19. TROUBLE ON NAXI 17*

A valuable load of food, seesa nuts, has been stolen on Naxi 17.
Tony and Bea are sent to investigate.

From their first questions, they suspect trouble.  Seesa nuts are not the innocent food that the leader pretends.  They discover who stole them, but they know the leader won’t believe them.  And they soon find out that others have even more trouble with stolen seesa nuts.

Length : 31 500 words.

1

“A FLASH OF PANIC.”

“Bean!”  I grabbed her arm.  “D’you catch that?”
“Catch what?”  She looked blank.
“A flash of panic.  A girl’s mind.  Come on!”
She and I were on our way to report to our boss in the headquarters of the Galactic Federation on the planet Yband 4.  We’re agents of the Federation because, like all young people from Earth, we can sense the feelings of people from other planets.  As we threaded through the crowds in the travel centre, we sensed the minds all around us, but we were used to that, so we paid no attention.  Until that blast of panic, loud above the others, came from the transporter corridor.
I pushed into that corridor, which is long and wide, with twenty-four bays on the right, containing the doors to transporters that can take you to other planets.
Opposite the third door, I found the reason – three men.  They were human-like, tall and broad, but their skin was black with a blue shine, like a bluebottle.  Their sleeveless tunics looked like black leather.  They were big-headed and cruel – and one held an unconscious girl, like a baby in his arms.
I stood in front of him.  “What are you doing?”
Without bothering to answer, he pushed past me, but I grabbed his tunic.  “Stop!  Where are you going with that girl?”
One of the others – he must’ve been their leader – stopped him with a sharp order, then frowned down at me and spoke into his wrist unit – like a watch with a computer screen.  My wrist unit translated his harsh voice.  “Who are you?”
“I’m a Federation agent, and I want to know what you’ve done to that girl.”
He looked around.  Passers-by were staring at us, and some had stopped to watch.  He said,  “She was taken ill.”
“Yeah!”  The girl was wearing a short-sleeved white tunic.  A thin arm, almost as white as the tunic, was hanging down.  I took her wrist, and was relieved to find a pulse.  “Where are you taking her?”
“That is no concern of yours.”
“If she’s not well, she should go to the hospital.”
“She does not need the hospital.”
“She doesn’t belong to your race.  Take her to the hospital.”  I let my hand rest on my stun-gun, on its clip at my waist.
He glared at me.  “We shall deal with her.”
I had my own flash of panic.  I couldn’t let them take the girl away.  But they could overpower me before I could use my stun-gun on all three of them.  Could the Bean…?  Looking wildly around, I spotted a face I knew in the passing crowd.  “Columbus!”
Columbus is a big man – tall and plump.  He was wearing typical Federation gear – like a tracksuit – but his was in a dazzling zigzag pattern of red and yellow, and he had a matching cloak on top.
He pushed to the front of the crowd, beaming.  “Tony!  My friend!”
Friend?  Columbus is a brilliant scientist and inventor.  We knew he was a crook – we’d caught him cheating natives – but he’d slimed out.  He was so cheeky I kinda liked him, and I was glad when he looked at the black men and asked me now,  “Could you use a little help?”
“These three knocked out the girl.  They’re trying to take her away.”
The leader of the three began,  “We didn’t….”
”Now, now,”  said Columbus.  Not loud, but it made the guy stop.  “Tony, what do you want to do?”
“Take the girl to hospital.”
“That seems an excellent idea.”  Columbus beamed at the three.
The leader growled,  “We don’t know where to find the hospital.”
“We’ll show you,”  I said.  “Bean, would you lead?”
With a nod, she moved off.  The leader hesitated, staring at Columbus.  Then he waved the others to follow the Bean.  I said,  “Thanks, Columbus.”
He bowed.  “I am always happy to help keen young agents in their duties.”
I kept my stun-gun in my hand as I followed the others through the corridors.  The leader turned once to glare at me, but he didn’t speak.
At the hospital, the doctor ordered,  “Put her on that trolley, under the light.  What’s wrong with her?”
I answered,  “These three frightened her.  I think they knocked her out.”
The leader said,  “She collapsed.”
The doctor frowned at him.  “Hmm.  All of you, go to the waiting room.  I’ll examine her, then see you there.”
As we left the room, the leader spoke to his mates without using his wrist unit.  They didn’t come into the waiting room with us.
As we sat down, the Bean said,  “I’m glad they’ve gone.  They’re horrible.”
“Yeah,”  I said.  “I hope the girl will tell us what they were up to.”
“If she recovers.”  She glanced at her wrist unit.  “We’re due to report to Martin in about 1%.”  (That’s about a quarter of an hour.)
I said,  “I’d rather wait.”  I faced the terminal of the Federation computer.  “Wake, Victor.  Tony here.  I request direct talk with Martin in his office.”
In a few seconds, Martin’s voice came through.  “Hi, Tony.  Where are you?”
“The Bean and I are at the hospital.  We rescued a girl from three men, and brought her here.  She’s unconscious.  The doctor’s with her now.  Can we wait and speak to her when she revives?”
“That should be OK.  I thought I had a job for you.  Theft, on a planet called Naxi 17.  Their ruler was due to see me about half an hour ago, but he hasn’t appeared.  Come through when you can.”
“Thanks.  Victor, stop direct talk.”
The Bean and I chatted for about fifteen minutes before the doctor appeared in the doorway.  “Where are your friends?”
“They didn’t wait,”  I said.  “How’s the girl?”
“She was knocked out by a blow to the back of the head.  When she revives, she’ll have a sore head, but that’s all.”
“Can you use a reanimator on her?  We’d like to ask her who did it.”
“How urgent is it?”
“Important, but not desperate.”
He frowned.  “I’d rather let her recover naturally.  Can you wait for 8%?”
“No problem,”  I said.  “We’ll report to our boss, and come back.”
Ten minutes took us to Martin’s office.  Like all Federation offices, it has a U of seats facing Victor’s terminal.  Martin was in his command chair, the bottom of the U.  And, sitting on the settee at his right, was the leader of the bluebottle men.
2

