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4.

The Ngugma called Flaayy appeared literally out of the blue on the middle screen. It was draped comfortably, it seemed, across the slanted bench that fronted the console. A tray of some sort of food sat on a sort of table-shelf nearby; Flaayy had an arm next to it, and little fingery tentacles among the fur on that arm were picking up pieces of something that looked like granola and transferring them toward the round mouth in the middle of its six arms. There was a detectable increase in blood pressure, or whatever Fyaa and Primoids have, in the conference room.

“Can it see us?” asked Root. “Does it speak our language?”

“The Ngugma are good with languages,” said Natasha. “You can’t get people to trust you if you can’t speak their language. Maybe that’s why they haven’t taken on the Primoids yet. Uh, Mr. Flaayy, what do you see?”

Flaayy more or less jumped in surprise, dropping several pieces of food. It seemed to take several moments to settle down.

“I can see you,” said Flaayy. “You have others.”

“I’m sure we told you that we’d want to talk to you,” said Natasha. “Commander? Do you want to ask the questions?”

“Are you being deferential?” Park replied. “No, I think you should.”

“What should I ask—? Flaayy. This is Kleiner. I have some questions for you.”

“Kleiner,” said Flaayy in its basso profundo. “You talked to me before. Are you going to ask about, about your planet? I did not, I was not there, I did not.”

“And you don’t approve of it?” asked Vera. “You feel bad about it?”

“Santos,” said Park, “that’s off the subject. You can ask Flaayy yourself later if you want.”

“Flaayy,” said Natasha, “we don’t need to talk about that right now. We need to talk about what your people are fighting.”

“I was not there, at your planet,” said Flaayy. “Your planet’s mining operation did not even send here, send the metals here. Yet I think, I think.”

“What do you think?” asked Vera truculently.

“I think, I think we did that thing to your planet,” Flaayy said, and then it raised two of its arms in emphasis. “Your word is apology, I think. Is this the word?”

“Sure,” said Natasha. “You can say you’re sorry.”

“Are you for real? It’s sorry?” said Vera.

“Santos,” said Park.

“It is, I am sorry,” said Flaayy. “I am sorry. I am sorry.” It waved those two arms. Then, as if for emphasis, it grabbed some of its crunchy food and stuffed it into that round mouth.

“So sorry it had to eat something,” said Clay.

“It’s binge-eating because it feels bad,” said Rachel.

“That’s a thing.”

“Flaayy, thank you, um,” said Natasha, “the thing is, we really appreciate that, but—!” She looked at Kalkar and Root. “Jeez, guys,” she said, “maybe the idea of apologizing is not in their repertoire. Could that be?”

“That would explain much,” said Skzyyn to Clay, who discovered that the Tskelly was again hanging onto his shoulder pocket. “We have many words for sorry. We say, Irrho. Or Yemedzey.

“Then Yemedzey to you for crunching your fighter,” said Clay.

“But what we really need to know,” Natasha was saying, “is what is that enemy you’re fighting down toward galactic center?”

Flaayy seemed to stare at them for some seconds. It chewed what it was chewing and then it said, “I am, Flaayy is, very sorry, very apologizing. Avvann will not be sorry. Avvann will love to visit planets and take away their metals. Flaayy is sorry, I would not be here at Okhozzhan, I would be home in Zezzah, I would be helping the war effort in other ways.”

“Ever thought of making peace?” asked Vera. She glanced at Park, who was saying something to Kalkar. They met Vera’s eyes and gave identical shrugs. It was now too much trouble to ask her to tone it down.

But the effect on Flaayy of mentioning peace was unexpected. Flaayy got agitated, and propelled itself from its bench in the low gravity, spilling some more food. Flaayy took a sort of walk around its little control room, and then plunked down on the bench again facing away. The observers watched, talking among themselves. Natasha finally said, “Flaayy, what are you fighting?”

“Flay does not know, I does, I do not know.” It turned to face them, in a maneuver that somehow brought out the starfish in Flaayy. It sat, sort of, and observably composed itself. It said, slowly, “I do not know. I do not know what things we fight. From Galactic Center.”

