“I believe that Commander Bolton is a difficult person to deal with,” Dreelig remarked when she was gone.

“Tell me about it,” said Peters with feeling.

Bolton reappeared almost immediately, again adjusting his headgear in millimeter increments. “Modesty taboo, eh?” he growled, and shook his head, staring at Peters so that the sailor flushed but kept his head up, meeting the officer’s eyes.

Collins took a bit longer. “When can we get the personal gear offloaded?” she asked.

Dreelig thumbed the elevator call and turned. “As soon as I show you to your quarters, I will arrange that,” he told her. “You should have your personal equipment very soon.”

When they emerged in the operations bay Bolton glanced around and shook his head, looking grim, and Peters found himself reading an officer’s mind. The quantity of sheer junk, ranging from the size of a three-millimeter screw to as big as a person’s head, lying around was enough to make anybody who lived between a pair of jet engines apprehensive. That wasn’t such a big deal here–no engines meant no FOD problems, he supposed–but he was expecting God’s own FOD walkdown pretty soon anyway. In a way it was a relief to find something he agreed with the asshole about.

They took the stairway up to what the sailors had designated ‘wardroom level’, hearing bustle and clanks from the wardroom and kitchen but finding no one in the corridors, and continued to the first level of rooms. Several of the officers were standing around chatting; they came to attention when their commanding officer entered the corridor. “This level has been assigned as living space for VF-22,” Dreelig announced, his tone implying that the assignment had come from the Supreme Being, or at least his deputy. “Commander Bolton, your room is at the end of the hall.”

Bolton nodded to Dreelig, said “Very well,” adjusted his headgear once more, and set off down the passage, with a sidelong glance at Peters. “As you were,” he told the officers, who relaxed and resumed their conversations.

Dreelig sighed very faintly. “We will see you again in a few minutes,” he called to Bolton’s receding back. “Commander Collins, if you would come this way ….”

They climbed the stairway, entering the fourth level, where the large room was on that end. “Here are your quarters, Commander,” said Dreelig as he pushed the door open.

Peters and Todd had spent quite a bit of time on the commanding officers’ rooms. The bed was made (without a pillow), there was no dust anywhere, the head sparkled, and the floors gleamed with fresh wax. After heroic efforts involving handwaving, pantomime, and shouting, Peer had come up with a couple of lengths of thin cloth and a big chunk of something tan and fuzzy. The cloth had been turned into tieback curtains, by Peters from childhood memory, and the fuzzy thing, which they figured had to be some kind of animal skin, had been cut up to make an acceptable throw rug for each officer. It was Todd who’d thought of the finishing touches: the fluorescent overheads were off, the reading lamp and another incandescent were on, and a request passed to the ship operators had resulted in the Moon being visible through the window. The horns of the crescent were down, but it would take most people quite a while to figure out why that was wrong.

“This is–” Collins began, then drew herself up. “This is quite acceptable,” she said crisply. “Are my other officers quartered similarly?”

Peters and Dreelig shared a wink behind her back. “The other rooms are smaller,” Dreelig told her. “Perhaps Petty Officer Peters could show you the ways in which this might be different from what you are accustomed to. He would be more likely than I to know what you would expect.”

Collins looked amused. “Lead on, sailor,” she said.

Peters flushed and stepped forward. “I reckon you won’t have no, ah, any trouble, ma’m,” he said, “‘cept maybe in the head. Ah, this way, please, ma’m.” He worked the latch, using exaggerated motions that drew another smile from Collins, and showed her the backwards-operating taps and the sideways light switch. “This here takes a little bit of a push, ma’m,” he said, and pressed the plate. The toilet flushed with a roar that suddenly seemed appalling, and Peters colored to the neck of his kathir suit.

“Very well, sailor, thank you for the familiarization tour,” Collins said in a level, businesslike tone. There was a glint of amusement in her eyes, and Peters was relieved. He was going to like Commander Collins.

He and Dreelig found Todd supporting the bulkhead on the landing below. “Well, how’d it go?” Peters greeted him.

“Assholes and dickheads,” Todd summarized, then looked around to make sure no officers were eavesdropping. “They say a CO impresses his personality on his people, but I can’t see how Bolton did it this quick.”

“Commander Bolton has a strong personality,” Dreelig suggested with a smile.

