Peters reported to the retarders for flight ops, correctly rigged out in helmet, flak jacket, and boondockers, but: “The Master Chief wants to see you in his office,” Howell said with an unmistakable air of satisfaction. “Right now,” he added with relish.

“Did he say what it’s about?” Peters asked.

“Hmph. You know as much about it as I do.” The First Class smirked a little. “Probably more, in fact. Get going, nothing’s going to happen here for a while, and if it does, Jacks and Rupert can cover for you.”

“Right.” Peters stared a moment, then turned away and headed for the enlisted quarters hatch. First stop, his room. Anything that had that asshole Howell looking so damn happy was bound to call for undress blues, at least.

Master Chief Joshua’s door was always open. That didn’t mean you walked in on him without invitation; Peters banged on the doorframe. The Chief looked up from the computer he’d been punching at and barked, “Come!”

Peters took off his white hat as he entered. “You wanted to see me, Chief?”

“Yeah.” Joshua snapped the computer screen shut and leaned forward, elbows on the desk, supporting his chin on his knuckles. After a moment he snorted, shook his head, shifted his forearms to lie on the table grasping his elbows, and leaned farther forward. “Just what did you think you were doing, sailor?” he asked in a voice that seemed more tired than irritated.

“Beggin’ the Master Chief’s pardon, but I don’t understand the question, Master Chief.”

Joshua’s gaze intensified. “Don’t come that shit with me, Peters,” he warned.

“I still don’t understand, Master Chief.”

Joshua snorted again. “Hmph. All right, if you want to play ignorant and innocent, I’ll spell it out for you. You, Peters, are a Second Class Petty Officer in the United States Navy, isn’t that right?

“Yes, Master Chief,” Peters replied softly.

“Good. Now, in the United States Navy, enlisted people are not authorized to engage in official contact with senior officers of foreign powers. In fact, they are specifically forbidden to do so. Were you aware of that, Petty Officer Peters?”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

Joshua nodded. “Glad to hear it,” he said sarcastically. “To continue,” he leaned forward again, “In the United States Navy, and to my knowledge in all the armed forces of the United States of America, enlisted people, especially junior enlisted people, are not authorized to engage in substantive negotiations, for trade or otherwise, with officials of foreign powers. I will admit that it isn’t specifically forbidden by the regulations, but I’d say the first rule I mentioned would just about cover it, now wouldn’t you, Petty Officer Peters?”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

“Good, I’m glad we agree.” Joshua leaned back and folded his arms. “Now, with those two rules as background, I am gonna ask my first question again: Just what the Hell did you think you were doing running around with the CO of the opposing force like long lost buddies, accepting invitations, and making suggestions about trade matters, Peters?”

Peters stared straight ahead and thought furiously. “Beggin’ the Master Chief’s pardon,” he said again, “I’m afraid the Master Chief’s understandin’ of the sequence of events is mistaken.”

“Hmph.” Joshua leaned forward again. “All right, Peters, I’ll bite. Just what was the sequence of events from your point of view?”

Peters took a deep breath. “I believe the Master Chief is aware that I’ve learned a little of the language they use on this here ship.” When Joshua nodded sharply he continued, “The enkheil come over to the retarder consoles while we was strikin’ from flight ops, and tried to enquire of my section leader. Petty Officer Howell don’t speak no Grallt, Master Chief, and I offered my services as translator.”

“I see,” said Joshua. “What did they want?”

“They wanted to see the retarder consoles, Master Chief, and set up the procedures for how we was to alternate between our guys and the enkheil crews.” He thought a moment. “Is the Master Chief aware that Ghnal Dhango, the one with the red fur, is the head of retarder crews for the enkheil?”

“No, Peters, I wasn’t aware of that.” By the tone, Joshua didn’t care, either. He gestured, a little wave. “Continue, please.”

“Aye, Master Chief. Anyways, we got the business about the retarders settled to Howell’s and Khrog Dhakgo’s satisfaction–”

“Just a minute,” Joshua interrupted. “Krog Thak Go is the name of the CO, right?” And he’s the one you introduced me to when you called me?”

“That’s correct, Master Chief.” Well, close enough, anyway.

“Continue, please.”

“Aye, Master Chief. As I was sayin’, we got the business with the retarders concluded, and Khrog Dhakgo asked where away was the chow hall. We was done strikin’ the evolution, and I had no specific duties at that point, so I offered to show ’em where to get some chow, Master Chief.”

“I see,” said Joshua again. He clasped his hands, fingers intertwined. “And you took chow with them, as I understand it.”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

“What did you talk about over chow?”

Peters thought back. “Just general stuff, Master Chief, like people from different places talk about. Stories, mostly.”

“Stories,” Joshua said with a caustic edge. “You gave them a pretty detailed look at the Tomcat, or so I hear.”

