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2.

Clay and Rachel and Vera and Natasha had a coffee and joked around while sort of fleshing out Clay’s idea. “I don’t know how we get close enough,” said Clay, “and I don’t know how we get inside, and I don’t know how we get control once we’re in.”

“We bonk heads,” said Vera, “even if they don’t actually have heads. Then we pull out all the wires and rewire the bitch to do what we want.”

“Look,” said Rachel, “we get in via the usual Alpha Wing discipline and brains, and once we’re in, we get some experts in there, like a few of those Fyaa mechanics, the Errhatzky, is that the name?”

“It is,” said Natasha, “and it’s really awesome to sit here and listen to each of you three say exactly what you’d say in this situation.”

“Well, what’s your version?” asked Rachel.

“My version? I like your versions.”

Rachel’s wrist display chimed. “Five minutes,” she said, “let’s go see what Park’s version of this comes out to.”

“I had mine set for three minutes,” said Natasha.

“I didn’t even bother,” said Clay.

“Well, when you’re with Commander Perfect,” said Vera, “I don’t see why you’d need to.”

“Hey now, Explosion Girl,” said Rachel.

“Killer,” said Clay.

“Anyway, I’m not a bit ashamed to admit Clay and I have very well worked out roles. And one of his roles is to come up with ideas that make me say, ‘You know, that just might work.’ And this would be one of those.”

They crossed the hall and floated into the meeting room. A Kaahriig was just stretching its wings, and Clay bumped into it, prompting them both to apologize in their own languages.

“Captain Fvaerch?” said Clay.

“Pilot Gilbert,” it said back at him. It raised its beak high in the air and wagged it a little.

“Clay Gilbert,” said Skzyyn Aarndr-rii, floating over and grabbing Clay’s hair to stop itself. “You will tell them I must be in this too.”

“If you think,” said Clay, “that I have any decision-making power, you’ve been misinformed.”

“But they will listen to you, will they not? You or your, ahhh, partner, ahh, Rachel?”

“She’s the brains, I’m the brawn,” said Clay, looking around, and then he looked at the Fyaa pilot, who seemed to have absorbed the words. “But it’s Park who will actually decide.”

Park was not there already, which was unusual but not unheard-of; it meant that when she breezed in a moment later, with Padfoot, Bonnie Bain and Captain Kalkar, everyone went silent. Park started right in. “Bain, can you get the display—?”

“Sure, Commander,” said Bonnie Bain. With a quick grin at Clay and a wink at Skzyyn, she pulled the projector out of the wall and aimed it at the middle of the room. A tiny little Ngugma freighter appeared in mid-air, surrounded by cruisers the size of rice grains and fighters the size of silt particles.

Park moved into the space next to the space where the freighter appeared. She looked at Bain, who tossed her a little remote.

“All right, as you can see,” Park said, zooming in on the super-freighter and making it partly transparent, “99% of the vessel’s volume is cargo. And on our first pass, and our simulations, we thought of this as our target, but it’s a difficult target, it’s literally a hard target. Now for those of you who may have thought we got nothing useful out of that last attack, I would like to direct your attention to the remaining 1% of the vessel.”

She twiddled the remote, and the Ngugma freighter zoomed much closer, so close that its vast freight abdomen disappeared, leaving them looking at its fiddly little head. This had sensor arrays and hatchways and a freight and passenger bay flanked by four fighter bays, but Park was especially interested in a maintenance walkway up the outside of the bridge, which then continued along the spine of the freighter, a hexagonal tube of mesh designed for rotationally symmetric hexapods. At the back of the ship’s seemingly tiny skull, a hatch let out on this tube. They all gazed upon this construction for a few seconds. Park pushed a button and a suited Ngugma appeared, hexapodding along up the tube, then stopping to maintain something. She waved the remote, and they left the maintenance worker behind, returning to that hatch.

“Clay Gilbert,” Park said, “do you think you and your Alpha friends can get there?”

“What?” Clay replied. “Uh, sure. Can we take some other people, or is it just us four?”

“You can get to that spot,” said Park.

“Yes, Commander,” said Rachel.

“Especially,” said Clay, “with some cover? If we came in with several wings, and the others peeled off? We could use the Primoids and the Fyaa.”

“I am quite sure you could use all sorts of things,” said Park. “Now what do you do when you get through that hatch?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then I shall tell you. We don’t know what it is or does, but there is a chamber just inside that hatch. We know, because the Primoid lead fighter took video of that hatch as it opened for a maintenance Ngugma to come out, and then go back in thirty seconds later, during our approach. It’s an airlock, and on the other side of the airlock is a sizeable chamber.”

“Really,” said Rachel and Natasha and Li Zan together.

“You will get in, most likely explosively, and then you will open the inner hatch and shut it on the other side, and you and your fighters will be inside the Ngugma freighter. And from there, you will do what you can to eliminate opposition and take control.”

“You’re asking us to hijack the starship,” said Clay.

“Hijack implies that you are controlling it the same way they do, from the bridge, using controls they designed,” said Park. “Like a neuro-parasite. I was thinking more like a, what is it? A hermit crab. You are putting your controls inside their shell. The only thing of the Ngugma you would be using would be their engines.”

“Commander,” squeaked Skzyyn.

“Pilot?” Park replied.

“I beg to be included. I and my Errhatzky friends. I tell you now, Commander, you will need someone like us. Someone small.

“Commander,” said Clay, “we were just talking about that, me and my lady friends. I don’t suppose you’ll let us take Padfoot in a Ghost, but could we have some Errhatzky with us?”

“I would be willing to entertain this concept. You have the next two hours to flesh it out.”

“What about the rest of us?” asked Daria Acevedo. “Is Gamma getting left behind again?”

“Not at all, Commander Acevedo. You and Beta will be in the thick of it. Alpha Wing may have the least dangerous job.”

“How do you figure that?” asked Natasha.

“You will waste no time in getting yourselves inside that shell. There, they won’t be able to shoot at you, and the only people who still could shoot at the ship you’re in will be us, on the outside. And, as you know, we have yet to cause any damage to an Ngugma super-freighter. So you should be fine. My Special Wing tail, Mr. Ree, is fine tuning the navigation; you should each be getting a complete guide to what is expected of you. Jump off is in six hours. Any other questions?”

 

 

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