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4.

It took the eight fighters, the four doubled fighters, four days to reach the neighborhood of the speed of light. At 99.9999% of light speed, they experienced a mere six days of flight in covering 31 light years, notwithstanding the fact that their journey, to those not on the same course, would be clocked at 31 years. Then they spend four days decelerating, before the Fyatskaab system began to come into view. They passed the time playing Set, chess and virtual soccer, and practicing simulations, along with other more private pursuits.

“So the Fyaa simulations were a little,” said Clay as he and Rachel lay curled up in a yin and yang arrangement, looking at opposite displays.

“Pessimistic,” said Rachel. “Maybe we’re just better than we thought.”

“Maybe it’s best to assume the worst.”

Rachel made a little noise, as if she disapproved. Then she shifted, which still got his attention every time. She poked his display and up came a schematic of the Fyatskaab system. “The thing is,” she said, “this time we have every reason to assume the worst.” She let out a little sigh. “I’ll never forget.”

“Coming into Earth’s solar system,” said Clay.

“That was the worst.”

“Yeah.”

She smiled at him. “I’m just glad you were with me.”

 

Days later—without sun or moon to tell the time, it might be more appropriate to say some tens of hours later—the Fyatskaab system began to come into focus. Around them, the stars began to appear, the incoherent smears of light speed giving way to the ancient splash of the Milky Way.

Far ahead of them, the bright orange sun of Fyatskaab resolved from the chaos. Two enormous ice giants, the distance and temperature of Neptune but the size of a couple of Jupiters, appeared next, then more planets, including a pair, nearly co-orbital, near the star.  Even now they could tell there was something going on at those planets: they looked battered. What might have seemed like small, oblong, black moons were identical to Ngugma space stations at Earth. More stars resolved all around them, then more and more, the larger, brighter ones as blobs that condensed, the smaller stars as sudden pixels. A star blob keeping pace with the combined fighters of Rachel and Clay turned out to be the combined fighters of Natasha and Vera. Behind them, a minute later, another blob and another appeared: Beta Wing.

“I’m gonna hail them,” said Rachel. “But first. Can I just say, before we change the mood—?”

“This happy mood we’re in, you mean?” Clay replied. “Feeling pretty good about the Cosmos?”

“Clay.” He shut up. “Dang it, Clay.” She started pulling her vac suit onto her legs.

I’m in trouble, he thought, as he started to do the same, but before she got her suit up past her butt, she turned herself around and took him in her arms and kissed him. She glared at him, green-blue eyes on his blue, and kissed him once more, slow and tender, finishing with another blue-green gaze. “Clay,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Rache.”

“Clay, it’s not something you have to be sorry about. I, I just need to say this to you before I say it to Vera and Tash and burst into,” and she paused, “tears,” she finished, and promptly did so.

“There, there,” said Clay, wondering incongruously what that even meant. There? Where? He took her in his arms.

“It’s just,” she said, making just a little space in his embrace, “I’ve been thinking about what Padfoot said. We left Earth and we’re never going to see those people again, your niece, my college friends. Okay. So we fly to Bluehorse with eight thousand colonists, and, you know, Ted Trein and Alice Grohl and Dr. Mooney and Ally Schwinn. And we get them set up. And then we’re all off in different directions, you and me, Vera, Tasha, Park, the Tasmania. We get back to Bluehorse and Kalkar’s, like, great granddaughter’s an admiral, Alice Grohl’s great granddaughter’s in Gamma Wing. So we leave there and now if we went back it’d be what, eighty some years after we left, but of course we’re not going back, not for a couple hundred years at least, so we’ll never see them again, if we’re lucky we’ll see Marjane Kalkar’s great grandkid. Now it’s just down to these four wings plus Tasmania and Honshu. You see where this is all going? After Padfoot’s little burst of emotion—!”

“I know!” said Clay, and immediately toned it down. “I know.”

“So it’s gonna happen. Clay. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be just us.”

“You and me?”

“Yeah, and Vera and Tasha, we can’t not have them. And maybe a few others. But still.”

“Not the Tasmania.

“Nope. Not even Su Park.”

“Li and Timmis? Gemma Izawa? Maria Freakin’ Apple?”

“Clay.” He just raised his eyebrows. “Okay, yeah, them. But—!”

“But every time we leave someone behind,” said Clay, “we will never see them again, unless we all loop back someplace much, much later. And eventually it’s just us.”

“Everything gets left behind,” said Rachel, “except for who we take with us.”

“Rachel. Don’t get mad at me. But I’ve made my peace with that, I think I have. As long as it’s you. And Vera and Tasha, while we’re at it. The only humans within a thousand light years. Chase the Ngugma to the center of the Galaxy. Let’s go.”

Her face twisted into a smirk. “You’re so good for me,” she said. “Okay. Let’s hail them.”

 

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