IX. At Alpha C
Clay and Rachel sat in their Ghosts and stared. They took readings. They wasted a good three minutes that way. The corpses floating in their cryogenic coffins looked on, thoroughly frozen and yet observably rotted.
“So,” said Rachel, when she was sure she wouldn’t puke upon opening her mouth, “thoughts?”
“I think I’ve seen all the dead people I need to for a while,” Clay replied.
“I’d agree with that.” She sighed. “Ready to go for a walk?”
“Sashay bars seem to have been still in the future when they built this thing,” said Clay. “Can’t we mosey along in our fine fighter craft just a little further?”
“Okay,” said Rachel. “On around that corner there should be a central hall. These, uh, people here, would have emerged and somehow they would have gone down that hall to the central hub, where they would have been able to recover and eat something and get a little light exercise before hopping a shuttle to the ground.”
“You have the plans up on your computer.”
“I’ll send them to you, unless you care to simply search your archive yourself for Centaur Project Colony Ship.”
“I’ll be forever in your debt for saving me that trouble,” said Clay. They continued to hang in the narrow space, gazing upon the dead colonists. Clay could not help think of other colonists, the residents of the Canada, the Egypt, the India, the Argentina, the colony ships that Alpha and Beta and Gamma Wings had successfully escorted all the way to Bluehorse: of Alice Grohl and her constituents, of the lady with the coffee place, the folks who ran the taco place, the assorted scientists, the assorted hotheads, the children, the cats. “So, had they survived, they would have been taken down to the surface—of that? That planetoid?”
“There’s bloody little else in this system that they could possibly colonize,” said Rachel. “Cold is bad, but hot is actually worse. Still. I mean, there was a basic problem with the Centaur Project. I mean, I get that they had to come here, at the time they had no real alternative, they couldn’t even go to someplace like Tau Ceti that’s just a little further, because every light year meant an extra twelve years in space. But whatever: they had only one shot, they had to colonize here, they didn’t even have fuel to turn around and come back. I get that. Still. It cost so much, Centaur would have cost more in its time than Human Horizon did in the 2330s, and we had redundancy on top of our redundancy. We could have settled in the tenth system we visited, the twentieth, as long as we kept the colonists happy, which, admittedly, we couldn’t. But these guys couldn’t do that, and believe it or not, Earth spent all its savings sending them. Maybe it’s just as well they couldn’t turn around and come home.”
“Maybe it’s just as well?” Clay repeated. “Maybe it was the whole idea. Maybe the people who masterminded the Centaur Project knew they could call it a success as long as they got the dang thing out of the Solar System in one piece.”
“And here they are,” said Rachel. “Not exactly in one piece, but not all dead.”
“Nope, not by any means,” said Clay. “Only, oh, half of them, if this lobe of the cryo section went completely belly up, which is apparently what happened. So when people finally got around to flying out here, after Park and Vilya did, of course, they found these guys at least half alive and they could really declare success.”
“Yeah. Weird to think that Park was here while this mission was still en route.”
“Weird,” said Clay, “that by the time they got here, at 8% of light speed, we had ships capable of doing 99.99998% of light speed.”
“Ironic.” Rachel did a couple of further scans and said, “So, mosey?”
“I’ll let you go first, Clay, it was your idea.”
So Clay led the way around the corner and down the wide, round hall. In two hundred meters it was blocked by collapsed interior bulkhead, which the two Ghosts sliced through with their lasers. Beyond that, the passage ran forty more meters and ended in a big round hatchway. Rachel had another try at communicating with the station.
“Alpha Centauri station, this is Rachel Andros,” she called. “I believe you might remember me; I left about five hundred messages already. Well, this time I really think you’ll want to reply. Let us through or we start blasting a hole in this hatch. I am not joking. Cooperate or we are going to make the Centaur Project into the lame piece of history it truly is. —Did that make sense?”
“I don’t know if it did or not,” said Clay, “but I doubt it will do anything.”
Just as he was saying the last word, a buzzer went off in Rachel’s Ghost. It went off a second time, at a lower volume, as Rachel turned the volume down.
“Hallo, hallo,” came a woman’s voice. “Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear,” said Rachel. “Going to open up?”
A male voice cut in to say, “How can we tell you’re not sick or something?”
Rachel and Clay exchanged glances on each other’s screens. “They would have seen images from Earth’s demise,” said Clay. “Messages sent at the speed of light would have beaten us here by, oh, a couple of months.”
“So they think we might be infected??” She opened communications again. “All right, we understand your concerns. You will be able to tell we are not sick when you look up and see us standing over you with our lasers ready to slice you into filets. Or, you could open this hatch, and let us through into the next chamber, which we will use as an airlock, and we can all get together and discuss how to adjust your weapons to blow up mouthholes better. Hint: drop the green, up the blue. Details when you’ve gotten over your paranoia.”
