«This seems quite acceptable,» Ghnal Dhango said. «In fact, proposal number three will add considerably to the appeal of the performance. See what you think.» She passed the document to her husband. Instead of a mock-combat the decision had been made to perform an air show, an addition to the already-scheduled festivities in honor of an enkheil holiday Peters never fully understood the meaning of.

Khrog Dhakgo took the paper, scanned it. «Nnh. Yes. A memorial to fallen comrades, yes… I like it.»

«Good,» said Peters, and leaned forward. «I’ll have Deela inform Commander Bolton that you approve. We can confer later to settle the final details.»

Ghnal nodded. «I’ll pass this on to my staff. They’ll flesh out a more complete scheme, which you can send to your people for review. It will be before you in plenty of time for any objections or counter-proposals.»

«Good,» Peters said again. «Except that you should give it to Dzheenis, who will take it to your assistants. They can be working on it while we have dinner.»

«I like that idea,» Khrog put in.

«It’s about time for me, too,» Ghnal agreed. «Where shall we eat? In the same food room where we spoke before?»

«You’re invited to my quarters.» Peters flushed a little and grinned. «Yes, I have separate quarters now, and a family I’d like you to meet.»

«It was obvious from the beginning that you’d begun to rise to your potential,» Ghnal noted. «The last time you were here we chatted in the food room, and you got in trouble for it, if I recall.» She smiled and gestured at the office. «This is a remarkably different environment.»

«I note that you give the statue pride of place,» Khrog said, and looked at the figure. «It’s a great compliment to us.»

«Not at all. It’s a lovely piece; I enjoy looking at it… So, will you have dinner with us? I warn you, it’s likely to be something of a mob scene.»

Ghnal grinned. «We’re used to family dinners. Yes, by all means.»

«Then let’s go. I’m hungry, too.» Peters gestured. «You can give the documents to Dzheenis on the way out.»

Ghnal Dhango paused outside Peters’s quarters to read the sign. The movable strip displayed the word “English”; Peters slipped it out of its holder, reversed it to «Trade», and set it back into position. «There,» he said. «It’s out of order, but you are special guests.»

«Don’t disarrange your schedule on our account,» Ghnal said as he ushered them in.

«It’s no great burden. Ah. Here are Ander and Alper.» The two women molded themselves against him, their figures showing the effects of events four months before, and he put his arms around them and let out a sighing breath. «Ghnal, Khrog, here are Alper Gor and Ander Korwits, my mates, if so pallid a word can be used. Ander, Alper, I present Khrog Dhakgo and Ghnal Dhango. They are the proprietors of the troop of enkheil Combat Dancers the ship operators will be working with.»

Ander and Alper nodded and murmured polite greetings. The two enkheil bowed slightly and performed their half-spread and pop of wings. «This is a story we have to hear,» Khrog Dhakgo said in amusement.

«It’s not one I tell very often,» Peters told them with a grimace. «Everyone here has heard it often enough to be bored by it.»

Alper gave him a flashing glance, then looked from Peters to their guests and back. «They’re the ones who gave you the statue, aren’t they?»

«Yes. I hope you’ll make them welcome,» Peters told the girls. «Our previous association was brief but cordial, and I hope to extend it.»

«Which reminds me,» Khrog noted. «When we met before, we invited you to our home, and I think it a marvelous idea to renew the invitation. Sitting in lawn chairs beside the lake, with a drink in hand and no one but ourselves present, you won’t have any excuse not to tell stories.»

«Excellent notion,» Ghnal agreed. «Bring your whole group. Five of you, you said? We can easily accommodate everyone, and we can sit by the lake and watch the show as you tell the story. The weather is forecast to be lovely, and the show should be spectacular.»

Peters nodded and smiled. «That sounds ideal to me, but we’ll have to wait until Dzheenis and Khurs come in to know if I’ll be dispensable for long enough. Ander, Alper, what’s your opinion? You expressed an interest in experiencing a planetary surface, and here is a way to do so in comfort.»

The two women exchanged looks. «Let us think about it for a short while,» Ander said. «Considered coldly, without the intense emotional background, the idea makes me somewhat nervous.»

«When we get to Earth we’ll surely have to go Down, to meet John’s other family,» Alper pointed out. «This would serve as a sort of introduction to the idea.»

«More new experiences,» Ander noted. «You’re right, Alper. Ghnal Dhango, Khrog Dhakgo, thank you for the invitation. We hope you won’t take our natural trepidation as a reflection on your hospitality.»

The door latch worked, and Khurs entered. «Hello,» she said to the group in general. «Dzheenis will be down shortly; he is conferring with the enkheil.»

«Good,» said Peters. «Enough of that; no business at dinner. Ghnal, Khrog, you have already met Dzheenis; Khurs is also part of our group.»

* * *

In the end they all went down to the surface of Keelisika. They sat, as promised, in lawn chairs by the lake, which proved to have the major city of Keelisika on the other side, and had front-row seats for both the air show and the fireworks that followed.

The “missing man” formation met Khrog Dhakgo’s unmitigated approval, and when the Dancers copied it he was ecstatic. «Yes!» he almost shouted. «An absolutely beautiful bit… What are they doing?»

The two ships, one human, one enkheil, that had left the finger-fives as the “missing man” had come together and were flying side by side, approaching the main thrust of the formation at a sharp angle. When they reached the center of the lake they turned upward, and spiraled slowly around one another as they climbed in a gentle pas de deux that couldn’t have been performed with reaction engines and continued until they were out of sight in the clear blue sky. «That’s beautiful,» Khrog exulted. «It’ll be worth teaching the other companies the maneuver just to be able to do that at the end. Whoever thought of that gets a bonus, Ghnal. A big one.»

