Chapter 8: The tale of the Ngugma

VIII. The tale of the Ngugma

 

1.

Daria Acevedo was made aware of her errors in another twenty hours, once Big Fourteen had come to a stop near the docks but not docked. Li Zan did not escape the sarcasm of Su Park just because she had kept her ship together, but the focus was Acevedo. Back aboard the Tasmania, which was docked with the Honshu and also cleverly attached to the Big Fourteen maintenance bay, Park and Rachel, and Li and Acevedo, had a private conference, and when they emerged, Rachel and Li went off and had a talk of their own. Clay and Natasha and Vera grabbed Acevedo and took her over to the Honshu for a few pints.

“Yeah,” said Acevedo, “like, I felt bad for Li, she’s a veteran and I guess people think of her as cautious, but Park, like, she made a point of taking an extra five minutes to make me feel like a millimeter tall. I felt like a centimeter, and she felt she had to make that a millimeter.”

“I am not angry,” said Clay, “just disappointed.”

“Very,” said Acevedo. “She said she was very disappointed. And she asked me all these questions, like, what led me to think I could take on an Ngugma cruiser by myself, what made me think it was a good idea to lead a bunch of fighter pilots into a battle like that, what exactly was I thinking, that kind of question.”

“So what were you thinking, anyway?” asked Vera.

“That we were as good as you guys,” said Acevedo. “Which we’re obviously not.”

“You are an awesome fighter pilot,” said Natasha. “You have come up from nothing. You’re not even a colony ship kid like Apple, you’re a born colonist and you’re easily the best pilot Bluehorse has produced so far. Well, uh, up to the last time we were there, which was like five billion years ago, but still.”

“Ninety years,” said Clay. “89, actually. Four months to us.”

“But take on ten cruisers?”

“Okay,” said Acevedo, “it’s been said, okay?”

“So the question is,” said Vera, “are you going to take the Unbreakable Vow?”

Daria Acevedo looked Vera Santos in the eye. Daria had hazel-brown eyes and gravelly blond hair held back in a ponytail; Santos, dark hair, dark eyes, stared her down.

“No, I’m not,” said Acevedo.

“Schmitt? Is she?”

“How the frick would I know?”

“Daria,” said Natasha, “I love you and all, but you’re wing commander. You’re good. Peri and Millie and Miz, they rally behind you. It matters how you lead them. You’re a natural leader, you are, and that’s pretty amazing, you notice the three of us are all non-commanders.”

“You’re frickin’ better fighter pilots than me.”

“Look,” said Vera. “The whole difference between Alpha Wing and Gamma Wing is that we basically decided that whatever happened, whatever happens, we all have to survive. Natasha said it before: the one who wins is the one who’s alive at the end. You are a powerful weapon, one of the ten or twelve best fighter pilots in the known universe, but you are worthless to us dead.”

“And so’s your wing,” said Clay.

“And you’re not worth much floating in space in your vac suit,” said Vera, “though it’s nice that you can fight again next time. So. At least the concept of the Vow.”

“It’s just not something I can do,” said Acevedo. “Make promises like that. In battle you have to be ready to give it all, there’s just situations where—!”

“That’s baloney,” said Vera.

“That’s where you have to change your point of view,” said Natasha. “Rachel’s idea—!” She looked at Clay.

“I didn’t get it right away,” said Clay. “She just said to me, ‘Win the battle, save the planet, but just don’t die.’ She had to say it several times before I got it. All three things. They’re all true. They’re not incompatible.”

“Because,” said Natasha. But then she laughed and said, “We’re not going to change your mind. You’re going to change your mind. You guys fought a good fight, you just should’ve had some help. You weren’t thinking, were you, those Alphas, they’ll steal our shot at glory?”

“Aw, come on,” said Acevedo. “We just figured we had to take on those cruisers. They might’ve posed a threat to Honshu and Tasmania.

“Who have guns of their own,” said Clay, “and a Primoid cruiser and a couple of Fyaa cruisers backing them up.” He took a drink and said, “But I get the sense that all that’s been said.”

