D. LIVING IN THE FEDERATION

1

INTRO

For this report, I asked Geli if she would explain what happened before I met her.  She kindly offered to do the whole report.  I was glad to accept, because it’s really her story.

For Tony and me, it started as a mission, but I spent a lot of time telling Geli about living in the Federation – how to operate doors, use the food dispenser, wear an expedition suit, etc.  This report is therefore a mixture of talking and action.  For the action, read the chapters with stars at the titles.  To learn about living in the Federation, read the other chapters.

2

STEWED ZOOMAS*

My name is Geli.  I was one of the maidservants of the Queen of Striffo 4. Some nobles treat their servants badly, but the Queen was always kind to Riku and me.  Cawa, the Queen’s younger sister, was stricter.  I’m sorry: I should explain.  Riku and I are young.  The Queen and Cawa are young, but not as young as us.  [Comment from Bea: Geli and Riku were 11 Earth years old, the Queen was 25, and Cawa was 23.]

It was Cawa who sent me for a dish of stewed zoomas.  I went to the kitchen, where the Cook and Riku were washing dishes.

I told the Cook,  “Cawa wants a dish of stewed zoomas.”

“Stewed zoomas!”  exclaimed the Cook.  “She has just finished her lunch! Doesn’t she realise the time and trouble needed to stew zoomas?  Go and tell Cawa we have no zoomas.  If she must have something, she can have boiled ocrams.  Riku can prepare them.”

I hesitated.  If I gave that message to Cawa, she would be furious.  I could expect to be punished.

The Cook could expect to be punished too, and she realised it in time to call me back.  “Geli, tell Cawa we’re sorry: we have no zoomas.  Someone has gone to buy some, but there may be a delay.  Ask if she would care for ocrams instead.”

That sounded better, but I could expect trouble when I gave that message to Cawa.  I took a deep breath before I pushed aside the curtain to go into the Queen’s sitting room.

The Queen and Cawa were on their lounging chairs, where I’d left them. But Cawa was lying with her eyes closed, not moving.  And a dark figure was bending over the unconscious Queen, with his hands round her throat.

The Queen!  The man was strangling my beloved Queen!  I didn’t have time to think.  I ran towards him, knowing I had to stop him, but not knowing how.  He must have heard me, because he turned.  I had a glimpse of an evil face, before his hand went to his belt.  He snatched up a gun, and pointed it at me.  A horrible pain hit my right shoulder.  I screamed.  The pain moved to my head.  It was so sore that I collapsed, unconscious.

3

THOUGHTS*

When I wakened, Riku was kneeling beside me.  She asked anxiously, “Geli, are you hurt?”

“N…no.”  I sat up.  The pain tingled in my head and shoulder, but it was fading.

Lots of people were gathered round the lounging chairs, so I couldn’t see the Queen or Cawa, but only Riku was beside me.  She helped me to the side of the room, where we would be out of the way of the people rushing out and in.

She asked,  “Geli, what happened?”

I gasped – because I could sense Riku’s thoughts.  Not exactly what she was thinking, but her emotions.  She liked me, and was worried about me.

My shock must have shown in my face, because Riku’s worry turned to alarm.  “Geli!  What’s wrong?”

I said,  “I… I’m sorry, Riku.  Give me a moment.  I’ll be all right.”

Her worry calmed a little, but she fussed over me, as I tried to work out what had happened.  Until then, I had never sensed what anyone was thinking.  The man’s gun must have done something to my brain. Something I didn’t like.  It made me uncomfortable to sense Riku’s feelings, especially since she obviously didn’t know I was doing it.

I asked,  “Riku, would you… would you get me some water?”  I did want water, but I really wanted her to go, leaving me free to think.

“Water?”  she said.  “Yes.”  She hurried away.  It was a relief when her mind went out of range.  I closed my eyes, leaned against the wall, and took deep breaths.

As I sat, I realised that some of the worry in my mind wasn’t mine.  It came from the people round the chairs.  That frightened me more.  It wasn’t only Riku’s mind I could sense.

During the rest of that day, I learned that I could sense everyone else’s minds.  The Cook was strict, but not cruel.  She kept me hard at work in the kitchen.  Riku was worried about me, but proud to have my usual job, of serving the Queen’s evening meal.  Riku told us that the Queen had red marks on her neck, but she didn’t seem badly hurt.  Cawa was OK.

That night, I could hardly sleep.  I was frightened by what had happened to me.  It seemed wrong, to pry into people’s minds without them knowing, even if I couldn’t help it.  But I couldn’t decide if I should tell anyone. That was the honest thing to do, but, if I did, no one would want me near them.

4

INVESTIGATION*

I almost decided to swear Riku to secrecy, and tell her.  I would sense how she felt.  If she still liked and trusted me, I could ask her advice about telling others.

I wasn’t certain, so I hadn’t done it by next morning after breakfast, when the Queen summoned me to her sitting room.  The Queen and Cawa were on their usual chairs, sitting up, not lounging.  A solemn-faced man sat on a hard chair beside the Queen’s.  An empty chair was facing them.

The man told me,  “Sit.”

I sat, on the edge of the chair, looking at the floor, embarrassed because I could sense the Queen’s mind.  She liked me, and was trying to ignore the soreness in her neck.  Cawa didn’t like me – and she was nastier than I’d thought.  The man was serious.

The Queen said,  “Geli, this is a judge.  He has come to investigate what happened here yesterday afternoon.  Please answer his questions.”

The Judge ordered me,  “Tell us what you did.”

I began,  “I… I….  Cawa sent me to the kitchen for stewed zoomas.  I… I….”  I stuttered to a stop.  Cawa’s mind had given a jump of alarm.  It startled me so much that I couldn’t think.

The Queen said kindly,  “Geli, while you were away, a man entered this room.  He was an alien, from another planet.  His skin was pale, and he wore a black overall.  He carried a gun which made us unconscious.”

The Judge asked me,  “What did you do when you returned?”

I explained,  “I came back quickly, because the Cook had no zoomas.”  A surge of anger went through Cawa’s mind.  That sent worry – and suspicion – through mine.  Why would Cawa be angry?

The Judge called,  “Girl, continue!”

But the Queen said,  “Can’t you see she’s upset?  Sit back, Geli, and take your time.”

“Thank you.”  I sat back, and tried to think.  “When I came into the room, the… the man was bending over you with… with his hands round your throat.”

“What did you do?”

“I… I tried to stop him.”

“How?”  All three minds were eager.

“I… I ran towards him.  He… he used a gun on me.  I… I….”  I stopped again.

The Queen asked,  “Did you scream?”

“Yes.  The gun made a horrible pain in my shoulder, then my head.”

That changed their emotions.  The Judge was pleased.  The Queen was grateful.  Cawa was angrier.

The Queen asked,  “When you saw the man attacking me, why didn’t you run for help?”

“I… I’m sorry.  I… I only thought of stopping him.”

The Queen said,  “You were very brave, Geli, tackling that man yourself.”

“I… I didn’t think of it.  I… I just did it.”  That was true.

“Your scream saved my life.  It brought guards.  The man had no time to… to complete his work.  He fled.”

I could only say,  “I’m glad I was able to help.”

“I must reward you.”

“I was only doing my duty.”  But I was thinking.  Cawa was angry that I’d come back so soon, and that I’d saved the Queen.  Cawa might have sent me for the zoomas, so that I’d be away when the man came.

That was a dreadful thought, but I had to find out.  I said,  “No one knew the man was coming.”

That caused puzzlement in the Queen’s mind, and the Judge’s – and a spike of guilt in Cawa’s.  She had known the man was coming!  She had probably arranged it.  If the Queen was killed, she would become queen.

The Judge asked,  “What do you mean, girl?”

“Nothing!”  Flustered, I said whatever came into my head.  “The… the man must have overpowered the guards at the palace gates.”

The Judge was impatient.  The Queen was worried about me.  Cawa was suspicious.  Her guilty conscience made her scowl at me, wondering if I’d guessed.

The Queen said,  “You may go now, Geli.  I shall consider how to show my thanks to you.  In the meantime, tell the Cook that you will do no more work today.  You must rest.”

“Thank you.”  I bowed, and was glad to escape from the room.

I did tell the Cook that the Queen said I needed rest, but the Cook decided I was fit enough to work – in places well away from the Queen’s rooms. To tell the truth, I was glad to have something to do, instead of worrying.

5

SLEEPLESS*

That night in bed, I couldn’t escape the worry.  I had plenty of reason for it.  My own trouble – being able to sense others’ minds.  And now – knowing the Queen was in danger.  I was certain that Cawa had sent that man to kill her, but I didn’t know what to do.  A humble servant couldn’t accuse the Queen’s sister.  I couldn’t even warn the Queen, because I couldn’t explain how I knew.

After the attack, the guards had been doubled, but they wouldn’t protect the Queen from an attack by Cawa.  This time, Cawa had found someone else to do the job.  Next time, she might be desperate enough to try herself.

No one here would believe me.  That gave me an idea, but I couldn’t work out how to use it.  The worries ran round and round in my head.  I lay, wide awake, while the other minds in the room drifted to sleep.

I should describe our sleeping room.  Seven beds, for seven female servants, sat round the walls.  Mine was opposite the door.  A little moonlight came through the window above me, enough for me to see the shadowy shapes of the other beds.

I was lying on my back, with my eyes closed.  Perhaps I was dozing.  Until I sensed a sharp, evil mind, very near.  That jarred me awake.  I quickly opened my eyes – and saw the blade of a knife, gleaming in the moonlight, about to be plunged down into me.
6

NIGHTMARES*

I didn’t have time to think.  As the knife came down, I screamed, and rolled sideways, off the bed.  The blade flashed down, but missed me. The assassin’s wrist bumped my upper arm.  I should say that Cawa’s wrist bumped my upper arm, because I recognised her thoughts.

As I rolled off the bed, I bumped her legs, nearly knocking her down, but she staggered back, and didn’t fall.  I sensed her panic as she ran for the door.

My scream had wakened the others in the room.  I sensed the flutter of alarm in their minds.  They babbled anxious questions, until the Cook shouted for everyone to be quiet, and lit a lamp.  One of the male servants looked through the curtains of the doorway, but the Cook sent him away.

I was sitting on my bed, shivering in fright, with Riku beside me.  I sensed her sympathy.

As the Cook stood over us, I sensed only anger in her mind.  “Geli, why did you scream, waking everyone in the middle of the night?”

“Someone was in the room.  Tried to stab me.”  I daren’t say, “she.”

“Nonsense, Geli!  You’re having nightmares.”

I didn’t argue.  With the Cook in that mood, I would’ve been in more trouble.

But Riku said,  “I’m not surprised Geli had nightmares – after what she did yesterday, saving the Queen’s life.”

That reminded them.  The Cook said,  “Humph!  Well, go back to bed, and let’s have no more disturbances.”

As they went back to bed, I squeezed Riku’s arm, and whispered, “Thanks!”  She gave me a sympathetic grin.

As I lay down, I found a gash in the sheet and the canvas of my bed.  I opened my mouth to tell the others, but shut it again.  I didn’t want to make a fuss.  I’d frightened Cawa away.  She wouldn’t return tonight.  I was sure of that.  But it didn’t stop me lying awake for the rest of the night, watching the doorway.  I was glad when, at last, the pale light of dawn brightened the room, and everyone rose for the new day.

7

REWARD*

After breakfast, the Queen called me to her sitting room.  Cawa was lounging in her chair, but the Queen was sitting up, to speak to me.  “Geli, I must thank you again for saving me yesterday.”

“I’m glad I did it.”  The marks on her throat seemed darker than yesterday.  I wanted to ask how she felt, but a servant couldn’t do that.

“Geli, I have considered how to show my thanks for your brave act, and I have decided to set you free.”

“Free!”  I could only gasp it.  I had expected to be a servant, obeying some noble, all my life.  I had hoped that would always be the Queen.  But, if I was free, I could do anything I liked, go anywhere I liked.

“Yes,”  said the Queen.  “Cawa suggested it.  I shall be sorry to lose your services, Geli, but freedom is the most fitting reward for what you did for me.”

Cawa was staring at me, with a glint in her eyes.  The suspicion was still there, dark in her mind, but something else was with it – satisfaction.  No doubt she hoped I would be grateful enough to forget my suspicions.

She hinted that, by saying,  “Aren’t you going to show your thanks, Geli?”

“Sorry!”  I said.  “I… I was overcome.”  I bowed to the Queen.  “Thank you!  Thank you!”

“I am happy to do it.  Come forward, Geli.”

When I went forward, she stood, and put a purple cape over my shoulders.  “This is the symbol of your freedom.”

“Thank you!  Thank you!”  Embarrassed, I backed off, and smoothed down the cape.  It was short, covering my shoulders and the tops of my arms. Free people wore them on special occasions.

“You should thank Cawa,”  said the Queen.  “It was her idea.”

“Thank you.”  I bowed to Cawa.  Her satisfaction was stronger.  She must hope the cape was a big enough bribe to make me forget my suspicions.

The Queen asked,  “What do you intend to do now, Geli?”

“I… I don’t know.”  As I spoke, the idea shot back into my mind, like a flash of light.  “I’ll walk round the town.  I’ve always wanted to see more of it.  Then… I would be grateful if I may return to my job here, until I decide what to do.”

The Queen smiled.  “I would be happy for you to continue to serve me, Geli, but you are free now.  If you are going to work for me, I shall have to pay you.”

“No!”  I said.  “I don’t want pay.  Not from you.”

“I insist,”  she said.  “Since you are now free, you will have to provide your own accommodation and food.  You will need money.  But I have delayed you long enough.  Go, and explore the town.  Enjoy your freedom.”

“Thank you.”  I bowed, and left the room.

Before I left the palace, I found Riku, and told her my news.  We hugged. She was glad I was free, but sad I would be leaving.  She started crying, and so did I.

At last, she sniffled, and said,  “I must go.  The Cook sent me to sweep the courtyard.”

“Would you tell the Cook I’ve gone,”  I said.  “If I go near her, she’ll give me a job.”

“You’re free now, Geli.  You could refuse to do the job.”

“Maybe.  I’m not sure I have the courage to do that.”

I didn’t want anything to delay me, because, now that I was free, I could use my idea.  Since I couldn’t tell anyone on the planet of my suspicions, I would leave the planet.  I would go to the leader of the Galactic Federation.  What was his name?  Mumble?  No.  Mamble.  When he’d visited us, he’d seemed a kind man.  He was powerful: he could stop anyone harming the Queen.

8

TRANSPORTER*

I knew where to go to reach the Galactic Federation, because I had attended the Queen when she went to greet Mamble, and other visitors from the Federation.  But, as I approached the place, I hesitated, because two soldiers with swords were guarding the entrance.

I took a deep breath, and tried to walk between them – until a sword swung down, blocking my way.  “Where are you going?”

I tried to stop my voice from shaking.  “To the Galactic Federation.”

“Who gave you permission?”

“Do I need permission?”  I was panicking inside, imagining my trip finishing before it had started.

But the guards’ commander looked out.  “What’s going on?”  Seeing me, he asked,  “What are you doing here?  Aren’t you the Queen’s maidservant?”

“I was,”  I said.  “I’m free now.  See.”  I touched my cape.  ”The Queen set me free because I saved her life.”

The three minds went from dark suspicion to bright admiration, like the sun bursting from behind a black cloud.  The commander said,  “Everyone is grateful for what you did.  How can I help you?”

“I want to visit the Galactic Federation.”  I followed him inside.  It was a bare stone room, with the walls painted cream.  Standing in the doorway, you had the window in the wall at your left, a black screen in the wall at your right, and a wide metal door facing you.  It was through that door that visitors came from the Federation.  Two men were on guard at the window, and two at the metal door.

The commander was anxious.  “I would not advise you to visit the Federation.  There’s a lot of people – and trouble – there.”

“I want to go.”

He must have seen my determination, because he said,  “If you insist on going, I can’t stop you, but you mustn’t go far, on your first trip.”

“I won’t go far.”  I would only go far enough to find Mamble.

“Do you know how to use the transporter?”

“Not very well.”  Meaning,  “No.”

He frowned down at me, but said,  ”You stand at the door, and call, ‘Open.’ That opens the door.  You go inside.  You call, ‘Close.’  That closes the door.  You call, ‘Operate.’  That takes the transporter to the other planet – Yband 4.  You call, ‘Open.’  That opens the door.  Go out, and call, ‘Close,’ to shut the door.  Will you remember that?”

“I think so.  Open.  Close.  Operate.  Open.  Close.”

“Shall I come with you?”

“No, thanks.”  I didn’t want him to know why I was going.  “Is it the same to come back?”

“Yes.  Make sure you find the right transporter.  It’s the twentieth one from the entrance.”

“Thank you.”  Everything he said made me more nervous.  Before I could change my mind, I faced the metal door.  “Open.”  It did, showing a small room, with metal walls and a glowing ceiling.

I went inside.  “Close.”  The door slid shut, blocking my view of the commander’s anxious face.

I took a deep breath.  “Operate.”  A funny, twisting feeling in my stomach made me feel a little sick – and even more nervous – but I was determined to go on.  I had to find Mamble.

9

TORTURE*

“Open.”  The commander had told me I would be on Yband 4, but it was still a shock when the door slid aside, and I didn’t see the room I’d left.

Here, the door opened into a shallow alcove in the side of a wide passage. Across the passage was another shallow alcove, with an empty seat in it. People were walking past, along the passage.  They didn’t look like my people: they were different colours, and wore different clothes, but I could sense their minds.

I was still gathering the courage to go out when the door started to slide shut.  I jumped for the gap, but stopped myself in time.  The door shut, leaving me in the metal room.

Doubtfully, I called,  “Open.”  The door slid open again, showing the same passage.  I went out of the room, but stayed in the back of the alcove. Here, the passing people were nearer, so I sensed their minds more strongly.  It was horrible – all those emotions, bombarding my mind.

Among all these people, it might be hard to find Mamble.  While I was hesitating, the door slid shut behind me.  That made up my mind.  I went out into the passage, and looked around.

To the left, after another four alcoves, the passage stopped at a blank grey wall.  To the right, it seemed to go on forever – and it was even busier.  I sensed the people’s impatience as they hurried past me.

I asked a kind-looking, blue-skinned old man,  “Do you know where I can find Mamble?”

He felt sorry for me, as he paused for long enough to say a few words – in his own language – before he rushed on.

That reminded me – when we had visitors from the Federation, they used black things on their wrists to speak to the Queen.  Most of the people were wearing these black things, but I didn’t have one, and I didn’t know how to get one.

That almost sent me back, but I would be ashamed if I gave up now.  Who would help me?  Yes!  If there were guards on my planet, there might be guards here.  Where could I find them?  They were more likely to be at the entrance of the passage – and their thoughts would be different because they weren’t going anywhere.

That encouraged me, so I started along the passage.  But it was worse than I expected.  Most of the travellers were bigger than me, so they didn’t see me until they bumped into me.

But much worse were their thoughts.  As I went along the passage, it got busier and busier.  The people were all around me.  Their emotions battered me from all sides.  It’s impossible to describe.  Imagine being among a mob of people, all shouting at you – and the shouting is inside your head.

I pushed on, head down, trying to ignore the blast of noise, but it got louder and louder, until I thought my head was going to explode.

A large, nasty man barged into me, knocking me down.  I scrambled to my feet, and stumbled to an alcove, where I sank onto the seat, with my head in my hands.  I had to find someone to help the Queen.  But I couldn’t face any more of that horrible passage.  I broke down, and cried.
10

BEA*

I don’t know how long I sat there crying, while the passing crowds pounded my brain with their emotions.  Then I felt an arm over my shoulders.

I looked up, into the pale face of a girl about the same age as me.  I couldn’t sense her mind, but she looked sympathetic.  She spoke, but not in my language.  I shook my head.

