Chapter 11: Candidate Two

XI. Candidate Two

1.

“Tasmania is being patched up as we speak,” said Alfred Kalkar as they floated about the meeting room on the Greenland. “We’re going to coast for a couple of days to make sure she’s okay, and then we should be back to our usual cheetah-like acceleration.” He smiled through his beard at Park and Kleiner, who smirked back at him. “Greenland, my friend Nilsstrom tells me,” and he smiled at Captain Maya Nilsstrom, a big-boned blonde, “is ready to roll as is, but a couple of days not accelerating means her mechanics can go on a little walkabout, as our Padfoot and Mr Bell intend to do, just to check for holes. Padfoot, how is Miss Tremblay’s fighter?”

“It was surprisingly not a total loss,” said Padfoot, pushing her short sandy hair back. “We should be able to rebuild the hull all the way around. At worst, Janey, you’ll have a dead spot on the back right. Fighter hull is complicated stuff. I’d rather rebuild the drive, which I also have to do.”

“When will my baby be ready?” asked Tremblay.

“Couple of weeks,” said Padfoot. “You’ll be ready when we’re coming into the next system.”

“Half the fighters have damage,” said Gene Bell, a big balding engineer in his fifties. “They’re all down on battery again, so you’ll need to power up at, um, Candidate Two. And we suspect that the batteries on the fighters may already be wearing out a little.”

“What would that mean?” asked Park, while the other seven fighter pilots hearts raced.

“We’d have to rebuild the stupid things,” said Padfoot. “Don’t sweat it. We’ll sweat it.”

“Not gonna go out in the middle of a battle, is it?” asked Clay. “You know, experience a little turbulence and then explode, or whatever.”

“No, no,” said Gene Bell. “If anything, you’d just lose power. Now that could be a problem, and maybe not the one you think, in battle and so on. No, the real problem—!”

“Is when we’re moving at relativistic speed,” said Clay. “Because without power, we’d keep moving at relativistic speed. Forever.”

“What a way to die, huh?” said Natasha brightly. “Your system would go right on feeding you and giving you oxygen for years. Things would eventually break down, but you’d be zoomin’ along there playing your video games for quite some time. You’d never hit anything.”

“You could be rescued,” said Clay. “If we knew where you were.”

“Says Mister Hero,” said Vera with her honorary Alpha Wing smirk.

“Says Miss Killer,” said Clay.

“It’s what I do,” said Vera.

“But that’s not going to happen anyway,” said Bell. He grinned good-naturedly: in another life, he could have been a school band director. “Because we’re going to rebuild your batteries. We want you to be able to make four jumps on one charge. And fight battles all the way.”

“But battles don’t cost that much energy, do they?” asked Tremblay.

“Not if you don’t get hit,” said Padfoot.

“In any case,” said Su Park, “I have to say, I think my standards for this force have just gone up yet again, which I did not think was possible. We destroyed nine and lost none. Mister Gilbert was noted for his valor, but Miss Santos has to be mentioned, and Miss Kleiner, Killer Kleiner forsooth, and Miss Tremblay surviving as she did, and Mister Gilbert could not have saved Miss Andros unless Miss Andros had managed a very lethal situation for a very long time. And Celeste, and Mister Green, and then there are the freighter gunners, of whom it must be said that my best hope before the battle was that they not shoot each other. And there are three items of bad news I need to share with you, and so it’s all the more fortunate that you did as well as you did.”

“What’s the bad news?” asked Natasha with a smirk. Clay smirked too, and then, feeling eyes on him, he turned and caught Rachel giving him a serious look, a sort of smirk drained of all humor.

“One,” said Park with her very vaguest smile, “we will need a new trick next time, but never fear, several very sinister ideas have already appeared in my evil brain. Two, there will be twenty-seven of them next time, according to the logical progression so far.”

“It could be fifteen, instead,” said Bouvier. “What makes you think it’s exponential?”

“My point is that they will know the outcome of this engagement and they will next meet us with overwhelming force. Who knows what they might send? A mere 27? They could send a hundred, for all I know, or a thousand. And who knows what else might come with them? Some sort of space cruiser? Why not a dozen space cruisers? We just have no idea.”

“And then there’s the fact,” said Clay, “that somehow these nine appeared just weeks after the first three, weeks after that missile probe flew off with the scoop on us.”

“And that is number three, Clay,” said Park. He raised his eyebrows at briefly making first name status.

