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"It just happens," the Third Co-ordinator of the Vegan Confederacy explained patiently, "that the local Agent-it's Zone Seventeen Eighty-two-isn't available at the moment. In fact, he isn't expected to contact this HQ for at least another week. And since the matter really needs prompt attention, and you happened to be passing within convenient range of the spot, I thought of you."
"I like these little extra jobs I get whenever you think of me," commented the figure in the telepath transmitter before him. It was that of a small, wiry man with rather cold yellow eyes-sitting against an undefined dark background, he might have been a minor criminal or the skipper of an aging space-tramp.
"After the last two of them, as I recall it," he continued pointedly, "I turned in my final mission report from the emergency treatment tank of my ship-And if you'll remember, I'd have been back in my own Zone by now if you hadn't sent me chasing a wild-eyed rumor in this direction!"
He leaned forward with an obviously false air of hopeful anticipation. "Now this wouldn't just possibly be another hot lead on U-1, would it?"
"No, no! Nothing like that!" the Co-ordinator said soothingly. In his mental file the little man was listed as "Zone Agent Iliff, Zone Thirty-six Oh-six; unrestricted utility; try not to irritate-" There was a good deal more of it, including the notation:
"U-1: The Agent's failure-shock regarding this subject has been developed over the past twelve-year period into a settled fear-fix of prime-motive proportions. The Agent may now be entrusted with the conclusion of this case, whenever the opportunity is presented."
That was no paradox to the Co-ordinator who, as Chief of the Department of Galactic Zones, was Iliff's immediate superior. He knew the peculiar qualities of his agents-and how to make the most economical use of them, while they lasted.
"It's my own opinion," he offered cheerily, "that U-1 has been dead for years. Though I'll admit Correlation doesn't agree with me there."
"Correlation's often right," Iliff remarked, still watchfully. He added, "U-1 appeared excessively healthy the last time I got near him."
"Well, that was twelve standard years ago," the Co-ordinator murmured. "If he were still around, he'd have taken a bite out of us before this-a big bite! Just to tell us he doesn't think the Galaxy is quite wide enough for him and the Confederacy both. He's not the type to lie low longer than he has to." He paused. "Or do you think you might have shaken some of his supremacy ideas out of him that last time?"
"Not likely," said Iliff. The voice that came from the transmitter, the thought that carried it, were equally impassive. "He booby-trapped me good. To him it wouldn't even have seemed like a fight."
The Co-ordinator shrugged. "Well, there you are! Anyway, this isn't that kind of job at all. It's actually a rather simple assignment."
"No, I mean it! What this job takes is mostly tact-always one of your strongest points, Iliff."
The statement was not entirely true; but the Agent ignored it and the Co-ordinator went on serenely:
"... so I've homed you full information on the case. Your ship should pick it up in an hour, but you might have questions; so here it is, in brief:
"Two weeks ago, the Bureau of Interstellar Crime sends an operative to a planet called Gull in Seventeen Eighty-two-that's a mono-planet system near Lycanno, just a bit off your present route. You been through that neighborhood before?"
Iliff blinked yellow eyes and produced a memory. "We went through Lycanno once. Seventeen or eighteen Habitables; population A-Class Human; Class D politics-How far is Gull from there?"
"Eighteen hours' cruising speed, or a little less-but you're closer to it than that right now. This operative was to make positive identification of some ex-spacer called Tahmey, who'd been reported there, and dispose of him. Routine interstellar stuff, but-twenty-four hours ago, the operative sends back a message that she finds positive identification impossible... and that she wants a Zone Agent."
He looked expectantly at Iliff. Both of them knew perfectly well that the execution of a retired piratical spacer was no part of a Zone Agent's job-furthermore, that every Interstellar operative was aware of the fact; and finally, that such a request should have induced the Bureau to recall its operative for an immediate mental overhaul and several months' vacation before he or she could be risked on another job.
"Give," Iliff suggested patiently.
"The difference," the Co-ordinator explained, "is that the operative is one of our Lannai trainees."
"I see," said the Agent.
