A Grallt crewmember in four-ways stood watching as the class was filing out. The humans tended to face away from her when pulling on trousers, but she didn’t interfere with the process, just stood watching with folded arms and a not terribly patient expression. Peters glanced at her from time to time, and took Chief Warnocki aside to suggest that future classes dispense with outerwear for the trip to the practice room and back; Warnocki nodded and agreed to talk to Chief Joshua about it.

The woman’s name was Peet, which made Peters wince; she thought it was funny. She spoke quickly, using slang and pronunciation different from the formal words he’d heard from Znereda and the officers on the bridge, but with a little backing and filling they established that Dhuvenig had designated the midships third of the dorsal surface of the ship (Peet called it the “top,” and Peters understood that) as a practice area for working outside. Starting the next llor, there would be no maneuvering during the first ande unless in an emergency, which would be signaled by a flashing light over the bridge. Visibility of the warning light seemed to have been the main factor in deciding which area to allocate. «It’s dangerous,» Peet said. «You can’t talk, and you can’t hear warnings, so it has to be something you can see.»

Peters held out an earbug. «We can talk. We use these.»

The woman looked it over. «What’s this? It doesn’t look like much.»

«We call it–shit.» Peters couldn’t come up with anything idiomatic for “earbug,” lacking a word for “insect,” so he settled for the English word, «Earbug. It is a communicating device.»

Peet used a word. «So tiny? We have them, but ours are–» she held her hands apart, to indicate a large device «–and they are not dependable, the gabble in the valves fails. How do you make the valves so small?»

Peters, who had never even heard of a vacuum tube, didn’t know what to make of that. «I don’t know,» he said. «But these will work for about an ande. Then it is necessary to, ah ….» He floundered, unable to come up with anything like recharge the battery in Grallt.

She laughed again and sidled well inside his personal space, laying a hand on his collarbone and smiling into his face. «Earbug,» she said. «What can I do for you that would be worth an earbug, hmm?»

Peters flushed, but he had met girls with that attitude, and worse, in lots of places. Peet was an innocent, relatively speaking. «Apologies,» he said. «These are in my charge, but they belong to others. You must speak to another if you want an earbug

She pouted, produced a sound approximating «Aw-w-w,» and smiled, moving her hand over to touch his neck below an ear and tracing down to his clavicle with a forefinger, then backing off with a little push. Peters flushed again. Just because he’d encountered this sort of thing before didn’t make him immune to it. She noted his reaction, plain in the skintight suit, and her smile became a grin. «Another time, perhaps? For now, I should show you how to get to the practice area. Follow me.» She set off, walking with a little more hip swing than necessary, looking back occasionally and grinning, especially at stair landings. Peters tried to keep his eyes on his footing as much as possible. Maybe Commander Bolton was right about the suits after all.

Between stairwells they passed through areas he’d never seen before. These were obviously berthing spaces. People moved around in the corridors and chatted in doorways, and Peters got his first look at a Grallt child, a little girl who stood wide-eyed in a doorway as he passed. He reflected on that for a bit. The little girls he’d known in Whitesville, West Virginia, would’ve run screaming if they saw a Grallt stroll by.

The last stage was a true ladder, narrow and vertical, ending at a round hatch with a wheel to close it. Peet worked the wheel and lowered the hatch, then beckoned Peters on. He followed her into a small cylindrical space, barely large enough for the two of them, and she took the time to tease a bit more before kneeling to pull the hatch shut. He wasn’t quite ready to watch her stretch to reach the matching wheel overhead–by this time he was sure Bolton was right–so grasped it himself while she was working a smaller one. She grinned and nodded, and he waited until the whistle of escaping air had died out, then turned the wheel to the right. Peet stood with arms akimbo, still grinning, as he yanked on it before finding out that this hatch popped up instead of dropping down.

He climbed up far enough to raise his head above the hatch coaming. The white-painted upper surface of the ship seemed to stretch on forever in all directions, a flat plain for a bug to crawl on. Bubbles and blisters sat here and there, none with ports or windows; one nearby blister, a meter high and three across, had sloping sides and a hatch on the visible side. Three-pointed padeyes were recessed into the metal every five meters. He started to climb further up, and felt a hand on his leg, restraining him.

Peet tugged again, realized that he’d gotten the message, and swarmed up the ladder alongside him until their head bubbles merged. «Don’t go out,» she warned. «There’s no gravity outside, and the ship might move.» The ladder was narrow, and their position pressed their bodies together over almost their full length. She looked him directly eye to eye, grinning slightly, then shook her head, muttered something Peters understood as «imperative try this ….», and kissed him.

