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"About an hour after you'd decided to hit the bunk," Holati said, "I portaled back to your rooms to pick up some Precol reports we'd been setting up."
Trigger nodded. "I remember the reports."
"A couple of characters were working on your doors when I got there. They went for their guns, unfortunately. But I called the nearest Scout Intelligence office and had them dead-brained."
"Why that?" she asked.
"It could have been an accident — a couple of ordinary thugs. But their equipment looked a little too good for ordinary thugs. I didn't know just what to be suspicious of, but I got suspicious anyway."
"That's you, all right," Trigger acknowledged. "What were they?"
"They had an Evalee record which told us more than the brains did. They were high-priced boys. Their brains told us they'd allowed themselves to be mind-blocked on this particular job. High-priced boys won't do that unless they can set their standard price very much higher. It didn't look at all any more as if they'd come to your door by accident."
"No," she admitted.
"The Feds got in on it then. There'd been that business in Mantelish's lab. There were similarities in the pattern. You knew Mantelish. You'd been on Harvest Moon with him. They thought there could be a connection."
"But what connection?" she protested. "I know I don't know anything that could do anybody any good!"
He shrugged. "I can't figure it either, Trigger girl. But the upshot of it was that I was put in charge of this phase of the general investigation. If there is a connection, it'll come out eventually. In any case, we want to know who's been trying to have you picked up and why."
She studied his face with troubled eyes.
"That's quite definite, is it?" she asked. "There couldn't possibly still be a mistake?"
"No. It's definite."
"So that's what the grabber business in the Colonial School yesterday was about..."
He nodded. "It was their first try since the Evalee matter."
"Why do you think they waited so long?"
"Because they suspected you were being guarded. It's difficult to keep an adequate number of men around without arousing doubts in interested observers."
Trigger glanced at the plasmoid. "That sounds," she remarked, "as if you'd let other interested observers feel you'd left them a good opening to get at Repulsive."
He didn't quite smile. "I might have done that. Don't tell the Council."
Trigger pursed her lips. "I won't. So the grabbers who were after me figured I was booby-trapped. But then they came in anyway. That doesn't seem very bright. Or did you do something again to make them think the road was clear?"
"No," he said. "They were trying to clear the road for themselves. We thought they would finally. The deal was set up as a one-two."
"As a what?"
"One-two. You slug into what could be a trap like that with one gang. If it was a trap, they were sacrifices. You hope the opposition will now relax its precautions. Sometimes it does — and a day or so later you're back for the real raid. That works occasionally. Anyway it was the plan in this case."
"How do you know?"
"They'd started closing in for the grab in Ceyce when Quillan's group located you. So Quillan grabbed you first."
She flushed. "I wasn't as smart as I thought, was I?"
The Commissioner grunted. "Smart enough to give us a king-sized headache! But they didn't have any trouble finding you. We discovered tonight that some kind of tracer material had been worked into all your clothes. Even the flimsiest. Somebody may have been planted in the school laundry, but that's not important now." He looked at her for a moment. "What made you decide to take off so suddenly?" he asked.
Trigger shrugged. "I was getting pretty angry with you," she admitted. "More or less with everybody. Then I applied for a transfer, and the application bounced — from Evalee! I figured I'd had enough and that I'd just quietly clear out. So I did — or thought I did."
"Can't blame you," said Holati.
Trigger said, "I still think it would have been smarter to keep me informed right from the start of what was going on."
He shook his head. "I wouldn't be telling you a thing even now," he said, "if it hadn't been definitely established that you're already involved in the matter. This could develop into a pretty messy operation. I wouldn't have wanted you in on it, if it could have been avoided. And if you weren't going to be in on it, I couldn't go spilling Federation secrets to you."
"I'm in on it, definitely, eh?"
He nodded. "For the duration."
"But you're still not telling me everything?"
"There're a few things I can't tell you," he said. "I'm following orders in that."
Trigger smiled faintly "That's a switch! I didn't know you knew how."
"I've followed plenty of orders in my time," the Commissioner said, "when I thought they made sense. And I think these do."
Trigger was silent a moment. "You said a while ago that most of the heat was to go off me tonight. Can you talk about that?"
"Yes, that's all right." He considered. "I'll have to tell you something else again first — why we're going to Manon."
She settled back in her chair. "Go ahead."
"Somebody got the idea that one of the things Gess Fayle might have done is to arrange things so he wouldn't have to come back to the Hub for a while. If he could set up shop on some outworld far enough away, and tinker around with that plasmoid unit for a year or so until he knew all about it, he might do better for himself than by simply selling it to somebody."
"But that would be pretty risky, wouldn't it?" said Trigger. "With just the equipment he could pack on a League transport."
"Not very much risk," said the Commissioner, "if he had an agreement to have an Independent Fleet meet him."
"Oh." She nodded.
