The view down the valley made Peters homesick, not a feeling he much relished. He’d enjoyed being a sailor; the ocean was so agreeably flat. A wide verandah with a roof supported by turned columns of unfinished wood looked off into the hazy far distance between heavily wooded peaks. Gell found him there, sitting in a rocking chair, reading.

«What are you reading?» the Grallt pilot asked as he settled into an adjacent seat.

Peters held the book up. «I brought it with me from the ship, in case there were idle moments. It purports to be a book of philosophy.»

«It sounds dry.»

«That’s not the adjective I’d choose. The author maintains that objective reality cannot be established, that each of us experiences a different Universe.»

Gell grinned. «I remember as children, we tried to establish whether each of us saw colors the same… we reached no definite resolution, as I recall.»

«Yes, I had the same experience. It’s not something I’d thought of in this connection; thank you for the insight.»

«You’re welcome, I’m sure.»

Peters nodded, placed a strip of cloth at the page he was perusing, and closed the book with a snap. «So. You delivered Gool to his ship, I take it?»

«Yes… the experience contained some moments I’d prefer not to repeat. The ferassi are not a welcoming folk.»

«No red carpet was spread, or so I would assume.»

«Carpet?»

Peters waved that off. «Your pardon, an allusion to one of our aphorisms. What happened?»

Gell looked around. There were several others sitting on the porch, mostly Grallt and n’saith and a single bulky zeref. «I’m not comfortable discussing it with others nearby,» he confessed.

“Speak English,” Peters suggested. “It ain’t likely anybody here can make it out.”

“I ain’t got enough words,” Gell said, and wrinkled his forehead.

Peters surveyed his surroundings. «Perhaps we should take a walk.» He gestured at the woods near the inn, where a marked path wound between the trees.

«In there? It seems isolated and dangerous. I’m not an especially brave person.»

«Hah!» Peters chuckled. «I spent my childhood in a similar environment, and have walked part of that trail. From my point of view it is so well-tended as to be very nearly urban.»

«From my point of view it seems to offer all the amenities of primitive wilderness, including teeth and claws concealed in the trees,» Gell retorted in good humor. «But if you’ll assure me that you’ll ward off the predators, I’ll give it a try.»

«It is an axiom that… hm, how shall I translate it? My father’s father says the most dangerous thing in any forest is a hungry man.»

«True on a ship as well. Hm. Very well, let’s go.»

They walked across the lawn and set off down the trail, which wound along a contour of the slope. It was paved with pea-gravel between carefully-set stones and crunched underfoot. After a few minutes Gell offered, «Perhaps we are isolated enough here. The forest makes me nervous.»

Peters shook his head. «Well it should. As a child I could approach within a few eights of tell, perhaps less, under such conditions, without your being the wiser. What we want is an open area. I believe such is just ahead.»

They came out in a clearing perhaps two acres in extent. An outcropping near the center provided seats. «This is probably sufficient,» Peters said, looking around. «No one can approach closely, but keep your voice down.»

«For some reason I don’t feel like shouting,» Gell said wryly.

«That’s not an uncommon feeling.» Peters grinned. «To tell the truth, I feel much the same. My childhood was long ago… what did you find out?»

Gell settled back against a sun-warmed stone. «The ferassi are not a welcoming people,» he repeated. When Peters nodded understanding he went on: «The ferassi vessel is a quarter the size of Llapaaloapalla in each dimension, perhaps as much as a third, and has no internal bays for landing. It is necessary to set down on the dorsal surface, and trust the zifthkakik to provide air to breathe if you have no airsuit. We approached the ship from aft, and immediately they began showing the wave-off pattern, denying me permission to land. I persisted in my approach, and they produced the green lights you may recall from not long ago–»

«Yes.» Peters produced a wry smile. «In my culture, a green light means ‘proceed’. Not so here.»

«No. Gool became excited, and instructed me to perform a set of maneuvers which would serve as a recognition sequence.» Gell wrapped his arms around his knees, looking thoughtful. «I thought of your communications device at that point. It would have been very useful.»

«If the ferassi ship had had a mate,» Peters pointed out. «They are only useful in pairs.»

«A significant limitation… after almost an utle of gyrations they displayed a landing pattern on the lights. I brought the dli to a stop on the surface of the ship and waited. No one emerged. After a few moments I asked Gool, ‘Do you expect a welcoming party?’

