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Journal #846-

On most planets, the customs officials perform a cursory examination of ones papers and wave through all but the most blatantly irregular. Naturally there are local quirks and quibbles-only a nitwit would attempt to smuggle raw Lupretian pastries onto Nostilla II, for example. And if there has been some recent smuggling scandal, or some outrageous crime blamed on an off-worlder, inspections understandably become more stringent. But otherwise, little short of an automatic weapon strapped across ones shoulders seems to catch the agents attention.

Things are arranged otherwise on Old Earth. There, the agents inquire closely into ones origins and business on the planet. Considering that the planet claims to be the home world of the entire human species, one would think the doors would be open to those scattered human descendents seeking to visit the world of their ancestors. Not so-a Syn-Man goes through Old Earth immigration with fewer questions asked than a human bearing an off-world passport.

And so, upon my arrival on the planet, I found myself dealing with a customs official whose interest in my background would have been more appropriate in a bank officer deciding whether to advance me a substantial loan than in a government functionary on whose world I intended to spend a large fraction of my disposable income. My efforts to point out this discrepancy met, I am sorry to report, with utter incomprehension.

After a considerable delay, the two legionnaires had worked their way to the front of the spaceport line leading to the Old Earth customs inspectors. An incredibly archaic-looking electric sign lit up with the word next in three languages that Sushi recognized and a couple more that he didnt. He and his partner picked up their duffel bags and moved forward.

The official in the booth was a bored-looking Terran with dark hair and a bushy moustache. He raised an eyebrow, and asked, You two are traveling together?

Yeah, were on assignment together, said Sushi, putting his passport on the agents desk. He and Do-Wop had worn their Legion uniforms on the assumption that customs might go easier on servicemen. The ploy had worked on enough planets that it couldnt hurt to try it here.

Really, said the customs man, dryly. His plastic badge read agt. g. c. fox. I wasnt aware there were any Legion bases on-world. Exactly what assignment do you have on Old Earth?

Military secret, said Do-Wop, before Sushi could get his mouth open. You shouldnt wanna know, yknow?

Personally, I really couldnt give a fleener, said Fox, leaning forward on the desk. His hand rested lightly on Sushis passport. Mind my own business, thats my policy. But my bosses want to know why people are coming to our planet-they have the idea thats a good way to prevent trouble. Since theyre the ones paying my salary, I always ask. So Ill ask you again-secret or not, what kind of assignment do two Space Legion men have here on Old Earth?

This time Sushi got the first word in edgewise, largely by the expedient of tramping down hard on Do-Wops toe. Thats a great policy, Agent Fox, he said, while Do-Wop groaned out a series of muffled curses. As it happens, my friend was a bit hesitant about telling you what were here for, because its a special training mission for the intelligence branch of the Legion, and of course one of the things theyve been emphasizing is that we should always keep our real mission secret. But of course, that hardly applies to somebody whos pretty much in the same kind of business, you know?

Fox frowned. Intelligence branch of the Legion? This is the first Ive ever heard of it.

Well, that just goes to show how top secret it is, said Sushi, with a wink. Im sure we can trust you to keep it under your hat, Agent Fox.

Oh, Im very discreet, said Fox, nodding. And I certainly understand how an intelligence operation needs to be kept quiet. He paused, looking first at Do-Wop, then at Sushi. The only thing is, Ive been doing this job so long that I have a pretty good nose for a scam. And if this isnt the biggest scam Ive seen this month, Im going to put in for early retirement. Not that thats a bad idea anyhow. So-one more time: Whats your business here? And if I dont like your answer this time, Ill introduce you to the fellows in the back room. Theyve got suspicious minds and disgustingly long fingers.

Hey, we aint done noth OW! said Do-Wop. He began hopping around, holding his injured foot in both hands.

Well, Agent Fox, the truth is Sushi began. Then he caught a glimpse of the customs agents face and did an instant revision of his comment. The truth is, were trying to find our commanding officer. Hes needed back at the base, and our last report had him on the way to Old Earth. His name is

Thats enough-I dont need his name, said Fox. The question is, even if I believed you, why should I tell you anything?

Sushis eyes lit up. Not only do you believe me, you know just who were looking for, dont you? He must have come through here

Now, dont be hasty, said Fox, wagging his finger. I may or may not have seen a Legion officer come through-theyre not common hereabouts, you know.

That means that if you did see our captain, youd probably remember him, said Sushi. He reached in his pocket and extracted a ten-dollar piece. He put it on the counter near his passport. Does this help your memory?

