XII. Saving Bluehorse
The Earthlings in the Bluehorse system were dangerously scattered and far from the friendly environment of the third planet, so the first thing Bouvier and Park did was work to rectify the situation. No one was raising any objection to their commands, not the colony ship captains, not Kalkar and Nilsstrom, and certainly not the fighter pilots themselves. Nor were colonists in any form of uprising about whether this was the place to be. A strong desire to put feet on ground and feel sun on skin swept the colony ships.
So over the next twelve hours the four colony ships, limping to varying degrees, pulled in close together, and the two remaining escorts, the Quality and the Abstraction, along with the six still operational fighters accompanying them, kept in patrol formation; the whole little fleet was decelerating as hard as it could stand to. What crew survivors could be picked up were picked up: most of the Responsible’s complement, the colony ship fighter pilots Mizra Aliya and Peri Schmitt, and two cargo officers from the Kelly Flynn. Meanwhile Park, along with Clay, Rachel and Jane Tremblay, hurried outwards, and the armored freighters Tasmania and Greenland came up out of orbit but remained near Bluehorse-3.
The mysterious fleet became clearer and clearer. The fighters identified it for certain as Primoid, and there were 27 of them, verily a power of three. There were six ships of what seemed the next larger size, a little bigger than the escorts belonging to the humans’ fleet, and then there were three more ships, two of which looked like escorts multiplied by two in each dimension, or like freighters given over totally to combat use. The biggest ship of all was somewhere near the geometric mean of an armored freighter like the Tasmania and a colony ship. It too appeared to be covered with gun emplacements.
“Battlestar,” said Clay when he saw it, as he and Rachel and Tremblay and Park swung wide around to join the colony ships and their guardians.
“Better than a death star,” said Rachel. “By the way, thank you so much for making me watch Star Wars. Don’t even think about going in for that bombing run where you have to fly past every single weapon they have and then put a shot into just that one spot.”
“Rachel,” said Clay, “that’s what we always do.”
Three dozen hours later, all the fighter pilots, the captains, pilots, navigators and drive officers of the two remaining escorts, the captains of the three remaining colony freighters and the entire colony ship captaincy met in the Canada’s second largest meeting room. Alice Grohl and several other colonists were there but didn’t say much; the meeting went out on video to everyone else. Only Tasmania and Greenland were not represented, still five light hours away.
“Will we make it to Planet Three before they catch up to us?” asked Ted Trein. “That is the only question. My ship is hanging on by a thread. We can’t speed up and we can’t slow down any faster than we’re doing. One hit, and we are going supernova.”
“The fighters could catch us,” said Su Park. “But we won’t let them get at you, Captain. We will get your colonists to the ground.”
“Can Argentina land in atmosphere, do you think?” asked Ally Schwinn of the Canada.
Trein raised his eyebrows and played with his coffee mug. “Should be able to,” he said. “But there’s a chance the shields will go down mid-landing and that could be very bad.” He laughed, sort of. “Quite the show, that would be. Bluehorse Three would see raining colonists.”
“We can ferry your people down,” said Emily Jin, captain of the escort Quality.
“Surely we can,” said Ally Schwinn. “Don’t worry, Ted, we’ll get through this.”
“And we land,” he went on, “and then what? We lose in space, we lose the colony anyway.”
“So we don’t lose in space,” said Park.
“Tell us you have one of your ideas,” said Alice Grohl, her first words in the meeting.
“Well,” said Trein, “these guys we’re up against, this is not new to them. This is new to us. We’re figuring out everything from scratch.”
“With all due respect,” said Park, “some of us are not starting from scratch. Some of us have been trying out maneuvers and fiddling with the technology ever since Gliese 163.”
“Point taken,” said Trein, who, under the gun, was not being a complete jerk.
“And their fighter pilots and their fighters,” said Natasha, “they are not better than us. Quite the opposite. It’s the big ships we’re worried about.”
“They may be pushovers too,” said Vera. “The fighters, we definitely have their numbers. These big things, we’ll have to see.”
“One likes confidence,” Park warned her, “but one would also like to remember that we lost two people the first time we faced this enemy, and they just blew up Kelly Flynn, Responsible and Persuasion and four Ghosts.”
“Have we made any progress with communication?” asked Schwinn.
“The linguists,” said Natasha, “they’re really working over that one Primoid we picked up. It hasn’t responded much, but we do know it eats chalk and dry beans.”
“It what?” several people asked. Natasha shrugged. “So it’s doing okay?” asked Renaud Garant. “I understand it was one of the ones taking apart my Egypt. Let me know when I can drop by and give that bleep a piece of my mind.”
“Oh, we will,” said Natasha.
“So just to summarize,” said Ted Trein, “we think we can beat their fighters, but they outnumber ours more than two to one. We don’t know if we can take their bigger ships, but we hope so. And we haven’t mentioned that the mouthholes are either helping them or are just following them around and eating their scraps. Is that about the size of it?”
“Ted,” said Ally Schwinn.
