F. JOINING THE FEDERATION

1

HAIS

While Hais and I were chatting, I told her, “I’m doing reports about the Federation.”

“Reports about the Federation? Do you want any help?”

“Would you, Hais? Thanks very much. I’d like to explain how planets join the Federation. What do you think I should include?”

“Blackett told us during our training. Explorers visit new solar systems, looking for planets that might have life. If they find one, a survey team goes out. If they find intelligent life, another team goes out. I forget its name.”

“The contact team,” I said. “They speak to the intelligent life. If the intelligent life thinks it might want to join the Federation, an assessment team goes out to arrange it.”

“That’s it,” said Hais. “That’s your report done.”

“Except that I thought it would be more interesting if I could meet people from those teams, and hear what they actually do.”

“That’s a good idea. So, are you going to find an explorer?”

“Y…yes. Probably. I’ve heard that explorers are usually male, young and short-tempered.”

She smiled. “That sounds interesting. What are you going to do?”

“I thought of meeting him in the dining room. If we sit round a table, and have something to drink, he might be more friendly.”

“The dining room is always crowded and noisy.”

“We can use the one in the college. It’s quieter. Do you think we should?”

“Yes.” She smiled again. “If you want your report, you’ll have to face an explorer.”

 
2

AN EXPLORER

I said, “Victor, wake. Are any explorers on this planet just now?”

“Grenville is here. He has just left a meeting with Cabac.”

“Would you ask him if he’ll meet Bea and Hais for a short time?”

After a few seconds, Victor said, “Grenville requests direct talk with Bea.”

“Grenville himself!” I whispered to Hais. That made me more nervous. When you haven’t met someone, it’s more polite to ask Victor to pass on messages.

I said, “Talk agreed. My name’s Bea. I’m an agent. My friend Hais and I are doing a report about exploring. Could you tell us what you do?”

“Why don’t you ask Victor?” The voice sounded harsh and American.

“Victor’s dull. We hoped you could give us the details.”

“You can have 1%.” (That’s 1% of a Federation day – about 15 Earth minutes.)

“Thank you. Would you like to meet in the dining room of the college?”

“I’ll be there, at 30%.”

We were nervous when we went to the college dining room, and saw Grenville. He was male – a huge black man. He wasn’t young – about as old as my dad. He was brisk, but not unfriendly as we greeted him, and sat facing him across a table. The dispenser delivered a coke for me, barba juice for Hais, and whisky and water for Grenville.

I asked him, “Why did you become an explorer?”

“I started when I finished my training,” he said. “In this college. They wanted me to be an Administrator. An Administrator! I couldn’t stand that! Going where you’re sent. Doing what you’re told. No. I wanted to be my own boss. So I tried exploring. I been doing it ever since.”

“How do you start?” I asked. “Do you get a ship, and set off?”

“Nah. Not if you want to stay on the right side of the law. The college on Wivel 5 does a course for explorers. Then you gotta get a licence.”

“A licence?” I said. “I didn’t know explorers needed a licence.”

“Yeah, an’ they’re hard to get. The Federation doesn’t want any old joe wandering in unknown systems.”

Hais asked, “Don’t others go out? Adventurers and criminals?”

“Criminals!” he said. “Don’t mention them! Folks hear one explorer is crooked, so they reckon all explorers is crooked. Landing on an unknown planet. Smiling to the natives. Stealing anything they can lay their dirty hands on.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I went on a mission to a planet where criminals had cheated the people. We took ages to convince them we were honest.” Since talking about criminals was raising his temper, I said, “It sounds like exploring is a skilled job.”

“It sure is,” he said. “I went out on my first trip, certain-sure I was gonna hit a golden planet.” He laughed. “D’you know how long I took to find my first planet? 481 days! Yeah! 481 days! But I was hooked.”

I said, “Tony – he’s my cousin – says he’d like to try exploring, but I’m sure he would be bored. How long are your usual trips?”

“My last one was about typical – forty-four days out, an’ forty-four days back. Eighty-eight days total.”

“That’s what I mean. Eighty-eight days. Alone?”

“Yeah. Most explorers go alone.”

“Why? Do you like being alone?”

“I guess so. Means you ain’t got nobody to fall out with.”

“I would be bored,” said Hais. “What do you do?”

“Sleep. Eat. An’ I got a little room in my ship fitted out as a gym.”

“Why do you explore?” I asked. “Do you get paid?” I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear what he’d say.

“Paid! The Federation gives a bounty for every planet you discover, but it ain’t much. It hardly covers the cost of the trip.”

“Then why do you do it?” I realised I’d already asked that, so I went on, “I’m sorry to keep asking. I understand you want to be your own master, but you could do that here on Yband 4, without spending eighty-eight days alone in space. Do you like the idea of going where no one has ever been?”

He hesitated, taking a drink of his whisky. “Y…yeah. I guess that’s part of it. Finding a new system. Wondering what’s there.”

“Isn’t it dangerous?” asked Hais. “If your ship breaks down, you’d never be found.”

He shook his head, smiling. “Girl, I tell you; I’m safer in my ship than in this base. I check it between trips. So does every explorer that’s got any sense. Your life depends on it. But them 4D drives never go wrong.”

“What do you do when you reach a new solar system?” I asked. “You don’t land anywhere?”

“Nah,” he said. “I got instruments to check out the planets from the edge of the system. See if any of them’s got the conditions – temperature, atmosphere and gravity – to support life. That’s all the Federation wants to know.”

“You must be tempted to land,” I said. “After forty-four days in the ship, don’t you want to walk around a bit, and see the sky above you, instead of a plastic ceiling?”

As I spoke, he was shaking his head again. “Nah. Nah, girl. That’s against Federation rules. I’ll not say that some don’t do it, but it ain’t worth the risk. You never know what you might meet. Find the planet, an’ scoot. That’s Federation rules, an’ that’s sense. Leave the landing to them that’s paid for it.”

Hais asked, “When do you leave on your next trip?”

“Today,” he answered. “I can’t be doing with living in this base. All them people. I don’t like people.” He smiled. “Except present company, of course. I wouldn’t be here if that mean little rat Zacchaeus didn’t try to cheat me out of the bounty for my last planet. The temperature was fine. The atmosphere was fine. The gravity was 50. Spot on 50. But what did the mean little rat say?” He put on a whiny voice. ‘The rule book says, Gravity over 50. Not 50. Over 50.’”

Back to his own voice. “I asked him, ‘Will you be sending a survey team?’ The cheating rat admitted he would. He still tried to welsh on me, but I spoke to Cabac.”

I asked, “Who are Zacchaeus and Cabac?”

“Zacchaeus is the Federation’s membership officer. Just ‘cos he’s got a title, he thinks he’s king of the Universe. Stuck-up little…. Apologies, ladies. Cabac’s his assistant. He’s a gent. He’s gonna make sure I get my bounty.”

I asked, “Where are you going on your next trip?”

“I got my eye on a little sun, out…. No. I’m keeping that to myself. But I got the feeling it might just have planets.”

“Don’t you ever feel like settling down?” I asked. “Not in a place like this. I’m sure you could find a quiet planet somewhere. Or do you want to be an explorer all your life?”

“It’s the only life,” he said. “I aim to do it another four or five thousand days. I keep hoping I’ll find a planet with nice, easy-going folks. I’ll go to the ceremony when they join the Federation, an’ make sure they know I was the guy that found them.”

“They’ll be grateful,” said Hais.

“They sure will,” he said. “They’ll all want to meet this… this alien that found them. They’ll treat me like a lord. I’ll never have to work again.” He laughed. “All right, girl. I see it in your eyes. If I don’t like people, how could I put up with a life like that? Well, girl, I’ll try. I’ll sure try!”

He was so keen that I couldn’t help smiling. “I do hope you find that planet.”

“Thanks, girl.” He glanced at his wrist unit. “D’you mind if I go now? I gotta collect the stores for my trip.”

“Of course,” I said. “Good luck on your trip, and thank you for your help.” Hais echoed my thanks.

“Glad to oblige two charming young ladies.” He stood, and drained his glass at one gulp. “Be seeing you.” He hurried out.

Hais said, “He was nice.”

“Yes,” I said. “That was much more interesting than the bare information we would have got from Victor.”

3

SURVEY TEAM

I said, “I wonder if we can find someone from a survey team.” We went to an empty office where I asked Victor, “Do you know of anyone on Yband 4 who’s in a survey team?”

“Survey teams work at the edge of the Federation. Do you expect to find a gang of them on Yband 4?”

“I’m not looking for a gang. Just one person who’s been in a survey team.”

“That is not what you asked.”

“Don’t be awkward,” I said. “Has someone on Yband 4 worked with a survey team?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“I cannot tell you that. I cannot give information about agents. You should know that.” I could almost hear the smug triumph in his voice.

Hais said, “Martin could order him to tell us.”

“Martin’s at a meeting,” I said. “Maybe we can find out. There are Scientists in a survey team. Let’s ask in the Science block.”

