The attackers again split into two groups, but they were more like successive waves than a vanguard and a rearguard. Alpha, Beta and Gamma wings, plus three Fyaa fighters and three Primoids, came on 300,000 kilometers in front, the distance a photon would travel in a second. Then the other four Fyaa fighters, the other three Primoids, and Su Park’s Special Wing flew just ahead of three stringy Fyaa cruisers, a hefty Primoid cruiser, and the two human-built armored freighters.
The departing Ngugma freighter’s group assumed the same formation as before, like an umbrella for the super-hauler’s butt end. They had twelve intact cruisers, two battlecruisers (one of them damaged), and at least a hundred of those spidery little robot fighters.
Clay and his pals were less than an hour from contact when signals came to them from a benighted planetoid far, far out in the Fyatskaab system’s dark closets.
“What the hell?” said Rachel. At almost the same time, Skzyyn’s text to the human fighters came through: AH YES VYEVTYA SENDS GREETINGS
“What’s Vyevtya?” asked Natasha.
“It’s a base, isn’t it?” said Clay. “It’s your ace in the hole.”
“What is an ace in the hole?” came Skzyyn’s squeaky voice.
“I don’t know,” said Clay, “it just means it’s a nice little surprise. Nice for us.”
“Ah,” said Skzyyn. “Sure. Vyevtya is our furthest base. They have remained concealed this long, raiding far from the base and never revealing where they hided, hide, hid, funny language this English.”
“I always thought so,” said Natasha. “Not funny to the Ngugma.”
“Yes,” said Li Zan, “I read twelve fighters and two cruisers, Fyaa. Range is thirty light minutes.”
“Hold off contact,” came the voice of Su Park from a light second back. “Captain Fvaerch has received a message. The Fyaa have a new force. It will be in contact with the enemy in two hours and ten minutes. Repeat, hold off contact. Confirm.”
The forward wing pilots all confirmed. Rachel texted Clay, “She’s not used to being a second away. She’s afraid we aren’t paying attention to her.”
“The question always is,” Clay texted back, “if I’m more scared of her a light second back, or you within a hundred meters.”
“Now that,” said Rachel out loud, “is a deep question.”
They pulled back their virtual throttles to match the anemic acceleration of the Ngugma super-freighter and its damaged battleship escort. The pilots tried to nap, or gave up and simulated, or gave that up and played chess and Set. As the last half hour began to tick away, and the fighters resumed their approach, the Ngugma finally showed signs of noticing the new enemy in front; the undamaged battleship and six cruisers moved up ahead of the freighter, along with half the cloud of spidery fighters.
Ten minutes became one minute, and thirty seconds and fifteen, and then Rachel was calling out, “Good hunting, ladies and gents, just don’t get blown up,” and then they were pushing the acceleration and launching their first wave of missiles. These met a somewhat anemic missile wave from the other side, and mutually annihilated. Rachel ordered a second wave, and a second later, the robotic Ngugma fighters were coming through, or blowing up en route. Cruisers were moving into position behind them.
Clay and Natasha dropped left, Rachel and Vera right. Clay and Tash began taking out fighters as the robots tried to maneuver to block them: two, four, six, eight, ten. Rachel and Vera were doing much the same on the other side, and Skzyyn Aarndr-rii and his two friends dropped through the middle, and then Rachel’s voice came to the rest of her wing and the Fyaa: “Mu, program mu, engage now.”
They dropped, or soared, up and out of that fight, which Beta and Gamma took up. Behind them, Daria Acevedo and Peri Schmitt were already tearing up one cruiser, and Izawa and Apple another, while Li and Timmis and Aliya and Grohl carefully took apart the core of the remaining Ngugma fighters. The damaged battleship began laying down fire, and let loose thousands of tiny missiles. Apple and Izawa shot past the cruiser line and came at the battleship on one side, Acevedo and Schmitt on the other. Missiles knocked out Schmitt, who took serious hurt; Acevedo took two more missiles and pulled away, her drive system blinking in and out. Li Zan and Mizra Aliya were both left dead in space after close fighting with cruisers; Timmis managed to blow one up, and Millie Grohl could be heard hooting as she bedeviled another, which went progressively deader and deader in space.
