4.5 4
by James Schmitz

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Plasmoids, ancient living machines, suddenly begin moving under their own power after millennia of stillness for reasons that remain a mystery to men. Holati Tate discovered them--then disappeared. Trigger Argee was Tate's closest associate--and she means to find him. Trigger is brilliant, beautiful, and skilled in every known martial art. She's worth plenty--dead or…  See more details below


Plasmoids, ancient living machines, suddenly begin moving under their own power after millennia of stillness for reasons that remain a mystery to men. Holati Tate discovered them--then disappeared. Trigger Argee was Tate's closest associate--and she means to find him. Trigger is brilliant, beautiful, and skilled in every known martial art. She's worth plenty--dead or alive--to more than one faction in this obscure battle. And she's beginning to have a chilling notion that the long-vanished Masters of the Old Galaxy were wise when they exiled the plasmoids to the most distant and isolated world they knew....

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Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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7.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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It was the time of sunrise in Ceyce, the White City, placidly beautiful capital of Maccadon, the University World of the Hub.

In the Colonial School's sprawling five-mile complex of buildings and tropical parks, the second student shift was headed for breakfast, while a larger part of the fourth shift moved at a more leisurely rate toward their bunks. The school's organized activities were not much affected by the hour, but the big exercise quadrangle was almost deserted for once. Behind the railing of the firing range a young woman stood by herself, gun in hand, waiting for the automatic range monitor to select a new string of targets for release.

She was around twenty-four, slim and trim in the school's comfortable hiking outfit. Tan shirt and knee-length shorts, knee stockings, soft-soled shoes. Her sun hat hung on the railing, and the dawn wind whipped strands of shoulder-length, modishly white-silver hair along her cheeks. She held a small, beautifully worked handgun loosely beside her--the twin-barrelled sporting Denton which gunwise citizens of the Hub rated as a weapon for the precisionist and expert only. In institutions like the Colonial School it wasn't often seen.

At the exact instant the monitor released its new flight of targets, she became aware of the aircar gliding down toward her from the administration buildings on the right. Startled, she glanced sideways long enough to identify the car's two occupants, shifted her attention back to the cluster of targets speeding toward her, studied the flight pattern for another unhurried half-second, finally raised the Denton. The little gun spat its noiseless, invisible needle of destructioneight times. Six small puffs of crimson smoke hung in the air. The two remaining targets swerved up in a mocking curve and shot back to their discharge huts.

The girl bit her lip in moderate annoyance, safetied and holstered the gun and waved her hand left-right at the range attendant to indicate she was finished. Then she turned to face the aircar as it settled slowly to the ground twenty feet away. Her gray eyes studied its occupants critically.

"Fine example you set the students!" she remarked. "Flying right into a hot gun range!"

Doctor Plemponi, principal of the Colonial School, smiled soothingly. "Eight years ago, your father bawled me out for the very same thing, Trigger! Much more abusively, I must say. You know that was my first meeting with old Runser Argee, and I--"

"Plemp!" Mihul, Chief of Physical Conditioning, Women's Division, cautioned sharply from the seat behind him. "Watch what you're doing, you ass!"

Confused, Doctor Plemponi turned to look at her. The aircar dropped the last four feet to a jolting landing. Mihul groaned. Plemponi apologized. Trigger walked over to them.

"Does he do that often?" she asked interestedly.

"Every other time!" Mihul asserted. She was a tall, lean, muscular slab of a woman, around forty. She gave Trigger a wink behind Plemponi's back. "We keep the chiropractors on stand-by duty when we go riding with Plemp."

"Now then! Now then!" Doctor Plemponi said. "You distracted my attention for a moment, that's all. Now, Trigger, the reason we're here is that Mihul told me at our prebreakfast conference you weren't entirely happy at the good old Colonial School. So climb in, if you don't have much else to do, and we'll run up to the office and discuss it." He opened the door for her.

"Much else to do!" Trigger gave him a look. "All right, Doctor. We'll run up and discuss it."

She went back for her sun hat, climbed in, closed the door and sat down beside him, shoving the holstered Denton forward on her thigh.

