Peters woke the next time Earth filled the window, and this time it wasn’t so easy for him to get back to sleep. Regardless of how long and effortful the previous day had been, he was too young and full of habit to stay down for more than nine hours or so. Noises from the head said that Todd had reacted the same way. Still a little bleary, but fully awake, he collected clean skivvies and began his ablutions.

The first thing was a shower. He needed a shower.

That done, he scowled at the kathir suit, lying in a sloppy mess on the unused bunk. How the Hell did you clean the thing? He’d sweated like a pig in it; no doubt it smelled like a laundry bag of dirty skivvies. A Marine’s skivvies, after a twenty-mile run.

But it didn’t. The inside had a faint scent, but it wasn’t unwashed sailor, more the sharp not-quite-odor of ozone. Magic.

Doubts remained, so he turned it inside out, fumbled with taps until he got a thin spray of hot water, and sluiced it off thoroughly. By the time he got it back into his room it was completely dry and smelled the same as before. He snorted and began crawling into it.

The watch was lying on the study table, where he’d tossed it before going to bed. He strapped it on his arm and studied the dial. A little less than an utle before the first llor. Time for chow and begin the day, but where was Dreelig?

The Hell with it; Peters was hungry and knew the way. He rapped on Todd’s door and grunted when the other joined him; they didn’t speak as they went down the stairs and across the docking bay. Todd was wearing his white hat. Peters didn’t know how that would work out with the kathir suit, so he’d left his behind, but forebore to say anything about it.

Dreelig was sitting at a table near the middle of the messroom. “Pleasant greetings,” he said as they took chairs, and rattled in Grallt at the waiter. The man flipped his pad shut and took himself off, and Dreelig leaned back in his chair.

“Pleasant greetings,” Peters agreed, looking around. It was the first time he’d been relaxed enough to inspect his surroundings.

Two of the walls were plain, the aft one broken by big swinging doors with waiters bustling through them; the other two, port and starboard, had vertical pilasters at about three-meter intervals. Between the pilasters were splashes of color, art of some kind: pictures of Grallt, depictions of other creatures–no doubt he’d find out later if they were people or not–and what must be landscapes, although if that was true the Grallt probably thought the monotone green of Earth was really boring.

One large picture was obviously a painting rather than a photograph or captured image, done in a blocky style, with simple shapes, bright colors, and odd perspectives. The central character, depicted in bolder tones, had a thing slung over one shoulder that looked like one of the shiny ovoids wise sailors give a wide berth when they’re sitting on a bomb cart. It took several seconds for Peters to figure out what was odd about it.

The figure had a nose.

A waiter bustled up and was setting out dishes before he could say anything, and Peters shook his head and addressed himself to his plate. “This is good,” he said at one point. “What is it?” Dreelig replied with something that sounded like slobbering, and they got through the meal trading inconsequentialities.

“What’s on the agenda for the rest of the day, Dreelig?” Peters asked.

Ssth. Please do not say ‘agenda’ to me, Peters. It reminds me of Secretary Averill.”

“Dee said something like that,” Todd mentioned. “I believe her phrase was ‘up to the ears with diplomats.'”

“That is a good way to put it.” Dreelig sat back in his chair, visibly forcing himself to relax. “For two zul I have been dealing with your people, and have only recently begun to understand your cultural assumptions.” He took a deep breath and expelled it through pursed lips, a low hissing whistle. “But none of that is your concern. After this meal we will go to the practice place for further instruction in suit operation. Will that be satisfactory?”

Peters shrugged. “If we don’t feel like goin’ along, we’ll say so real polite like. We’re new here, if you remember.”

“Yeah,” Todd agreed. “And don’t worry about not getting along with Secretary Averill and the rest of his group. We don’t do very well at it either.” He grinned and looked at Peters, who nodded and smiled slightly. “We have a word for them,” Todd continued. “We say ‘suits’ because of the clothes they wear, but it really means an attitude.”

“But suit–” Dreelig made it sound more like zoot “–just means a complete set of clothing, yes? Like the kathir suit.”

“Yeah, but if you just say ‘suit’ it means a certain kind of clothing,” said Todd.

“You seen the type,” Peters put in. “Trousers and a coat, all the same color, usually somethin’ dark and dull. White shirt under the coat, with a tie.” He pantomimed pulling a necktie tight.

