Chapter 10: Vaannag Vul

X. Vaannaag Vul

 

1.

Death is the condition from which there is no recovery.

Rachel led Alpha Wing into the grooved terrain of the big asteroid, and down around it, hunting for their prey, Natasha behind her, Vera close behind Natasha, Clay taking a fairly distant position as tail. Rachel zigged and dropped and flipped dizzyingly and then cut around a sharp crag in a rock trench eight meters wide and turned hard right about 110°, and the other two ladies followed her, and when Clay made the turn, he knew there was something behind him.

Rachel was already shooting upward out of the crack, crossing a gap of a hundred kilometers toward the Ngugma freighter, an exact copy of Big Fourteen. Natasha and Vera followed her. Clay started, then dropped back.

Already in close along the surface of the freighter, the other three had met six enemy fighters. They were in the process of destroying them. Six, Clay counted, or his computer did: he should have two. He found a spire of rock in the middle of the now 20 meter crack, spun around it thinking of Rachel and the Moon, and came out firing.

He had four fighters against him, and they had him on target already.

Still, Clay Gilbert was nothing if not agile in a Ghost 204. He lost a couple of flectors, spun sideways and came up from the black depths at the lead fighters. One took a hit and spun up into space, dead to the world. The second took four hits to its central body, turned, took one more shot at Clay and then hit a wall and exploded. The other two went over to evasion until they could get a bead on him.

Clay came up out of the crack and headed for the big freighter, but as the last two fighters behind him made to follow, he flipped again and dropped straight at them. His right flectors went down with a blast: he ignored his screen warnings and knocked the third enemy dead. Now he had just one, and it ran. He chased it, thinking: lo, even into the mouths of Hell I shall pursue thee!

But long before he reached the mouths of Hell, Clay was dropping again into darkness, and then veering down and out and up again. Suddenly he was beset by doubt and confusion.

And then he was beset by photon fire. His drive core overloaded and he just had time for one more—and then the rock wall was coming at him and—

But this was not death. There would be recovery.

He climbed out of his Ghost, in the bay of the Honshu. He walked up to Padfoot, Rachel, Li and Daria, all standing around chatting and laughing.

“How were there ten of them?” he asked. “How did we have ten to fight?”

“How did you lose to Apple again?” asked Daria.

“Oh, that part was easy.” He turned, and there was Apple herself, pulling off her helmet. “How is it always you?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s not always me,” said Apple.

“Well, you always get me,” said Li Zan. “You made Tim smash into the wall before you did. You’ve got Gemma twice in a row. I guess Maria’s just good against you.”

“Or maybe I’m just good,” said Maria.

“Better than I am,” said Skzyyn, hopping up out of nowhere. “Dzvezyetz and I got to fly Ghosts!”

“Maybe we can try your fighters next simulation,” said Rachel. “Come on, Hubbylicious, let’s get some good Honshu eats and go to meeting, ‘kay?”

 

An hour later, all of Alpha and the commanders of Beta and Gamma joined Park, Kalkar, Root, and a couple each of the Primoids, the Kaahriig, the Tskelly and the Errhatzky, in the Honshu conference room. Park stood or floated near the middle, and next to her, dwarfing her in fact, was Patricia Hixon, a.k.a. Padfoot.

At some moment determined by Park alone, Park said, “Thank you.” Everyone shut up. She turned to the mechanic and said, “Padfoot?”

“Thank you, Commander,” said Padfoot. She pushed a brown hair back out of her face, clicked a remote in her hand and looked to her left. A three dimensional display was opening up next to her: Fvaerch and the Primoid who wasn’t Skippy moved out of it and tried to get out of everyone’s way. The display was dark, and in its middle was Big Fourteen or something just like it. “So what do we have?” said Padfoot. “A freighter carrying five thousand cubic kilometers of metal and silicate, actually mostly metal because they dump a lot of the silicate. So that’s five trillion cubic meters, or about twenty-five, thirty trillion tons, or something like two times ten to the forty-third protons and neutrons.”

She looked around. Natasha and Skippy and the Primoid cruiser captain were gesturing around Natasha’s tablet while Fvaerch looked on; other than that, this room full of egos was silent.

“So when I look at this,” Padfoot went on, “or when Poto looks at this, or really, when Hhmvyvya looks at this, when the Kaahriig look at this, one thing we all see is a bunch of protons. And that means a bunch of opportunities for what?” She smiled around. No one said a thing. “Well,” she said, smiling at Park, who joined her for the next two words: “Proton decay.”

