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"A boarding party?" Ninja laughed. "Like some old pirate vid? We swing across to the Bucket with knives in our teeth? How do we get them to open a hatch for us?"

"Can't you do that, Ninja?" Rob asked her.

She paused to think. "You mean hack their systems? I don't know. If we had some stuff on HEJU aboard—"

Rob held up his pad. "I just checked. We do. In the colony library."

"Cool. Yeah, I can hack them. Just tell me what you want me to do."

"Can you disable their weapons?"

"Permanently?" Ninja frowned in thought.

Torres shook his head. "HEJU is an obsolete and gnarly system, but it's easy to patch. That's its only good feature. No matter how you hacked the weapons, they could do a work-around if they had time."

Ninja raised one eyebrow at Rob. "I could try to jinx the power core. Cause an overload. They wouldn't have time to patch that."

"An overload?" That would certainly solve the problem of the Bucket. But..."How many people do they have aboard? The database says standard crew size is twenty-four."

"You can run it long term with six, as long as nothing big breaks," Torres said. "It'd be hard to handle a battle with that few, though. Or pack in as many as forty. What's the matter, Ninja? Don't want to have that many lives on your conscience? Don't worry. They're all just apes like us. Nobody important."

"Shut up, Corb," Ninja told him.

"I don't think we should blow it up," Rob said, trying to think beyond an immediate solution. One of the things that had frustrated him back on Alfar was the attitude that short-term solutions were fine because in the long term someone else would have to deal with the problem. "That would work for an immediate solution. But it would leave us without any defense against the next predator who showed up. If we could capture it—"

Torres glowered at Rob. "Don't even think about drafting me to help operate it!"

"I wasn't," Rob said, letting his voice grow cold and sharp.

"I'd think you'd be interested in the idea of setting yourself up as a private contractor to help maintain the thing for the colony. Ninja, can you hack the systems on the Bucket to drop their shields and open a hatch? Without the Bucket's crew knowing right away, so they wouldn't try to override your hack?"

"Yeah," she said. "That should be doable. You're seriously thinking about a boarding operation? Does anybody with us know how to do that? And, just for the record, I don't."

Rob didn't bother asking Torres. "I went through a couple of drills. That's it. But it sounds like those are our two options. Either try to remotely override the controls on the Bucket's power core so it blows up or try to capture it."

"Or pay the money," Torres said.

"Yeah. Three options. Thank you," he said to both Ninja and Torres. "I'll let the council know and see what they say." He paused, once again having to focus on the fact that he could not give either Ninja or Corbin Torres orders. "Please stay where I can get in contact with you again quickly if the council has more questions."

The council was still in session when Rob returned to brief them. They didn't bother hiding their lack of enthusiasm for either of the options. "There has to be something else we can do," Council Member Odom insisted.

"You asked me to look at military options," Rob said, trying to keep his voice level. "That's what I did, along with Lyn Meltzer and Corbin Torres."

"Why can't your IT person shut down everything else on the cutter except the power core?" Council President Chisholm asked. "Then they wouldn't be a threat."

Rob used his hands to illustrate the movement of ships as he spoke. "We could try that. Two things might happen. One is that the Bucket crew figures out how to get their systems working again, patches the damage done by Ninja, and comes back at us. Torres says they should be able to patch anything Ninja does if given enough time. The other thing that might happen is that the Bucket crew can't fix it, and their ship doesn't brake velocity before they reach us, instead being stuck on the same vector as they race past this planet and the star and onward out into the dark between stars, where they would slowly starve to death."

Council Member Kim smiled derisively. "Not a humane alternative, then?"

"The closest we have to a sure thing," Rob said, "is to task Ninja with trying to get the Bucket to blow up."

"But can she do that?" Chisholm asked. "I've met my share of programmers who say they can do what I need and end up delivering something far short of that."

This excerpt ends on page 12 of the hardcover edition.

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