Chapter 10: Prime Time

X. Prime Time

1.

The battle again occurred in two phases. In the first, which occurred about 32 hours after the transmission from Planet Five of Candy One reached Clay and Rachel, Alpha Wing came into range of the enemy in a triangle formation with Park in the middle, a sort of squashed tetrahedron. They began to take fire from the three incoming fighters, who were, like their targets, still working out how to attack a new enemy.

The new PCM settings were not quite properly adapted to the Ghost 201s, and Clay and Natasha both took damage to their deflecting nodes, the electronic padding that was supposed to slow down photon blasts and the stray cosmic ray. Clay was maneuvering like crazy, while a tiny part of his mind was again wondering if this was really happening: aliens from a far off star system, in big muscular space fighters, had their unimaginable minds, their arthropod ganglia or cephalopod multi-brains or bloated supra-cerebra concentrated on the task of extirpating Clay Gilbert from Maine. And he was wondering how he was so sure that he was going to prevail.

Already Park was sending out modifications, and so was Rachel, and over the next five seconds these modifications made the Alphas more or less immune to attacks at the current range.

The second phase began at that moment. New instructions came from Park, and they were specific and brief. Alpha Wing closed on the three alien fighters. Clay and Natasha came in from top and left and began to belabor the left-most of the incoming craft. It showed them some maneuvers they would study for days to come, but they hung on like cats on a stampeding horse, and about one shot of theirs per second hit their man. To the right, a flash on his screen briefly took Clay’s attention, but his eye caught on healthy little ghost symbols marked PARK and ANDROS and he returned to his grim pursuit.

Natasha in the meantime hit something important on the foe, whose maneuvering ceased; the enemy went over to a vindictively intense assault upon Natasha’s deflectors. She was holding out still, long enough for Clay to pinpoint an interesting node on the enemy’s metallic hiney. He let his little light shine brightly on that dark spot. With a silent spasm of radiation, the enemy went boom in the night.

The right hand fighter was dark chunks in space. The left hand fighter was particles flying apart. Park, Andros, Kleiner and Gilbert converged upon the middle one. New orders came from Park, and Clay and his women friends began to make the enemy dance. Park sent a message, then another, intended to say: give up and live. The message was ignored. The enemy fired missiles—larger, less maneuverable and more threatening-looking than the modified explorer drones of guitar pick size (and shape) that the Earthlings had. Six came at the attacking fighters, but before they could get anywhere, Park was engaging the enemy directly. In a period of about four seconds, Park busted through the middle fighter’s shields and blew it up, while her wing comrades were blowing up two each of those pesky oversized missiles.

“Whew,” said Clay. “Well,” said Rachel. “We’re the best,” said Natasha. “Always have been, always will be,” said Clay.

“Question,” said Park. “That last missile. Worth chasing?”

“What last missile?”

“That last missile,” said Park. One more missile, half the size of the other six but still much bigger than what the Ghost 201s fired, was headed out of the Candy One system at somewhere around 250 gees acceleration.

“Frankly,” said Rachel, “there isn’t a thing we can do about that one but wave goodbye and hope we look good on video. It’s already out of range and even if we could get our fighters to match that acceleration, we would want to have syrup in our food recyclers because we would basically be pancakes.”

“Okay,” said Park. “Let’s head back in for a rendezvous with the Canada. We have, I fear, a lot to discuss. And while that probe or whatever it was is much faster than we are, the same does not seem true of the enemy itself. I think we have a few weeks before they come back with enough reinforcements to blast us into the next life.”

“Because they surely will,” said Natasha. “Speaking as your exobiologist: there are more where those three came from.”

“This little jaunt we’re on,” Clay said to Rachel as they turned their fighters back toward the Candy One sun, “it’s starting to have its serious moments, isn’t it?”

2.

“So, Commander,” asked Captain Ted Trein in the inevitable meeting, “you are now confident in your capabilities vis a vis the new aliens?”

“We need to name them something,” said Captain Caterin Mark. “Those aliens, those new aliens. Can we call them Species One and Species Two?”

“We need to know what species is the species on Planet Five,” said Captain Ally Schwinn.

“And whether the new weapons settings will allow us to deal with them too,” said Trein.

“With all due respect,” Su Park cut in, in a voice that said she wasn’t sure if that much respect was due, “we went over this already. The aliens on Planet Five are the same species, well, at least the same culture and technology as the ones we just shot up. They’re also tacitly our allies, since they gave us the means to defeat the ones who killed Vilya and Rojette.”

“With all due respect,” Trein replied in the same tone, “the ones on Planet Five blew up a perfectly good mission admin, and five colonists, even if they were engaged in non-traditional diplomacy. They were clearly peaceful and they got blown up. Now we can’t allow that, can we?”

