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´╗┐Title: The Frozen Planet
Author: Laumer, Keith
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 "The Frozen Planet" ***

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



                           THE FROZEN PLANET

                            By Keith Laumer

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
             Worlds of If Science Fiction, September 1961.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


"It is rather unusual," Magnan said, "to assign an officer of your rank
to courier duty, but this is an unusual mission."

Retief sat relaxed and said nothing. Just before the silence grew
awkward, Magnan went on.

"There are four planets in the group," he said. "Two double planets,
all rather close to an unimportant star listed as DRI-G 33987. They're
called Jorgensen's Worlds, and in themselves are of no importance
whatever. However, they lie deep in the sector into which the Soetti
have been penetrating.

"Now--" Magnan leaned forward and lowered his voice--"we have learned
that the Soetti plan a bold step forward. Since they've met no
opposition so far in their infiltration of Terrestrial space, they
intend to seize Jorgensen's Worlds by force."

Magnan leaned back, waiting for Retief's reaction. Retief drew
carefully on his cigar and looked at Magnan. Magnan frowned.

"This is open aggression, Retief," he said, "in case I haven't made
myself clear. Aggression on Terrestrial-occupied territory by an alien
species. Obviously, we can't allow it."

Magnan drew a large folder from his desk.

"A show of resistance at this point is necessary. Unfortunately,
Jorgensen's Worlds are technologically undeveloped areas. They're
farmers or traders. Their industry is limited to a minor role in
their economy--enough to support the merchant fleet, no more. The war
potential, by conventional standards, is nil."

Magnan tapped the folder before him.

"I have here," he said solemnly, "information which will change that
picture completely." He leaned back and blinked at Retief.

       *       *       *       *       *

"All right, Mr. Councillor," Retief said. "I'll play along; what's in
the folder?"

Magnan spread his fingers, folded one down.

"First," he said. "The Soetti War Plan--in detail. We were fortunate
enough to make contact with a defector from a party of renegade
Terrestrials who've been advising the Soetti." He folded another
finger. "Next, a battle plan for the Jorgensen's people, worked out by
the Theory group." He wrestled a third finger down. "Lastly; an Utter
Top Secret schematic for conversion of a standard anti-acceleration
field into a potent weapon--a development our systems people have been
holding in reserve for just such a situation."

"Is that all?" Retief said. "You've still got two fingers sticking up."

Magnan looked at the fingers and put them away.

"This is no occasion for flippancy, Retief. In the wrong hands, this
information could be catastrophic. You'll memorize it before you leave
this building."

"I'll carry it, sealed," Retief said. "That way nobody can sweat it out
of me."

Magnan started to shake his head.

"Well," he said. "If it's trapped for destruction, I suppose--"

"I've heard of these Jorgensen's Worlds," Retief said. "I remember an
agent, a big blond fellow, very quick on the uptake. A wizard with
cards and dice. Never played for money, though."

"Umm," Magnan said. "Don't make the error of personalizing this
situation, Retief. Overall policy calls for a defense of these
backwater worlds. Otherwise the Corps would allow history to follow its
natural course, as always."

"When does this attack happen?"

"Less than four weeks."

"That doesn't leave me much time."

"I have your itinerary here. Your accommodations are clear as far as
Aldo Cerise. You'll have to rely on your ingenuity to get you the rest
of the way."

"That's a pretty rough trip, Mr. Councillor. Suppose I don't make it?"

Magnan looked sour. "Someone at a policy-making level has chosen to put
all our eggs in one basket, Retief. I hope their confidence in you is
not misplaced."

"This antiac conversion; how long does it take?"

"A skilled electronics crew can do the job in a matter of minutes. The
Jorgensens can handle it very nicely; every other man is a mechanic of
some sort."

Retief opened the envelope Magnan handed him and looked at the tickets
inside.

"Less than four hours to departure time," he said. "I'd better not
start any long books."

"You'd better waste no time getting over to Indoctrination," Magnan
said.

Retief stood up. "If I hurry, maybe I can catch the cartoon."

"The allusion escapes me," Magnan said coldly. "And one last word. The
Soetti are patrolling the trade lanes into Jorgensen's Worlds; don't
get yourself interned."

"I'll tell you what," Retief said soberly. "In a pinch, I'll mention
your name."

"You'll be traveling with Class X credentials," Magnan snapped. "There
must be nothing to connect you with the Corps."

"They'll never guess," Retief said. "I'll pose as a gentleman."

"You'd better be getting started," Magnan said, shuffling papers.

"You're right," Retief said. "If I work at it, I might manage a
snootful by takeoff." He went to the door. "No objection to my checking
out a needler, is there?"

Magnan looked up. "I suppose not. What do you want with it?"

"Just a feeling I've got."

"Please yourself."

"Some day," Retief said, "I may take you up on that."


                                  II

Retief put down the heavy travel-battered suitcase and leaned on the
counter, studying the schedules chalked on the board under the legend
"ALDO CERISE--INTERPLANETARY." A thin clerk in a faded sequined blouse
and a plastic snakeskin cummerbund groomed his fingernails, watching
Retief from the corner of his eye.

Retief glanced at him.

The clerk nipped off a ragged corner with rabbitlike front teeth and
spat it on the floor.

"Was there something?" he said.

"Two twenty-eight, due out today for the Jorgensen group," Retief said.
"Is it on schedule?"

The clerk sampled the inside of his right cheek, eyed Retief. "Filled
up. Try again in a couple of weeks."

"What time does it leave?"

"I don't think--"

"Let's stick to facts," Retief said. "Don't try to think. What time is
it due out?"

The clerk smiled pityingly. "It's my lunch hour," he said. "I'll be
open in an hour." He held up a thumb nail, frowned at it.

"If I have to come around this counter," Retief said, "I'll feed that
thumb to you the hard way."

The clerk looked up and opened his mouth. Then he caught Retief's eye,
closed his mouth and swallowed.

"Like it says there," he said, jerking a thumb at the board. "Lifts in
an hour. But you won't be on it," he added.

Retief looked at him.

"Some ... ah ... VIP's required accommodation," he said. He hooked
a finger inside the sequined collar. "All tourist reservations were
canceled. You'll have to try to get space on the Four-Planet Line ship
next--"

"Which gate?" Retief said.

"For ... ah...?"

"For the two twenty-eight for Jorgensen's Worlds," Retief said.

"Well," the clerk said. "Gate 19," he added quickly. "But--"

Retief picked up his suitcase and walked away toward the glare sign
reading _To Gates 16-30_.

