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II. Run up to launch

1.

Clay got back to Bangor ME in mid-November. His universe had turned completely upside down, as he knew it would: no, inside out was a better analogy. He wasn’t working anymore, though he was playing a lot more Asteroid Pirates. His small circle of friends were surprised to see he still existed, but couldn’t get their minds around the fact that he was leaving for good in a couple of months. Two of them seemed offended and essentially stopped talking to him; the rest seemed ready to bid him a sincere and fond farewell. For his part, Clay found himself wondering where Rachel or Natasha was, or what Su Park would think of his choice of clothing, of breakfast, of video game.

At Christmas, he took the train to Portland and stayed with his sister’s family. The question of his leaving hung in the air like a faint smell of cooking. But he was so comfortable with his sister (now that they were both grown up) that they could ignore it or talk about it as suited their mood. Mostly they stayed off it when Yvette was awake. It was brought up over a glass of brandy when she was asleep. They were sitting on the sofa in front of the window looking out on the blackness of the sea under the rising late moon.

“You’re going to be what, ten, twenty light years away?” asked Clay’s brother-in-law John.

“More like fifty or a hundred,” said Clay.

“So, you go fifty light years, we’ll all be fifty years older when you get there?”

“A hundred, when I might get back to Earth,” said Clay.

“Do they freeze you?” asked John.

“No, no,” said Clay. “Time dilation means I’ll hardly age.” He looked into his brandy.

“You’ll be way the younger brother,” said Marie. They laughed. Clay’s laugh was insufficiently sincere. “Look, Clay,” she said, her arm around him. “It’s fine. I mean, I don’t like it, but someone has to go do this thing. I’m glad you’re doing it.”

“Marie,” he started to say.

“Ssh, baby brother.” She smiled. “I’ll be okay. You be okay. Okay?”

“Okay,” he said. “You’re sure you don’t like it?”

Marie laughed out loud. “I’m sure I don’t like it, Clay. I’m going to miss you. Oh, Clay. There’s just no right way to say goodbye, okay? So when it comes down to it, let’s just hug and say do something good, and be careful, and let it go at that. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Because I know you’re going to make a difference. I know you’re going to do good out there somewhere.” She smiled a bit longer at him, her eyes moist. Then she said, “So, any nice ladies going along on this?”

On the fifteenth of January, Clay took the train from Portland to Quebec City. Marie and Yvette took him to the station and hugged him goodbye. Marie promised to be at the launch: each departing crew member could have three family members shuttle up to the Earth-orbiting space station from which the colony fleet would be setting out.

Clay did not see any moose on the train trip this time. He slept through a lot of it, and spent several hours rereading the Stephen King novel he’d been forced to read in school and never appreciated. He dozed off while the Gunslinger was chasing the Man in Black, and woke up to find himself gliding through snowy mountains. He read a little more and dozed off again, and when he woke, the morning sun was lighting up the valley of the Chaudiere.

In another half hour he was changing to the subway in Ville de Quebec, and in ten more minutes he was getting off at the underground station of the hotel where the crews were all staying. He got off and was still adjusting his point of view when he was blind-sided by a weight almost the same as his own weight.

“Clay,” said Natasha, hugging him, “oh, I can’t even believe how much I missed you!”

“I missed you too,” he said, which was not entirely untrue. He looked over her shoulder: there were Rachel, in a nice jacket and slacks and pretty black boots, and Su Park, in a black jump suit with an old vac suit upper, unzipped, over it as a coat.

“The guy would be the last to show up,” said Rachel, smiling.

“Hey now.” He let go of Natasha and looked at Rachel, who moved forward, looking sheepish, and gave him a hug too. They all looked at Park.

“Well,” said Park, “they have a racquetball court. Want to get some beer and pizza and then smash some balls?”

“Can I dump my stuff first,” asked Clay, “before you guys smash my balls?”

“Ah, you big baby,” said Rachel, “we’re going to get you drunk first.”

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