Chapter 7: At the depot

VII. At the depot

 

1.

The Ngugma super-hauler with the parasites in its brain had a name. It was called something that might be translated as Big Fourteen. It began decelerating after eighteen at very close to light speed, at a position in space almost 46 light years from Fyatskaab, where it had collected a full hold of molten metals, five thousand cubic kilometers, damn it, of mantle. Its crew knew something had come aboard, and knew it had endured a serious attack. They could look at their sensors and see that their escort had been nearly wiped out: they had four cruisers, from nearly forty, and they were lucky if they had a tenth of their fighters. They suspected they were being followed. But they also knew they were still in charge of their ship, and they had reason to believe they had defeated their parasite.

There was a star system nearby, but it was not near enough for one to consider oneself within it. The small yellow star was a hundred billion kilometers off, about four light days, far enough that it wasn’t even one of the brighter stars in the sky. Much closer at hand, and much darker, was a collection of tiny planetoids held together originally by a very light gravitational attraction. These had been turned, long ago, into a single unit, a space port in the middle of empty space, built of rock and ice and high-tech composites. It had vast stretches of dock, a service section big enough to fix up broken continents, hundreds of holding tanks the size of moons, a fleet of cruisers, patrol boats and tugs, and what seemed a very undersized section of living and working quarters. It was not a planet full of life: it was a depot, albeit an enormous one, a depot out in the middle of deep space.

A super-freighter was here already, docked near the holding tanks. As Big Fourteen decelerated into view, the other freighter undocked and began its long slow acceleration in the exact opposite direction. A pair of battleships and a few dozen cruisers joined it from various points, and the whole assemblage began rumbling off toward Fyatskaab. Another gigantic freighter with a smaller escort, a mere nine cruisers and a battlecruiser, was headed off in another direction, already blurring with relativistic speed.

“Well, here we are,” said Clay, from his still-offline pilot seat. “Doesn’t look like a very exciting port of call.”

“What speed are we?” asked Park.

“25.4%,” said Clay. “They should be seeing us already. You can make out most of their ships. I can make out the cruisers we came with, out ahead of us.” He pushed and poked a little.

“I see that,” said Park, looking at the display Clay had thrown up onto the display for the rest of them, everyone other than him and the two Errhatzky who were standing in his lap watching his little wraparound pilot screen. The four remaining Ngugma cruisers flew in a square out in front of Big Fourteen still. The Tasmania and its friends, far behind them, were just beginning to be a blob. “Could they see a fighter leave our bay and head away?”

“Um, well, you could plot a course that would be very hard to see. Are we sending someone back to the Tasmania and the Honshu?

“It’s the safest way to communicate with them.”

“Commander,” said Rachel, “we could just dump the trash, you know. Just dump a fighter out the port and let it get caught up with. Give it the slightest push backwards, just enough to decelerate faster than this hulk, so the Tasmania would start catching up. Shut down communications and sensors. You’d be impossible to see, basically.”

“Yes, I would, or someone would. Mr. Ree?”

“Yes, Commander?” said Ree.

“I need you to hop in your Ghost and zip back to the Tasmania, have a chat with Kalkar, let him know the plan, and he can disseminate it to the rest.”

“Of course,” said Ree. He smiled at Clay, then asked, “What plan am I letting him know?”

“I’ll write something up, it’ll take five minutes,” said Park, “but the short version is: they should keep to the outside, keep in the dark till we signal. Is that a patch of dust, Mr. Gilbert?”

“Over here?” Clay asked, waving his hand at a region about a hundred million kilometers astern, a million kilometers wide. Waving at his wraparound display seemed to shade in a zone in the 3D display the others were inspecting. “Yeah, actually, not just hydrogen either, oxygen, silica, water ice, carbon, methane. Good cover.”

“Maybe it was once a planet,” said Natasha, “or almost was.”

