“We didn’t see much of you this time,” Mannix remarked as they gathered to board the dli. “I gather that your fluency and your well-known capacity for making friends has once again gained you entreé to regions of delight not accessible to the more cloddish.”

Peters flushed a trifle. “”We been spendin’ most of our time in the little town where the folks live, back over the hill yonder. Sort of peaceful.”

“I see. Well, I shan’t complain. You’ll be pleased to know your language lessons didn’t go at all to waste; Tollison and I displayed a gratifying degree of civilization on a number of occasions, did we not?”

Tollison grinned. “We ordered a lot of beer.”

“Precisely, and good beer it was, too.” Mannix grew a little more serious. “That was not the reason I accosted you, though, pleasurable as it always is. Our illustrious Commanding Officer requires your presence, and Master Chief Joshua selected me to bring you the happy news.”

“I reckon that pleased you ’bout as much as it does me.”

“Taking care of these small but vital points of protocol is an essential part of our duties.” A person not familiar with Mannix’s speech patterns might have missed the tiny barbs in that. “Had I been punctilious about it, I would have notified Howell and let him bring you the glad tidings, which I’m sure would have gratified you no end.”

“‘No end’ is about right.” Peters surveyed the group, found the officer in question standing by one of the dli, in conversation with… Collins, by the shoulder boards. “Thanks, Gerald.”

“You’re quite welcome.” The short First Class tagged along as Peters worked his way through the crowd of sailors waiting to board the dli for the trip back to Llapaaloapalla, but uncharacteristically said nothing more. He saluted once in range of the officers.

Peters, in civvies, simply dipped his head. “You sent for me, sir?”

Bolton returned Mannix’s salute, then looked Peters over. “Who authorized you to be in civilian clothes?” he growled.

“Begging the Commander’s pardon, sir,” Mannix put in, “civilian clothes are authorized on liberty except when the Orders of the Day specifically say otherwise, and unless they have been altered since Master Chief Joshua and I drafted them they say nothing of the sort, sir.”

Bolton acknowledged that with a nod; the thin smile on Collins’s face might have been Peters’s imagination. “Very well,” the commander admitted sourly. “I understood your asshole buddy was a Third Class.”

Peters opened his mouth, but again Mannix beat him to it. “Begging the commander’s pardon, sir, but is the phrase ‘asshole buddy’ a specific charge in this context, sir? If so, Petty Officer Peters might care to respond formally, sir.”

Collins’s smile manifested itself fully. “He’s got you there, Harlan.” When Bolton said nothing, she looked from one sailor to another, finally focussing on Mannix. “Commander Bolton has been feeling extremely frustrated, I’m afraid. His remark was the unfortunate result of combining that with his usual good humor.”

Bolton had gone from flush to pallor as she spoke; now he said in a voice kept level with notable effort, “Yes, my apologies, an unfortunate remark. Consider it retracted… Petty Officer Peters, are you ready to serve as my interpreter with the shuttle pilot on the trip back up?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well.” The officer glanced at the dli, where Gell was leaning, arms folded, against the wing. “We should board, then.”

“Yes, sir.”

Collins put in, “I don’t think I’ll accompany you, Harlan. I’ve had my chance at the controls.” She took the resulting look with equanimity. “Petty Officer Mannix might like to occupy the vacant seat.”

“Whatever,” the commander growled, his usual mood reasserting itself. He turned and walked toward the dli, body language tense, and Peters and Mannix followed, acknowledging Collins’s half-smile and lifted eyebrow with another nod and a salute, respectively.

«Hello, Peters,» Gell said as they approached, without coming out of his slouch. «I take it we have another of your superiors to instruct.»

«Yes, this is Commander Bolton, the first in precedence of all of us.»

Gell looked the commander over. «An impressive specimen, especially with that look on his face. Does he lunch on ship metal, or only on his subordinates?»

«I can’t answer that. I haven’t the precedence to dine with him.»

«Kh-kh-kh! I believe you are about to find out.»

“What’re you gabbing about?” Bolton wanted to know.

“I introduced you to him, and told him who you were, sir,” Peters explained. “Commander Bolton, sir, this here’s Gell, he’s the second most senior pilot on Llapaaloapalla, sir.”

“Tell him I’m pleased to make his acquaintance.”