“Several times,” said Acevedo.

“You’re getting a new Ghost, aren’t you?” asked Vera.

“Yup. Padfoot and Poto and Gene are making me a new one. I had to promise Padfoot I’d be more careful with it.”

“Okay,” said Natasha, “let’s drink a few beers and get some sleep, tomorrow’s a big day.”

“Why, what’s tomorrow?” asked Vera.

“Big meeting about the Ngugma.”

“This is about the archives?” asked Clay.

“This is about what’s in the archives.”

 

2.

“The first thing to know about the Ngugma,” said Natasha Kleiner to a meeting aboard the Honshu of everyone in the system, human or Primoid or Fyaa, who was not needed on a bridge somewhere, “is where they originated.”

“Where did they originate?” asked Vera. “M31?”

“Nope. Three more guesses.”

Park rolled her eyes. It was not how she would conduct a meeting. Kalkar said, “Galaxy center.”

“No, but it’s interesting you would guess that.”

“I’m going to say somewhere far away,” guessed Clay. “Like, the opposite side of the galaxy. I take it they’re from this galaxy.”

“They are from this galaxy, but not so far away, and I’m counting that as a guess.”

“Earth,” said Timmis Green. “I’m gonna say Sirius,” said Peri Schmitt.

“Nope, nope,” said Natasha. “Ready?” Park sighed. Natasha gave her a glance and said, “Okay. The Ngugma, as we now know, originated on the third planet of the Bluehorse system.” She smiled and looked around. There was silence.

“But really where?” asked Daria Acevedo, who was born on Bluehorse.

“Really Bluehorse,” said Padfoot.

“But how could—?” was the general sentiment. Park looked mildly bored: she had made sure to go through all the surprise beforehand.

“Those plaques,” said Clay. “They made the plaques. Because there isn’t one at Bluehorse.”

“But they’re like billions of years old,” said Vera. “This just doesn’t make sense.”

“Five hundred million, actually,” said Padfoot.

“It makes all kinds of sense,” said Clay. “And remember the very old ruins on Bluehorse?”

“Those aren’t ruins,” said Rachel, “just things that look like roads and—okay. I get it.”

“So this is real,” said Apple.

“Yes, Ms. Apple, this is real,” said Park. “The Ngugma evolved on Bluehorse-3.”

“Then why aren’t they living there now?” was the general response.

“Why aren’t there holes?” asked Apple. “I mean,” she added, but she let it trail off.

“Because,” said Rachel, “they’re a lot like us. They wouldn’t completely wreck their own home planet.”

“How much would they wreck it?” asked Clay. “We wrecked ours a lot.”

“Well, they wrecked it a lot too,” said Natasha. “But yeah, not to the point of digging out the mantle.”

“But—five hundred million years,” said Apple. “I mean, five hundred million?”

“They were sentient that whole time?” said Li Zan.

“We were basically pikaia or whatever,” said Timmis. “Or tube worms. I mean, how much did they evolve in all that time?”

“And what is this to do with those plaques?” asked Apple.

“And,” said Vera, “why the assholes are digging up all these planets and wiping out all these other sentient species. I mean, do they think only they count because they’re so freakin’ old?”

“Well,” said Natasha, “that’s the story we still have to tell. Okay?”

 

3.

The origins of the Ngugma are murky, literally: like humans, Tskelly and Primoids, the Ngugma have their ancestry in shallow, mucky pools. These pools lay under a warm yellow sun on a smallish planet of wide shallow seas and long low lands under blue and orange skies. The seas were full of water, the land was silica and carbonate and metals, and the sky was made of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide and a fair amount of helium and argon. As in so many other such places, chemical interactions among sea and salt and air and geothermal emission rolled their dice hundreds, thousands, millions of times during the short days and nights of the little planet, and once in a million times something formed, some collection of molecules that could make more molecules and another collection which would make more, before dying out in the dry season or washed up on the dry rock.

