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“They will figure out where they are hidden,” Palencia commed.

“Sure they will,” Dana said, finishing the lashings on the toolbag. “But are they as questioning of their suits as you were?”

“Admittedly, yes,” Palencia said. He still sounded a bit nervous being out in the main bay.

“Then they can feel free to boldly go out onto the exterior of the hulls to get our tools,” Dana said. “And if their suits were as screwed up as yours, they can feel free to suck vacuum. They’re not my people. You are my people. And now we are going to go play.”

* * *

“Where the hell did you come from?”

The speaker was an American. Dana tagged him and shook her head.

“From the One-Four-Three, Sergeant First Class,” Dana said, smiling. The null grav courts weren’t full but they were close. And from the looks of things the only thing the Pathan Marines knew how to play was jungleball. On the other hand, they didn’t play it very well.

“You’re not authorized in this space, little lady,” Sergeant First Class Mat Del Papa said.

“If you’ll consult the schedule, Sergeant First Class, you will note that three of the null grav courts currently under use by your Marines are scheduled for the One-Four-Three.”

“Who never use the courts, miss,” the SFC said, patiently. “And, just an FYI, we try really hard not to mix in girls with the Pathans. It’s a straightforward religious insult to see a woman dressed the way you are.”

“In my issue PT t-shirt and issue shorts, SFC?” Dana said, smiling. “Since I’m, you know, a member of the Navy with a rank, Sergeant First Class?”

“That’s the way you wanna play it?” the SFC asked, his face blank.

“I’ve been playing games all day, Sergeant First Class,” Dana said, her smile fading and her eyes going from blue to gray. “I’m about sick of them to tell you the truth. A nice round of jungleball will do three things. One, it’s a game I know not flailing in the dark. Two, my men need training in micro. Three, it will cement that while I’m a split, I’m not a pussy, Sergeant First Class.”

“These guys barely play by jungleball rules, Engineer’s Mate Parker,” Del Papa pointed out.

“Any weapons?” Dana asked.

“No. We’re pretty careful about that one.”

“Then it’s all good,” Dana said. “Which court?”

“Four,” the SFC said, shaking his head. “If you’re really going to do this.”

“Palencia, you’re going to have to talk to them I suppose,” Dana said.

Talk to them?” Palencia said. “I barely like carrying them. I talk to those Islamic assholes as little as possible.”

“Ah, the joys of being in an Alliance,” Dana said, putting in her mouth guard as the door to the court opened up.

“Sergeant First Class, what is this...this doing here?” one of the Pathans asked, pointing at Dana.

“This is Engineer’s Mate Second Class Parker, Sergeant Charikar,” Del Papa said. “She and her division are here to play null ball.”

“Her dress is as a whore, Sergeant.” The Afghan Marine was tall and, to Dana’s surprise, had blue eyes. “She should not even be allowed into our presence. It is an insult to God.”

“Nonetheless, her unit actually is scheduled to use this court,” Del Papa said. “And she and her team wish to play nullball. Since they didn’t bring anyone else, I suppose they need to play your team. Or you can cede the territory to her and wait for another and they with themselves.”

“This is a deliberate insult,” Charikar said. “Our liaison will be informed of this incident.”

“Hey, what’s another reply by endorsement?” Dana asked.

“Says you,” Del Papa said, putting in his mouthpiece.

“You going to ref?”

“Wouldn’t miss this for worlds,” the Green Beret said. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“My guys are about to find out how to work in micro,” Dana said. “I’m about to get my mad out. Pretty much covers it.”

Five of the Pathans spilled out of the court, making way for her team. She was used to guys looking at her in her PT uniform. She was in shape and not particularly ugly. What she wasn’t used to was expressions of loathing.

“Is that really a woman?” one of them asked soto voce.

“You’ve seen them here,” a lance corporal replied. “They are whores.”

“You call our NCOIC a whore one more time and you’ll lose teeth,” Sans snarled.

“Then tell her not to dress like a whore, infidel!”

“Whoa!” Del Papa said. “Marines, keep your comments to yourself. Suds, do the same. You want to fight, you’re about to get your chance.”

“This is insane!” Palencia whispered to Dana as they walked onto the court. “These are animals.”

