“You look very tired,” Dreeling observed. “Were you successful?”

Peters just grunted. Todd answered, “Yes, I think we were, but it was pretty wearing. What about yourself?”

“Very well.” Dreelig was smiling. “We did not accomplish much, but the social interactions were fascinating. Secretary Averill was very deferential to Donollo.”

“That’s great,” Todd told him. “Oh, shit, I almost forgot. Dreelig, what’s the ship made out of?”

“I don’t understand the question,” the Grallt confessed.

Todd waved at the ceiling. “The ship up there. What material is it made of? Steel, aluminum, titanium, or what?”

Dreelig’s eyes were wide. “I have never thought to ask. Do you need to know at this moment?”

Todd yawned. “Yes, right now if possible. I need to send a message.”

“Then please wait a few moments. I will ask Gell, perhaps he knows.” The two sailors stood just inside the hatch, glad to be out of the wind, until the Grallt returned. “Gell doesn’t know the word in your language, and neither do I,” Dreelig told them. “He says it is the substance found at the center of planets like this one, or almost the same. Does that help?”

“Not really,” Todd said, but then a dim memory surfaced. “You know, it does help after all. I’ll be right back.” He climbed down the step to chat with one of the sentries. “I left a message with the Marines,” he told them when he got back. “God only knows if Warnocki’ll get it.” He yawned again and stretched. “I am beat, let me tell you.”

“So what’d you tell ’em?” Peters wanted to know.

“Hunh?”

“The Marines,” Peters said patiently. “What did you tell the Marines to tell Chief Warnocki? That the ship is made of?”

“Oh, that,” said Todd. “I remembered an old nature vid. The center of the Earth is iron. I can’t imagine making a machine out of iron, it’s too weak and brittle, so I told the Marine to tell Warnocki it was steel.”

Peters grunted. “Hunh. That’ll please him.”

“Not that I give a damn. Come on, let’s cut the yak and get out of here. I’ve got a date with a bunk mattress.”

Gell was in his seat, idly fingering the flight control, when they got to the cockpit and flopped into the black chairs. The pilot gave them a toothy grin, and Peters was too tired to realize that he’d recognized the expression, just replied the same way, fingered the seat control to full recline, and went promptly to sleep. The next thing he knew Gell was shaking him awake, and they were sitting in the ops bay, with the sun shining brightly on the ceiling. That last failed to matter. They stumbled up to their quarters, tossed the paperwork on the desks, folded their uniforms and tucked them away out of sheer inertia of habit, and flopped into their bunks.

* * *

When they’d come aboard the first time, by chance the Grallt schedule was more or less in sync with theirs, and they had adjusted fairly quickly. Now they had been forced back into Earth time, which was nearly in opposite phase, and had to begin adjustment all over again. They managed to nap during the ande after their return and make the next meal, but were really dragging when the fifth ande rolled around and they were finally able to hit their bunks again.

Dee and Dreelig were shuttling up and down to Washington on Earth time schedule, and weren’t available except for a few words at an occasional meal. Unfortunately, they were also the only Grallt other than Znereda the instructor who spoke English well. Peters physically dragged the steward called Peer, who seemed to be more or less in charge, to Znereda’s office and spent some time sketching and handwaving. After that they had a couple of buffers, which didn’t look at all remarkable, some pads, and a supply of cleaner and wax, in metal tins instead of plastic bottles. The stewards all thought they were nuts, but they got not only the officers’ living quarters but the spaces intended for operations offices clean and the decks gleaming.

When officer’s country was done they started on the enlisted berthing spaces. Peters didn’t ask, just collected the crew, led them over, and started handing out assignments. A confident bearing and “follow me, men!” seemed to work just as well on Grallt as it did on humans. They didn’t do a thorough job, just dusted the corridors, cleaned the decks, and laid down wax, but the place looked a hundred percent better, and they could do the individual rooms when the other enlisted got on board. After meeting Chief Joshua, neither Peters nor Todd was eager to leave much scope for apologies.

They did manage one more session with Znereda, this one devoted to numbers, writing, and emergency calls. Those last weren’t of much use, since according to the instructor Todd had heard right: the shipwide PA system hadn’t worked in years. Peters felt sure that a handful of electronics types would be able to fix it easily, but there wasn’t any way to let Chief Joshua know they needed the supplies.

