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4.

Emily Gray, second pilot of Tasmania, went into a huddle with a couple of the Ngugma and with Natasha and Padfoot, and an hour later, on the Tasmania bridge, they were ready to talk.

“The Ngugma are very clever,” she was saying, “about patterns, about connecting the dots. But the thing is, these dots are varied by time, so that if there’s a pattern, we’re seeing it not only in three dimensions, but in the order in which it comes to us chronologically. So farther away events come later, but happened earlier. So in case you’re wondering what that means—!”

“This,” said a local Ngugma called Gghawra, tweaking the screen with the stubby fingers at the end of its leftmost arm. The upper end of the Orion Arm appeared, in 3D, with Greenstar marked at one edge, and Armpit at the other, both given their English nicknames as well as their Ngugma names, written in the scratchy Ngugma letters. Then about twenty bright dots appeared, and it would have been a very imaginative child who could have connected them into anything coherent. “We look at this and we say, ‘The Enemy attacks at random.’ But Pilot Emily says something to us, and we try some things.” It tweaked again, and the dots disappeared and reappeared, again in a seemingly random order. And again. “And then, the fourteenth time we try, this.”

Now the dots shone out, one by one, in an ascending spiral, approaching the system called Armpit. The pattern was suddenly so obvious that it seemed like a different pattern. But as they compared, they could see that the actual dots were in the same places, just different times.

“Each dot,” said Gray, “is an attack that news came back to Greenstar about. First we saw them in the order in which Greenstar learned of them, but as the pattern spirals, some are closer and others are farther, and Greenstar learned of the farther ones much later. Second, they occur in a certain order, in a certain sense, although—!”

“Simultaneity,” said Gghawra, relishing the word in that way Ngugma sometimes relished English words, “simoooltan-eee-it-eee, is an illoooosion.

“But in any case,” said Gray, “you tick back the clock by the amount of time it took for the signal to reach Greenstar. And then you tick back by the amount of time it took for the Enemy to reach each target from where the Enemy began, and this is what you see.”

“But you have to know where the Enemy began,” said Rachel.

“Right,” said Natasha. “So we made some guesses. And as Gghawra says, guess number 14 got us this lovely pattern. And where is the Enemy’s point of origin in guess number 14? It’s right here.”

A red spot shone, just on the edge of the Orion Arm, about halfway to Armpit. It was more than thousand light years from Greenstar, but it was not more than a hundred light years off the path the Bluehorse fleet had penciled in from Offvroffh to Armpit.

“So we attack it?” asked Clay.

“Well,” said Rachel, “at the very least, we have to go there and see what it is. What do you think it is, Mr. Gghawra?”

“What do spores come from?” Gghawra replied. “Spore, is this the same as seed? Is this to do with,” and it girded itself for a pair of very un-Ngugma words, “sexual reproduction?”

“It has a specific meaning,” Rachel replied, “and a not so specific one. Specifically, a spore is non-sexual, while a seed is the result of sexual reproduction: you need two parents to make a seed. But the basic concept is the same.”

“Then what we mean,” said Gghawra, “is that there is something at this place that sends off things that, in their millions, act as spores and find a place to grow and eat life. What we have now learned is: these things do not come in random waves, but emanate,” another word it relished, “from this place and over time in a predictable way. Now what is there? It must be a laahsting thing, permanent. There is a star, which is not surprising, since the thing would use light to grow and gain energy. There must be substance there, for it to make spores and send them out. And we look, and Ngugma have visited there. It was a system with three planets with water and air, but the star is unstable and sends out bursts every so often, bursts of radio activity, radioactivity! That would kill off any colony that any species attempted to put down.”

“Yet these things,” said Fonnggark, “whatever they are, they have survived these bursts.”

“We think they may actually thrive on them,” said Natasha. “We think we’ll see a whole complex setup there, with this uni-body life-form covering three planets, and with some sort of setup to make spores and mouthholes and send them out. I’ll tell you, I’m gonna write a hell of a paper about this in the Bluehorse Journal of Exobiology, when we get back there in about one million years from now after the next four ice ages.”

They looked around at each other. “Well, fascinating,” said Kalkar, as the Ngugma explained Natasha’s little speech to each other. Kalkar looked at Emily Gray and Ram Vindu and said, “Well, shit. I guess we have a new itinerary.”

 

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