“Yes, sir.” To Gell: «I told him you are second ship operator of Llapaaloapalla. He says it gives him honor to be presented.»

«I’ll just bet,» said Gell cheerfully. «Are we ready to go? The other officer are already aboard. I don’t see your associate.»

«Todd isn’t with me today. This is Mannix, another friend. He’ll ride along with us.»

«Pleased know you,» Mannix managed. Peters hadn’t realized he could do that much.

«And I you.» Gell looked the group over, made an ushering gesture. «Let’s get aboard. We’re losing time.»

Peters nodded. “Gell’s ready for us to go aboard, sir.”

“About time.” Bolton adjusted the angle of his cap, looked over the scene of enlisted sailors loading seabags and boarding the other dli, and followed Gell through the hatch. Peters fell in behind when Mannix gestured, and the First Class brought up the rear as they worked their way up the aisle.

Gell turned to speak over his shoulder when they’d reached the operators’ compartment. «I’m feeling lazy today,» he said. «Commander Bolton will take the operator’s seat, and you’ll take the left, Peters. Then I can sit back and relax.»

«I’m not sure that’s a good idea.»

«I’m in charge here,» Gell said in a tone more amused than irritated. «Don’t argue with me.» He gestured that Bolton should take the pilot’s chair, took the port aft seat, and assumed a pose of exaggerated relaxation.

“What’s this?” Bolton asked.

“Pilot Gell says that he understands you are an extremely experienced pilot, sir. He says for you to take the right front seat, that’s the command chair, sir, and I’ll be in the left front so I can translate easily.”

Bolton stared for a long moment, then shook his head, adjusted his hat again, and sat. He scanned the panel for a long moment, then looked up. “All right, sailor, what’s first on the checklist?”

“Well, sir, first is the activator. Button just to the right and down from the right-hand instrument, sir.” Bolton found the control and looked at Peters, who nodded. “Yes, sir, that’s it,” he confirmed. “Hold it down ’til the meter just above it’s all the way to the left, sir.”

“That got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

«He’ll probably want to turn down the compensator,» Gell interjected. «It takes more experience than he has to operate a dli on full compensation.»

«Yes, I was about to offer him the choice.» Peters turned back to his CO. “Sir, most folks need to be able to feel the motions of the ship, ‘specially in atmosphere. If you want to do that, you should turn the, ah, Gell calls it the compensator, you should reduce the power setting to it, sir.”

“And how do I do that?”

“Buttons here, sir. Top one increases, bottom decreases. The meter just above ’em shows the level, sir, but backwards to what we’re used to.”

Bolton looked over his shoulder at Gell. “If this thing’s like the planes, full power’d mash us flat. This compensator thing reduces that effect?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Could we get something like that installed on the airplanes?”

“I don’t know, sir. I’ll ask Gell.”

The Grallt pilot raised his eyebrows when the question was passed. «The compensator is part of the zifthkakik.»

Bolton’s eyebrows went up at that. “Do tell,” he murmured. “Apparently we weren’t told everything… what setting should I use?

“Ms. Collins ran the dli with it set to about half, sir,” Peters advised.

“I’ll go with that.” Bolton thumbed the button until the meter was near the middle of its range, then glanced back at Gell. Peters took a moment to do the same, finding the Grallt sprawled in his seat, eyes slitted, a secretive smile playing across his face.

“That’s it for the startup procedure, sir,” Peters advised. “Now it’s just take the andli, the arrowhead-shaped thing there, and fly it, sir.”

“I see.” Bolton grasped the andli, a bit more gently than Collins had the first time. “Straight up to clear the landscape, then forward, right?”

“That’s the way all the Grallt I’ve watched did it, sir.”

“Then we’ll try it.” Bolton gingerly operated the control; the dli leaped vertically, stopping to bob a bit at about a hundred meters altitude. “Touchy,” the commander remarked, and very carefully began to feed in forward motion. That was more successful; after a moment he echoed Collins: “It’s flying. That’s better.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Next problem: how do we find the ship?”

“Right now we don’t, sir.” When Bolton looked at him Peters flushed. “First thing is to get up real high, sir, then we can start lookin’ for the ship. At the speed these things go, it don’t take long to get where you need to go, sir.”

“I suppose not. Commander Collins said the left-hand instrument was the navigation reference.”