Further negotiation consisted only of instructions on entry procedures. In ten minutes, the Ghosts were hooked up in the cryo entry hall and Rachel and Clay were in the station’s control room. It was long and narrow and complicated and messy, and at least five people were working there amid the dangling tubes and floating wires and floating blobs of whatever someone had been drinking or eating. There were screens all over the place, some working and some not, but the biggest display devices were four actual windows, in two pairs, each pair nearly wrapping around a tubular stretch of the control room: these formed two observation tubes, and in the further one, a young man curled up gazing pessimistically out at the stars, a scrawny white cat in his weightless lap. The mouthhole attack had abated for now.
Clay and Rachel, their helmets pushed back off their heads, hung in front of the largest working screen, hanging onto curves of pipe, ersatz sashay bars that clearly had not been part of the original equipment. One of the observation tubes, the one without the young man and the cat in it, was right beside them.
“They’ve been coming at us in waves every few hours,” said the middle-aged woman who had originally greeted them on the comm. Her name was Avery, which was emblazoned on a badge stitched onto her jump suit. Her hair was reddish and cut just long enough to look messy. Beside her a man who looked ten years older than her, and whose badge said LAMARCHE, looked on silently. “They seem to be off right now.”
“Your settings,” said Clay. “You don’t do them much damage, do you?”
“No,” said Avery. “If we hit them straight on, for like five seconds at a time, we can blow them up, but that hardly ever happens. You being there must have confused that one.”
Another woman, also middle aged but with brown skin and frizzy dark brown hair pulled back in a frizzy pony tail, floated over and said, “Do not forget to get their settings, Avery.” She smiled at Clay. “You blew up more of those things in two minutes than we’ve been able to in a month.”
“Is that how long it’s been?” asked Rachel.
The woman, whose badge read COURT, checked a nearby display and said, “950 hours. So look, we gotta have those settings.”
Both women and the man looked at Clay. “Rachel’s the boss here,” he said.
“I’ll input the settings, if you don’t mind,” said Rachel.
“Why can’t I input them?” asked Court, who had some barely discernable boss status in the barely discernable military structure of the control room.
“We did not begin this relationship with an attitude of trust,” said Rachel, looking from Court to Lamarche and back. “Did we?”
“I have no idea what you mean,” said Lamarche: his was the voice that had been worried about infection.
“You frickin’ shot at us,” said Clay. “Don’t pretend you didn’t. You were shooting at me. And yeah, I take that kinda personally.”
The three Centaurians looked at each other. Avery, the short-haired woman who seemed the friendliest, said, “Actually that was Bardo.”
“Yeah,” said Court. “You want to beat him up or something? You can do that, I’ll help.”
“He the one with the cat?” asked Rachel, looking at the young man with the cat, who did not deign to look at her.
“No, he’s the bald guy. Bardo!” Court called. A bald man working at a station twenty meters down the control room did not look up. “Get over here and take what’s coming to you, Bardo.”
“Mr Bardo,” said Rachel. He still did not look up. “Mr Bardo,” she said in the silence, in her Tone. He looked. “Mr Bardo, you will need the new settings. In return, I want you to promise me that you will not shoot at us when we go out to help you clear away the next attack. Do you agree?”
He shrugged and sort of nodded and then waved an agreeable hand before going back to whatever he seemed to be concentrating really hard on.
“That’s not good enough, Bardo,” said Rachel.
“Bardo,” said Court, “there’s a lot of space out there, maybe you’d like to check that out.”
Bardo sighed, pushed back from his station, and nodded without turning.
“What’s the management situation here?” asked Clay, more to Rachel than to the Centaurians. “Is anyone in charge, or is this basically Gliese 581 again?”
“Bardo,” said Rachel. “Do you agree to my terms?”
“Of course, of course,” said Bardo. “I will not fire on you.”
“I don’t think you’re going to get better than that,” said Clay.
“What is it with you guys?” said Rachel. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Well,” said Court, “we’ve been through quite a lot. Especially, oh, these last 950 hours.”
“A thousand,” said Avery. “Those Ngugma came earlier.”
“Ngugma,” said Clay. “Ah. And you saw the video from Earth.”
“Yes, we did,” said Court. “It made quite an impression here. So I think you can see where some of us are coming from. Some of us. So if we could have those settings, it would, you know, put our minds at ease a little.”
“And then you tell us your story?” asked Clay.
“And then we tell you our very fascinating story,” said Court.
