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Forget It



At best, Major Heslet Quillan decided, giving his mud-caked boot tips a brooding scowl, amnesia would be an annoying experience. But to find oneself, as he had just done, sitting on the rocky hillside of an unfamiliar world which showed no sign of human habitation, with one's think-tank seemingly in good general working order but with no idea of how one had got there, was more than annoying. It could be fatal.

The immediate situation didn't look too dangerous. He might have picked up some appalling local disease which would presently manifest itself, but it wasn't likely. An agent of Space Scout Intelligence for the Federation of the Hub's Overgovernment was immunized early in his career against almost every possible form of infection.

Otherwise, there was a variety of strange lifeforms in sight, each going about its business. Some looked big enough to make a meal of a human being—and might, if they noticed him. But the gun on Quillan's hip should be adequate to knock such ideas out of predators who came too close.

He'd checked the gun over automatically on discovering a few minutes before that he had one. It was a standard military type, manufactured by upward of a dozen Hub worlds. There were no markings to indicate its origin; but more important at the moment was the fact that the ammocounter indicated that it contained a full charge.

What could have happened to get him into this position?

The amnesia, however he'd acquired it, took a peculiar form. He had no questions about his identity. He knew who he was. Further, up to a point—in fact, practically up to a specific second of his life—his memory seemed normal. He'd been on Orado. And he was walking along a hall on the eighteenth floor of the headquarters building, not more than thirty feet from the door of his office, when his memory simply stopped. He couldn't recall a thing between that moment and the one when he'd found himself sitting there.

Presumably he'd had an assignment, and presumably he'd been briefed on it and had set off. If he could extend his memory even thirty minutes beyond the instant of approaching the door, he might have a whole fistful of clues to what had gone on during the interval. But not a thing would come to mind. It wasn't a matter of many years being wiped out; if he'd aged at all, he couldn't detect it. Some months, however, might easily have vanished, or even as much as two or three years . . . .

Had somebody given him a partially effective memory wipeout and left him marooned here? Not at all likely. A rather large number of people unquestionably would be glad to see Intelligence deprived of his talents, but they wouldn't resort to such roundabout methods. An energy bolt through his head, and the job would have been done.

The thought that he'd been on a spaceship which had cracked up in attempting a landing on this planet, knocking him out in the process, seemed more probable. He might have been the only survivor and staggered away from the wreck, his wits somewhat scrambled. If that was it, it had happened very recently.

He was thirsty, hungry, dirty, and needed a shave. But neither he nor his clothing suggested he had been an addled castaway on a wild planet for any significant length of time. The clothes were stained with mud and vegetable matter but in good general condition. He might have stumbled into a mud hole in the swamps which began at the foot of the hills below him and stretched away to the right, then climbed up here and sat down until he dried off. There was, in fact, a blurred impression that he'd been sitting in this spot an hour or so, blinking foggily at the landscape, before he'd suddenly grown aware of himself and his surroundings.

Quillan's gaze shifted slowly about the panorama before him, searching for the glitter of a downed ship or any signs of human activity. There was no immediate point in moving until he could decide in which direction he should go. It was a remarkable view of a rather unremarkable world. The yellow sun disk was somewhat larger than he was used to. Glancing at it, he had a feeling it had been higher above the horizon when he'd noticed it first, which would make it afternoon in this area. It was warm but not disagreeably so; and, now that he thought of it, his body was making no complaints about atmospheric conditions and gravity.

He saw nothing that was of direct interest to him. Ahead and to the left a parched plain extended from the base of the hills to the horizon. In the low marshland on the right, pools of dark, stagnant water showed occasionally through thick vegetation. Higher up, lichen-gray trees formed a dense forest sweeping along the crests of the hills to within a quarter-mile of where Quillan sat. The rock-clustered hillside about him bore only patches of bushy growth.

The fairly abundant animal life in view was of assorted sizes and shapes and, to Quillan's eyes, rather ungainly in appearance. Down at the edge of the marshes, herds of several species mingled peacefully, devoting themselves to chomping up the vegetation. An odd, green, bulky creature, something like a walking vegetable and about the height of a man, moved about slowly on stubby hind legs. It was using paired upper limbs to stuff leaves and whole plants into its lump of a head. Most of the other animals were quadrupeds. Only one of the carnivorous types was active . . . a dog-sized beast with a narrow rod for a body and a long, weaving neck tipped by a round cat-head. A pack of them quartered the tall grass between marsh and plain in a purposeful manner, evidently intent on small game.

The other predators Quillan could see might be waiting for nightfall before they did something about dinner. Half a dozen heavy leonine brutes lay about companionably on the open plain, evidently taking a sunbath. Something much larger and darker squatted in the shade of a tree on the far side of the marsh, watching the browsing herds but making no move to approach them.

The only lifeforms above the size of a lizard on the slopes near Quillan were a smallish gray hopper, which moved with nervous jerkiness from one clump of shrubs to another. They seemed to be young specimens of the green biped in the marsh. There was a fair number of those downhill on the slopes, ranging between one and three feet in height. They were more active than their elders; now and then about two or three would go gamboling clumsily around a bush together, like fat puppies at play. After returning to the business of stripping clumps of leaves from the shrubbery they would stuff them into the mouth-slits of their otherwise featureless heads. One of them, eating steadily away, was about twenty feet below him. It showed no interest whatever in the visitor from space.

However he considered the matter, he couldn't have been stumbling around by himself on this world for more than fifteen hours. And he could imagine no circumstances under which he might have been abandoned here deliberately. Therefore there should be, within a fifteen-hour hike at the outside, something—ship, camp, Intelligence post, settlement—from which he had started out.

If it was a ship, it might be a broken wreck. But even a wreck would provide shelter, food, perhaps a means of sending an SOS call to the Hub. There might be somebody else still alive on it. If there wasn't, studying the ship itself should give him many indications of what had occurred, and why he was here.

Whatever he would find, he had to get back to his starting point—

Quillan stiffened. Then he swore, relaxed slightly, sat still. There was a look of intense concentration on his face.

Quietly, unnoticed, while his attention had been fixed on the immediate problem, a part of his lost memories had returned. They picked up at the instant he was walking along the hall toward his office, ran on for a number of weeks, ended again in the same complete, uncompromising manner as before.

He still didn't know why he was on this world. But he felt he was close to the answer now—perhaps very close indeed.






The Lorn Worlds, Imperial Rala—the Sigma File—

Imperial Rala, the trouble maker, was one of the Hub's two hundred and fourteen Restricted Planets. It had emerged from the War Centuries in rather good shape—a local power with quite a high level of technology, with ambitions to become a major force in interstellar politics. It had absorbed a number of other systems of minor status, turned its attention then on the nearby Lorn Worlds as its first important target of conquest.

Quillan had been assigned to the Lorn Worlds some years previously. At that time the Lornese had been attempting to placate Rala and had refused all assistance to Intelligence.

Holati had called him to the office that day to inform him there had been a basic shift in Lornese policies. He was being sent back. A full-scale invasion by Imperial Rala was in the making, and the Lorn Worlds had called for Federation support. This time he would be given their full cooperation.

