“Evenin’, Chief,” Peters greeted Warnocki, who was waiting for the elevator.
“Assuming ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ mean anything here, good evening, Peters,” Warnocki said agreeably. “Todd,” he added with a nod. The elevator came, and the chief eyed them as they were clanking and bumping down. “You mind giving me a progress report?” he asked calmly.
Peters flushed. “Sorry, Chief, had somethin’ on my mind. Everybody’s been fitted for suits and got the first shot at learnin’ how to use them. Tomorrow we start on figgerin’ out the controls and how to move around.” He thought a moment, looking at the door without seeing it. “Might be best if you and the other Chiefs came in the first group, if it’d fit your schedule,” he suggested.
“Yes,” the chief agreed. “I’ll speak to Master Chief Joshua about it.” The door opened, and they came out into the ops bay before Warnocki went on: “Hear you had a little trouble today.”
“Aw, nothin’ to speak of, Chief,” Peters said, flushing again. He looked around. “Well I be damned. You folks’ve been right busy, Chief.”
Warnocki eyed him sidelong. “Yes, I’m not real popular right now. I didn’t really believe you when you told us what to expect. I’m not sure what I did expect in outer space, but a week of field days wasn’t it.” There was no clutter at all on the deck, and a couple of sailors were pushing brooms, with others picking up dirt in shovels as it was collected. “Do you know where we ought to put the stuff we pick up?” Warnocki went on after a few steps. “It didn’t seem right to just fling it overboard.”
“No, I don’t, Chief,” said Peters.
When it became obvious that he wasn’t going to continue, Warnocki glanced at him, half a smile quirking his lip. “Ask somebody and report back to me.”
“Aye, Chief,” said Peters. Then, sotto voce: “This is hard.”
Warnocki’s smile was fully evident. “I’m familiar with the problem,” he said wryly. “You’re brighter than you act, but from what I hear about what happened today I think you could use a few pointers. You want to come up to my quarters and talk about it?”
“I’d appreciate that,” said Peters.
“You, too, Todd, you’re in an even worse position.” Todd dipped his head and followed along.
“Take a seat,” Warnocki offered when they reached his room. Todd and Peters sat, and Warnocki pushed his desk chair over to the table. He leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and regarded the two sailors, remarking mildly, “You know, I’m not sure putting crows on the suits was a good idea, at least at first. We could have done it later, and it’s confusing things a little, wouldn’t you say?”
“Hunh.” Peters grasped his head in his hands and brushed backward, pulling his hair tight and ending with a pseudomassage of the nape of his neck. “Chief, I think you’re right.” He shook his head and looked up, meeting Warnocki’s eye. “We been on board sixteen llor, near enough three weeks, and we know things could help everybody, but seems like every swingin’ dick we meet’s countin’ chevrons an’ sneerin’ if somebody comes up short. I reckon it’d’ve been better if they sent you and Master Chief Joshua up here instead of us.”
“I don’t think so,” said Warnocki with a twinkle, then grinned. “From all I hear, you two’ve been turning to right smartly, and neither Leon nor I would’ve been quite so willing with a swab.” More seriously, “It might’ve been better to send a First Class and a Second rather than a Second and a Third, but hindsight’s always better.”
“I think that’s one of the problems, Chief,” Todd put in. “I don’t think anybody realized at first just how top-heavy the detachment would be.”
“Interesting point, if I see what you’re getting at,” the Chief said. “You want to work on that thought a bit?”
Todd shrugged in frustration, held his hand out to gesture around. “Well, look at it, the detachment I mean. Two hundred people; if we had that many for something normal, what would it be? Probably a hundred seamen and Thirds, maybe fifty or sixty Seconds, and a Chief to head it up. What we’ve actually got is six seamen ….”
“Seven,” Warnocki interjected.
“Seven seamen, and eleven Thirds, including me; I counted. Maybe twenty-five or thirty Seconds ….”
“Twenty-eight, to be exact.”
“Right. Twenty-eight Seconds, two of them medics. Three Chiefs, two Senior Chiefs, and a Master Chief.” Todd shrugged. “That’s forty-one; the other hundred and fifty-nine are all First Class of one rate or another.”
