VIII. Preoccupied

1.

The mouthholes (Timmis Green’s name was the one that stuck, with the fighter pilots and then with the colonists) did not make an appearance as the fighters scoured the space on the route out of the system in pairs, and as the big ships rolled out of Gliese 370, with Alpha and Gamma wings ahead of them. Beta Wing, on the excuse that it had suffered casualty on the last jump, was assigned again to stick with the three armored freighters.

Alpha Wing again bound itself together with thin rigid tubes of conduit into a compact tetrahedron. Su Park’s only concession to sharing the glory was to allow Bouvier’s Gamma Wing to fly a little ahead. They were the last thing that vanished from the screens of Alpha Wing, and the first thing to reappear out of the noise.

They were there. They were in formation. They were also under attack.

“Scramble,” came Su Park’s order, and at the same time, the conduits all disconnected and retracted. Gamma Wing, ten thousand kilometers ahead, were already detached from one another. There were five, no, six of the things charging in at them, trying to take bites, charging away at right angles. They were all still traveling at over thirty percent of light speed. The noise in the sensors mixed with the noise of Gamma Wing yelling at each other.

“Line spread,” came Park’s order. “T spread.”

“I read damage to Tremblay and Green,” came Rachel’s voice.

“Be safe,” came Natasha’s text to Clay. He sent back the same, then took his place behind the line of the other three.

Now four more of the mouthholes appeared behind Alpha Wing. Clay was their nearest target, and two converged on him while two more shot past. “PCM,” he shouted at his ship. “Andros Plan.” And it seemed to work: they came at him but seemed unable to get precise telemetry on their two meter long target moving at a hundred million meters per second. He set the photon cannon to maximum amplitude and heavy on the blue. He started blasting away as they circled about trying to find him. He was hitting his targets, and possibly dissuading them a bit, but they didn’t seem to be taking any damage either.

The stalemate went on for many, many seconds. Clay had time to ask himself several times if it was really happening: was he really cruising at thirty percent of the speed of light, seventy or more light years from Earth, shooting at space critters who wanted to take bites out of him? What were they thinking about, trying to find their way to a morsel of spaceship with a nut of gross slimy human inside? What were they? But what they were not was abstractions. Here they were, seemingly as close to him as the chickadees his dad showed him how to feed from his hand. But these chickadees were more likely to bite off his hand, or eat the bird feeder.

He was just chasing them back with blasts again when something got through to his perceptions. He did a double take: he was flying backwards, more or less, facing toward the direction he was coming from at such great speed, fighting off things trying to overtake him, but all the action was in front, behind his back. Not with Rachel or Natasha, who were dealing with the other two things more or less as Clay was dealing with his two things. But the thing marked Park was now up among Gamma Wing.

Bouvier’s fighters, having detached and scattered a bit, had pulled back into a tight group, circling their wagons against these remorseless space Indians. They were taking damage, but it was all a hole here, a nip there. Five, no, six, no, eight of the things were diving in, grabbing, charging out. The Gammas were doing their best for each other: Bouvier and Santos moved outward and Green and Tremblay inward, to protect the damaged pair, and then they too began to pick up damage. Vera blasted one and it bounced away into the void before returning, seemingly angry; in the meantime she had whipped around to blast at one charging in at Green. They both fired their blasters at it and it bounced away; Vera was just quick enough to get mostly out of the way when her original foe shot past, mouth chomping.

Suddenly, as Park approached, Gamma Wing received a short maneuver program. They opened up their formation and focused their fire. Three of the things, caught in mid charge, zipped sideways, and one found itself the default target. It seemed to freeze in place, and then Park opened fire on it, and followed with a missile.

The unfortunate mouthhole blew open like a busted coconut. The rest scattered, possibly appalled by the thought that their hors‑d’oeuvres were capable of biting back.

The next thing Clay knew, his own foes were on either side of him, and coming in for a munch. They had triangulated him somehow, and he could not help thinking, for just a moment, that this was exactly how they had eaten Jana Bluehorse. But he had something else: a message from Park and new numbers on his display. He blasted at one and then the other, just enough to put them off for a few seconds, and in the time he had bought, he entered the numbers into the targeting for his missiles. One off. Then another: both at the same target. It stopped in space, spent a second acting perplexed, and then popped like a black soap bubble.