«I’ll see to it,» said Ghnal with a broad smile. «Yes, it’s very effective. But it might have been one of the humans who thought of it.»

«If a human deserves the bonus, a human gets it,» was Khrog’s summation. «It’s gorgeous. Paying for it makes using it seem a little less like stealing.»

Everyone laughed at that. Peters felt a hand slip into his, and looked down at Ander. He took Alper’s hand in the other and followed their gentle urging to the edge of the broad deck, where they stood beside the railing and looked out over the water. A cool breeze stirred the leaves of dark-red and black-purple trees, and Keelisika’s daystar cast lambent rays on the rippling surface of the water. The girls clung to his arms, crowding close without forming their usual embrace, and Ander Korwits sighed. «It’s beautiful,» she said softly. «We have missed so much.»

«Indeed we have,» Alper breathed. «Of course, most have… I don’t think one ferassi in a thousand ever ventures beyond the hull of the ship except for child-trades. They couldn’t imagine this. Neither could I have, before… Oh! It’s insupportable!» And she turned to push her face against Peters’s shoulder.

«Easy, easy,» he said, and felt them both tremble. «Not all places on planets are so pleasant. You will have many opportunities to sample the experience. I have no taste for living always within walls.» He looked across the deck, where Dzheenis and Khurs were sitting in chairs with drinks and plates before them. He smiled. «In fact, I think it will be a custom of the Peters pa’ol; we will visit Down whenever possible.»

They ate a delicious meal prepared by enkheil servants who moved about, silent and unobtrusive, then watched fireworks sent up from a platform in the center of the lake, arching fire against the unfamiliar constellations. Between blazes of red and blue, gold and green, Peters told the story of the pirate ship, Jivver, and Trader 1049, and his audience oohed in all the right places.

Afterward they spent the night, the three of them intertwined in an enormous bed with white fluffy pillows, in a bedroom on the third floor, with huge windows looking out across the lake and the city. They didn’t make love, or rather they did, a warm heart-sharing that had nothing to do with glands and organs, and fell asleep snuggled under a soft coverlet with the breeze blowing the curtains in flowing falls.

Sometime in the small hours, with the merest hint of pale-gray shading the sky above the city, Ander woke with a startled «Oh!» and a jerk. Peters came fully awake as she sat up, seeming incandescent in the starlight. «What’s wrong?» he asked softly, and felt Alper stir against his right shoulder.

«Nothing’s wrong,» she said, and the smile in her voice matched the one in her eyes. «The baby moved, and it woke me up.»

«Mine is letting me sleep,» Alper said with a tinge of envy. «Don’t wake him up.»

«I’ll be quiet,» Ander promised. She lay back against his chest and sighed, and used her free arm to pull the covers back up. He couldn’t have spoken; his throat was too full. So were his eyes, and he felt warm wetness on his shoulder and chest. The three of them lay, dripping hot tears of joy into the crumpled sheets, until they fell asleep again.

* * *

He was working at his desk the next day, or rather shuffling things around to simulate work, when the news came that Ghedekepoalla had arrived as expected. A little while later the runner came by with notification: Llapaaloapalla would depart at the next third ande, which by his schedule was fifth ande, effectively midnight.

Actually there were three other ships out there, which solved a little mystery. Prethuvenigis had come aboard not long ago looking tired but satisfied, and had let Peters know that he no longer needed the smallship without saying a word about where he’d been with it. The other ships answered that question, at least by implication.

Thersin Vee was a bür smallship-carrier, shorter than Llapaaloapalla and clearly newer but equally clearly belonging to the same lineage. Ghedekepoalla was another Grallt trader, a conglomeration of spheres and tubes that was the first time he’d seen anything that actually looked like a spaceship from old science fiction vids. The third–

The third was Trader 1049, and people tended to go to windows and look out just to check to see if it was really there. Ferassi didn’t do that. Most especially, ferassi–not just ferassi-Grallt, but Ander’s and Alper’s relatives–didn’t get out and about, visiting other ships and groundside, to gapes and the occasional faint. These did, though. Those rumbles wouldn’t die away quickly.

The four ships were scheduled to go to Earth together. Formation flying in high phase wasn’t something Peters wanted to think about; it made his head hurt. More important, though, it meant four ships, one of them heavily armed, would appear in Earth orbit instead of Llapaaloapalla alone.

Peters knew that Prethuvenigis had bad feelings about dealing with Earth for more than one reason. Among other things, he’d figured out what the airplane pilots normally did for a living. That explained Thersin Vee–if you needed violent backup the bür would provide it cheerfully and with a will–and Ghedekepoalla, but it still wasn’t clear why Prethuvenigis had gone all the way back to Jivver and invited the ferassi. Given that he had, though, it was clear why he’d wanted to use Peters’s ship. It was the only way he could have done it in time.

Peters stared at the movement order for a long time, then returned to putting together a summary of the detachment’s financial status. He’d need to translate it to English and decimal numbers before presenting it; this was the real account, including the profits from the wagering, and he wondered what Commander Bolton’s reaction was going to be. No, he didn’t wonder, but he did wonder if the explosion might be damped by the fact that it was going to be a tidy little nest-egg for everybody, even divided forty-five ways. If anybody got to keep any of it.

The shutters rumbled closed, and after a little while he felt the surge of high phase entry. One and eight llor, as he recalled, full six-ande llor rather than his abbreviated day.

Underway for the last time. Next stop, Earth.

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