“Interesting,” said Park, “but in this case, I don’t care if it was a stripper in a former life. I want Kalkar and Root and the Fyaa and Primoid cruisers in or behind that cloud. Andros, could you write that up?”

“I basically already did,” said Rachel. “You’d love being a fleet admiral, wouldn’t you? Just for a day?”

“Just for a day,” said Park.

 

2.

Anand Ree got in his Ghost and was dumped out the personnel airlock along with a padding of Ngugma trash. The trash had a peculiar, but hardly noticeable, tendency to decelerate a little faster than the super-freighter, and fall behind in the dark of space. It was fifteen minutes before Ree raised his deceleration to 50% capacity, to let the trailing friendly ships catch up. By then, no one could get a decent fix on his position, not even Clay and Rachel on the freighter, who knew where he was. In another six hours, he was entering the bay of the Tasmania, which was linked up with the Honshu and surrounded by the Fyaa and Primoid cruisers. A minute after that, he was delivering his verbal message to Kalkar and Root, while being hugged by Tashmina and Vijay.

“Okey dokey,” said Clay, once Ree had disappeared into the closet of space, “now what? Am I ready to take over? I hope not.”

Park took a few moments, then said, “No, not yet, you can relax.” She walked away, chatting with Rachel about something.

“Well, guys,” Clay said to the two Errhatzky in his lap, “you mind if I—?”

“Here, Clay,” said Natasha, and she and Vera helped him out of his seat.

“So,” he said, when he was free and the three of them were standing around with nothing to do, “any idea how this is going to work?”

“Oh,” said Natasha, “if you mean taking over the freighter, we literally just flip a switch.”

“And they lose control of the con to us for good? They can’t do anything about it?”

“It’s rigged so they won’t even be able to open hatches. They’ll be prisoners. Hhmvyvya is a clever lad, or whatever. The only question is, when we do flip that switch, will it work?”

“Or will they have planned for it,” said Vera.

“And we won’t know till I flip the switch?”

“Park’s gonna flip the switch, obviously,” said Natasha. “But yeah.”

“Am I crazy or is it rational to be kind of worried at this point? I mean, what are the percentages? 80% chance it works?”

“It is like before,” said Skzyyn, propelling itself up from the paneling and grabbing Clay’s shoulder. He was turning into something between a pet parrot and a bro. “99.99% chance. What do humans say? Don’t worry be happy.”

 

Big Fourteen continued decelerating: it would take an entire week yet to get the thing stopped and docked. They slept, they ate, they simulated various things, and twelve hours later, Park called a conference, or perhaps it was just a huddle. “Takeover is when we’re down to 1% of the speed of light,” she said. “That will be twelve to fifteen hours before full stop and dock.”

“So I’m docking this beast?” Clay objected.

“I’m confident in your abilities,” said Park. “I understand your concern, but this allows us some opportunities that wouldn’t be there if we let the Ngugma do the docking.”

“How so?” asked Vera.

“That’s the agenda,” said Park. “Ms. Andros and Padfoot and Mr. H and I have worked up a little plan.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” said Clay, while Vera was saying, “And you’re going to tell us?”

“Fyaa get to take part,” said Skzyyn.

“Are you predicting, or requesting?” asked Park. “Of course you get to take part. We need your friends to get in on this. The problem we have, and the advantage, is that we have three separate groups of enemies, three separate Ngugma units to deal with. One is the crew of this spacecraft. We should have them taken care of. The second is the crew of the depot station we seem to be headed for. We don’t know what that consists of, but it would not be unlikely to meet hundreds of Ngugma and their robots with small to medium arms. The third is the guard fleet here, including, or not including, the ships escorting the other freighter out of the system.”

“And our clever plan,” said Rachel, who looked as darling as Clay had ever seen her with her suit on, “takes advantage of every aspect of the situation.”

 

3.

