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´╗┐Title: D-99
Author: Fyfe, H.B.
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 "D-99" ***

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



                                 D-99

                      a science-fiction novel by

                              H. B. FYFE

                             PYRAMID BOOKS
                               NEW YORK

                                 D-99

                            A PYRAMID BOOK

                     First Printing, November 1962

           _This book is fiction. No resemblance is intended
          between any character herein and any person, living

             Copyright, 1962 by Pyramid Publications, Inc.
                          All Rights Reserved

               _Printed in the United States of America_

      PYRAMID BOOKS _are published by Pyramid Publications, Inc.,
          444 Madison Avenue, New York 22, New York, U.S.A._

      [Transcriber's Note: Extensive research did not uncover any
  evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



_ROCKETS SLAMMED PAST_


--just missing the tall, gaunt man who dodged down the stairs of the
Earth Embassy. A figure loomed in a doorway and he snapped off a quick
blaster shot at it--missed.

He'd killed one man, wounded others--and was carrying papers stolen
from the secret Embassy files. They had to stop him--but they couldn't!

--And, worlds away, the men of Department 99 watched on their
galaxy-spanning view-screen ... knowing they were responsible for this
disaster--and powerless to do anything about it!



ONE


At the ninety-fifth floor, Westervelt left the public elevator for
a private automatic one which he took four floors further. When he
stepped out, the dark, lean youth faced an office entrance whose
double, transparent doors bore the discreet legend: "Department 99."

He crossed the hall and entered. Waving at the little blonde in the
switchboard cubby to the right of the doorway, he continued a few steps
into the office beyond. Two secretaries looked up from the row of desks
facing him, a third place being unoccupied. Behind them, long windows
filtered the late afternoon light to a mellow tint.

"Did you get it all right, Willie?" asked the dark girl to his left.
"Mr. Smith wants you to take it right in. He expected you earlier."

"My flight from London was late; I did the best I could after we
landed," said Westervelt. "It took me the whole day to fetch this
gadget. At least let me get my coat off!"

He moved to his right, to a modest desk in an alcove formed by the end
of the office and the high partition that enclosed the switchboard.

"How do you find yourself inside that?" asked the other secretary, a
golden haired girl with a lazy smile. "Talk about women's clothes! The
men are wearing topcoats like tents this year."

Westervelt felt himself flushing, to his disgust. He struggled out of
the coat, removed an oblong package and a large envelope from inner
pockets, and tossed the coat on his desk.

It had hardly settled before the door at the opposite end of the
office, beyond the dark girl, was flung open. From the next room
lumbered a man who looked even lankier than Westervelt because he was
an inch or two over six feet tall. His broad forehead was grooved by a
scowl of concentration that brought heavy eyebrows nearly together over
a high-bridged nose. His chin seemed longer for his chewing nervously
upon his lower lip. He was in shirtsleeves and badly needed a haircut.

"I'm going down to the com room, Miss Diorio," he told the brunette.
"There's another weird report coming in!"

He vanished into the hall with a clatter.

His secretary looked at Westervelt, a smile tugging at the corners of
her full lips. She threw up her hands with a little flip.

"I told you to take it right in," she reminded him.

"Aw, come on, Si! What if I'd been in the doorway when he came through?"

"What is it, anyway?" asked the other girl.

Westervelt looked around as she rose. Beryl Austin, he thought, would
be a knockout if only there were less of a hint of ice about her. She
was, in her high heels, only an inch shorter than he. Her face was
round, but with a delicate bone structure that lent it an odd beauty.
Westervelt was privately of the opinion that she spoiled the effect by
wearing her hair in a style too short and too precisely arranged. _And
too bleached_, he told himself.

The talk was that before coming to the Department, she had won two or
three minor beauty contests. That might explain the meticulous make-up
and the smart blue dress that followed the curves of her figure so
flatteringly. Westervelt suspected, from hints dropped by Simonetta
Diorio, that this was insufficient qualification for being a secretary,
even in such a peculiar institution as Department 99. Of course, maybe
Smith had ideas of making her a field agent.

He held out the package in the palm of his hand.

"They said at the London lab that it was a special flashlight that
would pass for an ordinary one."

"Oh, the one for that Antares case," exclaimed Beryl. "Si was telling
me how they'll send out plans of that. Did they show you how it works?"

"It gives just a dim beam until you press an extra switch," said
Westervelt. "Then it puts out a series of dashes bright enough to hurt
your eyes."

"What in the world do they want that for?" asked Beryl.

"What in some other world, you mean! On some of these planets, the
native life is so used to a dim red sun that a flash like this on their
sensitive eyes can knock them unconscious."

"This place is just full of dirty tricks like that," said the blonde.
"Why can't they free these people some other way?"

Westervelt and Simonetta looked at each other. Beryl had been in the
Department only a few weeks, and did not yet seem to have heard the
word.

_Or understood it, maybe_, thought Westervelt. _She might not look half
so intelligent without that nice chest expansion._

"Some of them just get in trouble," Simonetta was saying. "The laws of
alien peoples we've been meeting around the galaxy don't necessarily
make sense to Terrans."

"But why can't they stay away from such queer places?"

"What would you do," asked Westervelt, "if you were in a spaceship that
blew up near a strange planetary system, and you took an emergency
rocket to land on the best looking planet, and the local bems arrested
you because they have a law against anyone passing through their system
without special permission?"

"But how can they make a law like that?" demanded Beryl.

"Who says they can't? They had a war with beings from the star nearest
them; and wound up suspicious of every kind of spaceship. We have a
case like that now."

"They've been working on it two months," Simonetta confirmed. "Those
poor men were jailed over a month before anybody even heard about them."

Beryl shrugged and turned back to her desk. Westervelt watched her
walk, thinking that the rear elevation was good too, until it occurred
to him that Simonetta might be taking in his expression. The blonde
settled herself and leaned back to stretch. He was willing to bet ten
credits that she did it just to get his goat.

"Well, the work is interesting," Beryl admitted, "but I don't see why
it can't be done by the Department of Interstellar Relations. The
D.I.R. has trained diplomats and knows all about dealing with aliens."

"Come on, now, dear!" said Simonetta. "Where do you think your paycheck
originates? Publicly, the D.I.R. doesn't like to admit that we exist.
To hide the connection, they named us after the floor we're on in this
building, and hoped that nobody would notice us."

"I knew I was getting into something crooked!" exclaimed Beryl.

"It depends," said Westervelt. "Suppose some Terran spacer is slung
into jail out there somewhere, for something that would never be a
crime in the Solar System. The D.I.R. protests, and the bems simply
deny they have him. How far can diplomacy go? We try getting him out
some other way."

He held up the "flashlight."

"Now they'll stellarfax plans of this out to Antares to our field
agents. After one is made and smuggled in to our case, all they have to
do is run in a fast ship to pick him up when he breaks out."

"Speaking of that gadget," Simonetta suggested, "why don't you take it
down to Mr. Smith? He must be waiting out the message in the com room."

Westervelt agreed. He took the package and the envelope of blueprints,
and walked into the hall. He turned first to his right, along the base
of the U-shaped corridor, then to his left after passing the door to
the fire stairs at the inner corner and the private entrance to Smith's
office opposite it.

The walls were covered by a gray plastic that was softly monotonous in
the light of the luminous ceiling. The floor, nearly black, was of a
springy composition that deadened the sound of footfalls.

Along the wing of the "U" into which he turned, Westervelt passed doors
to the department's reference library and to a conference room on his
right, and portal marked "Shaft" on his left. Beyond the latter was a
section of blank wall behind which, he knew, was a special shaft for
the power conduits that supplied the department's own communications
instruments.

The place was a self-sufficient unit, he reflected. It had its own
TV equipment and a sub-space radio for reaching far-out spaceships,
although most routine traffic was boosted through relay stations on the
outer planets of the Solar System.

Some lines of communication with the field agents were tenuous, but
messages usually got through. If the lines broke down, someone would be
sent to search the confidential files for a roundabout connection.

_I wonder how many of us would wind up in court if those files became
public knowledge?_ thought Westervelt. _I'd like to see them trying to
handle Smitty! Nobody here can figure him out all the time, and we're
at least half as nutty as he is._

Down beside the communications room, though normally reached by the
other wing of the corridor that enclosed the core of elevators, shafts
and rest rooms, the department even had a confidential laboratory.
Actually, this was more in the nature of a stock room for peculiar
gadgets and implements used for the fell purposes of the organization.
Westervelt did not like to wander about in there, for fear of setting
something off. It was more or less the domain of the one man in the
department whom he knew to have been in an alien prison.

Robert Lydman was an ex-spacer who had joined the group after having
been rescued from just such an incarceration as he now specialized in
cracking. Westervelt had been told that the sojourn among the stars had
left Lydman a trifle strange, which was probably why they no longer
used him as a field agent.

He came to the blank end of the corridor, the last door on the right
being that of the communications room. He opened it and stuck his head
inside.

The room was dimmer than the corridor. The operators, who sometimes
had to contend with much-relayed faint images on their screens, liked
it that way. They kept the window filters adjusted so that it might
as well be night outside. Here and there, small lights glowed at
various radio receivers or tape recording instruments, and there was a
pervading background rustle of static blended with quiet whistles and
mutterings.

At the moment, the operator on duty was Charlie Colborn, a quiet
redhead who kept a locker full of electronic gadgets for tinkering
during slow periods. Smith sat near him in a straight-backed chair,
watching the screen before Colborn.

A message was coming in from the Pluto relay--Westervelt recognized
the distant operator who spoke briefly to Colborn before putting the
message through. The next face, blurry from repeated boosting of the
image, was that of a stranger.

"This is Johnson, on Trident," the man said. "Capella IV tells me they
gave you the facts about Harris. That right?"

Smith hitched himself closer, so the transmitter lens could pick him
up. Westervelt tip-toed inside and found himself a stool.

"We just got the outlines," Smith said. "You say this spacer is being
held by the natives, and they won't let you communicate with him. Have
you reported to the D.I.R.?"

The distance and the relaying caused a few seconds of lag, even with
the ultra-modern sub-space equipment.

"I _am_ the D.I.R.," said the face on the screen, after a bitter pause.
"Along with several other jobs, commercial and official. There are only
a few of us Terrans at this post, you know. The natives won't even
admit they have him."

"Then how can you be sure they do? And why can't you get to him
somehow?"

"We know because he managed to get a message out--we think." Johnson
frowned doubtfully. "That is, he did if we can believe the ... ah ...
messenger. We made inquiries of the natives, but it is impossible
to make much of an investigation because their civilization is an
underwater one."

Smith noticed Westervelt.

"Willie," he whispered hastily, "get on the phone and have one of the
girls stop in the library and fetch me the volume of the _Galatlas_
with Trident in it."

Westervelt dropped his package on a table and punched Beryl's number on
the nearest phone. Meanwhile, with its weird pauses, the interstellar
talk continued.

The missing Terran, Harris by name, had insisted against all advice at
the outpost on one of the watery planet's few islands, upon conducting
submarine exploration in a converted space scout. Since ninety-five
percent of the surface of Trident was ocean, Johnson had only a vague
idea of where Harris had gone. The point was that the explorer had
been too long out of touch. The natives, a sea people of crustacean
evolution, who were to be found over most of the ocean bottom, and who
had a considerable culture with permanent cities and jet-propelled
submarine vehicles, admitted to having heard of Harris but denied
knowledge of his whereabouts.

"So we reported to the D.I.R. sector headquarters," Johnson concluded.
"They sent an expert to coax the Tridentian officials into visiting the
shallows for a conference, but nothing came of it. Then we called in
one of your field agents and he referred us to you."

Beryl entered the room quietly, bearing a large book. Westervelt held
out his hand for it, but she seemed not to see him until he rose to
offer her the stool. When he turned his attention back to the screen,
Smith was probing for information which the distant Johnson sounded
reluctant to give.

"But if they deny everything, how do you know he's not dead instead of
being held in one of their cities? Why do you think he's being made a
sort of exhibit?"

Johnson hemmed and hawed, but finally confessed.

Besides the crustaceans, who were about man-sized and
"civilized," there was another form of intelligent--or at least
semi-intelligent--life on Trident. Certain large, fish-like inhabitants
of the planet's seas had been contacted more than once to deliver
messages to the exploring members of the outpost. This was always
promptly accomplished by having one of the "fish" contact another of
the same species who was in the right location.

"_What_ did you say?" demanded Smith. "Telepathic? A telepathic _fish_?
Oh, no! Don't ask us to--Well, what I mean is ... well, how do you know
they're reliable?"

More in the same vein followed. Westervelt stopped listening when he
realized that Smith was being convinced, willing or not. Stranger
things were on record in the immensity of the known galaxy, but Smith
took the attitude that they were all a plot against Department 99.
Westervelt pried the book from Beryl's grasp and turned over pages to
the article on the planet Trident.

He skimmed the opening, which dealt with galactic co-ordinates and the
type of star at the center of the system, and did the same with the
general description of the surface and what was known of the life forms
there. The history since discovery was laconically brief.

_Here it is_, he told himself. _A species of life resembling a Terran
fish in general configuration, about twenty feet in length and
suspected of having some undetermined sense whereby individuals can
locate each other at great distances. Well, by the time it's in print,
it's outdated._

Someone turned on a brighter light, and he realized the interstellar
talk was at an end. Smith looked around. He held out his hand for the
book, seeming to take for granted that someone should have found the
page.

"I don't see _how_ we're going to reach this one," he grunted, plopping
the volume down on the table to scan the article.

Colborn snatched at a small piece of apparatus he had evidently been
assembling. Only Beryl was impressed; the others knew that Smith said
this of every new case.

"Tell Mr. Lydman and Mr. Parrish I want a conference," the department
head requested. "We'll use the room next door."

Beryl and Westervelt left Colborn examining his gadget suspiciously and
retraced their steps up the corridor. At the door to the main office,
the blonde left him, presumably to go through to the corner office
occupied by Parrish, whose secretary she was. Westervelt dwelt on the
thought of sending her on the way with a small pat, but forced himself
to continue up the other wing of the "U."

He passed two doors on his left: another conference room and a spare
office used mainly for old files. Doors to his right led to washrooms.
This end of the hall was not blank as on the other side; it had a
door labeled "Laboratory--No Admittance." The last door to the left,
corresponding to the location of the communications room, led to
Lydman's office.

Westervelt knocked, waited for the sound of a voice inside, and walked
in. For a moment, he saw no one, then pivoted to his right as he
remembered that Lydman kept his desk on the inner wall, around the
short corner behind the door. Everyone else who had a corner office sat
out by the windows.

He found himself facing a heavy man whose bleached crewcut and tanned
features bespoke much time spent outdoors. Very beautiful eyes of a
dark gray-blue regarded him steadily until Westervelt felt a panicky
urge to run.

Instead, he cleared his throat and gave Smith's message. Lydman always
had the same effect upon him for the first few minutes, although he
seemed to like Westervelt better than anyone else at the office, even
to the point of inviting him home for weekends of swimming.

_I always get the feeling that he looks right through me and back
again,_ thought Westervelt, _but I can't see an inch into him!_



TWO


Castor P. Smith sat at the head of a steel and plastic table in
the conference room, whistling thoughtfully as he waited for his
assistants. Next door in the communications room, the tortured tune his
lips emitted would have been treated as deliberate jamming. Simonetta
Diorio entered carrying a recorder, and he roused himself for a smile
of appreciation.

"You won't forget to turn it on when you start, Mr. Smith?" she pleaded.

"I'll keep my finger on the switch until then," he grinned. "Thanks,
Si."

Left alone again, he told himself he would have to do something
about the reputation he was acquiring--quite without foundation, he
believed--for being absent minded. After all, he was hardly likely to
forget to record a conference when it had been his own idea. So many
ideas were tossed around on a good day that some were bound to be lost,
unless they were down on tape. Even a good steno like Simonetta could
not guarantee to keep up with it all when two or three got to talking
at once.

Generally, he admitted to himself, he erased the tape without the
necessity of filing some brilliant solution. Still, the one in a
thousand that did turn up made the precaution worthwhile.

He stared morosely at the volume of the _Galatlas_ he had brought from
the communications room. Sometimes, in this job, he lost his sense of
galactic direction. Calls were likely to come in from stars of which he
had never heard.

_Wish I could get a little more help from the D.I.R._, he thought.
_It's more than having one secretary on vacation just now; we're always
short-handed. They never brought us up to strength since old Murphy
blew himself up in the lab with that little redhead. Maybe Willie will
grow into something. That will take years, though. We ought to have
some kind of training school._

In Smith's opinion, he should have had a larger force of full time
agents in the field, but he recognized the difficulties inherent
in the immensity of Terran-influenced space. Even recruiting was a
hit-or-miss process. He had made various working arrangements out of
chance contacts with independent spacers--he supposed that it was
unofficially expected of him--and most had worked out well. About a
dozen routine cases were currently being handled out there somewhere
by a motley group of his own men and piratical temporary help. In
addition, there were three hot cases that had required supervision from
headquarters.

_I wonder if we should stay a little late tonight?_ he asked himself.
_I hate to ask them again, but who knows what will break with this new
skull-cracker?_

He looked up as Pete Parrish entered. His dapper assistant walked
around the other end of the table and took a seat on the window side.

"I hear you have another one," he greeted Smith.

Parrish was a trim man of thirty-six or thirty-seven, just about
average in height but slim enough to seem taller. Smith was aware that
the other took considerable pains to maintain that slimness. By his own
account, he rode well and played a fast game of squash.

The wave in his dark hair was somewhat suppressed by careful grooming.
He smiled frequently, or at least made a show of gleaming teeth; but at
other times his neat, regular features were disciplined into a perfect
mask.

_Thank God that he doesn't wear a mustache!_ thought Smith. _That would
put him over the brink._

He was reasonably certain that Parrish had given the idea careful
calculation and stopped just short of the brink. That would be typical
of the man. He had been at one time a publicist, then a salesman, on
Terra and in space. Actually, he should have been a confidence man. It
was not until the Department had stumbled across him that he had found
opportunity to exercise his real talents. He was expert at estimating
alien psychology and constructing rationalizations with which to thwart
it.

Smith realized, self-consciously, that he had been staring through
Parrish. He passed one hand down the back of his neck, reminding
himself that he must get a haircut. He could not imagine why he kept
forgetting; it occurred to him every time he faced Parrish. He decided
further to wear a freshly pressed suit the next day.

Lydman padded in, glanced about the room, and sat down as near to the
door as he could without leaving an obvious gap between himself and the
others. He eyed Parrish briefly, and raised one hand to check the scarf
at his throat. Lydman dressed unobtrusively, and probably would have
preferred an old-fashioned tie to the bright neck scarves favored by
current fashion.

_I wonder why I get all the nuts?_ Smith asked himself, avoiding
the beautiful eyes by looking squarely between them. _Even the
girls--people with romantic ideas of cloak and dagger work, or the ones
that owe us favors, keep sending us peaches. Then they marry off, or go
around acting so secretive that they draw attention to us._

Sometimes, he had to admit, he would have preferred having a babe marry
and leave the department. Parrish was often helpful in such situations,
which was only fair since he created most of them. Twice divorced, the
assistant had lost none of his interest in women. He was as clever at
feminine psychology as at alien.

"Well, I suppose you've heard something of the new squawk," Smith said
to break the silence. "I just don't see how we're going to reach this
one. The damned fool got himself taken on an ocean bottom."

He proceeded to outline the facts so far reported. Parrish received
them impassively; Lydman began to scowl. The ex-spacer developed
special grudges against aliens who attempted to conceal the detention
of Terrans.

"First, let's see where we are before we tackle this," suggested Smith.
"I've given you enough on Harris to let it percolate through your minds
while we review the other cases. It looks like something we should all
be in on."

Sometimes he would put a case in the charge of one of them, but they
were accustomed to exchanging information and advice.

"This business of the two spacers who were nailed for unauthorized
entry in the Syssokan system seems about ripe," he reminded them.
"Taranto and Meyers, you remember."

"Oh, yes," said Lydman in a withdrawn tone. "The dope."

"That's right. There was no trouble getting information about them,
just in comprehending the idiot reasoning that would maintain a law
that makes it a crime to crash-land on that planet. Terra, like any
other stellar government, is permitted one official resident there.
Fortunately, we got the D.I.R. to slip him a little memo about us
before he was sent out, and this is the outcome. They may even be on
the loose right now."

"Let me see," mused Parrish. "Bob gave you the formula for something
that practically suspends animation, didn't he?"

"Yeah," said Lydman. "We figured on the bastards to carry the bodies
out and dump them. A bunch of tramp spacers is standing by to pick them
up."

"No reason why it shouldn't work," said Smith. "Variations of it have
been keeping us in business. Some day we'll slip up just by relying on
it too much, but this looks okay. How is your Greenhaven case coming,
Pete?"

Parrish hesitated before answering. He stroked the edge of the table
with well manicured fingertips as he considered.

"Maria Ringstad," he said thoughtfully. "These reporters should be more
careful, should have some knowledge of the cultures they poke into.
Greenhaven is hardly a colony to swash a buckle through. I suppose she
never thought they would bother a newswoman."

"Did you ever get the answer to what she was after on Greenhaven?"

"Nothing, just passing through!" Parrish snapped his fingers in
contempt. "She was on a space liner enroute to Altair VII to gather
material for a book. It stopped on Greenhaven to deliver a consignment
of laboratory instruments."

"Those Greenies," Lydman put in, "are as crazy as bems. What a way to
live!"

"They _have_ been described as the bluest colony ever derived from
Terra," agreed Smith. "I shudder to think of the life Pete would lead
there."

Parrish smiled, but not very deeply.

"Miss Ringstad's mistake was fairly simple-minded," he said. "They
had official prices posted in that shop she visited for souvenirs.
When they claimed to be out of the article she fancied, she had the
bad taste to offer a bonus price. On Greenhaven, this is regarded as
bribery, immorality, and economic subversion, to touch merely upon the
highlights."

Smith sighed.

"Why will these young girls run around doing--"

"I don't believe you could call her a girl, exactly," Parrish
interrupted.

"Well, this lady, then...."

"I wouldn't guarantee that either."

Smith shrugged and pursed his lips. "You'd be a better judge than I,"
he admitted innocently. "I yield to superior qualifications."

Lydman grinned. Parrish maintained his mask.

"I suppose that might make it even more dangerous for her," Smith went
on. "I forget what you said the sentence was, but suppose she starts to
get smart in jail. Would any snappy Terran humor pass there?"

"By no means!" said Parrish emphatically. "I would not expect them to
burn her at the stake in this day and age, but they _would_ talk about
it as being one of the good old ways. Fortunately, their speaking and
writing Terran makes this easy. Terrans are all black sinners, but
plenty of Terrans are necessary around the spaceports. We keep a few
agents among them. One of them is going to pull the paper trick to
spring her."

"I'd rather leave them a bomb," said Lydman, almost to himself.

Smith frequently wondered that such a rugged man should speak in so
quiet a voice. At times, Lydman used a monotone that was barely audible.

"We hope to destroy all evidence," added Parrish. "Otherwise, it will
lead to the usual diplomatic notes, and the D.I.R. will be telling us
we never were authorized to do any such thing."

"Yes," said Smith, nodding wearily. "Actually, you couldn't find our
specific duties written down anywhere; and there is _nothing_ we are
forbidden to do either--as long as it succeeds. Well, none of us will
see the day when the D.I.R. will publicly recognize us to the extent
of chopping our heads into the basket. They _have_ been yapping at me,
though, for drawing complaints in the Gerson case."

Lydman had been sitting with his gaze narrowed upon a pencil gripped in
his big fists. Now he raised his head, scenting interference in his own
project.

"How can the Yoleenites complain? They claim they don't even have
Gerson!"

"Easy!" Smith soothed him. "We have an embassy and spaceport there,
remember, that you've been relying on. You had them make some
inquiries, didn't you?"

"Had to confirm the report somehow. All we had was the story of a
kidnapping from the captain of that freighter. It might not have been
true."

"I realize that," said Smith.

"It wouldn't have been the first time a spacer got left behind because
he didn't make countdown--or because they didn't want him around at
payoff."

"Sure," Parrish agreed smoothly. "You could tell us about that."

Lydman turned to look at him, so suddenly that a silence fell among
them. Parrish averted his gaze uncomfortably, and reached into the
breast pocket of his maroon jacket for a box of cigarettes. He busied
himself puffing one alight from the chemical lighter set in the bottom
of the box.

_One day I'll have to pull them apart_, thought Smith, _and I'm not big
enough. Where does my wife get the nerve to say the neighbors don't
know what to make of an average guy like me, just because I can't talk
about my work?_

"At any rate," he said quietly, "they took the attitude that even to
ask them about the incident was insulting. It seemed to rock the top
brass."

"What do _they_ know about Yoleen?" growled Lydman, giving up his
scrutiny of Parrish.

"Not a thing, probably. They make decisions on the basis of how many
toes they've stubbed lately. Right now, it sounds like only routine
panic. That reminds me--I meant to check with Emil Starke about that."

He shoved back his chair and stepped over to a phone table nearby.
Switching on both screen and sound, he waited until the cute little
blonde at the board came on.

"Pauline, get me Emil Starke at the D.I.R., please. Extension 1563."

"Yes, Mr. Smith," said Pauline and disappeared from the screen.

In a few moments, Smith was greeting a man of about fifty, gray at the
temples to the point of appearing over-distinguished.

"Listen, Emil," he said, getting down to business after the amenities
about families and children had been observed. "I have a case on my
hands concerning a planet named Yoleen--"

The man on the screen was already nodding.

"Yes, I heard they were chewing you about that this morning," he said,
smiling. "I trust you preserved some sort of sang-froid?"

"What's in their minds?" asked Smith.

"Oh ... it seems that the Space Force is nervous over the Yoleenites.
They are unable to evaluate the culture comfortably. To cover
themselves, I imagine, they send a warning now and then on the
possibilities of hostile relations."

"Anything to it?"

Starke grimaced briefly.

"Unlikely. Some of the lads upstairs let it make them nervous."

Smith chuckled. "Upstairs," they came and went, but Starke and men like
him ran things and knew what went on.

"Then I can go ahead without covering my tracks too deeply?" he asked.
"I mean, I won't have to lie openly to my boss?"

"Give him a few days to see the other side," Starke assured him, "and
he will be demanding to know why you have not taken steps. Have them
taken by then!"

Smith thanked him for the advice, switched off, and returned to his
place at the table. Nods from the others confirmed that they had heard.

"I have a feeling about those Yoleenites," grumbled Lydman.

Smith waited for elucidation, but the big man had sunk into
contemplation. The other two eyed him, then each other. Parrish
shrugged ever so slightly. Smith gnawed at his lower lip.

"Well, then, you'll be going ahead with what you planned," he reminded
Lydman.

"Oh, sure!" answered the ex-spacer, snapping out of it. "Can't help it.
I've already sent him something useful."

The others smiled. "Something useful" was Lydman's term for a cleverly
designed break-out instrument. Smith hoped that in this case it would
not turn out to be a bomb.

"We dug a little mechanical crawler out of the files," Lydman went
on. "The Yoleenites seem to build their cities like a conglomeration
of pueblos, very intricate and with hardly any open streets. There
would probably be a hundred routes in to Gerson, even if we knew
exactly where he is. This gadget is adjusted to home on certain body
temperatures which it can detect at some distance."

"And Gerson would be the only living thing there at ninety-eight point
six."

"Exactly. Of course, the thing has a general direction and search
pattern micro-taped in. That's the best they could do, because the boys
have only a rough idea of where the cell would be."

"It sounds too easy to intercept," objected Parrish.

"That worries me a little," admitted Lydman. "It would be worse to fly
something in, and it's impossible to send anyone in because they say
they haven't got him. The gadget is set to have an affinity for dark
corners, at least."

"And how does it get him out?" pursued Parrish.

"It carries a little pocket music player with micro-tapes that will
actually play for a couple of hours. They can't tell for sure that
Gerson didn't have it with him--if they spot it at all. When he opens
the back as a little jingle in the first tune will instruct him to do,
he has a miniature torch hot enough to cut the guts out of any lock
between him and the outside."

"Someone will be watching for him, I suppose?" asked Smith.

"Sure. Once he's out of the place, the Yoleenites can hardly demand
that we give back what they say they never had. Off to the embassy with
him and onto the first ship! And I hope he kills a few of the bastards
on the way out--they won't even have grounds for an official complaint!"

The other two avoided looking at him for a moment. Parrish stirred
uneasily.

"I hope it--What I mean is, these Yoleenites give me an uneasy feeling
the same as they do you, Bob. Experience tells me that some of these
hive-like cultures think along peculiar lines. No wonder the Space
Force finds them hard to understand! I recommend that we open a general
file on them."

"It might be just as well," Smith agreed, considering. "They may give
us more business in the future."

He pushed back his chair and rose.

"Let's take a break while I see if any new reports have come in. Then
maybe we can work out something on the new mess."



THREE


Louis Taranto sat on his heels against the baked clay wall of the
cell, watching the sweat run down the face of his companion. Though
he privately considered Harvey Meyers a very weak link, he had so
far restrained himself from hinting as much. They were in this hole
together, and he might well need the blubbery loudmouth's help to get
out--if there were any way to get out.

Meyers sat on the single bench with which their jailers had provided
them, staring mournfully at the rude table upon which he rested his
elbows. He was unusually quiet, as if the heat had drained him of all
anxiety.

_Sloppy bum!_ thought Taranto. _He could at least comb his hair!_

They were allowed occasional access to toilet articles which the
Syssokans had obtained from the one Terran officially in residence on
the planet. Taranto had shaved the day before, but the other had not
bothered for more than a week. Meyers was perhaps an inch short of six
feet and must weigh two hundred pounds Terran. He had a loose mouth
between pudgy cheeks. His little blue eyes seemed always to be prying
except during periods such as the present when he was feeling sorry for
himself. He had been a medic in the same spaceship in which Taranto had
been a ventilation mechanic.

"Glad I was never sick," Taranto muttered to himself.

Meyers looked up.

"Huh?"

"I said I'm glad I was never sick," repeated Taranto deliberately,
thinking, _Let him figure that out if he can!_

"This heat's enough to make anybody sick," complained Meyers. "Why do
they have to keep us up on the top floor of the tower, anyway?"

"You expect a luxury suite in the cellar? What kind of jail were you
ever in where the prisoners got the best?"

"Who says I was ever in jail?" demanded Meyers defensively.

Taranto grinned slightly, but made no reply. After a moment, the
other returned to his study of the table. He breathed in loudly, his
shoulders heaving as if he had been running. To avoid the sight,
Taranto let his eyes wander for the thousandth time around the walls of
the square cell.

The large blocks of baked clay were turning from dun to gray in the
twilight seeping through the four small window openings. Overhead,
they curved together to form a high arch that was the peak of the
tower. Besides table and bench, the room contained a clay water jug a
yard high, a wooden bucket, a battered copper cooking pot, and a pile
of coarse straw upon which lay the two gray shirts the spacers had
discarded in the heat. In the center of the floor was a wooden trap
door which Taranto eyed speculatively.

He reminded himself that he must suppress his longing to smash the next
Syssokan head that appeared in the opening.

"It's getting near time," he remarked after a few minutes.

Meyers peered at the patches of sky revealed by the windows. They were
losing the glare of Syssokan daylight. There had been a wisp or two
of cloud earlier, but these had either blown over or faded into the
deepening gray of the sky.

"Listen at the door!" ordered Taranto, impatient at having to remind
the other.

He rose, wiped perspiration from his face with the palms of both hands,
and rubbed them in turn on the thighs of his gray pants. He was inches
shorter than Meyers, and twenty pounds or more lighter, but his bare
shoulders bulged powerfully. A little fat softened the lines of his
belly without concealing the existence of an underlying layer of solid
muscle. He moved with a heavy, padding gait, like a large carnivore
whose natural grace is revealed only at top speed.

Meyers watched him resentfully.

_Why couldn't I have made it to one of the other emergency rockets?_ he
asked himself. _Imagine a bunch of crazy savages that say even landing
here is a crime!_

He supposed that Taranto would have pointed to the sizable city where
they were held if he had heard the Syssokans called savages. Meyers
thought the trouble with Taranto was that he was too physical, too
much of a dumb flunky who spoiled Meyers' efforts to talk them out of
trouble.

_I had a better break coming_, he thought.

He wished he had been in a rocket with one of the ship's officers who
might have known about Syssoka. They would have gone into an orbit
about the planet's star and put out a call for help to the nearest
Terran base or ship. As it was, they might be given up for lost even if
the other rockets were picked up. The course they had been on before
the explosion had been designed to pass this system by a good margin.

Taranto, he recalled, had thought them lucky to have picked up the
planet on the little escape ship's instruments. Taranto, decided
Meyers, thought he was a hot pilot because he had been a few years in
space. He had not looked so good bending the rocket across that ridge
of rock out in the desert. They should have taken a chance on coming
down in the city here.

They had just about straightened themselves out after that landing
when they had seen the party of Syssokans on the way. It had not taken
them long to reach the wreck. They could even speak Terran, and no
pidgin-Terran either. Then it turned out that they did not like spacers
of any race landing without permission. There had been a war with the
next star system; and the laws now said there should be only one alien
of any race permitted to reside on Syssoka except for brief visits by
licensed spaceships.

"What's the matter with our government?" muttered Meyers.

"What?" asked Taranto, turning from one of the windows.

"I said what's the matter with the Terran Government? Why don't they
pitch a couple of bombs down here, an' show these skinny nuts who's
running the galaxy? Who are they to call us aliens?"

Taranto turned again to the eighteen inch square window, set like the
other three in the center of its wall at the level of his shoulders.

"They're posting their sentries on the city wall for the night," he
told Meyers. "The thing should be flying in here any time now."

"_If_ it comes," said Meyers grumpily. "Something will go wrong with
that too."

