The planet framed slightly off-center in the forward bay door was called Irkinnik, and its inhabitants were “bür”. Most of the sailors had trouble with the umlaut, but “beer” was close enough for most purposes. Dee had said they were warlike, and very, very good. She’d also said she thought the Navy pilots were better. That was about to be tested.

Peters checked off another statuette. Here were the “Draculas”: tall, thin to the point of shoulder blades and hipbones showing clearly in their kathir suits, with long narrow faces, bright red lips, sharply pointed jaws and noses, and close-cropped head hair with distinct widows-peaks. All they needed was long black cloaks, especially when one smiled, bringing distinct, and sharp, canines into view. Either there wasn’t much difference between their sexes or only one sex was represented among the visitors to Llapaaloapalla.

They were nice people, soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, and didn’t have much use for military drill or formal punctilio, but they weren’t the least sloppy. They’d approached in well-kept diamond formations, individuals peeling off to land while the others circled around, and their ships were parked in neat echelon alongside the demo plane, which was a Hornet this time. All their kathir suits were marked the same, a rich blue with red simulated briefs, except for different numbers and designs of yellow stripes on the sleeves, probably rank designations.

“Well, now we know where this bucket of bolts came from,” Tollison rumbled cheerfully. Todd had expounded his theory about different “flavors” or “feels” of technology, and the two First Classes had talked it around; it was now the consensus of the humans, or at least the enlisted, and the evidence was persuasive. Bür ships were rectangular blocks with rounded corners, painted white with geometric designs here and there, collateral descendants of Llapaaloapalla if not direct ones.

“The theory seems sound,” Mannix observed, “but perhaps we should ask someone likely to know more about it. Dee, did the bür build Llapaaloapalla ?”

“I don’t know,” Dee confessed. “If so, it was before I was born.” Theoretically she was now liaison between the enlisted and the Grallt, and she was useful in dealing with the Trade organization–even after all this time none of the sailors had met her superiors–but that wasn’t necessary very often, and in fact Peters had better relations with the zerkre than Dee did. If the sailors needed to know something, usually Dhuvening or Linvenig told Peters, Peters told Dee, and Dee told the Master Chief.

It kept Peters out of Joshua’s sight; he was even beginning to rub along fairly well with Howell. The fact that it didn’t make sense wasn’t worth considering.

“Now hear this,” Joshua said over the general push. “Flight operations will begin in three-two minutes. All hands, rig for flight operations. I say again, flight operations will begin at the turn of the next ande. All hands rig for flight operations. That is all. ”

“I wish he’d decide whether to use Earth time or Grallt time,” Peters groused. “Mixin’ ’em up that way’s likely to get everybody confused.”

“Look on the bright side,” Mannix advised. “At least he’s using the ship’s designations sometimes. He started out using nothing but Earth time and bells.” Peters just grinned and headed up to collect his deck gear. Aunt Lulu had believed in ouija boards. Peters was certain that he’d never accept a message from beyond the grave as being from Mannix if it didn’t include the phrase “Look on the bright side” or some equivalent.

Rupert was waiting at Retard Three, and Jacks ambled up as Peters was checking the settings: all correct. One of the ways the bür had endeared themselves to the sailors was by sending pathfinders–the first out of six alien encounters–with the proper mass and speed settings, and by seeming content to allow humans to operate the retarders instead of supplying their own crews. Not that they really needed them. The ships the bür flew might not look sleek and flashy, but they handled them with sure deftness, matching speeds so perfectly that the fields were rarely deployed. Peters recalled Keezer’s comments, but made sure the settings were correct anyway.

The humans’ planes were first out as usual, Hornets in the lead this time, so the visitors could see how the system worked. Over the voyage they’d refined their plane-handling techniques with the enkhei remarks about “performances” in mind. The result was highly stylized, and would probably get them in trouble when they got home and had to operate twice as many planes in a quarter of the space, but it sure as Hell looked pretty. When the bür’s turn came they made an attempt to go along with the gag, mistaking a few of the ground-guides’ wand signals but not doing badly for newbies.

Recovery wasn’t quite so pretty. The bür trapped first, coming in a little hotter than they had when coming aboard the first time and gathering in clumps along the side of the ops bay to watch. “Look alive,” said Howell when all the bür were in. “From the look of it things didn’t go all that good for our guys this time.”

Commander Collins was hot enough to twang the first two retarders, the first time that had happened in quite a while, and almost all of the other Hornets were either hotter, sloppier, or both than usual. The first flight of Tomcats was about the same, and in the short pause after they trapped all the retarder crews double- and triple-checked their consoles. The second flight was manned by the alternate crews, and despite improvement they simply weren’t as good as the primaries.

