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Jame Retief, Second Secretary and Consul of the Terrestrial Embassy to Quopp, paused in his stroll along the Twisting Path of Sublime Release to admire the blaze of early morning sunlight on the stained glass window of a modest grog shop wedged between a stall with a sign in jittery native script announcing Bargain Prices in Cuticula Inlays, and the cheery facade of the Idle Hour Comfort Station, One Hundred Stalls, No Waiting. He took out a long cigar of the old-fashioned type still hand-rolled on Jorgensen's Worlds, glanced back along the steep, narrow street. Among the crowd of brilliantly colored Quoppinamembers of a hundred related native species mingling freely here in the Great Market of Ixixthe four Terrans who had been trailing him for the past half hour stood out drably.
Retief drew on the cigar, savoring the aroma, turned and stepped through the low arch into the tavern. From a high stool within the raised ring-bar at the center of the gaily lit chamber, the barkeepera medium-sized, short-abdomened individual of the Herpp tribe, with chipped wing cases of faded baby blue and four dexterous arms of bristly wine-red on one of which a Terran wristwatch was strappedmanipulated the controls of the dispenser console, exchanged banter with the customers, made change, and kept a pair of eyes on the free lunch simultaneously. He saw Retief, tilted his anterior antennae in friendly greeting.
"I am Gom-Goo, and I dance the Dance of Welcome," he susurrated in Quopp trade dialect, his voice reminiscent of fingernails on a blackboard. "What'll it be, Retief?"
"I'm Retief, and I dance the Dance of Glad Arrival," the diplomat replied in the same tongue. "How about a shot of Bacchus brandy?"
"Red or black?"
"Black." The other customers made room as Retief moved up, unclipped a carefully charred wooden bowl from the serving panel, got it under the proper bright-plated nozzle just in time to catch the tar-colored syrup as it jetted forth.
"That's pretty good stuff," Gom-Goo said; he lowered his voice. "But for a real kick, you ought to try a shot of Hellrosecut ten to one, of course. That'll put a charge on your plates."
"I tried it once. Too sweet for a Terry. We like our sugar fermented."
"Sourballs?" The Herpp indicated an assortment of pea-sized lumps of yellow, white, purple, and green.
Retief shook his head. "I prefer salt peanuts to salt-peter," he confided.
"Well, every tribe to its own poison."
"Here's oil in your crankcase," Retief toasted formally, nibbling the brandy.
"Oil," Gom-Goo responded. "You haven't been in lately, Retief. Been dormant?"
"No more so than usual, Gom-Goo. Ambassador Longspoon's been imposing non-union hours on the staff, I'm afraid. Wouldn't do to let the Groaci steal a march on us and get a Bolshoi-type ballet theater built before we can get a Yankee-stadium type sports arena off the drawing board."
Gom-Goo worked his dorsal mandibles in the gesture that expressed courteous skepticism. "Frankly, Retief, we Quoppina aren't much interested in watching Terries hobble around. After all, only two legs and no wings . . ."
"I know; but it's traditional in these diplomatic competitions to build something conspicuously inappropriate."
Gom-Goo tilted his oculars toward the door, where a pair of Quoppina with highly polished black carapaces were rolling past, twirling nightsticks.
"Speaking of Terry programs, Retief, just between you and me, what's behind this business of buffing up these Voion ne'er-do-wells and setting them to cruising the streets waving clubs at the rest of us?"
"Well, Gom-Goo, it appears that in some quarters the view is held that you Quoppina are a little too fond of brawling, anarchy, and dueling in the streets to qualify as natural democrats. Ergo, a native police force."
"Uh-huhbut why pick the Voion for the job? Their tribe's made its living by waylaying honest Quoppina in back alleys ever since the Great Egg first hatched"
A heavy foot clumped behind Retief. He turned to find the four Terrans ringing him in, ominous expressions on their weathered features.
"We're just in from the Trading Post at Rum Jungle," the lean, scar-faced member of the quartet said flatly. "We want to have a little talk with you, Mister." He put his left fist carefully against the palm of his right hand and twisted it, looking around nervously.
Retief nodded. "Go ahead," he said pleasantly. A large man with thick, protuberant ears and thin sandy hair eased the scarred man aside.
"Not in this dump," he said in a voice like a cannonball rolling downstairs. "Outside."
"If it's a private matter, maybe you'd better drop by my office"
"We already been to the Embassy; talked to some bird named Magnan," the big man said. "He acted like his lace drawers was itching him; no joy there."
