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Clay and Rachel and Apple and Izawa all turned back immediately, but they didn’t make it back to the fleet for another twenty-four hours. They tried to talk about what had just happened, but they couldn’t help crying, arguing or just shaking their heads. They were missing the same scenes played out on the Honshu and the Tasmania.

Finally Rachel said, “You know what the worst thing is?”

Clay put his head in his hands for one more second, rubbed his eyes and said, “What.”

“The worst thing is, she wasn’t doing anything recklessly brave or anything. They weren’t doing anything we wouldn’t have done. We would have done exactly that.”

“And we would have died,” said Clay. He took another few seconds of personal time, and then he said, “You know what the even worse thing is?”

“No. What?”

“The Ngugma have figured out how to kill us.”


Their first communication from Park came four hours later. “Andros, Gilbert,” that calm voice said, “I am assuming as I send this that you’re on your way back, and that you know basically what happened to Commander Acevedo and LC Schmitt. We have information you probably don’t have. The patrol vessels that met Gamma Wing were robotically guided, and were packed with a stabilized mix of fissile elements. We estimate that the radius of explosive destruction was around ten kilometers and definitely not more than two hundred kilometers, so medium range attacks should still be safe, as safe as anything. The spread of gamma rays would be deadly within ten kilometers, damaging within fifty to one hundred. So that gives us some parameters.

“Your orders as of now are to return to Tasmania, and Izawa and Apple have the same orders. We will give due consideration to the next step, but suffice it to say, this has not increased our tendency to trust negotiations with the Ngugma. We will be taking offensive action, and in the meantime, anticipate a carefully composed ultimatum for our hosts in this system; we will make sure you receive a copy.” She waited a beat, and added, unnecessarily, “Su Park.”

And thirty minutes later the ultimatum came in, in Ngugma language and script with an English translation.

“To the Ngugma of the Spiral Arch system: stand down your forces within one time unit of receipt of this transmission. Begin evacuation of all armed spacecraft, and of the starbase. Our vessels of the Alliance will arrive at your base within thirty hours, and by that time all Ngugma personnel should either be en route out of the system, or self-confined within the base, away from the control area. We will then sanitize the control area according to a protocol we have developed, which will be less explosive but just as effective as the protocol you used in destroying two of our fighters. We will destroy every ship you have which is not in compliance. Do not make the mistake of thinking that we cannot or will not do so. Do not attempt to negotiate. Do not expect that you will be trusted in any way. We only trust your actions. Su Park.”

“Whoa,” said Clay. “Just whoa.”

“Well, what did you expect?” Rachel challenged him. “They didn’t have to take the offensive like that. We could have handled this all peacefully. Not that I thought we were going to, not that I thought the N’s were ever going to treat us like we’re their peers or whatever.”

“Hey,” said Clay, “I agree completely. I’m ready to rip some new buttholes. I agree with everything she said. I just flashed back to when we first got to know Su Park. And how glad I am it’s not me she’s ticked off at.”

“Yeah, that’s a good thing,” said Rachel. “Game of Set, then maybe simulate a bunch?”

“Sounds good,” said Clay.

A minute later, as Rachel was collecting her fourth set, she said, “I’ll tell you one thing. I’m feeling a lot better about things right now.”