Going down through atmosphere was more spectacular than going up. The dli went in belly first; streamers of pale-yellow and gold fire waved in the ports, and a low rumbling hiss vibrated the walls. That only lasted a few minutes, after which Gell brought the craft into level flight, which was as noiseless and sensationless as before. They were over open ocean, still very high up, for what seemed a long time before Gell pointed out the windshield. “Jax,” he said, and sure enough, white breakers and pale yellow sand were visible, far ahead and below.

They came in over the beach at what seemed like treetop height. When they turned over the river toward Mayport a powerboat was racing along, throwing up a white rooster tail. Gell pointed at it, then pantomimed, right hand hovering over the panel, nearly touching, then a fluttering gesture to simulate water flying up behind. Big grin. “Maybe we ought to let him do it,” Todd suggested from the back seat. “Be something to see.”

“Yeah, but I’d rather see it than do it,” Peters said sourly. When Gell looked at him, he pointed at himself, then sat up straight, one hand over his forehead as if shielding his eyes from the sun, the other pointing far into the distance past the pilot. Gell’s reply was a chuckle that sounded like a fifty-caliber gun in the distance.

They skimmed over the pines onto the athletic field, Gell working the control in tiny increments. Peters had time to note a ring of Marines and a glittering welcoming party, then they were down, the only indication that the flight was over being the cessation of movement out the window. He said “thanks” to Gell in Grallt, and added “good flight” in English as he and Todd got up to leave.

Dreelig and the others were still seated, Donollo with his head back, apparently asleep. “This is our stop,” Peters said.

“Yes, but not ours,” Dreelig told him. “We are going on to Washington. We will return at the fourth utle of the sixth ande.”

Peters held up the watch. “You got any idea what time that’ll be, local?”

Dreelig consulted with Dee, who counted on her fingers. “Well after dark, I don’t know the number exactly,” she said.

“If we ain’t waitin’ when you show up, have Gell make a low pass over the admin building,” Peters suggested. “That’ll let us know you’re here.”

“I would not do any such thing,” said Dreelig. “Kh kh! Gell has too many excuses for special performances while flying without making up more. If you are not here, we will wait.”

“We’ll be here,” Peters assured him.

They stepped down over the trailing edge and saluted the brass, the one with the most braid returning the salute. There was a clunk! behind, and Peters spun to see the hatch closed and the dli rising off the grass. The admiral said “As you were, sailor,” pretty sharply, and the two of them watched the craft vanish over the admin building, heading north.

“I take it we don’t get to talk to the ambassador,” the admiral said.

“Yes, sir, I mean no, sir,” Peters floundered. “The ambassador and his party have an appointment in Washington.”

“I see. You men been booted out?”

Peters flushed. “No, sir, we are runnin’ errands. There’s some things we oughta bring along for the trip, and since they had to come down anyway, they brought us along to make the arrangements, sir.”

The admiral looked hard at him for a moment, then relaxed. “Very well. You’ll need to talk to Master Chief Joshua.” He gestured with his thumb toward the back of the formation. “Dismissed, then. Carry on, men.”

“Aye, sir,” they chorused, and saluted again. The admiral returned it, and the party of officers broke up, obliging the sailors to salute each as they encountered them.

Master Chief Joshua was a stubby, bullet-headed individual in dress blues. He raised his eyebrows as Peters and Todd came up. “I’m Joshua,” he said by way of introduction.

“Howdy, Chief. I’m Peters, and this here’s Todd.”

“Good to meet you boys.” They shook hands. The Chief’s general air was no-nonsense competence with a little overlay of worry. “I’ll be your leading chief, and it looks like I’m the closest thing to an Air Boss this evolution is gonna have, so you might say I’m real interested. How long you boys got?”

“All day, Chief,” Peters told him. “The boat’ll be back to pick us up tonight, I don’t know exactly what time. I mean, I know it in their time–” he held up his wrist with Dee’s watch on it, “–but not in ours.”

Joshua tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “I think we can fix that. Come along, we got things to do, and you need to meet some people.” He led them to where a vehicle was waiting, a Geo Suburban painted haze gray with Navy markings on the doors.

At the main gate Joshua jerked a thumb at an F/A-18 Hornet, nose hopefully pointed toward the sky but firmly attached to a welded steel framework. “Our stuff looks pretty piss-poor in comparison, don’t it?” he remarked.

