IX. Communications

1.

Clay was busy being rescued, or he would have seen how most of the crew of the Corsica was rescued. The other two anchor freighters, defended by Beta Wing, still zipping along at 30% of light speed, managed to rendezvous, connected to hatches on either side of the Corsica. Its engines were far too far gone to stabilize, which meant two things: that the ship could not decelerate on its own, and that its batteries’ vast energies were now releasing through the badly damaged drive system in the form of high energy radiation. Three members of the engineering and drive crew were dead, as was Captain Rob MacDonald, but the rest, under the command of Navigator Raoul Diemi, were evacuated onto the Tasmania and the Greenland before they took significant radiation injury. The freight, mostly colony supplies, was mostly abandoned. After a twenty minute operation, the hulk of the Corsica was left to continue through the cosmos at 30% of light speed.

“They got through it,” said Vera Santos. She and Clay were occupying the same space, their spacecraft linked at the hatches, but the conglomerate was a little leaky and they both had their vac suits and helmets demurely sealed. “They’re saying they lost four, including the captain, but the rest of the crew will be okay. There’s some radiation aftereffects but no one else is expected to die of it.”

“But they lost the ship,” said Clay.

“But they lost the ship.”

“But my ship’s going to be okay.”

“Clay,” said Vera, “your ship is hardly any worse than my ship as far as that’s concerned.”

“Oh, BS,” said Clay. “Those guys took little nips of your ship. Mine they chewed up until you

made them spit it out.”

“Padfoot will wave her magic wrench,” said Vera, “and both our rides will be better than new in

no time. I promise.”

“And when will this magic transformation occur?”

“When the Tasmania gets into orbit around Candy One. Maybe a day?” She fiddled with an

insecure bit near the hatch. “Trying to patch up holes here, could use some help,” she said.

“You think we can make this thing air tight?”

“Sure,” she said. “Might be nice to have the option of getting out of these suits for a little.”

“Vera,” he said, adopting a Tone.

“Clay,” she said back at him. “Do you have a dirty mind or something? My god.” She busted off a

bit of twisted hull. “Anyway,” she said, applying a little spacecraft tape, “the next question is, what

about the guys you saw on Five?”

“Great,” said Clay. “Give me some tape so I can help patch the ship and avoid answering your

question for a minute or two.”

So they taped and talked and talked and taped, and finally they were sealed up inside something that looked a lot more like a cocoon than before. “Okay, so,” said Vera, doffing her helmet and letting her dark hair out in a gorgeous flood, “you have to answer some question, even if it’s not every question. How do you think we can deal with those aliens? Do you think we’re really out of the woods with the mouthholes? Are you going to elope with Tasha?”

Clay pulled off his helmet. The air smelled good. It smelled like Vera, and space tape. He said, “I’m not going to elope with Tasha.”

“Are you having a thing with Tasha?”

Clay hesitated. Vera laughed at him. “Well, yeah,” he said, “obviously.”

“You know,” said Vera, “your pal Rachel is having a thing with Mister Gil Rojette. At least that’s

, and—!”

“You are named for a type of soil? Wow!”

“And how should I know,” Clay went on, “whether she was my romantic interest, or is my romantic interest, or whether you are my romantic interest? How should I ever know?”

“Clay,” said Natasha, “could you possibly be less in touch with your social milieu? Or for that matter your own feelings? Or mine?”

“not a relationship between wing mates, because that would be wrong, wouldn’t it?”

“Vera,” Clay said, again trying to adopt a Tone. He couldn’t manage it: Vera was just too close.

“And this thing with Natasha,” said Vera, “do you think of it as, you know, exclusive? I should ask, does she think it’s exclusive? And what does Commander Su Park think?”

“Park is pretending not to know,” said Clay. “And what was the other question? Is it exclusive?

Does she think it’s exclusive? Not to argue, but how do I know?”

“Do you think it’s exclusive?”

“How do I—? Didn’t we—?” Break up fifty years ago, he wanted to say but didn’t quite.

“You notice,” said Vera, “she’s way over there with the freighters and we’re way over here with ourselves, basically?”

“What are you driving at?”

“Well, that depends on how dirty your mind is just at the present. Is it particularly dirty?” she asked, putting her palms on his vac suited chest.

“Considering you saved me from being eaten by space blobs within the past hour,” said Clay, “I’d have to say it’s surprising how dirty my mind is right now.”

2.

A few dozen hours later, Captain Alfred Kalkar and pretty much all other humans currently in the Candy One system had a confab among the crates and containers in Tasmania’s main freight.

“I don’t know whether we should be holding a victory party or a wake,” he said, to a quiet applause of nods. “We lost a bunch of people but we clearly came out on top on this one. We blew up at least six of those bleep‑heads. We have something that can kill them, finally. And maybe even help us repel them.”

