As they sped from the Ghhokhur system, Clay and Rachel, in their combined fighter, played virtual squash with Natasha and Vera in their combined fighter.
“It really got to you,” said Natasha, holding the virtual ball before virtually serving it.
“It did,” said Rachel. “He was all quoting Shakespeare and all. But I would say that the thing that got to me was how far into the Orion Arm they got, how far into the Ngugma Empire they got. Serve please.”
Natasha smirked, tossed the virtual ball in the virtual air, and smacked it off the virtual wall. Clay managed to turn it around, then Vera met the ball with a killer return, and then Rachel dove and dug it out and got it back to the virtual wall, where Natasha met it and rang Clay’s bell with it.
“One zero,” she said. “This is only my second favorite thing to do, but you can’t have sex all the time, you’d get sore.”
“Thank you, Tasha,” said Rachel.
“I don’t know,” said Clay, “it was definitely the green scum that got to me.”
Vera met his eyes (though they were in their own ships, with their own partners, ten meters apart and accelerating past 45% of light speed). “Roger that,” she said. “One life form covering an entire planet. Arrives by spores through space. Eats the ecosystem.”
“When Apple said it killed 135 million,” said Rachel, “I thought, most of them would have made it off the planet, it’s not like it all happened at once. But—!”
“They didn’t leave,” said Clay. “We looked it up. They just stayed. A few Starfleet types got away. That’s all. No one on the planet managed to leave.”
“Remember,” said Natasha, “when the first fleet came back from crossing the empty lanes between the upper end of the Arm and the galactic core? They were kept isolated. They didn’t get to tell anyone, because they were considered insane. What they saw made them crazy. What if it was actually more like an infection? There are infections that can affect your behavior—rabies, toxoplasmosis. What if this was like that?”
“Now that,” said Clay, “that’s very Colour out of Space.”
“Yeah,” said Vera. “So sorry I read that one. So glad I missed your landing party back there. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of that slime. Maybe we’ll find out what color, or Colour, it is when it’s still alive. You ready?”
“Probably not,” said Rachel. “Oh. For your serve? I’m ready for that.”
The little fleet sped through the emptiness, giving the photons a tough time of it. Then, ten days of their lives later, 666 years had passed, and they were decelerating again. The system before them was a triple star: two brilliant little blue-white stars shone among the fragments of the cloud that gave them birth, while an old white dwarf a light-day away was perhaps the remnant of the star that had exploded to create the cloud in the first place. Around the two bright young stars orbited a small collection of planets, of which a terrestrial a little farther out than Earth showed signs of an Ngugma population. There was an orbital station, which looked mostly commercial, and a starbase in an outer orbit, which was clearly military. The orbital base seemed downright rural, with the space equivalent of tractors and dirty pickup trucks. The outer starbase was the home base of a fleet comparable to the largest and most modern Ngugma fleets they had seen: three battleships, dozens of cruisers and heavy cruisers and battlecruisers, and at least a thousand robot fighters and patrol ships, along with various sorts of freighter and a few of what seemed to be troop ships.
Just as the little fleet dropped below 25%, they were set upon by as many as a hundred mouthholes, but they managed to fight these off with help from the Ngugma explorer.
“Welcome to Offvroffh,” said Rachel. “The date is 5367. Please adjust your clocks accordingly.”
“And we’re being hailed,” called Kalkar.
The hail was from a planetoid in a far outer orbit, where there was a modest ground base. They identified it as scientific, or at least mostly civilian, as they approached. Tasmania stayed in orbit, along with Rachel and Vera on patrol, while Apple and Izawa drew the long-range scouting duties. Clay, Natasha, Li, Timmis, Mizra Aliya and Millie Grohl landed, with Fonnggark and its executive officer; Kalkar and Irah Chontz hitched a ride on the explorer cruiser. They were greeted on the icy, airless ground by three more Ngugma and a couple of spidery robots. No one had guns drawn.
“Uzok Fonnggark,” came the voice of one of the Ngugma, “vormoh fongkog shuohphaw.”
“We are invited inside,” said Fonnggark.
Inside, the visitors were led to an observation lounge that could have been on the Canada during its spacefaring days. Above them arced the black starry sky, facing out toward the outer Milky Way behind them: the road they had followed to get here. Along with Fonnggark and its second in command, they were introduced to four Ngugma locals. The chief was an astronomer or something, and its name was something like Zokkof.