Plemponi eyed the gun dubiously. "Brushing up in case there's another grabber raid?" he inquired. He reached out for the guide stick.

Trigger shook her head. "Just working off hostility, I guess." She waited till he had lifted the car off the ground in a reckless swoop. "That business yesterday--it really was a grabber raid?"

"We're almost sure it was," Mihul said behind her, "though I did hear some talk they might have been after those two top-secret plasmoids in your Project."

"That's not very likely," Trigger remarked. "The raiders were a half mile away from where they should have come down if the plasmoids were what they wanted. And from what I saw of them, they weren't nearly a big enough gang for a job of that kind."

"I thought so, too," Mihul said. "They were topflight professionals, in any case. I got a glimpse of some of their equipment. Knockout guns--foggers--and that was a fast car!"

"Very fast car," Trigger agreed. "It's what made me suspicious when I first saw them come in."

"They also," said Mihul, "had a high-speed interplanetary hopper waiting for them in the hills. Two more men in it. The cops caught them, too." She added, "They were grabbers, all right!"

"Anything to indicate whom they were after?" Trigger asked.

"No," Mihul said. "Too many possibilities. Twenty or more of the students in that area at the time had important enough connections to class as grabber bait. The cops won't talk except to admit they were tipped off about the raid. Which was obvious. The way they popped up out of nowhere and closed in on those boys was a beautiful sight to see!"

"I," Trigger admitted, "didn't see it. When that car homed in, I yelled a warning to the nearest bunch of students and dropped flat behind a rock. By the time I risked a look, the cops had them."

"You showed very good sense," Plemponi told her earnestly. "I hope they burn those thugs! Grabbing's a filthy business."

"That large object coming straight at you," Mihul observed calmly, "is another aircar. In this lane it has the right of way. You do not have the right of way. Got all that, Plemp?"

"Are you sure?" Doctor Plemponi asked her bewilderedly. "Confound it! I shall blow my siren."

He did. Trigger winced. "There!" Plemponi said triumphantly as the other driver veered off in fright.

Trigger told herself to relax. Aircars were so nearly accident-proof that even Plemponi couldn't do more than snarl up traffic in one. "Have there been other raids in the school area since I left?" she asked, as he shot up out of the quadrangle and turned toward the balcony of his office.

"That was just under four years ago, wasn't it?" Mihul said. "No, you were still with us when we had the last one.... Six years back. Remember?"

Trigger did. Two students had been picked up on that occasion--sons of some Federation official. The grabbers had made a clean getaway, and it had been several months later before she heard the boys had been redeemed safely.

Plemponi descended to a teetery but gentle landing on the office balcony. He gave Trigger a self-satisfied look. "See?" he said tersely. "Let's go in, ladies. Had breakfast yet, Trigger?"

Trigger had finished breakfast a half-hour earlier, but she accepted a cup of coffee. Mihul, all athlete, declined. She went over to Plemponi's desk and stood leaning against it, arms folded across her chest, calm blue eyes fixed thoughtfully on Trigger. With her lithe length of body, Mihul sometimes reminded Trigger of a ferret, but the tanned face was a pleasant one and there was humor around the mouth. Even in Trigger's pregraduate days, she and Mihul had been good friends.

Doctor Plemponi removed a crammed breakfast tray from a wall chef, took a chair across from Trigger, sat down with the tray on his knees, excused himself, and began to eat and talk simultaneously.

"Before we go into that very reasonable complaint you made to Mihul yesterday," he said, "I wish you'd let me point out a few things."

Trigger nodded. "Please do."

"You, Trigger," Plemponi told her, "are an honored guest here at the Colonial School. You're the daughter of our late friend and colleague Runser Argee. You were one of our star pupils--not just as a small-arms medallist either. And now you're the secretary and assistant of the famous Precolonial Commissioner Holati Tate--which makes you almost a participant in what may well turn out to be the greatest scientific event of the century.... I'm referring, of course," Plemponi added, "to Tate's discovery of the Old Galactic plasmoids."

"Of course," agreed Trigger. "And what is all this leading up to, Plemp?"

