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2.

First, in a blank three dimensions, Alpha went up against Beta a few times just to warm up. Beta did not win any of these. The best they did was Clay getting knocked out twice in a row, once to Izawa and once to Apple. Meanwhile, Gamma, under Daria Acevedo and featuring such seasoned veterans as Millie Grohl, Peri Schmitt and Mizra Aliya, went against Su Park’s Special Wing, and it was similarly one-sided.

Then, the four wings found themselves on the same side. Black space was exchanged for the Fyatskaab system, as though they were just looking outside. An enormous freighter was coming on a trajectory that would put it within twenty light minutes at 4% of light speed. It was not undefended, but it was not some figment of a computer’s imagination: again, look outside.

Orders came, giving each wing its own job. Dozens of cruisers and wave upon wave of robotic fighters and missiles came at them. The Alphas didn’t have a chance to see what happened to everyone else, but they got in a predicament in the bow face of one of the two escorting battleships. Clay and Rachel were both heavily damaged, and Rachel ordered the wing to crash the bridge of the battleship, which they did. The internal geometry of the ship was a complete guess, but the computer imagined a central passage. They shot down this and blew their way out the other side. Two Ghosts came around the battleship and joined them, shooting onward while it blew up in their rear views. It was Acevedo, who had lost her wing, and Apple.

“Park took Gemma on a feint,” said Apple. “We’re to attack the freighter.”

So they attacked the freighter. It was certainly an easy target to find, but it was heavily armored and it was well-armed. Repeated passes had not exposed an obvious weak spot, but they knew they could (theoretically) break a hole in the hull by concentrating fire, and the freighter would disintegrate with the rupture at maximum acceleration. They buzzed about, blasting another dozen robot fighters and another dozen gun emplacements. Apple got blasted, then Clay and Natasha, and when Rachel, Vera and Acevedo all tried to combine fire on a spot, they almost felt like they had something except they didn’t have enough of it before the computer Ngugma started picking them off. Acevedo lost control and her virtual self slammed nastily into the freighter hull. Park and Izawa showed up from wherever they’d been trying to distract the Ngugma, but by then the welter of returning cruisers and fighters was too much.

They reset and tried it all twice more. The first retry went worse than before, due to a spate of minor fatal errors: Clay, Vera, Li, Gemma Izawa, both Bain and Leith, and all of Gamma except Acevedo went down against the robot fighters, and the final humiliation was Acevedo and Park going two on one on the cyclopean freighter and getting shot down by cruiser fire a hundred thousand kilometers from the target. In the second, Clay, Rachel and Apple got to make a decent dent in a join of the freighter’s gigantic buttocks, but they didn’t get to find out how close to terminal the damage came; they were wiped off its hiney by a combination of missiles, fighters and fire from the freighter’s own emplacements. Others fought on, but that had been their best chance. In a minute, they were filing somberly back to the control room.

“Party,” said Park.

 

The party was not like the ones on the Moon. For one thing, almost everyone was paired up: even Anand Ree, the tail of Park’s Special Wing, was there with his wife, who was an engineer on the Honshu; their son was back on the Honshu reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Alpha Wing wasn’t even dancing: they were doing post mortem.

“So the trouble with that drill,” said Clay as he and Rachel and Natasha and Vera sat (lightly, in the planetoid’s nominal gravity) drinking synthesized whiskey, “was too much realism.”

“Aaah, that again,” said Rachel. “That’s what you said when we were simulating how to defeat the mouthholes. Remember that one?”

“Yeah,” said Vera. “Sucked. You couldn’t kill them. It was depressing.”

“We figured it out in the end,” said Rachel. “That simulation showed basically the limits of what we knew. We knew things about them, we just hadn’t yet figured out how to get through their shells. This time, we know how to do damage to Ngugma ships. Clay and I blew up a cruiser. And piles of real genuine Ngugma fighters. But these freighters, we’re just not at the level where we can do them enough damage before they kill us.”

“The sixteen of us,” said Vera. “How’s it going to be any better with only half of us, and the Primoids and the Fyaa added in?”

“And how the heck did we beat them in the simulator before?” asked Rachel. “Remember?”

“Two points,” said Natasha. “One, that wasn’t as realistic a sim as this was. We know more now. Sorry, but it’s true. And two, um, not to make a big thing of it, but we died. In that sim, the one we won. We all would have died in the end anyway.”

“And to destroy one freighter,” said Clay. He took a drink of his rather large whiskey, had a pull on Tasha’s rather full pipe, and gazed out into the middle of the control room, where Maria Apple, Gemma Izawa, Mizra Aliya, and Millie Grohl, all basically stripped to shorts and sports bras, were dancing like mad in the microgravity. He laughed. Apple looked over, waved, then ran over.

“Gonna dance with us, Clay?” she said. “Come on, we need a guy.”

“No, ah, ha ha,” said Clay.

“You don’t get to dance with Clay,” said Rachel, “till you’ve sat here with us and gotten depressed talking about the simulations.”

“Oh.” Apple got her serious face on, despite the fact that she was rather drunk. She pulled herself into a free chair. “So what exactly, I mean, this’ll sound stupid, what’s the actual objective?”

“Objective?” Natasha and Vera repeated.

“I mean, I know this sounds stupid,” said Apple, “but are we just trying to blow up a freighter?”

“No, no,” said Rachel, as if it were in fact a stupid question, and then she stopped. “It’s,” she said. She looked at Natasha and laughed.

“I guess it’s not a stupid question, is it?” said Natasha.

“Our objective is to wipe out the stupid Ngugma,” said Vera. “Can’t wait to get started.”

“It’s really just to stop them attacking planets,” said Clay. “Isn’t that basically what we don’t like about them?”

“Why do they need all that metal, anyway?” asked Natasha.

“Well, we’re not going to trade it with them,” said Rachel. “They destroyed our home planet. I think they have something coming to them. I’m inclined to unleash Vera on their asses.”

“But what do we need to do to them?” Apple persisted. “What do we need to do to say we won here? What do we need to do here in Fyatskaab?”

The Alphas all looked at each other. “Well, look,” said Vera, “the least we need to do is bring down one of these super-freighters. If we can’t do that, there’s nothing worthwhile we can do.”

“So that’s what we work on,” said Rachel. She looked at the time on her wrist display. “Okay. Clay Gilbert, I’m going to require your services in thirty minutes. Let’s get some dancing in first.”

So they danced, and they went off to bed in their joined fighters, and then they got up and joined the Primoids and the Fyaa and even the Tasmania and Honshu crews in the simulation: these last got to run the bigger Ngugma ships. Things didn’t go great, but in the fifth try, they lucked out and blew up the freighter. All the Fyaa had got themselves blown up, as had most of the Primoids, but they bought just enough time for Izawa, Li Zan, Acevedo, Park and, of all people, Anand Ree to cut several seams open and let the triple-hulled tank of lava get out. Ree’s fighter got hit by a loose glob of hot rock in space, but it only meant he got to celebrate before the others. When the other four took off their helmets and ended the simulation, Mister Ree had his wife’s arms around him as Clay and Natasha lit him a bong.

“It’s going to be fine, Chief,” Ree said to Park as she came over, prepared to be sarcastic. “We got this. I promise.”

“You promise?” she repeated.

“I promise,” he said again.

Park looked around, sighed, and then reached for the bong herself. “In that case,” she said, “I guess we’ve done enough for now. Jump-off’s in an hour and a half, people.”

 

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