Chapter 11: Chasing and Chaste

XI. Chasing and Chaste

1.

“I cannot believe you, Clay Gilbert,” Rachel was saying as they took off to an altitude of a meter and floated out a side door and over the polar desert of Gliese 667 Cc. She had been saying things more or less like that for the past several hours. Supposedly they had gotten some sleep, but it was hard to doze off with a pissed off Rachel within strangling distance of his neck.

Now they hovered out across the highlands under low clouds of thin vapor, headed for their staging spot on the night side of the planet. Above them, the invading Primoid fleet closed in on orbit, while the rebels, reinforced to numerical equality, began to get into space. The defenders of the planet had waited as long as they could to defer the moment when the invaders knew they didn’t have the numerical advantage they had expected to have. Now the defenders took off just in time to have space rather than atmosphere around them for the fight.

Meanwhile, Clay had plenty of time to think about the situation, and the situation did not involve Primoids. It involved human females, three of them.

Clay didn’t get it. He knew better than to argue, but he didn’t get it.

Of course Karen and Angelica were anxious to leave Gliese 667. Angelica was right when she pointed out that their situation was way different from that of Rachel and Clay, or than that of the Mathildeans or the Centaurians or the 581-ers. They hadn’t even seen another living human in sixteen years, and they knew already by now that the entire human population of Earth was horribly dead. There was no one even to speak the same language to besides each other. What would Clay have been like if he’d been stuck on a desert island somewhere, or a planet somewhere, with only his dad and a bunch of, say, Koreans? Or giant insects?

Karen had flirted with Clay. So had Angelica. Again, why was this a surprise? They were both, evidently, heterosexual females, and they had spent a long time without contact with the opposite sex. Angelica had practically grown up with only her mom and the Primoids for social contact. It was great that she knew so much about how to communicate with them; Clay didn’t think that Rachel had sufficient sympathy for the girl, or gave sufficient credit to her. Angelica was clearly quite intelligent. But communicating with Primoids, interesting and useful as it was, was not the same as having someone to talk to.

As for Karen, she had even less social contact, and she remembered having more. She had lost whoever Angelica’s father was, presumably her ex-husband, probably in the attack on the human base. He wondered what her life had been like back then, before the attack, when the humans and the Primoids had coexisted in their separate bases. He wondered what the human colony had been like. He wondered what Karen had been like. He wondered what she looked like naked. He wondered what Karen’s ex-husband, or her last boyfriend, had been like. He wondered just what she was like when she was making love. He wondered about that intensely. She had been very close to him. She could have kissed him. She could have done much more than that, except that people were watching. She could have done so many things so many ways…

Clay snapped to attention. Rachel was frustrating and Karen was fascinating. But he knew Rachel and he didn’t know Karen. Karen wanted him, but Karen wanted other things too, like getting away from 667. Rachel was only frustrating because he knew her so well. No doubt Karen was frustrating too, if he got to know her well. Rachel was wonderful to kiss, wonderful to make love to, amazing in so many ways. He really did appreciate her.

But oh, he could appreciate the heck out of Karen. He could thoroughly appreciate her.

He shook his head as if to shake the thoughts out of his brain, but it didn’t work.

“Clay Gilbert,” Rachel was saying, “are you prepared for this? Are you ready?”

“Yes,” he said, and his voice sounded strange. “I have the plan down.”

“Well, I hope so. You need to get your head into it, hubby dear. Honestly, why is this happening? What is going on here? The first live woman you see other than me—no, you didn’t make moves on Court or Avery, or did you?”

“Rachel. I didn’t make moves on anybody.” He didn’t say “Karen,” because he suspected he might inflect in a suspicious way.

“I just—oh, forget it. Clay Gilbert, you think about this at some point, okay? But not now, not now. You need your head straight.”

“I have my head on straight.”

“Well, that’s great. Keep it there. You have about ten minutes till they make contact.” She shut off their communication, leaving him stewing in the cold soup of her scorn.

And there he was, nine minutes and forty seconds later, still stewing, when Rachel alerted him to get into space. They zipped out of their shallow rock cave and rose up, still mostly concealed by cloud cover at four different levels of the atmosphere. In four minutes they had passed those four levels of cloud and the curiously purple sky gave way to blue-black.

Clay was leaving those planet problems on the planet. He was escaping to the cold shelter of space.