“No,” said Park. “Let’s not sugarcoat things. We have a lot of work to do and the deadline is a very dead line, if you will. We are up against annihilation here. Losing one colony ship would be horrible—well, it was horrible, and losing another would be horrible again, but losing the colony, losing the mission—it should be unthinkable. But if we do not stop this enemy, it will happen. It won’t matter if a few of us survive. Better we all sacrifice our lives so that just this one colony manages to hang on.”
“Talk like that,” said Renaud Garant, “I hope you know—!”
“It’s the talk we need,” said Celeste Bouvier.
Suddenly Clay, whose heart had been in the dumps, sensed movement beside him. Rachel pushed past him toward the door. She turned and gave him a Look, a look with not a grain of joy in its metric tons of emotional force. She pushed herself toward the door, and by the time he managed to follow, she was out into the anteroom.
The discussion continued without them. Clay could hear Schwinn and Garant and Park discussing the conditions of various ships and the schedule of landings on Bluehorse-3. He had no opinion on such things. He pulled himself through the meeting room door and out into the anteroom, really just a widening in the hallway. No one was there.
Clay’s heart raced a little. He looked down the hall toward the bridge, then up the other hall toward the colonists’ realm, that village within a space ship. Would she have gone that way? But no. He checked the third hall, the one to the galley, and, with no evidence either way, went down it. The hall bent at the far end and opened into the galley, really three galleys: the officers’ mess, closed, the small banquet room, closed, and the snack bar, open as always, empty but for one occupant. Rachel stood, floated, facing the coffee machine, her right hand holding a handle next to it. Clay thought he had made no noise, but Rachel turned sharply to look at him.
“I just couldn’t listen anymore,” she said.
“Actually,” he replied, “I couldn’t either.”
They looked at each other for some seconds, separated by the five or six meters of the snack bar. Hanging by the coffee machine, she held her position, glaring at him. Clay felt like he needed to close the distance, so he pushed into the room and floated toward her.
As soon as Clay was within reach, Rachel grabbed him by the arms and pulled him to her. Their lips met, and her arms went around him, solidifying her hold. He put his left hand on her arm and his right hand grabbed the handle she had been holding: they swung out, so that his back smacked into the shelf full of coffee mugs. She grabbed something on the other side of the shelf with her right hand, and used it to pull herself against him. They kissed, their tongues getting very much involved. The only sounds were those of their lips and tongues, and then of deep breaths before they went back to kissing.
Rachel. Rachel’s taste, her scent, the muscular feel of her lips, the dim vision of her closed eyes, the soft sighs now coming from her. Their noses meeting and parting and gently meeting again. Another breath. The feel of her body against his: her belly, her hips, her legs against his, her breath on his face. They were both in vac suits, their helmets and gloves stowed; their hands remained gripping each other’s backs and the handles. He let one hand go up to her black mop; she did the same, burying her hand in his slightly too long dark hair.
Finally they pulled back to a facial range of five or six centimeters.
They stared at each other for a moment, and then kissed again, just as intensely and a little longer. They parted again to a distance of five centimeters, and this time, Clay was surprised by the look on Rachel’s face. Rachel smiled. She smiled. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“Clay,” she said.
“Rachel,” he said. “What a surprise.”
“What?” she said, laughing.
“That you’re the one.”
She smiled at him, still pulling his body hard against his, closed and opened her eyes and said, “What’s so surprising about that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “When did you know?”
“Oh,” she said, “I think I figured it out back at 55 Cancri. I knew Gil wasn’t the one. I didn’t want to admit it, but I guess I knew. Did you know Vera and Natasha weren’t the ones?”
“Not instantly,” said Clay, “but yeah, it didn’t take that long to figure out.”
“So, now do you know?”
“I think I knew back at 55 Cancri,” said Clay. “No. It was on Earth. When I first saw that mole on your rear end.”
She rolled her eyes, smiling. “So now do you understand why I worry about you getting blown up?”
“Yeah, because I worry the same about you.”
She kissed him again, then again, with lingering tongue. They both let go and necked a little, floating into the middle of the room, holding each other loosely. He kissed her neck, her ear, and she sighed. She kissed his neck, his ear, and he sighed and laughed. They kissed, and both sighed.
“So Clay,” she said at last, “now do you understand me at all?”
“Not even a little bit,” said Clay.
The meeting seemed to drag on and on, which was fine with Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert, as they were no longer in attendance. They wandered the Canada’s halls, giggling and smooching; whenever they saw someone else, they giggled, turned and went the other way. They went past one of the small observation rooms, giggled, backed up and went in, locking the door behind them.
Some time later, they were floating, their bare legs entwined, their vac suits floating nearby. They were both feeling very lazy and very satisfied.
Rachel giggled. “I came here with Gil once,” she said. She gave Clay a sudden serious look. “That doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“No, because,” said Clay, “I came here with Vera once. No, sorry, that one was on the India.”
