Chapter 9: What to do

IX. What to do

 

1.

“So?” asked Park. “What do we do with this situation?”

“I don’t know,” said Clay and Rachel, almost together.

“God damn it, you guys,” said Vera. “I can’t even start to credit that you’re even thinking of trusting them.”

“I don’t see it as trusting them,” said Rachel. “I mean, what part of ‘I don’t know’ is confusing you?”

“I definitely don’t trust them,” said Natasha.

“Well, I don’t trust them,” said Clay, “but no one seems to think they’re lying in their archives or annals or whatever. No one thinks the whole thing about the galactic center is made up.”

“Clay,” said Vera, “they lied to Earth and all 205 million Earth residents died horribly. They lied to the Fyaa and killed off basically the entire biosphere of both planets of Fyatskaab. And now we know they’ve done the same thing a bunch of other times. They are liars who kill people for profit. They don’t deserve anything from us. They definitely don’t deserve our trust.”

Clay looked at Skzyyn, who was exchanging gestures with Fvaerch. “What do you guys think?”

Skzyyn made another gesture Clay hadn’t figured out yet. The Kaahriig captain said, “We wisssh to lisssten some morrre. Then deccciiide.”

“Look,” Rachel was saying, “it’s a given that the Ngugma are assholes. They—!”

“They’re not exactly assholes,” said Natasha. “I don’t think it’s helpful to think of them that way. They’re not, you know, Voldemort, or Duke Prendergast from the Tales of Paula. They have reasons.”

“That doesn’t—!” Vera started.

“It doesn’t mean they get a pass. Look, let me say what I’m saying. I know the Ngugma pretty well by now.”

“Do not say that you understand them and it’s all okay,” said Vera. “Do not say you understand them and so we should trust them.”

“Vera,” said Rachel, “it’s not about trust. We don’t trust them. No one trusts them. Do you guys trust them?”

Skzyyn gave Clay a look that, for an alien being, clearly said: Why me? It said, “No, Scary Rachel, we do not trust them.” The Kaahriig captain made an emphatic gesture with its beak and shook its wings a bit.

“Just let me finish, darn it,” said Natasha. “The Ngugma—they have reasons for everything. They think it’s all justified. The trouble is, that calculation of theirs is based on the assumption that they’re the only species that really matters. So to ensure their survival, they think they have every right to lie to anyone and everyone who isn’t Ngugma, lie and murder and the whole thing. They no doubt see our little uprising as a terribly unfortunate obstacle to their all-important goal. But whatever else they’re doing, they’re definitely fighting this war against something or someone at the center of the galaxy. That’s not a lie. Or if it is, it’s a lie to cover the fact that they’re fighting some other war some other place. I think we can take it as given that they’re not using all that iron and manganese to build themselves a string of shiny new planets.”

“So,” said Vera, “you figure we should just pitch in and help them. Let bygones be bygones. No harm done.”

“No, Vera, I don’t think that. Okay? My goddess.”

“Okay, okay,” said Clay, “it’s not like that. It’s a given we don’t trust them. I’m pissed off, okay, Vera? We are all substantially pissed at these hairy assholes about how rude they were in destroying the human race. And, yeah, all life on Fyatskaab 1 and 2. We know. Jeez, it’s hard to say this so it’s loud and clear enough. I hate these guys. But.”

“But we have to make peace with them?” said Vera.

“No,” said Rachel, “we have to talk to them.”

“We have to talk to them? I like the way Park talked to them. Here’s how it’s gonna be. You’re going to give us everything we want and then maybe—!”

“Vera,” said Rachel.

“Vera,” said Natasha. “If you don’t believe there’s something transcendently weird about the core of the Galaxy, if you’re willing to take that bet, then, even then, there’s what, 28 fighters on our side still operating? Plus three whole cruisers and two armed freighters. Yeah, we’ll go a long way in destroying the Ngugma Empire with that. And just suppose there is something weird and inexplicable and dangerous in the galactic core.”

“We have to talk to them,” said Clay. “We have to get their testimony.”

“But we cannot forgive and forget,” said Vera. “And we can’t even think about trusting them.”

“All right,” Park cut in. “I think you just stated, between you, what our position has to be. You see, Captains, how we make decisions?”

“Your system is impressive,” said Kalkar. “I just talk to myself. It’s not as entertaining.”

“But we arrre going to meeett, allll togetherrr,” said Fvaerch.

“Oh, yes. But first we have to interrogate a few Ngugma.”

 

2.

Park and the other fighter pilots filed out of the Honshu bridge, and headed for the crew quarters. As on Tasmania, one room of the quarters was set aside for fighter pilots and other guests: it had a small central area and sixteen bunk compartments. The central area was big enough for Park, the Alphas, and of course Skzyyn to have a nice talk.

