“Tell you what, let’s do poke around a little,” Todd suggested. “I’d like to get a look at what’s below the main deck.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”

They rode the elevator down to the docking bay and walked forward, as Peters had decided to call it, to the big door midships. Set in it was a smaller, people-sized hatch; through that was a thwartships passage, easily wide enough to accommodate a dli or a Navy fighter, going all the way across to another big door that presumably led to the other docking bay. The passage was as long as the bay was wide, maybe longer.

“So the midships section’s the same width as the docking bay,” Todd noted. “Fifty meters wide, eighty high, and seven hundred long. That’s a lot of fucking space, even with the hangars taken out of it.”

“Well, Dee said most folks lived here,” Peters pointed out. “An’ it makes sense structurewise, I guess.”

Fore and aft off the passage were enormous empty spaces that were probably meant as hangars, grimy, dusty, and full of the same collection of crap that littered the ops bay. All of the hangar doors were open except the forwardmost one, and all but every eighth overhead lamp was either off or burned out. In the aftmost hangar they could see three dli and a scattering of junk. The midships spaces were empty, but when they hiked forward and found a mandoor leading to the forward hangar they discovered a single ungainly object.

“Reminds me of a truck,” Peters commented.

“Or maybe a garbage compactor,” Todd suggested.

Peters was taller; by jumping up he was able to glimpse a pair of chairs and a set of controls. He reported this to Todd, summing up with, “Freight hauler. Has to be.”

“Yeah.” Todd scowled. “They’ve been hauling food up, and God knows what all else. The dli didn’t seem like enough for all of that.”

“You’ve heard tell of somethin’ flyin’ like a brick?” Peters asked in amusement. “Well, there’s the brick they were talkin’ about. Except I bet it flies good enough to get the job done.”

The hangars were flanked by six tiers of balconies with welded-pipe rails. Doors led to rooms of varying sizes. “Shops,” Todd diagnosed. If so, they weren’t needed much. Even the ones in the dli hangar were empty, except for one that had a couple of sleeping pads and some small cabinets in it. All they visited, including the one with the sleeping pads, were coated in a thin film of dust. By the time they’d worked their way back aft, so were they. They paused to brush off; dust didn’t stick to the kathir suit worth a damn.

“You seen anything that looks like a ladder leadin’ down?” Peters asked, running his hand over a hatch coaming.

“Nope, all the ladders I’ve seen lead up. Not many of those, either. Whoever built this thing wanted the sections kept separate.”

“Yeah.” Peters eyed the other sidelong. “You said ‘whoever.’ You sayin’ our good friends here didn’t?”

“Shit,” Todd dismissed. “Can’t you just see Dreelig running a welder? We don’t know them all, but if the ones we know are any sample, hand ’em a screwdriver and they’d cut themselves. How does it work? ‘I have never troubled myself to ask.'” He slapped the wall, getting back a dull thud. “No, they bought this thing.”

“Wha’d’ya reckon, surplus aircraft carrier?”

“You got it. This ship–” he slapped the bulkhead again, “–and the dli were built by somebody about like us, give or take. The folks at Newport News, or Ingalls down in Mississippi, could have put this ship together, and likely done a better job.”

“Yeah, and the ones as built the dli was better, for all of me. It don’t look too different from the birds our guys fly around back home.”

“Right, but it’s a different style, you know? Our guys could have built the dli, sure–”

“If they had whatever makes it go,” Peters pointed out.

“Yeah, I’m coming to that. Our guys could have built it, but it’d look different, you see? It’d probably work just as well, but a different style.”

“I see what you’re driving at,” Peters admitted. “Little details.”

“Sure.” Todd was pacing up and down. “Must be hundreds of ways to do some things. You figure out a way that works, no point in changing unless it doesn’t work any more, right? So after that, everything you build has these little details in common. Somebody else finds a different way, that works too, so they don’t change either, and you look at one, and then the other, and you see the little differences.”

“Phillips head screws.”

Todd grinned. “Did you notice that their version only has three points?”

“Yeah.” Peters looked at the other sailor with respect. “So you reckon there’s two different groups here.”