When they headed for their bunks after fifthmeal they found a surprise. Lying on the study desk was a square white envelope. Inside was a thin sheaf of square pieces of something thin and tough, with noticeable fibers in a random pattern, like the plastic material some courier envelopes were made of but with a smoother surface. Each was about ten centimeters on a side, one face printed with a complicated design of swirls and Grallt writing in blue and bluish gray, the other quartered in blue and white squares. He counted them: eight.

What the hell is this? he thought, then realized that Todd had come through the head and said the same thing. They didn’t normally do that. As a rule, they met in the head but didn’t invade one another’s quarters. “You have any idea what this is all about?” Todd demanded, waving a similar sheaf of–whatever.

“Fuck if I know,” Peters growled. “Whatever it is, I got eight of them. How about you?”

“The same,” said Todd.

“Well, shit.” The long days had left both sailors grumpy and irritable, and they had figured out that there wasn’t much point in trying to think or communicate just before bedtime. “Fuck it,” Peters decided, fingering the slips. “I dunno, and I ain’t gonna try to figure it out now. Me for the rack, an’ I suggest you do the same. We gotta be fresh as a daisy for Commander Harlan Shithead Bolton in a few hours.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said Todd. “See you later.” He pushed the head door shut, and Peters tossed the slips back on the desk and started squirming out of the suit. He wanted that shower.

* * *

They didn’t know if the mess room would be operating that early, but set off across the bay anyway, somewhat rested, dressed, but hungry and hoping. It was open, but there were only a few Grallt around, none of them looking very alert, and the waiters were moving slower than usual.

Along with their meals came another surprise: each was handed a slip of paper. At the top was a scrawl of Grallt; Todd mumbled to himself, looked up at Peters. “It’s my name,” he said. “See, t – o – d.” Peters’s slip had his name on it, too. It was the first time either of them had seen their names written out in Grallt letters.

Below the names were tally marks, Grallt style, three horizontals and a vertical cross each, a one-stroke-at-a-time version of the character for “four,” which looked like a reversed capital E. At the bottom was a number. Todd’s was thirteen; Peters had twelve, a slash, and four, which was a fraction. “Four and eight, and a half,” he said. “What do you suppose this is about?”

Todd had been counting tallies. “You’ve got twenty-five tally marks, and I’ve got twenty-six. You reckon it’s a count of meals? I had one more than you did, sixmeal once, remember?”

“So what the hell’s this? The bill?”

“Can’t be anything but,” Todd told him. “Look, if each meal is half a whatever, it comes out right, see? I had twenty-six meals, so my bill’s thirteen, and you had one less.”

“Yeah, I reckon so.” Peters looked at the slip. “I guess I was just assumin’ that food came with the duty, like at home.”

“Apparently not.”

“So what do we pay it with? Dimes? Dollars? Shirt buttons? If it’s much more than that, I can’t cover it.”

“I’ve got a hunch.” Todd ran his thumbnail down a thin line on his suit, pulled open the resulting pocket, and extracted his sheaf of puzzling blue-and-white squares. “We each got eight of these things, right? There’s eight days in a week, and today and tomorrow are supposed to be free days.”

“Payday. Well I be go to Hell,” Peters observed. “I didn’t bring mine, though.”

“If I’m right, no problem, you can pay me back. Let’s try it.” Todd signaled to the waiter, handed him the two slips and all but one of the squares. The Grallt nodded and inspected the slips, lips moving in calculation, then clicked a gadget on his belt and handed Todd three bits of metal. Two of the bits were just alike, squares about an inch on a side, copper colored, and the third was a little smaller and silvery.

“Got it,” said Todd with satisfaction. “The bill was twenty-five and a half. I gave him seven slips and got two and a half in change, so each slip is four whatevers, and sure enough, here’s a four.” He pointed at one of the corners. “You owe me twelve and a half of whatever they are. Three chits and a copper square.”

“Well shit,” said Peters. “I’ll settle up when we get back to quarters. No, I can’t, I ain’t got change.”

“Let the half ride,” said Todd. “It isn’t like you won’t be around.”

When they were almost finished Dreelig came to the entry, saw the sailors, and came bustling over. “There you are,” he greeted them. “We need to make ready. Your officers and their machines will be arriving soon.”

