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XV. Slime Ball and Armpit

 

1.

Death, Clay had often thought, was that condition from which there is no recovery.

“The death had been at it,” Mr. Lovecraft would have said of the planet they now had on their screens. The death had been at it, and had turned to a new, horrible life, and had risen from the planet into the sky and circulated about that sun, eating the asteroids and the dust and the blessing light and turning it into more of itself.

The system before them—bright young yellow star, two terrestrial planets, and a huge gas giant with dozens of moons—had been thoroughly infected. The inner planet was practically covered in lime green glop. It could hardly have been more covered if it had just been pulled from a vat of green paint. The second planet was cooler, and only had glop where it didn’t have ice caps. Its two moons were both covered, notwithstanding their tenuous atmospheres. The giant stood in its gold-amber glory, proud and free, but at least five large moons were infected, circling it like zombie bodyguards.

The fleet coasted in, and for a while they didn’t say much. By arrangement, the fighters took the forefront, with six Ngugma cruisers behind them. They began to approach the region of the gas giant, though the planet itself, and its demented escort of moons, were 90° away in its orbit. They picked up a lot of things in space. Hundreds of mouthholes had been dealt with by the Ngugma, but thousands more zipped about, as did slightly smaller, greyer globules of silicate, which must have been the shzhawkhor that the Ngugma had told them about. There were also at least a dozen of what looked like gigantic green and pink rootless flowers, in outer orbits of the two terrestrial planets, turned so their open sunflower faces faced the Sun.

There was one further entry in the botany of the system. There were several dozen large dark objects, grey-black rather than the children’s toy green of the orbital flowers. Though their size range, from a few meters to a few kilometers, was like the size range of asteroids, these were distinctly biological. They were elongated blobs, with knots and appendages and circles and spirals of solar-collecting material. As soon as the invading fleet had begun to approach the orbit of the gas giant, these objects started concentrating toward the same place.

“Life form?” said Clay.

“Looks like they grow their own cruisers,” said Apple.

“I dub this system,” said Natasha, “Slime Ball. Or maybe Slime Balls, since there’s two planets covered with this crap, not just one. I don’t know, is that too graphic?”

Suddenly, most of the pilots, and several people on the Tasmania, said variants of “Oh my.”

“What did it just do?” asked Natasha.

“Planet 3’s biggest moon,” said Emily Gray, “just launched something into deep space.”

“Track that thing,” said Rachel.

“We chasing it?” asked Timmis. “It’s picking up an escort.”

“I read,” called Emily Gray, “thirteen of those plant-cruiser-things, and several hundred mouthholes. No spores.”

“The flower thing,” said Rachel, “it makes the spores. Where’s it going?”

“I don’t know yet,” said Gray, “but preliminary indications are that its destination is, um, Armpit.”

“Hey, maybe we’ll see them there,” said Rachel. “Because if that’s where they’re going, then that’s where we’re going. But first, we have to do something about this.”

 

Over the next few hours, while the herbaceous space fleet began to accelerate to light speed, and another herbaceous fleet assembled to meet the Ngugma battleship and its friends, Rachel and Li video-conferenced with Kalkar and Fonnggark and Gwoav and a couple of other Ngugma captains. The conference was detailed, but surprisingly brief.

“We certainly have our work cut out for us,” Kalkar said, once they were all as satisfied as they were going to be with their plan.

“Just you stay out of this, old man,” said Rachel. “Your job is to be around to pick us all up out of the rubble at the end.”

“And your job,” said Gwoav, “is to make sure that at least two of our freighters are not destroyed by the shzhawkhor.

 

The two fleets, one technological, human and Ngugma, one made of biological stuff, drifted towards one another, crawling at insane speeds. Clay could not help think of a dopey addiction of his childhood, a game in which one supervised a garden of violent plants for the purpose of defeating an invasion of zombies. He couldn’t help notice that he was cast as a zombie.

He was one of ten little Ghost fighters, speeding out in front, with several hundred robotic Ngugma fighters coming up behind, on his side for once. Against them came a thousand mouthholes and hundreds of the grey-dark planty-gritty shzhawkhor. His side had six cruisers and a battleship of the Ngugma; the other side had dozens of its big ships, already unloading spiky shot that might have been missiles and might have been some sort of dart. His side had hundreds, now thousands of missiles, the tiny missiles of the Ngugma and the tiny and tinier missiles of the Earthlings. Ranged against them, coming behind the first wave of darts, were things the size and texture of walnuts, which had the zip and madness of mouthholes.

According to plan, Clay and the rest of the Ghosts faded back into their comrades, while the battleships drifted forward and began blasting away at the larger Enemy “ships” opposite them. The spidery robot fighters passed through the Ghost wings and set upon the shzhawkhor and the mouthholes, and a bloodless cancellation began to play out. The splintery darts began to reach the ten Ghosts, which registered tiny amounts of damage, but Clay could see how it would build up: he felt like they were wading through a field of brambles. The wave got past and into the cruisers, which came forward bravely into the thin pelting. The battleship, behind, was laying into the largest of the enemy craft, a thing about five kilometers long which might have been the Enemy’s version of a battlecruiser. It was a goner, but not before it fired back all its darts and walnut missiles. The demon walnuts started blowing up all over the battlefield: one Ngugma cruiser took five hits almost at once, and began to overload, while two more were significantly damaged. More little explosions popped up across the face of the battleship, which was still unperturbed.

“Gallium,” called Rachel. “Gallium. Oggohdah,” she added, translating the element name into Ngugma.

Two Ngugma cruisers peeled left, eighty spidery fighters screening them. Rachel led the ten Ghosts out behind this screen. The six Ngugma freighters began lumbering the same direction. They began to accelerate again, and within minutes they were leaving the battle behind. Another cruiser and another went down, but the enemy’s big ships, if that’s the word for them, also began to go, typically with splattery bursts rather than explosions. Clay counted six of these, and then he was moving swiftly away.

 

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