Recovery a half-ande later started out as a duplicate of the previous day, bar one less ugly box. They didn’t come in with quite the same verve; Retard Three caught two of them before they broke Four. Parking was different, too, since Chief Warnocki had a squad of deck apes in kathir suits with duty belts and rifles. The nekrit seemed to know what slug-thowers were, and an M22 up the nose was enough incentive to get their ships more or less lined up with their nonfunctional companion before the Hornets and Tomcats needed the bay.

That part was a joy and a pleasure, as usual with the first-line crews. Each of the graceful darts hit near as dammit dead center, and their velocities were so closely matched that Retard Three had no business at all. One, two, three, through nine and ten, then seven Tomcats, one every thirty seconds, easy as pie, regular as clockwork. It looked like they did it every day, which they didn’t, quite.

The nekrit headed for the guest quarters hatch in their usual sloppy gang. This was the first group they’d encountered who didn’t seem to feel that a little ceremony was appropriate.

“Well, that’s it, I guess,” said Howell, as the human pilots exchanged glances and began moving off toward their quarters in their own loose group.

“Yeah,” said Peters. “Wonder how it went?”

Rupert sneered. “You have to ask?”

* * *

Peters slung his helmet on an empty chair and began shuffling out of his flak jacket. “How’d it go?” he asked.

“You have to ask?” Todd was disposing of his own deck gear the same way. The planes were out for the second round; they were taking it by turns to eat before getting back and preparing for recovery.

“Hell, yeah, I have to ask. Did our guys just win, or smash the bastards?”

“Well, Commander Collins was grinning something fierce,” Todd noted. “Based on what’s gone on before, I’d say that means we beat their butts as usual.”

Peters nodded. “Wonder why most of these folks ain’t got much idea how to go about it.”

Todd shook his head. “Well, from what I can see, for most of them it’s a kind of game, they don’t take it as seriously as our guys do.”

“Yeah.” Peters thought a moment. “I reckon there’s another thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, if zifthkakik are expensive it means they probably ain’t got very many of ’em. I’m just speculatin’ here, but maybe there ain’t enough spaceships around to get into wars with.”

Todd nodded. “That could be. Whereas our guys have been fighting people with airplanes for a century and a half. Lots of practice.”

“Yeah. Say, did you hear what Jacks came up with?” When the response was a negative headshake, Peters described what they’d learned about nekrit reproductive systems.

“Shit.” Todd made a sour grimace and shook his head. “You know, before we got out here I’d never thought about it. There’s men, and there’s women, and that’s the way it works, right?”

Peters grinned back. “Well, we done found out it ain’t necessarily so.”

“Yeah… It doesn’t seem like the basis for any kind of society we’d like. Nasty.”

“You got that right.”

“You say Se’en came up with this? Has anybody passed the word?”

Peters frowned. “I dunno. I reckon Dreelig oughta know about it.”

“Dreelig.” Todd’s tone was dismissive.

“Yeah, he ain’t been distinguishing himself lately. What’s your point? The nekrit are here today, they’ll be gone tomorrow. It don’t make no difference where little nekrit come from, ‘cept for us to snigger about.”

Todd picked at his food. “It occurrs to me that a society based on a system like that wouldn’t include much in the way of ideas like fairness,” he pointed out. “The nekrit lost the ship contest. Who’s to say they wouldn’t like to get a little of their own back some other way?”

“So? The only ones they’d be likely to go after would be the officers, and they’re pretty well isolated.”

“Not all of them. Remember the crew that couldn’t get their shitbox started?”

“Yeah. They didn’t even try it the second time.”

“Right. They’ve been lounging around the ready room waiting for the rest of it to be over with, and not all of our guys are out.”

“Alternate crews?”

“And some of the primaries.” Todd grinned. “If you want a clue as to how it went, there’s one for you. Half the flight crews this time are alternates.”

“And you think we oughta warn somebody about the possibility of dirty work.”

“Yes, I do.”

Peters sighed. “I ain’t real anxious to get noticed again, but I’m afraid you’re right.”

The watchstander in the duty office on the main deck wasn’t the brightest bulb in the string. “What’s up?” he wanted to know.

“You seen the two nekrit that didn’t go out?” Peters asked him.

