46. TROUBLE ON ELEVAN 5*

A killer animal appears in the jungle near the town on Elevan 5.
Tony and Bea are ordered to get rid of it.

The town’s leader is not pleased: he thinks they’re too young for the job. They overpower the animal, and take it away.  No one is pleased when another one appears a few days later.

Length : 7 400 words.

1

“IT IS A SIMPLE TASK.”

The Palliwalliokie was the leader of a tribe of miners on the planet Elevan 5.  He was a little old man with a wrinkled face, and hair like copper wire. He was wearing a white robe, tied at the waist and elbows with royal blue tape. He was also wearing a grumpy expression.  “Who are you?”

“I’m Tony,”  I said.  “And this is Bea.”

“What are you doing here?”

“You called the Federation.  Said you had trouble.  Asked for agents to help.”

“You?”

“Yeah.  We’re agents.”  I spread my arms, so he couldn’t miss my grey uniform, with the dark green bands round the chest and cuffs.

“Agents!”  He looked grumpier.  “Two children!  What can you do?”

I tried to keep calm.  “What do you want us to do?”

“I want you to go back to your leader, and tell him to  send real agents.  Doesn’t he know I have a serious problem?”

The Bean squeezed my arm.  That was a signal we’d agreed: when somebody annoys me, I’m likely to give him an angry answer or a cheeky one.  While I fizzed inside, she said,  “If we leave, it may be some time before the Federation can send someone else.”

“Humph!  is that a threat?  Well, it is a simple task.  Can you do it properly?”

The Bean squeezed my arm again.  “We’ll do our best.”

“Humph!  A… a creature is loose in the jungle around our village.  When we came here, the Federation assured us that no dangerous animals lived in that jungle.”

The Bean asked,  “How do you know the animal is there?”

“How do you think we know?  We have seen it.  Two days ago, a young boy used the path through the jungle from the village to the beach.  He did not return.  Search parties went to look for him.  They did not find him, but they glimpsed an animal, slinking into the jungle.”

I asked,  “Did they chase it?”

“No!”  He was horrified at the idea.  “We are peaceful miners.  We do not expect to face dangerous animals.  The Federation invited us to work here. It is their duty to protect us.”

The Bean asked,  “What animal is it?”

“How should we know?  It was low and bulky, and blotched green and brown.”

“Victor might tell us.  Wake, Victor.  Can you identify an animal that’s low and bulky, and blotched green and brown?  It was seen on this planet, Elevan 5.”

Victor is the Federation computer.  The miners lived in Federation buildings – black, one-storey boxes.  One was like a base, and the Palliwalliokie used its control room as his office.  It had the usual U of seats facing Victor’s terminal.  The Palliwalliokie was sitting in the command chair, the bottom of the U, as if he was the king of the universe.

Victor said,  “The creature may be a fortipod.”

“Let’s see it.”

The picture filled the screen.  The animal looked like a blotchy octopus, with a beady brown eye near the end of each tentacle.

“Is it found on Elevan 5?”

“It has never been found on Elevan 5, but it is common in the jungle of Shilli 2.”

“Ah!”  said the Palliwalliokie.

The Bean asked,  “Where’s Shilli 2?”

“It is not far away.  We have a transporter link to Shilli 2.”

“Then your animal is probably a fortipod,”  said the Bean.  “It may lurk beside that path, because that’s where it expects to find prey.  We’ll go along there, and look for it.  Can you send men to take it to Shilli 2?”

“Why can’t you do that?”

“Look at the size of it!”  I said.  “As you said, we’re children.  Do you expect us to carry that?”

He frowned at me.  “Why don’t you kill it?”

“We will not kill it,”  said the Bean in the snippy voice she uses when she’s annoyed.  “Federation rules say that animals should not be killed – and I agree with them.”

“That is your decision, but I will not waste my miners’ time.  If you capture it, tell me.  I shall send men to remove it.”

“That’s not very convenient.”

“It is not convenient for me to take my miners from their duties.  The Federation should have sent someone who could do the whole job.”

The Bean sighed.  “All right.  We’ll tell you.  Tony, are you ready to go?”

I asked,  “Victor, will a stun-gun work on these things?”

“No.  It has no central brain, so a stun-gun will not affect it.”

“I thought so,”  I said.  “That kind of animal often doesn’t have a proper brain.  We’ll have to use nerve-guns.  We’ll need special permission for that.”

The Bean explained to the Palliwalliokie,  “Nerve-gun beams cause pain. We only use them in emergencies. We should be ready to leave in a short time.”

As we stood up, I said to the Palliwalliokie,  “Warn your miners to be ready. They’ll soon have a fortipod to shift.”
2

“THE HUNTER OR THE BAIT?”

The muddy path went between two of the black buildings, then plunged into the jungle.  The Bean said,  “Tony, will you go ahead?  I’ll come about ten steps behind you, to cover you.”

