by Frej Wasastjerna


     "The question is, how far can we trust these aliens?" said Kenneth Carlson, Archbishop of the Lutheran Church in the Epsindi system and Chairperson of the Ecumenical Synod.

     He had instructed his cyber-assistant to choose speakers on a first-come, first-served basis so long as no more than five people wanted to speak, so, somewhat to his annoyance, the next delegate whose microphone was activated was George Domingo of the Church of Vaardimil.

     "At least their spirits are part of Emade, as are the spirits of all living beings. Of course, there are many who don't act in accordance with Emade's principle of Universal Love, and these aliens might be like that. Still, at least we have to give them the benefit of the doubt. If we have no reason to think otherwise, let's assume that they are good and trustworthy beings."

     Spare me those platitudes, Kenneth thought but didn't say. The next speaker was Clifford Lewis of the Anglican Church.

     "We don't know whether the iagyhs are burdened by ancestral sin, the way we humans are. They might be, but it's also possible that they might be in a state of grace, like Adam and Eve before the Fall."

     "I've asked about that," Margit Szabó of the Calvinist Church said. "I couldn’t make them understand the question."

     "So what conclusions can we draw from that?" asked Lewis.

     "None, really. It could mean that they are either too innocent or too depraved to understand the difference, or that the translating computer just didn’t know enough of their language to be able to translate my question properly."

     Now it was time to revert to practical matters, Kenneth decided. He pushed the button to activate his own microphone, even though the lights on his board told him a couple of other delegates had something to say.

     "This is all very well, but it boils down to this: we don't know whether our visitors are good, evil or something in between like humans. The benefit of the doubt was mentioned. Okay, we certainly have to consider the possibility that they may be very nice, and we have to do what we reasonably can to foster peaceful and friendly relations between us and them. However, that isn't what we are now discussing. The point at issue is how much information about ourselves we should reveal.

     "In this case I would say, when in doubt, don't give away strategic information. They asked what other systems we inhabit. If they are friendly, fine, then we lose nothing by telling them that. But we don't really understand them yet. If they should turn out to be hostile, then that's one thing we had better not tell them."

     Hiromasa Hayakawa of the Zen Buddhists was the first to comment. "I'd like to have some idea of how seriously to take the possibility of hostilities between them and us. Professor White, could you please tell us if the idea of an interstellar war makes sense at all and, if so, what it might be like."

     Kenneth pushed a button to let the Senior Technical Advisor to the synod answer the question.

     "To begin with, it depends on their level of technology. As far as I can judge from what I've seen, it appears to be essentially identical with ours. That might appear strange, but it may simply mean that they have reached the same technological plateau where we've been for the last several centuries and that an intelligent species's technology is determined more by the laws of nature than by its way of thinking, at least once it has developed far enough.

     "So I have to assume a war with both sides using nega-mass propulsion and inversion drives. That would be a very slow business, with fleet movements limited to slightly less than the speed of light¼"

     Kenneth's screen flashed a couple of times and displayed the text "Arrived: Top priority radio message from the General Assembly of the Taucet System to the Ecumenical Synod of the Epsindi System." He pressed the "Forward to all Synod Members" button but continued listening to White.

     "¼a war for limited political objectives impracticable,"  the advisor was saying. "But it doesn't really rule out the possibility of war entirely. It merely means that a war would probably concern matters of life and death for both sides. If a conflict involving something like that develops, the result could be a war lasting for centuries. It's also likely that it would result in the destruction of entire planetary systems. An interstellar invasion would probably have little chance of success, since the defenders would have decades more time to prepare than the attackers, unless one assumes a surprise attack. But, while conquering a planet could be very difficult, destroying it would be easy."

     "Thank you, Professor White," Kenneth said. "We may want to return to this question, but at the moment I suggest we read the message we have just received from our colleagues in the Taucet System."

