Commander Bolton’s decision that the pilots needn’t learn the language had consequences. Znereda was highly irritated; he was also highly organized, and got the stewards and a dozen other people through a preliminary course in the English language. After that the sailors spent almost half of their work time having inane chats in baby talk. With four and two eights of people to train, it was barely enough. It helped that all the Grallt seemed to have a knack for languages, and were able to help one another to a large extent.

Dreelig, Dee, and Donollo made two more trips downside, coming back to confer with their still-mysterious superiors and having little time for socializing. The few times they were able to meet, the Grallt “ambassadors” were tired but cheerful, and reported that negotiations were proceeding more smoothly. “We might actually get something done before we leave,” Dee reported optomistically.

The freight hauler made two trips a llor, a few to Mayport and the rest to Naval Support Facility Norfolk. Engineer Keezer reappeared to supervise the adjustment of the retarder consoles for its return, and Peters grabbed Peer and a girl called Se’en as translators and stuck his nose in. It didn’t seem difficult if you knew the numbers. At the end of each trip the language class was adjourned while they ferried the cargo into the humans’ living and working spaces. The storage areas below their quarters got filled, and the working spaces were taking shape, with desks, chairs (including heavy leather briefing chairs), storage cabinets, and the like.

Chief Warnocki had taken their word about the welding equipment; there was gear for everything from oxyacetylene to LIG, and literal tons of rod and wire. Emergency rations and dietary supplements took an entire truckload and filled two rooms. There were a couple of cartons of spare uniforms, all for the officers and chiefs. There was sheet aluminum and steel, rivets, screws and bolts, and a few odd-shaped boxes containing parts for fixing the planes. That and the welding gear would have filled most of the storage space, so they shifted it over to the shoprooms in the number-three hangar bay. One big skid held computer gear, printer consumables, and network components.

There were pillows. Apparently the request for pillows was a real puzzle for somebody; what they wound up with was three pillows.

Each.

What there wasn’t was radios. Peters had expected, at minimum, several Miltary Common Communications Equipment sets, and he’d had a hazy notion that specialized antennas would be useful. Two big cartons and a rack on a skid held deck earbugs, their base station, and a stack of relay nodes, but that was it for comm gear. He looked it over with a sour expression, exchanged a wordless look and a shrug with Todd, and ordered them stowed below enlisted quarters.

They bugged out on the last unloading detail, trying to snatch a few utle of sleep before the rest of the humans arrived. 0700, December 1st, in Mayport was in the middle of the fourth ande aboard Llapaaloapalla; that meant most of the work would have to be done during fifth and sixth ande–again–and the sailors had adjusted–again–to the ship’s schedule.

They were up, showered, shaved, and in dress blues, in time to see all three dli head out for the pickup. Laundry had turned out to be available on the same basis as meals were; by Peters’ calculation, the pay they were due in two more llor would just about clear them for meals, laundry, and what they owed at the bar. He sighed. He’d been broke before, and no doubt would be again. Beer is not a necessity of life, after all. Looking neat for Chief Joshua probably was.

Dreelig, Donollo, Dee, and the language students formed the welcoming committee; Peters and Todd joined them by the enlisted quarters hatch. Peer and Pis turned up, having set up a collation of cold cuts and sandwich makings in one of the storage spaces. It was Pis who’d thought of that; he was a bright and thoughtful fellow. Peters thought he might even get over wincing at the name, someday.

Se’en, the girl translator, was the first to spot the drifting sparks aft. They weren’t holding any kind of formation, just loosely grouped, and they didn’t do anything fancy like making a pass and peeling off in order. One sped up while the other two slowed down, one nearly coming to an apparent halt, allowing the first to get on board before picking up the pace.

Apparently the retarders were correctly set, because there was only a whisper of air as the first dli entered the operations bay. The pilot–they could see Gell through the big square side port–brought the dli so close to the side that Peters was nervous about the wingtip, then swung around so that its hatch was presented to them, with plenty of space for people to stand around. As soon as it came to a halt and its step deployed, Peters was up the wing. “Get your hats on and pass it back,” he advised as the first couple of men poked their heads through the hatch. They were all in dungarees; he winced but continued, “Bay counts as outside, this here’s starboard midships, render honors forward centerline.” He pointed. “Forward is thataway.”

Sailors piled out, ducking through the hatch despite its being high enough to walk through upright. Peters had to repeat his spiel a couple of times, but finally enough got passed back that they were coming out with hats firmly attached to heads and turning to salute the spot he’d specified. Then they walked gingerly down the nonskid, arms out for balance, and stepped carefully down the flap step, rubbernecking all the way. Later arrivals had to push through the gang to find a piece of deck big enough to stand on. Most of them had their heads back, looking at the overhead and pointing out structural details, but a few of the more intelligent ones were giving the Grallt, especially Dee and Se’en, a comprehensive once-over. There was a lot of conversation, mostly in hushed tones, a few raucous overcompensators.