“Three. No, four.” Todd furrowed his eyebrows. “The Grallt didn’t build the ship, and they didn’t build the dli. So there’s the Grallt, and whoever built the ship, and whoever built the dli, that’s three. Then there’s whoever built this.” He slapped himself on the chest again.

“Now wait a minute,” Peters objected. “The Grallt made the suits. We seen ’em do it, well almost.”

“No.” Todd was emphatic. “The machine made the suits. All the Grallt did was run the machine. Same as they run the dli, same as they run the ship.”

“Which ain’t all that great, by all appearances.”

“No, it isn’t. But you don’t really need to know how something works, as long as it does work and you know how to run it, right? If these jerks can learn to work it all, what about us?”

“Sure. We been doin’ that already,” Peters pointed out. “What’s it gonna get us?”

“Look, there’s gonna be officers up here later, right? They’ll all have better educations than us, and they’re gonna be keeping their eyes peeled.” Todd was pacing again. “All I’m saying is, we’ve got just as good a chance of learning all this new stuff as they do. And I’ll be damned if I’m just going to stand around and let ’em take it back to DC and sit on it, you hear? First thing you know they’ll be running all over in spaceships, for God’s sake, while your grandpa freezes to death in West fucking Virginia, and my cousins get ate up by fire ants on their way to the fucking outhouse, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. Calm down, boy.”

Todd sighed and deflated. “Yeah. But it frosts my ass… like you told Dreelig, those bastards have been pushing us away from the supper dish for fifty years or better. Now here’s a chance we could help folks eat regular, if nothing else, and damn if it doesn’t look like the fucking suits are going to hog it all again.”

“Well, I don’t know what the two of us are gonna be able to do about it,” Peters observed. “But you’re right, we gotta try.”

“All right, let’s start by looking harder for a ladder down,” said Todd. “I want to get into the engineering spaces.”

“You got a reason, besides curiosity?”

“Sure. We still don’t have any idea what makes this thing go, remember?”

Peters nodded. “All right, I’m sold. Let’s go look for your ladder.”

“Yeah, but down isn’t working. Let’s try up.”

They found an open catwalk in hangar bay six that crossed the hangar above the door. “Look yonder,” said Peters as they reached the halfway mark. “On the back wall.”

On the blank wall at the stern was another catwalk. Its walkway was level with the reflectors of the overhead lamps; that and the dimness of the general illumination had hidden it in the gloom as seen from the deck. “Gotcha,” said Todd. “We go aft on the upper shop level, and there’ll be a ladder well where that catwalk meets the balcony.”

“And since there’s gotta be access to below, and it ain’t anyplace else, I reckon that’s gotta be it,” Peters finished for him. “After you.”

They retraced their steps, then headed aft. “And there it is,” said Todd with satisfaction. At the aft end of the sixth-level balcony was a hatch, just where they would have expected a door to be from the rest of the pattern. The handle didn’t give as easily as the others had, but it moved smoothly enough when Peters put his back in it. The reason was quickly obvious. The gaskets were smooth and new-looking, and all the latch dogs were in place, glistening with fresh lubricant. Even when it was open the mechanism was a little stiff, and there wasn’t any slack in it that they could detect.

Beyond the hatch was the predicted ladder well. Bulkheads and overheads were painted a smooth even pale blue, and the space smelled faintly of the oil-based paint the Grallt used. “Clean,” Todd remarked. Not a bit of clutter was visible.

“Yeah. Who’da thunk it?” Peters said.

At the main deck level they stopped and looked around. No hatches, no people, not a sound except the faint flow of air.

“Y’know, come to think of it, the air smells better here,” Peters observed. “Like at home, when a rainstorm clears the air.”

“You’re right,” Todd said, sniffing. He looked at Peters. “Ozone.”

Peters nodded, and pointed at the ladder leading down. “Lead on.”

The ladder ended two decks below the ops bay, at a hatch leading inboard. “Well, this has to be it,” Todd said. He stood up straight, made as if to adjust the hat he wasn’t wearing, and grabbed the handle.

