Llapaaloapalla‘s company soon resumed what had become their normal activities during the cruises between stars. Warnocki’s plans for painting the bay had long since been completed, but scars from the pirate attack had to be smoothed and freshly coated. The aircraft mechanics did necessary maintenance, and started on an ambitious project: to combine the rear section of the broken-backed 105 with the forepart of 108, in the hope of making a complete aircraft. A team of electricians and electronics techs, led by Schott and Mannix, worked on the public-address system. It was working in the ops bay and a portion of the public corridors, and they hoped to extend that to the entire center-section living quarters.

The electronics and data-processing types, along with a sizeable contingent of the officers, spent their time in the echoing empty space above the operations bay trying to make sense of the bits and pieces of the pirate ship. They didn’t talk a lot about what they found out, but word got around, and Peters paid close attention; he was in something of a privileged position, because he owned a working, if smaller, version of the same thing, which was useful when some point obscured by the hurried disassembly needed to be clarified. Fundamentally the dar ptith ship wasn’t too different from Llapaaloapalla, but there were details. Among other things, it had windows across the front, and had no shutters over them for use in high phase, which meant that its zifthkakik differed in some unknown way from the standard ones.

One of the ferassi survivors of the pirate ship suicided; the Grallt who had been watching him wouldn’t say how, or even talk about it. The remaining one–they knew his name, Poal Preklit, from what the pirate-Grallt told them–was unresponsive to most stimuli, and spent his time staring at the wall of his cell. The Grallt survivors were in better condition; it looked as if most of them could be integrated into Llapaaloapalla‘s company after counseling. The young girls of the tuwe were more of a problem. Ander Korwits went to meet them, and reported that the ferassi girls had no better command of their own language than the Grallt did. After that, she and Alper spent what time they could spare with the girls, and began reporting good progress in teaching them the Trade and how to behave.

A remarkable number of working parties included blue-and-white kathir suits. The sailors still weren’t fluent in the Trade, but most of them could manage a few words, and a number of the zerkre had picked up an equal amount of English. Between that and handwaving they got a lot done. The bay overhead was clean, the elevators ran smoothly and made no noise, all the lights worked, and every hatch and latch in the bay and hangar opened and closed with a solid satisfying thunk and gleamed with polish, fresh paint, and grease.

And of course Kennard set up the impie and resumed the dance-exercise sessions. Alper joined in immediately, and contributed a few moves from ferassi practice. Sailors grinned and made sly remarks, but by now the majority participating were Grallt, who took the situation for granted after the first startled assessment.

Ander was more reluctant. «Alper has an advantage here,» she said, looking down at herself ruefully. «I’m too large and loose; the sensations are unpleasant, and I’m afraid of damaging myself.»

«Don’t speak disparagingly of your own anatomy,» Peters chided. «There are ways to relieve your discomfort. Let’s consult Deela.»

Deela brought the necessary support garment. Ander looked at it critically. «It looks confining.»

Deela laughed out loud. «That’s the whole point! I have the same problem, as you may have noted; this is one solution.»

«If you say so, I’ll try it.» She struggled a bit with it, and Peters discovered the pleasures of helping a pretty woman with brassiere fastenings, but before long she was jumping and twirling with enthusiasm alongside Alper.

The blonde watched Ander don the garment and wrinkled her nose. «The implied comment on my own endowment is not complimentary,» she noted.

Peters grinned. «You’re different from Ander, that’s all. Each of you is perfectly herself; no alteration is desirable in either case.»

«Hmph,» Alper said, and looked at herself, then up with a twisted grin. «In any case, if things go as usual I’ll soon need a similar garment. Smaller, of course.» She looked into his face. «You react. Surely you knew.»

«I had not allowed it to enter my consciousness… how many?»

«Two.» She stared into space. «The first was lost at first culling. The second was male, and went to Trader 821.» Her face broke, and she came to his arms. «If this one must be culled I believe I will cull myself,» she said into his shoulder.

