“I won’t say she looks as good as new,” said Clay, as he and Rachel and Padfoot stood around his Ghost, in the bay of the Tasmania. “She always looks better than new.”
“Don’t get her banged up just so I can fix her,” said Padfoot, “but yes, we took the opportunity to rebuild your engine and your combat systems. You have fourteen hundred some missiles now. Your comm has backup. I know that’s gone on the fritz on you twice.”
“Did you reinforce that nose cone?” asked Rachel. “He likes that ramming maneuver.”
“Now, now,” said Clay.
“And when did you start calling your fighter ‘she’?”
“I’ve always called her ‘she.’ Haven’t I?”
“We did not reinforce the nose cone,” said Padfoot, “though Gene suggested it. I’d say, get in that situation again, try back left or back right, it’s wider than just a nose, it’s got the main guts right under your seat, so that’s weight, and it’s pretty solid. Or just do what everyone else does and stay fifty kilometers away from your enemy. Makes it easier on me.”
“It was not something I spent a lot of time thinking about, actually. I sort of saw red.”
“I thought it was clever, actually,” said Rachel. “So the orders are set.”
“We’re all going with,” said Padfoot, a little defensively.
“What? Why wouldn’t you?” said Rachel. “Alpha and Beta are just going on ahead, just like coming here. The Primoids are sending a force, Honshu and Tasmania are going, everyone’s going. Just we,” and she smiled smugly at Clay, “are going on ahead, as usual.”
“How far is it?” asked Clay. “We’re twelve light years from Bluehorse.”
“It’s 31 to the Fyaa home world,” said Padfoot.
“Yes. So if you were sent back to Bluehorse, which they might have done for all sorts of reasons, you would return to find the people who live there 24 years older. That would have been weird. But you know we’re going further. You knew all along Alpha and Beta, at the very least, were going a lot further than twelve out and twelve back.”
“Honestly,” said Padfoot, “I would never see you again. Any of you. They’d tie Tasmania down to Bluehorse and we’d all raise our kids and hope you remembered us when you came back five hundred years later.” They stared up at her: she was, among other things, twelve centimeters taller than either of them. She smiled, though she had tears in her eyes.
“So instead,” said Clay, “you’re coming with us, and you’re going to be all alone in our own little chronology.”
“Till we part, I guess,” said Padfoot. “Don’t forget to love your new fighter. Care for her.” She gave Clay a shoulder push and stalked out.
Clay and Rachel looked at each other. “Well, it’s emotional,” said Rachel. “I understand that.”
“So do I,” said Clay, thinking of his niece Yvette. “But there’s only one person I know I’m never going to leave behind in my stardust, and that’s Rachel Frickin’ Andros.” They grinned, then kissed quick and went back inside.
Ten hours later, in orbit around the outer gas giant, there gathered in the Honshu’s half-empty freight section almost every human in the little fleet, plus a dozen Primoids and a dozen squirreloid Fyaa fighter pilots and two stork-like fellows with big skulls and eyes on stalks: these were the Fyaa race of scholars and priests (and cruiser officers).
“So the situation at Fyatskaab, the Fyaa home world,” Captain Root summarized, “is that the Ngugma tried to do the same thing there as at Earth, but they were foiled by the fact that the five species are generally immune to one another’s diseases, and that the tskelly and the kaahriig and the technicians, I really can’t pronounce that one as yet—!” She looked at one of the stork-like fellows, who shrugged its wings and wiggled its eye stalks. “That a lot of them spend basically all their time in space. So the Ngugma settled for thoroughly irradiating both planets with synthesized astatine, and essentially wiping out all life, and in the process, they may have wiped out the other two species completely, the, uh, factory workers and the administrators, I guess.”
“That’s fairly close,” said a piping voice near Clay’s ear. It was one of the Tskelly, the pilots, possibly the one Clay had crunched against the wall. It was hanging on a Tskelly-sized sashay bar near Clay’s head. Clay nodded.
“As the refugees fled,” said Root, “the fighters were holding out in dozens of little bases, raiding and doing damage, but not yet anything so serious as destroying one of those Ngugma freighters. And the Ngugma were going right in with their mining crews. The isotope they used has such a short half-life they didn’t have to wait more than a few days.”
