Peters ran his finger up the seam of the kathir suit, thinking how much easier it was to seal. Handheld and earbug went into pockets, leaving worse lumps than with the Grallt suit; this one was thinner. The ornh could stay; there was more where that came from. His multitool was missing, a real pity, but a nice souvenir for some ferassi… there was just enough light from Jivver through the window to allow him to scan the surface of the dresser for anything else. Just the small push-force weapon. He thought about leaving it, but it might be useful.

The woman on the bed stirred, rolling over to throw an arm over the unoccupied side. «John?» she said sleepily, and Peters felt a combination of pride and real regret. Having the woman remember your name at this point was a compliment, no doubt about it; he smiled in the dark at the memory.

He checked the door. Locked, of course, but the control was on this side. When he released the catch the mechanism snicked loudly, and the woman rolled over, sat up, and said, «John, what are you doing?»

The weapon weighed in his hand. Screaming women were not in his plans at the moment: the correct thing, the logical thing, was to shoot her and bug out. Jivver light backlighted a tumble of raven hair, now touseled, and picked out other salient features. «Escaping,» he said conversationally.

«You can’t do that.»

«Watch me.» He slipped out the door, closing it behind him, and set off up the corridor at a fast walk.

He was banking on memory, subterfuge, and timing. The ferassi ship observed a standdown period, a “night”, when few were about, and those at specific watches. They had no reason to expect untoward events, and the watchstanders were bound to be bored and sleepy at best. The subterfuge part came from a discovery: the kathir suit had stored programs for ferassi suit patterns. The patterns were simple, an overall dark forest green like pine needles with rings around the upper arm, their number and color depending on rank and specialty. His whimsical choice had been to assume his own zerkre rank and more or less correct specialty: two white rings, signifying an ipze of the operations department with smallcraft qualifications. The whimsy had stopped short of making one of them wider than the other.

He reached the door of the apartment area where the women lived. Before he could operate the latch another clicked behind him, and he turned, to discover Ander Korwits coming at just short of a run, wearing a white robe tied at the waist. She had nice legs. Well, she had nice everything. «Wait,» she hissed. «This is not a recommended procedure.»

Shit! At least she wasn’t screaming. He pushed into the corridor and set off at a run, heading forward and looking for a stairwell. The pirate ship had carried two small auxiliaries, high and forward of midships, set into the corners of the structure as Fers had described the ones here. So why had Gell said there weren’t any? He hadn’t, the memory came. He’d said there were no docking bays, which was correct.

Stairway here; he swung into it and pounded up the steps. So far no one had been around to ask questions about why someone was running in the corridors, but there was likely to be a guard on the smallcraft. Or maybe not. He remembered how slack they’d gotten after having nothing happen for so long in the first part of the voyage of Llapaaloapalla.

As anticipated the stair ended two decks up, letting out on a long fore-and-aft corridor. If there were six general purpose auxiliaries and two fliers it didn’t really matter which way he went, but he wanted a general purpose one, because the pirate ship hadn’t had fliers and he didn’t know how to open the fairings Fers had mentioned. He headed aft to maximize his chances. No guards visible, which was in a way disappointing. Not that he wanted to shoot anybody… here was a hatch, of the same pattern that had led to the auxiliaries on the pirate ship. He put his back into it, but it was wasted effort. The lever gave smoothly.

Now the securing latches. He stepped back into the corridor and headed aft… there. If he had the pattern right there were four of them, the same general type as the hatch latches. He had to assume that the glyph the handles pointed to meant “secured”, but it was probably the best bet. The first one yielded as smoothly as the hatch had, and so did the second.

Rapid thuds came up the corridor. Ander Korwits was running that way, her robe streaming out. He shook his head, casting off the distraction, and threw the third latch. «What are you doing?» she asked, low but insistent.

«Stealing a smallcraft.» He twisted his mouth. «I suppose it could be called ‘borrowing’. If I make it to Llapaaloapalla, you can have it back.» There, that did it for the fourth latch.

She followed him into the access trunk, crowding close as he worked the handle for access to the ship proper. «You don’t need to do this,» she urged, still in a low voice. «I’ve told you. You can have all the status you want among us.»