“We ain’t as far behind as you might think, Chief,” Peters suggested. “They can do things we can’t, but we got some shit that makes their eyes pop. We can do business if the powers that be get their thumbs out.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” the Chief advised. “Net’s been full of it-ain’t-workin’-out. Some of ’em are sayin’ it’s too bad, but those folks are just going to go off and leave, and we won’t ever see ’em again.”

“Chief, if there’s a place to put money on that, you put some down against it,” Peters said earnestly.

“Can’t say I’m sorry to hear it, seeing as how I’m gonna be with ’em when they vanish,” the Chief commented. He settled back into his seat. “Speaking of which, you boys said there were some things we needed to bring along. What, pray tell, does the U.S. Navy have that you can’t find on a spaceship?”

“Pillows, wardroom chairs, and radios,” Todd summarized.

“Weldin’ gear and all the electronics you can scrape up,” Peters added.

“Pillows?” Joshua raised his eyebrows again.

“Pillows. You take a look at these Grallt, they’re all real narrow shouldered, Chief,” Todd explained. “They don’t use pillows because they don’t really need them. We each need to bring a pillow, maybe a few spares.”

“Easy enough,” Joshua commented. “Just one more thing to add to the seabags.”

“Them seabags can be pretty light, Chief,” Peters remarked. “We ain’t gonna need many clothes. Couple sets of skivvies, dress uniforms. Everybody gets issued a kathir suit, and that’s really all anybody’s goin’ to need.”

Kathir suit? What’s that?”

“Sort of a junior-grade space suit,” Peters described it. “Fits like a second skin, stays clean all by its ownself, makes air when there ain’t none, and it’s got pushers on it, so’s you can move around when there ain’t no gravity.”

“You’ve already been issued yours, I take it. How come you didn’t wear them?”

Peters looked him in the eye. “They ain’t regulation, an’ we don’t know you yet.”

Joshua grinned. “We’ll talk more about that later. Wardroom chairs? Sounds like you’re setting up something real luxurious.”

“Oh, Hell, no, Chief, just tryin’ to get it shipshape. They got this big room, gonna set it up as a ready room for the crews.” Peters was careful not to be specific about who was setting things up. This Chief sounded pretty jealous of his authority; it wouldn’t do to have him find out that a Second Class and a Third were making most of the decisions. “They got most of the stuff, but we thought, they’ll need chairs. The big leather things they use for briefings on the ship.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Joshua assured him. “Briefing chairs, not wardroom chairs. There’s probably a Federal Stock Number for them: Chair, Briefing, Officers and Aircrew, FSN umpty million dash something. I’ll get after the supply folks. Looks like we’re here.” They were passing through the dilapidated iron arch that marked off NAS Jacksonville from the surrounding slums. The Marine guard said something to the driver, and they accelerated away toward the flight line.

The hangar they arrived at was run down, the sheet-iron siding rusting through the silver paint in blotches. “Looks like hell, doesn’t it,” Chief Joshua remarked when he followed their gaze. “It used to hold a fighter squadron.” He shook his head. “Times do change.”

Sailors swarmed around the office block beside the hangar, painting and washing windows, and more were inside, sweeping and swabbing. “They’re getting good practice, Chief,” Todd said. “Me’n Peters and a Grallt work crew are just barely going to have officers’ country fit to live in by the time you come aboard. It’ll take a month of field days to get the rest of it shipshape.”

“Will it now,” the chief remarked, not a question. He pushed a door open and urged them through.

The room was in sorry shape: cracked dark-green tile on the floor, faded grey paint on the walls, fluorescent fixtures with about every third tube dead or flickering. It was furnished with desks and chairs that were probably older than anybody in the room, maybe older than any two of them. One of the desks had a computer on it, net cables disappearing into the overhead through a roughly hacked hole.

Joshua introduced them to the people: Senior Chief BM (Aviation) Warnocki, Chief of the Deck and effectively Ops Officer in their truncated TO; Chief Corpsman Gill, assistant to the doctor; one of his assistants, Corpsman 2/C Kiel; Communications Tech 1/C Howard; and Yeoman 1/C (Data Processing) Hernandez, who was sitting at the computer, toying with a graph of some kind.

“I’m Linguistics specialty,” Howard said as he shook Peters’s hand. “Translator. I’ll be learning the Grallt language.”

Peters shook his head. “Everybody’s gonna have to do that,” he said. “The way they got it set up, we’re gonna mess with the regular crew,” he explained. “It’s like a restaurant, with waiters and all. You’ll have to know a little bit of the language to eat.”

