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Harvest Time



Senior Assistant Commissioner Holati Tate sat comfortably on a high green hill of the Precolonization world of Manon, and watched Communications Chief Trigger Argee coordinating the dials of a bio-signal pickup with those of a recorder. Trigger was a slim, tanned, red-haired girl, and watching her was a pleasure from which neither her moody expression nor Holati Tate's advanced years detracted much. She got her settings finally, swung around on her camp chair and faced him. She smiled faintly.

"How's it going?" the S.A.C. inquired.

"It's going. Those bio-patterns aren't easy to unscramble, though. That to be expected?"

He nodded. "They're a mess. That's why I had to borrow a communications expert from Headquarters."

"Well," said Trigger, "if you just want to rebroadcast the strongest individual signal, we'll have a usable transcription in another ten minutes." She shielded her eyes and peered up at the late afternoon sky. "Can't see more than a green tinge from here. The Drift's about nine miles up, isn't it?"

"At nine miles you're barely scratching the bottom layer," Holati Tate told her. "The stuff floats high on this world."

Trigger looked at him and smiled again, more easily now. She liked Holati, a weather-beaten little Precol veteran who'd come in as a replacement on the Manon Project only six months before. Assistant commissioners were mostly Academy graduates nowadays; he was one of the old guard the Academy was not too gradually shoving out of the supervisory field ranks. Trigger had heard he'd been in the Space Scouts until he reached the early retirement age of that arduous service. "What's this beep pattern we're copying supposed to be?" she inquired. "Sort of a plankton love call?"

Holati admitted that was as good a guess as any. "At the Bio Station we figure each of the various species keeps broadcasting its own signal to help the swarms keep together. This signal is pretty strong because the Drift's mainly composed of a single species at the moment. When we set up the food-processing stations, we might be able to use signal patterns like that as a lure."

Trigger smoothed her red hair back and nodded. "Dirty trick!" she observed amiably.

"Can't be sentimental about it, Trigger girl. Processed plankton could turn out to be Manon's biggest export item by the time it's a colony. The Federation's appetite gets bigger every year." He added, "I'm also interested in the possibility it's the signals that attract those Harvester things we'd like to get rid of."

"They been giving you trouble again?" Trigger's duties kept her close to the Headquarters area as a rule, but she had heard the Harvesters were thoroughly dangerous creatures capable of producing a reasonable facsimile of a lightning bolt when disturbed.

"No," he said. "I won't let the boys fool with them. We'll have to figure a way to handle them before we start collecting the plankton, though. Put in a requisition for heavy guns last month." He studied her thoughtfully. "Something the matter? You don't seem happy today, Trigger."

Trigger's thin brown brows slanted in a scowl. "I'm not! It's that boss we've got, the Honorable Commissioner Ramog."

* * *

Holati looked startled. He jerked his head meaningfully at the recorder. Trigger wrinkled her nose.

"Don't worry. My instruments are probably the only thing that isn't bugged around the Manon Project Headquarters. I pull the snoopies out as quick as Ramog can get them stuck in."

"Hm-m-m!" he said dubiously. "What's the commissioner doing to bother you?"

"He slung Brule Inger into the brig yesterday morning." Brule was Trigger's young man, Holati recalled. "He'll be shipped home on the next supply ship. And I don't know," Trigger added, "whether Ramog wants Brule out of the way because of me, or because he really suspects Brule was out hunting Old Galactic artifacts on Project time. He wasn't, of course, but that's the charge. Either way I don't like it."

"People are getting mighty touchy about that Old Galactic business," Holati said. "Biggest first-discovery bonus the Federation's ever offered by now, just to start with."

Trigger shrugged impatiently. "It's a lot of nonsense. When the Project was moved out here last year, everyone was saying the Manon System looked like the hottest bet in the Cluster to make the big strike. For that matter, it's why Ramog got the Manon Project assigned to him, and he's been all over the planet with Essidy and those other stooges of his. They haven't found a thing."

Holati nodded. "I know. Wouldn't be at all surprised, though, if the strike were made right here on Manon eventually. It's in a pretty likely sector."

Trigger regarded him skeptically. "So you believe in those Old Galactic stories, too? Well, maybe—but I'll tell you one thing: it wouldn't be healthy for anyone but Commissioner Ramog to make that kind of discovery on Commissioner Ramog's Project!"

"Now, now, Trigger!" Holati began to look alarmed again. "There's a way in which those things are handled, you know!"

Trigger's lip curled. "A foolproof way?" she inquired.

"Well, practically," the S.A.C. told her defensively. He was beginning to sound like a man who wanted to convince himself; and for a moment she felt sorry for disturbing him. "You make a strike, and you verify and register it with the Federation over any long-range communications transmitter. After that there isn't a thing anybody else can do about your claim! Even the . . . well, even the Academy isn't going to try to tangle with Federation Law!"

"The point might be," Trigger said bleakly, "that you wouldn't necessarily get near the transmitters here with that kind of message. As a matter of fact, I've seen a couple of pretty funny accidents in the two years I've been working with Ramog." She shrugged. "Well, I'm heading back to the Colonial School when my hitch here is up—I'm fed up with the way the Academy boys are taking over in Precol. And I've noticed nobody seems to like to listen when I talk about it. Even Brule keeps hushing me up—" She turned her head to a rattling series of clicks from the recorder, reached out and shut it off. A flat plastic box popped halfway out of the recorder's side. Trigger removed it and stood up. "Here's your signal pattern duplicate. Hope it works—"

* * *

While Holati Tate was helping Trigger Argee load her equipment back into her little personal hopper, he maintained the uncomfortable look of a man who had just heard an attractive young woman imply with some reason that he was on the spineless side. After she had gone he quit looking uncomfortable, since it wasn't impressing anybody any more, and began to look worried instead.

