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6.

“So this is a great situation,” said Rachel, some hours later. They were still drifting, and while they were not exactly jostling against mouthholes, there were at least twenty identified bogies within a mere hundred million kilometers.

“Well,” said Clay, “we’re safe as long as we don’t engage thrust or anything.”

“Sadly we’re not on course for anything in particular,” said Rachel. “Other than growing old together in this lovely closet of ours.”

“Don’t worry,” said Clay. “I have a plan. My plan is that you’ll come up with a plan.”

“Ah.” She turned her attention to the screens on her side, the part of their closet that was her fighter. “Well, I’d best get to it, then.”

So Clay played around with the data he had, and Rachel played around with her own data, both still naked in their shadowy booth zipping through the emptiness fast enough to orbit Earth three and a half times each second. Clay was just playing around, hoping something would come to him, but when he looked over his shoulder, Rachel seemed to be cross-checking matrices of numbers and plotting graphs in multiple dimensions. Then she sighed, shook her head and erased a bunch of stuff. Then she began again, but this time she was clearly just playing around.

Clay looked back at his own matrices of data. He made a graph or two. But he couldn’t keep out the thought that those unimaginable metallic beasties were out there, swooping and diving and swerving in the inky blackness. He remembered all too well the way they had behaved at Gliese 163, with their impossible accelerations and decelerations, their U-turns and bends and zig-zags that should have torn them apart from sheer gee force. He also remembered that first encounter, first contact forsooth, when something from nowhere had appeared and taken a bite out of the strut that connected Natasha to the rest of Alpha Wing, and how well he recalled two of them taking him from two sides and nearly finishing him off.

And space was just outside this shell, this membrane of metal and plastic and fluid, space emptier than the empty that was to be found en route to the Moon or Mars, space without a sun or planet, without even another spacecraft in case of trouble.

And just when he thought his willies could not get worse, it occurred to Clay that there were other spacecraft somewhere about: hulking tankers full of molten iron, titanic mining ships with unimaginably powerful drilling lasers or whatever, and no doubt hordes of fighters of types they had never met. It had taken several encounters to get an idea of what worked against the mouthholes, and then it had taken several more to figure out the same thing with the Primoids. And they’d had other people to rely on, and the facilities of the anchor freighters and the colony ships, and the expertise of Padfoot and her ilk.

“But Rachel figured out the passive countermeasures,” he muttered.

“What?”

“Sorry. Just reassuring myself.”

“Well, reassure me,” said Rachel testily.

“Just that you were the one who figured out the PCM settings. You did that. And Jana Bluehorse and Gil Rojette figured out the laser settings for the mouthholes.”

“Yes, well,” said Rachel, clearly in a rebellious mood—rebellious? Her, the commander? “We were on the Canada when I, with your help, figured out the PCM settings. And Jana died in that battle. The mouthholes. Ate. Her.”

“Well, what I’m saying is,” he started.

“And friggin’ Gil Rojette,” she went on, “who is also dead, by the way, he went and friggin’ slept with Bonnie Friggin’ Bain, who you probably did too, I know she wanted it and you don’t like to let the ladies down, do you?”

“Forget I brought it up,” said Clay, hoping she wasn’t reading his mind, where he was remembering (and this was before he and Rachel were even an item) how, after he was chomped on by mouthholes, it was Vera Santos who saved him and who, in fact, had sex with him repeatedly afterward.

“You didn’t say forget it to Vera, did you, when she saved your hiney from mouthholes?” said Rachel. “You didn’t—!” She started pulling on her vac suit. “I need to pee. Leave me alone.”

“Okey doke,” said Clay.

“I hate it when you say okey doke,” said Rachel. She got her suit on, relieved herself, then went back to idly playing with the data. Clay went back to playing a stupid video game and worrying, and looking back at the sensors every few minutes.

“Rache,” said Clay forty minutes later, “they’re dissipating.”

“What?”

“They are dissipating,” he said. “Mind you, there may be some I can’t see, but all the ones I was tracking have gotten their zipping shoes on and zipped away. The nearest one is now 500 million kilometers and”

She did a scan, checked this, checked that. “By golly, you’re right,” she said. “Well, I only hope this is real, because we can’t keep decelerating and accelerating like this, we need a battery charge from a star at some point.”

“Agreed,” said Clay. “Shall we set course for 581?”

“Okey dokey,” said Rachel.

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