105 managed to twang number three before getting down to deck-maneuvering speed. The sailors exchanged looks as it taxied away. As they understood it, the low-powered lasers used in the mock combats caused a shock that was transmitted distinctly through the airframe. They also scarred the paint, and from the look of it Mr. Carlyle had gotten as much as he could dish out if he hadn’t actually come out second best. Multiple splotches marred the Navy blue of the wings and tail surfaces, and several irregular areas of peeled paint marched down the midbody, definite kills if the weapons were on their normal settings.

106 and 107 were a little calmer but still hotter than usual, and bore similar if less extensive evidence that the bür were several cuts above the opponents they’d encountered before. Number 108 was lagging, and Howell pulled out his binoculars and took a look. “Shit,” he said. “It looks like he’s lost it. This could get interesting.”

“Who is it?” somebody asked.

“Carson,” another replied.

“Oh, shit.” It was obvious to the naked eye that his attitude was wrong. Carson’s problem seemed to be that he couldn’t bear to head directly for the ship. Peters could sympathize a little–the times he’d been outside it had been much easier to think of the ship as “down” than “over there”–but if the pilot was too rattled to get the nose down it was likely to cause problems.

Sure enough, the nose was way high, at or above the angle it would use when landing on the carrier. That wasn’t what Carson had in mind, though, because the wings were still folded back in high-speed mode. If he’d reverted to the training he’d gotten, the wings would be extended–or maybe not; he would have learned on modern airplanes, which didn’t have variable geometry.
Twang! went the first retarder.

The nose-high airplane caught the air inside the bay. It rose and kept rising, meeting the beams of the overhead with a shower of sparks and a crash that reverberated down the bay.

Having the wings back, and a little luck, saved two lives. As it rose the Tomcat pitched nose-down, catching one of the crossbeams just aft of the rear cockpit, shearing the vertical stabilizers off clean with a hell of a screech but sparing the canopy and its occupants the same fate. It then fell to the deck with another reverberating crash and skidded down the bay, leaving long scars in the nonskid and spraying yellow fire. It didn’t take telepathy for two hundred and forty-eight humans to share variants of the same thought: No fuel, thank God, no fire, thanks be to God in His mercy.

Kraewitz got there first and yanked the escape handle. Explosive bolts sent the canopy sailing, and the backseater’s bubble tumbled after it. The canopy coamings were still above their heads, which caused a delay that was probably fortunate. Peters cat-scrambled up the side, jamming the toes of his boondockers into the slots provided for that purpose, but the action gave him time to think a little. Without the threat of fire they could take time to make sure there were no broken necks or backs before moving the flight crews, instead of snatching and grabbing in a pile of slippery foam while praying that the ordnance didn’t cook off.

There weren’t any scars on the NFO’s helmet, and the straps seemed to have held; Lieutenant Carson seemed to be in about the same shape. Cunningham was reaching for his straps but stopped when Peters hissed, “Wait for the medics.” The other Second Class backed off, content to observe if a little itchy. A shout of “Make way, there!” from below gave Peters just time to swing over and crouch on the intake before the corpsman was swarming up to take charge. Another was heading for the front seat, obliging Cunningham to perch insecurely on the canopy edge.

SPEYR, LTJG it said on the NFO’s helmet, with a single bar and a design of red stripes like stylized ram’s horns. The corpsman felt around the base of the man’s neck, then undid the snaps of the oxygen mask and worked the helmet off, revealing a sweaty disheveled face. He handed the helmet to Peters and began to expertly palpate the officer’s neck and upper back. “Bear a hand here,” he said when he seemed satisfied, not a request.

He and Peters got the straps undone, fumbling a little because despite training neither of them had done it often. By that time the officer was able to cooperate, managing to stand up in the cockpit with a little help and swing his legs over onto the maintenance stand somebody’d had the wit to bring up. “Thanks,” he said faintly. “I think I’m okay.”

“No, sir, you ain’t okay ’til the doc says you are,” the corpsman said firmly. He and Peters got the officer to sit, head down between his knees, until a litter was passed up. They got him on it and the straps tight; another sailor took one end, and he and the medic worked it down the steps and set off across the bay, with Carson just behind in his own litter.

Peters clambered down more slowly, shaking with reaction, and sat on the deck, bracing his back against the crumpled port engine nacelle. He pulled off his helmet, dumped it, and put his own head between his knees, breathing deeply to come down off the adrenaline high. Sailors were crowding around, but Warnocki’s bark of “Clear away there !” started them moving off, and the Chief came over to Peters. “You okay?” he asked. “What happened?”

