paused. "Oh, and tip them off about the
Hlat!--God only knows what that thing will be doing when the ruckus
starts."

"What about sending a few men in through the fifth level portal, the
one you've unplugged?"

Quillan considered, shook his head. "No. Down on the ground level is
where we want them. They'd have to portal there again from the fifth,
and a portal is too easy to seal off and defend. Now let's get a
blanket or something to tuck Fluel into. I don't want to feel
conspicuous if I run into somebody on the way."

       *       *       *       *       *

Quillan emerged cautiously from the fifth portal in the Executive
Block a short while later, came to a sudden stop just outside it. In
the big room beyond the entry hall, the door of the baited cubicle was
closed, and the life-indicator on the door showed a bright steady
green glow.

Quillan stared at it a moment, looking somewhat surprised, then went
quietly into the room and bent to study the cubicle's instruments. A
grin spread slowly over his face. The trap had been sprung. He glanced
at the deep-rest setting and turned it several notches farther down.

"Happy dreams, Lady Pendrake!" he murmured. "That takes care of you.
What an appetite! And now--"

As the Level Four portal dilated open before him, a gun blazed from
across the hall. Quillan flung himself out and down, rolled to the
side, briefly aware of a litter of bodies and tumbled furniture
farther up the hall. Then he was flat on the carpet, gun out before
him, pointing back at the overturned, ripped couch against the far
wall from which the fire had come.

A hoarse voice bawled, "Bad News--hold it!"

Quillan hesitated, darting a glance right and left. Men lying about
everywhere, the furnishings a shambles. "That you, Baldy?" he asked.

"Yeah," Baldy Perk half sobbed. "I'm hurt--"

"What happened?"

"_Star_ gang jumped us. Portaled in here--spitballs and riot guns! Bad
News, we're clean wiped out! Everyone that was on this level--"

Quillan stood up, holstering the gun, went over to the couch and moved
it carefully away from the wall. Baldy was crouched behind it,
kneeling on the blood-soaked carpet, gun in his right hand. He lifted
a white face, staring eyes, to Quillan.

"Waitin' for 'em to come back," he muttered. "Man, I'm not for long!
Got hit twice. Near passed out a couple of times already."

"What about your boys on guard downstairs?"

"Same thing there, I guess ... or they'd have showed up. They got
Cooms and the Duke, too! Man, it all happened fast!"

"And the crew on the freighter?"

"Dunno about them."

"You know the freighter's call number?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Sure. Never thought of that," Baldy said wearily. He
seemed dazed now.

"Let's see if you can stand."

Quillan helped the big man to his feet. Baldy hadn't bled too much
outwardly, but he seemed to have estimated his own condition
correctly. He wasn't for long. Quillan slid an arm under his
shoulders.

"Where's a ComWeb?" he asked.

Baldy blinked about. "Passage there--" His voice was beginning to
thicken.

The ComWeb was in the second room up the passage. Quillan eased Perk
into the seat before it. Baldy's head lolled heavily forward, like a
drunken man's. "What's the number?" Quillan asked.

Baldy reflected a few seconds, blinking owlishly at the instrument,
then told him. Quillan tapped out the number, flicked on the vision
screen, then stood aside and back, beyond the screen's range.

"Yeah, Perk?" a voice said some seconds later. "Hey, _Perk_ ... Perk,
what's with ya?"

Baldy spat blood, grinned. "Shot--" he said.

"_What?_"

"Yeah." Baldy scowled, blinking. "Now, lessee--Oh, yeah. Star gang's
gonna jump ya! Watch it!"

"What?"

"Yeah, watch--" Baldy coughed, laid his big head slowly down face
forward on the ComWeb stand, and stopping moving.

"Perk! Man, wake up! Perk!"

Quillan quietly took out the gun, reached behind the stand and blew
the ComWeb apart. He wasn't certain what the freighter's crew would
make of the sudden break in the connection, but they could hardly
regard it as reassuring. He made a brief prowl then through the main
sections of the level. Evidence everywhere of a short and furious
struggle, a struggle between men panicked and enraged almost beyond
any regard for self-preservation. It must have been over in minutes.
He found that the big hall portal to the ground level had been sealed,
whether before or after the shooting he couldn't know. There would
have been around twenty members of the Brotherhood on the level. None
of them had lived as long as Baldy Perk, but they seemed to have
accounted for approximately an equal number of the Star's security
force first.