“I AM FIRST-BALLISTA.”

“You!”  The guy jumped to his feet.  The light gleamed off the hairless dome of his head.
I said,  “Martin, this is the leader of the men we met.”
Martin asked me,  “What do you want to do?”
“Let’s hear what he has to say.”
What he said (to Martin) was,  “Who are these?”
“These are the agents who will be doing your job.”
“What!  Do you insult us by sending children?”
“Are you trying to tell me what to do?”  Martin’s voice was sharp.  “If you are not happy with their work, you can complain to Obsidian.”  Obsidian is commander of all the local agents.
The guy stared at Martin for a while, then sank back on his settee.  “My father sent me to order you to make an important investigation.  If these children bungle it, you will be sorry.”
We sat across from him.  His black eyes glared at me, making it easier for me to sense his mind, although it only gave a weak signal.  Still big-headed and cruel.  Now angry as well.
The Bean said to him,  “Greetings.  I’m Bea.”
“I’m Tony.”  I smiled to him – ’cause I hoped that would annoy him.
He didn’t show his anger.  “I am First-Ballista.”
First-Ballista?  A suspicion flashed into my mind.  I asked,  “How old are you, First-Ballista?”
“I am fifteen.”  The wrist unit translated his age into Earth years.  Two years older than me – and he was taller and broader than Martin.
“Where are your friends?”
“They have business elsewhere.”  Did I sense a hint of guilt?  No doubt they were up to mischief.
Martin asked,  “How can we help you, First-Ballista?”
“My father is ruler of the most important town of Naxi 17 – the one at the transporter.  A few days ago, all the seesa nuts were stolen from our store.”
“How do you know the thieves didn’t come from your own planet?”
“They used weapons which made our guards fall unconscious.  My people don’t have such weapons.”
“Stun-guns,”  said Martin.  “Are these seesa nuts valuable?”
“They are very valuable.”
The Bean asked,  “How do you use them?”
“They are essential food for my people.”
“When…?”  began Martin.
I interrupted,  “What do you mean by ‘essential food’?”
“That should be obvious, even to someone of feeble intelligence.  If my people do not eat seesa nuts, we become weak and die.”
Martin asked,  “Do you have enough of these seesa nuts to keep you alive?”
“Not in our town.  We may buy some from other towns, but they won’t have much left from last year, and this year’s crop is not yet ripe.  My father demands that you find the ones which were stolen from us.”
“I understand,”  said Martin.  He turned to the Bean and me.  “Do you want the job?  I could ask Wellington to send Investigators.”
“We’ll do it,”  I said.  “Tomorrow.”
Martin lifted his eyebrows but didn’t argue.
First-Ballista did.  “Tomorrow?  This is urgent.  My father ordered the investigation to begin immediately.”
I said,  “We need time to prepare.”
“That is your business.”  He stood up, looking huge.  “I don’t expect two little children to do anything useful anyway.”  He strode to the door, ordered it,  “Open,”  and left.
We sat for a moment in silence, before the Bean commented,  “Charming.”
Martin asked,  “Tony, why did you put him off until tomorrow?”
“I don’t think it’s the simple theft he pretended.  Before we go, I want to find out about him and his friends from Naxi 17.  And I want to speak to the girl they knocked out.”
Martin asked,  “Would you like to use this Victor?”
“Thanks,”  I turned to the terminal.  “Wake, Victor.  Give basic data on the planet Naxi 17.”
Victor answered,  “Naxi 17 is slightly larger than Sol 3, but its gravity and atmosphere are similar.  Its day lasts 29.32 Sol 3 hours.”
“What’s the climate like?”
“At the town with the transporter, it is cool and wet.  I advise you to picnic somewhere else.”  That was Victor trying to be smart.
“Let’s see the natives.”
The picture came up on the screen – a bunch of people like First-Ballista.
“Would they know another race – smaller, with white skin and white tunics?”
Victor asked,  “Do you think I am a mind-reader?”  but a picture came up.  “Are these the ones?”
“Yeah.”  They were adults, but I couldn’t mistake the skin – like white marble – and the tunics.  “Who are they?”
“They live on the planet Cooco 8.  They grow seesa nuts for the people of Naxi 17.”
We looked at each other.  Seesa nuts again!  I asked,  “What do the Naxi 17 people do with the seesa nuts?”
“They eat them.”
“Are you sure?”
“Must you ask stupid questions?  That is the reason they give for obtaining the seesa nuts from Cooco 8.  I have never seen anyone from Naxi 17 eating seesa nuts, but I believe them when they say they do.”
Martin asked,  “Why do you ask, Tony?”
“When the Bean asked what they used the seesa nuts for, I caught a hint of guilt in First-Ballista’s mind.  D’you notice it, Bean?”
“No.  I sensed nothing from him.”
“His signal was faint.  Victor, tell us about the planet Cooco 8.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to know about every planet in the Galaxy?  Its gravity and atmosphere are also comfortable for a native of Sol 3.  Its day lasts 19.12 Sol 3 hours.  At the village with the transporter, the climate is warm but wet.  That would be a more suitable place for your picnic, but take your expedition suits.”
“Thanks, Victor.  Sleep.”  I turned to the others.  “I bet that’s why they grow the seesa nuts.  The climate’s warmer.”
“Probably,”  said Martin.  “What do you plan to do now?”
“Speak to the Cooco 8 girl.  Have a look at Cooco 8.  After that, we can start on First-Ballista’s job.  It’ll give us an excuse to ask questions on Naxi 17.  Bean, what d’you think?”
“We’ll have to take care.  I don’t trust those Naxians.”
Martin said,  “I know what you mean.  Before you leave for Naxi 17, report to Victor.”
The Bean and I went to the hospital, a bit late for the 8%.  At the door of the doctor’s room, I ordered,  “Open.”  It slid aside.  The doctor was slumped on the floor beside the trolley.  Which was empty.  The girl was gone.
3

“COOCO 8?”

