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2.

The preparations for departure were eerily familiar, but with just a few surreal touches. When Clay wasn’t simulating, he was in the ersatz pilot chair on Big Fourteen, getting the massive ship turned and headed for the system whose Ngugma name translated as Grand Transfer Vul, the word vul representing an ordinal symbol, the equivalent of E, meaning five or fifth. An Ngugma cruiser was requisitioned, and carefully sanitized, and crewed by two human crew from Honshu, a Primoid from the Primoids’ cruiser, one Kaahriig, three Errhatzky and one Ngugma, namely Flaayy. Flaayy was considered sufficiently intimidated, but no matter how cowed it was, it was also confined to its own quarters and locked out of the controls.

Grand Transfer Vul, 112 light years in a straight line from Bluehorse and 189 from Earth, was a system with a big yellow star and over a dozen significant planets, and millions of Ngugma and billions of their slaves and robots. There were extensive mineral processing plants there, as well as a range of manufacturing plants, including one that built more of the massive freighters and battleships the Ngugma used, and another that cranked out robotic fighters. It also built ground transport, computing and telecom devices, and household appliances, and hosted an Ngugma Starfleet base.

The Primoids and Fyaa had all agreed to go on—they had in fact insisted on it, though both the Primoids and the Kaahriig seemed to think that from there they might turn back to their own space. Captain Root hinted that she might think it time to turn Honshu for home, 112 years away. None of the fighter pilots thought this way.

“We’re going on,” said Vera, in the Tasmania commissary. “After we kick ass at GTV, I’m not planning on feeling fulfilled and ready to head on home. There’s more fight to be had.” Rachel, Clay, Natasha, Apple, Izawa, Kalkar and Irah Chontz, the Tasmania navigator, all clicked sippy cups of beer and drank.

“How are you feeling, hunks?” asked Rachel later, in their bunk on Honshu, after making love with Clay. “Ready for more, or feeling homesick?”

“Oh, that’s a laugh,” said Clay. “Homesick. I don’t even know what that means.”

“Aww. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine, actually.” They faced each other, each caressing the other’s hair. “I think back on Earth, on Maine,” he said, “it’s so long ago, so far away I can’t even really imagine it as being in the same life as this. It’s like something I remember from a dream.”

“I know what you mean,” said Rachel. “Vancouver. I lived in Japan for six months.” She laughed. “My ex. I can’t even quite remember what that dickhead looked like. The funny thing is,” but she got serious as she said, “it’s not like it’s childhood we’re remembering, it’s not like it’s even that long ago for our bodies, our brains, it’s, oh, I don’t know, two or three years we’ve lived? Do you have any idea?”

Clay thought a moment. “No,” he said. “I don’t. Add up the time accelerating and decelerating and being on planets and the time we spent near light speed time dilating, and—well, you could figure it out, but I doubt it’s more than three years. But it’s four hundred years ago. Four hundred years since we left Earth. Almost two hundred more to get back, and what would we find? The place all smashed up, nothing the same. Worse. At least Bluehorse would still be there. I hope.”

Rachel slowly shook her head. “Of course,” she said, “we’re not going back. We’re not going back there. Not yet, not for a long time.”

“Could be ten thousand years,” said Clay.

“Twenty thousand.” She shook her head. They both laughed. “I can’t even imagine what that’s like. Who will we report to?”

They looked at each other. After a minute, they leaned together and kissed.

“Us,” he said. “We’ll report to us.”

“Damn right,” said Rachel. They kissed again. “Just you and me, and Vera and Tasha. We’ll never go home.”

“It’s weird to think about,” said Clay. “We would have to be a law unto ourselves. I mean, twenty thousand years later we turn in a report to our senior officers? You think Park’s going to come with us? Or Kalkar? Or Root?”

“Definitely not Root,” said Rachel. “We’ll need Beta and Gamma, of course.”

“You’re not going to let that Maria Apple beat me up too much, are you?”

“No, darling, of course not.” They kissed again, and again with some heat. “I am going to take good care of you,” she said.

“And I of you,” said Clay, and they proceeded to take very good care of each other, while around them the rest of the fleet began accelerating out of the Okhozzhan system, moving still further away from the planets of their birth.

 

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