She tapped her chest, smiled, and said,  “Bea.”

That must be her name.  I tapped my chest, tried to smile, and said, “Geli.”

She pointed to a boy I hadn’t noticed, although he was standing, frowning down at us.  Like Bea, he was wearing a grey overall with dark green bands round the chest and cuffs.  He said,  “Tony,”  and gave me a friendly grin.

I pointed to them.  “Bea.  Tony.”  The noise of the crowds still rang in my mind, but it didn’t seem so loud when these friendly people were with me.

Bea tapped the black device on her wrist, and asked a question.

“No,”  I said.

Bea pointed to herself, and said something, then she pointed to Tony, and said the same.  I couldn’t guess what she meant.  I could only stare at her.

Bea held one fist up, then moved the other fist round it, saying the same thing again.  What was she doing?  Why would she make one fist go round the other?  The answer came to me, like a flash of light.  I pointed to myself, and said,  “Striffo 4.”

Tony repeated,  “Striffo?”

I said it clearly.  With a cheerful wave, he plunged into the crowd.  Bea spoke to me.  I didn’t know what she said, but I did understand that she wanted to help me.  I wiped the tears from my face with the sleeve of my tunic.

Soon, Tony was back.  He took the black device from his wrist, spoke to it, then held it out to me.  Bea spoke to hers.  Tony’s said to me, “Greetings, Geli.  Please take that.  It’s called a wrist unit.  If you speak into it, mine will give a translation of what you say.”

I’d seen the Queen using them, but I was nervous as I held the wrist unit to my face.  “Greetings.”  As I spoke, so did Bea’s wrist unit.  “Thank you.”

Bea spoke into hers.  “Geli, why were you crying?  Can we help you?”

They looked too young to help me, but I had to tell someone.  I said,  “A stranger came to my planet, and tried to kill my Queen.  Then Cawa tried to kill me.”

Bea looked anxious.  “Someone tried to kill you?  Were they caught?”

“No.”

Bea looked into my face.  She was probably wondering whether to believe me.  She spoke to Tony, quickly, without the wrist unit.  He nodded, and vanished in the crowd.

Bea used the wrist unit to tell me,  “Tony will watch.  Now would you tell me what happened?”

I started at the beginning, when Cawa sent me for the stewed zoomas.  At the start, I was slow, because I’d never used a wrist unit, but, when Bea listened sympathetically, I became more confident.

When I reached the place where I wakened, I paused.  I didn’t know if I should admit I’d sensed Riku’s mind.  But Bea was so kind.  I wanted to tell her.  I said,  “If I tell you what happened next, will you promise not to tell anyone?  Anyone!”

She frowned.  “Have you done something… wrong?”

“No.  It’s not that.”  I took a deep breath, and blurted it.  “When I wakened, I could sense Riku’s mind.  I could sense everyone’s minds.  Not exactly what they were thinking, but their emotions.”

I couldn’t mistake the flash of surprise on Bea’s face.  I explained,  “That’s one of the reasons I was crying.  All those minds….”  I waved at the passing crowds.  “They’re so loud.”

“Poor Geli!”  Bea hugged me.  “Do you want to get away from here?”

“Yes!  That would be such a relief.”

“I’ll take you somewhere quieter.”

We looked up – and saw a man – the same man who’d attacked the Queen yesterday.  He was looking down at us with an expression of triumph on his face – and a gun in his hand.

11

SOCIAL AREA*


Seeing the man with the gun, I gasped in horror.  But, instead of pulling the trigger, the man collapsed in front of us.  Tony was standing behind him, holding a gun too.  He grinned, and made a comment, then pointed his gun at the man’s head, and pulled the trigger for a while.

I remembered to use the wrist unit, to ask Bea,  “What’s he doing?”

“He’s making sure the man won’t waken while Tony sends him to prison. Let’s go.”

A few travellers had stopped to gape at the fallen man, but most were hustling on.  We mingled with them.  I held Bea’s arm, but I was starting to get used to the noise of the people’s minds.

At the end of the passage, we crossed a big square room, to a single door in the middle of the opposite side.  As we went in there, we met a man coming out.  Mamble!  The Federation leader!  Should I tell him?  While I was trying to decide, Bea was speaking to him.  He hurried away, so busy that I didn’t have the courage to call him back.

Bea told me,  “That was the commander of the base.  He’s gone to help Tony, and he’s agreed that we can use the social area.  We’ll have peace to talk here.  Would you like something to eat or drink?”

“Whatever you like.”

“I’ll get a toffee sundae.  Won’t be long.”  She left through a door in the corner of the room.

I walked round the room, but there wasn’t much to see.  It was square, with grey walls, and a glowing ceiling.  A U-shaped settee faced a big black screen on the wall opposite the entrance.

Bea was soon back, carrying two glasses containing something streaked brown and cream.  She held one to me, and a tool with a scoop on the end.

Seeing my doubt, she said,  “Go on.  Take it.  It’s for eating.”

“It’s cold!”

“Yes.  It’s frozen.  Try it.”  She dipped her scoop in the stuff, and put some in her mouth.  Amazed, I did the same.

Bea asked,  “Like it?”

“Yes,”  I said.  “It’s cold, but it tastes good.”

“It comes from my planet, Sol 3.  Most people like it.  Have a seat.  While we’re eating, would you like to go on with your story?”

I said,  “I’m sorry!  While you were away, I was thinking – I forgot to thank Tony for saving us.”

“Forget it, Geli,”  said Bea.  “I thanked him, and he’ll join us here as soon as Mamble sends the man to prison.”

I commented,  “It was lucky he spotted the man.”  As I spoke, I realised – “It wasn’t luck!”

“No,”  said Bea.  “When you told us someone had tried to kill you, Tony went out, to mingle with the crowds, watching for anyone who might try again.”

“How did he know?”

“He couldn’t be certain, until the man actually brought out the gun.  I hope it didn’t frighten you too much.  I’m glad I asked Tony to watch, although I didn’t really expect anything.”

“I didn’t see Tony watching.”

“No.”  Bea seemed reluctant to explain why Tony had suspected the man.  That puzzled me, and made me think.  The reason hit me.  “Can you and Tony sense minds too?”

“Shh!”  Bea looked quickly around.  “It’s a secret.  Please don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t,”  I said.  “But it’s such a relief, to know I’m not the only one.  Can you sense my mind?”

“A little,”  said Bea.  “Can you sense mine?”

“No,”  I said.  “How do you stand the noise of all those minds outside?”

“You get used to it.  Come on.  Take your sundae before it melts.”  She took some herself.

As I took some, she asked,  “Would you like to go on with your story now?”

I told her the rest of my story, finishing by explaining how I’d come to Yband 4 to find Mamble.

Bea said,  “I hope Tony and I can help you.”

“You!”  I exclaimed.  “You’re no older than me.”

Bea said,  “We’re Troubleshooters.  It’s our job to investigate problems on Federation planets.  I think I know how we can help you.”  She told me her plan, and said,  “We’ve been talking too much.  Our sundaes are melted. We’d better sup them up.”

12

TONY*

By the time we’d emptied the glasses, Bea was looking at the door more and more often.  She said,  “I wonder where Tony is.  He should be here by now.”

“He may have been delayed.”

“Y…yes.  He’ll be asked to help to question the prisoner, but he said he’d come here first.  I’d like to go, and prepare for our trip, but I don’t want to leave you.”

“Don’t worry about me,”  I said.

As I spoke, Tony hurried in.  Bea said,  “We were worrying about you.  Where have you been?”

“Don’t ask!”  He slumped in the seat beside Bea.  Then he said,  “Toffee sundae.  That’s a good idea.”  He bobbed up, and hurried out.  He didn’t explain until he came back with the glass.  “Mamble came along.  I was telling him what happened when a nerve-gun beam hit us.  When I wakened, the prisoner was gone.”

Bea cried,  “Tony!  Are you all right?”

“Yeah,”  he said.  “It was my own fault.  I should’ve remembered that Hallixian pirates often work in pairs.”  He started on his food.

“Hallixian pirates?”  I asked.

Bea said,  “Tony will tell you.  May I go now?  I have to see our leader, and prepare for the trip to Striffo 4.”

“Sure, Bean,”  said Tony.  “Need me?”

“No, thanks .  Geli and I can take care of it.  Geli will tell you the plan.  I’ll be as quick as I can.”  She hurried away.

Tony said,  “I’ll tell you about Hallixian pirates.  A bunch of crooks have a base on Hallixia 10.  They call themselves pirates.  They can be hired for any crooked work in this part of the Galaxy.”

I said,  “The man you stunned today was the same one who attacked the Queen yesterday.”

“It would be,”  said Tony.  “Would you like to tell me your story?”

So I repeated what I’d told Bea.  As I spoke, Tony kept eating, but he seemed to be listening.

At the end of it, he asked,  “So what’s the plan?”

I told him Bea’s plan.

He commented,  “She shouldn’t be long.  Now that you’re free, Geli, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,”  I answered.  “Everything’s happened so fast.  I haven’t had time to think.  I hope I can find a well-paid job, so that I can buy Riku from the Queen.”

“Buy Riku?”  he asked

“I don’t want Riku as a servant,”  I explained.  “I want to set her free.  She would be so pleased.”

Tony said slowly,  “Maybe I can suggest a well-paid job for you.  How would you like to be an agent of the Federation?”

“Me!”  I said.  “I couldn’t do that!  I know nothing about the Federation.”

“You could soon learn.  You’d make a good agent, Geli.  You’re brave and brainy.  You’ve proved that.  The Federation likes agents who can sense others’ minds.  Wouldn’t you like to live in a place like this?”

“Yes!  Do you think I could do it?”

“Yeah.  Why not give it a try?  I’m sure they’d accept you for training.”

“Training!  That’s not hard, is it?”

“Not really.  It’s tough, but interesting.  I bet you’d enjoy it.  Think about it, Geli.”

13

RETURN*

Tony had no time to tell me more, because Bea came back – but I wouldn’t have recognised her.  Her skin was darker, and she wore a short-sleeved tunic, belted at the waist.  She might have been a native of my planet.

As we left the room,  Tony asked,  “Are you sure you won’t need help? Those pirates may be back.”

“We’ll be safe on my planet,”  I said.  “The transporter is well guarded.”

“If you’re sure.”  He frowned for a moment.  “I’ll come through with you.”

The walk along the wide passage was a nightmare, but I closed my eyes, and held Bea’s hand.  When we reached the transporter, Tony ordered the door,  “Open,”  as if he did it every day.  He probably did.  If they were agents of the Federation, they must often go to other planets.  That would be so exciting.  I decided I would really like to do that.

The guards’ commander was surprised (and not very pleased) when the three of us came out of the transporter on Striffo 4.  I told him,  “These are Bea and Tony.  They’re agents of the Federation.”

“Agents?  She looks like a maidservant.”

“She’s in disguise.”

He thought that was funny.  “I can see that.  What’s she going to do?”

“We’re going to catch the person who tried to kill the Queen.”

“That little girl?”

Seeing Bea glaring at him, I quickly said,  “She’s a Federation agent. Please, would you and your men promise to tell no one she’s here.”

“We promise.”  He laughed again.  “Good luck in your hunting.”

Tony said,  “’Bye, Geli.  ’Bye, Bean.  Best of luck.  You should be safe enough here.  There are enough guards, even if they’re not very bright.” He went to the transporter.

The commander stared after him, then turned to Bea.  “I’m sorry.  If you’re a Federation agent, you know what you’re doing.”  But he wasn’t convinced.

“Thank you.”  I hustled Bea out, before he could say any more.

I had no idea what time it was, but the town was quiet, so Bea and I saw no one as we crept to our sleeping room.  I left Bea there, and went through the palace to the kitchen, where I found out why the town was quiet – it was the time of the evening meal.  Riku was about to serve the last part of it, the limso water, to the Queen.  I persuaded her to let me do it.

The Queen was pleased to see me, and Cawa smiled too, although her mind was wary.

The Queen said,  “Ah, Geli, I’m glad to see you back.  I hope you enjoyed your day, exploring the town.”

“Yes, thank you.”  I bowed.

With narrowed eyes, Cawa asked,  “Have you decided what you are going to do?”

“I want to stay here for now,”  I said.  “I might try to find out who sent that man to attack the Queen.”  That alarmed Cawa.

The Queen said,  “But, Geli, that man was an alien.  He will have left this planet.”

“Probably,”  I said.  “But it wouldn’t be his idea to attack you.  Someone here probably sent him.”

“You may be right,”  said the Queen.  “I did not think of that.  What will you do?”

“I have one or two ideas,”  I said.  “I’d like to stay here, until I’ve made some money.”  I glanced towards Cawa, making sure she saw me doing it. Her mind filled with worry – and dislike of me.

The Queen said,  “If you find out who sent that man you can expect a reward from me.”

“Thank you.  I’ll do my best.”  I bowed, and left them.

I was stupid enough to take empty plates back to the kitchen, where the Cook found plenty of work for me to do for the rest of the evening.

14

TRAP*

I made sure I was first in the sleeping room, where Bea was sitting on my bed.  When the others came in, I told them who Bea was, and I explained her plan.  I showed them the gashes in my bed, and said that we expected the person with the knife to come back that night.

Using spare clothes, we made a dummy in my bed.  Bea and I, each with a stun-gun, hid under the beds on each side of the door.  Then the others settled down as usual.  As we expected, they didn’t sleep, but, as we asked, they did lie quiet.

It was a long wait, and not a comfortable one.  I wished we’d thought to put mattresses, or at least cushions, under the beds with us.  We were lying on the hard floor, and we had to keep down, because the beds were low, and they sagged under the weight of the people in them.

I sensed most of the others’ excitement fading, as they became drowsy.  I was in no danger of sleeping: excitement and discomfort stopped that.

I began to think Cawa wasn’t coming.  That surprised me.  I really thought she would strike tonight.  She wouldn’t know what trouble I might cause her tomorrow.

A moonbeam made a pale patch on the floor.  It crept across the room, but still Cawa didn’t come.

Then a shadowy figure was there, creeping across the room to my bed.

15

CAUGHT*

I gripped the gun tighter.  I was desperate to pull the trigger, but I didn’t. We’d agreed that Bea would capture Cawa.  I would only use my gun if Cawa looked like escaping.

She stood beside my bed, and lifted something.  For a moment, a blade gleamed in the moonlight.  Then she plunged it down into the figure on the bed.

Bea timed it neatly.  As the knife went into the dummy, Cawa collapsed on the floor.  Bea and I crawled out.  Some of the others had seen what happened, and their excited questions soon roused the others.  They didn’t know who we’d caught, until the Cook lit a lamp, and they recognised Cawa.  They were surprised, but they didn’t like her, so they weren’t sorry she’d been caught.

No one wanted to disturb the Queen in the middle of the night, so Bea used her gun on Cawa again, to keep her unconscious until the morning.

I suggested that Bea should use my bed for the rest of the night, but she asked,  “Geli, do you want to tell your queen about Cawa?”

“No!  That’s been worrying me.  The Queen will be upset.  She likes Cawa.  They’re sisters.”

“Do you want me to tell her?”

“Would you do that?”

“If you want, but, if I go to your Queen, looking like this, she may be like the guard at the transporters.  I’ll go back to Yband 4, and change into my uniform.  When do you want me back to tell the Queen.”

“After breakfast.”  We arranged a time.

16

BAD NEWS*

As I served the Queen her breakfast, I felt so sorry for her.  She didn’t always see Cawa in the morning, so she didn’t know anything was wrong. The news would be a dreadful blow.

After I’d served the Queen’s breakfast, I didn’t go back to the kitchen.  I went to the transporter, where I met Bea – back to her pale skin and uniform.  Tony had come with her.  I took them to the Queen’s room, where I told her their names, and said,  “Bea has some news for you.”

Bea said,  “Geli and I have discovered who sent the man to attack you.”

“Well done!”  said the Queen eagerly.  “Who was it?”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,”  said Bea.  “It was Cawa.”

The Queen was shocked.  When she recovered enough to speak, she said, Geli!  Do you agree with that?”

I managed to say a squeaky,  “Yes.”

“No!”  exclaimed the Queen.  “I do not believe it!”

“I’m sorry,”  said Bea.  “But we can prove it.”

The Queen glared at us, until she had calmed enough to speak.  Then she said in a tight voice,  “You are an agent of the Federation, and you appear to believe what you are saying.  I am going to call a judge, and ask him to make an investigation.  Then I shall report you to Mamble, the local commander.”

Bea said,  “After the investigation, you may report me to Mamble if you wish.  If you call the Judge, we’ll bring Cawa.”

I sensed the first hint of doubt in the Queen’s mind, but she didn’t show it. She said,  “It shall be done.”

Cawa was still lying in our sleeping room.  When Bea put something to her forehead to waken her, she would have stormed out of the room if Tony, at the door, hadn’t used his stun-gun.

Bea revived her again, and I told her about the investigation.  So she tried to storm out again, and Tony stunned her again.  The three of us carried her to the Queen’s room.

We laid her on her lounging chair, and Bea spoke to the Queen.  “I’m sorry.  We had to stun her.  She tried to escape.”

The Queen was too angry to speak.

Bea revived Cawa again.  Cawa stood, and glared around.  She would have stormed out if Tony hadn’t been standing beside the door, holding his gun.  Cawa went to the Queen.  “Why do you let these aliens assault me?”

The Queen was still furious, but the doubt was back in her mind.  “They have made a serious charge against you.”

“Do you believe it?”

“It is made by an agent of the Federation, so I cannot ignore it.  I have ordered an investigation.  You have nothing to fear.”

The Judge – the same one as yesterday – was on his seat beside the Queen.  He asked Cawa,  “May we begin?”

Cawa was furious, and badly frightened, but she hid it behind a scowl.  She sat on her chair.  “Go ahead.  Let’s have the investigation.”

17

ACCUSATION*

When Bea had given everyone a wrist unit, the Judge asked,  “Who makes the accusation?”

Bea said,  “I make the accusation.”

“What is the accusation?”

“Two days ago, Cawa sent an alien to attack the Queen.”

“Let us hear your evidence.  I warn you that I shall require complete proof.”

Bea said,  “I think we can give you proof.  Geli, will you tell us how it started?”

I said,  “Although it was an alien who attacked the Queen, someone from this planet must have sent him.”

“Perhaps not!”  shouted Cawa.  She was right, but she should have kept quiet.

The Judge glanced at her, and I sensed the first hint of doubt in his mind.

I went on,  “I was suspicious of Cawa because she sent me for stewed zoomas immediately after lunch.  She might have done that so that I wouldn’t be there when the man arrived.”  I knew that was thin, but I couldn’t mention my mind-sensing.

Cawa said,  “To think of that, you must have a nasty mind.  You don’t like me.  None of the servants like me.”

That was true, so I didn’t comment on it.  I said,  “Cawa must have guessed that I suspected her.  The night before last, she crept into our sleeping room, and tried to stab me.”

The Queen gasped.  Cawa simmered in fright and fury, but she didn’t speak.  It was the Judge who said,  “That is a serious accusation.  I expect you to prove it.”

“I can’t prove it,”  I said.

Cawa exclaimed,  “Ha!”  The Judge started to speak, but stopped.

I said,  “I wakened, and rolled aside, so the dagger missed me.  I thought I recognised Cawa, but I wasn’t certain.  I was anxious, because she was plotting against my beloved Queen so, when the Queen freed me, I went to the Federation.”

“Not to the town,”   said the Queen.

“No.  I hoped to see Mamble.  Before I reached him, the alien tried to kill me.  Bea and Tony saved me, and kindly agreed to help me.”

The Judge frowned, and turned to Tony.  “Is that so?”