But in the deeper mud and in the ponds and bays that were just deep enough but not too deep, collections of molecules built walls around themselves and became cells, and inside the sanctuary of those walls they built new molecules, and when the walls inevitably burst the new molecules built new walls. In different strata of different ponds and bays, different collections formed. Sometimes they met and bonded. Sometimes they met and ignored one another. Sometimes one engulfed the other. Little by little, they became life, and little by little, life became complex, as on so many other worlds. Little by little, on this world that would in hundreds of millions of years be named after a dead fighter pilot from a place called Earth, the seas and swamps and ponds and rivers came to teem with life.

A sort of chlorophyll was invented. Legs and fins were invented, as were jaws and armor, stings and poisons, tentacles and claws. One lineage grew wormy, and developed lots of little legs. One lineage grew blobby, and developed shells to protect its vulnerable bulk. One lineage grew finny, extravagantly so, and darted about avoiding trouble. One lineage grew in circles, in four-fold or six-fold or eight-fold radial symmetry. One clan in this radially symmetric lineage, living in the shallows and on the low beaches, became generalists, omnivores who could survive the intermittent dry periods and intermittent ice ages and intermittent die-offs, by eating what it could find and using what it could remember. It survived, and it was the first to do this, by using its brain.

Brains are just tools, just organs. Big ones do not automatically confer an unbeatable advantage. Species with big brains have been killing themselves off ever since there were species with big brains. But for these creatures, with six fat arms radiating out from a blobby center, covered in hairy scales with eyes on short stalks and a round mouth in the middle, brains came to matter more and more. They found that they were prey of many things, vulnerable on land and in water, and they found that they needed tools and memories and, at last, words and pictures. They found the need for solidarity, for community, and also for systems by which they could exploit their erstwhile competitor species. All this took words, and they came up with words, and one of the words they came up with was the word for “ourselves.” And what they called themselves was: “(ng)OOGmeh,” almost one syllable. Ngugma.

The Ngugma built towns, cities, mines, undersea wonders, sky-leaping towers. They were a peaceful people, if one could think of them as people, but they did have disagreements about governance and they were not immune to selfishness and short-term thinking. They drove species after species to extinction, they fought a civil war ever few thousand years—the concept of year, a trip around the star and a passage of one cycle of seasons, was familiar to them and their year would correspond to about one and a half of the years known on Earth.

These things never threatened to send the Ngugma themselves to extinction. They presently evolved into a sort of steady state, so steady that they lived two hundred million years of it without a break, so steady that it came to be an article of faith that it would last forever.

But a hundred million years is a time scale that is impossible to completely imagine. The land itself changed, like waves on an ocean; the oceans changed too. The species around them changed like dunes in a desert. The Ngugma themselves slowly, slowly changed, becoming a little smaller, a little brainier, with slightly longer and more agile arms, more little tentacles, better eyes, better senses all around. They developed a resistance to what we might think of as heart disease. The more common cancers evolved out, though less common ones became more common; Ngugma medicine simply got better in response. Their lifespans grew from a hundred years to two hundred, five hundred: from there, it became the case that most Ngugma simply lived till something unfortunate happened to them, though suicide, briefly a fashion, nearly vanished.

Then there were the existential crises. The meteor that practically reset the entire planet-wide ecosystem; they survived and adapted and rebuilt. The slow rising and drying of the land, the slow depletion of the atmosphere, the slow slide of the planet outward in its orbit; they survived, but with occasional jolts as they came up against new boundaries that had not existed before. At some point, a species that had dominated the world when it was warm and wet and fertile could not accept the limitations astronomy had imposed on it, as the world became cooler and drier and more barren.

A revolution came from within the Ngugma. They would not accept these limitations. They would live as they had. They would dig up oil and coal and anything else they could use, they would cut down their version of forests and redirect the rivers they had dumped in. They would be their own Ngugma. Better a free Ngugma in its grave than living as a puppet or a slave.