“Yeah,” Peters growled. “Have a seat. We’ll be done pretty quick here.”

“No, I will go ahead. We don’t know exactly when they will arrive, and I must be there to greet them. Come as soon as possible.”

“Right away,” Peters told him, and lifted a cup in salute. Dreelig nodded and left, and Peters took a long sip and set the cup down. “I reckon we better get on,” he said. “Can’t keep the important folks waiting.”

Donollo wore a kathir suit patterned the same as his “important” suit, and headed up a small delegation consisting of himself, Dreelig, and Dee. The two sailors joined them, and they assembled forward of the personnel elevators and observed Navy tradition by waiting an hour or so. Then one of the Grallt pointed and made an exclamation, and everyone looked aft.

First it was a bright star, moving visibly, then it started looking — complicated? It didn’t resolve into individual specks until it was almost close enough to make out the shapes. There were four of one type in a diamond formation, and five of another in the broken echelon called “fingers”. Then the diamond broke into two diamonds, with one going port, the other starboard, and the finger-fives broke into one up and one down. Peters grinned at Todd as they flashed by. They’d been doubled up, belly to belly, less than half a winglength apart. Assholes they might be, but they were also Navy aviators.

After a few moments a spark came into view aft, then two, three, four, and the nearer one was growing… suddenly it was there, flashing through the dead center of the opening. There were a pair of sharp twangs, thum! thum! like plucking the E-string of a bull fiddle, and it was taxiing by at a fast walk, the pilot holding his hand high in a sort of wave. It broke left and came to a halt with the nose a few feet from the wall, at about a forty-five degree angle. Thirty seconds later number two came aboard, again hitting dead center, again the double thrum, and it taxied over and parked next to number one. Three and four followed in turn.

Peters had never seen an F-14 before, but now he understood why they’d picked three-quarter-century-old junk out of the boneyard for this. Modern fighters were blobs designed for radar and lidar stealth, painted in scabrous-looking anti-IR noncolors and kept in the air by brute force and computers. These were pretty, especially with the swing-wings tucked back into a graceful dart shape. They’d dipped ‘way into the past for the paint job, too, overall the dark blue called ‘navy,’ thin red-and-white stripes around the jet intakes, and white lettering on the sides, wing tops and bottoms, and tail fins, the whole polished to a high gloss that reflected the bay lights like a mirror.

There should have been ground crews, but that had been thought of. The Tomcats had spring-capped recesses the pilot could use to climb down, and the pilots did that, worked something inside the port engine intakes, and pulled out lightweight ladders that they set in place for the back-seaters to use. Meanwhile the F-18s began arriving. The Hornets were single-crew aircraft, and when they were in and parked in echelon to starboard the Tomcat crews produced similar ladders from their port intakes and set them up so the pilots could disembark. Once they’d all dismounted they formed up as a company and marched over to the welcoming party.

Peters snapped to attention, glanced at Todd, and saluted. Commander Bolton looked up at the overhead and glared, but returned the salute anyway. “Detail, halt!” he called over his shoulder, then turned back to the two sailors. He was short, muscular enough to look stocky in his flight suit, and had a round head and a short buzz cut, making his face look like a chocolate drop with features. Displeased features, at the moment. He looked the two up and down, then spat, “Why are you two apes out of uniform, sailor?”

Peters held his brace. “Begging the Commander’s pardon, sir! The operations bay is considered part of the exterior of the ship, and kathir suits are required wear for safety reasons, sir!”

Nobody’d told him that, but that was his story, and he was going to stick to it.

Given a justifiable reply, Bolton’s face relaxed to simple dyspepsia. “What’s your name, sailor?” he said in a normal tone of voice, merely sour rather than challenging.

“Peters, sir!”

“Very well, Peters. Who do we report to?”

“The Senior Donollo, representing the commanding officer, sir! Render honors to the bridge, centerline forward, sir.” Well, that was probably where it was.

“Very well. Carry on, Peters.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” Peters saluted again, and Bolton returned it snappily, then called over his shoulder, “For’rd, harch.”

Several of the officers looked them over as they marched toward Donollo, and Peters was suddenly self-conscious. He’d become so accustomed to the skintight kathir suit that he’d forgotten how revealing it was. He wondered how the Hornet pilots, all female, would look in them. Some of them weren’t bad, even in their lumpy flight gear.

