The human task force consisted of sixteen fighters and two well-armed freighters, the old Tasmania under old Captain Alfred Kalkar, and the Bluehorse-built Honshu, commanded by Cassiopeia Root, a first generation child of Bluehorse and a hero, as captain of a cruiser, of the second defense of the system against the Primoids. It was a sign of the times that the task force was accompanied by one Primoid cruiser and one freighter, and nine of the Primoids’ sturdy fighters.
They endured briefings and ceremonies almost nonstop over the final thirty hours on the planet. Then they took off for the Bluehorse-3 space station, a pretty fancy place, where they endured another ceremony, this time with Alfred Kalkar’s Bluehorse-born descendant, Admiral Marjane Kalkar. Amusingly, the Primoid leader (or whatever) co-presented with her, using slides and videos because Primoids don’t use actual words.
But again and again, they made their points, their Su Park Three Points:
- The Fyaa had invaded PSB6, the sixth in the list of Primoid “B” systems, but had been stalled by planetary defenses; they’re steadily reinforcing their invasion force, which now sits in the outer orbits of the system.
- We can turn the tide in favor of the Primoids, and thus
- We can make the Fyaa come to terms, and get them to join the coalition against the Ngugma.
But Point Three, in particular, meant someone had to act diplomatic. Someone would have to figure out when it was time to stop shooting and start talking, or whatever the Fyaa did. The Fyaa weren’t one thing, in any case: they were at least five different species, each with its own role in the Fyaa structure.
“So explain this to me again,” said Clay, as he and Rachel accelerated out of the Bluehorse system, after joining their fighters and assuming their most comfy mode of dress.
“It’s quite simple, hunkalicious,” said Rachel. “We beat the snot out of them till they give, then we get them to join our glorious quest.”
“And fortunately, at least this time, we have Su Park with us to make that determination. Okay. We somehow manage all that. Then what? We all troop off to defeat the Ngugma? Are we going to be carting along both Primoids and Fyaa through jump after jump while we look for the Ngugma? How’s that going to work?”
“Well, hubby man, like you, I have never met a Fyaa, or whatever they’re called individually. I don’t know what they’re like. I’m not sure any of us has actually met them, but I guess from captured computers or whatever, we kind of have a handle on their language. I know it’s not just one species, it’s several, but—Audio only, hey, Tasha?”
“Audio only?” came Vera’s voice from nowhere, over the conduit that attached Rachel and Clay to Natasha and Vera. “Not dressed to have company? As if we were.”
“As if you were company, or as if you were dressed? Is Tasha there?”
“What did you think,” Natasha’s voice asked, “I’d have gone out for donuts?”
“Tell us,” said Clay, “about how we’re going to talk to the Fyaa, once we’ve trounced them.”
“Without suffering casualties,” Vera put in.
“Okay,” said Natasha. “None of us has ever met a Fyaa in person, but the Primoids have, they’ve captured their pilots and also their mechanics. We have got hold of Fyaa documents on what the Fyaa have for computers. They have both a written language and a spoken one, and it’s not all that hard to learn because it’s a lingua franca, it’s the language used to communicate between the different species that make up the Fyaa civilization.”
“Like five different species,” said Rachel.
“At least five different species.” Natasha could be heard muttering as she read the information she had. Then she summarized: “The pilots, the fighter pilots, are these little squirrel-reptiles, and the mechanics are similar but even smaller, maybe they’re chipmunk-reptiles. But their government types, their aristocrats and their smart people, their engineers and experts and so on, they’re something like a long-legged crustacean. The workers are yet another species, obviously we don’t know as much from their naval computers, but they’re maybe more of a mollusk thing? Lots of muscle, less brains, I guess. Those are both amphibious: they have big oceans. And the fifth species this sort of academic-priestly caste or whatever, they’re bird-like, they actually fly on the home planet. And they’re a lot of the big ship officers.”
“And all these evolved on the Fyaa home world?” asked Clay.
“Apparently so. That’s not such a surprise. Ted Trein and Rachel Andros evolved on the same planet.”
“So where did Su Park evolve? No, she’s sui generis. So does this make it any easier to beat them?”
“No, because it’s only the squirreloids we’re going to meet. Oh, we might meet a big ship of theirs, but apparently they’re crap, the only thing they have going for them is that those mechanics are scurrying around in the bulkheads all the time fixing stuff. We have that with Padfoot’s nano-robots on our big ships. But their pilots are notoriously reckless badasses. Presumably they’re not who we’re going to be negotiating with.”