The Ngugma marched and crawled and scurried to the edge of the steepest precipice they had yet encountered. Many of them toppled off. Those who were left massed their technology and their wisdom and their moral nausea and made the decision to leave their damaged planet to heal on its own, and find new worlds in space where they could start again, yet again, and do it right.

Natasha made a gesture and the lights came up halfway. She looked around: all but one of the crews of both Honshu and Tasmania were here, as well as a dozen Kaahriig, at least a dozen Tskelly, two dozen Errhatzky and twenty Primoids. Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Special were floating about, watching and commenting amongst themselves. Anand Ree stood-floated with an arm around his wife, the engineer Tashmina Dawa, who was half a head taller than him; she held their young son Vijay. Skzyyn floated, his back left foot hooked on Clay’s shoulder pocket.

“Questions so far?” asked Natasha.

“No questions, hot stuff,” said Vera. “Just keep talking.”

“That is advisable,” said Hhmvyvya, floating near Natasha, its six arms and legs folded up in a relaxed way. “The important thing is the next thing.”

 

4.

“The Ngugma,” said Natasha, “have been in space for hundreds of millions of years. Can you conceive of that, at all? Of course you can’t. We’ve been in space for, well, as of when the Human Horizon Project left Earth? Three hundred years. Less.” She looked at Fvaerch.

“Innn your yearsss,” said the Kaahriig captain, “ittt would beee one thouuusand, two perhapsss.”

“Yep.” She looked at Skippy and another Primoid, side by side, holding stick-hands. “Skippy and I worked out, I think, that the Primoids began space traveling somewhere around ten thousand years ago. Multiply that by ten thousand, and you start to get in the neighborhood of how long the Ngugma have been space-faring.” Natasha shook her head, then gave a little smile of bewilderment. She clicked to the next slide: after Ngugma artists’ conceptions of the evolution and prehistory of the Ngugma, there were the primitive first Ngugma spacecraft. “They actually started before the Great Backward Revolution, as they called it afterward: they started with nuclear engines, if you can imagine. It was all part of their rebellious resource overuse.”

“Rebellious resource overuse?” Clay repeated.

“Earth’s been through a few periods like that,” said Rachel.

“So has Fyatskaab,” said Skzyyn from Clay’s shoulder. “Kaahriig are where they are now because they knew to stop us wasting our resources.”

“Poisoninggg the lllaand,” said Captain Fvaerch. “We calllculated the rate of spoilinggg.”

“Primoids went through this too?” asked Timmis. They looked at Skippy, who was just enough smaller than the other Primoids that all the humans and Fyaa knew which one it was. Skippy did some wiggles and a sort of shrug.

“No,” said Natasha. “Primoid history is a little different. But that’s not the subject here. The subject is how the Ngugma got in space, and how they moved off Bluehorse, and what they eventually ran into, which is the real subject.”

“How did they get in space?” asked Rachel.

“How long was the Backward Revolution?” asked Park.

“The really backwards part, thirty of their years. A lot less than a lifetime. Before that, they had a regime that sort of tried to fix things and deal with their growing problems, but it didn’t have the stomach or whatever to actually solve anything. It was just enough to piss people off, I mean to piss Ngugma off. So they got overthrown by the so-called Young Ngugma movement. And their answer was to forget about their problems and go on a bender. And that was the Backwards Revolution.”

“A bender,” said Vera. “The Young Ngugma,” said Clay.

“But how many Young Ngugma could there be at a time?” asked Timmis. “They live forever.”