“Well, then,” said Rachel, “I think the one I went to with Gil was on the Egypt. So this is ours alone.” She sighed, stretched, smiled some more. He did the same. She said, at last, “You are the best. I don’t even have to lie. You are.”
“Rachel,” he said, “you are the best. It’s not even close.”
“You know why, don’t you?” Again that serious gaze, on the edge of a smile.
“It’s because you’re the one,” he said.
“Kiss me again,” she said. “Don’t you like to kiss me?”
So he kissed her, and they giggled, and sighed, and he said, “Kiss me. Don’t you like kissing me?” And they kissed again, and they didn’t stop for a while.
Eventually, they were floating near each other gazing out at the stars, the sun of Bluehorse a little brighter than Jupiter in Earth’s night sky. “Do you miss home?” she asked.
“I do, a little,” he said, “but evidently I’m going to get sent there at some point, if we make it through this battle. Want to come with me?”
“Of course,” she said, smiling sweetly. “I was waiting for you to ask me.”
“We could spend a month together in a space big enough to hold a typical adult’s clothes,” said Clay, “then go run on the beaches of some stopover system, then get back in our cozy closet for another month together.”
“Then we get to Earth,” said Rachel. “And everyone we knew will be two hundred years older.”
“And then we come back,” said Clay, “and everyone we knew will be about 180 years older. Except those that went exploring.”
Rachel smiled vaguely at him, as if she was gazing into the years. “Su Park will never settle down,” she said.
“No, she’ll be basically the same age forever,” said Clay. “So will most of the others: Natasha. Gamma Wing. The Tasmania. I bet they keep the Betas back for security.”
“That’s assuming any of us survives this next thing,” said Rachel.
“Best have a plan for that just in case,” said Clay.
“Best to have a plan just in case,” she repeated. “So if you’re going to be flying centuries into the future, you need someone to fly with, right?”
“So will you,” said Clay, putting his hand into her cloud of black hair.
“Anyway,” said Rachel, smiling and half closing her eyes with the feeling of his hand in her hair, “it’s not like you get to live longer through time dilation. I wouldn’t live any longer than some colony pilot, I’d just be alive a lot more Earth years down the road.”
“Yeah,” said Clay. “Two, three months in the tunnel to Earth, and that tunnel comes out ninety years from now.”
“Three months. Stuck together in a space about the size of the two of us.”
“I’m glad it’s with you,” said Clay.
“I’m glad it’s with you,” said Rachel. She put her hand on his cheek. “And I promise not to throttle you, no matter how annoying you might get.” She kissed him. “You’ll just have to find a way to make it up to me.” She kissed him again, with tongue. “Hungry?”
Clay raised an eyebrow. She kissed him on the nose.
“I mean for food,” she said. “I know this place.”
Then Rachel led Clay down the side halls to the colonists’ section, their village on a ship which took up most of the volume of the Canada. The village, as everyone on Canada called it, had five entrances into the forward halls of the ship, and current policy was to leave all of these open all of the time, restricting access only to the bridge and the bays. The colonists did not, however, much frequent the ship’s galley: their own food was better. The hole in the wall enchilada place was doing quite decent business, considering that its food, like everything else on the Canada, was free when it was available: lately, it had been available.
Rachel and Clay took a table in the back and got served pints of ale and chef’s specials, the spicy tofu enchilada with beans and rice. They joked about the ingredients, but strides had been made in the recycling of waste into food, and the beans and rice were in fact a sort of bean along with a sort of rice. The sour cream was less authentic but tasted fine. They fed each other bits of enchilada, they held out spoons of salsa and sour cream to each other and daintily licked them, they joked about passersby, they told the cook several times how great everything was, they toasted “to us,” and they kept on flirting the whole time. Clay was pinching himself, actually, the whole time.
Rachel and Clay finished and refused seconds and drank and played footsie. Rachel leaned forward to say, “See? I knew this was a good idea.”
“Falling in love,” she said. “You ready to go for a walk?”
So they went for a walk in the village. It didn’t make them forget they were on a space ship: for instance, they weren’t walking, they were sashaying down the streets which were actually hallways. The village was on at least four levels, with many vertical openings, so people were always shouting up and down several floors, and then kicking off a wall to scoot up or down to meet someone. Little cafes spilled out a diversity of aromas. Music live or recorded mixed up and down the alley-like hallways. Rachel led Clay up one and down the next, holding hands and stopping now and then to kiss.
They were sitting having tea on one of the major hallway-streets, and Rachel and Clay were holding hands across the table.
“A,” said Clay, “can we tell people?”
“I think we should present them with a fait accompli,” said Rachel.
“Okay. B, is this really happening?”
“Yes, this is really happening. Clay, this isn’t sudden. I needed and wanted you all along. We’ve been together a lot. To me, we’re just admitting it.”
“Okay,” said Clay. “That’s fine, because the exact same thing is true of me. All right. So. C, what do you want, in the long run? I mean—!”
“Your soul,” said Rachel. “Your whole life.” Clay raised an eyebrow. “It’s not that bad,” she said. “I offer mine in trade. Okay, let me explain,” she went on, as he smirked.
