weet weet. . . Peters rolled over, tried to fluff a pillow that wasn’t there. Weet weet … He never had trouble waking up, always came awake on time even without a clock. Weet weet … Of course he hadn’t slept this long in years. Weet weet … Then everything snapped into focus — bunk and lockers, desk with reading lamp, the window.
Weet weet …. Window with stars outside, no horizon. Weet weet … He stroked his hand across the face of the handheld to shut it up. Light streamed through the window, not sunlight but brighter than moonlight. Earthlight. “Shit,” he summarized, and shambled into the head.
The sideways light switch took a bit of fumbling, but things were coming back. Cold water to wake up, then warm for washing, shaving tackle where he’d put it last night, on the shelf below the towels. As he stroked his face with the razor he thought, not for the first time, that shaving might not have anything to do with sanitation at all. It was something familiar. No matter where you were or what was going on, hot water and soap and razor and the familiar curves and hollows of your own face centered you, started the day off with something solid, something you could handle, a minor success to serve as omen for the rest of the day. Maybe that was why women used makeup.
He sluiced the soap off, then went over to the door to Todd’s room and pounded on it a few times. Then he collected his shaving gear and put it away, noticing for the first time that Todd’s was next to his on the shelf. It made sense, he just hadn’t seen it before.
Making the bunk was pure reflex, another ritual like shaving, maybe. The job wasn’t tough, but doing it precisely was military, and doing it right was another good omen for the day. Uniform of the day, well, it looked like that would be the kathir suit until further notice.
Todd was in the toilet room, making blowing noises over the running water. That was familiar, morning in the head, some people noisy, others quiet. Part of what was disorienting about this experience was the aloneness. Todd was just the other side of the bulkhead, but it had been a long time since he hadn’t had three or four others nearby while he was getting the day started.
He’d left almost an hour for getting ready, and here it was, fifteen minutes or so, and he was almost done. On the carrier he’d have had something to do, go get chow, make sure the others were stirring, go collect the Orders of the Day. Here they could only wait. He checked Dee’s watch. It looked like they had almost a full round of the second-biggest needle before the biggest needle came to the mark. Half an hour? Something like that.
He’d been avoiding the window, but now he turned to it deliberately. The Earth was huge in the lower left-hand corner; he couldn’t make out anything but blue, with a few white clouds. There was something funny about the stars. There was Orion’s belt, sitting at an odd angle, and then the rest of it fell into place, Orion’s head and shoulders sticking out below the Earth. You couldn’t see it from that angle anywhere on the surface, at least not anywhere he’d been.
Todd came in, dressed in his own kathir suit. “Checking out the view?” he asked quietly.
“Why ain’t they bright?” Peters gestured at the window. “This here’s outer space, ain’t no air outside, right?”
“What are you getting at?”
“Hah.” It was a snort. “Look, on the ground you gotta look through the air to see stars, right? Here there ain’t no air. They ought to be brighter’n they are from the deck of the ship.”
“Hadn’t thought about it.” Todd leaned forward, as if to inspect the stars more closely. “You’re right, though. Wonder why that is.”
“You’re a big help, you are.” Peters gestured at the bunk. “Have a seat. We still got a while to wait.”
It wasn’t as long as he’d expected, maybe fifteen minutes before there was a tap on the door. “Mornin’, Dreelig,” Peters said, and then wondered how he’d recognized him.
“Pleasant greetings, Peters. Would you like to eat?”
“Oh, shit, yes.” He’d been concentrating on not thinking about it, but now that food was mentioned his belly growled.
“Good. Do you remember the way?”
“Yeah, we been there a few times, but you still better lead,” said Peters. “This here’s a big place.”
Dreelig nodded. “That is probably a good decision,” he observed. “Pleasant greetings, Todd. Please come with me.”
There were Grallt messing around in the bay, fussing over dlis, working with the machinery in the alcoves. None of them seemed to be doing anything about the mess. The bay doors were open, and Peters was a little confused until he realized that it wasn’t the same set as before. Those had been to the left as they went out into the bay, and now the ones to the right were open; the bow, he’d decided to call it until somebody explained different.
The elevator was as before. Peters worked the door handle, wincing a little at the squeak and clank. Todd pushed the proper button with a satisfied grin, and the thing groaned and shook and made noises, eventually opening on the blue-painted corridor.