Quillan worked closely with Lornese intelligence men, setting up the Sigma File. It contained in code every scrap of previously withheld information they could give against Rala. For years, the Lornese had been concerned almost exclusively with the activities of their menacing neighbor and with their own defensive plans. The file would be of immense importance in determining the Federation's immediate strategy. For Rala, its possession would be of equal importance.

Quillan set off with it finally in a Lornese naval courier to make the return run to Orado. The courier was a very fast small ship which could rely on its speed alone to avoid interception. As an additional precaution, it would follow a route designed to keep it well beyond the established range of Ralan patrols. This would actually take it outside the Hub before re-entering a good distance from Rala.

A week later, something happened to it. Just what, Quillan didn't yet know.

Besides himself there had been three men on board: the two pilot-navigators and an engineering officer. They were picked men and Quillan had no doubt of their competence. He didn't know whether they had been told the nature of his mission; the matter was not brought up. It should have been an uneventful, speedy voyage home.

When one of the Lornese pilots summoned Quillan to the control room to tell him the courier was being tracked by another ship, the man showed no serious concern. Their pursuer could be identified on the screen. It was a Ralan raider of the Talada class, ten times the courier's tonnage but still a rather small ship. More importantly, a Talada could produce nothing like the courier's speed.

Nevertheless, Quillan didn't like the situation in the least. He had been assured that the odds against encountering Ralan vessels in this area of space were improbably high. By nature and training he distrusted coincidences. However, the matter was out of his hands. The pilots already were preparing to shift to emergency speed and, plainly, there was nothing to be done at the moment.

He settled down to watch the operation. One of the pilots was speaking to the engineering officer over the intercom; the other handled the controls.

It was this second man who suddenly gave a startled shout.

In almost the same instant, the ship seemed to be wrenched violently to the left. Quillan was hurled out of his seat, realized there was nothing he could do to keep from smashing into the bulkhead on his right . . . 

At that precise point, his memories shut off again.

* * *

"Fleegle!" something was crying shrilly. "Fleegle! Fleegle! Fleegle!"

Quillan started, looked around. The small green biped nearest him downhill was uttering the cries. It had turned and was facing him frontside. Presumably it had just become aware of him and was expressing alarm. It waved its stubby forelimbs excitedly up and down. Farther down the slope several of its companions joined in with "Fleegle!" pipings of their own. Others stood watchfully still. They probably had eyes of a sort somewhere in the wrinkled balls of their heads, at any rate, they all seemed to be staring up at him.

"Fleegle! Fleegle! Fleegle!"

The whole hillside below suddenly seemed alive with the shrilling voices and waving green forelimbs. Quillan twisted half around, glanced up the slope behind him.

He was sliding the gun out of its holster as he came quietly to his feet, completing the turn. The thing that had been coming down toward him stopped in midstride, not much more than forty feet away.

It was also a biped, of a very different kind, splotchy gray-black in color and of singularly unpleasant appearance. About eight feet tall, it had long, lean talon-tipped limbs and a comparatively small body like a bloated sack. The round, black head above the body looked almost fleshless, sharp bone-white teeth as completely exposed as those of a skull. Two circular yellow eyes a few inches above the teeth stared steadily at Quillan.

He felt a shiver of distaste. The creature obviously was a carnivore and could have become dangerous to him if he hadn't been alerted by the clamor of the fleegle pack. In spite of its scrawny, gangling look, it should weigh around two hundred and fifty pounds, and the teeth and talons would make it a formidable attacker. Perhaps it had come skulking down from the forest to pick up one of the browsing fleegles and hadn't noticed Quillan until he arose. But he had its full attention now.

He waited, unmoving, gun in hand, not too seriously concerned—a couple of blasts should be enough to rip that pulpy body to shreds—but hoping it would decide to leave him alone. The creature was a walking nightmare, and tangling with unknown lifeforms always involved a certain amount of risk. He would prefer to have nothing to do with it.

The fleegle racket had abated somewhat. But now the toothy biped took a long, gliding step forward and the din immediately set up again. Perhaps it didn't like the noise, or else it was interested primarily in Quillan; at any rate, it opened its mouth as if it were snarling annoyedly and drew off to the right, moving horizontally along the slope with long, unhurried spider strides, round yellow eyes still fixed on Quillan. The fleegle cries tapered off again as the enemy withdrew. By the time it had reached a point around sixty feet away, the slopes were quiet.

Now the biped started downhill, threading its way deliberately among the boulders like a long-legged, ungainly bird. But Quillan knew by then it was after him, and those long legs might hurl it forward with startling speed when it decided to attack. He thumbed the safety off the gun.

With the fleegles silent, he could hear the rasping sounds the thing made when it opened its mouth in what seemed to be its version of a snarl . . . working up its courage, Quillan thought, to tackle the unfamiliar creature it had chanced upon.

As it came level with him on the hillside, it was snarling almost incessantly. It turned to face him then, lifted its clawed forelegs into a position oddly like that of a human boxer, hesitated an instant and came on swiftly.

A shrill storm of fleegle pipings burst out along the slope behind Quillan as he raised the gun. He'd let the thing cut the distance between them in half, he decided, then blow it apart. . . .

Almost with the thought, he saw the big biped stumble awkwardly across a rock. It made a startled, bawling noise, its forelimbs flinging out to help it catch its balance; then it went flat on its face with a thump.

There was instant stillness on the hillside. The fleegles apparently were watching as intently as Quillan was. The biped sat up slowly. It seemed dazed. It shook its ugly head and whimpered complainingly, glancing this way and that about the slope. Then the yellow eyes found Quillan.

Instantly, the biped leaped to its feet, and Quillan hurriedly brought the gun up again. But the thing wasn't resuming its charge. It wheeled, went plunging away up the slope, now and then uttering the bawling sound it had made as it stumbled. It appeared completely panicked.

Staring after it, Quillan scratched his chin reflectively with his free hand. "Wonder what got into him?" he muttered. After a moment, he re-safetied the gun, shoved it back into the holster. He felt relieved but puzzled.

The biped, plainly, was not a timid sort of brute. It must possess a certain amount of innate ferocity to have felt impelled to attack a creature of whose fighting ability it knew nothing. Then why this sudden, almost ludicrous flight? It might be convinced he had knocked it down in some manner as it had come at him, but still—

Quillan shrugged. It was unimportant, after all. The biped had almost reached the top of the slope by now, was angling to the left to reach the lichen-gray forest a few hundred yards away. Its pace hadn't lessened noticeably. He was rid of it.

Then, as Quillan's gaze shifted along the boulder-studded top of the hill, something like a half-remembered fact seemed to nudge his mind. He stared, scowling abstractedly. Was there something familiar about that skyline? Something he should . . . He made a shocked sound.

An instant later, he was climbing hurriedly, in something like a panic of his own, up the rocky slope.