“So,” said Captain Kalkar, “the famous Ngugma are in the next system. It’s our chance. How do we not blow it? Commander Park?”
“I’ve developed a two-step plan,” said Park. “First, we observe. We don’t know what the situation is. Apparently the Fyaa and the Primoids independently discovered the basic fact of military science that the later your enemy knows where you are, the better chance you have of winning. We’ve already picked out a planetoid in the Oort cloud of the home world, Fyatskaab. There is an old Fyaa base. We will occupy it and observe from there. Captain Sheaeek and Captain Fvaerch invited us to use it as we need.”
She smiled at the two stork-like fellows, who bowed and then stuck their beak-like jaws upward. One said, in a peculiarly squeaky accent, “Yooo are welcome eeen to have food and bed down and drink wine and killll these basssstards. Please. Ha ha ha,” it added, and then made a gagging, creaking noise with its beaky jaw upward. Its friend imitated: the Fyaa laugh.
“The second point,” said Captain Kalkar.
“The second point is: assuming the Ngugma are still there, and believe it or not, even if they work at the rate they were doing Earth when Andros and Gilbert were there, they will be profitably draining the magma from the mantle for thousands of years to come, so I predict that they will still be there going strong after sixty years, and we are going to smite them. We are going to figure out something very clever and we are going to destroy them. And the best kind of destroying them is to capture them, because then we get their brains as well as the debris that had once been their ships.”
“We heard there was still Fyaa resistance in their home system,” said Daria Acevedo, Gamma Wing’s leader. “Is there any chance that will still be true?”
“There’s every possibility they’ll have been wiped out,” said Park. “The Captains here would not rule it out. But it’s fair to say that their fighter pilots all think there will still be resistance.” The two captains slowly shook their heads, but the squirreloids cheered and hopped around. The extra pairs of legs and arms gave them interesting dance moves.
“In any case,” said Kalkar, “other Fyaa worlds would at some point start sending ships. They are of the habit of gathering forces in the outskirts of a system until they feel they have enough, and it’s very possible there will be a nice little Fyaa fleet there.”
“Okay,” said Vera, “can I ask one impertinent question?”
“Only you, Santos,” said Park.
“All right. Let’s go defeat the Ngugma. Once we do that, do we all just start fighting again? Have we figured out how to say ‘status quo ante bellum’ in Fyaa?”
One of the stork-like captains propelled itself forward into the middle. It spread its ragged wings a little to maneuver in the weightlessness: it was as tall as Clay and its wingspan was twice that. It shook its head out and said, “The Fyaa will not come back in war to Kleegrg, you say Primoid seeestems. These,” and it swung a beak toward the gathered Primoids, who made glowy, googly tentacles, “these are not our enemy. Weee make this promise.”
“And we like traaaade too,” said the other captain.
“But our job,” said Rachel, “just Alpha and Beta, is to take that planetoid base and start scouting out the system.”
“How far behind us are you guys going to be?” asked Clay.
“One week,” said Park. “We will have the Primoid cruiser, their nine fighters, and a small fleet of Fyaa; I believe they are sending us three of their own cruisers and a freighter. We’re hurrying up supply from PSB6, but you don’t need to wait for us, or for the Fyaa to assemble and make their farewells. We need you to sneak in ahead of us and spoil all the surprises.”
The only people with them in the Honshu’s bay as Clay and his seven best friends set off from PSB6 to Fyatskaab, the Fyaa home world, were Park, Padfoot and Jack Dott, the utility officer who considered himself the little fleet’s concierge.
“We have no idea what you’re going to see,” Park told them. “The Fyaa fighter pilots and mechanics may still be holding out, but, given the thoroughness with which the Ngugma typically approach their chosen tasks, I imagine any resisters will be well-hidden and well-armed. The Ngugma, conceivably, might be done with what they’re doing, but we think they won’t be. Either way, we will have a warm trail to follow, because we are not out to stop the Ngugma from ravaging the Fyaa home world, or ravaging earth. We’re out to stop them ravaging anything.”
