There was a world called Marell . . .
Trigger said, “The Old Territory people who set up the genetic miniaturization project did it because they thought it had been proved there’d be a permanent shortage of habitable planets around. So that sets it back about eleven hundred years, when they’d begun to get range but didn’t yet know where and how to look.”
They’d discovered Marell, which seemed eminently habitable, and decided to populate it with a human strain reduced in size to the point where a vast number could be supported by the planet without crowding it. A staff of scientists and technicians of normal size accompanied the miniature colony to see it safely through any early problems.
On Marell, a plague put an abrupt end to the project before it could get under way. It wiped out the supervisory staff and more than half of the small people; and no Old Territory ship touched on the planet again. The survivors were left to their own resources, which were slender enough. They came close to extermination but recovered, began to develop a technology, and in the course of the following centuries spread out until they’d made a sizable part of Marell their own.
“Steam and electricity,” said Trigger. “They’d got up to that, but not beyond it. One group knew what actually had happened on Marell, but they kept their records a secret. Some others had legends that they were descendants of Giants who flew through space and that kind of thing. Not many believed the legends. Then the Hub ship came.”
It had been a surveyor ship. It moved about in Marell’s skies for weeks before coming down to take samples of the surface. It also took a section of a Marell town on board, along with about a hundred of its inhabitants. Then it left.
“When was that?” Telzey asked.
“Salgol was one of the first group they picked up, and he was the equivalent of eleven standard years old at the time,” said Trigger. “That makes it fifteen standard years ago.”
“Most of the people they took with them then died,” Salgol told Telzey. “They didn’t treat us badly but they gave us bad diseases. They found out what to do about the diseases, and taught Translingue to those of us who were left, and some of the Giants learned one of our main languages.”
Telzey nodded. “And then?”
“We went back to Marell. They knew we had an electrical communication system. They used it.”
The Hub ship issued orders. Geologically, Marell was a rich world, and the Hub men wanted the choicest of its treasures. They were taking what was immediately on hand, and thereafter the Marells would work to provide them with more. Quotas were set. The ship would return each year to gather up what had been collected.
* * *
“How many Marells were there now?” Telzey asked.
Salgol shook his head. “That isn’t definitely known. But when I was there last, I was told there might be sixty million of the people.”
“So, even with limited equipment, it adds up to a very large annual haul of precious stones and metals.”
“Yes, lady, it has,” said Salgol.
“And you don’t have weapons against space armor.”
“No. The people do have weapons, of course, and good ones. There are huge animals there—huge as we see them—and some are still very dangerous. And the nations have fought among themselves, though not since the ship came. But they aren’t like your weapons. One town turned its cannon on the Giants when they came to collect. The Giants weren’t hurt, but they burned the town with everyone in it.”
Trigger said, “Besides, there were threats. The Marells were told they’d better be thankful for the current arrangement and do what they could to keep it going. If the Hub government ever learned about them, the whole planet would be occupied, and any surviving Marells would be slaves forever.”
“Did you believe that?” Telzey asked Salgol.
“I wasn’t sure, lady. The Hub people I’ve met before today might do it, if they saw enough advantage in it. Perhaps you had a very bad government.”
“Then why did you run away from Blethro? Wasn’t that endangering your world, as far as you knew?”
Salgol glanced at his companions. “There’s a worse thing beginning now,” he said. “Those they took away before were to become interpreters like myself, or to provide some special information. But now they plan to collect the most physically perfect among our young people and sell them in the Hub like animal pets. I felt I had to take the chance to find out whether there weren’t some of you who would try to prevent it. I thought there must be, since you don’t seem really different from us except for your size.”
Telzey said after a moment, “They’d risk spoiling the present setup with something like that?”
“It wouldn’t spoil it, Telzey,” Trigger said. “Blethro was acting as middleman. He was to make a contact today to sell the idea, with Runderin and Smee as samples and Salgol filling in as their male counterpart. If the deal went over, the merchandise would get amnesia treatment and be taught Translingue before delivery to the distributor. They’d be sold undercover as a protohom android speciality. They’d think it’s what they were, and I doubt it would be possible to disprove it biologically. They’d be dead in ten years, before they could begin to show significant signs of aging. They were to be treated for that, too.”
Telzey remarked, “Developing self-aware intelligence in protohom products is illegal, of course.”
“Of course. But if the results could be made to look like those two, somebody would find it profitable.”
Telzey regarded the tiny ladies with their beautiful faces, elaborate coiffures and costumes. They gave her anxious smiles. Replaceable erotic toys. Yes, the exploiters of Marell might have hit on a quite profitable sideline.
She said to Salgol, “Could you tell someone how to get to Marell?”
He shook his head. “Lady, no. I’ve tried to find out. But the Hub men were careful not to let me have such information, and the people’s astronomy isn’t advanced enough to establish a galactic reference. All I can say is that it took the ships on which I’ve been three months to make the trip in either direction.”
* * *
Trigger closed the door to the suite’s bedroom, where the Marells had returned to their box. “Well?” she said. “How does it check out telepathically?”
“They are human,” Telzey said. “Allowing for their backgrounds, they can’t be distinguished mentally from Hub humans. Salgol’s near genius grade. It’s a ticklish situation, all right. How long’s it been since Blethro might have come awake?”
“Not much more than an hour.”
“How well are you covered?”
Trigger shrugged. “Blethro can give them my description, of course. I dumped his car, taxied back to where I’d left mine, left that in a garage, and taxied here. I really didn’t leave much of a trail.”
“No. But we’ll assume Blethro contacted his principals at once. That’s obviously a big outfit with plenty of money. And the matter’s important to them. You could upset their entire Marell operation and land them in serious trouble. They’re probably looking hard for you.”
Trigger nodded. “They’d try for a quick pick-up first. I figured our best chance to get a line on them would be while they’re still looking for me. In fact, it might be the only real chance for a century to find out where Marell is. If they can’t locate me and those three, they could dissolve the project and wipe out the evidence, and they probably will.”
“Where do you want to take this?” Telzey said.
“Psychology Service, top level.”
“That seems the best move. Why didn’t you go directly to their city center?”
“Because I didn’t want to have it fumbled by some underling,” Trigger said. “I don’t know the local Service group. You do.”
“All right.” Telzey looked at the room ComWeb. “Better not use that. I’ll call the center from a public booth. They should have an escort here for you and the Marells in minutes.”
She left. Trigger returned to the bedroom, told Salgol what they intended. He was explaining the situation to the other two while she closed and latched the box. She put on her blazer, glanced at her watch, sat down to wait.
Some three minutes later, she heard the faintest of clicks. It might have come from the other room. Trigger picked up the gun she’d left lying on the table beside her, stood up quietly, and listened. There were no further sounds. She started moving cautiously toward the door.
The air about her seemed to sway up and down, like great silent waves lifting and falling. Trigger stumbled forward into the waves, felt herself sink far down in them and drown.
“How do you feel?” a voice was saying; and Trigger realized her eyes were open. She looked at the speaker, and glanced around.