The other two Chiefs filed out. Joshua went to the window and stood looking out for a long moment, hands clasped in the small of his back. When he heard the latch go home he said without looking around, “Peters, you got any reason I shouldn’t put you on report for disrespect?”

“No, Master Chief,” said Peters, making it as toneless as he could.

Joshua didn’t respond for a moment. “I think I hear you saying that if I do, you’ll ask for mast on it.” There was a long silence. “Am I right, sailor?”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

Again there was a silent pause. Peters stood at ease, head up, hands clasped in the small of his back, feet apart; the Navy called it “parade rest,” not quite as formal as a full brace. Slowly some of the tension went out of Chief Joshua’s shoulders, but he didn’t turn around. “What’s your current status, Peters?”

“TAD to Grallt Ship Llapaaloapalla, Master Chief.”

“And you haven’t reported for duty to me yet, have you?”

“No, Master Chief.”

“Then you aren’t in my chain of command yet, and I can’t put you on report anyway,” Chief Joshua observed, not altogether accurately. It was enough to take the edge off the situation. “You reporting for duty, sailor?”

“Not yet, Master Chief.”

“When?” It was a spit.

“First ande, Master Chief.”

“And after that, we’ll have twenty hours of duty ahead of us, is that right?”

“It ain’t that bad, Master Chief,” Peters assured him. “They know all about changin’ time schedules, and the first thing’s gettin’ you all fitted for kathir suits. There’ll be plenty of slack for rest if anybody needs it.”

“When are the meals available?”

“Generally about an utle before the watch change. First meal’s usually ready a little earlier, say an utle and a half, call it an hour.”

“So if we’re ready seven hours from now, no problem.”

“That’s right, Chief. It won’t hurt to run a little over.”

“So you recommend that we take it easy, get squared away here, and be raring to go when the workday starts.”

Peters relaxed a little. “That’s what I’d say, Chief,” he said, again striving to keep his voice even. He paused, avoiding direct eye contact. “As for advice …”

“Spit it out, dammit.”

“You might want to think real hard about puttin’ a squid with a popgun by the door, Master Chief. I been here eleven llor, near enough two weeks, and I ain’t seen a sentry yet. They don’t even guard the engines. Might make a wrong impression.” This was delivered in as evenly noncommittal a tone as he could manage.

“I’ll think about it.” Joshua turned away, looked out the window, neck and shoulders tense again.

Peters shrugged. “Your call, Master Chief.”

“Don’t I just know it.” Joshua took his hat off and rubbed his forehead again. “All right, Peters, that’s it, you’re dismissed. And by the way ….” he met Peters’ eyes again. “Thanks. I’ve been a little short, chalk it up to stress.”

“Can’t say as I noticed, Master Chief,” Peters lied, but it was the right thing to say. “Been tough on everybody, and I reckon it’s likely to get worse.”

“Yeah. Well, go on, go back to your quarters. If you see Warnocki outside, ask him to see me.” He paused. “And if you don’t mind, go tell Lawson to strike the watch and turn in his sidearm. I think you’re probably right about sentries.”

“Aye, Master Chief.” Peters stiffened a moment, nodded, and turned to go out. He was half expecting a parting shot or question, but Joshua just watched him leave, hat still in his hand. Warnocki and Spearman were waiting in the corridor. “Chief Joshua’s compliments, and could you join him in his quarters?” Peters told Warnocki. “There’s things you need to discuss.”

“Thanks, Peters,” Warnocki said, looking a little aside at Chief Spearman, a brief movement of the eyeballs that maybe only Peters saw. He started toward Joshua’s door, closely followed by the other Chief, who gave Peters a trouble-promising look as he passed. Peters just shook his head and headed toward the ladder. Lawson needed to know he didn’t have to simulate a jarhead any more.