“Their ravaging days are over,” said Natasha.
“Let’s hope so, but you eight are not expected to do it by yourself. You know that, right?”
“Yes, we know that,” said Rachel. She turned her smirk on Apple and Izawa. “You two know that?”
“We know it,” said Izawa, and Apple said, “We made the Unbreakable Vow.”
“So about the fighters,” said Li Zan. “I understand they’ve been improved again.”
“They’re looking good, guys,” was Jack Dott’s verdict.
“I’d have to agree,” said Padfoot, running her hands along the outside of Clay’s ghost. “If you needed to, you could travel fifty, maybe a hundred light years at a jump, and if you find enough starlight for your battery, you could make a dozen jumps, a hundred. It was a good ship, it’s now a great ship, an amazing ship. You’re sure you’ll still need us?”
“Don’t joke about that,” said Vera. “Of course we need you. It scares the crap out of me, going just the eight of us somewhere like this. Before we left Bluehorse, we hardly knew what a Fyaa looked like, and none of us had seen a Ngugma except on video, much less had any idea how to defeat them. Now we’re going to Fyatskaab, to confront a whole Ngugma mining fleet. I won’t lie. It scares me crapless.”
The other pilots all glanced at her, a little startled still, except for Natasha, who smirked. The official facial expression of Alpha Wing. “I get it,” she said. “I really do.”
“You?” said Clay. “You two are the killers. I’m just a shuttle jockey.”
“I completely get it,” said Su Park. “You all do, I know you do. You, for certain, Mr. Shuttle Jockey. Who flew all the way back to Earth, fought Ngugma cruisers and came all the way back with the news. I hope you never overcome your fear. You are going far away, and you’re going by yourselves. Just you, and your ship, and your fellow pilots, and your skills, and your fear.”
“It’s what we have,” said Rachel. “It’s plenty.”
“All right, then,” said Park. “No need to prolong the farewells.” She then hugged each of the eight, which would only seem un-Park-like to someone who had not been around her long. They muttered words of good will to one another, while Padfoot and Dott looked on.
“Safe travels,” said Dott. “Call me if you need anything. See you in what, three weeks? Or is it thirty-one years?”
“It’s both, Jack,” said Clay, shaking Dott’s hand. Then he grabbed Padfoot in a hug. “Thanks, Padfoot,” he said, letting her go. “See you all later.”
He smirked around at the others, including Izawa and Apple, who then smirked at one another. They kissed, then got in their Ghosts and sealed up. The other couples all did basically the same. Then they were dropping out of the Honshu bay, moving off a few hundred kilometers, hitting maximum thrust and speeding out of the PSB6 system, never to return.
It took the eight fighters, the four doubled fighters, four days to reach the neighborhood of the speed of light. At 99.9999% of light speed, they experienced a mere six days of flight in covering 31 light years, notwithstanding the fact that their journey, to those not on the same course, would be clocked at 31 years. Then they spend four days decelerating, before the Fyatskaab system began to come into view. They passed the time playing Set, chess and virtual soccer, and practicing simulations, along with other more private pursuits.
“So the Fyaa simulations were a little,” said Clay as he and Rachel lay curled up in a yin and yang arrangement, looking at opposite displays.
“Pessimistic,” said Rachel. “Maybe we’re just better than we thought.”
“Maybe it’s best to assume the worst.”
Rachel made a little noise, as if she disapproved. Then she shifted, which still got his attention every time. She poked his display and up came a schematic of the Fyatskaab system. “The thing is,” she said, “this time we have every reason to assume the worst.” She let out a little sigh. “I’ll never forget.”
“Coming into Earth’s solar system,” said Clay.
“That was the worst.”
She smiled at him. “I’m just glad you were with me.”
Days later—without sun or moon to tell the time, it might be more appropriate to say some tens of hours later—the Fyatskaab system began to come into focus. Around them, the stars began to appear, the incoherent smears of light speed giving way to the ancient splash of the Milky Way.