On some of our first missions, we wished we’d had a reanimator, so the Bean started carrying one.  She used it on the doctor.  He told us,  “I was checking the girl when the door opened.  One of those big blue-black men was in the doorway.  He had a cloth bag over his head, with slits for the eyes.  He used a stun-gun on me.”  He sat up quickly, looking around in alarm.  “The girl!  Where’s the girl?”
“She’s gone.”
“Gone!  Have you reported to Wellington?”  (Wellington is the chief Investigator.)
“Would you do it?  You can tell him we’re working on it.”
As we left the hospital, the Bean asked,  “Cooco 8?”
“Yeah.  Maybe they can tell us why the girl came to Yband 4.”
Remembering what Victor had said about the Cooco 8 weather, we put our expedition suits over our uniforms.  We wore stun-guns and carried spare wrist units set for the Cooco 8 language.
We stood at the door of the Cooco 8 transporter, the third one along from the entrance to the corridor, beside where we first saw the Naxians with the girl.  I called,  “Open.”  The door slid aside.  We went in – a metal room like a lift.  “Close.”  The door slid shut.  “Operate.”  I felt the twist in my guts, showing we’d transported.  “Open.”  The door slid aside.
“Tony,”  breathed the Bean.  “It’s beautiful!”
The transporter was built into a low cliff near the top of a hill looking over a wide river valley with big green fields.  The river was blue, reflecting the sky.  The air was warm and still.  Nobody was in sight.
I took off my helmet.  “We won’t need our expedition suits.  I wonder where everybody is.  I’ll give a shout.”
“No, Tony.”  The Bean pulled her expedition suit top over her head.  “It’s so peaceful.  Don’t disturb it.  We’d see if anyone was around.”
“Unless they’re hiding up there.”  I held up my top, pointing to the bushes among the rocks above the transporter.  “What do we do?  Head down?”  Turning right from the transporter, a track led down the hill between the fields, and past a patch of trees.
“That’s the obvious way to go.  There may be houses among those trees.”
Leaving our expedition suits beside the transporter, we walked down the track.  The Bean said,  “It’s hard to believe there’s trouble here.  It’s so peaceful.”  She grabbed my arm, pulling me to a stop.  “Tony!  Tony, do you hear…?”
Music drifted up to us – like pan pipes playing a slow, mournful tune.
“I think it’s coming from the trees.”
The trees had straight trunks, and umbrellas of huge, dark green leaves.  Some of them were planted in fours, in squares, so the leaves merged into a shelter.  Posts were fixed in the ground between the trunks, and strips of rough brown cloth were woven round the trees and posts, making the walls of the houses.  The nearest one had a low doorway in the middle of the side facing us.
I ducked in.  The walls stopped a little below the leaves, letting in greenish light that let me see some simple furniture, but no people.  The next three houses were the same.
Following the sound of the music, we met a native man, hurrying in the same direction.  I stood in front of him, holding out a wrist unit.  His mind signal was strong: he was sad and worried.  Very sad and very worried.  Part of his worry was because he was late.  He was too polite to barge past us, but he shared anxious glances between us and the direction of the music.
I spoke into my wrist unit.  “I’m sorry to bother you, but we think a girl from this planet has disappeared on Yband 4.  Do you know anything about her?”
His worry grew to alarm.  He stammered,  “N…no.  I don’t know of any missing girl.  I… I’m late.  Please let me past.”  His mind screamed that he was lying, and he tried to push the wrist unit away.
I kept holding it at him.  “Would you ask your people?”
“Not now.  Not now.  We… we are mourning for our queen.  She… she died today.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.  May we come back tomorrow?”
“No, no!  The funeral is tomorrow.”
“The day after?”