“It could mean that they have faster than light travel,” said Natasha. “But probably it just indicates that they have a base somewhere in the Oort cloud of Candy One, so when the probe flew off, it only had to fly twenty or thirty light hours to the base. Still.”

“Still,” said Park, “it implies that the Primoids have fighters to spare on an outpost of an uninhabited star system.”

2.

No one, no Primoid, no mouthhole, no alien of unknown origin, interrupted the rest of the journey out of the Candy One system of the Tasmania, the Greenland and Alpha and Gamma Wings. They trundled on up to 99.9996% of the speed of light at a mere 89 gees of acceleration, the eight fighters ensconced in the bays of the two freighters. Thus Alpha Wing partied, ate and had morning meetings with the sixteen members of Tasmania’s crew (four of whom were refugees from the late lamented Corsica), while Gamma Wing did the same on the Greenland.

Clay spent a lot of his time in his bunk dreaming of Vera Santos. Oh, for the old days, a few months or a century ago, when Vera was in love with him, or a month or fifty years later when she wasn’t but was perfectly willing to use his romantic services. “I’m just not sure we’re right for each other,” she could say, without meaning that they shouldn’t smooch if it was clear they weren’t planning their long-term future. He didn’t even know anymore what a long-term future was. They were now over a hundred and fifty years, in Earth time, down the road from where they had started, so that, except for his biology, which thought he was still in his mid-thirties, he was in fact a century and a half from the year of his birth. And then there was the fact that he had several times lately come face to face with death in the shadow of space. And still, the pretty face, the sweet voice, the touch of a tinkling laugh, and all the other things that to Clay Gilbert went along with the concept of Woman, attracted and tormented him.

They played chess still, but in the Tasmania galley with real pieces: Rachel slew him in silence. They played soccer, but live in an empty compartment of the freight section; the girls, all in their skimpy shorts and sports bra tops, were more untouchable and alluring than the soccer ball. They turned the compartment into a squash court, and smashed his balls thoroughly.

Natasha was talking to him, at least, but clearly as a buddy pal and not as a girlfriend. “You’re a really good listener,” she actually said to him during one of their parties. He steeled himself for a slap on the back that didn’t come.

Rachel, on the other hand, was oddly quiet. He remembered what she had been like when he had first known her, when he had thought her a quiet type. Then he remembered the many long talks they had had, the games of chess, the simulated fights, the explorations.

He missed her. And what had he done? She had saved his life; he had saved hers. When he saved Natasha’s life, she responded by falling in love with him. Hmm.

But then she had gotten over him. And Vera had needed no such stimulus to move in either direction.

Clay found himself wondering about his old girlfriend. Wendy. He couldn’t remember her face. He could remember what a failure she was, or what a failure he was at being her boyfriend. Was there something wrong with him? Was there something wrong with women?

And then he pictured his sister, Marie, now (in the chronology of the Earth that he would eventually be sent back to visit) closing on two centuries old, probably decades in the grave. He pictured her a few years older than him, almost forty and quite beautiful, with her long straight brown hair, her sea-blue eyes, her curious little smile. He pictured Yvette, now a hundred and fifty years old herself, her black hair blowing in the sea breeze, her little kid smile bending his heart. He felt, as he lay in his bunk on Tasmania, weighted only by the buffered acceleration, her hand in his on the shore on a long ago day in Camden, Maine.

He let out a sigh, then took it in and let it out again.

And then they were over to deceleration, and then the haze of relativistic speed was evaporating, and then they could see the system before them that they were calling Candidate Two. The star was mustard yellow and slightly larger than Earth’s Sun, and there were five planets, counting a tightly clumped inner asteroid belt with one almost Earth-sized planet in its midst. Those asteroids were all blasted clean by a vigorous solar wind; the largest of them was almost the size of Mars, swept by dust grinding its plateaus smooth as table tops. The next planet out, somewhere between Mercury and Venus distance, was a big lummox of a terrestrial planet, a doubled down Venus, baked to a crisp and covered with deep and toxic clouds. Further out, at Jupiter distance, was a shaky looking Jovian planet almost the size of Saturn; it had magnificent rainbow-hued rings of ice. Inside its orbit, a little further out than Mars from its Sun, was another gas giant, almost exactly Saturn size but with more the personality of a Jupiter, colorful and stormy and without major rings.

