The Hub: Dangerous Territory
James H. Schmitz
It was night in that part of the world of Mezmiali—deep night, for much of the sky was obscured by the dense cosmic cloud called the Pit, little more than two light-years away. Overhead, only a scattering of nearby stars twinkled against the sullen gloom of the cloud. Far to the east, its curving edges were limned in brilliance, for beyond it, still just below the horizon, blazed the central sun clusters of the Hub.
The landscaped private spaceport was well lit but almost deserted. A number of small ships stood about in their individual stations, and two watchmen on a pair of float scooters were making a tour of the grounds, moving along unhurriedly twenty feet up in the air. They weren’t too concerned about intruders—the ships were locked and there was little else of value around to steal. But their duties included inspecting the area every two hours, and they were doing it.
One of them checked his scooter suddenly, said through his mike, “Take a look at Twenty-two, will you!”
His companion turned his head in the indicated direction. The ship at Station Twenty-two was the largest one here at present, an interstellar yacht which had berthed late in the afternoon, following an extensive pleasure cruise. He stared in surprise, asked, “Nobody on board, is there?”
The first watchman was checking his list. “Not supposed to be until tomorrow. She’s getting a standard overhaul then. What do you suppose that stuff is?”
The stuff he referred to looked like a stream of pale, purple fire welling silently out of the solid hull of the yacht, about halfway up its side. It flowed down along the side of the ship, vanishing as it touched the ground—appeared actually to be pouring on unchecked through the base of Station Twenty-two into the earth. Both men had glanced automatically at the radiation indicators on the scooters and found them reassuringly inactive. But it was a puzzling, eerie sight.
“It’s new to me!” the other man said uneasily. “Better report it right away! There might be somebody on board, maybe messing around with the engines. Wait a moment. It’s stopping!”
They looked on in silence as the last of the fiery flow slid down the yacht, disappeared soundlessly into the station’s foundation.
The first watchman shook his head.
“I’ll call the super,” he said. “He’ll—”
A sharp whistling rose simultaneously from the two radiation indicators. Pale fire surged out of the ground beneath the scooters, curved over them, enclosing the men and their vehicles. For a moment, the figures of the watchmen moved convulsively in a shifting purple glow; then they appeared to melt, and vanished. The fire sank back to the ground, flowed down into it. The piercing clamor of the radiation indicators faded quickly to a whisper and ended.
The scooters hung in the air, motionless, apparently undamaged. But the watchmen were gone.
Eighty yards underground, the goyal lay quiet while the section it had detached to assimilate the two humans who had observed it as it left the ship returned and again became a part of it. It was a composite of billions of units, an entity now energy, now matter, vastly extensible and mobile in space, comparatively limited in the heavy mediums of a planet. At the moment, it was close to its densest material form, a sheet of unseen luminescence in the ground, sensor groups probing the spaceport area to make sure there had been no other witnesses to its arrival on Mezmiali.
There appeared to have been none. The goyal began to drift underground toward a point on the surface of the planet about a thousand miles away from the spaceport. . . .
And, about a thousand miles away, in the direction the goyal was heading, Danestar Gems raked dark-green fingernails through her matching dark-green hair, and swore nervously at the little spy-screen she’d been manipulating.
Danestar was alone at the moment, in a small room of the University League’s Unclassified Specimens Depot on Mezmiali. The Depot was composed of a group of large, heavily structured, rather ugly buildings, covering about the area of an average village, which stood in the countryside far from any major residential sections. The buildings were over three centuries old and enclosed as a unit by a permanent energy barrier, presenting to the world outside the appearance of a somewhat flattened black dome which completely concealed the structures.
Originally, there had been a fortress on this site, constructed during a period when Mezmiali was subject to periodic attacks by space raiders, human and alien. The ponderous armament of the fortress, designed to deal with such enemies, had long since been dismantled; but the basic buildings remained, and the old energy barrier was the one still in use—a thing of monstrous power, retained only because it had been simpler and less expensive to leave it in place than to remove it.
