Death is the condition from which there is no recovery. Clay had a moment to think this as his Ghost cut in behind Rachel’s, dodging and picking off the front edge of a thin cloud of Ngugma missiles. The big black armored super-freighter loomed a million kilometers ahead, surrounded by umpteen scurrying cruisers and four battlecruisers, and countless robotic fighters. It was a storm of guns, coming through the debris field at the dozen Ghost 204s.
“Zeta,” called out Rachel, and Alpha Wing obliged: Rachel was closely followed by Natasha, then Vera, then Clay. She pulled them across the enemy front and then turned them in along an unexpected lane of black Ngugma fighters. Fire from the cruisers was channeled around them and the robot fighters, similarly channeled, fell in a row to Alpha Wing fire. Beta Wing kept close behind them until, at the ordained moment, Li Zan led them out from the wake of Alpha. She and Timmis Green and Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa pulled close and stuck to a straight line as if traveling down a cylinder a meter wide at 5000 kilometers each second. The battlecruiser they were aimed straight at swung its guns around, but just as they were brought into a deadly focus, Li pulled her wing back a hundred meters, then dodged right and began picking off their own column of robotic fighters. These dodged sideways too, and four of them went up under the fire from the battlecruiser and cruisers behind.
Clay blasted the last robotic fighter in the column of what, thirty?—and turned to see the cruisers maneuvering to bottle them up. A pink spot appeared on Clay’s display, up and to the left, a space between three of the cruisers.
“Think we can go there?” said Rachel, in all their ears.
“Hell yeah,” said Vera.
“Kay, follow me. Tight line, guys.” Rachel dropped ten kilometers and then shot forward, and Tasha, Vera, and Clay dropped and shot forward behind her, in single file, closing to fifty meters. Rachel put a target on a cruiser that was not in their way yet but soon would be: the rest put their targets there too, and opened fire. The other cruisers hurried to close the line, but the one in the crosshairs quickly went dead.
They shot by and pulled up again, the super-freighter in their sights. Two cruisers managed to interpose, and Alpha had to fight its way through a thousand or so of the tiny but tough Ngugma missiles just to get to them. Clay sent a single letter to Rachel and dropped out, wiggling, braking, then whipping around and accelerating, firing the entire time, and hundreds of the missiles essentially ran into each other in a lovely silent firework. As he pulled out of line, Rachel’s voice informed all of them: “Zeta Five A.”
The cruisers both reversed their acceleration to follow him, and then after five seconds changed over to ignoring him, but by then the women of Alpha Wing had burst in on them. The right one went, then the left one. Their hundreds of missiles went leaderless, but the twelve remaining robot fighters came after Clay. He took the first one out at long range, then accelerated on past them as the other eleven turned to follow. There was a wobbly chase with the eleven and Clay exchanging fire: he managed to take out three of them, and lose only half his shield strength. It gave him time to catch his breath and clear his head. Imagining Rachel saying it, he muttered flip to himself, and rolled in a flip-rotation. Predictable, and the robots predicted it, concentrating their fire on the point where he came out of the turn, but he wasn’t there. In some weird human guy way, he had wiggled into a trajectory that was different by about five meters.
This sent the Ngugma fighters into a sort of panic, and they fell into a lovely geometric curve, which Clay veered down blowing them up: ten of eleven, not good enough. No matter this time: cussing himself, he flipped and wiggled again and his first shot out of the curve knocked out the last of the set.
He was alone in empty space. He could see Beta deviously snaking through a litter of missiles (live and dead) and robotic fighters (live and dead) toward their battlecruiser. The rest of Alpha was in final approach to their own battlecruiser, and Gamma Wing, Daria Acevedo, Mizra Aliya, Peri Schmitt and Millie Grohl, were turning from their own victories to join in. But the battlecruiser was not alone. Two others bent to join it, setting up a weirdly imbalanced team sport: three of them, big as stadiums, against seven fighters smaller than pool tables.
Far away in the distance, Beta reached, and began bedeviling and belaboring, the fourth battlecruiser. One of them went dead, possibly lethally: Izawa’s name was missing. He gasped: another blew up. That was Apple.
Clay checked the other battle. Schmitt went black, but stayed intact. The forward battlecruiser began taking heavy damage, but another fighter diving in veered a meter too close to the fire line and blew up: Aliya. Clay did not take the time to gasp. He spent one whole second to consider seven, no, five of his best friends going up against three giants. The giants were not alone, either: yet more fighters, and at least four cruisers, were coming up to join.