I grinned at her.  “What am I?  The hunter or the bait?”

But I set off.  I knew why we’d been given this job.  Earth children can sense the feelings of other races, but we’re ordered to keep it secret, so the Palliwalliokie wouldn’t know.  They say I’m the best thought-senser in the Federation, although nobody knows why, especially me.  I always got jobs like this.  I would sense the mind signal of the fortipod if it was lurking in the jungle near the path.

Maybe.  That’s what worried me.  I’d asked Victor, but he didn’t know. Some animals are vicious by instinct.  They attack without having to think. If the fortipod didn’t have a proper brain, it might be one of them, so I might not sense its feelings.  I was going to find out by walking along this path.

Bushes and creepers crowded each side of the path, and the tops of the trees almost met overhead, leaving patches of grey sky.  I crept along, holding the nerve-gun tight.

I glanced back.  The Bean was a few steps behind me, also with a nerve-gun. She gave me a worried-looking smile, and I grinned to her, hoping I looked more confident than I felt.

The path wound on, round bushes, and between trunks.  Over my uniform, I was wearing an expedition suit, a tough suit that protects you, but doesn’t make you sweat.  That’s what the Scientists tell us, but my body didn’t seem to have heard.  I was hot and sweating as I crept through that clammy jungle.

One lucky thing: the path wasn’t long – less than a kilometre from the village to a beach at a bend in a wide river.  Rain had made it muddy, and left puddles.  I usually walked through them, but one looked longer and deeper, so I went on the thick grass to its right.

For two steps – before something coiled round my right leg, jerking me off my feet.  I had time for a startled yelp before a tentacle wound itself round my waist, lifting me.  I learned one thing – I could sense the beast’s vicious greed, but only from very near – before agony flooded my body, and I felt as if I was caught in a violent earthquake.  Then the pain was too much, and I sank to unconsciousness.

3

“NOW TAKE IT TO SHILLI 2.”

I wakened, lying on my back, looking up through the trees, with the Bean kneeling beside me, holding a reanimator.  “Tony, how do you feel?”

“Sore!”  The pain from a nerve-gun takes a while to die down.

“I’m sorry.  When it grabbed you, I had to fire.  I couldn’t hit it without hitting you.”

“Forget it, Bean.  I’ll survive.”  I sat up.  “Watch that thing.”  Beside me, the fortipod was starting to wriggle.

She said,  “I had to spray it all over before it stopped moving.  I was worried about you, because you were among the tentacles.”  She stood, and used her nerve-gun on the fortipod, which jerked, then slumped down. “Aren’t you sore?”

I flexed my arms, then stood, to flex my legs.  The sharp pain of the nerve-gun was fading, but I felt like a football after a big game.  “A bit.  I’m glad we caught it.  That’ll show his grumpy highness.”

“Will you wait here, and keep it quiet, while I go and tell him?”

“Yeah.  Tell him to send his miners as fast as possible.”

“A lot of good that will do.”  She was on her way.

I gave the fortipod a good spray with my nerve-gun.  It didn’t move.  Then I sat on it.  It was drier than the ground, but the skin was harder than I expected.

It might take the Bean ten minutes to find the Palliwalliokie, and he wouldn’t hurry to send the miners.  I reckoned I was stuck there for at least half an hour.

After less than ten minutes, I sensed the vicious thoughts wakening under me, so I jumped off, and used the nerve-gun again.  I was glad I’d jumped off, because the thing jerked enough to have thrown me off.

In about twenty minutes, the Bean was back, saying she’d told the Palliwalliokie.  Then we had to wait around for ages, before four miners strolled up, with cords and nets.

I pointed to the time display on my wrist unit.  “At last!”

They didn’t have wrist units, but they knew what I meant.  They grinned to me as they started tying the fortipod’s tentacles.

“Bean, look at them!”  I said.  “They kept us hanging around for more than an hour, but does that bother them?  No!  Don’t you sense it?”

“No, Tony, but I’m sure they came as soon as they could.”

“D’you believe that?  This is a fine skive for them.  If they weren’t here, they’d be working in the mine.  They’re stretching it as long as they can. Before we leave this dreary planet, I’m going to tell that Palliwalliokie exactly what I think of it – and him.”

“No, Tony.  Please.  You know what he’s like.  He’ll complain to Obsidian.  You’ll get yourself in trouble.”

“Well, you’d think he’d be grateful that we’re getting rid of this thing, instead of acting as if he’s doing us a favour.”

We followed the miners as they carried the fortipod to the Shilli 2 transporter in the communication centre.

They dumped it there, and were heading off when I shouted,  “Hey!”  I called,  “Open,”  to the transporter door.  It slid aside, showing the transporter, a metal room like a lift.  I pointed into it.  “Carry it in.”  They frowned at me, but did it.  I kept pointing.  “Now take it to Shilli 2.”  They kept frowning, but ordered the door to shut.

