Warnocki had come up while he and Heelinig were talking, obviously to ask a question, but something had changed in Peters. Maybe it was the fact that he was only Navy on a technicality now, maybe it was the sight of Todd with a spear through his heart; he’d felt the change between two heartbeats, looking at his reflection in a spaceship windshield, and while he still used the proper forms of address it was perfunctory, habit. He’d been talking business with the XO, not on equal terms but professionally; Chiefs could wait.

“Did you find out whether the Grallt have any welders we can use?” Warnocki asked when he had the chance.

“Yes, I did, and no, they ain’t, Chief. The only welders on Llapaaloapalla are the ones we brought with us.”

Warnocki grimaced. “It’s gonna be tough.”

What they proposed to do was cut the ferassi ship up into sections and haul it into the dark unoccupied section above the berthing compartments. Given the size and mass of it, that was about like deciding to keep a destroyer for a souvenir, but Bolton was adamant, Warnocki enthusiastic, and Joshua dubious and cupidous by turns, and Peters was going along. He’d pointed out that there was no access to that area from the ops bay; Tollison had grinned, glanced at the overhead, and said in a good imitation of Peters’s accent, “Reckon where do they want one?” He was up there now, in the bucket lift, dribbling sparks on the deck along a piece of overhead as wide as the space between the beams and thirty meters long.

“Can we get oxygen and some kind of gas?” Warnocki persisted. “All we’ve got to cut with are the LIGs, and we’ll be out of wire before we’re done here.”

“Nope.” Warnocki obviously found that hard to believe, as did Peters. Incredibly, the Grallt had no, repeat no, stores of compressed gases. They did have sizeable stores of water–most of the section below the engine rooms was water tanks–and if they needed atmosphere they simply electrolyzed it, using the never-ending energy from the zifthkakik. Filler gases like nitrogen they’d never paid attention to, although Lindalu the supply supervisor had had an aha! experience. «Maybe that’s why people get silly and crazy when the air is lost and has to be replaced,» he’d suggested, and Peters could only nod and turn away.

“This is gonna take a while with hacksaws and chisels,” Warnocki warned. “Do we have that much time?”

“Probably not. It’s gotta be done before we go Down to Jivver.” Peters glanced up at the side of the ship, all eighteen meters of it. “Could we use the lasers to whack off big pieces, and use welders to cut those up? We know the lasers’ll cut it.”

“Probably.” Warnocki followed Peters’s gaze, then looked down. “Trouble is, they don’t collimate down fine enough. There’s lots of interesting stuff on board. Hate to chop any of it up because we’re in too big a hurry.”

All that was true enough. The ship’s zifthkakik–it had two, side by side near midships–were almost straight-sided like a pressure tank, and instead of being bright plated were the shiny dark of black chrome. They weren’t exactly transparent, but a strong light behind them revealed shadowy shapes. The breakbeam generators were similar, but what had the enlisted sailors and some of the pilots intrigued, to say the least, was that they would most likely be immune to whatever force the ferassi had used to disable the Grallt equipment.

The ferassi had detected and run them down in High Phase, where all logic dictated that they should be the next best thing to invisible. Mannix, Schott, and the other electronic types had identified the subsystem they thought had possibilities in that direction, a set of vanes ten centimeters across and thirty long set in the top and bottom surfaces near the bow; each had a lump like a miniature zifthkakik embedded in the bottom. They were nowhere close to figuring out how they worked, even to the point of turning them on, if they weren’t already.

The nav instruments were different and more complex. The control panel featured switches and indicators that had no parallel on any of the other ships Peters had seen, including the bridge of Llapaaloapalla. The heads flushed automatically, no big trick, but the sensors weren’t IR; they responded to humans and Grallt, but not to any nonliving substitute. The weapons bay under the “chin” held two dozen long thin objects with what looked like reaction nozzles; if they were missiles, why hadn’t they launched them?

All the written materials aboard were in the ferassi language, blocky characters that looked a little like Cyrillic, as different from Grallt as a written language could be; if there were operating manuals and circuit diagrams aboard they were useless. The ferassi ship was a prize, all right. Now to hold on to it.

“Look out below!” came to their ears via both atmosphere and earbug, and the section of overhead Tollison had been cutting fell to the deck with a clang louder than anything Peters had heard before, bar the breakbeam that had killed Todd. The big blond sailor began lowering the bucket lift, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, and Peters and Warnocki shared looks.

After a bit of that Warnocki shrugged. “What we’ve got is what we’ve got,” he said. “What we have to do is be smart using it.”

«We should go,» Heelinig commented. «Veedal is expecting us.»