“You mean the aliens? Yeah, they hung around here for a while, then they went upstairs.”

“Anybody else up there?”

“Medics, a couple of the pilots. What’s it to you?”

Peters didn’t feel like taking the time to fill in the blanks. “Need to visit the infirmary.”

The sailor shrugged. “Sign the book.” Peters complied, and the watchstander added, “Don’t dawdle, and don’t go past the third door. You ain’t supposed to be fooling around up there.”

“I know the drill,” Peters said shortly. “Come on, Todd.” They took the steps two at a time.

Silence, except for a low murmur of voices from the wardroom. “I ain’t real happy with this,” Peters observed, keeping his voice low.

“Nor me,” Todd conceded. “We could tell the medics and let them pass the word.”

Peters considered. “Probably the best thing… what’s that?

“That” was a bump or thud behind a door. “What’s in here?” asked Peters worriedly when it came again, this time accompanied by a low wordless cry.

“How do I know?” demanded Todd. “They don’t exactly set up tours.”

“We better check it out.”

“Yeah.” The two sailors looked at one another for a moment. Finally Todd grabbed the door handle; Peters stood in a half crouch, ready to move or block as necessary. He nodded. Todd yanked.

“Whathefuckisthis!” Two nekrit, one big and one little, had somebody down on the floor, and there was a pair of khaki pants slung alongside one of the cabinets. Neither sailor had seen a nekrit wearing khakis.

Peters pushed off against the bulkhead just as one of the nekrit, the little one, stood up. Well, hell, at least I get to do the easy one, he thought, then found out he was wrong; the fairy nekrit was wiry, strong, and agile.

The big one moved to help the little one, and the person on the floor was Lt(j.g.) Briggs. Todd leaped into the scuffle and got lucky, and a little help from the victim; Briggs tripped the big one, who fell just where a size-nine boondocker could connect properly, right behind the ear. Best of all, the alien had some kind of gadget in a little flap holster. Todd didn’t know what it did, but he yanked it out, shoved it against the little one’s head, and mashed the button.

Nothing happened except that the alien went white, started gabbling, and quit squirming around. The other one cooled off too, and Peters, who had almost been down for the count, started squirming out of his flak jacket. “Loan me your knife.” It wasn’t a request.

Todd pulled out his flick-knife, flipped it open, and handed it over, and Peters began ripping the tough fabric. Todd moved to help, and the two made sure the nekrit were securely tied before turning to the object of all the ruckus.

“Jeez, Ms. Briggs, you OK?” asked Todd.

“No, God-damnit, I am not OK!” she said. “Todd, is that you? Who the Hell’s that with you?”

“Yeah, it’s me, ma’am,” said Todd. “This is my buddy Peters, from the retarder crews. Come on, ma’am, we need to get you to the doc.”

“Shit, no,” said Briggs. “Look, thanks, Todd, but just help me get back to my quarters. Damn, that hurts.” The woman was shaking, white, and shivery.

“Come on, Ms. Briggs, you gotta see the doc,” Peters urged. “You don’t know what we know.”

“What the hell do you know?” It was a scream.

“Never mind, ma’am, just come on, sick bay’s just across the hall.” Peters grabbed the woman to keep her from falling. “Todd, this ain’t workin’. You go get Doc Steward and a stretcher. I’ll hold the fort.” Todd nodded and left. It didn’t take very long for him to get back with the doctor and a couple of corpsmen.

“What the hell is this all about?” Steward demanded. “Holy shit,” he added when he saw the half-disrobed woman and the two aliens on the floor. “Somebody better have some answers.”

“Just a little friendly rape, sir,” said Peters grimly. He had maneuvered Briggs so that she was half sitting on a chair, half leaning against him. She was white-faced, semiconscious and losing it. The two nekrit were groaning and writhing, testing their bonds.

“Jeesus,” said the doctor. “Wilson! Kiel! Get this woman on the gurney. You’re Peters, right? What’s this alien sex crap your buddy was spouting?”

“Let’s get Ms. Briggs on the stretcher first, sir,” said Peters. He and the two corpsmen maneuvered the woman onto the pallet and the medics moved her out. Peters, Todd, and the doctor regarded the two aliens as Peters began repeating the story.

By the time it was done Steward was grim. “All right, I know what to do about Ms. Briggs. What do we do about these beauties?”

