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IV. The new deal



A few hours later, well rested and not very drunk anymore, all the fighter pilots and at least half the crews of the bigger ships met in the Honshu’s big meeting room. It was just big enough for all of them, hanging onto sashay bars or straps on the “floor” or “ceiling.” When Clay and Rachel got there, Cassiopeia Root was floating in the middle, discussing status with her crew and Kalkar’s. Park wasn’t there yet. Natasha came in behind Rachel, with a Primoid, the one she referred to as Skippy. They appeared to be in a conversation that consisted entirely of gestures. Vera came behind them. She smiled at Clay and Rachel.

“I think they’re communicating,” she said, “but I can’t tell for sure.”

“Neither can either of us,” said Natasha. She made a hand-down gesture to the Primoid, whose head tentacles parted left and right, like the Red Sea for Noah. “They came with nine fighters, lost three, but saved two of the pilots and they’re hoping to get them in space again. That much was easy to understand. I think they’re worried that Park’s not giving them enough time.”

“This seems like my moment,” said Park, coming in behind Vera.

“Oh, good,” said Captain Root, “Commander Park is here to take things over.” She evacuated the middle of the room. Park took her place without missing a beat.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” said Park. She looked at two Fyaa hovering right in front of her, and at a Kaahriig nearby, which had its wings folded and its long fat beak down and was giving her a steady gaze. “That is a way in which we begin speeches,” she said. “It doesn’t actually mean anything.”

“Wee say something similarrr,” the bird-like officer replied. All the Fyaa seemed to have taken on the English language with enthusiasm, though their mouth parts weren’t designed for it.

“We refer to all five of the kinds,” said Skzyyn Aarndr-rii, who propelled itself over to Clay and grabbed an open pocket on Clay’s sleeve to steady itself. “Good day, Kahiim and Kaahriig, Errhatzky and Mrez and Tskelly. You put your kind last. Polite. That the right word?”

“I think so, yeah,” said Clay.

Park was clearing her throat and looking in their direction. “We do that too,” said the Fyaa, not in his squeak but his whisper. Clay almost shushed him but settled for a smirk.

“You were telling me we had three choices,” said Captain Kalkar.

“Thank you,” said Park. “We have three choices. We can say we’ve done enough and go find some other way to pass the time and/or save our three civilizations, or we can take what we learned from attacking this super-freighter group and use it to attack the next one, which should be on its way out in a week or two.”

“And which,” said Kalkar, “will be all ready with new ideas for how to defend against us.”

“Yeees,” said the Kaahriig, who seemed to be the senior Fyaa officer. “Bothh baaad ideas.”

“That leaves option three,” said Park. “The super-freighter cannot accelerate at anything like our pace. They are essentially pulling a small moon with them. So there is every chance that we can get a second bash at them.”

“Really,” said Rachel.

“So what shall we do with this extra chance?”

“Clay had an idea. Right, Hunkburger?”

“What? Oh, uh, I have lots of ideas,” said Clay, who was too embarrassed by the whole situation to bother thinking about being a hunkburger. “Most of them suck, frankly.”

“But your idea,” said Park.

“Well, uh,” he said, and he spent a moment swallowing his apprehensions. “Listen,” he said, “I just thought,” and he felt Rachel and Natasha push him toward the middle of the room. No one interrupted. If Park had wanted to indulge her sarcasm, she could have, and Clay would have kept his stupid idea to himself. Since she didn’t indulge, he had to talk. “One time we were simulating,” he said, “we sort of blasted our way into one of those battleships, and we flew right up the middle of it and blasted our way out the other side. And it occurred to me, instead of trying to blow up the freighter, why not try and get inside it and take the thing over? It might actually be easier.”

“All right,” said Park, while everyone else in the room murmured and muttered their own reactions. “I can think of a lot of objections to this and any other plan. I can also think of certain advantages.”

“We might capture some of the bastards,” said Kalkar. “I could give them a piece of my mind.”

“We could get intel,” said Root.

“We could get design specs,” said Padfoot. “We could find out where their real weak spot is.”

“We could sneak up on their home system or whatever,” said Daria Acevedo. “No idea how the hell we do it, of course.”

“Friends,” said Skzyyn Aarndr-rii, pushing away from Clay. “I volunteer.”

“That’s surprising,” said Kalkar.

“You,” said Clay, “have to take the Unbreakable Vow.”

“The what?” said the Tskelly.

Fetz eskhendrydke pfeeg,” said Natasha. She added several more sentences in the Fyaa lingua franca.

“That is crazy,” said Skzyyn. “Fyez ekzektrekt. Why promise such a thing?”

“The whole thing’s crazy,” said Clay. “So, yeah. That’s the price of volunteering.”

Park looked around, which involved turning through 360°, and everyone stopped their little conversations. “So we have some qualified enthusiasm for this little scheme. Does anyone want to pour cold water on it?” She smiled at the Kaahriig fellow. “Do you know that one?”

“We say, will anyone want to poop on it,” it replied.

“I may adopt that myself,” Park replied. “No one?”

“I’m crazy,” said Vera, “I’ll go in front.”

“I’m definitely in,” said Natasha. “I want to capture an Ngugma. It could give me my third living alien language. I could get a publication out of this.”

“All right, then,” said Park. “Nothing is decided. But let us, in one hour, assemble Alpha and Beta, Captains Root, Kalkar, and Fvaerch, the Primoid cruiser captain, Ms. Padfoot, Ms. Acevedo, and any Fyaa or Primoid pilots who wish, here, and actually make those decisions.”

“She means,” Kalkar said to the Kaahriig captain, “watch her make those decisions.”