Kennard set up the exercise class as usual. His taste ran heavily to classical music of the last century, and a mixed group was breathing hard to Black Magic Woman when a crowd of zerkre came out of the elevator. Most of them headed for the retarder consoles, but one came over and made tentative motions, obviously wanting to interrupt but dubious about getting too close to the spinning, writhing, energetic sailor. Kennard finished his move and exchanged words, to little avail, and finally shouted, “Peters! You here? Front and center, if you are.”

«Hello, Peters,» said Keezer when Peters approached. «If I had known you were in the group I would have sought you out.»

«Hello, Keezer,» Peters replied, still out of breath. «What do you need?»

«The deck is needed for operations. We will be receiving guests in a few tle.»

«Yes.» Peters nodded and turned to Kennard. “We’re gonna have to cut this short,” he told the First Class. “Visitors comin’ in.”

Kennard spared a look over his shoulder. The planet was a bright crescent, too big to fit entirely into the view forward, a portion showing at the upper left. The ship rolled at that moment, turning it into an arc that spanned the upper portion of the opening. “OK,” the sailor said. He brought out a remote and thumbed it. The music died, and the dancers wound down slowly. “OK, listen up,” Kennard told them. “Clear the bay, the Grallt are setting up for flight ops.” Somebody repeated that in Grallt. Humans started heading for the enlisted quarters hatch, and their Grallt companions drifted more slowly to port and the elevator access.

Peters surveyed the group. «We will be clear in a few tle,» he told Keezer.

«That will be OK,» the zerkre assured him. Peters quirked an eyebrow at that, but Keezer only nodded and headed aft, swimming across the tide of Grallt bound for their quarters. Kennard and another sailor were securing the impie and taking the speakers down. Peters ignored that and headed for the hatch. He wanted a shower before he went over to the retarders to observe.

He wasn’t quick enough. Bright sparks aft were now familiar and expected, as was the loose group of Grallt waiting to greet newcomers, but something new had been added: one of the Tomcats was angle-parked just forward of the waiting group, a pair of officers–Commander Bolton and his NFO, it looked like–were standing at attention next to it, and Dreelig slouched nearby.

Peters judged the sparks too close to give him time to cross the bay before they trapped, so he joined a group in the alcove aft of the quarters hatch to watch. As far as procedure went, these were about halfway between the haphazard Grallt and the meticulous humans. They were strung out at fairly regular intervals, very nearly in a straight line, but weren’t doing anything fancy, just boring in on approach. Peters approved.

The first of the strange craft crossed the threshold as close to dead center of the opening as anyone could. A faint thrum said that the retarders were set properly, and the ship came to a near halt in midbay, then began taxiing over to park beside the Tomcat. It was a little smaller than the plane, a tubby ovoid of some dully gleaming material, with fins rather than wings. All four fins were equal-sized, set at forty-five degree angles, leading edges curving in to end at the widest point of the body. At the nose, three trapezoids of glass or clear plastic were set in a semicircle above a flattened cone painted dull red, seemingly held in place by a circle of half-inch round-headed rivets.

An oval hatch swung open and a ladder extruded itself from the bottom of the opening, swinging down to meet the deck with a clang at about the time the second ship, more or less identical, came to a stop and began taxiing over. Peters had time, now, to note that they didn’t have any landing gear. The rear fins stayed about a handwidth off the deck, and the centerline of the body was more or less level, leaving sixty centimeters or so of, well, air below the belly. Number two popped its hatch and began sticking its ladder out like a tongue, and number three came through the door, still with only subliminal hums from properly set retarders.

At the end there were an even dozen tubby ships lined up in neat echelon along the inboard wall of the bay, nicely aligned with the Tomcat. When the last ladder had hit the deck with a muted clang the occupants began appearing. First through each oval hatch was a tall one with pale skin, wearing a skintight black outfit under a black cloak that came to below the knees. The second was female, even from here, at least by human or Grallt standards; the females were equally tall and equally milk-complected, and had on tight outfits covered by long cloaks with frills, all pure white. They didn’t march in step, but they did form a column of pairs with the ones from the last ship in the lead, ending the maneuver by right-facing toward the welcoming party. Males, in the lead, dipped on one knee, nodded, and opened their cloaks; females stood tall behind them and spread their cloaks with a flourish.

Cloaks?

“Those are wings!” someone hissed.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” someone else drawled in a tone of revelation. “I’m willing to bet some of these folks might’ve dropped in on us once or twice, you know?”