The other spat out the window that faced the main part of the Syssokan
city, then padded to the one opposite. Strange patterns of stars
gleamed already in the sky over the desert. The air that blew against
his damp face was a trifle cooler.

_Should I tell the slob about that?_ he wondered. _Naw--he'd try to
breathe it all! Let him sweat, as long as he listens for the Syssokans!_

Meyers had left his bench to crouch over the trap door. There was
no reason to expect their jailers, but the Syssokans had a habit of
popping up at odd times. The evening meal was usually brought well
after dark, however.

"Do you think it will really get here again?" asked Meyers. "What if
they spot it?"

Taranto grunted. He was watching something he thought was one of the
flying insects that thickened the Syssokan twilight. Seconds later, he
ducked away from the window as a pencil-sized thing with two pairs of
flailing wings darted through the opening.

It whirled about the dim cell. Meyers flapped his hands about his head.
The third time around, the insect passed within Taranto's reach; and he
batted it out of the air with a feline sweep of his left hand. It fell
against the base of the wall and twitched for a few minutes.

Meyers squinted at him, examining the slightly flattened nose and the
meaty cheeks that gave Taranto a deceptively plump look.

"You're quick, all right," he admitted. "They used to say in the ship
that you were a boxer. What made you a spacer?"

"Too short," said Taranto laconically. "Five-eight, an' I grew into a
light-heavy."

"What did that have to do with it?"

"I did all right for a while. When I could get in on them, they'd go
down an' stay down. Then they learned to stick an' run on me. It was
either grow a longer arm or quit."

"Maybe you should have quit sooner," said Meyers, for no good reason
except that he resented Taranto and blamed him for their predicament.

"Why should I?" asked Taranto, with a cold stare. "It was good money.
Even after having my eyebrows fixed, I got a nice nest-egg back on
Terra. Nothing really shows on me except the habit of a short haircut."

Meyers ran his fingers through his own unkempt hair.

"What was that for?" he asked.

"Oh ... it don't wave in the air so much when you stop a jab. Looks
better, to the judges."

Meyers grunted. _He'd like to believe it doesn't show on him!_ he
thought.

Suddenly, he bent down to place an ear against the trap door. A
petulant grimace twisted his features.

"They're on the ladder," he whispered. "Wouldn't you know?"

He straightened up and walked softly back to his bench. Taranto
remained at the window. It was a perfectly natural place for him to be,
he decided.

A few moments later, the trap door creaked up, letting yellow light
burst into the cell. It came from a clumsy electric lantern in
the grip of the first Syssokan who climbed into the chamber. Two
others followed, suggestively fingering pistols that would have been
considered crude on Terra two centuries earlier.

The individual with the light was typical of his race, a tall,
cadaverous humanoid with pale, greenish-gray skin made up of tiny
scales. His nose was flatter than that of a Terran ape, and his chin
consisted mostly of a hanging fold of scaly skin. His ears were set
very low on a narrow, pointed skull. Occasionally, they made small
motions as if to fold in upon themselves.

The Syssokans were clad in garments not unlike loose, sleeveless
pajamas, over which they wore leather harness for their weapons. The
leader's suit was red, but the other two wore a dull brown.

"Iss all ssatissfactory?" asked the one in charge, staring about the
cell with large, black eyes.

"All right," said Taranto stonily.

He thought that a Syssokan would never have answered that way. They
were vain of their extraordinary linguistic ability, and commonly spoke
three or four alien tongues. Only an unfortunate inability to control
excessive sibilance marred their Terran. Taranto felt like wiping his
face, but realized that it was only sweat.

The Syssokan prowled around the room, examining each of the simple
furnishings with a flickering glance. He took note of the food left in
the copper pot. He checked the level of water in the big jar. He found
the dead insect, which he sniffed and slipped into a pouch at his belt.
When he passed Taranto, the latter eyed him in measuring fashion.

The Syssokan halted out of reach.

"You have been warned to obey all orderss here," he said, staring
between the two Terrans.

"What's the trouble now?" demanded Meyers when it became apparent that
the poker-faced Taranto intended to say nothing.

"There wass a quesstion by the Terran we allow on the world. How can he
know of your complaints? He was told only or your ssentence."

"We told you there would be protests from our government," said
Meyers. "All we did was land on your planet in an emergency: We're only
too willing to leave. You have no right to keep us locked up in these
conditions."

"It iss a violation of our law," said the Syssokan imperturbably. "You
go automatically to jail. We permit only one of every sky people to
live here. Who could tell yours that you complain of thiss place?"

"Listen, you better be careful of us Terrans!" blustered Meyers. "We
have ways--"

"Shut up!" said Taranto without raising his voice.

He had inched forward, but stopped now as the two guards at the trap
door gave him their attention.

The Syssokan with the lantern also turned to him. Taranto looked over
the latter's shoulder. The window was black; the twilight of Syssoka
was brief.

Meyers had flushed and was scowling at him with out-thrust lower lip,
but Taranto's icy order had spilled the wind from his sails.

"Perhapss you have had too much water," suggested the Syssokan,
regarding Taranto with interest. "If you have done ssomething, it iss
besst to tell me."

Taranto returned the stare. He wondered why all the Syssokans he had
seen, though rather fragile in build, were relatively thick-waisted.
They looked to him as if a couple of solid hooks to the body would find
a soft target.

It was unlikely that the Syssokan could read the facial expression of
an alien Terran. It was probably some tenseness in Taranto's stance
that caused the native to step back.

The Terran strained his ears to pick up any unusual noise outside the
window during the pause. He heard nothing except the whir of night
insects.

Their jailer paced once more around the cell, and Taranto cursed
himself for arousing suspicion. Perhaps, he hoped, it was only
annoyance.

_But what could I do?_ he asked himself. _Let Meyers spill it?_

In the end, with Taranto answering in monosyllables and Meyers
intimidated into an unnatural reserve, the Syssokans retired. The
darkness closed in upon the Terrans as they listened to the creaking of
the ladder below the trap door.

"Give them time," advised Taranto, hearing Meyers move toward the exit.

They waited in the silent dark until Meyers could stand it no longer.

"They won't come back," he whispered.

"Well, make sure," said Taranto shortly. "Get your ear to the wood!"

He felt his way to the window that faced away from the city. After the
heat of the day, the air blowing in was almost cold; and he considered
putting on his shirt. The realization that he would have to scrabble
around the pile of straw for it gave him pause. His next thought was
that he might come up with the wrong shirt, and that discouraged him
completely.

His eyes had adjusted enough to the night to pick out the low hills of
the desert where they broke the line of the horizon. Starlight glinted
softly where there were stretches of sand. He settled down to wait, his
arms folded upon the ledge of the window.

It was nearly half an hour later, when he suspected Meyers of dozing
on the trap door, that Taranto heard something more than an insect zip
past the window. He backed away and hissed to attract Meyers' attention.

"Did it come?" whispered the other.

"I think so," answered Taranto.

A tiny hum drifted through the window. Into the opening, timidly, edged
a small, hovering shape.

"Okay," said Taranto in a low voice, even though he knew the room was
being scanned by an infra-red detector.

The shape blossomed out with a midget light. Enough of the glow was
reflected from the adobe walls to reveal that a miniature flying
mechanism the size of a man's hand had landed on the window ledge.
After a moment, its rotors ceased their whirring. Taranto jabbed
backward with an elbow as he heard Meyers creep up behind him.

"Listen at the door, dammit!" he snarled. "All we need is to get caught
at this, an' we'll be here till they turn out the sun!"

"Taranto!" piped a tiny voice from the machine. "Are you ready,
Taranto?"

"Go ahead!"

"Two pills coming out of the hold." The voice was clear enough in the
stillness of the Syssokan night.

A hatch in the belly of the little flyer slid back. Two capsules
spilled out on the window ledge. Taranto scooped them up.

"You each take one, with water," instructed the voice. "Better wait
till just before dawn. You told me they bring your food an hour later."

"That's right," whispered Taranto.

"That will give the stuff time to act. For all they can tell, you will
both be deader than a burned-out meteorite."

"Then what?"

"So they will follow their normal custom with the dead--take you out
to the desert to mummify. This thing will hover overhead to spot the
location."

"Do they just ... leave us?"

"Yes, as far as anybody has ever been able to find out. I talked to the
Capellan next door in the foreign quarter here, and he says they might
not leave you in one of their own burial grounds. Otherwise, I would
hate to take the chance of having this gadget seen in the daylight."

"All right, so we're out in the desert," said Taranto. "How does this
ship you arranged for pick us up? We'll still be out for the count."

"I plan to tell them where to touch down. I can talk louder by radio,
you know, than I can to you now. They will grab your 'bodies' and
scramble for space. Against the sunset, they may not even be seen from
the city. If they are, I never heard of them."

"Who are they?" asked Taranto.

"Some bunch hired for the job by the D.I.R.'s Department 99. Just as
well not to ask where they come from or what their usual line is."

"I ain't got any questions at all, if they get us out of here," said
Taranto.

He watched as the hatch closed itself and the tiny light blinked out.
The rotors began to spin, and two minutes later they were alone.

"Come and get yours," said the spacer.

He reached out with his empty hand to guide Meyers to him, then very
carefully delivered one of the capsules to the other.

"We're supposed to swallow that big lump?" whispered Meyers.

"Just don't lose it," admonished Taranto.

He relayed the instructions as precisely as he could.

"One thing more," he concluded. "You stay awake to make sure I stay
awake until it's time to take the stuff."

"We could take watches," suggested Meyers.

"_I_ could," said Taranto bluntly, "but I'm not sure about you. In the
second place, I ain't going to have you sleep while I don't. We're
going to play this as safe as possible."

Meyers grumbled something inaudibly. In the darkness, a sardonic smile
twisted Taranto's lips.

"If you know how," he advised, "pray! We're goin' to our funeral in the
morning."



FOUR


Westervelt sat at his little desk in the corner, doodling out possible
ways and means of breaking out of a cell thirty fathoms or so under
water. From time to time Beryl or Simonetta offered a suggestion. He
knew that everyone in the office was probably engaged in the same
puzzle. Smith believed in general brain-storming in getting a project
started, since no one could tell where a good idea might not originate.

"If I ever get into space," Willie muttered, "it will never be to a
planet as wet as Trident. What ever made this Harris think he was a
pearl diver?"

"Is that what he was after?" asked Beryl.

"No, I just made that up."

He glanced over at Simonetta, who winked and continued with the letter
she was transcribing. An earphone reproduced Smith's dictation from
his tape. As she listened, she edited mentally and spoke into the
microphone of her typing machine, which transcribed her words as type.
Westervelt realized that it was more difficult than it seemed to do
the job so smoothly. He had noticed Beryl rewriting letters two or
three times, and Parrish was more likely than the boss to set down his
thoughts in a logical order.

"I've heard so many wild ideas in this office," said Beryl, "that I
simply don't know where to start. How do they decide on a good way?"

"They guess, just the way we've been doing. They're better guessers
than we are, from experience."

"It's just a matter of judgment, I suppose," Beryl admitted.

"They make their share of mistakes," Simonetta put in.

"Yeah, I read an old report on a great one," said Westervelt. "Ever
hear of the time they were shipping oxygen tanks to three spacers
jailed out around Mizar?"

Simonetta stopped talking her letter, and the girls gave Willie their
attention.

"It seems," he continued, "that an exploring ship landed on a planet of
that star and found a kind of civilization they hadn't bargained for.
The natives breathed air with a high chlorine content; so when they
grabbed three of the crew for hostages, the ship had to keep supplying
fresh tanks of oxygen."

"How long could they keep that up?" asked Beryl.

"Not indefinitely, anyway. They weren't recovering any carbon dioxide
for processing, the way they would in the ship. The captain figured
he'd better lift and orbit while he tried to negotiate. Meanwhile, he
sent to the Department for help, and they came up with a poor guess."

"What?"

"They got the captain to disguise some spacesuit rockets as oxygen
tanks and send them down by the auxiliary rocket they were using to
make deliveries and keep contact. The idea was that the prisoners would
fly themselves over the walls like angels, the rocket would snatch them
up, and they'd all filter the green-white light of Mizar from their
lenses forever."

"And why didn't it work?"

"Oh, it worked," said Westervelt. "It worked beautifully. The only
trouble was that when they got these three guys aboard and were picking
up stellar speed, they found that the Mizarians had pulled a little
sleight of hand. They'd stuck three of their own into the Terran
spacesuits--pretty cramped, but able to move--and sent them to spy out
the ship. Well, the captain took one look and realized it was all over.
He couldn't supply the Mizarians with enough chlorine to keep them
alive until they could be sent back. He just kept going."

"But the men they left behind!" exclaimed Beryl. "What happened to
them?"

Westervelt shrugged.

"They never exactly found out."

Beryl, horrified, turned to Simonetta, who stared reflectively at the
wall.

"For all we know," said the dark girl, "they were dead already."

"It was about even," said Westervelt. "The Mizarians never heard
exactly what happened to theirs either."

There was a period of silence while they considered that angle.
Simonetta finally said, "Why don't you tell her about the time they
gave that spacer the hormone treatment for a disguise?"

"Oh ... you tell it," said Westervelt, trapped. "You know it better
than I do."

"That one," began Simonetta, "happened on a world where there's a
colony from Terra that isn't much talked about. It's a sort of Amazon
culture, and they don't allow men. They were set to execute this fellow
who smuggled himself in for a lark, when the Department started
shipping him drugs that changed his appearance."

Westervelt admired Beryl's wide-eyed intentness.

"Finally," Simonetta continued, "his appearance changed so much that
he could dress up and pass for a woman anywhere. He just walked out
when the next scheduled spaceship landed, and was halfway back to Terra
before they finished searching the woods for him. It made trouble,
though."

"What happened?" breathed Beryl.

"They never quite succeeded in changing him back. His wife wound up
divorcing him for infidelity when he gave birth to twins."

Beryl straightened up abruptly.

"Oh...! You--come on, now!"

Westervelt reminded himself that the blush must have resulted less
from the joke than from having been taken in. They were still laughing
when a buzzer sounded at Beryl's desk phone. She flipped the switch,
listened for a moment, then rose with a toss of her blonde head at
Westervelt.

"Mr. Parrish wants me to help him research in the dead files," she
said. "I bet _he_ won't try that kind of gag on me!"

"No," muttered Westervelt as she strode out, "he has some all his own."

He looked up to find Simonetta watching him with a grin. She shook her
head ruefully as Westervelt grew a flush to match Beryl's.

"Willie, Willie!" she said sadly. "You aren't letting that bottle
blonde bother you? I didn't think you were that kind of boy!"

Westervelt grinned back, at some cost.

"Is there another kind?" he asked. "After, all, Si, she's only been
around a few weeks. It's the novelty. I'll get used to her."

"_Sure_ you will," said Simonetta.

She returned to her letters, and Westervelt hunched over his desk
to brood. He wondered what Parrish and Beryl were up to in the file
room. He could think of no innocent reason to wander in on business of
his own. Perhaps, he reflected, he did not really want to; he might
overhear something he would regret.

He passed some time without directing a single thought to the problems
of the Department. Then the door beyond Simonetta opened and Smith
strolled out. He carried a pad as if he, too, had been doodling.

"Well, Willie," he said cheerfully, "what are we going to do about this
Harris fellow?"

"All I can think of, Mr. Smith, is to offer to trade them a few people
we could do without," said Westervelt.

Smith grinned. He seemed to be willing to make up a little list.

"Some who never would be missed, eh? And let's head the page with
people who take messages from thinking fish!"

He pottered about for a few moments before winding up seated on a
corner of the unoccupied secretarial desk.

"I was actually thinking of skin divers," he confided. "Then I realized
that if it takes a twenty foot monster to wander the undersea wilds of
Trident without being intimidated, maybe those waters wouldn't be too
safe for Terran swimmers."

"Unless they could get one of the monsters for a guide," suggested
Westervelt.

The three of them pondered that possibility.

"I can see it now," said Simonetta. "My name Swishy. Me good guide. You
want find pearl? Not allowed here; we no steal from other fish!"

They laughed, and Smith demanded to know how one _thought_ in pidgin
talk. They discussed the probability of fraud in the reports that Smith
had received, and concluded reluctantly that, whether or not some trick
might be involved, there was bound to be some truth in the story.

"I suppose we'll have to use this fishy network to locate him," sighed
Smith at last. "It would take too long to ship out parts of a small sub
to be assembled on Trident. The whole thing makes me wonder if I'll
ever eat another seafood dinner!"

"Maybe somebody else will think of something," said Westervelt, partly
to conceal the fact that he himself had come up with nothing.

"Tell you what," said Smith, nodding. "Suppose you go along and see how
Bob Lydman is making out, while I sign these letters. You might check
at the com room sometime, too, in case anything else on the case comes
in."

Westervelt agreed, made sure he had something in his pocket to write
upon should the need arise, and left.

A few minutes later, he reached the end of the corridor, having cocked
an ear at the door of the old file office as he passed and heard Beryl
giggling at some remark by Parrish. He unclenched his teeth and knocked
on Lydman's door.

He waited a minute and tried again, but there was still no answer.

He hesitated, wondering what would happen should he walk in and find
that Lydman was physically present but not in a mood to recognize any
one else's existence. Slowly, he walked back to the washroom on the
opposite side of the hall.

Washing his hands with deliberation, Westervelt decided that it might
be best to get Lydman on the phone. He could not, in fact, understand
why inside phone calls were not more popular in the office. He supposed
that the face-to-face habit had grown up among the staff, probably
reflecting Smith's preference for getting everyone personally involved
in everything. There might even be a deeper cause--they were so often
in contact with distant places by the tenuous beaming of interstellar
signals that there must be a certain reassurance and sense of security
in having within physical reach the person to whom one was speaking.

"I'll have to watch for that if I stay here long enough," Westervelt
told himself. "You don't have to be a prizefighter to get punchy, I
guess."

He examined himself critically in the mirror over the sink, thinking
that he could do with a neater appearance. A coin in the slot of a
dispenser on the wall bought him a disposable paper comb with which he
smoothed down his dark hair.

_I need a haircut almost as bad as Castor P._ he thought. _I wonder if
that really stands for Pollux? What a thing for parents to do! On the
other hand, from people that came up with one like him, you'd expect
almost anything!_

No one came in while he was in the washroom, much as he would have
welcomed an excuse for conversation. He dawdled his way through the
door into the corridor, not liking the thought of inflicting his
presence upon Beryl and Parrish. That meant he would have to walk back
as far as the spare conference room to find a phone.

"Of course, there's the lab," he muttered.

That was only a few steps away, and he could hardly do much damage
between the door and the phone.

Reaching the end of the corridor once more, he decided to make one last
try at Lydman's door. Again, there was no reply to his knock, so he
turned away to the laboratory door and entered.

He was faced by a vista of tables, workbenches with power tools, and
diverse assemblies of testing apparatus, most of the latter dusty and
presenting the appearance of gold-bergs knocked together for temporary
use and then shoved aside until someone might need a part from one
of them. By far the greater space, however, was occupied by shelves
and crates and stacks of small cartons or loosely wrapped packages
in which various gadgets seemed to be stored after plans of them had
been transmitted to the field. Half a dozen large files for drawings
and blueprints reached nearly to the ceiling. Racks of instruments in
relatively recent use or consideration stood here and there among the
tables and workbenches.

To Westervelt's right, near the far wall behind which lay the
communications room, he caught sight of a prowling figure. He
recognized Lydman's broad shoulders and hesitated.

The ex-spacer had paused to examine a gadget lying on one of the
tables. From Westervelt's position, it appeared to be a wristwatch or
something similar. Lydman picked it up and turned toward a part of
the wall where a thick steel plate had been fastened to an insulated
partition of brick. He raised the "watch" to eye level, as if aiming.

A thin pencil of white flame leaped from the instrument to spatter
sparks against the already scarred and stained steel. Sucked up by
the air-conditioning, the small puff of smoke disappeared so quickly
that Westervelt realized that the scorched odor was entirely in his
imagination.

Lydman replaced the instrument casually before strolling over to
another table. He inspected an open pack of cigarettes with a grim
smile, but let them lie there in plain sight. Westervelt reminded
himself never to grub one of those, just on general principles. Lydman
went on to a small cylinder somewhat larger than an old-fashioned
battery flashlight. Something clicked under his finger, and from one
end of the cylinder emerged the folding blades of a portable fan. The
ex-spacer pressed a second switch position to start them spinning. He
turned the fan to blow across his face, as if to check its cooling
power, then held the thing at arm's length as he thumbed the switch to
a third position.

A low, humming sound reached Westervelt. It rose rapidly in pitch until
it passed beyond his hearing range. He shook his head slightly. For
some reason, he found it difficult to concentrate. Perhaps Lydman's
presence, unexpected as it was, had upset him, he thought. He decided
that he must be getting a dizzy spell of some sort. Then he became
concerned lest he turn nauseous.

The final stage, hardly a minute after Lydman had last moved the
switch, found Westervelt tensing as a wave of sheer panic swept over
him.

He stepped back toward the door, noticing dizzily that Lydman wore a
strange expression too. Part of the youth's mind wondered if some of
the ultra-sonic effect were reflected from the walls to the ex-spacer;
another part insisted upon leaving the scene as hastily as possible.

He got himself into the corridor again, actually panting as he eased
the door closed behind him. He started to walk, finding his knees
a trifle loose. Passing the washroom, he hesitated; but he decided
that he could make it to the conference room. Once there, however, he
slipped inside and sat down to recover.

"What does it take to have a mind like that?" he whispered to, himself.
"It's like a hobby to him. I think some day I ought to look for a job
with reasonably normal people!"

A few minutes of peace and quiet refreshed him. He returned to the main
office, just as Smith was surrendering a stack of signed letters to
Simonetta Diorio. They looked around as he entered.

"Well, Willie, did he have anything going?" asked Smith.

"I ... uh ... he was kind of busy," said Westervelt.

"What did he seem to have in mind?" Smith started to reach for
Simonetta's phone switch.

"He ... that is ... I didn't ask him. He was ... busy, in the lab."

"Oh," said Smith.

He peered at Westervelt's expression, and added, "Then ... perhaps we'd
better not disturb him. It might spoil any ideas he's putting together."

Westervelt managed a grunt of assent as he turned to walk back to his
desk.

_Whatever he's putting together_, he thought, _I'd rather stay out of
the way._

He hunched over his desk, staring unseeingly at the notes he had
scribbled earlier. He was vaguely conscious of the cessation of talk in
the background, but he did not notice Simonetta's approach until the
girl stood beside him.

"What happened, Willie?" she asked. "You look as if he threw you out."

"No. Not deliberately, anyhow," said Westervelt. "At least, I don't
_think_ he knew I was even there--although how can you tell if he
doesn't want to let on?"

He told her what had happened in the laboratory. She nodded
thoughtfully.

"I suppose it has its uses," said Westervelt. "I hate to think of the
way he plays around with things in there. Wasn't there a time when
someone killed himself in that lab?"

"That was years ago," said Simonetta.

She hugged herself as if feeling a sudden chill, her large, soft eyes
serious. Westervelt realized that she was actually a very beautiful
girl, much more so than Beryl, and he wondered why he felt so
differently about them. Simonetta seemed too nice to fit the ideas he
got concerning Beryl. Something told him that his thinking was mixed up.

_I guess you just grow out of that_, he reflected silently. _Maybe
they're the same under the skin._



FIVE


When Beryl walked in, Westervelt was at one of the tall windows with
Simonetta, dialing filter combinations to make the most of the setting
sun. They had the edge of it showing as a deep crimson ball beside
another building in the vicinity.

"What are you two doping out?" asked the blonde. "Some disappearing
trick?"

Simonetta laughed as Westervelt shoved the dial setting to afternoon
normal.

"It's an idea," he said, scowling at Beryl.

"For underwater?" she demanded mockingly.

"Ever hear of a squid?" retorted Westervelt. "_They_ hide themselves
underwater. Maybe a cloud of dye would be as good as a filter."

"Willie, that _is_ an idea!" said Simonetta. "You ought to tell Mr.
Smith."

Westervelt looked at her sourly. Now Beryl knew that they really had
been wasting time, and had a point to score against him in their next
exchange.

_Oh, well. I can't hold a thing like that against Si_, he thought. _I
can think of people who'd be on the way to Smitty already, calling it
their own idea._

Beryl had done a ladylike collapse into her chair and crossed her legs.
She dug into her purse for cigarettes and requested a light.

"Why don't you buy a brand with a lighter in the box?" asked Westervelt.

Nevertheless, he walked over to the switchboard cubicle for the office
desk lighter that had been appropriated by Pauline. Returning with it
after a moment, he lit Beryl's cigarette and inquired, "Well, what did
you and Parrish dig up?"

"I don't know," she sighed, leaning back, "but, boy, did we dig!"

"Yeah, I thought I heard the shovel clink once," said Westervelt,
thinking of the laughter he had heard through the door of the dead file
office.

Beryl, concerned with her own complaints, ignored him.

"We must have looked up thirty or forty cases," she went on. "I never
even heard of most of those places on the newscasts!"

"Did he find anything that gave him an idea?" asked Simonetta.

"Not a thing! There seemed to be some real crazy spots in the records,
but nobody ever got in jail at the bottom of an ocean."

"You'd think it would have happened sometime," said Simonetta
thoughtfully.

"I suppose," suggested Westervelt, "that on any planet where Terrans
were taken underwater, they didn't live long enough to be one of our
cases. On a place like Trident, they usually wouldn't have any trouble.
They'd stay on land, and any local life would stay in the sea. It took
a nut like Harris to go poking around where he wasn't wanted."

"That's what Mr. Parrish hinted," said Beryl. "All I know is that it
sounds like a story out of a laughing academy. They shouldn't allow
them to get into places like that."

"Then we'd all be looking for work," said Westervelt. "Don't complain,
Beryl--maybe it will happen to you someday."

The blonde shivered and turned to face her desk.

"Not me," she declared. "I'm staying on Terra, even if they do offer me
a field trip as a sort of vacation."

_Ah, he's already started that line on her, thought Westervelt. I
wonder if there's anything in the files on how to spring a secretary
from a penthouse?_

Lydman and Parrish walked in, the latter pausing to exchange remarks
with Pauline, the switchboard operator. A moment later, Smith opened
his door as if expecting someone. He must have phoned them for a
change, Westervelt realized.

"Oh, there you are, Willie," said the chief. "I suppose you might as
well sit in on this too. We might need something, and meanwhile, you
can be picking up a tip or two."

Westervelt rose and followed the others into Smith's office, where he
took a chair by the window. The others clustered around the chief's
desk, a vast plateau of silvery plastic strewn with a hodge-podge of
papers and tapes.

The office itself was like a small museum. The walls were lined with
photographs, mostly of poor quality but showing "interesting" devices
that had been used in various department cases. The ones in which the
color was better usually showed Smith in company with two or three
men wearing space uniforms and self-conscious looks. Sometimes, a more
assured individual was shown in the act of presenting some sort of
memento or letter of appreciation to Smith. Lydman and Parrish also
appeared in several of the pictures.

_The record of our best cases_, thought Westervelt. _The bad ones are
buried in the files._

Standing along the walls, or on little tables and bases of their
own, were a good many models of spaceships, planetary systems, and
non-humanoid beings. A few of the latter statues were enough to have
made Beryl declare she was perfectly happy to stay out of Smith's
office and be someone else's secretary. One model, which Westervelt
secretly longed to examine at leisure, showed an entire city with its
surrounding landscape on a distant planet.

Westervelt tore his attention from the mementoes and turned toward the
group as Smith settled himself behind the desk.

"This is no longer even approximately funny," said the department head.
"I've had a few calls put through. Do you know how little we're going
to have to work with?"

"I gather that it is not very much," said Parrish calmly.

"There are less than fifty Terrans on that whole planet!" declared
Smith, running the fingers of one hand through his already untidy hair.
"The nearest colony or friendly spaceport from which we could have
equipment sent in is twenty odd lightyears away."

"Well, that could be done," said Lydman mildly.

"Oh, of course, it could be done," admitted Smith. "But how long do
we have to fool around? We don't know under what conditions Harris is
being held."

Parrish leaned forward to rest his elbows on Smith's desk.

"We can deduce some of them pretty well," he suggested. "In the first
place, if he got out several messages--which we'll have to assume he
did--they must have found some means of providing him with air."

"He could have lived a while on the air in this submarine he built,"
said Lydman.

"Yes, but in that case, he would have used its radio for communication.
We have to assume that they pried him out somehow, no?"

The others nodded.

"He wouldn't last too long in a spacesuit, even if they pumped in air
under pressure," said Lydman judiciously.

"So they must have built some kind of structure to house him, if only a
big tank," said Parrish.

Westervelt stirred, then closed his mouth rather than interrupt.
Smith, however, had seen the motion and looked up.

"Speak up, Willie," he invited. "It won't sound any sillier than
anything else that's been said in this room."

"I ... I was wondering about these Tridentians," said Westervelt.
"Does anybody know how they live? Do they have cities built on the sea
bottom?"

"If they have water jet vehicles, they certainly have the technical--"

Smith stopped as he saw Parrish lean back and roll his eyes toward the
ceiling.

"What now, Pete?" he demanded apprehensively.

"I don't know why that didn't occur to me sooner," groaned Parrish. "A
hundred to one they have a nomadic set-up. It would be typical, with an
environment like that. This is worse than we thought."

"You mean," muttered Smith after a few moments of silence, "how can we
get a direction fix on a thought?"

"Something like that," said Parrish. "I suppose they have bases, where
they keep permanent manufacturing facilities. Probably set up at points
where they have access to minerals--unless they know how to extract
what they need from the water itself."

"Nothing hard about that," agreed Smith. "I'll have to send out a few
more questions. Of course, they'll take the attitude that I should be
doing something instead of asking about irrelevant subjects...."

"We're used to that," smiled Parrish, showing his beautiful teeth.

Westervelt wondered how broadly he would smile if it were his own
responsibility. He had an idea that Parrish might be rather less than
half as charming if he were running the operation and not getting much
help from the others in solving the problem. He had to admit, however,
that the man had a knack for spotting alien culture patterns. When he
had asked his question about the cities, it was merely because he had
half-pictured some Terran-style dome underwater and knew that that
image was unlikely.

"Anyway," Parrish was going on, "we should probably think of them as
being free as birds to go where they like. Even before they developed
machines, they probably migrated about their world by swimming. I
gather that these other ... fish, I suppose we'll have to call them...."

"Thinking fish!" murmured Smith sadly. He ran his hand through his hair
again.

"I suppose those things still do, besides other types we still haven't
heard of, which would fill the place of Terran animals. So, then--we'll
have to look for temporary locations and think in terms of a fast raid
rather than a careful penetration."

"If we could find them, there must be some way we could armor a few
spacesuits against pressure and drop down on them," said Lydman. "I
think I can dig up a weapon or two that will work underwater in a way
these clams never thought of."

"Maybe we could do better to have Swishy the thinking fish hypnotize
them into bringing Harris back," said Westervelt.

They looked at him thoughtfully, and he was horrified to see his joke
being taken seriously. He squirmed in his chair by the window, wishing
he had kept his mouth shut.

"I wonder ..." mused Smith. "If they can actually exchange thoughts...."

"They might have natural defenses," said Parrish tentatively.

"What could we bribe a fish with?" asked Lydman, but hopefully rather
than derisively.

Smith made another note, then drummed his fingers on his desk top. The
four of them sat in silence. Westervelt hoped that the others were
engaged in more productive thoughts than his own. It was nice to have
their attention, and get the reputation of a bright young man who came
up with suggestions; but when they decided upon some reasonable course
of action they might remember him for making a foolish remark.

"Willie," said Smith, coming to a decision, "circulate around and ask
the others if they can stick it out a couple of hours tonight. Maybe
there's time to pry some useful information out of Trident, and at
least get something started before we close down. If I know some guy
out in space is working on it, I can sleep anyway."

Westervelt left his place by the window and went into the outer office.
He told Simonetta and Beryl. The latter acted less than thrilled.
Westervelt wondered jealously what kind of date she had scheduled for
the evening. He stopped at the window of the switchboard cubbyhole.

"Oh, it's you, Willie!" exclaimed Pauline.

"Yeah, you can turn on the projector again," he grinned. "What is it, a
love movie?"

Pauline edged a small tape projector out from behind the side of her
board.

"It's homework, if you have to know," she told him.

"That's right, you still go to college," Westervelt recalled. "Why
don't you switch to alien psychology? Then you could qualify for office
manager around here."

"When do we have alien visitors here? Once in a ringed moon!"

"Who is to say which are the aliens?" said Westervelt. "There are days
when I think I could feel more understanding to something with twelve
tentacles and a tank of chlorine than to a lot of the mentalities that
get loose right in this office. There's a crash program on for the
evening, by the way, and Smitty wants the staff to hang on a while."

A look of dismay flashed over Pauline's youthful features.

"I know; you have a class tonight," Westervelt deduced. "Chuck it all.
Stay in the file room with Mr. Parrish and you'll learn twice as much."

Pauline offered to throw the projector at him, but laughed. Westervelt
told her that no one would miss her if she connected a few of the main
office phones to outside lines and hooked up the communications room
with Smith's desk.

He left her wondering if she ought to stay anyhow, and headed for the
hall. Halfway along to the communications room, he heard the elevator
doors open and close. He stopped and looked back.

Around the corner strolled one of the TV men, Joe Rosenkrantz.
Westervelt looked at his watch and realized that it was a shift change
for the communications personnel, who kept touch with the universe
twenty-four hours a day.

_In case someone somewhere makes a dumb mistake like Harris_,
thought Westervelt. _They overdo it a little, I think. I suppose
it's the typical pride and joy of Terran technical culture to signal
halfway across the galaxy to fix something that might have been
cured beforehand when Harris was a little boy. I wonder what the
psychologists should have done about me to keep me out of a place like
this?_

"Hello, Willie," said Rosenkrantz, catching up. "Going to the com room?"