“Well,” said Rachel, “they can’t be any more difficult to communicate with than the Primoids. And we manage pretty well, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” said Clay, “like I was saying to Skippy at our last poker night. He, or she, is that one Primoid with the extra tentacle over his or her left stick arm.”
“Skippy?” Vera repeated.
“He’s making that up,” said Rachel. “Okay, you guys going to go back to what you were doing, or you want to do some simulations or some virtual two on two squash?”
“I think we’re done doing what we were doing, for now,” said Vera. “I have us at 45% on the way up, so plenty of time to do those things as much as we can stand. Let’s squash.”
“Roger that,” said Rachel. She flipped off the comm and looked at Clay. “She doesn’t have any idea how much of those things we can stand.”
“It’s a lot,” said Clay. “Should we get in our suits?”
“I don’t see why.”
“Me either,” said Clay, as they gave each other lascivious looks. Then he hit the JOIN button, and there they were, in a squash court somehow perched atop Mt. Washington, dressed in orange gym clothes. Vera and Natasha appeared together a moment later, in matching blue. “Okey dokey,” said Clay, two bright yellow spheres in his hand, “I’m ready for you to squash my balls.”
Alpha and Beta wings flew ahead of the rest of the fleet, but only by a few light-hours. Thus they had the first view of the system poetically known as PSB6. They drifted in at 25% of light speed, decelerating hard, their ships attached in pairs, and the two pairs of fighters that made up each wing attached by conduit. Beta was a hundred thousand kilometers out in front when the sensors cleared enough for them to see each other. Li Zan’s call light showed up shortly afterward.
“Zip up, hubby-hunk,” said Rachel, getting her vac suit back on. “Give us ten seconds, okay?”
“No problem,” Li’s voice said from the air between them. And ten seconds later, the screen that occupied most of the inside wall in front of them opened up a window so that Li Zan and Timmis Green, vac suit clad and looking chipper, could smile at Rachel and Clay.
“I take it you had a restful transit?” asked Li.
“It was utterly devoid of mouthholes or half-seen stuff,” said Rachel.
“Shall I send out Apple and Izawa as scouts? You can already pick up four Fyaa bases, and you can see that inner planet’s satellite defenses, but there’s plenty of outer belt they can check.”
“Well, I think it’s prudent. Of course the others will be along in a couple of hours. Remind them that they’re not allowed to do anything dangerous like die.”
Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa, the second a former colony-ship fighter pilot, the first a former teenage colonist, separated their fighters and took off side by side to tour the inner edge of the PSB6 Oort cloud. The star, a ruddy orange dwarf, was tiny in a black sky, a reddish pixel just a little larger than the other pixels. It held one terrestrial planet in close embrace, warming it to where water could flow; there were a couple of smallish, Neptune-size gas giants, and then a diffuse asteroid belt.
The inner planet, PSB6-a in the humans’ computers, showed, on high magnification, satellite defenses and an orbiting station, both clearly Primoid make, as were a few cruisers and fighters in orbit. Lively colonial emanations indicated Primoids on the ground as well. It was hard to tell what other life dwelt there, locally evolved or introduced, but the planet clearly showed water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, iron, calcites, silicates, carbonates, and chlorophyll.
Much further out, the largest moons of the two gas giants showed a different tech signal. Two, no, three, no, four more showed among the planetoids of the belt: Fyaa bases. Fyaa ships, the little zippy fighters and the stringy-looking cruisers and destroyers and three well-guarded dreadnoughts of some sort, could be detected hanging out or maneuvering. It was a formidable fleet in its way, but clearly not enough to overcome those Primoid cruisers or their satellite defenses.
The Tasmania and the Honshu and the other two wings, and their Primoid companions, were just starting to become visible as Rachel led Clay, Vera, Natasha, Li Zan and Timmis toward a hard-frozen planetoid eighteen light-hours out from the star. They picked a landing spot but they didn’t land. “What are we going to name it?” asked Clay.
“Great,” said Rachel, as the six fighters came to a stop, relative to the planetoid, a thousand kilometers from its surface.
“Hot Spot,” said Vera. “Wait. What?”
“Commanders,” came Izawa’s voice from six light-hours off, “guess what? We’ve found one more Fyaa base, and they’re coming after us. We threw some missiles at them and headed out. We’re arcing around, we have twelve of them chasing us, they’re accelerating faster than we can but Maria got us on a course that should keep us ahead of them. They may follow us all the way to you. Would you prefer we hit the brakes and take them on ourselves? Maria thinks we can take them and so do I.”
