He awoke on the bunk, in the same room or an identical one. First order of business: vomit again. He stumbled to the head, discharged the contents of his stomach, and began fiddling with the suit in preparation for urination. It failed to yield, which was of a piece with the torture function. If he could get out of it, there’d be little point… he shrugged and released the pressure. If it made a stink, so what?
The matter of food was becoming pressing, but the only thing available was water, so he filled his belly with that and went to sit on the bunk. It was fairly obvious that he and his hosts were operating at cross purposes, although what the basis of that was from their point of view he couldn’t figure. All he’d seen, even yet, was Grallt, and the four he’d seen–or was it a total of seven?–were as assorted as the crew of Llapaaloapalla. The Grallt crew of the ferassi ship been equally diverse, which proved nothing.
He regarded the controls on the arms of the suit with disfavor. Stupid design. It might be more modern in some ways, and the measuring machine was definitely more sophisticated as well as faster, but having thrusters, especially, on the belt buckle was much handier. So it was; a further inspection revealed a diamond of harder spots embedded in the material just below his navel. So what were the arm controls for? Atmosphere, temperature, coloration? Why would anyone need to access those functions continuously?
And could he get out of it? They’d found the overrides on the suits of the pirates. He felt around where he thought it was. Yes, there were a pair of spots, widely spaced, slightly stiffer than the rest of the material, not nearly as prominent as the thruster buttons. It was hard, almost impossible, for the person wearing the suit to activate it, requiring touching both spots simultaneously, but he had big hands, spanning easily two centimeters more than any Grallt he’d met… he felt the closure at the neck loosen, and smiled. Peeling it back was as easy as putting it on had been. If he could get out of the suit any time he liked, he’d prefer to wear it. It was cold in here. He closed it back up.
What else could the suit do? Well, it was programmable, but there was nothing like a readout or display–or was there? On the left arm, just above the wrist, was a six-by-six array of one-centimeter squares, currently blank. It looked like the letter square used for Grallt keyboards. If that was the case, the lower right square should be the key that started the programming function.
When he pressed it a portion of the suit uncurled itself, forming a rigid pane ten centimeters wide by five high just above the key square. fucking ha! Unfortunately, the characters displayed weren’t Grallt. A little more button pushing established that the thruster controls acted as arrow keys. So did a set of similar hard spots just to the right of the square. He arrowed around, displaying functions, being careful not to select anything.
Noises at the door. He hurriedly arrowed over to what he devoutly hoped was the function, in the spot it would have been on his Grallt suit’s display, and pressed the activator. The display curved and disappeared into the suit material, and he pressed the neck closed before turning to face the arrivals.
It was Chuckles, with Goober looking over his shoulder. Chuckles said something in their language, and Peters thought to hear syllables in it this time: something like poobapap, a sequence of sounds difficult for a Grallt to enunciate without practice. The ferassi-Grallt shook his head. «Are you ready to answer questions? Don’t bother fiddling with the suit, you won’t be able to get out of it. The controls have been disabled.»
«So I discovered when I went to urinate.» Peters shook his head. «I can bear the odor if you and your friends can.»
«That won’t be a problem,» Chuckles sneered. «The suit will take care of your little indiscretions. Will you come, or be dragged?»
«Oh, I’ll come.» Peters stood. «Lead the way.»
«That isn’t quite the way it’s done,» Chuckles said drily. «You will lead, and we will follow with our nice weapon. We’ll tell you where to go. First, to the right out the door.»
Peters shrugged and complied. The corridor was about ten meters long, and as they walked he looked it over. Light came from fluoro tubes perhaps a bit thinner, definitely less blue in color, than the ones on Llapaaloapalla. The walls were painted a uniform pale gray, unmarred by scratches, chips, and dings. Doors were of dull metal, like aluminum, and didn’t give reflections; the latches were side-swinging vertical bars, again like the ones on the Grallt ship. The floor was unlined, seemingly a single smooth piece; it had been cool and slightly resilient in his bare feet, providing a good grip for either skin or suit feet. In general the place–ship?–was clean, neat, and well kept, almost new-looking.