* * *

«This is truly remarkable. You people look just like our old stories.» The speaker shook his head. He also grinned, but he couldn’t help that. The species-name of the inhabitants of Keelisika was enkheil, with the last e pronounced more like long a, and their name for their planet sounded more like Kheeyithikha to Peters than what he’d heard from the Grallt.

Khrog Dhakgo and his mate Ghnal Dhango had large, deep-sunk eyes, pug noses with the nostrils facing almost directly forward, and long canines that slipped past one another to allow upper and lower teeth to meet. Neither of them shared the spectacular monochrome coloring of the ship pilots. Khrog Dhakgo’s hands and facial skin were a bit darker than Peters’s, and his all-over fur, or hair, was black, with reddish-brown overtones where the light struck it; his mate’s facial skin was darker, and her fur was the rich coppery red associated with freckles in humans. Their eyes had round pupils and irises shading from reddish brown around the pupil to electric green at the edges. They spoke Grallt fairly well, though with gargling accents; their native language ran heavily to things in the back of the throat. Peters’s name was impossible, so they called him John.

Ghnal Dhango laughed, high-pitched notes on an ascending scale like a showoff riff on a marimba. «Yes, the resemblance is notable,» she agreed.

«I hope the stories give us a good reputation,» Peters remarked, and both enkheil laughed again. «No?»

«Yes and no, both,» Khrog Dhakgo said.

«It’s different according to culture,» Ghnal explained. «Where I come from, the Mud People live in grass huts on distant islands. If you are shipwrecked there they’ll repair your ship better than it was before, but they won’t teach you to sail it the new way. You have to find that out for yourself.»

«In my home culture we have almost the same story,» Khrog Dhakgo put in. «Except that the houses are made of mud and straw, and you find them in the middle of the desert, and it’s wagons they’ll fix. The part about making you figure out for yourself how to operate the new machine is the same, though.» He grinned, or at least Peters assumed it was a smile, a matter of stretching his lips to show his gums. «Do you have any stories about us?»

«I can’t be sure,» Peters said with a smile of his own. «The ones with white wings look very much like our concept of angels, the assistants to God.»

«God? This is a name?» Khrog Drakgo asked.

Peters shook his head. «It’s our name for the first one, the one who created everything.»

«Oh, how nice!» Ghnal Dhango exclaimed. «Why, they even have the name approximately correct!» She frowned. «Khrog, we have to do something. It isn’t, oh, symmetrical that they should have such a nice story about us, and our stories about them should be so cruel.»

«Don’t worry,» Peters assured. «They’re only stories.» He grinned. «Building machines and not explaining how to work them properly does happen sometimes with us. Much more often than it should.»

«Perhaps so, but stories can affect your reputation,» Khrog Dhakgo said. He paused, nodded, and went on, «It is good, though, to hear from someone who makes sense about things. These Grallt and their friends would have us believe our long-ago parents crawled out of mud, can you believe it?» The two enkheil waited expectantly, but Peters forebore to reply, and after a moment Khrog Dhakgo laughed. «Ghnal, here we have a wise person. John, now that that’s out of the way, do you have any opinion on politics?» It took a moment for that to get through, but when it did, Peters laughed as heartily as the aliens.

Mealtime was winding down, Grallt, humans, and a sprinkling of enkheil wandering out in ones and twos and small groups, some stopping to chat with others who hadn’t finished. «We should go,» Peters suggested. «Operations will begin soon.»

Khrog Dhakgo shrugged, generating a pop of wing membrane. «Yes, I suppose so,» he said. «Preparations always take longer than they should.» He stood, looked around to check for clearance, and did a quick stretch, flourishing his wings. «On the way, would you mind giving me a closer look at your ship? The dancers have already had a full tour, but I wasn’t able to get close enough.»

«Certainly,» said Peters as he stood. The male kheil was a good six inches taller than his own six feet, but still stood a full head shorter than the ship crews. Neither of the enkheil wore much clothing; snug but not tight briefs covered their genital areas, and both had arrangements of straps running from neck to hipline. It was hard to see how they might be able to wear more, because their wing membranes joined their torsos from armpit to hipbone.

«Excellent. Ghnal, will you come with us?»

«Well, of course,» she said indignantly. «I’ll probably know more about what I’m seeing than you do.»

«The really terrible thing is that she is probably right,» Khrog Dhakgo told Peters with an air of confidentiality.

«Well of course I’m right,» said Ghnal with a sniff. «Males!» She stood in turn, doing the same scan for clearance and wing-flourish her mate had. Standing, she was about Peters’s height. «Ah, that feels better,» she said. «We don’t use chairs with backs. They’re confining.»

«I can understand that, I think,» Peters said. «If you are accustomed to flying, it must be hard to be forced into a small area.»

