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7.

The big hauler with its asteroid-heavy load of lava from Fyatskaab trundled into the middle of the Grand Transfer Vul system, slowing and slowing and slowing toward a stop just outside the sixth orbit, the orbit of the cooler of the terrestrial planets of the system, the one where some unknown species of proletarian losers labored to build the Ngugma their battleships and fighters and ground vehicles and computers and dish washers and video screens.

Many were the video screens focused on Big Fourteen as she slowed, over a period of about eight Earth days, from 20% of light speed to zero. They saw the big ship with its accompanying Ngugma cruiser pass where the little invading fleet had stopped, in distant orbit of one of the outer cold rock planets. There might have been some interchange there, but Big Fourteen was still moving at a percent of the speed of light. They saw the accompanying cruiser dock, then undock and speed back to join the raiders; then they saw two Ghost fighters enter the maintenance bay at the back of the big ship’s cranium. The cruiser had picked up Ram Vindu and Raea Chee, who had done their part; the Ghosts carried Clay Gilbert and Rachel Andros, who were there to make the final adjustments and see to the final details.

The new Ngugma task force assembled to confront Big Fourteen got in position, like a catcher blocking the runner from third in one of the softball games Rachel played in high school. What these former ballplayers, now a hundred plus light years from the nearest ball field, thought of the Ngugma preparations was not made evident. The big ship trundled on undaunted, slowing steadily toward a position the watching Ngugma must have found threatening. The gathered fleet moved closer, but not in the usual battle formation.

Instead, the fighter curtain was set well out beyond where Big Fourteen would stop, and the freighter passed through it unchecked. The patrol ships and the cruisers took up positions that looked more designed to protect the freighter than to attack it. The two battlecruisers and the battleship moved up into the face of the super-freighter as it finally came to a stop. A half dozen armored shuttles were sent out of the battleship toward the freighter.

Eight Ghost fighters emerged, not from the maintenance bay, but from various indentations and grooves around the freighter, where they had sat unnoticed. Two more came out behind them from the maintenance bay. The Ngugma had feared what the freighter’s approach might portend, but it never occurred to them that it might send out fighters. They had never heard of a Trojan horse.

The eight set upon the two battlecruisers, which had approached close enough that the gap could be crossed before the big ships’ crews woke up enough to send out missiles. The battlecruisers were of the familiar design, and it was a matter of fifteen seconds before Acevedo’s four on the left and Li, Timmis, Vera and Natasha on the right had done enough damage to them to spin away and let physics do their dirty work. They turned to take on the battleship.

But the big ship was harder to penetrate. Li and Timmis, Vera and Natasha, Bain and Leith: in pairs they each tried drilling into one part or another of the battle wagon. Even as its battlecruisers began to explode, it was pumping out its missiles in hundreds, and sending out its remaining bay fighters, which Daria Acevedo and Mizra Aliya had to cope with by themselves. Clay and Rachel, standing backup, found the cruisers and patrol boats closing on them as they got ready to take on the armored shuttles. They turned to fight the cruisers off, while behind them Bain and Leith both took serious damage from an unexpected gun emplacement, and Li lost her shield and her combat systems to a lucky hit from a bay fighter. Vera, Natasha and Timmis turned from their tasks to join the skirmish with the robots.

Big Fourteen still had one defensive capability aside from size. It had its own several hundred missiles, and they operated on a simple program of meeting up with and embracing missiles they liked from the battleship. While those canceled out, Acevedo and Aliya began a desperate dance against the robot fighters, while the battleship blasted away at them with its big guns. Still the shuttles came across the empty space between the battleship and the freighter without a fight.

“Break off and get these shuttles,” called Rachel to Clay.

“Agreed,” called Clay. He fired off one more shot at a patrol ship and winged it, and then they dropped and spun and streaked back toward the shuttles. But a shot or two was not sufficient to wing one of these shuttles. The first proved a hard target, as did the second and third. The fourth and fifth were already across the gap, and Rachel and Clay were still far from them.

A bolt from the blue struck the fourth shuttle in its thrust, on its rear surface, and it blew up. Another: Mizra Aliya had turned from her fight to take long shots at the only spot unarmored on the armored shuttles.

But the battleship’s single most intimidating gun emplacement was not firing yet. Amidst the ruin of the exploding battlecruisers, and the desperate confused struggle between the Ghosts and the Ngugma cruisers and patrol ships, the battleship was concentrating on its own agenda.

“It’s targeting Big Fourteen,” called Acevedo.

“Ready to activate,” called Rachel, while Clay sent orders to the others: fall back ten thousand kilometers from the freighter. “Are Bain and Leith gonna get back out?” he called.

“We’re good,” called Bonnie Bain.

“Better be,” said Rachel. “Activating.”

“They’re going to blast her before she blasts herself,” called Natasha, from her one-on-one dogfight with a cruiser. “The whole point—!”

“Is that they see what we got,” said Rachel. “I know, but it takes a certain amount of time to reach critical and I just can’t hurry it up—!”

The big gun was already firing. Its beam struck the freighter’s hull and began to burn in. Clay had no time to hold his breath: he and Rachel were too busy trying to blast their way through cruisers, fighters and patrol ships, and the high-energy debris of the two battlecruisers.

“How long?” called Natasha.

“No idea,” Rachel replied.

“Go omega, Aliya,” came Acevedo’s voice over the comm. Suddenly Clay was in the open again, forty thousand kilometers from the fighting. Aliya acknowledged, and she and pretty much all the other Ghosts got headed out as fast as they could manage. He could see one Ghost left in the region around the battleship and the freighter, with the glowing bits of the disintegrating battlecruisers around them. All that mattered now was the path of the beam weapon connecting battleship to freighter, and the path of the fighter labeled Acevedo running up the battleship.

The big gunboat blasted away at her with everything else it had. It fired off its last round of missiles, just trying to confuse or delay her. But still she streaked on, a meter from its hull, leveling anything that stuck out. She took a couple of shots at the big gun, but they seemed ineffective, so she streaked on past. Her target was the bridge.

In another five seconds, the weapon would burn through the hull of Big Fourteen and the freight section would blow out into space. But in three seconds, the bridge of the battleship had a big hole in it, and a Ghost 204 was inside, a Chihuahua in a china shop. The battleship went dead in space. The big gun shut down without a whimper.

Acevedo was whooping, curving up and out, accelerating at 115 gees, enough to make even her eyes flatten, even under the acceleration buffers. She was away.

The freighter sat there amid the wreckage.

And then a spot on its hull, nowhere near where the weapon had been firing, caught a glow. Another spot, and then another. And then the hull began to burn up in some way, burn and vanish like so much tissue paper in a bonfire. Over fifteen seconds, the reaction spread across the payload, and then with a last shudder, the bridge section broke loose and popped away from the cargo hold.

The cargo, five thousand cubic kilometers of metal and silicate, was simply no more, although in the video and data streams gathered by everyone on both sides of the battle, and in the imaginations of the Ngugma who had watched in horror, it would live long indeed.

 

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