69 TROUBLE ON HEAJ 4*

1

JUST A LITTLE GIRL.

As I walked through the arch from the main city to the travel centre of the planet Trohi 11, a man barged past me. Perhaps he thought, “Just a little girl.” Perhaps he didn’t even notice me. But I noticed him.

As he crossed the waiting room, I dodged through the crowds after him. He was easy to see – human-like; tall and broad; black with a blue shine, like a bluebottle.

He pushed through to the door of the spaceport, ordered it to open and went out.

When the door opened for me, I looked cautiously around. The weather was dull but fair. One or two people were crossing the gravel between the travel centre and the scattered ships – flat-topped black boxes about the size of cottages. The man was striding towards one at the right.

I followed him – at a safe distance, I hoped. He went round, behind the ship. I had to see its number, beside the door, before it took off – vanished into the fourth dimension.

I ran to the ship and round it. There was the number – 071887. There was the door. And there was the man, coming out of it.

2

“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”

The bluebottle man glared down at me and spoke into his wrist unit. The translation came from mine. “What are you doing?”

I used my wrist unit. “I… I’m looking for ship 514337.”

“This is not that ship.”

“So I see. Thank you.” I hurried to another ship. When I reached it, I couldn’t resist glancing round. The man was standing at his ship, watching me. By the time I went round the other one, he was heading for the travel centre, carrying a brown parcel.

As soon as he was inside, I ran for the door. I crept through – and saw the shiny blue-black head among the crowds going into the city.

I hurried to the base of the Galactic Federation. I’m an agent of the Federation – a Troubleshooter. Earlier that day, I’d popped into this base to tell the Commander I was going to the city.

At that time, he hadn’t been interested in me, and he wasn’t interested now when I found him in his control room. He was a small old man who might have been a balding white European – if his skin hadn’t had a green tinge. His name was easy to remember.

I asked him, “Narrobum, would you help me?”

“What do you want?” He was in his command chair, the bottom of the U of seats facing the terminal of Victor, the Federation computer. He didn’t ask me to sit, but I went to the settee to his right and began, “As I told you earlier, I was sent to the city here on Trohi 11.”

“Yes.”

“I must explain why I went there. To do that, I must give you confidential information and trust you not to tell anyone.”

“Yes.” Seeing my Federation uniform, he was being polite, but he was impatient.

“I am a native of Earth – Sol 3 – and young people from there can sense the feelings of people and animals from other planets.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, and we’re ordered to keep it secret. Would you do that?”

“If that is an order. Then do you know what I am thinking?”

“I can’t tell your exact thoughts – just your feelings. At present, you think I’m wasting your time.”

“Indeed. Then perhaps you might prove that you are not.”

“The police in the city are having a serious problem with people taking a new drug.”

“I know of that. They suspected that the drug was coming from another planet. I therefore called the Federation. But I hoped that they would send an agent who could do a good job. Go on.”

“They caught one of the dealers, and I was sent to help to question him because I could tell when he’s lying.”

“Yes.” He wasn’t sure whether to believe me.

“At first, we didn’t learn much. The drug merchant always wore a bag over his head, and gloves on his hands so that the dealer couldn’t identify him. But I sensed a hint the dealer knew more than he was admitting. After many questions, I learned that, as the merchant handed over the parcel, the dealer caught a glimpse of his wrist, which was blue-black.”

“Several races in the Galaxy are that colour.”

“I sensed the dealer was trying to hide something else he’d noticed about the merchant. After more questioning, I discovered it was a smell – like petrol with a hint of spice.”

“Hmm. Why are you telling me this?”

“As I came out of the city just now, a man pushed past me. He was a big blue-black man, a native of Naxi 17, I think. I caught a hint of that smell from him.”

“Hmm. No doubt you were thinking of the smell. You imagined it.”

“I don’t think so. I followed the man to the spaceport. He went to ship 071887. May I ask Victor who owns it?”

“If you must.”

“Victor, wake. Who owns ship 071887?”

Victor’s voice, like an old man’s, came from my wrist unit. “The owner of ship 071887 is Zerui.”

“What is his native planet?”

“Naxi 17.”

“Is that ship still in the spaceport here?”

“If it has left, no one has told me.”

“Narrobum, as local Federation Commander, you supervise all the nearby planets?”

“That is so.”

“You can take control of all the ships in local spaceports?”

“I can.” He guessed what I was going to ask, and it annoyed him.

“Then would you order that ship to obey me? I’d like to have a look inside.”

“How dare you suggest such a thing! I cannot let you take control of a ship from its owner just because you like the idea.”

“I’m not asking to take control of the ship from Zerui. I just want its Victor to obey me.”

When he frowned and shook his head, I added, “Narrobum, it’s an emergency. I’ve explained. Now please do it.” My rank (628) was higher than his (379), so Federation rules said he should obey me, especially when I declared an emergency.

But I’ve had this trouble before: old men don’t like taking orders from an eleven-year-old girl. He said, “I do not regard your request as reasonable. I must refuse.”

