Peters sat in the control chair, mind in the condition he privately thought of as ‘neutral mode’. The spark ahead was almost big enough to resolve into the bulk of Llapaaloapalla. Ander Korwits and Alper Gor were aft, in one of the two cabins the smallship offered, crying, sleeping, waiting apprehensively, or some combination.

An object crossed his field of view, right to left, at a tremendous rate, leaving a subliminal impression of something dart-shaped. That generated a line of thought, his first in several utle, and he dug out the earbug and inserted it. “Green Three Seven,” he said, the only call sign he’d ever been assigned. “Is anybody on th’ frequency?”

“Green Three Seven, Hornet Two Oh Two.” There was a pause. “Petty Officer Peters, is that you?” The woman sounded as if she were speaking conversationally from a few feet away, which meant the earbug’s batteries were still good. She must have been close by, because the earbugs had very limited range. That agreed with what he knew of fighter pilot training: get on the tail and close. If he could look back he could probably read the numbers on the bird.

“Yes, ma’am, it’s me. Uh, Two Oh Two, Green Three Seven, that’s affirmative, ma’am.”

“Ha,” she said, a short bark of amusement. “Green Three Seven, I take it that you’re aboard the brick I just intercepted.”

“That’s affirmative, Two Oh Two. Request permission to come aboard.”

“Wait one, Green Three Seven.”

“Roger, Two Oh Two, Green Three Seven is standin’ by.”

There was a pause while the pilot–Travers, it was, if the first-line crews were flying CAP; Roper otherwise–checked over the UHF. At length she said, “Permission not granted, Green Three Seven, repeat, permission not granted until you answer a few questions.”

“Understood, Two Oh Two. Ask away.”

“Is there anybody in earshot of you who speaks English?”

“No, ma’am, there ain’t. There ain’t nobody but me and two others aboard, and neither one of them speaks English. They ain’t here with me right now anyway.”

“Then who’s flying that thing, Three Seven?”

“I am, ma’am. Uh, Two Oh Two, Green Three Seven is in control.”

“He says he’s flying it.” The voice was incredulous, and Peters started to respond, then realized that the earbug had made an error. She’d been speaking into the UHF, and the processor hadn’t caught the redirection of her remarks. There was a pause, then, “Green Three Seven, the last information we had was that you were missing from groundside. Commander Bolton wants to know what the–what happened.”

“Well, ma’am, I reckon you could say I got abducted by space pirates,” Peters said wryly. “I just now escaped and want to come home.”

“Are the rest of the space pirates on your tail, Three Seven?” The question wasn’t as sardonic as it might have been if the events of the last couple of months hadn’t happened.

“I reckon it’s possible, ma’am,” Peters conceded. “I done shot one of ’em down in the process of makin’ my escape, and I reckon the rest ain’t likely to be too happy about it.”

“Understood, Three Seven.” Pause. “They’re scrambling the ready CAP. Help is on the way.”

“Yes, ma’am, and I’m grateful.” He thought for a moment. “Anybody been keepin’ an eye on the ferassi trade ship that’s on orbit a hundred and twenty, maybe a hundred and fifty degrees ahead of us?”

“We’ve been watching, Three Seven. They had some activity a few hours ago, but nothing since.”

“I reckon that ‘activity’ was me, then, Two Oh Two. If they ain’t done nothin’ since, probably there ain’t no reason to send out the birds ’til they do.”

“Never hurts to be sure, Three Seven.”

“There is that, ma’am.”

“Sure is… That ship appears to be of the same pattern as the one that shot us up, and its weapons bays seem to be open. Care to comment, Three Seven?”

Oops. “Uh, Two Oh Two, that’s affirmative on the ship type.” He scrambled out of the chair and down to the weapons control station. “Sorry about the weapons bays, we was doin’ somethin’ else and just forgot.” He scanned the panel, trying to remember where the switches were, and spotted a set that looked right. “Two Oh Two, if I’ve done the right things the weapons bays ought to be closin’ up right now.”

“That’s affirmative, Three Seven.” The yellow lights below the windshield went out, and Peters climbed back into the control chair. “Check your velocity,” the Hornet pilot said as he was doing so. “Don’t get too close to the ship until we’ve resolved this.”

“Aye aye, ma’am.” He took the control and complied, thinking as he did so, Shit. Navy-ass rigamarole when all I wanted was to get aboard and get some shut-eye.

