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The big freighter had discharged its Ngugma crew at Okhozzhan. Then, with the Ngugma cruiser and its mixed crew accompanying, it had been set on its way to the system poetically called Grand Transfer Vul with Tasmania’s first pilot Ram Vindu and engineer Raea Chee, a husband and wife team forsooth, at the controls in the maintenance bay. Gamma Wing, the Ngugma cruiser and three Fyaa fighters flew escort. Long before Big Fourteen made it to its destination, the rest of the allied task force was already decelerating into the new star system.

Grand Transfer Vul turned out to be a spectacular system, in its fashion. The star was not technically a giant, but was more than three times the mass of the Sun which had shone down on the hospitals where Clay and Rachel had been born. It was the single parent of fifteen children the size of Mercury or larger: four smallish hot rocks very close in, then two terrestrial planets with orbits not terribly far apart, both colonized, then a row of six gas and ice giants, starting with a magnificent fellow with the looks of Jupiter, rings that would make Saturn envious, and the mass of the two put together. Beyond the outermost of these ice giants were a multitude of cold rocks, inactive comets and ambitious asteroids, of which three were sizeable, including one that was fifty percent larger in diameter than Earth.

The gas and ice giants had a lot of moons; the largest moon of the big fellow was itself bigger than Earth. Among these planets and moons and asteroids were a scattering of bases, in addition to the fully populated colonies on the two terrestrials. The inner planets and some of the outer ones bore the holes of Ngugma excavation, as did several of the moons, but the two colonized planets looked unquarried.

These two planets were as covered in city and civilization as they could easily be. The inner of the two bore extensive oceans and some rugged terrain, but everywhere else on it was coated with Ngugma population. The outer of the two carried wide polar ice caps and three modest-sized seas, and was otherwise pretty well paved. In addition, large stations orbited each of the two, with fleets of spaceships coming and going. They counted six different super-haulers along the lines of Big Fourteen docked here and there, and a seventh approaching dock ahead of them: it was the one they had glimpsed on its way out of Okhozzhan Olv when they were arriving there. Cruisers and fighters as well as unarmed craft of all sorts skittered about the system.

Watching all this were two dozen people and Tskelly and Errhatzky and Primoids hanging about the bridge of Honshu, while its pilots, navigators, an engineer, a gunnery officer and a couple of jacks of all trades went about their work.

“The two terrestrial planets,” said Captain Root, “they’re different. They have distinctly different populations, do you see?”

“That’s correct,” said her second pilot and science officer, a big quiet woman named Delatour. “The outer one is more polluted. And I can pick up high density residential areas far from any bodies of water; the Ngugma favor plenty of room and access to both land and sea. A hypothesis would be that the population is not Ngugma but some sort of working species.”

“Yeah,” said Natasha, “they have a slave race on GTV-6. Can’t expect Ngugma to stoop to factory work. So, when do we recon?”

“Right now,” said Park. “We are sixty hours ahead of the freighter, and our main concerns are to find a safe outer planetoid for our own base of operations, and a safe trajectory for Big One Four so we can get her right into the front of the stage before Padfoot works her magic. Who to recon with? I judge that I might need you here, Ms. Kleiner; and when the freighter arrives, I will want both you and Santos to go back and escort her just in case. So I will say, Andros and her husband, and let’s send Izawa and Apple just to get them in the game a bit.”

“She’s plenty in the game,” Clay muttered to Natasha, who smirked.