68. TROUBLE FOR DOC Y*

1

“WHERE AM I?”

“Open.” The door slid aside. The Bean and I went into the transporter – like a lift – on the planet Vinson 5. “Close.” The door slid shut. “Operate.” A twist in my guts showed the transporter had worked. “Open.” The door opened, and we went out on the planet 17-41-47-23-10.

I swung right. That transporter is the end one of three in alcoves along a wide passage. The one at the other end leads to Sol 3 (Earth) and home.

But the Bean grabbed my arm. “Tony!” She was looking in the other direction.

17-41-47-23-10 is a stepping-stone planet on the transporter route to Earth. Outside that small travel centre is a cold, stony desert, uninhabited. We’d never seen anybody there. But….

At the end of the passage is the door leading to the surface of the planet. And, standing beside it was a tall old guy with specs, a tartan scarf, navy blue fleece, grey trousers tucked into brown socks, and big hiking boots. Fine for tramping the hills of Scotland, but weird in the travel centre of that empty planet.

When we appeared, he kinda half-smiled and took a step towards us, but stopped and looked worried.

The Bean said, “Tony, come on.” We went along to the guy, and she asked, “Can we help you?”

“Yes.” He answered in English. “Tell me – where am I?”

“This is a restricted zone,” said the Bean. “How did you reach here?”

“Restricted?” He looked around. “What… what planet is this?”

“I’m sorry. For security reasons, we can’t answer questions until we know who you are, and how you reached here.”

He stared at us, and I thought he was going to act the big-headed adult, asking why he should explain to a couple of kids. But he said, “It’s… it’s a complicated story.”

“Would you make a report about it?”

“Why all this mystery? Why can’t you tell me where I am?”

“I’m sorry. After you’ve made a report, we’ll tell you as much as we can.”

He stared at us again but at last said, “OK. I’ll make a report. Any chance of doing it somewhere warmer?”

Despite his outdoor gear, the guy did look cold. That travel centre isn’t heated.

So the Bean said, “This way.” She led us along to the Sol 3 transporter.

On the way, the guy asked, “Bea, are you allowed to tell me your age?” He’d seen her name on the chestband of her uniform.

The Bean frowned but answered, “Eleven.”

“And you, Tony?”

“Thirteen.”

“Are those… guns?” He touched the stun-gun on its clip at my waist.

“Yeah.”

“Hmm.” He looked thoughtful as we transported to the Sol 3 travel centre. That part looks like the one on planet 17-41-47-23-10, with three bays, but it’s heated.

The guy shook himself. “Thank you. That’s warmer.”

I’d kinda thought we’d go along the passage to the waiting room, but the Bean waved the guy to the seat in the bay opposite the transporter. When she sat at his left, I sat at his right.

The Bean put her wrist unit to her mouth. “Victor, please open a line to this wrist unit. We met a gentleman in an unexpected place. He has kindly agreed to explain how he got there. Please record his report.” She took off the wrist unit and gave it to the guy. “Would you speak into that? Please start with your name and the date.”

The guy hesitated, frowning.

I said, “Sorry! She’s the bossy type. She can’t help it.”

The Bean said, “Tony!” But, knowing I was kidding, she couldn’t help smiling.

At that, the guy took the wrist unit and began his report.

2

HUT?

This is the guy’s report.

My name is Yeaman, Dr Eric Yeaman. I have agreed to make this report reluctantly, not kindly. After I have done so, I expect these two young people, Bea and Tony, to keep their promise to explain where I am.

The date? It’s October 12th. This morning, I went for a walk near Arbroath. Should I explain? That’s on the east coast of Scotland.

I’d been out for about forty minutes when I glimpsed the back of a man disappearing into a dark wood. I noticed him because… well, because he seemed to have no head.

Curious, I followed him into the wood. In a clearing, I found a hut. Hut? It was smooth and black, about the size of a cottage, with a flat roof. It had no windows, but bright light streamed from an open doorway in the side facing me. I thought it might be a workmen’s hut, although I didn’t know what workmen would be doing in the middle of that wood.

I looked inside – a bare room with grey walls and a glowing ceiling. It had an open door in each front corner, and a closed door at the back right. The man wasn’t in sight.

I stepped in. Everything remained quiet. I went to the door at the front right and stood there, not knowing what to do. I wanted to explore this strange hut – but I didn’t want to be caught in it.

To my surprise, not to say worry, a door slid across the outside doorway behind me, shutting me in. I took a step towards it, but stopped. I couldn’t get out: that door had no handle.

Perhaps I should have called out, but I was nervous about admitting I was there.

