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´╗┐Title: Aide Memoire
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 "Aide Memoire" ***

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                             AIDE MEMOIRE

                            BY KEITH LAUMER

                 The Fustians looked like turtles--but
                 they could move fast when they chose!

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


Across the table from Retief, Ambassador Magnan rustled a stiff sheet
of parchment and looked grave.

"This aide memoire," he said, "was just handed to me by the Cultural
Attache. It's the third on the subject this week. It refers to the
matter of sponsorship of Youth groups--"

"Some youths," Retief said. "Average age, seventy-five."

"The Fustians are a long-lived people," Magnan snapped. "These matters
are relative. At seventy-five, a male Fustian is at a trying age--"

"That's right. He'll try anything--in the hope it will maim somebody."

"Precisely the problem," Magnan said. "But the Youth Movement is
the important news in today's political situation here on Fust. And
sponsorship of Youth groups is a shrewd stroke on the part of the
Terrestrial Embassy. At my suggestion, well nigh every member of the
mission has leaped at the opportunity to score a few p--that is, cement
relations with this emergent power group--the leaders of the future.
You, Retief, as Councillor, are the outstanding exception."

"I'm not convinced these hoodlums need my help in organizing their
rumbles," Retief said. "Now, if you have a proposal for a pest control
group--"

"To the Fustians this is no jesting matter," Magnan cut in. "This
group--" he glanced at the paper--"known as the Sexual, Cultural, and
Athletic Recreational Society, or SCARS for short, has been awaiting
sponsorship for a matter of weeks now."

"Meaning they want someone to buy them a clubhouse, uniforms, equipment
and anything else they need to complete their sexual, cultural and
athletic development," Retief said.

"If we don't act promptly," Magnan said, "the Groaci Embassy may well
anticipate us. They're very active here."

"That's an idea," said Retief. "Let 'em. After awhile they'll go broke
instead of us."

"Nonsense. The group requires a sponsor. I can't actually order you to
step forward. However...." Magnan let the sentence hang in the air.
Retief raised one eyebrow.

"For a minute there," he said, "I thought you were going to make a
positive statement."

       *       *       *       *       *

Magnan leaned back, lacing his fingers over his stomach. "I don't think
you'll find a diplomat of my experience doing anything so naive," he
said.

"I like the adult Fustians," said Retief. "Too bad they have to lug
half a ton of horn around on their backs. I wonder if surgery would
help."

"Great heavens, Retief," Magnan sputtered. "I'm amazed that even you
would bring up a matter of such delicacy. A race's unfortunate physical
characteristics are hardly a fit matter for Terrestrial curiosity."

"Well, of course your experience of the Fustian mentality is greater
than mine. I've only been here a month. But it's been my experience,
Mr. Ambassador, that few races are above improving on nature. Otherwise
you, for example, would be tripping over your beard."

Magnan shuddered. "Please--never mention the idea to a Fustian."

Retief stood. "My own program for the day includes going over to the
dockyards. There are some features of this new passenger liner the
Fustians are putting together that I want to look into. With your
permission, Mr. Ambassador...?"

Magnan snorted. "Your pre-occupation with the trivial disturbs me,
Retief. More interest in substantive matters--such as working with
Youth groups--would create a far better impression."

"Before getting too involved with these groups, it might be a good idea
to find out a little more about them," said Retief. "Who organizes
them? There are three strong political parties here on Fust. What's the
alignment of this SCARS organization?"

"You forget, these are merely teenagers, so to speak," Magnan said.
"Politics mean nothing to them ... yet."

"Then there are the Groaci. Why their passionate interest in a
two-horse world like Fust? Normally they're concerned with nothing but
business. But what has Fust got that they could use?"

"You may rule out the commercial aspect in this instance," said Magnan.
"Fust possesses a vigorous steel-age manufacturing economy. The Groaci
are barely ahead of them."

"Barely," said Retief. "Just over the line into crude atomics ... like
fission bombs."

Magnan shook his head, turned back to his papers. "What market exists
for such devices on a world at peace? I suggest you address your
attention to the less spectacular but more rewarding work of studying
the social patterns of the local youth."

"I've studied them," said Retief. "And before I meet any of the local
youth socially I want to get myself a good blackjack."


