Todd was bustling around one of the Hornets in his deck gear: brown long-sleeve pullover, flak jacket, dungaree pants, steel-toed boondockers, and lightweight helmet. Only the mickey-mouse ears, necessary protection against jet roar on the carrier, were missing, useless here.
Peters was dressed much the same, green shirt instead of brown. The Grallt insisted that the feet of the kathir suit were enough, but Chief Warnocki hadn’t agreed, and after thought Peters had come around. Having a steel toe cap was comforting with crap that heavy rolling by. He’d reverted his suit to its Navy-blue pattern, invisible under the protective clothing, and presumed Todd had done the same. He, Rupert, and Jacks mooched on over to their console as the other retarder crews drifted in, mostly as individuals. Last to arrive was Howell, and Peters made no move to consult or inform, just began checking the setup.
First order of business was getting the alternate flight crews up to speed, and it was obvious after the first utle that it wouldn’t be done quickly. The retarder crews started ducking behind the consoles whenever a plane got close, because for some reason it seemed that if it was off center it would be coming their way, and there wasn’t any catwalk below deck level to retreat to. With no fuel in the planes there was little risk of fire, and the consoles seemed fairly sturdy; it failed to console when looking at the nose of a Tomcat coming straight at them at high speed. Commander Bolton watched from the balcony outside his quarters, and while his face wasn’t visible at this distance, his body language was murderous.
Three men per console was overmanning; one could handle it without strain. It meant they could take turns breaking for meals and head calls, and that Peters could let Rupert and Jacks go one at a time back to quarters for naps. Howell quirked an eyebrow at that but didn’t object verbally, and the rest of the retarder crews started to drift off by ones and twos, to return rested and allow others to take an hour or so off.
Even with that, it was a long two ande. Nobody broke anything, but it was hard on the nerves, which translated into exhaustion when first meal rolled around. Staying with the ship’s schedule would mean three ande of duty, followed by another two of flight ops; that wasn’t going to work. Chief Joshua made it official after the meal; starting now, enlisted would operate on the same schedule as the officers. Peters didn’t see Todd, or any of the Grallt he knew, at the meal. After shoveling something in he went directly to his room and went unconscious.
That set the pattern for the rest of the month. After the first day, half of the primary crews saddled up and headed out before giving the deck over to the nuggets, but that made very little difference in the workload. Most of the alternates started picking up on the requirements of their new jobs, but everybody on the deck learned the name of Samuel Joseph Carson, Lieutenant (Junior Grade), USN, and an informal contest began for the most scurrilous biography possible; son of a bitch was an insult to the entire canine species, as one wag noted.
The man hadn’t managed to splatter himself all over the stern yet; he also hadn’t yet managed to notice that there was air inside and none outside, and coming in nose-up and hot was likely to wipe the vertical stabilizers of the Tomcat off against the overhead. It didn’t help that he was a bad caricature of a Naval officer and hotshit pilot, incapable of accepting criticism from his peers and regarding enlisted as something like technically adept worms.
The planes started picking up dings, and splat patches appeared on wingtips and stabilizers. People got hurt, as happens when you get intense in a small area with multiton machines; nothing major, slips and strains and an occasional pressure cut from walking into wings. One genius managed to get a hand under a wheel, which put him in the infirmary until further notice. He’d be OK, the medics advised; they’d caught it before the full weight of the Hornet came to bear, but he’d have to change hands in the head for a while.
The third man on each retarder console got sent to the shops to help with maintenance; that meant there wasn’t as much flexibility for breaks and meals. Then the second man went for the first half of each shift, to bear a hand at prepping the planes. Finally people started rotating through other jobs, things they were barely qualified for. Peters found himself chocking wheels and shoving boarding ladders in place. That brought him back in contact with Todd for the first time in days.
“Yo, Peters, thought you had a cushy job catching butterflies,” was his greeting.
“I did.” Peters grabbed the boarding ladder. “I reckon the Chief wants some cross-trainin’ done. This how it goes?”
“NO, God damnit, if you do it like that you’ll ding the strake. Give me the God-damned thing.” Todd took the ladder, shoved it into place. “Like that. You got it?”
“I got it, I think, but gimme a little slack.” Peters opened his arms in a placating gesture. “I ain’t got a brown shirt, and up to now I never thought I might need one.”