I leaned through the doorway – into a passage with four doors, all shut, on the right. On the left, beyond the wall of the entrance hall, was an open door.

I crept along the passage and peeped through that. My eyes hadn’t deceived me. The man had no head. He was standing with his back to me, facing a big screen at the other side of the room. Facing? The screen had strange symbols on it, so he must have had eyes although I hadn’t seen them. At his right hip was a device which looked like a gun. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to know I was there, so I withdrew silently.

I sneaked back down that passage and crossed the hall to the other open door. That led to a long room with racks of stuff.

Hoping the headless man was less likely to visit that place, I decided to hide there until I saw a chance of escape.

The room appeared to be a store. I knew the purpose of some of the items; a thin plastic suit that would fit the man without the head; transparent boxes with holes in the lids. And a device like the one the man was carrying. I inspected it nervously. It had to be a gun – shiny brown plastic with a wide barrel.

I couldn’t even guess what the rest of the stuff might do, but I didn’t think it would be used by workmen in a wood.

The time passed. One hour. Two hours. I became seriously worried. If the headless man found me now, I’d have to explain why I hadn’t told him I was there. And, the longer I delayed, the more difficult it would be. In the end, I chickened out and decided to try to remain hidden.

After a bit more than three hours, a voice called, “Open,” and a faint humming came through from the entrance hall. I looked cautiously into it. The man wasn’t in sight, and the outer door was open. I rushed over to it and peeped out.

Not to the gloomy wood, but to a night scene. The hut was now sitting on bare stony ground at the bottom of a cliff. About twenty steps in front of me, the headless man was facing a door in another one-storey black hut, built against the cliff. “Open.” The door slid aside, silhouetting him against a lighted passage beyond. He went through. “Close.” The door slid shut.

I went outside – a few steps. To my right, the cliff rose sheer to a starry sky – with three moons. To my left, a cold stony desert stretched into the darkness.

The door slid shut behind me. Leaving me alone in that wild place in the dark. And cold. A bitter wind swept across the bare rock.

I knew I wouldn’t find help in the hut I’d left, so I had to try the other one.

I went to the door. “Open.” Rather to my surprise, it did. I went through, into the end of a wide passage with three bays in each side. I could just see a seat across the back of the nearest bay on the left, and a metal door in the one facing it. The headless man wasn’t in sight.

While I was wondering what to do, the door slid shut behind me. Then, while I was worrying about that, the hum of an opening door came from the nearest bay at the right.

Two young people came out of there. They were wearing grey tracksuits with dark green bands round the chest and cuffs. Their names, Bea and Tony, were on the chestbands.

They have brought me to this place through a small metal room. Now I have made this report, I expect them to explain.

3

“THE GALACTIC FEDERATION?”

The guy finished the report, gave the wrist unit to the Bean and looked hopeful.

The Bean asked, “Can you describe the headless man?”

“He was about my height to the shoulders – which were broad and looked bare. His skin was grey, almost silver, and he was wearing a dark grey kilt, held up by straps over his shoulders. Hey! Was that a skirt? Was it a woman?”

“Probably not. Thanks for reporting so clearly. If we take you back to where we met you, would you show us the hut?”

“Don’t you believe me?”

“I do believe you, but that hut should not have been in your wood. We ought to investigate it as soon as possible, and we don’t want to leave you alone. So I’m asking you to come with us.”

“You? Investigate it?” At the look on the Bean’s face, he lifted his hands as if to hold her off. “I’m sorry! I’ll show you.”

We took the transporter to planet 17-41-47-23-10 and faced the door to the surface. “Open.”

It slid aside, showing the place as Dr Yeaman had described it. The cliff; the dark stony desert; the three moons; the strong cold wind. But….

Dr Yeaman exclaimed, “It’s gone! The… the hut was right there. I swear it was. Just there, at the cliff. Was it… was it some kind of spaceship?”

“Tony will explain,” said the Bean. “But let’s go back to… to the warmer place.”

In the Sol 3 transporter corridor, Dr Yeaman and I sat in our places, but the Bean said, “Tony, would you answer Dr Yeaman’s questions? I’ll find out what we’re going to do with him.”

Dr Yeaman looked alarmed. “What do you mean by that?”

The Bean smiled. “Sorry! I think you’ll be given two options, perhaps difficult but not painful. I’ll find out.” She disappeared along the passage.

I asked, “Well, Dr Yeaman, what d’you want to know?”

“May I ask – what planet is this?”

“Sol 3. Earth.”