Westervelt admitted as much, and gave the operator a brief outline of
the afternoon's developments. Rosenkrantz remained unperturbed.

"Hope they don't get intoxicated with ingenuity, and insist on sending
messages all over," he grunted. "I was looking forward to a quiet night
shift."

They went in to tell Colborn, who took it well. He pointed out to
Westervelt that he would in no case have been concerned with the
overtime operation. When he was relieved, he was relieved--period.

"I forget this crazy place the minute the elevator door closes behind
me," he said grinning, having handed over to Rosenkrantz his log and a
few unofficial comments about traffic he had heard during recent hours.
"There are some who wait till they hit the street, but I believe in
a clean cut. I walk in, push 'Main Floor,' and everything else goes
blank."

He went out the door, refusing to dignify their jeers by any defense,
and made for the elevators. By the time he reached the corner of the
hall, he had slipped into his topcoat. He pushed the button to call the
elevator.

When it arrived, Colborn stepped inside and rode down to the
ninety-fifth floor. He switched to a public express elevator, which
picked up several other people before becoming an express at the
seventy-fifth floor.

"Lived through it again," he muttered to a man next to him as they
reached the main floor.

He joined the growing stream of office workers flowing through the
lobby of the building, taking for granted the kaleidoscopic play of
decorative lights on the translucent ceiling. He noticed them when they
suddenly went out.

There was first silence, then a babble of voices until small emergency
lights went on. Someone spoke of a fuse blowing. Colborn looked
outside, and saw no street lights or illuminated signs. His first
thought was power for his set upstairs.

"No, that's special," he told himself, "but I'd better call and see if
the elevators are working."



SIX


For a jail cell, the chamber was quite commodious. The walls were
of bare stone, like most of the buildings on Greenhaven which Maria
Ringstad had visited during her short period of sightseeing. She
thought that it must have entailed a great deal of extra labor to
provide such large rooms in a stone building, especially when the
materials had to be quarried by relatively primitive means.

On Greenhaven, everything had evidently been done the hard way. She
had heard about that facet of the Greenie character before leaving the
ship, and she now wished that she had listened more carefully. It was
difficult to picture in her mind just how far away that spaceship was
by this time.

That had been the worst, the feeling of having been abandoned.

Meanwhile, having turned up her nose at the sewing chores they had
assigned to her but having nothing else to occupy her, she sat on the
edge of the austere wooden shelf that doubled as a bed and a bench. The
Greenie guard standing in the doorway looked as if he had expected to
find the sewing done.

"Can't you understand, honey?" said Maria lightly. "You can cart that
basket of rags away. I have no intention of sticking my fingers with
those crude needles you people use."

The Greenie was a short, sturdy young man, uniformed in the drabbest of
dun-colored clothing. A shirt with a high, tight collar starched like
cardboard held his chin at a dignified elevation. It also seemed to
keep his eyes wide open, Maria thought, unless that was his naturally
naive expression.

"Did anyone ever tell you those hats would make good spittoons?" she
asked.

"It is forbidden to speak vainly of any correction official," said the
young man stiffly.

"Correction official!" echoed Maria. "Look, honey, don't kid with me! I
bet you're just a janitor here. If I thought you were a real official,
who might be cuddled into letting me out of this cage, I'd be a lot
more friendly."

She gave him an amiable grin. It was not returned.

The Greenie stood gripping the thick edge of the blank wooden door
until his knuckles whitened. He looked like a man who had just
discovered a worm in his apple. Half a worm, in fact.

"Now, I may be pushing thirty-five," said Maria, "but I _know_ I don't
look _that_ bad. Actually, alongside your Greenie girls, I stack up
pretty well, don't you think? For one thing, I'm shorter than you are.
For another, I fill out my clothes and don't look like a skinny old
horse."

"You ... you ... are not ... dressed as an honest woman," the guard got
out.

Sitting on the edge of the wooden bunk, Maria crossed her knees--and
thought he would choke. She tugged slightly at the short skirt that had
attracted so many lowering stares when she had strolled down the main
street of First Haven. She was used to being among men, but this poor
soul was outside her experience.

Maria Ringstad was aware of both her visual shortcomings and
attractions. After a month here, her hair was beginning to grow in
darker and less auburn. She was a trifle solid for her five-feet-four,
but that came of having a durable frame. Her face was squarish, with
a determined nose, and her hazel eyes looked green in some lights. On
the other hand, she had a nice smile, and she had spent much time in
places where few women went. She was used to being popular with the
opposite sex, even in face of competition from members of her own. In
the Greenie women, with their voluminous, drab dresses and hangdog
expressions devoid of the least make-up, she saw little competition.

"Really," she said, "no one else would think of me as a criminal. I
just tried to buy a picture in that little shop. Then the heavens fell
in on me."

"The heavens do not fall on Greenhaven," said the guard firmly.

"Well, anyway, some very sour characters trumped up all sorts of
charges against me, and here I am. But I didn't _do_ anything!"

"The attempt is equal to the deed!"

Maria shook her head and sighed. She stood up and took a few steps
toward him.

"You must keep your place," ordered the young man, with an undercurrent
of panic in his tone. "I have not come to debate justice with you. You
have sinned and you have been sentenced."

_I bet he'd faint if I threw my arms around him_, thought Maria.

"But what was the sin, honey?" she demanded. "You'd think I'd written a
bad article about Greenhaven for my syndicate. Honestly, I didn't even
have time to see the place."

The young man released the edge of the door, but still looked worried.

"Greenhaven was founded by colonists who sought liberty and were
willing to create a haven for it by the sweat of their brows," he
informed her. "Conditions were inhospitable. There were plagues to test
their faith and ungainly beasts to test their courage. What has been
built here has been built by a great communal struggle, and it is not
to be hazarded by the sinful attitudes of old Terra, and--you should
have paid the listed price."

"But he wouldn't sell me one at that price when I offered it!"

"Then he did not have one. You attempted to bribe him."

"Well, it was just a friendly offer," said Maria, straightening her
skirt. "It didn't amount to anything."

"On the contrary, it amounted to bribery, immorality, and economic
subversion. Procedures such as purchase and merchandising must be
strictly regulated for the good of the community. We cannot permit
chaos to intrude upon the peace of Greenhaven."

"You know, honey," she remarked, studying him with her head cocked to
one side, "you talk like a book. A very old book."

The guard rolled his eyes toward the hall. He relaxed for the first
time, in order to lean back and listen to something in the corridor.

"I must caution you to cease addressing me as 'honey,'" he said in a
lower voice. "I hear the steps of my superior."

Maria laughed, a silvery ripple that made the young man grit his teeth.

"Maybe he's jealous," she suggested. "Or bored. What do you fellows
have to do, anyway, except go around handing out cell work and picking
it up?"

"There is no place on Greenhaven for idle hands," said the young man,
eyeing the untouched sewing with disapproval.

"Isn't there ever any excitement? How often does someone try to escape?"

"It is forbidden to escape," said the guard soberly. He looked as if he
wished that he himself could escape.

Heavy steps halted outside the door of the cell to signal the arrival
of the chief warden. The latter turned a severely inquiring stare upon
the young man, who hastily stepped aside to admit his chief.

"Have you been conversing with the prisoner?" asked the older man.

He was clad in a similar uniform with, perhaps, a slightly higher
collar. His dark-browed features reflected greater age and asceticism.
Otherwise, Maria thought ruefully, there was little to choose between
them. He seemed to have a chilling effect upon the guard.

"Only in the line of duty, sir," the young man responded.

The warden spotted the basket of undone work. He frowned.

"This should have been attended to long ago," he said. "What excuse can
there be?"

Maria planted both hands on her hips.

"Plenty!" she announced. "In the first place, you have no right to hold
a Terran citizen in a hole like this. In the second, that ridiculous
five year sentence is going to be appealed and cancelled as soon as the
Terran consul gets things moving."

"That is at least doubtful," retorted the warden, favoring her with
a wintry smile which raised the corners of his mouth an eighth of an
inch. "Meanwhile, there are methods we can use to enforce obedience.
Would you rather I summon some of the women of the staff?"

"I'd rather you'd explain to me what was so awful about trying to buy a
picture of the city in that little shop? If they weren't for tourists
to buy, why did they have them?"

"Such nonsensical objects are provided for tourists and others who
must from time to time be admitted to Greenhaven. That does not excuse
flouting our laws and seeking to cause dissatisfaction through the
example of bribery. The city of First Haven has been wrung from the
wilderness, but the struggle to complete our building of the colony
must not be hindered or subverted. It is necessary--"

"Aw, hell! You talk like a book too!" exclaimed Maria.

The two men stared at her, silent, wide-eyed, utterly shocked at this
open evidence of dementia.

"The price list is sacred to you," she snapped, "but it's all right to
put that junk on sale to clip the tourists, isn't it? Why doesn't that
strike you as being immoral? They're no good, but their money is, is
that it?"

She turned and stalked back to the shelf-bed, where she sat down and
deliberately crossed her legs.

"You will not be required further," the warden told the young man. "See
that you spread not the plague by repeating any of this Jezebel's loose
talk!"

The guard left hurriedly. Maria discovered the warden gaping at her
knees, and defiantly tossed her head.

"You never see a leg before?" she demanded. "Or are all the Greenie
girls bowlegged? Is that why they wear those horrible Mother Hubbards?"

She gave her skirt a malicious twitch, revealing a few more inches of
firm thigh. The warden began to turn red. He muttered something that
actually sounded closer to a prayer than a curse, and turned his eyes
away.

"I hope those in authority will yield to the importunities of your
depraved fellow who calls himself the Terran consul, and sullies the
clean air of Greenhaven by his very--I hope they do deport you!"

"Oh, honey! Could you arrange it?" cried Maria, leaping up and
advancing on him.

She grabbed him just above the elbows, and he broke her hold by
sweeping both hands upward and outward. This offered Maria the
opportunity to take a double grip upon his belt. When he lowered his
hands to free himself, she threw both arms about his neck.

"I knew someone could fix things up!" she exclaimed. "You're going to
let me out of here until they decide what ship to put me on, aren't
you?"

The warden's expression was horror-stricken. With a heavy effort, he
got both hands against her and shoved. Maria staggered back all the way
to the bunk. The warden, apparently not quite sure what he had done,
looked down at his hands. He turned them palm up, then, as his gaze met
Maria's, made as if to thrust them behind his back.

"Relax, honey," she said. "You were a little high. I don't imagine you
have any laws here against shoving a lady on her can--as long as you're
careful where you shove."

"May the Founders protect me from a forward woman!" breathed the
warden. "Will you be still and listen to me, Jezebel? Or would you
continue ignorant of the news I brought?"

"What news?"

"I am instructed to inform you that you have an official visitor. Do
you wish to see him?"

Maria shoved herself away from the edge of the bunk and assumed a
dignified stance. She tugged her clothing into order.

"I should be most honored to receive this visitor," she said in
her best imitation of Greenie formality. "I deeply appreciate your
announcing his presence--at last!"

The warden glared at her. Finding no words worthy of the state of his
blood pressure, he stepped back and slammed the heavy door shut. It
muffled somewhat his departing footsteps.

"I'm out!" yipped Maria.

She did a little jig, ran to the door to press an ear against it, and
turned to survey the cell with the fingers of one hand beating a light
tattoo against her lips.

She crossed to the bunk. From beneath it, she dragged the small
overnight bag she had succeeded in obtaining from the ship before
it had left for the next planet. She began to go about the room,
collecting the few odds and ends she possessed and packing them.

She was fingering the bristles of her toothbrush for dampness when she
heard returning footsteps.

_The hell with brushing my hair_, she thought. _I'll go as is._

She threw the toothbrush into the bag, tossed her hairbrush on top, and
snapped the catch. She considered herself ready.

The door opened and the warden ushered another man into the cell. Maria
felt a sudden chill.

The newcomer was a Greenie.

She looked over his shoulder, hoping for a glimpse of the Terran
consul, but there were just the two Greenies facing her. The stranger
was nearer in age to the young guard than to the warden. On the other
hand, the severity of his expression was a challenge to the older man.
The uniform was about the same.

"My name is John Willard," he announced flatly.

He reached into an inner pocket to produce a fold of papers. At the
edge of one, Maria caught sight of what she guessed to be an official
seal. Willard opened the papers and turned to the warden.

"You identify the prisoner before us as one Maria Ringstad, native of
Terra?"

"I do!" said the warden, righteously.

"You will please sign this statement to that effect!"

There was silence in the cell as the warden held the document against
the door to scribble his signature. Maria watched in growing chagrin.
Willard folded the statement of identification, returned it to his
pocket, and faced her.

"Maria Ringstad," he said, "I am to inform you that your appeal has
been denied. You will accompany me to Corrective Farm Number Five,
where I will deliver you to the authorities who will supervise the
serving of your sentence."

Maria dropped her bag.

"_What?_ You're lying! Let me see those phony papers! This is some sort
of--"

Willard let her have the back of his left hand across the face. Maria
never saw it until she was falling. She sat down with a thump, her legs
stretched out straight before her.

Unbelievingly, she watched Willard sign a copy of his order for the
warden. The latter examined it with satisfaction before tucking it
away. They turned to look down at her, and Willard announced that he
was ready to leave.

He seemed to think that a good way to forestall an argument was to get
her moving as quickly as possible. He yanked on one elbow, the warden
pulled on the other, and Maria headed for the door at a smart trot,
wondering how she had risen.

"My bag!" she protested.

"I have it," said Willard.

"Turn left for the stairs," said the warden.

"I'm not going!" she yelled.

"Yes, you are," said Willard.

"Yes, you are!" echoed the warden.

They reached the head of the stairs, where the warden released his
grip. Willard shoved her forward, and the two of them descended with
breakneck lack of balance. At the bottom, they paused for the warden to
catch up.

Maria seized the chance to kick Willard in the shin. He turned white,
but urged her on as the warden led the way through a barred door into
an open courtyard. They crossed the courtyard by fits and starts, with
Maria expressing her opinion in words she had never before uttered.
The meaning of certain of them still eluded her, but Willard seemed to
understand the general drift.

The warden spoke to a guard, ordering him to open the main gate.
Willard boosted her through with a knee in the behind. The massive
portal swung to with a thud, leaving them out in the street.

"I'll be damned if I go to any prison farm!" Maria shouted in his ear.
"I demand to see the Terran consul! This is an outrage!"

Willard glared at a passing Greenie who seemed disposed to look on.
He tightened his grip on Maria's arm, the better to tow her twenty
feet down the street away from the gate. There, he backed her roughly
against the blank granite wall.

"If you don't shut your face," he growled between set teeth, "I'll
_really_ belt you one!"

Maria gasped in a breath and looked at him. It was easy, since he had
thrust his face to within a few inches of hers. Little droplets of
perspiration stood out on his forehead.

He looked scared.



SEVEN


Westehvelt was still sitting with Joe Rosenkrantz in the communications
room when Colborn's call came through. He looked over Joe's shoulder as
the operator swiveled to face his telephone viewer.

"How come you remembered the number?" he greeted Colborn. "Did the
elevator doors close on you?"

"Very-funny-ha-ha!" retorted Colborn. "Look, Joe--have you got power?"

Westervelt peered closer, thinking that the redhead looked unusually
concerned. Rosenkrantz seemed not to have noticed.

"Power?" he said. "Have I got power! I can pull in stations you never
heard of, just on willpower! _You_--you poor slob--you don't even
remember if you're on your way home or coming to work! What is it now?"

"I'll tell you what it is," shouted Colborn. "It's a power failure!
They don't even have any lights out in the street. I nearly got
trampled to death getting back in the lobby to phone you."

Westervelt and Rosenkrantz looked at each other.

"Come to think of it, Charlie," said the operator, "the lights did
blink a minute ago. I wonder if that was our own power taking over for
the whole floor?"

They saw Colborn turn his head, and heard him expostulating with
someone who plainly was impatient to get into the phone cubicle.

"I'll go check the meters," said Rosenkrantz. "Watch the space set for
me, Willie!"

"Whuh-wh-wha?" stuttered Westervelt, groping after him. "Charlie! He
went away! What do I do if a call comes in?"

Colborn finished dealing with his own problem downstairs, and returned
his attention to Westervelt. He requested a repeat.

"I said that Joe went around the corner to check the power," babbled
the youth. "What do I do if a space call comes in? He said to watch the
set."

"Oh," said Colborn. "You see the little red, star-shaped light at the
left of the board under the screen?"

"Yeah, yeah! It's out, Charlie!"

"Well, it should be. It's an automatic call indicator set for our code.
If it goes on, it shows you're getting a call even if you have the
screen too dark or the audio too low to notice. So you look for a green
one like it on the other side...."

"Yeah. I see it."

"You push the button beside it, and our code goes out automatically to
acknowledge. Then you push the next button underneath, which puts out a
repeating signal to stand by. Got that so far?"

"I got it," said Westervelt. "Then what?"

"Then you go scream for Joe at the top of your lungs. That covers
everything. You are now a deep-space operator. Just don't touch any of
those buttons until you get a license!"

"But, Charlie--!"

He was saved by the return of Rosenkrantz, for whom he thankfully
vacated space before the phone. Colborn was again engaged in making
faces at some other desperate commuter.

"You were right, Charlie," said Rosenkrantz. "We're strictly on our
own private power. The whole floor, as near as I can tell. I thought
they were being fussy when they put it in, but maybe it will pay off at
that. How does it look down there?"

"It's a mess," said Colborn. "You wouldn't believe there were so many
people working in our building."

"No, no!" said Rosenkrantz. "I mean, what's the situation? Is it just
this building that's cut off, or the whole city, or what?"

"You can't believe anything they're saying," Colborn told them, "but
they had somebody yapping on the public address system. It seems
there's a whole section of the city, about fifty blocks square, cut
off. They're talking about a main cable overloading."

"I can imagine what they're saying," said Rosenkrantz. "The poor guys
stuck with finding and replacing it, I mean."

Colborn gave a hollow laugh.

"You think they're the only ones stuck? There ain't a single subway
belt moving to the surburban heliports. All the local surface monorails
are stopped. You should see the way they're packing the ground taxis,
and the cops won't let any more helicabs come down."

"They're supposed only to pick up from the roofs," said Rosenkrantz.

"That isn't where the people are. The people are all down here with me,
and half of them are trying to get in the booth to tell their wives
they won't be home. Well, there's a lot of us won't get home tonight,
if the boys don't find that break pretty soon."

Westervelt and Rosenkrantz exchanged glances. The youth shrugged; he
had been planning on staying late anyhow.

"Tell him to come back up, Joe," he suggested. "We have food in the
locker for visitors, and he can clear a table in here to snooze on."

Colborn had heard him, and was shaking his head.

"I'd like nothing better, Willie," he said, "but I might as well start
walking. It's better on the level than on the stairs."

"What do you mean--stairs?"

"I don't know about the other buildings around here, but they
regretfully announced that there will be no elevators running above
the seventy-fifth floor in this one. In fact, they only have partial
service that high, on the building's emergency power generator."

Rosenkrantz looked worried. Broodingly, he fumbled out a box of
cigarettes.

"What do you think, Charlie?" he asked. "I mean ... Lydman."

"That's why I called," said Colborn. "I think you better check the
stairs and tell Smith. If he starts our boy down them, the ninety-nine
floors will give him something to keep his mind busy."

The pressure from outside finally intimidated him into switching off.
The last they saw of him on the fading phone screen, he was striving
desperately to ease himself out of the booth in the face of a bellowing
rush of harried commuters for the phone. Joe sighed, trying to light
his smoke from the wrong end of the box.

"I'm going to check our elevator, Joe," Westervelt said.

He left the communications room and trotted up the corridor and around
the corner. Through the main doors, he caught sight of Pauline peering
out of her compartment. A thought struck him.

He hurried over to her and thrust his head close to the opening in her
glass partition.

"Were you still on that line, Cutie?" he demanded.

"What line?" demanded Pauline indignantly. "Oh, Willie, does this mean
we have to walk down twenty-five floors tonight?"

"You little--Listen! Don't let out a peep about this until we know
more!"

"Why not, Willie?"

"Do you want to get everybody upset? How can they dream up brilliant
ideas while they're worrying about ordering sandwiches sent up?
Promise!"

Pauline reluctantly gave her word not to say anything without
consulting him. Westervelt returned to the hall, where he pressed the
button for the elevator.

He waited about three times as long as it usually took to get a
car, then tried again with the same lack of results. Looking up, he
discovered that even the red light over the entrance to the stairs was
out. That, apparently, had not been part of the ninety-ninth floor
system now powered by their own generator.

Westervelt took the few steps to the doorway concealing the stairs.
There was a beautifully reproduced notice on the door, informing all
persons that this was an emergency exit and that the door would open
automatically in case of fire or other emergency. It further offered
detailed directions on how to leave, which in simple language meant "go
downstairs."

"The door is shut," muttered Westervelt, "so that proves there isn't
any emergency."

He tried the handle. It did not budge, except for a slight clicking.

Feeling slightly uneasy, he leaned over to squint at the crack of the
door. He spotted the latch, a sturdy bar, and saw that he was moving
it. There was, however, another bar which did not move, and the door
refused to slide open.

"Of course," he breathed. "It's made to open automatically. How would
they do that? By electricity. What haven't we got plenty of? The damn'
thing's locked! Somebody designed a beautiful set-up!"

He looked about the empty corridor, jittering indecisively.

"I could call downstairs before I tell Smitty," he reminded himself.

For the sake of having a handy shoulder to cry on, he went all the way
back to the communications room to use a phone. He made a gesture of
throwing up his hands as Joe looked around, then got Pauline on the
phone.

"See if you can get me the building manager's office," he requested.
"Don't be surprised if it's busy for a couple of minutes."

It was nearer fifteen minutes before his call went through. During
that time, he learned that Rosenkrantz took a serious view of the
inconvenience.

"I guess you heard some of the talk about Bob Lydman," said the
operator. "Well, some is imagination, but a lot of it's true. He spent
a long time in a hellhole out among the stars; and if there's anything
that might shove him off course, it's the idea that he can't get _out_.
No matter where he is, he has to know he can leave when he feels like
it!"

"But if he doesn't know about it?" asked Westervelt.

"How long can you keep it quiet? I bet you can see a blackout from the
window. Watch the set--I'll take a look."

"Aw, now, wait a minute, Joe!"

Westervelt's consternation was diverted by the call that came through
at that moment. A perspiring face with ruffled gray hair--which
Westervelt could remember having seen occasionally about the lobby
downstairs, looking extremely sleek and well-groomed--appeared on the
phone screen.

"If you're above the seventy-fifth, walk down that far. If you're
lower, walk down as far as you can," said the man hoarsely. "If you can
stay put, that's the best thing."

"Tell me, what--?"

"Power failure, not responsibility of the building management," said
the sweating gentleman. "Please co-operate!"

"But what--?"

"We're doing all we can and this phone is busy, young man! Will you
please--"

"The stairs are locked!" shouted Westervelt.

For a moment, he doubted that he had penetrated the official's panic.
Then he saw new outrage in the man's eyes.

"What did you say?"

Westervelt explained about the door to the stairs. The gentleman
downstairs clapped both hands to his moist cheeks. He had begun to look
numb.

After a long pause, he pulled himself together enough to promise that
he would look into the matter. As he switched off, Westervelt heard him
muttering that it was just too much.

"You hear that, Joe?" he asked.

"Yeah, an' I didn't like it," replied the operator. "What does that
leave us ... no elevators, no stairs ... how about the helicopter roof?"

"You have to walk up a flight of stairs to get there," said Westervelt,
thinking of the department's three helicopters garaged on their private
tower roof. "It's the same door. I suppose the door at the top is
frozen too."

"Well, anyway, that could be worse," said Joe. "That makes two doors
to knock open, an' I bet your boys have some little gadget around that
will do that."

Westervelt felt better. There was always a way out, he told himself.
Just the same, he thought he had better let Smith know about the
situation.

He told Joe where he was going and headed back up the hall. When he
reached the corner, he tried the door again for luck. The luck was the
same.

He wondered whether to go look in the lab for some burning tool. On
second thought, he decided that if any damage had to be done to the
building, it was not his responsibility. He turned to enter the main
office, flashing Pauline a wink that he hoped would look reassuring.

Simonetta was busy with a case folder but Beryl was seizing an
opportunity to repair her nail polish of irridescent gold. She eyed him
curiously as he bent over to whisper into the brunette's ear.

"Are they still talking in there, Si?" he asked.

She drew away with a mock frown, demanding, "What's so confidential?
Are you spying for Yoleen?"

Westervelt scowled over her head out the window. It was twilight
outside, and he noted that there were only a few dim lights in nearby
tall buildings.

"I just wanted to see Mr. Smith," he forced himself to say.

"Don't tell me that you want to go home, now that you got all the rest
of us to say we'd stay?"

She softened when she saw that he had no wisecrack in readiness.

"You know I didn't mean that, Willie," she said. "Is something the
matter?"

Of all the people in the department, Simonetta was the one he found
it easiest to confide in. He had to struggle with himself, especially
since he saw no reason why she should not know.

"I ... uh ... just wanted to see him a minute," he said lamely. "I'll
come back later."

He got out of the office, feeling his neck burn under the combined
stares of the two girls.

In the corridor, he halted to survey the sealed-off means of egress.
Both the elevator and the stairway door looked normal enough except for
the red exit light being dark. Westervelt wondered if it would be smart
to go around and adjust all the window filters so that no one would
expect to see many city lights should they happen to glance outside.

He went over to the door for one last examination, wishing that it were
a hinged type instead of sliding. While he was bending to peep at the
lock, he heard a sound behind him and leaped up guiltily.

Smith stood six feet away, outside the hall door of his office. He had
planted one fist on his hip and was running the other hand through his
rumpled hair as he gaped at Westervelt.

"There's no keyhole there, Willie," he said at last.

Westervelt had the feeling that he ought to offer the perfectly simple
explanation with which he had been living for what seemed like hours.
The words refused to come.

"Does this have anything to do with the message Si just brought me?"
demanded Smith.

"What message?" asked Westervelt, clearing his throat.

"The police called and claimed someone reported seeing, from the air,
three helicopters being stolen from our roof."

"Did she say that?" asked Westervelt.

"She had the sense to write it down and show me while they were talking
about submarines. Something about the way she winked made me think I'd
better come out, so I told the boys I was going down the hall a minute."

Westervelt heaved a sigh. He would not have to be alert to duck an
aroused Lydman charging down the corridor.

"Then, Mr. Smith," he suggested, "let's walk down that way in case
someone comes out and sees us, and I'll tell you all about it."

"They shouldn't be out for a while," Smith commented, examining the
youth doubtfully. "I started a little argument before I came out."

Nevertheless, he followed Westervelt around the far corner, to the
wing leading to the laboratory and rest rooms. They had gone perhaps
ten feet past the corner when Westervelt finished the report on the
elevators and came to the frozen locks on the stairway door.

Smith stopped in his tracks, as if to run back and check for himself;
but restrained himself.

"You're absolutely sure, Willie?" he asked.

"You can check with Joe Rosenkrantz, Mr. Smith. Or you can call the
office of the building manager downstairs."

Smith rubbed his high-bridged nose as he pondered. His lips moved, and
Westervelt thought he read the name "Lydman." Then Smith checked off on
his fingers, muttering, the stairs, elevators, and helicopters.

"No wonder they were stolen," he said. "Someone saw a chance to make
some easy money with all the helitaxis taken. The police will find them
tomorrow."

"Meanwhile, I guess it's some trouble to us," said Westervelt.

"Yes, it might be some trouble," admitted Smith, and this time said it
aloud: "Lydman! We won't mention it to him yet, right, Willie?"



EIGHT


The room would have been nearly a cube except for the fact that hardly
any parallel lines appeared in its design. The corners were rounded and
the ceiling slightly arched. The floor, though much of it was obscured
by a plentiful supply of cushions, was obviously several inches higher
in the center than where it curved up to meet the walls. All surfaces
were the color of old ivory but seemed to be of a more porous material.
The cushions could have been cut from slabs of some foamy, resilient
substance that had been manufactured in several rather dull colors.

On two of the larger cushions placed end to end, lay a blond man, long
and lean. He wore a dark gray coverall that was loose as if he had lost
weight. His features had a poor color, a golden tan with something
unhealthy underlying it. He was, however, clean and recently shaven,
and his hair was cut short, if somewhat raggedly. He stirred, then
blinked into the soft light of an elliptical fixture recessed into the
ceiling.

With a smothered groan, he came completely awake. Very carefully, as
if from long habit of avoiding painful movement, he rolled to his left
side and braced one hand against the floor. The effort of sitting up
made him bare his clenched teeth.

The grimace was fleeting. He seemed to have some purpose that drove
him on to roll completely off the makeshift bed until he knelt with
both knees and his left hand on the smooth floor. As he paused to rest,
he held his right hand close to his body.

After a moment, he brought his right foot up opposite his left knee.
Another rest period, on hand, knee, and foot, was required before
he shoved himself away from the floor and slowly stood upright. The
ceiling suddenly looked too low.

He was tall, perhaps two inches over six feet. His features were
regular without being especially handsome. A man sizing him up might
have expected him to weigh about a hundred and ninety pounds, but
slight hollows in his cheeks suggested that this would not be true at
the moment. His eyes were blue, but the lids drooped and he seemed to
focus only vaguely upon his surroundings.

At length, the man turned and walked deliberately to the side of the
room where a doorless opening offered egress into what looked like a
corridor. The opening was in the shape of an ellipse about five feet
high and three wide, beginning a few inches above the floor. He bent to
thrust his head into the hall, peering in both directions but taking no
heed of faint, scurrying sounds out there. Satisfied, he walked back to
his bed, turned over a cushion with his toe, and kicked a small utility
bag of gray plastic out into the open.

The man stared at the bag for some minutes before reaching an evidently
unwelcome decision. Laboriously, then, he knelt until he could slide
one end under a knee and slide open the zipper with his left hand.
He pawed out a few items--battery shaver, towel, deck of cards,
toothbrush--which he left scattered on the floor as soon as he located
the object of his search. This was a many-jointed mechanism of metal
that resembled an armored centipede. It was as long as his hand and
nearly as broad. He held it in his palm as if wondering what to do with
it.

Some slow process of judgment having blossomed in his mind, he turned
over the object to press a small stud. The plates of the "belly"
parted. From a recess there, he fumbled out a miniature accessory
that fitted easily in the palm of his hand. This was round, about an
inch thick, and might have been made of black plastic. The man's lips
twitched in a tired smile as he hefted it pensively.

Without moving from his kneeling position, he thumbed a nearly
concealed switch on the edge of the disk. Within seconds, the thing
began to put forth music, a diminutive reproduction of the sound of a
full orchestra. The man gradually raised his hand until he held the
little player to his ear. His expression remained uncomprehending. He
lowered his hand, shrugging slightly, and turned off the music.

Once more, he forced himself laboriously to his feet. Leaving his other
belongings on the floor without a backward glance, he strode to the
door with the pace of a man who has just walked five or ten miles. His
long legs carried him across the distance in only a few steps, but
there was a slowness, a heaviness, in their motion that revealed a deep
weariness. He raised one foot just high enough to step through the
opening into the corridor.

Outside, he turned left and walked along at the same pace, passing
several other doors at irregular intervals. That they may have led to
other rooms with other occupants seemed to interest him not at all.
He neither glanced aside nor paused until he came face to face with a
barrier, a wall blocking his path.

It was the first doorway that sported a door, and the latter was
closed. It looked to be made of a plastic substance, darker than the
ivory walls among which he had thus far moved, but smoother. There was
a grilled opening more or less centered, but no other markings.

Nevertheless, the blond man seemed to know where the portal would be
fastened. He ran the tips of his fingers along one curved side, as if
judging a distance. Juggling the black disk in his hand until the grip
suited him better, he pressed a second switch, which was concealed at
the center of the object.

A thin jet of flame, so white that it far outshone the lighting of the
corridor, flared against the edge of the door. He moved the flame along
the edge for about two feet. Then he snapped it out and waited with his
eyes blinking painfully. The corridor lighting had been revealed to be
yellow and dim.

Having rested, the man took a deep breath and shoved with his left
shoulder against the elliptical door. It slipped off whatever had been
holding it at the opposite edge and fell into the hallway beyond the
bulkhead. He had neatly cut through two hinges on the other side.

Without looking back, he stepped over the loose door and continued on
his way. Eventually, he came to another such barrier, and he dealt with
it in the same fashion. The third time he was halted, he found himself
at a vertical column which passed down through an oval opening in the
ceiling and disappeared through another in the floor of the corridor.

The man hesitated. A vague sadness flitted across his features. Then,
as if driven by some deep purpose, he approached the column.

It was about six inches in diameter, and the most regular shape he
had encountered anywhere. The surface of it was ringed by horizontal
grooves nearly an inch deep, and looked as if it would be easy to
climb. From the hole below, there rose slightly warmer air, bearing a
blend of pungent and musty odors. The man's nostrils wrinkled.

He stepped to the edge of the opening, then sidled around until he had
the greatest possible space on his side of the column. The instrument
in his hand finally came to his attention as he reached out to touch
the grooved surface. He considered it for a long moment. Apparently,
he was pleased at the brilliance of the thought that eventually moved
him to thrust the thing into a pocket of his pants. He faced the
column again, and again hesitated. His right hand lifted an inch,
indecisively, following which a snarl of pain twisted his lips.

Sidling around the opening once more until he found himself having
completed a circuit, he let the fingers of his left hand explore the
grooves. It did not seem to occur to him to look either down or up,
although faint, distant sounds were borne to him on the current of
odoriferous air.

In the end, he leaned forward until his left shoulder came against the
slim column. He wrapped his left arm about it. A little scrambling,
and he had gripped it between his legs. Then a slight relaxation of
his hold permitted him to slide gradually downward until he slipped
past the floor line. There were only a few inches to spare between his
shoulders and the edge of the opening, as if the latter had not been
designed for such as he.

The next level into which he descended was dark. He continued to slide
cautiously downward.