2.

Over there, over the pole, the two identical Primoid fleets faced off cautiously. They placed their fighters in front, in three triangles, and their cruisers behind, in a slightly offset right isosceles triangle. The invaders’ triangles were somehow more aggressive, but the missile barrage and the net of photon fire from the rebels, along with their ability to keep the atmosphere at their backs and their talent for adjusting to the moves of the attackers, gave the invading commander pause. So did the fact that they were numerically equal.

And then the two Ghost 201s burst through the high thin red cloud cover and turned along the top of the ionosphere, laying down a confusing array of their tiny Earthling missiles. Clay and Rachel, side by side and five kilometers apart, followed their darts with photon shots. The invaders instinctively contracted, pulling back into interplanetary space and pulling their fighters around to face the new enemy.

A triad of invading fighters posed themselves against Clay and Rachel, but the two Ghost pilots were by now far too practiced to be pinned down by mere muscle. Clay dropped left and Rachel dropped right, peeling off photon fire at the enemy. Then Clay lost sight of Rachel for a few seconds, as the nearest invading fighter tried to tackle him. Blasts were passing him on every side but the foe could not pin him down, and Clay took the aisle he was given, pushing the throttle as he drove straight into his opponent, his laser shearing ahead through empty space and through the composite materials of the Primoid fighter. It split open and then blew up.

Just beyond that fight, Rachel was dancing her little dance around another fighter while avoiding the fire of the third. Her enemy blew up and the third member of the triad retreated to the neighborhood of the cruisers.

These were firing off their big ass missiles at Clay and Rachel, who picked them off one by one. Their own little missiles chewed through those of the invaders, and now the rebels’ big ass missiles were finding targets. Two more invading fighters went up and then one, then another of the invaders’ cruisers went dead. One of these exploded with all hands, while the other simply subsided into powerlessness and awaited boarding.

One invading cruiser and one fighter fell back and back. The rebels did not seem eager to pursue them, but prepared to board the defunct cruiser. Past them and beyond, the other three of the invading fighters, hardly having fought, had turned and were hurtling away into interstellar space.

“On them,” came the order from Rachel.

“Even if they’re going to light speed?” Clay replied.

“They’re not,” said Rachel. “They’re headed for that.” And she sent an image: a three dimensional map of the Gliese 667 system, including, way out about a light day off, a small fourth star.

“How did I not notice that?”

“It’s 12th magnitude. It’s tiny. It’s barely big enough to have fusion reactions. And it’s where those three are headed.”

“It’s an Imperial base,” said Clay.

“Imperial? Yeah, heh heh, must be where Garth Vader hangs out, huh?”

“Darth,” said Clay. “Darth Vader. Rachel, what is the plan here? We’re going to go blow up a Primoid base? Just us?”

“Well, Karen sure isn’t going to be much good.”

Oh, love, thy sting, thought Clay, but he said, “So why would they have a base so close by? And what are these three doing going there?”

“We don’t know, Clay. It’s probably just an observer base. But there’s going to be backup there, and they wouldn’t be going there if the backup wasn’t enough to finish the job. We need to divide and conquer here. We need to take those three out before they can alert anyone. Does this make sense to you or would you like me to send you a slide show explaining it all in 3D?”

“No, Rachel. I think I can handle it. Chess?”

“Oh no. Not chess, Clay Gilbert. You are going to have to play me at Set.”

And so they played, over the four days that it took them to reach the little star with its little cloud of rubble, a hundred and twelve games of Set, and Clay managed three wins. Rachel had them in stealthy pursuit, with their own thrust at just 80%, and their course set directly against the red dwarf Gliese 667C to help avoid detection. The three Primoid fighters did not appear to notice them.

And then those fighters were coming in over a patch of rubble, dropping down behind it as if to hide, and speeding on. Clay and Rachel exchanged theories, and decided to keep pushing, slowly decelerating behind their quarry, but passing close over the patch just to use their sensors on it.

The rubble patch sure seemed dead, at least until they had just passed it and it sent approximately a hundred of those big ass missiles after them.

3.

“Crap,” came Rachel’s voice. “Booby trap.”

“Don’t count your boobies until they hatch,” muttered Clay.