The rest of the mouthholes shot away and were lost in the blackness of space within seconds.

“Status,” called Rachel.

“No damage,” came replies from Clay, Natasha and Park.

“We all sustained damage,” said Bouvier, “but we’re all sealed up in our suits. We’ll be okay. Uh, Timmis has a maneuvering thruster out, so we’ll have to keep it simple.”

“Targeting a planetoid,” said Rachel. “Sending it. Okay?”

“Looks great,” said Park. “Whew. That was interesting.”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Thanks for the numbers, Commander. Guess what. I think you’re onto something.”

2.

The two wings coasted in and set down on a planetoid about the size of the Moon, a nice round ball of crater and ice lake and airless rift valley. Ten billion kilometers away, further than Pluto from the Sun, was the Sun‑sized yellow star called Candidate One. It had a dimly glowing brown dwarf as a close companion, circling it every few days, either a failed star or an especially large and radiant Jupiter. Just a little further out there was a much smaller gas giant, then, still close in, a smaller planet whose surface even at this range showed the hot spots of volcanoes. Then there were two planets that clearly had both liquid water and atmosphere. Beyond them lay only a scattered asteroid belt thinning out to a sparse Oort cloud.

“This system has it backwards,” called Rachel to the other seven as they approached the planetoid across Candidate One’s outer Kuiper belt. “Its gas giants are close in and its terrestrials are around the outside.”

“I’m reading oxygen,” called Natasha. “Both outer planets. Positive on oxygen in the atmospheres.”

“And water?” asked Rojette.

“Positive on liquid water,” said Timmis Green, “on both planets.”

“Jeezum,” said Clay. “That guy who wanted a bath? He just might get one.”

“Is this what it looks like,” said Vera, “when you find the perfect star system?”

“The problem,” said Natasha, “might be picking which one to colonize.”

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Bouvier.

“Commander,” said Rachel. “Commanders, I mean. I hate to say it, but I am picking up residues of radioactivity on both planets.”

A few hours later, the eight pilots were standing around on the surface of the planetoid. “Well,” said Tremblay to Rachel as they approached each other across the crater, “we pulled that one out of our asses.”

“I don’t know which is more important,” said Rachel, “that we can now blow them up or that we’re running into them in mobs.”

“Want to help us put up the tent?” asked Bouvier. “We borrowed it from the Corsica.”

“Obviously,” Su Park was saying to the others, “we’re going to send some people to look, but what can we tell from here?”

“The radioactivity,” said Rachel, helping Tremblay stretch out the canopy, “is consistent with nuclear explosions occurring on a massive scale on both planets at about 600 or 650 million years ago. They must have been at almost exactly the same time. It doesn’t surprise me. You can see the story line emerging, right?”

“Wait though,” said Park. “How sure are you that the radioactive event was human, uh, man-made—!” They all had a short laugh. “All right, what should I be calling it, anyway? Kleiner?”

“Sentient‑made?” said Natasha.

“What’s the probability?” said Rachel, “Oh, I’d say 99%. That this radioactivity was caused by some sentient species making war or, I don’t know, dumping waste? I mean, you can’t really compute that, because the 1% is actually totally unknown, and besides, I don’t think you could ever do a statistical study. The only other example we know of was, uh, intentional, yeah, sentient‑made. It was us.”

“So you’re saying that this system had sentient life forms 650 million years ago,” said Vera, “and they blew themselves up?”

“You can start with the decay products and work backwards to see what the original materials were and when. You would not see this particular combination of decay products if you weren’t trying to blow something up. They wouldn’t occur in nature, not even alien nature. There must have been a civilization here. Can’t wait to see what they left behind.”

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “Expanding onto two planets. Developing high culture and stuff. Then nuking themselves. Schmucks.”

“Mind you,” said Vera, “it could be intentional without it being self‑inflicted.”

“It could have been an invasion,” Bouvier inserted. “There. Pull that tight. Got it!”

“Who would invade a system and then blow the place up?” asked Clay, grabbing a pole as directed by Rachel.

“Maybe whoever did it,” said Bouvier, stretching the other pole out, “did it to obtain the mineral rights. You know, blow up the prior residents, they’re all gone, just take what you want.”