The mess deck, or restaurant, was fuller this time, the same assortment of people except that a slightly larger proportion was in the skintight kathir suits rather than loose two-piece outfits. A waiter showed up and Dreelig gave him an order, indicating the sailors with a wave. The waiter nodded and grunted, wrote something on his pad, and took himself off.
“What do we get to eat today?” Todd asked. “The stuff yesterday wasn’t bad.”
Dreelig shook himself and looked at Todd. “I should apologize,” he said. “I have not been, ah, gracious today. There are several choices, but I have asked for eggs and flatcakes.”
“What sort of eggs?”
“I don’t know what type of eggs it will be,” Dreelig said. “We have eggs from, ah, is it Mechico? A bird they have there.”
“You get food from Earth?” Peters asked.
“Of course.” Dreelig waved at the room. “There are more than two to the twelfth people on this ship. All of them eat. We have to buy food at every stop. There isn’t enough storage space.”
“Why Mexico? The United States produces food,” Todd asked.
“Ssth. We haven’t been able to buy anything from the United States,” said Dreelig.
Todd and Peters shared a look. “Nothing?” Peters asked. “I’d’ve thought we had lots of stuff you’d want.”
“You do. Ssth. It is always like yesterday, when we came to pick you up,” Dreelig replied, his face as always unreadable, his tone and body language disgusted. “Any time we land there are discussions. Ask to buy a loaf of bread or two eights of eggs, and there are discussions. Ask to buy a load of food, and there are big discussions. Finally we gave up. It is a planet, with many people on it, and not everybody on it has to discuss things always.”
“What did our people want to discuss?” asked Todd.
“Ssth. They want a treaty.” Dreelig leaned back in his chair. “We don’t do that, we are only a ship full of traders and–” He interrupted himself, looked at them, waved to indicate the room full of Grallt. “We want to buy some things, sell some things, learn something new, make a little money. Simple, but not in the United States.”
“Did you try to go directly to the sellers?” Todd asked. “I’d think some people would just want to do the same thing, buy and sell, maybe trade a little.”
“Of course. I think your management, ah, government you say isn’t it? Your government told them not to. When we tried that we got nothing for a while, then more discussions.” Dreelig pushed back from the table to let the waiter approach. “Here is our food. Tell me if you think it is correct.”
The eggs were eggs, sunny side up. With them came a brown jumble with green and white bits and crispy chips in it, some kind of chili or spicy meat. “Hey, great,” said Todd, and Peters looked to see him with a forkful of brown paste and a grin. “Chilaquiles. They’ve been buying food in Mexico, all right. Avocados next, maybe?” Then he had to explain what an avocado was. Dreelig paid close attention.
“Flatcakes” were pancakes, very slightly burned; there was butter or something near to it, and syrup, clear with a bluish cast and extremely sweet. The waiter deposited all that, left, and came back with a carafe and cups, which he filled with hot brown liquid. Peters tasted it cautiously, then took a long sip. “Coffee!” he said with surprise. “Damn good, too. Dreelig, you may get some work out of me today after all.”
“Kh kh kh.” They were getting used to the Grallt laugh; it didn’t sound so much like choking any more. “We like coffee, it is probably our favorite Earth food, and it should be excellent trade goods. We are buying all of it we can store, from a place called Colomba, I think. To the south of Mexico.” Dreelig talked to the waiter again, listened to the response. “Zeef says this is special coffee, for today only. It is called Blue Hills, or something similar. From Zhamaka, is that correct? An island. There is not very much of it, so we probably won’t get it again, because it is valuable for trading.”
“Tell him it’s real good,” said Peters. “Fixed right, too.”
Dreelig relayed that, translated the response: “He says thank you for the compliment. He is glad that a human finds it prepared correctly.”
Peters raised his left hand, nodded; the waiter responded in kind, with a sharper nod, and took himself off. “Jamaica, that’s the name,” he said. “Where the coffee’s from.”
“I believe you are correct,” said Dreelig. “The second vowel is difficult for us, we don’t use that sound. Please eat. It will cool quickly, and we have much to do.”
Peters finished everything but the chili, which he found a bit too spicy; Todd cleaned his plate. When they were done they got up and left, piling napkins on top of the plates, the sailors looking back, still not accustomed to just walking off without taking the dirties to the scullery.