«Hush. The possibility does not exist.» He looked up. «Ander, I suppose your experience must have been much the same.»

She joined to form their triple embrace, and said against his chest. «Yes… I have borne three. Two were culled; one joined the tuwe two uzul ago.»

Peters’s jaw worked. «Listen to me, both of you,» he said, in a voice of suppessed savagery. «I make a declaration, as inalterable as the glowing of stars: none of our children will be culled, none will be traded away to strangers, and none will be impressed into service for the pleasure of whoever may ask for them! Our children will be treasured and cared for, and will grow up healthy and loved.»

«But what if they are imperfect?» Alper wailed.

«Then we will treasure their imperfections. The matter is fixed and beyond argument. No trading, no impression into a tuwe, and certainly no culling! Do you understand?»

Ander shook her head. «Like Alper I had been dreading the inspection. If any doubt of my allegiance existed, it has now vanished. You are my depa’olze; more important, you are John Peters, and I will go where you go forever… I cannot speak further.»

«Hush, hush. You needn’t speak.» Both women were crying, great gulping sobs. «Let’s go lie down. We can ignore any duties for something of this importance.»

* * *

“We’ve not seen much of you of late,” was Mannix’s comment as the exercise session broke up.

Peters flushed. “Yeah. I been almighty busy, but I reckon that ain’t much excuse.”

Mannix flashed a smile. “We’ll let you off with a mere keelhauling this time, won’t we, Greg?”

Tollison grinned and murmured assent, eyeing Ander and Alper as they came up, and the slight First Class spared the girls a glance as he continued, “The most remarkable rumors about your exploits are circulating. One might be tempted to describe them as ‘incredible’ were it not for the fact that you seem to have brought back some rather extraordinary souvenirs of the experience. I must confess myself vastly interested in any little anecdotes you might care to recount, strictly as a matter of artistic appreciation, of course. You do tell such good stories.”

It would have been impossible for Peters not to grin in response. “This ain’t the place to be tellin’ stories. Tell you what, what schedule are you folks on now?”

“We’re still on a five-ande cycle. It’s about middle of the first ande.”

“Same for me… tell you what: why don’t you and Greg show up for dinner in my new quarters, end of third ande? We can have a few beers and catch up with one another.”

“I do believe you may count upon us to attend.”

The occasion was a success, marred only by the girls’ inability to keep up with the conversation. Peters was a good storyteller but not a mesmerizing one, and his account came in fits and episodes, interrupted by questions and observations from the other two. They shot the bull and laughed far into their sleep period, and consumed a fair amount of the cool clear pilsner-analog served aboard Llapaaloapalla, and the two sailors left, walking a little unsteadily, when De’el and his crew were coming down the corridors with carts and baskets for the next meal.

«You didn’t offer us to your friends,» Alper noted as they were getting ready for sleep. «I suppose we’re too old to be considered attractive.»

Peters regarded her owlishly. “That ain’t the way it works,” he growled, and the blonde girl flinched away from his tone rather than his words. «My apologies,» he said more quietly. «If you wish to consort with another it is your place to make the arrangements. I have no authority in the matter.»

«I think I understand the customs,» Ander interjected. «Go to bed, John. Alper and I should discuss this among ourselves.»

«Yes,» said Peters, and wobbled off to his quarters.

Dinner at Peters’s place became a regular feature. Mannix and Tollison came most often, but most of the hundred or so sailors Peters and Todd had had contact with showed up at least once or twice, including all the Chiefs but Joshua. At Warnocki’s suggestion Peters posted a sign outside his quarters door:

This is a civilian establishment
First or friend-names only
Rank will not be used or recognized

Ander and Alper joined in the discussions, first tentatively, then, as they learned more English, with enthusiasm. Peters had declined to teach them, citing his experiment with Gell; they spent several tle with Znereda each llor, and with that and the practice over meals gained fluency rapidly. The question of their being assigned for the pleasure of visitors wasn’t raised again.

