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“We have received an interesting analysis of our opponents from Rangor,” Under Envoy Zho’Ghogabel said.

“Interesting in what way?” Envoy Ve’Disuc replied. The negotiations were going no-where but they rarely did for long periods. It was all about patience. Being the drop of water that wore away the stone.

“It is long,” Zho’Ghogabel said. “The most important part, for us, is that we’re talking to the wrong people. I now understand the problem of doing anything with Danforth. There is also a change in position from the Junta.”

“Really?” Ve’Disuc said, sitting up.

“Separate from all other discussion points,” Zho’Ghogabel said, sending on the report with the orders highlighted. “Simple tit for tat. And one the Terrans have already brought up.”

“We can use this for more than a tit-for-tat,” Ve’Disuc said. “This could be a real breakthrough. I must contact the Ministry.”

* * *

“Come,” James Horst said. He didn’t even look up from his computer. He knew who it was.

“James,” Ve’Disuc said, bending through the door.

“Envoy Ve’Disuc,” Horst said, spinning around in his chair. “I think the couch will take you.”

“Thank you,” the Rangora said, sprawling onto the human couch. The furniture for the various delegations had been brought from their home planets. “I think we may have a real breakthrough.”

“That would be interesting,” Horst said, neutrally. “Which is?”

“Aliens are alien,” Ve’Disuc said.

“If you’ve finally figured that out it really is a breakthrough,” Horst said, snorting.

“We did not understand some things that you do,” Ve’Disuc continued. “And we based your reactions to war on our reactions to war.”

“Again, congratulations on your amazing insight that we view these things differently,” Horst said.

“I do recognize human sarcasm,” Ve’Disuc said.

“I see one of the race that blotted out most of my family and friends in an unprovoked attack,” Horst said.

“Are you by any chance a... Jacksonian?”

“Ah,” Horst said, nodding. “You found Meade’s essay. Congratulations, again. I said there was a point to opening up the hypernet system. Despite the fact that you keep trying to hack us through it.”

“That is performed by renegades...”

“Can it,” Horst said. “Or save it for the negotiating table. What is your point?”

“That question, remains,” Ve’Disuc said.

“And I’m considering whether to answer it,” Horst said. “Can you reveal why you want to know the answer?”

“To be able to evaluate your relative political power,” Ve’Disuc said. “We have been having a hard time understanding why two Americans are relatively junior to a Pole. America is your world’s hyperpower. Still. Despite the damage from the war which has fallen on the United States more heavily than the rest of the world. Why have a Pole as the primary negotiator? Now we realize that different tribes within both polities have different roles depending upon whether their polities are at war or peace. Our initial analysis was that you were the...the term you use is ‘eminence gris.’ If this was a Japanese negotiating team that would be assured.

“But now we discover that none of you may, in fact, have any political weight at all. Danforth assuredly has none. And we have, as yet, been unable to identify the exact nature of similar tribal spreads among the Poles. To understand what we are doing, to negotiate in truth, we have to understand humans and their politics.”

“Well, you’re still not there,” Horst answered. “But, yes, I’m one of those rare Republicans in the State Department. And Eklit is from a similar faction in Poland. If truth were told, I have a better time communicating with Eklit than Danforth. We understand each other.”

“Republican is synonymous with Jacksonian?”

“No, but it’s close,” Horst said. “The basis of the Republican party is Jacksonians as the basis of the Democratic party is Wilsonians. There are members in both.”

“The Republicans are your War Party,” Ve’Disuc said.

“I’m sure the Democrats think so,” Horst said with a snort. “But not as you would understand it, no. Get that thought out of your head. Have you been looking at the Second World War or First World War?”

“The... Second was part of the analysis, yes. References.”

“Look at the political party of the president in both wars.”

“Democrats. So... You don’t have a war party?”

“No,” Horst said.

“But you have a war tribe.”

