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´╗┐Title: Retief of the Red-Tape Mountain
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 "Retief of the Red-Tape Mountain" ***

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                    RETIEF OF THE RED-TAPE MOUNTAIN

                            by KEITH LAUMER

                 Retief knew the importance of sealed

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                Worlds of If Science Fiction, May 1962.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


"It's true," Consul Passwyn said, "I requested assignment as principal
officer at a small post. But I had in mind one of those charming resort
worlds, with only an occasional visa problem, or perhaps a distressed
spaceman or two a year. Instead, I'm zoo-keeper to these confounded
settlers. And not for one world, mind you, but eight!" He stared glumly
at Vice-Consul Retief.

"Still," Retief said, "it gives an opportunity to travel--"

"Travel!" the consul barked. "I hate travel. Here in this backwater
system particularly--" He paused, blinked at Retief and cleared his
throat. "Not that a bit of travel isn't an excellent thing for a
junior officer. Marvelous experience."

He turned to the wall-screen and pressed a button. A system triagram
appeared: eight luminous green dots arranged around a larger disk
representing the primary. He picked up a pointer, indicating the
innermost planet.

"The situation on Adobe is nearing crisis. The confounded settlers--a
mere handful of them--have managed, as usual, to stir up trouble with
an intelligent indigenous life form, the Jaq. I can't think why they
bother, merely for a few oases among the endless deserts. However I
have, at last, received authorization from Sector Headquarters to
take certain action." He swung back to face Retief. "I'm sending you
in to handle the situation, Retief--under sealed orders." He picked
up a fat buff envelope. "A pity they didn't see fit to order the
Terrestrial settlers out weeks ago, as I suggested. Now it is too late.
I'm expected to produce a miracle--a rapprochement between Terrestrial
and Adoban and a division of territory. It's idiotic. However, failure
would look very bad in my record, so I shall expect results."

He passed the buff envelope across to Retief.

"I understood that Adobe was uninhabited," Retief said, "until the
Terrestrial settlers arrived."

"Apparently, that was an erroneous impression." Passwyn fixed Retief
with a watery eye. "You'll follow your instructions to the letter. In a
delicate situation such as this, there must be no impulsive, impromptu
element introduced. This approach has been worked out in detail at
Sector. You need merely implement it. Is that entirely clear?"

"Has anyone at Headquarters ever visited Adobe?"

"Of course not. They all hate travel. If there are no other questions,
you'd best be on your way. The mail run departs the dome in less than
an hour."

"What's this native life form like?" Retief asked, getting to his feet.

"When you get back," said Passwyn, "you tell me."

       *       *       *       *       *

The mail pilot, a leathery veteran with quarter-inch whiskers, spat
toward a stained corner of the compartment, leaned close to the screen.

"They's shootin' goin' on down there," he said. "See them white puffs
over the edge of the desert?"

"I'm supposed to be preventing the war," said Retief. "It looks like
I'm a little late."

The pilot's head snapped around. "War?" he yelped. "Nobody told me they
was a war goin' on on 'Dobe. If that's what that is, I'm gettin' out of
here."

"Hold on," said Retief. "I've got to get down. They won't shoot at you."

"They shore won't, sonny. I ain't givin' 'em the chance." He started
punching keys on the console. Retief reached out, caught his wrist.

"Maybe you didn't hear me. I said I've got to get down."

The pilot plunged against the restraint, swung a punch that Retief
blocked casually. "Are you nuts?" the pilot screeched. "They's plenty
shootin' goin' on fer me to see it fifty miles out."

"The mail must go through, you know."

"Okay! You're so dead set on gettin' killed, you take the skiff. I'll
tell 'em to pick up the remains next trip."

"You're a pal. I'll take your offer."

The pilot jumped to the lifeboat hatch and cycled it open. "Get in.
We're closin' fast. Them birds might take it into their heads to lob
one this way...."

Retief crawled into the narrow cockpit of the skiff, glanced over the
controls. The pilot ducked out of sight, came back, handed Retief a
heavy old-fashioned power pistol. "Long as you're goin' in, might as
well take this."

"Thanks." Retief shoved the pistol in his belt. "I hope you're wrong."

"I'll see they pick you up when the shootin's over--one way or another."