* * *
He did. The Lannai were high type humanoids and the first people of their classification to be invited to join the Vegan Confederacy-till then open only to Homo sapiens and the interesting variety of mutant branches of that old Terrestrial stock.
The invitation had been sponsored, against formidable opposition, by the Department of Galactic Zones, with the obvious intention of having the same privilege extended later to as many humanoids and other nonhuman races as could meet the Confederacy's general standards.
As usual, the Department's motive was practical enough. Its king-sized job was to keep the eighteen thousand individual civilizations so far registered in its Zones out of as much dangerous trouble as it could, while nudging them unobtrusively, whenever the occasion was offered, just a little farther into the path of righteousness and order.
It was slow, dangerous, carefully unspectacular work, since it violated, in fact and in spirit, every galactic treaty of nonintervention the Confederacy had ever signed. Worst of all, it was work for which the Department was, of necessity, monstrously understaffed.
The more political systems, races and civilizations it could draw directly into the Confederacy, the fewer it would have to keep under that desperately sketchy kind of supervision. Regulations of membership in Vega's super-system were interpreted broadly, but even so they pretty well precluded any dangerous degree of deviation from the ideals that Vega championed.
And if, as a further consequence, Galactic Zones could then draw freely on the often startling abilities and talents of nonhuman peoples to aid in its titanic project-
The Department figuratively licked its chops.
* * *
The opposition was sufficiently rooted in old racial emotions to be extremely bitter and strong. The Traditionalists, working chiefly through the Confederacy's Department of Cultures, wanted no dealings with any race which could not trace its lineage back through the long centuries to Terra itself. Nonhumans had played a significant part in the century-long savage struggles that weakened and finally shattered the first human Galactic Empire.
That mankind, as usual, had asked for it and that its grimmest and most powerful enemies were to be found nowadays among those who could and did claim the same distant Earth-parentage did not noticeably weaken the old argument, which to date had automatically excluded any other stock from membership. In the High Council of the Confederacy, the Department of Cultures, backed by a conservative majority of the Confederacy's members, had, naturally enough, tremendous influence.
Galactic Zones, however-though not one citizen in fifty thousand knew of its existence, and though its arguments could not be openly advanced-had a trifle more.
So the Lannai were in-on probation.
"As you may have surmised," the Third Co-ordinator said glumly, "the Lannai haven't exactly been breaking their necks trying to get in with us, either. In fact, their government's had to work for the alliance against almost the same degree of popular disapproval; though on the whole they seem to be a rather more reasonable sort of people than we are. Highly developed natural telepaths, you know-that always seems to make folks a little easier to get along with."
"What's this one doing in Interstellar?" Iliff inquired.
"We've placed a few Lannai in almost every department of the government by now-not, of course, in Galactic Zones! The idea is to prove, to our people and theirs, that Lannai and humans can work for the same goal, share responsibilities, and so on. To prove generally that we're natural allies."
"Has it been proved?"
"Too early to say. They're bright enough and, of course, the ones they sent us were hand-picked and anxious to make good. This Interstellar operative looked like one of the best. She's a kind of relative of the fifth ranking Lannai ruler. That's what would make it bad if it turned out she'd blown up under stress. For one thing, their pride could be hurt enough to make them bolt the alliance. But our Traditionalists certainly would be bound to hear about it, and," the Co-ordinator concluded heatedly, "the Co-ordinator of Cultures would be rising to his big feet again on the subject in Council!"
"An awkward situation, sir," Iliff sympathized, "demanding a great deal of tact. But then you have that."
"I've got it," agreed the Co-ordinator, "but I'd prefer not to have to use it so much. So if you can find some way of handling that little affair on Gull discreetly-Incidentally, since you'll be just a short run then from Lycanno, there's an undesirable political trend reported building up there. They've dropped from D to H-Class politics inside of a decade. You'll find the local Agent's notes on the matter waiting for you on Gull. Perhaps you might as well skip over and fix it."
"All right," said Iliff coldly. "I won't be needed back in my own Zone for another hundred hours. Not urgently."
"Lab's got a new mind-lock for you to test," the Co-ordinator went on briskly. "You'll find that on Gull, too."
