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 destruction eight 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.”