The controls were largely turned over to the young man with the cat, and Bardo and Lamarche were both sent on leave to the living quarters and told not to come back for a while. Court, Avery and two middle-aged men showed Rachel and Clay to the lounge that comprised the far end of the control room. The entire control room was very roughly cylindrical and about sixty meters long, with the two narrow spots where the observation tubes were, and another constriction where machinery had been taken apart and not put back together yet. This narrow place cut off the last six meters of the control room, and these six cylindrical meters seemed exactly as if the top end of a propane tank had been furnished with beanbags and cushions. A couple of tablet computers hung about, hooked up to the walls. The end of the room consisted of a large round hatch with a thick window in the middle, and beside that a refrigerator set back into the wall.
“Make yourselves at home,” said Court.
Clay, not asking who was in charge, did so, and Rachel, also not asking whatever was on her mind, settled in next to him. The other four likewise made themselves at ease, propping themselves so that their backs were in cushions and their feet, in soft shoes, were levered against cabinets and handles protruding from the opposite wall.
“So you guys are from what, 581 or something?” asked one of the men, whose badge said his name was Bing.
“No, no,” said Rachel. “We’re from a system called Bluehorse. We’re a new colony—I guess we’re probably the newest, certainly we’re the furthest human colony. There’s all kinds of aliens out there, by the way, but these Ngugma are front and center and top of my list.”
“You don’t want to be on top of her list,” said Clay.
“She gonna kill them?” smirked the other man, Renko.
“I don’t know how,” said Clay, “but I can’t wait to find out.”
“So where is Bluehorse?” asked Avery.
“Out past Gliese 163,” said Rachel, “about forty more light years. Know where that is?”
“I think it’s in the direction of Tau Ceti,” said Clay. “Just go 80 light years past that. You can’t see it in the night sky, it’s not bright enough, it’s no brighter than Sol, it really doesn’t stick out. But the third planet has water and an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere.”
“Life?” asked Renko.
“Yes, plants, stuff in the oceans,” said Rachel. “It’s had a hard time of it, geologically, it’s no paradise, but it has life. It’s mostly desert, but it has enough water in the rifts. They should be doing okay.”
“We’ll be back there,” said Clay, “oh, about 180 years after we left. Sort of like skipping to the end of the movie.”
“But listen,” said Rachel, “we have all the time in the world to catch up on what’s going on out there, but right now we need to know what you know about the Ngugma.” She smirked at Clay. “So I can do whatever it is my hubby’s waiting to see me do.”
“You guys are married?” asked Avery.
“Yeah.” She smirked at Clay, who smirked back lovingly. “Hubby and wifey.”
“The ceremony was somewhat informal,” said Clay, “but I can honestly say that the entire human population of Earth was present. Anyway.”
“Anyway,” said Court, in a way that maintained silence from the other three.
“The Ngugma,” said Rachel.
“And the—what did you call them?”
“Mouthholes,” said Clay and Rachel together.
“Riiiight. Good name.” She looked down, then back up the tube, then met Rachel’s eyes. “The first time they came here, the Ngugma,” she said, “it was about eighteen years ago. I was already officer of the watch, but I wasn’t on the council then.”
“Now she is the council,” said Renko.
“Oh, I wish,” said Court. “Be that as it may. These big ships come in here—you’ve seen them, right? You were at Earth.”
“Yes,” said Clay. “We’ve seen them. Big.”
“Yeah. So they came in and had a look at us and they said, basically, you guys mind if we do some mining in your asteroid belt? We said, okay, what are you gonna pay us? They said, basically, nicer words than this—they picked up our speech from our transmissions, pretty amazing really but not actually that surprising—they said, well, what if we don’t blow the crap out of your crippled station? They did offer to help us with some technical things. They left us some old used up freight pods, we actually hooked them up and stuck stuff in them, so that’s something. And then they proceeded to bore these big holes in some of those outer planetoids, there’s a belt that has a lot of metals in it.”
“Your planet below does not, does it?” asked Clay.
“No, it’s got a whole lot of squat. Quite the surprise to the original colonists.”
“Of whom there were less than expected when you got here,” said Clay.
“Well,” said Court, “we left with a thousand, we got here, oh, two hundred years ago, there were two hundred who weren’t already basically dead.”
“Cryogenics was a nascent science,” said Avery.
“So you’ve had some travails of your own,” said Rachel. “Was it bad?”
“No,” said Court. “It wasn’t bad. When I was a girl, this was quite the spot. I mean, we had a population of eighteen thousand, we’d built out a ways, of course we left the ship there and—!”
“But it’s full of bodies,” Clay couldn’t help saying.
“Yeah, it is,” said Court. She looked at Renko.
“We, ah,” he said, “sort of don’t feel like getting close to them. They, ah, they’ll keep.”
He looked back at Court. She said, “We don’t like to think about that.”
“Sure, okay,” said Rachel, putting her hand on Clay’s. “I get it. Go on about the colony.”