We wandered in the corridors of the Science block for a while, seeing nothing more interesting than closed doors, before we met an old lady whose uniform had the white bands of a Scientist. I said, “Excuse me. We’re looking for someone who’s been out with a survey team.”

She smiled. “That will be Galileo. One trip with a survey team, and he’s never let us forget it. You’ll find him in Lab 2-17.”

I thanked her, and we moved on, but, when she was out of sight, I stopped. Hais asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve met Galileo. He was the one who tested the Cooco 8 transporter when Tony said there was something wrong with it.”

“Don’t you trust Galileo?”

“I suppose so. He’s honest, but I don’t like him much.”

“Do you want to ask him?”

“Y…yes. We might as well. He can only say no.”

We found Galileo in Lab 2-17, a square room with a bench along one wall, littered with tools and bits of metal. He was a small man, not much taller than me, but stout and balding. He was pottering around the metal shell of a transporter, in the middle of the lab.

When we went into the room, he glanced towards us with a frown, then went on with his work.

We watched for a while in silence, before I said, “I don’t know if you remember me….”

“No.” He spoke English.

“I’m sorry to bother you. I’m trying to find out what a survey team does. I heard you’ve been on one.”

He snapped, “Victor will tell you what a survey team does.”

“I know, but it’s much more interesting from someone who’s actually done it.”

“Humph!” He turned his back on us, took a screwdriver from the bench, and went into the shell of the transporter, where he poked in the top corner. Hais nudged me, and pointed to the door, but I shook my head, and waited.

I was rewarded when Galileo asked, without turning his head. “What do you want to know?” He was wearing a wrist unit, but he didn’t bother using it, so Hais wouldn’t understand what he said.

I swung my own wrist unit in front of my face, so that he couldn’t miss it. “What planet did you survey?”

His left arm stayed at his side. “I didn’t do the survey, but I was with the survey team at Suwelo 5.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t understand. Why were you there if you didn’t do the survey?”

He kept working with the screwdriver. “I’d just finished my training on transporters. A survey team always takes a transporter expert and a geologist.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“No. They speak about the magnificent work done by survey teams, but they never mention that the real work is done by the mugs that go with them. Ah!” A screw came out where he was working.

He went on, “Since you’re here, you can make yourself useful.” He swept his arm across a bit of the bench, clearing the clutter to one side. “Help me lift the top off this thing.” He stepped onto a stool at one side of the transporter, and put his hands at the top corners.

I went round to the other side, where I found another stool. I stood on that and, holding the corners, I helped him lift the roof of the transporter – a metal frame with the ceiling under it. He ordered, “Carry it to the bench. Carefully.”

Hais rushed to help me. It was heavy, but we managed it.

With his hands (and wrist unit) behind his back, Galileo leaned on the bench. “Forty-one days! Forty-one days it took us to reach that planet. Forty-one days in that stinking little ship.” He glared at us as if it was our fault. “We hid behind one of the moons of Suwelo 5 – Suwelo 5-2, if I remember – and they checked the planet for radio signals. Nothing. Not a cheep.”

I said, “That would mean there was no advanced civilisation on the planet.”

“What else would it mean? It did mean we could go into orbit, and take a closer look. Blue and green. That got them bouncing up and down on their stupid butts. They reckoned blue and green could mean intelligent life.”

I asked, “Did it?”

He ignored me. “The blue was sea. The green was trees, and the planet was covered in them. Covered! A hundred million people might’ve been under there, and no one would’ve seen them. After five days – another five days – they spotted something that might be a village on the bank of a river. So they left a satellite to watch that, and moved on. After ten days in orbit, they’d put out five satellites. We retired to Suwelo 5-2, where they hung over their screens, watching the pictures from the satellites, while we hung about in our cabins.

“After another five long days, they decided it was a village. So they gave us orders to set up the transporter on Suwelo 5-2. The geologist and I did that while they sat on their fat butts, drooling over the pictures from the satellites.”

I said, “I didn’t realise the survey team sets up a transporter.”

“Huh!” he said. “The survey team couldn’t set up a deck chair. It’s the mugs that set up the transporter. It did bring us home faster. I couldn’t’ve stood another forty-one days in that ship.” I’ve missed out the word he used to describe the ship.

“That was my first trip with a survey team,” he said. “Do you wonder that it was my last?”

“No,” I said. “It sounds boring.”

“Boring!” he exclaimed. “That doesn’t describe it. Now, if you have no more questions….” He stood.

I asked, “How many people are in a survey team?”

“Two,” he said. “One so-called expert on radio signals, and one so-called expert on spotting traces on the ground.”

“What happened to the transporter you put on Suwelo 5-2?”

“When they were done with it, they would remove it, leaving no trace. Shift it to Suwelo 5 if it was needed there. If not, remove it by ship. I had nothing to do with it. I promised myself I would never go near another survey team. And I’ve kept that promise. Believe me, I’ve kept that promise.”

“What would happen if you found a planet so advanced that it detected you?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care.” He turned to the top of the transporter.

“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful.” But I got no reply. He was too busy, frowning at the top of the transporter. We left quietly.

With Galileo’s door safely shut behind us, I said, “That was interesting.”

Hais asked, “Doesn’t he know it’s rude not to use a wrist unit?”

“He doesn’t care.” I told her what Galileo had said.

 

 

4

SURVEY TEAM PROBLEM

 

Hais said, “That’s an interesting question – what happens if the planet detects the explorer, or the Survey Team?”

“Let’s ask Victor,” I said. “We can use the terminal in the entrance hall.”

I asked him, “Suppose an explorer reaches a solar system, and that system has a planet so advanced that it detects the explorer’s ship.”

Victor said, “An explorer remains at the edge of the solar system, checks the planets quickly, and leaves immediately. Even the most foolish explorer would not linger in a system which is buzzing with radio signals and ships.”

“I know, but he might still be detected. Has that ever happened?”

“I know of three cases when an explorer was detected. In addition, several explorers have gone missing. It is possible that they were detected and detained, but that is not likely.”

“How about Survey Teams? Have they been detected?”

“Survey Teams are ordered to remain unobserved. They conceal their ship on a remote planet or moon. If they believe that their satellites might be detected, they disguise them as lumps of rock.”

“Isn’t there still a chance they may be detected?”

“That is obvious.”

“What happens then?”

“I know of five Survey Teams which have been detected. Shortly after they arrived in a solar system, a planet challenged them by radio.”

“What did they do?”

“They replied, asking permission to send a Contact Team.”

“Were all five planets friendly?”

“Yes.”

“What would happen if a planet wasn’t friendly?”

“That has never happened.”

“I know. You told me. But it might happen.”

“That is unlikely. If the people are warlike, they spend all their money on weapons to kill each other. Only peaceful planets have the time and money to develop the methods for detecting, signalling and reaching an alien ship that appears in their system.”

“But – a warlike planet might attack a Survey Team. What would the Survey Team do?”

“They have instructions – which are confidential.”

“Would they…?” But I stopped. I said to Hais, “He would never tell us.”

She said, “I wonder what they would do.”

“They would try to escape. If they got into 4D, they’d be safe.”

“An advanced planet might shoot at them before they got into 4D.”

“Or capture them. That could be more serious. At home on Earth, I saw a film about that. If the aliens captured a ship, they could learn about the Federation from its Victor. That would also tell them about 4D travel. Not good, if these aliens were warlike.”

“Perhaps the Survey Team ship would blow up automatically if it’s captured. Galileo didn’t mention that.”

“If they had any sense, they wouldn’t tell him.”

 

5

CONTACT TEAM

 

I said, “I wonder if we can speak to someone from a Contact Team. I know one – an Administrator called Angela.”

Hais said, “It’d do no harm to call her and ask.”

I said, “Victor, would you ask agent Angela if she would be kind enough to meet me?”

As we waited for the reply, Hais asked, “May I come with you?”

“Of course. I’d be glad of your company. Do you really want to?”

“Yes. We’ve met interesting people.” Her mind signal isn’t strong, but I sensed she meant it. She wasn’t doing it just to please me.

Victor reported, “Angela can meet you in 55% on Yero 11. She regrets that she has not time to come here, because she is preparing for a mission.”

“Tell her we’ll be happy to see her in 55% on Yero 11.”

We had to get up early next morning, to take the shuttle and transporters to Yero 11. Angela was waiting for us in the communication centre. She’s about 35, white-skinned and dark-haired, with a friendly smile. The purple band of her uniform had her name and rank – Angela 669.

She said, “Hello, Bea. It’s nice to see you again.”

“It’s nice to see you,” I said. “This is Hais.” After they’d swopped hellos, I went on, “Thank you for seeing us. We’re trying to find out how a planet joins the Federation. We hoped you might tell us what the Contact Team does.”

“I’ll be happy to do that. You’re lucky to catch me. I leave on a mission tomorrow. The base commander says we can use the social area. Come through there.”