Far ahead of them, the bright orange sun of Fyatskaab resolved from the chaos. Two enormous ice giants, the distance and temperature of Neptune but the size of a couple of Jupiters, appeared next, then more planets, including a pair, nearly co-orbital, near the star. Even now they could tell there was something going on at those planets: they looked battered. What might have seemed like small, oblong, black moons were identical to Ngugma space stations at Earth. More stars resolved all around them, then more and more, the larger, brighter ones as blobs that condensed, the smaller stars as sudden pixels. A star blob keeping pace with the combined fighters of Rachel and Clay turned out to be the combined fighters of Natasha and Vera. Behind them, a minute later, another blob and another appeared: Beta Wing.
“I’m gonna hail them,” said Rachel. “But first. Can I just say, before we change the mood—?”
“This happy mood we’re in, you mean?” Clay replied. “Feeling pretty good about the Cosmos?”
“Clay.” He shut up. “Dang it, Clay.” She started pulling her vac suit onto her legs.
I’m in trouble, he thought, as he started to do the same, but before she got her suit up past her butt, she turned herself around and took him in her arms and kissed him. She glared at him, green-blue eyes on his blue, and kissed him once more, slow and tender, finishing with another blue-green gaze. “Clay,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Rache.”
“Clay, it’s not something you have to be sorry about. I, I just need to say this to you before I say it to Vera and Tash and burst into,” and she paused, “tears,” she finished, and promptly did so.
“There, there,” said Clay, wondering incongruously what that even meant. There? Where? He took her in his arms.
“It’s just,” she said, making just a little space in his embrace, “I’ve been thinking about what Padfoot said. We left Earth and we’re never going to see those people again, your niece, my college friends. Okay. So we fly to Bluehorse with eight thousand colonists, and, you know, Ted Trein and Alice Grohl and Dr. Mooney and Ally Schwinn. And we get them set up. And then we’re all off in different directions, you and me, Vera, Tasha, Park, the Tasmania. We get back to Bluehorse and Kalkar’s, like, great granddaughter’s an admiral, Alice Grohl’s great granddaughter’s in Gamma Wing. So we leave there and now if we went back it’d be what, eighty some years after we left, but of course we’re not going back, not for a couple hundred years at least, so we’ll never see them again, if we’re lucky we’ll see Marjane Kalkar’s great grandkid. Now it’s just down to these four wings plus Tasmania and Honshu. You see where this is all going? After Padfoot’s little burst of emotion—!”
“I know!” said Clay, and immediately toned it down. “I know.”
“So it’s gonna happen. Clay. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be just us.”
“You and me?”
“Yeah, and Vera and Tasha, we can’t not have them. And maybe a few others. But still.”
“Not the Tasmania.”
“Nope. Not even Su Park.”
“Li and Timmis? Gemma Izawa? Maria Freakin’ Apple?”
“Clay.” He just raised his eyebrows. “Okay, yeah, them. But—!”
“But every time we leave someone behind,” said Clay, “we will never see them again, unless we all loop back someplace much, much later. And eventually it’s just us.”
“Everything gets left behind,” said Rachel, “except for who we take with us.”
“Rachel. Don’t get mad at me. But I’ve made my peace with that, I think I have. As long as it’s you. And Vera and Tasha, while we’re at it. The only humans within a thousand light years. Chase the Ngugma to the center of the Galaxy. Let’s go.”
Her face twisted into a smirk. “You’re so good for me,” she said. “Okay. Let’s hail them.”
“Hey guys, we’re here,” came Vera’s message from a half light second away. “Starting to see what sixty years of Ngugma occupation can do. We haven’t seen any sign of Fyaa forces, but we’re at present just dropping past 17%. I’m marking a planetoid—is that the base?”
Fifteen and a half seconds later, Clay replied, “That’s the one. I’m picking up Beta back there.”
“Sending y’all some navigation,” said Rachel.
And twenty hours later, eight fighters dropped down toward an object made of water ice, methane ice and rock, oblong and only about fifty kilometers long in its longest dimension: about the distance from Auburn to the north side of Portland.