«I’m sorry.» She’d made the offer before; so had Alper Gor, in the occasional intervals. He’d thought about it, if fleetingly, but the prospect had no real appeal. The warmth pressing against him was a strong argument, but the women lived in a section to themselves, and he’d never seen another male of either species during the llor or so he’d been there. Continued association with Brendik Jons had no appeal… he’d also discovered he had no more wish to cast away the chance of returning home than Todd had had. He expressed it in his own mind as “Granpap’s funeral”, but even to himself he made no attempt to deny that there was much more to it than that.

He pushed her back into the corridor, not encountering too much resistance, and secured the hatch. Then the entry hatch to the ship, and forward to the control deck, with fingers crossed that the nuñe ptith used the same system as the dar ptith did. Zifthkakik activator here, and a right-handed sidestick for the pilot, not too different from the ones in the Hornets except lacking all the pushbuttons for weapons functions. Activator engaged, and the left-handed meter above the nav instruments began swinging toward the usable zone.

The hatch banged. He laid the weapon within easy reach and continued the startup. If it was open when he broke loose, too bad for whoever was in the entry… he had a momentary flash of white limbs and robe disarranged and drifting, and hesitated.

Another bang from the hatch, this time sounding like it had when he’d secured it. Then soft pounding in the gangway, and Ander Korwits came onto the control deck, face flushed with exertion, robe streamed back over her hips. She felt his stare, twitched the robe so that she was covered, and leaned against the hatch coaming, breathing heavily.

«What is this?» he asked sharply. «Get back to your quarters and say nothing.»

She shook her head. «It wouldn’t do any good. There’s no way I can stop you, and if you get away like this after I sponsored you they’ll put me out of the ship.»

«And you don’t think you could find another ship, or live Down?»

«That wouldn’t be a choice. I’d have to walk there, dressed like this, or less.»

He stared a moment. The energy indicator was in the safe zone. «Are Alper Gor and Luter Ander in the same danger?»

«Alper is, of course. Luter didn’t cooperate after the meeting.»

Shit! «Why didn’t you raise the alarm? Two or three burly Grallt could have managed.»

«I’m not so sure. You handled three of them, as I understand it. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Once you left me and made it to the outer corridor my breathing space would have been inevitable.»

He considered the prospect. Down two decks, fifty meters to the women’s quarters, there to fetch a sleeping woman who didn’t know what was going on… «Shit! How long would it take you to fetch Alper Gor here?»

«Too long.» She made a throwing-away gesture. «I never liked her much anyway.»

He knew that sort of black humor. «Try anyway. You at least can be expected to be walking the corridors. I will stay here as long as possible.» She looked at him wildly. «Go, go! We may not have enough time. We certainly won’t if you waste it.» Another wild look, then a nod, and she was gone in a flash of robe and legs.

Peters snatched up the weapon and followed. She vanished through the hatch, robe flapping, and he took up a position just inside, alert for any passers-by. Minutes stretched, and he thought irritably, If you think this is complicated, wait ’til we get back t’ Llapaaloapalla. Talk about complications! He thought about closing the hatch and hoping nobody chancing by would notice that the docking catches were released. No, that wouldn’t work. He wouldn’t be able to watch, or tell when the girls were coming.

More time went by. It seemed like hours… he was really disappointed in the ferassi. Surely they had some kind of deck patrol or watch in this area. On the other hand, it seemed that they kept to themselves and never had visitors. If so, they might scarcely be capable of imagining such a sequence of events… Ah. Here came the deck watch, a ferassi with a single ring around his bicep. He was strolling along idly, a nightstick swinging from a belt at his waist, not really noticing anything. Another neat ethical problem.

