“Salvage One, let’s head zero four zero mark two two zenith,” Lt(jg) Briggs suggested over the earbug. “Speed off scale as usual.”

“Roger, 210,” Peters told her. “I’ll pass the word.”

Communications were truly a jury rig. The antique UHF sets on the planes had near-infinite range under these conditions, the Grallt ships had no communications facilities at all, and the earbugs had a range measured in tens of meters away from their network repeaters. Well, he and Todd had told them. It wasn’t their fault nobody’d believed it.

«Right three points and a half, up two points,» he told the pilot. He was getting pretty good at converting degrees to the system the Grallt used. It helped that the latter was near-identical to the old system of “compass points”. It also helped that the conversion didn’t have to be exact, since the freight ship didn’t have any accurate means of measuring heading deviations either.

«Yes,» the pilot responded with a nod, and began carefully rotating the freight hauler to the new heading. When she thought it was right she nodded again and pushed the andli forward. The Hornet lagged a bit, then caught up with no problems.

It had been proposed that a UHF radio from one of the Tomcats be unshipped and pressed into service, but unfortunately it wasn’t a simple radio. Components were scattered around the airframe, and the wiring wasn’t simple; it could and would be used later, but right now there wasn’t time.

The only solution available was a relay. Ms. Briggs was detailed to keep her Hornet alongside the freight carrier, relaying information from the UHF to her earbug. For a while it had looked like another officer would end up doing the Grallt end of the earbug segment, but they didn’t know the language, and putting another person in the loop risked Whisper Game errors, so Peters ended up with the job. Todd was fluent enough to handle it, which would have let them put another ship on duty, but that would have meant cutting their search capability to the extent of another Hornet for comm relay.

“Salvage One, come left to three six seven, nadir zero two,” Ms. Briggs suggested. The Hornet pilot had come up with the call sign on her own; all Peters knew about it was that she thought it was amusing. He passed the correction to the pilot, who furrowed her brow and made micrometric adjustments.

Peters didn’t know the pilot, a zerkre in four-ways called Vredig, but she seemed a nice enough person, if businesslike. He had added a touch of his own: the earbug issued to Llapaaloapalla‘s bridge for airsuit practice had never been returned, and he’d begged it from Dhuvenig and passed it to Vredig. That left him free to move around supervising.

“Good enough, Salvage One,” the Hornet pilot advised cheerfully. “We’ll do more accurate adjustments when we get closer.”

“Thanks, Hornet 210, we’re standing by.” Ms. Briggs acknowledged that with a tongue-cluck in lieu of the microphone click the earbugs couldn’t do, and Peters turned to get the working party organized.

External handling equipment, ha. He’d visualized something like robotic arms or “tractor beams”; the reality was lines with big hooks on the ends, chains, and a half-dozen zerkre with big muscles. The truly surprising thing was that the system seemed to work. They’d been at it for two llor now, and had averaged a little under one recovery per ande, net profit eight zifthkakik to date.

And twenty bodies.

The Grallt all thought Peters was nuts for his insistence on recovering bodies, but he’d kept at it until they went along. He wasn’t doing it out of sentiment. Recovering the bodies gave him a chance to look for paperwork, identifying marks, and anything else that might help them identify their attackers.

Dhuvenig was right: they were Grallt, all but two of them “males”, all wearing kathir suits in checkerboard patterns, red instead of the blue Llapaaloapalla‘s crew wore. So far the gleanings were minimal: a few scraps of plastic with scrawls on them, ID plates from the ships, pocket trash. Peters wished for dog tags, but personal ID was another thing nobody seemed to have thought of.

“Salvage One, I make it two targets on approximately the same vector,” Ms. Briggs advised. “Alter heading zero zero five mark zero eight zenith for intercept on the nearest one.” Multiple targets were the rule rather than the exception. Vredig had told him the zifthkakik tended to seek one another when not under control, not quickly but consistently. It meant that wreckage on more or less the same base course tended to group together.

“Wilco, 210.” The pilot made the adjustments when Peters passed them on, then pointed out the “windshield”. Sure enough, a pair of sparks were distinguishable by their motion against the starfield. “Hornet 210, we have a visual.”

“Roger, Salvage One, understood you have eyeballs on the targets. Advise Tomcat 104 has acquired another one, bearing one seven six mark seven three zenith our present heading.”

