Aegis starts giving the subordinates days off. There is a brief argument with the teachers about this during which she points out that if the teachers force a leave-given student into the simulator room, she can't stop them, but Sue needn't link them and they needn't be given assignments, so it would be more productive to just let them sleep, and if they thought they needed an eight-person team it was the height of foolishness not to give them ten or twelve for exactly this reason. She rotates people out before they start making mistakes - the battles are coming thick and fast now, and they're getting harder, and it's better to do with one less commander now than to have one burn out from sleep deprivation and stress later when it's worse.
She takes one battle off herself, after arguing with Qiaochu about it - he thinks she should, she thinks she's fine - but the team suffers more without her than it does without anyone else. They lose four ships. It's not the first loss - the buggers have been learning, have been compensating, they've gotten stray ships before - but it's the worst. There's no further discussion of Aegis taking time off. They need her and her speed more than anyone else.
Except Sue, who is essential, who obviously cannot take a day off at all.
But he seems to be holding up all right, and he can hang back from the strategizing and serve just as a relay; he doesn't have to be fully in the fight every time. He generally is, but it's an option if he starts to crack around the edges.
The battles keep coming.
They keep winning. They hold their losses down very, very low.
And then there is a planet.
They've been near planets before. Only a handful of battles have taken place outside of solar systems; they've had to worry about gravitic effects from gas giants and, on one memorable occasion, Aegis had to maneuver six ships through an asteroid belt, flicking her control between vessels several times a second and almost burning her fingertips with friction-heat against the controls before she could get a Little Doctor onto a flying rock and atomize the pursuing bugger fighters. There've been planets in the distant background before. But this time the planet is right there.
The buggers didn't come out to meet the invaders.
And the teacher who is in her and Sue's simulator room, wearing an earpiece and probably relaying the words of Mazer Rackham so neither commander has to look at the old fart directly, says, "This is the last battle."
Aegis holds her hands ready and waits for the fleet officers to join the link.
|Sue stretches out his mind—he barely needs Ivy's help to reorient these days, it's like the vast reaches of space are just there, all he needs is a hint at the pattern and he can find anything he wants.|
This time, though, the IF ships aren't the brightest thing in the sky. He almost thinks he's reached into the wrong system at first, because to his power that planet glows like a sun—not minds but MINDS, vaster and more complex than anything he's ever seen. And now that he knows where to look, he can sense the connections between the minds on the planet and the bugger ships they control.
He hesitates. But not for very long.
Then, as he ripples across the fleet just the same as always, his daemon reaches out and touches the network of hive queens.
|Don't tame us say the MINDS. Don't we're sorry please we didn't know what you were|
Sue, Aegis sends. Sue, did you link the buggers?
|Yep, he flicks back at Aegis. The queens are isolated from the rest of the link. Probably nobody else is going to figure out where the massive boost is coming from.|
What didn't you know? he asks, through Ivy, not that there's much difference between them when they're this deep in a link. What are you sorry for? Show me.
|They didn't know humans were so intelligent, they thought they were lesser, like drones, that if there were queens among them they were hidden. They're sorry for the invasions first and second, for the destroyed infrastructure and - they're unclear on the concept; their idea is closest to "bodies" - in China, for seeking to tame the humans' queens the way cousin hive queens once tamed each other -|
Please don't tame us, we're sorry, we will be your (the concept is like "little sisters"; the hive queens now are all equal-sisters, but once there was more of a hierarchy, and a dominant queen could have a friendly if controlling relationship with a subordinate one, if she chose not to tame her defeated foe) you win you win you win don't tame us don't kill us
I'm not gonna tame you, he says. Humans don't do that.
And then he reflects this whole line of conversation at Aegis. Just at Aegis.
|Aegis likes the little sisters idea. Tentatively. Our little sisters, helpful well-behaved sisters, who'll put down their weapons and teach us all they know about the universe and learn how to be good little sisters to us and not move to attack before they learn where they're going ever again? she wants to know.|
|Sue bounces the question to the appropriate audience.|
|Yes yes helpful little sisters we will stay on this planet until we can never make the same mistake again you can have the others you've taken we'll teach you everything you haven't already learned for yourselves strong smart big sisters, croon the queens.|
Aegis isn't impressed with the flattery. And if there is any conflict between us again you will talk first, and talk second, and kill never, you can't be trusted with killing, millions have died -
Never never never we'll never kill you big sisters we're sorry never again
"What's going on?" guy-with-earpiece wants to know.
Are the machines stalled or what? Qiaochu asks through the link.
|Sue bounces Qiaochu's question to Aegis and says out loud, quite cheerfully, "I tapped the buggers and they're negotiating surrender."|
|"...Negotiating surrender?" says Earpiece Guy, in the tone he might use for negotiating a book deal.|
We're not stalled. Stand by, Aegis directs at Qiaochu and all the other subordinates. Hold position.