But the Tasmania crew and Alpha’s pilots, packed tightly into the Tasmania bridge, only had eyes for Planet Three. It was small, about Mars size, and mostly desert, but it had rifts and craters that shone with the glint of blue water, and it shimmered with white clouds in lovely bars of cirrus and clumps of cumulus and even a cute little cyclone over a parallelogram of ocean. It had ice caps of real white ice and volcanoes smoking in lines of mountain and a single cute little moon a quarter the diameter of the one that Clay and company had trained on.

“And the atmosphere?” asked Park.

“Patience,” said Kalkar with a grin.

“I see nothing green, anyway,” put in Jack Dott. “I think it may be largely lifeless.”

“I’m picking up biological processes in the ocean,” said Natasha.

“Atmo data coming in,” said Ram Vindu, in the pilot seat. Everyone shut right up. After ten seconds, and five seconds longer than Clay thought absolutely necessary, Vindu added, “Oxygen. Nitrogen. CO2. Pressure at 92% of Earth.”

“Poisons? Radioactivity?” asked Irah Chontz.

“No radioactivity,” said Natasha.

“And,” said Vindu, and again he paused, apparently for effect, “no poisons in the atmosphere. You people should be able to take your helmets off and breathe free.”

There was cheering and congratulation in the bridge, and then Clay asked, “So do we think this could be the colony planet?”

They all looked at Vindu, who looked at Kalkar, who looked at Natasha and Park.

“Yes,” said Natasha. “Yes, I think this could be home.”

3.

The Greenland had been looking at the same thing. Soon the two freighters were decelerating in plain sight of one another, and the two fighter wings got together on the Tasmania for a quick planning session.

“Everyone has a slip of paper?” asked Park. Everyone nodded. “Okay. Celeste, draw the number for the Kuiper Belt patrol.”

Bouvier reached into the extra helmet and drew out a card. She held it up: 3. Vera and Timmis held up their threes, then did a half-hearted high five.

“Real exciting,” said Vera. “No life, no enemies.”

“Possibly one of those iridium-osmium plates,” said Timmis.

“Okay,” said Park. “Inner planets.” Bouvier reached in and pulled out a 2. Park turned her slip of paper: a 2, the same as Tremblay. “Also terribly exciting,” said Park.

“Love me some hot asteroids,” said Tremblay.

“So what next?” asked Bouvier. “Outside patrol, or the live one?”

“Outside patrol,” said Park. “We’ll save the best for last.”

“One,” said Bouvier, holding up the card marked 1.

“Oh frickin’ A,” said Natasha. “I wanted the live one.”

“You’re with me,” said Bouvier. “I guess that leaves Rachel and Clay.”

“The terrestrial,” said Clay. He smiled at Rachel, who gave back a blank look.

“I will pay either of you to trade with me,” said Natasha. “I don’t know what currency that would be in, but whatever. Name it.”

“I don’t think so,” said Clay. “Looking forward to dipping my feet in the ocean. But not my Ghost.”

“Rachel?” asked Natasha. But Rachel just smiled slightly and waved her off.

“Come on,” said Bouvier, “I need to put my practically totally new fighter through her paces. And look on the bright side, we might get to fight some totally new alien species.”

“There’s that,” said Natasha.

Rachel and Clay dropped from the Tasmania’s bay and, simply by not decelerating, sped on ahead of the freighters. Behind them, Bouvier and Natasha were curving off toward the Oort cloud on “outer patrol,” and Vera and Timmis turned aside toward the Kuiper belt outside the orbit of the outer gas giant, while Su Park and Jane Tremblay mirrored Rachel and Clay on their way to the inner system.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Tremblay, while Rachel and Clay played an oddly silent game of chess. “If we colonize this system, why don’t we call it the Bluehorse System? For Jana?”

“I think that’s an excellent suggestion,” said Park. “Shall we bother to ask if anyone else agrees? Certainly let us not let the Captaincy think it has anything to say about it.”

“We can present it as a fait accompli,” said Clay. “Hey Rachel, what do you think?”

“It’s what I was thinking, actually,” said Rachel.

“So,” said Park, “I think we have just voted to name this the Bluehorse System.”

“And the next one could be the Vilya System,” said Clay, “and—!”

“Your move,” said Rachel.

Rachel and Clay skimmed into orbit over Bluehorse-3 and spent two hours taking pictures and scans from sixty kilometers up. The planet’s data looked absolutely smashing: the atmosphere was very breathable and not especially thick or thin, the water showed no signatures of poison and appeared to be home to some type of native plant-like life, and the gravity was just a bit below Earth’s. The temperatures around the equator would have been warm for September in Maine at the highest, and the coldest nights around the equator would be just above freezing.

