IV. The new deal
A few hours later, well rested and not very drunk anymore, all the fighter pilots and at least half the crews of the bigger ships met in the Honshu’s big meeting room. It was just big enough for all of them, hanging onto sashay bars or straps on the “floor” or “ceiling.” When Clay and Rachel got there, Cassiopeia Root was floating in the middle, discussing status with her crew and Kalkar’s. Park wasn’t there yet. Natasha came in behind Rachel, with a Primoid, the one she referred to as Skippy. They appeared to be in a conversation that consisted entirely of gestures. Vera came behind them. She smiled at Clay and Rachel.
“I think they’re communicating,” she said, “but I can’t tell for sure.”
“Neither can either of us,” said Natasha. She made a hand-down gesture to the Primoid, whose head tentacles parted left and right, like the Red Sea for Noah. “They came with nine fighters, lost three, but saved two of the pilots and they’re hoping to get them in space again. That much was easy to understand. I think they’re worried that Park’s not giving them enough time.”
“This seems like my moment,” said Park, coming in behind Vera.
“Oh, good,” said Captain Root, “Commander Park is here to take things over.” She evacuated the middle of the room. Park took her place without missing a beat.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” said Park. She looked at two Fyaa hovering right in front of her, and at a Kaahriig nearby, which had its wings folded and its long fat beak down and was giving her a steady gaze. “That is a way in which we begin speeches,” she said. “It doesn’t actually mean anything.”
“Wee say something similarrr,” the bird-like officer replied. All the Fyaa seemed to have taken on the English language with enthusiasm, though their mouth parts weren’t designed for it.
“We refer to all five of the kinds,” said Skzyyn Aarndr-rii, who propelled itself over to Clay and grabbed an open pocket on Clay’s sleeve to steady itself. “Good day, Kahiim and Kaahriig, Errhatzky and Mrez and Tskelly. You put your kind last. Polite. That the right word?”
“I think so, yeah,” said Clay.
Park was clearing her throat and looking in their direction. “We do that too,” said the Fyaa, not in his squeak but his whisper. Clay almost shushed him but settled for a smirk.
“You were telling me we had three choices,” said Captain Kalkar.
“Thank you,” said Park. “We have three choices. We can say we’ve done enough and go find some other way to pass the time and/or save our three civilizations, or we can take what we learned from attacking this super-freighter group and use it to attack the next one, which should be on its way out in a week or two.”
“And which,” said Kalkar, “will be all ready with new ideas for how to defend against us.”
“Yeees,” said the Kaahriig, who seemed to be the senior Fyaa officer. “Bothh baaad ideas.”
“That leaves option three,” said Park. “The super-freighter cannot accelerate at anything like our pace. They are essentially pulling a small moon with them. So there is every chance that we can get a second bash at them.”
“Really,” said Rachel.
“So what shall we do with this extra chance?”
“Clay had an idea. Right, Hunkburger?”
“What? Oh, uh, I have lots of ideas,” said Clay, who was too embarrassed by the whole situation to bother thinking about being a hunkburger. “Most of them suck, frankly.”
“But your idea,” said Park.
“Well, uh,” he said, and he spent a moment swallowing his apprehensions. “Listen,” he said, “I just thought,” and he felt Rachel and Natasha push him toward the middle of the room. No one interrupted. If Park had wanted to indulge her sarcasm, she could have, and Clay would have kept his stupid idea to himself. Since she didn’t indulge, he had to talk. “One time we were simulating,” he said, “we sort of blasted our way into one of those battleships, and we flew right up the middle of it and blasted our way out the other side. And it occurred to me, instead of trying to blow up the freighter, why not try and get inside it and take the thing over? It might actually be easier.”
“All right,” said Park, while everyone else in the room murmured and muttered their own reactions. “I can think of a lot of objections to this and any other plan. I can also think of certain advantages.”
“We might capture some of the bastards,” said Kalkar. “I could give them a piece of my mind.”
