Howell was explaining the retarders for the nth time, and had reached the point of using little words. “No, sir, so far as any of us are aware the system has no effect whatever on motion from side to side, sir.”

“‘So far as any of you are aware’,” the officer mimicked. “All you’re telling me is that none of you really know how it works. It’s amazing nobody’s been killed.”

“Shit, all the asshole needs is one of those little whip things,” Peters observed aside to Kraewitz.

“Riding crop,” the other supplied, smiling thinly.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

Carson was wearing aviators’ greens, complete with brown shoes and a cap with a polished brown visor, with two full rings on the sleeves instead of the ring-and-a-half they’d thought he was entitled to. He walked up and down with long strides, flicking his hand against his hip in a nervous gesture. It was already clear that he was not, repeat not, going to accept the word of anybody present that the retarder crews couldn’t have prevented the crash. He kept coming back to the idea that the machines were capable of restraining the path of entering ships, and the sailors simply didn’t know how the system worked.

“What’s this?” Kraewitz asked, looking over his shoulder, and Peters turned to find Dhuvenig strolling up.

“Everybody salute!” Peters hissed, and snapped into a brace himself, forefinger at eyebrow. The other enlisted in the vicinity followed suit without much delay, and the Grallt stopped, raised his eyebrows, and lifted his left arm in the “greeting” gesture. Peters brought his hand down at that, and the others did, too, a little raggedly.

«Hello, Peters,» Dhuvenig said calmly. «I take it that was your respect gesture. Did I respond correctly?»

«Yes, you did,» Peters assured.

«So all of you are retarder operators? We don’t use such a large group for the function.»

«Yes, I know, but we are new and were not sure of the requirements,» Peters told him. «It seemed better to have too many than too few.»

«A sensible precaution.» Dhuvenig looked around. «You asked for an instructor. No one suitable was immediately available, so I decided to come myself.»

«Yes …»

“Sailor! You there! Front and center!” The lieutenant wasn’t pleased. “Bring your friend.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” «Please come with me. This man is my superior.»

«Certainly.»

Peters didn’t quite double-time over to Lieutenant Carson, with Dhuvenig following more calmly. “You called for me, sir?” he asked. He’d already saluted the son-of-a-bitch once today and wasn’t about to repeat it. Two could play at “strict rules”.

“What’s your name, sailor?”

“Peters, sir.” For about the fourth time.

“Peters, were you aware that this was an official exercise?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Were you aware that during official exercises you are not permitted to go skylarking off with your buddies?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You were.” That was stretched out in laconic superciliousness.

The pause extended itself. “Yes, sir,” Peters added.

“Very well … who’s the cuntface?”

“Engineering Officer, sir.”

Carson stopped for a moment, then bulled ahead: “And what rank does he hold?”

“Approximately Commander, sir.”

“Commander,” Carson repeated.

“Yes, sir.”

“Which conveniently outranks me by two grades, right, sailor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Speak the language, do you, sailor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. You tell your friend the commander to go back to the EM quarters and tell them your little joke didn’t work. Then get back to your post, and we will continue the exercise … Howell!”

“Yes, sir?”

“This man’s on report.” Carson looked back at Peters. “Move it, sailor!”

“Aye, sir.” Peters bobbed his head and took a step back. Carson flicked his hand against his hip and turned away, and that gave Peters a chance to turn and walk off.

Dhuvenig followed. «I take it from the tones of voice used that that didn’t go well,» he observed.

«Yes, that’s true,» Peters replied. «My superior didn’t believe me when I told him what post you hold.»

«What did you tell him?»

«I told him you were First for machinery and equipment.»

«That’s correct, of course. Where would that stand in your own social structure?»

«Such a person would occupy a position more or less equal to that of the Second, but would take slightly less precedence.»

«That’s very much the same way we see it. You say he didn’t believe you?»

«No, he did not. He imagines that you are one of my social acquaintances.»

Dhuvenig looked amused. «Let’s see if we can change his mind. Do the respect gesture, please.»

Peters saluted. Dhuvenig raised his arm, nodded, and took himself off. Peters shook his head and turned back, to discover every eye on him, including the choleric regard of Lieutenant Carson. “If we may continue,” the lieutenant drawled sarcastically.

Peters flushed. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

The next half-hour was long. Lieutenant Carson returned to his original theme, alternating between demanding further information about the retarders–none of which was available, even if it existed–and propounding his theory that the retarder crews could have redirected the Tomcat if they’d known what they were doing. Now that Peters had come to his attention he paid especial attention to him, despite having forgotten his name again, addressing him only with a sharp sarcastic bark of “sailor!”. “This is the control for the mass of the incoming ship, is that right, sailor?”

