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VI. Wherever we’re going

 

1.

There were several little meetings, in that cavernous bay aboard that Manhattan-sized freighter, ostensibly flown by furry starfish-shaped aliens who had, in fact, murderously depopulated Manhattan and the rest of Earth. None of the furry aliens was invited.

First, Vera Santos, Natasha Kleiner, Padfoot, and Su Park confabbed with three Errhatzky and one of the Tskelly. They went about their business for a few minutes, while the gigantic freighter accelerated from 17% toward 18% of light speed. The Errhatzky named Hhzmyvya came out of the panel-work after some minutes and had another little conference with Vera, Natasha and Skzyyn.

Park, Clay, Rachel, Anand Ree and Skzyyn and Dzvezyets got in their fighters in the outer bay and simulated. The Fyaa at least pretended to learn Parkian discipline; Clay worked hard to not take on some of the Tskelly attitude toward risk. Natasha and Vera came out and updated them on the situation. Park gave encouragement and suggestions, but managed to hold herself back from micromanaging.

Vera and Tasha went back to work on the plan, as did Dzvezyets, who seemed to be getting on particularly well with Tasha. Skzyyn, hanging on Clay’s arm, said, “Clay Gilbert, Clay Gilbert, maybe you would like—!”

“Mr. Gilbert,” said Park, “would you and your friend like to make a very quick recon?”

“In our fighters?” asked Clay.

“I was thinking just your vac suits,” said Park. She held out her hand: in it were three little gadgets. “Just step outside and have a look around you, and place a few of these cameras our Fyaa friends brought. I think Mr. Ree and Ms. Andros and I might simulate a bit more. You may join us when you come back in.”

“Commander,” said Clay, “perhaps when we come back in, I could rest up a bit?”

“Of course,” said Park. “You must be so worn out. In any case, perhaps you should get in some rest time, in case the plan includes a particularly important role for you.”

He did a double take, which amused both Park and Skzyyn. He laughed and said, “Do you mean it does? I mean, important role? That sounds, um, important.”

“Go, have a look out there, when you come back and get some much needed rest and relaxation, we can talk about important roles.”

So Clay and the little Fyaa pilot, sealed up their vac suits and headed out through a side airlock for personnel. In seconds they were outside, Clay’s boots gripping the metallic hull, Skzyyn hooked by a short lead to Clay’s shoulder. The vast bulk of the freighter extended before them, and the stars, slightly blurry already with relativistic speed, covered the black sky in a silvery haze. There was no sign of any other spacecraft: without magnification, the accompanying Ngugma cruisers and the distant, pursuing human-Fyaa-Primoid fleet were far too tiny to be seen.

“Su Park is definitely a commander,” said Skzyyn in Clay’s helmet.

“You have one like that in your fleet?” asked Clay, as he tried to fix one of the cameras to the top of the mesh. It has a field of view that covered somewhat more than half a sphere, facing up and back. “One like Park?””

“Yes. Yes, I did. I left, uh, that one, uh, it? Clay Gilbert, this he-she-it distinction.”

“You don’t have genders.”

“Only some of the time,” said Skzyyn. “It’s, well, it’s complicated.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Clay. “That look good?”

“I will fix it,” said Skzyyn, hopping up onto the inside of the top of the mesh walkway and finagling the camera into place. “See? It attaches there and there. See?”

“I see,” said Clay, admiring what amounted to somewhere between a magnet, an alligator clip and a bit of Velcro. “I’ll tell you, gender is complicated for us humans, and we always have the same gender. So, your version of Commander Park.”

“My Commander Park is named Graeeghhaer, that would be a Kaahriig,” said Skzyyn. “The commander of fighters at, at what you call PSB6. And she, he, no, that one is a she, she is now far behind and I will never see her again.”

“Sorry? About not seeing her again?”

“No, not that one. Not that one. But this Park. I like, uh, her.”

They hung there on the skin of the gigantic hauler, as space flew by faster and faster around them, as the unmoving stars blurred just a little. They looked all around, down the hexagonal walkway, left and right around the vast curve of the freighter, and then Clay said, “Climb up onto the top of the forward section? That might be the place for these two cameras.”

“Certainly,” said Skzyyn.

Clay climbed up an extension of the mesh walkway, onto the top of the front section, and then climbed out onto the outside of the mesh, and up onto the top of that. Skzyyn climbed up next to him. Clay handed Skzyyn one of the two remaining cameras, and without any words in any language, they fixed the cameras so they covered opposite half-spheres of space.

