“What the fuck is that?” Peters asked.

“Fuck if I give a shit.” Two fins were sticking up side by side and splashing, something moving through the water. Moving fast. “Or maybe I do give a shit. Maybe we oughta step back a little.”

“Yeah.” They had started to do that, struggling a little in the soft sand, when the area where Todd’s handful had landed exploded in wet spray. They had a glimpse of a thing like a submarine with teeth before it was too close to see anything but gray hide. It missed, thank God, although its flank knocked Peters aside, abrading a hole in the sleeve at his shoulder. Then they were running, kicking up the soft sand, and somebody was screaming in the background.

It was scrabbling and thrashing around behind them, but they didn’t look back until they had reached the backshore berm. The thing was thirty feet long and as big around as Todd was tall, and it seemed like a quarter of it was mouth with big teeth. It had short stubby fins, with which it was trying to heave its bulk up the beach, and made a grunting sound as it snapped at them.

Denef the bartender came running up with a thing like a shotgun on steroids in his hands. «Snikk,» he said, waving his shooter in existential definition.

“Well-snikk-I-reckon,” said Peters, out of breath.

The gun made a boom and flash, its kick noticeable even with Denef’s bulk. It made a hole the size of a fist in the snikk just below an eye. That didn’t seem to affect it much; it kept right on struggling up the beach, intent on reaching them. Denef fired again, scoring the eye directly, and again. Finally it slowed down a little, then got quiet.

Denef reloaded with fat shiny cartridges from a bag slung on a strap over his shoulder and fired another round, and the snikk finally got the message. It struggled around until it was headed back to the water, then flopped until it got there. There was yellowish-red blood all over the sand. The snikk disappeared into the water. “Goddamn,” said Peters.

“Yeah,” said Todd. “Now we know why nobody swims here.”

“You got that right. Shit, I was thinkin’ about rentin’ a boat, but Christ you’d need a destroyer to be safe around those things.” He touched Denef on the shoulder. «Thank you, friend. That was a big snikk.»

«No, no,» Denef hefted his firearm. «Little snikk. Big snikk come.” He pointed out toward the water.

Several of the double fins were moving around, stirring up low wakes. The wounded snikk was trailing blood through the water, and its mates were headed in for a light snack. Shortly there was a hullabaloo of splashing just offshore, heavy torpedo-shaped bodies visible in glimpses. After a bit their snikk–the original one, they could tell by the bullet holes and the missing eye–crashed back ashore. There was a hunk the size of a man missing from its side.

Half a dozen people the same species as Denef had run down from the hotel with more guns, some like Denef’s, a couple about twice that big. The latter sat on tripods and were being set up with practiced efficiency. There was a great deal of excited jabber, not in Grallt. A snikk twice the size of the original heaved itself out of the water and chomped down on the wounded one. Finally one of the big guns crashed.

It took a long time.

When the snikk stopped coming the sun was well below the horizon and a light onshore breeze had sprung up. The hotel staff had brought big floodlights on poles to illuminate the scene. Three snikk lay on the sand, still threshing around, spraying blood from their wounds, dead or dying but not having got the idea yet. The first one was one of them. The other two were two or three times that big.

“Monsters, you wanted,” said Peters.

“Looks like I got ’em.”

“Yeah. What’s goin’ on now?” Denef and the others were conferring, with Denef pointing occasionally toward the two sailors. There were raised voices and emphatic gestures.

“Shit if I know,” said Todd. “Just before this happened you mentioned food. It’s been a long time since we landed, and all we’ve had is a few beers. I could do with some food.”

“Yeah, me, too,” said Peters. They started walking toward the hotel, where there was bound to be a restaurant. “Next time you want monsters, you make sure I’m not around, you hear? I’m bored too, but I don’t need that shit.”

«Wait.» It was one of the ape-people. «You are Peters and Todd?»

«Yes, we are,» said Peters.

«Good. Are you well? Did the snikk hurt you?»

«The first one bumped my arm,» said Peters. «It tore my shirt, and I may have a bruise there. Otherwise we are well.»

«Good, good,» the ape said. «I am Corso. I am the manager of the hotel. The snikk are very dangerous. Sometimes people are food for the snikk. It is good you were not hurt.»

«You seem prepared,» Todd observed.