Back in his compartment after taking care of that chore, he shut the door with a click and a feeling of relief. He slung his hat on the desk and sat down on the bunk to begin pulling his trousers off, and the events of the day caught up with him all at once, like water through a broken dam. The next thing he knew the ship had rotated so that the sun came through the window, he was still fully dressed, and Dee’s watch told him it was a little before the sixth ande. It only took a minute or so to strip off uniform and kathir suit and climb into the bunk. The next time he woke up it was time to roll out and begin the day.

* * *

Promptly at the beginning of the first ande Peters was tapping on Chief Joshua’s door. “Mornin’, Master Chief,” he said when the hatch swung back a bit. “Reportin’ for duty as ordered.”

Joshua had unpacked and stowed his gear, but looked rumpled, not the image a Chief likes to project. He took Peters’s ID block and inserted it into a portable, tapped the screen a few times, then keyed a short sequence. “Hmph.” The display changed, and again Joshua stroked a few spots, typed in a password, then entered a few keystrokes. “What’s this?” He paged through a couple of screens, working his way down the links. “Hmph,” he said again, pulling Peters’s ID out and laying it on the table. “Todd, let’s have yours.” The Chief repeated his search, entering passwords and code sequences here and there. “We have a problem,” he announced, looking up at the sailors.

“What sort of problem, Chief?” Peters asked warily.

“You two aren’t on my TO,” said Joshua. “You ever looked at your orders?”

Peters shrugged. “Report-for-temporary-duty,” he said. He exchanged a glance with Todd. “Went by pretty fast there at first.”

Joshua grunted. “Yeah, it must have. Who cut these orders?” He tapped the screen.

“BUPERS, regular form.”

“You wouldn’t by any chance have a personal friend in Ohio, would you?” Joshua was bent over the display, looking up at Peters out of the corner of his eye.

Peters shrugged again, looked at the wall past Joshua’s head. “I know a couple people. You know how it is.”

“I know how it is.” He pulled Todd’s ID out of the slot and handed it back. “These orders are to report to commanding officer, Llapaaloapalla, for duties as assigned until released by that authority. You two are not members of U.S. Navy Space Detachment One, and I don’t know what to do with you.”

Peters’s expression was bemused. “Well, I be damned.”

Todd spoke up for the first time. “I guess that means we’re ship’s company,” he remarked.

“I don’t know what you are,” said Chief Joshua forcefully. “And we can’t straighten it out right now. I’ll see what Commander Bolton wants to do about it when I get a chance.” The expression on his face said he wasn’t looking forward to the interview.

“You got an assignment for us, Master Chief?” Peters wanted to know.

Chief Joshua lowered his head, looked up through his eyebrows. “Well, Peters, I guess you ought to check up your chain of command for your duty assignment. It ain’t my problem.”

“Aye, Master Chief,” said Peters after a pause. “You got my handheld, Master Chief?”

“Right here.” Joshua patted a pocket. “Your personal property, is it?”

“No, Master Chief, I checked it out from NIS when I got this assignment.” Peters thought a moment, then paraphrased the boilerplate on the request chit: “That there Navy property is bein’ used in the performance of my duty as assigned, Master Chief.”

Joshua flushed slightly, drew the gadget out of his pocket by the lanyard, and laid it on the table. “You two are dismissed.”

“Aye, Master Chief,” they chorused. Peters grabbed the handheld, then worked the door latch and led Todd out into the corridor.

“So what do we do now?” Todd asked when the latch clicked.

“I reckon we better find Dreelig. Let’s check the chow hall.”

“I’m not exactly real hungry right now.”

Peters grimaced. “Me neither, but it’s the best place to look anyway.”

Most of the members of the detachment were assembled in irregular groups next to the EM quarters hatch. A group of four or five was following a Grallt, Dee by the blue-and-yellow outfit and hip swing, across the bay toward the elevator to the mess deck. Se’en was standing, arms folded, regarding the mob with obvious disfavor. «Pleasant greetings,» Peters said in Grallt. Then in English, “Where’s Dreelig? We need to talk.”

«Greetings,» said Se’en, without the arm-lift gesture. In English: “Busy. Be down, this cluster-fuck finish,” indicating the milling mob with a nod.