“Chief, you’re gonna have to excuse me. Me’n Heelinig’ve got an appointment.”

“I see.” Warnocki regarded him steadily. “You got a minute? Something I need to chat about.”

Pause. “Let me tell her.” When Warnocki nodded he told the Grallt, «We have a little business to conduct. Go ahead, if you don’t mind, and I’ll see you in a few tle.»

«Not a problem.» Heelinig nodded, but didn’t take herself off, just stepped aside and waited.

Warnocki gave her a look. “You know, I’m just now starting to realize that that’s a good-looking woman.”

Peters grimaced. “Yeah. What’cha need, Chief?”

Warnocki took a deep breath. “Peters, you’re a Second Class with ten years of service, and I shouldn’t have to say this, but you do not, you simply do not, tell a Senior Chief you’ve got business and just walk off. It doesn’t matter much to me, but your attitude the last couple of days is about to send the Master Chief into orbit.”

Peters didn’t even flinch. “Chief, you got any idea what the date is?”

“Not exactly. I figure it’s end of June, first of July, somewhere in there.”

“Good estimatin’, Chief. ‘Cordin’ to my handheld it’s the eighth of July, 2055.”

“Fine. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well, Chief, I joined up in April of 2045, walked down out of the hills and hitched a ride to Huntington. When I shipped over in 2047 I took the option to do the whole eight years active so I’d get the double bonus. I liked the life, and besides Granpap was sick and needed the cash for doctorin’.”

“So your ETS date is–”

“Was, Chief. Seventeenth of April.”

“Three months ago. I think I see where this is going.”

Peters nodded. “That good-lookin’ woman you was just complimentin’ is the Executive Officer, as we’d count it. She come to my new quarters for dinner, call it ‘last night’. You heard about my new quarters?”

“Yeah. It was part of what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m not sure it’s appropriate for a member of the detachment to take separate quarters.”

“Am I a member of the detachment, Chief? That ain’t what my orders say, it’s one of th’ things that got me crosswise with Chief Joshua in the first place.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I thought not. Me’n Todd got orders to Llapaaloapalla, not to the detachment. Dreelig detailed us to work with the rest of you, but Prethuvenigis could cancel that any time you like.”

“Might not be a bad idea. Get it on paper.”

“Hunh. Anyway, Heelinig’s around forty an’ got two kids, she ain’t interested in romance, this was more in the way of a housewarmin’. Dhuvenig was there, and the Captain stopped by for a minute. So did Prethuvenigis and a couple of his people, and some folks from the Engineerin’ Department I get on with. We had ourselves a right nice party.”

“I’m sure you did. So?”

“So I was late gettin’ there. I reckon you know why.” Warnocki looked at him, and Peters nodded, and grinned with more than a bit of irony. “Yep. I spent a quarter of an hour standin’ at parade rest with my hat on, listenin’ to Master Chief Joshua chew me out for assumin’ above my ratin’ and outside my rate, by talkin’ on the radio to the airplane drivers.”

“I knew the Master Chief was put out–”

“Yeah. Well, Chief, you can pass the word, that shit has just come to an end.” Warnocki regarded him steadily, and Peters grimaced again and went on, “The situation ain’t real clear. If we was aboard a Navy ship and out of contact with the World, ain’t no question, I’d still be in the Navy and subject to orders ’til we got back to port and somebody cut separation papers, right?”

“Right, but–”

“Yeah, but… if we was in port, or somewhere within reach of a civilian facility, I could just ask for separation there. The Navy’d owe me time and a half on my base pay and transportation home, right?”

“Right… shipping over is not an option you’re considering, I take it.”

“Hunh… ain’t no way the Navy can buy me a ticket home, and I don’t think Bolton could sign my separation orders if he wanted to. So here’s the way it is, Chief.” Peters took a deep breath. “You post a watch bill with me on it, you’ll find me there, in proper uniform and walkin’ my post in a military manner. Comes a duty stint, you’ll find me at my station and executin’ my duties best I know how. You got somethin’ else for me, you tell me what it is and I’ll hop. But I have moved out of the enlisted quarters and I ain’t goin’ back. Stop by if you’ve a mind to. Your name’s Edward, ain’t it?”

“Yeah.” Warnocki looked up, the ghost of a grin quirking the left side of his mouth. “I generally go by ‘Ed’.”

“And I’m John.” Warnocki nodded, accepting that and the implications, and Peters continued, “But I do not care to speak to Master Chief Petty Officer Leon Joshua now or at any time in the foreseeable future, and the next time he wants to call me on the carpet he can use the mirror in the head instead.”

