“Precise wording is very important,” Dreelig noted. They were early, but a pair of one-ornh coins had gotten them coffee and a plate of rolls with sweet topping; Dreelig had watched Peters negotiate with benign interest, but said nothing.

“You’re probably right,” said Peters. He put his ID in the reader and brought up the text on the tiny screen. He pushed the handheld over to Dreelig, but had to help with button pushing to scroll through.

Ssth,” Dreelig said. “Is there some part of this that actually says what you are to do? All I see here is daga. It reminds me of Secretary Averill.”

“It oughta be about here ….” Peters took the little device and scrolled rapidly through, then passed it back to Dreelig. “Here.”

Dreelig read, frowning, for a long moment. “This is simple, but not very informative. ‘Report to commanding officer, Grallt ship Llapaaloapalla, for temporary duty as assigned to facilitate deployment of Space Detachment 1,'” he quoted. “Where is–ah, yes, duration is a word for time, yes? ‘Duration of Assignment: sixty days, or until released.’ Commanding officer? You have not ‘reported’ to the First. Is that a problem?”

“We’d never see the captain of any ship we were on,” Todd assured him. “You’re the commanding officer’s representative for this purpose, right? So we reported to you. All square as far as that’s concerned.”

“I do not truly understand your organization, of course, but from what I do understand, I do not see that you have a problem. According to this, I am your senior officer, correct?”

“As the captain’s representative, yeah, I reckon you are,” Peters admitted.

“So until I say you are released, you work for me.” Dreelig grinned. “I shall have to inform my own superiors. I am due extra compensation for supervisory duties.”

“Of course, your superiors could order us released,” Todd remarked.

“Of course,” Dreelig agreed. “I must act according to the contract we made with your Navy. That calls for us to support you people in certain ways for one voyage lasting about two of your years. I think that this ‘Space Detachment One’ must be how your management refers to the group of you.”

“That’s right,” Peters told him. “But we ain’t part of Space Detachment One. Master Chief Joshua tells the sailors what to do, and Commander Bolton tells him what to do, includin’ what to tell the sailors. But accordin’ to this, we ain’t part of that system.”

“Ah. I begin to see the problem.”

“Yeah. If you release us, you can’t release us to SPADET One, ’cause we ain’t got orders to report to it. That means we gotta go home.”

“Would you prefer to go home?”

“You gotta be kiddin,’ Dreelig. This here’s the best chance we’ve had.” Peters paused. “Second choice, you don’t release us. But we still ain’t part of the detachment, so we ain’t under Chief Joshua or Commander Bolton, and by their figurin’ we don’t count. We shouldn’t be livin’ with ’em, for one thing.”

“We could find you quarters in another part of the ship.”

“That’d work, but there’s another problem,” Todd said. “So far I like all the Grallt I’ve met to one degree or another, and Peters and I get along just fine, but I’d rather not be one of just two humans surrounded by Grallt. I’d like to be able to talk English, and Navy, and about home, with people like myself, at least once in a while.”

Dreelig nodded. “That is reasonable, over a long period of time. Even if you enjoy our company we are not really your people.”

“Right,” said Peters.

“Let me think about this,” Dreelig said. “I believe that I have the beginning of an idea, but there is not time to develop it right away. Could we speak to your chief later in this llor? After fifth meal, perhaps?”

Peters nodded. “That’d be a good time, I reckon. We oughta tell him beforehand, set up an appointment, like.”

“Yes, that would be polite. I will take care of that arrangement myself, and send you a message. You will be at the suit office, correct?”

“Correct. All this llor, all the next, and at least part of the one after that,” Todd confirmed.

“Then I believe we have done all we can do at this time, and I notice that they have begun serving the first meal. Let us eat, and go out to face the llor with strength.”

“Fortitude,” Todd corrected. “Face the llor with fortitude.”

Dreelig smiled. “A fort has strong walls, yes? We have a similar word.” He signaled one of the waiters. “For now, I think food is enough.”

They got to the suit office well before the beginning of the first ande, but not before the first sailors, five of whom were holding up the corridor wall as they arrived. “Chief said not so many at once today,” one of them said. “We don’t have a native guide any more. I was here yesterday, so I knew the way.”