Both enkheil laughed at that. «We can’t fly,» Khrog said. «No enkheil can fly, except in zero gravity, or nearly zero. Our wings aren’t big enough to support us.»

«The best we can do is extend our jumps,» Ghnal added. «And if we fall from a height, we usually aren’t injured if we have time to spread our wings. But we have always dreamed about flying. It’s one of the reasons we adopted the zifthkakik so completely, and have so many space facilities. It’s very satisfying to live and work in a place where we really can fly.»

«And don’t try to tell me your people don’t feel very much the same,» Khrog chided. «That ship, the T’hongcat–»

«Tomcat,» Peters corrected.

«You know I can’t say that, any more than you can pronounce Ghnal’s name without hurting your throat.» Khrog grinned again. «The Tommcat,» giving himself the lie by carefully stretching his lips to make the sound, «was built by somebody who wanted very badly to fly, and spent a lot of effort achieving that.»

As the elevator clanked and banged its way to ops level Khrog Dhakgo remarked, «When I first came aboard, I thought perhaps the Traders had changed their ways. I have dealt with them before, and I have never seen their ship look so neat and clean.» He looked around. «But I see the change is superficial, if it exists.»

«Do you mean the cleanliness of the ship bay, and the fresh paint?» Peters asked. When Khrog Dhakgo nodded and looked at him he went on, «That is our work. We use large waterships, and have learned that they don’t continue to work well if they aren’t maintained properly. We convinced the Grallt to let us continue our habits.»

«I see.» Khrog regarded Peters steadily.

Ghnal produced another musical chuckle. «Oh, how wonderful! But you haven’t been aboard this ship very long, I see,» she said as they emerged in the ops bay. «The paint isn’t finished.»

«No, it isn’t,» Peters agreed with a nod. «And we still have a lot of other work to do. The aft door is working fairly well, but we haven’t had a chance to look at the forward one.» He smiled in retrospect. «And there are the elevators, of course.»

«Of course,» Ghnal said, projecting irony. She looked around. «Perhaps I’ll have a chance to see it after you finish. I would very much like that.»

«And I’d like very much to examine that portable weapon,» Khrog said as they approached the Tomcat. «Slug-thrower, isn’t it?» He gestured at the sailor standing guard.

«Yes, with chemical power,» Peters told him. Ridley, in dress blues with white helmet and Sam Browne belt, gave them a brief suspicious glance and returned to parade rest, M22 grounded. «I don’t think it would be a good idea to ask to look at it at the moment,» Peters continued.

«You’re probably right,» Ghnal said cheerfully. She looked the airplane over. «This is adapted from a chemical-drive atmosphere flyer, is it not? It’s pretty.»

Khrog Dhakgo snorted impressively. «Hah! Pretty, she says.» He glanced at Peters. «For myself, I think it looks fast, and powerful, and mean as a gveil in mating season.»

«Yes, all of that too,» Ghnal agreed cheerfully. «Khrog, could we do something like this?»

«I suppose so,» he replied, somewhat dubiously. He glanced at Peters. «It would be easier if the enhunan would sell us a few. Possible?»

«I don’t know,» Peters admitted. «Yes, it was once driven by chemicals. These housings–» he reached up to touch an intake cowling «–once held engines that took air through here, combined it with fuel, and ejected it from the back. The reaction propelled the plane–» both enkheil looked up at the English word, and Peters corrected, «propelled the ship forward.»

«Yes, one of our thinkers proposed something similar, I believe,» Ghnal told him. «Before we met the Grallt, that is. Now of course we use zifthkakik.»

«And these structures are wings,» said Khrog, reaching to touch a leading edge. He could just reach it. «A very sensible arrangement, actually. Much more reasonable than things that fly around with nothing visible to hold them up.» He snapped his own wings out for emphasis, and Ghnal laughed.

«Yes, I feel much the same way,» said Peters with a chuckle. «We humans have only recently made contact with the Traders. The zifthkakik are still strange to us.»

The three moved around the aircraft, the two enkheil touching and remarking on things, Peters making explanations when necessary. They were interested in structure and manufacturing techniques, and thought the cockpits entirely too restricted; radio antennas and radar emitters elicited blank looks, at least partly because Peters didn’t have any words in Grallt to describe them. Once Khrog Dhakgo made a comment in his own staccato language, and Ghnal Dhango chided him. «Speak Trade, Khrog, you’re in public.»

«I said,» Khrog pronouced in an aggrieved tone, «that it is extremely well made. And it is, don’t you think? Look at the way the rivets are almost even with the surface. I don’t know anyone who uses that technique.»