I confess my voice was sharp. “It was not a request. It was an order.”

“Bea, it is my duty to safeguard the ships on local planets. If you persist in your demand, I must refer it to a higher authority. Who is your Commander?”

“Martin, Troubleshooters’ leader, in Federation headquarters on Yband 4. Contact him if you must, but please be quick. Zerui has seen me. He may move the ship.”

“Victor, wake. Message from Narrobum, Commander of Federation base on Trohi 11, to Martin, Troubleshooters’ leader on Yband 4. Agent Bea has asked – ordered – me to give her control of a ship in the spaceport here. If you agree with that order, please confirm it.” He turned to me. “There. If your Commander considers it a reasonable request, he will tell us.”

“That will take time.”

“You should not act too hastily. No doubt your Commander will reply as soon as he can. How long have you been an agent?”

He asked me questions, mainly trying to show I was young, and had only been an agent for a few months. I controlled my annoyance and answered politely, but I was relieved when Victor interrupted. “Message from Martin, Troubleshooters’ leader on Yband 4, to Narrobum, Commander of Federation base on Trohi 11. Treat all requests – all requests – from agent Bea as if they came from me. And please do not disturb me again. It is the middle of the night here.”

Narrobum said to me, “Martin must have a high regard for you. Do you wish me to order that ship not to leave the spaceport?”

“N…no. We’ve no proof Zerui is behind the drug problem. If he hasn’t moved the ship by now, he can’t be too worried. Would you order its Victor to obey me?” I stood up.

He stood too. “I shall come with you.”

“Don’t trouble yourself. I can manage.”

“While that spaceship is here, it is my duty to make sure it comes to no harm. If you intend to enter it, I should accompany you.”

“There’s no need. But I’ll tell you what you can do. Would you loiter in the waiting room while I’m out in the spaceport? We’ll set our wrist units to band 02, and increase the range of yours. Then, if Zerui appears, you can warn me. You can’t miss him. A tall blue-black man with a black leather tunic.”

He stared at me for a moment, then said, “Victor, agent Bea has declared an emergency, and agent Martin has supported her. Give her control of ship 071887 in the spaceport here.”

As we went into the waiting room, I looked around anxiously, but Zerui wasn’t in sight. Leaving Narrobum lurking reluctantly in a corner, I went out to the spaceport.

Zerui’s ship was in the same place. I ran to it and faced the door. “Open.” It slid aside with no fuss.

And out staggered an animal. It was dark purple, and shaped like a lighthouse a little higher than my waist. Spaced round the bottom were four tentacles which tapered to two slim fingers at the ends.

The animal wobbled forward a few steps, reeled sideways, almost fell backwards, then tottered forward until it hit my legs. And there it collapsed.

“Bea! Zerui!” Narrobum’s call came from my wrist unit.

3

“WHAT DO YOU HAVE THERE?”

Zerui! He’d be out in the spaceport in a few seconds!

“Close.” As the ship’s door slid shut, I tried to scoop the animal into my arms, but the tentacles flopped all over the place. So I picked up two tentacles and ran, dragging the animal. As I went behind the nearest ship, I glanced at the door of the spaceport. It was starting to open.

I leaned on the ship in relief. I’d done it! I’d rescued the animal. And it seemed an unusual creature: I’d sensed its mind for a moment before it fell unconscious.

I didn’t know if Zerui was going to take his ship away, and I daren’t look. It was Narrobum’s voice in my wrist unit that told me, “Zerui’s ship has gone.” When I peeked out, he was standing in the doorway of the spaceport, and the site where Zerui’s ship had stood was empty.

I lifted the animal onto my back, holding one tentacle over each shoulder and letting the others drag on the ground. It wasn’t too heavy, with a hint of the spicy petrol smell.

When Narrobum saw my load, he asked, “What is that?”

“This creature stumbled out of Zerui’s ship and fell at my feet. Can you show me the way to the medical centre?”

He didn’t offer to carry the creature but at least he didn’t waste time asking questions. He said, “Come.”

As we crossed the waiting room, he did ask, “Did Zerui see you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“We must hope that you are right. What will he do when he learns that you have stolen that animal?”

“I don’t know, but it might give us a clue to where he’s been.”

The medical centre would treat people and animals. In its emergency department, the doctor helped me to lift the creature onto a trolley under the lights.

He asked, “What do you have there?”

I told him, “I found it staggering around in the spaceport. It collapsed at my feet.”

He spread the tentacles, making the creature look more comfortable, then ran an instrument like a mobile phone over its head. “41%. It is still alive. Victor, what is this creature?”

Victor’s answer came from above the lights. “That animal is not known to the Federation.”

“What! Narrobum, where did you find this specimen?”

“Agent Bea will tell you. I am acting under her orders.”

I told the doctor what I’d done, ending, “So I want to know what you can tell me about this creature, especially which planet it came from. This may give us a clue.” I lifted one of the trailing tentacles and, with difficulty, pulled something from the clutching fingers – a lump about the size of my fist. It was lighter than I expected, like spongy white wood with thick purple skin on one side.