“So it’s true that they live indefinitely long lives, I mean, they don’t automatically grow old and die like we do, like I think the Fyaa species all do. But unlike the Primoids they don’t have a huge issue with dying, their endless lives don’t make them any more conservative about how they live. And that was especially true after they overthrew the, um, we translate it as ‘deconstructionist’ government, but that sounds like they were literary theorists. The deconstructionist government hung on for a good hundred years, trying to deal with increasing scarcity and creeping taints from pollution, and mostly dealing by half-measures. Then the Young Ngugma movement overthrew them and there was a lot of their gooey blood in the streets. Oh, they had hexagonal streets that were like ten centimeters deep water, turns out that was really wasteful since they didn’t have enough water to go around by that time. But these guys, they called them the Young Ngugma, they declared that there were plenty of resources, they even got water ice off one of the Bluehorse-4 moons, that was their first big away project. They built these atomic rockets and flew all over their star system and they started bringing back these cubic kilometer chunks of lunar ice. Didn’t last a whole long time, but it was a start on you know what.”

“Oh jeez,” said Clay. “Oh. I get it.” Skzyyn chittered: it sounded exactly like tsk, tsk.

“From ice to lava,” said Li Zan.

“You have to give the Ngugma this,” said Kalkar. “They think big.”

“But of course they were using everything stupidly,” said Natasha. “They could have been using the water to do fusion or something.”

“One has hhhheard of aaaancient civilizationnns,” said one of the Kaahriig, “which use proton decayyyy. A block of waterrr icccce would be perrrrfect.”

“But they were digging up all the uranium ore they could,” said Natasha, “just to go get ice they could melt and drink. It was almost willful: they liked to say they weren’t going to let anyone tell them what they could and couldn’t do, if the old ones told them it was unwise to do things this way instead of that way, the Young Ngugma wanted to do it this way all the more. And to hell with the next generation. They said that, it was a sort of rallying cry.”

“And then the crunch happened,” said Clay.

“The crunch happened,” said Natasha. “It was a water crunch and a food crunch and a disease crunch, all at once. Everything fell apart. The system basically crashed. Most of the population died out, like 98%. A lot of species disappeared. Bluehorse had become a dry world, over the millions of years, with water only in a few places—just like it is now. And bear in mind, this is after over two hundred million years of civilization. Not existence as a life form, of civilization.”

“They were civilized long enough,” said Rachel, “to have evolved physically while being a civilization.”

“And they got as close as they ever got to self-annihilation,” said Natasha. “And they drew some lessons from that. And as you would expect, some of them were good lessons and some of them were not so good lessons.”

 

5.

Ngugma space missions at first were purely scientific, purely atomic-powered, and purely within the Bluehorse System. The Young Ngugma only changed the first of the three. After the Young Ngugma collapsed, the survivors immediately dedicated themselves to leaving their home planet completely, a thing they had never done. And in a couple of hundred Earth years, they had a colony in another system, a five-star system they called Five Star. Natasha translated this as Pentestella. Another two colonies came within the next two centuries, and within five hundred years all the Ngugma had left Bluehorse. It was highly polluted, and the highlands were bone-dry deserts, and its resources had been mined out, but they also came to regard their home planet as a sort of monument to shame. Over the millions of years, the Ngugma developed a straightforward taboo about the Bluehorse system: they would never again live there, they would never again exploit its resources, they would forever renounce the world of their birth.

The Second Lesson was that maintaining the Ngugma as a civilization in the very long term was the paramount concern. This made the Ngugma great stewards of the planets where they built their new cities and their new factories and farms. It also made the Ngugma less than kindly to alien species: no one else mattered more than the Ngugma, by axiom. They built far and wide, scattering twenty colonies across a thousand light years’ distance along the Orion Arm of the Milky Way. They quickly met, and quickly eradicated, two other technological, but not space-faring, civilizations. Two others they encountered and subordinated, drawing resource from their planets in return for not wiping them out.

The Third Lesson was that the Ngugma should not put all their eggs in one basket. Four hundred thousand years before the Young Ngugma revolution, a supernova explosion a hundred light years away got them calculating, and they calculated that if it had been twenty light years away, its gamma ray burst would have wiped out all life on Bluehorse. The remote risk of an extremely unfortunate event is a puzzling mathematical concept for any species. The Ngugma reacted conservatively, and required that their population centers never lie within fifty light years of one another, so that a single supernova, according to their calculations, could not wipe out as many as two of them.

