"Let's see if you can stand."
Quillan helped the big man to his feet. Baldy hadn't bled too much outwardly, but he seemed to have estimated his own condition correctly. He wasn't for long. Quillan slid an arm under his shoulders.
"Where's a ComWeb?" he asked.
Baldy blinked about. "Passage there--" His voice was beginning to thicken.
The ComWeb was in the second room up the passage. Quillan eased Perk into the seat before it. Baldy's head lolled heavily forward, like a drunken man's. "What's the number?" Quillan asked.
Baldy reflected a few seconds, blinking owlishly at the instrument, then told him. Quillan tapped out the number, flicked on the vision screen, then stood aside and back, beyond the screen's range.
"Yeah, Perk?" a voice said some seconds later. "Hey, Perk ... Perk, what's with ya?"
Baldy spat blood, grinned. "Shot--" he said.
"Yeah." Baldy scowled, blinking. "Now, lessee--Oh, yeah. Star gang's gonna jump ya! Watch it!"
"Yeah, watch--" Baldy coughed, laid his big head slowly down face forward on the ComWeb stand, and stopping moving.
"Perk! Man, wake up! Perk!"
Quillan quietly took out the gun, reached behind the stand and blew the ComWeb apart. He wasn't certain what the freighter's crew would make of the sudden break in the connection, but they could hardly regard it as reassuring. He made a brief prowl then through the main sections of the level. Evidence everywhere of a short and furious struggle, a struggle between men panicked and enraged almost beyond any regard for self-preservation. It must have been over in minutes. He found that the big hall portal to the ground level had been sealed, whether before or after the shooting he couldn't know. There would have been around twenty members of the Brotherhood on the level. None of them had lived as long as Baldy Perk, but they seemed to have accounted for approximately an equal number of the Star's security force first.
Five Star men came piling out of the fifth level portal behind him a minute or two later, Ryter in the lead. Orca behind Ryter. All five held leveled guns.
"You won't need the hardware," Quillan assured them. "It's harmless enough now. Come on in."
They followed him silently up to the cubicle, stared comprehendingly at dials and indicators. "The thing's back inside there, all right!" Ryter said. He looked at Quillan. "Is this where you've been all the time?"
"Sure, Where else?" The others were forming a half-circle about him, a few paces back.
"Taking quite a chance with that Hlat, weren't you?" Ryter remarked.
"Not too much. I thought of something." Quillan indicated the outportal in the hall. "I had my back against that. A portal's space-break, not solid matter. It couldn't come at me from behind. And if it attacked from any other angle"--he tapped the holstered Miam Devil lightly, and the gun in Orca's hand jerked upward a fraction of an inch--"There aren't many animals that can swallow more than a bolt or two from that baby and keep coming."
There was a moment's silence. Then Orca said thoughtfully, "That would work!"
"Did it see you?" Ryter asked.
"It couldn't have. First I saw of it, it was sailing out from that corner over there. It slammed in after that chunk of sea beef so fast, it shook the cubicle. And that was that." He grinned. "Well, most of our troubles should be over now!"
One of the men gave a brief, nervous laugh. Quillan looked at him curiously. "Something, chum?"
Ryter shook his head. "Something is right! Come on downstairs again, Bad News. This time we have news for you--"
The Brotherhood guards on the ground level had been taken by surprise and shot down almost without losses for the Star men. But the battle on the fourth level had cost more than the dead left up there. An additional number had returned with injures that were serious enough to make them useless for further work.
"It's been expensive," Ryter admitted. "But one more attack by the Hlat would have left me with a panicked mob on my hands. If we'd realized it was going to trap itself--"
"I wasn't so sure that would work either," Quillan said. "Did you get Kinmarten back?"
"Not yet. The chances are he's locked up somewhere on the fourth level. Now the Hlat's out of the way, some of the men have gone back up there to look for him. If Cooms thought he was important enough to start a fight over, I want him back."
