“So how does it work?” Peters demanded. They were in a big room that his direction sense told him was near the center of the flat stern of the spaceship, with one wall that was almost all windows.

“I have never thought to ask,” Dreelig admitted. “It is enough that it works.” He took a pair of gloves out from under his belt and pulled them on.

“Shit,” Peters commented. Where the Hell was five hours worth of air stored in the suit? There was nothing like tanks or hoses anywhere on it, just the rubbery fabric, the wide belt, and the gaudy buckle.

“Where’s the helmet?” Todd wanted to know. “Maybe this is okay for the body, but I’m used to breathing.”

Kh kh kh. There is no helmet. It makes a bubble of air over the head.”

Todd and Peters looked at one another. “Like whatever it is that keeps the air in when the landing bay door is open?” Todd wanted to know.

“I suppose so,” said Dreelig. “Are you ready to test the kathir suit?”

Peters looked at Todd, who nodded solemnly. The implications of the word “test” in this context were a little disturbing. “Yeah, let ‘er rip.”

Dreelig pulled a handle. Windows swung outward, and there was a godawful roar and a blast of wind that almost pushed them off their feet. The roaring died away quickly, and the air blast diminished to a breeze; when Peters got his balance back nothing felt different, except that it was awful quiet all of a sudden. “What’s happening?” he asked the room in general.

No response. Todd was mouthing words, or at least his mouth was moving, but nothing was audible.

Dreelig walked over and leaned toward him. “There is no air,” he said. “You cannot hear or speak to your friend, because sound needs air to work.”

“I know that, dammit.” He did, too, he just hadn’t thought of it yet. But… “How are you talkin’ to me?”

“When I come close enough, the bubble on your kathir suit merges with mine,” Dreelig explained. “Then we both have air, and we can talk.”

“Well, shit.” Peters leaned back and walked around the room. Todd was doing the same; they met near the window, and Peters leaned toward Todd as Dreelig had done. “Can you hear me?”

“Yeah, no problem.” Todd gestured. “The head bubbles come together, right? That’s how we can talk when there’s no air?”

“Smart guy. Yeah, that’s what Dreelig says.” Peters felt around his head. “I can’t feel nothin’. You?”

“Nah. Been trying. There’s just nothing there.”

The bubbles merged when their heads were about twenty centimeters apart, but didn’t separate until they were farther away than that, thirty or so. Peters started to take his gloves off, to feel it bare-handed, but Dreelig caught his arm. “There is no bubble for the hands,” the Grallt explained when he was close enough. “Only for the head.”

“No radios?” Peters wanted to know.

“Radios? Oh, communicators. No, the kathir suit doesn’t have a communications device,” Dreelig said; the three of them stood with their heads together, backs slightly bent like a football huddle.

“Something else for the list,” Todd said.

“Shit yes,” said Peters. “The earbugs we use on deck would be enough.”

The two sailors walked around, handling things and checking their freedom of movement. After a few minutes of that Dreelig threw the lever the other way. The windows swung closed and there was a blast of air, not as strong as when they’d opened. “What next?” Peters wanted to know when the roar had tapered off.

“Next is no gravity. That takes longer.” The Grallt went to a panel by the door, grasped a large wheel with both hands, and began turning it slowly to the right.

Gell had given them a taste of low gravity on the dli, but they’d been sitting down, and there had been distractions. This time lightheadedness built up, and up, and up, it had to stop, there had to be a sudden stop at the bottom —

Except there wasn’t. Peters looked at Todd, figuring he was probably about that shade of green himself; when he looked back, his legs had flexed and pushed off, and he was already half a meter off the floor and still —

Falling.

His stomach began warning him that it was about to empty, but Dreelig was turning the wheel the other way. Peters drifted back to the floor, but had achieved a slight angle and his knees weren’t working all that well, so he ended up in an ungainly sprawl. It didn’t hurt. The sensation was exactly like landing in something really soft that got hard while he lay there. Todd did a little better, landing on his knees.

They got to their feet, more than a little shaky. Maybe it was Peters’s imagination that labeled the Grallt’s expression ‘disgust.’ “We will wait a few moments for your stomachs to settle,” Dreelig announced. “Then we will try it again.”

“I don’t know if I’m ever gonna get used to it,” Peters warned.

Dreelig shrugged. “Some people never do,” he admitted. “But you should try. There are many things you will not be able to do if you cannot bear thukrellith. You will not be allowed to learn to pilot a dli, for instance.”

