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Title: Aide Memoire

Author: Keith Laumer

Illustrator: Burns

Release date: January 19, 2020 [eBook #61198]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at




The Fustians looked like turtles—but
they could move fast when they chose!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, July 1962.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Across the table from Retief, Ambassador Magnan rustled a stiff sheet of parchment and looked grave.

"This aide memoire," he said, "was just handed to me by the Cultural Attache. It's the third on the subject this week. It refers to the matter of sponsorship of Youth groups—"

"Some youths," Retief said. "Average age, seventy-five."

"The Fustians are a long-lived people," Magnan snapped. "These matters are relative. At seventy-five, a male Fustian is at a trying age—"

"That's right. He'll try anything—in the hope it will maim somebody."

"Precisely the problem," Magnan said. "But the Youth Movement is the important news in today's political situation here on Fust. And sponsorship of Youth groups is a shrewd stroke on the part of the Terrestrial Embassy. At my suggestion, well nigh every member of the mission has leaped at the opportunity to score a few p—that is, cement relations with this emergent power group—the leaders of the future. You, Retief, as Councillor, are the outstanding exception."

"I'm not convinced these hoodlums need my help in organizing their rumbles," Retief said. "Now, if you have a proposal for a pest control group—"

"To the Fustians this is no jesting matter," Magnan cut in. "This group—" he glanced at the paper—"known as the Sexual, Cultural, and Athletic Recreational Society, or SCARS for short, has been awaiting sponsorship for a matter of weeks now."

"Meaning they want someone to buy them a clubhouse, uniforms, equipment and anything else they need to complete their sexual, cultural and athletic development," Retief said.

"If we don't act promptly," Magnan said, "the Groaci Embassy may well anticipate us. They're very active here."

"That's an idea," said Retief. "Let 'em. After awhile they'll go broke instead of us."

"Nonsense. The group requires a sponsor. I can't actually order you to step forward. However...." Magnan let the sentence hang in the air. Retief raised one eyebrow.

"For a minute there," he said, "I thought you were going to make a positive statement."

Magnan leaned back, lacing his fingers over his stomach. "I don't think you'll find a diplomat of my experience doing anything so naive," he said.

"I like the adult Fustians," said Retief. "Too bad they have to lug half a ton of horn around on their backs. I wonder if surgery would help."

"Great heavens, Retief," Magnan sputtered. "I'm amazed that even you would bring up a matter of such delicacy. A race's unfortunate physical characteristics are hardly a fit matter for Terrestrial curiosity."

"Well, of course your experience of the Fustian mentality is greater than mine. I've only been here a month. But it's been my experience, Mr. Ambassador, that few races are above improving on nature. Otherwise you, for example, would be tripping over your beard."

Magnan shuddered. "Please—never mention the idea to a Fustian."

Retief stood. "My own program for the day includes going over to the dockyards. There are some features of this new passenger liner the Fustians are putting together that I want to look into. With your permission, Mr. Ambassador...?"

Magnan snorted. "Your pre-occupation with the trivial disturbs me, Retief. More interest in substantive matters—such as working with Youth groups—would create a far better impression."

"Before getting too involved with these groups, it might be a good idea to find out a little more about them," said Retief. "Who organizes them? There are three strong political parties here on Fust. What's the alignment of this SCARS organization?"

"You forget, these are merely teenagers, so to speak," Magnan said. "Politics mean nothing to them ... yet."

"Then there are the Groaci. Why their passionate interest in a two-horse world like Fust? Normally they're concerned with nothing but business. But what has Fust got that they could use?"

"You may rule out the commercial aspect in this instance," said Magnan. "Fust possesses a vigorous steel-age manufacturing economy. The Groaci are barely ahead of them."

"Barely," said Retief. "Just over the line into crude atomics ... like fission bombs."

Magnan shook his head, turned back to his papers. "What market exists for such devices on a world at peace? I suggest you address your attention to the less spectacular but more rewarding work of studying the social patterns of the local youth."

"I've studied them," said Retief. "And before I meet any of the local youth socially I want to get myself a good blackjack."


