Chapter 3: The freighter

III. The freighter

 

1.

“That’s your plan?” was Kalkar’s response. Alpha Wing had flown out to meet the incoming little fleet, and now, with their Tskelly friend (who had a name; it was something like Skzyyn Aarndr-rii), they floated in the Tasmania bay control.

“It’s more exploratory than anything else,” said Rachel.

“You take two wings and you attack one of those freighters,” said Park. “And you don’t lose anyone.”

“I have the privilege to go withhh,” said Skzyyn Aarndr-rii. “Tskelly will definitely go withhh.” Floating meant that the Tskelly could be the same height as the humans: Skzyyn, as presumably it was known to its friends, hung in the air near Clay as if it were part of a mobile.

“And you consider than the Fyaa pilot’s sensible, risk-averse attitude is on display in this plan.”

“I consider that we have to figure out what we can actually do,” said Rachel. “Look, the Fyaa can go with us, but you know they’re not bound by the Unbreakable Vow. They can do what they want.”

“So you don’t mind them throwing their lives away,” said Daria Acevedo.

“Noo, nooo, noooo,” said Skzyyn, who seemed put out by Acevedo’s suggestion. “Nooo, we would throw away our life if we seet and watch our home worlds get chewed up and shat out.”

“They don’t see it that way,” said Natasha.

“Okay, okay,” said Acevedo to the Fyaa pilot, who was about twenty centimeters from her sharp nose, “I take your point. Anyway, I didn’t take any unbreakable vow, nor did my wing.”

“You’re going anyway.” She looked at Kalkar. “You have a question, Alfred?”

“The question that comes to mind,” said Kalkar, “is, are you insane? But I know your answer to that.”

“Oh, perhaps we are crazy. I suppose it’s what’s called for.”

 

“We don’t get to go,” said Apple, when the eight pilots of Alpha and Beta were all together in the number one barrack. “That sucks. You’re punishing us.”

“I’m not anything,” said Rachel. “Anytime I’m in a room with Su Park, I’m not the one in charge. She’s just switching you out for her wing. Maybe she wants them to get some experience.”

“She could send us all,” said Apple.

“Well, she’d say she’s leaving half with the freighters for security, and it’s just a matter of which half is left. And who knows, there’s all kinds of Ngugma gunboat around here. You could end up in a tougher fight than us.”

“Probably not,” said Apple, subsiding.

“Are any Primoids going in with you?” asked Izawa.

“They gave us nine,” said Rachel. “And six Fyaa. All fighters. The three Fyaa cruisers and the Primoid cruiser are staying with Honshu and Tasmania as backup.”

“When is the jump-off?” asked Clay.

“The freighter will be in the target zone between 41 and 43 hours from now. We have about 24 hours till we need to be in our Ghosts. The freighters and everyone else is going to be a light minute or so behind us.”

“So, simulations?” asked Timmis.

“Simulations,” said Rachel. “Then dinner, then more simulations.” The hatch to the control room opened, and in came Park and her wing, Bain, Leith and Mr. Ree.

“Simulations,” said Park. “Ruthless simulations. For four hours. Then we have a little party.”

“Really?” said Rachel. “Like the old days?”

“Like on the Moon,” said Park. “Then we sleep it off, and then we join the Fyaa and the Primoids to simulate the hell out of it right up till jump-off.”

 

2.

First, in a blank three dimensions, Alpha went up against Beta a few times just to warm up. Beta did not win any of these. The best they did was Clay getting knocked out twice in a row, once to Izawa and once to Apple. Meanwhile, Gamma, under Daria Acevedo and featuring such seasoned veterans as Millie Grohl, Peri Schmitt and Mizra Aliya, went against Su Park’s Special Wing, and it was similarly one-sided.

Then, the four wings found themselves on the same side. Black space was exchanged for the Fyatskaab system, as though they were just looking outside. An enormous freighter was coming on a trajectory that would put it within twenty light minutes at 4% of light speed. It was not undefended, but it was not some figment of a computer’s imagination: again, look outside.

