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Clay was forced to sit out the ensuing fighter battle. He could barely stand it. Skzyyn and Dzvezyets got to go: the third Tskelly, Ve’ezy, had lost its fighter and had to stay home with Clay. In the event, Ve’ezy spent the battle standing on Clay’s lap.

Park took command, and Rachel took Clay’s spot at tail, which she talked about as if she was slumming. “I’ve always wondered what it would look like from back there,” she said, along with several other similar sentiments.

“Great,” said Clay, “and I get to try all the swerving and barrel rolling this thing can manage.”

“They won’t attack you,” said Park. “I think we can guarantee that. Just stay on course and don’t let the crew eat too much of the orange chemical or they might think they don’t need us.”

“Really? What exactly is the upper limit?”

“What do you think, Padfoot? Hhmvyvya, do you have an opinion?”

“Keep as is, is safe,” said the Errhatzky, poking its grey frog-head out over the panel. It was standing, in the microgravity, on Clay’s head. “42.3.”

“Do we have any idea, 42.3 of what?” asked Natasha.

“No,” said Padfoot, “but I do think that’s the thing to do.”

“Hang in there, hunkster,” said Vera. “We’ll be thinking of you. I can call him that, right?”

“Only you,” said Rachel.

“All right,” said Park, “I’m command, Kleiner, Santos, and Ms. Andros can take tail just for the novelty of it. Skzyyn, Mr. D, you two get to start with the cruiser we’ve painted yellow. We’ll start with the red one. We can meet in the middle, but don’t expect we’ll save any for you.”


And that is more or less how it worked out. The four cruisers approached the super-freighter, but were understandably unsure what to do when they got there. They carried twelve robot fighters each, for a total of 48, and fired off a slew of missiles. The humans and Fyaa fired off their own missiles, which canceled out those of the Ngugma.

Then the robot fighters gamely went about scaring up Alpha Wing and its Fyaa adjuncts, who were flitting about just above the surface of the freighter, and that went about as well as one would expect. Clay had to watch as Vera ate her way through two wings of them along the mesh walkway; Rachel and Natasha cut through a dozen of their own, veering out from the back of the freighter to blast through three wings; the two Fyaa pilots let two wings of robot fighters chase them around Big Fourteen and then turned at the most inconvenient moment and destroyed their pursuers before going after more. And Park shot out into the middle of them, just to have a dozen fighters blasting at her, so she could tie them in knots and demolish them in bunches. No one seemed to have taken much damage.

The last four robots fell back toward the cruisers, with Alpha Wing in hot pursuit; the tiny Fyaa fighters took a long arc and came at the “yellow” cruiser in a wobbly curve. The cruisers now got in a traffic jam, firing away at random in all directions. Park blasted through two fighters and the “red” cruiser found her in its face, and with two shots the cruiser was disabled; behind her, Vera and Natasha were killing the other two fighters. Rachel hopscotched the “red” cruiser and came in a low curve at the next, keeping its fire lines above her and then spiraling around to rake her victim with her laser. She was shooting past it as it exploded, and then she and Natasha and Vera were on the third cruiser, which had no chance. They shot through its glowing ashes, three in line with Park taking up the tail position, and there were Skzyyn and Dzvezyets, each with shield damage, amid the wreckage of their yellow foe.

The sky was clear above the patch of rocks that constituted the depot. The robot patrol boats had given up and zipped into bays, which promptly locked them in. This was the hub of Ngugma mining in the area, and no enemy had ever been here, nor had anyone any reason to expect one ever would be. And now, no one within a billion kilometers of the Ngugma depot was left to oppose with armament the humans and Fyaa and the Primoids with the rest of the fleet. The victors were inclined to be a bit giddy.

“You did not give us a chance,” Skzyyn complained over the comm.

“We warned you,” Rachel retorted. And they laughed, even the Tskelly, in their fashion. They returned to the maintenance bay, and Clay and Ve’ezy greeted them as they got out, and Clay was feeling, again, that feeling he remembered from back on the Moon. He was feeling lucky to be part of this group of warriors, and he was pretty sure Ve’ezy felt the same way.

Then they returned to the far end of the storeroom, and they could see on the display that there was a battle going on far away out there, or rather there had been one most of an hour ago and the light from it was just reaching them.

Beta and Gamma, plus Bain and Leith and six Primoids, had swung from the outgoing freighter and its battleships toward the ten cruisers that had thought to intervene. The Ghosts and their Primoid allies accelerated so that they shot past the ten Ngugma cruisers before their enemies could stall sufficiently to really fight it out. Instead, everyone got two shots at everyone else, and then the fighters were through and curving back to rejoin the following big ships.

It was a confused affair to say the least. The Ngugma were not getting the better of it: their fighters did not fare well against the onset of Acevedo and Schmitt on one side, and Li Zan and Timmis Green on the other. Once they were past, the cruisers found the same twelve fighters in their faces. The first cruiser blew up, and then the second. One of the Primoids spun out, then jettisoned its engine just in time; another did not, and blew up. Another Ngugma cruiser blew up as well.

A Ghost blew up.

A few seconds later, Acevedo’s vac suit showed up, hurtling toward the depot at the same speed her fighter had been moving. She was alive.

Two more Ghosts were hard hit: Bain, and then Leith trying to defend Bain, went dead in space, but their fighters remained in one piece.

The watchers in Big Fourteen lost track of the rest of the battle, as they hurried to ascertain the status of Bain and Leith and Acevedo. By the time ten more seconds had passed, five of the ten cruisers were blown to small chunks, and two more were seriously damaged. The survivors accelerated, presumably to join the escaping super-hauler.

One Primoid was dead, and two more had ejected their drives, as had Millie Grohl and Peri Schmitt. Mizra Aliya, Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa had all taken heavy damage, but they had each blown up a cruiser. Schmitt’s Ghost was barely in one piece; all the other Primoids had taken damage. Only Li and Timmis were unscathed.

“But everyone’s alive,” said Rachel.

“That wasn’t Skippy, was it?” asked Clay.

“No,” said Rachel. “Skippy’s this one over here. He’s, uh, it’s fine.” She pretended to choke back tears, composed herself and said, “Skippy did good.”

“They all did,” said Vera. “Damn it, Acevedo.”

“Well,” said Park, in a tone that indicated she did not think it all so good, “space is dangerous.”

“But this space,” said Vera, “it’s ours.”

“Yes. Yes, Ms. Santos, this space is ours.”