He liked Trigger about as well as anyone he knew, and her position here might be getting more precarious than she thought. When it became obvious a while ago that Commissioner Ramog had developed a definite interest in Trigger's slim good looks, the bets of the more cynical elements at the Bio Station all went down on the commissioner. No one had tried to collect so far, but Brule Inger's enforced departure from the Project was likely to send the odds soaring. While Ramog probably wouldn't resort to anything very drastic at the moment, he was in a good position to become about as drastic as he liked, and if Trigger didn't soften up on her own there wasn't much doubt that Ramog eventually would help things along.

Frowning darkly, Holati climbed into his own service hopper and set it moving a bare fifty feet above the ground, headed at a leisurely rate down the slopes of a long green range of hills toward the local arm of Great Gruesome Swamp. Two hundred miles away, on the other side of this section of Great Gruesome, stood the domes of Manon's Biological Station of which he was the head.

He had a good deal of work still to get done that evening, but he wanted to do some thinking first. Nothing Trigger had told him was exactly news. The Precol Academy group had been getting tougher to work with year after year, and Commissioner Ramog was unquestionably the toughest operator of them all. The grapevine of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Retired Space Scouts, which counted slightly more than twelve thousand members scattered through Precol, credited the commissioner with five probable direct murders of inconvenient Precol personnel, though none of these actions stood any chance of being proved after the event. Two of the victims, including an old-time commissioner, had been members of the Society. Ramog definitely was a bad boy to get involved with—

The hopper began moving out over the flat margins of Great Gruesome, a poisonous-looking wet tangle of purple and green and brown vegetation, gleaming like a seascape in the rays of Manon's setting sun. There were occasional vague motions and sudden loud splashings down there, and Holati cautiously took the vehicle up a couple of hundred feet. The great chains of swamp and marshy lakes that girdled two-thirds of the planet's equator contained numerous unclassified life-forms of a size and speed no sensible man would have cared to match himself against outside of full combat armor. Precol personnel avoided unnecessary encounters with such brutes; their control would be left to the colonists of a later year.

His immediate problem was the ticklish one of establishing the exact circumstances under which Commissioner Ramog was to murder Holati Tate. It was an undertaking which could only too easily be fumbled, and he still wasn't at all certain of a number of details. Brow furrowed with worried thought, he kicked the hopper at last into a moderately rapid vertical ascent and unpackaged the bio-signal record Trigger Argee had transcribed for him. He fed it carefully into the hopper's broadcast system.

Floating presently in the tinted evening air of the lower fringes of Manon's aerial plankton zone, Holati Tate sat a while scanning the area about and above him. A few hundred yards away a sluggishly moving stream of the Drift was passing overhead. A few stars had winked on; and hardly a thousand miles out, a ribbon of Moon Belt dust drew thin glittering bands of fire across the sky. Here and there, then, Holati began to spot the huge greenish images of mankind's established competitors for the protein of the Plankton Drift: the Harvesters of Manon.

* * *

In a couple of minutes he had counted thirty-six Harvesters within visual range. As he watched, two of them were rising until they dwindled and vanished in the darkening sky. The others continued to hover not far from the streams of the Drift, as sluggish at this hour as their prey. The sausage-shaped, almost featureless giant forms hardly looked menacing, but three venturesome biologists had been electrocuted by a Harvester within a week after the Project was opened on the planet; and the usual hands-off policy had been established until Project work advanced to the point where the problem required a wholesale solution.

Holati tuned in the bio-receiver. Around midday both Harvesters and plankton were furiously active, but there was only the barest murmur of signal now. He eased down the broadcast button on the set and waited.

He'd counted off eight seconds before he could determine any reaction. The plankton stream nearest him was losing momentum, its component masses began curving down slowly from all directions towards the hopper. Holati was not sure that the nearest Harvesters had stirred at all; keeping a wary eye on them, he gradually stepped up the signal strength by some fifty per cent. The hopper was a solid little craft, spaceworthy at interplanetary ranges, but he was only slightly curious about what would happen if he allowed it to accompany a mass of plankton into a Harvester's interior. And he wasn't in the least interested in stimulating one of the giants into cutting loose with its defensive electronic blasts.

The Harvesters were definitely moving toward him when the first streamers of the plankton arrived, thumped squashily upon the hopper's viewplate receivers and generally proceeded to plaster themselves about the front part of the machine. Blinded for the moment, Holati switched on a mass-scope, spotted an oncoming Harvester at five hundred yards and promptly stopped the broadcast. Somewhat nervously, he watched the Harvester drift to a stop while the butterfly-sized plankton life, dropping away from what had become an uninteresting surface again, made languid motions at clustering into a new formation.

He hesitated, then eased the hopper backward out of the disturbed area. A mile off he stopped again and swept his glance once more over what he could see of the gliding clouds of the Drift. Then he jammed down the broadcast button, sending the bio-signal out with a bawling force the planet had never experienced before.

Throughout the area, the Drift practically exploded. Great banks of living matter came rolling down through the sky toward the hopper. Behind, through and ahead of the sentient tides, moving a hundred times faster than the plankton, rushed dozens of vast sausage shapes, their business ends opened into wide, black gapes.

Holati Tate hurriedly knocked off the hopper's thunderous Lorelei song and went fast and straight away from there. Far behind him, he watched the front lines of the plankton clouds breaking over a converged mass of Harvesters. A minute later the giants were plowing methodically back and forth through the late evening snack with which he had provided them.