“I’m not so sure it’s even a marginal win for us,” said Celeste Bouvier. “Sure, we have new weapons and defenses. Still, they might have run a profit on this, except that the Corsica is so radioactive right now that they can’t get within a light minute of it.”

“It may be,” said Maya Nilsstrom, captain of the Greenland, “they’re the hyenas of space. They’re

just what you would call vicious scavengers.”

“Well,” said Padfoot Hixon, “whatever they are, they don’t like enriched radiation any more than

we do.”

“I didn’t like having those things chomping on me,” Clay said to Natasha beside him. “Now I

know how it feels.”

“Because someone else had to rescue you?” replied Natasha in his ear.

“So why weren’t you the one who linked up with me? Didn’t want to go hatch to hatch?”

“Clay. One, it was in the heat of battle and all. Two, she was actually closer and you looked bad

off. Three, I wanted to, but she insisted. You don’t argue with Santos.”

“That you don’t,” Clay agreed.

“Not that it would give you any excuse.”

“Excuse for what?”

“Clay. My holy bleeping goddess, Clay. You are not allowed to act innocent. Excuse for sleeping

with her.”

“In any case,” Su Park was saying, “it’s imperative that we get the Andros evade package and the newest settings and modifications for the lasers and scout missiles. Andros, you and Padfoot and whoever else need to continue work on upgrades. I would have to guess that we do have the better of them, and that from now on, the only people who will be lost to them will be idiots.”

“We slept together because we were hatched up,” said Clay. “It does not mean we were naked

together.”

“Were you naked together?”

“Uh. Yes.”

“Clay.” She glared at him, then rolled her eyes. “And. With your ex. Don’t you ever watch those ‘advice for the lovelorn’ vids?”

“My ex? Is that what she is?”

“Clay!” Natasha looked around. “Shush. I want to hear this part. We’ll talk over coffee. You’ll be

incredibly lucky if Rachel doesn’t join us.”

“So this allows us to turn our attention,” Su Park was saying, “to the situation on Candy One‑5.”

“We all pored over the videos,” said Irah Chontz, Kalkar’s navigator. “How many aliens do you

think there are?”

“There’s a wide range of guesses,” said Rachel, “anywhere from maybe four or five, up to thousands. I kind of feel like if there were millions of them down there in an underground realm, we’d see more of them going in and out.”

“We’re seeing none of them going in and out,” said Gil Rojette. “That suggests there aren’t that

many, there isn’t a city down there underground or something. But that’s not the only explanation. Maybe they just don’t come out on the surface much. Maybe they don’t fly in space.”

“Something about the weapons,” said Rachel, “just screams space alien to me. I’m looking at them

and I’m looking over my shoulder to see if their friends and colleagues are showing up from light speed. This is an outpost.”

“I take your point,” said Kalkar, his hand in his beard, “but that’s not what Sister Shia Tang will say.”

“Oh,” said Park, “Sister Shia Tang will want to commune with them and Captain Ted Trein will want to make first contact via nuclear weapons.”

“What do we know about the photon blaster thingy?” asked Captain Nilsstrom. “The, uh, thing with the tubes that they shot at you with?”

“Oh, we know some things,” said Rachel. “It’s not that different from our photon laser blaster

guns or whatever.”

“Not that different?” Nilsstrom repeated. Rachel shrugged.

There was a brief lull and then Agneska Vilya said, “Have we made efforts to communicate?”

“Yes,” said Park, “if you call shooting a form of communication. If you want a solution that is a

little more linguistic, you’ll have to wait for the linguists to roll in. And they live on the colony

ships.” She fixed Kalkar with her medium strength glare. “Perhaps we ought to think about putting

people whose skill is talking to aliens in the anchor freighters.”

“That sounds like a reasonable idea,” Kalkar replied, “so I don’t expect it to get very far once the big ships are here.”

“Well, they have me,” said Natasha to Clay, “but they usually forget about me.”

“Well, Miss Kleiner,” said Su Park, “do you wish to open communications with our aliens in the

ravine?”

“Uh, no,” said Natasha. “On second thought, I think maybe we should wait till the colony ships

start arriving.”

3.

“Great,” said Natasha as she and Clay sashayed into the Tasmania’s little galley. Rachel and Gil Rojette were sitting at one of the tables, but Rachel had her back to the door; she didn’t seem know anyone else had come in. “We have to keep our voices down or we’ll be on the hook for some Rachel interference.”

So Clay and Natasha moved quietly to the coffee machine and got themselves lattes in zero gravity mugs. As they took the table kitty-corner from Rachel and Gil, Clay whispered, “Are they a thing?”

Natasha gave Rojette and Andros a look. “I’ve pretty sure,” she said. She sat down opposite Clay and facing the other two. She put out a hand over Clay’s loose fingers. “But then I wonder kind of the same thing about, about—!”

“About—?”

You, actually, Clayton. You.”

“Clay, Natasha. It’s just Clay.”