“Yeah, but,” said Clay, “the computer says they only have a 60% chance of winning without either of them getting wasted. As they would both know.”
“Yeah,” said Rachel, “and they both know what we’re going to say, because Li and I are both channeling Su Park. Am I right?”
“Ladies,” said Li, “you are under orders not to behave dangerously. Bring those new friends of yours back here and we’ll help take care of them.” She hit send and smiled at the others over the comm.
“Invite him inside, Wormtail,” Clay quoted. “Where are your manners?”
“Oh,” said Rachel, “so now not only are you Harry Potter, but I’m Volemort?”
“Don’t say his name,” said Natasha.
“Oh, I dibs Voldemort,” said Vera.
“We were coming up from this object,” said Gemma Izawa over a video of her view screen. “It’s about fifty kilometers across, and it has this one-k little moon, it looks like just a chunk of the object that broke off and went into orbit. And that’s where the base is, that actually is the base. Either they hollowed it out, or they built the base and covered it with fake rock. So just as Maria picked up their tech signatures, out come these six fighters. We accelerated and shot by, and now we’re curving back toward you, and they look like they’ve decided to head for you guys. Two of their wings, twelve fighters.”
“Did you mention we’re picking up the rest of our group?” came Maria Apple’s voice.
“Yes. Exactly,” said Izawa. “The Fyaa are aiming to get to Alpha and Beta before we’re reinforced.”
“Don’t forget the best part,” said Apple. “I have a course that will put us behind them. We might even take them before we get to you.”
“So,” said Izawa with a laugh, “let us know your orders. I make us 3.5 light hours out at present, doing 10%. Anything else, sweetie?”
“Nope,” said Apple. “End transmission.”
“Those girls,” said Li Zan. The six fighter pilots were on the surface of their chosen planet-fall, Hot Spot, looking up at the stars in a black sky, their six Ghost 204s lined up on a frozen lava lake. “Izawa, Apple: You are under orders not to attack the Fyaa by yourself. You’re authorized to attack only if you have the numerical advantage. Send.” She looked at Rachel. “I don’t know. Was that the right thing to say?”
“Oh, who the hell knows,” said Rachel. “We’re commanders. I kind of think I’m supposed to be your commander. Like, are we supposed to give orders? Santos. Go stand on your head in that crater.” Vera just rolled her eyes. “But just how worried are you that those two will do something rash?”
“Well,” said Li, “if you put it that way.”
“There’s no sense getting cute about it,” said Natasha. “The eight of us together will take them apart 100 times out of 100. Why let them fight our two least experienced pilots first, twelve on two?”
They stood looking at the stars. After a minute, Rachel said, “I think we’d better get in space,” and at the same time, Vera said, “Let’s get rolling.”
“That’s what I was just thinking,” said both Li and Timmis.
Alpha and Beta got in space. Dispensing with the formality of orbit, they shot off their little planet and into the void, accelerating straight at the Fyaa at a clip that would give everyone about two shots at one another. The Fyaa responded by cutting acceleration and coasting along at six percent of the speed of light. Suddenly, Apple and Izawa, impossibly tiny and distant but clearly marked on everyone’s screens including those of the Fyaa, were catching up to their quarry.
More orders were beamed at them across the two light hours, then 1.5, then one light hour distance. It was still a long time to wait for a reply.
The six fighters flew along in single file, fifty meters apart, across the gulf of space a billion kilometers across, then five hundred million, then a hundred million, while Rachel cleaned up in a speed chess round robin; Clay managed to tie Vera for third behind Li. Then they took up ten minutes conniving, and then the Fyaa were in distant range, firing and sending out hundreds of their own version of the guitar pick missile. The Fyaa split into their two wings, also in spear-like single file, two toothpicks of six fighters each. The humans, for their part, pulled up into a flat rectangle perpendicular to the left wing of the Fyaa, and decelerated hard. Their own missiles neutralized those of the Fyaa.
Clay was on the left upper corner of the rectangle; Natasha was the lower corner. The Fyaa line swung toward them at the last second, and they split out from each other to evade the predictable fire line. The front two bent to chase Natasha, and the third bent toward Clay.