They stepped into a dimly lit space, silent but for the faintest possible low hum, more subliminally perceived than actually heard. Below the catwalk was an enormous volume with a few scattered objects in it, hard to see in the gloom. Farther forward the lights got brighter, and they headed that way, their mission and the ambiance of the place combining to make them skulk rather than swagger.

The lighted area was a pit surrounded by a railing, about half as big as the hangar above in each dimension and deep enough that the bottom had to be almost at the belly skin of the ship. There were a few people below, moving purposefully but not hurriedly, busy with something important but not worried about it.

The focus of their attention was an object in the middle of the deck, held in place on a heavy cradle by thick bands of something that gleamed dully in the light. It was about the size of a fighter plane, melon-shaped overall, with deep furrows or grooves half a meter wide and deep that ran lengthwise, giving it a corrugated look. It was polished so brightly it was hard to see; if not for the grooves it might have been nearly invisible.

The object had no visible controls, indicators, or flashing lights; nevertheless, one of the Grallt walked up to it from time to time, making notes on a clipboard at each visit. It was clear that the cradle it sat in wasn’t original equipment, because it was welded to the deck, and the welds passed over marks where something had been cut away, leaving burns and scars. The back end was smoothly rounded, but the front had a protrusion like the stem of a fruit, and a conduit of different material connected to the stem and disappeared into the deck.

“Now that,” Todd said in a quiet, satisfied voice, “goes with this.” And he slapped himself on the chest.

“Yes, I do believe it does,” said Peters, a little amused. “A bit big to carry over your shoulder, though.”

“Hunh,” said Todd when that penetrated, a couple of beats later. “Or to fit in a fighter plane. Never mind, they come in different sizes.”

All the engineering staff wore kathir suits patterned in blue and white, but the designs varied. Most were divided in fours, at the waist and vertically down front and back. One Grallt’s suit was divided again, at midchest and knee, giving eight sections. “Officer,” said Todd in a soft voice, pointing at this last.

“Or CPO,” Peters agreed. “Senior to the others, anyways. Reckon the Captain looks like a checkerboard?”

“Probably,” said Todd, nodding.

A Grallt with a four-way design on his suit was prowling the middle level, at one point reaching up to tap on a gauge, then turning around to brace his clipboard against the balcony railing while writing. He regarded his work for a moment, then looked up for some reason. “Oh,” he said, and launched into a babble addressed at the “chief” over the railing, pointing at the sailors.

The Chief–officer? rating?–looked up and saw them also. His face contorted into a scowl, and he strode rapidly across the deck, climbing the ladder with much banging of treads. “Uh-oh,” said Todd. Peters grunted, and the two composed themselves as best they could. There was nowhere to run, and no way to hide; more than that, both sailors were fully accustomed to the Navy way of handling such situations: when caught in the wrong, it’s going to be a lot worse if they have to chase you down.

The Grallt reached the top, puffing a little, and pointed a finger, saying something in a sharp accusing tone. Then he froze in place, his eyes going wide, apparently just realizing that his engineering spaces had been invaded by aliens. He lowered his arm, glared suspiciously, and said something disgusted and questioning.

Peters held up his left arm. «Pleasant greetings,» he said in Grallt, then used his other hand to indicate himself and Todd. “Peters. Todd,” he said, pointing. “Human. Earth.”

The engineer relaxed and said something sharp. When Peters shrugged and held palms up–don’t understand, boss–he repeated part of it even more sharply and pointed, ending the gesture with a sharp jerk of the hand, upwards. That was clear: Get out! Back where you belong, tourists!

Peters nodded jerkily, half a bow, and he and Todd backed up a step before turning around. They looked back, once, to find the engineer still standing, leaning on the railing, watching them go. The ladderway hatch was a haven from that unfriendly glare.

“Whew!” said Todd as they secured it behind them. “I didn’t know if he was going to toss us in the brig or keelhaul us.”

“Or feed us to the monster,” Peters suggested.

“You know, those aren’t original,” said Todd in a musing tone. “Just another part of the refit.”