“No,” Horst said, snorting again. “Seriously. No. Okay, close, but not quite the cigar. Jacksonians are about much more than war. They are, in fact, the basis of our small business community as well. Wilsonians and Madisonians tend to be in control of large businesses. Were. There are so few of both groups left they’re practically a vanishing species. If you’re trying to figure out if what we agree to is binding, yes. At least on Alliance countries and there are no Terran polities with space warfare capability other than Alliance countries.”

“On binding agreements,” Ve’Disuc said.

“Anything said here is decidedly non-binding.”

“Understood,” Ve’Disuc said. “You brought up an agreement against non-military based attacks upon civilian population.”

“The wording would have to be precise,” Horst said. “But an agreement upon no weapons of mass destruction attacks on non-military targets was one of our early negotiation points. We took it off the table because we realized you could barely get the concept. Aliens are alien.”

“We have some interest in resuming that dialogue.”

“Be great,” Horst said, surprised. “Why?”

“We are starting to understand you.”

“What do you want as a quid?”

“Drop your tribute stipulation.”

“I’ll...put that for consideration to the Alliance Foreign Ministry,” Horst said. “They’ll want the reverse.”

“We can probably agree to that,” Ve’Disuc said. “What do you think in general?”

“Frankly?” Horst said. “We don’t believe you’ll stick to it. I don’t believe you’ll stick to it. And we’ll probably agree anyway. Because we do understand you and know that anything we negotiate with you is essentially non-binding if you think you can get away with breaking it.”

“That makes negotiations hard,” Ve’Disuc said.

“You think?” Horst said, sarcastically. “What about the Horvath?”

“This is a mutual agreement,” Ve’Disuc said. “The Horvath may enter into it or not.”

“Let me talk to Eklit.”

* * *

“When someone wants to make this large of a change in negotiation position, I want to know why,” Piotr Polit said.

“Does it matter?” Harry Danforth said. “If we’d had this at the beginning of the war, we’d still have New York and Paris!”

“Interesting priorities,” Horst said. “And while I think we’ll probably agree with it, I agree with Eklit. This much of a change, not to mention agreement to our earlier proposal out of the blue, means something is changing in the background. I’d like to know what.”

“Ve’Disuc said it,” Danforth argued. “They’re starting to understand us. To understand that we consider all life precious.”

“So they’d assume that we wouldn’t bomb their cities, anyway,” Horst said.

“We’re not in a position to bomb their cities,” Danforth said, disparagingly. “Not that we would, anyway.”

“Do you think so?” Piotr said. “Have you ever heard of Dresden? Tokyo? Hiroshima?”

“We don’t fight like that, anymore,” Danforth said. “And those tragedies taught us why we shouldn’t.”

“At one level I agree with you, Harry,” Horst said. “And on another, disagree totally. I’m not going to get into it, though. Still want to know what’s happening.”

“And it’s not up to us to figure it out,” Piotr said. “I will send a report to the Ministry. James, send one to the American State Department as well. My recommendation is to accept the proposed changes. And add that we would dearly like some hard analysis of why they have changed their position.”

“I’m starting to feel like we’re making real progress,” Harry said.

I’m starting to feel like we’re flailing in zero g,” Horst said.

* * *

“There is micro gravity beyond this point,” Diaz said, delicately.

“I saw the signs, EM,” Dana said, grabbing the safety bar.

The shuttles for the 143rd were attached to the same “pencil” docks that the 142nd had used the first three years Dana had been with the unit. The pencil docks jutted from the inner wall of the main bay and shuttles were docked onto four sides. The main section was under micro gravity. The engineers, therefore, had to perform many of their checks in micro-gravity. Furthermore, since there was always a chance that something could go wrong and one of the boats be holed or broken off of the docks they had to work in suits. It was a pain in the butt but one that Dana was used to.

“As a coxswain, I’m not sure how much experience...” Diaz continued as Dana flipped herself into micro and started swarming down the corridor.