“We could get intel,” said Root.
“We could get design specs,” said Padfoot. “We could find out where their real weak spot is.”
“We could sneak up on their home system or whatever,” said Daria Acevedo. “No idea how the hell we do it, of course.”
“Friends,” said Skzyyn Aarndr-rii, pushing away from Clay. “I volunteer.”
“That’s surprising,” said Kalkar.
“You,” said Clay, “have to take the Unbreakable Vow.”
“The what?” said the Tskelly.
“Fetz eskhendrydke pfeeg,” said Natasha. She added several more sentences in the Fyaa lingua franca.
“That is crazy,” said Skzyyn. “Fyez ekzektrekt. Why promise such a thing?”
“The whole thing’s crazy,” said Clay. “So, yeah. That’s the price of volunteering.”
Park looked around, which involved turning through 360°, and everyone stopped their little conversations. “So we have some qualified enthusiasm for this little scheme. Does anyone want to pour cold water on it?” She smiled at the Kaahriig fellow. “Do you know that one?”
“We say, will anyone want to poop on it,” it replied.
“I may adopt that myself,” Park replied. “No one?”
“I’m crazy,” said Vera, “I’ll go in front.”
“I’m definitely in,” said Natasha. “I want to capture an Ngugma. It could give me my third living alien language. I could get a publication out of this.”
“All right, then,” said Park. “Nothing is decided. But let us, in one hour, assemble Alpha and Beta, Captains Root, Kalkar, and Fvaerch, the Primoid cruiser captain, Ms. Padfoot, Ms. Acevedo, and any Fyaa or Primoid pilots who wish, here, and actually make those decisions.”
“She means,” Kalkar said to the Kaahriig captain, “watch her make those decisions.”
Clay and Rachel and Vera and Natasha had a coffee and joked around while sort of fleshing out Clay’s idea. “I don’t know how we get close enough,” said Clay, “and I don’t know how we get inside, and I don’t know how we get control once we’re in.”
“We bonk heads,” said Vera, “even if they don’t actually have heads. Then we pull out all the wires and rewire the bitch to do what we want.”
“Look,” said Rachel, “we get in via the usual Alpha Wing discipline and brains, and once we’re in, we get some experts in there, like a few of those Fyaa mechanics, the Errhatzky, is that the name?”
“It is,” said Natasha, “and it’s really awesome to sit here and listen to each of you three say exactly what you’d say in this situation.”
“Well, what’s your version?” asked Rachel.
“My version? I like your versions.”
Rachel’s wrist display chimed. “Five minutes,” she said, “let’s go see what Park’s version of this comes out to.”
“I had mine set for three minutes,” said Natasha.
“I didn’t even bother,” said Clay.
“Well, when you’re with Commander Perfect,” said Vera, “I don’t see why you’d need to.”
“Hey now, Explosion Girl,” said Rachel.
“Killer,” said Clay.
“Anyway, I’m not a bit ashamed to admit Clay and I have very well worked out roles. And one of his roles is to come up with ideas that make me say, ‘You know, that just might work.’ And this would be one of those.”
They crossed the hall and floated into the meeting room. A Kaahriig was just stretching its wings, and Clay bumped into it, prompting them both to apologize in their own languages.
“Captain Fvaerch?” said Clay.
“Pilot Gilbert,” it said back at him. It raised its beak high in the air and wagged it a little.
“Clay Gilbert,” said Skzyyn Aarndr-rii, floating over and grabbing Clay’s hair to stop itself. “You will tell them I must be in this too.”
“If you think,” said Clay, “that I have any decision-making power, you’ve been misinformed.”
“But they will listen to you, will they not? You or your, ahhh, partner, ahh, Rachel?”
“She’s the brains, I’m the brawn,” said Clay, looking around, and then he looked at the Fyaa pilot, who seemed to have absorbed the words. “But it’s Park who will actually decide.”