Their belt communicators beeped. They looked at each other.
“Gilbert and Andros, where are you?” came the text from Su Park.
They stood up. “Okay, my soul?” asked Clay.
“I want your life. You get my life. Those are the terms of the deal. I want to never not be with you.”
When Rachel and Clay got back to the Canada’s fighter bay and found the rest of their colleagues in the bay talking, nothing was said about their absence. Park and Bouvier, Natasha and Jane, Timmis and Vera, Clay and Rachel, Lidi Moss and Gemma Izawa all sat on their fighters, while Peri Schmitt and Mizra Aliya floated side by side near the door.
“Okay,” said Bouvier, “I think we can do the overview.”
“We’re calling it a battleship, two battlecruisers and six cruisers,” said Park. “That’s our chief concern. With Beta Wing and the freighters, we should be able to handle the fighters. These big ships are what we haven’t met before.”
“Do we know what they want?” asked Natasha.
“No idea,” saids Park. “What they want?” several people repeated.
“I’m sorry, I just want to get inside their heads a little. I mean, it obviously may be that they plan on blasting the bejesus out of anything they see that isn’t related to them, and who could blame them? Think about those rebel guys who helped us out—they acted the same way, until they recognized that they were our natural allies. They shot at us.”
“Yeah,” said Rachel, “those bleeps actually shot at Natasha Kleiner. And Rachel Andros.”
“But we came to an understanding with them,” said Tremblay. “And maybe we could come to an understanding with these guys.”
“Maybe.” Natasha challenged the eyes around her. “It’s better than going up against that battleship or whatever. Isn’t it?”
“Maybe,” said Vera Santos. “But I think they’re not going to see things our way till we’ve beaten them a little more. And that means one thing. Blowing up the battleship.”
“Vera,” said Clay, “are you serious?”
“Sure I am,” said Vera. “I think I have an idea. Don’t act so surprised.”
“We’re not,” said Natasha. “We’re just in awe of your daring, Vera.”
“I know you are, and believe me, I am too. Commander, um—?”
“You wish to have the floor, Miss Santos? Be my guest,” said Park. “Do you require audiovisual equipment to present your strategy?”
“No, no,” said Vera, pushing off to be in the middle of the bay, a meter or two from almost everyone. “It’s a simple enough concept. I’ll throw together a little 3D video later if you want.”
And then Vera Santos explained her idea, and there was brief discussion and general agreement that it was worth a try and it just might work. With this ringing endorsement, Rachel volunteered to help set up the program.
“I think I have the sequence that will put us where we want to be,” she said.
“All right,” said Park, “that sounds as good as anything I had. My instinct was to attempt to propel an asteroid into their path, and this sounds somewhat easier.”
“I can help out,” said Natasha.
“Miss Kleiner, you could help just as much by working with the linguists. Now’s the time to make a breakthrough, if you’re going to make one. Green, Tremblay, Celeste and I will maintain some sort of patrol schedule. Mr Gilbert?”
“We need him to run simulations,” said Vera.
“Sounds good to me,” said Clay, smiling innocently at Rachel float-standing next to him.
She looked him in the eye from fifteen centimeters. Then she kissed him, not fast, while the rest of the fighter pilots watched. “Stay away from me,” she said to him. “I’m going to need to get some work done.”
In another twelve hours, the colony ships decelerating began to pass the Tasmania and the Greenland accelerating outward. The escorts Quality and Abstraction, somewhat repaired, decelerated harder and swung around into a course to join the two armored freighters. Beta Wing, as reconstituted, with Li Zan as commander and Bonnie Bain as second, and rounded out with the colony ship veterans Jamaica Leith and Indra Singh, took up a wide formation in front of the four larger ships. The three surviving big box freighters, the Noko Rengata, the Douglas Pohacz and the Tessa, still full of colony supplies, stayed in the shadow of the armored freighters and escorts.
On came the alien flotilla: twenty-seven fighters, six cruisers, two battlecruisers an order of magnitude above the cruisers, and then the battleship, a ship the size of a convention center and a couple of hotels, covered with weapons and armor and clearly designed to bombard planets while holding off a fleet of attackers.
“We’ll get set down on Three,” Ally Schwinn of the Canada told the colony ship officers and their newly minted replacement colony ship fighter pilots. “But they’ll be hot on our heels. So the plan is to hunker down and identify caves just in case.”
“I’ve heard of landing under fire,” said Ted Trein, “but this is the first time anyone’s ever founded a colony on a planet during an attack.”
“That’s us,” said Renaud Garant. “The Human Horizon Program. Always trying new ideas.”