“Proton decay?” several people repeated. “That’s just a theory, isn’t it?” said Clay.

“It’s real,” said Padfoot. “But normally, in a whole solar system, you might see one proton decay every billion or trillion years.”

“But you can speed it up?” said Rachel.

Padfoot, smiling, raised her eyebrows. She tweaked her 3D display. “Yes,” she said, “we can. And in a densely packed collection of metals, say, a hold full of lava, we can make it contagious.”

She handed her remote to Park, who smiled, pushed a button, and caused a spot inside the hold of the freighter to glow red. A second later, or perhaps a nanosecond slowed way down, the entire freighter blew out, its metal cargo flying apart and burning-evaporating as it did so.

They all looked at this for some seconds. There was some whispering. Skzyyn said in Clay’s ear, “Science on Fyatskaab thought this could be done, but we never did it. Or we would have.” But no one spoke right up: they were still watching the bits burn to smaller bits. They still watched the empty space when the super-hauler was no more.

“How the—?” asked Clay.

“Well,” said Padfoot, “it turns out that the Primoids and the Fyaa have both studied proton decay extensively. And so did some people on Earth. The Primoids came to the conclusion that proton decay would be more likely to occur in a molten metal than in any other form of matter. Something to do with combining heat and metallicity and the liquid state. And they observed it, they actually documented proton decay thirty or forty times, where we have maybe ten we thought were probable. And the Kaahriig scientists, they were studying ways to trigger proton decay, and they thought, well, they were using mercury, which if you think about it is a molten metal, it’s just molten at room temp. And they documented about thirty events. Not a lot, but enough to make us think.”

“How sure is this?” asked Cassiopeia Root.

“We’re about as sure as we can be from just simulations,” said Padfoot. “We got it so it always works, in the computer simulations. So, that sure.”

“From anyone but you,” said Park, “I would not consider that very sure.”

“So,” said Vera, “apparently we can blow up super-freighters.”

“So we can show the Ngugma that we can blow up super-freighters,” said Padfoot.

“And we need to show them,” said Park, “even if it’s just an experiment.”

After another long moment of thought, Kalkar said, “So we have a show. Now where can we find an audience?”

“You mean,” said Root, “a population of Ngugma who will recognize what we now know how to do? We have a larger distribution hub, a system where we think they do processing and manufacture, about thirty-two light years from Okhozzhan, from here. You may recall that as we were first arriving in this lovely system, another freighter was departing in another direction: that was headed for the particular distribution system we have in mind.”

“Big plaaaccce?” said Sheaeek.

“Very big,” said Root. “In the depot computer, it’s listed as the hub for eleven different depots.”

There was another silence. Then Kalkar said, “Well, shall we be on our way? We have a show to put on.”

 

2.

The preparations for departure had a few surreal touches. When Clay wasn’t simulating, he was in the ersatz pilot chair on Big Fourteen, getting the massive ship turned and headed for the next system. Its name was Vannaag Vul, vannaag meaning something like grand transfer, and vul representing an ordinal symbol, the equivalent of E, meaning five or fifth. Grand Transfer #5. An Ngugma cruiser was requisitioned, and carefully sanitized, and crewed by two human crew from Honshu, a Primoid from the Primoids’ cruiser, one Kaahriig, three Errhatzky and one Ngugma, namely Flaayy. Flaayy was considered sufficiently intimidated, but no matter how cowed it was, it was also confined to its own quarters and locked out of the controls.

Vannaag Vul, 112 light years in a straight line from Bluehorse and 189 from Earth, was a system with a big yellow star and over a dozen significant planets, and millions of Ngugma and billions of their slaves and robots. There were extensive mineral processing plants there, as well as a range of factories, including one that built the massive freighters and battleships the Ngugma used, and another that cranked out robotic fighters. It also built ground transport, computing and telecom devices, and household appliances, and hosted an Ngugma Starfleet base.

The Primoids and Fyaa had all agreed to go on—they had insisted on it, though both the Primoids and the Kaahriig seemed to think that from there they might turn back to their own space. Captain Root hinted that she might think it time to turn Honshu for home, 112 years away. None of the fighter pilots thought this way.

“We’re going on,” said Vera, in the Tasmania commissary. “After we kick ass at VV, I’m not planning on feeling fulfilled and ready to head home. There’s more fight to be had.” Rachel, Clay, Natasha, Apple, Izawa, Kalkar and Irah Chontz, the Tasmania navigator, all clicked sippy cups of beer and drank.

“How are you feeling, hunks?” asked Rachel later, in their bunk on Honshu, after lovemaking. “Ready for more, or feeling homesick?”

