Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Her heels tap-tapped under an archway. Craig followed like a shadow at those heels, seemingly sauntering from one exhibit to another, yet always keeping her within seeing distance. The next hall was the one that held the artifacts from the Rim Worlds, on loan for this Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the first contact between Rim and Empire. Craig did not make the mistake of entering the room. Except for the girl the hall was empty. Instead, he lifted a hooked mirror from an inside pocket, hung it on a shelf, then positioned a second one. These mirrors afforded him perfect vision into the next room.
He saw the white ivory Kharkhan Scepter on its rack. He observed the android woman lift out a duplicate scepter, reach up and take down the true truncheon, then slip the false article in its place. The real scepter went into her handbag. It was done quickly, efficiently, in less than three seconds.
Then Irla Grayson continued on her way toward the lavatories beyond the far door in the north wall. It was close to lunchtime. She would pretend to wash and in a minute or two she would come out and leave the building for lunch. Somewhere—in a crowded restaurant, during a sidewalk jostling—she would lose her knitting bag to a L.O.O.T. agent. It was a neat plan, almost foolproof—if the real Irla Grayson and Commander John Craig were dead.
No need to take a closer look at the Rim Staff of Office. L.O.O.T. would have had it duplicated by a true artist.
Except for its authenticity, it would be like the real thing. The far door was opening. Irla Grayson was coming out, the big knitting bag over an arm.
Craig made himself inconspicuous. The android woman moved through the hall to her desk, bent to lock her desk, and went on ahead toward the main doors. Craig paused only to speak to a woman and her teen-age daughter gawking at a display of dinokral bones on a raised dais.
The mother and daughter were Investigation Corps agents. Craig said swiftly, “Check the lavatory. She took the Rim Scepter. She may have dumped it in the women’s section.”
They moved away at a brisk walk. Craig went on toward the main doors, hurrying to catch up with the android woman. His heart was pumping faster. The crisis was here. It would be soon, now. Soon. And the move might come from any of several different directions.
He stalked catlike in her footsteps, aware of the itch of the leather straps where a small ray-gun nestled on magnetic clips. The move had to come at any moment. Every instinct in his body was awake and clawing.
A shadow touched the sidewalk. No need to look up. He heard the sudden roar of a gyro-wing motor, knew that the two men seated on it were expert riders, expert shots. The gyro-wing was a small swift air-cycle that resembled nothing so much as it did a huge mechanical bee in flight. Few men could ride air-cycles but those who mastered the art could make them work miracles in the air. The wing came low, the android woman flung her knitting bag high.
Commander Craig had his ray-gun in hand. No sense in hitting the android. It was not alive and he might miss either of the two men strapped into the wing seats. His best target was the wing itself. He focused on it and triggered his stud. He missed—missed again. He would get just one more chance. Already the bag was in the rear seat rider’s hands and the wing was darting, curvetting, twisting back and forth.
The rear man had his own gun out, was firing back at him. Craig felt the scorch of a near miss and instinctively flinched from its heat. The such-and-sos were using burn-blasts. He aimed, touched stud and. . . .
A man screamed. The wing was five hundred feet high by this time and its motor, hit by that third stab of protonic power, was just black powder being blown helter-skelter by the wind. The wing was starting its last dive, slowly nosing over and coming down.
A L.O.O.T. operative is a human being. He does not want to die any more than anyone else. It was the driver who was screeching, staring downward at the hard pavement.
Craig leaped forward. When the wing hit it might explode and burn, for the tiny fuel tank on its rear fender was still intact and it held two pounds of extremely delicate kylox. To let the Kharkhan Scepter be destroyed by fire would be even worse than allowing it to be stolen.
His forward momentum saved his life. A red beam hit just where he had been standing and tore a hole in the sidewalk beyond him. Craig landed on a shoulder, grunted from the impact, and turned his head and his ray-gun at the same time.
Two more of them, coming from different directions. Trust L.O.O.T. to make sure of its target. Craig was calm with desperation. He was lying flat, the sidewalk was a prop to his gun-hand. He fired once, he fired twice. He swung the rayer toward the second man after seeing the first go up in a shower of sparks and flying gobbets of charred flesh.
The second man was skidding, trying to gain shelter. Behind him Craig heard the crash of the wing, the screams of the crowd. He was the only Intelligence man here; to have put more on the streets might have alerted L.O.O.T. to danger and the entire operation might have been called off. No, this job belonged to Commander Craig, alone.
He shot true. The running man died as he slid into a building recess and lay there burning.
Craig was up, racing forward. The after-tank could go any moment. Jellied kylox was an extremely unpredictable fuel. It reacted within seconds —or inside hours. Or—not at all. Craig made himself look away from the quivering remains of the L.O.O.T. agents where they lay splattered on the sidewalk. His goal was the knitting bag.