                                  II

Retief left the sprawling bungalow-type building that housed the
chancery of the Terrestrial Embassy, swung aboard a passing flat-car
and leaned back against the wooden guard rail as the heavy vehicle
trundled through the city toward the looming gantries of the shipyards.

It was a cool morning. A light breeze carried the fishy odor of Fusty
dwellings across the broad cobbled avenue. A few mature Fustians
lumbered heavily along in the shade of the low buildings, audibly
wheezing under the burden of their immense carapaces. Among them,
shell-less youths trotted briskly on scaly stub legs. The driver of the
flat-car, a labor-caste Fustian with his guild colors emblazoned on his
back, heaved at the tiller, swung the unwieldy conveyance through the
shipyard gates, creaked to a halt.

"Thus I come to the shipyard with frightful speed," he said in Fustian.
"Well I know the way of the naked-backs, who move always in haste."

Retief climbed down, handed him a coin. "You should take up
professional racing," he said. "Daredevil."

He crossed the littered yard and tapped at the door of a rambling shed.
Boards creaked inside. Then the door swung back.

A gnarled ancient with tarnished facial scales and a weathered carapace
peered out at Retief.

"Long-may-you-sleep," said Retief. "I'd like to take a look around, if
you don't mind. I understand you're laying the bedplate for your new
liner today."

"May-you-dream-of-the-deeps," the old fellow mumbled. He waved a stumpy
arm toward a group of shell-less Fustians standing by a massive hoist.
"The youths know more of bedplates than do I, who but tend the place of
papers."

"I know how you feel, old-timer," said Retief. "That sounds like the
story of my life. Among your papers do you have a set of plans for the
vessel? I understand it's to be a passenger liner."

The oldster nodded. He shuffled to a drawing file, rummaged, pulled out
a sheaf of curled prints and spread them on the table. Retief stood
silently, running a finger over the uppermost drawing, tracing lines....

"What does the naked-back here?" barked a deep voice behind Retief. He
turned. A heavy-faced Fustian youth, wrapped in a mantle, stood at the
open door. Beady yellow eyes set among fine scales bored into Retief.

"I came to take a look at your new liner," said Retief.

"We need no prying foreigners here," the youth snapped. His eye fell on
the drawings. He hissed in sudden anger.

"Doddering hulk!" he snapped at the ancient. "May you toss in
nightmares! Put by the plans!"

"My mistake," Retief said. "I didn't know this was a secret project."

       *       *       *       *       *

The youth hesitated. "It is not a secret project," he muttered. "Why
should it be secret?"

"You tell me."

The youth worked his jaws and rocked his head from side to side in the
Fusty gesture of uncertainty. "There is nothing to conceal," he said.
"We merely construct a passenger liner."

"Then you don't mind if I look over the drawings," said Retief. "Who
knows? Maybe some day I'll want to reserve a suite for the trip out."

The youth turned and disappeared. Retief grinned at the oldster. "Went
for his big brother, I guess," he said. "I have a feeling I won't get
to study these in peace here. Mind if I copy them?"

"Willingly, light-footed one," said the old Fustian. "And mine is the
shame for the discourtesy of youth."

Retief took out a tiny camera, flipped a copying lens in place, leafed
through the drawings, clicking the shutter.

"A plague on these youths," said the oldster, "who grow more virulent
day by day."

"Why don't you elders clamp down?"

"Agile are they and we are slow of foot. And this unrest is new.
Unknown in my youth was such insolence."

"The police--"

"Bah!" the ancient rumbled. "None have we worthy of the name, nor have
we needed ought ere now."

"What's behind it?"

"They have found leaders. The spiv, Slock, is one. And I fear they plot
mischief." He pointed to the window. "They come, and a Soft One with
them."

Retief pocketed the camera, glanced out the window. A pale-featured
Groaci with an ornately decorated crest stood with the youths, who eyed
the hut, then started toward it.

"That's the military attache of the Groaci Embassy," Retief said. "I
wonder what he and the boys are cooking up together?"

"Naught that augurs well for the dignity of Fust," the oldster rumbled.
"Flee, agile one, while I engage their attentions."

"I was just leaving," Retief said. "Which way out?"

"The rear door," the Fustian gestured with a stubby member. "Rest well,
stranger on these shores." He moved to the entrance.

"Same to you, pop," said Retief. "And thanks."

He eased through the narrow back entrance, waited until voices were
raised at the front of the shed, then strolled off toward the gate.

