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2.

The Enemy had sent everything it had to the fight in the orbit of the gas giant, and yet when Rachel led the ten Ghosts, and the six Ngugma freighters with their own escort of spidery fighters, toward the orbit of the second planet, somehow the Enemy had found more to throw at them. There were at least fifteen more of the plant-cruisers, and dozens of shzhawkhor, and hundreds more mouthholes, and an orbiting pod that was sending out a steady welter of those splinter-darts.

“All we need to do is get one of these freighters close enough to the planet,” said Rachel as they came within two light minutes of the planet. “And any of these spore flowers we can do, that’ll be bonus.”

“Think they’ll be sensitive enough about the flowers,” Vera asked, “that attacking them might leave an open lane for the freighters?”

“It’s as good a theory as any,” said Rachel. “Li and Timmis, you’re with the freighters. Everyone else, in pairs, start taking down all the daisies in orbit around this planet. Turn and fight the enemy as they come at you. And remember the Vow.”

“The Vow,” several of them chorused.

“Let’s go, loverboy,” she called to Clay. Smirking, he tilted and followed her out toward the planet’s outer orbit.

A giant flower pod floated in space, its fleshy petals open to the mother Sun. Ten kilometers across, its center was a vast disk of yellow-green, dotted with the poison green of a million beachball-sized spores. Clay and Rachel curved in toward it from the outside, and it hung there innocent and sinister, a flower in a clown’s lapel.

“Me first,” called Rachel, and she moved in front. Clay fell behind by a hundred meters, tail of the wing as always. Rachel opened up and the flower began to take bright, fiery damage.

One second later she was passing into the front face of the thing. Clay was already opening up with his own laser. Rachel cursed. “God damn dart things,” she said, but she flipped and kept firing.

A second later, Clay was into the cloud of darts too, and he could see his flectors lighting up. “Can’t take this long,” he called. “Get back into the shadow.”

They both zipped around the flower and for a few seconds it was all quiet. “I’m down to 25% shield,” said Rachel.

“I got 45%,” said Clay. “Just let’s kill this particular thing and then back off and see what’s up.”

“Kay,” said Rachel. “Vow.”

They immediately opened up together on the pod they were hiding behind. It took perhaps twenty more seconds, and the thing began to rip open in the middle. They backed up and kept firing, spreading their lasers across to the outside of the flower, and it came apart into two pieces, then more. The darts shot through at the fighters, but seemed also to be ripping up the rest of the flower pod. In seconds, there was nothing left of it. The Ghosts backed and backed and then shot sideways and left their splintery pursuers in the dark. Rachel and Clay cut engines and coasted, looking for another target.

“Well crap,” said Rachel.

Of six of the flower pods in orbit around the second planet out, three were gone. Of six Ngugma freighters, three were gone. Li and Timmis were valiantly fighting off mouthholes and shzhawkhor and a couple of the giant plant cruisers, and as they watched, Li’s shield went. A moment later, she went as well—out into space, in her vac suit, a second before her Ghost blew up. Timmis retreated after her, still firing, still taking damage.

Aliya was slicing up one of the flower pods, while Millie Grohl’s Ghost floated dead in space near the remains of another one. Apple and Izawa, heavily damaged, were fighting another big enemy vessel in the ruins of one of the freighters. Apple went critical and ejected; Izawa shot forward, wounded the enemy mortally, and then pulled back, caught in a cloud of the splinters. They had done her enough damage too now. Clay heard her curse as she ejected her drive and went dead.

Vera and Natasha were finishing off the fifth of the flower pods and turned to take the sixth and last. Four of the plant-cruisers chose to ignore them, and went for the three remaining freighters.

“Damn it,” said Rachel, sending a new navigation and taking off. “And I thought this would be easy. Alpha Wing!”

“With you,” called Natasha. “So it turns out this creature has a brain.”

“Yeah, damn it,” said Vera. “Hate that.”

“Let’s go, hunkburger,” Rachel called to Clay.

“Right behind you.”

