Human officers were filing aboard the liberty boat, spiffy in their dress whites, when Peters and Todd came out the EM quarters hatch. Gell was counting them off against a list on a clipboard. Several enlisted sailors were idling around, watching, waiting for their own transportation to arrive.

Todd wore a yellow shirt of soft knit stuff with the tail outside pale blue trousers, which went well with his stubby blonde figure, and Peters had chosen a blue monocolor outfit in the same style to set off his dark-haired lankiness. The clothes were moderately expensive, custom-made by an establishment not far from the suit room, but were in the style worn by those Grallt who preferred not to be in kathir suits all the time. Those were available at modest cost, and the sailors had chosen to be somewhat inconspicuous. Only a close examination of the fabric would reveal the differences.

They had on kathir suits underneath. Both had become so accustomed to the airsuits they would have felt undressed without them, and besides they were about to go on a dli ride. Further sartorial experiments could wait until they were Down and found out what the weather was like.

«There are extra seats,» said Gell.

“Hey?” Peters switched languages. «Were you speaking to us?»

«Yes. There are a square of seats in the main cabin of the dli, and only six eights and two of them are filled. Would you care to come on this trip?»

«Now, Gell,» Peters chided, «You know we haven’t the precedence to ride with this group. We’ll wait for the next dli.»

Gell shrugged. «As you like.»

Footsteps hurried up. “Is there a problem?” Commander Collins asked. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

“T’sorrite,” Gell told her.

She nodded and started up the wing step, and Peters remarked, «I see you’re learning a little English.»

«Ssth. I’ve heard that phrase many times from this group, and tried to copy the most common response,» Gell said with a smile. «I don’t really know what I’m saying.»

«You guessed well,» Peters approved. «Her phrase meant ‘I apologize for my tardiness’. What you told her was approximately ‘quite all right’. If you like I can give you some pointers.»

«Perhaps I’ll do that. It might be useful.»

Collins had stopped in the act of setting foot on the wing surface. “I know you, sailor,” she said. “You’re the one all the furore was about…. Peters, isn’t that right?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m Peters.”

“And of course I know Todd. You seem very fluent.”

“Well, ma’am, I done learned a bit of the lingo,” Peters admitted cautiously.

“I see. Wait where you are,” she ordered crisply, and took the few brisk steps necessary to enter the hatch.

“Yes, ma’am,” Peters said to her retreating back, and he and Todd shared a look.

«What’s happening?» Gell wanted to know. «We should get started. There is a schedule.»

Peters shrugged. «The woman we just spoke with is the second of our group. Her name is Collins, and she told me to wait. If Commander Collins tells me to wait, I wait.»

«So I see.» Gell was smiling. «How long is this likely to take?»

«I have no estimate.»

«Ssth.» Gell shook his head. «There was a fitting on the left wing that didn’t look quite right when I inspected it. I’ll check it again while we wait.»

Peters shrugged. «You are the operator.»

Gell ducked around the tail and disappeared. A few moments later Commander Collins poked her head out the hatch. “Where did the pilot go?”

“He said he had somethin’ to check, ma’am, since we was waitin’ anyway.”

“He does seem conscientious.” Collins focused on Peters, eyes narrowed. “You come with me, sailor. You, too, Todd, there’s space.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Peters resignedly, and stepped up the walkway.

“You are going to solve a problem for me,” Collins declared as they approached.

“How’s that, ma’am?”

“I’m a pilot,” she said as they entered, taking the lead up the aisle and turning her head to speak in a tone that brooked no argument. “I don’t like riding in back, and I haven’t had a chance to sit up front and see how it works. You,” she turned and pointed at Peters, “are going to sit in the cockpit with me and translate while the pilot tells me what’s going on.” The rest of the officers in the cabin had an assortment of frowns and smiles, mostly the latter; one in the second row applauded.

She marched through the VIP cabin with the two sailors following. Commander Bolton, in the left front seat, turned and frowned. “What’s this all about, Nadine?”