“Yeah, shit, sorry, I guess I’m a little stressed out.” Todd shook his head. “Look alive now, here comes Ms. Travers. Just watch what I do.” Travers was one of the first-line crews, only her walk distinguishing her as female in the bulky poopy suit. Todd followed her up the ladder and helped her strap in, ending the exchange by slapping the officer’s helmet lightly. Then he swarmed down the ladder and started pulling it away. Peters jumped in to help and got a nod of thanks; the thing was heavy when you weren’t working on adrenaline overdrive.
The Hornet rolled away, leaving the two sailors a moment without demands. “How ya been?” Peters asked. “I ain’t seen much of you.”
Todd pulled off his helmet, rubbed his forehead. “Tired about sums it up. How long have we been at this, anyway?
“Ten days. No, Hell, it’s eleven now, ain’t it?”
“I guess.” Todd shook his head, began putting his helmet back on. “Come on, we’ve got the 206 bird to prep. Over there.” He gestured and began walking, and Peters fell into step. “Peters, sorry as I am to take you away from your job, I’m glad to see you. Need to ask you something.” He paused. “Except I don’t really want to.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“I am catching one Hell of a lot of shit over being the only Third Class with a private room when there’s First Class still doubling up.” Todd stopped, shook his head again.
Peters eyed him, a smile starting. “And what you want to ask is if you can move in with me, is that right? ‘Cause if so, start ferryin’ your shit. I got no objection.”
Todd’s shoulders slumped. “Jesus, thanks, Peters. I’ll get at it right after we stand down.”
“I’ll even help,” Peters assured him as they started walking again. “But before you start shifting your stuff, you pick a First Class who’s doubled up, and you offer him your room.”
“That’s a thought.” Todd smiled for the first time in their exchange, and his stance came more erect. “I even know who to ask. Howard.”
“The same. He doesn’t have much time in grade, and he got lost in the shuffle that first day. He’s in with a Second Class tin-bender, and says they don’t speak the same language and that’s one he isn’t interested in learning.” Todd looked at Peters, eyes twinkling. “Perfect. It even works when the Chief asks.”
“He was bugging me at chow the other day, wanting to get started learning Grallt. I told him to look you up, you were ‘way ahead of me.”
Peters shook his head. “Ain’t seen him.”
“We’ve all been busy. If I move in with you and Howard moves in next door, we’ll be all set for language lessons, and there won’t be anything anybody can say about it.” Todd looked across the bay, grinning. “Hah! I love it. When we go to chow after standdown I’ll look up Howard and tell him, and after that I’ll start moving my stuff. Jesus, Peters, thanks again.”
“No thanks needed. Truth to tell, I been feelin’ a bit lonesome.” Peters smiled too. “And after we get done shiftin’ your shit, I got a proposal. You get your pay on schedule?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
“Then I propose we go have a beer.”
“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all week.” Todd paused. “All settled for now?”
“Far’s I know.”
“Then let’s get on with it, we’re running behind. Peters, this is an F/A-18E Hornet, last in service in 2018. It used to have a pair of GE108 turbofan engines with afterburners, but now that it’s been resurrected from Davis-Monthan it’s got a shiny football like the rest of them. If you’re going to be helping on the prep line, you need to know how to check ’em out. Start here, with the nosegear oleo ….”
* * *
They were on their way back to quarters from first meal, which was lunch on their five-ande schedule, when the bay doors began opening with the usual commotion. All the planes were safely tucked away in the midships hangars, most with panels open for correction of some deficiency; the three dli were idle in the aft hangar among the clutter they hadn’t been able to clean because they weren’t supposed to go there; the “truck” sat all the way forward, ditto. What was this?
Running a retarder was Peters’s job; he more or less automatically headed that way, to find a Grallt in blue-and-whites at each console and Keezer standing by. The engineer nodded and pronounced the phrase that literally meant pleasant greetings. «Hello, Peters. Why are you here? Your assistance is not needed.»
«Hello, Keezer,» Peters responded, and offered the left-arm salute. «We are curious. Who is arriving?»
The engineer nodded. «The trade delegations have completed their work, and are coming back aboard for departure.»
Peters and Todd looked at one another. «Trade delegations?» Peters asked.
«Certainly. The first to arrive will probably be Prethuvenigis, head of the Trade Department.»
«Where has he been?»
Keezer was amused. «I don’t know the names of your places. Sinafor, perhaps?»
“Singapore,” Todd murmured.
“Makes sense, that’s a big place for trade,” Peters noted, “But I sure didn’t know these folks was goin’ that far afield.”