They were soon back, without the fortipod.  I said,  “Thanks,” as they left, and we went into the transporter.

The jungle on Shilli 2 was thicker and steamier than the one on Elevan 5. The transporter was in a small clearing.  A wide path disappeared through the trees, to a native village.  People lived here – and I didn’t envy them, with fortipods around.  The stunned one was blocking the entrance to the transporter.  I tramped over it.  The Bean frowned at me, and squeezed past it.

She took out her nerve-gun.  “Would you free it, Tony?  I’ll cover you.”

“I suppose.”  I crouched beside the fortipod.  That took me near enough to sense its feelings.

When I brought out my nerve-gun, the Bean said,  “Tony, what are you doing?”

“The thing’s awake, and it’s angry.”

“Do you blame it?  Tony, don’t make it suffer any more.  Please.”

“I’m not worried about it suffering.  I’m worried about me suffering when I cut it free.”

But I put my gun away, and took my knife from its sheath at my waist. Ready to jump clear, I began to saw the fortipod’s cords.  Before they were all cut, they seemed to explode in front of me, as the tentacles burst free. One hit me a glancing blow, powerful enough to knock me on my back.  As I scrambled away, the fortipod stood up.  It waited for a moment while the beady eyes in the ends of the nearest tentacles glared at me. Then it scuttled away, into the jungle.

“Whew!”  I stood, wiping the mud from my expedition suit.  “I’m glad to see the back of that.  Let’s get out of here.”

We headed for our base, thinking we’d seen the last of Elevan 5.  Until, two days later, Martin, our boss, told us,  “I have a mission for you.”

“Sky-high!”  I said.  “Where?”

“Elevan 5.”

“No!  What’s he moaning about now?”

“I don’t know.  I had the message from Obsidian.  You’ve to go back to Elevan 5 immediately.”

Back in the Palliwalliokie’s scruffy control room, he looked even grumpier than before.  “You told me that you had removed the beast from this planet.”

“We did,”  I said.  “Didn’t your miners tell you?”

“You didn’t do the job properly,”  he said.  “You may have removed one fortipod, but we have seen another one.”

4

“IS THAT THE LAST ONE?”

I said,  “You didn’t tell us there were two.”

“I didn’t know there were two, but I assumed you would remove all that were here.”

I shouted,  “How were we supposed to know?”

“Having found one of the beasts, you might have made sure there were no more.  That would not have taken much intelligence.  I am certain that another one is present.  I myself saw it, going between two buildings in the village.”

I asked,  “Where is it now?”

“That is for you to find out.  I gave you a simple task.  I hope you will do it properly this time, making sure that no more are around before you leave.”

“What do you expect us to do?”  I asked.  “Search the whole jungle?”

“You were given the task of removing these creatures – all these creatures – from the jungle around our village.  That is what I expect you to do.”

The Bean squeezed my hand.  “We’ll do what we can.  Will you provide the men to carry them away?”

“When you provide something to carry away.”

The Bean took a breath, and I thought she was going to argue, but she said,  “Come on, Tony.”

So we had another trek along that path through the jungle.  Me in front. Who else was glutinous enough?  Then the Bean, ten steps behind me.  I went more slowly, hoping to sense the fortipod before it attacked, but the same thing happened.  I didn’t know it was there until it grabbed me, and the Bean used her nerve-gun on it – and me.

When she revived me, I asked,  “Bean, do you want to guard it, while I tell his highness?”

“No, Tony.  I don’t know what you might say to him.  Would you wait here?  You should be safe.  I don’t think there’s another one around.”

“Eh?”  I said.  “How d’you know that?”

“I’ll tell you later.”  She went, leaving me to another long seat on a fortipod, interrupted every ten minutes while I got off and squirted it with the nerve-gun.  I tried to work out why she thought this was the last one, but I hadn’t a clue.

When she came back, I asked her,  “If two of them are around here, why can’t there be more?”

“I’m not sure, Tony.  Something puzzles me.”

“What is it, Bean?  Maybe I can help.”

“No, Tony.  You’ve seen what I’ve seen.  I may be wrong.”

“Why can’t you tell me?”   As she shook her head, I went on,  “Why must you be so mysterious?  You always do that.”

“Then you should expect it, Tony.  You know me.  I don’t like to say anything until I’m certain.”

I knew that, and I knew I needn’t ask any more.  We talked about other things until at last the miners arrived.

While they were tying the fortipod, we set the Bean’s wrist unit to their language, so that I could say to them,  “While you carry that one back to the comm centre, we’ll go on, and look for others.  You’ll soon catch us up.”

“No,”  said one of them, while the others shook their heads.  “We will not use this path if any more of these creatures may be lying in wait beside it.”