“He was nose high. You seen the rest.”

“Yeah,” Warnocki said sourly.

* * *

Peters was relaxing on his bunk, deep in the tenth volume of the long-running saga of Orberig the Sailor, when someone pounded on the door. “Come,” he said shortly.

“The results of the board are in,” Howell said without preamble. “Simple negligence.”

Peters nodded, wondering why the First Class had taken the time to pass the word. They’d learned to get along, but they’d never be friends. “‘Bout what I expected. When’s the Court?”

“There won’t be a Court,” Howell said, keeping his mouth in a tight thin line.

“That don’t sound right,” Peters observed, not quite correctly. An Accident Investigation Board finding of “gross negligence” on the part of an officer generated a Court-Martial as a matter of course; “simple negligence” could be handled more simply. “What’re they doin’ to Carson? Limited duty and a note in his 201?”

“You got it. He’s off flying status and gets a note in his file, and that’s it.”

“Well, at least he’ll be out of our hair.”

“Not precisely,” Howell advised. “In fact, not at all. Which brings us to the best part. The Board in its wisdom has ruled that a contributing cause to the accident was, quote, ‘failure of poorly-trained and poorly-supervised enlisted crews to properly operate important safety equipment’. That means thee and me, Peters, not to mention Kraewitz and Bannerman. We get love letters in our 201s too.”

“Mighta known,” Peters observed disgustedly. “Well, I didn’t really want that third chevron anyhow.”

“Oh, you’re all right. You, Cunningham, and Kraewitz get letters commending you for ‘prompt, effective, and appropriate action in a situation with lives at stake’. No doubt they’ll staple the two of them together and shove them to the back of the file, just call it push and pull.” Howell regarded his sleeve sourly. “Me, I don’t get any such letter, so I can kiss any chance of a rocker bye-bye.”

“You know well’s I do it don’t work that way,” Peters pointed out. “Takes ten attaboys to cancel one aw-shit, and I reckon this here’s more of an aw-fuck , myself. I ain’t never gonna get enough attaboys to cancel that, especially with me and the Master Chief not gettin’ along.”

“Hmph. Which brings me to what I looked you up for. Having received this news, the Master Chief has decreed extra drill for us ree-tarded operators, starting right after next chow. In full gear. With adult supervision.”

“Well, I reckon from their point of view that’s the next thing on the program,” Peters offered judiciously. “Hunh. How’re we gonna drill effectively? It ain’t like we had anything resemblin’ a simulator.”

“Cross that bridge when we come to it. First session will just be review of procedures, which is to say, teaching our new boss which switch turns the lights on.”

“Yeah … What’s this about supervision? Is Chief Joshua gonna come down and look over our shoulders?”

“Oh, no, that wouldn’t do at all,” Howell opined with mock-solemn cynicism. “No, the Chief stays where he is. Us, we get a real grownup. Following the Board’s recommendation, Commander Bolton has assigned us an LSO.”

“An officer? How’re they gonna do that? All the officers are flight crew, barrin’ the Doc.” He looked Howell in the face. “Oh, shit. You ain’t tellin’ me–”

Howell nodded, with a bare-toothed grin containing not one iota of amusement. “You got it. Seeing as how he’s been relieved of flying duties, and is therefore without a current assignment –”

“That asshole Carson gets to be Landing Signal Officer. Well, ain’t that great.”

“You got it,” Howell repeated. “First utle after next chow, in full drag, ready to receive the words of wisdom from On High. Be there or be square.”

“Walkin’ our posts in proper military manner,” Peters added. “Well, I reckon there ain’t nothin’ for it.”

Howell just nodded and pulled the door closed. Peters shook his head, looking over at his book, which he’d laid down carefully, using a four-ornh note for a bookmark. Cherin had explained to him in some detail the reason for not laying books open and face down. He’d never had much to do with books before, but the precaution seemed sensible, like securing watertight doors … which had nothing to do with the present situation, which was not looking like a pleasant prospect. Among other things, having a real officer on the deck would disrupt the command structure they’d improvised. By virtue of his rank, Carson would be the constituted authority, making Chief Joshua’s role as default Air Boss moot. “Come!” he shouted when the tapping on his door was repeated.

“I guess you’ve heard the news,” Dee said.

“Yeah, and it don’t thrill me,” Peters understated.

“I expected that,” Dee told him wryly. “I hate to impose, but I need some help.”

“What do you need?”