Todd shrugged. “Like Dreelig said, it’s a planet, and not everybody has to talk about things instead of trading.”
“I reckon you’re right.” Peters looked at the Grallt. «Keezer, we do not expect to be needed, but may we observe?»
«I see no objection, but please don’t interfere.»
«Yes.» Peters saluted, getting a response, a wave and nod of the head. He and Todd moved back, standing with backs to the open door panel, and the Grallt ignored them, making settings and doing cross checks.
A loose group assembled in something resembling sloppy ranks near the midships hangar access hatch, a mixture of polychrome traders and the blue-and-whites of zerkre. Peters was astonished to see the portly figure of the Captain near the head of the group, and pointed him out to Todd.
Sparks were appearing aft, above the curve of the Earth. Keezer stood by the number-one console and brought out a small pair of folding binoculars. That was a good thought; Peters resolved to mention it to Howell. The engineer said something to the console operator, who passed it along the row. Peters and Todd, nearest the number-three station, understood the word being passed as Look alive, big dli first.
What flashed across the threshold and taxiied over to the receiving party was indeed a “big dli“, easily twice the size of the ones they had seen and ridden in. The overall shape was the same, but details were enough different to suggest manufacture by yet another of the groups Todd had postulated; different builders, if not different races. It came to a stop forward of the waiting Grallt, presenting its portside forward hatch to the group. The hatch opened in-and-out like an airplane’s, operated by a Grallt rather than any sort of automatics, and one of the waiting party brought a short ladder and set it down for convenient access.
The first one out was a tubby Grallt with white hair and mustache, wearing a tunic and trousers similar to what Donollo had worn, high-class gear. He exchanged salutes with the Captain and stood next to him, conversing without urgency, as the rest came down the steps. Another dli, this one like the ones they were familiar with, entered and taxied over to park beside the first.
There were a lot of people, in an array of different costumes, from kathir suits in various patterns to tunic-and-trousers outfits, some conservative, some brilliant. They all looked around as they exited, and there were a number of headshakes. Apparently new paint and clean decks in the ops bay weren’t generally expected by the party.
A third dli, again a “standard” one, entered and parked next to the first two. When the last few came down the steps and closed the hatches, Peters guessed that nearly three hundred people had disembarked from the three ships, and two more sparks were still visible aft. Those resolved themselves into freight-haulers that came in one at a time but didn’t stop, just taxiied to the forward hangar access and disappeared without being unloaded. There’ll be enough room in the forward hangars, Peters thought, but only just.
A blue-and-white brought out a gadget like a wheelbarrow, which she attached to the nosewheel of the “big dli” and began jockeying it into the hangars. The smaller dli began moving on their own, as usual, and the bay doors closed with the normal cacaphony. The crews manning the retarders did a few final checks and disappeared up the bay; hangar access doors closed with their milder clangs and bangs; finally there was no one left in the ops bay but sailors, lining the sidewalls and exchanging looks.
Peters shook his head. “I notice the Captain came out to meet those folks. He didn’t do that for Dreelig or for our guys.”
“Which says Dreelig isn’t exactly high up in the Grallt system,” Todd remarked.
“And I reckon we ain’t either.” He took a couple of steps, Todd not commenting. “What’s this?”
A zerkre was exchanging frustrations with a couple of sailors by the entrance to enlisted quarters. Neither she nor the sailors had enough of the others’ language to communicate, and she was starting to get loud. The sailors, a pair of First Classes from the tin-bending shop, were trying dumbshow but getting nowhere. «Pleasant greetings,» Peters said in Grallt. «Can I help in some way?»
«Oh, wonderful, someone I can talk to,» said the crewman with a grimace of relief. «I have the departure schedule.» She waved a piece of paper.
«That should go to my superior,» Peters told her.
«Yes, I understand that,» said the crewman. «I was trying to reach him to deliver it. Perhaps you can do that.»
«No, I should not, but I can escort you,» Peters told her. «Just a moment.» “She needs to see Chief Joshua,” he told the other sailors in English. “Got our movement orders.”
“Not a minute too soon,” one of the others remarked. “Hell, Peters, go ahead, we’re not on guard duty. What the hell was going on a little while ago? I thought the ambassador was the only one dealing with the people on Earth.”
“Keezer said trade delegations,” Peters said with a shrug. “They got things they ain’t ready to pass on to the peons. So what else is new?”
The other sailor grinned a little worriedly. “You got that right,” he opined.
“Chief in his quarters?”
“Last I looked.”