The experiment, he decided, had to be called a complete success. He got his bearings, turned the hopper and sent it arrowing silently down through the shadowy lower air, headed for Warehouse Center on the southern side of the local arm of Great Gruesome Swamp.

* * *

Supply Manager Essidy was a tall, handsome man with a small brown beard and a fine set of large white teeth, who was disliked by practically everybody on the Project because of his unfortunate reputation as Commissioner Ramog's Number One stooge. Perhaps to offset the lonely atmosphere of his main office at Warehouse Center, Essidy was industriously studying the finer points of a couple of girl clerks through his desk viewer when he was informed that Senior Assistant Commissioner Tate had just parked his hopper at Dome Two.

Essidy clicked his teeth together alertly, lifted one eyebrow, dropped it again, cleared the viewer, clipped a comm-button to his left ear and switched the comm-set to "record." Of the eight hundred and thirty-seven people on the Manon Project, there were nine on whom the commissioner wanted immediate reports concerning even routine supplies withdrawals. Holati Tate was one of the nine.

Essidy's viewer picked up the S.A.C. as he walked down the central corridor of Dome Two and followed him around a number of turns, into a large storeroom and up to a counter. Essidy adjusted the comm-button.

" . . . Not just for atmospheric use," Holati was saying. "Jet mobility, of course. But I might want to use it under water."

The counter clerk had recognized the S.A.C. and was being respectful. "Well, sir," he said hesitantly, "if it's a question of pressure, that would have to be a Moon-suit, wouldn't it?"

Holati nodded. "Uh-huh. That's what I had in mind."

Back in the office, Essidy lifted both eyebrows. He couldn't be sure of the Bio Station's current requirements, but a Moon-suit didn't sound routine. The clerk was dialing for the suit when Holati added, "By the way, got one of those things outfitted with a directional tracker?"

The clerk looked around. "I'm sure we don't, sir. It isn't standard equipment. We can install one for you."

Holati reflected, and shook his head. "Don't bother with it, son. I'll do that myself . . . Uh, high selectivity, medium range, is the type I want."

* * *

" . . . That's all he ordered," Essidy was reporting to Commissioner Ramog fifteen minutes later, on the commissioner's private beam. "He checked the suit himself—seemed familiar with that—and took the stuff along."

The commissioner was silent for almost thirty seconds and Essidy waited respectfully He admired the boss and envied him hopelessly. It wasn't just that Commissioner Ramog had Academy training and the authority of the Academy and the home office behind him; he also had three times Essidy's brains and ten times Essidy's guts and Essidy knew it.

When Ramog finally spoke he sounded almost absent-minded, and Essidy felt a little thrill because that could mean something very hot indeed was up. "Well, of course Tate's familiar with Moon-suits," Ramog said. "He put in a sixteen-year hitch with the Space Scouts before getting assigned to Precol."

"Oh?" said Essidy.

"Yes." Ramog was silent a few seconds again. "Thanks for the prompt report, Essidy." He added casually, "Keep the squad on alert status until further notice."

Essidy asked no foolish questions. The matter might be hot right now, and it might not. He'd hear all he needed to know in plenty of time. That was the way the boss worked; and if you worked the way he liked, another bonus would be coming along quietly a little later to be quietly stacked away with previously earned ones. Essidy looked forward to retiring from the service early.

* * *

Commissioner Ramog, in his private rooms at Headquarters, let the tiny beam-speaker slip back into a desk niche and shifted his gaze toward a slowly turning three-dimensional replica of Manon which filled the wall across the room. The commissioner was a slender man, not very big, with a wiry, hard-trained body, close-cropped blond hair and calm gray eyes. At the moment he looked intrigued and a trifle puzzled.

The obvious first item here, he told himself, was that there simply wasn't any spot on the surface of this planet where the use of a Moon-suit was indicated. The tropical lakes were too shallow to present a pressure problem—and the fauna of those lakes was such that he wouldn't have cared to work there himself without both armor and armament. He could assume therefore that Senior Assistant Commissioner Tate, having checked out neither armor nor armament, wasn't contemplating such work either.

The second item: a directional tracker had a number of possible uses. However, it had been developed as a space gadget, and while it could be employed on a planet to keep a line on mobile targets, either alive or mechanical, it looked as if Tate's interest actually might be centered on something in space—

Nearby space, since the only vehicles available to personnel on Manon had a limited range.

Dropping that line for the moment, the commissioner's reflections ran on, one came to the really interesting third item—which was that Tate was an old-timer in Precol service. And as an old-timer, he knew that a requisition of this kind would not escape notice on an Academy-conducted Project. In fact, he could expect it to draw a rather prompt inquiry. One had to assume again that he intended to accomplish whatever he was out to accomplish with such equipment before an inquiry caught up with him—unless, of course, he had a legitimate explanation to offer when the check was made.

In any event, Commissioner Ramog concluded, no check was going to be made. At least, none of the kind that the senior assistant commissioner might be expecting.

Ramog stood up and walked over to the viewwall. There were two other planets in the system of Manon's great green sun. Giant planets both and impossible for a man in a hopper to approach. Neither of them had a moon. There would be stray chunks of matter sprinkled through the system that nobody knew about, but Tate didn't have the equipment for a planned prospecting trip. He had the experience: his record showed he'd taken leave of absence a half dozen times during his Precol service period to take part in private prospecting jaunts. But without equipment, and the time to use it, experience wouldn't help him much in sifting through the expanses of a planetary system.