“I am going to sit in the right seat on the way down, unless the pilot kicks me out,” Collins said flatly. “Peters here is going to translate when the guy doing the driving explains what’s going on, and his buddy’s coming with us because I say so.” She smiled. “If you’re very nice to me I may share some of it.”

Bolton’s face darkened. “That’s not a solution I would have thought of,” he said, glancing at Dreelig, who was sitting in the right rear seat and keeping his mouth shut.

“Neither would I if I hadn’t heard him gabbing away when I was late boarding,” Collins told him with something like triumph in her voice. “You did end up handing him an NCM for what amounts to knowing what was going on better than you did, if you’ll recall.”

“Yes, I recall. I also recall a lot of fast talk leading up to that.” Bolton spread his hands. “I might just shanghai your interpreter on the way back up, find out for myself what he can and can’t do. That suit you, Peters?”

“Yes, sir,” Peters nodded. It didn’t, but….

“Come along,” Collins said firmly. “Commander Bolton can sort out his own arrangements. Later.” She led the way into the control cabin, and Peters followed, glad to escape from Bolton, whose expression was quickly developing into a full-scale scowl.

Collins seated herself, avidly scanning the sparse panel. Peters coughed behind his fist; when she looked up he said diffidently, “Ma’am, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place. The pilot sits on the sta’brd side.”

“Oops.” She got up quickly and took the left chair. “You sit behind the pilot, so we can talk,” she directed, pointing. “Why do you suppose the pilot sits on the right? It’s arbitrary, I suppose.”

Peters sat down, leaning forward to say, “Yes, ma’am, I reckon it don’t matter a whole lot, but didn’t airplanes use to have a lot of stuff in the middle?”

“Yes, they still do, the bigger ones,” she said, abstracted in her study of the panel.

“Well, ma’am, most Grallt are left-handed, that I’ve come across, that is.”

“Are they? I hadn’t noticed.”

«What’s this?» Gell wanted to know as he entered. His tone was amused rather than hostile.

«Commander Collins wants to observe as you operate the dli,» Peters explained.

«So she brought you along to interpret the explanations.» Gell looked at Collins. «It’s nice to know they aren’t all morons.»

«So there are no problems?»

«Not from my side.» Gell seated himself and looked back at Peters, still amused. «Your problems are your own.»

“All right, Peters, what’s going on?” Collins asked sharply.

“I explained to the pilot that you wanted to observe on the way down, ma’am, and he said he’d be delighted.”

“I’ll just bet,” Collins noted cheerfully. “What’s the pilot’s name?”

“Gell. He’s… just a minute, please, ma’am.” She nodded, and Peters turned to ask, «Gell, what is your precedence?»

«I am a zerkre of the fourth precedence, and second small-craft operator of Llapaaloapalla.»

«Thank you.» Peters took a breath. “His rank’s somethin’ like warrant officer, ma’am, and he’s the second most senior pilot on the ship.”

“I see. What’s he doing now?”

That was familiar from working with Vredig. “He’s bringin’ up the zifthkakik, ma’am. The meter just in front and a little to the right shows the power level… their meters read backwards to ours, ma’am.”

“Zifthawhat?”

Zifthkakik,” Peters pronounced slowly and distinctly. “It’s what they call the gadget that makes it go.”

“Oh, yes, I remember now. And here we go!”

«I take it from her careful examination of the controls that our guest is a ship operator,» Gell remarked as the dli shot out the bow door.

«Yes, a highly skilled and experienced one,» Peters explained.

«Oh, good.» Gell’s tone was amusedly malicious. «I was tired anyway. Tell her it’s all hers.» He pointed at the planet looming ahead. «We should go that way.» Then he leaned back and folded his arms in ostentatious leisure.

No one was touching the controls, which didn’t worry Peters as long as they weren’t close to anything. “Ah, ma’am, Gell says you should take over.”

“What?” She looked over at Gell, who smiled and gave her a little go-ahead gesture. Her posture came erect, and she began seriously scanning the panel. “What do I do?” she snapped.

“Take hold of the andli, ma’am, the thing like a fat arrowhead by your left hand.”

The dli lurched. “This?”

“Yes, ma’am, it don’t take much to move it.”

