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VIII. Preoccupied

1.

The mouthholes (Timmis Green’s name was the one that stuck, with the fighter pilots and then with the colonists) did not make an appearance as the fighters scoured the space on the route out of the system in pairs, and as the big ships rolled out of Gliese 163, with Alpha and Gamma wings ahead of them. Beta Wing, on the excuse that it had suffered casualty on the last jump, was assigned again to stick with the three armored freighters.

Alpha Wing again bound itself together with thin rigid tubes of conduit into a compact tetrahedron. Su Park’s only concession to sharing the glory was to allow Bouvier’s Gamma Wing to fly a little ahead, and they were the last thing that vanished from the screens of Alpha Wing, and the first thing to reappear out of the noise. They were all there. They were also under attack.

“Scramble,” came Su Park’s order, and at the same time, the conduits all disconnected and retracted. Gamma Wing was already separated. There were five, no, six of the things charging in at them, trying to take bites, charging away at right angles. They were all still traveling at over thirty percent of light speed; the noise in the sensors mixed with the noise of Gamma Wing yelling at each other.

“Line spread,” came Park’s order. “I read damage to Tremblay and Green,” came Rachel’s voice.

“Be safe,” came Natasha’s text to Clay. He sent back the same, then took his place behind the line of the other three.

Now four more of the mouthholes appeared behind Alpha Wing. Clay was their nearest target, and two converged on him while two more shot past. “ECM,” he shouted. “Andros Plan.” And it seemed to work: they came at him but seemed unable to get precise telemetry on their two meter long target moving at a hundred million meters per second. He set the photon blaster to maximum amplitude and heavy on the blue. He started blasting away as they circled about trying to find him. He was at least hitting his targets, but they didn’t seem to be taking any damage.

The stalemate went on for many, many seconds. Clay had time to ask himself several times if it was really happening: was he really cruising at thirty percent of the speed of light, eighty or more light years from Earth, shooting at space critters who wanted to take bites out of him? What were they thinking about, trying to find their way to a morsel of spaceship with a nut of gross slimy human inside? What were they? But what they were not was abstractions. Here they were, seemingly as close to him as the chickadees his dad showed him how to feed from his hand. But these chickadees were more likely to bite off his hand, or eat the bird feeder.

He was just chasing them back with blasts again when something got through to his perceptions. He did a double take: he was flying backwards, more or less, facing toward the direction he was coming from at such great speed, fighting off things trying to overtake him, but all the action was in front. Not with Rachel or Natasha, who were dealing with the other two things more or less as Clay was dealing with his. But the blob marked Park was now up among Gamma Wing.

Bouvier’s fighters had pulled into a tight group, circling their wagons against these remorseless space Indians. They were indeed taking damage, but it was all a hole here, a nip there. Five, no, six, no, eight of the things were diving in, grabbing, charging out. Suddenly, as Park approached, Gamma Wing spread open and focused their fire. Three of the things, caught in mid charge, zipped sideways, and one found itself the default target. It seemed to freeze in place, and then Park opened fire on it, and followed with a missile.

The unfortunate mouthhole blew open like a busted coconut. The rest scattered, possibly appalled by the thought that their hors-d’oeuvres were capable of biting back.

The next thing Clay knew, his own foes were on either side of him, and coming in for a munch. They had triangulated him somehow, and he could not help thinking, for just a moment, that this was exactly how they had eaten Jana Bluehorse. But he had something else: new numbers. He blasted at one and then the other, just enough to put them off for a few seconds, and in the time he had bought, he entered the numbers into the targeting for his missiles. One off. Then another: both at the same target. It stopped in space, spent a second acting perplexed, and then popped like a black soap bubble.

The rest of the mouthholes shot away and were lost in the blackness of space within seconds.

“Status,” called Rachel.

“No damage,” came replies from Clay, Natasha and Park.

“We all sustained damage,” said Bouvier, “but we’re all sealed up in our suits. We’ll be okay. Uh, Timmis has a maneuvering thruster out, so we’ll have to keep it simple.”

“Targeting a planetoid,” said Rachel. “Sending it. Okay?”

“Looks great,” said Park. “Whew. That was interesting.”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Thanks for the numbers, Commander. Guess what. I think you’re onto something.”

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