“Oh, that’s a laugh,” said Clay. “Homesick. I don’t even know what that means.”

“Aww. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine, actually.” They faced each other, each caressing the other’s hair. “I think back on Earth, on Maine,” he said, “it’s so long ago, so far away I can’t even really imagine it as being in the same life as this. It’s like something I remember from a dream.”

“I know what you mean,” said Rachel. “Vancouver. I lived in Japan for six months.” She laughed. “My ex. I can’t even quite remember what that dickhead looked like. The funny thing is,” but she got serious as she said, “it’s not like it’s childhood we’re remembering, it’s not like it’s even that long ago for our bodies, our brains, it’s, oh, I don’t know, two or three years we’ve lived? Do you have any idea?”

Clay thought a moment. “No,” he said. “I don’t. Add up the time accelerating and decelerating and being on planets and the time we spent near light speed time dilating, and—well, you could figure it out, but I doubt it’s more than three years. But it’s four hundred years ago. Four hundred years since we left Earth. Almost two hundred more to get back, and what would we find? The place all smashed up, nothing the same. Worse. At least Bluehorse would still be there. I hope.”

Rachel slowly shook her head. “Of course,” she said, “we’re not going back. We’re not going back there. Not yet, not for a long time.”

“Could be ten thousand years,” said Clay.

“Twenty thousand.” She shook her head. They both laughed. “Who would we report to?”

They looked at each other. After a minute, they leaned together and kissed. “Us,” he said. “We’ll report to us.”

“Damn right,” said Rachel. They kissed again. “Just you and me, and Vera and Tasha. We’ll never go home.”

“It’s weird to think about,” said Clay. “We would have to be a law unto ourselves. I mean, twenty thousand years later we turn in a report to our senior officers? You think Park’s going to come with us? Or Kalkar? Or Root?”

“Definitely not Root,” said Rachel. “We’ll need Beta and Gamma, of course.”

“You’re not going to let that Maria Apple beat me up too much, are you?”

“No, darling, of course not.” They kissed again, and again with some heat. “I am going to take good care of you,” she said.

“And I of you,” said Clay, and they proceeded to take very good care of each other, while around them the rest of the fleet began accelerating out of the Okhozzhan system, moving still further away from the planets of their birth.

 

3.

The big freighter discharged its Ngugma crew at Okhozzhan. Then, with the Ngugma cruiser and its mixed crew accompanying, it was set on its way to Vannaag Vul with Tasmania’s first pilot Ram Vindu and engineer Raea Chee, a husband and wife team forsooth, at the controls in the maintenance bay. Gamma Wing, the Ngugma cruiser and three Fyaa fighters flew escort. By the time Big Fourteen made it to coasting speed, the rest of the allied task force was already decelerating into the new star system.

Vannaag Vul is a spectacular system. The star is not technically a giant, but is more than three times the mass of Earth’s Sun. It is the single parent of fifteen children the size of Mercury or larger: four smallish hot rocks very close in, then two terrestrial planets, both colonized, then a row of six gas and ice giants, starting with a magnificent fellow with the looks of Jupiter, rings that would make Saturn envious, and the mass of the two put together. Beyond the outermost of these ice giants were a multitude of cold rocks, inactive comets and ambitious asteroids, of which three were sizeable, including one that was fifty percent larger in diameter than Earth.

The gas and ice giants have a lot of moons; the largest moon of the big fellow is itself bigger than Earth. Among these planets and moons and asteroids were a scattering of bases, in addition to the fully populated colonies on the two terrestrials. The inner planets and some of the outer ones bore the holes of Ngugma excavation, as did several of the moons, but the two colonized planets looked unquarried.

These two planets were as covered in city and civilization as they could easily be. The inner of the two bore extensive oceans and some rugged terrain, but everywhere else on it was coated with Ngugma population. The outer of the two carried wide polar ice caps and three modest-sized seas, and was otherwise pretty well paved. In addition, large stations orbited each of the two, with fleets of spaceships coming and going. They counted six different super-haulers along the lines of Big Fourteen docked here and there, and a seventh approaching dock ahead of them: it was the one they had glimpsed on its way out of Okhozzhan Olv when they were arriving there. Cruisers and fighters as well as unarmed craft of all sorts skittered about the system.

Watching all this were two dozen people and Tskelly and Errhatzky and Primoids hanging about the bridge of Honshu, while its pilots, navigators, an engineer, a gunnery officer and a couple of jacks of all trades went about their work.