«I agree completely,» Ghnal told him. «It’s as least as good as any of our work, and in many ways better. But John doesn’t speak our language, and you should be polite.»

«You are correct, of course.» Khrog produced a somehow wry version of the alarming expression that Peters had decided was a smile. «You haven’t shown us the weapons,» the kheil said. «They will be shooting at us, and we are interested.»

What little Peters knew about it suggested that the weapons suite had probably been more of a problem than the engine change. «This ship was designed to carry, ah–» he had no word for “missile”, so he used English, with an explanation: «–Missiles, small independent ships that drive themselves toward the target. That wasn’t practical in this case, so instead it has these.» The wing hardpoints were empty, as were the aft missile racks; the forward missile racks were occupied. «We call this a hell pod, from the initial letters of its description.»

Ghnal ran her fingers over, but not touching, the lens at the business end. «I hear something in your voice that tells me that is at least partly a joke,» she noted. «What is a hel

«I should have expected you to spot it,» Peters said. «The name comes from our phrase high energy laser, which means ‘high energy’ and  a special type of light emitter. But in our mythology, Hell is a place where bad people suffer after their lifetimes in extreme heat.»

Ghnal clapped her hands together. «Khah! How appropriate. May we look inside the housing?»

Peters shifted to English: “Hey, Ridley, any problem if I open up a HEL pod and show these folks what’s gonna be shootin’ at them?”

Ridley turned and shrugged. “They told me to keep people away unless they had an escort. I guess you qualify,” he said sourly. He and Peters were not friends. “But if the fruitbats break anything, it’s gonna be your ass, not mine.”

“Yeah, right.” He turned and changed languages again: «It opens like this. Please support the end, I would prefer not to damage the paint.» Khrog Dhakgo obligingly supported the forward end of the panel while Peters produced his pocket tool and popped the fasteners.

«Oh, the interior mechanism isn’t enclosed,» said Ghnal when the panel swung down.

«No.» What was that all about?

«How does it work?» Khrog wanted to know.

«The basic technology is called laser. It produces an extremely intense light, which is powerful enough to damage the opposing ship. I’m not fully knowledgeable about the details.» Peters shrugged. «The weapon’s intensity can be adjusted, and has been reduced so that it will make a noise, and perhaps a small scar, without any real damage. The other ship-type has the same system. That one originally used missiles, and also had a slug thrower like a larger version of the one my associate has.»

Ghnal Dhango nodded. «Yes, it would be difficult to adjust the force of a slug thrower, wouldn’t it? And of course a slug thrower wouldn’t be much use against a ship driven by zifthkakik. Our ships have similar weapons, and have been adjusted the same way.» She reached inside the pod, coming close to the mechanism without touching it. «But ours come from the Makers, like the zifthkakik, and are enclosed so that the principle of operation is hidden. This is remarkable, Khrog. The enhunan–humans, that is not so hard to say. The humans have a higher technology than we did before the Traders came.»

Khrog Dhakgo nodded. «Yes, that was clear from the beginning.» He looked sharply at Peters. «Your people designed and built this, and know all the principles involved?»

Peters mused briefly on Japanese components, Mexican assembly plants, and the phrase “your people” as applied from a distance of umpteen jillion miles. «Yes to both questions,» he said without emphasis.

«Is this technology for sale?» Khrog asked, again with an odd intonation.

The sailor shrugged. «As I understand it, the reason we are here is to explore which of our products might be wanted by other people. As for this particular item, I see no reason why not, but I am too junior to answer your question directly.» Makers? It had sounded like a name or title when Ghnal said it. What was that all about? «Would you help me close the panel?» he asked.

Khrog Dhakgo obligingly took the forward end again. As Peters was securing the latches the kheil remarked, «You are a junior? Remarkable. You have an excellent command of the trade language. Where are your seniors? Can you introduce me to them?»

«I can take you to them,» Peters said. «They will wish to know who you are.» The polite Grallt formula implied without saying, what’s your status?

«I am the first of this company,» said Khrog with another alarming smile.

Oh, Jesus! «Then I am making a large mistake by speaking to you at all,» Peters told him. «I apologize for interfering. I will take you to my superiors at once.»

«No apologies necessary,» said Ghnal. «I don’t see that you have made any mistakes. Thank you for escorting us to the food hall, and for showing us the ship.»

«Yes, and for assisting us at the meal,» said Khrog. «Where are your superiors? Is the rather alarming person we met earlier one of them?»

Howell had been stuffy and abrupt, probably unsure of himself, and certainly resenting having to call on a Second Class for help; Peters knew he didn’t care to deal with the Grallt, and did so only when it was absolutely necessary. «He is my immediate superior, yes, but the ones you must talk to are the crews of our ships.»