He looked the other way. There was the super-freighter. If the battlecruisers were stadiums, the super-freighter was a city, or a small to medium-size moon. There was no one near it but a few robot fighters.
Clay turned on it. He hit the acceleration as hard as he could. Ten seconds passed, fifteen: the robot fighters were hastily forming up to stop him, and clouds of missiles were spitting from the gigantic freighter. His heart raced. A smile formed.
One, two, four, seven: the robots went down at his onset. The missiles chased him into themselves and with a swish of his tight little tail he got them blowing each other up. One more turn and then another, and five more robot fighters went down, and Clay only took an epsilon of damage to his flectors.
He was within two hundred thousand kilometers. A hundred and fifty. A hundred. He set targets and started firing.
His sensors informed him that he too was under fire.
Two battlecruisers and four more cruisers had pulled back from Alpha and Gamma to deal with him. More missiles came his way, and many more slicing laser shots. He dodged and wove and tried to keep his target on target. More damage. Five missiles locked onto him. He let his own guitar-pick missiles go get those. He eliminated all distraction. He could go up, for all he cared now, as long as he got that shot off, that one shot that put the freighter over the edge. He could save planets. He could save Bluehorse.
And then, out of nowhere, around the corner of the freighter, came six new fighters. These were not robots, and they were not Ghosts, they were half the size of Ghosts even, and flown with a jittery recklessness that no Su Park trainee would ever show. They were—
“Fyaa,” he said as if it were an obscenity.
He would break off and deal with them. But he would get one more volley off first—one more shot, and one more, and one more because the freighter was—
His screens went red. Then they went blank. Then he was “sitting in a tin can,” waiting to find out if he was somehow going to be saved, or would be blasted to atoms in the cleanup phase.
Death is the state from which there is no recovery, so this must not be death, thought Clay as he finally was permitted to climb out of his Ghost in the weightless bay of the Merchant Cruiser Honshu.
“You were dead in space?” asked Izawa, floating nearby having a smoke with Apple and Aliya.
“Yeah,” said Clay. “You guys got cleanly killed. I had to sit there for twenty minutes while we got slaughtered. It was the Fyaa. They can’t be that good.”
“That’s the thing,” said Su Park, stepping up from nowhere. She looked to Rachel, who was just pushing back her helmet. “You want to say it?”
“We don’t know what we’re really going to be up against,” said Rachel. “We know we can beat basically any fleet the Ngugma send at us, if we execute.” She and Park both glared at Izawa and Apple, who had just kissed and were now trying to cuddle and pay attention at the same time. “Now the thing is,” she said, looking at Clay, then Natasha, then Vera, “at some point Clay made his suicide run, and then Natasha lost her computer—!”
“Sucked,” said Natasha Kleiner.
“And it was just Vera and me. And I had to take on what, ten Fyaa by myself? Just so what?”
“I could blow up the frickin’ super-freighter,” said Vera.
“And did you do so, wing third?”
“I did indeed blow up said frickin’ super-freighter, Commander Andros.”
“I should have had that god damned super-freighter,” said Clay. “I’m just putting that out there.”
“You saved our asses,” said Vera. “I think you deserve about 90% of the credit. I do.”
“Okay, then,” said Rachel. She beckoned to Clay. He came over and she grabbed him by the collar and kissed him. She let him go and said to Park, “We may have all gotten killed, not one of us would have not had his or her body blown up by Ngugma or Fyaa at the end, but we did achieve the mission objective.” She looked at Park. “Commander.”
“And that,” said Park, “indicates to me that I need to make the simulation a little harder.”
Once upon a time, Clay Gilbert lived alone in a small city on Planet Earth. He was in his late twenties, he had a job he didn’t hate, he had sort of broken up with his sort of girlfriend. He was flying to the space station and back, and then going off for a beer with a couple of people he sort of knew from college. He visited his sister every so often, his sister Marie and her husband and his niece Yvette. He didn’t have any idea what direction his life should go. He didn’t have any idea what direction his life would go.
In a sense, more than three centuries had passed. They had visited planets around far stars with exotic names like 55 Cancri. They had been attacked by mouthholes. They had been attacked by, and then fought and befriended, the aliens they called Primoids. Then the humans had founded the Bluehorse colony and defended it from more Primoids. Then, Clay and Rachel had flown home to Earth and then home again to Bluehorse. Three hundred years later, and Clay was perhaps a year older than he had been, because, as they now knew better than anyone, Dr. Albert Einstein had been correct.