“But that’s just incredibly vile,” said Natasha, standing near Clay.

“Yeah,” said Clay, “and not very sustainable, but who knows, you could make some quick cash, whatever that meant.”

“Universe is a tough place,” said Bouvier. “That’s okay. We’re tough ourselves. There. Okay. You guys want to pull your fighters inside, and we’ll seal it up and fill it with air?”

So the eight pilots got into their fighters and hovered them into the enclosure. “Wow,” said Rachel, as Tremblay and Green sealed the entrances and the floor. They looked around at a space big enough to hold all eight fighters and their pilots with one meter exclusion zones around each of them. The ceiling was at Abe Lincoln height, which left the pilots a lot of head room. Four sturdy little lamps on the four sturdy posts lit the place nicely. There was no need for bedding, of course; what cot could be more comfortable than one’s own Ghost 201?

“I have to say, I’m impressed,” said Park. “We never had this at Alpha C.”

“In a minute, you can take off your helmets,” said Bouvier. “It’ll almost be like old Earth.”

“And this spot’s not radioactive,” said Clay, who still found himself spooked by the dangling threads of a 650 million year old story.

The tent had all the ambience of a three car garage without any of the clutter. It did have eight cars parked in it, eight sleek grey‑black elongated eggs, sitting on the sealed ice floor, pumping out air and eating the chunks of rocky ice that the pilots fed into their systems to replace what had been lost one way or another over the last hundred light years.

“These machines are doing their job pretty well, you’d have to say,” said Vera, coming up to stand next to Clay as he marveled at his Ghost. Standing: no floating needed, here in the luxurious one fifth Earth gravity. They all had their helmets off: the air smelled like that of a valley in the Himalayas, give or take a faint odor of technological processes. “They’ve already traveled further than any human machine has ever gone. And I noticed a total lack of service facilities, so it’s a good thing they’re reliable.” She turned to look at her Ghost, which was noticeably beaten up. “Even flies with a hole in the nose and another in the tail section.”

“We have way exceeded design parameters,” said Clay.

“Good shooting back there. Finally on the up side of these things, huh? We were down 1‑0 and now we’re up 2‑1. Not that I’m keeping score.”

“Not bad yourself,” said Clay. “I think you saved Timmis’s hiney.”

“So what are you going to do about Natasha?” asked Vera in a low voice. “I mean, are you defying the Fearless Leader, or—?”

“I don’t know, honestly,” said Clay.

Vera gave him her exasperated look. “Clay. God damn it. You and your lack of self awareness.”

“I’m terribly self aware,” said Clay. “I’m acutely aware of how confused I am. Geez. Can we talk about this later, say, at the next pub we run into?”

“Sure,” said Vera. She grinned. “You may not be my type, but I still think you’re cute.”

“What are you two conferring about?” asked Rachel, joining them.

“Oh, protocols,” said Vera.

“Okay, everyone,” said Su Park. She and Bouvier were standing by the entrance to the tent, where there was a sort of tent airlock. “We have some assignments. The Gammas are going to stick near the planetoid, because you all have holes in your ships. But even Green’s spacecraft should be sufficiently repaired to take part. Commander Bouvier is putting two of you in space to be ready to communicate with the anchor freighters when they pull in. Let’s rest a bit and then we can go back to earning our fat paychecks.”

“All right,” said Bouvier, “Green and Santos for the first patrol. Okay?”

Green said, “Okay!” and Santos shrugged and grinned at Clay.

“Mr Gilbert,” said Park, “you’ll be with me, we’re taking the fourth planet. Kleiner and Andros, take the fifth one. Any question about what we’re doing there?”

“None at all,” said Rachel. She smirked at Clay and rolled her eyes a little. He shot the same look back to her. Commander Park was keeping an eye on him, and that answered Vera’s question about what he was going to do about Natasha, at least until the anchor freighters pulled in.

3.

After a few hours of ill‑defined cocktail party (the cocktails being whiskey reconstituted from human waste) and an eight hour sleep period, Alpha Wing was up, munching on figgy wafers (reconstituted from human waste) and ready to head into the inner Candidate One solar system.