“Yes, sir, the left-hand cross shows the way to whatever zifthkakik it’s set to home on, and right now that’s Llapaaloapalla, sir. But it only shows the straight line, and the dli ain’t powerful enough to go there in a straight line.”

“I see.” Bolton eyed the cross. “If I read this thing right, we’re a little off course to the left and the ship is above us.”

“Yes, sir, so if you just go on the way you’re goin’, by the time we get around the planet it oughta be just about right.”

Bolton grinned, an expression Peters had never before seen him assume. Suddenly he looked more like a mischievous kid than a Naval officer. “Hand-fly it to orbit, eh? Well, I’ll be damned. You should have seen all the calculations we had to go through to get the planes up to the ship. Ten decimal places and split-second timing.” He looked at Peters, then back at Gell. “Hold on, sailor. I’m going to try some things.”

“Some things” included left and right turns of increasing steepness, Dutch rolls around the axis, and finally one revolution of barrel roll with a large enough diameter that they were simply pressed into their seats, even at the top. The sky around them went darker and darker, the stars came out, and the horizontal bar of the navigation instrument flipped from top to bottom.

Peters looked around when that happened, but Gell was apparently asleep. Mannix wasn’t; his eyes were wide and his face pale, but he didn’t say anything.

Peters tapped the nav instrument. “That’s got it, sir. Now we coast for a while and wait, sir.”

Bolton nodded, released the andli, and leaned back in his seat. “Nadine told me,” he mused, then looked over at Peters. “Commander Collins told me it’d be more a case of getting flying instruction from you than it would be you translating. I see she was right.”

Peters flushed. “Well, sir, it ain’t really all that hard to fly one of these things,” he demurred.

“Obviously not.” Bolton scanned the panel. “Commander Collins also quoted you as saying you’d never landed one on a planet.”

“That’s right, sir. All I ever did was spell the pilot of the freight hauler while we was salvagin’ the pirate ships, sir.”

“Including landing in the bay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How many times did you land it in the bay?”

“Three or four times, sir.”

There was a long silence. At last Bolton said, “How do we know if we’re close?”

Peters nodded. “What you do, sir, is pitch the nose up and down, with the course needle centered. If you know you’re at about the right altitude, when the needles cross you’re pointed right at the destination, sir.”

“And from there you can figure out what to do next.”

“Yes, sir.”

Bolton stared at Peters for a long moment. “You’re pretty fluent in the Grallt language, aren’t you?”

“I get by, sir.”

“I beg to differ, sir,” Mannix put in. “I’ve seen him in action. Fluent is precisely the correct description, sir.”

“So I understand.” Bolton grinned, with less amusement than before. “You’re fluent in the language, and you know how to fly a spaceship. Chief Joshua says you’ve been hobnobbing with the ship’s officers; he gets pretty indignant about it, in fact.”

Peters nodded, a bob of the head, but kept his eyes squarely on Bolton’s.

“You’re dressing pretty sharp these days, I see, and I hear you and your buddy have been living pretty high on liberty. You care to discuss where the funds for that are coming from?”

“Yes, sir, we been workin’ some for the Grallt in our off-duty hours, sir,” Peters said cautiously. “Which is legal, sir, I done it before when the ship wasn’t on deployment, sir.”

“Peters, this detachment’s orders put it on the same status as a deployment to a combat zone,” Bolton said with a little heat. “You don’t have any off-duty hours except when you’re on liberty.”

Peters ducked his head again. “Beggin’ the Commander’s pardon, sir, but my orders ain’t the same as yours, sir.”

“Oh, yes, the famous screwed-up orders.” Bolton leaned forward slightly, his face stern. “This isn’t the time or the place for it, but you’d better believe that those orders, and this whole situation, are going to be looked at real close when we get home. In the meantime I’m going along, because the people we signed the agreement with insist on it, but United States Navy Space Detachment One has a mission out here, and as commanding officer I intend to see that mission accomplished. Do you know what that mission is, Petty Officer Peters?”

“Yes, sir, I do, at least in general terms, sir.”