“Chief Joshua told me to arrange for a member of Llapaaloapalla ‘s crew to be present for the additional instruction he ordered.” She looked a little sheepish. “I’m not very familiar with the zerkre, and they don’t know me at all. Would you go along and help me out? They know you a lot better.”

“You sure?” Peters asked softly. “I’m one of the ones in the shit.”

“Yes, I know, but I don’t even know where to go or who to ask.”

“Jus’ go to the control room and ask for Dhuvenig. If he ain’t around, either Heelinig or Deenerin can help you.”

“But I’m afraid!” she almost wailed. “Won’t you please go along? In all my life I never imagined that I would visit the control room.”

“What’re you afraid of?” Peters asked gently. “They’re nice folks up there.”

“Maybe for you, but I’m only a trader, and a junior one at that,” Dee pointed out. “Please help.”

“You’re jumpin’ at shadows.” Peters held up a hand when she started to object. “OK, I’ll go, but we can’t be seen together, leastwise not by any of the humans.” He thought for a moment. “You know where the library’s at?”

“I think so. I’ve never been there.”

“Learnin’ that’ll be good for you,” Peters said with some amusement. “It’s an interestin’ place. I done learned a lot there.”

“So I should meet you in the library?”

“Yeah. Wait a tle or so, then go to the library. Don’t wait too long. It’s gettin’ close to mealtime, and after that we won’t be able to get away with much.»

“All right,” she said a trifle wanly. “Come as soon as you can. I don’t feel welcome in that part of the ship.”

“You’ll be fine,” Peters assured. “Go. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“OK.” She turned and left, pulling the door closed.

Now isn’t this a helluva deal? Peters waited a few minutes, then pulled on dungarees over his kathir suit and searched out his hat. The requirement to wear clothing over the airsuit was honored much more in the breach than in the observance, but the order had never been rescinded, and if he was already on somebody’s shit list there was no point in adding tick marks.

Dee had managed to find the library, but hadn’t mustered up the courage to go in; she was standing outside the door, looking fidgety and getting odd looks from the occasional passerby. «Calm yourself,» Peters told her. «They won’t bite you.»

«I’m not emotionally certain of that,» she said, with more humor than he’d expected.

«Let’s go inside for a moment,» Peters suggested. «The librarian is a good person. Perhaps if you meet her you can become more easy about meeting the others.»

«That might help,» she agreed.

«Come, then.» Peters pushed open the library door. «Hello, Cherin,» he greeted the woman at the desk. «I introduce Dee.»

Cherin glanced at him with a little quirk of the mouth. «Hello, Peters,» she said, amusement in her voice. «Welcome to the library, Dee. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.»

«No, I’ve never been here before,» Dee agreed.

«You’re a Trader, aren’t you? Is there anything special you like to read?»

«No, I have never read very much,» Dee admitted. «I read some books when I was in school, but never since.»

«That’s too bad,» the librarian chided. «Reading is a good way to learn new things. Look at Peters. He reads more than almost anyone I know, and as a result he knows much more than you’d expect.»

«Perhaps I should try it,» Dee said dubiously. «Am I permitted to come here?»

«Well, of course you are,» Cherin told her with some force. «The library is for everyone.»

«Thank you.» Dee looked around. Several patrons, some in kathir suits with zerkre markings, were sitting in comfortable chairs. «It’s a very quiet place, isn’t it?» she commented.

«Yes, libraries are quiet places,» Peters told her. «When you’re reading it’s better to have quiet, so you can listen to the voices the book makes in your head.»

«That’s a very poetic way to put it, but Peters is right,» Cherin told her. «Come any time, even if all you want is to be quiet for a while. I’ll suggest some things for you to read if you like.»

«Thank you, Cherin.»

«No thanks necessary. Peters, why did you bring Dee here? I don’t think it was romantic interest.»

Dee colored. «No, not romantic interest,» Peters assured the librarian with a smile. «Dee needs to visit the control room, and she’s a little afraid of the reception she might find there. I thought perhaps if she could meet you she might realize that not all of the zerkre eat babies.»

«That isn’t funny,» Cherin said sharply. «And to think I complimented you for being poetic only a moment ago! Dee, if you have business in the control room, just go there and ask. Even if you’re only curious you should go and ask. They might say no, but so long as you’re polite that’s the worst thing you should expect.»

«I suppose I know that intellectually,» Dee admitted. «But it’s hard to change old habits.»

«I’ll have to speak with some of the others,» Cherin said to Peters. «I knew not many of the Traders ever came up here, but I didn’t realize that they were afraid.»

«Perhaps Dee won’t be any more,» Peters said. «But now, if you will excuse us, we need to go to the control room.»