The hatch clanked shut. A moment later there was a jar as the skiff
dropped away, followed by heavy buffeting in the backwash from the
departing mail boat. Retief watched the tiny screen, hands on the
manual controls. He was dropping rapidly: forty miles, thirty-nine....

A crimson blip showed on the screen, moving out.

Retief felt sweat pop out on his forehead. The red blip meant heavy
radiation from a warhead. Somebody was playing around with an outlawed
but by no means unheard of fission weapon. But maybe it was just on a
high trajectory and had no connection with the skiff....

Retief altered course to the south. The blip followed.

He checked instrument readings, gripped the controls, watching. This
was going to be tricky. The missile bored closer. At five miles Retief
threw the light skiff into maximum acceleration, straight toward the
oncoming bomb. Crushed back in the padded seat, he watched the screen,
correcting course minutely. The proximity fuse should be set for no
more than 1000 yards.

At a combined speed of two miles per second, the skiff flashed past
the missile, and Retief was slammed violently against the restraining
harness in the concussion of the explosion ... a mile astern, and
harmless.

Then the planetary surface was rushing up with frightening speed.
Retief shook his head, kicked in the emergency retro-drive. Points
of light arced up from the planet face below. If they were ordinary
chemical warheads the skiff's meteor screens should handle them. The
screen flashed brilliant white, then went dark. The skiff flipped on
its back. Smoke filled the tiny compartment. There was a series of
shocks, a final bone-shaking concussion, then stillness, broken by the
ping of hot metal contracting.

       *       *       *       *       *

Coughing, Retief disengaged himself from the shock-webbing. He beat
out sparks in his lap, groped underfoot for the hatch and wrenched it
open. A wave of hot jungle air struck him. He lowered himself to a bed
of shattered foliage, got to his feet ... and dropped flat as a bullet
whined past his ear.

He lay listening. Stealthy movements were audible from the left.

He inched his way to the shelter of a broad-boled dwarf tree. Somewhere
a song lizard burbled. Whining insects circled, scented alien life,
buzzed off. There was another rustle of foliage from the underbrush
five yards away. A bush quivered, then a low bough dipped.

Retief edged back around the trunk, eased down behind a fallen log.
A stocky man in grimy leather shirt and shorts appeared, moving
cautiously, a pistol in his hand.

As he passed, Retief rose, leaped the log and tackled him.

They went down together. The stranger gave one short yell, then
struggled in silence. Retief flipped him onto his back, raised a fist--

"Hey!" the settler yelled. "You're as human as I am!"

"Maybe I'll look better after a shave," said Retief. "What's the idea
of shooting at me?"

"Lemme up. My name's Potter. Sorry 'bout that. I figured it was a
Flap-jack boat; looks just like 'em. I took a shot when I saw something
move. Didn't know it was a Terrestrial. Who are you? What you doin'
here? We're pretty close to the edge of the oases. That's Flap-jack
country over there." He waved a hand toward the north, where the desert
lay.

"I'm glad you're a poor shot. That missile was too close for comfort."

"Missile, eh? Must be Flap-jack artillery. We got nothing like that."

"I heard there was a full-fledged war brewing," said Retief. "I didn't
expect--"

"Good!" Potter said. "We figured a few of you boys from Ivory would be
joining up when you heard. You are from Ivory?"

"Yes. I'm--"

"Hey, you must be Lemuel's cousin. Good night! I pretty near made a bad
mistake. Lemuel's a tough man to explain something to."

"I'm--"

"Keep your head down. These damn Flap-jacks have got some wicked hand
weapons. Come on...." He moved off silently on all fours. Retief
followed. They crossed two hundred yards of rough country before Potter
got to his feet, took out a soggy bandana and mopped his face.

"You move good for a city man. I thought you folks on Ivory just sat
under those domes and read dials. But I guess bein' Lemuel's cousin you
was raised different."

"As a matter of fact--"

"Have to get you some real clothes, though. Those city duds don't stand
up on 'Dobe."

Retief looked down at the charred, torn and sweat-soaked powder-blue
blazer and slacks.

"This outfit seemed pretty rough-and-ready back home," he said. "But I
guess leather has its points."

"Let's get on back to camp. We'll just about make it by sundown.
And, look. Don't say anything to Lemuel about me thinking you were a
Flap-jack."