“Do tell,” Howard murmured. “You guys already learned some of it?” he wanted to know, tone a little accusing.

“Yeah, ’bout like what I said,” Peters told him. “How to order dinner, say sorry and thank you, that sort of thing. It’s all most of us’ll need. You’ll have plenty of chance to spread yourself.” Howard flushed a bit at that, not too pleased to be so transparent.

The next few hours seemed very long to Todd and Peters. Between them, they described Llapaaloapalla as best they could, trying to convey the size of it and its general air of seediness. They tried hard to describe the untidiness, crudity, and air of dilapidation, but ran into a wall of disbelief. Nobody could imagine that anybody who had to live aboard ship would let it go that way. “Go ahead anyway, Chief,” Todd advised an incredulous Warnocki. “A couple of wire welders, supplies, and some shipfitters’ tools will be worth the trouble.”

Warnocki shook his head. “I’ll do it, but if it turns out to be a waste of time, you’ll hear about it,” he warned. “What’s it made out of? I have to know, or I won’t know what kind of welding supplies to load.”

Todd and Peters looked at one another. “Hell, I dunno,” Peters admitted. “I was assumin’ it was steel. That’s what it looks like, anyway.”

“A steel spaceship? Now I know you’re full of shit,” Warnocki observed.

Nobody was pleased by the time difference. “That’s going to be tough,” Chief Gill told them. “People can manage twenty-five or twenty-six hour rotations pretty easy, but thirty?” He shook his head. “Right off the top of my head, I’d say we’re gonna have to rotate rest days, and short-handed as we are, that could be a problem.”

“I’ve worked forty-eight at a stretch before,” Chief Joshua objected. “Even seventy-two sometimes.”

“Sure. I’ll bet everybody here has. But thirty hours, every day, for two years?” Gill shook his head again. “I’ll look it up and get back to you.”

“That reminds me. Got a job for you, Hernandez.” Peters unstrapped Dee’s watch and passed it to the programmer. “What can you do with that?”

Hernandez inspected it dubiously. “Not much, I don’t think.” He tapped it, held it to his ear. “Dios mio, this thing’s mechanical! Is it some kind of joke?”

“No joke,” Peters assured him. “It keeps their time. We’re gonna need a conversion program, our time to theirs. Among other things, I know what time they’re comin’ back for us by that thing, but I don’t know what it’ll be in our time. You figure that out and let me know.”

Hernandez still looked dubious, but he pulled out a handheld, bigger and fancier than the one Peters was still carrying, and started pressing keys. “Stopwatch function, to get the basic interval. Never mind this thing,” with a wave at the desktop computer, “it’s like cracking a nut with a sledge hammer. While we’re waiting, I haven’t heard you say anything about what kind of computers they’ve got up there. I’m interested, you might say.”

“You’re lookin’ at it,” Peters told him.

“What?”

“That’s right,” Todd confirmed. “The most complicated gadget we saw is a one-way PA system, and I’m not even sure it’s electronic. We never heard it work.” He glanced at Peters. “They don’t even have a radio on the dli, the shuttle they ride up and down.”

Into the resulting, unanimous, stunned silence Peters said to Joshua, “That’s what I meant about radios, Chief. Earbugs for everybody, spares, talkies, spare batteries ’til Hell won’t have ’em. Radios to talk to the planes, and power supplies to run ’em, and battery chargers.” He waved at Hernandez. “Computer types’ll have take our own along. What we need’s a radioman. Got one on the list?”

“Highest rate’s a Third Class,” said Joshua grimly. “That may have to change.”

“No network?” Hernandez was incredulous.

“How loud can you holler?” Peters asked. The others chuckled, but Hernandez was wide-eyed, holding onto the mouse like it was a lifeline. He probably hadn’t been away from a high-speed network for more than a few hours for the last ten years.

Chief Joshua looked at his watch. “That’s enough for now,” he said. “Let’s break for lunch.” He glanced around the room, eyes resting at the last on Todd. “We’ll go to the EM club, everybody can get in. I’m buying. I take it you two don’t have any money on you?”

Peters flushed slightly. “We can buy our own lunch, Chief,” he said, shushing Todd when he tried to object. “Not much more than that, though,” he admitted. “Not much call for money in outer space.” He would remember that, much later.

Lunch in a room full of people with noses was a relief. The food wasn’t much, mystery meat with green beans and mashed potatoes, but it was familiar and therefore comforting. They didn’t discuss their business at the table, confining themselves to chitchat about the world in general and the Navy in particular. Things hadn’t changed much, and Peters realized that it was only Thursday, after all: they’d been away only three days.

