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Travis Fox, once the unwilling captive of the runaway spaceship Galactic Derelict, has volunteered - eagerly this time - for the mission to colonize Topaz. But when he and his fellow Apaches find themselves reverting to the ways their ancient warrior-race, just as the expedition from Russia has been transformed into a Mongol Horde encamped across the mountains, it becomes clear that more than their own lives is at stake. “The conflicts of these groups with each other, with nature on a hostile planet, with Russian puppet-masters and with an even more dangerous force from beyond the stars make a fine heroic narrative, imaginative, inventive, told with the compelling pulse of the true storyteller”.
No windows broke any of the four plain walls of the office; there was no focus of outer-world sunlight on the desk there. Yet the five disks set out on its surface appeared to glow–perhaps the heat of the mischief they could cause … had caused … blazed in them.
But fanciful imaginings did not cushion or veil cold, hard fact. Dr. Gordon Ashe, one of the four men peering unhappily at the display, shook his head slightly as if to free his mind of such cobwebs.
His neighbor to the right, Colonel Kelgarries, leaned forward to ask harshly: “No chance of a mistake?”
“You saw the detector.” The thin gray string of a man behind the desk answered with chill precision. “No, no possible mistake. These five have definitely been snooped.”
“And two choices among them,” Ashe murmured. That was the important point now.
“I thought these were under maximum security,” Kelgarries challenged the gray man.
Florian Waldour’s remote expression did not change. “Every possible precaution was in force. There was a sleeper–a hidden agent–planted—-“
“Who?” Kelgarries demanded.
Ashe glanced around at his three companions–Kelgarries, colonel in command of one sector of Project Star, Florian Waldour, the security head on the station, Dr. James Ruthven….
“Camdon!” he said, hardly able to believe this answer to which logic had led him.
For the first time since he had known and worked with Kelgarries Ashe saw him display open astonishment.
“Camdon? But he was sent us by–” The colonel’s eyes narrowed. “He must have been sent…. There were too many cross checks to fake that!”
“Oh, he was sent, all right.” For the first time there was a note of emotion in Waldour’s voice. “He was a sleeper, a very deep sleeper. They must have planted him a full twenty-five or thirty years ago. He’s been just what he claimed to be as long as that.”
“Well, he certainly was worth their time and trouble, wasn’t he?” James Ruthven’s voice was a growling rumble. He sucked in thick lips, continuing to stare at the disks. “How long ago were these snooped?”
Ashe’s thoughts turned swiftly from the enormity of the betrayal to that important point. The time element–that was the primary concern now that the damage was done, and they knew it.
“That’s one thing we don’t know.” Waldour’s reply came slowly as if he hated the admission.
“We’ll be safer, then, if we presume the very earliest period.” Ruthven’s statement was as ruthless in its implications as the shock they had had when Waldour announced the disaster.
“Eighteen months ago?” Ashe protested.
But Ruthven was nodding. “Camdon was in on this from the very first. We’ve had the tapes in and out for study all that time, and the new detector against snooping was not put in service until two weeks ago. This case came up on the first checking round, didn’t it?” he asked Waldour.
“First check,” the security man agreed. “Camdon left the base six days ago. But he has been in and out on his liaison duties from the first.”
“He had to go through those search points every time,” Kelgarries protested. “Thought nothing could get through those.” The colonel brightened. “Maybe he got his snooper films and then couldn’t take them off base. Have his quarters been turned out?”
Waldour’s lips lifted in a grimace of exasperation. “Please, Colonel,” he said wearily, “this is not a kindergarten exercise. In confirmation of his success, listen….” He touched a button on his desk and out of the air came the emotionless chant of a newscaster.
“Fears for the safety of Lassiter Camdon, space expediter for the Western Conference Space Council, have been confirmed by the discovery of burned wreckage in the mountains. Mr. Camdon was returning from a mission to the Star Laboratory when his plane lost contact with Ragnor Field. Reports of a storm in that vicinity immediately raised concern–” Waldour snapped off the voice.
“True–or a cover for his escape?” Kelgarries wondered aloud.
“Could be either. They may have deliberately written him off when they had all they wanted,” Waldour acknowledged. “But to get back to our troubles–Dr. Ruthven is right to assume the worst. I believe we can only insure the recovery of our project by thinking that these tapes were snooped anywhere from eighteen months ago to last week. And we must work accordingly!”
There was silence in the room as they all considered that. Ashe slipped down in his chair, his thoughts enmeshed in memories. First there had been Operation Retrograde, when specially trained “time agents” had shuttled back and forth in history, striving to locate and track down the mysterious source of alien knowledge which the eastern Communistic nations had suddenly begun to use.
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