A hundred and thirty hours later, Clay Gilbert woke up in Rachel’s arms, extricated himself, put his suit on in the bay and let it clean the wonderful scent of him and Rachel off him, and then went into the cavernous storeroom for coffee and biscuits. He and Skzyyn talked and swilled coffee, and then Rachel came out, and while she was smooching him, Vera and Natasha came out and smooched a little too. Park and Padfoot emerged from the paneling with Hhmvyvya.

“Are you ready for command?” asked Park.

“I take it I’m not supposed to make any sudden lurches,” said Clay.

“You are supposed to make the Ngugma on the base feel that Ngugma are in charge of this vessel.”

“Including communications?”

“We’re taking care of communications,” said Padfoot. “For whatever reason, the Ngugma use text communication for routine maneuvers like docking.”

“Can I just say how weird it is that the Ngugma have a whole sophisticated system to taking apart planets for their metal content and shipping it all over their, what, empire?”

“So you’re ready,” said Park.

“Yes,” said Clay. He climbed into his little coop. “I’m ready.”

“Mister H?” asked Park.

“We are ready,” squeaked Hhmvyvya. “Is it still your desire make each thing happen separate? We can make happen same time, not a problem.”

“It’s tempting,” said Park. “I just want to be sure that when we lock them out, they’re locked in already.” She turned: everyone else was there, excepting one of the Errhatzky who was inside the machinery making sure of the robots it had commandeered from the Ngugma. “Are we all ready?”

“Should we be ready to bail just in case?” asked Natasha.

“Just keep it in mind. All right. Button, Mr. H?”

Hhmvyvya fiddled, and a little trio of switches appeared on the 2D display on the open console. Park gave Clay one more look, then flipped the first switch. They waited ten seconds, and then the Errhatzky said from Clay’s lap, “We are positive that the communications are closed.”

“And they don’t know,” said Padfoot, from the other side of the open panel.

“Copy any communication they give,” said Park, “translate it, and show it to me. We can translate their texts, can we?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Natasha. “Ngugma standard language is simple, and their code’s not much, they don’t expect to really need it.”

“So we can send on messages we approve of. All right. Ready for lockup?” She looked around and everyone nodded. She smiled and pushed the second switch down.

They all looked around at each other. They all looked at different displays: Rachel and Vera bent over to watch a reserve display Padfoot had set up on another panel four meters away. Then they looked back at Park.

“Looks good,” said Vera. “How can we tell?”

“Oooh, I know,” said Clay. He put his finger to his wraparound display. Hhmvyvya, and Skzyyn, who had joined them inside the paneling, did a sort of Fyaa snicker. “When that guy—does that—!”

“Comm coming,” said Rachel, as she and Vera snickered.

“Here it is,” said Padfoot. She and Natasha squinted at Padfoot’s tablet. “Is that—?”

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “They’re wondering about the locks. It’s intercom now, but give them a minute—!”

“Attempted communication to depot,” said Hhmvyvya, pronouncing the word de-pott.

“Decoding,” said Padfoot.

“Control center is locked,” said Natasha. “Um, request patrol, um, explore, no, investigate maintenance bay number one.”

“We won’t be doing them the favor of passing that along,” said Park. “All right. I think we can say that one and two worked. Ready for three, Mr. Gilbert?”

“I must be, I’m sitting here with my friends.” Again the Fyaa version of a snicker.

“Good answer, Mr. Gilbert.” Park looked around, then put her tiny index finger on the switch and pushed it. They all held their breaths for a moment. “And?” she said, looking at Clay.

Skzyyn and Hhmvyvya chattered from inside the wraparound screen, pointing and chuckling. Clay was trying to take it all in. He put his finger on his own panel of controls, which was a sort of 3D touch screen below the wraparound screen.

He could almost feel the throbbing of the enormous engines. He could almost feel the throbbing of the unimaginably enormous engines.

But of course he couldn’t feel them throbbing, because they didn’t throb and he wouldn’t feel them in his control panel if they did.