When Hais and I were sitting on the big, U-shaped settee, Angela said, “I’ll get something to drink.” She went into the base, and came back with three glasses containing a pale green liquid. “That’s chilled yeroberry juice. It’s all I could get here, and I thought you’d want something after your trip.”

“Thanks very much,” I said. The yeroberry juice tasted like lemon – sour, but refreshing if you took a little sip at a time.

Angela sat on the settee facing us. “I’m happy to help, after what you did for me on Eppe 4. Now, what do you want to know?”

“We’ve heard what a Survey Team does,” I said. “We want to find out about the Contact Team. How many people are in it?”

“Two. An Administrator, who is leader, and a Negotiator.”

“How do you know where to go?”

That made her smile. “We’re sent. Zacchaeus sends us. The survey team has discovered intelligent life on the planet. They set up a transporter in the same system, and leave a ship. It’s our job to make first contact with the people.”

I asked, “How do you do that if you don’t know the language?” I quickly added, “I’m sorry to ask. I know the general idea, but I’d be grateful if you would explain.”

“It’s no trouble,” she said. “I’m glad you’re interested. If the civilisation is advanced enough to have radio, it’s easy. The survey team’s Victor listens, and soon learns the language. I’m glad to say that’s the case for this coming mission. If we’re lucky, the Survey Team can tell us where the planet’s leaders live. We radio down a message, telling them we come in friendship, and asking permission to land.”

Hais said, “That must be a surprise to them.”

She smiled. “Yes. Most of them agree. Some need time to decide.”

“Aren’t you worried that they might let you land, so that they can shoot you, or kidnap you?”

“That seldom happens. It’s nearly 40 000 days since a Contact Team was lost. A planet would have to be pretty brave to shoot up a visitor from space. We can usually tell. Some leaders call up their troops by radio – which we can hear. With some, you can guess by the tone of the voice. Some don’t answer. That may show they’re worried, but they may also be wary.”

“How do you tell?”

“We don’t worry. We send down a second message, repeating that we come in friendship. We would like to land and greet them. If they agree, they should signal on any radio band.”

Hais asked, “Does that encourage them to reply?”

“Sometimes. If they don’t reply, we send a third message, repeating our request, and saying that, if they don’t reply in one day, we’ll go away, and not trouble them.”

“Do they reply to that?”

“Not very often. They usually respond to the first or second message. If they don’t reply to the third one, refuse permission to land, or give a hostile response, we do go. Is that what you wanted to know?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s exactly right, thanks. What do you do if they don’t have radio?”

She smiled. “Then the Contact Team has a bit more work. We land beside the leader’s palace, or castle, or temple, or wherever he lives. Near enough to walk, but not near enough to cause damage, or appear threatening. We don’t give him time to worry. As soon as we land, we leave the ship, and head for the palace.”

Hais asked, “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“I suppose some savage might throw a spear, but that’s never happened to me. We take the people by surprise. The ship appears. We emerge from it, in our expedition suits and helmets. On my first few missions, my hand was on my stun-gun as I made first contact, but now I don’t bother. We act friendly, and, if they respond, we bring out the lales.”

“Lales?” Hais and I made a chorus.

She laughed. “I’m sorry. Lales are language learners. Robots which learn the language, by talking to the natives. They’re about this size.” She waved her hands to show something about the size of a laptop. “They have a camera eye, a screen and a speaker. We put one in front of their leader, or wise man, or witch doctor, or whatever, and leave them to it. The natives may be suspicious at first, but they soon start to chatter. I think they enjoy it. They must realise what it’s doing, but they’re keen to help.”

Hais asked, “Doesn’t it take a long time for the… the lale to learn the language?”

“That depends. If the natives agree, we bring out more lales. We can use up to forty, controlled by the ship’s Victor. With that number, it can learn the language in less than 16%. During that time, Federation rules say that the Contact Team must stand by, looking friendly. That’s one of the most tiring parts of the job.”

We made sympathetic noises.

She smiled. “It’s particularly wearisome when you have one old man who insists on doing it all. I had one like that, and Victor took twelve days to learn the language and, even then, he had only the basics. When he has learned the language, he programs wrist units, so that we can speak to the leaders.”

“What do you say?”

“Not much, after all the preparations. First, we tell them a little about the Federation, and ask if they want to hear more.”

Hais asked, “Don’t they all say yes?”

“Not all,” said Angela. “I’ve had one refusal. I thanked him for his help, and left. For those who agree, I say I’ll bring a team to tell them about the Federation, so that they can decide if they want to join. That’s the Assessment Team.”

 6

ASSESSMENT TEAM

 

I said, “Tony and I went with your Assessment Team to Eppe 4.”

“Yes,” she said. “During the Contact Team visit, their leaders seemed anxious to help, but I was suspicious of some of them. I asked for a good thought-senser to go with the Assessment Team. I’m glad I did.”

I said, “Apart from us, there were six in your team. Is that the usual number?”

“Yes. An Assessment Team usually has six members. Its leader is the Administrator who led the Contact Team. She goes because the planet’s leaders know her – and they trust her, we hope. Most of the work is done by the four new members – Negotiators. They deal with politics, education, money, and law. The Negotiator from the Contact Team also goes, to deal with transport and communication.”

I commented, “It’s a big job.” I took a sip from my glass. The yeroberry juice was sour.

“It is, but these Negotiators are experts. They know exactly what to do. The learn about the planet, and tell its leaders about the Federation. If the planet provides different experts to speak to each Negotiator, the visit goes quite quickly. If the planet has a single leader who insists on doing it all himself, it can take forever.”

“How long does it usually take?”

“With five local leaders, working hard, it can be done in eight days. Usually it’s twelve or fourteen. The longest I’ve taken is 31, but the record is 248.”

Seeing us smiling, she said, “Yes. 248. One old man insisted on doing it all himself, at 8% per day. After the 248 days, the Assessment Team were ready to strangle him. But his planet did join.”

“Do they all join?”

“Not all. After the information has been exchanged, the Assessment Team has to decide whether to invite the planet to join. That decision’s usually easy.”

“What if it’s not?”

“The Assessment Team has a private meeting. If one member is sure the planet should not be invited to join, she explains her reasons to the others.”

“Fighting among the natives?” asked Hais.

“Occasionally. More often, it’s human rights. There’s not much difference between a servant and a slave. The Federation is tolerant, but…. If the other members of the team agree that the planet should not be invited to join, it’s the leader’s job to tell the local rulers, and explain why.”

“If there’s doubt?” I asked, taking another (small) sip of the yeroberry juice.

“If there are problems, the team leader explains them to the planet’s leaders. Usually, they’re keen to clear them up. Sometimes, they can do it immediately, in which case the leader issues the invitation to join. More often, they need time. The Assessment Team will go back later. If everything’s OK then, the invitation is given.”

“That must please the planet’s leaders,” said Hais.

“Yes,” said Angela. “Most of them are keen to join the Federation. They realise how useful it would be. Some accept on the spot. Others call council meetings, or let the people vote. No one’s ever refused my invitation, but it does happen occasionally.”

“What would you do then?”

“We’d thank them for their co-operation, and leave. Every willing member strengthens the Federation, but it must be their own decision.”

Hais asked, “What happens when a planet doesn’t join the Federation? I know that no one is allowed to go near it.”

“That’s right. How near depends on the level of civilisation of the planet. If it’s simple, you mustn’t land on the planet, but you can visit the rest of its solar system. If the planet has limited space travel – say satellites in orbit – you can visit the rest of the solar system if you take care not to be detected. If it has travel within its system, that system is out of bounds to everyone in the Federation, although you can bet that the local commander keeps a close watch on it.”

I asked, “What if the planet’s people can travel outside their system?”

“That can’t really be done, without a 4D drive.”

I said, “We went on a mission to a ship with a 4D drive – the Wanderer.”

“Yes. That was quite a sensation. Its 4D drive was similar to the Federation’s. As far as we know, the 4D drive has only been invented by three separate people. The time may come when we meet warlike people with 4D drive, but it hasn’t come yet. Have you been to a joining ceremony – when a planet officially joins the Federation?”

“No,” I said. “We were invited to the Eppe 4 one, but we were away on another mission at the time. Tony was sorry we missed it. I think he fancied Euax, their queen.”

“The speeches are usually long and boring.” She smiled. “That includes mine. But I feel proud when I look around, and know I’ve helped these people, and the Federation.”

I asked, “Is that why you do it?”

“I suppose it is. When I completed my training, I went as base commander to a planet called Goutwin 7. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of it. No? No one’s heard of it. It was a pleasant place, and the people were friendly, but I wasn’t really doing much. After about a thousand days, I volunteered for Assessment Team work, and that’s what I’ve been doing since. It’s harder, but more satisfying. I’m sorry; you don’t want to hear about me.”

“We do,” I said. “It’s interesting. I thought I knew about Contact and Assessment Teams, but you’ve told us so much more than we learned during our training. Thank you very much for your time and trouble.”

