Cora came out of the bedroom and twirled, arms out slightly, showing herself off in a blue-and-white bikini. “How do you like me in this?”

“I think you’re beautiful in it,” Keelig said with a smile. “Of course, I think you’re even more beautiful out of it, so I suppose my judgement is suspect.”

She stuck out her tongue and waggled the tips at him. When he responded in kind she said, “Oh! I didn’t know you could do that! That’s wonderful!”

“What’s wonderful?”

“That you can wiggle your tongue-tips up and down independently. I think we have a great future together.”

“I certainly hope so. I’ve been planning it for a while.” He grinned. “Shall we go back in and build a little more of it?”

“No, silly. You promised me a walk on the beach.” She looked up at him. “Of course, afterward….”

“Promises, promises. Woman, you are impossible.”

She turned her head, to look coyly out of the corner of her eyes. “Well, maybe not impossible, actually…. ”

“Actually, no.” Both laughed, staccato pops, and he said, “All right, get your wrap. We’ll go walk on the beach.”

As they left the hotel, he remarked, “This beach might actually be worth it. It’s as pretty as any I’ve seen.”

“What’s that overhead? Oh! It’s a machine of some kind. I thought it was an animal.”

“Yes, it’s a machine, called a hang glider. It rides the winds; when the wind blows onshore, like now, the big hill between the hotel and the sea turns it upward, and the humans ride it with their machines.”

“Can we try it? It looks wonderful.”

“Patience, please… perhaps in a few days. I want a chance to enjoy you for a while, before you convert yourself into a bag of broken bones in the infirmary.”

“Pooh.” She stuck out her tongue again, but he only grinned and took her arm. They walked more or less north from the hotel, first along a boardwalk with shops and restaurants on the shore side, then along a concrete sidewalk in a grassy area with twisted trees. To the left a roadway intended for the local ground-machines, currently unoccupied, separated the beach from a row of homes and shops, stuccoed and painted in bright colors.

A kiosk of boards painted pale blue sat at the junction of two sidewalks, and Keelig pointed at it. “Do you want something to drink? They have several nice things here.”

“Something non-alcoholic, I think. The sun is bright, and I don’t want to give myself a headache.”

“I know just the thing.” He spoke to the attendant in the local language, receiving a smile and two cylindrical objects in return for an ornh-piece. The attendant waved and said something cheerful, and Cora smiled and waved in return. “Here,” Keelig said, passing over one of the cans. “It’s called ‘guarana’, and is supposed to aid in alertness and intelligence. Do you know how to open it?”

“Yes, these things are starting to show up everywhere,” Cora told him, and worked the pop-top expertly. “I even found klisti in one, on Zenth.”

“Good… it’s also supposed to excite the libido,” he said when she had taken a healthy sip.

She laughed. “Then you should be drinking something else… so should I, for that matter.” The kiosk sported a large sign, black rectangular human letters on white, with a few curlicues. “I’ve never seen one of these,” Cora mused. “What precisely does it say?”

Keelig waved. “The usual. Products, goods, and services with origin off Earth are forbidden to be sold, given, or otherwise transferred to persons within or dependent upon the polity known as ‘United States of America.’ The sign uses much more precise terms in the local language, which is called Portuguese.”

“Is the Interdict holding?”

“So far… the bür report fewer incursions in the last uzul. They have only had to destroy one illegally transported zifthkakik in that time, a small one, intended for ground cars.”

“Was there much collateral damage?”

“No, the humans had attempted to conceal it deep below ground in a rural area. The result is only a smoking hole… enough about that; it is too sad a story for a beautiful day.”

She nodded and waved up the beach. “You were right. This is really pretty.”

“I think so.” The beach stretched north in a long, nearly-straight line. People of several species, predominantly human but including Grallt, zeref, and one or two n’saith, sported on floating boards in the surf. Several small islands, the same shape as the loaf-shaped hill that separated the hotel from the sea, dotted the water, which sparkled beneath the daystar.

The two set off up the beach, holding hands, laughing and touching. They were by no means the only ones doing so, but other activities were in progress as well: swimming, riding the floating boards, ball games of various types, a gang of children in a vigorous game of chase-one-another. “Oh, look!” Cora said, then contradicted herself. “No, don’t look,” she said firmly, and grasped his chin to turn his head away.