Grallt kissed with faces parallel, instead of at right angles like humans; physiologically it made sense, but it was an odd sensation. Not disagreeable, but odd. After a moment Peet backed away and ran her hand over her facial cleft. «Hm,» she said. «Very strange. Not bad, I think, but very strange.» Then she grinned again. «That thing in the middle of your face may be useful. Would you like to go down to my room and try a few things?»

Peters was tempted–ah, yes!–but: «No, thank you, Peet, it is a little, ah, before the right time for me.» He couldn’t help grinning. «Thank you for the invitation.»

«You’re welcome.» She grinned back. «And any time you think might be right for trying new things, come and find me.» She kissed him again, just a quick peck, and looked up. «Close the hatch, please. Do you think you can come back here without a guide?»

Peters swung the hatch back down, noting the counterweight, and began dogging it. «Yes, I think I can return without help.»

She pouted ostentatiously, then smiled again. «That’s not what I wanted to hear. I need to find a way to earn an earbug.» The whistle of returning air started dying off, so she clambered down the ladder, with maximum touching, then squatted and began undogging the lower hatch, and Peters followed with a little more decorum. When they were standing on the deck below, she asked: «Would you like to see more of the ship on the way down?»

«Like your quarters?» She grinned at that, and he returned it. «No, I am sorry, I have not had food this ande, and I have another class in a few tle. Perhaps another time.»

«Pah. You are babble.» When he looked blank, she clarified, «Your mind is set too strongly. Come on, then. This way.»

They retraced their steps, all but the last few decks, and Peet indicated an exit from the stairwell. «That leads to the food corridor. Remember to find me if you want to babble.» She waved, a wiggle of the fingers, and went on down the stairs, presumably back to duty. Peters fingered his nose, which he’d managed not to do up to now, and sighed. Damn if he didn’t wish he had a little more time.

The rest of the llor was anticlimax. He ate quickly and met his next class only a few tle late; instruction went smoothly; he ate fifth meal and went back to his quarters. It was only his imagination, he was sure, that made the tip of his nose feel warm.

* * *

Dreelig was at fifth meal, the first time he’d seen the “ambassador” in, what, three llor now? Peters greeted him in Grallt; Dreelig waved at a chair, looked up, and did a double take. «Peters,» he said in astonishment. «I didn’t realize it was you until I looked. You have made amazing progress in the language.»

«I was pushed into deep water.» The idiom translated smoothly, but didn’t mean anything to Dreelig; Peters explained, and the Grallt nodded.

«Sometimes that’s the best way. So. Have you made progress?»

«A great deal, I think.» He was explaining about the “blank” airsuit, and basic suit training for two hundred humans, when Dee came up and sat. «Hello, Dee, it is good to see you,» he said, and was rewarded when she raised her eyebrows, taken aback.

«Amazing,» Dee said to Dreelig, who nodded. «You really have a very good accent,» she told Peters.

«Thank you.» Peters grinned. «You may be interested to know that I had a chance to use a sack, but didn’t have one with me. Maybe next time.»

Dee grinned. «I told you.»

«What’s this?» Dreelig wanted to know.

Dee explained about sacks. «Maybe you should start carrying a sack on your belt,» she suggested to Peters.

«To be truthful, I’m finding it unnecessary. Perhaps for myself.»

She grinned. «And perhaps not. Oh, there’s Todde. Who’s that with him?»

«I don’t know,» said Peters. «Oh, yes, I do know. That is Goofig, the zerkre who has been directing the cleaning.» He stood and waved, and the two of them came over, Todd grabbing a chair from an adjacent table and everyone shuffling a bit to allow five to sit at a table intended for four. «Hello, Todd, introduce your friend to the others.»

«Hello,» Todd said with a grin. «Here Goofig. Goofig, these Dreelig and Dee. You remember Peters.»

«Hello,» said Goofig. «I’m pleased to know you. Peters, it’s good to see you again. Peet sends greetings.»

«Return her greeting for me,» said Peters cautiously.

«I’ll get you a sack,» Dee offered.

«Sack?» Goofig was confused. Everyone else laughed, and Dee explained the sack joke. «Yes,» said the engineer. «But I don’t think Peet needs a sack. In fact, I don’t think she wants any cloth at all.» That generated a biracial roar, leaving Peters flushing.

Tacit agreement changed the subject. Goofig hadn’t eaten in this food hall before, nor had he seen human foods; he was willing to experiment, and ate enchiladas, refried beans, and rice with apparent pleasure. He strongly approved the cleanup campaign. «The humans are very hard workers,» he told them. «They’ve already cleaned the bay better than I’ve ever seen it, and tomorrow they’ll begin painting. They’ve even asked if it’s possible to renew the coating on the floor. I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll ask.»