“The two terrestrial planets,” said Captain Root, “they’re different. They have distinctly different populations, do you see?”

“That’s correct,” said her second pilot and science officer, a big quiet woman named Delatour. “The outer one is more polluted. And I can pick up high density residential areas far from any bodies of water; the Ngugma favor plenty of room and access to both land and sea. A hypothesis would be that the population is not Ngugma but some sort of working species.”

“Yeah,” said Natasha, “they have a slave race on VV-6. Can’t expect Ngugma to stoop to factory work. So, when do we recon?”

“Right now,” said Park. “We are sixty hours ahead of the freighter, and our main concerns are to find a safe outer planetoid for our base of operations, and a safe trajectory for Big One Four so we can get her right up to the front of the stage before Padfoot works her magic. Who to recon with? I judge that I might need you here, Ms. Kleiner; and when the freighter arrives, I will want both you and Santos to go back and escort her just in case. So I will say, Andros and her husband, and let’s send Izawa and Apple just to get them in the game a bit.”

“She’s plenty in the game,” Clay muttered to Natasha, who smirked.

 

4.

The little fleet continued to decelerate. They were already twelve billion kilometers, about eleven light hours, from the Ngugma factory planets, traveling at 26% of light speed. The four scouting fighters, Andros, Gilbert, Izawa and Apple, dropped out of the Honshu bay and began moving ahead of the bigger ships by simply not decelerating.

Ahead of them, they could see the star, just a star but brighter than any of the trillion other stars. Without the aid of their sensory software, they would never have been able to make out any of the planets, much less the many Ngugma ships of all sorts. But in their screens, with all the enhancements humans had made over the centuries, they could see plenty. There was already an Ngugma force undocked and starting to accelerate toward them: a couple of battlecruisers, six cruisers, eight patrol ships, and a bazillion robotic fighters.

They could also see now that there was a sizeable natural object just off their path to the inner planets. It was an ice giant, like Neptune but much darker in color, and way out here it didn’t pick up much light, so they had overlooked it in their count of the planets.

“They got wind of our approach,” said Clay. “They have a welcome party.”

“Course correction coming,” Rachel called. “Get ready for a thirty second drive burst, and then shut down again. Receiving?”

“Received,” called Clay, and the other two echoed.

“Okay,” said Rachel, “chess for the next twenty minutes, till we get in the shadow of that planet.” They paired off and ran a quick speed chess tournament, in which Clay demolished Apple and then got crushed by Rachel, who had demolished Izawa. They took ten seconds to celebrate or moan, and then they all checked their astrometrics in time to see the planet, still a hundred million kilometers away, interpose between them and the Ngugma task force.

“Okay, ready on my mark,” said Rachel. She gave them thirty seconds, and then they fired their thrust for exactly 33.22 seconds, cranking out the virtual ions just to bend their course toward the dark planet’s horizon. Then they all shut down and coasted, doing 22% of the speed of light right at the tops of the icy clouds on the dark planet. They confirmed that it had no rings and that its moons were all out of the way. It was a tidy little giant, with a higher density than they had expected: perhaps it had a large metallic core under all those methane ices.

The Ngugma came on, passing within thirty million kilometers of the ice giant. Ahead of them, two wings of Ghost fighters went out, along with six Primoids and four Fyaa, and these took up a defensive position in front of the two Fyaa cruisers and the Primoid cruiser, with the two armored freighters in the back.

All these ships were decelerating hard, including, now, the Ngugma force, which was slowing down to meet its enemy. Their engines showed their exertions, emitting signatures detectable millions of kilometers away. If their engines had been shut down, they might yet have appeared invisible, like the four fighters which the gravity of the dark ice giant had swung around its belly and slung outward, precisely at the Ngugma battlecruisers.

Clay and Rachel, Gemma and Maria: they were hurtling into the middle of the Ngugma task force. It took a long time still, and then it would happen fast. Eleven more hours they spent by themselves, flying silent and unpowered as they ran their own simulations, read, slept, and ate. They had watched as their screens filled up with the red-brown hulk of the dark planet; they watched it diminish behind them like a pitcher seen from the ball she just threw; they watched as the Ngugma fleet grew steadily larger. Those two battlecruisers: big, intimidating, single-mindedly focused on the cruisers and freighters coming toward them from Okhozzhan. So vulnerable.

