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6.

A message got composed and sent to the control center of the depot, the same place Clay and Rachel had been sending reassuring, businesslike texts to about when they were going to dock. This was also, sort of, about docking.

“Ngugma base,” the message said, “stand down your defenses and bring all spacecraft back to dock. Confine all Ngugma personnel to living quarters. If you do not do this as soon as possible, we will shut down this freighter’s engines, and it will impact your base at its current velocity at a time which you can calculate as well as we can. We are the survivors of Ngugma destruction, so you know already that the worst we can do to you is far less than what you did to our kindreds.”

The Ngugma sent a message back suggesting a meeting. Clay was all set to hop in his Ghost and watch what would happen if an Ngugma super-hauler smashed into an Ngugma depot, but he was instructed to be patient. So he was patient, monitoring life support, watching the vectors, trying to figure out anything about what the engine was doing. He did know that the cargo, five thousand cubic kilometers of metal, was somehow maintained at a temperature that translated as 2800° Kelvin, well above the melting point of most metals including iron. He wondered how they kept it from sloshing about; he knew that a planet’s magnetic field was typically produced by the motion of molten metals in its core and he wondered if the tanks might generate magnetic fields of their own. He wondered if there were chunks of tungsten and tantalum bumping around in the molten iron and manganese and nickel.

At some point, he also noticed something about the life support system. After five minutes of observation, Clay pointed it out to Park and the others.

“I’ve been charting their nutritional profiles,” he said, once he had climbed out of his pilot confinement. He got the 2D display to show a graph of many jagged colored lines. “See this? The orange curve.”

“What is it, mustard?” asked Rachel.

“It’s just some type of big molecule,” said Clay. “It looks like a benzene ring with some stuff attached. It’s a bit like a sugar. Damn it, I’m not a chemist, I’m a freight pilot. But that orange line is this class of chemicals, and it’s not something you’d ever see on Earth because, um, the biological processes that make it aren’t like the ones that make sugar and caffeine and all our lovely vitamins.”

“Sugar and caffeine are simple,” said Rachel. She glared at the screen. “See?” she said, pointing at a bluish curve. “That’s the class of sugars. Is this hourly consumption?”

“Well, production by their processors, so it’s probably the same thing.”

“So this orange thing,” said Natasha, “it’s more like a protein or something. Maybe it’s their version of proteins, or lipids or something. Maybe it’s like cellulose. I took some organic chemistry but that’s what, five billion years ago?”

“Let’s go with proteins,” said Park, “by way of analogy. Whatever it is, they consume a lot of it, it looks to include 30% of their intake by mass not counting water. So I wonder.”

“What would happen,” said Rachel.

“If we took it away from them,” said Skzyyn.

“If you deleted protein from our life support, we might not notice at first, but we’d eventually find out the hard way,” said Natasha. “I suppose we’d still have whiskey.”

“Let’s take away the orange stuff,” said Vera. “We can take away the next thing down if this doesn’t impress them.”

“Bargaining chip?” asked Clay.

“Take it off their menu first,” said Park. “They will contact us.”

 

It took about fifteen minutes to figure out how to do this. The speed of the freighter was still decreasing, between one percent and half a percent of light speed, still well over a thousand kilometers in a second; the decision about ramming was hours away. There was time to mess around with life support, and mess around they did, and within an hour, the original crew of Big Fourteen were in contact with their hijackers. They were now willing to provide full access to their code set in return for restoration of that orange stuff, which, for all Clay knew, was worm intestines or slime from the bottom of very still ponds.

The Errhatzky, along with Padfoot and Dzvezyets, spent the next hour writing Ngugma code. This did not have to look convincing. It just had to convince the Ngugma computers. They sent off the code, and it had the desired effect: the controllers on the depot were locked out of their controls. Over a couple more hours, the hijackers had hijacked the depot as well, without even docking.

Desperate calls ensued from the small Ngugma crew of the depot. By their consumption patterns, it was confirmed that there were less than two dozen of the furry starfish running the station. Another barrage of code, this time instructions for life support, and the depot crew were reduced to unconsciousness from a mild oxygen deprivation, and their rolling robot guards were shut off.

“We own the freighter,” said Rachel, “and we can have the depot just by docking there.”

“So we’re not ramming,” said Clay. “I was so looking forward to it.”

“I know you were, Mr. Gilbert,” said Park. “I’m sorry, but we have less crude means of dealing with them. They’re just freight handlers, middle-people. They did not constitute active shooters. These cruisers, on the other hand.”

They looked at the 3D display. Far out in space, a billion kilometers off, Daria Acevedo and Li Zan led Beta and Gamma wings, with Bain and Leith trailing and the human, Primoid and Fyaa big ships behind them; they had turned from menacing the departing super-freighter to maneuvering at a distance against the ten cruisers sent to teach them a lesson. Much nearer, the four cruisers that had remained near the depot were clearly forming up to do something. They knew what the situation was and they meant to do something about it.

“Oh, look,” said Vera, “they think they can take us.”

 

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