He waved a piece of toast at her. "No. Don't interrupt! I still have to point out that because of the exceptional managerial abilities you revealed under Tate, you've been sent here on detached duty for the Precolonial Department to aid the Commissioner and Professor Mantelish in the University League's Plasmoid Project. That means you're a pretty important person, Trigger! Mantelish, for all his idiosyncrasies, is undoubtedly the greatest living biologist in the League. And the Plasmoid Project here at the school is without question the League's most important current undertaking."

"So I've been told," said Trigger. "That's why I want to find out what's gone haywire with it."

"In a moment," Plemponi said. "In a moment." He located his napkin, wiped his lips carefully. "Now I've mentioned all this simply to make it very, very clear that we'll do anything we can to keep you satisfied. We're delighted to have you with us. We are honored!" He beamed at her. "Right?"

Trigger smiled. "If you say so. And thanks very much for all the lovely compliments, Doctor. But now let's get down to business."

Plemponi glanced over at Mihul and looked evasive. "That being?" he asked.

"You know," Trigger said. "But I'll put it into specific questions if you like. Where's Commissioner Tate?"

"I don't know."

"Where is Mantelish?"

He shook his head. "I don't know that either." He began to look unhappy.

"Oh?" said Trigger. "Who does know then?"

"I'm not allowed to tell you," Doctor Plemponi said firmly.

Trigger raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"

"Federation security," Plemponi said, frowning. He added, "I wasn't supposed to tell you that either, but what could I do?"

"Federation security? Because of the plasmoids?"

"Yes.... Well.... I'd--I don't know."

Trigger sighed. "Is it just me you're not supposed to tell these things to?"

"No, no, no," Plemponi said hastily. "Nobody. I'm not supposed to admit to anyone that I know anything of the whereabouts of Holati Tate or Professor Mantelish."

"Fibber!" Trigger said quietly. "So you know!"

Plemponi looked appealingly at Mihul. She was grinning. "My lips are sealed, Trigger! I can't help it. Please believe me."

"Let me sum it up then," Trigger said, tapping the arm of her chair with a finger tip. "Eight weeks ago I get pulled off my job in the Manon System and sent here to arrange the organizational details of this Plasmoid Project. The only reason I took on the job, as a temporary assignment, was that Commissioner Tate convinced me it was important to him to have me do it. I even let him talk me into doing it under the assumed name of Ruya Farn and"--she reached up and touched the side of her head--"and to dye my hair. For no sane reason that I could discover! He said the U-League had requested it."

Doctor Plemponi coughed. "Well, you know, Trigger, how sensitive the League is to personal notoriety."

The eyebrow went up again. "Notoriety?"

"Not in the wrong sense!" Plemponi said hastily. "But your name has become much more widely known than you may believe. The news viewers mentioned you regularly in their reports on Harvest Moon and the Commissioner. Didn't they, Mihul?"

Mihul nodded. "You made good copy, kid! We saw you in the solidopics any number of times."

"Well, maybe," Trigger said. "The cloak and dagger touches still don't make much sense to me. But let's forget them and go on.

"When we get here, I manage to see Mantelish just once to try to find out what his requirements will be. He's pretty vague about them. Commissioner Tate is in and out of the Project--usually out. He's also turned pretty vague. About everything. Three weeks ago today I'm told he's gone. Nobody here can, or will, tell me where he's gone or how he can be contacted. The same thing in the Maccadon Precol office. Same thing at the Evalee Home office. Same thing at the U-League--any office. Then I try to contact Mantelish. I'm informed he's with Tate! The two of them have left word I'm to carry on."

She spread her hands. "Carry on with what? I've done all I can do until I get further instructions from the people supposedly directing this supposedly very urgent and important project! Mantelish doesn't even seem to have a second in command...."

Plemponi nodded. "I was told he hadn't selected his Project assistants yet."

"Except," said Trigger, "for that little flock of Junior Scientists who keep themselves locked in with the plasmoids. They know less than nothing and would be too scared to tell me that if I asked them."

Plemponi looked confused for a moment. "The last sentence--" He checked himself. "Well, let's not quibble. Go on."

Trigger said, "That's it. Holati didn't need me on this job to begin with. There's nothing involved about the organizational aspects. Unless something begins to happen--and rather soon--there's no excuse for me to stay here."