Orders came, giving each wing its own job. Dozens of cruisers and wave upon wave of robotic fighters and missiles came at them. The Alphas didn’t have a chance to see what happened to everyone else, but they got in a predicament in the bow face of one of the two escorting battleships. Clay and Rachel were both heavily damaged, and Rachel ordered the wing to crash the bridge of the battleship, which they did. The internal geometry of the ship was a complete guess, but the computer imagined a central passage. They shot down this and blew their way out the other side. Two Ghosts came around the battleship and joined them, shooting onward while it blew up in their rear views. It was Acevedo, who had lost her wing, and Apple.

“Park took Gemma on a feint,” said Apple. “We’re to attack the freighter.”

So they attacked the freighter. It was certainly an easy target to find, but it was heavily armored and it was well-armed. Repeated passes had not exposed an obvious weak spot, but they knew they could (theoretically) break a hole in the hull by concentrating fire, and the freighter would disintegrate with the rupture at maximum acceleration. They buzzed about, blasting another dozen robot fighters and another dozen gun emplacements. Apple got blasted, then Clay and Natasha, and when Rachel, Vera and Acevedo all tried to combine fire on a spot, they almost felt like they had something except they didn’t have enough of it before the computer Ngugma started picking them off. Acevedo lost control and her virtual self slammed nastily into the freighter hull. Park and Izawa showed up from wherever they’d been trying to distract the Ngugma, but by then the welter of returning cruisers and fighters was too much.

They reset and tried it all twice more. The first retry went worse than before, due to a spate of minor fatal errors: Clay, Vera, Li, Gemma Izawa, both Bain and Leith, and all of Gamma except Acevedo went down against the robot fighters, and the final humiliation was Acevedo and Park going two on one on the cyclopean freighter and getting shot down by cruiser fire a hundred thousand kilometers from the target. In the second, Clay, Rachel and Apple got to make a decent dent in a join of the freighter’s gigantic buttocks, but they didn’t get to find out how close to terminal the damage came; they were wiped off its hiney by a combination of missiles, fighters and fire from the freighter’s own emplacements. Others fought on, but that had been their best chance. In a minute, they were filing somberly back to the control room.

“Party,” said Park.

 

The party was not like the ones on the Moon. For one thing, almost everyone was paired up: even Anand Ree, the tail of Park’s Special Wing, was there with his wife, who was an engineer on the Honshu; their son was back on the Honshu reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Alpha Wing wasn’t even dancing: they were doing post mortem.

“So the trouble with that drill,” said Clay as he and Rachel and Natasha and Vera sat (lightly, in the planetoid’s nominal gravity) drinking synthesized whiskey, “was too much realism.”

“Aaah, that again,” said Rachel. “That’s what you said when we were simulating how to defeat the mouthholes. Remember that one?”

“Yeah,” said Vera. “Sucked. You couldn’t kill them. It was depressing.”

“We figured it out in the end,” said Rachel. “That simulation showed basically the limits of what we knew. We knew things about them, we just hadn’t yet figured out how to get through their shells. This time, we know how to do damage to Ngugma ships. Clay and I blew up a cruiser. And piles of real genuine Ngugma fighters. But these freighters, we’re just not at the level where we can do them enough damage before they kill us.”

“The sixteen of us,” said Vera. “How’s it going to be any better with only half of us, and the Primoids and the Fyaa added in?”

“And how the heck did we beat them in the simulator before?” asked Rachel. “Remember?”

“Two points,” said Natasha. “One, that wasn’t as realistic a sim as this was. We know more now. Sorry, but it’s true. And two, um, not to make a big thing of it, but we died. In that sim, the one we won. We all would have died in the end anyway.”

“And to destroy one freighter,” said Clay. He took a drink of his rather large whiskey, had a pull on Tasha’s rather full pipe, and gazed out into the middle of the control room, where Maria Apple, Gemma Izawa, Mizra Aliya, and Millie Grohl, all basically stripped to shorts and sports bras, were dancing like mad in the microgravity. He laughed. Apple looked over, waved, then ran over.

“Gonna dance with us, Clay?” she said. “Come on, we need a guy.”

“No, ah, ha ha,” said Clay.

“You don’t get to dance with Clay,” said Rachel, “till you’ve sat here with us and gotten depressed talking about the simulations.”