“What now?” Todd asked.
“I am taking you to Znereda, the language instructor,” Dreelig said.
“Language lessons,” Peters drawled disgustedly. When Dreelig started to say something he waved it off. “Yeah, I know, we gotta be able to order lunch,” he said. “I just ain’t lookin’ forward to it, y’know? Languages ain’t my thing.”
“It should not be difficult,” Dreelig said. “The language is very simple.”
Peters snorted. “It better be. There’s places in the United States I need an interpreter.” Todd’s laugh earned a scowl.
The language teacher had his establishment farther forward than they had yet been, off a pale-pink corridor two decks up from the dining hall. The deck wasn’t so much carpeted as padded, with something dark maroon that was soft underfoot and deadened sound. Dreelig gave them the salute and nod. “Znereda is waiting, and I will leave you now. Dee will meet you at the dining hall at the next meal.”
Peters returned the salute gravely. “We’ll be there,” he said, and watched as the Grallt turned on his heel and shambled off.
At that point the door opened and a voice said, “Good morning, gentlemen. Won’t you come in?”
The speaker was the first old Grallt they’d seen, if white hair and lined face was any indication. He was short and slight, dressed in the loose jumper and trousers combination, white above and dark blue below. He regarded them with head cocked to the side and bright eyes half closed, like a lurking tomcat.
“Good morning,” Peters said. “Are you Znereda?”
“Oh, yes,” said the Grallt. “And you must be Mr. Peters and Mr. Todd. Come in, come in, I’ve been waiting for you.” He backed away from the door and waved them through into a room with more of the maroon padding on the floor. Comfortable chairs faced a desk and a blank wall, painted dark green, with scrawls across it. Graffiti? Here? Peters thought, before he realized that here was a genuine antique. He’d had chalkboards in the country school he’d gone to as a kid, but hadn’t seen one since.
“Not ‘mister,’ Todd corrected. “Just ‘Peters’ and ‘Todd’. Only officers are ‘mister,’ and that’s only until they make commander.”
Znereda chuckled, human style instead of Grallt choking; it sounded artificial. “We’ll discuss that at another time,” he declared. “Today I’m the teacher, and you are students.” He gestured at the chairs. “If you’ll please sit down, we’ll begin.”
By the time Znereda let them go it was almost time for the second meal, and they knew that that was the beginning of the second ande. They knew that there were six ande per llor or watch cycle, eight utle per ande, sixty-four tle per utle, and sixty-four antle per tle. They could count to “ten”–actually eight–in the Grallt numbering system, and say the number-names to a “hundred,” actually sixty-four. They knew the names of a few common foods, and how to say “yes,” “no,” “please,” and “thank you.” They were also exhausted from the mental effort.
Dee wasn’t in the mess hall when they got there. Peters looked at the watch; it was still half an utle before the second ande, and people would be drifting in over the next half hour–utle!–or so. The waiter came up; they struggled through the food names they thought they knew, and earned a deeper nod than before when they got it out comprehensibly. What they got was what they’d expected, which was quite a little triumph when they thought about it, and they fell to.
When Dee came in a little while later they were almost finished. “I see you have learned a little of the Trade language,” she commented. “That will be a great relief for me.”
“Gettin’ tired of dealin’ with sailors already, are you?” Peters asked.
“No, not at all.” She moved her lips in her “wrinkled nose” gesture, a sort of three-cornered pout, the points where her facial cleft met her mouth protruding more than her lower lip. “It is just that I am not anticipating the next ande with pleasure.”
“Why’s that?” Peters asked. He noted that Todd had looked away, and realized with a start that he felt no aversion. Sometime in the past few hours Dee had changed from “funny looking creature” to “person, a little odd” verging on “pretty girl, but different.” Her eyes were light brown with a distinct pinkish cast.
She made the expression again. “Cleaning,” she said. “The quarters the officers will be using must be cleaned and stocked. It will not be pleasurable work, I think.”
Peters decided the expression meant “distaste.” “Well, I reckon it won’t get no better for waitin’,” he commented. “You eat already?”
“Yes, I ate with friends before I came here.” She stood and breathed out, a humanlike sigh. “And you are correct, of course. Shall we go?”