Instead, he found a control far down his panel, and he dialed it one way and then the other. The lights in the maintenance bay, and indeed everywhere else inside the freighter, dimmed and returned to normal. In the wraparound display, Clay and his two pals could see it happen in the cut-off bridge, and see the Ngugma crew waggling in concern.

“Well,” he said, “I have the con.”

 

4.

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.

 

5.

The Ngugma language betrays an ancient lineage. It is simple the way only something that has been used for many millennia can be simple, and it is deep in only the way a pool that has been dug at the bottom of a river for uncounted summers can be deep. Its alphabet contains just sixteen characters, which in turn represent around two hundred sounds, all within the hearing range of humans, though only about half of them could be made by human mouths. They are divided into consonants and vowels and things that lie between the two, the way L and W do in English. There are nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs and conjunctions; prepositions which are prefixes. The language exhibits every complexity of clauses subordinate to clauses which are subordinate or parallel to other clauses and allied with yet other clauses in a hundred ways. It presumably would have been an excellent device for treaties, if the Ngugma ever felt the need to make treaties.

Perhaps the excellent structure of their language, or just its age, was what made them so good at learning the languages of other species. Perhaps it was also this which led them to give the Primoids a pass, at least until such time as they had made rubble of all other available terrestrial, metal-bearing planets. In any case, the language quickly came to make sense to those who had spent much time writing computer code: Padfoot, and also Rachel, Natasha, and all the Errhatzky. Park and the others slated themselves for speed tutorials, but for the time being, she relied on Padfoot to translate her simple message to the original crew of Big Fourteen.

“To the Ngugma aboard this freight vessel: As you may know already, you are prisoners of the star fleets of Bluehorse, Fyatskaab and the Primoid systems. Until we decide what to do with you, your life support will be maintained. There may be codes we will require from you, and you will give them to us or you will lose your life support privileges, including air. Message ends.”

Within a minute, a message came back. “To the organisms who have taken control of this vessel: We do not recognize your seizure of our vessel. Yet we accept the situation with equanimity. We propose a direct meeting between your representative and ours. Since we are not permitted to leave the zones we currently occupy, we propose meeting in our bridge, under a promise of safe conduct.”

“Equanimity?” Clay repeated.

“As if,” said Rachel.

“That’s one meeting that isn’t going to happen,” said Park, “at least not yet. All right. Padfoot, I would like you to compile a series of video images of what happened to our species on Earth. Perhaps we could alternate with the visual testimony from Fyatskaab: Mr. Skzyyn, would you mind terribly helping with that project? Ten minutes of video would do, I think, played on a loop on their main screen. They can’t do anything about that, can they?”

“Short of breaking the display, no,” said Padfoot.

“Even then,” said Clay, “I bet we can reroute to all their other screens.”

“All right,” said Park. “We’ll let them have an hour of that, and then we’ll reply to them. I’m beginning to think we might get out of this without fighting. It’s possible we can deal with the depot the same way as the crew.”

“Well,” said Rachel, “they’re not our prisoners, are they?”

“Aren’t they? Where could they go? If, for instance, a ship the size of a small moon, full of molten metals, were to impact their midsection at a tenth of a percent of the speed of light?”

“You wouldn’t,” said Clay. “Would you?”

“Would you, Mr. Gilbert?” asked Park, leaning down behind him. “Or have you become attached to Big Fourteen?”

“No,” said Clay. “No, I would definitely do that. Just tell me where to aim this thing.”

Park smiled. She stood up, turned and smiled at the others. “You seem pretty happy,” said Rachel, perhaps the only human who would say something like that to Su Park.

“Well, Ms. Andros,” said Park, “one finds oneself in an unusual position, to say the least, but it’s certainly a position of power. Shall we spend a minute or two composing a really stinging bit of sarcasm to send back? Do you think the Ngugma understand sarcasm?”