Retief left the sprawling bungalow-type building that housed the chancery of the Terrestrial Embassy, swung aboard a passing flat-car and leaned back against the wooden guard rail as the heavy vehicle trundled through the city toward the looming gantries of the shipyards.

It was a cool morning. A light breeze carried the fishy odor of Fusty dwellings across the broad cobbled avenue. A few mature Fustians lumbered heavily along in the shade of the low buildings, audibly wheezing under the burden of their immense carapaces. Among them, shell-less youths trotted briskly on scaly stub legs. The driver of the flat-car, a labor-caste Fustian with his guild colors emblazoned on his back, heaved at the tiller, swung the unwieldy conveyance through the shipyard gates, creaked to a halt.

"Thus I come to the shipyard with frightful speed," he said in Fustian. "Well I know the way of the naked-backs, who move always in haste."

Retief climbed down, handed him a coin. "You should take up professional racing," he said. "Daredevil."

He crossed the littered yard and tapped at the door of a rambling shed. Boards creaked inside. Then the door swung back.

A gnarled ancient with tarnished facial scales and a weathered carapace peered out at Retief.

"Long-may-you-sleep," said Retief. "I'd like to take a look around, if you don't mind. I understand you're laying the bedplate for your new liner today."

"May-you-dream-of-the-deeps," the old fellow mumbled. He waved a stumpy arm toward a group of shell-less Fustians standing by a massive hoist. "The youths know more of bedplates than do I, who but tend the place of papers."

"I know how you feel, old-timer," said Retief. "That sounds like the story of my life. Among your papers do you have a set of plans for the vessel? I understand it's to be a passenger liner."

The oldster nodded. He shuffled to a drawing file, rummaged, pulled out a sheaf of curled prints and spread them on the table. Retief stood silently, running a finger over the uppermost drawing, tracing lines....

"What does the naked-back here?" barked a deep voice behind Retief. He turned. A heavy-faced Fustian youth, wrapped in a mantle, stood at the open door. Beady yellow eyes set among fine scales bored into Retief.

"I came to take a look at your new liner," said Retief.

"We need no prying foreigners here," the youth snapped. His eye fell on the drawings. He hissed in sudden anger.

"Doddering hulk!" he snapped at the ancient. "May you toss in nightmares! Put by the plans!"

"My mistake," Retief said. "I didn't know this was a secret project."

The youth hesitated. "It is not a secret project," he muttered. "Why should it be secret?"

"You tell me."

The youth worked his jaws and rocked his head from side to side in the Fusty gesture of uncertainty. "There is nothing to conceal," he said. "We merely construct a passenger liner."

"Then you don't mind if I look over the drawings," said Retief. "Who knows? Maybe some day I'll want to reserve a suite for the trip out."

The youth turned and disappeared. Retief grinned at the oldster. "Went for his big brother, I guess," he said. "I have a feeling I won't get to study these in peace here. Mind if I copy them?"

"Willingly, light-footed one," said the old Fustian. "And mine is the shame for the discourtesy of youth."

Retief took out a tiny camera, flipped a copying lens in place, leafed through the drawings, clicking the shutter.

"A plague on these youths," said the oldster, "who grow more virulent day by day."

"Why don't you elders clamp down?"

"Agile are they and we are slow of foot. And this unrest is new. Unknown in my youth was such insolence."

"The police—"

"Bah!" the ancient rumbled. "None have we worthy of the name, nor have we needed ought ere now."

"What's behind it?"

"They have found leaders. The spiv, Slock, is one. And I fear they plot mischief." He pointed to the window. "They come, and a Soft One with them."

Retief pocketed the camera, glanced out the window. A pale-featured Groaci with an ornately decorated crest stood with the youths, who eyed the hut, then started toward it.

"That's the military attache of the Groaci Embassy," Retief said. "I wonder what he and the boys are cooking up together?"

"Naught that augurs well for the dignity of Fust," the oldster rumbled. "Flee, agile one, while I engage their attentions."

"I was just leaving," Retief said. "Which way out?"

"The rear door," the Fustian gestured with a stubby member. "Rest well, stranger on these shores." He moved to the entrance.

"Same to you, pop," said Retief. "And thanks."

He eased through the narrow back entrance, waited until voices were raised at the front of the shed, then strolled off toward the gate.