Husband and wife were not in tune. Rachel had somehow gotten a hundred thousand kilometers ahead over the course of twenty billion kilometers. Thus all of the missiles that were chasing her were behind. Clay, on the other hand, found ten or twenty in front of him, and more still emerging from the patch of rocks after he passed over it. He fired off a dozen of his own little guitar-pick missiles, and began picking off the big ass missiles in front of him, but he had to decelerate to keep from flying into their midst. Now there were thirty-five missiles chasing him, all moving faster than he was.

Far ahead now, he could see Rachel still in pursuit of the three Primoid fighters. These were decelerating too, clearly intending to turn and make a stand just as the booby trap missiles caught up with her. But she was accelerating, clearly meaning to take them on before their missile friends could catch her. As usual, she was thinking on the fly, planning to have luck. As usual, he wasn’t planning anything.

“Um, Rachel,” he sent, and then he spent several seconds arranging his little fleet of little missiles. “Um, I’m not out of the woods.” Then he was spending all his seconds picking off the Primoid missiles in front of him before he was in among them. Two, three, five, seven down: funny, he had time to think, prime numbers. But there were still eight more ahead, no, ten. At least thirty were behind him. A part of him held cordoned off a billowing dark cloud of panic and dread. These were alien minds, alien things, just a sort of space rock animated to attack: he could not comprehend them, the way he could comprehend Rachel or Su Park or his Ghost or his guitar-pick missiles. He might die here, at the hands (or whatever) of these things. More parts of him debated, fought bitterly over tactics: concentrate all on the front, divide his attention somehow, maneuver to evade. Part of him wanted a minute to wish Rachel would turn to his aid, and blamed her bitterly for not changing course.

And she didn’t: she was well on ahead of him now, putting all her thought into the missiles behind her and the three fleeing fighters ahead. Her missiles were covering her rear, but each of hers would only take out one of the enemy, so she would have to fire several volleys and set them properly on their quarry, and meanwhile she was maneuvering against the formidable triangle before her. Three fleeing fighters seemed doable for two Ghosts flown by veteran pilots. Three against one Ghost was distinctly iffy. She was Frodo in the spider’s pass, running ahead in a “fey mood,” and he was Sam Gamgee, plodding behind and worrying, shadow Gollums chasing him.

“Clay,” she called back, “drop sideways, evade a bit, I have my hands full.”

So he did, but it was dangerous space now, as the left side of the chasing missiles and the same side of the ones he was catching up to both bent to match him. He took out two more in front, and that gave him a little freedom. He accelerated into the gap and fired off six more missiles back. Now his laser began cutting through the other six he was among, and these went down one by one. He had three, four, and then the fifth got where he didn’t see it, and he barely dodged it as it exploded a hundred meters off his port side. A thousandth of a second later, he registered minor damage from what must have been some sort of shrapnel. A flector went down, the very one he had been repairing when Karen got close to him.

Gah, now he was about to die thinking of her, of some woman stranded on a dead colony. He saw Rachel, naked and walking away, that mole swinging back and forth as she smiled over her shoulder at him. Rachel, I love you. He actually muttered it. I love you.

Number six went up.

He had begun a hard turn to the left, but now he flipped and began firing on his pursuers. He and another six little Earthling missiles began taking these out too, but his thrust felt clumsy and he wondered if that hit hadn’t done his beloved, so trustworthy Ghost 201 serious damage. Speeding backwards at 6% of the speed of light, Clay Gilbert put all else out of his mind and invited the dread to stand next to him in battle.

One by one by one. They were catching up, but as a half dozen got close enough to hurt him, another half dozen of his missiles would take out four of them and he would get the rest.

Thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-two. Dang. The twenty-third got right in his face and he spent eight maddening seconds trying to pinpoint it. He was staring right into its ugly face, almost close enough to see it unmagnified.

Then he got it, but by then the last six or seven were around him. An explosion on his starboard side shook him and sent his Ghost tumbling. He found a missile in his face and he blew it up with a cry. He hit the button to fire off ten more of his own missiles, with instructions to hit whatever wasn’t a Ghost 201. He took out another big ass missile, and then another near-hit shredded his starboard flectors. Almost without shield, like a naked man in a Medieval battle, he sought for another target and then another.

His luck would hold. It would be as close as anything he’d been in, but it would hold. And with that thought, Clay Gilbert took down the third-to-last and second-to-last and then spun backwards looking for that last target.