"I won't, but--"

Potter was on his way, loping off up a gentle slope. Retief pulled off
the sodden blazer, dropped it over a bush, added his string tie and
followed Potter.


                                  II

"We're damn glad you're here, mister," said a fat man with two
revolvers belted across his paunch. "We can use every hand. We're in
bad shape. We ran into the Flap-jacks three months ago and we haven't
made a smart move since. First, we thought they were a native form we
hadn't run into before. Fact is, one of the boys shot one, thinkin' it
was fair game. I guess that was the start of it." He stirred the fire,
added a stick.

"And then a bunch of 'em hit Swazey's farm here," Potter said. "Killed
two of his cattle, and pulled back."

"I figure they thought the cows were people," said Swazey. "They were
out for revenge."

"How could anybody think a cow was folks?" another man put in. "They
don't look nothin' like--"

"Don't be so dumb, Bert," said Swazey. "They'd never seen Terries
before. They know better now."

Bert chuckled. "Sure do. We showed 'em the next time, didn't we,
Potter? Got four."

"They walked right up to my place a couple days after the first time,"
Swazey said. "We were ready for 'em. Peppered 'em good. They cut and
run."

"Flopped, you mean. Ugliest lookin' critters you ever saw. Look just
like a old piece of dirty blanket humpin' around."

"It's been goin' on this way ever since. They raid and then we raid.
But lately they've been bringing some big stuff into it. They've got
some kind of pint-sized airships and automatic rifles. We've lost four
men now and a dozen more in the freezer, waiting for the med ship. We
can't afford it. The colony's got less than three hundred able-bodied
men."

"But we're hanging onto our farms," said Potter. "All these oases are
old sea-beds--a mile deep, solid topsoil. And there's a couple of
hundred others we haven't touched yet. The Flap-jacks won't get 'em
while there's a man alive."

"The whole system needs the food we can raise," Bert said. "These farms
we're trying to start won't be enough but they'll help."

"We been yellin' for help to the CDT, over on Ivory," said Potter. "But
you know these Embassy stooges."

"We heard they were sending some kind of bureaucrat in here to tell
us to get out and give the oases to the Flap-jacks," said Swazey. He
tightened his mouth. "We're waitin' for him...."

"Meanwhile we got reinforcements comin' up, eh, boys?" Bert winked at
Retief. "We put out the word back home. We all got relatives on Ivory
and Verde."

"Shut up, you damn fool!" a deep voice grated.

"Lemuel!" Potter said. "Nobody else could sneak up on us like that."

"If I'd a been a Flap-jack; I'd of et you alive," the newcomer said,
moving into the ring of fire, a tall, broad-faced man in grimy leather.
He eyed Retief.

"Who's that?"

"What do ya mean?" Potter spoke in the silence. "He's your cousin...."

"He ain't no cousin of mine," Lemuel said slowly. He stepped to Retief.

"Who you spyin' for, stranger?" he rasped.

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief got to his feet. "I think I should explain--"

A short-nosed automatic appeared in Lemuel's hand, a clashing note
against his fringed buckskins.

"Skip the talk. I know a fink when I see one."

"Just for a change, I'd like to finish a sentence," said Retief. "And I
suggest you put your courage back in your pocket before it bites you."

"You talk too damned fancy to suit me."

"Maybe. But I'm talking to suit me. Now, for the last time, put it
away."

Lemuel stared at Retief. "You givin' me orders...?"

Retief's left fist shot out, smacked Lemuel's face dead center. He
stumbled back, blood starting from his nose; the pistol fired into the
dirt as he dropped it. He caught himself, jumped for Retief ... and met
a straight right that snapped him onto his back: out cold.

"Wow!" said Potter. "The stranger took Lem ... in two punches!"

"One," said Swazey. "That first one was just a love tap."

Bert froze. "Hark, boys," he whispered. In the sudden silence a night
lizard called. Retief strained, heard nothing. He narrowed his eyes,
peered past the fire--

With a swift lunge he seized up the bucket of drinking water, dashed it
over the fire, threw himself flat. He heard the others hit the dirt a
split second behind him.

"You move fast for a city man," breathed Swazey beside him. "You see
pretty good too. We'll split and take 'em from two sides. You and Bert
from the left, me and Potter from the right."

"No," said Retief. "You wait here. I'm going out alone."