Peters grinned. “I see you’re learnin’ the language,” he observed.

She smiled slightly, a quick flash. “You finish talk Chief Joshua?”

“That’s what need talk to Dreelig about,” Todd explained.

“You wait,” she told them. “Dreelig soon.”

«We go eat,» Peters said in Grallt.

«Will go,» Se’en corrected.

«Eh? Ah. We will go eat,» Peters corrected himself. «Perhaps Dreelig will be there,» he added very carefully.

«Perhaps.» Se’en produced a real smile this time. «You are learning a language also,» she pronounced slowly and distinctly.

Peters flushed. “Yeah, thanks. See you later.”

Dee was in the chow hall, circulating among the tables, exhorting dalliers to finish and clear out; she flashed a grin as Peters and Todd came in, but kept to her job. There was a good bit of low-voiced comment, none of it addressed to them, as the two took a table by the wall near the door to the kitchens, separated by a couple of tables of Grallt from the nearest white hat. While they ate the two girls made several trips back and forth between the mess room and the deck, escorting groups of sailors.

When they were almost finished Dee flopped in a seat at their table, blowing out air in a huff of fatigue. “Ah, a chance to sit down,” she said. “Then I must go and guide the next half a square of sailors to their food.” The waiter appeared. «Just tea,» she told him in Grallt. «I have not much time.» Peters was gratified. He had understood the whole short conversation.

Todd took a sip of his own. “We need to talk to Dreelig, bad,” he told her. “We may have a problem.”

She frowned. “Dreelig is very busy consulting with our superiors,” she said. The waiter laid a cup in front of her and she took a sip before continuing, “After that we have another trip to Washington. Perhaps I can help.”

“I ain’t sure,” Peters admitted; he and Todd shared a look. “Maybe we have a problem, maybe not.” He sipped coffee, thinking. “Look, Dee, you know we have to go where our bosses send us, right? I mean, you understand about orders and that.”

“Somewhat,” said Dee. “I do not truly understand about orders, but I know that you have a strict, ah, order in your life. How is this a problem?”

“The problem is that our orders aren’t clear,” Todd said. Peters nodded. “We were ordered to come aboard the ship and help you,” Todd continued. “Our orders don’t say when we’re supposed to stop doing that, but Chief Joshua’s orders don’t say anything about us. If his orders don’t include us, he can’t put us in his organization in the normal way.” He spread his hands. “That leaves us under your orders, but if it just stays like that, the Navy’s likely to tell us to go back before you leave.”

“Would you prefer to go back?”

Peters snorted. “No.” Todd nodded wry agreement.

Dee looked from one sailor to the other. “This is not a matter I can resolve. You must talk with Dreelig, as you said. I will see him sometime this llor, and tell him you need him.”

“Good,” said Peters. “Meantime, it ain’t good for us to be at loose ends, somebody’s like to get the idea we ain’t needed no more.”

Dee frowned. “From what I do understand about orders, it is not my part to give them to you. By your standards, you are senior to me, and should give me orders. But I think that is not what you are asking.”

“Correct,” said Todd. “We need a way to look busy.”

“Ah. That is not an unusual requirement.” She smiled briefly. “Perhaps you could go to the suit fitting office. The first group of your people will be arriving soon, and you have a few words of the language. The stewards are busy, and we do not have enough translators.”

“That might work,” said Todd.

“I must go now.” Dee finished her tea and stood. “I must now bring the next group to eat. See you later.” She flashed another quick smile and bustled off. Todd watched with interest, then looked back to discover a sardonic grin on Peters’s face.

“She said she ain’t interested.”

“Yeah. She also said it isn’t offensive that I am.” Todd drained his own cup.

The receptionist at the suit fitting office gave her name as Tee. She spoke no English, and it took a few minutes of broken Grallt and hand waving to tell her why they were there. When she finally got it she hugged them both, called them “Peedas” and “Dodde,” and introduced them that way to the lead technician, whose name was Veedal, and his assistant Keer. The two techs were less effusive but seemed content to have them there, letting them prowl around the spaces and play carefully with the machines.