“Understood, 210. One thing at a time, we need to get to work. Salvage One out.” Vredig was slowing and getting them into position.

“Roger, Salvage One. Hornet 210 out and standing by.” This time Peters returned the tongue-cluck.

* * *

The little ship was like the others had been, vaguely airplane-looking, distantly related to the dli but smaller. A wing was broken off, as was the vertical stabilizer and part of the fuselage where it had been attached; laser holes marred the remaining structure, and one of the cabin windows was missing, the frame distorted. They’d seen something like that on all of the ones they’d recovered. After the surprise return the human pilots had kept shooting until pieces broke off, and it looked like the pirates hadn’t given up for real until something took out one or more of the people.

Vredig opened the aft door and looked over her shoulder, twitching the andli until they were stationary with respect to the pirate ship and perhaps ten meters away. One of the Grallt workers, a big black-haired fellow with a heavy “mustache”, jumped over with one of the hooks on the end of a line belayed to a padeye inside the freight hauler, and from there on it was a routine they’d established in two llor of practice. It took about two tle for them to have the craft’s zifthkakik tied down in the compartment, lengthwise as Vredig insisted for some reason, and two bodies in plastic bags ditto.

The Engineering Officer was right about something else, too. Nine zifthkakik in as many ships, all in good condition; twenty-one crew members in the ships, all dead. Their kathir suits felt thin and a little stiff, and the buckles came right off when Peters tugged at the catches. He’d been expecting decompression effects, or at least the burst capillaries he’d gotten when he’d tried removing a glove in vacuum, but the deceased just looked like dead people. He didn’t like handling dead people, but he’d done it before. Hell, he’d done it as a teenager in West Virginia. There were worse things.

He went quickly through the control cabin, finding little or nothing, and shook his head. Probably the fragment of the mother ship that had separated during the battle would yield a lot more information, but the Grallt flatly refused to investigate it. The human pilots had given it a once-over, but there were no identifying marks on the outside, and they had no way of getting inside to look for more. Oh, they did, and it pissed Peters off just thinking about it, but none of the officers had any training at all in kathir suit maneuvering, so he hadn’t even suggested that the Tomcat RIOs get out and get close.

The second pirate ship went like the first one had, a little quicker now that they were into the swing of it. The second zifthkakik went next to the first; the two crewmen were secured next to their fellows, RIP; Ms. Briggs gave them the steer to the next one, Vredig set a course they could refine later, and Peters gritted his teeth and started searching the bodies. Nothing, as usual. Oh, change in the pockets and that kind of thing, but nothing remotely useful.

Tomcat 104 was loitering by the next target, and with its zifthkakik active Vredig had no trouble getting there. Pushing buttons on the control panel picked one of the multiple ships to go to, and after that the white-cross instruments guided the way. She let Peters do part of it, grinning as she took a break, but took over the andli for the close matching. That was fine. It was fun, and he was learning, but he had no illusions about their relative skill levels.

More of the same, with one exception: a pattern of red-and-white rings around the forward fuselage like bumblebee stripes. Lou (!) hooked on and the others swarmed over to attack the engine mounts with crowbars and saws while Peters wormed his way into the operators’ cabin to look around. Three crew this time, not unusual, but the kathir suit on the one in the right seat had four cuts. Maybe the command ship?

Peters attacked the roof of the compartment with the tool he’d been issued, a thing like a pruning saw that went through the thin aluminum (?) structure of the ship with little effort if he could find a way to brace. The bodies were stiff with rigor, but he managed to work them out, bundling them together with light cord and pushing off to the freight hauler. Closer investigation could wait; he dumped them and swam back to check out the rest of the ship.

Jackpot, maybe; a folder of the plastic “papers” the Grallt used was stuck in a slot next to the command seat. He set it aside and searched as thoroughly as he could given the time constraints, finding nothing but the usual trash. The workers got the zifthkakik tied down and the bodies secured, and Ms. Briggs had another target for them. Peters wondered how long they’d keep it up. Eleven zifthkakik, twelve if the next one was recoverable, which they all had been so far.