They developed a complex network of supply centers and distribution nodes, but they weren’t devastating planets anymore: even the ones they had conquered were treated sustainably. With a realm that stretched its tendrils across thousands of light years, the Ngugma were merely dealing with the long time horizon of their supply chain. Meanwhile, they were scouting the entire arm, evaluating which stars might be future bases, which might have resources for mining or food production, which might be a threat and which ones they ought to just pass on by.

“So they put plaques on them,” said Rachel.

“Oh jeez,” said Clay. “Seriously?”

“That’s what it looks like,” said Natasha. “Those things turn out to be 230 million years old. And that gives you a sense of their time horizon. The expeditions to explore all these systems and mark them with plaques, that took about four thousand years. A flash.”

“A flashhh?” one of the Kaahriig repeated.

“Very fast,” said Skzyyn. “A moment in time. A second to a century.”

“Ah.”

“But they weren’t sucking out whole planets,” said Rachel. “Tell what happened then.”

“What happened,” said Natasha, “is that they found out what was at the center of the galaxy.”

 

6.

The Ngugma of their long colonial era thought of themselves as enlightened and careful and very wise, but from outside, they would appear to be a star empire of slightly above average moral quality at best. Their own opinion of themselves was all that mattered, of course, because they hadn’t met any other star empires. So they expanded, with extreme slowness and care for sustainability, for seventy million years. They reached the outer end of the Orion Arm and built a base at a star near the tip. They reached the inner end of the Arm, and crossed the less crowded space between the Arm and the galactic hub.

An expedition was sent across that strait of space, four hundred light years with only a few systems and nebulae, and into the galactic core, a mass of stars like people crowding around an ice cream dealer on a hot day. Eight hundred years later, the expedition did not return. A second expedition went, along with another one just to explore the strait. The strait expedition returned, with odd readings and one cruiser from the expedition into the center. Its crew must have gone mad, or the Ngugma equivalent, because they were apparently confined immediately after their return, but they had been sane enough to make the journey home. All this was more or less public within the Ngugma, or at least within their star fleet and their innermost colonies.

Another expedition went across the strait into the hub of the galaxy, and this one was much more secret. Apparently, from the archives, at least some of its members returned, and brought useful information. This information was not disseminated, but over the course of a few more hundred millennia, more expeditions were dispatched, increasingly well-armed ones. The Ngugma had not needed much firepower to overcome the fish-swamis of Gngofreh, but now they seemed to be fighting something which required hundreds of cruisers, dozens of battlecruisers, a dozen top of the line battle-wagons, fighting ships larger and more powerful than anything the Ngugma or anyone else they knew of had ever imagined. And legions of fighters.

At first their fighters were manned, if you will, by living Ngugma, but presently, as production kicked into high gear, these were replaced by robots, that is, by programs that ran their drive, maneuver and combat sections without a live being in the pilot seat. This became Ngugma military doctrine, and that allowed a redesign of the fighter itself, but the level of production they now felt they needed was far beyond what they could manage with mines on their city planets. So they turned to an unprecedented new method. They found a system whose civilized residents had died out—it was, in fact, the system Rachel and Clay called the Holey Place—and they commenced to make holes. They liked the iron and manganese and nickel, but taking tanks of magma the size of cities meant they could harvest significant amounts of P-group metals and other rare or trace elements. They had enough rhenium to build a cruiser out of just that, if they wanted, and rhenium is the rarest of all the stable elements.

But what did they want? Who were they fighting? The Ngugma seemed to be boxing with shadows. Within ten million years of those first expeditions, they were throwing vast amounts of war materiel at the threat from the galactic hub. But what was the threat from the galactic hub?

Natasha paused. She exchanged looks with Hhmvyvya, and with Padfoot, who shrugged.

“We don’t know,” said Natasha. “That’s the thing. They never say. Whatever it is, it’s bad. The Ngugma are literally horrified by it. They find it—literally unspeakable. They can’t talk about it.”

