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4.

“So where do mouthholes come from?” asked Natasha as she and Vera walked down the beach. Clay and Rachel were a few meters ahead: naked as they all were, Rachel made sure Clay was not walking behind his former loves. They could ogle him, for all she cared.

“They seem suspiciously associated with the Ngugma,” said Rachel.

“Are you joking?” said Vera. “We saw mouthholes everywhere after 55 Cancri, and I’ve never been in the same system as Ngugma.”

“When did you see the video?” asked Clay over his shoulder.

“Clay, man, I’m sorry,” said Natasha, her eyes floating near his buns. “I can’t imagine what that was like to find. Like your cat left you a dead bird in your bed. Um, so that would be R5, we call it the Ice Palace but Park doesn’t want that to be an official, like, name.”

“Ice Palace,” said Rachel. “I like it.”

“There are three white dwarf stars,” said Vera, vaguely admiring Rachel’s mole. “One of them’s going to win in the end and it may actually wind up as a supernova in, oh, I’m told, twenty or thirty billion years. There are sheets of nebula around them, but there’s not much for planets, every single thing in that system is either a star or a hunk of ice. Anyway, we actually have a little base out there, it’s about six light years from here and around 88 light years out from Earth, a little closer than here. It’s quite pretty, it’s actually a great spot for a base though we don’t stay there much. Anyway, we were coasting on in there, this last time, on our way back to catch up to you at Bluehorse, very calculated, you see, us and Tasmania, and we were receiving the last live videos from Earth when everyone was dying. It was quite the thing to see, it must have been quite the thing to actually walk the streets. We didn’t get your video until we got here, but we’ve seen some of it.”

“At least they had been dead for a while,” said Clay. “It would have been a lot worse to get there while they were still dying.”

“We wouldn’t have landed,” said Rachel. “Forget about it. It would’ve been bad enough from space.”

“And you think,” said Tasha, “that any of these races would do the same thing if they could.”

“I don’t think that’s clear,” said Rachel. “I do not believe the Primoids would commit quite that level of genocide. I believe they might have wiped out Bluehorse, but I will say I think learning that Earth was gone and that this was the largest place humanity had left, I think that stymied them. I think they couldn’t bring themselves to do it.”

“I think you’re right,” said Clay. “They live in their skin a lot longer than we live in ours. I think moral decisions are very weighty to them.”

“So the problem to you is all about the Ngugma,” said Vera.

“That is the problem,” said Clay. “It’s quite straightforward, really. Sadly—!”

“We don’t have a solution,” said Vera. “Well, whatever is going to be done, guess who is going to be sent to see it done.”

“You and Tasha,” said Rachel.

“Oh no. Not by ourselves.” She smiled at Natasha. “You knew Park and old Captain Kalkar have been given a task force to maneuver with, Tasmania, Abstraction, Miranda, two more new cruisers, twelve fighters, and a Primoid component as well. You would have known you’d be on that with us.”

“But we get to be Alpha Wing, just the four of us,” said Natasha.

“What?” said Clay.

“How do you know this and we don’t?” asked Rachel.

“Now you do,” said Vera. “We’re to be sent out ahead. The cat’s paw. And you know who’s going to be Commander?”

“Don’t say it,” said Rachel.

“I’ll say it,” Tasha replied. “You are. Of course. Vera’s Second, because she was a second before. I’m stuck at Third.”

“You know second and third, there’s no difference,” said Clay, turning around and walking backwards looking back at the other two. Then he turned and walked on. “It all looks the same from the tail position,” he added.

The ladies laughed in a way befitting ladies, naked ones, walking in the waves of a sunny beach. Rachel put her hand on Clay’s buns. “Don’t worry, hunk-a-licious,” she said. “I’ll take care of you.”

They walked as the sun descended toward the polygonal sea. It looked like any sea on any planet that experienced sunset, the waves rolling slowly up against the long strand. Presently they stopped and built a bonfire and lit it with the laser Rachel had in her backpack. Soon they were sitting around the fire, sipping Bluehorse brandy and passing a bowl of Bluehorse smoke.

“Begin, and cease, and then again begin,” said Clay. “With tremulous cadence slow, and bring / the eternal note of sadness in.”

“Sophocles heard it long ago,” said Vera. “Love that poem.”

“Sophocles long ago,” said Clay, “heard it on the Aegean, and it brought / into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / of human misery; we / find also in the sound a thought, hearing it on this distant northern sea.”

They gazed into the sunset, and Rachel said, “Whatever. We have our thing to do, and we’re lucky enough that it’s kind of important. I look at you guys, and I look at this place, and I think I have only the vaguest idea how lucky I am.”

“Yes,” said Natasha. “Even if we all die in the next battle, I wouldn’t trade what happened to me for anyone else’s what happened to them.”

“What the hell,” said Clay. “We’re the best wing ever. We get to go search among the stars.” He raised the flask. “Here’s to the next place we drink together on a beach in the sunset.”

“Maybe it’ll be Earth,” said Rachel, taking the flask and drinking in her turn. And the flask went around, and the bowl went around, and the sun drifted beneath the horizon, and the four fighter pilots got their vac suits back on, and the stars wheeled above them, a city in the sky more populous than any on old Earth. One by one, Clay and Rachel, Vera and Natasha lay back and gazed up at the heavens, just like mariners gazing out to sea.

THE END

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