After the first utle of traipsing around the corridors of Trader 1049 Peters was convinced that these people had about the same relationship with the ones who’d shot up Llapaaloapalla as he did with the pirates infesting the Indonesian archipelago.

The ship didn’t have nearly the population of the Grallt trader, either absolutely or in proportion, but there were people in the corridors and the rooms they visited. All he saw in the after sections were Grallt, but they were just people; about half were female, and they were happy, sad, busy, worried, jaunty, as appropriate to personality and circumstances. There was subdued horseplay.

One woman was singing softly to herself, and the other clerks at desks nearby were craning their heads. He touched Fers on the arm, and they stopped and listened. A pretty song, performed in a cool clear voice that sent shivers up his spine. One of the others began tapping his upper arm, keeping time, and several joined in, finishing the chorus in multipart harmony. Imagining that scene on the pirate ship, among the unfortunates in the aft bunkroom, would have taken more brain power than he had, even if he weren’t still in the throes of a hangover.

They took a long straight corridor right aft, ending at a bare bulkhead Fers claimed was the stern. Peters had no reason to doubt that, but no way to verify it; from there it was up and down stairways and corridors and in and out of compartments. There were only three decks above the holds in the after section, the remainder of the volume being taken up with trade goods. He saw his first new zifthkakik, sealed up in metal cans like oversized foodstuffs. Most of the stock was either smallship-sized, like the ones that propelled the planes and dli, or in two slightly larger sizes intended for vessels of various sizes. There were four monsters like the one that supported Llapaaloapalla; they weren’t in cans, just chocked and boomed to the deck.

He began to notice that all the people they met were deferential, some nodding, others bobbing in a sort of curtsey, male and female alike. That shouldn’t have been strange–Fers was presumably their officer–but the courtesy seemed to be as much to him as it was to the ferassi. Then he noticed that none of them looked straight at them in curiosity, but used sidelong glances and occasional whispers. He couldn’t define why that bothered him.

Grallt children were around, laughing and playing games in the corridors, and a good-sized compartment was set up as a gym and playroom, full of toys and exercise equipment, painted and decorated in bright colors. They didn’t inspect every living compartment they came to–not enough time, and Peters wanted a quick look–but by the time they got to the engine room he was confident that there was no compartment aboard Trader 1049 analogous to the hellhole they’d found on the pirate vessel.

The engine room was amidships, and according to Fredik–they’d progressed to first names–was in the geometric center of the ship. «That isn’t strictly necessary,» the ferassi explained, «but locating the zifthkakik off center wastes some of the field volume. Keeping them in the center uses it more efficiently.»

«Wouldn’t it be better to build the ship in the shape of a sphere or spheroid? That way you could fill the field volume almost completely.»

Fers laughed. «It’s not that important, and it’s a lot easier to build a rectangle. Imagine all the curves and odd-shaped pieces!» Peters thought back to the bilges and bow area of the carrier, the slippery ovoids of submarines, and compound curves on the bows and sterns of cheapjack rustbucket freighters, and wondered.

The zifthkakik were the same type the pirate ship had used. He didn’t comment on that, only asked, «Why two? Wouldn’t it be better to have a single larger one?»

«Larger ones are rare,» Fers explained. «We only get two and eight per uzul of the large size you saw below. Besides, using them in pairs makes certain motions of the ship easier to control.» He explained that, using technical terms that glazed Peters’s eyes after the first sentence or so. He noticed, and grimaced. «Never mind! It’s just handier in some ways.»

«I can accept that,» Peters said with a grave expression, and Fers grinned at him.

Gell had been mistaken; the ship did have accommodation for smaller vessels, eight of them. Fredik explained that they docked in niches cut away from the corners of the long sides. «When they’re docked, they look like part of the ship. That’s probably where your friend got the impression that we don’t have any.»

«What about atmosphere flyers?»

«There are two of those, kept all the way forward topside. Their bays have doors, so again you wouldn’t see them from outside the ship.»

«Could I see one?»

He frowned. «They aren’t secrets, but you’d have to go get your suit set up. The atmosphere controls are on the default setting, and you wouldn’t be comfortable.»