“It’s no trouble. I’ve enjoyed meeting you again. I don’t know what happens after a planet’s joined. I report to Zacchaeus. You’d have to ask him.”

“Should we ask Zacchaeus?” I asked. “We heard that he’s… fussy.”

She laughed. “He is fussy. He’s one of those little men who always seem busy, but never do much. I’m sorry; forget I said that. I suspect that Cabac, his assistant, does most of the work. He’s the one you should see, but you’ll offend Zacchaeus if you don’t ask him.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And thanks again for all your help. It’s been very interesting and useful. I’m sorry I haven’t finished the yeroberry juice. It’s… it’s quite strong.”

Hais thanked her too, and we left.

 

7

MEMBERSHIP OFFICER

 

Back on Yband 4, I asked Hais, “Well, do we go to see Zacchaeus?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “I’d like to meet him. He can only say no. He can’t eat us.”

“He may try.” I asked, “Victor, would you ask Zacchaeus if Hais and Bea can see him?”

“Zacchaeus sees no one without an appointment.”

“How do we get a appointment?”

“Ask Zacchaeus’s assistant, Cabac.”

“Then would you ask Cabac if we can have an appointment to see Zacchaeus?”

After a few seconds, we had an answer. “Cabac will see you in his office – 14-01 in Block 35.”

I said, “Would you thank Cabac, and tell him we’re on our way?”

As we stood nervously outside Cabac’s office door. I whispered, “What do you think he’ll be like?”

Hais smiled. “There’s an easy way to find out. Go on.”

“All right. Open.”

Cabac’s office had the usual U of seats facing Victor’s screen. Cabac was standing on the command chair. His body was a short cylinder with four stumpy legs. They could bend in all directions, so they probably didn’t have bones: they were more like thick tentacles. His arms, four of them, higher on the cylinder, were certainly more like tentacles – long and bendy, forking into three fingers at the ends. Above them were four eyes, one looking in each direction. The top of his body, the part we could see, was dark brown and leathery. The rest was hidden in an Administrator’s uniform. Its purple band had, “Cabac 585,” in Federation letters and numbers. His mind signal was weak, but I was relieved to sense he was kind.

I said to him, “I’m Bea, and this is Hais. May we see Zacchaeus?”

An arm swung up, taking a wrist unit to his mouth, in the top of his head. “Why do you wish to see Zacchaeus?”

“We’re finding out how planets join the Federation. We were told that Zacchaeus can tell us what happens after a planet has joined.”

“Zacchaeus is free at present, but he has an appointment at 31%. For how long do you wish to see him?”

I glanced at my wrist unit. 29.8%. “Not long. If he could see us before that appointment, we’d be very grateful.”

“I shall ask. Please wait here.” Using two arms, he vaulted down from the chair, and left the office. In a few seconds, he was back. He jumped onto the chair before telling us, “Zacchaeus will see you now. He is next door, in Office 14-02.”

“Thank you.” As we stood outside Zacchaeus’s door, Hais was behind me. I said, “It was you who said we should see Zacchaeus.”

She smiled. “Yes.”

“Yet you leave me to face him first.”

Her smile grew. “Yes.”

“You know what you are. A chicken.” I faced the door, and took a deep breath. “Open.”

This was another office, but the ceiling was dim, and a sour smell, like stale sweat, hung in the air.

Zacchaeus was human-like, but I wouldn’t have known it when I first saw him. He looked like a toad, hunched in the command chair. He was short and fat, with a wrinkled face. Beady black eyes peered between folds of skin. Dark grey hair fringed a bald patch. He wore a black tracksuit, not a uniform. He barked, not in English, into a wrist unit, “Close the door.”

Behind me, Hais gave the order.

I wondered if we should sit. He seemed the kind of person who would want people to stand in his presence. I opened my mouth to ask….

He announced, “It cannot be done.”

I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“Did I not make myself clear? It cannot be done.”

“We want to ask you….”

“Do you not hear me? Permission is refused. You may go.”

“I think there’s a misunderstanding. I’m Bea, and this is Hais. We….”

“Bea? Hais? Are you not…? Victor, whom am I expecting?”

His Victor answered, “Verdiat-Quoomque-Yellaw and Verdiat-Quoomque-Badta.”

Zacchaeus asked, “Are you not Ver… those people?”

“No. We’re agents. We….”

“Then why are you here?”

“We came to ask you….”

“I expected Ver… two others. They have an appointment at 31%.”

“We know. We hoped you might be kind enough to see us before then.”

“No. Out of the question. It is already 30.4%. See Cabac. He will make an appointment. I may have time to see you in ten or eleven days. Now you may go.”

Out in the corridor, Hais said, “What a strange person. He won’t help us.”

“No, but we’ve got what I hope we need – his order to see Cabac.”

8

COMMUNICATION

 

We went back to Cabac’s office, where I told him, “Zacchaeus suggested we should see you.”

“Please be seated. How may I help you?”

“We want to know what you do when an assessment team leader tells you a planet has joined the Federation.”

“That depends on the planet,” he said. “First, we arrange communication with it. Some planets want a terminal of Victor, some want a transporter, but most want both. For them, we must set up a communication centre. The planet provides the room. It should be on rock, so that we can fit the transporter. We….”

The door hummed open, and two square, four-wheeled trolleys rolled in, each carrying a grey plastic cylinder. The top was about level with my shoulders, and my hands might have met if I’d put my arms round it. Not that I’d want to put my arms round them. Those cylinders are designed to protect people who can’t live in our conditions. Usually, they need higher temperatures, but some can’t breathe the air, and some have trouble with gravity. The cylinders have camera eyes. The people inside communicate through wrist units. I sensed these ones were intelligent, and they thought they were important.

One interrupted Cabac. “Verdiat-Quoomque-Yellaw and Verdiat-Quoomque-Badta to see Zacchaeus.”

“Welcome,” said Cabac. “I shall tell Zacchaeus that you are here.” He jumped down, left the office, and soon came back, saying, “Zacchaeus will see you now. His office is next door – 14-02.”

When the door shut behind them, he jumped onto his seat, saying, “I fear that will be a short meeting.”

“Yes,” I said. “Zacchaeus mistook us for them, and refused.”

“It is unfortunate. Three planets in the Verdiat system are inhabited – Verdiat 2, Verdiat 14, and Verdiat 31. The only link from the system to the rest of the Federation is a transporter from Verdiat 14 to Nu-Trickler 12. These people are from Verdiat 2. If they wish to leave the system, they must transport to Verdiat 14 first. They have come to request a direct transporter link to Nu-Trickler 12. Zacchaeus will not approve it. He considers it unnecessary, and he is right. Now, where were we?”

“You were telling us about setting up a communication centre.”

“Yes. Most new planets choose to start with a transporter, and a terminal of Victor.”

I asked, “Why don’t planets have more than one communication centre?” I added, “I think I know the reason, but I’d be glad if you would explain.”

“That is no trouble. All planets have one communication centre, through which everyone must enter or leave the planet. That is Federation policy. It means that the Federation – and the planet’s rulers – can check who comes and goes.”

Hais said, “We sometimes see guards in communication centres.”

“Guards?” said Cabac. “Federation leaders would not approve of that. They may be receptionists, to welcome and assist visitors.”

“Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference,” I said. “We….”

The door opened, and I sensed the anger from the two cylinders as they trundled in. One of them said, “He refused! He would not even discuss it!”

“That is most unfortunate,” said Cabac. “I suspected that he might refuse. Perhaps I can assist you.”

“You? How can you assist us?”

“I understand that you wish a transporter link between your own planet and Nu-Trickler 12.”

“We demand such a link. We will not be obliged to Verdiat 14 for our access to the Federation.”

“I understand. As Zacchaeus has told you, the Federation will not pay for such a link. But, if you were willing to pay some of the cost, I feel sure I could obtain a grant for the rest.”

“Pay? We are willing and able to pay for such a link.”

“I suspected you might, but I can obtain a grant if you wish. In that case I can approve the project immediately.”

“You? Can you approve it?”

“Yes. Zacchaeus only deals with projects funded by the Federation. I have other sources.”

“I thank you. It has been a pleasure dealing with you.”

“I am always pleased to help. I shall ask the engineers to contact you about the fitting.”

“I thank you.”

“It is no trouble. I bid you good day.”

As the two trolleys rolled out of the room, he remarked to us, “I can usually do something to help. I apologise for that interruption.”

“Not at all,” I said. “It was interesting to watch you at work. But they made me think – how would a planet like Verdiat 2 join the Federation? The conditions must cause trouble for the contact and assessment teams.”

“They do indeed. We have a special team which visits such planets. They spend much of their time in protective gear. It is not a job which I would enjoy.”

“Nor me,” said Hais. “Can’t they send a team from a planet with similar conditions?”

“That would be a good idea, but such visitors would not have the skills of the Negotiators.”

I said, “Cabac, you were telling us that planets have only one communication centre.”