The two sailors exchanged whispers, and Todd acquired a grin that showed no amusement whatever. “Sir, with your permission I’m going over to sick bay,” he told the doctor. “She knows me, maybe I can help a little.” He handed the gadget to Peters, who transferred the knife to his left hand to take it.

“Good idea,” the doctor nodded. Todd nodded back and left, and Steward turned to Peters. “I take it you’ve got an idea about what to do about this.”

“Yes, sir, I got a notion,” said Peters. He looked down at the nearest nekrit, the smaller one. “With all respect, sir, you oughta be takin’ care of Ms. Briggs first, no telling what kind of poisons these bastards squirted into her.”

Steward looked at him a moment. “I also take it that your proposed solution is nothing I’d care to get involved with,” he said quietly. Peters just looked back without much expression, and Steward glanced briefly at the two aliens, then left, shaking his head. Peters grimaced without amusement. He hadn’t expected the man to be so quick on the uptake.

Todd slipped back through the door after a little while, and stood in the doorway bouncing a baggie full of something red up and down in his hand as the two nekrit, now fully conscious, watched.

“That what I think it is?” asked Peters.

“It’s what you suggested.”

“How do we work this?”

“You’ve still got the knife, right?” Todd was smiling. He started exploring around the front of the larger one’s buckle, punched the emergency override combination, and pulled the kathir suit open to expose a muscular chest and belly. “Just cut anywhere.”

“Right.” Peters set to work. “That’ll do it,” he said finally. “Go see if you can borrow a stretcher, we’ll tote our friends down to the ops bay. I ain’t in the mood to untie ’em so’s they can walk.”

* * *

Neither of them had ever been in the captain’s office before. Captain’s suite, actually; it opened off the bridge access corridor just aft of the double doors. The walls were paneled in dark vertical strips with prominent grain, and there were accents of brass and red here and there, including the heavy desk the secretary sat behind.

She gestured and smiled, and Peters pushed the latch. More of the same paneling; the desk was bigger, with inlaid panels of contrasting wood. Preligotis sat behind the desk, looking genial, and Prethuvenigis the trader chief sat in a wooden armchair set at right angles to the desk. «Come in, come in,» the captain said without rising.

They eased into the room. «Please take seats,» Preligotis urged. «You look worried. There’s no need for worry. Sit, sit.»

Prethuvenigis was smiling faintly. “Do please sit,” he urged in his odd accent. “We have a spot of business to conduct.”

“Yes, sir,” said Peters. He eased into another spindly armchair, facing Preligotis, and Todd followed clumsily. There was a short pause as the captain and the trader inspected the sailors, and the sailors took in a few details: pens and pencils on the desk, a framed picture of a sailing ship on the wall behind Preligotis, a tall brass lamp by Prethuvenigis’s chair.

«You take important matters into your own hands, do you not?» the captain inquired by way of an opening.

«Yes, I suppose we did,» Peters said without implying apology.

Preligotis smiled faintly. «If I understand your customs, you must be expecting to be disciplined,» he noted. «As I’m sure you’ve learned, we do many things differently. Tell me: what do your superiors among the humans think of the recent events?»

Well, that was a thing. «We are under threat of severe discipline for assaulting the nekrit,» Peters explained, with a bared-teeth gesture that couldn’t be mistaken for a smile. «When Commander Bolton returned and discovered the situation he was extremely angry.» That was understatement. The Commander had ranted for several minutes on the subject of insubordination and underlings taking matters into their own stupid incompetent hands. The “severe discipline” they were under threat of was a summary Court; it would have already been under way if they hadn’t been summoned up here.

«At you? That doesn’t seem reasonable,» Preligotis commented.

«From his point of view it might seem reasonable,» Peters pointed out. «He thinks of the races we meet as potential trading partners or enemies, and doesn’t care to offend them unnecessarily.»

Prethuvenigis laughed out loud. «Kh kh kh! Peters, how does your society manage if people with such insight are kept in subordinate positions?

«I don’t know that it’s any great insight,» Peters objected uncomfortably, aware of Todd’s grin in the next chair.

«It’s more than many subordinates manage, especially when they’re expecting to be disciplined,» Preligotis pointed out.

