Two years ago Peters had never heard of a spaceship, outside of vid recordings and old science programs. Actually driving one–piloting, flying, whatever the right verb was–hadn’t even been a real dream. If he’d been told then that he’d be operating a real live space ship he’d have called the teller an idiot. If whoever it was had added that he’d be towing a second one to berth it on yet a third, he’d have snorted and left the conversation.
If they’d added that he’d be doing it with trace chains he’d have been tempted to hit somebody.
Getting across the interface between zero gee outside and normal gravity inside at near-zero speed was tricky; that was why they usually approached with way on. That wasn’t practical now, because the ferassi ship would just fit–they’d measured–with a couple of meters clearance, and it was too massive for the freight haulers to get up to speed with any kind of control. All three of them working together could manage to move it–Hell, a kid with a rope could have moved it, given a place to stand–but getting it lined up right was a bitch.
«Approaching the entrance,» said Vredig over the earbug. She was at top left; Peters was top right, wearing blue-and-white on his kathir suit, which left Gell, the most experienced ship operator stupid enough to volunteer for this evolution, the tricky bottom middle position, which had to guide the other two.
«Take it slow,» Gell said. «Crossing the interface now.»
«Yes,» Peters acknowledged, and heard Vredig’s «yes» on its heels. This would have been impossible without the earbugs, but they had spares.
At least five of them.
Gell’s ship dipped its nose and sagged alarmingly toward the deck, but he corrected in time, creeping into the ops bay. The chain behind him–oh, yes; a real steel chain, heavier than the ones Granpap had used for snaking logs down out of the woods but otherwise identical, with links about five centimeters long–sagged oddly, the section immediately behind the ship dropping down, the rest of it bar-straight. «Now it’s our turn,» Vredig advised. «Be careful.»
«Yes,» Peters acknowledged. The bow started to dip; he caressed the andli, bringing it up a bit, and fed in a little lift.
Most of the sailors caught by the wreckage of 205 when it sailed up the bay, crashing against the pilaster beams and spinning all the way to the bow door, were more or less injured, ranging from mild abrasions to broken legs. Five hadn’t been so lucky, catching big pieces in vulnerable places, the kathir suits doing their best but simply overloaded.
He was through now, into the gravity of the ops bay, and guys with wands were directing him. He concentrated on feeding gentle motions into the control, and on staying out of the beams of the overhead. The next thing would be getting the bow of the ferassi ship through the opening, and that was likely to be fun.
Five bodies, wrapped in regulation U. S. military green body-bags, now reposed in an unused freezer in the farm section below the ops bay, waiting for return to their home soil.
Including Todd, God damnit.
The Hornet had come apart like a plastic model dropped on the sidewalk, and Todd had caught a structural piece, a long chunk of milled aluminum with a slight curve to it, straight through the chest from back to front, bits of insulation material hanging from the end like the decoration on some barbaric spear. Peters hadn’t found him; that had been Vogt, the programmer. They hadn’t tried to keep him from looking, though. “Tough shit,” they’d said, the incoherent consolations of guys whose culture didn’t go in much for sympathy. After all, it might have been them.
The chain went tight; Peters fed in more power forward and up. Gell was almost at his level, keeping his chain tight as the nose of the ferassi ship tried to drop. The plan was that when the tail started to fall they’d just drag it, and to Hell with the nonskid. They’d re-done it once, and there was more of the paint stored away in buckets of about twenty liters capacity in the compartments alongside the engine room.
The pilot of the Hornet was all right. She’d made it out of the hulk under her own steam, and was now making herself obnoxious over being unemployed. Three of the dead were armorers: Gless, Abramowitz, Hurtada. Two were plane captains: Wells and Todd. “He wanted to watch,” Deutsch had reported, pale and shaking. “Me, I was hiding behind a post.” Sick bay had twenty-eight customers.
Peters’s ship was getting dangerously near the overhead; he reduced power in the up direction. About now they ought to be dragging their load, but that didn’t seem to be happening. The wand men didn’t seem worried; they kept waving come forward, come forward. The one on the starboard side, keeping an eye on the clearance aft, converted that to left, left, and Peters put on a little strain that way.
Finally the lead director held up crossed wands. Peters slacked off forward, letting the chain sag behind him, or so he supposed; at any rate he no longer felt tension. He let the ship drop slowly, coming to the deck with a soft bump, and felt a quick flash of pride. The first time he’d tried to do that had been a lot noisier.
«Good work,» said Gell over the earbug. «That was a little tricky.»