“Commander,” said Skzyyn, “I believe that is what you would call a universal language.”

She turned and found Natasha gazing, almost glaring, at her, Dzvezyets on her shoulder like an overgrown, flightless, eight-armed parrot in a vac suit. Park raised an eyebrow.

“Commander,” said Natasha, “we’ve been translating the archive, as you said, in order to get an idea of the strategic plan of the Ngugma. You know, what they’re doing and where they’re doing it.” Park, having kept her eyebrow raised, just cocked her head. Natasha gave the Tskelly pilot on her shoulder a glance, then said, “And I think we have something.”

“Can it be put into a few words?”

“No, Commander, I don’t think it can.”

“Does it make them make sense?” asked Rachel. “Is this going to explain how they had to do it because of things that suddenly will be totally clear and we’ll all just toss everything and go home and think how sad it was that we didn’t understand them till now?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Natasha, “but it’s—!” She stopped, looking a little shy.

“It can wait?” asked Park.

Natasha looked at Dzvezyets, who made a twirl of its head, an agreeable gesture among Tskelly and Errhatzky. She shook her head but said, “Yeah, yeah, it can wait.”

“Then let it wait,” said Park. “The time will come for revelation, but the time is not now.”

 

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.”

 

7.

Clay was forced to sit out the ensuing fighter battle. He could barely stand it. Skzyyn and Dzvezyets got to go: the third Tskelly, Ve’ezy, had lost its fighter and had to stay home with Clay. In the event, Ve’ezy spent the battle standing on Clay’s lap.

Park took command, and Rachel took Clay’s spot at tail, which she talked about as if she was slumming. “I’ve always wondered what it would look like from back there,” she said, along with several other similar sentiments.

“Great,” said Clay, “and I get to try all the swerving and barrel rolling this thing can manage.”

“They won’t attack you,” said Park. “I think we can guarantee that. Just stay on course and don’t let the crew eat too much of the orange chemical or they might think they don’t need us.”

“Really? What exactly is the upper limit?”

“What do you think, Padfoot? Hhmvyvya, do you have an opinion?”

“Keep as is, is safe,” said the Errhatzky, poking its grey frog-head out over the panel. It was standing, in the microgravity, on Clay’s head. “42.3.”

“Do we have any idea, 42.3 of what?” asked Natasha.

“No,” said Padfoot, “but I do think that’s the thing to do.”

“Hang in there, hunkster,” said Vera. “We’ll be thinking of you. I can call him that, right?”

“Only you,” said Rachel.

“All right,” said Park, “I’m command, Kleiner, Santos, and Ms. Andros can take tail just for the novelty of it. Skzyyn, Mr. D, you two get to start with the cruiser we’ve painted yellow. We’ll start with the red one. We can meet in the middle, but don’t expect we’ll save any for you.”

 

And that is more or less how it worked out. The four cruisers approached the super-freighter, but were understandably unsure what to do when they got there. They carried twelve robot fighters each, for a total of 48, and fired off a slew of missiles. The humans and Fyaa fired off their own missiles, which canceled out those of the Ngugma.

Then the robot fighters gamely went about scaring up Alpha Wing and its Fyaa adjuncts, who were flitting about just above the surface of the freighter, and that went about as well as one would expect. Clay had to watch as Vera ate her way through two wings of them along the mesh walkway; Rachel and Natasha cut through a dozen of their own, veering out from the back of the freighter to blast through three wings; the two Fyaa pilots let two wings of robot fighters chase them around Big Fourteen and then turned at the most inconvenient moment and destroyed their pursuers before going after more. And Park shot out into the middle of them, just to have a dozen fighters blasting at her, so she could tie them in knots and demolish them in bunches. No one seemed to have taken much damage.