“Clay, Jesus Buddha Zoroaster. Who. Are you serious about. Anyone? Anyone in this room? Would it make a difference if, say, your ex floated in?”

Clay rolled his eyes while reminding himself to keep his voice down. “Let’s see,” he said, after a breath. “First of all, kudos for the choice of famous prophets to swear with. Second, serious? Um, let’s see, can we move on to the next one? My ex? My ex?”

“Okay, we can add that one too, Clayton. Is she your ex or is she still your girlfriend or is she just some chick you sleep with sometimes? And where might I fit into all this?”

“Clay, not ClaytonOddly, Vera said basically the exact same thing.”

Natasha looked over Clay’s shoulder in a manner that made him half turn and look at Rachel’s back. They looked at each other. “Clay,” said Natasha, “you have never had a successful relationship in your life, have you?” He started to defend himself, and she added, “No, no, don’t fret, I have the same problem.” She turned to the door. “Great. Hi, Vera.”

“Um,” said Vera, standing in the doorway, which she filled about ten percent of. “This is awkward. Just came for some chai actually.”

“Oh, come sit with us,” said Natasha, “we can help Clay figure out what he feels.”

“Tasha,” said Clay. “Oh, that sounds like fun,” said Vera, moving toward them.

“Rachel, why don’t you listen?” asked Gil Rojette in a loud-ish voice, just a bit brittle with argument. “Nothing happened. I wouldn’t do that to you, it’s just not me. Why can’t you just take me at my word?”

“Because you probably gave your word,” said Rachel, still seated facing away from the others, “to Bonnie Frickin’ Bain, and Padfoot too, and probably Caterin Mark and Ally Schwinn who knows how many colonists, you probably have a frickin’ family out there. More than one. Look on the bright side, Gil! Big daddy!”

“That is not true,” said Gil. “There is no truth to that.”

“Well, I’m glad there’s something you can deny, Gil,” said Rachel. “And frankly, I don’t want to know any more about your private life, or your privates.” She got up.

“Rachel, come on,” he wheedled. “This is—!”

“This is kind of important to me,” said Rachel. “This faithfulness thing. And no, I can’t hush it up. Did you notice we had an audience?”

She turned and glared at Clay, Natasha and Rachel, then launched herself out of the room. Gil shrugged and raised his eyebrows at them and followed.

“Glad he’s so in touch with his feelings,” said Clay as they watched Rojette shoot out the door.

“His groin is going to be in touch with her knee if he tries following her,” said Natasha.

4.

Clay Gilbert did not have sex with another person for several weeks. Padfoot was fairly friendly to him, which was good because she was helping him to rebuild his fighter; Li Zan smiled at him, but she was sitting with, sashaying with, chatting in low voices with lots of giggling with, or dancing with Timmis Green. Rachel was not talking to anyone; Natasha seemed to have exhausted the set of things she wanted to talk to Clay about; Jane Tremblay was just plain too scary. That was also true, now he thought about it, of Bonnie Bain. The Bain woman distressed him for reasons he could barely compute: did she want his body? If she did, then was that wrong because he still thought he could salvage his relationship with Natasha, or because he was afraid of winding up in a relationship with the Bain woman, or because he didn’t consider her worthy of his attentions because, in some corner of his unconscious mind, she wasn’t really a fighter pilot, or what?

Vera was talking, but clearly that was now the level on which their relationship sat. Perhaps she was afraid of being considered sluttish, but he was pretty sure she had not made love to more male fighter pilots than he had females. It made him wonder how sluttish he was considered to be. But with communication with his own species at a standstill, Clay, along with Rachel and Natasha and Vera and Timmis Green, threw himself into the question of how to communicate with the aliens on Candy One’s fifth planet.

The freighter captains, Alfred Kalkar and Maya Nilsstrom, were understandably not as interested in that, or in the socio-romantic difficulties among fighter pilots, as they were in what to make of the loss of the Corsica. The eight rescued crew members were distributed between the Tasmania and the Greenland. One of the Corsica mechanics, Poto Wall, was assigned to fixing fighters on Tasmania, and immediately started a very cute romance with the lovely Padfoot. It didn’t stop them or anyone else from working: Kalkar was the sort of boss who didn’t care what you did as long as you did what he needed and didn’t cause problems.

By the time the colony ships were due, the crews of the anchor freighters had landed on the outer planetoid and tossed up a sort of town hall next to the fighter pilots’ tent. Better, all twelve fighters were back in service. They were, as Vera had predicted, better than new, with especial attention paid to upgrades in what were now admitted to be combat systems. “We should add a new mechanical laser,” said Padfoot. “The old one’s a frickin’ photon cannon now.”

“Next upgrade,” said Su Park.