"Another smart alec," the clerk said behind him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief followed the signs, threaded his way through crowds, found a
covered ramp with the number 228 posted over it. A heavy-shouldered man
with a scarred jawline and small eyes was slouching there in a rumpled
gray uniform. He put out a hand as Retief started past him.

"Lessee your boarding pass," he muttered.

Retief pulled a paper from an inside pocket, handed it over.

The guard blinked at it.

"Whassat?"

"A gram confirming my space," Retief said. "Your boy on the counter
says he's out to lunch."

The guard crumpled the gram, dropped it on the floor and lounged back
against the handrail.

"On your way, bub," he said.

Retief put his suitcase carefully on the floor, took a step and drove a
right into the guard's midriff. He stepped aside as the man doubled and
went to his knees.

"You were wide open, ugly. I couldn't resist. Tell your boss I sneaked
past while you were resting your eyes." He picked up his bag, stepped
over the man and went up the gangway into the ship.

A cabin boy in stained whites came along the corridor.

"Which way to cabin fifty-seven, son?" Retief asked.

"Up there." The boy jerked his head and hurried on. Retief made his way
along the narrow hall, found signs, followed them to cabin fifty-seven.
The door was open. Inside, baggage was piled in the center of the
floor. It was expensive looking baggage.

Retief put his bag down. He turned at a sound behind him. A tall,
florid man with an expensive coat belted over a massive paunch stood in
the open door, looking at Retief. Retief looked back. The florid man
clamped his jaws together, turned to speak over his shoulder.

"Somebody in the cabin. Get 'em out." He rolled a cold eye at Retief as
he backed out of the room. A short, thick-necked man appeared.

"What are you doing in Mr. Tony's room?" he barked. "Never mind! Clear
out of here, fellow! You're keeping Mr. Tony waiting."

"Too bad," Retief said. "Finders keepers."

"You nuts?" The thick-necked man stared at Retief. "I said it's Mr.
Tony's room."

"I don't know Mr. Tony. He'll have to bull his way into other quarters."

"We'll see about you, mister." The man turned and went out. Retief
sat on the bunk and lit a cigar. There was a sound of voices in
the corridor. Two burly baggage-smashers appeared, straining at an
oversized trunk. They maneuvered it through the door, lowered it,
glanced at Retief and went out. The thick-necked man returned.

"All right, you. Out," he growled. "Or have I got to have you thrown
out?"

Retief rose and clamped the cigar between his teeth. He gripped a
handle of the brass-bound trunk in each hand, bent his knees and heaved
the trunk up to chest level, then raised it overhead. He turned to the
door.

"Catch," he said between clenched teeth. The trunk slammed against the
far wall of the corridor and burst.

Retief turned to the baggage on the floor, tossed it into the hall. The
face of the thick-necked man appeared cautiously around the door jamb.

"Mister, you must be--"

"If you'll excuse me," Retief said, "I want to catch a nap." He flipped
the door shut, pulled off his shoes and stretched out on the bed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Five minutes passed before the door rattled and burst open.

Retief looked up. A gaunt leathery-skinned man wearing white ducks, a
blue turtleneck sweater and a peaked cap tilted raffishly over one eye
stared at Retief.

"Is this the joker?" he grated.

The thick-necked man edged past him, looked at Retief and snorted,
"That's him, sure."

"I'm captain of this vessel," the first man said. "You've got two
minutes to haul your freight out of here, buster."

"When you can spare the time from your other duties," Retief said,
"take a look at Section Three, Paragraph One, of the Uniform Code.
That spells out the law on confirmed space on vessels engaged in
interplanetary commerce."

"A space lawyer." The captain turned. "Throw him out, boys."

Two big men edged into the cabin, looking at Retief.

"Go on, pitch him out," the captain snapped.

Retief put his cigar in an ashtray, and swung his feet off the bunk.

"Don't try it," he said softly.

One of the two wiped his nose on a sleeve, spat on his right palm, and
stepped forward, then hesitated.

"Hey," he said. "This the guy tossed the trunk off the wall?"

"That's him," the thick-necked man called. "Spilled Mr. Tony's
possessions right on the deck."

"Deal me out," the bouncer said. "He can stay put as long as he wants
to. I signed on to move cargo. Let's go, Moe."

"You'd better be getting back to the bridge, Captain," Retief said.
"We're due to lift in twenty minutes."

The thick-necked man and the Captain both shouted at once. The
Captain's voice prevailed.

"--twenty minutes ... uniform Code ... gonna do?"

"Close the door as you leave," Retief said.

The thick-necked man paused at the door. "We'll see you when you come
out."


                                  III

Four waiters passed Retief's table without stopping. A fifth leaned
against the wall nearby, a menu under his arm.

At a table across the room, the Captain, now wearing a dress uniform
and with his thin red hair neatly parted, sat with a table of male
passengers. He talked loudly and laughed frequently, casting occasional
glances Retief's way.

A panel opened in the wall behind Retief's chair. Bright blue eyes
peered out from under a white chef's cap.

"Givin' you the cold shoulder, heh, Mister?"

"Looks like it, old-timer," Retief said. "Maybe I'd better go join the
skipper. His party seems to be having all the fun."

"Feller has to be mighty careless who he eats with to set over there."

"I see your point."

"You set right where you're at, Mister. I'll rustle you up a plate."

Five minutes later, Retief cut into a thirty-two ounce Delmonico backed
up with mushrooms and garlic butter.

"I'm Chip," the chef said. "I don't like the Cap'n. You can tell him I
said so. Don't like his friends, either. Don't like them dern Sweaties,
look at a man like he was a worm."

"You've got the right idea on frying a steak, Chip. And you've got the
right idea on the Soetti, too," Retief said. He poured red wine into a
glass. "Here's to you."

"Dern right," Chip said. "Dunno who ever thought up broiling 'em.
Steaks, that is. I got a Baked Alaska coming up in here for dessert.
You like brandy in yer coffee?"

"Chip, you're a genius."

"Like to see a feller eat," Chip said. "I gotta go now. If you need
anything, holler."

Retief ate slowly. Time always dragged on shipboard. Four days to
Jorgensen's Worlds. Then, if Magnan's information was correct,
there would be four days to prepare for the Soetti attack. It was a
temptation to scan the tapes built into the handle of his suitcase. It
would be good to know what Jorgensen's Worlds would be up against.

