The conference room was big and sparsely furnished. Four men sat at the long table in its center. Quillan knew two of them--Marras Cooms, second in command of the Beldon Brotherhood's detachment here, and the Duke of Fluel, Movaine's personal gun. Going by Heraga's descriptions, the big, florid-faced man with white hair and flowing white mustaches who was doing the talking was Velladon, the commodore; while the fourth man, younger, wiry, with thinning black hair plastered back across his skull, would be Ryter, chief of the Star's security force.
"What I object to primarily is that the attempt was made without obtaining my consent, and secretly," Velladon was saying, with a toothy grin but in a voice that shook with open fury. "And now it's been made and bungled, you have a nerve asking for our help. The problem is yours--and you better take care of it fast! I can't spare Ryter. If--"
"Cooms," Baldy Perk broke in desperately from the door, "Bad News Quillan's here an'--"
The heads of the four men at the table came around simultaneously. The eyes of two of them widened for an instant. Then Marras Cooms began laughing softly.
"Now everything's happened!" he said.
"Cooms," the commodore said testily, "I prefer not to be interrupted. Now--"
"Can't be helped, commodore," Quillan said, moving forward, Perk shuffling along unhappily beside him. "I've got news for Movaine, and the news can't wait."
"Movaine?" the commodore repeated, blue eyes bulging at Quillan. "Movaine! Cooms, who is this man?"
"You're looking at Bad News Quillan," Cooms said. "A highjacking specialist, with somewhat numerous sidelines. But the point right now is that he isn't a member of the Brotherhood."
"What!" Velladon's big fist smashed down on the table. "Now what kind of a game ... how did he get in here?"
"Well," Quillan said mildly, "I oozed in through the north wall about a minute ago. I--"
He checked, conscious of having created some kind of sensation. The four men at the table were staring up at him without moving. Baldy Perk appeared to be holding his breath. Then the commodore coughed, cleared his throat, drummed his fingers on the table.
He said reflectively: "He could have news--good or bad--at that! For all of us." He chewed on one of his mustache tips, grinned suddenly up at Quillan. "Well, sit down, friend! Let's talk. You can't talk to Movaine, you see. Movaine's um, had an accident. Passed away suddenly half an hour ago."
"Sorry to hear it," Quillan said. "That's the sort of thing that happens so often in the Brotherhood." He swung a chair around, sat down facing the table. "You're looking well tonight, Fluel," he observed.
The Duke of Fluel, lean and dapper in silver jacket and tight-fitting silver trousers, gave him a wintry smile, said nothing.
"Now, then, friend," Velladon inquired confidentially, "just what was your business with Movaine?"
"Well, it will come to around twenty per cent of the take," Quillan informed him. "We won't argue about a half-million CR more or less. But around twenty per."
The faces thoughtful. After some seconds, the commodore asked, "And who's we?"
"A number of citizens," Quillan said, "who have been rather unhappy since discovering that you, too, are interested in Lady Pendrake and her pals. We'd gone to considerable expense and trouble to ... well, her ladyship was scheduled to show up in Mezmiali, you know. And now she isn't going to show up there. All right, that's business. Twenty per--no hard feelings. Otherwise, it won't do you a bit of good to blow up the Star and the liner. There'd still be loose talk--maybe other complications, too. You know how it goes. You wouldn't be happy, and neither would Yaco. Right?"
The commodore's massive head turned back to Cooms. "How well do you know this man, Marras?"
Cooms grinned dryly. "Well enough."
"Is he leveling?"
"He'd be nuts to be here if he wasn't. And he isn't nuts--at least, not that way."
"There might be a question about that," Fluel observed. He looked at the commodore. "Why not ask him for a couple of the names that are in it with him?"
"Hagready and Boltan," Quillan said.
Velladon chewed the other mustache tip. "I know Hagready. If he--"
"I know both of them," Cooms said. "Boltan works highjacking crews out of Orado. Quillan operates there occasionally."
"Pappy Boltan's an old business associate," Quillan agreed. "Reliable sort of a guy. Doesn't mind taking a few chances either."
Velladon's protruding blue eyes measured him a moment. "We can check on those two, you know--"
"Check away," Quillan said.
Velladon nodded. "We will." He was silent for a second or two, then glanced over at Cooms. "There've been no leaks on our side," he remarked. "And they must have known about this for weeks! Of all the inept, bungling--"
"Ah, don't be too hard on the Brotherhood, commodore," Quillan said. "Leaks happen. You ought to know."
"What do you mean?" Velladon snapped.
