“Thar ’tis, I reckon,” John Peters said, his West Virginia accent thicker and further back in the woods than normal. A point of light, brighter than the sliver of waning moon, moved slowly across the sky. It was big enough for a person of normal eyesight to see that it was an object longer than it was wide.

Kevin Todd followed Peters’s gaze. “I still can’t quite believe it,” he breathed. “TDY to outer space. Peters, you’ve got a gift for timing.”

The spaceship–a real alien spaceship with real live aliens aboard, right out of the vids–had appeared in the sky last February, and a delegation from it had dropped in on USS Albert Gore, Jr. on station in the eastern Med. Crazy Al had been at flight ops at the time, and according to scuttlebutt a fine, exciting, and memorable time had been had by all. The net had been full of it–first contact with nonhuman intelligence, opportunity for the human race, all of that–but lately the coverage had tapered off, talking heads mentioning briefly that negotiations weren’t going well, in mournful tones between the disaster clips.

“TAD, more like,” Peters commented. “Our orders say report to–hang on, somethin’s happening.”

A smaller spark had detached itself from the big one and was moving faster, preceding its mothership across the sky. It had to be the aliens’ landing craft. The amazing thing wasn’t that it made a McDonnel-Mikoyan F37 look like a dugout canoe; the amazing thing was that a couple of enlisted sailors–Peters was an E5 or Second Class, Todd an E4 or Third Class–would be riding it into the sky in a couple of hours.

“We need to be getting our shit together,” Todd commented. Peters grunted assent, and the two of them turned to walk across the flight deck. A cold front had come through on Saturday, bringing sapphire-clear skies and a sharp drop in temperature, not usual for mid-November in North Florida, and the sailors puffed a little, their breath condensing in the chill air.

“Meet you at the brow in half an hour,” Peters suggested.

“You say it,” Todd half-agreed, and the two separated to fetch their seabags. USS William J. Clinton was a near-permanent fixture at Mayport Naval Station, running on shore power and a minimum of that, and at 0400 on a Monday morning most lights were out and few were stirring. They followed a path marked in yellow glowtape through the gloom of the empty hangar deck, showed their ID and orders to a First Class who didn’t give a damn, and stopped at the head of the brow to render honors. Then they humped their seabags down the gangway, each looking back in glances that turned furtive when the other caught him at it.

“Just another transfer,” Peters advised with determined heartiness.

“You say it,” Todd acknowledged.

In the first flush of optomism an enterprising squadron commander aboard the Gore had made a deal: a couple of squadrons of Navy planes were to go on the aliens’ next voyage, showing what Earth and humans could do. No other agreement of any type had been reached, and the prospects seemed remote, but for some reason the aliens considered their deal with Commander Harlan Bolton, CO VF22, done; the Government had reluctantly allowed the Navy to go along with the gag, hoping to salvage something.

The planes would have to be refitted–jet engines need air, which is in short supply in space–and the Navy wasn’t willing to sacrifice modern equipment to drastic modification. A small crew of the aliens were out in Arizona, picking equipment to use and installing spaceship engines in it when they weren’t tripping over diplomats and FedSec goons. The aircraft would also need support, as would the officers flying them, and here the aliens had balked, citing space restrictions. The compromise eventually reached was that two hundred sailors, a ridiculously skeletonized crew, would go; volunteers had been asked for, and the resulting stampede cherrypicked.

Then the aliens, who called themselves Grallt, had asked for one more thing. The Navy had reluctantly agreed, and John Peters had been in the right place at the right time.

* * *

A sentry stopped them, M27 at the ready, and they dumped their seabags on the grass and reached for ID blocks as he grounded arms. The Marine gave the blocks a cursory inspection. “All right, you can wait here,” he said, indicating a patch of grass no different from any other in the vicinity. “How do you swabbies rate this?”

“Advance detail,” Peters explained shortly. “Menial labor, it says here. The main detachment’ll be comin’ up after Thanksgiving.”

The Marine’s face was invisible behind his faceplate, but his voice was amused. “Mops and dusting. You volunteered?”

“Wouldn’t you’ve?” Peters gestured, a thumbs-up toward the sky.

“Ass up, and bare if necessary. I’m good at toilets, by the way.”

“I’ll put in a word.”

There was still no gray in the eastern sky when a light-colored shape ghosted overhead, coasting impossibly to a stop over the field and dropping with no sound but a faint thump. Its nose was toward them, pointing slightly to their left, and light shone from cockpit windows and a row of ports down the side. It looked a bit like the old Space Shuttle, except for the windows and not having black on the belly. Peters shared a look with Todd, thinking foolishly, It ain’t all that big! Todd’s eyes were wide.