“Coming, EM?” Dana asked when she was half way to her boat.

Dana had been mildly embarrassed by her first exposure to micro on Troy. Since that time, however, she’d had thousands of hours in suits in not only micro but fluctuating grav conditions. As a former gymnast she also had excellent spatial awareness and was simply brutal at null grav ball. Micro was not an issue.

“Uh...yes,” Diaz said, for once non-plussed. He grabbed the safety bar and pulled himself into micro much more cautiously.

Dana took a small perverse pleasure from puncturing the phlegmatic NCO’s attitude. She’d appreciated his greeting her as a positive, as compared to the constant negative attitude she’d encountered from even the Americans in the 143rd. By the same token, he seemed to think she was some sort of glass doll or something. Or a brainless Barbie. It wasn’t direct, probably wasn’t even conscious, but he tended to be a bit condescending. As if, with a dancing bear, it was not so much that she could do engineering well as that she was a girl who could do engineering.

Dana wasn’t sure she could ever get the Latins to accept her as simply “a guy with tits” as Chief Barnett put it. But she also wasn’t going to be condescended to. There might be better pilots and engineers in the 143rd but she fully intended to be one of the best.

She stopped at Twenty-Three and looked around. The other three boats in “her” division didn’t seem to be occupied nor were they out of dock.

“Where’s the rest of the crew?” she asked.

“Participating in training,” Diaz said. “Leonidas, authorization code four-one-eight-seven-nine-alpha. EM2 Dana Parker assigned NCOIC Division Two, Bravo Troop. Shuttle Twenty-Three primary engineer.”

“EM2 Dana Parker assigned NCOIC Division Two, Bravo Troop, aye. Assigned Shuttle Twenty-Three primary engineer, aye. Authorized entry, inspection and repair shuttles twenty-one through twenty-four, aye. Welcome to the 143rd, Comet Parker.”

“Thank you, Leonidas,” Dana said, keying open the hatch.

“What are you doing?” Diaz asked.

“Starting my inspection of the craft, EM?” Dana said.

“Now?” Diaz seemed surprised even shocked.

“That would be my normal action at this point, EM,” Dana said, wrinkling her brow. “Do you have an alternate requirement, EM?”

“I was going to introduce you to the rest of your division,” Diaz said. “I assumed you’d like to meet them.”

“Very well, EM,” Dana said, closing the outer hatch on the shuttle. “Lead on.”

* * *

“This is the quarters of Vila and Palencia,” Diaz said, opening the door again without knocking.

They’d changed out of their suits on the way. Generally that was done in quarters. Dana had had to use the Engineering office while Megdanoff made himself scarce. She definitely needed quarters in the squadron area.

Dana, now that she had legal permissions as NCOIC of the Division, had accessed the basic personnel files for her team. According to the records, Dario Palencia was an Engineer’s Mate Third Class and Cruz Vila was an Engineer First Class assigned to Twenty-One and Twenty-Two respectively. The other two members were Ricardo Sans, an Engineer’s Apprentice and Diego Velasquez, Engineer Recruit. It was, from her experience, a pretty good mix. Palencia had about a year’s less experience than she did, and all of it as an engineer which was to the good. Both he and Vila had been engineers in the action at Station Two during the Eridani incursion and Palencia had picked up a NavCom, Naval Commendation Medal, with V device for valor.

All Dana had gotten out of the same action—even after getting a boat back to the Troy with half her thrusters knocked out by a near miss from a missile—was a transfer.

The only person in the quarters, though, was Vila who appeared to be asleep. He probably wasn’t accessing training materials since he was snoring.

“Where’s Dario?” Diaz asked.

“Don’t know, sir,” Vila said, rolling out of his rack. “He said he had something to pick up.”

Dana boggled again, not so much at the casual attitude as at the use of “sir.” NCO’s were addressed by their rate, not “sir” which was reserved for officers. Then she realized that Vila was using Spanish, naturally, and the actual word used was “senor.” It still was odd and even uncomfortable.

