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3.

The Spiral Arch system began to come into focus. It was a very different sort of place from Grand Transfer Vul. Where the previous system had one big star and many planets, this system had three stars, none very large, and a web of material about them or in transit between them, and exactly two stably orbiting planets. GTV had two planets full of population and factory production; those two stable planets at Spiral Arch showed only the barest signs of habitation or technology. And where Grand Transfer hosted a large starbase and several medium-sized ones, and a wide assortment of spacecraft, peaceful and warlike, Spiral Arch showed only one base and one force of spaceships, all of them military.

The three stars were young, small and of various shades. The largest was bluish, brilliant, and almost the size of the Sun that had shone on the world of Clay’s birth; this was the Sun both planets orbited. The other two tended toward the orange and were markedly dimmer. The cloud they had condensed out of had not entirely dissipated: now the three suns were swaddled in veils of gas and dust, gleaming red and blue, yellow and a thin purple as they spiraled up and then curved back again, a mimicry of the Milky Way that spanned half the sky, its pale bulge already visible looming over the system.

Park sent out Clay and Rachel, Apple and Izawa to make a preliminary patrol when the incoming fleet was fourteen light hours out from the nearest of the three stars. They split up, each couple skirting the system in the opposite direction, sailing the black outskirts of Spiral Arch.

“You guys stay out of trouble,” Rachel called when they were still light minutes apart. “You are not authorized to get in any fights.”

“Nor are you, Commander,” Izawa replied.

So Clay and Rachel flew parallel curves a few dozen meters apart, still doing 12% of light speed. They played some chess and some Set, Rachel renewing her domination of Clay. They simulated, and Clay was again amazed that he was almost her equal: he had come to think of his wife as a sort of space superhero. They read: currently, it seemed romantic to read Tolkien aloud to one another, two hobbits imagining they were Beren and Luthien. The rest of the fleet slowed toward a stopping point in space still far out beyond the system’s paltry Kuiper belt. The Ngugma watched.

Clay woke up from a sleep period, sat up and said, “Hey, they’re sending something out. We have patrol boats.”

“Oh, I’m so scared I’m shaking,” said Rachel. “Okay. Their fleet is four battlecruisers, I read twelve cruisers, a couple battleships, four heavy cruisers of some kind, and a bunch of those patrol ships. Of which they have sent four out to check on our side.”

“It doesn’t look like the rest are moving from the vicinity of the base.” They flew on along their curve for fifteen seconds. “So,” said Clay, “do we do anything about them?”

“No, look,” said Rachel, “Park’s got Gamma Wing out to deal with them.”

Indeed, according to light that had taken hours to reach Clay and Rachel, Earthling fighters were separating from the fleet to go meet the oncoming Ngugma Acevedo, in her almost-new Ghost was already leading Schmitt, Aliya and Grohl straight out toward the four patrol ships. Clay and Rachel on one side, Apple and Izawa on the other curved around on distant patrol, watching. They received orders and updates every so often from Park, but nothing was unexpected. The patrol boats, the same number as and four times the size of the Ghosts, did not adjust their course. Clay and Rachel played some chess.

“There’s no way those guys think they can take Daria, is there?” asked Clay.

“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “They may not be fully aware of how great we are.”

“Well, then Daria has a few things to teach them.”

“That’s what I’d think,” said Rachel. “Though I don’t know. There’s something different about this situation. I don’t know, maybe they’re just there to check us, you know, keep someone on us to make sure we don’t do anything surprising.” She took a pawn, checked a few sensors and said, “I have them decelerating now, they’re not like leaving the system or anything.”

“They can’t leave the system,” Clay pointed out. “They’re patrol boats. They have no light speed drive. Where do you have them coming to a stop?”

“Hmm. About a hundred million k in front of Honshu.

“We push a pawn,” said Clay, “they push a pawn.”

So they played and slept and read and played and veered, slightly missing each other, a dozen meters apart at 12% of light speed. On the other side of the system, Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa flew the opposite curve. By the time they were four light hours along their way, and seven from Apple and Izawa, Gamma Wing was half a light hour in front of the rest of the fleet, approaching the four patrol ships.

Acevedo initiated communication, using the Ngugma frequencies and codes they had learned, but the patrol boats took an attack formation. Acevedo, sending a short communication back to Honshu whose contents Clay and Rachel could guess, put Gamma Wing into a sideways square, with her and Schmitt in front, a couple of kilometers apart, and then Aliya and Grohl in back by a couple of kilometers. The patrol boats came on in a line. Both sides fired off missiles, which mostly annihilated or wandered off into space.

A hundred kilometers from contact, Acevedo and Schmitt bent left and went after the ship on the end. The rest of the Ngugma fired, but the target went over to full evasion. Acevedo, followed closely by Peri Schmitt, went in for the kill, while Grohl and Aliya started to follow.

Acevedo got right in the patrol boat’s face. She was under a kilometer away when the left patrol boat exploded. She hadn’t hit it in some sensitive place: it wasn’t that sort of explosion. No photon blast to the drive could cause a blast like that. Unable to adjust in time, Daria Acevedo flew straight into the conflagration, and Peri Schmitt followed her: the detonation wave, like a tongue of flame, reached out into space to the oncoming fighters. The second patrol ship veered hard toward the blast, and it went up as well, joining the first in a flare fifty kilometers long.

Acevedo was gone from space. A half second later, Schmitt’s Ghost came swooping out of the initial blast, but the second one caught up with her and her fighter blew up with a silent flash.

The other two patrol boats went in to meet Mizra Aliya and Millie Grohl. Aliya, at sixty kilometers, laid down a one second burst of her laser and peeled off hard, and the third patrol boat blew up out of range of her. Millie Grohl accelerated hard, firing as she shot past the fourth ship, which blew up as well, but a second too late to catch her in its fire. The two curved back, crossing each other’s paths, decelerating hard to sweep the battlefield and comb the cooling embers.

“God damn it,” said Clay, as the light of the battle reached them, 3.5 light hours away. “Acevedo.” While they watched, they were already picking up Aliya’s communication, to Grohl but automatically forwarded to the Honshu and the four Ghosts on patrol, confirming that there was no sign there had been any living creatures on the Ngugma ships, and that they had been full of explosive materials, and confirming the deaths of Daria Acevedo and Peri Schmitt.

 

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