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When the primoids were within 50,000 kilometers, moving at 120 km/sec, they launched a volley of missiles, two apiece, for a total of nine at each of the freighters. The second gunners on the two freighters started in picking these off—Kalkar had given his second mechanic, Gene Bell, the job of second gunner on the principle that Bell, a trained musician, would somehow have a hand-eye advantage. The missiles were programmed to maneuver, however, and their wobbly approach made hitting them difficult.

At six thousand kilometers, Alpha and Gamma Wings dropped out of their freighters and flew widely apart, eight fighters apparently trying to avoid conflict, possibly abandoning their anchors. The primoids ignored them and came in toward the freighters, firing away; the freighters bravely sailed into it, their deflectors taking all the damage and slowly building toward overload.

Then the eight fighters dove in, cork-screwing as they fired on their targets in pairs. Clay and Natasha, Rachel and Park, Bouvier and Timmis, Tremblay and Santos: four of the nine foes began to take damage. One lit up for a second with excess energy and blew into bits: that Vera touch. Another blew in half: Park and Rachel. Clay and Natasha didn’t kill their target immediately: it turned on them and fired two more missiles at Clay, and then turned to take Natasha. Clay had his hands full, maneuvering just to keep them off him, but when he happened to turn so that he was facing one of the missiles, glowing sickly green on his display, he put a blast into it and it was gone. Then he chased his tail around the other missle and presently outmaneuvered it: it was gone.

He turned back to the battle. Natasha was taking damage, but she was now within ten kilometers of her enemy and blasting it mercilessly. Her cry of happy bloodlust over the comm chilled and thrilled Clay, a tenth of a second after the enemy blew up.

Then they were speeding back to the battle. The freighters were both still whole, though their deflection fields were wavering. Tasmania had a hole in its auxiliary freight from a missile hit, possibly the best place on it for a two-meter hole. Greenland’s shields went down just as Clay was turned toward it, but their guns, their former mechanical lasers now re-christened photon blasters, were keeping two enemy fighters back. “Greenland,” said Natasha. They dove in and began to lay into the two fighters, which turned to fight them and were quickly overcome. Clay could not say if it was his blasts or the Greenland’s that blew up his enemy, and Natasha’s foe went a half second later.

Two primoids were coming in to attack the Tasmania, and Bouvier, Green and Santos came in behind them and bottled them up. From there, it was only a matter of time; the Tasmania’s two gunners managed a kill entirely on their own, while the three from Gamma Wing blasted the other into molecules as it tried to fire off more missiles at someone or other, and then blasted the two missiles it managed to fire.

“Where’s Tremblay?” called Park.

“She’s okay,” called Natasha. “She’s floating in space, her fighter’s kind of bad off, she’s fine.”

“Where the hell’s Rachel?” called Clay.

“Clay,” called Jane Tremblay, floating in the skeleton of her ghost, “there—!”

She couldn’t explain, but Clay could see perfectly well. Two missiles and the last primoid fighter had Rachel pinned in space twenty thousand kilometers away from the fight. Her flectors were down and she was taking damage, putting all her energy into maneuver. The photon blasts were lighting her up, one each second or so making all her systems glow with excess energy on his screen, while the missiles closed in.

Clay could never explain it, but twenty thousand kilometers, halfway around Planet Earth, was nothing. A hundred gees was nothing. One missile, then the other, took pinprick shots from his guns, and both were gone, and then the fighter, still trying to nail Rachel down, began taking damage. That one interesting point on its hull: two shots there, then one more, and the whole thing went up, blowing outward like a supernova the size of a hall closet.

The enemy was gone. None of the humans in the battle was dead or even seriously injured. And the best sound Clay had heard in many years was the sound of Rachel, letting out the breath she had been holding.

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