The little outgoing fleet accelerated, then stalled and began to decelerate. The oncoming ships, far outnumbering them, started to assume battle configuration two hundred million kilometers away, passing the orbit of Bluehorse-5, the outer of the two gas giants. They chose to put their 27 fighters well in front, and the betting line in most civilizations would have given heavy odds that the fighters alone would overwhelm the defending ships. It was true that not all the defending fighters were accounted for, but the extras would either be on the third planet, which was clearly the target of the colonization effort, or on board the colony ships. But even if all the Earthling fighters appeared at once, it seemed prohibitively unlikely that any of them would survive the onslaught of the Primoids’ first 27 and even get to meet the larger ships.
Not surprisingly, the Earthling commanders seemed to decide against making a stand out between planets four and five. They halted and reversed course and soon were backing away through a narrow and patchy belt of asteroids and gravel between the two gas giants. They dumped some trash there as well: the freighters chucked several large freight containers, which were propelled provocatively out into possible routes for the invaders. The invaders avoided these, especially after one, seemingly on its own initiative, blew up spectacularly if silently in empty space.
In another twenty hours, the Earthlings with their two escorts and two armored freighters and four visible fighters had retreated to just outside the orbit of Bluehorse-3 at 180 million kilometers from the yellow-orange star. The planet was a third of the way around its orbit from the approaching Primoids, whose fighters were passing within a few million kilometers of the giant Bluehorse-4 and within a few thousand of one of its far-flung moons; the biggest ships were passing within a few million kilometers of Bluehorse-5, with its rainbow silver rings.
The cruisers were a million kilometers out ahead of the two battlecruisers and the truly cyclopean battleship; the latter three coasted along in a row about five thousand kilometers apart, with the battleship in the middle and ten kilometers in front. As they approached that outer moon of Bluehorse-4, a crater-pocked golf ball of dirty ice about a hundred kilometers across (it could have fit inside the state of Vermont), two Ghost 201s emerged from its shadow and began accelerating furiously to catch up with the right-hand battlecruiser. They began unloading their guitar-pick missiles at long range, a cloud of microscopic fighters with suicidal tendencies. The suicidal tendencies of the Ghost pilots, Lidi Moss and Gemma Izawa, looked pretty obvious too. Two of the six escorting cruisers began decelerating harder, letting the big ships catch up so that the cruisers could help pick the little ships off them like lice. Unable now to avoid contact, the two Ghosts concentrated on getting closer to the battlecruiser they were busy annoying; it began unloading its own much larger and scarier missiles back at them.
But before that skirmish could occur, before Misses Moss and Izawa could be squashed like bugs, eight more fighters seemed to appear from nowhere. They did not come from nowhere.
The colony ships had decelerated to a near stop by Bluehorse-4, dumped trash, and accelerated again, and Alpha and Gamma Wings got dumped as well. They had lain discarded with trash barrels behind the Canada and the India, their power down, coasting along with the rest of the rubbish at a few percent of light speed. They were still here, not far from Bluehorse-4, slowly moving toward Bluehorse-3, where the colony ships were already in preliminary orbit. The Egypt was already descending toward its landing spot.
By the time it landed, the eight fighters had hit full acceleration backwards along their course. They were already close by the three biggest ships, and now they swooped down, dropping out of the predictable fire lines of the battlecruisers’ gun emplacements and starting to carve up several parts of the battlecruiser on the left. Clay and Rachel busied themselves chopping off gun emplacements, and they were on their fourth when Vera hooted. She and Tremblay had blasted open what turned out to be the drive section, and everyone could see the readings on their dials climbing fast—not all the readings, only the really disturbing ones, the gamma and x-ray emissions and several zones of the spectrum beyond those. Even being near the drive section would soon be lethal, to human or, presumably, to Primoid.
“Break off,” called Su Park. “One meter pass, watch their guns, they’re not dead yet.”
The eight fighters turned aside and flew a meter above the surface of the prism-shaped center section of the battlecruiser, blasting away at anything that stuck out. This included three fighters that came out of a bay halfway up. These blundered into Su Park and Natasha Kleiner, and the encounter was not a happy one for the Primoids. The first two barely got shots off before they were cut in half; the third took out most of Natasha’s shield before Park distracted it and Natasha managed to light a fire in that one spot and blow the thing up. Three more emerged on the other side: one chased Clay, who calmly put a blast in his pursuer and left it bursting like a firework, while another came after Timmis Green. The third turned to fly off and got hit by a piece of debris blown off the battlecruiser by Bouvier, who then chased down Timmis’s foe, and between the two of them, the last of the six got blown up.
The eight Earthling fighters shot away from the battlecruiser just as it fell into uncontrollable chain reaction. Silent bursts happened here, and here, and painfully here, across the ship, one second apart. Pieces flew off, a few of them at several percent of light speed relative to the disintegrating dreadnought. One of its last missiles managed to knock out Tremblay’s shield, but in another second the battlecruiser was no more, and its missiles went leaderless, running on in straight lines long after they ran out of juice.
The two wings were in the face of the cyclopean Primoid battleship. “Alpha to the left and down, Gamma to the right and up,” said Park. “Stay low, concentrate on defending yourself until you get so close you can’t miss. Then commence to carve.”
“Happy hunting,” said Bouvier. “Be careful, people.”