He had never fought Fyaa before, and now he understood. The little turd was trying to get on a line to pass as close to Clay as possible, firing the whole time. Clay, taking damage to his shield and unable to get on the target, got the jitters, dodging up and left and right and down and then popping into the fire line and putting his shot through the Fyaa fighter’s engine. It went quietly dead, and with it the computers and combat systems, as Clay could tell by the slightly deranged wobble the fighter couldn’t correct. Unscathed and victorious, Clay shot past at a relative speed of more than a tenth of the speed of a photon. He looked behind.
Natasha was down to half her shield, but she was just dropping sideways and flipping and a second later one of her two foes blew up. The second came straight at her and she took another minor hit, and then put that long blast through that one’s engine, and it blew up too. She actually whooped, as her momentum took her, too, out of the battle.
Three more fighters went up against the other four, and went down in the first volley, with Rachel and Li leaving their foes dead in space and Vera blowing hers up. Then they were shooting past into deep space, looking back.
“Crap,” said Rachel.
“Does that look like a numerical advantage to you?” said Li Zan. “I ask you.”
A few light seconds away, the other line of Fyaa fighters were under attack from behind. The back one and then the next both blew up in tiny silent fireworks. The other four responded by accelerating hard, but the fourth and then the third Fyaa fighters blew up. The front two began firing behind them and took evasive action, but at their acceleration they couldn’t maneuver much. Their attackers swung apart in a dance of doom, the one marked Izawa behind the Fyaa leader, Apple’s name coming for the wing second. Two more silent explosions, and the two human ladies were past the wreckage of their foes and setting course for the home away from home planetoid, “Hot Spot” or whatever.
The pilots didn’t have much to say to each other as they returned to Hot Spot. The two joined their fighters and went mostly silent. The six caught up with the two and they all flew along in loose formation, playing chess and Set and virtual squash. Clay landed by Rachel and got out, and next to them Li Zan and Timmis Green were getting out, as were Natasha and Vera, and there were Apple and Izawa, somehow already waiting for everyone.
“Okay,” said Maria Apple, the colonist teen, “let’s just take it as read that we’re in trouble. It was my idea.”
“Just because I didn’t say it first,” said Gemma Izawa. “I was thinking it. And anyway, I’m the responsible party.”
“Well,” said Rachel, “you two certainly came down out of the sky with some attitude.”
“So are we in trouble or not?” asked Apple.
The other six all looked at each other. “Okay,” said Li Zan, “you do understand the meaning of the words ‘numerical advantage,’ don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Apple and Izawa.
The six, the three older couples, all looked at each other again. Natasha gave Izawa a little grin. Clay rolled his eyes and turned to smile at the stars above, in their trillions. “And did you think,” said Li Zan, “that you had a numerical advantage?”
“I felt we had a distinct advantage,” said Izawa, “as you could—!”
“Did you think two is more than six?” asked Vera.
“No,” said Izawa, looking at Apple. “Two is not more than six.”
“And are you going to follow orders better in the future?” asked Li.
“Yes, we will,” Izawa and Apple both said.
Li and Rachel exchanged looks. Rachel said, “And you know how much trouble you would be in if Su Park were here with us.”
“Oh yeah,” said Izawa. Apple drew a finger across her vac-suited throat.
“Okay, then,” said Li. “Anyway. Good job, by the way.”
Both the young pilots hesitated. Izawa said, “In that…?”
“In that two of you defeated six of them and suffered zero damage. That would be considered good, don’t you think?”
“Since two is a lot less than six,” said Natasha.
Izawa and Apple looked at each other, not sure if they were being lured into some sort of sarcasm trap. They looked back at their wing commander, still not ready to smile.
“Just do what I say next time. It’s a deal?” asked Li.
“Deal,” said Izawa and Apple.
“Given everything and yada yada,” said Vera, “and I hope you learned your lesson, I’d have to say it was damn good. What are you guys, teenagers still?”
“I am,” said Apple. “Gemma’s twenty-two.”
“When I was your age,” said Rachel, “I was married to my first husband, and trying to be an engineer.”
“Really?” said Natasha. “I wanted to be an engineer.”
“Anyway,” Rachel went on, her commander face shifting into position, “don’t do it again, but if you do, do it exactly like that. What did you think, Clay Gilbert?”
“Me?” said Clay. “I thought, well, I thought it was a very Vera Santos performance.”
“Not the three in a row thing,” said Vera. “That’s so Kleiner.”
“The fact that they all blew up,” said Natasha, “that could be either of us. So, are we putting up a tent or anything?”