“Oh.” Apple got her serious face on, despite the fact that she was rather drunk. She pulled herself into a free chair. “So what exactly, I mean, this’ll sound stupid, what’s the actual objective?”

“Objective?” Natasha and Vera repeated.

“I mean, I know this sounds stupid,” said Apple, “but are we just trying to blow up a freighter?”

“No, no,” said Rachel, as if it were in fact a stupid question, and then she stopped. “It’s,” she said. She looked at Natasha and laughed.

“I guess it’s not a stupid question, is it?” said Natasha.

“Our objective is to wipe out the stupid Ngugma,” said Vera. “Can’t wait to get started.”

“It’s really just to stop them attacking planets,” said Clay. “Isn’t that basically what we don’t like about them?”

“Why do they need all that metal, anyway?” asked Natasha.

“Well, we’re not going to trade it with them,” said Rachel. “They destroyed our home planet. I think they have something coming to them. I’m inclined to unleash Vera on their asses.”

“But what do we need to do to them?” Apple persisted. “What do we need to do to say we won here? What do we need to do here in Fyatskaab?”

The Alphas all looked at each other. “Well, look,” said Vera, “the least we need to do is bring down one of these super-freighters. If we can’t do that, there’s nothing worthwhile we can do.”

“So that’s what we work on,” said Rachel. She looked at the time on her wrist display. “Okay. Clay Gilbert, I’m going to require your services in thirty minutes. Let’s get some dancing in first.”

So they danced, and they went off to bed in their joined fighters, and then they got up and joined the Primoids and the Fyaa and even the Tasmania and Honshu crews in the simulation: these last got to run the bigger Ngugma ships. Things didn’t go great, but in the fifth try, they lucked out and blew up the freighter. All the Fyaa had got themselves blown up, as had most of the Primoids, but they bought just enough time for Izawa, Li Zan, Acevedo, Park and, of all people, Anand Ree to cut several seams open and let the triple-hulled tank of lava get out. Ree’s fighter got hit by a loose glob of hot rock in space, but it only meant he got to celebrate before the others. When the other four took off their helmets and ended the simulation, Mister Ree had his wife’s arms around him as Clay and Natasha lit him a bong.

“It’s going to be fine, Chief,” Ree said to Park as she came over, prepared to be sarcastic. “We got this. I promise.”

“You promise?” she repeated.

“I promise,” he said again.

Park looked around, sighed, and then reached for the bong herself. “In that case,” she said, “I guess we’ve done enough for now. Jump-off’s in an hour and a half, people.”

 

3.

The Honshu and the Tasmania got to stay back with the four alien cruisers, following at a discreet distance. Nine Primoids, and twelve Fyaa fighters, half of them locals, got to join the sixteen human fighters who set off after the Ngugma super-freighter. The target was the size of a county, moving at 4.5% of light speed, and seemed to have no idea it was a target. What could possibly threaten it? And if anything did threaten it, it had dozens of cruisers, hundreds of spidery robotic fighters, and two spacecraft larger than a Primoid battleship escorting it.

The fighters took off un-joined, presumably to get them all in the mood. It definitely got them in a mood. They simulated some more, but it was depressing. After six more hours of being killed off one by one while chewing the kinds of holes the Ngugma mechanics probably had to fill anyway from random asteroid collisions, Rachel logged off the simulation, then hooked up fighters with Clay. In another half hour, they were floating together in post-coital torpor.

“We could do just as much damage if we got out and kicked the thing,” said Clay with a yawn. “Why are we doing this, anyway? Just curious.”

“Clay,” said Rachel. She sighed, then smiled at him. “Okay. You’re allowed to be curious. But gosh darn it, Clay, we have to do damage to the Ngugma. Somehow. And since we don’t actually know how to do damage to the Ngugma, not in any serious way, we need to learn how to do damage to the Ngugma. And we can’t learn by running a hundred simulations. Because the simulations are only based on what we know already, except for the part that’s just guesswork. We can’t know anything new unless we actually go get that knowledge. And the only place we can get it is that freighter.”