“Looks like your ride’s here,” said the sentry. “Good trip.”

“Thanks,” Peters said, and they shouldered their seabags and trudged that way.

As they got closer to the machine it looked less and less familiar, like its owners, who could easily pass for human until you could see their faces. It sat impossibly low, its landing gear invisible below wings that curved more than the human version’s did. There was no door or hatch on this side; they walked around the port wing toward the tail, finding that the wingtip came just about to eye level on Peters. On the wingtip was a transparent bubble, maybe a running light but who the Hell knew, mounted on a flange with cross-slotted screws.

Hell. Not cross-slotted screws. Trefoil-slotted screws.

A welcoming delegation was hurrying up from the Admin buildings, headed by Captain Van Truong, the base commander, and a glittering officer who had to be Commander, Surface Fleet Atlantic. A small group of other officers and a loose gaggle of civilians in the bright-colored anoraks issued to visitors followed. Peters slung his seabag and approached the group with a snappy salute. “Good mornin’, sir,” he said to the admiral, and Todd followed suit a few beats later.

The return salute was crisp, not the negligent wave usual in somebody with so exalted a rank. “At ease,” the admiral said. “You must be the men they requested for help in setting up.”

“Yes, sir,” said Peters.

“Enlisted people,” said Captain Van Truong. “Junior enlisted people.” He sounded disgusted and angry, which was more what Peters and Todd had expected.

“That’s what they asked for,” the admiral said mildly. “Insisted on, in fact. Sailor, how did you end up with this assignment?”

“Dumb luck, sir,” Peters told him. “I happened to be on the phone to my detailer when the request come up on the computer.”

The admiral suppressed a grin, shook his head, and started to say something else, but was interrupted by the appearance of a Grallt. It–he?–stepped lightly down off the wing and came over. “Pleasant greetings,” he said, raising his left arm in an open-palmed salute, probably not aware that he was continuing a long tradition begun by Michael Rennie.

The admiral responded with another crisp salute. “Good morning, Ambassador Dreelig,” he said. “Welcome to Mayport Naval Station. May I introduce my colleagues?”

“In a moment,” said the Ambassador. “First, which of you are John Peters and Kevin Todd?” The two sailors stepped forward. “Ah. Pleasant greetings. You have your belongings? Yes, I see that you do. Please go aboard and, ah, report to Pilot Gell. He will show you what to do.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said Peters, and saluted. The Ambassador seemed a bit confused, but raised his left arm again.

“By your leave, sir,” Peters said to the admiral, maintaining protocol.

“Carry on,” the admiral granted, and the sailors slung their seabags up on the wing and climbed the step, using the straps to drag them the few meters to the hatch.

Their first and continuing impression of the Grallt shuttle was that it could have been built in Seattle or Moscow–or Grenoble for that matter; it certainly looked old enough. A section covered with ordinary-looking black nonskid had separated from the–flaps? ailerons?–to form steps up to the waist-high upper surface, and more of the black stuff made a walkway to the entry, which was a curved hatch four meters or so forward of the trailing edge. Inside, seating was two and two across, a little bulkier than Boeing usually supplied, covered in blue plush worn shiny in places, with pale tan padding showing through occasional tears. Two parallel strips of bluish lights extended forward over the aisle, ending at a bulkhead with a closed door. There was nobody visible.

“So where’s this Pilot Gell?” Todd asked.

Peters shrugged. “I reckon he’s up front, where a pilot belongs. My question is, what do we do with the seabags? I’m a little tired of carryin’ the damn thing.”

Another door led aft. Todd tried it: locked. “I guess we hump ’em a little further.”

“Reckon so.”

Beyond the forward door was a smaller compartment with only eight seats, larger, one on each side. “Officers’ country,” Peters guessed. Another door led to a short corridor, then to four chairs set two and two, upholstered in black, as big as the “officers'” but somehow more businesslike. In front of the first pair was the instrument panel, with the windshield above and big rectangular ports by each of the seats. The panel sloped rather than being vertical like an airplane’s, and was bare of screens and flashing lights, almost bare period. Both were familiar with aircraft instruments, and both found it a bit puzzling that a spaceship–a spaceship, for God’s sake–should have controls that looked not much more complex than those on a ten-meter liberty launch.

