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4.

The two fleets, the huge one and the tiny one, spent two hundred hours in the Slime Ball system, mostly drifting far out in the Oort Cloud, fixing and rebuilding. The Ngugma fleet took off on its own errand, and the humans, and Fonnggark, put the finishing touches on their refits. Padfoot, Bell, Wall and Shawna Shelleen (indeed pregnant again) rebuilt all the Ghosts and managed to assemble four almost completely new ones. The screens were brighter. The drive systems had redundant redundancies. The flectors were tougher. The lasers had more settings. There were three types of missile. The food tasted better. The Ghost 205 was born.

Then they bid a less than fond farewell to the dead planets and decaying foliage of the Slime Ball system, and turned toward Armpit.

A thousand light years and more they traveled. They made eight nines past the decimal. Of course no one wanted to look out the window.

Except that, coasting across the back end of Orion’s upper arm, naked, with Rachel naked beside him, Clay got curious. Rachel was sound asleep. Clay turned on his fancy new display.

He didn’t want to look. He looked.

He did not see the France, lost in light years of space. Or did he?

He told himself he could look, because it was just pixels in his display, though he knew that what he was seeing in those pixels bore some relation to something out there,

He looked out, into the void. He recoiled, but he let the void hold his gaze. He looked until he came to understand it, and he recoiled again. And again, he made himself continue his contemplation, and finally, gazing through those strange portals, across those empty dimensions, up those illimitable avenues of night, he came to grasp the thing no one had grasped.

“I have it,” he said to Rachel.

“Mmm?”

“I have it. I know how to do this.”

 

Many years and a week later, the little fleet decelerated into a new system. Four planets circled a pale blue sun: a molten, a pair of gas giants, and an overgrown Pluto. A second star, a yellow dwarf just big enough to harbor fusion at its core, hung in space four light days away. There was a plaque, orbiting beyond the outermost planet, but they didn’t stop to examine it. There was no life, nor any sign there had ever been life, and there was no sign of technology.

“Second moon, inner giant,” said Rachel. “Ready to separate, hubby-hero?”

“Of course, Miss Amazing,” Clay replied. “You mind if I call you that?”

“You’re the amazing one.”

“You’re the amazing one.”

Letting that argument sit, they separated with the others, gliding in ahead of Tasmania and Fonnggark. The moon they were aiming at was large, the size of Mars, and while it showed definite signs of past geological activity—it had less craters than one would expect, and large expanses of plain—it was now stable. It had no air, and no bodies of liquid water, but it had plenty of water ice, and trails of moisture dripped down canyon walls here and there in the sunlight. It was far enough out from the star or its enormous planet, which was larger than Jupiter and with brilliant rings, that it received very little gamma radiation. They set down on a flat highland near the equator and put up a tent.

“That one,” said Natasha as the ten pilots stood outside the tent in the yellow-black evening. “That star there. That’s Armpit. That’s the Ngugma’s big fortress system guarding the Orion Arm. That’s what it’s all about.”

“You think the Ick has gotten there yet?” asked Millie Grohl.

“I’m sure it has,” said Rachel. They gazed up at it for another minute, and then she added, “Fortunately my husband has an idea.”

 

The Ngugma explorer-cruiser and the Tasmania landed on the moon and immediately set about fixing up a more permanent abode, on a stony knoll high up on the highland. Eight Ngugma, including Fonnggark, and twelve humans, including Kalkar, were out digging holes, fabricating beams, putting up frames, and debating about floor plans. Beta Wing concentrated on glass production, Clay and Natasha and Miz on interior design, Grohl and Santos on patrolling the sky, while Rachel went about supervising.

The moon was orbitally locked to its giant mistress, which it orbited every thirty hours; thus it had an almost normal day, except that, day or night, the planet hung in the same place in the sky, brilliantly blue with orange streaks in the night, glowering and dark in the day. Where the ships were setting up their digs, the planet was permanently rising (or setting); sometimes at lunar dawn, the planet would block out the sun in a moon-wide eclipse. Most of the time, the moon, despite its tenuous atmosphere, seemed flooded with a blue light. It was decided to call the system Azure.