A few Grallt dropped by from time to time: Prethuvenigis, of course, and Deela, both of whom spoke English well, and Khurs and Dzheenis, who were learning in the same way Ander and Alper were. Heelinig and Dhuvenig came, by special invitation; they couldn’t follow the conversations, and Dhuvenig used the time to renew his acquaintance with Deela. The surprise was Peet, now called Peetir, which she thought was funny bordering on hilarious. She brought her new mate, a zerkre called Gerig, and showed surprising ability in English. “Been learning electricity from sailors,” she said carefully. “I say ‘thank you’ for advice you gave. Worked OK.” Her figure was swelling, so something was working.

Peters copied the sign by his door in the Trade, and added a line:

Tonight we will speak

with a movable strip underneath that could be changed to read either “English” or «Trade». He changed it in regular alternation, and the humans who came on Trade-speaking nights began gaining fluency by leaps and bounds.

At first all the humans who attended were enlisted, but at Warnocki’s suggestion he sent a written note via Deela inviting the officers as well, signing it “John Peters” with no indication of rank. Not many showed up, and it was a little surprising which ones did. Goetz and Williams came as a pair, and were cordial, friendly, and easy to get along with; the women of VFA-97 came in small groups, but neither of the commanders accepted the invitation, and of the men only Goetz, Dr. Steward, and a lieutenant called Jerry Wills, who was trying to learn Trade, stopped by.

Steward was a puzzle. He had introduced himself as “Jack,” answered to that at table, and was an excellent dinner companion, cheerful and witty. He came regularly at Trade-speaking meals and was making excellent progress. Peters had first met him at airsuit fitting, and thought him a self-important ass; he had no idea what the doctor would have testified about the nekrit matter at a court. He’d never had occasion to visit the infirmary, but those who had thought it well run.

At one meal Peters, having drunk a little more than he should have, decided to recite a poem he’d enjoyed from one of the books he’d read. The Trade lended itself well to alliteration, and the poem was not only a tongue-twister, it was funny. It was a success: the ones who understood it laughed ’til tears came. Afterward Steward had come up to him and asked, “John, do you think the ladies would like for me to examine them? Pregnancies can have complications.” He’d looked wistful. “You know, when I volunteered for this I imagined myself curing aliens and learning strange biochemistry. OB/GYN work at least has happier endings than autopsies and patching up broke sailors.”

It reminded Peters of Todd. He suggested it to the girls, who could make their own arrangements; shortly Steward was around every few days, not just at meals. He reported all was well, and talked Khurs into a physical that puzzled the Hell out of her. Peters shook his head. He still had a funny feeling about this.

* * *

To Peters’s astonishment, bordering on shock, he found himself the fourth wealthiest individual aboard Llapaaloapalla, although the bulk of his assets were tied up in the ferassi smallship. If Todd’s estate–which was by no means contemptible: some cash, a block of shares, and a half-interest in a smallship zifthkakik–was considered, Peters was third by a whisker. Dzheenis spent three llor poking around in the Trade offices and came away indignant. «Do you have any idea what they’ve been charging you for management?» he demanded.

Peters was bemused. «No. I never thought to inquire.»

«Ssth. Let me put it this way: you can pay the rent on this space, give me and Khurs a nice raise, and still be under two-thirds of what they’ve been taking out. It’s disgraceful.» The big Grallt eyed his de’pa’olze sidelong.

«Ssth. Allowances must be paid in cash, and we don’t have much cash income. Instead of a raise I’ll grant you each a quarter square of trade shares.»

Dzheenis grinned. «I consider that a totally acceptable compromise.»

Further digging in the archives uncovered another surprise. Peters, it appeared, owned not one spacecraft but two. «Well, you have a half-interest,» Dzheenis explained. «The other half belongs to your deceased comrade.»

