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The head of the personnel department of Precol's Maccadon office said, "You don't want me, Argee. That's not my jurisdiction. I'll connect you with Undersecretary Rozan."
Trigger blinked. "Under—" she began. But he'd already cut off.
She stared at the ComWeb, feeling a little shaken. All she'd done was to say she wanted to apply for a transfer! Undersecretary Rozan was one of Precol's Big Four. For a moment, Trigger had an uncanny notion. Some strange madness was spreading insidiously through the Hub. She shook the thought off.
A businesslike blonde showed up in the screen. She might be about thirty-five. She smiled a small, cold smile.
"Rozan," she said. "You're Trigger Argee. I know about you. What's the trouble?"
Trigger looked at her, wondering. "No trouble," she said. "Personnel just routed me through to you."
"They've been instructed to do so," said Rozan. "Go ahead."
"I'm on detached duty at the moment."
"I'd like to apply for a transfer back to my previous job. The Manon System."
"That's your privilege," said Rozan. She half turned, swung a telewriter forward and snapped it into her ComWeb. She glanced out at Trigger's desk. "Your writer's connected, I see. We'll want thumbprint and signature."
She slid a form into her telewriter, shifted it twice as Trigger deposited thumbprint and signature, and drew it out. "The application will be processed promptly, Argee. Good day."
Not a gabby type, that Rozan.
If not gabby, the Precol blonde was a woman of her word. Trigger had just started lunch when the office mail-tube receiver tinkled brightly at her. She reached in, took out a flat plastic carrier, snapped it open. The paper that unfolded itself in her hand was her retransfer application. At the bottom of the form was stamped "Application Denied," followed by the signature of the Secretary of the Department of Precolonization, Home Office, Evalee.
Trigger's gaze shifted incredulously from the signature to the two words, and back. They'd taken the trouble to get that signature transmitted from Evalee just to make it clear that there were no heads left to be gone over in the matter. Precol was not transferring her back to Manon. That was final. Then she realized there was a second sheet attached to the application form.
On it in handwriting were a few more words: "In accordance with the instructions of Commissioner Tate." And a signature, "Rozan." And three final words: "Destroy this note."
Trigger crumpled up the application in one hand. Her other hand darted to the ComWeb.
Then she checked herself. To fire an as-of-now resignation back at Precol had been the immediate impulse. But something, some vague warning chill, was saying it might be a very poor impulse to follow.
She sat back to think it over.
It was very probable that Undersecretary Rozan disliked Holati Tate intensely. A lot of the Home Office big shots disliked Holati Tate. He'd stamped on their toes more than once — very justifiably; but he'd stamped. The Home Office wouldn't go an inch out of its way to do something just because Commissioner Tate happened to want it done.
So somebody else was backing up Commissioner Tate's instructions.
Trigger shook her head helplessly.
The only somebody else who could give instructions to the Precolonization Department was the Council of the Federation!
And how could the Federation possibly care what Trigger Argee was doing? She made a small, incredulous noise in her throat.
Then she sat there a while, feeling frightened.
The fright didn't really wear off, but it settled down slowly inside her. Up on the surface she began to think again.
Assume it's so, she instructed herself. It made no sense, but everything else made even less sense. just assume it's so. Set it up as a practical problem. Don't worry about the why...
The problem became very simple then. She wanted to go to Manon. The Federation — or something else, something quite unthinkable at the moment but comparable to the Federation in power and influence — wanted to keep her here.
She uncrumpled the application, detached Rozan's note, tore up the note and dropped its shreds into the wall disposal. That obligation was cancelled. She didn't have any other obligations. She'd liked Holati Tate. When all this was cleared up, she might find she still liked him. At the moment she didn't owe him a thing.
Now. Assume they hadn't just blocked the obvious route to Manon. They couldn't block all routes to everywhere; that was impossible. But they could very well be watching to see that she didn't simply get up and walk off. And they might very well be prepared to take quite direct action to stop her from doing it.