"How about the crew on the Beldon ship?" Quillan asked, "Have they been cleaned up?"
"No," Ryter said. "We'll have to do that now, of course."
"How many of them?"
"Supposedly twelve. And that's probably what it is."
"If they know or suspect what's happened," Quillan said, "twelve men can give a boarding party in a lock a remarkable amount of trouble."
Ryter shrugged irritably. "I know, but there isn't much choice. Lancion's bringing in the other group on the Camelot. We don't want to have to handle both of them at the same time."
"How are you planning to take the freighter?"
"When the search party comes back down, we'll put every man we can spare from guard duty here on the job. They'll be instructed to be careful about it ... if they can wind up the matter within the next several hours, that will be early enough. We can't afford too many additional losses now. But we should come out with enough men to take care of Lancion and handle the shipment of Hlats. And that's what counts."
"Like me to take charge of the boarding party?" Quillan inquired. "That sort of thing's been a kind of specialty of mine."
Ryter looked at him without much expression on his face. "I understand that," he said. "But perhaps it would be better if you stayed up here with us."
The search party came back down ten minutes later. They'd looked through every corner of the fourth level. Kinmarten wasn't there, either dead or alive. But one observant member of the group had discovered, first, that the Duke of Fluel was also not among those present, and, next that one of the four outportals on the level had been unsealed. The exit on which the portal was found to be set was in a currently unused hall in the General Office building on the other side of the Star. From that hall, almost every other section of the Star was within convenient portal range.
None of the forty-odd people working in the main control office on the ground level had actually witnessed any shooting; but it was apparent that a number of them were uncomfortably aware that something quite extraordinary must be going on. They were a well-disciplined group, however. An occasional uneasy glance toward one of the armed men lounging along the walls, some anxious faces, were the only noticeable indications of tension. Now and then, there was a brief, low-pitched conversation at one of the desks.
Quillan stood near the center of the office, Ryter and Orca a dozen feet from him on either side. Four Star guards were stationed along the walls. From the office one could see through a large doorspace cut through both sides of a hall directly into the adjoining transmitter room. Four more guards were in there. Aside from the men in the entrance hall and at the subspace portal, what was available at the moment of Ryter's security force was concentrated at this point.
The arrangement made considerable sense; and Quillan gave no sign of being aware that the eyes of the guards shifted to him a little more frequently than to any other point in the office, or that none of them had moved his hand very far away from his gun since they had come in here. But that also made sense. In the general tension area of the Executive Block's ground level, a specific point of tension--highly charged though undetected by the non-involved personnel--was the one provided by the presence of Bad News Quillan here. Ryter was more than suspicious by now; the opened portal on the fourth level, the disappearance of Kinmarten and the Duke, left room for a wide variety of speculations. Few of those speculations could be very favorable to Bad News. Ryter obviously preferred to let things stand as they were until the Beldon freighter was taken and the major part of his group had returned from the subspace sections of the Star. At that time, Bad News could expect to come in for some very direct questioning by the security chief.
The minutes dragged on. Under the circumstances, a glance at his watch could be enough to bring Ryter's uncertainties up to the explosion point, and Quillan also preferred to let things stand as they were for the moment. But he felt reasonably certain that over an hour had passed since he'd left Reetal; and so far there had been no hint of anything unusual occurring in the front part of the building. The murmur of voices in the main control office continued to eddy about him. There were indications that in the transmitter room across the hall messages had begun to be exchanged between the Star and the approaching liner.
A man sitting at a desk near Quillan stood up presently, went out into the hall and disappeared. A short while later, the white-suited figure returned and picked up the interrupted work. Quillan's glance went over the clerk, shifted on. He felt something tighten up swiftly inside him. There was a considerable overall resemblance, but that wasn't the man who had left the office.
Another minute or two went by. Then two other uniformed figures appeared at the opening to the hall, a sparse elderly man, a blond girl. They stood there talking earnestly together for some seconds, then came slowly down the aisle toward Quillan. It appeared to be an argument about some detail of her work. The girl frowned, stubbornly shaking her head. Near Quillan they separated, started off into different sections of the office. The girl, glancing back, still frowning, brushed against Ryter. She looked up at him, startled.