“But this war’s been going on for millions of years,” said Rachel.

“You must know what you’re fighting,” said Natasha.

“No,” said Flaayy, making definite, small gestures with its three uppermost arms. “I do not know what the thing is that we are fighting.”

“But how can that be? Your whole civilization is bent toward this war of yours. I don’t know—is it a metaphor or something? No. Is this all about something else? What am I not getting here?”

“Flaayy,” said Vera, “you guys are fighting something. Like your cruisers were fighting our fighters.”

“Yes, we are fighting, just as we fight with you, but it is very different, you must see that it is very different.”

“How is it different?”

“We fight you humans, and you are better than us, you are each very very good, a cruiser of ours is not sufficient to meet a single fighter of yours, but against these, this, against the center, the galactic center, there is no victory.” It waved its top three arms like it was throwing confetti. “There is no victory,” it bellowed.

“Flaayy,” said Natasha. “What. Is it?”

“You will have to see yourself,” said Flaayy. “But no, do not. Go back to your planets and live your good days and be well and hope that you die before Ngugma strength gives out and the tide flows across all systems of this sector and the Galaxy belongs to the darkness.”

“Flaayy,” said Vera, “are you serious? You know what you did to my planet. That’s not as bad as what you’re fighting? You have to tell us more than that.”

Flaayy again composed itself. “I am sorry,” it said. “Very sorry.”

“Yes, but—!”

“We crossed the Empty Lanes, we entered the Core of the Galaxy,” it said. “Perhaps we come in peace, perhaps we conquer and take for us what we can win. But it is not this way, the Galaxy is not, does not seem to be this way. For what do we meet?”

“I don’t know, what do we meet?”

“That which eats life,” said Flaayy. It shook, and then, with a sort of bass shriek, it said again, “That which eats life.”

“Lots of things eat life,” said Clay.

“I did not say, that which eats things that live. I said, that which eats life.” It let them think about that for a few seconds, and then it sort of got up and gesticulated with four arms at once. “It eats life. They eat life. It comes to a planet, a planet with city and fleet and agrarian economic development and lower and higher education, a planet with old and young, and then in a year, in a hundred years, there is only it. Only one thing lives where many lived. And then there is only it, forever, until the planet dies, the star explodes or expands and turns red and burns the planet.”

“A single living entity on an entire planet,” said Kalkar.

“Until the star goes red giant or supernova,” said Rachel.

“And,” Flaayy went on, “within the galactic core, there is planet and planet and planet this has happened to. It spreads from star to star. It eats the crew of the Ngugma expedition, it knows there is more life out there in the sector, in the—what is it, Aerra Aeaea—?”

“Orion Arm?” said Clay.

“Orion Arm,” said Flaayy. “It knows there is more it has not eaten.”

“And so you take it on?” asked Rachel. “”How did—?” asked Natasha.

“We fight and we fight,” said Flaayy. “But always we need more, we need more. We need metals, we need silica. We build and build and build, and now every one of the Ngugma serves to fight this war, and still we only hold the thing back from the center. We fight and fight, and we do terrible things to keep fighting, and still.”

“You aren’t winning, are you,” said Natasha. “We read your history.” She looked at Park. “Well, it’s actually about what it looked like, right?”

“So they destroy planets and kill off civilizations to keep these things from taking over the Orion Arm,” said Vera. “That’s the trade-off?”

“And it’s barely working,” said Natasha.

“I feel exactly like Arthur Dent,” said Clay. “Crap, Skz, I used to worry about what parties I could go to after I got off work.” Skzyyn made one of its gestures, and then gently slapped Clay’s temple like it was patting him on the back.

“Can you help,” said Flaayy suddenly.

“What?” said several of the others.

“Can you help. Can. You help. Can you help?” Park and Rachel and Fvaerch and Skippy the Primoid crowded up in front of the screen; Skzyyn abandoned Clay’s shoulder for Rachel’s.

“What did you say?” said Vera, pushing to the front. “Did you just ask us—?”

“Can you help,” said Flaayy, dropping to the bench and splaying across it.

 

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