Kennard and Tollison started the exercise sessions back up as soon as possible. Peters joined in as something to do more than anything else; most of the others seemed to feel the same way. The Grallt, not given to mincing words, called it “dance class”. Peters forebore to explain that to anybody. Tollison would have laughed; he didn’t know Kennard much.

Their diet started changing. The first new item to appear was a cloudy pink beverage; Zeep brought them each a glass without being asked and bustled off. Todd tasted it cautiously. “Milk,” he diagnosed. “Kind of a funny flavor, but not bad.” Peters tasted and agreed.

After that they got on average one new item per meal. Zeep would bring something, tell them the name, and bustle off while they tried it. Some of it they liked, some they didn’t; none of it made them sick, although almost all the humans had weak allergic reactions to one or more items.

That was remarkable when you thought about it. Peters asked, and Zeep explained: «Oh, it all has to be tested, that’s why you don’t get it all at once.» He shrugged. «If it was only us, we wouldn’t need to test, we know the enkheil well. But you humans are new.» Peters and Todd shared raised eyebrows. Apparently there was a little more to food service on Llapaaloapalla than met the eye.

Peters and Tollison, along with a few others, got called away from the exercise sessions regularly, because Chief Warnocki wanted to get started on the forward bay door. They got out the bucket lift and turned to; the mechanism wasn’t in quite as bad shape as the aft one had been, probably because the Grallt’s operations pattern used it less, but several gear teeth were cracked, and the thing needed oil like a last-century automobile did. Dhuvenig’s admonition not to open the doors during high phase left them with no way to test it until Cleeves suggested that they disconnect the drive chain from the door itself. “We know the door moves,” he observed.

“Yeah, and the carrier bearings on that are next on the list for grease,” Warnocki growled. “But yeah, you’re right. We’ll do it that way.” It took an extra watch, but at the end they were confident that the doors would work when needed.

The enkheil had used lasers, or something like lasers, in the mock combat, and the Navy blue paint on the planes had absorbed the energy just fine, thank you. They had blotches where the paint had been burned off, and those had to be cleaned, filled, and repainted. Peters wasn’t involved in that, but Todd was, and when he remarked about it, Peters explained what the enkheil had told him: “They reckon it must be the same thing, but they ain’t got a clue what it really is, because they buy ’em off the shelf and they’re all sealed up, so you can’t tell how they work.”

“Sounds like an opportunity for us,” Todd observed. “Maybe we could sell them cheaper or something.”

Peters snorted. “Hnh. Just don’t let the Master Chief hear you talkin’ like that. That’s officer business, accordin’ to him, and enlisted better keep their nose out.”

Todd grinned. “What I think is, Master Chief Joshua wants your ass.”

“We don’t get on too well, and that’s a fact.”

During the workups for the voyage Peters and Todd hadn’t seen a great deal of one another, each being pulled into the orbit of his particular specialty despite the strong association formed by their being tossed together and into a strange situation. Now that they were roommates they had begun to take up where they’d left off, taking chow together, talking over the day, and grousing about conditions.

They also began, tentatively at first, to resume their exploration of Llapaaloapalla. Peters’s command of the Trade language and Todd’s less elegant ability gave them access to anywhere that wasn’t private or guarded, and much that was. Neither of them asked or received permission, either from the Grallt or their own hierarchy, and they made no explanations and filed no reports. They didn’t discuss their wanderings in public, except sotto voce over meals, and although they weren’t exactly furtive, they did take reasonable precautions to avoid questions that were sure to be awkward.

The section below the operations bay had about the same volume as the bay, but was divided into decks; the upper two were warrens of freezers, some of which weren’t working, and the rest of it held long narrow trays mounted on chain drives. A gang of Grallt would manhandle a tray onto the start end of the chains, which would carry it slowly away. As it moved, it would be filled with dirt–or some mixture plants would grow in–and seeded, and before it reached the end would support a luxuriant growth, which was harvested by one crew before another wrestled the tray off the chains, cleaned it, and returned it to start for recycling. The overheads of those compartments were forests of lights of different types, and the illumination there was almost blinding; many of the Grallt working there wore caps and tinted lenses, the lenses depending from headbands or cap visors, which made sense.