“Send him a message and tell him he needs to get down here to meet the new division engineering NCOIC,” Diaz said. “And you’re supposed to be studying, not sleeping.”

“Yes, sir,” Vila said, rubbing his eyes. The Engineer First Class was in the “short” category and had a distinctly “Incan” look. Taking a quick look at his dossier again, Dana saw he was from Ecuador. She tried to ignore that the room was trashed.

“This is Engineer’s Mate Second Class Parker,” Diaz said. “She’s your new division chief engineer.”

“Hello,” Vila said, blinking in surprise. “We weren’t expecting someone so good looking.”

“And I wasn’t expecting a full crew of engineers,” Dana said. She’d half way been expecting the compliment and ignored it. “According to your records you performed ably in the battle of Station Two. I look forward to working with you.”

“Thank you,” Vila said, shaking her hand a bit too warmly. “Feel free to stop by any time.”

“Oh, you can be sure I’ll be dropping by,” Dana said, smiling fatuously. She was starting to get a feel for how this was going to go. She wasn’t so sure that her natural reaction—which was to kick their ass in every possible way—was the right response.

“Palencia’s probably over at that damned mall,” Diaz growled as he closed the hatch. “I’ll talk to him about it.”

Dana accessed the watch schedule for the division and found that it simply said “Training and Maintenance” for most of the cycles over the next week.

“What sort of training are they doing, EM?” Dana asked, curiously. There wasn’t even a note on what specific training was to be done.

“Studying for qualifications, of course,” Diaz said.

“Ah,” Dana said, noncommittally. Studying for quals was done on your own time, not “work” time, in the 142nd. And, as far as she could determine, every other US Navy unit.

Since the shuttles required nearly constant maintenance to keep them in top shape, she was starting to get the drift of why the 143rd was constantly deadlined.

“Sans and Velasquez are over here,” Diaz continued, opening the hatch across the corridor.

This time at least the two engineers were awake but they appeared to be playing a video game. The were at least using their plants so they were getting some training in those.

“No! Go to the left...” Sans said.

“It’s covered!”

“Hey!” Diaz snapped. “Don’t you get to your feet when a superior enters the room?”

“Sorry, EM!” Sans said, opening his eyes and jumping to his feet. Velasquez was even quicker, bouncing up with his eyes still closed as he shut down the game.

“This is Engineer’s Mate Parker, your new NCOIC,” Diaz snapped.

“Hello,” Sans said, nodding politely. Velasquez just gulped and nodded.

“Hello,” Dana said, smiling. “I’m sure we’ll get along great. EM, you probably have other duties. Why don’t you leave me to get to know my division?”

“Very well,” Diaz said. “For obvious reasons, I think you’ll need to keep the hatch open when you’re in rooms with the male personnel.”

“Regulation Four-One-Six-Three-Zebra states that air-tight hatches are to be closed at all times unless in immediate use, EM,” Dana said, smiling sunnily. “I’ll keep plants on record. Since I can delete but not modify the recordings, they’ll serve as an adequate record, EM. And general guideline is that a person of the opposite sex is not to be alone with a member of the opposite sex unless off-duty, EM.”

“And I think that you’ll find that larger groups will simply cause more talk, Engineer’s Mate,” Diaz said, sternly.

“Not for long, EM,” Dana said, smiling still. “Regulations are, after all, regs.”

“We’ll discuss this at another time,” Diaz said. “As you said, perhaps you should get to know your division.”

“Thank you, Engineer’s Mate,” Dana said, still smiling. “I think we’ll step over to the other quarters, though, to get to know one another. I think a foursome is, at least for the time being, beyond most people’s imagination.”

Diaz grunted, nodded and left.

* * *

“He’s a real hard ass,” Sans said. “You’ll get used to it.”