"Couldn't you," Plemponi suggested, "regard this as a kind of well-earned little vacation?"

"I've tried to regard it as that. Holati impressed on me that one of us had to remain in the area of the Project at all times, so I haven't even been able to leave the school grounds. I've caught up with my reading, and Mihul has put me through two of her tune-up commando courses. But the point is that I'm not on vacation. I don't believe Precol would feel that any of my present activities come under the heading of detached duty work!"

There was a short silence. Plemponi stared down at his empty tray, said, "Excuse me," got up and walked over to the wall chef with the tray.

"Wrong slot," Trigger told him.

He looked back. "Eh?"

"You want to put it in the disposal, don't you?"

"Thanks," Plemponi said absently. "Always doing that. Confusing them.... "He dropped the tray where it belonged, shoved his hands into the chef's cleaning recess and waved them around, then came back, still looking absent-minded, and stopped before Trigger's chair. He studied her face for a moment.

"Commissioner Tate gave me a message for you," he said suddenly.

Trigger's eyes narrowed slightly. "When?"

"The day after he left." Plemponi lifted a hand. "Now wait! You'll see how it was. He called in and said, and I quote, 'Plemp, you don't stand much of a chance at keeping secrets from Trigger, so I'll give you no unnecessary secrets to keep. If this business we're on won't let us get back to the Project in the next couple of weeks, she'll get mighty restless. When she starts to complain--but no earlier--just tell her there are reasons why I can't contact her at present, or let her know what I'm doing, and that I will contact her as soon as I possibly can.' End of quote."

"That was all?" asked Trigger.


"He didn't say a thing about how long this situation might continue?"

"No. I've given you the message word for word. My memory is excellent, Trigger."

"So it could be more weeks? Or months?"

"Yes. Possibly. I imagine.... "Plemponi had begun to perspire.

"Plemp," said Trigger, "will you give Holati a message from me?"

"Gladly!" said Plemponi. "What--oh, oh!" He flushed.

"Right," said Trigger. "You can contact him. I thought so."

Doctor Plemponi looked reproachful. "That was unfair, Trigger! You're quick-witted."

Trigger shrugged. "I can't see any justification for all this mystery, that's all." She stood up. "Anyway, here's the message. Tell him that unless somebody--rather promptly--gives me a good sane reason for hanging around here, I'll ask Precol to transfer me back to the Manon job."

Plemponi tut-tutted gloomily. "Trigger," he said, "I'll do my best about the message. But otherwise--"

She smiled nicely at him. "I know," she said, "your lips are sealed. Sorry if I've disturbed you, Plemp. But I'm just a Precol employee, after all. If I'm to waste their time, I'd like to know at least why it's necessary."

Plemponi watched her walk out of the room and off down the adjoining hall. In his face consternation struggled with approval.

"Lovely little figure, hasn't she?" he said to Mihul. He made vague curving motions in the air with one hand, more or less opposing ones with the other. "That sort of an up-and-sideways lilt when she walks."

"Uh-huh," said Mihul. "Old goats."

"Eh?" said Doctor Plemponi.

"I overheard you discussing Trigger's lilt with Mantelish."

Plemponi sat down at his desk. "You shouldn't eavesdrop, Mihul," he said severely. "I'd better get that message promptly to Tate, I suppose. She meant what she said, don't you think?"

"Every bit of it," said Mihul.

"Tate warned me she might get very difficult about this time. She's too conscientious, I feel."

"She also," said Mihul, "has a boy friend in the Manon System. They've been palsy ever since they went through the school here together."

"Ought to get married then," Plemponi said. He shuddered. "My blood runs cold every time I think of how close those grabbers got to her yesterday!"

Mihul shrugged. "Relax! They never had a chance. The characters Tate has guarding her are the fastest-moving squad I ever saw go into action."

"That," Plemponi said reflectively, "doesn't sound much like our Maccadon police."

"I don't think they are. Imported talent of some kind, for my money. Anyway, if someone wants to pick up Trigger Argee here, he'd better come in with a battleship."