The second dark of the third cycle was lightening when Retief left the Embassy technical library and crossed the corridor to his office. He flipped on a light. A note was tucked under a paperweight:

"Retief—I shall expect your attendance at the IAS dinner at first dark of the fourth cycle. There will be a brief but, I hope, impressive Sponsorship ceremony for the SCARS group, with full press coverage, arrangements for which I have managed to complete in spite of your intransigence."

Retief snorted and glanced at his watch. Less than three hours. Just time to creep home by flat-car, dress in ceremonial uniform and creep back.

Outside he flagged a lumbering bus. He stationed himself in a corner and watched the yellow sun, Beta, rise rapidly above the low skyline. The nearby sea was at high tide now, under the pull of the major sun and the three moons, and the stiff breeze carried a mist of salt spray.

Retief turned up his collar against the dampness. In half an hour he would be perspiring under the vertical rays of a third-noon sun, but the thought failed to keep the chill off.

Two Youths clambered up on the platform, moving purposefully toward Retief. He moved off the rail, watching them, weight balanced.

"That's close enough, kids," he said. "Plenty of room on this scow. No need to crowd up."

"There are certain films," the lead Fustian muttered. His voice was unusually deep for a Youth. He was wrapped in a heavy cloak and moved awkwardly. His adolescence was nearly at an end, Retief guessed.

"I told you once," said Retief. "Don't crowd me."

The two stepped close, slit mouths snapping in anger. Retief put out a foot, hooked it behind the scaly leg of the overaged juvenile and threw his weight against the cloaked chest. The clumsy Fustian tottered, fell heavily. Retief was past him and off the flat-car before the other Youth had completed his vain lunge toward the spot Retief had occupied. The Terrestrial waved cheerfully at the pair, hopped aboard another vehicle, watched his would-be assailants lumber down from their car, tiny heads twisted to follow his retreating figure.

So they wanted the film? Retief reflected, thumbing a cigar alight. They were a little late. He had already filed it in the Embassy vault, after running a copy for the reference files.

And a comparison of the drawings with those of the obsolete Mark XXXV battle cruiser used two hundred years earlier by the Concordiat Naval Arm showed them to be almost identical, gun emplacements and all. The term "obsolete" was a relative one. A ship which had been outmoded in the armories of the Galactic Powers could still be king of the walk in the Eastern Arm.

But how had these two known of the film? There had been no one present but himself and the old-timer—and he was willing to bet the elderly Fustian hadn't told them anything.

At least not willingly....

Retief frowned, dropped the cigar over the side, waited until the flat-car negotiated a mud-wallow, then swung down and headed for the shipyard.

The door, hinges torn loose, had been propped loosely back in position. Retief looked around at the battered interior of the shed. The old fellow had put up a struggle.

There were deep drag-marks in the dust behind the building. Retief followed them across the yard. They disappeared under the steel door of a warehouse.

Retief glanced around. Now, at the mid-hour of the fourth cycle, the workmen were heaped along the edge of the refreshment pond, deep in their siesta. He took a multi-bladed tool from a pocket, tried various fittings in the lock. It snicked open.

He eased the door aside far enough to enter.

Heaped bales loomed before him. Snapping on the tiny lamp in the handle of the combination tool, Retief looked over the pile. One stack seemed out of alignment ... and the dust had been scraped from the floor before it. He pocketed the light, climbed up on the bales, looked over into a nest made by stacking the bundles around a clear spot. The aged Fustian lay in it, on his back, a heavy sack tied over his head.

Retief dropped down inside the ring of bales, sawed at the tough twine and pulled the sack free.

"It's me, old fellow," Retief said. "The nosy stranger. Sorry I got you into this."

The oldster threshed his gnarled legs. He rocked slightly and fell back. "A curse on the cradle that rocked their infant slumbers," he rumbled. "But place me back on my feet and I hunt down the youth, Slock, though he flee to the bottommost muck of the Sea of Torments."

"How am I going to get you out of here? Maybe I'd better get some help."

"Nay. The perfidious Youths abound here," said the old Fustian. "It would be your life."

"I doubt if they'd go that far."