       *       *       *       *       *

The second dark of the third cycle was lightening when Retief left the
Embassy technical library and crossed the corridor to his office. He
flipped on a light. A note was tucked under a paperweight:

"Retief--I shall expect your attendance at the IAS dinner at first
dark of the fourth cycle. There will be a brief but, I hope, impressive
Sponsorship ceremony for the SCARS group, with full press coverage,
arrangements for which I have managed to complete in spite of your
intransigence."

Retief snorted and glanced at his watch. Less than three hours. Just
time to creep home by flat-car, dress in ceremonial uniform and creep
back.

Outside he flagged a lumbering bus. He stationed himself in a corner
and watched the yellow sun, Beta, rise rapidly above the low skyline.
The nearby sea was at high tide now, under the pull of the major sun
and the three moons, and the stiff breeze carried a mist of salt spray.

Retief turned up his collar against the dampness. In half an hour he
would be perspiring under the vertical rays of a third-noon sun, but
the thought failed to keep the chill off.

Two Youths clambered up on the platform, moving purposefully toward
Retief. He moved off the rail, watching them, weight balanced.

"That's close enough, kids," he said. "Plenty of room on this scow. No
need to crowd up."

"There are certain films," the lead Fustian muttered. His voice was
unusually deep for a Youth. He was wrapped in a heavy cloak and moved
awkwardly. His adolescence was nearly at an end, Retief guessed.

"I told you once," said Retief. "Don't crowd me."

The two stepped close, slit mouths snapping in anger. Retief put out a
foot, hooked it behind the scaly leg of the overaged juvenile and threw
his weight against the cloaked chest. The clumsy Fustian tottered, fell
heavily. Retief was past him and off the flat-car before the other
Youth had completed his vain lunge toward the spot Retief had occupied.
The Terrestrial waved cheerfully at the pair, hopped aboard another
vehicle, watched his would-be assailants lumber down from their car,
tiny heads twisted to follow his retreating figure.

So they wanted the film? Retief reflected, thumbing a cigar alight.
They were a little late. He had already filed it in the Embassy vault,
after running a copy for the reference files.

And a comparison of the drawings with those of the obsolete Mark XXXV
battle cruiser used two hundred years earlier by the Concordiat Naval
Arm showed them to be almost identical, gun emplacements and all. The
term "obsolete" was a relative one. A ship which had been outmoded in
the armories of the Galactic Powers could still be king of the walk in
the Eastern Arm.

But how had these two known of the film? There had been no one present
but himself and the old-timer--and he was willing to bet the elderly
Fustian hadn't told them anything.

At least not willingly....

Retief frowned, dropped the cigar over the side, waited until the
flat-car negotiated a mud-wallow, then swung down and headed for the
shipyard.

       *       *       *       *       *

The door, hinges torn loose, had been propped loosely back in position.
Retief looked around at the battered interior of the shed. The old
fellow had put up a struggle.

There were deep drag-marks in the dust behind the building. Retief
followed them across the yard. They disappeared under the steel door of
a warehouse.

Retief glanced around. Now, at the mid-hour of the fourth cycle, the
workmen were heaped along the edge of the refreshment pond, deep in
their siesta. He took a multi-bladed tool from a pocket, tried various
fittings in the lock. It snicked open.

He eased the door aside far enough to enter.

Heaped bales loomed before him. Snapping on the tiny lamp in the handle
of the combination tool, Retief looked over the pile. One stack seemed
out of alignment ... and the dust had been scraped from the floor
before it. He pocketed the light, climbed up on the bales, looked over
into a nest made by stacking the bundles around a clear spot. The aged
Fustian lay in it, on his back, a heavy sack tied over his head.

Retief dropped down inside the ring of bales, sawed at the tough twine
and pulled the sack free.

"It's me, old fellow," Retief said. "The nosy stranger. Sorry I got you
into this."

The oldster threshed his gnarled legs. He rocked slightly and fell
back. "A curse on the cradle that rocked their infant slumbers," he
rumbled. "But place me back on my feet and I hunt down the youth,
Slock, though he flee to the bottommost muck of the Sea of Torments."

"How am I going to get you out of here? Maybe I'd better get some help."

"Nay. The perfidious Youths abound here," said the old Fustian. "It
would be your life."

"I doubt if they'd go that far."