“That he does,” Peters agreed. “Where’s Dee?”

“She took some of the women to the suit office. She said wait an utle or so, then start bringing the men along.” Todd grunted. “Hunh. Dreelig, you’ll have to do it. I was trying to show a couple of ’em how the head works, and they just said, ‘We’ll figure it out, sailor. Carry on.'”

“What did they think of their rooms?” Dreelig wanted to know.

“I guess they were pleased. They’re all bitching that they don’t have their gear, though.” Todd shook his head and grinned. “Half a dozen of them were ready to go themselves, but Dee stood up straight and told them it wasn’t safe to work in the bay without kathir suits. Peters, that was a stroke of genius, it’s going to keep them out of our hair for hours. I just wish you’d told the rest of us first.”

“I didn’t think of it until the last minute,” said Peters. “We’re makin’ up a workin’ party to go get the gear now. Where’s the stewards?”

“Hiding in the wardroom, I think.” Todd was right. They gathered up four of them, and Todd and Peters headed down the stairs. Dreelig made explanations, not well received by the looks on their faces, and went to collect male officers for kathir suit fitting.

Watching the pilots pull the ladders out was all the clue the sailors had needed. They started on the Hornets, and sure enough, the engine bays had dome-ended cylinders instead of engines. The port ones were all open, giving them a chance to see how the latches worked, and the starboard ones opened easily enough once they’d figured out the valve that equalized pressure.

The women had two seabags apiece, plus enough miscellaneous gear to make two planes all they could unload in one trip. One of the stewards–Peters thought it was Pis, but still didn’t know them well enough to really tell–took a look at the growing pile of duffel and disappeared. Peters was about to call out when Todd restrained him, and Pis came back pushing one hand truck and dragging another. The trucks had nice big bottom trays, and made the job a lot easier.

“You, sailor,” a male officer called to Peters about halfway through it. The men had less duffel than the women did, but there were more of them, and Commander Bolton watched the whole evolution, arms folded, from the door of his room. “When the Hell’s chow around here?” the pilot wanted to know.

Peters had forgotten that the pilots were still on Earth schedule. He pulled out the handheld, generating murmurs and bugged eyes when an apparently solid part of the kathir suit turned out to be a pocket. “Normal ship’s schedule would be at the second llor, sir, that’s about three o’clock your time.”

“Well, shit,” said the officer who’d asked, a spectacularly ugly man with black hair and a mustache. “Our last chow was at 0600, and you could probably see my backbone through my belly button.”

“Hey, Everett, you sayin’ there’s anything to see?” somebody in the back of the group called out, and a chuckle went around.

“You gonna check it out, Payson?” another called, and the first voice replied, “Nah, he wouldn’t let me,” in a voice of exaggerated disappointment. “He wants that little blonde to do it.”

“She can check my bellybutton any time she likes,” said a third.

“She’d be disappointed if she went any lower,” another contributed.

The reference to a “little blonde” was clear; the tags on her seabag had read, “Briggs, Evelyn B., Lt(j.g.), 210,” and she was the most-junior member of VFA-97. She was also easily the most attractive of the women.

While the officers were engaged in their byplay, Peters grabbed one of the stewards by the arm. «Food, now?» he asked in Grallt, waving his hand at the officers. The steward started to say, «No, second llor,» then looked around at the group and changed it to, «Half utle? Simple?»

«Good, good, go,» Peters told him, then turned to the humans. “Sirs, please–” he said, and waited for their attention. “Steward Peer says the regular meal’ll be provided as scheduled, but a simple snack can be available in the wardroom in about twenty minutes, sir,” he said to the officer (Everett?) who’d asked about food.

“All right,” the officer growled. “Where away is the wardroom, sailor?”

“O-1 level, sir, about the middle, outboard.”

“And where might the O-1 level be? Up? Down?”

“Next deck below us, sir.”

Commander Bolton had pushed his way to the middle of the group, and stood, glaring, arms folded. “All right, listen up, people,” he said. “Light lunch will be served in the wardroom, next deck down, in fifteen minutes. Don’t leave until you get your gear. You people who’ve got your gear, get cleaned up. The rest of you, clear this passageway, this is a ship, not a playground.” He shifted his glare to Peters. “Sailor, you get hopping on that working party. These people are to get their gear as soon as possible, you hear?”