“Earth!” He looked surprised. “When I saw the three moons, I thought… I really thought I’d been taken to a different planet.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “This is Sol 3. But that.” I waved towards the metal door across the passage. “That’s a transporter. It brought us from that other planet, 17-41-47-23-10. See its number above the door.”

“Brought us? How?”

“It carried us through the fifth dimension.”

“The fifth dimension! How?”

“Don’t ask me! The scientists can’t explain it.”

“Hmm. So let me be clear on this. That… that headless man’s hut was actually a spaceship that took me from Earth to that planet – what’s its number?” He read it from above the door. “17-41-47-23-10. Then you brought me back in that… that transporter.”

“That’s right.”

“So what is this place?”

“This is the Sol 3 travel centre of the Galactic Federation.”

“The Galactic Federation? What’s that?”

“It’s a kind-of club for planets. It has over a hundred thousand members in this part of the Galaxy.”

“All inhabited?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why have I never heard of it?”

“People on Sol 3 mustn’t learn about it. Only peaceful planets are invited to join.”

“Oh! But aren’t you Scottish? Your accent.”

“Yeah. I was born in Scotland but now I’m an agent of the Federation.”

“You’re what?”

“Bea and I are agents of the Federation.”

“Are you telling me that people of your age can become agents in that Federation?”

“Yeah. They like young people from Sol 3 as agents because we can sense the feelings of people from other planets.”

“That’s amazing!”

“The power fades as you grow.”

“How did you and Bea become agents?”

“That was my fault. I accidentally…. No. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you that. Sorry!”

He sat, staring across the passage at the transporter door. “I’ve tried to write stories for young people, but I’ve never imagined anything like this. Never! As agents, what kind of jobs do you do?”

“The Bean and I…. Sorry. She’s my cousin. I’ve always called her the Bean. We’re Troubleshooters. That’s why we have the dark green bands on our uniforms.”

“What job are you on now?”

“We weren’t on a job. We were on our way home when we met you. But I expect we’ll be sent to investigate your headless man.”

“You?”

I laughed. “Yeah. We’ve had trouble with those headless men before.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. They’re Bulbuls. From the planet Bulbul 4. It’s the nearest inhabited planet to Sol 3. The Bulbuls are trying to stop Sol 3 from developing space travel because they’re frightened Sol 3 might invade their planet.”

“Earth wouldn’t….” He stopped, then added, “I understand.”

“We’ve tackled a couple of Bulbul plots already. But I can’t figure what they might be doing at Arbroath. Have you any ideas?”

“No. As far as I know, Arbroath isn’t mustering a fleet of spaceships to invade that planet.”

The Bean came back and told Dr Yeaman, “It’s the decision I expected. As Tony has no doubt told you, people on Sol 3 mustn’t learn about the Federation.”

“But now I’ve found out about it.”

“So you have a choice. You may remain in the Federation and never return to Sol 3. Or, if you want to go back to Sol 3, you must have your mind treated so that you can’t tell what you’ve learned here.”

“Oh!” After a moment’s thought, he asked, “If I decide to remain in the Federation, I would never see my family and friends again?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Tell me about the treatment.”

“You’ll be put to sleep for four or five hours, wearing a special helmet. When you waken, you’ll remember what you’ve done here – like a clear dream – but a block will stop you from telling anyone.”

“I don’t like the sound of that. Meddling with my memory.”

“I promise you: it does no harm. We’ve had the treatment so that we can go home between missions.”

I added, “We didn’t like the idea, but it’s easy and it makes you feel good.”

“Hmm. If I decide to go back to Earth, what exactly would you do?”

The Bean answered, “You would have the treatment immediately then you’d be returned to Arbroath.”

“Wouldn’t you want me to show you where I saw the headless man?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“But, if I have the treatment, I won’t remember the place.”

“Oh, yes, you will. It’s only the information about the Federation that will be blocked.”

“No. If my mind is treated, I feel sure I won’t be able to tell you where I saw him.” He couldn’t keep the smile from his face.

“Oh!” The Bean realised. She used her snippy voice. “Dr Yeaman, the Bulbuls may be planning sabotage on Sol 3. They must be stopped – quickly.”

“Then I’ll tell you what we can do. I’ll swear not to tell anyone on Earth about your Federation. Then we can go now. That’ll save the time you would have needed for the treatment.”

“No. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to suggest you wouldn’t keep your word. But the rule is strict.”

“I don’t know what you’re so worried about. If I was to describe all this.” He waved an arm. “No one would believe me.”

“That may be true but it doesn’t change the decision.”

“Well, I choose to return to Earth but I refuse the treatment. Go and tell your leader that.”

“He won’t change his mind.” She went, but I didn’t know why. That rule can’t be broken..