At the second level below his starting point, there was light. The
corridor resembled that in which he had begun his journey. He put out
one foot to catch the edge of the opening while he rested.

This hallway curved not far from the man in one direction, although the
other side ran straight for about twenty feet before being closed off
by a door similar to the one he had removed. Around the bend floated
faint noises suggesting high-pitched conversation, although they came
from too far away to reveal the nature of their origin. The tall man
kept one eye cocked warily in that direction.

After a few minutes, certain sounds seemed to draw nearer. The
cluttering "talk" faded, but he could hear more plainly a hushed
scuffling that could have been caused by many feet taking short,
hurried steps.

The man released his foothold and slid smoothly below the floor
level just as moving shadows appeared at the bend of the corridor. He
dropped down the column through four more unlighted levels, reaching an
atmosphere that held a blend of machine oil along with its other odors.

Light filtered upward with the air currents. Somewhere below was a very
bright level, whence came the rhythmic throb of heavy machinery. This
did not resemble the sounds of a spaceship, nor yet a Terran factory,
but some considerable work was being carried on. He groped out in the
darkness for a foothold, got the other foot over, and wearily pushed
himself away from the column.

He was on a level so dim that he touched the edge of the floor opening
with his toe to make sure of its location before moving off along the
corridor.

In the darkness, he went more slowly than before, but made better
time than looked possible. Under the circumstances, he reassured
himself by stretching out his left hand every few seconds to touch the
smooth wall. He walked normally, though not noisily, and his sense of
direction was extraordinarily good.

About a hundred yards along a corridor that seemed not to have a single
bend or corner, he slowed his pace doubtfully. A few steps more brought
him to another closed door. This one, however, yielded to his shove,
swinging back to reveal a stretch of tunnel with a bare minimum of
illumination oozing from widely spaced ceiling fixtures. Here, he could
sense side doorways his fingers had usually missed along the darker
stretch.

He had gone another hundred yards and finally passed two cross
corridors, before he was again obliged to stop and rest. He slumped
against the side wall, favoring his right arm and gazing dully before
him.

A few steps further along was one of the typical elliptical doorways.
Through this one, some light was reflected to the wall of the corridor.
The man stared at it in the way anyone in the dark will turn his eye to
light. After several minutes, he moved toward it as if impelled by idle
curiosity.

Reaching the opening, he hesitated. A strange expression flickered over
his face. The decision to look or not to look was causing him great
uneasiness. Finally, he stepped forward and entered a small chamber.

This was evidently located so as to house another slim column that
disappeared upward and downward into unknown levels. Several small,
oval windows were set just below the ceiling, at a height which
presented no particular difficulty to the man when he stepped over to
look through them.

The scene that met his eye was a wide corridor, so wide that it might
be termed a concourse or even a public square. Members of the public
that were to be observed frequenting it were very, very far from being
human.

Two of them scurried past his window, clearly illuminated by lights far
up in the domed ceiling. They were furry, about five feet tall, lithe
and cat-like in their movements. Compared to a human, they were slim
and short-bodied. They possessed three arms and three legs, each set
being equally spaced about their bodies. Now and then, as they walked
with short, rapid steps, frequent joints were apparent in all limbs,
showing clearly that they were not just muscular tentacles. From the
openings at the apexes of their heads, which must have been mouths,
they were streamlined in a fashion that made it more natural to picture
them swimming like Terran cuttlefish then climbing up and down thick
poles. The three eyes set about each head were low enough to allow for
jaw muscles.

The man watched this pair slide down a column set beside the wall
that concealed him. Other individuals were scattered about the wide
concourse. Almost without exception, they wore nothing more than a
pouch secured by a belt just above what would have been the hips in
a human. Clothing was made unnecessary by handsome coats of short,
honey-colored fur that enhanced their feline air. Sometimes, when one
or another bent or twisted, purple skin would show through the fur.

Across the concourse, the man could see open stalls that suggested
shops. Most of them were dark inside, with nettings stretched across
the fronts. The general atmosphere was not unlike that of a small
Terran business section, or even a spaceport terminal, late in the
evening with business slack and only night workers about.

Abruptly, those abroad scuttled for the walls. A perfectly good reason
for the exodus appeared a moment later, as a column of low, long
vehicles dashed from a high-arched tunnel and shot across the open
space. Each was three-wheeled and carried half a dozen individuals
wearing what resembled thick plastic armor. Cages of metal guarded
their heads and they bore weapons like Terran rocket launchers. The
convoy passed out of sight before the man could note more.

He retreated thoughtfully from the window. At the opening to the
corridor, he paused indecisively. He shook his head as if trying to put
out of his mind what he had just witnessed.

It might have been prudent for anyone in his position to give the
corridor a searching look before entering, but this did not seem
to occur to him. In seconds, he was striding along in the former
direction--if anything, a trifle more briskly.

As he walked, the muffled sounds from the scene he had examined faded
in the distance. Once again, he was alone with his own discreet
footfalls. Several times, he passed junctions of cross corridors, and
once he had to burn open a door; but never did he meet an inhabitant
of the hive-like city. Either the way had been shrewdly chosen or it
was seldom used at this period of the day. Even granting both, his luck
must have been fantastic.

The corridor had begun to assume an almost hypnotic monotony when it
ended bluntly at a column leading only upward. The man perforce was
faced with the challenge of climbing it, a prospect which he obviously
did not relish.

Sighing, he reversed his earlier procedure in sliding down other poles.
With only one good arm, pulling himself up was slow work. It was,
perhaps, only the fact that the levels were constructed to suit beings
five feet tall that made it possible for him to make it to the next
level up. He sat with his legs dangling through the opening, panting,
while perspiration oozed out to bead his forehead.

This time, he was nearly half an hour in recovering and working up
the determination required to go on. The corridor in which he found
himself ran at right angles to the one below. It was wider and higher,
as if more traveled, but any such open area as he had peeped at was far
to the rear. Nearby, however, was a much larger door than he had yet
encountered. He walked over to it.

When a tentative push produced no results, he dipped his left hand into
a pocket for the black disk.

He seemed to have a good idea of where to locate the hinges on this
door too. When he had burned through, the door was harder to shove
aside because it turned out to be of double thickness. The hinges had
been concealed from both inside and outside. The tall man now found
himself only a few steps from another such portal, in what looked like
an anteroom.

Methodically, he proceeded to burn his way through, squinting in the
bright light of the flame but otherwise betraying no emotion.

The last door fell away. Fresh air billowed in around him, and he could
see stars in a night sky outside.

Without haste, he stepped outside.

The tan, plastery wall reared above him for about ten levels. Off
to his left, shadows on the ground showed a jagged shape, so it was
probable that another part of the building towered upward after a
set-back. The ground around the exit was perfectly level and bare of
any vegetation. The nearest life was a wall of shrub-like trees about a
hundred feet away, and toward these the man began to walk in the same
tired pace.

He found, as if by instinct, a broad, well-kept path through the trees.
A mild breeze caused the long, hanging leaves to rustle. Without
looking back, the man followed the path up a gentle slope and over the
curve of the hill. At the bottom of the downgrade, two figures shrank
suddenly back into the shadows. He kept walking.

"That you, Gerson?" came a loud whisper, as the two Terrans stepped
forward again. "Come on; we have an aircar over here! Did anyone follow
you?"

The tall man turned to go with them through a fringe of trees. It
seemed like a poor time to try to talk, with the possibility of pursuit
behind them. The two bundled him into the black shape of the aircar
in silence, and moved it cautiously through the trees just above the
ground. They raised into clear air only when they had put half a mile
between them and the towering hive-city.



NINE


In the library, between Smith's corner office and the conference
room that adjoined the communications center, Westervelt sat and
watched Lydman pore over a technical report in the blue binding of
the Department of Interstellar Relations. Half a dozen other volumes,
old and new, technical and diplomatic, were scattered about the table
between them.

The youth caught himself running a hand through his hair in Smith's
usual manner, and stopped, appalled. He judged, after due reflection,
that it might be worse: he could have picked up some of Lydman's
peculiarities instead.

Probably, he told himself, he ought to show some better sense and
imitate the suavity of Parrish if he had to adopt the manners of anyone
in the department. Unfortunately, he did not like Parrish very well,
even when he was not engaged in being actively jealous of the man.

Some day, Willie, he mused, you'll snap too. When you do, it would be
just your style to take after this mass of beef in front of you.

Immediately, he was ashamed of the thought. Lydman had been, in his
way, nicer to him than anyone else. Moreover, he was far from being a
mass of beef. Westervelt recalled the sight of Lydman on an open beach,
where he seemed more at ease than anywhere else. The man kept himself
hard-muscled and trim. Despite the gaunt look that sometimes crossed
his features, he was probably on the low side of thirty.

_So he's still quick as well as strong_, thought Westervelt. _If he
does go for the door the way Joe predicts, Willie my boy, you be sure
to get out of the way!_

In theory, he was supposed to be helping Lydman research some problems
Smith had thought up. So far, he had read one short article which had
bored the ex-spacer and twice gone to the files for case folders. He
was very well aware that the real idea was to have someone with Lydman
constantly. For this reason, he was prepared further to assume the
courtesy of answering any interrupting phone calls. He was determined
that any news not censored by Pauline would be a wrong number, no
matter if it were the head of the D.I.R. himself.

Lydman looked up from his reading.

"I'm getting hungry; aren't you, Willie?"

"I guess so. I didn't notice," said Westervelt.

"How about phoning down for something? Get whatever you like."

That was typical of Lydman, Westervelt realized. The man did not care
what he ate. Smith would have been specific though unimaginative.
Parrish would have sent instructions about the seasoning. The girls
would choose something sickening by Westervelt's standards. He shoved
back his chair and stood up.

"I'd better see what they're doing up front," he said. "I think Mr.
Smith was talking about it being quicker to raid our own food locker.
I'll be back in a minute."

Lydman raised his gray-blue eyes and stared through him curiously.

"No hurry," he said mildly.

Westervelt thought that the man was still watching him as he walked
through the door, but he did not like to look back. It might have been
so.

When he reached the main office, he found both girls replacing folders
in the bay of current files opposite Simonetta's desk.

"How about letting me at the buried treasure?" he asked. "The thought
of food is infiltrating insidiously."

"Willie," said Simonetta, "you'll go far here. None of the other brains
had such a good idea. I'll phone for something if you'll see what
people want."

"I think Mr. Smith wants to use stuff we have in the locker," said
Westervelt, blocking the way to her desk. "Hold it a second while I
check."

He rapped on Smith's door as he opened it. He found the chief with
most of the papers on his desk shoved to one side so that a built-in
tape viewer could be brought up from its concealed position. Smith was
scowling as if obtaining little useful information from whatever he was
watching.

"They're getting hungry," Westervelt whispered. "Is it all right to
raid our guest locker?"

Smith shut off his machine, and scrubbed one hand across his long face.

"Right, Willie," he agreed. "The sooner the better. Take out whatever
you think best and pass it around. Meanwhile, I'd better check on the
situation downstairs--come to think of it, when you called, did you get
an outside line and punch the numbers yourself?"

"No, but I have an understanding with Pauline," said Westervelt.

He was thinking that Smith had put him in charge of the food, which was
perhaps a little better than being sent around to take personal orders
as the girls had assumed he would do, but which was still a long way
beneath the conference status he had appeared to have an hour earlier.

"Good boy!" Smith approved. "Then she'll know who I want to talk to and
that she shouldn't listen in."

Westervelt was far from sanguine about the last condition, but left
without trying to cause his chief any unhappiness.

_Well, so it goes, he reflected. One minute a project man, the next an
office boy! If I pick out what everybody likes, I'll be a project man
again. But if they like it too much, I'll turn out to be the official
chef around here whenever someone important stays to lunch._

The picture of sitting in on a talk with some potent official of the
D.I.R. and expounding his brilliant solution to a problem, only to be
requested to slap together a short order meal, made him pause outside
the door, frowning.

"Now what, Willie?" asked Simonetta.

He roused himself.

"Leave it to me, Si," he answered, working up a grin. "I have
everything under control."

"I hope you know what you're doing," Beryl commented. "I won't stand
for a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy, or anything that fattening."

"You'll have your choice," Westervelt promised. "I wouldn't want
anything to spoil that figure. Just let me at the locker."

He slipped an arm around her waist to move her aside. The flesh of her
flank was softly firm under his fingers, and he made himself think
better of an impulse to squeeze.

Beryl stepped away, neither quickly enough to be skittish nor slowly
enough to imply permissiveness. Westervelt shrugged. He stepped forward
to the blank wall at the end of the file cabinets, and slid back a
panel to reveal a white-enameled food locker.

It was divided into an upper and lower section, with transparent
doors that rolled around into the side walls. The lower half was
refrigerated. Westervelt opened the upper to explore more comfortably.

Most of the foiled packages contained sandwiches, many of them
self-heating. Somewhat bulkier containers held more substantial
delicacies: Welsh rabbit, turkey and baked potato, filet mignon,
rattlesnake croquettes, and salmon salad. There were sealed cups of
coffee, tea, or bouillon that heated themselves upon being opened, and
ice cream and fruits in the freezer section.

"Si, let me have a couple of 'out' baskets," said Westervelt, holding
out his hand.

"Empty?"

"All right--your 'in' and Beryl's 'out' trays. Do you expect me to go
around with everybody's supper stuffed in my pockets?"

"Frankly, yes," said Beryl. "But not with mine. Let me see what they
have in there!"

She examined the array while Westervelt experimented with balancing
two empty desk trays across his forearm. By the time he was ready, the
girls had blocked him off, and he had to wait until the possibilities
had been debated thoroughly. In the end, Simonnetta selected veal
scallopini; and Beryl took a crabmeat sandwich for herself and a filet
mignon for Parrish. Westervelt grinned when he saw that she also chose
four sealed martinis.

His own decisions were simple. Putting aside a budding curiosity about
rattlesnake meat, he took a package of fried ham and eggs--to see if it
could be possible--and a self-heating package of mince pie. For Smith,
Lydman, and Rosenkrantz, he piled a tray with half a dozen roast beef
or turkey sandwiches, a selection of pie and ice cream, and all the
coffee containers he could fit in.

"Si, pick out something nice for Pauline," he requested, noting that
Beryl was already on the way across the office to Parrish's door.

Simonetta exclaimed at her forgetfulness, pushed aside the container
that she had been warming on her desk according to instructions, and
told him to go ahead.

"I'll take her a salad and some bouillon," she said. "The kid thinks
she has to watch her weight already."

As an afterthought, Westervelt topped his load with a martini for
Smith, on the theory that the chief was going to need it.

He went in there first, let Smith see that nothing but coffee was on
the way to Lydman, and made his exit directly into the hall. He made
the communications room his next stop, and took what was left into the
library to share with Lydman.

The latter took a roast beef sandwich, pulled the heating tab, and
tore it open after the required thirty seconds with one twist of his
powerful fingers. Westervelt had a little more trouble with his package
of ham and eggs, but the coffee cups were simpler.

They sat there in silence, except for an occasional word, and a brief
scramble when Westervelt spilled coffee on a list of cases Lydman had
thought of for further checking. The ex-spacer chewed methodically on
three sandwiches, and poured down two containers of coffee, scanning a
copy of the _Galatlas_ all the while.

Westervelt found the fried ham and eggs to be a disappointment.

_I should have tried a steak_, he reflected. _Eggs can't be done. Not
and taste right._

There was one sandwich left, cold turkey, and Lydman had just begun
on his third, so the youth helped himself. The hot mince pie had
real flavor, and he was feeling quite comfortable by the time Lydman
finished his ice cream.

"Shall I get some more coffee?" Westervelt offered.

"Not for me," said the other. "If you go back, though, you could pick
up those folders."

Westervelt took the excuse to leave for a few minutes. He stopped in to
see if Joe wanted anything, promised to look for bourbon, and returned
to the main office. He found Simonetta sipping a solitary cup of coffee.

"Did they leave you all alone?" he demanded.

"Oh, no," she said. "The boss came out and had coffee with Pauline and
me, but then she had a call for him and he thought he'd rather take it
in his office."

Westervelt stepped over to Smith's door and listened. In theory, it
should have been soundproof, so he opened it a crack. Hearing Smith's
voice, he pushed his luck and put his head inside. The chief was busy
enough on the phone not to be aware of the intrusion.

"Yes, I appreciate your difficulty," Smith said, obviously having
said it many times before. "Still, if there is no way to send us an
elevator, I would much rather not have a party climbing the twenty-five
flights to break open the door. If it has to be broken, we can do it."

Westervelt recognized the answering voice, hoarser though it now was,
as that of the silver-haired manager downstairs. He wondered why the
sight of each other did not make both the manager and Smith want to
comb their hair.

"Naturally, we will make good any damage," Smith said. "Besides, you
must have a good many other people on the lower floors of the tower to
look after."

"Most of them are displaying the good sense to stay in their offices
until the emergency is dealt with."

Westervelt crept inside and moved around until he could see the face
pouting on the screen of Smith's phone. The man now had heavy shadows
under his eyes, although he had mopped off the perspiration that had
bathed him when Westervelt had spoken with him.

"Well, perhaps we have slightly different problems," Smith told the
manager.

"Problems!" exclaimed the latter. His effort to contain his emotions
was clearly visible. "Well ... of course ... if it is really serious,
perhaps we can get the police to send up an emergency rescue squad--"

"_No!_" Smith interrupted violently. "No rescue squad! We do not in any
way need to be rescued. Not at all!"

The manager eyed him with dark suspicion.

"Is someone ill?" he demanded. "We cannot be responsible for any
lawsuits due to your refusal to let us call competent authorities."

"Aren't you a competent authority?" demanded Smith. "Just get the
elevator working, will you? We'll wait until then."

"There is no way of knowing when power will be restored," said the
manager. "You must have a TV set around the office somewhere, so you
can hear the news bulletins on the situation as soon as I can." He
paused to pop a lozenge into his mouth, sighed, and added, "Sooner, I
dare say."

Smith had leaned back in his chair, a stricken look on his face. He saw
Westervelt, and began to wave frantically toward the hall.

"I never thought of that," exclaimed the youth.

He burst into the hall from Smith's private entrance, realized he
would have to pass the library to reach Joe Rosenkrantz with an order
for censorship, and circled back to the main entrance.

He went in, saw Simonetta still at her desk, and opened the door to
Pauline's cubicle. When he got inside with the little blonde, her
swivel chair, and her switchboard, there was just about room enough to
breathe.

"Pauline!" he panted. "Punch the com room number and lend me your
headset!"

"This is cosy!" she giggled, but did as he asked.

Joe answered promptly.

"Joe, this is Willie. It just so happens that Charlie Colborn was
changing transistors in all the personal sets you have down there, so
you can't pick up a newscast right now--right?"

There was a pregnant pause before one answered.

"Right. That's the way it goes. Can you talk? I don't see any image."

"I'm with Pauline. It's okay. I mean, it was just a thought, in
case...."

"Sure," said Rosenkrantz. "Should have thought of it myself. Everything
else all right?"

Westervelt told him that it was, agreed that he hoped it would
continue. Then he surrendered the headset to Pauline, who tickled his
ribs as he squirmed around to leave the cubicle.

"Don't you dare!" she giggled when he turned on her. "I'll talk!"

"Please, no, Pauline," he sighed. "Anything but that!"

He walked loosely past Simonetta, who stared at him unbelievingly, and
started to enter Smith's office again. Behind him, he heard the sounds
of a door being closed and high heels clicking subduedly on the springy
flooring. Beryl's voice said something as he began to look around. He
stopped.

"What did she say?" he asked Simonetta.

Beryl had already disappeared toward the hall.

"She said Mr. Parrish invited her downstairs for a cocktail. He thinks
they should have about twenty minutes to relax before going back to
work."

"You're kidding!" gasped Westervelt.

"No, I'm not! Willie, you've been acting awfully strange. Where have
you been ducking to every time--"

Westervelt was already running for the hall.

He skidded and nearly fell going through the entrance. Beryl was
standing near the elevator.

"Did you ring yet?" asked Westervelt.

"No, I'm waiting for Mr. Parrish," said Beryl, in a tone that
emphasized unwieldiness of an assembly of three persons.

"Your lipstick is smeared," said Westervelt.

Beryl gave him an even less believing stare than had Simonetta, but,
glancing hastily at her watch, began to fumble out her compact.

"In here, where the light is better," said Westervelt.

He grabbed her by an elbow and dragged her into the office before it
occurred to her to resist.

"Please, Willie! You're _handling_ me!" she protested coldly.

Westervelt was already out the door again, bent upon taking the other
entrance to Smith's office, when he saw the hall door of Parrish's
office open. He reversed direction in time to meet Parrish as the
latter stepped into the corridor.

"Beryl said to tell you she'll be right back," he said, waving a thumb
vaguely in the direction of the rest rooms.

"Oh. Thanks, Willie," answered Parrish. "I'll wait inside."

Westervelt reached Smith's office before Parrish had completely closed
his own door. From the corner of his eye, he saw the blue of Beryl's
dress.

"Mr. Smith!" he called as he thrust his head inside. "I think I need
help!"



TEN


The first sensation that penetrated, agonizingly, to Taranto's
consciousness was that of heat. Heat, and then the damp itch of soaking
sweat.

The next feeling, as he groggily sought to take up the slack in his
hanging jaw, was thirst. It was a raging demand that brought him
entirely awake. Before he could control himself, he had emitted a groan.

Immediately, he was dropped from whatever had been supporting him in a
swaying, dipping fashion. He landed with a thud on the hard ground.

A chatter of Syssokan broke out above him. It was answered by other
Syssokan voices farther away. Taranto kept his eyes closed and lay
limply where he had sprawled, while he tried to figure out what had
gone wrong.

Shortly before dawn, he and Meyers had each swallowed his capsule as
directed. He remembered a period of vague drowsiness after that, then
nothing more until he had been awakened just now. From his still dizzy
mind, he sought to drag the outline of events expected.

They had hoped to be taken out to the desert, possibly to a Syssokan
burial ground according to the local custom, and left to be dried by
the dessicating blaze of the sun. It had been planned that a spaceship
would land in the late afternoon to pick them up. Undoubtedly, it would
take the Syssokans several hours to report the "deaths" and to secure
official permission for disposal of the bodies, even though they were
less given to red tape than Terrans. Still, they should have abandoned
the "bodies" long before Taranto had expected to awake.

He risked opening one eye a slit. Syssokan legs crowding around blocked
his view, but he could tell that it was dusk. The heat he felt must be
that of sand and rocks that had baked all day.

It must have taken the Syssokans a long time to get this far. He
wondered whether they had brought him an unusual distance into the
desert, perhaps to avoid contaminating their own burial grounds, or
whether they had simply indulged in some long-winded debate as to the
proper course to pursue in regard to deceased aliens.

_My God!_ he thought. _What if they'd decided to dissect us? I never
thought of that! I wonder if the joker that sent those pills did?_

Whatever had gone wrong, he was well behind schedule. He could imagine
the chagrin of the D.I.R. man watching the proceedings through his
little flying spy-eye. Taranto hoped that the spacers hired for the
pick-up were still standing by--at the worst, they would have water.
Cautiously, he tried to move his tongue inside his mouth. It stuck
against his teeth. He suspected that the taste would be terrible, if he
could taste at all.

_The heat!_ he thought. _I've been soaking up heat all day and not
sweating. Now it's jetting out of every pore._

Whatever the drug had done or failed to do, it must have nearly
suspended most of the normal functions of the body. No wonder he was
perspiring so heavily as he began to recover! Even so, he felt as if
he had a fever. He began to hope that he had not been carried for
very long. Unless he had been lying in the cell--or, better, in some
examination room at ground level--for most of the elapsed time while
disputes held up disposal of his body, some instinct told him, he was
very likely to die.

Someone rubbed a hand roughly over his face, slipping through the film
of sweat. At this demonstration, renewed exclamations broke out above
him. One of the Syssokans shouted some gabble, as if to another some
way off.

A moment later, Taranto heard a hoarse yelp that could have come only
from a Terran throat. Then words began to form, and he realized that it
must be Meyers.

_That blew the pipes!_ he thought, and opened his eyes.

A Syssokan looking down at him hissed in astonishment. Others, who had
been watching another group about twenty feet away, turned to stare
down at Taranto. He was hauled to his feet by the first pair that
thought of it. One, a minor officer by his red uniform, sputtered a
question at the Terran, forgetting in his evident excitement that he
was speaking Syssokan. Taranto wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. He
was beginning to feel a trifle cooler as his perspiration evaporated in
the dry air, but his surroundings seemed feverishly unreal.

He could not quite understand what Meyers was shouting now, but even in
the hoarse voice could be detected a note of pleading. Taranto thought
it must be something about water. The Syssokan before him gathered his
wits and repeated his question in Terran.

"What doess thiss mean?" he demanded, glaring angrily at Taranto with
his huge, black eyes.

The Terran tried to answer, but could not get the words out. He
gestured weakly at a waterskin secured to the harness of one of
the soldiers. After a brief moment of hesitation, the officer
waved permission. The soldier detached the container and handed it
suspiciously to Taranto. Fearing the effect of too much liquid in one
jolt, the latter forced himself to take only a few small swallows. He
wished he could afford to stick his whole head inside the skin and soak
up the water like a blotter.

"You are dead!" declared the officer impatiently.

The tiny greenish-gray scales of his facial skin actually seemed
ruffled. Taranto dizzily sought for some likely apology to excuse his
being alive. He decided that there might be a slim chance of getting
away with a whopper.

"If it is officially declared, then of course I am dead!" he croaked.
"What d'ya expect. Look how weak I am!"

The Syssokan swiveled their narrow, pointed skulls about at each other.

"I'm in the last minutes," said Taranto sadly.

"What lasst minutess?" asked the officer.

"It's the way Terrans pass on," asserted the spacer. "Didn't you ever
see a Terran die?"

The officer silently avoided admitting so much, running a hand
reflectively over his thick waist, but his hesitation provided an
opening.

"That's the way it goes," said Taranto. "First a blackout ... we sleep,
that is. Then the last minutes, the sweat of death, and ... blooey!"

He raised the waterskin and sneaked a long swallow, risking it because
he feared he might not be allowed another.

He was right. The officer snatched away the skin and thrust it into the
long fingers of its indignant owner.

"If you are sso dead," he demanded, not illogically, "why do you drink
up our water?"

"Sorry," apologized Taranto. "Where are we?"

"What difference iss it to you?"

"I ... uh ... don't want to make hard feelings or bad luck by dying in
one of your burial grounds."

"It will not happen," said the officer grimly. "We have been ssent in
another place to guard against that. Look back--you can see the city
over that way."

Taranto turned. The outline of the city walls, with lights showing here
and there on the watch towers, loomed up about five miles away. A small
rise in the rolling ground of the desert hid the base of the walls
and the greater part of the rough trail they had evidently followed.
It would have been a fine spot for a spaceship to drop briefly to the
surface.

"Do you wish to lie down here?" asked the officer politely. "We will
wait until it iss over."

Don't be so damn' helpful! thought Taranto.

He looked desperately about, striving to give the impression of seeking
a comfortable spot. He felt the situation turning more and more sour
by the minute. It would be very difficult to feign death successfully
again now that the Syssokan suspicions were so aroused. They might well
make sure of him in their own way.

Near him stood half a dozen brown-clad soldiers. Four of them, spears
slung on their shoulders by braided straps, had apparently been
carrying him while two others acted as relief bearers. Besides the
officer, there was a sub-officer, also in brown but wearing a red
harness. In the background, a similar group clustered about Meyers.

Taranto saw that he had been tumbled from a sort of flat stretcher
of wickerwork. It was of careless craftsmanship, as if meant to be
abandoned with the body it served on the last journey. He wondered if
it could be assumed to be his property.

"Don't put yourselves out," he said. "I can't hardly take a step even
to sit down. It'll be just a coupla minutes now. Good-bye!"

The Syssokan officer made no move to depart. Taranto had not really
dared to hope that he would. He was trying to think of some further
excuse when Meyers saved him the trouble.

"_Help!_ Taranto!" shrieked the other spacer, bursting suddenly from
the group about him. "I told them we're alive, and they want to kill
us!"

He ran staggeringly toward Taranto, kicking up spurts of sand. His
shirt front was dark with sweat and dribbled water. He looked wild with
fright.

"Ah, they do live!" exclaimed the officer. "Seize them!"

He seemed to realize only after about ten seconds that he had, this
time, spoken in Terran. Evidently feeling that not all his men might
have learned that particular language, he began to repeat the order in
Syssokan. Taranto interfered by swinging his fist at the center of the
greenish-gray features. The Syssokan, arms flung wide, sailed backward
and landed on the nape of his neck in a patch of gravel. Meyers
screamed hoarsely as his own bearers caught up to him and dragged him
down.

Taranto sprang forward to snatch up the wicker stretcher from the
ground. A long-fingered hand clutched at his shoulder, but let go when
he kicked backward without looking around. He raised the stretcher and
swung it around in a wide arc at the three Syssokans reaching for him.

Two, having left their heads unprotected, went down; but the stretcher
frame crumpled. Taranto tripped the other Syssokan, glancing hopefully
at the sky. There was no sign of the fire-trail of a descending
spaceship in the deepening twilight. Then he had to duck as the other
three bearers were upon him.

"Get up, Meyers!" he yelled.

He met the rush with a hard left that dumped the leading Syssokan on
his back. The next hesitated, and was brushed aside by the sixth, who
had had the wits to unsling his spear.

Taranto sidestepped the crude but large point that thrust straight at
his belly. The shaft of the spear slid along his left ribs, and he
punched over the outstretched arms of the soldier at the Syssokan's
head. He clamped the spear between his elbow and body, retaining it as
his attacker staggered back.

Two or three were now advancing from where a knot of figures seemed to
be sitting upon Meyers in the gloom. They did not especially hurry.
Taranto had begun to reverse the spear to jab at the Syssokan left
facing him when he heard a scrabbling behind him.

He whirled away to his right, ducking instinctively as a body hurtled
past him. When he faced about, he found that most of those whom he had
knocked down were again on their feet and advancing. The officer, the
lower part of his face smeared with purplish blood, ran at Taranto full
tilt. He screamed an order in his own language.

The spacer cracked the butt of the spear smartly against the Syssokan's
head, sending him down on his face. One of the others, however, managed
to get a grip on the weapon. Instinct told Taranto that any attempt at
a tug of war on his part would lead to a fatal entanglement. He dodged
away and sprinted toward the group pinning Meyers.

A Syssokan voice yelled mushily behind him as he concentrated upon
driving with the greatest possible force into the writhing group before
him. He struck with a crunch that tumbled bodies in all directions.
Taranto himself felt sand scrape raspingly against the side of his face
as he half-rolled, half-skidded along the ground.

His pursuers now caught up to the new location of hostilities. The
first thing Taranto saw as he managed to drag one knee under him was
the butt end of a spear plunging at his midsection. The Syssokan behind
it had his center of gravity well ahead of his churning feet, obviously
intent upon doing great bodily harm. The spacer wondered for a split
second why the native did not use his point.

Then he twisted hips and torso to his right, drawing back his left
shoulder. As the spear passed him, he slapped down hard on the shaft
with his left hand. The butt dug into the sand, and the Syssokan hissed
in consternation as he vaulted head over heels before he could release
the weapon. The one immediately behind was caught in the center of his
harness by a flying foot, whereupon he collapsed with a groan across
the prone figure of his comrade. Two more, who had dropped their
spears, reached out toward Taranto, urged on by the officer on their
heels.

Taranto saw Meyers stagger to his feet. Then the two Syssokans were all
over him. He skipped away to his left over a pair of limp legs, parried
a groping hand, and brought around the long, low left hook that had
made him respected in past years.

In the ring, he had floored men with that punch. At the least, he
expected a fine, loud _whoosh_ from the Syssokan, but the latter
disappointed him. He folded in limp silence.

For a second or two, everything stopped. Taranto stared down at the
soldier, slumped on the ground like a loose sack of potatoes. Even the
Syssokans who were not at the moment engaged in pulling themselves to
their feet also gaped.

Light dawned for the spacer. Those among whom he had gone head-hunting
kept getting to their feet as fast as he knocked them down.

"Hit 'em in the gut!" he yelled to Meyers. "That's where their brains
are!"

He charged at the nearest Syssokan, lips drawn back in an unconscious
snarl. The soldier made a reflexive motion to cross his arms before his
thick abdomen. Taranto, unopposed, hit him alongside the head with a
light right, then whipped the left hook in again as the arms began to
lift. The Syssokan went out like a light.

"Come on!" Taranto shouted at Meyers when he saw that the other had not
moved. "Two of us could do it. Those heads are too little to hold a
brain. Kick 'em, if you can't do anything else!"

"Are you crazy?" retorted Meyers, his voice hoarse as much with fear as
with thirst. "They'll kill us! Give up, and they'll only take us back!"

Taranto sensed someone behind him. He started to run, but two or three
recovered Syssokans headed him off. He tried to cut back to his right.
He slipped in a patch of sand and saved himself from going flat only by
catching his weight on both outstretched hands. One of the Syssokans
landed across his back, feeling blindly for a hold.

Taranto surged up, trying to butt with the back of his head. He was
promptly wrapped in the long arms of another soldier facing him, as
the grip from the rear slid down to his waist. The fellow behind him
seemed to think he could hurt him by kneading both knobby fists into
the spacer's belly, but there was too much hard muscle there.

The Terran again butted, forward this time, and brought up his knee.
This was less effective than it should have been, but it helped him
free one arm so that he could drive an elbow backward.

The officer ran up with a reversed spear. From the look in his big
black eyes, Taranto realized that the Syssokan had also learned
something during the melee. That explained, no doubt, why he was an
officer. He swung the spear in a neat arc--at Taranto's head!

It cracked against the Terran's skull. Even though he did his best to
ride with it, he felt his knees buckle. He struck out with his right
fist, but the punch was smothered by the soldier whom he had kneed.

