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The ship called Big Fourteen took its accustomed course toward the clump of rocks that housed the depot. Tug shuttles emerged from bays and raised the heart rates of the humans and Fyaa in the maintenance storeroom, but the tugs settled for hovering about just in case something strange happened. When it did, they were unprepared.

The Ngugma had, among their many virtues and faults, a definite idea about what roles were appropriate for robots and which should be reserved for actual members of their species. It was felt that operating the depot could be done primarily by machine, as Padfoot and Natasha and Hhmvyvya figured out over the next two hours: the depot only carried an Ngugma crew of about twenty. The flying of spaceships bigger than fighters was thought to be a primarily Ngugma responsibility, however: there were, according to documents found in Big Fourteen’s computers, four Ngugma aboard each of the five tug shuttles.

So Big Fourteen drew closer and closer to its mooring, and decelerated at a steady if paltry rate. Hours ground by.

If the tone of messages from the super-freighter to the depot command seemed awkward or suspicious, no one seemed to have made anything of it. The outgoing super-freighter, with its full complement of two battleships and forty or so cruisers, continued accelerating. It was nearing 22% of light speed and showed no sign of curiosity about its counterpart. The other freighter headed out, in a direction unknown but the opposite way from Bluehorse and Fyatskaab, was already a faint blur traveling away at a third of the speed of light.

Then, eight hours before Big Fourteen was slated to dock, there was a burst of communication on a narrow beam from the big freighter back up its course from Fyatskaab. The beam happened to intersect a patch of dusty rock and ice far out in the darkness a light hour, a billion kilometers, away. Again, no one reacted: it was unlikely that the depot commanders even detected the communication, and the outgoing fleet was not inclined to change its plans.

An hour later, peculiar news came from out there. Ships, human and Fyaa and Primoid ships, had emerged from nowhere and were moving tangentially along an outer orbit of the star. Their course would intersect the course of the outgoing super-hauler and its battleships.

At that, ten of the fourteen cruisers at dock at the depot took off. It took them eight minutes from the moment the depot received the light from that movement. Twenty minutes later, the other four cruisers all undocked, but these stayed put. The tugs, for their part, zipped back inside their bays, and the patrol boats, which acted very robotic, adopted very conservative patrols close to the depot and its patch of rocks. The four cruisers, on the other hand, kept together and let their orbit of the depot drift outward toward the super-freighter.

“Great,” said Clay, throwing his hands up and leaning back. “What do we do about these?”

“It’s perfect,” said Skzyyn. “We take care of these four cruisers. We cannot hide our intentions for always.”

“What?” said Rachel. “One cruiser each? What about fighters? What about the depot?”

“Skzyyn,” said Clay, “meet the Anti-Skzyyn.”

“Relax, everyone, please,” said Park. “We may fight these four eventually, but we have to keep the peace with them for the short run. We need to give the Ngugma a couple of hours to get those ten cruisers away, and then we open negotiations with the depot. Meanwhile we open negotiations with the crew of this ship.”

“If I may ask, Commander,” said Rachel, “on what basis?”

“On the basis of: you sit tight and let us do anything we want, and we don’t kill you immediately.”

“Which do you want me to work on first?” asked Natasha. “Communicating with the crew or communicating with the station?”

“Commander,” said Padfoot, “if I may interrupt, I think I’ve got an in on the ship’s archive.”

“And you can decode and translate it?” asked Park.

“It’s not encrypted. But translating is harder with a text of this type. It’s, you know, history, not pilot talk. It’s long and complicated and a lot less predictable than text exchanges with the depot.”

“Can you do it? Or do you need Natasha? I’d like to use Natasha for communications.”

“Commander,” said Rachel, “I’ve been working on the Ngugma language.”

“Are you saying you want to translate their archives?”

“Commander,” said Rachel, “I’m saying I’d like to help you with communications, so Natasha can have all the fun and translate the archives.”

“Commander,” said Dzvezyets, “I have spend many time periods study the Ngugma language, more even than spend study your English.”

“No doubt of that,” said Skzyyn. “I’m the English expert. Ve’ezy’s our Primoid guy. Right?”

Ve’ezy, the Tskelly who had lost its fighter, waggled its head, with the three claws of each of its front four arms wiggling behind its scaly pate, miming the gesturing tentacles of Skippy and his compatriots.

“All right,” said Park. “Bear in mind, I might be taking Alpha Wing out to intervene with someone at some point. Let us say, Ms. Kleiner, and Mr. D, you have two hours to make what you can of the archives. Concentrate on anything you can get about the strategic idea, because that’s what I don’t seem to be getting.”

“That’s for sure,” said Clay.

“As in,” said Natasha, “what they’re doing with all this metal. And where they’re doing it.”

“Commander,” said Rachel.

“Then that’s what you look for,” said Park. “Ah. That was quick. I see we’re ready to start threatening the original crew.