"What's the idea...?"

"Later. Sit tight and keep your eyes open." Retief took a bearing on a
treetop faintly visible against the sky and started forward.

       *       *       *       *       *

Five minutes' stealthy progress brought him to a slight rise of ground.
With infinite caution he raised himself, risking a glance over an
out-cropping of rock.

The stunted trees ended just ahead. Beyond, he could make out the dim
contour of rolling desert. Flap-jack country. He got to his feet,
clambered over the stone--still hot after a day of tropical heat--and
moved forward twenty yards. Around him he saw nothing but drifted sand,
palely visible in the starlight, and the occasional shadow of jutting
shale slabs. Behind him the jungle was still.

He sat down on the ground to wait.

It was ten minutes before a movement caught his eye. Something had
separated itself from a dark mass of stone, glided across a few yards
of open ground to another shelter. Retief watched. Minutes passed. The
shape moved again, slipped into a shadow ten feet distant. Retief felt
the butt of the power pistol with his elbow. His guess had better be
right this time....

There was a sudden rasp, like leather against concrete, and a flurry of
sand as the Flap-jack charged.

Retief rolled aside, then lunged, threw his weight on the flopping
Flap-jack--a yard square, three inches thick at the center and all
muscle. The ray-like creature heaved up, curled backward, its edge
rippling, to stand on the flattened rim of its encircling sphincter.
It scrabbled with prehensile fringe-tentacles for a grip on Retief's
shoulders. He wrapped his arms around the alien and struggled to his
feet. The thing was heavy. A hundred pounds at least. Fighting as it
was, it seemed more like five hundred.

The Flap-jack reversed its tactics, went limp. Retief grabbed, felt a
thumb slip into an orifice--

The alien went wild. Retief hung on, dug the thumb in deeper.

"Sorry, fellow," he muttered between clenched teeth. "Eye-gouging isn't
gentlemanly, but it's effective...."

The Flap-jack fell still, only its fringes rippling slowly. Retief
relaxed the pressure of his thumb; the alien gave a tentative jerk; the
thumb dug in.

The alien went limp again, waiting.

"Now we understand each other," said Retief. "Take me to your leader."

       *       *       *       *       *

Twenty minutes' walk into the desert brought Retief to a low rampart
of thorn branches: the Flap-jacks' outer defensive line against Terry
forays. It would be as good a place as any to wait for the move by the
Flap-jacks. He sat down and eased the weight of his captive off his
back, but kept a firm thumb in place. If his analysis of the situation
was correct, a Flap-jack picket should be along before too long....

A penetrating beam of red light struck Retief in the face, blinked off.
He got to his feet. The captive Flap-jack rippled its fringe in an
agitated way. Retief tensed his thumb in the eye-socket.

"Sit tight," he said. "Don't try to do anything hasty...." His remarks
were falling on deaf ears--or no ears at all--but the thumb spoke as
loudly as words.

There was a slither of sand. Another. He became aware of a ring of
presences drawing closer.

Retief tightened his grip on the alien. He could see a dark shape now,
looming up almost to his own six-three. It looked like the Flap-jacks
came in all sizes.

A low rumble sounded, like a deep-throated growl. It strummed on, faded
out. Retief cocked his head, frowning.

"Try it two octaves higher," he said.

"Awwrrp! Sorry. Is that better?" a clear voice came from the darkness.

"That's fine," Retief said. "I'm here to arrange a prisoner exchange."

"Prisoners? But we have no prisoners."

"Sure you have. Me. Is it a deal?"

"Ah, yes, of course. Quite equitable. What guarantees do you require?"

"The word of a gentleman is sufficient." Retief released the alien. It
flopped once, disappeared into the darkness.

"If you'd care to accompany me to our headquarters," the voice said,
"we can discuss our mutual concerns in comfort."

"Delighted."

Red lights blinked briefly. Retief glimpsed a gap in the thorny
barrier, stepped through it. He followed dim shapes across warm sand to
a low cave-like entry, faintly lit with a reddish glow.

"I must apologize for the awkward design of our comfort-dome," said the
voice. "Had we known we would be honored by a visit--"

"Think nothing of it," Retief said. "We diplomats are trained to crawl."