«I’ve already adjusted that,» Peters said offhand. «It’s set for the mix I like. Thank you for calling up the Grallt programming, by the way. I would never have been able to do it otherwise.»

«When did you do that?»

«In the food room, back aft in the Grallt section. We stopped for a snack, and you excused yourself to use the toilet, remember?»

Fers looked at him, body still, eyes serious. «You programmed your suit atmosphere in the time it took me to urinate and wash up?»

«Well, yes.» He held up his arm. «I couldn’t have done it that quickly to the Grallt suit. It’s much handier to have the controls where they’re easily accessible.»

The ferassi just shook his head, expression serious, and indicated the passageway. «We go that way.» For the next few tle he seemed thoughtful, a bit pensive, but by the time they’d looked at a few compartments–food storage, here, and preliminary preparation–he had recovered his former demeanor, brisk and not quite deferential.

All the way forward was where Trader 1049 most resembled the pirate vessel. There was more space between decks, and the fittings were more elegant and luxurious. Fers knocked on compartment doors before entering; he hadn’t noticed that before. Occupied compartments yielded raised eyebrows and other puzzled expressions; Peters was addressed matter-of-factly by several people, and his failure to respond had to be explained each time. That slowed them down, and in more than one case he caught movement out of the corner of an eye as a ferassi they’d spoken to left his compartment to confer with another.

Forward and below was the weapons bay, which held half a dozen breakbeam generators and a store of the thin cylindrical objects that had puzzled them on the pirate ship. Fers used a word in his language to describe them. «There’s no word in the Trade for these, because we don’t sell them; they’re incredibly rare. They’re alive, or so we suppose.»

«Oh? What do they do?»

«When launched they always hit their target,» Fers said seriously. «If there is something in view when they emerge they’ll follow it, and they never fail to catch up. They carry a charge of explosive, and are extremely destructive.»

Peters opened his mouth to talk about guided missiles, then changed his mind and said only, «Remarkable.»

«Yes, it is,» Fers agreed. «And as I said, they’re incredibly rare. We’d like to have more of them, of course, but we never get them, so they’re only to be used as an absolute last resort.»

«I can see that.» Idiots! A weapons system they’re trained not to use? I reckon we ought to be thankful. Zifthkakik-driven missiles could’ve been a real problem, an’ that’s a fact.

A ferassi had come in while they were looking over the missiles; he gestured and said something. Fers responded, then turned to Peters: «It would appear that Horsig has returned from his mission. We are required in the office of the ul’ptarze, the First of the ship.»

Peters nodded. «Show the way.»

Fers gestured at the newcomer. «This is ptarze Brendik Jons, Second for ship-management. Ptarze Jons, this is–» he hesitated a beat «–ze Peters, of whom you may have heard. Ze Peters doesn’t speak Language, but he knows the Trade very well.»

Peters had a hunch. «Ptarze Jons,» he said briskly, accompanying it with a slight nod.

The other nodded back, cracking the most minimal smile possible, and spoke in his own language. Fers responded, and the officer–had to be, Peters was almost homesick–spoke at some length. «What is your rank, ze Peters?» he asked when he’d finished conferring with the junior officer.

«I am a zerkre of the third precedence of Llapaaloapalla, ptarze Jons.»

The officer was blond; his nearly invisible eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. «So you do know what the suit pattern means,» he said with a trace of incredulity. «The reports were difficult to credit.» He spoke at some length to Fers, who pronounced a short phrase ending with «–ptarze Jons,» then gestured quickly, palm forward, hand over his mouth. The officer responded with a similar gesture of his own, sketchier, and looked expectantly at Peters.

Peters nodded, received a nod in return, and the officer turned and left, with a parting sentence aimed at Fers. He thought he’d caught something familiar in that, and asked, «What did he say at the last?»

Fers produced one of his thin smiles. «Ptarze Jons says that my tame human has better manners than any trader-Grallt of his experience. Ul’ptarze Troy may be less unhappy than expected.»

