Star Bay Resort had bars, lounges, restaurants, and a small casino, and offered swimming, boating, hiking among the bucolic farmsteads, and an outdoor game played on rolling downs to the south of the buildings. The object of the game was to hit a ball toward a distant target. Players took turns tossing the ball in a soft underhand lob to a member of the opposite team, who (hopefully) swatted it with a flat-sided bat toward the target, a post with a small statuette perched on top.

Mannix’s invitation at the bar had segued into the four sailors going around together, although Todd wasn’t completely comfortable palling around with two First Classes and a Second. Tollison was big, burly, and well-nigh imperturbable as such people often are, and Mannix was always cheerful–although they quickly found out that he was never so sunnily loquacious as when he was royally pissed. All four of them found the game addictive, and by the third day were willing, even eager, to spend all afternoon playing “cricket golf”.

Peters placed his ball with Mannix pitching, declined to try for doubles–if the ball went out of the circle, you had to bat it back–and eyed the statuette bemusedly. They all had names, which the sailors had promptly discarded in favor of Bear, Bat, Gremlin, Ghoul, Monkey, Bubblehead, and Dracula. “Wonder if we’ll get to meet the rest of ’em,” he wondered aloud.

“How’s that, John?” Mannix asked.

Peters gestured at the statuette, then at the staff member who had charge of the equipment, carrying it on a low cart with wire-spoked wheels. “We done met the bats, and here’s the Gremlin,” he explained.

Mannix raised his eyebrows. “You know, you’re pretty damn bright for a backwoods hick,” he remarked. “I actually hadn’t made the connection.”

Peters caught movement out of the corner of his eye. “Hold up,” he said. “Somethin’s goin’ on.”

A Bermuda catamaran about five meters long was drawn up on the beach, and a semicircle of locals was gathered around it. Most of them were in the bright red and flame-yellow livery of the hotel staff, and one, fairly important by the number of tassels and doodads attached to his costume, was haranguing the occupants of the boat, waving pipestem arms to emphasize his points.

One of the people in the boat was a local, dressed in an abbreviated version of the garish livery suitable for swimming. He was giving as good as he got, or so it seemed, waving his arms and shouting in counterpoint to his accusers on shore. The other two were humans, and had to be officers because one of them was a woman. She was one of the minority who had had her breasts removed and stored for later reattachment when she wasn’t pulling six gees regularly, and the prosthetic skin over her pectoral muscles was bright purple.

The four sailors watched the scene for a few moments. “I suppose someone had better intervene,” Mannix suggested, looking sidewise at Peters.

Peters snorted. “Hmph. I reckon I know who that’ll have to be, the rest of you can just about order beer.” He watched for a bit more, then sighed. “Well, there ain’t nothin’ for it,” he observed sourly. “Todd, you better come along. The rest of you, back us up if it gets nasty.”

“You got it,” said Mannix, the shortest speech they’d heard out of him.

Peters and Todd scrambled down the slope, slipping and sliding where the turf of the downs gave way to beach. Their approach caused a pause in the action, both boatman and flunky falling silent and watching as they came closer. «Can I help in some way?» Peters asked, with the abbreviated bow that the locals used on such occasions.

«Good, somebody can speak these people,» the chief flunky said with noticeable relief, and returned the bow somewhat more deeply. «Tell them this not good place for little boat, need to go back with others.» He gestured to the northwest, where several small craft were sailing back and forth in the light breeze. His Grallt was about like Todd’s, not fluent but understandable.

“Dih,” the boatman put in. «Rocks. Dangerous.»

«I’ll tell them,» Peters promised. “Afternoon, sir, ma’am,” he said to the occupants of the boat.

“What the hell’s going on here?” the male officer demanded. “Tell these freaks to get us back in the damn water. Why the hell did this little asshole beach us, anyway?”

Peters couldn’t place the male officer beyond one of the back-seaters. “They say these waters ain’t suitable for small craft, sir. The coxs’n says rocks in the area. They’d be obliged if you’d go back out with the others, sir.”

The officer looked disgusted. “Dammit, I’ve been sailing small craft since I was three.” He glared at Peters. “I don’t need half-pint freaks and enlisted people telling me where I can go.”

“No, sir, but it’s their boat, and they know the waters, sir.”

“Fuck that,” said the female officer; Ms. Williams, 206, it was. “You’re Peters, aren’t you? Tell these creeps to let us go, or I swear to God I’ll toss this one overboard–” She gestured at the boatman “–and we’ll bring the fucking boat back when we’re good and God-damned ready.”

“Ma’am, I reckon that ain’t a good–”

“That was a direct order, sailor,” the male officer spat.