     Maybe colleagues wasn't quite the right word. The Taucet General Assembly was, the last he had heard of it, a secular authority, not a religious one like the Synod, but each of them was the highest authority in its respective system¼ Well, who cares, he thought. Let's look at the message.

     He skimmed through the preliminary salutations, then began reading the real message more carefully.

     "In the year 2747 CE, the third planet in the Delpav system was sterilized by six inversion bombs. As you presumably know, that planet was inhabited by an intelligent but non-technological species, which was exterminated by those bombs.

     "An observatory in our system detected these explosions in 2767. We did not immediately send out a warning, since, for all we knew, this atrocity might have been perpetrated by humans, and in that case we would not have wanted it known that we were aware of what had happened. Instead we sent out an expedition to find out who was guilty, based on the assumption that the guilty party would then have colonized the Delpav system.

     "In 2793 this expedition arrived and found Delpav III colonized by an alien species. These aliens are six-legged centauroid beings, as shown in Attachment 1¼"

     With a feeling of dismay, Kenneth opened the attachment. Sure enough, it was unmistakably a picture of an iagyh. The six legs and two arms with four-fingered hands, the tail, the squarish beak with its canine-like corners, the baggy-looking light brown skin¼ it was all there.

     He read the rest of the message, but it merely provided additional details.

     He looked up. Some of the other delegates were still busy reading, others had also looked up. Soon all had finished. Most of the delegates looked shocked, and John Richards of the Quakers had buried his face in his hands, tensing his fingers as if he meant to tear the skin off his face.

     "Well, I suppose this settles the question. We plainly don't tell the iagyhs anything that could be strategically important," Kenneth said.

     Richards took his right hand off his face and jabbed hard at one of the buttons in front of him. A light in front of Kenneth showed a priority request to speak—sure enough, it was Richards. Kenneth granted the request.

     "I'm afraid it's too late. Yesterday I talked with our Elders about the iagyhs' request for information about our other planetary systems. We decided that, since they were willing to offer the same information about themselves, it was wrong of us to withhold that information. Such secrecy breeds distrust, so we decided to answer their question. This morning I asked one of our astronomers to tell them, after first learning what systems they inhabit."

     "Please contact that astronomer at once," Kenneth said. "Let me talk to him and let the rest of the Synod listen in."

     Richards mumbled something into his implant.

     "Harun Amin speaking," came a voice from the loudspeakers.

     "This is John Richards. Chairperson Carlson himself wants to speak to you."


     "Have you told the iagyhs the locations of the other human-inhabited planetary systems?" Kenneth asked.

     "Yes, as requested by Elder Richards, I did so. I finished telling them something like, oh, a quarter of an hour ago. It may take them a little while to identify the stars in question, in fact I just finished identifying their home system based on the information they gave me."

     "Very well, what system is that?"

     "It's known as P Eridani, about 17 light-years distant."

     "Do they inhabit any other systems?"

     "No, they said."

     "Do you believe they're telling the truth?"

     "So far, I have no way of knowing. Let’s just say that I don't have any cause to doubt them."

     "Could you check whether P Eridani – was that what you said?"


"- whether that has any planets that could plausibly be the home of the iagyhs?"

     "Sorry, that's difficult right now. The only facility we have that could handle the job is the Brahe telescope, and that's down for maintenance right now."

     "This is extremely important and urgent. Do whatever you need to do to find out as quickly as possible whether they told the truth or not. Spend any money you need for that, I'll authorize it. Once you have an answer, call me back at the Ecumenical Synod. My cyber-assistant will route the call directly to me."

     Kenneth paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, then he called Gregor Ambartsumian, chief of the police force keeping watch on the two alien ships.

     "Gregor Ambartsumian speaking."

     "This is Kenneth Carlson. Have the alien ships sent any message back home?"

     "No sir, not so far as we have noticed, and we would have noticed any radio or laser messages of sufficient strength to carry over interstellar distances."

     "Can you tell where their transmitters are?"

     "I think so. We've identified what must be a radio transmitter at the rear end of each ship."

