“You know you’re not going to be leading PO, right?” Howell demanded, his tone half sneering, half truculent. “You ain’t got the stripes.” He was a Boatswain’s Mate (Aviation) First Class, the highest rating aboard qualified on arresting gear, and claimed the lead position by simple seniority.

Peters sighed and looked around. Each of the consoles was manned by a Grallt, zerkre with blue above the waist and white below, and Keezer, her arms folded and an expression matching Howell’s on her face, stood by Number One. Sailors in deck gear stood a pace or two behind, looking over Grallt shoulders or watching the byplay, according to personality type. “No, I ain’t gonna be leadin’ PO of the retarder team,” he said. “But for right now, I know the language an’ you don’t. Keezer, yonder, is in charge, and she’d take it kindly if you’d pay attention. I ain’t nothin’ but a translator.”

“Long as that’s clear.” Howell waved. “You’ll be lead on Console Three just from your time in rate, but I’m in charge here, you got that?”

“I got it.”

“Good. You got figures we can read for this stuff?”

“Right here.” Peters had taken the numbers Vogt had given him, converted them to Grallt numerals, and written the result on slips of paper. He handed the slips over, hoping he’d gotten the transcriptions right, and went to deliver another copy to Keezer. «These are the masses of the two types of–» he looked for a word «–small ships we use. Is this helpful?»

«Necessary,» the engineer snapped. «Do you have velocity figures as well?»

«Here.»

Keezer nodded. «You will have to identify the ship types to us so that we can make the appropriate settings. –Tell that person that if he doesn’t keep his fingers away from those controls I will break them for him.»

Howell was fiddling with the console. “Ms. Keezer done said we ain’t to be messin’ with the controls yet,” Peters told him mildly. “She was kind of emphatic about it.”

The other sailor backed away. “What does that one do?”

“That’un controls the approach lights, like the meatball back home,” Peters told him. “Right’s off, center’s normal, left is wave-off.”

“That’s the LSO’s job,” Howell objected. He was right; Landing Signal Officer is one of the most responsible jobs aboard ship.

“Not here,” Peters said, and had the satisfaction of seeing Howell flinch. The Grallt who was responsible for Number One console moved back into place, pushing Howell aside with a black look. «Excuse me,» Peters told her, «I would like to show my colleague how to make the correct settings.» She looked up at Keezer, who nodded, and stepped back.

“All right, we’ll set up for a Tomcat. This knob here sets the mass. See how I wrote the numbers? These lines here are a vernier, ‘cept it reads backwards to what you’re used to. Try it.” Howell scowled and moved the knob. “That’s right,” Peters approved; the man wasn’t stupid or he wouldn’t be here in the first place. “Now the speed, the other knob. The big ‘un stays on zero, ain’t none of our folks gonna be goin’ fast enough to need it. Just the little one.” Howell got that right, too, after a bit of fumbling. “Real good. Lemme show the others, and you get your backups up to speed, OK?”

“Yeah,” Howell agreed with ill grace. Peters nodded in acceptance of the situation and went to the other consoles, showing each of the lead men how to make the setting, different at each one. At number three he brought his two backups over, but at the others he let the leads do the work.
“Ever’body’s got the right settings for a Tomcat,” he told Howell. “Now set up for a Hornet, an’ I’ll check.”

“Right,” the First Class said, still with hostility in his tone. He tapped his earbug to wake up the processor. “Retarder crews, set for incoming Hornet,” he told it, and Peters’s earbug echoed the words. “Acknowledge by console.”

“Retarder One, set for incoming Hornet,” Howell’s first backup, Christiansen, said, and the earbugs echoed that as well.

“Retarder Two, set for incoming Hornet,” Bannerman acknowledged.

“Retarder Three, set for incoming Hornet,” Jacks said.

“Retarder Four, set for incoming Hornet,” came from Kraewitz.

They repeated the setup several times, allowing the backups to make and acknowledge the settings, at the same time letting the earbug processor learn who was where so they could drop the formality. After they’d done several repeats Peters took his post on Number Three, instead of standing with Keezer, and let Howell issue the commands, including setting up for loaded and unloaded dli using figures provided by the Grallt. Keezer unbent enough to stalk along the line of consoles, checking the figures and shaking her head.

After an utle or a little more, call it three-quarters of an hour, the earbugs bleeped, and a voice came, “Officer of the Deck, aft lookout. Bogeys at six o’clock, um…” the sailor hesitated, then added, “and call it fifteen degrees down, approach course.”

