‘Ship people’ were to be found higher up and farther forward in the structure than Peters had been before. The stairwells were worn but clean, and there was no trash or dust; the corridor they came out in after a long climb was pale blue, floored with something resilient, and very quiet. Se’en led him forward to the end of the corridor and rapped sharply on the double doors that closed it off.

A girl in the four-part blue-and-whites he’d seen on the engineers opened the door and held a short conversation with Se’en, ending by gesturing go-ahead and nodding. She looked at Peters with interest as they walked in but didn’t follow, instead seating herself at a desk near the door. Wrong species, wrong uniform; nevertheless, Peters felt a lot less alien here than he’d expected.

The passageway was narrower, and doors led off it to right and left. Most of the doors were open, and Grallt in blue-and-white kathir suits occupied desks, shuffling papers and doing incomprehensible things. A watchstander with his suit divided eight ways, like the senior engineer they’d met briefly, was seated at a desk outside another set of double doors. He chatted with Se’en for a moment, then presented a book and indicated a blank line. Se’en bent to write something with a pen the–officer?–gave her, and suddenly Peters was homesick for the first time since coming aboard.

That feeling doubled on the other side of the doors. The space wasn’t big; it had windows on three sides, with stars visible through them. Earth wasn’t in view, but the Moon shone through the portside windows. In the middle of the room was a pipe or post with gadgets attached to it, one of them a larger version of the blunt arrowhead Gell used to drive the dli, with vertical handles at the wide part. A Grallt in a four-way suit sat on a little round pad behind the binnacle; beside him a girl, wearing a suit colored white above the waist and blue below, was looking at a book. The helmsman–had to be!–was explaining something in low tones. Another apprentice, male, looked on from the side.

All the way forward was a sloping counter with larger versions of the white-cross instruments. Two Grallt, male and female, stood in front of it, the woman looking off into space through a pair of ordinary-looking binoculars. To port, another sloping desk had buttons and levers, with a male Grallt seated at it and a female apprentice looking on. To starboard, the counter had only one instrument, a complex circular device thirty centimeters across; the Grallt seated at that, in a comfortable-looking armchair, was portly and white-haired, and wore a suit whose pattern was cut so many ways it was like a checked tablecloth. Another guess confirmed; the Captain did indeed look like a checkerboard.

Everyone but the woman with the binoculars looked around as they came in; two of the apprentices stared. The woman’s companion tapped her on the shoulder, and she looked around, put the glasses in a holder, and came over. «Pleasant greetings,» she said briskly, not hostile but questioning. «What do you want?»

Peters understood, but waited for Se’en to respond. «Greetings,» she said. «We are from the babble department. Peters–» she gestured at the sailor, «–needs to babble the suit practice room for babble his people.»

The officer looked him up and down. «You are a human,» she said.

«Yes,» Peters agreed when Se’en didn’t answer.

«You understand the language,» the officer commented. Her eyebrows went up.

«A little,» Peters said cautiously. He was uncomfortable; his Grallt didn’t include the equivalents of “sir” and “ma’am”. «I learn slowly.»

«I have not met humans before. You have a good babble,» she told him. «You will learn quickly.»

«Thank you,» Peters replied.

«How many people need babble

That word had to be training. Peters thought for a moment, then tried modifying the verb: «We need to train eight and three squares of people,» he tried.

«Ach! That is many.»

«It will not take too long,» Se’en put in. «If they are all as babble as Peters and his babble, they will learn quickly.»

Peters thought he got that, and flushed as the officer looked him up and down again. «Good,» she said. «Follow me.»

She led them off the bridge, stopping to let Se’en make a note in the book, and took them to an office a few doors down. The officer inside looked up, and their escort said without preamble: «The practice room is needed. Has anyone babble it for the next few llor?»

«No,» said the other. «How long will it be needed?»

Their escort looked at Peters. «I don’t know,» he confessed.

«Can you babble the time?»

That word had to be estimate; Peters said cautiously, «Two…» he broke off and said in English to Se’en, “I don’t know that form. Tell her I think two or three llor.” Se’en translated that, and Peters listened closely.

