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But the battle seemed to be taking place far out of their reach. Already two fighters from the colony ships, Tor Amdahl of the Egypt and Jaya Lajan of the India, were gone from the screen, possibly with prejudice: at this range their vac suits’ transponders would not register. The Escort Persuasion was gone in a disturbing poof. Egypt and India, Egypt’s escort cruiser Abstraction, and the freighters Noko Rengata and Douglas Pohacz, were under raiding attack as the other five primoid fighters—yes, there were nine—zipped in and shot away. But one of them blew and then another, as Egypt’s remaining fighter defender, Peri Schmitt, figured out a way to join fire with the remaining escort Abstraction.

Half an hour went by, sped up from perhaps an hour of real time by the combined speed of the outgoing fighters and the incoming ships. The little fleet of ships drew together defensively, their two fighters and one escort cruiser doing their best to patrol the perimeter. Two more colony ships, the Canada and the Argentina, coasted into reality behind them.

Then the last three primoids came suddenly down out of nowhere at Abstraction. One of them blew up, while the other two managed to disable Peri Schmitt and severely wound the escort cruiser. They were on into the Egypt’s face, firing off missiles to distract mighty Egypt’s two photon cannons, and using their own beams to slash into its hull in a dozen places, none of them quite lethal.

This dissection was interrupted by Lidi Moss, the India’s remaining fighter, coming around the blighted Egypt, with two more fighters behind her, these labeled in gold and green on the screen, Bouvier and Kleiner. In three seconds, the two primoid fighters were both blasted to pieces.

“Effing mouthholes,” they heard in Natasha’s voice, and on magnification Clay could see that the globular nasties, possibly acting on their own as scavengers on the battlefield, were diving in and taking bites of the Abstraction and the Douglas Pohacz, whose one gunner was blasting away manfully in various directions at a useless energy frequency. The three fighters, three angry women inside, came at the mouthholes with the right frequencies. They fired off missiles and followed in, killing four or five of the things and chasing off the rest.

Clay had to pinch himself. How long ago was it that those things were unbeatable?

Things seemed fine for half an hour, and then Clay noticed, and noticed Natasha and company noticing, another flight of primoids attacking the rear two freighters, the Canada and the Argentina. Bouvier and Kleiner and Lidi Moss all took off that way, though before they could get there, one of the big ships, the freighter Kelly Flynn, was blown into several pieces. Clay could see mouthholes coming from the blackness to feast upon the Flynn, having outraced the approaching fighters.

The four fighters that flew with Canada and Argentina formed up and took on the enemy bravely, and once the enemy was past them, only one, Gemma Ozawa, was still flying. The two escorts moved to stand in the way, while behind them Canada, Argentina and the freighter Tessa huddled. The Responsible, the escort assigned to the Canada, took five or six hits in a row to its drive section and began a slow explosion: a few crew in vac suits could be seen emerging and propelling themselves away from the vicinity. still coasting along at 25% of light speed.

Again, the feast was interrupted, the party raided. Two fighters came over the Argentina and met the nine as they bottled up the escort cruiser Quality. These were labeled Santos and Green. The two, working together in the maneuver they had been practicing for hours, took one fighter and then the next and the next, skewering them with a double beam at a particular spot and with a particular frequency. Quality seemed to recover its heart for the fight, and Ozawa came from behind firing, and two more primoids went down.

The other three came at Argentina, but its gunner was trying out a new frequency that had just been suggested to her. Argentina took a number of hits but gave as good as it got. When shots began to come from behind, from Ozawa and the Quality, one, then another blew up. The third curved away cleverly and came in at Canada, and found itself blasted in the face with that nasty, poisonous frequency. It stalled and evaded, and then blew up as Vera Santos came around the wreckage and raked it with her flaming sword.

“Oh crap oh crap oh crap,” Natasha was saying. “Egypt. Are you gonna make it?”

“We won,” came Vera’s call, still five hours away for Clay and his friends. “Confirmed. No primoids left intact. Mouthholes in retreat.”

“All right,” Bouvier was saying, “I have some damage, but I’ll be good. We have six fighters and two escorts. I’m sending a patrol routine. You guys good?”

“Good,” said Vera, Timmis and Natasha.

“Egypt’s going to make it,” came the call from Renaud Garant. “No loss estimate yet. We think the colonists are secured.”

“India’s got limited damage,” said Caterin Mark. “No colony losses.”

“Argentina took hits to the drive and engineering areas,” said Ted Trein. “We’re down to two thirds battery.”

“Canada is fine,” said Ally Schwinn.

A few seconds, at most, went by. Clay assumed that the captains were all hearing from their subordinates. Then Vera said, “Maybe not for long.”

Another few seconds went by and someone, and then several people, said things along the lines of Oh my god or Oh my goddess or even What the. Just appearing from the light noise of relativistic speed, from behind and a little to the left, were more ships. Some were fighters, and some were larger, and a few were larger still.

“So,” said Clay to Rachel, “that’s what a Primoid Fleet looks like.”