The Hornet came into view from overhead, matching velocities and taking up station a few hundred meters ahead and a little to port and up. It rotated so that the canopy faced him and the figure inside raised its arm in greeting. Peters returned the gesture, realizing as he completed it that he had done so left-handed, like a Grallt, and the earbug said, “I only see one person on the control deck, Three Seven. Is that you?”

“Two Oh Two, that’s affirmative.” He raised an arm again, being careful to do so right-handed.

“Three Seven, you said there were two other persons aboard. I’d like to see them.”

“Aye, ma’am, but I reckon they’re asleep right now,” he told her. “It’ll take a couple minutes.”

“Understood, Three Seven. Hornet Two Oh Two is standing by.”

Peters sighed, headed aft, and knocked on the cabin door. «May I enter?» he called.

Ander Korwits had been crying; her face was still flushed, and her eyes were wet. «What do you need, John?» she asked. «We had a nap, but we were about to get up anyway.»

«The people from my ship are suspicious,» he said. «They want to see you before we can come aboard. I need for you to come forward to the control cabin and show yourselves.»

«Both of us?»

«Yes. I’m sorry. I didn’t expect there to be formalities.»

«That’s all right. Alper’s still asleep; I’ll get her.» She turned back into the cabin, returning in a few moments with Alper Gor, who had also been crying, the effects more prominent on her pale features.

Peters gathered them into another hug. «I hope this won’t take too long,» he said. «We all need sleep. Just come forward and show yourselves.» They took the few steps forward into the control cabin, and he said into the earbug, “Here are my passengers, Two Oh Two.”

«What did you say?» Ander asked, and Peters had to wave her to silence as the earbug said, “Spaaaaaace Pirates,” with an extended sardonic lilt. He glanced to his right. Alper Gor had taken the instruction to “show herself” literally, and was disrobing, her kathir suit already down to her waist. “I see you acquired some pirate treasure in the process of escaping,” the Hornet pilot said, her tone laden with skeptical disapproval.

“Sorry ’bout that, ma’am, I told the ladies to show themselves to you, and Ms. Gor done mistaken my meanin’. Wait one, please, ma’am.”

“Standing by,” said the pilot.

«Put your suit back on,» he told Alper, who had peeled down as far as the knees. She looked up, surprise on her face, and Peters gestured out the viewport. «Dress yourself,» he repeated. «The person making inquries wishes only to know who is present. She doesn’t need or want that level of detail.»

Alper lifted her eyebrows questioningly but began pulling her suit up, and Ander grasped his elbow. «You’re speaking to the person operating that ship?» she asked, indicating the Hornet.

«Yes. The operator is a human female, one of my superiors in our precedence structure.»

«An osfer, if I remember.»

«Officer. Yes, that’s correct.»

«We wondered what that thing was,» she said, indicating his head and by implication the earbug. «So it’s a communication device. It’s hard to believe that anything so small could do that.»

«Yes,» Peters agreed. «It’s part of what we had hoped to sell, to earn ornh for spacecraft of our own.» He touched her shoulder. «Patience. I need to speak with my officer again.» She stood, doubt and a trace of fear on her features, and Peters touched her cheek with his forefinger and said into the earbug, “I been talkin’ to my passengers, Two Oh Two, and I reckon we got it straight now.”

“Understood, Three Seven. Are these individuals in any way related to the unfortunates we found aboard the pirate ship?”

“That ain’t got a straight answer, ma’am.” He thought for a split second. “I reckon you might call ’em graduates of a similar program, ma’am, but they’re free individuals and are here of their own will.”

“I’ll be checking on that, Three Seven. You might say I’ve got a personal interest.”

“Any time, ma’am.”

“I’ll hold you to that. You’re cleared to land, Three Seven. Don’t break anything.”

“Understand that Green Three Seven is cleared to land, Hornet Two Oh Two. I’ll be careful.”

The Hornet pilot returned the two tongue-clucks that substituted for clicking the mike button, and Peters looked first at Ander Korwits, then at Alper Gor. Alper had dressed herself, and Peters sighed. «Please be seated,» he said. «I’ve done this before, but this is a strange ship, and I’m not an expert. Be on your guard.»

They acknowledged with murmurs. A pair of Tomcats came into view, their velocity low relative to his own, drifting from overhead to stations ahead and to right and up. He viewed them with a combination of appreciation and disfavor. The help would certainly be both effective and welcome if needed, but he couldn’t help feeling a bit like an athletic performer with expert judges waiting on the sidelines to offer their evaluation of his performance. Wiping out against the aft face of the ship would surely be a one-oh or worse… he set himself.