“Do we need to?” said Rachel. “Tasmania and Honshu are going to be in orbit in about six hours. Come on, we’re fighter pilots, damn it. We pee in our suits. We don’t need a stinkin’ tent. If I want some whoopee, I’ll make Clay go up into orbit and we’ll, you know, rendezvous our pods.”
She walked away and the others trailed after her. They went up a rise and looked at each other, then looked back. Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa were back by their fighters, hugging and sort of helmet-kissing. Then, with a giggle the others could hear in their helmets, they turned and followed, holding hands.
Eight hours later, the eight fighters lifted off the Hot Spot and rendezvoused with the arriving task force. Honshu and Tasmania hooked up with the Primoid freighter, and the fighters zipped into Honshu’s bay. They got out and were met by Su Park and Captains Kalkar and Root, among others. Two Primoids were there, their head tentacles waving like grass and colored a faint scarlet.
“So,” said Kalkar, “everything going according to our lack of plan so far?”
“So far, so good,” said Rachel. “Izawa and Apple went on recon and got chased back here by twelve Fyaa fighters.”
“We saw,” said Kalkar. “Quite the performance by your younger members, eh?”
“You could say that. Clay got one, Natasha got two, but they both took major damage. Vera and Li and I each got one, and these two over here blew through the other six without a scratch.”
“I’m interested,” said Park.
“I’ll write a full report,” said Rachel. “With exciting video. But when you read and watch, just remember that we turned out okay.”
“I promise to keep in mind that they killed six Fyaa and got through without damage.”
“I did not get through without damage, however,” said Clay, “so, um, Padfoot.”
“Some new flectors?” asked Padfoot.
“If you don’t mind.”
“And meanwhile we should talk,” said Rachel.
“Who we should talk to,” said Park, “is the Primoids on the planet, if talk is the proper word.”
The merry band of humans and Primoids held a somewhat more formal meeting and decided who was going to make the trip to PSB6a: Park, Rachel, Clay, Natasha (the original Alpha wing) plus Bonnie Bain and Jamaica Leith from Park’s “special wing,” and one cruiser and three fighters from among the Primoids. Park added Apple and Izawa “to keep them out of harm’s way.” They were set to depart from Hot Spot in fifty hours, by which time Clay’s and Natasha’s fighters were expected to be fixed up as good as new.
When forty hours had passed and they were all awakened for final prep, they were informed by Honshu’s advanced telemetry that a reinforcing blob was decelerating from the direction of the Fyaa’s one known home world.
“What are we to make of that?” said Kalkar, as he and Park hung onto sashay bars in Cassiopeia Root’s spacious bridge on the Honshu. Clay and Rachel “stood” nearby. “Are they just in a state of constant reinforcement?”
“We have no idea about their logistics,” said Natasha, from the screen, which showed her on the bridge, or whatever, of the Primoid cruiser, with a Primoid working away right next to her. “But the Fyaa seem to produce really fast. It’s all about quantity, to them, and somehow they drive this enormous starship production.”
“But we clobbered them,” said Rachel. “Frickin’ Maria Apple’s lining them up and gunning them down.”
“Trust me, they can do better than that,” said Park. “We can’t produce like they do. They just have to get the occasional kill. And every one of us we lose is one less shot against the Ngugma. So remember our Tactical Rule.”
“And hope, somehow, we can turn out their fighters to fight on our side against the Ngugma,” said Natasha. “The Primoids say they just want to keep their current systems. But they have literally no diplomatic contact with the Fyaa. Well, guess what? We can talk to them both.”
“We can talk Fyaa?” asked Kalkar.
“Oh, yeah,” said Natasha, “about five hundred words? More than that, by now. Um, ‘Tsee tsee kajonk,’ that’s a polite greeting. Daria made a database of our text and sonic intercepts when she was in the same system they were. Do a little machine magic, and you can ask them if they accept status quo ante bellum.”
“Is there any chance you’ll actually be saying, ‘Your sister’s a dead fish?’” asked Clay.
“Oh, there’s always the chance,” said Natasha. “Not like Primoids, who you know you won’t understand.”
“That’s why you’re along,” said Park.
The group sped across the empty outer star system, reaching speeds well in excess of ten percent of light speed, and then went dark and coasted, while sending messages ahead to the planet. The Fyaa did not react. The blob dropping out of light speed was resolving into a lot of ships: freighters and cruisers and who knew how many fighters.