“Aye, sir,” Peters responded promptly, then to the Grallt with him, «Come.»

Dee was leading four female officers up the stairway. “Great,” he said. “Dee, you got a minute? I need a favor.”

“I cannot delay long,” Dee said, frowning. “What do you need?”

He sighed. “Could you go to the wardroom and tell the stewards that the animals are gettin’ restless from lack of food? Have ’em lay out somethin’ simple, snacks and that. I told Peer, but maybe I didn’t get the words right.”

Dee nodded. “I will go now.”

“I’m for that,” one of the humans said. “Oh-six-hundred was a long time ago.”

“Yeah, me, too,” another agreed. “My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”

“You’re in public, Doris,” the third chided. “You could at least try to think up something original.”

“Your ass,” said ‘Doris’ cheerfully. “You shouldn’t be in a hurry, you got plenty reserves.”

“Bullshit,” the third one returned. “Long as my ass fits in an airplane seat it suits me just fine, and everybody else can go to Hell.” She grinned and slapped a hip. “Feels a little slack. When did you say lunch was, sailor?”

Peters started to speak, but was forestalled by Dee’s return. “It is arranged,” she told Peters. “Peer understood you, and a simple meal will be ready quickly.”

“Great,” said Peters with feeling. “Now if you ladies’ll excuse me, I got a workin’ party to attend to.”

“Carry on, sailor,” said one of the women, and the two parties separated, clattering on the stairs in opposite directions. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that suit,” one of the women said as they headed up.

“Hey, your ass’ll still fit in the airplane,” said another.

“I was just regretting that I won’t have much to put in the top half.” That got a slightly bitter chuckle, and the whole group was laughing as they disappeared through their quarters hatch.

He met Todd coming up, arms laden with seabags and supervising a similarly laden Grallt. Peters advised him of the change in plans and headed below. Only three left. That was good. He’d lost one of his working party, and this had taken long enough already.

He’d been making assumptions, he discovered. Message delivered, Peer showed up as they were unloading 106, and bore a hand, if not cheerfully then with a will. The Grallt were all right, he was discovering. It was his own folk he wasn’t too sure about.

By the time Peters and Todd made it to the mess room it was two utle into the second ande, the place was nearly empty, and the waiters weren’t pleased to see them. When they tried to order they got a lot of negative headshakes, ending up with whatever was left over. That was fair, they supposed, but not real pleasant all the same.

All the officers had gotten cleaned up and had something to eat, and some had gone to bed. The rest were sitting around the wardroom, drinking genuine imported U.S. Navy artificial fruit punch, exchanging insults and fairy tales (Navy version, which begins, “Now this is no shit…”), and bitching about the lack of a coffee urn. They were supposed to head back down starting at 0700, in the middle of the fifth ande.

Neither Todd nor Peters envied Dee and Dreelig. When last seen they had been sitting on couches, listening to conversations without being included in them, and trying to ignore sidelong looks from the officers, none of whom had the balls to look at them directly or comment on their appearance.

“I’m beat,” said Todd, and drained his glass. The sweet-tart klisti was lots better than the Navy bug juice the officers had.

“Yeah, me, too.” Peters looked around at the empty mess room. “Reckon these folks want us gone pretty quick.”

“Can’t blame ’em,” Todd pointed out. He stretched and yawned. “What say we do them a favor? I could use a shower and some rack time.”

“You called it first, but I’m right behind you for the shower,” Peters agreed. He smiled a little. “But I found out somethin’ a little while ago, and if you can wait for me to get cleaned up I’ll share it with you.”

Todd looked at him for a moment, then nodded. “OK, I’ll go along,” he said. “I won’t even nibble you about it.”

* * *

The bartender set down the glass he was polishing and looked them over, asking something in liquid Grallt. It had to be a variant of “What’ll it be, sailors?”

“Well, shit,” Peters commented. The last bartender on Earth who didn’t speak enough English to serve sailors had probably died around the turn of the century, and it had never occurred to him, or Todd, that there might be language problems.

Finally Peters shrugged and pointed. The bartender returned the shrug, filled glasses with amber liquid, and pushed them across the bar, saying a word as he did so. “Must be the word for beer,” Peters guessed. He passed one of the four-square bills to the tender, who shrugged again, opened a drawer, and handed back three coppery squares and one silvery one. “Two beers comes to half a whatever they are. I dunno if that’s cheap or expensive, but if the beer’s good I don’t give a damn.”