“And the shoes are usually shiny,” Todd added.

Dreelig nodded. “Yes, like the clothes your officers wear, but without all the bright decorations. I had not realized it had a particular name, or that it was a status badge.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Peters sardonically. “People who dress like that are special. If you don’t believe it, just ask ’em.” He snorted. “Most of ’em couldn’t set up a dog fight with only two dogs, but they’re in charge, an’ the rest of us get to gofer.”

Dreelig nodded. “Status identification.” He leaned back and stared at the overhead for a moment, arms folded. “Perhaps I should get myself a suit,” he suggested.

“Nah, too late,” said Todd.

“Yeah, you blew it,” Peters agreed. “Once they think they got you figured out, you can’t change their minds with anything that don’t do permanent damage.”

Ssth.” Dreelig paused in thought. “We know how to deal with status societies, we do it often. But your society seemed remarkably free of such wasteful nonsense. Everyone we spoke to seemed very, ah, informal.”

“Suits are informal among themselves,” Todd pointed out. “It’s a small group–”

“But if you aren’t part of the group, formality applies,” Dreelig finished for him. “Ssth. We know how to do this. How did we miss it?”

“You spent too much time listenin’ to the words,” said Peters. “My Granpap explained it to me. Used to be, maybe seventy-five or a hundred years ago, the words meant something. They still use the words, but they don’t mean nothin’–”

“Outside the group,” Dreelig completed the thought again. “Yes, that is clear. Ssth.” When Todd started to speak he waved him down, then leaned back in his chair. “Would you be willing to make suggestions?” he asked.

“I don’t understand the question,” Todd said.

“These are your people,” Dreelig pointed out. “If we learn to deal with them effectively, it may work to their disadvantage.”

Peters snorted. “Our people, Hell. They been pushin’ us away from the food dish for half a century, maybe longer,” he said with some heat. “I still got folks back in West Virginia livin’ on huntin’ and home gardens, with spells in jail for shootin’ some critter they’re cherce of. You got a way to cut ’em down a peg, you let us know. We’ll help if you need it.”

“I need to discuss this with the others,” Dreelig said. “For now, you need practice with the kathir suits.”

The practice room was as before. “Would you mind if we hurried through this?” Dreelig asked. “I need to talk to the other people in my section.”

“Sure,” said Todd. “What should we do? Just play around with the air and gravity?”

“No, you need to learn the belt controls.” Dreelig pulled his belt off and held the buckle up for them to look at.

The gaudy design on the buckle was controls for the suit functions. One pair of squares increased or decreased the pressure in the “bubble” around the head; the increase one got easier to push as the air supply ran down. “When the square has almost no resistance, the air supply is very low,” Dreelig said earnestly. “You should get inside as soon as possible.”

“What about refillin’ it?” asked Peters.

“That is automatic, as soon as you get back into air. You can check the status by pressing the control.”

Round spots forming a diamond-shape in the center were the thruster controls: up, down, left, right. Up and down together were forward; the center button usually converted sideways push into rotation, so center plus top was lean back, for instance, but up, center, and bottom together meant “back”. “You will need to turn the gravity off before these are effective,” Dreelig told them. “They are weak, but enough to move around.”

“How long do they last?” Peters wanted to know.

Dreelig looked at him. “I have never thought to ask,” he said finally. “I never heard of one running out or stopping.” Peters and Todd shared a look. “Practice with what you know now, and I will see you after the next meal,” the Grallt said, and took himself off in obvious haste. They were getting used to Grallt facial expressions, and thought he looked worried.

“Never runs out of gas, eh?” said Peters when he was out of sight. “Brother Todd, this ain’t Navy issue.”

“It’s not exactly standard around here, either,” said Todd.

“What do you mean? I seen lots of people wearin’ these.”

“Yeah.” Todd held his buckle up next to the gravity control. “Notice any difference?”

Just as a design, the buckle could have been made in Japan or Boston: simple and sophisticated, even elegant. The gravity control was more of a piece with the rest of the ship: a metal panel half a meter square, painted speckle gray, with shiny screws at the corners. The wheel in the middle was a chunk of cast metal, plated or polished. “Looks like somethin’ out of a monster movie,” Peters said. “A real old monster movie, last century.”