“Still not picking up any Fyaa signals,” Maria Apple noted as she landed, the last of the eight. She followed the other seven in through a busted hatch, down a round hall about twice as wide as her fighter, and then came to a stop in an airless bay.
Apple and Izawa got out and were immediately set to getting the bay hatch shut. It didn’t seem to have been shifted in any way in a century, and the Fyaa happen to have chosen their clockwise in the opposite direction over us: Lefty-Tighty, Righty-Loosey. Clay and Natasha lent muscle to the enterprise and the hatch got shut. They sealed up any gaps. They let the Ghosts air up the bay.
“Okay,” said Rachel as they all stood, if it could be called that, in the middle of the bay. The gravity was about one percent of what they would have on Bluehorse-3. “Objective one achieved. Number two is: get this place running again. The Fyaa gave us specs. We should get power, they have starlight panels. Get life support and whatever they have for sensors.”
“We have the code,” said Timmis, holding up a finger. “They even made me a to-do list to get everything up, it’s like 59 steps.”
“It’s all yours, husband,” said Li, kissing his other hand, which she had been holding. They kissed a bit more.
“It’s like my folks at Bridge Club, back on the Canada,” said Apple.
“You build bridges?” said Izawa, while Timmis commenced to poke and slide on the Fyaa computer interface, a hexagonal touch-screen with about ten centimeters of depth, and spent thirty seconds with his right index finger against a spot below the display, downloading.
“Couple of us get back out and scout?” said Natasha.
“Sure,” said Rachel. “Except let’s mix it up. How about Vera and Izawa? Clay, Li, Maria, you guys explore the station. Natasha and I will try and find Fyaa signals once the system’s up. You guys good?”
“Sure, of course” and similar sentiments were heard. The little meeting broke up like a bubble popping. “Love your leadership style,” said Clay, kissing Rachel. “Phasers on stun for this?”
“Heavens no. If you shoot at some alien, I want you to blow a big hole in that thing.”
Clay spent some of the next hour imagining just how hardened, desperate and deadly someone would be, some alien someone, lurking without even a tech signature in an abandoned base in the dark for twenty, forty, a hundred years. But all they found were eight rooms, carved from icy rock and then sealed tight, eight plus the bay: a control room easily big enough for all eight of them to work, four rooms with twelve bunks each, and three rooms full of Fyaa-pilot-size junk. Presumably the Kaahriig, the storky ship captains, bedded down (or whatever) here once upon a time, because two of the barracks were designed for people taller than humans; the other two had bunks the size of kids’ shoeboxes, but they were definitely bunks.
There were two further airlocks, into tunnels that opened a kilometer or two east and a kilometer or two west. The three pilots returned to the now half-working control room.
“Didn’t shoot a damn thing,” said Clay.
“Each couple gets a whole room to themselves,” said Apple.
“Well,” said Natasha, “now you mention fruitless searches. We’ve got a whole big list of candidates for Fyaa bases, but not one of them shows up as a signal. Which you’d expect, if they’ve survived 62 years of Ngugma occupation.”
“I got life support up and running,” said Timmis. “They don’t like as much nitrogen as we do, but it’s actually easy to dial the O2 down a bit. They also see about the same wavelength.”
“And they use nouns and verbs,” said Natasha. “And write dull emails to their loved ones. Preserved forever on undying storage disks.”
“We did get forward camera,” said Rachel. They looked up, at the center of the solar system, and then the two planets, which were right now about ten planet diameters apart. One was just slightly larger than the other; both had a rotten apple look to them, sickly brown and beaten up enough to be clearly nonspherical. On close-up, the mining operation was still in full swing, with cargo shuttles dropping toward vast holes in each planet, and others rising up to deposit their cargo in the orbiting stations. Perhaps because it had been going on so long already, the stations, each the size of a small province, were pooping out millions of tons of slag every day, which was falling into the atmosphere in a predictable nightly meteor shower. Several holes on each planet were now so deep that great caverns were open in the outer mantle. Settling of air into these interior spaces, along with general disturbance, had reduced the outer atmospheres to not much more than trace levels. Only trace levels remained of the radioactive astatine the invaders had dispersed across both planets. There was absolutely no sign of life.