     "If I tell you to disable those transmitters, how quickly can you do it?"

     "In less than a minute, I think. I would have to call our ships on a secure beam, then make it clear to their crews what they would have to do, then they could execute the order promptly. There wouldn't be any significant transmission lag, at the moment the alien ships are hovering at 5,300 kilometers altitude."

     "If I want them boarded, how soon could you do that?"

     "That might take a few minutes, possibly more depending on what the aliens do to prevent it. In fact the ships we have out there do have a boarding capability, but boarding a spaceship that's trying to avoid that is difficult."

     "Very well. Issue an order to destroy the transmitters immediately if the aliens start transmitting a signal back home, but otherwise do nothing at present, except to ask boarding parties to stand by. We have some hard thinking to do here in the Synod right now. I'll call you again when we've decided what to do."

     The instant Kenneth finished the call, Francis Schneider of the Anabaptists jumped out of his chair and shouted, with no need for a microphone, "Do you really intend to attack our guests on the basis of what those atheists in the Taucet system claim?!"

     "Order!" Kenneth shouted back, slamming down his right hand on the table rather than waste time picking up the gavel. With his left hand he pressed the microphone button and continued, "We have to make a quick decision now, but we'll need to think. I hereby order a ten-minute recess, then we decide what to do. We won't have time for much debate, so think hard, beginning now."

     He stood up and turned his back on the council chamber, facing a window instead in the hope that the view might help a little in deciding what to do.

     As usual, it was raining. Mudball actually had less water than Terra, but the slightly warmer climate meant more evaporation and consequently more precipitation.

     Beneath the drizzle, the high-rise buildings of Faithtown stretched away to the limits of visibility. A few skyscrapers rose almost to the level of the Synod building itself, situated on the peak of Mount Torrance. On a clear day, one could see the green or yellow of intensely cultivated farmland in the distance, but even then none of the dark crimson of the native vegetation could be seen. For decades that had been limited to a few nature preserves, as the ever growing human population required more and more land. Soon it would be necessary to begin farming in artificially lit underground caverns or to use electrically powered nanomachinery to produce food directly from sewage.

     So, how many humans would die if the iagyhs decided to sterilize the Epsindi system?

     "How many humans are there currently on Mudball and in the whole Epsindi system?" he asked his implant.

     "The estimated figures as of this instant¼ beep¼ are 37,145,433,914 for Mudball alone, 114,991,531,106 for the whole system."

     And growing all the time. Say nearly 150 billion by the time any attack could be expected.

     Compared with that, how much did a handful of aliens matter?

     In any case, what was now at issue wasn't so much the Epsindi system. The iagyhs already knew that that was inhabited. When the alien ships had entered the system, they had transmitted a signal, powerful enough to be overheard well outside the beam, in the direction they came from. Now what was at stake was the rest of humanity, in the Sol, Taucet and Sidra systems.

     So what should he do?

     Of course, the responsibility for the decision wasn't his alone. Fortuitously, the whole synod was in session, so it would have to make the decision. However, what he said might well make a difference...

     Somebody touched his left shoulder. It was Schneider. "You can't possibly mean to..." he began.

     "Silence!" Kenneth snarled. "I need to think! Don't disturb me!"


     "Guards!" Kenneth shouted. "Conduct Schneider back to his seat!"

      His implant alerted the guards, and two of them entered the chamber, courteously but firmly escorting Francis Schneider back where he belonged.

     Kenneth turned towards the window again, clenching his fists in front of him. Why had God suddenly dumped this responsibility on him?

     Well, he hadn't exactly drawn back when the post as chairperson became available. In fact, he had actively sought the job. Was this the punishment for his pride?

     Of course, if he chose wrong, not only he would suffer. Would a just god let others suffer just to punish him, if he had to be punished? He hoped not. Maybe God would guide him to the right decision. Of course, that in no way absolved him from the responsibility of doing his best to figure out what was right.

     He bent his head, clasped his hands and silently recited the Lord's Prayer.

