“Halt,” Peters called out in a fine ringing voice. “Who goes there?”

“Petty Officer Hale,” came from the gloom.

“Advance and be recognized, Petty Officer Hale.”

The other stepped forward. It was indeed Hale, one of the Machinist’s Mates who kept the airplanes shipshape; not someone Peters knew well. “You’re recognized, Petty Officer Hale,” Peters advised in a lower but still businesslike voice. “The challenge is Bubblehead.”

“And the countersign is Carson.” Hale’s voice was amused. “I don’t know who thought up these passwords, but that set’s fairly appropriate. I relieve you, Petty Officer Peters.”

“And I stand relieved.” Peters handed the M22 over and began shucking out of the duty belt. “All quiet. Nothin’ to report.”

Hale nodded and handed the weapon back so he could buckle on the belt. That done, he took the helmet, set it on his head, accepted the gun once more, and adopted the pose Peters had been using: feet slightly apart, weapon grounded, left hand at the small of his back. “I’m not sure whether to be glad or sorry nothing ever happens on these watches,” he remarked conversationally. “It gets pretty boring.”

“Borin’ is good,” Peters advised, an aphorism the sailors attributed to Warnocki.

Hale grinned. “In the normal case you’re right. But five hours of standing here like this isn’t anything that needs thought to prevent excitement. It’s just boring.”

Peters scanned the hangar bay. Planes sat in more or less random orientations, several of them with panels open or removed, but most of the overhead lights were off and there was nobody stirring. What light there was spilled from the catwalks above their heads and across the bay, making the space gloomy and spooky and giving more meaning to the challenge and response of watch relief than any of them were accustomed to.

That, and the fact that Commander Bolton and the other officers occasionally stopped by to check up, were the reasons they played it straight and formal. The zifthkakik they were guarding were safe in the crates the Grallt had provided–five times per watch they made sure of that; Peters had just checked, and Hale would check again as soon as Peters left–but they were the most valuable thing the detachment had, and having them guarded, by guards, seemed to most of them to be entirely sensible. There was of course no credible threat around, but that had nothing to do with it. Like almost all sailors, Peters had taken his turn guarding objects that didn’t look all that dissimilar, in front of an armored, combination-locked door three decks down in the middle of the ship. This was exposed in the wild by comparison.

And besides, it was Navy. So were the bow and stern watches (equally futile), manning the duty desk in the detachment offices, and the recently restored desk in the aft EM quarters access. Not everyone agreed, but most of the sailors felt that after a year and a half of bizarreness they needed the rituals to keep themselves grounded. Dershowitz, second on Retard Two, had even produced a bosun’s pipe and shamefacedly confessed a taste for archaism; now there were three of them who could blow it–not well–and they were piping the watches, like would have been done a century and more ago.

Dershowitz was doing that as Peters rounded the hangar access into the ops bay, the different tweedle of “To Colors.” Two dozen or so sailors were standing around, and a few of the officers were out and about. Peters stiffened to attention; the notes died away, and everybody saluted, facing midships, approximately where the flag would be if Llapaaloapalla had sported such a decoration. They held the pose for a few beats, then somebody called “Stand at… ease” from across the bay. That’d just started recently. There was talk of making it official.

Peters approved. He and Todd had been making a concerted effort to blend in, keep their heads down, merge with the group. So far it seemed to be successful. Todd was still Collins’s plane captain; Peters still led Retard Three, to the extent that leadership was necessary. The detachment had had three mock-battles and gone on liberty once since what he thought of as the time I rode with the Commander, and another liberty was coming up. He’d not been called on to perform the duties of a zerkre; his kathir suit was still in its Navy-blue pattern. They’d stood watches, one ande every five-ande “day” or a little more often; the Chiefs took their turns at bow and stern, as advertised, but they didn’t do desk duty or zifthkakik watch, and the only real effect the impressive gesture had was to leave more night watches for the rest of them.

So why was the hair standing up on the back of his neck lately?

Part of the answer to that question was sheer confusion. Was he Navy, or not? Much as he longed to disappear back into the group he’d long ago accepted as his peers, according to the calendar program in the handheld he wasn’t entitled to as of almost three months ago.

And did he really want to do that?