He left his feet in a long dive. His hand stabbed down, twisted into the coarse fabric of the bag. He brought it with him as he landed hard on the other side of the wing wreckage and went tumbling.
The slim shape of the Scepter was hard in his hand where it held the bag. It was safe. Craig rolled over onto his back and lay there gasping. And then the wing blew up. The red flare of the exploding air-cycle turned the city pink. A nanosecond later, shock waves shook Commander Craig as a dog might shake a rag doll. The noise penetrated inside his head and mushroomed. The jellied kylox had gone up. Moments earlier, he had been diving over that fuel. The sweat came out on his face and ran down his cheeks and neck. Death was a word called timing.
He made it to his feet, still with the knitting bag clutched in his fingers. The city constables were coming on the run. There would be explanations to make, the android woman to be picked up and—if possible—questioned about her knowledge of L.O.O.T. But these were details. They would be handled by other Alert Command personnel. His job was to get the Scepter to Dan Ingalls.
The city police wanted to hold him, but by this time there was a man from Coordination there to explain things and show credentials. A gyro-wing dropped for him, waited as he strapped himself on the rear saddle and took off.
Ingalls wanted a report fast, wanted the Kharkhan Scepter in his hands.
Craig laid the ivory truncheon on the desk as he looked down at the big man with the bulky shoulders and the middle running to fat. His black hair showed a touch of gray at the temples and his face was marred by deep seams put there by the years of administering Intelligence Corps. He was ten years Commander Craig’s senior, and outranked him by two service bars.
Dan Ingalls was his good friend, and as he stared down at him, Craig felt a stab of pity for the man. Years ago he had done what John Craig did now, until a Thomson ray shredded his nerves on Althon planet and put him behind this big desk at Alert Command. Craig knew that he himself worked off his own excess energies and frustrations in violent combat; for Dan Ingalls there was no such relief. And so his tensions revealed themselves in the face furrows that grew deeper with each passing year.
At the moment, Dan Ingalls was smiling. “Nice job, John. Damn nice,” he said softly. He hefted the Scepter, staring at its ivory length. “Doesn’t seem worth killing a billion or two people for, but the Rim Worlds seem to think so. Their ambassador is at a special session of the United Worlds now, about to announce a rupture of diplomatic relations between themselves and Empire. He is waiting to be assured that the Scepter is safe.”
“How did he learn about the try?”
“L.O.O.T. told him, I’d say.” Craig said slowly. “L.O.O.T. wants war, is that it? In the confusion, in the excitement, L.O.O.T. would be free to rob and pillage at will.”
“That would be my guess, yes.” Ingalls turned to the communicator on his desk. Commander Craig, still in his street garments, listened as he made contact with the United Worlds Counsel building on Revere Planet. There was a hush, then a voice spoke in the clipped accents of the Rim people.
“Commander Ingalls? This is Kovan Fal.”
“Ambassador, you can relax. We have the Kharkhan Scepter.”
“So? It may be a hoax, a duplicate. I shall send a team of experts armed with chronal radiation counters to detect its age.”
“Fine, sir. We’ll be happy to oblige, to extend them every courtesy. But be assured this is the real thing I have on my desk. Commander Craig just brought it in. Four L.O.O.T. men are dead because of it.”
“It is a lucky happenstance for Empire that there is a L.O.O.T. to blame for schemes and tricks you yourselves devise against us Rim people. The wealthy Empire planets are always planning war, always pushing their capitalistic trade treaties in the faces of the innocent people of my planets.”
Ingalls rolled his eyes and Craig grinned. The Rim ambassadors were all of a type: they orated on the beauties of their people’s government as distinguished from the more sophisticated sovereignty of Empire, ignoring the fact that the men in power in the Rim planets kept their people in utter subjection to the harsh laws that made them automatons, fit only to obey the will and dictates of their leaders.
The free enterprise of the Empire worlds was not for Rim. The people were forced to work on farms and in factories and had to live where the shacks and huts were erected for their use. Improvement of their lot in life was a goal always dangled before the Rim people, but it was a goal only one man in a million ever achieved. Jealous of Empire, seeking to drag the United Worlds down to their own economic level, the Rim leaders could think only in terms of war.
All Rim needed was the excuse. Commander Dan Ingalls was not going to give it to them. He said softly, “The Kharkhan Scepter is here, Ambassador. It will be turned over to you—after your scientists examine it in our laboratory so there is no possibility of substitution—”
“Are you accusing a Rim ambassador of chicanery?” Ingalls winked at Craig as the voice howled on about capitalistic plots and counter-plots. When he could, he said, “Nevertheless, the Scepter does not leave Empire control until we have your signed and sealed document that it is the authentic scepter and that you have retaken possession of it.”