Clay was standing (in 20% of Earth’s gravity) chatting with Natasha and Vera and Rachel when Su Park separated from Bouvier and walked over to join them. They were all shushing each other, verbally or emotionally, as she approached.

“Ready to go?” said Park.

“Of course, Commander.”

“Hey, fly safe,” said Rachel, winking at him. Clay stole a glance at Natasha, who was exchanging a look with Vera and giggling.

“You too, Rache,” said Clay. He and Park got in their Ghosts and hovered off the ground a few centimeters, Jane Tremblay and Timmis Green got them into the airlock and outside, and then they were up in space, rising fast from the planetoid, whose nearly plane-flat surface quickly bent into the sphere that it was. Navigational information came in, and then they were shooting off toward the star, accelerating at a kilometer per second per second. The trip would take about thirty hours. They would not hatch up, obviously. They didn’t even connect by conduit. For operations within a solar system, Park preferred the freedom of complete separation, and so Clay followed his commander, behind and a little to the left, accelerating at a thousand meters per second, about twenty meters apart.

What to talk about with the Commander, the most intimidating human in any solar system that contained her, was answered when Park challenged Clay to chess. They shot toward the new Sun, and the fourth planet slowly grew from a dim spot of light to something like the cloudy blue of Earth. Ten games (seven losses, two draws and one neat little victory) later, they were approaching Planet Four, which had a significant atmosphere but no moons.

“Oh,” said Clay. “Look. Ruins. An ancient alien city,” he went on, flatly.

“Are we excited?” asked Park.

“Not going to lie,” said Clay. “The extinct state of the local aliens rather took the shine off of First Contact.”

“Indeed,” said Park. “Let’s take one orbit and then choose a landing spot.”

“Sounds good to me, Commander,” said Clay, gazing down on that almost familiar watery world and imagining Vera and Natasha both—and Rachel too, now he thought about it—skipping along the edge of the sea with their vac suits left far behind.

Su Park and Clay Gilbert took an orbit and a half, over a planet that was three fourths covered by water. There were mountains, there were deserts, there were even lakes and rivers, but there was still nothing they could be sure was alive. The colors they saw were white of clouds and blue of seas—and red and gold of rocky land, not the green of plant life. They agreed on a landing site of their choosing—well, Su Park did the choosing and Clay did the agreeing. They dropped into the atmosphere and slowed to a polite speed, so as not to annoy the molecules of N2 and O2 into ferociousness. Below them, through thin cloud cover, the ground geography began to clear up.

“Definitely radioactivity,” Clay noted, “but not enough to bother the tourist.”

“It would increase cancer rates detectably in a resident population,” said Park. “We will not be such a population. Ah, now I’m seeing ruins.”

“They’re very, uh, ruined,” said Clay. But they were distinctive: straight line highways, open plazas, blurred rectangles and regular hexagons. A rural interstate would run straight and true for a hundred kilometers and then disappear, displaced by tectonic movements, fragmented, often buried; a city would show up like a photo of a star, dense in the middle, radiating out in diminishing pixels in all directions, except that one side was long vanished under lava or debris. Highways ran straight into the sea; highways twisted into mazes; more than anything else, highways simply faded as they came down off of the highlands. Not a single building stood: not a wall stood or leaned or sprawled. Outlines might have been the floor plans of buildings, but even these were barely distinguishable from random geological forms.

They set down in a large open area, possibly a hexagon on purpose, possibly by accident; one side had fallen off a cliff into the encroaching sea. They stepped out, checked their readings and un‑ helmeted. The temperatures were just above freezing. The gravity was a bit low. The wind was undirected but gusty.

“Excellent air, actually,” said Clay. “If I even remember what excellent air is.”

“I am not reading a single thing that might be life,” said Park, giving serious attention to her sensor gadget, similar to the thing Clay had gotten used to Natasha and Rachel getting all sorts of information from. “Oh balls,” said Park. She looked up at him, scowling. “You know how to work this?”

“Natasha does,” he said, but he took it and between the two of them they determined that the oxygen level was 25% and the CO2 was a tenth of a percent. The thorium was elevated, and there was detectable radon in the atmosphere. “And a lot of bismuth in the soil,” he added. “See that?”

“And lead,” said Park, wrinkling her forehead. “Decay products.”