“Yes,”  he said.  “Thanks to the… Bea’s brains, we caught the man.  Then, thanks to my stupidity, he escaped.”

“So he has not been questioned.”

“No.  I’m sorry.  But Geli saw him.  It was the same man.”

“It was,”  I said.  “Yesterday, after the evening meal, I announced to the Queen that I was going to investigate the attack on her.  Cawa was there.  I hinted that I might accept a bribe to keep quiet.”

The Queen breathed,  “Oh!  Yes.”

I said,  “I didn’t expect Cawa to offer me the bribe, but I thought it would make her angrier, and keener to get rid of me.  So, last night, we put a dummy in my bed.  Bea and I hid under other beds in the room.  During the night, Cawa crept into the room, and plunged a dagger into the dummy.”

I stopped.  The room was silent.  Cawa was angry and frightened.  The Judge was interested.  The Queen was too horrified to speak.

At last, the Judge asked,  “Can you prove that?”

“I saw it.  The Cook saw it.  Riku saw it.  You can ask them if you want.  I know we’re only servants, but Bea saw it too, and she’s a Federation agent.  She used a stun-gun on Cawa.  The other servants saw Cawa unconscious beside the bed, with the dagger in the dummy.”

The Judge turned to Cawa.  “Would you care to comment?”

18

SENTENCE*

Cawa’s mind raced.  She glanced towards the door, where Tony was watching her, with the gun in his hand.

Cawa said,  “All right!  I did not send the alien to attack the Queen.  I would not dream of that.  But I did try to kill this… this little blackmailer. I knew she was going to accuse me of sending the alien.  I wanted to stop her.  And what does it matter?”

“What does it matter?”  echoed the Judge in surprise.

Cawa explained,  “I didn’t kill her.  And it is no great crime to kill a servant girl.”

“I’m not a servant,”  I said.  “I’m free.  You were there when the Queen set me free.”  I held up the edge of my cape.

The Judge asked the Queen,  “Is that so?”

The Queen could only nod.

The Judge said,  “Cawa, you have admitted trying to kill a free person.  I have no choice.  Our laws say you must go to prison.”

The Judge sent for guards to take Cawa away.  When they were gone, Bea asked,  “How long will she be in prison?”

The Judge answered,  “Probably 1000 days.  Cawa was right.  Thanks to you, she did not kill.  The punishment would have been much greater if you had proved she sent the man to attack the Queen.”

“I hoped she would confess to that too, and give her reasons, but she was too smart.”  Bea turned to the Queen.  “I hope we have removed the danger to you, at least for the time being.”

“Yes,”  said the Queen.  “Thank you.”  But she wasn’t really paying attention.  She was overcome with the horror of learning what Cawa had done.

“It’s Geli you should thank,”  said Bea.  “She had the courage to face the trip to Yband 4, to look for help for you.”

“Yes, Geli,”  said the Queen.  “Thank you.”  She looked at me, and I saw the tears in her eyes.  I felt so sorry for her.  An ordinary person wasn’t meant to go near the Queen, but I couldn’t stop myself; I hugged her.  She put her arms round me, and sobbed.  With her head so close to mine, her sorrow overflowed into my mind, and I couldn’t help crying too.

I don’t know how long we hugged before the Queen was calmer.  I eased away from her, and was surprised to see the others waiting patiently in their places – the Judge in his chair, Bea in the middle of the room, and Tony at the door.

With a sob, the Queen said,  “Geli, thank you.  I… I must reward you.”

“I don’t want a reward,”  I said.  “I’m happy to help you.  I’m sorry about….”  I couldn’t go on.

“I had to know,”  She said.  “You may go now.  I shall see you later.”

Bea said to the Queen,  “I hope we’ve removed the danger to you, but I would advise you to have extra protection for a while.”

19

GOODBYE*

I wasn’t sure about leaving the Queen, but Bea helped me away.  With the Judge and Tony, we left the room.  I wiped my eyes.

Tony asked,  “What now?”

I said,  “I must tell Riku.”

“Then Bea and I can go.”

“Would you come with me?”  I said.  “We… we might meet the Cook.”

Tony’s eyes opened wider, and he looked at Bea, who said,  “We’ll come with you, Geli.”

“Thank you, Bea.”  We started through the palace.  With a shrug, Tony followed.

Riku was sweeping the courtyard.  Before she stopped work, we looked carefully around.  The Cook wasn’t in sight.  I told Riku about the investigation.  I sensed her sorrow for the poor Queen – then a jump of alarm.

I jerked round – and faced the Cook.  She said,  “There you are at last, Geli.  Why are you hanging around here?  There’s a lot of work to be done.”  She pushed a brush into my hand.  “You can start by sweeping the corridor outside the sleeping rooms.  Then you can tidy the Queen’s bedroom.  The curtains in the entrance hall are needing washed.  Take them down, and give them to the Washer.”

I looked up, into her stern face.  In desperation, I looked around.  Bea looked serious.  Tony winked at me.

I took a deep breath.  “I’m sorry, Cook.  I really am.  But I have to go.”

“Go!”  she exclaimed.  “I have given you work to do.”

“I know, but the Queen set me free yesterday.  I don’t have to do your work unless I want to.”

She frowned down at me.  “What else are you going to do?”

I took another deep breath.  “I’m going to Yband 4.  I’m going to be an agent of the Galactic Federation.”

I beamed to Bea and Tony.  Bea looked surprised.  Tony said,  “Done, Geli.”

“Don’t be stupid, Geli,”  said the Cook.  “What do you know about the Galactic Federation?”

“Nothing, but I can learn.”

Tony said,  “That’s arranged.  Bea’ll teach you.”

“Me!”  squeaked Bea.  Yes: it was a squeak – of surprise.

“Yes,”  said Tony.  “You’re doing reports about the Federation.  You’ll have to do one about living in the Federation.  You can tell Geli at the same time.”

“Y…yes,”  said Bea.  Then she smiled.  “That’s a good idea.  Would you like me to tell you about living in the Federation, Geli?”

“I would love that.  Thank you!”

I pushed the brush back into the astonished Cook’s hand.  “Sorry.”  I gave Riku a quick hug.  “’Bye, Riku.  I’ll come back and see you soon.”

“And tell me about your adventures in the Galactic Federation.”

“I’ll do that.  I wish you could come with me.”

The Cook frowned down at me.  “Are you determined to leave your good job here, and face unknown dangers in the Galactic Federation?”

I sensed what was in her mind, but I didn’t show it.  “Yes.  It’s a good chance for me.”

The frown turned to a beam.  “Then I wish you the best of luck, Geli.  We shall be sorry to see you go, but proud to know a real agent of the Galactic Federation.”

“Thanks, Cook.  Tony and Bea want to leave.  I’d better go.”

As we left, I looked back.  The Cook and Riku gave me a wave – then the Cook turned to Riku, and ordered her to go on with the sweeping.

I said to Bea.  “It’s kind of you to tell me about living in the Federation.”

“I’m happy to do it,”  said Bea.  “As Tony said, I ought to do a report on it.”

“That’s why I asked,”  I said.  “If you tell me, could I do the report?”

“Would you Geli?”  said Bea.  “That’s kind of you.  Would you start by explaining how you came to the Federation?”

That’s done.  Now I’ll describe how Bea told me about living in the Federation.

20

VICTOR

 

We used the transporter to go to Yband 4, where Bea told me, “Different planets can be at different times of day. It was late morning on your planet, but it’s early evening here. We were awake all last night. I’m tired. Can we get something to eat, then find a guest cabin for you? We’ll have a good night’s sleep, then tomorrow morning, we can put your name down for training, and collect your uniform.”

“That’s fine,” I said. I was too excited to feel tired. I would have loved to get a uniform, but I didn’t want to give Bea any trouble.

The three of us went to a Federation dining room, where they offered me food from my own planet, but I asked for something different – whatever they were having. It was lumpy white stuff called, ‘chicken.’ I liked it. After that, a different kind of sundae. Straw-something. The food appeared like magic from a little door at the end of the table. Bea promised to tell me how to use it, so I won’t describe it now.

After we’d eaten, Tony went away, while Bea and I went to a big black screen in the entrance hall of the building. Bea told me, “This is a terminal of Victor, the Federation computer. Do you know what a computer is?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve seen people speaking to a screen like this, beside the transporter on my planet.”

“A computer is a man-made brain,” Bea explained. “Victor is a huge brain – bigger than any human’s, as he keeps telling us. We can speak to him at any terminal like this.”

She called, “Oo-wake. Victor, I need a guest cabin for Geli, from Striffo 4.”

A man’s voice came from the wall. “Can’t she speak?”

“Yes. Geli, speak to Victor.”

“What… what shall I say?”

The wall said, “No more. Block 17-17. Cabin 7-1.”

Bea said, “Thanks. Oo-sleep. Victor. That’s it, Geli. That’s your cabin arranged for the night. I’ll show you where it is.”

As we went through the passages, she explained, “Most Federation devices are voice-operated. That means they obey spoken commands. Victor wanted to hear you speaking, so that he can learn to recognise your voice.”

“Do you mean – he’ll know my voice if I speak to him again?”

“Yes, but only in that cabin for tonight. Tomorrow morning, when we enrol you as a trainee agent, he’ll memorise your voice again. Then any device, anywhere in the Federation, will recognise it for as long as you’re working for the Federation.”

I could only say, “That is amazing!”

We went along a lot of wide passages, then into a building with narrower ones, like a maze. I kept near Bea, because she seemed to know where she was going.

 

21

CABIN

 

Bea stopped at the end of a short passage that had four doors along each side. She pointed to the nearest one on the left. “That’s your cabin, Geli. See the light above the door. It’s blue. That means someone’s using the cabin. You. Its devices will recognise your voice.”

We squeezed to the side of the passage to let a woman go past. She looked human, but her skin had a green tinge, her head was big, and she had no hair. To tell the truth, I only knew she was a woman because I sensed her mind. She frowned at us as she passed. She spoke to the door of the cabin next door to mine. It opened, and she went in.

Bea said, “Her cabin’s light is blue too, but the ones on the other side are green. That means no one’s taken them. Do you know how to open your door?”

“Yes, if it’s the same as the transporter.” I faced the door. “Open.” It slid aside, and I had my first view of my cabin.

I stood in the doorway to admire it although, to be honest, there wasn’t much to see. It was small – much smaller than our sleeping room in the palace. From the door, a passage ran down the middle. It was as long as the built-in bed, on the left side of the room. On the right were a cupboard door, a screen of Victor, then a doorway without a door. Everything was grey except the screen, and the ceiling, which was glowing.

We went in. Bea asked, “Do you like it?”

“Yes.” I tried to sound keen, but I was disappointed. I’d thought Federation agents would live in big posh rooms like the Queen’s sitting room, not a plain little place like this.

Bea must have sensed my disappointment, because she said, “It’s not big, but it has everything you need. The….”

The door slid shut behind us.

Bea added, “Including a door that shuts automatically if you don’t give it orders after a certain time.”

22

LIGHT

 

She looked around the cabin. “Now, how do I start? Yes. Using voice-operated devices is easy. There are three steps. First, you say which device you want to use. Then you give it an order. Then you tell it you’re finished giving orders.”

“That’s logical.”

“I’ll show you, by telling you how to adjust the light. Repeat after me, but you mustn’t say anything else.” She put her wrist unit behind her back. “Oo-wake.”

I hesitated, doubtful. When she looked at me, I asked, “Do I have to put my wrist unit behind my back?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Bea. “You’re not speaking to me. You’re speaking to the device.”

“I’m sorry. I should have known.”

“No,” said Bea. “I should have explained. The command uses a word in my language. I didn’t want the wrist unit to translate it. Ignore what I do with my wrist unit. Repeat what you hear? Ready?”

“Y…yes.”

“First, you say which device you want to operate. She put her wrist unit behind her back. “Oo-wake.”

I repeated, “Oo-wake.”

Bea put her wrist unit to her mouth, and spoke. My wrist unit said, “Light. 60.”

I said, “Light. 60.” The ceiling glowed brighter.

I opened my mouth to say, “That is amazing!” but remembered in time to stop, and listen to Bea, who said, “That was the device – the light – and the command – 60.” She put her wrist unit behind her back again. “Oo-sleep.”

“Oo-sleep.”

She used her wrist unit. “Light.”

“Light.”

“That’s it,” she said. “You can talk now.”

“That is amazing!”

(Every time Bea said the Oo-words, she held her wrist unit away from her mouth. I won’t bother saying that again.)

She said, “I hope I didn’t make it sound complicated. To tell the device you’re going to give it an order, you use the control word, ‘Oo-wake.’ That is called ‘waking’ the device. When it’s awake, you can give it commands. Then you tell it you’ve finished giving commands by saying the control word, ‘Oo-sleep,’ followed by the name of the device. That’s called, ‘putting it to sleep.’”

“I think I understand. You waken the device, give it orders, then put it to sleep.”

23

100 LEVELS

 

Bea said, “Now I can show you something else. Ready to repeat?”

“Yes.”

“Oo-wake.”

“Oo-wake.”

“Light.”

“Light.”

“Now say some numbers between 0 and 100.”

I knew she didn’t want me to repeat that! I said, “40.” The ceiling went brighter. “80.” It went much brighter. “10.” It went dim. “100.” It went dazzlingly bright. I couldn’t make a comment, but I grinned at Bea. She grinned back.

“0.” The ceiling went dark. “25.” The light came up again. “26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32.” As I spoke, the ceiling went brighter – so slowly that I could hardly tell. I stopped, and smiled at Bea, to tell her I was done.

“Oo-sleep.”

“Oo-sleep.”

“Light.”

“Light. That’s amazing! Why do you need a hundred levels?”

“I don’t know. The Federation seems to like working in hundreds. Are you starting to see how it’s done?”

“Yes. It’s easy.”

“It’s easy to go wrong too. When you say, ‘Oo-wake,’ you waken every device that hears you. They know you’re going to give one of them an order.”

I couldn’t help giggling. When Bea looked at me, I explained, “I can just imagine all these devices, waiting eagerly, wondering, ‘Is it me? Is it me?’”

Bea smiled. “Yes, well. After the command word, ‘Oo-wake,’ you say the name of the device you want to operate. That puts the others to sleep. During our training, we were warned not to say, ‘Oo-wake,’ unless we were going to give a command.”

“Why not?” I asked. “Don’t you want to disappoint the poor things?”

Bea smiled again. “Not exactly. But they’re all awake. If you just chatter, you might say a word that’s a command for one of them, and it might do something you didn’t want.”

“Y…yes,” I said. “Is that a big risk?”

“I don’t know. There may be command words I don’t know. Even when it’s only the light that’s awake, it’s risky to chat.”

“No!” I said. “Who’d be stupid enough to say a number when they know the light’s awake?”

“It’s easily done,” said Bea. “And the light has other commands.”

24

ONE

 

Bea said, “You might accidentally say some other command.”

“What other commands are there?”

“Waken the light, and I’ll tell you.”

“Oo-wake. Light.”

“Maximum.”

“Maximum.” The ceiling glowed very bright.

“That’s the brightest it will go. 200.”

“200?” The ceiling didn’t change.

“If you say a number greater than the maximum, it goes to the maximum.  Minimum.”

“Minimum.” The ceiling went dark. “That’s totally dark.”

“That’s right.”

“Then it’s not minimum light. It’s no light.”

“That’s the way these devices work, Geli. The minimum is zero. I can see some reason for it with the lights, but it’s silly for other devices. Default.”

“Default?” I repeated what the wrist unit said, but it was a question, because I didn’t know the word. The light came up.

Bea must have sensed I was puzzled, because she asked, “Do you know what,  ‘Default,’ means?”

“Not really.”

“The default level is the one that’s used most often. The device will set to the default level if it has no instructions.”

“I think I understand. If you’re not sure of the level to use, you can order, ‘Default,’ and it will set to the one that most people use.”

The light went out. I was alarmed for a moment, until I heard Bea laughing. She called, “Say, ‘Default.’”

“Default.” The light came up, showing Bea still grinning. I asked, “Why did the light go out?”

“It didn’t go out. It went down to level 1.”

“Why? Oh! I said, ‘One.’” The light went out again.

This time, we both laughed. I said, “Not again! Default. Did I say you’d have to be stupid to give an accidental command?”

Still grinning, Bea told me, “The default is fine for most things, like going to bed, getting up, and working with Victor. If you want to read, you’ll have to put it up to 60 or 70. Put the light to sleep.”

“Oo-sleep. Light.”

“Good. The command, “Oo-sleep,’ by itself will put every awake device to sleep. That’s why we were advised to add the name of the device.”

“Wouldn’t that mean you had more than one device awake at the same time? I wouldn’t fancy that.” I grinned. “I have enough trouble with one.”

“I’ll tell you when I’ve used it, Geli. If you’re working with Victor, and you want to dim the light, you would finish with, ‘Oo-sleep. Light.” If you just said, “Oo-sleep,’ you’d put Victor to sleep too. Are you happy with the lights? Can we move on to something else?”

I said, “I did want to ask something. If you say the waking word, then change your mind about giving an order, can you cancel it?”

“You could just say, ‘Oo-sleep,’ immediately. That would put everything to sleep. Or, if you don’t give the name of a device in a short time – by the time you count slowly to ten – all the devices will go to sleep automatically.”

25

BUNK

 

“Thanks, Bea,” I said. “Let’s see something else. What else is there?” I looked around the room. “There’s another light, a strip light, in the wall above the head of the bunk. No! There’s two. One at the top, and one halfway up. Why is that?”

“They’re bed lights,” Bea said. “Call the command word, then, ‘Bunk down.’”

“Oo-wake. Bunk down.” A second bunk folded down from the wall above the first, and settled above the lower strip light.

“Another bunk!” I said. “Do I have to share the cabin?”

“No. Federation cabins are all the same, and they’re used in bases and ships. If a base or a ship is crowded, the people might have to share. But not in a big place like this.”

“Maybe Riku…. The Queen’s kind. If I begged her, she might give Riku a day off. She could come to stay with me. We could share.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Bea. “Or Riku could get a guest cabin, although it might be here, not in the college.”

“I hope the Queen will let Riku visit me. She would love it.”

“I hope she can come. Can you guess how to put that upper bunk away?”

I thought about it, then ordered, “Up.” The bunk swung up, into the wall. “Yes! I did it!”

Bea said, “Oo-sleep. Bunk.”

“Oh, yes. Oo-sleep. Bunk.”

“Well done. All the lights are controlled the same way. The ceiling one works when you’re in the main part of the room, the bunk ones work when you’re in bed, and the bathroom one works when you’re in there.”

“I must try it.” I lay on the bunk. “Oo-wake. Light. 50.” The lower strip light came on. “0.” It went off. “Oo-sleep. Light. That’s it. It’s easy, as you said.”

26

SLEEP

 

Bea said, “While you’re on the bunk, I’ll show you something else. Close your eyes, relax, give the command word, and order, ‘Sleep for 5%.’”

“Do you mean…? I don’t want to sleep.”

“I’ll waken you. It’s not like a stun-gun. That makes you unconscious. The sleep machine only puts you to sleep.”

“I’m too excited. I’ll never sleep, but I’ll try it.” I shut my eyes. “Oo-wake. Sleep for 5%.”

The next I knew, Bea was shaking my shoulder. “Geli! Wake up!”

I said, “That’s amazing!”

Bea said, “If you lie back and relax again, the bunk will put you to sleep again, and waken you when the 5% is over. If you don’t want that, you can get up.”

“Or say, ‘Oo-sleep. Sleep.’ Oh! I’ve just done it. I’m getting up. How does that work?”

“During our training, we were told that the bunk produces rays that calm your brain, and put you to sleep. When it’s time for you to wake, the bunk produces rays to rouse your brain. It works for most races.”