“Do you think so?” Dana said, smiling. “Let me tell you what a hard ass is. This is a verbal counsel statement to you both. It’s recorded but internal for this moment. If I ever catch you playing video games, or engaging in any other form of entertainment that interferes with your duties, during duty hours again I will give you a written counseling statement. The time after that, you will have a Captain’s Mast under Article 92, Failure To Obey an Order or General Regulation. Did you understand this verbal counseling statement?”

“What?” Sans asked. Velasquez just gulped.

“This is duty hours,” Dana said, still smiling if thinly. Her eyes weren’t. “During duty hours I suppose that you may engage in preparation for standards tests. But playing video games is not such a preparation. Possibly if you were Marines. Since you’re Naval boats engineers, definitely not training. Duty hours are for working. When you are off duty, you can play games. Did you understand that?”

“Yeah, sure,” Sans said.

“The correct form of address is ‘Yes, EM’ or ‘I understand, EM,’ ” Dana said. “A surly ‘Yeah, sure’ is not sufficient. Start over. Do you understand that you are being verbally counseled not to engage in entertainment during duty hours?”

“Yes, EM,” Sans said, his jaw flexing.

“ER Velasquez, do you understand this counseling statement?” Dana asked.

“Yes, EM,” Velasquez replied.

“Excellent,” Dana said, still smiling. “This counseling session is closed. Let us proceed to the EM’s quarters so we can get to know each other.”

* * *

Palencia still hadn’t showed up when they crossed the corridor.

“Did you send him a message?” Dana asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Vila said. “He said he’d be here in a while.”

“Ah,” Dana said. “Grab some seats. I have a call to make.”

She mentally pulled up Palencia’s file and sent a message. When it didn’t pick up she sent a priority override which permitted her, as Palencia’s NCOIC, to open up his plant for a message.

“Palencia, this is Engineer’s Mate Second Class Dana Parker, your new NCOIC,” Dana commed. “What is your current position?”

“Uh, Parker...” Vila said. “Were you going to say something?”

Dana just held up a hand and pointed to her head.

What?” Palencia responded. “Who?”

“This is the new NCOIC for your division. You were messaged to present yourself so we could get to know each other. What is your position at this time?”

“I’m...on my way back.”

“Be aware of three things. The first is that lying to a superior is an offense against the UCMJ. The second is that, as your immediate superior, I can ask Leonidas for your location at any time. The third is that during duty hours unless specifically authorized you are to be in duty areas at all times. Failure to do so is another violation of UCMJ. You can get anywhere in duty areas in five minutes. So you have five minutes to present yourself at your quarters after which you will be considered absent without leave. Do you understand these requirements?”

“I’m on my way. It may be more than five minutes.”

“Take your time,” Dana commed. “I’m so enjoying my first day here.”

“I was comming Palencia,” Dana continued, audibly. Palencia was the next most senior person in the unit. She knew better than to, effectively, chew his ass in front of the others. “He’s on his way. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“Okay,” Vila said. He’d caught the frozen expressions of the other two engineers.

“To cover a few things, which I’ll cover privately with Palencia when he arrives,” Dana said. “I’m pretty unfamiliar with Latin American culture. But in my culture, there’s a saying. The teacher is no smiles before Christmas and all smiles after Christmas. I don’t see it as the duty of the newly transferred personnel to fix the One-Four-Three, so don’t take this as some sort of global negative. And I’ve been told that it’s best to befriend my team. That it works better with your culture. I’m not really good at that and I don’t see where it enhances our mission. Our mission is simple. Our shuttles deliver the mail. We may deliver parts or supplies or the rubble of destroyed ships. We may deliver mail. We may deliver Marines, express, to an enemy ship. But we deliver the mail. There is no excuse, there is no ‘close enough,’ there is no wriggle room. If the boats aren’t functioning, we can’t deliver the mail and we have failed in our mission.

“I have reviewed your personnel files. I’m sure in time we’ll all talk about where we’re from, what we miss about home, what we think about the latest TV show. But for right now, the only thing I care about is whether we can deliver the mail. Do you understand?”