Retief finished the steak, and the chef passed out the baked Alaska and
coffee. Most of the other passengers had left the dining room. Mr. Tony
and his retainers still sat at the Captain's table.

As Retief watched, four men arose from the table and sauntered across
the room. The first in line, a stony-faced thug with a broken ear, took
a cigar from his mouth as he reached the table. He dipped the lighted
end in Retief's coffee, looked at it, and dropped it on the tablecloth.

The others came up, Mr. Tony trailing.

"You must want to get to Jorgensen's pretty bad," the thug said in a
grating voice. "What's your game, hick?"

Retief looked at the coffee cup, picked it up.

"I don't think I want my coffee," he said. He looked at the thug. "You
drink it."

The thug squinted at Retief. "A wise hick," he began.

With a flick of the wrist, Retief tossed the coffee into the thug's
face, then stood and slammed a straight right to the chin. The thug
went down.

Retief looked at Mr. Tony, still standing open-mouthed.

"You can take your playmates away now, Tony," he said. "And don't
bother to come around yourself. You're not funny enough."

Mr. Tony found his voice.

"Take him, Marbles!" he growled.

The thick-necked man slipped a hand inside his tunic and brought out a
long-bladed knife. He licked his lips and moved in.

Retief heard the panel open beside him.

"Here you go, Mister," Chip said. Retief darted a glance; a well-honed
french knife lay on the sill.

"Thanks, Chip," Retief said. "I won't need it for these punks."

Thick-neck lunged and Retief hit him square in the face, knocking him
under the table. The other man stepped back, fumbling a power pistol
from his shoulder holster.

"Aim that at me, and I'll kill you," Retief said.

"Go on, burn him!" Mr. Tony shouted. Behind him, the captain appeared,
white-faced.

"Put that away, you!" he yelled. "What kind of--"

"Shut up," Mr. Tony said. "Put it away, Hoany. We'll fix this bum
later."

"Not on this vessel, you won't," the captain said shakily. "I got my
charter to consider."

"Ram your charter," Hoany said harshly. "You won't be needing it long."

"Button your floppy mouth, damn you!" Mr. Tony snapped. He looked at
the man on the floor. "Get Marbles out of here. I ought to dump the
slob."

He turned and walked away. The captain signaled and two waiters came
up. Retief watched as they carted the casualty from the dining room.

The panel opened.

"I usta be about your size, when I was your age," Chip said. "You
handled them pansies right. I wouldn't give 'em the time o' day."

"How about a fresh cup of coffee, Chip?" Retief said.

"Sure, Mister. Anything else?"

"I'll think of something," Retief said. "This is shaping up into one of
those long days."

       *       *       *       *       *

"They don't like me bringing yer meals to you in yer cabin," Chip said.
"But the cap'n knows I'm the best cook in the Merchant Service. They
won't mess with me."

"What has Mr. Tony got on the captain, Chip?" Retief asked.

"They're in some kind o' crooked business together. You want some more
smoked turkey?"

"Sure. What have they got against my going to Jorgensen's Worlds?"

"Dunno. Hasn't been no tourists got in there fer six or eight months. I
sure like a feller that can put it away. I was a big eater when I was
yer age."

"I'll bet you can still handle it, Old Timer. What are Jorgensen's
Worlds like?"

"One of 'em's cold as hell and three of 'em's colder. Most o' the
Jorgies live on Svea; that's the least froze up. Man don't enjoy eatin'
his own cookin' like he does somebody else's."

"That's where I'm lucky, Chip. What kind of cargo's the captain got
aboard for Jorgensen's?"

"Derned if I know. In and out o' there like a grasshopper, ever few
weeks. Don't never pick up no cargo. No tourists any more, like I says.
Don't know what we even run in there for."

"Where are the passengers we have aboard headed?"

"To Alabaster. That's nine days' run in-sector from Jorgensen's. You
ain't got another one of them cigars, have you?"

"Have one, Chip. I guess I was lucky to get space on this ship."

"Plenty o' space, Mister. We got a dozen empty cabins." Chip puffed
the cigar alight, then cleared away the dishes, poured out coffee and
brandy.

"Them Sweaties is what I don't like," he said.

Retief looked at him questioningly.

"You never seen a Sweaty? Ugly lookin' devils. Skinny legs, like a
lobster; big chest, shaped like the top of a turnip; rubbery lookin'
head. You can see the pulse beatin' when they get riled."

"I've never had the pleasure," Retief said.

"You prob'ly have it perty soon. Them devils board us nigh ever trip
out. Act like they was the Customs Patrol or somethin'."

There was a distant clang, and a faint tremor ran through the floor.

"I ain't superstitious ner nothin'," Chip said. "But I'll be
triple-damned if that ain't them boarding us now."

Ten minutes passed before bootsteps sounded outside the door,
accompanied by a clicking patter. The doorknob rattled, then a heavy
knock shook the door.

"They got to look you over," Chip whispered. "Nosy damn Sweaties."

"Unlock it, Chip." The chef opened the door.

"Come in, damn you," he said.

A tall and grotesque creature minced into the room, tiny hoof-like
feet tapping on the floor. A flaring metal helmet shaded the deep-set
compound eyes, and a loose mantle flapped around the knobbed knees.
Behind the alien, the captain hovered nervously.

"Yo' papiss," the alien rasped.

"Who's your friend, Captain?" Retief said.

"Never mind; just do like he tells you."

"Yo' papiss," the alien said again.

"Okay," Retief said. "I've seen it. You can take it away now."

"Don't horse around," the captain said. "This fellow can get mean."

The alien brought two tiny arms out from the concealment of the mantle,
clicked toothed pincers under Retief's nose.

"Quick, soft one."

"Captain, tell your friend to keep its distance. It looks brittle, and
I'm tempted to test it."

"Don't start anything with Skaw; he can clip through steel with those
snappers."

"Last chance," Retief said. Skaw stood poised, open pincers an inch
from Retief's eyes.

"Show him your papers, you damned fool," the captain said hoarsely. "I
got no control over Skaw."

       *       *       *       *       *

The alien clicked both pincers with a sharp report, and in the same
instant Retief half-turned to the left, leaned away from the alien
and drove his right foot against the slender leg above the bulbous
knee-joint. Skaw screeched and floundered, greenish fluid spattering
from the burst joint.

"I told you he was brittle," Retief said. "Next time you invite pirates
aboard, don't bother to call."

"Jesus, what did you do! They'll kill us!" the captain gasped, staring
at the figure flopping on the floor.

