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5.

The anchor freighters and the escorting Beta Wing had made better than expected time. It was, according to calendars aligned with the rest of the universe, fifteen days from the moment when the conduit connecting Natasha’s fighter to the others was chomped to the moment when Rachel and Clay pulled their fighters into the pod bay of the armored freighter Tasmania.

An hour before their arrival onboard, the two pilots had sent ahead their story and their videos, including a long one from their outward journey showing perhaps a dozen of whatever those things were. So when Rachel and her underling debarked onto the Tasmania, they were met not only by Life Support Officer Angele Lafitte but also by the Captain himself.

“Didn’t like those pix you sent,” said Kalkar. “Hoping for something a bit more erotic. Or some comedy or sports perhaps.”

“You didn’t find our little friends exciting enough?” asked Rachel.

“Oh, they were exciting,” said Kalkar. “You think they eat starships. Why ever would they do that?”

“No idea.” She looked at Clay. He shrugged.

“Well, you’re here,” said Kalkar, “we might as well have a big ol’ meeting.”

“So you think they’re alive,” Kalkar said, as they floated, an hour later, in the open back area of the freighter bridge. Captains Nillstrom and Macdonald, of the armored freighters Greenland and Corsica, had joined them, along with their navigators. Irah Chontz floated beside Kalkar, while both Tasmania pilots, Ram Vindu and Emily Grey, sat strapped into their chairs, turned away from the pilot consoles toward the meeting. Behind Kalkar and Nilsson, Agneska Vilya and her wing floated around the big screen, talking among themselves, trying to analyze the videos. “Are they sentient?”

“These are our questions, actually,” said Rachel. “If I had to guess, I’d say yes to the first and a qualified no to the second. I think they communicate somehow.”

“And they can actually fly at relativistic speeds,” said Nilsson’s navigator, Han Darien. “No, I’m not arguing or anything. I’m just, uh, marveling.”

“And you’re sure they eat starship?” asked Rob Macdonald.

“Yes, they fly at relativistic speeds,” said Rachel. “No, we’re not sure they eat starship. This one could have even taken a chunk out of the conduit by accident. But how likely is that?”

“Not,” said Clay and Kalkar at the same time.

“But as for speed, we were overtaken by that one at about 30% of light speed, and we observed them accelerating routinely at 1000 gees.”

“Bull,” said Macdonald.

“And yet it’s true,” said Clay, who had a visceral reaction to Captain Macdonald. Clay was never a violent sort, but every time Macdonald opened his mouth, Clay wanted to stuff it full of Macdonald’s own intestines. It was not a fantasy likely to translate to real life: Macdonald was about 20% taller and 80% heavier than Clay.

“It clearly is, Sir,” said Macdonald’s navigator, Raoul Diemi, a handsome dark-skinned young man with a curious ability to get around his boss. “We ran the three dimensional movements, and some of these things exceed 1000 gees.”

“So are they things or are they ships?” asked Vilya, turning around to join the discussion.

“Not sure if it matters, Commander,” said Gil Rojette. “Rather an angels on the head of a pin sort of thing, isn’t it?”

“Any idea how to blow one up?”

“Not a clue,” said Clay.

“Well,” said Nilsson, “how did your wing escape that first one’s clutches?”

“It left,” said Clay.

“Was it scared?” asked Han Darien.

“It didn’t look scared.”

“We think,” said Rachel, “that maybe that one went and got his friends. The thing is, we don’t know how many more friends they have.”

“Or they might have found nothing and told that first guy he was crazy,” said Kalkar. “Well, there’s not much to go on, but I would have to say that erring on the side of caution seems like the side to err on. I don’t know if they eat ships but we don’t want them eating Tasmania, and we definitely don’t want them to eat the colony ships.” He looked at Macdonald. “Maybe they can’t maneuver like that. God knows they shouldn’t be able to. But maybe they can, and if they can run rings around a Ghost 201, what makes us think an armored freighter can outmaneuver them?” Macdonald raised his eyebrows and waved off the question with both hands. Kalkar asked, “So how are we going to manage this?”

“Send us out in front,” said Vilya. “All six. Plus Bain, she’s on the Corsica.”

“What weapons do you have?” asked Nilsson.

“Oh, we have a few things,” said Rachel. “It’ll be a learning experience. Or, just maybe, we won’t see a thing.”

“All right,” said Kalkar. “All I can say is, if these things are sentient, this is a hell of a first contact.”

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