“That is so. It may start as a simple room with a transporter and a terminal of Victor, but its size may grow. If a planet is discovered beyond it, we may ask permission to install a transporter to that. In time, the communication centre may have a number of transporters and perhaps shuttles.”

“Some communication centres are busy,” said Hais.

“Indeed they are,” agreed Cabac. “That usually shows that the planet is active in the Federation. Some planets trade with others. Their people visit other planets, and welcome visitors from them. That seldom results in an increase in the number of transporters, but it does make the communication centre busier. When that happens, the Federation may request permission to establish a base on the planet. No doubt you have visited planetary bases.”

I nodded. “We’ve seen a few. I hadn’t realised that’s why they’re set up.”

“Yes. The base has an office, for a Federation commander who helps the natives to deal with other planets. The base also provides accommodation for visitors, especially agents.”

Hais said, “During our missions, we’ve stayed in planets’ bases.”

“No doubt,” he said. “They are convenient. But they can cause problems if a planet leaves the Federation.”

“Oh!” I said. “I hoped to find out about planets leaving the Federation.”

 

9

LEAVING THE FEDERATION

 

Cabac said, “It is part of Zacchaeus’s job, and therefore mine, to deal with planets that leave the Federation.”

“Then could you spare a moment to tell us about that?”

“I would be happy to do so,” he said. “I welcome the chance of speaking about my work. So few people seem interested in it.”

I asked, “Do a lot of planets leave the Federation?”

“I only have data for this sector,” said Cabac. “Do you know how many planets are in this sector?”

“Over eight thousand,” I said.

“8544,” he told us. “In the last 10 000 days, only eleven planets have left this sector. Can you suggest the two basic reasons?”

I answered, “I suppose some choose to leave, and some are thrown out.”

“That is correct. A good answer.”

Hais asked, “Do many choose to leave? It does a planet no harm to be a member, and it may do a lot of good.”

“Sometimes a new leader comes to power on a planet, proclaiming that they should be their own masters: they shouldn’t have to follow rules made on some distant planet. He conveniently forgets that the Federation’s only rule is that a planet should live in peace.”

Hais asked, “How many planets have left for that reason?”

“One,” he answered.

“When it left, what did you do?”

“We had to remove all communication with the Federation. I sent a team of Scientists to remove the transporter, and the terminal of Victor. Of course, we didn’t forget the planet. We watched it from space. A few days ago, the watchers received a message. The planet wished to rejoin the Federation.”

Hais asked, “Did the Federation take it back?”

“Yes, happily – although I fear the happiness was not shared by Zacchaeus. Sorry! Of course Zacchaeus was happy to welcome the planet back into the Federation. He did not welcome the work it needed. However, it’s all part of a membership officer’s duties.” Cabac sighed. No doubt Zacchaeus did all the complaining, while Cabac did all the work.

Hais asked, “The other ten?”

“They were expelled for fighting. No doubt you wish to know how we deal with them.”

“If you would be so kind,” I said.

“Nine were expelled when fighting broke out on them. Serious fighting – enough to be called war. When the local Federation commander learns of that – from an agent or a native – he contacts the planet’s leaders, offering to provide Negotiators, or otherwise help to restore peace.”

Hais asked, “Do many of them accept?”

“Not many, I fear.”

I said, “At the beginning of a war, at least one side will be keen to fight.”

“No doubt. If the offer has no effect, the commander contacts the planet’s leaders again, saying that their planet will be expelled from the Federation if the fighting doesn’t stop.”

“I wouldn’t expect that to do much good,” said Hais. “They’ll be too busy fighting to bother about that.”

“You are correct,” said Cabac. “That warning seldom has any effect, but it must be given. If the fighting continues, the commander tells the leaders that the planet is no longer a member of the Federation.”

“What do you do then?” I asked.

“We must still stop all communication with the Federation, but I cannot risk sending a team of Scientists to a warring planet. I order the other terminals of transporters to be blocked, and block communication with the Victor. Shuttle lines cause the greatest trouble. They must be rerouted round the planet.”

“They may be needed again, if the fighting stops,” said Hais.

“Perhaps,” he said. “After a planet has been at war, it is not readily readmitted to the Federation. It must apply, and show that it can live in peace for a sufficient time.”

“How long?” I asked.

“That depends on the amount of fighting. Some planets must wait 1000 days, but 4000 is more common. One…. No. I shan’t name it. It was ordered to wait for 10 000 days. That time is not yet over.”

Hais asked, “How many of the planets have rejoined?”

“Of the nine planets, six have applied to rejoin. Two have been accepted, and the others are still waiting. Two of them will not be accepted for a long time, because the fighting broke out again.”

 

10*

A JOB

“Ten planets were expelled for fighting,” I said. “In nine of them, the fighting was on the planet. What about the other one?”

“The other one threatened another planet. My daughter….” He stopped, as an idea exploded into his mind. He stared at us, with hope growing.

Hais couldn’t sense that, but she couldn’t help noticing he’d stopped. She asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Girls,” said Cabac slowly. “Would you like to speak to a base commander? She could tell you what she would do if another planet threatened one of the planets in her care. At the same time, you could relieve a father’s mind.”

Hais asked, “What do you mean?”

“My daughter, Miyim, is commander of the Federation base on Ikutiki 4.” I sensed the pride in his mind.

He explained, “When she completed her training, she became an Administrator, and was appointed assistant commander of the big base on Chuindo 5. The commander was so impressed with her work that he recommended she should be given command of a base, although she was much younger than most base commanders.

“About 150 days ago, she was appointed commander of the base on Ikutiki 4, at the edge of the Federation.

“Then, 83 days ago, one of the planets in her charge, Ikutiki 2, was threatened by a gang of criminals. If you wish, I’m sure Miyim would tell you about that.”

“And?” I prompted.

“I shall be honest with you, girls. Miyim fears that the same threat may return. She asked for assistance from the Investigators’ commander.”

“Wellington,” I said.

“Wellington,” he agreed, and I sensed the dislike in his mind. “Miyim had no evidence. She had only the fear that the criminals would return. Wellington refused to help her.”

“That’s a shame,” I said.

“I requested time off, so that I could be with her. Zacchaeus refused. I was considering whether I should go without leave, but I could give her little help. Would you go to see Miyim? I would be so relieved to know that two capable agents are with her.”

Hais asked, “Why does your daughter think the crooks will come back?”

“The explanation is complicated. I would rather leave her to explain.”

Hais frowned. “You can’t expect us to go without knowing what to expect.”

“You are right. I apologise. I shall tell you what she told me.”

 

 11*

BRIEFING

I said, “Could we set up a direct link with your daughter? We can’t go without telling Martin, our leader, so perhaps we could include him.”

Cabac said, “That is an excellent idea.” In a short time, he arranged the link-up through Victor, although Miyim was so far away that we had to wait a few seconds for her replies. She had a young girl’s voice.

She ordered, “Victor, show the surface of Ikutiki 2 around the Temple of Ikutiki.”

The picture came up on Cabac’s screen. It looked like flat farmland with small fields – and a huge peak of bare, cream-coloured rock.

Miyim ordered, “Show us a closer picture of the temple.”

The rock peak filled the screen. Miyim explained, “The natives have carved their temple from the summit of that peak.” The top of the peak was like a cooking pot (without a lid). They’d left a rim round the edge, as the wall of the temple.

Miyim went on, “Do you see the courtyard at the bottom? The small patch, with the low wall round it. You may just see the stairs, going up the rock from there to the temple.”

I asked, “How many steps?”

“One thousand and twenty. Ten for every day in the Ikutiki 2 year.”

“Gosh!” said Hais. (That’s how my wrist unit translated what she said.) “Over a thousand steps. I hadn’t realised the size of that peak.”

I commented, “The steps look like a narrow strip of wrinkles.”

Miyim said, “The local tribe has a jewel, which they call the Eye of Ikutiki. It is as big as a human head, and as clear as water. On the day before midsummer day, the ten priests of Ikutiki take it out of its vault in the palace. They carry it up the steps, and place it on the altar which you may see in the middle of the temple.” I could just make it out – a round stone table.

Miyim went on, “The priests come down, and fast overnight. Before dawn on midsummer morning, they return to the temple, and take their places round the sides, facing the Eye of Ikutiki on the altar. One side of the temple has a narrow vertical slot. When the sun, Ikutiki, rises on midsummer day, its rays shine through that slot, and fall on the Eye of Ikutiki, which scatters them as ten bright beams, which fall on the ten priests. They believe that these beams bless them for the rest of the year.

“Then the priests carry the Eye of Ikutiki down the steps, and return it to the vault. While the Eye of Ikutiki is in the vault, thieves would have difficulty reaching it, but, for the night before midsummer day, it is left in the temple. The only guards are two priests, outside the gate of the courtyard.