"Cart poor old Skaw back to his boat," Retief said. "Tell him to pass
the word. No more illegal entry and search of Terrestrial vessels in
Terrestrial space."

"Hey," Chip said. "He's quit kicking."

The captain bent over Skaw, gingerly rolled him over. He leaned close
and sniffed.

"He's dead." The captain stared at Retief. "We're all dead men," he
said. "These Soetti got no mercy."

"They won't need it. Tell 'em to sheer off; their fun is over."

"They got no more emotions than a blue crab--"

"You bluff easily, Captain. Show a few guns as you hand the body back.
We know their secret now."

"What secret? I--"

"Don't be no dumber than you got to, Cap'n," Chip said. "Sweaties die
easy; that's the secret."

"Maybe you got a point," the captain said, looking at Retief. "All they
got's a three-man scout. It could work."

He went out, came back with two crewmen. They hauled the dead alien
gingerly into the hall.

"Maybe I can run a bluff on the Soetti," the captain said, looking back
from the door. "But I'll be back to see you later."

"You don't scare us, Cap'n," Chip said. "Him and Mr. Tony and all his
goons. You hit 'em where they live, that time. They're pals o' these
Sweaties. Runnin' some kind o' crooked racket."

"You'd better take the captain's advice, Chip. There's no point in your
getting involved in my problems."

"They'd of killed you before now, Mister, if they had any guts. That's
where we got it over these monkeys. They got no guts."

"They act scared, Chip. Scared men are killers."

"They don't scare me none." Chip picked up the tray. "I'll scout around
a little and see what's goin' on. If the Sweaties figure to do anything
about that Skaw feller they'll have to move fast; they won't try
nothin' close to port."

"Don't worry, Chip. I have reason to be pretty sure they won't do
anything to attract a lot of attention in this sector just now."

Chip looked at Retief. "You ain't no tourist, Mister. I know that much.
You didn't come out here for fun, did you?"

"That," Retief said, "would be a hard one to answer."


                                  IV

Retief awoke at a tap on his door.

"It's me, Mister. Chip."

"Come on in."

The chef entered the room, locking the door.

"You shoulda had that door locked." He stood by the door, listening,
then turned to Retief.

"You want to get to Jorgensen's perty bad, don't you, Mister?"

"That's right, Chip."

"Mr. Tony give the captain a real hard time about old Skaw. The
Sweaties didn't say nothin'. Didn't even act surprised, just took the
remains and pushed off. But Mr. Tony and that other crook they call
Marbles, they was fit to be tied. Took the cap'n in his cabin and
talked loud at him fer half a hour. Then the cap'n come out and give
some orders to the Mate."

Retief sat up and reached for a cigar.

"Mr. Tony and Skaw were pals, eh?"

"He hated Skaw's guts. But with him it was business. Mister, you got a
gun?"

"A 2mm needler. Why?"

"The orders cap'n give was to change course fer Alabaster. We're
by-passin' Jorgensen's Worlds. We'll feel the course change any minute."

Retief lit the cigar, reached under the mattress and took out a
short-barreled pistol. He dropped it in his pocket, looked at Chip.

"Maybe it was a good thought, at that. Which way to the Captain's
cabin?"

       *       *       *       *       *

"This is it," Chip said softly. "You want me to keep an eye on who
comes down the passage?"

Retief nodded, opened the door and stepped into the cabin. The captain
looked up from his desk, then jumped up.

"What do you think you're doing, busting in here?"

"I hear you're planning a course change, Captain."

"You've got damn big ears."

"I think we'd better call in at Jorgensen's."

"You do, huh?" the captain sat down. "I'm in command of this vessel,"
he said. "I'm changing course for Alabaster."

"I wouldn't find it convenient to go to Alabaster," Retief said. "So
just hold your course for Jorgensen's."

"Not bloody likely."

"Your use of the word 'bloody' is interesting, Captain. Don't try to
change course."

The captain reached for the mike on his desk, pressed the key.

"Power Section, this is the captain," he said. Retief reached across
the desk, gripped the captain's wrist.

"Tell the mate to hold his present course," he said softly.

"Let go my hand, buster," the captain snarled. Eyes on Retief's, he
eased a drawer open with his left hand, reached in. Retief kneed the
drawer. The captain yelped and dropped the mike.

"You busted it, you--"

"And one to go," Retief said. "Tell him."

"I'm an officer of the Merchant Service!"

"You're a cheapjack who's sold his bridge to a pack of back-alley
hoods."

"You can't put it over, hick."

"Tell him."

The captain groaned and picked up the mike. "Captain to Power Section,"
he said. "Hold your present course until you hear from me." He dropped
the mike and looked up at Retief.

"It's eighteen hours yet before we pick up Jorgensen Control. You going
to sit here and bend my arm the whole time?"

Retief released the captain's wrist and turned to the door.

"Chip, I'm locking the door. You circulate around, let me know what's
going on. Bring me a pot of coffee every so often. I'm sitting up with
a sick friend."

"Right, Mister. Keep an eye on that jasper; he's slippery."

"What are you going to do?" the captain demanded.

Retief settled himself in a chair.

"Instead of strangling you, as you deserve," he said, "I'm going to
stay here and help you hold your course for Jorgensen's Worlds."

The captain looked at Retief. He laughed, a short bark.

"Then I'll just stretch out and have a little nap, farmer. If you feel
like dozing off sometime during the next eighteen hours, don't mind me."

Retief took out the needler and put it on the desk before him.

"If anything happens that I don't like," he said, "I'll wake you up.
With this."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Why don't you let me spell you, Mister?" Chip said. "Four hours to go
yet. You're gonna hafta be on yer toes to handle the landing."

"I'll be all right, Chip. You get some sleep."

"Nope. Many's the time I stood four, five watches runnin', back when I
was yer age. I'll make another round."

Retief stood up, stretched his legs, paced the floor, stared at the
repeater instruments on the wall. Things had gone quietly so far, but
the landing would be another matter. The captain's absence from the
bridge during the highly complex maneuvering would be difficult to
explain....

The desk speaker crackled.

"Captain, Officer of the Watch here. Ain't it about time you was
getting up here with the orbit figures?"

Retief nudged the captain. He awoke with a start, sat up.

"Whazzat?" He looked wild-eyed at Retief.

"Watch officer wants orbit figures," Retief said, nodding toward the
speaker.

The captain rubbed his eyes, shook his head, picked up the mike. Retief
released the safety on the needler with an audible click.