“Perhaps, perhaps.”  The panic shoved the last shred of politeness from his mind.  He pushed the wrist unit at me, and ran towards the sound of the music.
I asked,  “Bean, did you sense his feelings?”
“I couldn’t miss them, poor man!  What do we do now?”
“Follow him.”  I started.
She hesitated.  “Perhaps we should….”  But, when I glanced over my shoulder, she was coming after me.
As we went through the empty village, the mournful music grew louder, and a feeling of sadness filled the air.  We traced both to a house, bigger than the others, at the back of the village.
“Tony,”  said the Bean with a tremor in her voice.  “Do you…?”
“Yeah.”  The sadness was so strong I couldn’t stop myself from crying.  “I’ll have a quick look.”  I peeped in the doorway.
In the middle of the building, a woman lay on her back on a cloth-covered table.  Her face looked grey beside the white cloth.  The people – men, women and children – were standing round her.  At the far end, five men were playing big recorders.  None of them saw me: they were all looking down.
I ducked out, and ran until the sad feeling was weaker.  As I wiped the tears from my eyes, I told the Bean,  “A body on a table, surrounded by people mourning.”
“Was it the girl?”
“No.  It was a woman.  Old, with a wrinkled face.  The whole village is there.  That’s why the other huts are empty.”
“We’d better leave.  We can come back later.”
“Let’s have a look round first.  It’s a good chance, while they’re all in there.  We might find some of those seesa nuts.”
We explored the village, but all we found were empty houses.  In one, beside the track, was a Federation kit trolley, a big metal box on wheels.
I lifted one of the half-lids.  A few brown nuts like acorns were scattered in the bottom of the trolley.  I leaned in and took four out.  “These’ll be seesa nuts.  I’ll take some for testing.”  I put them in my pocket and shut the trolley.
We walked up the track.  As we passed a field of thick bushes nearly as high as me, the Bean asked,  “Are these seesa nut plants?”
We stopped to look.  I held up a branch, showing the nuts on their stalks.  “You’re right, Bean.  They’re hard to see ’cause they’re green.”
They’re not ripe yet.  First-Ballista said this season’s crop isn’t ready.”
I looked over the long rows, stretching down the slope.  “There’s loads of them.”
We collected our expedition suits and transported to Yband 4, where we reported to Martin and gave him the seesa nuts for testing.  He asked,  “Do you still plan to go to Naxi 17?”
“Yeah,”  I said.  “Something’s going on.  We ought to investigate.”
!Hmm.”  He looked doubtful.  “Yes.  You’re right, Tony.  We can’t ignore it.”  He picked up the seesa nuts.  “I’d rather find out about these before you go.  I’ll ask the Scientists to rush the tests.”  He checked his wrist unit.  “It’s 48%.  Would you come back at 60%?”
When we went back, he looked serious.  “I have the report.  These seesa nuts wouldn’t be much use as food, but they contain a drug – a powerful drug.”
“I’m not surprised,”  I said.  “I thought First-Ballista was hiding something.”
“It may make a visit to Naxi 17 more dangerous.  I didn’t trust First-Ballista.  Should I ask Wellington to send a team of Investigators?”
“We should be safe,”  I said.  “They won’t harm us when you know we’re there.  And we’ll take a Carrington.  He’ll watch us.”
Carrington is a Federation robot, like a flying saucer about a metre across.  Round his rim, he has four camera eyes to see and record.
Martin asked,  “Bea, what do you think?”
“I agree with Tony.  It won’t be pleasant, but I don’t think it’ll be dangerous.  And I’d like to help that poor girl.”
“Are you going to ask questions about her on Naxi 17?”
“What do you think?”
“Go easy on it.  Concentrate on the seesa nuts investigation.  I’ll do a bit of checking here.  Not that it’ll do much good.”  He frowned at the floor for a while then told us,  “All right.  If you want to go, I won’t stop you, but take care.”
4