“Yes, sir, it is.”

“And this one is for the velocity.”

“Yes, sir.” They’d only covered this ground about ten times so far.

“And you’re telling me there are no vector direction controls.”

“No, sir, I mean yes, sir, that’s what I’m saying.”

Carson started to speak again, but interrupted himself, looking off across the bay. “Well, sailor, your friends have shown up again. Tell ’em to sheer off smartly, or I’ll see you get some brig time.”

Peters grinned; he couldn’t help himself. “Aye, sir,” he managed, and Carson glared at him. The approaching party was led by Znereda, and consisted of Dhuvenig, Heelinig, a pair of large zerkre with four-way designs on their suits and the air of bouncers, and a portly, white-haired individual in a dark gray suit similar to what Donollo had worn. Peters came to attention and ripped off the snappiest salute he was capable of, and the other sailors took a brace, leaving Carson with his hands hanging loose and a deep flush discoloring his face and neck.

Znereda marched up and inquired with mild good humor, “May we know your name, please?”

“I’m Lieutenant Samuel Carson, United States Navy. And who might you be?”

“Oh, I’m only a translator, lieutenant. My name is Znereda.” The little Grallt looked Carson up and down. “If you and your people could have been troubled to learn the language, I would have been your instructor. Apparently I lost nothing by the decision.” Carson flushed more deeply but didn’t respond, and Znereda went on, “I should introduce the people whose speech I will be translating. First are these gentlemen.” The two bruisers took station, one each side of the lieutenant and a little behind, arms folded. “They are from the shipboard police department, what my friend Peters would probably describe as the ‘Master at Arms’.” Znereda grinned. “Their names are not important, and if they need to communicate I’m sure they can make their meaning clear without my assistance.

“This gentleman is Dhuvenig, whom you saw fit to insult a short time ago. He is the Engineering Officer of Llapaaloapalla, and outranks you by two grades.” Znereda looked down at Carson’s sleeves. “Three, if the original roster supplied to us is to be trusted.

“The lovely lady beside Dhuvenig is Heelinig, who rejoices in the title of ‘Second of Llapaaloapalla‘, or ‘Executive Officer’ as you would understand it. Her rank is not superior to that of Dhuvenig, but with us, as with you, her duties include the solution of disciplinary problems.

“Shouldn’t you be saluting at this point? Ah, well, I suppose I don’t understand your system as well as I thought I did.

“And last, but by no means least, I introduce the distinguished and honorable Prethuvenigis, the chief of the trading organization which employs you and the man whose signature upon the contract permits you to be here. Have we assembled a group whose precedence you are satisfied with? Or would you prefer to deal directly with the Captain? Like any captain, Preligotis doesn’t descend to deal with every fiddling detail, but the gentlemen beside you would be happy to take you to him if you like.”

Carson was rigid, and his face wouldn’t be that pale again until the undertaker saw him. “That won’t be necessary,” he managed to breathe. He caught Dhuvenig’s eye and brought his hand up in a stiff salute. Dhuvenig returned it with a raised arm, eyes gleaming, and Carson returned to his brace. “Begging the Commander’s pardon, sir, but I wasn’t aware of the Commander’s status.”

«He wasn’t willing to be told, either,» Dhuvenig responded with amusement when Znereda translated that.

“Nor were you willing to accept the word of the person who told you,” Znereda rendered it.

Carson looked around, caught Peters in his view. “No, sir,” he admitted almost inaudibly.

“Why are you here, Leftenant?” Prethuvenigis asked reasonably, in the pseudo-British accent Peters associated with India. “The retarder consoles are part of the ship’s equipment, and operating them is the province of those engaged in the operation of the ship. Your contract specifically precludes your involvement in such matters.”

“I was assigned this duty by Commander Bolton ….” Carson obviously couldn’t decide whether or not to add the “sir”.

“I see. And was Dreelig aware of that assignment?”

“He was present when it was made … sir.”

“I see.” Prethuvenigis looked the officer over. “Leftenant Carson, return to your quarters. Stay there. On the way, do me the kindness of telling Dreelig to see me immediately.” He held up a hand. “I will clarify the word ‘immediately’. If Dreelig is in the bath when you find him, I expect him to appear stark naked. Is that clear?”

“Yes … sir. Clear, sir.”

Prethuvenigis nodded and turned to Heelinig. «Is this bug sufficiently squashed?»