“Last year, thieves landed in a spaceship in the courtyard. They went up the steps, and stole the Eye of Ikutiki. They can’t have seen the two priests. While the thieves were up at the temple, those priests fetched help. When the two thieves came down with the jewel, a mob of natives swarmed over the courtyard wall, and attacked them. The thieves had nerve-guns, but the natives were desperate to save their jewel. When the natives captured the two thieves, the ship took off.”

Cabac commented, “The captured thieves were questioned, but claimed to know nothing of who had hired them.”

Miyim said, “Ikutiki 2 has a short year. Its 102 days are about the same length as 83 Federation days. Tomorrow is midsummer day, and I fear that the thieves may return. Having learned from last year’s failure, they may try again, with more success.”

Martin asked, “Do you think they’ll come? How likely is it?”

After the delay, Miyim’s answer came. “I cannot tell. Sometimes, I remember the great value of the Eye of Ikutiki. Greedy men might take risks to steal it. I fear they will return. At other times, I hope that, having failed last time, the thieves will not dare to return. That is what Wellington appears to believe.”

Cabac growled, “While he is safe in his office on Yband 4.”

Hais asked, “Can’t the priests take the jewel with them when they go up before dawn?”

Miyim said, “I did not even suggest that, because the priests would have refused. They believe that the Eye of Ikutiki must lie on the altar to absorb the blessing of Ikutiki. Otherwise, it would not bless them.”

Cabac asked, “Girls, now that you have heard Miyim’s trouble, would you be kind enough to help her?”

“I would like to,” I said. “If Martin doesn’t mind.”

“Go ahead,” he said. “I needn’t tell you to take care.”

I asked, “Hais, do you want to come?”

Hais grinned. “Do you expect me to refuse? Miyim, what’s the time on Ikutiki 2?”

“It is late in the day. It will be dark there in 6%. That’s 6% of a Federation day.”

“6%!” I said. “We’ll have to hurry. Miyim, what’s the climate on Ikutiki 2 like?”

“Ikutiki 2 is warm during the day, but cold at night.”

“Then we ought to wear expedition suits. We can use the night-vision screens in the peaks of the helmets. We’d better go now. We’ll be with you as soon as we can.”

Miyim said, “I shall meet you in the Ikutiki 4 communication centre, and have a ship ready. No ship is based here, but we are lucky. An explorer’s ship is at our spaceport. I shan’t enjoy asking him to let us use it. He is rather large and rather grim, and he intends to leave soon.”

I said, “He shouldn’t complain. Remind him that the Federation will pay him well for the use of his ship. We’re on our way.” We said quick goodbyes to Cabac and Martin, and left them to break the connections.

12*

A MEETING

A shuttle, then four transporters, took us to the communication centre on Ikutiki 4. Like most big communication centres, its waiting room had the entrance to a town at one side, and a door to the planet’s surface at the other. Unlike most big communication centres, it was quiet. One person was in it, on the seat beside the door to the planet’s surface.

That had to be Miyim. She was the same shape as her father – four stumpy legs at the bottom, and four long bendy arms near the top. But her skin was paler brown, and less wrinkled. The purple band on her clean uniform had, “Miyim 353”. She looked small in the big, empty waiting room.

As soon as we appeared, she ran across to us, and her relief was so strong that I sensed it. She spoke into a wrist unit. “Greetings, Bea, Hais. Welcome to Ikutiki 4. Thank you for coming.”

“Hi, Miyim,” I said. “We’re happy to help. Have you heard from Ikutiki 2?”

“No. The leader has not used the emergency alarm.”

“Good. If the thieves are coming, we should be there before them. Is the ship ready?”

“Yes. As I expected, the explorer was angry when I told him we needed his ship. It is out here.” She led us out, to the planet’s surface, to a spaceport with only two landing sites. One was occupied by a ship – a black box about the size of a cottage.

As we hurried across its entrance hall to the control room, I sensed that Miyim was nervous about facing the explorer – and I admit that she wasn’t the only one. She went into the control room, saying, “The agents are here. We can leave now.”

“At last! D’you think I got nothing better to do than…. You!”

I’d recognised the voice, so I wasn’t taken completely by surprise. “Grenville! I didn’t expect to see you again.”

“An’ I didn’t expect to see you two. What’s all this about? I got better things to do than chase across this crummy system.”

“It’s an emergency,” I said. “We have to go to Ikutiki 2 urgently.”

“That’s fine for you, but I’m losing exploring time.”

I had an idea. I put out a hand towards Miyim. “Grenville, do you know who this is?”

“She’s a little squirt that thinks she’s the lord of the universe because she’s the commander of a crummy little base at the back of nowhere.”

I tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t. When he finished, I said, “She is also Cabac’s daughter.”

“Cabac’s daughter!” He bowed to Miyim. “I do apologise, miss. Why didn’t you tell me? Your father’s a great man. A true gent. I hope you’ll forgive me talking out of turn. I’m just a humble explorer, with a big mouth.”

“Forget it, Grenville,” said Miyim. “I’m glad you like my father. I’ll forgive you if you take us quickly to Ikutiki 2.”

“I’ll do that, miss. I may be a humble explorer, but you won’t find a better pilot in the Galaxy. Are you ready to go?”

“Has your Victor received the data I sent from the base?”

“Yep. You wanna go into orbit round Ikutiki 2, above that peak thing. I already gave Victor the orders. We’re on our way.” The outer door hummed shut, and I felt the twist inside, showing we’d taken off into the fourth dimension for the flight.

 

13

PLANNING*

Miyim asked, “Bea, what do you intend to do when we reach Ikutiki 2?”

“I think we should land in the courtyard at the bottom of the peak. Do the natives know you?”

“They would recognise me.”

“When we land, would you go out, and tell them we’re friends? We’ve come to guard their jewel.”

“I shall do that.”

“Hais and I will walk up to the temple, and hide there. OK, Hais?”

Hais smiled, and said a quiet, “Yes.”

Miyim asked, “Can’t we hide behind the courtyard wall? That’s what the natives did, before they rescued the jewel.”

“The ship would be out of stun-gun range from that wall. I don’t fancy the climb to the temple, but it’s our best chance. Do you want to come with us?”

“No. I am not good on steps.”

“When Hais and I are far enough up the steps to be out of sight, you can take the ship away, up into orbit.”

“Why don’t we leave it in the courtyard? The thieves couldn’t land, because there is not room for two ships.”

“I think we should let the thieves land in the courtyard. Then we’ll know where they are. If they land somewhere else, we don’t know what they may do.”

Miyim said, “Do you intend to capture the ship?”

“I’m not sure we should try.”

Hais said, “I have an idea. It might work.”

“I can guess what you mean,” I said. “It’s a trick Tony’s used, but it’s risky. If we catch any thieves in the temple, we can decide then.”

Miyim said, “You might go near enough to note the ship’s number.”

“If it has one,” said Grenville. “Crooks paint the number out, or put on a false one.”

I said, “It’s not vital that we capture the ship. Our main job is to guard the jewel. If you have two attacks in two years, even Wellington will give you protection in future.”

When no one spoke, I asked, “Does everyone know the plans? Any questions?”

Again, no one spoke.

14

THREAT

 

“Miyim,” I said, “Hais and I are finding out about the Federation. Your dad said you could tell us what a base commander does when she receives an emergency signal from one of her planets.”

Miyim said, “But… we are on our way to a mission which may be dangerous.”

I asked, “Grenville, how long until we reach Ikutiki 2?”

“2% into orbit. You’ll be down in that courtyard in 3%.”

I said, “We’ve made our plans, Miyim. Can’t we use the time, during the flight?”

“You are so calm. I’m so nervous that I can hardly think.”

“We’re nervous too. Don’t think we’re not. But we can’t do any more. The discussion might help us to forget our nerves.”

“I am willing to try. Perhaps we could use the entrance hall.”

“Stop here if you want,” said Grenville. “I wouldn’t mind hearing it too.”

Hais gave Grenville a sweet smile. “May we get something from the dining room? Bea and I haven’t eaten for a while.”

“Sure,” said Grenville. “Dining room’s in the usual place. Help yourselves, but don’t take all the whisky.”

We agreed on four toffee sundaes. Hais and I went for them, then we settled in the control room. Grenville was in the command chair, with Miyim on the settee at his right. Hais and I were facing her, on the settee at Grenville’s left.

Miyim shovelled a spoonful of the toffee sundae into her mouth, in the top of her body. “I do like this. Thank you for suggesting it. What do you want to know?”

“Can you tell us what a base commander does when she receives an emergency message from one of her planets?”

Miyim took another spoonful of sundae to give herself time to think. “A planet can have two kinds of trouble. Trouble on the planet itself, or trouble from outside. First, I’ll tell you how I would deal with trouble on a planet. If the planet has a terminal of Victor, someone uses it to call me, and explain the trouble. I arrange help.”

“What kind of help?”