Beta and Gamma Wings were assigned to go out and escort the giant ships in. Word had it that major debates were going on all over all three colony ships as to whether this was or was not the place. Clay heard about it as he and Park headed back from Four to Five. At Four, they had done a more thorough appraisal of living conditions and concluded that, no, given the radiation situation, one would not want to raise one’s children and grandchildren there. At Five, they were planning on joining Rachel and Natasha gawking at the alien stronghold.

“Clay,” came the message from Vera from ten light hours out, “whatever you guys are writing up in the way of executive summaries, please underline and bold face the parts about how both Four and Five are too radioactive to live on. The colonists are pretty anxious to stay here, but that’s only because they think living here is safer than flying to the next place. But honestly, except for Ally Schwinn, the captains have zero idea how to deal with their colonists. God damn Caterin Mark, she can’t open her mouth without saying something that offends some of the colonists. And her mission admin, Plame, he’s like, who was that guy in that video? Darth Vader? He’ll be lucky if they don’t march on his bunk-up with torches and pitchforks.”

“Open flames aren’t allowed in the passageways,” Clay said to himself, admiring how well she had chosen how far to unzip her vac suit.

“The others aren’t much better, and Trein has already staked himself to the position that we should carpet bomb the aliens on Five, that was the exact terminology he used. Meanwhile Sister Shia is organizing a group to discuss how to make first contact in the most spiritual way. She’s a frickin’ flower child, she is. Oh, and by the way, the experts would like you to find just one more of those lovely plaques. Remember our flight back at Cancri? Good times.”

“Yeah,” said Clay to himself. “Every minute of it, actually, thanks for mentioning it.”

“So the evidence has to be crystal clear. Oh. The moons of Three? You might mention that they’re all just as molten as Three itself, and that they’re all bathed in jets of natural radiation from the red dwarf. If you don’t flesh it out for these people they’ll let their imaginations get busy with any object in the system.”

“Vera,” Clay said to himself, “I checked that. Believe me, the first thing they would notice if they landed on one of the moons of Three would be their livestock cooking on the hoof.”

On the video, Vera was looking behind her. “Captain Schwinn is holding another session,” she said. “It’s useless arguments but it does keep them cooled down. I’m going to bed.” She gave him a very cute little smile and the video ended.

Yes, Clay would want to be going to bed too, with Vera. No, he didn’t see how it was leading to anything. Yes, he was sure Natasha would be very hurt, even though no, Natasha didn’t seem to consider them to be an item anymore, and no, he did not want to do anything to hurt her. Yes, Clay was sick of relationships. He sighed. He supposed that now, approaching 150 or whatever, he was ready for a real relationship.

“Clay, you have never had a successful relationship in your life, have you?” Natasha had asked. Well, maybe he hadn’t, but he certainly felt he was overdue.

Clay dropped down behind Park and landed on that same highland, next to the fighters of Rachel and Natasha. He got out and walked over to join them and the four of them stood there, gazing in magnification at two blobby orange aliens out doing maintenance on their anti-aircraft weapon.

5.

“We see three possibilities,” Su Park officially told the captains and crew of the colony ships gathered in the Canada’s second biggest meeting room. All twelve wing pilots were there, minus Li Zan and Timmis Green out on patrol; Kalkar and Nilsstrom and all the armored freighter navigators represented the Tasmania and the Greenland, and Raoul Diemi represented the late lamented Corsica; the colony ship captains and all their chief officers were there, along with eight representatives of the colonists. “They might be a subterranean species, and this is their only entrance, in which case, Goddess bless them, Planet Five is theirs; or they might be some sort of pathetic remnant of the civilization that was here 650 million years ago, in which case, again, let them be. Or they may be an outpost of a sort of, um, space empire.” She looked at Ally Schwinn, who blanched and stayed that way, then at Sister Shia Tang, the mission administrator on Renaud Garant’s colony ship Egypt. She wore the serene expression of one who does not need to seek the truth anymore because she found it years ago.

“The term empire,” said Shia Tang, “is prejudicial. The question is, how can we communicate with them? Have you tried opening a channel of some sort?”

“We don’t know of any way to do that,” said Park.

“If I may,” said Natasha, “we don’t know of any way to even start trying to do that.”

“What have you tried?” asked Captain Ted Trein.

“Well,” said Park, “every frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, and about a googol of different curve forms. We’ve been sending pulses and beams and I think we’ve tried shouting. We’ve also tried waving flags and holding up letters. Tomorrow we go to smoke signals and bongo drums.”

“Very funny,” said Captain Caterin Mark. “Can we land on Four? Can we live there? There appears to be plenty of land.”

“The place is bleepin’ radioactive,” said Natasha. “Pardon me. The radiation level isn’t high enough to cause damage if you land on the planet and stay there a day or a week or maybe a month, but if you lived there for 52 years, you would pick up a lethal dose. Cancer rates would be significant after just twenty years.”

Mark looked at Su Park, as if Natasha’s testimony required a supervisor’s okay. Park said, “That is our calculation. We took many, many readings, didn’t we, Mr Gilbert?”