"Don't argue with this chump, Big Leon," a squatty fellow with a bluish chin and a steel front tooth advised. "Bring him along."
The bartender leaned over and buzzed sharply. "My name is Gom-Goo," he started. "I"
"Better get your wiring checked, low-pockets," Scar-face cut him off. "Sounds like you got a short in your talk box." He jerked his head at Retief. "Let's walk, Mister."
"I haven't quite finished my drink," Retief said mildly. "Why don't you go stand outside; I'll be along presently."
The fourth man, yet to be heard from, edged close. "Ah, sir, we have a problem," he began. "We"
"Skip it, Jerry," Scar-face snapped. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, glowered at Retief. "Outside, you, like Big Leon said."
"Sorry," Retief said. "Some other time, maybe."
Scar-face narrowed his eyes, reached a large-knuckled hand for Retief's collar; Retief leaned aside, caught the hand, and flipped it over, his fingers against the palm, his thumb against the scarred knuckles, doubled it back over the wrist. Scar-face went to his knees with a yowl. Retief tsked.
"A very poor lead, Lefty," he said reproachfully. "It's a good thing I wasn't an enemy of yours."
"Hey," the big man said, stepping in. "Let him up."
Retief looked at the wide face that topped his own six-three by an inch. "Why do they call you Big Leon?"
Big Leon set himself. "Put Seymour down and I'll show you," he grated.
Retief shifted his grip, lifted the scarred man clear of the floor, hoisted him chest-high. "Here, you have him," he offered, and tossed him at the big man. Leon staggered back, oof!ed, thrust Seymour aside, frowned, doubled a large fist, and moved in
There was a shrill rasp of sound. A thick, five-foot Quoppina with a glistening black carapace decked out in elaborate silver ornaments rolled between Retief and Big Leon.
"Outside, foreign grubs!" the intruder keened. He waved a long billy club of black wood, jabbed it at the scar-faced man, who had stumbled to his feet. There were other club-wielders behind the firsttwo, three, half a dozen or more, all wearing the new black and silver trappings of the CDT-sponsored Federal Police. The Voion captain waved his palps, giving Retief a glimpse down a yellow-green throat set with silvery needles.
"All of you are under arrest," he rasped. "Place your manipulative members above your sense-organ clusters and proceed hence!"
"What's the charge?" Retief asked in the Voion dialect.
"Trespassing in forbidden territory, alien, not that it matters! The example may remind your fellows to remain in the ghetto graciously assigned to them by the indulgence of the Planetary Government!"
"Just a minute," the barkeeper interrupted from his perch above. "I am Gom-Goo and"
"Silence, panderer to alien perversions," the Voion snapped. "Or I'll find dungeon space for you, too!"
The other Voion were unlimbering clubs now. Over their heads, Retief caught Big Leon's eye, jerked his head minutely to the right; the big man narrowed his eyes, nodded quickly. As the Voion before Retief brought his club back for a jab to the sternum, Leon reached, caught the alien by the upper pair of arms, lifted him clear of the floor, whirled him, and slammed him at his fellows. Two of them went over with a crash. Retief spun, intercepted an eager junior closing in from the left, caught him by his vestigial wing cases, sent him reeling back to collide with his partner as Scar-face feinted, twisted the club from the two-pronged grip of the nearest cop, ducked, and jammed it through the spokes of the alien's yard-high main wheels. The victim stopped with a screech and a twanging of broken spokes. Big Leon met a second charging Voion with a roundhouse swipe, yelled as his fist glanced off the armored and thorned thorax, then landed a blow that spun the creature aside. Retief, ready, spiked its main wheels with the club he had wrenched from his last victim, just as the sole undamaged Voion struck Big Leon a vicious blow behind the ear. Leon turned with a roar, picked up the cop bodily, and slammed him against the barkeeper's podium.
"Here!" the barkeeper shrilled. "I am Gom-Goo and I dance the Dance of Distress"
"Let's get out of here!" Scar-face ducked aside as a Voion's club whistled, charged for the door. Quoppina of all sizes and colors scattered before him. Leon aimed a blow at a cop renewing the attack; Jerry took the arm of the fourth Terran, staggering from a bloody cut across the scalp, plunged through the crowd. Retief, backed against the podium by the last two Voion still in action, keeping their distance and swinging their clubs in whistling arcs, plucked a tall bottle from a display, got in a hearty crack across the head of one as Gom-Goo leaned down and laid the other out with a bung starter.