He had a piece of tough plastic “paper”, signed by Gell and countersigned by Preligotis, that said he was a qualified ship operator–a spaceship pilot, even if the Grallt tended to think of it more in terms of a cox’n. He had a fortune–a bigger one now; he’d invested his half in trade shares, and trading had been good the last couple of zul. Not to mention a half interest in a piece of gear the folks back home would be willing to kill for. Did he really want to hand that all back in for a third chevron and a shot at a rocker? Did he even have that chance, with Joshua still on his case?

Kennard was hanging speakers, as usual at this time of day, preparing for the exercise session. The bow door was closed, as it always was when the ship was in high phase, and the aft one was open, as it was most of the time regardless of phase. Sailors and a few Grallt were idling around the bay, or headed either to or from chow depending on whether they were early birds or not. Everything looked normal–as normal as it could be, umpteen gadzillion klicks–or miles, or feet, or millimeters; past one gadzillion the units stopped mattering–from home, riding around with aliens on a flying saucer. Flyin’ two-by-four, more like, he thought without rancor.

“Mornin’, Peters,” said Tollison as they reached the elevator together.

“Mornin’, Tollison,” Peters acknowledged.

“Were you on watch? Don’t usually see you this late for morning chow.” The big Machinist’s Mate was not a morning person; he preferred to go to chow after Colors. As a result he and Peters rarely encountered one another before exercises.

“Yeah, treasure guard.” Most of the sailors couldn’t say zifthkakik, and all of them were a little reticent about discussing them; the trove was the “pirate treasure”.

“Ouch. Boring.”

“Yeah. I dunno–” Peters broke off at the expression on the other’s face.

“What the fuck?” Tollison was looking over Peters’s shoulder at something, face open in astonishment. Simultaneously the ship–lurched was too strong a word; the sensation was almost the same as when they entered or left High Phase.

Peters turned to look aft. There was a new star there. All the sailors were used to the stars outside, not terribly different from what they saw from the deck at night at home, for reasons probably having to do with how the zifthkakik worked. This one was different. It was much brighter, for one thing.

For another, it was distinctly green, the pure color of a “ready” LED.

«Make ready for unfriendly visitors,» boomed from the overhead, filling the ops bay, and everybody stopped and looked around in confusion.

“What the fuck?” Peters echoed, and turned to look at Tollison.

The big sailor grinned. “Yeah. Gerard and Schott and a bunch of the guys fixed the 1MC. It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“Surprised me–”

“Action stations, action stations,” came over Peters’s earbug in Chief Joshua’s voice. “All hands to action stations.” There was a pause, then the Chief went on, sounding more than a little grim. “We don’t have a drill for this, people. I want everybody in deck gear. Retarder crews report to your duty stations, launch and maintenance personnel in the aft midships hangar.” Another short pause. “Aft lookout estimates we’ve got five minutes. You can’t make it back down in deck gear by then, stay in your quarters. This is gonna be a Chinese fire drill, but let’s not make it a circle jerk, you got that? Now move move move.”

By the time he was done speaking every human in the ops bay was either at the EM quarters hatch or headed there at a dead run. Kennard had apparently slapped a key before leaving, because the speakers were blaring Highway Star. Mannix and another First Class were standing by the hatch, intercepting people as they rushed up and turning the crush into an orderly but fast series of dives through the opening. Peters and Tollison caught up to the back of the group, waiting their turn, dividing their attention between the press ahead and the star aft. Already it was notably brighter, and Peters thought to see a shape within it.

Down the corridor, shove the latch; he left the door open. Helmet and flak jacket; he was already wearing boondockers and earbug, the items taking the longest time to don. Down the stairs in a semicontrolled fall, dead run again, across the deck to the retarders. The star was now visibly a ship, not moving all that fast by the look of it. The green light came from some kind of emitter, off center to the left and down from his viewpoint.

I’m a high way staar… blared from the speakers as Peters got to his retarder; others were arriving, out of breath. Sailors were pounding across the bay, and the approaching ship was bigger, a rectangular block like Llapaaloapalla and the others they’d seen. It rolled so that the green light came from the bottom front, and the Master Chief said over the earbugs, “All right, everybody not within a couple steps of your stations, clear the deck. If you’re not on station, get to a bulkhead or back in your quarters. Move it, people.”