"Watch Officer, I'll ... ah ... get some figures for you right away.
I'm ... ah ... busy right now."

"What the hell you talking about, busy?" the speaker blared. "You
ain't got them figures ready, you'll have a hell of a hot time getting
'em up in the next three minutes. You forgot your approach pattern or
something?"

"I guess I overlooked it," the Captain said, looking sideways at
Retief. "I've been busy."

"One for your side," Retief said. He reached for the captain.

"I'll make a deal," the captain squalled. "Your life for--"

Retief took aim and slammed a hard right to the captain's jaw. He
slumped to the floor.

Retief glanced around the room, yanked wires loose from a motile lamp,
trussed the man's hands and feet, stuffed his mouth with paper and
taped it.

Chip tapped at the door. Retief opened it and the chef stepped inside,
looking at the man on the floor.

"The jasper tried somethin', huh? Figured he would. What we goin' to do
now?"

"The captain forgot to set up an approach, Chip. He outfoxed me."

"If we overrun our approach pattern," Chip said, "we can't make orbit
at Jorgensen's on automatic. And a manual approach--"

"That's out. But there's another possibility."

Chip blinked. "Only one thing you could mean, Mister. But cuttin' out
in a lifeboat in deep space is no picnic."

"They're on the port side, aft, right?"

Chip nodded. "Hot damn," he said. "Who's got the 'tater salad?"

"We'd better tuck the skipper away out of sight."

"In the locker."

The two men carried the limp body to a deep storage chest, dumped it
in, closed the lid.

"He won't suffercate. Lid's a lousy fit."

Retief opened the door went into the corridor, Chip behind him.

"Shouldn't oughta be nobody around now," the chef said. "Everybody's
mannin' approach stations."

       *       *       *       *       *

At the D deck companionway, Retief stopped suddenly.

"Listen."

Chip cocked his head. "I don't hear nothin'," he whispered.

"Sounds like a sentry posted on the lifeboat deck," Retief said softly.

"Let's take him, Mister."

"I'll go down. Stand by, Chip."

Retief started down the narrow steps, half stair, half ladder. Halfway,
he paused to listen. There was a sound of slow footsteps, then silence.
Retief palmed the needler, went down the last steps quickly, emerged in
the dim light of a low ceilinged room. The stern of a five-man lifeboat
bulked before him.

"Freeze, you!" a cold voice snapped.

Retief dropped, rolled behind the shelter of the lifeboat as the whine
of a power pistol echoed off metal walls. A lunge, and he was under the
boat, on his feet. He jumped, caught the quick-access handle, hauled it
down. The outer port cycled open.

Feet scrambled at the bow of the boat. Retief whirled and fired. The
guard rounded into sight and fell headlong. Above, an alarm bell
jangled. Retief stepped on a stanchion, hauled himself into the open
port. A yell rang, then the clatter of feet on the stair.

"Don't shoot, Mister!" Chip shouted.

"All clear, Chip," Retief called.

"Hang on. I'm comin' with ya!"

Retief reached down, lifted the chef bodily through the port, slammed
the lever home. The outer door whooshed, clanged shut.

"Take number two, tie in! I'll blast her off," Chip said. "Been through
a hundred 'bandon ship drills...."

Retief watched as the chef flipped levers, pressed a fat red button.
The deck trembled under the lifeboat.

"Blew the bay doors," Chip said, smiling happily. "That'll cool them
jaspers down." He punched a green button.

"Look out, Jorgensen's!" With an ear-splitting blast, the stern rockets
fired, a sustained agony of pressure....

Abruptly, there was silence. Weightlessness. Contracting metal pinged
loudly. Chip's breathing rasped in the stillness.

"Pulled nine G's there for ten seconds," he gasped. "I gave her full
emergency kick-off."

"Any armament aboard our late host?"

"A popgun. Time they get their wind, we'll be clear. Now all we got to
do is set tight till we pick up a R and D from Svea Tower. Maybe four,
five hours."

"Chip, you're a wonder," Retief said. "This looks like a good time to
catch that nap."

"Me too," Chip said. "Mighty peaceful here, ain't it?"

There was a moment's silence.

"Durn!" Chip said softly.

Retief opened one eye. "Sorry you came, Chip?"

"Left my best carvin' knife jammed up 'tween Marbles' ribs," the chef
said. "Comes o' doin' things in a hurry."


                                   V

The blonde girl brushed her hair from her eyes and smiled at Retief.

"I'm the only one on duty," she said. "I'm Anne-Marie."

"It's important that I talk to someone in your government, Miss,"
Retief said.

The girl looked at Retief. "The men you want to see are Tove and Bo
Bergman. They will be at the lodge by night-fall."

"Then it looks like we go to the lodge," Retief said. "Lead on,
Anne-Marie."

"What about the boat?" Chip asked.

"I'll send someone to see to it tomorrow," the girl said.

"You're some gal," Chip said admiringly. "Dern near six feet, ain't ye?
And built, too, what I mean."

They stepped out of the door into a whipping wind.

"Let's go across to the equipment shed and get parkas for you,"
Anne-Marie said. "It will be cold on the slopes."

"Yeah," Chip said, shivering. "I've heard you folks don't believe in
ridin' ever time you want to go a few miles uphill in a blizzard."

"It will make us hungry," Anne-Marie said. "Then Chip will cook a
wonderful meal for us all."

Chip blinked. "Been cookin' too long," he muttered. "Didn't know it
showed on me that way."

Behind the sheds across the wind-scoured ramp abrupt peaks rose,
snow-blanketed. A faint trail led across white slopes, disappearing
into low clouds.

"The lodge is above the cloud layer," Anne-Marie said. "Up there the
sky is always clear."

It was three hours later, and the sun was burning the peaks red, when
Anne-Marie stopped, pulled off her woolen cap and waved at the vista
below.

"There you see it," she said. "Our valley."

"It's a mighty perty sight," Chip gasped. "Anything this tough to get a
look at ought to be."

Anne-Marie pointed. "There," she said. "The little red house by itself.
Do you see it, Retief? It is my father's home-acre."

Retief looked across the valley. Gaily painted houses nestled
together, a puddle of color in the bowl of the valley.

"I think you've led a good life there," he said.

Anne-Marie smiled brilliantly. "And this day, too, is good."

Relief smiled back. "Yes," he said. "This day is good."

"It'll be a durn sight better when I got my feet up to that big fire
you was talking about, Annie," Chip said.