Sailors began arriving, and it was once more apparent that Dee was a smart lady; it was a good thing they were there. Tee wasn’t terribly bright, and Veedal and Keer had all they could do to run the machines. That left Peters and Todd to organize turns and keep names and IDs straight.

Peters himself was the source of one of the biggest tie-ups, stubbornly insisting that the kathir suits be colored to match undress blues, with proper crows and hash marks. Nobody’d passed the word that undress blue jumpers should be brought along, and the trip back to quarters to pick them up earned a black look from Se’en, who had pulled escort duty, and accounted for the first big delay.

Keer quickly discovered the common elements in the designs and even learned their names; by the time they’d run the first ten people through, he wasn’t bothering to scan crows except when a new rate showed up. They broke for second meal, and when they got back he’d figured out how to program the suit-design computer to assemble the proper elements. After that he would glance at a jumper, say “ETA First, four hash, good conduct” in a thick but understandable accent, wait for the nod, and punch buttons. From there the bottleneck was Veedal, who couldn’t scan in less than half an utle.

Todd didn’t do much but stand around until suits began popping out of the fabricator. He had to make a run back to the EM quarters to get people started back over for test-fitting, generating another delay when some of them couldn’t remember who’d been ahead or behind; he got Peters to start a log by name and fab-slip number, which should have been done at the beginning. “Hindsight is fabulous,” he muttered to himself. Showing people how to squirm into the things, and convincing a few squeamish ones that no, you didn’t wear your skivvies under it, kept him occupied after that.

The other problem was the buckles. The damn buttons were irresistible, and Todd and Peters both got tired of repeating that if they didn’t want to find themselves trying to breathe vacuum or walk around on the ceiling they’d better leave them alone. Some still fingered the controls when they thought nobody was looking, and all that could be done about that was to shake heads and hope for little disasters.

Break for third meal, stuff and run, and the same for fourth. In the middle of fourth ande a large rock appeared in the road in the shape of Lieutenant Commander John Madsen Steward, M.D. Peters didn’t know how he’d got there–perhaps there’d been a dli run he didn’t know about–but, as an officer, the doctor got put at the head of the line.

“How long will this process take?” he asked.

“Takes ten or fifteen minutes to get the measurin’ done, sir. Makin’ the suit–” Peters hesitated “–call it an hour after that before it comes out of the machine.”

“Get my people up here and get them fitted,” Steward ordered. “The infirmary needs to be up and running stat.”

“Sir, The Master Chief wanted medics done last,” Peters objected. “They’ll be workin’ inside where it’s safe not to wear the suit. Folks that’s been fitted can fetch and tote, and the stewards’ll bear a hand, sir.”

Steward’s face had been stony; he scowled and flushed. “It wasn’t a suggestion, sailor,” he snapped. “I am not having a gang of cuntfaces handling my gear, and ham-handed deck apes are no better. Medical personnel are to be fitted immediately, and that’s an order.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Peters said, the only response possible. «Need help,» he told Se’en.

“What do you need?” she replied in English, pronunciation perfect on the short speech, and looked straight at Steward, who turned even redder.

Peters made a point of not looking at the doctor. “Need to tell the folks who’re waitin’ that medical people should get up here soon’s possible. They’ll probably be in the compartment that’s gonna be used for sick bay, you remember where that is?”

“Sure. They can pass the word. I’ll get right on it.” She smiled.

Peters wondered what the officer thought of the facial expression. “Thanks, Se’en.”

“No problem.” With that she turned, blonde hair swinging, and left, her back straight.

“You can go on in now, sir,” Peters told the officer. “They’ll want you to take all your clothes off and stand on the platform. There’s a rack by the door, sir, but if you’ll hand your blouse to the other fella he can study it to get the sleeve rings right.”

Seward’s color began to recede. He nodded his head sharply and went through the door, pushing it to behind him with more force than needed.