But the planet had a lot of personality, the way an old apartment might. Its day was over thirty hours. Its year was long, but it was hardly seasonal at all: the equator was in permanent April. It had wide but shallow polar ice caps. It seemed, every few thousand years, to have a major climate fluctuation in which the ice caps melted and refroze. It had a few volcanos, along the cracked edges of the plateaus. but no recent geological record of large lava flows.

And it appeared to have once, long ago, been lived in. They saw no surface ruins, but there were long straight lines of ancient roadway and gatherings of disturbance where these lines met from afar. Scans showed underground structures here and there looked like constructions. But nowhere on land seemed to have any form of life beyond lichen-like and moss-like mats of green and other colors. In fact, most of the land area was high desert, with the ocean and most of the waterways in broad, long-eroded rifts between the busted plates of plateau. The edges of these plates carried lines of mountains, many of them volcanic.

“No radioactivity,” said Rachel.

“None at all,” said Clay. “I had to check my sensors to see if they were working.”

“They were,” said Rachel.

“You’re Miss Talkative these days, aren’t you?”

“Clay,” she said, “actually? Yeah. I need to talk. I just would rather do it, you know, on a planet.”

“Okay, cool,” said Clay. “Because, yeah, there happens to be a planet down there.”

4.

They landed on one of the plateaus and spent an hour taking every sort of reading they could think of. They dug in the sandy soil, they sucked air samples, they made spectrograms and took sound samples of the slightly seismic earth. They took lots of pictures. Clay, standing by the broken edge of the ridge top, looked down, westward, into a valley a hundred kilometers wide and four kilometers deep, with a wide channel of bright water in its midst connecting to the sea a quarter of the way around the planet: he was looking down on the tops of clouds that were shedding rain on the lowlands. Far in the distance, to his left along the plateau edge, a few volcanic cones smoked. The golden sun shone in a deep blue sky, as vivid as the skies of his childhood in Maine; a fractal of lacy high clouds half-covered the northwest quadrant. He took pictures that would not, even in 3D, capture the aching beauty of the vista.

That this planet, with all its quirks, with all its geological history, perhaps with all its physical history, was still here and still habitable, still unpoisoned: that he was here, standing on this planet looking down into a valley that might someday burst with farm products but which right now had not been walked in, had not been crawled or scurried or slithered in, for millions of years: all that. Clay Gilbert did not have a clue what to think about it, but he sighed, not happy, not sad, just opening himself to it all and thinking, if I’m not being messed with again by the Universe with all its curious sense of humor, then thank you, thank you, thank you.

And then he looked up and there was Rachel, a hundred meters away on a crest of rock, taking some sort of reading with one of their instruments, the atmospheric one. A tiny woman, thin as a nail but also tough as a nail, her helmet off, her black hair blowing in a steady breeze. And a tiny part of his male brain registered how well she filled a vac suit. He turned his camera on her and she looked up just as he took the second picture.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Taking your picture, obviously,” he replied. She shrugged shyly, a little irritated perhaps, a little complimented, and a lot of other things lurked behind that. He started up the mild slope toward her. “What are you doing?”

“The air,” she said. “It’s good. I didn’t trust it so I checked again.”

“And?”

“And I checked again. But it’s fine.”

“Well,” he said, “the volcanoes are putting out something, but there’s enough plant life, I guess you call it that, that there’s a biological carbon cycle, so you have, I bet you have, stuff in the ocean that’s keeping the equilibrium in the atmosphere. If we do colonize here, I bet it’ll be on the fragile side, it’s not a large planet and it’s not a thick atmosphere and it’s definitely not a deep and powerful web of life or anything.” He laughed. He was five meters from her and a head below her. “Listen to me, I sound like Natasha.”

“Natasha,” she said. “Aren’t you worried about Natasha?”

“Well,” he said, sorting through all the things that could mean, “uh, why?”

“Out there on the patrol at the edge of the system,” said Rachel. “I mean—!” She stopped, half smiling, half nervous.

“I’m more worried about you, actually,” he said. “Should we have that talk?”

Rachel sort of sniffed around. Clay wondered what it was about her. She wasn’t herself, but she was also more herself than usual. He also noticed that her nose was really quite large for her small and precise face, with her small and precise mouth and her small and precise eyebrows. She was not classically beautiful. But there was something about her, and that nose was right in the middle of whatever it was.