The spear came down again. The world of Taranto's existence was reduced
to a narrow view of a straining, greenish-gray calf showing through a
torn leg of a Syssokan uniform. Vaguely, he realized that he was on his
hands and knees. A great number of hands seemed to be grabbing at him,
and his own were very heavy as he groped out for the leg.

He got some sort of fumbling grip, and started to haul himself up.
The slowness of his motions alarmed him, in a foggy way. He tried to
tuck his chin behind his left shoulder because he knew that there was
something ... something ... coming....

It came. The Syssokan officer's big foot took him behind the ear with a
brutal thump.

Taranto, however, sinking into gray nothingness, did not really feel
it....



ELEVEN


Smith stood at the corner of the corridor, leaning back every half
minute or so to peek around at the stretch leading toward the library
and communications room.

Westervelt had propped himself with folded arms against the opposite
wall, facing the door to the stairs.

Beryl hovered behind Parrish, who faced Smith impatiently between
darting glares at Westervelt.

"All right, I guess I have to tell you, Pete," said Smith in a low
tone. "You might say we are temporarily inconvenienced."

"By him?" asked Parrish, jerking a thumb in Westervelt's direction.
"That I could understand. The kid's beginning to think he's a comedian.
He started out just now playing Charley's Aunt."

"Sssh!" said Smith softly.

Westervelt turned his head toward the main entrance, wondering how far
Parrish's voice had carried.

Smith's dapper assistant looked from one to the other. Seeking some
evidence of sanity, he turned with raised eyebrows to Beryl. The blonde
rounded her blue eyes at him and shrugged.

"Pete, this is no joke," insisted Smith. "I wish it hadn't gotten
around so fast, but there it is."

"There _what_ is?" demanded Parrish, in a tone bordering on the
querulous.

"Well ... there's been some kind of power failure throughout the
business district. There aren't any elevators running, and we don't
know how long it will be until the power company copes with the
trouble."

"No elevators?" repeated Parrish.

He stared at the sliding doors of the elevator shaft as if unable to
comprehend the lack of such service. The idea seemed to sink in.

"_No elevators?_ And ninety-nine stories _up_?"

"Sssh!" said Smith, glancing down the corridor.

"What's the matter with you, Castor?" asked Parrish. "Are you watching
for someone ... someone ... oh!"

"See what I'm thinking?" asked Smith.

They faced each other for a moment in silence.

"Well, it ought to be all right, as long as he can get down the stairs
if he wants to," said Parrish. "I'm sorry, Beryl. We'll have to make it
some other time."

"But how are we going to get home?" asked the blonde.

"Oh, they'll probably have it fixed by the time we're finished here,"
said Parrish.

"Then what's all the trouble about. Why is Willie looking so sour?"

Westervelt braced himself against the impact of three glances and tried
not to sneer. The other two men cleared their throats and looked back
at Beryl.

"I'm going to have to ask your co-operation, Beryl," said Smith.
"First, Pete, I'd like to point out to you a little gem of modern
design. This door here is powered to slide open automatically for a
fire or other emergency."

"Of course," said Parrish curiously.

"But there isn't any power," Smith pointed out.

Parrish reached out impatiently and tried the door. He wrenched at it
two or three times, then bent to peer for the latch.

"No use, Pete," said Smith, glancing down the hall again. "Willie
already went through that whole routine. I've been on the phone to the
building manager, and there isn't anything he can do except send a
party up from the seventy-fifth floor to burn open the door from the
stair side."

"Is he doing it?"

"Well, frankly ... I told him it wasn't necessary," said Smith, getting
a stubborn look on his long face.

"But you know Bob!" expostulated Parrish. "If he gets the idea that
he's penned in here--"

"I know, I know," said Smith. "On the other hand, we can always get
something from the lab and break out from this side, provided we take
care not to let him know what is going on until later."

Westervelt eyed Beryl sardonically. He had seldom seen an expression
so blended of impatience and vague worry. He wondered if anyone would
explain to her.

Parrish shook his head.

"I think it might be better to call downstairs again, and have them
come up," he said.

"I don't want to do that," said Smith.

"Why not?"

"It would get around. Pretty soon, the story would be all over the
D.I.R."

Parrish actually leaned forward slightly to study his chief's face. He
found no words, but his very expression was plaintive. Smith sighed.

"We're in the business of springing spacers from jails all over the
explored galaxy," he said. "We're supposed to be loaded to the jets
with high-potency brainwaves and have a gadget for every purpose! How
is it going to look if we're locked in our own office and can't get out
without help?"

Parrish threw up his hands. Pivoting, he walked loosely a few feet
along the corridor and back, squeezing his chin in the palm of one
hand. He clasped his hands behind his back, then, and peered around
Smith at the empty wing of the corridor.

"Maybe we could dope him," he suggested, without much feeling.

"I should have thought of that," admitted Smith, "but he's finished
eating."

"Can't we find something in the lab to shoot a dart?"

As Smith tried to remember, Westervelt interrupted.

"If you decide on that, I'm not volunteering, thank you. Did you ever
see Mr. Lydman move in a hurry? Whoever tries it had better not miss
with the first dart!"

Smith said, "Harumph!" and Parrish looked uncomfortable. The assistant
glanced momentarily at Beryl, but shook his head immediately.

Westervelt followed his thinking. For one thing, Lydman was known to be
devoted to his wife and two children; for another, who knew how badly
Beryl might miss?

"Now, if everyone will just keep calm," said Smith, "and we can keep
Bob busy, we'll probably get along fine until they restore power. How
long can it take, after all? They can't waste any time with a large
part of a modern city like this cut off. It's unthinkable."

"I suppose you're right," said Parrish.

Smith turned to Beryl.

"What I meant by asking your co-operation," he said, "is that we'll
need to have someone with Mr. Lydman most of the time. Willie has
been doing it until now, but we don't want it to look like deliberate
surveillance."

"But why?" asked Beryl. "I mean ... I see that it worries all of you
that ... that he might find out. But what if he does?"

"Possibly nothing," answered Smith. "On the other hand, Mr. Lydman was
once imprisoned, in his space traveling days. He was held for a long
time under very trying conditions; and the experience has left him with
a problem. It is not _exactly_ claustrophobia...."

He paused, as if to let Beryl recall other remarks about Lydman. Their
general air of gravity seemed to impress her.

"I'll be ... glad to help," she said reluctantly.

"Fine!" said Smith. "Probably nothing will be necessary. Now, I think
we had better go in and tell Si, so that everyone will be alerted to
the situation."

Westervelt caught the glance that passed between Parrish and Beryl. He
was almost certain that each of them was mentally counting the people
who had known before _they_ had been told.

_That's what you get for being so busy in the dead files_, he thought.

They trouped in behind Smith. Simonetta watched as if they had been a
parade. Smith, with an occasional comment from Parrish, told her the
story.

"So that is the partial reason for staying late," he concluded,
"although, of course, the case of Harris comes first."

Westervelt had wandered over to a window. He adjusted the filter dial
for maximum clarity and looked out.

From where he was, he could see a great black carpet across part of the
city, spreading out from somewhere beneath his position until it was
cut by a sharp line of street lights many blocks away. Beyond that, the
city looked normal. To the near side of the invisible boundary and,
he supposed, for a like distance in the opposite direction behind his
viewpoint, there were only sparse and faint glows of emergency lights.
Some were doubtless powered by buildings with the equipment for the
purpose, others were the lights of police and emergency vehicles on the
ground or cruising low between the taller buildings.

_I wonder what they actually do when something like this happens?_ he
thought. _What if they think they have it fixed, turn on the juice
again, and it blows a second time?_

His reverie was interrupted by the sound of Simonetta's phone. From
where he was, he could see Joe Rosenkrantz's features as the operator
asked for Smith.

"Oh, there you are, Mr. Smith," said Joe. "Pauline has been trying all
over. Trident is transmitting, and I thought you would want to be here.
They say they have a relay set up right to Harris."

Smith let out a whoop and made for the door.

"He'll be right there," Simonetta told the grinning TV man.

Parrish and Westervelt trailed along. When the latter looked back, he
saw that Simonetta had replaced Beryl; and he could hardly blame the
blonde for seizing the chance to sit down and collect her thoughts. He
felt like crawling into a hole somewhere himself.

Passing the library, Parrish cocked an eyebrow at him. Westervelt
nodded. He went in and told Lydman about the call. The ex-spacer was
interested enough to join the procession.

When Westervelt followed him into the communications room, Joe
Rosenkrantz was explaining the set-up to Smith.

"Like before, we go through Pluto, Capella VII, and an automatic relay
on an outer planet of the Trident system, but you won't see anything of
that. It's after we get Johnson that the fun begins."

He leaned back in his swivel chair before the screen and surveyed the
group.

"Johnson is gonna _think_ to a fish near his island. This fish thinks
to one swimming near Harris. They claim Harris answers."

Smith ran both hands through his hair.

"We try anything," he said. "Let's go!"

Joe got in contact with Johnson, the Terran D.I.R. man, among other
things, on Trident. The latter was not quite successful in hiding an
I-told-you-so attitude.

"Harris himself confirms that he is being held on the ocean floor," he
said. "He seems to be a sort of pet, or curiosity."

"Can you make sense out of the messages?" asked Smith. "I mean,
is there any difficulty because of a language barrier? We don't
want to make some silly assumption and find out it was based on a
misunderstanding."

After the weird pause caused by the mind-numbing distance, Johnson
replied.

"There isn't any language barrier in a thought, but you might say
there's sometimes an attitude barrier. Usually, we can pick up an
equivalent meaning if we assume, for instance, that our time sense is
similar to that of these fish."

"Well, try asking Harris how deep he is," suggested Smith.

They watched Johnson look away, although the man did not seem to be
going through any marked effort of concentration. Hardly thirty seconds
of this had elapsed when they saw him scowl.

"This fish off my beach can't get it through his massive intellect that
he can't think directly to another fish at your position. He thinks
you must be pretty queer not to have someone to do your thinking for
you."

Smith turned a little red. Westervelt admired Joe Rosenkrantz's
pokerface. Johnson appeared to be insisting.

"Harris says he is two minutes' swim under the surface," he reported.

"Well, how far from your position, then?" asked Smith.

The distance turned out to be a day-and-a-half swim.

"Does he need anything? Are they keeping him under livable conditions?"

The pause, and Johnson relayed, "They pump him air and feed him. He
needs someone to get him out."

"How can we find him?" asked Smith. "Can he work up any way of
signaling us?"

"You are signaling him now, he says. He wants you to get him out."

Smith looked around him for questions. Lydman suggested asking how
Harris was confined. Smith put it to Johnson, and after the maddening
pause, got an answer.

"He says he's in a big glass box like a freight trailer. It's like a
cage. Inside, he is free to move around, and he wants to get out."

"Then have him tell us where it is!" snapped Smith.

"He doesn't know," came the reply. "They move about every so often."

"What did I say?" whispered Parrish. "Nomadic."

No one took the time to congratulate him because Smith was asking
what the Tridentians were like. Johnson's mental connection seemed
to develop static. They saw him shake his head as if to clear it. He
turned a puzzled expression to the screen.

"I didn't get that very plainly," he admitted. "A sort of combination
of thoughts--they feed him and they don't taste good."

"Well, tell your fishy friend to keep his own opinions out of it,"
said Smith, surprising Westervelt, who had not quite caught up to the
situation.

Johnson, a moment later, grimaced. His expression became apologetic.

"Don't say things like that!" he told Smith, turning again to the
screen. "It slipped through my mind as I heard you, and he didn't like
it!"

"Who? Harris?"

"No, the fish at his end. I apologized for you."

There was a general restless shifting of feet in the Terran office.
Smith seemed, in the dim lighting of the communications room, to flush
a deeper shade.

"And what does Harris say?"

Johnson inquired. Harris requested that they get him out.

"Goddammit!" muttered Smith. "He must be punchy!"

"It happens," Lydman reminded him softly.

"Yes," said Smith, after a startled look around, "but some were like
that to begin with, and his record suggests it all the way."

He asked Johnson to get a description of the place where Harris found
himself. The answer was, in a fashion, conclusive.

"Like any other part of the sea bottom," reported Johnson. "And,
furthermore, he's tired of thinking and wants to rest."

"Who does?" demanded Smith.

"They won't tell me," said Johnson, sadly.

Smith choked off a curse, noticing Simonetta standing there. He
combed his hair furiously with both hands. No one suggested any other
questions, so he thanked Johnson and told Joe to break off.

"At least, we know it's all real," he sighed. "He was actually taken,
and he's still alive."

"You put a lot of faith in a couple of fish," said Lydman.

Smith hesitated.

"Well ... now ... they aren't really fish," he said. "Let's not build
up a mental misconception, just because we've been kidding about
'swishy the thinking fishy.' Actually, they probably wouldn't even
suggest fish to an ichthyologist, and they may be a pretty high form of
life."

"They may be as high as this Harris," commented Parrish, and earned a
cold stare from Lydman.

"I think I'll look around the lab," said the latter, as the others made
motions toward breaking up the gathering.

Westervelt promptly headed for the door. He saw that Lydman was walking
around the corner of the wire mesh partition that enclosed the special
apparatus of the communications room, doubtless bent upon taking a
short-cut into the lab.

_I want to go sit down a while before they pin me on him again_,
thought the youth. _I need fifteen minutes, then I'll relieve whoever
has him, if Smitty wants me to._



TWELVE


The light, impotent after penetrating fifty fathoms of Tridentian sea,
was murky and green-tinted; but Tom Harris had become more or less used
to that. It rankled, nevertheless, that the sea-people continued to
ignore his demands for a lamp.

He knew that they used such devices. Through the clear walls of his
tank, he had seen night parties swimming out to hunt small varieties
of fish. The water craft they piloted on longer trips and up to the
surface were also equipped with lights powered by some sort of battery.
It infuriated Harris to be forced arbitrarily to exist isolated in the
dimness of the ocean bottom day or the complete blackness of night.

He rose from the spot where he had been squatting on his heels. So
smooth was the glassy footing that he slipped and almost fell headlong.
He regained his balance and looked about.

The tank was about ten by ten feet and twice as long, with metal angles
which he assumed to be aluminum securing all edges. These formed the
outer corners, so that he could see the gaskets inside them that made
the tank water-tight. The sea-people, he had to admit, were quite
capable of coping with their environment and understanding his.

The end of the tank distant from Harris was opaque. He thought that
there were connections to a towing vehicle as well as to the plant
that pumped air for him. The big fish had not made that quite clear to
him. All other sides of the tank were quite clear. Whenever he walked
about, he could look through the floor and find groups of shells and
other remnants of deceased marine life in the white sand. Occasionally,
he considered the pressure that would implode upon him should anything
happen to rupture the walls, but he had become habitually successful in
forcing that idea to the back of his mind.

Along each of the side walls were four little airlocks. The use of
these was at the moment being demonstrated by one of the sea-people to
what Harris was beginning to think of as a child.

The parent was slightly smaller than Harris, who stood five-feet-five
and weighed a hundred and thirty pounds Terran. It also had four
limbs, but that was about the last point they had in common. The
Tridentian's limbs all joined his armored body near the head. Two of
them ended in powerful pincers; the others forked into several delicate
tentacles. The body was somewhat flexible despite the weight of rugged
shell segments, and tapered to a spread tail upon which the crustacean
balanced himself easily.

Harris felt at a distinct disadvantage in the vision department: each
of the Tridentians had four eyes protruding from his chitinous head.
The adult had grown one pair of eye-stalks to a length of nearly a
foot. The second pair, like both of the youngster's, extended only a
few inches.

The Terran could not be sure whether the undersea currency consisted
of metal or shell, but the Tridentian deposited some sort of coin in a
slot machine outside one of the little airlocks. It caused a grinding
noise. Directly afterward, a small lump of compressed fish, boned, was
ejected from an opening on the inside.

"Goddam' blue lobsters!" swore Harris. "Think they're doing me a favor!"

He let them wait a good five minutes before he decided that the prudent
course was to accept the offering. Sneering, he walked over and picked
up the food. There was usually little else provided. On days he had
been too angry or too disgusted to accept the favors of sightseers, his
keepers assumed that he was not hungry.

In the beginning, he had also had a most difficult time getting through
to them his need for fresh water. That was when he had come to believe
in the large, fish-like swimmer who had transmitted his thoughts to the
sea-people. The fact that the latter could and did produce fresh water
for him aroused his grudging respect, even though the taste was nothing
to take lightly.

He juggled the lump of fish in one hand, causing the little Tridentian
to twirl his eye-stalks in glee and swim up off the ocean bottom to
look down through the top of the tank. The parent also wiggled his
eye-stalks, more sedately. Harris suspected them of laughing, and
turned his back.

Looking through the other side of his tank, he could see--to such
distance as the murky light permitted--the parked vehicles of the
Tridentians. Like a collection of small boats, they were of sundry
sizes and shapes, depending perhaps upon each owner's fancy, perhaps on
his skill. Harris did not know whether the Tridentians' craftsmanship
extended to the level of having professional builders. At any rate,
they were spread out like a small city. Among them were tent-like
arrangements of nets to keep out swimming vermin. Other than that, the
sea-people used no shelters.

_They were smart enough to build a cage for me!_ he thought bitterly.
_What the hell is the matter with the Terran government, anyway? That
Department of Interstellar Relations, or whatever they call it. Why
can't they get me out of here? And where did Big Fish go now?_

He saw several of the crustacean people approaching from the camping
area. Shortly, no doubt, he would again be a center of mass attention,
with cubes of compressed and stinking fish shooting at him from all the
little airlocks. He snarled wordlessly.

The groups seemed to come at certain periods which he had been unable
to define. He could only guess that they had choice times for hunting
besides other work that had to be done to maintain the campsite and
their jet-propelled craft.

_I'd like to get one of them in here and boil him!_ thought Harris.
_Big Fish claims they don't taste good. I wonder. Anyway, it would
shake them up!_

He had long since given up thinking about what the sea-people could do
to him if they chose. Their flushing the tank eighteen inches deep with
sea water twice a day had soon given him an idea, especially as he had
nowhere to go during the process. He no longer permitted himself to
fall asleep anywhere near the inlet pipe.

He noticed that the dozen or so sightseers were edging around the end
of the tank to join the first individual and his offspring. Looking
up, Harris saw the reason. A long, dark shadow was curving down in an
insolently deliberate dive. It was streamlined as a Terran shark and as
long as the tank in which Harris lived. The flat line of its leading
edge split into something very like a yawn, displaying astonishing
upper and lower carpets of conical teeth. This was possible because the
eyes, about eight Harris thought, were spaced in a ring about the head
end of the long body.

_They know I don't like to eat them, but I like to scare them a
little._ Big Fish thought to Harris. _Look at them trying to smile at
me!_

Harris watched the Tridentians wiggling and waving their eye-stalks as
the monster passed lazily over them and turned to come slowly back.

"I'd like to scare them a lot," said Harris, who had learned some
time ago that he got through better just by forgetting telepathy and
verbalizing. "Is the D.I.R. man still there?"

_Which ... what you thought?_ inquired Big Fish.

"The other Terran, the one on the island."

_The other air-breathing one is gone, the other Big Fish is feeding,
as I have done just now, and it is not clear about the far Terran who
lacks a Big Fish._

"All the bastards on both worlds are out to lunch," growled Harris,
"and here I sit!"

_You are in to lunch_, agreed the monster.

The three eyes that bore upon the imprisoned man as the thinker swept
past the tank had an intelligent alertness. Harris had come to imagine
that he could detect expressions on Big Fish's limited features.

"You're the only friend I've got!" he exclaimed, slipping suddenly into
self-pity. "I wish I could go with you."

_Once you could, when you had your own tank._

"It was what we call a submarine," said Harris. "I was looking to see
what was on the ocean floor. Tell me, is it all like this?"

_Is it all like what? With blue lobsters?_

Harris still retained enough sanity to realize that the Tridentians did
not suggest Terran lobsters to this being who probably could not even
imagine them. That was an automatic translation of thought furnished
out of his own memory and name-calling.

"No," he said. "I mean is it all sand and mud with a few chasms here
and there? Where do these crabs get their metals?"

_There are different kinds of holes and hills. It is all mostly the
same. You cannot swim in it anywhere, although there are little things
that dig under the soft sand. Some of them are good to eat but you have
to spit out a lot of sand. The crabs dig with machines sometimes, in
big holes, but what they catch I do not know._

"Isn't there anything that catches _them_?" asked Harris bitterly.

_No. They are big enough to catch other things, except a few. Things
that are bigger than I am are not smart._

The monster made a pass along the ocean bed near the Tridentians,
stirring up a cloud of sand and causing Harris's captor to shrink
against the side of his tank. The Terran laughed heartily. He clapped
the backs of his fists against his forehead above the eyes and wiggled
his forefingers at the Tridentians on the other side of the clear
barrier.

Even after the sand had settled, he ran back and forth along the side
of his tank, making sure that every sightseer had opportunity to note
his gesture. He had an idea that they did not like it much.

_They do not like it at all_, thought Big Fish. _Some of them are
asking for the man who lets the sea into your tank._

"Don't call it a man!" objected Harris, giving up his posturing. "I am
a man."

_What else can I call these men except men?_ asked the other. _I do not
understand why you want to be called a man. You are different._

"Forget it," said Harris. "It was just a figure of thought."

He felt like sitting down again, but decided against it in case
the onlookers should succeed in obtaining the services of the tank
attendant. He walked to the end of the tank, where he could stare into
the greenish distance without looking at the Tridentian camp.

"I wish I were dead," he muttered. "They'll never get me out of here."

Behind him, he heard the plop-plop of food tidbits landing on the floor
of the tank as the onlookers sought to regain his attention. They must
have come out of their moment of pique if they were trying to coax him
to amuse them further.

"If I could find a bone in those hunks of fish, I'd kill myself," said
Harris.

The dark shape of Big Fish settled over the tank, cutting off what
little light there was like a cloud. Harris looked up resentfully.

_I do not understand you_, thought the monster. _That would be very
foolish._

"What--trying to commit suicide with a fish bone?"

_No matter how, it would be extremely foolish, for then you would be
dead._

Harris could not think of anything to say. He could not even think of
anything to think, obviously, since none of his chaotic, half-formed
thoughts brought a response.

_It would be as if you had been eaten_, insisted his friend.

"All right, all right! I won't do it then, if that'll make you happy,"
exclaimed Harris.

_It has no effect on how well I feed_, Big Fish informed him.

It took Harris a minute, but he figured it out.

"So that's your philosophy!" he muttered to himself. "Now I know what
it takes to make you happy. Something to eat!"

_Where?_ inquired the monster. _I do not see anyone I want to eat._

"Never mind!" said Harris. "Tell me more about the ocean bottom. Where
there are big holes or cliffs, can you see ... uh ... stripes in the
sides, layers of rock?"

_Sometimes. Where it is deep enough. Other places there are things
growing to the bottom. Only little fish that are not even good to eat
do their feeding there. Sometimes the sea-people take away the growing
things or dig holes._

"I'll bet there are plenty of things to get out of this ocean," mused
Harris. "Who knows how the climate may have changed in thousands of
years. Maybe if there was an ice age the seas would have shrunk. Maybe
there was a volcanic age. Maybe you could drill underwater and find
oil--if you knew where to look. Maybe there are deposits of diamonds
under the ooze."

He stopped when he sensed a vague irritation. He realized that his
thoughts had been going out and scoring the cleanest of misses.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "Just tell me what you do know about the
sea."

_I can tell you where to find tribes of the sea-people. I can tell you
where to find all sorts of good eating-fish. I know where to think to
other Big Fish but that I cannot tell you, for you cannot feel it._

The monster rose slowly through the water. He had seen something up
there that interested him, Harris knew, and would return when it
occurred to him.

He considered the possibilities. Perhaps there was something in the
idea of building up a food industry. If you had inside tips on where
the fish were, how could you miss? Then, the Tridentians must have some
knowledge of where to find metals, since they used them. He suspected
that they had factories somewhere.

"Come to think of it," he asked himself, "how do I know it isn't some
savage tribe that picked me up? One of these days, I may wind up with a
more advanced bunch. I'll have to ask Big Fish when he comes back."

He began to plan what he would do if he reached some higher
civilization under the sea. Anyone with the knowledge to mine metals,
or maybe to extract them from sea water, would be interested in
contacting Terrans from another world. There would be a little trouble,
probably, in getting them to comprehend space, but some of them could
be sent up to the surface in tanks. Then there would be a need for some
Terran who knew both worlds.

"I could wind up an ambassador!" Harris told himself. "I wonder ...
maybe I could even work it with this bunch. If I could only get out of
here! Come back in another submarine, maybe."

He began to pace the length of his tank and back, stopping once to
gather up the fish that had been bought for him by some of the crowd
outside. He noted that the latter was constantly changing without
varying much in total number. He took to walking around the sides of
the tank, staring into each set of eyes.

In the end, this had such a hypnotic effect that he imagined himself
swimming through the dim, greenish light. The sea-people outside began
to appear as individuals. He grew into the feeling that he could
recognize one from the other.

He found himself running for the corner where he had collected his
fish. The sound that had triggered the reaction originated at the
opaque end of the tank. It was followed within seconds by several jets
of water, white and forceful, which entered near the floor of the
structure.

Harris snatched up his supply of food to keep it from being washed
away. With one hand, he tried to roll up the legs of his pants. He
never seemed to be prepared when the time came, but he was constantly
too chilled to go around with the trousers rolled up all the time.

The water swished about the calves of his legs. After a few minutes, it
began to recede as the Tridentian machinery pumped it out. Soon, the
tank was clean of everything but Harris, his fish, and the thick smell
of sea water.

_He was good_, came a thought. _I see you are eating too._

A large shadow passed overhead. Most of the Tridentians wiggled their
eye-stalks in an effort to look amiable. Harris dropped his fish to the
damp floor.

"No, I'm not eating," he said. "I'm all wet."

_So am I_, answered Big Fish.

"But I'm not usually," said Harris.

_I know. It is unkind, they way they let you dry out. Would you like me
to knock in the end of the tank? You could have all the water you want._

"Not right now," said Harris calmly. He sat down, crossing his legs.
"I'll have to grow some gills first. It may not take much longer, at
that."

He looked at the Tridentians, who looked in at him. Again, he felt the
sensation of being able to recognize individuals. Perhaps he should
talk to them more often through Big Fish.

"Maybe some of them are really nice fellows," he muttered, "if I just
get to know them better."

_No_, his friend told him, _they are not very good to eat._



THIRTEEN


Time had dragged its slow way past six-thirty. The excuse of a flying
start on the Harris case had worn thin to the point of delicacy--to all
but one man. The rest of them hoped sincerely that _he_ was keeping
himself interested.

Westervelt sat at his desk, perusing an article in _Spaceman's_ World
about the exploration of a newly discovered planetary system. It might
come up in a conference someday, he reflected, and it might be as well
to know a few facts on the subject. No life had been discovered on
any of the dozen planets, but that did not necessarily preclude the
establishment of a Terran colony in the future. The department also had
problems with colonies, as witness Greenhaven.

He put down the magazine for a moment to review the personnel situation.

Parrish, he remembered, had expressed his intention of retreating to
his office and putting in an hour or two of desk-heeling. Under the
circumstances, he had declared, there was little point in digging
further into the files for an idea since that was not at all their
primary purpose in staying late. Rosenkrantz, of course, was on watch
in the communications room. Smith wandered in and out. Simonetta had
taken a portable taper down to Lydman's office to help organize a
preliminary report the chief had requested from him. After she had
returned, and fallen to low-voiced gossip through the window with
Pauline, Beryl had been sent back with a number of scribbled objections
for Lydman to answer.

Smith had spent all of five minutes thinking them up--before Simonetta
brought the original report. Westervelt wondered how soon Beryl would
return with the answers, because it would then probably be his turn to
ride herd.

He did not regard the idea with relish.

Smith strolled out of his office. He halted to survey the nearly empty
office with an air of vague surprise, then saw Simonetta outside
Pauline's cubicle. He went over to join the conversation.

_I should have walked out somewhere_, thought Westervelt. _Now the door
is completely blockaded._

The magazine article turned dull immediately.

Sure enough, in a few minutes Smith approached Westervelt's corner.

"Who's on watch, Willie?" he asked, attempting a jovial wink.

"Beryl, I think," answered the youth. "Must be--she hasn't been around."

"She's been there quite a while," commented Smith. "I have a feeling
that it's time for a shift. How about wandering down there and edging
in?"

"What would I say?" objected Westervelt. "He's probably dictating his
remarks and wouldn't like me hanging around."

Smith chewed on his lower lip.

"For the questions I sent him," he muttered thoughtfully, "five minutes
should have been enough. Goldilocks has been with him over half an
hour."

"But he must be tired of my face," said Westervelt.

"I don't have anyone else to send, unless you want me to think up an
excuse for Pauline. Asking him to help with her homework would be
pretty thin."

Westervelt thought it over. Parrish, in his present mood, was not
likely to be of any help. Simonetta had just done her stint, and Joe
was needed on the space set. It would have been nice if there were a
message for Lydman to listen to, but that was wishful dreaming.

"All right, Mr. Smith," he surrendered. "Maybe I can take along this
article and ask if he's seen it yet. If he's taking an inventory or
trying out something in the lab, I'll take my life in my hands and
volunteer to help!"

Smith laughed.

"It can't be that bad, Willie," he said, slapping the other on the
shoulder.

Westervelt was not so sure, but he folded the magazine open to the
beginning of his article and went out. Pauline peered at him as he
passed.

"Don't look like that!" he said. "You'll see me again, I hope!"

"You might try looking a little more confident of that yourself,"
Simonetta called after him.

Westervelt turned the corner and walked slowly down the hall, trying
out more confident expressions as he went. None of them felt exactly
right.

Passing the spare office where the dead files were kept, he heard a
sound.

_They must have come up here for something_, he thought. _That's why it
seemed so long to Smitty._

He had opened the door and taken one step inside before he realized
that the room was dark. Without thinking, he reached out to flip the
light switch.

Beryl Austin leaped to her feet with a flash of thigh that hardly
registered on Westervelt in the split-second of his astonishment. Then
he saw that she had not been alone on the settee that stood beside the
door. Parrish rose beside her.

The suddenness of their movements and the ferocity of their combined
stares had the impact of a stunning blow upon Westervelt. The
implications of the blonde's slightly disheveled appearance, however,
were obvious.

He could not, for a moment, think at all. Then he began to have a
feeling that he ought to say something to cover his escape. Beneath
that, somewhere, surged the conviction that he had nothing to
apologize for. In the face of such hostility and tension, it called for
a lot of courage.

"You little sneak!" spat Beryl.

Westervelt noted with a certain detachment that her voice had turned
shrill. Not knowing of anything else to do, he stared as she tugged
her dress into place. This seemed to outrage her more than anything
he could have said. He also saw the gleam of Parrish's teeth, and the
grimace was not even remotely a smile. The man took a step to place
himself before Beryl.

"What do you think you're doing?" demanded Parrish, with a good deal
more feeling than originality.

Westervelt had been wondering what to say to that when it came, as was
inevitable. A dozen half-expressed answers flitted through his mind.

_How do you get out of a thing like this?_ he asked himself
desperately. _You'd think it was me that did it!_

Before he could explore the implications of his choosing the words "did
it," Beryl found her voice again.

"Get out of here!" she shrilled. "Who told you to come poking in?"

"I heard a noise," said Westervelt, conscious that his voice sounded
odd. "I thought it was Mr. Lydman."

"Do I look like Lydman?" demanded Parrish, not raising his voice as
much as Beryl had. "There wasn't any light, was there? Did you think
he'd be sitting in here in the dark?"

The possibility charged the atmosphere like static electricity.
Actually, mere mention of it made Westervelt feel better because it
sounded so much like what he might have found.

"How did I know?" he retorted. "I thought Beryl was with him. Why
should I expect _you_? You said you weren't going to dig any further in
here."

Beryl had been smoothing her still-perfect coiffure. Now she stiffened
as much as Parrish. Westervelt sensed that his choice of words might
have been unfortunate.

"Well, who is with him?" he demanded, before they could say anything.

The question galvanized Parrish into action. He stepped forward to meet
Westervelt face to face.

"If you're so worried about that, why don't you go find him?" he
sneered. "For my money, you two make a good match."

"Maybe I will," said Westervelt hotly. "_You_ two don't seem to care
about what's going on. If you'll just excuse me, I'll turn out the
light and--"

"Oh, cut out the speech-making!" requested Beryl. "Get out of the
door, Willie, and let me out of here. I'm tired of the whole incident."

"Now, wait a minute, Beryl!" protested Parrish.

"Yeah," said Westervelt, "you'd better check. Your lipstick is really
smudged this time."

"Shut up, you!" Parrish snapped.

He took Beryl by the shoulders and pulled her back. She pulled herself
free peevishly. Westervelt leaned against the wall and curled a lip.

"Enough is enough!" she said. "Let me out of here!"

"You forgot to smile," Westervelt told Parrish.

The man turned on him and reached out to seize a handful of his
shirtfront. Westervelt straightened up, alarmed but willing to consider
changing the smooth mask of Parrish's face. Beryl was shrilling
something about not being damned fools, when she stopped in the middle
of a word.

Parrish also grew still. The forearm Westervelt had crossed over the
hand grabbing at his shirt fell as Parrish let him go. The man was
staring over Westervelt's shoulder. He looked almost frightened.

Westervelt looked around--and a thrill shot through him, like the shock
of diving into icy water.

Lydman was standing there, staring through him.

When he looked again, as he shrank instinctively away from the doorway,
he realized that the ex-spacer was staring through all of them. After a
moment, he seemed to focus on Beryl.

"They'll let you out, I think," he said in his quiet voice.

Parrish stepped back nervously, and Westervelt edged further inside
the doorway to make room. Beryl did not seem to have heard. She gaped,
hypnotized by the beautiful eyes set in the strong, tanned face.