       *       *       *       *       *

Five Star men came piling out of the fifth level portal behind him a
minute or two later, Ryter in the lead. Orca behind Ryter. All five
held leveled guns.

"You won't need the hardware," Quillan assured them. "It's harmless
enough now. Come on in."

They followed him silently up to the cubicle, stared comprehendingly
at dials and indicators. "The thing's back inside there, all right!"
Ryter said. He looked at Quillan. "Is this where you've been all the
time?"

"Sure, Where else?" The others were forming a half-circle about him, a
few paces back.

"Taking quite a chance with that Hlat, weren't you?" Ryter remarked.

"Not too much. I thought of something." Quillan indicated the
outportal in the hall. "I had my back against that. A portal's
space-break, not solid matter. It couldn't come at me from behind. And
if it attacked from any other angle"--he tapped the holstered Miam
Devil lightly, and the gun in Orca's hand jerked upward a fraction of
an inch--"There aren't many animals that can swallow more than a bolt
or two from that baby and keep coming."

There was a moment's silence. Then Orca said thoughtfully, "That would
work!"

"Did it see you?" Ryter asked.

"It couldn't have. First _I_ saw of it, it was sailing out from that
corner over there. It slammed in after that chunk of sea beef so fast,
it shook the cubicle. And that was that." He grinned. "Well, most of
our troubles should be over now!"

One of the men gave a brief, nervous laugh. Quillan looked at him
curiously. "Something, chum?"

Ryter shook his head. "Something is right! Come on downstairs again,
Bad News. This time we have news for you--"

The Brotherhood guards on the ground level had been taken by surprise
and shot down almost without losses for the Star men. But the battle
on the fourth level had cost more than the dead left up there. An
additional number had returned with injures that were serious enough
to make them useless for further work.

"It's been expensive," Ryter admitted. "But one more attack by the
Hlat would have left me with a panicked mob on my hands. If we'd
realized it was going to trap itself--"

"I wasn't so sure that would work either," Quillan said. "Did you get
Kinmarten back?"

"Not yet. The chances are he's locked up somewhere on the fourth
level. Now the Hlat's out of the way, some of the men have gone back
up there to look for him. If Cooms thought he was important enough to
start a fight over, I want him back."

"How about the crew on the Beldon ship?" Quillan asked, "Have they
been cleaned up?"

"No," Ryter said. "We'll have to do that now, of course."

"How many of them?"

"Supposedly twelve. And that's probably what it is."

"If they know or suspect what's happened," Quillan said, "twelve men
can give a boarding party in a lock a remarkable amount of trouble."

Ryter shrugged irritably. "I know, but there isn't much choice.
Lancion's bringing in the other group on the _Camelot_. We don't want
to have to handle both of them at the same time."

"How are you planning to take the freighter?"

"When the search party comes back down, we'll put every man we can
spare from guard duty here on the job. They'll be instructed to be
careful about it ... if they can wind up the matter within the next
several hours, that will be early enough. We can't afford too many
additional losses now. But we should come out with enough men to take
care of Lancion and handle the shipment of Hlats. And that's what
counts."

"Like me to take charge of the boarding party?" Quillan inquired.
"That sort of thing's been a kind of specialty of mine."

Ryter looked at him without much expression on his face. "I understand
that," he said. "But perhaps it would be better if you stayed up here
with us."

       *       *       *       *       *

The search party came back down ten minutes later. They'd looked
through every corner of the fourth level. Kinmarten wasn't there,
either dead or alive. But one observant member of the group had
discovered, first, that the Duke of Fluel was also not among those
present, and, next that one of the four outportals on the level had
been unsealed. The exit on which the portal was found to be set was in
a currently unused hall in the General Office building on the other
side of the Star. From that hall, almost every other section of the
Star was within convenient portal range.

