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6.

Sixty hours later, the ships of the allied fleet separated, and the fighter wings went out. They arrayed the armored freighters in back, with the Fyaa cruisers flanking them a bit to the front, and the Primoid cruiser in the middle and forward. Alpha and Beta Wings banded together in front of the center; Su Park and her special wing adopted Mizra Aliya and Millie Grohl, while the five Primoid fighters and the five Fyaa fighters paired up, a big brother and a tiny brother together against the world.

The Ngugma fleet closed to ten light minutes and then put its robotic fighters and its presumably robotic patrol ships out in front, its cruisers in a flat hexagonal lattice next, and then its heavy cruisers and its two huge, cylindrical battleships. It looked, in every way but the exact numbers, exactly like every other battle-ready Ngugma star force Clay had seen.

Alpha and Beta moved up to face the robots, adopting the vertices of a cube: Rachel in front of Li, Natasha in front of Apple, Timmis behind Clay, Izawa behind Vera. To their left (in one frame of reference), Su Park led her fighters in, in a flexible octahedron, with Ree in the back. To the right, the ten fighters of the Fyaa and the Primoids came on in a pair of spread Ws. Clouds of missiles were fired off, tiny bloodless peasant militia charging together and mutually annihilating.

They came on. They came on.

Two sets of robotic fighters, a dozen each, zeroed in on Alpha and Beta. One near the front began to gleam pink on Clay’s screen.

“Bismuth, bismuth,” cried Rachel. The whole cube dropped, then flipped upward. The lead robotic fighter blew up, its eleven brethren scattering and then concentrating again as the wave of radiation spread outward. Alpha and Beta, still flying down and on, were past them, and when the poisonous gamma ray wave reached them, it had diluted into near-harmlessness.

Before them were the patrol boats. Four closed in and began to gleam bright blue.

“Larry, Larry, Larry,” called Rachel.

The eight Ghosts opened fire. Their range was still too far—for their old lasers. The new, refined lasers, an Errhatzky and Gene Bell cooperation, made their light speed journey on a microscopically narrow beam. One by one, over the course of half a second, the four patrol boats exploded, perhaps five seconds earlier than intended. The explosions carried more gamma rays than they ought to have, but their victims were already out of range.

The Ghosts bent their course upward again. One cruiser, then another, swerved to block them. Clay and Timmis found one in their faces and blew open its bridge; Vera left the other as scattering molecules. The heavy cruisers were ahead of them.

To their left, Park and Ree were behind their two patrol boats and had them disabled. Their two dozen robotic fighters were down to three, also disabled: Bain, Leith, Aliya and Grohl had let the two exploders explode, and had come back in to ravage the rest. Park’s group now turned to deal with those of the middle group of fighters that had not exploded or caused their neighbors to explode, and that was looking exactly like all the previous fights. To the right, two of the Primoid fighters were badly damaged, but had weathered a gamma-ray-rich blast. Two Fyaa fighters flew guard on them, warding off or killing off more Ngugma robot attackers. The other three pairs had accelerated through the patrol ships and were into the cruisers.

“Okay,” called Rachel, “Sophocles. Sophocles.”

Rachel and Li swooped left, firing off more missiles at their chosen heavy cruiser. Natasha and Vera swerved right, and simply bypassed the missile wave to plant their wide-beam lasers in the drive section of their heavy cruiser. It blew up magnificently.

Clay, Timmis, Apple and Izawa hopscotched past to the right-hand battleship.

Clay chose this moment to step in the manure bucket. He slightly over-maneuvered, and then he was out of line with Timmis and they were both under a withering fire from the line of gun emplacements up the side of the big ship. The two of them were blasting away as hard as they could, and letting loose with all the guitar-pick missiles they could manage: explosions and rips began to appear all along the hull ahead of them. But it only took a couple of seconds for Clay’s flectors to get wasted, and then he took a hit to his combat systems and another to life support. He could see stars through part of his hatch. Cursing, he pulled back away into open space and looked all around for enemies he could no longer shoot at.