They took four four-hour shifts. By the end of the fourth shift, a sort of ski chalet was shaping up on the flat highland. There was a lot left to do, but the fighters were inside processing air and water, and Jack Dott and Timmis Green and a couple of Ngugma were setting up cannabis and alcoholic beverage production, and Rachel, Clay, Natasha, Kalkar and Fonnggark found their way out onto the big balcony in their vac suits. The giant planet loomed up ten degrees above the horizon, its rings rising at least to ten o’clock. Behind all that, the Milky Way stretched across the heavens from one horizon to the other. Its central bulge loomed on the other side of the sky, a foggy mirror image of the rising planet.

“Do you think that whole galactic core is infested?” asked Kalkar.

“Our assumption,” growled Fonnggark, “is that it is so. There would be forty, fifty billion suns in that central bar. It should be everywhere there, at least a little. Perhaps one percent, perhaps ten percent, harbor an infestation like that of, you say, Slime Ball. Volhazzh Phohh. A lovely name.”

“So,” said Rachel, “if it has had the time you Ngugma have had, to conquer most of the Orion Arm, then it logically would by now have overrun the entire central bar of the galaxy. Do you think it would have made it into the other arms? The Orion Arm is rather the puny one.”

“We do not think the Enemy has yet grown into the large arm near here: the Scooootooom?”

“Scutum,” said Clay. “They will. Do you think there are other species in the other galactic arms, Scutum, Perseus, Cygnus, also desperately resisting the Enemy Goo?”

“Perhaps,” said Fonnggark. They gazed up at the Milky Way for some time, their eyes led down to its sinister central bulge. Fonnggark stretched a vac suited arm up from there. “You call it Persooos. Yes. I was once small, a child you say, I recall looking up at the stars, and at pictures of other galaxies, and wondering if there was a child there looking up at me, you know, billions of stars, the probability would be extremely high.”

“All those open windows,” said Natasha.

“Open windows?” said Clay.

“You know. Some little girl was looking out her open window at the sky. Maybe she had tentacles.” She laughed and patted Fonnggark on the nearest arm. “Maybe she was an Ngugma. It didn’t matter. I was in my mom’s house looking out the window—I remember it was a place we lived for a whole two years.” She laughed. “Anyway, it stuck with me.”

“Is this why you went into space?” asked Kalkar.

“Oh, it’s complicated.”

“Tasha,” said Clay, “why did Vera go into the program? I’ve always thought she had some sort of secret. I mean, I just sort of wound up in it, my dad died, my mom died, Park wanted me. But—?”

“She had an argument with her mom,” said Natasha. “Do not tell her I told you.”

“What?? Of course we won’t. But—what?”

“She had an argument with her mom, and then she broke up with her fiancée, and she had this offer out there, she was going to just let it sit, but she got mad and joined HHP. Human Horizon Project,” she explained to Fonnggark.

“She joined up on a snit?” Clay couldn’t think what else to say: he was struck by the memory of Vera Santos smiling at him through their visors on the Moon, giving him her serious look just before that kiss, that first kiss. Vera. Killer. How many years ago? “Well,” he said, “my dad died, and I was bored with my job.”

“It’s as good a reason as any,” said Rachel. “I got divorced.”

They stood there on the balcony, watching the moon’s plains grow dark even as the giant planet didn’t move in the sky. The sun was already set; the Milky Way glowed brighter and brighter. Fonnggark and Kalkar excused themselves and went inside; Vera landed, as she and Grohl were replaced on patrol by Apple and Izawa. Rachel and Clay were left on the balcony alone.

“Clay,” said Rachel.

“My love?” he replied.

“I want to live right here.”

“What?”

“I want to live right here. This is it. This is the place. You and me. And our, um, friends. Here. On Azure. You still want to be with me, don’t you?”

He looked at her. “I always pictured us living on a place with more, you know, air.” Then he laughed. “Of course I do,” he said. “We have all the air we need. You’re my air.” He grabbed her hand and twirled her about and let her fall back into his arms, and they bumped visors. “I will always want to be with you,” he said.

“That’s especially convenient,” said Rachel. “Because I will always want to be with you.”

 

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