“Okay then,” said Clay after five minutes. They left the camera display up but they all turned away from it.
“Our scouts are returning,” said Timmis.
“Well, let them in,” said Rachel. Everyone laughed nervously, and then all but Timmis headed for the bay. In a minute, they were all back in the control room.
“Absolutely nothing to see,” said Vera, detaching her helmet and unzipping her suit a bit. “Or way too much, I mean, my god, if they ever did this to Bluehorse—!”
“Well, they’d better not have,” said Rachel. “Leave it at that.”
“But no contact with Fyaa, no sign of Fyaa, nothing.”
“Not true,” said Timmis. “See? We’re looking at a little rocky moon of the outermost ice giant. This is just as you two dipped behind the planet to land.”
They could see a curve of rocky lunar surface, gleaming a happy grey in the magnified sunlight. And there, just at the edge of the moon, three little fighters rose to about fifty kilometers, then dropped to a spot just rotating into daylight, where they disappeared. The whole sequence took about thirty seconds.
“We’ve just made contact with the Fyaa,” said Rachel.
The key to communicating with the Primoids had been the shared (presumably universal) facts of number theory. The key with the Fyaa of Fyatskaab seemed to be peek-a-boo. Vera and Natasha flew out and back several times along a trajectory only someone on that moon could see, and as soon as they were back in the shadow of their planetoid, the third time, the three Fyaa fighters repeated three times. The third time, one of them remained visible, hovering near the curve of the moon. Natasha went back out and beamed a short greeting. She got a long greeting back.
“They’re inviting themselves over,” said Natasha over the comm, after they watched the video message. “I wonder if we can make coffee.”
An hour later, three fighters came out from behind some rocks on that far-off moon, came out and didn’t go back. They curved out into black space and then, covered by a scatter of rock and ice, they turned toward the distant planetoid occupied by the humans.
“Look,” said Natasha, as the eight pilots stood around the control room watching, “that could be their entire surviving population in the system.”
“I don’t believe that,” said Rachel. “Not after sixty years. I mean, we know a little about the Fyaa. The Tskelly lifespan is only about a hundred Earth years. The mechanics, the little mechanic guys, the sort of chipmunk reptiles, they live about a hundred and fifty, and the Kaahriig come in around two hundred. I can’t believe they’d sit in the same system, just three of them, and watch their planets get chewed up. They’d do something or they’d leave. Now, if they had more—!”
“Like at Mathilde,” said Clay.
“Exactly. That’s what we have here. So the question is.”
“What will they want of us?” said Li.
“Yeah, and what do we feed them?”
“Well,” said Timmis, pulling up to his adopted console, “let’s see what magic I can work, shall we?”
Most of the base computers were functional, although their secrets were well hidden. Some things like life support could be dealt with easily enough by someone with technical ability, which in this case meant Timmis Green at the keypad—the Fyaa had a simple enough syllabic alphabet, and an approach to programming logic that would have been familiar to a lot of guys with thick glasses and white shirts in about 1970. The Fyaa lingua franca was easy enough to understand on a surface level. Timmis and Apple managed to connect the life support computers in the station, which appeared to have been turned off for over a thousand years, to Apple’s Ghost, and managed to get Apple’s Ghost’s recipe for coffee to come out of the life support system in the Fyaa base. They could make batter, and they could bake it at 200 C. Muffins seemed imminent.
“But how do we get the thing to produce whatever the Fyaa eat?” asked Natasha.
“You want to know what the Fyaa eat?” Apple replied. “The pilots mostly eat like us, they eat these food pellets, it’s like what I used to feed my cat. The bird guys, the Kaahriig, they eat basically raw meat, they literally raise these kind of insect-mouse things and eat them alive. It’s gross.”
The other seven thought about that for a moment. Clay said, “So what? Have you ever watched my Uncle Dave eat fried chicken? I have never liked fried chicken, because I’ve been watching that since I was about two.”
“But—live and squirming!”
“I’m telling you. That chicken could have been alive and it wouldn’t have been any more disgusting. So, coffee and food pellets?”