* * *

And that left what really had been the most likely probability almost to start with. The commissioner switched off the image of Manon and replaced it with that of Manon's Moon Belt.

The planet had possessed a sizable satellite at one time; but the time lay far in Manon's geological past. What was left by now was debris, thick enough to provide both a minor navigational problem and an interesting night-time display, but not heavy enough to represent a noteworthy menace to future colonists. So far there had been no opportunity to survey the Belt thoroughly.

But anyone who was using a hopper regularly could have made an occasional unobserved trip up there.

He couldn't, however, have left his vehicle. Neither to make a closer investigation, nor to pick up something he thought he'd spotted. Not unless he had a Moon-suit.

The commissioner felt excitement growing up in him, and now he could allow it to come through. Because there was really only one reason why an old-timer like Tate would violate Precol regulations so obviously. Only one thing big enough! The thing that Commissioner Ramog had come to Manon to find. An Old Galactic artifact—

He noticed he was shaking a little when he switched on the communicator to the outer office of his quarters. But his tone was steady. "Mora?"

"Right here." A cool feminine voice.

"See what you got on Tate during the day."

"The S.A.C.? He was out with Argee for two hours this afternoon. No coverage on that period."

Ramog frowned a little, nodded. "I have her report here. A Project Five item. What else?"

"Afterwards—Warehouse Center . . ."

"Have that, too."

"I'm scanning the tapes," Mora said. And presently, "Seems to have been in his hopper alone since early morning. Location checks to his station. Nothing of interest, so far. Hm-m-m . . . well, now!"

"What is it?"

"I think," Mora told him, "I should bring this in to you. He's going to be gone two or three days."

"I'll come out." Ramog already was on his feet. "Get me a current location check on that hopper of his."

Mora looked around as he came hurriedly into the office. "No luck, commissioner. Hopper can't be traced. He's gone off-planet."

* * *

Ramog's eyes narrowed very briefly as he dropped into a chair at her desk. "Start up the playback. And don't look so pleased!"

Mora smiled. She was a slender quick-moving, black-haired girl with big eyes almost as dark as her hair. "That's my little blond tiger!" she murmured.

His face was flushed. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," she said, "that I feel very, very sorry for the S.A.C." She started the playback. "The other one talking is Chelly. Ecologist. Tate's unofficial second-in-command at the station."

Ramog nodded impatiently. There weren't more than a dozen sentences to the conversation between Holati Tate and Chelly. Mora shut off the playback. "That's all there is to his tape." She waited.

Ramog had had a bad moment. The S.A.C. had simply put Chelly in charge of station operations for the next two or three days, until he returned. No explanation for his intended absence, and Chelly seemed only mildly surprised. But obviously he wasn't involved in what Tate was doing.

What had bothered Ramog was the sudden thought that Tate might have arranged for an off-planet rendezvous with an FTL. But a second or two later he knew it wasn't possible. The Precol patrol boat stationed off Manon would spot, report, and challenge anything equipped with a space drive before it got close enough to the system for a hopper to meet it. The patrol-boat's job was a legitimate one: a planet undergoing orderly processing became a Federation concern and closed to casual interlopers. But in this case it insured that wherever Holati Tate was heading, he would have to return to Manon eventually.

The commissioner had relaxed a little. He smiled at Mora, his mind reverting to something she'd said a minute or so ago. A thrill-greedy, sanguinary little devil, he thought, but it would be regrettable if he ever had to get rid of Mora. They understood each other so well.

"You know," he told her, "I seem to feel very sorry for the S.A.C., too!" He added, "Now."

She gurgled excitedly and came over to him. "Are you going to tell me what it's all about?"

"Don't be stupid," Commissioner Ramog said tolerantly. An operation like this was a game to Mora. But she wasn't stupid. She was the most valuable assistant he'd ever developed.

"How many possible lines of action?" she persisted.

Ramog already had considered that. "Three," he said. "And I don't think we'd better waste any time."

* * *

As it happened, it was Ramog's third line of action with which Holati Tate became involved when he dropped back into Manon's atmosphere two and a half planet days after his departure. Had he set the hopper down then in some wild section of the planet it would have been a different story. Ramog had been obliged to consider the possibility that the S.A.C. would be so lacking in human trustfulness that he might bury some item of value where it would never be found by anyone else.

An electronics specialist by the name of Gision was, therefore, on Holati's tail in an armed hopper as soon as he was spotted again, and he followed the S.A.C. around the curve of the planet as unobtrusively as one hopper could follow another. However, Holati Tate was merely heading by the shortest route for his Bio Station. When he settled down there, Gision took up a position halfway between Headquarters and the Bio domes and waited for developments.

At the Bio Station Essidy took over. For the past eighteen hours Essidy had been conducting an unhurried inventory of the station, assisted by a small crew of husky warehouse men. Holati locked his hopper when he got out, and it wasn't Essidy's job to do anything about that. He merely reported to Ramog that the S.A.C.—looking a little travel-worn and towing a bulky object by a gravity tube—had gone to his personal quarters. The object appeared to be, and probably was, the packaged Moon-suit. A few minutes later, Holati re-appeared at the hopper without the object, climbed in and took off. Gision reported from his aerial vantage point that the S.A.C. was going toward Headquarters now and was told by Ramog to precede him there.

Essidy was chattering over the private beam again before Gision signed off. Holati Tate had left his quarters sealed, but that had been no problem. "We got the thing unwrapped," Essidy said. "It's the Moon-suit, all right, and nothing else. He's got the directional tracker installed. It's activated. And that's the only interesting thing in these rooms."

"Go ahead," Ramog said quietly. "What's the reading on the tracker?"