“Now that we have that discussion out of the way,” said Clay.

“Someone,” said Park, “has to actually talk to the Ngugma, or at least to a couple of them. The question is who. And the answer is, Ms. Kleiner, obviously, and Captain Kalkar has said he wants to join, and, I think, Mr. Gilbert.”

“What? Me?” The idea of interviewing these shaggy radially symmetric Hitlers hit him with sudden disgust. Clay realized he was all for interviewing them, but grossed out by the thought of talking to them.

“Yes,” said Park. “You were at Earth just after the attack. But you’re not a hothead, unlike Ms. Santos. I note you are not actually questioning my decision.”

“No,” said Clay. He cleared his head and repeated, “No. I’m not.”

“Very good. Ms. Santos, do you want to say anything?”

“Yeah,” said Vera. She looked around and said, “I just want to make clear that I’m okay with whatever you decide. I’m, um, also not questioning your decision. Just want to make that clear.”

“Mr. Skzyyn?” said Park.

“Commander Park,” said Skzyyn, in his lowest, most neutral voice. It almost sounded like he was mocking her, but Clay knew better and hoped Park did too.

“Do you have a feeling one way or the other?”

“Commander Park, I have many feelings many ways. I wish to put many thin little holes in each and every Ngugma. I wish to see them all die with great pain. I also wish to know what it is that they are fighting. And I wish not to know what it is that they are fighting. Do you understand?”

“I do,” said Park, while Clay, Rachel and Natasha all nodded. “But, to understand what it is: that is exactly what we have to do. Do you wish to take part in the questioning?”

“No,” said Skzyyn. “I do not.”

 

The questioning took place about an hour later. The captain of Big Fourteen, Avvann, was told to make itself available, and advised to do so in a private room. Park and Kalkar thought to ask another Ngugma to join on another line, one of the staff of the depot; one who identified itself as Flaayy was chosen. They were visually indistinguishable, but the sensors could easily tell them apart: in some way Clay didn’t want to know more about, they smelled different.

Clay, Natasha and Kalkar assembled in Tasmania’s small conference room. They made small talk, and after a minute, Padfoot’s voice informed them that the Ngugma named Flaayy, on the depot, was available, and that Captain Avvann would be up in another minute. A screen on the left lit up azure, and then changed to show a blurry brown creature hunched over a curved panel. It unbent, and it unblurred, and it said, in a voice so deep as to be barely audible, “I am Flaayy.”

“Flaayy,” said Kalkar. He adjusted the sound controls. “I am Captain Kalkar. This is Lieutenant Commander Kleiner, and this is Lieutenant Commander Gilbert.”

“Greetings,” said Flaayy, in decent enough English. “Welcome to Okhozzhan.”

“Okhozzhan,” Natasha repeated. “That’s the name of this system?”

“The syssstem is called Okhozzhan, yes. This place is called Okhozzhan Olv.”

The other screen went azure, and then there was Avvann, hunkering back as if in an invisible comfy chair. “Greetings,” said Avvann. “I am Avvann. I congratulate you on your success in taking control of my vessel.”

“I congratulate you,” said Kalkar, “on your taking control of my home planet and making every member of my species living there at the time die horribly.”

Avvann made a gesture with its big tentacles. Flaayy made a very different gesture. “Does each of them know we’re talking to the other one?” Clay whispered to Natasha.

“I believe so,” said Natasha, “but they can’t hear or see each other.”

“So you see,” Kalkar was saying, “we cannot trust you even enough to meet under a flag of parley, as it were. I believe Mr. Gilbert was offered a flag of parley by an Ngugma crew, at one point—?”

“We ordered them to abandon ship,” said Clay. “That was in the same system as Earth, and we had just seen what your people had done to our people. That captain suggested a parley, and of course we knew that captain could well possess some of the virus they used to wipe out our people. When the captain refused our reasonable demands, we blew it and its crew to bits.” They looked at each other, humans and Ngugma. “Now you might say, that’s the same thing you did to us. Of course you’d be wrong. We gave your captain every opportunity to escape destruction. It had followed us all the way to Jupiter to blow us up. Your people, on the other hand, lied to us and cheated us and destroyed 205 million of us, just to take our stuff. I mention this for two reasons.”

Flaayy said, “Gilbert. We are very sad.” At the same time, Avvann was saying something vague, filibustering. Clay looked at Kalkar and Natasha. She smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“The first reason,” said Clay, “is so you’ll know that I don’t have a problem killing you guys or blowing up your ships. I will be fair, but I won’t have any compunction about blowing you up, or flying your freighter into the depot. Because I am the one who’s been flying this freighter.”

“I would not expect you to restrain yourself,” said Avvann. “You are an emotional species.”

