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4.

“So wait,” said Clay, “the mouthholes were with the Ngugma?”

“Hey, want some tea?” suggested Renko, the older of the two male crew members with them.

“Not really with, said Court. “I mean, the jury is still out on that, I guess. But after, yeah. About fifty hours after. The Ngugma came through—!”

“Just to be really clear,” said Bing, the other male crew member, “the first thing that came through was the video from Earth. And that came through like a fire storm.”

“Similar,” said Renko, “to the fire storm they had in the D section after the mouth thingies had a bash at it.”

“What did you call them before we came here and told you what we called them?” asked Rachel.

“Spheroids,” said Avery, shrugging and smiling. “Not nearly as descriptive.”

“Bleepin’ space bombs,” said Renko.

“We were calling them spaceblobs,” said Bing.

“So the videos from Earth,” Clay prompted.

“Well, you can imagine,” said Court. “We’d had those guys here. We had the impression they’d taken advantage of us, but it wasn’t like we had any way of mining our own asteroid belt, and they did help, a little. We, uh, we have these three pods. Believe it or not, they were the first aliens we ever met. And here they were giving us stuff. They got attached and everything, and there they sit, holding our spare equipment and stuff. There’s a good chance we’ll at least try and make one or two of them over into living quarters. Once this is all over.”

“If it doesn’t end up with us all floating in space,” said Renko.

“Look,” said Rachel, “one way or another, we are going to beat these stinkin’ mouthholes. Count on that.”

“You have to understand,” drawled Avery, “they beat the crap out of us.”

“Yeah,” said Court, “we had just about digested the fact that everyone on the home planet was horribly dead. And then here come the perpetrators. And they must have known we knew. They didn’t contact us at all. They also didn’t attack, though they scared the crap out of us. We just assumed they were going to do something horrible to us.”

“Bardo went ape doo doo,” said Renko. “He’s still sure there’s some way that disease is going to get in here. He’s not the only one.”

“He has nothing to worry about,” said Rachel. “They had to do a lot of work to infect the humans of Earth.”

“Yes,” said Clay. “He hath no hemorrhagic fever mark upon him, his complexion is perfect blown the heck up in space by mouthholes.”

“What?” asked Avery.

“I think he’s quoting,” said Rachel. “Either Rowling or Shakespeare or Tolkien.”

“Love that Harry Potter stuff,” said Renko.

“Anyway,” said Rachel. “And then they just flew on by?”

“And then they just flew on by,” said Court. “They passed pretty close, but they didn’t stop and they didn’t shoot anything at us. And behind them, practically in their ion engine exhaust, were the spheroids. The mouthholes. And they started right in on us. We have twelve sections we live in: well, we had. A through K, and the old ship, we call it Section Zero. They chewed the crap out of the old ship, they chomped up E and G and those are a total loss, but when they hit the energy center of D, that was bad. There was a flare-out and the whole section basically caught fire. H and K got evacuated, and we still haven’t evaluated those yet. Heck, we’re not sure we’re going to make it at all. We’ve lost two thousand people and the rest are crowded into half the volume we started the year with, and everything’s stretched, life support can’t give another centimeter or we’ll have people dying of monoxide poisoning. It’s bad.”

“You’ll help, right?” said Avery. “Things are looking up?”

“Yes,” said Rachel brightly and firmly. “We will help.”

“So you’ve met other aliens?” asked Bing.

“Well,” said Rachel, “the Primoids, they’re an interesting case. But they’re not all bad, although who knows what we’ll find when we get back to Bluehorse.”

“Speaking of aliens,” said Clay, “what about those platinum disks? We found these platinum disks on a planet in this one system we call Holey, we called it that because, well, it was where we first saw what we now know are signs of Ngugma mining operations, and you know, there were dead trapped mouthholes there, now I think of it.”

“So wait,” said Court. “Platinum disks.”

“Yes. Platinum disks. Which maybe someone could try and translate? Our computers didn’t come up with anything, but—?”

“But we have a whole linguistics department here,” said Court. “No, we do. Way back at the start of the colony, when they sent the Centaur Project, they thought we’d need linguistics experts. We haven’t, but we did maintain the specialty. We’ll have to get with Miss Modali at some point. So did you get any—?”

A claxon rang so loud it flung all of them out of their cushions, including the locals. Court was the first to recover. During the second five-second round of sirens, she fixed Clay and Rachel with her toothy smile, and as soon as silence returned, she said, “Kay everybody, time to find out if your settings work or not.”

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