“But they can send expeditions against it,” said Park.

“They can send wave after wave of fighters and cruisers and battleships. They have a whole scheme worked out. They waste thousands of fighters every year, which they build all over the Orion Arm and channel to the fight, but they try to preserve their bigger ships, especially the battleships, by pulling them back just in time, and they mourn when one is lost, that’s clear. They lose four in one battle, they have a huge inquiry. We have about fifty of these inquiry reports.”

“The invasion of the core,” Hhmvyvya hissed.

“Yes. Every few, I don’t know, tens of thousands of years, they get up the gumption to have a go at invading the center. It never goes well, and they sort of learn their lesson till next time. The lost are mourned, and if some come back, they’re almost always regarded with suspicion. There’s a whole genre of Ngugma poetry or whatever that’s about the insanity of some hero returning. They don’t contemplate for a moment what it was the hero saw, but they have whole tragedies, or whatever, about the damaged hero, you know, lethally damaged.”

“And the whole fight is along this ‘strait’ between the Orion Arm and the core?” asked Li.

“No, actually,” said Natasha. “Whatever it is they’re fighting, it sometimes tries to come around the side and attack from the flank. The Ngugma worry about this a great deal. You have to understand. They’re bailing as fast as they can. You can picture it as: they’re in a boat out in the middle of the ocean and it’s leaking. So they have to tear up parts of the boat to make buckets to bail with. Except it’s like they’re surrounded by the most horrible sea serpents or monsters or kraken or whatever you can imagine, and they’re bailing the blood of their lost heroes. It’s—it’s pretty bad.”

“Not bedtime reading,” said Clay.

“Nooo,” said Hhmvyvya, and Natasha laughed ruefully.

“So,” said Rachel, “you’re telling me we’re supposed to feel bad for them. Or pitch in and bail.”

“No. No,” said Natasha, “I am not trying to make you feel sorry for the Ngugma. They’re kind of assholes. As to what we do, well, all I can say is that we should consider whether what’s in the center of the galaxy is something we want to meet, whether we can coexist with it or them, whether we can ignore it or them. Or whether we throw in with the Ngugma and fight it. Or try and fight it ourselves? I don’t know.”

Park moved next to Natasha. “All right,” she said, “all that is something that needs to be decided. As to who gets to decide it, I think that part is clear. It’s us, and I do not mean me. But one other thing is clear.”

“Big meeting coming,” said Clay, “after this big meeting.”

“Yes,” said Park, “and that meeting will have to involve some participation by representatives of the Ngugma.”

 

7.

Clay had been allowed to leave the ersatz bridge of Big Fourteen for good. Emily Gray, Tasmania’s second pilot, came aboard and guided the big ship to a dock well outside the purview of the Ngugma crew of the depot, and Clay and the rest of the fighter pilots, Tskelly included, left the maintenance bay for the more comfortable environs of Tasmania and her bigger, newer cousin Honshu.

At some point, he and Rachel lay in a compartment bunk aboard Honshu. They were naked and weightless, and very relaxed, in a space three times the volume of their combined Ghosts. They were reading again: he was pushing through Tolkien one more time, while she was nipple-deep in a swashbuckling romance from 25th Century Bluehorse. His was on actual paper: hers was on the screen over her head. Frodo Baggins was recovering from a nasty stab wound when Rachel suddenly said, “I can’t wait to see the look on their furry faces.”

“What? Who, the Ngugma?”

“Yes the Ngugma. You heard. We have to talk to them. Those dickheads.” She laughed. “I always found that a fun image.”

“You still have an issue with them?”

“Yes I still—You’re joking. That’s hilarious, because jokes about holocausts are always good for a laugh.”

“So true,” said Clay. “I’m sorry I said anything about it. Am I allowed to ask how the new information affects your view?”