“And that gets to my second reason,” said Clay. “You have reasons for everything, or you think you do. You think what you did to Earth, or what you did to Fyatskaab, you think that was rational. You bring whole planets’ worth of magma here for a reason. I want to know what the reason is. It’s not too much to ask. Please don’t be all emotional and refuse to tell me.”

The Ngugma flapped a bit. Flaayy folded over its console again, but didn’t tweak any controls: it just seemed melancholy. Avvann presently got itself together to say, “There is a war.”

“I know there’s a war. I want to know who the war is with.”

Flaayy flapped a bit, but then put its tentacles down all over the console. It was disconsolate. Avvann glared at the camera and said, “It is more powerful than you know. You cannot fight it. Only Ngugma can. That is our reason.”

“So you can’t tell us?” said Natasha.

“I will not tell you.”

The humans glared back at Avvann. Abruptly Clay said, “We’re done talking to this one.”

Natasha looked Clay in the eye and mouthed, Just Avvann?

Yes, he mouthed, nodding. Kalkar reached to his panel and Avvann disappeared. Flaayy now filled both screens, still looking sad.

“Mr. Flaayy,” said Clay, “would it be correct to say that you might be willing to tell us things which Captain Avvann was not willing to tell us?”

The Ngugma roused itself from off the console. Its eye stalks swiveled to gaze out of the brown fur at the camera, like a bunch of wormy meerkats. Its round mouth closed like an eye and opened again. It seemed to consider, and then that double-bass voice came out of that mouth: “You wish my speech. I will give you speech.”

 

3.

They came out of the Tasmania’s small conference room and sought out Park, who was not far away. Park called Cassiopeia Root and got possession of Honshu’s much larger conference room, and immediately set about grabbing people by the collar, or whatever they had, and pulling them into the conference room, where they floated about, hanging on sashay bars or propelling themselves slowly through the air. The mass of metal aboard Big Fourteen, a hundred meters away, exerted a very mild gravity. Coffee and small food items, fit for human or Tskelly or Primoid, were made available. Rachel joined in the recruitment; Vera pulled Natasha and Clay aside.

“So this Ngugma you got,” said Vera. “You trust it?

“No, no,” said Clay. “I just—!”

“I wonder that too,” said Natasha. “How much of a feel do you have for this? I mean, I get that you can have an intuitive feel even for an alien species, but how confident can you be you’re right?”

“Not,” said Clay. “But—I don’t know. Maybe it was just compared to Avvann. Look, they know things we can’t know any other way. It’s like, back on Earth—!”

“Oh, good, bring that up,” said Vera.

“Back on Earth,” he continued, “the police, the human police, they’d be trying to crack a criminal gang or something, and they’d pay some member to be an informant, but you never knew if you could really trust the informant, obviously, because he or she is what, a member of a criminal gang. But at least you can trust the informant more than the other criminals. Probably.” Vera was still glaring. Clay shrugged, looked at Natasha (who was also glaring, but at a lower intensity) and said, “So, that much.”

“All right, everyone,” said Park, standing on air in the middle of one end of the rectangular room. “We have some things to decide, and as I said before, when I say ‘we’ I don’t mean me.” Kalkar, near her, smirked. “I am serious, this time, Alfred. All right?”

“Yes,” said Kalkar, “I know you are. Please proceed.”

Park rolled her eyes, perhaps at herself. “All right,” she said. “We have representatives of all of the species in our fleet: Tskelly, Errhatzky, Kaahriig, the peoples of Fyatskaab, and the Primoids, and of course the people of Earth, I should say the people of Bluehorse, the humans. And we have taken over this place, this—?” She looked at Natasha.

“Okhozzhan Olv,” said Natasha. “That’s what the locals call it.”

“The locals. Yes. And we have a representative of the locals, on video link from the depot. We set off with the goal of inflicting defeats on the Ngugma. We have certainly done so, to an astonishing degree considering how small a force we have, which leaves us with the question: what shall we do next? Go home and reinforce?”

“Oh, as if,” said Vera.

“Commander Park knowwws,” said Fvaerch, the Kaahriig captain, “that it is many light yearrrsss from here to Fyatskaaaaab, to Bluehorssse.”

“And if this is all the damage we can do,” said Vera, “then what was the whole point? Right?”

“We really have barely stuck a finger in their eye,” said Captain Root. “From Bluehorse to PSB6 to Fyatskaab to here is 89 light years, and to go home in a straight line is another 83 light years, so that’s 172 years travel time, to destroy one freight fleet and capture, for a time, one distribution center. In the meantime, they might have destroyed all life on Kapteyn or Tau Ceti or one of the Primoid systems, or they might have gone on to the Fyaa colonies.”

