The welcoming committee was a single Grallt, female if the well-filled tunic meant the same thing as it did with humans. She and Dreelig conversed in low voices while Todd and Peters waited on the wingwalk, looking around.

Overhead, heavy beams pierced with lightening holes ran crosswise every three meters or so, with lighter stringers lengthwise at about the same spacing. A rat’s-nest of wires, tubes, conduits, and who-knew-what twisted and tangled around the beams, entering and leaving boxes and tanks. Six rows of big lights marched from one end to the other, giving about the level of illumination to be expected on the carrier’s hangar deck at night, but bluish instead of the yellow they were used to.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Todd said, “but isn’t outer space supposed to be a vacuum?”

“That’s what they told me,” Peters replied slowly, shifting his seabag for a more comfortable grip.

“And we just landed this thing, right?”

“That’s what I remember, yeah.”

“Then what the fuck are we breathing?” Todd demanded. “Did you hear any air coming in, or anything like that?”

“Shit, I dunno. I ain’t never been on a spaceship before.”

The thwartships beams continued down the walls to form alcoves two meters deep. One wall, to port as they had entered, had three big doors or hatches reinforced with a waffle pattern of smaller beams, not quite as high as the bay but almost as wide. Everything was painted one color, probably cream or light yellow; it was hard to tell, because it was all grimy and scarred, let alone the effect of the bluish light. The deck was scuffed, worn, and littered with trash, most of it the size of bolts and screws but a few pieces as big as a man’s head; bits of unidentifiable machinery sat here and there in no discernible order, and many of the alcoves were filled with a miscellany of equipment and junk.

“This is not reassuring,” said Todd, gesturing at the clutter.

“You got that right,” Peters agreed with some force. “If the rest of the boat’s as sloppy as this is, we may not live to regret comin’ along.”

“Pretty out the door, though,” Todd observed.

“Shit, I been tryin’ not to look.” The hole they had entered through was still open, a crescent of the Earth intruding on the upper left-hand corner, stars shining elsewhere.

“Isn’t the air supposed to be kinda thin out there?” Todd persisted.

Peters shrugged. “Magic, I reckon. Look alive, here they come.”

The two Grallt had finished their talk, body language making them a pair but not a couple. Peters and Todd hefted their bags and stepped down off the wing, finding the deck a bit slippery, as if the nonskid was too worn to be effective any more.

Dreelig gestured toward the newcomer. “I introduce you to Dee. She will show you to your quarters and tell you something about the ship.”

“Hello, Dee,” said Peters, looking her over. The female Grallt was wearing a tunic and trousers of something satiny, blue above and yellow below; she was about Todd’s height, slender, and very nicely shaped, at least below the neck.

“Pleasant greetings, Peters,” she said, her voice much deeper than expected, a musical baritone. “Welcome aboard Llapaaloapalla. You are Todd?” When Todd nodded, she continued, “Welcome aboard also. Please follow me.”

“Sure,” said Peters. “Thanks for the guidance,” he said to Dreelig. “See you again.”

“That will probably happen,” Dreelig agreed with a nod. He walked away toward the entrance of the bay, aft they supposed, and Peters turned back to Dee. “Lead on, lady.”

“This way.” Dee led them to starboard, or at least away from the big hatches, to a people-sized hatch with an oval porthole at eye level. She worked the latch, a big handle that swung thirty degrees with a squeal and clank, and stepped aside to let them through.

Light came from glowing bare tubes supported by the ends in pairs, a little thicker than standard fluorescents, and a stairway, more like the ones in an office building than a ship’s ladder, led upward. The Grallt pushed past them, gestured at the stairs, and led in that direction, and the sailors followed, grunting under the weight of their seabags.

Two decks up they entered a corridor running lengthwise in the ship. Doors, all closed, interrupted the walls at about four meter intervals. Dee opened the first of these on the right, to reveal a small room or suite whose most outstanding feature was a window with rounded corners, now displaying stars. “These will be your quarters if you find them satisfactory,” she said.

Windows on a ship? In enlisted berthing? Peters forced himself to look away. The room was about four meters by three, dusty from disuse, with low bunks to left and right, metal wall lockers, and a desk with reading lamp and chair. The bunks weren’t made. To the left, by the head of the bunk, was another door. “This is great,” he said. “We don’t live like this on our ships, except maybe officers.”