Park was not there already, which was unusual but not unheard-of; it meant that when she breezed in a moment later, with Padfoot, Bonnie Bain and Captain Kalkar, everyone went silent. Park started right in. “Bain, can you get the display—?”
“Sure, Commander,” said Bonnie Bain. With a quick grin at Clay and a wink at Skzyyn, she pulled the projector out of the wall and aimed it at the middle of the room. A tiny little Ngugma freighter appeared in mid-air, surrounded by cruisers the size of rice grains and fighters the size of silt particles.
Park moved into the space next to the space where the freighter appeared. She looked at Bain, who tossed her a little remote.
“All right, as you can see,” Park said, zooming in on the super-freighter and making it partly transparent, “99% of the vessel’s volume is cargo. And on our first pass, and our simulations, we thought of this as our target, but it’s a difficult target, it’s literally a hard target. Now for those of you who may have thought we got nothing useful out of that last attack, I would like to direct your attention to the remaining 1% of the vessel.”
She twiddled the remote, and the Ngugma freighter zoomed much closer, so close that its vast freight abdomen disappeared, leaving them looking at its fiddly little head. This had sensor arrays and hatchways and a freight and passenger bay flanked by four fighter bays, but Park was especially interested in a maintenance walkway up the outside of the bridge, which then continued along the spine of the freighter, a hexagonal tube of mesh designed for rotationally symmetric hexapods. At the back of the ship’s seemingly tiny skull, a hatch let out on this tube. They all gazed upon this construction for a few seconds. Park pushed a button and a suited Ngugma appeared, hexapodding along up the tube, then stopping to maintain something. She waved the remote, and they left the maintenance worker behind, returning to that hatch.
“Clay Gilbert,” Park said, “do you think you and your Alpha friends can get there?”
“What?” Clay replied. “Uh, sure. Can we take some other people, or is it just us four?”
“You can get to that spot,” said Park.
“Yes, Commander,” said Rachel.
“Especially,” said Clay, “with some cover? If we came in with several wings, and the others peeled off? We could use the Primoids and the Fyaa.”
“I am quite sure you could use all sorts of things,” said Park. “Now what do you do when you get through that hatch?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then I shall tell you. We don’t know what it is or does, but there is a chamber just inside that hatch. We know, because the Primoid lead fighter took video of that hatch as it opened for a maintenance Ngugma to come out, and then go back in thirty seconds later, during our approach. It’s an airlock, and on the other side of the airlock is a sizeable chamber.”
“Really,” said Rachel and Natasha and Li Zan together.
“You will get in, most likely explosively, and then you will open the inner hatch and shut it on the other side, and you and your fighters will be inside the Ngugma freighter. And from there, you will do what you can to eliminate opposition and take control.”
“You’re asking us to hijack the starship,” said Clay.
“Hijack implies that you are controlling it the same way they do, from the bridge, using controls they designed,” said Park. “Like a neuro-parasite. I was thinking more like a, what is it? A hermit crab. You are putting your controls inside their shell. The only thing of the Ngugma you would be using would be their engines.”
“Commander,” squeaked Skzyyn.
“Pilot?” Park replied.
“I beg to be included. I and my Errhatzky friends. I tell you now, Commander, you will need someone like us. Someone small.”
“Commander,” said Clay, “we were just talking about that, me and my lady friends. I don’t suppose you’ll let us take Padfoot in a Ghost, but could we have some Errhatzky with us?”
“I would be willing to entertain this concept. You have the next two hours to flesh it out.”
“What about the rest of us?” asked Daria Acevedo. “Is Gamma getting left behind again?”
“Not at all, Commander Acevedo. You and Beta will be in the thick of it. Alpha Wing may have the least dangerous job.”
“How do you figure that?” asked Natasha.