«Why this one not works?» Todd asked, looking into an empty compartment in the freezer section.

«The mechanism is broken,» said Gellin, the sub-supervisor who had consented to guide them. «We could use the space, but it isn’t a large problem. When we next go to Kakikya someone will repair it.»

«How should it work?» Peters asked, looking with interest at a small box or cabinet near the door. «Is this the control?»

Gellin lifted her brows. «That’s right, you humans like to fix things. Yes, that should be the control. Except that when I move the lever–» she suited action to the words «–nothing happens, see?»

Peters had his multitool out and was removing left-handed screws to expose the mechanism. «Are you sure you know what you’re doing?» Gellin asked, sounding dubious.

«Not always,» he said cheerfully. «It doesn’t work, so I can hardly break it, can I?»

«I suppose so.»

“Todd, take a look. Looks like a pretty normal thermostat t’me.”

“Yep, there’s the coil.” The younger sailor twiddled the lever. “And this tightens and loosens it, instead of just shifting it back and forth. Makes sense, if you can’t depend on gravity. Where’s the switch–Ah. What’s this?”

“This” was a ball of fluff that had worked its way into the mechanism, jamming a bit that was intended to move. Mindful of the possibility of electric shock–ship’s power was 103 volts, a bit over 59 Hertz, well within the adaptability of computer power supplies and enough to blow your fillings out if you got across it–Peters put on an airsuit glove and used the multitool’s pliers to gently ease the foreign body out. Something clicked, there was a fat spark from deeper in the case, and air began coming out the grilles. “There we go,” he said, holding the tool up with the fluff caught in the points.

«Incredible,» Gellin breathed. «You made that look so easy.»

«Sometimes it is easy. Sometimes it’s much more difficult,» Peters warned.

Gellin waved that off. «Yes, I know the principle,» she said. «Can you show me what you did?»

Todd took it upon himself to explain a bimetallic thermostat, and showed Gellin where the insulating fluff had stopped it from operating properly. The blast of arctic air was kicking up dust, already rapidly lowering the temperature in the room. The kathir suits kept their bodies comfortable, but faces and hands were getting a bit chilled. «I must tell my first about this,» Gellin said. «Shut the machine off for now; the room must be cleaned before we can begin using it. No, don’t worry about the cover,» she said to Peters, who had begun fiddling with it. «I will put it back in a little while.»

«No trouble,» Peters said as he put in the last screw. «I’ll turn it off.» He moved the lever to the left, at a guess; the cold blast stopped abruptly. «There.»

Gellin took them to meet her supervisor, a portly male about Znereda’s age called Lindalu, which Todd and Peters took for granted. Lindalu thanked them without effusiveness and made a suggestion to Gellin that they didn’t hear. On their way out of the freezer section she popped into one of the rooms and emerged with a handful of objects. They were probably fruits, looking a little like apples at first glance. Inside the skin they were soft, sweet, and creamy, like custard, with a center of tough fiber holding hard pits. The two sailors devoured theirs in a few bites, and Gellin only smiled and fetched another apiece. «Good, aren’t they? But we don’t have enough for everybody, so they are special treats. This occasion qualifies.»

«It was not a major effort,» Peters demurred, but Gellin only smiled and went away in the abrupt Grallt fashion. The sailors went their own way, munching custard fruit.

* * *

Word began to spread, and the humans, who not only fixed things but explained them afterwards, were welcome almost everywhere. Even Linvenig, the engineering officer who had tossed them out when they intruded before, was hospitable; he was Lindalu’s brother or something, and cordially led them on a tour of the engineering pits. He did not explain the zifthkakik. «Nobody can explain the zifthkakik,» he told them. «Nobody knows how they work except the people who made them. Sorry about that.» The idiom translated perfectly. «I’d like to know myself. So would many people,» he observed wryly. «But I don’t see it happening soon.»

«Us too,» said Todd cheerfully.

They began to get invitations. Some of the living quarters had kitchens, and those were typically occupied by families with children; they had several meals with one or another of the Grallt they met. They were on their way to a family meal when a call came from behind. «Peters, is that you? Wait a minute.»