“Thanks.” He addressed the Grallt: «Come with us. We will take you to Chief Joshua.»
Joshua looked up when Peters rapped on the doorframe. He took in the two sailors and their Grallt companion and frowned. “Come,” he said briskly. “What’s up, Peters?”
«This is the person who should receive the message,» he told the crewwoman. “Movement orders, I reckon,” he said to Joshua.
The Chief took the paper, looked it over, and frowned. “I can’t read this,” he complained.
Peters shrugged. “I can’t neither, at least not too good. Hang on.” He turned to the zerkre, who had started to edge past on her way to the door. «Can you wait a moment?» he asked. «I can speak the Trade, but I don’t read it well. What does this document tell us?»
The Grallt shrugged. «Nothing unusual. The zifthkakik will be activated at the end of the first utle after first meal. Everyone should take the first meal as usual, and be in their living quarters during the transition.»
Peters relayed that to the Chief, who grunted. “Leaving, are we?”
“Looks as if, Chief.”
Joshua grunted again. “Any special precautions we ought to take?” He glared at the Grallt, who returned it impassively. “As I understand it, we’re about to go faster than light and head out for another star, right? Seems to me that might call for, oh, I dunno, seat belts?”
Peters relayed that, or its gist, to the Grallt, who smiled. «You should stay in your rooms until the change is complete,» she told him. «No other care is needed.»
«How long will the change take?»
The Grallt frowned. «Usually about three or four tle. It might take longer this time, because I understand we are far from our normal course, and the Captain needs time to get the ship properly aligned.»
“What’s she saying, Peters? I can’t follow that gabble,” Joshua said irritably.
“She says there ain’t nothin’ to do bar stayin’ in our quarters ’til the Skipper gets the new course lined out, Chief. Matter of twenty minutes, maybe a little longer.”
“Does anything on this–” The Chief flipped the edge of the paper with a fingertip, causing it to almost slide off the table “–say anything about where we’re going?”
The crewwoman shrugged again when that was passed on. «Perhaps. Let me look at it.» Peters retrieved the paper and handed it to her while she went on, «The traders know, but for the rest of us, we live on the ship. The name of the planet nearby isn’t anything that matters to us.» She examined the paper, handed it back to Peters. «It says our destination is Keelisika. Does that mean anything to you?»
«No, it does not–doesn’t,» said Peters. “She says the orders take us to Keelisika, Chief,” he repeated. “Ring any bells?”
“No.” Chief Joshua leaned forward, elbows on the table, glaring at the Grallt, who returned it impassively. “Peters, you think you might be able to puzzle any more out of that document by yourself?”
“Maybe,” Peters told him cautiously.
“All right.” It was a growl. Then, in halting Grallt: «Thank you. Good day.» His accent was bad, but the words were understandable.
The zerkre grinned and returned a nod. «Good day,» she said agreeably, and marched out without ceremony.
Joshua shook his head. “Lord. Peters, come here, let’s see what else we can get from this.”
“And for God’s sake sit down. Now what the hell’s this?” His fingers stabbed down on a clause.
Peters took a seat, perched on its edge, and studied the paper. “That there’s the part about when we’re leavin’, Chief. See, there’s the numbers; first llor, first ande, and this here word means ‘end’ ….”
The document was handwritten, or at any rate carefully hand block-printed; only one page, and sparse at that. They were to go to their quarters immediately after the first meal; they were to stay in those quarters until the evolution was completed; the ship was going to Keelisika, wherever (and whatever) that was. The only new information was that loose gear was to be secured–at least, that’s what Peters got out of a sentence advising that “… tools should be put away properly …”
“I think we’re done here,” Joshua observed. “Do me a favor, though, and go see if you can scare up Chief Warnocki and Chief Spearman. Ask them to come see me.”
“Aye, Chief,” Peters said with enough relief in his voice to attract a sideways glance from Joshua as he stood. “Chief Warnocki was havin’ chow the last time I seen him, and I reckon I can find Chief Spearman.”
“Good. And start passing the word.” Chief Joshua held up the paper. “Tell everybody we’ll be making up working parties and seeing to it that everything’s secure.” He laid the paper on the desk, glared at it, then at Peters. “These people may think of heading out to another star the same way Granddaddy did of driving across town, but I can’t help thinking it needs a little more prep than that. We are going to have all our gear battened down before it happens.”
“Glad to hear it, Chief,” Peters said without thinking; then thought, Oh, shit!