The second dli flashed in as the chiefs emerged, turning around to salute toward the bow, then back. Warnocki went ahead down the gangway and Joshua turned to glare at Peters. “Got it all figured out, do you?” he asked, eyes intent.

“That’s what I’m supposed to be here for, Chief,” Peters replied.

“Sure is,” the chief allowed with a sharp nod, then squared his shoulders, tugged the brim of his hat to bring it straight, and walked erect down to the deck.

“Pleasant greetings,” Dreelig told him calmly.”Welcome aboard Llapaaloapalla, Chief Joshua.” Peters and Todd had spent some time describing a chief’s uniform, and had made sure the Grallt knew the name. First impressions ….

Chief Joshua performed a snappy salute, which Dreelig returned with his lifted-arm gesture. “Glad to be here.”

Dreelig smiled, and Peters could see the chief flinch; he and Todd had forgotten how odd that expression looked until you were used to it. “I hope you are still glad later, Chief,” the Grallt said. “We will be together for some time.”

“Yes, we will, if all goes well,” the chief admitted, looking away, then forcing his eyes back. “Now if you’ll excuse me, sir, I need to get this evolution a little better organized.” He glanced at Todd, mouth set, and shook his head. “I want to get everybody briefed in before we start turning them loose. Last thing we need’s a bunch of people straggling around.”

Dreelig shrugged and smiled again. “You know your business better than I. Please proceed.”

“Aye,” the Chief said, and turned to the loose gaggle of sailors, now beginning to be augmented by the first of those from the second dli. “Listen up, people,” he said, voice cutting across the babble. “Form up, section leaders get your people together. Let’s start looking a little military here.” He looked at Peters, who was standing by the hatch, advising on procedure as the sailors emerged, then turned to Todd. “See the short fat First Class ET over there? That’s Kellmann, he’ll be your section leader. Might as well get on over and join your section.”

“Aye, Chief,” said Todd, and set off briskly. Well, back in the Navy, I guess, he said to himself. The third dli came in, enough faster to generate a couple of twangs, as he approached his new boss. Kellman glanced briefly at the younger sailor, then gave his attention to the approaching ship, and Todd, having seen a dli land before, took time to look the other over. He was a little old for a First Class, probably just before getting promoted to Chief in the normal order of things, swarthy and black-eyed, with heavy straight black hair, neatly parted.

“You must be Todd,” was his greeting once the dli settled and began taxiing over. “I’m Dan Kellman.”

“Kevin Todd.”

“You’ve already been aboard two weeks, I hear.”

“Yeah, Peters and I were sent up here to get things ready.”

“Heard that. How’d you get along?” Kellman waved at the Grallt spectators.

“Real good,” said Todd seriously. “They’re good folks.”

“Glad to hear it.” Kellman paused, looked Todd in the eye. “I’m maintenance section leader for 97, the Hornets. You got any particular job you want?”

Todd considered. “I was plane captain before, Mikmacs. Like to do that again.”

“Got any trouble dealing with women?”

“Women, Hell.” Todd shook his head. “Those are officers.”

Kellman barked a short laugh. “OK, you got it. The rest’ll draw straws, but I’ll put you on the skipper’s bird, you’ve got the seniority.” He shook his head. “TO’s real simple, mostly blank, I’ll get you a copy.” He waved at the crowd of sailors. “Come on, they’re getting formed up.”

Peters had again taken it upon himself to serve as greeter and initial orientation for the third dli-load of sailors. Now they were all on the deck, and he stood up straight, shook his head, and came slowly down the nonskid to join them. Chief Joshua intercepted him at the step. “Get with Chief Warnocki, he’s going to be Chief of the Deck and acting Air Boss. He’ll give you a unit assignment.”

“Aye, aye, Chief,” Peters replied smartly enough, keeping his face straight with an effort. His thought paralleled Todd’s: Back in the Navy, I reckon. Looking the group over confirmed the impression he’d gotten watching them get off the dli: they were really heavy on senior petty officers. Four chiefs besides Joshua and Warnocki, although one of those was the medic, Gill; and out of two hundred sailors, more than half were First or Second Class. There were gonna be a lot of people who were section leaders down below but were just crew here.