“OK, your suit should be ready, let’s get you in it,” Todd told him. “Then you can go back down and tell ’em that we’ll be ready for everybody who’s already been measured, one at a time for that, and the rest for measuring.”

“We can do it that way,” said the sailor, a First Class who wasn’t happy that a Third was telling him what to do.

“Good.” Todd wasn’t impressed.

Peters gestured them inside: “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Veedal and Keer were already there and turned to with a will. Tee didn’t show up; Peters stole her desk for a duty post. Except for that, the previous llor served as a model for this one: sailors being shuffled through the process at maximum speed, short breaks for meals, and back to work. Veedal found ways to shave a little time, managing to squeeze in seventeen per ande instead of sixteen, so by quitting time they’d bettered Todd’s predicted square by three.

The cook had taken Peters’s advice and was only providing one meal to humans, including Peters and Todd since the waiter couldn’t tell the difference. That reduced by one the number of things they had to make decisions about. Peters was eating fourth meal, all Grallt items except for mashed potatoes, when Dee came up and informed him that Chief Joshua would see them at 2100 hours; she didn’t stay to chat, and Peters had to retrieve the handheld to translate that into “only twenty minutes for fifth meal.”

When fifth ande rolled around, Veedal needed another two and eight tle to finish the man he was measuring. That done, they barely had time to change in time for their appointment. “Hell with it,” said Peters. “We’ll eat in the bar. Assumin’ we want to eat, afterwards.”

Todd shrugged. “Dreelig’s pretty bright, and I trust him. But you’re right, we’ll eat in the bar. What’s money, after all?”

There was no sentry by either entrance to the enlisted quarters, but a Second Class Machinist’s Mate sat behind a desk with a logbook and wanted them to sign in; a much more reasonable and Navy-like arrangement, Peters thought. This llor was payday; the envelope was there on the desk, with eight four-ornh notes. Great. Settling up tomorrow, with everything else.

He was about to slip the jumper of his undress blues over his head when it occurred to him that the kathir suit, underneath, didn’t have a white T-shirt collar to show. He swore, squirmed out of trousers and kathir suit, and put on skivvies and a T-shirt, then re-arranged the blues. They felt strange, loose and airy, and scratched his legs. The things you get used to.

Todd had “solved” that problem by pulling a t-shirt over the kathir suit. Peters was dubious — the suit showed over the neck of the t-shirt — but they were out of time. Dreelig was waiting in the corridor; they marched down to the Chief’s quarters, and Peters did the honors of banging on the door, pausing to make the first stroke at 21:00:00 by the handheld.

“Come!” was the response.

They did what was meant, which was open the door and enter. Master Chief Joshua was sitting in one of the desk chairs; he’d found time to present a more normal appearance, pressed, polished, and glittering. Dreelig stood by the window; the other chair was occupied by Chief Spearman, not so well turned out, sitting with arms crossed and a sour expression on his face. Dreelig opened the ball: “Pleasant greetings, Master Chief Joshua. Thank you for seeing us.”

Joshua nodded by way of acknowledgement. “Pleasant greetings to you, Ambassador Dreelig. I understand you wanted this meeting to clarify the status of these two sailors here.”

“That is correct, Chief.”

“The situation could use some clarification,” the other chief remarked. “These two men are not part of our detachment, and by rights shouldn’t be here.” He wasn’t one of the ones who had been dealing with the Grallt regularly; you could tell by the way his eyes shifted around the room to avoid looking Dreelig in the face.

“Peters and Todd were assigned to Llapaaloapalla, and my captain has delegated me to supervise their work,” said Dreelig smoothly. “I do not believe that we have met, Chief.”

“I’m sorry,” said Joshua in a tone that made it clear the apology was perfunctory. “Ambassador Dreelig, this is Yeoman Chief Spearman. He has a legal specialty, and is here to advise me if necessary.”

“I am pleased to meet you, Chief Spearman,” said Dreelig calmly.

“And I you, Mr. Ambassador,” said Spearman, arms still folded, eyes slitted. “What is your position aboard this ship?”