Rachel gave him a thoughtful look, which was interesting given how distracting it still was to have her naked and a few centimeters from him. “I’m not done processing it all,” she said. “I guess I’d say I can at least see where they’re coming from, but wouldn’t it have been better to ally with us and all these other species, and fight the enemy together? Especially since, you know, it turns out that humans are the best fighter pilots in the galaxy and all.”

“In the Orion Arm at the very least,” said Clay. “And I’m not done processing that fact either. Earth had 205 million potential fighter pilots when they killed all of them off. Even if you only count 1% of 1% of 1%, that’s still 205 fighter pilots. You’d think we would overwhelm anything we met.”

“But,” said Rachel, “would we have felt the need for the Vow?”

“I don’t know. There’s something about there being just, what, sixteen of us. As opposed to the Ngugma, who couldn’t imagine fielding a huge fleet of fighters except if it was operated by robot. So they think of it as a materiel problem, not a personnel problem.”

Rachel rolled to face him, and before he could be distracted by her body in motion, she put a finger in his chest hair. “That’s the whole point of the vow, Hunkburger. Four of us are better than a million of them. So obviously we can’t afford to lose even one of us, because we aren’t going to knock off 250,000 of them to compensate. And besides.”

“Besides,” said Clay, “there’s the mysterious enemy behind the curtain.”

“Which is not nothing,” said Rachel, “”because they’re definitely fighting something.” She pulled them together and smooched him, then again with some nice body contact. “Let’s go,” she said. “Meeting’s waiting.”

“Is it time already?”

“Maybe not, but it pays to be ready ahead of time.”

They popped the hatch and climbed out. Clay started pulling on his vac suit, but Rachel slapped the door of the compartment next to theirs. The hatch popped, and Vera came rolling out naked in the microgravity. “Oh, hi, Clay, Rachel,” she said. “Tash, they’re ready.”

“Coming,” said Tash.

So Alpha Wing got dressed in their vac suits again and sashayed out to the bridge of the Honshu. Skzyyn launched itself from atop a console and landed on Clay’s shoulders. Park, Kalkar, Fvaerch, one of the Primoids, and Captain Cassiopeia Root were facing the big screen. On it, they could see a smallish room in the slightly pink light that prevailed on Big Fourteen. Three piles of brown fur slowly thrashed about there.

“The terms are clear,” said Park, after throwing a quick smile at her favorite fighter pilots. “There is no negotiation.”

One of the blobs resolved: it was a live Ngugma, facing them, its fat tentacles pushed back to hold onto something, the much smaller and more plentiful little tentacles amongst its fur holding instruments of some sort. A round mouth in the middle opened and emitted words in a basso profundo with pretty good English.

“Humans fear to negotiate,” it said. “You fear that we are too clever and will trick you.”

“We know what you prefer to do to beings who are not Ngugma,” said Park. “It’s not fear, it’s simple recognition of the facts. Now it is your turn to recognize facts. As I indicated, the terms are clear. We do not negotiate with you, and not for reasons of fear, but because, in terms of trust, you are simply infinitely beneath us.”

The Ngugma might have been very put out at this observation, or it might have argued the question, but instead it acquiesced. “Su Park,” it said, “we recognize the fact that you offer us no choice. We accept your terms.”

“Very good,” said Park, while Kalkar, Root and the Kaahriig officer exchanged looks. “We will convene at your time coordinate Hour 23, Minute 75, over this channel.” She switched something and the Ngugma were replaced onscreen by Padfoot and Hhmvyvya in the maintenance bay. Park turned to Rachel and the others. Li, Timmis, Apple and Izawa were now with them. “That was the captain of Big Fourteen,” she said. “I believe it is called Avvann.”

“You seem to have the better of Avvann, Commander,” said Rachel.

“We shall see. They want to convince us that a certain course of action is in our best interest. But that’s the same line they gave Earth and the same line they gave Fyatskaab, and it turned out not to be in the best interest of Earth or Fyatskaab. So we shall see.”

“Yesss,” said Fvaerch, the Kaahriig, bowing and bobbing its long beak. “Becauzzze, thisss time they may not be lyyyinggg.”