Chapter 8: Earth to Alpha Centauri

VIII. Earth to Alpha Centauri

1.

Rachel and Clay took a few day-periods to lurk among their little band of asteroidal brothers, and then they separated and fired up their engines. Rachel picked out a sequence of small asteroids they could flit amongst, with the hope of escaping exposure at least as far as the gap to Jupiter. They kept to a stately 0.1% of the speed of light, 300 kilometers per second, and kept communications to a minimum.

At the orbital distance where asteroids would be in 3:1 resonance with Jupiter, there is a clearing like a clearing in the forest, and as the two fighters zipped across it, they both watched the vicinity of Earth. Then they both cursed.

“Bogeys,” said Clay. “Definite.”

“Bollocks,” said Rachel.

“I make out ten, no, twelve. And an escort cruiser the size of one of our armored freighters.”

Rachel did not reply for a minute, then said, “Twelve and a cruiser. Coming from Earth orbit. We can outrun anything else they send. And they’re on course for us, no one looks on course for Mathilde, which would be what would really worry me. Clay, we got this.”

“I’m glad to hear you say it.”

“Only,” said Rachel, “as long as there isn’t anything we don’t expect. Ready to bolt for the King of Planets? Sending new navigation. And Clay.”

“Yes, Rachel.”

“Remember your number one order is to survive.”

“Same to you, Rachel.”

The Ngugma craft speeding after them could not stop the two fighters from reaching the realm of Jupiter’s gravitation and radiation. The invaders’ security services had failed to spot the two Ghosts when they took off from wherever they took off from, and presumably concluded that they had been hiding among the asteroids ever since the Ngugma attack on Earth. Well, now they had left the shelter of the main belt, and they could hide among the moons of Jupiter only so long. Over the course of the next forty hours, the task force came to the big planet and began systematically exploring its moons. They started from the outermost of Jupiter’s satellites and swept inward: Pasiphae group, the Carme group, the Ananke group, the Himalia group: tiny bits of former asteroid, the biggest not much larger than Mathilde, tens of millions of kilometers out from their godlike planet in the lonely darkness.

The escort cruiser trundled up to orbit around Callisto, and the dozen little fighers, smaller even than Ghosts and evidently quite nimble, split into three wings of four. One wing dropped to Callisto’s black ice surface to do a thorough review, and make absolutely sure there were no remaining underground bits of surviving colony: icy explosions puffed silently into space behind them as they made pass after pass, and then ripped across the rest of the big moon. Another wing headed for Ganymede to do the same with the King of Moons, making sure its dead colony was really dead.

These four did a thorough job, then turned back toward their home base, but something unexpected was going on back there.

Two black spidery little Ngugma fighters came over the edge of a Callistan ravine, a hundred-meter-deep crack formed by the long-ago expansion of the icy crust of the moon. They turned to check its depths, and found themselves under attack. Two sleek grey Ghost 201s put a half dozen laser bolts into them before they could react, and the first news of their demise was puffs of black plastic billowing thinly up over the Callisto highlands.

The other two of the wing headed for the spot, and the escort cruiser, with the third wing of four, began trundling in that direction. By the time these were in the vicinity, the two Ghosts had met the other two spidery Ngugma fighters head on in a fair fight and demolished them without taking damage.

But now the cruiser began laying down fire to contain the Earthlings, and its reserve wing maneuvered to nail them to the icy surface. Their weapons were more like lasers than anything else, pulses of electromagnetism, arrangements of high-energy photons that could blast holes in rock. Clay took a glancing blow and his flectors on one side went down, but that was what flectors were for: a direct hit would have destroyed him. That thought shot through his brain and left plenty of space for the belly geometry of the fighter that attacked him, and as it pulled away, he put a bolt right in the join of its radiating wings. Holding his trigger for a full second, he drilled a hole straight through it and left it spinning down to a silent crash on Callisto.

He dropped left and spiraled out of the way of another attacker, and found himself facing a third, and the two boxed him in but seemed unable to seal the deal. He became sure of it: there was no way an actual Ngugma could fit into a fighter like that. He was dealing with robots, and they weren’t out-thinking him. In ten more seconds, one of the two blew up under Rachel’s attack, and then they took the other together. The escort cruiser was blasting all around them but all they had to do was shake their butts a little and the big guns couldn’t pin them down.