«You think we allowed to repair doors?» Todd asked, understandably if not well.

«I don’t think so,» said Goofig. «The doors work well enough, and we’re a little afraid to let strangers work on important parts of the ship.»

The engineer was astounded at the tools and test instruments the humans had. «When Sshhot took the light switch apart I was afraid. But he did a good job. What was that amazing instrument he was using?»

«Called multimeter,» Todd told him. «For simple electric.»

«Incredible. Our section has something with much the same purpose, but it masses two eights of gorz.»

Dreelig perked up. «Another possible product to sell? Multimeter

«Ssth,» said Goofig. «That one wouldn’t be very useful, none of the units make any sense.»

«Not a problem,» said Peters. «Tell us what units you want and what the numbers look like, and the factory Down can make them just as you like.»

«Multimeter,» Dreelig said again. «If the readings are useful, do you think other ship crewmen would want them?»

«What does multimeter cost?» Goofig asked Todd.

The younger sailor shrugged. «Depends on type. Simple, twenty, ah, four and two eights of dollars.» He counted on his fingers. «Two and an eight of ornh. Like Schott has more expensive, half square of ornh, maybe square.»

«Ssth. You could sell one to every ship crewman in the web at those prices,» said Goofig. «I’ll give you the ornh now, if you like.»

«No, we do not have the product for you,» said Peters. «Dreelig, you should ask the next time you go down.»

«I won’t be going down again,» said Dreelig. «We have everything we think we’ll get, and after some success with Donollo, the people Down have become more rigid again. We’re only buying food, from Mexico and a few other places.» He sighed. «Multimeter. It’s so frustrating that we cannot come to a simple agreement! They keep talking about things that make so little sense they might as well be thukre.» The word parsed to “zero people”.

«What are thukre?» Peters asked.

Dee and Dreelig shared a look. «People we can’t talk to because they’re too different,» Dee explained. «Their languages make no sense.»

«Are many thukre?» Todd asked.

«Not in this knot of the web. Almost all of the species nearby are of the kree.» She grinned. «Perhaps the thukre think of themselves as kree, and we are thukre to them.»

«That’s possible,» said Dreelig.

«I never knew about thukre myself,» said Goofig, in a tone that said he found that remarkable.

«Yes, the zerkre usually stay apart,» said Dreelig. He sighed. «We’re almost thukre to one another.»

«Yes.» The engineer stood. «I must go now,» he said. «Dreelig, you Traders may have trouble in the future.»

«Oh? Why is that?»

Goofig smiled. «The sailors are more like zerkre in their thinking than you are,» he said. «It may be hard for you.»

Dreelig nodded. «They can also think the way we do. It may be interesting for everyone.»

«Yes, it may be.»

«Goofig, would you do me a small service?» Peters asked.

«That depends. What?»

«Would you please ask Engineer Keezer to meet me tomorrow, at four of the first ande, by retarder controls?» Peters spread his hands. «We still have not resolved the matter of units, and none of us has been trained in operating equipment.» He shook his head and used an English word: «Officers will be arriving in the middle of third ande, and retarders will be needed. We maybe too late, if so we need help.»

«That’s not such a small service. Keezer doesn’t like to be disturbed.» Goofig smiled. «I have a thick skin, and she is not my superior. I’ll pass the message.»

* * *

Well before first meal Peters was rapping on Todd’s door. “What’s up?” the younger sailor asked when he opened up, still in his skivvies.

“You wanted to go outside,” Peters reminded him. “We got permission, and the zerkre claim they won’t move the ship durin’ first ande.”

“Two minutes,” said Todd with a grin.

“We ain’t in all that big a hurry. We ain’t supposed to go out until after the start of first ande, so we can eat first.”

“Right. Hang on, I’ll get my suit on.”

“Ain’t seen much of you yesterday. Whatcha been up to?” Peters asked as they came out of the hatch.

Todd gestured at the bay. “Have a look.” There was no clutter at all visible on the deck; even the bays between the columns were mostly clear, and the few things in them in order rather than higgledy-piggledy. A First Class wearing dungarees and a sour expression was pushing a broom and not getting much. “We’ve got permission to paint the bay, and they’re gonna provide the paint.”

“Progress is bein’ made, my man.”

“Oh, yes.” The elevator started up, and Todd grinned. “We got all the lights on in the hangars. Would you believe nobody knew where the switches were?” He sat down and nodded to a waiter. «Good morning, Zeep,» he said in Grallt. «What special good today?»