He got in line in the group behind Warnocki. Chief Joshua was out front, waving people over to their sections. Finally they were all still, not in really sharp ranks but at least standing in neat groups. Donollo took a step up onto a box of some kind, and Chief Joshua gave him a sharp salute. The older Grallt responded with the standard raised left arm, expression sardonic, and launched into a flood of sonorous Grallt.

Hearing the speech for the third time, Peters found himself understanding a few words, and had a hard time keeping a straight face. The elder Grallt was upbraiding them all in solemn rolling periods for vicious personalities, perverted habits, and lack of personal hygiene. When Donollo ran down, Dreelig ‘translated’ a speech nearly identical to that he’d given the officers, except a little longer.

At its end, Chief Joshua saluted again, and this time Dreelig returned it. “Please allow your people to disperse in small groups,” he said in a mild voice. “Not more than ten, I mean eight, per group would be best. We have four and eight persons, ah, twelve people available as guides and translators.”

“Aye,” Joshua said again. “What’s the schedule, sir?”

Peters was sure he and Todd were the only humans who recognized Dreelig’s expression as amused exasperation. “You have arrived near the end of our working day, so there is no schedule for the next few hours,” the Grallt said. “Food and drink are available; your guides will show you. Other than that, you should accustom yourselves to your quarters and perhaps rest a bit.” He looked directly at the chief, who flinched. “Where are Peters and Todd? I require their assistance.”

Joshua didn’t answer directly, just turned and addressed the group: “Peters, Todd, front and center.” When Peters and Todd made their way through the group, Joshua jerked a thumb at Dreelig. “Your boss wants you.”

“Aye, Chief,” said Peters agreeably, then to Dreelig, “Yes, Mr. Ambassador?”

“Peters, you have the conversion timepiece. How long will it be until beginning of the first ande?”

Peters brought out the handheld, pressed buttons. “Just about nine and a half hours, Mr. Ambassador.”

“Thank you. Chief Joshua, you will have about nine hours to rest and accustom yourselves to your quarters. I and the others will return to escort you to, ah, breakfast, and we will begin issuing your safety equipment.”

“Clear, sir,” said Joshua with a nod.

“You will all be curious, but you should not wander about unescorted until you have kathir suits and have become accustomed to the ship,” Dreelig advised. “There are many hazards.”

“I understand, Mr. Ambassador,” Joshua said seriously. The ranks exchanged disappointed looks, but Peters hardened his heart. Two hundred sailors with no immediate duties were a prime example of the old adage about idle hands.

“Peters, you and Todd show the Chiefs to their quarters and where the food and drink are, then come directly back here,” Dreelig instructed sternly, lip quirking.

“Aye, Mr. Ambassador,” they chorused. Todd scanned the crowd for Warnocki, and Peters turned to Joshua. “If you’d come with me, Chief?”

* * *

“It is our custom to formally dedicate the first drink to celebration of a job well done,” Dreelig said when the glasses arrived. The enlisted men had been shown to their quarters area and left to sort out room arrangements for themselves.

“We do the same,” Todd said. “It’s called a ‘toast’.”

“Yes,” Dreelig said. “A toast to successful preparations.” He held his drink up, eye level, and waited while the sailors did the same, then drank; no clinking of glasses.

“That sure tastes good,” Peters observed. “But dinner’s gonna be better. I’m about starved.”

“And I as well,” said Dreelig. “But first, a little more business.” He peeled open a pocket, handed square envelopes to each of the sailors. “Your word is ‘bonus.’ You have done an excellent job.”

“We did our jobs,” said Todd. “But thank you.” Peters murmured agreement.

The envelopes each contained a square of ornh and a folded piece of the plastic-feeling “paper.” Peters waved the bartender over. “Now I can settle that tab,” he said with satisfaction. “It was worryin’ me some.”

Todd unfolded the paper and looked it over. “What’s this?” he wanted to know. The back was printed in faint blue and white checks, not the bold design of money, each square about a quarter of an inch across. On the front was a splatter of Grallt writing, including a number, written out: ONE.

“It is a, hm. Our word would translate as ‘portion,’ Dreelig explained. “The papers represent small parts of the trading enterprise of the ship.”

“We call that a ‘share,'” Todd explained. “It’s a common concept with us.”

“Not me’n Todd,” Peters put in. He had finished dealing with the bartender and was putting his change away, closing the pocket slit with evident satisfaction. “It’s just rich folks that own shares.” He inspected his closely. “Granpap has some shares, but they ain’t worth nothin’, ’cause the companies went bust. What’s this’n worth?”

“Perhaps nothing at all,” said Dreelig. “If the trading enterprise is successful, each–share, you said?–each share will receive a small part of the profits. If the enterprise is not successful, goes bust as you say, there will be nothing to divide, so you will receive nothing.”

