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XIV. Orion Arm
Of course the answer was still yes.
There were eight thousand light years yet to travel. The Earthlings and Bluehorselings in the fleet had come three thousand years from their planets of birth, and it was not even a third of how far they needed to go. Ahead, the upper half of the Orion Arm held 105 Ngugma bases, but just two of those, according to the latest information, held significant populations, both largely military. The nearer one, which the Ngugma called Gaazokgov (translated as Greenstar), had once been a major Ngugma metropolitan system, and was now one big starship factory. It lay at about the midpoint of the journey ahead. The further one was no more than a gigantic military base, near the end of the Orion Arm, where it petered out into the Empty Lanes, near where the Scutum Arm met the Galactic Core. It had a long and unpronounceable Ngugma name, which made an anatomical reference describing an arm joining a center. The Earthlings called this second major base Armpit.
“But Greenstar,” said Rachel, as the fighter pilots sat around in the Tasmania lounge on their way out of Offvroffh, “is the only actual Ngugma colony beyond this point that’s not just a military base. It’s four thousand light years away. That’s about ten times as far as we’ve gone already.”
They looked around at each other with solemn faces: Rachel, Natasha, Vera, Li, Timmis, Maria, Gemma, Miz, Millie, Clay Gilbert. Presently Natasha said, “I give up. There’s no way to think about that.”
“No way,” Clay agreed.
“How many stops are we going to make?” asked Maria Apple.
“I plan on six jumps,” said Rachel. “What do you guys think? That’s an average of 659 light years per jump. Seems like a lot. What do you guys think?”
There was a general shrug. “Fonnggark going with us all the way?” asked Vera.
“Still trying to talk him, er, it, into it,” said Rachel.
“660 per jump,” said Natasha, “we can do that, we just did 666. What’s our longest?”
“This next one is 610, the one after it’s 760,” said Rachel. “The rest are all in between. There’s lots of systems, obviously, so Gray and Kalkar and I sorted for decent surface conditions. We’ll see how many of them are covered in slime.”
“Commander,” said Millie Grohl, “how dangerous is the slime?”
“Well, we’re not putting our Ghosts on the ground anywhere it’s got established. Look, I suppose we could just get up to seven nines past the decimal and coast for 4000 years. It would still only be what, a couple months? We’d be coasting, it’s not like we’d use more power, so we wouldn’t need to stop just to fill up batteries. Of course, even the Ngugma don’t like to take jumps that long. So I don’t suppose we want to try that.”
“I don’t know how to actually think about the question,” said Vera, “about doing 4000 light years in one jump, or split it into nice manageable chunks of six or seven hundred. So I’m going to vote for getting the chance to put my feet down on something, and hope that it’s beach sand.”
And so the little flotilla flashed across space, accelerating to the very brink of the speed of light, then coasting for 610 years (which were to them just under a week and a half). The fighters connected together in double pairs, Alpha Wing and Beta Wing, with Aliya and Grohl getting to stay aboard the Tasmania. They played, they simulated, they had a fair amount of sex, they slept, they read and watched videos, and generally they ignored whatever was on their screens.
Then they were decelerating into a new system, six hundred and ten light years up the Orion Arm from Offvroffh. They did this five more times, until the unimaginable became routine. They spent ten or eleven days traveling, closed in their tiny shells, flashing through the empty blackness like gigantic impostor photons, playing, working, eating, talking, making love, ignoring the weird around them, which was no less weird than ever, but which seemed less likely as time went on to actually cause them harm. Then they decelerated, like monks coming down from the mystic mountain. Dozens, even hundreds, of mouthholes appeared around them. Fonnggark’s explorer-cruiser brushed these off, with the few that fell through getting blasted by Tasmania or the fighters. By then the system ahead began to resolve itself.
The first time, they had put six hundred light years and ten behind them. There were sixty-two of the globular nasties; three got through and came at Rachel, who swore venomously as she blasted them, leaving one of the three to her husband.
The system they were in had a pair of dull red dwarf stars, each of which had a few rocky planets. One of these was more or less in the Goldilocks Zone, but its idea of a sandy beach was to be entirely covered in sand, with water only present as a minor atmospheric constituent. There was no Ngugma base, and no history of habitation, but the sandy planet did contain life—in the form of certain mold-like plants growing on bare rock near the equator, photosynthesizing and somehow gathering water from the thick dry oxygen-poor air. There was a robotic station in a far outer orbit of the two red dwarfs, communicating as at Ghhokhur in occasional updates sent back to Offvroffh. And there was an osmium-iridium plaque.
“I do not understand what is strange about these, ah, plaques,” said Fonnggark, as it played chess on a physical chessboard with Clay, who finally had the chance to visit aboard the Ngugma ship. He had expected the Vogon spaceship from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and found himself aboard something more like the interplanetary mining explorers he had sometimes helped resupply all those years ago. “Would not you of Bluehorse do the same?”
“Fonnggark,” said Clay, “you do know what Bluehorse used to be, right?”
“What Bluehorse used to be?” the furry starfish repeated from its round toothy mouth. It struck Clay as weird how the Ngugma speaking English out of those monstrous mouths never struck him as weird. “Ohh. You indicate that the Ngugma once lived there.”
