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6.

Clearly there was a lot to learn. Clay and Rachel spent the next hour and a half learning it, and teaching it too, with a company of hundreds in, actually, the large conference room on the Canada, which they were used to being weightless in. It had been outfitted with regular tables and chairs and with newer and more numerous screens. On these, images of the new fleet, of the devastation of the previous Primoid fleet and its Bluehorsean opponents, and of the successful little fight that Li Zan’s Gamma Wing, plus the Abstraction, had won at the system now usually spelled Candywan, appeared alongside video of the ravaged Earth, both from during the plague and from Clay’s and Rachel’s visit during the aftermath.

It transpired that Li Zan, Timmis Green, Indra Singh and Maria Apple were due back within the month from a return visit to Candywan, which was occupied by a growing colony of Primoid rebels. The Abstraction had gone with them: keeping these fleets in motion meant that their crews would be alive and available centuries down the road, but on the other hand, it meant that they weren’t here for routine patrols. “We also expect Park’s group back soon,” said the chief aide to the Admiral of the Star Fleet, a woman named Kalkar who turned out to be Alfred Kalkar’s great granddaughter.

Meanwhile, three Primoid cruisers and nine fighters were due in orbit shortly. The Primoid rebels had contrived to send audio-visual files, even though they themselves were not capable of much more in the way of audio than something that sounded like a fart. These files had consisted of several messages read off by Karen and Angelica Zane, explaining their very human hopes and fears.

“Mom and I,” Angelica said on the video, “have been living among these people for a long time now, and let’s just say we’d like to make a change and live among humans. But they’ve treated us well, these, um, whatever you call them, and they want to help. So I don’t know if you’ll let us land, but apparently Miss Andros and Mister Gilbert are here already and maybe they can speak for us.”

“We can, yes,” said Rachel, standing up among a forest of taller people sitting down. “The Primoid rebels from Gliese 667 are on the up and up.”

“The ones from Candywan are,” said Admiral Kalkar. “It’s a damn thing trying to talk to them, much less make strategy with them, but they are.”

“So how many ships do we have, altogether?” asked Clay.

“Well,” said the Admiral, consulting her pad and some scribbled notes, “I have us at two of the new heavy cruiser, five of our Nonesuch class escort cruiser, three of the Tasmania class armored freighter, and fourteen Ghost 201s and 203s. Plus you two. Plus three Primoid cruisers and nine fighters. She looked at her aide. “And the enemy’s current count?”

The aide stood up, a tall, gangly young fellow. “Battlecruiser, twelve cruisers, we’re up to forty-five fighters, and, well.” He looked nauseous.

“What?” asked the old man who was Mayor of India, come all the way to Canada for the meeting. “May as well tell us.”

“Well,” said the aide, “there is a looming blob in the direction of what we think is the Primoid Center, and another in the direction of what we think is another of their systems.”

“Quite a coincidence, all these happening by at once,” said Clay. “Or maybe they knew we were coming home and wanted to throw us a wedding party.”

“Ninety years have passed,” said Admiral Kalkar, “and it looks like it’s happening again.”

“It’s like a really unpleasant prophecy,” said one of the Canada town councilors.

“Okay,” said Rachel. “Tell me we just left and we’re just getting back. This frickin’ just happened to us. Do you get how weird that is? We just beat them. They had a battleship bigger than one of the colony ships, two battlecruisers the size of our super-freighters, six of these huge cruisers, and a whole slew of fighters, and we had what, a couple cruisers and armored merchants and twenty Ghost 201s. Now we get here and—hey, what is a Ghost 203, anyway?”

“It’s fast, it’s smart and it’s got guns,” said Daria, “and it looks great too.”

“Want me to trade you my 201 for your 203?” asked Clay.

“What? Your 201? I’ll take it!”

“Then never mind,” said Clay. “Just checking.”

“So,” said Kalkar, leveling her deep brown eyes at Rachel, “what do you think? Can you do it? If you get command of the fighters? Can we take them?”

“Of course we can,” said Rachel. “But—well, what do you think we can do in the way of a delaying action? Can we do that? I mean, I’m honored, but—!”

“You know,” Clay said, gazing off into space—no, actually, gazing off into his own video of the dead in Quebec City, “does anyone else think maybe we should inform the Primoid leadership about, you know, what happened to Earth?”

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