“‘In general terms.'” Bolton twitched, calling attention to the tension in his shoulders and neck. “Specifically, Petty Officer Peters, the mission of SPADET ONE is to establish commercial relations with other peoples, and to earn foreign exchange for the U.S. Government so it can participate in those relations.” He paused; when Peters started to speak he made a jerky quelling motion and continued, “And from where I sit, it looks a lot like you are blocking me from accomplishing that mission for personal gain, and I don’t intend to let that happen. Do you understand me, Petty Officer Peters?”

I reckon if there’s a blockage it’s on your end, Commander, Peters thought, but he only said, “Yes, sir,” without dropping his eyes.

“And with all due respect, sir, he’s just recently pulled the unit out of a fairly tight situation,” Mannix put in.

“I’m almost completely persuaded of that.” Bolton twisted to look at the First Class, then turned back to relieve the strain. “How much do you know about that situation, Mannix?”

“Not much, sir, just that Peters and Todd managed to deflect something pretty nasty. There’s speculation going around, but no details, sir.”

“There better not be,” the commander growled. “If it gets to be deck scuttlebutt, heads will roll, you real clear on that, sailors?”

“Yes, sir,” both enlisted said simultaneously.

The commander glanced at the navigation instrument before meeting Peters’s eyes once more. “I will be keeping an eye on you, and that is a personal guarantee,” he commented, his face and tone still tight. “You ever think about jumping ship, Peters? No, don’t answer that.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Peters said softly, holding eye contact.

Bolton broke it, reaching for the andli to start the dli in a smooth pitching motion. “About time to be hunting for the ship, isn’t it?”

Peters glanced around, checking the sun angle. “Yes, sir, it is. There, sir, it just went by.”

“I got it… you suppose we’re in visual range?”

“I reckon we ought to be, sir… yeah, there it is, sir, dead ahead and a little up. Looks like a star, but it moves.”

“So it does… from here it’s just like coming back from a furball,” Bolton noted. “Bar the different set of controls, that is. No real problem.” He manuevered the dli into an approach path, then brought it in for a landing in the ops bay, not as smoothly as Gell would have but an entirely creditable performance. “Not too bad,” he observed when they were sitting on the skids in the bay.

Gell applauded slowly, soft handclaps that didn’t make much noise. «Excellent,» he said. «Not that I expected anything different. Whatever else your superior may be, he is certainly a skilled ship operator.»

«Yes.»

“What’s that?” Bolton wanted to know.

“Gell says you’re good, sir.”

“Eh? Well, of course I’m good.” This in the tone he might have used to say, “of course the sky is blue.” “I’m a Navy aviator.” He stood, and Gell used the opportunity to reach around him and press buttons while Bolton adjusted his headgear. “Very interesting flight,” the commander commented. “Tell Gell thank you. And keep in mind what I said.”

“I will, sir.” Peters watched as Bolton disappeared aft, then told Gell, «Commander Bolton says thank you for the opportunity.»

The Grallt nodded and took his seat, waiting for his passengers to offload before taxiing the dli into the hangar. «My pleasure,» he said. «When will you be available to teach me your language? It looks as if it will be useful in the future.» He grinned and looked sidelong at Peters. «I would have very much liked to be able to follow the intense discussion just finished, for instance.»

«Ssth. I can summarize that in a few words. Commander Bolton considers me so low in the precedence structure that I cannot make contributions and can barely commit significant errors. He warned me against mistakes, obliquely because he can’t conceive of my doing anything effective.»

«Yes, but are you cynical enough?» When Peters choked at that, Gell went on, «I’m still interested in learning. Perhaps I would have a different interpretation.»

«Look me up when we’re in High Phase.» Peters added his compartment designation.

«I’ll do that.»

“Well, that was interesting,” Mannix remarked as he and Peters made their way down the aisle. “I believe the Commander was quite taken with you, now that he’s met you in person, as it were. It would seem that you are destined for even greater things.”

Peters snorted. “Hmph. I reckon that ain’t quite the interpretation I’d put on it, and anyway I could’a survived without bein’ the apple of the Commander’s eye.”

“Oh, I’m quite sure you could.” Mannix surveyed the ops bay, glanced out the aft door at another dli on approach, then looked back at Peters. “It’s well to remember what happens to the apple that gets selected.”

“I reckon the best thing for me to do’d be to see if I can’t sort of squirm down to the bottom of the basket.”

Mannix shook his head. “That might be a worthwhile strategy for some, John, but my prediction is that in your case it’s doomed to failure.”

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