Beyond that crest, he remembered now, the ground dropped away into a shallow valley. And in that valley—how many hours ago?—he had landed the Talada's lifeboat, with the Sigma File on board. Every minute he had spent wandering dazedly about the area since then had brought him closer to certain recapture—






He had been slammed against the bulkhead on the Lornese courier with enough violence to stun him. When he awoke, he was a prisoner under guard on the Talada, lying on a bunk to which he was secured in a manner designed to make him as comfortable as possible. The cabin's furnishings indicated it belonged to one of the ship's officers.

It told Quillan among other things that they knew who he was. Raiders of the Talada class had a liquid-filled compartment in their holds into which several hundred human beings could be packed at a time, layered like so many sardines, and kept alive and semiconscious until the ship returned to port. An ordinary prisoner would simply have been dumped into that vat.

His suspicions were soon confirmed. A swarthy gentleman in the uniform of a Ralan intelligence officer came into the cabin. He waved out the attendant and turned to face Quillan.

"I'm Colonel Ajoran," he said. "As I'm sure you've figured out, you are now in Ralan custody. We've known about your mission on the Lorn Worlds for some time, and made arrangements to have the courier which would take you back to Orado intercepted along any of the alternate routes it might take. The courier's engineering officer was a Ralan agent who jammed the emergency drive to prevent your escape—"

"And then," said Quillan, nodding, "released a paralysis gas to keep me and the pilots helpless until the courier could be boarded. Waste of effort, in my case, since I'd already been knocked out by the jolt given the ship by the jammed drive. All around, a well-planned and executed operation. My congratulations, Colonel."

"I apologize for the inconvenience," said Ajoran. His smile was smooth and easy, and very cold. "But we do intend to get our hands on the Sigma File."

Quillan didn't bother to deny knowledge of the File. "What happened to the pilots?" he demanded.

Ajoran shrugged. "One of them shot himself in preference to becoming our prisoner. The other shot the engineering officer. He is now being tortured to death in retribution for his ill-considered slaying of a Ralan agent." The callousness of the statement itself, combined with the shrug, made it quite clear than Ajoran's politeness was a surface veneer which could be stripped off in an instant.

"Our proposition is simple, Major Quillan: we want your help in decoding and transcribing the Sigma File. In return, when we reach Rala, you will be treated as a reasonable man who understands that your best course is henceforth to serve Ralan interests as effectively as you have previously done those of the Federation. And you have my assurances that you will find Rala is generous to those who serve it well."

Quillan saw no point in expressing his opinion on the worth of the good Colonel's "assurances." He satisfied himself with a scowl which might as easily be taken for a man deep in thought. "And the alternative?" he asked abruptly.

The cold, smooth smile was back. "No need to go into that, is there? I'm quite sure, after all, that you are a reasonable man."

Ajoran turned away, headed for the door. "We will discuss the matter further after dinner." A moment later he was gone and the guard was re-entering the cabin.

"Depends how you define 'reasonable,' " murmured Quillan. But he turned away as he said it, partly so the guard wouldn't hear. But mostly so the guard wouldn't see the cold smile spreading across his own face.

* * *

During the next hour Quillan put in some heavy thinking. He had made one observation which presently might be of use to him. At the moment, of course, he could do nothing but wait. Colonel Ajoran's plan was a bold one, but it made sense. Evidently Ajoran held a position fairly high up in the echelons of Ralan intelligence. Knowing the contents of the Sigma File in detail, he immediately would become an important man to rival government groups to whom the information otherwise would not be readily available. He could improve his standing by many degrees at one stroke.

At the end of the hour, dinner was served to Quillan in his cabin by a woman who was perhaps as beautiful, in an unusual way, as any he had seen. She was very slender. Her skin seemed almost as pure a white as her close-cropped hair, and her eyes were so light a blue that in any other type they would have appeared completely colorless. She gave, nevertheless, an immediate impression of vitality and contained energy. She told Quillan her name was Hace, that she was Ajoran's lady, and that she had been instructed to see to it that he was provided with every reasonable comfort while he considered Ajoran's proposal.

She went on chatting agreeably until Quillan had finished his dinner in the bunk. The colonel then joined them for coffee. The discussion remained a very indirect one, but Quillan presently had the impression that he was being offered an alliance by Ajoran. He possessed unique information which the ambitious colonel could put to extremely good use in the future. Quillan would, in effect, remain on Ajoran's staff and receive every consideration due a valuable associate. He gathered that one of the immediate shipboard considerations being proffered for his cooperation was the colonel's lady.

When the pair left him, Ajoran observing that the Talada's sleep period had begun, the thing had been made clear enough. Neither of the two guards assigned to Quillan reappeared in the cabin—which he had learned was a section of Ajoran's own shipboard suite—and the door remained closed. Presumably he was to be left undisturbed to his reflections for the next seven hours.

Quillan did not stay awake long. He had a professional's appreciation of the value of rest when under stress; and he already had appraised his situation here as thoroughly as was necessary.

He had a minimum goal—the destruction of the Sigma File—and he had observed something which indicated the goal might be achieved if he waited for circumstances to favor him. Beyond that, he had an ascending series of goals with an ascending level of improbability. They also had been sufficiently considered. There was nothing else he cared to think about at the moment. He stretched out and fell asleep almost at once.

When he awoke some time later with the hairs prickling at the base of his skull, he believed for a moment he was dreaming of the thing he had not cared to think about. There was light on his right and the shreds of a voice . . . ghastly whispered exhalations from a throat which had lost the strength to scream. Quillan turned his head to the right, knowing what he would see.

Part of the wall to one side of the door showed now as a vision screen; the light and the whispers came from there. Quillan told himself he was seeing a recording, that the Lornese pilot captured with him had been dead for hours. Colonel Ajoran was a practical man who would have brought this part of the matter to an end without unreasonable delay so that he could devote himself fully to his far more important dealings with Quillan, and the details shown in the screen indicated the pilot could not be many minutes from death.

The screen slowly went dark again and the whispers ended. Quillan turned on his side. There was nothing at all he could have done for the pilot. He had simply been shown the other side of Ajoran's proposition.

A few minutes later, he was asleep again.

* * *

When he awoke the next time, the cabin was lit. His two guards were there, one of them arranging Quillan's breakfast on a wall table across from the bunk. The other simply stood with his back to the door, a nerve gun in his hand, his eyes on Quillan. Fresh clothes, which Quillan recognized as his own, brought over from the courier, had been placed on a chair. The section of wall which ordinarily covered the small adjoining bathroom was withdrawn.

The first guard completed his arrangements and addressed Quillan with an air of surly deference. Colonel Ajoran extended his compliments, was waiting in the other section of the suite and would like to see Major Quillan there after he had dressed and eaten. Having delivered the message, the guard came over to unfasten Quillan from the bunk, his companion shifting to a position from which he could watch the prisoner during the process. That done, the two withdrew from the room, Quillan's eyes following them reflectively.

He showered, shaved, dressed, and had an unhurried breakfast. He could assume that Ajoran felt the time for indirect promises and threats was over, and that they would get down immediately now to the business on hand.