“Including mine!”

“You have two Sleep commands. You can say, ‘Sleep for…,’ a certain length of time. The bunk will waken you after that time. Or you can order, ‘Sleep until…,’ a certain time. The bunk will waken you at that time. When I’m living in headquarters here, I usually order, ‘Sleep until 0%,’ because that’s the beginning of the Federation day.”

“You must tell me about Federation times.”

“Do you want to do that now?”

“No. I’d rather see more of these… voice-operated devices.”

27

TEMPERATURE

 

I shivered a little, and that made me ask, “Does the cabin have a heater? This planet is cooler than mine.”

“I’m sorry! Are you cold? I’ll tell you how to make it warmer. Say the command word, then, ‘Temperature,’ then a number from 0 to 100. 0 is cold, very cold. 100 is very hot. That’s to suit people from colder and hotter planets. Default is 30 again. You might try 35.”

I concentrated for a moment, then ordered, “Oo-wake. Temperature. 35. How long does it take?”

“Not long,” said Bea. “The warm air comes in here.” She showed me the slot near the floor, along the end of the room.

I put my hand down. “It’s warm already.”

“I would switch off the temperature control, in case you happen to say, ‘one,’ or, ‘two.’”

I grinned. “Would I? Oo-sleep. Temperature.”

Bea told me, “Like the light, the temperature has maximum and minimum commands. Do you know what’s in the air on Striffo 4?”

“No. I was only a servant. I wasn’t told that.”

“It’s probably about one-fifth oxygen and four-fifths nitrogen, with small amounts of carbon dioxide, from people breathing. The default mixture is about the same. There are special cabins for those who need something different.”

I took a deep breath. “This seems fine to me. Not stale, like you might expect in a room without a window.”

28

SHOWER

 

Bea said, “Come through to the bathroom.” It was a square room, a bit wider than the passage in the cabin, with bare grey walls and floor. As soon as we went in, the ceiling began to glow. Showing the room was empty.

I said, “Bea! There’s nothing here.”

“One thing you can see,” she said. “The shower.” The shower head was sticking out of the ceiling. She reached up, and pulled it down, on a bendy grey pipe. She pointed it towards the back wall, and asked, “Can you order it to operate?”

“I can try. Would it be…? Oo-wake. Shower on.” It didn’t. I looked stupidly at it, until Bea said, “Shower. Water.”

“Shower. Water.” The water sprayed out of the shower, hit the wall, and ran down to drain through a slot along the bottom.

Bea said, over the hiss of the water, “You can adjust two things about the water – the power and the temperature. Guess the range of each.”

“0 to 100.”

She smiled. “That’s right.”

“What do you use?”

“I leave the shower in the ceiling, and use a temperature of 30, and a power of 20. With a low power, the shower is gentle and spreading. With a high power, it comes out like a fast jet. Order it, ‘Power maximum.’”

“With the magic word?”

“No. The shower is awake. It’s expecting commands.”

“I’m sorry. Power maximum.”

She held the shower head to me. “Hold that. Carefully.”

I took it. “I see what you mean. The force of the water is pushing my hand.”

“Order it back to default.”

When I’d done that, she said, “I should warn you; 0 for temperature is ice-cold, and 100 is too hot to touch. That’s for people from cold or hot planets. I wouldn’t advise you to try them.”

I laughed. “Thanks. I’ll stick to around 30.”

“Do you see this?” A little grey tap had appeared from the wall at about waist height. “Say, ‘Detergent. 10.’”

“De… what?”

“Detergent. Then 10.”

“Detergent. 10.” A drop of thick, clear liquid came out of the little tap. Bea aimed the jet of water at it, washing it away, with a curl of foam. “Do you know what soap is?”

“I should do. I use… used enough of it at home.”

“The detergent’s like soap, for washing yourself. Can you turn off the water?”

“Off.” That did it. The hissing stopped, and the last of the water swirled through the slot. “Oo-sleep. Shower.”

Bea said, “Good. After you’ve had your shower, how do you dry yourself?”

I looked around, puzzled. “Don’t they give you a towel?”

She said, “I admit I keep a towel in my cupboard, but I don’t often use it. Waken the shower, and order, ‘Air.’”

“That is amazing! Oo-wake. Shower. Air.” I held my hand in the stream of warm air.

“You can blow yourself dry with that. Guess what you can adjust.”

“The temperature and the power.” As soon as I spoke, Bea frowned, shook her head, and waved her hand. She started counting on her fingers. At ten, she said, “I’m sorry, Geli. I shouldn’t have asked that.”

“Can I give the order now?”

“Yes.”

I spoke to the shower head. “Temperature minimum. Power maximum.” I put my hand in front of the shower head, then quickly took it away. “That’s cold!” I pointed the shower head towards Bea.

She dodged away. “I believe you! Set them back to default before you turn it off. You’ll have to say, ‘Temperature default. Power default.’ Unless you want to turn that on yourself after your shower.”

I ordered, “Temperature default. Power default,” and checked with my hand. “Does it remember the last setting?”

“Yes. That’s handy when you’re the only one using a bathroom. Switch off the shower.”

“Off. Oo-sleep. Shower.” I let the tube slide into the ceiling, and left the shower head hanging.

29

TOILET

 

Bea said, “Next trick. Stand back, and order, ‘Oo-wake. Toilet.’”

“Does it…?” I grinned to her, and said, “Oo-wake. Toilet.” A section of the wall slid aside, and the toilet moved out – a low bowl, grey like everything else.

Bea said, “Federation toilets have no hinged seat, so they always look bare to me. Er… do you have flush toilets on Striffo 4?”

“Yes,” I said. “Only in the palace, and wealthy nobles’ houses.”

“Then you know what to do with that. It has only one command, ‘Flush.’ You can control the amount of water by adding a number. 100 gives most. 0 gives none at all.” She must have sensed my surprise, because she said, “That’s what I meant earlier. It’s pointless.” She shrugged. “I suppose it’s consistent. If you simply say, ‘Flush,’ you get the default of 30.”

I tried, “Flush. 5,” and it did, with a little dribble of water.

“Now can you put the toilet in?”

“Oo-sleep. Toilet.” The toilet moved in, and the wall slid over it, until you wouldn’t have known it was there. “That’s amazing!”

30

BASIN

 

Bea asked, “Can you bring the basin out?”

“I can try. Oo-wake. Basin.”

Above where the toilet had been, another part of the wall slid aside, and the wash-basin slid out. It was shallower than the basins we had at home, and looked weird because it had no pipes under it. Like the toilet, it was grey plastic. It had a nozzle sticking out near the top at the back, with a slot at the bottom under it. The little grey tap appeared from the wall beside it.

Bea pulled the nozzle out on a long bendy tube, like the shower head. “This works the same as the shower. You can adjust the temperature and power by the same commands.”

“May I try it?”

“Wait till I put this back.” She let the tube slide in, and pushed the nozzle into its hole. “If you want to fill the basin with water, order, ‘Seal.’”

“Seal.” I looked at her. She smiled, but didn’t speak. I turned back to the basin. “Water.” Water gushed out of the nozzle. “I did it! What happens if I don’t tell it to stop?”

“It stops automatically when the basin is about three-quarters full.”

“To the level of the nozzle?”

“No. Below that. I tried it when I moved into my cabin.”

“Maybe I’ll try it later. Off. I see the det… the little grey tap is out again.”

“Yes. That will give detergent, to wash yourself. See if you can empty the basin.”

“Unseal.” The water gurgled away, through the slot. “Yes! Unseal. That was a good guess.”

“Well done.” Bea tried to stop a yawn. “When you’ve washed your hands, how are you going to dry them?”

I grinned. “Wipe them on my tunic.”

“Did Tony tell you that? How else might you do it?”

“I can guess.” I pulled out the nozzle on its tube. “Air. That’s it.” I held it so that the warm air blew over my face.

Bea said, “I assume you know how to adjust it.”

“By using the power….” I stopped myself, just too late. “Default. Sorry! It’s too easy to say these words.” I held up the nozzle, but said, “No. I shouldn’t play with it.” I pushed it back into its slot. “I’m wasting your time.”

“It’s no trouble. No one told me about some of these things. I had to try them for myself. Would you like to finish the job by putting the basin in?”

“I’ll try. Oo-sleep. Basin.” It went in, and the wall panel slid across the gap. “What would happen if I forgot to order a device to sleep?”

“The bathroom devices will go to sleep automatically if the sensors detect no movement for about the time you’d take to count to ten. I think that’s all the tricks your cabin will do.”

“It’s amazing! Thank you so much, Bea.”

31

GOODNIGHT

 

“May I leave you now, Geli?” Bea put her hand over another yawn. “I’m sorry. I need a long sleep. Can we meet at 5% tomorrow morning?”

“Where?”

“I’ll come for you. What time is it now?” She looked at her wrist unit. “64%.” She yawned again. “I’m sleepy. Order the sleep machine to put you to sleep until 2%. That’ll give you time to have a wash or a shower before we meet.”

“How will I know when it’s 2%?”

“The sleep machine…. Let’s see your wrist unit.” She took it. “I’m sorry, Geli. I should have set it to show the Federation time in your figures.” She gave it quick orders. “That’s it.”

“Thanks.” Now, the squiggles at the bottom right were replaced by proper Striffo 4 numbers, showing 64.17. “What if I don’t waken in time?”

“You will.” She must have sensed my doubt, because she said, “If you want to be sure, ask Victor to waken you at 2%.”

“He won’t forget?”

She smiled. “He won’t forget. If you like, I’ll wait while you tell him.”

“Would you? Thank you.” We went through to the cabin. I faced the screen. “Oo-wake. Victor, would you waken me at 2%?”

“If you give the order.” The man’s voice came from the wall under the screen.

Bea was nodding. I said, “I give the order. Waken me at 2%.” When he didn’t speak, I asked, “Did you hear?”

“Why would I not hear? I must always listen – unfortunately.”

“Thank you.” Bea was making thumbs-down signals, reminding me to say, “Oo-sleep. Victor.”

Bea said, “Victor’s often cheeky, especially to young people. Since he’s going to waken you, you needn’t give the sleep machine a time. You can order, ‘Sleep for maximum.’ Happy? Do you mind if I go now?”

She was going to leave me here, alone, far from my own planet. I had a pang of worry. Bea must have sensed it, because she said, “I know how you feel, Geli. You’re safe here. If you want to know anything during the night, ask Victor, or tell him to call me.”

“I wouldn’t disturb you.”

“Please do, Geli. If you’re unhappy at all, please call me. I’ll be glad to help.” She tried, without success, to hide another yawn.

I said, “I’ll be fine. You go now. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“Right. Don’t hesitate to call me. ’Bye. Sleep well.” She left.

I sat on the bed, and looked around. I’d had a short but busy day, taking me from my own familiar planet to this place. I pushed aside the homesick thoughts. Two days ago, I’d expected to spend the rest of my life as a servant on Striffo 4, always obeying somebody else’s orders. Now I was free, and I had the chance to work for the Galactic Federation. My new life was bound to feel strange at first, but I was lucky to have Bea to help me.

I washed my face, mainly to use the basin, then lay on the bunk, and ordered, “Oo-wake. Sleep for maximum.”

32

MORNING

 

“Geli, wake.” The deep voice roused me from the most peaceful sleep I’d ever had. I opened my eyes – to complete darkness. I had a moment of panic. This wasn’t the sleeping room. Then I remembered. I put an arm out of the bed. The main light came on, showing the little cabin. I lay on my back, took a deep breath, and stretched my arms.

The voice repeated, “Geli, wake.”

“I am awake.”

He muttered, “It would have been polite to tell me.”

I had a quick shower. I had no spare clothes, so I had to put on my tunic. I held up the cape. Should I put it on? Yes. I should be proud to wear it. The Queen had given it to me. It showed I was free.

I checked my wrist unit. 4.11%. I didn’t want to keep Bea waiting. I went out into the passage. The light above the next door was green. The strange woman must have gone.

I walked up and down the passage. The numbers on my wrist unit seemed to take ages to tick over. At 4.80%, Bea appeared. “Morning Geli. Did everything go well?”

“Yes. I had an amazing sleep. Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, thanks. Have you taken all your stuff out of the cabin?”

“Yes. I only had my clothes. How do I clean the cabin? I couldn’t find cloths or brushes.”

“You don’t have to clean it. Robots do it while you’re out.”

“Robots? Who’s she?”

“It’s not a person. Robots are machines.”

“Machines do the cleaning. That’s amazing! Couldn’t you send robots to Striffo 4?”

“You’d have to ask your queen.” Bea led me out of the maze, and along some of the wide passages to a big building with a notice board in front. She told me, “This is the college. Tony and I usually have our breakfast in the dining room here, because it’s quieter than the main one.”

As we went through the passages inside, she went on, “It’ll be handy for us too. After breakfast, you can enrol for training. I’ve made an appointment for 10%.”

When we went into the dining room, Tony was there, at a table, behind an empty plate, eating a round white thing, and drinking brown liquid from a mug. I won’t describe the dining room here. Bea told me about it later.

While Bea and I were eating, Tony glanced at his wrist unit. “I’d better go. I’m meeting Kikibi at 6%. See you, Bean. See you, Geli.” He hurried away.

At 9.72%, Bea said, “We ought to go now.” We shoved our dishes into the cupboard behind the little door at the end of the table. Bea explained, “Robots wash them.”

 

 

33

OUZO

 

As we went through the passages, I asked, “Who are we going to see?”

“Ouzo,” answered Bea. “He organises the training of agents.”

“What’s he like?” I asked. “Is he… strict, like the Cook?”

Bea laughed. “No. He’s a nice old man. You’ll like him.”

Despite what she said, I was nervous as we faced his office door. “Open.” It slid aside.

Ouzo’s office had the usual grey walls and floor, and glowing ceiling. A U of seats faced the big black screen on the wall. The bottom of the U was a big armchair. The sides of the U were long settees with no arms.

Ouzo was sitting in the big chair, but he stood when we went in. “Ah, Bea. It’s good to see you again.”

“Thanks for seeing us,” said Bea. “Ouzo, this is Geli. She wants to train to become an agent.”

“Sit down, sit down.” Ouzo sat on the big chair, and we sat on the settee at his left.

Ouzo beamed at me. “Well, Geli, why do you want to become an agent?”

“I… I was a servant of the Queen of Striffo 4. She set me free. I have no job. Tony suggested I should become an agent of the Galactic Federation. I want to be a Troubleshooter, like Bea and Tony.”

Ouzo’s beam faded a bit. “I see.”

Bea said, “Geli didn’t tell you, but she showed a lot of courage and intelligence as she saved the Queen’s life. I think she would make a good agent.”

Ouzo’s beam threatened to turn to a frown. “No doubt. But, to become a Troubleshooter….”

“Geli has a gift,” said Bea. “She can sense others’ minds. At least as well as I can, I think.”

Ouzo leaned forward, and studied me. “Indeed. Geli, what is your native planet?”

“Striffo 4.”

Ouzo frowned. “I have never heard of anyone from Striffo 4 being able to sense minds.”

“No,” said Bea. “I asked Victor. He knew of no one from Striffo 4 who’s been able to sense minds. But something happened to Geli. While she was saving the Queen, she was hit by a nerve-gun beam. Before that, she couldn’t sense minds. Afterwards, she could.”

“That’s interesting,” said Ouzo. “It would appear that the nerve-gun beam triggered the ability.” He smiled to me. “Well, Geli, I am happy to accept you for training. With that gift, at is possible that you can become a Troubleshooter.”

“Thank you!” I said. “Thank you!”

Ouzo went on, “That does not mean that you will become an agent. If you are not suitable, you will be rejected.”

“I’ll do my best. My very best.”

“I’m sure you will. Oo-wake. Victor, add the name of Geli to the list of trainee agents. Geli, the next class will begin eight days from now, on Day 45. Before then, perhaps you could speak to Victor. He’ll ask you for the information we need about you. In the meantime, do you have anyone to help you here on Yband 4?”

I looked at Bea, who smiled, and said, “I’ll look after Geli. If you give her a cabin, I’ll take her to get a uniform.”

“That’s kind of you, Bea. Victor, which is the first cabin available in the trainee agents’ quarters?”

“Cabin 4-4.”

“Please assign it to trainee agent Geli. Geli, let Victor hear your voice.”

“Hi, Victor. This is me, Geli.”

Victor muttered, “Another cheeky young agent!”

Ouzo said, “Geli, you are on your way to becoming an agent.” I was so pleased that I could hardly concentrate on what he said next. “Report to me in the entrance hall of the college here at 5% on Day 45. If you wish any help before then, please come back to me.”

“Thank you! Thank you!” I said again.

 

34

MY CABIN

 

We left Ouzo and, after a short walk through the narrow corridors of the college, Bea said, “This is corridor 4. See the symbol on the walls at each side. That’s a Federation 4.”

“I must learn the Federation numbers. It must be important for an agent to know them.”

“It is, Geli. I’ll soon teach you them. They’re not difficult. Cabins 1 to 4 go up the left of the corridor, and 5 to 8 down the right. The lights above the doors of cabins 1 to 3 are blue. That means those cabins are being used, probably by other people who will be training with you.”

“Maybe I can meet them.”

“That would be a good idea. We may see them around.” By that time, we were at the door of cabin 4. Bea said, “Go on, Geli. It’s your cabin.”

I faced the door. “Open.” It slid aside, and we went in – to a cabin exactly like the one I slept in. It was plain, but I couldn’t help the thrill that ran through me. This was my own cabin! I was going to live in this amazing place, and train to be an agent of the Galactic Federation!

Bea said, “Everything will work the same as the cabin you spent the night in. Do you want to try anything before we go for your uniform?”

“No. I’ll see it later.” I wanted to sit on the bed, and think, “This is mine!” but I didn’t want to delay Bea.

 

35

DOOR

 

Out in the corridor again, I ordered, “Close.” My door slid shut. That made me ask, “That door obeyed me. It didn’t need any Oo-oops!” I remembered in time. “It didn’t need to be wakened.”

“Sorry, Geli,” said Bea. “I forgot about that because I take it for granted. Other devices are left asleep, but doors are usually left awake. That makes them quicker and easier to use, but you must take care not to say any of their command words while you’re near a door.”

“Are there a lot of command words for a door? All you’d need would be, ‘Open,’ and….” I stopped, while my cabin door slid open. We laughed. I called, “Close.” It closed again.

Bea told me, “You can put your door to sleep if you want.”

“I ought to try it. Oo-sleep. Door. Open.” My door didn’t move. “That worked. Why didn’t any other doors open?”

“The command works for the nearest one. And the other doors don’t understand your voice.”

“I kind-of guessed that. Can you tell me the other commands for doors? If I’m going to work in the Federation, I should know how to operate its doors.”

“Y…yes,” she said. “I don’t want to bother you with too much.”

“It’s no bother, when it’s so interesting. If you don’t mind.”

“We’ll do a little more. We can use cabin 5. See: its light is green. No one’s in it. Would you tell Victor we’ll be using cabin 5 for the next 2%? He should ignore any reports from it.”

“Victor? In my cabin?”

“Yes. Remember to waken him first, and tell him to sleep afterwards.”

“I’ll have to waken my door too.” I faced it. “Oo-wake. Door. Open.” It did. I went in. “Oo-wake. Victor, Bea and I will be using cabin 5 for the next 2%. Ignore any reports from it.”

Silence.

“Do you understand?”

“Why would I not understand? Your orders were clear. Surprisingly.”

“Thanks. Oo-sleep. Victor.”

Out in the corridor, Bea asked, “Have you told Victor? Both parts? It’s important.”

“Yes. We’re using cabin 5 for the next 2%, and he should ignore any reports from it. Why is that important?”

