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2.

Clay and his Tskelly friend went back inside and announced the presence of at least one mouthhole to Park.

“Sarzyk,” said Dzvezyets, over by the open console, and an Errhatzky nearby just made what was obviously a disgusted gesture.

“Well,” said Park, “clearly it was too much to hope that they didn’t live in this neighborhood. It didn’t seem interested in biting?”

“No, it seemed interested in flying,” said Clay.

“I worry about the rest of the fleet,” said Park, “but I suppose they can take care of themselves. There was only one?”

“Only one, Commander,” said Skzyyn. “We too know of these.”

“Do you.” She sighed. “All right. I must go manage a bit. Andros, Ree, Mr. Dzvezyets, you may stand down, everyone needs a rest.”

“Thank you, Commander,” said Rachel, who sidled up to Clay and had a smooch.

Park went into the inner chamber where all the action was, and Dzvezyets turned to Rachel. “Excuse,” it said, “but what is means ‘Mister’?”

“Never mind that,” said Clay. “Term of endearment.” He held out a smoking tube from his Ghost. “Here, Mr. D, you guys have lungs, right? Try some of this stuff.”

 

Relax, and rest, and sleep, and wake to another meeting: this one took in every non-Ngugma aboard the freighter. They sat around inside the bay control room, with Padfoot and one of the Errhatzky who wasn’t Hhmvyvya by the opened-up console keeping an eye on status. Coffee was shared about among the humans, the Tskelly and the Errhatzky. It had come a long way from Ethiopia, it was synthesized coffee with synthesized cream, but it was still coffee.

“Friends,” said Park, “Ms. Kleiner and Mr. Hhm, Mr. H, need to update us on the situation, and then I need to assign some roles.”

“Thank you, Commander,” said Natasha, standing up and floating a little off the ground, her frizzy hair gathering around her head. Hhmvyvya, its frog-head poking up out of its six-limbed vac suit, climbed up onto what seemed to be floor cleaning equipment to stand beside her. She looked at her Errhatzky companion.

“We theenk,” said Hhmvyvya in a voice that was both squeaky and raspy, “that we have isooo-lated these chamber from thee rest of thee sheep. Een that when thee Ngugma attempt to destroy us, we theenk that they cannot. But.”

“But we don’t know every way they might try to do that,” said Natasha. “They’re clever. They’ve already tried shutting down our oxygen, shutting off our heat, turning our heat up. They’ve tried several times to send attackers. They’ve tried to put things in the air.”

“We stopped all these, obviously,” said Rachel. “Well, you stopped all these.”

“What sort of things are we talking about?” asked Vera. “Poisons? Organisms?”

“Yeah,” said Clay, “we’re not talking about the pathogens from Earth, are we?”

“Pathogen, organeeesm,” said Hhmvyvya, looking at Natasha.

“We haven’t seen them do that,” said Natasha. “There’s too many different species here, anyway. They don’t even have anything that will kill off Tskelly or Errhatzky, except poisons, which they’ve tried, and radiation, which they probably won’t try till they think nothing else will work.”

“It’s like stopping cancer,” said Park. “You have to kill the cancer but not kill yourself. But they’ll keep trying.”

What is cancer?” Skzyyn whispered to Clay.

“Cells of your body grow uncontrollably and kill you,” said Clay. “Happened to my dad.”

Okay, I know this cancer thing. What is dad?”

Clay settled for smirking at him. He looked back at Park just in time.

“So as you can see,” she was saying, “it requires constant vigilance, and we have people maintaining just that.” She smiled behind her at Padfoot and her Errhatzky friend. Then she looked at Clay. “So,” she said, holding his eyes, “we’re stopping anything they try, but we’re looking for them to try something in particular.”

“And that would be?” asked Clay, still not sure why this was about him.

“Narrow beam radiation,” she said. “A charge of radioactive particles aimed just at this small part of the ship. Their problem is that they obviously don’t have a system set up to fire radiation just at one particular maintenance bay, but they can work around that, and in fact they have, by using robots to set up generators and aim them just right. Obviously they can’t simply set off astatine bombs or whatever, because Ngugma are just as susceptible to radiation as we are.”

“We all are, right?” said Clay. “Are we all carbon-based? I take it the answer is yes.”

Park and Natasha looked at Hhmvyvya, who did a sort of Errhatzky shrug. “Allow me to answer,” squeaked Skzyyn. “I do not know exactly what carbon based is but yes, we are all, Tskelly, Errhatzky, even Kleegrg, Primoids, even Ngugma, I think, we are all mostly carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and, of course, water. We breathe oxygen, as you do. Potassum, Potassium. Phosphorum, is that one?”

“Phosphorus,” said Rachel.

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “We’re pretty much all made of the same elements, we all have cells, and yeah, we’re all badly affected by radiation. So: they gave us one shot of that, and the Errhatzky stopped it before it happened. So they know it didn’t happen, they know the narrow beam never activated. All they have to do is figure out how we kept it from activating, and they can work around what we did.”

“But,” said Vera.

“But next time,” said Park, “we need to make them think it worked. When they try again, and we think this is the thing they are most likely to try, we need to mask our biological signatures and at the exact same moment stop the radiation, block it somehow.”

“Commander,” said Padfoot, looking over her shoulder, “we have that one covered, we think. We think we can mask our signatures. And we think we know how to stop their next narrow-beam radiation attack.”

“You think?”

“We’re pretty sure.”

“All right,” said Park, “there are no guarantees in a situation like this, it’s terribly annoying. But let us assume we get to that point. Then what do we do? Well, we obtain control of the ship’s engines and navigation, and even as we do that, we let them continue to run the controls, because we don’t want them to know we’re in charge until we get wherever we’re going.”

“So,” said Clay, “we stop them killing us but make sure they think they killed us, and we wrest control from them but make sure they think we didn’t wrest control.”

“Well put, Mr. Gilbert. And once we get wherever we are going, and we are in control of their ship, what do we need to have?”

She glared at him for some seconds, and suddenly it occurred to him to say, “Someone to take over for their pilots.”

“And that,” said Park, “would be you.”

“What? Why me?”

Park smiled and looked around. “You flew lunar freight shuttles. That’s the closest we have to experience flying an Ngugma super-freighter.”

“But,” he started, and then stopped.

“Face it, Clay,” said Anand Ree, “you are the man.”

 

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