They wandered around the ruins, if that was what they were, and eventually came to the sea. It roiled and rolled about ten meters down a cliff. It was a steely grey under the severely blue sky. Clay couldn’t see anything in it, but he felt like the sea itself was a living thing.

“Gilbert,” said Park with an Alpha Wing smirk, “how about obtaining a sample of the seawater?”

Clay kept looking down into the murky water. “Well,” he said at last, “I’m open to suggestions, Commander.”

“Get in your fighter and take a dip.”

“Take a dip??” He laughed, then said, “Wait, you’re serious? Um, Commander?”

“Well, yes, actually. What do you think? It can stand up to mouthholes but it gets soggy when wet?”

“Ooookay,” said Clay. He walked back over to his Ghost, turned and said, “Is there a trick to this?”

“You could use the Water Sample program. Just a thought.”

Clay kept his smirk to himself. He slipped into his fighter, got comfy, suppressed his nervousness about dipping his prize machine, his wheels, his very house, into the briny of some forgotten and slightly radioactive planet. What the hell? He’d just taken on bizarre killer aliens and killed them right back. He had flown 138 light years, which made him, in fact, about 167 years old, in a non-personal frame of reference. It was time he grew up and dunked his Ghost in the briny.

And so he did. He hovered up a meter, then floated off under minimal thrust at about two meters per second, then hovered down slowly, and then, a meter above the wave, he was just about to try and figure out what to do next when the wave rose up and slapped him. His Ghost took offense at the treatment and automatically took him up ten meters.

On the second try, Clay had his sample door open, and when the wave hit it snapped shut before the ship hovered back up. He could hear cheering, perhaps sarcastic, from his commander. And he could see, on an inset to his screen, the outline of something between a worm and a fish wriggling around in the sample holder.

They did a general survey, collecting lots of samples and then sitting on a rock overlooking an ocean on the opposite side of the planet, having lunch (wafers) and letting their suits recharge in the sun.

“It’s strange,” said Park. “This happened to me at 55 Cancri, on that moon that had an atmosphere and clouds. I just keep expecting to see a blade of grass or an insect. I would be hard put to be surprised if I saw something alive. But I haven’t. On land, anyway.”

“Well, I think the same way, commander,” said Clay, “and I haven’t either.”

“But the fact remains that someone was here, only hundreds of millions of years ago. Probably there was an entire global ecosystem, and of course only the rather short-lived sea creatures could recover from the dose of radioactivity they gave themselves, or somebody gave them. You still couldn’t live here twenty or thirty years and remain healthy.”

“But this thing,” said Clay, holding up the little jar to between their faces. It swam before them. It was five centimeters long, a piece of solid green ribbon. It moved by rippling its entire body. It had some sort of mouth and other apparatus at the tapered nose and tail, which were identical. “It’s part of a global ecosystem.” He took out of his side pouches half a dozen more bottles, at least two of which contained small things that moved under their own power. “It’s the king of beasts, that’s what that is.”

“Don’t be disrespectful,” said Park. “It’s an evolutionary survivor.”

“Yeah,” said Clay, “but I keep wondering what the evolutionary failures were? Who were the sentient things on this planet? We don’t know a thing. It’s the question.”

“Well, they left no record,” said Park. “Six hundred million years is an absolutely vast stretch of time. Mountains grow from nothing to Mount Everest and then wear down to nothing, and that’s six hundred million years.”

“Commander,” said Clay, “do you think the mouthholes have anything to do with this?”

“Do I think they might have attacked and hastened the demise a bit? It’s possible. Made this happen? That would fail to explain an awful lot of things.”

“All right,” said Clay, standing up. “We should be able to tell something from analyzing the soil.”

They stood looking west over the sea, as the Sun descended, her companion brown dwarf, dim and dull and awesome, watching from halfway down the sky. The Sun, orange, then red like blood, sank into the waves.

“Ah, let’s go,” said Park. “I wonder if Kleiner will be impressed by your worm.” Clay smirked.

4.

Clay and Park got up into space and started off toward the fifth planet, a water world with a few stray island continents. It had a single moon the size of Mars.