Two minutes from the enemy, Clay suddenly wondered how he had got here. He wondered how a freight shuttle jockey from the Earth orbit run, for whom an exciting job was landing at the Moon base, found himself almost two hundred light years down the Orion Arm from Earth, in a ship that could fit inside his college dorm room closet hurtling toward a couple of ships the size of his whole college dorm plus the one next to it, bristling with guns. He wondered how he had survived so far, he wondered at the impossible dense horror of each alien intelligence he had met, and at how many of these had turned their attention to killing him. He wondered at the nearness of the night.

He wondered how he had got to be part of a wing that included Rachel, Vera and Natasha, or Rachel, Gemma Izawa and Maria Apple. He wondered how he had got so lucky.

He wondered how these particular Ngugma had got so unlucky.

 

5.

The Ngugma force outbound decelerated hard, so they could fully enjoy their encounter with the incoming task force, whose composition they must have been alerted to one way or another from Okhozzhan Olv. They arrayed in the usual Ngugma way for battle, putting their hundreds of robotic fighters out front, behind a cover of a thousand missiles, then the six cruisers in two triangles in front of the two battlecruisers. The eight patrol vessels were scattered among the back ranks of the fighters.

The incoming force deployed its missiles to the front as well, and mixed its eighteen fighters with its three cruisers, which were themselves an odd collection, one chunky Primoid ship and a pair of Fyaa vessels which looked like they’d been made of sections of PVC tubing. Behind them, Honshu and Tasmania lurked, looking for all the cosmos like they were trying to hide, or like they were defenseless freight haulers.

The missiles began to meet and cancel: the Fyaa and Earthling missiles were a good match for those of the Ngugma, all products of a convergent evolution which produced the same weapon from three cultures from three separate technological histories. The fighters—Gamma Wing and Park’s Special Wing, plus four Fyaa and six Primoids—began to meet the Ngugma robots. One Primoid fighter got knocked out, then a Fyaa, no one Clay knew well, blew up; Anand got hit in the wrong place and spun out, his computer fried. Spidery robot fighters began to go up, of course: Bain and Leith proved deadly with a dance they had developed, Skzyyn and Dzvezyets darted in and out, befuddling their machine foes, and Park took out her own enemies as well as Anand Ree’s.

The patrol boats sprang their one trick: of a sudden, the eight shot toward the middle of the fight, maneuvering like fighters but firing like cruisers. Their onset was supposed to shock and break the alien fighter attack. Instead, they found that the Primoid missiles, larger and heftier than the rest, had somehow, with their missile thrust off, drifted into the very zone where the patrol ships were concentrating. One by one, the big-ass missiles activated, picked a target and zoomed in on it. One by one, the eight patrol ships were knocked out. One minute into the fight, the invading fighters were polishing off the last of the Ngugma fighters and turning to face the cruisers.

The two battlecruisers began to lay down fire across the battle space, aiming to split the enemy fighters and force the enemy cruisers to go over to evade. Immediately one of the two battlecruisers began to experience pain in its side: four Ghosts no one had tracked were all of a sudden along its lateral hull and blasting their way into a bay behind the drive. A dozen reserve fighters were caught coming out of the bay and lost before they could get a shot off. Then the Ghosts, Rachel and Gemma, Maria and Clay, got inside the bay and started slicing forward into the drive section.

Eleven seconds of that was more than enough. Rachel gave the order to pull out. They came over the top of the cylindrical battlecruiser and headed for its sister ship. This time the reserve bay was already spitting out fighters, and these came fiercely at the Bluehorse wing. Izawa took a hit to her drive that forced her to eject it, but then took down two robot fighters before her inertia carried her past the battlecruiser and out of the battle. Clay and Maria lost most of their flectors, but managed to burn through eight more fighters. There was Rachel, pulling in from the right, putting a spot on the bay hatch, which the three of them burst through in a second. They only needed nine more seconds to slice into the drive system, and two to get out into space.

The first battlecruiser was already coming apart at the seams. Its drive section began to explode, and nodes up and down the big ship went up at one second intervals: after ten seconds of this, only the bridge section remained intact, without power, weapon or thrust. The second battlecruiser was already starting down the same road.

From there, the end was nigh for the six cruisers. Park, Leith and Bain made short work of one and then bottled up two more. The three remaining Fyaa fighters charged into the face of the fourth cruiser and blew it up before it could even target them. The fifth cruiser fought it out with Mizra Aliya, Millie Grohl and Peri Schmitt, who all took damage before over-killing it. The two Fyaa cruisers could afford to team up on the sixth Ngugma cruiser, which could not pin down the agile little craft; Fvaerch and Sheaeek pinched it between them, neatly disabling it. Behind them, Park’s wing and the Primoid fighters and cruiser were demolishing the last two Ngugma cruisers.

