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6.

The fleet said goodbye to Flaayy, in orbit over the most populous planet, and that was emotional enough: Flaayy was easily the most huggable Ngugma they had encountered, although that didn’t say much. Then they headed out to the rendezvous moon, where they took the opportunity to relax for a fortnight before they had to attempt any further farewells.

The two weeks passed all too quickly. Clay had been lifted from his old life on Earth way back in the 24th Century, and turned from a shuttle driver to a fighter pilot, and led 300 light years from home, all by Commander Su Park; he had struck up an inter-species friendship with Skzyyn Aarndr-rii which, despite his inability to read its many facial expressions, or even be sure what pronoun to use with it, had risen to save-each-other’s-life level. Bain, Ree, Leith, and even Ve’ezy and Dzvezyets and Hhmvyvya: he just didn’t know what to think about the fact that it was unlikely he would ever see any of them again. He had no idea how to say goodbye in a way that would get across how much they meant to him.

In the meantime, a single Ngugma vessel, a smallish, under-gunned exploratory cruiser under the command of a certain Fonnggark, arrived and joined them. Clay wasn’t sure that the explorer-cruiser even had a name; the captured cruiser, refitted by Padfoot et al., was officially gifted by the local Ngugma to its human skeleton crew, and re-christened the Daria Acevedo.

So they partied and played and simulated and gazed at the stars, the strange stars of the Pentestella sky, and finally the day, the hour of departure arrived. They all got into space, the Acevedo linked up to the Tasmania; Fonnggark’s ship linked to the Acevedo; everyone met and exchanged pleasantries; Fonnggark, who was a sort of tall skinny Ngugma, actually joked with Natasha and Clay and Skzyyn; the younger pilots, Apple and Izawa and Grohl and Aliya, barely contained their excitement; the humans and Fyaa hugged and swapped final snipes and words of appreciation. Finally, the Acevedo, with its skeleton crew of Mr. and Mrs. Ree and their kid, separated and began its acceleration.

“Miz Natashaaa,” Hhmvyvya was saying to Natasha, its feet gripping the front of her vac suit, but it was sort of crying and couldn’t get any more out. Natasha was sort of crying too and just smiled through it. The Errhatzky looked at Padfoot standing next to, and towering a bit over, Natasha. “Miz Padfoot,” it said.

“I’ll miss you too,” said Padfoot calmly, but she messed it up by sniffling. She laughed and wiped her eyes.

“Clay Gilbert,” said Skzyyn, who was still, again, latched to his shoulder.

“Skz,” said Clay. “I, um, I meant to give you a gift or something.”

“You gave me the gift before,” said Skzyyn. “When you bumped me in that tunnel.” Skzyyn grabbed Clay by the ear and licked his face with that weird tongue. Then it leapt off Clay and flipped in the air twice before spreading its eight arms and legs and gliding, flying squirrel style, through the bay air toward its fighter. It landed on the thing, turned and waved its two upper left arms, gave what Clay was sure was an insouciant grin, and climbed inside. Dzvezyets and Ve’ezy did the same. Hhmvyvya, with a last hug of Natasha’s head, turned and propelled itself through the bay air toward Skzyyn’s little fighter. Skzyyn made room and Hhmvyvya scooted inside; Skz gave the other two Tskelly pilots a wave. Their hatches shut.

Only Park remained. “Santos,” she said, and Vera smiled through wet eyes. Park sighed a little and said, “Just behave. Will you?”

“If you say,” said Vera.

“Apple, Izawa, Aliya, Grohl: make us proud. Natasha Kleiner. Thank you for the many things you have done well. I knew you were a right choice. As were you, Timmis,” said Park, smiling at the only other male fighter pilot left. Park turned to Clay. “Mr. Clay Gilbert,” she said. “I was always sure about you, and I still am.”

“Thank you, Boss,” said Clay. Park gave a tiny smile.

She turned to Rachel and Li. “Commanders,” she said. “You are the best of the best. You know that. Just, please, promise me you won’t spend a tenth of a nanosecond even considering what Su Park would do. Su Park is not with you. You need to do what you would do.”

“Of course, Commander,” Rachel and Li said, almost together.

Park turned and smiled at Kalkar. Then, so fast the others might have thought they imagined it, she closed the two meter distance and threw her arms around him. They kissed, quickly but passionately, floating off the ground. Then she pushed away. Floating backwards, she saluted Kalkar, and he saluted her. She turned and saluted her fighter pilots, no longer her fighter pilots. She sashayed over to where her fighter sat on the hatch floor of the bay. “Be safe,” she called. “And save the galaxy, all right?”

And before they could adequately reply, she was sealed up. The rest backed out of the bay, and the hatches opened and dropped the remaining fighters out into space, and they were away, following the Acevedo on the long road home. They would be in Bluehorse in two hundred years, or two weeks. The road that everyone else would be taking was much, much longer.

“All right,” said Kalkar, “let’s get this crate moving. We have a galaxy to save.”

 

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