“We do not use the same structure you do, but in your terms my rank would be approximately Lieutenant Commander,” said Dreelig without any particular emphasis. “I am head of the division you would probably call ‘Alien Relations.'”

“And as regards these men, sir?” Spearman persisted. “The situation is extremely unclear, and I for one could use some guidance. Commander Bolton won’t be here until next week. Can you provide us a way to communicate with our superiors?”

“No. We have no way to communicate except by physical travel.” The two chiefs looked at one another, dismay showing, and Peters did his best to keep his face immobile. I tole you t’ bring radios, dammit! “At any rate, we are all responsible, intelligent beings,” Dreelig continued. “I don’t believe the situation is so complex that we cannot solve it ourselves.”

Joshua closed his eyes for a moment, looking pained, then looked directly at the Grallt for the first time. “What is your understanding of the situation, sir?”

“When the contract that permits your presence was being finalized, we concluded that we required the assistance of persons who were knowledgeable about the quarters and other conditions you would require. We requested that assistance, and your command authority was pleased to grant it, in the persons of Peters and Todd.” Dreelig indicated the two sailors with a gesture. “They were assigned to my division. Again in the terms you would use, I am their division officer.” Peters could hear the smile in Dreelig’s voice, and wondered what the chiefs made of his facial expression. “In fact, since you are also assigned to the Alien Relations division, I am your division officer also.”

“I understand, sir.” Spearman shifted his gaze to Peters. “Have these men performed their duties to your satisfaction?”

“Peters and Todd have been performing their duties to my complete satisfaction,” Dreelig said. “Those duties will not be completed before this vessel departs on its voyage, at which time I will assign them to Detachment One, as a transfer within my department. In the meantime, they are subject to your orders, as any sailor of similar rank would be, subject only to my override.”

“Aye, sir,” said Joshua. “As a matter of interest, sir, do you have the power of reassignment over all the men in the detachment?”

“An excellent point, Chief. I do not, by specific provision of the contract,” Dreelig replied. “However, as you have pointed out, Peters and Todd are not part of Space Detachment One until and unless I assign them so.”

“Aye, sir,” said Joshua again. Spearman’s eyes were wide; he made a sound approximating “Ah!” When Dreelig sought eye contact he looked down at his shoes.

“Did you have a question, Chief Spearman?” Dreelig asked mildly.

“Only for clarification, sir. May I have permission to recapitulate the situation as I understand it, sir?”

“Certainly, Chief.”

“Aye, sir. We have here two groups of people, both assigned to your division. In the first are the members of Space Detachment One, who are here to fulfill the terms of the, ah, contract as you call it, between the U.S. Navy and yourselves. In the second, smaller group, are Petty Officers Peters and Todd, who are here to fulfill a separate request made by yourselves to the Navy.”

“That is correct, Chief Spearman. An admirable summation.”

“Thank you, sir. In that case, our ordinary customs and regulations are sufficient to cover the situation. The previous misunderstanding–” his hand twitched slightly “–was due to our failure to understand this.” He glanced briefly at Chief Joshua.

“Very good. I trust those procedures will be followed in good faith, Chief.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“Very good,” Dreelig said again. “There is one more thing, Master Chief Joshua.”

“Sir?”

“Starting with the first ande of the next llor, no human will be outside these quarters, except under escort, without wearing the kathir suit. I believe your term is ‘standing order’.” He gestured at Peters. “I see Peters has not worn his. I believe this is because he was concerned about this interview, and the kathir suit is not part of the uniform. Is that correct, Peters?”

“Yes, sir, it is,” Peters responded.

“From this moment, while you are aboard this ship, the kathir suit is a part of the uniform. What you wear over it is up to you, but if I discover that any man of this detachment has been disciplined in the smallest way for wearing the kathir suit under any circumstances whatever, the consequences to you personally will be the gravest I can devise. Is that clear, Master Chief Joshua?”

“Yes sir!”