Twenty hours later, the humans were decelerating hard. The inner of the two gas giants was hundreds of millions of kilometers to their left in its orbit; the singular inner planet lay ahead, in the warm lap of the cool red star. The little fleet shot across the dead zone between the inner giant and the terrestrial, and then slowed nearly to a stop, fifteen million kilometers away still but moving at a mere 0.5 % of what light can generally manage.
The Primoids communicated for a minute, space and ground, and then the planet’s Primoids sent a short video of a ship landing and humans getting out and waving.
“Okay,” said Natasha, as Alpha flew a little ahead of the rest of the fleet, “they want us to land.”
“And wave,” said Clay.
And so land and wave they did.
PSB6a is Mars-sized, with a very slow rotation, so that the day length was more than three weeks. It has a thin atmosphere with a breathable amount of oxygen. It has ice caps and swamps, and about ten thousand Primoids, and farms and mines and a thriving animation industry.
“It also has a heck of a satellite defense,” said Jamaica Leith, as the fighter pilots sashayed weightlessly about inside the main spaceport satellite. Primoids came sashaying out, using their six pincered arms to grip the bars. They stopped to allow the humans through and bowed and wiggled their head tentacles as the humans passed. “What the heck was that?”
“Those guys,” said Natasha, waving toward three Primoids holding devices. “They’re taking your picture.”
“Oh no,” said Apple. “My hair!”
It only took one four hour meeting for Park and Rachel and Natasha and the Primoids to settle on a strategy. It was the predictable one. The Fyaa were many but scattered across at least seven bases; why not attack an isolated one? And the base on a moon of the outer gas giant seemed like the obvious choice.
Clay, along with Bonnie Bain and Jamaica Leith and at least two of the Primoid pilots with them, and some number of local Primoids, were attending a different ceremony, down on the planet.
Gemma Izawa and Maria Apple, bare-headed and clad in dark robes, clasped right wrists. Jamaica Leith, holding a replica printed copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, said, “Make the unbreakable vow!”
“I will not be dead at the end of the next battle,” Apple and Izawa said, almost together. They giggled, then kissed, their hands still clasped.
“This is serious stuff,” said Clay. “It’s not a joke.”
“No,” said Izawa. “It’s not a joke.”
A Primoid priest, or something like that—maybe just a register of oaths—came up, took the book from Leith, hand to pincer, and dropped the book on their clasped hands. They pulled apart and caught it before it fell. They giggled some more. The priest bowed and swayed as if belly laughing.
“Okay,” said Bain. “I guess we have a new cultural trait.”
They reunited in orbit around the planet, PSB6’s one habitable world. Standing by his Ghost on the ground before takeoff, Clay looked up into a pale blue sky with a thin veil of silvery clouds. The air was sweet, sea-spicy, and a little thin. The gravity was a tad low. The pink-orange star was a bit small in the sky, but stable and pretty. Clay thought he’d like this planet, this system. He smiled at Bonnie Bain, got in his Ghost, and left PSB6a, never to return.
The local Primoids didn’t have a huge number of ships, but they did have a lot of their chunky fighters. So, forty hours after arriving at PSB6a’s satellite port, the humans took off with their own eight fighters and the Primoids’ nine plus a cruiser, and with them went twelve locally made Primoid fighters. They bent their course toward the outer of the two gas giants, which has a moon with extremely stable flat plains broken by a dozen big craters. Meanwhile, message photons flew ten times as fast out to the little fleet gathered by Hot Spot, and some hours later, four more fighters—Acevedo, Santos, Li and Timmis—set off to rendezvous at that moon.
From the Primoids’ planet out to the outer giant would take a photon about an hour and a half. After seven hours of travel, they were approaching the orbit of the inner giant, halfway there. Without warning, fighters started coming out of the planet. In about five minutes, over forty of the little Fyaa fighters emerged into space, and then five of their stringy little cruisers, and finally two armed freighters. Everything but twelve fighters began to accelerate toward one of the outer asteroid bases.
“Commander Park,” Natasha noted, “there’s a bunch of fighters and cruisers leaving the inner giant moon too. Headed for the same base.”
“That’s where the new ships are headed,” said Rachel.
“What do you make,” asked Clay, “of the composition of these supposed reinforcements? Let’s see. Six small freighters, four super-freighters, all unarmed. Eight cruisers, four of them clearly damaged. A whole bunch of fighters, like a hundred, because they’re the Fyaa. A couple of armed freighters. And these three things are—!”
“Liners,” said Park. “Those are passenger liners.”
“Lots of life support,” Izawa noted. “Not much for weapons.”
