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4.

The year, according to outside observers, was 3550, and eight fighter pilots ran and played naked on the strange beaches of the nameless planet. Two more stood, naked, on a worn down crag of a boulder which stuck up out of the water just offshore, just before the drop-off into the borehole. A bearded man and a woman with brown hair, dressed in simple black robes and ploofy hats made just for the occasion, stood before them, trying not to look either too serious or not serious enough.

The two naked women spent five minutes with their eyes closed. They opened them and looked at the bearded man, who had been studiously not watching them. He handed the redhead a lit pipe, who handed it to her black-haired partner, and the four of them passed it around three times.

“Shall we start?” asked Captain Kalkar.

“You have everything you need?” asked Padfoot.

“We know our vows,” said Gemma Izawa. “I have her ring on my pinky, and she has my ring on her pinky.”

“These are the ones from Fonnggark? They will do?”

“They’ll do great,” said Maria Apple. “They’re titanium!”

“And you want the others to come up here. You’re ready for that.”

Izawa and Apple looked at each other, then up at the westering sun. “Yeah,” said Apple, “we’re ready.”

Kalkar pulled back his robe’s voluminous sleeve and spoke into his wristband. “Will the wedding party please attend the brides,” he intoned.

The playing pilots stopped, not quite all at the same moment, and then with laughter and cries of excitement they ran out into the shallow water and climbed up onto the boulder. And then they stood around, naked in the sunlight, while Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa promised to be faithful and true, in sickness and health, on planets or in space, and travel to the ends of the galaxy together, and nothing may them part, death be damned. And then the ten pilots, and Kalkar and Padfoot, who had come down in spare, beat-up Ghost 201s, zipped back up into space and headed for the next destination.

 

5.

In the year 4167, Clay Gilbert and his best friends, his only remaining friends, really, came to Shzhannahr. They had unwanted company, but not unexpected company.

“Mouthholes,” said Kalkar in the ears of the fighter pilots, who zipped along in the Tasmania wake like ten ducklings following Mom. “Piles of ‘em.”

So they cleared the mouthholes out of their way, exactly as they had at the previous system. They took no damage and blasted or shouldered their way through at least sixty of the things: Timmis got a kill, Apple got a kill, and when two bounded through between Clay and Natasha, they each got a kill. And then the little fleet was decelerating into a new system, the one the Ngugma called Shzhannahr. Ten planets spun around a hot little blue star: six of them giants, one of those close in and losing material in a long spiraling ribbon into the star. The fourth planet out was a watery terrestrial, and that carried the Ngugma colony. Fonnggark had an advisory for them.

“These,” said Fonnggark, “are not like those of Fflohhvakohh, Pentestella.”

“Not the friendly type?” called Rachel.

“Not, as you say, the friendly type,” the Ngugma explorer captain replied, in its deadpan basso profundo, and in the usual flawless English that so many of the Ngugma seemed to have mastered. “This vessel has flown here before. Our function is that of message bearer to and from, you say, Pentestella.” PawntohSTAWLLaw. “We ascertain,” and it paused, savoring that word as well, “we ascertain the condition at these forward systems, and return to inform Fflohhvakohh, and the one you call Spiral Arch. We pass through Shzhannahr again and again. Perhaps it is the nearness to, to the bad.”

“We notice a lot of military ships here,” said Kalkar on the same line. “I have: a couple battleships, something even bigger than a battleship—!”

“That would be the Khohhzzhof, it is very big indeed, yeah,” said Fonnggark. Clay couldn’t tell if khohhzzhof was the name of the ship or their word for the kind of ship it was. It was certainly big, like three or four battleships welded together, but he was pretty sure it could fit inside Big Fourteen. “They build ships here, of course, as at Vannaag Vul. But all of these here go to the war at the edge of the empty lanes.”

“You mean,” Li put in, “that Shzhannahr builds fleets that actually go right off and fight your enemy?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said the Ngugma. “And they crew these ships.”

“With Ngugma?” asked Rachel.

“Yeah, yes, yeah, sure, but also with ogkutthoz, with, yes, the subordinate race here. They serve many roles on the biggest vessels.”

“Captain Fonnggark,” said Clay, “do these ships that go off to fight at the front, do they come back?”

“Usually,” said Fonnggark. “Some are lost.” It turned its attention to its console—the Ngugma made kick-ass consoles. Then it turned to a junior Ngugma and said something in their own deep, buzzy language. Then it hauled itself up and said, to the video, “And now I need to end the transmission for an hour or two. We have five diagnostics we must run. I think you will not wish to stop here, we should continue in our course to the next destination.”

“All right,” said Kalkar, “over and out, Captain.”

“Over, as you say, and out, Captain.” The transmission ended and the furry face of the Ngugma captain disappeared.

But it wasn’t done communicating yet. Thirty seconds later, Clay and Rachel were lazily discussing the conversation, and a closed call came in. They both tapped it on, and there was Fonnggark, in its captain’s quarters or whatever.

“Commander Andros,” it said, “Clay Gilbert, I need to say more to you, and you need to tell me whether this should be said to Captain Kalkar and the others.”

“Whaaat?” was Rachel’s response.

Fonnggark barely waited for her to finish her one long syllable before it said, “We had best not stop here in any case. The local people can be very hostile, they lose many to the war. They are hostile to us, and we are well known to them.”

“We?”

“We of Pentestella, of Fflohvakohh. Not so much you, ah, you would say aliens. They do not know any who are aliens, except this thing they shoot.”

“They lose many?” asked Clay.

“It is worse than many think, at Fflohhvakohh. The enemy has sent invasions into the space ahead along the arm, several times. They have infected entire systems, and we struggle to eradicate these infections. Even Shzhannahr has been attacked, they lost millions, it was, ahhh, in your time units, perhaps a million or ten million years in the past. So we build ships here and send them to fight, and their crews come mostly from Shzhannahr, and yes, many are lost.” It leaned back and threw its upper arms up. “So I needed to tell someone.”

“We can tell Kalkar,” said Rachel. “So they don’t trust you, because you’re from Flovako? Pentestella?”

“I think I get why, don’t you?” said Clay.

“Oh, I get why. Okay, Captain, we will discuss this with Kalkar ourselves. Do you think we’re all okay to make another long jump? It’s over five hundred light years. You have the coordinates?”

“The flight should be no problem,” said Fonnggark. “We may pick up sphericals, but you appear very capable of dealing with them. Ah, mouth-holes. It is a mouth, and a, ah, asshole.” It paused to savor this. Ah, I know the next system a little. It is empty, but it once was a major system of the Ngugma.”

“What happened to it?” asked Clay.

Fonnggark turned all its little eye-tentacles on him. It said, “The same thing that happened to the planet where you were born. Different, but the same.” It didn’t shut off, but turned half away and began checking settings and data. Clay watched it for a little longer, thinking, here’s the very second Ngugma I’ve ever trusted.

 

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