«You don’t need my permission,» the librarian pointed out. «Come again soon. You come too, Dee.»

«Thank you,» Dee said quietly.

«Now see, that wasn’t so bad,» Peters said when they were in the passageway.

«No, it wasn’t,» Dee admitted, and took a few steps. «It doesn’t seem right.».

«What doesn’t?»

«I have lived on Llapaaloapalla all my life. You have been here only a little over five zul, yet you know more about the ship than I do!»

«Perhaps so,» Peters admitted. «I found an interest and followed it. You could do the same if you wanted to.»

«Yes, that’s true, isn’t it? It’s unfortunate that I didn’t know that before.» Dee squared her narrow shoulders. «Lead on. I’m still not looking forward to this, but it’s starting to feel like something I should have done long ago.»

Dhuvenig looked Dee over pretty comprehensively, seeming to like what he saw. «Further instruction?» he asked when their errand was explained. «I thought you were past that. You have been operating the retarders for some time now.»

«Did you know about the accident?» Peters asked.

«Yes, I went down to check if anything had happened to the ship’s structure, and I stopped to look at the wreckage. The air caught the wings on the ship and threw it against the overhead structure, as I understand it. The crew were very lucky. If they had hit only a few tell forward or aft they would almost certainly have been killed.»

«That’s how I understand it as well, but my superiors feel that it is possible faulty operation of the retarders contributed to the accident,» Peters explained. «They want us to have further instruction, to avoid such incidents in future.»

«I suppose I see their point, but it’s based on a misunderstanding of the retarder system,» Dhuvenig pointed out. «The retarders can only check motion in a line parallel to the ship’s long axis. If the approaching ship moves to one side or the other the retarders can’t stop it. You couldn’t have prevented the accident by changing the way you operate them.»

«That is how I understood the situation, and I attempted to explain it,» Peters agreed. «But because I was one of the operators at the time, they won’t necessarily take my word for it.»

«Again I can see their point.» Dhuvenig sighed. «The problem is that Keezer doesn’t like working with you humans. I will have to find someone else with both the knowledge and the free time.» He looked at Dee. «Why did you bring Dee along for this errand? Not that I have any objections, but you certainly know the language well enough.»

«It has to do with the politics in our group. It would be better if my superiors didn’t know I came here. They might be more suspicious, thinking that I might have made some special arrangement with you to avoid blame. But Dee was afraid to approach you by herself, so I agreed to come along.»

Dhuvenig nodded. «Oh? That sort of thing happens sometimes. I will instruct whoever I send not to mention it.» He looked Dee up and down. «Dee, if you need to contact us again, you should come by yourself. We aren’t ferassi here.»

«Dee doesn’t feel comfortable coming to the control room,» Peters told him. The unfamiliar word didn’t parse in the Grallt he knew. Probably it meant something like ‘monster’ or ‘ogre’.

«Yes, I know some of the traders feel that way,» Dhuvenig observed. «Come back any time, Dee. You can ask for me especially, and I’ll do what I can for you.» He smiled. «Come whenever you like, even if you don’t have business. Perhaps we could get to know one another better.»

«Thank you, Dhuvenig,» Dee said a little weakly.

«No thanks necessary. Is there more?»

«No, Dhuvenig, I think that’s all.» Peters told him when Dee didn’t respond.

«Yes,» the Grallt responded with a short nod, and Dee and Peters turned to leave.

Outside the bridge access Dee stopped and leaned against Peters. He put his arm around her shoulders, realizing with a start that it was the first time he’d touched her. «See, that wasn’t so bad,» he offered.

«No, not really. Dhuvenig was nice, I thought. I was frightened the whole time, though.»

«You should get over that. You will have to come back again, because I might not be able to take the risk. Don’t worry. Dhuvenig will be glad to see you.»

«You think so? Why would Dhuvenig be happy to see a Trader in his control room?»

«I don’t think his interest has anything to do with traders and zerkre,» Peters said with a smile.

She moved away and looked up at him. «What, then?» she asked suspiciously.

«It wouldn’t be a bad arrangement,» Peters suggested. «He’s a nice guy with lots of status, and he seems interested. You should pursue the matter.»

«Wearing my airsuit, I suppose,» Dee offered, with a hint of irony.

«You should do that anyway, but it wouldn’t hurt.» Peters grinned. «You make a very good impression in it.»

«You’re as crude as the officers are.»

«Oh, I’m much worse. I’m enlisted, after all. Now let’s go. Mealtime is almost over, and I need to get something to eat before I go on duty.»

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