«Yes,» said their escort. «Dhuvenig, the humans will be using the practice room for four llor.»

«Yes,» Dhuvenig responded. He pulled a book from a stack and began writing in it, and their escort turned to Peters. «If you have not finished in that time, come here and tell Dhuvenig,» she said. «If you finish before four llor, come and tell him that also.»

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” Peters said, then flushed again, and said in Grallt: «Yes.»

«Good.» The officer flashed a brief smile. «I think you said what you would say to your own superior,» she commented. «Thank you. Now I must return to my work.»

«Yes. Thank you,» Peters told her, and nodded. She replied with a nod and another brief smile, and went back to the bridge.

Se’en took his arm and urged him back toward the entrance. “You did not need me,” she accused as they started down the stairs.

“I mighta got by, but I’m damn glad you came along,” Peters told her. “It woulda taken twice as long, at least, if I’d had to do that by myself.”

She puffed out a breath. “Pah. I did almost nothing. You speak better than you think. Heelinig is right, you have a very good accent.”

“Is that her name? Who was that we were talking to?”

“Heelinig is the Captain’s assistant.” Se’en paused. “We say ‘the Second of Llapaaloapalla’. I don’t know how to say it in English.”

“Second, eh? Then Heelinig would be called ‘Executive Officer’ or just ‘Exec’ in English. Sometimes we say ‘XO.'”

“Yes, I understand,” said Se’en. She glanced at him with a smile. “I have received my lessons for today after all. Were you not, ah, a little frightened to be visiting the ship-control room?”

“Nervous? No.” Peters thought about that as they clattered down another flight. “Hm. I probably shoulda been nervous, but I wasn’t. It was like home, a little, you know?”

Se’en stopped with her hand on the railing, looked back at him with wide eyes. “We do not like to deal with the zerkre,” she said. “They very often say hard things, insults, to us.”

“Well, Se’en, you’re good folks and I like you a lot,” Peters drawled. “But I have to admit I can understand that. Go on, go on. Todd’ll be wonderin’ if I been keelhauled and scuppered.”

* * *

“OK, folks,” Peters said to the group; he wanted to say “listen up,” but there were too many First Class among them for that. “This here’s the kathir suit practice room. When we get inside, I’d take it kindly if you’d stay together and not get scattered around. Suit practice can be fun, but you gotta learn the basics first.”

“Get on with it, Peters,” said a tall, round-faced First Class Peters had noticed before.

“Aye, aye,” Peters responded calmly. This was going to take all llor, if that was any sample. “First thing is, everybody skin outa them dungarees. You don’t wear nothin’ but the kathir suit in the practice room.”

“Chief said Commander Bolton ordered us to wear dungarees,” the big First Class challenged, and now Peters remembered his name: Tollison.

“He told me the same thing,” Peters retorted. “Trouble is, the captain of this here spaceship said the practice room’s for kathir suits only. If you’d like to argue with the skipper, I’ll be glad to introduce you.” Tollison didn’t respond, but didn’t lose his belligerent look; after a moment Peters went on, “You can stash your dungarees in these here lockers. We only got four llor to get this done, we need to get a move on.”

“Come on, Tollison, let’s get this evolution under way,” said another First Class. “Peters is just doing his job.” He started pulling off his dungaree shirt. “There’s enough lockers for everybody to have one. This one’s mine.”

Tollison scowled but started untying his shoes. Everybody but Peters was wearing boondockers, another thing he’d forgotten. The sailors shucked their denims and stowed them in the lockers, laid their hats carefully on top, and assembled by the door. Peters worked the latch and led them through.

“First thing is, everybody comfortable?” he asked when the hatch was dogged.

“Not sure I understand the question,” said the First Class who’d argued with Tollison.

“The kathir suit’s supposed to be real comfortable,” Peters told them. “In fact, it oughta feel like you wasn’t wearin’ nothin’ at all. Trouble is, they’re made special for each person, and if you try to wear somebody else’s suit, it won’t work right, and it’s gonna feel like sandpaper skivvies. We hadda run you folks through pretty fast, there’s a chance there was a mixup, so anybody don’t feel good in the suit, sing out.” He paused a moment, but nobody spoke up.