Todd shrugged. “Like Peters said, we don’t exactly belong to the group that owns shares, so we don’t know a whole lot about the system.”

“At home they buy and sell shares,” Peters said. “And they got a system on the net for that, tradin’ shares back an’ forth.”

“Yeah. There used to be a stock exchange,” Todd added. “A place where people went to buy and sell stock. ‘Stock’ is another name for the same thing,” he explained. “Well, not the same exactly, there’s a difference, but I don’t know how to explain it.”

“Shares of stock,” said Peters. “I heard Granpap talkin’ about shares of stock.”

Todd just nodded agreement to that, and Dreelig shook his head. “We don’t have a formal system for buying and selling shares. If a person wanted to buy a share, he could buy it from the enterprise or from an individual.”

“How much would it cost to buy one share?” Todd asked.

“Right now it would be expensive,” said Dreelig. “The enterprise has a large amount of goods for trading, and each share represents a portion of those goods. Perhaps as much as a quarter of a large square of ornh.”

“That’d be a little more’n a thousand,” said Peters. He eyed the slip thoughtfully. “I don’t reckon I’ve ever had a thousand of anything, how ’bout you, Todd?”

“Had ten billion euros once.” That earned a snort–it was the price of a glass of beer in Marseilles–but Todd was looking into space, calculating. “Let’s see, a beer costs a quarter of an ornh. Back home, a beer costs five bucks. So an ornh‘s about two eagles, and this share is worth two thousand eagles, more or less.”

“Pretty nice bonus, I reckon,” Peters drawled.

Dreelig shrugged. “I personally believe that it is too little. Your advice about negotiating technique was very valuable.” He smiled. “If our enterprise is as successful as it might be, even one share will be very pleasant to have.”

“Well, since we didn’t expect nothin’ at all, it’s sure’s Hell better’n that,” said Peters with a smile. “Tell ’em thanks, and thank you, Mister Ambassador.” He held his glass up at eye level; the others responded in kind, Dreelig with a wince at ‘Mister Ambassador,’ and they drank. “I reckon you don’t need to be spreadin’ the word, though,” he said as he put his glass down. “This can be just between you an’ us, right, Todd?”

“You bet,” Todd replied immediately. “I don’t want to have to answer questions about what we did to deserve it.”

“I don’t see why anyone else should know about it,” Dreelig said with another shrug. “Ah, dinner.” The bartender had arrived and was arranging plates. “I will pay,” he said when Todd began to unseal a pocket. “We probably will not see one another very often in the future, and it is likely that this will be our last meal together for some time. It is a small additional way of saying ‘thank you’.”

“Thanks,” said Peters. “It’s been fun.” Todd agreed in a low murmur.

Little more was said. They ate steadily, making brief remarks about the food, avoiding more complex subjects. Peters and Todd refused a second drink, changing over to the sweet-tart klisti to finish their meal, aware that they were no longer alone in enlisted quarters and would likely be answering questions later. It might be a little tough to get the sleep they needed. For the other humans it wasn’t noon yet, leaving plenty of time for entertainment–like quizzing a pair of sailors who’d been around for a while and knew the ropes.

A new feature had been added at the entrance to the enlisted quarters: a Third Class in undress blues, with a white Sam Browne belt supporting a pistol holster. “Halt,” he said. “Who goes there?”

“Well I be damned,” Peters drawled. “I’m Peters, and this here’s Todd, and we been livin’ here the last four and eight llor. Who might you be, and who cleared you for carryin’ a sidearm?”

The sailor flushed but held his ground. “Chief wants to see you,” he said, indicating the hatch with a brief wave.

Peters wasn’t having that just yet. “I ast you a question, sailor. Who’re you, and when did the war start?”

“Chief Joshua ordered a guard set,” said the other stiffly. “My name’s Lawson.”

“Well, Lawson, I reckon you gotta follow orders,” said Peters. “But if’n any of the folks who own this here bucket come by and ask questions, my advice to you is to act dumb. Shouldn’t be much of a strain.” Lawson stiffened at the insult but didn’t say anything, just looked around the bay as if expecting one of the Grallt to come up and start demanding explanations. Peters sighed. “Shit. I wanted to go to bed. Come on, Todd.”

Chief Joshua’s door was open, and he, Warnocki, and another CPO were conferring. When Peters rapped on the doorframe Joshua looked up, his expression passing through annoyed inquiry and a moment of shoulder-sagging relief to settle on a black scowl. “Come!” he bit out. “Not you, Todd. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Aye, Chief,” said Peters resignedly. Todd shrugged and held back, then disappeared up the corridor with a grimace.