Maybe Fox looked at the passport for a moment, then looked back at the coin, before adding, Two of em might make my memory even better.

Sushi sighed, then turned to Do-Wop, who had recovered his balance and stood glaring at the two of them. OK, buddy, your turn to chip in. Lets see what the man knows.

How come I gotta chip in? said Do-Wop.

You want to chip in, or you want to see the guys with long fingers? said Sushi.

Do-Wop dug into his pocket. A moment later, Agent Fox was filling them in on a few-but by no means all-of the things hed learned from Phule upon his arrival on Old Earth. They didnt notice that, at the same time, he was skillfully getting them to tell him far more than he was telling them. Give a little, get a lot, was Foxs motto. He was really very good at it.

Do-Wop gaped at the Roman cityscape, amazement written plainly on his face. Jeez! he said, after a moment. Here I am in Italy-I never thought Id see the place!

Yeah, its pretty quaint, said Sushi, eyeing the odd juxtaposition of hypermodern tourist traps and ruins dating to an age before space travel. Could use a bit of maintenance, if you want my opinion.

Ahh, you wouldnt understand class if it bit you in the ass, said Do-Wop, scoffing.

Yknow, I dont think anybody with real class would be interested in that, said Sushi. Dont go quoting me, though-I dont want people to think Im provincial or anything.

It would have been hard for either of the two legionnaires to look much more provincial than the tourists thronging the streets around them. The dress code appeared to require some sort of garish locally purchased T-shirt. They were visible everywhere, with cryptic slogans ranging from vini, vidi, vici, and illegitimate non carborundum, to straight advertisements, one of the most popular being singhs pizza-youve tried the rest, now try the best! In contrast, the two black-uniformed legionnaires were practically the definition of class.

On the other hand, to judge from the looks some of the passersby shot at them, the class they represented was not in particular favor locally. Even Do-Wop sensed the undercurrent as they walked through the Forum. When the stares continued, he eventually turned to Sushi, and said, Whats up, Soosh? Some of these civvies are lookin at us like were farting in their lifeboat.

I feel it, too, said Sushi. And I heard one of them muttering about spies. I dont know what it means, but I think we need to find out before we get in some kind of trouble.

Hey, I aint gonna ran away from-OW! said Do-Wop, as Sushi grabbed him by the ear and hustled him away from the open Forum. A short distance away, the crowd thinned out and the two legionnaires found themselves in the shadow of a dilapidated building. Do-Wop glared at Sushi. What the hell was that for?

Something fishys going on here, and I dont mean anchovy pizza, said Sushi, in a voice just above a whisper. Those people are mad at the Legion for some reason. I think we need to get some civilian outfits before we get in real trouble. For now, a couple of T-shirts will probably do the job.

They found a tourist trap, not half a block away, with a full display of garish overpriced T-shirts. If the sophont behind the counter had anything against their Legion uniforms, he kept it to himself and pocketed their money with a smile and a very credible Grazie, signori! His Italian was good enough that he could have passed for a native Roman, if he hadnt been seven and a half feet tall with bluish green skin, bright pink hair, and eyes on stalks. As they left the shop, Sushi wondered briefly whether the salesbeing was a genetically altered human or a member of some nonhuman species he hadnt met before.

Back on the street, the two of them passed almost unnoticed in the crowd. I guess that just goes to show the value of camouflage, said Sushi, in an exasperated tone. After a moment he added, I think its the locals, not the tourists, whore staring at us-which is weird. If that customs agent is right, they dont see very many legionnaires on Old Earth. Theres no reason theyd be mad

Do-Wop stopped in his tracks. Y know what I think? Somebodys been goin around bad-mouthin the Legion. Thats the only thing makes sense. Question is, who? And why?

Partner, you just asked the gigabuck question, said Sushi. I dont know the answer-but I bet when we find it out, itll have something to do with the captain.

I dont think Im gonna take that bet, said Do-Wop.

Late that night, behind closed doors, the leaders of Omega Company assembled. In the wake of the Andromatic robots golf accident, Rembrandt had called the command cadre to an emergency meeting. Ironically, nobody was quite sure what the emergency was, although they all agreed it had to be tackled at once.

The robots damaged, thats the main problem, said Armstrong, whod been on hand to witness the event. A hard shot smack in the middle of the forehead-I dontknow what kinds of circuits are up there, but they must be important.

Well, Im sure not a roboticist, said Rembrandt. But from what you tell me, the main problem was that the robot captain started to play much better than before. I wouldnt take that as automatic evidence of damage.

