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Con games. Corrupt governors. Deadly rivalries between departments of the same government. And, of course, the long arm of the Mob. Even in our future among the stars, some things never change—except that the governors run (and ruin) planets, the rivalries are fought with spacecraft and energy bolts, and the mobsters smuggle real illegal aliens and make their getaways with subspace portals. It's all just another day in that bastion of galactic ...
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Con games. Corrupt governors. Deadly rivalries between departments of the same government. And, of course, the long arm of the Mob. Even in our future among the stars, some things never change—except that the governors run (and ruin) planets, the rivalries are fought with spacecraft and energy bolts, and the mobsters smuggle real illegal aliens and make their getaways with subspace portals. It's all just another day in that bastion of galactic peace and democracy, the Federation of the Hub—
and somebody has to clean up this mess!
Join secret agen Trigger Argee, scout adventurer Heslet Quillan and Holati Tate, master of intrigue, as they battle the criminal element on its own interstellar turf...and make the future a little safer for the rest of us.
Senior Assistant Commissioner Holati Tate sat comfortably on a high green hill of the Precolonization world of Manon, and watched Communications Chief Trigger Argee coordinating the dials of a bio-signal pickup with those of a recorder. Trigger was a slim, tanned, red-haired girl, and watching her was a pleasure from which neither her moody expression nor Holati Tate's advanced years detracted much. She got her settings finally, swung around on her camp chair and faced him. She smiled faintly.
"How's it going?" the S.A.C. inquired.
"It's going. Those bio-patterns aren't easy to unscramble, though. That to be expected?"
He nodded. "They're a mess. That's why I had to borrow a communications expert from Headquarters."
"Well," said Trigger, "if you just want to rebroadcast the strongest individual signal, we'll have a usable transcription in another ten minutes." She shielded her eyes and peered up at the late afternoon sky. "Can't see more than a green tinge from here. The Drift's about nine miles up, isn't it?"
"At nine miles you're barely scratching the bottom layer," Holati Tate told her. "The stuff floats high on this world."
Trigger looked at him and smiled again, more easily now. She liked Holati, a weather-beaten little Precol veteran who'd come in as a replacement on the Manon Project only six months before. Assistant commissioners were mostly Academy graduates nowadays; he was one of the old guard the Academy was not too gradually shoving out of the supervisory field ranks. Trigger had heard he'd been in the Space Scouts until he reached the early retirement age of that arduous service. "What's this beep pattern we're copying supposed to be?" she inquired. "Sort of a plankton love call?"
Holati admitted that was as good a guess as any. "At the Bio Station we figure each of the various species keeps broadcasting its own signal to help the swarms keep together. This signal is pretty strong because the Drift's mainly composed of a single species at the moment. When we set up the food-processing stations, we might be able to use signal patterns like that as a lure."
Trigger smoothed her red hair back and nodded. "Dirty trick!" she observed amiably.
"Can't be sentimental about it, Trigger girl. Processed plankton could turn out to be Manon's biggest export item by the time it's a colony. The Federation's appetite gets bigger every year." He added, "I'm also interested in the possibility it's the signals that attract those Harvester things we'd like to get rid of."
"They been giving you trouble again?" Trigger's duties kept her close to the Headquarters area as a rule, but she had heard the Harvesters were thoroughly dangerous creatures capable of producing a reasonable facsimile of a lightning bolt when disturbed.
"No," he said. "I won't let the boys fool with them. We'll have to figure a way to handle them before we start collecting the plankton, though. Put in a requisition for heavy guns last month." He studied her thoughtfully. "Something the matter? You don't seem happy today, Trigger."
Trigger's thin brown brows slanted in a scowl. "I'm not! It's that boss we've got, the Honorable Commissioner Ramog."
* * *
Holati looked startled. He jerked his head meaningfully at the recorder. Trigger wrinkled her nose.
"Don't worry. My instruments are probably the only thing that isn't bugged around the Manon Project Headquarters. I pull the snoopies out as quick as Ramog can get them stuck in."
"Hm-m-m!" he said dubiously. "What's the commissioner doing to bother you?"
"He slung Brule Inger into the brig yesterday morning." Brule was Trigger's young man, Holati recalled. "He'll be shipped home on the next supply ship. And I don't know," Trigger added, "whether Ramog wants Brule out of the way because of me, or because he really suspects Brule was out hunting Old Galactic artifacts on Project time. He wasn't, of course, but that's the charge. Either way I don't like it."
"People are getting mighty touchy about that Old Galactic business," Holati said. "Biggest first-discovery bonus the Federation's ever offered by now, just to start with."
