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from Silverfleet and Claypool

 

And there it was, an unmanned explorer ship, about half the size of a fighter and full of equipment. No amount of fancy electronics prepared it for Silverfleet and Claypool. It spat out five scout drones, then they blasted it, and then they chased down the scout drones and blew them up as well. Then they turned about and went to pick up their own scouts. They flew side by side fifty meters apart, coasting at sixty thousand kilometers a second, a fifth of the speed of light, and debated.

“Commander,” said Claypool, “you know what this means. We have to leave this system.”

“But Suz, it was alone. And even if it got off a transmission, it won’t get to Marelon for twenty-two years. If it had a companion that turned around and went back, then they could know in a week. But it didn’t. And who is this ‘they’, anyway?”

“Halyn, you know this was from Central. It was marked.

“Well, so what? Maybe they’re just checking for rogue colonies.”

“Halyn, we’re a rogue colony. And you say they won’t know for twenty years. What’ll they think in two weeks when they haven’t seen their scout return?”

“They’ll assume it ran into mechanical problems. These things aren’t that reliable.”

“They’re just as reliable as fighters! They’ll send a fighter next time!”

“Then we’ll blow her up, Suz.”

“Halyn, whoever she is, when she sees us she’ll just turn around and head for Marelon. And when they come back they’ll have a dozen!”

“We can take a dozen.”

“That’s funny. Wasn’t it you who was telling me we couldn’t fight seven of them by ourselves? You said at least one of us would get killed. Well, look around. What if we got badly damaged here? What would we do? How could we get fixed up? At least at Marelon we were defending something. What in heaven are we defending here?”

Silverfleet didn’t answer. She knew Claypool was right. But she had actually come to think of this as home, though she didn’t really know it until now. They’d gotten out of bed and flown out here and here they still were, sixty hours later, out in the blackness, and she really, really wanted to go back to that bed. “Okay, look, Suzane, why don’t we just head back to Black Rock and hide out? Maybe they’ll come back, maybe they won’t. If they don’t, then we won’t have wasted all the effort we’ve put into this place. If they do, then we hunker down till they leave, and maybe we still get to stay here. They sure aren’t going to hang around and build a colony.”

“But what if they trace us? We can’t erase all our footprints. They’ll know from the debris that we blew up the scout. They’ll look for us. If they find us down in that fissure, we’re done for. And if we make a run for it, they’ll track us. Again.”

“Maybe they won’t come,” was all Silverfleet could say.

 

But when they had collected their two scouts and returned to the black rock moon and the cave in the fissure, the two of them stripped off their vac suits and threw themselves down on the bed. When they woke up, they didn’t say a thing about the “situation”. Instead, they went for a hike, then they took apart and rebuilt Claypool’s transfer generator, then they tweaked Vanessa’s photon distributors, then they ate, then they got drunk.

Then for a week or so they were sleepers refusing to wake. They adopted a code of silence about almost anything more important or long-term than what to have the ships mold their waste products into for dinner. They didn’t speak of Central, they didn’t speak of Marelon, and they didn’t say a word about how they felt. They didn’t even know how they felt, but for a while the cave, which had been a claustrophobic hovel to them at first, seemed like a childhood home.

 

But they woke up, eight days later, two hundred and ten hours after the destruction of the scout ship, and looked around their cozy little efficiency apartment, and it was as though it were all transparent. It was just rock, and it wouldn’t hide them from the prying eyes of the next scout. Without saying anything about it—instead, they talked about literature—Claypool and Silverfleet began to pick up and put things away.

Then they went out and climbed the cliff and sat for hours watching the glowing planet, the gleaming rings, the turning moons, the slowly turning stars. They lay on their backs and stared up into the black and white sky, and as they did so the moon turned them until they were looking out, instead, through the hole in the stars, the window out of their galaxy and into the rest of space, where swam a thousand more galaxies, whirls of a hundred billion stars—spirals, barred spirals, ellipticals, irregulars, galaxies twisted by black holes, galaxies torn by the passing of other galaxies, exquisitely carved by interactions too complicated to imagine, stretched and curled and bent by bumps and brushes that took hundreds of millions of years to happen.

