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VII. At the depot

 

1.

The Ngugma super-hauler with the parasites in its brain had a name. It was called something that might be translated as Big Fourteen. It began decelerating after eighteen at very close to light speed, at a position in space almost 46 light years from Fyatskaab, where it had collected a full hold of molten metals, five thousand cubic kilometers, damn it, of mantle. Its crew knew something had come aboard, and knew it had endured a serious attack. They could look at their sensors and see that their escort had been nearly wiped out: they had four cruisers, from nearly forty, and they were lucky if they had a tenth of their fighters. They suspected they were being followed. But they also knew they were still in charge of their ship, and they had reason to believe they had defeated their parasite.

There was a star system nearby, but it was not near enough for one to consider oneself within it. The small yellow star was a hundred billion kilometers off, about four light days, far enough that it wasn’t even one of the brighter stars in the sky. Much closer at hand, and much darker, was a collection of tiny planetoids held together originally by a very light gravitational attraction. These had been turned, long ago, into a single unit, a space port in the middle of empty space, built of rock and ice and high-tech composites. It had vast stretches of dock, a service section big enough to fix up broken continents, hundreds of holding tanks the size of moons, a fleet of cruisers, patrol boats and tugs, and what seemed a very undersized section of living and working quarters. It was not a planet full of life: it was a depot, albeit an enormous one, a depot out in the middle of deep space.

A super-freighter was here already, docked near the holding tanks. As Big Fourteen decelerated into view, the other freighter undocked and began its long slow acceleration in the exact opposite direction. A pair of battleships and a few dozen cruisers joined it from various points, and the whole assemblage began rumbling off toward Fyatskaab. Another gigantic freighter with a smaller escort, a mere nine cruisers and a battlecruiser, was headed off in another direction, already blurring with relativistic speed.

“Well, here we are,” said Clay, from his still-offline pilot seat. “Doesn’t look like a very exciting port of call.”

“What speed are we?” asked Park.

“25.4%,” said Clay. “They should be seeing us already. You can make out most of their ships. I can make out the cruisers we came with, out ahead of us.” He pushed and poked a little.

“I see that,” said Park, looking at the display Clay had thrown up onto the display for the rest of them, everyone other than him and the two Errhatzky who were standing in his lap watching his little wraparound pilot screen. The four remaining Ngugma cruisers flew in a square out in front of Big Fourteen still. The Tasmania and its friends, far behind them, were just beginning to be a blob. “Could they see a fighter leave our bay and head away?”

“Um, well, you could plot a course that would be very hard to see. Are we sending someone back to the Tasmania and the Honshu?

“It’s the safest way to communicate with them.”

“Commander,” said Rachel, “we could just dump the trash, you know. Just dump a fighter out the port and let it get caught up with. Give it the slightest push backwards, just enough to decelerate faster than this hulk, so the Tasmania would start catching up. Shut down communications and sensors. You’d be impossible to see, basically.”

“Yes, I would, or someone would. Mr. Ree?”

“Yes, Commander?” said Ree.

“I need you to hop in your Ghost and zip back to the Tasmania, have a chat with Kalkar, let him know the plan, and he can disseminate it to the rest.”

“Of course,” said Ree. He smiled at Clay, then asked, “What plan am I letting him know?”

“I’ll write something up, it’ll take five minutes,” said Park, “but the short version is: they should keep to the outside, keep in the dark till we signal. Is that a patch of dust, Mr. Gilbert?”

“Over here?” Clay asked, waving his hand at a region about a hundred million kilometers astern, a million kilometers wide. Waving at his wraparound display seemed to shade in a zone in the 3D display the others were inspecting. “Yeah, actually, not just hydrogen either, oxygen, silica, water ice, carbon, methane. Good cover.”

“Maybe it was once a planet,” said Natasha, “or almost was.”

“Interesting,” said Park, “but in this case, I don’t care if it was a stripper in a former life. I want Kalkar and Root and the Fyaa and Primoid cruisers in or behind that cloud. Andros, could you write that up?”

“I basically already did,” said Rachel. “You’d love being a fleet admiral, wouldn’t you? Just for a day?”

“Just for a day,” said Park.

 

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