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The fight took about thirty seconds spread over about an hour. Phase One had already happened: the freighters were set upon, and the mouthholes turned to chase and harry and take bites of them. The freighters mostly held their own, but one of them, the Corsica, began to show significant damage to its drive section. The pursuing hunters concentrated on Corsica, verily the weakened animal in the herd, shadowing it but avoiding the volleys and, eventually, the reprogrammed missiles of the Tasmania and the Greenland.

In Phase Two, Beta Wing came in, not straight on and braking hard but around the side and turning hard. On magnification, Clay had to be impressed. Rojette and Li Zan, neither of whom had seemed especially formidable in simulated battle, teamed up on one and then another of the foe, leaving two of them blown to bits. Vilya and Bonnie Bain took a few wounds and had a few misses but then went on a streak and paired up to cut two more mouthholes in half. But, confined by their much less nimble acceleration and deceleration and by the speed they had needed to build up to even be where they were in time, Beta Wing could not maintain contact with the enemy. The mouthholes evaporated from their target area.

Alpha and Gamma were coasting in, watching as Corsica’s crew tried to manage what amounted to a fire in the engine room. They still had no definite word on what the damage was, but the emanations did not look happy. That was when Phase Three burst on them. Ten more of the mouthholes were suddenly in their faces. Clay’s experience of this was quite simple: two of them appeared very close on either side of him and came in for the chomp; he was flipping head over hiney, trying to get his screens back to life, not to say anything of his engine; there was a mouthhole, big as life, visible through his busted-open hatch; then the mouthhole, caught in photon blasts from either side, froze as if for a photo, and then blew up; and then a Ghost was clamping onto his where his hatch had been.

“Do you feel lucky?” came Vera’s voice in his helmet. “Because guess what? You are.”

“Yes, I feel lucky,” Clay replied, thinking, the stars might lie but the numbers never do.