Before I could think of a sarky comment, the Bean used my wrist unit. “Then we’ll go to Shilli 2 with you.”

Like before, we sent them through the transporter with the fortipod.  They came straight back, and were heading off when I called,   “Where are you going?  What happens if we find another fortipod?”

“You tell the Palliwalliokie.  He will call us.”

“That’s a waste of time.  Why don’t you come with us?”

“No.  We go.  Those are the Palliwalliokie’s orders.”  They went.

“Bean,”  I said.  “I suppose you want to cut that one free before we go looking for others.”

“Yes, Tony.  We needn’t leave it to suffer.”

We did the same as last time, but the fortipod didn’t.  When I cut its cords, it attacked me, so the two of us got another dose of the Bean’s nerve-gun. By the time she’d revived me, the fortipod was starting to move, so we left it.

As we went back to Elevan 5, I said,  “Bean, I hope you’re right.  I’m sick of this jungle, and those fortipods.”

“We have to make sure.  Shall I lead this time?”

“No.  I’ll do it.”  I couldn’t let her do it.

I walked fast until we reached the place where we found the last one, then slower.  I still couldn’t work out why she thought we wouldn’t find any more, but she was right.  I was glad to see sky through gaps between the trees ahead, and we came out on the bank of the river, looking over the beach, without being ambushed.

I said,  “Bean, does your theory say that no more of those things are lurking deeper in the jungle, away from the path?”

“Y…yes.”

“I’m glad of that.  It’s a good reason for not wandering around there, looking for them.  We’ll go back, and tell the Palliwalliokie the good news.”

He was sitting in the command chair, alone in his office.  I said,  “We’ve shifted your other fortipod.”

“Is that the last one?”

I let the Bean answer,  “I think so.”

“You think!  It had better be.  When I asked the Federation for help, I expected them to send a proper hunter, not two children.  It was a simple task.  I hope you have done it properly this time.  If we find more of those creatures, I shall send the strongest complaint to your leader.  I shall tell him not to send you back.”

“Thanks!”  I said.  “I’ll be glad to see the last of that jungle, and you.”

“Tony!”  said the Bean.  She turned to the Palliwalliokie.  “I’m sorry, sir. Tony is under a strain.  Today’s fortipod attacked him twice.”  She squeezed my arm, so hard it hurt.

“Yeah,”  I said.  “The job’s done, so we’ll go.”

As we headed for the door, it opened.  I could say a woman and a dog came in, but that wouldn’t really describe it.
5

“DIANA THE HUNTRESS.”

The woman was built like a rugby player, and she stood straight, like an army sergeant.  Her gear was like a mottled green Federation uniform.  Her hair was short and fair, and she wore a boat-shaped green hat with a curly red feather in it.

The dog was thin, like a greyhound, and it was grey, with long hair.  And huge – big enough to stretch up and bite my nose – and it looked mean enough to do that.

“Ah!”  said the woman, ignoring us, and striding forward to say in a loud voice,  “You must be the Palliwalliokie.  I am pleased to meet you.  Diana’s my name.  Diana the Huntress.”

“Er… greetings.”  The Palliwalliokie stood, looking nervously at the dog.

“Don’t worry about Lailaps,”  boomed Diana.  “He is trained as a hunting dog, but he obeys me.  Lailaps, sit.  There.”  The hound lay down where she pointed, in front of Victor’s terminal.

We stood near the door.  If this was a private meeting, we should go, but I was curious about Diana.  I thought the Bean might drag me away, but she was watching Diana too.

Diana sat on the settee at the left.  “Did you receive my message?”

The Palliwalliokie sat on the front of his chair.  “Your message?”

“I asked Victor to give you a message.  Telling you of the services I offer.”

“An advertisement,”  said the Palliwalliokie.  “I ignore them.”

“I would not call it an advertisement,”  said Diana.  “It was information of the greatest importance to you.  I hope I may remind you.”

The Palliwalliokie frowned at her, and muttered something.  He wanted to say no, but he was nervous, and I didn’t blame him for that.

Diana ordered,  “Wake, Victor.  I am Diana the Huntress.  Repeat the message which I sent to the Palliwalliokie.”

The screen went white, then faded to a picture of Diana and the hound. Words came up beside them, but I couldn’t read them: they’d be in the Palliwalliokie’s language.  But there was also a spoken message, which came through our wrist units.  “Greetings, from Diana the Huntress.  With my faithful hound, Lailaps, I hunt wild animals.  For a charge of 2500 mus a day, I remove unwanted animals.”  (A mu is Federation money.  If we want to spend our Federation earnings at home, they give us £1 for every mu.)

Diana’s message went on,  “If you have no dangerous animals at present, I offer an insurance service.  For 20 mus a day, I promise to promptly remove any wild animals which appear.  I recommend that service, because it gives you peace of mind.”