"Would they not?" The Fustian stretched his neck. "Cast your light
here. But for the toughness of my hide...."

Retief put the beam of the light on the leathery neck. A great smear of
thick purplish blood welled from a ragged cut. The oldster chuckled, a
sound like a seal coughing.

"Traitor, they called me. For long they sawed at me--in vain. Then
they trussed me and dumped me here. They think to return with weapons
to complete the task."

"Weapons? I thought it was illegal!"

"Their evil genius, the Soft One," said the Fustian. "He would provide
fuel to the Devil himself."

"The Groaci again," said Retief. "I wonder what their angle is."

"And I must confess, I told them of you, ere I knew their full
intentions. Much can I tell you of their doings. But first, I pray, the
block and tackle."

Retief found the hoist where the Fustian directed him, maneuvered it
into position, hooked onto the edge of the carapace and hauled away.
The immense Fustian rose slowly, teetered ... then flopped on his chest.

Slowly he got to his feet.

"My name is Whonk, fleet one," he said. "My cows are yours."

"Thanks. I'm Retief. I'd like to meet the girls some time. But right
now, let's get out of here."

Whonk leaned his bulk against the ponderous stacks of baled kelp,
bulldozed them aside. "Slow am I to anger," he said, "but implacable in
my wrath. Slock, beware!"

"Hold it," said Retief suddenly. He sniffed. "What's that odor?" He
flashed the light around, played it over a dry stain on the floor. He
knelt, sniffed at the spot.

"What kind of cargo was stacked here, Whonk? And where is it now?"

Whonk considered. "There were drums," he said. "Four of them, quite
small, painted an evil green, the property of the Soft Ones, the
Groaci. They lay here a day and a night. At full dark of the first
period they came with stevedores and loaded them aboard the barge _Moss
Rock_."

"The VIP boat. Who's scheduled to use it?"

"I know not. But what matters this? Let us discuss cargo movements
after I have settled a score with certain Youths."

"We'd better follow this up first, Whonk. There's only one substance I
know of that's transported in drums and smells like that blot on the
floor. That's titanite: the hottest explosive this side of a uranium
pile."


                                  III

Beta was setting as Retief, Whonk puffing at his heels, came up to the
sentry box beside the gangway leading to the plush interior of the
official luxury space barge _Moss Rock_.

"A sign of the times," said Whonk, glancing inside the empty shelter.
"A guard should stand here, but I see him not. Doubtless he crept away
to sleep."

"Let's go aboard and take a look around."

They entered the ship. Soft lights glowed in utter silence. A rough box
stood on the floor, rollers and pry-bars beside it--a discordant note
in the muted luxury of the setting. Whonk rummaged in it.

"Curious," he said. "What means this?" He held up a stained cloak of
orange and green, a metal bracelet, papers.

"Orange and green," mused Relief. "Whose colors are those?"

"I know not." Whonk glanced at the arm-band. "But this is lettered." He
passed the metal band to Retief.

"SCARS," Retief read. He looked at Whonk. "It seems to me I've heard
the name before," he murmured. "Let's get back to the Embassy--fast."

Back on the ramp Retief heard a sound ... and turned in time to duck
the charge of a hulking Fustian youth who thundered past him and
fetched up against the broad chest of Whonk, who locked him in a warm
embrace.

"Nice catch, Whonk. Where'd he sneak out of?"

"The lout hid there by the storage bin," rumbled Whonk. The captive
youth thumped fists and toes fruitlessly against the oldster's carapace.

"Hang onto him," said Retief. "He looks like the biting kind."

"No fear. Clumsy I am, yet not without strength."

"Ask him where the titanite is tucked away."

"Speak, witless grub," growled Whonk, "lest I tweak you in twain."

The youth gurgled.

"Better let up before you make a mess of him," said Retief. Whonk
lifted the Youth clear of the floor, then flung him down with a thump
that made the ground quiver. The younger Fustian glared up at the
elder, mouth snapping.

"This one was among those who trussed me and hid me away for the
killing," said Whonk. "In his repentance he will tell all to his elder."

"That's the same young squirt that tried to strike up an acquaintance
with me on the bus," Retief said. "He gets around."

The youth scrambled to hands and knees, scuttled for freedom. Retief
planted a foot on his dragging cloak; it ripped free. He stared at the
bare back of the Fustian--

"By the Great Egg!" Whonk exclaimed, tripping the refugee as he tried
to rise. "This is no Youth! His carapace has been taken from him!"