* * *

«Sixteen zifthkakik,» said Preligotis with vast satisfaction. The First of Llapaaloapalla had come down himself to look over their haul, Heelinig and Deenerin in tow, with a couple of two-colored apprentices dancing attendance. Peters noted with interest that Prethuvenigis hadn’t shown up, nor had any of the rest of the trader group except Dreelig, who was trailing after Commander Bolton, seeming abashed. That suggested something that Preligotis confirmed: «Ours, too, not trade goods we have to pay for! This is wonderful.»

Dreelig translated. Bolton’s face was a study in conflicting emotions: cupidity, satisfaction, suspicion, and apprehension warring. “Wonderful,” he agreed, and looked up at the first, wanting to ask but unsure of how to go about it.

Peters could have told him–just ask, dammit!–but he knew better than to speak up. He faded a little further into the crowd kibitzing the action as Dreelig translated the words, then asked something on his own, too soft for Peters to make it out.

Preligotis nodded, still smiling. «Yes, we must apportion them fairly. I suggest this: We divide them into three parts, with the odd one in the last set. The first group becomes the property of the zerkre of Llapaaloapalla. The second part goes to the humans, for effective defense of the ship.»

Bolton smiled tentatively when he got that. “And the others?”

«You were able to find them, we were able to bring them in. The last six should be divided three each to us and to humans, as an equitable division of the effort of salvaging them.»

“Even split, eh? Yes, that seems fair.” Bolton’s eyes were shining with triumph. “These look the same as the ones mounted in the planes.”

«Yes, they are the standard size for small ships.» Deenerin smiled. «My personal suggestion is that you exchange them to the traders for the ones you have. It would reduce your debt.»

“These are the same as the ones mounted in the planes, yes,” Dreelig made that. He seemed to be about to stop there, but his eyes wandered over the crowd of onlookers, finally stopping at Peters, then looking quickly away before rendering the rest of it: “The ones in the planes are only on loan,” he said reluctantly. “These are yours to keep.”

Bolton was staring suspiciously at Dreelig; at the final admission he nodded shortly, keeping the eye contact until the Grallt looked away.

Preligotis hadn’t missed the byplay, but he just smiled and shook his head. «Would you like us to store them for you?» he asked. «If they are not properly stowed they can interfere with the working of the ship. We have a safe place.»

“If you’ll let us know how it’s done so as to be safe, we’d prefer to keep them in our area,” Bolton suggested.

«Yes, that’s natural,» Preligotis ruled. «I’ll send Dhuvenig down to explain.»

“Then we’ll do it that way,” Bolton decided. “Is there any restriction on where in the ship they go?”

«They should be kept close to the centerline,» Deenerin put in.

“You see any problems, Master Chief?” Bolton asked Joshua.

“No, sir. If they need to be kept close to centerline, I suggest one of the shops in hangar bay four, sir.”

Bolton regarded the objects. “I’d really prefer to keep ’em in the storerooms under our quarters, but if they need to be close to centerline that’s probably a good place.” He looked up at the Master Chief. “They will be guarded,” he decreed.

Joshua ducked his head. “Yes, sir.” He had probably already thought of that; his mind seemed to work that way. White web belts and pistols, no doubt. “I’ll get a working party on it right away, sir.”

“Very well, Master Chief.” Bolton looked Preligotis over. “Dreelig, does the captain understand a handshake?”

“I can explain it.” When Bolton nodded, Dreelig told the first: «The humans signify sealing a bargain by clasping right hands. Commander Bolton would like to perform this ritual.»

Preligotis smiled. «I’ve seen stranger customs. Certainly.» He held out his right hand; Bolton clasped it, a little awkwardly because the captain didn’t really understand, and they held on for a few moments before breaking contact. «I believe we’re done here,» the first remarked.

«Yes. A good day’s work, and well worth the delay,» Deenerin remarked. The Grallt party nodded at the humans, turned, and left in their usual style.

«I’m not sure the traders will agree that the delay was worthwhile,» Heelinig remarked as they walked away.

They were too far away for Peters to hear Preligotis’s response to that, but the rest of the Grallt all laughed, and it didn’t sound like deference to the CO’s humor. Bolton and the other officers were still standing there, looking nonplussed and a bit irritated, not accustomed to people simply walking off when the conversation was over. Peters shook his head and turned to walk away himself. The watch bill had been posted, and he had forward bay door lookout for–surprise surprise–fifth ande of their five-ande day. He’d need a nap first.