A pressure hatch at the end opened to reveal steps up to another deck at about waist level; a larger version of the arrangement on the ferassi ship, and Peters began to believe he was about to meet the real crew, or at least the officers. They took perhaps ten more steps before Chuckles said something, then switched back to Trade: «Left here, into the room.» Peters shrugged and swung the latch without comment.
The person behind the desk was ferassi, relatively young, compact, with dark hair cut and parted very much like his own, looking vaguely like a relative of Commander Collins’s. He said something; when he got no response he addressed a comment to Chuckles. The suit constricted and zapped, weakly this time, just enough to make Peters flinch, and the ferassi repeated what he’d said the first time. After a pause he changed languages: «Horsig said you would respond only in the Trade. You’re remarkably cool for a man facing interrogation in a punishment suit. Shall we demonstrate it again? I warn you, we have very little patience with you murdering bastards.»
Peters shrugged and brought himself erect. «You can kill me, but I don’t take moral instruction from pirates, kidnappers, or murderers,» he said calmly. «As for language, Chuckles is mistaken. I will at least respond in any language I know, if only to spit in your face.»
«If your ‘indulgence’ has made you uncomfortable, imagine my sympathy,» said the ferassi with a sarcastic lilt. «Lesson One for spies looking for shipping to plunder: don’t fall asleep, dead drunk, in a rocking chair in full view of all passers-by.»
«On the other hand, innocent travelers who are sitting around waiting for the people they are to meet to get their bowels in operation should be able to do so without fear, except for the aftereffects previously mentioned.»
The officer made an impatient gesture. «Enough of this. What is your name and ptith? What ship are you from?»
«My name is John Howland Peters, called ‘Peteris’ by the Grallt of Llapaaloapalla, the ship I’ve been serving on these past one and eight zul. I have no idea what you mean by pattith or whatever it was you said.»
«Peteris», the man almost repeated, and nodded, looking over Peters’s shoulder. The suit constricted and zapped, enough to bring the human to his knees. «Shall we try that again?» the officer asked calmly. «What is your name and ptith?»
«My name,» said Peters in a muffled voice, «is John Howland Peters, from Llapaaloapalla. I have no other answers.» He hugged himself, a man in pain, using the motion to conceal a reach for the suit override. Just a little farther with the thumb…
The ferassi leaned forward to shout something peremptory in his own language, probably a repeat of the question he’d asked twice already, and Peters tried to estimate the time. Just about now… the pain started, and he pressed the override. The throat of the suit loosened, the pain stopped, and he keeled over in convincing simulation of a man zapped beyond thinking.
The man got up and walked around the desk to look down at his captive, exchanging remarks with Chuckles. Peters lay as limp as he could, watching through slitted eyes as he came closer. The ferassi had something in his hand, a small version of the push-force weapon, like the one Todd had taken as a souvenir. Better and better….
Peters uncurled in a single spasm, grabbed an ankle, and yanked. The ferassi fell in an ungainly sprawl, and Peters scrambled to get behind him, snatching the weapon as it fell, ending with his left arm around the ferassi’s neck, the weapon’s business end pointed at the other two, and as much of his body as possible crouched behind the officer’s. «Tell your friend to drop the weapon,» he growled at Chuckles. When the Grallt dithered he repeated, «Tell him to drop it, now! I have had the pleasure of killing three of you with my own hands, which leaves me two short of even, and one of my dead was a special friend who deserves extra consideration!»
Chuckles said something in a low voice; Goober looked doubtful, but the weapon fell to the floor, and Peters said, «Good. Now, the activator for the pain function of the suit. Where is it?» Chuckles displayed a small device. «Toss it over here,» he ordered. «No, wait. Swallow it.»
Chuckles looked incredulously from Peters to the device and back. «It’s small enough. Swallow it!» The Grallt managed, gagging a bit in the process.
