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"They're faking the reports," the supervisor grumbled irritably. "Have to be."
"Now, no matter how much they fake, you can't rebuild all those buildings in a couple hours," the operator argued.
"None of our business," the supervisor cautioned. "We just take the reports. Can't criticize us for whatever the E.H.Q. s.h.i.+p out there's doing."
"And everybody's got their clothes back on," the operator said loudly.
There was a sigh of regret up and down the aisle.
"Now the E's disappeared again," the operator said, "They're scanning all over, trying to find him."
The supervisor put down his headset with resolution.
"I'm going to my office to make a report on the sloppy way this reporting has been done. There's going to be fur flying over these skips and jumps, and I don't want it to be our fur. Best thing is to make the complaint first," he said to the room at large. "Now you call me if there's any more of this bollix," he said to the operator as he left.
An hour pa.s.sed while the supervisor sat in his office. He wrote furiously, scratched out, wrote some more, tore up papers and threw them in the vague direction of the wastebasket, started afresh to write some more. How to report without stepping on anybody's toes?
His buzzer sounded softly to give him respite, and he looked up from a virtually blank piece of paper to the board. The Eden operator again.
"Oh, no," he groaned. But he left his desk at once and half trotted up the aisle.
"Now the captain of the s.h.i.+p says he wants Sector Chief Hayes at once,"
the operator called out. "Something very important."
"Very well," the supervisor said. "Ring him."
But Hayes didn't wait for the ring. He had been listening, red-eyed, tired, gaunt for lack of sleep.
"Give me connection," he said to the operator as soon as the line opened.
"Bill Hayes here, Captain," he said, as soon as he received the signal.
"Mrs. Gray, the Junior E's wife, has disappeared from aboard s.h.i.+p," the Captain said without any preliminaries.
"What do you mean 'disappeared'?" Hayes asked. "How could she disappear in deep s.p.a.ce? Have you looked everywhere? Checked the lifeboats? Maybe she took one and tried to get down to her husband by herself."
"We've looked everywhere. No lifeboats missing. No port has opened. You ought to know we wouldn't bother you until we'd checked everything out first."
"She can't have disappeared into thin air, thin s.p.a.ce," Hayes quarreled back. "She must be on your s.h.i.+p somewhere. When was she last seen?"
"That's--ah--that's mainly why I'm calling you, Bill," the captain said.
"A wild tale, obviously a mistake. One of the crewmen pa.s.sed her stateroom about an hour ago. Door was open and he looked in, the way anybody does. Says he saw her standing inside her cabin embracing a man.
Says he didn't stop to look close, but he was pretty sure it was E Gray.
Says he knows because he's had access to the viewscope and has watched E Gray on the surface of Eden."
"There's been no report of any s.h.i.+p leaving Eden, joining you, Captain,"
Hayes said accusingly.
"Because there hasn't been any," the captain snapped back. "So it can't have been E Gray she was embracing. That's why I called you. Looks like we're going to have some petty scandal mixed up with everything else."
"Looks like it, then," Hayes said with a vast weariness. "Some member of your crew, or one of the scientists," he said. "Keep looking. Somebody's hiding her, probably to keep the scandal from breaking. But it seems odd to me that she was so anxious to get out there near her husband and then in ten days she'd ..."
"Maybe her real anxiety was to be near somebody already a.s.signed to the s.h.i.+p," the captain said. "I mean, we've got to consider all the possibilities. Somebody she knew there at E.H.Q."
"Keep checking, Captain. I'll see if the Board wants to contact E McGinnis. Maybe he knows what's been going on around here that could lead us to the guy who's hiding her."
"I'll keep checking, but she's not on board _my_ s.h.i.+p," the captain said. He sighed. Bill Hayes sighed. They broke connection.
Hayes made contact with the Board chairman. It took only a few minutes to spin the latest tale of woe. Another minute for the Board to decide direct intervention.
"Now they want me to make contact with the other s.h.i.+p," the operator said to the supervisor. "The Wheel himself wants to know if E McGinnis will talk to him."
"Well, contact it, contact it," the supervisor commanded urgently.
"I'm doing it! I'm doing it!" the operator quarreled back.
The both of them listened in on the conversation, on the grounds that testing the quality of reception was a necessity. E McGinnis's pilot was quite explicit.
"E McGinnis left orders that under no circ.u.mstances was he to be disturbed," the pilot said. "He, E Gray and Mrs. Gray are in his cabin, in conference."
"E Gray! Mrs. Gray!" the chairman exploded. "Impossible. How the devil did they get into your s.h.i.+p?"
"Don't ask me," the pilot said in a tired voice. "I just work here. I'm sitting here minding my own business. I see E McGinnis's door open. He leans out the door and gives me my orders. I look past him and I see E Gray and Mrs. Gray sitting in the room. Don't ask me how they got in there. I don't know. But I do know this, I'm going to get myself a nice quiet milk run to Saturn or someplace, soon as I get back to E.H.Q. If I ever do get back."
"Now, now," the Board chairman soothed. "I'm sure there's a simple explanation." Crewmen willing to pilot an E around the universe were hard to find.
"Yeah? After what I've seen out here, I don't think I'd even want to hear it," the pilot said, and without apology cut off the communication.
Had the pilot been able, a moment later, to look into the E's stateroom he would have seen still another visitor, another who had not entered his s.h.i.+p by any normal means.
Attorney General Gunderson sat in a chair facing the two E's and Linda.
He seemed stunned, frozen into immobility. Only his eyes were alive, darting here and there, unbelieving. There is limit to the number of shocks the mind can withstand, and the series had come too fast for him to adjust to them.
He too had picked up Junior E Gray as soon as he came through the arch of the quartz outcropping on top of the mountain, the structure that somehow interfered with their visoscope's ability to penetrate and see what went on inside. He had been watching when Gray suddenly disappeared from where he had been talking with the astronavigator. That had been a shock, immediately followed by a greater one, when the s.h.i.+p's operator had scanned the valley and found Gray talking with the E's pilot and the chief of the colonists. There was no way in which the journey could have been made that rapidly.
He was still watching when the village, the fields, the escape s.h.i.+p, the E s.h.i.+p all had suddenly materialized before his eyes. And the people were all clothed. It couldn't be done, but he had seen it. But he kept his head. E science must be farther along than he'd realized, to produce a miracle such as this--but it was science. He must hold to that, otherwise ...
He saw his case begin to melt out from under him, and he made one more effort to regain some measure of control. He gave his own pilot orders to land on the surface of Eden. He transmitted orders to the other two police s.h.i.+ps to follow in close formation; the three of them to land and take custody.
But the barrier still remained, and the s.h.i.+ps could not penetrate it.