Todd shook his head. “It looks,” he said with emphasis, “like something made by the people who built the doors to the ops bay. Whereas this–” he held up the buckle again.

“So what? It don’t matter where it came from so long as it works,” Peters pointed out.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Todd shrugged. “You want to let the air out, or shall I?”

“Reckon we need to? Be hard to talk.”

Todd shrugged again. “That’s what the suits are really for. Might as well keep it realistic.”

Having control over their movements made a big difference. As long as the gravity was off, they could glide freely around the room under near-perfect control. Pressing the thruster buttons harder made them push harder, not that they were any great shakes at maximum; pushing off the walls was faster. They were almost fully acclimated to zero gravity, and hadn’t thought about the lack of air in a long time.

They were making full circuits around the room at an angle, bouncing off all six walls in the process, when Peters thought to check the time. He pulled back his gauntlet to look at the watch; his wrist immediately began to swell and redden, accompanied by a tingling sensation, and he hurriedly restored the gauntlet before catching Todd and bringing their heads together. “Time to go. It’s already after second ande, mealtime’s almost over.”

Todd nodded, and Peters grabbed the door handle and gave it a yank. It didn’t budge, and Todd’s hand on his shoulder kept him from trying it again.

“Hang on,” Todd said. “Let me go shut the windows, and you try again when the air comes back.”

“Shit, I didn’t think,” said Peters sheepishly. “Now we’re even, Todd. You go shut the windows, and I won’t say anythin’ else about the window in our quarters, all right?”


* * *

The crowd in the messroom had thinned out considerably; they had no trouble finding a table near a wall. They again managed to order food and drink, though not quite as successfully as before. Each of them got a patty of vegetable paste, fried crisp, which they’d never seen before. Peters liked it, Todd didn’t care for it much.

Dreelig didn’t show up until they were done eating and idling over coffee. The place was almost empty, and the waiters were lounging about, clearly wishing them gone. “Pleasant greetings,” the Grallt said. “I came as soon as I could. We have been arguing.”

Peters shrugged. “You set the hours. What do you have on the agenda? Sorry, I mean the program.”

“The plans have been modified.” The sideways twist in Dreelig’s mouth would have meant disgust in a human. “Your information has made changes necessary,” the Grallt went on. “That is why you are here, but changing all the plans is disruptive even so.”

“Yeah,” Peters drawled.

“We will want you to listen to our plans and criticize, but we are not ready for that. The practice room is in use, and Znereda is busy.” Dreelig drew his eyebrows together. “Perhaps it would be best if we found the, ah, stewards, and continued cleaning your officers’ quarters.” When the sailors didn’t say anything, the Grallt let out a very human sigh. “It is not a pleasant task, but it must be done. Come along, then.”

They collected the crew of stewards from a section of the ship the sailors hadn’t visited before, two decks up and aft from the messroom. The workers weren’t any more enthusiastic than the sailors were, but they all slouched across the docking bay in a loose straggle, Dreelig in the lead and the humans coming last as usual. Once they’d gotten their tools and divided up into crews Dreelig excused himself, pleading “making plans”, and the sailors continued as before. Peters found that he was hearing more and more of the language, and began to wish for another session with Znereda.

Dreelig didn’t come back, and Peters declared “down tools” well before the end of the ande. Most of what they could do with rags, brooms, and swabs was done, so they’d used the time to polish brightwork. The work was useful, even necessary, but they needed to tackle the decks, and for that they needed serious tools–a buffer was high on his wish list, maybe two of them–and materials: stripper, wax, maybe paint.

Dreelig was in the mess room, sitting at a table near the entrance with another Grallt. “Pleasant greetings,” he said. “I introduce you to Donollo. What do you think of his costume?”

Donollo–the double-“l” was the almost-y they were getting used to–was older, or at least grizzled. He was wearing a dark gray tunic, collarless but open over a turtleneck of soft fabric with an iridescent luster, and a pair of trousers the same color but with a slightly duller finish. On the roll of the turtleneck, just below his left ear, he had an amber jewel that flashed in the light. “Looks distinguished,” Peters said. “This your boss?”

Kh Kh.” Dreelig translated that for Donollo, who joined in the staccato Grallt laugh. “Donollo is retired. We explained the problem, and offered him a fee, and now he will help us. Your reaction is just what we hoped.”

