17. TROUBLE ON E-DRY 1*

Why do the people of E-Dry 1 suddenly suffer from sunburn?
A native boy begs Tony and Bea to find out.

Length : 40 800 words.

1

“TEST GOGGLES.”

Wellington ordered the Bean and me,  “Report to Yband 5.”
“Yband 5?”  said the Bean.  “But the only thing on Yband 5 is the prison.”
“These are your orders,”  said Wellington.  “You are required to test goggles.”
“Test goggles,”  I said.  “That sounds fun.  Not!”
“It sounds strange,”  said the Bean.  “Why would they send us to a prison to test goggles?”
“If you stop chattering and report to Yband 5, you will find out,”  said Wellington.  “The ship is waiting for you.  Number 228787.”
The Bean’s my cousin.  She and I are agents of the Galactic Federation.  Our official job is Troubleshooters but, if they can’t find any trouble for us to shoot, they give us odd jobs.  While Martin, our boss, was on holiday, we were under the command of Wellington, the Commander of the Investigators.  I like Martin, but I don’t like Wellington.
Wellington’s office is in the Federation headquarters on the planet Yband 4, so we’d have a short spaceship hop to Yband 5.  We went through the big waiting room for travellers on Yband 4.  Like all Federation rooms, it has grey walls and floor, lit by a glowing ceiling.  It was as busy as usual, with a colourful mixture of humanlike and non-humanlike people, some rushing around; some sitting on the seats round the sides, chattering in all the languages of this part of the Galaxy.
In the mask room, we put on breathing masks: the air of Yband 4 contains no oxygen, so we can’t breathe it.  We stood in front of a door in the end of the room.  It opened automatically, letting us into an airlock, a clear-sided room about the size of a lift.  Behind us, the door shut.  After a few seconds, the door opened in front of us, and we went out on the surface of the planet.  The sun, Yband, wasn’t in sight, but Yband 5 was high in the sky, like a moon, flooding the spaceport with pale light.  It was quiet: six ships sat on landing sites, and one or two people were crossing the gravel between them.
Four of the ships were black boxes about the size of cottages, with big white numbers on the sides.  The fifth was a cargo ship – the same length and width, but twice as high.  The sixth!  It was also the same length and width, but much higher – at least six storeys.  On the side facing us, above the door, was a white oval with a picture of a blue bird, like an Earth eagle, gliding with wings spread.
“That’s the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4,”  I said.  “D’you think Gloggy would let us see it?”  The Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4 was the most luxurious ship in our part of the Galaxy.  We’d met Gloggy (Prince Gloglon, the eleven-year-old son of the owner) on one mission, but we hadn’t exactly become friends with him.
The Bean said,  “We don’t have time.  There’s our ship.  228787.”
“I know, but….”
Behind us, the door of the big airlock whined open, and a gang of people charged out.  I couldn’t see their faces behind their breathing masks, but I could see their hands, which were holding nerve-guns.
2

“OCCUPIED?”