Rupert had made it; Jacks was probably all the way forward sporting with Se’en. Two had two people, and Four had Cunningham, but there was nobody on One; Bannerman gestured to his second, take over, and scrambled over to the lead console. The ship was close enough, now, to make out details. It was wider than it was high, and big, much bigger than the fighter-ships they’d seen, bigger even than the freight haulers. A row of black rectangles went across the front face, left to right, the bottom edge bisecting the short dimension. If those were reasonable-sized viewports, that made it just about small enough to fit in the bay.

«If you can hear this, everyone in aft compartments move forward, move forward,» the overhead boomed.

A gang of Grallt in blue-and-whites came pounding up. «Get these thukre out of the way,» one of them snarled. He–no, she; it was Keezer–made as if to manhandle Cunningham away from the console.

Bannerman took that in. “God damn it, we don’t need this shit. Handle it, Peters.”

“Aye, aye.” He stepped over and grabbed Keezer by the upper arm. She made to swat him with her other hand, but only caught the helmet; her face was twisted in an angry snarl.

«Stop that,» Peters told her sharply. «We are qualified operators. Don’t be crude.» The last word was an insult, more or less parallel to Russian nye kulturny.

«You don’t know what the fuck you are doing,» Keezer snarled. «If the ferassi get aboard we could all get dead.»

«Ferassi? Ferassi are people?»

«As if you didn’t fucking know,» Keezer sneered. «Now get your face-fucking selves away from the fucking consoles and let people take over.»

First things first. “Emergency all hands, emergency all hands,” the formula that put him on the all-call, “visitors are hostile. Repeat, visitors must be assumed hostile. Take cover, repeat, take cover.” Heads went up all around, and Peters told the Grallt, «Keezer, we don’t have time for this. We’re on your side. Take the lead on Number One, and tell us what settings to use.»

She held his eyes for a beat, then scurried off aft. Peters took that in with a glance, then told Rupert, “I’m gonna have to translate. Handle it.” He caught a glimpse of wild eyes and gaping mouth under the helmet, then pounded off after Keezer.

“Translator,” he gasped to Bannerman, and caught the nod before saying to Keezer, «You’re in charge. What are the settings?»

«Mass to maximum, speed to zero.»

Peters relayed that, and sailors started spinning knobs. The controls were verniers, with geared pointers for indicators; it took sixteen turns to go from max to min. «Anything else?»

«When you have both settings, push the mass knob until it clicks, hold it, and go right as far as it will go.»

Peters spoke urgently; the others started to comply. Console Four now had a pair of Grallt, and Cunningham had moved to back up Rupert. «Got it,» Peters told Keezer. «What now?»

«Now we wait to see if it works,» Keezer clipped out.

«What does that function do?»

«With a little luck it keeps them from coming into the bay.»

«Complete block?»

Snarl: «It’s supposed to be.»

“Green three-seven, can you tell us anything?” came over the earbug. “Commander Bolton wants to know if there’s anything he and the other officers should be doing.”

Green lights flashed at lower left and lower right of the stranger’s front; a thud was transmitted through the fabric of the ship. “It ain’t clear, chief, but they just shot at us.”

“I noticed that. Is anybody shooting back?”

Their attacker wasn’t getting any closer. More flashes, more thuds. “I’ll ask.”

“Do that.”

«Keezer, can we respond to their weapons?»

«No. All of Llapaaloapalla‘s weapons are directed forward.»

“Stupid design,” Peters commented. «We have a few weapons. Can we usefully contribute?»

«If you have personal weapons, get them ready in case the ferassi get aboard.»

Peters nodded. “Chief, Keezer says to start passin’ out weapons. If these guys get aboard it’s likely to be real bad news.” Flash. Thud.

Pause. “Right. All hands, all hands. If you’re near the armory, get a weapon and get to the ops bay.” Grimly: “You’re supposed to shoot the bad guys, not yourselves.” The sailors along the starboard side started rushing for the quarters hatch. “Green three-seven, can we use the planes?”

«Would the fighting-ships be useful in this situation?»

«Not likely. The ferassi can disable their breakbeams.» Keezer shook her head. «They made them in the first place.»