Todd met him with a broad smile. “Messages for you,” he said, and indicated two sheets of paper and an envelope lying on the study desk. “Everybody got a copy of the top one, they’re waiting for you to translate. I got part of it.” The half-smile became a frank grin. “The other one’s just for you.”

The top one was only a couple of sentences; Peters translated it aloud:

‘The council of zerkre of Llapaaloapalla extends its thanks to the humans. The expenses of your upcoming holiday will be met by the council.’ Well, that’s mighty nice of them,” he remarked. “We can both pass the word.”

“Yeah.” Todd’s grin had become sly. “Now the other.”

Peters picked it up, with a doubtful glance at the grinning sailor. It had a salutation:

«Peters,
Thank you for your assistance in the recent salvage operation. Your efficiency and prompt and effective attention to detail were greatly appreciated by all participants.
By this evidence you are recognized as a zerkre of
Llapaaloapalla of the third precedence. I have been informed that your airsuit pattern is as required by your position within the human precedence structure. When you are acting as a zerkre, alter your suit pattern to reflect your precedence among the crew. If your superiors permit, on other occasions you may display your precedence among the zerkre as a small square of four divisions on some portion of the suit.
Your living allowance will now reflect your status as a crewmember of the third precedence. The enclosed is provided in additional recognition of your special effort.

By order of Preligotis, First of Llapaaloapalla,
Heelinig, Second for Personnel and Operations.
»

Peters looked up at Todd, who was still beaming. “Yes, I read it. It took me a while to puzzle it out,” said the younger sailor without apology. “I thought maybe a little square on the right arm, just below the shoulder, would be about right.”

“Hmph.” Peters looked down at the paper, then up again. “Somehow I can’t see the Master Chief goin’ along.”

Todd shrugged. “Well, it does say if your superiors permit … we never did put the ship’s name on our suits,” he pointed out. He gestured at the desk. “I didn’t open the envelope. I expect we both know what’s inside, but I’d like to know how much.”

“Yeah.” Peters ripped at the envelope, finally getting the flap open. “Not too bad. You need a loan?”

“How much?”

“Let’s see … I ain’t never seen a sixteen-ornh bill before. One, two … sixteen of those. Four squares of ornh.”

“Five thousand dollars, more or less. What’s that?”

“That” was a note in Grallt script, clipped to another piece of plastic paper. Peters read it aloud: “«To crewman Peters, third precedence: This is your share of the salvage of the fighting-ships of Brindalpoalla»–that’s the name of the pirate ship, I found it in the raider CO’s stuff–«as supervisor of the salvage crew: two squares of trade shares. The additional four squares of ornh consitute a bonus.» It’s signed “By order of the First”, like the other one, but I don’t recognize the name underneath. Says he’s the third of Llapaaloapalla for financial affairs.”

“Purser,” Todd suggested.

“I reckon.” Peters was staring into space, calculating, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. “Come!”

“Just passing the word,” said Vogt a little apologetically, looking curiously at the paperwork Peters was holding. “The runner’s just been to the Master Chief.” He extended a plastic flimsy. “We think we know what it says, but you better check it for us.”

Peters took the sheet and scanned it. “Says here liberty’s going ahead, just a little late. The boats’ll be loadin’ after the second meal tomorrow for the trip down.”

“That’s about what we thought we’d made out, but we wanted you to make sure.”

“Yeah,” Peters nodded. The programmer returned the nod and started to close the door, but Peters interrupted: “Wait.”

“Yeah?”

“Everybody got one of these, right?” He picked up the first piece of paper and showed it to the other.

Vogt inspected it briefly and shrugged. “Far as I know. I know I got one, but I haven’t seen the translation yet.”

“It says the Grallt are payin’ for our liberty again, except it’s the ship’s crew payin’ this time.”

Vogt’s eyes lit. “Hey, great! The last couple haven’t been much fun, what with only having our pay to spend.”

“Well, that ain’t a problem this time. Pass the word if you would.”

“I sure will! Thanks, Peters.” Vogt left, unceremoniously in the way they’d all adopted.

Todd was still grinning. “Well, you don’t need for anybody to pay for your liberty,” he pointed out. “I can’t help thinking that a man with a half-million dollars in his pocket can find something interesting to do.”