“Oh yeah,” said Clay. “There’s not any room for doubt.”

Mark replied, “But things live there?”

“The marine environment is much cleaner,” said Natasha. “Especially in the deep ocean. It’s not okay, but it’s possible for an ecosystem to develop.”

“So what caused this radiation?” asked Trein, looking very earnest.

“It had to be purposeful,” said Su Park. “You would never have had a civilization if it was natural radioactivity. And there’s nothing natural that would suddenly increase the radioactivity of a place. There are not, for instance, planet-sized chunks of plutonium floating about in Kuiper belts all over the galactic arm. Even something like a nuclear accident couldn’t account for the same radioactivity all over two planets. It really could only have been bombs.”

“Of some sort,” said Bouvier. “Approximately 650 million years ago. The decay patterns are the same on both planets, and they’re definitive. We can tell you how they made their bombs: heavy on the curium and plutonium. All over both planets.”

“So,” said Caterin Mark, frowning with her thin face, making her mouth tiny, “Planet Five would be habitable, no? And they did not shoot at you until you were within visual range?”

“I know where you’re going with this,” said Kalkar, “and I don’t want to go there. Five is not as radioactive as Four, but it’s only a matter of degree. Gods know what these aliens do about that: the fact is, your colonists would roast slow. You wish to see your old age on a peaceful planet where the air is sweet, right? Here, even on Five, your children would be unlikely to see old age.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” said Alice Grohl. “But do you understand how the colonists feel? And the communication has not been the best, I must say. This needs to be said to the captains, but it’s true of everyone else too. They do not trust you anymore, they barely trust me. They’re scared. They want to know why they can’t live here. They may not believe you when you tell them.”

“All right,” said Ally Schwinn, “the agenda item after next is, ‘Communicating with crew and colonists: lessons learned.’ In the meantime, let’s talk about these aliens. We have a few, um, exhibits. Uh, Reiner?”

“Yeah,” said Reiner Preezen, the captain of the freighter Tessa, assigned to Schwinn’s Canada group, looking as much like an old salt as possible given his vac suit. He pushed himself to the middle of the room and took out his remote. On the screen was a 3D image of several shards of a roughly spherical object of a matte black metallic substance. Along the inside of the spherical pieces were irregular veins like veins on leaves; here and there the outside was interrupted by a protrusion that looked more or less like a closed or half-open mouth.

“It’s a mouthhole,” said Ally Schwinn as if to herself, but it came out of all the speakers in the silent room.

“That’s what it is, yes,” said Preezen. “Them fighter pilots named it. This’n was Vera Santos’s work: these are the biggest pieces. We picked up some other chunks as well. It’s an amalgam of metals in the transition range from scandium to iron. Not much in it other than those metals, some trace things we’ve identified, but these things are metal critters, it’s what they are. We now know their composition. Tell me, will this help? Where’s Padfoot?”

“I already have a chunk of that stuff,” called Padfoot from the back. “We’re on this. We could use some more, though.”

“This changes everything,” said Rachel to Clay. “We should be able to win 100% of our encounters with these stinkin’ things.”

“Well, that’s good,” said Clay, “because we don’t need the distraction of having to deal with the old aliens. We have new aliens.”

“One more question,” said Park. “Do we have any progress on deciphering those plates?”

“Plates?” Schwinn repeated.

“The plates,” said Sister Shia Tang, “with the reputed glyphs on them.”

“Ah, yes, if I may,” said a plump grey-haired woman a few places away from her.

“Dr Mooney,” said Schwinn.

“Yes, well, all right,” said the woman, whose name was Jill-Ann Mooney. “We do have a couple of linguists, Dr Taravo and Dr Johans, in particular,” and she nodded to a bear-like man next to her and a little woman, almost small enough to be a fighter pilot, on the other side of him, “got involved during this most recent run to light speed, and while they did not solve the problem, they did find themselves in a place where they called on me to help, because I specialize in symbolic logic.”

“Logic,” said Park. “I’m almost there. Explain.”

“May I?” Dr Art Johans interrupted. “So linguists debate whether all natural languages would have to have the same logic, or whether alien species might develop completely differently in logical terms. Much the way you might wonder if all complex life forms would subdivide into cells, and how varied the size of those cells might be. So whether or not they, you know, have noun-phrase verb-phrase sorts of structures, or whether they even have ‘nouns’ and verbs,’ well—!”

“You have to know these things,” said Dr Milla Taravo, “if you’re going to solve a sort of linguistic riddle such as this. And that’s not too different from symbolic logic.”

“Is it because languages are logical?” asked Captain Caterin Mark.

“No,” said Jill-Ann Mooney, “it’s because they’re symbolic.”

“Is there any way we can help?” asked Park. “I have an exobiologist for my wing third.”