Lydman put the palm of one hand against Westervelt's chest and shoved
slowly. It was as well that the file cabinet behind the youth was
nearly empty, because it slid a foot along the floor as his back
flattened against it. Lydman reached out his other hand and took Beryl
gently by the elbow.

She stepped forward, turning her head from side to side as if to seek
reassurance from either Parrish or Westervelt, but without completely
meeting their eyes. Lydman led her into the hall and released her elbow.

She started uncertainly up the corridor toward the main office. Lydman
fell in a pace or two behind her.

Westervelt heard a gasp. He looked at Parrish and realized that he had
been holding his breath too. Then, by mutual consent, they followed the
others out into the hall.

"Listen, Willie," whispered Parrish, watching the twenty-foot gap
between them and Lydman's broad shoulders, "we have to see that she
doesn't forget and try to leave. If he won't let me talk to her, you'll
have to get her attention."

"Okay, I'll try," murmured Westervelt. "Look--I was really looking for
him I never meant to--"

"I never meant to either," said Parrish. "Forget it!"

"It was none of my business. I should have shut up and left. Tell her
I'm sorry when you get a chance; she'll probably never speak to me
again."

He wondered if he could get Smith's permission to move his desk. On
second thought, he wondered if he would come out of this with a desk to
move.

"Sure she will," said Parrish. "She's really just a good-natured kid.
It wasn't anything serious. You startled us, that was all."

Beryl and Lydman turned the corner, leaving the two followers free to
increase their pace. They rounded the corner themselves in time to see
Lydman going through the double doors.

"It was too bad he came along when she was yelling to be let out," said
Parrish. "He didn't understand."

"You mean he actually thought we were trying to keep her there against
her will?" asked Westervelt.

"Well, we were, I suppose, or at least I was. He doesn't seem to think
any further than that in such situations. If someone is being held
against his will, that's enough for Bob. Did you know Smitty had to
post a bond for him?"

"A bond!" repeated Westervelt. "What for?"

"They caught him a couple of times, trying out his new gadgets around
the city jail. I'll tell you about it sometime."

Parrish fell silent as they reached the entrance to the main office.
Beryl had gratefully stopped to speak to the first person in sight,
which happened to be Pauline. As Parrish and Westervelt arrived, she
was offering to take over the switchboard for twenty minutes or so.

"Oh, I didn't mean you had to drop everything," Pauline was protesting.
"I just meant ... when you get the chance...."

She eyed Lydman curiously, then looked to the late arrivals. The
silly thought that Joe Rosenkrantz must feel awfully lonely crossed
Westervelt's mind, and he had to fight down a giggle.

"You really should get out of there for a while," advised Lydman,
studying the size of Pauline's cubbyhole. "Sit outside a quarter of an
hour at least, and let your mind spread out."

"Well, if it's really all right with you, Beryl?"

"I'm only too glad to help," said Beryl rapidly.

She wasted no time in rounding the corner to get at the door.
Westervelt closed his eyes. He found it easy to envision Pauline
tangling with her on the way out and causing Lydman to start all over
again.

The girls managed without any such catastrophe. Pauline headed for the
swivel chair behind the unused secretarial desk.

"You ought to leave that door open," Lydman called to Beryl. "If it
should stick, there's hardly any air in there. You'd feel awfully
cramped in no time."

"Thank you," said Beryl politely.

She left the door open, sat down, and picked up Pauline's headset. From
the set of her shoulders, it did not seem that much light conversation
would be forthcoming from that quarter.

Westervelt stepped further into the office, and saw that Smith was
standing in his own doorway, rubbing his large nose thoughtfully. The
youth guessed that Simonetta had signalled him.

Parrish cleared his throat with a little cough.

"Well," he said, "I'll be in my office if anyone wants me."

Rather than pass too close to Lydman, he retreated into the hall to use
the outside entrance to his office. The ex-spacer paid no attention.

Westervelt decided that he would be damned if he would go through
Parrish's office and back into this one to get at his desk. He walked
around the projection of the switchboard cubicle and sat down with a
sigh at his own place. He leaned back and looked about, to discover
that Lydman had gone over to say a few words to Smith. Pauline glanced
curiously from Westervelt to the two men, then began to shop among a
shelf of magazines beside the desk of the vacationing secretary.

After a few minutes, Lydman turned and went out the door. Westervelt
tried to listen for footsteps, but the resilient flooring prevented him
from guessing which way the ex-spacer had gone.

He saw Smith approaching, and went to meet him.

"I've changed my mind," said the chief. "For a little bit, anyway,
we'll leave him alone. He said he was sketching up some gizmo he wants
to have built, and needed peace and quiet."

"Did he say we ... were talking too loud?" asked Westervelt, looking at
the doorway rather than meet Smith's eye.

"No, that was all he said," answered Smith.

There was a questioning undertone in his voice, but Westervelt chose
not to hear it. After a short wait, Smith asked Simonetta to bring her
taper into his office. He mentioned that he hoped to phone for some
technical information. Westervelt watched them leave, then sank down on
the corner of the desk at which Pauline was relaxing.

Beryl turned around in her chair.

"Pssst! Pauline!" she whispered. "Is he gone?"

"They all left--except Willie," the girl told her.

Beryl shut the door promptly. The pair left in the office heard her
turn the lock with a brisk snap.

"What's the matter with her?" murmured Pauline.

"Nothing," said Westervelt glumly. "Why don't you take a nap, or
something?"

"I'd like to," said Pauline. "It's going on seven o'clock and who knows
when we'll get out of here?"

"Shut up!" said Westervelt. "I mean ... uh ... don't bring us bad luck
by talking about it. Take a nap and let me think!"

"All you big thinkers!" jeered Pauline. "What I'd really like to do is
go down to the ladies' room and take a shower, but you always kid me
about Mr. Parrish maybe coming in with fresh towels for the machine."

"I lied to you, Pauline," said Westervelt. "The charwoman brings them."

"Well, I could always hope," giggled Pauline.

"Not tonight," said Westervelt "Believe me, kid, you're safer than
you'll ever be!"



FOURTEEN


Pauline came back in a quarter of an hour, her youthfully translucent
skin glowing and her ash-blonde curls rearranged. She glanced through
the window at Beryl, who was nervously punching a number for an outside
call.

"What's going on?" she asked Westervelt, who sat with his heels on the
center desk.

"Mr. Smith is calling a couple of engineers he knows," Simonetta told
her.

Westervelt had just heard it, when Simonetta had emerged with a tape to
transcribe. He had started to mention that it might be better to phone
a psychiatrist, but had bitten back the remark.

_For all I know_, he reflected, _they might take me away! Everything I
remember about today can't really have happened. If it did, I wish it
hadn't!_

He recalled that he had been phoned at home to hop a jet for London
that morning. He had found the laboratory which had made the model of
the light Smith was interested in, and been on his way back without
time for lunch. Now that the jets were so fast, meals were no longer
served on them, and he had had to grab a sandwich upon returning. Then
there had been those poor fried eggs. That was all--no wonder he was
feeling hungry again!

_I should have missed the return jet_, he thought bitterly. _I didn't
know where I was well off! Why did I have to walk in there? I might
have had the sense to go look in Bob's office first._

He decided that Pauline, now chatting with Simonetta, looked refreshed
and relaxed. Perhaps he ought to do the same.

The idea, upon reflection, continued to appear attractive. Westervelt
rose and walked out past the switchboard. Beryl was too busy to see
him. He made his way quietly to the rest room, which he found empty. He
was rather relieved to have avoided everyone.

At one side of the room was a door leading to a shower. The
appointments of Department 99 were at least as complete as those of
any modern business office of the day. Westervelt stepped into a tiny
anteroom furnished with a skimpy stool, several hooks on the wall, and
a built-in towel supplier.

Prudently, he set the temperature for a hot shower on the dial outside
the shower compartment, and punched the button that turned on the water.

_Just in case all the trouble has affected the hot water supply_, he
thought.

As he undressed, he was reassured by the sight of steam inside the
stall. Another thought struck him. He locked the outer door. He did
not care for the possibility of having Lydman imagine that he was
trapped in here. It would be just his luck to be "assisted" out into
the corridor, naked and dripping, at the precise moment it was full of
staff members on their way to the laboratory.

He slid back the partly opaqued plastic doors and stepped with a sigh
of pleasure under the hot stream. Ten minutes of it relaxed him to the
point of feeling almost at peace with the world once more.

"I ought to finish with a minute or two of cold," he told himself, "but
to hell with it! I'll set the air on cool later."

He pushed the waterproof button on the inside of the stall to turn
off the water, opened the narrow doors, and reached out to the towel
dispenser. The towel he got was fluffy and large, though made of paper.
He blotted himself off well before turning on the air jets in the stall
to complete the drying process.

Having dressed and disposed of the towel through a slot in the wall,
he glanced about to see if he had forgotten anything. The shower
stall had automatically aired itself, sucking all moisture into the
air-conditioning system; and looked as untouched as it had at his
entrance.

Westervelt strolled out into the rest room proper, thankful that the
lock on the anteroom door had not chosen that moment to stick. He
stretched and yawned comfortably. Then he caught sight of his tousled,
air-blown hair in a mirror. He fished in his pocket for coins and
bought another hard paper comb and a small vial of hair dressing from
dispensers mounted on the wall. He took his time spraying the vaguely
perfumed mist over his dark hair and combing it neatly.

That task attended to, he stole a few seconds to study the reflection
of his face. It was rather more square about the jaw than Smith's, he
thought, but he had to admit that the nose was prominent enough to
challenge the chief's. No one had thought to equip the washroom with
adjustable mirrors, so he gave up twisting his neck in an effort to see
his profile.

"Well, that's a lot better!" he said, with considerable satisfaction.
"Now if I can hook another coffee out of the locker, it will be like
starting a new day. Gosh, I hope it's a better one, too!"

He walked lightly along the corridor to the main office, exaggerating
the slight resilience of the floor to a definite bounce in his step.
Outside the office, he met Beryl coming out. He felt himself come down
on his heels immediately.

Beryl eyed him enigmatically, glanced over his shoulder to check that
he was alone, and swung away toward the opposite wing. Westervelt
hurried after her.

"Look, Beryl!" he called. "I wanted to say ... that is ... about
before--"

Beryl turned the corner and kept walking.

"Wait just a second!" said Westervelt.

He tried to get beside her to speak to something besides the back of
her blonde head, but she was a tall girl and had a long stride. He
hesitated to take her by the elbow.

Beryl stopped at the door to the library.

"Please take note, Willie," she said coldly, "that the light is on
inside and I am all alone."

_At least she spoke_, thought Westervelt.

"I have come down here for a little peace and quiet," she informed him.
"I hope you didn't intend to learn how to read at this hour of the
night."

"Aw, come on!" protested Westervelt. "It was an accident. Could I help
it?"

"Being the way you are, I suppose not," admitted Beryl judiciously.
"Why don't you go elsewhere and be an accident again?"

"I'm trying to say I'm sorry," said Westervelt, feeling a flush
spreading over his features. "I don't know why I have to apologize,
anyway. It wasn't _me_ in there, filing away in the dark!"

Beryl looked down her nose at him as if he were a Mizarian asking where
he could have his chlorine tank refilled.

"Is that the story you're telling around?" she demanded icily.

"I'm not telling--" Westervelt realized he was beginning to yell, and
lowered his voice. "I'm not telling any story around. Nobody knows
anything about it except you and I and Pete. Bob couldn't have seen
anything."

Beryl shrugged, a small, disdainful gesture. Westervelt wondered why he
had allowed himself to get into an argument over the matter, since it
was obvious that he was making things worse with every word.

"I don't know why you should be so sore about it," he said. "Even Pete
said to me I should forget about it."

"Oh, you two have been talking it over!" Beryl accused. "Pretty clubby!
Do you take over for him on other things too?"

Westervelt threw up his hands.

"You don't seem to mind anything about it except that I should know you
were in there with him," he retorted. "If he was so acceptable, why am
I a disease? Nobody ever left this office on account of me!"

"It could happen yet," said Beryl.

"Oh, hell! The trouble with you is you need a little loosening up."

He grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her toward him. Slipping his
left arm behind her back as she tried to kick his ankle, he kissed her.
The result was spoiled by Beryl's turning her face away at the crucial
instant. Westervelt drew back.

The next thing he knew, lights exploded before his right eye. He had
not even seen her hand come up, or he would have ducked. He saw it as
he stepped back, however. Despite a certain feminine delicacy, the hand
clenched into a very capable little fist.

Beryl took one quick stride into the library.

"I don't like to keep hinting around," she said, "but maybe that will
play itself back in your little mind."

She slammed the door three inches from his nose. Westervelt raised a
hand to open it, then changed his mind and felt gingerly of his eye. It
hurt, but with a sort of surrounding numbness.

Realizing that he could see after all, he looked up and down the
corridor guiltily. It seemed very quiet.

_Right square in the peeper!_ he thought ruefully. _She couldn't have
aimed that well: it must have been a lucky shot. I ought to go in there
and belt her!_

It was not something he really wanted to do. He could not foresee any
pleasure or satisfaction in carrying matters to the extent of open war.

_You lost again, Willie_, he argued. _You might as well take it like a
man. She got annoyed at something you said, like as not, and it was too
late when you began._

He prodded gently at his eye again, and decided that the numb sensation
was being caused by the tightening of skin over a growing mouse.

He set off up the corridor, passed the main door with his face averted,
and hurried down to the washroom before someone should come along.

Spying out the land through a cautiously opened door, he discovered
the place unoccupied. In the mirror, the eye showed definite signs of
blossoming. The eyebrow was all right, but the orb itself was bloodshot
and tearing freely. Beneath it, the flesh above the cheekbone was pink
and puffy.

"Ohmigod!" breathed Westervelt. "It'll be blue tomorrow! Probably
purple and green, in fact. Or does it take a day or two to reach that
stage?"

He ran cold water into a basin and splashed it over his face, holding a
palmful at a time against the damaged eye.

When this did not seem sufficiently effective, he wadded a soft paper
towel, soaked it in running water, and applied it until it lost its
chill.

"Am I doing right?" he wondered. "I can never remember whether it's hot
or cold you're supposed to use."

He thought about it while holding the slowly disintegrating towel to
his eye. Someone had told him, as nearly as he could recall, that
either way helped, depending upon when heat or cold was applied.

"I guess it must be that you use cold before it has time to swell,"
he muttered. "Keep the blood from going into the tissues--that must
be it. But if you're too late for that, then heat would keep it from
stiffening. Now, the question is, did I start in time?"

He examined the eye. It did not feel too sore, but it was still red and
slightly swollen. The flow of tears had stopped, so he decided there
was little more he could do. He dried his face and walked out into the
corridor, blinking.

_The com room is pretty dim_, he thought.

He went to the laboratory door and opened it quietly. The room was dark
and unoccupied. Westervelt swore to himself that if he stumbled over
anyone this time, he would punch every nose he could reach without
further ado. Unless, he amended the intention, he ran into Lydman.

He was squeamish about turning on a light, which left him the problem
of groping his way through the maze of tables, workbenches, and stacks
of cartons. He set down for future conversation the possibility of
claiming that the department was as normal as any other business; it
too possessed the typical, messy back room out of range of the front
office.

He had negotiated about half the course when he felt a cool breeze.
At first, he thought it must come from an air-conditioning diffuser,
but it blew more horizontally. Someone must have opened a window, he
decided, or perhaps broken one trying out a dangerous instrument.

He succeeded in reaching the far wall, where he felt around for the
door leading to the communications room. This was over near the outside
wall, but he reached it without bumping into more than two or three
scattered objects.

Once through the door, he could see better because a little light was
diffused past the wire-mesh enclosure around the power equipment. He
walked along the short passage formed by this, turned a corner, and
came in sight of Joe Rosenkrantz sitting before his screen.

"Hello, Joe," he greeted the operator.

The other jumped perceptibly, looking around at the door.

"It's Willie," said Westervelt. "I came around the other way."

He was pleased to find that Rosenkrantz had the room as dimly lighted
as was customary among the TV men. Joe stared for a moment at him and
Westervelt feared that the other's vision was too well adjusted to the
light.

"I didn't think anybody but Lydman used that way much," said
Rosenkrantz.

"It's a short-cut," said Westervelt evasively.

He found a spare chair to sit in and inquired as to what might be new.

Rosenkrantz told him of putting through a few calls to planets near
Trident, asking D.I.R. men stationed on them to line up spaceships for
possible use, either to go after Harris or to ship necessary equipment
for plumbing the ocean. He offered to let Westervelt scan the tapes of
his traffic.

"That's a good idea," said the youth gratefully. "Even if I don't spot
an opening, it will look like useful effort."

"Yeah," agreed the other. "Time drags, doesn't it. Wonder how they're
making out down in the cable tunnels?"

"It can't last much longer."

"That's what this here Harris is saying too, I should think. Now,
_there's_ one guy who is really packed away!"

"Well...."

"Oh, they've pulled some good ones around here, but I have a feeling
about this one," insisted the operator. "I'd bet ten to one they won't
spring Harris."

Westervelt took the tapes to a playback screen and dragged his chair
over.

"I told Smitty they ought to offer to swap for him," he said. "At the
time, I meant it looked like the perfect way to unload undesirables.
Come to think of it, though, I wouldn't mind going myself."

"What the hell for?" asked Rosenkrantz.

Westervelt realized that he had nearly given himself away.

"Oh ... just for the chance to see the place," he said. "Nobody else
has ever seen these Tridentians. How else could somebody like me get a
position as an interstellar ambassador."

"Maybe Harris wants the job for himself. He sure went looking for it!"

The phone buzzed quietly. Rosenkrantz answered, then said, "It's for
you."

Westervelt went to the screen. It was Smith.

"I thought you must have found a way out, Willie. Where did you get to?"

Westervelt explained that he was looking at the tapes of the Trident
calls, to familiarize himself with the background.

"I figured there was plenty of time for me to--" He broke off as he
saw Rosenkrantz straighten up to focus in a call from space. "Joe is
receiving something right now. I'll let you know if it has anything to
do with Trident."

"Department 99, Terra," the operator was saying when Westervelt turned
from the phone, as if the mere call signal had not satisfied the party
at the other end.

There seemed to be a lot of action on the screen. Men were running
in various directions in what appeared to be a large hall with an
impressive stairway.

"Yoleen!" Rosenkrantz flung over his shoulder. "Tell Smitty!"

"Mr. Smith!" said Westervelt, turning back to the phone screen. "Joe
says it's Yoleen coming in. Maybe you'd like to see it yourself.
Something looks wrong."

"Coming!" said Smith, and the phone went dark.

Westervelt looked around to see that most of the running figures had
hidden themselves. A voice was coming over, and he listened with the
operator.

"... knocked apart so I have to use one of the observation lenses they
have planted around the embassy. He's shooting up the place good!"

"I'm taping until someone gets here," said Rosenkrantz. "Better tell me
what happened, just in case."

_Yoleen_, thought Westervelt. _That would be ... let me see ... Gerson,
the kidnap case. Do they mean that he's shooting them up?_

"... and after he left me with this mess, in the com room, he headed
for the stairs," said the voice of the unseen operator. "He seems to be
trying to get out of the embassy. We don't know why--the boys got him
there without any trouble."

"Was he all right?" asked Rosenkrantz, cocking an ear at the door.

"He looked pretty sick, as if he wasn't eating well, and he had a
broken wrist. They took him along to the doctor with no trouble. Then
the chief went up to see how he was and found Doc out cold on the
floor. He set up a yell, naturally. Someone finally caught up with
Gerson in the military attache's office."

"What did he want there?" asked Rosenkrantz.

"We don't know yet. He left a corpse for us that isn't answering
questions."



FIFTEEN


In the building to which the two terrans had brought him, Gerson
crouched behind the ornate balustrade edging the mezzanine. He was near
the head of the stairway and hoped to get nearer.

A look down the hall behind him showed no unwary heads in view. He
studied the sections of the hall below, which he could see through the
openings in the railing. There had been a great scrambling about down
there a moment earlier, so he was uneasy about showing himself.

He had armed himself as chance provided: a rocket pistol of Yoleenite
manufacture--doubtless purchased as a souvenir--and a sharp knife from
a dinner tray he had come upon in one of the rooms he had searched.
Because of his injury, he had to grip the knife between his teeth.
Something bothered him about this arrangement. He had the papers thrust
in his shirt, he held the rocket pistol in one hand, one hand was
hurt--yet the only way left to hold the knife was in his teeth. It did
not seem exactly right, but he had had no time to ponder. The Terrans
were keeping him busy.

Since he had been brought to this building, he had seen four threes of
Terrans. One, the medical worker, he had rendered helpless. Then he had
gone to search for secrets, and that other one had seen him. By that
time, he had found the rocket pistol. He had left that Terran dead, but
others had come running.

Something had told him to shoot up the communications equipment,
although the Terran working it had escaped. He was somewhere behind
Gerson, behind one of the many doors leading off that high, bright
corridor.

He believed that he had seen one other duck into a doorway ahead of
him, along the hall on the other side of the mezzanine. There was yet
another hiding behind the opposite balustrade. Gerson wondered idly if
the last one was armed.

He tried to review the probable positions of those on the main floor.
One had definitely run out the front door, which faced the bottom
of the broad stairway, about thirty feet away. There was a shallow
anteroom there, but Gerson had seen him all the way across it.

Of the others, one had ducked into a chamber at the front of the main
hall, to Gerson's left as he would be descending the stairs. Another
had run back under cover of the stairway on the same side, and the
remaining four were lurking somewhere to the right, either behind the
stairs or in adjoining chambers.

He leaned closer to the balustrade in an effort to see more. In the
act, his injured limb came in contact with the barrier and made him
grimace in pain. The drug the Terran medical worker had shot into it
was wearing off.

Since he had made a slight noise already, Gerson crawled along about
ten feet until he was just beside the head of the stairs. He made
himself quiet to listen.

Somewhere below, two of the embassy staff were talking cautiously. It
might be a good time to catch them unawares. He rose and took a step
toward the stairs.

A voice that sounded artificially loud spoke in one or another of the
lower chambers. It had a slight echo, making it nearly impossible for
Gerson to determine the direction. The Terran who had ducked into the
room on the left appeared, raising a weapon of some kind.

Gerson blazed a rocket in his direction. The slim missile, the length
and thickness of the two top joints of his thumb, left a smoky trail
just above the stairway railing and blew a large hole in the wall
beside the doorway where the staff man had been standing. Somehow, the
fellow had leaped back in time to avoid the flying specks of metal and
plaster.

Gerson knelt behind the balustrade again, shaken by the sense of new
pain, and wondering at its source. He concentrated. After a moment, he
felt the wetness trickling dawn his left side. Some small object had
grazed the flesh; and he realized that it must have been a solid pellet
projected by the weapon of the Terran at whom he had shot.

He knew that the Terrans had more dangerous weapons than that, but
had been confident that they would dare nothing over-violent here
within their own building. The pistol used against him must be an
old-fashioned one or a keepsake. Possibly it was a mock weapon built
for practicing at a target. He seemed to remember vaguely having
handled such a thing in the past.

He strained after the fleeting memory, clenching his teeth with the
effort, but it was gone. So many memories seemed to be gone. All he was
sure of was that he must get out of here with those papers.

He checked the upper hall again, before and behind. He looked
across the open space for the Terran hiding like himself behind the
balustrade, but could not find him. It might or might not be worthwhile
to send a shot over there at random. If he missed, he might at least
scare the fellow.

The loud voice with the mechanical sound to it blared out from below.

"Gerson!" it called. "Gerson, throw down your weapon and stand up. We
can see where you are. We want to help you."

Gerson showed no reaction. Analyzing the statement, he reminded himself
that one Terran had shot him. Not very seriously, it was true, but
it was not in the nature of help. Either the voice lied or it had no
control over the individual who had fired at him.

He did not blame it for the presumable untruth, since he was not
deceived by it. It would be preferrable to kill the man who had shot
him, but he must bear in mind that his main task was to get out of the
building.

"Gerson!" called the voice again. "We know you are injured. You are a
sick man. We beg you to drop your weapon and let us help you!"

Gerson wondered what the voice meant by the expression "sick."

It was possible that someone had seen him wounded by the last shot. Or
did they mean his sore limb. It occurred to him then that the blood
that had run out and dried on the right side of his face must be
clearly visible. The Terran he had killed back along the corridor had
flung a small ceramic dish at him, and Gerson had been slow in raising
his injured limb to block it. The whole side of his face was sore, but
the skin of his cheek no longer bled so it was a matter of opinion
whether he was sick on that account.

The voice must mean the last wound, when it called him sick. That meant
that the Terran he had shot at was the voice or that there was another
Terran in the room with him. Gerson did not think that any of the
others could have seen. Some doubt at the back of his mind struggled to
suggest an oversight, but he knew of none.

He peered once more between the balusters, and this time he saw a
motion, a mere shadow, across the way. Instantly, he stood up and
launched a rocket at the spot. It streaked on its way and exploded
immediately against one of the uprights. Gerson regretted fleetingly
that it had not gone through and struck against the wall beyond,
which would have accounted for the skulking Terran with a good deal
of certainty. As the baluster disintegrated, leaving stubs at top and
bottom, Gerson started down the stairs.

Yells sounded from below. He threw one leg up to mount the stair
railing, leaned back along it, and let himself slide. The rocket
pistol, waving wildly at arm's length in his left hand, helped him to
balance. He reached the landing at the middle of the stairs in one
swoop.

The human at whom he had shot reappeared in the same doorway. Gerson
rolled to his left, felt both feet hit upon the landing, and let go
another missile. It was too late; the Terran had not even lingered to
fire back. It seemed almost like a feint to distract.

"_Gerson!_" blared the mechanical voice.

"Gerson! Gerson!" shouted other voices.

They came from many directions, and he was unable to comprehend them
all. He had reached a point near the bottom of the stairway, running
three steps at a time, when a louder yell directed his attention to
the doorway on his right. The figure of a Terran showed there.

Without breaking his stride, he whipped his left hand across his body
and fired a rocket. He had a glimpse of the figure dodging aside before
the smoke and dust of the explosion told him he had nicked the edge of
the doorway.

It seemed to him that he must have shot the Terran as well, and he let
his eye linger there an instant as he reached the floor of the hall.
Thus, he saw the figure reappear and was in position to fling two more
shots with animal quickness.

The figure was blown straight backward this time, but Gerson had time
to realize that there had been no head on it when it had been thrust
out.

His first shot must have done that. All told, he had wasted three
missiles on a dummy.

Then the loop of rope fell about him, and he knew why he had been lured
into facing this direction. He tried to bring the rocket pistol to
bear on the three Terrans running at him from behind the stairway. The
fourth, at the end of the rope, heaved Gerson off his feet.

He crashed down upon his sore limb, letting out a groan at the impact.
One of the runners dove headlong at him, batting at the pistol as he
slid past on the polished floor. Gerson felt the weapon knocked out of
his grasp. It rattled and scraped along the floor out of reach, but he
kicked the one who had done it in the head.

Two of the Terrans were trying to hold him down, now. He got the knife
from his mouth into his left hand, let a Terran see it, then bit him
viciously on the wrist. The Terran let go, and Gerson found it simple
to knee the remaining one in the groin. He rolled over to get a knee
under him, pushed himself up with the fist gripping the knife, and saw
Terrans running at him from all directions.

One of them had a broad, white bandage on his head. Gerson recognized
him as the medical worker. The man carried a hypodermic syringe.

Unreasoning terror swept through Gerson. He knew that he must, at all
costs, avoid that needle.

He whirled around to slash at the men coming up behind him. The nearest
fell back warily.

"Put it away, Gerson," he said. "We don't want to hurt you, man! Why,
you're half dead on your feet."

"What's the matter?" asked another, more softly. "We can see that
you're not normal. What did those bastards do to you?"

Gerson looked from side to side, seeing them closing in but unable to
spot an opening for a charge.

"Just listen to me a minute," said the medical worker. He made the
mistake of holding the hypodermic out of sight this time, too late.
"Gerson, talk to me! Say something! Whatever the trouble is, we'll help
you."

It was the only opening.

Gerson took a carefully hesitant step toward him, then another. He held
up his damaged limb.

"Yes, your wrist is broken," said the Terran. "I was going to put a
cast on it for you, remember. Now, just relax, and we'll take care of--"

He saw Gerson's eyes and leaped back.

The knife swept up in a vicious arc that would have disemboweled him.

Without wasting the motion, Gerson slashed down and left at another
as he plunged forward. The point grazed an up-flung arm, drawing a
startled curse from the victim.

"Tackle him!" shouted one of the Terrans.

"Careful! He's already hurt bad enough," cautioned another.

Gerson tried to feint and throw his weight in the opposite direction,
but his legs would not obey him. He recovered from the slip only to
have one of the men push him from behind.

Someone clamped a tight hold on his left forearm as he staggered. A
moment later they twisted the knife out of his grasp and bore him to
the floor. He kicked ineffectively and then caught one of them by
surprise with a butt.

The man recoiled, blood spurting already from his nose. He brought his
fist around despite warning yells, and clipped Gerson on the temple.

"Hold him, dammit!" shouted someone. "Get that rope over here. Do you
want to kill him? Just hold him still."

"You try it," invited one of those holding Gerson pinned.

"I think he's weakening," said another. "Watch out--he may be playing
possum."

The talk seemed to come from far away. Gerson felt them tie his ankles
together. They hesitated about his hands; one was injured. One voice
suggested tieing his left wrist to the stairway railing, but it was
decided that they could watch him well enough as long as he could not
run. The weight lessened as those pinning him arose to look to their
own bruises. Gerson was vaguely surprised to discover that all of them
were off him. He still felt as if great weight were holding him pressed
against the floor. He found it difficult to catch his breath.

They had taken the papers from his shirt, he noted. One of the Terrans
passed them to a man in a dark uniform, who began to leaf through them
worriedly.

A Terran came in through the front door.

"Have you got him?" the newcomer asked. "That helicopter is still
floating around up there. I've been watching it for half an hour with
the night glasses. They sure as hell are waiting for something."

"And there isn't anyone else in this neighborhood they could be
interested in," said a deeper voice. "Well, MacLean, what did you let
him get his hands on from your secret file?"

Gerson rolled over very quietly and started to drag himself along the
floor. He had actually moved a yard before they noticed him.

They were gentle about turning him on his back again. The discussion
about the papers was dropped while the medical worker cut his shirt
away from the bleeding wound in his side. Hushed comments were made,
but Gerson paid no attention. He was concerned with the fact that one
of the Terrans had planted a foot between his legs, above the rope
around his ankles, so that he was quite securely anchored to the spot.

"Looks like a broken rib besides," said the Terran examining him. "Do
you think we could get him upstairs?"

"I'm no doctor," said the deeper voice, "but even I can see you'd never
make it in time."

The voice came closer, though the vision in Gerson's eyes was blurring.

"Tell me, boy, what happened? How did they make you do it? What do they
want?"

"Gerson!" said the man in the dark uniform. "Did you know what you were
after when you took these papers?"

He was a dark blur to Gerson, who felt as if the weight on his chest
had been increased. His lips were dry. He thought it would be nice to
have a little water, but could not find words to ask.

The deep voice was flinging a question at the dark blur.

"Why, no, sir," said the Terran with the papers. "Nothing important at
all. Just a few old shipping lists, a record of the planetary motions
in this system that anybody could obtain, and an article on shortcuts
to learning the Yoleenite language. I think I had the batch lying
around the top of my desk."

"Why did he take them?" someone asked.

"Damned if I know. You fellows had me scared to death. From what you
said, I thought he must have pinched the deadly top secret code and my
personal address book to boot!"

"Simmons!" shouted the deeper voice. "Are you getting this? Are you
making a tape for Terra? Oh ... right out, eh? Scrambled, I hope--it's
not the kind of thing to publicize to the galaxy."

The mechanical voice boomed in the background. Gerson paid it no
attention.

He felt the doctor's hands touching the old injections and heard the
man swearing. Whoever was holding his left arm was actually squeezing
and stroking his hand. The taste of failure was in his mouth.

"That's what they must have started with," said the doctor. "In the
end, they put an awful mental twist into him, poor guy."

"I told you they were up to something," said the dark blur. "Those
little bastards had big ideas, but they won't catch us napping with any
more spies, conditioned or not! Now maybe they'll read my reports on
Terra."

Gerson opened his mouth to breath better. He rolled his head from side
to side on the hard floor. Somewhere deep inside him, a little, silent
voice was crying, frightened. He had failed and there would be no other
chance.

The little voice took leave of its fear to laugh. _They_ had not let
him remember how to read.

And so he died, a tall, battered Terran lying on a hard floor and
grinning faintly up at the men who had helped him die.



SIXTEEN


In the communications room of department 99, Westervelt could actually
hear people around him breathing, so hushed was the gathering. Someone
was leaning on his shoulder, but he was reluctant to attract attention
by moving.

Static sounds and the clicking and humming of various mechanisms about
the room suddenly became unnaturally noticable. Glancing this way and
that, he discovered that the entire staff had drifted in during the
transmission from Yoleen. There were at least two people behind him, to
judge by the breathing and the weight on his shoulder. So intense had
been the excitement that he did not remember anyone but Smith arriving.

He saw better to the left than to the right, and became conscious of
his eye again. Westervelt had drawn up his chair behind and to the
left of the operator, and Smith had perched himself on the end of a
table behind Joe. Beside the chief stood Simonetta, with Beryl behind
her. Parrish was to Westervelt's left, so he concluded that Lydman
and Pauline must be behind him. The grip on his right shoulder felt
small to be Lydman's, but he could not see down at the necessary angle
because of the puffiness under his eye.

The broad-shouldered, stocky man on the screen moved to the stairway
and looked up straight into their eyes.

"Is this still going out to Terra, Simmons?" he asked.

He had dark hair with a crinkly wave in it, which permitted him to
appear less disheveled than the men about him or standing over the
body of Gerson. He pulled out a large white handkerchief to wipe the
streaming perspiration from his face.