“We bloody well can,” said Park. “We mourn the loss of Sister Shia and her adepts, but those aliens had already fired warning shots at us, and I’m told they fired warning shots at her as well. To them, Sister’s movements must have seemed threatening.” Trein was about to rejoin the argument, so Park went on in her special loud voice: “We can’t tell without actually communicating with them, but here is a hypothesis. The aliens on Planet Five are not an outpost but a hideout. They’re rebels or something, and the three fighters coming in were there to either attack them or just check on them to make sure they weren’t becoming a threat. They saw us and they behaved just like the ones on Planet Five: they didn’t respond to contact, except to shoot at us. The aliens on Five have not yet aggressed against us: all their movements have been defensive. The same cannot be said for the new aliens. We don’t know how far away their nearest base is, but we may hope it’s some number of light years away and presumably that means it will be two times some number of years before they come back. When they do, they will make sure to outnumber us.”

“Will we even be here at that time?” asked Alfred Kalkar. “We aren’t colonizing here.”

“I don’t see why we would stick around,” said Schwinn.

“Because we’d be leaving an enemy on our flank,” said Trein.

“Captain,” said Park, “we can assume we have enemies all around. Captains, permit me to make a humble suggestion. No, two humble suggestions. One, we begin getting prepared to head off to whatever is Candidate Two. We don’t know if there are more enemies on the way, or if there are mouthholes about who are insufficiently intimidated by us yet, or if Candidate Two, whatever it is, will be defended. It may be that we are now meeting the local space empire. It is somewhat unfortunate that we cannot ask for directions to their frontier. And two, I would suggest that you get Padfoot and her friends and anyone in the colony ships who knows how to smelt, and have them attempt to manufacture a couple more Ghosts. We can hold a selection among the colonists to choose some new pilots. We are now down three, cancel one for Bain, who is working out very nicely. Do you think you can see your way clear to doing that?”

“I think that’s wise,” said Schwinn.

“Well,” said Trein, “how long might it be before these aliens show up again? Ten years minimum, I’d expect.”

“Unless they have a base in Candy One’s Oort cloud,” said Natasha, “which totally could happen.”

“Then how long would it take?”

“Oh, a few weeks, a month.”

“And how many would they send? Three? Six? Nine?”

“Your guess,” said Park. “Would you like to have us with our ten defending you against nine of those? Given that they already have intelligence on us from that escaped missile?”

“Yes, fine,” said Trein. “How exactly did it escape, anyway?”

“One was rather busy,” Park replied, “defeating their fighters and suffering zero losses on our side. Do you think you would have done better?”

“Commander,” said Ally Schwinn.

“Do I have your permission to lead my fighters?” asked Park, with no need to raise her voice. “May I please have a free hand?”

“Commander,” said Ted Trein, “really—!”

“Yes, you do,” said Schwinn. “Actually, you do.” She looked at Alice Grohl and Olivia, Olivia Ferro, the medical doctor. “Oh, definitely,” said Grohl. “Please.”

“Within certain parameters,” Caterin Mark was saying as Park headed out of the meeting, followed by the fighter pilots and a couple of the mechanics.

They trooped down to their favorite observation lounge and took places along the windows, Park floating in the middle. Everyone found a spot and then they all looked at her.

“So, questions?” asked Park.

“Bad about Agneska, and Gil,” said Celeste Bouvier.

“It could have been any of us,” said Park. “But we were clever and we got help and we prevailed. Any other questions?”

“What’s the organization?” asked Bouvier. “Do we divvy up Bain and Li, or make a new Beta Wing, or what?”

“Don’t sit us down,” said Bonnie Bain.

“Don’t what?” asked Park.

“Don’t sit us down. Don’t make us sit out.” She looked at Li Zan, who nodded, looking as if she was walking away from a grave.

“Commander,” said Padfoot, who had come in with Gene Bell and Poto Wall, the mechanics. “I heard you saying that you want us to make you a couple of new Ghosts.”

“Is that actually a thing?” asked Rachel. “Making new Ghosts? Of course we want you to do that. What the hell.”

“Clarify, Padfoot,” said Park.

“We think,” said Padfoot, “that we can build you a new one in a month. It would be done by the time we came in from the next trip. Maybe before we even made the next trip.”

“Commander,” said Bonnie Bain, “why don’t we requisition a couple of the colony ship fighters, you know, the best ones, obviously—?”

“They could replace those fighters with the new ones as they came online,” said Rachel. “Well. I wonder how many fighters we could actually reasonably manage? I mean, the sky would be the limit. You make fighters from stuff you find in every asteroid belt we’ve looked at.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Jane Tremblay. “What about the alien fighters? What are they going to be like next time?”

“Better, for certain,” said Natasha. “These are not dumb brutes. I don’t get much of a feel for them, they’re not exactly extroverted, but they clearly have brains. They’ll have sized us up totally.”

