“John, is everyone still whole?” a vaguely English accent interrupted. “You don’t seem to be exhibiting your usual talent for getting on top of random situations.”

“I ain’t had much room for maneuver,” Peters replied. “And yeah, ain’t been no weapons discharged yet, everybody’s still healthy give or take a gut-ache or two.”

“Good,” Prethuvenigis approved. “Gentlemen, move aside a bit, if you would.” The two male officers edged nervously to one side. The trader entered with caution, staying as far as possible from Bolton and Everett, and paused to survey the tableau. “Will someone be kind enough to inform me as to how this situation began? John, perhaps you should speak first.”

“Well, Thuven, I ain’t quite caught up myself, but Miz Travers here come bustin’ in and started makin’ accusations, sayin’ I wasn’t no fit guardian for Ander and Alper on account of usin’ them as sex slaves, and proposin’ to take them off to the women’s quarters,” Peters explained. “Ander wanted to know what was goin’ on, and between Dreelig and Dee I reckon she got filled in pretty good. She turned them down flat, and things started to get out of hand after that.”

“I see. Dreelig, does that account accord with your recollection?”

“Yes, Prethuvenigis,” the Grallt replied, looking around with nervous glances.

«Good. You are dismissed.»

«Enh?»

«I said you were dismissed, Dreelig,» Prethuvenigis said sharply. «Go to your quarters. I’ll speak to you later.»

«Yes, Prethuvenigis,» Dreelig said, and shambled dejectedly to the door.

«Dee, is this the individual who precipitated the altercation?» the trader asked.

«Yes.»

«What is her name?»

«Travers.»

«Thank you.» Prethuvenigis looked the woman over. She was leaning against the wall, breathing heavily, the left side of her face an angry red. “Ms. Travers, what was your motive in coming here and accosting these people?”

She had the courage to stick to her guns: “I came to get these unfortunate girls out of the hands of this abuser. I intended to get them over to the women’s quarters where we could take care of them properly.”

“I see. And why did you bring Commander Bolton and his associate along?”

Travers glanced at Peters. “This man is known to be violent,” she said sullenly. “I expected to need backup.”

Prethuvenigis nodded. «Ander, this woman says she came to rescue you from abuse and maltreatment, and take you to where you could be cared for properly. Did you understand that?»

«Yes. She isn’t sane,» Ander said, keeping her neutral inflection. «I tried to tell her, through the Grallt, that I was happy where I was, but she wouldn’t listen.»

Alper Gor laughed in her silvery soprano. «No, she wouldn’t have,» she pointed out. «I don’t know this individual, but we met the type often in the tuwe, didn’t we, Ander?»

«Yes,» Ander Korwits agreed. «A female who assumes the privileges and powers of a male, including whatever treatment of the girls she may care to inflict. In the tuwe they didn’t often survive.»

«That’s exactly correct,» said Dee with heat. «She is the reason I left my post with the officers. I could no longer bear her treatment of me.»

Prethuvenigis nodded. “Ms. Travers, Ander Korwits and Alper Gor in their turn accuse you of wishing to abduct them so that you may conduct molestations of your own upon their persons. Do you have a response?”

Travers went white. “That’s a lie, God damn it. I should’ve known you cuntfaces would stick by your fair-haired boy!” She glared at Peters, her features distorted in a rictus of hatred. “You wait ’til you get back to Earth, jackass. You’ll be in the dock for slavery, sure as Hell.”

Dee exploded. “Bullshit, Spike! You’re a groper and a fondler. If you had the equipment you’d be a rapist. Half the women in the unit’d bug out if they had a chance, just to get away from you–”

“Shut up, you God-damned little–”

“Fuck you!” Dee folded her arms and reflected Travers’s hate back at her. “You go ahead and file your goddamn charges,” she hissed. “We’ll see what you look like when your supposed ‘victims’ call you a liar to your God-damned face, and I turn around and put in about fifty counts of sexual harassment!”

Travers didn’t respond, just stood there in a half-crouch like a cornered animal, breathing heavily, her face a mixture of rage, fear, and abashment. “Commander Bolton, you would do well to take Ms. Travers back to her quarters and see to her welfare,” Prethuvenigis said mildly. “I understand that you have medicines that calm and soothe; their use is certainly indicated.”

Bolton eased toward her, glancing warily at Ander Korwits, who still brandished the weapon. “He’s right, Stephanie,” he said. “Come with us. We’ll get you back to your quarters and get a sedative in you.” He took her arm; she pushed his hand away violently, but when he moved toward the entry she followed, craning her neck to face Peters the whole time. The commander urged her through the door, then turned back to say, “Everett, come on. As for you, Peters–” he gritted his teeth “–be in my quarters in one hour.”

“I think not, Commander,” Prethuvenigis said sharply. “Allow your associate to minister to Ms. Travers, and let me correct your understanding of the situation.” Bolton looked around the room a little wildly, then nodded at Everett, who slipped out, closing the door behind him and leaving Bolton standing in front of it, looking pinned.

“Good,” said the trader with a nod. «I know these are your quarters, John, but would you and the women mind absenting yourselves? You might step along to my apartment. Khonig has prepared tea and snacks, and I was on my way to issue an invitation when I discovered the uproar.»

«That seems a good plan to me,» Peters observed, a little amused. «The sort of interview you have in mind goes best without an audience. Perhaps Deela–» he emphasized the name slightly, to call attention to the modification «–might come along as well.»

«Innovation,» the Trader chief remarked. «Would you prefer the more usual ‘Deelis’?» He bestowed a twinkling smile on the Grallt girl.

«N-no,» she said a little unsteadily. «I rather like ‘Deela’.»

«Good,» said Peters. «It was time, I think. Alper, get dressed. We should go.»

«You come with me,» she insisted. «I don’t want to be out of sight of you.»

«We’ll both go,» Ander suggested.

In the bedroom they exchanged a mutual hug before Alper writhed into her suit. Bolton was seated when they left, looking apprehensive, and Peters acknowledged him with a nod and “Commander” as he passed, receiving a flash of lambent rage in return. Prethuvenigis showed them out, saying, «This shouldn’t take too long. I’ll see you in my quarters; we should be planning for the trip Down tomorrow.»

Peters murmured an affirmative, and they escaped into the corridor, followed by Dee–or rather Deela. «Those people are not your friends,» the Grallt observed.

«That has never been in question,» Peters commented without emphasis.

«Bolton can make trouble for you, can he not?» Deela persisted.

«A great deal, if he so chooses.» Peters shook his head. «Enough. Let us have tea, and discuss window curtains.»

<<< Chapter Forty-One Chapter Forty-Three >>>

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