His display lit up. He had been hit one more time, a direct hit under his seat. He had the presence of mind to hit the thrust eject just as his drive system began to overload. His life support went, leaving him on vac suit only. His sensors went, and his computer restarted in safe mode.

Then nothing happened. Nothing happened. He was alive and alone and rolling in a straight unchangeable line through blind space at six percent of the speed of light.

4.

Clay blinked. He let out a breath. His computer was restarting: that seemed positive. There was an empty silence from his drive, which was not there, having presumably exploded some tens of thousands of kilometers behind him. His sensors were still extremely spotty: the big screen that enveloped him and usually showed him stars and planets with expandable labels and magnification was now nearly all black. Directly in front of his face, his computer readout was informing him of its cryptic progress: DUMP PREP STOPPED. 13200 TB FREE. RESOLVING ERROR 88004.

It seemed to come to some sort of conclusion, and then he was looking at the welcoming turquoise chaos screen that was its substitute for the sensor display. “Comm,” Clay said. The word COMM appeared. “Comm Rachel,” he said. RACHEL FOUND.

“Rachel. I’m okay. I had to eject drive. I was moving at six percent, so I will plan on continuing to do six points until you or somebody comes to get me.”

Four seconds later, a blue disc appeared on the comm screen. Rachel’s voice began: “Clay, I’m,” but what she was remained in doubt because with no further sound effect the screen went black.

“Life support,” said Clay.

The Ghost was unresponsive. He began shaking his joy stick, pushing and sliding his screen, saying various commands: nothing. Finally, he put out an ungloved hand and placed it palm flat on the screen. He lay there feeling: feeling the complete lack of vibration.

He gulped. He took a breath, held it, let it out. He wondered if he still had CO2 conversion, or if he was going to suffocate in his little closet, in his coffin zipping along at 18,000 km/sec. But he realized after five or ten seconds that he was wearing his vac suit. He ran a quick diagnostic and found the suit still fully operational. He pulled his helmet on and put the visor down, then pulled his gloves on. Ahhh. Now he could coast along at six percent of the speed of light for days, weeks, months before the energy ran out to convert his waste, solid and liquid and gas, into fresh air, water and nutritious wafers.

He thought about that. Six months, perchance. And then, and only then, would he die in the black of space, unless, of course, Rachel came and got him, Rachel or the Primoids.

But the Primoids—how much could he trust them, anyway? Even the rebels—it was awfully hard to trust someone whose language he had absolutely no comprehension of. Why should they care about him? He had blown away any number of Primoids himself, in space, in fights unimagined by the geniuses who had dreamt up the Human Horizon Project. Why shouldn’t he expect to die in space himself? If the enemy, the other, the Imperial Storm Trooper Primoids got him—why wouldn’t they put him on trial for his crimes and horribly execute him? By, for instance, just guessing here, putting him in a dead space ship and propelling him off into the universe to starve and suffocate in six months?

So that left Rachel, who was out there, probably still alive, possibly capable of beating her own demons, and maybe, just maybe, not so permanently ticked off at him that she would just let him float away.

So. Sit here in the dark and wait for rescue. In a few hours or days he would pretty well know if anyone was going to oblige him, and then, if not, he could relax and wait to run out of juice or water or oxygen or food wafers.

“Computer,” he said aloud. His vac suit beeped: a miniature display opened inside his visor. “Dang,” he said. “Ship’s computer.”

The ship’s computer is unavailable, the vac suit replied to him in a gentle female voice.

“Comm.” Comm is unavailable, said the vac suit.

“Dang. Crap. Bleep, bleep, bleep.” He shifted, in body and in mind. He thought a moment, then shrugged, found and flipped open a little port hidden on his display and put his right pinky finger into the hole. “Vac suit,” he said, “drain ship’s battery.”

Do you want to drain ship’s water and solids? the vac suit asked.

“Yes,” he said, “do that. Please. Thank you.”

He could feel something now—the flow of liquid through the skin of his vac suit around his finger. His reserve tank was filling up, figuratively and literally.

“Well, that’s something,” he told himself. “Vac suit, chess. Level eight, white.”

The vac suit complied. He began playing a conservative game as white, but he suddenly found himself behind, taking back moves he never should have made, giving up a pawn here, a pawn there. He was distracted and distraught and it was snowballing.