“So that,” said Park, “would seem to argue both sides: that we should do more ourselves, and that we should go back and defend the homeland. Except, apparently, for Bluehorse itself, which might yet be protected by the taboo.”

“Commander,” said Natasha, “you should not consider that a guarantee. They might not allow themselves to live there or mine there, but I don’t know why we’d think they wouldn’t attack our colony there. Presumably that’s sacred ground or something.”

“But we have home forces,” said Root. “The reason this force is not larger is that we needed to leave good reserves behind. The Primoids spared us one cruiser, and Bluehorse spared only two armored freighters, specifically so they would have plenty of fleet to defend Bluehorse and the Primoid systems.”

“Sure,” said Kalkar, “they have people defending them, but they don’t have Su Park. They don’t have Andros and Gilbert. Santos and Kleiner. I just named the five best fighter pilots in the whole Bluehorse star fleet.”

“Excuse me,” said Skzyyn, “but I consider that you have named the five best fighter pilots in the Orion Arm. Is that correct, Mister Skippy?”

Natasha seemed to be using signs to express this to Skippy, the shortest of the Primoids. It bowed a little and went into the Primoid nod.

“And at the same time,” said Kalkar, “it’s not as if we have enough to take on the home defense fleet of the Ngugma capital. We don’t even know what the Ngugma capital is.”

“So you want to declare victory and go home?” Root asked.

“Not even a little, Cass,” said Kalkar. “I just want everyone to understand the math.”

“Would you care to elaborate?” asked Park.

“Well, first, 172 years. Even if we turn around and go home, we’re going home to a very different place than the one we left. Andros and Gilbert were off to Earth for what, 175 years? We were in and out in that time, but they were gone basically the same amount of time we’re talking about. How did that feel, you guys?”

“Well,” said Rachel, “when we left, it was a colony of 8000, and when we came there were three million.”

“That’s not going to happen again,” said Kalkar, “but it shows what can happen. Now if we go on from here, if we don’t go back, we won’t ever go home to anywhere we truly think of as home. Two centuries, three, five? Think back on Earth history five hundred years before 2334, when we left there. But what if our quest, whatever it may be, takes us way down the Orion Arm, maybe all the way to this strait the Ngugma are defending from who knows what? That’s well over 10,000 light years away. Not 100. Not 1000. Ten thousand god damn years. And ten thousand back. You go that far, you might come back and find an ice age. And you know, we could do it. I could see us flying that far, and with time dilation, I’d have just a bit more grey in my beard when I’m ten thousand four hundred years old, or whatever. Hey, anyone know what year it is now?

“It’s 2735, skipper,” said Jack Dott.

“So here’s what I’m saying. It’s not cut and dried, but here, or maybe at the next place we go from here, somewhere soon, there’s going to be a point of no return. We’re either going back, to play some part in defending Bluehorse, or rebuilding the Fyaa realm, or defending the Primoid systems, or we’re going on and we might as well forget that we’re ever going back.”

“And we only have 28 fighters, three cruisers and two armored freighters,” said Jack Dott.

“Or less,” said Park, “in case some of the Primoids or the Fyaa wish to turn back.”

“If I mayyy,” said Sheaeek, one of the Kaahriig cruiser captains, “I thinnnk none of usss wisssh to turn backkk. We fearrrr not for the home syssstemsss. We wissssh to do furtherrr damaggge.”

The Primoid cruiser captain pushed itself in front of the two Kaahriig, waving its stick arms and legs in circles. Its tentacles were all green and doing a sort of wave together.

“Ms. Kleiner?” said Park.

“Uh, the Captain says they want to go on as well,” said Natasha.

“And my freighter captains?”

“I have no intention of turning back,” said Kalkar. “Nor do I,” said Root. “Not just yet.”

“I hope you don’t think any of us want to go back,” said Acevedo.

“Certainly not,” said Rachel.

“Okay,” said Clay, “I agree with all that, but the question remains, where are we going if we don’t go home? What can we attack with 28 fighters and five slightly big ships?”

“All right,” said Park. “None of us is going back, not just yet. So what can we do close by, with our limited fighting force? That’s the question.”

“Commander, if I may,” said Root, “I think it may be time to ask your Ngugma.”

 

4.

The Ngugma called Flaayy appeared literally out of the blue on the middle screen. It was draped comfortably, it seemed, across the slanted bench that fronted the console. A tray of some sort of food sat on a sort of table-shelf nearby; Flaayy had an arm next to it, and little fingery tentacles among the fur on that arm were picking up pieces of something that looked like granola and transferring them toward the round mouth in the middle of its six arms. There was a detectable increase in blood pressure, or whatever Fyaa and Primoids have, in the conference room.

“Can it see us?” asked Root. “Does it speak our language?”