As the two Ghosts approached, two more Ghosts rose from Planet Five. Then Rachel and Natasha filled the screens of Park and Clay, and vice versa. “Okay, okay,” said Natasha as soon as video contact was made, still six light minutes apart. “It’s a lovely worm. Listen. There is someone down on that planet.”

“What? Who?” asked Park.

“There’s frickin’ someone down there god damn it, Commander.”

“Miss Kleiner.”

“There are aliens on Planet Five,” said Rachel. “In a cave up a ravine. The reason Natasha is a bit upset is that they shot at us.”

“They shot at you?” both Clay and Park repeated.

“That’s what I said. I’m sending the video.”

“Say,” said Clay, a few minutes later, as he re‑watched Natasha’s view, “you know what? There are aliens on Planet Five.”

Alpha Wing discussed the situation as rationally as they could, and then Park made the suggestion, which the other members accepted, of landing on high ground a few kilometers from the site of the alleged alien sighting.

“So what have we here?” asked Park as they all stood on the edge of a butte looking down. Planet Five was a bit larger and its gravity was a bit heavier than Planet Four, though it was a little smaller and its gravity just a tiny bit less than on Earth. Its air was a little denser, even a little denser than Earth’s. Breathing felt a lot like eating cheesecake: the air was sweet and rich. Clouds scudded overhead on three levels, going three different directions. The land mass they were on was the largest on the planet: Clay thought it might be somewhat like Greenland, the Greenland he had visited as a child on vacation, with dairy farms where once there had been an ice sheet. There was no ice sheet here, and there were no dairy farms. From up here, they could see the ocean in three directions: they stood at the east end of a headland that was at the west end of the continent. Planet Five had ice caps at the north and south poles, but here, probably, ice never came.

“The day length is 41.3 hours,” said Clay from his helmet readout. “The year is 1649 Earth days or 958 local sols. But the rotation and the orbit indicate not much for seasons.”

“Lots of storms, though,” said Rachel.

“Weather forecast looks pretty stable for the next few hours,” said Natasha. “Barring us getting shot at again.”

“All right,” said Park, “on that subject.”

“We flew a couple of orbits,” said Rachel. “There was a bit of life in the water, but none on land, just like on your Planet Four. So we found this lovely plateau, great views, have a look around and figure out a way to get water samples.”

“Commander Park just had me take my Ghost for a dip,” said Clay.

“Back on topic,” said Park.

“So we’re up here,” said Rachel, “and we decide to go zip down to the beach. There’s nice beaches all around this peninsula, it’s sort of land’s end, but for whatever reason, the current flows west around both shores of the landmass and so you get great beaches. There’s a long spit of land extending way west.”

“You’re lucky,” said Clay. “I had to take my fighter off a cliff.”

“On task,” said Park.

“Commander,” said Natasha, “we took off and dropped down and suddenly there’s like stuff flying over us. There’s, I swear, frickin’ photon blasts or whatever.”

“In air.”

“In air, yeah, like ten frickin’ meters overhead, like frickin’ where we had just been. Those frickin’ buttheads were frickin’ trying to kill us.”

“We don’t even know yet how to shoot our weapons in air,” said Rachel. “We are going to have to give some homework to Miss Padfoot, that’s what I think.”

“Maybe so,” said Park. “So you landed on the beach?”

“We landed on the beach,” said Rachel, “off to the north there, and we took samples. And I think it was about when we were done taking samples that we both sort of took in what had really just happened.”

“We got frickin’ attacked,” said Natasha. “So we hugged each other and cried a little and then we sort of straightened our big girl suits and went up to the high ground to have another look.”

“And got shot at again?” asked Clay.

“No, actually,” said Rachel. “We got shot at again on the way up, though.”

“And that’s when you shot the video,” said Park.

“Yes,” said Natasha. “That’s when we shot our video of them shooting at us.”

“Them,” said Park.

“Blobby guys,” said Clay. “With some number of, oh, legs or something.”

5.

Park ordered the Alphas into orbit around Planet Five. She sent a call out to Bouvier and Timmis Green, who were on patrol a light hour or so away, and after a brief exchange of pleasantries (which took six hours to fully exchange), Alpha Wing left orbit and headed out to confer at close quarters with the Gamma commander and her wing tail. Six hours after that, the six fighters were falling in together in loose formation and headed in the general direction of the planetoid. Above Clay, the images of the other five pilots tiled the display along with a looping rerun of Natasha’s video, showing blasts coming from the far end of a ravine, and vague blobby things with perhaps four stick‑like legs and possibly some sort of arms, visible for only moments before returning to concealment.

