XII. Saving Bluehorse
The Earthlings in the Bluehorse system were dangerously scattered and far from the friendly environment of the third planet, so the first thing Bouvier and Park did was work to rectify the situation. No one was raising any objection to their commands, not the colony ship captains, not Kalkar and Nilsstrom, and certainly not the fighter pilots themselves. Nor were colonists in any form of uprising about whether this was the place to be. A strong desire to put feet on ground and feel sun on skin swept the colony ships.
So over the next twelve hours the four colony ships, limping to varying degrees, pulled in close together, and the two remaining escorts, the Quality and the Abstraction, along with the six still operational fighters accompanying them, kept in patrol formation; the whole little fleet was decelerating as hard as it could stand to. What crew survivors could be picked up were picked up: most of the Responsible, the colony ship fighter pilots Mizra Aliya and Peri Schmitt, and two cargo officers from the Kelly Flynn. Meanwhile Park, along with Clay, Rachel and Jane Tremblay, hurried outwards, and the armored freighters Tasmania and Greenland came up out of orbit but remained near Bluehorse-3.
Meanwhile, the mysterious fleet became clearer and clearer. The fighters identified it for certain as primoid, and there were 27 of them, verily a power of three. There were six ships of what seemed the next larger size, a little bigger than the escorts belonging to the humans’ fleet, and then there were three more ships, two of which looked like escorts multiplied by two in each dimension, or like freighters given over totally to combat use. The biggest ship of all was somewhere near the geometric mean of an armored freighter like the Tasmania and a colony ship. It too appeared to be covered with gun emplacements.
“Battlestar,” said Clay when he saw it, as he and Rachel and Tremblay and Park swung wide around to join the colony ships and their guardians.
“Better than a death star,” said Rachel. “By the way, thank you so much for making me watch Star Wars. Don’t even think about going in for that bombing run where you have to fly past every single weapon they have and then put a shot into just that one spot.”
“Rachel,” said Clay, “that’s what we always do.”
Three dozen hours later, all the fighter pilots, the captains, pilots, navigators and drive officers of the two remaining escorts, the captains of the three remaining colony freighters and the entire colony ship captaincy met in the Canada’s second largest meeting room. Alice Grohl and several other colonists were there but didn’t say much, but the meeting went out on video to everyone else. Only Tasmania and Greenland were not represented, still five light hours away.
“Will we make it to Planet Three before they catch up to us?” asked Ted Trein. “That is the only question. My ship is hanging on by a thread. We can’t speed up and we can’t slow down any faster than we’re doing. And one hit, and we’re going supernova.”
“The fighters could catch us,” said Su Park. “But we won’t let them get at you, Captain. We will get your colonists to the ground.”
“Can Argentina land in atmosphere, do you think?” asked Ally Schwinn of the Canada.
Trein raised his eyebrows and played with his coffee mug. “Should be able to,” he said. “But there’s a chance the shields will go down mid-landing and that could be very bad.” He laughed, sort of. “Quite the show, that would be. Bluehorse Three would see raining colonists.”
“We can ferry your people down,” said Emily Jin, captain of the escort Quality.
“Surely we can,” said Ally Schwinn. “Don’t worry, Ted, we’ll get through this.”
“And we land,” he went on, “and then what? We lose in space, we lose the colony anyway.”
“So we don’t lose in space,” said Park.
“Tell us you have one of your ideas,” said Alice Grohl, her first words in the meeting.
“Well,” said Trein, “these guys we’re up against, this is not new to them. This is new to us. We’re figuring out everything from scratch.”
“With all due respect,” said Park, “some of us are not starting from scratch. Some of us have been trying out maneuvers and fiddling with the technology ever since Gliese 163.”
“Point taken,” said Trein.
“And their fighter pilots and their fighters,” said Natasha, “they are not better than us. Quite the opposite. It’s the big ships we’re worried about.”
“They may be pushovers too,” said Vera. “The fighters, we definitely have their numbers. These big things, we’ll have to see.”
“Have we made any progress with communication?” asked Schwinn.
“The linguists,” said Natasha, “they’re really working over that one primoid we picked up. It hasn’t responded much, but we do know it eats chalk and dry beans.”
“It what?” several people asked. Natasha shrugged. “So it’s doing okay?” asked Renaud Garant. “I understand it was one of the ones taking apart my Egypt. Let me know when I can drop by and give that bleep a piece of my mind.”
“Oh, we will,” said Natasha.
“So just to summarize,” said Ted Trein, “we think we can beat their fighters, but they outnumber ours more than two to one. We don’t know if we can take their bigger ships, but we hope so. And we haven’t mentioned that the mouthholes are either helping them or are symbiotically following them around and eating their scraps. Is that about the size of it?”
“Ted,” said Ally Schwinn.
“No,” said Park. “Let’s not sugarcoat things. We have a lot of work to do and the deadline is a very dead line, if you will. We are up against annihilation here. Losing one colony ship would be horrible—well, it was horrible, and losing another would be horrible again, but losing the colony, losing the mission—it should be unthinkable. But if we do not stop this enemy, it will happen. It won’t matter if a few of us survive. Better we all sacrifice our lives so that just this one colony manages to hang on.”
“Talk like that,” said Renaud Garant, “I hope you know—!”
“It’s the talk we need,” said Celeste Bouvier.
Suddenly Clay, whose heart had been in the dumps, sensed movement beside him. Rachel pushed past him toward the door. She turned and gave him a Look, a look with not a grain of joy in its metric tons of emotional force. She pushed herself toward the door, and by the time he managed to follow, she was out into the anteroom.