By now, the Special Wing was on the scene; Bonnie Bain and Anand Ree got nearly blown up by another cruiser, which Jamaica Leith took out with one shot, and with prejudice. She then chased Park toward the battleship.
Clay didn’t register any of this.
He was keeping tight with Rachel and Vera and Natasha, and three little Fyaa fighters were keeping up with him, dodging around the damaged battleship’s dead side and then hitting 110% acceleration toward the rear end of their true target.
Another little gaggle of robot fighters came around the freighter at them, and at Rachel’s direction, Clay and Natasha and two of the Fyaa went for them. One Fyaa pilot got its ship rightly blown up, but it managed to bail, along with one Errhatzky mechanic who had flown along. The other Fyaa pilot was Skzyyn, who slid along about two meters off the hull of the freighter, digging the Ngugma robot pilots out for Clay and Natasha to blow up. Leaving one Fyaa pilot and one mechanic floating in vac suits, the three turned and found themselves over the hexagonal meshed walkway.
Rachel, Vera and the third Fyaa had blown an opening in the mesh, and Clay, Natasha and Skzyyn got in and chased them. Light blasts came over their heads: these were no robot fighters, no gun emplacements, but actual Ngugma in Nugugma-shaped vac suits, blasting down the mesh walkway. By the time Clay got over the curve of the super-hauler’s buttocks, they were no more.
He and his two pals accelerated up the straight section of walkway, tiny dots far ahead labeled Andros, Santos and Fyaa B. As Clay and company approached, the three in front of them seemed to be just sitting there, but at last Clay noticed that Fyaa B, whose actual name was something like Dzvezyets, was using its laser weapon to carefully pry their way through the hatch at the back of the bridge. It was like watching a tick fasten onto an elephant, or perhaps give the elephant a lobotomy from behind.
A hatch about twenty meters to the left opened, upward (as it were) out of the front of the freight section, and several more suited Ngugma began emerging. They looked like large, flattened bowling ball bags, but with big weapons. Natasha saw them a moment before Clay, and began shearing them in two as they came out. The third dropped back and shut the hatch.
“Watch that one, Clayburger,” said Natasha.
He did, and indeed, fifteen seconds later, when it thought they might have forgotten it was there, the Ngugma popped the hatch and took a wild shot. Clay and Skzyyn sliced it into three pieces. The hatch shut again and didn’t open.
“We’re in,” came Rachel’s voice. They were: the hatch had been opened in such a way that it could be closed again. The six fighters zipped inside. Vera exited her ship and slammed the hatch, and a couple of the little Errhatzky mechanics, who had hitched a ride with Dzvezyets, made sure it was sealed. “Kay,” said Rachel, “Tskelly out. There’s gonna be resistance in there.”
“What?” said Clay.
“We’ve gotten this one,” said Skzyyn. “Ready.”
Rachel blew open the inner hatch. Four Ngugma in suits opened fire; she and the others still in fighters dodged. Then Skzyyn and Dzvezyets leaned in and fired their hand weapons, zap zap, zap zap, and the four went down.
“Out of your ships and in,” said Rachel.
Clay ejected from his Ghost, and pushed himself into the next chamber, which was a sort of maintenance storeroom. It was disturbingly well lit: evidently the Ngugma were adapted to bright light. Three Errhatzky were already at the console. They were not so much working it as taking it apart. One of the first things they managed to do was turn the lights down.
Clay took a breath. He looked at Rachel, who was also taking a breath. She smiled at him, then pushed over to him and kissed him. “How’s it going, hunky?”
“Is there a bit of gravity in this place?” asked Clay.
“Well spotted, Ron,” said Natasha. “It’s the mass of all that magma. This is like a small moon.”
“So what are we doing?” asked Vera. “Should someone go back out on patrol?”
“Dzvez and I will be happy to,” said Skzyyn.
“No, no,” said Rachel. “We’re better off here. Hunkster and I are going to dump the dead crew overboard. Tash, if you would just open a channel and report in with Park?”
“Sure, from my Ghost,” said Natasha, sliding back toward the bay door.