«Yes,» Peters thought to himself with satisfaction. «I am a qualified ship operator.» He looked over the control panel, reached up and forward to safe the zifthkakik, then stood and went to the panel that gave access to the cargo compartment. «Good work,» he told the six Grallt back there. «We had a little luck at the end, but it would have been useless without your help. Thank you.» He twitched his mouth wryly and winked. «In the past more effective thanks have been forthcoming. I believe it might be appropriate to expect such in this case as well.»
The workers chuckled and began helping one another out of the compartment. One of them gave the “thumbs up” gesture humans and Grallt had in common for success; Peters returned it with a nod, then secured the hatch. The windshield gave back his reflection, a lanky figure in zerkre blue-and-whites, head and face indistinct in the glare of one of the mercury-vapors that lit the bay. That disturbed him. He moved a little, trying to change the reflection angle, but the laws of optics intervened to keep the face indistinct.
It should have frightened him a little. Instead he felt tension release in his forehead and the back of his neck. He straightened, and the movement changed the reflection again. Now it showed a face, with a beaky nose and dark eyes a little too close together, just above the splotch of blue-violet glare. A slow smile, thin but containing real amusement, crept up for the first time since he’d helped bag a blond young man with a hole in his chest. «He wanted to go home. I’ll see to that, if I can…. I’d like to see Granpap again, but I can live a long time without West Virginia.» He popped the hatch and extended the ladder, movements deft, skilled, and stepped down onto the deck, where he exchanged salutes with Gell, then walked around for a look at what he’d helped drag in.
The ferassi ship was still under power; the undamaged part of its belly was a half-meter or so off the deck, although warped panels had scraped bright streaks as it moved forward. Its hatch seemed to be portside midships, and a dozen sailors with duty belts, helmets, and M22s were waiting there. «We can hope it’s simply a default mode,» Peters thought as he headed that way, fumbling in a pocket and coming up with the gadget Todd had taken from the nekrit. It looked like Kellman’s remote control, but projected a narrow beam of something that could punch a hole in a six-millimeter steel plate when you turned off the safety switch and pushed the button on top.
Ten Grallt, including the two bruisers from Prethuvenigis’s entourage, stood by, either with similar gadgets or larger versions that looked like carpenter’s levels. More armed sailors stood along the starboard side, and another squad of Grallt were moving into place across the stern. If ferassi were alive in there and had weapons there was some danger, but all the precautions available were being taken.
The hatch was jammed, and Senior Chief Warnocki took out a prybar and started attacking it. Nothing came to the noise, and it didn’t take long to get it open. Warnocki waved, and half the armed sailors followed him inside.
They disappeared for long enough to get everybody nervous. At long last Warnocki stuck his head out the hatch. “I’m not going to say it’s all clear, because we haven’t searched the whole thing. But everybody we’ve found so far is either dead or out of it.” He grimaced, not amused, and looked straight at Peters. “Let’s get the search parties working. Peters, you come along. If any of ’em wakes up maybe you can talk to them.”
That wasn’t part of the plan, but it made sense. Peters grabbed a bar by the hatch and swung himself up beside Warnocki, and more sailors began following. A couple of the Grallt appointed themselves and followed.
Warnocki led the way forward, up a corridor with twisted walls and wreckage hanging down. They wormed their way past a section that had been pierced all the way to this level, catching glimpses of the bay lighting through the overhead. Bodies lay here and there, or at least people who weren’t moving. They all seemed to be Grallt, and none of them were in kathir suits.
The corridor ended at a hatch identical to the ones on Llapaaloapalla. Warnocki worked the latch, and they came out into a scene of destruction. This was the control deck, a narrow space that went almost all the way across the ship but was only a few meters deep. Padded chairs, anchored to the deck, had once faced over a control panel to the big windows in front. All the windows were gone, the controls had been lasered in numerous places, and holes went through the after bulkhead back into the rest of the structure. About half of the chairs were broken, and bodies were lying around, some of them leaking a perfectly normal bright red.
These were wearing–were they kathir suits? They were form-fitting, patterned in black and white stripes that went around like prisoners in an old cartoon, but they didn’t have belts or buckles. The one with the most stripes sat near the centerline, in a chair that was slightly elevated and set back into an alcove in the rear bulkhead. He–it?–was headless, courtesy a beam that had also punctured the structure behind him.
Peters’s eye was caught by movement. He kicked a body, eliciting a groan; Warnocki stood back, weapon held on the mover, while Peters put away his shooter, grabbed an arm, and flipped the limp figure over. “What the fuck?”