The screen faded, and Diana asked,  “Did you receive that message?”

“Y…yes,”  said the Palliwalliokie.  “I… I do seem to recall it.”

“I hope you will consider my insurance.  In a place like this, you never know when a stray animal will appear and, when it does, the cost of removing it is high.”

The Palliwalliokie stared at her.

She asked,  “Have I persuaded you?  For only 20 mus a day, I guarantee that you will never be troubled by dangerous animals.”

The Palliwalliokie spoke at last.  “We… we have found two – two fortipods – in the last few days.”

“That shows exactly what I mean.  If you had paid the insurance, I would have removed them at no further charge.  If they are already here, I must charge the full fee for removing them before you begin the insurance.”

The Palliwalliokie said,  “These… these two children have already removed them.”

“These two!”  said Diana.  “Don’t tell me you asked children to undertake such a difficult and dangerous task.”

“They are… they are Federation agents.”

“Agents!  They are mere children.  They cannot provide the expert service that I do.”

I said,  “We shifted these two.”

“Luck,”  boomed Diana.  “Pure luck.  Are you certain that no more of the creatures are lurking?”

The Palliwalliokie began,  “The children have assured me….”

“Children!  They know nothing about hunting.  I am an expert on fortipods.  I have trained Lailaps to track them.  May I explore a little?  I shall find out if any fortipods remain.  If so, I can remove them at my usual rate. Or….” She sniffed.  “You may ask those amateurs.”

The Bean squeezed my arm, but I wasn’t going to speak.

Diana went on,  “If I find no fortipods here, I can offer you my insurance service, and I would strongly urge you to take it.  You have found two fortipods in a few days.  You cannot tell when others may appear.  With your permission, I shall make the search.”

The Palliwalliokie muttered something.

“Thank you.”  She went to the door.  “Lailaps, come.”  She strode out, followed by the hound.  Without her, the room seemed empty and quiet.

I sat on the settee at the Palliwalliokie’s left.  “What did you think of that?”

“I… I was glad to see an proper hunter.”

“Did you fall for that?”

“What do you mean?  She is an expert.  She will remove all of those fortipods.”

“You can’t be as glutinous as that!  Don’t you see?  She’s a crook!”  I glanced at the Bean, who nodded.  I was sure I was right, but I was relieved she agreed.

The Palliwalliokie asked,  “What do you mean?”

“She sent that message to you.  It’s a racket!  If you didn’t pay her so-called insurance, she would let the fortipod out in your village.”

“No.  She is an expert huntress.  You heard her.”

“Yeah.  I heard her.  How d’you think the fortipod got here from Shilli 2?  D’you think it flew, or learned to use the transporter?”

“Don’t you be cheeky to me, young man.”

“I’m sorry, sir,”  said the Bean quickly.  “Tony doesn’t mean to be cheeky, but he’s right.  That woman is trying to fool you.”

The Palliwalliokie stared at her for a long time.  I could just sense the confusion in his mind.  Then it turned to anger.  “Do you mean to say…? It did seem a coincidence.  The… the villain!”

I was going to enjoy telling him how stupid he was, but the Bean asked,  “Sir, what are you going to do?”

“I shall not yield to her threats.  I shall tell the Federation.  Perhaps they will send adult agents, who will know how to deal with her.”

“With respect, sir, what can you tell them?  Diana can say that her offer is genuine.  Unless you can prove she brought the fortipods here, she’ll deny it’s a trick.  This may not be the only planet where she’s doing it.”

“What do you mean?”

“She may be using the same trick on other planets.  Wake, Victor.  How many planets did Diana sent her message to?”

“She sent that message to fifty-seven planets.”

The Palliwalliokie gasped,  “Fifty-seven!”

The Bean said,  “We haven’t heard about the others.  They may have paid her insurance, or she may be trying the trick on you first, because it’s so easy to take a fortipod from Shilli 2 to Elevan 5.”

“The villain!  I shall not bow to her threats.  When she returns, I shall tell her so.”

The Bean said,  “May I ask if you would simply refuse to pay her insurance?  We may have frightened her off, but she didn’t think much of us, so she may continue.  I have a plan which would let us prove she’s blackmailing you.  Would you help with that?”

“I wish to accuse her.  To order her to leave here, and never return.”

“What good would that do?”  I said.  “The Bean has brains.  If you want my advice, you’ll listen to her plan.”

“I don’t want your advice, young man.  You are incompetent, and cheeky.”

“Thanks!”

“Hush, Tony,”  said the Bean.  “Sir, if you openly defy Diana, she may bring other fortipods here, in revenge or spite.  I’m sure you don’t want that.  You called the Federation for help.  The leader sent us.  Won’t you give us the chance to solve your problem, by catching Diana?”

The Palliwalliokie hesitated.