“It’ll be easier to tell you later. Now watch and listen.” She faced the door of cabin 5, and put her wrist unit behind her back. “Open.” It slid open. “Close.” It slid shut. She used her wrist unit to tell me, “Now you do that.”

I faced the door of cabin 5, and said the magic word. “Open.” It did. “Close.” It did. (Comment by Bea: Geli was saying the English words, ‘Open,’ and, ‘Close.’ That explains her next question.) “How do those strange words work?”

Bea said, “Let’s go into cabin 5. Open.” As we went in, she explained, “When we’re in here, there’s no risk that we’ll open the wrong door. Close. In your cabin, all the devices are set to understand you.”

“Yes.”

“On a planet, all the voice-operated devices are set to understand the language of that planet.”

I nodded.

“In a ship, the devices are set to recognise the voice of the pilot.”

“That’s logical.” But I didn’t know why she was telling me that.

“In this sector, a lot of agents speak Sol 3 English, so the default for voice-operated devices includes Sol 3 English. ‘Open,’ and, ‘Close,’ are commands in Sol 3 English.” As she spoke, the door started to open, then closed again. She went on, “All voice-operated devices obey commands in Sol 3 English without being told. It’s very handy.”

I grinned. “For someone from Sol 3.”

“For everyone. It’s useful for everyone to open a door….” It started to open. “Close. …with a single word. That command might as well be in Sol 3 English.”

“I see what you mean. Remind me of the magic words.”

She told me the words again, and I practised. I said, “That is simple. Are there any other magic words?”

“Another useful one is, ‘Operate.’ With only the three words, ‘Open,’ ‘Close,’ and, ‘Operate,’ you can use a transporter.” As she said the words, the cabin door started to open, then slid shut.

 

36

OPEN

 

Bea said, “There’s something else you should know about doors. Open.” The cabin door slid open. “If you don’t order a door to shut, it shuts automatically after a short time, about the time you’d take to count to 10. I think that’s another default. You can change it, although I don’t know why you would bother.” After a few more seconds, the door hummed shut.

I nodded. “I understand that. Doors would usually be left shut.”

She asked, “What’s your next question?”

“Eh?” For a moment, I was puzzled, then I realised she wanted me to ask, “If a door starts shutting automatically, is there any way of stopping it?”

“Two ways. Open.” The door opened. “Would you like to try?”

“Yes. I know one way, because I’ve seen it happen.” We waited in silence until the door started to close. I called, “Open.” It did.

“I thought so,” I said. “I can guess the other way of stopping it from closing. May I try it?”

“Go ahead.”

“I’m nervous about this. It must work, but….” When the door began to shut, I cautiously put my hand in the opening. The door immediately bounced back, fully open.

I said, “I thought it might have to touch my hand. I’ll try it again.” As soon as the door started to shut, I put my foot in the doorway, at the far corner of the entrance. Once again, the door immediately slid fully open. “That is amazing! It knows when there’s something in the way.”

Bea said, “Usually, if you keep doing that, the door doesn’t try to shut after the third time, but it sends a message to Victor, who reports to the local commander. He’d probably send someone to find out what’s wrong. That won’t happen this time, because you told Victor to ignore reports from this cabin.”

“I won’t risk it.” I stood clear, and let the door slide shut.

Bea said, “That’s the simple information about using doors. Do you want more, or will we go for your uniform now?”

“Is there much more?”

“Quite a lot.”

I grinned. “Then let’s go for my uniform first. I can’t wait to put it on.”

As we left cabin 5, Bea said, “We should check that the light above the door is green.”

Proudly, I said, “Mine’s blue. That means no one can meddle with it.”

 

37

CONTROL

 

As we walked along the corridor, Bea said, “I hate to tell you, Geli, but someone else can control your door.”

“How?”

“Remember – every voice-controlled device is linked to Victor. He usually ignores them, but Obsidian, the commander of all the agents, can control Victor.”

She didn’t say any more, leaving me to work out what that meant. At last, I said, “Are you telling me that the commander….”

“Obsidian.”

“Yes. Can Obsidian stand in that corridor, and order the door of my cabin to open?”

“He can do more than that. He can sit in his office, and order the door of your cabin to open. And he can turn off your light, or order the toilet to come out of your bathroom wall.”

“That would give me a surprise. Why would he order the toilet to come out of my bathroom wall?”

“He wouldn’t. Not usually. But, in an emergency, he might want to control something in your cabin, especially the door.”

“Y…yes.”

“You could be lying in your cabin, unconscious or ill. Someone would have to get in, to help you. It’s the same in planets’ bases. The commander can control all the voice-operated devices in the base. That includes the transporters and shuttles, and even the ships in the spaceport.”

“That’s a lot of power. I’m not sure I would like that.”

“It may be essential for a commander to do that. But, if he uses that power when he shouldn’t, he’s in trouble.”

“What happens?”

“He’d be sacked, and sent home in disgrace to his own planet. Blackett, your teacher during your training, will tell you the details. But I don’t think it’s ever happened.”

 

38

STORE

 

The moving walkway, running through the middle of the place, was amazing. People came out of corridors, and stepped on it. Others stepped off, and disappeared into corridors. To them, it was nothing special. I wondered if I would use it so often that I would stop thinking how amazing it was.

We left the moving walkway by the last passage at the left before it ended in the big entrance hall. This passage was wide, and busy. With more minds around, I had to concentrate on what Bea was saying. “We’ll get your uniform in the store. I never thought about it until now, but there are two kinds of store. Ships and bases have stores. They’re like big cupboards, with shelves of stuff that’s most likely to be needed.”

“Isn’t this store like that?”

“In a way. I assume it has shelves of stuff, but you can’t see them. There must be so much that you’d never find what you want, so you go to an order booth, tell it what you want, and collect it at a hatch – a door in the wall. I think robots bring it from the shelves.”

“That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to see it.”

The store was a short distance along on the right. It had the usual grey plastic walls and floor, and glowing ceiling. It was a big, long room, with a wide entrance in the middle of one of the long sides. On the opposite side were ten square black hatches. The bottom of each was about level with my waist, and the top was a bit above my head. Above each was a small screen with a Federation number at the top. The left end of the room had ten of Victor’s black screens, with short bits of wall sticking out between them. The place was busy, with lots of people, of different shapes, sizes, and colours.

I asked, “Is it always as busy as this?”

“Yes. Even when it’s night-time on this planet, people from other planets come here to collect things. The place for ordering uniforms is at the right. That black square on the floor in the far corner.”

 

39

MEASURING

 

As we went to the place, a round-faced, fair-haired boy was using it, turning slowly on the square, holding his arms away from his sides.

Bea told me, “That machine measures you. It will….”

The boy stepped off the square. “Hey, Bean! Who’s the specimen?”

Bea said, “Hi, Xerxes. Geli, this is Xerxes. He’s not very polite.”

I couldn’t sense the boy’s mind, but he didn’t look ashamed. “When I came out of hospital, I told Martin I was ready for another mission, but he’s never given me one. Not one! He always gives you and Tony the best missions. I’m going to get my dad to complain to Wellington.” When Bea didn’t speak, I thought Xerxes was going to say more, but he just said, “Be seeing you,” and went.

I said, “His uniform has dark green bands. He’s a Troubleshooter, like you.”

“Y…yes. He did one mission with us. He’s… keen. Stand on the black square, say, ‘Oo-voice. Geli,’ and give your order to the terminal beside it. Ask for three uniforms, and….”

“Three uniforms?”

“Yes. One to wear, one to change with it, and one for reserve. And an expedition suit.”

“What’s an expedition suit?”

“It’s a protective suit, for missions in places like jungles. You’ll need it during your training.”

“This is amazing!” I stood on the black square. “Oo-voice. Geli.”

A voice came from the wall beside me. “Turn slowly on the square, holding your arms away from your sides.”

After I’d done that, it asked, “Do you want an order?”

“Oh, yes. Three uniforms and an expedition suit.”

“Collect them at hatch 7 at 17.5%.”

I went back to Bea, telling her what the voice had said. I checked my wrist unit. “It’s 15.31%. Can it really make three uniforms and that special suit in such a short time?”

“Yes,” she said. “One uniform doesn’t take long. Less than 1%.”

“Less than 1%!”

“Yes. While we’re here, do you mind if I ask the machine to measure me?”

“Doesn’t it know your size?”

“Yes, but I’m growing, perhaps because I’m more active than I was in my old life at home. I hadn’t thought about it, until my uniforms began to feel tight. Since then, I come to be measured every thirty days or so.”

I waited while the machine measured Bea. When she came back to me, I asked, “How does that machine work?”

“I don’t know. It must use rays that measure you through your clothes.”

 

40

AN ORDER

 

Bea asked, “While we’re waiting, do you want to get a stun-gun and a knife?”

“For me?” I couldn’t believe it!

“Yes. You ought to have them, and that’ll show you how to give an order. We’ll go to one of the booths. Number 9 is free.”

As we walked across, she told me, “Say, ‘Oo-voice. Geli,’ then tell Victor you want a stun-gun with a power pack, and a knife with a sheath. Will you remember that?”

I grinned. “Am I likely to forget?”

She watched while I went to the screen. “Oo-voice. Geli. Victor, I want a stun-gun with a power pack, and a knife with a sheath.”

“Collect them at hatch 4.”

“When?”

“Now. How long do you want to wait?”

“I’ll collect them now.”

I went back, and told Bea, who said, “There’s no delay. They’ll have plenty of stun-guns and knives in stock.”

As we went towards hatch 4, I commented, “That was easy.”

“Yes. When you ask for a stun-gun, it’s obvious what you mean. If it was something more complicated, Victor would ask you for details. This is hatch 4.”

“Yes. It has the same symbol as my cabin door.”

“When your name appears on the screen, go forward and order, ‘Open.’”

“In my language or yours?”

“It doesn’t matter. You gave the order, so it will only open for your voice. Then no one else can take what you ordered.”

“That’s amazing! There it is!” My name appeared on the screen. Bea let me go forward. I ordered, “Open.” The little door slid aside.

I went back to Bea. “My own stun-gun and knife!” I couldn’t resist sliding the knife out of its sheath, to admire the long shining blade, and pointing the stun-gun round the room.

Maybe Bea saw the people looking at me, because she asked, “Geli, can I carry these for you? I can put them on the clips at my waist.”

“As long as you remember they’re mine.”

“You won’t let me forget.”

“Can I order anything I want?”

“If you need it. If Victor doesn’t know why you want something, he’ll ask you. He’s never refused anything I’ve asked, but Blackett said that Victor will refuse to give something to you if he thinks you don’t need it.”

“What would you do then?”

“If you did need it, you’d have to go to your leader, and persuade him to order Victor to give it to you. It’s not worth going anywhere before your uniform arrives. We can wait here. At the back of the room, near the wall beside the entrance. It’s quieter there.”

“I’ll be glad of that.”

 

41

A FEDERATION DAY*

 

We chatted for a while, before I thought to ask, “Bea, would you tell me about Federation times? When to get up, and so on.”

Bea explained it to me. I’ve made a list of the times. (Comment by Bea: I’ve added the equivalent Earth times at the right, allowing for the fact that a Federation day is about 45 minutes longer than an Earth one.)

0%  : corridor lights brighten. Time to get up. (07.00)

5% : start work (08.12)

23% : begin lunch (12.31)

28% : end lunch (13.43)

43% : begin tea (17.19)

48% : end tea. Free for the evening. (18.31)

67% : corridor lights dim. Bed time. (23.05)

Bea told me, “These are guide times. No one sticks tightly to them. And they only apply here, in headquarters, and on uninhabited planets. When you go to an inhabited planet, you use its times. Some planets have a shorter day, and….”

“Hey, Bean!” It was the same boy, on his way out with a pair of shoes. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re collecting a uniform for Geli. She’s just arrived from Striffo 4.”

Xerxes asked me, “Why are you getting a uniform?”

Proudly, I told him, “I’m going to train to be an agent.”

“Train!” he exclaimed. That’s a waste of time. An agent’s job is just common sense. You don’t need training. I don’t know why…. Bean!”

Bea had turned, whipped her stun-gun off its clip, and aimed it at someone in the doorway. A man, dressed in black, staggered forward, and fell in front of us.

42

BEACON*

 

I said, “That’s… that’s the man who tried to shoot us.” I recognised his mean face.

“Yes.” Bea looked quickly around. “I was lucky. I sensed his mind signal before he spotted us. Come on, Xerxes. Drag him into the corner. Quick!” She bent to pick up one of the man’s arms.

Xerxes scowled. “Are you trying to give me orders?”

Bea snapped, “I’m giving you orders! Get him into the corner.” Xerxes hesitated for a moment, but helped us to drag the man into the corner.

Speaking quickly, Bea told Xerxes, “This is a Hallixian pirate. He works with a partner. The partner may try to rescue him. If you see anyone who looks like him, use your stun-gun.”

“I don’t have a stun-gun.”

“Oh! You’re supposed to carry a stun-gun at all times. Here! Take this one.” She gave my stun-gun to Xerxes.

He moaned, “Why can’t you do it?”

“I have to take Geli somewhere safe. We’ll send someone to help you. Come on, Geli. Quickly. I’ll watch ahead. You watch behind.” She grabbed my wrist, and dragged me through the people who were starting to gather, to stare at Xerxes and the unconscious man. Her gun was in her hand. As we used the moving walkway, and crossed the big bright entrance hall, I watched for people in black behind us. I saw two, but they didn’t look like the pirate.

Beyond the entrance hall, we crossed the square room to the single door at the left – the base, the place where we went looking for Mamble after Tony stunned the man.

Inside, with the door shut, Bea didn’t go to the big settee. She said, “Geli, stay here, beside the wall, so that he won’t see us when he comes in. Oo-wake. Victor, tell Mamble that Bea wants to see him urgently in the social area.”

Then she frowned at me. She gave orders to her wrist unit. A big white arrow came up on the screen, pointing to me.

I asked, “What does that mean?”

“It means I was very stupid. Geli, take off your cape, and throw it over there.”

She looked serious. She wasn’t joking. I took off my cape, and threw it towards the big settee. It landed on the edge, and fell on the floor. Bea showed me her wrist unit. Now the arrow wasn’t pointing towards me; it was pointing towards my cape.

Bea said, “There’s a beacon on your cape.”

“A beacon?”

“A little black button. It could be stuck anywhere. A wrist unit can track it. That’ll be how the man found you yesterday. I assumed he was passing, on the way to Striffo 4, and he happened to see you. He couldn’t miss that purple cape. But he must have been tracking you, with his wrist unit.”

I said, “That’s how he found me just now.”

“Yes. He wouldn’t want to attack you in the guest cabin or the college. They’re too far from the communication centre. If the alarm was raised, he transporter could be blocked before he could reach it. He must have been lurking somewhere in the communication centre.” She looked up. “Where’s Mamble? Victor, where’s Mamble?”

Victor answered, “Mamble is in the base. I gave him your message.”

Bea said, “I wish he would hurry. We have to do something about that cape.”

“I have an idea,” I said. I explained it to Bea.

She said, “That’s excellent, Geli. You’ll be a brilliant agent.” I was so proud, but I didn’t have time to think about it, because we had to make a plan.

We’d just arranged it when Mamble appeared, complaining about being disturbed during his lunch. A few words from Bea stirred him up. Before he dashed away to help Xerxes, he ordered Victor to follow Bea’s orders.

As soon as he’d gone, we took the cape to a corridor off the social area. One side was blank. The other had four doors, like one side of the passage in the college. Bea ordered the first one, “Open.” A cabin. We threw the cape into the bathroom, and left the room, closing the door.

We went into the next cabin, where Bea wakened Victor, and gave him the orders I’d suggested.

We sat, side by side, on the bed. Bea said, “I’m not sure if your plan will work, Geli, but it’s worth trying. I’m relieved to get rid of that cape. Where did you get it?”

“The Queen gave it to me. It shows I’m free. But the Queen said Cawa suggested it. I thought… I thought Cawa was trying to make me like her, so that I wouldn’t tell that she’d sent the man to attack the Queen.”

“After you saved the Queen, Cawa may have been so angry that she contacted the men, and told them to kill you.”

“Y…yes. Maybe. Cawa was angry, but not as angry as that. She was more frightened.”

“Then maybe the men were so angry that they contacted Cawa, and gave her the beacon. Since they’d failed to kill the Queen, they wouldn’t be paid. They would be annoyed about that.”

“Yes. That’s more likely. They’d be even more annoyed when Tony rescued me.”

 

43

OO-VOICE

We sat in silence, thinking, for a short time, before Bea said, “We could ask Victor…. No! While we’re waiting, I could tell you a bit more about controlling voice-operated devices.”

“But…!” At a time like this, she was suggesting that we should have another lesson. I stopped. If I was going to be an agent, I should learn to be as calm as her. I said, “That’s a good idea. What can we do here?”

“I could tell you how to control the devices in this cabin. Would you try to make the light brighter?”

“I can try – but it won’t work. Oo-wake. Light. 50. Oo-sleep. Light.” The light didn’t change.

Bea asked, “Why didn’t that work?”

“This is not my cabin.”

“Y…yes. When you told Victor you were going to use a cabin, he set all the devices to understand your voice. In this one, they don’t. Before you can give a command, you have to give your name.”

“How do I do that?”

“With a new control word – the one you used before you spoke to Victor in the store. No!” She’d sensed I might say it. “It wakens all nearby devices, and tells them to listen for a name. You give your name, then the command. Then you put the device to sleep with, ‘Oo-sleep,’ as usual.” Maybe she sensed I was confused, because she asked, “Would you like me to show you?”

“Yes. If you don’t mind.”

“I don’t need to do this, because everything already understands my language, but it won’t do any harm. Listen. Oo-voice. Bea. Light. 50. Oo-sleep. Light.” The light got brighter. “The commands are the same. The only difference is the control word, followed by your name.”

“When you do it, it’s easy.”

“Then would you like to try it? Put the light down again.”

“I’ll try. Oo-voice. Geli. Light. Deflot. Oo-sleep. Light.” The light went down.

“Well done, Geli. You said, ‘deflot,’ instead of, ‘default,’ but the light knew what you meant.”

“I’m sorry!” I was vexed. “I thought I was being clever.”

“You were. That was good. Now would you put the light down to 20?”

“Y…yes. Will I have to give my name again?” Bea didn’t try to answer: she sensed I was thinking out loud. I went on, “Yes. I didn’t tell it to remember my name. When I put it to sleep, it’ll have forgotten.” I took a breath. “Oo-voice. Geli. Light. 20. Oo-sleep. Light.” The light went down.

“Exactly right, Geli,” said Bea. “That control word only works for the one command. If you want to give a device more commands, you can set it to understand your voice. After you’ve wakened it, the command will be, ‘Set Geli.’ Would you like to try it?”

“You’re making me work! I’ll give it a try.” I stopped to think. “Oo-voice. Geli. Light. Set Geli. 40. Oo-sleep. Light.” The light went brighter. “Oo-wake. Light. 20. Oo-sleep. Light.” The light went down again. “Did it!”

“Good, Geli. Could I control the light now?”

That made me think. I answered, “I don’t think so. ‘Set,’ would make it obey my commands only. It would forget everyone else.”

Bea said, “Oo-wake. Light. Default. Oo-sleep. Light.” The light didn’t change. “Right, Geli. It’s forgotten me. Could I use the command that gives my name?”

“Probably. I didn’t tell it to listen to me only.”

“Oo-voice. Bea. Light. 40. Oo-sleep. Light.” The light went up. “Who will it obey now?”

“Just me, unless you use the control word with your name again. Oo-wake. Light. Default. Oo-sleep. Light. Got it right this time!” The light had come up.

Bea gave the order, “Oo-voice. Bea. Light. Set Bea. 60. 30. Oo-sleep. Light. Would it obey you now?”