Well, ain’t that a thing? «They didn’t make ours,» Peters pointed out.

«I had forgotten that.» Keezer looked forward, a grim expression on her face. «They might be able to do something, if their weapons work and they can get out in time.»

«How long are we likely to have?»

«I don’t know. Right now they’re waiting for us to stop and open up for them. There’s no way to know how long it will take for them to get impatient and start really shooting.»

“Chief, Keezer says the planes might help if we can get them out in time, but there ain’t no way to know how long we’ve got.”

“It can’t hurt to try.” Pause. “Can we launch in High Phase?”

Keezer snarled when that was relayed. «Ssth. Didn’t you feel it? The ferassi brought us down. We can’t go to High Phase as long as they’re out there.» Flash. Thud.

«Understood.» Pictures of home! the music player sang. “Chief, the bad guys done turned off the zifthkakik an’ we’re not in High Phase any more. If we can get ’em manned we can launch.”

“Roger that.” There was a pause, probably Joshua giving instructions on another channel. A sailor started toward the bow at a dead run, and officers in poopy suits and helmets were straggling out their quarters hatch and pounding toward the hangar accesses. After a minute the hatches started retracting, relatively quietly thanks to Warnocki and the maintenance crews, but the bow door would take longer; the sailor had half a kilometer to cover before he could reach the override control. Guys with M22s were popping out of the EM quarters hatch, some taking up guard stations there, others running across to cover the hangar accesses and elevator.

Flash flash thud thud!

«They are starting to get impatient,» Keezer noted. The Grallt complexion was duskier than the average for the humans, but she was a shade lighter than Todd.

«Yes… Don’t they have more effective weapons? All they’ve done so far is make noise.» Flash thud, as if to emphasise that.

Snarl: «Of course they do, and they could start using them any tle. They could destroy us in an antle or less, but what use would it be? They want to raid, not destroy.» Flash, brighter and yellow, wham, a more distinct shock. «They are starting to escalate now.»

First a Hornet, then a Tomcat, rolled out of the hangar access under their own power, a flat miracle in so little time. The armorers were walking–well, half running–alongside, trying to tinker with the Hell pods. A crackle, and Commander Collins’s throaty alto: “Hornet Two Zero One is rolling.” Flash flash wham! wham!

Keezer spun. «What the fuck was that?»

«It’s a radio, one of our communicators, salvaged from the damaged ship.» That had occasioned some debate, but it had been decided that the extra UHF radio would be most useful to control approaches and recovery. They now really needed an LSO, but Joshua had managed enough force to keep Lieutenant Carson out of the bay; Howell should have handled it.

Flash flash wham! WHAM! Howell wasn’t here. “Hornet Two Zero One, this is Green Three-Seven at the retarders. Read you five by,” Peters told the mike. Smoke on the water – fire in the sky blared from across the bay.

Crackle. “Roger, Green Three-Seven. Tomcat One Zero One is saddling up now.” Flash flash wham! wham! Debris drifted by the aft opening.

The bow door was grinding open, 201 and 207 were side by side with redshirts scrambling to get the pods closed, 102 was moving up, and things were starting to get confusing. Peters had no training as an Air Controller; nobody in the detachment did–repair and maintenance people had been considered more important, especially when they’d found out communications would be limited or nonexistent. That being the case, he shut up and let the pilots handle it among themselves.

The aft opening lit up in a yellow flash that half-blinded them and projected a wave of heat. «The field seems to be holding,» Peters remarked.

«For now,» Keezer agreed with a short nod. «If they crank up the power any more» FLASH «anything could happen.»

The Hornets launched without benefit of Warnocki’s theatrical gestures, and the first Tomcat followed, the access hatch of its Hell pod flopping. A sailor was down, a redshirt who’d been caught by the gear; a couple of others grabbed and dragged him clear before the next Tomcat finished the job. FLASH FLASH. This time the waves of heat were enough to make Peters glad of the helmet visor; Keezer winced aside, covering her face with her hands.

FLASH FLASH WHAM! WHAM! More debris spun by, but the planes were launching at such close intervals that one would still be short of the bow when another started rolling. Access hatches were flopping or absent, one Tomcat was entirely missing the lower rear panel that had once covered the engines, and more than one canopy wasn’t properly secured. It didn’t really matter–all the crews were in kathir suits–but Peters thought it sloppy. Hmph. Quick and dirty.