“Let’s take water samples,” she said, as if that was the answer to his question.

They flew down to the shore of the sea and landed on the hundred meter wide beach of grey-blue sand, padded down the beach to the water’s edge and took water samples and caught a bit of algae or something in a tube, took sand samples (some life in there too, mostly “plants” with some sort of chlorophyll but also something along the lines of “fungus”) and spectra of the Sun through the clouds. They found themselves talking about the weather (day length 32.1 hours, year about 480 Earth days, slight seasons, regular morning and afternoon storms). They worked for an hour, then they stopped for lunch (wafers of recycled waste, with recycled waste green tea). After his second yummy wafer, Clay said, “Walk along the beach?”

“Sure,” said Rachel.

So they left their Ghosts sitting above the tide line, above the mats of wet green stuff and among the mats of dry, powdery green stuff. At first they walked the tide line itself, south under the sun of noon as the ocean rolled on their left. Clay attempted to make chit chat about the weather.

“Lovely patterns in the clouds,” he said. “I wonder what causes them. I suppose there’s a different dynamic up high enough for the winds to pass right over the plateaus from down here in the rifts. Those high cirrus—they’re not like cirrus clouds on Earth but they’re definitely what you’d call cirrus. And these down below are like stratus and cumulus, but again, they don’t look exactly the same, so I wonder what the dynamics are.” He looked at Rachel, who was walking along smiling vaguely at the waves. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” said Rachel, not looking up at the lovely clouds.

“Not much for tides,” he said. “I’d make it maybe a few meters up the beach, that can’t be more than a few centimeters vertically, right? But it’s quite a tiny moon.” He looked up. The little moon was white against the blue-purple just above the horizon to the southeast. “I wonder if the Sun doesn’t have more effect than the moon,” he muttered, but Rachel had nothing to say on the matter.

They went on a little further, and now Clay could see the distant cliffs where to the west where the nearest plateau rose. “I know it’s volcanic,” he said. “But do you think it has plate tectonics? I don’t think they have to occur together. I mean, look at Mars.”

“No, they don’t,” said Rachel.

“Olympus Mons is so big exactly because there’s volcanism, or there was, but at the same time, there wasn’t plate movement, so the same volcano just got bigger and bigger, unlike the Hawaiian chain where the same volcano punched new holes and made new islands as the plate moved. I always thought that was cool. I took a couple of geology classes in school.” He looked at Rachel. “I’m not just some dumb freight shuttle jock, you know.”

“Clay,” said Rachel irritably, “I never thought you were just some—!” She stopped. “Sorry. Obviously you didn’t think I thought you were—!” She rolled her eyes at herself and started off again, leaving Clay to catch up.

“Rachel,” he said as he came up beside her. “What is going on?”

Rachel stopped and looked around, up, out over the water as if checking the weather. Then all of a sudden she was taking off her vac suit. Before Clay could react, Rachel was stepping out of her black plastic skin, which she folded up and put on a rock in the sun to recharge. She was buck naked. She crossed his path to get to the water, and there she stood, her feet in a couple of centimeters of surf, her eyes gazing out to sea and up to the thin clouds, the sun shining on that interesting mole just above her butt.

“That feels so much better,” she said to the sea. She turned and smiled at Clay. “Trust me,” she said. “It feels better.”

Better than what, he wanted to ask, but he didn’t. It certainly looked like it felt better. She was no more tan than he was after months in space and seemingly millions of unbroken hours in a vac suit, but her skin was naturally a little dark, as was his: not like Natasha, who could probably sunburn in the moonlight. Natasha was the furthest thing from Clay’s mind: he was still studying that mole, and its environs.

“Aren’t you going to?” Rachel asked. That official Alpha Wing smirk was on her face: surely a good sign. “Don’t you trust me?”

“The wisdom of Ginny Weasley,” Clay muttered.

“What? Harry Potter ref?”

“Yeah,” he said. Hardly capable of tearing his eyes away from that mole, or its environs, Clay unzipped his own suit, stepped out of it, folded it up and put it next to hers. The sand was warm and moist and fine-grained; the breeze was cool in a good way; the thin spray floated in the air from some under-surface rocks. It felt great. It looked great on Rachel: the breeze in her black hair. All of her black hair. He tore his mind away from her body and back to her strange and interesting mind. “Okay,” he said, “now that we’ve got that out of the way, shall we walk and talk?”

