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2.

The entire collection of ideas in the agreement, written in English and also in the pictorial format of the Primoids, and finally in a third edition in a mixed style of English and picture, ran to about 200 English words. Everyone walked away more or less confident in their ability to understand what had been agreed to, which was:

(1) The Primoid Center would remove its fleet from Bluehorse within the week, and re-abandon the secret base a light month out into the dark of space, the one they had abandoned originally after Bluehorse was founded and first defended, and re-fortified and abandoned again after the costly invasion of ninety years ago. (2) The Earthlings would not expand further in the direction of Primoid space, though / and unarmed freighters would be greeted at the eight systems that formed the core of support for the Center. (3) And the rebels would not be further pressed, at least those on the Bluehorse side of Primoid space. (4) The now four dozen Primoids on Bluehorse-3, which included five of the six captured 188 years ago along with their descendants, were repatriated to the Center, though an embassy of sorts, consisting of a dozen Primoids from the Center, was to be respectfully maintained at Bluehorse. (5) And, finally, it was understood that everyone party to the agreement abhorred the exploitation and destruction caused by the Ngugma and would cooperate somehow to thwart them.

The majority of the time spent in those two meetings went to trying to understand each other. The negotiators, or whatever they were, a dozen Primoids and eleven humans, hadn’t planned a teach-in on interspecies communication, but that was, perforce, what  happened. Four linguists from India College and three of what were apparently Primoid scholars worked out the mixed script; Admiral Kalkar and the trim-bearded skipper of the Heavy Cruiser Miranda had a long “chat” over food and drink with the admiral, perhaps, of the invaders, along with a diplomat of some sort and another completely mysterious Primoid. They wore Angelica completely out; Karen was induced to take part as an exobiologist and soon turned into an interpreter.

The proclamation was publically posted, and then the experts of both species went back to trying to comprehend each other. It was seen to be a matter of life and death.

“They’re starting to get more people learning the basics,” said Angelica, as she and Clay and Rachel and Daria Acevedo sat at a café in Canada Town the day after the proclamation. “I think we’re up to twelve people who can write the mix-a-bet.”

“The what?” said Clay.

“The mixed alphabet,” said Rachel. “I’m not one of those twelve. I’ve spent hours staring at the explanations, and I can’t even figure out how to write ‘my name is Rachel’ in it.”

“I’m sure the more the better,” said Angelica. “I mean, I like the attention but this is hard work, it’s like lifting friggin’ weights.”

“So what do we know about them?” asked Rachel. “What do you know about them?”

“Okay,” said Angelica. “I knew you’d ask me that. Okay. First, they live to be like thousands of years old. I don’t know how long, but their unit of time is funny, it’s somewhere between a month and a season, it doesn’t always seem to mean the same amount of time, so the margin of error is like huge. But they do live at least a thousand years.”

“Time dilation?” asked Clay.

“No, no, not that way. I guess there must be fighter pilots who are ten thousand. I don’t even know how long they’ve been flying in space, but their interstellar flying started, they call it something like the Great Enlightenment, five or ten thousand years ago. They’ve been in the ten to twenty system range for that long.”

Clay and Rachel exchanged looks. “That long,” said Clay. “I’d be happy with that.”

“And get this. They have sexes, they sexually reproduce, but they all start out neuter, then spend some time as male, then some time as female, have a few orange blobby babies, then they become neuter again. And they stay that way for, like, a thousand years. Unless there’s a sudden need for more reproduction, you can live like three fourths of your life working and contributing but not being a, you know, gender.”

“So every female,” said Clay, “knows what a male orgasm feels like, but the males don’t know what a female orgasm feels like.”

“Just like in humans,” said Rachel, while Daria and Angelica rolled their eyes. “Except for you, hubby-licious.”

“Mmm, thanks for exempting me,” said Clay. They kissed.

“I knew the thing about their gender,” said Daria. “My first wing, when I was a tail, was sent to explore the neared systems. It was my first assignment. We managed to fly by one of their less advanced colonies, and got away with video and without being shot at. The exo-bios studied the heck out of those videos.”

“So what’s their system like?” asked Rachel.

“They’re decentralized, actually,” said Angelica. “This fleet has elements from four different star systems. They agreed but it was clear they didn’t all see things the same way. But the thing is, they have a real tendency toward consensus. They love meetings, right? They hate arguing.”

“But they don’t all wait for orders from the Center?” asked Rachel.

“You couldn’t run an Empire from a central location,” said Daria. “Their core systems are all ten or twenty light years apart, it would take forty years to send someone to another system and tell them what you wanted, and then come home. And if you wanted just to check if they’d done it? Another forty years.”

“But they’re evidently really good at logistics,” said Clay. “They got things scheduled about as well as they could.”

“So did we,” said Rachel. “We learn quick, huh? Decentralize but make sure everyone’s on the same page. So, politically?”

“Okay,” said Daria, looking at Angelica. “Did they have, like an Old Kingdom and a New Kingdom? Did I get that right?”

“Yeah, that’s what I got,” said Angelica. “They’re so long-lived, and they’re also really tolerant but really strict in some ways. And they’re incredibly risk-averse, but they’re definitely not stupid. So there was the Old Kingdom, you can call it, and they had lots of cults or whatever, and the Center basically fell apart eventually but everyone looks back on those days with, I don’t know, something, nostalgia, reverence, wishful thinking, something like that.”

“Ah yes,” said Clay, “how well I know the feeling.”

“And after the Center reasserted itself, they took this lesson that they had to ruthlessly suppress anyone who disagreed on anything important. But lots of Primoids are nonconformists, and rebellions kept right on breaking out. The Center probably controls oh, fifteen or sixteen systems all told. There are eight that sort of qualify as the top systems, and they think of them all as equal.”

“So what is the Center?” asked Clay.

“It’s on a station in deep space, away from any star,” said Daria. “We call it the Center System. They have some kind of council, and they decide long-range things, but who knows how they decide who’s a member.”

“Elections are unheard-of,” said Angelica. “I think that with the Primoids, if you show up, you’re on the team.”

“They have a whole ecosystem like them?” asked Rachel.

“I guess they must, somewhere. No idea where.”

They all sipped. Clay said, “Well, I think you have a long-term job here, Miss Zane.” He sipped again, looking at Rachel. “But we’re the ones who have to figure out how to make a deal with them.”

“Yes, we are,” said Rachel, looking at Daria. She smiled back at Clay. “Well, Park will be here tomorrow. She can instruct us.”

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