Most of the people around Mooney looked dubious or dismissive, but Mooney said, “Kleiner, right? Yeah, I liked her write-up about those algae. What the hell, send her.”

“But what we really need,” said Milla Taravo, “is more plates. Can you get more plates?”

“We’ll try,” said Park. “We will look high and low. Won’t we, people?”

“Oh yes,” said Rachel.

“Now this may sound stupid,” said Captain Ted Trein, “but do we know that the plates were made by the same aliens? Well, do we?”

“No,” said Milla Taravo. “That’s not stupid at all. We have no reason to think either way. The aliens on Planet Five did not communicate in any way, correct?”

“Aside from shooting at us,” said Natasha, “no, not so much. Zero.”

“Well, all right,” said Schwinn, “so shall we make further attempts to make contact? Commander, is this your area?”

“Captain,” said Sister Shia Tang, “if you please, my group has some ideas on contact. We can present them to the captaincy at any time.”

“What’s this?” asked Park. “You have some ideas about how to communicate with the aliens?”

“We have some things we want to try,” said Shia Tang. “But I need to present them to the captaincy for their approval, perhaps you could attend.”

“You have a linguistic approach?” asked Milla Taravo.

“No,” said Shia Tang coyly, “our hypothesis is based on a different paradigm.” She smiled at the linguist, then shifted her smile to Captain Mark.

“Well, uh,” said Schwinn, “I suppose that’s settled. Now, shall we have a chat about the colonists? The people we are trying to find a planet for?”

There followed a testy debate among the captains, or the “captaincy” if one preferred, and their mission administrators and the freighter captains, which was both polarized and boring to the fighter pilots. Schwinn and all her people, and Renaud Garant and most of his, were on one side, favoring dialog and a “service orientation” toward the colonists; on the other were Mark and Trein and most of their officers, who wanted the colonists to leave the driving to them and seemed inclined toward a military posture with respect to the aliens on Five. Alice Grohl and some of the other colonist reps sort of sided with Schwinn; other colonists were just generally hostile. Sister Shia Tang and some of the junior officers and administrators, and a few of the colonists, settled for throwing in vague messages of tranquility every now and then.

At last, Ted Trein and Alice Grohl were practically yelling at each other, and the most radical of the colonist reps were pounding their fists and cheering Alice, whom they had all within the previous twenty-four hours derided as Ally Schwinn’s lapdog. For the pilots, a little of this went a very long way. Park stood up a few minutes into the contretemps.

“Don’t stop for us,” said Park, mostly unheard and for once unnoticed. “We’ll just set up a bit of a patrol schedule for ourselves, if that’s all right. You all may go right on discussing to your heart’s content.”

Outside, she had nothing to say, but led a murmuring crowd of fighter pilots through the Canada to its bay, where all their fighters except for the two already on patrol were waiting. Then she turned to them.

“I hope none of you mind my doing that,” said Park.

“Oh, as if,” said Rachel. “Commander, I have an idea I’d like to try out.”

“What would that be, Miss Andros?”

“I’ve plotted the locations of the two plates we’ve found,” said Rachel. “At first blush, the locations seem quite different: one was on a moon of a gas giant, and the other was on basically a Kuiper belt object. But both objects were small, under a kilometer long, both were irregular, both were largely water ice and get this, to a thousandth of a percent, both have orbital companions, other objects, that are one fifth of an orbit ahead of them and one fifth their mass.”

Park just glared at her patiently. “They what what what?” asked Bouvier.

“Well,” said Rachel, “I am looking for patterns. Right? How to narrow down the search. And so I, like, run every bit of data we have on these guys. And this does, you know, sort of jump out at you if you look at it right.”

“What jumps out at me,” said Park, “is that you’re an even better wing second than I thought you were. So the punch line. Is there such an object?”

“The punch line,” said Rachel, “is, yes. In the inner part of the Kuiper belt.”

“All right,” said Park. “Take Mr Gilbert, who seems to collect these things, and go look at the object in question. If you fail to locate anything, then identify other objects like it. Miss Kleiner is assigned to the linguistic team. Commander Bouvier, I suppose once Mr Green has returned, your wing can take up whatever patrol functions are needed near Planet Five. Possibly you could try those smoke signals I spoke of.”

“And Beta Wing,” said Agneska Vilya, “can take up patrolling the outer system. Is that something you would like us to do?”

“Who knows if it’s necessary even,” said Park. “What do you think, Celeste? Is it worth the danger?”

“We should have a handle on those mouthholes, at least,” said Bouvier.

“I don’t see any real risk,” said Vilya. “I mean, except that there is always the unexpected that people keep telling us to expect. I think the way to approach it is to fly a long sweep around the system at, oh, twelve light hours, just to see what we see, and react accordingly.”

“Which means what,” said Bouvier.

“Which means, when in doubt, I fall back on my instinct,” said Vilya. “You know I’m a veteran of the mission to Alpha Centauri, don’t you?” She smiled at Park. “What will you be up to in the meantime, my fellow Centauri vet?”