“The Ngugma are good with languages,” said Natasha. “You can’t get people to trust you if you can’t speak their language. Maybe that’s why they haven’t taken on the Primoids yet. Uh, Mr. Flaayy, what do you see?”

Flaayy more or less jumped in surprise, dropping several pieces of food. It seemed to take several moments to settle down.

“I can see you,” said Flaayy. “You have others.”

“I’m sure we told you that we’d want to talk to you,” said Natasha. “Commander? Do you want to ask the questions?”

“Are you being deferential?” Park replied. “No, I think you should.”

“What should I ask—? Flaayy. This is Kleiner. I have some questions for you.”

“Kleiner,” said Flaayy in its basso profundo. “You talked to me before. Are you going to ask about, about your planet? I did not, I was not there, I did not.”

“And you don’t approve of it?” asked Vera. “You feel bad about it?”

“Santos,” said Park, “that’s off the subject. You can ask Flaayy yourself later if you want.”

“Flaayy,” said Natasha, “we don’t need to talk about that right now. We need to talk about what your people are fighting.”

“I was not there, at your planet,” said Flaayy. “Your planet—those mining there did not even send here, send the metals here. Yet I think, I think.”

“What do you think?” asked Vera truculently.

“I think, I think we did that thing to your planet,” Flaayy said, and then it raised two of its arms in emphasis. “Your word is apology, I think. Is this the word?”

“Sure,” said Natasha. “You can say you’re sorry.”

“Are you for real? It’s sorry?” said Vera.

“Santos,” said Park.

“It is, I am sorry,” said Flaayy. “I am sorry. I am sorry.” It waved those two arms. Then, as if for emphasis, it grabbed some of its crunchy food and stuffed it into that round mouth.

“So sorry it had to eat something,” said Clay.

“It’s binge-eating because it feels bad,” said Rachel.

“That’s a thing.”

“Flaayy, thank you, um,” said Natasha, “the thing is, we really appreciate that, but—!” She looked at Kalkar and Root. “Jeez, guys,” she said, “maybe the idea of apologizing is not in their repertoire. Could that be?”

“That would explain much,” said Skzyyn to Clay, who discovered that the Tskelly was again hanging onto his shoulder pocket. “We have many words for sorry. We say, Irrho. Or Yemedzey.

“Then Yemedzey to you for crunching your fighter,” said Clay.

“But what we really need to know,” Natasha was saying, “is what is that enemy you’re fighting down toward galactic center?”

Flaayy seemed to stare at them for some seconds. It chewed what it was chewing and then it said, “I am, Flaayy is, very sorry, very apologizing. Avvann will not be sorry. Avvann will love to visit planets and take away their metals. Flaayy is sorry, I would not be here at Okhozzhan, I would be home in Zezzah, on Fflohhvakohh, I would be helping the war effort in other ways.”

“Ever thought of making peace?” asked Vera. She glanced at Park, who was saying something to Kalkar. Park just raised one eyebrow.

But the effect on Flaayy of mentioning peace was unexpected. Flaayy got agitated, and propelled itself from its bench in the low gravity, spilling some more food. Flaayy took a sort of walk around its little control room, and then plunked down on the bench again facing away. The observers watched, talking among themselves. Natasha finally said, “Flaayy, what are you fighting?”

“Flay does not know, I does, I do not know.” It turned to face them, in a maneuver that somehow brought out the starfish in Flaayy. It sat, sort of, and observably composed itself. It said, slowly, “I do not know. I do not know what things we fight. From Galactic Center.”

“But this war’s been going on for millions of years,” said Rachel.

“You must know what you’re fighting,” said Natasha.

“No,” said Flaayy, making definite, small gestures with its three uppermost arms. “I do not know what the thing is that we are fighting.”

“But how can that be? Your whole civilization is bent toward this war of yours. I don’t know—is it a metaphor or something? No. Is this all about something else? What am I not getting here?”

“Flaayy,” said Vera, “you guys are fighting something. Like your cruisers were fighting our fighters.”

“Yes, we are fighting, just as we fight with you, but it is very different, you must see that it is very different.”

“How is it different?”

“We fight you humans, and you are better than us, you are each very, very good, a cruiser of ours is not sufficient to meet a single fighter of yours, but against these, this, against the center, the galactic center, there is no victory.” It waved its top three arms like it was throwing confetti. “There is no victory,” it bellowed.

“Flaayy,” said Natasha. “What. Is it?”

“You will have to see yourself,” said Flaayy. “But no, do not. Go back to your planets and live your good days and be well and hope that you die before Ngugma strength gives out and the tide flows across all systems of this sector and the Galaxy belongs to the darkness.”

“Flaayy,” said Vera, “are you serious? You know what you did to my planet. That’s not as bad as what you’re fighting? You have to tell us more than that.”