“He’s not going to like that.”

“Foamin’ at the mouth’s more like it, don’t you reckon?”

Warnocki’s mouth quirked again. “Probably.”

“All right… he’s likely to think of writin’ me up, and if he don’t, Commander Bolton might. If they do that, you tell ’em I ain’t gonna stand a Summary, and there ain’t nobody on board impartial enough to sit a General Court. Write it up an’ I’ll sign it, and we’ll sort it out when we get back to Mayport or whatever.”

“Absent without leave?”

“Or insubordination, or any of half a dozen things.” Peters bit his lip. “I ain’t lawyer enough to know what they’re likely to think of.”

“They might try to make it treason.”

“‘Clingin’ to our enemies, givin’ ’em aid and comfort’,” Peters quoted. “Aid and comfort’s about right, Chief, but you reckon the folks back home’re gonna be anxious to call people who can fly in space enemies? The spooks are another story, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”

“You may have burned it already,” Warnocki mused. When Peters nodded at that, he took a deep breath and looked at him straight on before continuing, “All right, I’ll pass the word. I may soften it some. I don’t want to give Chief Joshua a heart attack.”

“Nor me, but if it happens I can find him freezer space.”

“That’s cold.”

“There was room for Todd. I just don’t give a shit any more, Chief.” He thumbed his buckle, pulled the belt off, and fiddled with the controls. His suit began fading from Navy blue to its default light tan. “I’ll see you later, Chief. I’ve got zifthkakik watch third ande, but right now I got business with the XO, and I need to get as much of it done as I can before I go on watch.” By the time he was done speaking his suit had taken on the blue-and-white zerkre pattern.

Warnocki spread his hands and shrugged, but didn’t speak, and Peters turned. «Let’s go,» he suggested to Heelinig, who had stood by, watching, as he and the Chief conferred.

«Yes…. what was that about?»

«There’s some question about my status. The situation can’t be fully clarified for some time; there are several others whose input is important. This was a preliminary discussion.»

«Your status with us is clear,» she told him, smiling a little.

«I’m grateful that something is… for now, something that was said earlier has suggested a concept to me. Can we speak to Dhuvenig? If there’s one thing we have a sufficiency of aboard Llapaaloapalla it’s labor, and if there are enough hacksaw blades on board….»

* * *

Peters chose the east-facing bedroom and carefully closed the door to the other. Not having Todd at his elbow felt strange–the blond sailor would’ve been remarking on the forested valley filled with light and shadow, or the luxury of the room, while checking how the light switches worked–but at the same time it was as if somebody had opened a door, or taken down a fence. Todd had enjoyed the sights and experiences, but the thought that he might not be able to go back had worried him badly. Without that pressure, Peters occasionally sweated a bit at the memory of chewing out a Senior Chief, but still felt… relieved. Standing on a precipice, wondering if he knew how to fly. He had begun to suspect that he’d do better than anyone had expected, including himself.

«Get a nice place,» he’d been instructed. «You can afford it.» He’d done that. The suite was done in pale greens and golds, with filmy curtains drawn back from wood-sashed windows and little knicknacks here and there. A sideboard of polished blond wood with swirly grain bore a glass carafe of purple liquid and glasses on a doily marked with a glyph that meant “drinkable”. He poured a glass and tasted it. Mint and a hint of violets… he’d been in the Navy before he was old enough to buy alcohol legally, and had developed a sailor’s habits, teetotal at sea and binge on shore. This was too good to binge on. He held it up to the light to examine the color, then took another sip.

Knock! knock! came from the door, two short raps. «Enter at will,» he said loudly, the Grallt formula for “come in,” without turning, and listened as the door mechanism worked.

«This is very pleasant,» said Prethuvenigis. «The view reminds me of your home planet.»

«That’s because the trees are green,» Peters observed. «Have you tried this? I consider it quite palatable.»

«No, but I will.» He took the glass, waited as Peters poured, and took a sip. «You’re correct, that’s certainly taken from the higher order squares. Aren’t you concerned about biochemical effects?»

«I have to eat and drink, after all. Perhaps I am a fatalist.»

«I don’t think so.»

«Actually, I hadn’t considered it.» He sipped again, then looked at the glass in his hand. «Perhaps I’m a fatalist after all.»

Prethuvenigis chuckled, deep glottal stops that had sounded like choking when he first heard it. «We should not indulge much before the meeting,» the Trader observed. «Are you ready?»

«I suppose so. When is the meeting scheduled?»

«At half-afternoon, about four utle from now. We are almost ten llor behind our planned schedule, so it took some time to make the arrangements.»