Back at the hangar, Hernandez went straight for his desk and started punching keys, and Chief Joshua called the rest to order. “OK, action assignments. Gill, you’ll be checking into medical consequences of the long days, right?” When the Chief Corpsman nodded, Joshua went on, “Warnocki, I’m gonna depend on you to scare up welders and briefing chairs. I’ll have my hands full chasing down radios.” He shook his head. “Hernandez, come out of that for a minute, will you?”

“Sure, Chief,” the programmer said. “What’s up?”

Joshua snorted. “Programmers. You know anything about setting up a network?”

Hernandez shook his head. “I could program one, no problem, but I don’t know much about the hardware. You need Interior Communications for that.”

“Don’t I know it.” Joshua sighed heavily. “I’ll look down the roster, see what I can come up with. Howard, I want you to get with our boys here and see how much of the language they’ve learned.”

“Aye, Chief.” The CT spared Peters a look that wasn’t too pleased.

“Take about an hour at it,” Joshua went on, oblivious to Howard’s attitude. “By then we’ll have a first cut at making a list and working out how to fill it. You may get interrupted, so don’t waste time.”

“Aye, Chief,” Howard said sourly. “Come on,” he told Peters and Todd. “We’ll use the old SDO’s office.”

They sat on straight chairs with split upholstery in the cubicle that had once housed the Squadron Duty Officer, discussing the Grallt language and discovering in the process that, first, neither Peters nor Todd really knew all that much, and, second, that Peters in particular was a lousy teacher. It may have been personality. Howard wasn’t easy to like, and neither Peters nor Todd saw any particular percentage in investing the effort.

The only interruption came when Hernandez took Peters’s handheld. Peters paid nearly no attention until they’d broken with Howard and gone back into the main room. “There you are,” the programmer said, holding the gadget up for display. “Call up the time function like normal. Then push ‘G’ for Grallt and it shows the Grallt time on a graphic like this.” He held up Dee’s watch. “It’s probably as good as this mechanical thing. To set it in Grallt mode, push up-arrow for forward and down-arrow for back, then enter to confirm. It’ll adjust itself if you set it once in a while.”

“How do I get normal time back?” Peters was alert enough to ask.

“Just push the time function again,” Hernandez shrugged. “Hey, it isn’t fancy, but it’ll get the job done. I’ll do something better when we get aboard.”

“Can it convert a future time?” Peters asked. “I still don’t know exactly when the dli is comin’ to pick us up.”

Hernandez stared into space. “Sure,” he said finally. “Just act like you’re setting it until you get the right time display, but don’t push enter. Then when you push G it’ll show the converted time. Push time once more, and it goes back to the current time. I didn’t design it to do that, but it ought to work. Give it back; I want to try it. What time do you need to convert?”

“Fourth utle of the sixth ande.” When Hernandez looked blank, Peters shook his head. “Sorry, that’s the names of the time units. Big needle on this mark here, and the middle one here.” He indicated it on Dee’s watch.

“That’s the other way, but it still ought to work.” Hernandez played with keys. “Yep, it works,” he said with satisfaction. “Not too handy, but like I said, I’ll do better when I have the time. And it looks like your ride will be here a little before 2030.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent in discussion, sometimes descending to raucous argument, of what the detachment would need for the voyage. Joshua didn’t have many questions, but he did have a few acerbic comments. His attitude puzzled Peters a little, until he realized that the basis of it was simple: he and Todd didn’t have enough chevrons for the Master Chief to take them seriously.

Warnocki gave them some credit, actually listening to what they had to say, but even he was more disbelieving than otherwise. Gill and the corpsmen were investigating time-shift effects, with Hernandez helping with the net search, and at any rate neither Peters nor Todd had learned much that would be interesting to the medics. The worst was Howard. CTs had to be bright to get the rate, and got a lot of training; they were used to being the smartest people in any given room, and having a couple of juniors ahead of him made this one grumpy and hard to get along with.

Around 1500 they broke for coffee and head calls, and when they got back a man and a woman, dressed upscale and carrying briefcases, were sitting at the table with the Master Chief, with a pair of Federal Security goons in green blazers standing behind them, arms folded. “Like you to meet Agent Styles and Agent Cade of the IRS,” Joshua introduced them, face and voice studiously neutral. “We’ll be gone for quite some time, and we have to have our ducks in a row with the tax people. Agent Styles?”