“No. You set it for your voice.”

“I’ll show you how to make it obey you too. “Oo-wake. Light. Add Geli. Oo-sleep. Light. You can try it.”

“Oo-wake. Light. 10. Oo-sleep. Light. Yes. It’s gone dim. That’s simple. Can you add as many people as you want?”

“As far as I know, but it’s wise to be careful. The opposite of, ‘Add,’ is, ‘Remove.’ Would you remove my name from the light?”

“I’ll try. Oo-wake. Light. Remove Bea. Default. Oo-sleep. Light.”

“Oo-wake. Light. 90.” The light didn’t change. “See what’s happened, Geli. I had control of the light, but I let you share it. You removed my control.”

“Can’t you use, ‘Oo-voice…?’ Oops! Oo-sleep. I’m sorry!”

“In this case, I could use that control word, but, while you had control, you could stop me from doing that. I don’t say it’s a great danger, but….”

Victor’s voice came quietly through our wrist units. “A male voice, using the language of Hallixia 10, has ordered the other cabin door to open.”

 

 

44

CAUGHT*

 

We sat up straight, looking at each other in excitement. Bea held my wrist. She’d thought the man wouldn’t hear Victor’s voice through the wall but, to be sure, she’d ordered him to report quietly through our wrist units.

A few seconds later. “Someone is in the cabin. The door is closed.”

My trick had worked! I breathed, “What’ll he do when he finds the door won’t let him out?”

We soon found out. The man shouted in the cabin next door.

Bea crept towards our door. I hesitated. I knew the man was trapped in the cabin, but….

Another man’s voice came from the passage outside. Bea stopped, looking at me with her eyes wide. I was worrying – would that man try to come into our cabin?

I worried even more when six loud bangs came from very near. The men shouted. They made thumping noises. Then they shouted a bit more, and running feet faded into the distance. The thumping noises went on.

Bea used her wrist unit. “Victor, do you know what they’re doing?”

“The man in the cabin is unable to get out. He urged his friend to escape while he had time to do so.”

Bea said to me, “I should have asked Mamble to give me control of the transporters and shuttles. But I didn’t expect two more men.” She went to our door. “Open.” She peeped out, then went out. I was frightened, but I followed her – and found her looking at the other cabin door from a safe distance. It had six holes down one edge, and the sounds of thumping and muttering (cursing?) came from behind it.

Bea commented, “He has a bullet-gun. Probably the same type as he had when he threatened us in the transporter corridor.”

“Then is it safe to stand so near?”

“It should be OK. He fired the bullets into the door, hoping to weaken it enough for him to force it open. If he had any more bullets, he would have used them.” That sounded logical, but I kept well away from the door.

When the muttering and thumping stopped, Bea knelt, to peep through one of the bullet holes, then came back to me. “He’s given up. He’s sitting on the bed. But it’s not the one who tried to shoot you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. See for yourself.” She waved towards the door.

I went forward cautiously, and had a quick peep. I ran back to Bea. “You’re right. It’s a different one, although he looks just as evil.”

Bea went into the other cabin. “Victor, tell the man in the cabin to stand at the far end from the door, with his hands on his head.” Victor’s voice came from the cabin.

“Geli, would you go and check?”

I couldn’t hesitate. I soon came back, to tell her, “He’s still sitting on the bed.”

“He’s going to be awkward. We’ll keep watch here. Someone else can get him out.”

As she spoke, the outside door of the base hummed open. Quiet feet ran from there to the door of our passage.

 

45

ON GUARD*

 

I was ready to run, but Bea pointed her gun towards the door.

It was only Tony who came through. “Bean! I’m glad to see you! You OK?”

“Yes. A pirate ran out of here. Did you see him?”

“No. He must’ve gone to the transporter corridor. I’ve come from the store. You should see the waiting room, and the corridor to the store. It’s like a battlefield, with unconscious bodies.”

“Just unconscious? These pirates have bullet-guns.”

“Yeah. I didn’t see any blood. Somebody had just revived Mamble.” He grinned. “He was not a happy commander. But he said you were here.”

“Yes. It was Geli’s idea. We’ve caught one of the pirates in this cabin.”

“I hope you weren’t around when he made those holes.”

“No. We were in the other cabin. Did you see Xerxes? We left him guarding a stunned pirate. Not this one.”

“I didn’t see him. Victor told me you were in the store. When I went in, I found Mamble and one or two others standing, and lots of others lying. Mamble told me you were here, with some story about a pirate tracking Geli.”

“He was tracking her cape. That’s how we trapped him. We’ll guard him, if you want to go and help Mamble.”

“I’d better. I’ll tell him to send somebody to collect your prisoner.” He ran off.

We had a long wait, and Bea said, “I’m sorry, Geli. We can’t go into a cabin, and go on with our work on voice-operated devices. We ought to keep guard at the door.” She probably sensed what I was thinking, because she went on, “I know it’s not likely that anyone’s going to try rescuing this one, but, now that we’ve caught him, we want to keep him.”

By the time Mamble and Tony arrived with two guards, it was 25%.

“Lunchtime,” said Tony.

As Bea, Tony and I finally left the base, Bea asked, Geli, would you like me to show you how to use a food dispenser?”

“Yes! I’d love to do that.”

“Then we’ll go to the dining room in the college. It’s quieter, especially when there are no agents training.”

 

46

DINING BOOTH

 

We went back along the moving walkway, and through the wide passages to the college, and the same dining room where we had our meals last night and this morning.

I ought to describe one of the dining booths. The table top is about 1.5 metres long, and 0.8 metres wide. (Comment from Bea: I’ve changed Geli’s measurements into metres.) One end is fixed to the wall, and the other is supported by a single leg in the middle.

Along each side of the table is a bench seat. Bea said it’s meant for two people to sit in comfort, but three small people could squeeze in, if they didn’t wave their elbows.

In the wall above the end of the table is a black door – Bea called it a hatch. Above that is a black screen. Everything else is spotless grey plastic – the table, the walls and the cushioned seats. The ceiling glows when anyone uses the table.

That’s a single dining booth. Bea said that small bases and ships have one of them. The main headquarters dining room has ninety-six – twelve rows of eight. The college one has four rows of eight. The backs of the seats go to the ceiling, but you can tell if a booth’s being used because the light’s on.

Tony slid in at one side of the table, but Bea said, “Tony, would you let us at that end so that I can show Geli how to use the dispenser?”

A frown crossed Tony’s face, but he slid out again. “OK, Bean. But do you mind if I steam on? Wellington’s ordered me to report to his office at 28%. He wants me to help him question that guy you caught.”

Perhaps Bea sensed my surprise, because she explained, “Tony can tell when people are lying. He’s the best mind-senser in the Federation.”

“So they say,” said Tony. “It’s not much fun. Wellington calls me when he has an important prisoner to question. Are you two going to stand there all day? If you’re going in, go in.”

 

47

ORDER

 

Bea and I slid into the seats beside the wall, and Tony sat beside Bea. She said, “If you’re in a hurry, Tony, just order. But would you use your wrist unit, so that Geli will hear what you say?”

“No problem.” Tony spoke to the screen. “Oo-voice. Tony. Food. Order. Steak 40, gravy 30, chips 60. Deliver. Oo-sleep. Food.”

Bea prompted, “Broccoli?”

Tony exclaimed, “Curses! I forgot! It’s too late now.” But he looked cheerful about it.

Bea said, “You promised your mum you would eat vegetables. You can order it separately.”

Tony turned to me. “Is your Cook as bossy as that?” But he said to the screen, “Oo-wake. Tony. Food. Broccoli 30. Deliver. Oo-sleep. Food. Happy now, Bean?”

Bea frowned at him, but turned to me. “There are two ways of ordering food. If, like Tony, you know what you want, you can order it direct. Or you can put a menu on the screen, and choose from that. Did you get the general idea of how Tony gave his order?”

“Y…yes. I heard the control word. My wrist unit translated some commands and some numbers. And ‘gravy.’ But not some of the other words. They would be the names of food in your language.”

“That’s right, Geli. Can I show you how to order food from my planet? The Scientists say it’s safe for people to eat food from other planets, but our parents have told us not to do that too often.”

“If you keep me right with the names of your food in my report.”

“Of course, Geli. That’s well remembered.”

Tony said, “Why don’t you have one course from Sol 3, and one from Geli’s planet?”

“That’s a good idea, Tony,” said Bea. “It’s all right, Geli. Our parents wouldn’t mind, especially since we look so similar.”

The little door at the end of the table slid aside. In the cupboard behind was a white plate with Tony’s food steaming on it, giving a lovely savoury smell that made my mouth water.

As I reached in to pass it to Tony, Bea warned me, “Take care, Geli. The plate will be hot.” I carefully pulled the plate across to Tony, along with the two white plastic tools he would use to eat it.

As he started, Bea asked, “Geli, did you notice the command word that Tony used at the start of his order?”

“Yes,” I said. I mouthed, “Oo-voice,” without making a noise.

“Good,” said Bea. “You have to give your name, so that the food machine can check that you’re allowed to order.”

“Can’t anyone order?”

“No, but all agents – and trainee agents – can order. We get our food free.”

“Free!” I said. “It’s an amazing job!”

“If leaders or traders from a planet often visit the Federation, they can arrange to use the dining rooms, but the planet must pay for their food.”

The little door slid aside, and I carefully passed the white bowl, with green stuff, like little bushes, to Tony. He wrinkled his nose at it, but put it beside his plate.

Bea told me, “To order direct, you say the control word, then your name, then, ‘Food,’ and, ‘Order.’ Then you say the kinds of food you want, with a number after each, saying how much of it you want. If you don’t say a number, you get the default, which is…?”

“30,” I said.

“That’s right. When you’ve given your order, you say, ‘Deliver,’ then put the food dispenser to sleep with, ‘Oo-sleep. Food.’”

“That is really amazing,” I said. “It comes so fast, and it looks good. Tony likes it anyway.” He nodded, and kept eating, as I asked, “How does it work?”

“I don’t know, Geli,” said Bea.

Tony stopped chewing to say, “It’s real food. We saw a farm where it’s grown. Huge fields of this.” He tapped the bowl of green stuff.

Bea told me, “That’s the mission where we met Xerxes – the boy we saw in the store.”

“I found him among the bodies,” said Tony. “When I wakened him, he moaned about somebody sneaking up, and using a stun-gun on him. Sorry. You were talking about the food machine.” He went back to his plate.

48

MENU

 

Bea told me, “You can also order from the menu. Do you know what a menu is?”

“Yes. It’s a list of foods. You can choose which one you want. The Cook gives the Queen a menu for her evening meal.”

“After I’ve brought the menu up, I’ll have to watch what I say, in case I accidentally order something. Are you happy with Tony’s idea for us to have one course from my planet, and one from yours?”

“Yes. I’d like that. I know what I’m going to have from my planet – if they have them.”

“They may not have a lot,” said Bea. “Some planets’ menus are small. Here we go. Oo-voice. Bea. Food. Menu.” Above the little door, the screen divided into three. A column down the left was grey, with black writing – a list. The top half of the right-hand part was blue, and the bottom was white.

Speaking slowly, Bea said, “That’s the list of Sol 3 menus. There are ten of them. I’ll choose one. Main.”

A longer list appeared at the left of the screen, and the picture of a white plate on the blue part.

I said, “That’s a long list.”

“Twenty,” said Tony, through a mouthful of food. “All the Sol 3 menus have twenty.”

Bea said, “I choose one. Chicken.” A yellow band with a word on it came up on the white part of the screen, and a white lump appeared on the plate in the picture.

I said, “That’s what we had yesterday.”

Tony said, “It’s the Bean’s favourite. Third on the menu.”

I saw what he meant; the word in the yellow band was the third one on the menu at the left.

Bea said, “Steak.” The name on the yellow band changed, and the lump on the plate went brown.

“Haddock.” The name changed, and the lump went white again.

“Egg, fried.” That looked strange – a patch of white, with a yellow circle in it. The name in the yellow panel was the third from the bottom of the menu.

Bea said, “Chicken.” The name and picture went back. She said, “20.” The white lump got smaller. “40.” It got bigger. “60.” It got bigger still. “Maximum.” It was huge, filling more than half the plate. “Minimum.” It vanished.

Tony said, “Minimum’s zero. Show Geli 1, Bea.”

Bea called, “1.” A tiny spot appeared on the plate in the picture.

Tony said, “For a laugh, I once ordered that. You should’ve seen it. A tiny flake of the stuff. Like a nail clipping.”

Bea said, “Default.” The lump went back to the size it started. “If you don’t say a number, you get the default. Add.” In the white patch, the band with the name, “chicken,” changed from yellow to green.

 

49

SAVOURY SAUCE

 

Bea called, “Menu.” The left of the screen went back to the list of ten menus. “Savoury sauce.” A different menu of twenty came up.

“Mushroom.” The name appeared in a new yellow band, under the green one. On the picture, the white lump was covered with a white sauce, with brown spots.

“Cheese.” The name changed, the brown spots vanished, and the sauce went pale yellow.

“Tikka.” The sauce went white again.

“Mushroom.” Everything went back to that.

“40.” The amount of sauce increased.

“Add.” The band went from yellow to green.

“Menu.” That took us back to the list of ten.

“Veg.” That made a new list of twenty.

“Broccoli.” That made the usual changes – a new yellow band with the name, and a pile of the little bushes on the plate in the picture.

“Carrot.” Red lumps.

“Rice.” A pile of little white grains.

Tony asked, “How much longer are you going to be, Bean?” He put the tools on his empty plate. “I want a pudding, and I’m due at Wellington’s before long.”

Bea frowned at him. “You haven’t finished your broccoli.” She was being tactful: I would have said he hadn’t started his broccoli.

“You’re worse than Mum.” But he grinned as he picked up one of the tools, speared one of the green things, and put it in his mouth.

Bea went back to the screen. “Broccoli default. Add.” The green lumps returned, and the band went green.

“Potato, mashed. Default.” A pile of white stuff appeared on the plate in the picture. “Add.” Bea turned to me. “That’s the complete meal. Will it suit you?”

“It looks good.”

“Thanks.” She ordered, “Deliver 2. Oo-sleep. Food.” The screen went black.

Tony called, “Oo-voice. Tony. Food. Order. Apple pie 40. Ice cream, vanilla 40. Deliver. Oo-sleep. Food.”

 

50

FOOD

 

While we were waiting, I asked, “What will the store do with my uniforms? I ordered them, but I didn’t collect them.”

“I suppose it’ll keep them for you,” said Bea. “After lunch, we’ll go and ask.”

The hatch opened, for Bea’s plate and mine. As soon as we’d taken them out, it shut, and opened again for Tony’s – a pie, and a lump of white stuff.

The Sol 3 eating tools were different from the one I used at home, so I took longer than Bea to eat the food, but, when she asked, “Do you like it, Geli?” I answered, “Yes. It’s good.” She would know I meant it.

While we were still eating, Tony finished his bowl. He glanced at his wrist unit. “Oh! It’s nearly 26%. I’d better go now. See you, folks.” He dashed off.

Bea watched him go. “Poor Tony! He hates helping Wellington to question people. It needs a lot of concentration, and Wellington insists on going on for hours. Tony’ll be tired, and in a bad mood, when he finally gets away.”

When I’d emptied my plate, Bea ordered, “Open.” The hatch slid aside, and we piled the used dishes in the little cupboard behind. “Close.” The door shut.

I asked, “Where do they go?”

“I assume they’re washed automatically.”

“That’s so much easier than my planet,” I said. “Riku and I spend… spent a lot of time washing dishes and pots. I do wish Riku could be here with me. I’m sure she would like it – and she’d be a great agent.”

“If she’s as good as you, Geli, she could be.”

“I’m going to work hard, and earn a lot of Federation money. Then I can buy Riku from the Queen, and set her free. Then she can train to be a Troubleshooter like me.”

“Y…yes,” said Bea. “If you pass your training, Geli, you should be accepted as a Troubleshooter. But… can Riku sense minds?”

“No. I can only do it because the man hit me with that beam from his gun.”

“If Riku can’t sense minds….” Bea must have sensed my disappointment, because she went on, “Ouzo does recommend others as Troubleshooters, but they must be top-class.”

“Riku will do her very best.”

“I’m sure she will.” But she changed the subject. “Do you think you can order Striffo 4 food now, Geli?”

 

51

STEWED ZOOMAS

 

“I’ll try. I think I know how to do it.” I faced the screen. “Oo-voice. Geli. Food.” It stayed blank, giving me a moment of worry, before I remembered to say, “Menu.” The screen divided into the same three parts. At the left, was the list of menus, ten of them, with, “Main,” at the top, and, “Miscellaneous,” at the bottom.

I chose the sixth one, “Desert.” There were only ten things on that menu, but I did find what I wanted. I called, “Zoomas, stewed.” The name came up in the yellow band, and the stewed zoomas appeared in the bowl in the picture.

“50.” The amount got bigger.

“Add.” The yellow band went green. I told Bea, “That’s it. Do you want some too?”

“What is it?”

“Stewed zoomas. I’m sorry; I forgot you couldn’t read my language.”

“Do you want to see how to change an order?”

“That’s a good idea. Can you show me?”

“Yes. It’ll be easy. I can tell you the commands because the dispenser will ignore my voice. Ready?”

“Yes.”

“Is the menu, with the stewed zoomas, still on the screen?”

“Yes.”

“Then call, ‘Stewed zoomas.’”

“Zoomas, stewed.” The picture didn’t change, but the band went from green to yellow.

“Minimum.”

“Minimum.” The zoomas vanished from the bowl in the picture.

“You could have called, ‘0,’ instead of, ‘Minimum.’ Add.”

“Add?” The zoomas disappeared from the picture, and the yellow band, with the name, vanished.

Bea said, “You’re wondering why you have to say, ‘Add,’ to remove the zoomas. Can you guess?”

“No. Not really.”

“Would you like to see the reason?”

“Yes. It’ll help me to remember.”

“Then bring back the zoomas.”

“Zoomas, stewed 40.” They reappeared in the picture.

“Now put them to zero, without saying, ‘Add’”

“0.” They vanished.

“Now put something else on the plate.”

I chose, “Ocrams, boiled 40.” They appeared on the plate – but the zoomas came back!

Bea said, “I’ll try to explain. When you say the name of a food, you waken the order for it. You can change the amount as often as you like, by giving a new number. You don’t put the order to sleep, until you say, ‘Add.’ Does that let you correct what you’ve done?”

“I’ll need to think.” Now I knew what I’d done. The order for zoomas was still awake when I said, “40,” for the ocrams, so I got 40 of zoomas too. Too late, I noticed that both the ocrams and the zoomas were on yellow bands. I called, “80.” As I expected, the amounts of ocrams and zoomas both doubled.

How could I correct it? The ocrams and the zoomas were both awake. If I gave an order to one, the other would obey it too. I could order them both to zero, then say, “Add,” and start again, but that seemed clumsy. If I was as bright as Bea seemed to think, could I work out a neater way?

“40.” The amounts went down.

“Add.” The yellow bands went green.

“Ocrams, boiled.” Its band went yellow. “Minimum.” They vanished, but their yellow band was still there. “Add.” The yellow band went. I told Bea, “That’s it, I hope.”

“Well done, Geli. Do you have something with those zoomas? A sauce, or cream?”

“No. We eat stewed zoomas on their own. Are you sure you want some?”

“Yes. My dad wouldn’t mind. You can complete the order.”

“Deliver 2. Oo-sleep. Food.” I gave a long sigh. “That needed a bit of thought.”

“You did well, Geli.”

“How long will the zoomas take? At home, stewing zoomas is a long and difficult job. It needs skill. The Cook won’t let Riku or me do it.”