“Aye, aye, sir,” Peters said resignedly. «They say they are experienced operators of small boats,» he told the resort official. «They insist on using the boat as they like.»

«They never here before,» the official pointed out. «Don’t know conditions. Tell them go back.»

«I told them that,» Peters advised. «But they are my superiors. I can’t give them instructions.»

«Boat my charge,» the flunky pointed out. «I give instructions.»

“What’s going on here?” The tone of the bellow brought Peters’s back straight by reflex. “Are my officers being detained? What for?” Commander Bolton wanted to know, at the top of his lungs.

«Who this person?» the staff flunky asked.

«This is the First of all humans aboard Llapaaloapalla,» Peters explained. «He asks why his people are not free to go as they wish.»

“Hell if I know, sir,” the male officer said indignantly. “We were just going along, no trouble, then this guy–” he indicated the boatman “–beached us. I don’t know what the problem is.”

«Your First sounds not patient,» the local observed. «You seem understand situation. You explain?»

«I’ll try,» said Peters with some reluctance.

“Do you know anything about this, sailor?” Bolton asked Peters directly.

“Yes, sir, the manager here–” Peters had decided that the local must be a manager of some sort “–says the boat’s out of its safe area, sir. He’d appreciate it if they’d take it back with the others.”

Bolton snorted. “Hmph. Do you think you can get to the bottom of this?” he asked Dreelig, who came up panting.

Dreelig eyed Peters with disfavor and had words with the local. “This is the manager of the boat rental office,” he explained when they’d exchanged a few sentences. “There are rocks near here, and the currents are bad. Small boats like this one aren’t safe in this area, and he was trying to get Mr. Goetz and Ms. Williams to allow the boatman to take the boat back to the safe area.”

“Hmph. All right, Goetz, you and Williams get that thing back over there.” Bolton waved at the other boats.

“But sir–”

“No ‘buts’, Goetz, I didn’t bring you people out here to get drowned on some reef. Get going.”

“Yes, sir,” said Goetz with resignation. “Come on, Claudia, we have to go back and play with the other kiddies.”

“Yeah,” Williams agreed. She twisted her mouth disgustedly. “Some people got no sense of adventure.”

“You can confine your adventures to flying the planes,” Bolton pointed out.

“Yes, sir,” Goetz aknowledged. Williams snorted and swung her legs over the side.

«What?» the boatman asked in confusion as the two officers began pushing the boat back off the beach. «What happens?»

«They’ve agreed to go back with the others,» Peters told him.

“What are you telling these guys, sailor?” Commander Bolton wanted to know.

“I told the boatman they’d agreed to go back, sir,” Peters explained.

The manager explained the situation in the local language. «Good,» said the boatman with a nod. «Thanks.» He began adding his own force, and the boat began to slide, grating on the sand until it was bouyed up by an incoming wave. He leaped aboard, hardly getting his feet wet, and the two humans followed with less grace.

“And just who the Hell are you to be giving my officers instructions?” Bolton demanded. “Peters, isn’t it, sailor?”

“Yes, sir.” Peters flushed. “Beggin’ the Commander’s pardon, but I ain’t givin’ no orders to nobody. I know the language a little bit, and I was tryin’ to help straighten the situation out, sir.”

“Hmph.” Bolton watched with sour disapproval as the boat swung in the breeze while the three crew confused one another in an attempt to raise the sail. They got it ready in time to prevent the wind from pushing it back to shore, and the boat set out on a close reach in the general direction of the rest. The Commander gave Peters a lambent glare and turned away. “Come on, Dreelig,” he said to the waiting Grallt. “We’re done here.”

“Yes, I think you’re right,” Dreelig agreed. He nodded at the boat manager, spared Peters and Todd a brief glance, and followed the Commander up the beach.

«Your superiors not big polite,» the boat manager observed. «But quick.»

“Yeah,” said Peters sourly. «Yes,» he repeated in Trade. «Has the situation been resolved to your satisfaction?»

The manager bowed. «Yes. I am Lulakarithisalozohavi–» and more Peters didn’t get. «Call me Luli. This group much status, ke? You less.»

«That’s precisely correct, Luli.»

«Think so,» said Luli with a decisive nod. «This group got boats until star leave. Star come back, come see me.» He glanced at Todd, then at the other two sailors, who had watched with interest but hadn’t dared interject themselves. «Bring friends,» he continued. «We take nice boat, go past rocks. Pretty place, good gabble. Not know word?» he asked slyly when Peters looked blank. «Means catch things live water. Much fun.»

“Fishing!” said Todd with a grin. “Peters, we’ve got to take him up on that. I haven’t been deep-sea fishing since I left home.”

