Zenth was visible out the aft door. “It don’t look a whole lot different,” Peters observed.

“Different from what?”

“Different from home. Earth,” Peters explained. “Or Keelisika, either. Just sort of blue and white.”

Todd considered. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he admitted. “But, well, water’s blue and clouds are white, right? I don’t think that’s gonna change between different planets.”

Two dli were pulled up where their entrances were convenient to the EM quarters hatch, and the freight hauler sat between them and another convenient for the officers. A chain of sailors was passing seabags down the line toward the freight ship, Mannix and another First Class checking name tags as the bags were presented.

Peters and Todd took seats in the aft section and sat while the others filed aboard. Gell pushed his way forward, leading the contingent of Chiefs toward the VIP section, and shortly after that the hatch swung shut and seated itself with a muted thud. Then the view out the ports began gyrating, the dli shot out the bow of Llapaaloapalla and into space, and the sailors settled in for the ride, some sitting quietly, others pointing out the ports and commenting.

Several of the more intrepid ones got up and went up and down the aisle, chatting with friends and generally skylarking. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Todd remarked, watching as Everett stood over one of his cronies, laughing about something and slapping the other on the back of the head.

“Let it be,” Peters advised. “We ain’t in charge of this evolution.”

Shortly after that they felt the odd sensation they’d noticed when Gell was letting them operate the controls. Probably Gell was letting one of the sailors drive; the dli accelerated in odd directions, and the sensations drove the skylarkers back to their seats in a general clicking of seat belts.

Atmosphere duly arrived in a roar of orange and yellow flame. “Nice ride,” somebody commented appreciatively when that was over and they were plunging toward a brightly sunlit cloud bank. The rest murmured agreement. There was a sky now rather than stars, dark blue, lightening as they descended. Next was broken clouds, first gray mist, then sunlit blue in flashes. Below that layer the dli stabilized at relatively low altitude, flying over a high-summer sea with puffy cumulus clouds overhead.

“Landfall coming up,” somebody remarked, and there was a general leaning toward the ports. The landscape was predominately blue, with an occasional tinge of green and a few yellows and reds for bright contrast. Houses, or at least structures, were scattered higgledy-piggledy over the rolling hillsides among linear features that were probably fences and ditches, with blue and green trees that looked a bit like pines.

The dli passed over a straight row of tall trees and came to a halt in midair, then sank slowly onto a field of close-cropped blue–sod? Sailors started to get up and reclaim small personal items from the overhead lockers. The hatch opened with a whirr and thud, and the men nearest the entry started to move out.

“Peters, front and center!” somebody shouted. “You, too, Todd. Make way, there.” Peters began pushing down the aisle, Todd following. He should have expected this and sat closer to the hatch.

Tollison stood on the wingwalk, grinning. “Your services are needed,” he said, and gestured toward the tail.

The waiting group was composed of short people(?) with round heads, broad faces, and pointed ears, like munchkins; the one at the head of the delegation wore a bright-colored red-and-yellow outfit and a green hat. «Pleasant greetings,» he(?) said as Peters clambered down the steps. «Do you speak the Trade?»

«A little,» Peters admitted with a nod.

There was unmistakable relief in the small fellow’s change of posture. «Excellent! Welcome to Star Bay Resort. I am Cacoladorivarogantsava–» the name went on for several more syllables. «But you should address me as Ca. May I know your name?»

«Thank you for your welcome, Ca. I am Peters, and this is my associate, Todd. We stand ready to assist you in whatever procedure may be appropriate.»

«Oh, most excellent indeed!» the munchkin exclaimed in his high-pitched voice. «Not only a speaker of Trade, but a cultured one as well! I’m sure we shall get along famously.» He gestured at the other individuals waiting. «My staff and I are prepared to serve you in any way reasonable.»

«Most excellent indeed,» Peters agreed gravely, and nodded. «How may we best cooperate? Few of us speak the Trade.»

Ca eyed the sailors beginning to descend from the aft steps. «This is not an unfamiliar situation,» he declared. «I suggest this: Each of your people should claim his equipment, and you should divide into pairs. Staff members will assist with the equipment and direct each pair to the desk, where one should sign the register. After that they should proceed to the rooms, with the staff directing them. Is this reasonable?»

«Eminently reasonable. Please wait a moment while I explain the procedure.» Ca bowed, one hand on his gaudy belt buckle, the other stiffly down, and Peters turned to the others.