Flaayy again composed itself. “I am sorry,” it said. “Very sorry.”

“Yes, but—!”

“We crossed the Empty Lanes, we entered the Core of the Galaxy,” it said. “Perhaps we come in peace, perhaps we conquer and take for us what we can win. But it is not this way, the Galaxy is not, does not seem to be this way. For what do we meet?”

“I don’t know, what do we meet?”

“That which eats life,” said Flaayy. It shook, and then, with a sort of bass shriek, it said again, “That which eats life.”

“Lots of things eat life,” said Clay.

“I did not say, that which eats things that live. I said, that which eats life.” It let them think about that for a few seconds, and then it sort of got up and gesticulated with four arms at once. “It eats life. They eat life. It comes to a planet, a planet with city and fleet and agrarian economic development and lower and higher education, a planet with old and young, and then in a year, in a hundred years, there is only it. Only one thing lives where many lived. And then there is only it, forever, until the planet dies, the star explodes or expands and turns red and burns the planet.”

“A single living entity on an entire planet,” said Kalkar.

“Until the star goes red giant or supernova,” said Rachel.

“And,” Flaayy went on, “within the galactic core, there is planet and planet and planet this has happened to. It spreads from star to star. It eats the crew of the Ngugma expedition, it knows there is more life out there in the sector, in the—what is it, Aerra Aeaea—?”

“Orion Arm?” said Clay.

“Orion Arm,” said Flaayy. “It knows there is more it has not eaten.”

“And so you take it on?” asked Rachel. “How did—?” asked Natasha.

“We fight and we fight,” said Flaayy. “But always we need more, we need more. We need metals, we need silica. We build and build and build, and now every one of the Ngugma serves to fight this war, and still we only hold the thing back from the center. We fight and fight, and we do terrible things to keep fighting, and still.”

“You aren’t winning, are you,” said Natasha. “We read your history.” She looked at Park. “Well, it’s actually about what it looked like, right?”

“So they destroy planets and kill off civilizations to keep these things from taking over the Orion Arm,” said Vera. “That’s the trade-off?”

“And it’s barely working,” said Natasha.

“I feel exactly like Arthur Dent,” said Clay. “Crap, Skz, I used to worry about what parties I could go to after I got off work.” Skzyyn made one of its gestures, and then gently slapped Clay’s temple like it was patting him on the back.

“Can you help,” said Flaayy suddenly.

“What?” said several of the others.

“Can you help. Can. You help. Can you help?” Park and Rachel and Fvaerch and Skippy the Primoid crowded up in front of the screen; Skzyyn abandoned Clay’s shoulder for Rachel’s.

“What did you say?” said Vera, pushing to the front. “Did you just ask us—?”

“Can you help,” said Flaayy, dropping to the bench and splaying across it.

 

5.

The little crowd of humans and Tskelly and Errhatzky and Primoids, and a couple of Kaahriig with their long beaks drooping, watched this display for some seconds. Flaayy wiggled its big arms in what seemed like despair, and then went limp.

“Is it dead?” Skzyyn whispered.

“No, just sad,” said Clay.

“I pick up full bio signs,” said Padfoot. “The numbers are down, but more like it’s resting, or, um, depressed.”

“Thank you, Mr. Flaayy,” said Su Park. “You’ve been most helpful.” Flaayy twisted so its eye pods, of which it had a dozen or so, could look up at the camera. It half picked itself up. “We will let you rest,” Park went on. “We have to deliberate. Perhaps you should eat something.” She looked at Padfoot. “All right, switch off.” She looked around. “So. We have all the information we are going to get. What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” said Kalkar. “May we restate the information we supposedly have?”

“Let me,” said Rachel, propelling herself toward the middle. Clay was reminded of Rachel, the second smallest adult human he had ever known, doing much the same thing in a rebellious meeting of the colonists aboard the Canada before the Bluehorse colony was founded. The humans in the room looked at her with respect, and the non-humans did the same, for slightly different reasons. “So it’s like this,” said Rachel. “We are 89 light years from Bluehorse, well, 83 or so in a straight line. We’ve done the impossible, we’ve taken not only an Ngugma super-freighter full of ore, but an Ngugma depot, and destroyed two battleships, dozens of cruisers and probably several hundred of their fighters. But we really haven’t put a dent in the Ngugma war machine, we’ve put only a slight crimp in their supply chain, and we haven’t stopped the continuing destruction of either Earth or Fyatskaab. We haven’t made an attack on the Primoid systems any less likely.