“Real good. All right, first thing is, I’m gonna let the air out,” he told them. “You gotta know, without air you can’t talk to one another unless you get close–Oh, shit!”

Tollison had taken up a sullen, wall-leaning stance, arms folded. Another sailor had jostled him a bit; he fell sideways, across the window-control lever. The windows rotated open, and the air blast caught a Second Class who was standing too close. Peters saw the man’s face, mouth an O of horror, in the instant before he vanished out the window.

He was diving after him before he thought about it. The man was only a few meters away, and Peters caught up before he could get any farther. He grasped him around the waist and and manhandled him around until he could force the head bubbles together. “All right, dammit, grab hold. I gotta work the suit, and I can’t do that while I’m holdin’ onta you.”

“Oh shit oh shit oh shit,” the other was reciting. It took two or three repetitions of “hold on, dammit” to get him to grab onto Peters’s back, arms around his chest. Then he could look around.

They were rotating, adding to the disorientation, and Peters decided that the first order of business was to stop that. He fiddled with the buckle buttons, eventually stopping the spin, but could not bring himself to do so facing the ship; their feet ended up pointing toward it, which felt more comfortable for some reason.

After that it was a matter of mashing buttons and waiting. He tried to talk to the other sailor, managing to find out that his name was Nolan; he was an ET(A)2 nominally assigned to VFA-97, twenty-six years old, from Ohio. The conversation took Nolan’s mind off their situation a little, and his sobs tapered off to an occasional choke. Peters could probably have been more reassuring if he hadn’t been distracted. He’d gone out without thinking–the only thing on a ship needing more immediate attention than man overboard is live bomb on deck–and now that he had a bit of time, his perception of his surroundings was shifting wildly.

The ship was down, he decided. That helped. The windows of the practice room were only a few meters away, maybe fifty, the only openings nearby in the “floor.” He mashed buttons to start a drift in that direction. Once the windows were obviously getting closer he let off the button and waited.

It felt like a long time, but was probably only a minute or so, before the windows were close enough that he felt like starting to slow down, at the same time correcting his course a little to head for the opening. The suit could push any direction and turn any way, and while that brought its own set of complications, once you figured it out it was pretty easy. He hit the window opening he was aiming at–

— and fell sprawling on the deck, Nolan on top of him. He’d forgotten there was gravity inside, dammit. Fortunately it was only a meter or so, and it didn’t take long to get the tangle of limbs unscrambled. The others were still standing around, faces pale, mouths uniform Os of horror, and one sailor had his hand on the window lever. Now wouldn’t it have been fine if he’d figured out how to close the damn thing?

Peters stood, worked his limbs and muscles a bit to see if he’d strained anything; apparently not. Then he carefully arranged his features in a noncommital expression, walked casually over to where Tollison was standing, and punched the First Class in the gut, just above the belt buckle, with all the force he was able to muster. The tall sailor doubled over, and Peters grabbed his hair and dragged until he was moving fairly quickly, then let go. Tollison fell in a heap next to Nolan, and Peters strode over to the lever, swung it the other way, and stood calmly as the windows swung shut and air began hissing in.

The ones on their feet were wide-eyed, but nobody was saying anything; shock, plus apparently they’d discovered the futility of that while the room was airless. When Peters judged that sound would carry, he gestured to the man next to him. “I’d take it kindly if you’d see those two men to the infirmary,” he said in as level a voice as he could manage. “They seem to have met with a accident.”

“You know Tollison’s gonna put you on report,” the other warned.

“And I’m gonna put him on report, for skylarkin’, reckless endangerment, and forcin’ a safeguard,” said Peters, his level tones rising despite a real effort to remain calm. “Any of the rest of you yahoos so fuckin’ impressed with his own crow you can’t take instruction from somebody that knows somethin’ you don’t ’cause he’s got one less stripe? ‘Cause if you are, you lemme know right now. I can get you a ride home real easy, and save killin’ somebody to prove it!” By the end of that he was bellowing.