«Yes, we keep the guns available and train the staff in their use.»

«They did very well,» Peters said with a nod.

«It is good of you to say so, but they should do well. They are paid well for this duty.»

«They should be paid well. It is dangerous work for them. Does it happen often?»

«Oh, sometimes,» said Corso.

«Well, it’s over now,» Peters said. «Todd and I will now go to eat. Tell everyone thank you for us.»

Corso smiled. «I will say so. Perhaps I might join you at your meal.»

The two humans shared a look. «Join us, of course,» said Peters with a sigh. «You can tell us what is best to eat.»

«Yes. As I said, the staff are paid well for this duty. Also the ammunition for the guns is expensive. It will be necessary to discuss the bill.»

* * *

The food Corso suggested was partly delicious and partly disgusting, about par for the first meal on a new planet. While they were eating a series of functionaries conferred with the manager, shuffling bits of paper around and talking in the language that wasn’t Grallt. Peters asked for something nonalcoholic to drink, and Todd followed suit, not without a raised eyebrow. “Better keep a cool head,” Peters advised as the waiter brought glass tumblers of something yellow.

“Yeah,” Todd agreed. It was some kind of fruit juice, mildly astringent and not too sweet.

Dessert was sweet and gooey, like ice cream with dark blue berries mixed in. It was good, but didn’t go well with the juice. Corso looked up from his papers, noticed Todd’s grimace, and jabbered at the waiter, who brought cups of something like tea, much better. Over the last of it he laid a piece of paper down with a flourish.

“Looks like chicken tracks to me,” Todd said. Actually it didn’t. It was pretty neat for handwriting, unrecognizable symbols in columns. If those were numbers, the one at the bottom had a lot of digits.

«Could you translate to Grallt symbols?» Peters asked.

Corso obliged, and the two sailors bent to the task of converting base-eight to base-ten. The result would have been a disaster a month ago.

“A little under four thousand ornh, I make it,” Todd noted.

“Expensive walk on the beach,” Peters commented wryly.

«How will you pay this?» Corso asked. «You cannot leave until it is paid. We are not kind to those who leave without paying.»

«There is no problem,» Peters told him. «We do not carry so much money on our persons, but we can pay. We will pay when we leave the hotel.»

Corso stared. «It is not so easy. How can I know you will pay? It is a large amount of money. Not everyone has so much.»

“Man’s got a point,” Todd said.

“Shush,” said Peters. «Corso, we have the money. If you will ask the clerk, we showed our credit when we checked in. Please ask now. We will wait here. Perhaps the waiter could bring us more tea.»

«Yes,» Corso said. He jabbered at the waiter, longer than necessary to order tea, and left in a hurry. The waiter brought a pot and poured. Todd and Peters lounged in their chairs simulating nonchalance, but noticed a good-sized individual, one of the gunners from the beach by his clothes, loitering nearby. They didn’t know the word for “trust” in the local language, and it didn’t look like they were going to learn it any time soon.

“This doesn’t look good,” Peters said when he spotted Corso caming back. He was was striding along briskly, flanked by a pair of underlings in the uniforms of the hotel staff. The two humans started to stand when he approached their table, but he waved them back.

«My apologies,» he said. «If one of you would be so kind as to sign that, I will take it away and no more will be said.»

“Sure,” Peters agreed. «Of course, Corso. I will sign.» He scribbled across the bill, then handed it to Corso. «A little extra for your trouble.»

Corso bowed. «Thank you. In the meantime, we have a small problem. My brizk of a clerk assigned you to the wrong room. If you would give me your keys….»

Peters dug his out, exchanged it for the one the manager proffered. When Todd had done the same Corso bowed again. «Thank you once more. Please don’t trouble yourself about the meal, it is provided by the establishment. And now, if you will excuse me….» He bowed a third time and swept off, trailed by his flunkies.

“Well, well,” said Todd as the manager disappeared through a door. “Did you get all that?”

“Free meal? Sure I got it,” Peters said. “I also got the key. It’s been a long day.”

“You got that right.”

The keys were inscribed with a squiggle that was no doubt the room number. They found the room by selecting an individual from the group near the desk, holding up an ornh, and proferring one of the keys. The woman took the key and led them up to the same floor their first room had been on, then down a long hall, where she opened a door. Todd handed her the ornh, glanced around, and added two more. It seemed appropriate.