Plemponi glanced nervously across the balcony at the cloudless blue sky about the quadrangle.

"The impression I got from Holati Tate," he said, "is that somebody might."

* * * *

There was a tube portal at the end of the hall outside Doctor Plemponi's office. Mihul stepped into the portal, punched the number of her personal quarters, waited till the overhead light flashed green a few seconds later, and stepped out into another hall seventeen floors below Plemponi's office and a little over a mile and a half away from it.

Mihul crossed the hall, went into her apartment, locked the door behind her and punched a shield button. In her bedroom, she opened a wall safe and swung out a high-powered transmitter. She switched the transmitter to active.

"Yes?" said a voice.

"Mihul here," said Mihul. "Quillan or the Commissioner...."

"Quillan here," the transmitter said a few seconds later in a different voice, a deep male one. "Go ahead, doll."

Mihul grunted. "I'm calling," she said, "because I feel strongly that you boys had better take some immediate action in the Argee matter."

"Oh?" said the voice. "What kind of action?"

"How the devil would I know? I'm just telling you I can't be responsible for her here much longer."

"Has something happened?" Quillan asked quickly.

"If you mean has somebody taken another swing at her, no. But she's all wound up to start swinging herself. She isn't going to do much waiting either."

Quillan said thoughtfully, "Hasn't she been that way for quite a while?"

"Not like she's been the last few days." Mihul hesitated. "Would it be against security if you told me whether something has happened to her?"

"Happened to her?" Quillan repeated cautiously.

"To her mind."

"What makes you think so?"

Mihul frowned at the transmitter.

"Trigger always had a temper," she said. "She was always obstinate. She was always an individualist and ready to fight for her own rights and anyone else's. But she used to show good sense. She's got one of the highest I.Q.s we ever processed through this place. The way she's acting now doesn't look too rational."

"How would she have acted earlier?" Quillan asked.

Mihul considered. "She would have been very annoyed with Commissioner Tate," she said. "I don't blame her for that--I'd be, too, in the circumstances. When he got back, she'd have wanted a reasonable explanation for what has been going on. If she didn't get one that satisfied her, she'd have quit. But she would have waited till he got back. Why not, after all?"

"You don't think she's going to wait now?"

"I do not," Mihul said. "She's forwarded him a kind of ultimatum through Plemponi. Communicate-or-else, in effect. Frankly, I wouldn't care to guarantee she'll stay around to hear the answer."

"Hm.... What do you expect she'll do?"

"Take off," Mihul said. "One way or the other."

"Ungh," Quillan said disgustedly. "You make it sound like the chick's got built-in space drives. You can stop her, can't you?"

"Certainly I can stop her," Mihul said. "If I can lock her in her room and sit on her to make sure she doesn't leave by the window. But 'unobtrusively?' You're the one who stressed she isn't to know she's being watched."

"True," Quillan said promptly. "I spoke like a loon, Mihul."

"True, Major Quillan, sir," said Mihul. "Now try again."

The transmitter was silent a few seconds. "Could you guarantee her for three days?" he asked.

"I could not," said Mihul. "I couldn't guarantee her another three hours."

"As bad as that?"

"Yes," said Mihul. "As bad as that. She was controlling herself with Plemponi. But I've been observing her in the physical workouts. I've fed it to her as heavy as I could, but there's a limit to what you can do that way. She's kept herself in very good shape."

"One of the best, I've been told," said Quillan.

"Condition, I meant," said Mihul. "Anyway, she's trained down fine right now. Any more of it would just make her edgier. You know how it goes."

"Uh-huh," he said. "Fighter nerves."

"Same deal," Mihul agreed.

There was a short pause. "How about slapping a guard on all Colonial school exits?" he suggested.

"Can you send me an army?"


"Then forget it. She was a student here, remember? Last year a bunch of our students smuggled the stuffed restructured mastodon out and left it in the back garden of the mayor of Ceyce, just for laughs. Too many exits. And Trigger was a trickier monkey than most that way, when she felt like it. She'll fade out of here whenever she wants to."