"From what we heard, the Brotherhood's pulling you out of a hole here. You should feel rather kindly toward them."
The commodore stared at him reflectively. Then he grinned. "Could be I should," he said, "Did you come here alone?"
The commodore nodded. "If you're bluffing, God help you. If you're not, your group's in. Twenty per. No time for haggling--we can raise Yaco's price to cover it." He stood up, and Ryter stood up with him. "Marras," the commodore went on, "tell him what's happened. If he's half as hot as he sounds, he's the boy to put on that job. Let him get in on a little of the work for the twenty per cent. Ryter, come on. We--"
"One moment, sir," Quillan interrupted. He took Orca's gun by the muzzle from his pocket, held it out to Velladon. "One of your men lost this thing. The one outside the door. If you don't mind--he might pout if he doesn't get it back."
The fifth level of the Executive Block appeared to be, as Heraga had said, quite small. The tiny entry hall, on which two walk-in portals opened, led directly into the large room where the two Pendrake rest cubicles had been placed. One of the cubicles now stood open. To right and left, a narrow passage stretched away from the room, ending apparently in smaller rooms.
Baldy Perk was perspiring profusely.
"Now right here," he said in a low voice, "was where I was standing. Movaine was over there, on the right of the cubicle, and Cooms was beside him. Rubero was a little behind me, hanging on to the punk--that Kinmarten. An' the Duke"--he nodded back at the wide doorspace to the hall--"was standing back there.
"All right. The punk's opened the cubicle a crack, looking like he's about to pass out while he's doin' it. This bearded guy, Eltak, stands in front of the cubicle, holding the gadget he controls the thing with--"
"Where's the gadget now?" Quillan asked.
"Marras Cooms' got it."
"How does it work?"
Baldy shook his head. "We can't figure it out. It's got all kinds of little knobs and dials on it. Push this one an' it squeaks, turn that one an' it buzzes. Like that."
Quillan nodded. "All right. What happened?"
"Well, Movaine tells the old guy to go ahead an' do the demonstrating. The old guy sort of grins and fiddles with the gadget. The cubicle door pops open an' this thing comes pouring out. I never seen nothin' like it! It's like a barn door with dirty fur on it! It swirls up an' around an'--it wraps its upper end clean around poor Movaine. He never even screeches.
"Then everything pops at once. The old guy is laughing like crazy, an' that half-smart Rubero drills him right through the head. I take one shot at the thing, low so's not to hit Movaine, an' then we're all running, I'm halfway to the hall when Cooms tears past me like a rocket. The Duke an' the others are already piling out through the portal. I get to the hall, and there's this terrific smack of sound in the room. I look back ... an' ... an'--" Baldy paused and gulped.
"And what?" Quillan asked.
"There, behind the cubicles, I see poor Movaine stickin' halfway out o' the wall!" Baldy reported in a hushed whisper.
"Halfway out of the wall?"
"From the waist up he's in it! From the waist down he's dangling into the room! I tell you, I never seen nothin' like it."
"And this Hlat creature--"
"That's gone. I figure the smack I heard was when it hit the wall flat, carrying Movaine. It went on into it. Movaine didn't--at least, the last half of him didn't."
"Well," Quillan said after a pause, "in a way, Movaine got his demonstration. The Hlats can move through solid matter and carry other objects along with them, as advertised. If Yaco can work out how it's done and build a gadget that does the same thing, they're getting the Hlats cheap. What happened then?"
"I told Marras Cooms about Movaine, and he sent me and a half dozen other boys back up here with riot guns to see what we could do for him. Which was nothin', of course." Baldy gulped again. "We finally cut this end of him off with a beam and took it back down."
"The thing didn't show up while you were here?"
Baldy shuddered and said, "Naw."
"And the technician ... Eltak ... was dead?"
"Sure. Hole in his head you could shove your fist through."
"Somebody," Quillan observed, "ought to drill Rubero for that stupid trick!"
"The Duke did--first thing after we got back to the fourth level."
"So the Hlat's on the loose, and all we really have at the moment are the cubicles ... and Rest Warden Kinmarten. Where's he, by the way?"
"He tried to take off when we got down to Level Four, and somebody cold-cocked him. The doc says he ought to be coming around again pretty soon."
Quillan grunted, shoved the Miam Devil Special into its holster, said, "O.K., you stay here where you can watch the room and those passages and the hall. If you feel the floor start moving under, scream. I'll take a look at the cubicle."