“Well,” said Court, “they got here, they couldn’t colonize the planet yet, I think they hoped they’d be able to eventually but it’s no closer now than it was then. But we had stuff to build the colony with and they just used it to build the station. We had some pretty nice living sections. You should have seen it oh, a thousand hours ago before the, um, mouthholes got at it.”
“We were too busy avoiding your guns to really admire the place,” said Clay.
“Sorry about that,” said Avery.
“So,” said Rachel, “not to change the subject back, but how did you ever get to eighteen thousand on an orbital station? 581 doesn’t have that many on the ground.”
“I don’t know,” said Court. “We do know a little about their problems—they had a little war, a civil war, I guess? I don’t know what they did wrong, or what we did right. I bet we reached ten thou the second generation, and we were where we are now maybe a hundred years ago. We really didn’t have any way of making more space, we certainly weren’t going to use the dead parts of the colony ship, they wouldn’t hold that much in the way of living space anyway, and we knew pretty much then that we weren’t going to fit any more on the place, so yeah, actually, when the Ngugma said they’d give us some spare pods, we thought, maybe, just possibly, we could grow some more. The planet below is just way too cold to colonize, and it’s got nothing for resources, and it’s also prone to these weird nitrogen volcanoes, totally unpredictable, but up here, we have hydroponics, we have sunlight, we pretty much have what we need. We’re a hardy breed, right, boys?”
“You got that right,” said Renko seriously.
“But then,” said Clay.
“But then the stinkin’ Ngugma come through again.”
“On their way to destroy all human life on Earth?” guessed Clay.
“No,” said Court. “On their way back from destroying all human life on Earth. And they had the, uh, mouthholes with them.”
“So wait,” said Clay, “the mouthholes were with the Ngugma?”
“Hey, want some tea?” suggested Renko, the older of the two male crew members with them.
“Not really with, said Court. “I mean, the jury is still out on that, I guess. But after, yeah. About fifty hours after. The Ngugma came through—!”
“Just to be really clear,” said Bing, the other male crew member, “the first thing that came through was the video from Earth. And that came through like a fire storm.”
“Similar,” said Renko, “to the fire storm they had in the D section after the mouth thingies had a bash at it.”
“What did you call them before we came here and told you what we called them?” asked Rachel.
“Spheroids,” said Avery, shrugging and smiling. “Not nearly as descriptive.”
“Bleepin’ space bombs,” said Renko.
“We were calling them spaceblobs,” said Bing.
“So the videos from Earth,” Clay prompted.
“Well, you can imagine,” said Court. “We’d had those guys here. We had the impression they’d taken advantage of us, but it wasn’t like we had any way of mining our own asteroid belt, and they did help, a little. We, uh, we have these three pods. Believe it or not, they were the first aliens we ever met. And here they were giving us stuff. We used it. Those pods got attached and everything, and there they sit, holding our spare equipment and stuff. There’s a good chance we’ll at least try and make one or two of them over into living quarters. Once this is all over.”
“If it doesn’t end up with us all floating in space,” said Renko.
“Look,” said Rachel, “one way or another, we are going to beat these stinkin’ mouthholes. Count on that.”
“You have to understand,” drawled Avery, “they beat the crap out of us.”
“Yeah,” said Court, “we had just about digested the fact that everyone on the home planet was horribly dead. And then here come the perpetrators. And they must have known we knew. They didn’t contact us at all. They also didn’t attack, though they scared the crap out of us. We just assumed they were going to do something horrible to us.”
“Bardo went ape doo doo,” said Renko. “He’s still sure there’s some way that disease is going to get in here. He’s not the only one.”
“He has nothing to worry about,” said Rachel. “They had to do a lot of work to infect the humans of Earth.”
“Yes,” said Clay. “He hath no hemorrhagic fever mark upon him, his complexion is perfect blown the heck up in space by mouthholes.”
“What?” asked Avery.
“I think he’s quoting,” said Rachel. “Either Rowling or Shakespeare or Tolkien.”
“Love that Harry Potter stuff,” said Renko.
“Anyway,” said Rachel. “And then they just flew on by?”
“And then they just flew on by,” said Court. “They passed pretty close, but they didn’t stop and they didn’t shoot anything at us. And behind them, practically in their ion engine exhaust, were the spheroids. The mouthholes. And they started right in on us. We have twelve sections we live in: well, we had. A through K, and the old ship, we call it Section Zero. They chewed the crap out of the old ship, they chomped up E and G and those are a total loss, but when they hit the energy center of D, that was bad. There was a flare-out and the whole section basically caught fire. H and K got evacuated, and we still haven’t evaluated those yet. Heck, we’re not sure we’re going to make it at all. We’ve lost two thousand people and the rest are crowded into half the volume we started the year with, and everything’s stretched, life support can’t give another centimeter or we’ll have people dying of monoxide poisoning. It’s bad.”
