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. 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.

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 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.”

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