Coffee there was, but by the time the three Fyaa fighters were escorted in by Clay and Izawa, Timmis had managed to generate a sort of coffee cake with spices evolved in Fyatskaab, whose planty originals were now extinct. The three fighters entered the bay and unloaded: one Tskelly each, pink faces inside cute little eight-legged black vac suits, and four of the Errhatzky, the mechanic species, in cute, even littler grey vac suits. The Errhatzky turned out to have six legs, or rather two legs, two arms, and two utility limbs, and as soon as they came out they set to connecting the fighters up to cables they pulled out of the walls.
One of the three Tskelly cocked its head at Rachel and said something in the Fyaa language, squeaky and clicky but almost intelligible. It was intelligible to Rachel and Natasha, who both laughed at a joke. Natasha said something back, and the little pilot said something, and then they trooped on into the control room together. The Tskelly pilot said something explanatory.
“He, uh, it says,” Natasha translated, “welcome to Fyatskaab, he, uh, it’s sorry the hospitality can’t be better.”
“Hospitality?” Clay repeated.
“That’s a real thing for them,” said Natasha. “Very human.”
“You can understand it,” said Rachel. “They were five species, and they evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and all five became sentient, sort of like if we’d developed writing and technology and so on, and set about teaching it to the crows and the dolphins.”
“And the mice,” said Clay. “Don’t forget the mice.”
“Yeah, still waiting for Hitchhiker’s Guide to seem pessimistic compared to the real thing,” said Rachel. She looked at the Tskelly pilot who seemed the spokes-Tskelly. It hopped up into the air, where it used some sort of gadget in its suit to stay floating in the middle of the room. It had its helmet open. Its v-shaped mouth gave it a permanent, equable smile.
“You,” it squeaked. “You. Waaant. To know whaaat came to Fyatskaab.”
“We know what came to Fyatskaab,” said Natasha. “We want to know how you survived, and what you know about the Ngugma that we can use.”
It gave a glance across the eight of them. Its two black eyes widened and narrowed.
“You think,” said Rachel, “that we’re too few to handle this. We have more. We have Fyaa coming, from PSB6, and also Primoids, Kleegrga. We really are here to take them on.”
The Tskelly pilot said something in the Fyaa language, and Rachel and Natasha both answered in the same language. “It’s asking,” said Natasha, “if we have a plan. Plaaaan,” she said, and the Tskelly repeated the word with obvious relish. It couldn’t quite manage the L, but it loved the A. “We told it we’d be happy to entertain suggestions, since they’d obviously learned a thing or two.”
“Well,” said Rachel, “we should have refreshments. Food? Sskiig?” she said to the Tskelly.
“What about the Errhatzky?” asked Timmis. “I think they eat the same thing. Do they, you know, eat separately or something?”
“Nooo, nooooo,” said two of the Tskelly. The spokesperson added, “Errhatzky come in, eat with.”
“Okay then,” said Rachel. “Green, order up some coffee cake. And coffee. I bet they have experience with something like that.”
A few hours later, the Tskelly and their Errhatzky mechanics had nibbled coffee cake and adopted creamy coffee as a new favorite beverage. They had chatted, they had detailed the experience of watching their home planets destroyed, they had played human video games and shown off video games that only made sense to Fyaa, they had gone back for more coffee cake, and they had described in detail, with full video support, the capabilities of the Fyaa and the capabilities of the humans. They had pored over the destruction of the human home world, and they had established that the other two Fyaa species—the crustacean governors and the mollusk-like proletarians—were both extinct. Neither species had been transplanted beyond Fyatskaab, not even to the outer bases within the system. Like every other species bound to those two planets, they were gone.
And that extinction meant that the Fyaa system was fatally disrupted. The modus vivendi that had made their combined culture successful was broken and irreparable. These Tskelly and Errhatzky had found a way to get by, but at a very nominal level, and the work of finding a new modus vivendi seemed beyond reach.
And just in case Clay and his wife had not fully comprehended what had happened at Fyatskaab, there were the videos. By now, 62 years later, the Fyaa holdouts, scattered across at least fifteen bases on airless moons and planetoids around the outskirts of the system, had put together quite the presentation.