“So,” said Clay, “there’s still live Ngugma in control of this ship?”
“Two hundreds Ngugma,” said one of the Errhatzky, in a strong accent, not looking up from the panel they had open.
“Alive,” said another, as the first disappeared into the innards of the panel. This one had much less of an accent. “But not control, not for long.”
The ensuing minutes were among the strangest of Clay Gilbert’s strange life so far.
It began with Clay and Rachel hauling the four dead Ngugma, one by one, through the bay’s small personnel airlock and pushing them out into space, where the continuing acceleration of the super-freighter left them behind, traveling some percent of the speed of light relative to everything else. Clay had never been close to an Ngugma, and they were just as creepy as he’d expected. They were floppy: rigor mortis apparently didn’t set in for these creatures. Their suits had been shot open, so their thick brown fur, dotted here and there with short tentacles, could be seen. Clay was not inclined to run his gloved fingers through it. He had an irrational concern that he might get infected somehow. Clay and Rachel said nothing while doing the disposal; as they watched the fourth and final body float away into the blackness, Rachel said, “Now can I have a very long bath somewhere? I feel like vac suit sanitizing might not be quite enough.”
The curiously cluttered yet cavernous maintenance storeroom had one small section of wall devoted to control screens, and the invaders cleared the area right around that section and camped out there. The gravity was just about enough to keep heavy objects interested in the floor, but anything that wasn’t supposed to move was attached to something, if only by the Ngugma version of Velcro. The displays carried the concept of touch screen one step further, with sliders and buttons and switches forming, sticking out from the surface in 3D, and disappearing when no longer needed. It was a bit chilly, perhaps 10° C, but the Errhatzky took care of that; they liked their atmosphere just about the way the humans did. Likewise, the oxygen had to be turned up. A chemical aroma that wouldn’t go away turned out to be harmless, an air freshener the Ngugma liked but which gagged the humans and the Fyaa alike. It took about five minutes to get somewhat used to it, and hours to mostly get rid of it.
So Clay and Vera and Rachel marked time, chit chatting with Skzyyn and Dzvezyets, while three Errhatzky scurried about inside the hardware-stuffed walls, one or two popping out now and then to tweak the console. Giving updates was not a priority of the little mechanics, who were somewhat smaller than the forearm-length Tskelly such as Skzyyn. While the Tskelly were reminiscent of lizard-squirrels, despite their eight arms and legs, the Errhatzky were more like toad-weasels (and had six appendages). Clay was beginning to feel as if he could read Skzyyn’s expressions: one was clearly amusement, another was eagerness, and from what he knew of the lives of the Fyaa pilots, that was pretty much what was required. The Errhatzky felt sympathetic and competent, but to Clay, their faces, with wide flat mouths on bony, flattened heads, did not show much emotion.
So he chatted, mostly with the two Tskelly, who spoke pretty good English; he couldn’t remember anything they talked about. He spent a lot of time trying to convince himself he was actually standing inside an Ngugma freighter. Rachel came back and they investigated the contents of some cabinets. The Ngugma cabinet was a tubular affair, with a door that was operated by a sort of magnetic spring. The first one was large, a rounded square in cross section, and full of small electronic clips, the Ngugma version of an alligator clip. The next was round and packed nearly full with a stack of objects that looked like big plastic bagels.
“Space wheels?” asked Clay.
“I’m thinking explosives,” said Rachel. “Or, look at the magnetic socket here and here. Could be a power source, a battery.”
“Wonder if any of these contains chocolate chip cookies?”
“Or hemorrhagic virus.”
They continued checking the cabinets and found mostly odds and ends. Presently Natasha came in. Just as she did, a zone of the storeroom turned into a three-dimensional display of what was going on outside: in lieu of any explanation, one of the mechanics came out of the woodwork, spent five seconds examining the display, then sort of chittered to itself and went back into the woodwork.
“Park says,” Natasha started, and stopped, looking at the display.
“Holy shit,” said Clay. Skzyyn shot him a look from about twenty centimeters away.
“No battleship,” said Vera. “Those jerks. I wanted a piece of that thing.”
