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The little fleet continued to decelerate. They were already twelve billion kilometers, about eleven light hours, from the Ngugma factory planets, traveling at 26% of light speed. The four scouting fighters, Andros, Gilbert, Izawa and Apple, dropped out of the Honshu bay and began moving ahead of the bigger ships by simply not decelerating.

Ahead of them, they could see the star, just a star but brighter than any of the trillion other stars. Without the aid of their sensory software, they would never have been able to make out any of the planets, much less the many Ngugma ships of all sorts. But in their screens, with all the enhancements humans had made over the centuries, they could see plenty. They could see, for instance, that there was already an Ngugma force undocked and starting to accelerate toward them: a couple of battlecruisers, six cruisers, eight patrol ships, and a bazillion robotic fighters.

They could also see now that there was a sizeable natural object just off their path to the inner planets. It was an ice giant, like Neptune but much darker in color, and way out here it didn’t pick up much light, so they had overlooked it in their count of the planets.

“They got wind of our approach,” said Clay. “They have a welcome party.”

“Course correction coming,” Rachel called. “Get ready for a thirty second drive burst, and then shut down again. Receiving?”

“Received,” called Clay, and the other two echoed.

“Okay,” said Rachel, “chess for the next twenty minutes, till we get in the shadow of that planet.” They paired off and ran a quick speed chess tournament, in which Clay demolished Apple and then got crushed by Rachel, who had demolished Izawa. They took ten seconds to celebrate or moan, and then they all checked their astrometrics in time to see the planet, still a hundred million kilometers away, interpose between them and the Ngugma task force.

“Okay, ready on my mark,” said Rachel. She gave them thirty seconds, and then they fired their thrust for exactly 33.22 seconds, cranking out the virtual ions just to bend their course toward the dark planet’s horizon. Then they all shut down and coasted, doing 22% of the speed of light right at the tops of the icy clouds on the dark planet. They confirmed that it had no rings and that its moons were all out of the way. It was a tidy little giant, with a higher density than they had expected: perhaps it had a large metallic core under all those methane ices.

The Ngugma came on, passing within thirty million kilometers of the ice giant. The incoming force began to act like it noticed them: two wings of Ghost fighters went out, along with six Primoids and four Fyaa, and these took up a defensive position in front of the two Fyaa cruisers and the Primoid cruiser, with the two armored freighters in the back.

All these ships were decelerating hard, including, now, the Ngugma force, which was slowing down to meet its enemy. Their engines showed their exertions, emitting signatures detectable millions of kilometers away. If their engines had been shut down, they might yet have appeared invisible, like the four fighters which the gravity of the dark ice giant had swung around its belly and slung outward, precisely at the Ngugma battlecruisers.

Clay and Rachel, Gemma and Maria: they were hurtling into the middle of the Ngugma task force. It took a long time still, and then it would happen fast. Eleven more hours they spent by themselves, flying silent and unpowered as they ran their own simulations, read, slept, and ate. They had watched as their screens filled up with the red-brown hulk of the dark planet; they watched it diminish behind them like a pitcher seen from the ball she just threw; they watched as the Ngugma fleet grew steadily larger. Those two battlecruisers: big, intimidating, single-mindedly focused on the cruisers and freighters coming toward them from Okhozzhan. So vulnerable, so blissfully ignorant.

Two minutes from the enemy, Clay suddenly wondered how he had got here. He wondered how a freight shuttle jockey from the Earth orbit run, for whom an exciting job was landing at the Moon base, found himself almost two hundred light years down the Orion Arm from Earth, in a ship that could fit inside his college dorm room closet, hurtling toward a couple of ships the size of his whole college dorm plus the one next to it, bristling with guns. He wondered how he had survived so far, he wondered at the impossible dense horror of each alien intelligence he had met, and at how many of these had turned their attention to killing him. He wondered at the nearness of the night.

He wondered how he had got to be part of a wing that included Rachel, Vera and Natasha, or Rachel, Gemma Izawa and Maria Apple. He wondered how he had got so lucky.

He wondered how these particular Ngugma had got so unlucky.