"I'm sorry," she said.
Ryter scowled irritably, started to say something, suddenly appeared surprised. Then his eyes went blank and his knees buckled under him.
The clerk sitting at the nearby desk whistled shrilly.
Quillan wheeled, gun out and up, toward the wall behind him. The two guards there were still lifting their guns. The Miam Devil grunted disapprovingly twice, and the guards went down. Noise crashed from the hall ... heavy sporting rifles. He turned again, saw the two other guards stumbling backward along the far wall. Feminine screaming erupted around the office as the staff dove out of sight behind desks, instrument stands and filing cabinets. The elderly man stood above Orca, a sap in his hand and a please smile on his face.
In the hallway, four white-uniformed men had swung about and were pointing blazing rifles into the transmitter room. The racketing of the gunfire ended abruptly and the rifles were lowered again. The human din in the office began to diminish, turned suddenly into a shocked, strained silence. Quillan realized the blond girl was standing at his elbow.
"Did you get the rest of them?" he asked quickly, in a low voice.
"Everyone who was on this level," Reetal told him. "There weren't many of them."
"I know. But there's a sizable batch still in the subspace section. If we can get the bomb disarmed, we'll just leave them sealed up there. How long before you can bring Ryter around?"
"He'll be able to talk in five minutes."
Quillan had been sitting for some little while in a very comfortable chair in what had been the commodore's personal suite on the Seventh Star, broodingly regarding the image of the Camelot in a huge wall screen. The liner was still over two hours' flight away but would arrive on schedule. On the Star, at least in the normspace section, everything was quiet, and in the main control offices and in the transmitter room normal working conditions had been restored.
A room portal twenty feet away opened suddenly, and Reetal Destone stepped out.
"So there you are!" she observed.
Quillan Looked mildly surprised, then grinned. "I'd hate to have to try to hide from you!" he said.
"Hm-m-m!" said Reetal. She smiled. "What are you drinking?"
He nodded at an open liquor cabinet near the screen. "Velladon was leaving some excellent stuff behind. Join me?"
"Hm-m-m." She went to the cabinet, looked over the bottles, made her selection and filled a glass. "One has the impression," she remarked, "that you were hiding from me."
"One does? I'd have to be losing my cotton-picking mind--"
"Not necessarily." Reetal brought the drink over to his chair, sat down on the armrest with it. "You might just have a rather embarrassing problem to get worked out before you give little Reetal a chance to start asking questions about it."
Quillan looked surprised. "What gave you that notion?"
"Oh," Reetal said, "adding things up gave me that notion.... Care to hear what the things were?"
"Go ahead, doll."
"First," said Reetal, "I understand that a while ago, after you'd first sent me off to do some little job for you, you were in the transmitter room having a highly private--shielded and scrambled--conversation with somebody on board the Camelot."
"Why, yes," Quillan said. "I was talking to the ship's security office. They're arranging to have a Federation police boat pick up what's left of the commodore's boys and the Brotherhood in the subspace section.
"And that," said Reetal, "is where that embarrassing little problem begins. Next, I noticed, as I say, that you were showing this tendency to avoid a chance for a private talk between us. And after thinking about that for a little, and also about a few other things which came to mind at around that time, I went to see Ryter."
Reetal ran her fingers soothingly through his hair. "Let me finish, big boy. I found Ryter and Orca in a highly nervous condition. And do you know why they're nervous? They're convinced that some time before the Camelot gets here, you're going to do them both in."
"Hm-m-m," said Quillan.
"Ryter," she went on, "besides being nervous, is also very bitter. In retrospect, he says, it's all very plain what you've done here. You and your associates--a couple of tough boys named Hagready and Boltan, and others not identified--are also after these Hlats. The Duke made some mention of that, too, you remember. The commodore and Ryter bought the story you told them because a transmitter check produced the information that Hagready and Boltan had, in fact, left their usual work areas and gone off on some highly secret business about a month ago.