“Thanks,” said the doctor. “Now would you leave the creature with me? Come back in an hour, and I’ll tell you more about it.”

As Narrobum and I left the medical centre, he said, “I suggest that we meet here in one hour. And we should use the time to report. I hope you will make it clear that you were the one who removed the animal from the ship.”

I gave him a sweet smile. “I’ll make a complete and honest report.”

4

“NO ANIMAL LIFE!”

When we went back to the medical centre, the doctor told us, “The creature requires small amounts of a certain gas in the air which it breathes. That gas makes its brain work. Without it, the creature will slide into death.”

I asked, “Do you have any of the gas?”

“No. I did find traces of it in the block the animal was holding. You can smell it.”

He gave the block to Narrobum, who wrinkled his nose at it then passed it to me. As I expected, it had the spicy petrol smell I’d noticed on the creature and on Zerui.

I asked the doctor, “Can you make the gas?”

“No. It is too complex.”

“So the only way of saving the creature’s life is to return it home.”

“Yes. And that should be done as soon as possible.”

Narrobum said, “If the creature is not known to the Federation, we do not know where to take it.”

“I’m sorry,” said the doctor. “I can’t help you there.”

I said, “I think I can tell you. Heaj 4 has lots of purple patches on the surface. And its air contains small amounts of the gas we smelled on the creature’s block.”

“How do you know?”

“I asked Victor. A Federation Survey Team visited Heaj 4 about 10 000 days ago. Can you find a ship and a pilot so that I can take this poor creature home?”

Narrobum coughed. “Young lady, is that planet a member of the Federation?”

“No. The Survey Team reported no intelligent life.”

“Then what must you do?”

I sighed. “I must ask permission from the local Commander before I can visit it.”

When he didn’t speak, I went on, “Sir, may I visit Heaj 4?”

“Are you determined to go?”

“Yes.”

He stared at me. “Then I cannot refuse. But you do not know the conditions you will face on that planet.”

“Victor told me. The Survey Team reported the surface is dark grey sand with a lot of those purple patches, which are simple plants. Near them, the climate is dry but cold. The Survey Team reported no animal life.”

The doctor exclaimed, “No animal life!”

“That’s what they said. Narrobum, can you provide that ship and pilot?”

“I have a ship in the spaceport here, and I am a trained pilot. I shall take you.”

“It’s a 1.25-day trip. You may be away for three or four days.”

That made him pause, but he said, “It is my duty to watch what you do on any planet which is in my care. When do you wish to leave?”

“In 4%?” That’s about an hour.

“4%! I cannot be ready in less than a day.”

Before I could speak, the doctor said, “In case you have forgotten, that creature’s life is slipping away.”

Narrobum exclaimed, “I have a great deal of business to settle. Bea, meet me at ship 339721 in 8%.” He stormed out.

The doctor gave me the instrument. “Take this. It will tell you the strength of life remaining.”

“Thank you.” I ran it over the creature’s head. “37%. What’s the level from which it can’t recover?”

“With an unknown animal, I can’t tell. Other animals are unlikely to recover from under 20%. And this one has gone down from 41% when you brought it.”

“Can you ask someone to take it out to Narrobum’s ship?”

“I’ll do that. May I put a heavy cloth over it? That may slow the loss of the gas.”

“Would you do that? Thanks.”

“Good luck in the trip. Would you put this in your report? The scientists like to know of new animals. I do hope you can save this one.”

I collected equipment from the planet’s store and went out to Narrobum’s ship. To my surprise, he appeared on time.

During the trip, he avoided me, and I wasn’t sorry about that. Mum and Dad only allowed me to become an agent if I agreed to continue my education, so I spent some of the time with Victor on maths and astronomy – and planetary geography, finding out how people live in different environments. I also watched a film and, I confess, did fewer exercises than I should have done.

Before we landed, I went to Narrobum in the control room. “Does the first part of the trip take us into orbit round Heaj 4?”

“Yes.”

“Then would you wait there while we check the surface?”

“Why?”

“If Zerui has returned to Heaj 4, we may spot his ship from above. That will be near the creature’s home.”

“You are full of ideas.” He didn’t mean that as praise.

From orbit we did spot the purple patches, like the shape of the animal, with four long arms straggling from a central hump.

I asked, “Victor, can you see a ship beside one of those purple patches?”

“That one.” The picture zoomed in. The magnification made it wavy, but we couldn’t mistake the tiny black square.

Narrobum commented, “That patch has three arms.”

“Yes,” I said. “And the ship is at the place where the fourth arm is missing. We can guess what Zerui is doing.” I pointed. “Narrobum, can we land there?”

“There! That is not far from Zerui’s ship.”

“That arm is between. We want to be near the creature’s home. And we may be able to see what Zerui is doing.”

“Has it not occurred to you that Zerui will see what we are doing?”

“I hope not. That arm must be high. You can see its shadow.”

“Are you ordering me to land at that place?”

I took a deep breath. “Yes.”

He glowered at me for a moment, then said, “If you insist.”