Earth had changed a bit, in the two centuries they’d been away: in fact, its entire human population had been systematically wiped out. The wipers, the Ngugma, were sailors of the skies, mariners of the seas of space, lovers of long ships, ships, in fact, so long and of such girth that they could carry significant amounts of the Earth’s mantle with them.
Nonetheless, Clay and Rachel decided to get married while on Earth. The legality of the ceremony was beyond question: it would be accurate to say that the entire human population of Earth, at that moment, was in Greenland to attend the wedding, along with a couple of ravens as witnesses. And then they had gone back to Bluehorse because there was nothing else for it. There they discovered that it had been defended again, and that another fleet of Primoids was gathering to really flatten the place. Somehow, the aliens let themselves be talked out of it, an especially interesting development considering that the Primoids had no spoken language whatever, and their written language turned out to be non-linear.
And now, the humans (who were becoming known as the species whose home planet is Bluehorse-3) and their Primoid allies were trying to figure out how to fight back against a species that could and would overwhelm planets just to suck their mantles out for the metals.
Once upon a time, Clay Gilbert had lived on Earth. Once upon a time, Clay Gilbert had lived on a planet.
“Now I live in a tin can,” he said. He looked across the ten centimeters that separated them, at his wife Rachel. She was dressed exactly the way he liked her to dress; vice versa was also true. They floated, post-coital, watching a documentary about the blended marine ecosystem of the Parallelogram Sea, in their joined Ghost fighters.
“You love it,” said Rachel. “Tell the truth. You never liked gravity.”
“It seemed like a good idea at first, I’m sure,” he replied, “but yeah, I stopped being into it about when I passed the one-meter-tall mark on the wall in the kitchen.”
“What were you, eighteen at the time?”
“You’re a fine one to talk, Shorty. And there’s not many people I can call Shorty.”
“You’re a Shorty,” said Rachel.
“No, you are,” said Clay.
“And you are,” she said, looking down his body, “except for one place, but I’m the only one who gets to know about that.” They smiled at one another in innocent married lust. Then Rachel let her smile go, and said, “You’re happy being with me.”
“I am so happy being with you. You’re happy being with me?”
“I’d—I mean, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, but what I wanted to say is that I’d better be. And you’d better be. Because we’re off again.”
“And pretty much the only people who will be keeping time with us will be Alpha, Beta and Gamma, and the Honshu and the Tasmania and Park’s special wing. That’s what, sixteen fighter pilots, and maybe twenty some freighter crew. Not growing old together.”
“You’re asking if I’m okay with that?”
Rachel gazed at him, then suddenly laughed. “I don’t know why you’re a mystery to me anymore,” she said. “I should know that if anyone didn’t mind the thought of bidding farewell to everyone he knew outside of the Wings, it would be you.”
“Not you? Wing commander?”
“Oh, me too,” she said. “As long as you’re under my command.”
Alpha Wing, in its current form, strode into the conference room in the giant building that used to be the Colony Ship Canada. They were one minute early, but everyone else was there already: Beta Wing, Gamma Wing, the so-called Su Park Special Wing, along with Kalkar and the Tasmania crew and Captain Cassiopeia Root and her Honshu crew. Su Park gave the Alphas a look as if they were late, then smiled and ostentatiously fiddled with her tablet. They sat next to the younger ladies of Beta and Gamma.
“Wow,” said Mizra Aliya to Natasha as they sat down. “You’re married. You guys are a married couple. Wow. Congratulations! I’m still in shock.”
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” said Gemma Izawa. She was across from Aliya, next to Clay; she was holding hands with Maria Apple on her other side. “Not too large, not too small.”
“Vac suit formal,” put in Peri Schmitt from Aliya’s other side.
“We were pretty happy to be invited,” said Apple. “I mean, I didn’t know I rated. I wasn’t even an alternate pilot when we left Earth.”
“At least we all remember Earth,” said Natasha. She smirked at Vera, who squeezed her hand. “You’re my family, guys. You’re our family.”
“It was more than we had at our wedding,” said Rachel. “I’m sorry we didn’t get around to inviting you guys. Clay thought to invite those ravens at the last minute.”
“We’re going to do what you guys did,” said Maria Apple. “Right, Gem?”
“We’re thinking about which planet,” said Gemma Izawa. “You know, it matters.”
“Not Bluehorse?” asked Rachel.
“The thing is,” said Apple, “we only want to invite you guys. The fighter people.” She looked around. “Maybe the Tasmania people.”
“Kalkar can officiate,” said Clay.