“I,” said Park, and then she sighed. “I fear I shall have to remain on the Canada to limit the number of stupid flags that get run up the flagpole and saluted.”

6.

Clay and Rachel were shooting through space near but not attached to one another, accelerating at full toward a chunk of rocky ice about the size of a soccer pitch and the shape of a cylindrical pill. It orbited at the near edge of Candy One’s Kuiper belt. The system kept its largest planets close to the star, so the outer belts were rather neatly ordered. Clay had no trouble picking out the object and its orbital companion from many hours away.

“So Rachel,” he said after she finished beating him the first game of chess, “you figure these guys put that thing there so that someone like you would notice and be able to find it.”

“I guess that’s the conclusion,” she replied. “It’s eerie. Right?”

“There are a lot of things that are eerie,” Clay replied. “There’s a civilization that got wiped out by nukes so long ago we’re not even sure there was complex life on Earth yet. There’s a species of spaceship-eating gangster bowling balls. There’s an alien race that shoots but doesn’t talk. There’s someone who put up signs on all the star systems. Two could still be a coincidence, but if we find another one now, in the same type of place, then that qualifies as eerie. Oh, and by the way, there’s also the France, remember the France?”

“I assumed that was mouthholes,” said Rachel, “but that’s rather post hoc ergo propter hoc, wouldn’t you say?”

“Sure,” said Clay. “So if every star system has a plaque, then would it be weird to think what Earth’s plaque might say?”

“We apologize for any inconvenience,” said Rachel. “Another game of chess?”

Two sleep times, four hours of simulator work and ten serious chess games later—Clay won one and drew four—they were curving to the left to come in behind the object in question, and decelerating hard.

“And guess what,” said Rachel.

“I’m picking it up too,” said Clay. “Iridium and osmium.”

“Okay, Muscles, let’s go in and put you to work. Pick it up, indeed.”

The work wasn’t that difficult, however. As with the other two, by some sorcery this plaque, 1.3 meters across, sat on the surface, on its own little pillar of uneroded strata. The rest of the planetoid lay under a blanket of dust but the plaque lay above it all, clean as the day it was laid, aside from a thin veneer of hard-frozen ice. Clay and Rachel managed to pry it loose and then they secured the thing to the outside of Clay’s Ghost for the flight home. Clay, carrying the thing, heavy even in low gravity, couldn’t help trying to get his mind around its origin, trying and failing to imagine its makers, inscribing what were obviously symbols on it and then carefully calculating where to put it so that someone just like Rachel would find it. Its letters were somewhere between the inscription on Tolkien’s One Ring and old Viking runes. But what hands did the carving, if hands one called them?

Pushing the question back unasked, Rachel and Clay took off and charted a course for the colony ships, orbiting between the fourth and fifth planets, and played chess. “It seems weird,” said Clay as he fought for a draw in their third game, “just going out there and taking these things back with us. I really thought about just taking a picture of it this time.”

“But,” said Rachel.

“But the record might not all be visual, if you get my drift,” said Clay.

“Yeah, and the composition of the plaques might tell us something, it might be a signal on its own, you know, thinking of the way they put the plaques on just such and such a planetoid, I’d guess they might tinker with the metal composition of these things a little and that might encode information somehow. And anyway, we want to know everything we can. I mean, we can put them back later. Clay?”

“Rachel,” he said, “I’m picking up stuff coming into the system.”

“I got that too, actually,” said Rachel. “Well, we’re all accounted for, and it’s too big to be mouthholes. And it’s coming from the opposite direction from Earth. Clay, this is concerning me. What do you think—?” For some seconds they both stared at their displays in silence.

“I haven’t a clue,” said Clay. “But I don’t think it’s the France.”

Over the next twenty-four hours, three things happened that these seasoned space adventurers had no way to prepare for. Not all of them were bad, but the combination was enough to change the lives of fighter pilots and colonists alike, and result in a few of the colonists becoming fighter pilots.

Rachel composed a message to Park about the appearance of three small blobs condensing out of the haze of light speed. Clay made suggestions, Rachel fixed it up, and they sent it off, seven light hours to the colony ships, which would mean five hours for a return message, as Rachel and Clay traveled two light hours in the time it would take for a message to be received and replied to. But under two hours after sending the message, they got a message from Park.