Nowadays, the complex was essentially a warehouse area with automatic maintenance facilities, an untidy giant museum of current and extinct galactic life and its artifacts. It stored mineral, soil, and atmosphere samples, almost anything, in fact, that scientific expeditions, government exploration groups, prospectors, colonial workers, or adventuring private parties were likely to pick up in space or on strange worlds and hand over to the University League as being perhaps of sufficient interest to warrant detailed analysis of its nature and properties. For over a century, the League had struggled—and never quite managed—to keep up with the material provided it for study in this manner. Meanwhile, the specimens continued to come in and were routed into special depots for preliminary cataloging and storage. Most of them would turn out to be without interest, or of interest only to the followers of some esoteric branch of science. A relatively very small number of items, however, eventually might become very valuable, indeed, either because of the new scientific information they would provide or because they could be commercially exploited, or both. Such items had a correspondingly high immediate sales value as soon as their potential qualities were recognized.
Hence the Unclassified Specimens Depots were, in one way or another, well protected areas; none of them more impressively so than the Mezmiali Depot. The lowering black barrier enclosing it also served to reassure the citizenry of the planet when rumors arose, as they did periodically, that the Depot’s Life Bank vaults contained dormant alien monstrosities such as human eyes rarely looked upon.
But mainly the barrier was there because the University League did not want some perhaps priceless specimens to be stolen.
That was also why Danestar Gems was there.
Danestar was a long-waisted, lithe, beautiful girl, dressed severely in a fitted black coverall suit and loose short white jacket, the latter containing numerous concealed pockets for the tools and snooping devices with which she worked. The wide ornamental belt enclosing the suit under the jacket similarly carried almost indetectable batteries of tiny control switches. Her apparently frivolous penchant for monocolor make-up—dark-green at the moment: green hair and lashes, green eyes, lips, nails, all precisely the same shade—was part of the same professional pattern. The hair was a wig, like a large flowing helmet, designed for Danestar personally, with exquisite artistry, by a stylist of interstellar fame; but beneath its waves was a mass of miniature gadgetry, installed with no less artistry by Danestar herself. On another day, or another job, depending on the purpose she was pursuing, the wig and other items might be sea-blue, scarlet, or a somewhat appalling pale-pink. Her own hair was dark brown, cut short. In most respects, Danestar actually was a rather conservative girl.
For the past ten minutes, she had been trying unsuccessfully to contact her colleague, Corvin Wergard. Wergard’s last report, terminated abruptly, had reached her from another section of the Depot. He’d warned her that a number of armed men were trying to close in on him there and that it would be necessary for him to take prompt evasive action.
Danestar Gems and Corvin Wergard were employees of the Kyth Interstellar Detective Agency, working in the Depot on a secret assignment for University League authorities. Officially, they had been sent here two weeks before as communications technicians who were to modernize the Depot’s antiquated systems. Danestar was, as a matter of fact, a communications expert, holding an advanced degree in the subject. Corvin Wergard had a fair working knowledge of communication systems; but they were not his specialty. He was a picklock in the widest sense. Keeping him out of a place he wanted to get into or look into was a remarkably difficult thing to do.
Their working methods differed considerably. Danestar was an instrument girl. The instruments she favored were cobwebby miniatures; disassembled, all fitted comfortably into a single flat valise which went wherever Danestar did. Most of them she had built herself, painstakingly and with loving care like a fly fisherman creating the gossamer tools of his hobby. Next to them, their finest commercial equivalents looked crude and heavy—not too surprisingly, since Danestar’s instruments were designed to be handled only by her own slender, extremely deft fingers. On an operation, she went about, putting out ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred eyes and ears, along with such other sensors, telltales, and recorders of utterly inhuman type as were required by the circumstances, cutting in on established communication lines and setting up her own, masked by anti-antispying devices. In many cases, of course, her touch had to be imperceptible; and it almost always was. She was a confirmed snoop, liked her work, and was very good at it.