“You couldn’t park a Tom in here,” Peters said sardonically when she’d left.

“Maybe a Hornet.”

“You’d have to fold the tail down.”

“Or cut it off.”

Peters wandered out on the balcony, where a glass-topped table held a bottle in ice. He poured, sipped, looked appreciative, and sipped again, looking out across the starlit, snikk-infested waters. “You know what, Kev old boy?”

“No, what, John old friend?”

“I like being rich.” He finished his glass, reached for the bottle. “And I’m gonna enjoy it while it lasts.”

* * *

Breakfast the next morning wasn’t nearly so successful. The planet had a long rotation period, so they felt as if they’d slept in, but the sun was barely peeking over the horizon. The waiter spoke no Grallt, and the menu was in the local language. Finally they pointed at things.

Peters got a deep plate or shallow bowl of something orange, viscous, and cold, with occasional bits of white stuff marbled in blue distributed through it, and a ceramic spoon like a smaller version of the one used to serve Chinese food. Todd’s portion was a brownish irregular cylinder swimming in a clear, sticky sauce, accompanied by lumps of something pasty white.

“Look at this crap.” Todd prodded his lump with the two-tined fork, causing it to break up. “Turd in snot sauce. I ain’t even gonna taste it.”

“Wise move.” Peters cautiously brought the spoon to his mouth, took a tiny sip, spat it out immediately. “Yecch. Tastes worse’n it looks. I wouldn’t’ve thought that was possible.” He looked around, but there was nothing to drink on the table, not even water. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“Right.” Todd looked across the room as he got up. Commander Bolton was lethargically spooning something into his mouth, looking neither more nor less discontented than he usually did, and none of the other officers was spurning the food. “They do have stuff we can eat,” he pointed out to Peters.

“Sure they do. They just don’t give a damn if we get any or not.” Peters shoved his chair under the table.

“Must be nice to have an interpreter on call.”

“You wanta ask for advice?” Peters demanded harshly.

Dreelig was engaged in conversation with Mr. Devon and Ms. Weber, shoving something into his face between phrases and paying no attention to anything outside his group of charges. “Uh, no, don’t think I ought to interrupt,” said Todd. “Maybe we could hire one of our own. We got the chill.”

“Maybe later,” said Peters. “Come on!”

Before they got to the door they were intercepted by one of the locals, their waiter perhaps, who spoke in low urgent tones and flourished a slip of paper. “The bill, I reckon,” Peters said disgustedly.

“Fuck that,” Todd said. He pointed back in the general direction of their table, then clutched at his stomach and groaned artistically. Peters followed his lead, embellishing to the extent of generating a dollop of heave that spattered the slip of paper, the arm holding it, and part of a chair back. The waiter retreated hurriedly, waving his soiled arm and jabbering in a loud angry voice, and the two took the opportunity to recover miraculously and escape. “Didn’t know you could do that on demand,” Todd observed as they got back to the lobby.

“It’s a gift,” Peters said. “Now I need somethin’ to drink.”

There was a clerk stirring around behind the desk, not paying much attention until Todd approached. «Pleasant greetings,» he said. «How may I help you?»

«My friend want something drink,» Todd told him.

«Food and drink are available in the restaurant,» the clerk said, gesturing in that direction.

«We went,» Todd noted. «Food not good, got nothing drink.»

«That is not correct,» the clerk declared. «Please wait here for a moment.» He disappeared through a door behind the desk, and they heard snatches of babble before he returned. This time he brought his superior, or at least someone older, if gray strands in the facial hair meant age.

«I am Deris,» the newcomer declared. «How may I help you?»

«We went to the restaurant,» Peters said. «We did not understand the menu, and the waiter didn’t help. The food was not good, and we got nothing to drink. I would like something to drink, to take the bad taste away.»

«What would you like?»

«We don’t know the names,» Peters admitted. «Last night we had a yellow juice that was very good, and tea. Perhaps we could have some of the tea?»

«Of course.» Deris gestured at the lobby, where there were chairs and couches, with low tables. «Please sit and wait. Someone will bring tea in a short time.»