“We did good,” said Silverfleet. “We can be off in minutes.” Claypool didn’t reply. “I figure we leave the bed and the chairs. And the plates and knives and forks. The sheets. We can make all that stuff again. All we have to take is the tents.”

“Yes,” said Claypool. “We can be out in minutes.” They lay and watched the sky turn. “Well. We should leave now.”

Silverfleet sighed. “All right,” she said. “One more night.”

“Funny. It’s always night.”

“Not true—it’s sunset right now,” said Silverfleet, sitting up and glancing toward where, again, the red giant was disappearing behind the big planet, leaving a gold-red fire on the planet’s curve. “One more eight hours. We can leave the alarm set if you want.”

But they didn’t. They slept side by side, and then they half awoke and rolled over to sleep again. Then Claypool opened her eyes and said, “Well, let’s go.”

 

They rose and dressed in silence, put away what few items they wanted to burden themselves with, and hugged one last time skin to skin. Then they zipped up, then they unsealed and sucked the tents back into the fighters, and then they got in and took off. In half an hour they were out of the fissure and pulling away from the gravity of the big planet. They watched Black Rock dwindle in their rear screens, and then turned their attention to the stars ahead.

“Nearest one?” asked Claypool.

“Twelve light years,” said Silverfleet. “Blue, in a bit of nebula. No planets, just a belt of debris. Twelve light years beyond that, there’s another system, probably with planets. Or there’s that one to the right, twenty-one light years—big yellow, brown dwarf.”

“Two jumps sounds good to me,” said Claypool. “Let’s head for the blue. They won’t think we’d head there—there’s no place to land.”

“There probably won’t ever be,” replied Silverfleet. “That star’s so hot it won’t last a hundred million years. It’ll be ready to go supernova by the time that debris field condenses into anything. But who cares? It’ll outlive us, and it’s got plenty of light to feed our hungry steeds.”

“Got the coordinates?”

“Here they come.”

“Okay,” said Claypool. “I’ll see you there.”

 

They were coming up on the medium yellow, coming up on ten percent of lightspeed, when they saw the fighters. Two of them, no more, decelerated into the system sixty degrees to their right. Without a word, Silverfleet and Claypool turned to take them on. If they didn’t, the fighters would have a good chance of tracking their flight, just as they perhaps had done from Marelon to Black Rock. Meanwhile, as they crossed the light-hours of emptiness, Claypool and Silverfleet napped, checked systems and played chess.

An hour before they would meet, the Central fighters made contact. “Silverfleet, Claypool? Are you all right?” came a familiar voice. “We were worried that you’d been damaged when you left Marelon.”

“Milton!” Silverfleet replied over the ten light minutes that separated them. “Are you flying exploratory missions for the White Hand now? I hope the pay is good.”

Fifteen minutes later his reply arrived. “Commander, forget about who’s on what side. We only want to know if you’re all right. People on Marelon care about you. They owe you a lot. I owe you a lot, and I don’t want to see you go into exile when we could put all this behind us. We want to parley. We aren’t at war. This isn’t about fighting.”

“All right,” said Silverfleet, “we have no desire to fight. We’ll parley all you want.”

The four fighters coasted toward each other. Silverfleet and Claypool exchanged no detectable communication except for a few more moves in their interrupted game of chess. They passed within firing range and slowed to meet, still with shields down, still with combat systems in standby.

 

“Well,” called Silverfleet, “what shall we say?”

“This,” said Milton, as he and his comrade opened fire.

Two seconds later, Silverfleet and Claypool were accelerating toward lightspeed, unscathed, while behind them their victims floated in their vac suits in the neighborhood of twin patches of debris, and prepared for a long wait in an empty system.

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