«Attention please,» he said, and lifted his hand, and somebody in the back said, “Awright, pipe down and listen up.”

“Here’s how it’s gonna go,” he explained when he had their attention. “Everybody go grab your seabags. It’s gonna be two to a room, so pair off, OK? Then one of the bellhops’ll take the bags and show you where to go. One man in each room’s gotta sign the book, they’ll show you. Then they’ll take you to your room.” He looked around the group. “Mannix, I’d take it as a kind favor if you’d go over to the other ship and explain.”

“Be glad to,” Mannix said. “Tollison, why don’t you collect a crew and bear a hand with unloading? If we have to wait for that, we’ll be all morning.” He gestured at the freight hauler, where a pair of Grallt were struggling to bring seabags out one at a time.

“Aye, aye,” said Tollison cheerfully, and picked out five sailors. Mannix went over to the other shuttle and began explaining things, and Tollison and his crew began shifting seabags out, laying them in neat rows with space between to walk and look for tags. He was joined by four more from the other dli, and it looked like the bags would all be out in short order.

Peters turned to Ca. «We should be ready to begin the procedure in a few moments,» he told the little alien.

Ca stood with pipestem arms akimbo, looking like a cartoon of a pixie. «This is commendably organized,» he squeaked. «I must tell you we had doubts when we were asked to accommodate four eights of eights of aliens with no space experience, but if this is a proper sample of your group’s behavior I believe we will get along very well.»

Peters smiled. «I am sure they will become less organized later,» he said, «but that will be in smaller groups, or as individuals.»

«Yes, that’s often the way it goes,» Ca agreed. «But we can hope for the best.»

«Yes.» Peters eyed the scene. Sailors were claiming their seabags and picking out bellhops, who loaded the bags on hand trucks with fancy brass fittings and set out up the flagstone walkway. «Will your staff expect gratuities?»

«No, and in fact they are forbidden to accept them,» Ca said sternly.

Peters singled a sailor out by eye. “Hey, Deutsch, pass the word, willya? No tipping.” The other nodded and set out to do that, and Peters looked up at the hatch, where the Chiefs were filing out. «These require precedence,» he said to Ca, and gestured.

«Ah. How many?» the little alien asked.

«Six, all in this group.»

Ca smiled again. «That will be no problem. I have just that many corner rooms available, each with a good view. Have them follow the normal procedure, but singly. Their clothing properly identifies them?» The Chiefs were in khakis over their kathir suits.

«Yes, that’s correct,» Peters said. Ca began instructing bellhops, and Peters turned to Master Chief Joshua, who was descending the steps. “Master Chief, if each of you’d go claim your stuff, there’ll be a bellboy to show you to your rooms. They’d like you to sign the register book first.”

“That sounds all right,” Joshua said with a short nod. He looked around. “Looks like you’ve got things pretty well organized here.” Behind him, Warnocki was grinning.

Peters flushed a little. “Just passin’ the word, Master Chief. It’s Ca, here, who has things organized. I reckon he’s like the manager of the hotel. He says it’s called the Star Bay Resort.” Shifting languages: «Ca, I introduce Joshua, the First of this group, and his immediate associates.»

The little alien bowed, this time low with a sweep of one arm. “Choshawa,” he pronouced, almost correctly, and followed the bow with an unmistakable follow-me gesture. «I take it that Choshawa does not speak the Trade?» he asked Peters in a low voice.

«Unfortunately not,» Peters said in the same tone.

Ca sighed. «Ah, well, we do the best we can.»

One of the bellhops bowed to the Master Chief, pointing at his cart. Joshua nodded; they set off toward the seabag dump, and the other Chiefs followed. «I understood that there were to be a further five and five eights requiring special treatment,» Ca said to Peters. «Are they not here?»

«They are arriving,» Peters told him, pointing to the third dli, which was settling on the blue grass fifty meters or so away. «And yes, they require VIP treatment.» The concept was a single word in the Trade. «I believe we are well organized here. You should go and greet them. Consult with Dreelig, the Trader who is their translator and general assistant.»

«Thank you,» said the alien. «And now I introduce Zalaniski–» and a lot more. «Call him Zala. He will assist you with your equipment, and show you to your room. I must be off.» He bowed, briefly but low, without any showy gestures, and said something in squeaky staccato to the rest of the group. He and a half-dozen others double-timed across the grass to the third dli, which was beginning to disgorge passengers, with Dreelig and a pair of Grallt stewards in the lead.