"Would they not?" The Fustian stretched his neck. "Cast your light here. But for the toughness of my hide...."

Retief put the beam of the light on the leathery neck. A great smear of thick purplish blood welled from a ragged cut. The oldster chuckled, a sound like a seal coughing.

"Traitor, they called me. For long they sawed at me—in vain. Then they trussed me and dumped me here. They think to return with weapons to complete the task."

"Weapons? I thought it was illegal!"

"Their evil genius, the Soft One," said the Fustian. "He would provide fuel to the Devil himself."

"The Groaci again," said Retief. "I wonder what their angle is."

"And I must confess, I told them of you, ere I knew their full intentions. Much can I tell you of their doings. But first, I pray, the block and tackle."

Retief found the hoist where the Fustian directed him, maneuvered it into position, hooked onto the edge of the carapace and hauled away. The immense Fustian rose slowly, teetered ... then flopped on his chest.

Slowly he got to his feet.

"My name is Whonk, fleet one," he said. "My cows are yours."

"Thanks. I'm Retief. I'd like to meet the girls some time. But right now, let's get out of here."

Whonk leaned his bulk against the ponderous stacks of baled kelp, bulldozed them aside. "Slow am I to anger," he said, "but implacable in my wrath. Slock, beware!"

"Hold it," said Retief suddenly. He sniffed. "What's that odor?" He flashed the light around, played it over a dry stain on the floor. He knelt, sniffed at the spot.

"What kind of cargo was stacked here, Whonk? And where is it now?"

Whonk considered. "There were drums," he said. "Four of them, quite small, painted an evil green, the property of the Soft Ones, the Groaci. They lay here a day and a night. At full dark of the first period they came with stevedores and loaded them aboard the barge Moss Rock."

"The VIP boat. Who's scheduled to use it?"

"I know not. But what matters this? Let us discuss cargo movements after I have settled a score with certain Youths."

"We'd better follow this up first, Whonk. There's only one substance I know of that's transported in drums and smells like that blot on the floor. That's titanite: the hottest explosive this side of a uranium pile."


Beta was setting as Retief, Whonk puffing at his heels, came up to the sentry box beside the gangway leading to the plush interior of the official luxury space barge Moss Rock.

"A sign of the times," said Whonk, glancing inside the empty shelter. "A guard should stand here, but I see him not. Doubtless he crept away to sleep."

"Let's go aboard and take a look around."

They entered the ship. Soft lights glowed in utter silence. A rough box stood on the floor, rollers and pry-bars beside it—a discordant note in the muted luxury of the setting. Whonk rummaged in it.

"Curious," he said. "What means this?" He held up a stained cloak of orange and green, a metal bracelet, papers.

"Orange and green," mused Relief. "Whose colors are those?"

"I know not." Whonk glanced at the arm-band. "But this is lettered." He passed the metal band to Retief.

"SCARS," Retief read. He looked at Whonk. "It seems to me I've heard the name before," he murmured. "Let's get back to the Embassy—fast."

Back on the ramp Retief heard a sound ... and turned in time to duck the charge of a hulking Fustian youth who thundered past him and fetched up against the broad chest of Whonk, who locked him in a warm embrace.

"Nice catch, Whonk. Where'd he sneak out of?"

"The lout hid there by the storage bin," rumbled Whonk. The captive youth thumped fists and toes fruitlessly against the oldster's carapace.

"Hang onto him," said Retief. "He looks like the biting kind."

"No fear. Clumsy I am, yet not without strength."

"Ask him where the titanite is tucked away."

"Speak, witless grub," growled Whonk, "lest I tweak you in twain."

The youth gurgled.

"Better let up before you make a mess of him," said Retief. Whonk lifted the Youth clear of the floor, then flung him down with a thump that made the ground quiver. The younger Fustian glared up at the elder, mouth snapping.

"This one was among those who trussed me and hid me away for the killing," said Whonk. "In his repentance he will tell all to his elder."

"That's the same young squirt that tried to strike up an acquaintance with me on the bus," Retief said. "He gets around."

The youth scrambled to hands and knees, scuttled for freedom. Retief planted a foot on his dragging cloak; it ripped free. He stared at the bare back of the Fustian—

"By the Great Egg!" Whonk exclaimed, tripping the refugee as he tried to rise. "This is no Youth! His carapace has been taken from him!"