“Holy shit,” Clay said again. “The other battleship, its engines are all knocked out.”
They went on, remarking on details of what had happened out there without them, as their three-dimensional display resolved the space outside. The previously damaged battleship was now a dead hulk, wracked by explosions and abandoned by what remained of its crew; a few dozen Ngugma in vac suits floated out there. The other battleship had been set upon by a pack of fighters, and its four engine pods were all sheared off or blown up. The rest of the vessel seemed intact, aside from the loss of its gun emplacements, but the big ship was coasting now, stuck at 6.3% of the speed of light. Two intact cruisers clustered near it; four more flanked the super-freighter, still accelerating.
“We’re leaving them behind,” said Natasha. “How many did we lose?”
“I pick out Park and Leith,” said Vera, “and there’s Timmis and Apple, there’s Izawa, she lost her engine.” Meanwhile Skzyyn and Dzvezyets were having the same discussion, in the Tskelly tongue (the Tskelly had tongues, in fact, three-forked ones).
“There’s Aliya,” said Rachel. “And Millie Grohl is with her, they both took damage.”
“Okay,” said Clay, “I pick up in vac suits: Schmitt, Acevedo. Dead in space, Ree, Li, Bain. We have four Primoid fighters flying, and I see one Primoid in a vac suit. The Fyaa lost a cruiser, it looks like it got hammered. But they have more fighters—I think they have a net increase of a cruiser, because of that hidden base.”
“Vyevtya,” said Skzyyn with a pride that transcended species.
“All the humans survived,” said Rachel. “All of us. Skzyyn, I hope I’m saying that right, you understand that matters to us, we lost our home world, there aren’t as many humans as there used to be, not by a couple orders of magnitude. Now that’s your situation as well. You know you will never be our enemy again.”
“That is goooood,” said Skzyyn, “since you are the best fighter pilots in the Galaxy, as all now know.” Skzyyn did something along the lines of a laugh.
“Meanwhile,” said Natasha, “the Ngugma freighter trundles on. I wonder what they think happened up here?”
“Okay, let’s think about that,” said Rachel. “They know some fighters came in near their ship. They sent security to get us and security didn’t report back. And they know we forced our way into this maintenance area. They’ll be back with more force.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Natasha. “We seal off this place, our friends are just tailing the freighter, they’re back there a couple light seconds right now, the Ngugma have to figure they can’t do anything about it right now, might as well lead us to the nearest Ngugma planet and have the home fleet or whatever show us the what for.”
“You need to trust Errhatzky,” said Skzyyn, squatting on a piece of cleaning equipment. “Seal you off. That is what they do, exactly. They seal us off. And meanwhile! They are very sneaky technicians, very good technicians, they find a way in, to really controool this freighter.”
“So then what do we do?” asked Clay. “We get to the Ngugma home world or whatever. We meet the Ngugma fleet which makes this Ngugma fleet look like a neighborhood patrol. What do we do, fight them? With what, a couple of cruisers, a couple of freighters, maybe twenty fighters total?”
“Well,” said Rachel, “bear in mind, someone named Park is back there two light seconds away. But yeah, we fight them, if we can and if there’s a reason to. Lacking either of those things, no, we take the information we’ve got and we leave this freighter behind, as a smoking hulk if at all possible.”
“Very possible,” said Skzyyn. “Hhzmyvya, my mechanical friend, or my friend who is good with mechanical things, he says this is easy to do.”
“So there it is,” said Clay. “Our wildcard.”
“That’s nice to have,” said Vera. “Because one thing we’re not going to do is sneak in. They know we’re here.”
The Ngugma super-freighter and its much diminished escort—and its parasites—lumbered toward light speed. In another six hours, they were all the way up to 7%. The little shadowing fleet, diminished only by the departure of the Fyaa who had joined them from Vyevtya, continued shadowing. There was some shuffling around back there, however: now three Ghost 204s separated from the rest and accelerated to catch up with the freighter.
“What’s this coming at us?” asked Vera.
“What?” said Rachel. “Oh.” She smirked. “It’s Park,” she said. “The only thing to bet on is who’s with her.”