None of the forty-odd people working in the main control office on the
ground level had actually witnessed any shooting; but it was apparent
that a number of them were uncomfortably aware that something quite
extraordinary must be going on. They were a well-disciplined group,
however. An occasional uneasy glance toward one of the armed men
lounging along the walls, some anxious faces, were the only noticeable
indications of tension. Now and then, there was a brief, low-pitched
conversation at one of the desks.

Quillan stood near the center of the office, Ryter and Orca a dozen
feet from him on either side. Four Star guards were stationed along
the walls. From the office one could see through a large doorspace cut
through both sides of a hall directly into the adjoining transmitter
room. Four more guards were in there. Aside from the men in the
entrance hall and at the subspace portal, what was available at the
moment of Ryter's security force was concentrated at this point.

The arrangement made considerable sense; and Quillan gave no sign of
being aware that the eyes of the guards shifted to him a little more
frequently than to any other point in the office, or that none of them
had moved his hand very far away from his gun since they had come in
here. But that also made sense. In the general tension area of the
Executive Block's ground level, a specific point of tension--highly
charged though undetected by the non-involved personnel--was the one
provided by the presence of Bad News Quillan here. Ryter was more than
suspicious by now; the opened portal on the fourth level, the
disappearance of Kinmarten and the Duke, left room for a wide variety
of speculations. Few of those speculations could be very favorable to
Bad News. Ryter obviously preferred to let things stand as they were
until the Beldon freighter was taken and the major part of his group
had returned from the subspace sections of the Star. At that time, Bad
News could expect to come in for some very direct questioning by the
security chief.

The minutes dragged on. Under the circumstances, a glance at his watch
could be enough to bring Ryter's uncertainties up to the explosion
point, and Quillan also preferred to let things stand as they were for
the moment. But he felt reasonably certain that over an hour had
passed since he'd left Reetal; and so far there had been no hint of
anything unusual occurring in the front part of the building. The
murmur of voices in the main control office continued to eddy about
him. There were indications that in the transmitter room across the
hall messages had begun to be exchanged between the Star and the
approaching liner.

A man sitting at a desk near Quillan stood up presently, went out into
the hall and disappeared. A short while later, the white-suited figure
returned and picked up the interrupted work. Quillan's glance went
over the clerk, shifted on. He felt something tighten up swiftly
inside him. There was a considerable overall resemblance, but _that_
wasn't the man who had left the office.

Another minute or two went by. Then two other uniformed figures
appeared at the opening to the hall, a sparse elderly man, a blond
girl. They stood there talking earnestly together for some seconds,
then came slowly down the aisle toward Quillan. It appeared to be an
argument about some detail of her work. The girl frowned, stubbornly
shaking her head. Near Quillan they separated, started off into
different sections of the office. The girl, glancing back, still
frowning, brushed against Ryter. She looked up at him, startled.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Ryter scowled irritably, started to say something, suddenly appeared
surprised. Then his eyes went blank and his knees buckled under him.

The clerk sitting at the nearby desk whistled shrilly.

Quillan wheeled, gun out and up, toward the wall behind him. The two
guards there were still lifting their guns. The Miam Devil grunted
disapprovingly twice, and the guards went down. Noise crashed from the
hall ... heavy sporting rifles. He turned again, saw the two other
guards stumbling backward along the far wall. Feminine screaming
erupted around the office as the staff dove out of sight behind desks,
instrument stands and filing cabinets. The elderly man stood above
Orca, a sap in his hand and a please smile on his face.

In the hallway, four white-uniformed men had swung about and were
pointing blazing rifles into the transmitter room. The racketing of
the gunfire ended abruptly and the rifles were lowered again. The
human din in the office began to diminish, turned suddenly into a
shocked, strained silence. Quillan realized the blond girl was
standing at his elbow.

"Did you get the rest of them?" he asked quickly, in a low voice.

"Everyone who was on this level," Reetal told him. "There weren't many
of them."

"I know. But there's a sizable batch still in the subspace section. If
we can get the bomb disarmed, we'll just leave them sealed up there.
How long before you can bring Ryter around?"

"He'll be able to talk in five minutes."