ASKING QUESTIONS.

Next day, the Bean and I, with a Carrington hovering above my left shoulder, used the first transporter in the transporter corridor.  It took us to the small travel centre on a planet called Cat-Nemium 4.  From there, we took another transporter to Naxi 17.
“Open.”  The door slid aside.  We went out into a small dim room, cut out of the rock.  A tunnel led up to daylight.  Water was trickling down the slope into dark puddles which reflected the grey patch of light.  Nobody was around.
The bottom of the slope was steep, but the top was shallower, leading to a short lane between two walls – a long, high one on the right, and a short, low one on the left.  Over that, we had our first view of Naxi 17 – a village of grey, one-storey cottages, almost hidden in the steady rain that pattered on our helmets.
“Bean,”  I said.  “I don’t hear you saying it’s beautiful.”
She smiled.  “The word I’d use is ‘dismal’.  I’m glad we put on our expedition suits for this one.”
Four Naxians, built like heavyweight boxers, stood on guard at a wide gateway in the high wall.  Two of them ran towards us, and one held the point of a spear against my chest.  They didn’t have wrist units so I held one to the guy.  “First-Ballista.”  I put my hand round the shaft of the spear, to push it away.  The guard ignored the wrist unit and frowned at me, holding the spear steady.  He was stronger than me, so I stopped pushing, but I didn’t move back.
Above my left shoulder, Carrington spoke in the local language.  The guards blinked at him.  One lifted his spear as if he was going to poke Carrington with it.  They talked among themselves, then one ran through the gateway.
I smiled at the one who was threatening me.  The rain trickled over little ridges on the bare top of his head, making the blue-black surface shine.  A drop gathered on the end of his nose and fell off.  He was so close I sensed his mind.  He didn’t dislike me – or like me.  He was just doing his job.
The other guard came back with First-Ballista, who gave orders.  The spear point was reluctantly removed.  Carrington spoke, but First-Ballista ignored him, using a wrist unit to tell us,  “Come.”
We followed him through the gateway into a long narrow courtyard which was all dark grey stone – the flat-roofed, one-storey buildings and the rough slabs on the ground, mostly under huge puddles of water.  The gateway was in the middle of one of the long sides.  The other long side, facing us, had a row of small square windows, with one door, open, near the left, and one door, shut, near the right.  The short side at our left had doors but no windows.
We followed First-Ballista across to the open door and along a short passage to a T-junction.  He turned right, into a dark passage that ran through the middle of the building, with doors on both sides.  Some were open, letting in a little light that showed the bare stone ceiling, walls and floor of the passage.
First-Ballista took us into the last room on the right before a heavy wooden door which blocked the passage.  Round the walls of the room were wooden boards with maps.  On the floor were rugs that looked like sheets of leather.  Behind a wooden table sat a chair with a leather seat and back on a wooden frame.
A Naxi 17 man, even taller and broader than the guards, stood with his back to us, looking out the window.  First-Ballista said two or three words, then waited beside the table.  The man didn’t answer but, after a few seconds, he turned.  When he saw Carrington, his mind jumped in surprise, so strong I sensed it, but his face stayed grim.  He slowly sat on the chair.  I gave him a wrist unit.  He scowled at it but put it on.
I said,  “Greetings.  First-Ballista told us seesa nuts have been stolen from here.  The Federation sent us to investigate.”
He kept the scowl.  “My son informed me that the Federation intended to insult us by sending two little children to investigate our crime.”
I squashed my annoyance.  “You sent your son, a child, to our leader.”
“That is different.  I, Ballista, am the ruler of this town.  I care little for your Federation.  I sent my son because he is willing to mingle with inferior races.”
“Thanks.”  I waved at Carrington.  “We have brought this robot.  He is programmed to solve crimes.”
He snorted.  “If you wish to solve our crime, I do not understand why you have come here.  You should be searching your Federation for the criminals.”