Behind them, a dozen Ngugma fighters had got behind everyone else and were onto the Honshu, pelting it with fire. The bridge was breached, and while Root and her crew were dealing with that, they came around the freight to get at the drive section. But three fighters came over the top of Honshu, where they had lain in wait: Li, Timmis and Daria, who set upon the robotic attackers. Li took out one but suffered a critical hit and had to eject her drive; Timmis took out two more but also took several serious hits. That left Acevedo, who zigged and zagged about the Ngugma fighters, killing the robots before they could get a bead on her. Once she had destroyed six of them, there were none left: the Honshu and Tasmania gunners had taken care of the rest.

Behind it all, by now, the two battlecruisers were no more. The Ngugma in the bridge of one of them were taken in tow by the Honshu; the other was gone from space.

“We lost one,” called Kalkar over everyone’s comm. “We pay our respects to Commander Tzvaezyoy. Everyone else is alive and pretty much intact. We did it again.”

“Good work, people,” said Park over the comm, and she repeated the phrase in the Fyaa lingua franca; Captain Fvaerch replied by saying the same thing in reverse order.

“Phew,” said Clay. “I don’t know how we do it.”

“Because we’re the best, that’s how,” Apple replied.

“And we have to keep doing it,” said Rachel. “All down the Orion Arm. You ready for that one, Lieutenant Apple?”

“Oh yeah,” said Apple, while Izawa, in her damaged Ghost, laughed a nervous and relieved laugh.

 

6.

Padfoot’s experiment came trundling in some hours after the battle was over. It hadn’t needed escorting so much after all, so Vera and Natasha were allowed to turn around and come back. They were complaining long before they got to the Honshu.

“We figure,” said Natasha, “you go out and scout a little, we go back and hold hands with Big F, something comes out of the dark to attack us—we get the fight and you get to watch. Come to find out, not only do we not get any action at all despite having flown like six light hours out and back, but we turn around and find you’ve destroyed the whole Ngugma fleet.”

“Oh, we did not destroy the whole Ngugma fleet,” said Rachel.

“Turkey balls,” said Vera. “I see two battleships’ worth of rubble.”

“Battlecruisers,” said Clay. “They’re a lot smaller.”

“They’re still damn large. Don’t you tell me you didn’t see action. We saw a whole lot of space.”

“You guys were together,” Rachel pointed out.

“So were you. Hey, you guys are lying there naked together, aren’t you? You’re in one of those cushy beds on the Honshu. That’s why the video’s off.”

“Darn right,” said Rachel. “Don’t want you to get jealous about my hunkburger.”

“Remember, Rache,” said Natasha, “we all had some of that. You just ended up with it.”

“Anyway,” said Rachel, “I take it Big F is pretty much ready for its final countdown?”

“Think she’ll need any security?” asked Vera.

“You wouldn’t think so,” said Clay. “And yet they do seem to be putting together another little defense force in her path.”

 

Some hours later, Vera and Natasha were back aboard the Honshu, whose bridge again became the meeting place for the leadership of the fighter wings. They had come to a halt in distant orbit around the outermost of the cold rock planets.

“We have,” said Li Zan, “a battleship, two more battlecruisers, and I seem to be counting seven cruisers and ten patrol boats. They don’t look like they’re coming out here: they seem to be concentrating in the area where Big Fourteen is going to come to a stop, just outside the sixth planetary orbit.”

“They know we’d clobber them if they came out here,” said Vera.

“So you don’t think we need to feel uncomfortable,” said Captain Root, “sitting here two systems into the Ngugma Empire.”

“With exactly three cruisers and two armored merchants,” said Clay.

“Armored merchant, I like that,” said Captain Kalkar. “But it’s not like we measure up against an Ngugma battlecruiser. As you say, 112 light years from the nearest human planet. More than seventy from Fyatskaab in a straight line. There’s a lot more where these came from. They build them in this system.”

“We beat them like a bad dog,” said Daria Acevedo. “Two battlecruisers and six cruisers. We could beat a battleship, two battlecruisers, six cruisers and eight patrol boats.”

“And two bajillion fighters,” said Rachel, “not one.”

“The point is, they don’t know at this point if any fleet they put together is enough to beat us. Could be ten bajillion, a hundred bajillion.”

“We’d still be a hundred ten light years from Bluehorse,” said Clay. “In case something went the other way.”

“In any case,” said Park, “this force isn’t coming here as yet. The question is, do they pose a threat to Padfoot’s experiment?”