Llapaaloapalla was a distinct rectangle, and Peters began adjusting his vectors. He’d done this before, all right, and in the freight hauler, which was a good bit bigger than the ferassi auxiliary, but the controls were strange and the situation stranger, and he wanted to do it right. It took longer than it should have, and he had a couple of nervous moments when the landing-director lights broke into bars to indicate that he needed to make a course correction, but finally the boat flashed across the threshold into the retarder fields. He cut power and lowered to the deck, hitting with a crunch of abused sheet metal because the control position was higher than he was used to.

«It’s very different,» Ander whispered.

«It’s just a ship,» Alper contradicted, her nervous expression belying her bravado. «Will we have comfortable quarters, John?»

«I thought you could stay with me, at least for a while. My quarters are fairly comfortable, but you won’t have servants in the way you’re accustomed to.»

Ander looked alarmed. «Only for a while? What happens afterward?»

«Calm yourself,» Peters told her. «You can stay with me as long as you wish; that’s a personal promise from me to both of you. Never doubt that for a moment, but if I understand the usage correctly you have now joined the human ptith. We do things differently, and you have the power to decide for yourself where you sleep, not to mention who you sleep with.» He grinned. «You may very well find someone you like better.»

«I don’t think that’s very likely.»

«You haven’t met anyone else from our group yet… come. They’re waiting for us to come out, and they’ll get suspicious if we delay too long.»

* * *

«I like this one,» Ander said, fingering a bit of fabric, and Peters looked up to see what it was she thought well of.

«No, no,» Dee reproved. «It’s much too bright and garish.» There had been a little trouble when the Grallt girl was pressed into service as advisor in aesthetics. Ander and Alper had tended to treat her as a servant or worse, issuing brusque commands and being oblivious to her preferences.

That had lasted a tle or less. With two hundred sailors who regarded her as something between a trusted shipmate and a baby sister backing her up, Dee was a person of consequence and knew it. She’d handled the situation with grace and aplomb.

«But I like bright colors,» Alper objected. «Everything back home was so bland and dull.»

«Yes, so do I, but bright colors should be used as accents,» Dee explained reasonably. «You’ll be living here. If you make it garish with colors and designs you won’t be able to sleep or rest.»

Alper said something else, but Peters had gone back to his list-making. Their new apartment, in the luxury section at the bow, had four bedrooms and a central salon. The salon and two of the bedrooms had windows, with shutters that would be closed at High Phase. There were many things he might have imagined himself doing in outer space, but picking out window curtains hadn’t been on that list until very recently.

«There’s someone at the door,» Ander Korwits said. «Shall I respond?»

«Yes, if you don’t mind,» Peters told her absently, entering another item on the list: pillows.

«Alper, get out of sight,» Ander instructed sternly, and Dee covered her mouth with her hand, eyes dancing. The blonde woman giggled and sauntered toward the bedchambers, and Peters almost involuntarily followed her with his eyes. After much negotiation Alper Gor had consented to cover herself in public, but refused to do so within their living quarters. «You say I am a free person, able to make my own choices,» she’d pointed out with mischievous logic. «I choose to go bare. I find it comfortable, and besides, it’s an advantage to you. It unsettles your visitors and puts them at a disadvantage in discussions.» The “unsettles” part was certainly true. He thought, ultra-privately, that Ander was prettier, but a meter eighty of streamlined blonde in the altogether tended to have an effect on guests, especially male guests, more commonly associated with blunt instruments.

“She asks you to come in,” said a half-remembered voice in English, and Peters looked up to see Dreelig escort one of the Hornet drivers into the room. The “ambassador” was wearing khakis and looked disgruntled.

The woman with him scanned the apartment with short suspicious glances. She was also in khakis, with a sparkle of gold at her collar point; she had brown hair cut just below the ear, brown eyes, and a face that would have been generously pretty if not for her truculent expression. Lieutenant Commander Travers, XO of VF-97. Her eye lit on Dee; after a moment the Grallt girl smiled, an expression so brightly artificial it might have been stainless steel, and the visitor quirked a corner of her mouth and looked away. “Well, PO Peters, looks like you fell in the honey pot,” was her opening comment. “Where’s the other girl? You dumped her already?”