Inside, with knees bent and head ducked under the five-foot ceiling,
Retief looked around at the walls of pink-toned nacre, a floor like
burgundy-colored glass spread with silken rugs and a low table of
polished red granite that stretched down the center of the spacious
room, set out with silver dishes and rose-crystal drinking-tubes.


                                  III

"Let me congratulate you," the voice said.

Retief turned. An immense Flap-jack, hung with crimson trappings,
rippled at his side. The voice issued from a disk strapped to its back.
"You fight well. I think we will find in each other worthy adversaries."

"Thanks. I'm sure the test would be interesting, but I'm hoping we can
avoid it."

"Avoid it?" Retief heard a low humming coming from the speaker in the
silence. "Well, let us dine," the mighty Flap-jack said at last. "We
can resolve these matters later. I am called Hoshick of the Mosaic of
the Two Dawns."

"I'm Retief." Hoshick waited expectantly, "... of the Mountain of Red
Tape," Retief added.

"Take place, Retief," said Hoshick. "I hope you won't find our rude
couches uncomfortable." Two other large Flap-jacks came into the room,
communed silently with Hoshick. "Pray forgive our lack of translating
devices," he said to Retief. "Permit me to introduce my colleagues...."

A small Flap-jack rippled the chamber bearing on its back a silver tray
laden with aromatic food. The waiter served the four diners, filled the
drinking tubes with yellow wine. It smelled good.

"I trust you'll find these dishes palatable," said Hoshick. "Our
metabolisms are much alike, I believe." Retief tried the food. It had a
delicious nut-like flavor. The wine was indistinguishable from Chateau
d'Yquem.

"It was an unexpected pleasure to encounter your party here,"
said Hoshick. "I confess at first we took you for an indigenous
earth-grubbing form, but we were soon disabused of that notion." He
raised a tube, manipulating it deftly with his fringe tentacles. Retief
returned the salute and drank.

"Of course," Hoshick continued, "as soon as we realized that you were
sportsmen like ourselves, we attempted to make amends by providing a
bit of activity for you. We've ordered out our heavier equipment and a
few trained skirmishers and soon we'll be able to give you an adequate
show. Or so I hope."

"Additional skirmishers?" said Retief. "How many, if you don't mind my
asking?"

"For the moment, perhaps only a few hundred. There-after ... well,
I'm sure we can arrange that between us. Personally I would prefer a
contest of limited scope. No nuclear or radiation-effect weapons. Such
a bore, screening the spawn for deviations. Though I confess we've come
upon some remarkably useful sports. The rangerform such as you made
captive, for example. Simple-minded, of course, but a fantastically
keen tracker."

"Oh, by all means," Retief said. "No atomics. As you pointed out,
spawn-sorting is a nuisance, and then too, it's wasteful of troops."

"Ah, well, they are after all expendable. But we agree: no atomics.
Have you tried the ground-gwack eggs? Rather a specialty of my
Mosaic...."

"Delicious," said Retief. "I wonder. Have you considered eliminating
weapons altogether?"

       *       *       *       *       *

A scratchy sound issued from the disk. "Pardon my laughter," Hoshick
said, "but surely you jest?"

"As a matter of fact," said Retief, "we ourselves seldom use weapons."

"I seem to recall that our first contact of skirmishforms involved the
use of a weapon by one of your units."

"My apologies," said Retief. "The--ah--the skirmishform failed to
recognize that he was dealing with a sportsman."

"Still, now that we have commenced so merrily with weapons...." Hoshick
signaled and the servant refilled tubes.

"There is an aspect I haven't yet mentioned," Retief went on. "I hope
you won't take this personally, but the fact is, our skirmishforms
think of weapons as something one employs only in dealing with certain
specific life-forms."

"Oh? Curious. What forms are those?"

"Vermin. Or 'varmints' as some call them. Deadly antagonists, but
lacking in caste. I don't want our skirmishforms thinking of such
worthy adversaries as yourself as varmints."

"Dear me! I hadn't realized, of course. Most considerate of you to
point it out." Hoshick clucked in dismay. "I see that skirmishforms are
much the same among you as with us: lacking in perception." He laughed
scratchily. "Imagine considering us as--what was the word?--varmints."

"Which brings us to the crux of the matter. You see, we're up against
a serious problem with regard to skirmishforms. A low birth rate.
Therefore we've reluctantly taken to substitutes for the mass actions
so dear to the heart of the sportsman. We've attempted to put an end to
these contests altogether...."