Retief looked at the scarred back. "I thought he looked a little old.
But I thought--"

"This is not possible," Whonk said wonderingly. "The great nerve trunks
are deeply involved. Not even the cleverest surgeon could excise the
carapace and leave the patient living."

"It looks like somebody did the trick. But let's take this boy with us
and get out of here. His folks may come home."

"Too late," said Whonk. Retief turned.

Three youths came from behind the sheds.

"Well," Retief said. "It looks like the SCARS are out in force tonight.
Where's your pal?" he said to the advancing trio. "The sticky little
bird with the eye-stalks? Back at his Embassy, leaving you suckers
holding the bag, I'll bet."

"Shelter behind me, Retief," said Whonk.

"Go get 'em, old-timer." Retief stooped, picked up one of the pry-bars.
"I'll jump around and distract them."

Whonk let out a whistling roar and charged for the immature Fustians.
They fanned out ... and one tripped, sprawled on his face. Retief
whirled the metal bar he had thrust between the Fustian's legs, slammed
it against the skull of another, who shook his head, turned on
Retief ... and bounced off the steel hull of the _Moss Rock_ as Whonk
took him in full charge.

Retief used the bar on another head. His third blow laid the Fustian
on the pavement, oozing purple. The other two club members departed
hastily, seriously dented but still mobile.

Retief leaned on his club, breathing hard. "Tough heads these kids
have got. I'm tempted to chase those two lads down, but I've got
another errand to run. I don't know who the Groaci intended to blast,
but I have a sneaking suspicion somebody of importance was scheduled
for a boat ride in the next few hours. And three drums of titanite is
enough to vaporize this tub and everyone aboard her."

"The plot is foiled," said Whonk. "But what reason did they have?"

"The Groaci are behind it. I have an idea the SCARS didn't know about
this gambit."

"Which of these is the leader?" asked Whonk. He prodded a fallen Youth
with a horny toe. "Arise, dreaming one."

"Never mind him, Whonk. We'll tie these two up and leave them here. I
know where to find the boss."

       *       *       *       *       *

A stolid crowd filled the low-ceilinged banquet hall. Retief scanned
the tables for the pale blobs of Terrestrial faces, dwarfed by the
giant armored bodies of the Fustians. Across the room Magnan fluttered
a hand. Retief headed toward him. A low-pitched vibration filled the
air: the rumble of subsonic Fustian music.

Retief slid into his place beside Magnan. "Sorry to be late, Mr.
Ambassador."

"I'm honored that you chose to appear at all," said Magnan coldly. He
turned back to the Fustian on his left.

"Ah, yes, Mr. Minister," he said. "Charming, most charming. So joyous."

The Fustian looked at him, beady-eyed. "It is the _Lament of
Hatching_," he said; "our National Dirge."

"Oh," said Magnan. "How interesting. Such a pleasing balance of
instruments--"

"It is a droon solo," said the Fustian, eyeing the Terrestrial
Ambassador suspiciously.

"Why don't you just admit you can't hear it," Retief whispered loudly.
"And if I may interrupt a moment--"

Magnan cleared his throat. "Now that our Mr. Retief has arrived,
perhaps we could rush right along to the Sponsorship ceremonies."

"This group," said Retief, leaning across Magnan, "the SCARS. How much
do you know about them, Mr. Minister?"

"Nothing at all," the huge Fustian elder rumbled. "For my taste, all
Youths should be kept penned with the livestock until they grow a
carapace to tame their irresponsibility."

"We mustn't lose sight of the importance of channeling youthful
energies," said Magnan.

"Labor gangs," said the minister. "In my youth we were indentured to
the dredge-masters. I myself drew a muck sledge."

"But in these modern times," put in Magnan, "surely it's incumbent on
us to make happy these golden hours."

The minister snorted. "Last week I had a golden hour. They set upon me
and pelted me with overripe stench-fruit."

"But this was merely a manifestation of normal youthful frustrations,"
cried Magnan. "Their essential tenderness--"

"You'd not find a tender spot on that lout yonder," the minister
said, pointing with a fork at a newly arrived Youth, "if you drilled
boreholes and blasted."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Why, that's our guest of honor," said Magnan, "a fine young fellow!
Slop I believe his name is."