The Bean went on,  “If my plan works, it will stop Diana from threatening you, and from setting dangerous animals loose on other planets.  Don’t you want to do that?”

“Y…yes.”

“Then won’t you agree to my plan?”

“Yes – if you make the arrangements.  You have some sense.  Do not rely on that boy for anything.  He has less intelligence than the fortipod.”  I kept quiet; if I annoyed him, he might refuse to listen to the Bean’s plan.

She said,  “I’ll do everything myself.  If you refuse Diana’s offer, politely but firmly, we’ll have a chance to catch her.”

“Then I shall do it.”

“Thank you.  Tony and I ought to go before she comes back.  If I hear anything, I’ll tell you.”

Back at our base, I learned the first part of the Bean’s plan when she ordered,  “Wake, Victor.  Report to me if Diana uses the Shilli 2 transporter.”

“Sneaky!”  I said.  “You’ll know if Diana takes any more fortipods to Elevan 5.”

“I don’t know any other reason why Diana would want to go to Shilli 2. And Victor’s report will be evidence.”

Victor said,  “Tony, Wellington orders you to report to his office immesdiately.”

“No!  Why?”

“Wellington did not tell me.  You will find out when you go there.”

“He probably wants me to help to question a prisoner.”  That’s another hassle I have because I’m a good thought-senser: I can tell when people are lying.  At the time, it stopped me from learning more about the Bean’s plan – until it went into action.

6

“A BEACON?”

It started three days later, during the night in our base.  The Victor in my cabin wakened me with a message from the Bean:  “Tony, meet me in the corridor in 1%.  We’re going for a quick breakfast, then to Elevan 5. Diana used the Shilli 2 transporter.”

It was early morning on Elevan 5 when we arrived there.  The Bean had warned the Palliwalliokie that a fortipod was loose, so the people were in their rooms, except the Palliwalliokie, who was in the control room with the door shut.

The Bean said to him,  “Diana has gone on with her plan – either to blackmail you, or for revenge.  We suspect that she released a fortipod here. I hope we can find it.  Do you know what you will say to her when she arrives?”

“Yes.  You need not worry about that.  I know exactly what to say.”

Outside, at the jungle path, I said,  “Don’t tell me, Bean.  The usual?  Me out in front.”

“No, Tony.  I hope we can find the fortipod more easily.”  She took a small black box from her pocket.  “Merlin gave me this.”  Merlin is one of the Federation’s top Scientists.

“What is it?”

“It’s a tracker.  It transmits to my wrist unit.”  She switched it on, and held up her wrist unit, to watch the screen.

“Ah!”  We made a chorus as a big arrow appeared, pointing into the jungle, with 657 beside it.

I asked,  “A beacon?”

“Yes, but it must be a special beacon.  The power in an ordinary beacon wouldn’t last long enough for Diana’s purpose.  This box detects radio signals in the area.”

“Done, Bean.  How d’you know Diana had put a beacon on the fortipod?”

“I didn’t know, but I thought it was likely.  Let’s go.”  The beacon was 657 metres away, in the direction of the arrow.

We walked quickly along the path until the distance was down to 20 metres.  Then she asked,  “Do you want to do it, Tony?”

“Yeah.  I’d like to be on the right end of the nerve-gun for a change.”

She gave me the wrist unit, but stayed close behind me as we crept on. The distance went down.  10 metres.  5 metres.  The arrow was pointing towards a thick bush at the side of the path.  The fortipod must be lurking there, but I couldn’t see it.

4 metres.  Was that the blotchy end of a tentacle, under the bush?  Pointing the nerve-gun at it, I took another step forward – and saw the mean gleam of the eye in the end of the tentacle.  I pulled the trigger.  The fortipod thrashed around, scattering broken twigs and leaves.  I fanned it with the nerve-gun until it stopped twitching.

Then I let out a deep breath.  “Thanks, Bean.  I didn’t realise how long it takes to stun one of them.”

We sent for the miners, who tied it up, and carried it to the comm centre – where Merlin was waiting.

“Hi, Merlin,”  I said.  “What are you doing here?”

“Bea thought she would have a job for me.”

“Yes,”  said the Bean.  “Do you have something to keep this animal quiet?”

“No problem, I hope.”  Merlin took a syringe from his bag.  “This stuff will knock out most animals, but you can’t be sure until you try.”  When the needle went in, the fortipod jerked, but its wriggling calmed.

The Bean said,  “I meant to ask the miners to roll it over before they left.  I hope we can do it.”

We wrestled with the limp body, turning it over, until she said,  “There it is.  Between these tentacles.”  It was a U-shaped scar with a square bottom, about five centimetres across.

She said,  “I noticed this on the first one we caught – then again on the second.  That’s what made me suspect.”

“Does that mean…?”  I said.  “It was the same one!”

“I think so, and now it’s here for the third time.  When I first saw the mark, I wondered what it was, but now I think I know.  Merlin, would you look?”