Hoshick coughed explosively, sending a spray of wine into the air.
"What are you saying?" he gasped. "Are you proposing that Hoshick of
the Mosaic of the Two Dawns abandon honor....?"

"Sir!" said Retief sternly. "You forget yourself. I, Retief of the Red
Tape Mountain, make an alternate proposal more in keeping with the
newest sporting principles."

"New?" cried Hoshick. "My dear Retief, what a pleasant surprise! I'm
enthralled with novel modes. One gets so out of touch. Do elaborate."

"It's quite simple, really. Each side selects a representative and the
two individuals settle the issue between them."

"I ... um ... fear I don't understand. What possible significance could
one attach to the activities of a couple of random skirmishforms?"

"I haven't made myself clear," said Retief. He took a sip of wine. "We
don't involve the skirmishforms at all. That's quite passe."

"You don't mean...?"

"That's right. You and me."

       *       *       *       *       *

Outside on the starlit sand Retief tossed aside the power pistol,
followed it with the leather shirt Swazey had lent him. By the faint
light he could just make out the towering figure of the Flap-jack
rearing up before him, his trappings gone. A silent rank of Flap-jack
retainers were grouped behind him.

"I fear I must lay aside the translator now, Retief," said Hoshick.
He sighed and rippled his fringe tentacles. "My spawn-fellows will
never credit this. Such a curious turn fashion has taken. How much
more pleasant it is to observe the action of the skirmishforms from a
distance."

"I suggest we use Tennessee rules," said Retief. "They're very liberal.
Biting, gouging, stomping, kneeing and of course choking, as well as
the usual punching, shoving and kicking."

"Hmmm. These gambits seem geared to forms employing rigid
endo-skeletons; I fear I shall be at a disadvantage."

"Of course," Retief said, "if you'd prefer a more plebeian type of
contest...."

"By no means. But perhaps we could rule out tentacle-twisting, just to
even it."

"Very well. Shall we begin?"

With a rush Hoshick threw himself at Retief, who ducked, whirled, and
leaped on the Flap-jack's back ... and felt himself flipped clear by
a mighty ripple of the alien's slab-like body. Retief rolled aside
as Hoshick turned on him; he jumped to his feet and threw a right
hay-maker to Hoshick's mid-section. The alien whipped his left fringe
around in an arc that connected with Retief's jaw, sent him spinning
onto his back ... and Hoshick's weight struck him.

Retief twisted, tried to roll. The flat body of the alien blanketed
him. He worked an arm free, drumming blows on the leathery back.
Hoshick nestled closer.

Retief's air was running out. He heaved up against the smothering
weight. Nothing budged.

It was like burial under a dump-truck-load of concrete.

He remembered the rangerform he had captured. The sensitive orifice
had been placed ventrally, in what would be the thoracic area....

He groped, felt tough hide set with horny granules. He would be missing
skin tomorrow ... if there was a tomorrow. His thumb found the orifice
and probed.

The Flap-jack recoiled. Retief held fast, probed deeper, groping with
the other hand. If the alien were bilaterally symmetrical there would
be a set of ready made hand-holds....

       *       *       *       *       *

There were.

Retief dug in and the Flap-jack writhed, pulled away. Retief held on,
scrambled to his feet, threw his weight against the alien and fell on
top of him, still gouging. Hoshick rippled his fringe wildly, flopped
in terror, then went limp.

Retief relaxed, released his hold and got to his feet, breathing hard.
Hoshick humped himself over onto his ventral side, lifted and moved
gingerly over to the sidelines. His retainers came forward, assisted
him into his trappings, strapped on the translator. He sighed heavily,
adjusted the volume.

"There is much to be said for the old system," he said. "What a burden
one's sportsmanship places on one at times."

"Great sport, wasn't it?" said Retief. "Now, I know you'll be eager to
continue. If you'll just wait while I run back and fetch some of our
gougerforms--"

"May hide-ticks devour the gougerforms!" Hoshick bellowed. "You've
given me such a sprong-ache as I'll remember each spawning-time for a
year."

