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The freighters were doing their laudable dirty work still, by the time Tasmania reached orbit of Slime Ball 2. Further out, only two of the six Ngugma cruisers survived, and only one of the four heavy cruisers didn’t take significant damage. The battleship had several dead sections. Even the explorer-cruiser had gotten involved, fighting off the last of the big “ships” of the enemy. But Gwoav and Fonnggark were in a good mood.

The Bluehorsers’ mood was more complicated. They were all still alive, and they had won their first battle against major forces of a species that even the Ngugma feared. But they were now even further from home, whatever that even meant. They hadn’t breathed free air since before Offvroffh. They were also well aware that they’d had a narrow shave.

“I can believe a lot of us got knocked out,” said Natasha, when most of the fighter pilots were sitting around the Tasmania bridge, beers in their hands. “But down to two?”

“And those two?” said Vera.

“And just two freighters,” said Timmis. “If we’d lost even one of those—!”

“We would have had Tasmania as backup,” said Rachel. “I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, but Kalkar agreed to carry a backup reactor setup just in case we lost all the Ngugma freighters.”

“It was a brave decision,” said Kalkar. “It gave us every excuse to stay out of the way.”

“Well,” said Apple, “where to next?”

“Armpit,” said Rachel. “Remember that spiral pattern? They’ve been building up to an attack on Armpit. That’s the whole purpose of this system we just despoiled. To take out the Ngugma’s fortress on the border, and that would bring the deluge.”

“They’re working a long plan, aren’t they?” said Natasha. “Thousands of years,” said Gemma.

“So are we,” said Rachel.

“And their newest fleet is on their way there already,” said Clay. “And we let them go.”

“Sweetie pie.” He ducked his head apologetically. She went on, “They’ll be concentrating their forces. We took out their source system, but they’ll have plenty of assets coming from previous slimings. So that’s where we’re going.”

“That’s over twelve hundred light years from here,” said Timmis. “One jump?”

“Not quite,” said Emily Gray. “We have a staging system.”

“How far is that?”

“1180,” said Gray.

“We’re in a hurry, aren’t we?” said Clay. “We just won and—!”

“We need to nail this down,” said Rachel. “”We took out their source of ships in the Orion Arm, their industrial system as it were. Now all we need to do is eliminate their offensive force.”

“And we’ll be in the clear,” said Kalkar. “Eleven thousand light years from Bluehorse, but in the clear.”

“Fonnggark going with us?” asked Clay.

“We get Fonnggark. The rest of the Ngugma ships are headed for an arc through the systems the Enemy slimed on the way to Armpit. We may meet them again in like three thousand calendar years. But we take out this one force, we’ve done our jobs. We’ve justified coming all the way to the upper end of the Orion Arm. A distance of, well, by the time we get there, it will be 11,168 years since we left Bluehorse.”

“And then what do we do when we’ve done our jobs?” asked Apple.

“We find someplace we can defend,” said Rachel, “and by golly, we defend it. Forever.”