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2.

The mouthholes, four in number, shot after the two Ghosts, closing fast. Clay experienced that familiar defeated confusion, followed by that familiar detachment. Fear was just a medium, like space. It was too late for passive countermeasures, and joining the fighters was certainly off. All he had to do was wait for the time to be right, just like when he and Rachel had fought training battles together, two on four or five on the Earth’s Moon.

A word flashed in red italics before him: FLIP.

He flipped, and, still accelerating backwards and approaching two percent of light speed, they faced their spherical attackers. The mouthholes were coming in staggered, the foremost one on the right, the second behind but also a little to the left, the third behind but also to the right and above the second, the fourth below the three in front of it. Concentrating their fire on the second in line, they made it bust open and fly apart. Then the third burst in a shower of metals. The front mouthhole, almost in their laps, suddenly faced those construction lasers at a range of under two kilometers; just a hundred thousandth of a second of that and it blew out.

The fourth zipped away backwards, executing a flip of its own and taking a powder.

“Phew,” said Clay. “But: Damn, we’re good together.”

“On my mark, 30 degrees left, 22 degrees down, 110% acceleration, get passive countermeasures ready,” Rachel rattled off. “Darling.”

“You romantic fool,” said Clay, entering all the coordinates. “On your mark.”

“Mark,” said Rachel, and they shot away at an angle. “Ready correcting angle in—let’s give it five minutes. That should carry us a couple million km.”

“Link up?”

“Doing 110% acceleration? You romantic fool. Okay.”

It took them most of their five minutes to get lined up and sealed together. They pushed their helmets back and hugged and smooched a little. “You okay?” asked Clay.

“Yes, actually,” said Rachel. “Not a scratch. You?” He shrugged, still embracing her. “Well, we’re not out of the woods yet,” she said. “Didn’t you notice?”

“What?” He turned to his sensors. She shook her head, adjusted the view to center on Holey-3, diminishing into the void behind them, and magnified, and shifted wavelength. Tiny metallic shapes, tagged by the sensors for high metal content and energy output, zipped down to the planet’s surface and back out, and shot around it like insane little moons. “Holy bleep,” said Clay. “Holy Holey. How many are there?”

“My computer’s tracking 25 of them,” said Rachel. “It’s the most we’ve ever seen at once.”

“Well, they’re not like a star fleet, are they? What are they doing, eating the remains? Nothing left down there looked like mouthhole food to me. Are they tourists?”

“Food for thought,” said Rachel. “Look, here comes another busload of tourists. Time for some PCM.” She switched off the timer with ten seconds left on it, then switched on their combined passive electromagnetic countermeasures, which she had designed way back on Gliese 163. Clay looked around his screens, and found the new arrivals coming in almost along their former course out of the system. There were at least six of them. “Shut the engines down to ten percent,” she said quietly, as if they were in the next room from the mouthholes.

“Ten percent? We’ll be crawling.”

“Just long enough to let them fly by us,” said Rachel. “Look. We took four. We could take six. But if either of us gets damaged, we’re going to have to find somewhere to fix it. And somewhere is suddenly attracting quite the crowd.” They both looked at the six mouthholes shooting toward Holey-3 out of the darkness, still half a light hour away. “I wonder why.”

“I swear there’s nothing there they like to eat,” said Clay. “I mean, there was basically nothing left intact that was tech in any way. They could eat the glass or whatever of those beacons.”

“No, that’s silica, not metal,” replied Rachel. “Only crazy people eat sand.”

“And mouthholes aren’t crazy,” said Clay. “I don’t know if they’re people, but they’re not crazy.” They stared at the screen a little longer. “So,” said Clay, “we lay low and then shoot off toward 581? We’ll have to bend left now, and we’re going pretty darn fast already.”

“I know,” said Rachel. “I got it all covered.”

They watched the screens. Two more little groups appeared out of the emptiness around the system and headed for the planet, while a group of five suddenly shot off in formation, splitting up only as they passed 10% of light speed on their way somewhere else.

“I figured there would be alien species,” said Rachel. “But I always thought their, uh, attitude would be more obvious. But we have the mouthholes, which every time I think I understand them, I find out I don’t understand them, and the Primoids, which are almost exactly like us, only compared to the mouthholes, and the guys with the osmium plaques, who are what, handing out literature? Leaving labels on everything? Who is the enemy? Who’s our friend? Who do we understand well enough to even be enemies or friends? You know?”

“And then there’s the miners,” said Clay. “22,000 plus or minus 5500 years. That’s practically contemporary, you know. Dudes come in and grind up the asteroid belt and dig huge holes in planets so they can carry off the mantle in tankers.” He smirked at Rachel. “They may be the most like humans of all of them.”

 

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