He canceled the game. He lay back and stared at the black screen. He tried to figure out what he was feeling and suddenly he realized the name for it.

The name was panic. He was panicking. There was really nothing else to do.

5.

Black thoughts enveloped Clay Gilbert. For a long time, he lay in his capsule, his coffin in space: “Here am I floating in a tin can.” He could float in his tin can far, far, far above the world, eating recycled wafers, sipping recycled water, breathing O2 that had been CO2 after it had been O2 the time before, playing chess, practicing on the simulator to simulate something he might someday do again if Rachel or anyone else survived to pick him up, which became less and less likely the longer he sat. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” Nope. No, I cannot. Sorry.

He would go on hurtling through the blackness, twenty-two light years from dead Earth, seventy light years from Bluehorse, for months or even years, playing chess, eating wafers, reading the entire collection of 22nd Century romances and the cavalier fantasies of Marisa Marten (2228–2326). He could watch some Shakespeare, some Aeschylus, some Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He could reread and rereread the Harry Potters, The Lord of the Rings, The Stand, The Tale of Countess Vivian, The Divine Comedy. He could listen to every song ever digitized. And eventually it would all run out, the energy, the nutrition, the water. He would poison himself by default if not on purpose. He would starve or suffocate in the oblivion that lay just to the left of Gliese 667.

And why? Because of that stupid little trap. He thought of the massive artillery shell bullets he had dodged: mouthholes attacking him five on one, gigantic Primoid battlecruisers, the hemorrhagic virus that had destroyed every last H. sapiens on Earth. And here he was, led past a nest of missiles hidden in a patch of rock orbiting a star so minor no one had even bothered to call it Gliese 667D, and blown into uselessness by the very last one.

Which he had lost track of in space. Stupid. Stupid stupid.

He sighed. He took up his joy stick. He tried a few things again and had the same result. He sighed again, thinking of Albert Einstein, who was supposed to have described insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

He knew people who had posted on the Social various defenses of the printed book, which constantly needed defending even though it clearly was not going to die out until the human race died out. A certain strain of these defenses went like this: I don’t need anything in life other than a nice arm chair, a cup of coffee and a pile of good books. Well, Clay had a comfy armchair and almost infinite amounts of coffee and every book, good or bad, in existence. And time. Maybe he should start in on the Wheel of Time series. Or watch every episode of Doctor Who ever made; the 92nd Doctor had been saving the Earth when Clay launched in 2334.

He wished he could go post, just once, on the Social, a rebuttal to all of those people. Oh yeah? Tell you what, pal. I’ll trade places with you. Anytime. I don’t even care what you do: clean toilets, write ad copy, nothing could possibly be so demeaning or disgusting that he wouldn’t take it sight unseen.

Just for the chance to have a sight, a real sight, seen. Just for the chance of a sunset, a breath of strange air, a cat brushing against his hand.

Damn it, Clay. You’re getting maudlin. Snap out of it. Man up. He took a deep breath, then let it out in a sigh, then laughed, unhappily, at the sound of the sigh.

Here he was, floating in a tin can. He and all Humanity. He was a frickin’ metaphor for human existence: born in a welter of cries and colors, maturing only to find out that nothing meant anything, doomed to die stuck inside the dying vessel of his skin. Life was meaningless no matter what, but his life was meaningless in an unusually pure and perfect way. There was no meaninglessness that could possibly be more meaningless than his meaninglessness.

And yet, in meaninglessness there must be meaning. Clay thought, therefore he was. Deep inside, he could find the true measure of the boundless universe, the heavens and the hells and the sundering seas, the world bounded by the nutshell of his Ghost. Endless and everything. The Tao. The world and the void. Jesus and Buddha and Mary Baker Eddy and the girl in Hitchhiker’s Guide who figures it all out just before the Vogons destroy the Earth. In meditation on the impossibly finite, he would find the infinite inside him, the answer to the ultimate question, the question to the ultimate answer. Setting out not into the distance but into his inmost heart, he would undertake no less a quest than to find the unbounded truth where it hid so deep inside he had never known to look for it.

What absolute twaddle. He was sitting in a dead spacecraft zooming through the night, imprisoned in solitary confinement for no crime he was aware of, doomed to die and not pleasantly.

