It was not a situation that became clear all of a sudden. Over the course of several hours of deceleration, Rachel and Clay became more and more sure of what they were seeing.
The two Ghosts were coming in over the hazy red dwarf Proxima Centauri, and ahead of them they could pick out the biggish yellow ball of Alpha Centauri A, and its slightly smaller companion, B. Around B, which is a bit smaller than Sol, orbits a single Earth-sized planet at a distance so small that cobalt would melt and copper would run in rivers. Beyond, no planet had a stable orbit around any of the three stars by itself, but further out, a brave few managed to make elliptical circuits about A and B together. The largest of these, at a minimum distance of seven billion kilometers from each of the stars, was about the size of a large asteroid.
Something about its surface must have been difficult, because the activity seemed to be in its orbit. There, a stringy space station seemed under ongoing attack by mouthholes, which seemed, as usual, to appear out of the blackness itself and disappear back there. But they weren’t getting bites of much of anything; rather, they seemed to be dodging laser blasts. It was hard to tell who was actually coming out ahead, if anyone, and there seemed no prospect of the struggle ending any time soon.
“Okay,” said Clay as they coasted in, still decelerating at 80%, “I’m ready for you to explain to me what the hell is going on.”
“Well,” Rachel replied, “we’re more likely to get a decent explanation from the residents of that station than we are from the mouthholes, so the whole thing is going to be to get in there and ask them.”
“Rachel. There are like twenty of them. Do you have a plan?”
“Oh, I always have a plan, Clay-babe. Besides, we have help.”
“You mean the Guns of Alpha C? What if they start blasting us too? Look. This is all very weird. We don’t even know if the people in the base are people. I mean, what the hell? Where are those creatures coming from? Jeezum, Rache, remember when we saw just one of those things, when it attacked Natasha? Suddenly we’re seeing them by the dozens and the scores. What is this about?”
“I don’t know, Clay. Maybe you’re right.” They were lying side by side, more or less in their own fighters, her left leg across his right leg. She managed to lie back, relative to how she had already been lying back. She sighed a little. “Maybe we’re not taking this whole picture in.”
Clay didn’t say anything. He just rolled an eighth of a turn toward her to take in how adorable Rachel was. She began to punch buttons and slide sliders. Clay, beside her, started doing the same thing. A few minutes went by, as the two pilots, naked and side by side, computed and sensor-swept away, each pausing every now and then to try and cheat off the other. Presently Rachel stopped, then Clay stopped.
“Clay,” said Rachel.
“You have my attention,” said Clay.
“Ngugma have been here.”
“That’s what I was getting, but I hadn’t quite gotten it yet. It’s just like Set, you always grab the set I’m just about to figure out.” He rubbed his forehead. “I’m not sure what this is supposed to explain, though. It’s another loose end.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Rachel. But she remained smiling at him.
“Seriously,” he went on. “The platinum disks. The Ngugma. The mouthholes. The Primoids. The osmium iridium things. The weird stuff at light speed. The, uh, whatever did happen to the France, anyway? Anything on that?”
“Not a thing, Clay-o-matic. At least not yet. But the Ngugma have been here, sweeping the asteroids. Look.” She showed him an image of a planetoid far, far out from Alpha Centauri A and B, about 2000 kilometers across, sporting so many 100-km holes that it looked like a wiffle ball. “So. Ngugma. Mouthholes. We didn’t see the MHs at Earth, but we’ve seen them the other place we saw evidence of Ngugma, which was Holey. There is a link. And that was also where we found the platinum disks.”
“Is there a link with the osmium iridium things?”
“That thread,” said Rachel with her little sigh, “is still hanging loose out there.”
“Well, I’m not saying I can tie it up, but check my sensor readings.”
“Gol darn. Look at that. Clay Gilbert. I am getting all aroused for you.” She kissed him quick on the lips, then had another look at his sensor readings. “We’ll have to leave it for later, of course, but I think we can turn now to the task of getting into Alpha C.”
“We’re sure they’re human, and not furry with tentacles?”
“Clay, we just call them on video.”
“And we’re sure we’re not going to get blind-sided by more mouthholes?”
“We’ll just run the passive countermeasures as best we can at full decel,” she replied. “And anyway, there’s not like a stream of them coming and going. There’s just a whole flock around that planet, around that space station. Our sensors are a lot better than they were back when we were actually scared of these vacuum vermin.”
“Vacuum vermin,” Clay repeated. “That’s a good one. But Rachel.”
“You said you were, um, aroused,” said Clay, trying not to whine.
“Oh, you big hunk of stuff,” she said, turning her full frontal nudity on him. “We have like twelve hours before we can be in their neighborhood. We have plenty of time.”