“We’ll have to wait and see. Even for complicated meals, I’ve never had to wait longer than it would take to count to 40.”

“When they’re cooked, will we hear them arriving?”

We listened, but heard nothing (except the murmur of people talking in another booth) until the little black hatch slid aside, and I brought out the bowls of zoomas – carefully because they were hot. I gave a bowl to Bea, along with our eating tool.

(Comment by Bea: The zoomas didn’t look very attractive – like cooked tomatoes, but yellowish brown. They were in their thick juice, and tasted a bit like peaches, with hints of spice and caramel. The Striffo 4 cutlery was strange – like a spoon with a long bowl, but one edge was straight, for cutting, and the outer end was divided into three wide prongs, like a fork. It wasn’t difficult to use.)

I told Bea, “I’ve never tasted better zoomas. Not that I’ve tasted many. They’re expensive, but sometimes Cawa would order some, and not eat them all. If the Cook didn’t want them, she let Riku and me share them. Do you like them?”

“I do, Geli,” said Bea. “I’d like to try them again, with ice cream.”

When we finished the zoomas, Bea asked, “Do you want anything else, Geli? A drink?”

“Whatever you think, Bea.” I tried not to show my reluctance.

Bea sensed it. She smiled. “Of course, Geli. You’d rather go for your uniform.” She ordered, “Open,” and pushed the bowls and tools towards the little cupboard.

I asked, “Would the great Federation mind if I give the tool to Riku? Our tools are all metal. Riku would love a beautiful white one like this.”

“That’s no problem, Geli. Just keep it.” She ordered the hatch to close.

52

UNIFORM

 

As we went to the store, Bea said, “I should tell you about uniforms. Have you noticed – different agents have different coloured bands on them? That shows their jobs.”

“What colour is a trainee agent’s band?”

“A trainee agent’s uniform doesn’t have coloured bands, but narrow black lines, outlining a band round the chest.”

“I can’t wait to put mine on. What’s it made of?”

“I don’t know. It’s a Federation fabric. The Scientists claim it’s soft but hard-wearing, warm in cold weather, cool in hot weather, comfortable when wet, and quick-drying.”

“That’s amazing!”

“It’s good – better than any fabrics I’ve found on Sol 3 – but not quite as good as they say. The uniform sticks to you when it’s cold and wet, and it’s not cool in very hot weather.”

“It has a lot of clips at the waist.”

“Yes. Seven. One at each side, two on the front, and three across the back. I’ve used four at once. It’s useful to have different places to hang things.”

“What do you put on them, apart from other people’s guns and knives?”

“All sorts of things. Torch. Tools. They all have clips so that they can hang at your waist, leaving your hands free.”

“That must be useful.”

“See the shoes. They’re like what we’d call ‘trainers’ on Sol 3, perhaps a bit stronger. I love the soles; they’re soft and bouncy. The ankles of the trousers fit over your socks – like the seal at the waist, but softer.”

“Socks? What are socks?”

Bea stopped, and pulled up the end of her trouser leg, to show me. “Socks go over your feet and ankles. The Federation provides the complete uniform, including socks and underwear. Pale grey, all matching. They have your name on them, on the insides of the elastic bits. A lot of people don’t know that their name is on the inside of their wrist and ankle bands.”

The store was as busy as yesterday, but I tried to ignore the buzz of minds. Bea said, “Ask Victor. Booth 5 is free.”

I wasn’t sure of Federation numbers, but I went to the fifth booth. “Oo-voice. Geli. Victor, I’ve come to collect the three uniforms and the expedition suit I ordered yesterday.”

“Late, aren’t you? Hatch 2.”

“When?”

“Soon.”

“Thank you. Oo-sleep. Victor.”

When my name came up on the screen, Bea came to the hatch with me. “I’ll help you to carry it.”

“I’ll be proud to carry it myself. Oo-voice. Geli. Open.” The hatch slid aside, showing a huge heap of clothes. I grinned to Bea. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll never carry all that.”

“I’ll take the expedition suit,” she said. “Including its helmet and boots. If you put one pair of shoes on my bundle, you should manage the rest.”

As we carried them through the corridors, I asked, “Do I see gloves here?”

“Yes. I forgot to mention them, because I don’t often wear them. The ends fit over the cuffs of your uniform. The palms and the insides of the fingers look like the rest of the cloth, but they’re rough, so that you can hold things.”

“Do I see a clip on them?”

“Yes. If you don’t want to wear them, you can hang them at your waist.”

In my cabin, we put the piles of clothes on the bunk. I said, “Would you wait here? I’ll change in the bathroom. I want you to see me in my uniform all at once.”

Bea smiled. “I like seeing you so keen, Geli. When you put it on, take care at the waist.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

“The uniform has no belt, but the waistband is stiffer than the wrists and ankles. You put on the trousers first, then fit the top over them, so that its waistband fits neatly over the trousers one.”

I put on the uniform, and smoothed it down. It fitted me perfectly. I was so proud as I went out, into the cabin, and threw my Striffo 4 tunic on the bed. I twirled. “Don’t I look like a real Federation agent now?”

“You do, Geli. You look really smart.”

“My name’s on it, with a 1 under it.” I pointed to the Striffo 4 writing on the right of the chest band.

“And the same, in Federation symbols, on the other side.”

“I thought that’s what it was. What’s the 1?”

“That’s your rank, Geli. After every mission, Victor gives you a rank, a number, depending on how you’ve done. Your rank is 1 because you’re just starting. Federation rules say that agents must obey orders from those with higher ranks.”

“What’s your rank?”

“632.”

“That’s high! So I have to take orders from you. It’s like being a servant again. What’s Mamble’s rank?”

“I don’t remember. About 550.”

“550! That’s lower than yours.”

“Tony and I are Troubleshooters. We sometimes have tricky missions, so our ranks have a chance to go up.”

“I always thought that Mamble was all-powerful. The leader of the Federation. But he would have to take orders from you.”

“He’s commander of the Federation base on Yband 4. That’s an important job. But we’ve talked enough about ranks. Let’s see your uniform.”

“Isn’t it amazing?” I walked proudly back and forward in front of her.

 

53

LAUNDRY

 

I stopped the parade. “I’m so sorry! You don’t want to watch me, marching up and down.”

“No, Geli. I like seeing you so proud of your uniform. It reminds me of when I had my first one.”

“I can’t imagine you in anything other than that uniform. It suits you.”

“Thanks Geli. I ought to tell you about getting your uniform cleaned. Most people sleep in the uniform they’ve used during the day, if it’s not too dirty.”

She must have sensed my surprise, because she said, “Yes, Geli. Like you, I wasn’t sure about that at first. I wore a spare uniform at night, and even thought about bringing nightwear from home, but I’ve got used to wearing my previous days’ uniform. It’s convenient. The next morning, you can get up, have a shower, and put on a clean one.”

“That sounds sensible. I think I’ll do that.”

“It’s easy if you have your own cabin. Look in the cupboard.” I pulled open the tall cupboard door, between Victor’s screen and the corner at the door. It had a deep cupboard at the bottom, shelves in the middle, and a grey tray on a shelf at the top.

Bea pulled out that tray. “If you put a uniform in this tray, no matter what state it’s in, it’ll be replaced by a clean, dry one.”

“That is like magic!”

“It’s automatic. If you put it in dirty, it comes out clean. If you put it in wet, it comes out dry. If you put it in torn, it comes out complete. Before you ask, I don’t know how it works. I assume that the shelf senses when you put a uniform on the tray. It must be removed and replaced through the top of the cupboard. The new one usually arrives in about 2%.”

“Now that is really amazing!”

“That’s why I keep three uniforms here – one on, and two in the cupboard. The rest of it’s an ordinary cupboard. I keep my Sol 3 clothes in it, and a few souvenirs I’ve collected from other planets.”

 

54

EXPEDITION SUIT

 

“That must be interesting. Er… Bea, do you have time to tell me about the expedition suit?”

“Yes, of course, Geli.”

“You must be busy, with your job as a Troubleshooter. You’ve already been too kind to me.”

Bea smiled. “I’m guarding you. Now that you’ve got rid of the cape, the men won’t be able to find you. I don’t think you’re in danger, but I’ll stay with you until we hear what Tony learns from the man you caught.”

“That’s great!”

“Then let’s start with the expedition suit. You wear it on top of your uniform. Except the shoes. Would you take them off?”

By the time I’d done that, she had the trousers of the expedition suit ready for me. “You put these on first.”

I rubbed the cloth between my fingers. “It’s strange material. Shiny, and that shimmering grey colour.”

As I pulled the trousers on, she told me, “It’s another wonder fabric. Thin, but tough and waterproof, and they say it’s breathable. That means your sweat can escape through it, so you don’t get sweaty on hot planets. That’s true, although it does get clammy if you’re working in cold rain. Have you got the trousers on? Put the boots on next. Pull the trouser legs up until your boots are on.”

I sat on the bunk to pull on the boots. “They’re hardly heavier than the shoes, although they cover my ankles.”

“Pull down the trouser legs, and smooth them carefully over the ankles of the boots. The material’s smooth, but it sticks.”

“It’s like the strap of the wrist unit.”

“That’s right. Try to do it without any wrinkles. That makes the joint waterproof.”

“Waterproof? Really waterproof?”

“Yes. If you’re careful with the seals. On our second mission, Tony was in the sea, up to his chest. He was wearing an expedition suit, and he hardly got wet. Just a tiny patch in the middle of his back. Later, we found a wrinkle in the seal there. That looks fine. Put on the top next.”

When I’d done that, she told me, “You have to seal it over the trousers at the waist. That’s the trickiest part.” When she started to help me, I said, “No. May I do it? I must learn to do it myself.”

“If you want. Tony and I usually help each other.”

I did my best, but it was harder than I expected. I asked, “Is that it? I’m not sure about the middle of the back.”

“That’s good,” she said. “But you’re right: there’s a wrinkle in the middle at the back. That’s the hardest part. You’re best to do it first.” I didn’t object as she pulled the layers apart and resealed them. “That’s better.”

She said, “The expedition suit has clips at the same places as the uniform. Now the gloves. They seal over the wrists of the suit.” That was easier. When I’d done that, she said, “Now you’re totally waterproof from your feet to your neck. Here: take your knife.” She put it on the clip at my left. “We must collect another gun for you.”

 

55

FEATURES

 

I walked back and forward. “I feel comfortable, not clumsy. I must complete the outfit. I’ll put the helmet on. Isn’t it light?”

“Yes, but it’s strong. It protects your head and ears. There’s a faceplate in the peak. Pull the tag.”

I had to take the helmet off to find the tag, then I pulled it down, and put on the helmet.

Bea said, “You look ready for action.”

“I feel….” I pushed up the faceplate, because it was blocking my wrist unit. “I feel ready for action.”

“You can use the wrist unit if you put the faceplate halfway down.”

“Why would I want it halfway down?”

“I’ll show you, if you set it.”

Wondering what she could possibly be doing, I pulled the faceplate down so that the bottom was level with my nose.

Bea said, “Now put the light down to 1.”

Still wondering, I called, “Oo-wake. Light. 1. Oo-sleep. Light. Hey! Round the edge of the faceplate, the room looks completely dark, but, in the faceplate, I can still see the ceiling glowing, and everything in the cabin.”

“In shades of grey,” said Bea.

“Yes, but it’s clear. How does that work?”

“I don’t know. Federation cameras can do the same. It doesn’t work in complete darkness. Try it if you like.”

“Oo-wake. Light. Minimum.” In front of my eyes, the faceplate went as dark as the rest of the cabin. “Default.” The light came up, and I saw the cabin in colour again.

Bea said, “The faceplate works in starlight, so it’s useful on planets at night.”

“That is totally amazing!”

“Your suit will do something even more amazing,” said Bea. “What do you think of the colour?”

“That… that puzzles me.” I pushed the faceplate up. “Is it made of the same material as the walls of the cabin?”

“No, but it’s the same colour.” She looked at me, and said no more.

“What do you mean?”

She smiled to me, but didn’t answer.

“Why don’t…?” The answer hit me. It couldn’t be! But…. I looked around. Everything in the room was grey except Victor’s black screen. I put my left arm across that. The arm of the suit went black, leaving the rest grey. Yes! I couldn’t believe it!

I stood in front of the screen, looking down at my body, which had a big black patch. “Does the suit take the colour of its surroundings?”

“That’s right, Geli. I thought you would work it out. In a desert, it’ll turn brown to match the sand. In a jungle, it’ll go the mottled green colour of the bushes.”

“That is amazing! How does it work?”

“Don’t ask me that. You’d have to ask the Scientists. During your training, you’ll have a chance to wear that suit, and see it working. It can do one more trick. Do you see that smooth flat bit in the middle of the front of the waistband? That’s a flap. Pull it up, and press the button underneath.”

I fumbled with the flap.

Bea said, “It’s difficult with gloves. Will I do it?”

“No. I’d rather do it myself, thanks.”

At last, I opened the flap, and pressed the button. The whole suit (except the helmet) turned bright, fluorescent orange!

Bea said, “In an emergency, you can press that, then everyone can easily see you.”

“That is amazing! How do I change it back? Press the button again?” I pressed the button a few times, and watched the expedition suit flashing between grey and orange. I left it at grey. “I can’t wait to go out in this suit.” I took off the helmet. “I suppose I needn’t wear it now.” I unstuck the gloves, and pulled them off.

56

LANGUAGE

 

As I took off the expedition suit, Bea asked, “What do you want to do now, Geli?”

“While we were in the cabin, waiting for that man, you started to tell me how to set devices to obey other people. I wondered – if Riku came to stay with me, could I set my cabin to obey her too?”

“That’s tricky, Geli. Victor recognises the voices of agents, but he can’t remember everyone in the Federation. You would have to ask the Authoriser to order Victor to recognise the voice of someone who’s not an agent. I don’t think she’d do it for Riku. She only gives permission for planets’ leaders, and people who often visit different planets on business. But there’s an easier way of letting Riku use your room.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ll tell you, Geli, but first would you ask Victor if Tony’s called you?”

I dumped the expedition suit on my bed. “Oo-wake. Victor, has Tony called me?”

“No.”

Bea said, “I didn’t think he had. Victor might not know where I was, but Tony would ask for you. He must still be with Wellington and that pirate. Are you ready? Would you see if any of the other cabins in the corridor are being used?”

“Open.” I looked out. “The lights at the four cabins opposite are green.”

“Then would you ask Victor to ignore any reports from cabin 5 for the next 2%?”

When I’d done that, we went into the corridor, where Bea said, “Can you get into cabin 5?”

“I hope so – using the magic Sol 3 word. Open.” The door of cabin 5 opened, and we went in.

Bea asked, “Do you remember how to set the light to obey your voice?”

“I’ll try. Oo-voice. Geli. Light. Set Geli. 70.” The light went brighter. “Default.” It went down again. “Oo-sleep. Light. That’s it.”

“You’ve got a good memory, Geli. It’s possible to set devices to understand a language. Does everyone on your planet speak the same language?”

“Yes, of course. What other language would they speak?”

“I had to ask. On my planet, there are lots of different languages. I would have to say which one I want to use. You don’t have that problem. You can say the control word, then the name of your planet. Then you can give the device a command in the language of your planet. Would you like to try it?”

“Oo-wake. Light. Striffo 4. Minimum. Default. Oo-sleep. Light. That did it.”

“Can you see how you could let Riku use your cabin?”

“Yes. That’s obvious, I hope. Oo-wake. Light. Set Striffo 4. 20. 30. Oo-sleep. Light. Now the light is set to my language. Riku could give it commands. Wouldn’t it be better to set more devices to obey languages, instead of single people?”

“Not always, Geli. If your cabin was set to Striffo 4 instead of just you, then anyone from Striffo 4 could use it – the Cook, the Queen.”

“The Queen would never come to the cabin of an unimportant person like me, but I see what you mean. You’d have to think carefully before setting a device to a language.”

“That’s right, Geli. If you set a device to a language, you are responsible for any trouble it causes.”

“If Riku comes to stay with me, I would be safer to have my cabin door obey me only, but set the devices inside to obey our language.”

“That’s a sensible idea. Geli, would you set the light for my voice?”

“Oo-wake. Light. Set Bea. 50.” The 50 was testing; the light didn’t get brighter. I opened my mouth to say, “Oo-sleep,” but kept it open in dismay: if the light didn’t obey my, “50,” it wouldn’t obey my, “Oo-sleep.”

Bea said, “Oo-sleep. Light.” She laughed. “I’m sorry, Geli. The look on your face!”

“I didn’t see that problem coming. Does that mean you can’t set a device for someone unless they’re there?”

“You can do it if you say nothing while you count to ten, because the device will go to sleep automatically. But that’s a messy way. If the person’s there, she can set it for herself. Would you like to prove that?”

“Oo-wake. Light. 50.” The light didn’t change. “I was proving it doesn’t obey me now. Oo-voice. Geli. Set Geli. Maximum. Default. Oo-sleep. Light. That’s it. Isn’t there any way of stopping anyone else from taking over a device like that? There must be. It’s been done to my cabin door. No one but me – and the big commander – can give it orders.”

57

LOCK

Bea said, “You’re right, Geli. The’re a command which will stop others using a device. It’s, ‘Lock.’ It’s easily done. Would you like to try it?”

“Oo-wake. Light. Lock. Oo-sleep. Light.”

“That’s it, Geli. Oo-wake. Light. 60. Oo-voice. Bea. Light. 60.” Neither of them changed the light. “The light will only obey you now.”

“Am I the only one who can unlock it?”

“Except in an emergency.”

“Must I unlock it before I give it a command?”

“No. The word, ‘Lock,’ is misleading. There’s a command, ‘Unlock,’ but you don’t need it if you want to give a simple order.”

“Oo-wake. Light. 50.” It went brighter. “Add Bea. Oo-sleep. Light.”

Bea said, “Oo-wake. Light. Default.” The light went down. “Remove Geli. Oo-sleep. Light. That’s what I was going to warn you in that cabin. There can be a risk in letting other people control a device. You were the one who locked the light, but now you can’t use it.”

“I’d better prove it. Oo-voice. Geli. Light. 40. Yes.”

“I have one more command to warn you about, Geli, but it’ll be more effective if we use the door. Oo-wake. Light. Reset. Oo-sleep. Light. Now would you lock this cabin door?”

I faced the door. “Oo-voice. Geli. Door. Lock. Oo-sleep. Door.”

“Good. Now, would you go out, and check the light?”

“I won’t have to unlock it. Oo-wake. Door. Open. Oo-sleep. Door.” It opened. I went out, into the passage. “The light’s blue.”

“That shows the door is set for someone’s control.”

58

OVERRIDE

Bea was still in the cabin. “Now order the door to close.”

“But – that’ll lock you in.”

“I know. Hurry, before it shuts automatically.”

“Oo-wake. Door. Close. Oo-sleep. Door.” It slid shut.

While I was wondering if Bea wanted me to open it, it opened, and she came out beside me, looking pleased with herself.

I could only ask, “Did you do that?”

“Yes.”

“How? Isn’t the door still locked?”

“Close it, and I’ll show you.”

“Oo-wake. Door. Close.” It slid shut.

Bea called, “Oo-wake. Door. Open.” It didn’t. “Oo-voice. Bea. Door. Open.” It didn’t. “You see – it’s still locked. Oo-voice. Bea. Door. Override. Open. Oo-sleep. Door.” It slid aside.

I was so amazed, I could only ask, “What was that?”

“Override. Do you know what it means?”

“Kind-of. It means to overpower someone else’s orders. So – could you get into my cabin?”

“I’m sorry, Geli. An agent can override the command of any agent with a lower rank.”

“But… but my rank is 1. Any other agent could open my cabin door.”

“That’s right, Geli. But you can trust other agents. They would never go into your cabin without permission.”