Peters waited until the man was almost at the hatch and had begun to express puzzlement at its being open before making his move. He jumped out, threatened the crewman with the weapon, and moved in fast. The man–kid, really–didn’t have nearly enough time to react before Peters had him in a choke hold. Whack with the butt-end of the weapon; it didn’t put the ferassi out, but it stunned and confused him, and Peters used the moment to drag him through the hatch and into the smallcraft. The belt made a satisfactory immobilizer, and a swift review of the cabinets by the hatch found one that seemed empty and had an outside lock. Now if nobody had come along in the interim–

The two women were coming up the corridor. He’d known they were quick on the uptake; it now appeared that they also had their priorities straight. They also evidently hadn’t encountered anyone in the corridors. Both had kathir suits slung over their shoulders, but Ander Korwits was still in her robe, Alper Gor was as naked as he’d left her, and between the two of them nobody, or at least no male, could have failed to take notice that something out of the ordinary was going on.

Alper scowled as he handed them through. Well, that was to be expected, he supposed. He yanked open the cabinet and dragged the unresisting officer to the hatch, shoved him out, and dogged it. «Get forward,» he hissed. «That fellow will be able to free himself in moments.»

«Why didn’t you just kill him?» Ander Korwits wanted to know.

«It didn’t seem necessary or appropriate.» He pounded forward, took the control seat, and called out, «Take hold. I don’t know if the compensator is properly set or not, and I don’t want to take the time.» Then he yanked the sidestick up and sideways.

The smallship broke loose with loud scrunches and squeals of tortured metal, but break loose it did, and Peters rotated the heading until the planet was in view and pressed the control forward. Time to make distance and velocity before taking care of other matters.

Ander took the seat to his left, the navigator’s position, with a swish of white cloth. The robe had become disarranged again, offering a good view of regions concealed in most normal circumstances. «What do you intend?» she asked as Alper Gor took the other adjacent chair, still elegantly clad in nothing whatever.

«First, place some distance between us and the ship, and take on velocity. Details will follow from how much of that I am able to achieve. My ultimate goal is Llapaaloapalla

«Will you be able to reach it?» Ander had made no move to rearrange her clothing.

This’d make a good book cover, Peters thought sardonically. Heroic spaceman in Spandex, flanked by one good-lookin’ woman naked as a jaybird and another good as. Too bad you’d have t’ put a cardboard flap over it. «Get dressed, both of you,» he said irritably. «I saw you brought your airsuits. That was smart. We’re likely to need them.»

Ander Korwits stood, flicked her robe into position, and stepped back with a flash of smile, but Alper Gor kept her seat. «I don’t think I will,» she said. «I haven’t gone around bare since I moved into the adults’ quarters. It feels good, and the events of the next few tle should be interesting. I want to watch.»

«Ssth. If anything happens in the next few tle we are probably lost,» Peters told her irritably. «And in any case I don’t need the distraction.»

«You find me distracting?» she asked, with arched eyebrows and a little wiggle.

«Ssth.» Peters grinned. «Go get dressed, Alper. If you want to display your elegant self, I can find a larger audience if we make it.»

She grinned back. «But I want to be present for every thrilling moment of this.»

«Whereas I am strongly hoping that no thrilling moments occur. Get your suit on. Your carcass will not be nearly so attractive if it is exposed to vacuum.»

«You’re probably right.» She got up, still grinning, arranged herself briefly in a provocative pose, and moved aft, out of his line of view. Peters shook his head, stared at stars and the planet a moment to recover his composure, and turned to the navigation instrument.

Every zifthkakik had a unique identifier–call it a serial number–and a portion of that sequence was used by the detectors for nav guidance. Gell had insisted that he memorize the sequences for Llapaaloapalla and the smaller dli, and he had, if he could remember all of it under these conditions. The controls on this instrument were different, of course, and they hadn’t studied the ones on the pirate ship very closely, assuming that details like that could wait.

He was still puzzling over the gadget when Ander Korwits returned to stand at his elbow, dressed fully if still less than modestly in the skintight suit. «What are you doing?» she asked. «Do you intend to land on the planet?»

«I’m entering the navigation identifier for Llapaaloapalla. No, I don’t intend to land on the planet. There are only two places upon it, both essentially points, where I might receive assistance, and I have no notion where they are or how to find them.»

«That’s a pity. I’ve never seen the surface of a planet,» she said a little wistfully. «I understand that it’s wild and very, very large.»

