Over the next twenty-four hours, three things happened that these seasoned space adventurers had no way to prepare for. Not all of them were bad, but the combination was enough to change the lives of fighter pilots and colonists alike, and result in a few of the colonists becoming fighter pilots.
Rachel composed a message to Park about the appearance of three small blobs condensing out of the haze of light speed. Clay made suggestions, Rachel fixed it up, and they sent it off, seven light hours to the colony ships, which would mean five hours for a return message (Rachel and Clay traveled two light hours in the time it would take for a message to be received and replied to). But under two hours after sending the message, they got a message from Park.
“Andros, Gilbert,” she said in her usual controlled voice, the one that always sounded mildly sarcastic to Clay. “I suppose you have noticed this as well, but we are picking up signal from light speed on the sunset side of the system. Keep an eye on that, but your instructions are still to return to the Canada by the swiftest route. If I need to change your instructions, I will do so: for now, Beta Wing is going to very, very carefully investigate. In other news, Sister Shia Tang and five of her, um, adepts have descended to the surface of Planet Five: it turns out that her paradigm involves meditative practice of some sort. Never having been a meditating person myself, I cannot say how this will help us communicate with another species, but I also can’t see any harm aside from the very real possibility that Sister Shia Tang and her five adepts will get themselves blasted into the next galaxy. In other other news, the colonists of the Argentina are apparently staging some sort of sit-in; Captain Schwinn has agreed to help Captain Trein talk to them and allay their concerns, a task for which Captain Trein is not well suited, as you know. Oh, and the linguists are very happy with the holograph you sent, but they do want the real thing as well. Safe flying, Park out.”
Rachel and Clay mulled that over and played some more chess, while the blobs resolved into three small spacecraft.
These were not mouthholes. They were distinctly technological, and distinctly not of Earthly origin. They were perhaps twice the mass of fully crewed Ghost 201s, but far smaller than even the escort cruisers with the colony ships. They were behaving just like Ghosts in some ways: they were decelerating hard, at somewhere around the 100 gees that the Ghosts typically managed, and their energy signatures were consistent with something like the souped-up ion drive that allowed the Ghosts, armored freighters, escorts and even colony ships to go to light speed and back on what amounted to solar power stored in batteries.
Vilya’s Beta Wing turned toward the newcomers, approaching them cautiously and sending several rounds of communication out ahead. The newcomers made even less response than the aliens in the ravine, but their course would take them into orbit in the vicinity of Planet Five. It was hard not to jump to the conclusion that the new aliens were siblings of the old aliens.
“We’ve tried to make contact,” Vilya concluded in a message back to Park that she also sent to Rachel and Clay. “I’m concerned that they might have hostile intent, but I don’t see opening fire on them or anything. I am adopting the two on two stand-off formation: Mister Rojette and I will try to rendezvous with them, at least fly in close to show them we’re not planning on shooting, and Bain and Li will hang back a bit and see what comes of it. Any thoughts? Vilya out.”
Park composed a message basically agreeing with Vilya’s plan, but by the time it reached the edge of the system, it was out of date.
Far away in the dusk of the outer Kuiper belt, Vilya and Rojette approached the three incoming ships. They continued to attempt contact, but continued to have no response. Then Clay and Rachel heard each other swear. There was a jolt of energy in that far off dim closet of space, and then a tiny silent explosion. Rojette’s voice came to them in a general alarm call: “Li, Bain, get back, rejoin the colony ships, do not engage the three—!” And then there was another tiny flash. Vilya and Rojette were gone. The three still came on, decelerating through the thin rubble of two Earth-made fighters.
“Oh my goddess what do we do,” said Rachel, the scariest words Clay had ever heard in his life. “What do we do? Gil!” She went silent, and Clay had nothing to say either.
Minutes later, Park’s message arrived, and was followed minutes later by another message from Park: “Rachel, Clay, continue your course until we find out how Vilya’s idea works. By the time you get this, we may already know, but I hope it works better than Sister Tang’s new paradigm. The news from Five is: they meditated, they moved up, they meditated, they moved up, they meditated, they moved up, and then they got blasted to Kingdom come. So there’s another thing that doesn’t work, huh?”
“Crap, Clay,” said Rachel. “Clay. Clay, speak. I need to hear your voice.”
“I’m sorry, Rache,” said Clay. “I didn’t know what to say. This hasn’t helped.”
“So what are we gonna do?”
“We are going to go back to the Canada,” said Clay, “and hope that someone has an idea that actually does work. Up for some chess?”
But as it happened, an idea that might work did in fact emerge in the ensuing hours. Both Rachel and Clay began receiving signals, not from the colony ships, not from Park, not from the retreating Li Zan and Bonnie Bain, and not from the oncoming three spacecraft, but from the installation in the ravine on Planet Five. It consisted of a rapid series of pings, like a Morse code with dots but no dashes. The same message seemed to be coming in to the other fighters in space—Gamma Wing was now on patrol near the colony ships, and now Natasha Kleiner and Su Park were both in space. The message displayed as line segments in a row on Clay’s screen: ||, |||, |||||, |||||||, |||||||||||…
“Prime numbers,” said Rachel and Clay at the same time.
Before the first hundred prime numbers had spooled out, Park’s reply to the ravine came in, also cc’d to Clay and Rachel: the same prime numbers, skipping every other one: |||, |||||||, |||||||||||||…
And then, as if they were shifting from baby talk to Calculus III, the senders of the message were sending massive numbers in swift bursts, and by the time Rachel and Clay got new instructions from Park, ten minutes later, the two pilots had already adjusted the major settings on both their photon weapons and their electronic countermeasures. All that was left was a course correction, and by the time they received those instructions from Park, all four members of Alpha Wing were wearing their most humorless, most formidable smirks.