       *       *       *       *       *

Quillan had been sitting for some little while in a very comfortable
chair in what had been the commodore's personal suite on the Seventh
Star, broodingly regarding the image of the _Camelot_ in a huge wall
screen. The liner was still over two hours' flight away but would
arrive on schedule. On the Star, at least in the normspace section,
everything was quiet, and in the main control offices and in the
transmitter room normal working conditions had been restored.

A room portal twenty feet away opened suddenly, and Reetal Destone
stepped out.

"So there you are!" she observed.

[Illustration]

Quillan Looked mildly surprised, then grinned. "I'd hate to have to
try to hide from you!" he said.

"Hm-m-m!" said Reetal. She smiled. "What are you drinking?"

He nodded at an open liquor cabinet near the screen. "Velladon was
leaving some excellent stuff behind. Join me?"

"Hm-m-m." She went to the cabinet, looked over the bottles, made her
selection and filled a glass. "One has the impression," she remarked,
"that you _were_ hiding from me."

"One does? I'd have to be losing my cotton-picking mind--"

"Not necessarily." Reetal brought the drink over to his chair, sat
down on the armrest with it. "You might just have a rather
embarrassing problem to get worked out before you give little Reetal a
chance to start asking questions about it."

Quillan looked surprised. "What gave you that notion?"

"Oh," Reetal said, "adding things up gave me that notion.... Care to
hear what the things were?"

"Go ahead, doll."

"First," said Reetal, "I understand that a while ago, after you'd first
sent me off to do some little job for you, you were in the transmitter
room having a highly private--shielded and scrambled--conversation with
somebody on board the _Camelot_."

"Why, yes," Quillan said. "I was talking to the ship's security
office. They're arranging to have a Federation police boat pick up
what's left of the commodore's boys and the Brotherhood in the
subspace section.

"And that," said Reetal, "is where that embarrassing little problem
begins. Next, I noticed, as I say, that you were showing this tendency
to avoid a chance for a private talk between us. And after thinking
about that for a little, and also about a few other things which came
to mind at around that time, I went to see Ryter."

"Now why--?"

Reetal ran her fingers soothingly through his hair. "Let me finish,
big boy. I found Ryter and Orca in a highly nervous condition. And do
you know why they're nervous? They're convinced that some time before
the _Camelot_ gets here, you're going to do them both in."

"Hm-m-m," said Quillan.

"Ryter," she went on, "besides being nervous, is also very bitter. In
retrospect, he says, it's all very plain what you've done here. You
and your associates--a couple of tough boys named Hagready and Boltan,
and others not identified--are also after these Hlats. The Duke made
some mention of that, too, you remember. The commodore and Ryter
bought the story you told them because a transmitter check produced
the information that Hagready and Boltan had, in fact, left their
usual work areas and gone off on some highly secret business about a
month ago.

"Ryter feels that your proposition--to let your gang in on the deal
for twenty per cent, or else--was made in something less than good
faith. He's concluded that when you learned of the operation being
planned by Velladon and the Brotherhood, you and your pals decided to
obstruct them and take the Hlats for delivery to Yaco yourselves,
without cutting anybody in. He figures that someone like Hagready or
Boltan is coming in on the _Camelot_ with a flock of sturdy henchmen
to do just that. You, personally, rushed to the Seventh Star to
interfere as much as you could here. Ryter admits reluctantly that
you did an extremely good job of interfering. He says it's now obvious
that every move you made since you showed up had the one purpose of
setting the Star group and the Brotherhood at each other's throats.
And now that they've practically wiped each other out, you and your
associates can go on happily with your original plans.

"But, of course, you can't do that if Ryter and Orca are picked up
alive by the Federation cops. The boys down in the subspace section
don't matter; they're ordinary gunhands and all they know is that you
were somebody who showed up on the scene. But Ryter could, and
certainly would, talk--"

"Ah, he's too imaginative," Quillan said, taking a swallow of his
drink. "I never heard of the Hlats before I got here. As I told you,
I'm on an entirely different kind of job at the moment. I had to make
up some kind of story to get an in with the boys, that's all."

"So you're not going to knock those two weasels off?"

"No such intentions. I don't mind them sweating about it till the Feds
arrive, but that's it."