They were treated with a hospitality that made Clay check his facts about the destruction of the human race which he had seen with his own eyes. The locals finagled to get their technology to produce decent omelets and fried potatoes; their tea was weirdly excellent; they had a sort of mildly alcoholic liquor that tasted pretty good. They wanted to know all about the journey so far, and were quite apologetic about basically everything, up to and not including the Ghhokhur system. Zokkof and the others told the whole horrible story—a bustling Ngugma metropolis system, science and education and art, little Ngugma kids playing in the shallow waters, and then lights in the sky, a barrage of incoming chunks of stuff too numerous to shoot down. Patches of the slime, which was a yellow-green with just a little too much orange, began to grow on the ground and on the sea surface. Then the waters went bad, and the farms went bad, and before anyone thought to run away, patches of the slime started to appear on the Ngugma themselves and their subservient species: slaves, animals, plants, everything. Creatures fell over and began turning into more slime.
The system was quarantined, but several expeditions failed to find a way to clean it up, and at last they chose the final solution: irradiating the entire planet and wiping it all out. “Even then,” said Zokkof in its accented English, “it took three tries. We have become good at seeding and creating astatine, and we finally put enough onto the planet to destroy everything.”
“And is this what we’re going to meet from here on?” asked Li.
“We are at the end of the active provinces,” said another of the Ngugma. “But there are bases yet ahead. And one colonized system, Gaazokgov, the Green Star. Captain Fonnggark is going with you, no?”
“That is our function,” said Fonnggark.
“The question,” said Clay, “was whether we would see what happened at Ghhokhur again and again as we go up the Arm.”
“No,” said Zokkof. “That is why we are here, at Offvroffh. The Enemy has not made a, you would say—?”
“Beachhead,” said Clay. “A beachhead.”
“A beachhead,” said Zokkof. “Not this far in, since Ghhokhur. We have become much more—!”
“Ruthless,” rumbled Fonnggark. “It means, zathmaggak, more or less.”
“Ruthless, yes,” said Zokkof, also relishing the word. Clay pinched himself. He was three thousand light years from Earth, watching two old military guys with the bodies of hairy starfish talking about the English Language. “Ruthless. We deal out destruction rather than allow a, ah, beached head. Beach head.”
“You mean,” said Clay, “you’ve wiped out all the life on the systems beyond here, just to keep them from allowing a foothold to the Enemy.”
“Foothold,” said Zokkof. “We have not destroyed all life, but we have made sure that what there is, we can protect, and what we can’t protect, it does not provide a place for a beachhead or a foothold.”
“Ruthless,” said Clay.
“Clay Gilbert,” said Fonnggark, “this is not a wrong thing we did. This was not one of those things.”
“No, no, I get it.”
“How bad is it?” asked Natasha.
“All we can do,” said Zokkof, “is defeat what has already come in. We must patrol and patrol, we must maintain a hundred and five forward bases in a hundred and five systems beyond Offvroffh. And our mining fleets must go forth, and those must be protected as well. We have lost many, many. Ghhokhur was terrible, yes? Forty-three are the systems beyond Offvroffh which have met such a fate.”
“So you fight them in the strait? In the Empty Lanes?”
“We fight them where we must,” rumbled Zokkof.
“The Admiralty,” said Fonnggark, who had picked up the term from Kalkar, “has decided on a policy of sending fleets beyond the Arm to fight off invaders before they reach here. I am sure it makes sense to them, but I—!” Fonnggark bent its body to look, with the eye tentacles among its fur, straight at Zokkof.
“I too,” said Zokkof. “We are the ones who fight the Enemy in the Arm itself. They throw their ships away in their multitudes, and still we have to fight for the Arm.” It turned to Li, whom it had identified as senior somehow. “What can you do to change this sad slow disaster? Can you defeat them?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Li. “We’re going to take a look and see.”
“It is a long distance to travel, to take, you say, a look.”
“And yet we’re traveling there,” said Clay. “I know our way of fighting is very different from your way of fighting. There are just ten fighters in this group. You wouldn’t send a fleet with less than ten cruisers into the Empty Lanes, right? And I know you’ve been fighting there for tens of millions of—well, years, on Earth, over a hundred million. Even for Ngugma, that’s a lot of lifetimes. But I have to ask: how is it actually working out for you? How is the war going?”
The six Ngugma with them sort of turned to look left and right at each other. Several of them sipped tea from Ngugma-friendly sippy cups, puckering closed their big round mouths over the sipping holes. Zokkof said, “It is not going well. That is not secret.”
“It’s not going well?” said Li. “How bad is it?”
“They have not got a beachhead,” said Zokkof. “But then, we do not know that, we patrol only so fast, it is a lot of space. One hundred and five bases we have, but that is not much across such a distance. And—Ghhokhur, it was shocking to us, what happened was shocking, but before that, that they could enter and come so far.”
“So you’re okay with us helping,” said Natasha.
“We need your help,” said Zokkof. “We humbly ask for your help.”
“But you know what the Ngugma did to our home world,” said Clay.
“Yes, I know what we did to your home world. And yet it is true: we need your help. Will you help us?”