“And I ain’t never tried it. Sounds interestin’.” He nodded at the local. «I’ll discuss it with the others. You will probably see us tomorrow.»

«Star come back,» Luli agreed with a bow. «See you,» another idiom that translated directly. He flashed another big grin and headed up the beach, legs pumping in the half-trot they used, with the rest of the audience following in an irregular bunch.

“Well, that coulda gone better,” Peters noted. The sailboat was well out to sea, merging with the group.

Todd grinned. “At least we got a fishing invitation out of it,” he observed. “I can hardly wait.”

“So I see,” said Peters with an eyebrow lifted. “Well, if you’re that enthusiastic, I reckon I’m willin’ to go along.”

* * *

A new star appeared in the west at twilight. “Looks like our ride’s here,” Todd commented, looking up at the bright point.

“Yep, I reckon you’re right.” Peters turned away from the sunset and surveyed the room. “We better start gettin’ our shit together.”

“I won’t really be all that sorry to leave,” Todd mused. “This place is the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on in a long time, but all the same, I’ll be glad to get back to the boat.”

Peters snorted. “Yeah, me too.”

They packed before going down to dinner, not that it was a big problem. Kathir suits solved a lot of wardrobe requirements, and the uniforms they’d brought had stayed in the seabags. Some of what they were packing were souvenirs; the locals on the farms surrounding the resort had a nice line in handicrafts. Todd’s prize was a flick-knife, a pair of handles of shiny wood concealing a blade over ten centimeters long. Peters eyed it. “You realize if you try to carry that thing back home they’ll put you in jail, don’t you?”

Todd grinned and performed the finger-twisting midair pass that gave the knife its name and left it with its blade extended from his fist. “Yeah. It’s fun to have anyway.” He gestured again, the blade disappearing like a magic trick, and stowed the folded knife in his bag.

Not all the sailors had seen the portent in the sky, but the word got passed over dinner. Most of them devoted the evening to packing, but quite a few used a portion of the night to practice their Grallt by ordering a last few sips of excellent beer and saying goodbye to the bartender, whose name had three and seven eights of syllables but who answered to “Wally”. Morning brought the skystar and the dli, in that order, and the bellmen helped hump bags down to the landing field.

Officers arrived, spiffy in whites, and the enlisted watched in idle chatting groups as the stewards toted bags aboard the dli. It lifted off and rose toward the puffy white clouds, and then it was their turn. Working parties loaded the little freight hauler, passing bags from hand to hand. Some of them clinked, and Peters shared a raised eyebrow with Mannix. Apparently a few of the sailors had mastered «beer to go.»

Peters turned to take a last look. Blue sky over cobalt grass seemed perfectly reasonable after a week, and the gentle curve of black sand properly and correctly defined the margin of the gray-blue sea. Another sailor pushed by with a grunted semiapology, and Peters shook his head, stepped through, and took his seat next to Todd, who glanced at him and returned to staring out the window.

Nice place.

Next?

* * *

Next was five planet visits, with long transits between and no liberty at any of them. The trade delegations went Down, but nobody else paid attention. Two of the visits involved mock combats between the Navy crews and the locals. Neither of those seemed like much of a challenge.

They all settled into a routine, and began to pay about as much attention to where the ship was and what was going on as the Grallt did, which is to say nearly none. It was relaxing rather than boring, with not much changing, and that slowly. Peters ran his retarder and stayed out of sight.

“This last coffee,” Zeef told them at first meal. “You not here early, not get any.”

“That’s really unfortunate,” Mannix observed. “Our efficiency is likely to plummet.”

Zeef grinned. “Us too. Everybody likes, used up quick.” He poured, alternating between cups so each of the four sailors got the same amount. “Really, not bad,” he suggested. “Little goes long way. Lasted almost three zul.”

“Well, that leaves tomatoes,” said Todd as the waiter bustled off. “No reason to run out of those unless all the lights burn out.”

Tollison grunted sourly. “Hmph. Hate the things.”

“I do believe we have heard quite enough from you on that subject,” Mannix told him with mock sternness. “You should look on the bright side.”

“And what might that be?”

“Someone could have brought zucchini.”

That got a slightly sour laugh. Their diet was becoming restricted, with only a dozen or so items to choose from, and Chief Gill had made a general issue of nutritional supplements in the form of pills to be taken with each meal. Word from Dr. Steward via HM/2 Kiel had it that they were in no danger of malnutrition so long as the supplements held out, and they had plenty of supplements. The pudgier ones were starting to slim down, though.