The Ngugma had come to Fyatskaab more than a hundred Earth years ago. It was a beautiful day, by Earth or Fyaa standards: the rolling sea in the light of a brilliant sun, the rolling hills blanketed with farms and forests: Fyatskaab had no plants or animals or fungi with any sort of relationship to those of Earth, but, by golly, they had plants (blue-green, not chlorophyll green) and animals (observably arthropod or reptilian or fishy or mollusk-like) and fungi (edible ones made up a large part of the diet of the working class). The mountains were tipped with snow behind the landing craft from which the first Ngugma visitors waddled. The pitch had been exactly the same as at Earth: we are far superior in technology, but don’t worry, we are here to help you, and all we ask in return is a chance to trade. They had suggested the Fyaa send back with them a delegation chosen from the various species that made up the Fyaa nation. The Ngugma spoke nearly perfect Fyaa lingua franca.
It was all so familiar that Clay and Rachel kept exchanging glances, and held hands through much of the show.
But if the first act was identical, the second act was much rewritten. The Fyaa, led by the crustacean-like Kahiim, the scholarly Kaahriig and the militant proletarian Mrez, decided they would not trade with the Ngugma, nor would they send a delegation. If the Ngugma wanted any intercourse with the Fyaa, they would have to reveal a lot more about their own empire than they had. Each of the Fyaa species was proud, in its own way, and the five together, and perhaps especially the space-faring Tskelly, Skzyyn’s people, harbored a pride that was the sum of all the subsidiary prides. So you think you’re far superior to us, do you? Well, perhaps it is we who are far superior to you.
The Fyaa said no to the Ngugma. The 180-minute video showed them doing so, in no uncertain terms, to the Ngugma visitors.
These left, and that was that, except that forty years later, these huge ships had rolled in, and their clouds of fighters, more than a hundred cruisers and a dozen battleships had been allowed to sail right up to the inner orbits. The Fyaa were saying no, but they didn’t want to have to fight a battle against such a massive enemy, not if they could avoid it. And who knew what the next step was going to be? Not the Fyaa, who had paid zero attention to what had happened to Earth. To the Fyaa, humans were little more than a rumor.
And then the Ngugma sent forth robotic shuttles over the two inhabited planets, and these sprayed out a shower of material which fell across the two planets, and by the time anyone in the Fyaa leadership could work out what was going on, every living thing on both worlds was dying of radiation poisoning.
Astatine is one of those chemical elements which is notable for the instability of even its most stable isotopes. The longest half-life isotope is astatine-210, at 8.1 hours. The Ngugma had synthesized it in large quantities—they were nothing if not good with the periodic table. The isotope was essentially perfect for the use they put it to: it released killing levels of radiation, and then quickly decayed into nice, innocent bismuth and lead and thallium. In a matter of days, everyone and everything was dead. Whole ecosystems were wiped clean off two planets; creatures that were the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution were gone in one fell swoop.
Everything was dead, and the video spent a fair amount of time showing it all dying. It was no more pleasant than what Clay had seen broadcast from Earth. The fact that the dead, rotting and corroded, and the dying, struggling to explain what was happening as it happened, were Mrez and Kahiim and Kaahriig and not humans: it made no difference.
Everything was dead, and then the astatine was pretty much gone. A hundred half-lives was less than a month. The drilling could begin.
So the Fyaa and the humans were alike in many ways. They breathed oxygen, they ate stuff made of carbon, they drank stuff that was mostly water, they used nouns and verbs, they had two eyes each and one mouth, they wore vac suits, albeit tiny ones, and fired laser weapons, they saw in similar wavelengths and they heard at similar frequencies, even if the Errhatzky in particular could distinguish by smell a thousand different compounds at parts-per-billion levels. And their civilization had been almost completely wiped out so that the Ngugma could mine their planets to the point of mutilation. Humans and Tskelly and Kaahriig and Errhatzky watched it all in disgust, anger and despair.
And two days later, when the rest of the fleet from PSB6 began to appear out of the haze of light speed, they had the beginnings of a plan.