They stood there naked looking at each other. “So much for our walk,” said Clay. “Ah, the heck with it,” said Rachel, stepping into her suit legs. Clay looked at her, not sure what the heck this what the heck was about. Rachel, putting her arms into the sleeves of her suit, stepped up to Clay, who was perhaps two centimeters taller than her. She looked him in the eyes, blue green and blue. She brought his face to hers and kissed him. It lasted a second. They pulled back and then they kissed again, for a couple of seconds, and then she stepped back.
Clay stood there naked, holding his suit, the wind blowing his dark hair, waiting to see how events unfolded.
“Clay,” said Rachel. “how do I know you’re not going to get killed?”
“How. Do I know. You’re not. Going to get. Killed?” She cocked her head, as she zipped up her suit, covering her breasts from his view. “Simple question.”
“Well, Rachel,” he said. He brushed off a foot and put it into a leg, then repeated the process. She stared at him as he got his arms in his sleeves. He hadn’t come up with anything, so he said, “I guess I’ll just have to be careful.”
“Don’t just be careful,” said Rachel. “Be still alive at the end of whatever. And the next one and the next one and the one after those two. Kay?”
“Okay,” said Clay.
“Dang it, Clay. Listen to me. You’ve been begging me to talk all day. Me. Talk. You asked for it. Now listen. You matter to me. You matter, a lot. Don’t. Die.”
“Rachel,” said Clay, groping for words. “You matter to me, actually,” he managed to get out. “So you don’t die. Okay?”
“Okay. I promise.”
“I promise too,” said Clay.
Without further communication, they took off and got up out of the atmosphere. They found Park and Tremblay coming at them, sixty million kilometers behind but already up to five percent of the speed of light. With a little adjustment, they joined Rachel and Clay coming up from Planet Three and they all put the pedal to the metal together.
“The front two colony ships came under attack around 25% of light speed,” Park informed Rachel and Clay. “Egypt and India. The enemy appears to be primoids. There have been several small battles, and both sides have suffered some losses, but the enemy has retreated rather than attack the big ships directly. Canada and Argentina are already visible decelerating behind the first two, but they don’t seem to be under attack.”
“So we don’t think they’ve shown their whole force?” asked Rachel.
“We’ve seen six fighters,” said Jane Tremblay. “You can watch the video. They blew up the Persuasion, the India’s escort cruiser. We lost a couple of baby fighters. Maybe we should stop calling them baby fighters. They lost four of their six, though, and the other two seem to have retreated. But think about it. Six, right?”
“You were expecting nine,” said Clay.
“We think that’s their squadron size,” said Park. “It’s a complete guess of course. There might be 83 of them for all we know. But I am 100% certain that there are more of them than this.”
“I believe you’re right, Commander,” said Rachel.
“Natasha and Celeste are out in the Oort Cloud,” said Park. “We think the aliens may not know they’re there. Vera and Timmis are on ahead of us, and maybe those four can get together before they get to the scene. But things are different this time. This time there are two thousand colonists on each of those ships. You can lose a fighter. You can lose an escort or a freighter. But we can’t allow thousands of colonists to die in the cold of space—again. Not right in front of our eyes.”
“So, strategy?” asked Clay.
“Formulate as we fly,” said Park.
Twenty seconds later, Clay’s comm lit up with a transmission from Rachel: “I have a strategy. Let’s save the colonists. But make darn sure you save yourself. That’s an order.” Then came another: “And if you’re wondering if I’m allowed to give you an order like that, well, I just did.”