«Yes, I think so,» the executive officer replied with amusement. «Thank you for taking the time, Prethuvenigis. We appreciate your assistance.»

Prethuvenigis waved that off. «Nothing, nothing, I was bored anyway.» He turned, his eye falling on Lieutenant Carson. “Leftenant, why are you still here? If you need assistance, it is available.”

“Just leaving now, sir.”

“Very good.” The Trader addressed the two goons: «Follow this man. Act menacing. Loom.»

Both of them grinned. «We can do that,» the smaller one agreed cheerfully, and when Carson started across the deck they flanked him, half a step behind.

Dhuvenig addressed Peters: «Satisfactory?»

«Not entirely,» Peters told him. «We won’t have trouble with him again, but the question of whether we were responsible for the accident remains open.»

«Znereda thought of that,» Dhuvenig said, and the little teacher cocked his head and grinned. «Our next stop is their quarters, where we will explain retarder operations in some detail. We intend to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind.» He looked around. «I think we’ll wait elsewhere, though. You and your friends probably want to get out of here.»

«Yes,» Heelinig said cheerfully. «Peters especially needs to get back to his quarters.»

«Why do you say so, Heelinig?» Peters asked her.

She smiled broadly. «Cherin tells me you have the book I want to read next. You need to have the leisure to finish it.»

«I’ll have it back as soon as possible,» Peters assured her.

«Oh, no,» she waved that off. «Take your time and enjoy it. Just don’t dawdle.» She smiled at the group of gaping sailors, nodded slightly, and turned to walk away.

Dhuvenig and Znereda followed. “Gad,” said Kraewitz under his breath. “What was that last bit about?”

“It’s a joke, like. I’m readin’ a book the XO wants a chance at. She wants me to have time off to finish it so she can have it next.”

There was a thinking pause. “Peters, remind me not to piss you off.” Kraewitz’s grin was a little crooked.

“How’s that?”

The tall sailor looked at Peters. “With the caliber of the guns you can bring up when you want to, I want to stay on your good side. You wan’ see peektures of my seester?”

* * *

“It’s not like you to be so quiet all the time,” Todd remarked. “It’s been, what, four days? Over three llor. If the Master Chief was going to call you in for a chat it’d be over and done with by now.”

Peters hunched his shoulders. “Yeah, I reckon you’re right. Stood watch yesterday, Ms. Briggs just kinda half-smiled and went on in the office.” Watches at the entry to enlisted quarters had long since been abandoned, but someone was always on duty in the detachment watchroom. “I can’t help waitin’ for the slug to drop, though.”

“Yeah, well, you’re pretty good at being out of range lately,” Todd commented a little slyly. “You been visiting that engineer chick?”

Peters managed a sour grin. “Nope. Mostly I been hangin’ around the library.”

Todd looked sidelong, grinning, or rather smirking. “Of course in your case it might not matter much longer.”

“What the Hell are you talkin’ about?”

“Haul out your gadget and tell me what the date is back home,” Todd suggested, still looking sly.

Peters obliged, giving the younger sailor puzzled looks between button pushes. “Says here … Well I be damned. January 22, 2055. We done missed Christmas. Again.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” Todd reminded him. “Now refresh my memory. When’s your re-up date again?”

Peters went white. “April seventeenth,” he said in a whisper.

“That’s what I thought.” Todd spread his hands. “When we first came aboard it didn’t matter much, we thought we’d be done and back home before first of the year. Then things started going down.” He shrugged. “I’m almost in the same boat, my date’s November the third. If we don’t get back early … but my point is, all you gotta do is not re-up. Then you can wear whatever you want.”

“I am gonna have to look this up,” Peters mused. “What happens if I don’t re-up? Far as I know my CO can extend me, at least until the deployment is over.”

“Yeah, but who’s your CO? Or mine?” Todd pointed out. “According to what the Master Chief understands it’s Dreelig. Can Dreelig extend you in the U.S. Navy?”

Peters considered their recent interactions with Dreelig … “Not hardly, I don’t think. This here is gonna take some research.”

“Keep me posted.”

* * *

They didn’t know the name of the planet that loomed gibbous in the aft opening. Incoming ships were visible, black dots against the blue-white limb of the planet and sparks adjacent to it. “Look alive, people,” Howell advised, eyeballing the newcomers through his binoculars. “They’re hot.”
Closer, closer …

Wham! The lead ship boomed in through the door, high and to starboard and way too fast. Three of the fields let go with bull-fiddle twangs, but the fourth held and brought the ugly brick-shape down to a fast walking pace. “Dial ’em up, everybody,” Howell said grimly. “We got a bunch of cowboys here.” A quick estimate based on the one that was already in would have the settings about right if they were behaving within reason. They cranked the mass readings up and left the speeds where they were. No reason to give the bastards an easy ride.