And to the buggers:
How can we know you'll keep your promise and be good little sisters and not dangerous rebellious little sisters who want to be the big sisters and try to tame or kill us?
You know because we said. We say so. We'll be good.
Sue, can you tell if they're lying? Aegis asks dubiously.
|Show me, he says again. Words, thoughts, ideas, you can lie with those; you can't lie with intentions, or at least not as easily.|
|Their intention is self-preservation, but they'd rather be little sisters confined to their homeworld until big sisters say they may go from it than dead, and as far as they can tell that's their option set. They're supposed to put their weapons down? They'll blow up all the ships they have in the sky right now if that will help. It's only workers aboard their ships, stupid workers who don't matter.|
Sue, I want to take it but I don't think we have the authority to negotiate surrender, Aegis says nervously. If we get them to blow up their ships anyone could go behind our backs and tell the fleet officers to - to set off the Little Doctor on their planet.
This conversation is happening blisteringly fast. It takes the earpiece guy this long to get around to saying, "You can't negotiate surrender with the buggers! You're not diplomats, you're soldiers, they're the enemy! They're just floating there! Kill them!"
|"Then get me somebody who can," Sue says reasonably, "and I'll put 'em in the link."|
|"I - no one can! The buggers don't even have language!"|
"Then invent a position for someone who can," says Aegis, "because language or not, Sue can talk to them, and they want to surrender."
|Sue lets the buggers know that blowing up all their ships is not yet necessary, although he doesn't comment on whether or not it might ever be.|
"And do it fast," he contributes. "We're running on link time here, not bureaucrat time."
|The earpiece guy starts muttering into his earpiece frantically.|
Some of our sisters are not so sure, Aegis offers to the buggers. We are waiting for them to confer amongst themselves.
We will wait. We will wait. Please please tell them, we will be good little sisters.
"They'll hand us all their tech," Aegis says aloud. "They'll work for us. They'll stick to their homeworld till we say they can leave. It's a good deal, sir, you really ought to be able to convince whoever you've got to convince to take it."
|(Earpiece guy mutters madly.)|
(Ahmed wants it confirmed that he's still supposed to stand by. Aegis tells him, tells them all, yes, hold position, stand by, wait.)
"Higher-ups want a detailed proposal," earpiece guy.
"Sure," Aegis says. "The buggers land their ships on their planet. The human fleet that's there lands too, the buggers give them a place to set up their colony -"
Earpiece guy sputters. "How did you -"
"Of course they're set up to start a colony, I'm not an idiot, there's no other reason to have people on those ships - and they get to be the human outpost on the bugger homeworld and report independently so not everything humans know about what's going on is filtered through what the queens push at Sue. They can keep the Little Doctor with them, ready to blow, in case of foul play, although hopefully it'll be possible to do without after a few years of peace. You give me and Sue desk jobs linking and negotiating with the buggers about all the details as they come up, at least until some other way to communicate with them is developed - perhaps they can learn to write in English - and we our species acquires 'little sisters' who'll teach us to build their tech and live in their prepared biomes. It is a good deal, and you should take it."
|Sue grins some more.|
|Little sisters, Aegis addresses the buggers, the humans in these ships might come watch over you little sisters on your world, is there a place for them?|
Yes yes, and the queens think of a certain island, covered with farmland, lying fallow for now just waiting for a new cycle of planting, it will be comfortable, the buggers will build the humans anything they need, take them anywhere they need to go, show them anything they need to see, they'll prove that they're good little sisters.
Let's let the fleet officers see that, they can hammer out the living conditions while we work out how they can be allowed to get them, Aegis tells Sue.
|He bounces a condensed summary—the buggers are negotiating surrender, the terms could involve you setting up shop on their world, here's where they'd put you—to the fleetside members of the link.|
It causes something of a stir.
But he can relay all that backchat and still have the brainspace to conduct negotiations between Aegis and the buggers and eavesdrop on earpiece guy's muttering. The boost from the buggers is huge.
|Aegis goes on soliciting finer details from the buggers - what exactly did they think humans were, what is this taming they talk so much about exactly, can the collective they're talking to speak for every individual bugger now and later, how will they learn to talk without relying on Sue for everything, do they understand that humans are usually all single separate minds and if one of their guest-big-sisters does a thing it does not mean that all the other big sisters agree -|
Meanwhile earpiece guy is not muttering so quietly anymore. "Yes sir I told you all of the ships, ours and theirs, just holding position, whatever they're talking about they really are talking. Yes sir. That's what she said, sir."