“I’m for sizing them up totally,” said Bouvier, “before we get in too deep here. What is the relationship between the Sister Shia Tang-blasting aliens on the ground and the ones we’ve been fighting in space?”

“Well, you can’t know for sure,” replied Natasha, “but the sense is that the ones on the ground are rebels and the ones in space are the evil empire coming after them. And now the sense is that they’re going to figure out a way to come after us. We’re a threat to them.”

“I don’t think we can go far wrong,” said Clay, “assuming they’re going to choose the optimal strategy, whether or not they have ‘nouns’ or ‘adjectives’ or even ‘brains’. And that’s going to be true of the so-called rebels on the ground as well as the so-called bad aliens in space.”

“And if these guys on the ground are their enemies,” said Vera, “those guys are going to really want us out of the way. Their optimal strategy will be to prevent their rebels from getting help. What do you think those three were here to do, anyway? They can’t have known we’d be here. Do we have any idea where they came from?”

“Navigation strongly suggests,” said Rachel, “that they came directly from a small orange star about 32 light years away. We’ve been able to determine that the star has several planets, though we don’t know anything about them. So they would have set out 32 or more years ago. Their thrust system seemed pretty much like ours.” She looked at Padfoot, who looked at Poto Wall.

“We think they’re a different kind of the same thing as us,” said Poto. “We think they use a kind of ion drive. Listen, Tasmania’s thinking of making a rubble picking expedition. This could help us find out about the enemy, but it could also further our fighter building efforts.”

“We’re still trying to persuade Kalkar,” said Padfoot.

“A rubble picking expedition,” said Park. “I think we will want to go on this. Won’t we, ladies and gents?” The pilots all smirked. “And Li Zan, I need to talk to you.”

“Commander?”

“You’re commander of Beta Wing, Bonnie Bain is your second, pick out two more from among the colony ship pilots but don’t take them both from the same ship. Are we done here?”

3.

The fact that Li Zan and Bonnie Bain got away with stealing one Ghost 201 with pilot from the Argentina and another from the Egypt said everything about how the colony ships’ “captaincy” now viewed Su Park and her minions. The colony ship fighter pilots themselves were clamoring to join a fighter wing; to them, the disappearance and presumed death of Jules Javert on board the France was a total waste, and a much more glaring tragedy than the death at the teeth of mouthholes of Jana Bluehorse or the demise of Vilya and Rojette, avenged by the illustrious Alphas. Thus the main problem Li had was to disappoint six other pilots.

Meanwhile, five of the original eight alternates from the Moon training were found among the colonists and induced to retrain for service. (The other three alternates had remained on the ancestral planet; one was an engineer, one a dentist and one a home-maker and wedding photographer. All three would be, by now, in the time frame most relevant to the expedition, over a hundred years old.)

Alfred Kalkar, captain of the freighter Tasmania, allowed himself to be persuaded to go on a rubble-picking run. Alpha and Gamma Wings were encouraged to go along; the Captaincy was informed, but not asked for permission. Several ships’ mechanics from the colony ships wangled invites. No doubt the parties were excellent; Clay didn’t find out, because the Alphas were sent out ahead of the Tasmania, in spread formation, in case the three fighters they had blown up were going to be followed by a dozen more or whatever.

“So Tasha,” called Rachel, an hour out from the colony ships. “What are we calling this species?”

“Well,” said Natasha, “maybe we should wait till we see what they look like. I mean, the one thing we know about them is that they don’t like to talk. The Non Talkers?”

“That would differentiate them from H. sapiens,” said Park.

“They like prime numbers,” said Clay. “Maybe they’re the Primoids.”

“Can’t be Primates,” said Rachel. “It’s already taken.”

“It would be just our luck,” said Clay, “if they were like these demon chimpanzees. Anyone else here ever see The Planet of the Apes?”

“Yes,” said Rachel and Natasha as one. “No,” said Park. “Enlighten me. It’s about a planet that’s full of apes.”

“Yes,” said Clay, “but the twist is—should I give away the twist?”

“It’s supposed to be happening on some far away planet,” said Rachel, “but it turns out it’s on Earth in the future. It’s a homecoming story.”

“How heartwarming,” said Park.

“No,” said Rachel, “no, it’s not.”

“Well, you do know that at some point, when we found an actual colony, someone is going to be sent back to Earth to report.”

“Just one?” asked Rachel.

“One would be unsafe,” said Park. “I had expected that it would be a whole wing, but perhaps now we only send two ships. Now the question is, Mr Gilbert and who?”

“What?” asked Clay. “Why me?”

“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “To keep you out of trouble? But that rather limits who the other person could be. Maybe Timmis.”

“Anyway,” said Clay.