“If it’s beer,” Todd reminded him.

It was beer, or the Grallt equivalent. Whatever had been used instead of hops gave a dry, smoky flavor, a little like Scots whisky. They took their glasses over to a table and settled in, discussing their day in low tones.

That seemed to be the correct style for the bar, and after a few curious looks they were ignored. They drank in sips, enjoying the taste, conversing in fits and starts interspersed with silences. The tender was attentive when called on but didn’t make rounds, just stayed behind the bar, polishing glasses or sitting on a stool with his head bent, reading or possibly asleep.

They had just paid for their second round when Dreelig came in, spotted them, and came over, smiling. “Have a seat,” Peters offered. “We’re buyin’.”

“Thank you, I accept,” Dreelig replied. He settled into a chair, lifted his hand to attract the bartender, and leaned back with a sigh. When the tender brought his order, something with ice in a tall glass, he took a long pull. “Ah. I know it is largely a matter of mental attitude, but that tastes better than usual.” He looked over the top of the glass at Peters. “If your invitation was sincere, you should pay the man one half ornh.”

Ornh, eh?” Peters said. “We knew it was money, but we didn’t know the name.” He dug out a square silvery coin and handed it over.

“Yes, ornh is money,” Dreelig told them. “You should have received half a square of ornh each. That is the living allowance for an ordinary member of the crew. Have you paid for your meals?”

“Yep, got that done before the officers got here,” Todd confirmed.

“Good. I am sorry I was not there to help you, but I am afraid I was busy.” Dreelig took another, smaller sip of his drink. “I think that will be a permanent condition in the near future. Your officers are very demanding.”

“We figured it out,” Todd told him. “It wasn’t really all that hard.”

“Yes.” Dreelig pushed his glass around, smearing the condensed moisture into a rough circle. “You have gotten a great deal of work done with a minimum of supervision, and adjusted to new conditions without much fuss.” He looked up at them from under his brows and sighed. “I suppose I expected the same from them. Now I do not believe that it will work out that way.”

“Prob’ly not,” said Peters dryly. “They’re too used to folks jumpin’ when they holler frog to be easy when things ain’t exactly what they expect.”

“That is a colorful way of saying it, but I believe you are correct.” He sipped again. “Commander Bolton has decreed that the officers need not learn the language, so I must now tell Znereda that the service people–the stewards–must all be taught English. I do not anticipate the interview with pleasure, but I do not see a way to avoid it, if the ladies and gentlemen are to be served as they require.” He came down just a little harder on ‘ladies and gentlemen’ than necessary.

“Maybe we can be practice targets for the stewards as they learn,” Todd offered. “That’d take some of the load off old Znereda.”

Dreelig smiled. “That is what I intended to ask of you. Thank you for volunteering.” He finished his drink and rattled the ice. “Of course, your other duties will remain.”

“No problem,” said Peters. “If we’re ‘ordinary members of the crew,’ we ought to lend a hand.”

Dreelig nodded. “I wish to rest before the departure of your officers and machines. I recommend that you do the same. The second group will be arriving an ande later, and there will be few opportunities for rest.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said Peters. He drained the last of his glass and stood up. Todd followed, tossing an ornh-piece on the table.

“I almost forgot my reason for searching for you,” Dreelig confessed as he stood. “The Commander also says that kathir suits are not proper uniforms, even with correct markings. When required, the suit is to be worn underneath your ordinary clothing.”

Peters sighed. “Well, Hell, we can pull dungarees on over it. But I was lookin’ forward to not havin’ to do laundry no more.” He plucked at the material of the kathir suit.

“Laundry,” said Todd in a tone of loathing.

“Look on the bright side,” Peters advised. “No skivvies to wash, anyways.”

“Hunh. You’re right, of course, but I’m not looking forward to trying to keep uniforms looking good for two years,” said Todd crossly. “Especially dungarees. And do we wear boondockers, or not?”

“Not,” Peters decided after a moment. “Dreelig, you can tell ’em they mark up the deck or something.”

“I can do that.” Dreelig smiled. “We will meet another time, ke?”

“Yeah,” Peters agreed. “See you later.”