«’No,’ he told me, ‘Just let me out.’ So I opened the hatch and he left. His parting shot was, ‘Get out of here as quickly as possible. They don’t like people who linger.’ I took him at his word and departed with all dispatch.»

«Did you see where he went?»

«I have an impression of a pop-up opening nearby, but as I said I saw no one else.»

«Yes… can you describe the ship itself?»

«Again, not in great detail. In shape and construction it recalls another of our recent experience: the band of windows across the bow and the completely plain stern, for instance. Its surface is almost completely smooth, without sponsons or turrets visible. The paint was fresh and seemed unmarred.» Gell spread his hands. «I can’t tell you much more. After having them shoot at me I wasn’t in the mood for close examinations.»

«Understandable.» Peters stood and looked over the trees at the adjacent peak, biting his lips in frustration, then tossed a stone. A flock of birdlike creatures rose with a low buzz like an old-fashioned airplane engine, startling both of them. «Gool gave you no hints as to when further information may be forthcoming, I take it,» Peters said. It wasn’t a question.

«No,» Gell responded anyway. «I saw no one, spoke to no one. Gool got out, and I left.»

«Yes. Frustrating.» Peters sighed. «We might as well go back.»

«This is actually quite pleasant,» Gell remarked as they entered the woods once more. «It’s quiet, and the light is pretty.»

Peters nodded. «This seems to be a common opinion. There are various notions of why that might be so.» He pointed out a group of Grallt approaching on the path. «It appears that others wish to share the wilderness experience.»

«They are welcome to it,» Gell said. «Pretty or no, I am anxious to get back to the hotel and find something cool and alcoholic.»

«A worthy ambition, in which I concur without reservation. Pleasant greetings,» Peters told the approaching Grallt. «A pleasant day for a walk in the forest.»

The leader spat something liquid and incomprehensible, then looked expectant. Peters shook his head. «Do you speak the Trade? I don’t understand you.»

Another spate of gabble, ending on a peremptory note. Peters spread his hands and cocked his head–Don’t understand what you want, boss. The leader gestured impatiently and spat a few syllables, and the others crowded around.

“I don’t feel good about this,” Gell muttered in English.

“Me neither,” Peters grimaced. «I don’t know what you want, and whatever it is I don’t have it,» he told the other, who was scowling. «Now if you don’t mind, we’d like to go back to the hotel. Enjoy your walk.»

The leader spoke again, this time giving instruction to his two subordinates, who crowded in closer. When Peters made to push one of them aside, he was grabbed by the upper arm. «If you care to keep that hand, I suggest you remove it,» he growled. The other understood the Trade, even if he wasn’t willing to speak it; he grinned, showing teeth, and tightened his grip.

Bar fights on six continents made this familiar territory. Peters smiled, making it weak, and relaxed a little, averting his face slightly as if abashed. When the other moved farther into his personal space, the sailor braced his right foot and brought his right hand around in a short arc, stiffened extended fingers catching his assailant just below the rib cage. The Grallt released his grip, backed up, and bent over slightly, and Peters employed a move learned in “dance class”: a spinning kick, right foot beginning behind his stance and ending at a point two or three inches to the back of the other’s skull. A throat intervened; the assailant sprawled over backwards, limp, and Peters ended facing the leader, conscious of pain in his toes.

The leader spat a few syllables and gestured, and the third Grallt moved up cautiously, arms spread in a stance intended to be threatening. Peters simply stood, waiting, as the other got closer. At the moment he judged correct, the sailor took two fast steps back; the Grallt followed, too quickly, and when he was in range Peters grabbed a forearm and pulled. The other stumbled forward and met a knee on his chin. His head snapped back, and Peters grabbed hair and repeated the knee lift. Something crunched and Peters released his grip, allowing the other to fall face-first onto the path. A short stomp on the back of the neck generated another crunch, and the Grallt went still.

Peters looked around. The leader-Grallt had stepped back a few paces and produced what was presumably a weapon, similar to what Todd had taken from the Nekrit but somewhat larger. He brandished it. «Stand,» he said, in a horrid but understandable accent.

«What do you want?» Peters asked, holding eye contact and being careful not to watch Gell, who was moving slowly behind the other Grallt with a sizeable stick in his hands. «We were simply walking along the path. What do you want from us?»