“I am somewhat at a loss, that’s all,” Park was saying.

“Commander,” said Bouvier, “there’s nothing you could have said that would concern me more than what you just said.”

“Well,” said Park, “let’s list our options here. We can ignore them, but we don’t know what they might do or why they’re here or how they might relate to us, especially once the big ships start rolling in. Not that we have any intention of colonizing Candy One at all.”

“Candy One?” put in Timmis.

“Candidate One is just not a great name,” said Bouvier. “No zing. All right, and then there’s the fact that we would like to know something about them in the first place, such as where they’re from and what technology they have and what they have to do with the rest of this and everything else. It occurs to me, and I’m sure it’s occurred to you, Commander, that this looks like an outpost. But that would imply that there are lots more of them we haven’t seen. And that would mean we are in very dangerous space here. And that would mean, well, a lot of things.”

“And if they are in a certain part of the region,” said Park, “we would surely like to know where, so we can avoid them, given that they are in the shoot‑first class of alien civilizations.”

“And given that they are probably far beyond our technology.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” said Rachel. “Beyond us, probably, but far beyond us? They missed.”

“Those were warning shots,” said Park. “But all right. Option two. We could try to communicate with them. But we have to get them to stop shooting for a minute so we can talk. And we would have to wait for the colony ships, because that’s where all the linguists live. If that even helps.”

“Think they have anything to do with those plaques or whatever?” asked Timmis.

Bouvier leaned back to look at him. “You know, Timmis, you might have something there. What do you guys think?”

“Well,” said Rachel, “we’re trying to attach these guys to everything else we’ve seen. They don’t seem to have much to do with the mouthholes. They might have caused the radioactive devastation. They could be the ones with the plaques. What else?”

“I don’t think they have anything to do with Algaeville,” said Natasha.

“We can rule that out, I think,” said Park. “All right, so you see, the communication option has to wait. There is a third option, of course, but that’s to attack them and I don’t think any of us finds that wise or practicable.”

“No, you can bet on that,” said Bouvier, “although I will make a wager that at least Ted Trein will think it wise and practicable.”

“How on Earth would we ever do it though?” Natasha burst out. “I mean, not on Earth, but—!”

“We won’t,” said Park. “Rest assured. But we need to tread carefully.”

“We sure do,” said Rachel, magnifying the zone of the video where the blobby aliens were moving. They zipped back inside and a contraption with tubes sticking out of it began to spit photons at the viewer.

“Gosh,” said Clay, watching the same view, “the one thing I always thought about aliens was that they would make it clear what their intentions were.”

“Well,” said Rachel, also with her helmet down to look, “that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? No challenge.”

6.

The six pilots, having not come up with any other options, headed for the planetoid with the tent. Before they had crossed half the distance to the planetoid, they picked up Tremblay and Santos coming up from its surface.

“What are you doing?” called Park at a distance of half a light hour.

“We’re rendezvousing with you guys,” replied Jane Tremblay. “Don’t you pick up the anchors coming in?”

“Sure we do,” replied Park. They did: there were three distinct vague blobs now becoming less vague in the direction of Gliese 370, and four fighters already almost completely distinct in front of them. “But you’re damaged. You need to leave this to us. We have ourselves and Beta Wing too.”

“And,” called Santos, “you also have mouthholes. Adjust your sensors to 535, 75 and 4000.”

“Oh,” said Park as they all adjusted.

“Alpha Wing,” came Agneska Vilya’s voice, clear as a bell but at a range of six light hours, “we have bogeys in front of us, please come give us some help.”

“We need to send them our latest settings,” said Rachel. “Especially that thing with the missiles.”

“Yes,” said Clay. “Especially that.”

There followed twenty‑four hours of frustration for Alpha and Gamma wings. They could pick up at least a dozen of the black spherical creatures buzzing like nasty flies in the cubic light hours between them and Beta Wing. The mouthholes did not seem inclined to form up in any way, but as Beta came into their zone, Beta formed up in a tetrahedral formation, with Vilya in front and Rojette, Li Zan and Bain in a triangle behind her.