Retief looked at the scarred back. "I thought he looked a little old. But I thought—"

"This is not possible," Whonk said wonderingly. "The great nerve trunks are deeply involved. Not even the cleverest surgeon could excise the carapace and leave the patient living."

"It looks like somebody did the trick. But let's take this boy with us and get out of here. His folks may come home."

"Too late," said Whonk. Retief turned.

Three youths came from behind the sheds.

"Well," Retief said. "It looks like the SCARS are out in force tonight. Where's your pal?" he said to the advancing trio. "The sticky little bird with the eye-stalks? Back at his Embassy, leaving you suckers holding the bag, I'll bet."

"Shelter behind me, Retief," said Whonk.

"Go get 'em, old-timer." Retief stooped, picked up one of the pry-bars. "I'll jump around and distract them."

Whonk let out a whistling roar and charged for the immature Fustians. They fanned out ... and one tripped, sprawled on his face. Retief whirled the metal bar he had thrust between the Fustian's legs, slammed it against the skull of another, who shook his head, turned on Retief ... and bounced off the steel hull of the Moss Rock as Whonk took him in full charge.

Retief used the bar on another head. His third blow laid the Fustian on the pavement, oozing purple. The other two club members departed hastily, seriously dented but still mobile.

Retief leaned on his club, breathing hard. "Tough heads these kids have got. I'm tempted to chase those two lads down, but I've got another errand to run. I don't know who the Groaci intended to blast, but I have a sneaking suspicion somebody of importance was scheduled for a boat ride in the next few hours. And three drums of titanite is enough to vaporize this tub and everyone aboard her."

"The plot is foiled," said Whonk. "But what reason did they have?"

"The Groaci are behind it. I have an idea the SCARS didn't know about this gambit."

"Which of these is the leader?" asked Whonk. He prodded a fallen Youth with a horny toe. "Arise, dreaming one."

"Never mind him, Whonk. We'll tie these two up and leave them here. I know where to find the boss."

A stolid crowd filled the low-ceilinged banquet hall. Retief scanned the tables for the pale blobs of Terrestrial faces, dwarfed by the giant armored bodies of the Fustians. Across the room Magnan fluttered a hand. Retief headed toward him. A low-pitched vibration filled the air: the rumble of subsonic Fustian music.

Retief slid into his place beside Magnan. "Sorry to be late, Mr. Ambassador."

"I'm honored that you chose to appear at all," said Magnan coldly. He turned back to the Fustian on his left.

"Ah, yes, Mr. Minister," he said. "Charming, most charming. So joyous."

The Fustian looked at him, beady-eyed. "It is the Lament of Hatching," he said; "our National Dirge."

"Oh," said Magnan. "How interesting. Such a pleasing balance of instruments—"

"It is a droon solo," said the Fustian, eyeing the Terrestrial Ambassador suspiciously.

"Why don't you just admit you can't hear it," Retief whispered loudly. "And if I may interrupt a moment—"

Magnan cleared his throat. "Now that our Mr. Retief has arrived, perhaps we could rush right along to the Sponsorship ceremonies."

"This group," said Retief, leaning across Magnan, "the SCARS. How much do you know about them, Mr. Minister?"

"Nothing at all," the huge Fustian elder rumbled. "For my taste, all Youths should be kept penned with the livestock until they grow a carapace to tame their irresponsibility."

"We mustn't lose sight of the importance of channeling youthful energies," said Magnan.

"Labor gangs," said the minister. "In my youth we were indentured to the dredge-masters. I myself drew a muck sledge."

"But in these modern times," put in Magnan, "surely it's incumbent on us to make happy these golden hours."

The minister snorted. "Last week I had a golden hour. They set upon me and pelted me with overripe stench-fruit."

"But this was merely a manifestation of normal youthful frustrations," cried Magnan. "Their essential tenderness—"

"You'd not find a tender spot on that lout yonder," the minister said, pointing with a fork at a newly arrived Youth, "if you drilled boreholes and blasted."

"Why, that's our guest of honor," said Magnan, "a fine young fellow! Slop I believe his name is."