Ridley was the source of that, no doubt. Peters nodded. “Yes, Master Chief. To my understandin’ the reason the Tomcat was parked where it was, with a sentry, was to provide the new folks with somethin’ to look at, and to serve as an example of our stuff. The enkheil expressed an interest, and at the time I didn’t see nothin’ wrong with the idea, Master Chief.”

“You ‘didn’t see nothin’ wrong with the idea’,” Joshua mocked.

Peters flushed a little. “No, Master Chief.”

“And all this time you thought you were talking to a couple of ordinary folks, I take it.”

“Yes, Master Chief, to the extent that folks with wings from another planet can be considered ordinary folks, that is.”

“Yeah, right.” Joshua laid his hands on the desk, asked tiredly, “At what point did you become aware that this Krog whatever was the skipper of that bunch, Peters?”

“Only at the very end, Master Chief, and I immediately got in contact with the proper person in my chain of command, as I am instructed to do, Master Chief.”

“Which is me.”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

“All right, Peters, now we get to the point. I’m gonna ask this one time: Did you, at any time in that conversation, suggest to those people that any of our stuff might be for sale, or offer any kind of trade suggestions?”

“I might’ve, Master Chief.” Joshua glared, and Peters went on hurriedly, “We was just talkin’, Master Chief, about the stuff we make, on both sides. We was bound to make suggestions.” He spread his hands in frustration, hurriedly returned them to their clasp in front when the Master Chief’s glare intensified. “I know I ain’t got the horsepower to make any kind of agreement, Master Chief. I didn’t make no proposals or suggest prices or like that. We was just talkin’ about what was around.” He shook his head. “I can’t say any better’n that, Master Chief.”

“No, I don’t suppose you can, Peters.” Joshua’s tone was tired; he brought his hands together and rested his chin on them again. After a long pause he said, “I don’t want to go through this again, Peters.”

“No, Master Chief.”

“I think you’ve been getting the idea that you’re something special because you know the language. Well, that’s so to a certain extent, but what you are is a Second Class Petty Officer, and from where I sit you’re bucking for Third, do you understand what I mean, Peters?”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

“In the future I expect you to keep a low profile, do you understand me?” Joshua forestalled Peters’ acknowledgement with a handwave. “You’re expected to provide your knowledge of the language to those who need it, to help in relations with other people, but you are not to go haring off on your own, making agreements and setting up trade, because you are not some kind of half-assed ambassador, you understand?”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

“I sincerely hope so, because if we have to have a little talk like this again, you are going to be in deep shit, do you understand that, Petty Officer Peters?”

“Yes, Master Chief.”

“All right, you’re dismissed, Peters.” Joshua gave him the once-over. “I see you dressed for the occasion, and I do appreciate the thought, but you skin back into your deck gear and shag ass down to your station. Flight ops’ll be starting soon.”

“Aye, Master Chief.”

“Get your ass out of here.”

Peters nodded and got. Back in his room, he shook for a few moments with reaction, then got out of his undress blues and into green jumper, dungaree trousers, and the rest of it. He shook his head, left his blues in a heap on his bunk, and headed below. He’d have time to think about this later.

* * *

The operations bay had been rearranged, with tubby enkheil ships in nose-out echelon along the outboard wall and human planes arranged the same way inboard. Human pilots filed out of their quarters hatch, formed their column of twos, and marched in step across the bay, taking up stations at the nose of each aircraft. The arrangement put the boarding ladders out of sight; at a barked signal the crews saluted, doubled around the noses, and began saddling up. Enkheil Combat Dancers stood against the wall forward of their ships, black alternating with white, wings partially extended, watching with interest.

They knew more, now, about the enkheil. The batlike people had a long history of bloody war, and had eventually solved the problem by turning the whole concept into an art form. Few enkheil were ever killed in their performances, but it did happen, and apparently they didn’t worry too much about it, regarding an occasional casualty as an inevitable byproduct, regrettable but not tragic. Khrog Dhakgo’s company was considered (by themselves, at least) to be at the top of the list of performers in the dance of war, specializing in the airborne version.

When all the aircrews were strapped in, the planes began moving slowly, canopies open, directed by enlisted in yellow shirts with light wands. Chief Warnocki stood well forward, wearing the yellow jumper of a catapult officer; they didn’t have, or need, catapults, but as each plane reached a point even with the officers’ quarters hatch the canopies closed, the pilot saluted, Chief Warnocki returned the salute, and the plane accelerated down the bay, turning into a point of light in space.