«Will our late arrival occasion any remark?»

«No, the best of schedules can only be a hope. Navigation can never be absolutely precise, and events frequently supervene.» The trader smiled wryly. «In the normal case we’re obliged to wait for the ferassi. Perhaps it’s well that they wait for us this time.»

«Yes… Heelinig said their ship was in orbit.»

«I received the same information.» The trader looked out over the landscape, swirling liquid in his glass. «It is likely that the Grallt we have been calling ‘ferassi’ are here,» he said thoughtfully. «We now know more of the truth of that, don’t we?»

«Yes, and they don’t know that we know,» Peters agreed.

«With care and a modicum of good fortune that condition could obtain for some time.»

Care. Well, they’d cautioned everyone in the strongest terms to keep their mouths shut, and that might hold for a while. A little luck, and two hundred sailors and as many Grallt, with hacksaws. Well, a hundred and eighty-eight sailors, since five were gone and seven were still in the infirmary, but a man with a broken leg can take notes while another beeps out wiring.

«I don’t quite understand what you hope to accomplish by my presence,» Peters admitted.

«At the minimum I hope to unsettle them.» Prethuvenigis smiled again. «It’s a basic principle of trading that the other party should be made as unsure of himself as possible. Confused people make bad deals.»

«I have been the confused one in several such encounters… do you think they will be fooled?»

«Not for an antle. Besides, we will make no such representation. We will present you as precisely what you are: human, from the planet Earth, very far from here.»

Peters nodded. «Have you any idea just how far it is? I’ve been wondering, but haven’t thought to ask one of the zerkre.»

«No. I’m sure they keep careful records of that sort of thing, but for me and the other traders it is only important how long it will take to get from place to place.»

«Does anyone study the stars and their arrangements? It occurs to me that I don’t know the Trade word for a person engaged in such a study.»

«I suppose they must.» Prethuvenigis shrugged. «They get us from place to place with minimal problems, after all.»

«Yes. I’ll inquire of Dhuvenig. Perhaps he knows how such things are done.»

«Dhuvenig?»

«The Engineering Officer of Llapaaloapalla. You met him in the incident with the retarders.»

«Yes, I know who you mean… We should go down. I’ve reserved a room for our meeting, and we should check to see that all is in order.»

Peters nodded. «And I should stop by and see that Gell is settling in properly. That will only take a moment.»

Prethuvenigis frowned and looked sidelong at Peters. «Now it is my turn to fail to be fully cognizant of all that is being planned. Why did you insist that Gell stay with us? It’s an unnecessary expense. He could have gone back to the ship and returned when we were done.»

«My concepts are perhaps not fully formed,» Peters confessed. «With us, a person who has a ship and operator at his immediate disposal is successful and therefore powerful. I thought to see if a similar prejudice might obtain here. At the most basic level, I am simply pulling strings to see what may be tangled in the ends.» He quirked the corner of his mouth. «It is a human procedure, I believe. Has anyone told you of the act Dreelig and Dee used at our suggestion?»

«No, I don’t believe so.»

A description of Donollo and the “President of Mars Act” occupied them as they descended a wide, carpeted stairway to the main level of the hotel. Prethuvenigis chuckled at several points but offered no comment, and they counted doors along a corridor. Someone was waiting, a tall Grallt male in a yellow and white tunic and trousers outfit. «Pleasant greetings,» Prethuvenigis offered. «Are you the representative of the ferassi?»

The newcomer’s eyes widened slightly, but he made no overt reaction and ignored the salute. «Yes, I am. Are you from Trade Ship Llapaaloapalla

«We are. I am Prethuvenigis, Chief Trader, and this is my associate Peteris.» The trader frowned. «Are we late? We had understood the meeting would take place some several utle later.»

«No, you are not late. I have come to inform you that the meeting will be delayed, and may not in fact take place. You may return to your ship if you like. We will send a messenger when we are ready.»

«This is not acceptable,» Peters said briskly, trying to project an air of total self-confidence. «Arrangements by mutual convenience are one thing, but we have affairs of our own, and don’t wish to sit idly by awaiting your attention. Are your seniors available?» He frowned; before the other could respond he went on. «And how may we address you? ‘Hey you’ may be appropriate, but it is hardly polite.»

The stranger stiffened. «I am called Gool.»

«Appropriate,» said Peters as drily as he could manage, and deliberately did not explain his remark, which was likely to be quite opaque. «May we speak to your superiors? We wish to register a protest at this one-sided alteration of the scheduled order of affairs.»

«My superiors are aboard ship,» Gool admitted. «I was sent Down to inform you.»