There was a certain amount of looking at one another and looking at charts and displays. Kalkar said, “I can’t rule it out.”

“I can’t either,” said Acevedo.

“We think they’d attack Big Fourteen?” asked Rachel. “I mean, that’s what we think?”

“They could think it’s a big bomb,” said Acevedo. “It basically is a big bomb, but they could think it’s aimed at one of their planets. Or they may think we’re using it to sneak raiders in, or release radioactive material, or who knows, they may have even better imaginations than we do. Or they may just not want to take the chance. They know we took it over, they must know that.”

“I’m sure they do,” said Park. “Padfoot. This force in front of us, it could destroy Big One Four before we ever managed to set off your proton decay event. Correct?”

“That is correct, Commander,” said Padfoot. “They could easily destroy it, especially since we’re really not equipped to fire its cannons, not that they’re much of a threat.”

Park thought about it for a moment, while everyone else either looked at her or looked at the nearest screen. “I don’t see any choice,” said Park. “All right. We need a fighter escort for the big ship. We can’t spare a lot. Eight fighters, maybe?”

“I get to go,” said Clay.

“Actually, I think I want you flying the freighter, up until t minus one hour. Here’s how it’s going to be. Acevedo, get in your new Ghost and take Bain and Leith and Aliya. And we want Li and Green and I guess we owe a ride to Kleiner and Santos. Commander Andros, you get to be on Big One Four with your spouse. When you evacuate, your job will still be to provide a back line, you two, to keep the Ngugma from interfering. And you get to set off the experiment. Padfoot, what’s our minimum safe distance from the blast?”

“Actually,” said Padfoot, “they can get within, oh, I’d say ten thousand kilometers is definitely safe, they can probably get within a hundred meters. This is mostly about matter annihilating, not stuff flying through space. Of course we’ve never done this before.”

“Okay,” said Park. “Eight fighters to fly escort and clear a path, two to back them up. If things look too hairy, abandon the freighter and activate the test as soon as you’re out of range. Otherwise, we push this thing into downtown Vannaag and make sure they get a very good look at what we now know how to do to it.”

 

7.

The big hauler with its asteroid-heavy load of lava from Fyatskaab trundled into the middle of the Vannaag Vul system, slowing and slowing and slowing toward a stop just outside the sixth orbit, the orbit of the cooler of the terrestrial planets of the system, the one where some unknown species of proletarian losers labored to build the Ngugma their battleships and fighters and ground vehicles and computers and dish washers and video screens.

Many were the video screens focused on Big Fourteen as she slowed, over a period of about eight Earth days, from 20% of light speed to zero. They saw the big ship with its accompanying Ngugma cruiser pass where the little invading fleet had stopped, in distant orbit of one of the outer planets. There might have been some interchange there, but Big Fourteen was still moving at a percent of the speed of light. They saw the accompanying cruiser dock, then undock and speed back to join the raiders; then they saw two Ghost fighters enter the maintenance bay at the back of the big ship’s cranium. Rachel and Clay were in the house.

The new Ngugma task force assembled to confront Big Fourteen got in position, like a catcher blocking the runner from third in one of the softball games Rachel played in high school. What these former ballplayers, now a hundred plus light years from the nearest ball field, thought of the Ngugma preparations was not made evident. The big ship trundled on undaunted, slowing steadily toward a position the watching Ngugma must have found threatening. The gathered fleet moved closer, but not in the usual battle formation.

Instead, the fighter curtain was set well out beyond where Big Fourteen would stop, and the freighter passed through it unchecked. The patrol ships and the cruisers took up positions that looked more designed to protect the freighter than to attack it. The two battlecruisers and the battleship moved up into the face of the super-freighter as it finally came to a stop. A half dozen armored shuttles were sent out of the battleship toward the freighter.

Eight Ghost fighters emerged, not from the maintenance bay, but from various indentations and grooves around the freighter, where they had sat unnoticed. Two more came out behind them from the maintenance bay. The Ngugma had feared what the freighter’s approach might portend, but it never occurred to them that it might send out fighters. They had never heard of a Trojan horse.

The eight set upon the two battlecruisers, which had approached close enough that the gap could be crossed before the big ships’ crews woke up enough to send out missiles. The battlecruisers were of the familiar design, and it was a matter of fifteen seconds before Acevedo’s four on the left and Li, Timmis, Vera and Natasha on the right had done enough damage to them to spin away and let physics do their dirty work. They turned to take on the battleship.

