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3.

Clay and Rachel were accelerating at fifty gees and up to 150 km/sec before they said anything to each other beyond brief technical notes.

“No sign of pursuit,” came Rachel’s message, in text, from ten meters away. “Let’s up to full accel.” She finished the sentence not with a period but with a heart, then a stop sign. Then she shot away.

Clay pursued Rachel and they lined up again as they were passing the Moon’s orbit. Their navigation systems snapped them into formation ten meters apart, and suddenly there was Rachel, taking up the left third of Clay’s screen, smiling sidelong at him. “Exciting, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Like, who knew they had fighters too?”

“Well, it stands to reason,” said Rachel, “though I grant that it was a bit of a shock given that they had kept them hidden up to now. I mean, we still don’t know what these little bastards look like.”

“We could hail them and see if they want to talk.”

“I will take that as humor,” said Rachel. “But in case it wasn’t, you did notice that they didn’t bother with viruses or phagocytes at the Mars base, or the Moon or Ganymede. They just blasted the poo out of everything.”

“Yeah,” replied Clay, “including putting holes in the three people who managed to get outside in their vac suits at Ganymede. I’m pretty sure they would put some nice big holes in us if we gave them the chance.”

“Thinking this through,” said Rachel, “the miners must have obtained a few human specimens to determine what our weaknesses are. Maybe they didn’t have to actually abduct anyone. Maybe they invited a delegation.”

“Feeling that feeling again,” said Clay. “That feeling of a ghost breathing on me. Know what I mean?”

“I’ve been feeling that ever since we passed Ganymede.”

“So, any idea how to approach Mathilde, Commander?”

“Oh, talk dirty to me,” said Rachel. “Do you fantasize you’re making love with Su Park?”

“Oh, that would be a mood killer,” Clay replied. “Seriously.”

“Seriously. Well, I have an idea. I guess I feel like I have an intuition. Trust me?”

“Trust you.”

So the two of them disappeared into the blackness. After three hours of acceleration at full throttle, they were zipping along at nearly 3% of the speed of light, and Rachel sent a new navigation plan: they spent another hour accelerating at full, and then cut their thrust to zero after a final adjustment. As if magnetically connected, the two fighters, covering 9000 kilometers every second, adjusted their positions and velocities exactly enough to keep them ten meters apart. For six hours they coasted through the vacuum, playing chess (Rachel, five to three with six draws), Set (Rachel, eight to one) and simulator (Clay, six to five). Presently they were among the orbits of main belt asteroids, of which the major ones hung in ghostly dotted curves across Clay’s screens. Of course, the asteroid belt being what it was, they were not among asteroids exactly, just among their orbits; Clay could have flown blind through the heart of the belt a hundred times and not come close to hitting anything. Still, their path did take them, stealthy as a billiard ball rolling, fairly close to a medium-sized asteroid, a bruised-looking but fairly round object their computers identified as 442 Eichsfeldia. Rachel’s orders told Clay to fire his thrust to get in behind it and slow down to stay behind it. For an hour and a half they followed the little world, which looked like a puffball and seemed bathed something like dirty flour to a depth of several meters. They were completely out of sight of Earth’s orbiters, and at least for now out of the view of the freighter fleet that was currently trooping out of the system.

“What are we hoping for out of this?” Clay called. “I get Mathilde about twelve degrees ahead of us. Supposing we can get there unnoticed—!”

“We drop back,” said Rachel, “just out into the open behind Eichsfeldia, fire our thrusters just as its gravity gets a good tug on us, fire all the way behind it and cut thrust just as we come into view from Earth again. We can afford a couple more thrust bursts, I expect, if we take them far enough apart, say, here and here and here—without anyone connecting the dots. We should be able to cross to Mathilde in twenty hours.”

“I guess you’ve thought this out a bit, huh.”

So, not thinking about the familiarity of the Solar System any more than he had thought about the familiarity of the Earth, not thinking about the absurdity of flitting from rock to rock in his own Solar System any more than he had thought about the absurdity of flitting from dead city to dead city on Earth, and definitely not thinking about how easily they could both wind up dead any more than he had thought about that on Earth, Clay followed his wife as they hopped and skipped and jumped a few dozens of millions of kilometers across the blackness toward the busted chunk that was 253 Mathilde, with its wide smooth curved surfaces and enormous crater and scattered impacts and with that very interesting cavernous interior that was not at all evident to the casual passerby, and which had made Mathilde such a tempting destination for early colonists of the asteroid belt.

What else was not at all evident to the casual, alien observer, on, say, a mission to destroy all sentient life forms and conduct a massive mining operation, was a couple of Ghost 201 fighters coasting in toward that little cave opening in the heart of the big crater, hidden deep in shadow.

And what was not evident even to them, until they were too close to miss it, was the distinctly Earth-made Ghost fighter that floated in the mouth of the cavern, which zipped back inside as Rachel and Clay got within the little planet’s shadow.

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