     That calmed him down a little. But he still needed to think. There was too much noise in the chamber, it sounded as if half the delegates were shouting. He covered his ears with his hands and tried to concentrate.

     After a while he had made his decision. He turned back to face the chamber. Many of the delegates were still arguing, a few looked as if they might come to blows.

     It might be best to wait a little. Some of the other delegates might still need time to think, though obviously many had made up their minds already. He looked around, and some did seem to be sitting or standing in thought.

     He waited a while. Then he called the synod to order.

     Schneider was the first to ask for the floor, so Kenneth let him get it.

     He stood up to speak, waving his arms impassionedly. "You can't possibly be serious about attacking aliens who haven't done us any harm, just on the basis of what a bunch of atheists in the Taucet system claim!" he shouted. "Do you want to start an interstellar war?"

     "Don't be irresponsibly naive!" Ulrich Paul of the Catholic Church shouted, without waiting for his microphone to be activated. "And as for that crack about the Taucetians being atheists, I've known..."

     Kenneth activated Paul's microphone, so the next few words almost deafened the hearers, until Paul lowered his voice.

     "A FEW ATHEISTS, and they were without exception remarkably honest people. You have to be unusually honest to confess to not believing in any god and brave the opprobrium such people have to face in our system. Okay, I suppose that may not apply in the Taucet system, but in any case there's no reason to consider atheists particularly untrustworthy. In any case, why should they want to mislead us?"

     "Please follow the rules," Kenneth said. "I don't want everyone shouting at once. Saloranta, you're next."

     Vesa Saloranta of the United Laestadian Church asked, "Must we really believe that a good God could allow such an atrocity to happen?"

     Sarkhosh Sefidväsh of the Children of Haoma answered him, "Considering that He has permitted four world wars, the Holocaust, the destruction of Khwarizm, to mention just a few examples, we can't say that He couldn't possibly permit this or that."

     The debate went on and on. After three and a half hours, most of the representatives appeared to have made up their minds, and everybody seemed to be tired.

     "I hope you'll allow me to sum up the situation as I see it," Kenneth said. "Unless the Taucetians are lying, which I find very hard to believe, we're dealing with a species that has no inhibitions against genocide. Our foremost responsibility in this situation must be to safeguard humanity. This means that we can't allow the iagyhs to send home any information about the locations of other human-inhabited systems. We may have to use violence--all right, let's skip the euphemisms, we will have to use violence against them. This certainly violates abstract moral rules, but in this case we must, I repeat, we must, make sure that we don't give away strategically important information.

     "Therefore I propose that we order the police to board the two alien ships, detain the crews, disable all devices they could use for interstellar communication and their drives. We also shut down any artificial intelligences on board, so that they can't take control of the ships. Once that is done, we try to learn more about the iagyhs.

     "That this is necessary is regrettable, but I see no way around it.

     "Does anybody want further debate?"

     Many of the delegates grimaced at Kenneth's proposal, but everybody seemed to feel that the issues had been thrashed out sufficiently.

     The proposal won with 465 votes against 127.


     Kenneth gave the necessary orders to Ambartsumian. Then he split his viewscreen and connected each half to a camera aboard one of Ambartsumian's ships, so he could view both of the alien ships. Both of them looked very much like human interstellar nega-mass ships: interrupted, slightly tapered cylinders, with fusion reactors half-hidden behind the spars connecting the two parts of the hull. Their only unusual feature was the big paraboloid dish at the narrow end, obviously a radio or laser reflector for sending messages back home.

     A police ship was already near the alien ship shown in the right half of the screen. It began to approach, extending its grasping arms. The iagyh ship skittered away sideways and began turning. After a moment Kenneth's implant told him, "Alien ship..."

     Another police ship opened fire with a neutbeam. The device at the focus of the paraboloid dish exploded, hit by hydrogen atoms moving at relativistic speed. Then the same happened to the other iagyh ship.