“You will waste no time in getting yourselves inside that shell. There, they won’t be able to shoot at you, and the only people who still could shoot at the ship you’re in will be us, on the outside. And, as you know, we have yet to cause any damage to an Ngugma super-freighter. So you should be fine. My Special Wing tail, Mr. Ree, is fine tuning the navigation; you should each be getting a complete guide to what is expected of you. Jump off is in six hours. Any other questions?”
Naturally there were lots of questions, some of them unasked; “are we crazy?” might have been the biggest item in that category. The navigation programs began showing up in people’s tablets and helmet displays in a few minutes, and the questions became more technical and more specific. The Primoids found errors in the animated versions they were sent, and with Natasha and Ree working on it, the problem was fixed to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.
Park adjourned the conference, and most of the participants went off to spread the information, check their equipment, or sleep. Three of the pilots went for some more coffee.
“I do not seeee,” said Skzyyn to Clay and Vera, in its conversational whisper rather than its squeak, “how one ever be certain one is understood by the Kleegrg?” It looked from Clay to Vera and back. It didn’t lack facial expressions, considering that it looked like a lizard trying to imitate a squirrel. It sat gripping the top of a chair back; Vera and Clay rested in their seats, held by weak magnets.
“Or how we understand them,” said Vera. “I have no idea.”
“How can you ever tell that about anyone?” asked Clay. “I mean, really. How did you learn English so quickly?”
“It is a skill,” said Skzyyn, “we use from hatchlings, we Tskelly. Your speech is not difficult, and your script is very clever. The speeeech of the Kaahriig,” and its voice sank lower, “that is most difficult and subtle, for they like to think they are, as you say, the braaaains of the operation.” Skzyyn finished with what might have been its version of a smirk.
“You hatch, from eggs?” asked Vera. “What do you guys have for genders?”
“We dooo,” said Skzyyn, holding the vowel with relish. “We have none of these genders, though the Kaahriig do, as do the, the departed.”
“The what?” asked Clay.
“He means the other two species or whatever,” said Vera. “The workers and the, um, noblemen or whatever. You know.”
“Oh,” said Clay. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I am sorry for yours as well, Clay Gilbert,” said Skzyyn.
“But—you guys have no genders? Really?”
“One lays a set of eggs,” it explained, “and another, who one chooses, makes them, ah—?”
“Fertile,” said Vera.
“And you, the Huuumans, have two genders? You are of opposite—gender?”
“You could tell,” said Clay, exchanging smirks with Vera.
“We pair up for life, basically,” said Vera, “though you’re permitted to try out various, um, pairings, before you settle down. I don’t suppose that makes any sense to you.”
“I know it from the Mrez,” said Skzyyn, “the workers as you have described them, they too pair for life. And you are paired with the Natassssha, and you with the very scary Rachel. Yes?”
“I couldn’t have said it better,” Clay replied. “Rachel is scary and Natasha is the Natasha. Um, Skzyyn, can I ask—are you the same one I crunched in that base after you blasted my combat systems?”
Skzyyn gave Clay a look that must have been amusement or something like that. “Yesss,” it said, “that was Skzyyn. I got a good shot, did I not, yet you found the way to defeat me.”
“Skzyyn,” said Clay. “Your people are known for their—reckless approach to fighting? Do you know what I mean?”
“We, what do you say, lay it all on the line. It is true. We understand much about you humans, but we do not understand this vow you talk about so much.”
Clay looked at Vera. “Well,” he said, “a lot of people don’t understand it. Park didn’t understand it, I’m not sure she even does now.”
“But it’s kind of important,” said Vera.
“It’s so important,” said Clay, “that you’re going to have to understand it or accept it in some way if you want in on this particular operation. You know that, don’t you?”
“You can make such a vow,” said Skzyyn, “only because you are so very good at what you do.”
“You are very good yourself,” said Clay. “I fought you. I know.” He sipped. “Maybe that surprises you. It surprised me to know I was one of the best, but look. I’m seen in company with the likes of Vera Santos and the scary Rachel and the Natasha Kleiner. And now, so are you.”
