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Clay had been allowed to leave the ersatz bridge of Big Fourteen for good. Emily Gray, Tasmania’s second pilot, came aboard and guided the big ship to a dock well outside the purview of the Ngugma crew of the depot, and Clay and the rest of the fighter pilots, Tskelly included, left the maintenance bay for the more comfortable environs of Tasmania and her bigger, newer cousin Honshu.

At some point, he and Rachel lay in a compartment bunk aboard Honshu. They were naked and weightless, and very relaxed, in a space three times the volume of their combined Ghosts. They were reading again: he was pushing through Tolkien one more time, while she was nipple-deep in a swashbuckling romance from 25th Century Bluehorse. His was on actual paper: hers was on the screen over her head. Frodo Baggins was recovering from a nasty stab wound when Rachel suddenly said, “I can’t wait to see the look on their furry faces.”

“What? Who, the Ngugma?”

“Yes the Ngugma. You heard. We have to talk to them. Those dickheads.” She laughed. “I always found that a fun image.”

“You still have an issue with them?”

“Yes I still—You’re joking. That’s hilarious, because jokes about holocausts are always good for a laugh.”

“So true,” said Clay. “I’m sorry I said anything about it. Am I allowed to ask how the new information affects your view?”

Rachel gave him a thoughtful look, which was interesting given how distracting it still was to have her naked and a few centimeters from him. “I’m not done processing it all,” she said. “I guess I’d say I can at least see where they’re coming from, but wouldn’t it have been better to ally with us and all these other species, and fight the enemy together? Especially since, you know, it turns out that humans are the best fighter pilots in the galaxy and all.”

“In the Orion Arm at the very least,” said Clay. “And I’m not done processing that fact either. Earth had 205 million potential fighter pilots when they killed all of them off. Even if you only count 1% of 1% of 1%, that’s still 205 fighter pilots. You’d think we would overwhelm anything we met.”

“But,” said Rachel, “would we have felt the need for the Vow?”

“I don’t know. There’s something about there being just, what, sixteen of us. As opposed to the Ngugma, who couldn’t imagine fielding a huge fleet of fighters except if it was operated by robot. So they think of it as a materiel problem, not a personnel problem.”

Rachel rolled to face him, and before he could be distracted by her body in motion, she put a finger in his chest hair. “That’s the whole point of the vow, Hunkburger. Four of us are better than a million of them. So obviously we can’t afford to lose even one of us, because we aren’t going to knock off 250,000 of them to compensate. And besides.”

“Besides,” said Clay, “there’s the mysterious enemy behind the curtain.”

“Which is not nothing,” said Rachel, “”because they’re definitely fighting something.” She pulled them together and smooched him, then again with some nice body contact. “Let’s go,” she said. “Meeting’s waiting.”

“Is it time already?”

“Maybe not, but it pays to be ready ahead of time.”

They popped the hatch and climbed out. Clay started pulling on his vac suit, but Rachel slapped the door of the compartment next to theirs. The hatch popped, and Vera came rolling out naked in the microgravity. “Oh, hi, Clay, Rachel,” she said. “Tash, they’re ready.”

“Coming,” said Tash.

So Alpha Wing got dressed in their vac suits again and sashayed out to the bridge of the Honshu. Skzyyn launched itself from atop a console and landed on Clay’s shoulders. Park, Kalkar, Fvaerch, one of the Primoids, and Captain Cassiopeia Root were facing the big screen. On it, they could see a smallish room in the slightly pink light that prevailed on Big Fourteen. Three piles of brown fur slowly thrashed about there.

“The terms are clear,” said Park, after throwing a quick smile at her favorite fighter pilots. “There is no negotiation.”

One of the blobs resolved: it was a live Ngugma, facing them, its fat tentacles pushed back to hold onto something, the much smaller and more plentiful little tentacles amongst its fur holding instruments of some sort. A round mouth in the middle opened and emitted words in a basso profundo with pretty good English.

“Humans fear to negotiate,” it said. “You fear that we are too clever and will trick you.”

“We know what you prefer to do to beings who are not Ngugma,” said Park. “It’s not fear, it’s simple recognition of the facts. Now it is your turn to recognize facts. As I indicated, the terms are clear. We do not negotiate with you, and not for reasons of fear, but because, in terms of trust, you are simply infinitely beneath us.”

The Ngugma might have been very put out at this observation, or it might have argued the question, but instead it acquiesced. “Su Park,” it said, “we recognize the fact that you offer us no choice. We accept your terms.”

“Very good,” said Park, while Kalkar, Root and the Kaahriig officer exchanged looks. “We will convene at your time coordinate Hour 23, Minute 75, over this channel.” She switched something and the Ngugma were replaced onscreen by Padfoot and Hhmvyvya in the maintenance bay. Park turned to Rachel and the others. Li, Timmis, Apple and Izawa were now with them. “That was the captain of Big Fourteen,” she said. “I believe it is called Avvann.”

“You seem to have the better of Avvann, Commander,” said Rachel.

“We shall see. They want to convince us that a certain course of action is in our best interest. But that’s the same line they gave Earth and the same line they gave Fyatskaab, and it turned out not to be in the best interest of Earth or Fyatskaab. So we shall see.”

“Yesss,” said Fvaerch, the Kaahriig, bowing and bobbing its long beak. “Becauzzze, thisss time they may not be lyyyinggg.”