Commander Bolton stopped in front of Donollo, half turned, saluted in the direction Peters had said was toward the bridge, and turned back to face the Grallt. “United States Navy Space Detachment One, reporting for duty, sir,” he boomed in a parade-ground voice, and saluted again, this time holding it. The other officers were all at a rigid brace.

Donollo raised his left hand, gave a measured nod, and said something short; Dreelig took a half step forward and said in a voice that projected, “The Senior Donollo welcomes you aboard in the name of Captain Preligotis.” Donnollo lowered his arm, allowing Commander Bolton to relax his salute, and beamed over the assembly. Obviously enjoying himself, he made a short speech in sonorous Grallt, seeking out the officers for eye contact one at a time. You could tell which one he was looking at by the flinches.

When he had finished, Dreelig translated: “Good morning. We welcome you aboard for your training and practice session, and look forward to seeing you frequently during the next zul.

“You have come aboard our ship seeking an opportunity to meet others, to demonstrate your skills in the hope of finding markets for them. Please be assured that we will assist you in this task to the extent we are able, and we hope you will be comfortable.

“In order to be truly comfortable, it is necessary to be among friends. Friends are not easy to find, and it is good to encounter a new one. We consider ourselves fortunate to have met you. We are similar enough to be friends, and different enough that we can compete without acrimony.

“Again, welcome aboard.” Dreelig paused, then said in a more normal voice, “That concludes the ceremony. Commander Bolton, we would be grateful if you and Commander Collins would confer with us briefly. I introduce Dee. If the others will be so kind as to follow Dee, she will show you to your quarters.”

Commander Bolton saluted again; when Donollo responded properly he dropped his hand, and said gruffly over his shoulder, “Stand at — ease!” The others relaxed their braces, and Commander Collins came up. Dee stepped forward, said, “Good morning. If you would follow me, please,” and set off toward the officers’ quarters, all but the COs following.

So far the two sailors had been spectators, and Peters couldn’t figure an appropriate role for them. Just as he was thinking this, Dreelig turned to them. “Petty Officer Todd, please assist Dee.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said Todd, and doubled off toward Dee and the junior officers.

Dreelig turned to Bolton. “I hope you were not disappointed by the brevity of the ceremony, but as Petty Officer Peters pointed out, it is not safe to be in the operations bay without a kathir suit, so we kept it short.” He nodded, then said to Peters, “Please escort the Senior to his quarters, then meet us at the suit office.”

“Aye aye, sir.” He and Donollo set off toward the elevator, Donollo keeping a stiff back and allowing Peters to press the call button. They stepped inside the car, the door closed, and Donollo leaned against the wall and called out: “Woooop! Kh-kh-kh..” Peters grinned and watched the other’s paroxysms.

After all, he thought it was funny, too.

The two walked side by side down the corridor, a little way past the mess room, and Donollo grasped Peters’s upper arm, making a shush! motion with his forefinger over his mouth and grinning.

“What’s up?” Peters asked, knowing the other didn’t understand. He made an exaggerated what’s-that gesture, raising his eyebrows and holding his hands out, palms up.

Donollo winked and pointed at a door, making motions with his other hand as if sipping from a glass. When Peters repeated the gesture he grinned and worked the latch.

All but the patrons could have been imported, intact, from one of the nicer bars in north Jax. There was a long counter with a mirror, bottles and glasses, a carpeted floor, dim lighting. Donollo grinned again and repeated the sipping gesture.

“No, sorry,” said Peters with real regret. Too bad he hadn’t known this joint was here a couple of days ago. “If Commander Bolton smells liquor on my breath I’ll wind up in the brig.” Donollo was looking blank. “Ke, Donollo, ke,” the Grallt “No,” “sorry, old man. Work.” He stood straight, pantomiming pushing a broom.

The other grinned, nodded, and pointed at him, repeating the broom-pushing pantomime. He then pointed at himself, and repeated the drinking-glass gesture. When Peters nodded he grinned again and turned toward the bar with a nod of the head and a little wave. The sailor adjusted his hat and stepped back up the corridor. Maybe they could come back later.

Commander Bolton was flipping through magazines when Peters arrived at the suit office. “Good morning, Commander,” he told the officer. “Have you been measured yet, sir?”