“What did you have in mind?” asked Peters.

“I am a failure,” Dreelig said dully, and hunched over, face down. “My superior must now accompany me, so that I get it right in future.”

Donollo said something in Grallt; it sounded harsh and admonitory. Dreelig responded, also in Grallt, but in a soft monotone, to which Donollo responded by folding his arms and pronouncing a single syllable, accompanied by a sharp nod.

“The Senior suggests that we discuss provisioning, and defer more significant matters to a later time, when he is better informed,” said Dreelig in deferential tones. “What is your thinking on this?”

Peters grinned. “Yeah, Mr. Ambassador, tell the Senior we can do that.”

Dreelig translated; Donollo pronounced a short phrase and gave a quick flap of one hand, then settled back in his chair as if bored. “This is correct procedure then?” Dreelig asked, tone still deferential.

“If it ain’t perfect, it’s damn-sure close,” Peters told him. “Who thought of the topaz stickpin? It’s great.”

“It is good you approve,” said Dreelig, returning to his normal manner as Donollo sat up attentively. “Donollo suggested the jewel. I had noticed that your people often wore jewelry, not prominently but small attractive pieces. He thought it might serve the purpose.”

“It’s just right,” Todd said. “No suit is really complete without a watch or something, sometimes a ring. This is different, but the same style.”

“You know how to walk?” Peters asked.

“Oh, yes.” Dreelig settled back. “Donollo goes ahead, with head up, looking straight ahead but glancing aside from time to time. I follow half a step behind, head down, carrying a small case. Very easy.”

“There’s something else you could add,” Todd suggested, his tone a little sly. “The finishing touch, so to speak. Is Dee busy just now?”

“Dee has many duties. But it is important that we finish up here.” Dreelig shrugged. “The ship people do not like sitting in orbit with little or nothing to do. If Dee can help speed the process, she will help.”

“What’re you drivin’ at?” Peters inquired.

“You ever see a big shot without a secretary?” Todd waved his hand to indicate Donollo. “Cute little mamacita hovering at his elbow, bringing coffee for the Great Man and taking notes with a gold pen?”

“He’s right,” Peters approved with a nod. “The finishin’ touch.” He stared at Donollo, furrowing his forehead in thought. “Dress her up in a junior-grade version of what he’s wearin’, and add more jewelry. Gold chain around the neck an’ a bracelet with little dangles, hey, Todd?”

“Yeah. No shirt, though, show some skin.” Todd made a gesture across his chest. “Give her a shoulder bag and a note pad. Oh, and a supply of, Hell, I don’t know, mints or something.”

“I still don’t understand,” Dreelig said, giving an impression of wariness. “What would Dee’s duties be?”

“From your point of view she ain’t got duties,” Peters said. “It’s all gonna be dumbshow. She walks on the other side of Donollo, keepin’ level with him, and never says nothin’ to nobody but him, right, Todd?”

Todd nodded. “That’s right. She’s always there, right by his elbow. From time to time he says something and she writes it down. You say something to him, mostly he just answers, but once in a while he asks her and she flips through the notebook and reads something back.”

Donollo asked something, and Dreelig replied, first absently, then at length. The elder laughed the Grallt chuckle, heavy on the percussion, and made a little speech, clearly the old head explaining to the newbie. Finally Dreelig laughed, a single explosive bark, and pounded the table with the flat of his hand. “Why did we not think of this before?” he asked in English. “We could have left a zul ago.”

Peters shrugged. “Like I said before, you been listenin’ to the words and not watchin’ the dance. Listen up to the Chief, there. Looks like he knows what he’s doin’.”

“Yes, Donollo has many years of experience. Sometimes we forget how valuable that can be,” Dreelig said ruefully. “If I understand you, and him, correctly, Dee would almost be like a piece of jewelry herself.”

“Not almost,” Todd corrected. “Exactly like. Real big shots don’t wear much actual jewelry, it isn’t, ah, I dunno –”

“Elegant,” Peters put in. “It ain’t elegant. That pin’s just right, expensive-lookin’ but not too gaudy, but he’s gotta have some way of showin’ off what he’s got–”

“–and so Dee wears it for him, besides being an ornament herself,” Dreelig finished. “Status display.” He shook his head. “Todd, you said that Dee should carry some small foods, I think. What are those for?”