Primoid fighters emerged from bays to the left and right. When each had produced six or seven, everyone knew there would be nine. They were not the best: the Primoids seemed to take the same view of staffing for big ship fighters as the Earthlings. Of course they heavily outnumbered the Earthlings, as usual.
“Remember what we decided, Clay,” Rachel sent on a private line.
“I remember,” Clay replied.
Park was sending something to Natasha, and now the two of them were dropping toward the battleship at an alarming speed. Clay and Rachel found three Primoid fighters before them, and three more coming to join in, and ignored the rest of the universe for a minute. The first two they faced were a little intimidating, but the enemy’s movements were clumsy and its shots were easy to guess, and within five seconds Rachel and Clay were blasting the third to bits. Then they turned to the next three, who had time to assume a formation and plan an attack. Instead, Rachel and Clay stuck close together and took out the left one, then the middle one, then the right one and shot on into space, as behind them out of the darkness two mouthholes shot past to chew up the broken Primoid fighters. Then they turned to see where Park and Kleiner had gone.
The battleship was vast. The scale factor, to a Ghost 201, would be along the lines of a jelly bean next to a two story house. Its central section was barrel-shaped, but it had five major wings of different sizes or shapes and many add-ons, projections and attachments. Along the barrel, two Ghosts raced, three more fighters behind them. Rachel and Clay, without a word, took off to follow the followers. They fired off missiles; the Primoid fighters were firing all sorts of things at Park and Kleiner, who dodged as they blasted away at the hull.
“Let’s carve,” said Clay.
“But the priority is chasing those two,” said Rachel.
“Let’s carve as we chase.”
So they set their photon guns to blow holes in the hull, and now and then something would explode behind them. The Primoids in front of them inflicted slightly less damage on the battleship and none on Park and Kleiner. A row of guns on the hull before them began pounding at the Ghosts, but Park and Kleiner dropped to under a meter from the ship’s surface, and ran along a track for equipment. One of the pursuing fighters took a serious hit, and the other two, evading their own ship’s guns, found themselves in near collision, and then found Rachel and Clay blasting them to bits.
Beyond the line of guns, Alpha Wing found itself face to face with the bridge—and with nine more fighters. Park sent two words: “low evade.”
Then the four of them began dodging and weaving at hundreds of meters per second within a meter of the huge bridge, while the newest nine fighters tried to pin them down. These met various fates, all unshared by the fighter pilots of Alpha Wing. One slammed into the bridge itelf; one more took fire from the battleship’s defenses and blew up. Park killed one, Natasha another; Clay and Rachel chopped through three of them. The last two squared off against Su Park and Natasha Kleiner, who fought them with evasion. As Clay and Rachel came up from the other side, they turned and gave their new attackers the what for: Clay’s shield went down at once, and Rachel took a missile to the drive that missed blowing her up but knocked out one of her batteries. Then the attackers silently went poof, as Natasha took out Rachel’s enemy and Park deftly disabled Clay’s.
They returned to carving up the bridge, but it was frustratingly ineffective. No doubt they were making someone’s life unpleasant, but the big ship didn’t seem to care about getting kicked in the eye. They blew a big hole in it, and Park said, “Kleiner, let’s go in.”
“You’re kidding me,” said Clay, whose concept of military protocol had never developed much.
“You guys keep an eye on our exit,” said Natasha. “We’re going to give this monster some stomach pains.”
“Okey dokey,” said Rachel. “You be careful.”
The two Ghosts disappeared into the guts of the battleship. Their video feed showed them flying down the central corridor blasting away at anything they saw: hatchways, control panels, ductwork, unidentifiable doodads. Random stuff was blowing up behind them as they went. Clay had eaten things that felt like those fighters going down.
“Clay,” said Rachel. “Check feed three.”
“Oh goddess,” said Clay. “It’s Vera’s feed.”
They could see Vera herself was in no danger. On the contrary, she and Timmis Green were sawing away at the big ship, making another big hole: those photon guns were, after all, mechanical lasers before they were artillery. A few kilometers away, Celeste Bouvier and Jane Tremblay were fighting seven of the fighters, trying to keep them off their comrades who were carving. Another Primoid went down, and another, but Bouvier and Tremblay were both out of shield and taking hits.
“We can’t do anything,” said Rachel. “Don’t even think it.”
“I’m not,” said Clay. “Ooh.”
Tremblay took a hit that they both knew instantly was critical. Her hatch popped open and the pilot, safely wrapped in her vac suit, shot out into space cursing. Her fighter blew up two tenths of a second later.
Five Primoid fighters surged toward Santos and Green. “Stay Timmis,” Vera warned. Bouvier blasted one foe, not killing it, then dodged a shot back and got in the way of another Primoid fighter, the one in the lead of the race to squash Vera and Timmis. It went down to a furious attack by Bouvier, but her original foe and three others were on her now. She managed to finish the job on her old pal from seconds ago, but the next three hits sent several of her systems into the red and on into the purple. Commander Bouvier could be heard trying to get her computer to keep things together right up to the hundredth of a second before her fighter blew up into molecules.