She led them back to the entry to the officers’ quarters, where they met three more Grallt, all male. Dee gave the newcomers a short pep talk, with gestures at the two sailors, and they turned to, beginning on the third level and separating into a division of labor. Two of the Grallt went ahead, dusting, while the third cleaned the fixtures in the heads, and Peters and Todd followed behind, Peters with a broom and Todd with a swab. Dee vanished, and the three Grallt spoke no English, so they communicated by handwaving.
It was a lot of space, and was going to take a while, even with the lick-and-promise approach the Grallt seemed happy with. “No white gloves here,” Todd remarked somewhere on the second level. Peters just grunted and shoved dirt around. About the time they were finishing up the second level Dee reappeared, which the other Grallt took as a signal to down tools and vanish, and the sailors followed suit with relief.
“More next ande, I reckon,” Peters said as he stowed his broom in a closet on the second level, between the kitchen and the heads.
“Yes, none of these areas have been used in a long time, and they are very dirty,” Dee told them. “We should finish this part by the end of the llor. After that, we will clean the area where you are.”
“Oh, no,” said Peters, an admonition rather than a groan. “We ain’t cleanin’ no enlisted quarters. That’s what seamen are for.”
“I don’t understand,” Dee admitted. “Should the quarters not be clean?”
“Yeah, sure, but not by us,” Peters told her. “When the detachment gets aboard everybody’ll clean his own quarters, then turn to and get the rest of the space shipshape. You’ll see. Officers gonna have to clean their own space? Durin’ the trip, I mean?”
“No, of course not,” Dee told him. “The three who helped you will be assigned to that area. They will clean, and make the beds, and so on.”
“Stewards,” Todd said with a grin. “All the comforts of home. The jaygees and ensigns’ll be pleased as hell.”
“Not if they don’t do better’n they did this time,” Peters warned. “Enlisted can clean their own space, but we better go over this place again, and this time, you stick around, Dee. What we did ain’t good enough, and I need to be able to explain that to them yahoos.”
“If you say it is necessary, then that is what we will do,” Dee said resignedly.
“What next?” Todd wanted to know.
“Next is another meal,” Dee told them. “Would you like to clean up before eating?”
“Oh, hell, yes,” said Peters. “You can probably smell me ten meters off.”
“Not quite that far,” Dee said, suddenly looking very, very alien. He missed being able to read her facial expression; was that an impish joke or not? Her tone said it was. “How long do you need to clean yourselves?”
“Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes,” Peters told her.
She looked at her watch. “A little less than one utle. I will meet you at the, ah, mess hall you say? At the mess hall when you have finished. Can you find your way?”
“Not a problem,” said Todd, and Peters nodded.
“Good. You might bring a sack,” she suggested.
“A sack? What for?” Peters asked suspiciously.
She mimed pulling something over her head. “Several of my friends have been asking about you,” she said. “You might need a sack.” And with that she took herself off.
“Well, now we know what a grin looks like on a Grallt,” Todd observed when she was out of earshot.
“Yeah. Funny lady. Come on, me for a shower.”
* * *
When they arrived at the mess deck, bathed, shaved, and combed, Dee was sitting at a table near the entrance arch, already tucked in to her meal. She waved them over. “No sacks,” she observed.
Todd and Peters exchanged looks. “It’s a little early for us,” Todd explained.
“If that is what you choose. What would you like to eat?” Now they were sure what amusement looked like on a Grallt.
The waiter was hovering. “We still don’t know what’s good,” Peters reminded her. “You’ll have to choose for us.”
She gabbled at the waiter, gesturing at the two sailors, then addressed herself to her food, not speaking. Peters and Todd sat quietly, looking around. Several of the Grallt returned their looks, and one or two nodded heads in greeting. Silence continued after they got their food, Dee toying with the remnants on her plate and the two sailors eating steadily.
Finally the last blue leaf was gone. “Back to work, I guess,” Peters said resignedly.
It was a long five hours. The workers were incredulous and resentful at the level of cleanliness the sailors insisted on. Dusting the top edges of hatch coamings seemed ridiculous to them, clearing out the grime under the sinks had them gabbling at one another at top speed, and they didn’t at all enjoy dustbunny hunts under the bunks. Finally they seemed to grudgingly accept the requirements, and among them they got one floor of sleeping area pretty well squared away.