“You’ll help, right?” said Avery. “Things are looking up?”
“Yes,” said Rachel brightly and firmly. “We will help.”
“So you’ve met other aliens?” asked Bing.
“Well,” said Rachel, “the Primoids, they’re an interesting case. But they’re not all bad, although who knows what we’ll find when we get back to Bluehorse.”
“Speaking of aliens,” said Clay, “what about those platinum disks? We found these platinum disks on a planet in this one system we call Holey, we called it that because, well, it was where we first saw what we now know are signs of Ngugma mining operations, and you know, there were dead trapped mouthholes there, now I think of it.”
“So wait,” said Court. “Platinum disks.”
“Yes. Platinum disks. Which maybe someone could try and translate? Our computers didn’t come up with anything, but—?”
“But we have a whole linguistics department here,” said Court. “No, we do. Way back at the start of the colony, when they sent the Centaur Project, they thought we’d need linguistics experts. We haven’t, but we did maintain the specialty. We’ll have to get with the Lidzeys at some point. So did you get any—?”
A claxon rang so loud it flung all of them out of their cushions, including the locals. Court was the first to recover. During the second five-second round of sirens, she fixed Clay and Rachel with her toothy smile, and as soon as silence returned, she said, “Kay everybody, time to find out if your settings work or not.”
The spheroidal metallic vandals were at it again, plunging in and chewing off bits of the old colony ship, of the damaged and abandoned sections, of protruding antennae and other equipment, or what was left of them at this point. A few dozen brave individuals figured, according to whatever neural chemistry was available to mouthholes, that this was a good time to have a go at the control areas in hitherto little-damaged Section C.
Clay and Rachel were pulling themselves down the control room, accelerating past the area where Court was taking command of Renko and three others at the lasers, and just passing where Avery was just now occupying the electronic countermeasures chair. A dull loud noise, between a clang and a thud, came from a spot on the bulkhead just by Avery’s position. Another one: clang-thud, and a dent. Then, just a little further on, another, and then a horrible little noise as a crack formed in the wall.
“Seal up suits!” called Court, who then flicked a switch and started another, different alarm sound, a sort of whine-whistle. Everyone started fumbling for their helmets, which were updates of the old plastic bubble. Clay stopped to pull his helmet over his head.
Clang-thud, and another horrible tearing sound. He looked to his left, and Avery, her helmet not quite shut right, was wrestling with a broomstick. No, she was trying to use a broomstick to beat on a thing, a brown-black-grey thing, and its horrid little invented mouth was chewing up the broomstick, literally chewing it up, pulling the handle into its mouth, dragging, somehow, the gagging Avery toward it.
“Oh crap oh crap oh crap,” Clay found himself shouting.
A blur of light was Rachel, wielding a laser cutter. It possibly made a scratch. The mouthhole pulled back out for a moment. Given its ability to accelerate, Clay supposed it might have dropped back a kilometer and made another run. For a second they could see space: Avery spent the second trying to get her helmet on right. Then the hole filled again and opened wider as the damn space blob practically forced itself into the room.
Rachel was punching and dialing on the handle of the cutter. Clay grabbed a nearby piece of steel and swung it at the mouthhole, whacking it good in what might have been its forehead, to no effect. He gave it another whack, and this went even worse: a second mouth opened in the very spot and took hold of the beam.
“God damn it,” he cried out, wrestling with it, “it’s bleeping stronger than me, and here I am feeding it chocolate.”
A bright light nearby was way into the blue. Clay supposed it would have been heavy on ultraviolet; probably local bees and butterflies would have loved it. The mouthhole did not. A meter-long gash joined the two mouths, and the thing shot back out of the opening before popping visibly a few meters out in space. Bits of black charred metal shot in through the tear in the bulkhead. Rachel’s laser cutter pulled back and switched off like a mechanic’s version of a light saber, which was exactly what it was. She smirked through her visor.
Then Bing was there with what looked like a big fire extinguisher. Out of its hose came a spray of grey plastic. He got the seal covered, with help from Avery, who recovered enough to grab another of the extinguisher things. Then she threw herself at the ECM station and began furiously, literally furiously, sliding and poking and pushing.
“Let’s go, hubs,” said Rachel. Clay took one more glance and followed: by that time, his wife was nearly to the other end of the control room.
“Come on,” said the young man who was still, or again, holding the white cat. He was at the impromptu airlock. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Rachel mouthed through her visor. In a moment they were through, and there hung the two Ghosts, looking very good after the station control room.
“Power up,” said Clay, getting his hatch sealed; he heard Rachel say “Power up” at the same moment.
“Attack plan theta,” said Rachel.
“Follow me and do what I do.”