Two human armored freighters, a hefty Primoid cruiser, three stringy Fyaa cruisers, and assorted fighters accelerated away from the orange sun of Fyatskaab, with its twin ice giants and its twin, very damaged, terrestrial planets. They did not know what system they might be headed toward. They were already ten light hours out, further than Pluto from the Sun of Earth, and moving at 7% of the speed of light. They were slowly catching up with the Ngugma super-freighter and its two battleships; one of these had been forced to jettison one of its four engine pods, but it still had no problem matching the grindingly slow acceleration of the gigantic ore-hauler.
In the Honshu bay, the human fighter pilots (and mechanics) assembled once more. The Fyaa and Primoid fighter pilots were there as well. The Primoids didn’t have anything to say, though Natasha and the one she called Skippy stood near each other and exchanged the occasional gesture. Floating about or gripping random hand-holds were a dozen of the Errhatzky, the little toady hexapod mechanics of the Fyaa. Captain Fvaerch stood at the edge of the group, using one of its stork-like legs to grip a sashay bar.
“You have your specific orders,” said Park, “and of course you will follow them to the letter.” She gave Apple a look, then switched it to Clay. “This looks good on paper, so to speak, but there is literally only one way to find out if it will actually work, so you are reminded again of my directive. We have Padfoot and company with us, so we should be able to fix up any damage your fighters take, and the same is true of you Fyaa pilots who get to go along. We cannot fix your bodies if you break them.”
“On paper,” whispered Skzyyn to Clay: the Tskelly was again floating between Clay’s shoulder and Rachel’s. “Like it was written?”
“It’s just a manner of speaking, Skzyyn Aarndr-rii,” said Park. “And I do hope your human comrades have informed you of exactly how unlikely it was that you changed my mind on a tactical matter, in assigning you to join Alpha Wing.”
“Oh, they have informed me,” said Skzyyn in its louder, squeaky voice.
“Captain Root?” said Park.
“Thank you,” said Cassiopeia Root. “We’re pretty sure you put a significant dent in the number of fighters and cruisers they have with them. We count half the number of cruisers in flight now as we did before, and they don’t hide those things in their bays. So we do think we can mount a significant attack on the damaged battlecruiser, and possibly the undamaged one as well.”
“Can we blow the crap out of them?” asked Acevedo. “Is that okay to do?”
“You may blow the crap out of them,” said Park, “so long as you don’t get the crap blown out of yourself. You will, however, follow my lead until I give you leave to operate on your own. We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to choreograph—do the Tskelly and the Errhatzky know ‘choreograph’?”
“Eez a dahnce,” said one of the Errhatzky, evidently the lead mechanic. It was sitting with three of its mates, hanging onto a piece of bay machinery.
“It refers to a careful plaaaan,” said Fvaerch.
“Yes,” said Park, “because everyone is involved and we need to leave nothing to chance. If this works, it will be because we all knew where we were supposed to be and when, and if it doesn’t work, we need to break off in good order and live to fight another day.”
“And our Primoid and Fyaa friends understand this,” said Acevedo.
“We,” said Fvaerch, “will follow Commander Park’s,” and it paused to choose the exact English word it wanted, “instructions. I am sure the Kleegrg, the Primoids, will do the same, they are very,” pause, “reliable.” It turned its beak toward the Primoid cruiser captain, who bowed and nodded; Fvaerch made a nodding gesture back, accentuated by its huge beak.
“Thank you,” said Park. “I don’t think any of us thought six months ago, in our biological chronologies, that we would wake up one morning and go off to do what we’re trying to do. I find it invigorating.”
“Just the word I was looking for,” said Kalkar.
Park looked around. “All right,” she said. “Fighters at ready. Places, everyone.”
Clay looked at Rachel and Skzyyn, who had its stalky eyes aimed his way. “Let’s do this,” said Clay, just because he felt like someone ought to say it.