"Slock," said Retief. "Eight feet of armor-plated orneriness. And--"

Magnan rose and tapped on his glass. The Fustians winced at the, to
them, supersonic vibrations. They looked at each other muttering.
Magnan tapped louder. The Minister drew in his head, eyes closed. Some
of the Fustians rose, tottered for the doors; the noise level rose.
Magnan redoubled his efforts. The glass broke with a clatter and green
wine gushed on the tablecloth.

"What in the name of the Great Egg!" the Minister muttered. He blinked,
breathing deeply.

"Oh, forgive me," blurted Magnan, dabbing at the wine.

"Too bad the glass gave out," said Retief. "In another minute you'd
have cleared the hall. And then maybe I could have gotten a word in
sideways. There's a matter you should know about--"

"Your attention, please," Magnan said, rising. "I see that our fine
young guest has arrived, and I hope that the remainder of his committee
will be along in a moment. It is my pleasure to announce that our Mr.
Retief has had the good fortune to win out in the keen bidding for the
pleasure of sponsoring this lovely group."

Retief tugged at Magnan's sleeve. "Don't introduce me yet," he said. "I
want to appear suddenly. More dramatic, you know."

"Well," murmured Magnan, glancing down at Retief, "I'm gratified to
see you entering into the spirit of the event at last." He turned his
attention back to the assembled guests. "If our honored guest will join
me on the rostrum...?" he said. "The gentlemen of the press may want to
catch a few shots of the presentation."

Magnan stepped up on the low platform at the center of the wide room,
took his place beside the robed Fustian youth and beamed at the cameras.

"How gratifying it is to take this opportunity to express once more the
great pleasure we have in sponsoring SCARS," he said, talking slowly
for the benefit of the scribbling reporters. "We'd like to think that
in our modest way we're to be a part of all that the SCARS achieve
during the years ahead."

Magnan paused as a huge Fustian elder heaved his bulk up the two low
steps to the rostrum, approached the guest of honor. He watched as the
newcomer paused behind Slock, who did not see the new arrival.

Retief pushed through the crowd, stepped up to face the Fustian youth.
Slock stared at him, drew back.

"You know me, Slock," said Retief loudly. "An old fellow named Whonk
told you about me, just before you tried to saw his head off, remember?
It was when I came out to take a look at that battle cruiser you're
building."


                                  IV

With a bellow Slock reached for Retief--and choked off in mid-cry as
the Fustian elder, Whonk, pinioned him from behind, lifting him clear
of the floor.

"Glad you reporters happened along," said Retief to the gaping newsmen.
"Slock here had a deal with a sharp operator from the Groaci Embassy.
The Groaci were to supply the necessary hardware and Slock, as foreman
at the shipyards, was to see that everything was properly installed.
The next step, I assume, would have been a local take-over, followed
by a little interplanetary war on Flamenco or one of the other nearby
worlds ... for which the Groaci would be glad to supply plenty of ammo."

Magnan found his tongue. "Are you mad, Retief?" he screeched. "This
group was vouched for by the Ministry of Youth!"

"The Ministry's overdue for a purge," snapped Retief. He turned back
to Slock. "I wonder if you were in on the little diversion that was
planned for today. When the _Moss Rock_ blew, a variety of clues were
to be planted where they'd be easy to find ... with SCARS written all
over them. The Groaci would thus have neatly laid the whole affair
squarely at the door of the Terrestrial Embassy ... whose sponsorship
of the SCARS had received plenty of publicity."

"The _Moss Rock_?" said Magnan. "But that was--Retief! This is idiotic.
Slock himself was scheduled to go on a cruise tomorrow!"

Slock roared suddenly, twisting violently. Whonk teetered, his grip
loosened ... and Slock pulled free and was off the platform, butting
his way through the milling oldsters on the dining room floor. Magnan
watched, open-mouthed.

"The Groaci were playing a double game, as usual," Retief said. "They
intended to dispose of this fellow Slock, once he'd served their
purpose."

"Well, don't stand there," yelped Magnan over the uproar. "If Slock is
the ring-leader of a delinquent gang...!" He moved to give chase.

Retief grabbed his arm. "Don't jump down there! You'd have as much
chance of getting through as a jack-rabbit through a threshing contest."