“Whatever’s needed. The Federation has emergency teams, always ready. They help at natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods. While I was on Chuindo 5, I had a message from Reya 6. A tornado had hit one of their islands. Their transporter was working, so a Federation team was on Reya 6 in less than 8%. If a planet doesn’t have a transporter, or if its transporter’s damaged, the rescue team must go by ship. That takes longer. Do you know what I would do if there was the threat of war on a planet?”

“Your dad told us,” I said. “You’d offer to send Negotiators.” Looking down, I saw my sundae was melting. I’d been so busy listening to Miyim that I hadn’t been eating it. I took a spoonful.

Miyim took a spoonful herself, and went on, “Then I’ll tell you how I would deal with a threat from outside the planet. For that, I rely on Victor. I’m commander of the Ikutiki 4 base, so, through its Victor, I can take control of every voice-operated device in it. I can control the transporter, and order it to stop working. From my control room, I can order Victor to switch on the shower in one of the bathrooms, or lock the door to the surface.”

“We heard about that,” I said. “You can also take control of the ships in the spaceport.”

“That’s right,” said Miyim. “I can control a ship’s Victor. With one command, I could lock the ship’s door, or stop it taking off.”

Hais said, “That wouldn’t make you popular.”

“No,” said Miyim. “If I did not have a good reason for doing it, I would lose my job. These powers are for emergency use only. Do you know how far they extend?”

“I never thought about it,” I said. “I assume they work on everything in the base, and nearby.”

“What do you mean by, ‘nearby’?”

“I don’t know. Two kilometres?”

“More than that,” said Miyim. “I can control everything within about 420 kilometres. If a ship lands within 420 kilometres of my base, I can control its Victor. The control also extends upwards. I can control a ship in orbit round the planet, if it passes over the base.”

Hais said, “I’d no idea it was as much as that.”

“We’re not sworn to keep it secret, but we have no reason to tell anyone. Here’s something that may surprise you. If there’s a terminal of Victor on any other planet which I look after, I can also control Federation devices within 420 kilometres of it.”

Miyim must have realised our surprise, because she said, “Yes. Krono 5 is a great distance from Ikutiki 4, in another solar system. But it is one of the planets in my care, and its communication centre has a terminal of Victor. From my control room on Ikutiki 4, I could control every Federation device in the Krono 5 base. All that power worries me. I hope I never have to use it.”

Hais asked, “If we came out of 4D here, the ship’s Victor could contact the Victor in your base. Could you control the devices on Krono 5 from here?”

“No. I can only do it from the control room in my base on Ikutiki 4. That’s one of the reasons why commanders seldom leave their bases. Can you suggest how that power could enable me to protect a planet which is threatened from outside?”

Hais said, “If a crook or an enemy lands a ship near a terminal of Victor, you could take control of that ship. You could order the door to close. If the people were inside, they couldn’t get out. If they were outside, they couldn’t get in. That would mess up their plans.”

I said, “And they couldn’t invade by transporter or shuttle, because you can block them too. That’s sneaky.”

“It’s enough to spoil most attacks. Did you hear about Dekima 5? They gathered a huge fleet, intending to invade Dekima 4. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t disable their Victor. Using it, the local commander took control of all their ships, and grounded them.”

I said, “So that’s what the Federation would do if one planet threatened another.” My sundae was a sloppy mess. I started to sup it quickly.

Miyim said, “Remember – I don’t have that control unless the planet has a terminal of Victor.”

Grenville said, “Then all planets should have a terminal of Victor.”

“Perhaps,” said Miyim. “Some planets, like Ikutiki 2, have a simple civilisation. Their leaders fear that, if their people were to learn more advanced ways, that would spoil their culture. They request no communication with other members, except in an emergency.”

“I understand that,” said Hais. “My planet, Dancer 61, had quite a simple civilisation until we joined the Federation. That has brought many benefits, but it has also brought problems.”

“Then you will realise why some planets do not wish transporters or terminals of Victor. In that case, they may have a simple emergency alarm. Have you seen one?”

“No.”

“I’ll tell you what they look like. A wrist unit without the strap.” She held up her wrist unit for a moment, before putting it back to her mouth. “The planet’s leader uses the emergency alarm to report the problem to the nearest base commander. In this area, me.”

Hais asked, “Can you ask him about it? I mean – does the emergency alarm work both ways?”

“Yes. The planet has a 5D relay which can send and receive messages. When I have enough information about the problem, I can arrange help, although it will take longer to arrive, since everything must go by ship.”

16

THE TEMPLE

 

Hais and I went through to the ship’s entrance hall, turned off the lights, and stood at the door. We pulled down our night-vision screens, but only as far as our noses, keeping our mouths clear to use the wrist units. I ordered, “Open.” The door slid aside.

No moons were in sight, but the stars were bright spots of light on my screen. Around us was dark grey haze. The night-vision screens weren’t good enough to let us see the fields, so far below. In front of us was the gap between the front of the ship and the rim of the temple. Below us, the temple floor was a dark grey blur.

Hais sat on the edge of the doorway, and pushed herself off, to land lightly on her feet. She looked up at me with the flat black face of the night-vision screen.

I sat on the edge of the doorway with my feet dangling. Hais looked horribly far below. I hesitated. I’m not the brave type. But I had two choices. I could jump, or I could go back into the ship. I pushed myself off. I landed with a jar, and stumbled forward, but Hais caught me. She whispered, “Done, Bea.” I sensed her sympathy. She knew I hadn’t liked that jump.

The temple went a paler grey. The ship had gone, letting in more starlight. The Eye of Ikutiki, a huge crystal, sat on the altar with the starlight sparkling in it.

Hais whispered, “Where do we hide?” The inside of the temple was bare, except for the altar, and ten shallow grooves round the side, no doubt marking the places where the priests would stand.

I said, “I’ll go at the side of the entrance. You hide behind the altar.” We couldn’t stand at the two sides of the entrance, because we’d be in the beams of each others’ stun-guns if we fired them at someone coming through.

The temple wall was about a metre thick, so the entrance was like a short tunnel, with steps climbing through it, to end at a hole which wasn’t much higher than my waist. The priests, and the thieves, would have to stoop to come in.

We took our places. My expedition suit was dark grey, matching the surroundings, but I couldn’t hide my shadow. A thief would see me if he looked sideways as he came into the temple. If I was lucky, I might sense the spark in his mind when he saw me, and that would give me time to use my stun-gun. That’s why I’d taken this place.

I stood there in the darkness, leaning against the rock. We’d turned off the displays of our wrist units in case the thieves might spot them, so I couldn’t see the time, but it dragged.

I began to think the thieves weren’t coming. It shouldn’t take them long to climb up. Miyim had said there were 1020 steps. Suppose they climbed one every second. That would take them 1020 seconds. That was 1020/60 minutes. What was 1020/60? 102/6. 17 minutes. I counted it again. Yes. 17 minutes. Only 17 minutes. I felt like I’d been waiting for 17 hours.

Perhaps the thieves had spotted our ship and gone down again. Perhaps they’d spotted the ship, and were creeping up on us. They could never climb the temple walls, but the muzzle of a nerve-gun might poke in the entrance. I wished I’d brought something to hit it.

I glanced towards the altar. The Eye of Ikutiki gleamed there, but I couldn’t see Hais. She must be cramped, crouching behind it.

The Ikutiki 2 night was totally silent. When I moved, making my shoulder rub against the wall, the scraping sounded loud.

If the thieves were coming, they would have been here by now. Perhaps they…. A sound came through the entrance. Someone panting. It grew louder, and feet scraped on the steps.

17*

VISITORS

 

The feet noises stopped, but the panting went on. Someone was just outside the entrance. A man’s voice came through – a question. Then another voice – an answer. At least two men were outside.

The feet noises started again, sharp in the entrance tunnel, and something scraped on the rock. A head appeared through the entrance, as the first man crawled through. I saw what was scraping, and why he was bent so low: he was wearing a backpack. As he crawled in, he turned to speak to the other one, and I sensed his shock of surprise as he saw me. It faded when I used my stun-gun. An exclamation of surprise came from the man behind.

I was already jumping away from the wall, and pointing the gun into the tunnel, pulling the trigger. The other man toppled forward, over the legs of the first. Then silence.

I gave both heads ten seconds of my stun-gun. Although they were wearing helmets, the beam should keep them unconscious for at least eight hours.

If a third man was with them, I would have heard him. Unless they were suspicious, and he was lying in wait. I peeped round the corner, into the tunnel. No one else was in sight. Stun-gun ready, I ducked through, and crept down the steps, beside the fallen men’s legs.

I stopped just inside the entrance, with eyes, ears and mind alert. I saw, heard and sensed no one. If anyone was hiding round the corner, his mind would be so tense that I would sense it. Probably. Pulling the trigger of the stun-gun, I poked it round the corner, and swung it round. No one fell.

I looked out. Stars above, grey haze around, with the steps disappearing down into it.

I went past the bodies, into the temple. “Hais.”

She appeared from behind the altar. “Well done, Bea. Isn’t that a magnificent jewel? I know why they wanted to steal it.” She looked down at the bodies. “Should we try for the ship?”

