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Trigger gasped. Her eyes flew open. She made a convulsive effort to vanish beneath the surface of the creek. Being flat on the sand as it was, that didn't work. So she stopped splashing about and made rapid covering-up motions here and there instead.
"You've got a nerve!" she snapped as her breath came back. "Beat it. Fast!"
Ole bashful Quillan, standing on the bank fifteen feet above her, looked hurt. He also looked.
"Look!" he said plaintively. "I just came over to make sure you were all right — wild animals around! I wasn't studying the color scheme."
"Beat it! At once!"
Quillan inhaled with apparent difficulty.
"Though now it's been mentioned," he went on, speaking rapidly and unevenly, "there is all that brown and that sort of pink and that lovely white." He was getting more enthusiastic by the moment; Trigger became afraid he would fall off the bank and land in the creek beside her. "And the — ooh-ummh! — wet red hair and the freckles!" he rattled along, his eyes starting out of his head. "And the lovely—"
"Quillan!" she yelled. "Please!"
Quillan checked himself. "Uh!" he said. He drew a deep breath. The wild look faded. Sanity appeared to return. "Well, it's the truth about those wild animals! Some sort of large, uncouth critter was observed just now ducking into the forest at the upper end of the valley!"
Trigger darted a glance along the bank. Her clothes were forty feet away, just beside the water.
"I'm observing some sort of large, uncouth critter right here!" she said coldly. "What's worse, it's observing me. Turn around!"
Quillan sighed. "You're a hard woman, Argee," be said. But he turned. He was carrying a bolstered gun, as a matter of fact; but he usually did that nowadays anyway. "This thing," he went on, "is supposed to have a head like a bat, three feet across. It flies."
"Very interesting," Trigger told him. She decided he wasn't going to turn around again. "So now I'll just get into my clothes, and then—"
It came quietly out of the trees around the upper bend of the creek sixty feet away. It had a head like a bat, and was blue on top and yellow below. Its flopping wing tips barely cleared the bank on either side. The three-foot mouth was wide open, showing very long thin white teeth. It came skimming swiftly over the surface of the water toward her.
They walked back along the trail to camp. Trigger walked a few steps ahead, her back very straight. The worst of it had been the smug look on his face.
"Heel!" she observed. "Heel! Heel! Heel!"
"Now, Trigger," Quillan said calmingly behind her. "After all, it was you who came flying up the bank and wrapped yourself around my neck. All wet, too."
"I was scared!" Trigger snarled. "Who wouldn't be? You certainly didn't hesitate an instant to take full advantage of the situation!"
"True," Quillan admitted. "I'd dropped the bat. There you were. Who'd hesitate. I'm not out of my mind."
She did two dance steps of pure rage and spun to face him. She put her hands on her hips. Quillan stopped warily.
"Your mind!" she said. "I'd hate to have one like it. What do you think I am? One of Belchik's houris?"
For a man his size, be was really extremely quick. Before she could move, he was there, one big arm wrapped about her shoulders, pinning her arms to her sides. "Easy, Trigger!" he said softly.
Well, others had tried to hold her like that when she didn't want to be held. A twist, a jerk, a heave — and over and down they went. Trigger braced herself quietly. If she was quick enough now — She twisted, jerked, heaved. She stopped, discouraged. The situation hadn't altered appreciably.
She had been afraid it wasn't going to work with Quillan.
"Let go!" she said furiously, aiming a fast heel at his instep. But the instep flicked aside. Her shoe dug into the turf of the path. The ape might even have an extra pair of eyes on his feet!
Then his free palm was cupped under her chin, tilting it carefully. His other eyes appeared above hers. Very close. Very dark.
"I'll bite!" Trigger whispered fiercely. "I'll bi-mmph!"
"Grr-mm-mhm... Hm-m-m... mhm!"
They walked on along the trail, hand in hand. They came up over, the last little rise. Trigger looked down on the camp. She frowned.
"Pretty dull!" she observed.
"Eh?" Quillan asked, startled.
"Not that, ape!" she said. She squeezed his hand. "Your morals aren't good, but dull it wasn't. I meant, generally. We're just sitting here now waiting. Nothing seems to be happening."
It was true, at least on the surface. There were a great number of ships and men around and near Luscious, but they weren't in view. They were ready to jump in any direction, at any moment, but they had nothing to jump at yet. The Commissioner's transmitters hadn't signaled more than two or three times in the last two days. Even the short communicators remained mostly silent.
"Cheer up, doll!" said Quillan. "Something's bound to break pretty soon."
That evening, a Devagas ship came zooming in on Luscious.
They were prepared for it, of course. That somebody came around from time to time to look over the local plasmoid crop was only to be expected. As the ship surfaced in atmosphere on the other side of the planet, four one-man Scout fighters flashed in on it from four points of the horizon, radiation screens up. They tacked holding beams on it and braced themselves. A Federation destroyer appeared in the air above it.