"It's those damn tube portal systems!" said Quillan, with feeling. "Most gruesome invention that ever hit the tailing profession." He sighed. "You win, Mihul! The Commissioner isn't in at the moment. But whether he gets in or not, I'll have someone over today to pick her up. Matter of fact, I'll come along myself."

"Good for you, boy!" Mihul said relievedly. "Did you get anything out of yesterday's grabbers?"

"A little. 'Get her, don't harm her' were their instructions. Otherwise it was like with those other slobs. A hole in the head where the real info should be. But at least we know for sure now that someone is specifically after Argee. The price was kind of interesting."

"What was it?"

"Flat half million credits."

Mihul whistled. "Poor Trigger!"

"Well, nobody's very likely to earn the money."

"I hope not. She's a good kid. All right, Major. Signing off now."

"Hold on a minute," said Quillan. "You asked a while ago if the girl had gone ta-ta."

"So I did," Mihul said, surprised. "You didn't say. I figured it was against security."

"It probably is," Quillan admitted. "Everything seems to be, right now. I've given up trying to keep up with that. Anyway--I don't know that she has. Neither does the Commissioner. But he's worried. And Argee has a date she doesn't know about with the Psychology Service, four days from now."

"The eggheads?" Mihul was startled. "What do they want with her?"

"You know," Quillan remarked reflectively, "that's odd! They didn't think to tell me."

"Why are you letting me know?" Mihul asked.

"You'll find out, doll," he said.

* * * *

The U-League guard leaning against the wall opposite the portal snapped to attention as it opened. Trigger stepped out. He gave her a fine flourish of a salute.

"Good morning, Miss Farn."

"Morning," Trigger said. She flashed him a smile. "Did the mail get in?"

"Just twenty minutes ago."

She nodded, smiled again and walked past him to her office. She always got along fine with cops of almost any description, and these League boys were extraordinarily pleasant and polite. They were also, she'd noticed, a remarkably muscled group.

She locked the office door behind her--part of the Plasmoid Project's elaborate security precautions--went over to her mail file and found it empty. Which meant that whatever had come in was purely routine and already being handled by her skeleton office staff. Later in the day she might get a chance to scrawl Ruya Farn's signature on a few dozen letters and checks. Big job! Trigger sat down at her desk.

She brooded there a minute or two, tapping her teeth with her thumbnail. The Honorable Precolonial Commissioner Tate, whatever else might be said of him, undoubtedly was one of the brainiest little characters she'd ever come across. He probably saw some quite valid reason for keeping her here, isolated and uninformed. The question was what the reason could be.

Security.... Trigger wrinkled her nose. Security didn't mean a thing. Everybody and everything associated with the Old Galactic plasmoids had been wrapped up in Federation security measures since the day the plasmoid discovery was announced. And she'd been in the middle of the operations concerning them right along. Why should Holati Tate have turned secretive on her now? When even blabby old Plemponi could contact him.

It was more than a little annoying....

Trigger shrugged, reached into a desk drawer and took out a small solidopic. She set it on the desk and regarded it moodily.

The face of an almost improbably handsome young man looked back at her. Startling dark-blue eyes; a strong chin, curly brown hair. There was a gleam of white teeth behind the quick, warm smile which always awoke a responsive glow in her.

She and Brule Inger had been the nearest thing to engaged for the last two and a half years, ever since Precol sent them out together to its project on Manon Planet. They'd been dating before that, while they were both still attending the Colonial School. But now she was here, perhaps stuck here indefinitely--unless she did something about it--and Brule was on Manon Planet. By the very fastest subspace ships the Manon System was a good nine days away. For the standard Grand Commerce express freighter or the ordinary liner it was a solid two-months' run. Manon was a long way away!

It was almost a month since she'd even heard from Brule. She could make up another personal tape to him today if she felt like it. He would get it in fourteen days or so via a Federation packet. But she'd already sent him three without reply. Brule wasn't at all good at long distance love-making, and she didn't blame him much. She was a little awkward herself when it came to feeding her personal feelings into a tape. And--because of security again--there was very little else she could feed into it. She couldn't even let Brule know just where she was.

She put the solido back in its drawer, reached for one of the bank of buttons on the right side of the desk and pushed it down. A desk panel slid up vertically in front of her, disclosing a news viewer switched to the index of current headlines.