“And now we discover that we aren’t even the real enemy of the Ngugma. It turns out the real enemy is something that’s arguably much worse than the Ngugma. And much more powerful, much stronger, much more disturbing? Yeah. The Ngugma are individuals, right? They’re like us. In so many ways. I remember arguing with my dear husband about how much like us they are. And it turns out you were right, Clay. They’re more like us than we are. But if Flaayy is not lying, and I don’t see any reason to think he is—oh, there’s no way he’s lying. So then what the Ngugma is fighting is a unitary life form, a thing that enters an ecosystem and simply consumes the entire thing. It’s the Gaia hypothesis made real. It’s—!” There was some muttering, especially among the Fyaa.

“Explain the Gaia hypothesis,” said Park.

“Oh, sorry. So there’s this idea, or there was, about Earth, that all the species of animals and plants and fungi and all the microorganisms—are you with me?” The Kaahriig nodded and murmured agreement; the Primoids were even nodding. Natasha punched up a cartoon she found in the Honshu memory about Earth as a single living organism, and played it, and the Primoids nodded emphatically: the flowers dancing and smiling, creatures eating other creatures while the smiling cartoon Sun blessed everything and everyone sort of pulsed to the same beat.

“All linnnked as onnne,” said Captain Sheaeek.

“But this is much more horrible,” said Natasha. “This isn’t wolves eating lambs and it’s all part of the glory and the story of life. This is one wolf eating all the lambs, all the other wolves, all the trees and flowers and fungi, till the whole planet is covered by this one bloated wolf.”

“I don’t understand how that could work,” said Root. “How do they fight? Who flies their fighters?”

“Just because it’s all one creature doesn’t mean it can’t send off bits of itself, or make things like the Ngugma do, robots that fly fighters. I mean, forget fighters, picture—!” She stopped. “Oh. Shit.”

“What?” said several.

“Mouthholes,” said Natasha.

A series of sounds and gestures passed across the room. “You don’t know this for sure,” said Root.

“No, but it’s a lovely hypothesis, isn’t it?” said Rachel. “If not that, then at least it’s going to be something like that. They’re like worker ants or something. I was going to say spores, but we don’t see the mouthholes setting up on a planet anywhere, no, they love deep space. No, the—!”

“The spores,” said Clay, “are something else. They’d be the things the Ngugma actually are stopping at the border.”

“So, wait,” said Kalkar. “Wait. What does this mean?”

“If thisss is all true,” said Fvaerch, “then we must fighttt themmmm. We must fight the enemy of the Ngugmmmaaah.”

“And yet we must fighttt the Ngugmmmaaah, toooo,” said Sheaeek.

“Yessss.”

They all looked at each other. “That is exactly how I feel,” said Captain Root. “I think we need to fight the Ngugma still, but I also think we need to somehow deal with this threat we’ve just learned about. The question is how. How do you deal with that—sort of thing?”

“Before we tackle that,” said Su Park, “we need to decide at a fundamental level how much of all this we actually believe. Is there anyone here who doubts that the Ngugma are indeed fighting a war, an all-out war, and have been doing so for over one hundred million years, and that is why they have been ransacking planets and destroying whole civilizations?”

“I don’t think it excuses anything,” said Vera, “but yeah, I believe all that.”

They looked around. Others were nodding, a gesture that all the non-humans had adopted by now. Natasha was engaged in some sort of colloquy with Skippy and with the Primoid cruiser captain, looking at and poking her tablet. She looked up and said, “The Primoids certainly think it’s all true.” She projected an image on the screen: in typical Primoid colors, slightly angled toward the blue end, there was a schematic of the inner Milky Way, the core a sickly dark green, and the sickly green was oozing across the gap toward the galactic arms.

“All right,” said Park, “and do we doubt that this is a fight we need to take on?”

“As opposed to,” said Rachel, “maybe the Ngugma can handle this on their own.”

“Well, as to that,” said Kalkar, “even if they are handling it on their own, and I don’t know that they really are, there’s this matter of their methods. If their way of handling this involves, you know, killing off whole planetary civilizations and wrecking their planets.”

“And on and on and on,” said Rachel. “Throwing materiel at this enemy and having to always find more materiel to throw, I mean, they have the entire Orion Arm to mine, but they’re in a long-term war here, it’s so long term that it makes the expression ‘long term’ kind of inadequate. It’s not sustainable, not if you’re talking about two hundred million years.”

“So,” said Vera, “not to bring us all down, but how do we actually fight it? We were just talking about how hard it is to fight the Ngugma Empire. How do we fight something that the Ngugma Empire is having trouble with?”

“That is not the question,” said Park. “We will do what it takes to defeat this enemy, if we decide to fight it. The question is, do we fight it? Do we take this on? Ms. Santos?”

“Yeah,” Vera said immediately. She looked around. No one seemed inclined to disagree. She nodded. “Yeah. We take this on. Even if it’s just me and Tasha and Rachel and Clay.”