He began to think through his life. Typically, he found himself considering the women he had been in love with, or at least infatuated with: his antediluvian girlfriend Wendy, his impossibly hot fling Vera Santos, and then Natasha, beautiful, sad and conflicted. Bonnie Frickin’ Bain. Karen, for gosh sake.

But it was never them. It was never them. There were two women he loved more than anyone else, male or female, human or feline or Primoid or algae from Algaeville. One was his sister, gone these two and a half centuries. The other, the one who mattered, was out there flying in some direction, or blown up scattered in pieces, a cloud of bits of woman flying together in some direction. Rachel Andros. The love of his life.

He laughed a little. And then he stopped. He knew it was true. There was no hiding from it any longer. He knew she was the one. He had thought he knew it before, but he had not. He knew now. He knew what it meant. He knew. The way he had been seemed ridiculous to him now. Why, why had he not known? How had he been so selfish? How could he think for even a moment that there was any life for him without her?

For now he had it—what life would be like without Rachel. It would be Clay Gilbert, hurtling headlong into darkness alone.

It struck him that she might be in the same state he was in. It was immeasurably sad. She might be stuck in her own dead Ghost, zipping in a slightly but significantly different direction, two lines in space drawing steadily apart over the days, weeks, years, chased by no one, powerless, eventually to starve or suffocate, neither knowing the other was thinking of them.

And with that thought, and with no strength left to fight off that thought, Clay Gilbert fell into a darkness that was within him, a darkness more impenetrable than any nebula or black hole.

6.

And from that darkness, after many hours, a thought rose, a hand rose and touched a spot on his vac suit and turned on his sound system, only his sound system. Music returned like a sad meaningless semblance of the twilight of dawn, but a stubborn twilight, determined to grow into something that would have meaning.

The clang of the rhythm guitar, turning and turning, the lead guitar sighing, crying, the wind song of the backing vocals: then what’s-his-name, the man with no diction, talking almost threateningly of his need for “shelter.” The woman singer behind or above him: possibly the lead singer was unaware of her, pleading his case to the Gods, or pleading her own.

To Clay, this old music was the sound of the fighter battle. Ever since the skirmishes among friends on the Moon, where he had first learned to do as Rachel commanded, this had been the song in his heart when he was hunter and hunted. It was just a shot away, just a kiss away.

But where was all that now? The instant of the battle, the all things at once, all time in a single second, that was past and gone forever. Love was just a kiss away, but the distance could not possibly have been greater if the nearest pair of lips had been in the next universe. Still, he sat there and listened to the whole thing. He had the time.

The rest of his favorite playlist spooled out around him as he drifted along at 18,000 km/sec. Vivaldi, the 22nd Century romantics, the imitators of the ancient folk traditions, Pentangle, Clapton, Isha Machale. He started skipping, liking, mostly disliking: he had tens of thousands of songs, maybe he would have to hear them all eventually but why force him to do so in sequence? Wouldn’t it be better to have “Ashes are Burning” ten times in a row than to have to wait through the entire production of Franz Liszt, the worthless sons of J. S. Bach, and the four hundred love songs of Abel Tatum, not to mention Nickelback and Matchbox Twenty, before he heard it again? So he heard “Ashes are Burning” a few times and cried a little. His suit sucked up the tears and sent them for recycling in the handy, if limited, little life support system it had.

Circles sway, and for yesterday, ashes burning, ashes burning. Yep. Past is past. Future is imagination. He would feel better about it if his future weren’t quite so limited. But he let that amazing singer sing.

And then: In this farewell, there’s no pain, there’s no alibi. Now that was more like it. He played that five times, twice in Marie Digby’s voice, the final time in the sweeping a capella version someone named Sara Lantigo had done in 2312. He sang along. He cried.

He had well and truly crossed out what he’d become. Humanity. It hadn’t erased itself—it had missed a few spots, but the Ngugma had come in to clean up.

Start again. Not so much. Whatever pain may come, today this ends. Sob.

He flew along feeling sorry for himself. Beethoven interposed. He skipped the second and third movements of the Ninth and sang along to the fourth: Freude! Joy! Freude, schone Gotterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium. Drunk with fire, we entreat you! Something like that. It was all bull, but he sang along with gusto. Why not feel joy? What the hell.