Immediately they found themselves in a cloud of mouthholes. But mouthholes held no fear for Clay Gilbert anymore. He dodged one, then hit it square as it passed; swinging, he sliced another in half, and then took four more with a quick sequence of shots. Rachel was slicing them up herself, and the litter of iron and silicate was filling space behind them. They turned to the left to push the body of the enemy back toward the planet, and the mouthholes began to scatter to avoid the atmosphere.

They turned again, and there was another of those big vessels. They didn’t seem to have laser weapons, but they had plenty of splinter-darts: Clay wondered for a moment if the whole ship was just a big log. “Diamond,” called Rachel. They dropped into the diamond pattern without another thought, and their lasers began carving into the thing in front of them. They didn’t know what to shoot for, so they just made sure they were shooting for something.

The enemy released a burst of demon walnuts. Four blew up at once right in the face of Alpha Wing. Rachel cursed, and a moment later her Ghost was toppling sideways. She waited till the last second to eject before it blew up. There she was: a vac suit labeled Rachel Andros.

Vera and Natasha shot forward, and Clay filled the gap between them. Something was going to happen to this log they were faced with. And something did, finally. A hole formed and widened. Flashes indicated something like explosions. Bursts of gases ignited and scattered.

And then the thing broke and the pieces drifted apart. One by one the pieces began to fall back into the atmosphere and burn up.

On the other side, they could see just two of the six Ngugma freighters still intact, and four enemy ships attacking them. Timmis was dead in space, Li was floating, Apple and Izawa were both out of action, Millie Grohl was floating, even Rachel was floating in her vac suit. A new wave of shzhawkhor came up at them, and in the onset, Vera lost her system control and went dead in space. Without a word, Clay and Natasha began dodging and shooting: these were cannier and more agile even than mouthholes, and they seemed to fire some sort of short range laser blaster, the biology of which must have been—

“God damn it to hell,” cried Natasha, banging her screen till her drive ejected.

Clay didn’t have time to process this. He was too busy blasting one, dodging another, blasting the next one. He lost count. But his shield was still in the thirty percent range.

He came through the wreckage of the enemy, and there were three of the big vessels still, unable to seal the deal somehow. Clay came in at them, and just then received a communication from a light minute away—from Padfoot on Tasmania.

“Put this in your flector program,” she said, and there were a hundred lines of code. He tapped it and it lit up.

He charged in. The darts from the big ships came at him in a murderous cloud—and went inert as soon as they were within a hundred meters.

With a cry, his Ghost leapt forward. He searched the nearest enemy and found an interesting place for a hole, and put one there. Gases outgassing began to catch fire, and after a few seconds the big ship blew apart. He burst through and into a quartet of mouthholes. He took more damage—now his left shield was on the brink and his right side was at 20%. The next hit—!

One down. He spiraled left and took the next, then dropped and flipped and the other two were right where he would have been. Three, four. He was in the clear.

Ahead of him, the battle was suddenly over. The last two enemy ships were steaming hulks, beginning to fall to the planet which had sprouted them. Mizra Aliya’s face filled up Clay’s screen.

“We’re clear, Clay Gilbert,” she called, and then laughed, a little hysterical. “I got the last two. All enemy in planetary orbit cleared, sir! All our people are alive. Clay! We kept the vow.”

“And the even better thing is,” Clay called back, “two freighters left, two planets. They stripped the defenses of both planets to stop us here.”

The two of them, the last two fighters going, Mizra Aliya of Aghabad, Siberia and Clay Gilbert of Camden, Maine, went off to keep their comrades from falling into the atmosphere, while one of the Ngugma freighters coasted in and began seeding the same atmosphere with newly synthesized and highly radioactive astatine. The other freighter was already trundling off to do the same to the other planet. Its half dozen space flowers would succumb to a leisurely attack. Behind them, the Ngugma fleet was cleaning up the rest of the battle in the outer parts of the system.

“Wiping out all life in the system,” Clay muttered. He laughed grimly. “Hey Rachel. We’re helping kill all life in the Slime Ball system. And I’m okay with it.”

“That’s great, hubby dear,” came Rachel’s voice, from an unstable orbit of the planet. “Now come give me a ride. We can both fit in yours, right?”

“We did good, right?” said Aliya. “We made it?”

“We did good,” said Clay.

 

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