“Yeah.” Warnocki made a face. “You think you’re having trouble? Try bossing that crew. Everybody agrees the place needs cleaning, but they’re down to comparing dates of rank to see who gets to pilot a swab and who gets to watch.”
Peters snorted. “I can imagine.”
“Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. It isn’t your problem. You know what your problem is?”
“Yeah,” said Peters with a growl. “If all them First Class is tryin’ to sort out the peckin’ order to figger out who’s boss, they can’t afford to give an inch to a piddly Second.”
“Almost right,” the chief agreed. “There’s a few who seem to be adjusting all right.” He snorted. “Of course, they’re the ones with the most hash marks and the most horsepower. Like Mannix.”
“Yeah. I owe Mannix a beer,” said Peters. “Maybe a lot of beers. I don’t think I’d’ve got through the mornin’ if he hadn’t put a oar in.”
“I think you’re right,” the chief smiled. “There’s ways of handling that sort of situation, you know.”
“Don’t none of ’em involve punchin’ out assholes, I bet,” said Peters with another snort.
“Heh. No, most of them don’t.” Warnocki chuckled. “You have to keep that in reserve, sort of put away for a rainy day.”
“Pah.” Peters chuckled in spite of himself, then smiled wanly. “I reckon that means I done shot my wad, don’t it?”
“Well, no, not quite, but it’d be good if you could avoid repetitions. It took me and the Master Chief nearly two hours to figure out how to log that little incident so as to not excite the folks back home unduly.” Warnocki paused, looked at Peters. “At least you picked the right man to punch out. Tollison still hasn’t admitted to either me or Chief Joshua that you actually hit him, and he’s been, ah, real forceful with some of the others. Between him and Mannix, I don’t think you’ll have much trouble for the next couple of days.”
“That’s good, I reckon.”
“Damn right.” Chief Warnocki laid his hands on the table, looked from one sailor to the other. “Like I said, there’s ways to handle that sort of situation, but we don’t have time to teach them to you two. Tell me, do the people on this ship have any kind of rank insignia? I haven’t seen anything I’d call a crow or officer’s bars.”
“Not the ones we’re dealin’ with most of the time,” Peters told him. “They ain’t got much in the way of rank structure, or any other structure for that matter.”
“They’re set up kind of like merchant seamen,” Todd explained. “You know, seaman and AB? That’s about it, until you get to the real crew.”
“Real crew?” Warnocki was suddenly attentive. “What do you mean? Aren’t the people we’ve been seeing the crew?”
“They are and they ain’t,” said Peters. “They all live and work on the ship, so far’s that’s concerned they’re crew. But there’s some of ’em, the ones that tend the engines and stand watch on the bridge, they’re the ones Todd means when he says the ‘real crew.'”
“I see,” said Warnocki in a tone of revelation. He focussed on Todd: “Blue and white on their suits? Like that woman you had going around with you posting OFF LIMITS signs?”
“That’s right, Chief,” said Todd warily.
“I’m going to want to hear why those areas are off limits, but this isn’t the time.” Warnocki frowned. “Could you two wear blue and white suits? Would anybody object?”
“Probably,” said Peters. “Look, the situation ain’t exactly what it seems. We all, all of us human bein’s, we work for what Dreelig called the Alien Relations division when he was chewin’ out Chief Joshua….”
“He told me about it.” Warnocki grinned. “I’d’ve liked to’ve been a fly on the wall for that.”
Peters snorted. “You coulda had my place, I was wishin’ I was at Diego Garcia. Anyways, I reckon a better translation’d be ‘Sales and Marketin’ Department’. They’re all what we’d call civilians, and the blue-and-whites don’t think much of ’em. If we tried to wear their uniform, I’d expect to get in all kinds of trouble.”
“I see. So we’re all salesmen?”
“Pretty much, except it’s more like Amway than runnin’ a store,” said Peters. “Showin’ off the product to the prospects.”
“Interesting. I don’t think I’m going to tell Leon about that just yet.” Warnocki leaned forward, his face becoming serious. “All right, here’s what we’re gonna do. First thing tomorrow, you shag ass down to the suit place and get your crows wiped off, you understand? You think of something else, not Navy blue, you hear me?”
“Aye, Chief,” said Peters. Todd nodded.
