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The eight fighters and the Tasmania and the Greenland were accelerating out of the Candy One system at the fastest pace the armored freighters could manage. Alpha Wing was in front by 100,000 kilometers, then the two anchor freighters side by side, with Gamma Wing arranged around them in fairly close formation.

“It’s funny,” Clay was saying to Rachel over their comms as they dallied with a desultory draw at chess. “I mean, I still haven’t got through my head the idea that I’m risking my life out here. I mean, put me in battle and I know it, but right now, I can’t really fathom that,” and he paused and went on, “one or both of us could be dead in a few hours.”

“And it’ll be decided in seconds,” said Rachel.

“And it’ll depend on our instincts more than anything else,” said Clay, “and you know, I just don’t feel comfortable about that. I mean I can let my instincts take over and all, but it’s just like trusting someone else to do it.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “or think about this: we just added three new pilots from colony ship duty. How many of them are going to die the first time we run into the enemy? You know how much we learned from our first few encounters with the mouthholes, with the primoids or whatever we’re calling them. You talk about your instincts, but your instincts really are you, and they really are honed, they’re very well honed actually. As are mine. As are Tasha’s, and Commander’s, and Vera’s too, while we’re at it, or Bouvier’s or Tremblay’s or Timmis’s. And yet we’ve only barely survived. And yet we really were the best wing to start with, we were better from top to bottom, which is you by the way—!”

“I know, don’t rub it in.”

“Than either of the other two wings. These new guys are not better than the other two wings, they’re not better than the old Beta Wing with Vilya and Rojette. They are not. They’re nowhere near ready, in my mind. How are they going to do in battle?”

“I don’t know, Rache, how are they going to do in battle?”

“They’re going to have problems,” said Rachel. “So we need to watch out for them. Especially since this time they’re going to be behind us, and that’s not too different from what happened to Beta Wing before.”

“It’s totally different,” said Clay. “Both the times Beta lost fighters, it was when they were patrolling the edge of the system. That’s dangerous work. Now—!”

“Now they’re protecting the colony ships,” said Rachel. “Now they may be faced with getting in the way of a wing of primoids or a dozen mouthholes who want to chew through a colony ship.”

“These primoids,” said Clay. “They like threes.”

“Maybe, why?”

“I make three blobs coming down from relativistic speed,” said Clay, “and I do believe each blob is actually three little blobs.”

Park took zero seconds to think about the news, ordering both wings back into the bays of the Tasmania and the Greenland. “Tell me you’re not just hiding behind us,” said Kalkar, coming to meet them in the hall outside the fighter bay.

“We are not just hiding behind you,” said Park. “Here’s the basic underlying strategy. They don’t know us, and we don’t know them. So they have no clue what our usual way of doing things is. Right now, they may expect us to send a few ships out by themselves into the dark of space. It won’t surprise them at all to find two armored freighters coming toward them. It will, however, surprise them to find eight fighters coming out of the two armored freighters.”

“All right, fair enough,” said Kalkar. “And you think this little subterfuge will actually work?”

“Honestly,” said Park, “my chief hope is that we can use a different subterfuge each time we meet them so that they won’t be able to develop expectations.”

“What if we run out of subterfuges?” asked Bouvier.

“Let’s make sure,” said Park, “they run out of the desire to fight us before we run out of subterfuges. And strategies and twists and notions and maneuvers and feints and deceits and bluffs and tricks.” She stopped, and a smile formed on her tiny mouth. “And I do believe I have another trick. All right, Captain, shall we repair to your meeting room and discuss the plan?”

“We may repair to my meeting room,” said Kalkar, “and as for discussion, you may tell us the plan and we may nod sagely and say of course, Commander.”