Essidy checked again to make sure. "Locked on Object," he reported. "At two to twenty thousand miles."

And that was all Ramog had wanted to know. For a moment he was surprised to discover that his palms were slippery with sweat.

"All right, Essidy," he said. "Seal up his rooms and bring the suit over here, immediately." He added with no change in inflection, "If anyone has tampered with that reading before I see it, I'll burn him and you personally."

"Yes, sir," Essidy said meekly. "Shall I have the boys go ahead with the inventory to make it look right?"

Ramog said that would be fine and cut him off. The commissioner was actually enormously relieved. His third line of action was unreeling itself smoothly, and even if Tate got suspicious and panicked now it wouldn't present a serious problem, though it might still make the operation a little messy.

One could even hope for the S.A.C.'s own sake, Ramog thought, smiling very faintly now, that he wouldn't panic. The third line of action was not only the least risky, it was by far the most humane.

* * *

Holati Tate set the hopper down a hundred yards from the Headquarters vehicle shelter entrance. The service crew chief's voice said over the intercom, "Better bring her in, sir. We're on storm warning."

Holati obediently turned the hopper, slid her into the shelter and grounded her. The entrance door closed a hundred yards behind him.

"Want her serviced, sir?"

"No, no; she doesn't need it." Holati set the hatch on lock, got out and let it snap shut behind him. He looked at the crew chief. "I'll be taking her out again in thirty minutes or so," he said. Then he walked off up the dome tunnel toward the office sections.

The crew chief looked around and saw the hopper's hatch open. He frowned.

"Hey, you!" He went up to the hatch. "Who's that in there? She don't need servicing. How'd you get in?"

The man named Gision looked out. He was a large man with a round face and a sleepily ferocious expression.

"Little man," he said softly, "just keep the mouth shut and take off."

The crew chief stared at him. Gision was tagged with a very peculiar reputation among the best-informed Project personnel, but the crew chief hadn't had much to do with him personally and he habitually ignored Project rumors. Rumors about this guy or that started up on almost any outworld operation; they could usually be put down to jumpy nerves.

He changed his mind completely about that in the few seconds he and Gision were looking at each other.

He turned on his heel and walked off, badly shaken. If something was going on, he didn't want to know about it. Not a thing. He wasn't an exceptionally timid man, but he had just realized clearly that he was a long way from the police of the Federation.

* * *

Mora was in temporary charge of the communications offices, though Holati Tate didn't see her at first. He walked up to a plump, giggly little clerk he'd talked to before. She was busy coding a section of the current Project reports which presently would perform some fantastic loops through time and space and present themselves briskly at the Precol Home Office in the Federation.

Holati looked around the big room. "Where's Trigger Argee?" he inquired.

The clerk giggled. "Visiting her boy friend—" She looked startled. "My . . . I guess I shouldn't have said that!"

So Holati discovered Trigger had been offered a special four-day furlough from the commissioner to go console Brule Inger in the brig, which was stationed in the general area of Manon's southern pole. He could imagine Trigger had been a little suspicious of the commissioner's gesture, but naturally she'd accepted.

He pulled down worriedly on his left ear lobe and glanced over to the far end of the room where three other clerks were working. "Who's in charge here, now?"

"Mora Lune's in charge," said the little clerk. She giggled. "If there's something . . . maybe I can help you?"

"Hm-m-m," Holati Tate said dubiously. As the little clerk told the others afterwards, he looked mighty nervous at that moment, hesitating as if he didn't know what to say. As a matter of fact, he felt rather nervous. "This Mora Lune," he went on at last. "Who's she?"

"The commissioner's secretary," explained the girl. "Mostly. She does all kinds of things, though. Sort of his assistant."

The S.A.C. stood stroking his chin and gnawing his lip. Finally he frowned.

"Well," he said with a sigh, "guess I'll go see Mora."

The little clerk giggled brightly and jumped up. "I'll show you to the office," she offered. Because, as she explained afterwards, she could just feel that something exciting was up.

That was all she had to tell. Mora sent her back to her work as soon as the two of them reached the door of the Central Communications Office. Mora didn't look excited except that her eyes had become nearly black. One would have had to know Mora to interpret that correctly, but Holati Tate made a fair guess. Like a man who's reached a decision, he explained his purpose almost curtly, "I want to send a personal message by long-range transmitter."

Mora indicated restrained surprise. "Oh . . . you'll want privacy, I suppose?" She added, "And I'm sure you're aware of the expense factor?"

He nodded. Just getting the long transmitters started up came to around three months of his salary.

Mora looked arch. "Perhaps congratulations are in order? A registration?"

At that, Holati Tate chuckled nervously. "Well, I'll say this much . . . I'll want to use the Notary!"

"Of course." Mora rose from behind the desk. "I'll attach it for you myself," she offered graciously. She floated ahead of him down a short hall and into the communications cabinet, dealt deftly there with switches and settings, connected the Notary machine with the transmitter, floated back to the door. "It's expensive, remember!" She smiled at him once more, almost tenderly, and closed the door behind her.

* * *

"How'd he take it?" Gision inquired a few minutes later.

Mora shrugged. They were in her own office and both were bent intently over a profile map of the area. On the map a small yellow dot moved out from the sprawl of Headquarters domes toward the southern swamps. Gision's large thumb rested lightly on a button at the side of the frame. Map and attachments were his own creation. "He just clammed up completely when he discovered it was to be a canned message," she said. "Refused to make it, of course—said he'd be back tomorrow or whenever the transmitters were working again. But I'm not even certain he was suspicious."