They climbed on, crossed a shoulder of broken rock, reached the final
slope. Above, the lodge sprawled, a long low structure of heavy logs,
outlined against the deep-blue twilight sky. Smoke billowed from stone
chimneys at either end, and yellow light gleamed from the narrow
windows, reflected on the snow. Men and women stood in groups of three
or four, skis over their shoulders. Their voices and laughter rang in
the icy air.

Anne-Marie whistled shrilly. Someone waved.

"Come," she said. "Meet all my friends."

A man separated himself from the group, walked down the slope to meet
them.

"Anne-Marie," he called. "Welcome. It was a long day without you." He
came up to them, hugged Anne-Marie, smiled at Retief.

"Welcome," he said. "Come inside and be warm."

They crossed the trampled snow to the lodge and pushed through a heavy
door into a vast low-beamed hall, crowded with people, talking,
singing, some sitting at long plank tables, others ringed around an
eight-foot fireplace at the far side of the room. Anne-Marie led the
way to a bench near the fire. She made introductions and found a stool
to prop Chip's feet near the blaze.

Chip looked around.

"I never seen so many perty gals before," he said delightedly.

"Poor Chip," one girl said. "His feet are cold." She knelt to pull off
his boots. "Let me rub them," she said.

A brunette with blue eyes raked a chestnut from the fire, cracked it
and offered it to Retief. A tall man with arms like oak roots passed
heavy beer tankards to the two guests.

"Tell us about the places you've seen," someone called. Chip emerged
from a long pull at the mug, heaving a sigh.

"Well," he said. "I tell you I been in some places...."

Music started up, rising above the clamor.

"Come, Retief," Anne-Marie said. "Dance with me."

Retief looked at her. "My thought exactly," he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Chip put down his mug and sighed. "Derned if I ever felt right at home
so quick before," he said. "Just seems like these folks know all about
me." He scratched behind his right ear. "Annie must o' called 'em up
and told 'em our names an' all." He lowered his voice.

"They's some kind o' trouble in the air, though. Some o' the remarks
they passed sounds like they're lookin' to have some trouble with the
Sweaties. Don't seem to worry 'em none, though."

"Chip," Retief said, "how much do these people know about the Soetti?"

"Dunno," Chip said. "We useta touch down here, regler. But I always
jist set in my galley and worked on ship models or somethin'. I hear
the Sweaties been nosin' around here some, though."

Two girls came up to Chip. "Hey, I gotta go now, Mister," he said.
"These gals got a idea I oughta take a hand in the kitchen."

"Smart girls," Retief said. He turned as Anne-Marie came up.

"Bo Bergman and Tove are not back yet," she said. "They stayed to ski
after moonrise."

"That moon is something," Retief said. "Almost like day-light."

"They will come soon, now. Shall we go out to see the moonlight on the
snow?"

Outside, long black shadows fell like ink on silver. The top of the
cloud layer below glared white under the immense moon.

"Our sister world, Gota," Anne-Marie said. "Nearly as big as Svea. I
would like to visit it someday, although they say it's all stone and
ice."

"Anne-Marie," Retief said, "how many people live on Jorgensen's Worlds?"

"About fifteen million, most of us here on Svea. There are mining camps
and ice-fisheries on Gota. No one lives on Vasa and Skone, but there
are always a few hunters there."

"Have you ever fought a war?"

Anne-Marie turned to look at Retief.

"You are afraid for us, Retief," she said. "The Soetti will attack our
worlds, and we will fight them. We have fought before. These planets
were not friendly ones."

"I thought the Soetti attack would be a surprise to you," Retief said.
"Have you made any preparation for it?"

"We have ten thousand merchant ships. When the enemy comes, we will
meet them."

Retief frowned. "Are there any guns on this planet? Any missiles?"

Anne-Marie shook her head. "Bo Bergman and Tove have a plan of
deployment--"

"Deployment, hell! Against a modern assault force you need modern
armament."

"Look!" Anne-Marie touched Retief's arm. "They're coming now."

Two tall grizzled men came up the slope, skis over their shoulders.
Anne-Marie went forward to meet them, Retief at her side.

The two came up, embraced the girl, shook hands with Retief, put down
their skis.

"Welcome to Svea," Tove said. "Let's find a warm corner where we can
talk."

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief shook his head, smiling, as a tall girl with coppery hair
offered a vast slab of venison.

"I've caught up," he said, "for every hungry day I ever lived."

Bo Bergman poured Retief's beer mug full.

"Our captains are the best in space," he said. "Our population is
concentrated in half a hundred small cities all across the planet. We
know where the Soetti must strike us. We will ram their major vessels
with unmanned ships. On the ground, we will hunt them down with
small-arms."

"An assembly line turning out penetration missiles would have been more
to the point."

"Yes," Bo Bergman said. "If we had known."

"How long have you known the Soetti were planning to hit you?"

Tove raised his eyebrows.

"Since this afternoon," he said.

"How did you find out about it? That information is supposed in some
quarters to be a well-guarded secret."

"Secret?" Tove said.

Chip pulled at Retief's arm.

"Mister," he said in Retief's ear. "Come here a minute."

Retief looked at Anne-Marie, across at Tove and Bo Bergman. He rubbed
the side of his face with his hand.

"Excuse me," he said. He followed Chip to one side of the room.

"Listen!" Chip said. "Maybe I'm goin' bats, but I'll swear there's
somethin' funny here. I'm back there mixin' a sauce knowed only to
me and the devil and I be dog if them gals don't pass me ever dang
spice I need, without me sayin' a word. Come to put my souffle in the
oven--she's already set, right on the button at 350. An' just now I'm
settin' lookin' at one of 'em bendin' over a tub o' apples--snazzy
little brunette name of Leila--derned if she don't turn around and
say--" Chip gulped. "Never mind. Point is...." His voice nearly
faltered. "It's almost like these folks was readin' my mind!"

Retief patted Chip on the shoulder.

"Don't worry about your sanity, Old Timer," he said. "That's exactly
what they're doing."


                                  VI

"We've never tried to make a secret of it," Tove said. "But we haven't
advertised it, either."

"It really isn't much," Bo Bergman said. "Not a mutant ability, our
scholars say. Rather, it's a skill we've stumbled on, a closer empathy.
We are few, and far from the old home world. We've had to learn to
break down the walls we had built around our minds."

"Can you read the Soetti?" Retief asked.

Tove shook his head. "They're very different from us. It's painful to
touch their minds. We can only sense the sub-vocalized thoughts of a
human mind."