«Yes,» the trader agreed.

«Can you squash that?» the First asked. «You have a man assigned to the officers, as I recall.»

Prethuvenigis frowned. «We aren’t supposed to interfere in disciplinary matters within their group, but I can certainly tell my man to explain a bit more completely.»

«It may take more force than that,» Preligotis warned. «It certainly would if I were in Commander Bolton’s place.»

«Yes.» Prethuvenigis sighed. «I’ll go myself.»

«Good,» Preligotis acknowledged with a nod. «Do you think that will be sufficent?» he asked Peters.

«I don’t know. It will certainly help, at least a little.»

«Are you under threat of bodily harm?»

«Probably not.» Peters looked at Todd. «We would expect to be confined, and to lose the little precedence we have among our group.»

«You qualified that carefully,» Prethuvenigis noted. «Do you expect worse after we return to your home planet?»

«Possibly,» Peters admitted.

«Let’s see if Commander Bolton is prepared to be reasonable,» Preligotis suggested. «If worst comes to worst we can offer refuge.»

«We would like to avoid that if possible,» Peters said grimly.

«Yes. Well, we will certainly exert ourselves on your behalf,» the trader said. «It’s the least we can do in the circumstances.»

«The very least,» the First agreed. «Perhaps the rest of it will help. It would certainly have to be considered a strong commendation from us.»

«Yes,» Prethuvenigis smiled. «Peters, on what basis did you take the action you did? I know you’ve done a lot of reading. Had you found some information that you acted on in this case?»

«No.» Peters frowned. «I’ve been reading fiction. I hadn’t thought to look for facts about the situation.»

«Even more remarkable. So what did you base your actions on?

Peters shrugged. «We had a confused but seemingly accurate description of their reproductive arrangements. It was Todd who made the connection between those and their probable attitude toward losing the contest. Our reasoning followed from that.»

Prethuvenigis leaned back and crossed his arms, still smiling. «You will no doubt be interested to know that First Preligotis and I have just completed an interview with the chief of the nekrit.»

Peters glanced at Todd, who managed a shaky grin. «We were preoccupied with other matters. Are we in trouble from that quarter as well?»

«Quite the contrary,» Preligotis rumbled.

«Yes,» the trader agreed. «Drava considers your actions courageous, forthright, and showing a remarkable grasp of nekrit custom.» A flash of teeth. «He was particularly struck by your choice of revenge. It’s precisely what he would have done in a similar situation.»

Peters gaped. «But–»

«Oh, he was quite put out, as you might imagine, but his chief concern was that the incident not be publicized. He was rather insistent about that.»

«I don’t understand,» Peters objected.

«Are you aware of the function you and your superiors perform for us?» the trader asked seriously.

Todd spoke up for the first time. «We understand we show our stuff to many peoples, hope for trade.»

Prethuvenigis nodded. «That’s your motive for being here. We consider that a desirable goal, of course–»

«Oh, cut the introductory material, Thuven,» Preligotis broke in. «It’s gaming. Betting.»

For the second time in the conversation Peters felt his jaw drop. «Oh?» was all he could manage.

The trader nodded and leaned forward. «Yes,» he confirmed. «We have been wagering on the encounters between your ship operators and the others you have met. You people are new, and we have been getting excellent odds. The proceeds have been impressive.»

Peters suppressed a hundred questions in favor of the top of the stack: «Do they know that? It isn’t common knowledge among the enlisted such as myself.» Todd’s slack jaw tended to confirm that.

Prethuvenigis chuckled. «Kh kh! No, your ship operators have not been told.»

Second item on the pile: «Had you intended to inform them, or to share the proceeds?»

The trader nodded. «We meant to withhold the news until the end of the voyage, to discourage peculation. At that time we intend to split the profit with them. As I said, the proceeds have been handsome, and I believe that will somewhat soften the impact of the news.»

«Probably so,» Peters conceded. «What constitutes ‘handsome proceeds’ in your lexicon?»

The two Grallt shared a look; the captain leaned back in his chair with a benevolent expression, and Prethuvenigis said, “Profits to date amount to a little more than two great big numbers.”

The expression he had used was “squares of large squares of large squares.” A “square” was sixty-four, the base-eight “hundred”; a “large square” was two to the twelfth. Peters began ticking off powers of two on his fingers, lost track, and pulled out the handheld. He showed the readout to Todd: 1,073,741,824.