Peters let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and scanned the room. One fresh-faced Second Class was grinning, and the other two sailors were studiously ignoring him. “I reckon Mr. Steward ain’t gonna be ‘Doc’ to his face much,” he commented, almost to himself, and the others chuckled.

When Steward came back out he wanted to ask questions, and Peters had neither the answers nor the skill in Grallt to ask the technicians. The doctor inspected a suit closely, forcing the sailor wearing it to stand on a chair, paying especially close attention to the insides of knees and elbows, the armpits, and the groin. Finally he grabbed the man’s arm and took a close look at his crow. “Can they produce arbitrary designs and colors?” he asked.

“I dunno about arbitrary, sir, but I ain’t seen nothin’ they can’t match yet,” Peters answered cautiously.

Steward nodded. “I want a distinctive marking for medical personnel,” he announced. “A red cross in a white circle, just here.” He pointed at the top of the right sleeve. “Any problem?”

“Not that I know of, sir.” Peters held out his hand, with forefinger and thumb forming an approximate circle ten centimeters in diameter. “‘Bout this big, sir?”

“That’ll be fine. See to it. How long do I have to wait for my suit to be ready?”

“‘Bout an hour, sir. There’s chairs over there, sir.”

Steward nodded again, jerkily, and went to sit, folding his arms and keeping his face immobile, not inviting conversation but watching the process with steady intensity. The group who had been waiting got fitted and left, more came to don their suits for the first time, and all the medics except Chief Gill came to be measured, all with little or no conversation once the officer’s attitude was noticed. Peters consulted with Keer, who already had the sleeve-rings right and needed little guidance to produce the medical roundel, and with Se’en’s assistance managed to make him understand that any enlisted suit with a caduceus in the crow needed the extra element. Todd, who had missed the byplay while helping a First Class ET get dressed, noted the watcher and ducked back into the dressing room to stay.

Finally Keer handed the right strip over, and Peters looked around. “Mr. Steward, your suit is ready, sir.”

The officer stood. “Finally. Where?”

Peters nodded toward the dressing room. “In there, sir. Petty Officer Todd will help you put the suit on the first time, sir.”

“I’ve been dressing myself for a long time, sailor.”

“Yes, sir, but this here’s a bit different, sir.”

Steward stared, coloring again. “Very well,” he snapped, and went into the dressing room, again closing the door with a bang. When he emerged, suited, Se’en had showed up with Chief Gill in tow. “Hello, Gill, I see you made Chief,” was his greeting. “Why didn’t you go first to get your monkey suit? Medical personnel have priority.”

Gill shrugged. “Men who were loading and unloading gear needed ’em worst, sir.”

The doctor made an irritated gesture. “And what if one of the men handling heavy gear got hurt?” He wiped off imaginary lint. “I don’t like this thing, it doesn’t give enough protection, and this sailor–” indicating Peters “–doesn’t know if it can be sterilized or not. I hope this doesn’t come out a disaster.”

“I hope not too, sir,” Gill agreed, “but the suit gives more protection than it seems to, sir. I’ve already seen a man get whipped by a loose line and come away with nothing but a bruise.”

Steward shifted his bundle of uniform items to a more comfortable position. “Where away is the infirmary, Chief? I need to get started.”

“Se’en will show you, sir.” The Grallt gave him a look; he was familiar enough with her to grin back. “Your personal gear’s already in your stateroom, sir, and the equipment and supplies are being unloaded. If you’d care to advise us, sir, we’ll see to getting all that stowed. For now we’ve been leaving it in the cartons.”

Steward looked from Gill to Peters and back, then glanced at Se’en, unable to look directly at her. “Very well, I’ll go provide adult supervision,” he said. “Lead on.” He again closed the door behind him with excessive force.

Peters sighed. “Let’s get this evolution back underway,” he suggested. “Chief, you want to go ahead? You probably need to get back over there.”

“Yes, I probably do. Dr. Steward, eh? What fun.”