“God damn it,” said Vera, “break off, Tim, let’s get this.”
“Clay,” said Rachel.
“We have to sit tight,” said Clay, blasting a few more square meters of opening into the bridge. “They can handle it.” They have to, he thought but did not bother saying.
But three seconds later, Park and Kleiner came squirting out of the enlarged hole in the bridge. “To Vera,” said Rachel.
“Let’s go,” said Park.
The reformed Alpha Wing, not without a lot of damage already, zipped out and around the side of the bridge and down the battleship. The unfought battlecruiser was firing missiles at them, and Clay, in tail position and facing backwards, shot down most of these. When three had fallen in behind him and were chasing him down, Rachel did her patented flip and blasted them, and kept on scooting along backwards a few meters from Clay.
“Live, Clay,” she texted him. “Live, Rachel,” he texted back.
Ahead, Kleiner and Park were coming around what was perhaps a residential wing of the big ship, carving as they went. Gun emplacements were still firing away at them, and Clay and Rachel, still scooting backwards, reverted to gun emplacement blasting. Then they were around and in view of the area where Gamma Wing had been fighting.
They were fighting no more. Two fighters were coming at Park and Kleiner, signaling. One of them had Jane Tremblay clinging bodily to its hull. Two more fighters were coming in from open space, but like Rachel, backwards: Lidi Moss and Gemma Izawa, both heavily damaged and firing away at two approaching Primoid cruisers.
“With me,” came Park’s signal. Then she and Rachel and Clay and Vera Santos, the recipients of the message, followed her into the hole Vera and Timmis had made in the hull. Inside, they found a ruinous cavern: the drive section, whatever it was that made the enormous vehicle go. Clay found that Park and Vera had labeled some of what he saw on his screen: words like “Battery” and “Core” and “Controls” decorated his view.
“I’d go with Core,” said Vera, and they all started blasting. There was no observable effect at first; their shots seemed to be absorbed into the energy system, whatever it was. But in just a few seconds, they were getting some very disturbing readings indeed. About one second after Clay thought he would have broken off if it had been up to him, Park gave the order to get out. They whipped around and shot back out of the belly of the beast.
They found Green, Kleiner, Izawa and Moss zipping around near the hull, blasting away at the missiles the cruisers were using to try and pin them down. It seemed humorous only later that Jane Tremblay was hanging onto the outside of Timmis Green’s fighter the whole time, gripped by a couple of mechanical arms that were normally kept retracted: fortunately for his wing second, Timmis knew his ship’s equipment. Meanwhile, the two cruisers and the remaining battlecruiser were having a bit of a traffic jam. Then the four fighters came out of the insides of the battleship and everything changed. They needed no further orders: following Park’s lead, they all accelerated straight at the battlecruiser, Tremblay still clinging to Green.
The battlecruiser tried to back out of their way. The two cruisers started blasting away with their gun emplacements as well as their muscular missiles. But only the battlecruiser was taking any damage. After ten very disturbing seconds the eight remaining fighters came around the battlecruiser and out into open space. Behind them, a sudden radiance grew to solar intensity in moments and then subsided: the supernova explosion of the Primoid battleship.
“We did it,” said Vera.
“We lost Celeste,” said Tremblay from her perch on Timmis Green’s Ghost.
“Receiving signal,” said Park. “Rachel, are you getting this?”
A long moment went by. They were all getting signals, from the remaining battlecruiser, in a wavelength somewhere near the radio spectrum. || ||| ||||| ||||||| |||||||||||. Two, three, five, seven, eleven. Natasha replied in kind. Then a whole string of numbers came at them.
“It’ll take the linguists to figure this out,” said Natasha. “I have no idea what they’re saying.”
“But they’re saying something, that’s for sure,” said Rachel.
“And they’ve stopped shooting,” said Clay.
The eight fighters got out of the immediate vicinity and regrouped, to the extent of assuring none of them was just about to explode and getting Jane Tremblay stuffed inside Timmis Green’s Ghost. Whatever message the remaining battlecruiser was trying to get across, it was no longer firing on them, nor were the two cruisers that had broken formation to come try and help the battleship. The eight Ghosts turned to accelerate toward their comrades in the area of Bluehorse-3. There had been a fight there too.
From this distance they could see on their screens who had won. The Earthlings had suffered losses, but they held the cold, dark field. The battle appeared to have just ended, though the light from it had just reached them after a fifteen minute journey from near Bluehorse-3.
Nine Primoid fighters remained intact—nine that had been sent back before the squadron engaged with the two Earthling escorts, two armored freighters and the four fighters of Beta wing. These nine remaining Primoid fighters were coming toward Clay and his pals, accelerating away from Bluehorse-3, where the colony ships were all successfully landed: the fourth and final one, the Argentina, was just in the process of putting down on a gravel flat near an inlet. Ted Trein was unstrapping, shaking hands with his bridge crew and preparing to go out into the morning sunlight; elsewhere others were having the same experience, though it was raining steadily on the Canada and Ally Schwinn and Alice Grohl and Jill-ann Mooney.