     "...transmitting -- transmission ceased," the implant said.

     Hatches opened along the sides of both iagyh ships. Black dots rushed out.

     "May I order my ships to fire at the reactors of the alien ships?" Ambartsumian asked. "That will deprive them of power, except stored power, and upset their mass balance, restricting their mobility..."

     "Yes," Kenneth interrupted the explanation.

     Ambartsumian issued the order. Before it was executed, explosions blazed in each half of the screen, then the screen went dark.

     After a moment the screen lit up, again showing the alien ships, though from a different perspective. "VIEW FROM ORBITING TELESCOPE" a legend said in each half of the screen.

     No police ships were visible. In their places were rapidly expanding glowing spots.

     "Situation analysis: police ships destroyed by missiles with nega-mass propulsion and antimatter warheads," Kenneth's implant informed him. "One of the alien ships appears to have suffered damage from its own missiles exploding nearby." The iagyh ship shown in the right half of the screen was glowing faintly red, with a spotty appearance as if part of its surface had boiled off.

     Then both alien ships began accelerating.

     "They are heading towards P Eridani," the implant said.

     Kenneth clenched his fists in dismay. Would the iagyh ships escape?

     "Do you have anything capable of catching them?" he asked Ambartsumian.

     "In fact I do have a few ships on patrol in the outer parts of the system, I didn't call them all here. Let's see... yes, three ships are in a good position to intercept. I'll issue orders to do that, wait a minute..."

     Ambartsumian started giving orders, apparently to more than three ships. Then he said, "Chairperson Carlson? I've ordered three ships to intercept and five others to pursue, that's all I have left. Do I have your authority to ask civilian ships to help, even to ask passenger ships to ram the alien ships if that should be necessary?"

     "Hmm..." Ramming with passenger ships? That could kill hundreds, maybe thousands of people aboard those ships. On the other hand, the future of the whole human species might be at stake... "Alright, go ahead."

     "Thank you. Just a moment..."

     After a while Ambartsumian addressed him again, "Chairperson Carlson? It seems that all eight police ships can make contact, if the aliens maintain their present acceleration. Their acceleration is frankly rather sluggish, about 1.2 g for one of the ships and 0.5 g for the other. I think at least the slower of their ships must be badly out of mass balance, but of course it's likely that they'll remedy that... yes, I just got the message that the acceleration of the slower ship is increasing. It jettisoned mass, presumably along with a negamass pip... so did the other, both are now accelerating faster... okay, they're both accelerating at about 2.1 g and both have reduced their fusion exhaust to about nil, they must both be in mass balance now."

     "Will they be more difficult to track now?"

     "Yes, they will. But they're still radiating in the infrared, corresponding to a surface temperature of about 275 K, so our IR telescopes can still track them and will be able to go on doing that, unless they go stealthy and reduce their surface temperature. I'm more worried about what happens if and when we catch them. You saw what their missiles did to our ships."

     "Yes... Yours have only beam weapons, isn't that right?"

     "Yes, of course. Nobody expected that police ships would need missiles."

     "The question is, do the aliens have any missiles left? Or did they launch everything they had?"

     "Even if they did, they still have missiles left. They retrieved some of the missiles they launched. Let me replay the pictures... There."

     Kenneth could see small, dark objects entering the hatches of the iagyh ships. "So how do you evaluate our chances, with only neutbeams and lasers against missiles?"

     "Frankly, they're piss-poor. We may be able to hit some of the missiles, but our ships carry only two or three beam weapons apiece, which I don't think is enough to cope with large numbers of missiles. Besides, those missiles are small and hard to detect. In short, we're outgunned. Also, the enemy ships are designed for interstellar voyages, so they presumably have heavily shielded bows. If they turn their bows towards our ships, even a neutbeam at full power will take a lot of time to cut away that shielding. Of course, if we can attack from several different directions, that shielding won't help them. Maybe I should delay the interception to give the pursuing ships time to catch up... no, I'd rather not. By the time they catch up, they'll be moving so fast that it will be difficult to remain stealthy in the soft vacuum in-system. And stealth is the one advantage I think we have.