“At least one criminal must be here, on your planet, to tell the thieves where to find the seesa nuts.”
“Hmm.  If you insist on working here, First-Ballista will assist you.  Before you leave, you will report to me.  Although you will have nothing to report.”  He unstrapped the wrist unit and threw it on the table.
First-Ballista took us back along the corridor, and outside, where it was raining as hard as ever.  He threw open the nearest door in the end of the courtyard.  “Our seesa nuts were stored here.”
The room could’ve held six kit trolleys.  Four were standing there.  I looked in one.  It was empty.  First-Ballista said,  “Two trolleys remained of last year’s crop.  They were stolen.  The others were left.”
I asked,  “Was this room guarded?”
“Not directly.  Four men were guarding the entrance to the courtyard.  They fell unconscious.”  He tapped my stun-gun.  “Someone used one of these on them.  From the tunnel to the transporter.”
“Did anybody hear anything?”
“No.  Come.”  He took us across the corner of the courtyard to the open doorway.  The short passage beyond it had one door on each side.  He pointed to the one at the right.  “That is the guards’ base.  Six of them were there, but they heard nothing.  The others were asleep in their room.”  He waved towards the end of the building.
The Bean said,  “That explains why the robbers used stun-guns.  Firearms would have alerted the guards here.  Who knew where the seesa nuts were stored?”
“It is no secret.  Everyone who lived here, and all who came to collect the nuts for delivery to the… the town.”
I said,  “We want to question them, starting with the guards who were on duty – the ones who were stunned.”
“Is that the best the brilliant Federation agents can do?  Don’t you think we have done that ourselves?”
“Carrington, our robot, will study the people as they answer our questions.  He is programmed to detect the small signs that show when they’re lying.”
“I cannot believe that a machine can tell when someone is lying.”
“He can’t always tell,”  I said.  “Not 100%.”
“Ah!  You make excuses already.”
I grinned at him.  “96%.  And, when Carrington tells us who’s guilty, we’ll call them back for more questions.  Now may we speak to those guards?”
“You may use the commander’s office.”  Without knocking, he barged into the room opposite the guards’ base.  It contained two big cupboards, and a big man, sitting behind a table, facing the door.  First-Ballista spoke sharply to him without using a wrist unit, and they had a noisy argument before the guy left, glowering at us.
That was our only entertainment of the day.  The Bean and I sat behind the table, asking questions, while Carrington sat on it, recording the answers.  First-Ballista brought the people we asked to see, then lounged in a chair at the side of the room, making it obvious he thought we were a pair of useless kids, wasting everybody’s time.
We questioned the four guards, then the servants.  I started by warning them Carrington could tell when people were lying.  That was my idea, and I was proud of it.  I wished it was true, because I couldn’t.  The Naxians’ mind signals were too weak.  Unless their emotion was strong, I couldn’t detect it.  All I sensed were hints of annoyance.
After two weary hours, I suggested we should have a break, but the Bean persuaded me to go on.  After another weary hour, First-Ballista said,  “I am going for lunch.  Yours will be brought.”  He stamped out.
After another five minutes, the Bean persuaded me to wait a bit longer.  Five minutes after that, she urged me to wait a bit longer.  After another five minutes, I had persuaded her we should head for the transporter, but then a Naxian brought two plates with small chunks of meat in a thick gravy, and vegetables – pink lumps and stringy green stuff.  We ate it with a spoon that had a straight edge for cutting.
Afterwards, I said,  “I’ve got to get out of here for a while.”  The Bean came with me – as far as the outer door, because the rain was still lashing down.  I splashed across to the entrance, where my friends the guards stopped me going out.
I opened my mouth to call First-Ballista, but shut it again: I wouldn’t give him the pleasure of ignoring me.  I started walking round the courtyard, but it was so dreary I gave up after two laps.
5