"Yes, sir," answered the voice of the distant operator. "You're looking
right into the concealed pick-up. I'll switch the audio from Terra to
the loud speaker system, and you can talk to them."

Westervelt glanced at the other men in the embassy on Yoleen. Several
of them obviously suffered from minor injuries. All of them wore
expressions of tragedy.

One man in his shirtsleeves was standing with his shoulders against
the base of the stairway, head thrown well back, trying to staunch the
flow of blood from his nose. Another, with his back to the lens, knelt
beside the body of Gerson. A couple of others, looking helpless, were
lighting cigarettes.

"I suppose you saw the end of it," the man on the stairs said.

Smith cleared his throat and leaned over Joe Rosenkrantz's shoulder.

"We saw," he answered. "I ... is there any doubt that he's dead?"

The man on the stairs looked to the group around the body. The doctor
shook his bandaged head sadly.

"As much from strain and exhaustion as anything else," he reported.
"The man belonged in a hospital, but some uncanny conditioning drove
him on. In the end, his heart gave out."

The stocky man turned back to the lens.

"You heard that. Except for one man who didn't know at the time what
was going on, we did the best we could. I'm Delaney, by the way, in
charge here."

Smith identified himself, and agreed that Gerson had looked to be
unmanageable.

"Do you think you can find out what they used?" he asked. "I gather
that you never got anything out of him since the time you picked him
up. Did that part of it go according to plan?"

"Oh, yes," said Delaney. "We even got back the little torch we sent
him, the way you plotted for us. It looked used, too; but now I'm
wondering if they let him cut his way out."

"I wouldn't doubt it," said Smith gloomily. "I'm afraid we didn't look
very bright on this one. We seem to have underestimated the Yoleenites
badly. There isn't too much information on them available here."

"Nor here, to tell the truth," said Delaney. "Which reminds me--our
Captain MacLean has been after me for a long time to put more pressure
on the D.I.R. about that. Could you duplicate your tape and send them a
copy? It would save us another transmission, and you might like to add
your own comments."

Smith promised to have it done. He also offered, to soothe Captain
MacLean, to send an extra copy to the Space Force.

There seemed to be nothing more to say. The scene on the screen blanked
out, as the distant operator spoke to Rosenkrantz on audio only from
his own shot-up office. Then it was over.

Westervelt, aware that the pressure on his shoulder was gone, looked
around. Lydman had his arm about a shaken Pauline. The ex-spacer's
expression was blank, but the hardness of his eyes made the youth
shiver. For a second, he thought he detected a slight resemblance
to the man who had come bounding down the stairs on Yoleen, leaving
criss-cross trails of rocket smoke in the air.

_That's crazy!_ he thought the next instant, and he lost the
resemblance.

He blinked, fingered his tender eye, and looked around at the others.
Everyone was subdued, staring at the blank and quiet receiver or at
the floor. Westervelt was surprised to see that Beryl was crying. She
raised a forefinger to scrub the tears from her cheek.

Hesitantly, Westervelt took the neatly folded handkerchief from his
breast pocket and held it out.

Beryl scrubbed the other cheek, looked at the handkerchief without
raising her eyes to his, and accepted it. She blotted her eyes,
examined the cloth, and whispered, "Sorry, Willie. I think I got
make-up on it."

Smith stirred uncomfortably at the whisper. He stood up and spoke one
short word with a depth of emotion. Then he kicked the leg of the table
to relieve his feelings.

Rosenkrantz swiveled around in his chair, waiting to see if any other
calls were to be made. Smith took a deep breath.

"You'll make copies of the tape when you can, Joe?"

"Sure," said the operator, sympathetically.

"Well," said Lydman, at the rear of the group, "that's another one
lost. Tomorrow we'll open a permanent file on Yoleen, as Pete suggests."

"Yes, I imagine they'll give us more business," agreed Parrish.

Lydman growled.

"I'll give _them_ the business next time!" he threatened. "Well, that
kind of damps the pile for tonight. I don't know about the rest of you,
but I'm in no mood now to be clever."

Smith straightened up abruptly.

"Now ... now ... wait a minute!" he spluttered. "I mean, we all feel
pretty low, naturally. Still, this wasn't the main ... serious as this
was, we were trying to push on this other case, to get a start anyway."

_Here we go again,_ thought Westervelt. _Shall I try to trip him up if
anything happens, or shall I just get out of the way?_

He recalled the man in the embassy on Yoleen, holding a stained
handkerchief to his bloody nose, and measured the size of his own with
the tip of a forefinger. On the other hand, if there should be a melee,
it would certainly cover a little item like a puffy eye. He wondered if
he would have the guts to poke out his head at the proper instant, and
was rather afraid that he would.

Parrish was murmuring about sticking to the job in hand, trying to
support Smith without arousing the antagonism of an open argument.
Lydman seemed unconvinced.

"Why don't we all have a round of coffee?" suggested Simonetta. "If we
can just sit down a few minutes and pull ourselves together--"

Smith looked at her gratefully.

"Yes," he said. "That's the least we can do, Bob. This was a shock to
us all, but the girls felt it more. I don't believe any of them wants
to hit the street all shaken up like this. Right Si?"

"I _would_ like to sit down somewhere," said Simonetta.

"Here!" exclaimed Westervelt, leaping up. He had forgotten that he had
been rooted to the chair since before the others had crept into the
room during the transmission from Yoleen.

"Never mind, Willie," Simonetta said. "I didn't mean I was collapsing.
Come on, Beryl, let's see if there's any coffee or tea left."

"Wait for me," said Pauline. "I've got to take this phone off the
outside line anyway."

Smith stepped forward to plant one hand behind Lydman's shoulder blade.

"I could use a martini, myself," he called after the girls. "How about
the rest of you? Pete? Willie?"

Parrish seconded the motion, Westervelt said he would be right along,
and trailed them slowly to the door. He paused to look back, and he and
Joe exchanged brow-mopping gestures.

The rest of them were trouping along the corridor without much talk.
He ambled along until the men, bringing up the rear, had turned the
corner. Then he ducked into the library.

He fingered his eye again. Either it was a trifle less sore or he was
getting used to it. He still hesitated to face an office full of people
and good lighting.

"There must be something around here to read," he muttered.

He walked over to a stack of current magazines. Most of them were
technical in nature; but several dealt with world and galactic news. He
took a few to a seat at the long table and began to leaf through one.

It must have been about fifteen minutes later that Simonetta showed up,
bearing a sealed cup of tea and one of coffee.

"So that's where you are!" she said. "I was taking something to Joe,
and thought maybe I'd find you along the way."

Westervelt deduced that she had phoned the operator.

"You can have the coffee," she said, setting it beside his magazine.
"Joe said he'd rather have tea this time around."

Westervelt looked up. Simonetta saw his eye and pursed her lips.

"Well!"

"How does it look?" asked Westervelt glumly.

"Kind of pretty. If I remember the ones my brothers used to bring home,
it will be ravishingly beautiful by tomorrow!"

"That's what I was afraid of," said Westervelt.

Simonetta laughed. She set the tea aside and pulled out a chair.

"I don't think it's really that bad, Willie," she told him. "I was only
fooling."

"It shows though, huh?"

"Oh ... yes ... it shows."

"That's what I like about you, Si," said Westervelt. "You don't ask
nasty, embarrassing questions like how it happened or which door closed
on me."

Following which he told her nearly the whole story, leaving out only
the true origin of the quarrel. He suspected that Simonetta could put
two and two together, but he meant to tell nobody about the start of it.

"Ah, Willie," she said with a grin at the conclusion, "if you had to
fall for a blonde, why couldn't you pick little Pauline?"

"I guess you're right."

"Now, don't take _that_ so seriously too! Beryl's a good sort, on the
whole. In a day or two, this will all blow over. Come on with me to see
Joe, then we'll go back and say you got something in your eye."

"But when?"

"Oh ... during the message from Yoleen. You didn't want to bother
anybody at the time, so you foolishly kept rubbing until it got sore."

"That's all right," said Westervelt, "but Beryl knows different."

"If she opens her mouth, I shall personally punch _her_ in the eye!"
declared Simonetta.

She giggled at the idea, and he found himself grinning.

They went along the corridor to deliver the tea to Rosenkrantz, and
then returned to the main office. An air of complete informality
prevailed, a reaction from the scene they had witnessed. There was
a good deal of wandering about with drinks, sitting on desks, and
inconsequential chatter.

No one seemed to want to talk shop, and Westervelt guessed that Smith
was just as pleased to be able to kill some time. He himself quietly
slipped around the corner to his own desk, where he propped his heels
up and sipped his coffee.

Westervelt listened as Parrish and Smith told a few jokes. The stories
tended to be more ironic than funny, and no one was expected to laugh
out loud.

Pauline, from her switchboard, buzzed the phone on Simonetta's desk,
since most of those present had gravitated to that end of the office.
Smith looked around in the middle of an account of his struggles with
his radio-controlled lawn mower.

"Want to take that, Willie?" he said, with a bare suggestion of a wink.

Westervelt lifted a hand in assent. He climbed out of his chair and
went to the phone on Beryl's desk, where he would be as nearly private
as possible.

"Who is it, Pauline?" he asked when she came on.

"It's Joe. He wants to talk to Mr. Smith."

"Give it here on number seven," said Westervelt. "The boss is talking."

Pauline blanked out and was replaced by the communications man.
Rosenkrantz showed a flicker of surprise at the sight of Westervelt.

"Smitty's in a crowd," murmured the youth. "Something up?"

"Not much, maybe," said the other. "A message came in by commercial
TV. I guess they didn't think it was too urgent, but I'll give you the
facts if you think Smitty would like to know."

"Hold on," said Westervelt. "Let's see ... where does Beryl keep a pen?"

He dug out a scratch pad and something to scribble with, and nodded.

"One of our own agents," said Joe, "named Robertson, signed this.
You've seen his reports, I guess."

"Yeah, sounds familiar."

"It says, after reading between our standard code expressions, that two
spacers and a tourist were convicted of inciting revolution on Epsilon
Indi II. They gave the names, and all, which I taped."

"That's practically in our back yard," said Westervelt. "Maybe he just
wants to alert us, but the D.I.R. ought to be working on that publicly.
Sure there wasn't any hint it was urgent?"

"No, and like I said, it came by commercial relay."

"Okay. The boss has enough on his mind at the moment. Let's figure on
having a tape for him to look at in the morning. I'll find a chance to
mention it to him, so he'll know about it. All right?"

"All right with me," grinned Rosenkrantz. "If anything goes wrong, I'll
refer them to you. Be prepared to have your other eye spit in."

He cut off, leaving Westervelt with his mouth open and his regained
aplomb shaky. The youth waited until he caught Smith's eye, and shook
his head to indicate the unimportance of the call. He wondered if he
ought to take time to phone downstairs for a report on the situation.
It did not strike him as worth the risk with all the people in the same
room.

He saw Beryl strolling his way and rose from her chair.

"That's all right, Willie," she said calmly, setting her packaged drink
on the desk. "I just wanted to give you back your handkerchief."

She produced it from the purse lying on her desk and said, "Thanks
again. I'm sorry about the make-up marks."

"Forget it," said Westervelt.

"I'm sorry about the eye too," said Beryl, raising her eyes for the
first time to examine the damage. "It ... doesn't look as bad as Si
said."

"Well, that's a comfort, anyway. I got something in it and rubbed too
hard, you know."

"Yes, she told me," said Beryl. "To tell the truth, Willie, I didn't
know I could do it."

"Aw, it was a lucky swing," muttered Westervelt.

"Yes ... I, well ... you might say I was a little upset."

"I'm sorry I started it all," said Westervelt. "How about letting me
buy you a lunch to make up."

Beryl shrugged, looking serious.

"I don't mind, if we make it Dutch. It was as much my fault. I hope
we're both around to go to lunch tomorrow. It gives me the creeps."

"What does?" asked Westervelt.

"The way Mr. Lydman looks. Something about his eyes...."

Westervelt turned his head to stare across the room, wondering if the
worst had occurred.



SEVENTEEN


John Willard set a brisk pace through the streets of First Haven, as
befitted a conscientious public servant. Maria Ringstad kept up with
him as best she could. When she lagged, the thin cord tightened around
her wrist, and he grumbled over his shoulder at her. Naturally, she
carried her bag.

He had explained that they would have been most inconspicuous with her
walking properly a yard behind him. Anyone would then have taken them
for man and wife or man and servant--had it not been for her Terran
clothing.

"To walk the street with you in that rig would attract entirely too
much attention," was his explanation. "The only thing we can do is use
the public symbol of restraint, so that everyone will know you are a
prisoner."

"What good will that do? Won't they still stare."

"It is considered improper, as well as imprudent. No law-abiding
citizen would wish to risk being suspected of a sympathetic curiosity
about a transgressor."

"You make it sound dangerous," said Maria, holding out her hand
obediently.

_Anything to be inconspicuous_, she had thought.

Now, turning a corner about three hundred yards from the jail, she had
to admit that the system seemed to be working. The Greenies whom they
met were nearly all interested in other things: a shop in the vicinity,
another Greenie across the street, a paving stone over which they had
just tripped, or the condition of the wall above Maria's head.

Willard led her to the far side of a broader avenue after they had
negotiated the corner that put them permanently out of sight of the
jail. Maria tried to recall the scanty information he had whispered to
her against the outside wall of the prison.

There had been time for him to tell her he was sent by the Department
of Interstellar Relations of Terra to get her out, since it had proved
impossible to alter the attitude of the Greenie legal authorities.
Maria was not quite sure whether he was really the prison officer he
said he was, in which case he must have been bribed on a scale to make
her own "crime" ridiculous, or whether he was an independent worker
friendly to the Terran space line, in which case the payment might more
charitably be regarded as a fee.

She knew that he planned to deliver her to a spaceship due to leave
shortly. There had been no opportunity for her to ask the destination.

_To tell the truth_, she reflected, _I don't care where it is. Anything
would be a haven from Greenhaven!_

She began to amuse herself by planning the article she would write
when back on Terra. "How I escaped from Paradise" might do it. Or
"Prison-breaking in Paradise." Or perhaps "Greenhaven or Green Hell."

_Whatever I call it_, she promised herself, _I'll skin them alive. And
I'll find a way to send the judge and the warden copies of it, too!_

Maybe, she pondered, it might even be better to stretch it out to a
whole book and get someone to do a series of unflattering cartoons of
Greenie characters.

The cord jerked at her wrist. She realized that she had fallen behind
again, and made an apologetic face at Willard when he looked back.

"Don't do that!" he hissed. "They'll wonder why I tolerate disrespect."

"Sorry!" said Maria, shrugging unrepentantly. "You take this pretty
seriously, don't you."

"You'd better take it seriously yourself," he growled. "It's your neck
as much as mine!"

He glared at a young Greenie who had glanced curiously from the
opposite side of the avenue. The abashed citizen hastily averted his
eyes. Willard gave the cord a significant twitch and strode on.

They turned another corner, to the right this time, and went along a
narrow side street for about two hundred yards. Waiting for a moment
when he might meet as few people as possible, Willard crossed to the
other side. A little further on, he led the way into what could almost
be termed an alley.

Willard stopped.

"Now, we are going into this small food shop," he informed Maria. "You
would call it a cafe or restaurant on Terra. It will seem normal enough
for an officer to provide his charge with food for a journey, so that
will be reasonable."

"Is the food any better than what I've been getting?" asked Maria.

"It doesn't matter. We won't stop there, since it would be impolite to
inflict the sight of you upon honest citizens at their meal. I shall
request a private room, and the keeper will lead us to the rear."

"Humph! Well if that's the way it is, then that's the way it is. So in
the eyes of an honest Greenie I'm something to spoil his appetite. What
can I do about that?"

"What you can do is keep that big, flexible, active mouth of yours
_shut_!" declared Willard. "Otherwise, I shall simply drop the end of
the cord and take off. You can find your own way out."

"I'm sorry," apologized Maria, a shade too meekly. "I promise I'll be
oh-so-good. Do you want me to kneel down and lick your boots? Or will
it be enough if I open a vein in the soup?"

"It will be enough if I get out of this without committing murder,"
mumbled Willard. "Now, the expression is fine; just wipe that grin off
your mind and well go in!"

He pulled her along the few yards to the entrance of the food shop.

He opened the door and entered. Maria followed at the respectful
distance.

There were half a dozen Greenies eating plain, wholesome meals at
plain, sturdy tables and exchanging a plain, honest word now and then.
The sight of the cord on Maria's wrist counterbalanced the sight of her
lascivious Terran costume, and they kept their eyes on their food after
one startled glance.

A Greenie woman stood at a counter at one side of the food shop, and
Willard made known his desire for a private dining room. A man cooking
something that might have been stew looked around from his labor at a
massive but primitive stove to the rear of the counter. Maria thought
that he took an unusual interest in her compared to what she had been
observing recently. It rather helped her morale, and she thought she
did not blame the man if the counterwoman were his wife.

The latter now came from behind her little fortress and led the way to
a door at the rear of the shop. Willard followed, and Maria trailed
along, restraining an impulse to wink at the cook. She was conscious of
his analytical stare until the door had closed behind her.

Willard seemed to have nothing to say to the Greenie woman, and Maria
relented to the point of heeding his request to be silent. All this
made for a solemn little procession.

They walked along a short hall, and the Greenie woman opened another
door to a flight of stairs. What surprised Maria was that the stairs
led down. She shrugged--on Greenhaven, they had their own peculiar ways.

She was more puzzled when, at the bottom of the steps, they seemed to
be in an ordinary cellar. The light was dim, and she did not succeed in
catching the look on Willard's face. She began to wonder if she might
wind up buried under a basement floor while he spent his ill-gotten
bribe.

Then the Greenie woman pulled aside a large crate and opened another
door. To pass through this one, they all had to stoop. Marie realized
that they were then in the cellar of another building. The blocks of
stone forming the walls looked damp and dirty.

They proceeded to climb stairs again, and to traverse another hall.
Maria thought they ended up going in a direction away from the street.
The woman led them through a small, dark series of rooms, and finally
into one with windows set too high in the walls to see out. There she
halted and faced Willard.

The Greenie prison official dropped the cord and reached into an inner
pocket of his drab uniform. He withdrew a thick packet of Greenhaven
currency. The numbers and units were too unfamiliar for Maria to guess
at the value from one quick glance; but the attitude of their hostess
suggested that it was substantial. Willard handed it over. Maria
decided it was time to set down her bag.

The woman went immediately to a large chest in a corner of the room and
opened it. She set aside a mirror she took out of the chest, then began
to pull out other objects. There was a case which she handed to Willard
and a great many articles of clothing that were probably considered
feminine on this world.

"The point is," Willard said in low tones, "you are going to have to
have proper clothes to look natural on the street. See if that dress
will fit you."

Maria took the thing distastefully, but it looked to be about the right
length when she held it up against her. The Greenie woman nodded. She
added a sort of full-length flannel slip and a petticoat to the dress.

"Now I know why the Greenie women look so grim," said Maria. "It would
be almost worth dying to stay out of such a rig."

"Hold your tongue!" said Willard.

Maria made a face.

"Present company excepted, of course!" she added.

"Change!" ordered Willard. "We have no time to waste."

He took the mirror and the small case to a rude table under one of
the windows. He opened the box so that Maria caught a glimpse of the
contents, which looked like an actor's make-up kit.

The Greenie woman joggled Maria's elbow and spoke for the first time.

"I must not be long, or it will be noticed," she hinted.

"Give her your clothes to burn and get into the others," said Willard,
bending over the table with his back to her. "As soon as I get myself
fixed here, I'll change your face too."

Maria looked about in a manner to suggest that she hoped they knew what
they were doing. The Greenie woman waited. Maria reached up and began
to unbutton her blouse.

She dropped it across her bag. The woman picked both of them up, and
waited. She looked a trifle shocked at the sight of the thin slip when
Maria unzipped her skirt and hauled it over her head. By the time the
slip followed, she was standing with downcast eyes.

Maria eyed the broad back in the drab uniform as she unfastened
her brassiere. This would make a good story someday, but to tell
it in the wrong company might be to invite catty remarks about her
attractiveness. She could think of other men who might not have kept
their backs so rigidly turned as did Willard. It was almost provocative.

She slipped down the brief panties, stepped out of them, and handed
them over. The Greenie woman pointed silently to the shoes. Marie
kicked them off, and they were added to the pile. She hoped that
whatever was in the chest for footwear would not be too hard to walk in.

The Greenie woman thrust the flannel atrocity at her and left the room
hastily. Maria watched the door close softly, then held the garment
out at arm's length. It did not look any better. She took a few steps
toward Willard.

_I'll bet I could make him faint dead away_, she thought
mischievously. _I'd love to see the look on his face if ... well, why
not? I will!_

"She's gone," she announced in a low voice. "How do I get into this
thing?"

Willard looked around, and the look was nothing she had ever seen
before. His face appeared fuller in the cheeks, his eyebrows were black
and heavy, his nose high at the bridge, and his whole complexion was
darker.

He nodded at her gasp.

"Those papers I turned in for you won't last too long. The estimate is
that they will dissolve before tomorrow morning, but they just might
come apart sooner. If he sends out an alarm, I don't want to be on the
streets in shape to be recognized."

"That's wonderful!" said Maria enthusiastically. "Are you going to make
me up too?"

"Yes," said Willard. "Get into those things so I can start!"

Maria watched his eyes flicker to her breasts and then sweep down the
rest of her body. She thought he was taking it very well, unless it was
the make-up.

"Will you help me with this thing?" she begged. "I never saw one
before."

She held out the flannel garment with a helpless smile, planting the
other hand on her bare hip.

"_Will_ you quit teasing, you little bitch!" Willard snapped. "I'm no
Greenie, if that's what you thought. You could get us involved to the
point of missing the ship."

Maria felt her eyes popping. A tingling, hot flush lit her face. It
spread back to her neck and crept down to her breasts. She snatched the
flannel sack to her and turned her back.

Somehow, she maneuvered it over her head. Then she fumbled on the
starched petticoat and topped the whole with the dun-colored dress that
fell chastely about her ankles. Willard handed her a pair of low heeled
shoes that were only a little loose when she put them on.

He had her stand facing one of the windows while he darkened her face
and put a black wig on her. She looked up at the window and stood very
still.

"Now, listen!" said Willard. "You'll absolutely have to stop blushing
like that, or the color of the skin is going to come all wrong!"

"I can't help it," she said meekly. Then she saw he was laughing at
her, and gave him a rueful smile. "Where did all that modesty come
from? It was the shock, I suppose."

"All right, it was funny. When we get out on the street again, forget
all about what's funny! Look like a serious Greenie!"

"Funny?" objected Maria. "I always thought I made a pretty fair showing
in comparison to the local gals."

"Oh, you did, you did! One of the best showings I've ever seen."

He pressed a hand to each side of her waist, then slid them up her ribs
until the weight of her breasts rested against his wrists.

"We'll talk about this again when we make it to the ship," he told her
in a low voice. "Right now, it would be foolish to spoil this make-up."

He turned away after a long moment and returned the kit to the chest.
They left by the same door by which they had entered, but Willard knew
a short way out to a different street. Maria thought it must be the one
outside the high windows. He set off at a businesslike pace.

They traveled about a quarter of a mile, counting several turns by
which he sacrificed directness for sparsely peopled streets. The
disguises must have been effective, for they drew no second glances.
It was not until she saw the gibbet that Maria realized they were
approaching the outskirts of the city.

"What--?" she began, sensing the reality of her plight for the first
time.

"Quiet! Look the other way, if you must, but don't be obvious about it."

Several examples of rigid Greenhaven justice were on exhibit to a
modest crowd. Three men and two women sat in stocks. They were not,
apparently, subject to rock-throwing or other abuse, as Maria seemed to
remember had been the custom on ancient Terra; but they were clearly
unhappy and mortified. From the gibbet behind them swung the body of
a hanged man. It appeared to have been there for some time. Maria
wondered what _he_ had done to corrupt the morals or the economics of
Greenhaven.

What nearly made her sick was the sight of a party of two dozen
children being guided on a tour of the place. One youngster whined, and
was thoroughly cuffed by the Greenie in charge.

Then they were past, and Maria saw the high cyclone fence of the Terran
spaceport. Willard took a look at her face. Seemingly satisfied, he
explained that they had come to a section well away from the main
entrance. He led her along the fence for perhaps a hundred yards, found
a small gate, and unlocked it with a key produced from under his belt.
Maria, remembering their exit from the jail, was not surprised to feel
a good-natured slap on the bottom as she stepped onto Terran land.
There was another quarter-mile to go, but it was open land.

"We have it made now," said Willard, locking the gate behind them.

They by-passed the administration and custom buildings, and headed
directly for the field elevator beside the waiting spaceship, ignoring
the possibility of causing inquiries to be made by local eagle-eyes who
might think they had seen two Greenies board the vessel.

"Willard, of the Department of Interstellar Relations," he introduced
himself to a surprised ship's officer. "You've been told to expect Miss
Ringstad?"

The officer, staring in bald disbelief at Maria's costume, admitted
that the ship was more or less being held for her arrival.

"One thing was unexpected," said Willard. "I am exercising my authority
to demand a cabin for myself as well. I have reason to suspect that my
disguise had been penetrated, which, of course, makes it very dangerous
for me."

"Of course," agreed the officer. "Let's go, by all means!"

"Yes," said Maria. "I want to get out of this awful rig."

"That's what I meant," said Willard.

There was no doubt that the influence behind Willard had held the ship
for them. It rose as soon as they could reach a pair of tiny cabins.
Later, after the first surge of the take-off, there were a number of
delays stretching between minor course corrections.

Finally, it was announced over the public address system that because
of precautionary checking of the course, there would be no spin to
simulate planetary gravity for about two hours. Maria hoped that she
would not be revealed as the cause to the disgruntled passengers.

She was still considering this and trying to disentangle herself from
the acceleration net slung in the ten-foot cubicle they were pleased to
call a cabin, when Willard arrived.

"I made friends with some of the crew," he announced. "Everybody likes
to help out a D.I.R. agent. It must strike them as romantic."

"They should know," said Maria, thinking of the long, suspenseful walk
through Greenhaven's streets.

"There was a stewardess who had extra slacks and blouse about your
size."

"You must have a good eye," she told him. "Or think you have, anyhow.
First, get me out of this thing. What with this Greenie outfit too, I
might as well be in a straitjacket!"

He pushed himself over to the net and began to open the zipper. She
saw that he had taken time to remove his "Greenie" face.

Her first motion, when the net was open, sent her tumbling head over
heels to the far bulkhead.

"Keep a grip on something," laughed Willard. "Here--I brought a small
kit along. Let me fix your face."

She obediently clung to the anchoring shock springs at one end of the
net and turned her face up so that he could work on the mask he had
earlier painted on. His fingers were gentle, smoothing in the cream he
had brought and rubbing off the make-up with lightly perfumed tissues.
Maria closed her eyes luxuriously and thought how pleasant it was to be
off Greenhaven.

"Was it very complicated, getting me out of there?" she asked.

"There were a lot of angles to think of," he answered, "but we pulled
it off as slickly as I've ever seen done. Just strolled right out
through them all. Things in this business don't often go that well to
plan. There--now you look human again, just like when I started to put
that face on you."

"Not exactly," smiled Maria, plucking ruefully at the native Mother
Hubbard, which billowed hideously about her in the zero gravity.

"That's easily changed," Willard said, meeting her smile significantly.
"See if you can find your way out any better than you did getting into
it, while I sort out the clothes I got for us."

Between the reaction from the strain of the past few hours and a glow
of gratitude toward her rescuer. Maria began to sense the stir of an
emotion within her that took a few moments to recognize. It surprised
her a little.

"Willard," she said lazily, "it's funny, but I feel just as if I'm
falling in love with you."

"That's interesting," grinned the agent. "About time, too."

"I can't tell if my knees are weak," she went on, laying a hand on his
shoulder to draw herself closer, "because I'm hanging in mid-air; but
you always seem to be making me strip--and I find myself not minding."

"I don't mind either!" he assured her.

When his arm slipped around her waist and he kissed her, Maria was
sure. She let her lips part gradually, trembling as the fever rose in
her.

"Let me go a minute," she murmured.

Presently, after a few weightless contortions, the muffling Greenhaven
flannels were sent swirling into a corner. Maria laughed softly as
she set a bare foot against the bulkhead to launch herself back into
Willard's arms.



EIGHTEEN


Was it the pain in his head that made everything seem to sway?

Or was it the swaying that made his head hurt?

Taranto opened his eyes slowly. For two or three minutes, in the
darkness, he did not understand what he saw.

Gradually, comprehension developed. He was on a litter again, and the
bearers were descending a rough track into a shallow valley. There was
no sign of the city or of any other landmark even vaguely familiar.
Jagged rocks formed a ridge to his left, curving around to enclose the
depression. Other rocky buttes, he saw through slitted eyes, projected
from the barren rubble of the Valley floor. There seemed to be little
sand, unless it had blown down into the lower areas.

Cautiously, letting his head roll with the lurching motion of the
bearers, he learned that another group was ahead. He thought they must
be guarding Meyers. The red-uniformed officer marched just preceding
Taranto's litter. That meant that there must be two soldiers behind,
out of his view.

_What now?_ he asked himself. _It was a good try, but it didn't work
out._

It seemed hopeless to attempt anything further until he found out where
he was. Nor would it do any harm to learn _how_ he was--they must have
crowned him beautifully. He tried to move his arms and legs slightly
without being obviously restless. Nothing felt broken. There was just
the sore throbbing behind his left ear.

Were they taking him and Meyers further into the desert, to make sure
they could properly be reported dead? Or was the party on its way back
to the city?

Taranto moved about stealthily, as the litter heaved from side to
side and bounced about with the efforts of his bearers to negotiate
outcroppings of rock. He was surprised that his arms and legs were not
tied. He wondered how long he had been out cold. Perhaps the Syssokans
believed he really was dead from that spear across the skull.

_You shouldn't have underestimated that guy just because you dropped
him a few times_, he told himself. _You caught on to the difference,
but he learned it from you._

From ahead and lower on the path came voices. There was a brisk breeze,
but Taranto thought he could recognize Meyers giving vent to an
outraged whine.

_Wonder how much of a grudge they'll hold?_ he thought. _Some of them
must be lumped up pretty good._

He was beginning to locate a number of scrapes and bruises on his own
sturdy frame. He wondered if it might be best to take things easy until
they reached either their desert destination or the area outside the
city, according to which way they were headed, and then offer to bribe
the officer in charge. It would probably be too risky: he would have
to rely on large promises, and they had already caught him in a crude
whopper. Whatever the case, it would be unwise to open negotiations
without finding out what the Syssokan commander looked like. Taranto
seemed to recall pasting the fellow pretty thoroughly.

He caught a few words of Terran, blown back to him by a random gust.
Meyers was complaining about being too tired to walk any farther. It
did not sound as though he were making his point.

_Of course!_ Taranto realized. _I must be in his stretcher. Mine was
busted. Now the slob will put it on me for making him bump his rump
along this trail!_

The image was not without humor. Contemplating it gave Taranto a
momentary satisfaction.

Well, they knew Meyers was alive, even if they might not be sure about
Taranto himself. Perhaps they were merely saving both Terrans for a
longer jail term. Taranto hoped that the Syssokans had nothing more
unpleasant in mind. The remarks he had used earlier in his attempt to
bluff the officer could be used for inimical purposes by anyone who
cared to point out that Syssokan knowledge of Terran physiology was
scanty. Then what?

Taranto decided that he would be foolish to worry along that line at
the present. What he needed was an idea for getting loose again. He
speculated for a few minutes upon his chances of backtracking to the
scene of his attempt at escape. Somewhere near there, in whichever
direction it was, a spaceship should be landing.

_If they ain't been and gone already_, he thought.

In his supine position on the stretcher, he was able to see the sky
without moving. That was why the distant trail of light was visible to
him for some moments before any of the Syssokans could notice it.

_I can't wait it out after all_, he realized.

The ship would be heard presently, and the flare of its braking rockets
would arouse the guards. Taranto peeked around again and saw that they
were nearing the foot of the slope. Following the natural motion of
the bearers, he let himself roll a little too far each time the litter
swayed. The Syssokans struggled to compensate while scrabbling for
safe footholds on the hard, slippery surface.

In the end, one of them slipped. The litter crashed down. Taranto added
a twist to the natural force of gravity, so that he rolled downhill.

The fallen bearer picked himself up, mumbling something in Syssokan
that sounded remarkably belligerent. One of the others moved to recover
the stretcher. Taranto kept on rolling.

At the first yell, he gave up the pretense and regained his feet with a
lithe bound. For the next sixty seconds, he needed every last smidgin
of concentration to escape taking a fatal spill on the sloping rocks.

Hurtling downward in great leaps, he was forced to hurdle large rocks
because his velocity prevented him from changing course by even a foot.
Once he skidded, thinking his time had come. Near the bottom, where the
incline curved to meet the horizontal, he did go down, ploughing up a
spatter of loose chips and pebbles.

He was up and running again without quite knowing how. A dark shape
loomed up before him, a rock twice his height. Before passing it, he
took the chance of looking back.

The litter party was in a state of confusion. The officer and two
soldiers were bounding after him, slanting away on a more reasonable
path. One Syssokan was still in the process of picking himself up, and
most of the others were either milling about or just beginning to heed
their leader's shouts to follow Taranto.

The intention of yelling to Meyers flashed across his mind but he
dismissed it as being useless. A hasty glance in the opposite direction
showed him the fire trail settling behind another ridge to his right
front. The valley bore a certain resemblance to a meteor crater.

Taranto sprinted past the huge rock and bore right toward the distant
ridge. He would try to locate the ship if and when he reached the
ridge. The immediate necessity was to keep out of the clutches of the
burial party.