«We have transportation available at no notice,» Peters remarked. «We can return with you to your ship if you like, and meet with your superiors there.»

«No!» Gool said, then took thought. «That is not acceptable,» he said stiffly. «Affairs will go as I have outlined.»

«And that is not acceptable to us.» Peters folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe, a picture of ease; Prethuvenigis stood by, face immobile, body language not easy. «When may we have some notion of the schedule?» Peters asked in a deliberately casual tone. «We can disport ourselves here for some time, but after all our lives are not unlimited in duration.»

«I don’t know,» Gool confessed. «I only know what I have told you already.»

«Find out,» Peters instructed, in the voice he would have used to tell a seaman apprentice to swab out a head. «Prethuvenigis is in room five-dash-two, and I am in three-one-two on the same level. How long will it take you?»

«Again, I don’t know,» said Gool. His body language had gone from stiffly erect to slightly hunched.

«Do you have a way to ask immediately?»

«No. I must wait until the dli returns.»

“Shit,” Peters contradicted. He reached into his pocket, took out an earbug, and screwed it into his ear, adjusting the pickup. “Gell, we’ve got a situation here,” he drawled. “You up for a trip about now?” Pause. “Yeah, the folks we’re here to meet are draggin’ their feet… first level, down by the meetin’ rooms. You’ll see us from the lobby… right.” He extracted the little radio, put it away, and grinned at Prethuvenigis. “See how handy that is?”

«Is that a communicator of some sort?» Gool asked suspiciously.

Peters ignored that. «Our ship operator will arrive in a few moments. He will take you back to your ship so that you may ask what the schedule is to be. Will you want him to wait, or can you find your own way back here?»

«No! This is not acceptable!»

«Nor is it ideal for us,» Peters pointed out. «We had intended to use the dli for a few llor of relaxation, visiting the points of interest. Now we must give it up to ferry underlings about, but it’s better than standing around waiting to be taken notice of.»

«I am not authorized to do this,» Gool wailed.

«Imagine our concern,» Peters said, so flatly the other winced. «Ah. Here is our ship operator.»

“Hey, Peters,” said Gell as he came up, with the arm-lifted salute. “This why you teach me English?”

“Naw, but it can be handy, can’t it?” He grinned. “Mind takin’ a little trip?”

“Reckon not.” Gell looked the stranger over. “He don’t look like much.”

“He ain’t much. Just a flunky.” Peters switched to the Trade: «Gell, I introduce Gool, a low-precedence representative of the ferassi. He needs transportation back to his ship, so that we may determine what the delay is and what the new schedule will be. Gool, Gell will deliver you to your ship. If you think the business can be concluded quickly he can wait.»

«No,» Gool said, looking and sounding trapped. «No, it wouldn’t be that quick in the best of cases. I or another will return later.»

«Soon, or so I hope. Be off with you.» Peters waved idly. “Gell, you might take along a pencil and paper, make a few notes, y’know? And certain events of the recent past ain’t for discussion, if you take my meanin’.”

“Yeah, no prob,” said Gell with a wink. «Let us go,» he said to Gool. «I was about to take a meal, and I want to get this over with.»

«Yes,» Gool said dully.

«This way,» Gell told him in a brisk tone, and took him by the upper arm to escort him off. Gool went without enthusiasm but without a struggle, and the pilot threw a flash of grin over his shoulder as they left the hall.

«You took a rather stronger line than I might have in this situation,» Prethuvenigis remarked without particular emphasis. «Overawing underlings is not a particularly difficult exercise.»

“Hmph.” Peters straightened from his deliberately idle pose and released his tension in a spate of English: “No, browbeatin’ peons ain’t real useful, but when the whole thing’s stuck, you push on the bits you can get at and hope for somethin’ to wiggle. I reckon Gool done wiggled a little.”

«Kh kh kh!» Prethuvenigis laughed full-throated, like a fifty-caliber letting off a burst. “Yes, our friend Gool has certainly wiggled. Whatever happens, this is almost certain to be entertaining.”

“Entertainment may be all we get,” Peters observed sourly. “From the way he acts I reckon Mr. Gool ain’t got much horsepower.”

“I fear you’re right.” Prethuvenigis smiled and went back to the Trade: «Gell mentioned food. Since we won’t be having a meeting, a meal would be a good way to pass the time.»

«Yes… Let’s check the restaurant here,» Peters agreed with a nod. «From what I saw as we approached, the surrounding area seems not to offer much in the way of amenities.»

<<< Chapter Thirty-Four Chapter Thirty-Six >>>

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