The pilot shook his head, began to laugh. “Damndest thing I’ve seen in a while! Awake five minutes, and you almost had the ship!”
“Almost?” said Trigger.
“Look at the screen.”
She looked. The screen was blank. “Ship power went off just now,” the pilot explained. “We’re riding a beam.”
Trigger said, “Check him out, Blethro. ” Then, some moments later: “Where’s your gun? You’re bound to have one.”
The pilot shrugged. “You’re welcome to it! That drawer over there.”
Blethro jerked open the drawer, took out the gun. “Now,” Trigger said, “we have two guns on you, and we’re in a bad jam. Don’t be foolish. Sit down at the console, switch ship power back on and break us out of that beam. And don’t tell me you can’t do it!”
“I am telling you that.” The pilot settled himself in the control chair.
“I’ll go through any motions you like. Nothing will happen. You can check for yourself. The people here don’t want anyone barging in on them under power, so the satellite’s overriding my console now, and we’ll stay on their beam till it docks us. Sorry, but this simply hasn’t done you any good.”
After a minute or two, it became evident that he’d told the truth. Blethro had begun to sweat. Trigger said, “How long before we dock?”
The pilot looked at a chronometer. “Should be another six minutes.”
“Wrann brought a handbag of mine on board along with a box. Where did he put the bag?”
“There’s a bulkhead cabinet beside the passage entry,” the pilot told her. “It’s not locked. The bag’s in there.”
“All right,” Trigger said. “Get out of the chair. Blethro, put on his uniform. Hurry! If he’s got a cap, put that on, too. I’ll get my gun.”
The pilot climbed out of the chair. Blethro frowned. “What’ll that do for us?”
“We dock,” Trigger said. “We come out. For a moment anyway, they may think you’re the pilot. I’m a prisoner. We’ll have three guns. We may be able to knock out the override controls and take off again.”
The pilot shook his head. “That won’t do you any good either.”
Blethro grimaced, baring his teeth. “It can’t hurt. They’re dumping me, friend.” He jerked his gun. “The uniform off! Fast!”
There was a faint hissing sound. Startled, Trigger looked around. Sudden scent of not-quite-perfume—
Oh, no! Not again!
The pilot spread his hands, almost apologetically. “They don’t take chances! We might as well sit down.”
He did. Blethro was staggering backwards; the gun fell from his hand. Trigger stood braced for an instant against the armrest of the control chair, felt herself slide down beside it, while the pilot’s voice seemed to go on, drawing slowly off into distance: ” . . . told you . . . it . . . would . . . do . . . no . . .”
Again she came awake.
This was a gradual process at first: the expanding half-awareness of awakening—a well-rested, comfortable feeling. But then came sudden knowledge of being in a dangerous situation. There was a shield which guarded her mind, and that now had drawn tight as if it sensed something it didn’t like. Full recollection returned as she opened her eyes.
She was in a day-bright room of medium size with colored crystal walls, unfurnished except for a carpet and the couch on which she lay. The day-brightness wasn’t the natural kind; the room had no windows or view screens. There was one rather small square scarlet door which was closed. The room was silent aside from the minor sounds made by her own motions and breathing. She wasn’t wearing the clothes she’d had on but a short-sleeved sweater of soft gray material, and slacks of the same material which ended in comfortably fitting boots.
Probably, though not necessarily, she was on the solar satellite which had hauled in the unpowered yacht with its unconscious pilot and passengers. Rasolmen was an open system. It had no planets and very little space debris. It did have, however, a sizable human population whose satellites circled the magnificent sun along their charted courses, as occasional retreats or permanent residences of people who liked and could afford that style of living. Large yachts sometimes joined them for a few weeks or a year. There was almost no commercial shipping in the system beyond that which tended to the requirements of the satellite dwellers.
If the purpose had been only to silence her, it would have been simpler to kill her than to bring her here. So they must want to find out how much she’d learned about their operation, and whether she’d talked to others before she was caught.
It seemed a decidedly sticky situation, but she wasn’t improving it by lying where she was until someone came to get her. Trigger got off the couch and went over to the scarlet door. There was a handle. She turned it, and the door swung open into a dark corridor with walls and floor of polished gray mineral in which there were flickering glitters. She moved out into the corridor.
Not many yards away, the corridor opened on a room which seemed to be of considerable size. Through the room poured a river of soundless fires, cascading down through the air, vanishing into the carpeting.
Trigger stood watching the phenomenon. Its colors changed, sometimes gradually, sometimes in quick ripples and swirls, shifting from yellow through pink and green to sapphire blue or the rich magenta blaze of the Rasolmen sun. No suggestion of heat or cold came from the room, no crackle of energy. It seemed simply a visual display.
She started cautiously toward the room. There was no other way to go; the corridor ended beside the door through which she’d come. Immediately, the flow shifted direction, surged toward her and became a fiery wall, barring her from the room.
Less sure now that it was only a display, Trigger waited, ready to retreat through the door. But when nothing more happened, she moved forward again. Again the phenomenon responded. It blurred, reformed as a vortex, lines of dazzling color spiraling swiftly inward to a central point which seemed to recede farther from her with every step she took. Trigger shook her head irritably. There was a strong hypnotic effect to that whirling mass of light. For a moment, she’d come to a stop, staring into it, her purpose beginning to fade from her mind. But warned now, she went on.
And the vortex in turn drew back, away from her, freeing the entry to the room. Once more it changed, became the descending river of fire it had first appeared to be. Faces and shapes came sweeping down with the flow, sometimes seen distinctly, sometimes only as dim outlines within it. They whipped past, now beautiful, now horrible, growing more menacing as Trigger came closer. Then another abrupt blurring; and what took form was a squat anthropoid demon, mottled and hairless, with narrow pointed ears, standing in the room. He wasn’t as tall as Trigger, but he seemed almost as broad as he was tall; and his slanted cat eyes were fixed avidly on her. The image was realistic enough to give her a start of fright and revulsion. Then, as she reached the room, it simply vanished. There was a musical giggle on her right.
“You’re hard to scare, Trigger!”
“Why were you trying to scare me?” Trigger asked.
“Oh, just for fun!”
She might be twelve or thirteen years old. A slender, beautiful child with long blond hair and laughing blue eyes. She closed the instrument she’d been operating, an instrument about which Trigger hadn’t been able to make out much except that it seemed to have multiple keyboards.
“I’m Perr Hasta,” she announced. “They told me to watch you until you woke up, and I’ve been watching almost an hour and you were still just lying there, and it was sort of boring. So I started playing with my image-maker, and then you did wake up, and I wanted to see if I could scare you. Did I?”
“For a moment at the end,” Trigger admitted. “You have quite an imagination!”
Perr Hasta seemed to find that amusing. She chuckled.
“By the way,” Trigger went on, “who are ‘they’?”
“They’re Torai and Attuk,” said Perr Hasta. “And don’t ask me next who Torai and Attuk are because I told them when you woke up, and I’m to take you to see them now. They can tell you.”
“Do you live here on the satellite?” Trigger asked as they started toward a doorway.
“How do you know you’re on the satellite?” Perr said. “That was hours ago they brought you there. They could have taken you somewhere else afterwards.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
Perr smiled. “Well, you are still on the satellite. But don’t think you can make me take you to a boat lock. Torai is watching you now, and we’d just run into force screens somewhere. She’s anxious to talk to you.”