Gision grunted. "You can bet he got suspicious! The transmitters don't cut out that often."

"Maybe. He'd already checked out positive on the Notary anyway. It was a registration, all right." Mora moved a fingertip toward the thumb that rested on the button. "If you let me do that, I'll tell you what he was going to register."

Gision shook his big head without looking up. "You're too eager. And I'm not interested in what he was going to register."

She smiled. "You're all scared of Ramog."

Gision nodded. "And so would you be," he said, "if you had any sense."

They sat quietly a few minutes; then Mora began to fidget. "Isn't that far enough? He'll get away!"

"He can't get away—and it's almost far enough. We want him right out over the middle of those swamps."

She looked at his face and laughed. "I can tell you're going to let me do it. Aren't you?"

Gision nodded again. "And now's about the time. Put the finger up here."

She slipped her finger over the button and wet her lips. "Like this?"

"Like that. Now push."

She pushed down. The yellow dot vanished.

"Is that all?" she said disappointed.

"What did you expect?" Gision said. "An explosion?"

"No," Mora said dreamily. "But there's not much to it. If the old boy had been a little sharper, we might have had a questioning."

He shrugged. Sometimes Mora gave him the chills. "Questionings are what you try when you can't figure it out," he explained. "In a setup like this they can get pretty risky. So the boss likes to figure it out." He added his own basic philosophy, "When they're dead, they're safe."

* * *

Holati Tate was sweating under his clothes when he slid the hopper back out of the vehicle shelter entrance and lifted into the air. Actually, as far as he could tell, everything was rolling along very smoothly, and he could reassure himself with the thought that he was dealing with a group of people who appeared to have proved their competence at this sort of business more than once in the past. If their thinking was up to par, he would be quite safe for the next eight minutes.

But one couldn't be sure.

Somewhat shakily therefore, he gave the hopper its accustomed fix on the Bio Station and put it on automatic. Then taking a coil of wire out of his pocket, he slipped its looped end over the acceleration switch, secured the loop and gave the wire a tentative tug. The hopper responded with a surge of power.

Holati patted another pocket, which contained a package of emergency rations, and sat back to sweat out the remaining minutes. A persistent fluttering started up in the pit of his stomach. His gaze went wistfully once to the collapsed escape bubble on his left. He was getting a little old for field and track work, he thought; the bubble looked very attractive. But he had no way of knowing just how thorough Ramog's preparations had been, and no time to check. So the bubble was out, like the grav-tubes and the heavy rifle in the hopper's emergency locker. Field and track stuff, as if he were a downy cadet! He groaned.

Wooded stretches passed under him and Great Gruesome's lowlands moved into view ahead. Holati cut the hopper's speed to a crawl, dropped to twenty feet and opened the hatch. He edged out, breathing hard and hanging on to his wire with one hand, and as they passed over the first patch of marshy ground he gave the wire a firm tug and jumped. The hopper zoomed off, slanting upward again.

The ground was much wetter than Holati had estimated, but he floundered and waded out in three and a half minutes. A pair of hippopotamus-sized, apparently vegetarian, denizens of Great Gruesome followed him part of the way, bellowing annoyedly, but undertook no overt action.

As he sat down on the first piece of dry earth to pour the mud out of his boots, there was a moderately bright flash in the noonday sky over the approximate center of the swamp-arm behind him. Holati didn't look around but he grunted approvingly. Clean work! Even if someone had been interested in going hunting for fragments of the hopper, they weren't going to invade the center of Great Gruesome to do it. Not very long.

He worked his boots back on, stood up, sighed, and set out squishly on what was going to be a two-day hike back to the Headquarters Station.



* * *



When the long-awaited announcement of the first artifacts of the legendary Old Galactic civilization finally was flashed from Precol's Manon System to the Federation, the Precol home office and Academy showed an uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm. The fact that one of their most able and respected field operators had just been lost off Manon in line of duty might have had something to do with it. In the wave of renewed high interest in space exploration which swept the Federation, this detail remained generally unnoticed.

For the discovery was a truly king-sized strike. The riches of robotic information alone which it provided for a dozen interested branches of human science might take a century to be fully utilized. The Old Galactic base on an obscure planetoid circling far beyond the previously established limits of the Manon System was no dead relic; it was a functioning though currently purposeless installation. The best guess was that approximately thirty-two thousand standard years had passed since the constructors of the base had last visited it. Automatically and efficiently since then the installation had continued to reap and process the cyclic abundance of plankton life from Manon's atmosphere.

When the ships which once had carried away its finished products no longer came and the limits of its storage facilities were reached, it piled up the accumulating excess on the little world's lightless surface. But its processing sections remained active, and back and forth between the planetoid and Manon moved the stream of Harvesters, biological robots themselves, and performed their function until a human discoverer set foot on the little world and human hands reached for the controlling switches in the installation that turned the Harvesters off.

So scientists, technicians and reporters came out by the shipload to the Manon System, and for a few months Manon's new Acting Commissioner was an extremely busy man. One day however he summoned his secretary, Trigger Argee, to his new office on what was now popularly though inaccurately known as Harvest Moon and said, "Trigger, we're going for a little trip."

"You're scheduled for three more interviews in the next six hours," Trigger informed him.

"Chelly or Inger can handle them," the Acting Commissioner said.

"Not these," said Trigger. "Reporters. They want more details on the Space Exploits of the Gallant Scout Commander Tate in His Younger Days."

"Hell," Acting Commissioner Tate said, reddening slightly, "I'm too old to enjoy being a hero now. They should have come around thirty years earlier. Let's go."