Chief Joshua’s voice came on: “All hands, stand to for flight operations. All hands, stand to for flight operations. Chief of the Deck, set conditions for trap and spot.” Sailors bustled, getting things ready as best they could in the unfamiliar conditions.

The planes didn’t do an airshow approach, just set up in a wide circle around the ship to wait their turn to land. Two of them were dli, lacking communication with the rest, and those proceeded to set up their approaches, one pulling ahead. “Retarder crews, set for dlee,” Howell said, his voice sounding panicky. This was for real. “Assume fully loaded, normal approach speed. Acknowledge by console.” By the time he’d got that out his voice was under control except for being a little fast.

The Grallt who were supposed to be running things looked on, faces showing what Peters recognized as befuddlement, as the sailors made settings and acknowledged them in turn. “Peters, go down the line and check the numbers,” Howell said, clearly grudging the necessity. “This is for real. We can’t screw it up.”

“Aye,” Peters acknowledged.

«What’s happening?» Keezer wanted to know. «Your people should stand aside and let us make the settings.»

«Perhaps so,» Peters acknowledged, «but everyone learns sometime. Would you come with me and check that the settings are correct for loaded dli?»

Keezer stared, arms folded, for a long moment. «Yes,» she agreed, sounding hostile. She went down the line, Peters following, beginning with a scowl and ending with raised eyebrows. «Perfect. Not at all what I expected.»

«Thank you.» He spoke into the earbug: “Retarder crews, everybody got it right, attaboy from Ms. Keezer.”

“Retarder crews, stand to for dlee, full trap,” Howell said, sounding less panicked. “Next trap will also be dlee. Acknowledge by console.” Peters took charge of his station, joining the others in chanting acknowledgement.

The dli entered and was slowed properly, the fields making no sound but the faintest of subliminal twangs. It taxiied away, the retarder crews checked settings and acknowledged, and the second followed in the same style. Keezer and the other Grallt were gathered by the Number One console, watching and looking amazed. Possibly a little peeved, Peters thought.

“Retarder crews, set for Tomcat,” Howell said, beginning to settle down. “Unloaded, normal approach speed, full trap.” They set and acknowledged that, and Commander Bolton’s plane entered, dead center as usual, came to a stop, and taxiied away. “Trap following will also be Tomcat,” Howell told them, and they set up and acknowledged that.

Officers, probably the backup flight crews, began emerging from the two dli, carrying bags and cases of stuff they’d forgotten or hadn’t had room for on the first trip. Commander Bolton parked with the nose against the inboard bulkhead at an angle, and this time there were ground crews to erect the ladders. He and his RIO popped canopies and climbed out, with the assistance of plane captains as it should be, and stood by the tail watching the rest of the operation.

When the last Hornet had parked against the inboard bulkhead the officers formed up, marched over to their quarters hatch, and started disappearing inside. “Retarder crews, secure consoles and stand down,” Howell ordered. By this time the earbug processor had decided who was what.

“Belay that,” Peters said, and Howell looked up, face clouding. “When the retarders ain’t in use they should be set for dli. One might land any time,” he added mildly. “Shuttin’ ’em down ain’t the right strategy.”

“Roger that,” Howell grudged. “Retarder crews, set for dlee, normal load and approach speed, full trap. Acknowledge by console.” They all did that, and Howell finished up: “Stand down from retarder console operations.”

Peters pulled off his helmet and watched as the others dispersed. «I believe our performance must be considered satisfactory,» he told Keezer.

«Indeed. Your people learn amazingly fast.» Keezer shook her head, seeming less hostile than before. «Why all the talk? I noticed that much of it was repetitive.»

«Yes.» Peters smiled. «Two reasons. First, if we repeat certain words again and again, our communicators learn who we are and what our assignment is, and direct communications to the proper persons–»

«That’s not believable,» the Grallt interjected.

«Nevertheless it is what we do. Second, we like to leave as little to chance as possible. If all the words are familiar from repetition, anything out of the ordinary is noticed immediately.»

«That’s good procedure,» Keezer approved, «but I still don’t believe you about the communicators. Do you need further instruction?»

«Not at the moment,» Peters told her. «If necessary someone will ask. Thank you.»
Keezer simply nodded and took herself off, the other Grallt following.

Todd was waiting at the enlisted quarters entrance. “That seemed to go well,” was the younger sailor’s comment.

“Real good,” Peters said with satisfaction. “I reckon the retarder crews are just about up to speed.” He lifted his helmet by its strap and gestured, making it swing. “I want out of this deck gear. Chow’ll be ready any minute now.”

“You say it,” Todd replied, but he was smiling.