“Yes, I know,” said Dee. “They described your normal living quarters to us in detail, and took us on a tour. Ssth. We have nothing like that here, and we see no need to do so much work to make life less comfortable for you.”

“One problem,” Peters observed. When Dee didn’t respond except to shift position slightly, he continued, “It’s in the wrong place. This passage is all for us, right? When the rest of the unit comes aboard?”

“Yes. There are a sixty-four of rooms on each floor, and you will have two floors. There will be an eight and three sailors–“

“Two hundred, I thought.”

“I mean an eight and three sixty-fours, of course.” Dee drew with her finger in the dust on the wall: dash, vertical line, lightning bolt. “So there is enough space for everyone, and many can have individual rooms.”

Peters eyed the scrawl. If those were numbers, it looked awkward, backwards, and too big. “Well, we gotta do it according to our, ah, the word Dreelig used was ‘hierarchy.’ Chiefs and First Class close to the hatch, in individual compartments. The rest of us down the passageway, OK?”

Dee turned away, her attitude suggesting thought. “Will some, ah, Chiefs and–“

“First Class,” Peters supplied.

“Ah. Chiefs and First Class. Will some of them want to be at the other end? Beside those stairs?”

“Yeah, sure. Look, we can’t set it all up now. Just give us a room a little closer to the middle.” Peters looked around; being first on the scene had some privileges. “One with a window.”

Dee shrugged, a very humanlike gesture. “Certainly.” She led them down the corridor a few meters, selected a door, and pushed it open, revealing a compartment that was a mirror image of the first. “Will this be satisfactory? Would you prefer individual rooms?”

“Why not?” Todd suggested. When Peters looked at him, he shrugged. “First come, and all that.”

“Does the next room connect to this one?” Peters asked.

“Yes, it does. Let me show you.” Dee went to the interior door, to the right this time, and opened it. “Here are sanitary facilities. The door at the other end leads to the next room.” The head was both ordinary and strange, a pair of sinks with mirrors and lockers to the left, a toilet and shower stall to the right, familiar in overall design but different in details to the ones they were used to.

“This here’s perfect,” said Peters. “Todd, how about I take this’un and you get the other?”

“Sure.” Todd went back to get his seabag.

Dee began showing Peters the details, and Todd joined them a few minutes later. The door to the corridor had a latch, but no lock. Light switches went left for on and right for off. Water valves opened to the right, hot and cold both. Linens were in lockers over the bunks, pale tan sheets of something soft and bulky gray blankets that didn’t scratch. “No pillows,” Todd observed, and Dee assumed her “puzzled attention” position, head back and tilted a bit to one side.

“We need pillows,” Peters explained. “Uh, little sacks of somethin’ soft, about so–” he sketched the size in the air with his hands “–for supportin’ the head while sleeping.”

“We don’t use anything like that,” Dee declared. Now that they looked, that made sense; her shoulders weren’t as wide as a human’s, and looked flexible somehow. “The, ah, suppliers can make something.”

“It isn’t anything major,” Todd put in. When the others looked at him he flushed and continued, “We can bring our own along, as long as we know about it.”

“That is acceptable.”

There was nothing like a phone or com screen, but a grille over the desk was a speaker for the 1MC system, the shipwide PA. “You will need to learn the emergency calls,” Dee said seriously. “If something goes wrong, you must know what is happening and take appropriate action.” She gestured at the grille. “Unfortunately this has not worked in a long time.”

“Do you have tapes?” Todd asked.

“Tapes?”

“You know, recordings. Mechanical examples.”

Dee thought for a moment. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said finally. “I can pronounce the warnings and explain what they mean. Anyone on the ship can do that.”

Peters and Todd shared a look. “We need to start makin’ a list,” Peters said after a moment. “There’s gonna be a lot of things we need to bring. Hang on a minute.” He unzipped the side pocket of his seabag, brought out a handheld. “Let’s see. Pillows. Sound recorders. There’ll be more, we just ain’t got to it yet. Anything else here?”

“I don’t think so. Perhaps you would like a little time to unpack your things and get comfortable?” Dee made a gesture, a palm-up sweep. “I can return after a short time.”

“That’s a good idea,” Todd observed.

“Very good.” Dee consulted an instrument strapped to her right wrist. “It is now nearly the end of the first ande, you would probably say ‘watch.’ I will return in a little more than a tle, perhaps three-quarters of one of your hours, I think. We will take a meal then. Will that be satisfactory?”