One of the workers asked Dee something, sounding aggrieved. Dee gabbled in Grallt, then translated, “Peer asks, will this be the same all the time? He wants to know if they will need to keep it this clean constantly.”
“This here’s just barely acceptable,” Peters told her bluntly. “Stewards’d be on report if they let it get like this back home.” When Dee translated that, the worker–Peer?–hunched his narrow shoulders and said something plaintive, and Peters shook his head in disgust. He was starting to hear words in the language they used, even when he didn’t know what they meant, and he didn’t need Dee’s translation to know Peer thought they didn’t have a big enough crew. If they were all this sloppy, he was undoubtedly right.
“That is all we can do for now,” Dee said firmly. “It is almost the end of the ande, and we are all tired. We will meet here again after the meal and continue.”
* * *
“This is what apprentices are for,” Todd grumbled as he piloted a swab down the passageway.
“Yeah. I been an apprentice,” said Peters. He was pushing and flicking a dust mop with the sure hand of long practice. “If that po-face Bolton was to see this place lookin’ like it did, I might get the chance to be doin’ that again. Do good, boy.”
Todd scowled. “You’re right, dammit. I don’t have to like it, though.”
Dee had made herself scarce again, so they got by with handwaving, grunts, and the few words they knew. The Grallt did well enough, if grudgingly, and it was amazing how far “please” and “thank you” went. They all had simple names, Zif and Peer and Dree, Don (no shit), Yod (Peters figured out it was really Llod after he’d heard it once or twice) and Se’er, and one individual, harder-working and more cooperative than the others, who rejoiced in the moniker of Pis. “Shit,” said Peters when he heard that, and Pis pointed solemnly at another who hadn’t been introduced yet. Peters didn’t respond except to wince.
The place was starting to shape up, at least as regarded general cleanliness in the living quarters, but the decks were a problem. Peters wasn’t ready to try to get “wax,” “stripper,” and “buffer” across in dumbshow. It was hard enough to manage “no, goddammit, you have to get rid of the dirt, not just move it around,” although that got easier with enough repetitions. On the other hand, “Down tools and go home” was understood immediately when he called it, an utle or so before the end of the watch.
Dee met them at the hatch. “Did it go well?”
“Well enough,” Peters said, “but I’m beat.”
“Yeah,” said Todd. “Peters, you want to tell me the time?”
Peters fumbled the handheld out and pressed buttons. “0110 on a fine Wednesday morning.”
Todd winced. “Ouch. Dee, I’m not sure we’ll be able to keep this up. Your day is lots longer than we’re used to.”
“That may be true,” Dee agreed calmly. “Perhaps you will adjust. If not, we can modify the watch schedule.”
“Right.” Peters sighed. “Me for a shower and hit the mess hall again. I wouldn’t even eat if it wouldn’t be ten hours ’til we’ll get back, but we gotta, right, Todd?”
“Yeah.” Todd sighed heavily. “Except I’d rather let ’em smell me in the mess hall and shower afterwards. If I get within falling distance of my bunk, that’ll probably be the end of my day, food or no food.”
“I feel the same way,” said Peters. He rubbed his face, “liberty beard” rasping. “Dee, do we stink too bad to go to chow?”
“Stink? Ah, intense smell, yes?” Dee furrowed her eyebrows together in the middle. “You asked about that before. Your scent is strong, but not terribly unpleasant. There will be no trouble at the eating place.”
“Good,” said Peters. “That’s the way we’ll do it. Lead on.”
They were too tired to pay attention to what they were eating, just stuffed it down. Back in his room, Peters stripped off the kathir suit and slung it carelessly on the other bunk. Todd beat him to the shower, taking what seemed like an inordinate amount of time but was probably only a few minutes. When his turn finally came he tried hot water, settled on something just a little too cold for comfort, and sluiced himself off as quickly as he could manage. That done, he looked in on Todd, who was lying across his bunk, snoring, wearing nothing but skivvies. He did a little better, managing to pull the bedclothes back and crawl in before unconsciousness hit.
Sometime during the “night” the light from the window woke him up. Earth nearly filled the window, a full moon grown hugely gross. He had no way of knowing, but the thin edge of dark at the lower right was the east coast of North America, and it was 0500 in Jacksonville; he’d waked at the time he’d been getting up for nearly ten years. Rubbing his eyes, he gaped for a few moments, then rolled over and went back to sleep.