When Quillan came out of the cabin, some thirty minutes after being released, he found his assumption confirmed. This section of the suite was considerably larger than the sleep cabin. The colonel and Hace were seated at the far right across the room, and a guard stood before a closed door a little left of the section's centerline. The door presumably opened on one of the Talada's passages. The guard was again holding a nerve gun, and a second gun of the same kind lay on a small table beside Ajoran. Hace sat at a recording apparatus just beyond the colonel. Evidently she doubled as his secretary when the occasion arose.

At the center of the room, on a table large enough to serve as a work desk, was writing material, a chip reader and, near the left side of the table, the unopened Sigma File.

Quillan absorbed the implications of the situation as he came into the room. The three of them there were on edge, and the nerve guns showed his present status—they wouldn't injure him but could knot him up painfully in an instant and leave him helpless for minutes. He was being told his actions would have to demonstrate that he deserved Ajoran's confidence.

Almost simultaneously, the realization came to him that the favorable circumstances for which he had decided to wait were at hand.

He went up to the table, looked curiously down at the Sigma File. It was about the size and shape of a briefcase set upright. Quillan, glancing over at Ajoran, said, "I'm taking it for granted you've had the destruct charge removed."

Ajoran produced a thin smile.

"Since it could have no useful purpose now," he said, "I did, of course, have it removed."

Quillan gave him an ironic bow. His left hand, brushing back, struck the Sigma File, sent it toppling toward the edge of the table.

He might as well have stuck a knifepoint into all three of them. A drop to the floor could not damage the file, but they were too keyed up to check their reactions. Ajoran started to his feet with a sharp exclamation; even Hace came half out of her chair. The guard moved more effectively. He leaped forward from the wall, bending down, still holding the nerve gun, caught the file with his wrist and free hand as it went off the table, turned to place it back on the table.

Quillan stepped behind him. In the back of the jackets of both guards he had seen a lumpy bulge near the hip, indicating each carried a second gun, which could be assumed to be a standard energy type. His left hand caught the man by the shoulder; his right found the holstered gun under the jacket, twisted it upward and fired as he bent the guard over it. His left arm tingled—Ajoran had cut loose with the nerve gun, trying to reach him through the guard's body. Then Quillan had the gun clear, saw Ajoran coming around on his right and snapped off two hissing shots, letting the guard slide to the floor. Ajoran stopped short, hauled open the sleep cabin door and was through it in an instant, slamming it shut behind him.

Across the room, Hace, almost at the other door, stopped, too, as Quillan turned toward her. They looked at each other a moment, then Quillan stepped around the guard and walked up to her, gun pointed. When he was three steps away, Hace closed her eyes and stood waiting, arms limp at her sides. His left fist smashed against the side of her jaw and she dropped like a rag doll.

"Sorry, doll, but I had no choice," he said softly. Quillan looked back. The guard was twisting contortedly about on the floor. His face showed he was dead, but it would be a minute or two before the nerve charge worked itself out of his body. The colonel's lady wouldn't stir for a while. Ajoran himself . . . Quillan stared thoughtfully at the door of the sleep cabin.

Ajoran might be alerting the ship from in there at the moment, although there hadn't been any communication device in view. Or he could have picked up some weapon he fancied more than a nerve gun and was ready to come out again. The chances were good, however, that he'd stay locked in where he was until somebody came to inform him the berserk prisoner had been dealt with. It wasn't considered good form in Rala's upper echelons to take personal risks which could be delegated to subordinates.

Whatever happened, Quillan told himself he could achieve his minimum goal any time he liked now. A single energy bolt through the Sigma File would ignite it explosively. And its destruction, getting it out of Ralan hands, had been as much as he reasonably could expect to accomplish in the situation.

He glanced contemptuously at the closed door to the sleep cabin, then at the door which should open on one of the Talada's passages. Quillan smiled, and decided he didn't feel reasonable.

He took the Sigma File from the table, carried it over to the passage door and set it down against the wall. He'd expected to see the second guard come bouncing in through the door as soon as the commotion began in here. The fact that he hadn't indicated either that he'd been sent away or that Ajoran's suite was soundproofed. Probably the latter . . . 

Quillan raised the gun, grasped the door handle with his left hand, turned it suddenly, hauled the door open.

The second guard stood outside, but he wasn't given time to do much more than bulge his eyes at Quillan.

Quillan went quickly along the passage, the Sigma File in his left hand, the gun ready again in his right. By the rules he should, in such circumstances, have been satisfied with his minimum goal and destroyed the file before he risked another encounter with an armed man. If he'd been killed just now, it would have been there intact for Rala to decode.

But the other goals looked at least possible now, and he couldn't quite bring himself to put a bolt through the file before it became clear that he'd done as much as he could. "Reasonable," after all, was a flexible term.

He moved more cautiously as he approached the corner of the passage. This was officer's country, and his plans were based on a remembered general impression of the manner in which the Talada raiders were constructed. The passageway beyond the corner was three times the width of this one . . . it might be the main passage he was looking for.

He glanced around the corner, drew back quickly. About thirty feet away in the other side of the passage was a wide doorspace, and two men in officer's uniform had been walking in through it at the moment he looked. Quillan took a long, slow breath. His next goal suddenly seemed not at all far away.

He waited a few seconds, looked again. Now the passage was clear. Instantly he was around the corner, running down to the doorspace. As he stepped out before it, he saw his guess had been good. He was looking down a short flight of steps into the Talada's control room.

Looking and firing . . . . The gun in his hand hissed like an angry cat, but several seconds passed before any of the half-dozen men down there realized he was around. By then two of them were dead. They had happened to be in the gun's way. The subspace drive control panels, the gun's target, were shattering from end to end. Quillan swung the gun toward a big communicator in a corner. At that moment, somebody discovered him.

The man did the sensible thing. His hand darted out, throwing one of the switches before him.

A slab of battle-steel slid down across the doorspace, sealing the control room away from the passage.

Quillan sprinted on down the passage. The emergency siren came on.

The Talada howled monstrously, like a wounded beast, as it rolled and bucked, dropping out of subspace. Suddenly he was in another passage, heard shouts ahead, turned back, stumbled around a corner, went scrambling breathlessly up a steep, narrow stairway.

At its top, he saw ahead of him, like a wish-dream scene, the lit lock, two white-faced crewmen staggering on the heaving deck as they tried to lift a heavy oxygen tank into it.

Quillan came roaring toward them, wild-eyed, waving the gun. They looked around at him, turned and ran as he leaped past them into the lock.

The man at the controls of the Talada's lifeboat died before he realized somebody was running up behind him. Quillan dropped the Sigma File, hauled the body out of the seat, slid into it . . . .

He was several minutes' flight away from the disabled raider before he realized he was laughing like a lunatic.

He was clear. And now the odds, shifting all the way over, were decidedly in his favor. The question was how long it would take them to repair the damage and come after him. With enough of a start, they couldn't know which way he'd headed and the chance of being picked up before he got back to the Hub became negligible.

