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Prologue

1.

Death is the condition from which there is no recovery. Clay had a moment to think this as his Ghost cut in behind Rachel’s, dodging and picking off the front edge of a thin cloud of Ngugma missiles. The big black armored super-freighter loomed a million kilometers ahead, surrounded by umpteen scurrying cruisers and four battlecruisers, and countless robotic fighters. It was a storm of guns, coming through the debris field at the dozen Ghost 204s.

 

“Zeta,” called out Rachel, and Alpha Wing obliged: Rachel was closely followed by Natasha, then Vera, then Clay. She pulled them across the enemy front and then turned them in along an unexpected lane of black Ngugma fighters. Fire from the cruisers was channeled around them and the robot fighters, similarly channeled, fell in a row to Alpha Wing fire. Beta Wing kept close behind them until, at the ordained moment, Li Zan led them out from the wake of Alpha. She and Timmis Green and Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa pulled close and stuck to a straight line as if traveling down a cylinder a meter wide at 5000 kilometers each second. The battlecruiser they were aimed straight at swung its guns around, but just as they were brought into a deadly focus, Li pulled her wing back a hundred meters, then dodged right and began picking off their own column of robotic fighters. These dodged sideways too, and four of them went up under the fire from the battlecruiser and cruisers behind.

 

Clay blasted the last robotic fighter in the column of what, thirty?—and turned to see the cruisers maneuvering to bottle them up. A pink spot appeared on Clay’s display, up and to the left, a space between three of the cruisers.

 

“Think we can go there?” said Rachel, in all their ears.

 

“Hell yeah,” said Vera.

 

“Kay, follow me. Tight line, guys.” Rachel dropped ten kilometers and then shot forward, and Tasha, Vera, and Clay dropped and shot forward behind her, in single file, closing to fifty meters. Rachel put a target on a cruiser that was not in their way yet but soon would be: the rest put their targets there too, and opened fire. The other cruisers hurried to close the line, but the one in the crosshairs quickly went dead.

 

They shot by and pulled up again, the super-freighter in their sights. Two cruisers managed to interpose, and Alpha had to fight its way through a thousand or so of the tiny but tough Ngugma missiles just to get to them. Clay sent a single letter to Rachel and dropped out, wiggling, braking, then whipping around and accelerating, firing the entire time, and hundreds of the missiles essentially ran into each other in a lovely silent firework. As he pulled out of line, Rachel’s voice informed all of them: “Zeta Five A.”

 

The cruisers both reversed their acceleration to follow him, and then after five seconds changed over to ignoring him, but by then the women of Alpha Wing had burst in on them. The right one went, then the left one. Their hundreds of missiles went leaderless, but the twelve remaining robot fighters came after Clay. He took the first one out at long range, then accelerated on past them as the other eleven turned to follow. There was a wobbly chase with the eleven and Clay exchanging fire: he managed to take out three of them, and lose only half his shield strength. It gave him time to catch his breath and clear his head. Imagining Rachel saying it, he muttered flip to himself, and rolled in a flip-rotation. Predictable, and the robots predicted it, concentrating their fire on the point where he came out of the turn, but he wasn’t there. In some weird human guy way, he had wiggled into a trajectory that was different by about five meters.

 

This sent the Ngugma fighters into a sort of panic, and they fell into a lovely geometric curve, which Clay veered down blowing them up: ten of eleven, not good enough. No matter this time: cussing himself, he flipped and wiggled again and his first shot out of the curve knocked out the last of the set.

 

He was alone in empty space. He could see Beta deviously snaking through a litter of missiles (live and dead) and robotic fighters (live and dead) toward their battlecruiser. The rest of Alpha was in final approach to their own battlecruiser, and Gamma Wing, Daria Acevedo, Mizra Aliya, Peri Schmitt and Millie Grohl, were turning from their own victories to join in. But the battlecruiser was not alone. Two others bent to join it, setting up a weirdly imbalanced team sport: three of them, big as stadiums, against seven fighters smaller than pool tables.

 

Far away in the distance, Beta reached, and began bedeviling and belaboring, the fourth battlecruiser. One of them went dead, possibly lethally: Izawa’s name was missing. He gasped: another blew up. That was Apple.

