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4.

“So why the frick didn’t you tell us?” inquired Rachel, thirty seconds later when they were in the cavernous storeroom. Everyone, seven humans and three Tskelly and four Errhatzky, stood or sat around the panel, which had been closed.

“It happened way too fast,” said Natasha.

“We couldn’t use comm,” said Park. “You would realize that.”

“I would,” said Rachel. She looked at Clay.

“Yeah,” said Clay, “because we came pretty close to being fried. Where’s our vow then?”

“Clay,” said Natasha, “no offense, but the big news isn’t that you guys didn’t die. The big news isn’t that we are under total silence right now and for all the time till we have to show our cards. The big news is that they tried to kill us, Errhatzky got their blocking beam up in time, every one of us in this room took 0.01% of our lifetime dose of radiation, and the rest was neutralized. And the Ngugma? They think we’re dead.”

“What if they send someone?” asked Clay.

“They won’t. Hhmvyvya has this place emitting like it’s still hot.”

Clay and Rachel looked at each other, then cocked their heads at Natasha. Vera said, “The place would not normally take on a bunch of radiation like that. But they have these little radioisotope batteries, you see, just like we do. They use curium: they power their smaller craft with them. They keep racks of them up here, you saw them.”

“Those are radioisotope batteries?” said Clay. “Those bagel things?”

“Yep. Your pal Skzyyn said, if we got hit with radiation, those things would start emitting. The tube they’re stored in isn’t insulated. They should emit a lot of radiation, it should have really doped them up. But they’re not, fortunately. But Hhmvyvya has the Ngugma picking up radiation.”

“Upshot,” said Park, “they think us deceased, and they can’t check.”

“How did they do this?” asked Rachel. “How did they blast us and how did our side stop it? This happened pretty fast.”

“They almost got the jump on us,” said Natasha. “We’re looking at readouts, and Ree sort of goes ‘Aha!’ And at the same moment, two of the Errhatzky start chattering and running around in there. They’d spotted robots moving through the tube-work, but they weren’t mechanic robots, they were literally motorized radiation emitters. They were moving into position, and for all we knew they’d be ready in seconds.”

“Which is exactly what happened,” said Park. “Ree spotted two of them positioning themselves.”

“They were not moving like mechanic bots, putting machines into position,” said Anand Ree. “They were moving like they were the machines being put in position.”

“And we?” asked Rachel.

“We have robots of our own,” said Skzyyn. “Of course I knew nothing of this, Dzvezyets knew nothing, but our Errhatzky friends, may we never underestimate them, knew their affairs.”

Clay and Rachel looked at each other, then sighed. “Okey dokey,” said Clay, “so what next?”

“What next,” said Park, “is that you come try out the pilot seat we set up for you, and do a little simulating.”

 

The pilot seat was basically a padded space just inside the open panel. The controls were complicated, but he could only imagine how complicated the real controls were. He said so, after simulating a whole bunch of Ngugma freighter dockings and Ngugma freighter accelerations and decelerations and turns. There wasn’t a lot of maneuvering a vessel this size could do, but he did it, five times, with Rachel and Park and Skzyyn and Hhmvyvya watching. After an hour of this, he climbed out and stretched. “We’re up to 36%,” he said. “Are the real controls I’m going to be using this simple?” He looked at Hhmvyvya, who was just crawling out of the panel behind him.

“Clay,” said Skzyyn, “these are the real controls.”

“Really? You already got into their control system?”

“While you were simming,” said Park. “Congratulations. All we have to do is flip the switch, and your station is steering the ship. And your wife can take over the drive system.”

“Rachel?”

“We figured this would make it easier on you, Hunkburger,” said Rachel.

“How sure is this all?”

“Do you mean, how sure are we that we’re in control?” asked Park. “We won’t be sure till we engage. But you can ask our friend here.”

“Meester Geelbert,” said the Errhatzky, “thee probabeelity ees nine nine point nine nine eight percent. More wee cannot geeve you.”

“But we won’t know for sure till we flip the proverbial switch,” said Rachel.

Clay and Rachel looked at each other. “Okay,” said Clay. “I’m feeling kinda lucky.”

 

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