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4.

The seven fighters bent their course slightly, to come around at an arc toward the big pale gas giant, a bleached Jupiter, and its biggest moon, a ball about the size of Mars. As the light hours diminished to light minutes, the target moon revealed some detail: it was white as chalk; its surface was saturated with craters; it had no mountains and none of the rills and river valleys characteristic of a place that had once had either water or volcanos. It boasted several deep, jagged ravines, the result presumably of the expansion of water ice in its crust as it cooled long ago. It also had a small base in the smooth midsection of a large crater. The aggressive message sent to the invaders had come from transmitters around this base. And all of a sudden, a considerable fleet was getting off the ground, though not a typical one for the Ngugma: no battleship or battlecruiser, but nine cruisers and a heavy cruiser along with five of the Ngugma patrol ships.

“Do we take them?” said Clay neutrally. “I think we could still avoid contact.”

“No problem,” said Skzyyn as the seven fighters decelerated. “I think we take them.”

“Um,” said Rachel, “I’d like to mention that cruisers are bigger than fighters and nine and five and one is fifteen, which is a lot more than seven. And they’ll have fighters. Just puttin’ that out there.”

“Can we make it so we don’t fight them all at once?” asked Clay.

“Um, yeah,” said Rachel, “working on that, in my big ol’ brain.”

So she thought about it, and by the time they were down from light minutes to light seconds, and down from 20% of the speed of light to 0.2%, she had exchanged a set of maneuver plans with Clay, he had made a few comments, she had made a couple of minor changes, and the new improved plans had gone out to everyone. Rachel made sure to get verbal buy-in from Aliya, Grohl and the three Tskelly pilots. They came to the big moon, coming in on the opposite side from the Ngugma base, and went into orbit at an altitude of about a two story house. They did a couple of orbits, firing off a few dozen missiles each time they passed near the base; they managed to take down the transmitter and damage a couple of out-buildings.

The second time, the base disgorged two dozen robotic fighters, which chased after the seven and quickly began to catch up. But, dropping into a crater a third of the way around the moon, the robots found themselves set upon from the flank by the three tiny Fyaa fighters, even as they chased the energy signatures of the Ghosts. Six robots went down. The remaining robotic fighters recovered and turned to fight, and now the Ghosts turned on them, and the whole parade chased the opposite direction around the moon, with the robots getting hunted down from behind and losing two, four, six more. Again the robot fighters turned, and they tried hard to concentrate entirely on the Ghosts, but by now the Fyaa were into them from behind.

The Ghosts met the attack with a quick volley and retreat, with Clay stalling to take the tail position while Aliya and Grohl followed Rachel. Clay took two whole seconds to sit and shoot before hitting the acceleration backwards. One robot got plugged in the face and blew up, while another took his shot in one of its black x-wings and dropped to the surface like an egg hitting the kitchen floor.

There were only five of them left now, but the front one of those got lucky, or Clay got unlucky. He took a hit that blew his topside flectors. His shot winged the enemy. The shot back blew off his hatch completely, and somehow that affected his belting system. The next thing he knew, he was outside his Ghost, moving away from it at about ten meters per second, straight up away from the surface below.

“What the—God damn it—!” He swore some more. The five robots shot past him, and the three tiny Fyaa fighters, highlighted in his visor, shot after them. The robots went silently boom, one, two, three, four, five. Clay wasn’t watching that: he was watching his Ghost, recoiling from the physics of his expulsion, drift down toward the big crater below. It hit with a bump, bounced, hit again, bounced a bit, hit again, kicking up a swath of dust as it skidded to a stop near a pile of rock.

“Clay, you okay?” called Rachel.

“I’m fine,” said Clay.

“Skzz, can you keep track of him? Okay. We have cruisers. Go tungsten. Tungsten.”

“What?” Clay couldn’t help saying. He sighed. “I know what that is,” he said to himself. “But I guess I’ll just float here in orbit.”

“Good idea,” Skzyyn sent back to him. Then the three Fyaa were pulling out behind the three Ghosts, into the face of four cruisers. The Ngugma opened a coordinated fire, but their enemies were more coordinated, sticking in their flexible triangle prism formation and dropping and sliding into empty lanes and blasting forward into the face of one of the cruisers. Under heavy and well-placed fire, it blew up, and the one behind it was not ready for the attack which blew it up as well. Then Mizra Aliya and Skzyyn Aarndr-rii pulled left, and the other four pulled right. The right-hand cruiser was toast; the left one could not get a grip on its small and tiny enemies and found itself tied up till the other four fighters turned and knocked it out of the sky.

Clay, still drifting in low orbit above the moon, watched his colleagues take apart the rest of the Ngugma force. The furry starfish had used up all their available robot fighters already, so they were at a disadvantage, and the Ghosts and the Fyaa fighters could stand off and fire away at long range, or let loose with their new, even tinier missiles. The five patrol boats came at them next but did not make it into decent range before they were destroyed or disabled. Four more cruisers had hurried up behind the patrol boats, but now Rachel brought her feisty pawns into the face of these rooks. The pawns suffered damage at last. Ve’ezy took several hard knocks while singlehandedly taking one cruiser out of the sky. Millie Grohl had to save Mizra Aliya’s ass from another, the girl from Bluehorse dodging around the fire and spinning to laser a hole in the cruiser’s drive section. Rachel lost a couple of flectors while taking down the third. The fourth cruiser got toyed with by Skzyyn and Dzvezyets before Rachel released her frustrations on it and sent it crashing to the moon’s surface.

The last cruiser and the heavy cruiser attempted to surrender, but, told to abandon ship, they dithered and delayed. Standing at a distance, the six fighters shot holes in the heavy cruiser, and when its bridge was open to space and its crew were suited up and floating out, the fighters dived past its hulk and destroyed the last cruiser. Then Aliya and Grohl, Skzyyn, Dzvezyets and Ve’ezy bombarded the base to their heart’s content.

Half an hour later, they broke off. They found that Rachel had got hold of Clay and taken him down to the crater surface. They all parked and walked over to a pile of rock at the far end of a long skid-mark of regolith. There stood Clay and Rachel, looking down.

“It looks bad,” said Millie Grohl. “I bet it’s bad.”

“I saw it hit,” said Mizra Aliya. “It looked bad.”

“Well, let’s see,” said Clay. He climbed over the rubble of rock. The Ghost had several dents, and its nose was caved in, and its hatch was a yawning mouth.

He sighed. Then he shrugged. He and Rachel exchanged smirks: the official facial expression of Alpha Wing.

He climbed into the hatch. The systems were still running. He switched to alternate screen, since his main screen was now floating somewhere in orbit. He got comfy, despite the lack of belt. He hit hover. His Ghost struggled, wobbled, and after a couple of seconds shook itself free. He rose up ten meters into the lack of air.

“And that,” he said, “is how we do things in Alpha Wing.”

 

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