The four fighters coming back from Ganymede found the big cruiser just sitting there. Its exterior gun emplacements had been cleanly excised. The spidery fighters began searching it for Ghost lice, and one by one these found their enemies and got themselves blown up. Presently there were only Clay and Rachel, orbiting the Ngugma cruiser at an altitude of a few hundred meters.

“Ngugma cruiser,” Rachel called on a frequency the Mathildeans had given them. “Signify surrender by abandoning ship.”

After some seconds, a mechanical voice replied, in English, on the same frequency: “Earth ships. We call parley. We pledge peace to you. Please accept invitation to come aboard.”

“Ngugma cruiser,” Rachel replied. “We think not. Abandon ship or be blasted.”

“Earth ships. We do not want fighting. Please accept invitation to parley. Flag of parley.”

“Ngugma cruiser. You must know we cannot trust you. We give you the chance to abandon ship and survive. Time is running out.”

“Earth ships, please to parley,” came the reply.

“Ngugma cruiser,” called Clay, “my name is Clay Gilbert. You killed my sister’s descendants. Prepare to die.” And with Yvette in his mind’s eye and his heart in his throat, he began pouring laser fire into what seemed a likely spot on the cruiser’s exterior. Rachel joined in, and in another minute they were accelerating away from the King of Planets while the pieces of the Ngugma cruiser showered down on the dead colony of Callisto.

2.

“You and your movie quotes,” said Rachel, as she relaxed, naked, in Clay’s arms. “I’m going to have to watch that one again.”

“I can’t explain,” replied Clay. “They killed 205 million people so they would have a free hand to ransack my home planet for iron. There’s just no rational way to answer that.”

They lay cuddling for a little, accelerating at full past the orbit of Neptune, and then Rachel said, “Bitch about Miranda.”

“Yeah.”

“I had some hope about that place. I don’t know why, though. It couldn’t have had more than a few hundred people. Vesta, Mathilde, Mars, even Callisto and Ganymede, you’d have regular business with Earth, with the mining going on in the main belt. Miranda had, I don’t know, some science stuff, it was sort of a way station on the way out to Alpha C and so on, but how often do you need that?”

“But there it was,” said Clay. “There they were. All five hundred or a thousand of them. Why did they deserve to be blown up?”

“Why did anyone deserve anything,” said Rachel flatly.

“Sorry. Mood killer.”

“Big time,” said Rachel. But she stretched and relaxed and rearranged herself in his arms, and her arms around him. They kissed. “So according to the folks at Mathilde,” she said, “Alpha C was a going thing, but didn’t have any actual farming or anything, just hydro. Can’t be very big. You know what it makes me think of.”

“You’re going to say, 581, aren’t you?” said Clay. “But it might be more like Mathilde, just without the security issue.”

“Well, we’re going there, right? I mean, we might as well. We’re in the neighborhood.”

Rachel snickered. She shifted against Clay. “We are such fighter pilots,” she said. “We pull on our vac suits to clean up. We poo in our vac suits. Our fighters reprocess it and it tastes fabulous. We wave at neutrinos as we fly alongside them. The photons stop to fuel up and change to virtual positrons and back, and we wave at them as we fly by. We zip over to Alpha C on the way home from Earth because, you know, we’re in the neighborhood.” She giggled. “Kinda cool, right?”

“Yeah, I think about that sometimes.” They cuddled and kissed for a minute, and then Clay said, “We meet people and hug them goodbye and we don’t say ‘see you later’ because next time we’re in the neighborhood, they’ll be two hundred years old. We get back to visit the old stomping grounds and find that the whole human race has died horribly. We have dogfights with aliens in space. We blast aliens in space because they’re trying to blast us. It’s different.” Rachel pulled back as far as she could in their closet, just to get a good look at Clay. He met her eyes. “Was that a mood killer?” he asked.

“No, it’s not that,” said Rachel. After a moment she said, “No, I think you hit the nail on the head.” She cuddled against him, the top of her black-haired head against his ear, her right breast in his belly hair, and said, “And we think other people have meaningless lives.”

“I don’t,” said Clay. “Well, okay, I do, but no more meaningless than my own.” They lay a moment longer and he said, “Okay, I guess we all have the feeling that we’re the only thing that’s real.”

“You, me and Vera and Tasha and Su Park.”