"Retief!" The Herpp called above the chatter of the clientele who had been enjoying the free show. "I am Gom-Goo and I dance the Dance of Apology"
"This dance is on me," Retief panted. "I think I'd better be off now, Gom-Goo; sorry about the damage"
"It was entirely the fault of these jacks-in-office," the bartender clashed his wing cases in agitation. "Interfering in a friendly dispute among cash customers! Tum-Tuk . . ." He signaled to his two table waiters. "Haul these Voion troublemakers out into the alley, to survive or not, just as they please." He leaned over to eye the one Big Leon had thrown against the podium. "As for this fellow, stuff him in the incinerator. He's shouldered his last free citizen off the parking-ledge."
"We'd better dust, Mister," Leon said. "That Bug was a cop and he's got plenty of pals . . ."
There was a distant clanging of gongs.
"You'd best transfer the scene of your diversions elsewhere for the nonce, Retief," Gom-Goo called. "One of these spoil-sports has summoned his fellow black-guards . . ."
"We were just leaving; and thanks for tapping that last fellow; he was getting too close for comfort."
"My pleasure, Retief. The rascals have been getting pushier by the day. They're up to something, mark my words! And remember: After the wheels, the juncture between the parietal plates is the best spot to go for on a Voion."
"I'll remember that. Ta ta."
In a quieter grog shop half a mile from the scene of the action, Retief and four Terrans found a table at the back of the room from which they could keep an eye on the street. Through the wide, doorless arch, Voion cops could be seen hurrying past, grim and businesslike in their black and silver trappings. Big Leon blew on his skinned fist, looked at Retief almost shyly.
"Sorry about the rough stuff, uh, Mister, uh . . ."
"Retief. No apology needed. I see now why they call you Big Leon."
Leon nodded. "You looked pretty good in there yourself, Mister. Maybe those Bugs'll think about it before they tackle a bunch of Terries again."
"What's got into them Bugs?" the scarred man demanded. "They been giving us a hard time out in the field, but I figured they'd be minding their manners here in town."
"That's what we came here to talk about," Big Leon said. "Something's stirring the Voion tribe up. I thought it was just us planters and traders they were out to get, but they've got the whole town sewed up like a dead sailor."
"We pretty near didn't get into the city," the steel-toothed man said. "There's a patrol around the port; a man could get the idea he wasn't welcome."
"The new police force was designed to bring law and order to Quopp," Retief said. "According to the official T.O. there are supposed to be no more than a hundred of them assigned to the city, with smaller detachments at the major trading towns."
"A hundred my uncle Edgar," Leon growled. "The whole town's swarming with 'emand there must be another ten thousand between here and Rum Jungle."
"Yes, I'd say our friends the Voion have answered the call to civic duty in surprising numbers," Retief said.
"They say Longspoon's the one behind it," Scar-face said. "Sometimes I wonder whose side you CDT boys are on."
"The motivation of the diplomat is an enigma that even his best friend, if he had one, would be hard put to define," Retief confided. "Technically, the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne is dedicated to the protection of Terran interests, Galaxy-wide. Of course, figuring out what those interests really are can get a little complicated."
"Like equipping local cops with clubs to pound Terry heads, using fees squeezed out of Terry businessmen," Seymour growled.
"What does the Corps want here, anyway?" Leon demanded. "Quopp was doing all rightwith a little help from Terry free enterprises; then along comes a bunch of CDT Johnnies getting everything organized, and all of a sudden us Terries are undesirable aliens."
Retief refilled glasses. "Admittedly, some of the measures selected by our Chief of Mission may seem paradoxical at first glance. But that's just because you haven't entered into the spirit of the game. All of the measures Ambassador Longspoon has takenrestrictions on private enterprise by Terrans, establishment of the Planetary Police, free goods for the indigent, subsidies for Voion commercial enterprise, and the restare designed to bring peace and plenty to the downtrodden locals whom you fellows have been exploiting."
"What do you mean, exploiting?" Big Leon's fist hit the table. "Why, a hundred years ago, when the first Terries hit Quopp, there was nothing here but wild Bugs living in grass huts and eating each other. We laid out the towns, built trails, started 'em in on a little cottage industry and intertribal trade. We brought in electronics men to be country G.P.'s, developed new lines of merchandise to make life more beautiful for the Quopp in the street, and taught 'em the idea of civilization. Sure, we made a good profitbut they've got their money's worth every step of the way!"