“So I just discovered. This is the control stick?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Peters glanced over at Gell, catching him in the act of thumbing the button that reduced the power of whatever it was that made the dli feel planted in rock when it was moving like scat. He nodded and smiled, and the Grallt returned a wink before leaning back into his comfortable position.

Collins was experimenting, stars streaming by in the ports, being rather more systematic about it than either he or Todd had been the first time. Gradually her control became finer, and before long she could generate rotations almost as smoothly as Gell could. “That isn’t hard,” she remarked. “Easier than ours, in fact. Of course this control system was designed for a spacecraft, not adapted like ours are.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The planet was noticeably closer. “The next question is, where do I go and how do I know where that is?”

Peters glanced at Gell, who beamed and pointed: forward. “Gell already set the instruments to go for the beacon, ma’am,” he said with fingers crossed. “The dial on your left shows which way to go, ‘cept it shows a straight line, and the dli don’t go in no straight line.”

“You mean I have to judge a re-entry by eye?”

“Yes, ma’am, there ain’t no other way.”

She turned. “I don’t see you asking the pilot many questions. You’ve done this yourself?”

“No, ma’am, not this part, I only watched.” When she held his gaze he looked down. “I, uh, I spelled the pilot some on the freight hauler while we was salvagin’ the zifthkakik, so I know a little about it, ma’am, but I ain’t never landed one on a planet.”

“I see.” Collins drawled the word out with a speculative overtone, and looked over at Gell, who beamed. “What comes next?”

“Well, ma’am, next is we wait,” Peters told her. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen for a little while.”

“I suppose so.” Collins released the andli, relaxed into the cushions, then turned to face Peters. “Evelyn Briggs says to tell you ‘thanks’. She’ll be back on flying status by the time we get to the next place.”

“Well, ma’am, you tell her for us we’re real glad she ain’t taken no permanent hurt … at least I hope she ain’t, ma’am,” he went on when she just looked at him. “I know I ain’t in no position to know what she’s gone through, but ain’t nobody deserves that kind of shit.”

“I’ll tell her that. She’d have told you herself, but our keepers–” this with a look at Gell “–don’t want us wandering around, and it didn’t seem right to summon you on the carpet to issue a thank-you.” When Peters nodded she continued, “I still don’t know the details. First I’m asked to sit on a Summary Court, then the next thing I know the prospective accused gets a commendation and everybody clams up. Care to enlighten me?”

Peters met her eyes. “Ma’am, I got two separate sets of orders says I ain’t supposed to talk about it.” Plus a chunk of change, but I reckon I better keep that under my hat.

“Oh, ho. The ‘can’t talk about it’ routine.” Collins tossed her head, and Peters got a flash of coltish seventeen-year-old with hair down to here; too bad he hadn’t been around… “I’ve heard that formula before,” she observed tartly, “and it always means something’s being hushed up ‘for the good of the Service’. I take it this is another such occasion?”

“Well, ma’am, I reckon you could say that.”

“And then again I might not. Hmph.”

They waited, all three humans growing tense as the planet swelled to fill their field of view. Peters glanced at Gell, who nodded and gestured. “Ma’am, about now you oughta be bringin’ the nose up,” he advised. “It’s supposed to go in belly first.”

“That makes sense.” She began handling the control, bringing the nose up until the limb of the planet bisected the forward port.

Gell made a pair of gestures: up, forward. “I reckon you oughta be puttin’ some way on, ma’am, so’s we’re movin’ faster in the direction we’re pointin’, and bring the nose up a bit more,” Peters advised.

“How do I know we’re going the right way?” she asked, handling the control.

Peters looked at Gell. «Should we steer for the destination at this point?»

«No,» the Grallt said shortly. «She’s doing very well.»

“Gell says real good, ma’am, don’t worry about which way to go till we’re done with this part.”

“All right.” Re-entry ionization came up in streams of yellow fire, and they rode that for a few minutes, the lower setting of the inertial damper making it a more visceral experience than either Peters or Todd had had before. “Oh,” Collins said with a note of wonder, “it’s flying!” She manipulated the andli, causing the dli to swing left, then right, in a series of smooth curves. “It’s flying,” she said again, and looked around at Peters. “I know how to do this.”