The rest of them looked more appalled than before, if possible. Tollison was being helped up by a Machinist’s Mate First. Nolan was still curled in a ball on the floor, eyes screwed tightly shut, teeth clenched, hands clasped together over his sternum like a particularly anguished prayer; another First Class, this one with a corpsman’s badge, was kneeling beside him, hand on the younger man’s shoulder. He looked up at Peters’s outburst. “This man’s in shock,” he said quietly. “I’ll get him to the infirmary.” He glanced at Tollison, who was still bent over but recovering, then back at Peters. “Anything happen out there the doc oughta know about?”

“Nah,” said Peters. He was starting to shake, coming down off the adrenalin high. “Fact is, if he’da known it he was safe as bein’ in his own bunk. Just scared shitless, I reckon.” He shook his head. “Me, too,” he added softly, looking down at the deck. The medic nodded and focused on Nolan, trying to get him to his feet.

“I believe,” said somebody to Peters’s right, “that we have just seen a demonstration of why the suit is required wear. I may never take mine off again.” The tone was of high good humor.

“Yeah,” said the man next to him. “Looks like havin’ a man overboard ain’t the problem it is at sea, provided he’s got the right gear. At least you can spot ’em easy.”

Faces were beginning to regain color. “Hey, Mannix,” somebody called from the other side of the room, “If you never take the suit off, how’re you gonna shower?”

“Not a problem,” Mannix said with sunny cheer. “Number one, there are no women around, and you apes would never notice the stink. Number two, it’s a luxury I seldom allow myself anyway.” That got a chuckle. Mannix was slight, red-haired, with a Fire Controlman’s badge over his three chevrons and four diagonal stripes, all in gold; almost certainly the senior man in the room. He turned to Peters. “Do please continue the instruction,” he said, his grin belying his solemn tone. “You were admirably quick, but you might not be around if I should get in trouble, and it would be handy if I could get myself out, don’t you think?”

“What about him?” Peters asked, jerking his head to indicate Tollison.

“Hm,” said Mannix. He looked at Tollison, frowning. “Phan Dong, why is that man clutching his stomach? He seems to be in quite a bit of distress.” A quick quirk of the eyebrows at Peters.

“I dunno,” said the sailor helping Tollison. “Maybe he ate something that didn’t agree with him.”

“That–sonova–bitch–sucker–punched–me,” Tollison contradicted in a series of gasps.

Mannix ignored that. “Oh, dear,” he said with obviously feigned worry. “Perhaps he isn’t able to adjust to the diet. That would be unfortunate, no? He certainly can’t eat emergency rations for two years; what if the rest of us needed them? He’ll just have to go downside. I’ll speak to Chief Joshua about it.”

“No!” Tollison choked out, so red-faced that his blonde eyebrows were nearly invisible. “I’ll–be–just fine. Just a–gut cramp–you know how–it is.” A long inhalation. “Feeling better–already.”

“Are you certain?” Mannix asked seriously. “Because I can think of, ah, circumstances under which your symptoms might recur. We can’t take any chances with health problems.”

“No, we–can’t.” Tollison managed to force himself erect. He glanced at Peters, looked out the windows, blinked, and looked Peters in the eye. “I’ll just have to avoid–overindulgence–in the future.”

“Oh, admirably put,” said Mannix. “Peters, do you think we can continue?”

“If Tollison thinks he’s well enough.”

“If you don’t mind, I think–I’d like to rest–a bit,” Tollison said. “Maybe I can attend–a later class.”

“I do think that would be best,” Mannix said solemnly. “Peters, why don’t you help Tollison out, and the rest of us can continue?”

“Sure. You gonna be OK, man?”

“Yeah, I’ll be–fine,” Tollison said.

“All right, this way then,” Peters told him. The blond sailor grasped Peters’s shoulder and followed unsteadily to the door. Peters undogged it and handed him out. “Do you remember which locker your dungarees are in?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Tollison said again. “Thanks. You need to get on–back inside.”

“All right. You probably oughta go lay down for a little while, relax.”

“You’re probably–right,” Tollison agreed. He flapped a hand at Peters. “Go on, you have–a class waiting.”