«Good morning, Todde, Peterz,» said the waiter. «All the food comes from the same cold room. What would you like?»

They ordered. “You gonna be ready for the officers to come aboard?” Todd asked.

“Hunh. Maybe, maybe not. We still ain’t got the numbers figured out. I got to hunt Hernandez down. Worst case, I reckon Keezer can get a crew of zerkre up here.”

“She won’t be pleased.”

Peters grimaced. “Probably not. I ain’t, neither.”

Zeep began dealing crockery. «Thank you,» Todd told him in Grallt, then to Peters: «babble

“What’s that mean?”

“Means something like ‘eat up’ or ‘eat happy,'” Todd told him. “Goofig used it.”

“Mn. Well, eat happy to you, too.”

They finished their meal a little faster than usual. “It ain’t time yet,” said Peters with a frown. “Oh, well, time we get there it’ll probably be OK. It’s quite a hike.”

“I expected it to be scary,” Todd said when they were outside. “This isn’t any worse than the flight deck of the carrier.”

Peters snorted. “It’s twice as big in both directions, for one thing.”

They set off to explore. The white surface had three-armed padeyes every five meters or so, and it was faster to grab them and pull than it was to use the suit thrusters.

“This is easy if I think of it as a wall I’m climbing,” Todd commented.

“Not me. I’m crawlin’ along the floor.” Peters chuckled. “Truth is, it ain’t like nothin’ I’ve done before. I reckon everybody’s got to cope with it their own way.”

Slant-sided blisters were set at twenty-meter intervals, each with a single hatch; the hatches didn’t budge when they tried to turn the wheels. “Gun turret, you reckon?”

“They don’t turn,” Todd objected.

“They don’t need to.” Peters waved to indicate the rest of the ship. “There’s plenty of them, and they all point in different directions. No matter where they want to shoot there’s bound to be enough guns. If they had to turn there’d be the chance they’d jam.”

“Well, we knew this thing was military surplus.” Todd pushed off and looked around.

“Hah. Granpap said we imagine there’s such a thing as peace, ’cause there’s been a few times when there ain’t nobody fightin’. Reckon space people ain’t much different. Woulda been nice, though.” Peters sighed. “You been out here long enough to get the idea?”

“I think so.” Todd looked around. “We ought to bring a beach ball, maybe some other stuff, when we bring the others out.”

“Golf clubs.”

“Golf clubs?”

“Yeah.” Peters sighed again as they made their way across the white plain. “Granpap’s a bug about space stuff. One time we scraped up enough cash for gas to run the generator so’s the TV would work, and he showed me a lot of old movies. One of the guys as went to the moon a hunnert years ago, he took along a golf club and a ball.”

“Hunh.” said Todd. “Golf clubs. There’s the hatch.” He gripped the coaming and looked into the trunk. “You know, I came within that of just popping through. It’s, what, three meters to the bottom?”

“Be nice to forget and just jump through, gravity inside takes over. Splat.” Peters grinned. “I got four ornh says it happens at least once when we’re shepherdin’ sailors out here.”

“No takers here.”

It almost happened to Todd anyway, but they both got in without breaking anything. “This’s gonna be a problem,” Peters observed when they were in the airlock. “Can’t get but two, maybe three people in here at a time. Gonna take a while to cycle everybody through.”

“Can’t be helped.” Todd shook his head. “So, same time, same place, tomorrow morning? We’d better make sure we know what we’re doing before we start turning the animals loose.”

“And it’s fun, too,” said Peters. “Yeah. I ain’t gonna be ready to take ’em outside tomorrow, we might as well take the chance to play on our own again.”

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Todd declared. “I’m gonna go in and out of that hatch maybe a hundred times, ’till I can do it without looking and make it look easy. Then I’m gonna stand around and chuckle, real soft, while those apes fall on their ass trying it.”

“You’re a hard man, Todd,” said Peters with a chuckle. “Sounds good to me. See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” the younger sailor agreed. He continued down the stairs, bound for the bay and the cleanup effort, and Peters sighed and headed aft. The next class would be wondering where he’d took off to, and he’d better show up or have Chief Joshua all over his butt. Another llor in the Space Navy, he thought resignedly.

But the session went well. Nobody fell out, nobody spewed, and nobody gave him any lip; all the sailors got so they could get across the practice room and predict where they’d hit, which was about where Peters had been before pulling his Major Mike act. Now for a bite to eat and tackle the Keezer problem. Time was running out.

* * *

Keezer was waiting by the retard consoles–or rather walking away, having given up waiting. Peters started to run, then looked around. A dozen or so sailors were painting, cleaning, and generally lurking around the bay. He converted his run into a brisk walk, head up. The Grallt saw him, probably recognizing the blank suit, and held up short of the aft hangar bay access.