They might have had to find their way out to the battle, but here came three mouthholes, bouncing down the long passage from the cryo section. Clay, gritting his teeth, knowing that Rachel was gritting hers, threw himself at them, and they fell to the Ghosts’ ferocity and fully refined frequencies. Then the Ghosts were out in space through new holes in the side of the big passage.
The majority of the mouthholes were going at Section C now, and they were chewing more holes even as the crew was sealing them up. Through the windows, Clay could see more people rushing to help out, still sealing up their helmets. They saw a big hole open at the far end, and two vac suited people came flying out into space. One, then the other, was eaten for their suits’ metal content: those old suits, full of steel and zinc and copper.
Rachel was streaking down the side of Section C, dark and silent as a mouthhole. One came across her path and she opened up, and it opened up, opened like a walnut shell. Three more came after her, and Clay, forty meters behind, took one, then another, then the third. They got to the far end and had their way with a crowd of a dozen or more that had nearly broken the end of the section off from the rest.
It was work, but they managed to chop their way through the crowd. Six, eight, ten: the pieces flew off like splinters of chopped wood, or splinters of walnut shell. More came to join the fray—at first, and then the mouthholes seemed to get the idea and scattered.
It was then that Clay and Rachel turned back and found the station’s four laser guns, the four that were still functional, working together quite nicely. Eight mouthholes were still trying to get through in the middle, but now they were trapped in a narrow place, surrounded by suddenly lethal beams. Around them, many dents and many bits of mouthholes testified to the violence of the attack: it was the Angle at Gettysburgh, and Pickett’s Charge was just about over. The two Ghosts came at them laterally and blasted the survivors without pity.
Just as they reached the spot, Rachel pulled out and headed off into space perpendicular to the station. Clay futzed a bit as he tried to follow; by the time he was on her tail, she was two kilometers ahead. More Sherman than Meade, she was chasing down a knot of mouthholes, but they were accelerating away, and now more were coming in behind her: she hardly seemed to notice them, blasting away at those she was pursuing. They were closing on her.
Clay’s heart was in his throat. It felt great there. He was on them before they knew it, before they were on her, and one, then another, then another went to pieces under his attack. Then Rachel hit the proverbial brakes and flipped around blasting: three more went under their combined attack. The word FLIP lit up in red on his console.
He flipped. Three mouthholes were on him. One went to pieces. Another took a Rachel shot and blew. The third struck him on the left side, but he toppled away, still grappling with his controls. He pulled it together and found himself in blank darkness. Behind him, he could see Rachel’s Ghost. She was surrounded.
Then she was not. By the time he could get there, the station’s beams had found targets. Four mouthholes blew, then another from his shot, then Rachel stood in space and got off deadly shots on two more as they fled. The field was theirs: Lee was in full retreat.
“You okay?” came Rachel’s voice.
“I’m fine,” said Clay. “You?”
“Oh,” she said in a tired but bloodthirsty voice, “I’m just ducky, hunk-a-licious. Let’s go see if they have beer on Alpha Centauri.”
Alpha Centauri did have beer, a spicy orange brew that had never been in the same solar system as a barley plant. The galley, in Section B, was the only section completely undamaged by the attack, and while dozens of Centaurians swarmed over Section C to effect long-term repairs, Court and Renko and an assortment of gunners, engineers and people who were currently residents of the galley showed Clay and Rachel the best time the system had to offer. The decoration was eclectic, bare panel in some places, mural in others, or appliques, and posters stuck on the walls at random. The bar was self serve; the beer came out of the tap into what amounted to sippy cups. Smoke tubes hovered near, unused; they’d already been used plenty.
The mouthholes had evaporated by the time Clay and Rachel were back in the station. They left behind them pieces of dozens of their comrades. The humans had lost four of their own in the battle, but the whole 950-hour assault had cost the lives of over two thousand, maybe fifteen percent of the population, and at least fifty percent of the liveable volume of the station.
“We’ll bleepin’ fix it,” Court said for the sixth time, over her sixth beer. “What the bleep. We got nothing better to do.”
“We’ll fix it up like it was,” said Renko.
“Maybe it’s time,” said a young man with a ponytail, “to think about moving those dead bodies?”
Renko turned and gave him a long look, then a vigorous shove. The young man lost his hold on a handle on the bar and hurtled backward ten meters into a wall and a poster of a naked man and woman in a jungle. Renko watched him glide away, as if he was watching a golf ball fly.
“Maybe he’s right,” said Renko. He tossed back the second half of his nth beer, tossed it behind him and headed for the door. “G’night, all,” he said.
“There’s a lot we need to fix,” said Court, sipping another quarter of her glass.
“This stuff isn’t bad, actually,” said Clay, sipping his fifth or sixth.