When all the planes were clear the Combat Dancers began boarding their tubby ships, moving in a simplified version of the ruffles and flourishes they’d used when disembarking. Khrog Dhakgo stood across the bay from Warnocki, wings half extended, his head turning from side to side as he supervised the action. Ghnal Dhango was aft, standing by Howell. Each retarder console had its human crew and a pair of enkheil, ready to trade off according to which type of ship was to be recovered. The two at Retard Three had no Trade beyond “hello,” “goodbye,” and “please;” they communicated by hand signals, demonstrated by Ghnal with translation by Peters, sour looks contributed by Howell. The enkheil flourish meaning “it’s all yours” was similar to the one humans used, but more spectacular with its accompanying flirt of a wing.

When all the enkheil ships had launched, moving gracefully but without the extraneous business of ground-guides and salutes, Chief Joshua announced a two-utle standdown over the deck push. “Stay near your stations in case of emergency, but take it easy,” he advised. Ghnal Dhango made a short speech in the staccato enkheil language, probably amounting to the same thing since the other enkheil seemed to relax, some leaning against the open bay door, others gathering in small groups to chat, just like the sailors.

«That was impresssive,» said Ghnal. Peters hadn’t noticed her approach and started a bit, and she grinned and continued, «The business with the wands, and the little ceremony with each ship, make a different dance, and a very nice one. I’m sure Khrog will want to copy it. Dhnangkhi’s Company will be envious when next we meet.»

Peters had to admit that the enkheil had something of a point. The care necessary to move multiton vehicles around in a restricted area did result in something that looked very much like a performance. Flight ops on the carrier are dirty, noisy, and dangerous; without engine noise, intakes to suck you in, or jet blast to knock you ass over teakettle, this was pretty. «It is our normal procedure,» he said with a little shrug. «The men with wands guide the ships, because the operators cannot see well enough to do it safely.» He paused, looked around. Several sailors were eyeing the two, among them Howell, who was scowling. «Ghnal, I have been instructed by my superiors to avoid contact with you. They don’t think it’s appropriate for a junior like myself to associate with those of high status.»

«Yes, that Grallt–Dreelig?–said something like that. Foolishness,» Ghnal declared. «But I understand that you must follow their directives, so I won’t cause you any trouble.» She grinned, shrugged, and flirted a wing. «Remember our invitation.»

«I’m afraid I won’t be able to visit,» Peters said. «Partly because of my superiors’ directives, but mostly because the ship will be leaving immediately after the ship-dance is concluded.»

«That’s a pity.» She touched him on the shoulder. «But I predict a great future for your people. Perhaps you will visit Keelisika again, and then you can visit.»

«I suppose that isn’t impossible,» Peters admitted.

Ghnal laughed. «Very few things are actually impossible,» she said. «Some of them are improbable. But if you are ever able to accept the invitation, be confident that it will still be extended.» She nodded and popped her wings, like the salute Khrog Dhakgo had given the Chief. «Now I will take myself off, so as not to get you in trouble.»

Peters watched her go with mixed emotions. The invitation seemed sincere, and absent the Master Chief’s specific injunction he would have taken it with pleasure. On the other hand, he wasn’t sure he was ready to be by himself on a world full of aliens, even if he could have stretched the invitation to include Todd.

Howell gave him another scowl, and Jacks and Rupert were eyeing him speculatively. He gave the latter two a shrug and grimace, and they turned and shrugged at one another. Ghnal Dhango went to the aft end of the row of retarders, conspicuously avoiding Howell, and took up a closed stance, wings furled around her torso. Peters snorted and pretended to check the retarder console.

The aft lookout reported ships approaching right on time. Master Chief Joshua confirmed it over the deck push, and Peters and the other humans took their stations; human ships would trap first. They busied themselves with crosschecks as the sparks grew aft. With little to actually do, they were easily ready before the first Tomcat flashed into the bay with only a subsonic whisper from the retarder fields. The rest followed with the usual precision; once the 210 bird was taxiing into position against the inboard wall they moved away from the consoles. Furred, winged aliens took over their posts, and the enkheil ships trapped in turn, with almost equal flair.

Humans emerged from the planes and took up position at the noses, as they had when launching. Enkheil extruded their ladders, and the Combat Dancers emerged, to perform a routine similar in principle but different in detail from the one they’d done when they boarded, ending with all of them in deep bows, with wings furled like cloaks. Human officers saluted sharply, and Commander Bolton stepped forward to make a half-bow; the Dancers took that as a signal to rise, and both groups formed their columns and proceeded toward their quarters.

“Well, that’s that,” said Jacks with a satisfied air. “Our guys won.”

“How do you figure that?” Peters asked. “We ain’t heard nothin’ about it yet.”

Jacks shrugged. “Why do we need to? What with the wings and all, what they did at the end had to be admitting they lost. Pretty damn elegant, I thought.”

“You’re probably right,” Peters admitted, eyeing the other sailor sidelong as the Master Chief announced the end of the evolution. “Time for chow,” he told his crew when the announcement was done. “Me for a shower first, though.”