“Maybe it’ll be better now that we know what to expect,” Todd suggested.

It did get better. By the end of the session the sailors were able to tolerate no gravity for several minutes. Neither lost his lunch; both regarded that as a real triumph. “Enough,” Dreelig finally announced. “You should return to your quarters and rest until next mealtime.”

“Sounds good.” Peters picked at the rubbery fabric. “Should we wear the kathir suit?”

“Yes, wear them back to your quarters,” Dreelig said. “Dee will come to escort you to the next meal. You can stop by the suit office, and they will color the kathir suits for you. After your suits are colored, Dee will show you the rooms your officers will be using, and you can begin preparing them for that use.”

“Get to work, in other words,” Peters observed.

“Yes,” Dreelig said, sounding amused. “Can you make your way from here back to your rooms?”

“I reckon you’d better show us the way, at least as far as the elevator,” Peters said. “We’re new here, remember?”

“Yes.” Dreelig took himself off up the corridor, pausing for them to catch up, and Peters and Todd followed. The Grallt led them to the elevator; that took them back to the operations bay, and from there it was easy.

They were halfway across the bay when there was an actinic flash, like lightning, and a booming bang of metal on metal that echoed in the huge space and vibrated the deck enough to feel through the feet of the suits. They both went white and froze in place for a moment, then headed by mutual agreement for the door that led to their quarters, Peters setting a pace that wasn’t quite a dead run. Another flash was accompanied by a loud thunk and a buzz that rose to a howl. By that time they had reached the hatch and were holding on to one of the vertical beams, peering out from behind the flange. “What the fuck?” Todd wanted to know.

“I think it’s comin’ from the bay door,” Peters suggested. Another heavy thunk wiped out his last word, the howl dropped a bit in pitch, and there was a loud squeal, followed by a clank. A crack appeared in the middle of the bay door; the squeal and clank were repeated, not quite in a regular rhythm, accompanied by squeaks, screeches, and a grinding noise. The two halves of the door moved slowly apart, with a noticeable jerk every few meters.

The evolution took about a minute, ending with the doors parallel to the walls, where the leading edges hit a set of bump-stops with crashes much like the ones that had begun the process. Another thunk and arc, and the howl spooled down to a buzz and silence. That seemed to end it; the panels were motionless and there wasn’t any more noise. “Shit,” Peters commented. “Ain’t they ever heard of grease?”

“Welders and a machine shop,” said Todd.

“What’re you talkin’ about?”

“Welders and a machine shop,” Todd explained patiently. “They go on the list, shit we gotta bring along, you know? Like pillows and little radios.”

Peters looked around. “You reckon they’re gonna let us start rebuildin’ their spaceship? Shit, ain’t no human bein’ ever built a spaceship. Reckon they might ask about experience an’ qualifications?”

“They might,” said Todd. “But God-damn it, this thing looks like it was put together by Russians from a bad set of plans and kept up by –s.” The word he used would have got him tossed in the brig. “Lazy –s. They get a bunch of us up here and tell us we can’t do a little maintenance, we’re likely to find out what a Grallt looks like with a fifty-amp wire welder running out a slit in his trousers like Mickey’s tail.”

“Chill, Todd, let’s get up to our quarters, OK?”

“Yeah.” Todd turned to grasp the latch handle, ran his hand over the coaming around the door. “Look at this shit. I was doing better welding in junior high shop. Qualifications!”

* * *

Peters hadn’t expected to fall asleep, so Dee’s knock came as a disorienting surprise. When he answered the door she jumped back with a little eek, and he swung the panel shut. At least he’d put on his skivvies after skinning out of the kathir suit. When he opened the door again after hastily pulling on dungaree pants and a T-shirt she was leaning, arms folded, against the wall of the passageway. “Sorry,” he said. “I was asleep.”

“Yes.” She stood erect. “Are you ready?”

Peters shook his head. “I got to finish dressin’. I’ll go roust Todd out, he’s like to startle you like I did.”

Dee performed her narrow-shouldered shrug. “I will wait. Please do not take too long.”

“I’ll hurry.” He closed the door, then went through the head and banged on the door to Todd’s room. “Look alive in there,” he called out. “Our guide’s here.”

“Right,” said the other sailor’s muffled voice. Peters laced his boondockers and got into a shirt.