Running in the starlit darkness was risky, as he soon found. The ground
was strewn with occasional patches of loose stone, traps of nature
suitable for tripping the unwary or causing a sprain. The only thing
that kept Taranto reckless was the sounds of pursuit behind him.

He had gone about two hundred yards when he realized that some of the
rock-scattering noises came from his right more than from behind. The
Syssokan were better runners than he, and used to the local terrain
besides. He could not tell whether they had seen the trail of the
spaceship or, if so, whether they connected it with him.

_But they know enough to head me off, whichever way I go_, he thought.

He came unexpectedly to a patch of sand, and swore as he felt his speed
slacken. A desperate glance over his shoulder revealed no pursuers,
though he knew they were there somewhere. He could see two runners who
had flanked him on the right fifty yards off; and these forced him into
bearing away from his desired course.

Instead of passing to the right of a tall outcropping of rock ahead, he
turned left. It took him farther from the direction of the spaceship,
but there was no help for it. He floundered over a low dune of sand and
then was out of it and running on flat ground. He circled to the left
of the hill, hearing a howl from the rear.

_Must have seen me against the open valley_, thought Taranto. _They
sound closer than I like._

He ran on, scanning the shadowed rocks towering over him for a place to
climb. It was a foregone conclusion that the two flankers would be on
the lookout for him as he came around the hill.

At last he thought he saw a way up, a sloping ledge leading to a
small plateau before the rock reared higher in a sheer cliff. Taranto
scrambled over a waist-high boulder and made for the opening. Up
he went, on hands and toes. The rock was ridged, but in the wrong
direction, and he slipped to hands and knees twice before he was up.

He slowed to a quick walk as he reached the level expanse. It was ten
or twelve feet above the valley floor and curved off to the right
around the base of the cliff. Taranto was panting by now, but his main
reason for slowing was that he wanted to make less noise until he
spotted the two Syssokans he expected to meet.

The broad ledge he was following dipped, rose a few feet, and dipped
again to less than ten feet above the level ground. Taranto flattened
himself suddenly.

The two Syssokans came loping along the shadowy edge of the
outcropping, spears at the ready. From around the cliff sounded a call.
The first soldier threw back his head to answer. As the howl left
his throat, and masked the noise of the Terran's scrambling, Taranto
launched himself upon the back of the second.

They went down with a thump upon hard rocks. Taranto, saving his ribs
from being caved in by fending himself off from a jagged rock with his
forearm, kicked out and caught the downed Syssokan in the belly. As the
soldier subsided, the Terran snatched up the spear and rose to face
the other one.

It had all gone so fast that the leader was just turning back. Perhaps
he thought merely that his companion had fallen, but the stocky
silhouette of the spacer disabused him of that idea. He advanced with
the point of his spear weaving about menacingly.

"You think you're good with that stick, eh?" growled Taranto. "Well,
try this for something different!"

Gripping his spear near the head, he swung the heavier butt like a bat,
putting as much power into it as he could. It was crude, but he knew
better than to try to match skills with a soldier trained to the use of
the weapon.

The butt cracked resoundingly against the shaft of the Syssokan's
spear, tearing it from the grip of his leading hand. Taranto's own
hands were numbed by the shock. He dropped his spear and slid inside
the Syssokan's one-handed grip before it could be reinforced. The feint
of a left hook to the belly made the soldier relinquish his weapon
completely and grapple with the spacer.

Taranto found his left arm entwined with the right of the Syssokan. He
tried twice to punch to the body with his free hand but was smothered.
Before he could think of it himself, the Syssokan stamped hard upon his
toes.

"Bastard!" spat the spacer.

He butted, successfully but profitlessly. He rabbit-punched twice with
his right hand, reaching around under the soldier's armpit. Only when
he gouged at a large, black eye did the defending arm come up.

Taranto set his feet and banged three times to the midsection, getting
plenty of body twist into his motion.

He found himself holding a very limp Syssokan, who slid down as the
spacer stepped back.

Taranto sucked in a gasping breath. He staggered aside to pick up the
spears, feeling better now that he was armed, no matter how primitively.

He had hardly straightened up when he saw the officer round the edge
of the little butte, a mere fifty feet away. The Syssokan hesitated at
the sight of the Terran standing over two of his soldiers, and Taranto
threw one of the spears.

The trouble was that he did not know how to handle one. A spear, after
all, was not standard equipment on a spaceship. The point twisted away
from the target, and much of the force went into a slow spin. The
officer hissed a disdainful comment and caught the weapon out of the
air with one hand.

Taranto stooped for a rock, which he hurled with more effect. It
shattered with a fine crack against the cliff near enough to the
Syssokan to make him throw himself behind a boulder for cover. Taranto
left him in the middle of a yell to his soldiers and sprinted off into
the open valley.

Carrying the spear did not help matters much, but he thought the
Syssokans might regard it as a more dangerous deterrent than he knew
it to be in his untrained hands. The next time he looked around, he
saw that he could rejoice in a splendid lead of two hundred yards. On
the other hand, the officer now had a numerous group with him, and
would probably get organized at last. Taranto slowed to a jog, to save
himself against the time when they should begin to catch up.

"Taranto!" said a small voice.

He broke automatically into a dead run, without even looking around.

"Wait, Taranto!" called the little voice. "Look up, for the spy-eye!"

The spacer slowed as understanding burst upon him. He looked back and
saw a spark of light gaining on him. It arrived and hovered over his
head.

"It may still work," the voice informed him. "The ship is down. I
told them what happened, and they're putting up a helicopter. Where's
Meyers?"

"I don't know," said Taranto. "Back on the ridge, I guess. Look, I
can't just stand here until that 'copter comes. I'll be a pincushion."

"Head for that hill ahead about a quarter-mile," said the voice from
the little flyer. "I'll guide them there."

The Syssokans were running now, spreading out in a well-drilled manner.
Taranto boosted himself into high speed again.

The hill ahead was more toward the center of the valley. If the
pursuers were aware of some connection between his flight and the
position of the spaceship, they would be satisfied to have him heading
away from the ridge enclosing the valley. Taranto hoped that they would
not worry enough to turn on a burst of speed, for he was convinced that
they could outrun him.

He was right--he reached the steep slopes of the hill with a bare fifty
yards left of his lead, and he was on the point of foundering at that.
His knees buckled for an instant as he hit the first rise, and he saved
himself from pitching on his face only by thrusting out the butt of the
spear he carried.

Somehow, he made it another fifty feet up the slope, hearing the voice
beside his ear say, "To the right, Taranto! Head for that flat spot!
Here comes the helicopter."

He wiped salty sweat from his eyes with the back of one hand and
looked up. A large, quietly whirring shape shadowed the stars. It
dropped rapidly toward him as a howl broke out behind him.

Taranto took the spear in both hands, holding it at one end, and sent
it whirling end over end at the closing Syssokans. The whole center of
the group dropped flat to let it swish over their heads.

Before they could rise, the helicopter reached Taranto. It came down
so fast it bounced against the ground. Someone held out a hand to
Taranto and yelled to him to jump. He was hauled into an open cockpit.
Someone took a deathgrip on the waistband of his pants and he felt the
helicopter climb.

He wiggled around until he could get his knees under him. There were
two spacers in the cockpit of what was obviously an auxiliary craft
from a spaceship. One of them, a very long-eared type with a narrow
head, looked as if he had been born in some stellar colony. The other
had a broad, bland face of an oriental Terran.

"Where is the other one?" asked the latter.

Taranto crept between the seats to which they were strapped before
answering, for there were only chains at the open sides. He got his
bearings, and directed the long-eared pilot to the ridge where he had
rolled out of the litter.

It nearly broke his heart to see them reach it in less than a minute.

"There may be guards with him," he warned. "Maybe he took off too."

"We shall see," said the broad-faced spacer.

He ran a spotlight along the ridge, stopped, and brought it back to
bear upon a lonely figure. Meyers stood up and waved. No Syssokan was
in sight; the officer must have taken them all with him.

_He knew what he was doing_, thought Taranto. _The guy's still here._

The helicopter eased down to hover over a large rock. Meyers climbed
laboriously upon it and was hauled aboard. Taranto squeezed himself
back behind the seats to make room.

"It's about time you got here," puffed Meyers. "I'm worn out."

Taranto said nothing as the craft rose in the air and swooped off
toward the spaceship. Someday, Meyers would ask how he had gotten away
from the Syssokans. When it happened, Taranto swore to himself, he
would _show_ the slob.



NINETEEN


It was twenty after eight when Westervelt found himself back at the
communications room with Smith. Rosenkrantz had alerted them to a
message coming in from Syssoka.

"They didn't expect to hit us during office hours," he explained, "but
as long as you're here, I thought maybe you'd like to get it fresh."

Smith had told the girls to pass the word to Lydman and Parrish, and
Westervelt had followed him down the hall with the feeling that he
had displayed his eye under the good lighting long enough. Now they
listened as a slim, brown-haired man with a faintly scholarly aura
completed his report on the escape of Louis Taranto and Harley Meyers,
spacers.

Joe Rosenkrantz was fiddling with an auxiliary screen and murmuring
into another microphone.


"... so it was a rather close call, even though the formula you sent
us appears to have worked perfectly," said the scholarly man. "I have
not been able to determine exactly what caused the delay on the part of
the Syssokans, since it seemed imprudent to display my little flying
spy-eye where it might be seen, or even damaged."

"Maybe you can pick up some rumors in the future," suggested Smith. "If
you do, we'd appreciate hearing them, to add to our file and make the
case as complete as possible."

The transmission lag was much less than that occurring with Trident.
The D.I.R. man on Syssoka agreed to forward any subsequent discoveries.

"Those spacers you contacted are already heading out-system," he told
Smith. "I think they did a nice, clean job. It was too bad that they
were seen at all, of course, but it will be news to me if the Syssokans
drop around with any embarrassing questions."

"Well, there _is_ a large foreign quarter there," Smith recalled. "Why
should they suspect Terrans, after all?"

"Oh, they will, they will. They suspect everyone; but they must know so
little that I feel sure I can bluff them. I can prove that I was here
at the official residence all day."

"Good!" said Smith. "Just in passing, I take it that no one was much
hurt?"

The man on Syssokan grinned briefly.

"No one on our side," he said, "although I understand the prisoners
were suffering some from exhaustion and dehydration. This Louis Taranto
seems to be quite a lad. There is reason to believe that he killed two
or three of his guards with his bare hands--at least I saw the burial
party carrying bodies with them as they marched the rest of the way
back to the city."

Smith laughed.

"I'll have to add a note opposite his name and contact him. I could use
a field agent like that! Well, my operator tells me I have another call
coming in. Thanks for your work on this."

"A pleasure," said the man on Syssoka. "I really didn't expect to
contact you directly; my relative-time atlas must be a little old."

"No, it's just that we never sleep, you know," quipped Smith, and
signed off.

He looked around, saw that it was Parrish who had entered, and added,
"At least, it _looks_ as if we'll never sleep. I'm getting tired of it
myself."

"So is everybody except Joe, here," said Parrish. "A com man isn't
normal anyway."

"You gotta learn not to let all this stuff coming through bother you,"
said Rosenkrantz wisely. "If I soaked up all these crazy calls, I'd
have nightmares every day. As it is, I'm as normal as anybody when I
leave here."

"You haven't been with us long enough," said Smith. "What else do you
have there?"

"There was a routine memo to make a check with the planet Greenhaven,"
said Rosenkrantz. "I cleared it when a good time came. The D.I.R.
station there pretended not to know what I was talking about."

"What?" yelped Smith. "Don't tell me we goofed on another one!"

"I don't think so," said Rosenkrantz. "While you were talking to
Syssoka, a spaceship named _Vulpecula_ called, said there was reason to
believe the Greenhaven D.I.R. was locally monitored."

"Tapped or the scrambler system broken," said Parrish. "What does this
ship want to talk about?"

"The Ringstad case."

"Joe, godammit, who says you're normal?" demanded Smith. "I bet we've
sprung another one! Two in one night--we're coming out with a good
average after all. Get them on the screen before I pop my tanks!"

Westervelt listened to the transmission from the spaceship. Without the
help of a planetary relay at the far end, it tended to be a trifle weak
and wavery, but the essentials came through. He left Smith and Parrish
patting each other on the back and went back to tell the girls about it.

They clustered around him in the main office, even Pauline leaving her
cubicle for a moment and keeping one ear pointed at the switchboard
inside.

"You should have heard Smitty conning her out of writing us up for the
news magazines," said Westervelt. "She seems to be pretty famous in her
line."

"What was she like?" asked Simonetta.

"She looked blondish, but the color wasn't coming across too well.
Not bad looking, in a breezy sort of way. The agent that sprung her
had to skip too, because he thought the Greenhavens--they call them
Greenies--had spotted his disguise."

"Oh, boy!" breathed Pauline. "The cops must have been hot on their
trail!"

"Either that, or he wanted to go along with her for other reasons,"
said Westervelt. "They seemed kind of chummy."

"Can they do that?" asked Beryl. "I mean, without orders, and all that?"

Westervelt grinned.

"I don't know," he admitted, "but he's doing it. He can't go back now.
Anyway, Smitty simmered down fast and promised a draft for expenses
would be waiting for him when the ship made planetfall. Technically,
the D.I.R. ought to pay, because it turns out the guy is on their rolls
and was only working with us temporarily."

Simonetta nodded wisely.

"You watch our boss," she predicted. "He'll have this man on our lists.
He always gets free with the money when he sees a good prospect from
the main branch. Even if they stay in the honest side of the outfit,
they co-operate with the back room here."

Smith walked in with Parrish, beaming. His eye found Westervelt.

"Willie," he said, "make a note, and tomorrow look up the planet
Rotchen II. I have to send credits, and I didn't want to say into wide,
wide space that I didn't know where it is. Bad for the department's
prestige!"

He looked about genially.

"I see you've told the news," he commented. "It was a lift for me too.
We haven't done too badly, after all. Won two, lost one--damn!--and one
is still a stalemate."

"Anyone tell Bob?" asked Parrish quietly.

They all exchanged searching glances. Smith began to lose some of his
ebullience. After a moment, he turned to Pauline.

"Buzz his office!" he said in a preoccupied tone.

Westervelt tried to subdue a mild chill along the backbone as Pauline
gave Smith a wide-eyed look and slipped into her cubbyhole.

_He couldn't have phoned downstairs_, he reassured himself. _Pauline
would say all the lines were busy, or cut off or something. But what if
he looked out a window?_

Smith had sauntered over to the center desk, where he waited beside the
phone. It seemed to be taking Pauline a long time.

"Check with Joe," advised Parrish. "Then try around the other rooms.
Ten to one he's in the lab."

"Has anyone seen him in the last half hour?" asked Smith.

Westervelt pointed out that he had been the chief's company in the
communications room. The girls had not seen Lydman, but admitted that
he might have gone past in the corridor without their having noticed.

"Yeah, he doesn't make much noise," Parrish agreed.

Smith had a thought. He moved toward his own office, paused to jerk his
head significantly toward Parrish's, and opened his own door. Parrish
went over past Beryl's desk and thrust his head into his own office.
Lydman was not in either room.

"Mr. Smith!" called Pauline in a worried tone. "I'm sorry, but I can't
seem to reach him."

"Oh, Christ!" said Parrish. "He isn't talking again!"

He did something Westervelt had never seen that self-possessed man
resort to before this evening. He began to gnaw nervously upon a
knuckle. He saw the youth staring, and snatched his hand from his mouth.

Smith glowered unhappily at the floor. Westervelt thought he could hear
his own pulse, so quiet had the office grown.

The chief backed up to the unpleasant decision.

"We'd better spread out and wander around until someone sees him face
to face," he said. "If he wants to be let alone, let him alone! Just
pass the word on where he is."

Westervelt volunteered to go down one wing while Parrish took the
other. As they left, cautioned to take their time and act natural,
Smith was telling the girls to open the doors to the adjacent offices
again and keep their ears tuned, in case Lydman should come looking for
him or Parrish.

Westervelt turned right past the stairs, and went to the door of the
library.

_It will be perfectly natural_, he told himself. _We made out on two
cases. I just want to tell him about it, in case he hasn't heard. Why
the hell don't they get that cable fixed? They want their bills paid on
time, don't they?_

He could hear the newcasts now, about how tough a job the electricians
faced, and how tense was the situation. Westervelt decided he would not
listen.

He opened the door to the library casually and sauntered in. The pose
was wasted; Lydman was not there.

Westervelt went on to the conference room on this side, and found it
empty as well. He looked in on Joe Rosenkrantz, who, from the door,
appeared to be alone. Just to leave no stone unturned, he retreated up
the hall to the door marked "Shaft" and poked his head inside. He had
to grope around for a light switch, and when he found it was rewarded
with nothing more than the sight of a number of conduits running from
floor to unfinished ceiling. A little dust drifted down on him from
atop the ones that bent to run to outlets on the same floor.

"Well, nobody can say I overlooked anything," grumbled Westervelt.

He went back to the communications room. Rosenkrantz was listening
in on some conversation from a station on Luna that was none of his
business.

"Any sign of Lydman around here?" asked Westervelt.

"Not since the Yoleen brawl," grunted Rosenkrantz. "That's a
good-looking babe running that Lunar station. Why can't we dig up some
messages for them?"

"I'll work on it," promised Westervelt halfheartedly.

He walked quietly around the corner past the power equipment. No
Lydman. The next step was the laboratory. He looked at his watch, then
leaned against the wire mesh partition for a good ten minutes. Let
Parrish cover the ground, he decided.

In the end, with no sign of Parrish or Lydman, he opened the door and
stepped into the dark laboratory. He made his way cautiously ahead,
thinking that Lydman was probably in his office. Feeling his path with
slow steps, and carefully avoiding the possibility of tipping over any
of the stacks of cartons, he had progressed to the center of the large
chamber when the lights went on.

Westervelt felt as if he had jumped a foot, and the blood pounded
through his veins.

Gaping around with open mouth, he finally met the eye of Pete Parrish,
who stood half inside the doorway to the corridor, his hand still
raised to the light switch.

They both relaxed. Parrish smiled feebly, with less than normal display
of his fine teeth. Westervelt contented himself with passing a hand
across his forehead. It came away damp.

"Well," said Parrish, "where was he?"

Westervelt closed his eyes and groaned.

"You're kidding," he said. "Please say you're kidding! It's too late in
the day to fool around, Pete."

Parrish looked alarmed. He strode forward, letting the door close
behind him. Westervelt, finding himself shivering in a draft, went to
meet him.

"I'm not kidding at all," said Parrish. "Did you look everywhere? Are
you sure?"

"I even poked into the power shaft," retorted Westervelt. "Were you in
his office?"

"Naturally. I checked everything, even the men's room."

They had wandered back to the corridor door, peering about the
laboratory to make sure no one could have concealed himself on the
floor under a workbench, or behind a pile of cartons.

Parrish opened the door, and they stood puzzling at the empty hall.

"He wasn't even taking a shower," said the elder man.

Westervelt brooded for a moment.

"Did you say _everywhere_?" he insisted.

"Well ... everywhere he would have any call to go."

They stood there, passing the buck silently back and forth between
them. At length, Parrish said, "I'll just look again in his office and
the other two rooms, in case he _was_, and slipped out behind me."

Westervelt watched him run lightly up the hall to each of the doors.
Parrish's expression, as he returned slowly, was something to behold.

"I'll go," said Westervelt grouchily.

Parrish put a hand on his arm.

"No, that wouldn't look natural. I'll phone Smitty to send one of the
girls down."

"Better phone him to send two," suggested Westervelt.

"Yeah," agreed Parrish. "That's even more natural. Watch the hall while
I buzz them."

He went into Lydman's office. Westervelt leaned in the laboratory
doorway, feeling depressed. After some delay, he sighted Simonetta and
Beryl turning the far corner with their pocketbooks in hand. Neither
one looked particularly pleased, but their expressions lightened a bit
at the sight of him.

"You there, Pete?" murmured Westervelt.

"Right at the door," whispered Parrish from inside Lydman's office.

The girls clicked in muffled unison along the hall. Beryl paused at the
entrance to the ladies' rest room. She raised her eyebrows uncertainly
at Simonetta. The dark girl threw Westervelt a puzzled shrug, then
pushed past Beryl and went inside. The blonde followed almost on her
heels.

Westervelt waited. When he thought he could no longer stand it, Parrish
hissed, "How long are they in there, Willie?"

"I don't know," said the youth, "but maybe we'd better--"

The door opened. Simonetta and Beryl walked out, staring quizzically at
the two men, who had taken a few steps toward them.

"What is this gag?" asked Simonetta. "There's no one in there. Who
would be in there?"

Parrish swore luridly, and none of them seemed to notice.

"It _can't_ be!" he exclaimed. "You're sure?"

"Of course we're sure," said Beryl.

"What if the power came on and we didn't notice?" mused Parrish. "He
wouldn't just leave and not tell any of us, would he?"

"You know him better than I do," commented Beryl. "I'm beginning to
wonder, from what you told us on the phone, if he jumped out of a
window somewhere. I know it's a terrible thing to bring up--"

Westervelt stopped listening to her. He was remembering the draft he
had felt, twice now, in the laboratory.



TWENTY


Westervelt watched them walk up the hall. He thought of going back into
the laboratory to find the open window. In his mind, he could see the
straight, twenty-five story drop down the side of the dark tower to the
roof of the larger part of the building.

He recalled having looked down once or twice. The people down there had
paved patios outside their offices. A hurtling body would....

He shook the thought out of his head and hurried to catch up to Parrish
and the two girls.

They trouped into the main office and took turns in telling Smith
the story. He flatly refused to believe it for about five minutes.
Ultimately convinced, he told Pauline to check Rosenkrantz by phone
every ten minutes.

"If we're wrong," he said, "it's unfair to have him sitting down there
all alone. Bob might somehow have outsmarted us, but if he did it to
this extent, it means he isn't safe on the loose!"

Westervelt noticed that Simonetta was looking pale. He wondered about
his own features. The eye would probably stand out very picturesquely.

"I don't believe it," he said when the others had all fallen silent.

They looked at him, hoping to be convinced.

"He isn't that kind," said Westervelt. "All right, you tell me he had a
hard time in space and it left him a little off; but this doesn't sound
like the direction he would go off in."

"What do you mean, Willie?" asked Smith intently.

"Well ... maybe he'd run wild. Maybe he'd get desperate and blow
something up. I could see him taking a torch to that door and burning
anybody that tried to stop him...."

He paused as they hung on his words.

"... but I _can't_ see him quitting!" said Westervelt. "If he was that
kind, he never would have gotten back to Terra, would he?"

Smith snapped his fingers and looked around.

"Sure, sure," he said. "I don't know what I was thinking up in my
imagination. We've all heard Bob utter a threat now and then, when some
bems out in deep space broke his own private law, but no one ever heard
him even hint at suicide."

He grinned ruefully, and added, "I should have thought of it myself--I
had to review his application and examinations when he came to us."

"Some days," said Parrish, "are just too much. Nobody's fault."

"Then, in that case," said Westervelt, "there was one little thing I
noticed."

He told them about the open window. Who would keep a window open with
the building air-conditioning operating as perfectly as it did?

Smith fell to running his hands through his hair again.

"Now, let's _think_!" he muttered. "There must be some logical
explanation."

_Logical explanations_, Westervelt thought, _are always the reasons
other people think of, not me._

He found a space to sit on the edge of the empty desk. Simonetta leaned
beside him, and Beryl wandered over to the window of the switchboard
cubicle to listen as Pauline checked Rosenkrantz.

She shook her head to Smith's inquiring look.

Then Lydman strolled through the double doors.

"What's the conference about?" he asked.

Beryl let out a shriek. Her back had been to the corridor when she
jumped, but she came down facing the other way.

Everyone stiffened.

Lydman stood quietly, regarding them with considerable calm.

After a moment, Beryl tottered back to lean against the glass of
Pauline's window. She pressed one hand to her solar plexus, looking as
if she might fold up at any breath.

"Oh," she gasped. "Oh, Mr. Lydman...."

He examined her with a clinical detachment.

"Doesn't someone have a tranquilizer for her?" he asked. "I don't
usually scare pretty girls."

"Oh, no, no, no ... it's just that ... I mean, everyone was worried
about you," stammered Beryl.

"Why?" asked Lydman. "Don't you think I can take care of myself?"

For the first time, Westervelt noticed the curiously set expression on
the ex-spacer's face. He had until then been too busy watching Beryl
and trying to calm his own nerves. He could not be certain, but it
seemed as if Lydman's forehead displayed a faint sheen of perspiration.

"Of course you can, Bob," said Smith. "We were--"

Beryl, nearly to the point of hysteria in her relief, got the ball away
from him.

"We were worried about the elevator being stopped," she babbled. "And
the door--you'll never believe it, Mr. Lydman, but the door to the
emergency stairs wouldn't open!"

Westervelt thought he heard Parrish swear, then realized it had been
his own voice. He started to step in front of Simonetta.

Parrish was moving slowly in Lydman's direction, trying to look at ease
but looking tense instead.

"Dammit!" shouted Smith. "Beryl, you're _fired_!"

It did not seem to register on anybody, Beryl least of all. Lydman was
confounding them all by standing quietly. His face tightened a little
more at the news, but it did not seem to be the expression of a man who
had just taken a bad jolt.

"I know," he said. "I looked at it a couple of times after I saw the
blackout downstairs."

Smith regarded him warily.

"How do you feel, Bob?" he asked.

"You know how I feel," said Lydman.

He let his gaze wander from one to another of them. Westervelt felt a
chill as the handsome eyes looked through him in turn, but accepted the
comforting realization that the stare was about as usual.

Beryl was the picture of a girl afraid to breathe out loud, but the
others relaxed cautiously. Smith even planted one hip on the corner of
Simonetta's desk and tried to look casual.

"You seem to be doing pretty well," he said. "We were thinking of
looking in the lab for something to cut the latch with, but it might
have been waste motion. They should be getting the power on any minute
now."

"I think...." Lydman began.

"Oh, I guess we could find something in the lists," pursued Smith. "If
you'd rather we look...?"

"I have several things we could use," said Lydman.

He walked into the office proper and looked about for a chair.
Westervelt stepped back of the center desk and brought him the chair
of the vacationing secretary. Lydman sat down beside the partition
screening the active files opposite Simonetta's desk.

"In fact," continued the ex-space, "I got them out when I was trying to
figure how much that door would stand. Then I decided that would only
raise a commotion."

Westervelt watched him with growing interest. Now that he had the man
at closer range, he was sure that it was a tremendous effort of will
that kept Lydman so relatively calm. The man seemed to be seething
underneath his tautly controlled exterior.

"What did you think of doing?" asked Smith carefully.

"Oh, I dug out a better gadget, one that would do _me_ more good,
anyhow," said Lydman. "It's a little rocket gun attached to a cannister
of fine wire ladder."

"Wire ladder?" repeated Smith.

"Yeah. About six inches wide at the most. I opened a window and shot it
up to the flight deck. Say--did you know some hijackers stole all three
of our 'copters?"

"Stole all three of...." Smith's voice dwindled away. When no one else
broke the silence, he forced himself to resume. "Yes, I knew. What I
would deeply appreciate, Robert, is your telling me how the hell _you_
knew!"

He finished yelling. Westervelt thought that he looked at least as bad
as Lydman. Anyone twenty feet away would have completely misjudged them.

"Just as I said," answered Lydman with his tight calm. "I shot this
ladder to the roof and climbed up."

"You climbed up? _Outside the building?_"

"Of course, outside," said Lydman, for the first time showing a trace
of snappishness. "I couldn't stand it _inside_."

He looked around at them again, surprised that there was the slightest
hesitation to accept his statement.

"We'll have to redesign that ladder, though," he said. "It's a mite too
fine--cuts the hell out of your hands!"

He held out his palms. Across each were several welts. One, on his
right hand, had apparently resumed bleeding stickily since Lydman had
come in. He fumbled out a handkerchief with his other hand and blotted
it.

Smith held his hands to his head.

"I can't swallow it yet!" he groaned. "You feel ... uneasy ... in here,
so you go out a window ninety-nine floors in the air--"

"Only twenty-four above the set-back, really," Lydman corrected him.

"It's enough, isn't it? So you go out, climb up to the helicopter
roof, and _then_ climb down again and back through the window! And you
pretend to feel better. I would have had a heart attack!"

"Who wouldn't?" said Westervelt.

The mere conception of what it must have been like made him feel sick.

"As long as I know it's there," muttered Lydman. "As long as I know
it's there. I can use that way any time. Just don't anybody pull that
little ladder down."

"Would...?"

The meek little syllable came from Beryl, who had now managed to stand
without the support of the partition.

Every head in the room swiveled to bear upon her. She gulped, and found
part of her voice.

"Would there be an old martini lying around in the locker?" she asked.
"I'm afraid to go for it myself because my knees feel as if they'll
collapse at the first step."

There was a general outburst of laughter that revealed the enormity of
their relief. Parrish hurried over to put an arm around the blonde, and
Smith himself went to the locker and opened it.

With the break in the tension, Beryl managed to walk pretty well,
perhaps with a little more swagger of the hips than usual, Westervelt
thought. Smith found a drink for her, and insisted that Lydman have
tea. The chief pulled the tab himself and held the cup for the few
seconds required to heat the beverage.

Most of them, like Westervelt, had had too many coffees or sandwiches,
and were content to sit down and regain their composure. Westervelt was
mildly surprised to see Parrish take a position behind Lydman and knead
the big man's neck muscles to relax him.

"Did they tell you the news yet?" asked Smith. "We got two out--Syssoka
and Greenhaven!"

"No!" said Lydman, managing a smile. "Tell me, but if I get up to leave
in the middle, I'd rather you didn't stop me."

"Nobody is stopping anybody tonight!" said Smith, and fell to giving
his assistant an account of Taranto and Meyers.

Westervelt got up quietly and padded into the switchboard cubbyhole.

"Lend me your headset, Pauline," he murmured, "and punch Joe's number."

"Sure," said the little blonde.

She left the screen off and kissed him behind the ear just as
Rosenkrantz answered.

"Nothing personal, Willie," she giggled. "I just feel so relieved!"

"Who is it now?" demanded Rosenkrantz's voice. "You left the lens off,
did you know that?"

"It's Willie, Joe. He came back and he's sitting down having tea."

"_Back?_ Where was he?"

Westervelt told him.

Then he told him again and switched off. Joe, he thought, would have to
live with it for a while.

When he stepped out of the cubicle, everyone was watching Smith
narrate, with broad gestures, the flummoxing of the staid authorities
of Greenhaven. The chief was not above calling upon Parrish for an
estimate of the charms of Maria Ringstad that caused an outcry among
the girls. Lydman smiled politely, but not from the heart. He was still
quietly reserved.

Everyone was watching Smith. No one paid any attention to the redhaired
man who drifted into the office area just as Westervelt squirmed past
Pauline and stepped out of the switchboard room.

The youth blinked at the topcoat over the man's arm. He focused upon
the wavy hair and reached for the man's shoulder to turn him around.

"Charlie Colborn!" he yelped.

Smith got it first.

"Well, now," he said, standing up. "If it's getting so everybody and
his brother start parading through that door at this time of night, I'm
leaving! Where's my hat, Si?"

Lydman had caught on almost as quickly, and was on his feet before the
general whoop went up.

"I just want to phone my wife," said Colborn. "It's so late I might as
well stay here the rest of the night. What's keeping all of you?"

They glared at him.

"The power's been on for fifteen minutes," he told them. "I would have
been up sooner, but that nut of a building manager insisted on running
test trips with all the elevators before he'd let anyone come up."

Lydman had started for the elevator, in shirtsleeves as he was and
carrying a cup of tea in one hand and a bloody handkerchief. There was
no doubt that he meant to go home that way.

"BOB!" roared Smith. "All of you--_listen_!"

Lydman stopped but did not turn around.

"In the first place, Charlie," said Smith, "you are _not_ going to call
your wife from here unless you faithfully give the impression that you
are all alone. If you slip, I'll swear to her I saw you picked up by
two redheads in a helicopter and you had all the office petty cash with
you."

"But--"

"Tell her the traffic was too much. Don't tell her we couldn't get to
the street. That goes for everybody else too!"

"But ... _why_?" Colborn got out.

"Why? You want the D.I.R. boys throwing this up to us every time I try
to get money out of them for the bare necessities of our operation? We
can get people out of dungeons on planets not even in the Galatlas, but
can't even escape from our own little hideaway?"

"It never happened," Parrish agreed quickly.

"Damn' right!" said Smith. "Okay, Bob, push the button! Go with him,
Willie! You girls--nobody in before noon tomorrow; we have an extra TV
operator to take care of things."

"Look, I...." Colborn started to say as he stepped out of Westervelt's
way.

"Aw, thanks for phoning in the first place," grinned Smith, punching
him lightly on the shoulder. "Wait for me downstairs, Willie! We'll see
what we can do about Harris tomorrow!"

"Appoint him an ambassador," muttered Westervelt, coming up behind
Lydman as the elevator door slid smoothly open.

_What an outfit!_ he thought to himself. _I'm going to apply for field
duty, where you can get out among the stars and let someone else figure
ways to keep you out of trouble._

Somehow, incredibly, everyone but Colborn managed to catch the same
elevator.



EARTHMEN IN TROUBLE

Harris: was caged in an underwater "zoo" by a pack of blue lobsters.

Maria: drew a five-year sentence on a puritanical planet for trying to
buy a souvenir--and for being excessively feminine.

Taranto & Meyers: had committed the crime of being shipwrecked on a
planet that didn't like strangers.

Gerson: was simply kidnapped--and nobody had any idea why.

Five citizens of Terra were being held on other worlds--and the
ultra-secret _Department 99_ existed only to set them, and others like
them, free.

This tense novel is the story of one evening's work for Department
99--their successes and failures--and of the strange crisis that almost
wrecked

D-99

A PYRAMID BOOK 40c

Cover painting by Ralph Brillhart

Printed in U.S.A.





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