The discussion moved on to other aspects of their ordinary fighter pilot lives, and then to what Candidate Two would be like, and what the colony would be like, and then Park set up a round robin of chess and the pattern game called Set, and Clay came up last in both, and thus the hours flew by and they found themselves approaching a loose assortment of space junk so far out that the light of Candy One hardly touched it.

“Come around and match speed with the wreckage,” Park told them, as if they needed to be told at this point. “Flat four.”

There was time for a good round of Squad Blaster, which a team of teenagers on the India had programmed. It was a game about teamwork in military mayhem, and it suited Alpha Wing pretty well. They knew they had succeeded in their maneuver when they began to find the debris moving with them, and that was when they left off killing imaginary orcs and aliens.

“Bingo,” said Rachel. “Pickin’ up some big pieces. Yoohoo, Padfoot!”

“She can’t hear you yet,” said Clay. “Yeah, this is their debris field all right, this here’s the drive engine but it looks totally different and exactly like one of ours.”

“It’s big, actually,” said Rachel.

“Oh crap,” said Natasha. There was silence for a second. Then she said, “There’s one of them. There’s one of the aliens.”

“What?” asked Rachel and Park.

“No, it’s dead, it’s cold as space,” said Natasha. “But it’s—!”

“Come around,” said Park. “Clay, you fly patrol around us. Girls, let’s come in and share this wonderful first contact.”

“Wonderful,” said Clay 46 hours later when he finally got a good look at the thing in three dimensions, he and Gamma Wing and Kalkar and his crew. “Hi, we’re H. sapiens. We meet you, we kill you. Have a nice day!”

“Clay,” said Rachel.

“It’s the thing in the ravine,” said Natasha. “Same species. I’m certain of it.”

It was about three meters long, laid out, but apparently it stood up most of the time, because it had five stick-like legs, a meter each, sticking out from the bottom of its blobby body, a big orange dumpling with crooked toothpicks stuck in one side. The other side bore six little stalks, ten or fifteen centimeters long, each with some sort of sensory organ. It might have lost one or two stalks, or a few of the stick legs. There were also three manipulating arms, or perhaps there were three left. These were skinny, even skinnier than the legs, and ended in four-fingered pincers.

The whole thing was a basic orange color, so its midsection, which must have comprised 90% of its mass, looked like a large and battered pumpkin. It wore a suit—a vac suit, forsooth, almost like theirs in its basic design—but the suit had been cut back by the exobiologists, who had opened up the body cavity of this nearly intact specimen. Natasha had been in on the first examination.

“So they do take in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide,” she said. “A lot of our basic processes are just like theirs. Their blood is blue, like a crab’s. It circulates like an arthropod too, throughout the body, no blood vessels, but since the alien is so large compared to an insect or a spider, its circulatory system has to be more organized. The brain was in the middle of the body, and it’s not like our brains at all. Nor is their genetic material like DNA. It’s more like, oh, those beaded wrist bands kids wear. You have about ten possible beads and you arrange them five to seven across, and you get this ribbon, and we’re about 99% sure that’s the genome right there.”

“How is the brain not like ours?” asked Kalkar.

“Maybe it’s like yours,” said Park.

“Oh,” said Natasha, “this one’s probably more like us, Commander, it’s a fighter pilot. No, see, it’s symmetric and in four parts. It looks like it’s layered, where we have all these different organs it’s got strata. I have no idea what it means, and I expect I’ll be explaining to Captain Ted Trein someday soon about how I don’t know how this helps us know what part of them to shoot at.”

“Honest to God,” said Vera. “That man just really wants to shoot something.”

“Said the mighty huntress of mouthholes,” said Clay.

“Hey now.”

“What? That was a compliment.”

“You guys have a question back there?” said Natasha.

“Uh, yeah,” said Clay. “What more is going to get done to this poor unfortunate?”

Natasha and three other exobiologists just looked at each other. “We were going to do some more tests,” said one of the exobiologists, an older man named Entwill. “We want to take some slides and examine these, uh, beings on the cellular level or whatever. They do have cells, but—well, it’s most interesting. We’re aware there are ethical issues, but we think the potential for learning about these creatures that are nothing like anything we’ve ever seen before, we think that’s just too much to let slip.”

“Clay, really,” said Natasha.

“No, no,” said Clay, “you misunderstand. I get that you want to know all you can about them. I just mean, after we’re done with the body, do you bury it somewhere? Cremate it? Dump it in outer space?”

“No,” said Rachel. “No, no. No. I’ll tell you what you do.”

“What would that be?” asked Park. “We might end up with three of these bodies. More, if they insist on coming back with reinforcements.”

“What we do,” said Rachel, “is we return them to their kin. In the ravine.”

4.