Peters turned to look. «Oh, it is you!» Peet exclaimed, clapping her hands together delightedly. She was wearing a sort of shift or singlet, with straps over the shoulders, ending well above mid-thigh, made of something thin enough to let nipples show. «I’ve been thinking about you,» she said. «You never came to see me.» In a few steps she had Peters in a close embrace and was giving him a straight-faced kiss. After a moment or two of that, she moved back a little, staying well within personal space, and looked down. «I see I made the right impression this time,» she said with a broad grin.

«Peet, I–»

«Never mind, we can talk later.» She seized his hand. «You go ahead,» she said to Todd and their host. «I’ll bring him back later. Or maybe not.» This with another grin and a quick peck on the lips.

«Not problem,» said Todd, with amusement in his tone; Peters couldn’t look around, being trapped, but could imagine the grin. “Get on with it,” the younger sailor advised in English, definitely amused. “I’ll expect a blow-by-blow account later.”

“You wish,” Peters said, and heard the other laugh.

«Enough chat,» said Peet firmly, and towed him to the door of her room. It was set up for two, a bit bigger than the sailors’ and quite a bit more cluttered. «Get out,» she said without ceremony to the other occupant, another female. «Go visit with Dell or something. I want to gabble this guy.»

Peters hadn’t heard the word before, but the context was clear; at some point he’d decided the Hell with it, go with the flow. The other girl was wearing a garment similar to Peet’s; she stood and stretched, looking at Peters with a smile, then turned to face away and began pulling on trousers, the lower half of the pants and shirt outfit some Grallt wore. «You aren’t supposed to be looking at her,» Peet said. «You’re supposed to be looking at me.» She struck a pose for a moment, arms high, the stretch making her breasts more prominent. «There. Now get out of that suit while I clear this stuff away.»

The other girl brushed by, pausing at the door. «I may want a turn later,» she warned.

«Go gabble yourself,» Peet said, but both girls were grinning. «And get out. I’ll come and get you when we’re done.» The door clicked behind her as she left. Peet shoved a pile of clothing into a locker, forced the door shut and latched the handle, then began twitching bedclothes into position. «Haven’t you got any further than that?» she asked when she’d finished making the bed and turned. «Here, I’ll help you.»

Peters had unclasped his buckle, but had been too bemused by the situation to go farther. Removing the belt deactivated the suit; only the wearer could do that without special precautions. Once deactivated it could be opened by anyone, which Peet proceded to demonstrate by tugging the “zipper” to open the top section. The two of them began pulling it down; when it got past his groin she squealed. «Wonderful!» she said. «But we can play later. Toss it on the other bed.»

Peters freed his legs, tossed the suit as instructed, and turned to find Peet pulling the shift over her head. She lay on the bunk, spread her legs slightly, and grinned. «In case you weren’t quite sure, it goes right there,» she said, pointing.

Peters managed with a minimum of fumbling. Nothing was seriously out of place, although he wasn’t experienced enough to make detailed comparisons. «Khhh,» she said, a long throaty exhalation as he entered. «Khhh, so good. Now move.»

He moved. She quickly caught the rhythm, and they moved together. Her breath started coming in deep gasps, with low, back of the throat sounds like growls, Ghrrr, aaahh, ghrrr, in time with the strokes. Gasps and growls got longer and deeper, culminating in a long cry, throaty growl mixed with a higher tone, a sound like nothing in his experience, and she clasped him around the torso so strongly he was forced to be still, and kissed him again.

He wasn’t spent, so after a few moments of embrace he began moving again. She caught the rhythm after a few strokes, loosened her grasp, and began breathing deeply again. It took longer this time, but now he knew what to look for, and when she reached her high point he released his own. This time when she hugged him he hugged back, and they lay there together for a little while.

Then she kissed him again, bringing her tongue into play, and he responded. After only a little of that she pushed him away slightly and inhaled. «That’s really nice, but I can’t keep it up for too long,» she said. «I can’t breathe.»

«I can’t either,» he admitted. «But I like it too.»

«Let’s see how long we can keep it up.» They did that, establishing the maximum duration to the satisfaction of both parties.

The third time took even longer, but seemed to work out just as well. After she had released her final clasp, he rolled to one side, lying on the bed, their bodies touching full length. «I have to rest a little,» he admitted.