Peters turned to Zala. «We will go and find our equipment now,» he said. The other nodded and set off toward the rapidly diminishing pile of seabags, scurrying on short legs to keep up with Peters and Todd, who shortened their steps a bit, embarrassed to make the little alien work so hard.

* * *

“Not bad at all,” Todd observed, looking around their room. It had a sizeable common area and two small bedchambers, each little more than a closet but furnished with a narrow bed, a nightstand with lamp, and a wardrobe or armoire. The place was paneled in light tan material, wood until somebody told them different. The common area was furnished with a couch, a table with four chairs, a pair of comfortable looking armchairs, and a sideboard, all wood or wood-framed, upholstered in warm tones. One wall, opposite the door, had large sash windows, curtained with sheer fabric in cool green with broad tan stripes; the windows were open to admit a breeze that stirred the curtains. Comfort falling short of true luxury seemed to be the aim, a place to relax and look out over the black sand beach to the silver sea beyond.

They tossed their seabags on the beds and began stowing their things. Peters came back out into the common room to find Todd lounging in an armchair, looking out the window and sipping from a tall glass that tinkled. Another glass sat on the little round table by the right arm of the other chair, the pale wood protected by a diamond-shaped doily. Peters sat and sipped, to discover a pleasantly astringent citrusy taste with a slight alcoholic kick. «That’s good,» he said, in Grallt for some reason. «Where did it come from?»

Todd looked at him oddly. “I really don’t know,” he confessed. “I heard the door close while I was putting my stuff away, and when I came out they were sitting here.”

“Well, Aunt Lulu always said the pixies worked where you can’t see ’em,” Peters said. “Granpap was skeptical, but it looks like Aunt Lulu was right.”

Todd chuckled. “Yes, all they lack is dangling earlobes, isn’t it? I wonder about this place.”

“How so?”

“Well, look how comfortable this chair is. These people are a lot littler than we are. They couldn’t sit in this chair and touch the floor.”

Peters shrugged. “Cacawhatever said they expected aliens. I reckon that means they set it up for whoever’s comin’ to visit.”

“You’re probably right. I keep forgetting that these folks are used to all kinds dropping in.”

There was a knock at the door. Peters sighed, set his glass down, and got up to answer it, during which time it was repeated. Opening the panel revealed Mannix, who looked around the room with interest. “My, my,” he said, “the high-rent district, I do believe. My room has a single space with two beds and one small window looking over a lovely vista of farmhouses and what are apparently domestic animals. No, no,” he waved negatively with both hands when Peters felt his face stiffen, “I’d not dream of turfing you out of the lap of luxury, especially since you’re likely to earn it twice over. Several of our comrades have repaired below, to what is apparently an establishment serving refreshment, and are having difficulties. Gracious fellow that I am, besides your being somewhat in my debt, I volunteered to seek you out and request your assistance.”

Peters felt himself loosening up. Mannix was short and slight, with a thin mobile face that looked inconsequential over civvies, but he hadn’t found three chevrons and four hash marks, all gold, in cereal packages. Mock-formal babble in a sunnily cheerful tone was one of his main tactics in dealing with interpersonal relations; he reguarly got more and better work out of his crews than anybody else did, without ever seeming to push or force. “Let’s go,” Peters told the First Class. “Our people don’t need to be havin’ difficulties.”

“My sentiments precisely.”

“Yeah, I bet. Comin’, Todd?”

“In a little bit. I’m gonna finish my drink first,” the younger sailor said. “I don’t have your sense of responsibility, I guess.”

“That’s quite all right,” Mannix told him. “I’m quite sure you’ll find ample opportunity to contribute your abilities at a somewhat later time. Come along, Peters.”

The bar was a bar, slightly upscale, paneled in blond wood and furnished with small round tables and bentwood chairs, most of which were currently occupied by sailors. “As you can see, my quest was successful,” Mannix announced as they entered, and took a comic stance, one hand over his breast, the other out in an exaggerated presentation gesture. “Petty Officer Peters, over to you.”

“Right,” said Peters. He surveyed the crowd. “Lemme get straight with the tender first.”

“Ask him if he has beer,” said Tollison. “If he does, I want some.” The blonde sailor held his hand out, miming a glass of three or four liters, and there was a general cry of cheerful agreement mixed with a few catcalls.