First things first. He checked the ship's fuel status— plenty there. Next he checked the environmental controls and got a shock. The ship had no oxygen stores. None! He had only as much air to breathe as filled the cabin space. Quillan made a grumbling mental note to steal a better quality lifeboat next time.

Still, it wasn't too bad. It would have been nicer if he could have given the two crewmen time to dump another few tanks of compressed oxygen on board before he had taken off. The ship's recyclers needed something to work with. But a scan of the stellar neighborhood showed two planets respectively seven and eight hours away indicating conditions which should allow a man to stay a short time without serious damage or discomfort. The lifeboat had the standard recharging equipment on board. A few hours on either of those worlds, and he'd be ready.

After dropping the body of the Ralan pilot into space, he decided the seven-hour run gave him a slight advantage. Once the Talada got moving, it had speed enough to check over both worlds without losing a significant amount of time. They could figure out his air requirements as well as he. If they arrived before he was finished and gone, the raider's scanning devices were almost certain to spot the lifeboat wherever he tried to hide it.

The chances seemed very good that they simply wouldn't get there soon enough. But the minimum goal remained a factor. Quillan decided to cache the Sigma File in some easily identifiable spot as soon as he touched ground, take the boat to another section of the planet to do his recharging, come back for the file when he was prepared to leave. It would cut the risk of being surprised with it to almost nothing. . . .






How many hours had passed since then? Clawing his way up through the boulders and shrubbery, slipping in loose soil, Quillan glanced back for a moment at the sun. It was noticeably lower in the sky again, appeared to be dropping almost visibly toward the horizon. But that told him nothing. He remembered the landing now; it had been daylight and he had come down to hide the Sigma File . . . had hidden it, his memory corrected him suddenly. And then, for the next six or ten or fourteen hours, he appeared to have simply waited around here, in some mental fog, for the Talada to come riding its fiery braking jets down from the sky.

The raider might arrive at any moment. Unless . . . 

Quillan blocked off the rest of that thought. The slope had begun to level off as he approached the top; he covered the last stretch in a rush, lungs sobbing for breath. He clambered on hastily through a jagged crack in the back of the ridge. For an instant, he saw the shallow dip of the valley beyond.

He dropped flat immediately. They were already here. 

It was a shock, but one he realized he had half expected. After a few seconds, he crept up to the shelter of a rock from where he could look into the valley without exposing himself.

The Talada had set down about a hundred yards back of the lifeboat, perhaps no more than half an hour ago. The smaller vessel's lock stood open; a man came climbing out of it, followed by two others. The last of the three closed the lock and they started back toward the raider, from which other men were emerging. Ajoran had ordered the lifeboat searched first, to make sure the Sigma File wasn't concealed on it. Without that delay they should have caught him while he was still climbing up the slope. . . . The group coming out of the Talada now was a hunting party; most of them had quick-firing energy rifles slung across their backs.

They lined up beside the ship while a wedge-shaped device was maneuvered out of the lock. It remained floating a little above the ground near the head of the line, about twenty feet long, perhaps a dozen feet across at its point of greatest width. Quillan had seen such devices before.

It was a man-tracker, a type used regularly in Ralan expeditions against settlements on other planets. Its power unit and instruments were packed into the narrow tip; most of its space was simply a container, enclosed and filled with the same kind of numbing liquid preservative as that in the prisoner vats in the Talada ships. It could be set either to hunt down specific individuals or any and all human beings within its range, and to either kill them as they were overtaken or pick them up with its grapplers and deposit them unharmed in the container. They could use it to follow him now, the clothing he had left on the ship would give it all the indications it needed to recognize and follow his trail.

More men had come out behind the machine, including one in a grav-suit. Colonel Ajoran apparently was assigning almost the entire complement of the Talada to the search for Quillan and the Sigma File.

Quillan decided he'd seen enough. If he had been observed on the hillside as the Talada was descending, they would have gone after him immediately. Instead, they would now follow their man-tracker over the ridge and down to the swamp where the herds of native animals were feeding. It gave him a little time.

He crawled backward a dozen feet into the narrow crevasse, rose and retraced his way through it to the other side of the ridge. Beyond the plain, the sun was almost touching the horizon. The gray forest into which the aggressive biped had retreated began a few hundred yards to his right. He'd have better shelter there than among the tumbled rocks of the ridge.

He went loping toward it, keeping below the crest-line. His eyes shifted once toward the swamp. One great tree stood there, towering a good hundred feet above the vegetation about it. The Sigma File was wedged deep among the giant's root, a few feet below the water. He'd seen the tree from the air, put the lifeboat down in the little valley, hurried down to the swamp on foot. Twenty minutes later the file had been buried and he'd started wading back out of the swamp. What had happened between that moment and the one when he found himself sitting on the hillside he still didn't know. . . .

He reached the forest, came back among the trees over the top of the ridge until he saw the valley again. During the few minutes that had passed, the ridge's evening shadow had spread across half the lower ground. It had seemed possible that when they realized how close it was to nightfall here, the hunt for him would be put off till morning. But Ajoran evidently wanted no delay. The man in the grav-suit still stood near the open lock of the ship, but the search party was coming across the valley behind their tracking machine. They headed for a point of the open ridge about a quarter-mile away from Quillan. They'd have lights to continue on through the night if necessary.

The chase plan was simple but effective. If the man-tracker hadn't flushed him into view before morning, the Talada could take the lifeboat aboard, move after the search party and put down again. They could work on in relays throughout the following day, half of them resting at a time on the ship, until he was run down.

The Sigma File was safest where he'd left it. The tracker's scent perceptors were acute enough to follow his trail through the stagnant swamp, getting signs from the vegetation he'd brushed against or grasped in passing, even from lingering traces in the water itself. And it might very well detect the file beneath the surface. But—ironically, considering Ajoran's purpose—the discovery would be meaningless to the machine except as another indication that the man it was pursuing had been there. It would simply move on after him.

The worst thing he could attempt at the moment would be to get down to the swamp ahead of the searchers and destroy the file. He would almost certainly be sighted on the open slopes below the forest; and either the tracker or the man in the grav-suit could be overhead instants later.

Quillan's gaze shifted back to the grav-suited figure. He would have to watch out for that one. His immediate role presumably was to act as liaison man between the ship and the hunters, supplementing the communicator reports Ajoran would be getting on the progress of the search. But he was armed with a rifle; and if Quillan was seen, he could spatter the area around the fugitive with stun-gas pellets while remaining beyond range of a hand weapon. He had floated back up to the Talada's lock for a moment, was now heading out to the ridge, drifting about fifty feet above the ground.

It wasn't a graceful operation. Maneuvering a grav-suit designed for weightless service on the surface of airless planets never was. But the fellow was handling himself fairly well, Quillan thought. He came up to the ridge as the troop began filing across it, hovered above the line a few seconds, then swung to the left and moved off in a series of slow, awkward bounces above the hillside. He seemed to be holding something up to his helmet, and Quillan guessed he was scanning the area with a pair of powerful glasses. After some minutes, he came back.

