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3.

“We were coming up from this object,” said Gemma Izawa over a video of her view screen. “It’s about fifty kilometers across, and it has this one-k little moon, it looks like just a chunk of the object that broke off and went into orbit. And that’s where the base is, that actually is the base. Either they hollowed it out, or they built the base and covered it with fake rock. So just as Maria picked up their tech signatures, out come these six fighters. We accelerated and shot by, and now we’re curving back toward you, and they look like they’ve decided to head for you guys. Two of their wings, twelve fighters.”

“Did you mention we’re picking up the rest of our group?” came Maria Apple’s voice.

“Yes. Exactly,” said Izawa. “The Fyaa are aiming to get to Alpha and Beta before we’re reinforced.”

“Don’t forget the best part,” said Apple. “I have a course that will put us behind them. We might even take them before we get to you.”

“So,” said Izawa with a laugh, “let us know your orders. I make us 3.5 light hours out at present, doing 10%. Anything else, sweetie?”

“Nope,” said Apple. “End transmission.”

“Those girls,” said Li Zan. The six fighter pilots were on the surface of their chosen planet-fall, Hot Spot, looking up at the stars in a black sky, their six Ghost 204s lined up on a frozen lava lake. “Izawa, Apple: You are under orders not to attack the Fyaa by yourself. You’re authorized to attack only if you have the numerical advantage. Send.” She looked at Rachel. “I don’t know. Was that the right thing to say?”

“Oh, who the hell knows,” said Rachel. “We’re commanders. I kind of think I’m supposed to be your commander. Like, are we supposed to give orders? Santos. Go stand on your head in that crater.” Vera just rolled her eyes. “But just how worried are you that those two will do something rash?”

“Well,” said Li, “if you put it that way.”

“There’s no sense getting cute about it,” said Natasha. “The eight of us together will take them apart 100 times out of 100. Why let them fight our two least experienced pilots first, twelve on two?”

They stood looking at the stars. After a minute, Rachel said, “I think we’d better get in space,” and at the same time, Vera said, “Let’s get rolling.”

“That’s what I was just thinking,” said both Li and Timmis.

 

Alpha and Beta got in space. Dispensing with the formality of orbit, they shot off their little planet and into the void, accelerating straight at the Fyaa at a clip that would give everyone about two shots at one another. The Fyaa responded by cutting acceleration and coasting along at six percent of the speed of light. Suddenly, Apple and Izawa, impossibly tiny and distant but clearly marked on everyone’s screens including those of the Fyaa, were catching up to their quarry.

More orders were beamed at them across the two light hours, then 1.5, then one light hour distance. It was still a long time to wait for a reply.

The six fighters flew along in single file, fifty meters apart, across the gulf of space a billion kilometers across, then five hundred million, then a hundred million, while Rachel cleaned up in a speed chess round robin; Clay managed to tie Vera for third behind Li. Then they took up ten minutes conniving, and then the Fyaa were in distant range, firing and sending out hundreds of their own version of the guitar pick missile. The Fyaa split into their two wings, also in spear-like single file, two toothpicks of six fighters each. The humans, for their part, pulled up into a flat rectangle perpendicular to the left wing of the Fyaa, and decelerated hard. Their own missiles neutralized those of the Fyaa.

Clay was on the left upper corner of the rectangle; Natasha was the lower corner. The Fyaa line swung toward them at the last second, and they split out from each other to evade the predictable fire line. The front two bent to chase Natasha, and the third bent toward Clay.

He had never fought Fyaa before, and now he understood. The little turd was trying to get on a line to pass as close to Clay as possible, firing the whole time. Clay, taking damage to his shield and unable to get on the target, got the jitters, dodging up and left and right and down and then popping into the fire line and putting his shot through the Fyaa fighter’s engine. It went quietly dead, and with it the computers and combat systems, as Clay could tell by the slightly deranged wobble the fighter couldn’t correct. Unscathed and victorious, Clay shot past at a relative speed of more than a tenth of the speed of a photon. He looked behind.

Natasha was down to half her shield, but she was just dropping sideways and flipping and a second later one of her two foes blew up. The second came straight at her and she took another minor hit, and then put that long blast through that one’s engine, and it blew up too. She actually whooped, as her momentum took her, too, out of the battle.

Three more fighters went up against the other four, and went down in the first volley, with Rachel and Li leaving their foes dead in space and Vera blowing hers up. Then they were shooting past into deep space, looking back.

“Crap,” said Rachel.

“Does that look like a numerical advantage to you?” said Li Zan. “I ask you.”

A few light seconds away, the other line of Fyaa fighters were under attack from behind. The back one and then the next both blew up in tiny silent fireworks. The other four responded by accelerating hard, but the fourth and then the third Fyaa fighters blew up. The front two began firing behind them and took evasive action, but at their acceleration they couldn’t maneuver much. Their attackers swung apart in a dance of doom, the one marked Izawa behind the Fyaa leader, Apple’s name coming for the wing second. Two more silent explosions, and the two human ladies were past the wreckage of their foes and setting course for the home away from home planetoid, “Hot Spot” or whatever.

 

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