"We've seen very few of the Soetti," Bo Bergman said. "Their ships have
landed and taken on stores. They say little to us, but we've felt their
contempt. They envy us our worlds. They come from a cold land."

"Anne-Marie says you have a plan of defense," Retief said. "A sort of
suicide squadron idea, followed by guerrilla warfare."

"It's the best we can devise, Retief. If there aren't too many of them,
it might work."

Retief shook his head. "It might delay matters--but not much."

"Perhaps. But our remote control equipment is excellent. And we have
plenty of ships, albeit unarmed. And our people know how to live on the
slopes--and how to shoot."

"There are too many of them, Tove," Retief said. "They breed like flies
and, according to some sources, they mature in a matter of months.
They've been feeling their way into the sector for years now. Set up
outposts on a thousand or so minor planets--cold ones, the kind they
like. They want your worlds because they need living space."

"At least, your warning makes it possible for us to muster some show of
force, Retief," Bo Bergman said. "That is better than death by ambush."

"Retief must not be trapped here," Anne-Marie said. "His small boat is
useless now. He must have a ship."

"Of course," Tove said. "And--"

"My mission here--" Retief said.

"Retief," a voice called. "A message for you. The operator has phoned
up a gram."

Retief unfolded the slip of paper. It was short, in verbal code, and
signed by Magnan.

"You are recalled herewith," he read. "Assignment canceled. Agreement
concluded with Soetti relinquishing all claims so-called Jorgensen
system. Utmost importance that under no repeat no circumstances
classified intelligence regarding Soetti be divulged to locals. Advise
you depart instanter. Soetti occupation imminent."

Retief looked thoughtfully at the scrap of paper, then crumpled it and
dropped it on the floor. He turned to Bo Bergman, took a tiny reel of
tape from his pocket.

"This contains information," he said. "The Soetti attack plan,
a defensive plan instructions for the conversion of a standard
anti-acceleration unit into a potent weapon. If you have a screen
handy, we'd better get started. We have about seventy-two hours."

       *       *       *       *       *

In the Briefing Room at Svea Tower, Tove snapped off the projector.

"Our plan would have been worthless against that," he said. "We assumed
they'd make their strike from a standard in-line formation. This scheme
of hitting all our settlements simultaneously, in a random order from
all points--we'd have been helpless."

"It's perfect for this defensive plan," Bo Bergman said. "Assuming this
antiac trick works."

"It works," Retief said. "I hope you've got plenty of heavy power lead
available."

"We export copper," Tove said.

"We'll assign about two hundred vessels to each settlement. Linked up,
they should throw up quite a field."

"It ought to be effective up to about fifteen miles, I'd estimate,"
Tove said. "If it works as it's supposed to."

A red light flashed on the communications panel. Tove went to it,
flipped a key.

"Tower, Tove here," he said.

"I've got a ship on the scope, Tove," a voice said. "There's nothing
scheduled. ACI 228 by-passed at 1600...."

"Just one?"

"A lone ship, coming in on a bearing of 291/456/653. On manual, I'd
say."

"How does this track key in with the idea of ACI 228 making a manual
correction for a missed automatic approach?" Retief asked.

Tove talked to the tower, got a reply.

"That's it," he said.

"How long before he touches down?"

Tove glanced at a lighted chart. "Perhaps eight minutes."

"Any guns here?"

Tove shook his head.

"If that's old 228, she ain't got but the one 50mm rifle," Chip said.
"She cain't figure on jumpin' the whole planet."

"Hard to say what she figures on," Retief said. "Mr. Tony will be in a
mood for drastic measures."

"I wonder what kind o' deal the skunks got with the Sweaties," Chip
said. "Prob'ly he gits to scavenge, after the Sweaties kill off the
Jorgensens."

"He's upset about our leaving him without saying good-bye, Chip,"
Retief said. "And you left the door hanging open, too."

Chip cackled. "Old Mr. Tony don't look so good to the Sweaties now,
hey, Mister?"

Retief turned to Bo Bergman.

"Chip's right," he said. "A Soetti died on the ship, and a tourist got
through the cordon. Tony's out to redeem himself."

"He's on final now," the tower operator said. "Still no contact."

"We'll know soon enough what he has in mind," Tove said.

"Let's take a look."

Outside, the four men watched the point of fire grow, evolve into a
ship ponderously settling to rest. The drive faded and cut; silence
fell.

       *       *       *       *       *

Inside the Briefing Room, the speaker called out. Bo Bergman went
inside, talked to the tower, motioned to the others.

"--over to you," the speaker was saying. There was a crackling moment
of silence; then another voice.

"--illegal entry. Send the two of them out. I'll see to it they're
dealt with."

Tove flipped a key. "Switch me direct to the ship," he said.

"Right."

"You on ACI 228," Tove said. "Who are you?"

"What's that to you?"

"You weren't cleared to berth here. Do you have an emergency aboard?"

"Never mind that, you," the speaker rumbled. "I tracked the bird in.
I got the lifeboat on the screen now. They haven't gone far in nine
hours. Let's have 'em."

"You're wasting your time," Tove said.

There was a momentary silence.

"You think so, hah?" the speaker blared. "I'll put it to you straight.
I see two guys on their way out in one minute, or I open up."

"He's bluffin'," Chip said. "The popgun won't bear on us."

"Take a look out the window," Retief said.

In the white glare of the moonlight, a loading cover swung open at the
stern of the ship, dropped down and formed a sloping ramp. A squat
and massive shape appeared in the opening, trundled down onto the
snow-swept tarmac.

Chip whistled. "I told you the Captain was slippery," he muttered.
"Where the devil'd he git that at?"

"What is it?" Tove asked.

"A tank," Retief said. "A museum piece, by the look of it."

"I'll say," Chip said. "That's a Bolo _Resartus_, Model M. Built mebbe
two hunderd years ago in Concordiat times. Packs a wallop, too, I'll
tell ye."

The tank wheeled, brought a gun muzzle to bear in the base of the tower.

"Send 'em out," the speaker growled. "Or I blast 'em out."

"One round in here, and I've had a wasted trip," Retief said. "I'd
better go out."

"Wait a minute, Mister," Chip said. "I got the glimmerin's of a idear."

"I'll stall them," Tove said. He keyed the mike.

"ACI 228, what's your authority for this demand?"

"I know that machine," Chip said. "My hobby, old-time fightin'
machines. Built a model of a _Resartus_ once, inch to the foot. A
beauty. Now, lessee...."