Ten minutes later the crowd had thinned slightly. "We can get through
now," Whonk called. "This way." He lowered himself to the floor, bulled
through to the exit. Flashbulbs popped. Retief and Magnan followed in
Whonk's wake.

In the lounge Retief grabbed the phone, waited for the operator, gave a
code letter. No reply. He tried another.

"No good," he said after a full minute had passed. "Wonder what's
loose?" He slammed the phone back in its niche. "Let's grab a cab."

       *       *       *       *       *

In the street the blue sun, Alpha, peered like an arc light under a low
cloud layer, casting flat shadows across the mud of the avenue. The
three mounted a passing flat-car. Whonk squatted, resting the weight of
his immense shell on the heavy plank flooring.

"Would that I too could lose this burden, as has the false youth we
bludgeoned aboard the _Moss Rock_," he sighed. "Soon will I be forced
into retirement. Then a mere keeper of a place of papers such as I
will rate no more than a slab on the public strand, with once-daily
feedings. And even for a man of high position, retirement is no
pleasure. A slab in the Park of Monuments is little better. A dismal
outlook for one's next thousand years!"

"You two carry on to the police station," said Retief. "I want to play
a hunch. But don't take too long. I may be painfully right."

"What--?" Magnan started.

"As you wish, Retief," said Whonk.

The flat-car trundled past the gate to the shipyard and Retief jumped
down, headed at a run for the VIP boat. The guard post still stood
vacant. The two Youths whom he and Whonk had left trussed were gone.

"That's the trouble with a peaceful world," Retief muttered. "No police
protection." He stepped down from the lighted entry and took up a
position behind the sentry box. Alpha rose higher, shedding a glaring
blue-white light without heat. Retief shivered. Maybe he'd guessed
wrong....

There was a sound in the near distance, like two elephants colliding.

Retief looked toward the gate. His giant acquaintance, Whonk, had
reappeared and was grappling with a hardly less massive opponent. A
small figure became visible in the melee, scuttled for the gate. Headed
off by the battling titans, he turned and made for the opposite side
of the shipyard. Retief waited, jumped out and gathered in the fleeing
Groaci.

"Well, Yith," he said, "how's tricks? You should pardon the expression."

"Release me, Retief!" the pale-featured alien lisped, his throat
bladder pulsating in agitation. "The behemoths vie for the privilege of
dismembering me out of hand!"

"I know how they feel. I'll see what I can do ... for a price."

"I appeal to you," Yith whispered hoarsely. "As a fellow diplomat, a
fellow alien, a fellow soft-back--"

"Why don't you appeal to Slock, as a fellow skunk?" said Retief. "Now
keep quiet ... and you may get out of this alive."

The heavier of the two struggling Fustians threw the other to the
ground. There was another brief flurry, and then the smaller figure was
on its back, helpless.

"That's Whonk, still on his feet," said Retief. "I wonder who he's
caught--and why."

Whonk came toward the _Moss Rock_ dragging the supine Fustian, who
kicked vainly. Retief thrust Yith down well out of sight behind the
sentry box. "Better sit tight, Yith. Don't try to sneak off; I can
outrun you. Stay here and I'll see what I can do." He stepped out and
hailed Whonk.

Puffing like a steam engine Whonk pulled up before him. "Sleep,
Retief!" He panted. "You followed a hunch; I did the same. I saw
something strange in this one when we passed him on the avenue. I
watched, followed him here. Look! It is Slock, strapped into a dead
carapace! Now many things become clear."

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief whistled. "So the Youths aren't all as young as they look.
Somebody's been holding out on the rest of you Fustians!"

"The Soft One," Whonk said. "You laid him by the heels, Retief. I saw.
Produce him now."

"Hold on a minute, Whonk. It won't do you any good--"

Whonk winked broadly. "I must take my revenge!" he roared. "I shall
test the texture of the Soft One! His pulped remains will be scoured up
by the ramp-washers and mailed home in bottles!"

Retief whirled at a sound, caught up with the scuttling Yith fifty feet
away, hauled him back to Whonk.

"It's up to you, Whonk," he said. "I know how important ceremonial
revenge is to you Fustians. I will not interfere."

"Mercy!" Yith hissed, eye-stalks whipping in distress. "I claim
diplomatic immunity!"

"No diplomat am I," rumbled Whonk. "Let me see; suppose I start with
one of those obscenely active eyes--" He reached....

