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VIII. Earth to Alpha Centauri

1.

Rachel and Clay took a few day-periods to lurk among their little band of asteroidal brothers, and then they separated and fired up their thrusters. Rachel picked out a sequence of small asteroids they could flit amongst, with the hope of escaping exposure at least as far as the gap to Jupiter. They kept to a stately 0.1% of the speed of light, 300 kilometers per second, and kept communications to a minimum.

At the orbital distance where asteroids would be in 3:1 resonance with Jupiter, there is a clearing like a clearing in the forest, and as the two fighters zipped across it, they both watched the vicinity of Earth. Then they both cursed.

“Bogeys,” said Clay. “Definite.”

“Bollocks,” said Rachel.

“I make out ten, no, twelve. And an escort cruiser the size of one of our armored freighters.”

Rachel did not reply for a minute, then said, “Twelve and a cruiser. Coming from Earth orbit. We can outrun anything else they send. Clay, we got this.”

“I’m glad to hear you say it.”

“Only,” said Rachel, “as long as there isn’t anything we don’t expect. Ready to bolt for the King of Planets? Sending new navigation. And Clay.”

“Yes, Rachel.”

“Remember your number one order is to survive.”

“Same to you, Rachel.”

The Ngugma craft speeding after them could not stop the two fighters from reaching the realm of Jupiter’s gravitation and radiation. The miners’ security services had failed to spot the two Ghosts when they took off from wherever they took off from, and presumably concluded that they had been hiding among the asteroids ever since the attack on Earth. Well, they could hide among the moons of Jupiter only so long. Over the course of the next forty hours, the task force came to the big planet and began systematically exploring its moons. The Pasiphae group, the Carme group, the Ananke group, the Himalia group: tiny bits of former asteroid, the biggest not much larger than Mathilde, tens of millions of kilometers out from their godlike planet in the lonely darkness.

The escort cruiser trundled up to orbit around Callisto, and the dozen little fighers, smaller even than Ghosts and evidently quite nimble, split into three wings of four. One dropped to Callisto’s black ice surface to do a thorough review, and make absolutely sure there were no remaining underground bits of surviving colony: icy explosions puffed silently into space behind them as they made pass after pass, and then ripped across the rest of the big moon. Another wing headed for Ganymede to do the same with the King of Moons, making sure its dead colony was really dead.

These four did a thorough job, then turned back toward their home base, but something unexpected was going on back there.

Two black spidery little Ngugma fighters came over the edge of a Callistan ravine, a hundred-meter-deep crack formed by the long-ago expansion of the icy crust of the moon. They turned to check its depths, and found themselves under attack. Two sleek grey Ghost 201s put a half dozen laser bolts into them before they could react, and the first news of their demise was puffs of black plastic billowing thinly up over the Callisto highlands.

The other two of the wing headed for the spot, and the escort cruiser, with the third wing of four, began trundling in that direction. By the time these were in the vicinity, the two Ghosts had met the other two spidery Ngugma fighters head on in a fair fight and demolished them without taking damage.

But now the cruiser began laying down fire to contain the Earthlings, and its reserve wing maneuvered to nail them to the icy surface. Their weapons were more like lasers than anything else, pulses of electromagnetism, arrangements of high-energy photons that could blast holes in rock. Clay took a glancing blow and his flectors on one side went down, but that was what flectors were for: a direct hit would have destroyed him. That though shot through his brain and left plenty of space for the belly of the fighter that attacked him, and as it pulled away, he put a bolt right in the join of its radiating wings. Holding his trigger for a full second, he drilled a hole straight through it and left it spinning down to a silent crash on Callisto.

He dropped left and spiraled out of the way of another attacker, and found himself facing a third, and the two boxed him in but seemed unable to seal the deal. He became sure of it: there was no way an actual Ngugma could fit into a fighter like that. He was dealing with robots, and they weren’t out-thinking him. In ten more seconds, one of the two blew up under Rachel’s attack, and then they took the other together. The escort cruiser was blasting all around them but all they had to do was shake it a little and the big guns couldn’t pin them down.

The four fighters coming back from Ganymede found the big cruiser just sitting there. They began searching it for Ghost lice, and one by one these found their enemies and got themselves blown up. Presently there were only Clay and Rachel, orbiting the Ngugma cruiser at an altitude of a few hundred meters.

“Ngugma cruiser,” Rachel called on a frequency the Mathildeans had given them. “Signify surrender by abandoning ship.”

After some seconds, a mechanical voice replied, in English, on the same frequency: “Earth ships. We call parley. We pledge peace to you. Please accept invitation to come aboard.”

“Ngugma cruiser,” Rachel replied. “We think not. Abandon ship or be blasted.”

“Earth ships. We do not want fighting. Please accept invitation to parley. Flag of parley.”

“Ngugma cruiser. You must know we cannot trust you. We give you the chance to abandon ship and survive. Time is running out.”

“Earth ships, please to parley,” came the reply.

“Ngugma cruiser,” called Clay, “my name is Clay Gilbert. You killed my sister’s descendants. Prepare to die.” And with Yvette in his mind’s eye and his heart in his throat, he began pouring laser fire into what seemed a likely spot on the cruiser’s exterior. Rachel joined in, and in another minute they were accelerating away from the King of Planets while the pieces of the Ngugma cruiser showered down on the dead colony of Callisto.

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