                                  VII

The icy wind blew snow crystals stingingly against Retief's face.

"Keep your hands in your pockets, Chip," he said. "Numb hands won't
hack the program."

"Yeah." Chip looked across at the tank. "Useta think that was a perty
thing, that _Resartus_," he said. "Looks mean, now."

"You're getting the target's-eye view," Retief said. "Sorry you had to
get mixed up in this, Old Timer."

"Mixed myself in. Durn good thing, too." Chip sighed. "I like these
folks," he said. "Them boys didn't like lettin' us come out here, but
I'll give 'em credit. They seen it had to be this way, and they didn't
set to moanin' about it."

"They're tough people, Chip."

"Funny how it sneaks up on you, ain't it, Mister? Few minutes ago we
was eatin' high on the hog. Now we're right close to bein' dead men."

"They want us alive, Chip."

"It'll be a hairy deal, Mister," Chip said. "But t'hell with it. If it
works, it works."

"That's the spirit."

"I hope I got them fields o' fire right--"

"Don't worry. I'll bet a barrel of beer we make it."

"We'll find out in about ten seconds," Chip said.

As they reached the tank, the two men broke stride and jumped. Retief
leaped for the gun barrel, swung up astride it, ripped off the
fur-lined leather cap he wore and, leaning forward, jammed it into the
bore of the cannon. The chef sprang for a perch above the fore scanner
antenna. With an angry _whuff!_ anti-personnel charges slammed from
apertures low on the sides of the vehicle. Retief swung around, pulled
himself up on the hull.

"Okay, Mister," Chip called. "I'm going under." He slipped down the
front of the tank, disappeared between the treads. Retief clambered
up, took a position behind the turret, lay flat as it whirled angrily,
sonar eyes searching for its tormentors. The vehicle shuddered, backed,
stopped, moved forward, pivoted.

Chip reappeared at the front of the tank.

"It's stuck," he called. He stopped to breathe hard, clung as the
machine lurched forward, spun to the right, stopped, rocking slightly.

"Take over here," Retief said. He crawled forward, watched as the chef
pulled himself up, slipped down past him, feeling for the footholds
between the treads. He reached the ground, dropped on his back,
hitched himself under the dark belly of the tank. He groped, found the
handholds, probed with a foot for the tread-jack lever.

The tank rumbled, backed quickly, turned left and right in a dizzying
sine curve. Retief clung grimly, inches from the clashing treads.

The machine ground to a halt. Retief found the lever, braced his back,
pushed. The lever seemed to give minutely. He set himself again, put
both feet against the frozen bar and heaved.

With a dry rasp, it slid back. Immediately two heavy rods extended
themselves, moved down to touch the pavement, grated. The left track
creaked as the weight went off it. Suddenly the tank's drive raced,
and Retief grabbed for a hold as the right tread clashed, heaved the
fifty-ton machine forward. The jacks screeched as they scored the
tarmac, then bit in. The tank pivoted, chips of pavement flying. The
jacks extended, lifted the clattering left track clear of the surface
as the tank spun like a hamstrung buffalo.

The tank stopped, sat silent, canted now on the extended jacks.
Retief emerged from under the machine, jumped, pulled himself above
the anti-personnel apertures as another charge rocked the tank. He
clambered to the turret, crouched beside Chip. They waited, watching
the entry hatch.

Five minutes passed.

"I'll bet Old Tony's givin' the chauffeur hell," Chip said.

The hatch cycled open. A head came cautiously into view in time to see
the needler in Retief's hand.

"Come on out," Retief said.

The head dropped. Chip snaked forward to ram a short section of steel
rod under the hatch near the hinge. The hatch began to cycle shut,
groaned, stopped. There was a sound of metal failing, and the hatch
popped open.

Retief half rose, aimed the needler. The walls of the tank rang as the
metal splinters ricocheted inside.

"That's one keg o' beer I owe you, Mister," Chip said. "Now let's git
outa here before the ship lifts and fries us."

       *       *       *       *       *

"The biggest problem the Jorgensen's people will have is
decontaminating the wreckage," Retief said.

Magnan leaned forward. "Amazing," he said. "They just keep coming, did
they? Had they no inter-ship communication?"

"They had their orders," Retief said. "And their attack plan. They
followed it."

"What a spectacle," Magnan said. "Over a thousand ships, plunging out
of control one by one as they entered the stress-field."

"Not much of a spectacle," Retief said. "You couldn't see them. Too far
away. They all crashed back in the mountains."

"Oh." Magnan's face fell. "But it's as well they did. The bacterial
bombs--"

"Too cold for bacteria. They won't spread."

"Nor will the Soetti," Magnan said smugly, "thanks to the promptness
with which I acted in dispatching you with the requisite data." He
looked narrowly at Retief. "By the way, you're sure no ... ah ...
message reached you after your arrival?"

"I got something," Retief said, looking Magnan in the eye. "It must
have been a garbled transmission. It didn't make sense."

Magnan coughed, shuffled papers. "This information you've reported," he
said hurriedly. "This rather fantastic story that the Soetti originated
in the Cloud, that they're seeking a foothold in the main Galaxy
because they've literally eaten themselves out of subsistence--how did
you get it? The one or two Soetti we attempted to question, ah...."
Magnan coughed again. "There was an accident," he finished. "We got
nothing from them."

"The Jorgensens have a rather special method of interrogating
prisoners," Retief said. "They took one from a wreck, still alive but
unconscious. They managed to get the story from him. He died of it."

"It's immaterial, actually," Magnan said. "Since the Soetti violated
their treaty with us the day after it was signed. Had no intention of
fair play. Far from evacuating the agreed areas, they had actually
occupied half a dozen additional minor bodies in the Whate system."

Retief clucked sympathetically.

"You don't know who to trust, these days," he said.

Magnan looked at him coldly.

"Spare me your sarcasm, Mr. Retief," he said. He picked up a folder
from his desk, opened it. "By the way, I have another little task for
you, Retief. We haven't had a comprehensive wild-life census report
from Brimstone lately--"

"Sorry," Retief said. "I'll be tied up. I'm taking a month off. Maybe
more."

"What's that?" Magnan's head came up. "You seem to forget--"

"I'm trying, Mr. Councillor," Retief said. "Good-by now." He reached
out and flipped the key. Magnan's face faded from the screen. Retief
stood up.

"Chip," he said, "we'll crack that keg when I get back." He turned to
Anne-Marie.

"How long," he said, "do you think it will take you to teach me to ski
by moonlight?"





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