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Of course the Ngugma of Spiral Arch did communicate, did attempt to negotiate, and did not in any way stand down. Rather, they cranked out every fighting ship they could find and began moving forward in combat formation. The “alliance” had a big meeting about this, on the Honshu, conducted in the Su Park style: open-ended and loose in format, but steadily moved along by Su Park, beginning with information, followed by a to-do list, and ending with a Plan.

The information was primarily about the Ngugma fleet. It was led (from behind) by two battleships, as big as the battleship they had victimized at GTV. These were accompanied by four heavy cruisers, at the geometric mean of the Ngugma cruiser and the Ngugma battlecruiser. There were twelve cruisers and twelve more patrol ships, as well as three apparently unarmed freight vessels.

“Those freighters,” said Kalkar. “I hope no one thinks they’re carrying wool.”

“Unless it’s radioactive explosive wool,” said Skzyyn, on Clay’s shoulder.

“We’ve finally reached the area,” said Park, “where the Ngugma have had enough experience of us that they’re starting to come up with stratagems. We just have to come up with stratagems to counter their stratagems. Padfoot?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Padfoot, stepping into the middle of the conference room. “Actually this is more about what Gene Bell and, um, Hhmvyvya have been up to. It has to do with missiles.” Hhmvyvya, hanging onto her arm, said something to Padfoot. She said, “Yeah. So we have a new missile. It’s about one tenth the size of the ones we already had, and it’s got a limited range, but it can evade a lot better than the regular ones, which is useful because of the actual, you know, stratagem.”

“Which is to not cancel out against the enemy missiles,” said Park, “but to pass them by and attack these freighters, or the patrol boats, directly.”

“I can guarantee,” said Padfoot, “the Ngugma haven’t seen missiles like these. They may not even pick them up on their sensors, or not till we’re in lethal range.”

“This sounds excellent,” said Natasha. “Skippy wants to know if Primoids can have them too.”

“Actually, yeah. That was one of the design parameters. We have basically 100 missiles per fighter, and that’s the Ghosts, the Fyaa fighters, the Primoid fighters. We had the tech guy, or the tech Primoid, from your cruiser, he, um, it, was there to check everything was compatible. And we have a launcher for each of you guys, your tech guy will be installing them, they don’t take up much room at all, obviously, so yeah, everyone gets to play.”

“What about the stuff we don’t know about?” asked Clay. “Like, the stratagems they haven’t revealed yet?”

“What can I tell you?” Park replied. “Think on the fly, Clay Gilbert. You’re good at that.” She looked at Vera, who was snickering. “Because,” Park went on, “it seems quite reasonable to assume that they have at least five more stratagems and strategies ready to go.” She looked at Padfoot.

“And we have a couple more things we’re thinking about,” said Padfoot. “Commander Park has given us fifty more hours to work on things before we have to go live.”

“All right,” said Park, “so much for the to-do list. You may be wondering about our strategy.”

“I.e.,” said Kalkar, “the Plan.”

“Yes. The Plan.” What whispering was going on at this point ceased. “The Plan is that we will cause each ship of their fleet to explode, and we will take possession of the computer archives on their base, and we will not lose a single ship of any sort in the process. We lost two fighters in this system, who came all the way from Bluehorse and from Earth to die here.”

“And how shall we execute this excellent plan?” asked Vera.

“Kalkar and Fvaerch and I are still debating the fine points,” said Park, “and I think we will want to rope in Andros and Kleiner, and Mr. Skzyyn, and, um, Kleiner’s Primoid friend, but you will all have no doubt what you are expected to do long before you have to do it.”


Clay and Rachel had some dinner with Vera and Natasha; Skzyyn and Skippy the Primoid joined them. The conversation was light and sardonic; several times Natasha had to explain some joke to Skippy, by gesture or by tablet picture. Then Rachel, with Skzyyn on her shoulder, and Natasha and Skippy, went off to brainstorm with the captaincy. Clay and Vera wandered off to see what trouble they could get into, and they wound up in Tasmania’s observation lounge, not for romantic purposes but to check in by video with a familiar furry face.

“Clay Gilbert,” said Flaayy, “Vee-rah.”

“Did you know they were going to do that?” asked Vera. “Blow up in our faces?”

“I warned you not to trust them,” Flaayy replied in its slow, low voice. “I do not know what they think, I do not know the way in which such ones think, it’s not the way I think, I think it’s not the way you think. But that they think of blowing ships up to kill you when you have not attacked them yet? That is the way that they think.”

“It was mean, and ugly and deadly,” said Vera, “and effective, and it cost zero Ngugma lives.”

“What’s it like being an Ngugma slave?” asked Clay. “There were a bunch of them at GTV.”

“There would be,” said Flaayy. “I would not want to be them.” It paused and threw itself on its console. Clay gave Vera a look. She was smirking. He raised an eyebrow. They looked back at Flaayy. “Clay Gilbert, Vee-rah,” it said. “My people do much that is very wrong, very very wrong. You are visiting our house. It is, it is, ahh, humbling. It makes me embarrassed. So: we must change or be changed. Many who rule us must change, or be changed. I certainly, certainly hope? I hope that you will cause this to happen, I hope that you will defeat them enough that they will change. And, ahh, and yet, you know.”

“And yet?” said Vera.

“And yet, we have our war, we must fight our war, we must not lose. So, Verah, Clay Gilbert, if you kill all of them you must fight their war.”

Clay looked at Vera. “You kill off the wolves on the mountain,” he said, “you have to take the wolves’ place in the ecosystem.”

“Yeah, except we’re not fighting a bunch of elk,” said Vera. “You know, I’ve had the chance to take a good look at the map, you guys had some info on your computer back at Okhozzhan, so we now know a lot more than we did, way out where we come from, about how the Orion Arm is shaped. And it’s pretty blurry when you get into the periphery of the Arm. It’s not like there’s a big empty gap, there’s systems in between Orion and Scutum, Orion and Perseus, Orion and the center. So how are these enemies of yours not attacking all over the place?”

Flaayy seemed to take a breath. Then it said, “You have, on your Bluehorse, a sea creature, perhaps, which does not have, ahh, eyes, which does not see? And yet it crawls about. Looking for its food, looking though it does not have eyes to see.”

“We do, yeah,” said Vera. “Like, starfish. We had those on Earth too, maybe they’re still there.”

“I am sorry sorry,” said Flaayy, “about what we did to your Earth.”

“I know, I’m sorry, Flaayy. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

“I am sorry still. You have these sea creatures. They cannot see.”

“So you’re saying,” said Clay, “the enemy has to grope its way from system to system.”

“Yeeees. They grope. Grooope.” Flaayy clearly liked the word. “They grope. So you must be prepared to defend in all directions—in perhaps a very long time. But for all this time that we fight this war, which seems to us has gone forever, we fight across only where this arm, this Orion Arm, closest meets the Galactic Core.”

“That’s still plenty of room,” said Vera. She called up a schematic on her tablet, and turned it various ways. “That’s got to be a thousand light years.” She looked at Clay. “Looking forward to patrolling that?”

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” said Clay. “So. Flaayy. Any advice? As we get ready to take on your relatives again?”

Flaayy did something that seemed like a laugh: it convulsed its arms and let out a sort of raspberry. It composed itself and said, “You must defeat my relatives. Of course you must be ready for their trickery, trickery? Yes. Do not trust them, they will try some trick. Have tricks of your own.”

“Park and Padfoot have some things up their sleeves,” said Vera.

“And be careful, Clay, Verah. Be careful.”

“Oh, we will,” said Clay. “We’ll be ready.”