“And Timmis, don’t forget Timmis,” said Clay. “And Li and Jane and Bonnie Frickin’ Bain.”

“Oh, don’t remind me. That strumpet.”

He smirked. “Just us and the photons and neutrinos.” He kissed Rachel’s head. He reached out his right hand and slid a spot on her screen, magnifying. He poked and frowned. She turned half around in his arms to look. “Hmm.”

“Hmm?”

“Just us and the neutrinos,” he said. “And two more Ngugma cruisers.”

3.

Some seconds went past. Then Rachel said, “Okey dokey, hubby-hunk.  Getting an idea here. Prep for sep.”

“What?” Clay asked. “Don’t you hate separation? And at this acceleration?”

She slid a bar on her screen with her right hand, and one on his screen with her left hand. She did them in perfect simultaneity, and was totally adorable doing it. “Now. Separation. We’ll still be ten meters apart.”

“Okay,” said Clay. “Tell me we’re not taking on two Ngugma cruisers.”

“Not if this works,” she said. “Now suit on up, much as it pains me to suggest.”

“Believe me,” said Clay, taking in Rachel’s body yet again, “it hurts me too.”

They got their vac suits on again, executed the separation procedures and took up their position ten meters apart, and then Rachel sent Clay and his Ghost their instructions.

“Clay,” said Rachel, smiling at him from the left side of his screen, “I’ll let you hit the engage button if you want. It’s up on your screen.”

“Hey, there it is,” said Clay. “It says Okey dokey. Thanks, Rache.” He put his hand on the green button in the middle of his view. “So are you going to let me in on this plan?”

“We are going to veer sharp left, Clay. We are going to take these hairy bleepholes on a ride. And then we are going to leave them here and head for Alpha C more or less as planned.”

“Is there anything else I need to know?”

“Nope. Trust me?”

“Of course,” said Clay, and they smirked at each other (of course).

According to the program, the two Ghosts went over to full deceleration for a solid two hours. Twelve minutes into the third hour, they fired off a dozen of their guitar-pick-sized missiles onward along their course, in close formation. Then both fighters opened up on full acceleration perpendicular to their velocity vector.

The two cruisers delayed just a little in maneuvering to follow. But follow they did, accelerating at about 90% of the rate that the Ghosts could manage. Another two hours went by. The Ngugma were clearly pushing their cruisers as hard as they could, and they began to gain on their quarry.

Then the Ghosts were suddenly decelerating on full. They veered slightly to the left, and suddenly a planetoid was in their way. They soared past it at an altitude of a hundred meters and a velocity of four thousand kilometers per second. Their courses bent under its small gravitation, a fraction of Earth’s, but the Ngugma did not accurately judge the effect and allowed the gap in acceleration vectors to increase again. They changed their vector of thrust again, and pushed their big bruiser cruisers all the harder.

Another four hours passed, at nearly full acceleration, and another planetoid approached, so coal black in the outer darkness that it was possible the Ngugma hadn’t seen it. The Ghosts passed over it at an altitude of eighty meters, and a velocity of seven thousand kilometers per second. Their course bent again, the opposite direction, a little away from the distant, dot-sized Sun. Again, the Ngugma misjudged the precise effect and the gap widened faster.

And then, just as the cruisers were pushing their engines beyond whatever their maximum was, the Ghosts were decelerating hard, in line, pushing their metaphorical brake pedals to the floor. And in just under two hours, they were coasting to a stop in the immediate vicinity of a third, quite tiny planetoid, an object of Sol’s inner Oort cloud.

And that was where Rachel and Clay got out and went for a short walk, their boots clamping onto the icy stuff of the object, looking up into the black, star-speckled sky.

“There they go, the dopes,” said Rachel.

“No one outsmarts Commander Rachel Andros,” said Clay.

“Not Commander, silly boy.”

“Wait till we get home. Anyway, would my sensors have been mistaken in perceiving signatures of certain P-group metals nearby? Say, osmium and iridium?”

“No, they would not have,” said Rachel. “Come on, muscles. Let’s get that thing clamped onto your vehicle and get headed for Alpha C.”

“Of course, wife-a-licious.”

4.

Rachel and Clay got into space immediately, and while the Ngugma cruisers tried to stop and turn around, the two Ghosts were hitting 110% acceleration out of the system of Sol.