The man stood. “Thank you, Mr. Joshua. Gentlemen, as you can imagine this situation causes a great deal of difficulty for us at the IRS. You’re scheduled to leave before the end of the tax year, and you may not return for as many as three cycles. We’ve carefully studied the Executive Order that authorizes this expedition, and the tax implications aren’t at all clear.” He hesitated as the sailors exchanged glances, then went on, “This has been put together much too quickly for us to determine policy. As an interim measure, we need for you all to complete your forms for 2053 before you depart. For those of you with no income other than your Navy pay the end of the tax year will be as usual; simply include your pay for December as income. If you have other income, you’ll have to fill out a 9327A to end the tax year on 1 December. We can stretch the regulations to push your December income into taxable year 2054. After that we don’t know what provisions will be made.”

One of the sailors raised a hand. “Mr. Styles, won’t we be on combat exclusion?”

“Please stand and give your name,” Styles said. “And I prefer ‘Agent Styles,’ if you don’t mind.”

“Kiel, Corpsman Second Class.” Kiel stood slowly. “In an exclusion zone we don’t pay taxes on our Navy pay. Won’t it be that way on this deployment?”

Styles shook his head. “That determination hasn’t been made, Mr. Kiel, and in any case you’re required to file even when the combat exclusion is in effect. Furthermore, income other than your Navy pay and benefits isn’t subject to the exclusion; you would have to file and pay tax if you have such outside income.” The agent pursed his lips in an expression of distaste. “The best we can do is let you terminate the tax year early, so you’ll be in compliance for 2053. Further determinations will have to made when you return.”

“It would really be best if you had an agent who stayed behind,” the woman put in. “Your pay and other income will be accrued here, and such an agent could file for you. There’d be the irregularity that your signatures wouldn’t be present, but that’s minor. I’m sure the penalty could be waived.”

“Hire a lawyer to keep our tax forms current while we’re gone?” Hernandez objected. “That’d eat up my whole paycheck.”

Styles regarded him with disfavor. “We can’t help that. You’re required to file.”

“Perhaps a dependent,” the woman suggested.

“None of us has dependents,” Chief Gill objected. “It was one of the requirements for volunteers.”

“Then a tax lawyer would really be best,” the woman noted.

“But it isn’t an option for most of us. Do you have any other suggestions?” Gill asked.

Styles lifted his chin. “We are not authorized to advise taxpayers on methods of compliance,” he said frostily. “Agent Cade has already gone much farther than she should have. We will leave a supply of paper forms with Mr. Joshua for those of you who aren’t able to file electronically or don’t care to. We very much prefer electronic filing, but we understand that it may be impossible in the circumstances. Beyond that, all we can do is advise you to comply with the law. There are severe penalties for not complying fully.” He looked at the Master Chief. “I believe that’s all we have for you.”

The Master Chief nodded but didn’t rise. “Thank you, Agent Styles,” he said in a monotone.

Styles stared for a long moment. “Laura,” he said, half-questioning, and made a little come-along gesture with his left hand. One of the FedSec goons went to the door, looked up and down the hall, and nodded shortly. The woman stood and went ahead of Styles, who glanced impassively back at the group as he left, and the other goon followed, keeping his head turned toward the sailors until he closed the door.

“Hunh,” said Gill contemptuously. No one else commented, and the Master Chief brought his hand down on the table in an explosive slap, wham! “Let’s get back on track,” he said. “I’ll pass out the forms when I get them. Chief Gill, I think we were talking about foods and allergies before we broke for coffee. Any more you want to ask about?”

They broke for chow, at the EM club again, and got back at it, and it was almost twenty hours when Chief Joshua finally called a halt. He handed Peters and Todd copies of the IRS forms, then whistled up the Suburban and driver that had brought them to the Naval Air Station. Dee’s watch read a few tle before the fourth utle when they pulled up by the athletic field at Mayport. “Thanks,” Peters told the driver.

“No prob’, man.”

“And here’s our ride.” Todd pointed above the admin building, where the dli was ghosting in, still improbably silent. The driver’s eyes were wide in the dark. “See you another time,” Todd told him.

“Yeah, see ya,” the driver said abstractedly, eyes following the white shape as it settled on the grass. A Marine challenged them, but contented himself with a cursory scan of their ID blocks, and Dreelig appeared at the hatch. It said a lot about their day that his alien face looked welcoming, a comforting relief.

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