“No, I haven’t,” the other growled. “Commander Collins is in there now.”

Peters nodded. “You have to take all your clothes off to get measured, sir. The Grallt have a thing for modesty, and they know we do, too. It don’t take long, sir.”

“Hunh.” The officer slumped down on the couch, arms folded, and Peters stood at parade rest. They didn’t speak further.

It wasn’t long before Commander Collins came through the door, escorted by the attendant. “Your turn, Harlan,” she told Bolton. “I think you’ll find it interesting, at least.”

“Just so’s it gets over with,” said Bolton gruffly. He stood, adjusted his barracks cover, and followed the attendant into the measuring chamber.

“Good morning, Commander Collins,” Peters said with a nod; one more officer down for the day.

“Good morning, sailor. Peters, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’m.”

“So that’s what I was getting measured for,” she said in a speculative voice, looking Peters up and down. He flushed. Collins had a friendly face, officers’ version, reserved but not forbidding. “Wonder how I’ll look in it, hm? Do they all fit that tight?”

Peters flushed again. “Yes, ma’m, they do, and I’m sure you’ll look just fine.” Collins smiled a little and cocked her head, and Peters realized with a start that he’d stepped in it if she chose to make an issue.

She didn’t. “It’s a safety precaution, you said. What does it actually do?”

That put him on familiar ground. “Well, mainly it makes air, ma’m,” he told her. “Around the head, so’s you can breathe if there ain’t, ah, isn’t any air where you are. And this here,” he fingered the buckle, being careful not to activate anything, “it can move you around a little, when there ain’t no gravity. Isn’t any, I mean.”

Collins was still smiling. Her hair was a little longer than most female pilots’, and swung out when she shook her head. “It’s a space suit, then? It looks more like a comic book costume.”

“Yes ma’m, I mean, no, ma’m.” Peters shook his own head. “Dree–uh, Ambassador Dreelig says not, ma’m, I mean he says it’s not a space suit. A space suit is heavier and more complicated, he says. This here’s just a kathir suit, a suit with air, that is.”

“Is it comfortable? It looks confining.”

“Yes ma’m, real comfortable,” Peters assured her. “It’s just like you wasn’t wearin’ nothing, but warm and no drafts, you know? You forget you have it on sometimes.”

“Yes, I can see that,” she said wryly, and Peters realized with a horrified start that he had reacted to her femininity. Her brow furrowed. “That’s going to be a problem, I think,” she said thoughtfully.

“What’s going to be a problem?” Bolton wanted to know as he pushed through the door. Ignoring his own question, he continued briskly, “That machine was a little friendlier than I usually get on a first date.”

“I suppose you could put it that way,” said Collins in a cool tone.

Bolton paused a beat, avoiding Collins’s eyes, and addressed Peters: “That thing comfortable, sailor?”

“Yes, sir, real comfortable.” Peters had gone back to parade rest, hands at the small of his back.

Bolton adjusted the angle of his barracks cover minutely, a mannerism that Peters figured was going to get very familiar, and very old, in a little while. “All right, next thing,” he said. “What’s next, Mr. Ambassador?”

Dreelig had followed Bolton into the waiting room. “Now we should go to the area you will be using as living and working quarters. The others are there, and as soon as we arrive they can begin coming here for fitting.”

“Fine.” Bolton was fidgeting. “Need to hit the head before we go very far.”

Dreelig looked at Peters, who nodded minutely and fielded the question. “If you’ll follow me, sir, I’ll show you where the head is. It’s just down the passageway, sir.”

Commander Collins followed without saying anything. Peters led them down the passage, stopping at a door a little way from the elevator. “In here, sir,” he said to Bolton. “This writing means a head, you’ll find them all around the ship, sir.” Collins was looking around, and Peters noticed. That was going to be a problem, sure enough. “Do you need to, ah–”

“Use the facilities? Yes, I do, sailor,” said Collins crisply. “And I take it from your hesitation to say anything that the Grallt don’t provide separate-sex heads.”

“Yes, ma’m, that’s right,” Peters mumbled. Dreelig was staying quiet, watching the humans’ interactions.

“Then excuse me, I’m going to surprise Harlan,” said Collins, and pushed through the door.

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