Gaius Vibulenus shook his head firmly, and turned to Trumbull.
“No, Commodore,” he said in his heavily accented English. “I do not recognize them. Not specifically. They are the same species as the-we just called them the ‘frogs.’ Or the ‘toads.’ ”
The Roman looked back at the viewscreen. His eyes were now focused on the corpse of the Voivode. A Confederation Marine lieutenant was holding the creature’s head up.
“And I cannot say that I recognize him, either. He is the same type as the Guild Commander who murdered Helvius and the others, yes. But whether he is the same individual-”
Gaius shrugged. “You must understand, Commodore, that we saw many intelligent species while we served the trading guild. But never very many different individuals of any one species. So they all looked much the same to us. Bizarre.”
From behind them, Quartilla spoke. “I recognize him. The dead one, I mean.”
Everyone on the bridge turned toward her.
“You’re sure?” asked the Commodore.
Quartilla nodded. “Oh, yes. His species call themselves Rassiqua. Their body shapes and-call them ‘faces’-are difficult for others to distinguish between, but each of them has a quite distinct pattern of skin mottling.” She pointed at the corpse being held up before the viewscreen. “This one has a-”
She leaned over to the historian standing next to her, gesturing with her agile plump hands. “What do you call this, Robert-a thing with six sides?”
Robert Ainsley frowned for a moment, tugging at his gray-streaked professorial beard, before he understood her question.
“Hex-a-gon,” she murmured, memorizing the word. The executive officer, watching, was impressed by the-woman’s?-obvious facility and experienced ease at learning languages. She and Vibulenus had arrived at the Scipio Africanus aboard a special courier vessel less than an hour before. But even in that short time, Tambo had been struck by the difference between Quartilla’s fluent, almost unaccented English and the stiff speech of her Roman companion.
“If you turn him around,” said Quartilla, “you’ll see a hexagon pattern on his left rear flank. Three hexagons, if I remember correctly. All of them shaded a sort of blue-green.”
Commodore Trumbull began to give the order, but the Marine lieutenant was already moving the body. A moment later, grunting slightly, he held the Voivode’s left rear flank up to the screen.
Three small hexagons. Shaded a sort of blue-green.
Gaius Vibulenus hissed. “That stinking bastard.”
Tambo stared down at the Roman. The former tribune’s fists were clenched. The steel-hard muscles in his forearms stood out like cables. For all the man’s short size-and Vibulenus was tall, for a Roman-Tambo was glad that rage wasn’t directed at him.
By current physical standards, the Romans were not much bigger than boys. The appearance was deceiving. Small they might be, and slightly built, compared to modern men, but the returned exiles’ ancient customs were unbelievably ferocious, by those same modern standards. Tambo knew of at least one college fraternity, full of bravado, which had been hospitalized in its entirety after making the mistake of challenging four Roman veterans to a barroom brawl.
“But you don’t recognize the frogs?” asked Trumbull. “The-what do they call themselves? The Gha?”
Quartilla shook her head. “No, Commodore. The Gha never demanded service from us Ossa pleasure creatures. We had almost no contact with them.”
Her voice was icy with old bitterness. Tambo watched Vibulenus give her hand a little squeeze.
The commodore frowned deeply. Quartilla took a breath and added:
“I can verify everything else the Gha have said, however. I think they must be telling the truth here also. How else could they have known that the Voivode had once been the Roman commander? For that matter, how else could they have learned Latin?”
“He knew Helvius’s name, too,” muttered Vibulenus. The Roman was frowning very deeply himself, now. Almost scowling, in fact.
Seeing the expression on his face, the commodore stated: “Yet you still seem very suspicious, Tribune.”
Vibulenus gave a little start of surprise. “Suspicious?” His face cleared. “You do not understand, Commodore. I was just thinking-It is hard to explain.”
The Roman gestured toward the Gha on the viewscreen. They were standing toward the rear of the Guild vessel’s command chamber, closely guarded by armed Marines. “Guilty, perhaps. These-Gha-were never anything to us but our masters’ goons. It never occurred to me that they might have names. It certainly never occurred to me that they might know our names.”
The Gha commander in the viewscreen suddenly spoke. His Latin was crude, but quite understandable.
“You Gaius Vibulenus. During period was I assigned guard Cacique, while was your Guildmaster, you tribune command Tenth Cohort.”
Gaius winced. “Your name is Fludenoc, am I right?” Quickly, with the easy familiarity of a man accustomed to elaborate ancient nomenclature, he added: “Fludenoc hu’tut-Na Nomo’te?”
The Gha bent forward stiffly.
“I believe him,” said Gaius abruptly. The tone of his voice carried the absolutism of a hardened, experienced commanding officer. The Roman returned the bow, and spoke again in Latin.
“I thank you, Fludenoc hu’tut-Na Nomo’te, and your comrades, for finally giving justice to Helvius. And Grumio and Augens.”
When he straightened, his face was rigid. “I also declare, on behalf of myself and all Romans, that any quarrel between us and Gha is a thing of the past.”
Tambo translated the exchange for the commodore. Like most North Americans, with the creaky linguistic skills of a people whose native language was the world’s lingua franca, Trumbull had not picked up more than a few phrases of the Latin tongue which had been enjoying such an incredible renaissance the past few years.
