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Forty-nine light years from Spiral Arch lies a system of five stars, born together from the same dust cloud and still together in their middle age. The five suns stand well apart from one another, with two of them as close as Jupiter and Sol and the other three more than double Pluto distance from one another. Thus freed from interference from their siblings, these three all have planets, mostly Uranus-sized gas giants. Three terrestrial planets, and four moons among the gas giants, were colonized by the Ngugma tens of millions of years ago. The Ngugma call the system something like Fflohhvakohh, but the humans named it Pentestella for its most obvious trait.

So Clay and friends, decelerating into the very far outskirts, got their first sight of the Pentestella system. Where Vannaag Vul had been the site of factories and processing plants on a vast scale, with a modest Ngugma population and a large proletariat of other species, and Spiral Arch and Okhozzhan Olv had been mere outpost bases where no one lived who wasn’t stationed there, Pentestella had tens of millions of Ngugma and similar numbers of their subservient species, whether these were slaves or just wore collars of a very deep blue. There were plenty of factories, but there were also governmental, educational and cultural institutions; there were military vessels in large number and lots of gigantic freight haulers, but there were also what appeared to be pleasure boats of space, interplanetary liners, and a million personal shuttles and small spacecraft. There were at least five space bases, and one, occupying a position at a gravitational equilibrium between the stars, was enormous, bigger than Big Fourteen.

It was to this station that Su Park addressed her first ultimatum in the Pentestella system. She reiterated her usual points: the Ngugma could not expect to negotiate; they could not expect to be trusted; they would already know that this little invading force had defeated much larger Ngugma forces three times; that the invaders had a piece of knowledge which, disseminated, would put all their mining operations at risk; that it was understood that the defense of the Orion Arm was everyone’s responsibility, but that it should also be understood that it was unacceptable for the Ngugma to commit species genocide in order to gain control over resources one had no right to.

The Ngugma response was confused and contradictory. Message probes and beamed light-speed transmissions from Spiral Arch would already have given them weeks to figure out what to say if the Earthlings and their friends came to call, but for one Earth day, there was still no response. It took the ultimatum six hours to get to the Ngugma base, and it would have taken their answer six hours to return, but twelve hours after that twelve hours passed with no news. The invaders chose a small, irregularly shaped chunk of ice and rock and lose regolith ten kilometers long to land on, and they had an ice cavern sealed up and cozy by the time they had an answer to their call.

Even then, the first answer they got was not either of the ones they had expected. It was not an abject capitulation, nor was it an attempt to sweet talk the lowly humans and Fyaa into some sort of trap. It was from a forward transmitter on a moon of one of the gas giant planets.

“Invading fleet,” came a mechanical voice in good English, “the Ngugma reject your demands. Surrender your ships at once for boarding, and you will not be killed.”

Flaayy, on screen from the bridge of the Ngugma cruiser, which Flaayy was crewing with Emily Gray, said, “That was not sent by the star fleet. That did not come from the leadership.”

“I wouldn’t have thought so,” said Park, on the bridge of the Tasmania. “It’s far too direct. Let’s get a forward patrol. Andros, Gilbert, take Aliya and Grohl and scout ahead toward the source of the transmission.”

“Of course, Commander,” said Rachel, from the pilot quarters, rolling out of her Ghost to look for her vac suit. Clay rolled out behind her, went to his Ghost and grabbed out his suit, while Apple and Izawa, and Natasha and Vera, sitting around playing Set, made lewd remarks about his butt. Mizra Aliya and Millie Grohl weren’t paying attention to Clay’s mode of dress: they were just happy about getting to go with the adults. They were high fiving.

“Commander,” called Skzyyn from its fighter, cruising around the nearby space, “my comrades and I respectfully request the honor of taking part. It is our plan to return to Fyaa space after this system is won—!”

“And we are out on patrol already,” pointed out Ve’ezy, from its repaired fighter.

“Of course,” said Park. “Consider yourselves added, as long as you consider yourselves under the command of Commander Andros.”

In a few minutes, seven fighters gathered in orbit, as it were, of the ice chunk, and then shot off toward the inner system. They were twelve minutes on their way and up to 800 km/sec when they received another transmission, this time from the gigantic central base.

“Alliance fleet,” this one said, in the bass voice of an Ngugma, “we accept all of your terms. We welcome discussion of how you may be of help to us in defense. The previous transmission was not authoritative. Repeat, the previous transmission was not authoritative. We accept all of your terms. We will stand down from combat immediately.”

“Well, who the hell sent it, then?” Clay called to Rachel. Park was sending off a similar inquiry.

The response from the gigantic base came promptly at the end of the minimum twelve hour transit time; the advancing fighters, human and Fyaa, intercepted it an hour early.

“Certain local elements do not accept our decision to choose peace,” said the Ngugma voice. “It may be necessary for your fighters to combat these elements. We are desolated but there is no modality in which we could be of direct assistance.”

“Great,” said Rachel.

“What does it mean?” asked Mizra Aliya.

“It means,” said Clay, “that the boss Ngugma here want us to beat down their own rebels, and that they really wouldn’t mind if we got to prove to them that we’re as unbeatable as they’ve been told we are.”

“This was all a plan on their part?”

“Oh, I doubt that,” said Rachel. “They just were lucky that way.”

“This is not a problem,” said Skzyyn, its squeaky voice mellowed by transmission, its squirrel-lizard face smiling in a little square to the side of Clay’s screen. “We were hoping to convince them how good we are. So we should go convince them. Shouldn’t we do so?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course we should,” said Rachel. “Okey dokey, let’s go look for folks to convince around that moon. But please let us be careful and not lose anyone. Kay?”