«Yes, that’s correct as far as it goes.» He finished entering the sequence, and observed with satisfaction that the instrument was active. The indicator was a ball painted in quarters of white and black instead of a pair of orthagonal pointers; he rotated the ship until the intersection was under the circle in the center and looked. Nothing. He inspected the instrument more closely. If those were numbers along the black-white boundaries, these were large… he rotated the ship a hundred and eighty degrees. There was a bright spark in about the right place, and he nodded. Then he looked up at Ander. «You’ve never been Down?»

«I’ve never been off the ship.» When he looked at her in incredulity she corrected, «Well, once before, of course. I was born on a different ship, and when I reached the age of bleeding I was traded to this one. So, yes, I’ve been off the ship before, but only once, and never to a planetary surface.»

«Isn’t this exciting?» said Alper as she took the right-hand seat again. «Just like Belsar Flen escaping Ptarne Keep, with the Jewel of Ropta and his first tuwe.»

«Details intrude,» Ander objected. «Belsar Flen had his loyal retainer Kuniss and a stalwart crew of andar to help him, as I recall. And we hardly constitute a valid tuwe; there are only two of us, and we are far too old.»

«You have no imagination,» Alper Gor said cheerfully. «He even looks a little like I imagine Belsar Flen to look: dark-haired, tall, at the height of his vigor, with noble features.»

Ander considered her–captor?–sidelong. She had long beautiful lashes. «I can’t quite visualize Belsar Flen in an airsuit, though.»

The blonde girl waved that off. «Of course not. But he was wearing the uniform of the Keep guardsmen at the time; that’s how he got access to the jewel in the first place. The situation is exactly parallel.»

«What are you two talking about?» Peters asked.

Ander was smiling. «Alper refers to a book of history, or to be more accurate, historical romance. Belsar Flen was one of the early figures in our history. There are a hundred stories about his exploits, each less credible than the one before it.» She held out a hand as if in presentation. «In the incident she refers to, he coerced the Jewel into providing him with great wealth, and used that to essentially found our society.»

«Bah. To the extent I understand your society, I would be more likely to destroy it than found another. It could certainly use a few innovations.»

«And if you did so, you would become a figure of romance for later generations,» Alper pointed out. «Just think, Ander, here we are at the beginning… »

Wham! came from aft, the vibrations transmitted through the fabric of the boat. Peters twisted the sidestick at random; the craft swerved and tumbled. The compensator was obviously not set correctly, because the rapid motion almost pushed them out of their seats. They caught sight of a bright spark. It flared green, and simultaneously another jolt tingled their feet. «What was that?» Ander asked in alarm.

«I would suppose it’s your relatives, come to object to my making free with their possessions,» Peters said drily. «I should have been taking precautions, but I was distracted.»

A crackling voice emanated from somewhere on the control panel, saying something demanding. Peters jumped. «It seems you are correct,» Ander Korwits remarked.

«What did he say?»

«Shorn of the imprecations, he demands that you return to the ship,» said Ander.

Peters eyed the panel. «I wasn’t aware this craft had a communicator. Do you know how to operate it?»

Ander shrugged. «Only in theory. If the books have it right, the mechanism should be on the panel in front of Alper.»

«Yes. Here.» The blonde girl handed him an object that trailed a long cord. «Speak into the grille, there. You have to push or activate something, all the stories are clear on that, but I don’t know what.»

His fingers found a smooth lever on the side of the object. He pressed it, felt a click, and said, «Do you hear me? This is John Peters.»

«I hear you,» said the voice. «Return to the ship. You cannot escape.»

Peters couldn’t help himself. «Don’t be trite.»

«I fail to understand.»

«Never mind,» he said to the front transparency, and pressed the key. «I propose that you let me go. I have nothing but my own property and two individuals who seem to be of little or no value to you. The smallcraft is valuable, but you may have it back once I reach Llapaaloapalla if you will refrain from damaging your own property.»

«Return to the ship. We require your information, and we cannot accept your exposing us. Return to the ship.»

«I won’t return voluntarily,» Peters told the microphone. «You will have to destroy me, so the information is lost in any case. Why should I expose you? What profit would I gain?»