The second ship banged in, low and to port this time but just as fast. Three twangs, caught on four; they all cranked the mass setting up another notch. The other six were just as bad. Apparently nobody had ever told them about velocity matching. At least they weren’t bouncing off the bulkheads.

Finally there were eight ugly blocks of junk scattered higgledy-piggledy to either side of the ops bay. Warnocki was shouting and being ignored; apparently they intended to leave their vehicles parked any which way. The ground guides had waved wands and flags for parking guidance and finally given up. No matter, as soon as they were out of sight that’d get fixed.  The hatches were opening.

There were two of them per ship, one big bruiser and one skinny shrimp each. They had on what looked like kathir suits in bright and clashing colors, cloth caps with narrow bills, and boots that looked like cordovan leather and came to just below the knee. They collected by pairs and moved off to starboard in a loose group with no apparent discipline. Chief Warnocki was still screaming, but if the new guys were impressed they didn’t show it.

“This is gonna be a fun bunch,” somebody said over the earbugs. Once in a while the processors picked the damnedest things to pass on.

“Attention on deck,” Chief Joshua said without great heat. “All hands secure from flight operations. Set the on-orbit watch. Green section, report to Chief Warnocki. Let’s get the ops bay in some kind of order.”

With their zifthkakik inactive the ships were so many lumps, but they all had little wheels on the skids like some types of helicopters. It took a hunt to come up with a bar that would fit in the socket, but before long they were all up on casters and moving. Armstrong effort was enough in most cases, but the one they were assigned had a cracked wheel; Rupert went and begged a towmotor from the plane captains. How to attach it wasn’t obvious, but they got the thing moving, thumping loudly with each turn of the broken wheel.

“Purty, ain’t it,” said Rupert when they had the thing parked.

“Hunh. That ain’t the word I’d choose,” Peters drawled. The ship was a rectangular block, too clunky to be as graceful as a brick, painted in garish semi-geometric designs that were probably numbers and/or squadron mascots, with exposed whatnots of no obvious purpose stuck to the surface. Where it wasn’t garish the bare metal was dull and grimy. At the front was a filthy transparent panel, and behind that were the seats for the crew, two across behind a set of controls as bare as any they’d seen.

“Enterprise shuttlecraft,” Rupert summarized it. “Circa, oh, say ten BC. Reckon any of these jerks ever heard of aerodynamics?”

“Most of the rest of ’em ain’t,” Peters pointed out. “These here are a little worse’n average, is all.”

“You got that right,” Rupert said sourly. “Oh, well, as I remember we’re supposed to be showing ’em what hot shit we are so’s we can sell ’em stuff. These people look like they could use just about anything we can offer.”

* * *

“They’re called nekrit,” said Jacks. “They’re not from here, so they’re stayin’ the night, in the section aft of the officers’ quarters.”

Retard Three was standing by their console ready for flight ops, watching with interest as the big and little new guys emerged from the hatch and looked for their ships. They saw them, began discussing it among themselves, and progressed to angry shouting, mostly at Chief Warnocki. The Senior Chief didn’t understand what they were saying, and the rest of the deck crew tended to give them a blank look and a shrug and walk off. Nobody threw any punches, which cost Rupert two ornh.

“Nekrit,” said Peters, tasting the word.

“Yeah,” said Jacks. “Se’en says they’re pree-verts.” He and Se’en were still an item, something none of the others would have predicted. The sailor hadn’t learned any Grallt from the association, but Se’en had perfected her English to the extent of adopting a nasal intonation and adding “-s” to “you”–in other words, copying Jacks’s Joisey accent. Her job in the “listening room”, where the few functioning radio receivers aboard Llapaaloapalla were located, meant she mostly knew what was going on. Peters had been keeping out of sight and as much as possible out of mind; with Dee still diffident about approaching the zerkre and Dreelig not talking to enlisted any more, most of what the sailors knew about what was happening tended to come from Se’en via Jacks.

“What the hell would they call a pervert?” wondered Rupert.

“Se’en says they don’t mate,” said Jacks.

“Shit, they gotta mate, don’t they?” Rupert asked. “Otherwise no little nekrit.”