“So,” said Clay, “maybe this is inappropriate, but do we send data logs back?”

“Oh gosh. I forgot. Yeah, I think we do, as a matter of fact. I mean, they will at some point see the news videos, those will reach Bluehorse at some point, oh, exactly 90 years after the event. But still, they’ll want to read our reports. Even if we’re almost keeping up with those photons.”

“So why is it 110% acceleration,” asked Clay, “if we can do it without our engines blowing up? Wouldn’t it be 100%?”

“Well,” Rachel replied, “they rated the thrust according to what they thought its maximum sustained capacity was, and that’s what they got as a sort of average. Right?”

“But this is at least the second time we’ve pushed our engines this hard,” said Clay. “And I don’t know about yours, but mine is showing no ill effects whatsoever. I haven’t blown up or had my ship crumble into little pieces and leave me flying through space at relativistic speeds in just my vac suit even once.”

“Well, give it time. Seriously, Clay, another ninety minutes and we’ll be at 35%, and at that point we should cut thrust for rendezvous. You do want to rendezvous, don’t you?”

“Rachel. You know what your clever maneuvers do to me. Of course I want to rendezvous. I always want to rendezvous.”

“Oh, no more than I do, hunkalicious.”

Ninety minutes later, traveling at 35% of the speed of the typical photon, Rachel and Clay again dropped their thrust to zero and flawlessly took their fighters through the rendezvous maneuver. They got their Ghosts sealed together, then pushed their engines back up to 100% and took off their vac suits. They had some recycled waste to eat, clicked flasks of recycled liquid with alcohol, and then they made love, and then they were shooting on through space at 44, 45, 46% of the speed of the typical photon, relaxing in each other’s arms.

“Actually,” said Rachel, “I think you need to have over 100% so that you can do exactly that.”

“What?” asked Clay.

“Have a little extra you were pretending you didn’t have. Push your horse all the way to the limit and still be able to push her a little further if you need to.”

“Okay, I buy that. Did you ever ride horses, really?”

“I did, as a girl, yeah.” She giggled and smirked at the same time.

“Not surprised,” said Clay. They kissed. “Mmm, I also like our rendezvous maneuvers.”

“Mmm,” said Rachel. “I love how you follow my orders on our rendezvous maneuvers. I love how you really go to town on our rendezvous maneuvers.”

“So,” he went on, “I notice we are not headed for Alpha C. I take it a course correction is in order, or are we heading home that much faster?”

“It’s only going to slow us down by a year or two,” said Rachel. “Which will mean an extra two days for us. Due to the magic of—!”

“Frickin’ time dilation,” said Clay. They kissed. “And hopefully when we get to Bluehorse, one, there will be anyone left there at all and not just a planet full of holes, or blasted by Primoid battleships or something, and two, there will be anyone at all we actually remember.”

“Never fear. Vera and Tasha will be there. They promised.”

“Did you read The Forever War?”

“Yeah,” said Rachel. “You made me read it. Love the bit about the cat.”

They cuddled and smooched some more. Clay asked, “So how close to the speed of light are we pushing it this time? How many nines after the decimal?”

“Oh, not so many,” said Rachel. “Five maybe. Maybe. We’re only going four light years today, I don’t want to get in trouble on something like that.”

“Any chance those furry bastards will follow us to Alpha C?”

“Oh, who knows. Why would they? But a little bit of me hopes they do.”

“Really?”

“How well do you know me, hubby-licious?”

Clay raised his eyebrows, then kissed her. “I’m just glad I got you out of there without having you go up against one of those mining ships.”

“Oh, I’m not reckless, you know that.”

“No, but you’re stubborn.”

Rachel just smiled. She kissed him again, and they cuddled, and then they kissed a little more, and it wasn’t long before they were practicing their rendezvous procedures again.

They slept. They exercised. They played Set and chess and simulator. And it was only a few days later, as they experienced the time, that the two Ghosts, flying united, dropped past 30% of the speed of light in the star system of Alpha Centauri A and B and Proxima Centauri, and began to pick up signs of live, noisy human technology blasting away at dive-bombing mouthholes.

5.

It was not a situation that became clear all of a sudden. Over the course of several hours of deceleration, Rachel and Clay became more and more sure of what they were seeing.