FLASH FLASH WHAM! WHAM! FLASH WHAM!

The UHF was crackling, the short clipped comments of pilots getting formed up and ready. The bad guys were getting more insistent, the flashes and shocks getting stronger and stronger, and more debris floated by. Some of it had arms and legs; Peters’s internal hope that it was all property damage was cut off in mid-thought. Six Hornets and four Tomcats were out, the later ones a lot more shipshape than the first few, two more of each were moving up, and the music screamed yeah, yeah, yeah, space truckin’, yeah, yeah, yeah, space truckin’.

FLASH! A bar of green light, looking solid enough to cut slices off, slammed across the bay, blinding everybody momentarily and glancing off the deck, catching one of the Tomcats square in the tail. The F-14 launched anyway, trailing bits of aluminum and composite that had once been aerodynamic control surfaces but weren’t exactly necessary in vacuum. A second beam caught a Hornet midships, and that one wasn’t going anywhere; the two halves went spinning up the bay, scattering people and airplane parts up the port side, where the prep crews waited. Maybe they were all behind the vertical beams. Maybe not.

The third one didn’t come, and Peters shook his head grimly and looked aft, just in time to see one of the panels he thought were windows on the front of the ferassi ship explode in a shower of bits and pieces. Another explosion chopped a chunk off the lower left corner, where one of the weapons was, and a pair of fleeting shapes–Hornets, from a subliminal impression–flashed from “overhead” and skimmed the enemy vessel, more shards flying off it as they did so.

The ship rotated in an eyeblink, trying to bring its guns to bear, but a couple of Tomcats approached from “high” and to the right as a trio of Hornets scissored in from the left. Big chunks went flying. “Gotcha, you son of a murdering bitch,” came from the UHF.

“Kill, don’t brag,” followed immediately; the voice sounded like Collins. The planes proceeded to do just that. They were tiny compared to the ferassi ship, but the enemy seemed to have weapons emitters only on its front face, and no matter how it turned the humans had two or three coming from the other way. More big chunks flew. The lasers didn’t make visible flashes, but they carved pieces off just fine, thank you.

At last it quit moving. The front face was again toward them, and the steady green light at lower center–now upper right–was out. A cloud of debris surrounded it, all made of its own substance; the humans had been too quick, and the ferassi too surprised, for any of the planes to get caught by its weapons. Some of the debris was human-shaped, and some of those were wiggling. Two Tomcats and a Hornet took up station between the ferassi ship and Llapaaloapalla, and the front face of the enemy started coming apart in methodical blasts, top left to lower right, two per second as if keeping march time.

“Cease firing, cease firing,” the UHF said in Bolton’s voice. “Home Base, what’s your status?”

Keezer’s face was slack. «Im-fucking-possible,» she breathed.

“Home Base, Tomcat One Oh One,” the radio said again. “What’s your status?”

Peters grabbed the microphone. “One Oh One, this’s Green Three–” he shook his head; Howell wasn’t there “–One. We got casualties, sir, one Hornet destroyed an’ personnel casualties.”

“How many casualties, Green Three One?”

“Unknown, sir, but it’s like to be a bunch, probably some fatalities.”

Pause. “Roger, Green Three One. Can you recover aircraft at this time?”

Peters looked around. People were scrambling, including a couple who were doubling across the bay with a stretcher. “I don’t advise it at this time, sir. The deck ain’t clear. We got a mess here, sir.”

“Understood, Three One. Can you estimate how long to clear the deck?”

Peters looked around again. The scramble was starting to subside a bit, purposeful effort replacing confusion and shouts. The closing strains of When a Blind Man Cries drifted across the bay. Peters liked the rest of the program, but he hated that song. “One Oh One, my first estimate’s five to ten, but let me check with Chief Joshua on that, sir.”

“Standing by for update. One Oh One to all crews. Blazer, you and Hotshot stand by on guard. Everybody else, search pattern three. We need to know if there’s any more of these bastards out here.” A series of mike clicks, and the planes started breaking off, fanning out in a spiral pattern.

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