Kovan Fall talked on a little longer, then grudgingly admitted that Intelligence Corps had done a good job. His authentication team would be on Afrikaal Planet soon and would work hand in glove with Empire technicians. Then he hung up.
Sighing, Dan Ingalls reached for a tobarette rube and inserted it in a holder. As he was lighting it, Craig asked, “Why in the name of Phadron’s ten holy toenails did Rim loan us the Scepter in the first place?”
“For business reasons. Crops have been bad in the Rim planets for the past two years. The people need food desperately. Kovan Fal is on Revere now to make a trade treaty, exchanging the metal ores in which Rim is so wealthy, for our foodstuffs. Putting the Scepter on exhibit was supposed to earn Rim our good will.”
Craig leaned back in his chair, letting the ache of tension ease from his muscles. Tiredness had become a way of life with him lately; he was always plugged into one trouble spot or another. First Lyrosia, then the Enigma, and now this Kharkhan Scepter business.
“Dan, I want out for a month. I need a rest, dammit.” Ingalls was syrupy with understanding. “Of course you do, Johnny lad. I’d never have bothered you about this Rim trouble except you were our man on the spot. Now relax, your work is over.”
Ingalls reached across his desk for a folder. As he opened it, he grinned. “Just as a token of appreciation I’m going to give you an authorization card. Use it up to a reasonable limit. Empire isn’t niggardly, you know.”
Craig sat up straight, visions dancing in his brain. An authorization card was worth a dozen planets, sometimes. It opened doors and provided materials not even a planet president could get.
As his fingers closed on the plastic rectangle he said, “I’m going to Pleasure Planet, Dan. For a month of loafing and sun and good food, good drink, good—”
“Don’t say it, let me guess, Ingalls chuckled. “Have a ball.”
Craig heard the shower going as he came into the little apartment, the package bulking large under his arm. He wore his dress white uniform, heavy with the gold braid at his shoulder, campaign ribbons and medals. There was perfume in the air.
He put the package down on the divan, then called, “Hoy! Anybody home?” The shower water stopped.
“Johnny to you, bunny babe.” Her laughter was musical. There was a little silence, then she was peering around the edge of the door, hair done up in a fluffy towel.
“Is Empire all nice and safe?” Her eyes saw the package and opened wide. It was a long box, about three feet by two. From the cardboard container she lifted her gaze to the smiling Intelligence Corps officer.
“Is that for me?”
“A token of my gratitude for a job well done. The Kharkhan Scepter is locked away in a vault, your android double is relating the orders she was given to recording tapes, four L.O.O.T. men are dead—and peace reigns between Rim and us.”
“What is it?” she whispered, eyes wide. “Come and see. Open it for yourself.”
“I can’t,” she wailed. “I’m all bare skin.”
“Sometimes that’s the best way to be.” She was licking her lips, curiosity a tiny light deep in her eyes. “Bring it to me,” she begged, putting out a white arm and wriggling damp fingers.
“I’m too weak. I can’t move another step.”
“Then close your eyes.” He grinned. “Fair enough.” He shut his eyes and waited until he heard her soft footfalls on the carpeting before he opened them again. Irla Grayson was an ivory and scarlet dream tiptoeing across the room toward him. Her eyes were fastened on the package he had tossed on the divan and for a few seconds Commander Craig was able to feast his eyes on her loveliness.
She felt his eyes and turned her head. For an instant their stares locked and she drew a quick breath, reading the desire in his face. She was bending forward, one hand outstretched, a living statue flushed of face and with faintly smiling lips.
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered. She turned and ran for the shelter of the door, crying back over her shoulder, “You cheated. You opened your eyes.”
“You just said to close them, you didn’t say anything about opening them again,” he told her.
Irla came to a halt and shrugged her shoulders. “You’ve seen me already—without anything on.” She turned and giggled. “In the marshes, in the van, in my bedroom as an android. Whom I trying to fool?”
She walked into his arms, was lifted and kissed until she was breathless. Under his hands her skin was smooth warm cream. He heard the hunger lift into her throat as his fingers fondled her flesh. She whimpered when he clasped her against him and put her arms about his neck.
“Is this how Alert Command rewards the people who give them a helping hand?” she breathed into his lips.
“This and—other ways.”
“See for yourself.” She turned and pounced on the package, bending to undo its fastenings. Craig studied the backs of her thighs. L.O.O.T. had done an exceptional job, all right. The birthmark that was on the android was also on the living model. He wondered how L.O.O.T. had learned about it. Hell, L.O.O.T. owned peepers, too.
The string on the package was undone. Irla Grayson ripped the paper and lifted the top. A fur coat lay inside tissue paper. With a squeal, she brought it out into the dim light of the living room. With a cry of sheer happiness, she wrapped it about her nakedness and ran for the bedroom.
Commander John Craig followed. . . .