The two Ghosts were coming in over the hazy red dwarf Proxima Centauri, and ahead of them they could pick out the biggish yellow ball of Alpha Centauri A, and B, its slightly smaller companion. Around B, which is a bit smaller than Sol, orbits a single Earth-sized planet at a distance so small that cobalt would melt and copper would run in rivers. Beyond, no planet had a stable orbit around any of the three stars by itself, but further out, a brave few managed to make elliptical circuits about A and B together. The largest of these, at a minimum distance of seven billion kilometers from each of the stars, was about the size of a large asteroid.

Something about its surface must have been difficult, because the activity seemed to be in its orbit. There, a large but stringy space station attached to a dilapidated colony ship seemed under ongoing attack by mouthholes, which seemed, as usual, to appear out of the blackness itself and disappear back there. But they weren’t getting bites of much of anything; rather, they seemed to be dodging laser blasts. It was hard to tell who was actually coming out ahead, if anyone, and there seemed no prospect of the struggle ending any time soon.

“Okay,” said Clay as they coasted in, still decelerating at 80%, “I’m ready for you to explain to me what the hell is going on.”

“Well,” Rachel replied, “we’re more likely to get a decent explanation from the residents of that station than we are from the mouthholes, so the whole thing is going to be to get in there and ask them.”

“Rachel. There are like twenty of those bastards. Do you have a plan?”

“Oh, I always have a plan, Clay-babe. Besides, we have help.”

“You mean the Guns of Alpha C? What if they start blasting us too? Look. This is all very weird. We don’t even know if the people in the base are people. I mean, what the hell? Where are those creatures coming from? Jeezum, Rache, remember when we saw just one of those things, when it attacked Natasha? Suddenly we’re seeing them by the dozens and the scores. What is this about?”

“I don’t know, Clay. Maybe you’re right.” They were lying side by side, more or less in their own fighters, her left leg across his right leg. She managed to lie back, relative to how she had already been lying back. She sighed a little. “Maybe we’re not taking this whole picture in.”

Clay didn’t say anything. He just rolled an eighth of a turn toward her to take in how adorable Rachel was. She began to punch buttons and slide sliders. Clay, beside her, started doing the same thing. A few minutes went by, as the two pilots, naked and side by side, computed and sensor-swept away, each pausing every now and then to try and cheat off the other. Presently Rachel stopped, then Clay stopped.

“Clay,” said Rachel.

“You have my attention,” said Clay.

“Ngugma have been here. Look.” She showed him an image of a planetoid far, far out from Alpha Centauri A and B, about 2000 kilometers across, sporting so many 100-km holes that it looked like a wiffle ball.

“That’s what I was getting, but I hadn’t quite gotten it yet. It’s just like Set, you always grab the set I’m just about to figure out.” He rubbed his forehead. “I’m not sure what that’s supposed to explain, though. It’s another loose end.”

“No, it isn’t,” said Rachel.

“Seriously,” he went on. “The platinum disks. The Ngugma. The mouthholes. The Primoids. The osmium iridium things. The weird stuff at light speed. The, uh, whatever did happen to the France, anyway? Anything on that?”

“Not a thing, Clay-o-matic. At least not yet. But the Ngugma have been here, sweeping the asteroids.” They studied the holed asteroid for some seconds side by side. “So,” said Rachel. “Ngugma. Mouthholes. We didn’t see the MHs at Earth, but we’ve seen them the other place we saw evidence of Ngugma, which was Holey. I think there’s a link. And that was also where we found the platinum disks.”

“Is there a link with the osmium iridium things?”

“No,” said Rachel with her little sigh, “that thread is still hanging loose out there.”

“Well, I’m not saying I can tie it up, but check my sensor readings.”

“Gol darn. Look at that. Clay Gilbert. I am getting all aroused for you.” She kissed him quick on the lips, then had another look at his sensor readings. “We’ll have to leave it for later, of course, but I think we can turn now to the task of getting into Alpha C.”

“We’re sure they’re human, and not furry with tentacles?”

“Clay, we just call them on video.”

“And we’re sure we’re not going to get blind-sided by more mouthholes?”

“We’ll just run the passive countermeasures as best we can at full decel,” she replied. “And anyway, there’s not like a stream of them coming and going. There’s just a whole flock around that planet, around that space station. Our sensors are a lot better than they were back when we were actually scared of these vacuum vermin.”