Dee was still waiting. “Todd’ll be a minute,” Peters advised her, and it wasn’t much more than that before the younger sailor emerged with his kathir suit over his shoulder.

“Ain’t we supposed to wear the suits all the time?” Peters asked as they crossed the bay.

Dee shrugged again. “It is your decision,” she said. “I don’t wear mine very often.” She forestalled any comment on that by making a production out of entering and operating the elevator, then officiously directing them to the suit office.

The technician made sure he knew which suit went with which uniform, then said something to Dee. “He has finished making the designs,” she told the sailors. “The suits will be ready after the meal. We should go; we don’t need any further delays.”

“That looks like a pair of scissors,” Todd noted as they went by one of the etched-glass doors. “Is it a place to get a haircut?”

Dee glanced at the design. “A hair cut? Oh, you mean head-hair trimming. No, that is a place where clothing is modified to fit better. Most of the shops in this area have something to do with clothing, like the kathir suit fitting place. Personal services, like hair trimming, are on the next level up.”

“Shops?” Todd lifted his eyebrows.

“Certainly. This part of the ship is devoted to shops of one sort or another.” They negotiated a stairway; as they emerged Dee continued, “This level is almost all food vendors, either prepared food or things that families can prepare in their quarters. Here is our food hall, for instance.” She gestured at the archway. “We should eat quickly and get back to the suit office. We have many things to do in the remainder of this llor.”

* * *

When the attendant brought the suits out they were just the right shade, crows exact in every detail. The only jarring element was the belt and buckle. The belt was the same color as the rest of it, which made the gaudy buckle stand out even more.  They remained skin-tight, and there was no tar flap down the back; the sailors decided they wouldn’t miss that.

They dressed, feeling less self-conscious than before. Dee made no comment when they came out, simply gestured and led them down the corridor to the elevator, then across the bay to an area well forward of the section where their quarters were.

“There are six residential sections in this area,” Dee explained as she worked the latch. “This is number three. Yours is number five.” The entrance was a pressure hatch instead of a simple door. Dee didn’t say anything about that, just gestured them in to look around.

The main deck was primarily storage, but had a couple of small compartments that would work as squadron duty offices, a large head with showers and lockers that would accept a poopy suit, and a big room with variable lighting. “Ready room,” Peters said with a nod. “You’ll need chairs, comfortable ones, one for each officer, and a podium.”

“Ready room?”

“Before each mission, all the officers get together to prepare, and one person explains what they’re gonna do,” Todd explained.

“Ah. Like a school.” Dee thought for a moment. “Chairs with tables?”

“No,” said Peters. “Big comfortable chairs with arms, kind of like the seats on the shuttle, the dli.”

“And a place for the teacher to stand,” said Dee with growing understanding. “Yes, that’s clear.”

The O-1 level or “second floor” was offices, more than enough for sickbay and other needs, a messroom with big windows, kitchen facilities, and another big room. “Lounge,” Todd pronounced it. “You folks have liquor?”

“I don’t know that word,” Dee admitted.

“Alcohol for drinking,” Todd explained.

“Yes, we have many varieties,” said Dee. “A little is produced aboard ship, and the rest we trade for.”

Todd and Peters shared a look. “How is it dispensed?” Todd asked.

Dee shrugged. “There are places set aside for that purpose around the ship. Those who use–ah, ‘liquor’ you said?–they go to those places.”

“Commander Bolton is gonna be pissed,” Peters predicted.

“Yeah, but he’ll come around,” said Todd. “Dee, have this room designated as a place where liquor is available, and provide the stuff to store it and pass it out. We’ll write out a special sign for the door.”

“Special sign? I don’t understand.”

“Yeah,” said Peters. “A real special sign. ‘Officer’s Club.'”

Sleeping quarters were on the O-2, the second level above the ops bay, and the level above, the O-3. Each deck had twenty-four standard rooms and one larger compartment, all on the outboard side of the passageway; hatches on the inboard side led to balconies looking out over the bay. Sleeping rooms were much like their own but bigger and more luxurious, set up for single occupancy with individual toilet facilities.  The larger rooms had free-standing beds rather than built-in bunks and furniture rather than lockers for storage.

“This don’t look like much space,” Peters noted. “How many officers’re you expectin’?”

“It will be enough,” Dee decreed. “There will be two groups, one of one and three, twenty-five, males, and one of four and two, twenty, females. They have specified that each group will have its own section, so there will be vacant rooms in the section occupied by females.”