Warnocki glanced at him, keeping the rifle trained on the man on the deck. “Anybody you know?” he asked, tone a trifle ironic.
The man–ferassi?–had a nose. In fact, allowing for the cuts and scars that dripped blood down his forehead, he could’ve been Peters’s first cousin. “No, Chief, I don’t know this guy,” Peters said softly. “But I reckon we’re gonna have to make his closer acquaintance.”
* * *
“Look alive there,” came from above. “Deader coming down, type two.”
The ferassi ship was made of steel plate, about six millimeters thick in most places; the windows had been glass, as proven by shards all over the front compartment. Its stern was a sheer wall, slightly curved, originally unbroken by hatches or ports, now pierced in several places. Its interior arrangements were… peculiar.
Gilman took the front of the stretcher, and the man inside fed it out where Souvannaphong could reach it. They maneuvered it down the steps of the maintenance ladder they’d set, collapsed, against the side for easier access to the meter-high lip of the hatch. Peters stopped them and flipped the coverlet aside. Type two, all right: a male Grallt, the side of his head partly crushed. A wave, and the two bearers took the stretcher across the bay, to where Doctor Steward was going up and down the rows of casualties.
Right forward the ship had two decks and a weapons bay; aft of that section it went to three decks, which continued all the way to to the stern. Type twos apparently lived in the forward end of the three-deck section, in cramped compartments with just space for four one-man bunks, and were stewards, servants, or flunkies. If all the bunks had been occupied there were just short of fifty of them; thirty-seven bodies had been found, now thirty-eight, and three survivors, none currently conscious. None of them wore kathir suits or anything similar. All had been subjected to surgery to remove all but a centimeter or so of their ovipositors. That wasn’t the tragedy the equivalent was for human beings, but Peters had checked around; it was crippling and humiliating.
«Another of ours,» Heelinig sighed. The Executive Officer was supervising the removal of the crew, which was why Peters was there. «This is so sad.»
«Yes.» He hesitated a moment. «Did you know what we would find?»
«No.» She met his eyes. «I had never seen a ferassi before, only heard the stories. I don’t think anyone on Llapaaloapalla has ever seen a ferassi before this.» She twisted her mouth in not-amusement. «If we had, I don’t think we’d have come within two eights of light-zul of your planet by choice.»
Type Ones lived at the forward end, in individual compartments that ranged from comfortable to downright luxurious. The ship could accommodate sixteen; ten bodies and two survivors had turned up, and either there weren’t any more, they’d fallen out, or the rest were hiding out aft. All those found wore kathir suits, or something exactly equivalent, with the controls on flexible panels just above the wrist instead of belt buckles. They fell into two subgroups: six, including both survivors, were tall, lanky, and dark-haired, and wouldn’t have looked out of place at Peters’s family reunion; the remainder were heavy set and blonde, of middle height. Peters felt a pang. They looked like they might be related to Todd. They were exclusively male.
They were also, so far as Doc Steward could tell, as human as any of the sailors. The doctor didn’t have any gene sampling equipment bar a simple crossmatcher for determining drug compatibility, but that said the aliens could have taken anything in his pharmacopæa with predictable results, and there were no external differences even as great as those between Tollison (for instance) and the short, slender, dark Souvannaphong.
All the Type Ones they’d found so far had been removed, the deaders to the same freezer where the human–Navy–casualties rested for later, closer, examination, the survivors to the infirmary, where Tollison, Everett, and two other sailors of roughly the same bulk waited patiently for them to wake up. It had taken a bit to get them out of their suits, but they’d persisted, eventually finding a combination of button-presses analogous to the emergency open sequence of the Grallt ones and serving the same purpose. The medics said the suits were made of similar material to their own, but thinner and seeming tougher; Peters had confirmed that by examining one of the dead ones.
Another deader was handed out to Phan Duong and Lawson, and Vogt stuck his head out. “That’s it for the midships section,” he called out. He looked more than a little green around the gills.
“Good,” said Warnocki. He made a note on his computer. “Thirty-nine dead, three survivors: forty-two. Bunks for fifty, right?”
“Forty-eight, Chief.” Vogt glanced over at Heelinig and Peters. “Makes sense, doesn’t it? Six eights.”
“Yeah, I guess. So six unaccounted for?”
Vogt grimaced. “Yeah. There’s a godawful big hole on the starboard side, two of the compartments are open to the outside there. They probably got blown out.”
“Probably so.” Warnocki finished his notes and looked up. “Any progress aft?”
“I haven’t heard anything from back there in a while, Chief. Want me to check?”
“Yeah, do that. But be careful.”