The Tasmania and Alpha and Gamma Wings remained coasting along with the remains of the battle for forty hours, picking over the extremely diffuse remains and recovering several pieces of the aliens. The wreckage of five spacecraft and five pilots, none of them much larger or more massive than a standard refrigerator, was spread across twenty million kilometers, all moving more or less the same direction at about thirty percent of light speed. But somehow they managed to retrieve about half the material of the alien fighters, more than half (it was thought) of the aliens, and many small pieces of Agneska Vilya and Gil Rojette and their fighters. It was a project that was alternately somber and tedious and surprising, and several times Clay found himself, surrounded by vacuum and stars and peppered with wreckage human and alien and mechanical, wondering if he was really there or was only lying in his bed in Bangor, Maine dreaming of it.

Then the freighter and the eight fighters were hurtling back across empty space toward the downtown of the Candy One system. His display showed the five major orbits and magnified the planets at a touch: Candy One’s two gas giants huddled closer to the star than the orbit of Mercury around Sol, its molten oddball in about the region where Venus would be, and its two terrestrial planets, Four a bit outside of Earth’s orbit, small and dusty, and Five more than twice as far out, between Mars and Jupiter as it were, covered in ocean and protected by a heavy but breathable atmosphere. Quite a nice little system. It really sucked about all that radioactivity.

The colony ships were already preparing to lumber off to light speed again. The only meeting the pilots had to go through about this was with three geologists, an archeologist, a couple of stellar cartographers and the linguists. They floated around the observation lounge of the India, sipping wine and munching on crackers with fruit jam.

“We’re having a great time talking with those guys in that ravine,” said Jill-Ann Mooney. “We send them some prime numbers, they send some back. I got no idea what their language is like, but we figured out how to play tic tac toe.”

“Seriously?” asked Celeste Bouvier.

“We suspect it might be a universal language,” said Milla Taravo.

“Well,” said Su Park, “Rachel wants to drop off the bodies of their dead. You think that’s at all a possibility?”

“I will make no promises,” said Taravo, “but we can try and communicate the idea with them. We have some supposedly universal ways to express the concept of death, and we think we can send them pictures, and now that we know what they actually look like—!”

“You can send them a picture of their dead,” said Natasha.

“Why not a holographic image?” asked Clay.

“It’s better if it’s just a schematic,” said Taravo. “None of that pixel-level approximation, just the basic necessities. Nothing to confuse either side. We have no idea how they’ll take the delivery, of course. We don’t want you all to get shot up. They have that technology.”

“All right,” said Park, “we’ll wait for more information. Now, do the captains have a Candidate Two in mind?”

“They do,” said Ella Shen, one of the cartographers. She put a golden glow onto one of the brighter stars in the view screen that passed for a giant window on space. With a click, she magnified the star, and they could see, somehow, that it had at least four planets. “It’s just twelve light years from here,” Shen went on. “That puts it about 90 light years from Earth. It has two planets in the Goldilocks zone. The star is a naked eye object from here, but it was essentially unknown on Earth: it was in the catalogs, but with no information beyond its position and its visual magnitude.”

“And the captains and the colonists are all okay with this?” asked Bouvier.

“They’re all on board,” said Jill-Ann Mooney. “I think the radioactivity plus the shooting kind of moved them off their set positions. We’re off to Candidate Two within a week.”

“Just a few loose ends to tie up,” said Park.

“Among those loose ends,” said one of the geologists, a tall, smiling gentleman named Roush. “We’ve, uh, filled in a bit of the story about how, exactly, the radioactivity got here.”

“And it wasn’t bombs?” asked Park.

“Oh no. It was bombs.” He laughed, which turned out to be something he did when delivering ugly news. “We’ve excavated on both Four and Five, and on a couple of the moons,” he went on. “650 million years is a long, long time, and things get completely buried, and the dust that buries them turns to hard rock. But we dug down.”

“And you found?”

“And we found,” he said, “a layer with a lot of formerly radioactive dust. A layer of fallout. It’s on both planets. We found the center of two of the explosions, one on Four and one on Five, not too far from those aliens. And there are just the tiniest bits of the explosive device itself. It’s a bomb, a nuclear weapon, a large one, I guess, though I would guess that we would only find one out of every fifty or a hundred bombs, so what, they managed to drop a hundred nukes on themselves? And these were high-yield weapons. They did a job. But that’s not the really surprising thing.”

“What is?” asked Rachel.

“Well,” said Roush, and he laughed again. “Well. We found remains. Not near the center of the explosion, further out. Lots of remains.”

“Don’t tell us they were human,” said Clay.

“No, no, Clay,” said Natasha, “they were the Primoids.”