“These aren’t invaders,” said Clay. “These are refugees. They’re not here to win the battle. They’re here because they lost a battle.”
“At their home world,” said Park. “All right. Kleiner, could you be a dear and communicate with our Primoid friends?”
“I’m already putting together a little cartoon about it,” Natasha replied.
“So where are we setting course?” asked Rachel. “Still for the outer giant?”
“Absolutely,” said Park. “We are going to take that objective, even if they don’t defend it. I just hope we don’t have any loss of life if no one’s shooting at us. It would be embarrassing.”
So they maintained their course, as did the Primoids with them, who communicated with Natasha by means of animation. “The thing is,” she told Park, “some of them want to attack the Fyaa as they run away, but the cruiser’s captain is under orders to minimize losses and to work with us. Just be aware. They don’t always follow orders.”
“You got all this from an animated cartoon?” asked Clay. The next moment, she sent him a file, and he got to see her cartoon message, their cartoon message back, and then two more of each, and he understood. He didn’t think it would make very good television, but he could see how any alien with light receptors at the right range of frequencies would get what it was all saying. It was eerie: Clay suddenly thought of cartoon advertisements when he was a kid, all with messages: eat your fruit, look both ways, be nice to everyone, eat this cereal. Don’t attack the Fyaa just yet, wait for us. And from the Primoids, the message was clear: we agree, but these locals have excellent reason to be ticked off.
Meanwhile, the Fyaa fighters that had remained near the moon base took up defensive positions in outer orbit. “What are we going to do with these guys?” asked Rachel.
“I don’t want to attack the Fyaa,” said Park. “I want them to fight on our side. They can’t think twelve can stand against this many. Twelve couldn’t stand against eight before.”
So the eight human fighters, along with 21 Primoids and a Primoid cruiser, zipped across space decelerating hard. Park was already having Natasha send messages offering negotiation in the limited amount of Fyaa language they knew. The Fyaa reacted by retreating toward their moon, flying low over it in two groups of six. Their discipline certainly looked better than that of the previous twelve.
A few minutes before contact, the twelve Primoid fighters from the planet, the locals, shot forward, switching briefly to acceleration to catch the Fyaa before they could evade. They crashed half of one of the Fyaa wings from above, but the other three Fyaa took down four Primoid fighters: seven little silent explosions on the planetoid’s grey surface. The other eight Primoids turned along the surface, and soon took down the other three Fyaa. The other wing chose to go to ground in tunnels in the planetoid’s ice-rock surface. The humans watched this on their various screens, with various frowns. At least, Clay was seeing the comparative tactics of Fyaa and Primoid, and again it struck him that their fighter tactics weren’t that different from those of the humans. It was just that the humans did it better. He was sure of it.
“That’s ten fighters we won’t have against the Ngugma,” said Park. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to storm their base entrance, here,” and a spot lit up on the fighters’ displays. Clay wondered what the Primoids were seeing on their displays. “Those six fighters: we have two of them in the bay of the base, and the other four in tunnels out on the surface somewhere. We don’t fight those if they don’t attack us. The two in the bay: shoot to disable, but I don’t want anyone to get hurt because they were going against their instinct. Just: it’s a dangerous environment, you know that, don’t you? It’s not open space.”
“That’s Vera’s favorite mod,” said Natasha. “The inside the mining tunnels scenario.”
“Except we don’t need the mining tunnels. We want the base, because of all the insights it will give us into dealing with the Fyaa.”
After a brief communication with the Primoid cruiser, Park arrayed her fighters, including Acevedo, Santos, Li and Green, who were just getting there.
“First wing: Alpha, as is. Rachel, you guys get first shot at those bay fighters. You and Clay go in first, you’re less likely to completely destroy your target. Second wing: I’ll take Acevedo and Bain and Leith, and we’ll be on watch for the others to come out of their tunnels. Beta, Li, Green, Izawa, Apple: you bottle up the defensive armaments. Those we don’t have any need to capture. Anyone left out?”
“The Primoid fighters?” asked Clay. “What if we see them?”
“Can’t believe you get to go in first, Tail,” said Vera.
“Just don’t shoot at any of them,” said Park. “They already are our allies.”
They dropped toward the moon’s mostly flat pale surface, and headed for an installation partly visible buried under the floor of a large crater. Big skylights and swaths of solar panel surrounded three closed hatch-like entrances of different sizes and shapes.
“It’s the round one,” said Clay.
“You think?” replied Rachel. “You ready for this, Clay Gilbert?”