“A billion ornh?” the younger sailor managed to gasp.

“Just over two, he says.” Peters turned back to the trader. «Obviously that is a large number; our living allowance is tiny in comparison. But what does it mean in real terms?»

«In real terms–» the trader glanced at Preligotis, who continued to beam and made a go-on gesture «–a ship like Llapaaloapalla might be purchased for, oh, four to eight times that amount, depending on condition.»

«We of the zerkre are extremely gratified,» Preligotis put in. «If things continue as they are, we will be able to pay off over half our debt out of our share of the proceeds.»

Prethuvenigis nodded. «From our point of view it is not a mammoth amount, but quite respectable even so.»

«Indeed,» Peters managed. Numbers swam in his head, but…. «What has all this to do with the nekrit and our actions?»

«The nekrit are a proud people,» Prethuvenigis said solemnly, then looked at Preligotis. The two Grallt shared a chuckle, and the trader continued, «At least they are proud of themselves. They lost both bouts with your ship operators, and are anxious that the fact not be publicized lest they lose face.»

Another concept that translated directly: face. «And …» Peters encouraged.

«And they have offered us a substantial bribe to keep it quiet,» Prethuvenigis said with a satisfied smile.

«Do you intend to take it?»

«Oh, certainly! We could derive a great deal of amusement from spreading the word–very few of the kree like the nekrit, they’re nasty people–but money is money.»

«It certainly is,» Peters agreed.

«More to the point, they wish to offer you a bribe. You personally, I mean.»

«Eh?»

Prethuvenigis spread his hands. «They carefully cultivate their reputation as fearsome warriors,» he explained. «Imagine their chagrin when one of their better pairs is defeated by a couple of sailors with little or no training in combat and almost no experience in space.»

«And I take it you recommend we accept this bribe.» Peters stole a look at Todd, who had settled in his chair and was looking smug.

«Oh, yes,» Prethuvenigis said. «It’s substantial.»

«How much exactly?»

«Four squares of large squares.»

Peters worked that out and showed it to Todd. “A million ornh,” the younger sailor said with a nod.

«Is that enough, in your professional opinion?» Peters asked the trader.

«Of course not,» Prethuvenigis said with an impatient wave. «Drava said so himself. He apologizes, but after paying us he hasn’t enough ready cash to increase it significantly. He offers instead zifthkakik, of the size used for small craft such as the fighting ships.»

The grammatical form was ambiguous; Peters offered, «One zifthkakik …»

«And four squares of large squares of ornh. That’s for each of you. Drava knows that a bribe should be large enough to make an impression on the one taking it.»

«It certainly makes an impression on us.» Peters glanced at Todd again. The younger sailor was lying back loosely in his chair, face a bit pale, looking for all the world as if he’d passed out drunk except for his open eyes. «In your professional opinion,» he asked Prethuvenigis again, «do you recommend we accept this amount?»

«Oh, no question,» the trader recommended without hesitation. «The zifthkakik are worth eight times the cash, which makes the total quite adequate. Altogether a very respectable bribe.»

«And what, exactly, are we being bribed to do?»

«You are being bribed to not do, in this case. Specifically you are not to discuss the events which took place on this ship between you and the nekrit with anyone, at any time.» Prethuvenigis smiled again. «Forever, or for your lifetimes, whichever is longer.»

Peters thought about that. «I see a problem.»

«What is that?»

«We are accused of wrongdoing. If we cannot discuss our encounter with the nekrit we cannot defend ourselves.»

Prethuvenigis frowned. «Yes, that’s a difficulty, isn’t it?»

«Must we say yes or no immediately?»

«Immediately? No. But you should answer within a llor or so.»

Peters smiled, a little thinly. «We then await news of your success or failure in dealing with our superiors. If you are successful we will certainly accept the bribe, right, Todd?»

«Certainly.»

Prethuvenigis was smiling in return. «And what am I offered for that service?» he asked. Peters didn’t miss the wink he aimed at Preligotis.

There was a pregnant pause as Peters figured. «Half,» Todd said firmly.

The trader nodded, smiling more broadly. «I accept.»