“Chief Spearman?”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

“Very good. You men, come with me. Peters, first we will go to your quarters for your safety equipment. Return to your normal activities, Master Chief.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said Joshua with a decisive nod. He stayed erect, even stiff, as Dreelig shepherded Peters and Todd out the door. Todd, last one out, reached around and pulled it shut.

There was an audience of four or five sailors in the corridor. Dreelig led, at a gait somewhat stiffer than his usual shamble. They stopped at Peters’s room, Dreelig and Todd waiting outside while Peters hurriedly shucked into his kathir suit and pulled his undress blues over it. They stayed stiff and formal down the stairs and as Peters signed out for himself and Todd, and almost marched across the ops bay. It was only when they entered the elevator and the door closed behind them that Dreelig collapsed against the wall and let go a forceful series of the staccato barks he used for laughter. The two sailors followed suit in human fashion; Todd, a little the less incapacitated, pushed the button, and the elevator started up with its usual clanks and groans.

“That was fun,” said Dreelig.

“You–hunh!–you might have warned us,” said Peters, feigned offense spoiled by chuckles.

“I could not warn you. I was, as you might say, making it up as I found necessary,” Dreelig told him. “Kh kh! I begin to understand why your people use strict hierarchies so much. It is so much fun for the superiors in them.”

“We’ve often suspected so,” said Todd.

“Yes, it wouldn’t be nearly so enjoyable for the juniors, would it?” Dreelig had calmed and regained self-control. “I told them, or I believe I implied, that I have duties for you. How long must you delay your sleep time to satisfy them that they were real and have been performed?”

“A couple utle should be enough,” Peters advised.

“In that case, come with me. I will buy you a drink, and you can explain some of the rules Chief Spearman mentioned. They may be useful when Dee and I go to Washington again tomorrow.”

“Actually, that’s a perfectly valid duty,” Todd informed him solemnly. “It’s an unusually enjoyable way of carrying it out, of course.” It set Dreelig to laughing again.

* * *

Chief Joshua had evidently decided to take a liberal interpretation of ‘under escort,’ because sailors were being escorted only by other sailors who were conspicuously wearing their kathir suits; conspicuously, because they had on dungaree trousers but no shirts. That failed to meet what Peters thought was the spirit of the regulation, and looked like Hell to boot, but Dreelig was off to Washington again with Dee and Donollo, and Peters wasn’t ready to make an issue of it without backup.

Tee was back, but she did nothing but occupy her desk, depriving Peters of his command post. The others were less enthusiastic than before, probably more from fatigue than anything else, but worked well enough that that there were only seven and one eight of sailors not yet measured, including all the Chiefs, when quitting time rolled around.

A few beers, six hours of sleep, and twenty hours of duty that involved a lot of walking around, disinclined the sailors to anything but fifth meal and bunk time. The waiter brought the ‘human standard meal’ for this llor, and Peters realized dully that his stroke of genius was going to cause him more work. If he ever wanted to order another meal, he’d have to see to it that the rest of the sailors could, too. Give that the Scarlett O’Hara treatment; that’s what Granpap called it, although the reference escaped Peters.

The sailors loafing in the corridor wanted to chat. That was all he needed, and what the Hell was Joshua about, anyway? Sitting in his quarters brooding? This crowd needed something to do. Letting them hang around playing grabass was going to snowball into something nobody wanted, but neither Peters nor Todd had enough chevrons on his crow to hand out assignments. They pled exhaustion, and were finally allowed to escape to their rooms.

The next morning–the Grallt word was thullor; he decided that morning would do, being tired of circumlocutions without knowing the word existed–Peters jerked a thumb toward the stern. “Well, lookee there,” he remarked sardonically, and Todd just grinned.

A start had been made on the idle-hands problem. Sailors in dungarees formed a line all the way across the bay; they were working their way slowly forward, picking up junk and passing it to the guys on the ends, who had plastic bags. Much of the junk was metal, so the bags already lined along the side weren’t very full. Peters snorted. Another prediction fulfilled. Brooms and dustpans next, no doubt.

