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2.

The equation for the difference in clocks traveling at relativistic speed has two factors: one is the actual distance, and the other goes to zero as speed goes to 100% of light speed. So no matter how fast time passes, it takes ten times as long to go ten times as far. At a cruising speed of 99.999998% of the speed of light, a journey of twenty light years, which would cause twenty years to pass in the non-relativistic community, is felt as a 35-hour jaunt to those inside the moving space ship, train, elevator, or whatever. A journey of two hundred light years would be felt as taking 350 hours: fourteen and a half days.

The first humans to have spent two weeks in a small capsule together were Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, in the Gemini program, when orbiting Planet Earth was still considered quite the feat. They remained friends after their mission was over, but it would be fair to say that they did not enjoy being cooped up together for a fortnight. The ten paired-up Ghost 204s of the mission up the Orion Arm, however, were all couples. And somehow or other, without anyone going to any effort to ensure it, they were all more or less compatible, sexually and otherwise. It’s not as if two weeks passed like nothing. But two weeks passed, and Rachel and Clay lay back, in a lazy naked embrace, and watched a new system appear out of the mist in front of them.

“I love this part,” said Clay. “I always have and I think I always will.”

“Oh, me too,” said Rachel. “So many possibilities. Is there life? Are there assholes? Will we have to fight off a bunch of assholes?”

“How many assholes will Vera be forced to atomize?”

“Who’s going to be having babies? Did you know Shawna’s pregnant? Vera thinks Irah’s going to have a baby too.”

“Oh jeez. Vera?”

“Oh, I don’t think so.”

They sighed and laughed and adjusted and smooched. They could have been lying in bed in a hotel room watching video. “What’s the name of the system, anyway?”

“Ffvozzho,” said Rachel. “And the calendar year is 3044. Your personal chronology has advanced by 349.5 hours since we passed 99% on the way out of Pentestella.”

“What do we know?”

“Well, at Pentestella, they informed us that Ffvozzho would not be attacking us. They used the word friendly, but who knows exactly what that means.”

“Okay.” They watched the system: a single star, in its red giant phase; a single terrestrial planet in the middle of the very stretched Goldilocks zone; a trio of gas giants, like Jupiter-sized thugs waiting to beat up the little kid when he gets out of school. A major space station began to appear, occupying a solar orbit just outside that of the terrestrial. “How long till we can contact our compadres?”

“Couple hours,” said Rachel. “Whatever shall we do?”

 

A couple of hours later, the ten fighters, the armed freighter, and even the Ngugma explorer-cruiser were in contact. The fighters assumed their Oort Cloud pattern: two were on long scout (Apple and Izawa), two were on local patrol at any given time, and the rest were aboard Tasmania.

“Fonnggark is about to contact the local authorities,” said Kalkar as Clay and Rachel entered his bridge. “No, there has been no contact between them before this. They’re behaving just the way they said they would behave.”

“But we aren’t entirely trusting them, right?” asked Vera, hanging with Natasha on a sashay bar out of the way.

“Not entirely,” said Kalkar. “Okay, let’s open comm, Mr. Vindu.”

Ram Vindu opened communications with the Ngugma explorer, and they all got to listen to Fonnggark’s message to the star base. Natasha’s word by word translation seemed pretty anodyne, and the translated text from the Ngugma and from the Tasmania computer confirmed: Fonnggark was saying hello and requesting safe passage for the fleet, not sending a secret message.

They were four light hours from the big space station when the message was sent, and seven hours later, they were three light hours away when they got the reply: granted, please stay outside the orbits of the gas giants. The Ngugma of Ffvozzho had a significant space fleet—three battleships, five battlecruisers, half a dozen heavy cruisers, more than a dozen cruisers, four docked freighters of size comparable to Big Fourteen, a good fifty patrol ships. They also had hundreds of tugs, liners, small freighters, and assorted service vessels, and thousands of personal spacecraft. None of these looked like they were going anywhere near the orbits of the gas giants.

The system was more industrial than Pentestella, which in comparison seemed rather bourgeois: Bath or Saco to Pentestella’s Cape Elizabeth, in the Maine municipality analogy that sprang immediately to Clay’s mind. But it also had a much smaller subservient (or perhaps slave) population than Vannaag had had. On the map of the Orion Arm, the Earthlings could finally see that they had made progress: they were two hundred light years closer to the far end of the Arm, where it tangentially brushes the Scutum-Centaurus Arm just as the latter emerges from the Milky Way’s central bar; they were now almost 400 light years from Earth. That meant that the progress bar of their journey up the Arm was almost to 4%.

“And that means,” said Kalkar as he and Ram Vindu sat with Clay and Rachel in the commissary, “they’re a bit more on a war footing here. But not unfriendly, given that.”

“We think they don’t believe we’re here to help?” asked Clay.

“More like, they don’t see how ten fighters and a beat-up old armored merchant is going to make any difference. They haven’t had to fight those ten fighters, obviously, or they’d know.”

“But they’ve heard of our exploits,” said Rachel.

“Evidently. And thus, whether they believe in your legend or not, they’re not going to screw with us. And we’re not going to screw with them.”

“So this is it, for Ffvozzho?” said Clay. “We just cruise on to the next place?”

“Where is the next place?” asked Rachel.

“I guess so, Clay,” said Kalkar. “Unless you want to stop and do some shopping. Pick up some souvenirs.”

“The next place,” said Ram Vindu, “is actually a ruins system. Captain Fonnggark informs us that we might actually be able to land and, you know, stretch our legs, or tentacles or whatever.”

“How far?” asked Natasha.

“Five hundred light years and six,” said Kalkar. “Two hundred was no problem, so we’re going to up it to five.”

“Apple and Izawa should be back with us in about eight hours,” said Rachel. “They haven’t picked up anything untoward.”

“So this was Ffvozzho,” said Clay. “Quiet little burg. If only the whole trip was going to be like this.” He smiled at Ram Vindu, then Rachel. “But it won’t be. Life would be too uninteresting.”

“Can’t have that,” said Kalkar.

They sipped their coffee and nibbled on reconstituted croissants, and their ships glided on, just beginning to accelerate again, never having slowed past 5% of light speed.

 

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