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5.

“Hey guys, we’re here,” came Vera’s message from a half light second away. “Starting to see what sixty years of Ngugma occupation can do. We haven’t seen any sign of Fyaa forces, but we’re at present just dropping past 17%. I’m marking a planetoid—is that the base?”

Fifteen and a half seconds later, Clay replied, “That’s the one. I’m picking up Beta back there.”

“Sending y’all some navigation,” said Rachel.

And twenty hours later, eight fighters dropped down toward an object made of water ice, methane ice and rock, oblong and only about fifty kilometers long in its longest dimension: about the distance from Auburn to the north side of Portland.

“Still not picking up any Fyaa signals,” Maria Apple noted as she landed, the last of the eight. She followed the other seven in through a busted hatch, down a round hall about twice as wide as her fighter, and then came to a stop in an airless bay.

Apple and Izawa got out and were immediately set to getting the bay hatch shut. It didn’t seem to have been shifted in any way in a century, and the Fyaa happen to have chosen their clockwise in the opposite direction over us: Lefty-Tighty, Righty-Loosey. Clay and Natasha lent muscle to the enterprise and the hatch got shut. They sealed up any gaps. They let the Ghosts air up the bay.

“Okay,” said Rachel as they all stood, if it could be called that, in the middle of the bay. The gravity was about one percent of what they would have on Bluehorse-3. “Objective one achieved. Number two is: get this place running again. The Fyaa gave us specs. We should get power, they have starlight panels. Get life support and whatever they have for sensors.”

“We have the code,” said Timmis, holding up a finger. “They even made me a to-do list to get everything up, it’s like 59 steps.”

“It’s all yours, husband,” said Li, kissing his other hand, which she had been holding. They kissed a bit more.

“It’s like my folks at Bridge Club, back on the Canada,” said Apple.

“You build bridges?” said Izawa, while Timmis commenced to poke and slide on the Fyaa computer interface, a hexagonal touch-screen with about ten centimeters of depth, and spent thirty seconds with his right index finger against a spot below the display, downloading.

“Couple of us get back out and scout?” said Natasha.

“Sure,” said Rachel. “Except let’s mix it up. How about Vera and Izawa? Clay, Li, Maria, you guys explore the station. Natasha and I will try and find Fyaa signals once the system’s up. You guys good?”

“Sure, of course” and similar sentiments were heard. The little meeting broke up like a bubble popping. “Love your leadership style,” said Clay, kissing Rachel. “Phasers on stun for this?”

“Heavens no. If you shoot at some alien, I want you to blow a big hole in that thing.”

 

Clay spent some of the next hour imagining just how hardened, desperate and deadly someone would be, some alien someone, lurking without even a tech signature in an abandoned base in the dark for twenty, forty, a hundred years. But all they found were eight rooms, carved from icy rock and then sealed tight, eight plus the bay: a control room easily big enough for all eight of them to work, four rooms with twelve bunks each, and three rooms full of Fyaa-pilot-size junk. Presumably the Kaahriig, the storky ship captains, bedded down (or whatever) here once upon a time, because two of the barracks were designed for people taller than humans; the other two had bunks the size of kids’ shoeboxes, but they were definitely bunks.

There were two further airlocks, into tunnels that opened a kilometer or two east and a kilometer or two west. The three pilots returned to the now half-working control room.

“Didn’t shoot a damn thing,” said Clay.

“Each couple gets a whole room to themselves,” said Apple.

“Well,” said Natasha, “now you mention fruitless searches. We’ve got a whole big list of candidates for Fyaa bases, but not one of them shows up as a signal. Which you’d expect, if they’ve survived 62 years of Ngugma occupation.”

“I got life support up and running,” said Timmis. “They don’t like as much nitrogen as we do, but it’s actually easy to dial the O2 down a bit. They also see about the same wavelength.”

“And they use nouns and verbs,” said Natasha. “And write dull emails to their loved ones. Preserved forever on undying storage disks.”

“We did get forward camera,” said Rachel. They looked up, at the center of the solar system, and then the two planets, which were right now about ten planet diameters apart. One was just slightly larger than the other; both had a rotten apple look to them, sickly brown and beaten up enough to be clearly nonspherical. On close-up, the mining operation was still in full swing, with cargo shuttles dropping toward vast holes in each planet, and others rising up to deposit their cargo in the orbiting stations. Perhaps because it had been going on so long already, the stations, each the size of a small province, were pooping out millions of tons of slag every day, which was falling into the atmosphere in a predictable nightly meteor shower. Several holes on each planet were now so deep that great caverns were open in the outer mantle. Settling of air into these interior spaces, along with general disturbance, had reduced the outer atmospheres to not much more than trace levels. Only trace levels remained of the radioactive astatine the invaders had dispersed across both planets. There was absolutely no sign of life.

“Okay then,” said Clay after five minutes. They left the camera display up but they all turned away from it.

“Our scouts are returning,” said Timmis.

“Well, let them in,” said Rachel. Everyone laughed nervously, and then all but Timmis headed for the bay. In a minute, they were all back in the control room.

“Absolutely nothing to see,” said Vera, detaching her helmet and unzipping her suit a bit. “Or way too much, I mean, my god, if they ever did this to Bluehorse—!”

“Well, they’d better not have,” said Rachel. “Leave it at that.”

“But no contact with Fyaa, no sign of Fyaa, nothing.”

“Not true,” said Timmis. “See? We’re looking at a little rocky moon of the outermost ice giant. This is just as you two dipped behind the planet to land.”

They could see a curve of rocky lunar surface, gleaming a happy grey in the magnified sunlight. And there, just at the edge of the moon, three little fighters rose to about fifty kilometers, then dropped to a spot just rotating into daylight, where they disappeared. The whole sequence took about thirty seconds.

“We’ve just made contact with the Fyaa,” said Rachel.

 

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