“Ah, Park,” said Skzyyn. Clay and Vera had been introducing it to cannabis, but it was hard to say if there was any difference. It was certainly the first time a Tskelly had gotten stoned aboard an Ngugma spaceship. “Your boss.”
“Yeah, and yours too, as of now,” said Clay. Skzyyn made an unintelligible gesture.
“I’m going to guess,” said Natasha, “it’s Ree, because Park likes to keep him under her wing, and Acevedo, because that does look like a very rebuilt fighter.”
“No, no,” said Vera. “It’s Leith and Bain. The rebuild is Bain’s.”
“No,” said Clay, “I remember Bain’s Ghost from way back when it was the only survivor of the France group. Bessie? Isn’t that what she calls it?”
“That is not Old Bessie,” said Rachel. “It’s got to be Li and Timmis. You might think Apple and Izawa, but I don’t think those are theirs. Um, Mr. Skzyyn.”
“Yes, Commander Rachel?”
“What’s the situation, um, with our friends the, um—?”
“Ngugma?” She nodded. Skzyyn cocked its head sideways at her, then scampered through the air somehow to the console, where it tapped a couple of spots on the screen and croaked some words of the Fyaa lingua franca. It cocked its head sideways, listening, and after ten seconds or so, words came back in the voice of one of the Errhatzky, speaking the same language. “Hhzmyvya,” Skzyyn said. “My mechanic friend, mechanical friend, no, mechanic friend? The other would mean Hhzmyvya was a mechanical thing, correct?”
“Yes, o brilliant Skzyyn. Now if you could—!”
“The Ngugma have made repeated attempts to dislodge us. They can’t reach us from inside the vessel, however, the Errhatzky have assured that. Ensured. Ah, ensure, insure, assure—?”
“Who knows, who cares,” said Rachel. “They can’t get in.”
“They can’t,” Skzyyn confirmed. “So they resort to attack by the computer. But in this, the Errhatzky are better warriors than the Ngugma, even on their own, how you would say—?”
“Turf,” said Clay.
“It means soil,” said Natasha. “They can’t beat your Hhzmyvya the Errhatzky even on their own home soil.”
“Well, they aren’t just going to sit there and fly us from system to system like they’re our moms driving us to soccer,” said Vera.
“What if they try again from outside?” asked Rachel.
“Lookie,” said Vera. “Here’s your answer.”
The three-dimensional display was now showing a conflict on the outside of the freighter. Vera figured out how to zoom in, and now they could see three fighters coming up the inside of that hexagonal mesh walkway. They were raking fire up ahead of them, where five, no, four, no, three vac-suited space starfish were hustling toward the maintenance bay door, hustling not to the attack but to avoid getting shot. Another went down, and the front two dropped, spun, and came up firing their own weapons, which were also some sort of laser. A lot of convergent evolution around, Clay had time to think: laser weapons and the maneuver Rachel had come up with on the Moon. In any case, the Ghosts were ready for it. They dodged out, bounced off the mesh and back in, and the front one put holes in the two remaining Ngugma.
“Park for sure,” said Clay.
“Well jeez,” said Rachel, “let’s get out there and open the hatch. We damaged the opening mechanism, you know, we can’t just flip a—!” She stopped and looked at Skzyyn, who might as well have been grinning. It did flip a switch, which had just formed on the display screen. “You fixed it. Your—!”
“Errhatzky fixed it, yes,” said Skzyyn. “Use of possessive is not necessary.” It waved both its left hands, or paws or whatever, in a dismissive, possibly apologetic, possibly sarcastic gesture.
“Sorry, sorry,” said Rachel. A reddish light lit up on the panel. Skzyyn made another gesture with its right hands, and finished it by hitting the switch again.
“Let’s find out who’s right,” said Natasha, propelling herself to the bay hatch. Clay and Rachel were right behind her. She pushed through into the bay just as three Ghost 204s were opening up and three pilots were climbing out.
“Commander,” said Rachel. “Welcome aboard.”
“Man of Mister Ree,” said Clay, “how are ya?”
They all looked at the third fighter pilot. “Jeez,” Natasha said after several beats. “Padfoot. What the hell?”
