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3.

A hundred and thirty hours later, Clay Gilbert woke up in Rachel’s arms, extricated himself, put his suit on in the bay and let it clean the wonderful scent of him and Rachel off him, and then went into the cavernous storeroom for coffee and biscuits. He and Skzyyn talked and swilled coffee, and then Rachel came out, and while she was smooching him, Vera and Natasha came out and smooched a little too. Park and Padfoot emerged from the paneling with Hhmvyvya.

“Are you ready for command?” asked Park.

“I take it I’m not supposed to make any sudden lurches,” said Clay.

“You are supposed to make the Ngugma on the base feel that Ngugma are in charge of this vessel.”

“Including communications?”

“We’re taking care of communications,” said Padfoot. “For whatever reason, the Ngugma use text communication for routine maneuvers like docking.”

“Can I just say how weird it is that the Ngugma have a whole sophisticated system to taking apart planets for their metal content and shipping it all over their, what, empire?”

“So you’re ready,” said Park.

“Yes,” said Clay. He climbed into his little coop. “I’m ready.”

“Mister H?” asked Park.

“We are ready,” squeaked Hhmvyvya. “Is it still your desire make each thing happen separate? We can make happen same time, not a problem.”

“It’s tempting,” said Park. “I just want to be sure that when we lock them out, they’re locked in already.” She turned: everyone else was there, excepting one of the Errhatzky who was inside the machinery making sure of the robots it had commandeered from the Ngugma. “Are we all ready?”

“Should we be ready to bail just in case?” asked Natasha.

“Just keep it in mind. All right. Button, Mr. H?”

Hhmvyvya fiddled, and a little trio of switches appeared on the 2D display on the open console. Park gave Clay one more look, then flipped the first switch. They waited ten seconds, and then the Errhatzky said from Clay’s lap, “We are positive that the communications are closed.”

“And they don’t know,” said Padfoot, from the other side of the open panel.

“Copy any communication they give,” said Park, “translate it, and show it to me. We can translate their texts, can we?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Natasha. “Ngugma standard language is simple, and their code’s not much, they don’t expect to really need it.”

“So we can send on messages we approve of. All right. Ready for lockup?” She looked around and everyone nodded. She smiled and pushed the second switch down.

They all looked around at each other. They all looked at different displays: Rachel and Vera bent over to watch a reserve display Padfoot had set up on another panel four meters away. Then they looked back at Park.

“Looks good,” said Vera. “How can we tell?”

“Oooh, I know,” said Clay. He put his finger to his wraparound display. Hhmvyvya, and Skzyyn, who had joined them inside the paneling, did a sort of Fyaa snicker. “When that guy—does that—!”

“Comm coming,” said Rachel, as she and Vera snickered.

“Here it is,” said Padfoot. She and Natasha squinted at Padfoot’s tablet. “Is that—?”

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “They’re wondering about the locks. It’s intercom now, but give them a minute—!”

“Attempted communication to depot,” said Hhmvyvya, pronouncing the word de-pott.

“Decoding,” said Padfoot.

“Control center is locked,” said Natasha. “Um, request patrol, um, explore, no, investigate maintenance bay number one.”

“We won’t be doing them the favor of passing that along,” said Park. “All right. I think we can say that one and two worked. Ready for three, Mr. Gilbert?”

“I must be, I’m sitting here with my friends.” Again the Fyaa version of a snicker.

“Good answer, Mr. Gilbert.” Park looked around, then put her tiny index finger on the switch and pushed it. They all held their breaths for a moment. “And?” she said, looking at Clay.

Skzyyn and Hhmvyvya chattered from inside the wraparound screen, pointing and chuckling. Clay was trying to take it all in. He put his finger on his own panel of controls, which was a sort of 3D touch screen below the wraparound screen.

He could almost feel the throbbing of the enormous engines. He could almost feel the throbbing of the unimaginably enormous engines.

But of course he couldn’t feel them throbbing, because they didn’t throb and he wouldn’t feel them in his control panel if they did.

Instead, he found a control far down his panel, and he dialed it one way and then the other. The lights in the maintenance bay, and indeed everywhere else inside the freighter, dimmed and returned to normal. In the wraparound display, Clay and his two pals could see it happen in the cut-off bridge, and see the Ngugma crew waggling in concern.

“Well,” he said, “I have the con.”

 

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