«Me too.» She smiled and pecked his lips. «But we can play.»

They explored one another, beginning with faces. Her facial cleft was deep enough to admit his hawkbeak of a nose; now he knew she breathed through it, which he’d assumed but didn’t know. She found his nose fascinating and fingered it several times. Her eyes were much like a human’s, except that the iris looked more like concentric rings than radial rays; they were blue with a tinge of green, which he hadn’t noticed despite looking full into them as they kissed. His were gray, with a bluish cast. «Not many Grallt have that color eyes,» she said. «Humans either,» he explained.

Her breasts were a little lower on her chest than a human’s, and just below her rib cage she had a pair of vestigial nipples with no swelling behind them. «Some girls have real titties there,» she said. «It’s considered really sexy.» The breasts were not remarkable–wrong, asshole, he thought wryly, but at least they weren’t too different, soft warm bags, nipples not especially prominent, surrounded by dark aureoles. Between them she had a strip of silky hair, the same near black as her head hair, thinning to surround a human-looking belly button, widening to form a pubic bush. A wider, thicker band of hair ran down her back, really a continuation of her head hair, ending in a point just above her waist.

She examined his penis closely. «It’s bigger around, but a little shorter than normal,» she mused. Then she laughed. «You know what I mean! And don’t get all male on me about it. It’s enough, as I think you just found out.»

«Well, yes,» he admitted.

Her clitoris was bigger than a human’s and weakly erectile. «I bet you can–» shit! «–make water standing up,» he remarked.

«Yes, I can piss standing up,» she supplied the word. «Can’t your females do that?»

«I’ve heard that some can, or can learn, but it isn’t normal.»

She stuck out her tongue; it came to two points, not prominently enough to be called “forked” but distinctly bifurcated at the end. «Pah. I can’t imagine.»

Her labia continued to form a flexible stem as big as his little finger and about as long, then swelling to form testicles. «They have to be like that,» she said. «Animals fuck from behind, and if they were close like yours, they’d be in the way. But leave them alone. I’m ready again; how about you?»

«I think so,» he said, and entered her again. It wasn’t quite as satisfying this time for some reason.

Apparently she felt the same way, because when they were finished, she turned and sat up, legs hanging off the bed. «Khaa,» she breathed. «So nice.» Long pause. «But..»

«But what?» Peters asked it softly, and writhed around, coming to sit on the edge of the bed beside her, bodies touching. «Did I do something wrong?»

«Oh, no,» she said, as softly as he had spoken. «But maybe I did.» She turned to face him, and reached up to touch his nose, bringing her fingers down to his lips.

He put his arm around her shoulders and hugged. «What’s wrong?»

After a pause she said, «At the most basic level, these.» She fingered her testicles where they lay on the edge of the bed and reached over. «Oh, I can’t get to yours,» she said, then sat quietly for a moment. «You know, you aren’t really a male, as I know it.»

«Yes. And you’re not really a female, the way one of my people would be.»

Peet nodded. «Yes, that’s right.» She sighed. «My sister and I play together occasionally, but that’s what it is, playing. This is, oh, I don’t know, maybe serious is the word.» Another sigh, and she turned to face him. «I’m not very pretty, you know.»

«I hadn’t noticed.»

«Well, you wouldn’t, would you? I’m too different.» She poked him in the ribs.

«Oof! Don’t do that,» Peters admonished. Then he squeezed a little tighter. «Maybe we can look at it like this,» he began, and she turned to face him again. «Did you enjoy this, or not?»

«Oh, yes,» she said.

«Would you enjoy it if we did it again?»

«Probably,» she admitted.

«And you enjoy playing with your sister.» It wasn’t really a question, but when Peet nodded he went on, «So why don’t we just call it ‘playing’ and leave it at that?»

«That would probably be the best way,» she said after a long pause. «But…»

«Yes, but,» Peters said. «But what you really want is a real male, of your own species, to romp around the bed with and maybe make you swell up.» He put his hand on her stomach.

Peet smiled a little. «A little lower, actually, but you’re right.» Deep breath. «Except I think it won’t happen. Like I said, I’m not very pretty.»