Merlin said,  “An excellent piece of observation and deduction.”  He brought out a sharp knife, and made a cut in the fortipod, following the mark.  Grey goo oozed out.  Merlin pulled back the flap of skin, poked in the wound, and fished something out.  He wiped it.  “I think that’s what you want.”  He gave a little black button to the Bean.

“The beacon!”  I said.

She said,  “I think so.  If you move it around, I’ll check it’s working.”  She lifted her wrist unit.

As I moved around, I said,  “That’s how Diana found the fortipod.  Her famous hound is a fake.  She uses a beacon so that she can always find the fortipod.”

Merlin said,  “She’s lucky the miners didn’t kill it.  Then she would’ve had to find a new one each time.”

“That was unlikely,”  said the Bean.  “The miners look rough, but they’re peaceful people, and Federation rules say no killing of animals.”

As we were talking, Merlin had patched the fortipod’s scar.  He helped us to take it to Shilli 2, where we left it sleeping, hidden in the jungle.

In the comm centre on Elevan 5, we said goodbye and thanks to Merlin, then went to the control room, to tell the Palliwalliokie.  He went on with the Bean’s plan, by sending Diana a message saying a fortipod had been seen near his village.

Victor would tell us when Diana got into the shuttle to come to Elevan 5, and her trip would take a bit more than an hour, so we’d know when she was coming.  The Palliwalliokie shooed us out of the control room, saying he had work to do.

We also had work to do – lay a trap for Diana.  We went along the jungle path until the Bean found a place she liked.  She said,  “We can put Diana’s beacon in that bush.  You can hide in that one, across the path. When you’re sure she’s tracking the beacon, you can use the stun-gun on her.  Would you take your place?  I want to be sure she won’t see you.”

“Must I?  She’ll never see me there.  Not in the expedition suit.”  It changes colour, to match its surroundings.

“It will do no harm to make sure.  You can also check that you’ll see her.”

So I parked myself in that bush, while she frowned at me from various directions.  She announced,  “She won’t see you there.  Now – I want to hide a little farther back, where I can watch you, and catch her if she tries to escape.”  She walked back.  “I can use this bush.”  She pushed into it. “Can you see me, Tony?”

I walked back and forward along the path, peering into the bush.  “N…no. Keep your head down.  That’s better.”

“Good.”  She came out of the bush.  “Then all we can do is wait.”  We went back to Victor’s terminal in the comm centre.  He soon told us Diana was on her way.

That gave us more than an hour.  I like to explore new planets, so I had a look round the miners’ village, but it was dreary.  A muddy road ran between the black Federation buildings, with the jungle towering behind. As usual, it was clammy, with the sky threatening rain.  After about twenty minutes, I’d had enough.  I went back to the comm centre.

For a short time, before the Bean said,  “We ought to take our places now.”

“Not yet, Bean.  It’s far too early.  Diana won’t be on the planet for half an hour, and she’ll go to see the Palliwalliokie.”

“I’d rather be too early than too late.”  She checked her wrist unit.  “We’ll wait ten more minutes.”

After that time, she insisted we should take our places, so we went along the path, and hid in our bushes.  I wasn’t comfortable, with branches poking into me, but it would be worth it.  We should soon prove Diana was a crook.

7

A STAB OF PAIN IN MY CHEST.

I knew we took our places far too soon.  I stood in that bush, sweating quietly, for nearly an hour before anything happened.  The expedition suit protected me, except for my face, so I wasn’t worried about bugs – except one that landed on my nose.  My only excitement was knocking it off.

Until Diana appeared, round a trunk, on the bit of path I could see.  She looked like a huntress, in her fancy green suit, creeping forward with a gun in her hand, and that huge dog, just in front of her.

She was watching her wrist unit.  I had no doubt it was set to track the signal from the beacon in the bush across the path from me, but, to make sure, I had to wait until she looked in the bush.

The Bean’s plan seemed to be working, but something worried me.  If Diana was using the wrist unit to find the fortipod, why was…?

As the hound passed where the Bean was hiding, it stopped, stared at the place, then snarled, and pounced into the bush.  The branches tossed around, then the Bean stumbled out, and fell on her back, with the hound on top of her, its teeth in her arm.

I charged out of my bush, pulling the trigger of my stun-gun.  I was aiming for the hound, but I didn’t think it was in range.

I didn’t hear a shot, but I felt a stab of pain in my chest.  A little dart was sticking in it.  I grabbed it out, and ran on, keeping my finger on the trigger of my stun-gun, aiming at the hound, and Diana, who was close behind it.

I started to feel dizzy, but I had to stop that hound.  I forced myself to go on, holding my finger on the trigger.  One step.  Two.  My legs felt wobbly, but I focused my mind.  I had to stop Diana and the hound.  One more step, then another, but the darkness was closing in.  I stumbled another step or two before I felt myself going.  I knew I was falling, but I couldn’t do a thing to stop it.
8

“IT WAS A SIMPLE TASK.”