Trigger shrugged impatiently. "It's a lot of nonsense. When the Project was moved out here last year, everyone was saying the Manon System looked like the hottest bet in the Cluster to make the big strike. For that matter, it's why Ramog got the Manon Project assigned to him, and he's been all over the planet with Essidy and those other stooges of his. They haven't found a thing."
Holati nodded. "I know. Wouldn't be at all surprised, though, if the strike were made right here on Manon eventually. It's in a pretty likely sector."
Trigger regarded him skeptically. "So you believe in those Old Galactic stories, too? Well, maybe-but I'll tell you one thing: it wouldn't be healthy for anyone but Commissioner Ramog to make that kind of discovery on Commissioner Ramog's Project!"
"Now, now, Trigger!" Holati began to look alarmed again. "There's a way in which those things are handled, you know!"
Trigger's lip curled. "A foolproof way?" she inquired.
"Well, practically," the S.A.C. told her defensively. He was beginning to sound like a man who wanted to convince himself; and for a moment she felt sorry for disturbing him. "You make a strike, and you verify and register it with the Federation over any long-range communications transmitter. After that there isn't a thing anybody else can do about your claim! Even the ... well, even the Academy isn't going to try to tangle with Federation Law!"
"The point might be," Trigger said bleakly, "that you wouldn't necessarily get near the transmitters here with that kind of message. As a matter of fact, I've seen a couple of pretty funny accidents in the two years I've been working with Ramog." She shrugged. "Well, I'm heading back to the Colonial School when my hitch here is up-I'm fed up with the way the Academy boys are taking over in Precol. And I've noticed nobody seems to like to listen when I talk about it. Even Brule keeps hushing me up-" She turned her head to a rattling series of clicks from the recorder, reached out and shut it off. A flat plastic box popped halfway out of the recorder's side. Trigger removed it and stood up. "Here's your signal pattern duplicate. Hope it works-"
* * *
While Holati Tate was helping Trigger Argee load her equipment back into her little personal hopper, he maintained the uncomfortable look of a man who had just heard an attractive young woman imply with some reason that he was on the spineless side. After she had gone he quit looking uncomfortable, since it wasn't impressing anybody any more, and began to look worried instead.
He liked Trigger about as well as anyone he knew, and her position here might be getting more precarious than she thought. When it became obvious a while ago that Commissioner Ramog had developed a definite interest in Trigger's slim good looks, the bets of the more cynical elements at the Bio Station all went down on the commissioner. No one had tried to collect so far, but Brule Inger's enforced departure from the Project was likely to send the odds soaring. While Ramog probably wouldn't resort to anything very drastic at the moment, he was in a good position to become about as drastic as he liked, and if Trigger didn't soften up on her own there wasn't much doubt that Ramog eventually would help things along.
Frowning darkly, Holati climbed into his own service hopper and set it moving a bare fifty feet above the ground, headed at a leisurely rate down the slopes of a long green range of hills toward the local arm of Great Gruesome Swamp. Two hundred miles away, on the other side of this section of Great Gruesome, stood the domes of Manon's Biological Station of which he was the head.
He had a good deal of work still to get done that evening, but he wanted to do some thinking first. Nothing Trigger had told him was exactly news. The Precol Academy group had been getting tougher to work with year after year, and Commissioner Ramog was unquestionably the toughest operator of them all. The grapevine of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Retired Space Scouts, which counted slightly more than twelve thousand members scattered through Precol, credited the commissioner with five probable direct murders of inconvenient Precol personnel, though none of these actions stood any chance of being proved after the event. Two of the victims, including an old-time commissioner, had been members of the Society. Ramog definitely was a bad boy to get involved with-
The hopper began moving out over the flat margins of Great Gruesome, a poisonous-looking wet tangle of purple and green and brown vegetation, gleaming like a seascape in the rays of Manon's setting sun. There were occasional vague motions and sudden loud splashings down there, and Holati cautiously took the vehicle up a couple of hundred feet. The great chains of swamp and marshy lakes that girdled two-thirds of the planet's equator contained numerous unclassified life-forms of a size and speed no sensible man would have cared to match himself against outside of full combat armor. Precol personnel avoided unnecessary encounters with such brutes; their control would be left to the colonists of a later year.
His immediate problem was the ticklish one of establishing the exact circumstances under which Commissioner Ramog was to murder Holati Tate. It was an undertaking which could only too easily be fumbled, and he still wasn't at all certain of a number of details. Brow furrowed with worried thought, he kicked the hopper at last into a moderately rapid vertical ascent and unpackaged the bio-signal record Trigger Argee had transcribed for him. He fed it carefully into the hopper's broadcast system.