Clay let out a breath. “Yeah,” he said. “Your mark.”
Rachel put a marker on the center of the largest hatch. They were decelerating at max, but the hatch came at them fast. “Pinpoint,” she said, and he flicked his laser weapon to its narrowest beam. They both fired at the hatch: clever girl, she’d given him a different spot from her. The hatch popped open. They were through. Somehow they were standing still.
The base’s bay branched: a wider way bent left as it went down into the moon, and a narrower way, three meters wide, took a 90 degree right and went horizontally under the moon’s surface. Clay went that way and Rachel the other.
He rounded a bend and came under fire. He returned fire, cussing as his upper left flectors went down. There was a little electronic explosion ahead of him as the robotic emplacement shooting at him blew up. “Damn it,” he said to himself, “if I shoot at the Fyaa like that, I’ll blow the assholes up and Rachel will be vexed.”
“I heard that,” said Rachel from a few hundred meters away. “Anything? I got nothing. Freight bay.”
“I blew the crap out of an unmanned gun,” said Clay. “Bend. What is this thing, a—?”
Right in front of him, meters away really, there was a T intersection, and there was a Fyaa fighter, skinny and sort of bent wrong, as if its designers were slightly deranged. He fired wild; the Fyaa fired precisely, hitting him in a main control node. His computer and combat systems disappeared.
“Crap. Crap crap crap.” He disgustedly hit buttons, gave sarcastic voice orders. But everything was down except his view screen and his engine. The Fyaa fighter was sitting there in front of him. Laughing at him.
Well, he still had thrust. He had plenty of thrust. He moved up and bumped the Fyaa fighter, which bounced sharply away. He bumped it again, and it smacked the wall and bounded sickeningly sideways. Then Clay was pushing the thing back against the back wall, a closed hatch into a maintenance area. He floridly cursed the Fyaa ship.
Finally he backed off. The Fyaa fighter looked like it had been through a demolition derby, which it had. His Ghost wouldn’t be looking much better. Behind him, he now saw a very fine looking spacecraft indeed: Rachel was in the T intersection.
“Of course,” he said to himself, and this time it really was to himself, “comm’s out too.”
So he backed up to the T intersection. She didn’t move. Instead, she shone a light, not a laser but a floodlight, at the Fyaa craft. It didn’t look especially salvageable as a whole, but its parts were mostly intact. And from it, as they watched, a tiny vac-suited figure appeared. It floated toward them slowly, waving its four little arms in surrender.
They had captured both Fyaa fighter pilots: Rachel had taken hers out in one shot in the back of the freighter bay. The captives were of the “squirreloid” species of Fyaa, who called themselves something like Tskelly. They had four pairs of short legs or arms; the front two were more arm-like, the back two more leg-like. They were hairless, but their scales were soft like velvet. Their prehensile tails made up a third of their length: their bodies were the size of Clay’s forearm, their tails the length of his hand. Their pair of eyes were frog-like, almost protrusive enough to be on stalks. They had lovely vac suits, but their helmets were bubble-like, allowing their surprisingly intelligent eyes to gaze around with full independence. The Fyaa who had hidden in the tunnels had bugged out and headed off to join the refugee fleet at one of the outer bases.
Now, four hours after the skirmish, on board the Tasmania, the two captured Fyaa floated in a sort of plastic cage, chatting with Natasha as best they could about planets, while a dozen humans pored over the video screens.
The images were from the incoming fleet. As they accelerated away from the world of their birth, these Fyaa camera-wielders, whichever species they were, had looked back and recorded the circumstances of their departure.
The Fyaa, all five species and several other semi-sentient members of the community, had evolved on this world, and lived nowhere else aside from a dozen very limited colonies. From here, they had reached out into the stars within forty light years around them, mining, setting up posts, attacking the Primoid colonies within their zone, like PSB6. But it all came back to this system: a small yellow sun, two nearly co-orbital terrestrial planets, both inhabited, a gas giant much further out that was so large it was almost a red dwarf, with beautiful rings rakishly aslant, and a wide litter of planetoids and comets.
In orbit around each of the terrestrials were several colossal black freighters. Many hundreds of little spidery fighters flew about; smaller but still colossal freighters and chunky cruisers and battleships came into and went out of the system on more or less the same path to no place in particular out in deep space. Shuttles the size of Manhattan dropped down into oceans or boreholes, or rose up out of them. The two planets were being eaten, with spoons the size of small moons.
“Okay,” said Clay to Rachel. “We’ve found them.”