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But when Rachel and Clay got back to the Canada’s fighter bay and found the rest of their colleagues in the bay talking, nothing was said about their absence. Park and Bouvier, Natasha and Jane, Timmis and Vera, Clay and Rachel, Lidi Moss and Gemma Izawa all sat on their fighters, while Peri Schmitt and Mizra Aliya floated side by side near the door.

“Okay,” said Bouvier, “I think we can do the overview.”

“We’re calling it a battleship, two battlecruisers and six cruisers,” said Park. “That’s our chief concern. With Beta Wing and the freighters, we should be able to handle the fighters. These big ships are what we haven’t met before.”

“Do we know what they want?” asked Natasha.

“No idea,” saids Park. “What they want?” several people repeated.

“I’m sorry, I just want to get inside their heads a little. I mean, it obviously may be that they plan on blasting the bejesus out of anything they see that isn’t related to them, and who could blame them? Think about those rebel guys who helped us out—they acted the same way, until they recognized that they were our natural allies. They shot at us.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “those bleeps actually shot at Natasha Kleiner. And Rachel Andros.”

“But we came to an understanding with them,” said Tremblay. “And maybe we could come to an understanding with these guys.”

“Maybe.” Natasha challenged the eyes around her. “It’s better than going up against that battleship or whatever. Isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” said Vera Santos. “But I think they’re not going to see things our way till we’ve beaten them a little more. And that means one thing. Blowing up the battleship.”

“Vera,” said Clay, “are you serious?”

“Sure I am,” said Vera. “I think I have an idea. Don’t act so surprised.”

“We’re not,” said Natasha. “We’re just in awe of your daring, Vera.”

“I know you are, and believe me, I am too. Commander, um—?”

“You wish to have the floor, Miss Santos? Be my guest. Do you require audiovisual equipment to present your idea?”

“No, no,” said Vera, pushing off to be in the middle of the bay, a meter or two from almost everyone. “It’s a simple enough concept. I’ll throw together a video later if you want.”

And then Vera Santos explained her idea, and there was brief discussion and general agreement that it was worth a try and it just might work. With this ringing endorsement, Rachel volunteered to help set up the program.

“I think I have the sequence that will put us where we want to be,” she said.

“All right,” said Park, “that sounds as good as anything I had. My instinct was to attempt to propel an asteroid into their path, and this sounds somewhat easier.”

“I can help out,” said Natasha.

“Miss Kleiner, you could help just as much by working with the linguists. Now’s the time to make a breakthrough, if you’re going to make one. Green, Tremblay, Celeste and I will maintain some sort of patrol schedule. Mr Gilbert?”

“We need him to run simulations,” said Vera.

“Sounds good to me,” said Clay, smiling innocently at Rachel float-standing next to him.

She looked him in the eye from fifteen centimeters. Then she kissed him, not fast, while the rest of the fighters gawked. “Stay away from me,” she said to him. “I’m going to need to get some work done.”

In another twelve hours, the colony ships decelerating began to pass the Tasmania and the Greenland accelerating outward. The escorts Quality and Abstraction, somewhat repaired, decelerated harder and swung around into a course to join the two armored freighters. Beta Wing, as reconstituted, with Li Zan as commander and Bonnie Bain as second, and rounded out with the colony ship veterans Jamaica Leith and Indra Singh, took up a wide formation in front of the four larger ships. The three surviving freighters, the Noko Rengata, the Douglas Pohacz and the Tessa, stayed in the shadow of the colony ships.

On came the alien flotilla: twenty-seven fighters, six cruisers, two battlecruisers an order of magnitude above the cruisers, and then the battleship, a ship the size of a small city, covered with weapons and armor and clearly designed to bombard planets while holding off a fleet of attackers.

“We’ll get set down on Three,” Ally Schwinn of the Canada told the colony ship officers and their newly minted replacement fighter pilots. “But they’ll be hot on our heels. So the plan is to hunker down and identify caves just in case.”

“I’ve heard of landing under fire,” said Ted Trein, “but this is the first time anyone’s ever founded a colony on a planet during an attack.”

“That’s us,” said Renaud Garant. “The Human Horizon Program. Always trying new crap.”

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