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The ensuing minutes were among the strangest of Clay Gilbert’s strange life so far.

It began with Clay and Rachel hauling the four dead Ngugma, one by one, through the bay’s small personnel airlock and pushing them out into space, where the continuing acceleration of the super-freighter left them behind, traveling some percent of the speed of light relative to everything else. Clay had never been close to an Ngugma, and they were just as creepy as he’d expected. They were floppy: rigor mortis apparently didn’t set in for these creatures. Their suits had been shot open, so their thick brown fur, dotted here and there with short tentacles, could be seen, and Clay was not inclined to run his gloved fingers through it. He had an irrational concern that he might get infected somehow. Clay and Rachel said nothing while doing the disposal; as they watched the fourth and final body float away into the blackness, Rachel said, “Now can I have a very long bath somewhere? I feel like vac suit sanitizing might not be quite enough.”

The curiously cluttered yet cavernous maintenance storeroom had one small section of wall devoted to control screens, and the invaders cleared the area right around that section and camped out there. The gravity was just about enough to keep heavy objects interested in the floor, but anything that wasn’t supposed to move was attached to something, if only by the Ngugma version of Velcro. The displays carried the concept of touch screen one step further, with sliders and buttons and switches forming, sticking out from the surface in 3D, and disappearing when no longer needed. It was a bit chilly, perhaps 10° C, but the Errhatzky took care of that; they liked their atmosphere just about the way the humans did. Likewise, the oxygen had to be turned up. A chemical aroma that wouldn’t go away turned out to be harmless, an air freshener the Ngugma liked but which gagged the humans and the Fyaa alike. It took about five minutes to get somewhat used to it, and hours to mostly get rid of it.

So Clay and Vera and Rachel marked time, chit chatting with Skzyyn and Dzvezyets, while three Errhatzky scurried about inside the hardware-stuffed walls, one or two popping out now and then to tweak the console. Giving updates was not a priority of the little mechanics, who were somewhat smaller than the forearm-length Tskelly such as Skzyyn. While the Tskelly were reminiscent of lizard-squirrels, despite their eight arms and legs, the Errhatzky were more like toad-weasels (and had six appendages). Clay was beginning to feel as if he could read Skzyyn’s expressions: one was clearly amusement, another was eagerness, and from what he knew of the lives of the Fyaa pilots, that was pretty much what was required. The Errhatzky felt sympathetic and competent, but to Clay, their faces, with wide flat mouths on bony, flattened heads, did not show much emotion.

So he chatted, mostly with the two Tskelly, who spoke pretty good English; he couldn’t remember anything they talked about. He spent a lot of time trying to convince himself he was actually standing inside an Ngugma freighter. Rachel came back and they investigated the contents of some cabinets. The Ngugma cabinet was a tubular affair, with a door that was operated by a sort of magnetic spring. The first one was large, a rounded square in cross section, and full of small electronic clips, the Ngugma version of an alligator clip. The next was round and packed nearly full with a stack of objects that looked like big plastic bagels.

“Space wheels?” asked Clay.

“I’m thinking explosives,” said Rachel. “Or, look at the magnetic socket here and here. Could be a power source, a battery.”

“Wonder if any of these contains chocolate chip cookies?”

“Or hemorrhagic virus.”

They continued checking the cabinets and found mostly odds and ends. Presently Natasha came in. Just as she did, a zone of the storeroom turned into a three-dimensional display of what was going on outside: in lieu of any explanation, one of the mechanics came out of the woodwork, spent five seconds examining the display, then sort of chittered to itself and went back into the woodwork.

“Park says,” Natasha started, and stopped, looking at the display.