* * *

Peters scanned the four-and-eight sailors clinging to padeyes around the top of the ship. Word from Chief Joshua, via Warnocki, had Commander Bolton chewing bulkheads over the delays, and the Chiefs had decided that not everybody had to be outside qualified before beginning flight ops. The ones who did were the active deck workers: arresting gear, weaponeers, line maintenance, plane captains, and launch crew. Over half of those were in these two groups, so they could give them a full ande of training and finish next llor, an easy schedule. It meant he and Todd lost their chance at a private session. Life was hard.

“All right everybody, listen up,” said Peters.  Chief Gross had shouted profane objections and stamped up and down for five minutes or so, and with only that minimal demurral had issued earbugs for outside instruction, including one for ship Ops. Dhuvenig had approved instantly, drafted Se’en for the interim, and assigned two of his crew to language instruction, so there was a watchstander on the bridge who could communicate with them, and Channel One was the bridge again.

Normality. Sort of.

“First off, everybody watch forward,” he said when everyone was facing him. He pressed the button and said, «Bridge, please flash the warning light so everyone will know its appearance.»

«Yes, Peters,» came the reply, and a yellow light began flashing, far forward.

«Thank you, Bridge,» Peters replied. Then, in English: “Keep an eye peeled, you see that light flashin’ you get a handhold right then, and hang on ’til either I or the bridge tells you different. It’s a Hell of a long way to walk back.” He’d picked a position that gave him Earth as a backdrop to emphasize that point. The others looked suitably impressed, and he told the bridge to turn the light off and began sorting the group into pairs. Todd was doing the same a little further aft.

Peters pushed off the hull, taking up a station about a hundred meters away, and started pairing the sailors off, one to brace against the ship and launch the other with arm and leg thrust. He hoped he was far enough away to shortstop the ones who froze up. In the event, he only had to chase one down, a Gunner’s Mate (Missiles) who seemed towant to just spread-eagle and fly away. That being the only excitement they got in a good session, and by the end of the ande Peters thought most of them knew what to do. Whether they’d actually do it when the time came was another question, of course.

That ended suit instruction until tomorrow’s outside session. Todd went back to the bay for interpreting in the application of paint. Peters looked for Dreelig on the chance that there was something else he needed to do, but the ambassador–former ambassador, Peters supposed–was occupied with the officers. So was Dee. He did see Se’en at the meal, but she informed him that she was no longer playing nursemaid: “Couldn’t take it,” she said in English. “I’m in the radio room, listening to gossip. Your people do a lot of it.”

“That they do,” Peters acknowledged with a grin.

There were two hundred and twenty-seven beams in the ops bay, Todd told him over second meal; they’d counted. Warnocki wanted fresh paint two meters high along the walls, with a dark green stripe thirty centimeters wide above that. A horseback calculation gave a little over six thousand square meters of tan paint and over six hundred of dark green. “The zerkre are bringing it, along with brushes,” Todd said. “No sprayers. It won’t get done today.”

“Or this week,” said Peters drily.

“Or before we leave,” Todd agreed. “Oh, well, at least it looks better clean.”

“It does that.”

After the meal he sought out Warnocki, who had him bear a hand with parking the planes in the hangars and shifting stores. It was something to do, but in general he had the easiest llor he’d had since boarding Llapaaloapalla. This won’t last long, his cynical inner voice suggested on the way to fifth meal, but he cleaned up, ate, and racked out with no further alarums. Maybe a routine was setting in.

The second session of outside suit instruction went well with, again, the exception of Chief Joshua, who seemed disoriented in weightlessness. Joshua’s attitude had changed somewhat; whether it was the blank suit and Peters’s approach to training, or a change of heart on his own part, he seemed more irritated at his own ineptitude than jealous of Peters’s status. Maybe that’s all it had been all along. Peters kept at it until he thought Joshua could at least get himself out of trouble at necessity, and let it drop.

“Is that the end of that?” the Master Chief wanted to know as they made their way down stairways to the familiar part of the ship.

Peters shook his head. “If the Commander wants to get ops started, I reckon that’s about all we can do in the time we got, Chief.”

“Are you happy with everyone’s abilities?”

“Yeah, Chief, I’m happy as I can be in the circumstances. You couldn’t call any of us skilled, includin’ me, but I don’t reckon they’re lookin’ for a place to have a disaster.”

“You relieve me,” said Joshua drily. “We’ll be wanting to do more drills, and the ones who haven’t had outside training will have to be brought up to speed when we get time, but it sounds like we’re about ready to get on with business. I’ll let Commander Bolton know we’re ready to go ahead.”

“Aye, Chief.”

“Has the ambassador assigned you to work with the rest of us yet?”