"Slock," said Retief. "Eight feet of armor-plated orneriness. And—"

Magnan rose and tapped on his glass. The Fustians winced at the, to them, supersonic vibrations. They looked at each other muttering. Magnan tapped louder. The Minister drew in his head, eyes closed. Some of the Fustians rose, tottered for the doors; the noise level rose. Magnan redoubled his efforts. The glass broke with a clatter and green wine gushed on the tablecloth.

"What in the name of the Great Egg!" the Minister muttered. He blinked, breathing deeply.

"Oh, forgive me," blurted Magnan, dabbing at the wine.

"Too bad the glass gave out," said Retief. "In another minute you'd have cleared the hall. And then maybe I could have gotten a word in sideways. There's a matter you should know about—"

"Your attention, please," Magnan said, rising. "I see that our fine young guest has arrived, and I hope that the remainder of his committee will be along in a moment. It is my pleasure to announce that our Mr. Retief has had the good fortune to win out in the keen bidding for the pleasure of sponsoring this lovely group."

Retief tugged at Magnan's sleeve. "Don't introduce me yet," he said. "I want to appear suddenly. More dramatic, you know."

"Well," murmured Magnan, glancing down at Retief, "I'm gratified to see you entering into the spirit of the event at last." He turned his attention back to the assembled guests. "If our honored guest will join me on the rostrum...?" he said. "The gentlemen of the press may want to catch a few shots of the presentation."

Magnan stepped up on the low platform at the center of the wide room, took his place beside the robed Fustian youth and beamed at the cameras.

"How gratifying it is to take this opportunity to express once more the great pleasure we have in sponsoring SCARS," he said, talking slowly for the benefit of the scribbling reporters. "We'd like to think that in our modest way we're to be a part of all that the SCARS achieve during the years ahead."

Magnan paused as a huge Fustian elder heaved his bulk up the two low steps to the rostrum, approached the guest of honor. He watched as the newcomer paused behind Slock, who did not see the new arrival.

Retief pushed through the crowd, stepped up to face the Fustian youth. Slock stared at him, drew back.

"You know me, Slock," said Retief loudly. "An old fellow named Whonk told you about me, just before you tried to saw his head off, remember? It was when I came out to take a look at that battle cruiser you're building."


With a bellow Slock reached for Retief—and choked off in mid-cry as the Fustian elder, Whonk, pinioned him from behind, lifting him clear of the floor.

"Glad you reporters happened along," said Retief to the gaping newsmen. "Slock here had a deal with a sharp operator from the Groaci Embassy. The Groaci were to supply the necessary hardware and Slock, as foreman at the shipyards, was to see that everything was properly installed. The next step, I assume, would have been a local take-over, followed by a little interplanetary war on Flamenco or one of the other nearby worlds ... for which the Groaci would be glad to supply plenty of ammo."

Magnan found his tongue. "Are you mad, Retief?" he screeched. "This group was vouched for by the Ministry of Youth!"

"The Ministry's overdue for a purge," snapped Retief. He turned back to Slock. "I wonder if you were in on the little diversion that was planned for today. When the Moss Rock blew, a variety of clues were to be planted where they'd be easy to find ... with SCARS written all over them. The Groaci would thus have neatly laid the whole affair squarely at the door of the Terrestrial Embassy ... whose sponsorship of the SCARS had received plenty of publicity."

"The Moss Rock?" said Magnan. "But that was—Retief! This is idiotic. Slock himself was scheduled to go on a cruise tomorrow!"

Slock roared suddenly, twisting violently. Whonk teetered, his grip loosened ... and Slock pulled free and was off the platform, butting his way through the milling oldsters on the dining room floor. Magnan watched, open-mouthed.

"The Groaci were playing a double game, as usual," Retief said. "They intended to dispose of this fellow Slock, once he'd served their purpose."

"Well, don't stand there," yelped Magnan over the uproar. "If Slock is the ring-leader of a delinquent gang...!" He moved to give chase.

Retief grabbed his arm. "Don't jump down there! You'd have as much chance of getting through as a jack-rabbit through a threshing contest."