Quillan had crossed over to the other side of the ridge to follow the progress of the column. It had swung to the right as it started down, was angling straight toward the swamp along the route he had taken with the file. He watched, chewing his lip. If the man-tracker happened to cross his return trail on the way, he might be in trouble almost immediately. . . .

The man in the grav-suit drifted after the search party, passed above them some two hundred feet in the air, then remained suspended and almost unmoving. Quillan glanced over at the horizon. The sun was nearly out of sight; its thin golden rim shrank and disappeared as he looked at it. Without the starblaze of the Hub, night should follow quickly here, but as yet he couldn't see any advantage the darkness would bring him.

The man in the grav-suit was coming back to the ridge. He hovered above it a moment, settled uncertainly toward the flat top of a boulder, made a stumbling landing and righted himself. He turned toward the plain and the swamp, lifting the object that seemed to be a pair of glasses to the front of his helmet again. Evidently he'd had enough of the suit's airborne eccentricities for a while.

Quillan's throat worked. The man was less than two hundred yards away. . . .

His eyes shifted toward a tuft of shrubs twenty feet beyond the edge of the forest growth.

Some seconds later, he was there, studying the stretch of ground ahead. Other shrubs and rocks big enough to crouch behind . . . but they would give him no cover at all if for some reason the fellow decided to lift back into the air. The fading light wouldn't help then. Those were space glasses he was using, part of the suit, designed to provide clear vision even when only the gleam of distant stars was there for them to absorb.

But perhaps, Quillan told himself, Grav-suit would not decide to lift back into the air. In any case, no other approach was possible. The far side of the ridge was controlled by the Talada's night-scanners, and they would be in use by now.

He moved, waited, gathered himself and moved again. Grav-suit was directing most of his attention downhill, but now and then he turned for a look along the ridge in both directions. Perhaps, as the air darkened, the closeness of the forest was getting on his nerves. Native sounds were drifting up from the plain, guttural bellowing and long-drawn ululations. The meat eaters were coming awake. Presently there was a series of short, savage roars from the general direction of the swamp; and Quillan guessed the search party had run into some big carnivore who had never heard about energy rifles. When the roaring stopped with a monstrous scream, he was sure of it.

He had reduced the distance between them by almost half when the grav-suit soared jerkily up from the boulder. Quillan had a very bad moment. But it lifted no more than a dozen feet, then descended again at a slant which carried it behind the boulder. The man had merely changed his position. And the new position he had selected took them out of each other's sight.

Quillan was instantly on his feet, running forward. Here the surface was rutted with weather fissures. He slipped into one of them, drawing out his gun, moved forward at a crouch. A moment later, he had reached the near side of the boulder on which Grav-suit had stood.

Where was he now? Quillan listened, heard a burst of thin, crackling noises. They stopped for some seconds, came briefly again, stopped again. The suit communicator . . . the man must have taken off the helmet, or the sound wouldn't have been audible. He couldn't be far away.

Quillan went down on hands and knees and edged along the side of the boulder to the right. From here he could see down the hillside. On the plain, the night was gathering; the boundaries between the open land and the swamp had blurred. But the bobbing string of tiny light beams down there, switching nervously this way and that, must already be moving through the marsh.

The communicator noises came again, now from a point apparently no more than fifteen feet beyond the edge of the boulder ahead of Quillan. It was as close as he could get. It was important that the man in the grav-suit should die instantly, which meant a head shot. Quillan rose up, stepped out quietly around the boulder, gun pointed.

The man stood faced half away, the helmet tipped back on his shoulders. In the last instant, as Quillan squeezed down on the trigger, sighting along the barrel, the head turned and he saw with considerable surprise that it was Colonel Ajoran.

Then the gun made its spiteful hissing sound.

Ajoran's head jerked slightly to the side and his eyes closed. The grav-suit held him upright for the second or two before he toppled. Quillan already was there, reaching under the collar for one of the communicator's leads. He found it, gave it a sharp twist, felt it snap.






In the Talada, the man watching the night-scanners saw Colonel Ajoran's grav-suit appear above the ridge and start back to the ship. He informed the control room and the lock attendant.

The outer lock door opened as the suit came to it. Quillan made a skidding landing inside. His performance in the suit had been no improvement on Ajoran's. He shut off the suit drive, clumped up to the inner door, left arm raised across the front of the helmet, hand fumbling with the oxygen hose. It would hide his face for a moment from whoever was on the other side of the door. His right hand rested on his gun.

The door opened. The attendant stood at rigid attention before the control panel six feet away, rifle grounded, eyes front. Mentally blessing Ralan discipline, Quillan stepped up beside him, drew out the gun and gave the back of the man's skull a solid thump with the barrel.

When the attendant opened his eyes again a few minutes later, his head ached and there was a gag in his mouth. His hands were tied behind him, and Quillan was wearing his uniform.

Quillan hauled him to his feet, poked a gun muzzle against his back.

"Lead the way to the control room," he said.

The attendant led the way. Quillan followed, the uniform cap pulled down to conceal his face. Ajoran's handgun and a stunner he had taken from the attendant were stuck into his belt. The attendant's energy rifle and the one which had been strapped to the grav-suit were concealed in a closet near the lock. He had assembled quite an arsenal.

When they reached the wide main passage in the upper level of the ship, he halted the lock attendant. They retraced their steps to the last door they had passed. Quillan opened it. An office of some kind . . . he motioned the attendant in and followed him, closing the door.

He came out a few seconds later, shoved the stunner back under his belt, and stood listening. The Talada seemed almost eerily silent. Not very surprising, he thought. The number of men who had set out after him indicated that only those of the crew who were needed to coordinate the hunt and maintain the ship's planetary security measures had remained on board. That could be ten or twelve at most; and every one of them would be stationed at his post at the moment.

Quillan went out into the main passage, walked quietly along it. Now he could hear an intermittent murmur of voices from the control room. One of them seemed to be that of a woman, but he wasn't sure. They were being silent again before he came close enough to distinguish what was being said.

There was nothing to be gained by hesitating at this point. The control room was the nerve center of the ship, but there couldn't be more than four or five of them in it. Quillan had a gun in either hand as he reached the open doorspace. He turned through it, started unhurriedly down the carpeted stairs leading into the control room, eye and mind photographing the details of the scene below.

Ajoran's lady was nearest, seated at a small table, her attention on the man before the communicator set in a corner alcove on the left. This man's back was turned. A gun was belted to his waist. Farther down in the control room sat another man, facing the passage but bent over some instrument on the desk before him. The desk shielded him almost completely, which made him the most dangerous of the three at the moment. No one else was in view, but that didn't necessarily mean that no one else was here.

Hace became aware of him as he reached the foot of the stairs. Her head turned sharply; she seemed about to speak. Then her eyes went wide with shocked recognition.

He'd have to get the man at the desk the instant she screamed. But she didn't scream. Instead, her right hand went up, two fingers lifted and spread. She nodded fiercely at the communicator operator, next at the man behind the desk.

Only two of them? Well, that probably was true. But he'd better use the stunner on Hace before attempting to deal with the two armed men.