“No,” said Roush, “they were not the Primoids. Good name, by the way. Mathy.” He stood there smiling and rocking on his heels. No one interrupted him this time. “No,” he said after a minute or so, “they’re sort of elongated and snaky. They have spines and they taper at both ends and we think they might have had front-back symmetry. They’re like snakes with two arms at the front and two arms at the back. Some of the skeletons are surprisingly intact. Of course it was the radiation that killed them, not the blast.”

“So they’re not related to the Primoids?” asked Park.

“Nope,” said Roush, shaking his head. “They’re a whole different thing. Of course once they were gone, their moon bases, they had a few, those were chewed up by something like these, uh, mouthholes. We even found one mouthhole that had gotten trapped among some rubble.”

“How sad,” said Clay.

“Well,” said Natasha, “that just goes to show. Lot of life out here.”

“It goes to show,” said Park, “that we Earthlings have had our heads in the sand. And it’s not a survival strategy. These snake-like things, they might never have ventured into interstellar space.”

“We have no evidence that they did, that’s for certain,” said Roush.

“And not going into space didn’t help them to survive,” said Park.

“No,” said Rachel, “but it’s also true that they probably did it to themselves.”

“We think they did,” said Roush. “There are no other major life forms, not other types of alien. The only other remains we found come from the same sort of fauna as the snake creatures. And the fauna of the oceans on Four and Five are basically the same fauna, just evolved 650 million years. Whatever happened on Candidate One, it happened without anyone from outside having to take part. Yep, they did it to themselves.”

5.

A few day-periods later, the fighter pilots met in the Canada’s second-largest meeting room, with Kalkar and the Tasmania crew. Clay took a spot between Vera and Timmis.

“What are you, switching to Gamma Wing?” asked Vera.

“Why would I switch out of the best wing?” Clay replied, and Vera punched him in the shoulder, bouncing him off Timmis.

“All right, people,” said Su Park, “we have our orders.”

“Are you implying that someone gives you orders?” asked Rachel.

Park gave her a flat glare, then went on. “Beta Wing has been augmented by the addition of Indra Singh, from the Egypt, and Jamaica Leith from the Argentina. Welcome, Indra and Jamaica.”

“Do whatever she says and you won’t get hurt,” said Rachel.

Indra Singh, a vaguely Indian woman of about 22, and Jamaica Leith, a vaguely African woman of about 17, both started to laugh but stopped and nodded sagaciously. They both glanced at Li Zan, who smiled at them.

“So the plan is this,” Park went on. “Candidate Two has been designated. We know where we are going. We are approaching this one a little differently, however. It’s considered dangerous, apparently, for two veteran wings to go someplace new all by themselves, and consequently it has been decided that while Beta Wing, which has new people, will hang back with the colony ships, Alpha and Gamma will proceed to Candidate Two in the company of Tasmania and Greenland.”

“It’s been decided?” Jane Tremblay repeated. “By?”

“I guess she means,” said Kalkar, “that I suggested it and it made sense to her. The Goddess knows that she wouldn’t do something just because I suggested it.”

“I’m glad you’re letting Beta hang back again,” said Bouvier. “Last time they got to hang back, and they were the wing that suffered losses.”

“Listen,” said Park. “This is serious. Okay? We don’t want to suffer any losses. None. I will not care if your Ghost, or your freighter, Captain Kalkar, has more holes in it than—what was it that had all the holes, Gilbert?”

“The Albert Hall,” said Clay.

“More holes than that. Just so what is inside the fighter survives. It was too bad we lost the Corsica, but the tragedy is that we lost four crew, and also two more pilots. I especially did not like losing Agneska, and Celeste, you are under strictest orders not to get yourself blown up. Because while the mouthholes were just about having a lovely spaceship-flavored snack, the Primoids can and do blow up fighters. How large was the largest bit of Agneska we found?”

“Eight grams,” said Natasha.

“She was my best friend,” said Park with that flat glare. “And it’s not just that I like you all, although I do, most of the time. It’s that it’s bloody tedious to train up new pilots. So teamwork, watch out for each other, and most of all, be intelligent. Do not go charging into fights.”

“Like you,” said Clay.

Park glared at him. He quailed. She kept her eyes on him but smiled slightly and said, “I shall try very hard not to do anything stupidly brave, Mr Gilbert, thank you for reminding me.”

“Because,” said Clay, “it would be bloody tedious training up a new you.”

They talked some more, and then food was brought in—pizza that had been waste, and salad that had been grown hydroponically using waste, but all quite tasty, as was the delectable waste product cheesecake. Wine, produced from waste, was also brought, and presently the fighter pilots had music on and were starting to dance.

“So tell me,” shouted Jamaica Leith over the piquant strains of some sort of techno pop from the last century—or, well, the 23rd Century, which would be the one before last. Rachel and Clay, neither of whom felt like dancing, leaned closer, while watching Natasha and Vera dancing very suggestively, and Bonnie Bain dancing with Timmis and Jane Tremblay dancing with Indra Singh.