“We could attack one of their patrol groups,” said Clay. “We could—!”

“Not the same, Clay Gilbert. Not the same. We can blow up all kinds of their ships. We have never even tried to blow up anything even close to that big.”

“There isn’t anything that big. There isn’t anything within two orders of magnitude of an Ngugma super-freighter, other than an Ngugma super-freighter.”

“And that, Mr. Gilbert, is why we have to attack the Ngugma super-freighter.” She kissed him on the lips. “Now,” she said, “if you have any special insights into how to do that, feel free to share.”

Clay couldn’t think of anything. They took a sleep period, they woke up with about eight hours left on the clock, they simulated some more. They played some chess, and then they simulated some more. Occasionally, the humans and Primoids and Fyaa would eke out a win. One time, Clay and Rachel managed to repeat the trick of blasting their way into the battleship, and then blasting their way out the other side, and in the process they managed to get close to the gigantic freighter, with Izawa and Mizra Aliya and two Fyaa fighters right behind them, and that led to one of their occasional successes: the six of them managed to burn a big enough hole through all three ply of armor that the lava-carrying freighter blew out. Five of the six were basically killed in the process: only Izawa was both quick enough and lucky enough to get out of Dodge in the second before the thing went to hell. And she found herself surrounded by dozens of fighters and six cruisers, but she got to quit the simulation and declare victory.

Afterward, Alpha Wing had a private conference. “It’s sort of worked twice ever in the sims,” said Rachel. “Maybe it’s a strategy.”

“Or is that a tactic?” asked Natasha. Rachel rolled her eyes.

“Okay,” said Vera, “it’s better than not having a strategy. Are you going to put a package together, send it to Park, see who salutes and all that?”

“Well, we have two hours to kill,” said Rachel.

“Seriously,” said Vera, “we did make the Vow.”

“The Vow is serious,” said Rachel. “We don’t go back on the Vow.”

“So what does that mean exactly?” asked Natasha. “We fight till one of us has no working flectors left, and then we give the signal to break off?”

“It means this,” said Rachel. “If you are down to your last thread, yeah, you break off. You shut down power and go dead. Be ready to dump your engine core if you need to. And none of us goes anywhere without a buddy. Dang it, we need to get in close and lay some whoop-ass on these guys. Just remember, we can break off this time and there’ll be a next time.”

“And we’ll have learned something,” said Natasha.

“Sure,” said Vera, “and we will have blown some stuff up. Look, we take out that battleship in any case, okay? Because with that gone, they’re not going to take any chances by trying to kill us off. They’re going to get that freighter to light speed and let the rest of the Ngugma star fleet come clean us up.”

“So you say go for the battleship,” said Rachel.

“I think we have to. What do you think, Clay?”

“I guess I agree,” said Clay.

“You guess?”

“Well,” said Clay, “I kind of thought I had an idea of my own, but I can’t see how to make it workable without another sixteen hours of simulation. Probably not even then.”

“Really?” said Rachel. “Why not lay it on us, Hunkalicious?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Clay. “I don’t want to spoil the seriousness of this moment by having you guys laughing at me.”

“Okay,” she said slowly, eying him with a smile. “Okay. So we have what we have. But yeah. Let’s go for that battleship.”

 

4.

Attacks do not come out of nowhere in deep space. The Ngugma super-freighter, doing 4.6%, was well outside the outermost orbit of the Fyatskaab system, flanked at 100,000 kilometers on either side by its two battleship escorts. Around these, a constellation of seventeen cruisers cruised; the little spidery fighters were stashed away in bays, except for three wings of four on patrol, one wing a million kilometers out in front, one a million kilometers behind, and one wing hanging around like four tiny ladies in waiting. The approaching fleet of attackers curved in from the side, with the two human armored freighters and the Primoid cruiser four million kilometers in back.

At this moment, Park had one of her occasional changes of heart: she sent Bain and Leith of her Special Wing and Mizra Aliya and Millie Grohl of Gamma to join the seven larger ships in back, and reconstituted her own wing with Acevedo as second and Peri Schmitt and Anand Ree as third and tail. She communicated further desires to Rachel, Li and Natasha, and Natasha communicated with the Primoids and the Fyaa.