"Still, Leon, now that you've put Quopp on the star maps, competition has set in. Our friends the Groaci aren't going to let this world drift into the Terry camp without a struggle. They've set up a string of trading posts along the other coast of Continent One, and they're doing a brisk trade in miniature Tri-D's, artificial limbs and wheels, and electronic Mah-Jongg sets"
"Direct competition with us!" Jerry burst out. "The copy-cats!"
"Of course," Retief went on, "no self-respecting diplomat could let the challenge pass without making an effort to out-enlighten the opposition. Whatever the Groaci do, we have to do bigger"
"Why?" Seymour grunted.
"Why does a golfer have to hit the golf ball?" Retief riposted. "Such is the challenge of diplomacy."
"But why this sudden compulsion to unite the planet under a single governmentand with the Voion in charge, of all people!" Jerry looked indignant.
"You know we can't even travel inland to look over the markets?" Big Leon said.
"You know why? The Voion! They're all over like a land-lubber's lunchwaving clubs and telling us where we can and can't go!"
"Longspoon's made a mistake, backing the Voion," Big Leon said. "There's not a Bug on the planet doesn't hate their main windings. Slavers and dope-runners, con artists, highway robbers, and second-story menthat's what they wereuntil this idea of reforming 'em and putting badges on 'em came along."
"His Excellency envisions the day when a trained cadre of reformed Voion will lead the newly enlightened masses to a new era of planetary unity," Retief explained. "Or so he frequently says."
"Retief, how long you been here on Quopp?" Leon inquired.
"Only a few weeks, I'm afraid."
"You talk the dialects pretty good."
"I've spent a few hours on the encephalotapes."
"Uh-huh," Leon nodded. "Well, I was born here, Retief. Hell, I haven't been off the planet half a dozen times in my life. And I can tell youthese devils have got something up their sleeve!"
"I'm inclined to agree their police badges seem to have gone to their heads"
"It ain't just that," Seymour said. "There's something in the wind! We saw it, out in the jungleand now here in town! It's getting ready to pop! Pushing Terries aroundthat's bad medicine, Mister!"
"And I'll tell you something else," the steel-toothed man said. "Those Bugs are tapping CDT shipments at the portin broad daylight!"
Retief frowned. "You're sure of that?"
"Been down to the port lately?" Big Leon inquired.
"Not in the past month."
"Come on," Leon rose. "Let's go take a look-see. There's a CDT shipment on the pad right now big enough to put half the Terries on Quopp out of business." As he stood, a buzzing three-inch yellow-green flyer sailed by, settled to a puddle of spilled liquor on the floor. Big Leon raised a size thirteen shoe
"Don't do it," Retief said. "He probably needs a drink as bad as we did."
"That's just a Phip," Seymour said. "You talk like they was human."
"You never can tell," Retief said, skirting the small creature. "He just might be somebody's cousin George."
Outside, the five Terrans hailed two massive peach-colored Wumblums, mounted to the creaking velvet-lined seats strapped to the heavy creatures' backs, relaxed as their mounts trundled off on broad leather-shod wheels toward the space port, groaning up the steep slopes, puffing down the declines, shouting for way among the thronging Quoppina packing the route. Clear of the main shopping streets, the Wumblums made better time, wheeling along briskly under the crisp morning sky. Overhead, the glaring crescent of Joop, Quopp's sister world, swung toward its twice-daily eclipse of the distant sun, a blinding point of white light casting short midmorning shadows across the intricately surfaced buildings that thrust up everywhere like giant, lumpy loaves of pastel-toned bread.
"You gents coming back?" Retief's mount inquired in a voice like the E-string on a bass cello. It tilted an auditory receptor to pick up the reply over the noise of wheels of pavement. "Ten percent off for a round trip."
"Not right away," Retief said. "Better not wait for us."
"I'll stick around anyway; Voom-Voom's the name. Ask for me when you're ready to go. Not much action this morning. All these Zilk and Jackoo in town from the villages, they'd wear out their wheels rubbernecking before they'd hail a rideand these Voion cops all over the placethey're not helping business any."
The Wumblum behind Retief's swung out, came alongside. "Looks like we got company," Big Leon called, pointing over his shoulder with a large, blunt thumb. Retief glanced back; a pair of Voion were trailing fifty yards behind, black shells glistening, light winking from their recently applied police insignia.