The Devagas ship couldn't escape. So it blew itself up.
They were prepared for that, too. The Devagas pilot was being dead-brained three minutes later. He didn't know a significant thing except the exact coordinates of an armed, subterranean Devagas dome, a three days' run away.
The Scout ships that had been hunting for the dome went bowling in toward it from every direction. The more massive naval vessels of the Federation followed behind. There was no hurry for the heavies. The captured Devagas ship's attempt to beam a warning to its base had been smothered without effort. The Scouts were getting in fast enough to block escape attempts.
"And now we split forces," the Commissioner said. He was the only one, Trigger thought, who didn't seem too enormously excited by it all. "Quillan, you and your group get going! They can use you there a whole lot better than we can here."
For just a second, Quillan looked like a man being dragged violently in two directions. He didn't look at Trigger. He asked, "Think it's wise to leave you people unguarded?"
"Quillan," said Commissioner Tate, "that's the first time in my life anybody has suggested I needed guarding."
"Sorry, sir," said Quillan.
"You mean," Trigger said, "we're not going? We're just staying here?"
"You've got an appointment, remember?" the Commissioner said.
Quillan and company were gone within the hour. Mantelish, Holati Tate, Lyad and Trigger stayed at camp.
Luscious looked very lonely.
"It isn't just the king plasmoid they're hoping to catch there," the Commissioner told Trigger. "And I wouldn't care, frankly, if the thing stayed lost the next few thousand years. But we had a very odd report last week. The Federation's undercover boys have been scanning the Devagas worlds and Tranest very closely of late, naturally. The report is that there isn't the slightest evidence that a single one of the top members of the Devagas hierarchy has been on any of their worlds for the past two months."
"Oh," she said. "They think they're out here? In that dome?"
"That's what's suspected."
He scratched his chin. "If anyone knows, they haven't told me. It's probably nothing nice."
Trigger pondered. "You'd think they'd use facsimiles," she said. "Like Lyad."
"Oh, they did," be said. "They did. That's one of the reasons for being pretty sure they're gone. They're nowhere near as expert at that facsimile business as the Tranest characters. A little study of the recordings showed the facs were just that."
Trigger pondered again. "Did they find anything on Tranest?"
"Yes. One combat-strength squadron of those souped-up frigates of the Aurora class they're allowed by treaty can't be accounted for."
Trigger cupped her chin in her hands and looked at him. "Is that why we've stayed on Luscious, Holati — the four of us?"
"It's one reason. That Repulsive thing of yours is another."
"What about him?"
"I have a pretty strong feeling," be said, "that while they'll probably find the hierarchy in that Devagas dome, they won't find the 112-113 item there."
"So Lyad still is gambling," Trigger said. "And we're gambling we'll get more out of her next play than she does." She hesitated. "Holati—"
"When did you decide it would be better if nobody ever got to see that king plasmoid again?"
Holati Tate said, "About the time I saw the reconstruct of that yellow monster of Balmordan's. Frankly, Trigger, there was a good deal of discussion of possibilities along that line before we decided to announce the discovery of Harvest Moon. If we could have just kept it hidden away for a couple of centuries — until there was considerably more good sense around the Hub — we probably would have done it. But somebody was bound to run across it sometime. And the stuff did look as if it might be extremely valuable. So we took the chance."
"And now you'd like to untake it?"
"If it's still possible. Half the Fed Council probably would like to see it happen. But they don't even dare think along those lines. There could be a blowup that would throw Hub politics back into the kind of snarl they haven't been in for a hundred years. If anything is done, it will have to look as if it had been something nobody could have helped. And that still might be bad enough."
"I suppose so. Holati—"
She shook her head. "Nothing. Or if it is, I'll ask you later." She stood up. "I think I'll go have my swim."
She still went loafing in Plasmoid Creek in the mornings. The bat had been identified as an innocent victim of appearances, a very mild mannered beast dedicated to the pursuit and engulfment of huge moth-like bugs which hung around watercourses. Luscious still looked like the safest of all possible worlds for any creature as vigorous as a human being. But she kept the Denton near now, just in case.
She stretched out again in the sun-warmed water, selected a smooth rock to rest her head on, wriggled into the sand a little so the current wouldn't shift her, and closed her eyes. She lay still, breathing slowly. Contact was coming more easily and quickly every morning. But the information which had begun to filter through in the last few days wasn't at all calculated to make one happy.
She was afraid now she was going to die in this thing. She had almost let it slip out to Holati, which wouldn't have helped in the least. She'd have to watch that in future.
Repulsive hadn't exactly said she would die. He'd said, "Maybe." Repulsive was scared too. Scared badly.
Trigger lay quiet, her thoughts, her attention drifting softly inward and down. Creek water rippled against her cheek.
It was all because that one clock moved so slowly. That was the thing that couldn't be changed. Ever.
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