“Yes, ma’am, I reckon you do,” Peters answered her smile. “I reckon now you just follow the cross, ma’am.”

“Yes, I see that.” She nodded decisively, and brought the dli around in a long smooth curve to the right, banking to compensate for the gee forces and ending with the vertical needle centered. Then she looked over at Gell, smiled, and nodded.

The Grallt responded with a smile and nod of his own, then gestured, palm out: go ahead. At her answering nod he settled back in his seat, arms still folded.

Peters leaned back for the first time in the flight. “Whew.”

“She picked it up pretty quick,” Todd observed softly.

“Yeah, I don’t think any of our guys’ll have trouble figurin’ it out,” Peters answered in the same tone.

“Yeah, they’re pretty sharp.” Todd gave him a wry grin. “Commander Bolton’ll do fine.”

“How’s that?”

Todd’s grin got broader. “Now, now, it’s not like you to be so slow on the uptake,” he chided. “Commander Collins has had her chance. Isn’t it going to be fun when Commander Bolton takes his turn?”

Peters glanced back at the door behind which the gentleman sat. “Shit,” he remarked. “I wish you’d waited a while before remindin’ me of that.”

* * *

“Reality check,” said Peters as they emerged onto the wing. “Sky?”

“Blue,” said Todd. That seemed to be the usual circumstance. “Pretty white puffy clouds, too.”

Peters glanced at the white uniforms of the officers, moving away in a tight group, with Dreelig shambling along in front. “Sky blue, check,” he noted. “Water?”

“Also blue, with some very nice-looking surf,” Todd described.

“Water blue, nice surf, check. Sand?”

“Oh, I dunno, kind of browny white.”

“That’s tan, you asshole. Sandy sand, check. Trees?”

“That’s hard.” The majority of the vegetation visible was various shades of red and yellow, but a few were blue with a green tinge. The net effect would have been a fall day in the Appalachians with occasional conifers if it weren’t for the shapes, which were mostly variants on the theme of “palm”.

“Trees multicolor, check. Grass?”

“Grass magenta, with yellow flowers.”

“Purple grass, check. It’s real,” Peters decided. “Of course it ain’t home.”

“No, but it’s pretty.” They stepped down off the wing and set off up a long curving walk made of yellow-tan blocks toward the large building on the bluff. Similar buildings were visible down the beach, not too close together. The air was soft and not too warm, the sun hot and yellow, the beach a long inviting curve. Three steps led up to an entry portico, and Todd stopped and looked around. “Paint the trees green, it’s just your basic tropical island paradise,” he defined it.

“Yeah. Y’know, this is gettin’ a little annoying,” Peters remarked as they pushed through a set of glass swinging doors.

Todd looked around the lobby at marble, wrought iron, and plants in pots. “I think I know what you mean. This damn place could be in Galveston.”

“Or Miami. Except for him.” The desk clerk was of one of the species represented by the statuettes in the “golf” game so long ago: the Monkeys. He was bulky and hairy, with a muzzle that protruded a little less than a chimp’s, but stood fully erect, with no hint of an apelike crouch. He spoke Grallt clearly, with a somewhat better vocabulary than Todd commanded, but with a distinct accent.

The room he assigned them was on the second floor. “Definitely the high rent district,” Todd diagnosed. The whole wall opposite the door was windows, with a view out to sea at a slight angle. An inviting curve of sandy beach led to the right, ending at a rocky headland crowned with red and yellow vegetation.

Peters smiled. “I reckon we can get used to it.” The room cost twelve ornh, almost four times what they’d paid on previous liberties. Neither of them considered that relevant; their previous decision, to enjoy it while they had it, still stood.

They inspected the room, finding sundry accoutrements of the “high-rent district”. Neither of them had ever spent any time in such luxury, but in the end it was just a place to sleep, and the beach looked inviting. They dumped their bags, decided to stay in kathir suits for a little longer, and headed back for the elevator.

* * *

«Beer,» said Todd. «Two.»