Before she succeeded he caught a glance, and laughed. “It’s nothing unusual,” he said. “The younger girls among the locals like to display themselves. They strut along the beach without any clothing above the waist and little enough below. Sometimes they swim, but not often.”

“And you watch, of course.”

“If I did not, their purpose would be defeated. I am a generous person; I like to help people accomplish their aims.”

“Generosity indeed… perhaps I will do the same.”

“Certainly, if you wish. But I would prefer that you save the spectacle for me alone.”

“And where is your vaunted ‘generosity’ in that?” She laughed, and again looked up coyly. “I think I’ll wait until I’m more sure of myself.”

“Depend on it, you would show to advantage.”

“You say the nicest things.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss him.

There were a few solitaries on the beach, walking alone, picking up the shells of sea-creatures or simply enjoying the air. One of them, a not-too-reputable looking human, came close enough to say in surprisingly cultured Trade: “Excuse me, but may I have a moment of your time, please?”

Keelig looked him over. Up close, he wasn’t dirty and didn’t look deranged, melancholy rather; tall, slender, and pale-skinned, with black eyes expressing — what? Sorrow, certainly. “What do you want?” Keelig asked, not too invitingly.

The man dipped his head in a deferential nod. “What I want would be a long list,” he said with a wry twist of his mouth. “For the moment, may I ask your names and occupations?”

Keelig nodded shortly. “I am Keelig, an assistant in the factor’s office in Paranagua. This is Cora, a zerkre of the Engineering Department of trade ship Llapaaloapalla. I now ask the same of you.”

The stranger closed his eyes for a moment. His shoulders slumped; for a moment he stood swaying, in the grip of some strong suppressed emotion. At length he opened his eyes and said, “I have had many names.” He focused on the girl. “Is Preligotis still First of Llapaaloapalla?”

“Yes and no.” She frowned. “In title he holds the position, but in fact does little. He is expected to retire soon.”

“Who is — no.” The stranger mused for a moment. “If I pronounce some names, will you tell me if you recognize any of them?”

She shook her head in bewilderment. “I suppose so.”

The stranger smiled. “Names. Peetir: a zerkre of the Engineering Department. A tall woman with brown hair worn in a short fall about the ears, knowledgeable in air-cleaning equipment and plumbing.”

“My supervisor is called Peeteris. She is much as you describe, except that she has learned much of the electric practice of the humans.”

A whuff escaped from the stranger; he smiled momentarily, seeing some humor not evident. “I am gratified at her success… Dhuvenig. A male of middle height, with light hair and eyes, once the Engineering Officer.”

“You know a great deal, but your information is out of date. Dhuvenig is Second, soon to be Predhuvenig when Preligotis retires.”

“Marvelous news. What of Heelinig, who was Second?”

“Preheelinig is First of Asnadapoalla, a new vessel of the Combine.” She frowned. “We were sorry to lose her, but gratified by her success.”

“As am I… A woman called Deela, by now probably Deelanis, of the Trade department; short, with dark hair cut close about the head, not especially pretty of face, but with a remarkable figure and a beautiful baritone voice.”

Keelig snorted. “Hmph! Your information is indeed out of date. Predeelanis is first of Trade of Llapaaloapalla; in my work I have met her several times. Her appearance is much as you describe. I have never heard her sing.”

The stranger sank to the sand, hugging his knees to himself, and looked up at them with wet eyes. “Are the ferassi women Ander Korwits and Alper Gor still resident on board Llapaaloapalla?”

“I don’t recognize the names,” Cora said with a frown. “No, wait… two women live in Forward Twenty-Four, but they style themselves ‘human’, not ‘ferassi’. I believe I have heard the names ‘Alper’ and ‘Ander’, but they give Earth-style surnames: Peters, I believe. They are wealthy, important figures in the Combine.”

The stranger looked up, now crying in earnest. “Keelig,” he managed between gulping sobs, “will you take a message to Predeelanis from me?”

“Easy, fellow,” Keelig said, touching him lightly on the shoulder. “I see no reason to object… she will wish to know your name.”

“I think — I hope — the name will be sufficient of itself,” the stranger said. “Tell her, please, that John Peters, once called Peteris, would like to visit, but lacks access to transportation.”

<<< Chapter 49A