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7.

A few hours later, the Tskelly and their Errhatzky mechanics had nibbled coffee cake and adopted creamy coffee as a new favorite beverage. They had chatted, they had detailed the experience of watching their home planets destroyed, they had played human video games and shown off video games that only made sense to Fyaa, they had gone back for more coffee cake, and they had described in detail, with full video support, the capabilities of the Fyaa and the capabilities of the humans. They had pored over the destruction of the human home world, and they had established that the other two Fyaa species—the crustacean governors and the mollusk-like proletarians—were both extinct. Neither species had been transplanted beyond Fyatskaab, not even to the outer bases within the system. Like every other species bound to those two planets, they were gone.

And that extinction meant that the Fyaa system was fatally disrupted. The modus vivendi that had made their combined culture successful was broken and irreparable. These Tskelly and Errhatzky had found a way to get by, but at a very nominal level, and the work of finding a new modus vivendi seemed beyond reach.

And just in case Clay and his wife had not fully comprehended what had happened at Fyatskaab, there were the videos. By now, 62 years later, the Fyaa holdouts, scattered across at least fifteen bases on airless moons and planetoids around the outskirts of the system, had put together quite the presentation.

The Ngugma had come to Fyatskaab more than a hundred Earth years ago. It was a beautiful day, by Earth or Fyaa standards: the rolling sea in the light of a brilliant sun, the rolling hills blanketed with farms and forests: Fyatskaab had no plants or animals or fungi with any sort of relationship to those of Earth, but, by golly, they had plants (blue-green, not chlorophyll green) and animals (observably arthropod or reptilian or fishy or mollusk-like) and fungi (edible ones made up a large part of the diet of the working class). The mountains were tipped with snow behind the landing craft from which the first Ngugma visitors waddled. The pitch had been exactly the same as at Earth: we are far superior in technology, but don’t worry, we are here to help you, and all we ask in return is a chance to trade. They had suggested the Fyaa send back with them a delegation chosen from the various species that made up the Fyaa nation. The Ngugma spoke nearly perfect Fyaa lingua franca.

It was all so familiar that Clay and Rachel kept exchanging glances, and held hands through much of the show.

But if the first act was identical, the second act was much rewritten. The Fyaa, led by the crustacean-like Kahiim, the scholarly Kaahriig and the militant proletarian Mrez, decided they would not trade with the Ngugma, nor would they send a delegation. If the Ngugma wanted any intercourse with the Fyaa, they would have to reveal a lot more about their own empire than they had. Each of the Fyaa species was proud, in its own way, and the five together, and perhaps especially the space-faring Tskelly, Skzyyn’s people, harbored a pride that was the sum of all the subsidiary prides. So you think you’re far superior to us, do you? Well, perhaps it is we who are far superior to you.

The Fyaa said no to the Ngugma. The 180-minute video showed them doing so, in no uncertain terms, to the Ngugma visitors.

These left, and that was that, except that forty years later, these huge ships had rolled in, and their clouds of fighters, more than a hundred cruisers and a dozen battleships had been allowed to sail right up to the inner orbits. The Fyaa were saying no, but they didn’t want to have to fight a battle against such a massive enemy, not if they could avoid it. And who knew what the next step was going to be? Not the Fyaa, who had paid zero attention to what had happened to Earth. To the Fyaa, humans were little more than a rumor.

And then the Ngugma sent forth robotic shuttles over the two inhabited planets, and these sprayed out a shower of material which fell across the two planets, and by the time anyone in the Fyaa leadership could work out what was going on, every living thing on both worlds was dying of radiation poisoning.

Astatine is one of those chemical elements which is notable for the instability of even its most stable isotopes. The longest half-life isotope is astatine-210, at 8.1 hours. The Ngugma had synthesized it in large quantities—they were nothing if not good with the periodic table. The isotope was essentially perfect for the use they put it to: it released killing levels of radiation, and then quickly decayed into nice, innocent bismuth and lead and thallium. In a matter of days, everyone and everything was dead. Whole ecosystems were wiped clean off two planets; creatures that were the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution were gone in one fell swoop.

Everything was dead, and the video spent a fair amount of time showing it all dying. It was no more pleasant than what Clay had seen broadcast from Earth. The fact that the dead, rotting and corroded, and the dying, struggling to explain what was happening as it happened, were Mrez and Kahiim and Kaahriig and not humans: it made no difference.

Everything was dead, and then the astatine was pretty much gone. A hundred half-lives was less than a month. The drilling could begin.

So the Fyaa and the humans were alike in many ways. They breathed oxygen, they ate stuff made of carbon, they drank stuff that was mostly water, they used nouns and verbs, they had two eyes each and one mouth, they wore vac suits, albeit tiny ones, and fired laser weapons, they saw in similar wavelengths and they heard at similar frequencies, even if the Errhatzky in particular could distinguish by smell a thousand different compounds at parts-per-billion levels. And their civilization had been almost completely wiped out so that the Ngugma could mine their planets to the point of mutilation. Humans and Tskelly and Kaahriig and Errhatzky watched it all in disgust, anger and despair.

And two days later, when the rest of the fleet from PSB6 began to appear out of the haze of light speed, they had the beginnings of a plan.

 

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