"What was he doing there?"
"Well, sir, he came from Hyles-Frisian. He was a crim ... he'd been engaged in some form of piracy, and when the authorities began looking for him, he decided it would be best to get clean out of the Hub. He cracked up his ship on this world and couldn't leave again. When he discovered the Hlats and realized their peculiar ability, he kept out of their way and observed them. He found out they had a means of communicating with each other, and that he could duplicate it. That stopped them from harming him, and eventually, he said, he was using them like hunting dogs. They were accustomed to co-operating with one another, because when there was some animal around that was too large for one of them to handle, they would attack, it in a group...."
He went on for another minute or two on the subject. The Hlats--the word meant "rock lion" in one of the Hyles-Frisian dialects, describing a carnivorous animal which had some superficial resemblance to the creatures Eltak had happened on--frequented the seacoast and submerged themselves in sand, rocks and debris, whipping up out of it to seize some food animal, and taking it down with them again to devour it at leisure.
Quillan interrupted, "You heard what happened to the man it attacked on the fifth level?"
"Why would the thing have left him half outside the wall as it did?"
Kinmarten said that it must simply have been moving too fast. It could slip into and out of solid substances without a pause itself, but it needed a little time to restructure an object it was carrying in the same manner. No more time, however, than two or three seconds--depending more on the nature of the object than on its size, according to Eltak.
"It can restructure anything in that manner?" Quillan asked.
Kinmarten hesitated. "Well, sir, I don't know. I suppose there might be limitations on its ability. Eltak told me the one we were escorting had been the subject of extensive experimentation during the past year, and that the results are very satisfactory."
"Suppose it carries a living man through a wall. Will the man still be alive when he comes out on the other side, assuming the Hlat doesn't kill him deliberately?"
"Yes, sir. The process itself wouldn't hurt him."
Quillan glanced at Cooms. "You know," he said, "we might be letting Yaco off too cheaply!"
Cooms raised an eyebrow warningly, and Quillan grinned. "Our friend will be learning about Yaco soon enough. Why did Eltak tell the creature to attack, Kinmarten?"
"Sir, I don't know," Kinmarten said. "He was a man of rather violent habits. My impression, however, was that he was simply attempting to obtain a hostage."
"How did he get off that island with the Hlat?"
"A University League explorer was investigating the planet. Eltak contacted them and obtained the guarantee of a full pardon and a large cash settlement in return for what he could tell them about the Hlats. They took him and this one specimen along for experimentation."
"What about the Hlats on the Camelot?"
"Eltak said those had been quite recently trapped on the island."
Cooms ran his fingers over the cylinder, producing a rapid series of squeaks and whistles. "That's one thing Yaco may not like," he observed. "They won't have a monopoly on the thing."
Quillan shook his head. "Their scientists don't have to work through red tape like the U-League. By the time the news breaks--if the Federation ever intends to break it--Yaco will have at least a five-year start on everyone else. That's all an outfit like that needs." He looked at Kinmarten. "Any little thing you haven't thought to tell us, friend?" he inquired pleasantly.
A thin film of sweat showed suddenly on Kinmarten's forehead.
"No, sir," he said. "I've really told you everything I know. I--"
"Might try him under dope," Cooms said absently.
"Uh-uh!" Quillan said, "I want him wide awake to help me bait the cubicle for the thing. Has Velladon shown any indication of becoming willing to co-operate in hunting it?"
Cooms gestured with his head. "Ask Fluel! I sent him down to try to patch things up with the commodore. He just showed up again."
Quillan glanced around. The Duke was lounging in the doorway. He grinned slightly, said, "Velladon's still sore at us. But he'll talk to Quillan. Kinmarten here ... did he tell you his wife's on the Star?"
Brock Kinmarten went utterly white. Cooms looked at him, said softly, "No, that must have slipped his mind."
Fluel said, "Yeah, Well, she is. And Ryter says they'll have her picked up inside half an hour. When they bring her in, we really should check on how candid Kinmarten's been about everything."
The rest warden said in a voice that shook uncontrollably, "Gentlemen, my wife knows absolutely nothing about these matters! I swear it! She--"
Quillan stood up. "Well, I'll go see if I can't get Velladon in a better mood. Are you keeping that Hlat-talker, Cooms?"
Cooms smiled. "I am."
"Marras figures," the Duke's flat voice explained, "that if the thing comes into the room and he squeaks at it a few times, he won't get hurt."
"That's possible," Cooms said, unruffled. "At any rate, I intend to hang on to it."
"Well, I wouldn't play around with those buttons too much," Quillan observed.