“Vacuum vermin,” Clay repeated. “That’s a good one. But Rachel.”

“Yeeees?”

“You said you were, um, aroused,” said Clay, trying not to whine.

“Oh, you big hunk of stuff,” she said, turning her full frontal nudity on him. “We have like twelve hours before we can be in their neighborhood. We have plenty of time.”

6.

Like twelve hours later, Clay and Rachel separated their Ghosts and came in side by side, a kilometer apart, doing just five hundred kilometers per second. They had been playing chess, but for the past eight minutes they had been concentrating on the situation ahead.

“The station’s damaged,” said Clay.

“It’s definitely seen better days,” replied Rachel. “That left part. That would have been part of the original colony ship. It’s definitely blacked out.”

“It’s holed,” said Clay. “If they were using the drive section for power for the station, they aren’t using it now. That would be a metal feast, and there’s been feasting.”

“I’m going to try calling them again. Do you think maybe it’s just robotic systems firing?”

“No. No, I don’t think so. It just doesn’t seem like computer combat systems to me. The Ngugma fighters—they seemed robotic.  But this? It, um, feels human.”

“Alpha Centauri Station,” Rachel tried for the eleventh time. “Come in, this is Rachel Andros of the Human Horizon Program, we’re coming in from Earth. Open up, we’re here to help.” She said to Clay, “We’re one and a half light seconds—holy crap.”

“Station bastards shot at us,” said Clay. “Evading!”

“Clay, drop out,” called Rachel. “Drop the bleep out! With me!”

Clay was still processing what Rachel was saying while he twisted around to avoid a steady line of fire from the station, and then he had two, no, three mouthholes on him. He dodged left and the beam, briefly interrupted, almost sliced him in two; he dodged right and heard a bump as he physically banged into a mouthhole. Its mouth wasn’t ready, though, and he whipped his Ghost around and blasted it from a range measured in meters rather than kilometers. It burst, and he pulled right and found four more around him.

One went up from a blast from another Ghost 201. Three others pressed him back toward that annoying, slowly sweeping series of laser bursts from the station. He dropped out, wondering how he had got into this situation and how anticlimactic it would actually be to die here in Alpha Centauri. But other parts of his brain were hard at work saving his sorry rear end. One of his attackers whiffed on him as he dropped and swerved: it ran straight into the station’s fire line. The other two seemed confused, and by the time they figured out what they wanted, Clay Gilbert was backing at five kilometers a second, then fifty, then five hundred.

He reversed thrust and came to a stop. Rachel was floating beside him, out in deep space, sixty thousand kilometers above the little planet, fifty-five thousand out from the station.

“I would like to know,” she said calmly, “what exactly was hard about ‘drop out.’ What was confusing about that?”

“I don’t understand,” said Clay.

“Drop. The bleep. Out. You’ve done it a dozen times. We did it on the frickin’ moon, Clay Gilbert.”

“No,” said Clay.

“No?”

“No, I don’t get it, why were they shooting at us? Jeezum crowbar. Why were they shooting at us? Didn’t we have enough problems? We’re here to help.” He laughed, despite the recent discovery of tears in his eyes. “We’re from the frickin’ government and we are frickin’ here to help.”

“Clay Gilbert,” said Rachel, “what the bleep is your problem? Two enemies? Guess what. There’s lots of enemies. Eventually it was gonna happen that two of them would be there at once. Jeez, Clay, even you said the station might start blasting us.”

“They wouldn’t even answer.”

“Clay—!” Rachel’s exasperation stopped on a proverbial dime. They sat in their ships, decelerating to a near stop, facing the continuing conflict in their sensors. “Clay, this is about Earth, isn’t it?”

Clay thought a moment and said, “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”

“You couldn’t save 205 million people. You couldn’t save your sister’s great grandkids and my brother’s great grandkids and 205 million other people. All you want to do is save these people.” Clay didn’t say anything. “But look, gosh darn it, Clay. This is complicated. We are just two fighters. We can’t afford to lose anyone. God dammit Clay. I could have lost you.”

“I know.”

“And I cannot afford to lose you, Clay. Bleepin’ hell, Clay Gilbert. I am as sad as you about, as completely, jeesh, undone and lost about those 205 million people, as you are. But there is only one person I really, really care about. You understand?”