A “short time” turned out to be three or four minutes. The tea, when it came, was in a silver pot on a silver tray, with cups thin as eggshells. Along with it was a plate, carved of brown wood, holding crisp brownish wafers and black lumps. The wafers were crumbly and almost tasteless, but the black lumps were good, soft and creamy with a meaty taste. The waiter–they couldn’t tell if it was the same one–stayed until they had tried everything and decided what was edible, then nodded decisively and left.

«Much better,» Peters said.

«I am happy to hear that,» Deris said. «The hotel hopes to please its guests.»

«I am sure it is difficult,» Peters said. «You have many guests with many different wishes.»

«That is generous,» Deris said with a small smile. «We do indeed have many guests, but it is not so difficult to find what they like. All of the kree are more similar than not, and we do not offer to others. The waiter should be more helpful. He will be disciplined.»

«That would be correct,» Peters suggested, «but not too severely, I hope. Only enough to make him remember.»

Deris smiled, the same somewhat alarming gesture that Denef had used. «You are generous again. He will lose his pay for today, and go back to the village to think. Tomorrow he will do better.»

«That seems appropriate,» said Peters. «What will be the charge for this?» He gestured at the tea service.

«There will be no charge,» Deris said. «It is our apology for the trouble.»

«That is good of you.» Peters groped in his pocket. «Please give this to the one who brought the tea,» he said, handing Deris an ornh.

«Yes, I will do that,» Deris said. «And now I must be going. I have business of the hotel.» He sketched a bow and left, disappearing behind the desk.

Peters and Todd idled for the next half hour or so, nibbling black lumps and sipping tea, not speaking much. From time to time the waiter appeared to refill the teapot or provide more lumps. The sun was fully up when they finished and got up, saluting the desk clerk and strolling out the doors.

They’d decided not to wear kathir suits today, and the air had a tinge of coolness that hadn’t been apparent inside. Sprinklers made diamond flowers over close-cropped magenta grass, dampening the tan-cobbled walkway in a few places. A low wall of gray stone blocks separated the lawn from the beach, and a couple of low broad steps led down to the sand. The two sailors picked a direction at random and set off up the beach, still not talking much. Occasionally one would pick up a stone or a handful of sand, toy with it a few moments, and then drop it. Neither one tossed anything into the water.

It took them about a tle to reach the headland. Rounded rocks, tumbled from the cliff and water-worn, were scattered in the surf and along the backshore. They scrambled up onto the coarse grass behind the berm and looked back toward the water.

“Nice spot,” Todd broke the silence.

“Yeah.” Peters had picked up a stone and was tossing it from hand to hand. He made as if to toss it in the water, then remembered and threw it toward the top of the ridge, where it made a click and dislodged a few more the same size. The minor shower of dust and rocks wasn’t even disconcerting. “The whole place is a nice spot.”

“Not like the last one.”

“We ain’t gonna be goin’ back there.”

“We may not be going any damn where.”

“We can go anywhere we want. We got money, remember?”

“Yeah, and for how long?” Todd demanded. “You really think that’s gonna make a damn difference? The assholes are gonna be all over us.”

“They can’t touch us.” Peters threw another rock. “My hitch is up in, Hell, if I remember correct it’s about ten days. Yours’s longer, but you’re still out before we get back.”

Todd made a rude noise. “There’s nobody to cut our separation orders. We’re in until we get back and they do that.”

“I ain’t so sure,” Peters disagreed. “Llapaaloapalla’s civilian, and we ain’t assigned to SPADET 1. Verbal orders are good as any.” He heaved another rock, again dislodging a minor avalanche. “Right now we got a million ornh apiece and a zifthkakik between us. What I expect is they’ll trade the money for a dollar an ornh and confiscate the football as contraband. And if that’s what happens, and we wanted to come back out here–” he gestured at the scenery, “–reckon how many American dollars somebody’d charge for a ticket?”

“We don’t have to tell anybody,” Todd pointed out. “We haven’t yet.”

“Shit,” Peters objected. “They know somethin’s goin’ on. They don’t know the details, but they know enough to tell the Feds where to start askin’ questions.”

“We could tell them part of it… tell them about the zifthkakik, maybe, and leave the cash out of it.”

“Sure we can. Then they start fillin’ us up with happy juice, and out the rest spills like vomit on the sidewalk,” Peters explained. “Then we’re what, traitors or somethin’? We end up in Statesville, and they get the money anyway.”