* * *

So they rose presently from the surface of the dark worldlet, with Trigger at the controls of a spacecraft not much bigger than a hopper but capable nevertheless of interstellar jumps, though Trigger hadn't yet been checked out on such maneuvers. It was, as a matter of fact, basically the ferocious little boat of the Space Scouts rebuilt for comfort, which made it a toy for the fabulously wealthy only. The Acting Commissioner, having observed recently that, on the basis of his first-discovery claims to Harvest Moon and its gadgetry, he was now in the fabulously wealthy class, had indulged himself in an old man's whim.

"Here's your course-tape, pilot," he said complacently and settled back into the very comfortable observer's seat on Trigger's right, equipped with its duplicate target screen.

Trigger fed in the tape and settled back also. "Runs itself," she said. "Practically." She was a girl who could appreciate a good ship. "What are you looking for, out in the middle of the Manon System?"

"You'll see when we get there." Trigger gave him a quick look. Then she glanced at the space-duty suit he had brought from the back of the ship and laid behind his seat. "I'm not so sure," she said carefully, "that I'm going to like what I see when we get there."

"Oho!" Holati Tate reached up and tugged down on his left ear lobe. He looked reflective. After a moment he inquired, "How much of this have you got figured out, Trigger girl?"

"Parts of it," Trigger said. "There're some missing pieces, too, though. I've been doing a little investigating on my own," she explained.

Manon's Acting Commissioner cleared his throat. He reached out and made an adjustment on his target screen, peered into the screen, muttered and made another adjustment. Then he said, "What got you going on an investigation?"

"The fact," said Trigger, "that Precol Academy seems willing to let you get away with murder."

"Murder?" He frowned.

"Yes. It didn't take much digging to find out about the Ancient and Honorable Society of Retired Space Scouts. First I'd heard of that outfit." She hesitated. "I suppose you don't mind my saying it doesn't sound like an organization anyone would take seriously?"

"Don't mind at all," said Holati Tate.

"I believe you. In fact, after I'd found there were around twelve thousand of those retired Scouts scattered through Precol—and that you happened to be their president—it occurred to me the Society might have selected that name so nobody would take it seriously."

"Hm-m-m." He nodded. "Yes. Bright girl!"

"There may be bright people at the Academy, too," Trigger said. "Bright enough to work out that Commissioner Ramog's departure from our midst was a well-planned execution."

"I'd say I like `execution' better than `murder'," Holati remarked judiciously. "But it's still not quite the right word, Trigger girl."

"You prefer `object lesson'?"

"Well . . . that'll do for the moment. So what did you mean about it's being a well-planned object lesson?"

Trigger shrugged. "Wouldn't it have been a remarkable coincidence if you'd made the Old Galactic strike at just the right instant to help close out Ramog's account?"

"I see." Holati nodded again. "Yes, you're right about that. A few of us discovered Harvest Moon almost three years ago, on a private prospecting run—" He leaned forward suddenly. "Brake her down, pilot! There's a flock of those Harvester things ahead right now. I want to look them over."

* * *

She brought the ship to a stop in the middle of a widely scattered dozen of Harvesters, drifting idly through the system as they had been doing since Holati Tate had disconnected the switch that energized them, in an airless underground dome on Harvest Moon, three months before.

Peering out against the green glare of Manon's sun, Trigger eyed the nearest of the inert hulks with some feeling of physical discomfort. It was very considerably bigger than their ship, and it looked more like some ominously hovering dark monster of space than like an alien work-robot. She became aware that her companion's hands were moving unhurriedly about an instrument panel on the other side of his target screen. Suddenly, first one and then another of the Harvesters was glowing throughout its length as if a greenish light had been switched on inside it. The glow darkened again, as the invisible beam that had been scanning them from the ship went on to others of the group.

"Looks like this bunch was about four weeks out from Manon when the power went off," Holati remarked conversationally. He cut the scanbeam off. "It would have taken them close to two months to make the run to Harvest Moon at the time."

Trigger nodded. "I've seen the figures. Shall I get us back on course?"

"Please do. There's nothing here."

* * *

Trigger remained silent until she had gone through the required operations. Then, feeling unaccountably relieved at being in motion again, she said, "I suppose it was your Society that started the rumors about the Manon System being the most likely place for an Old Galactic strike to be made."

"Uh-huh. Sound data back of the rumors, too. We felt that with a sharp operator like Ramog the situation we set up had better be genuine." After a moment, he added, "There really wasn't any way of doing it gently, Trigger girl. That Academy outfit was too cocksure of its position; it needed hard processing. One of the things they had to learn was that—away from civilization, anyway—the members of the Society can play rougher and dirtier than any commissioner they can send out. After all," he concluded mildly, "we've had the training for that. Years of it."

Trigger looked at him curiously. "What puzzles me is that they seem to have got the idea so quickly. I wouldn't have thought Precol Academy would let itself be impressed too much by just one object lesson."

"They might have missed some of the implications," Holati admitted. "However, we gave them a helpful hint."

"Oh?" she said. "What?"

"A formal complaint from our Society, signed by its president. It listed Society members and others who had been killed on Precol Projects in the last ten years, because of the inefficiency, let's say, of specific Project commissioners. The commissioners in question—all members of the Academy—were also listed. Ramog's name happened to be at the head of that list . . . and they got the complaint the day after Ramog was reported lost."

Trigger's eyes widened. "Well," she acknowledged, "that's as broad as a hint can get!"

"We weren't trying to be subtle. Murder gets to be hard to prove under Project conditions—there're too many possibilities. So the Academy group is safe enough that way; we aren't accusing anyone of anything worse than inefficiency. But the complaint suggested that the people we listed be withdrawn from active service, as they were obviously unfit for such work."