«Well, if your males are anything like ours, I think you’re putting too much emphasis on that,» he said, and squeezed her shoulders again. «What a male wants is somebody to do that with,» he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the bed, «and if he thinks you want to do it with him, that’s what’s attractive about a female.» He grinned. «Look at me.»

«I’ve been looking at you,» Peet said, and elbowed him again.

«Oof. I told you not to do that,» Peters admonished. «What I mean is, there aren’t any females of my species available to me. You came along and invited me to play, and I have to tell you, if I introduced you to my friends back home, most of them would run screaming.»

«But I had to drag you.»

Peters smiled fully. «Yes, but I didn’t pull back very hard. The point is, I found you attractive because I thought you found me attractive.» He touched her cheek, a soft caress. «I’ll bet your males are about the same. Pick a few and try it.»

«You mean I might have to try several before I find one with low enough taste?»

«No, I mean practice makes perfect.»

Peet chuckled, the first laugh she’d managed in a little while, and reached around his shoulders to return his hug. After a long pause she said in a different tone, «I’m all over sticky. I need a shower.»

«Me, too,» Peters admitted.

Long pause. Then: «But I really think I’d like to play a little more first. Do you think you’re up to it?»

«Well, maybe.»

Peet laughed out loud. «Yes, I see you are,» she observed, and swung around to lie on the bed again. «In case you weren’t quite sure, it goes right there,» she said, and pointed.

«I had figured that out already,» Peters said.

Neither of them felt any urgency this time; the session was longer, more relaxed, and somehow friendlier, with frequent pauses for one or another type of “play”. Afterwards they held one another quietly for a little while. Finally Peet pushed him away, swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and stood up. «Time for that shower,» she said. «I’ll go first, that way I can clean it up a bit for you.»

«Thank you,» he said. «Don’t take too long.»

«I’ll try.» She headed for the shower, hips swinging, and Peters considered that she still looked really good from every aspect but face on, and he was used to that by now. He sat up and looked around. In this kind of situation he’d normally have a pair of skivvies to pull on, but he had no intention of donning the kathir suit in this condition, and it wouldn’t be–he had a hard time framing the concept, but finally came around to “polite.” It wouldn’t be polite to get fully dressed at this point.

Peet wasn’t long in showering, emerging still nude, with wet hair. «Your turn,» she said, and gestured, and Peters picked up the kathir suit and went that way. The facilities were the same as in his own quarters, a little bigger maybe, and there was stuff around that he thought of as “feminine”: pretty bottles of colored goo and knicknacks. He showered quickly, then hesitated a moment before pulling the kathir suit on.

It turned out to be a good choice. Peet was sitting at a desk chair, dressed in her own airsuit; she looked up as he emerged. She was smiling, which he thought was a good sign. «I’ve been thinking,» she said without preamble. «What are you going to tell your friends about the time we spent together?»

«As little as possible,» Peters told her cheerfully. «It’s none of their business.»

«What about your special friend, Todde isn’t it? Will you tell him more?»

«Probably.» He thought a moment. «But it still won’t be much.»

«Good.» She paused, looked him in the face. «And what will you say to me, if we meet again?»

«I’ll say, ‘Hello, Peet.’» He smiled. «And if you smile at me, I’ll probably say, ‘Would you like to play?’»

She thought about that. «And if I say no?»

«It’s your choice, Peet.» He touched her cheek. «If I ask, it’s because I want to, but it’s always your choice.»

«Thank you,» she said softly. A pause, and she shook her head. «Do you know how to get back to your living quarters from here?» she asked in a fairly businesslike tone.

«Yes, that’s no problem,» Peters told her. «We’ve been exploring a lot. I know my way around pretty well.»

«That’s good.» Peet stood, took his arm, and began walking slowly toward the door. «Thank you, Peters,» she said softly.

«And that’s one more thing,» Peters told her as he worked the latch. «I think we’re good friends by now, at least I hope so, and that means you should call me John.» He kissed her, on the cheek rather than the lips, just a peck. «Goodbye for now, Peet.»

«Goodbye for now, John,» she said. Then she smiled and closed the door.

Peters shook his head. Apparently the Grallt practice of brief goodbyes held here, too.

<<< Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Three >>>