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The little crowd of humans and Tskelly and Errhatzky and Primoids, and a couple of Kaahriig with their long beaks drooping, watched this display for some seconds. Flaayy wiggled its big arms in what seemed like despair, and then went limp.

“Is it dead?” Skzyyn whispered.

“No, just sad,” said Clay.

“I pick up full bio signs,” said Padfoot. “The numbers are down, but more like it’s resting, or, um, depressed.”

“Thank you, Mr. Flaayy,” said Su Park. “You’ve been most helpful.” Flaayy twisted so its eye pods, of which it had a dozen or so, could look up at the camera. It half picked itself up. “We will let you rest,” Park went on. “We have to deliberate. Perhaps you should eat something.” She looked at Padfoot. “All right, switch off.” She looked around. “So. We have all the information we are going to get. What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” said Kalkar. “May we restate the information we supposedly have?”

“Let me,” said Rachel, propelling herself toward the middle. Clay was reminded of Rachel, the second smallest adult human he had ever known, doing much the same thing in a rebellious meeting of the colonists aboard the Canada before the Bluehorse colony was founded. The humans in the room looked at her with respect, and the non-humans did the same, for slightly different reasons. “So it’s like this,” said Rachel. “We are 89 light years from Bluehorse, well, 83 or so in a straight line. We’ve done the impossible, we’ve taken not only an Ngugma super-freighter full of ore, but an Ngugma depot, and destroyed two battleships, dozens of cruisers and probably several hundred of their fighters. But we really haven’t put a dent in the Ngugma war machine, we’ve put only a slight crimp in their supply chain, and we haven’t stopped the continuing destruction of either Earth or Fyatskaab. We haven’t made an attack on the Primoid systems any less likely.

“And now we discover that we aren’t even the real enemy of the Ngugma. I mean, I think we already basically knew this, but it turns out the real enemy is something that’s arguably much worse than the Ngugma. And much more powerful, much stronger, much more disturbing? Yeah. The Ngugma are individuals, right? They’re like us. In so many ways. I remember arguing with Mr. Clay Gilbert about how much like us they are. And it turns out you were right, Clay. They’re more like us than we are. But if Flaayy is not lying, and I don’t see any reason to think he is—oh, there’s no way he’s lying. So then what the Ngugma is fighting is a unitary life form, a thing that enters an ecosystem and simply consumes the entire thing. It’s the Gaia hypothesis made real. It’s—!” There was some muttering, especially among the Fyaa.

“Explain the Gaia hypothesis,” said Park.

“Oh, sorry. So there’s this idea, or there was, about Earth, that all the species of animals and plants and fungi and all the microorganisms—are you with me?” The Kaahriig nodded and murmured agreement; the Primoids were even nodding. Natasha punched up a cartoon she found in the Honshu memory about Earth as a single living organism, and played it, and the Primoids nodded emphatically: the flowers dancing and smiling, creatures eating other creatures while the smiling cartoon Sun blessed everything and everyone sort of pulsed to the same beat.

“All linnnked as onnne,” said Captain Sheaeek.

“But this is much more horrible,” said Natasha. “This isn’t wolves eating lambs and it’s all part of the glory and the story of life. This is one wolf eating all the lambs, all the other wolves, all the trees and flowers and fungi, till the whole planet is covered by this one bloated wolf.”

“I don’t understand how that could work,” said Root. “How do they fight? Who flies their fighters?”

“Just because it’s all one creature doesn’t mean it can’t send off bits of itself, or make things like the Ngugma do, robots that fly fighters. I mean, forget fighters, picture—!” She stopped. “Oh. Shit.”

“What?” said several.

“Mouthholes,” said Natasha.

A series of sounds passed across the room, from the ah of recognition to groans and sighs. “You don’t know this for sure,” said Root.

“No, but it’s a lovely hypothesis, isn’t it?” said Rachel. “If not that, then at least it’s going to be something like that. They’re like worker ants or something. I was going to say spores, but we don’t see the mouthholes setting up on a planet anywhere, no, they love deep space. No, the—!”

“The spores,” said Clay, “are something else. They’d be the things the Ngugma actually are stopping at the border.”

“So, wait,” said Kalkar. “Wait. What does this mean?”

“If thisss is all true,” said Fvaerch, “then we must fighttt themmmm. We must fight the enemy of the Ngugmmmaaah.”

“And yet we must fighttt the Ngugmmmaaah, toooo,” said Sheaeek.


They all looked at each other. “That is exactly how I feel,” said Captain Root. “I think we need to fight the Ngugma still, but I also think we need to somehow deal with this threat we’ve just learned about. The question is how. How do you deal with that—sort of thing?”

“Before we tackle that,” said Su Park, “we need to decide at a fundamental level how much of all this we actually believe. Is there anyone here who doubts that the Ngugma are indeed fighting a war, an all-out war, and have been doing so for over one hundred million years, and that is why they have been ransacking planets and destroying whole civilizations?”

“I don’t think it excuses anything,” said Vera, “but yeah, I believe all that.”

They looked around. Others were nodding, a gesture that all the non-humans had adopted by now. Natasha was engaged in some sort of colloquy with Skippy and with the Primoid cruiser captain, looking at and poking her tablet. She looked up and said, “The Primoids certainly think it’s all true.” She projected an image on the screen: in typical Primoid colors, slightly angled toward the blue end, there was a schematic of the inner Milky Way, the core a sickly dark green, and the sickly green was oozing across the gap toward the galactic arms.

“All right,” said Park, “and do we doubt that this is a fight we need to take on?”

“As opposed to,” said Rachel, “maybe the Ngugma can handle this on their own.”

“Well, as to that,” said Kalkar, “even if they are handling it on their own, and I don’t know that they really are, there’s this matter of their methods. If their way of handling this involves, you know, killing off whole planetary civilizations and wrecking their planets.”

“And on and on and on,” said Rachel. “Throwing materiel at this enemy and having to always find more materiel to throw, I mean, they have the entire Orion Arm to mine, but they’re in a long-term war here, it’s so long term that it makes the expression ‘long term’ kind of inadequate. It’s not sustainable, not if you’re talking about two hundred million years.”

“So,” said Vera, “not to bring us all down, but how do we actually fight it? We were just talking about how hard it is to fight the Ngugma Empire. How do we fight something that the Ngugma Empire is having trouble with?”

“That is not the question,” said Park. “The question is, do we fight it? Do we take this on? Ms. Santos?”

“Yeah,” Vera said immediately. She looked around. No one seemed inclined to disagree. She nodded. “Yeah. We take this on. Even if it’s just me and Tasha and Rachel and Clay.”

“We have to,” said Clay. “Even if we’re just halflings. That’s the whole point of this Council of Elrond we’re having. It all comes to this. We’re the ones who have to take the Ring to the Cracks of Doom.” Everyone slowly nodded, even the Primoids, who were looking at Natasha’s tablet, where Frodo and Gollum struggled, in a cartoon from 26th Century Bluehorse, on the brink of the fires of Mount Doom.