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6.

It took a bit over an hour for Honshu, the larger of the two armored freighters, to pick up the wretched refuse of the battle. Park greeted them each as they arrived, mostly in pairs. By the time Clay and Rachel were aboard, Park was accompanied by Padfoot and Poto Wall, as well as Vera and Natasha, Acevedo and Schmitt, and Anand Ree and his wife and three-year-old son. Vera and Natasha hugged him, then hugged Rachel, then floated there holding hands.

“Gilbert,” said Park, “glad to see you’re fine. Is this your third engine dump, or just your second?”

“I’m not sure, Commander,” he said, “I lost count. It might be my fourth.”

“Padfoot and company will see to you. You’re far from the only one to have to part with a significant piece of equipment.”

“Sorry, Padfoot,” said Clay.

“Not a problem,” said Padfoot. “We’ll have you back in your fighter in twelve to twenty-four hours.”

“Seriously??”

“Those are our orders,” said Poto Wall, smirking in Park’s direction.

“Did we happen to capture any Ngugma?” asked Rachel. “From, like, those cruisers?”

“They did have floating escapees,” said Park, “but we did not hold the field of battle at the end, and they sent out shuttles to pick up their survivors. If we had left ours, who knows what they would have done with them.”

“Happy not to know,” said Clay. “So what’s next?”

“We’re going to have a nice meeting,” said Park. “Because we did keep our vows, and because that Ngugma freighter is accelerating, as you would expect, very slowly.”

“You’re thinking of having another go?” asked Rachel.

“I think,” said Park, “that we need to talk about it. In six hours. We all need a little sleep first, I think. But not too much.”

 

“I can’t believe it,” said Maria Apple, as she and Gemma Izawa hung in the air in the middle of the Tasmania’s café, surrounded by the other members of Alpha and Beta. They had all played some freight section squash soccer, and now they were drinking beer out of sippy cups. She glanced around the others, who gave her patient looks. “I’m part of you guys. We’re part of you guys.” She looked at Izawa, who was giving Apple her usual flat expression. It broke into a giggle. They kissed.

“Okay, stop that,” said Vera. “We know.”

“No,” said Timmis Green, “I still can’t believe it, and I’ve been in one of the wings since the Moon.”

“What can’t you believe?” asked Li Zan. “That you’re a fighter pilot?”

“Well, yeah,” said Clay and Timmis at the same time. “Seriously,” said Clay. “I feel like I answered an ad. In 2333. What the heck year is it now?”

“And how many aliens have you blown up?” asked Vera. “Killer.”

“Bottom line,” said Natasha, “like Su Park said way back on the Moon. We are the best. And you’re here because you are the best. Right, Rache?”

“We are the best,” said Rachel. “But just remember. You can’t just be the best. It’s not a state of being. It’s a verb, not a noun. You have to keep not getting blown up, battle after battle. You have to own the mouthholes. Then you have to own the Primoids, own the Fyaa. You own them, and then, if they have brains, unlike the mouthholes, they’ll want to be your allies. They’ll have to be.”

“And then you have to own the Ngugma,” said Vera. “Are they overrated? Maybe they are. What do you guys think?”

“I don’t frickin’ care if they’re individually overrated,” said Natasha. “They have some awesome production. If they can spit out eighty robot fighters at any twelve of us, they’re going to win some of the time.”

“That,” said Li, “is why it’s so important to be in top form every second of every fight.”

“Amen to that,” said Timmis.

“Yeah,” said Apple. “That part. It’s scary.”

“What’s scary, Maria?” asked Izawa.

“Being on all the time. Not making a single mistake. Not a single one.” She looked Izawa in the eye. “I guess what I’m saying is, I can’t believe we kept the Vow.”

“I believe it,” said Rachel.

“You guys came up with the Vow,” said Vera to Rachel. “Back on Bluehorse, when you finally decided to be a couple. What did you actually say? Originally?”

Rachel looked into her sippy cup. She said, “It was something like this. Be careful. But don’t just be careful. Be alive. Be alive at the end of the next battle.”

“Let me point out,” said Clay, “we were getting ready for that first big Primoid fleet we fought, at Bluehorse. We were so outnumbered. And every single one of us was in that battle. Also, Rachel was like half naked when she said this.”

Rachel laughed, and possibly blushed a little. She said, “It was just that simple. Win, and save the colonists, and so on. And don’t die. And then don’t die in the next one and the one after that, and just keep on not dying.” She smiled at Clay. They took hands.

“That simple,” said Gemma Izawa. She leaned over and kissed Maria Apple.

“It really is simple,” said Clay. “It’s the hardest thing in the universe, but it’s just very simple.”

“Because the one who wins,” said Natasha, “is the one who’s alive at the end.”

“What more is there to frickin’ say,” said Rachel. She raised her sippy cup, and the others all held theirs out and somehow everyone clunked everyone else, and they drank.

 

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