Timmis was spinning out near him, firing away as he did so. He stopped firing: he could no longer be sure what his targets were doing. But his engines were fried: he just about managed to stop the spinning before his computer restarted. Clay looked around again, then scooted after his partner. “Timmis,” he sent, “Timmis, come in.”

Behind them, Apple and Izawa were hooting as they traveled the length of the battleship at a distance of about a meter, cutting it deeply and leaving explosions behind them wherever they hit something sensitive. It was so intent on killing them that it was shooting itself, and its robotic fighters, emerging from bays along the way, were falling victim to the two Ghosts, to the big ship’s guns, or to one another.

“Clay, what,” Timmis sent back, “what, my drive—!”

“Just sit tight.” Thinking of the first time they had met the mouthholes—the first time they had met alien creatures, the first time Clay had saved someone in space—he shut out the battle and set a course to coincide with Timmis. Both Ghosts were damaged, but it looked like both hatches were largely intact. More shots were flying about, there was an explosion a few kilometers to the right, then a running series of explosions, but Clay ignored them. A hundred meters, ten, one. Ten centimeters. Clunk.

Clunk, clunk-click.

“Get your hatch open,” called Clay.

Timmis asked no question. He got the hatch open. In a few seconds, they were hitched, sitting across from each other in their suits in a doubled, if somewhat compromised, fighter.

“I have engine,” said Clay, pulling away from the still-exploding battleship. “You have weapons, right?”

“I have weapons,” said Timmis, with a smile visible through his visor.

“Then let’s try those new missiles. Shall we?”

“Target?”

“Freighters. See?”

Somehow, under guard of four cruisers, a heavy cruiser and a whole slew of robotic missiles, the three unarmed freighters had moved forward to within a few thousand kilometers of the big ships. The Fyaa cruisers were engaged in a fierce but inconclusive blast fight with the Ngugma cruisers, which were getting closer and closer; the freighters were right in their shadows.

“They’re not within range yet,” said Clay. “But if those are full of the same stuff those patrol boats had, they could wreck our entire fleet.”

“So,” said Timmis, “targeting. Shall I?”

“Fire at will,” said Clay. “Jeez. And can you get mine fired too?”

Timmis smiled wider. Twelve tardigrade-sized missiles shot off toward the left-most freighter, then twelve more toward the middle one, and then, from Clay’s Ghost, twelve more at the right one.

Ten seconds later, the left freighter, still 1400 km from the nearest Fyaa cruiser, went supernova. Half a second after that, the middle one went, and then the right one. The Fyaa and Primoid cruisers peeled off like they were fighters; Honshu and Tasmania did the same.

They flipped around. The other battleship was in a dogfight with three fighters, and its last heavy cruiser was chasing down two more. Bonnie Bain was floating in space in her vac suit; Anand Ree’s Ghost went dead in space but Su Park, coming out of nowhere, put her wide angle laser directly in the heavy cruiser’s bridge. She held down the gun for second after second until the heavy blew up satisfyingly.

Beyond the two of them, Leith, Grohl and Aliya dodged around the far end of the battleship. Leith went down, spinning out with significant damage. Grohl had her flectors blasted off, and then the back end of her fighter. Mizra Aliya, colony ship explorer pilot from the Siberian Pakistani colony, was alone in the face of a ship a thousand times as big as her Ghost in every dimension.

She dodged. She spun. She swerved and flipped. And each time she lost one flector, she put her shot in the same hole on the battleship.

Ten or twelve of those, and the battleship’s drive was glowing. Missiles stopped emerging, guns stopped firing: now vac-suited Ngugma were emerging, floating away as fast as they could.

Aliya hit the throttle, stopped on a dime, grabbed Grohl in a hatch-to-hatch embrace, and hit the throttle again. They were away, accelerating at maximum, five kilometers, ten, twenty, fifty. A hundred and twenty kilometers. The battleship blew up behind them.

Space was empty again. Spiral Arch was theirs.

 

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