“Plenty of time,” said Peters.

Dee nodded. “Good. I will return.” She slipped out the door, swinging it to behind her.

Peters and Todd looked at one another for a long moment. “Me for a shower, and change into undress, I think,” Peters suggested. “We don’t know what we’re gonna be doin’ the next few hours.”

“Right,” said Todd. “Head call for me, too.” He went through the toilet room door, closing it behind him. Peters unzipped his seabag and started picking spots for his stuff, and after a little time Todd opened the door and stuck his head through. “Hey, did Dee show you how to flush this thing?”

“Shit, Todd, it shouldn’t be that tough.” Between the two of them they figured it out, a square pushplate at about shoulder level above the seat. Then they both went back to unpacking, finding that, even with everything spread out for maximum convenience, their belongings didn’t fill half the space intended for one person, let alone that for both.

Peters went first for a shower, taking his own soap and finding a recess at waist level to stow it. When he was finished he took a towel from the locker between the sinks, and was back in his room before he realized that he hadn’t even thought about where the towel would be, had simply grabbed one from the logical place. “It ain’t so strange,” he breathed to himself, the view out the window giving him the lie as he said it.

He folded his dress blues carefully, wondering how he was going to get them cleaned, and selected undress, the same color and style but without piping or decorations. Satisfied with his appearance, Peters sat down in the chair, finding that it adjusted through a full range like the seat on the dli but had no power assists. He started going through the drawers of the desk, finding nothing but dust.

A knock on the door a little later proved to be Dee, still wearing her yellow and blue outfit. “Howdy, Dee,” Peters said, raising his left hand in the gesture he had seen.

“Pleasant greetings.” Dee returned the salute, adding a little nod of the head. “Are you ready for a meal?”

“Yeah, I could eat. It feels like a little early for lunch, but that’s all right. Our midday meal,” he explained.

“It is the third meal for us,” said Dee.

Peters shrugged. “Different schedules. We’ll get used to it.”

They collected Todd by knocking on his door, and the three of them went back to the stairway and down to the landing bay. On the other side, by one of the big doors, they found a row of people-sized hatches. Dee selected one, led the way into a small cubicle, pulled the hatch closed, and pushed buttons on the wall. There was a loud whine and clanking sounds, and they felt a little acceleration as the elevator started up. After perhaps half a minute the noise died away, and Dee opened the hatch on another corridor, wider and painted pale blue, but with the same fluorescent lights overhead. Peters had been trying to get his bearings, and thought they headed toward the bow, if they had landed through the stern, which seemed to make sense.

A few steps up the corridor was an open archway giving on a room with tables and chairs, occupied by Grallt in a miscellany of costumes, some the same style as Dee’s but more skintight overalls or jumpsuits, in a range of colors, mostly bright. Dee picked a table with four chairs around it, and they took seats. A male Grallt in white tunic and red trousers bustled up. “Table service?” Todd inquired with raised eyebrows.

Dee gave her humanlike shrug and exchanged gabble with the new Grallt for a while, and he moved off, still bustling. “I don’t understand your comment,” Dee said to Todd when he was gone.

Todd shrugged himself, and Peters replied, “Is he gonna bring our food to us?”

“Yes, that is his function. Is there a problem?”

“We’re not used to that,” Todd explained.

“What about afterwards?” Peters asked.

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, afterwards there are empty dishes,” Todd said. “On our ship, each person takes the empties to the scullery.”

“Scullery?” Dee paused for a moment. “Here, you simply leave the empty, ah, dishes. Someone will take them away to be cleaned.”

“Restaurant,” said Peters.

“I don’t mind,” Todd said with a grin.

“Me neither, but shit, this ain’t what we expected.” It was nicer than they’d expected. Peters wasn’t sure why he felt uncomfortable about that.

Todd knew. “Can you imagine Commander Bolton’s face when he sees this? Even the officers don’t have it this good on our ships.”

Peters nodded. “Yeah. Dee, what kind of setup do the officers get?”

“They are much the same as yours, except that they are arranged for only one person in each room.” She made a gesture, indicating the room and tables. “They will have food service in the same area, and some recreation facilities.”

The waiter came up with a tray, and the three leaned back, allowing him to arrange plates and glasses. A patty of something brown occupied the center of the plates, with other things arranged around the periphery. There were small pellets, about half red and half yellow, in a clear gooey sauce. Clockwise from that was a lump of tan paste, then blue leaves with black specks that turned out not to be part of the leaves. At that point Peters’s cognition cut out, and when Dee named the foods he heard nothing but gabble and didn’t remember that.