So they walked and walked, but they hardly talked at all. For quite a while Rachel was locked into her own thoughts, and Clay, having Y chromosomes, had no way of knowing what those thoughts might be. He was pretty sure she wasn’t mad at him in particular: their mode of dress had been her idea and that seemed to augur against her being angry.

After several kilometers Rachel stopped suddenly, looked at Clay, then turned to the sea. She stepped forward into it until it was up to her knees, the wave crests rising to splash her belly. She looked down and said, with her first words in half an hour, “Think there’s fish?”

“Who knows? Maybe leeches.”

She looked at him, then grinned: no creature here could possibly be dependent on H. sapiens for its nourishment. She stepped forward until she was up to her waist, the crests splashing her quite small breasts, which she defended with her hands more out of chill than modesty. She laughed the nervous laugh of cold water. “No leeches,” she called over her shoulder. “Try it!”

So he did. They played in the surf, they swam, they dunked under, they opened their eyes underwater. It was a bit salty, but not like oceans of Earth. Clay, in the blue-green water, kept having to remind himself he wasn’t off Acadia: he kept pinching himself to be sure he got that he was on another planet, in another solar system, in an ecosystem that had evolved entirely on its own, with unknown, possibly Cambrian-style creatures. And he was cavorting in the waves with Rachel Andros. And her mole. And its environs. He found he could not get enough of those environs. The two pilots, so far from home, through so much, battle and fear and the cold of space, laughed and splashed each other and giggled and came out exhausted and lay on their backs on the sand, looking at the sky, absorbing the sunlight.

When they got up, the Sun was clearly a little lower in the sky. “We’d better go back,” said Rachel.

“Yeah,” said Clay.

All the way back up the beach, they hardly talked. It seemed like Rachel, naked, was constantly on the verge of saying something, and Clay, who was not a complete idiot about women, kept respectfully quiet while he waited. Finally they saw ahead of them their vac suits, folded up and happily recharging in the sunlight, unmolested by alien fungi-arthropods or whatever.

“So, Clay,” said Rachel, as she picked up her suit by the shoulders and shook it out.

“Yes, Rache?”

“Dang it,” she said. “Message light.” She pulled on just the helmet, and he unfolded his suit and held his right ear to inside the right ear of his own helmet.

“Andros, Gilbert,” came Su Park’s voice, “get your butts out here. The colony ships are coming in and they’ve got a problem.”

5.

They stood there naked looking at each other. “So much for our talk,” said Clay. “Ah, the heck with it,” said Rachel, stepping into her suit legs. Clay looked at her, not sure what the heck this the heck with it was about. Rachel, putting her arms into the sleeves of her suit, stepped up to Clay, who was perhaps two centimeters taller than her. She looked him in the eyes, blue green and blue. She brought his face to hers and kissed him. It lasted a second. They pulled back and then they kissed again, for a couple of seconds, and then she stepped back.

Clay stood there naked, holding his suit, the wind blowing his dark hair, waiting to see how events unfolded.

“Clay,” said Rachel. “how do I know you’re not going to get killed?”

“What?”

“How. Do I know. You’re not. Going to get. Killed?” She cocked her head, as she zipped up her suit, covering her breasts from his view. “Simple question.”

“Well, Rachel,” he said. He brushed off a foot and put it into a leg, then repeated the process. She stared at him as he got his arms in his sleeves. He hadn’t come up with anything, so he said, “I guess I’ll just have to be careful.”

“Don’t just be careful,” said Rachel. “Be still alive at the end of whatever. And the next one and the next one and the one after those two. Kay?”

“Okay,” said Clay.

“Dang it, Clay. Listen to me. You’ve been begging me to talk all day. Me. Talk. You asked for it. Now listen. You matter to me. You matter, a lot. Don’t. Die.”

“Rachel,” said Clay, groping for words. “You matter to me, actually,” he managed to get out. “So you don’t die. Okay?”

“Okay. Pinky promise?” she said, holding out her right pinky.

“Pinky promise,” said Clay, locking pinkies with Rachel, while his heart exploded in a tiny little coronary supernova.

Without further communication, they took off and got up out of the atmosphere. They found Park and Tremblay coming at them, sixty million kilometers behind but already up to five percent of the speed of light. With a little adjustment, they joined Rachel and Clay coming up from Planet Three and they all put the pedal to the metal together.