But the Chief didn’t react, or at least didn’t explode. “We agree on something, do we? I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that.” He waved, a flick of the fingers. “Carry on.”
“Aye, Chief.” Peters nodded and left, Grallt style. The waiters spoke English but hadn’t changed their procedures, and everybody was starting to do that. Amazing how useful it was.
* * *
Peters sat on his bunk, back to the bulkhead, arms folded over his knees. Todd lay prone, with his arms under his head, the picture of relaxation if you discounted the clenched teeth.
Lacking any data about exactly what was to happen, the detachment had secured for foul weather. The airplanes were boomed down to padeyes in the hangar deck with short chains, as was anything else too heavy to lift easily. Everything small enough was stowed in lockers with the latches closed, every latch checked by somebody other than the one who secured it. Personal gear was stowed and the latches secured. All the sailors were in their quarters, in kathir suits with deck gear over, lacking the flak jackets and helmets. There wasn’t any way to secure the chairs at the study desks, and Peters was a little concerned about that. On the other hand, they weren’t new by any stretch, and didn’t have any dings or scratches other than those you’d expect from normal wear. Given that, Peters really didn’t expect much in the next few minutes, but it didn’t hurt to take precautions, at least the first time.
There was a rap on the connecting door, and Howard peered out, face apprehensive. “Hey, guys,” he said tentatively. “Mind if I join you?”
Peters shrugged and half-smiled, a quirk of the corner of his mouth. “Come ahead.” He scooted over a bit, leaving space on the bunk.
Howard shut the door, checked the latch, and sat down, feet on the floor, arms crossed over his chest. “Sorry,” he said, and shook his head. “The collywobbles were starting to set in. I’ve never even been on a cruise, and now this.”
“I know what you mean,” said Todd. His voice was tense, but nowhere near cracking, and he didn’t change position. “I’ve been on a few cruises, but this is a little different.”
“I reckon we’re all nervous for nothin’,” Peters observed. “The Grallt don’t seem to have no problems with it.” First meal had been a matter of tense body language, exchanged glances, and low voices, but only among the humans. The Grallt had been chatting and lounging about as usual, and had exchanged glances and comments of their own, mostly in obvious amusement at the nervousness of the sailors.
“Just nervous in the service,” Howard observed, getting the obligatory perfunctory chuckles at the century-old (or better) joke. “I don’t–look, something’s happening.”
They’d all become accustomed to the view out the window: Earth, Moon, starfield, or some combination, drifting by as the ship rotated slowly. Now stars were flowing by much too fast to follow, upper left to lower right from their point of view, and a flash was the Moon going by too quickly for anything but a subliminal impression of a crescent. That went on for a few seconds, then stopped abruptly. At no time did they feel anything out of the ordinary; if their eyes had been closed they’d have thought nothing was happening.
After about thirty seconds the starfield moved again, a quick jerk from right to left that took less than a second. That was repeated at irregular intervals and in different directions: left to right, various angles, up to down. At no time was there any sensation of movement.
“Well, I reckon they must be done with that part,” said Peters when nothing had happened for two or three minutes. “Wasn’t much to–oshit!”
Stars forward of the midpoint of the window flowed forward and the rest aft, leaving a black void in the middle. At the same time there was a brief sensation of acceleration, or rather deceleration, like the feeling when a fast elevator stopped, and directed forward rather than aft, as if the ship had stopped instead of speeding up. The sensation was so faint that they would never have noticed it except in contrast to the normal rock-solid feeling of the ship, and lasted a second at most. Then the stars snapped back to normal like a movie jump-cut, and everything was as before.
“You know, I’ll bet that’s it,” Todd remarked.
“You’re probably right.” Peters unfolded himself and walked over to the window. “Don’t look any different. Hang on, somethin’s movin’.”
Howard joined him. “Probably a planet. I don’t think we’ll see the stars move, you’d have to go pretty damn fast for that.”
“You’re probably right,” Peters drawled. The bright point drifted slowly by and disappeared aft, and nothing else happened.
Howard stood up, a little embarrassed. “See you later,” he said, not meeting their eyes, and disappeared into the head. Todd sat up, rubbed his forehead, and exchanged glances with Peters, who just shook his head and looked back out the window. The stars looked pretty much as they had for the last month and a half.
“Not too spectacular,” Peters mused.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Todd remarked, joining him at the window.
Peters eyed him sidelong. “Not too much, I hope,” he drawled.
Todd grinned. “Well, no, now that you mention it.”