The sailors shared a look. “Don’t seem like many people,” Peters observed cautiously.

Ssth. It is more than enough.”

“You don’t sound enthusiastic,” Todd suggested.

“I’m not. Dreelig is, but he is only trying to salvage something from a hopeless situation to preserve his status.”

“Face saving,” Todd put in.

“Yes, that idiom translates well.” Dee’s face contorted, the lips of her facial cleft coming together; Peters decided it was the equivalent of wrinkling the nose at a bad smell. “It’s useless,” the Grallt went on. “‘Demonstrating Earth technology in the hope of finding markets,'” she singsonged, clearly a quote. “What technology will they demonstrate? The machines had to be fitted with new engines to operate in space, and everyone is familiar with those. We should have gone on to where there is profit to be made. Instead we have wasted half an uzul idling in orbit, for no good result that I can foresee.”

“Maybe somethin’ll come of it,” Peters offered, placating.

“The future always exists.” Dee shook herself, and her face smoothed out. “We were discussing numbers. The original proposal was for three sixty-fours of officers, but when we inquired more closely it became obvious that only one out of four of that number were machine operators, with the rest being spies and negotiators.” The last word was a spit. “We rejected that outright. In the end it was decided that the male group would bring eight machines, each with two operators, and alternates for the primary operators only, for a total of three eights. The females will bring a twohands of machines, ten, each with a single operator and an alternate, giving four and two, twenty, as I said.”

“An’ the other male?” Peters had been counting.

“The humans, your people, insisted on a medical technician. After thought we agreed. That exactly fills the floor set aside for males, and leaves space in the females’ section.”

“And not a diplomat in the group.” Todd’s observation was whimsical.

“Not if we can avoid it,” Dee said with force. “We have had it to the ears with diplomats.”

“Is that something you ordinarily say?” Peters asked after a pause. “‘Had it to the ears,’ I mean.”

“Yes, it is a normal idiom with us.”

“Then you can write that’un down as another idiom that translates well,” Peters said, keeping his voice light. “Except we generally say ‘had it to here,’ with a gesture.” He held his hand up horizontally at nose level.

“We use that variant as well.” Dee’s face contorted again; Peters decided this one was a smile, though a weak one. “Shall we continue the tour?” she asked.

“Lead on,” Peters agreed.

“I predict a good deal of metal polishing in the future,” said Todd as they turned on the O-3 landing.

“Cleaning has not been done yet,” Dee commented. “We didn’t want to expend the effort if the rooms were not suitable.”

“Sailors’ll be cleanin’ and polishin’ stuff all the time anyway,” said Peters. “It’s part of our tradition, you might say.”

There were two more levels above the officers’ sleeping quarters. Todd looked up at the overhead. “Five levels above the operations bay. Three meters a level, more or less, you think?”

“About that,” said Peters. “Call it twenty meters.”

Todd waved. “This morning when we landed we figured the ship was eighty meters high. Here’s a quarter of it. Where did the rest go? Dee?”

The Grallt cocked her head to one side, looking up. “I have never heard of anyone going to the area above here, so I assume it is empty. Llapaaloapalla is very large, and this side is not used much. We don’t have enough people to need it.”

“How many of you folks are there, anyway?”

“There are about one and a half sixty-fours of sixty-fours of people on the ship. Can you convert that to your numbers?”

Peters worked it through. “Six thousand, more or less,” he concluded. “That ain’t all that many, really, in somethin’ this size.”

“Yes. The ship is the same on both sides, except reversed–” Dee floundered for a phrase.

“Mirror image,” Todd supplied.

“Yes, thank you. The ship is the same on both sides, except that it is a mirror image. The other bay is used for storage of trade goods, and most people live in the sections alongside it, or in the center. Much of this side is not used, as I said. That is part of the reason your quarters are here.”

“Makes sense,” Peters observed.

“Have you seen everything you need to see?” Dee asked. “It is time for the next meal, and then the llor will be over. I am hungry and tired.”

“I was beginnin’ to think we wasn’t goin’ to ever get to that point,” Peters said with a smile. “Lead on.”

They stopped outside the pressure doors and looked around. Sunlight flooded the after part of the bay, slanting upward at a small angle, picking out the intricacies of the overhead in sharp relief, and silhouetting Dee against the glare.

