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A couple of hours later, several of the fighter pilots, Padfoot, the pilots Emily Gray and Ram Vindu, and Fonnggark and two other Ngugma floated around in the Tasmania conference room. They had a 3D display of the inner end of the Orion Arm, along with screens and white boards and actual paper with actual colored pencils.

“Three problems,” said Rachel. “One, we don’t know how to find the enemy in the first place. We could go over across the Empty Lanes and look, that’s only another thousand light years or so on top of the eleven thousand we will have traveled already, but that didn’t go well for you guys, Fonnggark, and you’re not more squeamish than we are.”

“Suh queeem ish,” said Fonnggark. “Squeamish.” It checked a device on one of its arms. “S, Q—?”

“It means,” said Clay, “horrible things bother you a lot. Which they don’t.”

Fonnggark and its comrades exchanged looks. One of the others said, in a strong accent, “Cross empty lanes is not a thing to advise.”

“Even though,” Fonnggark said, “we are not squeamish, no, yes, we were affected by what we saw there, what our people saw over there, it was too much.”

“And what was it exactly?” asked Emily Gray.

Again the Ngugma looked at one another. Fonnggark said, “None of us would know. Nor do we wish to know.”

“So we’re not going to do that,” said Rachel. “Two, we have no way of predicting where the enemy is going to attack. The upper Arm is too big, it has too many systems. If we see them launch an attack from Point A on Point B, and we’re here at Point C,” and she was drawing it all on a white board near her, “the light from Point A has to reach Point C before we can leave for Point B, and they will always be there before we are, probably decades before. Centuries before.”

“And three?” asked Padfoot. “We don’t know how to kill them?”

“Because we’ve never fought them.”

“The Ngugma can help you with that,” said Fonngark. “That is not even a small problem at all. We can assure—ensure? Insure?”

“Any of the three is fine with me,” said Clay.

“Thank you, my friend,” said Fonnggark. “We can assure that you can destroy the enemy once you are in the same system of them. There will be their, its version of cruisers. And these—mouth holes. They are much more hard, much harder than these, ah, spores. And there are the—shzhawkhor. A sort of fighter, I suppose, which cannot accelerate to light speed, but which our robotic fighters are designed to fight. They are dangerous, but you should do well enough against them, you slaughtered our fighters. But they will not send those in an invasion—they will invade and infect, and then grow the shzhawkhor in place.”

“So we can fight these things,” said Li Zan, “but we probably won’t have to?”

“It depends on much,” Fonnggark replied, “but, whatever system it is you, we, attack: the Enemy will be well-established there. Yet I think you would defeat them. All we need to do is get you into that system.” One of the other Ngugma said something in their language, and Fonnggark said, “It is also true, that there are many, many. At a time, there are many spores. That may be also a problem.”

“How many?” asked Apple.

“A hundred thousand, a million,” said Fonnggark.

“Then we will kill a hundred thousand, a million,” said Apple.

“Geez,” said Clay. “That’s very Dragon Riders of Pern.

“Oh no,” said Rachel. “Do we all have to read one more fantasy novel?”

“Let’s not,” said Clay. “I actually thought it kind of sucked. Look, being realistic, maybe there’s a million spores we have to kill? Ten of us?”

“Yes,” said Timmis, “what are the offensive capabilities of these spores? How hard are they to kill, and can they kill us?”

“Your Ghost?” said Fonnggark. “The spore is perhaps twenty, as many as thirty zhoaw across. Half or less the size of your Ghost. It is soft, not hard, not rigid. If it hit your Ghost while moving fast enough, perhaps it might damage you, but I have doubt, I have seen your battles on the video. It is easy to kill, as well. But you are correct. If you met the Enemy when the Enemy was already in the attack, it would be hard to destroy completely all of them. Still, they are unarmed, and if you are not attacking their base but defending ours, you would not see the shzhawkhor. Only the spores.”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re unarmed,” said Vera. “There’s a million of them. A hundred k each. And don’t they have mouthholes with them? What do you fight?”

“Oh,” said Fonnggark, “we do fight. Sometimes they will send, as you say, mouth holes along, and sometimes when we send fleets to stop them in the Empty Lanes, there are bigger—vessels, cruisers, you could call them, but these vessels have no crew, of course, they are also living things perhaps. But often they send masses of spores deep into our space to attack a system, and they have overwhelmed many systems through sheer numbers.”

“The spores attack Green Star,” said one of the local Ngugma. “We have enough fighters to destroy all of them. Unfortunately, most of our systems do not have such numbers. We have two thousand fighters here.”

“We have ten,” said Apple.

“They come from somewhere,” said Rachel. “If we could only catch the spores when they’re, I don’t know, released. Wherever that is.”

“So,” said Clay, “we might be able to solve Problem 3 if we can do either 1 or 2. We can kill them if we can find them. Can we do one of those?”

“Actually,” said Emily Gray, playing with the 3D display, “I kind of think we can.”