“Yeah.” Peters chuckled. “Buy one, or steal it. Save the original packin’ in case of return for warranty service, hey? Install per tech order nine jillion an’ umpty-ump, and ta-da! Better fuel economy and a longer time between overhauls.” He grinned and looked at Todd. “Reckon what’d happen if you installed one instead of number-two fuel cell on the carrier?”

“I was thinking of one of the subs.”

Peters nodded. “Yeah, they’re about half spaceship already anyways.” He looked around. “Well, we ain’t gonna be the ones that decide things like that. Tell you what, I’m gettin’ kind of pooped, and it’s about time for chow. What say we give this up for the time bein’?”

“Sounds good. My stomach’s been growling for a while now.”

They had almost finished their meal when Dreelig came bustling up. He looked harried, moving jerkily as he had on board the dli. “Pleasant greetings,” he said, his tone a little tense. “Have you been occupying your time usefully?”

“Depends on what you’d call useful,” Peters said. “We been lookin’ around a bit.”

“Good. You should become more familiar with the ship.” Dreelig sat, or better collapsed. “When the rest of your people arrive you will be needed to help them orient themselves.”

“So what’ve you been up to?”

“Consulting with my superiors about the change in negotiating technique you suggested. We find the idea very encouraging in some ways, but a great deal of discussion is required.”

“Yeah.” Peters looked away, then back at the Grallt. “From somethin’ Dee said we gather you ain’t got any easy way to talk with the other folks. Means a lot of comin’ and goin’, don’ it?”

“Yes. It’s quite tiring.”

“So how come? Radios ain’t all that hard.”

Dreelig’s expression was probably rueful. “Now that I have seen how your people operate I can understand why you might think so, but none of the other people we know have such a sophisticated communications technology. Our communicators are large, bulky, and not dependable.”

“Don’t you have anything?” Todd sounded dubious.

“Some races have large stations that send to many receivers. Llapaaloapalla has receivers for those, and a staff who listen when such transmitters are nearby, but if we ever had transmitters I have never known it.” Dreelig shrugged. “Perhaps they have failed, if they exist. I know little about it.”

“Is that how you learned our language?” Todd asked.

Dreelig raised his eyebrows. “I suppose it must be. Znereda never mentioned it.” He made a dismissive gesture. “It has been a long and difficult llor for me, and I wish to eat and go to bed. You should do the same. Next llor–tomorrow–will be equally difficult, I fear.”

“What’ll we be doing?” Peters wanted to know.

“After first meal you should go to Znereda for another language lesson, and after that you should continue cleaning. We will want your comments on the new negotiating technique, probably after third meal.” Dreelig gestured tiredly again. “We will go down to Washington during the third ande. It would be good if you went along. You have spoken of things your people should bring, and those arrangements should be made. Your officers will be bringing their machines aboard in a few llor, and we should have as much done as possible before then.”

“Yeah, that sounds like the right way to do it. Need to get with whoever’s gonna be in command of the detachment.”

“That sounded like agreement, but I’m too tired to parse the idiom.” Dreelig waved off Peters’s attempt to explain. “Now if you’ll excuse me–”

* * *

“I ain’t never learned another language before,” Peters grumped on the way to Znereda’s place. “I reckon you’ve got a leg up, knowin’ Spanish and all.”

“It’s not real similar. You seem to be doing all right.”

“Hearin’ words in the flow,” the older sailor admitted.

“That’s half the battle right there,” Todd noted.

The lesson went well, as did the cleaning session, which was makework, more brightwork polishing. “We’re gonna need some equipment soon,” Peters remarked as he watched Zif rubbing out a stainless steel sink. “Handwork won’t cut it for the rest of this.”

Todd shrugged. “Out of our hands if the Grallt don’t provide,” he pointed out. “Let’s knock off and get chow.”

“Yeah. Ain’t gettin’ much done anyways.”

Chow had become routine as well, easier now that they knew more of the language. “What’s the uniform of the day for the trip down?” Todd asked over coffee.

Peters considered. “Dress blues, I reckon,” he said finally.

“Not kathir suits?”

“I’m purely tempted, but no, I reckon not,” Peters said with a grimace. “We’re gonna wind up doin’ a lot of salutin’ and such. This–” a gesture at his chest, indicating the kathir suit “–ain’t exactly regulation, and I ain’t real anxious to get crosswise with anybody right now.”

