61. TROUBLE ON TA-A-A 7

1

“WELCOME TO TA-A-A 8.”

On the planet Koyok 4, Chip and I went into a transporter, a little metal room like a lift. She called, “Close,” but, as the door started to shut, a man stopped it so that he could come in too. He was diamond-shaped, with no separate head: his (big) eyes, nose and mouth were in the front of his body, at the top. He wasn’t much taller than me, and was wearing a scruffy blue tunic.

He grinned to us. “Just made it.” He ordered the door, “Close.” It slid shut. “Operate.” I felt the twist inside as the transporter took us to another planet, Ta-a-a 8.

“Open.” When the door slide aside, the guy hurried away.

Chip started to follow. “Come on, Ed.”

“Chip!” I said. “That man was a crook!”

She stared at me. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. He was crooked. And frightened – very frightened.” My parents came from Earth, so I can sense the minds of other races.

Chip hesitated, but said, “We can’t prove anything, and he’s gone now.” As we walked along the corridor, she went on, “Somebody was supposed to meet us.”

As soon as we reached the waiting room, a man beamed and headed towards us. He was human-like with dark blue skin although everything except his face was covered in shimmering silver fur. He was wearing casual gear, like a grey tracksuit.

He said, “Chip! Edinburgh! Welcome to Ta-a-a 8. My name is Ejraop. The base commander will see you at her house.”

He led us through an arch into a wide, sunny street with one-storey houses on each side and a narrow garden along the middle, with trees and big yellow flowers.

Ejraop chatted to us. I couldn’t sense his mind, but he seemed friendly. He took us into a house on the left, and out through French windows into a courtyard at the back. The sides were the high white walls of the gardens next door. The far end had a high hedge with little pink flowers. In the middle was a circular swimming pool. In the hot sun, the water looked great.

One person sat at a table in the far left corner. She was another native but she was wearing a sleeveless shirt, a skirt and trainers. The silver shimmered on her arms and legs.

Ejraop told her, “Chip and Edinburgh.”

She frowned at us. “I expected… older agents.”

I sensed Chip’s annoyance. “I’m an agent of the Galactic Federation.” She spread her arms to show her uniform, like a grey tracksuit with the dark green Troubleshooters bands round the chest and cuffs. “Ed is a trainee agent.” The band on my chest was outlined in black on the grey uniform. “He’s here for experience on a simple mission. Do you have problems with our age?” Chip and I are 12. Chip comes from a planet called Dancer 61. She looks like an Earth girl except that she’s red-brown.

The woman laughed. “No! Please forgive my surprise. I didn’t mean to insult you. My name is Jowftu. I’m commander of the base here. Are you expecting trouble?”

“Trouble?” asked Chip.

“Those weapons.” Chip and I had stun-guns on clips at our waists.

“Our leader ordered us to carry them at all times.”

Chip, annoyed, didn’t explain, so I added, “Interplanetary criminals have attacked Troubleshooters.” We’re ordered to keep our mind-sensing secret, but an interplanetary crook, Mr Silver, had learned about it and was worried it might help us to track him down.

Jowftu laughed again. “You’re safe here. Do sit down.” We sat, but Chip glowered at Jowftu.

A girl came from the house, carrying a tray with four tall glasses containing a lemon-coloured liquid, and jingling with ice. As she put them on the table in front of us, Jowftu said, “That’s marondo juice, from a local fruit. I hope you like it.”

Chip didn’t touch her glass, but I took a sip. It was sweet and cold – like the taste of mint with a hint of raspberry.

Jowftu asked us, “What do you know of this mission?”

Chip answered, “Our leader told us we’ll be exploring an unknown jungle.”

“That’s right,” said Jowftu. “It’s on our neighbouring planet, Ta-a-a 7.” She waved a hand. “This planet, Ta-a-a 8, cannot grow enough food for everyone. Ta-a-a 7 is uninhabited, so no one has been allowed to visit it, but we have now been given permission to test the soil to find out if our crops will grow there. Ejraop is in charge of the project so he will explain.”

Ejraop began, “The most suitable part of Ta-a-a 7 has hills of unusual shape. The sides don’t slope: they’re like steps – flat shelves that run round the hills, with sheer cliffs between them. Do you know what I mean?”

Chip said, “Yes.” I nodded and sneaked another sip of the juice. It was good.

Ejraop went on, “The most suitable shelf is covered in jungle. A spaceship landed at a clear place – on a beach at a bend in a stream. Robots went out and cleared a patch of the jungle. They built a fence round it to keep out animals. We’ll now take a ship over and land inside that fence. I’ll plant Ta-a-a 8 crops and see how they grow.”

Chip said, “While we explore the jungle.”

“That’s right, bringing samples of the plants so that I can test them to find out if we can safely eat them.”

“Are there animals in that jungle?”

“Probably. While the robots were clearing the ground, the ship’s cameras were on. They didn’t see any animals, but I’ll be surprised if you don’t find some. I’ll show you how to take samples from them without hurting them.”

I asked, “How much exploring do you want us to do?”

“This is just a first survey, to check the jungle around our compound. And you might walk up by the stream. You’ll soon reach the bottom of the cliffs. From aerial photographs, we think it may be possible to follow the stream up to the next shelf. We want to know because animals might come down there.”

Chip asked something else, but I’d stopped paying attention. Because I was sitting with my back to the hedge. And, behind it, I sensed the crook we’d seen in the transporter.