“Yes, for, like, hundreds of millions of our years. Like, it’s where you evolved. You know that.”
Fonnggark turned left and right to point its eye-tentacles (of which it had dozens among its thick brown fur) at the other crew around it in its open-plan bridge and lounge. “We do know that,” it said, with what Clay was beginning to recognize as a laugh. The other crew laughed as well.
“And it doesn’t bother you.”
“It doesn’t bother me, or us?” Fonnggark mused for a moment. Then it said, “No. It does not bother me, or us. It bothers me that you continue to have two pawns more than me, than I. Clay.”
“Is it than me, or than I?”
“Either works,” said Clay. “And either way, you and I are better matched than either of us with Scary Rachel.”
So all they managed to do was land a few fighters on the sand—Rachel, Vera, Apple and Aliya, who took readings and got a sample of the biome. They sent a message full of data back at Bluehorse; someone there would presumably read it in about four thousand years. Then they set off on their second journey to light speed. The flotilla traveled 760 light years this time, and emerged through a cloud of eighty-seven mouthholes. Aliya and Grohl got one each; Grohl got winged and needed repair; Apple killed two. The system they found had eight planets of all possible sizes around another rather large orange-colored dwarf. Two planets had water in significant amounts—the third planet out, which was 100% covered by kilometer thick water ice, and the second, which had a 1% coverage by poisonous, highly saline pools. This planet too had life, but it was also quite rudimentary, having to deal with poisons, winds of hurricane force, and radiation from the star, which was unhampered by the planet’s wimpy magnetic field. So everyone, including the Ngugma and the Tasmania, landed on a large moon of the largest gas giant, just to get out and stretch their legs (or whatever) under the black starry sky.
The third journey to light speed covered just 631 light years, and put them about 4800 light years from Earth. There were only about fifty of the murderous spheroids, and they were all scattered without any murder needing to be done. This system had a lovely little yellow sun and a dozen planets, two of which were not only habitable but had been inhabited, more than two hundred million years ago, by a species which Fonnggark said had brought about its own extinction millions of years before the Ngugma arrived and dug out the mantles of both planets. These rocky whiffle balls still hosted a lichen and bacteria population around a few pools of ice that melted briefly right around noon in their respective day cycles.
“This is starting to suck,” said Vera, as she and Clay stood on a boulder in the noonday sun on the second planet out. “I’m never going to get a decent chance to skinny dip.”
“Believe me,” said Clay, “I really want all you guys to get a decent chance to skinny dip.”
“Clay Gilbert,” said Rachel from a little way away, where she was taking a sample. But she smiled at him, before walking over to spank his vac-suited butt.
The fourth time, it was 623 light years. The mouthholes were thick here, for some reason, and even Clay got a few flectors nicked. The system had four stars still stuck in a nebular womb, and two planets. One was a gas giant, a near star really, which radiated intensely; the other was a large Earth with a robust magnetic field to keep the radiation off. It was covered by ocean, except for a few islands. The islands, and the shallow ocean floor, were covered in burnt green-brown slime. So they landed to stretch their legs on a Mars-sized moon of the gas giant. They took samples, flirted sarcastically, Vera cursed her bad luck, and then they were off again.
The fifth time they went to light speed since Offvroffh, they traveled just 615 light years. The system was anchored by an enormous and flimsy red giant, and it had only four gas giant planets, not counting a chunk of charred rock about the size of the Moon which orbited barely outside the surface of the star. Cygnus X was blasting radiation just a couple of hundred light years to the right of their path: they couldn’t see it with the naked eye, but in X-ray wavelengths, it spread across several degrees of sky.
The mouthholes barely bothered with this journey—Clay counted thirty, all deflected by Fonnggark’s setup. The fighter pilots decided they had to land somewhere, so they landed on a moon of the outermost gas giant, put up a tent and had a little fighter pilot party.
After everyone was pretty wasted, they all got their vac suits back on and took down the tent and lay on an icy pool to look up at the black starry sky.
“We are now six thousand light years from Earth,” said Rachel.
“If we went back to Bluehorse,” said Apple, “it’d be twelve thousand years later.”
“If you went twelve thousand years back from when we left Earth,” said Natasha, “you’d be in the last Ice Age. You’d still find woolly mammoths all over Siberia.”
“It’s freaky,” said Mizra Aliya, in her slight accent. “I grew up where they used to graze. I hardly saw snow in the winter there.”
“And yet,” said Gemma Izawa, “we’re just past halfway to where we’re going.”
“After Greenstar,” said Timmis, “it’s a lot more empty.”
“Not like it’s been exactly bustling up to now,” said Clay.
“More empty,” said Natasha. “And scarier.”
“I can handle a little of that,” said Apple. Grohl agreed with a snicker.
“No,” said Vera, “but bring it on, baby.”
And so they got back in their Ghosts and took off again, their batteries full again after passing by the star. Another week and a half passed, playing, working, eating, sleeping, making love, and ignoring the signals from the void. And 707 years later, in the year 9323 CE, as long since the birth of Jesus Christ as that was from the end of the last Ice Age, the little fleet arrived at the system they were already calling Greenstar.