Chief Warnocki nodded back. “OK, when that’s done, you come see me. I’ll get you started back on suit teaching. If anybody asks what’s going on, you tell ’em I said you’re Spaceman Chief, and anybody wants to argue can come see me about it.”
“Aye, Chief,” they chorused, and Peters added, “Thanks, Chief. I been wonderin’ if somethin’ like that’d work, but I didn’t have the horsepower to implement it, even if it would.”
Warnocki nodded. “Yeah. Well, now you got all the horsepower you need. You just have to learn how to drive.” He snorted. “And try not to have any more men overboard, hey? It took me an hour, this afternoon, to talk Nolan into not hopping the next boat back to Puget Sound, and he’s the closest thing to an IC we’ve got, been running the entertainment system on a can.”
“That brings up another question,” said Todd. “Have you issued earbugs yet, Chief? It’d be a lot easier to teach people the suits if we could talk to one another.”
“No.” Warnocki looked at him sharply. “That’s right, I forgot. The suits don’t have radios.”
“Nope. That’s one of the things the Grallt think they can sell,” Todd told him.
“Shit. All right, I’ll get with Chief Gross and see what we can do. And I’ve got to tell the Master Chief about all this.” It was clearly not an explanation he was looking forward to. “You boys go get some sleep. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”
“They’re all long days, Chief.” Peters looked at Todd, then back at Warnocki. “Chief, you got anythin’ pressin’ for the next hour or so?”
“Ten thousand things,” said the Chief. “What did you have in mind?”
“We have a bennie we can pass out,” Todd said with a smile. “If you’ll get your kathir suit on, and come with us, you can be the first recipient.”
“Yeah,” said Peters with a smile of his own. “That’s assumin’ you like to have a beer now and again, that is.”
“Son, if you can buy me a beer, I’ll let you say you’re Spaceman Senior Chief.”
“Then suit up,” Peters told him. “We’re buckin’ for promotion. First round’s on me.” He grinned. “But keep it quiet. We want to be able to surprise people with it.”
“Good idea.” Warnocki produced a grin of his own. “Just don’t put off letting the Master Chief in on it too long,” he suggested. “He might not take it too kindly.”
* * *
“So who do we ask?” Todd wanted to know over breakfast the next “morning.”
“I got a idea,” Peters told him. “I seen the bridge yesterday, and I talked to the XO. I reckon if they can’t give us an answer, they can point us towards the folks who can.”
Todd frowned. “Are you confident enough to ask in Grallt? The people upstairs aren’t likely to know English.”
Peters sipped klisti thoughtfully. “No, I ain’t gonna try that all by myself,” he said after a pause. “And no, the bridge crew don’t speak English. They don’t have no reason to, as far as I can see.” He scanned the room. “I don’t see Dreelig or Dee.”
“I saw Dreelig yesterday. He and Dee, and Donollo, had to go down and do the President of Mars act for the suits in Washington. He probably won’t be back until late.”
“Shit. Well, I reckon there’s nothin’ for it but bug Znereda again. I think the professor’s gettin’ a little tired of us.” Peters sighed and leaned back. “Let’s take our time over coffee, huh? I don’t think Znereda gets up real early, and I don’t want to add insult to injury by roustin’ him outa the rack.”
The little language teacher made no difficulty about going with them, even though they did find him in his nightshirt. «I don’t have a class at the moment, and I have only seen the bridge once before myself,» he confided in carefully enunciated Grallt. «I’m grateful for a good excuse to see it again and meet the people there. Thank you for asking me.» He put on a kathir suit, irregular splotches of red and purple over the base color, and a jumper and trousers in pale blue over that. «Shall we go?» he asked with a smile.
«Can you prepare me for what we are to talk about?» Znereda said as he puffed up the stairs. «In the Trade, if possible. You need the practice.» Peters tried, with Todd putting in suggestions from time to time, but he had to resort to English for several of the points. The little teacher nodded. “Yes, I understand,” he said, then reverted to Grallt as they passed through the door and encountered the first watchstander. «We would like to see Dhuvenig,» he explained.
«Yes,» said the other. «Second door on the right. If he is not there, wait. He will come soon.»