“Time to be a better animal,” Dana said, rotating her neck. “Look, you’re about the only one that has any ability in micro. These guys play by grabbing on and wrestling. And, apparently, biting. Keep moving and break their hold. Just let me carry the ball.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to carry in null-ball,” Velasquez said, nervously.

“This is jungleball,” Dana said, rotating her jaw. “First rule of jungleball is technically no weapons. Real rule is do whatever you have to do to win. Now let’s beat up some Pathans.”

“And,” Del Papa said, releasing the ball upwards. “Game on!”

Dana pushed off from the wall and intercepted the ball before the first of the Pathans could get near it. A hand snaked out at her and she slammed the ball backwards and grabbed the Afghan’s wrist. She had enough velocity that they immediately went into a spin. Three more were closing on her, clearly intending a little four-on-one smack-down. Or knowing Pathans something much more personal. She spun the lance corporal into them and then bounced off the resulting tangle. That had four of them out of action for a moment. The only one remaining was Charikar who was closing on her, not the ball. She bounced off a wall, caught one of his ankles and went into a flat spin. By bouncing off the still tangled Afghans she managed to get a major rotation out of his body and slammed him into the pile. Hard.

“Call me a whore you flea-ridden, balless faggot?” Dana said. “Your mother was a whore in Peshawar who serviced only Jews.”

“And that’s goal!” Del Papa shouted. “Return to your sides.”

“What?” Dana said, looking around.

Palencia came bouncing back by her from the Afghan’s goal, grinning.

“You may be having fun but we have a game to win. Where did you learn that insult? It sounded like a direct translation.”

“It’s amazing what you can find on the hypernet.”

* * *

“Ooo,” Sans groaned as they walked out of the court. “That last round was a nightmare.”

Del Papa was just shaking his head.

“Did you have to send half the team to the infirmary? There’s getting your mad out and getting your mad out.”

“They were trying pretty damned hard to send me to the infirmary,” Dana said. She had a bite on her leg that was going to need to be looked at. “I was just returning the favor.”

“You’re not going to get them to respect you by being more Billy Bad-Ass than they are,” Del Papa said. “Quite the opposite.”

“I’m not trying to get the Pathans to respect me,” Dana said. “I don’t need them to respect me. I like Marines, generally. Get along with them great. USMC at least. These guys? Apparently this whole damned station runs by jungleball rules. Okay. I understand there’s a MASSEX in a couple of weeks to try to figure out this whole boarding thingy. Sergeant, I control your air, gravity and inertia. And as screwed up as everything else is on this station, I could kill a whole load of them and not only get away with it, because I am a very good engineer, but apparently it would be shrugged off with a, variously, manana or In’sh’allah. Sergeant, they should be sending me expensive chocolates.”

“I’ll keep that firmly in mind,” Del Papa said, chuckling. “And try to make sure I get a different boat.”

“Sergeant,” Dana said. “It wouldn’t even be a boat from my division.”

* * *

“Are we going to have to do that again?” Palencia asked when they were back in the squadron area.

“Every damned day,” Dana said. “One hour of weights and one hour of jungleball. Until you make my standards of micro activity. Vila, you’re going to have to make yourself scarce, as in in the squadron area but not in your room, while I have a private chat with Palencia.”

“Yes, EM,” Vila said, his eyes widening just a bit.

“Quiet chat?” Palencia asked.

“We’ll have to hold that until we’re, well, private,” Dana said, smiling and batting her eyes.

* * *

“Leonidas, Comet,” Dana said as soon as the hatch was closed.

“Go Comet,” Leonidas said over the 1MC.

“I need a high level lock on a recording,” Dana said. “To clarify, if the question ever comes up officially as to what was discussed, there is a recording. If there are simply rumors and low-level personnel are curious for prurient reasons, the recording cannot be opened.”

“You’ll need a high enough level lock-out,” Leonidas said. “I cannot interfere in chain-of-command.”

“Send a standard query to Chief Elizabeth Barnett,” Dana said. “That way the only person who can open it is one of the officers or the Squadron Chiefs.”

“Sent and...agreed,” Leonidas said, with a tone of curiosity.

“Thank you, Leonidas,” Dana said.

“You are welcome, Comet.”

“You have a good relationship with the AI,” Palencia said, curiously. “I don’t think that I have heard him more than twice.”