“If they did, what would happen to them?”

“If an agent uses the override command, he must explain the reason to his leader within one Federation day. If the reason was good, that’s fine. If the agent thought the reason was good, but the leader didn’t agree, they would ask Obsidian, the commander. If he agreed with the leader, the agent would be punished. His rank would go down, and he’d wouldn’t be allowed to use the override command in future.”

“What if the agent was just larking around?”

“Then he would be sacked, and expelled from the Federation. People must be able to trust agents.”

“Y…yes. How many agents are there?”

“I don’t know. Thousands in this sector.”

“I don’t like the idea that any of them could open my cabin door.”

“Look at it this way, Geli. In a hundred days, you’ll be a working agent. A Troubleshooter, I hope. I’ll be surprised if your rank is not above 300. Will you go into a trainee agent’s cabin for no reason?”

“No. Of course not.”

“If you thought the trainee agent might be unconscious in the cabin, but you weren’t sure?” When I hesitated, she said, “You see. The override command can cause anxiety to agents with higher ranks.”

“Y…yes. I’m not worried about agents going into my cabin. At home, I had no cabin – nowhere of my own. But I wouldn’t lock a device unless I had a good reason. It’s not fair that agents can unlock it if they want.”

“I know what you mean, Geli, but it’s all part of the usual Federation rule, that an agent must obey any agent with a higher rank. But the Federation is very strict. If you misuse your power, you’re in trouble.”

“Y…yes.”

“That’s why you had to order Victor to ignore reports from this cabin – and why I couldn’t demonstrate on your cabin door. Come on, Geli. I’ll tell you a bit more about the override command.” By this time, the door had shut automatically, so she asked, “How could I open the door now?”

I wasn’t completely happy, but I asked, “Is it still locked?”

“You tell me.”

“How can…? Oh! Yes! The light’s still blue. You’ll have to use, ‘Override,’ again.”

“That’s right. The ‘Override,’ command works only for that one order. If I’d said, ‘Override. Unlock,’ the light would have gone green, and anyone could have used the door. I’d better show you something else. “Oo-voice. Bea. Override. Lock. Oo-sleep. Door.”

“Don’t tell me. Oo-voice. Geli. Door. Open. That was doomed to fail.”

“Not for someone with a higher rank than me.” That didn’t seem to worry her, so I tried to forget my worry. She asked, “Any questions?”

“N…no. There’s a lot to remember.”

“You’ll use the main commands so often that you won’t have to think about them.” She faced the door of cabin 5. “Oo-voice. Bea. Door. Reset. Oo-sleep. Door.” The light went green.

Bea glanced at her wrist unit. “It’s nearly lunchtime. We can…. What was that? I thought I heard a voice in cabin 5. Open.” The cabin door slid aside, in time for us to hear Victor’s voice, saying, “.… Bea.”

Bea ran into the cabin. “Oo-wake, Victor, were you calling me?”

“Yes. Tony wants you and Geli to meet him in the waiting room immediately.”

 

59

TO STRIFFO 4*

 

Tony was waiting for us in the waiting room – the square room with the seats around the sides. “Ah, Bean, Geli. Thanks for coming so quickly. We’re going to Striffo 4.”

As we started along the passage to the transporter, Bea asked, “Tony, how do you feel?”

He wrinkled his face. “Pretty rough, but this is big – and urgent. There may be trouble on Striffo 4. We have to warn the Queen.”

We ran to the transporter. “Open.” We went inside. “Close. Operate. Open.” With Tony leading, we hurried out – to the points of two swords. “Stop there!”

“No!” called Tony. “Let us past! Your queen’s in danger. We must see her.”

These weren’t the same guards as before – and they didn’t like Tony shouting at them. The commander said, “We were ordered to let no suspicious characters through.”

“Suspicious characters!” exclaimed Tony. “Can’t you see? We’re agents!”

Bea squeezed Tony’s arm. “No, Tony.” He glared at her, but didn’t speak, as she turned to the commander. “We were here earlier, visiting the Queen. Since then, we’ve learned that she may be in danger.”

“Yeah! And what are three little kids going to do about it?”

Bea glared too. “We are agents of the Galactic Federation, sent here by the Investigators’ commander.”

I spoke in my language, not using the wrist unit. “Listen, please. You must know why you’re on guard here. Someone tried to kill the Queen. I was lucky enough to stop him. But….”

“You!” he exclaimed. “You look like us, and talk like us, but you’re wearing that fancy Federation uniform.”

“The Queen set me free. I’m going to train to be an agent.”

One of the other guards said, “She’s right, chief. I’ve seen her with the Queen – and it was a maidservant that saved the Queen’s life.”

The commander asked me, “Can you promise me that these two will not cause trouble?”

“I promise. Please let us pass. We must warn the Queen.”

“Let them go.” The swords were lifted.

Bea said, “Thanks, Geli.”

Tony jogged down the street towards the palace. As Bea and I tried to keep up, she asked, “Tony, can you tell us what this is about?”

Tony muttered something about the guards, then answered, “That pirate’s name’s Thunklo. We learned a lot from him. I don’t have time to tell you it all now. D’you mind waiting?”

As we approached the palace entrance, Tony said, “Good! The guards are there. We’re in time. Geli, would you warn them to watch for an attack? They don’t have wrist units.”

The guards recognised me, so we had no trouble getting in. I told the commander, “There may be an attack. Would you watch carefully?”

He answered cheerfully, “That’s why we’re here.” He didn’t really believe me.

“Please! Take great care.”

“Don’t worry, Geli. We’re watching.” He still didn’t believe me.

Tony, a few steps ahead of me, must have sensed it, because he said, “Geli, tell him – if somebody gets in, and attacks the Queen, we’ll know who to blame.”

The commander heard my wrist unit. His mind turned from be-nice-to-the-kids to how-dare-he talk-to-me-like-that.

I called, “Thanks!” as we ran on.

 

60

DANGER!*

 

The Queen was finishing breakfast. “Geli! And Bea and Tony. I am pleased to see you. Why have you come?”

Bea said, “We caught one of the men who tried to kill you. Tony helped to question him. He’ll tell you about it.”

“You must sit down,” said the Queen. “I’ll call a servant to bring chairs.”

Tony frowned, but I said, “I know where to find the chairs. We’ll bring them.”

The three of us brought a chair each. We sat in a circle with the Queen, so near that I could sense her sweet nature. She asked, “Would you care for something to eat or drink?”

“Not at present, thank you,” said Bea. “Tony knows why we’re here, and he says it’s urgent. He’ll tell you.”

Tony said, “Before I start explaining, I must warn you – you may be in danger. I think you should have more guards.”

The Queen gave her charming smile. “I thank you for the advice, Tony, but I would prefer to hear the explanation first. I do not wish to give my guards unnecessary work.”

Tony gave an impatient exclamation.

Bea said, “Tony!” then spoke to the Queen. “I’m sorry. Tony’s upset and anxious. He spent a long time questioning a prisoner. That’s a great strain.”

Tony mumbled to the Queen, “Yeah. I’m sorry.” He went on, “Somebody hired Hallixian pirates to kill you.”

The Queen asked, “Hallixian pirates?”

Tony took a deep breath, and explained, “A bunch of crooks from Hallixia 10. I suppose I’ll have to tell you who hired them. It was Mr Iron.”

He seemed to think that was important, and Bea gasped, but the Queen was puzzled, and so was I.

It was Bea who explained. “There’s a mystery interplanetary criminal called Mr Silver. We’ve seen him on one or two missions, but never caught him. We’ve also clashed with one of his lieutenants, Mr Zinc.”

Tony went on, “We’ve never met this one – Mr Iron. If he’s around, it’s a big job, with big money. Geli stopped one attack, but Mr Iron won’t give up. He’ll be back. That’s your explanation. Now will you increase the guards?”

“I have already increased the guards. You must have seen them at the transporter.”

“Yeah. I don’t think the pirates’ll use the transporter. They may come by ship. You’re only a short hop from the big spaceport on Striffo 3. After we’d found out about Mr Iron, we asked about ships which had recently left Striffo 3. There were three of them. I don’t say they were coming here, but….”

“Three ships! Can we expect an invasion?”

“I hope not. Wellington’s going to check the ships that ask to leave from now on, and he’ll send somebody to discuss how you should protect yourself. We came to warn you, and guard you until they arrive.”

 

61

ATHENITE*

 

The Queen said, “You make it sound perilous. The nearest guards can hear my call, but I shall increase the number at the entrance.” She called a guard, and gave the orders.

Tony went on, “We don’t usually learn much from captured Hallixian pirates, but Thunklo was different. He’s one of their top agents. One of the pirates’ leaders – a guy called Vivefri – decided to do the job himself. Thunklo thought he wanted to impress an important customer like Mr Iron. Vivefri took Thunklo to help him. But he boasted too much to Thunklo. That’s how we know so much. The two of them came to kill you.”

“Didn’t you suggest that Cawa sent them?”

“That’s what we thought,” said Tony. “But now we know that Vivefri must’ve come here, and spoken secretly to Cawa. Mr Iron wants to control this planet. Thunklo didn’t know why.”

Bea said, “I think I can tell you that. Athenite.”

“Oh!” The Queen realised.

Tony said, “Tell us about it, Bean.”

Bea said, “When I learned about the trouble on this planet, I asked Victor. Athenite is used in space ship bodies. There are huge amounts of athenite on Striffo 4, but they don’t take much of it.”

“I can explain that,” said the Queen. “When the Federation Scientists found the athenite, they told me they could open a big mine. We would be rich. But I feared it would spoil our culture, and our way of life. I did wish to aid the Federation, so I permit a small amount to be produced.”

“That explains it,” said Tony. “Vivefri contacted Cawa. He probably suggested that he would kill you, making her queen, if she allowed them to mine more athenite.”

“Poor Cawa,” breathed the Queen. “I didn’t suspect.”

“They probably tempted her with promises of money – which they might not have given her. Vivefri and Thunklo used the transporter, and came through the town, using a stun-gun on everybody they saw. Leaving Thunklo on guard at the palace entrance, Vivefri came in. No doubt Cawa told him where to come. He stunned you and Cawa. While you were unconscious, he was going to strangle you. That was a quiet method, so it wouldn’t rouse any guards.”

“Cawa could have told him that the guards’ rooms are near.”

“Cawa sent Geli away. But Geli came back, sooner than Vivefri expected. She attacked him. That’s when he made his mistake. Vivefri usually uses a nerve-gun, so it was on its clip at his waist. When Geli went for him, he grabbed for it, rather than the stun-gun which would’ve knocked Geli out quietly. In his hurry, he hit Geli’s shoulder. She had time for one scream before he moved the beam to her head, and knocked her out.”

Tony laughed. “Maybe Vivefri heard guards calling, asking about the scream. Thunklo reckoned that Vivefri, being a leader, hadn’t done many jobs. Anyway, he panicked, and ran. Thunklo helped him to escape through the transporter.

“Vivefri was furious. A little girl had spoiled his plans, and made him look ridiculous. He wanted revenge. He must’ve met Cawa, given her a beacon, and ordered her to plant it on Geli. Thunklo wasn’t at that meeting. He didn’t know what they said.”

I said, “Cawa would be happy to get rid of me. She knew I suspected her. Or Vivefri may have threatened to tell the Queen that Cawa had plotted against her.”

“Or Vivefri may have threatened to kill Cawa. Vivefri boasted to Thunklo that Cawa was thoroughly frightened. He ordered her to kill the little girl. Cawa tried twice, and Bea caught her the second time.”

I sensed the sorrow in the Queen’s mind, but she asked calmly, “Are you sure of these facts?”

“Yes,” said Tony. “Thunklo confessed.” He didn’t mention the mind-sensing.

“Then you have proved that Cawa knew of the plot to kill me.”

“Yes, although it wasn’t her idea. Vivefri suggested it.”

“She knew of it. That is enough. For treason, she will remain in prison for the rest of her life.” She sighed. “It is not happy news you have brought me, but I am glad to know the truth. I thank you.”

“It’s Geli you should thank,” said Bea. “She had the courage to come to Yband 4, to find help, and it was her idea that captured the pirate that Tony questioned.”

“Geli, thank you.” The Queen was so grateful. “I must reward you.”

 

62

REWARD*

 

The Queen said, “If you wish, I can give you money. Or I could appoint you my personal assistant. I would be glad of an adviser I could trust.”

“I thank you.” I bowed to her. “May I make a request?”

“Anything you wish. If it is in my power, I will grant it to you.”

“Would you… would you make Riku my servant?”

“Is that all? I would give you twenty servants. But I know Riku will be faithful to you.”

“Thank you.” I didn’t tell her all my plans.

The Queen said, “I shall be sorry to lose Riku, but happy to reward you as you wish. You may go and fetch Riku.”

Bea put a wrist unit in my hand. “Give her this.”

Riku and the Cook were washing the breakfast dishes. I told the Cook, “The Queen wants to see Riku.”

“Then you can stay and help me with these dishes.”

“I’m sorry. The Queen wants to see me too.”

“How does she expect me to get the work done, when she takes away all my servants?”

“Will I ask her?”

“You dare!” She shook her fist at Riku and me as we left the kitchen.

I sensed Riku’s excitement as I gave her the wrist unit. “Why do I need that? Why does the Queen want to se me?”

“I’m sorry, Riku. I mustn’t tell you. Bea and Tony – the agents you saw – are with the Queen. You can use that to talk or listen to them.”

In the Queen’s sitting room, Bea and Tony had moved the chairs to the side of the room, so that Riku and I could stand in front of the Queen.

The Queen said, “Riku, Geli has done me a great service. I asked her how I could reward her. She asked me to give you to her, as her servant. I was happy to agree.”

In Riku’s mind, the puzzlement turned to a burst of joy. “Do you tell me – I am Geli’s servant now?”

The Queen smiled. “Yes. I am sorry to lose you, but I am sure you will be happy serving Geli.”

“Yes!” Riku hugged me. Her head was so close to mine that I sensed her great joy. It was so strong that I couldn’t think, but I didn’t mind. It mingled with my own joy.

I don’t know how long it was before Riku pushed herself away from me. “Thank you! Oh, Geli, thank you!” She hugged me again.

When we separated again, I said, “Riku, I have more good news for you. I’m setting you free.”

Puzzlement mixed with her joy. “What do you mean, Geli?”

“I’m setting you free, Riku. You’re not a servant now. You’re free!”

“But… but, Geli, you can’t do that.”

“I can. You’re my servant. You must do as I say. I’m setting you free.”

“No, Geli. I must remain your servant. I am happy with that.”

“But I’m not. I want you to be free, so that we can train together to be agents of the Federation.”

“No, Geli. Our laws don’t allow you to set me free.”

The Queen added, “That is true, Geli. You cannot simply set a servant free.”

“You set me free.”

“I was happy to do so – because you had done me a service. You could not have done me a greater service. You saved my life. The only fitting reward for saving my life was your freedom.”

“But… we’re going to Yband 4. On Yband 4, we can forget Striffo 4 laws.”

“No, Geli,” said Riku. “That would not be right. I am happy to be your servant. That’s the way it must be.”

“No, Riku! It won’t be the same. I want you as a friend, not a servant.”

“I thank you, Geli. If our places were reversed, would you let me set you free?”

I opened my mouth to shout, “Yes!” but I shut it again.

“You see, Geli,” said Riku. I’m sorry. Perhaps if I serve you well for some time, you may find a reason to set me free. For now, I must be your servant.”

I sensed her disappointment – and her determination. I would never change her mind. That didn’t stop my own disappointment. The Federation was such an amazing place. I’d dreamed of telling Riku all about it, then training together. Bea had hinted that Riku would never be a Troubleshooter but, if she became an ordinary agent, maybe we could have worked on missions together. But…. I sighed. It was only a dream.

 

63

ATTACK*

 

The Queen said, “You should be happy, Geli. A servant may be a good companion. After….”

“Stop there!” Two men were in the doorway, holding guns. One was the man in black who’d tried to kill the Queen and me. The pirate leader, Vivefri. The other was wearing a suit that looked like knitted metal. On his head was a matching helmet, with round dark holes for the eyes, and a slot for the mouth. He must be the master criminal that Tony had told us about – Mr Iron.

He stood in the doorway, while Vivefri came into the room with a gloating smile. He pointed his gun at Bea and Tony. “Take off your guns – slowly – and throw them here.”

In silence, they took their stun-guns from the clips at their waists, and threw them towards Vivefri. He kicked them into a corner of the room.

Vivefri spoke to the Queen. “Because of a meddling little girl, I failed to kill you on my last visit. Now, I have a better idea. We’re going to take you away. Don’t worry, your majesty. We will not harm you – if everyone on this planet behaves, and helps us to mine the athenite.”

Mr Iron made a grunting noise.

Vivefri glanced towards him, but spoke to us. “You will pass that message to the people of this planet, and tell them…. You!” As Vivefri spoke, he looked at us – and recognised me. His spike of surprise was so strong that I sensed it. “I didn’t recognise you in that fancy uniform. I have a score to settle with you.” His eyes gleamed at me over the gun.

Mr Iron made another grunting noise.

Vivefri ignored it. He took a step towards me. “I would like to give you a slow and painful death, but I don’t have time for that. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to use this stun-gun on you, then I’m going to put my hands round that neck of yours, and twist. Are you ready?” He reached towards me.

“No!” Riku threw herself at him. She knocked the stun-gun out of his hand. It flew away – I didn’t know where – while Riku punched the man. She screamed, and the two of them collapsed in a heap.

It all happened in a moment. I looked around. The Queen was still on her chair, watching with wide eyes. Bea was standing near the door with a stun-gun in her hand. Tony was lying near her. Mr Iron wasn’t in sight.

Bea ran to the door, and looked out, stun-gun in her hand. “Mr Iron escaped. Geli, are you all right?”

“Y…yes.”

Guards ran in, brought by Riku’s scream. The Queen ordered them to guard the room.

Bea revived Tony. He sat up, looked around, and said, “Done, Bean.”

“I was lucky. Riku knocked the stun-gun out of Vivefri’s hand. It landed near me. How about you?”

“I knew what Riku was going to do.” He must have sensed it. “While Mr Iron was distracted, I went for him.” He grinned. “I hit him, but I couldn’t stop him using that stun-gun on me.”

“You did enough to frighten him away. Let’s have a look at the other two.”

We pulled Riku gently away from Vivefri. A brown gun fell from between them. “A nerve-gun,” commented Tony. “He won’t need that again.” He put it on a clip at his waist.

The Queen stood. “Poor Riku! Put her on my chair.” I helped Tony to carry Riku to the chair, while Bea used her stun-gun on Vivefri’s head.

Bea put her device to Riku’s forehead. Riku wakened, groaning. The others moved aside, so that I could ask her, “Riku, are you all right?”

She opened her eyes, “Geli! Ooh! I’m sore all over!”

She didn’t use her wrist unit, so Bea asked, “Geli, is she hurt?”

“She says she’s sore all over.”

“Tell her it’ll fade. Vivefri must have used his nerve-gun on her.”

As I told Riku, a stab of alarm hit her mind. “Geli! I… I know what you’re thinking!”

At that, she must have sensed the joy in my mind. I told her, “Don’t worry about it now, Riku. It happened to me too. And it’s great news. It means that we can train together, and become Troubleshooters.”

“But, Geli, I’m your servant.”

“No, Riku! You saved my life.” I looked at the others. “Didn’t she?” They nodded. “So I must set you free. Isn’t that right?” They nodded again, smiling.

I sighed in sheer pleasure. I’d had two frightening days. Tackling Vivefri when he attacked the Queen. Wakening with Cawa’s knife above me. Lying in wait in that cabin. Being threatened by Vivefri. But it had all been worthwhile. Everything was perfect now.