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3.

Naturally there were lots of questions, some of them unasked; “are we crazy?” might have been the biggest item in that category. The navigation programs began showing up in people’s tablets and helmet displays in a few minutes, and the questions became more technical and more specific. The Primoids found errors in the animated versions they were sent, and with Natasha and Ree working on it, the problem was fixed to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.

Park adjourned the conference, and most of the participants went off to spread the information, check their equipment, or sleep. Three of the pilots went for some more coffee.

I do not seeee,” said Skzyyn to Clay and Vera, in its conversational whisper rather than its squeak, “how one ever be certain one is understood by the Kleegrg?” It looked from Clay to Vera and back. It didn’t lack facial expressions, considering that it looked like a lizard trying to imitate a squirrel. It sat gripping the top of a chair back; Vera and Clay rested in their seats, held by weak magnets.

“Or how we understand them,” said Vera. “I have no idea.”

“How can you ever tell that about anyone?” asked Clay. “I mean, really. How did you learn English so quickly?”

“It is a skill,” said Skzyyn, “we use from hatchlings, we Tskelly. Your speech is not difficult, and your script is very clever. The speeeech of the Kaahriig,” and its voice sank lower, “that is most difficult and subtle, for they like to think they are, as you say, the braaaains of the operation.” Skzyyn finished with what might have been its version of a smirk.

“You hatch, from eggs?” asked Vera. “What do you guys have for genders?”

“We dooo,” said Skzyyn, holding the vowel with relish. “We have none of these genders, though the Kaahriig do, as do the, the departed.”

“The what?” asked Clay.

“He means the other two species or whatever,” said Vera. “The workers and the, um, noblemen or whatever. You know.”

“Oh,” said Clay. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I am sorry for yours as well, Clay Gilbert,” said Skzyyn.

“But—you guys have no genders? Really?”

“One lays a set of eggs,” it explained, “and another, who one chooses, makes them, ah—?”

“Fertile,” said Vera.

“And you, the Huuumans, have two genders? You are of opposite—gender?”

“You could tell,” said Clay, exchanging smirks with Vera.

“We pair up for life, basically,” said Vera, “though you’re permitted to try out various, um, pairings, before you settle down. I don’t suppose that makes any sense to you.”

“I know it from the Mrez,” said Skzyyn, “the workers as you have described them, they too pair for life. And you are paired with the Natassssha, and you with the very scary Rachel. Yes?”

“I couldn’t have said it better,” Clay replied. “Rachel is scary and Natasha is the Natasha. Um, Skzyyn, can I ask—are you the same one I crunched in that base after you blasted my combat systems?”

Skzyyn gave Clay a look that must have been amusement or something like that. “Yesss,” it said, “that was Skzyyn. I got a good shot, did I not, yet you found the way to defeat me.”

“Skzyyn,” said Clay. “Your people are known for their—reckless approach to fighting? Do you know what I mean?”

“We, what do you say, lay it all on the line. It is true. We understand much about you humans, but we do not understand this vow you talk about so much.”

Clay looked at Vera. “Well,” he said, “a lot of people don’t understand it. Park didn’t understand it, I’m not sure she even does now.”

“But it’s kind of important,” said Vera.

“It’s so important,” said Clay, “that you’re going to have to understand it or accept it in some way if you want in on this particular operation. You know that, don’t you?”

“You can make such a vow,” said Skzyyn, “only because you are so very good at what you do.”

“You are very good yourself,” said Clay. “I fought you. I know.” He sipped. “Maybe that surprises you. It surprised me to know I was one of the best, but look. I’m seen in company with the likes of Vera Santos and the scary Rachel and the Natasha Kleiner. And now, so are you.”

 

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