“There should be two,” said Clay.

“Two?”

“You,” said Clay. You forgot you.”

7.

They had sat in their Ghosts for another minute or so watching as the crippled station blasted away at the attacking mouthholes.

“Well,” said Rachel, “I suppose we’d better have another bash at it. So what avenue shall we try? I can try calling them again.”

“Rachel,” said Clay, “this may come as a shock, but I have an idea.”

“Does it involve us getting into the station without getting shot at?”

“I suspect so.”

“You suspect?” Rachel repeated. “Well, that’s good enough for me, at this stage. Just let’s be ready to pull the plug on this attempt if we get in trouble. And don’t tell me we’re not going to get in trouble.”

“Oh, I’m definitely not going to tell you that.” He finished sliding things around on his screen, he typed a bit more, then he slid and poked a few times, and then he hit Send. “Navigation coming at you, Rache,” he said.

“Hmm. Ohh kay.” She pushed and slid and poked and then typed a few corrections, and then with a smile that lit up Clay’s fighter, she sent the nav program back to him. “That should work out excellently,” she said. “Your mark?”

“Thank you,” said Clay. “Here’s your go signal.”

With a swipe of a finger, he sent both fighters on their way. They came around sideways, leaving the station on their right, only visible in magnified view at over 40,000 km. The course came in along a shallow spiral, which became much steeper when they came around behind the planetoid. For a short time, they were hidden, decelerating hard while flying almost straight at the planet’s surface. It was mostly bare ice, with a few silicate mountains poking through into the scanty inert gas atmosphere.

Its atmosphere, and certainly its gravity, were no match for the Ghosts. They pulled out over the curving ice sheet—the planetoid was just large enough to be rounded into a sphere—and came over the horizon at an altitude of four meters, flying ten meters apart, at a speed of forty kilometers a second.

“Do not say yee ha,” Rachel texted Clay as they pulled straight up toward the station.

“Hey,” he said over the comm, “to the right there. Sending—!”

“Mouthholes,” called Rachel. “Four at 180 behind us. I’m with you, babe.”

The black of space was again replacing the eerie dark turquoise and the shine of the planet below. Ahead of them, the spidery space station and the attached damaged colony ship were tiny but getting larger. Mouthholes began to appear, coming around the station, which had an emplacement on its underside too. This emplacement started right in blasting at the mouthholes, and one, hit directly, was knocked unconscious, or whatever, and dropped toward the surface.

“We better get cover before they start trying for us,” said Rachel.

“Got the shadow of the ship there,” said Clay. “Just hang on, we’re going to be hitting the brakes hard.” He pulled upward, according to what happened to be the way he was facing. Rachel followed, firing off half a dozen of her missiles: the evil little ducks headed back along their path, converging on the pursuing mouthholes. The first of these went up, and the remaining missiles started to draw fire from the station, and then Clay and Rachel were behind the old colony ship, decelerating as they moved directly away from the station in its shadow.

Coming to a stop, the two fighters crept back to the lee of the old derelict colony ship. It was a wreck, but parts of it, particularly the old colonists’ cryogenic freezer section, had been distasteful to the mouthholes. The forward section was apparently still airtight, but the rest of the ship, including the cryogenics section, was open to space. They slowed to a near stop and ambled along the outside of the thing. A vast white wall bore the vast, sans serif Roman letters C E N, culminating in a hole. On the other side some big pieces of equipment hung loose in space.

“Cryo,” said Rachel. “You can tell by the reefer gear there.”

“Reefer gear?”

“Refrigeration,” said Rachel, as they moved up along the E and the N. “My jerk husband worked in refrigeration.”

“Want to check it out?” asked Clay, as the two Ghosts hovered just outside the hole.

“I assumed that was how you planned on getting in,” said Rachel.

“No, I had planned on talking sense into these people, actually, but this is better. Me first?”

“Nonsense. I am the commanding officer. You stick to my tail.”

“Be careful, Rache,” said Clay, while thinking dirty thoughts.

So Rachel’s Ghost edged forward and entered the hole, which was just wide enough that the two of them could have edged in together. She floated through into the derelict colony ship at three meters per second, then let out a curse as she scooted herself to a stop. Clay came through and had to swerve right to avoid bumping her, but his curse was for the same reason as hers.

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