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6.

The augmented fleet set off 220 hours after Millie and Miz took the Vow. They flew 810 light years, a new record, and they flew 99.99999999% of the speed of light, eight nines past the decimal, which the Ngugma admiralty (or whatever) seemed to like. They paid no attention to anything they saw at that speed. The gigantic Ngugma ships shouldered aside any mouthholes that followed them. But then they looked upon the system they were slowing into.

There was a single star, large and bright. There were a half dozen blobby giants, mostly pale in color, pale orange or pale green or palest thinnest blue. There were two baked planets, a baked desert and a baked lava swamp, its mountain islands floating on molten rock. And there were two planets in the temperate zone, and they both must have harbored extensive ecosystems, because, without even getting close, the fighter pilots could already tell the two planets were largely covered with a crust of burnt slime.

“Captain Fonnggark,” called Rachel, as they flew along at 23% of light speed, “did you know—?”

“We did not,” replied Fonnggark, peering at all the fighter pilots from a little square on each screen. “But I think Gwoav knew. Would you have preferred to know—?”

“No, no,” Rachel replied. “It’s fine.”

“Captain Fonnggark,” called Padfoot from the Tasmania, “can I ask a question? Is it all pretty solidly dead down there? I have a reason for asking.”

“It is all dead down there these—in your units, two thousand years?”

“Great,” said Padfoot. Looking at Fonnggark, Clay could tell that it had not yet got the hang of talking with Padfoot. “Commander, Captain Kalkar, I would love to land on one of those planets and take up samples.”

“Oh,” said Kalkar. “Oh, I see. Oh, I think we can accommodate. You want to land on the outer one? It’s only half irradiated glop. The other half is polar ice caps.”

 

The fleet moved in through the system and took up an orbit just inside Planet Five, the innermost and largest of the pale gas giants. They stuffed Padfoot into an old Ghost, and she joined Alpha Wing, and Fonnggark took the Ngugma explorer-cruiser with them, on a jaunt to Planet Four.

Rachel took Clay, Natasha and Vera along with Padfoot down to the surface of the fourth planet. It wasn’t all that bad: they didn’t open their visors. They landed, four Ghost 204s and one Franken-ghost put together from spare parts, on a patch of open rock between a long slab of glacier and the northern end of a valley-full of hardened slime. It sat there, almost level, almost rippling up the hillsides, frozen forever in the act of bubbling. Rachel and Padfoot spent fifteen minutes collecting chunks of the stuff, which was as much as half a meter thick in places. It wasn’t a crust on top of a soft inside: it was hard all the way down. The other three looked around for any sign of organic matter, dusting the cracks in the rocks, taking cores of the ice cap, and finding nothing that had ever been alive except the burnt slime.

Back on the Tasmania, Clay and Natasha and the Ngugma captain shared a sort of nacho plate with two beers and what amounted to an Ngugma liquor.

“Fonnggark,” said Clay, “every time we see this, it means that the Enemy found a planet full of life, and that you guys got there later and radiation-blasted it. Right?”

“Yes, exactly,” said Fonnggark.

“So is that a victory or a defeat?” asked Natasha.

“Both,” the Ngugma boomed. It waved its arm-tips and just said, “War.”

 

The next system, 795 light years on, was not as bad. It had two stars and only one planet covered in burnt gloop. They skipped the samples, zipped past the twin suns to refill their solar batteries, and flew on to the next place.

The third system was 887 light years further. It was the best of all: four young stars reeled in a chaotic dance amidst the swaddling veils of their mother nebula. There was not a single well-formed planet, nor any sign of life forms.

The Ngugma fleet, after a conference with the Bluehorse leadership and with Fonnggark, began accelerating away. Tasmania and the explorer cruiser trundled after them. The fighters paired up: five couples joined, heading off to race the photons. 777 light years on, 777 years later, they began to see where they were headed, the system from which the enemy goo had sent out its spores to infect Ngugma space and grow a slimy foothold from which to infect the entire Orion Arm.

 

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