The bartender was a bullet-headed individual of the same species as the desk clerk. He looked the two sailors over, seemed to approve what he saw, and drew two into short heavy glasses. The tap could have been from Pittsburgh, except for the design on the handle. «Require two ornh, please.» His diction and vocabulary weren’t as good as the desk clerk’s.

Todd handed over a bill. Change came, a four and a two; he tossed the two back, and the bartender took it and smiled, displaying a mouthful of strong, slightly yellow teeth.

“Big tipper,” said Peters. He took a sip of the beer, looked at the glass, took a long pull. “That’s better’n the last place.”

“So’s the whole place,” Todd observed, and took his first sip. “Shit, you’re right, this is good. It even looks all right.”

“Maybe we ought to see about importin’ it.”

Todd snorted. “En-tre-pree-noor-ship in action. How the hell would we ship it home? Just drink it, and leave it here.”

The oblique reference to the old joke tickled Peters’s funnybone; he choked, leaving a trail down his shirt front. “Damn you,” he said when he recovered.

“Relax,” Todd advised. “Enjoy the scenery.”

The bar was open on all four sides, with a roof of thatched palm fronds held up by peeled poles. A squared-off ring of polished wood, with a flap for the bartender to enter and leave, supported a contraption that turned out to be the cash register. The stools were made of chrome tubing, with seats covered in red plastic. Around it on the sand were circular white tables, each with a brightly-colored umbrella sticking up through a hole in the middle and three or four chairs with chrome tubing frames and cloth seats. The two sailors sat and sipped. They had decisions to make, and soon, but this was liberty, not serious discussion time.

“Wonder why nobody’s swimming.”

“I reckon the locals know best. If there are any locals,” Peters observed. There didn’t seem to be much of a common denominator among the fifty or so individuals of perhaps ten or eleven different species strolling along the beach, sitting at the bar, or lounging in beach chairs. “Ask the beerkeep.”

The bartender didn’t know the word Todd was trying to use; they were reduced to sign language. He looked alarmed. «Ke, ke. Snikk.»

Ke was Trade: no. They shouldn’t swim. «What snikk?» Todd asked.

«Snikk,» said the bartender urgently. «Ke spiss. Snikk.» He waved one hand in a sinuous motion, fingers and thumb opening and closing, finally grabbing Todd’s bare arm with his fingernails. «Snikk.»

“Ouch.” Todd yanked his arm back. “I’ll snikk you.”

“Shark,” said Peters. “Somethin’ like a shark.”

“Yeah, must be.” He rubbed his arm. “And we learned a word in the local language. Spiss. Swim.”

“Wonder if it’s really the local language.” Trade seemed to be pretty universal, at least on the planets they’d visited.

“I wonder if they have a pool.” Todd was from the Texas Gulf Coast, and swam like a fish. “I haven’t been swimming since Zenth.”

“Maybe a pool at the main building.” Peters was from West Virginia. He knew how to swim because the Navy had taught him.

“Maybe. Hey, there’s Jacks and Se’en. Second dli must be down,” Todd observed. A mixed group, mostly humans with one or two Grallt mixed in, was fanning out across the beach from the hotel walkway. Most seemed to be off down the beach, but some of them spotted the bar and headed toward it.

“Hi guys,” said one of the newcomers.

“Well, hey yourself, Jacks.” Todd waved his glass. “Get yourself some of this, it’s good. Hello, Se’en, you’re looking good today.”

“Thanks,” she said. “Trust youse guys to find the bar, eh? Can you get me a beer, too?”

“Yeah, no problem.” Peters waved at the bartender. «Four of the same, please. We will move to that table over there,» pointing.

The bartender nodded. «I bring.»

«Thank you.»

Todd adjusted the umbrella for more effective shade before sitting down. “Good service,” he observed. “Now you know why I tip so big.”

“We can afford it,” Peters observed.

“Keep it down,” said Todd, glancing at the other two.

“Sorry, you’re right.” He changed the subject: “Se’en looks a little nervous.” Jacks and Se’en were settling themselves, Jacks being solicitous.