“Come on in, Ms. Travers,” Peters invited, the last syllable coinciding with the click as Dreelig closed the door behind him. “Have a seat. Sorry about the jumble, we ain’t fully set up yet.” She scowled and made no move to sit, and he laced his fingers together over the clipboard and looked up at her. “What can we do for you?” he asked mildly.

“For one thing, you can stand up and offer me the respect due an officer,” she spat.

Peters didn’t move. “Well, ma’am, these here’s private quarters, and in my own home I wouldn’t pop to for CNO,” he said, keeping his voice level with effort.

«Who is this annoying person?» Ander Korwits asked. She had adopted her stone face, motionless as a statue’s and showing less emotion.

«This is Lieutenant Commander Travers,» Dee told her brightly, sword-edged smile wavering not a hair. «She is an operator of the ships called Hornet.»

«’She’? This is a female?»

«Yes, of course. Why do you ask?»

«Bullshit.» She surveyed their visitor. «She has less breast tissue than John does. Alper’s breasts are enormous by comparison, and I am positively gross.»

Peters smiled. «There is no portion of your anatomy that can be considered ‘gross’ in any respect. As for Ms. Travers, if I am not mistaken her breasts were removed when she began operating fighting-ships. The accelerations involved in operating ships without zifthkakik make large breasts very uncomfortable, or so I am told.»

«Several of the female ship operators have undergone the alteration,» Dee confirmed.

«She must have wanted to become a fighting-ship operator very badly to accept such mutilation.»

Peters nodded. «It takes a strong desire to become a fighting-ship operator in any case; the training regime is rigorous. But her acceptance of the ‘mutilation’ was probably affected by the fact that it isn’t permanent. Her breasts were preserved by a special procedure, and can be restored when she wishes.»

Ander performed a flick of her forefinger, the tiny motion betraying her agitation. «John, you will have to tell me a great deal more about your society. I have heard and seen some amazing things, but this–»

Dreelig had been translating in a low tone as the others spoke. Travers had grown more and more choleric, and now she burst out, “God damn it, Peters, I didn’t come here to discuss my tits or lack thereof, and stop talking past me like I wasn’t here!”

«She isn’t very gracious,» Ander observed.

«No. She feels that I should be obsequious, and she doesn’t consider her anatomy a fit subject for discussion, but I think something else is disturbing her as well.»

«Yes. She seemed agitated when she first came in.» She eyed Travers, preserving her complete neutrality of expression. «Why does she feel you should be obsequious?»

«She is an officer. You heard about our precedence structure when I explained it to Elisin Troy. By her estimation I am of no consequence.»

«By her estimation no one is of any consequence unless she grants it,» Dee put in.

«Hmph.» The grunt was no less contemptuous for being devoid of inflection. «Her estimation is in error.»

«Your estimation doesn’t affect hers, I’m afraid,» Peters told her, and she acknowledged that with a nod of perhaps a millimeter. “Ms. Travers, I ain’t meanin’ to talk past you, but I was tryin’ to get Ander up to speed. She asked about your surgery, except the word she used would translate best as ‘mutilation’, and I told her what I know about it. I reckon you heard from Dreelig how much that is.” He leaned back slightly. “If this is a social call, or if you’ve got questions, now’d be a real good time for you to take a chair and speak your piece.”

“Social call,” Travers hissed. “God damn it, Peters, I came to take these girls out of your clutches and into an environment where they can get some proper support! The only reason I’m even talking to you is to give you a chance to be cooperative.”

Peters stared into her face for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “The ladies are free to go wherever and whenever they want,” he said, forcing his voice to stay even, “and as for support, I’m providin’ that as best I can.”

“Yeah,” Travers sneered, “using them as sex slaves is real fine support! Dreelig, tell the girl to get her friend and come with us. Peters, Commander Bolton and Mr. Everett are waiting out in the hall in case you give me trouble.”

Dreelig said reluctantly, «Please go and get the other girl. You must come with us; Peters is an unsuitable person to have you in custody.»

«No.»

“She refuses,” Dreelig explained.

“I heard her.” Travers turned to face Ander. “You need to get out of this asshole’s clutches and over into the women’s quarters,” she said, making a visible effort to keep her voice level. “You may be refugees, but you don’t have to put up with being used to get this jerk’s rocks off.” Ander didn’t respond with so much as a twitch, and Travers added: “Tell her, Dreelig.”

«Ms. Travers has arranged for you to have living quarters with the other human women,» Dreelig explained. «You are distressed persons, but help is available; you need not submit to the sexual appetites of unsuitable persons.»

