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6.

“What the?” said Clay. “Attacking?”

“No, just sort of following,” said Natasha. “Hundreds of them. Flying alongside, like meters above the hull. It’s definite. They’re mouthholes.”

“They’re not taking bites,” said Park. “They’re just flying along. Where did they come from?”

“No,” said Rachel, “it makes sense. It all makes sense. Clay, remember Holey? And that place between, where we dropped from light speed and there were mouthholes all around us? Oh. Remember at Alpha C, they thought the mouthholes came in the wake of the Ngugma? It all makes sense.”

“Explain it to me,” said Park, and Clay said an Amen from his seat inside the open console.

“Well, I,” Rachel started, and she rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s not like I understand anything. But look, how is it mouthholes find their way to places? Where do they come from? Where do they, you know, breed? Well, when Clay and I were setting records, coming into Holey, coming out of Holey, we hit six nines past the decimal, 99.999999%. The photons were still faster, but man, if they stopped to tie their shoes, we were passing them. We saw some strange stuff, I’ll tell you, a lot stranger than what we saw coming from Earth to 55 Cancri the first time out. So we decided to drop out of light speed and check things, and we found ourselves in a frickin’ cloud of mouthholes.”

“There were mouthholes doing all sorts of interesting things at Holey,” said Clay. “Where we first saw evidence of the Ngugma.”

“And at Alpha C,” said Rachel, “the Ngugma came through, and right behind them, like fifty hours behind, came this huge wave of mouthholes, they nearly destroyed the station.”

“The Ngugma left the station alone,” said Park.

“Yeah, but the Ngugma didn’t have anything they could gain from Alpha C. They thought, the Centaurians thought, that the Ngugma somehow induced the mouthholes to appear, and of course mouthholes love space stations. It’s like putting food out for the cat.”

“I still don’t see the hypothesis,” said Park.

“Okay,” said Rachel, “what we just learned is that the Ngugma have this weird thing they do where they super-accelerate just when you’d think they’d be slowed down by their increasing mass. So they really get up there, way closer to the wall than we ever did. Like we’re doing right now. And somehow that gets the attention of mouthholes. Maybe they live literally at light speed, or in some condition you can only get to when you’re that close to light speed. Or maybe they’re attracted by the exponentially increasing mass, in which case an Ngugma super-freighter ought to do the trick nicely. So when we were really pushing it that first time, you know, from 55 Cancri to Gliese 370, that’s when we first attracted mouthholes. When Clay and I were booking it from Holey, we attracted bunches of them. But Holey’s like the Elephants’ Graveyard for mouthholes, or something. The Ngugma stir them up and they show up all sorts of places.”

“Except Earth, for some reason,” said Clay.

“Yeah. I don’t get that.”

“Maybe,” said Natasha, “the Ngugma don’t allow them where they’re working.”

“You have anything on this?” Rachel asked Skzyyn.

“We see mouthholes,” said Skzyyn, “we call them sarzyk, we see them never at Fyatskaab, but at the colonies, and on forays. We do have a, what is the word, superstition? Hypothesis? That one should not accelerate past the Careful Point.”

“The Careful Point?” Natasha repeated.

“For you,” said Hhmvyvya, looking at a readout on one of its wrists with one of its eyes, “nine nine point nine nine nine nine nine three.”

“Five nines past the decimal,” said Clay. They looked down at him, then they all looked around at each other. Clay said, “And we are now at six nines past the decimal, and a seven, an eight, aaaand: seven nines past the decimal. And the engines are in neutral, as per operational procedure.” He looked up at Park. “We are coasting.”

“Any idea what sort of thing we are flying toward?” asked Park.

“Well, there’s a small yellow exactly on our course and about 46 light years from Fyatskaab. That’s the next object on the line we’re on. And at this speed, I don’t think we’ll be making any sharp turns.”

“All right. At this speed, how long will it take to get there, wherever we’re going?”

“Forty-six years, of course,” said Clay, and he added, as Park rolled her eyes, “Okay, to us? That trip will seem like about eighteen hours.”

“Mr. Gilbert, we’re used to four or five days for a forty-year journey. Less than a day?”

“We’ve never gone this fast before, Commander,” said Clay. He looked back at his displays. “Can’t wait to see where we’re going in all this hurry.”

 

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