“I get along with AIs,” Dana said. “It’s a knack. Since they don’t have gonads, I figure it doesn’t have anything to do with my pheromones. Grab a seat, Palencia. We need to chat.”


“I got a...not so much a dressing down as a cultural lecture from Megdanoff,” Dana said. “Apparently, everything I’ve done since hooking up with the division is wrong. And wrong in a really big way. Thing is, I get that I’m stepping on your culture, but I also know space. And while there may be a...fatalistic attitude about that in your culture, in my culture everything I said goes. I don’t want to go to your memorial service. I especially would like to avoid being the centerpiece of one. And the way the birds are, that’s more than likely. You’re an engineer, what I call a ‘real’ engineer. You’ve got to know that.”

“My bird is fine,” Palencia said, shrugging. “The air, gravity and drive work.”

“The grapnels don’t,” Dana said. “I’m not disagreeing, I’m trying to get a handle on this.”

“We rarely use them,” Palencia said, shrugging again. “So I don’t pay as much attention to them.”

“You guys don’t work the scrapyard?” Dana said.

“Rarely. And when we do, well, most of our grapnels don’t work so we don’t.”

“Is that a deliberate two-fer?” Dana asked.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“If your grapnels don’t work, you don’t have to work the scrapyard?”

“Still not quite getting your meaning,” Palencia said. “Perhaps it is the translation?”

Human implants were derivatives of the highest tech Glatun systems. They took into account accent and colloquial meaning where translatable. The only reason Palencia wouldn’t understand her was if he really could not understand the question or was simply avoiding it.

“Okay,” Dana said. “Do I just not know how to ask you questions?”

“There are questions and questions, EM,” Palencia said.

“Questions I can ask and questions I can’t ask?”

“More should avoid asking.”

“I guess I’m looking for cultural cues here,” Dana said. “I really don’t know how to handle your culture and I’m getting that. I’ve been told that it’s not even a good idea to try to be the best division in the squadron.”

“We already are the best division in the squadron,” Palencia said, shrugging. “I assumed that was why you were assigned to us.”

“What?” Dana said. “How? I don’t get it. I’m sorry, that’s not translating or something.”

“We have the highest marks in the squadron,” Palencia said. “We have repeatedly been at the top of the inspections. It is one of the reasons that we were so shocked by your approach. It was, yes, an insult to our competence when we felt we had already demonstrated it. And, as I said, I assume why you were placed with us. I’m sorry I had not realized who you were. Your reputation, as a pilot at least, proceeds you. What I found surprising was that you had no particular commendations for your many actions. You have a general NavCom and you were promoted rather fast, but no medals for valor.”

“I was just doing my job,” Dana said, shrugging.

“You were doing an excellent job,” Palencia replied. “You should have been given a medal for the station boarding at the very least. I think if I’m reading correctly that you were the first shuttle on the ground.”

“Second,” Dana said. “By maybe a second if that makes any sense. Thirty-One was there about the same time. They...didn’t make it off the LZ.”

“Again, getting your wounded ship back to pick up more Marines and then returning to the boarding action?” Palencia said. “There should have been a medal involved.”

“I’m not really big on medals,” Dana said, shrugging.

“Then you are mad,” Palencia said. “How else do people know who you are? What you’ve done?”

“You do,” Dana said, then slapped her forehead. “Damnit. Cultural.”

“ not understand,” Palencia said.

“My culture doesn’t like praise,” Dana said. “I mean, yeah, we like it. But we...we sort of push it off.”

“Is that what it is?” Palencia said. “I’ve seen that in some of you Nortes. Yet, I think you get more of it in the end.”

“I don’t get you,” Dana said. “Not lack of translation, but rephrase?”

“I’m thinking about it,” Palencia said. “Our conversation. You say ‘I was just doing my job.’ I then, in an attempt to point out that it was more than your job, repeat your actions. This is praise.”

Dana suddenly realized that while she had approached Palencia as something of a cock-up, more of a playboy playing at being a ship’s engineer then anyone serious, he was probably way smarter than she was in pure brain power.

“My culture is probably more honest about it,” Palencia said. “We simply expect to be praised. And there is a specific amount of it and then we go on. You can... I guess the way you would put it is ‘milk’ it for some time.”

“I don’t...” Dana said. “Is that what we’re doing?”

“It certainly looks that way from the outside,” Palencia said. “I’d never really thought about it.”