Peters sipped coffee and regarded the others. Mannix and Tollison didn’t seem disposed to break off the relationship begun during liberty. The four of them had retraced some of the steps Peters and Todd had taken, discovering in the process that the Grallt were growing other Earth plants in the big factory trays below the ops bay. So far only tomatoes were available in numbers large enough to serve the sailors, let alone provide them to the rest of the crew of Llapaaloapalla, and several of the plants hadn’t grown at all. Peters would have welcomed zucchini. He didn’t like the stuff, but it would have been another source of vitamins–and familiarity.

“Peters, haul out your gadget,” Tollison directed. “How much is three zul back home? I’ve lost track.”

“It ain’t quite eight months,” Peters reported after a little manipulation. “Funny, it don’t seem that long.”

“Time flies, and all that,” Todd suggested.

Peters spotted a familiar face. «Hello, Dee,» he said as she passed. «I haven’t seen you in a little while.»

«What!? Oh. Hello, Peters,» she said. «I had forgotten that you spoke so well. I was afraid one of my superiors had caught up with me.»

«Join us, if you will,» Peters offered with a gesture. “Hey, guys, scrunch up a little and let the lady join us.”

Dee stood by, smiling a little weakly, while Peters snagged a chair from an adjacent table and the other three sailors moved aside to leave a space. Peters handed her into the chair, and Tollison looked up from under lowered eyebrows. “Introduce us to your friend,” he suggested. “Looks to me like somebody worth knowing.”

Dee giggled. “This here’s Dee,” Peters explained. “She’s the second, no, that’s wrong, she’s the third Grallt me’n Todd ever met, and she speaks English real good. She’s the one taught us how to get around the ship and how to order dinner, didn’t you, Dee? Which reminds me.” He unsealed a pocket, brought out Dee’s watch, and handed it to her. “Thanks,” he said. “‘Fraid I kept it a little long.”

“That’s all right,” she said in English. “I haven’t needed it, but I’m glad to have it back.” She looked around. “I remember Todd, of course, but I don’t know your other friends.”

“We should repair that lack as quickly as possible,” said Mannix before Peters could respond. “If I am not badly mistaken, the lady was one of the guides who graciously directed us to the palatial quarters we now inhabit, on the occasion of our first arrival aboard this magnificent vessel.”

Dee smiled. It was hard not to do that when Mannix got rolling. “Yes, I was one of the guides when you first came aboard. I don’t remember if you were in my group or not.”

“I regretfully admit that at the time my taste was not fully formed, and I was not able to fully appreciate the vision of loveliness I now see before me,” Mannix intoned solemnly. “I answer to the name of ‘Gerald Mannix’, among other things, and the hulking lout in the chair next to you is called Greg Tollison.” He rose part way from his chair and addressed an abbreviated bow to Dee, right hand over his heart. “I, for one, am very happy to make your acquaintance. I won’t speak for Tollison. He can speak for himself, if he cares to do so and can muster the brain power, which is by no means a foregone conclusion.”

Tollison simply smiled and nodded. “Pleased to meet you,” he said in his bass rumble.

“And I you,” Dee smiled back.

“Dee’s a translator,” Peters explained. “She’s one of the ones keepin’ the officers happy–”

“Not any more,” she interrupted with some force, then dropped her eyes.

“What happened?” Todd asked.

“I quit,” she told him. “I walked out about half an hour ago, and I’m not going back. That’s why Peters startled me so. I thought he was one of my superiors, wanting to curse me out for leaving my job without authorization.” She looked around. “It doesn’t matter. I’m quitting, and that’s that. No. I have quit. English language, past perfect tense. ‘Perfect’ as in ‘perfected’, finished, over, done with.”

“You likely to get in trouble over quitting?” Peters asked.

“Ask me if I give a shit.” She stopped herself, colored, and looked down at the table. “Listen to me. I never used to talk like that even in my own language. Especially in my own language. Now here I am….” She paused with an indecisive little wave, searching for the mot juste.

“Cussin’ like a sailor,” Peters supplied.

“You got it.” She shook her head. “But that isn’t the worst of it. You may have noticed I’m wearing this thing.” She made a little gesture, a flap of the fingers down her front, and Peters realized that she had on a kathir suit, the first time he’d seen her in one. “I hate it,” Dee went on. “It shows me off too much–”

“I hope you realize nobody here objects to that,” Todd interrupted.

“Don’t you start!” She shook her head. “As I was saying, I hate it, but it does have the virtue that nobody can reach inside it. Or pinch through it … full-handed grabs remain possible, as proven beyond any doubt a little while ago.”

That generated raised eyebrows. “That’s a pretty severe violation of our rules,” Tollison observed. “If you want to, you can get the man in bad trouble.”