But the big ship was harder to penetrate. Li and Timmis, Vera and Natasha, Bain and Leith: in pairs they each tried drilling into one part or another of the battle wagon. Even as its battlecruisers began to explode, it was pumping out its missiles in hundreds, and sending out its remaining bay fighters, which Daria Acevedo and Mizra Aliya had to cope with by themselves. Clay and Rachel, standing backup, found the cruisers and patrol boats closing on them as they got ready to take on the armored shuttles. They turned to fight the cruisers off, while behind them Bain and Leith both took serious damage from an unexpected gun emplacement, and Li lost her shield and her combat systems to a lucky hit from a bay fighter. Vera, Natasha and Timmis turned from their tasks to join the skirmish with the robots.

Big Fourteen still had one defensive capability aside from size. It had its own several hundred missiles, and they operated on a simple program of meeting up with and embracing missiles they liked from the battleship. While those canceled out, Acevedo and Aliya began a desperate dance against the robot fighters, while the battleship blasted away at them with its big guns. Still the shuttles came across the empty space between the battleship and the freighter without a fight.

“Break off and get these shuttles,” called Rachel to Clay.

“Agreed,” called Clay. He fired off one more shot at a patrol ship and winged it, and then they dropped and spun and streaked back toward the shuttles. But a shot or two was not sufficient to wing one of these shuttles. The first proved a hard target, as did the second and third. The fourth and fifth were already across the gap, and Rachel and Clay were still far from them.

A bolt from the blue struck the fourth shuttle in its thrust, on its rear surface, and it blew up. Another: Mizra Aliya had turned from her fight to take long shots at the only spot unarmored on the armored shuttles.

But the battleship’s single most intimidating gun emplacement was not firing yet. Amidst the ruin of the exploding battlecruisers, and the desperate confused struggle between the Ghosts and the Ngugma cruisers and patrol ships, the battleship was concentrating on its own agenda.

“It’s targeting Big Fourteen,” called Acevedo.

“Ready to activate,” called Rachel, while Clay sent orders to the others: fall back ten thousand kilometers from the freighter. “Are Bain and Leith gonna get back out?” he called.

“We’re good,” called Bonnie Bain.

“Better be,” said Rachel. “Activating.”

“They’re going to blast her before she blasts herself,” called Natasha, from her one-on-one dogfight with a cruiser. “The whole point—!”

“Is that they see what we got,” said Rachel. “I know, but it takes a certain amount of time to reach critical and I just can’t hurry it up—!”

The big gun was already firing. Its beam struck the freighter’s hull and began to burn in. Clay had no time to hold his breath: he and Rachel were too busy trying to blast their way through cruisers, fighters and patrol ships, and the high-energy debris of the two battlecruisers.

“How long?” called Natasha.

“No idea,” Rachel replied.

“Go omega, Aliya,” came Acevedo’s voice over the comm. Suddenly Clay was in the open again, forty thousand kilometers from the fighting. Aliya acknowledged, and she and pretty much all the other Ghosts got headed out as fast as they could manage. Clay could see one Ghost left in the region around the battleship and the freighter, with the glowing bits of the disintegrating battlecruisers around them. All that mattered now was the path of the beam weapon connecting battleship to freighter, and the path of the fighter labeled Acevedo running up the battleship.

The big gunboat blasted away at her with everything else it had. It fired off its last round of missiles, just trying to confuse or delay her. But still she streaked on, a meter from its hull, leveling anything that stuck out. She took a couple of shots at the big gun, but they seemed ineffective, so she streaked on past. Her target was the bridge.

In another five seconds, the weapon would burn through the hull of Big Fourteen and the freight section would blow out into space. But in three seconds, the bridge of the battleship had a big hole in it, and a Ghost 204 was inside, a mad Chihuahua in a china shop. The battleship went dead in space. The big gun shut down without a whimper.

Acevedo was whooping, curving up and out, accelerating at 115 gees, enough to make her eyes flatten, even under the acceleration buffers. She was away.

The freighter sat there amid the wreckage.

And then a spot on its hull, nowhere near where the weapon had been firing, caught a glow. Another spot, and then another. And then the hull began to burn up in some way, burn and vanish like so much tissue paper in a bonfire. Thin waves of neutrinos flashed out and died. Over fifteen seconds, the reaction spread across the payload, and then with a last shudder, the bridge section broke loose and popped away from the cargo hold.

The cargo, five thousand cubic kilometers of metal and silicate, was simply no more, although in the video and data streams gathered by everyone on both sides of the battle, and in the imaginations of the Ngugma who had watched in horror, it would live long indeed.

 

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