At that moment, the communicator operator looked around.

He was young and his reactions were as fast as Hace's. He threw himself sideways out of the chair with a shout of warning, hit the floor rolling over and clawing for his gun. The man behind the desk had no chance. As he jerked upright, startled, an energy bolt took him in the head. The operator had no real chance, either. Quillan swung the gun to the left, saw for an instant eyes fixed on him, bright with hatred, and the other gun coming up, and fired again.

He waited a number of seconds, then, alert for further motion. But the control room remained quiet. So Ajoran's lady hadn't lied. She stayed where she was, unstirring, until he turned toward her. Then she said quietly, her expression still incredulous, "It seemed like magic! How could you get into the ship?"

Quillan looked at the dark, ugly bruise his fist had printed along the side of her jaw, said, "In Ajoran's grav-suit, of course."

She hesitated. "He's dead?"

"Quite dead," Quillan said thoughtfully.

"I wanted," Hace said, "to kill him myself. I would have done it finally, I believe. . . ." She hesitated again. "It doesn't matter now. What can I do to help you? They're in trouble down in the swamp."

"What kind of trouble?"

"That isn't clear. It began two or three minutes ago, but we haven't been able to get an intelligible report from the two communicator men. They were excited, shouted, almost irrational."

Quillan scowled. After a moment, he shook his head. "Let's clean up the ship first. How many on board?"

"Nine besides those two . . . and myself."

"The man in the lock's taken care of," Quillan said. "Eight. On the lifeboat?"

"Nobody. Ajoran had a trap prepared for you there, in case you came back before they caught you. You could have got inside, but you couldn't have started the engines, and you would have been unable to get out again."

Quillan grunted. "Can you get the men in the ship to come individually to the control room?"

"I see. Yes, I think I can do that."

"I'll want to check you over for weapons first."

"Of course." Hace smiled slightly, stood up. "Why should you trust me?"

"I wouldn't know," Quillan said.

They came in, unsuspecting, one by one; and, one by one, the stunner brought them down from behind. Shortly afterwards, a freight carrier floated into the Talada's vat room. Hace stood aside as Quillan unlocked the cover of the drop hole in the deck and hauled it back. A heavy stench surged up from the vat. Quillan looked down a moment at the oily black liquid eight feet below, then dragged the nine unconscious men in turn over from the carrier, dropped them in, and resealed the vat.

* * *

A man's voice babbled and sobbed. Another man screamed in sudden fright; then there was a sound of rapid, panicky breathing mingled with the sobs.

Quillan switched off the communicator, looked over at Hace. "Is this what it was like before?"

She moistened her lips. "No, this is insanity!" Her voice was unsteady. "They're both completely incapable of responding to us now. What could there be in that swamp at night to have terrified them to that extent? At least some of the others should have come back to the ship . . ." She paused. "Quillan, why do we stay here? You know what they're like—why bother with them? You don't need any of them to handle the ship. One person can take it to the Hub if necessary."

"I know," Quillan said. He studied her, added, "I'm wondering a little why you're willing to help me get back to the Hub."

Anger showed for an instant in the pale, beautiful face.

"I'm no Ralan! I was picked up in a raid on Beristeen when I was twelve. I've never wanted to do anything but get away from Rala since that day."

Quillan grunted, rubbed his chin. "I see. . . . Well, we can't leave immediately. For one thing, I left the Sigma File in that swamp."

Hace stared at him. "You haven't destroyed it?"

"No. It never quite came to that point."

She laughed shortly. "Quillan, you're rather wonderful! Ajoran was convinced the file was lost, and that his only chance of saving his own skin was to get you back alive so he could find out what you had learned on the Lorn Worlds. . . . No, you can't leave the file behind, of course! I understand that. But why don't we lift the ship out of atmosphere until it's morning here?" She nodded at the communicator. "That disturbance—whatever they've aroused down there—should have settled out by then. The swamp will be quiet again. Then you can work out a way to get the file back without too much danger."

Quillan shook his head, got to his feet. "No, that shouldn't be necessary. The man-tracker was being monitored from the ship, wasn't it? Where is the control set kept?"

Hace indicated the desk twenty feet behind her where the second man had sat when Quillan had come into the control room.

"It's lying over there. That's what he was doing."

Quillan said, "Let's take a look at it. I want the thing to return to the ship." He started toward the desk. Hace stood up, went over to the desk with him. "I'm afraid I can't tell you how to operate it."

"I should be able to do it," Quillan said. "I played around a few hours once with a captured man-tracker which had been shipped back to Lorn. This appears to be a very similar model." He looked down at the moving dark blurs in the screen which formed the center of the control set, twisted a knob to one side of it. "Let's see what it's doing now before I have it return to the ship."

The screen cleared suddenly. The scene was still dark, but in the machine's night-vision details were distinct. A rippling weed bed was gliding slowly past below; a taller leafy thicket ahead moved closer. Then the thicket closed about the tracker.

Hace said, "The operator was trying to discover through the tracker what was happening to the men down there, but it moved out of the range of their lights almost as soon as the disturbance began. Apparently the devices, once set, can't be turned around."

"Not unless you're riding them," Quillan agreed. "Tele-monitoring observes what they're doing, but has only limited control. They either go on and finish their business, or get their sensors switched off and return to their starting point. It's still following my trail. Now . . ."

"What's that light?" Hace asked uneasily. "It looks like the reflection of a fire."

The tracker had emerged from the thicket, swung to the left, and was gliding low over an expanse of open water, almost touching it. There were pale orange glitters on the surface ahead of it.

Quillan studied them, said, "At a guess, it simply means there's a moon in the sky." He pushed a stud on the set, and the scene vanished. "That wiped out the last instructions it was given. It will come back to the ship in a minute or two."

Hace looked at him. "What do you have in mind?"

"I'm riding it down to the swamp."

"Not now! In the morning you . . ."

"I don't think I'll be in any danger. Now let's find a place where I'm sure you'll stay locked up until I get back. As you said, one person can do all that's needed to lift this ship off the planet and head away. . . ."






Five hundred feet above the ground, the man-tracker's open saddle was not the most reassuring place to be in. But the machine was considerably easier to maneuver than the grav-suit had been and the direct route by air to the giant tree beneath which he'd concealed the Sigma File was the shortest and fastest. Quillan was reasonably certain nothing had happened to the file, but he wouldn't know until he held it in his hands again.

The orange moon that had pushed above the horizon was a big one, the apparent diameter of its disk twice that of the vanished sun. Quillan was holding the tracker's pace down. But no more than a few minutes passed before he could make out the big tree in the vague light, ahead and a little to his right. He guided the machine over to it, circled its crown slowly twice, looking down, then lowered the tracker down to a section of open water near the base of the tree, turned it and went gliding in toward the tangled root system of the giant. He turned the control set off, remained in the saddle a few moments, looking about and listening.