“What?” shouted Rachel.

“What’s the secret to surviving in a battle?” asked Jamaica who was a bit tall (at 153 cm) and stringy with a glint in her eyes. “Concentrate? Open your mind? Be in the effing moment?”

“All that,” said Clay. “And you have to be really lucky too.”

“You can’t plan ahead on anything,” yelled Rachel. “You just have to practice so much that your instincts are good.”

“You have to have good wing mates,” said Clay. “My ass has been saved like three times so far. Literally. From death. And you have to trust your commander.”

“Can I have your commander?”

“No,” said Rachel and Clay together.

6.

The eight fighters and the Tasmania and the Greenland were accelerating out of the Candy One system at the fastest pace the armored freighters could manage. Alpha Wing was in front by 100,000 kilometers, then the two anchor freighters side by side, with Gamma Wing arranged around them in fairly close formation.

“It’s funny,” Clay was saying to Rachel over their comms as they dallied with a desultory draw at chess. “I mean, I still haven’t got through my head the idea that I’m risking my life out here. I mean, put me in battle and I know it, but right now, I can’t really fathom that,” and he paused and went on, “one or both of us could be dead in a few hours.”

“And it’ll be decided in seconds,” said Rachel.

“And it’ll depend on our instincts more than anything else,” said Clay, “and you know, I just don’t feel comfortable about that. I mean I can let my instincts take over and all, but trusting my instincts, it’s just like trusting someone else to do it.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “or think about this: counting Bain, we just added three new pilots from colony ship duty. How many of them are going to die the first time we run into the enemy? You know how much we learned from our first few encounters with the mouthholes, with the Primoids or whatever we’re calling them. You talk about your instincts, but your instincts really are you, and they really are honed, they’re very well honed actually. As are mine. As are Tasha’s, and Commander’s, and Vera’s too, while we’re at it, or Bouvier’s or Tremblay’s or Timmis’s. And yet we’ve only barely survived. And yet we really were the best wing to start with, we were better from top to bottom, which is you by the way—!”

“I know, don’t rub it in.”

“Than either of the other two wings. These new guys are not better than the other two wings, they’re not better than the old Beta Wing with Vilya and Rojette. They are not. They’re nowhere near ready, in my mind. How are they going to do in battle?”

“I don’t know, Rache, how are they going to do in battle?”

“They’re going to have problems,” said Rachel. “So we need to watch out for them. Especially since this time they’re going to be behind us, and that’s not too different from what happened to Beta Wing before.”

“It’s totally different,” said Clay. “Both the times Beta lost fighters, it was when they were patrolling the edge of the system. That’s dangerous work. Now—!”

“Now they’re protecting the colony ships,” said Rachel. “Now they may be faced with getting in the way of a wing of Primoids or a dozen mouthholes who want to chew through a colony ship.”

“These Primoids,” said Clay. “They like threes. Right?”

“Maybe, why?”

There was a minute of silence, and then Clay said,“I make three blobs coming down from relativistic speed, and I do believe each blob is actually three little blobs.”

Park took zero seconds to think about the news, ordering both wings back into the bays of the Tasmania and the Greenland. “Tell me you’re not just hiding behind us,” said Kalkar, coming to meet them in the hall outside the fighter bay.

“We are not just hiding behind you,” said Park. “Here’s the basic underlying strategy. They don’t know us, and we don’t know them. So they have no clue what our usual way of doing things is. Right now, they may expect us to send a few ships out by themselves into the dark of space. It won’t surprise them at all to find two armored freighters coming toward them. It will, however, surprise them to find eight fighters coming out of the two armored freighters.”

“All right, fair enough,” said Kalkar. “And you think this little subterfuge will actually work?”

“Honestly,” said Park, “my chief hope is that we can use a different subterfuge each time we meet them so that they won’t be able to develop expectations.”

“What if we run out of subterfuges?” asked Bouvier.

“Let’s make sure,” said Park, “they run out of the desire to fight us before we run out of subterfuges. And strategies and twists and notions and maneuvers and feints and deceits and bluffs and tricks.” She stopped, and a smile formed on her tiny mouth. “And I do believe I have another trick. All right, Captain, shall we repair to your meeting room and discuss the plan?”

“We may repair to my meeting room,” said Kalkar, his fingers in the side of his beard, “and as for discussion, you may tell us the plan and we may nod sagely and say of course, Commander.”

7.