* * *

Showered, shaved, and spiffed, they were down in the bay in plenty of time. They set up their little group near the aft end of the midships hangar bay door and waited.

Dee led the officers out the forward door of their quarters, where they formed a double file and marched toward the planes. A pair split off to stand by each Hornet. “Oh, shit, we shoulda had a working party to take the ladders down,” Peters groaned, but that had been thought of. Pilots boarded, and the other officer in each pair took the ladder down and stowed it. They then doubled across to the Tomcats, where they did the same. Canopies sighed down and clamped, and one by one, the Tomcats backed up a few feet, then turned forward down the centerline of the bay.

That brought the first one abreast of Donollo, who was standing, smiling benignly, a little in front of the group. Commander Bolton presented a salute, the best possible in flight suit, helmet, and gloves; Donollo responded by raising his left arm, nodding, and lowering the arm like a waiter showing someone to a table. Bolton brought his hand back down, and the Tomcat shot off down the bay, catching the sunlight, turning into a spark, then gone.

The others repeated the ritual in turn, Donollo putting in a magnificent performance as a catapult officer, the pilots following along because itclosely resembled what theywere used to. When the last Hornet was away, Donollo said something in a soft voice, making Dreelig laugh.

“Thank God they’re gone,” said Dee, and both sailors looked at her. “We don’t believe in that way,” she said, smiling, “but the phrase seemed appropriate.”

“Real appropriate,” Peters assured her.

“Very well done, everyone,” said Dreelig. He was also smiling. “And now, rest if you can. The second group will arrive sometime after the middle of the next ande.”

* * *

Five utle later they were again standing in the ops bay, watching sparks assemble aft.

These weren’t nearly so spiffy. All of them hit the bay opening without breaking anything, but the sailors winced several times. Todd, who had watched a lot of flight ops, thought they might have been better off to pick up the tempo a bit. A slow approach gave lots of time for minor corrections, and the paths were crooked as a snake’s track because most of the corrections were from nerves. It took over an utle to complete the evolutions with the ladders, and one pilot almost fell when the ladder, not properly secured, slumped to rest against the aerodynamic strake below the cockpit.

Forming up and marching was within their capabilities. Donollo said something, Dreelig repeated what he’d said before, and the sailors stood at attention and saluted at the right places. They were wearing undress blues over the kathir suits, and nobody paid them much attention.

“I’m Lieutenant Commander Carlyle,” the leader told Dreelig. “As you can see, we need a lot more practice to be good enough.”

“Senior Donollo thought you did very well,” said Dreelig generously, after translating that for Donollo and getting a reply. “I introduce Dee. She will show you to your quarters.” Dee gave him a black look and stepped to the front, and the company marched off across the bay, keeping rather better intervals than the first-line crews had.

They had filled out the welcoming party with half of the stewards, the ones who had helped out with unloading personal gear before. “All right, you know what to do,” Peters told them, then in Grallt, «Work you know. Do.» Peer grinned and nodded, gabbled at the rest of the group, and headed for the first Hornet. Peters and Todd sighed and looked at one another.

“These will remain only long enough to be measured for kathir suits,” Dreelig commented. “They must return for their free day, if I understand correctly.”

“It’s a free day for everybody. Thanksgiving.” Peters looked sour. “Good and bad. We gotta work harder, but it’ll be over with sooner.”

“Yes, that is all true,” said Dreelig. “I must go.”

“Aye, aye,” said Peters loudly. Dreelig looked startled, then amused, and went to collect the first group to be measured. The two sailors bore a hand with the unloading, fetching, and carrying.

The alternates were less standoffish than the primaries had been, to the extent that they were willing to accept the two enlisted men as guides and for familiarization with the facilities. All of their guides and advisors, including the stewards, were grateful for that. It meant they could take turns for naps of a few utle without leaving the officers to their own devices, and the officers themselves went down during fourth ande to be fresh for the trip. It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

Only about two-thirds of the pilots saluted Donollo as they departed, but “the Senior” raised his arm and beamed at each and every one of them, exactly as he had done for the first group. When they were finally away Peters and Todd were at least as beat as they had ever been, and Dee and Dreelig were wilting too. “Thank God they”re gone,” Todd said to Dee, and she just smiled tiredly and flapped a hand at him.

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