How much do you know about golf? said Armstrong. What if I told you the robot shot a twenty-four on the back nine?

Thats pretty good, isnt it? Rembrandt asked.

Chocolate Harry answered her. Shee-it, that aint just good, its scary. Machine that can do that can do anything. I dont even wanttthink about it. There was genuine awe in the Supply sergeants voice.

I think the generals in total shock, said Armstrong. Its the only explanation for why he didnt instantly smell a rat when the robot started driving the ball four hundred yards and knocking in putts as if the green was a big funnel.

But hes going to figure out somethings wrong, said Brandy. That mans not so dumb he wont notice a complete SNAFU, and thats what this sounds like to me.

Armstrong nodded. Thats the problem. Maybe we can pass today off as an aberration, but if the robot starts playing killer golf again tomorrow, the generals going to have us all on the carpet.

Escrima was not impressed. Ahh, whats he gonna do, send us to Omega Company? Im not afraid of him.

There are now a lot of things worse than Omega Company, said Rembrandt. Captain Jesters done right by us, you know. Do you want to find out what a Legion detention barracks is like?

Nobody said anything for a moment. Then Chocolate Harry broke the silence. OK, heres an idea, he said. We lock the bot up someplace, tell the general the captains had a delayed reaction to bein hit on the head. Somebody else can show the general around, maybe Armstrong can play golf with him, and meanwhile maybe Gears can try to fix the problem.

Yeah, that might work for a couple of days, said Brandy. But do you think Gears can fix the robot? Its a whole lot more complicated than a hoverjeep

If we had Sushi here, Id be a lot happier, said Rembrandt. He might not be a roboticist, but he could probably figure something out just on general knowledge. As it is, well have to let Gears give it his best shot.

I dont know, said Armstrong. He took a couple of paces, then spun around to face the group. The thing is, the general really did come here looking for trouble. When he got into the golf matches with the robot, that distracted him from looking at everything else thats going on around here. Im afraid that if he isnt playing the captain, and winning just often enough to give him the satisfaction of beating a hated rival, hes going to go looking for trouble again. And I guarantee you, hes going to find it. None of us are going to like that.

I dont like the situation weve got now, said Rembrandt, frowning. Weve got to have something ready to go tomorrow morning, though. She mused a moment, then turned to Armstrong. All right, youve spent as much time with the general as anybody, this time around. Do you think you can jolly him along for at least one day if the official explanation is that the captains recovering from a concussion?

I can try, said Armstrong. As long as hes willing to stick to golf and doesnt want to start poking his nose into other stuff

Good, said Rembrandt. Harry, youll get Gears and anybody else with mechanical know-how to work on the robot-maybe put a call in to the Andromatic factory-and see if we can get it back in shape by the next day. And meanwhile, everybody try to think of alternative plans in case things dont work out.

Got it, Remmie, said Chocolate Harry. Ill have Gears get to work on the bot-say, where is it, anyway?

Rembrandt and Armstrong looked at each other, their eyes growing wider.

Did you ?

I thought you were going to-

No, didnt you-?

Well, where the

Oh, damnl they both cried together, leaping to their feet. The room emptied in something like ten seconds as the entire command cadre of Omega Company rushed out into the night to find the missing Andromatic robot.

The crowd on the streets of Rome, one of the major cities of Old Earth, seemed to be made up of two elements: off-worlders gaping at the wonders of the oldest of all human worlds and natives seeking to separate them from their money.

Phule had more urgent business than either group. Hed spent far too much time in his search for Beeker and Nightingale. He had no idea how Omega Company was doing in his absence, although surely hed have heard before now if any real crisis had arisen. The Omega Mob was an ongoing crisis in and of itself, but that was a different story.

Today he was on his way to visit a local branch of his family, one with access to various unorthodox sources of information. The address he had seemed plain enough, although the streets of Rome were filled with rubble and the house number he had was nowhere to be seen. He stopped half a dozen times to ask directions, but everyone he asked either glared at him, then replied with a rapid-fire burst of Italian, or smiled and said, Sorry, Im a tourist, too.

At last he approached a hulking fellow who leaned against the corner of a building, hands stuffed in his pockets and a fearsome scowl on his face. Excuse me, he said. Im looking for 45 Via Poco Lente-I thought it was near here, but I cant seem to find it.

Aha! The mans voice was a basso rumble, but unlike most of the street Italians in the area, he spoke Standard almost without an accent. You looking for Pitti da Phule, no?

