There was silence for some seconds. Then Trigger said faintly, “But that’s horrible!”
The Commissioner shrugged. “From our point of view, it may appear rather horrible. From that of the creature, if it had a point of view, it probably would seem to be leading a very comfortable and satisfactory life. The trees are generous and dependable hosts.”
Trigger’s gaze shifted to the tree, followed the flow of the curving trunk up to the great white flower cup nodding benignly above them. “It’s not their fault,” she said suddenly. “They don’t understand what they’re doing. Will they all have to be killed?”
The Commissioner looked at her. “I find myself hoping some other solution will be found, Trigger. Possibly one will be. For the present, those worlds will be quarantined; but they can’t be kept quarantined indefinitely. The danger is too great—the trees literally could destroy any civilization into which they were introduced. So we don’t know what the outcome of this will be. But the situation will be studied carefully before any definite decision is made.”
“And whoever studies the trees,” remarked Mantelish, “will become addicted to them.”
“No doubt. But now that we’re aware of the factor, we should be safe from undue effects.”
The three of them stood silently watching the tree. And the tree stood there and loved them.
The Commissioner drew a long, sighing breath.
“Reasonably safe, that is,” he concluded.
There’d been a dinner party at the Amberdon town house in Orado City that night. Telzey was home for the weekend but hadn’t attended the party. Graduation exams weren’t far away, and she’d decided she preferred to get in additional study time. It was mainly a political dinner anyway; she’d been at enough of those.
Most of the guests had left by now. Four of them still sat in the room below her balcony alcove with Gilas and Jessamine, her parents. They’d all strolled in together a while ago for drinks and conversation, not knowing someone was on the balcony. The talk was about Overgovernment business, some of it, from the scraps Telzey absently picked up, fairly top-secret stuff. She wasn’t interested until a man named Orsler started sounding off on something about which he was evidently very much annoyed. It had to do with the activities of a young woman named Argee.
Telzey started listening then because she disliked Orsler. He was an undersecretary in Conservation, head of a subdepartment dealing with uncolonized and unclaimed worlds and the life-forms native to them. Telzey had scouted around in his mind on another occasion and discovered that those remote, unsuspecting life-forms had a dubious champion in Orsler. He was using his position to help along major exploitation schemes, from which he would benefit substantially in roundabout ways. She’d decided that if nobody had done anything about it by the time the schemes ripened, she would. She gave the Overgovernment a little quiet assistance of that kind now and then. But the time in question was still several months away.
Meanwhile, anything that vexed Orsler should make enjoyable hearing. So she listened.
The group below evidently was familiar with the subject. There was a treelike creature, recently discovered somewhere, which was dangerous to human beings. Orsler’s department had it tentatively classified as “noxious vermin,” which meant it could be dealt with in any manner short of complete extermination. Miss Argee, whose first name was Trigger, had learned about this; and though she lacked, as Orsler pointed out bitterly, official status of any kind, she’d succeeded in having the classification changed to “quarantined, pending investigation,” which meant Orsler’s department could do nothing about the pseudotrees until whatever investigations were involved had been concluded.
“The girl is simply impossible!” Orsler stated. “She doesn’t seem to have the slightest understanding of the enormous expense involved in keeping a planet under dependable quarantine—let alone three of them!”
“She’s aware of the expense factor,” said another guest, whose voice Telzey recognized as that of a Federation Admiral who’d attended Amberdon dinners before. “In fact, she spent some time going over it with me. I found she had a good grasp of logistics. It seems she’s served on a Precol world and has been on several long-range expeditions where that knowledge was put to use.”
“So she’s annoyed you, too!” said Orsler. “If any citizen who happens—”
“I wasn’t annoyed,” the Federation Admiral interrupted quietly. “I rather enjoyed her visit.”
There was a pause. Then Orsler said, “It’s amazing that such an insignificant matter could have been carried as far as the Hace Committee! But at least that will put a prompt end to Argee’s fantastic notions. She’s a Siren addict, of course, and should be institutionalized in her own interest.”
Federation Councilwoman Jessamine Amberdon, who served on the Hace Ethics Committee, said pleasantly, “I’d prefer to think you’re not being vindictive, Orsler.”
“I?” Orsler laughed. “Of course not!”
“Then,” said Jessamine, “you’ll be pleased to know that the Committee is handling this as it handles all matters properly brought before it. It will await the outcome of the current investigations before it forms a conclusion. And you needn’t be concerned about Miss Argee’s health. We have it on good authority that while she was at one time seriously addicted to the Sirens, she’s now free of such problems. Her present interest in them, in other words, is not motivated by addiction.”
Orsler evidently didn’t choose to reply, and the talk turned to other subjects—regrettably, from Telzey’s point of view. Orsler had found no support, and had been well squelched by Jessamine, which she liked. But now she was intrigued. Treelike Sirens which addicted people and rated a hearing in the Ethics Committee were something new.
She could ask Jessamine about it later, but she’d have to admit to eavesdropping then, which her mother would consider not quite the right thing to have done. Besides, one of the minds down there could tell her. And having been in Orsler’s mind before, reentry would be a simple matter
Unless there happened to be a Guardian Angel around. Frequently enough, they hovered about people in upper government levels, for one reason or another. She’d picked up no trace of their presence tonight, but they were rather good at remaining unnoticed.
Well, she’d find out. She dropped an entry probe casually toward Orsler.
And right enough:
“Telzey Amberdon, you stop that!”
It was a brisk, prim thought-form, carrying distinct overtones of the personality producing it. She knew this particular Guardian Angel, or Psychology Service psi operator, who probably was in a parked aircar within a block or two of the Amberdon house—a hard-working, no-nonsense little man with whom she’d skirmished before. He was no match for her; but he could get assistance in a hurry. She didn’t complete the probe.
“Why?” she asked innocently. “You’re not interested in Orsler, are you?”
“He’s precisely the one in whom I’m interested!”
“You surprise me,” said Telzey. “Orsler’s a perfect creep.”
“I won’t argue with that description of him. But it’s beside the point.”
“A little mental overhauling wouldn’t hurt him,” Telzey pointed out. “He’s no asset to the Federation as he is.”
“Undersecretary Orsler,” the Angel told her sternly, “is not to be tampered with! He has a function to perform of which he isn’t aware. What happens after he’s performed it is another matter—but certainly no business of yours.”
So they knew of Orsler’s planetary exploitation plans and would handle it in their way. Good enough!
“All right,” Telzey said amiably. “I have no intention of tampering with him, actually. I only wanted to find out what he knows about those Sirens they were talking about.”
A pause. “Information about the pseudotrees is classified,” said the Angel. “But I suppose that technicality means little to you.”
“Very little,” Telzey agreed.
“Then I suggest that your mother knows more about the subject than anyone else in the room.”
Telzey shrugged mentally. “I don’t snoop in Jessamine’s mind. You know that.”
A longer pause. “You’re really interested only in the Sirens?” asked the Angel.
“And Trigger Argee.”
“Very well. I can get you a report on the former.”
“It will be in your telewriter by the time you reach your room. As for Miss Argee, we might have a file on her, but you can hardly expect us to violate her privacy to satisfy your curiosity.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to violate anyone’s privacy,” Telzey said. “All I’d like is her background, what kind of person she is—the general sort of thing I could get from a good detective agency tomorrow.”
“I’ll have a scan extract made of her file,” the Angel told her. “You’ll receive it in a few minutes.”
* * *
The blue reception button on the ComWeb was glowing when Telzey came into her room. She closed the door, pulled up the report on the Sirens, and sat down. The report began flowing up over the reading screen at her normal scanning rate.