She would, Trigger decided, leave the method she'd use to get out of the Colonial School unobserved to the last. That shouldn't present any serious difficulties.
Once she was outside, what would she do?
Principally, she had to buy transportation. And that — since she had no intention of spending a few months on the trip, and since a private citizen didn't have the ghost of a chance at squeezing aboard a Federation packet on the Manon run — was going to be expensive. In fact, it was likely to take the bulk of her savings. Under the circumstances, however, expense wasn't important. If Precol refused to give her back her job when she showed up on Manon, a number of the industrial outfits preparing to move in as soon as the planet got its final clearance would be very happy to have her. She'd already turned down a dozen offers at considerably more than her present salary.
So... she'd get off the school grounds, take a tube strip into downtown Ceyce, step into a ComWeb booth, and call Grand Commerce transportation for information on the earliest subspace runs to Manon.
She'd reserve a berth on the first fast boat out. In the name of — let's see — in the name of Birna Drellgannoth, who had been a friend of hers when they were around the age of ten. Since Manon was a Precol preserve, she wouldn't have to meet the problem of precise personal identification, such as one ran into when booking passage to some of the member worlds.
The ticket office would have her thumbprints then. That was unavoidable. But there were millions of thumbprints being deposited every hour of the day on Maccadon. If somebody started checking for her by that method, it should take them a good long while to sort out hers.
Next stop — the Ceyce branch of the Bank of Maccadon. And it was lucky she'd done all her banking in Ceyce since she was a teen-ager, because she would have to present herself in person to draw out her savings. She'd better lose no time getting to the bank either. It was one place where theoretical searchers could expect her to show up.
She could pay for her ship reservation at the bank. Then to a store for some clothes and a suitcase for the trip...
And, finally, into some big middle-class hotel where she would stay quietly until a few hours before the ship was due to take off.
That seemed to cover it. It probably wasn't foolproof. But trying to work out a foolproof plan would be a waste of time when she didn't know just what she was up against. This should give her a running start, a long one.
When should she leave?
Right now, she decided. Commissioner Tate presumably would be informed that she had applied for a transfer and that the transfer had been denied. He knew her too well not to become very suspicious if it looked as if she were just sitting there and taking it.
She got her secretary on the ComWeb.
"I'm thinking of leaving the office," she said. "Anything for me to take care of first?"
It was a safe question. She'd signed the day's mail and checks before lunch.
"Not a thing, Miss Farn."
"Fine," said Ruya Farn. "If anyone wants me in the next three or four hours, I'll be either down in the main library or out at the lake."
And that would give somebody two rather extensive areas to look for her, if and when they started to look — along with the fact that, for all anyone knew, she might be anywhere between those two points.
A few minutes later, Trigger sauntered, humming blithely, into her room and gave it a brief survey. There were some personal odds and ends she would have liked to take with her, but she could send for them from Manon.
The Denton, however, was coming along. The little gun had a very precisely calibrated fast-acting stunner attachment, and old Runser Argee had instructed Trigger in its use with his customary thoroughness before he formally presented her with the gun. She had never had occasion to turn the stunner on a human being, but she'd used it on game. If this cloak and dagger business became too realistic, she'd already decided she would use it as needed.
She slipped the Denton into the side pocket of a lightweight rain robe, draped the robe over her arm, slung her purse beside it, picked up the sun hat and left the room.
The Colonial School's kitchen area was on one of the underground levels. Unless they'd modified their guard system very considerably since Trigger had graduated, that was the route by which she would leave.
As far as she could tell they hadn't modified anything. The whole kitchen level looked so unchanged that she had a moment of nostalgia. Groups of students went chattering along the hallways between the storerooms and the cooking and processing plants. The big mess hall, Trigger noticed in passing, smelled as good as it always had. Bells sounded the end of a period and a loudspeaker system began directing Class so and so to Room such and such. Standing around were a few uniformed guards — mainly for the purpose of helping out newcomers who had lost their direction.