“Right.” Peters dogged the hatch and turned to the diminished group. He took a deep breath: “All right, as I was sayin’, you got to remember that sound don’t carry when there ain’t no air. You won’t be able to talk to each other unless you’re head to head, ’bout thirty centimeters away–”

The rest of the class went smoothly. Nobody puked in the zero-gee part, and they readily accepted his statement that they didn’t have enough time in this class to get started on how to use the thrusters.

The incident had thrown them behind, and the next group was waiting when he undogged the hatch and allowed the others to file out. He’d opened his mouth to begin telling the new group to shuck out of their dungarees when Mannix laid a hand on his shoulder, waved him to silence, and sought out a tubby Machinist’s Mate First for a low-voiced colloquy. Heads nearby turned to look at Peters, some of them shaking, and people began discarding outerwear. When the class got underway the tone was serious, and people paid attention.

That condition persisted, even when the group included the E7 Yeoman, Gross, who was Stores Chief. At ten to a class, Peters had expected to need the rest of the llor and part of the next to finish up; as it was, by fifth meal time he was escorting the last group of juniors, including both Nolan, who seemed fully recovered, and a subdued and attentive Tollison, out the door, with only the senior chiefs left for tomorrow.

* * *

He was eating when Todd came up and seated himself. “Hear you had a little excitement.”

Peters grunted. “Hnh. You could say that, I reckon. Wish you hadn’t reminded me, I’m afraid I ain’t gonna sleep too good as it is.” He shook his head. “It’s a Hell of a long way to fall in all directions, out there.”

“I guess it must be.” The waiter began setting dishes in front of Todd, today’s Standard Human Meal. “So just what did happen today? Scuttlebutt’s coming in several flavors.”

Peters described the incident in a few words, minimizing his own role. Todd frowned and shook his head, but didn’t say anything. “So what’ve you been up to today?” Peters asked after a few moments of silence. “I been took up with suit instruction the whole llor.”

“Got the Chiefs all fitted, and then we were getting the airplanes put away,” Todd told him. “We’ve taken over hangars three and four. Tomcats forward, Hornets aft. Plenty of room, they’re rattling around in there.”

“You get all the gear stowed?”

“You have to be kidding.” Todd shook his head. “We might just barely get it all done before the officers get back. Last I saw, Warnocki and that Chief Storekeeper, what’s his name–”

“Gross. Met him today.”

“Yeah. Warnocki and Gross were having a knock-down-drag-out over the welding gear. Warnocki wants it where it is, in one of the hangar shops, but Gross wants it stored in the compartments under enlisted berthing where somebody can keep an eye on it.” Todd paused for a couple of bites. “Man’s got a point, some of that wire’s worth a bundle.”

“Ssth. I’m pretty sure theft ain’t gonna be a problem.” Peters’s coffee came, and he took a long sip. “Somethin’ else you’ll be interested in. Got a look at the bridge.”

“Yeah? What’s it like?”

“Just big windows and the ship’s wheel, well, one of them arrowhead things, like on the dli, only bigger.” Peters gestured to indicate how big. “Cap’n had a screen in front of him, I dunno what it did, but the rest looked–” he shook his head, grinned, and held his palm out to indicate his surroundings. “I guess consistent is the word.”

“You met the captain?”

“Seen him. We wasn’t introduced.” Peters took another sip of coffee.

Todd said musingly, “You know what I’d like? I’d like to go outside. You feel up to giving me a look around?”

Peters thought about that. “I don’t mind,” he said. “But I don’t think we oughta just pop out the door without tellin’ somebody.” Todd looked at him, questioning; Peters frowned and went on, “Today was an emergency, and the truth is I didn’t really think before jumpin’, but what if the ship moves while we’re goofin’ around, for instance?”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Todd admitted. He shook his head. “You know, Peters, I think I know why you have trouble sometimes.”

“How’s that?” Peters wanted to know when Todd didn’t complete the thought.

“You’re bright as Hell, but it takes people a while to appreciate it,” Todd said. “Th’ hillbilly ack-sent thows ’em off, ah reckon.”

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