"There are two more flanking us on the right," Retief said. "I'd guess we're covered on the left, too. They don't want us to be lonely."
"Maybe you'd better cut out of here," Leon suggested. "I guess they're still mad. Me and the boys'll handle this."
"It's a nice day for a drive," Retief said. "I wouldn't think of missing it."
The Wumblum took a quick look back at Retief. "Some of those Voion giving you gents trouble?"
"They're trying, I'll concede, Voom-Voom."
"Don't worry about a thing, boss. I'll say a word to my sidekick Rhum-Rhum, and we'll lead those grub-eaters down a couple of side streets to a cul-de-sac I know and work 'em over for you."
"That's friendly of you, old-timer, but we don't have time for any more horseplay today."
"All part of the service," Voom-Voom said.
The port came into view as the party emerged from the twisting avenue; a hundred acre expanse of hilly ground ringed by a sagging wire fence, paved and scabbed over with a maze of flimsy temporary structures, some now nearly a century old, among which the tall shapes of scattered vessels thrust up, festooned with service cables and personnel rigging. As Retief watched, a vast black shadow swept down the hillside beyond the ships, rushed across the port blanking out the gleam of sun on chromalloy and concrete and corrugated aluminum, then enveloped them, plunging the street into abrupt, total darkness. Retief looked up; the great fire-edged disk of Joop loomed black against the midnight blue sky. Voom-Voom lowered his head, and the beam of dusty light from his luminescent organ cut a path through the gloom ahead.
"You know, you Terries have done us Quoppina a lot of good," he said, slowing now to pick his way with more care. "Like the focusing lenses for us Wumblums' head-lights; a real boon. And the rubber wheel-shoes like some of the fellows wear; a useful item. And the synthetic lubricantsand the surgical sparesyou've kept a lot of fellows on the street earning a living at the time o' life when our dads would have been laid up for good. But these Voion cops, and this one-world, one-government idea: It's a mistake. It's always been every tribe for itself, and a good system, too"
"Watch out, Retief," Big Leon called quietly. There was a soft swish of tires on clay pavement, the abrupt stab of yellowish light beams as fast-moving forms closed in on both sides.
"Halt!" a Voion accent came from the darkness. "Pull up here, you Wumblums, in the name of the law!"
"You small-time chiselers have got the gall to pull that routine on me?" Voom-Voom trumpeted, accelerating. "Stay out of my way, or I'll leave my tread-marks down your backs!"
"That's an order, you great bumbling lout!" One of the Voion, apparently carried away by his own recently acquired rank, swung too close; Voom-Voom shot out an arm like a ship-grapple, gathered the luckless creature in, tossed him aside to slam the pavement with a clang of metallo-organic body plates. A second Voion, veering aside, gave a shriek, disappeared under the massive wheels of Rhum-Rhum. The others sheered off, fell back, as the Wumblums sped off toward the lights now gleaming all across the port. Retief held on to the worn leather hand-straps as the solid wheels hammered over the potholed road.
"A good thing the CDT hasn't gone as far as handing out power guns to those Jaspers," Seymour shouted as Rhum-Rhum came up on the starboard beam.
"Look there" Jerry leaned forward beside Retief. "There are Voion swarming all over the port!"
"Don't worry, gents," Voom-Voom hooted. "Rhum-Rhum and me will stand by. That was the first time I've had my wheels on a Voion since the last time I caught one prying the lid off my fare-box. It felt good."
There was a flood-lit gate ahead, flanked by a pair of Voion who rolled forward officiouslyand darted back as Voom-Voom barreled past them, slammed through the fence, hurtled on without slowing. They were in among the tall ships now, threading their way among stacked packing cases, dangling cargo nets, hurrying stevedores, and Vorch cargo-carriers, the latter squat Quoppina with three thick functional wheels and broad, labor-scarred carapaces. Ahead Retief saw the familiar CDT code stenciled on the sides of stacked cases being unloaded by Voion stevedores from the hold of a battered tramp trader under a battery of polyarcs.
"You notice they're not shipping the stuff in Corps vessels," Big Leon pointed out as their mounts pulled up at a signal from Retief. "It's all handled pretty cagey; looks like there's angles to this that Longspoon doesn't want publicity on. It just happens I know that cargo-mark."