“Yeah. Wonder why.”

“Let’s ask.” Peters shifted to Grallt. «Se’en, you seem uncomfortable. Is something wrong? Can we help?»

She shook her head vigorously. «No, no, it’s good. It’s only that this is unusual for me.»

“What’s that about?” Jacks asked with a touch of belligerence.

Peters shook his head. Over a year now, and Jacks still couldn’t say “yes” or “no” in Grallt. “I asked why she looked a little peaked.”

“This is her first time off the ship,” said Jacks.

“First time? Ever?” Peters was surprised but not dumfounded. Very few of the Grallt seemed to visit the planets they traded with.

The bartender brought the drinks. Peters tipped him a two as Todd had; he took the money, smiled his somewhat alarming smile, and went back to the bar. “Yeah, dis is my foist planet surface,” said Seen when he’d left. “It ain’t nohmal for us to leave de ship.”

“That’d be hard for us,” said Todd. “We feel trapped sometimes. Part of the contract was that we should be able to leave occasionally.”

“Yeah. Some of the others’ve been down, some of the other goils. Dey said it was real nice, so I thought I’d try it. It’s nice, but–” she waved an arm, indicating the sea and sky, “–so big.”

They discussed the subject for a while, learning the Grallt word for “agoraphobia” and finishing their beers in the process. Jacks and Se’en expressed an interest in looking around and took themselves off, and Todd and Peters ordered another and relaxed. The bartender didn’t look happy this time. «Much disu in, understand?» he said as he set the glasses on the table. «Sleep water.»

“Alcohol,” said Peters, holding his glass up to the light. “Come to think of it, I am gettin’ pretty relaxed.”

Todd grinned. “Yeah. I could do with some relaxation.” He looked up and said in Grallt, «Thank you for warning. Good beer. We be careful.»

«Yes, careful,» he said. His smile didn’t look so alarming this time for some reason. «I Denef. You got trouble, ask me.»

«We do that,» said Todd. «Us Todd–» indicating himself «–and Peters. You carry us back to room we drink too much.»

«Sometimes happens,» the bartender agreed, and took himself back to the bar.

The sun was closer to the horizon when the human officers reappeared, still in their tight group but not looking quite so spiffy. They took seats at the tables and bar, and Todd and Peters got a fair number of dirty looks, which bothered them not at all. By this time they were quite relaxed, and it would have taken a great deal to bother them.

“Neighborhood’s goin’ downhill,” Peters observed.

“Yeah.” Todd was slumped down on his spine, resting his head against the back of his chair. “Le’s get ouda here. We oughda look around some.”

“Yeah, I reckon.” Peters pulled himself erect and out of the chair, helped Todd do the same. He remembered his manners enough to speak to the bartender. «Pleasant greetings, Denef. We will leave now.»

«Pleasant greetings, Peters. Careful.»

«We will be careful.» Peters looked at Todd, who was weaving a little, then around at all the white uniforms, and reached into his pocket. «These are our species, and I will buy them all a beer.» He groped through his money, coming up with a “square,” a perfect blue-and-white checkerboard worth sixty-four ornh. «That should be enough.»

Denef counted the house, jerked his head up and down. «Enough. Three and two eights of ornh change.»

«Keep it. Come on, Todd, let’s go.» They set off along the beach, supporting one another.

The waves made wave sounds, the beach smelled like a beach, and the sun shone. If it hadn’t been for the red and yellow trees along the backshore they could have been somewhere around Mayport. “God damn space,” Todd complained. “Oughta be bug-eyed monsters ‘n all that. Lookit this.” He picked up a handful of sand. “Fuckin’ sand. Ten zillion light-years from home, and I’m walking through fuckin’ sand.” He threw the handful as hard as he could. It pattered on the surface of the water, making little rings around the occasional pebble. “God damnit, I volunteered ’cause I thought it’d be exotic, y’know? Monsters. Villains. Suns all different colors. All kinds of shit. Romance. What’d I get? Fuckin’ aircraft carrier. Gettin’ drunk on liberty. Fuckin’ outer space.”

<<< Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty-One >>>

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