She came out on the equally familiar big and brightly lit platform of the loading ramp. Some sixty or seventy great cylindrical vans floated alongside the platform, most of them disgorging their contents, some still sealed.
Trigger walked unhurriedly down the ramp, staying in the background, observing the movements of two ramp guards and marking four vans which were empty and looked ready to go.
The driver of the farthest of the four empties stood in the back of his vehicle, a few feet above the platform. When Trigger came level with him, he was studying her. He was a big young man with tousled black hair and a rough-and-ready look. He was grinning very faintly. He knew the ways of Colonial School students.
Trigger raised her left hand a few inches, three fingers up. His grin widened. He shook his head and raised both hands in a corresponding gesture. Eight fingers.
Trigger frowned at him, stopped and looked back along the row of vans. Then left hand up again — four fingers and thumb.
The driver made a circle with finger and thumb. A deal, for five Maccadon crowns. Which was about standard fare for unauthorized passage out of the school.
Trigger wandered on to the end of the platform, turned and came back, still unhurriedly but now close to the edge of the ramp. Down the line, another van slammed open in back and a stream of crates swooped out, riding a gravity beam from the roof toward a waiting storeroom carrier. The guard closest to Trigger turned to watch the process. Trigger took six quick steps and reached her driver.
He put down a hand to help her step up. She slipped the five-crown piece into his palm.
"Up front," he whispered hoarsely. "Next to the driver's seat and keep down. How far?"
"Nearest tube line."
He grinned again and nodded. "Can do."
Twenty minutes later Trigger was in a downtown ComWeb booth. There had been a minor modification in her plans and she'd stopped off in a store a few doors away and picked up a carefully nondescript street dress and a scarf. She changed into the dress now and bundled the school costume into a deposit box, which she dispatched to Central Deposit with a one-crown piece, getting a numbered slip in return. It had occurred to her that there was a chance otherwise of getting caught in a Colonial School roundup, if it was brought to Doctor Plemponi's attention that there appeared to be considerably more students out on the town at the moment than could be properly overlooked.
Or even, Trigger thought, if somebody simply happened to have missed Trigger Argee.
She slipped the rain robe over her shoulders, dropped a coin into the ComWeb, and covered the silver-blonde hair with the scarf. The screen lit up. She asked for Grand Commerce Transportation.
Waiting, she realized suddenly that so far she was rather enjoying herself. There had been a little argument with the van driver who, it turned out, had ideas of his own about modifying Trigger's plans — a complication she'd run into frequently in her school days too. As usual, it didn't develop into a very serious argument. Truckers who dealt with the Colonial School knew, or learned in one or two briefly horrid lessons, that Mihul's commando-trained charges were prone to ungirlish methods of discouragement when argued with too urgently.
The view screen switched on. The Transportation clerk's glance flicked over Trigger's street dress when she told him her destination. His expression remained bland. Yes, the Dawn City was leaving Ceyce Port for the Manon System tomorrow evening. Yes, it was subspace express — one of the newest and fastest, in fact. His eyes slipped over the dress again. Also one of the most luxurious, he might add. There would be only two three-hour stops in the Hub beyond Maccadon — one each off Evalee and Garth. Then a straight dive to Manon unless, of course, gravitic storm shifts forced the ship to surface temporarily. Average time for the Dawn City on the run was eleven days; the slowest trip so far had required sixteen.
"But unfortunately, madam, there are only a very few cabins left — and not very desirable ones, I'm afraid." He looked apologetic. "There hasn't been a vacancy on the Manon run for the past three months."
"I can stand it, I imagine," Trigger said. "How much for the cheapest?"
The clerk cleared his throat gently and told her.
She couldn't help blinking, though she was braced for it. But it was more than she had counted on. A great deal more. It would leave her, in fact, with exactly one hundred and twenty-six crowns out of her entire savings, plus the coins she had in her purse.
"Any extras?" she asked, a little hoarsely.