"Ryter feels that your proposition--to let your gang in on the deal for twenty per cent, or else--was made in something less than good faith. He's concluded that when you learned of the operation being planned by Velladon and the Brotherhood, you and your pals decided to obstruct them and take the Hlats for delivery to Yaco yourselves, without cutting anybody in. He figures that someone like Hagready or Boltan is coming in on the Camelot with a flock of sturdy henchmen to do just that. You, personally, rushed to the Seventh Star to interfere as much as you could here. Ryter admits reluctantly that you did an extremely good job of interfering. He says it's now obvious that every move you made since you showed up had the one purpose of setting the Star group and the Brotherhood at each other's throats. And now that they've practically wiped each other out, you and your associates can go on happily with your original plans.
"But, of course, you can't do that if Ryter and Orca are picked up alive by the Federation cops. The boys down in the subspace section don't matter; they're ordinary gunhands and all they know is that you were somebody who showed up on the scene. But Ryter could, and certainly would, talk--"
"Ah, he's too imaginative," Quillan said, taking a swallow of his drink. "I never heard of the Hlats before I got here. As I told you, I'm on an entirely different kind of job at the moment. I had to make up some kind of story to get an in with the boys, that's all."
"So you're not going to knock those two weasels off?"
"No such intentions. I don't mind them sweating about it till the Feds arrive, but that's it."
"What about Boltan and Hagready?"
"What about them? I did happen to know that if anyone started asking questions about those two, he'd learn that neither had been near his regular beat for close to a month."
"I'll bet!" Reetal said cryptically.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Hm-m-m," she said. "Bad News Quillan! A really tough boy, for sure. You know, I didn't believe for an instant that you were after the Hlats--"
Reetal said, "I've been on a couple of operations with you, and you'd be surprised how much I've picked up about you from time to time on the side. Swiping a shipment of odd animals and selling them to Yaco, that could be Bad News, in character. Selling a couple of hundred human beings--like Brock and Solvey Kinmarten--to go along with the animals to an outfit like Yaco would not be in character."
"So I have a heart of gold," Quillan said.
"So you fell all over your own big feet about half a minute ago!" Reetal told him. "Bad News Quillan--with no interest whatsoever in the Hlats--still couldn't afford to let Ryter live to talk about him to the Feds, big boy!"
Quillan looked reflective for a moment. "Dirty trick!" he observed. "For that, you might freshen up my glass."
Reetal took both glasses over to the liquor cabinet, freshened them up, and settled down on the armrest of the chair again. "So there we're back to the embarrassing little problem," she said.
"No, idiot. We both know that Ryter is headed for Rehabilitation. Fifteen years or so of it, as a guess. The problem is little Reetal who has now learned a good deal more than she was ever intended to learn. Does she head for Rehabilitation, too?"
Quillan took a swallow of his drink and set the glass down again. "Are you suggesting," he inquired, "that I might be, excuse the expression, a cop?"
Reetal patted his head. "Bad News Quillan! Let's look back at his record. What do we find? A shambles, mainly. Smashed-up organizations, outfits, gangs. Top-level crooks with suddenly vacant expressions and unexplained holes in their heads. Why go on? The name is awfully well earned! And nobody realizing anything because the ones who do realize it suddenly ... well, where are Boltan Hagready at the moment."
Quillan sighed. "Since you keep bringing it up--Hagready played it smart, so he's in Rehabilitation. Be cute if Ryter ran into him there some day. Pappy Boltan didn't want to play it smart. I'm not enough of a philosopher to make a guess at where he might be at present. But I knew he wouldn't be talking."
"All right," Reetal said, "we've got that straight. Bad News is Intelligence of some kind. Federation maybe, or maybe one of the services. It doesn't matter, really, I suppose. Now, what about me?"