“The front two colony ships came under attack around 25% of light speed,” Park informed Rachel and Clay. “Egypt and India. The enemy appears to be Primoids. There have been several small battles, and both sides have suffered some losses, but the enemy has retreated rather than attack the big ships directly. Canada and Argentina are already visible decelerating behind the first two, but they don’t seem to be under attack.”

“So we don’t think they’ve shown their whole force?” asked Rachel.

“We’ve seen six fighters,” said Jane Tremblay. “You can watch the video. They blew up the Persuasion, the India’s escort cruiser. We lost a couple of baby fighters. Maybe we should stop calling them baby fighters. They lost four of their six, though, and the other two seem to have retreated. But think about it. Six, right?”

“You were expecting nine,” said Clay.

“We think that’s their squadron size,” said Park. “It’s a complete guess of course. There might be 83 of them for all we know. But I am 100% certain that there are more of them than this.”

“I believe you’re right, Commander,” said Rachel.

“Natasha and Celeste are out in the Oort Cloud,” said Park. “We think the aliens may not know they’re there. Vera and Timmis are on ahead of us, and maybe those four can get together before they get to the scene. But things are different this time. This time there are two thousand colonists on each of those ships. We can lose a fighter. We can lose an escort or a freighter. I don’t want to, but we can. But we can’t allow thousands of colonists to die in the cold of space—again. Not right in front of our eyes.”

“So, strategy?” asked Clay.

“Formulate as we fly,” said Park.

Twenty seconds later, Clay’s comm lit up with a transmission from Rachel: “I have a strategy. Let’s save the colonists. But make darn sure you save yourself. That’s an order.” Then came another: “And if you’re wondering if I’m allowed to give you an order like that, well, I just did.”

But the battle seemed to be taking place far out of their reach. Already two fighters from the colony ships, Tor Amdahl of the Egypt and Jaya Lajan of the India, were gone from the screen, possibly with prejudice: at this range their vac suits’ transponders would not register. The Escort Persuasion was gone in a disturbing poof. Egypt and India, Egypt’s escort cruiser Abstraction, and the freighters Noko Rengata and Douglas Pohacz, were under raiding attack as the other five Primoid fighters—yes, there were nine—zipped in and shot away. But one of them blew and then another, as Egypt’s remaining fighter defender, Peri Schmitt, figured out a way to join fire with the remaining escort Abstraction.

Half an hour went by, sped up from perhaps an hour of real time by the combined speed of the outgoing fighters and the incoming ships. The little fleet of ships drew together defensively, their two fighters and one escort cruiser doing their best to patrol the perimeter. Two more colony ships, the Canada and the Argentina, coasted into reality behind them.

Then the last three Primoids came suddenly down out of nowhere at Abstraction. One of them blew up, while the other two managed to disable Peri Schmitt and severely wound the escort cruiser. They were on into the Egypt’s face, firing off missiles to distract mighty Egypt’s two photon cannons, and using their own beams to slash into its hull in a dozen places, none of them quite lethal.

This dissection was interrupted by Lidi Moss, the India’s remaining fighter, coming around the blighted Egypt, with two more fighters behind her, these labeled in gold and green on the screen, Bouvier and Kleiner. In three seconds, the two Primoid fighters were both blasted to pieces.

“Effing mouthholes,” they heard in Natasha’s voice, and on magnification Clay could see that the globular nasties, possibly acting on their own as scavengers on the battlefield, were diving in and taking bites of the Abstraction and the Douglas Pohacz, whose one gunner was blasting away manfully in various directions at a useless energy frequency. The three fighters, three angry women inside, came at the mouthholes with the right frequencies. They fired off missiles and followed in, killing four or five of the things and chasing off the rest.

Clay had to pinch himself. How long ago was it that those things were unbeatable?

Things seemed fine for half an hour, and then Clay noticed, and noticed Natasha and company noticing, another flight of Primoids attacking the rear two colony ships, the Canada and the Argentina. Bouvier and Kleiner and Lidi Moss all took off that way, though before they could get there, the freighter Kelly Flynn was blown into several pieces. Clay could see mouthholes coming from the blackness to feast upon the Flynn, having outraced the approaching fighters.

The four fighters that flew with Canada and Argentina formed up and took on the enemy bravely, and once the enemy was past them, only one, Gemma Ozawa, was still flying. The two escorts moved to stand in the way, while behind them Canada, Argentina and the freighter Tessa huddled. The Responsible, the escort assigned to the Canada, took five or six hits in a row to its drive section and began a slow explosion: a few crew in vac suits could be seen emerging and propelling themselves away from the vicinity, still coasting along at 25% of light speed.

