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2.

Park and the other fighter pilots filed out of the Honshu bridge, and headed for the crew quarters. As on Tasmania, one room of the quarters was set aside for fighter pilots and other guests: it had a small central area and sixteen bunk compartments. The central area was big enough for Park, the Alphas, and of course Skzyyn to have a nice talk.

“Now that we have that discussion out of the way,” said Clay.

“Someone,” said Park, “has to actually talk to the Ngugma, or at least to a couple of them. The question is who. And the answer is, Ms. Kleiner, obviously, and Captain Kalkar has said he wants to join, and, I think, Mr. Gilbert.”

“What? Me?” The idea of interviewing these shaggy radially symmetric Hitlers hit him with sudden disgust. Clay realized he was all for interviewing them, but grossed out by the thought of talking to them.

“Yes,” said Park. “You were at Earth just after the attack. But you’re not a hothead, unlike Ms. Santos. I note you are not actually questioning my decision.”

“No,” said Clay. He cleared his head and repeated, “No. I’m not.”

“Very good. Ms. Santos, do you want to say anything?”

“Yeah,” said Vera. She looked around and said, “I just want to make clear that I’m okay with whatever you decide. I’m, um, also not questioning your decision. Just want to make that clear.”

“Mr. Skzyyn?” said Park.

“Commander Park,” said Skzyyn, in his lowest, most neutral voice. It almost sounded like he was mocking her, but Clay knew better and hoped Park did too.

“Do you have a feeling one way or the other?”

“Commander Park, I have many feelings many ways. I wish to put many thin little holes in each and every Ngugma. I wish to see them all die with great pain. I also wish to know what it is that they are fighting. And I wish not to know what it is that they are fighting. Do you understand?”

“I do,” said Park, while Clay, Rachel and Natasha all nodded. “But: to understand what it is, that is exactly what we have to do. Do you wish to take part in the questioning?”

“No,” said Skzyyn. “I do not.”

 

The questioning took place about an hour later. The captain of Big Fourteen, Avvann, was told to make itself available, and advised to do so in a private room; the non-Ngugma command staff in the new “bridge” up in the maintenance bay could see perfectly well that there was a captain’s quarters or something like that down a short passage from the bridge. Park and Kalkar thought to ask another Ngugma to join on another line, one of the staff of the depot; one who identified itself as Flaayy was chosen. They were visually indistinguishable, but the sensors could easily tell them apart: in some way Clay didn’t want to know more about, they smelled different.

Clay, Natasha and Kalkar assembled in Tasmania’s small conference room. They made small talk, and after a minute, Padfoot’s voice informed them that the Ngugma named Flaayy, on the depot, was available, and that Captain Avvann would be up in another minute. A screen on the left lit up azure, and then changed to show a blurry brown creature hunched over a curved panel. It unbent, and it unblurred, and it said, in a voice so deep as to be barely audible, “I am Flaayy.”

“Flaayy,” said Kalkar. “I am Captain Kalkar. This is Lieutenant Commander Kleiner, and this is Lieutenant Commander Gilbert.”

“Greetings,” said Flaayy. “Welcome to Okhozzhan.”

“Okhozzhan,” Natasha repeated. “That’s the name of this system?”

“The system is called Okhozzhan, yes. This place is called Okhozzhan Olv.”

The other screen went azure, and then there was Avvann, hunkering back as if in an invisible comfy chair. “”Greetings,” said Avvann. “I am Avvann. I congratulate you on your success in taking control of my vessel.”

“I congratulate you,” said Kalkar, “on your taking control of my home planet and making every member of my species living there at the time die horribly.”

Avvann made a gesture with its big tentacles. Flaayy made a very different gesture. “Does each of them know we’re talking to the other one?” Clay whispered to Natasha.

“I believe so,” said Natasha, “but they can’t hear each other.”

“So you see,” Kalkar was saying, “we cannot trust you even enough to meet under a flag of parley, as it were. I believe Mr. Gilbert was offered a flag of parley by an Ngugma crew, at one point—?”

“We ordered them to abandon ship,” said Clay. “That was in the same system as Earth, and we had just seen what your people had done to our people. That captain suggested a parley, and of course we knew that captain could well possess some of the virus they used to wipe out our people. When the captain refused our reasonable demands, we blew it and its crew to bits.” They looked at each other, humans and Ngugma. “Now you might say, that’s the same thing you did to us. Of course you’d be wrong. We gave your captain every opportunity to escape destruction. It had followed us all the way to Jupiter to blow us up. Your people, on the other hand, lied to us and cheated us and destroyed 205 million of us, just to take our stuff. I mention this for two reasons.”

Flaayy said, “Gilbert. We are very sad.” At the same time, Avvann was saying something vague, filibustering. Clay looked at Kalkar and Natasha. She smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“The first reason,” said Clay, “is so you’ll know that I don’t have a problem killing you guys or blowing up your ships. I will be fair, but I won’t have any compunction about blowing you up, or flying your freighter into the depot. Because I am the one who’s been flying this freighter.”

“I would not expect you to restrain yourself,” said Avvann. “You are an emotional species.”

“And that gets to my second reason,” said Clay. “You have reasons for everything, or you think you do. You think what you did to Earth, or what you did to Fyatskaab, you think that was rational. You bring whole planets’ worth of magma here for a reason. I want to know what the reason is. It’s not too much to ask. Please don’t be all emotional and refuse to tell me.”

The Ngugma flapped a bit. Flaayy folded over its console again, but didn’t tweak any controls: it just seemed melancholy. Avvann presently got itself together to say, “There is a war.”

“I know there’s a war. I want to know who the war is with.”

Flaayy flapped a bit, but then put its tentacles down all over the console. It was disconsolate. Avvann glared at the camera and said, “It is more powerful than you know. You cannot fight it. Only Ngugma can. That is our reason.”

“So you can’t tell us?” said Natasha.

“I will not tell you.”

The humans glared back at Avvann. Abruptly Clay said, “Switch it off. We’re done talking to this one.”

Natasha looked Clay in the eye and mouthed, Just Avvann?

Yes, he mouthed, nodding. Kalkar reached to his panel and Avvann disappeared. Flaayy now filled both screens, still looking sad.

“Mr. Flaayy,” said Clay, “would it be correct to say that you might be willing to tell us things which Captain Avvann was not willing to tell us?”

The Ngugma roused itself from off the console. Its eye stalks swiveled to gaze out of the brown fur at the camera, like a bunch of wormy meerkats. Its round mouth closed like an eye and opened again. It seemed to consider, and then that double-bass voice came out of that mouth: “You wish my speech. I will give you speech.”

 

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