Trigger glanced over the headlines, while a few items dissolved slowly here and there and were replaced by more recent developments. Under the "Science" heading a great deal seemed to be going on, as usual, in connection with plasmoid experiments around the Hub.

She dialed in the heading, skimmed through the first item that appeared. Essentially it was a summary of reports on Hubwide rumors that nobody could claim any worthwhile progress in determining what made the Old Galactic plasmoids tick. Which, so far as Trigger knew, was quite true. Other rumors, rather unpleasant ones, were that the five hundred or so scientific groups to whom individual plasmoids had been issued by the Federation's University League actually had gained important information, but were keeping it to themselves.

The summary plowed through a few of the learned opinions and counteropinions most recently obtained, then boiled them down to the statement that a plasmoid might be compared to an engine which appeared to lack nothing but an energy source. Or perhaps more correctly--assuming it might have an as yet unidentified energy source--a starter button. One group claimed to have virtually duplicated the plasmoid loaned to it by the Federation, producing a biochemical structure distinguishable from the Old Galactic model only by the fact that it had--quite predictably--fallen apart within hours. But plasmoids didn't fall apart. The specimens undergoing study had shown no signs of deterioration. A few still absorbed nourishment from time to time; some had been observed to move slightly. But none could be induced to operate. It was all very puzzling!

It was very puzzling, Trigger conceded. Back in the Manon System, when they had been discovered, the plasmoids were operating with high efficiency on the protein-collecting station which the mysterious Old Galactics appeared to have abandoned, or forgotten about, some hundreds of centuries ago. It was only when humans entered the base and switched off its mechanical operations that the plasmoids stopped working--and then, when the switches which appeared to have kept them going were expectantly closed again, they had stayed stopped.

Personally, Trigger couldn't have cared less if they never did move. It was nice that old Holati Tate had made an almost indecently vast fortune out of his first-discovery rights to the things, because she was really very fond of the Commissioner when he wasn't being irritating. But in some obscure way she found the plasmoids themselves and the idea of unlimited plastic life which they embodied rather appalling. However, she was in a minority there. Practically everybody else seemed to feel that plasmoids were the biggest improvement since the creation of Eve.

She switched the viewer presently to its local-news setting and dialed in the Manon System's reference number. Keeping tab on what was going on out there had become a private little ritual of late. Occasionally she even picked up references to Brule Inger, who functioned nowadays as Precol's official greeter and contact man in the system. He was very popular with the numerous important Hub citizens who made the long run out to the Manon--some bent on getting a firsthand view of the marvels of Old Galactic science, and a great many more bent on getting an early stake in the development of Manon Planet, which was rapidly approaching the point where its status would shift from Precol Project to Federation Territory, opening it to all qualified comers.

Today there was no news about Brule. Grand Commerce had opened its first business and recreation center on Manon, not ten miles from the Precol Headquarters dome where Trigger recently had been working. The subspace net which was being installed about the Old Galactic base was very nearly completed. The permanent Hub population on Manon Planet had just passed the forty-three thousand mark. There had been, Trigger recalled, a trifle nostalgically, barely eight hundred Precol employees, and not another human being, on that world in the days before Holati Tate announced his discovery.

She was just letting the viewer panel slide back into the desk when the office ComWeb gave forth with a musical ping. She switched it on.

"Hi, Rak!" she said cheerily. "Anything new?"

The bony-faced young man looking out at her wore the lusterless black uniform of a U-League Junior Scientist. His expression was worried.

He said, "I believe there is, Miss Farn." Rak was the group leader of the thirty-four Junior Scientists the League had installed in the Project. Like all the Juniors, he took his duties very seriously. "Unfortunately it's nothing I can discuss over a communicator. Would it be possible for you to come over and meet with us during the day?"

"That," Trigger stated, "was a ridiculous question, Rak! Want me over right now?"

He grinned. "Thanks, Miss Farn! In twenty minutes then? I'll get my advisory committee together and we can meet in the little conference room off the Exhibition Hall."

Trigger nodded. "I'll be wandering around the Hall. Just send a guard out to get me when you're ready."

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