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The Honshu and the Tasmania got to stay back with the four alien cruisers, following at a discreet distance. Nine Primoids, and twelve Fyaa fighters, half of them locals, got to join the sixteen human fighters who set off after the Ngugma super-freighter. The target was the size of a county, moving at 4.5% of light speed, and seemed to have no idea it was a target. What could possibly threaten it? And if anything did threaten it, it had dozens of cruisers, hundreds of spidery robotic fighters, and two spacecraft larger than a Primoid battleship escorting it.

The fighters took off un-joined, presumably to get them all in the mood. It definitely got them in a mood. They simulated some more, but it was depressing. After six more hours of being killed off one by one while chewing the kinds of holes the Ngugma mechanics probably had to fill anyway from random asteroid collisions, Rachel logged off the simulation, then hooked up fighters with Clay. In another half hour, they were floating together in post-coital torpor.

“We could do just as much damage if we got out and kicked the thing,” said Clay with a yawn. “Why are we doing this, anyway? Just curious.”

“Clay,” said Rachel. She sighed, then smiled at him. “Okay. You’re allowed to be curious. But gosh darn it, Clay, we have to do damage to the Ngugma. Somehow. And since we don’t actually know how to do damage to the Ngugma, not in any serious way, we need to learn how to do damage to the Ngugma. And we can’t learn by running a hundred simulations. Because the simulations are only based on what we know already, except for the part that’s just guesswork. We can’t know anything new unless we actually go get that knowledge. And the only place we can get it is that freighter.”

“We could attack one of their patrol groups,” said Clay. “We could—!”

“Not the same, Clay Gilbert. Not the same. We can blow up all kinds of their ships. We have never even tried to blow up anything even close to that big.”

“There isn’t anything that big. There isn’t anything within two orders of magnitude of an Ngugma super-freighter, other than an Ngugma super-freighter.”

“And that, Mr. Gilbert, is why we have to attack the Ngugma super-freighter.” She kissed him on the lips. “Now,” she said, “if you have any special insights into how to do that, feel free to share.”

Clay couldn’t think of anything. They took a sleep period, they woke up with about eight hours left on the clock, they simulated some more. They played some chess, and then they simulated some more. Occasionally, the humans and Primoids and Fyaa would eke out a win. One time, Clay and Rachel managed to repeat the trick of blasting their way into the battleship, and then blasting their way out the other side, and in the process they managed to get close to the gigantic freighter, with Izawa and Mizra Aliya and two Fyaa fighters right behind them, and that led to one of their occasional successes: the six of them managed to burn a big enough hole through all three ply of armor that the lava-carrying freighter blew out. Five of the six were basically killed in the process: only Izawa was both quick enough and lucky enough to get out of Dodge in the second before the thing went to hell. And she found herself surrounded by dozens of fighters and six cruisers, but she got to quit the simulation and declare victory.

Afterward, Alpha Wing had a private conference. “It’s sort of worked twice ever in the sims,” said Rachel. “Maybe it’s a strategy.”

“Or is that a tactic?” asked Natasha. Rachel rolled her eyes.

“Okay,” said Vera, “it’s better than not having a strategy. Are you going to put a package together, send it to Park, see who salutes and all that?”

“Well, we have two hours to kill,” said Rachel.

“Seriously,” said Vera, “we did make the Vow.”

“The Vow is serious,” said Rachel. “We don’t go back on the Vow.”

“So what does that mean exactly?” asked Natasha. “We fight till one of us has no working flectors left, and then we give the signal to break off?”

“It means this,” said Rachel. “If you are down to your last thread, yeah, you break off. You shut down power and go dead. Be ready to dump your engine core if you need to. And none of us goes anywhere without a buddy. Dang it, we need to get in close and lay some whoop-ass on these guys. Just remember, we can break off this time and there’ll be a next time.”

“And we’ll have learned something,” said Natasha.

“Sure,” said Vera, “and we will have blown some stuff up. Look, we take out that battleship in any case, okay? Because with that gone, they’re not going to take any chances by trying to kill us off. They’re going to get that freighter to light speed and let the rest of the Ngugma star fleet come clean us up.”

“So you say go for the battleship,” said Rachel.

“I think we have to. What do you think, Clay?”

“I guess I agree,” said Clay.

“You guess?”

“Well,” said Clay, “I kind of thought I had an idea of my own, but I can’t see how to make it workable without another sixteen hours of simulation. Probably not even then.”

“Really?” said Rachel. “Why not lay it on us, Hunkalicious?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Clay. “I don’t want to spoil the seriousness of this moment by having you guys laughing at me.”

“Okay,” she said slowly, eying him with a smile. “Okay. So we have what we have. But yeah. Let’s go for that battleship.”