«Traders,» the voice said, sounding disgusted. «Return to the ship, Peters. Otherwise we will destroy you.»

«You have no imagination,» Peters responded, and lowered the mike. «Ander, if Alper’s panel has the communicator, yours very likely controls the weapons. What do we have? I can’t read the legends on the controls.»

«Here are activators and level controls for four breakbeams,» she said, pointing.

«I have no confidence in my ability to hit anything with a breakbeam,» Peters said. «Where are the controls for the–» Shit. He didn’t know the word. «There are weapons which are self-directing. Fredik Fers told me about them. Are the controls there?»

«I don’t know what you mean.» Wham! and another lurch. «Here are a row of activator switches, but the legends are covered with a sign that says ‘do not use’.»

«Can you remove the cover?» Wham! «Quickly. Your relatives are becoming insistent.»

«Not while the ship is jerking about.»

«I’ll try to buy some time.» He spoke into the mike. «Stop shooting, stop shooting. What treatment will I receive if I return?»

«That hasn’t been decided. Return to the ship; we will discuss it. There is no alternative.»

«I cannot return directly,» he pointed out. «The energy cost is prohibitive. I propose to loop the planet in order to redirect my velocity.»

«That is acceptable. We will follow. If you deviate from the proper course we will destroy you.»

Peters looked up and rolled his eyes. This guy had obviously not been reading the stories Ander and Alper had told him about; nobody would talk like that afterward. «I understand,» he told the microphone. «Be tolerant. I am not experienced, and my course may not be exact.»

«Just get it right,» the voice growled.

Peters grinned; here was something off script. «I’ll do my best,» he told the mike.

«You had better. End of transmission.» The other ship was now visible, a spark off to starboard and “high” from their current orientation.

Peters looked at it, then back at Ander. «What have you discovered, if anything?»

«I was able to remove most of the covering, but I broke a fingernail in doing so.» Peters growled; she grinned up at him, then looked back at the panel. Alper Gor was leaning over him, trying to see what they were doing, and pressing her anatomy against his shoulder in the process. «The legend says ‘seekers’,» Ander explained. «There are six activators; I take that to mean we have six ‘seekers’, whatever they are.»

«Activate one of them… no, wait.» He rotated the ship, Alper hanging on his seat back as he did so, until the spark of the other ship was nearly centered in the front transparency. There was a circle there, engraved in the material, with four short lines forming a centerless cross at a forty-five degree angle, and he adjusted the sidestick until the other ship was as nearly centered as possible. «Now. Activate a ‘seeker’.»

Ander threw the switch with a click. «Nothing happened,» she remarked after a moment.

«This may take time… no, we are missing part of the procedure. What else do you find in that area of the panel?»

«A lot of things. It’s confusing.»

«Is there anything labeled ‘door’ or ‘opening’ or anything cognate?»

She looked up in surprise. «Why, yes, there is, but it isn’t next to the ‘seeker’ controls.»

Peters rolled his eyes again. «What do the labels say in that area?»

«There are only glyphs. Here is a kh–»

«Are there four of them?»

«Yes, numbered one through four.»

«For the breakbeams, I would imagine. How many ‘seeker’ activators did you say there were?»

«Six.»

«Is there a set of six switches in the ‘door’ group?»

«No. Here is a group of switches, labeled ‘Z1’ through ‘Z3’.»

«Move those three switches to the ‘open’ position, please.»

«The positions aren’t labeled.»

Peters rolled his eyes again. «Then we will assume that the doors are currently closed,» he said patiently. «Move the switches to the opposite position.»

She did so. «Don’t be cross,» she said with a touch of petulance.

«I’m not cross. I am nervous. You have my apology if I seemed cross.» Alper Gor giggled in his ear. A group of indicators illuminated, two rows of three at the bottom of the front transparency. «Ah. We have achieved something.»

«Those lamps are yellow,» Alper pointed out.

«So?»

«Foolish person.» That was a single word; a better rendering might be ‘silly’. «Yellow is the color for something that is working, but has some deficiency.»

«By coincidence we use it the same way.»

«You are straying farther from course than permissible, even for an inexperienced operator,» the radio said. «Correct your vector.»