Thats right, howd you know?

He gave you that address, he wants to see you, said the man, with a shrug. Good thing you find Hugo, I know just where to take you. Most people around here-they dont want nothing to do with da Phule.

Well then, Hugo, Im glad I met you, said Phule. How do I get to Via Poco Lente?

You dont, said Hugo. Most people dont want nothing to do with da Phule, and he dont want nothing to do with them, either. Thats a password, not an address. You ask the right guy-which today happens to be me-and I take you to da Phule.

I guess Ive already found out what happens if you ask the wrong guy, said Phule. What if you dont find the right guy?

Then you dont want to see Pitti da Phule bad enough. said Hugo, spreading his arms wide, with palms upward. Come on, I take you there.

Phule followed his guide down a series of narrow, winding streets, turning seemingly at random; indeed, at least twice he thought theyd passed a house hed seen a few turns previously. But after perhaps twenty minutes, they came to a graffiti-covered stretch of stone wall, nine or ten feet high, at one end of which was a wooden gate with peeling green paint. Hugo pushed it open and waved Phule forward. This is the place, he said, grinning broadly. You go in, I wait for you here.

The circuitous route and his guides mysterious behavior had put Phule on his guard. Why dont you go first? he said, taking the other man firmly by the elbow. He added, as Hugo showed signs of balking, Really, I insist.

Smart of you, said a smooth baritone voice from just inside the door. A slim middle-aged man stepped forward, holding a wineglass in one hand. Around his neck were several thick gold chains. Smart, but not necessary this time around. Hugos a condottieri at heart, but he knows not to fool with anybody who has my password. You must be Cousin Victors boy-last I heard, you were the only family member in any kind of uniform.

Uncle Pitti? said Phule, stepping forward to shake the older mans hand. I remember meeting you years ago, at somebodys wedding

That must have been Stella Phule, said Pitti da Phule, nodding. She married Juan Feryou, out on Tau Ceti Four. A really big affair. I think theyre still talking about the Phule-Feryou wedding out there

Phule grinned. Right, I spent the afternoon hanging out with the grooms younger brother

Right, Nomarr Feryou, said Pitti. He was a little hell-raiser, back then. So were you, if memory serves me right. That doesnt look as if its held you back, Captain? Pitti punched Phule in the arm, playfully, then raised a finger to his lips. But Im not being much of a host, am I? Well get you a glass of vino and something to eat with it, and then we can talk business.

Pitti da Phule took his nephew through a side door into a garden, where a marble fountain bubbled musically. An ancient-looking wall served as the backdrop for a row of fruit trees, and the walk was lined with flowers. Small birds darted between the branches, watched by a lazy orange cat. Pitti gestured to a pair of benches, with a small marble table in between. The top of the table, Phule noted, had an inlaid chessboard.

They talked for a few minutes, until Pittis robutler brought them a plate of anchovies, peppers, cheese, and olives, a crusty loaf of bread, and a bottle of a full-bodied Tuscan red. After theyd put a satisfactory dent in the hors douvres, Pitti steepled his fingers and said, Now, it cant be just coincidence that youve come looking for me. In fact, theres talk going around about the Space Legion. Is there anything to the rumor that your outfit is doing a job for the IRS?

Phule practically burst out laughing. Thats about the last governmental organization Id do a job for, he said. I guess it would explain the funny looks Ive gotten on the street. But you may not know about some of my troubles with them He described his previous run-in with the tax agency, and finally Pitti nodded.

It didnt sound like anything one of our family would be involved in, but you cant ignore something everybodys talking about. I wonder who started that rumor? Pitti studied his nephew for a moment, then said, But you came here to ask something. What can Uncle Pitti do for you?

Phule outlined his situation, for what felt like the hundredth time since hed left Zenobia in search of his errant butler and Nightingale. This time, at least, he could tell about the Port-a-Brain-although he decided to leave out the hibernation problem. No reason to spread that information any farther than strictly necessary, even within the family. Pitti da Phule listened in silence for a while, taking an occasional sip of wine. At last he held up a hand. Good enough, he said. I see what the problem is. Let me find out what I can do for you. Ill get in touch-where are you staying?

Phule gave him the address of his hotel. Not a bad place, for what youre probably paying, said Pitti. Try Trattoria Alfonso, on the next block, for lunch. I think youll like ittell the waiter I sent you. Now, go do some sightseeing, relax, eat-and let me handle things for a while. Ciao!