Peters approached the barkeep, one of the pixie people who staffed the hotel, who stood with arms akimbo, regarding the crowd with seeming apprehension over the low bar. «Pleasant greetings,» the sailor began. «I hope you have not had too much trouble with my associates. They are good fellows overall, if not terribly cultured.»

The bartender grinned broadly, and the tension went out of his stance. «I wasn’t really all that worried,» he said. «If they started breaking the furniture, I have a place to retreat, and as for the furniture and fittings–» he spread his arms and bent slightly at the hips, still grinning «–I just work here.»

«We can hope that won’t be a consideration,» Peters told him.

«We can hope,» the bartender said with a nod. «To business. What will they have?»

«Well, to begin with, they’d like to know if you have beer,» Peters said.

The bartender bowed. «My good fellow, everybody has beer. Everybody with any sense, that is. Beer is like gravy. Everybody has it, and everybody claims to have invented it. In my own humble opinion–» this with another bow «–no people can properly be considered of the kree unless they have beer. Certainly I have beer. Shall I serve some?»

«You should serve a great deal of beer,» Peters advised. «If you have containers of about this size–» he mimed a pitcher-sized object «–you should deliver one to each table, along with individual glasses. Is this possible?»

«Certainly. Let me ring for assistance; there are a great number of you.» The barkeep tapped a lever, generating a musical bong, and began producing and filling pitchers. «I must say, I begin to have doubts about your people,» he went on as he busied himself at his task.

«How so?» Peters asked. Staff members showed up and started delivering pitchers and glasses to tables.

«In any bar, in fact in any civilized establishment, in this volume of the void,» the barkeep said, punctuating the phrase with the thunk of another pitcher on the polished wood, «a being may call out the word “beer” in the Trade language, accompanied by the appropriate number of digits or other appendages, and depend upon being served appropriately. How is it that your people cannot achieve this minimal accomplishment?»

Peters laughed and bowed. «I offer apologies on their behalf,» he said. «We are new to this experience; in fact this is the first planet other than our own we have visited. I hope we can learn quickly.»

«Truly?» The bartender looked around the room, where the last few pitchers of beer were being delivered. «You look very much like–well, let’s just say that I’m more than a little surprised that you are so inexperienced.» He eyed the sailor for a moment, then selected a glass of roughly a pint capacity, filled it from a different tap, and passed it over. «Thank you for your assistance.»

And just what was that little pause about? Peters wondered. «You are quite welcome,» he said.

“Join us if you’d like,” said Mannix as Peters turned away from the bar, gesturing at an empty chair and eyeing the glass. “I see you got served from the special reserve, but this is quite adequate.”

“Real good, in fact,” said Tollison as he poured himself another glass. Peters took a sip of his own, and had to agree. It was beer, cool and bubbly, with a pleasant light smoky taste.

“You and the bartender had quite a discussion,” Mannix observed. “What was that all about?”

“We was talkin’ about beer,” Peters explained. “The bartender says everybody with any sense makes beer. In fact, he don’t think much of people who can’t order beer.”

“He’s got a point,” said Tollison with a grin.

“Indeed he does.” Mannix sipped contemplatively. “Very few of us have learned the language; Peters here is extraordinary in that respect. I believe it’s because we didn’t have an incentive.” He sipped again. “The waiters all learned English with remarkable speed, and none of us has much other dealing with the Grallt.”

“That’s true,” Tollison observed as he emptied the pitcher into his glass. “But now we have an incentive. I, for one, would like more beer.”

“Yes, indeed.” Mannix stood, produced a metallic object of some kind, and tapped it against the empty pitcher to produce a tinking sound. “Attention everyone,” he said. The room failed to quiet; Mannix tapped again, and said, “Listen up!” He had a remarkably carrying command voice for such a slight person.

The room settled down in a wave that went from Mannix to the farthest corner. When he had their attention, the First Class said in a ringing tone, “Fellow squids, our honor has been impugned, and more importantly our intelligence has been questioned. How is it that supposedly bright individuals such as ourselves–”

“Speak for yourself,” somebody interjected, and there was general laugh.

Supposedly bright individuals,” Mannix emphasized, “cannot accomplish such a simple task as ordering beer? We should be ashamed of ourselves. More important, we should begin to repair our shocking lack as quickly as possible. Petty Officer Peters, please stand.” Peters stood, glass in hand, and Mannix went on, “Petty Officer Peters, please pronounce, as distinctly as you can, the word for ‘beer’ in the tongue understood locally.”