It would be incorrect to say that the fighter pilots, or the anchor freighter captains, Kalkar and Nilsstrom, were not nervous as the nine fighters came on. These formed in a simple triangle of triangles, so that each fighter was within a hundred meters of two others, and each group of three was within a hundred kilometers of two other groups of three. The fighters themselves, on long-range visual inspection, were bigger and more muscular in appearance than the Ghosts, which were completely smooth on the outside to diminish air resistance for landings on planets with atmospheres. The Primoids’ fighters were about twice as massive, and they had fixed heavy guns of some sort in front as well as mobile weapons under the skin that seemed almost exactly like what the Ghosts had for their photon blasters.

“They’re too heavy,” said Bouvier as the two wings plus Kalkar and Padfoot and Irah Chontz and pilot Ram Vindu and reserve pilot, appointed gunnery officer, Emily Gray, watched the oncoming fighters in the meeting room.

“They maneuver better than you think,” said Rachel.

“And we never did find out about those huge missiles of theirs,” said Natasha, “but I expect one of those could ruin your whole day.”

“And they will shoot them at you and follow through with their blasters while you’re busy with the missiles,” said Park. “So be ready for that too.” She smiled around at the fighter pilots. “And don’t forget to relax and not think too much. Ready?”

When the Primoids were within 50,000 kilometers, moving at 120 km/sec, they launched a volley of missiles, two apiece, for a total of nine at each of the freighters. The second gunners on the two freighters started in picking these off—Kalkar had given his second mechanic, Gene Bell, the job of second gunner on the principle that Bell, a trained musician and crack pool player, would somehow have a hand-eye advantage. The missiles were programmed to maneuver, however, and their wobbly approach made hitting them difficult.

At six thousand kilometers, Alpha and Gamma Wings dropped out of their freighters and flew widely apart, eight fighters apparently trying to avoid conflict, possibly abandoning their anchors. The Primoids ignored them and came in toward the freighters, firing away; the freighters bravely sailed into it, their deflectors taking all the damage and slowly building toward overload.

Then the eight fighters dove in, cork-screwing as they fired on their targets in pairs. Clay and Natasha, Rachel and Park, Bouvier and Timmis, Tremblay and Santos: four of the nine foes began to take damage. One lit up for a second with excess energy and blew into bits: that Vera touch. Another blew in half: Park and Rachel. Clay and Natasha didn’t kill their target immediately: it turned on them and fired two more missiles at Clay, and then turned to take Natasha. Clay had his hands full, maneuvering just to keep them off him, but when he happened to turn so that he was facing one of the missiles, glowing sickly green on his display, he put a blast into it and it was gone. Then he chased his tail around the other missile, outmaneuvered it, and it was gone too.

He turned back to the battle. Natasha was taking damage, but she was now within ten kilometers of her enemy and blasting it mercilessly. Her cry of happy bloodlust over the comm chilled and thrilled Clay, a tenth of a second after the enemy blew up.

Then they were speeding back to the battle. The freighters were both still whole, though their deflection fields were wavering. Tasmania had a hole in its auxiliary freight from a missile hit, possibly the best place on it for a two-meter hole. Greenland’s shields went down just as Clay was turned toward it, but their guns, their former mechanical lasers now re-christened photon blasters, were keeping two enemy fighters back. “Greenland,” said Natasha. They dove in and began to lay into the two fighters, which turned to fight them and were quickly overcome. Clay could not say if it was his blasts or the Greenland’s that blew up his enemy, and Natasha’s foe went a half second later.

Two Primoids were coming in to attack the Tasmania, and Bouvier, Green and Santos came in behind them and bottled them up. From there, it was only a matter of time; the Tasmania’s two gunners managed a kill entirely on their own, while the three from Gamma Wing blasted the other into molecules as it tried to fire off more missiles at someone or other, and then blasted the two missiles it managed to fire.

“Where’s Tremblay?” called Park.

“She’s okay,” called Natasha. “She’s floating in space, her fighter’s kind of bad off, she’s fine.”

“Where the hell’s Rachel?” called Clay.

“Clay,” called Jane Tremblay, floating in the skeleton of her ghost, “there—!”

She couldn’t very well point her finger, but Clay could see perfectly well. Two missiles and the last Primoid fighter had Rachel pinned in space twenty thousand kilometers away from the fight. Her flectors were down and she was taking damage, putting all her energy into maneuver. The photon blasts were lighting her up, one each second or so making all her systems glow with excess energy on his screen, while the missiles closed in.

Clay could never explain it, but twenty thousand kilometers, halfway around Planet Earth, was nothing. A hundred gees was nothing. One missile, then the other, took pinprick shots from his guns, and both were gone, and then the fighter, still trying to nail Rachel down, began taking damage. That one interesting point on its hull: two shots there, then one more, and the whole thing went up, blowing outward like a supernova the size of a hall closet.

The enemy was gone. None of the humans in the battle was dead or even seriously injured. And the best sound Clay had heard in many years was the sound of Rachel, letting out the breath she had been holding.

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