The ferassi officer writhed, trying to get away, but he was two-thirds the sailor’s mass and woefully out of condition. «Stop that,» Peters said sharply. «Now, as I said, I’m two short on my revenge quota, not counting the extra for my friend Todd, but there’s something going on here that I don’t understand, and I think–I think, mind you–that this whole sequence of events is based on a misunderstanding. My name is John Peters, as I told you. I am a from a planet called Earth. I have been traveling on the Grallt trade-ship for the last one and eight of zul, almost a half-zul more now.
«Stop that,» he repeated when the man writhed again. «I could snap your neck like a twig, and at the moment that sounds like a desirable action to me.» The ferassi subsided once more, and Peters continued: «You can check this easily. Llapaaloapalla is on orbit. Some two eights of its trade delegation are aground at the hotel where you kidnapped me, including Prethuvenigis, the First of that group. Almost any of the zerkre of Llapaaloapalla, including First Preligotis and the entire bridge crew, and many squares of the other folk, know me; they call me ‘Peteris’. And aground at a place called ‘Big Stone Bay’ you will find not quite three squares of my fellows and some eights of Grallt, enjoying the starshine and the sea.» The man had relaxed slightly; Chuckles stood with his mouth open.
«Now, as I said, you can check my story easily,» Peters went on. «What about yours? Three of what I suppose must be your people attacked me, with bad results, and now you have kidnapped me, tortured me, and behaved so stupidly I am surprised you don’t try to breathe vacuum. Can you satisfy me that you are not members of the group that attacked Llapaaloapalla and killed four and two eights of Grallt whose only offense was residing aft, and five of my fellow humans? Or shall I pop your neck, shoot your two henchmen, and go out and see how many I can kill before the rest of the idiots aboard stop me? If the way you’ve conducted yourself so far is a sample, I might even survive, who knows?»
«You have defeated a ship of the dar ptith?» The ferassi squirmed, trying to face Peters, who resisted the movement with a tightening of his forearm. «That’s impossible. If you tried to resist they would simply disable your breakbeams, destroy the installations, and board at their leisure.»
«Don’t make assumptions. Whatever disables the breakbeam generators has no effect on lasers.»
«I don’t know what–I don’t know that word.»
«That’s true, you don’t.» Peters tightened his grip. «The pirates were easy meat once we were sure of their intentions and got our weapons in action. My people prefer not to quarrel, but we have little patience with those who provoke us, as the Grallt who accosted me Down discovered.»
The ferassi officer had relaxed. «So, you are the one who killed my agents,» he said without animation. «How can I believe you?»
«Ssth! You can check my claims with less trouble than it took to kidnap me,» he pointed out. «And if those were in fact your agents, I lose even more respect for your intelligence and abilities. They accosted me in a remote place, addressed me in a language I don’t speak, and became violent when I didn’t respond, to the point of threatening at weaponpoint. Should I leave them behind to recover and try again?»
«You could have taken them to the authorities,» he suggested. «You seemed to have little trouble overcoming them.»
«And what would the result have been?» Peters sneered. «If I understand the implications of what you have said–Chuckles, tell your friend to stop trying to reach the door or I’ll shoot him–if I understand you, you are an investigator of some sort. Had I brought your agents to what you call the ‘authorities’, would events have proceeded much differently from my point of view? Don’t act more stupid than you are.»
«You’re probably right. Very well, we will check your story. In the meantime you can stay in a cabin.»
«Not so fast. What about your story? How can I check that? How can I be assured you are not the killers of my friends and associates?»
«The dar ptith are no friends of ours,» the ferassi said dully. «I don’t know what assurances you would accept.»
«Take me on a tour.»
«Take me on a tour of your ship,» Peters said patiently. «I agree that the situation militates against absolute proof, but you can offer me further circumstantial evidence. Give me a tour of your ship. Omit nothing.»
«I suppose we can do that,» he admitted, «although I don’t know what you’d be looking for.»
«I’ll know it when I see it,» Peters told him. «Can I let you up now without your offering violence?»