«Beer,» Peters said in the Trade, and held up the glass in demonstration. The bartender looked up, and Peters waved him back.

«Beer,» Mannix repeated. “Is that about correct?”

“Not too bad,” Peters judged. “But we’re all in the habit of makin’ our vowels into two sounds. The ‘ah’ part oughta be a simple ‘ah’, not ‘ah-ee’. Try it again.”

«Beer,» said Mannix. “How’s that?”

“Just about perfect,” Peters approved.

“All right, everybody,” Mannix addressed the group, “Repeat after me: beer.” He made a swooping gesture, like a conductor bringing up the brasses, and got back a ragged chorus: «beer.»

“Now, now, that’s not wonderful,” Mannix told the group. “Let’s try it again: beer.” This time the chorus was stronger, and the pronounciation better: «beer.»

“Better. Again: beer.”

«Beer.»

“And again: beer.”

«Beer.»

«Beer.»

«Beer.»

«Beer.»

Mannix held both hands out, palms toward the group to quiet them, and turned to Peters. “Do you consider that adequate?” he asked.

Peters nodded. “That’s all right as it stands. But this here’s a high class establishment, and you might want to be polite and add ‘please’ to that.”

“That’s certainly an option I’d like to have available,” Mannix judged. “Petty Officer Peters, please pronounce, loudly and distinctly, the word for ‘please’.”

«Please,» Peters said.

«Beer, please,» Mannix repeated. “How was that?”

“Like I said, you got to watch them vowels: ‘oh’, not ‘oh-ah’.”

«Beer, please,» Mannix repeated again.

“That’s got it.”

Mannix turned to the group, now waiting with expectant grins. «Beer, please,» he said, and gestured.

«Beer, please.»

«Beer, please.»

«Beer, please.»

«Beer, please.»

Mannix used another conductor-like gesture, this time moving his hands in little circles, ending palms down, to terminate a loud passage. “Do you suppose that’s adequate?” he asked.

“Sounds like it to me, but let’s ask the one whose opinion’s most important,” Peters said, and indicated the bartender. He shifted to Grallt: «My associates would like to know if they are making themselves understood.»

The tender smiled broadly. «The accent could use a little work, but who of us can’t say that? On the whole I would say they are clearly understandable.»

«Thank you.» Peters bowed slightly and turned to Mannix. “He says he don’t think the accent’s quite perfect, but it’s close enough.”

“Glad to hear it,” Tollison said. The full attention of the group was on him as he strode to the bar, set the empty pitcher on it, and pronounced distinctly, «Beer, please.» The bartender grinned and dipped his head, took the pitcher, filled it from the tap, and set it back on the bar; Tollison held it up like a trophy, and got a general happy cheer from the crowd, with some applause.

Mannix eyed the pitcher as Tollison set it back on the table. “That seems to have gone well,” he observed. “Peters, we are all in your debt. Your given name is John, isn’t it? Please call me Gerald. Not ‘Jerry’, please, I detest the diminutive.”

“Greg,” Tollison interjected with a nod.

“Thanks,” said Peters. He took the last sip from his glass; Mannix refilled it from the pitcher without comment, and they looked over the room. Sailors were intercepting waiters, pronouncing the magic formula, and being appropriately rewarded. Not all of them got it right the first time, but the subject was important, and they persevered until they obtained the desired response. “Pos’tive reinforcement,” Peters muttered.

“That’s exactly it,” Mannix observed. “John, we truly appreciate your help, don’t we, Greg?”

Tollison nodded, and Mannix went on, “If you’d care to absent yourself and repair to your quarters, perhaps to rest after your labors, be assured that we won’t take it amiss.” He sipped beer. “On the other hand, if you’d care to stay, I for one would like a few more pointers. Greg?”

“Absolutely,” said Tollison.

“I reckon I’ll hang here for a little while, Gerald,” Peters said. “Among other things, this here’s pretty good beer.”

Todd joined them a little later, and together they went on to advanced subjects, such as more beer, what kind of beer do you have, and I like/don’t like this beer. Not all of the sailors joined in, but enough did that Peters was finally moved to remark, “You know, this here’s a pretty bright group o’ in-di-vidjuls.”

“Yes, I suppose so.” Mannix beamed owlishly at the assembly. “Provided, that is, that they have incentive.”

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

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