An individual, probably “Pilot Gell,” sat in the right front seat, and turned his head at their entry. He had two eyes arranged frontally, sandy-brown head hair parted on the left, and a pair of ears in more or less the regulation position, but that was where the similarities ended. Instead of anything like a nose he had a long cleft, beginning between the eyes and spreading at the bottom into an inverted Y that formed his upper lip, and his jaw was slightly wider and less pointed than the norm for human beings. The ambassador had worn their version of a mustache, two bands of silky hair beginning just below the inside corners of the eyes and extending vertically down to the upper lip; Gell was clean-shaven, which made the two of them easy to distinguish, even by the uninitiated. He was wearing a one-piece garment like a jumpsuit, off-white with splashes of bright reds and yellows in no discernible pattern.

The pilot said something incomprehensible; when the sailors didn’t respond he stood, pushed by them, opened one of the portside doors, and made a choppy gesture, indicating the cabinet. They slung their seabags inside and Gell closed the door, tested the latch by yanking on it, nodded, and pushed by them again. Up close, he had a slight odor, musty and unfamiliar but not unpleasant. He took his seat and indicated the other chairs with a wave.

Peters got the front seat, partly by being senior and partly by pushing. From there the sparseness of the instrument panel was even more remarkable: a couple of dials with white-on-black crosses in the middle and squiggles around the periphery, a couple more that were old-fashioned meters with needles, and half a dozen things an inch in diameter with engraved squiggles above and below, probably push buttons. A rod protruded from a complicated set of concentric fittings below the left-hand dial, ending in an arrowhead fifteen centimeters across and half that thick, with its point embedded in another complex joint. The arrowhead was convenient to Peters’s left hand, but when he started to touch it Gell said something short and definite, and shook his head.

They sat and waited. Outside the front transparency the sky got brighter, an utterly atypical perfectly clear day. There was nothing to do, and it was warm; first Peters, then Todd, peeled off their peacoats and stuffed them in the locker. They took care not to get too close to anything that looked like a control, and Gell busied himself reading meters and making left-handed notes on a pad of paper, occasionally pushing something or grunting.

Todd tapped Peters on the shoulder. “Look here,” he said. “This tab on the arm. Betcha it makes the seat recline, see?”

Peters found a similar control on his own chair-arm. “Gell,” he said softly. When the pilot looked up he said, “OK?” and fingered the tab. Gell nodded vigorously and went back to his business, and Peters pushed the tab, finding that it indeed reclined the chair with a soft electric-motor whine. Further manipulation changed the shape of the seat in other ways, some of them nonsensical until he remembered that it wasn’t built for humans. He twiddled until he found a comfortable position and leaned back. Despite the strangeness of the situation, warmth, idleness, and a long sleepless night did their work.

* * *

Peters woke when the ambassador came through the door, pushing it to with force that had been quite unnecessary when they came the same way. The Grallt face was impossible to read, but the ambassador’s body language was tense, shoulders hunched, moving a little too quickly, with short, choppy gestures. He bent over the seatback and chatted with Gell in low tones, then settled into the chair behind the pilot, fumbling with the control toggle until he had it arranged to his satisfaction. “Pleasant greetings,” he said across the aisle, his tone as tense as his body language. “I apologize for the delay. There were discussions.”

“We expected that,” said Peters.

Ssth.” The hiss had a “t” in it, more like the “th” in “thin” than “sh”. It was unmistakably an irritated sound. “I did not. A simple errand to pick up a pair of people has turned into nearly four utle of fruitless and unnecessary daga. I will be glad to be gone from this system. There may be much profit here, but there is also much … ah, I believe the term is ‘bullshit’. Am I correct?”

Todd sputtered. “Yes, sir,” Peters said, keeping his tone guarded.

“Excellent!” The ambassador seemed to relax a bit. “If I say ‘bullshit’ to some of your people, is it likely to make the discussion shorter?”

Peters cringed. This was was crash-and-burn material at his rate and rating. “Yes, sir, it probably will,” he said cautiously.

“Most excellent! I now await with pleasure the next meeting with Mr. Averill. Halfway into his speech, I shall look him in the eye and say ‘Bullshit!’ Do I have the inflection correct?”

“Yeah, fine,” said Peters. “I mean, yes, sir, that’s about right.” Todd was leaning forward, hands clenched in front of his mouth in an attitude reminiscent of prayer. Peters wasn’t fooled; he wondered what the ambassador thought. “He might not be real pleased,” he warned.

The ambassador waved that off and leaned forward. “You are Boatswain’s Mate Aviation Second Class John Howland Peters, are you not?”