Meanwhile the Ngugma fighting ships shifted toward the attackers. Another eighty fighters emerged from various orifices. It would seem bizarre to any space-faring species, the scant and tiny hunters chasing down the unspeakably huge and also very well-protected quarry. It certainly seemed bizarre to Clay.

But he didn’t have a thing to say about it, and so he said nothing. They all separated their fighters again at a range of four million kilometers, the distance light travels in about thirteen seconds. The two battleships were steadily drifting toward the attack, along with most of the cruisers. Minutes ground by.

“Okay,” said Rachel, “let’s test their skills with the third derivative.” She sent a navigation program to her wing, and then broke away from the rest of the tiny fleet. They weren’t just accelerating: they were making a sequence of sudden, extreme changes in acceleration, from one kilometer per second per second turning this way to catch up with the back of the Ngugma group, to one km/sec/sec that way and up, to a km/sec/sec down and that way. The battleships gave up and concentrated on the Fyaa and the Primoids who were coming straight at them.

Of course it was too much to hope for that Alpha Wing would find themselves facing the vulnerable underbelly of the Ngugma super-freighter, undefended. It didn’t have a vulnerable underbelly. It had another eighty fighters, and cruisers behind them, and tens of thousands of missiles. The Ghosts shot off their own hundred missiles each, and the space before them cleared a little: there was a path to the layer of spidery fighters. Four cruisers behind them scrambled into place and began laying down fire, and the chaos of the robotic fighters’ artificial intelligence began to precipitate into a sort of order.

And that order met Rachel Andros and Vera Santos and Natasha Kleiner. The robotic fighters came in at each of them in a sweeping pattern that must have been the result of extensive computation.  The Alphas, for their part, had prepared by doing dozens of depressing simulations. This was the real thing. Clay, running behind the others, watched as Vera, Tasha and Rachel sheared through those veils of fighters. One robot, hit but not dead, spun through firing: Clay cut it in half. Two more managed to dodge around Vera, and Clay put a hole in the computer core of one, winged the other and let it spin off into oblivion. Pieces were flying through the three ladies in front of him, but now no whole fighters. Clay got a text and a garbled voice message from Rachel, but before he could figure out what that was about, the three ladies were slicing to the side. Clay didn’t respond instantly, and there he was in the face of two cruisers.

They were not robots. These were living beings, Ngugma, furry critters with tentacles, chestnut-maned starbursts who had masterminded the destruction of H. sapiens on Earth. Now they were trying to mastermind the destruction of Clay Gilbert.

He zigged and zagged and fired off missiles and took some shots, but he was playing for time and he only had seconds. He grabbed his brain by the ears and made it pay attention. He pulled left and swerved into the face of one cruiser, braving its fire lines to place the perfect shot just there. Just there was not sufficient, so he came around and swerved again: he and the Ngugma and everyone else in the battle were basically charging together out of the Fyatskaab system at 4.6% of light speed, but in the middle of the fray, they might have been standing still whacking each other with cricket bats.

He took four small hits to his flectors, and just as he was thinking he should check that out, he somehow got within eighty meters of the cruiser. It could not target him. Behind him, the other cruiser was coming around to wipe him off the side of its pal. He placed four shots right there, and the cruiser before him shook with a silent explosion. Then one more there, and he was pulling away, looking for the other cruiser, while its pal blew up in his rear view.

The other cruiser was right where he didn’t expect it. It opened up on him.

He was hit before he got a shot off. He was hit, and it was bad. His systems went down. His finger went to his screen in a final act: dump the frickin’ drive system. Again. He dropped into safe mode, spinning at ten rpm while he shot along the course of the super-freighter at 4.6% of light speed, hoping his friends would make it through and retrieve him.

 

5.

Clay had been dead in space and hurtling through emptiness before, and he didn’t like it. This time, at least, he had enough working equipment to watch the rest of the show.

