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2.

Further negotiation consisted only of instructions on entry procedures. In ten minutes, the Ghosts were hooked up in the cryo entry hall and Rachel and Clay were in the station’s control room. It was long and narrow and complicated and messy, and at least five people were working there amid the dangling tubes and floating wires and floating blobs of whatever someone had been drinking or eating. There were screens all over the place, some working and some not, but the biggest display devices were four actual windows, in two pairs, each pair nearly wrapping around a tubular stretch of the control room: these formed two observation tubes, and in the further one, a young man curled up gazing pessimistically out at the stars, a scrawny white cat in his weightless lap. The mouthhole attack had abated for now.

Clay and Rachel, their helmets pushed back off their heads, hung in front of the largest working screen, hanging onto curves of pipe, ersatz sashay bars that clearly had not been part of the original equipment. One of the observation tubes, the one without the young man and the cat in it, was right beside them.

“They’ve been coming at us in waves every few hours,” said the middle-aged woman who had originally greeted them on the comm. Her name was Avery, which was emblazoned on a badge stitched onto her jump suit. Her hair was reddish and cut just long enough to look messy. Beside her a man who looked ten years older than her, and whose badge said LAMARCHE, looked on silently. “They seem to be off right now.”

“Your settings,” said Clay. “You don’t do them much damage, do you?”

“No,” said Avery. “If we hit them straight on, for like five seconds at a time, we can blow them up, but that hardly ever happens. You being there must have confused that one.”

Another woman, also middle aged but with brown skin and frizzy dark brown hair pulled back in a frizzy pony tail, floated over and said, “Do not forget to get their settings, Avery.” She smiled at Clay. “You blew up more of those things in two minutes than we’ve been able to in a month.”

“Is that how long it’s been?” asked Rachel.

The woman, whose badge read COURT, checked a nearby display and said, “950 hours. That’s what, six weeks? Something like that. So look, we gotta have those settings.”

Both women and the man looked at Clay. “Rachel’s the boss here,” he said.

“I’ll input the settings, if you don’t mind,” said Rachel.

“Why can’t I input them?” asked Court.

“We did not begin this relationship with an attitude of trust,” said Rachel, looking from Court to Lamarche and back. “Did we?”

“I have no idea what you mean,” said Lamarche: his was the voice that had been worried about infection.

“You frickin’ shot at us,” said Clay. “Don’t pretend you didn’t. You were shooting at me. And yeah, I take that kinda personally.”

The three Centaurians looked at each other. Avery, the short-haired woman who seemed the friendliest, said, “Actually that was Bardo.”

“Yeah,” said Court. “You want to beat him up or something? You can do that, I’ll help.”

“He the one with the cat?” asked Rachel, looking at the young man with the cat, who did not deign to look at her.

“No, he’s the bald guy. Bardo!” Court called. A bald man working at a station twenty meters down the control room did not look up. “Get over here and take what’s coming to you, Bardo.”

“Mr Bardo,” said Rachel. He still did not look up. “Mr Bardo,” she said in the silence, in her Tone. He looked. “Mr Bardo, you will need the new settings. In return, I want you to promise me that you will not shoot at us when we go out to help you clear away the next attack. Do you agree?”

He shrugged and sort of nodded and then waved an agreeable hand before going back to whatever he seemed to be concentrating really hard on.

“That’s not good enough, Bardo,” said Rachel.

“Bardo,” said Court, “there’s a lot of space out there, maybe you’d like to check that out.”

Bardo sighed, pushed back from his station, and nodded without turning.

“Bardo,” said Rachel. “Do you agree to my terms?”

“Of course, of course,” said Bardo. “I will not fire on you.”

Rachel looked at Clay. “I don’t think you’re going to do better than that.”

“What is it with you guys?” said Rachel. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Well,” said Court, “we’ve been through quite a lot. Especially, oh, these last 950 hours.”

“A thousand,” said Avery. “Those Ngugma came earlier.”

“Ngugma,” said Clay. “Ah. And you saw the video from Earth.”

“Yes, we did,” said Court. “It made quite an impression here. So I think you can see where some of us are coming from. Some of us. So if we could have those settings, it would, you know, put our minds at ease a little.”

“And then you tell us your story?” asked Clay.

“And then we tell you our very fascinating story,” said Court.

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