“Yeah it is,” said Rachel. She punched him fondly in the shoulder.
“I think it bleepin’ woke us up,” said Court. “This place was zombie land the last, oh, since we saw the video from Earth. Then the attack by those mouthholes. Bleepin’ A, what are you supposed to think about that? This could so easily have ended in us all floating dead and cold.”
Clay met her eyes, then looked away and said, “I’m not gonna say you’re wrong.”
“But you think you guys will wake back up,” said Rachel.
“We have to,” said Court, suddenly glum. “We have to.” She took a drink. “I say that’s just what we needed. I say we were in a dead end. Now we know we have to do something new. And it starts with rebuilding.”
“We need some fighters,” said a young woman, looking up from a doze against the bar, her nth beer in her hand. “Defend ourselves.”
“No bleep,” said another young woman. “I volunteer.”
“We’ll share the design specs,” said Rachel. “I don’t know any reason why you shouldn’t be able to build one here. What did you have with the Centaur Project?”
“Stinkin’ exploration pods,” said the first young woman. “They suck.”
“Have you thought of colonizing one of the asteroids?” asked Clay. “Just a thought.”
Court turned around to the other crew. Several dozen were in the room by now, and three were tuning up electric instruments. “Colonize an asteroid!” she shouted. “Build some fighters! Can we do that?”
“Yeah,” said some of the crowd.
“Yes we can,” came back in a good hearty roar from at least half the people in the room.
“We’ll call the council,” said an older man. “Hey, yeah, I think they’re all here.”
“Hey yeah,” said an older woman. “But we’re all stinko.”
“It’s a good thing this place is on a military footing,” said Clay to Rachel. She smirked.
“It’s funny about that,” said a woman next to Rachel, who turned out to be Avery. “We’ve always been like this military place, everyone wears badges. I mean, I know Earth isn’t like that. Wasn’t. But it’s sort of normal, it’s the Alpha C way, you know?” She drank. “Wasn’t,” she said, letting a little sob through in her voice. “Wasn’t, not isn’t, not anymore.” She took one more drink, then put her head down and whimpered. In a few seconds, she was snoring.
“Glad they don’t let the pressure get to them,” said Rachel.
“Glad you don’t,” said Clay.
“I bleeping do, Clay Gilbert. You know the pressure gets to me. Well, not the pressure—!”
“You’re lying! You’re always so cool.”
“Not pressure,” said Rachel precisely, “no, more like fear.” She took a drink. “Like just this constant dread. I don’t like it.” She laughed.
“No, I know what you mean,” said Clay. “I don’t like it either. I don’t bleeping like it. I don’t like having it occur to me that if I don’t kill this alien, it is going to chew me up and I am going to be dead in the cold of space. What did Court say? Cold and dead. Dead and cold.”
They looked at each other. “And it’s so bleeping close,” Rachel said at last, in a low voice. “Cold dead space. It’s just millimeters away. I hate that. I do not like that at all.” She took a drink. “Mister God, Missus Goddess, I do not like space at all. Could you put me somewhere else?”
“Now you’re lying.”
She looked at him. “No, Clay,” she said. “I’m a bleeping addict. I couldn’t not do space. Could you?” She finished the glass, and, finding herself floating next to the spigot, poured herself one more. “How about a smoke?”
“Okey dokey, Rachel,” said Clay. He took a sip. “Goddess. PTSD much?”
“Only all the time.”
Clay woke up in a bunk in the station by himself, and realized that what had woken him, from very nasty confused dreams, was the click of the latch closing behind Rachel. He rolled over and drifted back into sleep, but the dreams were no better. He woke again, hung over and with a horrible taste in his desert-like mouth. The same half dozen facts rotated through his worries: humans were dead in great numbers, Bluehorse might be next, the station at Alpha C was iffy at best, he had no idea if they would ever see Natasha and Vera again, H. sapiens did not seem to be covering itself in glory or exhibiting great competence in its fight for survival, and he felt horrible. And humans were dead in great numbers, and on around again.
He thought about it for a bit, then he sat up and banged his head on the metal ceiling of the bunk. Drifting between ceiling and bedding, he found the latch and opened the door.
“Hey, hubby-licious,” said Rachel, standing there in his favorite of her costumes, holding a handle with her left hand, combing out her wet hair with her right. “Shower’s a real treat.”
“They have a shower?” he asked somewhat stupidly.
“Right through there.”
When he next caught up with her, she was just sitting down to breakfast with three young women and an older man who could only have been a space mechanic. Clay was quite presentable, even shaven, though his hair was a bit long. His suit normally took care of shaving and cleaning him, but the shower, shooting water at him from all directions, had indeed been a treat. Breakfast was some sort of eggy concoction with things in it that looked like potato. And there was coffee.