Even with the delay, by the end of fourth ande they’d gotten three and seven eights of people through the measuring process and issued one and three eights of suits. Peters knew he was tired, and proved it by needing the handheld to convert that to fifty-nine and twenty-five, respectively. «Attention please,» he said, then shook his head and said in English: “All right, listen up. Quittin’ time. This evolution is knockin’ off for the day.” That generated grumbles, which he overrode: “We start again at first ande, which is about ten hours from now. Get some sleep, get your meal early and get up here.” More grumbles accompanied the general dispersal.

They’d anticipated a bit of leisure at fifth meal, but that proved optomistic. None of the Grallt who spoke English were present, and none of the new sailors knew the first word of Grallt; after the tenth or so request for aid in ordering dinner Peters pulled a waiter aside and asked to talk to the cook. «Make standard — make a standard meal ….» He paused, breathed, thought, and got out a correct sentence: «Make a standard meal for all persons,» he told the head cook, whose girth, scowl, and commanding presence were positively homey. «Later they learn, they will learn to speak, and you can return to normal, the normal system.» The cook just nodded and began bawling at minions. Some sailors were disappointed, but Peters and Todd were rewarded with enough peace to eat, give or take the overall chat level.

They met Dreelig in the corridor. “I understand that you need to speak with me,” the Grallt said. “Is it urgent?” He looked as bushed as they were.

“Yeah,” Peters growled. He slumped his shoulders and sighed. “But I ain’t in no shape to figger it out, and you don’t look much better. Hard day?”

Dreelig also slumped, leaning against the corridor wall as if grateful for the support. “A difficult day, yes. Your officers will be arriving to take up residence five llor from now, and I had to go Down to arrange the schedule. When I returned the doctor had arrived with all his equipment, and I had to–I believe your phrase is sort that out.” He shook his head. “What have you been doing?”

“Runnin’ sailors through suit fitting,” Peters told him.

“Ah. How is it going?”

“Now that we know how it’s done, we’ll get a square through per llor,” Todd told him. “So we’ll be done with issuing the suits in less than three more llor, then we can start practice and instruction. If you can break Dee or Se’en loose for that we could finish faster.”

“The idiom is fat chance,” said Dreelig tiredly. “They and I will probably have to take quarters in the officers’ section. The Commander has decreed that the officers will work a five-ande llor, because it is closer to your standard. The contract specifies very little contact between the officers and the normal work of the ship, but this seems like a foolish exaggeration.”

“Se’en won’t like that at all,” said Peters.

Dreelig sighed. “I think Se’en will not be back next llor. She was offered a post in the listening rooms, and I think she will take it and tell me to ….”

“Take a hike,” Todd suggested with a smile.

“Yes, I’ve heard that idiom.”

“Hm.” Peters thought a moment. “If you could meet us, say, two utle before first meal, we could talk about our problem.”

“Yes, I suppose I can do that,” Dreelig said.

“Where could we meet?”

“Here is probably best. They will be preparing for the meal, and perhaps we can have coffee while we speak.” Dreelig grinned. “It is amazing how quickly I have become accustomed to having coffee to begin the llor.”

“Ain’t you afraid it’ll make your nose grow?” The joke was out before Peters thought about it.

Dreelig only grinned wider. “Kh kh kh. No, I think not. Klisti hasn’t made yours fall off.” Peters fingered the relevant member; the three looked at one another. Perhaps it was only because they were tired that they burst out laughing. It wasn’t really that funny.

Enlisted quarters now had a sentry by each entryway, in undress blues and duty belts but without sidearms. Perhaps wisely, the one they passed didn’t challenge them. Peters only looked and growled; you just can’t change some people’s minds, but it wasn’t likely that would last long.

Todd got to the shower first, and Peters used the delay to program the handheld for a wakeup two utle early, being careful to save the old program. Then he worked out, and saved, the basics of a program for a five-ande llor. It would very likely save him some work later.

<<< Chapter Eleven Chapter Thirteen >>>