The other Alphas went about clearing out the fighters on that side of the giant freighter. They came back in a long sweep, fizzing missiles and blasting robot foes, and just as two cruisers swung into their way, they coalesced into a jittery triangle and dropped sideways. The cruisers stalled, looking for them, and the triangle shot upward right through the wretched remains of one cruiser; the three wheeled sideways and blew through the other. One further cruiser came around the giant freighter, and in its fierce onset, Natasha’s Ghost took excessive damage and lost combat control and life support, though she didn’t need to jettison her engine. Rachel and Vera made short work of the cruiser, leaving it, too, dead in space.

On the far side of the fight, seven Fyaa fighters were left, along with six of the nine Primoids, and these were sweeping up Ngugma fighters that had got beyond the battle and were in danger of swinging back to flank Park and Beta Wing, who concentrated on really sticking it to one of the enormous battleships. Timmis and Li made a run together along one of the planes of its surface, cutting into the hull as best they could; Li’s combat systems went dead under fire, and Timmis’s shield went down. As they pulled away, they linked up and high-tailed it for the high grasses of space. Apple and Izawa made a run at the other battleship, but it was a feint. It was effective, though under the hail of fire they both took significant damage. Acevedo and Schmitt followed Li’s course up the side of the battleship, taking down a series of gun emplacements and blasting fighters coming out of yet another bay. But then Schmitt was hit so hard she ejected her drive and computer core and went cold. Acevedo dropped back and managed to nudge her second off course; then she turned back to the fight and got her shield blasted to hell. She took a few more shots, covered her ass with missiles and headed off after Schmitt.

That left Park and Anand Ree to fly back up the battleship, raking and blasting. One enormous section, the size of the Honshu, began to show explosions, and then with a series of flashes was jettisoned. Everyone scattered. Five seconds later the section, one of four drive wings of the huge ship, blew up in spectacular silence.

Park, the Great Su Park, had lost some flectors. The Man of Mister Ree had lost most of his, and had also managed to fire off all his missiles. They pulled away, and the Fyaa and the Primoids pulled off with them, hitting the brakes to let their armored freighters catch up and retrieve them.

Clay saw a Ghost come up on him. With a solid clunk, it hit and attached. “Here to get you, Hubby Hunk,” said his wife’s voice. “Déjà vu all over again, huh?”

“I’m sealed up okay, Rache,” he said. “You should open up and check me for space ticks.”

“Oh, yeah, I might’ve picked up a few of those myself,” said Rachel. “We can do each other.”

“Rache,” said Clay as they got the hatches open to each other. “Did we lose anyone?”

“Natasha’s pretty bad off, but not as bad as you. Vera’s got her.” She started peeling off her suit, as if it were the obvious next thing to do. “Let’s see: Park and Ree, Apple and Izawa, Li and Timmis, yep, Daria and Peri, looks like we’re good. Most of the Primoids and, weird, most of the Fyaa are still going.”

“So’s the Ngugma freighter. Basically untouched.”

“Shush, hubby balls. We did a lot of damage, and we kept our Vow. That’s pretty good.”

“It’s pretty good, but it’s not enough. You know that.”

“I do know that,” said Rachel, stepping out of her vac suit and starting in on Clay’s. “Now forget all that and let’s see about those space ticks. Oh, looky, you got something a lot bigger than a space tick hidin’ in there. I better look into that.”

“Ohhh,” said Clay, “I really think you should. I’m experiencing swelling.” And she did look into it, as they fell back toward the Honshu, and the Ngugma super-freighter, with its cubic kilometers of ore and most of its pride intact, continued accelerating.

 

6.

It took a bit over an hour for Honshu, the larger of the two armored freighters, to pick up the wretched refuse of the battle. Park greeted them each as they arrived, mostly in pairs. By the time Clay and Rachel were aboard, Park was accompanied by Padfoot and Poto Wall, as well as Vera and Natasha, Acevedo and Schmitt, and Anand Ree and his wife and three-year-old son. Vera and Natasha hugged him, then hugged Rachel, then floated there holding hands.

“Gilbert,” said Park, “glad to see you’re fine. Is this your third engine dump, or just your second?”

“I’m not sure, Commander,” he said, “I lost count. It might be my fourth.”

“Padfoot and company will see to you. You’re far from the only one to have to part with a significant piece of equipment.”

“Sorry, Padfoot,” said Clay.

