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3.

The two fighters chose to aim straight for the colossal and colorful belly of the King of Planets. They turned to the right to pull alongside Callisto, and they followed the big black ice moon around Jupiter. Along the way they got a decent view of the even bigger moon Ganymede.

“The colony’s still there,” said Clay. “Dead as a doornail.”

“No sign of life,” Rachel agreed. “Not a single tech emission. Why? Why did they bother? It wasn’t huge or dangerous. They didn’t mine Ganymede. Any metal is going to be under fifty km of ice.”

“They were eliminating a danger on their flanks,” said Clay. “They were covering their retreat.”

“More like their freight route,” said Rachel.

“How do you think they dispose of the material? Do they ship it across the Galaxy?”

“I wonder.” She pushed and prodded and poked the screen. “Okay,” she said. “In command. Let’s separate the Ghosts but stick together. Let’s hang near Callisto a bit and see what we see. Formulate a bit of a plan. Okay?”

“Yes, Acting Commander. Your word is my command.”

Rachel smiled. “I command you kiss me,” she said.

The two fighters kept within a few dozen meters of the icy ground. Their batteries were already storing small amounts of the familiar rays of old Sol while they floated in the Callistan sky in “exactly the way that bricks don’t,” in the words of the immortal bard. They took readings as best they could of the state of the inner solar system. The lifeless ruins on Mars and Vesta were just close enough and big enough to be sure they were lifeless ruins. The Moon showed scars where the familiar ground bases had been. Meanwhile humongous dark ships, definitely not Earth make, moved about in orbit and to and from the ground. Not only were the largest of the spacecraft not of a scale even with the colony ships Clay and Rachel were familiar with, but the next smaller class and the next smaller class than that were far bigger than colony ships. Then through several more classes of freighter or escort or shuttle they descended.

“But there’s nothing like a fighter on patrol,” said Clay.

“I wonder what the beings themselves look like,” said Rachel. “See that one thing? Looks like a, I don’t know, one of our escorts? Like the Abstraction? Maybe that’s a fighter.”

“Rachel, that thing is the size of a freaking two story house.”

“So? Maybe the aliens are the size of two story houses. It could be.”

“I think I read some article,” said Clay, “that claimed that any sentient life form would be within a factor of two larger or smaller than us in mass. And have two to four arms and two to four legs and a head on top.”

“So how’s that square with the Primoids?” asked Rachel.

“They’re just a bit bigger than us,” said Clay. “I mean, they have lots of arms and legs and tentacles and stuff, but the size thing is pretty spot on.”

“I know the theory, Clay. I just think it’s convenient thinking. I mean, everyone thinks aliens will be basically our size, but will be way beyond our tech, but I think it might be the other way around, there isn’t that much more tech beyond where we are, but they could be ant size of whale size. I just—well, looking on the bright side, we may be looking at the battered remains of our home planet and the graveyard of 99.99% of our species, but we are learning a ton!”

“Great.” They puttered around a bit more, gathering data. A lumbering freighter roughly the size of the asteroid Mathilde, a freighter big enough that its hold could contain the asteroid Eros, was slowly accelerating outward past the orbit of Mars, about eighty degrees to the left of their position relative to the Sun. “It’s so slow,” he said. “We could totally catch up with it and take it on.”

“I think not,” said Rachel.

Clay waited a minute, inspecting the details of the big lummox of a spaceship. “Wait,” he said. “We go in low over this groove here, I lay down covering fire, you aim for the vulnerable spot right where this intake node—!”

“Ha and ha and ha ha ha,” said Rachel. “Well, shall we head for Earth?”

“Got an actual plan, a course and stuff?”

“I have a course,” said Rachel. “We track through the asteroid belt, I have plots for six of those things we can jump between like rocks in a stream. We can fly right over Vesta, and then we hold our breath and slide across the orbit of Mars to Earth. With any luck, they won’t even bother sending anything to stop us. So. Can do?”

“Sure,” said Clay. “That’s the course. The plan?”

“Well,” said Rachel, “I guess we don’t go in with intent to parley. And I guess we don’t charge in to attack. So that leaves landing.”

“That leaves landing,” said Clay. “Boy, that sounds like a fun vacation.”

“It’s not how I’d imagined we’d be returning to Merrie Olde Earth,” said Rachel, “but it’s certain to be unforgettable.”

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