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VIII. The tale of the Ngugma



Daria Acevedo was made aware of her errors in another twenty hours, once Big Fourteen had come to a stop near the docks but not docked. Li Zan did not escape the sarcasm of Su Park just because she had kept her ship together, but the focus was Acevedo. Back aboard the Tasmania, which was docked with the Honshu and also cleverly attached to the Big Fourteen maintenance bay, Park and Rachel, and Li and Acevedo, had a private conference, and when they emerged, Rachel and Li went off and had a talk of their own. Clay and Natasha and Vera grabbed Acevedo and took her over to the Honshu for a few pints.

“Yeah,” said Acevedo, “like, I felt bad for Li, she’s a veteran and I guess people think of her as cautious, but Park, like, she made a point of taking an extra five minutes to make me feel like a millimeter tall. I felt like a centimeter, and she felt she had to make that a millimeter.”

“I am not angry,” said Clay, “just disappointed.”

“Very,” said Acevedo. “She said she was very disappointed. And she asked me all these questions, like, what led me to think I could take on an Ngugma cruiser by myself, what made me think it was a good idea to lead a bunch of fighter pilots into a battle like that, what exactly was I thinking, that kind of question.”

“So what were you thinking, anyway?” asked Vera.

“That we were as good as you guys,” said Acevedo. “Which we’re obviously not.”

“You are an awesome fighter pilot,” said Natasha. “You have come up from nothing. You’re not even a colony ship kid like Apple, you’re a born colonist and you’re easily the best pilot Bluehorse has produced so far. Well, uh, up to the last time we were there, which was like five billion years ago, but still.”

“Ninety years,” said Clay. “89, actually. Four months to us.”

“But take on ten cruisers?”

“Okay,” said Acevedo, “it’s been said, okay?”

“So the question is,” said Vera, “are you going to take the Unbreakable Vow?”

Daria Acevedo looked Vera Santos in the eye. Daria had hazel-brown eyes and gravelly blond hair held back in a ponytail; Santos, dark hair, dark eyes, stared her down.

“No, I’m not,” said Acevedo.

“Schmitt? Is she?”

“How the frick would I know?”

“Daria,” said Natasha, “I love you and all, but you’re wing commander. You’re good. Peri and Millie and Miz, they rally behind you. It matters how you lead them. You’re a natural leader, you are, and that’s pretty amazing, you notice the three of us are all non-commanders.”

“You’re frickin’ better fighter pilots than me.”

“Look,” said Vera. “The whole difference between Alpha Wing and Gamma Wing is that we basically decided that whatever happened, whatever happens, we all have to survive. Natasha said it before: the one who wins is the one who’s alive at the end. You are a powerful weapon, one of the ten or twelve best fighter pilots in the known universe, but you are worthless to us dead.”

“And so’s your wing,” said Clay.

“And you’re not worth much floating in space in your vac suit,” said Vera, “though it’s nice that you can fight again next time. So. At least the concept of the Vow.”

“It’s just not something I can do,” said Acevedo. “Make promises like that. In battle you have to be ready to give it all, there’s just situations where—!”

“That’s baloney,” said Vera.

“That’s where you have to change your point of view,” said Natasha. “Rachel’s idea—!” She looked at Clay.

“I didn’t get it right away,” said Clay. “She just said to me, ‘Win the battle, save the planet, but just don’t die.’ She had to say it several times before I got it. All three things. They’re all true. They’re not incompatible.”

“Because,” said Natasha. But then she laughed and said, “We’re not going to change your mind. You’re going to change your mind. You guys fought a good fight, you just should’ve had some help. You weren’t thinking, were you, those Alphas, they’ll steal our shot at glory?”

“Aw, come on,” said Acevedo. “We just figured we had to take on those cruisers. They might’ve posed a threat to Honshu and Tasmania.

“Who have guns of their own,” said Clay, “and a Primoid cruiser and a couple of Fyaa cruisers backing them up.” He took a drink and said, “But I get the sense that all that’s been said.”

“Several times,” said Acevedo.

“Okay,” said Natasha, “let’s drink a few beers and get some sleep, tomorrow’s a big day.”

“Why, what’s tomorrow?” asked Vera.

“Big meeting about the Ngugma.”

“This is about the archives?” asked Clay.

“This is about what’s in the archives.”