Dr Yeaman checked his watch. “Don’t you eat in your famous Federation? It’s nearly five hours since I had my breakfast.”

“That reminds me. I was hoping to get home for lunch. I could bring something.”

“Thanks.”

“But I’m sure I won’t be able to find the food unless you swear not to move from here while I’m away.”

He grinned. “I swear.”

“Thanks.” I thought I could trust him. “What d’you want?”

“What can you get?”

“I fancy a toffee sundae.”

“Make it two.”

I nipped through to the dining room in the base and collected the two toffee sundaes. When I went back, he was still sitting there.

As we ate, we chatted. He said, “I can hardly believe it. The Galactic Federation. With young people from Earth as agents. Do you answer to ‘Tony’ or ‘Agent 620’?” He’d seen the number under my name on the chestband of my uniform.

I had to tell him. “The 620’s my rank. Victor, the Federation computer, studies mission reports and gives each agent a rank. Then, when two or more are on a mission together, the one with the highest rank is in command.”

“But….”

“I know what you’re thinking. You saw the Bean’s rank.” It’s 639. “If she and I are sent to investigate your Bulbul, she’ll be in command.”

“You’ll have to take orders from her?”

“Yeah. Her rank’s usually higher than mine. I didn’t like it at first, but I have to admit she deserves it. And she’s not really bossy.”

“620 seems a high rank.”

“Well…. Trainee agents start with a rank of 1. The local commander, Obsidian, has a rank of over 900.”

“That’s amazing. And you carry a gun?”

“Yeah. It’s a….”

“Why?”

I hesitated but told him, “On our missions, we’ve made enemies. Obsidian’s ordered us to carry a gun at all times. It’s a stun-gun. If its invisible beam hits your head, it switches off your brain. You fall unconscious. D’you want me to show you?”

He lifted a hand. “No! I believe you. But your gun is grey. The headless man’s was brown.”

“His would be a nerve-gun. Its beam causes so much pain that you black out.”

“Why do you have different guns?”

“Crooks often carry nerve-guns but, since they cause pain, Federation agents need special permission to use them. I prefer a stun-gun anyway. It can knock you out for hours. You recover from a nerve-gun shot in about ten minutes.”

“Do you mean to say – you’ve used that gun?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“When?”

Before I knew it, I’d told him about our missions on Uoquo 2 and Quaha 10. Maybe I shouldn’t’ve done it, but he asked sneaky questions and he was so interested in what I said.

Since he was being bolshie, I hadn’t been sure if I should like him, but I did. He told me to call him Doc. He’d been a Science teacher in Arbroath, and that’s what his pupils had called him.

The Bean came back to tell him, “Sorry. We can’t relax the rule. If you want to return to Earth, you must take the treatment.”

“Even if I refuse to tell you where I saw the headless man?”

“Yes. We’ll do what we can without your information.”

Doc stared at her for a while, then said, “All right. I’d love to see other planets but I couldn’t settle in an alien place where I knew no one. Lead me to your helmet.”

The Bean smiled. “It had to be sent from Yband 4. I ordered it the first time I went out. It’s just arrived.”

“You little twister!” But he smiled too. “And I’ll show you where I saw the headless man.”

“Thanks very much. By the time we could reach Arbroath today, it would be dark. We might use Federation equipment to work at night, but we’d have to take great care that no one on Sol 3 spotted it. So you’ll have the treatment now, then someone will drive you to Arbroath. We’ll meet you there tomorrow morning. Can you suggest a place and time?”

“The Asda car park on the way into Arbroath from Dundee at nine o’clock.”

We took Doc along to the Sol 3 base of the Federation. Simon, our uncle, who’s commander there, would arrange the treatment and the car to Arbroath.

The Bean asked, “Tony, will you do the report?”

We have to report every mission to Victor. I usually do ours. I don’t really mind: I just lie on a bunk and tell Victor what we did. And the Bean was being polite: I had to do this report so I could tell Victor about my chat with Doc. So I said, “Sure, Bean.”

I went to my cabin in the base and I was well started on this report when the door slid open. The Bean: “I’ve spoken to Simon. He agrees we should investigate. The car will pick you up at seven tomorrow morning. OK?”

“Seven o’clock! That’s the middle of the night!”

“Don’t you want to go?”

“I suppose.”

“I’ll see you then. The car’s waiting to take me home now, then it’ll come back for you. ’Bye, Tony. See you tomorrow.”

“See you, Bean.” As the cabin door slid shut, I went on with the report.

Now it’s done. This looks like being an interesting job. What trouble can the Bulbuls be planning in a wood near Arbroath?