"You might get lucky and tap out some pattern that spells 'Come to chow' in the Hlat's vocabulary."
There were considerably more men in evidence on Level Two than on the fourth, and fewer signs of nervousness. The Star men had been told of the Hlat's escape from its cubicle, but weren't taking it too seriously. Quillan was conducted to the commodore and favored with an alarmingly toothy grin. Ryter, the security chief, joined them a few seconds later. Apparently, Velladon had summoned him.
Velladon said, "Ryter here's made a few transmitter calls. We hear Pappy Boltan pulled his outfit out of the Orado area about a month ago. Present whereabouts unknown. Hagready went off on some hush-hush job at around the same time."
Quillan smiled. "Uh-huh! So he did."
"We also," said Ryter, "learned a number of things about you personally." He produced a thin smile. "You lead a busy and--apparently--profitable life."
"Business is fair," Quillan agreed. "But it can always be improved."
The commodore turned on the toothy grin. "So all right," he growled, "you're clear. We rather liked what we learned. Eh, Ryter?"
"This Brotherhood of Beldon, now--" The commodore shook his head heavily.
Quillan was silent a moment. "They might be getting sloppy," he said. "I don't know. It's one possibility. They used to be a rather sharp outfit, you know."
"That's what I'd heard!" Velladon chewed savagely on his mustache, asked finally, "What's another possibility?"
Quillan leaned back in his chair. "Just a feeling, so far. But the business with the cubicle upstairs might have angles that weren't mentioned."
They looked at him thoughtfully. Ryter said, "Mind amplifying that?"
"Cooms told me," Quillan said, "that Nome Lancion had given Movaine instructions to make a test with Lady Pendrake on the quiet and find out if those creatures actually can do what they're supposed to do. I think he was telling the truth. Nome tends to be overcautious when it's a really big deal. Unless he's sure of the Hlats, he wouldn't want to be involved in a thing like blowing up the Star and the liner."
The commodore scowled absently. "Uh-huh," he said. "He knows we can't back out of it--"
"All right. The Brotherhood's full of ambitious men. Behind Lancion, Movaine was top man. Cooms behind him; Fluel behind Cooms. Suppose that Hlat-control device Cooms is hanging on to so tightly isn't as entirely incomprehensible as they make it out to be. Suppose Cooms makes a deal with Eltak. Eltak tickles the gadget, and the Hlat kills Movaine. Rubero immediately guns down Eltak--and is killed by Fluel a couple of minutes later, supposedly for blowing his top and killing the man who knew how to control the Hlat."
Ryter cleared his throat. "Fluel was Movaine's gun," he observed.
"So he was," Quillan said. "Would you like the Duke to be yours?"
Ryter grinned, shook his head. "No, thanks!"
Quillan looked back at Velladon. "How well are you actually covered against the Brotherhood?"
"Well, that's air-tight," the commodore said. "We've got 'em outgunned here. When the liner lands, we'll be about even. But Lancion won't start anything. We're too even. Once we're clear of the Star, we don't meet again. We deal with Yaco individually. The Brotherhood has the Hlats, and we have the trained Federation technicians accompanying them, who ... who--"
"Who alone are supposed to be able to inform Yaco how to control the Hlats," Ryter finished for him. The security chief's face was expressionless.
"By God!" the commodore said softly.
"Well, it's only a possibility that somebody's playing dirty," Quillan remarked. "We'd want to be sure of it. But if anyone can handle a Hlat with the control instrument, the Brotherhood has an advantage now that it isn't talking about--it can offer Yaco everything Yaco needs in one package. Of course, Yaco might still be willing to pay for the Hlat technicians. If it didn't, you and Ryter could make the same kind of trouble for it that my friends can."
The color was draining slowly from Velladon's face. "There's a difference," he said. "If we threaten to make trouble for Yaco, they'd see to it that our present employers learn that Ryter and I are still alive."
"That's the Mooleys, eh?"
"Tough." Quillan knuckled his chin thoughtfully. "Well, let's put it this way then," he said. "My group doesn't have that kind of problem, but if things worked out so that we'd have something more substantial than nuisance value to offer Yaco, we'd prefer it, of course."
Velladon nodded. "Very understandable! Under the circumstances, co-operation appears to be indicated, eh?"
"That's what I had in mind."
"You've made a deal," Velladon said. "Any immediate suggestions?"