“I’m still interested in getting the birds right,” Dana said, suddenly revisiting her own cultural background. Is that really what we do? “I mean, call it cultural or whatever. I’m a freak about things being right. Not looking right or seeming right or on paper right. Being right. Space is a colder bitch than I ever can be. I just try to keep up.”

Palencia burst out in laughter at that until he nearly cried.

“That is a very good way to put it, I suppose,” Palencia said. “Again your Norte deprecation but this time I will not disagree. You are called Comet. Do you have another handle?”

“If you’re asking do I have a handle like Ice Queen, yes,” Dana said.

“I think we should call you Quipu,” Palencia said, smiling.

“Which means?” Dana said then got a flash off the hypercom. “Oh, great! I’m a llama?”

“Assuredly not a llama,” Palencia said, grinning. “Quipu are very beautiful animals and never used as beasts of burden. The most expensive and soft wool in the world. Their fleece was reserved for the Incas. Also very hard to handle and prefer it very cold.”

“Great,” Dana said, knowing damned well she was stuck with the handle. “But about getting the division up to the point I don’t have to worry about going out in the Black. Seriously. How?”

“Why did we play jungleball?” Palencia asked.

Besides so I could get my mad out at the situation playing non-micro-capable Pathans?” Dana asked. “I was hoping that the division would actually find it a bonding exercise. At the very least that you might be able to see past my butt to my skills.”

“Well, I did get the most goals,” Palencia pointed out.

“While I was clearing the way,” Dana said. “Does it help you, from your cultural perspective, if we continue that way in general? Or can I clear the way and let you get the goals? I really don’t care about goals except mine. Which are to have everyone in the division come back in one piece and the boats capable of delivering the mail. That was a metaphor for ‘we can do all the tasks expected of a boat division.’ Including, yes, working the scrapyard or helping close the main door.”

“Why should I assist you in your goals?” Palencia asked. “What is in it for me?”

“Besides going home in one piece?” Dana asked. “Because that is, you understand, one of my goals. What are your goals?”

“To go home in one piece,” Palencia said. “And I make sure my boat is capable of getting me home. The honor of having been in this great action. And to be an officer so I never have to turn a wrench again. Being an Engineer’s Mate is very nearly a loss of honor. I have a bachelor’s in engineering and I am working as an enlisted man.”

“So...why are you an enlisted man?” Dana asked.

“Because more powerful families made sure their sons were officers,” Palencia said, shrugging. “In time there will be more squadrons, more officer slots. Then I will be an officer.”

“Just like that?” Dana asked, frowning. “Pull some strings and, bam, instant officer?”

“No, of course not,” Palencia said. “There will be a slot in officer’s school or I will return to school for my masters and go to officer’s school afterwards. That is how these things are done. That is how things are done?”

“Cultural,” Dana said, frowning still. “Uh, no, not in my culture. I mean, it was suggested that I apply for OCS one time, but that was based upon... Uhm...merit? Like you said, I have done some things that stick out and I’ve got a pretty high GCT. When my basic term was coming up, not that means anything with stop-loss, a couple of people suggested OCS or even that school for people in the military who get selected for Annapolis. But... I sort of took a pass. I liked flying. Like engineering, too. But I’m doing good work where I’m at.”

“So you intend to be a career NCO?” Palencia asked, frowning in turn.

“Career?” Dana said, shrugging. “Current enlistment is for the duration and the duration looks to be a long time. Do I want to be an officer? Not really. So I guess, yes.”

“Ah,” Palencia said, nodding.

“I just missed something cultural, didn’t I?” Dana asked.

“I am trying to think how to phrase it,” the EM3 said. “And, yes, it is cultural. Americans simply do not understand what the word class means. It translates as one word but it has a thousand meanings. Americans do not have class. They have different economic levels but they do not have class. Class is something you are born to. No, I take that back. Some of them have class but they try very hard to hide it. You would not even know the names of Americans with class.

“Every member of this squadron, even Velasquez, is of the officer class. None of us should be turning a wrench or even flying a shuttle given that that is the job now of enlisted men. Women in your case. We are here because our countries are spending a simply ruinous amount of their treasury on these boats and thus they send their best. We are all of the better class.