The liquid was fruit juice, sweet and tart. The red and yellow pellets were something like beans, the tan paste was gooey and didn’t taste like much of anything, and the leaves were crisp and crunchy with a citrus flavor. The patty was some kind of meat, coarse and grainy, fried by the taste and texture. The whole meal was bland but overall not bad. Dee’s food was different, probably the things she liked better; they didn’t ask. Peters and Todd dug in, finding themselves hungrier than they had expected.

They had almost finished when a male Grallt in one of the skin-tight jumpsuits came up. “Hello, Dreelig,” Dee greeted him, and when Peters looked closely he thought he could recognize the ambassador, or at least the pattern on his suit.

“Pleasant greetings,” Dreelig pronounced. “Have you finished your meal?”

Peters stuffed a last bite of meat in his mouth and followed it with a sip of juice. “I’m done,” he announced when his mouth was empty.

“Good,” Dreelig said. “It is time for you to be fitted for your protective garment.”

Todd frowned. “Protective garment?”

“Yes. You need a protective garment while you are working, in case of accident or equipment failure. It is easier to show you than to explain. Come with me.”

They stood to follow, not without looks at the empty plates, not accustomed to just leaving them behind. Dreelig led them to the left, a long way down the corridor and up a set of stairs. The new corridor was painted cream color; it was cleaner than the other areas they’d seen, and the doors were glass with etched designs, pictures and what were probably words or numbers. The one Dreelig gestured them into had what looked to Peters like three paper dolls, linked together, in a vise or maybe a C-clamp.

“Looks like a doctor’s office,” Peters observed. There were chairs upholstered in dark brown, a couch the same color with bare metal arms, a low table, and a desk with a female Grallt behind it.

Dreelig discussed something with the receptionist, then looked back at the two sailors. “They are ready for us. Just go on through the door.”

Inside was another Grallt, male this time. He gestured at a machine, a platform of shiny metal surrounded by gadgets. “What do we do?” Todd asked.

“Stand on the platform.” Dreelig pointed.

“Think I’ll let you do the honors,” Peters drawled.

“Thanks a lot.” Todd took a low step up and turned to face the others. “How’s that?”

The attendant gabbled something. “No,” said Dreelig. “You must remove your clothing.”

“All of it?”

“Yes. The measurements must be exact.”

Todd began to disrobe, beginning with his hat, which he handed to Peters. When he was down to skivvies he looked at Dreelig, who nodded and made a down-sweeping gesture; the skivvies went too. The attendant grabbed something on the end of an articulated arm and began moving it around. Todd flinched the first time the gadget touched him, but after that he was able to be stoic. The process took ten minutes, with more of it than he really liked spent in the area of his groin.

Finally the attendant stowed the gadget, handed Todd his skivvies and t-shirt, and fiddled with controls on a shiny panel. Todd stepped down and began getting back into his uniform, and the panel buzzed and extruded a strip. The attendant tore the paper off, laid it on a counter, and gestured; it was Peters’s turn.

Peters took his mind off the process by examining the machine. He had begun forming an impression of what Grallt machinery looked like: a little clunky, bigger than it needed to be, not terribly well finished. This looked more… well, elegant was probably the right term. All the joints were even and nearly invisible, there weren’t any exposed fasteners, and the shape was smooth curves, almost organic. He shook his head. The impression was more subliminal than direct–although he wouldn’t have used that word; his own thought was “just a feelin'”–and therefore wasn’t anything to depend on.

The attendant disappeared through another door, and Peters started getting dressed. “Now we will wait a little longer,” Dreelig said.

Todd and Peters discussed the measuring machine in low voices. Todd had gotten the same impression Peters had. The machine was–was what? “I dunno,” said Todd. “It just looks nicer than the other stuff.”

“Chill,” Peters advised. “Here’s our friend.” Dreelig came to sit next to Todd. The low table had something on it: folded paper, printed in bright colors. Well, a doctor’s office ought to have magazines. Peters picked one up and puzzled over it, unable to tell if it was backwards or frontwards, let alone read it. Right side up was easy, there were pictures of people to indicate that. There were lots of pictures, in bright colors; the text, if that’s what it was, was sparse and big, somehow simple. Kids’ books?