Dhuvenig wasn’t in his office, but breezed in before they had waited more than a few minutes. «Oh, hello,» he said to Peters. «You were here yesterday, were you not? What are you doing here, Znereda?»
«Peters and Todd have some questions to ask, Dhuvenig,» Znareda said. «They aren’t confident of their ability to ask clearly, so they asked me to come along to clear up any misunderstandings that might arise.»
Dhuvenig nodded. «That was probably a wise decision,» he agreed. To Peters: «What do you need?»
«Two things,» said Peters very carefully. When the other nodded, he went on, «Our group been–has been cleaning the operations bay. They collected a large quantity of what seems waste. We want to know what–ah, what should be done with waste.» He paused, out of breath and apprehensive, and looked at Znereda, who beamed.
Dhuvenig only nodded. «Remarkable. Do you mean we actually have people in marketing who care about ship operations? This must be encouraged. I will send people to look over the waste and decide what to do. Where should they go?»
«They should see Warnocki, on the second level, right side, ship storage room four.»
Dhuvenig frowned. «Those are not correct designations,» he said.
«I’m sorry. Just a moment.» Peters reverted to English. “He don’t understand which compartment I mean. What’re the official designations?”
A little back and forth established Warnocki’s whereabouts to Dhuvenig’s satisfaction; the correct designation for the hangar wasn’t a number, but used ship-specific terms that Peters and Todd filed mentally as “hangar, midships, aft.” «I will send someone right away,» said Dhuvenig. «And your second question?»
«We –» Peters indicated himself and Todd with a gesture, «– want practice using airsuits outside ship. I was outside once, and it was very, ah, confusing. Is there place where this is normally done, and will the ship move soon?»
Dhuvenig looked alarmed. «You have been outside the ship? When was this? I was not informed.»
«A man fell.» He explained the incident in hesitant Grallt; Znereda stayed silent, grinning, throughout.
«That is bad,» said Dhuvenig. «It’s not normal to go outside the ship. You were careless, and very lucky.»
“Oh, shit, don’t I know it,” said Peters in English under his breath, then to Dhuvenig: «Yes, agree fully both points. For this reason we need practice.»
«Yes,» said Dhuvenig. He hesitated. «The zifthakik are not engaged at the moment, except for life support. It is unlikely that the ship will move, but it is impossible to guarantee that without special precautions.» He looked at Peters. «When would you like to practice outside?»
«At your convenience,» said Peters. «If needs special arrangement, you tell us when safe.»
«That’s wise.» Dhuvenig looked blank for another few moments, then: «Yesterday you told me that you had eight and three squares of persons to train in use of the airsuit. How many of these persons will require training outside the ship?»
Sharp cookie, this one. «All those persons,» Peters told him. «Not in this llor. It be–it would be good if training done in next three eights of llor, but again we wait your convenience.»
Dhuvenig looked at Znereda, who returned the look with remarkable blandness. «This is not normal,» said the officer.
«I believe you will find the humans more to your liking than we are,» said Znereda. «They are always worrying about what might happen.»
Dhuvenig focused on Peters. «Do you worry about things before they happen?»
«Yes.» Dammnit, why didn’t these people have some equivalent of sir! «Normal for us to think things might go badly, and prepare best way we can.»
«Remarkable,» said Dhuvenig under his breath. «Yes, this is ….» he used a word that Peters didn’t know. “Gratifying,” Znereda muttered. «I will speak to Heelinig,» the officer continued. «I don’t know what arrangement will be made. Someone will come and tell you. Where can you be found?»
Peters looked at Znereda, back at the officer. «This llor, we be–will be instructing in basic airsuit procedure,» he told Dhuvenig. «The person can find us in airsuit practice room.»
«Good.» The officer rummaged around on the desk, found a clipboard with papers, and made a note. When he was done he looked up. «Is there more?»
«Then our business is complete. Good day, Peters.» The phrase he used was more like pleasant llor, but Peters understood.
«Yes, Dhuvenig. Thank you.» He nodded; the officer responded with a sharp nod of his own, and Peters took Todd’s arm and urged him and Znereda out of the office.
“That went well, I thought,” Todd said when they were outside the bridge area. “What I understood of it.”