The last four robots fell back toward the cruisers, with Alpha Wing in hot pursuit; the tiny Fyaa fighters took a long arc and came at the “yellow” cruiser in a wobbly curve. The cruisers now got in a traffic jam, firing away at random in all directions. Park blasted through two fighters and the “red” cruiser found her in its face, and with two shots the cruiser was disabled; behind her, Vera and Natasha were killing the other two fighters. Rachel hopscotched the “red” cruiser and came in a low curve at the next, keeping its fire lines above her and then spiraling around to rake her victim with her laser. She was shooting past it as it exploded, and then she and Natasha and Vera were on the third cruiser, which had no chance. They shot through its glowing ashes, three in line with Park taking up the tail position, and there were Skzyyn and Dzvezyets, each with shield damage, amid the wreckage of their yellow foe.

The sky was clear above the patch of rocks that constituted the depot. The robot patrol boats had given up and zipped into bays, which promptly locked them in. This was the hub of Ngugma mining in the area, and no enemy had ever been here, nor had anyone any reason to expect one ever would be. And now, no one within a billion kilometers of the Ngugma depot was left to oppose with armament the humans and Fyaa and the Primoids with the rest of the fleet. The victors were inclined to be a bit giddy.

“You did not give us a chance,” Skzyyn complained over the comm.

“We warned you,” Rachel retorted. And they laughed, even the Tskelly, in their fashion. They returned to the maintenance bay, and Clay and Ve’ezy greeted them as they got out, and Clay was feeling, again, that feeling he remembered from back on the Moon. He was feeling lucky to be part of this group of warriors, and he was pretty sure Ve’ezy felt the same way.

Then they returned to the far end of the storeroom, and they could see on the display that there was a battle going on far away out there, or rather there had been one most of an hour ago and the light from it was just reaching them.

Beta and Gamma, plus Bain and Leith and six Primoids, had swung from the outgoing freighter and its battleships toward the ten cruisers that had thought to intervene. The Ghosts and their Primoid allies accelerated so that they shot past the ten Ngugma cruisers before their enemies could stall sufficiently to really fight it out. Instead, everyone got two shots at everyone else, and then the fighters were through and curving back to rejoin the following big ships.

It was a confused affair to say the least. The Ngugma were not getting the better of it: their fighters did not fare well against the onset of Acevedo and Schmitt on one side, and Li Zan and Timmis Green on the other. Once they were past, the cruisers found the same twelve fighters in their faces. The first cruiser blew up, and then the second. One of the Primoids spun out, then jettisoned its engine just in time; another did not, and blew up. Another Ngugma cruiser blew up as well.

A Ghost blew up.

A few seconds later, Acevedo’s vac suit showed up, hurtling toward the depot at the same speed her fighter had been moving. She was alive.

Two more Ghosts were hard hit: Bain, and then Leith trying to defend Bain, went dead in space, but their fighters remained in one piece.

The watchers in Big Fourteen lost track of the rest of the battle, as they hurried to ascertain the status of Bain and Leith and Acevedo. By the time ten more seconds had passed, five of the ten cruisers were blown to small chunks, and two more were seriously damaged. The survivors accelerated, presumably to join the escaping super-hauler.

One Primoid was dead, and two more had ejected their drives, as had Millie Grohl and Peri Schmitt. Mizra Aliya, Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa had all taken heavy damage, but they had each blown up a cruiser. Schmitt’s Ghost was barely in one piece; all the other Primoids had taken damage. Only Li and Timmis were unscathed.

“But everyone’s alive,” said Rachel.

“That wasn’t Skippy, was it?” asked Clay.

“No,” said Rachel. “Skippy’s this one over here. He’s, uh, it’s fine.” She pretended to choke back tears, composed herself and said, “Skippy did good.”

“They all did,” said Vera. “Damn it, Acevedo.”

“Well,” said Park, in a tone that indicated she did not think it all so good, “space is dangerous.”

“But this space,” said Vera, “it’s ours.”

“Yes. Yes, Ms. Santos, this space is ours.”

 

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