 

Clay checked the other battle. Schmitt went black, but stayed intact. The forward battlecruiser began taking heavy damage, but another fighter diving in veered a meter too close to the fire line and blew up: Aliya. Clay did not take the time to gasp. He spent one whole second to consider seven, no, five of his best friends going up against three giants. The giants were not alone, either: yet more fighters, and at least four cruisers, were coming up to join.

 

He looked the other way. There was the super-freighter. If the battlecruisers were stadiums, the super-freighter was a city, or a small to medium-size moon. There was no one near it but a few robot fighters.

 

Clay turned on it. He hit the acceleration as hard as he could. Ten seconds passed, fifteen: the robot fighters were hastily forming up to stop him, and clouds of missiles were spitting from the gigantic freighter. His heart raced. A smile formed.

 

One, two, four, seven: the robots went down at his onset. The missiles chased him into themselves and with a swish of his tight little tail he got them blowing each other up. One more turn and then another, and five more robot fighters went down, and Clay only took an epsilon of damage to his flectors.

 

He was within two hundred thousand kilometers. A hundred and fifty. A hundred. He set targets and started firing.

 

His sensors informed him that he too was under fire.

 

Two battlecruisers and four more cruisers had pulled back from Alpha and Gamma to deal with him. More missiles came his way, and many more slicing laser shots. He dodged and wove and tried to keep his target on target. More damage. Five missiles locked onto him. He let his own guitar-pick missiles go get those. He eliminated all distraction. He could go up, for all he cared now, as long as he got that shot off, that one shot that put the freighter over the edge. He could save planets. He could save Bluehorse.

 

And then, out of nowhere, around the corner of the freighter, came six new fighters. These were not robots, and they were not Ghosts, they were half the size of Ghosts even, and flown with a jittery recklessness that no Su Park trainee would ever show. They were—

 

“Fyaa,” he said as if it were an obscenity.

 

He would break off and deal with them. But he would get one more volley off first—one more shot, and one more, and one more because the freighter was—

 

His screens went red. Then they went blank. Then he was “sitting in a tin can,” waiting to find out if he was somehow going to be saved, or would be blasted to atoms in the cleanup phase.

 

 

 

Death is the state from which there is no recovery, so this must not be death, thought Clay as he finally was permitted to climb out of his Ghost in the weightless bay of the Merchant Cruiser Honshu.

 

“You were dead in space?” asked Izawa, floating nearby having a smoke with Apple and Aliya.

 

“Yeah,” said Clay. “You guys got cleanly killed. I had to sit there for twenty minutes while we got slaughtered. It was the Fyaa. They can’t be that good.”

 

“That’s the thing,” said Su Park, stepping up from nowhere. She looked to Rachel, who was just pushing back her helmet. “You want to say it?”

 

“We don’t know what we’re really going to be up against,” said Rachel. “We know we can beat basically any fleet the Ngugma send at us, if we execute.” She and Park both glared at Izawa and Apple, who had just kissed and were now trying to cuddle and pay attention at the same time. “Now the thing is,” she said, looking at Clay, then Natasha, then Vera, “at some point Clay made his suicide run, and then Natasha lost her computer—!”

 

“Sucked,” said Natasha Kleiner.

 

“And it was just Vera and me. And I had to take on what, ten Fyaa by myself? Just so what?”

 

“I could blow up the frickin’ super-freighter,” said Vera.

 

“And did you do so, wing third?”

 

“I did indeed blow up said frickin’ super-freighter, Commander Andros.”

 

“I should have had that god damned super-freighter,” said Clay. “I’m just putting that out there.”

 

“You saved our asses,” said Vera. “I think you deserve about 90% of the credit. I do.”

 

“Okay, then,” said Rachel. She beckoned to Clay. He came over and she grabbed him by the collar and kissed him. She let him go and said to Park, “We may have all gotten killed, not one of us would have not had his or her body blown up by Ngugma or Fyaa at the end, but we did achieve the mission objective.” She looked at Park. “Commander.”

 

“And that,” said Park, “indicates to me that I need to make the simulation a little harder.”

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