“Safety considerations?” Todd obviously wanted to wear the kathir suit.

“Yeah, we could probably bullshit through it,” said Peters. “But no. We can get in their faces easy enough without, and like I said, I ain’t ready for the aggravation.”

“I guess you’re right,” Todd admitted. Something caught his eye. “Hey, look at that.”

Peters turned. Dreelig, Dee, and Donollo were making an entrance, and it was worth watching. The older Grallt strode in the lead wearing his gray suit, back straight, looking down his nonexistent nose at the company. Dee had on a tunic in the same gray but cut low in front, and a skirt the same color, wide pleats draped straight and ending just above the knee. She hovered at Donollo’s right elbow, and Dreelig was half a step behind, carrying an ordinary-looking briefcase.

They took a table next to the sailors, staying in character, Donollo handing Dee into the chair with gallantry, leaving Dreelig to find his own seat. Donollo caught Peters’ eye and seated himself pompously; they all held the pose for several heartbeats, then relaxed, and Dee broke out in a long peal of Grallt laughter.

“What do you think?” Dreelig asked, leaning toward the sailors. “Will it be effective?”

Conversation in the mess room had all but stopped during the performance; the low buzz started again, and Peters shrugged. “It works on your folks,” he pointed out. “I reckon it’ll be dynamite back home.”

Todd was grinning. “President of Mars come to check up on the peons, but real informal, you know? Add a little fast talk, and you could sell ’em building lots on the Moon.”

Donollo said something, and Dreelig translated, “We have played an important one and his assistant before, but this is a little different. Dee’s costume is very effective, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yes,” said Todd. Peters kept silent.

“I don’t like it very much,” said Dee, looking down at herself. “There’s too much of me outside my clothing. But this is my first downside assignment, and if it works it will do very well.”

“You definitely have the basics in place,” Todd told her. She stuck out her tongue at him. The tip of it was split into two points.

“For now, if you will excuse us, we should eat,” Dreelig said, ignoring the byplay. “We have a great deal of work to do.”

“Sure,” said Peters. “Let us know when you’re ready to leave, we need to go change.”

“Certainly,” Dreelig acknowledged. “It won’t be for several utle yet. Gell isn’t ready, and there is no sense in our arriving in the night.” The noise level in the mess room had come back to normal or a little above, only a few glances from the other diners betraying their interest.

“Then I reckon I could use a nap,” Peters said. “We done put in most of a day already, and it’s likely to be a while before we get a chance at the rack again.”

“Good idea,” Dreelig approved. “Meet us in the operations bay at the sixth utle. That will leave ample time for the trip.”

Peters had a restless nap, nodding off and waking up, spending a good bit of time in the study chair, staring out the window. The Moon was visible for a while, looking pretty much as it did from the deck of the ship at sea. Then the slow revolutions of the ship brought Earth into view, and he tried to figure out which part of it he was looking at. It was hard. He’d seen the pictures taken from space last century, but none of them had prepared him for the difficulty of seeing past the brilliant white cloud patterns to the relatively faint and irregular land outlines.

Finally a reddish-white splotch resolved itself into the Sahara and north Africa, and he realized another part of the problem. He’d been looking at it as if it were in conventional globe position, North up, but the big white blob at the lower right wasn’t clouds, it was the Arctic, and if that was right, it wasn’t light yet in Jax. He checked the handheld. Sure enough, it was coming up on five in the morning back there.

He napped again, waking in plenty of time to get ready. Noises in the head said Todd had done so as well; he waited until the other had finished his shower before going in himself. That done, he dressed in dark blue jumper with white piping and stovepipe trousers, realizing as he did so that he was already used to the kathir suit. The skivvies and T-shirt felt rumpled and constricting, and the scratchy wool of the uniform rasped his skin.

Todd joined him when he rapped on the door. He had added neckerchief and salad bar, and his white hat was firmly screwed onto his head. Peters snorted, made excuses, and went back to add those items to his own outfit. If they were going to do this, might as well do it right.

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