It didn’t take long to get the last few people measured. Chief Joshua and Chief Spearman gave Peters and Todd black looks but cooperated without verbal protest, and the others went along. They’d made Chief Gill’s suit Navy blue, rather than the khaki Chiefs normally wore for “undress”; the natural tan color was pretty close to khaki, but was also pretty close to skin color for five of the six, and Peters didn’t think that would work for a skin-tight garment. Finally he decided to not mention the option, and ‘suggested’ to the Chiefs that they wear their dress blues to fitting. Keer was amused at the gaudy arrays of stripes, but generated the designs anyway.

The fabricator was again running full blast, and sailors were coming in for test-fitting of suits made during the off-ande. They sent the Chiefs off, suggesting that they return after third meal, and got the juniors all suited up and checked out on a more leisurely schedule. Something occurred to Peters, and he put it to Veedal as Todd was trying to convince a First Class ET that skivvies weren’t necessary. «We have been moving quickly,» he said to the tech. «Is possible that wrong suit give–was given–to two persons. What happens?»

«That is bad,» said Veedal with a worried expression. «The suits are babble.» When Peters looked blank, he tried again: «One suit, one person, OK? No correct function.» Like most people who associate much with English speakers, after three llor Veedal was using “OK” as if it were part of his native tongue.

“Dangerous?” Peters asked in English. Of course that didn’t get through, so he illustrated the concept by grabbing his own throat with both hands and simulating choking, eyes rolled up.

«No, not babble,» Veedal said. «Very babble.» He pulled his blue jumper tight around his chest and moved around, twisting as if constricted and making faces. “Uncomfortable” would do for that until a better definition came along. Further contortions and mime established that a kathir suit on the wrong person would make air, but the movement controls wouldn’t work, and it would be extremely unpleasant to wear.

He had something else to ask and didn’t think it would come through in dumbshow, so he excused himself after secondmeal break and went in search of Znereda, leaving Todd to finish up the test fitting. The language teacher had a class, but came to the door when Peters gestured. “I’m very busy,” said the older Grallt with a frown. “What do you want?”

Peters shrugged. “Sorry, I didn’t know who else to ask. How do we reserve the suit practice room? I got two hundred sailors needin’ some pointers before too long.”

Znereda rolled his eyes up. “I can’t help you. You need to talk to the ship operations people.”

“Yeah. Two problems,” Peters told him. “I dunno where to find the ship operations people, and I bet they ain’t gonna care too much for me wavin’ my arms around tryin’ to explain what I want. I ain’t exactly fluent, you know.”

“You’re making remarkable progress, Mr. Peters, but you’re right, you probably couldn’t do that very well yet.” Znereda wrinkled his forehead. “I can’t go, but there’s someone who can help you. Just a moment. Se’en,” he said to the room in general, “Would you mind helping Mr. Peters? He needs a translator to talk to the zerkre.”

Se’en stood up. “I don’t mind,” she said. “Will I need to repeat this class?”

“It will count as practical experience,” Znereda said benevolently. “You have a head start on the rest of the class anyway.” Se’en looked a bit puzzled. “Oh, you don’t have that idiom yet, do you? It means an advantage, because you began before the others.”

“Yes, I had a little experience,” Se’en said as she came up. “What do you need, Mr. Peters?”

“Need to reserve the kathir suit practice room for two hundred sailors,” Peters told her. “Don’t call me Mister, you’re gonna be dealin’ with officers and they’re likely to get bent outa shape if they hear you.”

Se’en looked at Znereda. “I understood part of that,” she said. “He needs to speak to the zerkre.”

Znereda looked benevolent again. “Mr. Peters has a strong accent, in the idiom of his home region. It’s quite understandable if you listen closely, and it will be good practice for you. He objects to your saying ‘mister’ to him, on the ground that his superiors will not like to hear it applied to him as well as themselves.”

“That is what I think–thought he said,” Se’en agreed. “Thank you for explaining.”

Peters flushed. “I’ll try to smooth it out a little,” he assured her. “I can generally make myself understood if I try.”

“Thank you,” Se’en murmured.

They parted from Znereda, the little language master peering around the door like a grinning elf before pushing it to with a snap. Se’en gestured toward the bow, and they set off in search of ‘ship people.’

<<< Chapter Twelve Chapter Fourteen >>>

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