There was a long pause, during which Peters selected another stone, tossed it from hand to hand, then threw it against the dike, eliciting another shower of pebbles. They had gotten this far in their assessments before. Both tacitly assumed that going to any of the Chiefs, or the officers, for advice was pretty much the same as handing over the goodies and checking themselves into the brig. Finally Peters spoke: “We could always stay, you know.”

That was the first time either of them had actually said it right out loud, and Todd didn’t reply for a few minutes, just sat on a rock, looking out to sea, arms crossed in front as if hugging himself. “Remember what I told Dee when we were thrashing things out with the Master Chief? I’m not ready for that.”

“Me neither, but it might be the best way. We don’t need to work, we got the money to live a long time, but we could probably sign on as crew. If not, there’s other possibilities. Maybe we could be translators.”

“Maybe you could. Hell, you’re already a zerkre. But why would anybody need translators? The Grallt speak good English. They don’t need us.”

“Maybe other folks’d like to have a human to do the translatin’,” Peters suggested.

“That’s possible, I guess. What about our folks?”

“Yeah, there’s that. I’d like to go to Granpap’s funeral.” Peters tossed another rock. “That ain’t right, I’d rather the old buzzard lived forever… dammit, this is fun, even when it ain’t. Sometimes it’s polychrome palm trees, sometimes it’s snikk–”

“Or turd in snot sauce,” Todd reminded him.

“Or somethin’ like that. It’s good, it’s bad, shit, it’s excitin’… if we go back, you know God-damned well we won’t never get back out here again. It’s gonna be piss-green walls and headshrinkers in relays until we die.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Sure as the sun shines,” said Peters. “Whichever sun that is… I get these dreams, y’know? Here’s stars and spaceships and planets, and there I am, stuck in some interrogation cell, wonderin’ what’s happening.”

“Hnh.” Todd stared out to sea for a long time, then looked up at Peters. “I wake up in the night too. I see myself in the ops bay, looking down at Earth, and I can’t go there…. I don’t sleep too good for a while after that.”

“Yeah.” Peters stood for a long moment, looking out to sea, tossing a stone up and catching it, face still… finally he snorted, relaxed a little, and dropped the stone at his feet. Without turning he said, “Well, we still got a little time.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Todd stood, still hugging himself. “We can’t put it off forever.”

“But now’s not the time.” Peters looked up at the ridge, shook his head, and changed the subject. “Wonder what’s over this hill here?”

What was over the hill was a pretty little cove, with an arc of beach stretching to another headland covered with red-and-yellow trees. The path stayed back of the beach, leading to a village that nestled in the foot of the farther cliff. A long concrete dock or pier extended into the water just below the village. Before they had seen snikk they would have wondered why the pier was so sturdily built, and why the boats were so big and robust. There wasn’t a dinghy or skiff in sight.

The buildings of the village were low and substantial, stuccoed in salmon, rust, and ocher, with hints of blue-green. Several locals sat eating and drinking under one of a number of broad porches roofed with vegetation much like Denef’s bar, possibly a cafe or similar public building.

“You know, breakfast wasn’t much,” said Todd, eyeing the patrons.

“I could do with a bite to eat myself,” said Peters. “It’s been, what, a couple hours?”

“At least that. Come on, maybe we can get something.”

They took the steps up to the plank flooring and were met by one of the locals, who wore a pink apron and said something they didn’t understand.

«I don’t understand you,» said Peters. «May we have something to eat?»

The local bared his teeth in their alarming smile. «Eat place here. Sit.»

The local didn’t have much Trade, and after some back and forth Peters just told him, «Bring food. You choose.»

What they got was portions of flaky white stuff, fish perhaps. “This is good,” Todd said. “Wonder what it is.”

Peters put the question. «Snikk,» said the waiter.

“Hunh,” Todd grunted, looking at his plate. “Good to know all that effort didn’t go completely to waste.”

Peters looked out across the water. “I got a suggestion.”

“How’s that?”

“Let’s get a room an’ stay here instead of goin’ back to the hotel.”

Todd thought about it, staring across the sparkling waves, then up and down the peaceful tree-lined street. He took a bite of snikk and smiled. “Peters, have I told you lately that you’re a fuckin’ genius?”

<<< Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-Two >>>

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