"What about Boltan and Hagready?"

"What about them? I did happen to know that if anyone started asking
questions about those two, he'd learn that neither had been near his
regular beat for close to a month."

"I'll bet!" Reetal said cryptically.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Hm-m-m," she said. "Bad News Quillan! A really tough boy, for sure.
You know, I didn't believe for an instant that you were after the
Hlats--"

"Why not?"

Reetal said, "I've been on a couple of operations with you, and you'd
be surprised how much I've picked up about you from time to time on
the side. Swiping a shipment of odd animals and selling them to Yaco,
that could be Bad News, in character. Selling a couple of hundred
human beings--like Brock and Solvey Kinmarten--to go along with the
animals to an outfit like Yaco would not be in character."

"So I have a heart of gold," Quillan said.

"So you fell all over your own big feet about half a minute ago!"
Reetal told him. "Bad News Quillan--with no interest whatsoever in the
Hlats--still couldn't afford to let Ryter live to talk about him to
the Feds, big boy!"

Quillan looked reflective for a moment. "Dirty trick!" he observed.
"For that, you might freshen up my glass."

       *       *       *       *       *

Reetal took both glasses over to the liquor cabinet, freshened them
up, and settled down on the armrest of the chair again. "So there
we're back to the embarrassing little problem," she said.

"Ryter?"

"No, idiot. We both know that Ryter is headed for Rehabilitation.
Fifteen years or so of it, as a guess. The problem is little Reetal
who has now learned a good deal more than she was ever intended to
learn. Does she head for Rehabilitation, too?"

Quillan took a swallow of his drink and set the glass down again. "Are
you suggesting," he inquired, "that I might be, excuse the expression,
a cop?"

Reetal patted his head. "Bad News Quillan! Let's look back at his
record. What do we find? A shambles, mainly. Smashed-up organizations,
outfits, gangs. Top-level crooks with suddenly vacant expressions and
unexplained holes in their heads. Why go on? The name is awfully well
earned! And nobody realizing anything because the ones who do realize
it suddenly ... well, where _are_ Boltan Hagready at the moment."

Quillan sighed. "Since you keep bringing it up--Hagready played it
smart, so he's in Rehabilitation. Be cute if Ryter ran into him there
some day. Pappy Boltan didn't want to play it smart. I'm not enough of
a philosopher to make a guess at where he might be at present. But I
knew he wouldn't be talking."

"All right," Reetal said, "we've got that straight. Bad News is
Intelligence of some kind. Federation maybe, or maybe one of the
services. It doesn't matter, really, I suppose. Now, what about me?"

He reached out and tapped his glass with a fingertip. "That about you,
doll. You filled it. I'm drinking it. I may not think quite as fast as
you do, but I still think. Would I take a drink from a somewhat
lawless and very clever lady who really believed I had her lined up
for Rehabilitation? Or who'd be at all likely to blab out something
that would ruin an old pal's reputation?"

Reetal ran her fingers through his hair again. "I noticed the deal
with the drink," she said. "I guess I just wanted to hear you say it.
You don't tell on me, I don't tell on you. Is that it?"

"That's it," Quillan said. "What Ryter and Orca want to tell the Feds
doesn't matter. It stops there, the Feds will have the word on me
before they arrive. By the way, did you go wake up the Kinmartens
yet?"

"Not yet," Reetal said. "Too busy getting the office help soothed down
and back to work."

"Well, lets finish these drinks and go do that, then. The little
doll's almost bound to be asleep by now, but she might still be
sitting there biting nervously at her pretty knuckles."

       *       *       *       *       *

Major Hesler Quillan of Space Scout Intelligence, was looking unhappy.
"We're still searching for them everywhere," he explained to Klayung,
"but it's a virtual certainty that the Hlat got them shortly before it
was trapped."

Klayung, a stringy, white-haired old gentleman, was an operator of the
Psychology Service, in charge of the shipment of Hlats the _Camelot_
had brought in. He and Quillan were waiting in the vestibule of the
Seventh Star's rest cubicle vaults for Lady Pendrake's cubicle to be
brought over from the Executive Block.