“You done with whatever the Ambassador had you doing, Peters?”

“Yeah, I mean, yes, Chief,” Peters said, and made an effort to suppress his accent. “We were just headin’ for the rack.”

“Well, sailor, I think you might have to delay your beauty sleep for just a bit,” Joshua ground out. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

Peters flushed. “Aye, Chief.”

“All right.” Joshua leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. “Do you suppose you could let us know a little more about what we’re supposed to be doing for the next few hours? The ambassador wasn’t too specific.”

Peters spread his hands. “Ain’t, ah, there isn’t much more to say, Chief,” he said apologetically. “Like the ambassador said, you folks got here just at the end of the llor, the workday you might say, and there ain’t much anybody can do ’til first ande.”

“I take it ‘first anda‘ means morning to these people,” said the third Chief. Peters hadn’t met him; his crow had a yeoman’s rate insignia.

“Aye, Chief. Most folks sleep through fifth and sixth ande, except them as has the watch on the engines and such,” Peters explained.

“So there’s six ‘anda’ to a day?” the unfamiliar Chief persisted.

“That’s right, Chief.” Peters paused. “Ain’t nobody explained any of this, Chief?”

“All we know is what you told us when you were at NAS Jax,” Warnocki put in. “That and our orders to be in a certain place at a certain time to meet the bus.”

“Which we have done,” Joshua added. “Now we’re here, and we’d appreciate a little more info.”

Peters was starting to recognize Joshua’s speech patterns, and the way he came down on appreciate raised a red flag. “Aye, Master Chief,” he said a bit desperately. “Can you give me a minute to collect my wits? I ain’t thought this out.”

“Take your time,” Joshua said, his tone indicating the direct opposite.

“Aye,” Peters said, dragging it out to gain a little time. “All right, we told you when we was down that the llor‘s about thirty hours, plus a bit, right?”

“That’s what I recall,” said Warnocki helpfully.

“Good, I mean, aye, Master Chief.” Peters was starting to settle a little. “All right, there’s six ande to a llor, makes each one a little over five hours. The workin’ day for most folks begins at the first ande, and right now’s a couple of utle, ’bout an hour, after the start of the fifth ande. So most everybody’s in bed.”

Utle,” said the third Chief. He noted that Peters was straining a bit; the corner of his mouth quirked, and he turned so that Peters could read his name tag: Spearman. At Peters’s thank-you nod, just a twitch, he relaxed back in his chair. “What’s an utle?”

“Eight utle to an ande,” Peters supplied.

“So an utle‘s about forty minutes,” Warnocki suggested.

“A little less, but about that,” Peters agreed. «Just a minute.» He squirmed a bit, brought out the handheld, and flushed at the bemused expressions. The Grallt phrase meant, literally, ‘a square of nothing;’ he’d heard it a lot over the last few llor, and had used it without thinking. “Here,” he said, handing the gadget to Chief Joshua. “If you’ll give this to Hernandez he can set yours up the same way.”

Joshua took the instrument, set it on the table. “We’ll do that,” he said, and regarded Peters from under lowered brows. “I see you’re picking up a little of the language.”

“I hope so, Master Chief. We’re all gonna have to do that.”

“That’s what you said in Jax.” Joshua folded his arms again. “For meals, if I recall.”

“That’s right, Master Chief,” Peters agreed.

“So how come the cold cuts and bug juice down below?”

“You ain’t learned the language yet, Master Chief,” Peters explained. “And the messcooks”–some brain cell, wiser than the others, had suppressed waiters at the last instant–“don’t know English at all, and everybody else’s off duty.” The wise brain cell rejected we in favor of, “The Grallt set that up temporary like, so’s you don’t have to go hungry ’til you can get squared away.”

“Very thoughtful of them, I’m sure,” Joshua said with heavy irony. He brought a hand down on the table, slap!, and looked directly at Peters. “You got any advice as to how we should improve the, ah, I figure about eight hours, before the Grallt go back on duty?”

“No, I don’t, Master Chief,” Peters replied calmly. “I don’t reckon my advice’d be worth much just now anyways. I been on duty near enough five llor, that’s twenty-five hours to you, and if you want decent work outa me’n Todd, we better have some rack time.”

“Sailor, you and I are gonna need to have a talk sometime soon,” said Chief Joshua in a dangerously quiet tone.

“Aye, Master Chief,” Peters responded, with a nod of the head.

Joshua narrowed his eyes. “I think right now would be a good time.” He looked at the other two Chiefs in turn. “Alvin, Ed, could you excuse us for a few moments?

<<< Chapter Ten Chapter Twelve >>>

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