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2.

The system called Spiral Arch lay seventeen light years away, almost at a right angle to their so far almost steady progress up the Orion Arm along the extended Earth to Bluehorse line. Except for the dear departed Big Fourteen, the fleet was the same as it had been: in descending order of size, Honshu and Tasmania, the Primoid cruiser, the Ngugma cruiser, the two Fyaa cruisers, five remaining Primoid fighters, sixteen patched-up Ghost 204s, and five Fyaa fighters. They went to light speed all hooked up together, including the Ngugma cruiser, which was crewed by Vindu and Chee and Flaayy. The latter had earned the run of its ship, but it didn’t venture to any of the other vessels.

So, a hundred plus light years from the nearest human, over fifty from the nearest Primoid or Fyaa, they played, worked, ate, partied, slept and talked, an outpost of diverse cultures moving through Ngugma space at 99.999% of the speed of light.

“Clay,” said Skzyyn, as they sat in a Honshu observation lounge, watching the confused, streaky lights outside, passing Clay’s jury-rigged pipe, “this will not be our last fight together. But the next place after this, that will be the last.”

“You guys are going home soon?” asked Clay, not surprised.

“Both Captains begin to think that it is time for us to turn back to the, the relief of Fyatskaab. The Tskelly are not ready to do so, not quite ready. So we have this long discussion, we argue, in our way. We make a compromise.”

“You go one more after Spiral Arch?”

“We go one more after Spiral Arch. It’s an honor.” They passed the pipe. Skzyyn said, as Clay took a pull, “It’s okay to say this?”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Yes. It’s an honor. To fight with you on the same side.”

In the commissary, Apple and Izawa were eating with Vera and Natasha. “You trust them?” asked Apple.

The other three women all shook their heads. “I sort of trust Flaayy,” said Natasha, “but not all the way. The rest of them—well, there’s just no way they’ve been beaten enough for me to think they’re not going to try something.”

“So we beat them some more,” said Vera. She lifted her sippy cup of beer and they all clunked cups.

“We’re in for the long haul, you know,” said Apple. She smiled at Gemma Izawa, who smiled at her. “All the way down the Arm.”

“Is that where you’re going to start, kissing me?” said Izawa.

“So frickin’ cute,” said Vera as they kissed each other’s hands.

“But really, we’re in,” said Izawa. “All the way in. I mean, I don’t even know where we are anymore, I mean, I know where we are, but anymore? I look up at the stars and I never recognize any constellations. I guess I’m just a citizen of the Milky Way.”

“You don’t mind that it’s eleven thousand light years,” said Vera.

“How many jumps is that?” asked Apple. “I mean, we can’t do that in one hustle to light speed, right?”

“Theoretically we could,” said Natasha. “Padfoot and Poto and Gene all think it’s best to sort of come down to normal speed every hundred light years or so. Still, that’s what, 110 separate jumps to light speed? I think we have to stretch it.”

“It’s all we’ve been doing up to now,” said Vera, “stretching it. Think Li and Timmis want to go all the way to the end?”

Apple and Izawa both shrugged. “I think it could go either way,” said Izawa.

“Where are you guys getting married?” asked Natasha.

“I don’t know,” said Izawa, giving Apple a long slow smile. “Sooner? Or later?”

“And who are we gonna invite?” asked Apple. “We have to send out the invites, get catering, a band, reserve a hall, all that stuff.” She looked at Vera. “You guys got married on the beach at Bluehorse. Why don’t we hold out for the next decent beach?”

Meanwhile, in a study room on Honshu, Rachel and Skippy, the Primoid fighter pilot, were standing-floating, poring over video screens. Rachel called up a picture of a log house on a mountain side. Skippy nodded its whole upper body. Then it called up a picture of a square building that tapered into a hemisphere as it went up. A weird green forest bloomed behind. Several big Primoids played with several little ones in the foreground. They looked up: Flaayy, n another screen, was inspecting both images. Then, on a fourth screen, Flaayy’s version appeared: a town of hexagonal pyramids rising out of a shallow pool. Big Ngugma and little Ngugma scurried along the wet lanes, while littler Ngugma paddled in the pond.

Then Rachel called up her video from Gliese 667Cc, where she and Clay had found bodies of Primoids alongside bodies of humans in the ruins of the Earthling colony. Skippy bowed and swayed. They looked at Flaayy.

Flaayy was drawing, It didn’t have a photo of what it wanted. It made a basic drawing, in simple colors: a human with a boxy torso and a round head, a Primoid that was an orange circle with tentacles on top and a bunch of stick legs and arms, and then a Ngugma, dark brown, standing on three of its six arms, holding out two of the others to its sides, where it managed to hold paws with the Primoid and the Earthling.

And a little way away, beyond where Emily Grey kept an eye on the navigation, in a bunk behind the Tasmania captain’s cabin, Su Park and Alfred Kalkar lay together.

“How much further, do you think?” asked Park.

“I’m not vital to the war effort,” said Kalkar. “I mean, back at Bluehorse.” He took her hand without looking. “You are, Commander. One more flight, maybe two, and you need to head back to Bluehorse. Even if the Ngugma have attacked, or something else has happened in those two hundred years, you’re still going to be needed.”

“You don’t think you’ll be needed?”

He stared straight at the ceiling of the bunk for some time, and then looked at Park and said, “If some of you are going to travel all the way to the far end of the Orion Arm, then I’ll be needed.”

“There.”

“What? Yes. There. If only to shuttle Padfoot.”

“So you’re going to go all the way,” said Park. They looked into each other’s eyes, brown and brown. They leaned close and kissed. “You’re a good man, Alfred.”

“You are a good woman, Su Park,” said Kalkar. “And the best fighter commander in the history of the Orion Arm. I am honored to serve with you.”

“We’ve come a long way.”

“A long way,” Kalkar agreed. “We have a long way to go.”

 

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