     "I suppose you know that a nega-mass ship in perfect mass balance doesn't need any power to accelerate..."

     "Yes, of course." What does he take me for, Kenneth thought. Every schoolkid knows that when the net mass of a ship is zero, acceleration doesn't require any energy.

     "Sorry, I just wanted to make sure. Anyway, our ships are equipped to cool down their surfaces temporarily to about 3 K so the heat radiation they give off is indistinguishable from the microwave background. The ability to hide that way for a day or two is sometimes useful for police. In addition, they are stealthed with respect to radar as well, and painted black to be invisible in the optical range. They aren't completely undetectable, but unless the enemy has much better detection technologies than we have, they should be able to approach to within a few hundred kilometers or less undetected. The enemy ships don't seem to be stealthed as far as I can tell.

     "That's one advantage we seem to have. In addition, our ships can accelerate  faster, though the 3-g acceleration they're doing now is hard on the crews. I don't know if the aliens have weaker drive fields acting on their nega-mass pips, if they can't take as much acceleration as we can, or if they're simply too arrogant to hurry -- well, come to think of it, their missiles seemed to be pretty fast. Just a moment, I'll try to get an estimate of their acceleration.

     "Okay, that was about 50 g. Their drive field technology must be about the same as ours, then."

     "Now we wait and see what happens, is that right?" Kenneth asked.

     "Yes. If the iagyh ships keep their present acceleration, the first three police ships will intercept them at, let's see, 15:52 tomorrow. The pursuing ships should catch up a couple of days later. In addition I've ordered everything else in the system with nega-mass drives at them, but most of that stuff lacks the acceleration to catch the aliens. Now all we can do is wait. I'll contact you if anything seems likely to happen before 15:50 tomorrow."

     Kenneth signed off. How would he get through the next twenty-six hours? The fate of humanity was hanging in the balance, and all he could do was wait.

     Of course there was work to do. There always was, for the Chairperson of the Ecumenical Synod.

     He soon found out that that didn't help. It was impossible to concentrate on things like an environmental impact statement for an expansion of an alga farm in the Augustine Sea. Environmental impact statements, bah! The greener churches were worried about the effect the expansion would have on the native ecology, which, to tell the truth, was in danger of being crowded out. But, if the iagyh ships escaped and revealed the locations of the human-colonized systems, much worse things could happen.

     For that matter they might happen even if the iagyhs didn't get home. They had sent at least one message back home shortly after their arrival, so their comrades would know, a few decades from now, that the Epsindi system was inhabited by what they saw as an alien species. And their method of dealing with such species wasn't exactly nice...

     Kenneth tried to visualize what would happen to the Augustine Sea if an inversion bomb detonated above it. He quickly realized that he simply didn't know enough, so he decided to call Mzango White again.

     At that moment his implant intruded. "Excuse me," it said, "I've been blocking access to you from the media, but some reporters are getting irate."

     "Okay, I suppose I'll have to tell them my view of what happened. Go to press conference mode."

     Kenneth spent the next several hours answering questions from journalists. By the end of that, he was so tired that he actually managed to fall asleep when he got into bed.


     The next morning he spent learning what effects a salvo of inversion bombs would have on Mudball, and also that there were even worse things.

     Watching an animation of what a heavy rammer missile would do, provided by Professor White, he caught himself thinking that it was actually beautiful. The esthetics of total destruction, he thought. The colorful plasma plume stretching hundreds of thousands of kilometers into space from the point of impact, the expanding white cloud when the shock wave blew the planet's atmosphere and hydrosphere into space, the bright red glow of the remaining magma ball -- it was all tremendously impressive.

     Except that the death of umpteen billion humans, together with a vastly greater number of other organisms, wasn't something to be viewed with artistic detachment.