“I thought Park lent a certain solemnity,” said Vera. “Why don’t you ask her?”
“You may ask me anything,” said Park, looking at Apple but talking to the room, “but you have to wait till I’m done briefing. And in any case, you need to decide whether to invite any of the Primoids. Perhaps they can officiate.”
“We could invite the Fyaa,” said Clay. “Commander?”
“Thank you. An excellent suggestion, should our first task succeed. Well, I hope all of you have enjoyed your four whole months of rest and relaxation on Bluehorse. Because it’s been decided that we are all needed elsewhere again.”
“It’s been decided,” said Kalkar, with a grin at Cassiopeia Root, “by Commander Su Park.”
“Nonsense. We make decisions communally, do we not?” The two armored freighter captains made concessionary gestures. Park touched a point in the air, and a three-dimensional display of stars came to life around her hand. She began touching stars, which grew brighter: “Bluehorse is here, this is Candy, and these are Primoid Center systems. And over here,” and she reached to the edge of the region on display, “forty-two light years off, is what we think is the Fyaa home world. And this,” she said, “is PSB6.”
“This is the one,” said Rachel, “that’s under attack by the Fyaa.”
“We don’t know what’s going on there at present,” said Park, “if you can even use such a term. The Fyaa did not send enough forces to take the planet in question from the Primoids, so they settled for building up in the outer reaches of the system, but of course the Primoids have been building up as well, they have a Center system about nine light years away, so apparently it remains a stalemate. One is sure the Fyaa thought it would be a walkover, but instead it’s turned into a quagmire.”
“And the Fyaa being the way they seem to be,” said Kalkar, “they can’t give up on it.”
“Because they don’t know the meaning of retreat,” said Vera.
“At least their fighter pilots don’t,” said Park. “In any case, PSB6 is only twelve from here, we should get there before everything’s resolved. Our marginal objective is to stop the Fyaa from overwhelming the Primoids. Our substantive objective is to win them over to the fight against the Ngugma.”
“This fight at PSB6,” said Clay, “it’s been going on how long?”
“Oh, who really knows? Less than a century, but it had been through at least one cycle of reinforcement when we became aware of it, which would be just a couple of months ago, but that only after twelve years of travel time. We get back there in twelve more years, and add perhaps another twenty to start with: forty plus years?”
“Blink of an eye,” said Kalkar.
“So we all go in as a fleet?” asked Timmis Green.
“That is the plan,” said Park. “This will probably be the start of a rather long journey, and in future planet-falls, we may send Alpha ahead, along with, if they behave, possibly Beta or Gamma. In any case, we’re all behind you, Commander Andros, Commander Li.”
“Thank you, commander,” Rachel and Li Zan said. “We’ll behave!” said Apple.
“We’ll see,” said Park. “But listen. As I say, this could be a very long mission: we could be back in Bluehorse centuries from now. We will be our own command, because no one else will be able to stay in touch with us. So our mission, as I see it, is twofold.” Park, the smallest person in the room, took in Kalkar, Root, Li Zan, and Rachel with a glance around, as if she weren’t the boss. “One, we go forth to degrade the capacity of the Ngugma to mine planets. The reserve fleet, which is much larger than ours, has the task of defending Bluehorse.”
“They’ll be slaughtered, Commander,” said Clay. He looked around. “Do you guys think the Ngugma are going to attack Bluehorse in the next five hundred years?”
Everyone else including Park made a gesture of surrender: rolled eyes, hands up, head shake. Rachel looked Clay in the eye and said, “Hope not.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gilbert. The plan is to find and destroy their local depot, their local hub. That may cause them to pull back temporarily, and we can figure out what to do next. But simply staying here and waiting for them and hoping to win on our home ground may not be the optimal solution. It wasn’t at Earth.”
“Or at Holey,” said Rachel. “Okay. That’s mission one.”
“Mission Two,” said Park, “is this: none of us is allowed to get killed. I once thought it ill to have members of the same wing be in a relationship.” She looked around at Rachel and Clay, their shoulders touching; Natasha and Vera, holding hands; Ozawa and Apple, holding hands; Li and Timmis, her hand on his. “Suffice it to say, my strategic thinking has adjusted. My tactical thinking has also adjusted. And I recall hearing, and I did not approve of this at the time either, of a certain oath that you four swore, Andros and Gilbert and Kleiner and Miss Santos.”
“Ah,” said Vera, “the Unbreakable Vow.”