Rupert plucked at his jumper. “Sheeit,” he said. “The rubber long johns take care of that well enough for me. I’m gonna get out of this deck gear, though.”

“Right,” said Peters. “See you in the chow hall.” Rupert nodded, and he and Jacks headed off, Jacks swiveling his head around, probably looking for Se’en. Peters lingered for a few moments; that gave him a chance to nod at Ghnal as she passed. She returned the nod and added a wing flip, but didn’t say anything. “And that’s that,” Peters said to himself, and followed the others toward the enlisted quarters.

Todd was in the shower when he got there, so Peters stripped off his deck gear, pulled his kathir suit down around his waist, and sat on his bunk to wait. It didn’t take long to shower when his turn came, because Rupert was right; the suit took care of things like perspiration. Todd waited and went with him to chow, wanting to know what had gone on that had the brass excited. Peters explained the best he could. “They’re nice folks,” he concluded. “Wasn’t for the Master Chief gettin’ his balls in a uproar, we coulda had a nice forty-eight.”

Todd snorted. “Fat chance,” he opined. “I suppose the officers’ll get to go.”

“You know, I don’t think so,” Peters said. “Just a feelin’.”

That got a grin, shrug, and grimace from Todd. “You say it.”

This was first ande for the Grallt, second for the humans. The schedule was for an ande of off-time, then a second mock-combat session; the second session came off on schedule and without a hitch, with the same conclusion as the first. Ghnal Dhango stayed by the Number One console during the entire evolution, conspicuously ignoring Howell to the extent possible and paying little visible attention to anything except the business at hand. At the end she was escorted away by Chief Spearman, to join Khrog Dhakgo and disappear into the officers’ quarters hatch.

Very shortly after that the enkheil boarded their ships for the last time, the Combat Dancers doing another skit as the support crews climbed into their transports, fatter versions of the combat ships with windows–or rather, round portholes–down the side. Neither Ghnal Dhango nor Khrog Dhakgo tried to speak to Peters, or even acknowledge him beyond Ghnal’s parting nod as she joined her mate aboad the lead transport. Peters was relieved, but had to admit a little disappointment.

And, well, a little resentment, too, he was forced to admit, at least to himself. He thought about that as he helped boom Tomcats down; scuttlebutt had it that they’d be leaving soon, and Chief Warnocki didn’t know if that was right or not but didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Maybe even a lot of resentment. He thought about it some more as he showered and dressed for chow. Oh, well, the Navy was the Navy; you could do a lot of things, but bucking the system wasn’t one of them.

About the time he’d reached that conclusion Cleeves was banging on his door with a summons to attend the Master Chief. The runner had arrived with news from the bridge: High Phase would begin at the next ande, only a few minutes away. Their next destination was called Zenth, whatever and wherever that was. He thanked the runner, who took herself off, and shared a shrug with the Master Chief. There was nothing strange here but the funny-looking people. When you’re in the Navy, you go where the boat goes.

When he got back to his room there was a surprise waiting; a package wrapped in brown cloth and tied with soft string. Todd professed ignorance. “One of the Grallt, the regular ones, not the zerkre, brought it by and said it was for you.”

“So what is it?”

Todd shrugged. “Damifino. Open it up, then we’ll both know.”

The contents of the package was a statuette about thirty centimeters high, depicting a male-female pair of Combat Dancers in the pose they’d used at the end of their routine when they first came aboard: male crouching, female erect, both with wings spread. The material was some kind of wood, dark brown with a green tinge, and the artist had used the grain of the wood to emphasize the lines of the dancers’ wings. “Damn, that’s pretty,” Todd observed. “What’s the note say?”

Peters hadn’t noticed the note, a slip of folded paper, creamy white with some kind of design or logo embossed on the front. Keep us in mind, it said in Grallt, and there was a squiggle below that, probably somebody’s signature. He read it to Todd. “As if I could forget any of this shit,” he said softly.

“Look at it this way,” Todd suggested. “You’ve made at least one friend.”

Peters snorted. “Yeah, and a whole bunch of enemies, I reckon, and the enemies are a lot closer. Whoa, here we go.”

Llapaaloapalla had been maneuvering as they spoke, stars flitting across the window in jumps and skips; there came the odd decelerating sensation of entry to High Phase, with the same special effects they’d seen before. Peters looked at the statuette in his hand for a long moment, then carefully set it in one of his locker cabinets, slipping the note under the base.

“You ought to keep it out to look at,” Todd objected. “It’s pretty.”

“Nah,” Peters said, and latched the cabinet. “It’d just collect dust. I’ll take it out from time to time, but there ain’t no need to be too obvious about it.”

Todd shrugged. “It’s your statue.”

<<< Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-Two >>>

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