Quillan looked at his watch. "A couple. We don't want to make any mistake about this. It's still almost five hours before the Camelot pulls in, and until she does you're way ahead on firepower. I wouldn't make any accusations just now. But you might mention to Cooms you'd like to borrow the Hlat gadget to have it examined by some of your technical experts. The way he reacts might tell us something. If he balks, the matter shouldn't be pushed too hard at the moment--it's a tossup whether you or the Brotherhood has a better claim to the thing.
"But then there's Kinmarten, the rest warden in charge of the cubicle. I talked with him while Cooms and Fluel were around, but he may have been briefed on what to say. Cooms mentioned doping him, which could be a convenient way to keeping him shut up, assuming he knows more than he's told. He's one of the personnel you're to offer Yaco. I think you can insist on having Kinmarten handed over to you immediately. It should be interesting again to see how Cooms reacts."
Velladon's big head nodded vigorously. "Good idea!"
"By the way," Quillan said, "Fluel mentioned you've been looking for Kinmarten's wife, the second rest warden on the Pendrake convoy. Found her yet?"
"Not a trace, so far," Ryter said.
"That's a little surprising, too, isn't it?"
"Under the circumstances," the commodore said, "it might not be surprising at all!" He had regained his color, was beginning to look angry. "If they--"
"Well," Quillan said soothingly, "we don't know. It's just that things do seem to be adding up a little. Now, there's one other point. We should do something immediately about catching that Hlat."
Velladon grunted and picked at his teeth with his thumbnail. "It would be best to get it back in its cubicle, of course. But I'm not worrying about it--just an animal, after all. Even the light hardware those Beldon fancy Dans carry should handle it. You use a man-sized gun, I see. So do I. If it shows up around here, it gets smeared, that's all. There're fifty more of the beasts on the Camelot."
Quillan nodded. "You're right on that. But there's the possibility that it is being controlled by the Brotherhood at present. If it is, it isn't just an animal any more. It could be turned into a thoroughly dangerous nuisance."
The commodore thought a moment, nodded. "You're right, I suppose. What do you want to do about it?"
"Baiting the cubicle on the fifth level might work. Then there should be life-detectors in the Star's security supplies--"
Ryter nodded. "We have a couple of dozen of them, but not in the Executive Block. They were left in the security building."
The commodore stood up. "You stay here with Ryter," he told Quillan. "There're a couple of other things I want to go over with you two. I'll order the life-detectors from the office here--second passage down, isn't it, Ryter?... And, Ryter, I have another idea. I'm pulling the man in space-armor off the subspace portal and detailing him to Level Five." He grinned at Quillan. "That boy's got a brace of grenades and built-in spray guns! If Cooms is thinking of pulling any funny stunts up there, he'll think again."
The commodore headed briskly down the narrow passageway, his big holstered gun slapping his thigh with every step. The two security guards stationed at the door to the second level office came to attention as he approached, saluted smartly. He grunted, went in without returning the salutes, and started over toward the ComWeb on a desk at the far end of the big room, skirting the long, dusty-looking black rug beside one wall.
Velladon unbuckled his gun belt, placed the gun on the desk, sat down and switched on the ComWeb.
Behind him, the black rug stirred silently and rose up.
"You called that one," Ryter was saying seven or eight minutes later, "almost too well!"
Quillan shook his head, poked at the commodore's gun on the desk with his finger, looked about the silent office and back at the door where a small group of security men stood staring in at them.
"Three men gone without a sound!" he said. He indicated the glowing disk of the ComWeb. "He had time enough to turn it on, not time enough to make his call. Any chance of camouflaged portals in this section?"
"No," Ryter said. "I know the location of every portal in the Executive Block. No number of men could have taken Velladon and the two guards without a fight anyway. We'd have heard it. It didn't happen that way."
"Which leaves," Quillan said, "one way it could have happened." He jerked his head toward the door. "Will those men keep quiet?"
"If I tell them to."
"Then play it like this. Two guards have vanished. The Hlat obviously did it. The thing's deadly. That'll keep every man in the group on the alert every instant from now on. But we don't say Velladon has vanished. He's outside in the Star at the moment, taking care of something."
Ryter licked his lips. "What does that buy us?"
"If the Brotherhood's responsible for this--"
"I don't take much stock in coincidences," Ryter said.
"Neither do I. But the Hlat's an animal; it can't tell them it's carried out the job. If they don't realize we suspect them, it gives us some advantage. For the moment, we just carry on as planned, and get rid of the Hlat in one way or another as the first step. The thing's three times as dangerous as anyone suspected--except, apparently, the Brotherhood. Get the life-detectors over here as soon as you can, and slap a space-armor guard on the fifth level."
Ryter hesitated, nodded. "All right."