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Attacks do not come out of nowhere in deep space. The Ngugma super-freighter, doing 4.6%, was well outside the outermost orbit of the Fyatskaab system, flanked at 100,000 kilometers on either side by its two battleship escorts. Around these, a constellation of seventeen cruisers cruised; the little spidery fighters were stashed away in bays, except for three wings of four on patrol, one wing a million kilometers out in front, one a million kilometers behind, and one wing hanging around like four tiny ladies in waiting. The approaching fleet of attackers curved in from the side, with the two human armored freighters and the Primoid cruiser four million kilometers in back.

At this moment, Park had one of her occasional changes of heart: she sent Bain and Leith of her Special Wing and Mizra Aliya and Millie Grohl of Gamma to join the seven larger ships in back, and reconstituted her own wing with Acevedo as second and Peri Schmitt and Anand Ree as third and tail. She communicated further desires to Rachel, Li and Natasha, and Natasha communicated with the Primoids and the Fyaa.

Meanwhile the Ngugma fighting ships shifted toward the attackers. Another eighty fighters emerged from various orifices. It would seem bizarre to any space-faring species, the scant and tiny hunters chasing down the unspeakably huge and also very well-protected quarry. It certainly seemed bizarre to Clay.

But he didn’t have a thing to say about it, and so he said nothing. They all separated their fighters again at a range of four million kilometers, the distance light travels in about thirteen seconds. The two battleships were steadily drifting toward the attack, along with most of the cruisers. Minutes ground by.

“Okay,” said Rachel, “let’s test their skills with the third derivative.” She sent a navigation program to her wing, and then broke away from the rest of the tiny fleet. They weren’t just accelerating: they were making a sequence of sudden, extreme changes in acceleration, from one kilometer per second per second turning this way to catch up with the back of the Ngugma group, to one km/sec/sec that way and up, to a km/sec/sec down and that way. The battleships gave up and concentrated on the Fyaa and the Primoids who were coming straight at them.

Of course it was too much to hope for that Alpha Wing would find themselves facing the vulnerable underbelly of the Ngugma super-freighter, undefended. It didn’t have a vulnerable underbelly. It had another eighty fighters, and cruisers behind them, and tens of thousands of missiles. The Ghosts shot off their own hundred missiles each, and the space before them cleared a little: there was a path to the layer of spidery fighters. Four cruisers behind them scrambled into place and began laying down fire, and the chaos of the robotic fighters’ artificial intelligence began to precipitate into a sort of order.

And that order met Rachel Andros and Vera Santos and Natasha Kleiner. The robotic fighters came in at each of them in a sweeping pattern that must have been the result of extensive computation.  The Alphas, for their part, had prepared by doing dozens of depressing simulations. This was the real thing. Clay, running behind the others, watched as Vera, Tasha and Rachel sheared through those veils of fighters. One robot, hit but not dead, spun through firing: Clay cut it in half. Two more managed to dodge around Vera, and Clay put a hole in the computer core of one, winged the other and let it spin off into oblivion. Pieces were flying through the three ladies in front of him, but now no whole fighters. Clay got a text and a garbled voice message from Rachel, but before he could figure out what that was about, the three ladies were slicing to the side. Clay didn’t respond instantly, and there he was in the face of two cruisers.

They were not robots. These were living beings, Ngugma, furry critters with tentacles, chestnut-maned starbursts who had masterminded the destruction of H. sapiens on Earth. Now they were trying to mastermind the destruction of Clay Gilbert.

He zigged and zagged and fired off missiles and took some shots, but he was playing for time and he only had seconds. He grabbed his brain by the ears and made it pay attention. He pulled left and swerved into the face of one cruiser, braving its fire lines to place the perfect shot just there. Just there was not sufficient, so he came around and swerved again: he and the Ngugma and everyone else in the battle were basically charging together out of the Fyatskaab system at 4.6% of light speed, but in the middle of the fray, they might have been standing still whacking each other with cricket bats.

He took four small hits to his flectors, and just as he was thinking he should check that out, he somehow got within eighty meters of the cruiser. It could not target him. Behind him, the other cruiser was coming around to wipe him off the side of its pal. He placed four shots right there, and the cruiser before him shook with a silent explosion. Then one more there, and he was pulling away, looking for the other cruiser, while its pal blew up in his rear view.

The other cruiser was right where he didn’t expect it. It opened up on him.

He was hit before he got a shot off. He was hit, and it was bad. His systems went down. His finger went to his screen in a final act: dump the frickin’ drive system. He dropped into safe mode, spinning at ten rpm while he shot along the course of the super-freighter at 4.6% of light speed, hoping his friends would make it through and retrieve him.