“When the cap’n ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” Peters murmured to himself. When Fers looked up, with a puzzled expression on his face, he explained: «An appropriate aphorism in my language, probably untranslatable. Are we to see the ul’ptarze now?»

«Yes. He is waiting, with Horsig and the other agents.»

Peters grimaced. «Then let us go, by all means. We shouldn’t keep the captain waiting.»

* * *

The ul’ptarze of Trader 1049 received them in a compartment just aft of the control deck. Peters got a glimpse of a row of chairs facing large transparencies, similar to what he’d seen on the pirate ship if larger and in rather better order, before being ushered in to the Presence by a Grallt who stood by the door. The guard had one of the push-force weapons, on a harness like a Sam Browne belt, and a rigidly neutral expression. Peters acknowledged him with a nod as he passed, thinking, Been there, done that.

The room was about six meters by seven, and contained a pair of settees with a low table between them, a higher table surrounded by carved wooden chairs, and an ordinary-looking desk. Ptarze Jons occupied one of the chairs before the desk, and Chuckles–Horsig–and another Grallt stood to one side.

A woman with a tumble of glossy black curls down her back sat facing away from the entry. She looked up, displaying a profile as nearly perfect as possible on a living person and a distant, almost absent expression. It occurred to Peters that this was the first young-adult female ferassi he had seen. He’d noticed several matrons and older women in the ferassi berthing area, and an inordinate number of families seemed to have nubile teenagers, but until now he hadn’t seen a woman of an age to be interesting to, say, himself.

Elisin Troy was blond, as his Ops Officer was, but neither of them was of the heavyset body type exhibited by the pirates. The ul’ptarze didn’t rise as they entered, just regarded them over hands folded in front as if in prayer. Fredik Fers stepped forward and rendered the hand-before-mouth salute. Peters contented himself with a nod; rendering the Navy salute would imply using his Navy rank, and that would put him at a considerable disadvantage.

The ul’ptarze returned the salute with a negligent wave that ended with a little wiggle of the fingers. «I understand you don’t speak our language,» he began. «We will use the Trade language. Please be seated–» he hesitated «–ipze Peters, and you, too, ipze Fers.» Troy returned to his prayerlike pose as they seated themselves. «It seemed appropriate to use your equivalent rank, rather than the simple ‘ze’ we would normally accord a visitor of unknown status. Do you object?»

«Not at all, ul’ptarze Troy. I don’t know your terms and procedures of formal respect, and hope you will be tolerant. Be sure that I mean no disrespect should I err.»

Troy’s smile was slight but genuinely amused. «We will make allowances. You have met ptarze Jons. The female is de’ze Ander Korwits. De’ze Korwits does not speak the Trade, but her presence here is necessary, as she is–hm.» He considered for a moment, eyes distant, then glanced at her before looking back at Peters. «De’ze Korwits advises us on proper conduct; I can’t explain it better without using words that don’t exist in the Trade language.»

«De’ze Korwits,» Peters acknowledged with a nod. The woman was beautiful, no doubt about it, with large clear-green eyes under winged brows, a smooth pale complexion, and symmetrically, even perfectly, formed features, but the beautiful face betrayed no hint of emotional involvement in the conversation. When she turned slightly to nod, returning Peters’s greeting, her gaze might as well have been directed at the bulkhead, or a star several light-years distant … not cold, or even abstracted; utterly dispassionate. He looked away quickly.

Troy produced another minimal smile. «Now, as I understand it, you give your race as khuma and your home planet as ‘Erth’; is that correct?»

«Approximately, ul’ptarze–»

«’Ze Troy’ is sufficient in normal conversation, once the initial courtesies have been exchanged,» the captain supplied.

Peters nodded. «Thank you, ze Troy. As I said, you have it approximately correctly. The word for our race in our language is human, and the plural is humans. The vowel in the name of our home planet is more extended: ‘Earth’.»

«Earth,» Troy pronounced, with a movement of his lips and tongue as if tasting the word. «Human. And where is planet ‘Earth’ to be found?»

«I don’t know,» Peters admitted. When the captain lifted his eyebrow he continued, «When we left Earth I was not involved in ship operation and therefore had no opportunity to observe. I am not a navigator or a student of the arrangement of stars in any case.»