Again, the feast was interrupted, the party raided. Two fighters came over the Argentina and met the nine as they bottled up the escort cruiser Quality. These were labeled Santos and Green. The two, working together in the maneuver they had been practicing for hours, took one fighter and then the next and the next, skewering them with a double beam at a particular spot and with a particular frequency. Quality seemed to recover its heart for the fight, and Ozawa came from behind firing, and two more Primoids went down.

The other three came at Argentina, but its gunner was trying out a new frequency that had just been suggested to her. Vast Argentina took a number of hits from its tiny attackers, but gave as good as it got. When shots began to come from behind, from Ozawa and the Quality, one, then another of the Primoid fighters blew up. The third curved away cleverly and came in at Canada, and found itself blasted in the face with that nasty, poisonous frequency. It stalled and evaded, and then blew up as Vera Santos came around the wreckage and raked it with her flaming sword.

“Oh crap oh crap oh crap,” Natasha was saying. “Egypt. Are you gonna make it?”

Everyone looked that way, in their sensors. Clay could hear over the comm the efforts of Egypt’s captain, Ted Trein, yelling the big ship back into the land of the living. It didn’t look like it was all the way there yet.

“Rachel,” Clay called, “what about Beta wing? Where are they?”

“Oh crap,” said Rachel. In a second her Ghost was headed away at maximum acceleration, up the road the colony ships had just come down. Clay was after her in an instant, chasing her at 100,000 kilometers, imagining that mole.

He pursued her into darkness, cutting the corner off of the angle between their course out toward the colony ships and the colony ships’ course from Candy One. They played speed chess. Clay won more often than usual. They watched the infernal geometry of the outskirts of the system spool out before them, the colony ships and their rescuers pulling inward as the fighters and armored freighters came out to meet them.

But a few hours later, as they crested 25% of light speed, the blob ahead of them resolved into a sort of oversized cruiser. It wasn’t a colony ship, it wasn’t a freighter, it wasn’t the escort Resilience: it was a Primoid big ship, and it was not having a good time.

Four tiny fighters circled it, dodging its fire and pin pricking it again and again. They were labeled, in Clay’s display, Li, Bain, Singh and Leith. They were no Alpha wing, but by the time the two nearest members of Alpha wing were close enough to hail them in real time, they had teamed up on a Primoid cruiser and blown it into tiny bits.

What the hell? was the basic gist of what Clay and Rachel sent to the oncoming Betas.

“We were trailing the colony ships,” Li Zan sent back, across the light hours that still separated them, as her wing continued decelerating and Clay and Rachel laboriously slowed to turn back into the system. “When the sensors cleared up, we found ourselves behind this ship, this cruiser. We were all linked up, so we followed it in the dark until we were sure it was an enemy and then we formulated a plan, unlinked and attacked. I hope Commander Park isn’t going to be angry.”

“Oh, I don’t think she’ll be angry,” Rachel sent to Clay. “I think she’ll take quite the positive viewpoint. One more enemy like this could have meant we lost a colony ship.”

“We won,” came Vera’s call, still five hours away for Clay and his friends. “Confirmed. No Primoids left intact. Mouthholes in retreat.”

“All right,” Bouvier was saying, “I have some damage, but I’ll be good. We have six fighters and two escorts. I’m sending a patrol routine. You guys good?”

“Good,” said Vera, Timmis and Natasha.

“Egypt’s going to make it,” came the call from Renaud Garant. “It’s bad, but we’re going to make it. No loss estimate yet. We think the colonists are secured.”

“India’s got limited damage,” said Caterin Mark. “No colony losses.”

“Argentina took hits to the drive and engineering areas,” said Ted Trein. “We’re down to two thirds battery.”

“Canada is fine,” said Ally Schwinn.

A few seconds, at most, went by. Clay assumed that the captains were all hearing from their subordinates. Then Vera said, “Maybe not for long.”

Another few seconds went by and someone, and then several people, said things along the lines of Oh my god or Oh my goddess or even What the. Just appearing from the light noise of relativistic speed, from behind and a little to the left, were more ships. Some were fighters, and some were larger, and a few were larger still.

“So,” said Clay to Rachel, “that’s what a Primoid Fleet looks like.”

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