A few minutes later, Padfoot, her helmet off and her brown ponytail floating just a bit, was more or less sitting on the floor in front of the open console. One of the Errhatzky was standing on her crossed ankles. They were conversing in the Fyaa lingua franca, with Natasha, Skzyyn and Park paying attention, while Rachel, Clay, Vera, and Anand Ree looked on, mystified.
“How’d you manage, Anand?” Clay asked. “You took some bad damage.”
“Well, you know,” said Anand Ree, “it turns out that if your body frame survives, Ms. Padfoot and Mr. Bell can rebuild you in six hours.”
“He’s exaggerating a bit,” said Padfoot over her shoulder. “Frzdetz yitzyz dzyn, um, dyissin?”
“No, yayay, dyiztzyn,” said the Errhatzky.
“If you have your seat and nothing else, it’s twelve hours,” said Vera. “More if you also lost the seat back. Less if you still have your joystick.”
“Like that ever happened to you, Killer,” said Clay. “So, Anand. Was your wife worried? Tashmina?”
Ree rolled his eyes and grinned. “To say the least,” he replied. “But I told her, you’re in just as much danger as I am, you and Vijay, on Tasmania. Really, if you think about it.”
“Did that help?”
“No, not at all, actually.”
“Ztyvzty, Bviyi, zevtyay bvayrii-rahy,” Skzyyn was saying, as he and another Tskelly did something between a hug and a multiple-armed high five. It was the third pilot, the one whose ship had gotten blown up in the approach.
“Park picked you up?” asked Natasha. Uh, Su Park gyy kyivitz?”
“Ya, ya,” said the other Tskelly. “Park picked me up. Truth, Anand Ree picked me up.”
They resumed watching whatever was going on. Park asked a question in Fyaa, and Skzyyn answered, and Park said something back to him, which Clay could just tell was sarcastic. He wasn’t sure if Tskelly understood sarcasm, but he suspected they were good at it; Skzyyn gave Clay a sideways look and what might have amounted to a smile.
Park waited a moment and then asked her question again, and this time Padfoot answered in English. “I was just helping them seal off the computers up here. We know a few things about Ngugma telecommunications, from what Rachel and Clay learned at Mathilde, and I think I spotted a couple of vulnerabilities, but there are definitely things Hhzmyvya knows that I didn’t know. Meanwhile, I think we have the outer walkways under surveillance. They’re still in control of the engines, of course. I wish we could do something about that.”
“I’d love to be in the pilot’s chair up here,” said Park, “but they’re going where we want to go.”
“Exactly,” said Padfoot. “So—!” Hhzmyvya said something to Padfoot, and she said something back, then she looked back at Park and said, “Sorry.”
“No, please go back to that,” said Park. She turned and took Clay and Vera by the sleeves to pull them back a little way. “Let’s let them do their thing,” she said. She looked around. “Nice accommodation. I suppose we will sleep in our Ghosts?”
“It’s comfier than the floor,” said Clay.
“Damn Ngugma,” said Vera, “they could have installed some bunks, don’t you think?”
“We could ask them,” said Clay. “So, the next question is, where are we going, and what do we do when we get there, for the next question after that.”
“The second answer depends on the first,” said Park. “And we won’t know the first answer till we get there. How fast are we going?”
“Closing on 8.5%,” said Ree. “It’s so slow.”
“It’s better than the Centaur project,” said Park. “Still, one is tempted to take off and get there ahead of them.”
“But we want to get there with them,” said Rachel.
“Except,” said Clay, “that since they know we’re here, the first thing they’ll do when we get there is put whatever they have, wherever we’re going, toward killing us.”
“It’s a problem.”
“If only we,” said Clay, and stopped. He looked at Vera.
“Could make them forget we’re here,” said Vera. “Okay. So they’re trying to kill us. Right? And we’re trying to take control of piloting. Right? What if we—?”
“Santos,” said Park, “are you having one of your Santos ideas?”
“Oh, I am. It’s scary.”
“And are you going to let us in on it at all?””
“I’ll have to,” said Vera, “because this one’s going to need Padfoot and her scaly friends to actually do the work.”