A pair of bustling Voion were at work on the cargo net, overseeing the placement of the crates. Others stood about, as though on guardhumbler specimens than the elite police, Retief noted; their dull black wing cases lacked the high polish and brightwork of their favored tribesmates. One, wearing the armband of a Ramp Master, wheeled across to confront the visitors. He was an oldster, beginning to silver around the edges, his thickened wing cases showing the marks of repeated paring.
"What d'ye seek here, sirs?" he chirped in tribal Voion, in what was meant to be an authoritative tone, meanwhile working his anterior antennae in frantic Voion thieves' code.
"Shift . . . cases . . . conceal . . . special . . . consignment . . ." Retief deciphered. He noted a sudden stir of activity among the Voion at the net. A pair of the patrolling stick-wielders rolled in to help. The center of attention appeared to be a stack of cases conspicuously tagged with large red cards reading "For the Terran Ambassador."
"We takee look-see," Seymour was saying in trade pidgin. "We lookee gift-gift Terry friend-friend send."
"Very good," the oldster shifted to the same tongue. "Looky see, plenty ski pants, snowshoe, smoked oyster, bagels, tennis racquet, paint-by-number kit; all stuff keep tiny Quoppina tot alive all winter."
"You hear that, Retief?" Big Leon growled. "Some of my hottest trade items, those are. You'd think Longspoon was deliberately trying to put us traders out of business." He pointed suddenly. "Hey, look there!" A Voion in tribal dress, with the feathery antennae of a Flying Jarwheel strapped to his head, was maneuvering a pink Timbluma smaller cousin of the mighty Wumbluminto position. There was a squat cart hitched behind the mount.
"That's Smuk; he's a retired slaver; used to be one of my best customers. Now look at him, freeloading! No wonder I don't see him around the warehouse sales anymore!"
Retief climbed down from his seat, strolled across to study the stacked crates. The Ramp Master trailed him, his wheels squeaking on the dry bearings of old age. Behind the façade of hurriedly places boxes, Retief counted at least half a dozen of the red-marked cases, identical with the others except for the prominent diplomatic address. The Voion twittered nervously at his heels.
"Nice Terry gentleman take look-see next side, see plenty nice box, you bet," he creaked.
"What's in those, Ramp Master?" Retief asked in tribal Voion, indicating the half-concealed boxes.
"Eee, the sir speaks good Tribal," the old Voion clacked his palps in a gesture indicating Respectful Congratulation. "Why, as to those cases there, they contain educational material, yes, sir, that's what they contain. Now, over here . . ."
Big Leon had come up beside Retief. "Feel like sticking your nose into trouble?" Retief asked softly.
Leon nodded. "Sure, why not?"
"Why don't you go stir up a little activity over there, on the far side of the landing jacksay in about ten minutes?"
"Huh? Oh, I gotcha." Leon gave Retief a quizzical look, went over and spoke to Seymour. Beside Retief, the old Voion signaled with his antennae. A pair of cargo-handlers wheeled casually over to hover near the Terrans, trailing as they sauntered off, looking over the scene of bustling activity.
Retief moved on along the deep-shadowed lane between stacked cargo, paused before a heap of crates, pointed to the manila envelopes stapled to their sides.
"Mind if I look?" he inquired.
"As the sir desires," the oldster said quickly. Retief pulled a folded copy of a bill of lading from the pocket, opened it out. It indicated that the crate contained bound volumes of the Pest Control Journal, consigned to the Information Service Library in the care of the Terran Consulate at Groona small city a hundred miles upriver in Deep Jungle. He went on, casually checking packing lists, rounded the end of the line of stacked crates, came up the back side. Directly behind the red-tagged cases, he found a pile of boxes, containing blank forms destined for the Terran Chancery. At that moment, an outcry came from beyond the looming bulk of the ship. Retief turned to his guide, who was now jittering nervously and looking in the direction from which the disturbance emanated.
"By the way, I forgot to mention it, but one of my companionsthe large oneis something of a practical joker. He may have taken it into his head to start a fire or plant a couple of small choke-bombs. Maybe you'd better wheel over and check on him."
"The sir jests . . . ?" The Ramp Master looked around for a courier, saw the last of his crew curving sharply out of sight on one wheel, headed for the scene of the growing uproar. "If the sir will excuse . . ." he shot off at surprising speed.
