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6.

The Ngugma of their long colonial era thought of themselves as enlightened and careful and very wise, but from outside, they would appear to be a star empire of slightly above average moral quality at best. Their own opinion of themselves was all that mattered, of course, because they hadn’t met any other star empires. So they expanded, with extreme slowness and care for sustainability, for seventy million years. They reached the outer end of the Orion Arm and built a base at a star near the tip. They reached the inner end of the Arm, and crossed the less crowded space between the Arm and the galactic hub.

An expedition was sent across that strait of space, four hundred light years with only a few systems and nebulae, and into the galactic core, a mass of stars like people crowding around an ice cream dealer on a hot day. Eight hundred years later, the expedition did not return. A second expedition went, along with another one just to explore the strait. The strait expedition returned, with odd readings and one cruiser from the expedition into the center. Its crew must have gone mad, or the Ngugma equivalent, because they were apparently confined immediately after their return, but they had been sane enough to make the journey home. All this was more or less public within the Ngugma, or at least within their star fleet and their innermost colonies.

Another expedition went across the strait into the hub of the galaxy, and this one was much more secret. Apparently, from the archives, at least some of its members returned, and brought useful information. This information was not disseminated, but over the course of a few more hundred millennia, more expeditions were dispatched, increasingly well-armed ones. The Ngugma had not needed much firepower to overcome the fish-swamis of Gngofreh, but now they seemed to be fighting something which required hundreds of cruisers, dozens of battlecruisers, a dozen top of the line battle-wagons, fighting ships larger and more powerful than anything the Ngugma or anyone else they knew of had ever imagined. And legions of fighters.

At first their fighters were manned, if you will, by living Ngugma, but presently, as production kicked into high gear, these were replaced by robots, that is, by programs that ran their drive, maneuver and combat sections without a live being in the pilot seat. This became Ngugma military doctrine, and that allowed a redesign of the fighter itself, but the level of production they now felt they needed was far beyond what they could manage with mines on their city planets. So they turned to an unprecedented new method. They found a system whose civilized residents had died out—it was, in fact, the system Rachel and Clay called the Holey Place—and they commenced to make holes. They liked the iron and manganese and nickel, but taking tanks of magma the size of cities meant they could harvest significant amounts of P-group metals and other rare or trace elements. They had enough rhenium to build a cruiser out of just that, if they wanted, and rhenium is the rarest of all the stable elements.

But what did they want? Who were they fighting? The Ngugma seemed to be boxing with shadows. Within ten million years of those first expeditions, they were throwing vast amounts of war materiel at the threat from the galactic hub. But what was the threat from the galactic hub?

Natasha paused. She exchanged looks with Hhmvyvya, and with Padfoot, who shrugged.

“We don’t know,” said Natasha. “That’s the thing. They never say. Whatever it is, it’s bad. The Ngugma are literally horrified by it. They find it—literally unspeakable. They can’t talk about it.”

“But they can send expeditions against it,” said Park.

“They can send wave after wave of fighters and cruisers and battleships. They have a whole scheme worked out. They waste thousands of fighters every year, which they build all over the Orion Arm and channel to the fight, but they try to preserve their bigger ships, especially the battleships, by pulling them back just in time, and they mourn when one is lost, that’s clear. They lose four in one battle, they have a huge inquiry. We have about fifty of these inquiry reports.”

“The invasion of the core,” Hhmvyvya hissed.

“Yes. Every few, I don’t know, tens of thousands of years, they get up the gumption to have a go at invading the center. It never goes well, and they sort of learn their lesson till next time. The lost are mourned, and if some come back, they’re almost always regarded with suspicion. There’s a whole genre of Ngugma poetry or whatever that’s about the insanity of some hero returning. They don’t contemplate for a moment what it was the hero saw, but they have whole tragedies, or whatever, about the damaged hero, you know, lethally damaged.”

“And the whole fight is along this ‘strait’ between the Orion Arm and the core?” asked Li.

“No, actually,” said Natasha. “Whatever it is they’re fighting, it sometimes tries to come around the side and attack from the flank. The Ngugma worry about this a great deal. You have to understand. They’re bailing as fast as they can. You can picture it as: they’re in a boat out in the middle of the ocean and it’s leaking. So they have to tear up parts of the boat to make buckets to bail with. Except it’s like they’re surrounded by the most horrible sea serpents or monsters or kraken or whatever you can imagine, and they’re bailing the blood of their lost heroes. It’s—it’s pretty bad.”

“Not bedtime reading,” said Clay.

“Nooo,” said Hhmvyvya, and Natasha laughed ruefully.

“So,” said Rachel, “you’re telling me we’re supposed to feel bad for them. Or pitch in and bail.”

“No. No,” said Natasha, “I am not trying to make you feel sorry for the Ngugma. They’re kind of assholes. As to what we do, well, all I can say is that we should consider whether what’s in the center of the galaxy is something we want to meet, whether we can coexist with it or them, whether we can ignore it or them. Or whether we throw in with the Ngugma and fight it. Or try and fight it ourselves? I don’t know.”

Park moved next to Natasha. “All right,” she said, “all that is something that needs to be decided. As to who gets to decide it, I think that part is clear. It’s us, and I do not mean me. But one other thing is clear.”

“Big meeting coming,” said Clay, “after this big meeting.”

“Yes,” said Park, “and that meeting will have to involve some participation by representatives of the Ngugma.”

 

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