"And by what is, at all events, an interesting coincidence," the Commissioner went on, "we've had word that an outfit called Vishni's Fleet hasn't been heard from for some months. Their I-Fleet area is a long way out beyond Manon, but Fayle could have made it there, at League ship speeds, in about twenty days. Less, if Vishni sent a few pilots to meet him and guide him out subspace. If he's bought Vishni's, he's had his pick of a few hundred uncharted habitable planets and a few thousand very expert outworlders to see nothing happens to him planetside. And Vishni's boys are exactly the kind of crumbs you could buy for a deal like that."
"Now, what's been done is to hire a few of the other I-Fleets around there and set them and as many Space Scout squadrons as could be kicked loose from duty elsewhere to surveying the Vishni territory. Our outfit is in charge of that operation. And Manon, of course, is a lot better point from which to conduct it than the Hub. If something is discovered that looks interesting enough to investigate in detail, we'll only be a week's run away."
"So we've been ready to move for the past two weeks now, which was when the first reports started coming in from the Vishni area — negative reports so far, by the way. I've kept stalling from day to day, because there were also indications that your grabber friends might be getting set to swing at you finally. It seemed tidier to get that matter cleared up first. Now they've swung, and we'll go."
He rubbed his chin. "The nice thing about it all," he remarked, "is that we're going there with the two items the opposition has revealed it wants. We're letting them know those items will be available in the Manon System henceforward. They might get discouraged and just drop the whole project. If they do, that's fine. We'll go ahead with cleaning up the Vishni phase of the operation."
"But," he continued, "the indications are they can't drop their project any more than we can drop looking for that key unit. So we'll expect them to show up in Manon. When they do, they'll be working in unfamiliar territory and in a system where they have only something like fifty thousand people to hide out in, instead of a planetary civilization. I think they'll find things getting very hot for them very fast in Manon."
"Very good," said Trigger. "That I like! But what makes you think the opposition is just one group? There might be a bunch of them by now. Maybe even fighting among themselves."
"I'd bet on at least two groups myself," he said. "And if they're fighting, they've got our blessing. They're still all opposition as far as we're concerned."
She nodded. "How are you letting them know about the move?"
"The mountains around here are lousy with observers. Very cute tricks some of them use — one boy has been sitting in a hollow tree for weeks. We let them see what we want to. This evening they saw you coming in. Later tonight they'll see you climbing into the ship with the rest of the party and taking off. They've already picked up messages to tell them just where the ship's going." He paused. "But you've got a job to finish up here first, Trigger. That'll take about four days. So it won't really be you they see climbing into the ship."
"What!" She straightened up.
"We've got a facsimile for you," he explained. "Girl agent. She goes along to draw the heat to Manon."
Trigger felt herself tightening up slowly all over.
"What's this job you're talking about?" she asked evenly.
"Can't tell you in too much detail. But around four days from now somebody is coming in to Maccadon to interview you."
"Interview me? What about?"
He hesitated a moment. "There's a theory," he said, "that you might have information you don't know you have. And that the people who sent grabbers after you want that information. If it's true, the interview will bring it out."
Her mouth went dry suddenly. She turned her head to Quillan. "Major," she said, "I think I'd like that cigarette now."
He came over and lit one for her. Trigger thanked him and puffed. And she'd almost spilled everything, she was thinking. The paid-up reservation. Every last thing.
"I'd like to get it straight," she said. "What you're talking about sounds like it's a mind-search job, Holati."
"It's in that class," he said. "But it won't be an ordinary mind-search. The people who are coming here are top experts at that kind of work."
She nodded. "I don't know much about it... Do they think somebody's got to me with a hypno-spray or something? That I've been conditioned? Something like that?"
"I don't know, Trigger," be said. "It may be something in that line. But whatever it is, they'll be able to handle it."
Trigger moistened her lips. "I was thinking, you know," she said. "Supposing I'm mind-blocked."
He shook his head. "I can tell you that, anyway," he said. "We already know you're not."
Trigger was silent a moment. Then she said, "After that interview's over, I'm to ship out to Manon — is that it?"
"But it would depend on the outcome of that interview too, wouldn't it?" Trigger pointed out. "I mean you can't really be sure what those people might decide, can you?"
"Yes, I can," he said. "This thing's been all scheduled out, Trigger. And the next step of the schedule for you is Manon. Nothing else."
She didn't believe him in the least. He couldn't know. She nodded.
"Guess I might as well play along." She looked at him. "I don't think I really had much choice, did I?"
"Afraid not," he admitted. "It's one of those things that just have to be done. But you won't find it at all bad. Your companion, by the way, for the next three days will be Mihul."
"Mihul!" Trigger exclaimed.
"Right here," said Mihul's voice. Trigger swung around in her chair.
Mihul stood in a door which had appeared in the far wall of the room. She gave Trigger a smile. Trigger looked back at the Commissioner.
"I don't get it," she said.
"Oh, Mihul's in Scout Intelligence," he said. "Wouldn't be here if she weren't"
"Been an agent for eighteen years," Mihul said, coming forward. "Hi, Trigger. Surprised?"
"Yes," Trigger admitted. "Very."
"They brought me into this job," Mihul said, "because they figured you and I would get along together just fine."
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