At once, Retief turned to the nearest red-tagged crates, used a handy pry-bar to lever a slot free. A layer of oil-impregnated plastic barred his view of the contents of the box. He took out a compact pocket knife, snapped the blade out, slit the liner, reached in, felt a lump coolness of a plastic coated object. He managed a two-fingered grip, drew it out. It was a bulky, heavy package, roughly triangular, larger than Retief's hand, its outlines obscured by the protective cocoon. He slit it, peeled it back; the polished butt of a Mark XXX power gun nestled in his hand.
Retief glanced around; none of the port personnel were in view. He stripped away the oily covering from the gun, dropped the weapon in his pocket, then tucked the empty plastic back inside, folded the liner over it, pressed the slat back in position.
The noises from Big Leon's direction were gaining in timbre and volume, accompanied by splintering sounds. Voom-Voom glanced at Retief. "Say, boss, that racket"
"Just boyish high spirits; it won't last much longer," Retief said. "Meanwhile, see that nobody disturbs me for the next five minutes." Voom-Voom waved one arm, clicked his luminescent organ on, and rolled forward to cover the approach. Retief set to work moving the barricade of boxes aside and removing red tags from the special consignment. The riot continued, still growing in volume. With the red tags free, Retief moved back to the crates marked for Groon, quickly removed the tags, used the butt of his pocket knife to hammer labels removed from the consignment of forms in place in their stead, then hurried on to the crated forms, placed the red tags on the boxes.
"Better hurry it up, boss," Voom-Voom hooted softly. "I think the excitement's dying down over there" He broke off to rumble suddenly into action. Retief heard the shrill of Voion voices. He glanced up at the black disk of Joop; a glowing bulge was showing at one edge now; the eclipse would be over in another half-minute. He hurried back to the special consignment, attached the cards from the library shipment intended for Groon. Behind him, voices shrilled; Voom-Voom was still blocking the lane, loudly demanding why he should move merely to let a pack of Voion riffraff through. Retief stepped quickly to Rhum-Rhum.
"If you backed up carelessly, you might just ram that pile of boxes," he said. "They might get all mixed up together . . ."
"They might, at that," the Wumblum agreed. "Take those scalpers half their siesta hour to unscramble 'em." He straightened his wheels, glanced back, and moved suddenly, slammed into the neatly stacked crates. They skidded, toppled with a crash. Voom-Voom, watching the byplay with one pair of eyes, whirled about in mock alarm, dumped another row. Excited Voion shot past him, shrilling, just as the glare of returned sunlight sprang across the hills, scythed down the slope and on across the crowded tarmac to bathe the scene of chaos in brilliant day.
Big Leon appeared, looming over the scurrying cargo-tenders. He looked around, frowning.
"What the Sam Hill happened here?" he demanded loudly.
"Big brute of a dumb Wumblum makee big mess-mess," the old Voion cargo master shrieked. "Great clumsy louts gotee no damn pidgin here!"
"Don't spin your wheels, grandpa," Voom-Voom rumbled carelessly. He leaned over to put his armored cranium near Retief's. "How'd I do, chief?"
"Very effective," Retief said approvingly. He walked over to the sidelines where a dull-eyed Vorch cargo-carrier was squatting, watching the activity.
"There are half a dozen crates marked for the Terry Library at Groon," he said in trade dialect to the heavyweight. "I wonder if you know of an unused shed nearby where they might accidentally be tucked away out of sight for a few days." He dropped a strip of embossed plastic trade wampum in the Vorch's nearest hand, which immediately twitched it out of sight.
"What's thisa bribe?" the carrier swiveled his wide head to bring his silicon-lensed rear eyes to bear.
"Just a gratuity for services rendered," Retief reassured him.
"That's OK then; just so you don't offer me no graft." The Vorch pointed with a short, thick arm. "The little bonded warehouse over therethe one with the red carving on the front. I'll stack the stuff in there."
Retief nodded and rejoined the party.
"Hey, what gives, Mr. Retief?" Seymour demanded. "Leon says"
"Maybe you better not ask too many questions," the big man put in. "I think we made our point. Let's settle for that and head back for Rum Jungle. Something's ready to pop, and I want to be minding the store when it happens."
"Maybe you better come with us, Retief," Steel-tooth said. "The post is a pretty fair fort if push comes to shove."
"Don't talk foolish, Lester," Leon said. "Retief's got a job to do here."
"Yeah," Steel-tooth said, "but when the job blows up in your face, remember Rum Jungle. We'll need every manand then it won't be enough."
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