Todd shrugged. “I dunno. Medicine, maybe.” He grinned. “That’s it. He’s an old guy, and he needs to take pills. Once in a while she looks at her watch, then pulls something out of her bag and gives it to him.” He pantomimed handing something to Peters. “Donollo grumbles a bit but takes it and eats it. Then he says something to her, real gentle and polite like.”

“And never explain,” said Peters. “If they ask, you change the subject.”

Donollo laughed at that and made a short comment. “More power display,” Dreelig translated. “A small mystery, and a little action to distract them. You are acute observers.”

Peters shrugged. “We been around, is all.”

“Yes.” Dreelig pulled his eyebrows together, glancing at Donollo, then at his watch. “It too late to go Down, so we must wait until the beginning of the next day. This is good, because we need to practice our act. Dee’s schedule is awkward, but she can change if necessary.”

“Speakin’ of schedules, what’ve you got arranged for us?” Peters asked. “We don’t need to be sittin’ around.”

Dreelig frowned again. “We can check with Znereda. Perhaps he has time to give you another language lesson. After that…” he paused, making a nervous gesture with his fingers on the table. “You have kathir suits now. Perhaps you would like to explore around the ship, yes?”

The two sailors shared a look. “I guess so,” Peters agreed cautiously.

“Good.” Dreelig gestured. “Shall we go to see Znereda?”

Peters shrugged. “Sure. Lead on.”

At the door of the mess room Donollo nodded and gave them the left-handed Grallt salute. “Hear later,” he said, then exchanged a few words with Dreelig and corrected it to, “See you later, ke?”

“Yeah, see you later, Donollo,” Peters said, returning the salute. The other inclined his head and left, and the two sailors accompanied Dreelig down the corridor toward the language teacher’s office.

“You have plenty of nouns,” Znereda began the lesson. “It is time for you to learn verbs.” Todd was pleased to learn that Grallt was less complex than Spanish, and didn’t have much in the way of rules of agreement for nouns, verbs, and modifiers. There were irregular verbs, but they fit the nouns in fairly simple patterns, and there were no male/female distinctions.

Talking about male and female led to a surprise. “Dee’s male, and you’re female?” Peters asked incredulously. “You could’a fooled me. You did, in fact.”

Znereda chuckled, Grallt style. “Actually, it isn’t that simple,” he said to their stares. “If you saw us unclothed you would be very confused.”

“Wait a minute,” Todd demanded. “How do you know all this?”

“It’s part of my job,” Znereda told them with lifted eyebrows. “Sex interaction is very important to language. I’ve studied materials brought back from your planet, including popular magazines with pictures, and a medical text.”

“I bet I know what kind of magazines,” Peters said with a chuckle.

“You’re probably correct. I believe they are not thought very cultured. We have similar ones, and they are not respected. The ones I received offer a great deal of information to a person like myself.”

“I’ll bet,” said Todd darkly; Peters waved him to silence, and Znereda went on to explain. Grallt of Znereda’s sex were biologically female, in that they produced ova; Dee’s sex produced sperm. “Males” had an ovipositor, similar in structure and function to a penis, but nothing resembling testicles. A “Male” deposited an egg in the body of a “female,” where it was fertilized and grew to maturity. Grallt sperm, like the human version, needed to be kept cooler than body temperature, so “females” had testicles similar to a human male’s, but their sex organs were otherwise similar to those of human females, including provisions for suckling. Znereda produced a magazine that could have been sold in a Jacksonville stop-and-rob, behind a screen to keep the kiddies curious, to illustrate.

The teacher waved them out, still confused, a few tle before the fourth ande, and they headed for the mess hall, where they regarded the other diners with new interest. One “female” had patterned “her” kathir suit to emphasize “her” frontal development, which was considerable. “She” undulated by, eyeing them sidelong, and Todd sighed. “It’s too much for me,” he confessed. “I’m just gonna think of them as men and women, like back home.”

“What’re you gonna do if a lady asks you out?” Peters asked slyly.

“I don’t know the answer to that yet,” Todd confessed. “I guess I’ll burn that bridge if I get to it, you know?”

“Yeah, I reckon I’ll reserve judgement myself,” Peters said. “Not that it’s likely to come up ’til we know more of the language. Dee ain’t interested, an’ who else could we ask?”

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