«You must mean the nekrit fighting-ship,» Peters observed. «I hadn’t thought about it in zul. You say it’s considered my property? Mine and Todd’s, that is?»

Dzheenis shrugged. «They’ve been charging you rent for storing it.»

«It was defective. That’s why it’s here, after all.»

«Perhaps so.» The ferassi-Grallt mused for a moment, pinching his lower lip in his characteristic gesture. «I believe I’ll have a chat with one of the Engineering zerkre. Surely someone can tell us if it’s repairable.»

The report, a llor later, was that the only thing wrong with the ugly little ship was total lack of maintenance. «It’s ugly, crude, and filthy, and stinks of uncleaned organics,» said Gerig, whom Dzheenis had hired for the survey. «I wouldn’t bother to repair it. Pull out the zifthkakik and weapons, yank the control system and navigation instruments, and toss the hulk out. A complete smallship set is worth many ornh almost everywhere.»

«Do that, then.» Peters smiled. «Do you mind working with humans?»

«I don’t know,» Gerig confessed. «I’ve never done it. Peetir is the cosmopolitan.»

«I’ll get a crew together. It’ll take longer, but they should leap at the chance to do a complete teardown and learn how the controls are connected.» Peters looked at the zerkre with a wry grin. «Best of all, I won’t have to pay them.»

Gerig laughed. «Kh kh! Spoken like a true Trader. No, I don’t mind, but we’ll need an interpreter.»

«I’ll get one of the stewards. I’ll have to pay him.»

The predicted leap to volunteer duly occurred. Both Grallt and humans complained about the stink, but the result was a complete smallship outfit and a set of instructions for how to connect it all up. Dhuvenig came down to observe, and made arrangements for a close pass on a star with no known planets so that the hulk could be disposed of as thoroughly as possible. Despite his joking declaration Peters did pay the enlisted men who’d worked on the project, but didn’t even mention the possibility to the officers who’d come to watch.

* * *

Kraatna was a trade stop only; the inhabitants had a few spacecraft, but were largely planetbound and relatively primitive, and didn’t maintain anything resembling a military. They wanted to sell foodstuffs, handicrafts, and precious metals; they wanted to buy medium-tech building fittings–electric lights, plumbing, and the like–and space hardware. Llapaaloapalla had plenty of both tucked away in what had originally been the port operations bay, and Peters got to see that area for the first time. He could have spent all his waking hours there, looking at goods mundane and exotic, familiar and strange, but Prethuvenigis insisted that he be in on the trade talks, and it was, after all, just a warehouse.

He participated fully in the negotiations, which made Prethuvenigis smile and earned him questioning looks from the other traders in the group. So far as he could tell he did a workmanlike job of it, staying quiet most of the time, commenting only when he found some item he thought would be marketable on Earth, or saw some aspect of the deal he wasn’t sure of.

The Kraatnans were a new part of the trade network; they looked like semi-erect alligators, but they were clearly of the kree. Their language translated as readily as kheis or n’saic, and their biochemistry was highly compatible. One of the items they offered was a coarse powder called zishis, used either as a condiment or as the main flavor ingredient in several dishes. Peters tasted it, and immediately made arrangements for one of the dishes, a sweet concoction of berries seasoned with zishis, to be served at dinner. “Oh!” said Vanessa Williams after a tentative taste, and devoured the spoonful. “Ohhhhmigod. Is there more?” Similar reactions went up and down among the humans, and Peters smiled to himself and ordered a ton of the stuff. It looked as if chocolate might have acquired a competitor.

«That seems to have gone well,» he remarked to Prethuvenigis on the way back up to Llapaaloapalla.

«Yes, I think so,» the Trader agreed with a nod. He shifted in his seat, and turned to face Peters. «John, there are a couple of things I’ve been wanting to talk to you about, and now seems a good time.»

Peters shrugged. «Certainly. What’s on your mind?»