«The amount not to be paid if you are unsuccessful,» Peters qualified.

«Kh kh kh! Of course not.» He suppressed his smile and regarded the humans from under lowered brows. «If I am not successful, you cannot accept it in the first place, am I not correct?»

«Yes, that’s right,» Peters admitted.

«Then I certainly have an incentive.» Prethuvenigis rose. «I believe we’re done here. Do you agree, Preligotis?»

«Yes, I think so,» the First judged. «We have not resolved all the issues, but some remain pending upon other events. Do you agree, Peters? Todd?»

Peters looked at Todd, who nodded. «Yes, I believe we have done what can be done in this session.»

«Yes,» the First agreed.

«Yes,» Prethuvenigis added cheerfully. «I’m on my way. I am, after all, a trader, and with such a handsome profit in view I should be eager and persistent, should I not?» “Cheerio,” he added in English, and departed without further ceremony.

Peters rose. «Thank you, Preligotis,» he said as Todd came to his feet as well.

The First of Llapaaloapalla smiled and nodded, and Peters and Todd turned and left. They didn’t even feel odd about it any more.

When they got down to the ops bay Todd looked around. “This is a big enough space to holler in,” he remarked.

“You probably oughta keep it down,” Peters advised.

“How so? We’re rich, dammit!”

Peters smiled. “Yeah. If Preligotis can convince one of the biggest assholes on the…. well, any damn place, to lay off on us.”

“My money’s on the Grallt.”

“You’re forgettin’ somethin’.”

“How’s that?”

“We-ell, if Prethuvenigis don’t convince the Commander to let it lie we gotta tell all at the Court, and then we ain’t rich.”

“Yeah, that’s true.”

“And if our trader friend does get Bolton to back down we get the money, but the money’s for not tellin’ anybody, right?”

Todd frowned. “I think I see where this is going.”

“Yep. If we ain’t rich we got nothin’ to shout about. If we’re rich we can’t talk about it, and ain’t that gonna be fun if people find out anything?”

They took a few steps. “So you’re saying we ought not to be doing any shouting, whatever the outcome.”

Peters nodded. “That’s it. It ain’t that tough. You just gotta keep your mouth shut.”

“You say it.” Todd looked sidelong, then sighed. “You know, I hate it when you’re right about things like that.”

* * *

Once around the ops bay at an easy amble was just the right amount of time for the kathir suit to do whatever it did with the byproducts of strenuous exercise. Peters was just finishing such a stroll when he met Master Chief Joshua at the EM quarters hatch. “Howdy, Master Chief.”

“Hello, Peters.” Joshua was smiling. “I thought I’d come right down and tell you, you’re off the hook.”

“The Commander’s withdrawin’ the charges, then.”

“Oh, better than that. He’s putting you in for a Commendation Medal.”

“That’s a nice decoration for anybody’s 201, but I reckon it’s goin’ a bit far in the other direction, Master Chief.”

“Yeah, well, if the choice is fish or fins it’s easy to decide on the menu,” the Master Chief pointed out. He–not frowned, exactly, but the intensity of his beam diminished noticeably. “You don’t seem too enthusiastic about the news.”

Peters shook his head. “If I have gave that impression I do apologize, Master Chief,” he said, forcing a smile. “The news is a big load off my mind, and I do truly appreciate your comin’ down to give it to me.” Especially since this was only the fourth, possibly the third, certainly not the fifth time anything like that had happened. “I’m sure Todd feels the same, but the fact is, Master Chief, we done been asked not to talk about the whole mess with anybody, and I been settin’ myself to do it that way.”

“How long ’til you can start telling sea stories?”

“I dunno, Master Chief.” He jerked a thumb in the general direction of the bridge. “The folks up yonder was pretty insistent about us keepin’ it under our hats. Could be a long time.”

“Well, when it gets to be possible you be sure and let me know. I’m wanting to hear that story as much as anybody.”

“I’ll do that. Thanks again, Master Chief.”

“Not a problem.” Joshua gave a little dismissive wave and disappeared back into the hatch.
Peters set foot on the hatch coaming and looked around the bay before entering. A truly satisfactory place to holler in. He sighed and carefully closed the hatch behind him. Todd would be happy to hear the news, he was sure.

<<< Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Thirty >>>

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