"Speaking of hide-ticks," said Retief, "we've developed a biterform--"

"Enough!" Hoshick roared, so loudly that the translator bounced on his
hide. "Suddenly I yearn for the crowded yellow sands of Jaq. I had
hoped...." He broke off, drew a rasping breath. "I had hoped, Retief,"
he said, speaking sadly now, "to find a new land here where I might
plan my own Mosaic, till these alien sands and bring forth such a crop
of paradise-lichen as should glut the markets of a hundred worlds. But
my spirit is not equal to the prospect of biterforms and gougerforms
without end. I am shamed before you...."

"To tell you the truth, I'm old-fashioned myself. I'd rather watch the
action from a distance too."

"But surely your spawn-fellows would never condone such an attitude."

"My spawn-fellows aren't here. And besides, didn't I mention it? No
one who's really in the know would think of engaging in competition by
mere combat if there were any other way. Now, you mentioned tilling the
sand, raising lichens--things like that--"

"That on which we dined but now," said Hoshick, "and from which the
wine is made."

"The big news in fashionable diplomacy today is farming competition.
Now, if you'd like to take these deserts and raise lichen, we'll
promise to stick to the oases and vegetables."

Hoshick curled his back in attention. "Retief, you're quite serious?
You would leave all the fair sand hills to us?"

"The whole works, Hoshick. I'll take the oases."

Hoshick rippled his fringes ecstatically. "Once again you have outdone
me, Retief," he cried. "This time, in generosity."

"We'll talk over the details later. I'm sure we can establish a set of
rules that will satisfy all parties. Now I've got to get back. I think
some of the gougerforms are waiting to see me."


                                  IV

It was nearly dawn when Retief gave the whistled signal he had agreed
on with Potter, then rose and walked into the camp circle. Swazey stood
up.

"There you are," he said. "We been wonderin' whether to go out after
you."

Lemuel came forward, one eye black to the cheekbone. He held out a
raw-boned hand. "Sorry I jumped you, stranger. Tell you the truth, I
thought you was some kind of stool-pigeon from the CDT."

Bert came up behind Lemuel. "How do you know he ain't, Lemuel?" he
said. "Maybe he--"

Lemuel floored Bert with a backward sweep of his arm. "Next
cotton-picker says some embassy Johnny can cool me gets worse'n that."

"Tell me," said Retief. "How are you boys fixed for wine?"

"Wine? Mister, we been livin' on stump water for a year now. 'Dobe's
fatal to the kind of bacteria it takes to ferment likker."

"Try this." Retief handed over a sqat jug. Swazey drew the cork,
sniffed, drank and passed it to Lemuel.

"Mister, where'd you get that?"

"The Flap-jacks make it. Here's another question for you: Would you
concede a share in this planet to the Flap-jacks in return for a peace
guarantee?"

At the end of a half hour of heated debate Lemuel turned to Retief.
"We'll make any reasonable deal," he said. "I guess they got as much
right here as we have. I think we'd agree to a fifty-fifty split.
That'd give about a hundred and fifty oases to each side."

"What would you say to keeping all the oases and giving them the
desert?"

Lemuel reached for the wine jug, eyes on Retief. "Keep talkin',
mister," he said. "I think you got yourself a deal."

       *       *       *       *       *

Consul Passwyn glanced up at Retief, went on perusing a paper.

"Sit down, Retief," he said absently. "I thought you were over on
Pueblo, or Mud-flat, or whatever they call that desert."

"I'm back."

Passwyn eyed him sharply. "Well, well, what is it you need, man? Speak
up. Don't expect me to request any military assistance, no matter how
things are...."

Retief passed a bundle of documents across the desk. "Here's the
Treaty. And a Mutual Assistance Pact declaration and a trade agreement."

"Eh?" Passwyn picked up the papers, riffled through them. He leaned
back in his chair, beamed.

"Well, Retief. Expeditiously handled." He stopped, blinked at Retief.
"You seem to have a bruise on your jaw. I hope you've been conducting
yourself as befits a member of the Embassy staff."

"I attended a sporting event," Retief said. "One of the players got a
little excited."

"Well ... it's one of the hazards of the profession. One must
pretend an interest in such matters." Passwyn rose, extended a hand.
"You've done well, my boy. Let this teach you the value of following
instructions to the letter."

Outside, by the hall incinerator drop, Retief paused long enough to
take from his briefcase a large buff envelope, still sealed, and drop
it in the slot.





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