«The financial affairs of the human detachment are becoming a problem for us, so I’m passing them along to you. It will mean you’ll have to hire more staff.»

«In what way does it constitute a burden? I’d have thought they were minor compared to your other activities.»

«They are, but we believe it would be better to separate your people’s affairs from ours well in advance of our arrival at Earth, and placing a human in charge will make it less likely that suspicion of mismanagement will arise.»

«Let me speak with Dzheenis before I make any commitments. It will be necessary to involve the officers, because from their point of view it is their charge to manage the affairs of the detachment.»

Prethuvenigis shrugged. «You know best what the requirements are, which is a large part of the reason you’re the best one to take the responsibility. You won’t lose by it, financially I mean. You can and should take a reasonable management fee.»

«Yes, Dzheenis has explained to me about management fees… you said there were two matters.»

«I’d like to lease your ship. It would be ideal for some errands I have in mind.»

Peters looked up, startled. The little ship sat in the number-two hangar, being swarmed over by human and zerkre technicians anxious to acquaint themselves with the secrets of ferassi technology. It had two “first class” cabins each of which could accommodate three in a pinch, bunks for a half-dozen working people, and a sizeable cargo hold; it was almost twice as fast as Llapaaloapalla, was armed to the teeth, and didn’t have to be buttoned up in front for high phase–altogether a nice little yacht. After seeing it Mannix, who was from Connecticut, had started calling Peters “John Jacob.” «How long would you expect to need it?» he asked the Trader.

«Approximately two zul.» Prethuvenigis smiled slightly. «I had intended to wait until our next stop. Hegghi is a nexus, where I could charter one of the smaller Trade ships for the trip I have in mind. Deela suggested I talk to you, and she’s right. Not only is your ship faster, I wouldn’t have to deal with a strange crew.»

«I can see that… once again, I will need to speak to Dzheenis. Among other things, we’ll have to decide on what I should charge you.»

Prethuvenigis grinned. «You’re learning,» he observed, his tone a mixture of amusement and approval. «Consult, by all means, but if you could give me an answer before the end of the llor I would greatly appreciate it.»

«I’ll have an answer for you as soon as possible,» Peters replied, «but I can’t commit to a specific schedule. You do realize that I’ll want the ship back well before we arrive at Earth?»

«Oh, of course.» Prethuvenigis shook his head, still smiling. «As I had intended to do it, it would have been hard for me to complete my errands before Llapaaloapalla arrived at Earth. If I can use your ship I’m quite sure I can finish up in time to meet Llapaaloapalla at Keelisika.»

* * *

Prethuvenigis’s deputy, a woman called Henarigis, watched as Peters and Dzheenis supervised a freshly-recruited group of Grallt collecting the records for transport. «If you’re going to be managing the financing, you can do the coordination as well,» she said. «The records are over there. I’m sick of the whole project.» She didn’t even haggle when he proposed a management fee.

That made Deela, Dreelig, and the stewards his employees. Tullin found a new place for them, much larger and with two inner rooms. Dreelig stayed where he was, but Deela was soon installed in the other office. Khurs and Dzheenis held court for Peters in the main office, with Khurs acting as receptionist and Dzheenis as office manager; Se’en and a male Grallt called Pisig, once one of the stewards, performed the same functions for Deela, and twenty clerks occupied the remainder of the room. Peteris–he thought of himself that way, here–acquired a desk that seemed the size of an aircraft carrier at first, soon covered with paperwork, and a swivel chair with a high back and arms.

If he’d been home he’d have had to wear a tie. Fortunately the Grallt had never invented the things.

It meant that he had to deal with Commander Bolton on almost a daily basis. That wasn’t a pleasure for either of them, but Bolton seemed most affected. “I’m not taking orders from any jumped-up enlisted man,” he declared.