«Pleasant greetings, and apologies, Keezer,» he said when he got within earshot.

«Yes,» said the zerkre, without any reaction that Peters could detect. «Did you want further instruction in the retarders?»

«Yes, but I have a more immediate problem. Were you aware that our prime group would be returning in this llor?»

«No.» She shook her head. «When will they arrive?»

«During third ande.»

Keezer’s face contorted, and she made an angry gesture. «An ande from now? There is nothing quite so effective as advance planning, is there?»

«I’m sorry.» Peters spread his hands.

«Ssth. It’s clear you are just a messenger. You could have brought the message sooner, though.»

Peters sighed. «Yes.»

Keezer nodded. «I have a full schedule, but it’s clear I must alter it. I’ll speak to my superiors.»

«Good.» Peters frowned. «First we must solve a problem. We need information so we can convert our units to yours. We have the conversion for time, but mass and distance are more difficult.»

«Hm. I can help you with distance.» She fingered open a pocket, pulled out something shiny, handed it to Peters. «Can you read the numbers?»

«Yes, but what–ah.» He pulled out the tab of a tape measure; the case was circular, but it was otherwise familiar, down to the slight transverse curve that made the blade stiff when extended. «Thank you, Keezer. I do not–don’t think it will be damaged. I will return it to you as soon as possible. Which unit is tell?»

«This.» She pointed to lines going all the way across the blade, repeated about every thirty centimeters. «One interval is tell.»

«Thank you,» Peters said again.

«Mass. Mass is, as you said, more difficult.» Keezer looked across the bay, fingering her jaw. «I think you don’t have some of the words, but perhaps after a little time ….»

It took a lot of backing and filling before Keezer got Peters to understand electron, and proton took longer because he didn’t know the word in English. One of each made up the lightest substance possible, a gas that burned in air with a blue flame and was very light. «Hydrogen,» he was inspired to say.

Keezer grimaced. «I hope that’s the correct word in your language,» she warned. «Seven eights of those make the smallest unit of mass.» She smiled. «That’s a mistake. The unit was intended to be one babble of babble.» When Peters didn’t respond she knelt and slapped the deck. «The ship is made of babble.» The second word: iron. Todd had found that out. «But one babble of iron has less mass. The difference is energy.»

«I don’t understand,» said Peters. «But I will remember.»

«I hope so,» said Keezer. «I don’t remember things I don’t understand.» She paused. «This unit is very small, so small it isn’t useful. A square of twos of that unit is a small unit called anthu. A square of squares of anthu is a gorz.»

Peters sighed. «Thank you. Now please excuse me. I must find my associate while I still remember. Can we meet here at the beginning of third ande?»

Keezer shook her head in irritation. «Or a few tle after. I must collect my people.»

«I must as well. Good day.»

* * *

Hernandez took the tape measure with delight, but Peters’s explanation of gorz didn’t click at first. After the third repetition a light seemed to dawn. “OK, run the numbers,” he told the other programmer. “What’s two to the sixty-fourth hydrogen atoms weigh? No, wait.” He looked at his own screen, not seeing it. “Fifty-six hydrogen atoms, times two to the sixty-fourth.”

Clark tapped keys. “‘Bout a tenth of a gram.”

“And a square of squares–hah! That’s easy. What’s 4096 times that? Sixty-four sixty-fours.”

“453 grams,” Clark got. “Point one-oh-oh-six.”

“That’s a gorz, then,” said Hernandez with satisfaction. “453.1006 grams. Why does that sound so familiar?”

“You ain’t gonna like this,” warned another sailor, who was fiddling with the tape measure.

“Spit it out, Vogt,” Hernandez growled.

Vogt grinned. “454 grams is a pound, old style. And this–” he pointed at the tape measure, “–near as I can get it, the marks are right at 303 millimeters, maybe 303.4. A foot’s 304.8 millimeters. Feet and pounds. Quarters and eighths and sixteenths. Granny always said we never shoulda gone to the metric system. Looks like Granny was right.”

The specs they had had been digitized from the original manuals, which had numbers in feet and pounds. The AI routines had put in conversions to metric, but the original values were on the bitmaps. Conversion to gorz was redundant, as Vogt pointed out. “Just put in pounds, right from the manual. The difference is less than a quarter of a percent, and we don’t know what they’ve done to the planes anyway.” It took longer to disable the automatic conversion routines than it would have to convert the metric measurements to Grallt. Peters left them to it, and went to hunt down Warnocki. Time was running out.

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