The planet nearly filled their field of view. Peters operated the stick, adding velocity at right angles to their course, and picked up the microphone. «Is that better?»

«You are still far from the correct course.»

«I told you I was inexperienced. Which way should I add or subtract velocity?»

«If you roll ship so that the limb of the planet is horizontal,» the voice said, «and the present vector is ahead, you should add velocity in a direction two points to the right and one up.» The tone was remarkably similar to that he’d used to Ander Korwits a moment ago, and both girls giggled this time.

Peters complied with the instructions. «Is that better?»

«Much better. Keep your course. End of transmission.»

Peters flexed his shoulders to relieve the tension, and again rotated the ship to center the other one in the reticle. «Ander, activate a ‘seeker’, please.»

«Just one?»

«Yes, please.»

«Here is number three.» One of the lamps, at top center, went out, and a red-orange one beside it came on.

«What does that color mean?» he asked.

Alper frowned. «In normal circumstances it means ‘danger’ or ‘something is wrong’. But these are weapons. Possibly it means that the other party is in danger.»

«Hmm… I don’t care to–» he was about to say “experiment” when the red lamp went out and a blue one came on. «That looks promising,» he noted.

«Yes. Blue is the color of readiness or proper operation.»

«We can hope.» They waited for several moments, but nothing happened. «We are still missing part of the procedure,» Peters said with a frustrated grimace.

«I was thinking,» Ander began.

«Yes?»

She gestured at the panel. «These are called ‘seekers’. In order to seek something, one must be told what it is, isn’t that right?»

«Yes, that’s inherent in the concept.»

«Precisely. I activated the seeker, and the lamp changed from yellow to red. A few moments later the blue light illuminated. It seems logical to me that ‘seeker number three’ has notified us that it now knows what to seek.»

«Ander, you are a brilliantly intelligent person,» Peters said gravely. «I believe you are precisely correct. So what is missing is the command or permission to the ‘seeker’ to perform its function.»

«So I would suppose.»

Peters looked over the controls available at his chair. Navigation instruments, zifthkakik activator and level controls, compensator…

«Perhaps the control is on Alper’s panel,» Ander suggested.

«That wouldn’t make sense,» Alper protested. «The ship operator controls the direction. The control should be available to him.»

There were a pair of pedals or treadles in the floor. Grallt ships didn’t use rudder pedals, and he hadn’t needed any in operating this one… he pressed the right pedal. Nothing. Then the left one. A thump from below their feet, and a small object left the front of the ship at high speed. Simultaneously the blue lamp went out, leaving five yellows glowing.

There was a short pause; then the spark of the other ship expanded enough to see it as a sphere, even at that distance, then faded away to nothing. «That seems to have done it,» he said with satisfaction. «I’ll change our course to head for Llapaaloapalla

«Yes,» said Alper Gor in a musing tone. «I wonder who that was.»

Peters looked up in startlement. They–he–had just killed somebody, or several somebodies, the women had known all their lives.

«It sounded like Brendik Jons,» Ander Korwits remarked, her voice devoid of color.

«Yes,» Alper agreed. «I served him a few times while I was in the tuwe… I didn’t like him very much.»

Ander nodded. «So did I… I don’t think he bathed regularly.»

«No… I wonder who else was on board.»

«I don’t see that we had any real choice in the matter,» Peters said gently.

«No,» Ander agreed. She looked up at him, face sober, sidelit by reflected light from the planet.

He stood and took Alper Gor’s hand, then took the single step down from the pilot’s station to the main deck. «Come here,» he said gently. Ander rose, and he took both of them in the best hug he could manage. They came without resistance, molding their bodies to his, and he said softly, «It’s never good to see relatives die, even if you didn’t like them very much. I would have avoided that if possible, but there didn’t seem to be a way. You should mourn them. Even if you didn’t like them, they were still family.» Neither responded verbally, but Ander burrowed under his arm, and Alper pressed her face against his right shoulder. They stood that way for a long moment, and Peters felt a drop of warm moisture touch his right ear.

<<< Chapter Thirty-Nine Chapter Forty-One >>>

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