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2.

Over there, over the pole, the two identical Primoid fleets faced off cautiously. They placed their fighters in front, in three triangles, and their cruisers behind, in a slightly offset right isosceles triangle. The invaders’ triangles were somehow more aggressive, but the missile barrage and the net of photon fire from the rebels, along with their ability to keep the atmosphere at their backs and their talent for adjusting to the moves of the attackers, gave the invading commander pause.

And then the two Ghost 201s burst through the high thin red cloud cover and turned along the top of the ionosphere, laying down a confusing array of their tiny Earthling missiles. Clay and Rachel, side by side and five kilometers apart, followed their darts with photon shots. The invaders instinctively contracted, pulling back into interplanetary space and pulling their fighters around to face the new enemy.

A triad of invading fighters posed themselves against Clay and Rachel, but the two Ghost pilots were by now far too practiced to be pinned down by mere muscle. Clay dropped left and Rachel dropped right, peeling off photon fire at the enemy. Then Clay lost sight of Rachel for a few seconds, as the nearest invading fighter tried to tackle him. Blasts were passing him on every side but the foe could not pin him down, and Clay took the aisle he was given, pushing the throttle as he drove straight into his opponent, his laser shearing ahead through empty space and through the composite materials of the Primoid fighter. It split open and then blew up.

Just beyond that fight, Rachel was dancing her little dance around another fighter while avoiding the fire of the third. Her enemy blew up and the third member of the triad retreated to the neighborhood of the cruisers.

These were firing off their big ass missiles at Clay and Rachel, who picked them off one by one. Their own little missiles chewed through those of the invaders, and now the rebels’ big ass missiles were finding targets. Two more invading fighters went up and then one, then another of the invaders’ cruisers went dead. One of these exploded with all hands, while the other simply subsided into powerlessness and awaited boarding.

One invading cruiser and one fighter fell back and back. The rebels did not seem eager to pursue them, but prepared to board the defunct cruiser. Past them and beyond, the other three of the invading fighters, hardly having fought, had turned and were hurtling away into interstellar space.

“On them,” came the order from Rachel.

“Even if they’re going to light speed?” Clay replied.

“They’re not,” said Rachel. “They’re headed for that.” And she sent an image: a three dimensional map of the Gliese 667 system, including, way out about a light day off, a small fourth star.

“How did I not notice that?”

“It’s 12th magnitude. It’s tiny. It’s barely big enough to have fusion reactions. And it’s where those three are headed.”

“It’s an Imperial base,” said Clay.

“Imperial? Yeah, heh heh, must be where Garth Vader hangs out, huh?”

“Darth,” said Clay. “Darth Vader. Rachel, what is the plan here? We’re going to go blow up a Primoid base? Just us?”

“Well, Karen sure isn’t going to be much good.”

Oh, love, thy sting, thought Clay, but he said, “So why would they have a base so close by? And what are these three doing going there?”

“We don’t know, Clay. It’s probably just an observer base. But there’s going to be backup there, and they wouldn’t be going there if the backup wasn’t enough to finish the job. We need to divide and conquer here. We need to take those three out before they can alert anyone. Does this make sense to you or would you like me to send you a slide show explaining it all in 3D?”

“No, Rachel. I think I can handle it. Chess?”

“Oh no. Not chess, Clay Gilbert. You are going to have to play me at Set.”

And so they played, over the four days that it took them to reach the little star with its little cloud of rubble, a hundred and twelve games of Set, and Clay managed three wins. Rachel had them in stealthy pursuit, with their own thrust at just 80%, and their course set directly against the red dwarf Gliese 667C to help avoid detection. The three Primoid fighters did not appear to notice them.

And then those fighters were coming in over a patch of rubble, dropping down behind it as if to hide, and speeding on. Clay and Rachel exchanged theories, and decided to keep pushing, slowly decelerating behind their quarry, but pass close over the patch just to use their sensors on it.

The rubble patch sure seemed dead, at least until they had just passed it and it sent approximately a hundred of those big ass missiles after them.

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