“ASK YOUR QUESTIONS!”

In the afternoon, we questioned the people who delivered the seesa nuts.  They said they took them to shops but, when I asked them about the shops, they gave vague answers.
After three hours of that, First-Ballista announced,  “You have seen everyone.  I hope you are satisfied.”
I said,  “We haven’t questioned at least two other people who knew where the seesa nuts were stored.”
He smiled that evil smile.  “You are such a bright little boy that you know more than I do.  Please tell me the names of the two I have missed.”
“Your father and you.”
“You… you… you impudent child!  Do you suspect my father and me?  Do you propose to question us like common servants?”
“We are Federation agents, called in by your father.  We don’t want to question him….”
“That’s kind of you.”
“But we do want to question you.”
“Then you must keep wanting.  I refuse to answer questions from you.”
I grinned at him.  “That suggests you have something to hide.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!  I have nothing to hide.  I simply refuse to answer questions from a cheeky child.”  But – was there a hint of something more than anger in his mind?
I stabbed a finger at him.   “You have travelled in the Federation.  You knew where the seesa nuts were stored.  You’re an obvious suspect.  Are you guilty?”
“No!  How dare you accuse me!”
“I’m not accusing you.  I’m giving you a chance to prove you’re innocent.”
“Thank you.  Thank you kindly.  You offer me the chance of proving I didn’t take the seesa nuts – something I am free to do at any time.”
“If you’re not guilty, why are you making such a fuss?  Do you want us to report that you refused to answer our questions?”
He glared at me for a while, then threw himself into the chair opposite us.  “Ask your questions!  I will report you to my father for this.  I will not be accused of stealing from my own people.”
I asked,  “Where were you when the seesa nuts were stolen?”
“Where do you think I was, in the middle of the night?  I was in bed, asleep.”
“Can you prove it?”
“How dare…?”  He started to stand up, but sank back with a sour smile.  “Of course I can prove it.  A hundred men were in my bedroom, watching me sleep.”
“What do you know about Cooco 8?”
“I know that’s where many of our seesa nuts are grown.”  As he answered, I caught a glimpse of movement behind him.  The door didn’t fit neatly in the stone wall.  A shadow was moving at the crack.
“Have you ever been to Cooco 8?”  I asked First-Ballista, but I watched that shadow.
“Several times.”
“Recently?”
“Yes.  After the seesa nuts were stolen from here, my father sent me to find out if any of this season’s crop were ready.”  The shadow moved.
“What do you know about the Cooco 8 girl you met on Yband 4?”
He gave that sneering grin.  “I know she’s a Cooco 8 girl I met on Yband 4.”
“Why did you knock her out?”
“Who says I knocked her out?”
“I say you knocked her out.  You, or one of your friends.”
“You lie, child.  I did not knock her out.  We saw her in distress and, knowing she came from Cooco 8, we went to her aid.”  The shadow moved again.
“Carrington, did you record that?”
“I did, Tony sir.”
“First-Ballista, where are the people who were with you on Yband 4?  We want to question them.”
His grin didn’t change, but he hesitated before he said,  “They are not on this planet at present.”
The shadow moved once more.  That left no doubt.  Somebody was out in the passage, spying on us.