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5.

The little fleet stayed at Azure for two weeks. Then Fonnggark set off back toward Greenstar, with much awkward hugging and hopes that in all their strange chronologies they would meet again, and the ten fighters and Tasmania took off, headed for Armpit. Clay had had an idea; so had Padfoot, helped by a couple of Fonnggark’s furry six-armed tech people; equipped with those ideas, the human fleet set off to clear up the situation at the final fortress of the Orion Arm.

They only had forty light years to travel. Clay insisted on pushing the fighters to nine nines past the decimal, at which speed they would barely coast at all in their own chronologies. And when they were there, at a velocity so close to the speed of light that the light itself gave up on them and they wandered in a realm of holes and expanses and strange sliding perspectives, ten fighters huddled together in the blackness, the order went out. They did the unthinkable: they maneuvered at 99.999999999% of light speed. They dropped sideways, waited a tic and hit 120% deceleration.

And sixty hours later, when they were supposedly down to 25% of light speed, the darkness around them had not dispelled.

And twenty hours after that, they were still dragging the tenebrous drapes of light speed around them.

And then the system began all at once to appear, still not clear as day and night, but crisp, like the sounds coming through a foggy morning. Things were all around them: big things, not planets, living things. Living ships. But all was veiled, as if in a fog, and tiny things, like, say, Ghost 205s, were especially veiled.

“Clay,” called Vera, “what the heck?”

“For now we see as through a darkened glass,” said Clay, “but then we shall see, as we shall be seen. Ready?”

“Ready,” called Rachel. “Separate, everyone. We’re here.”

“Clay Gilbert,” said Natasha.

“For when I was a child,” said Clay, “I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, but now I have come to manhood, and I have put the childish things aside.” He fired his thrust to come to a near stop. So did everyone else.

They were in the middle of a fleet of the Enemy. It was just gathering for the assault on the already hard beset lunar fastness of the Ngugma, on a craggy moon of a craggy giant terrestrial planet, planet already covered in green slime in the glare of a nearby red giant, the sun of Armpit. Thirty or forty more flowers, and dozens of shzhawkhor, buzzed about.

The Enemy was here, in Armpit, in the last stronghold of the Ngugma on the shores of the Empty Straits. The Enemy was here in massive force, having gathered its legions from a dozen systems spiraling outward to this point. The Enemy was here, infecting, sliming every planet, eating every life. In all its green gooey glory, the Enemy was ready to take the last castle and unleash a full-scale invasion of the Orion Arm.

But before the Enemy could ever register them, this Enemy that had grown in the light of exotic suns, that had grown from seed and spore in the center of the Galaxy and come here to overwhelm the fortress of the mighty Ngugma, the fighters from Earth and Bluehorse opened fire on them. They did not use their lasers this time: each chose targets and fired missiles designed by Padfoot herself, and then they shot out of the pack of the Enemy and watched the missiles hit. Everything they hit began to decompose immediately.

“A little radioactivity,” said Rachel, “a little explosive, a little good ol’ human engineering.”

“Oh look,” called Timmis Green, “more Enemy to mangle.”

“Oh look,” called Li, “the planet is all infected.”

“Don’t worry,” said Rachel. “Tasmania is coming behind. They have more astatine to synthesize and unload. And I’m reading Ngugma tech still alive in that station. We got here in time.”

“Okay,” said Vera, “let’s go mangle some more enemy.”

The ten fighters took off toward the planty fleet ahead of them, whooping and hollering, until Li set off a buzzer and announced, “Everyone, please! The Vow. Please.”

Rachel called to Clay, and there was her face, the face he loved more than any other, on the left half of his screen. “Here we are, Clay Gilbert,” she said. “Gonna keep the Vow. Made it way back on Bluehorse. Still keeping it.”

“I know,” said Clay, wiping a tear.

“Aww, baby,” she said. “We’re gonna do it. We are going to frickin’ do this thing. It’s amazing.”

“I know,” he said. He looked out on the system, spread against the starry veils of the Milky Way center. They were tiny things, two meter grey grains among the stars and planets and vast, vast voids. But they were the mighty ones.

“Clay,” she said, “we are alive. This thing before us, this is not life. Life is us.”

“Oh, I know,” he said. “Life’s winning again.”

Half the screen was filled with Rachel’s grin. Then it shut off, and she sent him a maneuver sequence, and the two of them set off to find more targets.

 

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