Lady Pendrake's cubicle was about half as big again as a standard one; but, aside from one detail, its outer settings, instruments, and operating devices appeared normal. The modification was a recess almost six feet long and a foot wide and deep, in one side, which could be opened either to the room or to the interior of the rest cubicle, but not simultaneously to both. Quillan already knew its purpose; the supposed other cubicle was a camouflaged food locker, containing fifty-pound slabs of sea beef, each of which represented a meal for the Hlat. The recess made it possible to feed it without allowing it to be seen, or, possibly, attempting to emerge. Kinmarten's nervousness, as reported by his wife, seemed understandable. Any rest warden might get disturbed over such a charge.
Quillan asked over his shoulder, "Anyone find out yet why the things can't get out of the closed rest cubicle?"
"Yeah," Baldy Perk said. "Kinmarten says it's the cubicle's defense fields. They could get through the material. They can't get through the field."
"Someone think to energize the Executive Block's battle fields?" Quillan inquired.
"Yeah. Velladon took care of that before he came screaming up to the third level to argue with Cooms and Fluel."
"So it can't slip out of the Block unless it shows itself down on the ground level when the entry lock's open."
"Yeah," Baldy muttered. "But I dunno. Is that good?"
Quillan looked at him. "Well, we would like it back."
"Why? There's fifty more coming in on the liner tonight."
"We don't have the fifty yet. If someone louses up the detail--"
"Yawk!" Baldy said faintly. There was a crash of sound as his riot gun went off. Quillan spun about, hair bristling, gun out. "What happened?"
"I'll swear," Baldy said, white-faced, "I saw something moving along that passage!"
Quillan looked, saw nothing, slowly replaced the gun. "Baldy," he said, "if you think you see it again, just say so. That's an order! If it comes at us, we get out of this level fast. But we don't shoot before we have to. If we kill it, it's no good to us. Got that?"
"Yeah," Baldy said. "But I got an idea now, Bad News." He nodded at the other cubicle. "Let's leave that meat box open."
"If it's hungry," Baldy explained simply, "I'd sooner it wrapped itself around a few chunks of sea beef, an' not around me."
Quillan punched him encouragingly in the shoulder. "Baldy," he said, "in your own way, you have had an idea! But we won't leave the meat box open. When Kinmarten wakes up, I want him to show me how to bait this cubicle with a piece of sea beef, so it'll snap shut if the Hlat goes inside. Meanwhile it won't hurt if it gets a little hungry."
"That," said Baldy, "isn't the way I feel about it."
"There must be around a hundred and fifty people in the Executive Block at present," Quillan said. "Look at it that way! Even if the thing keeps stuffing away, your odds are pretty good, Baldy."
Aside from a dark bruise high on his forehead, Brock Kinmarten showed no direct effects of having been knocked out. However, his face was strained and his voice not entirely steady. It was obvious that the young rest warden had never been in a similarly unnerving situation before. But he was making a valiant effort not to appear frightened and, at the same time, to indicate that he would co-operate to the best of his ability with his captors.
He'd regained consciousness by the time Quillan and Perk returned to the fourth level, and Quillan suggested bringing him to Marras Cooms' private quarters for questioning. The Brotherhood chief agreed; he was primarily interested in finding out how the Hlat-control device functioned.
Kinmarten shook his head. He knew nothing about the instrument, he said, except that it was called a Hlat-talker. It was very unfortunate that Eltak had been shot, because Eltak undoubtedly could have told them all they wanted to know about it. If what he had told Kinmarten was true, Eltak had been directly involved in the development of the device.
"Was he some Federation scientist?" Cooms asked, fiddling absently with the mysterious cylindrical object.
"No, sir," the young man said. "But--again if what he told me was the truth--he was the man who actually discovered these Hlats. At least, he was the first man to discover them who wasn't immediately killed by them."
Cooms glanced thoughtfully at Quillan, then asked, "And where was that?"
Kinmarten shook his head again. "He didn't tell me. And I didn't really want to know. I was anxious to get our convoy to its destination, and then to be relieved of the assignment. I ... well, I've been trained to act as Rest Warden to human beings, after all, not to monstrosities!" He produced an uncertain smile, glancing from one to the other of his interrogators. The smile promptly faded out again.
"You've no idea at all then about the place they came from?" Cooms asked expressionlessly.
"Oh, yes," Kinmarten said hastily. "Eltak talked a great deal about the Hlats, and actually--except for its location--gave me a fairly good picture of what the planet must be like. For one thing, it's an uncolonized world, of course. It must be terratype or very nearly so, because Eltak lived there for fifteen years with apparently only a minimum of equipment. The Hlats are confined to a single large island. He discovered them by accident and--"