Klayung said reflectively, "Couldn't the criminals with who you were
dealing here have hidden the couple away somewhere?"

Quillan shook his head. "There's no way they could have located them
so quickly. I made half a dozen portal switches when I was taking
Kinmarten to the suite. It would take something with a Hlat's
abilities to follow me over that route and stay undetected. And it
must be an unusually cunning animal to decide to stay out of sight
until I'd led it where it wanted to go."

"Oh, they're intelligent enough," Klayung agreed absently. "Their
average basic I.Q. is probably higher than that of human beings. A
somewhat different type of mentality, of course. Well, when the
cubicle arrives, I'll question the Hlat and we'll find out."

Quillan looked at him. "Those control devices make it possible to hold
two-way conversations with the things?"

"Not exactly," Klayung said. "You see, major, the government
authorities who were concerned with the discovery of the Hlats
realized it would be almost impossible to keep some information about
them from getting out. The specimen which was here on the Star has
been stationed at various scientific institutions for the past year; a
rather large number of people were involved in investigating it and
experimenting with it. In consequence, several little legends about
them have been deliberately built up. The legends aren't entirely
truthful, so they help to keep the actual facts about the Hlats
satisfactorily vague.

"The Hlat-talker is such a legend. Actually, the device does nothing.
The Hlats respond to telepathic stimuli, both among themselves and
from other beings, eventually begin to correlate such stimuli with the
meanings of human speech."

"Then you--" Quillan began.

"Yes. Eltak, their discoverer, was a fairly good natural telepath. If
he hadn't been abysmally lazy, he might have been very good at it. I
carry a variety of the Service's psionic knick-knacks about with me,
which gets me somewhat comparable results."

He broke off as the vestibule portal dilated widely. Lady Pendrake's
cubicle floated through, directed by two gravity crane operators
behind it. Klayung stood up.

"Set it there for the present, please," he directed the operators. "We
may call for you later if it needs to be moved again."

He waited until the portal had closed behind the men before walking
over to the cubicle. He examined the settings and readings at some
length.

"Hm-m-m, yes," he said, straightening finally. His expression became
absent for a few seconds; then he went on. "I'm beginning to grasp the
situation, I believe. Let me tell you a few things about the Hlats,
major. For one, they form quite pronounced likes and dislikes. Eltak,
for example, would have been described by most of his fellow men as a
rather offensive person. But the Hlats actually became rather fond of
him during the fifteen or so years he lived on their island.

"That's one point. The other has to do with their level of
intelligence. We discovered on the way out here that our charges had
gained quite as comprehensive an understanding of the functioning of
the cubicles that had been constructed for them as any human who was
not a technical specialist might do. And--"

He interrupted himself, stood rubbing his chin for a moment.

"Well, actually," he said, "that should be enough to prepare you for a
look inside the Hlat's cubicle."

Quillan gave him a somewhat surprised glance. "I've been told it's
ugly as sin," he remarked. "But I've seen some fairly revolting
looking monsters before this."

Klayung coughed. "That's not exactly what I meant," he said. "I ...
well, let's just open the thing up. Would you mind, major?"

"Not at all." Quillan stepped over to the side of the cubicle,
unlocked the door switch and pulled it over. They both moved back a
few feet before the front of the cubicle. A soft humming came for some
seconds from the door's mechanisms; then it suddenly swung open.
Quillan stooped to glance inside, straightened instantly again, hair
bristling.

"_Where is it?_" he demanded, the Miam Devil out in his hand.

Klayung looked at him thoughtfully. "Not very far away, I believe. But
I can assure you, major, that it hasn't the slightest intention of
attacking us--or anybody else--at present."

Quillan grunted, looked back into the cubicle. At the far end, the
Kinmartens lay side by side, their faces composed. They appeared to be
breathing regularly.

"Yes," Klayung said, "they're alive and unharmed." He rubbed his chin
again. "And I think it would be best if we simply closed the cubicle
now. Later we can call a doctor over from the hospital to put them
under sedation before they're taken out. They've both had thoroughly
unnerving experiences, and it would be advisable to awaken them
gradually to avoid emotional shock."