“Andros, Gilbert,” she said in her usual controlled voice, the one that always sounded mildly sarcastic to Clay. “I suppose you have noticed this as well, but we are picking up signal from light speed on the sunset side of the system. Keep an eye on that, but your instructions are still to return to the Canada by the swiftest route. If I need to change your instructions, I will do so: for now, Beta Wing is going to very, very carefully investigate. In other news, Sister Shia Tang and five of her, um, adepts have descended to the surface of Planet Five: it turns out that her paradigm involves meditative practice of some sort. Never having been a meditating person myself, I cannot say how this will help us communicate with another species, but I also can’t see any harm aside from the very real possibility that Sister Shia Tang and her five adepts will get themselves blasted into the next life. In other other news, the colonists of the Argentina are apparently staging some sort of sit-in; Captain Schwinn has agreed to help Captain Trein talk to them and allay their concerns, a task for which Captain Trein is not well suited, as you know. Oh, and the linguists are very happy with the holograph you sent, but they want the real thing as well. Safe flying, Park out.”

Rachel and Clay mulled that over and played some more chess, while the blobs resolved into three small spacecraft.

These were not mouthholes. They were distinctly technological, and distinctly not of Earthly origin. They were perhaps twice the mass of fully crewed Ghost 201s, but far smaller than even the escort cruisers with the colony ships. They were behaving just like Ghosts in some ways: they were decelerating hard, at somewhere around the 100 gees that the Ghosts typically managed, and their energy signatures were consistent with something like the souped-up ion drive that allowed the Ghosts, armored freighters, escorts and even colony ships to go to light speed and back on what amounted to solar power stored in batteries.

Vilya’s Beta Wing turned toward the newcomers, approaching them cautiously and sending several rounds of communication out ahead. The newcomers made even less response than the aliens in the ravine, but their course would take them into orbit in the vicinity of Planet Five. It was hard not to jump to the conclusion that the new aliens were blobby orange siblings of the old aliens.

“We’ve tried to make contact,” Vilya concluded in a message back to Park that she also sent to Rachel and Clay. “I’m concerned that they might have hostile intent, but I don’t see opening fire on them or anything. I am adopting the two on two stand-off formation: Mister Rojette and I will try to rendezvous with them, at least fly in close to show them we’re not planning on shooting, and Bain and Li will hang back a bit and see what comes of it. Any thoughts? Vilya out.”

Park composed a message basically agreeing with Vilya’s plan, but by the time it reached the edge of the system, it was out of date.

Far away in the dusk of the outer Kuiper belt, Vilya and Rojette approached the three incoming ships. They continued to attempt contact, but continued to have no response. Then Clay and Rachel heard each other swear. There was a jolt of energy in that far off dim closet of space, and then a tiny silent explosion. Rojette’s voice came to them in a general alarm call: “Li, Bain, get back, rejoin the colony ships, do not engage the three—!” And then there was another tiny flash. Vilya and Rojette were gone. The three still came on, decelerating through the thin rubble of two Earth-made fighters.

“Oh my goddess what do we do,” said Rachel, the scariest words Clay had ever heard in his life. “What do we do? Gil!” She went silent, and Clay had nothing to say either.

Minutes later, Park’s message arrived, and was followed minutes later by another message from Park: “Rachel, Clay, continue your course until we find out how Vilya’s idea works. By the time you get this, we may already know, but I hope it works better than Sister Tang’s new paradigm. The news from Five is: they meditated, they moved up, they meditated, they moved up, they meditated, they moved up, and then they got blasted to fine dust. So: another thing that doesn’t work, eh?”

The message was heard in silence and followed by ten more seconds of silence.

“Crap, Clay,” said Rachel. “Clay. Clay, speak. I need to hear your voice.”

“I’m sorry, Rache,” said Clay. “I didn’t know what to say. This hasn’t helped.”

“So what are we gonna do?”

“We are going to go back to the Canada,” said Clay, who was suddenly, for the first time, wondering if they were facing their doom. “And we,” he added, swallowing a lump of dread, “are going to hope that someone has an idea that actually does work.”

But as it happened, an idea that might work did in fact emerge in the ensuing hours. Both Rachel and Clay began receiving signals, not from the colony ships, not from Park, not from the retreating Li Zan and Bonnie Bain, and not from the oncoming three spacecraft, but from the alien installation in the ravine on Planet Five. It consisted of a rapid series of radio pings, like a Morse code with dots but no dashes. The same message seemed to be coming in to the other fighters in space—Gamma Wing was now on patrol near the colony ships, and now Natasha Kleiner and Su Park were both in space. The message displayed as line segments in a row on Clay’s screen: ||, |||, |||||, |||||||, |||||||||||…

“Prime numbers,” said Rachel and Clay at the same time.

Before the first hundred prime numbers had spooled out, Park’s reply to the ravine came in, also cc’d to Clay and Rachel: the same prime numbers, skipping every other one: |||, |||||||, |||||||||||||…

And then, as if they were shifting from baby talk to Calculus III, the senders of the message were sending massive numbers in swift bursts, and by the time Rachel and Clay got new instructions from Park, ten minutes later, the two pilots had already adjusted the major settings on both their photon weapons and their passive countermeasures. All that was left was a course correction, and by the time they received those instructions from Park, all four members of Alpha Wing were wearing their most humorless, most formidable smirks.

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