«Come with,» said the unknown Grallt, mangling the words. «Come now.»

«I don’t think so,» Peters told him. «I don’t like the way you welcome strangers.»

«Come with!» the Grallt said sharply, waving the weapon. «We go– »

The cudgel met the back of his skull with a clonk that was clearly audible, and the Grallt folded. Peters stepped forward, picked up the weapon, and skipped back out of reach in one motion. «Thanks,» he told Gell. «Do you know how this thing works?»

«It’s a weapon,» Gell said, out of breath. When Peters shook his head irritably, the pilot continued: «Like the ones we have. If you press the button on the top, it projects a short burst of push-force.»

«Like this?» Peters tested the device. A stone beside the trail splintered.

«Yes, just like that,» Gell replied. «What are you doing?!»

Peters knelt, put the business end of the weapon against the leader’s temple, and pressed the button, twice. He looked up at Gell. “I reckon there ain’t no cops comin’ along anytime soon, and folks as tries to push me around and don’t manage it don’t get no second chances.” He administered the same treatment to each of the others, then stood and regarded the gadget with a twisted mouth. “Souvenir,” he pronounced, and put it in his pocket.

«I don’t know that word,» Gell said shakily.

«No, I don’t believe I’ve used it before. It means an item which can elicit a particular memory.»

«I won’t have any problem remembering this.» Gell stood looking down at the body of the leader. «I’m sure I’ve never hit anyone that hard before. Not with intent to harm, anyway.»

«Surely you’ve been in ship-fights.»

«Yes.» Gell looked up, then around. «This is different somehow.»

Peters laughed without humor. “Just more personal, is all. C’mon, let’s finish this up and get back to the hotel.”

«Yes… Peteris? Please speak Trade, if you would. I’m frightened enough already.»

«I’m sorry. Were you injured?»

Gell shook his head. «Not that I can determine… I don’t know which frightens me more: the danger we were in, or your reaction to it. You are a very effective fighter.»

«Ssth. Hardly.» Peters kicked at one of the bodies, which was leaking onto the path. «These were stupid, confident of their ability to frighten us into doing whatever they wanted. That made them easy meat. If they had been experienced fighters that would be us down there.»

«I’ll take your word for it. I lack all familiarity with this area of expertise.»

«What, you don’t have bar fights when you visit strange planets?»

«Never… of course I hardly ever visit strange planets. What do we do now?»

«Now we search them. They may possess some clues as to why we were wanted.» Peters suited action to the words, producing his multitool and bringing out the scissors. The leader’s clothing was tough but yielded to the stainless steel; it was the work of a few moments to dispose of the outerwear. Underneath he had on a kathir suit of the same type the ferassi had worn, in a simple pattern, deep forest-green below the waist and white above. A quick search of the pockets produced a handful of ornh and a few bits of unclassifiable debris.

«Nothing concrete, but a strong clue,» Peters pronounced, turning an arm up to display the suit controls. «What have you discovered?»

Gell was disrobing a second figure, more neatly as he had no cutting tool. «Much the same. Half a square of ornh, a small folding knife.»

«Let’s check the third one.» The last of their attackers had much the same assortment as the others did, and they added up the inventory: two, two eights, and a square of ornh , two folding knives, half a pound of miscellaneous stuff including a few coins, and the weapon. No clues beyond the suits presented themselves. «Ssth,» Peters hissed. «Nothing.» He put the ornh in his pocket and gestured. «We’re done here. Let’s go.»

Gell shook his head and followed. A few tle of walking, Peters limping slightly, brought them to the edge of the lawn surrounding the hotel, and a few more had them sitting in rocking chairs on the verandah. A n’saith servitor observed their arrival and came up.

«May I serve you?»

Peters nodded. «Commendably prompt,» he approved. «When I arrived, I found a carafe of liquid in my room. I don’t know the name of it, but I found it quite drinkable. A small quantity of that would be enjoyable.»

«The liquid is called ‘thivid’; it is a specialty, prepared from local flora.»

«Yes. A serving of thivid, then, and whatever my friend will have. I am in suite three-one-two; place the charges on my account.»

«Of course.» The servitor took Gell’s order and turned to go.

Peters stopped him. «A moment, if you would… you may have observed that we are somewhat mussed. We were assaulted on the path in the forest.»