He moved over to the side of the cubicle, turned the door switch back
again. "And now for the rest of it," he said. "We may as well sit down
again, major. This may take a little time."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Let's look at the thing for a moment from the viewpoint of the Hlat,"
he resumed when he was once more comfortably seated. "Eltak's death
took it by surprise. It hadn't at that point grasped what the
situation in the Executive Block was like. It took itself out of sight
for the moment, killing one of the gang leaders in the process, then
began prowling about the various levels of the building, picking up
information from the minds and conversation of the men it encountered.
In a fairly short time, it learned enough to understand what was
planned by the criminals; and it arrived at precisely your own
conclusion ... that it might be possible to reduce and demoralize the
gangs to the extent that they would no longer be able to carry out
their plan. It began a systematic series of attacks on them with that
end in mind.

"But meanwhile you had come into the picture. The Hlat was rather
puzzled by your motive at first because there appeared to be an
extraordinary degree of discrepancy between what you were saying and
what you were thinking. But after observing your activities for a
while, it began to comprehend what you were trying to do. It realized
that your approach was more likely to succeed than its own, and that
further action on its side might interfere with your plans. But there
remained one thing for it to do.

"I may tell you in confidence, major, that another legend which has
been spread about these Hlats is their supposed inability to escape
from the cubicles. Even their attendants are supplied with this
particular bit of misinformation. Actually, the various force fields
in the cubicles don't hamper them in the least. The cubicles are
designed simply to protect the Hlats and keep them from being seen;
and rest cubicles, of course, can be taken anywhere without arousing
undue curiosity.

"You mentioned that the Kinmartens very likable young people. The Hlat
had the same feeling about them; they were the only human beings aside
from Eltak with whose minds it had become quite familiar. There was no
assurance at this point that the plans to prevent a bomb from being
exploded in the Star would be successful, and the one place where
human beings could hope to survive such an explosion was precisely the
interior of the Hlat's cubicle, which had been constructed to
safeguard its occupant against any kind of foreseeable accident.

"So the Hlat sprang your cubicle trap, removed the bait, carried the
Kinmartens inside, and whipped out of the cubicle again before the
rest current could take effect on it. It concluded correctly that
everyone would decide it had been recaptured. After that, it moved
about the Executive Block, observing events there and prepared to take
action again if that appeared to be advisable. When you had concluded
your operation successfully, it remained near the cubicle, waiting for
me to arrive."

Quillan shook his head. "That's quite an animal!" he observed after
some seconds. "You say, it's in our general vicinity now?"

"Yes," Klayung said. "It followed the cubicle down here, and has been
drifting about the walls of the vestibule while we ... well, while I
talked."

"Why doesn't it show itself?"

Klayung cleared his throat. "For two reasons," he said. "One is that
rather large gun you're holding on your knees. It saw you use it
several times, and after all the shooting in the Executive Block, you
see--"

Quillan slid the Miam Devil into its holster. "Sorry," he said. "Force
of habit, I guess. Actually, of course, I've understood for some
minutes now that I wasn't ... well, what's the other reason?"

"I'm afraid," Klayung said, "that you offended it with your remark
about its appearance. Hlats may have their share of vanity. At any
rate, it seems to be sulking."

"Oh," said Quillan. "Well, I'm sure," he went on rather loudly, "that
it understands I received the description from a prejudiced source.
I'm quite willing to believe it was highly inaccurate."

"Hm-m-m," said Klayung. "That seems to have done it, major. The wall
directly across from us--"

Something like a ripple passed along the side wall of the vestibule.
Then the wall darkened suddenly, turned black. Quillan blinked, and
the Hlat came into view. It hung, spread out like a spider, along half
the length of the vestibule wall. Something like a huge, hairy amoeba
in overall appearance, though the physical structures under the
coarse, black pelt must be of very unamoeba-like complexity. No eyes
were in sight, but Quillan had the impression of being regarded
steadily. Here and there, along the edges and over the surface of the
body, were a variety of flexible extensions.

Quillan stood up, hitched his gun belt into position, and started over
toward the wall.

"Lady Pendrake," he said, "honored to meet you. Could we shake hands?"

The End

       *       *       *       *       *





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