«So you couldn’t return to Earth on your own, even if you had the means or perhaps our assistance?»

«No.» He hadn’t thought of that before. It was a little disquieting.

Ul’ptarze Troy leaned forward, tenting his hands once more. «And how did you come to be aboard a Grallt trade ship in the first instance?»

«The Grallt appeared in our skies and began trade negotiations,» Peters began, and related as much of the sequence as he knew. As he did so, he realized just how little of it he’d actually been informed about. «The Traders asked for advisers of little precedence, to assist in the work of preparing to receive the principal delegation,» he concluded. «My associate and I were selected from among the volunteers for that duty.»

«And you have been aboard for approximately two and eight zul?»

«Yes, that’s approximately correct.»

«That’s hard to believe,» Jons interjected. «It isn’t possible that you learned the language so quickly.»

Peters shrugged. «It’s scarcely credible to me. Most of my associates have had great difficulty; fewer than one in ten can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ appropriately.»

Troy waved the ptarze down. «So among your own people you have ‘little precedence’,» he quoted. «What is your actual level of precedence among your own people?»

Peters thought for a moment, then sighed. Might as well be honest about it… «We use two structures. One is more or less parallel to the Grallt system or what I know of yours, and is called officer. The second is considered subordinate to the first, and is called enlisted; the Grallt have no similar system. I am of the fifth precedence in the enlisted system, out of one and eight possible levels.»

Ander Korwits said something. It sounded negligent and bored, but Elisin Troy cut off his line of questioning immediately and explained at length to her unresponsive face. The ul’ptarze then focused again on Peters: «I have explained to de’ze Korwits what we have discussed up to now. She finds it difficult to credit, but before we follow that line of thought I would like to clarify something. Your precedence is quite low among your own people, among khuman. Why do you claim higher status from your association with the Grallt?»

«I am faced with strangers of unknown status; naturally I claim the highest precedence I can legitimately assert.» Peters gestured at himself, indicating the suit pattern. «This is quite genuine, I assure you.»

Jons said «Pahp!» It sounded disgusted, which didn’t seem to follow, but the officer didn’t continue.

«Perhaps Horsig’s investigations can confirm or deny your assertions,» Troy observed with one of his thin smiles. «Horsig, what can you tell us?»

The two Grallt had been standing in a posture of alert ease during the conversation; they had not been offered chairs, and hadn’t taken them on their own. Horsig stepped forward a half-pace, and said, «Yes, ul’ptarze Troy. Shall I continue in the Trade, or report in Language?»

Troy waved negligently. «This man is either an honored guest or destined for confinement. In the first case he should hear your report; in the second it doesn’t matter. Speak the Trade, by all means.»

«Yes, ul’ptarze Troy.» Horsig glanced at Peters. «In the interest of expedition I took it upon myself to modify my orders,» he began. «I substituted Kheer for Doob, since Kheer is an experienced investigator and Doob is not. I decided that Kheer and I would proceed to Llapaaloapalla together, where I would remain to make inquiries while Kheer continued Down to check conditions there.»

«I consider that commendable initiative,» Troy told him. «Continue, please.»

«Thank you, ul’ptarze Troy,» the Grallt said with a deep nod. «With your permission, Kheer will summarize his findings first.»

Troy nodded, and Kheer stepped forward and nodded deeply. «To summarize: I discovered nothing that would contradict ze Peters’s story as I have heard it from Horsig and overheard here, and much that would tend to confirm it. Do you wish further details?»

«Yes. Succinctly.» Troy steepled his hands again.

Kheer nodded again. «I will try, ul’ptarze Troy… I was informed that a group of people, called by themselves ‘khuma‘ or something similar, was in residence, with a small number of Grallt sharing the experience. The group consisted of two subgroups: one of somewhat fewer than a square of persons, with status so exalted they neither dealt directly with the staff nor spoke to anyone, and a second group of three squares of persons. This second group was characterized as boisterous and exuberant, tending to extremes of behavior in some cases, but overall cheerful, cooperative, cleanly about their persons, and caring of the facilities. My informant considered them near-ideal guests.»

