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Gaazokgov, known to the visitors from away as Greenstar, was in fact a bluish-greenish sun, larger than Sol, by itself in the middle of the far reach of the Orion Arm. It had more than a dozen planets of significant size, including a whopping seven gas and ice giants, ranging from an enormous near-star with astonishing nebulous rings to three cold blue globes the size and consistency of Uranus or Neptune. It also had one major inhabited planet, the fourth rock from the star, a bit larger than Earth and half covered in water.

The system was crawling with military ships. At least five battleships and two super-battleships shared the orbit of the fourth planet; cruisers and patrol ships zipped about from bases in every orbit and also far out into the system’s vigorous Oort cloud. The star base nearest the planet was enormous, and combined a thriving civilian port with a steroidal military base. The system had at least two other military star bases larger than the Bluehorse spaceport, and dozens of smaller ones, not to mention at least a hundred robotic defense installations. Clouds of robot fighters patrolled the Oort cloud.

The newcomers were challenged immediately, of course. Three heavy cruisers separated from the Oort Cloud base and began trundling over to intercept the deceleration path, escorted by a dozen patrol ships and a slew of the spidery little robot fighters. Communications encrypted with the medium-level Ngugma codes went to Fonnggark’s ship, and then back, at a distance of two light hours. Eight hours later, as the cruisers were closing in on the Tasmania and its friends, now no more than a few light minutes away, negotiations began in earnest. Fonnggark invited Clay, Rachel, Emily Gray and Jack Dott onto the explorer-cruiser to get updates, and possibly to keep Fonnggark from trying to put a photon blast through the round mouth of the Ngugma in charge of the heavy cruisers.

“They are being most dreary,” it told Clay and the others. “It is understandable that they need to be suspicious. Perhaps this is the only place in the, ah, the Dohsh Kawlawk, the Orion Arm as you name it, that has been attacked multiple times by the Enemy. Yet, but, they can see we are not spores. Can they think we might be here to attack them? It seems like they do think this.”

“So,” said Rachel, “Level 1 is that they let us pass through. Level 2 is that they basically accept our help, in theory or something. Level 3 is that they let us dock somewhere. Level 4 is they share intelligence. And Level 5, which is where everyone wants to be, is where they share useful intelligence. What level can we reach?”

“In true,” said Fonnggark, “Level 2 is the most difficult. Yet I am sure that I, Fonnggark, will wear them down, as you say.”

Fonnggark did wear them down. Fifty more hours of back and forth, and Kalkar, Rachel, Clay, Emily Gray, and Fonnggark and its executive officer went aboard the lead heavy cruiser. They were not permitted to see much more than the vaulting, dramatically designed bridge and the rhombicuboctahedral conference chamber behind it. Floating in the conference chamber, they met Captain Gwoav Zhawkuhh, five aides and three members of a slave race. Clay tried to take the measure of the slave race: no more humanoid than the Ngugma, these were a sort of shelled slug body atop about a dozen arthropod legs, with four long arms with gripping paws and a bulb of a head sticking up, covered in sensory organs.

Gwoav was not the captain with whom Fonnggark had been negotiating. Clay was beginning to recognize individual Ngugma, and Gwoav was something of an old salt: it had seven arms, not six, perhaps because one of the original six had been half blown off, and it had other long-healed scars as well as a streak of paler fur, possibly the Ngugma equivalent of grey hair. In any case, Gwoav was the Ngugma entrusted to deal directly with the aliens from Offvroffh.

Fonnggark said something to Gwoav, who said something back, and then they exchanged Ngugma words again, and then Fonnggark turned its front toward Rachel and said, “They do not want us to meet with the Governor of Gaazokgov. Captain Gwoav will talk to us.”

“Very good,” said Rachel in the Ngugma language, making her voice as deep as she could. “Will Captain Gwoav give us the information we need so we can help?”

She smiled at Gwoav, which of course was lost on Gwoav. Fonnggark did his amused little snort. “Captain Gwoav,” said Fonnggark, in Ngugma words, “simply does not know you as I do.”

“You shall have information,” said Gwaov in the Ngugma tongue, “when you can tell us how you can help us.”