“Not a problem,” said Padfoot. “We’ll have you back in your fighter in twelve to twenty-four hours.”

“Seriously??”

“Those are our orders,” said Poto Wall, smirking in Park’s direction.

“Did we happen to capture any Ngugma?” asked Rachel. “From, like, those cruisers?”

“They did have floating escapees,” said Park, “but we did not hold the field of battle at the end, and they sent out shuttles to pick up their survivors. If we had left ours, who knows what they would have done with them.”

“Happy not to know,” said Clay. “So what’s next?”

“We’re going to have a nice meeting,” said Park. “Because we did keep our vows, and because that Ngugma freighter is accelerating, as you would expect, very slowly.”

“You’re thinking of having another go?” asked Rachel.

“I think,” said Park, “that we need to talk about it. In six hours. We all need a little sleep first, I think. But not too much.”

 

“I can’t believe it,” said Maria Apple, as she and Gemma Izawa hung in the air in the middle of the Tasmania’s café, surrounded by the other members of Alpha and Beta. They had all played some freight section squash soccer, and now they were drinking beer out of sippy cups. She glanced around the others, who gave her patient looks. “I’m part of you guys. We’re part of you guys.” She looked at Izawa, who was giving Apple her usual flat expression. It broke into a giggle. They kissed.

“Okay, stop that,” said Vera. “We know.”

“No,” said Timmis Green, “I still can’t believe it, and I’ve been in one of the wings since the Moon.”

“What can’t you believe?” asked Li Zan. “That you’re a fighter pilot?”

“Well, yeah,” said Clay and Timmis at the same time. “Seriously,” said Clay. “I feel like I answered an ad. In 2333. What the heck year is it now?”

“And how many aliens have you blown up?” asked Vera. “Killer.”

“Bottom line,” said Natasha, “like Su Park said way back on the Moon. We are the best. And you’re here because you are the best. Right, Rache?”

“We are the best,” said Rachel. “But just remember. You can’t just be the best. It’s not a state of being. It’s a verb, not a noun. You have to keep not getting blown up, battle after battle. You have to own the mouthholes. Then you have to own the Primoids, own the Fyaa. You own them, and then, if they have brains, unlike the mouthholes, they’ll want to be your allies. They’ll have to be.”

“And then you have to own the Ngugma,” said Vera. “Are they overrated? Maybe they are. What do you guys think?”

“I don’t frickin’ care if they’re individually overrated,” said Natasha. “They have some awesome production. If they can spit out eighty robot fighters at any twelve of us, they’re going to win some of the time.”

“That,” said Li, “is why it’s so important to be in top form every second of every fight.”

“Amen to that,” said Timmis.

“Yeah,” said Apple. “That part. It’s scary.”

“What’s scary, Maria?” asked Izawa.

“Being on all the time. Not making a single mistake. Not a single one.” She looked Izawa in the eye. “I guess what I’m saying is, I can’t believe we kept the Vow.”

“I believe it,” said Rachel.

“You guys came up with the Vow,” said Vera to Rachel. “Back on Bluehorse, when you finally decided to be a couple. What did you actually say? Originally?”

Rachel looked into her sippy cup. She said, “It was something like this. Be careful. But don’t just be careful. Be alive. Be alive at the end of the next battle.”

“Let me point out,” said Clay, “we were getting ready for that first big Primoid fleet we fought, at Bluehorse. We were so outnumbered. And every single one of us was in that battle. Also, Rachel was like half naked when she said this.”

Rachel laughed, and possibly blushed a little. She said, “It was just that simple. Win, and save the colonists, and so on. And don’t die. And then don’t die in the next one and the one after that, and just keep on not dying.” She smiled at Clay. They took hands.

“That simple,” said Gemma Izawa. She leaned over and kissed Maria Apple.

“It really is simple,” said Clay. “It’s the hardest thing in the universe, but it’s just very simple.”

“Because the one who wins,” said Natasha, “is the one who’s alive at the end.”

“What more is there to frickin’ say,” said Rachel. She raised her sippy cup, and the others all held theirs out and somehow everyone clunked everyone else, and they drank.

 

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