“Career NCOs...” Palencia said and then shrugged. “They are not of the better class. Not of the worst but certainly not of the better. It was assumed that you, too, intend to be an officer and for some reason simply are biding your time as a...”

“Wrench turner,” Dana said. “So...what you’re saying is that I’m now too low class.”

“When you told me you intended not to be an officer I had to quell my immediate reaction to, therefore, treat you as your class,” Palencia said. “You...”

“Should be holding your horse?” Dana asked.

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Palencia said.

“Not upset by it,” Dana said. “Just trying to assimilate it.”

“I would suggest that it remain between us,” Palencia said.

“So...” Dana said. “You guys probably have some problems, at a certain level, with people like Megdanoff.”

“We understand that there are cultural differences. But that is at an intellectual level. So, yes, we have problems with taking direction from someone who is not our better. Quite the opposite.”

“Oh, wow,” Dana said, shaking her head. “This gets more and more screwed up. So... Class is about social status. Social status is about position and control of decisions. So some farm-girl insulting you probably causes some reduction in not only your social status but that of your family. That was what Megdanoff meant. So it makes it less likely that you get your cushy officer slot when one comes open.”

“I would not have put it so...bluntly,” Palencia said, uncomfortably.

“Yeah, I wasn’t real comfortable with the discussion about increased praise by deprecation,” Dana said. “The division working properly isn’t going to raise your social status?”

“Performing maintenance?” Palencia said, laughing. “Please. We are to be officers. That is for the lower classes. Not that they do the work unless you ride them all the time. They are born lazy.”

“So why didn’t they send...enlisted class and let you polo or something?” Dana asked, desperately.

Reading between the lines, that meant that as officers they were micro-managers. Which filled in the blanks of why they couldn’t reduce the level of call for fire during the boarding. For that matter, controlling the fire of a cruiser was probably a social prop so it wouldn’t be delegated down lest the delegator lose status. “During the boarding I personally directed the fire of the supporting cruisers.” No captain was going to lose the social props because he wanted to be an admiral and that probably depended more on discussions at dinners about his heroic actions during the boarding than his actual record. Not to mention whether he was of the right class and family.

And it meant that even senior and experienced NCOs were not trusted to be competent at a basic level. Which meant that you “had” to have an officer overseeing what in Western formations, and especially US formations, was handled by NCOs.

“One of these shuttles is a good bit of the Gross Domestic Product of Ecuador,” Palencia said, snorting. “Less so of Argentina, of course. But it required several nations working together to fund this squadron. They were not going to turn that over to monkeys.”

Sometimes Dana tended to forget just how expensive all these systems were. And how much of a difference in GDP there was between the US, even after being repeatedly bombed by KEWs, and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

“So pretty much everything about this whole set up has been an insult and disturbed your...what would you call it?”

“Social politics is the technical term,” Palencia said, nodding. “Yes. From the ultimatum from your late president to the conditions under which we serve to the lack of support from your ships during the boarding. And, of course, the way we are treated by very junior American enlisted.”

“So why the hell are you even in the Alliance?” Dana asked.

Palencia just gestured around with his hands.

“Your Mr. Vernon had a lock on off-world technology and was less than involved in sharing. We get access to very advanced technology. Gravitational theory and design. Laser emitter technology. Astronics. And as part of the Alliance we get increased defense of our nations.”

“And I can’t help you with any of your goals,” Dana said. “All I can do is make things worse.”

“As far as I can see, yes,” Palencia said. “Since we are being Norte frank. Don’t get me wrong, I like you. Not just as a woman and you are a very desirable woman. You have spirit and I like that. If you were a polo player, I’d want you as my third. If you were a man. Women simply don’t have the strength and endurance to make serious polo players. But as you noted everything you have done since arriving has made my life more difficult to no great advancement. And that is ignoring the...what is the term? Ah, coitus interruptus.”

“I’ve got to give this some thought,” Dana said, standing up. “I’m not used to having to judge every action on the basis of what effect it has on a social structure in a nation I can barely place on a map.”

“You begin to understand the limitations of your class,” Palencia said. “It can learn!”

“Pal,” Dana said, putting one hand on his shoulder and looking him in the eye. “You use the term ‘limitations of your class’ again and the next time we play jungleball I’m going to slam you into the Pathans.”

“And that is a, pardon, classic response,” Palencia said. “Which pretty much defines the difference between our classes.”


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