He shrugged. "There's Traveler's Rest," he said negligently. "Nine hundred for the three dive periods. But Rest is optional, of course. Some passengers prefer the experience of staying awake during a subspace dive." He smiled — rather sadistically, Trigger felt — and added, "Till they've lived through one of them, that is."
Trigger nodded. She'd lived through quite a few of them. She didn't like subspace particularly — nobody did — but except for an occasional touch of nausea or dizziness at the beginning of a dive, it didn't bother her much. Many people got hallucinations, went into states of panic or just got very sick. "Anything else?" she asked.
"Just the usual tips and things," said the clerk. He looked surprised. "Do you — does madam wish to make the reservation?"
"Madam does," Trigger told him coldly. "How long will it hold?"
It would be good up to an hour before take-off time, she learned. If not claimed then, it would be filled from the last-minute waiting list.
She left the booth thoughtfully. At least the Dawn City would be leaving in less than twenty-six hours. She wouldn't have to spend much of her remaining capital before she got off Maccadon.
She'd skip meals, she decided. Except breakfast next morning, which would be covered by her hotel room fee.
And it wasn't going to be any middle-class hotel.
There was no one obviously waiting for her at the Bank of Maccadon. In fact, since that venerable institution covered a city block, with entrances running up from the street level to the fifty-eighth floor, a small army would have been needed to make sure of spotting her. She had to identify herself to get into the vaults, but there was a solution to that. Seven years ago when Runser Argee died suddenly and she had to get his property and records straightened out, a gray-haired little vault attendant with whom she dealt had taken a fatherly interest in her. When she saw he was still on the job, Trigger was certain the matter would go off all right.
It did. He didn't take a really close look at her until she shoved her signature and Federation identification in front of him. Then his head bobbed up briskly. His eyes lit up.
"Trigger!" He bounced out of his chair. His right hand shot out. "Good to see you again! I've been hearing about you."
They shook hands. She put a finger to her lips. "I'm here incog!" she cautioned in a low voice. "Can you handle this quietly?"
The faded blue eyes widened slightly, but he asked no questions. Trigger Argee's name was known rather widely, as a matter of fact, particularly on her home world. And as he remembered Trigger, she wasn't a girl who'd go look for a spotlight to stand in.
He nodded. "Sure can!" He glanced suspiciously at the nearest customers, then looked down at what Trigger had written. He frowned. "You drawing out everything? Not leaving Ceyce for good, are you?"
"No," Trigger said. "I'll be back. This is just a temporary emergency."
That was all the explaining she had to do. Four minutes later she had her money. Three minutes after that she had paid for the Dawn City reservation as Birna Drellgannoth and deposited her thumbprints with the ticket office. Counting what was left, she found it came to just under a hundred and thirty-eight.
Definitely no dinner tonight! She needed a suitcase and a change of clothing. And then she'd just better go sit in that hotel room.
The street level traffic was moderate around the bank, but it began to thicken as she approached a shopping center two blocks farther on. Striding along, neither hurrying nor idling, Trigger decided she had it made. The only real chance to catch up with her had been at the bank. And the old vault attendant wouldn't talk.
Half a block from the shopping center, a row of spacers on planetleave came rollicking cheerily toward her, uniform jackets unbuttoned, three Ceyce girls in arm-linked formation among them, all happily high. Trigger shifted toward the edge of the sidewalk to let them pass. As the line swayed up on her left, there was the shadowy settling of an aircar at the curb to her right.
With loud outcries of glad recognition and whoops of laughter, the line swung in about her, close. Bodies crowded against her; a hand was clapped over her mouth. Other hands held her arms. Her feet came off the ground and she had a momentary awareness of being rushed expertly forward.
Then she was in the car, half on her side over the rear seat, two very strong hands clamping her wrists together behind her back. As she sucked in her breath for a yell, the door snapped shut behind her, cutting off the rollicking "ha-ha-ha's" and other noises outside.
There was a lurching twist as the aircar shot upward.
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