Floating presently in the tinted evening air of the lower fringes of Manon's aerial plankton zone, Holati Tate sat a while scanning the area about and above him. A few hundred yards away a sluggishly moving stream of the Drift was passing overhead. A few stars had winked on; and hardly a thousand miles out, a ribbon of Moon Belt dust drew thin glittering bands of fire across the sky. Here and there, then, Holati began to spot the huge greenish images of mankind's established competitors for the protein of the Plankton Drift: the Harvesters of Manon.
* * *
In a couple of minutes he had counted thirty-six Harvesters within visual range. As he watched, two of them were rising until they dwindled and vanished in the darkening sky. The others continued to hover not far from the streams of the Drift, as sluggish at this hour as their prey. The sausage-shaped, almost featureless giant forms hardly looked menacing, but three venturesome biologists had been electrocuted by a Harvester within a week after the Project was opened on the planet; and the usual hands-off policy had been established until Project work advanced to the point where the problem required a wholesale solution.
Holati tuned in the bio-receiver. Around midday both Harvesters and plankton were furiously active, but there was only the barest murmur of signal now. He eased down the broadcast button on the set and waited.
He'd counted off eight seconds before he could determine any reaction. The plankton stream nearest him was losing momentum, its component masses began curving down slowly from all directions towards the hopper. Holati was not sure that the nearest Harvesters had stirred at all; keeping a wary eye on them, he gradually stepped up the signal strength by some fifty per cent. The hopper was a solid little craft, spaceworthy at interplanetary ranges, but he was only slightly curious about what would happen if he allowed it to accompany a mass of plankton into a Harvester's interior. And he wasn't in the least interested in stimulating one of the giants into cutting loose with its defensive electronic blasts.
The Harvesters were definitely moving toward him when the first streamers of the plankton arrived, thumped squashily upon the hopper's viewplate receivers and generally proceeded to plaster themselves about the front part of the machine. Blinded for the moment, Holati switched on a mass-scope, spotted an oncoming Harvester at five hundred yards and promptly stopped the broadcast. Somewhat nervously, he watched the Harvester drift to a stop while the butterfly-sized plankton life, dropping away from what had become an uninteresting surface again, made languid motions at clustering into a new formation.
He hesitated, then eased the hopper backward out of the disturbed area. A mile off he stopped again and swept his glance once more over what he could see of the gliding clouds of the Drift. Then he jammed down the broadcast button, sending the bio-signal out with a bawling force the planet had never experienced before.
Throughout the area, the Drift practically exploded. Great banks of living matter came rolling down through the sky toward the hopper. Behind, through and ahead of the sentient tides, moving a hundred times faster than the plankton, rushed dozens of vast sausage shapes, their business ends opened into wide, black gapes.
Holati Tate hurriedly knocked off the hopper's thunderous Lorelei song and went fast and straight away from there. Far behind him, he watched the front lines of the plankton clouds breaking over a converged mass of Harvesters. A minute later the giants were plowing methodically back and forth through the late evening snack with which he had provided them.
The experiment, he decided, had to be called a complete success. He got his bearings, turned the hopper and sent it arrowing silently down through the shadowy lower air, headed for Warehouse Center on the southern side of the local arm of Great Gruesome Swamp.
* * *
Supply Manager Essidy was a tall, handsome man with a small brown beard and a fine set of large white teeth, who was disliked by practically everybody on the Project because of his unfortunate reputation as Commissioner Ramog's Number One stooge. Perhaps to offset the lonely atmosphere of his main office at Warehouse Center, Essidy was industriously studying the finer points of a couple of girl clerks through his desk viewer when he was informed that Senior Assistant Commissioner Tate had just parked his hopper at Dome Two.
Essidy clicked his teeth together alertly, lifted one eyebrow, dropped it again, cleared the viewer, clipped a comm-button to his left ear and switched the comm-set to "record." Of the eight hundred and thirty-seven people on the Manon Project, there were nine on whom the commissioner wanted immediate reports concerning even routine supplies withdrawals. Holati Tate was one of the nine.
Essidy's viewer picked up the S.A.C. as he walked down the central corridor of Dome Two and followed him around a number of turns, into a large storeroom and up to a counter.
Excerpted from Trigger and Friends by James H. Schmitz Eric Flint Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 22, 2001
I have also been searching for James H. Schmitz books & stories for 25+ years. I thought I had read all of them, yet this book had a story I've never seen before. Many thanks for Baen for finally reissuing these stories from a author who is a joy to read.
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Posted September 12, 2014
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