“No, he ain’t, Chief, but I reckon it’s time to do it anyway,” Peters said after a moment’s thought. “He might have a few more things for us to do later, but he’s pretty much taken up with the officers, and me’n Todd need to get up to speed with regular duties.”

The Chief nodded. “That sounds right to me. Pass the word to Todd, you two go ahead and pick up your assignments, and I’ll tell Warnocki and Kellman that you two are at least provisionally ours from now on.”

“Sounds good to me, Chief.”

Joshua frowned. “The officers are way out of sync with us, and I’m betting Commander Bolton’s going to want to start flight ops right away. I’ll try to talk him out of that, because it’d mean we have to start at fifth ande, but I don’t have much hope. Take a standdown, and pass the word. Anybody’s got questions, send ’em to me.”

“Aye, Chief.” Peters shook his head. “I reckon we need to get rollin’.”

“We do that.” Joshua stopped at a landing, and looked seriously at Peters. “I want you to know, I’m putting a commendation in your file, and what you’re hearing from me right now is an apology. You’re sharp, and I didn’t pick up on it right away. Good job.”

“Thanks, Chief,” Peters said awkwardly. “I been tryin’ pretty hard.”

The Chief nodded. “I know you have, and I haven’t made it any easier, have I?” He waved a dismissive hand. “That doesn’t need an answer. Thanks. I’m sorry. You done good. I think that about covers it.”

“Suits me, Chief.”

“Then let’s get on with it.”

* * *

The word came down: flight ops were indeed to begin after fifth meal. For the officers it was “early morning.” For the enlisted, it meant bring the planes out and line them up in neat echelons along the sides of the ops bay, then break for fifth meal and back to work, probably for the whole two ande of sleeptime.

Peters hadn’t seen Todd to speak to for nearly a full llor. Dreelig and Dee were nursemaiding the officers, and were not only busy but working on a different schedule. He’d spoken briefly with Se’en, at second meal, but she was fully occupied with her work in the translation section. She’d complimented him on his accent in Grallt, but had little else to say.

He had fifth meal with Jacks, a BM/2 like himself, and Rupert, MM/3, his new subordinates. They did the entire meal in English. The waiters had picked up a few words, and most of the food items were from Earth, anyway. Peters began to wonder if he’d accomplished something difficult but essentially useless, like the world’s biggest collection of beer bottle caps.

Rupert was OK, a quiet kid from Oregon who hadn’t shared much of his story, but something about Jacks rubbed Peters the wrong way. He was cheerful, took orders without argument, and by any objective measure was a good sailor, but he was also a little old for his rate and a little too good to be true. It didn’t really matter–Jacks did his job, and they didn’t have to mingle when off-duty–but it worried Peters that he couldn’t pin down what he disliked about the man. Maybe it was just his face.

Jacks eyed the Grallt females with interest, and only shook his head at Peters’s account of how their sex worked; his eyes bugged out when Se’en undulated by. “Now that looks right tasty,” he remarked with a sideways grin. “You got any free time later, darlin’?”

Se’en eyed him with the lip-quirk that meant amusement. “That depends on what there is to fill my free time,” she said. “Do you have suggestions?”

Jacks hadn’t been expecting a response, of course, but he was adaptable. “I didn’t have anything particular in mind. You want to get together later and see what we can come up with?”

“I usually eat here,” she said with a shrug. “Ask around when you’re off duty.” She focused on Peters. «Dreelig orders that you begin work with the rest of the humans,» she told him in Grallt. «Here is a paper saying so.»

«Good. We have already begun to do so, but it is good to have it made plain. Thank you, Se’en.» Peters indicated the other two with a wave and shifted to English. “You hadn’t oughta be takin’ these apes at face value,” he warned. “Specially Jacks here, I reckon he ain’t necessarily got your best interests at heart.”

She laughed, a short machinegun burst, and eyed Jacks, who colored, looked away, then looked back with a grin. “Who said I have his best interests in mind? Your name is Jacks? I’m Se’en, everybody knows me. Look for me when you have some time.”

“I might do that,” Jacks said cautiously.

“Good.” She nodded and took herself off, to join a pair of Grallt females a few tables away. Jacks spent the rest of the meal giving them furtive glances, leaving Peters and Rupert to discuss the plans for the day between them. As far as Peters could tell, neither Se’en nor the other two girls at her table looked their way, but there did seem to be a little more staccato Grallt laughter among them than normal. He sighed. This could get interesting.

Or possibly disastrous, who knew? Peters sighed again, collected his helmet from the spare chair, and shepherded the other two out to the ops bay. It was time to get to work.

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