The remains of eighteen Primoid fighters were still on course to be gravitationally captured by Bluehorse-3, where they would rain down as shooting stars over the next ten years in salute to the new colony. Minutes before, they had looked certain to overcome the defenders and overwhelm the colony ships.
They had approached within ten thousand kilometers of Beta Wing, with the Earthling escorts, the Quality and the Abstraction, ten thousand kilometers behind that. The Primoid fighters began to pick up echoes from chunks of moving rock. What seemed to be a meteor shower was brewing between the eighteen attacking fighters and the four defenders. The Primoids deftly split into two groups of nine, one above and one below what seemed to be a planar shower, though whether the Primoids believed even for a second that the the Earthlings had nothing to do with the sheet of meteors is frankly doubtful. They came on.
The nine on top found the escorts and the armored freighters behind them laying down nicely coordinated corridors of lethal light. The Primoids dodged among these just as nicely, picking their way toward the big ships as they fired off their own muscular missiles.
The nine on the bottom found themselves veering around chunks of rock on erratic paths, and from behind the third through tenth of these, Ghost 201s emerged: Beta Wing and four colony ship fighters, flown by Anand Ree, a slight, affable, vaguely Indian man of a certain age, a young blonde named Sally Smit, and a couple of teenage colonists who had scored high, Maria Apple and Meena Manan. They had each hitched to the back of a chunk, shooting off after the Primoids as they went by. The Primoids began to go down in a row.
Two of the Primoids actually got hit by chunks of rock while evading the onslaught. Bonnie Bain, Jamaica Leith, Indra Singh and Maria Apple all took their opponents from behind, using the advantage of their trajectories to quickly dispatch their larger foes. Sally Smit got in a serious tiff with her opponent: the two wore each other down to the point where they were practically sitting in their pilot seats floating in space holding joy sticks. At some point, the alien enemy lost combat and thrust, but Smit took its last missile to the drive and had to eject her entire engine. Ree went down against his foe, losing his engine, his combat systems, his life support and the front of his fighter and being left with his vac suited feet sticking out. Manan found herself caught up against a much better pilot, but she went over to evade after losing her shield and managed to keep chunks of rock between her and her opponent, until it was joined by the other remaining Primoid.
The two hunted Meena Manan around the ten meter chunk of rock at peculiarly low speeds, and then all of a sudden they both took off, and the fighter chasing them, which cut one in half and then neatly zapped the other, was Li Zan.
The freighters and the escorts were taking serious damage, but rocks continued to cascade in from odd angles and that was driving the attackers across fire lanes. The colony ship freighters, the Tessa, the Pohacz and the Noko Rengata, were still back there, mostly dark with their engines off, propelling their loads of rock rubble out into the battleground from the sides. One, then another, then another Primoid got tackled by these rocks, leaving six to attack the Escorts: three fighters went in on the Abstraction and three against the Quality.
The Abstraction gunners took out two of their three before they could get close. The Quality had a worse time, getting pounded close up by three enemies that it couldn’t hit. Tasmania and Greenland came up to its defense, but the enemy had discovered where the drive section was and were blasting it into overload. One of the fighters went down to the Greenland’s missiles. Then two Ghost 201s came firing up through the meteor cloud: Li Zan and Bonnie Bain, followed by Maria Apple, Indra Singh and Jamaica Leith. The last two enemy fighters were gone.
“We have a problem,” the Quality’s captain, Emily Jin, was calling, over a very shaky comm.
“Are they going to blow?” Alfred Kalkar asked Irah Chontz.
“Yes, they are going to blow,” said Chontz.
“When are they going to blow?”
“There’s a 50% chance they’ll last at least six minutes.”
“Let’s go in,” said Kalkar. “Fast rescue condition and let’s have red alert.”
In thirty seconds Tasmania and the highly docile, highly fragile Quality were docking. In five more seconds, the hatchway was open. It took ninety more seconds to move the entire 8-person escort crew into Tasmania. Five more seconds and they were pushing away, while the Quality pushed the other way on auto pilot. Two minutes and ten seconds had passed, and another thirty-five seconds later the Quality blew up, drive first and then, a half second later, the rest of the systems all at once.
“All hands are safe and accounted for,” Jack Dott reported from main freight several minutes after the Quality blew.
“I don’t think we lost a single person,” said Irah Chontz. “Three fighters are disabled, but no one died.”
“That’s strange,” said Kalkar. “No dead? All we lost was machinery?”
“All we lost was machinery,” said Chontz.
“And it wasn’t my machinery,” said Kalkar. “Well, excellent. You know what’s stranger? Look what Su Park and her people have done.”
“Oh my goddess,” was the general consensus, as the photons from the explosion of the Primoid battleship, moving at the speed of light, began to reach the freighter’s sensors.