«Osfer and enlista, I would presume,» Troy observed.

«I did not hear those terms or any recognizable cognates, ul’ptarze Troy.»

«Never mind. Continue, please.»

«I took up a position where I might observe a group of the khuma at their recreation.» Kheer looked at Peters, then back at his commander. «Several of them enjoyed a game with a large ball. All were skimpily clothed or wearing airsuits. Strictly by physiology, I would have classed them as ferassi males in early to middle adulthood, except that–» he paused, spared Peters another glance «–there was a much larger variation in skin color and details of facial structure than in an equal-sized group of ferassi, ul’ptarze Troy.»

«How do you mean?»

«The bulk of the individuals had complexions darker than any ferassi I have seen–»

«Ridiculous,» Jons interjected. «Any ferassi exposed to starlight at the intensities found on a planetary surface will become dark. You are balancing shadows, Kheer.»

The Grallt looked apprehensive, and glanced from Peters to Troy and back again. Then he nodded deeply. «With all respect, ptarze Jons, I am familiar with the effect. One of the individuals I noted was such a dark brown as to be nearly black, with facial features much flatter and broader than found on any ferassi of my experience. The individual in question was wearing only a skimpy garment about the loins. I stand by my assessment, with all respect.»

Troy waved a hand. «Let him finish,» he said a little irritably. «We asked for his report. We should hear it.»

«Yes, ze Troy,» Jons said, a little abashed, and subsided. Peters chanced to glance at Ander Korwits, and surprised an actual expression on her face, so minimal as to be difficult to read, but seemingly alarm and a certain degree of interest. She looked away quickly, recovering her impassionate mien. Apparently ul’ptarze Troy was capable of making the nice distinction between ‘does not’ and ‘cannot’.

«Did you speak to any of the khuma?» Troy asked the Grallt.

«No, ul’ptarze Troy, I did not. I attempted to do so, of course, but the most coherent reply I received was a fair rendition of ‘I don’t speak the Trade’. The khuma seemed to communicate by signs and a few words, but most of their needs were met by the few Grallt among them. I spoke with one such, a very attractive young woman called Se’en, who was keeping close company with a khuma whose name I believe was ‘Jacks’. If both had been either khuma or Grallt, I would have assumed them a mated pair–»

«Disgusting notion,» Jons growled, then subsided again at a peremptory wave from his CO.

Kheer nodded again. «Se’en confirmed that there were, or had been, two, eight, and three squares of khuma in the second group, and that one of those was called ‘Peters’ or sometimes ‘Peteris’ by the Grallt. She had a high opinion of ‘Peteris’. According to her, this individual learned the Trade in an incredibly short period of time, and had rendered assistance to the zerkre of Llapaaloapalla to the point of being granted precedence higher than her own, which she considered well deserved.» Kheer spread his hands, somehow submissively. «There is more, ul’ptarze Troy, but all confirmative or corroborative of the main points. Do you care to hear it?»

«No, that’s enough.» The Grallt nodded again, and this time Troy returned it with a short decisive jerk. «Good report, Kheer.»

«Ul’ptarze Troy,» Kheer murmured, and stepped back to his former stance.

«Horsig, your turn,» Troy commanded.

The senior Grallt stepped forward and nodded. «Yes, ul’ptarze Troy. The information I received expands upon and corroborates that obtained by Kheer, except for two points, one of which the human may not have wished to advertise, and one which Kheer might not have heard. What is your pleasure, ul’ptarze Troy?»

«Details of the two points, Horsig.»

«At your pleasure, ul’ptarze Troy… First, Llapaaloapalla experienced an attack by the dar ptith a half-zul ago. The attack was beaten off by the courage, abilities, and equipment of the human, with casualties.»

«Aha… and the second point?»

Horsig glanced at Peters. «The individual called ‘Peteris’ was attacked by a gang of hoodlums. He and his companion dispatched their attackers rather handily, by the account I was given, but Peteris disappeared shortly thereafter, and is still missing.»

<<< Chapter Thirty-Seven Chapter Thirty-Nine >>>

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