«Yes. No more violence.»
«Good.» Peters let go and scooted away, keeping the weapon trained on the two Grallt.
«Chuckles, I’m afraid that weapon is too big to eat.» The Grallt glanced from it to the human and back, and Peters chuckled. «Kick it over here. No, don’t bend over, use your foot. That’s correct.» It slid to within reach; he picked it up and stood. «Now, who will go to to make inquiries?»
«Horsig can go,» the ferassi suggested.
«First I will need medical attention,» said the Grallt, still looking unnerved. «The object I swallowed is not digestible.»
«This too will pass,» Peters suggested, and the others looked at him. «Your digestive system can stand the strain for long enough to travel to and back, Chuckles. Take your big friend with you. Your boss and I have a ship to inspect.»
«Go,» said the ferassi. «He’s right, you won’t suffer ill effects in so short a time. Go.»
Chuckles nodded hesitantly and said something to Goober, who responded with a headshake and a few words of his own. The two vanished into the corridor, and Peters lowered the weapon and managed a thin smile. «Well, I hope that’s all for a little while. As I said, my name is John Peters; you may address me as ‘John’ if you intend friendship, ‘Peters’ otherwise. How may I address you?»
«My name is Fredik Fers,» the ferassi said a little shakily. «’Fredik’ to friends, ‘ Fers’ to others. I’ll call you ‘Peters’, at least at first.» He eyed the human dubiously. «Why did you address Horsig as ‘Chuckles’?»
«Hah! It is a word in my language meaning ‘laughter’. He didn’t introduce himself, so I applied a label I found appropriate.»
«It doesn’t seem appropriate to me.»
«You almost had to have been there… I take it ‘ipze’ is a precedence label?»
«Yes. It is our word for what the Grallt call a ‘Third’. I am responsible for security on board the ship.»
«It would seem I am fated to deal with officers,» Peters remarked. «Lead on, ipze Fers. I am almost certain now of what I will find, but I need to see it with my own eyes.»
«Will you return my weapon?»
«Shortly, shortly…. perhaps. Lead on.» He smiled. «Let’s inspect the food serving area first. My head seems to have cleared somewhat, but I need food badly.»
* * *
When Peters asked, ipze Fers–the rank seemed to be about lieutenant, j.g.–pronounced a phrase, then translated: «We call it ‘Trader Number’, hm.» He thought for a moment. «We say it in designation form: one three dash two.»
«Our numbers are in base two and eight. Let’s see–» Peters worked it out as they walked down the corridor. «A thousand and forty-nine, I make it. Trader Ten Forty-Nine is probably what we’d say. You don’t use names for ships?»
«No. The dar ptith do; we consider it anachronistic.»
«We use both systems for our military vessels, but the procedure for civilian ones varies… where are we going? Are we walking aft, forward, or what?»
«We are moving aft. You expressed a wish for food; the galley is this way.» He glanced at the human, just a flash laden with uncertainty, then looked back ahead. «I don’t know what you want to see. I thought to get you some food, then begin at the stern and work forward.»
Peters nodded. «Yes, that would be satisfactory. One of the more important things I wish to see will be all the way aft, if I understand it.»
Fers looked at him again, a longer inspection this time. «I believe I know what you mean. No, you won’t find thuthenkre quarters here.» He pursed his lips in a disgusted moue. «I’ve seen a few of them. It isn’t pleasant.»
«No … is it possible to rehabilitate the inhabitants? We have nearly a square of them on our hands, and it’s almost impossible to communicate with them, let alone help them in any meaningful way.»
Fers eyed him seriously this time, eyebrows lifted, but said only, «I don’t see how the concept of ‘rehabilitation’ applies in this case. If their reproductive systems aren’t damaged we could take them into our own tuwe, or perhaps distribute them among several ships. The contribution to our bloodlines would be of value.»
The implications of that needed some thought. «About half of them are Grallt,» he said as neutrally as possible.