“You ain’t takin’ orders from an enlisted man,” Peters pointed out, keeping his temper reined in by main force. “You’re takin’ orders from the folks that hired you. It so happens that it’s my job to pass those orders on to you, and it ain’t no bigger pleasure for me than it is for you.”

Bolton’s flush wasn’t evident, but his sour expression was. “Bullshit. I’ll hear that from Dreelig or Prethu- whatever, the bossman.”

“Prethuvenigis ain’t here. Dreelig?”

The “ambassador” flushed in turn. “I’m afraid he’s right, Commander. Peters has been assigned as coordinator between the detachment and the Trade organization. He is my direct superior.”

“Peters,” Bolton growled, “is a U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class who has gotten very confused.” He focused his gaze on the person in question. “You do know you’re going to wind up in front of a Court when we get home, don’t you?”

“No, Commander, I ain’t all that sure that’s so, though you say it. I ain’t been in the Navy for a matter of two months now; this here’s my civilian job.” Peters held the officer’s eyes. “Worst comes to worst, all I have to do is not get off the ship when we get home.”

“Planning to abandon your country and your people, are you?”

“Don’t be more of an ass than you have to, Harlan,” Commander Collins said sharply. She had stood with arms folded, watching as the two males tangled racks. “Do you ever listen to anybody, even yourself? Play back what you’ve been saying and tell me Peters has any reason to do you any favors.”

“It’s not a question of favors. It’s a question of obligations, and an oath he took.”

“Is it? I have to tell you, Doris Doyle has a master’s in pre-law, and she and Chief Spearman have been researching this at my orders. As far as we can tell he’s in the right.” Bolton returned her look mulishly, and she went on: “You can pout like a spoiled child all you want to, but I for one want information about our next assignment, and Peters has the data and you don’t. May we hear it, please?”

Bolton’s jaw worked. He made an abrupt go-ahead gesture, accompanied by a look of seething ill will. Peters met the look with one of mild patience, simulated by a nearly superhuman effort, until the officer looked away, then picked up a document. “The next planet we’ll be visitin’ is called Hegghi, and it’s a n’saith colony. They’ll be fieldin’ a squadron to do mock-combat, usin’ the same protocols you probably remember from the n’saith home world. They’ll be comin’ aboard beforehand, and we’ll be settin’ up a dinner for them….”

Collins came to dinner that evening. She noted the sign with amusement, and introduced herself to Ander and Alper as “Nadine.” When the meal was over she buttonholed Peters. “You know what Commander Bolton’s problem is, don’t you?” she asked.

Peters grimaced. “I reckon so. Ain’t he the one who set up this circle–this whole thing in the first place?” When Collins nodded he returned it. “Thought so. He still thinks he oughta be the most important human bein’ on board, and I ain’t so sure he’s wrong. Trouble is, it ain’t worked out that way.”

“Don’t I know it.” Collins shook her head. “I don’t think we’re ever going to really recover from Dreelig’s little trick, and Harlan fell for it hook, line, and sinker. If he’d just been forethoughtful enough not to discourage us from learning the language–”

“Yeah, that put the capper on it.”

“You could put it that way… as far as I’m concerned you’re Peteris, the Grallt liaison to our group. My officers will follow my lead, and at least some of the men will; nobody wants to see this whole effort fall apart. I’ll talk to Harlan. He really doesn’t have much choice about going along, but it’s probably too much to expect him to be gracious about it.” Bolton wasn’t at all gracious about it, but he did manage to be grudgingly cooperative.

Mock-combats at Hegghi, Sedlun, and Distaving went off as scheduled; Peters did something the Grallt hadn’t, used the detachment’s own money to place bets on themselves. The profits were handsome, and he wondered if he’d get more cooperation if he could tell the officers about it. In the meantime he used Deela and Dreelig as go-betweens, staying out of the man’s face to the greatest extent possible.

The arrangement somehow held together all the way to Keelisika.

<<< Chapter Forty-Four Chapter Forty-Six >>>

Advertisements