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“Well, I’ll be darned,” was Park’s response, as Clay, Natasha and Bonnie Bain headed back. Natasha’s Ghost had a 1.3-meter hexagon of iridium and osmium attached like a dead deer in hunting season back in old Maine.

“The geniuses never did figure out what the last one said,” came Captain Kalkar’s voice.

“Now they’ll have twice as much information,” said Natasha. “Where did they put the other one?”

“It’s on the Canada,” said Park. “But we have holographs of it. You can start right in deciphering it, Miss Kleiner.”

“Sounds great. Can I have Mister Gilbert to help out?”

“Sure, have Miss Bain too.”

6.

“Natasha,” Clay called as they headed back to c. “Chess?”

“Love to,” Natasha called back, “since we can’t hook up hatch to hatch under the Commander’s watchful eye. Just know that I’m thinking of you.”

“Oh, same to you, Miss Kleiner, same to you.”

So the trio of Ghosts plodded across interplanetary space at a mere 2% of light speed, also known as six thousand kilometers per second. But by the time they were in the vicinity of planet c and the three anchor freighters, they had different news. From far out in the black shadows of the system, they could tell something was happening, and they caught the chatter half a minute before the Tasmania did.

There was a looming buzzing, as the first of the colony ship groups lumbered down to a speed at which their photon reflections made sense. They had made good time and now they were just about here. There were four Ghost 201s, on patrol in pairs a few million kilometers apart, headed back together as the big folks rolled in on a predictable path.

Something was happening near Bluehorse and Rojette. Gil Rojette, the wing second, was heard giving coordinates and a vector, then saying “Whoa, look out,” and then cursing. “What the bleep was—? Oh God.”

“I got you,” they heard Blue horse say, and then she stated a vector and a few settings. “Red 1.5, green 40.5, full amp,” she said, then “Direct hit.” Then, “Did nothing. Gil, I got nothing. Get out of there.”

“I’m getting, there’s three,” he said. “I got a hole, I got a bite out of—!”

“What the—? Where did they—?”

“I don’t know, okay? Ah, I’m scewed, just run, Bluey.”

“Not going to,” said Bluehorse. “Direct hit! Dangit! Nothin’, man, up the blue, dump the stupid green. Got 1.5, 3.5, uh, 50 or so, there, hey,” she said.

“What were those numbers?”

“1.5, 3.5, 51.4, full,” said Bluehorse.

“Dang! Bluey, get out of there, I’ll cover!”

“Negative, wing second, you got damage, just cover me, got the settings? Dangit,” she added. Clay thought he could hear her gritting her teeth.

“Fire, Bluey! Look, oh man! Oh bleep,” came Rojette’s voice.

“Rojette, Bluehorse, get out of there,” came Vilya’s voice: she was finally close enough to have heard their communications.

“Rojette!” came Li Zan’s voice. “Get out!”

“Cover me, bleep,” he replied, “got those numbers? Cover me!”

“What numbers?” asked Li Zan.

“Got the settings, 1.5, 3.5, five one point four, full,” said Vilya. “Dammit, you call that effective?”

“God damn it,” said Rojette, “keep on, it’s working a little. God damn it.”

“Uh, Kleiner, Gilbert, Bain,” came Su Park’s voice. “Turn around. We’re going out there. We’ll rendezvous en route. Over?”

“Roger that,” said Natasha. “Come on, we’re turning around.”

“Why? What happened?” asked Bonnie Bain.

She wasn’t answered for half a minute, as the three of them reset their navigation and went grimly over to full acceleration toward the system’s edge.

“Bluehorse got bonked,” said Natasha, “she got bumped by the things that went bump in the night. They bumped Rojette, but they really bumped Bluey. Okay, so set your photon cannons to red 1.5, green 3.5, blue 51.4 and full amplitude. We have about, oh, twelve hours to punch in four numbers.”

“And see if they work,” said Clay. “Mannn.”

“What? Was it those things?” asked Bonnie Bain.

“It must have been,” said Clay. “They got Bluehorse. She’s not even there now. Bluehorse is gone.”

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