Aft was where it really got strange. Right aft was a section that was weirdly arranged–or wasn’t; certainly it was weird for a spaceship, though most of them had encountered similar, or at least equivalent, setups in the past. A hundred and twenty-eight bunks–two squares–occupied two rooms, each holding sixty-four in four tiers, four high and four long. About half, all top bunks, were unmade, apparently unused, but seventy were or had been occupied. Between the two rooms was a group of cubicles on two decks, each holding a comfortable bed and little else. The only access to the whole section came through there, a hatch with a strong lock.
All seventy of the occupants were female: thirty-nine humans of the same two types as the males, thirty-one Grallt of about the same mix as were aboard Llapaaloapalla. Sixty had survived the battle, thirty-two humans and twenty-eight Grallt. All of them were young, and all of them were pretty.
They were, without exception, frightened out of their minds. It wasn’t possible to communicate with the human girls at all; they spoke no Grallt, and even considering English was ludicrous. The Grallt girls spoke their own language, but in halting baby-talk with little or no vocabulary and less grammar. Se’en, Dee, and a short squad of others were back there, trying to let the girls know they were safe and could come out. Sending men, human or Grallt, to try to talk to them was worse than useless. If a male of either species entered their section they scrambled for their bunks and lay there, cowering and uncommunicative.
That wouldn’t do at all. Llapaaloapalla was still “dead in space”, drifting between stars far from its ports of departure or destination. They were, in a few words, in bad trouble.
«You say this has never happened before that you know of?» Peters asked.
Heelinig shook her head. «No, I’ve never heard of anything like this happening.» She looked up at the ferassi ship. «Ships have been attacked by the ferassi; I’ve never had the experience, but I’ve been told about it. It would start out just as this did, but the ship would heave to, and the Grallt men would come aboard and start picking out what they wanted. They would ransack the ship, but mostly they would take food, valuable things, and–»
«And girls,» Peters finished when the pause extended itself.
«Yes. Nobody ever found out what happened to them. I suppose we know now.»
«Slaves.» Peters had learned the word from reading historical romances. He’d never expected to need to use it.
«So it would seem.» Heelinig was grim. «But for the moment that’s secondary. If it were up to Preligotis, or me, we’d dump that hulk right here, bodies, survivors, girls, and all, and get our butts to Jivver, and never never never breathe a word about this to anybody anywhere.»
«You really think it’s that bad? There’s lots of interesting stuff on board.»
«Peteris, you simply have no idea.» Most of the Grallt did that now, added a schwa between the “r” and the “s” of his name. «We have to trade with these people, or at least with their Grallt flunkies.» She pursed her mouth and blew in exasperation. «Ssth. They are the only source of zifthkakik, and until we found you people they were the only source of breakbeams. I still can’t quite believe they couldn’t disable your breakbeams.»
«Apparently what they can disable is the control system. They didn’t disable your zifthkakik, or the ones on the planes.»
Heelinig nodded. «That would kill everybody. It would make robbing us easier, but if they want slaves it isn’t practical. They brought us down from High Phase, but that would be a function of the control system, as you say.»
«And you anticipate–»
«Ssth. Picture the scene,» she suggested, gesturing forward. «We breeze in to Jivver system, take up orbit, and send you people down for your holidays. There are almost four squares of you, and how many can keep secrets? You start bragging and showing off souvenirs… Jivver is a nexus, there’s almost always two or three other ships there, and one of them is almost bound to be ferassi, a ferassi trade ship I mean.»
«Yes, I think I see what you’re getting at.»
«Ssth. They ask to come aboard, and how can we refuse them? We have to trade, after all; we need zifthkakik for the rest of our round. They see this.» She thumped the side of the ship. «They discover that we have killed two and eight of them, and taken two captive. This has never happened before, even in the stories. Which means–»
«Which means either it really never has happened before, or the ones who did it got rather thoroughly suppressed.» Peters stretched his mouth in a rictus that wasn’t in any way reflective of amusement. «I lean toward the second possibility, myself. I have heard some hints, on Zenth–» he remembered Keezer’s sneer «–and elsewhere, that the ferassi aren’t completely unknown.»
«Yes, I’ve heard similar hints.» She looked around. «We simply cannot do this, Peteris.»
«Oh, yes, we can.» Peters “smiled” again. «We just have to be careful. Trust us, Heelinig. This sort of deception is common in our society.»
«Oh, I trust you.» She looked him in the eye. «I have to, don’t I? And really I don’t have a problem with you, but him–» indicating Warnocki «–and the rest of you–»