Then Clay sat down on the mesh cross-legged, and snapped a magnet on his suit onto the mesh. Skzyyn gave itself some more lead and crawled a few meters up the mesh. They sat there, near each other, watching all that nothing as it slowly went by at 25% of light speed.

“Skzyyn,” said Clay, “you grew up on Fyatskaab?”

“I did,” said Skzyyn. “Most of us did. The colonies are nothing compared to Fyatskaab.”

“Was it beautiful?”

There was a pause. Skzyyn said what must have been several verses of a poem, or lines from a famous speech, in the Fyaa lingua franca. It made a noise that was not its laugh. After another silence, Skzyyn said, “The world was very beautiful. Clay, ah, Clay, one cannot express these things.” It sort of shook itself. It said, “Your world, your Earth, it was beautiful?”

Clay thought of Arthur Dent talking about those rolling blue oceans, and Marvin the Android saying he hated oceans. Clay thought of oceans. He thought of stormy oceans, sunny oceans, powerful oceans, oceans full of whales and watched over by albatross. And oceans with Ngugma freight shuttles rising up out of them. “Yeah,” he said, “it was very beautiful. Oceans. You understand oceans?”

“Fyssyh, Fyatskaab-1 you would call it, where I was born, it had oceans, most of it was ocean. The Ngugma simply dropped to the bottom, mined and came back out. Our other planet, Zyshe’ye, had only small oceans, it had mountain ranges long and high, it was quite beautiful.”

“Mountains,” said Clay. “Rivers. Deserts. Islands. Forests, oh, yeah. Forests.”

“Forests? Is this a place with many tall plants?” asked Skzyyn.

“Yeah,” said Clay. “My homeland, it’s called Maine, it’s covered with forests, lakes, mountains, it has long rocky coasts, cliffs, thousands of islands.”

“I think it must be beautiful like Fyssyh. Very beautiful. But,” Skzyyn went on, “but then, we Fyaa did things we should not have done. We were trying to destroy these Kleegrg, these Primoids. We sub-joog-gated.”

“Subjugated.”

“We subjugated. We subjugated the Hyai, that’s what we call them, on Hyastyaz, we subjugated the Vyni, they did not ever fly in space so we subjugated them, we occupy Vynyatz, we take their precious metals. We subjugated others to take their worlds, because they lived too close to Fyatskaab. We subjugated, but we did not destroy all life. Yet you can see how one is just the other only more. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Actually I can. Rachel and I went back to Earth, to our home world, to let them know the colony at Bluehorse had been founded, and that’s when we found out about Ngugma. And we had a sort of argument about whether what humans had done to one another was like what the Ngugma had done to us. And of course we did not, nothing we did excuses the Ngugma destroying two hundred million humans. But, still, yeah. We never got around to subjugating aliens on other planets, but we subjugated the heck out of each other. People killed off whole populations of other people just to steal their stuff. The Ngugma are much like us. Like you, the Fyaa, are much like us. I think it’s the, uh, Kleegrg who are different.”

“I like them,” said Skzyyn. “It is, ironic? It is ironic that I used to try to kill them. Is that what it means to be ironic?”

“Oh, who the heck knows,” said Clay. He laughed. “I used to try and kill them. I killed a few. I killed a few Fyaa too, a few of you Tskelly. Now I’m kind of sorry. I like you.”

“Perhaps you like Skzyyn, and I like Clay Gilbert, and all the others are horrible.”

“Do you think that’s true? I like Dzvezyets pretty well.”

“Dzvezyets is a fine fellow. No, Clay, I do not think it’s true, because I like all of you I have met. I think you are all good. I think that when we meet in our suits, in our fighters, we hate each other, and when we meet to our eyes, our faces, it’s different.”

They sat there for a minute longer. “Well,” said Clay, “shall we?”

“I see no enemy out here,” said Skzyyn. “Do you have more of that smoke?”

Clay laughed. “Of course I do,” said Clay.

So they climbed down again, and just outside the personnel airlock, they stopped and surveyed the grandeur of space. Clay wanted to take big breaths of grandeur, except that there wasn’t any air out there. And then something shot past, low, perhaps ten meters above them.

“What the—?” said Clay. Skzyyn said, “Fyevya! Holy sheet!”

They looked at each other: Skzyyn was hanging onto Clay’s arm with its back four legs. “That was a sarzyrk,” said Skzyyn.

“A mouthhole,” said Clay. “Great.” They watched the space where it had been, but it had shot past seconds ago and could not be seen, and no more followed it.

 

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