«She is deranged, to make such arrangements without consulting me,» Ander noted. «Alper can speak for herself, but I am where I wish to be.»

“She still refuses,” Dreelig reported. “She says you don’t understand–”

Dee giggled. “Actually, what she said is that you’re crazy, Spike. It’s as good an explanation as any.”

“You stay out of this, you stupid little bint! Just because you like whoring for two hundred sailors doesn’t mean anybody else has to put up with it.”

Dee looked up, teeth bared in what might be mistaken for a smile. “I’ll keep your comments in mind, Spike. Too bad I don’t have a recorder.”

Travers colored. After a moment she said to Peters, “Tell the girls to come with me, sailor. Otherwise you’re going to be in deep trouble.”

“Well, now, I reckon you ain’t thought that out real well,” Peters remarked. He was gripping the arms of the chair, trying to keep the shakes from showing. “If I give ’em that order, and they do it, it proves you’re right, don’t it? And if they don’t, you’ll just try somethin’ else. So I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.”

“Get the Commander,” Travers said to Dreelig, then looked back at Peters. “You are up shit’s creek, sailor,” she said with venom. “I’ll see to it you get life in Statesville if I can’t get you hung.”

“All right, what’s going on?” Bolton asked as he shouldered through the door. Everett towered over him as he followed.

“Ms. Travers has barged into private quarters, insulted everyone present, and made threats,” Dee summarized brightly. “She now calls on you to aid and abet kidnapping.”

The men stopped, indecision on their faces. «Why are these men here? Tell them to leave,» said Ander Korwits.

«They are here to carry you off,» Dee explained. «My telling them to leave won’t affect the situation.»

“I told you to pipe down, you stupid little bitch,” Travers said in a voice laden with emotion. “What did you tell her?”

“I told her you and your henchmen were here to abduct her,” Dee said, still showing teeth. “She objects to the procedure.”

“Why you–” Travers made to swing at Dee, but the Grallt girl intercepted the hand in mid-arc.

Peters knew without looking around what had induced the pole-axed expressions on the visitors’ faces. Alper Gor stalked out of the bedroom, still nude, her expression as blank as Ander’s. She walked over to Travers and feigned a left-handed slap. When the human officer fended that off, the ferassi used the opening to plant her right hand in the woman’s gut. Travers bent over and started to retch; Bolton and Everett started to go to her, but Alper held up an imperious hand. «Tell them to wait, Grallt,» she said, and her voice could have been used to condense helium.

“She wants you to listen,” Dreelig managed.

Travers started to straighten up, and Alper delivered a right-handed roundhouse slap that sent her spinning against the wall. «Grallt, you will translate this precisely,» Alper said. «John, tell me what he says. If he deviates by a hair from my meaning, shoot him.»

“She is telling me to translate her words,” Dreelig rendered that with a tremble in his voice. “She told Peters to check my translation, and if it is wrong to kill me.”

“Don’t worry too much, Dreelig,” Peters said grimly. “I won’t shoot you, but you damn well better get it right.”

«Did he render it accurately?» Alper demanded.

«He spoke idiomatically,» Dee told her. «Peters told him he won’t shoot him. I will if he needs it.»

«Thank you.» Alper faced the two male officers and stood erect. «Get out of here and don’t come back,» she said with force. «Leave the quasi-female; you may have the pieces back when we are finished, if you want them.» When Dreelig hesitated, she snapped: «Tell them, Grallt!»

“She says you are to go away and never return,” Dreelig managed between gulps. “She says that Ms. Travers is to stay –”

“And she’s got Spike figured out to a T,” Dee said brightly. “She said you can have what’s left back when we’re done. Don’t worry, we’ll keep the pieces big.”

Bolton didn’t know whether to be enraged or appalled. “As you were!” he boomed. “Peters, call ’em off.”

Alper stood like a statue, and Peters managed a thin smile. “I ain’t in control of nothin’ here,” he told the commander. “The ladies can sort it out, for all of me.”

«What are they talking about?» Alper asked.

«The commander wants clarification of the situation,» Dee told her.

«’Commander’ is a title?»

«Yes.» Dee gestured at Bolton. «This man is the chief of the humans aboard Llapaaloapalla

Alper nodded shortly. «Ander, do you have the weapon?»

«Yes.» Ander had moved to stand between Peters and the others. She produced the push-force weapon. «Right here.»

«Good.» Alper nodded again. «Shoot this commander for me, please.»

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