The n’saith expressed alarm. «Terrible! I assure you the establishment makes every effort possible to keep the paths safe.»

«We have no complaint against the hotel,» Peters said. «You might care to inform the staff that the path is disfigured by a quantity of carrion. I’m sure they would wish to tidy up.»

The servitor eyed him sidelong, the effect enhanced by the large liquid eyes. In this light it was possible to see that the eyes were composed of a multitude of pinhead-sized lenses. «I will see to it that the staff are informed,» he said, projecting disquiet. «In the meantime I will get your drinks.» He bustled away, looking back as he entered the door to the serving area.

Gell shook his head. «I believe I have almost stopped shaking,» he remarked. «If I recall correctly, I asked if you would ward off predators, and you agreed. You have certainly been effective in that regard. I have never been so frightened in my life.»

Peters laughed. “Compared to bein’ rolled in a crib in Marseilles, this was a walk in the park,” he pronounced.

“Remind me not to go to Marsay, or whatever you said.”

“I’ll do that,” Peters promised with a chuckle. “For right now, I see our drinks comin’. We’re drinkin’, and they ain’t. That’s what I personally call a happy endin’.”

* * *

Peters woke to a pounding headache, a mouth tasting of fur and rotten slime, and a knotted gut. He achieved sufficient coherence to determine that he was nude and that something in his environment was not as it had been, then went unconscious again.

His next waking was more protracted. The headache had localized itself just below his eyebrows, where the two components launched attacks on one another at every pulse, and the knotted gut had eased to the point of incipient nausea. What had waked him, though, was an absolute requirement to urinate, and that provoked a more thorough investigation of his surroundings. If there wasn’t a head somewhere nearby, unfortunate events would result.

He wasn’t in his suite; so much was obvious. No wood paneling, no curtains–in fact, no windows–and no decanter of thivid on the sideboard; no sideboard. The room most resembled his and Todd’s quarters aboard Llapaaloapalla, but it wasn’t that, either: the bunk was wider, there wasn’t a second one, again no window, and the paint was a different color. There was a door in approximately the right place, though, and he investigated that first.

It was a head, similar in most respects to the one on the Grallt ship, lacking the pass-through door to the next compartment. The fittings were almost identical and arranged similarly; he utilized the appropriate one, searched for and failed to find the flushplate, and stepped back with a headshake. The toilet roared; the rush of water made him dizzy and provoked a spasm of vomiting.

He knew this feeling, knew what to do about it. Water and rest were the first requirements; he’d be wanting simple food later, when his alimentary system started up again after being paralyzed by alcohol poisoning. There was no cup by the sink basin, but his cupped hands made a satisfactory expedient. He stumbled back to the bunk and fell on it, with a load of cold water sitting like lead below his diaphragm.

The next couple of hours went exactly as expected, unfortunately. Drink water, rest for a while, heave; rinse and repeat. Gradually the headache subsided to a dull throb, and the nausea to a mild queasiness. About now he wanted something bland to eat, something with a lot of sugar and fat; commercial packaged puddings had always been useful. The room offered nothing in that respect.

He tried the door, a side-swinging latch handle like the shipboard ones. Locked, or blocked from the other side. He regarded himself ruefully. Without clothing his explorations were likely to be restricted, even if the locked door failed to prove a barrier. Exploring in the lockers and cabinets of the room yielded nothing whatever; the place was as bare as it had been when it was built, except for sheets and a thin blanket on the bunk.

He was sitting on the bunk, sourly reviewing the stupidity of getting falling down drunk in a strange place with known enemies about between sessions of dry heaves, when the door mechanism emitted clicks and the panel swung outward. Two Grallt males entered, one coming fully into the room and addressing a remark at the naked sailor, the other hanging back by the doorframe, fingering a weapon similar to the one the guys in the forest had had. Peters shook his head–the language sounded the same, and was still incomprehensible–and the lead Grallt wrinkled his face in a sneer and said something else, an order by the sound of it. When Peters didn’t even bother to look blankly at him he spat a syllable and grabbed an upper arm.