“Yeah...” Vila said, then gulped at her expression.

“The correct response to that question is... Sans?”

“ ‘Yes, EM’ or ‘I understand, EM,’ ” Sans said.

“So, Vila, try it again,” Dana said, smiling. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, EM,” Vila said, his eyes wide.

“Then we have a beginning,” Dana said, smiling more broadly. “So, what is the status of your boat, Vila?”

“It’s running,” Vila said, shrugging.

“According to records, it has not had a sixty and ninety day maintenance schedule,” Dana said. “Since the only way to know if everything is running, is to run the maintenance schedule then, in fact, you don’t know if it’s running.”

“It can undock and fly, Parker,” Vila said.

“That is not the definition of ‘running’ for either the Alliance Navy or, more specifically, me, Vila,” Dana said. “Why have you not performed the sixty and ninety day maintenance?”

“I don’t have time!” Vila said. “We’ve got to study for these tests, too, you know!”

“Which you can do in your own time,” Dana replied. “But since it’s apparently on the training schedule, absent challenge from higher, the current schedule for this division is six hours per day on the boats with two hours in quarters for study. And it will be study. And this is how we’re going to work it. Every Friday we’ll have a test of specific items from the general standards sheets. These will be announced on Monday. Absent successful tests of knowledge of task, condition and standard, we will commence retraining beginning at end of duty hours on Friday and continue until all personnel show a fundamental grasp of task condition and standard.”

“Friday night?” Sans asked. “But...that’s our off-duty time!”

“You begin to grasp the point,” Dana said. “It is also, I might add, my off-duty time. And since I do tend to have some sort of a life beyond these nickel-iron walls, you’ll understand if I’m going to be a bit grumpy if you’re not prepared for the tests. You do not want me grumpy. This is me being nice.”

“To work on the boats we have to be in suits,” Vila pointed out.

“And your point?”

“That’s six hours in suits,” Vila said, slowly, as if to a child. “Every day.”

“And, again, your point?” Dana said. “I’ll be right there with you in Twenty-Three. And in your boats making sure that you’re actually performing the maintenance and checks. Which means I’ll have to be working twice as hard in those suits.”

“Six hours a day?” Sans said, incredulous.

“I’ve done up to sixty-seven hours in suits,” Dana said. “Which is right at the extension of the navopak, obviously. And if you think that most of my time as an engineer was in the comfort of a bay, think again. I spent most of my first six months on the Troy working under the same conditions you have here. So I’m very comfortable in suits.”

“Do we have to wear the suits?” Sans asked. “I mean, we do most of our work in the boats. They’re sealed.”

“Yes,” Dana said. “You have to wear the suits. First of all, it’s regulation. Second, it’s simply common sense.”

“Nothing’s ever...happened,” Vila pointed out.

The pause didn’t give Dana much belief that “nothing” had ever happened.

“There’s a very thin skin of steel and carbon fiber around you in the boats,” Dana pointed out. “Bad things sometimes do happen. Especially since what you’re supposed to be doing is finding out if everything works. If you’re working in an internal bay with double pressure doors, you can dispense with suits. Until then, you wear suits. Again, regulation and common sense.”

The hatch opened and a tall, slender and good looking young man, obviously Palencia, practically ran in. Dana took one look at him and knew damned well what he’d been doing.

“Sorry it took so long,” the EM said.

“Not a problem,” Dana said, standing up. “Dana Parker, Engineer’s Mate Second.”

“Your rate tabs say Coxswain,” Palencia said, shaking her hand.

“I was a Cox until this transfer,” Dana said. “They reactivated my engineer rate. So, now that you’re here, we can get into suits and head to the boats. I’ll have to go throw the EM1s out of their office again. Perhaps when we return they’ll have found me some quarters. If for no other reason than they’re tired of getting thrown out of their office.”


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