«Kkh. I see where the confusion arose.» Khrog produced another smile, not so alarming, or perhaps Peters was getting used to it. «The Combat Dancers are only ship operators. They follow my orders.» He looked across the bay. «At the moment they are mingling with the human ship crews. We had no idea that the ship crews were the superiors here.» At Peters’s look he continued, «Don’t worry about it. These misunderstandings are common when two peoples meet for the first time.»

«I can see that might be so.» Oh, shit! “Ridley, you got an earbug? We got a situation here.”

“Yeah. What’s up?”

“Turns out this here’s the bossman of this bunch of folks,” Peters said. “My compliments to Master Chief Joshua, and it’d be best if we could get ’em in touch with the officers.”

“So this is the head fruitbat, eh?” Ridley said. “Don’t look like much to me. What the Hell are you doing skylarking with officers?”

“Cap’n Fruitbat to you,” Peters corrected. “And that’s just the question I expect the Master Chief to be askin’, and I ain’t in the mood to repeat myself. You want to ask him to get down here?”

“No.” Ridley stared, shrugged, then reached up, detached the bug, and held it out. “You talk to him. Channel two.”

Peters stared back for a moment, took the earbug, and arranged it, not without a grimace of distaste at the other’s body heat still clinging to it. “Master Chief, this is Green Three-Seven.”

“What are you doing on the channel, Peters?” the Chief wanted to know. “You’re not on duty.”

“Yes, Chief, but we got a fu–, a mistake here, and I ain’t got the horsepower to straighten it out. I’d be obliged if you could meet me by the demonstration plane.”

“Is this really serious, Peters?”

“Yeah–yes, Master Chief, I reckon it is.”

“I’ll take your word for it this once. Where are you?”

“Down by the demo Tomcat.”

“On my way.”

“Thanks, Chief.” Peters unclipped the earbug, handed it back to Ridley, who grimaced in his turn and wiped it down the front of his uniform jumper before clipping it in place. «In a moment, my immediate superior will be here,» he told the enkheil. «He will take you to the ones you should speak with.»

Khrog Dhakgo clapped him on the back. «John, I think your culture pays too much attention to status. While we are waiting for your superior, I want you to call us ‘Khrog’ and ‘Ghnal’ at least twice. Do you think Ghnal is pretty?»

Peters slumped his shoulders and laughed weakly. «Very well, Khrog. Yes, I think Ghnal is very pretty. That may be because I have not seen a female of my species in some time.»

Ghnal clapped her hands together, wing flaps making it a double pop. «Wonderful! You even have my name right, considering that you don’t have the flap in your throat to make the sound properly. And you told a joke, too.» She touched him on the forearm. «Don’t worry. You have done very well, hasn’t he, Khrog?» When Khrog nodded she went on, «If you have free time after this business is concluded, perhaps you would like to visit us? We have a very pleasant place, with a view of a lake. You would enjoy it, I’m sure.»

«Yes, I’m sure I would, but I don’t know if I will have any free time–Ah.» He was rescued by the appearance of Chief Joshua, in khakis over his kathir suit, hat firmly in place.

“What’s this all about, Peters?” Joshua wanted to know.

“Master Chief, this is Khrog Dhakgo. He’s the, well, they say the First of the enkheil squadron, I reckon he’d be about full Commander equivalent. We done got it backwards. The pilots are the enlisted, and these here are the officers, in this setup.”

“I see,” the Chief said dubiously. «Pleasant greetings,» he managed in Grallt, and saluted.

«Is this a respect gesture?» Khrog Dhakgo asked.

«Yes!» Ghnal Dhango hissed. «Return it, you oaf!»

Khrog inclined his head slightly and shrugged his wings with a pop. The Chief relaxed his salute and said, “Tell them to come with me, Peters. I’ll escort them to meet the officers.”

Peters relayed that, and the reply: “They say OK, Master Chief, but they’re askin’ if I could come along to translate.”

Joshua stared a moment, finally shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Dreelig can handle it.”

“Aye, Master Chief.” To the enkheil: «Please go with Master Chief Joshua. Our superiors have translators available.»

Khrog Dhakgo half-spread his wings, furled them in a gust of air. «Very well,» he said shortly.

«And after this business is finished, you will come to visit. It’s settled,» said Ghnal. «Don’t worry, we’ll find you,» she said when he tensed up.

Peters shook his head as they walked off toward officers’ country. At the moment, Ghnal’s parting shot sounded more like a threat than an invitation.

<<< Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty-One >>>

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