The blow to the gut didn’t work, foiled by muscles operating on about a quarter power, brain ditto, and an alert opponent. He found himself with a mouthful of deck, his arm twisted painfully behind his back, and the Grallt shouting something in his ear. The gust of propelled breath wafted past his nose and tickled his gag reflex; he spasmed and heaved, propelling a stream of vile-smelling pale yellow liquid onto the feet of the weapon-wielder, who stepped back. The one holding him down chattered, and the gunman looked at something outside the door and made a remark of his own.

That produced two more Grallt, who grabbed him by the upper arms, jerked him to his feet, and propelled him into the corridor and down it to the left, accompanied by gabble that had to be discussions of his ancestry and personal qualities. The gunman followed, weapon at the ready, and his original assailant trailed behind, making an occasional comment and getting short replies.

Through a door, into a room full of gleaming machinery. They shoved him into a closet or cabinet and swung the door shut. The structure was a vertical tube, just big enough to stand in, studded with bumps at twenty-centimeter intervals. A dim light came from overhead.

Then the gravity went off. The abrupt change generated a return, or rather an upsurge, of queasiness; he restrained it with effort. The confined space was bad enough; adding vomit, no matter how clear, would definitely fail to improve his condition.

The bumps started flashing, actinic bursts starting at his feet and working upward in a spiral, about once a second. Flash flash flash flash; they emitted no detectible heat and made no sound. When the pattern reached neck level he was forced to close his eyes, still able to detect the flashes as bursts of red through his eyelids.

Nothing happened for a few heartbeats after the last flash, then the gravity came back on and the door swung wide. The two goons grabbed his arms again and jerked him out. Goober the gunner stood well back, fingering his piece, and the first Grallt addressed a few choice remarks in his direction. When he got no response he screwed up his face and gestured angrily. “Chuckles” would do for him, based on personality, until he found out what the fuck was going on.

A slot in the wall delivered a pair of solid white long johns onto a low table. “Chuckles” picked the garment up, held it out to Peters, and spat three syllables. Put this on, no doubt, and despite the situation the prospect was appealing. He nodded and made a palm-up gesture, and Chuckles said something else and fiddled with the thing for a few moments before handing it over.

It was a kathir suit, ferassi version, like the ones they’d found on the human-looking inhabitants of the pirate ship. Peters pulled it on, finding that it was easier to don than those the Grallt had issued. The ankles gave without having to fiddle with closures, shrinking back to a close fit when his feet were properly inserted, and it closed up the front without an overlap. He immediately felt warmer. That had been about to be a real problem; the air was chill, much cooler than the Grallt kept their ship.

Chuckles directed more remarks his way, ending on a questioning note, and Peters simply shrugged and spread his hands. One of the goons–call ’em “Left” and “Right”, this was “Left”–spoke up, and they all laughed. Chuckles made a dismissive gesture and said something short and pithy, cutting off the laughs in mid-kh , and said, «Very well, we’ll go along with your game. Will you speak the Trade?»

Peters snorted. «Hmph. You have the brains of a chicken and the manners of a pig in heat. If you had bothered to ask that at any time in the last few tle, you might have had less trouble.»

The suit squeezed , constricting his trunk so as to expel air from his lungs, and simultaneously administered electric shocks to his groin and breast. Peters doubled over, and Chuckles looked benign. He said something in the language he’d used at the beginning, frowned at the lack of response, and said, «Either this is no pose, or you are much stronger than you appear. The pains can be more intense if you like. Will you speak Language?»

«I–don’t–speak–the–language–you want,» Peters managed between gasps.

«I still don’t believe that, and I know that Elisin Troy won’t when his turn comes,» Chuckles said in a conversational tone. «I’d advise you to speak up when he asks you questions. You’re obviously tougher than the average for you scum, but as I told you, the suit can generate any level of pain desired.»

«If you ask in a language I can understand, I’ll answer reasonable questions,» Peters said as he straightened up. «There’s obviously some misunderstanding here.»

«The only misunderstanding here is yours. You obviously feel you can get away with pretending ignorance, and I will warn you once more: that position is untenable.»

«That’s your decision,» said Peters sourly. «But once and for all, I do not speak or understand the language you use, and if you kill me without receiving information the effort will be futile.»

«Nothing is completely futile if it is an enjoyable activity,» Chuckles pointed out.

«That fits with what I know of your character. People who assault innocent strangers should be less free with the word ‘scum’.»

This time the constrictions and pain were enough to put him right out.

<<< Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Seven >>>

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