Ten minutes later the crowd had thinned slightly. "We can get through now," Whonk called. "This way." He lowered himself to the floor, bulled through to the exit. Flashbulbs popped. Retief and Magnan followed in Whonk's wake.

In the lounge Retief grabbed the phone, waited for the operator, gave a code letter. No reply. He tried another.

"No good," he said after a full minute had passed. "Wonder what's loose?" He slammed the phone back in its niche. "Let's grab a cab."

In the street the blue sun, Alpha, peered like an arc light under a low cloud layer, casting flat shadows across the mud of the avenue. The three mounted a passing flat-car. Whonk squatted, resting the weight of his immense shell on the heavy plank flooring.

"Would that I too could lose this burden, as has the false youth we bludgeoned aboard the Moss Rock," he sighed. "Soon will I be forced into retirement. Then a mere keeper of a place of papers such as I will rate no more than a slab on the public strand, with once-daily feedings. And even for a man of high position, retirement is no pleasure. A slab in the Park of Monuments is little better. A dismal outlook for one's next thousand years!"

"You two carry on to the police station," said Retief. "I want to play a hunch. But don't take too long. I may be painfully right."

"What—?" Magnan started.

"As you wish, Retief," said Whonk.

The flat-car trundled past the gate to the shipyard and Retief jumped down, headed at a run for the VIP boat. The guard post still stood vacant. The two Youths whom he and Whonk had left trussed were gone.

"That's the trouble with a peaceful world," Retief muttered. "No police protection." He stepped down from the lighted entry and took up a position behind the sentry box. Alpha rose higher, shedding a glaring blue-white light without heat. Retief shivered. Maybe he'd guessed wrong....

There was a sound in the near distance, like two elephants colliding.

Retief looked toward the gate. His giant acquaintance, Whonk, had reappeared and was grappling with a hardly less massive opponent. A small figure became visible in the melee, scuttled for the gate. Headed off by the battling titans, he turned and made for the opposite side of the shipyard. Retief waited, jumped out and gathered in the fleeing Groaci.

"Well, Yith," he said, "how's tricks? You should pardon the expression."

"Release me, Retief!" the pale-featured alien lisped, his throat bladder pulsating in agitation. "The behemoths vie for the privilege of dismembering me out of hand!"

"I know how they feel. I'll see what I can do ... for a price."

"I appeal to you," Yith whispered hoarsely. "As a fellow diplomat, a fellow alien, a fellow soft-back—"

"Why don't you appeal to Slock, as a fellow skunk?" said Retief. "Now keep quiet ... and you may get out of this alive."

The heavier of the two struggling Fustians threw the other to the ground. There was another brief flurry, and then the smaller figure was on its back, helpless.

"That's Whonk, still on his feet," said Retief. "I wonder who he's caught—and why."

Whonk came toward the Moss Rock dragging the supine Fustian, who kicked vainly. Retief thrust Yith down well out of sight behind the sentry box. "Better sit tight, Yith. Don't try to sneak off; I can outrun you. Stay here and I'll see what I can do." He stepped out and hailed Whonk.

Puffing like a steam engine Whonk pulled up before him. "Sleep, Retief!" He panted. "You followed a hunch; I did the same. I saw something strange in this one when we passed him on the avenue. I watched, followed him here. Look! It is Slock, strapped into a dead carapace! Now many things become clear."

Retief whistled. "So the Youths aren't all as young as they look. Somebody's been holding out on the rest of you Fustians!"

"The Soft One," Whonk said. "You laid him by the heels, Retief. I saw. Produce him now."

"Hold on a minute, Whonk. It won't do you any good—"

Whonk winked broadly. "I must take my revenge!" he roared. "I shall test the texture of the Soft One! His pulped remains will be scoured up by the ramp-washers and mailed home in bottles!"

Retief whirled at a sound, caught up with the scuttling Yith fifty feet away, hauled him back to Whonk.

"It's up to you, Whonk," he said. "I know how important ceremonial revenge is to you Fustians. I will not interfere."

"Mercy!" Yith hissed, eye-stalks whipping in distress. "I claim diplomatic immunity!"

"No diplomat am I," rumbled Whonk. "Let me see; suppose I start with one of those obscenely active eyes—" He reached....