The mouthholes did not seem inclined to attack their formation. Instead, they scattered in a plane perpendicular to the line of the fighters’ path, and let Beta fly through them. “They’re going for the pass,” said Park as the Alphas and Gammas watched, still many hours away from contact. “They’re aiming to get at the anchors.”

“We’re doing all we can,” said Bouvier unnecessarily.

“Commander Bouvier,” said Park, “do you consider your wing under my operational command for this engagement?”

“Really, Su.”

“Do you? Yes or no.”

“Yes, oh yes, Commander Park. Yes, we do.”

“Then hang back a hundred thousand kilometers behind us,” said Park. “No offense, but you’re all full of holes.”

“Commander, I can’t let you take the brunt of this. You know I—!”

“I know you just said you were under my operational command for this engagement,” said Park, “and I just gave you an operational command.”

“And besides,” said Rachel, “Beta is going to bear the brunt anyway, they’re coming around to try and head those buttheads off at the pass.”

Sure enough, Beta Wing was turning as fast as ever they could, pushing their Ghost 201s to the limit of what the fighters could take and what their own bodies could handle even with acceleration buffers, bending left and up until they were chasing the mouthholes, who were now beyond them and closing their scatter circle toward the oncoming anchor freighters. The distances were still vast: Alpha and Gamma were practically together, but Beta was headed away from them, toward the freighters; no two of the three groups were less than four light hours apart. Tens of millions of kilometers separated objects that ranged from the two‑meter length of the fighters to the forty meter length and twenty meter width of the freighters. But at the distance they were now, the Alphas and the Gammas were mere audience. The only thing they could do was send to the freighters the same settings they had just sent to Beta.

The three anchor freighters came on, not yet in receipt of new settings. The mouthholes, so many evil space black flies, condensed around them, went in for bites and turned to keep up. Clay remembered being followed through the woods of Maine on a March day by clouds of black flies, horseflies and mosquitoes. Now the freighters were fighting back: unlike the Ghosts, the freighters were armored, and they had all remade their construction lasers into big ol’ photon cannons. But they didn’t know how to actually injure the mouthholes. All the freighters began to take damage, and one of them showed flashes as the drive section got chewed up.

Then the Betas were in among them.

7.

The fight took about thirty seconds spread over about an hour. Phase One had already happened: the freighters were set upon, and the mouthholes turned to chase and harry and take bites of them. The freighters mostly held their own, but one of them, the Corsica, began to show significant damage to its drive section. The pursuing hunters then concentrated on Corsica, verily the weakened animal in the herd, shadowing it but avoiding the volleys and, eventually, the reprogrammed missiles of the Tasmania and the Greenland.

In Phase Two, Beta Wing came in, not straight on and braking hard but around the side and turning hard. On magnification, Clay had to be impressed. Rojette and Li Zan, neither of whom had seemed especially formidable in simulated battle, teamed up on one and then another of the foe, leaving two of them blown to bits. Vilya and Bonnie Bain took a few wounds and had a few misses but then went on a streak and paired up to cut two more mouthholes in half. But, confined by their much less nimble acceleration and deceleration and by the speed they had needed to build up to even be where they were in time, Beta Wing could not maintain contact with the enemy. The mouthholes evaporated from their target area.

Alpha and Gamma were coasting in, watching as Corsica’s crew tried to manage what amounted to a fire in the engine room. They still had no definite word on what the damage was, but the emanations did not look happy. That was when Phase Three burst on them. Ten more of the mouthholes were suddenly in their faces. Clay’s experience of this was quite simple: two of them appeared very close on either side of him and came in for the chomp; he was flipping head over hiney, trying to get his screens back to life, not to say anything of his engine; there was a mouthhole, big as life, visible through his busted‑open hatch. But the mouthhole, caught in photon blasts from either side, froze as if for a photo, and then blew up; and then another Ghost was clamping onto his where his hatch had been.

“Do you feel lucky?” came Vera’s voice in his helmet. “Because guess what? You are.”

“Yes, I feel lucky,” Clay replied, thinking, the stars might lie but the numbers never do.

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