“Right,” said Jacks. “What I mean is, Se’en says they don’t fuck, at least not one another. The big bruisers lay eggs, and the little fairies come along and fertilize them.”

“So?” from Rupert.

“So they don’t give a damn where the eggs go,” said Jacks. “Back home they got a species of animal, the big ones just jab right in the abdomen. The little ones come by and fuck the bloody hole.”

There was a general murmur of “Holy shit!” The Grallt matched human mating patterns fairly closely, but there were other variants. This seemed worse than usual.

“They really don’t give a damn,” Jacks continued. “Anything with a hole in it already’s good, but not really necessary. Assholes don’t work, of course.”

“Rapists?” asked Peters quietly.

“You got it,” said Jacks. “Se’en’s worried, one of her friends is a steward.”

“Green Three, what’s your status?” the Master Chief asked through the earbugs.

“Consoles manned and ready,” Howell responded immediately, which was an exaggeration. The consoles were ready, but the operators were clustering around Jacks.

“Acknowledged, Green Three,” Joshua came back with a tinge of irony in his tone. He could see the deck from his perch on the O-1 of the officers’ quarters, and couldn’t have missed what was going on. He also knew retarders wouldn’t be needed for some time. “All hands, launch in one tle,” he added. “We’re up first as usual so our guests can watch. Hornets, then Tomcats.”

The nekrit were standing around in pairs, leaning against their ships or in little chatting groups. They watched, ostentatiously “not watching” with eyes averted except for short flicking glances, as the deck crews deployed in the half-military, half-artistic patterns they’d developed. Peters was reminded of–what?–hah. They reminded him of Gonsoles and the rest of the tough guys clustered around Everett. All they needed was chews of tobacco.

Plane captains began taxiing Hornets out of the hangar access. All of them had panels hanging open, and the red-shirted armorers approached each in turn, making sure the lasers were set properly for the coming event. Mechanics folllowed, giving each a last once-over.

Once the Hornets were in ready position the plane captains dismounted, meeting the pilots with sharp salutes at the base of the boarding ladders. Pilots boarded, and plane captains followed to help with securing straps, umbilicals, and helmets. Finally the plane captains swarmed down the ladders and removed them with help from waiting crews, the canopies went down, and the planes moved forward into Senior Chief Warnocki’s territory, guided by yellow-shirts with lighted batons.

Crossed batons brought them to a halt, and a little baton-twirl suggested a final check of all onboard systems. That done, the pilot nodded; the ground guide skipped out of the way and brought the batons parallel and horizontal, and Warnocki saluted. The pilot returned the salute, and the Senior Chief converted his gesture into a spin, ending with his right arm at full extension toward the bow, finger pointed. The Hornet shot down the bay and disappeared, and the next one began moving up.

Pretty as a picture and stylized as ballet; Peters wondered for the umpteenth time what would happen when they had to go back to steam cats, howling turbines, and limited deck space after doing it this way for two years.

Thirty seconds between launches, a nice leisurely pace, got the ten Hornets off in five minutes, and Tomcats started moving up by pairs. Side-by-side launches were possible with the wings folded back, if they didn’t care if they whiffed the theatrically unimpressed nekrit with the wingtips. Apparently they didn’t. The first pair missed an idly chatting group by inches, or so it seemed from where Peters stood. The nekrit seemed to agree, moving toward the walls before the next brace launched, waving hostile gestures at the planes.

The humans’ launch cycle ended with 107, a singleton now and forever, or until they lost another one. Deck crews began moving to their standby stations against the walls; it was the guests’ turn.

The nekrit were straggling, two by two, toward their craft, chatting and waving their arms at one another. The sailors didn’t touch anything as the aliens saddled up and began moving out in a disorganized swarm.

They didn’t want any help; need was another thing. One of the ships wouldn’t start, or something. The larger of the two crew(men?) piled out the hatch and started beating on a whatsit with a bar. The smaller one got out, made a human-looking shrug and grimace at the watchers, and tapped its (buddy?) on the shoulder. They exchanged a few words and a mutual shrug, then moved off to the quarters hatch, leaving their box where it sat. And that, apparently, was that. “Christ,” said Rupert. “I’ve seen more discipline in a biker gang.”

“You’ve never seen a biker gang,” said Peters.

“Bullshit,” said Rupert. “Outlaws used to come through town pretty regular when there was still gas.” That would have been when Rupert was about five or six.

“Right,” said Peters. “Come on, let’s go get some chow. This shit will still be here when we get back.”

<<< Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Nine >>>

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