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3.

They came out of the Tasmania’s small conference room and sought out Park, who was not far away. Park called Cassiopeia Root and got possession of Honshu’s much larger conference room, and immediately set about grabbing people by the collar, or whatever they had, and pulling them into the conference room, where they floated about, hanging on sashay bars or propelling themselves slowly through the air. The mass of metal aboard Big Fourteen, a hundred meters away, exerted an extremely mild gravity. Coffee and small food items, fit for human or Tskelly or Primoid, were made available. Rachel joined in the recruitment; Vera pulled Natasha and Clay aside.

“So this Ngugma you got,” said Vera. “You trust it?

“No, no,” said Clay. “I just—!”

“I wonder that too,” said Natasha. “How much of a feel do you have for this? I mean, I get that you can have an intuitive feel even for an alien species, but how confident can you be that you’re right?”

“Not,” said Clay. “But—I don’t know. Maybe it was just compared to Avvann. Look, they know things we can’t know any other way. It’s like, back on Earth—!”

“Oh, good, bring that up,” said Vera.

“Back on Earth,” he continued, “the police, the human police, they’d be trying to crack a criminal gang or something, and they’d pay some member to be an informant, but you never knew if you could really trust the informant, obviously, because he or she is what, a member of a criminal gang. But at least you can trust the informant more than the other criminals. Probably.” Vera was still glaring. Clay shrugged, looked at Natasha (who was also glaring, but at a lower intensity) and said, “So, that much.”

“All right, everyone,” said Park, standing on air in the middle of one end of the rectangular room. “We have some things to decide, and as I said before, when I say ‘we’ I don’t mean me.” Kalkar, near her, smirked. “I am serious, this time, Alfred. All right?”

“Yes,” said Kalkar, “I know you are. Please proceed.”

Park rolled her eyes, perhaps at herself. “All right,” she said. “We have representatives of all of the species in our fleet: Tskelly, Errhatzky, Kaahriig, the peoples of Fyatskaab, and the Primoids, and of course the people of Earth, I should say the people of Bluehorse, the humans. And we have taken over this place, this—?” She looked at Natasha.

“Okhozzhan Olv,” said Natasha. “That’s what the locals call it.”

“The locals. Yes. And we have a representative of the locals, on video link from the depot. We set off with the goal of inflicting defeats on the Ngugma. We have certainly done so, to an astonishing degree considering how small a force we have, which leaves us with the question: what shall we do next? Go home and reinforce?”

“Oh, as if,” said Vera.

“Commander Park knowwws,” said Fvaerch, the Kaahriig captain, “that it is many light yearrrsss from here to Fyatskaaaaab, to Bluehorssse.”

“And if this is all the damage we can do,” said Vera, “then what was the whole point? Right?”

“We really have barely stuck a finger in their eye,” said Captain Root. “From Bluehorse to PSB6 to Fyatskaab to here is 89 light years, and to go home in a straight line is another 83 light years, so that’s 172 years travel time, to destroy one freight fleet and capture, for a time, one distribution center. In the meantime, they might have destroyed all life on Kapteyn or Tau Ceti or one of the Primoid systems, or they might have gone on to the Fyaa colonies.”

“So that,” said Park, “would seem to argue both sides: that we should do more ourselves, and that we should go back and defend the homeland. Except, apparently, for Bluehorse itself, which might yet be protected by the taboo.”

“Commander,” said Natasha, “you should not consider that a guarantee. They might not allow themselves to live there or mine there, but I don’t know why we’d think they wouldn’t attack our colony there. Presumably that’s sacred ground or something.”

“But we have home forces,” said Root. “The reason this force is not larger is that we needed to leave good reserves behind. The Primoids spared us one cruiser, and Bluehorse spared only two armored freighters, specifically so they would have plenty of fleet to defend Bluehorse and the Primoid systems.”

“Sure,” said Kalkar, “they have people defending them, but they don’t have Su Park. They don’t have Andros and Gilbert. Santos and Kleiner. I just named the five best fighter pilots in the whole Bluehorse star fleet.”

“Excuse me,” said Skzyyn, “but I consider that you have named the five best fighter pilots in the Orion Arm. Is that correct, Mister Skippy?”

Natasha seemed to be using signs to express this to Skippy, the shortest of the Primoids. It bowed a little and went into the Primoid nod.

“And at the same time,” said Kalkar, “it’s not as if we have enough to take on the home defense fleet of the Ngugma capital. We don’t even know what the Ngugma capital is.”

“So you want to declare victory and go home?” Root asked.

“Not even a little, Cass,” said Kalkar. “I just want everyone to understand the math.”

“Would you care to elaborate?” asked Park.

“Well, first, 172 years. Even if we turn around and go home, we’re going home to a very different place than the one we left. Andros and Gilbert were off for what, 175 years? We were in and out in that time, but they were gone basically the same amount of time we’re talking about. How did that feel, you guys?”

“Well,” said Rachel, “when we left, it was a colony of 8000, and when we came back it was a planet with three million people.”

“That’s not going to happen again,” said Kalkar, “but it shows what can happen. Now if we go on from here, if we don’t go back, we won’t ever go home to anywhere we truly think of as home. Two centuries, three, five? Think back on Earth history five hundred years before 2334, when we left there. But what if our quest, whatever it may be, takes us way down the Orion Arm, maybe all the way to this strait the Ngugma are defending from who knows what? That’s well over 10,000 light years away. Not 100. Not 1000. Ten thousand god damn years. And ten thousand back. You go that far, you might come back and find an ice age. And the thing is, we could do it. I could see us flying that far, and with time dilation, I’d have just a bit more grey in my beard when I’m ten thousand four hundred years old, or whatever. Hey, anyone know what year it is now?

“It’s 2735, skipper,” said Jack Dott.

“So here’s what I’m saying. It’s not cut and dried, but here, or maybe at the next place we go from here, somewhere soon, there’s going to be a point of no return. We’re either going back, to play some part in defending Bluehorse, or rebuilding the Fyaa realm, or defending the Primoid systems, or we’re going on and we might as well forget that we’re ever going back.”

“And we only have 28 fighters, three cruisers and two armored freighters,” said Jack Dott.

“Or less,” said Park, “in case some of the Primoids or the Fyaa wish to turn back.”

“If I mayyy,” said Sheaeek, one of the Kaahriig cruiser captains, “I thinnnk none of usss wisssh to turn backkk. We fearrrr not for the home syssstemsss. We wissssh to do furtherrr damaggge.”

The Primoid cruiser captain pushed itself in front of the two Kaahriig, waving its stick arms and legs in circles. Its tentacles were all green and doing a sort of wave together.

“Ms. Kleiner?” said Park.

“Uh, the Captain says they want to go on as well,” said Natasha.

“And my freighter captains?”

“I have no intention of turning back,” said Kalkar. “Nor do I,” said Root. “Not just yet.”

“I hope you don’t think any of us want to go back,” said Acevedo.

“Certainly not,” said Rachel.

“Okay,” said Clay, “I agree with all that, but the question remains, where are we going if we don’t go home? What can we attack with 28 fighters and five slightly big ships?”

“All right,” said Park. “None of us is going back, not just yet. So what can we do close by, with our limited fighting force? That’s the question.”

“Commander, if I may,” said Root, “I think it may be time to ask your Ngugma.”

 

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