She smiled briefly. "And since the Society has taken the precaution of turning its president into an extremely famous man, the home office can't resort to obvious counteraction—like firing the whole twelve thousand of you from the various Projects?"

"That would raise a terrible stink, wouldn't it?" Holati said cheerfully. "And, who knows, we might even publish our complaint then. With additional data we could—Slow her down again, will you? We should be pretty close to course end by now."

"A few minutes off," Trigger said reluctantly. "What is it—more Harvesters?"

He was fiddling with the target screen again. "Uh-huh," he said absently. "But we'll move on a little farther. Slow and easy now!"

* * *

Trigger kept it slow and easy, ignoring the dark shapes they slid past occasionally. After a while, she said, "There's one thing the Academy must have thought of trying, though—"

"To pin Ramog's disappearance on me?"

She glanced at him. "Perhaps not on you personally. There's evidence enough you'd just started walking back from the edge of the swamps when Ramog climbed into a jet suit, took off for the Moon Belt on an undisclosed mission, and vanished. But it wouldn't be too unreasonable for the Academy to assume that some retired, but not so decrepit Space Scouts, were waiting for him up there when he arrived."

"You know," Holati said with some satisfaction, "that's exactly how they did figure it." He kept his eyes on the screen as he went on. "Naturally, they wouldn't expect us to leave a body floating around, but a really capable investigator doesn't need anything as crude as that in the line of evidence. The Academy had some very good boys combing over the Moon Belt and other parts of the system the past couple of months. There were times when we had to be careful not to trip over them."

"Oh?" said Trigger. "What did they find?"

"Nothing," Holati said. "Naturally. They gave up finally."

She frowned. "How do you know?"

"I get the word. The word I got last week was that the bad eggs in Precol we named on that list are resigning in droves and heading for the Federation. And the men that are being moved up are men we like. Just today," he added, "an Academy courier came in with an official notification for me. I'm confirmed in rank as commissioner now, in permanent charge of the Manon Project."

Trigger Argee sat thoughtfully silent for a while. "So there really wasn't anyone waiting up in the Moon Belt for Ramog?"

Holati shook his head. "No," he said almost casually. "We never laid a finger on him. Wouldn't have been quite ethical—we had no proof."

Her face began working curiously. "And there was that plankton signal you had me copying for you—Did you ever find out whether it attracted the Harvesters, too?"

He nodded. "Chow call, pure and simple. Now, pilot, do you spot that singleton on your screen over there?"

Trigger's head was swimming for a moment; then she saw the distant dark blob. "Yes," she said faintly.

"Move in on it, adjust to the drift, and stop." She heard him stand up.

"Holati!" It wasn't much more than a gasp. "Are you going out?"

"Well, what else? It won't take long."

Trigger closed her eyes slowly, opened them again and grimly maneuvered the sluggishly gliding boat in on its dark target. From behind her came a series of vague metallic sounds, followed by the snaps of the magnetic suit clamps. She stopped the boat and stared out at the shadow shape swimming like a whale in the tides of space beside them. Soft heavy footsteps passed behind her, moving toward the lock. Waves of horror began crawling over her skin.

The lock hissed, and presently stopped hissing. She was alone. The boat turned slowly, and she found herself staring again at the green blaze of Manon's sun. But the dark thing still floated at the edge of her vision, and now and then it seemed to move slightly. She felt like screaming. Then the lock began hissing again, and stopped again.

* * *

He came in slowly and turned to the back of the ship. Something went dragging and bumping heavily across the floor behind him.

She nodded slowly, though he couldn't see that from the back of the ship.

Riding a directional beam, she thought—and the beam pre-set to cut out when he hit the altitude where the Plankton Drift is thickest. So there he hangs wondering what's happened, while the suit is broadcasting to those—whew!

"Holati," she said evenly, "I think I'm going to faint."

"Not you," his voice came from the back of the ship. "Or I wouldn't have picked you for the trip." He was breathing heavily. "You can start us back to base now."

Trigger didn't faint. The ship began to move and the thing outside vanished. The thing he had brought inside went with them. Holati made no stir for the moment; she guessed he was glad of a chance to rest.

The happy little monster is right, her thoughts ran on. It wasn't a murder; it wasn't even an execution. They couldn't prove Ramog was a killer, so they tested him. He couldn't climb into that suit until he'd got Holati Tate out of the way. And once he'd done that, he couldn't send anyone else because, with stakes that big there was never anyone else a man like Ramog could trust.

The Society had it set up, all right—

There was a loud metal clang from the back of the ship, and a pale purple glow grew in the dark behind Trigger. The little fuel converter door had been opened. At the same time, something seemed to shut off her breathing.

Holati said conversationally, "Precol Service was a pretty fair organization before the Academy took over, Trigger. Shouldn't be long before it's back in good shape again now—" He stopped and grunted with effort, and there was a sharp cracking sound like a stick of dry wood being broken.

"The Academy's all right," he went on, breathing unevenly again, "for raising funds and things like that. We'll keep it around. But it's out in the field where the fun is, and we intend to keep the fun clean from now on."

The purple light faded; the converter door clanged shut. The little boat's interior lights came on. "All right," Holati said. "You can look around now."

Trigger looked around. There were dark streaks on the floor before the converter door, but the thing that had been brought in from outside was gone. Holati Tate was climbing out of his space-duty suit. He looked at her and closed one eye in a wink that was not, in the slightest degree, humorous.

"Processed!" he said.



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