“You know,” Todd remarked in a low voice, indicating the Grallt, “She wouldn’t be bad with a sack over her head.”

“You may be interested to know that I feel much the same about you,” Dee said calmly, without turning around. There was a trace of amusement in her voice.

“No insult intended,” Todd said a bit desperately.

Ssth. That is not insulting. We of the kree often find one another attractive.”

“What’s a kree?”

“Most of us in this, ah, volume of space,” Dee said. When Todd just raised his eyebrows she continued, “We generally look much alike. The same number of limbs, the same general arrangement of the body, and similar chemistry. Details of appearance are often quite different, as you and I are, but there is similarity too.” She waved her hand around. “In this volume of space most races are of the kree.”

“Will most of the folks we meet on this trip be kree?” Peters asked.

“All of them, or so I understand. I do not know all the plans.”

“What about you?” Todd asked. “Do you find the others of the kree attractive?”

“No, I am quite conservative,” said Dee. “Not all of my friends are so. If you wish a companion, you should ask. If someone doesn’t care for it, she will simply say no. Some may ask you. You should respond the same way.”

“We’ll probably wait until we know more before we ask anyone,” Todd said after a pause.

“That is a sensible policy.”

* * *

“So what’s next?” Todd wanted to know when they’d finished eating.

“‘Next’ is whatever you like,” Dee said, still “amused.” “The work for this llor is finished. Someone, I think Dreelig, will meet you in your quarters at the first ande.”

“When’s that?” Peters asked.

“Ah. You do not know our time system. Here. You may borrow this.” She pulled the watch off her wrist and handed it to Peters. “When the larger pointer is here–” she pointed “–then it is the beginning of the first watch.” She stood, clearly ready to be done with sailors for a while. “Can you find your way back to your quarters?”

“I reckon it ain’t that hard,” Peters told her.

“That is good. I will see you sometime tomorrow.”

They waited until they got back to their quarters to examine the watch more closely. Peters was a little puzzled when he thought he heard a noise. Sure enough, when he held it to his ear it made a rhythmic sound, like some kind of tiny, delicate machinery.

There were two scales: an outer one with six marks, and an inner with eight big marks, each interval broken into eight smaller ones. Three needles turned at graduated rates in the direction they thought of as “left-handed.” One small mark of the inner scale seemed to be worth about half a second, so a full turn of the smallest needle would be a little over half an hour.

If the ratio was one big mark per turn of the next needle in, the next division was five hours or so, and a revolution of the biggest needle took thirty hours. “Long day,” Peters observed.

Todd was fiddling around by the window. “It’s been a long day for me, too, but I gather that’s not what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, well, it looks like the big needle goes around in about thirty hours.”

“That’s pretty long, all right.” Todd was still fiddling with the window frame. “Come here, I think I figured something out.”

“Hey, don’t fuck with that, you might–” The mechanism snicked and the window swung open around a point about a quarter of the way from the left, so the biggest part swung into the room. “Break something. Oh, shit.”

There wasn’t even a breeze. Peters dropped the watch on the bunk, grabbed the frame, and pushed gently; the window rotated back into place, seating with an authoritative click. “Wal, ah reckon they gotta worsh th’ windas sometimes,” he said mildly. “Todd, I’d take it right kindly if you didn’ do no more of that shit. Ain’t neither one of us too young t’ have a heart attack. If you don’ know what it does, don’ fuck with it.”

Todd hunched his shoulders, shivering. “Haah. This place slips up on you, you know? One minute it’s swabbing the deck like back on the carrier, next thing you know it’s outer fucking space.”

“Yeah.” Peters stared for a moment, then shook his head. “All right, I’m gonna time this watch out a little more and set the alarm for what, an hour before we’re supposed to meet somebody?”

“Fine by me. Uh, just out of curiosity, what time is it now? Back home, I mean.”

Peters flipped his handheld open. “2047. Day’s over with, almost.”

“No chow till morning.”

Peters considered. “They probably have midrats at the next big mark, if you want. Once I get in the rack I probably won’t need anything else.”

“You say it.”

“Yeah. Catch you later.”

“Later.” Todd headed for the toilet and his own room. Alone, Peters looked around. First order of business: make the bunk. He did that, then programmed the handheld for a wakeup at his best guess of the right time.

He was asleep before he realized it. If he dreamed he didn’t remember them.

<<< Chapter Two           Chapter Four >>>

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