Peters drew back a little. The Grallt’s face was more nearly obscene than horrid, but it was going to be a while before he could get that close without flinching. “Yes, sir.”

“Ah. ‘John Howland Peters’ is your personal name, and the rest of it specifies your place in your hierarchy, correct?”

“Yes, sir.” Peters saw something in Todd’s eyes, looked around out the port. The trees around the exercise field were dropping away with no fuss or feeling of motion, like watching a movie. There was another arrowhead on Gell’s side; the pilot had it clutched in his left hand and was moving it with careful precision, and the one in front of Peters moved in sympathy. “Uh, shouldn’t we be fastening seat belts or something?”

“Not necessary. In this situation the appropriate form of address is ‘Peters,’ correct?”

“Uh, yes, sir, that’s correct.” Nothing was visible out the windshield but blue sky. Peters gripped the arms of his seat firmly, but the shuttle might have been sitting on the ground if it hadn’t been for the views ahead and out the window at his side, the latter showing a line of horizon that dipped and swayed over blue sea.

“As I thought,” said the Ambassador, and shifted his attention to the younger sailor. “And you are Electronics Technician Aviation Third Class Kevin Todd, correct?”

Todd started, looked away from the window, and flinched as Peters had. “Yes, sir, that’s right.” The sky outside was noticeably darker.

“Ah. Peters and Todd, I am Dreelig. Our custom is to have only a single name. Please do not say ‘sir’ to me. The formal address is most confusing.” The Ambassador relaxed noticeably. “You have already met Gell, the pilot. My own profession is in some ways more complex. Your people describe it as ‘Ambassador,’ as you heard, but that word correctly means a post of much more importance than I truly hold. You might say ‘translator’ or even ‘salesman.’ Call me Dreelig.”

“Yes, sir, uh, I mean yes, Dreelig,” Peters stammered. The sky outside was deep purple, almost black, and stars were starting to come out. Out the left window the horizon was distinctly curved, a sharp white line at the top, grading to blue below. He had seen it in pictures but had never expected to see it for real.

“Do you understand why you are here?” Dreelig asked.

The shuttle was rotating slowly to the right, and the horizon disappeared. Stars appeared, first looking fairly normal in a black sky, then more and more filling in the gaps until the view was all stars, like a faint overspray of white paint on a black surface. The rotation continued, bringing the Earth back into view, and Peters felt a moment of vertigo as his point of view changed. All his life, that had been down; suddenly it was over there, a difference he hadn’t expected and wasn’t sure he liked.

He looked away from the window. “The call for volunteers said maintenance an’ preparation for deployment of Space Detachment One. I figured it meant cleanin’ and paintin’, gettin’ the berthin’ compartments shipshape.”

Dreelig nodded. “That’s correct as far as it goes,” he said, “but you two are also something of an experiment for us.”

Neither sailor responded. Peters couldn’t; his gut was roiling in a way that had nothing to do with the motion of the shuttle, which still wasn’t perceptible. The view outside was nothing but stars drifting slowly by, downward from his point of view.

“Your hierarchy is more complex than it seemed at first,” Dreelig went on. “The technicians are having difficulties, and we on the negotiating team have noted problems as well. One of the technicians suggested that it might be useful to build relationships with individuals at a lower level, so as to gain insight into the workings of the system, and after some discussion we decided to try it. You are here as the result.”

“Hunh,” Peters managed. Todd said nothing.

Dreelig produced a complex facial expression, the corners of his mouth stretching outward, the two points where his upper lips met his facial cleft pulled up to expose white teeth. Beaver, Peters thought. “Don’t be concerned,” the Grallt went on. “Your duties will be as you expected for the most part; we intend to observe and ask questions. For now, relax. It will be some time before we arrive at the ship.” He exchanged a few words of babble with the pilot, then sat back and adjusted his seat to an almost fully reclining position.

Gell said “Peters,” quite distinctly, and followed it with liquid babble, waving at the arrowhead on his side. Peters looked around at Dreelig, who said, “Gell is offering you an opportunity to operate the dli. If you would like to try, grasp the andli, the thing on the end of the rod, there.”

“Me? Drive a spaceship?”

“No, no, this is only a dli, I think you would say ‘shuttle.’ It is very simple to operate. Grasp the andli and try it.”

Peters took the arrowhead gingerly, a bit awkward because it was most convenient to his left hand. It was cool, smooth metal by the feel, and when he moved it slightly the crosses on the two dials in front of him moved. “What am I doing?” he asked plaintively. “I can’t feel anything.”