I threw myself flat.  I didn’t fancy getting in the way of a nerve-gun beam: it causes agonising pain.  If it hits your head, the pain is so bad you black out.  Beside me, the Bean gasped and fell.  Other travellers shouted and screamed.
I lay still, listening to the crunch of the raiders’ feet.  I daren’t look, but it sounded like they were running to the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4.
One set of footsteps followed them out of the airlock and stopped near us.  I tensed but tried not to move.  It was hard, knowing he could be pointing a nerve-gun – or a bullet-gun – at my unprotected back, but I couldn’t do anything else.
I don’t know how long I sweated while he stood there.  It probably wasn’t any more than two minutes, but it didn’t seem less than two hours.  At last, he gave a shout, muffled by his breathing mask, and his feet pounded to the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4.  I took deep breaths of relief.
Everything went quiet.  I eased my head round.  Close up – grey gravel.  Farther away – the black box of a ship.  Nothing moved.
I looked round – in time to see the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4 shimmer into nothing as it took off into the fourth dimension for a flight.
Hearing the hum of an airlock door behind me, I spun round in alarm, but it was only a worried Federation Investigator.
After that, things started to move.  Somebody brought reanimators.  I held one to the Bean’s forehead and pressed the green button.  She moaned and sat up, holding her head.  I asked,  “How d’you feel, Bean?”
“My head… my head feels as if it’s on fire.  Give me a moment.”
I helped her to her feet and through an airlock to the waiting room, where she slumped on the nearest settee.  The other victims struggled in after us.
Wellington’s broad-shouldered figure appeared in the doorway, frowning at everybody.  He came over to give all the frown to us.  “Were you involved in this incident?”
“Yes,”  I said, standing up to face him.
“Report.”
“We were on our way to the ship for Yband 5.  A bunch of people charged out of the big airlock, waving nerve-guns.  I threw myself flat.  I kept my head down but I heard them heading for the Eagle.  I looked up as it took off.”
“How many people?”
“I don’t know.  At least twenty.”
“Men or women?”
“I couldn’t tell.”
“How were they dressed?”
“Dark grey uniforms with a big white Y on the front.  Hallixian pirates.”  A gang of crooks – they call themselves pirates – have a base on Hallixia 10.
“What did you do to stop them?”
“Nothing.  I wasn’t carrying a gun.”
“Humph!”  He turned to the Bean.  “What did you do?”
She used her snippy voice.  “I fell down, unconscious.  One of the nerve-gun beams hit me.”
“Humph!  Martin boasts that the Troubleshooters are resourceful.  You didn’t show it.”
“What d’you expect us to do?”  I tried to keep my temper but I knew I was almost shouting.
“You might have done more than….”
“Wellington!”  A man stood in the doorway.  His face was pointy – nose like a beak; narrow eyes; small black beard and moustache with pointed ends.  He wore a black sweatshirt and trousers, and a black cloak with a white oval containing the picture of a gliding eagle.  We’d met him on an earlier mission: this was Gloggy’s dad, the Emperor of Nasti Nurvi 4, the owner of the Eagle.
He spoke into his wrist unit, and the translation came through ours:  “Wellington!  These… these bandits have stolen the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4.”
“So I believe, Your Excellency.”
“You must pursue them.”
“We shall do what we can, Your Excellency, but they have escaped into the fourth dimension.  No one can reach them there.  We must hope to trace them when they land.”
“You must find them immediately!  My son, Prince Gloglon, was in the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4.  You must rescue him.”
“I have already started the investigation, Your Excellency.  These agents witnessed the affair.  I am questioning them now.”
The Emperor looked down at us.  The Bean and I, like all young people from Earth, can sense the feelings of people from other planets.  I’d sensed Gloggy’s mind – not strongly but clearly – so I was surprised to receive no signal from his dad’s.  I didn’t need to sense his mind to know his sharp eyes were studying me.
I looked anxiously at him: on that other mission, we were ordered to guard Gloggy, but he dodged us and got snatched.  We had trouble rescuing him.  I didn’t think he’d’ve told his dad, but….
To my relief, the Emperor smiled.  “Ah, these agents.  You can rely on them.  Wellington, you must do your utmost to find my ship and my son.”  He hurried away with his cloak flying behind him.
Wellington turned to us.  “You two can list the planets where the pirates may take the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4.  Do not try to assess them: I shall put competent Investigators on that job.”
I asked,  “Weren’t we ordered to test goggles?”
“No, you….”  He stopped.  “Very well.  Report to Yband 5 as ordered.  But do not delay there.  I shall require every available agent to search for the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4.”
As we walked to the ship, the Bean asked,  “Tony, do you want to test goggles?”
“No!  But it won’t be as dull as listing hundreds of planets, trying to guess where the Eagle might’ve gone.  The goggle-testing order must’ve come from higher up.  He didn’t dare to change it.  If we… Jade!”
Standing in the doorway of the ship was Jade, a slim Indian girl who was at the agents’ College with us.  When we became Troubleshooters, she trained as a Pilot.
“Bea!  Tony!”  she said.  “It’s good to see you again.”
“Hi, Jade,”  said the Bean.  “And congratulations!  I see you’re a Pilot now.”  All Federation agents wear uniforms like grey tracksuits with coloured bands round the chest and cuffs.  Our bands were the dark green of Troubleshooters; Jade’s were the pale blue of a Pilot.
Jade said,  “Yes.  This is my first job – the service between Yband 4 and Yband 5.”  During the twenty-minute hop through the fourth dimension, we swopped news.
The ship’s terminal of Victor, the Federation computer, reported,  “I cannot land at the Yband 5 landing site.  It is occupied.”
“Occupied?”  Jade frowned.  “This is the only ship which uses that landing site.  I’ll land nearby, but it will take a few minutes.”  She began giving orders to Victor.
The Bean and I exchanged looks – remembering another ship which had recently left Yband 4.
After five tense minutes, I felt the twist inside, and Jade said,  “We’ve landed.  Victor, let’s see the pictures from the outside cameras.”  When they came up, I wasn’t surprised to see the black shape of the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4 towering over the grey buildings of the prison.  The doors of the ship and the prison were shut, and nobody was in sight.
Jade said,  “That’s the ship that was stolen from Yband 4.  We’ll have to warn the prison.”
“No, Jade,”  I said.  “The crooks may have taken over the prison.  We don’t want to tell them we’re here.”
The Bean asked,  “Jade, if we call Yband 4, will the prison overhear?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.  It has equipment to check radio signals.”
“Don’t risk it,”  I said.  “We have to get moving and hope to take them by surprise.”
Jade asked,  “Are you going out there?”
“Yeah.  If I don’t do something, Wellington will say I’m a pathetic agent, and he’ll be right – this time.  I’ll get a stun-gun from the ship’s store.”  I started through for it.
The Bean came with me.  “I’ll need one too.”
“Bean, you don’t have to come with me.”
“Do you expect me to let you go on your own?”
In the ship’s entrance hall, the Bean and I put on breathing masks: the air of Yband 5 also has no oxygen.
“Open.”  The ship’s door slid aside.  Cold air swirled in.  It was night-time here too, with a moon high in the sky.  In its cold silver light, the Eagle of Nasti Nurvi 4 and the prison had sharp black shadows.
The Bean asked,  “The Eagle or the prison?”
“The prison,”  I said.  “Stay well apart.”  We jogged over the stony ground towards the airlock doors.  My finger was on the trigger of my stun-gun although at first the doors were outside its range.
As we went nearer, I got worried.  What should we do?  I was sure the crooks from the Eagle were in the prison.  Should we charge in, hoping to surprise them?  Should we lie in wait beside the doors, hoping to ambush them as they came out?  I began,  “Bean, what…?”
The doors opened, and a mob of dark grey uniforms charged out.  I pulled the trigger of my gun, and some fell, but more surged forward, nerve-guns up.  Pain exploded in my head, and I felt myself falling.