Epilogue: Barbecue on Bluehorse
“I think I can say,” the linguist Art Johans was saying to a gathering on one of the plateau-edges on Bluehorse-3, the golden sun shining down in a late afternoon sky, bluer than blue, “that we have learned to communicate with the Primoids to at least 90% of the extent we ever will.”
“Do I even want to ask you to explain?” asked Alfred Kalkar, hefting a tofu sausage with mustard, cooked over a fire of something like wood. The Tasmania and the Greenland sat nearby, incongruous in the leveling sunlight where they had been unloading. Now their crews and all three wings, along with assorted colonists, gathered to grill whatever they could get the Tasmania’s food processors to make, and drink the best beer the Tasmania’s food processors could brew.
“Well, the upshot is,” said Milla Taravo, “they were sending some sort of ceasefire call. The best we understand is that when they lost the battleship, they concluded the battle was unwinnable and they promised they wouldn’t be back. But we have no idea what that really means. They won’t be back until they can get to their home star and come back? They won’t be back as long as the Galaxy rotates through the Great Void?”
“What are we going to do with the captives?” asked Captain Maya Nilsstrom of the Greenland, trying to hold a greasy wrap of something like barbecued fungus. The fake cheese was amazing when melted and a little burned.
“Well,” said Kalkar, “we can’t send them back, so we either kill them or keep them. We have six of them, including one that was injured: they seem to have fixed him up fine. Er, it. Whatever.”
“We don’t think they might reproduce?” asked Nilsstrom. “Since you bring up gender.”
“We don’t even know if they have genders,” said Natasha.
“They might reproduce by budding, for all we know,” said Jack Dott.
“We’ll keep an eye on the situation,” said Kalkar. “I am under the impression that complex organisms tend to reproduce sexually: I believe it’s a matter of making life worth living, though others may quibble.”
“Interesting hypothesis,” said Su Park with a slight grin.
“Well,” said Kalkar, “setting that matter aside: as to the disposition of the captives, the captaincy has it all under discussion, need I say.”
“They’re not bad prisoners,” said Jack Dott. “I was down there at the Canada colony site and they seemed to be minding their own business in their little house and their little yard.”
“Schwinn’s idea,” said Natasha. “Put them inside some walls and give them building material. They built a little shelter and then they enlarged it. In some ways they’re surprisingly like us. Of course their language is totally incomprehensible. It’s the old problem of whether something is a verb or a noun or whether they even have verbs and nouns. You have to remind yourself that there is just no way to get inside their minds. They’re just too different. Did you see the brain structure?”
“You didn’t tell them you had cut open the brain of a dead one, did you?” asked Clay.
“They give me the willies,” said Nilsstrom. “No head. Just body and tentacles and those kind of weird stick legs. All the worst aspects of spiders, slugs and octopi. How do they even talk?”
“They make sounds with instruments, is what I got,” said Natasha. “And they signal with those tentacles on their heads, which change color somehow. Their math is pretty good. That’s pretty much all we know about them.”
“We know more than that,” said Su Park.
“We know,” said Kalkar, “they had to have a base in the Oort cloud of Candy One—is that really what we’re calling that one? They were probably keeping tabs on their rebels, maybe they were gathering a real fleet to go after them. No idea how they do their logistics, obviously.”
“We have a thing or two to learn from them, in that area,” said Nilsstrom.
“We do,” Kalkar agreed. “So they had some ships there to follow us from Candy One, and more, maybe, that they picked up, maybe somehow along the way? Or they were all there, maybe? And they all chased us, because they must have recognized that we were a colonizing fleet and they really didn’t want any new colonies in their space.”
“We would have done the same,” said Park. “We know that much of ourselves. We likewise know that though they are very, very different, we wind up doing many things the same way. Really, their fleet was much like what we would like to have, their reliance on fighters is like ours—and their energy systems are almost exactly like ours, it turns out. They fill solar batteries by near passes of stars, and then they apparently use something much like our virtual ion drive, and we think they get about as close to light speed as we do. And their weapons are the same as ours in many ways, though their missiles are about two orders of magnitude larger.”
“It’s like fighting another fighter,” said Clay, “taking on those missiles.”
“If it doesn’t get shot down, it’ll ruin your whole day,” said Jane Tremblay. “But they’re easier to shoot down than our little ones.”
“Maybe it’s like fighting another fighter,” said Vera, “but hey, let’s hear it for the geniuses who invented our fighter, eh? Ladies and gents, I give you the Ghost 201. The best fighter in this arm of the Galaxy. And to think they thought it was just an explorer pod.”
“Best fighter in the Galaxy,” said Clay.
“So durable,” said Rachel. “So maneuverable. So zippy.”
“Oh,” said Park, “the best fighter pilots in the Galaxy deserve the best fighter in the Galaxy.”