"I have an idea," said Retief brightly. "Do you suppose--just this
once--you could forego the ceremonial revenge if Yith promised to
arrange for a Groaci Surgical Mission to de-carapace you elders?"

"But," Whonk protested, "those eyes! What a pleasure to pluck them, one
by one!"

"Yess," hissed Yith, "I swear it! Our most expert surgeons ... platoons
of them, with the finest of equipment."

"I have dreamed of how it would be to sit on this one, to feel him
squash beneath my bulk...."

"Light as a whissle feather shall you dance," Yith whispered.
"Shell-less shall you spring in the joy of renewed youth--"

"Maybe just one eye," said Whonk grudgingly. "That would leave him
four."

"Be a sport," said Retief.

"Well."

"It's a deal then," said Retief. "Yith, on your word as a diplomat,
an alien, a soft-back and a skunk, you'll set up the mission. Groaci
surgical skill is an export that will net you more than armaments.
It will be a whissle feather in your cap--if you bring it off. And
in return, Whonk won't sit on you. And I won't prefer charges of
interference in the internal affairs of a free world."

Behind Whonk there was a movement. Slock, wriggling free of the
borrowed carapace, struggled to his feet ... in time for Whonk to seize
him, lift him high and head for the entry to the _Moss Rock_.

"Hey," Retief called. "Where are you going?"

"I would not deny this one his reward," called Whonk. "He hoped to
cruise in luxury. So be it."

"Hold on," said Retief. "That tub is loaded with titanite!"

"Stand not in my way, Retief. For this one in truth owes me a
vengeance."

Retief watched as the immense Fustian bore his giant burden up the ramp
and disappeared within the ship.

"I guess Whonk means business," he said to Yith, who hung in his grasp,
all five eyes goggling. "And he's a little too big for me to stop."

Whonk reappeared, alone, climbed down.

"What did you do with him?" said Retief. "Tell him you were going to--"

"We had best withdraw," said Whonk. "The killing radius of the drive is
fifty yards."

"You mean--"

"The controls are set for Groaci. Long-may-he-sleep."

       *       *       *       *       *

"It was quite a bang," said Retief. "But I guess you saw it, too."

"No, confound it," Magnan said. "When I remonstrated with Hulk, or
Whelk--"

"Whonk."

"--the ruffian thrust me into an alley bound in my own cloak. I'll most
certainly complain to the Minister."

"How about the surgical mission?"

"A most generous offer," said Magnan. "Frankly, I was astonished. I
think perhaps we've judged the Groaci too harshly."

"I hear the Ministry of Youth has had a rough morning of it," said
Retief. "And a lot of rumors are flying to the effect that Youth Groups
are on the way out."

Magnan cleared his throat, shuffled papers. "I--ah--have explained to
the press that last night's--ah--"

"Fiasco."

"--affair was necessary in order to place the culprits in an untenable
position. Of course, as to the destruction of the VIP vessel and the
presumed death of, uh, Slop."

"The Fustians understand," said Retief. "Whonk wasn't kidding about
ceremonial vengeance."

"The Groaci had been guilty of gross misuse of diplomatic privilege,"
said Magnan. "I think that a note--or perhaps an Aide Memoire: less
formal...."

"The _Moss Rock_ was bound for Groaci," said Retief. "She was already
in her transit orbit when she blew. The major fragments will arrive on
schedule in a month or so. It should provide quite a meteorite display.
I think that should be all the _aide_ the Groaci's _memoires_ will need
to keep their tentacles off Fust."

"But diplomatic usage--"

"Then, too, the less that's put in writing, the less they can blame you
for, if anything goes wrong."

"That's true," said Magnan, lips pursed. "Now you're thinking
constructively, Retief. We may make a diplomat of you yet." He smiled
expansively.

"Maybe. But I refuse to let it depress me." Retief stood up. "I'm
taking a few weeks off ... if you have no objection, Mr. Ambassador. My
pal Whonk wants to show me an island down south where the fishing is
good."

"But there are some extremely important matters coming up," said
Magnan. "We're planning to sponsor Senior Citizen Groups--"

"Count me out. All groups give me an itch."

"Why, what an astonishing remark, Retief! After all, we diplomats are
ourselves a group."

"Uh-huh," Retief said.

Magnan sat quietly, mouth open, and watched as Retief stepped into the
hall and closed the door gently behind him.





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