“Oh, the men aren’t that much of a problem.”

“How’s Dreelig doin’?” Peters asked into the short digestive pause.

“Dreelig.” The name didn’t easily turn into a hiss; Dee managed it. “I never cared much for the asshole, but at least I could work with him. Now–” She waved disgustedly “–he’s decided he’s the Grand Exalted Panjandrum. The bit about him being an officer, you remember–”

“Yeah. Got us out of a tight spot.”

“He took it and ran with it.” She looked around, mouth twisting in ironic disgust. “I shouldn’t be associating with you enlisted plebians. I’m a Lieutenant, Junior Grade, according to Commander Dreelig.”

“‘Commander Dreelig’?” Todd asked. “Last I heard he was only claiming Lieutenant Commander.”

Dee snorted. “Shit. He’d claim Captain if he thought he could get away with it.”

“Dreelig isn’t an officer?” Mannix put in with interest. “I thought he was an ambassador. That ranks pretty high.”

“Bullshit,” she contradicted. “He’s just one of the sales staff, and not the highest-ranked one, either.” She looked around. Peters and Todd were smiling thinly, a little apprehensive about exposing what had been a secret, and the other two had raised eyebrows. “I’ll admit he has a talent for languages, but he couldn’t sell spacesuits if the air was half gone, and he couldn’t write a tight contract to save himself. The only reason he got the assignment to work with you was because nobody else wanted it.”

“I think I should infer from that,” Mannix said into the breathing pause, “that when the opportunity to deal with the U.S. Navy was offered there was no mad rush of volunteers.”

Dee nodded. “Nobody thought the idea had a snowball’s chance in Hell. That includes me, by the way, but I’m too junior to have any input.” She smiled thinly. “The thinking may have changed.”

“You mean the repairs and cleanup?” Todd asked.

“Oh, that’s the least of it. Remember that the original reason for this was to show off the pilots and machines, and they’re impressive as all Hell in action. When they beat the enkheil Combat Dancers two out of two, clear result and no question, Dreelig grinned for days.”

“What about the last two?” Todd asked. “The, ah, nassith and the wolly-something.” Neither one had impressed the sailors much.

“They were throwaways, more or less. The n’saith and the wollinid don’t have much technology of their own, but we needed to stop both places for trade anyway.” Dee shook her head. “No, the enkheil and the bür are the important ones. Even Dreelig thought the enkheil would put up a good contest.”

“Beer? This is the name of people?” Tollison asked.

Dee smiled. “The vowel needs a ‘u’ sound in it, but yes, the bür are of the kree. They are extremely warlike. Many years ago they attempted conquest. It was very difficult to get them to desist.”

“I take it we can assume they are very good,” Mannix ventured.

“Oh, yes, very good indeed.” Her smile became wry. “I think the Navy pilots are better. It’ll be a lot closer than what they’ve gotten used to, though.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear they’re at least good at doin’ their jobs,” Peters observed.

“Oh, they’re great in action. It’s just that when they’re not in action they’re impossible to live with.”

Peters chuckled wryly. “We-el, I hope it don’t bust no bubble or nothin’, but you ain’t the first person to make that observation about Navy aviators.”

“Possibly not the first of the second ten million,” Mannix added.

Dee snorted. “Hmph. I think the biggest problem is that they don’t have anything to do when they’re not in action.”

“Why don’t they get out and about a bit?” Mannix asked. “We don’t find ourselves overly stressed, by any means, but we’ve been able to occupy our time without overmuch difficulty.”

“Dreelig again,” Dee explained. “He drew up the contract.” She leaned back in her chair. “To be fair about it, at the time none of us knew anything about you people except that you fought a lot and had busted up a goodish chunk of your planet doing it.” The sailors all nodded–this wasn’t a new concept–and Dee went on, “He included a provision that the officers weren’t to have anything at all to do with the operation of the ship …”

“I think I see where that’s going,” Tollison put in. “Mix in a little paranoia …”

“You got it. The brass–” Dee made a disgusted face and shook her head “–the First Trader and his staff have interpreted that clause to mean the human officers have to stick close to their quarters. It took two llor of argument to get permission for them to do their exercises in the ops bay.”

“And they’re all going a little stir-crazy,” Todd suggested.

“Stir–oh, yes, I remember that idiom. Yes, that’s it exactly. They can’t fly the planes while we’re in high phase, they’re bored with the simulators, they don’t have any other duties, and they can’t get ‘out and about’ as you called it. So they spend their time playing grabass, and I got sick and tired of having my ass grabbed. I’m outa there.”

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