The measuring attendant stuck his head through the door and said something, and Dreelig stood up. “It is finished,” he said, and gestured toward the door.

Lying across a table were two pairs of long johns, or maybe footie pajamas, uniform pale cream color. The attendant picked one up and gabbled, and they watched as he demonstrated. The garments opened up the front, a long slash that went diagonally from right hip to left clavicle and closed with a zipper–sort of: it had a traveler with a finger tab, all right, but what it left behind was a single piece, the seam not visible at all.

The fabric was thick, soft, and rubbery, and had no detectable weave, either to the eye or to the fingers: more like the dense foam rubber used for low-pressure gaskets than anything else. The feet were part of it, although there were slashes at the ankles that closed with more magic zippers. Gloves were separate pieces, with long cuffs like gauntlets. The neck had a tubular collar, like a turtleneck, split on the side where the main seam reached it.

The inside was smooth and almost frictionless; to get into it, one opened the slashes at the ankles, pulled it on over the legs, then worked arms into sleeves, right arm first. The top was a double flap, and the inside piece was pulled almost to the right shoulder before putting the outer one across and engaging the “zipper.” It hooked together at the shoulder and closed when moved from throat to hip, which seemed backwards. When the slashes at the ankles were closed the suit fit snugly and smoothly everywhere, without wrinkles, tight places, or chafing.

The attendant brought accessories: broad belts, the same color and material as the rest of the suit, with buckles fifteen centimeters long and ten wide, black–plastic?–with an inlaid pattern of shiny rectangles and circles. “Looks like a rodeo prize,” was Todd’s comment as he took it. The attendant gestured that they should put them on, but got indignant when they tried it; the belt went the other way, hooking on the left side instead of the right. It didn’t exactly hook, just stayed where it was put when pressed.

Lacking a mirror, the two sailors faced one another. The garments were almost embarrassingly revealing, with padded bulges in the crotch that seemed unnecessarily large. Dreelig had offered helpful comments from time to time as they dressed; now he asked, “What colors would you like? The kathir suit can be colored or patterned in almost any way you might like.”

That was easy. “Navy blue,” Peters said immediately. When Dreelig cocked his head, he continued, “Just like what we were wearin’ when we come in.” He gestured at his uniform, which he’d laid carefully on a table. “And it needs the crow.”

“Crow? I don’t understand,” said Dreelig.

“The red and white design on the left sleeve,” Peters explained. “It shows rank and specialty.” He picked up his jumper and extended the sleeve, displaying the insignia. “Tell you what, how long does it take to do the colorin’?”

Dreelig inquired. “Veedal says the basic color will be easy, but the design for the sleeve is complex and will take some time, perhaps as much as half an ande, a watch.” The attendant said something; Dreelig nodded. “He suggests that you leave the samples here while you are receiving basic instruction, so he can begin setting up the design. Will the others who are coming later want the same coloring?”

“Yeah, except that all the crows’ll be different, and officers use a different system,” Peters said. “When our people come to be measured, tell the enlisted to wear their undress blues, and you can copy the crow. Officers get gold rings here–” he gestured at the ends of the sleeves, “–accordin’ to rank, they’ll show you. All the same color.”

“That seems–” Dreelig paused, tried to find a word, finally came up with: “Boring.”

“Take it from me, they’ll like it,” Peters advised.

“Very well, that is how we will do it. Are you ready?”

“I guess so.”

Dreelig left; they took a moment to fold their uniforms neatly, then followed, finding that the soles of the suits were strong enough that they didn’t miss their boondockers on the smooth floor. “What does kathir mean?” Todd asked as they left. “You called this a kathir suit.”

“It means ‘no air,'” said the Grallt. “For outside.”

Peters stopped walking, causing Todd to bump into him. “A space suit? This set of rubber long johns is a space suit?”

“Well, no,” said Dreelig. He stopped, turning to face them. “A space suit is more elaborate, and stronger. This is only a kathir suit, for emergencies, in case there is a problem with the ship, or if you fall. It will provide air for an ande, a watch, about five of your hours.”

“Shit,” said Peters. “We about to go learn how to use it? And how to get around and manage on the ship?”

“That is correct,” said Dreelig.

Peters and Todd were grinning. “Lead on, Dreelig,” Peters told him. “We might be petty officers down home, but here we ain’t but spaceman recruit. Reckon it’s time to strike for apprentice.”

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