“Pull Me Under.” Now that was more like it. Lost in the sky. Oh yes. Every step brings me closer to my last.

Meaninglessness loomed so large now over everything he had done and been given, his teachers, his family, his culture, his training, his fights, his loves, all the things he had seen, that it almost formed a tapestry of heroic meaning. Pull me under, I’m not afraid. Living my life too much in the sun… Now that needed a replay, with a little air guitar. He found himself belting out the choruses, swinging his imaginary axe inside his little tin can.

He had to laugh even as he found himself singing along to “On the Border.” What a joke.

And then a guitar start—what was that? And then it was that voice, that perfect, slightly gravelly voice of the blonde bombshell he only knew as P!nk. He wondered so much about who she really was, but boy, wasn’t she what Janis Joplin wished she could have been?

I was never looking for approval from anyone but you.

That’s right, Rachel. Finally, even Su Park was gone in distance, and you were the only one whose opinion I cared about.

You can do the math a thousand ways, but you can’t escape the fact
That others come and others go but you always come back

Come back. Come back, baby. Because I’m not dead, just floating. I’m not scared, just changing, right behind the cigarette and the devilish smile.

She was there. She had to be. She had to be. I’m not scared at all. Finally, Godless, world-less, almost formless, he knew what faith was.

I will find you.

I will be here. I have nothing better to do. I will be here, and all you have to do is come and get me.

7.

The tenth or twelfth or fourteenth time Clay listened, sang all the way through “I’m Not Dead,” he glanced at the time. Nine hours had passed since his Ghost had been disabled.

For just a moment, Clay Gilbert reeled at the thought. Rachel might have saved him after minutes, after an hour even. But in nine hours he would have covered millions of kilometers. In nine hours he would have traveled twice the distance from the Sun to the Earth. But there was no Sun here, no Earth, nothing but the shadows, the shadow of Shadow itself. He was lost. She was lost, no doubt. He would never be found.

But there was nothing to do. He did not reel anymore. Whatever his fate yet was, even if, lo, he had already arrived at its doorstep, he accepted it.

He replayed and replayed and finally, worn out with meaningless tears full of meaning, Clay Gilbert floated along, no longer in a tin can high above the world, but in the nutshell that the whole Universe was inside. He let the next song play.

Wake up in the evening, and I ain’t got nothing to say
Come home in the morning, go to bed feeling the same way

And the gravity of “Dancing in the Dark” pulled him in, in the light voice of Ruth Moody, and he wondered if he could possibly feel more than he was feeling now.

Can’t start a fire
worrying about your little world falling apart

And there was no place he would rather be than here, except for one, no, he could think of two: in Rachel’s arms, or in the hot chill of battle.

Hey baaaaaaby…

Bump.

Clank. Click-bump.

It was not Clay Gilbert’s heart, which gave its own answering bump. He looked around. It was still black night inside his tin can. He turned off the music and listened.

“Clay, answer, gosh darn it.” Rachel’s voice: no music of the spheres, no solo soprano, no swelling orchestra or raving electric guitar had ever sounded so sweet.

“Rachel. Rachel, oh my goddess Rachel.” Clay said it aloud, then fumbled around trying to get his vac suit comm open. “Rachel!” he said again. “I’m okay!”

“Clay, you do hear me, right?” came her voice.

He fiddled: his microphone volume was turned down for some reason. “Yes!” he cried out, as soon as he had rectified the situation, “yes, I hear you!”

“Oh my goddess Clay,” said Rachel over the comm, “are you trying to make things exciting?”

“No, no,” said Clay. “Glitch! Jeez. I came so close to being completely blown up, and then I really thought—jeezum, Rache, that was nine plus hours. I thought I was just going to keep floating till my power ran out.” He paused. “I thought I was as good as dead.”

“And here you are, alive,” she said, more calmly.

“I seem to be, yeah,” he replied. “Are you frickin’ going to rescue me or let me float?”

“I’m rescuing you, you bozo! Of course I’m rescuing you. Oh, you so owe me for this. Okay, this seems to be secure. Hang on, lover boy. I’m opening up your Ghost.”

The hatch above his face popped open. A mellow light, like a room with a nice fire in the fireplace, filled his visor. There was someone in a dark grey vac suit right in front of him. She was checking things. “Rachel,” he said.