«Even easier.» Fredik Fers made a curious gesture, a sharp jerk of the chin up and to the right. «Grallt don’t live like we do, and we don’t interfere when it isn’t necessary. Those could be accommodated or disposed of in many ways.»
The ferassi dismissed the question with a negligent wave, staring thoughtfully at nothing. «If you are telling the truth it is good news of a sort,» he mused.
Peters lifted an eyebrow. «How so?»
«We have heard of some few successes against the dar ptith recently, and their depredations seem to be dropping off. If they’ve been reduced to incorporating Grallt females into their tuwe in the place of ferassi, it means they are becoming somewhat debilitated.» He gestured. «Here is the galley. What would you like to eat?»
«Something soft, bland, and sweet,» Peters specified. The adrenalin was wearing off, and the hangover wasn’t; his stomach was an uncomfortably intrusive presence, his muscles ached, and his head felt like it had been worked over with hammers. «If you have ever overindulged, you probably know how I feel.»
«Yes, I’ve done it once or twice,» the ferassi said with wry amusement. «Some people recommend more of what caused the problem in the first place.»
«That doesn’t cure it, it only puts it off a little longer. Eventually the bill must be paid.»
«That’s my experience as well. Just a moment.» He rapped on the wall next to a windowlike opening, and a female Grallt appeared. They exchanged words for a few moments; the Grallt grinned, bobbed her head, and disappeared, to return with a container the size of a cereal bowl and a tall tumbler of clear liquid. Fers pointed. «The bowl contains tiplirik pudding, soft and sweet as specified, and easily digestible. The liquid is water; you need a lot of it.»
«You have had the experience,» Peters said with some humor. «It sounds precisely appropriate.» He took bowl and glass, nodded his thanks, and carried them over to a table. Fers remained behind, exchanging further words with the servitor, then followed, laying a shiny metal spoon on the table and taking a seat.
Peters took a bite. It was bland, sweet, and smooth, with a taste a little like butterscotch; perfect. He ate perhaps half of the serving, taking sips of water between bites, then looked up. «That’s all for now, I think,» he admitted. «I’ll want something more later, assuming my abused systems don’t reject this.»
Fers sipped his own drink, a chunky tumbler of something clear with a blue tinge, and smiled. «Yes, there’s always that possibility. Are you ready to go?»
«Yes, I think so — no, wait.» He laid his left forearm on the table, pressed buttons to extrude the control display. «You called this a ‘punishment suit’. From what I’ve seen it’s a standard airsuit with extra programming. Can we cancel that? I think the controller for the disciplinary functions is well out of reach, but I’m not comfortable with the idea, and the rest of the crew might well object to a prisoner being escorted on a tour.»
«You know how to program a suit?»
«I know how to program the Grallt one I was wearing. Is it still available? Perhaps it would be easier if I just changed.»
«No, your Grallt suit isn’t available. We destroyed it to get you out of it.»
«Why? The override is easily accessible.»
«We didn’t know it, and we were in a hurry.»
«I see, I think… the controls aren’t in a language I recognize. Can you guide me through the functions?»
«Simpler to do it this way. Let me touch the control square.» He reached over, manipulated buttons; the screen cleared, then reformed, displaying Grallt characters. «Can you take it from there?»
«Yes, I think so.» Peters and Todd had experimented with their suits, discovering that programming them was complex and sometimes contradictory. It was much easier to use the larger machine at the suit office to create a program, then download it to the buckle, but everything was possible if the user was patient and persevered. He worked for a little while, finally getting the suit to fade to tan, then assume the blue-and-white of his zerkre rank.
«There,» he said with satisfaction. «The disciplinary functions seem to be here, but it wants a password.»
«Yes. I’ll enter it.»
«I think I trust you.»
Fers smiled thinly. «You’ll have to in this case.» He leaned over to punch in the sequence. «There,» he said briskly. «I’ve canceled the disciplinary functions, and entered the privileges of a guest aboard the ship. Are you ready for your tour now?»
«Yes, let’s go.»