“What do you think?”

I sensed her eagerness. “Let’s try it. They’re not much bigger than us, and they’re wearing Federation expedition suits, including helmets and night-vision screens. The pilot might easily mistake us for them. It’s not a big risk.”

“I’m not sure about that.” I couldn’t decide if my doubts were due to common sense or cowardice. I hesitated, but let Hais’s mood decide me. “All right. We’ll try it.”

“Good! They’ve brought a backpack for the jewel.” She pulled it off the first man’s shoulders. “It looks empty. What can we put in it? Ah!” She took the helmet off the nearest man, showing a thin face with a cruel expression.

She put the helmet in the backpack. “That looks right, but it must be lighter than the jewel. We can’t do much about that, unless we take his head too.” I sensed the amusement in her mind, before she went on, “Sorry! Just kidding. We’ll have to hope the people in the ship don’t notice.”

She put the pack on her back, and crawled through the tunnel. When I followed, she was standing at the top of the steps.

I said, “I’ll tell Miyim.” I set my wrist unit to band 40, and maximum range. There was a chance the pilot of the thieves’ ship would hear, but it was a tiny one.

I spoke into my wrist unit. “Grenville, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear.”

“We’ve caught two thieves up here. We’re going to come down the steps, and hope the people in the thieves’ ship mistake us for them, and let us in.”

Before I could go on, he laughed. “You cunning little devils!”

I asked, “Would you ask Miyim to go out, and see the High Priest? Tell him the jewel is still safe in the temple. Make sure the natives don’t attack when we come down.”

Miyim’s voice came through. “I shall do that. Good luck.”

“Thanks. We’ll call you when we’re down.” I reset my wrist unit for band 0, and range 1½ metres.

 

 

18*

DOWN THE STEPS

Hais looked down, to where the steps disappeared into the haze. “No railing. We’d be safer to go in single file.” She started down.

We made good time, not running down, but moving steadily. It wasn’t easy, because all the steps were different. Some were high, some were low, some were wide and some were narrow. If I kept my head down, looking only at the one I was aiming for, it wasn’t so scary.

After we’d trotted down in silence for a while, I decided to count the steps. That would tell me how far down we were.

At 262, Hais stopped. “OK?”

“Y…yes. Don’t go any faster.”

“That’s 350. We’re over a third of the way.”

“Thanks, Hais. I didn’t start counting at the top.”

“I make this one 350.” She kicked the step she was on. “We’ll stop again at 700. Sooner, if we can see the ship.” She moved on.

Perhaps she did go slightly slower, but the constant step down, step down, step down, was tiring.

At 600, I gasped, “Stop, Hais. I must have a rest. My legs are getting wobbly.”

“Do you want to sit down?”

“That’s a good idea.” We sat, side by side, on 601.

I stretched one leg, then the other. “I’m glad we didn’t have to climb up here.”

“Yes. That wouldn’t have been much fun.” She gazed out, into the grey. “Do you know, Bea, we’re so lucky to be able to do this. Think of it. We’re on a planet at the edge of the known part of the Galaxy, sitting halfway up a long flight of steps. Troubleshooting’s a wonderful job.”

Trying to forget my tired legs, I said, “I know what you mean. Tony’s always loved seeing new planets. I wasn’t sure at first, but now I enjoy it.”

For a few seconds, we sat, enjoying the feeling. But we had a job to do. I said, “The men at the temple weren’t wearing wrist units. We’d better take ours off before we go on. The cameras on the ship may be able to see better than these night-vision screens.”

“Good idea. Ready to go?” She stood, stretching out a hand.

I let her pull me to my feet. “Yes, but take it steady.”

“Do you want to lead?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind.” That would let me set the pace, and decide where to stop.

We put our wrist units in our pockets, and started off.

19*

THE SHIP

After 50 steps, I stopped, and saw the ship below us, a darker patch in the haze. I pointed to it, and Hais nodded. I went on, down the steps, looking at the ship more and more often, as I saw it more clearly – a planet-hopper with no number.

I paused at the bottom of the steps. Everything was quiet – eerily quiet. The natives wouldn’t attack, but I expected the thieves to be on guard. Did they suspect? I took my stun-gun from its clip at my waist, and Hais brought hers out. I wondered if we should go back up the steps. We needn’t….

“Ho!” It made me jump. A man was standing on the top of the ship, waving to us. Hais said, “Ho!” in a deep voice, and turned, to slap the backpack.

The man laughed, and made a comment. He stood at the front of the ship, above the door, while another man appeared, standing on the back of the ship.

I walked forward nervously. We’d hoped that one of the thieves would order the ship’s door to open, but these two were obviously going to wait up there, to guard us.

As we drew nearer the ship, my mind raced. Most ships’ doors will obey the command, “Open,” in English, but the thieves were cautious. If my order, “Open,” didn’t open the door, the man above would be suspicious, and we would be below him, at his mercy.

We couldn’t risk that. We had to use our stun-guns on the man above the door. When we did that….

The Ikutiki 2 night filled with screams, as hordes of natives flooded over the courtyard wall, and charged towards us, waving clubs.

Hais and I ran to the ship’s door, and stood with our backs to it. Something had gone wrong. Perhaps the High Priest hadn’t believed Miyim, or perhaps he hadn’t had time to tell all the natives. We could find out later. For now, we daren’t let them catch us. As they charged forward, we used our stun-guns.

Some of the screams turned from anger to pain. The thieves were using nerve-guns. In the confusion, they wouldn’t notice that ours were stun-guns.

As soon as the leading natives came in range of the guns, they fell, but that didn’t stop the ones behind. They charged forward, jumping the stunned bodies of their friends in their eagerness to reach us. The second wave came nearer, and the third was nearer still. We could only swing our beams from side to side, hoping we could stop them before they reached us.

At last, it was partly their own numbers that defeated them. They couldn’t run to us, because the ground was littered with bodies. As they scrambled over them, they were easy targets. The battle – if you could call it that – lasted about five minutes. After that time, the war cries grew more scattered, until they straggled to silence.

The man above us made a triumphant comment. He jumped down, and, while I was wondering if we should stun him, he gave an order to the ship’s door. It slid aside. He went in.

Hais and I followed. As he pulled up his night-vision screen, I used my stun-gun. When his friend appeared, I used it again. The body fell in the doorway. Useful. If the door couldn’t shut, the ship couldn’t take off.

Hais and I pulled up our night-vision screens. In the glow of the ceiling, everything looked more solid. Hais pointed to herself, then, with her gun to the control room. I waved, to show I understood.

Then she ran left, to the ship’s store. I ran right, to the accommodation corridor. It had four cabin doors, all closed. On the left, opposite the last one, the door to the control room was open. I waited beside it, until Hais’s call came through. When I looked in, she was standing in the store door opposite, holding her stun-gun. A broad-shouldered man was slumped in the command chair.

We put on our wrist units. I whispered, “Any cabins at your side?”

“No. Just the store and dining room. Empty.”

“I passed four cabin doors, all closed. There’s probably only the five thieves, but we’d better check.”

We went to the nearest cabin door. “Open.” Our stun-guns were ready, but we didn’t have to use them. The cabin was empty. The other three were the same.

We went outside, and I increased the range of my wrist unit. “Grenville! Miyim!”

“Yeah?” Grenville answered.

“What happened?” I asked. “The natives attacked.”

Miyim said, “That was a mistake. Are you hurt?”

“No, but we had to stun them.”

“Would you wait in the ship? I am on my way, with the High Priest of the natives.”

They soon arrived, with attendants gently clearing a path through the bodies. The High Priest was a tall, slim man, dressed like the others in a wide, cream-coloured robe. I was relieved to sense that he was kind-hearted.

20*

THANKS

 

Hais went to the store for a wrist unit, which we set to the Ikutiki 2 language for the High Priest. He said, “I ordered my people not to attack, but they revere the Eye of Ikutiki. Some must have thought that you were taking it away. I am so sorry, after you faced so much trouble and danger to save it.”

I said, “I’m sorry we had to knock your people out. They should soon recover. But the one you should thank is Grenville, the pilot of our ship. Only an expert pilot could have landed at the temple. If he hadn’t done that, the thieves would have escaped with the Eye of Ikutiki.”

When I started to speak, I sensed Hais’s puzzlement, but she’s quick. She added, “Yes. It’s really Grenville you have to thank for saving the Eye of Ikutiki.”

“Where is this Grenville?” asked the High Priest. “I must give him our thanks. We shall hold a feast to celebrate the saving of the Eye of Ikutiki, and he will be the guest of honour. We can never thank him enough.”

I said, “He’s looking for a place to settle.”

“I’m sure he’d like it here,” said Hais. “It’s near the edge of the Federation, so he could do a bit of exploring if he felt like it.”

“We would be proud if he would care to live here,” said the High Priest. “We would make him most welcome.”

I said, “Then let’s go and give him the invitation.”