“Yes. And I would like to adopt that as a tactical principle as well.” She looked around the fighter pilots before her. “We are the best. We are superior fighter pilots to all we have met. I know this, because I have been trying to create a realistic challenge to your skills, in the simulator. I have not found it, and not through lack of imagination. We can create a simulation that you cannot defeat, and we can make a simulation that is realistic, but it seems we cannot do both.” She let them think about that for a moment, then went on. “We are going on a long journey. We will have many fights along the way. It is important, it is my chosen strategy that we lose no one during those fights. We can win a battle in which we do not lose a single pilot. Everyone here knows we can do that. I only ask that we adopt this as a strategic principle.”
“Lose no one?” said Li Zan.
“It’s a weird concept,” said Rachel, “but it makes sense when you think about it.”
“It makes sense,” said Park, “because we are the best fighter pilots we have met, and thanks to Padfoot over there,” and Patricia “Padfoot” Hixon and her underlings Gene Bell and Poto wall all bowed their heads, “we have the best fighters we know of.” She paused and glared at the gestalt fighter pilot in front of her. “You play chess. It makes no sense to sacrifice your rook for theirs when your rook is so much better than theirs. We have a dozen queens and rooks, and they have thousands of pawns. Why would we trade one of ours for one of theirs?” She looked around.
Rachel looked around too. “Commander,” she said, “I don’t think any of us believes otherwise.”
“All right. Consider those your orders. We leave in fifty hours.”
Everyone looked around: fighter pilots and freighter crew members stood up in this conference room where, months or centuries ago, they had floated weightless. Then, starting with Clay and Vera, they started high fiving.
“We’re going in space again,” said Rachel, high fiving her husband and Tasha. “Yay!”
The Alphas and Betas went off for a little squash soccer, a game they had invented, and then out for wine, a lovely white from grapes grown on the slopes of the uninhabitable highland above Canada. They went off to bed in actual queen-size beds well past Bluehorse-3’s midnight, got up eight hours later just about dawn, and went for a swim in the Parallelogram Sea. By midmorning, they found themselves seated around a large table on a verandah overlooking the bay, having actual fish and actual lettuce. Locally grown coffee gave way to locally made pale ale.
“Make the most of it,” said Vera Santos. “We’re going to be back on regurgitated food and drink in about thirty hours. It’s going to be a while before we have fish like this, that’s for sure.”
“Oh, we won’t be gone that long,” said Maria Apple. “Twelve years out, then maybe a couple more jumps, twenty each, then back home?” She looked at Izawa.
“That’s seventy or eighty years,” said Gemma Izawa. “Probably more.”
“I think it could be a lot more,” said Timmis Green. “We’re chasing the Ngugma.”
“Because,” said Natasha, “my name is Natasha Kleiner. You killed my planet. Prepare to die.”
“You keep using this word,” said Vera. “I do not think it means what you think it means. You guys know that film?”
“Timmis showed it to me,” said Li Zan, “on our honeymoon.”
“And there’s no way to plan a campaign like that,” said Rachel. “We know we’re going to catch up with them. We just don’t know where.”
“Not forgetting,” said Clay, “that we also need to work out how to attack them. The simulations are very comforting, really, but—!”
“But if they’re at all correct,” said Vera, “then we’re better off with the Fyaa than without them.”
“Either we get them,” said Rachel, “with their zippy little fighters and their, um, carefree ferocity, or we manage with just us and the Primoids, or there’s someone else, which there isn’t. There are a lot of dead civilizations around here—the Plaque People, the guys from Holey, whoever once long ago lived at Bluehorse—but we only know of four going concerns, and one of those four is the Ngugma themselves.”
“Are we the only ones who survived an Ngugma attack?” asked Maria Apple.
“Apparently so. Yeah.”
“What does that tell you about the Ngugma?” asked Vera.
“That they prey on the weak,” said Clay. “Well, I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to show them.”
They looked around at each other, exchanging nods, murmurs and raised eyebrows. Apple laughed.
“We’re a bunch of old couples,” she said. “Look at us.”
“Remember those swinging singles we used to be?” said Natasha. “Back in Old Quebec?”
“Okay, everyone,” said Gemma Izawa, “this sounds like we need to do a group selfie.”
They laughed, and then set about organizing themselves for a picture. The girl who had been waiting on them came over to take it, as they unconsciously coupled up: Gemma and Maria, Li and Timmis, Tasha and Vera, Rachel and Clay.
“This is us,” said Clay between takes. “This is what we were when we grew up.”
“A bunch of old couples?” said Natasha.
“Who figured out how to beat the Ngugma.”