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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.”

“Of course.”

“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.”