|Sue leans back in his seat to ask earpiece guy, "Who you talkin' to?"|
|"Several people," says Earpiece Guy. "No sir, I was talking to 'Sue'. Yessir. Sir, they seem quite ready to handle the ceasefire themselves as soon as authorized to do so."|
"I just need to know you're not going to go behind our backs and order the landers to attack, or send another fleet after the buggers, or pull crap to get us to do our subsequent desk jobs in stupid ways," Aegis says. "We can cover everything else. We're already working out the details."
|"I can link anybody who wants in," Sue offers. "I've got room."|
|"Can you find the other people on this conference call?" Earpiece Guy asks, tapping his earpiece.|
|Sue glances speculatively at the earpiece, and—traces—|
Four minds. Taptaptaptap.
|The four minds proceed seamlessly to have their argument through Sue.|
One thinks the buggers can never be trusted and landing the fleet will be suicide, that they should attack now while they'll have surprise and the fleet can be salvaged. One thinks that if they're going to trust the kids to handle the war they would be fools not to trust them to handle peace. One thinks that the buggers' complete standstill is a reasonable sign of goodwill and they should put Sue in a link with buggers and human diplomats and use him as a relay to come up with a treaty which may or may not bear any resemblance to what Aegis came up with. One thinks the buggers should be wiped out just to demonstrate to any other aliens that humans run into in the future that there is no fucking with the human race.
|Sue doesn't just relay; he flips everything to Aegis, and he joins in.|
The fact that the buggers can be trusted is obvious. He shows that person the raw intention that he got from them, the way they think when they say 'big sisters', the intricate history and layers of meaning. Maybe it will be harder to dismiss them as lies firsthand.
Wiping out the buggers is a dumb fucking way to make a statement, and there's no one else around to make the statement to. Does this person remember what it was like to fear their own destruction at the hands of an unstoppable alien force? Do they remember the formation of the IF around this fear? Do they think that perhaps that is not the first message humanity should be sending to any new species they meet, in case that new species has a few reactionary chuckleheads like no one Sue cares to name hanging around in positions of power?
|Reactionary Chucklehead thinks Sue is a naive child and the first thing aliens need to know about humans is that attacking them is a death sentence, that they'll then have the upper hand.|
The other chuckleheads mostly shout him down without help.
Aegis thinks that as long as the buggers are currently admiring their prospective big sisters for being smart and decisive and strong, all this sitting still in the sky is not in any way helpful towards retaining the sisterhood option. They have a workable ceasefire and a workable plan and a workable relationship with the other species to fall into; they can continue working on details while the ships work on landing on their designated island. Peace is not less urgent than war.
|Sue reflects Aegis's opinion not only to the arguers, but to the fleet. Openly. With his open support.|
|All four chuckleheads are appalled at this behavior. That is not how the communications devices they're accustomed to behave!|
|The communications devices they're accustomed to can't negotiate peace with alien species, either. This communications device thinks they'd better learn fast.|
|The fleet, for their part, think landing on a planet sounds pretty great, even though they're mostly leery of interacting personally with any buggers.|
Eventually the chuckleheads agree that they will authorize the fleet to land as long as the bugger ships land first and the Little Doctor stands ready for suicide-mission detonation.
|Fine by Sue. He suggests to the buggers that they recall their ships to the surface, and he makes sure the fleet knows where they're going.|
|Earpiece Guy mutters something sacrilegious when the bugger ships obediently descend to the surface of their planet in perfect, docile unison.|
You see, big sisters, we will put down our weapons as you say, we are your little sisters, we will obey your judgments, sing the queens. Here we are - The concept is of just having shed a layer of exoskeleton. Buggers have internal skeletons, too, but their exterior armor is still useful protection, and they are softer and more vulnerable when they've just shucked a layer. Here we are, big sisters, we have a place for you to put watchful bodies.
Aegis quietly coordinates the fleet into landing formation.
|Sue has a feeling in response to that expression of symbolic vulnerability.|
...He feels like he kind of wants to give an entire species a hug.
He shares this feeling with Aegis.
|Dunno if hugs are a thing buggers do, Aegis points out, although she's amused.|
The fleet comes to rest on the island. The sensor drones that give the sims pictures of the battlefield are not equipped for this; they get a blurred picture of flora and sky.
|They probably aren't, physically. But the hive queens have minds, and feelings. There might be a linkable equivalent.|
He doesn't try one.
|We'll have lots of time to get to know our little sisters, Aegis says contently.|
In the corner of their sim room, Earpiece Guy starts slowly applauding.
|Sue beams at him.|
|Aegis laughs and pushes her chair back from the simulator and runs across the room to give Sue a hug.|
|Sue hugs her right back.|