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5.

The Ngugma super-freighter and its much diminished escort—and its parasites—lumbered toward light speed. In another six hours, they were all the way up to 7%. The little shadowing fleet, diminished only by the departure of the Fyaa who had joined them from Vyevtya, continued shadowing. There was some shuffling around back there, however: now three Ghost 204s separated from the rest and accelerated to catch up with the freighter.

“What’s this coming at us?” asked Vera.

“What?” said Rachel. “Oh.” She smirked. “It’s Park,” she said. “The only thing to bet on is who’s with her.”

Ah, Park,” said Skzyyn. Clay and Vera had been introducing it to cannabis, but it was hard to say if there was any difference. It was certainly the first time a Tskelly had gotten stoned aboard an Ngugma spaceship. “Your boss.

“Yeah, and yours too, as of now,” said Clay. Skzyyn made an unintelligible gesture.

“I’m going to guess,” said Natasha, “it’s Ree, because Park likes to keep him under her wing, and Acevedo, because that does look like a very rebuilt fighter.”

“No, no,” said Vera. “It’s Leith and Bain. The rebuild is Bain’s.”

“No,” said Clay, “I remember Bain’s Ghost from way back when it was the only survivor of the France group. Bessie? Isn’t that what she calls it?”

“That is not Old Bessie,” said Rachel. “It’s got to be Li and Timmis. You might think Apple and Izawa, but I don’t think those are theirs. Um, Mr. Skzyyn.”

“Yes, Commander Rachel?”

“What’s the situation, um, with our friends the, um—?”

“Ngugma?” She nodded. Skzyyn cocked its head sideways at her, then scampered through the air somehow to the console, where it tapped a couple of spots on the screen and croaked some words of the Fyaa lingua franca. It cocked its head sideways, listening, and after ten seconds or so, words came back in the voice of one of the Errhatzky, speaking the same language. “Hhmyvya,” Skzyyn said. “My mechanic friend, mechanical friend, no, mechanic friend? The other would mean Hhmyvya was a mechanical thing, correct?”

“Yes, o brilliant Skzyyn. Now if you could—!”

“The Ngugma have made repeated attempts to dislodge us. They can’t reach us from inside the vessel, however, the Errhatzky have assured that. Ensured. Ah, ensure, insure, assure—?”

“Who knows, who cares,” said Rachel. “They can’t get in.”

“They can’t,” Skzyyn confirmed. “So they resort to attack by the computer. But in this, the Errhatzky are better warriors than the Ngugma, even on their own, how you would say—?”

“Turf,” said Clay.

“Turf?”

“It means soil,” said Natasha. “They can’t beat your Hhzmyvya the Errhatzky even on their own home soil.”

“Well, they aren’t just going to sit there and fly us from system to system like they’re our moms driving us to soccer,” said Vera.

“What if they try again from outside?” asked Rachel.

“Lookie,” said Vera. “Here’s your answer.”

The three-dimensional display was now showing a conflict on the outside of the freighter. Vera figured out how to zoom in, and now they could see three fighters coming up the inside of that hexagonal mesh walkway. They were raking fire up ahead of them, where five, no, four, no, three vac-suited space starfish were hustling toward the maintenance bay door, hustling not to the attack but to avoid getting shot. Another went down, and the front two dropped, spun, and came up firing their own weapons, which were also some sort of laser. A lot of convergent evolution around, Clay had time to think: laser weapons and the maneuver Rachel had come up with on the Moon. In any case, the Ghosts were ready for it. They dodged out, bounced off the mesh and back in, and the front one put holes in the two remaining Ngugma.

“Park for sure,” said Clay.

“Well jeez,” said Rachel, “let’s get out there and open the hatch. We damaged the opening mechanism, you know, we can’t just flip a—!” She stopped and looked at Skzyyn, who might as well have been grinning. It did flip a switch, which had just formed on the display screen. “You fixed it. Your—!”

“Errhatzky fixed it, yes,” said Skzyyn. “Use of possessive is not necessary.” It waved both its left hands, or paws or whatever, in a dismissive, possibly apologetic, possibly sarcastic gesture.

“Sorry, sorry,” said Rachel. A reddish light lit up on the panel. Skzyyn made another gesture with its right hands, and finished it by hitting the switch again.

“Let’s find out who’s right,” said Natasha, propelling herself to the bay hatch. Clay and Rachel were right behind her. She pushed through into the bay just as three Ghost 204s were opening up and three pilots were climbing out.

“Commander,” said Rachel. “Welcome aboard.”

“Man of Mister Ree,” said Clay, “how are ya?”

They all looked at the third fighter pilot. “Jeez,” Natasha said after several beats. “Padfoot. What the hell?”

 

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