The swamp was full of sound, most of it of a minor nature . . . chirps, twittering, soft hoots. Something whistled piercingly three times in the tree overhead. Behind him, not too far off, was a slow, heavy splashing which gradually moved away. At the very limit of his hearing was something else. It might have been human voices, faint with distance, or simply his imagination at work.

Nearby, nothing moved. Quillan pulled the control set out of its saddle frame, slid down from the saddle, clinging to it with one hand, finally dropped a few inches into a layer of mud above the mass of tree roots. He climbed farther up on the roots, found a dry place under one of them where he shoved the control set out of sight. Then he went climbing cautiously on around the great trunk, slipping now and then on the slimy root tangle beneath the mud. . . .

And here was where he had concealed the Sigma File. A little bay of water extended almost to the trunk itself about five feet deep. Quillan slipped down into it. There was firm footing here. He moved forward to the tip of the bay, took a deep breath and crouched down. The warm water closed over his head. He groped about among the root shelves before him, touched the file, gripped it by its handle and drew it out.

He clambered up out of the water, started back around the tree . . . 

And there the thing stood.

* * *

Quillan stopped short. This was almost an exact duplication of what happened after he'd brought the Sigma File down here and concealed it. It had been daylight then, and what he saw now as a bulky manlike shape in the shadow of the tree had been clearly visible. It was a green monstrosity, heavy as a gorilla, with a huge, round bobbing ball of a head which showed no features at all through its leafy appendages. It was bigger than it had looked at a distance from the hillside, standing almost eight feet tall.

The first time, it had been only a few yards away, moving toward him around the tree, when he had seen it. His instant reaction had been to haul out his gun. . . .

Now he stayed still, looking at it. His heartbeat had speeded up noticeably. This was, he told himself, an essentially vegetarian creature. And it was peaceable because it had a completely effective means of defense. It could sense the impulse to attack in an approaching carnivore, and it could make the carnivore forget its purpose.

As often as was necessary.

Quillan made himself start forward. He had no intention, his mind kept repeating, of harming this oversized fleegle, and it had no intention of harming him. It did not move out of his path as he came toward it, but turned slowly to keep facing him as he clambered past over the roots a few feet away.

Quillan didn't look back at it and heard no movement behind him. He saw the man-tracker floating motionless above the mud ahead, put the file down and pulled the tracker's control set out from under the root where he had left it. A minute or two later, he was back in the machine's saddle, out in the moonlight away from the big tree, the Sigma File fastened to his belt.

He tapped a pattern of instructions into the control set, checked them very carefully, slid the set into the saddle frame and switched it on.

The man-tracker swung about purposefully, went gliding away through the swamp. A hundred yards on, it encountered three fleegles, somewhat smaller than the one under the tree, wading slowly leg-deep through the mud. They stopped as the machine appeared, and Quillan thought friendly and admiring things about fleegles until they were well behind him again. Perhaps a minute later, the man-tracker stopped in the air above the first of the Talada's lost crew.

He had crawled into a thicket and was blubbering noisily to himself. When two of the machine's grapplers flicked down into the thicket and locked about him, he bawled in horror. Quillan looked straight ahead, not particularly wanting to watch this. There was a click behind him as the preservative tank opened. For a moment, his nostrils were full of the stink of the liquid. Then there was a splash, and the bawling stopped abruptly. The tank clicked shut.

The man-tracker swung around on a new point, set off again. Its present instructions were to trail and collect every human being within the range of its sensory equipment, except its rider.

They'd been on edge to begin with here, Quillan told himself. Their rifles already had brought down one brute which had come roaring monstrously at them in the dusk; and presumably the rifles could handle anything else they might encounter. But they hadn't liked the look of the swamp the man-tracker was leading them into. Wading through pools, slipping in the mud, flashing their lights about at every menacing shadow, they followed the machine, mentally cursing the order that had sent them after the intelligence agent as night was closing in.

And then a great green ogre was standing in one of the light beams. . . .

Naturally, they tried to shoot it.

And as they made the decision, they began to forget.

Progressive waves of amnesia . . . first, perhaps, only a touch. The men lifting rifles forgot they were lifting them. Until they saw the fleegle again—

The past few hours might be wiped out next. They stood in a swamp at night, not knowing how they'd got there or why they were there. But they had rifles in their hands, and an ogrish shape was watching them.

Months forgotten now. The fleegle could keep it up.

About that point, they'd begun to stampede, scattered, ploughed this way and that through the swamp. But the fleegles were everywhere. And as often as a gun was lifted in panic, another chunk of memory would go. Until the last of the weapons was dropped.

The man-tracker wasn't rounding up men, but children in grown-up bodies, huddled in hiding on a wet, dark nightmare world, dazed and uncomprehending, unable to do more than wail wildly as the machine picked them up and placed them in its tank.





Quillan came out of the compartment where the man-tracker was housed, locked the door and turned off the control set.

"You haven't closed the vat yet," Hace said.

He nodded. "I know. Let's go back."

"I'm still not clear on just what did happen," she went on, walking beside him up the passage. "You say they lost their memories . . . ?"

"Yes. It's a temporary thing. I had the same experience when I first got here, though I don't seem to have been hit as hard as most of them were. If they weren't floating around in that slop now, they'd start remembering within hours."

He opened the door to the vat room, motioned her inside. Hace wrinkled her nose in automatic distaste at the odor of the preservative, said, "It's very strange. How could any creature affect a human mind in that manner?"

"I don't know," Quillan said. "But it isn't important now." He followed her in, closing the door behind him, went on, "Now this will be rather unpleasant, so let's get it over with."

She glanced back at him. "Get what over with, Quillan?"

"You're getting the ride to the Hub you said you wanted," Quillan told her, "but you're riding along with the crew down there."

Hace whirled to face him, her eyes wild with fear.

"Ah—no! Quillan . . . I . . . you couldn't . . ."

"I don't want you awake on the ship," he told her. "Though I might have thought of some other way of making sure you wouldn't be a problem if my pilot hadn't died as he did."

"What does that have to do with me?" Her voice was shrill. "Didn't I try to help you in the control room?"

"You played it smart in the control room," Quillan said. "But you would have gone into the vat with the first group if I hadn't thought you might be useful in some way."

"But why? Am I to blame for what Ajoran did?"

Quillan shrugged. "I'm not sorry for what happened to Ajoran. But I'm not stupid enough to think that a Ralan intelligence agent would go out in a grav-suit to help look for me, leaving the ship in charge of a couple of junior officers. Ajoran went out because he was ordered to do it. And there were a few other things. What they add up to, doll, is that you were the senior agent in this operation. And it would suit you just fine to get back to Rala with the Sigma File, and no one left alive to tell how you almost let it get away from you."

Hace wet her lips, her eyes darting wildly about his face.

"Quillan, I . . ." she started to plead.

A cold grin creased Quillan's face. "Forget it." He placed his hand flat against her chest, shoved hard. Hace went stumbling backward toward the open drop hole of the vat. There was a scream and a splash. He walked over and looked down. The oily surface was smooth again.

"Sweet dreams, doll." He slammed the cover down over the drop hole, sealed it and left the room.



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