“We have to,” said Clay. “Even if we’re just halflings. That’s the whole point of this Council of Elrond we’re having. It all comes to this. We’re the ones who have to take the Ring to the Cracks of Doom.” Everyone slowly nodded, even the Primoids, who were looking at Natasha’s tablet, where Frodo and Gollum struggled, in a cartoon from 26th Century Bluehorse, on the brink of the fires of Mount Doom.

 

6.

Everyone seemed to agree, including those who had no idea what a Crack of Doom was.

“So we know what we need to do,” said Kalkar. “We just need to figure out what to do. So I propose a drink: the Bluehorse highland malt I put away in 2555.”

This was also generally agreed on. In a few minutes, care of Captain Kalkar and Jack Dott, everyone who wanted (meaning the humans and the Tskelly) had a small glass of amber liquid; the others had something else, the Primoids favoring a sort of chocolate shake they’d met in the human nutritional database, the Kaahriig and the Errhatzky preferring cappuccino. Toasts were made all around.

“That is dang good,” said Skzyyn, after a searing sip of Kalkar’s scotch.

“It is,” said Rachel, “and it’s not reprocessed pee,” at which Skzyyn and Dzvezyets both made snorting Tskelly laughs.

“Now,” said Park, once they had all had two sips of their preferred tipple, “what to actually do.”

“Clearly,” said Root, “we will have to fact find.”

“And,” said Fvaerch, “some accction versus the Ngugggmahhh is calllled for. No?”

“I would say so,” said Kalkar. “Just, we need to calibrate it so as to make sure to get their attention, and we know they’re very stubborn, as you would expect a five hundred million year civilization to be, and yet not make it so ghastly as to diminish their ability to resist the invasion.”

“Commander, uh, Captain,” said Padfoot, “I think I have something on that. You know, we were thinking about crashing the freighter into the depot. But that wouldn’t help us anywhere else. But what if we could find a vulnerability in this freighter, that other freighters would also have? I actually think I have some ideas, relating to the huge amounts of molten rock each freighter carries. It’s not a design flaw, it’s a way in which any freighter this size might be vulnerable. We don’t have anything for sure, but we have an idea, and we wouldn’t mind experimenting. It’s possible we could destroy any freighter they have. If they knew we could do that—!”

“If we showed them we could do that,” said Kalkar. “See, this is why I like having you around, Padfoot. It’s not the only reason. What if you did your experiment—at this Pentestella place, or somewhere the Ngugma would get a really good look at it?”

“We could actually do that,” said Padfoot.

“It would make them think,” said Skzyyn. “And we, we could, I mean Honored Captain Fvaerch and Captain Sheaeek could take the secret back to Fyatskaab.”

“Now thaaattt,” said Fvaerch, “isss brillllianttt.

“All right, certainly,” said Park. “We have an idea of what to do with the Ngugma. Once again, my friends, we have met an enemy we thought we could never defeat, and we have their number.”

“As for instance,” said Skzyyn, “with the Fyaa?”

“We are at peace,” said Park. “In any case, we have a new enemy. How shall we come to terms with them, and how long will it take?”

“Well, as to the second one,” said Rachel, “I just have to remind everyone that we’ve come 89 light years in 89 years, and it’ll be at least another 46 before even the Fyaa could be back in their own home system. Whereas—!”

“The bottom end of the Orion Arm,” said Clay, “is eleven thousand light years away.”

There was silence.

After a time, Park said, “Someone will have to go all that way. But someone will have to go home and pass on what we know and what we’ve accomplished, and defend our home systems. And whoever does go on, all the way to where the Ngugma war is actually being fought, where we might make a difference? They will never be home again. They will be traveling not hundreds but tens of thousands of years into the future.”

“And,” said Captain Root, “we will have to start sending reinforcements from Bluehorse to follow whoever goes on to the far end of the Arm, even if it takes us a hundred years to get back and the reinforcements arrive at the front every two hundred years.”

“My ancestors,” said Kalkar, “they set off from their villages on raids, they might be away all summer. This—!”

“This,” said Park, “is not like that.” She looked around. “Everyone understands that, right? This is the Long War.”

“It certainly is,” said Rachel. “The Ngugma have been fighting this war for 210 million years.”

Again, silence. Then Clay said, “Okay. I’m ready to go.”

“You are?” said Rachel.

“If you are. And I know you are.”

“Then we all are,” said Vera. “I have nothing better to do.”

“All right,” said Park, “before anyone else volunteers, I think we’ve talked enough for now. I would not send anyone on the long leg of this expedition without your wishing to go. But we still have to do this in an orderly manner. And I believe we will all go on together for at least the next leg of the journey, if that’s acceptable to our allies. So—?”

“So Alpha Wing is going all the way,” said Clay.

“That’s what I heard,” said Natasha, as Park rolled her eyes.

 

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