She looked at him, then she grabbed him and they hugged, vac suit to vac suit. Reflexively they tried to kiss, but their visors bumped. They laughed. They were both shedding tears.

“God damn it, Clay.”

“God damn it, Rachel.”

“Okay,” said Rachel. She handed him a canister. “You have a few leaks,” she told him. “Let’s get those secure and we’ll be able to have that kiss. And a few more. And then be on our way.”

“Okey dokey,” said Clay, inexpressibly thrilled to be given a simple household task by the wife. “Are you going to tell me what clever thing you did to the Primoids?”

“Patch first,” she said, shining her air light in. Wherever it showed a purple glow, he patched. “Then we air up this accommodation of ours. Then I strip you naked and check you for space ticks,” she went on, while they worked. “You owe me a bunch of kisses. You owe me to have my way with you. And then, when I’ve satisfied my quite legitimate needs, I might show you what clever thing I did to the Primoids. Any questions?”

“None at all,” said Clay, spray-patching a purple glowing spot till it subsided to its natural color. “I think I’m getting off easy,” he added, while his heart settled back into its accustomed place in his chest.

8.

Rachel and Clay had an impromptu honeymoon for several days as they slowed and circled back to Gliese 667. She showed him things he had seen before, but which instilled a new thrill in him; he showed her things he had thought only he would ever get to lay eyes on again. She also showed him what she had done, which was to outmaneuver the Primoid fighters to the extent of winding up matching them against a mix of her missiles and their own. Once the enemy were properly confused and softened up, Rachel had destroyed two of the fighters and all of the missiles. The remaining fighter had sensibly fled. “The Primoids seem pretty sensible, all in all,” she said, lying back in Clay’s arms as they watched the video of the last fighter dwindling into the light-hours of distance.

“So you let him go?”

“Are you questioning my judgment? I’m your commanding officer.”

“No, I am not questioning your judgment,” said Clay. “I was thinking about whether it could do any harm. Which direction is it going?”

“There isn’t a star that way,” said Rachel, “but they are tricky navigators just like we are. It’s definitely not just headed a few days away, it’s going to light speed. If we see it again, it’ll be years if not decades from now, in non-relativistic time.”

“It’s not exactly going to turn the tide at Bluehorse,” said Clay. “What about that last cruiser and the fighter that was with it?”

“Ha,” replied Rachel. “They did something even wiser. They surrendered. They switched sides.”

“They’re rebels now?”

“They’re something. I don’t think we need to worry about understanding it. Maybe they’re POW’s. Maybe they’re actually from some sort of allied clan and they’ve been waiting to make the jump to the rebel side. Maybe their captain is like the Primoid version of that Shatner guy, and he’s just showing off his independence.”

“No, no,” said Clay. “It’s Primoid Captain Mal.”

“Let’s watch that again,” said Rachel. “On our way back to 667. You can make sweet love to me while Captain Mal and that courtesan almost but don’t quite kiss each other.”

“Mmm, sounds good to me,” said Clay, and they didn’t say any more complete sentences for a long time.

Eventually, they lay together again, softly chatting with “Firefly” filling the screen, the volume low. Captain Mal was trying to keep his ship and his personal life together.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t come for you somehow?” asked Rachel.

“I thought I was gone,” Clay replied. “I really did. I mean, I get that one of us always manages to save the other one. But I also get that the roll of the dice might be so bad that we both need saving, and there’s just two of us. I don’t know yet if we can trust the Primoids.”

“No, I don’t know yet either,” said Rachel. “I mean, I sort of trust them, I definitely feel like I like them, the ones who aren’t trying to kill us. I almost think I understand them. But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to send them a text message or something? They don’t talk, they gesture and flash colors and stuff, so you can’t have a nice videoconference or anything. They must at least have a written language, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. You’d think.”

“So that’s why we’re going back to 667C. So we can have another little meeting and coordinate. And fix you up. Is that okay, my love?”

“Of course, commander.” They smooched. Clay said, “It’s funny, actually. I was sure I was gone. But then I was listening to music and I was sure you were coming back for me. I was sure. Was I just deluding myself and it happened to be true, or do you think there’s some basis for me, um, being sure?”

“Mmm, we have a connection, we do,” said Rachel.

“Do you think so?”

“I know so,” she said, cuddling against him in the dark.

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