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3.

Clay and Rachel slept together in Dr Audra’s spare bed, got up and had a nice breakfast of actual coffee, actual toast and actual honey (and synthesized butter and cream) and then allowed themselves to be driven to their Ghosts by Relien’s underling Vashir. Ensign Relien and a few other underlings were standing guard with guns that may or may not have been loaded. The peculiarly pink dawn was well underway over the dead farmland and the grey-brown sea.

“Anything live in the water?” asked Clay.

“Yeah, you don’t want to see it though,” said Vashir.

“Ready, boy-toy?” called Rachel.

“Ready, dear.” They spanked each other’s vac-suited rear ends, then turned to smartly salute their escort. “Take care of yourselves,” Clay told Relien.

“You too,” said the ensign.

“Let us know how it all goes,” said Audra. “You come back here, I might still be alive, I feel like I’m good for forty more years.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Clay. With a smile and a wave each, Rachel and Clay climbed into their fighters, hovered up ten meters, and took off, slanting up through the thin, tainted atmosphere over the bubbles of Landfall Town. They came around for one full orbit, and then they were off, setting coordinates for 0, 0, 0, also known as Sol. They left Gliese 581d dwindling behind them with all its particulars and problems and personalities, and the knowledge that they would not be coming back this direction, that if they ever did return to 581, everyone now alive there would have been dead for a hundred years or more.

And as the planet, and then the whole system, dwindled in the rear view, Clay and Rachel joined their fighters and got out of their vac suits and took up their wonderful, isolated, simply complicated life at relativity’s doorstep. They joked around, they made love, they slept, they played Set and chess and simulator, they made ate, they made love some more, they slept.

And Clay woke up in the dark with a strange feeling. And he checked his sensors and found nothing strange. They were doing 97% already, but they were due to crest in the 99.99999% range. Still bothered by whatever it was, he lay back in his side of the closet and did his exercises, thinking through what they had seen and what they were going to see.

And the fact that it was Rachel Andros who lay across from him asleep, her arms behind her head, her legs crossed chastely, her little tiny bosoms round in the lack of gravity, the lack of any acceleration felt inside the ship, her black hair draped around her head and neck.

All those things about Rachel. How he had fallen in love with her from at least the time they had flown over the lunar surface, fighting two on four. How, skinny dipping with her and Natasha, he had been knocked out by that mole on Rachel’s back. How, well, how he had never felt worthy of her, how he had gone through romances with Tasha and Vera before he let himself fall head over heels for Rachel, give in to the inevitable with Rachel.

How strange it was.

How strange, to be in love with all women, with Woman, to hope against hope to be worthy of any woman, of all women, and then, and then to narrow it down to one and only one, no abstraction, not a collection of common features like a cartoon superhero babe, but a very particular mouth, a very particular face, one pair of eyes unlike all others, two breasts not even entirely like one another but totally different from any others in the universe, a pair of feet, a head of hair, and then what was inside that head: to narrow it down from abstraction to particular, it seemed strange: how was he here, how had she chosen him, how had he chosen her, or had he? In the cool dark, in the shadows of his heart, he regarded her as she slept, as they shot from system to system and across twenty years in a week, wondering about everything.

Faintly, his old timey playlist was going in his helmet. You’re so beautiful, but that’s not why I love you. Why do we fall in love? All the things that we’ve been through.

He reached out and touched her hair by her face. Yes, he was sure of it. He was in love with her. He was in love with her more than ever, more than he ever thought he would ever be in love with anyone ever, ever.

Is forever enough? A fair question.

Rachel opened her eyes and saw him reaching to her. She pushed her cheek against his hand and smiled, then rolled on her side, kissed his hand and dozed off again. He took his hand back and kissed it. Yes, that was why.

And it’s a good thing, too, he thought, seeing as we’re the only beings within fifty light years that we have ever met and will meet again.

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