     And there was probably no practical way of preventing it from happening, so White had told him. Of course, nobody really knew much about that. Interstellar war had so far been only a remote theoretical possibility, studied by a few eccentric academics but not seriously expected by anybody to become reality.

     He had ordered the immediate commencement of a massive research program to learn more. But it was also necessary to think about what one could do to save as much as possible, if such an attack did happen. Mudball would have to be evacuated, but where should one put the people? On other rocky planets? They too might get hit by heavy rammer missiles. On asteroids, small satellites, oneills? They could be bombarded by warships with nuclear or antimatter missiles, and there was also such a concept as light rammer missiles. Hiding in the atmospheres of jovians?

     By the way, he had to warn the other human-inhabited systems of what was happening.

     Doing that and thinking about how to survive an attack kept him busy.

     At 15:45 he decided to call Harun Amin and ask if he had found out anything about the P Eridani system.

     "Yes, in fact we managed to get the Brahe telescope operational a few hours ago," Amin said. "It will have to shut down for continued maintenance soon again, but now we've got a look at P Eridani. We've found several planets, but none of them has an oxygen atmosphere. I'd like to spend more time making sure of it, and actually we need several months to make sure that there are no planets we have missed, but it seems that the iagyhs were lying when they said that was their home system."

     Kenneth thanked him and cut the connection. He heaved a sigh of relief and leaned back. At least he hadn't ordered an unjustified attack against honest, presumably peaceful, aliens.

     And now it was time to call Ambartsumian.

     "Everything has gone as planned so far," the police chief said. "We still have telescope contact with the two iagyh ships..."

     "Are they still heading towards P Eridani?"

     "Yes, still on course."

     Well, that didn't have to mean that it was their home system. In fact, the iagyhs must have realized that they would be kept under observation until they were out of telescope range, so they would of course head towards the system they had claimed to be coming from. Later, at a distance of several light years, where no feasible telescope could see two small ships, they might change course.

     "Do you want to see what's happening?" Ambartsumian asked.

     "Yes, I'll connect my viewscreen to you."

     The screen showed two dots.

     "This is an infrared view of the iagyh ships with the stars edited out. I'll zoom in on one of the ships..."

     One of the dots vanished outside the screen, the other grew slightly bigger.

     "This is maximum magnification. They are already some five light-minutes distant, so what we see is what was there five minutes ago. Now let's look at our own ships."

     "Which of these dots are they?"

     "None. All the dots you can see are stars. The screen now shows a composite image from far infrared to far ultraviolet. Let me show you where our ships are, or ought to be..."

     Three arrows showed in the screen. Nothing was visible at their tips. The arrows moved slowly relative to the stars. Suddenly one star winked out for an instant, then it was back again.

     "Did you see that?" Ambartsumian asked. "One of our ships occulted a star for a moment... Soon they should be within beam range of the enemy, though only for an instant. Their relative velocity is about four thousand kilometers per second. I'll ask the AI to give us a countdown."

     "Eleven seconds," a recognizably nonhuman voice said, as the screen went back to showing the two iagyh ships. "Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one..."

     In the screen, beams stabbed out of nothing against the two ships that could be seen. A moment later, both of them exploded.

     "Guardian reporting," a voice said. "Protector and Peacekeeper rammed successfully. Both bandits destroyed."

     "Rammed?" Kenneth echoed.

     "Yes," Ambartsumian said. "It was clear that there wouldn't be time for more than a single shot with neutbeams against the iagyh ships before our ships zipped past them and out of range, and that would probably not be enough to destroy the enemy. So all three crews volunteered to ram. I had to accept that. It cost the lives of forty-eight brave men and women, but that was a price worth paying to keep the iagyhs ignorant of the location of the other human-inhabited systems. I chose the Protector and Peacekeeper to do the ramming."

     "Those forty-eight deserve the highest honors we can give them," Kenneth said. "I'll have to decide how to do that, but it's only one of the things that will have to be done. We're at war now, though we probably have decades before we're attacked."