There was a slight pause.
"You remember, don't you," the Agent inquired gently then, as if speaking to an erring child, "what happened the last time I gave one of those gadgets a field test on a highpowered brain?"
"Yes, of course! But if this one works," the Co-ordinator pointed out, almost wistfully, "we've got something we really do need. And until I know it does work, under ultimate stresses, I can't give it general distribution. I've picked a hundred of you to try it out." He sighed. "Theoretically, it will hold a mind of any conceivable potential within that mind's own shields, under any conceivable stress, and still permit almost normal investigation. It's been checked to the limit," he concluded encouragingly, "under lab conditions-"
"They all were," Iliff recollected, without noticeable enthusiasm. "Well, I'll see what turns up."
"That's fine!" The Co-ordinator brightened visibly. He added, "We wouldn't, of course, want you to take any unnecessary risks-"
* * *
For perhaps half a minute after the visualization tank of his telepath transmitter had faded back to its normal translucent and faintly luminous green, Iliff continued to stare into it.
Back on Jeltad, the capitol planet of the Confederacy, fourteen thousand light-years away, the Co-ordinator's attention was turning to some other infinitesimal-seeming but significant crisis in the Department's monstrous periphery. The chances were he would not think of Iliff again, or of Zone Seventeen Eighty-two, until Iliff's final mission report came in-or failed to come in within the period already allotted it by the Department's automatic monitors.
In either event, the brain screened by the Co-ordinator's conversational inanities would revert once more to that specific problem then, for as many unhurried seconds, minutes or, it might be, hours as it required. It was one of the three or four human brains in the galaxy for which Zone Agent Iliff had ever felt anything remotely approaching genuine respect.
"How far are we from Gull now?" he said without turning his head.
A voice seemed to form itself in the air a trifle above and behind him.
"A little over eight hours, cruising speed-"
"As soon as I get the reports off the pigeon from Jeltad, step it up so we get there in four," Iliff said. "I think I'll be ready about that time."
"The pigeon just arrived," the voice replied. It was not loud, but it was a curiously big voice with something of the overtones of an enormous bronze gong in it. It was also oddly like a cavernous amplification of Iliff's own type of speech.
The agent turned to a screen on his left, in which a torpedo-like twenty-foot tube of metal had appeared, seemingly suspended in space and spinning slowly about its axis. Actually, it was some five miles from the ship-which was as close as it was healthy to get to a homing pigeon at the end of its voyage-and following it at the ship's exact rate of speed, though it was driven by nothing except an irresistible urge to get to its "roost," the pattern of which had been stamped in its molecules. The roost was on Iliff's ship, but the pigeon would never get there. No one knew just what sort of subdimensions it flashed through on its way to its objective or what changes were wrought on it before it reappeared, but early experiments with the gadget had involved some highly destructive explosions at its first contact with any solid matter in normal space.
So now it was held by barrier at a safe distance while its contents were duplicated within the ship. Then something lethal flickered from the ship to the pigeon and touched it; and it vanished with no outward indication of violence.
For a time, Iliff became immersed in the dossiers provided both by Interstellar and his own department. The ship approached and presently drove through the boundaries of Zone Seventeen Eighty-two, and the big voice murmured:
"Three hours to Gull."
"All right," Iliff said, still absently. "Let's eat."
Nearly another hour passed before he spoke again. "Send her this. Narrow-beam telepath-Gull itself should be close enough, I think. If you can get it through-"
He stood up, yawned, stretched and bent, and straightened again.
"You know," he remarked suddenly, "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the old girl wasn't so wacky, after all. What I mean is," he explained, "she really might need a Zone Agent."
"Is it going to be another unpredictable mission?" the voice inquired.
"Aren't they always-when the man picks them for us? What was that?"
There was a moment's silence. Then the voice told him, "She's got your message. She'll be expecting you."
"Fast!" Iliff said approvingly. "Now listen. On Gull, we shall be old Trader Casselmath with his stock of exotic and expensive perfumes.
Excerpted from Agent of Vega and Other Stories by James H. Schmitz Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 28, 2010
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