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5.

The Ngugma of Greenstar, diffident at first about any contact with the Bluehorse flotilla, now assembled an expeditionary force that dwarfed the human fleet: a full-size battleship, two heavy cruisers, six cruisers and a couple of hundred fighters, escorting their versions of Honshu and Tasmania: six armed freighters much smaller than Big Fourteen but much larger than Honshu or Tasmania. Gwoav was put in charge.

“What do they have in their holds?” Clay asked Fonnggark, as they floated in the Tasmania bridge.

“Makings,” said Fonnggark. If its twenty or so eye-tentacles could have a glint, they would.

“Makings of?”

“Astatine, I bet,” said Rachel. “So, we’re going to a system 3200 light years away. I thought we’d break it into four jumps: it might add a couple of weeks to a real travel time of three millennia. Gwoav concurs.”

“Padfoot wants to refit all the fighters,” said Kalkar. “There go another couple of weeks.”

“Ever going to refit Tasmania?” asked Clay. “I can hardly wait to see what color you do the café in. It’ll be interesting to see if it can be made uglier.”

“I doubt it,” said Kalkar. “No, Tasmania is as refit as she is going to be. Commander, is it your plan that Tasmania will go wherever you go? Perhaps it’s time to discuss the long term.”

Clay’s heart skipped a beat. Rachel said, “Are you thinking of leaving?” with just a hint of panic.

“Absolutely not,” said Kalkar. He laughed through his beard. “I just wonder if we get to brave the Empty Lanes and all that, or if you’re planning to park us somewhere.”

Rachel narrowed her eyes. “Well,” she said, “suppose we did. Say just the fighters had to get somewhere where we wouldn’t want to risk the larger vessel. We need a base of operations. Heck, we might end up operating around here for the next million years. But the problem is, if you just park yourself at the base and we go 200 light years away and back, it won’t just be four hundred years later, you’ll really be four hundred years older.”

“So,” said Clay, “as long as we’re moving, you have to be moving.”

“I think that can be arranged,” said Kalkar. “Ms. Gray will wave her navigation wand at the problem. So, from here—do we proceed to Armpit?”

Rachel looked around. She laughed. “Sorry,” she said, “it still seems weird to me that I’m a commander.”

“Babe,” said Clay, “you’re the commander.”

 

The little flotilla was granted landing privileges at a nearly abandoned Ngugma base on an Earth-sized planet, frozen solid in Greenstar’s inner Oort cloud. They partied and trained and slept, while the Ngugma fleet got organized and underway. The pilots spent a significant amount of time lying on the hard ice outside, in their vac suits, looking at the stars.

“It’s finally starting to hit me,” said Apple. “We’re not going back.”

“What are we doing?” asked Millie Grohl.

“It’s a one-way journey, silly,” said Apple. “You knew that. If we went back to Bluehorse, it’d be what, twenty thousand years later?”

“It’s a one-way journey,” said Rachel, “but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to die, because everyone took the vow—Miz and Millie, you did, didn’t you?”

Millie Grohl and Mizra Aliya both half sat up, and looked each other in the visor. “I thought we did,” said Grohl, and Aliya said, “”Well, maybe we should do it again.”

“Okay, stand up,” said Rachel, getting up. Everyone got up. Vera and Natasha pushed Aliya and Grohl in front of Clay and Rachel. “Hunkalicious? You want to do the honors?”

“Okay,” he said. “Millie Grohl, Mizra Aliya. Do you promise to fight with all your heart and brain, and win the next battle and the next and the next, but above all, to be alive at the end of the next battle and the next and the next?”

“And every one after that?” asked Rachel.

“We do,” said Aliya. Grohl said, “I so vow,” and Aliya said the same thing.

“What do you promise on?” asked Vera. “What are you swearing on?”

They looked up. “The whole galaxy,” said Aliya. “We swear on the Milky Way.” Grohl said, “Yes. We swear by the Milky Way Galaxy that we will be alive at the end of the next battle and the next and every one after.”

They hugged each other, and then they swore a few more things, and then everyone hugged, and then they lay down again on their backs.

“Is it true Gray’s having a baby?” said Aliya.

“Shawna’s having another,” said Izawa, referring to the drive officer Shawna Shelleen.

“I don’t know,” said Rachel, “but we’re gonna find out.”

“We want to have one,” said Li Zan, “but naturally we have to wait and see.”

“We’re not having one,” said Vera. “Just in case anyone wondered,” said Natasha.

Rachel and Clay both sat up and looked at Tasha and Vera. Rachel looked at Apple. “You guys? Now you’re married and all?”

Apple giggled. Izawa said, “We’ve talked about it, actually.” Apple added, “Mostly about which of us would actually go through it. You guys thought about it?” she asked Aliya.

“What? No, no, we haven’t,” said Aliya. She looked at Grohl. They smiled, took hands, giggled and looked back at the others. “What about you, Commander?”

“Me?” said Rachel. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind having a baby me to raise. Maybe I can get Clay to actually carry the pregnancy.”

“Oh, that’s hilarious,” said Clay. “Anyway, it’s all a bit hypothetical, at least for now. But actually, I don’t think the far end of the Orion Arm would be such a bad place to raise a kid.”

“I think so too,” said Li. “I look forward to trying.” She looked to her right, into Timmis’s visor. “But we have to wait and see still. The thing that isn’t hypothetical is the Vow.”

“No,” said Rachel. “That part’s very real.”

 

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