And with that, he pushed Phule out the door onto the streets. A moment later, he beckoned to a servant. Get the prints and DNA on this analyzed, he said in Italian, pointing to Phules wineglass. The kid looks and talks like Willard, but its been a long time since Ive seen him. And call his old man, too-yes, I know how much it costs to call intersystem. But this kids claiming to be family, and with all the rumors going around, Id like to be sure thats really who Im dealing with.

Brandy found the robot in the gym. It wasnt all that hard to find, actually. She could hear it all the way down the hall. She opened the door to discover that it had a squad of frightened legionnaires lined up for a roasting that many old-time drill sergeants might have gotten pointers from. Several veteran smart-mouths and goof-offs were among the roastees, and their shocked expressions were all the evidence Brandy needed that the robot had caught them completely off guard.

She stepped forward, trying her best not to draw attention, but the robot picked her up in its peripheral vision, and barked, Sergeant! Come forward.

Yes, Captain Jester, she said, putting on her best military manner. She marched briskly to the front of the formation, stood at attention, and snapped off her best salute. What are your orders, sir? she barked.

Well, at least one person here knows how to show proper respect for an officer, the robot drawled. What I dont understand is why none of these so-called legionnaires seem to have learned it. This is the squad youve supposedly been training, isnt it, Sergeant?

Yes, sir, no excuse, sir, she said, keeping the surprise out of her voice as best she could. Clearly, the errant golf ball had done even more damage than theyd realized. Not only was the robot playing superhuman golf, it had turned into a by-the-books officer of the worst sort. Unless they could get the damage fixed-and quickly!-Omega Company was in for a shock of tectonic proportions.

Meanwhile, her mind was racing at top speed. How was she going to defuse the immediate confrontation? The question was more delicate than it first appeared. After all, the robot nominally outranked everyone on the base except for General Blitzkrieg and his adjutant, neither of whom was likely to intervene. Just telling the legionnaires to ignore the robot was the most obvious method; the robot had no way to enforce its orders, after all. But the rank and file had no idea this Captain Jester was a robot. Only the command cadre were in on the secret, and she wasnt going to change that without orders from the real captain. Besides, what if some future crisis required the real Captain Jester to issue unpopular orders? She didnt want to do something now that would give some wise guy an excuse, no matter how phony, to claim he didnt believe it was the real captain giving the orders

The robot captain rubbed its chin, as the real Phule would have while thinking about some point. Brandy was impressed by how well the robots manufacturers had captured Phules body language and casual gestures, in addition to giving it a near-perfect physical resemblance to its protoplasmic prototype. Then it spoke again. Sergeant, I am appalled by these legionnaires discipline-or nearly total lack of discipline, I should say. Its past time that somebody got them to shape up-and Im beginning to wonder whether youre the woman for the job or not.

Yes, sir, said Brandy. Permission to ask a question, sir. It was uncanny how much it resembled Captain Jester, even though it was acting in a way that threatened to undercut everything hed accomplished so far.

Permission granted, Sergeant, said the robot.

Out of the corner of her eye, Brandy could see Ma-hatmas eyes bulging out in anticipation. He would undoubtedly be taking mental notes on her performance-and giving postmortem analysis to his fellow legionnaires. In spite of having been his target so many times, Brandy felt a rush of inspiration. I cant disappoint the little guy, she thought. Carefully, she summoned up her long-dormant memories of how shed dealt with rulebook officers in the past.

Sir, any failures of discipline in this training squad are my responsibility, she began, making it up as she went along. But may I remind the captain that I was given orders to train this group to pass as civilians in enemy territory. Their apparent lack of military polish is designed to lull the enemy into overlooking their specialized skills, which meet and surpass Legion standard, sir. May I give the captain a demonstration?

The robot looked at her for a long moment, then said, Very well, Sergeant-I can hardly deny you the opportunity to let your troops show me their capabilities. For your sake, I hope the demonstration is convincing.

Yes, Captain! Thank you, Captain, said Brandy, still thinking fast. She turned to face the puzzled-looking group of legionnaires. Mahatma! Step forward. Perhaps the little legionnaires habit of asking impossible questions would hold the robots attention long enough for her to discover a way out of the situation

Yes, Sergeant Brandy, said Mahatma, striding briskly out of the formation. As usual, his face betrayed nothing of his inner thoughts. I hope he catches on quick, thought Brandy.

But before she could say anything, another voice broke the silence. Well, well, Captain-what the devils going on here?

Brandy turned her head to see none other than General Blitzkrieg, with an expression that might have made a full-grown gryff turn and run for its life.

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