“It must be a desperate life, being a regulator on Old Earth,” I said. “So many of us prefer to choose our own destinies.”

“Indeed,” said my assistant. “Thus there is no surprise that, offered an Aberrator for the price of a used sleeper, Orlo Saviene hurried to the spaceport.”

“And met what end?”

“No doubt the same as was met by Franj Morven,” the integrator replied, highlighting the second life history. “He was trained as an intercessor but lost his business and even his family’s support after he joined the Fellowship of Free Ranters. Neither his clients nor his relatives appreciated the constant harangues on arbitrary issues and soon he was left addressing only the bare walls.

“He had decided to seek a world where his lifestyle was better appreciated,” the grinnet continued, “though his funds were meager. As with Saviene, the offer of Ewern Chaz’s spaceship would have seemed like the Gift of Groban.”

“Except in that story,” I said, “the recipients did not vanish into nowhere.” I analyzed the information and found a discrepancy. “Orlo Saviene and Franj Morven were solitaires. No one has yet noticed their absence, though weeks have passed. Chup Choweri was reported missing the next day.”

“Indeed,” said my assistant, “it appears that whoever is doing the collecting has become less selective.”

“Perhaps more desperate,” I said. “Let us now look at the field from which Choweri was chosen. Were any of the other respondees to the third offer as socially isolated as Saviene and Morven?”

“No,” said the grinnet. “Loners and ill-fits have been leaving Old Earth for eons. The present population is descended from those who chose to remain, and thus Old Earthers tend toward the gregarious.”

“So whoever is doing the choosing prefers victims who won’t be missed,” I said, “but he will abandon that standard if none such presents himself. What else do the missing three have in common?”

“All three are male. All have passed through boyhood but have not yet reached an age when strength begins to fade. All were interested in leaving the planet.”

I saw another common factor. “Each is slighter than the average male. Compare that to the field.”

My assistant confirmed that Saviene and Morven were among the smallest of those who had responded to the offers. Choweri was the smallest of his group.

“What do we know of Ewern Chaz’s stature?” I said.

“He, too, is a small man.”

“Ahah,” I said, “a pattern emerges.”

“What does it signify?” said the grinnet.

Having my assistant present before me in corporeal form, instead of being scattered about the workroom in various components, meant that I could reply to inappropriate questions with the kind of look I would have given a human interlocutor. I now gave the grinnet a glance that communicated the prematurity of any pronouncement as to the meaning of the pattern I had detected.

“Here is what you will do,” I said. “Unobtrusively enfold that advertisement node in a framework that will let it operate as normal, until the Gallivant returns and again makes its offer. But as soon as the offer is made, you will ensure that it is received only by me.”

The grinnet blinked. “Done,” it said. “You are assuming that there will be a fourth offer.”

“I think it likely that whoever is luring small men and taking them offworld will accept a larger specimen, if that is all that is available. Even one with a curious creature on his shoulder.”

I would have passed the supposition over to Osk Rievor for his intuitive insight, but he was immersed in too deep a mull. Instead, I told my assistant, “Make me a reservation at Xanthoulian’s. One should dine well when a long trip is in the offing.”

The Gallivant was a trim and well tended vessel, its hull rendered in cheerful, sunshiny yellow and its sponsons and aft structure in bright blue. It stood on a pad at the south end of the port in a subterminal that catered mostly to private owners whose ships spent more time parked than in space. All the craft on adjacent pads were sealed and no one was in sight as I approached the Aberrator. Its fore hatch stood open, allowing a golden light to alleviate the gloom of evening that was dimming the outlines of the empty ships crowded around its berth.

I had already contacted the spaceport’s integrator and learned that the Gallivant had arrived from up The Spray, that it had been immediately refueled and provisioned, and that all port charges had been paid from a fund maintained by an agency that handled such details for thousands of clients like Ewern Chaz. The ship was ready to depart without notice.

The protocols that governed the boarding of space ships were long established. Vessel owners were within their rights to use harsh measures against trespassers. Therefore, after climbing the three folding steps I paused in the open hatch to call, “Hello, aboard! May I enter?”

I was looking into the ship’s main saloon, equipped with comfortable seating, a communal table and a fold-down sideboard that offered a collation of appetizing food and drink. Ewern Chaz was not in view.

“You may,” said a voice from the air, “enter and refresh yourself.

Yet I hesitated. “Where is the owner?” I said, still standing on the top step. “I have come to discuss the purchase of this vessel.”

“You are expected,” said the voice. “Please enter. The crudités are fresh and the wine well breathed.”

“Am I addressing the ship’s integrator?”

“Yes. Do come in.”

“Where is the owner?”

“He is detained, but I am sure he is anxious to see you. Please step inside.”

“A moment,” I said. “I must adjust my garment.”

I stepped down from the entrance and moved off a few paces, tugging theatrically at the hem of my mantle. “Well?” I said to my assistant, perched on my shoulder.

“No charged weapons, no reservoirs of incapacitating agents. The food and drink do not reek of poisons, but I would need to test them properly to say they are harmless.”

“Any sign of Ewern Chaz?”

“None, though the ship’s cleaning systems could account for the absence of traces. He may be hiding in a back cabin, its walls too thick to let me hear the sound of his breathing.”

There was nothing for it but to go inside. I had advised Colonel-Investigator Brustram Warhanny of the Bureau of Scrutiny that I was going out to the space port to board the Gallivant and that if I did not return he might assume the worst. He had pulled his long nose and regarded me from droopy eyes then wondered aloud if my definition of “the worst” accorded with his. I had taken the question as rhetorical.

I paused again in the hatch then stepped inside. The ship’s integrator again offered refreshments but I said I would wait until my host joined me.

“That may be a while,” it said and asked me to take a seat.

I sat in one of the comfortable chairs, remarking as I did so that the asking price was substantially below what the ship must be worth. “Is the owner dissatisfied with its performance?”

I heard in the integrator’s reply that tone of remote serenity that indicates that offense has been taken, though no integrator would ever admit to the possibility that such could ever be the case. “My employer and I are in complete accord as to the Gallivant‘s maintenance and operation,” it said, then inquired solicitously, “Is the evening air too cool for you? I will close the hatch.”

The portal cycled closed even as I disavowed any discomfort. A moment later, I felt a faint vibration in the soles of my feet. I looked inquiringly at my integrator and received the tiniest confirmatory nod.

“I believe we have just lifted off,” I said to the ship.

“Do you?” it replied.

“Yes, and I would prefer to be returned to the planet.”

I heard no reply. I repeated my statement.

“I regret,” said the Gallivant, “that I am unable to accommodate your preference. But please help yourself to a drink.”


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