When I started to open my eyes, the light was bright, so I shut them again, and put my hand over my face.

“Tony.”  The Bean’s voice.

I opened my eyes carefully.  I was lying in a bunk in a Federation cabin, with the Bean sitting near my feet.  She asked,  “Tony, how do you feel?”

“Dozy.”  As I spoke, memory flooded back.  “What… what happened?”

“Diana’s hound attacked me.  You stunned it – and Diana – but you collapsed too.”

“Yeah.  Diana shot me.  A… a little dart.”  They must’ve taken off my expedition suit, because I was in my uniform.  I pulled up the top, and found a red mark.

The Bean said,  “That must be the weapon she uses to knock out the fortipod.  The doctor took a sample of your blood, to test the drug.  He hopes it won’t do you any harm.  I’m glad to see you awake so soon.”

That was too much information for my muddled mind, but, hearing,  “so soon,”  I asked,  “How long… how long have I been out?”

“Not long.  About an hour and a half.”

At last, I remembered.  “Bean, I’m sorry!  Are you OK?  Did that hound hurt you?”

“I was luckier than you.  The dog’s teeth didn’t go through my expedition suit, although my arm’s a bit bruised.”  She pulled up her right sleeve, showing red blotches on her arm.  “Don’t you want to know what happened to Diana?”

“Yeah.  I’m sorry.  I can’t… can’t concentrate.  Did you catch her?”

“Yes.  You only stunned her and the dog for a few seconds, but it gave me long enough to use my gun.  The Palliwalliokie sent four miners with her. She thought they would carry away the fortipod when she caught it, but the Palliwalliokie had warned them to watch what happened, so that they could be witnesses.”

“They… they had loads to witness.”

“Yes.  When we fell, they ran.  I had to go to the Palliwalliokie, to send them back.  They tied up Diana and her dog, and carried you here.”

“Here?  Where’s here?”

“This is a spare cabin in the block the Palliwalliokie uses as his base.  I expect he’ll be in soon.  He’s not in a good mood.”

“So what’s new?  We caught Diana.  What’s he moaning about now?”

I was about to find out, because the door slid open, and he appeared, looking as sour-faced as usual.  “Ah!  You are awake at last.  I hope you are proud of yourselves.”

“Yeah,”  I said.  “We caught Diana for you.”

“Who caught Diana?  You made a mess of the whole job.  It was only through luck that Diana was captured.  Luck, and the efforts of me and my miners.”

“How d’you work that out?”

“I called you in – so-called Federation agents – to remove the fortipod from our jungle, but we have done most of the work.  I was the one who deceived Diana.  My miners were the ones who tied her up, and delivered her to justice.”

“After we had caught her.  Are you on the same planet?”  I couldn’t believe it.  We had done the work, but he was trying to take the credit – maybe to make himself look good in front of his miners.

“Don’t try to blame me for your failures, young man.  I knew the Federation should not have sent children.  It was a simple task.  It’s a pity you couldn’t do it properly.”

“How often have you said that?  What more do you want us to do?  We caught Diana for you, and that dog….”

“Perhaps you played a small part, but I….”

He kept talking, but I wasn’t listening: speaking about the dog had reminded me….  I might be wrong, but….  I said,  “When Diana came along that path, she was doing what we expected – using her wrist unit to track the fortipod.”

“What are you trying to say now?”

“She looked wary – more than she would’ve done if she was only looking for the fortipod.  And the hound was in front of her.  Why would she send the hound in front of her?”

“No doubt you will tell me.”

“Yes, I will.  Because she was suspicious.  She can’t’ve been certain, or she wouldn’t’ve come, but she was suspicious.  She thought it might be a trap.”

His mind signal was weak, but I couldn’t miss the jump of guilt.  That made me certain.  I had to stop myself yelling,  “Gotcha!”

He said,  “Nonsense!  Why should she suspect a trap?”

I stood.  My legs were wobbly, but I wanted to face him.  “Because somebody said something that made her suspicious.  Who was the only one who spoke to her?  You!”

“Are you suggesting…?”

“Yeah, I am.  You thought you were the big man, tricking that powerful woman.  But you said too much.  You opened your mouth too wide. Didn’t you?”

“How dare you suggest…?”

“Didn’t you?”  I shouted over him.  “You couldn’t resist saying a little more.  And that made her suspicious.  Isn’t that true?”

“I…. I….”

I sensed embarrassment amongst his anger, so I shouted,  Come on!  You said too much, and made her suspicious.  Admit it.”

“I… I… I….”

I went to the door.  “Come on, Bean.  It was simple task.  It’s a pity he couldn’t do it properly.”  We went.