“And the best spaceship mechanics in the Galaxy,” said Tremblay, waving her beer glass at Padfoot and Bell. “We wouldn’t have made it at all without those guys.”
“How do you like your brand new Ghost, Commander?” asked Padfoot.
“It’s excellent, thank you,” said Tremblay. “You guys can’t look inside, you’ll drool all over it.”
“How do you like being Commander?” asked Natasha.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Tremblay, looking over Vera, her second; Timmis, her third; and Maria Apple, the new Gamma tail. She looked at Li Zan, who smiled. “But I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Celeste, and I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Commander Su Park.”
“Admiral!” suggested Clay. Several of the fighter pilots applauded.
“Ah, no,” said Park, “as Jane says, commander is a lot of work; think how admiral would be.”
Clay and Rachel smiled, then looked at each other and kissed. Natasha came over and they all turned away to look out and down over the view below: the broad valley where Rachel and Clay had walked along the beach, and the expanse of the little parallelogram ocean. There they stood, three little people on the edge of a party full of big people.
“Best. Wing. Ever,” said Rachel.
“Best ever,” said Natasha. “Yep,” said Clay.
“Ron’s okay with it, you know,” quoted Rachel. “As long as we keep the snogging to a minimum.”
“Which we won’t,” said Clay.
“What now?” asked Natasha.
“Never mind,” said Clay. “Harry Potter,” said Rachel. “Is it true that you’re having a thing with Vera?”
“Mmm, that’s a secret, that is,” said Natasha, but Vera came over just then and the two women kissed. So did Rachel and Clay. When they stopped, Park was with them.
“As you were,” she said, as if any of the four had been in the least embarrassed.
“You realize,” said Rachel, “you’re the only surviving original Commander?”
“It’s a shock,” said Park. “Agneska Vilya flew to Alpha C with me, and Celeste, well, she was an excellent pilot and an excellent wing commander and the easiest person to work with, and I don’t even know what to think about why she’s gone, why they’re gone, and I’m still here. How do you think about it?”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel.
“She was everything a commander should be,” said Vera. “I learned a lot from her, and also from you, Commander.”
“I couldn’t believe we lost Bluehorse,” said Clay. “And then, you know, Rojette and Vilya and Celeste. I don’t know.”
“Not gonna forget them,” said Natasha, and she turned to look at Vera, who had pulled Natasha against her side by side. They kissed. “Not gonna forget,” Vera murmured.
“So, Andros,” said Park, “not to change the subject, but do you realize you’re the only original Wing Second who hasn’t been promoted to Commander?”
“I like second,” said Rachel. “I still have a capable Wing Tail under me.” The women all snickered and smirked upon Clay, who did not blush.
“Well then,” said Park. “I do have, as you know, serious duties for all four of you. We can rest for some number of weeks, one does not need to get serious right away, but then we need to get back into space. Jane and Li and Captains Kalkar and Nilsstrom and I have discussed—!”
“Oh, the real Captaincy?” said Clay.
Park gave him a tiny smile. “We have discussed rearranging the wings,” she said. “We would be sending Miss Andros and Mr Gilbert back to Earth to report, and Misses Kleiner and Santos with the Greenland to attempt to contact the so-called Primoid rebels at Candy One, and then possibly to attempt to meet with the, er, Primoid government, or whatever they have on that line. Miss Ozawa and Miss Moss would fill out your ad-hoc wing. The rest of the wings would explore: I will be going out with Bain and Leith and Ree and the Tasmania. We would meet all back here; for all of us, if we arrange it right, only a year or so would pass.”
“But what, a couple of hundred years for Earth?” asked Rachel.
“The plan is that some of us would be back here in forty years, some in ninety, and Andros and Gilbert would return at the one-eighty mark.”
“Ninety to Earth, ninety back,” said Natasha.
“Going back to the old stomping grounds,” said Vera. “Remember? Quebec City before we even knew for sure we were on a wing?”
“I can’t wait to drop by and see what’s happening at the Pub St-Alexandre,” said Clay.
“Bring back some croissants,” said Natasha. “If you’re stopping by Ville de Quebec. It’ll also be a couple of hundred years for the colonists, of course. Man, it’s like time traveling into the future.”
“I wonder how they’ll govern themselves?” asked Rachel.
“It will be interesting to see,” replied Park. “I think they will make mistakes. I think they will do fine. How about you? Do you think you will have governance issues without me to keep Mr Gilbert in line?”
Rachel turned to Clay. She took his hands. She was smiling. He had not thought she could look more beautiful, but she did. She kissed him and laughed and kissed him again. “No,” she said, “I don’t anticipate any governance problems.” They laughed and kissed again, lingering, as the wind blew their hair and carried the sounds of their laughter off over a new world.