"I have an idea," said Retief brightly. "Do you suppose—just this once—you could forego the ceremonial revenge if Yith promised to arrange for a Groaci Surgical Mission to de-carapace you elders?"

"But," Whonk protested, "those eyes! What a pleasure to pluck them, one by one!"

"Yess," hissed Yith, "I swear it! Our most expert surgeons ... platoons of them, with the finest of equipment."

"I have dreamed of how it would be to sit on this one, to feel him squash beneath my bulk...."

"Light as a whissle feather shall you dance," Yith whispered. "Shell-less shall you spring in the joy of renewed youth—"

"Maybe just one eye," said Whonk grudgingly. "That would leave him four."

"Be a sport," said Retief.


"It's a deal then," said Retief. "Yith, on your word as a diplomat, an alien, a soft-back and a skunk, you'll set up the mission. Groaci surgical skill is an export that will net you more than armaments. It will be a whissle feather in your cap—if you bring it off. And in return, Whonk won't sit on you. And I won't prefer charges of interference in the internal affairs of a free world."

Behind Whonk there was a movement. Slock, wriggling free of the borrowed carapace, struggled to his feet ... in time for Whonk to seize him, lift him high and head for the entry to the Moss Rock.

"Hey," Retief called. "Where are you going?"

"I would not deny this one his reward," called Whonk. "He hoped to cruise in luxury. So be it."

"Hold on," said Retief. "That tub is loaded with titanite!"

"Stand not in my way, Retief. For this one in truth owes me a vengeance."

Retief watched as the immense Fustian bore his giant burden up the ramp and disappeared within the ship.

"I guess Whonk means business," he said to Yith, who hung in his grasp, all five eyes goggling. "And he's a little too big for me to stop."

Whonk reappeared, alone, climbed down.

"What did you do with him?" said Retief. "Tell him you were going to—"

"We had best withdraw," said Whonk. "The killing radius of the drive is fifty yards."

"You mean—"

"The controls are set for Groaci. Long-may-he-sleep."

"It was quite a bang," said Retief. "But I guess you saw it, too."

"No, confound it," Magnan said. "When I remonstrated with Hulk, or Whelk—"


"—the ruffian thrust me into an alley bound in my own cloak. I'll most certainly complain to the Minister."

"How about the surgical mission?"

"A most generous offer," said Magnan. "Frankly, I was astonished. I think perhaps we've judged the Groaci too harshly."

"I hear the Ministry of Youth has had a rough morning of it," said Retief. "And a lot of rumors are flying to the effect that Youth Groups are on the way out."

Magnan cleared his throat, shuffled papers. "I—ah—have explained to the press that last night's—ah—"


"—affair was necessary in order to place the culprits in an untenable position. Of course, as to the destruction of the VIP vessel and the presumed death of, uh, Slop."

"The Fustians understand," said Retief. "Whonk wasn't kidding about ceremonial vengeance."

"The Groaci had been guilty of gross misuse of diplomatic privilege," said Magnan. "I think that a note—or perhaps an Aide Memoire: less formal...."

"The Moss Rock was bound for Groaci," said Retief. "She was already in her transit orbit when she blew. The major fragments will arrive on schedule in a month or so. It should provide quite a meteorite display. I think that should be all the aide the Groaci's memoires will need to keep their tentacles off Fust."

"But diplomatic usage—"

"Then, too, the less that's put in writing, the less they can blame you for, if anything goes wrong."

"That's true," said Magnan, lips pursed. "Now you're thinking constructively, Retief. We may make a diplomat of you yet." He smiled expansively.

"Maybe. But I refuse to let it depress me." Retief stood up. "I'm taking a few weeks off ... if you have no objection, Mr. Ambassador. My pal Whonk wants to show me an island down south where the fishing is good."

"But there are some extremely important matters coming up," said Magnan. "We're planning to sponsor Senior Citizen Groups—"

"Count me out. All groups give me an itch."

"Why, what an astonishing remark, Retief! After all, we diplomats are ourselves a group."

"Uh-huh," Retief said.

Magnan sat quietly, mouth open, and watched as Retief stepped into the hall and closed the door gently behind him.