Peters grinned thinly. “I reckon you’re right.” He eyed the younger sailor. “If I do, you’re invited. My treat.”

“Thankee.”

“Hunh. We been in this together since the beginnin’, wouldn’t seem right otherwise.” Peters regarded the share paper and the number written on it: dash dash two. “Anyhow I reckon it’s better if I go ahead and spend it.”

“How’s that?”

“You forgot who we are? Couple of enlisted pukes. What do you bet there’s some kind of regulation’ll make us turn this in when we get home?”

“You think so?”

“Don’t see how it could happen any other way. The suits’ll be antsy to get all this stuff.” He waved vaguely, indicating Llapaaloapalla and all it contained. “Can’t see ’em lettin’ a little thing like it belongin’ to me stand in their way.”

Todd had sobered. “You’re probably right.”

“Yeah. Oh, they’ll figure out some way to make it all elegant like, probably like they did when we got back from Palestine, we gotta turn it in for American money.”

“Or they might just call it income and tax it away,” Todd suggested. “You ever had a run-in with the IRS?”

“Not personally… Hunh. 2055 already, and we ain’t even got our forms, let alone turned ’em in. ‘Course we been kinda busy and pretty far from a mail drop, but that ain’t no excuse to the Revenue.”

“You got that right… what do you suppose they’ll say it’s worth?”

Peters grinned without amusement. “Hell, I don’t know. Dollar a share or somethin’. Whatever it is, it won’t be enough for us to buy any of the shit we’ve been seein’.”

“You’re probably right,” Todd acknowledged with a nod. “So you figure that paper’s either about two good drunks apiece…”

“… or a pretty damn nice time the rest of the cruise,” Peters finished. “I know which one I’m gonna pick. Like I say, my treat. Let’s see if we can spend it all before we get home.”

* * *

It wasn’t at all clear what a white web belt and a 5.56mm automatic would do to keep the boogers off if the said boogers came calling with spaceships and nukes, but on balance Peters approved of the bow and stern watches in spite of their seeming futility. As the Master Chief had said, they’d been slipping into a sloppy disciplineless state, and having the regular watches was a Navy-like arrangement that tended to keep their minds on business.

The Master Chief had kept his word: the only ones not on the watch rota were the medics. For some strange reason he and the other Chiefs tended to get the morning and midday watches instead of missing their sleep, but the principle was clear and the example was impressive, if not quite what Peters would have done in the situation.

Llapaaloapalla was rotating slowly, stars drifting by from lower left to upper right. The Grallt didn’t seem to care about that, or maybe they didn’t have the fineness of control to prevent it; at any rate, whenever they were on orbit the ship seemed to wander … as did his mind in this circumstance.

Liberty on P’Vip had been a bust, fortune in his pocket or no. The site, a timber lodge in the midst of a vast snowy plain with little copses of scruffy trees, hadn’t been to anyone’s taste. There’d been nothing around it, and no transportation to more salubrious climes available–Peters had asked that first thing, and gotten what amounted to sneers. The only entertainment available had been trekking in the snow, either on foot or using riding animals like skinny cows.

It had been a relief, really, that the Master Chief insisted on rotating people back up to Llapaaloapalla for the security watches. About all they could do on P’Vip that they couldn’t do on the ship was get stone stinking drunk, and Peters for one didn’t find that terribly entertaining.

One thing: The food had improved, as promised. The inhabitants of P’Vip, surly and graceless as they were, had a biochemistry closer to human and Grallt than the last few they’d visited, and tasty items were again appearing on the menu. One of them was something like pasta, flat strips of a starchy substance, and another was a spicy preserved meat. Combined with tomatoes and a few spices from the Grallt supply, they made a very acceptable substitute for spaghetti that almost everyone, Grallt or human, liked and took whenever it was available.

The watch finally dragged to an end, as watches do no matter how seemingly interminible, and Peters surrendered the duty belt and sidearm to his relief. Gonsoles donned the gear, having to let the belt out to accomplish that, and set himself at parade rest in the dead center of the opening, facing outward at the stars. Peters snorted to himself. He hadn’t thought the roughneck was that imaginative.

Chow and a nap, in that order. Flight ops at the beginning of the next ande.

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