The commodore scratched under his jaw. “All right,” he muttered. “I’m satisfied these people are who they say they are. But what about their other claims? And their weird proposal?”
Before anyone could respond, the communication console hummed vigorously. The com officer, Lieutenant Olga Sanchez, took the call.
“You’d better look at this yourself, Commodore,” she said, standing aside.
Trumbull marched over to the screen and quickly read the message. “Wonderful,” he muttered. “Just perfect.” He turned back, facing the small crowd on the bridge.
“Well, folks, after two hundred years-and God only knows how much money poured down that sinkhole-the SETI maniacs have finally picked up a signal from intelligent extra-solarians. Wasn’t hard, actually. The radio signals are being beamed directly at the Earth from a source which just crossed Neptune’s orbit.”
He took a breath and squared his stocky shoulders.
“Their findings have been confirmed by Operation Spaceguard, using the radar net set up to watch for asteroids. And Naval Intelligence has spotted them also, with modern equipment. The source is a fleet of spacecraft.”
He stared at the Gha in the viewscreen. “It seems they were wrong. About this, at least. Somebody else also realized the significance of the radio signals.”
“The Guilds!” exclaimed Quartilla.
Trumbull nodded. “One of them, anyway. They’re identifying themselves-in Latin-as the Ty’uct Trading Guild.”
Quartilla pointed to the body of the Voivode, still visible in the viewscreen. “That’s his guild. The one which bought and used the Romans.”
“What do they want?” snarled Vibulenus. His fists were clenched again.
“What do you think?” snorted the commodore. “They say that by right of first contact they are claiming exclusive trading privileges with this solar system. A Federation naval vessel is accompanying them to ensure the correct protocols. Whatever that means.”
Tambo translated this recent exchange for the benefit of the Gha. As soon as he finished, the Gha commander spoke.
“What it mean,” stated Fludenoc, “is they have right hammer in to the submission anybody objects. But must restrict theyselfs this system existing technology. Federation vessel is watchdog make sure they follow rules.”
Again, Tambo translated. The commodore’s gloom vanished.
“Is that so?” he demanded. “Is that so, indeed?”
He and his executive officer exchanged grins. The North American often exasperated Tambo with his quirks and foibles. But the South African was glad, now, that he was in command. There was a long, long tradition behind that wicked grin on Trumbull’s face.
Trumbull turned back to Lieutenant Sanchez. “Tell Naval Command that I’m deploying to meet this threat. If they have any new instructions, tell them they’d better get ‘em off quickly. Otherwise, I will follow my own best judgment.”
She bent over the console. Trumbull glanced up at the viewscreen. “Bring that ship aboard the Africanus,” he commanded the Marine lieutenant. “I want to get it below decks before the Guild vessels arrive.”
Seeing Tambo’s raised eyebrow, he asked:
“Any suggestions? Criticisms?”
Tambo shook his head. “I agree with you.”
The South African waved at the viewscreen, now blank. “We can decide later what we think about the Gha proposal. It sounds crazy to me, frankly. But who knows, in this strange new universe? In the meantime, by keeping them hidden we leave all our options open.”
The sight of the viewscreen flickering back into life drew his eyes that way. Within seconds, a starfield filled the screen. Against that glorious background, little lights could be seen, moving slowly across the stars. The ships were far too small to be seen at that distance, by any optical means. The lights were computer simulations based on information derived from a variation of Transit technology which was quite analogous to radar.
There were fourteen of those lights, Tambo saw. One of them-presumably the Federation observer-was hanging well back from the others. The thirteen ships of the Guild force itself were arrayed in a dodecahedron, with a single ship located at the very center.
“That’s a fancy-looking formation,” mused Trumbull. “But I don’t see where it’s worth much. Except for parades.”
From the corner of the bridge, where he stood next to Quartilla, Robert Ainsley spoke up.
“Excuse me, Commodore.”
Trumbull cocked his head around.
The historian pointed at the screen. “Judging from what I’ve learned since I was assigned to help the Romans orient themselves after their return-and everything we’ve just heard today fits in perfectly-I don’t-” He hesitated, fumbling for words.
“Go on,” said the commodore.
“Well, this isn’t my field, really. Not in practice, at least. But-I don’t think these Guilds have fought a real battle in-in-Jesus, who knows? Millennia. Many millennia.”
Trumbull smiled thinly and looked back at the formation marching across the starfield.
“Funny you should say that,” he murmured. “I was just thinking the same thing.”
Tambo cleared his throat. “According to the computer, sir, there are three classes of warships in that fleet. Eight small ones-about the size of the vessel the Gha seized-four mediums, and the big one in the center.”
He issued a modest little cough. “Naval procedure, as you know, recommends that we give enemy vessels a nomenclature. Since we don’t know what the Guild calls their own ships, we’ll have to come up with our own names.”
Trumbull’s smile widened. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“Oh, yes,” replied Tambo, solemn-faced. “I believe we should name them as follows: small ones, Bismarcks; the mediums, Yamatos; and the big one-”
He could not restrain his grin.
“-is a Titanic.”