“Oh, yes, very well indeed,” Znereda said happily. “Mr. Peters, you’ve been sandbagging, haven’t you? You didn’t need me at all. Se’en told me, and I see she was right. Next time, go by yourself.”
* * *
“So what are we going to do about the suits?” Todd asked.
“Hunh. I don’t know yet what I’m gonna do.”
Todd stopped. The corridor was bare, only one door in sight, no people. He twisted to look down at the crow on his arm, then up at Peters. “Look, I worked for this, OK? I’m not real happy at giving it up.”
“I feel the same way.”
“I thought you might. All right, the point here is just to be different, right?”
“Fine.” Todd spread his hands. “Then let’s have Keer or Veedal just blank them, like they were when they were new.”
Peters narrowed his eyes. After a moment he said, “Ye-es,” slowly. “That’d work. We ain’t zerkre, and for the purposes we want, we ain’t really sailors, leastwise we ain’t in the chain of command. We’re just a coupla folks who know about airsuits, ain’t we? Blank. Yeah.”
Veedal thought they were crazy, but showed them how to clear their kathir suit patterns. That led to a surprise: the back of the buckle, which looked blank, became a keyboard and display when the proper buttons were pressed. The way it worked wasn’t even all that different from a handheld or phone, and both sailors got the basic idea immediately.
«I think I should not explain any more to you,» Veedal commented ruefully. «You will take my job.»
«No, we not take your job,» Peters assured him. «We have–» he had to search for the word «–associate is very skilled using equipment similar, and he be much interested. He not take your job too, but after he learns to speak, you maybe tired seeing him.»
«If that happens, I’ll call you, and you can tell him to leave,» said Veedal. «But send him to see me when he learns the language. I can’t pretend that I know everything about this machine, and if your associate is skilled with similar ones, perhaps he can help me discover new things.»
* * *
Peters didn’t know if it was the suit, Chief Warnocki’s admonitions, or leftover mana from the previous sessions, but the sailors, all First Class, assembled at the practice room hatch and began skinning out of their dungarees, stowing them with low-voiced murmurs among themselves but no overt protest or even comment. He led them inside and dogged the hatch, and when he turned they were all in a close group near him, carefully avoiding controls and windows. He grunted in satisfaction. “All right, the first thing to know is that the kathir suit ain’t really a spacesuit, it ain’t got the horsepower. But it’ll keep you alive when needed, and get you out of tight spots if you know how to work it. Ever’body pull your buckle off and look at it, and we’ll see what the controls are…”
Todd was with Warnocki, helping him talk with the engineer sent down from Ops to look at the trash collection. Peters had handled the initial contact, Todd still being diffident about his ability in Grallt, and was still relishing the look on Warnocki’s face when he’d transmitted the Grallt’s name: Goofig. Goofig wasn’t experienced in dealing with humans, so the Chief had probably managed to keep a straight enough face to avoid offense. Not that it mattered. Goofig was so delighted to encounter people who thought “cleaning up” and “maintenance” were worthwhile pursuits that he was grinning ear to ear and willing to forgive little faults like giggling and rolled eyes when his name was pronounced.
This first group was by way of experiment. Peters had decided on the approach he would take: all business, direct statements, polite commands, not even acknowledging any challenges to his authority. It seemed to be working. Warnocki had used, by his own admission, sweet reason and threats of dismemberment to get Chief Gross to release an issue of twenty-five earbugs. Being able to talk in airlessness was a big help.
By the end of the two utle he’d allocated for the session all of them could navigate around the room on suit thrusters with some facility, and there’d been no overt challenges to his position. He ushered them out, collecting earbugs as they went by, and watched them donning their dungarees with a feeling of relief. This was working. Maybe it would continue to do so.
The second group looked like more of a challenge; it contained all the Chiefs but Warnocki and a couple of First Class with five and six hash marks. Master Chief Joshua gave him looks that promised a reckoning later, but voiced no protests, and Peters kept his tone level and businesslike, with no attempt at command voice; it seemed to work. Unfortunately Joshua was a bit inept with the suit controls, and having to continually rescue him from off-center moves strained both of their composures a little, but they got through it with no more than an exchange of glares. A third group went much the same way, and that brought them up to fourth meal time.