“Darling,” said Clay, “I’ll snip your hair if you’ll snip mine.”
“Ar,” said one of the young women. “We got barbers, ya know.”
“I’ll trust them if you do,” said Rachel. “Now Clay, these young ladies want to be fighter pilots. And this gentleman—!”
“Wants to build them fighters,” said Clay.
“It’s more than just that,” said Rachel. “You see, it’s terribly romantic, in a sense. This is Mr Fredkin, and these two are his daughters, they’re Andrea Fredkin and Susa Kelly, their mom was named Kelly. She was one of those killed when Section D went up.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” said Clay.
“Well,” said the young woman with the badge that said KELLY, “this is how we would be handling this. It’s all right, Da?”
“It will be all right,” said the old guy. He looked Clay in the eye. “I can build any craft I can take apart, but I have to see its insides before I can build it. You get me?”
Clay gave him a long look, actually quite taken aback once the nature of the request was quite taken in. “Well,” said Clay at last, “all right. I am willing to let you make a copy of my Ghost.” He took a drink of coffee. “But,” he said to the wall, “I shall be most ticked off if you can’t get it back together again.”
The two fighter pilots smiled at each other, and old Mr Fredkin and his daughters, and their friend whose name, apparently, was HELLE, exchanged serious looks. “All right,” said Rachel, “all according to plan. So Clay, if you’re wondering what you’re going to do while Mr Fredkin is making copies and I am trying to train these three young ladies—!”
“You have a plan for me. So surprised.”
“I don’t,” she said. “But Court left me a note for you.” She handed him an actual, honest to Goddess little business card.
“Lidzey?” Clay read off the card.
“Husband and wife,” said Rachel. “Linguists.”
The Lidzeys met Clay over more coffee in a room that was a cross between a university library reading room and a grain silo. They had the platinum disks floating in a narrow space over a table and under a glass sheet, and they projected magnified versions of the same disks on the walls.
“How old did you say these were?” asked Mrs Lidzey.
“Our estimate,” said Clay, “was 64 million years.”
“Well,” said Mr Lidzey, “there was a species which rose and fell with the dinosaurs on bloody old Earth.”
“Do tell the story,” said Clay.
“There’s not much to tell, or there’s a lot,” said Mr Lidzey. “This was their whole story, though I can’t say we’ve figured out more than a percent or two of it. We don’t know their story, but we know what they looked like, we don’t know what their world was like, but we do have pictures that look like flora and fauna. And we do know how they fell.”
“What did they look like?”
“This,” said Mr Lidzey, turning his tablet toward Clay. And there they were, stalky, dressed in loose shimmery robes, with three arms and some legs and what seemed like an elephant’s trunk coming out of the top, with sensory stuff on its end.
“Interesting,” said Clay, taking in an image of three of them with arms around each other, looking for all the world like a family on holiday. “How did they fall? Did they destroy themselves?”
“Not really,” said Mrs Lidzey. “They left a lot of images. We haven’t got the hang of their language, but their image files, we can translate those. And here is what we get.” She hit a button on her tablet and projected on the wall was a picture of space, a space of stars and a nearby moon. The image began to move, things swooping through and chewing and disappearing.
“Goodness,” said Clay. “Mouthholes.”
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Mr Lidzey. “I don’t know if they could be wiped out entirely by mouth, as you say, holes, but the things certainly seem to have played a central role in their demise.”
A vast spaceship hove into view, a magnificent battlecruiser surrounded by cruisers and shuttles and fighters, and then the swarm of locusts descended on them, and in a few minutes they were reduced to wreckage. Then different spaceships swept in, black and gleaming and non-metallic, and laid low the cities of the planet.
“Most of the disks,” said Mr Lidzey, “form a sort of encyclopedia. The last one, the last one they made, is a sort of message. A message describing their demise.”
“How sad,” said Clay. “Not a suicide note, a homicide note.”
“It’s their final statement,” said Mrs Lidzey. “It’s their farewell. The black ships were their enemies. The mouth, um, holes just turned the odds.”
“Any idea who they were, those black ships?” asked Clay.
“We can only keep studying,” said Mr Lidzey. “We have historians, linguists, ethnographers. May we keep the platinum disks? We will of course provide you with the full image set.”
“Oh, sure,” said Clay. “It’s fine.” He watched the last of the cities on the planet destroyed. Whatever the black ships were, they were not Ngugma: they swept away, leaving the last survivors to die on that mountain where the platinum plates were left. They did not stay and mine the place: no, they settled for mere genocide, whoever they were. The Ngugma, whenever they came to Holey, came much later. “It’s funny,” he said after a moment. “These black ships. Their people are probably long gone as well. The mouthholes survive.”
“The mouthholes survive,” said Mrs Lidzey. “What about the humans?”
“That is the question,” said Clay.