Dreelig said something to the pilot, who made a short choppy sound in his throat and pressed one of the black buttons, holding it in for a slow count of three. One of the gauges moved, stopping close to the center position, and at the same time Peters felt strange, light and a little dizzy. “Gell has reduced the setting of the–” the word Dreelig used was long and complex, and somehow didn’t sound quite like the babble he and Gell used together. “The, ah, gravity is somewhat less, as you will note, and when the dli accelerates you will feel it a bit. Gell says it is a technique often used in teaching.”

“Tell him thanks.”

Peters quickly got the general idea. Twisting the arrowhead caused roll, pitch, and yaw; the right-hand cross moved in reverse sympathy. Pushing it forward and back caused acceleration in that direction; ditto for side to side and up and down, with the left-hand cross tracking that. He played with it for a little while, not trying any sudden or extreme moves. “I hope I don’t have to do anything complicated,” he said worriedly.

Dreelig relayed that to Gell, who made the short sound again and babbled back. “Gell says you are doing very well. Perhaps you can, ah, I believe the word is ‘dock.’ Perhaps you can dock the dli aboard the ship.”

“I don’t reckon that’s a good idea,” said Peters, pulling his hand away from the controller. “Tell Gell thank you, but I ain’t ready to be a dlee pilot just yet.”

This time Dreelig made the sound; evidently it was the Grallt form of laughter, because when he relayed Peters’s comment to Gell the pilot made it too. He took the controller, though, and waved toward Peters before thumbing another button. The gauge went back to the left and normal weight returned.

Todd was more adventurous when he got his chance, having the shuttle–the dlee, Peters reminded himself–swinging about vigorously at one point. That didn’t seem to bother Gell, who leaned back in his seat, arms folded in a relaxed attitude. “No, I’m not ready to try landing it,” Todd said when he was ready to relinquish the control. “Ask me again after a little more practice.”

Dreelig translated that; both Grallt gave their chopping laugh, and Gell set the gravity back to normal and took the controls. A bright spot was visible in the distance, brighter than any of the stars and moving, very slightly but visibly.

They had seen pictures, but seeing the ship in person, as it were, was quite different. It was shaped like a chunk of two-by-four, too short to use, too long to throw away; not at all aerodynamic, but not the collection of spiky protuberances familiar from old movies either. There wasn’t much in the way of antennas and the like, nor anything that looked like a rocket motor. It had once been painted white; the paint was peeling off, especially on the end away from their approach, leaving bare–metal?–pale gray and scarred. Where the paint was intact the sun glare was almost painful.

The end nearest them was blunt, almost flat, freckled with small black spots, probably windows or portholes. Off center to the right was a rectangular area, and on each corner of that was a red flashing light. Now they could see it was a hole. The light was different inside, bluer than the sunlight and not nearly as bright, and machines of some sort were just becoming visible. The upper left-hand light wavered oddly and broke up into lines at an angle to the edge of the hole; Gell spat a syllable and pushed the control gently to the right, then a bit down, and the light went solid but continued flashing. Their version of a meatball, apparently, and pretty slick. Keep the lights round seemed to be the game.

That was a big hole. One of the things inside was another dli, looking like a toy; Todd tried to recall the height of the vertical stabilizer, made a quick calculation, then a low whistling hiss. “Peters, that hole is over twenty meters high.”

“Yeah, I was just gettin’ the same thing. That makes it fifty wide, which makes the ship eighty meters high and better’n two hundred wide. God knows how long it is.”

“Approximately seven hundred meters,” said Dreelig. “Of course we don’t use your measures. You will have to learn our measures, and our numbers, if you are to be of help.”

The stern of the ship was a wall filling the windshield, and the hole was a gaping maw, bluish light inside, corner lamps strobing. The closer they got, the faster their approach speed seemed. They knew it was an optical illusion, but both sailors were gripping their seat arms and leaning back defensively. Then the light changed as they crossed the threshold, there was a heartbeat of impossibly quick deceleration that didn’t change the rock-stable feeling at all, and they were moving sedately across the floor of a huge space. Gell pushed a series of buttons, causing the crosses on the instrument dials to disappear, and the dli came to a halt next to another, identical one.

Dreelig stood and stretched, much as a human being would. “Please get your things and come with me,” he said. He led the way toward the back of the shuttle, continuing, “The delay on the ground has cost us some time. I must introduce you to my, ah, colleague, because I have other duties for the remainder of this llor.” The two sailors exchanged glances and shrugs, got their seabags and peacoats out of the luggage locker, and followed.

Chapter Two >>>