Chapter 12: Home Again

XII. Home again

1.

The two Ghosts returned to Gliese 667 Cc over the next twelve hours, finding a fleet of three, no, four, no, five Primoid cruisers in orbit along with nine, no, ten, no, thirteen fighters. At a range of ten thousand kilometers, Clay and Rachel were fired upon, sort of: their sensors lit up with colorful laser interceptions which did them no damage, while live, hot beams sliced space in a cone around them at a safe distance. They did not know how to reply, so they accepted the accolades in silence.

They landed near the pole and rejoined their peculiar allies. The Primoids seemed sort of giddy as Clay and Rachel entered the first great hall. Karen and Angelica, in vac suits, were all smiles.

“They’re super happy,” said Angelica. “Did you kill all those fighters? They think you let one go.”

“It wasn’t on purpose,” Rachel replied. “I had to go save my man.”

“Whatever happened,” said Karen, “we’re all just glad you both made it back. I assume the Orange Guys are glad. They look glad.”

The four humans looked around at a dozen or so Primoids. Some of them were clearly working at wall stations, poking and sliding somewhat the way Rachel or Clay would on their displays in the Ghosts; others were gesticulating at each other, and a few seemed to be paying most of their attention to the humans.

One leaned over Angelica, who turned to it and gestured a bit. “Meeting?” she yelled slowly.

The Primoid turned to the Primoids nearest it, gesticulated with its tentacles and greened and yellowed a bit, and then turned and gesticulated back at Angelica, while slowly nodding.

“So they do want to have a meeting?” asked Rachel.

“Yeah, actually,” said Angelica. “They like meetings.”

A conference with Primoids did not involve one human institution: chairs. There were displays, 3D maps (easily read by the humans), inscrutable graphs, screens with videos on them, and small platforms that allowed Primoid “speakers” to get half a meter above everyone else. There were those wafers, somehow spicy and bland and crispy and thick, and an excellent water and even coffee. Clay was pretty sure Angelica was right about their attitude toward meetings: they did them well, with all the panache of Admiral Henri Georges back on the old Moon.

An hour and a half later, somehow, it had been confirmed that the Primoids were sending three of their five cruisers, and nine of their thirteen functioning fighters, off on a long range offensive. They actually seemed to debate the merits of Candy One versus Bluehorse as a destination, and several of the Primoids, Clay thought, favored someplace even further off, beyond Bluehorse, a regional capital if not the Capital of the Empire or whatever, the place Angelica interpreted as the “Primoid Center.”

Ultimately, the Primoids decided, apparently, to go where the humans wanted to go: Bluehorse, with Karen and Angelica on one of their cruisers. “Some of them just want to help out,” Angelica explained as the four humans wandered out of the conference room and back into the big hall along with the rustling, voiceless crowd of orange aliens. “Some of them figure that’s where the fight is. The ones who wanted to go to the farther off place just figure it’ll be a good staging spot.”

“Are they trying to take over the Capital or something?” asked Rachel. “Do they expect us to help?”

“They expect to have more meetings, I bet,” said Karen. “They love meetings.”

“On Bluehorse?” asked Clay. “Oh, there are some folks there who love meetings.”

“Well, they will have met their match, one way or the other,” Angelica replied. She turned and made some big arm and finger gestures at a nearby Primoid, and then she smiled at Clay and Rachel before going off to discuss things and get more arm and finger exercise.

“Tell the truth,” said Clay to Karen, “are you going to miss this place? Are you going to visit all your old haunts one last time?”

“Oh sure,” replied Karen. “I’m going to go visit the pooper one last time.” She looked around, up, at the Primoids and their colorful displays, both on screen and on their tentacles. “I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve felt really lonely here, really, really lonely, but these guys, whatever they want and whatever they’re thinking, they’re good. They’re, uh, good people.” She laughed. “Well, okay. I have to go do my thing. Maybe I’ll write some graffiti on the wall.”

She left them together, and they looked at each other. “Don’t even say it,” Rachel advised Clay.

“I am so going to say it, Rachel. I love you. I love you and no one else.”

She laughed, then subsided into a long smile, not a smirk at all. She finally said, “You’re good. You’re not in trouble at all.” They smiled at each other some more. Rachel got an impatient look. “But you’re forgetting something important.”

“I’m so sorry, Rache.” He moved up and put his arms around her, and she put her arms around him, and they kissed, one way, the other, then they laughed and then they kissed again, slowly, lingeringly. They giggled.

Then they looked around. Three Primoids were near them, all their eye tentacles aimed at them. The three had their stick-like arms entwined, their pincers gently pinching each other’s orange blobby bodies. They were nodding, together, slowly, up and down.

2.

Clay’s Ghost somehow got repaired. It took most of a week and the pilfering of pieces from other Earthling craft, and even a few add-ons by a peculiarly clever Primoid mechanic whose name they would never know, but it got repaired.

The curious flotilla got underway over the next forty or fifty hours. They made no particular effort to stay together, so Clay and Rachel took off in front, with a farewell message in good old Earthling English for Angelica to interpret however she pleased for the Primoid rebels. Then they sent off their data logs one last time, knowing they would be chasing the signal for the next seventy years or so. An hour later, they were again naked and into post-coital cuddling.

“They came to that decision awfully fast,” said Clay. “The rebels.”

“Is that what you were thinking about while we were making love?” asked Rachel.

“No! It just occurred to me.”

“You’re not in trouble,” she said. “Okay. So I think they’ve been waiting for things to tick over into the just-right zone. I mean, you can see sort of how they are. They take a long time with things. They build their own ships, but slowly, they reproduce somehow—they can’t intend to just live on 667Cc for the next thousand years.”

“And we come along,” said Clay, “with all our weird news, the Ngugma, the platinum disk people, all that.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “and the fact that the Primoid Center had a base just a hop away from 667C. And all that, it’s just enough for the rebels to decide it was time to make a move.” She rolled against him and cuddled some more, her breast against his shoulder. “Clay,” she said, “tell the truth. Were you tempted at all?”

“By?”

“Well, that vixen Karen, or her vixen daughter. Or anyone else, really. Hanker for some Primoid, er, whatever they have?”

“Rachel. Really. After making love to me, this is what you want to talk about?”

“It’s better than before or during. And I really want to know. I mean, it was sort of the first time since we left Bluehorse that you were really tempted. At Centauri, at Mathilde, or even at 581, there were both men and women, they weren’t especially desperate or anything. 581 was a major turn-off, and Centauri was right after we saw a planet full of dead people. But here?” She gazed at him with a dangerous smile. “Karen’s kinda cute, isn’t she? And Angelica.”

“Rachel,” said Clay, “I may have come to wisdom late but I did finally come to wisdom.”

She cocked her head at him, still smiling. “Clay Gilbert,” she said, “that means you weren’t tempted, or you were but you’re too smart to say anything?”

“Um, um,” he replied, “it means I was only slightly tempted and I easily overcame it.”

“Because you love me or because you fear me?”

“Fear you, love you, what’s the diff?” She hit him in the shoulder. He drew back slightly and said, “Rachel, I have come to a new appreciation of what it means to be committed. Do you get that? It means more than just I love you more than I love someone else. It means that I refuse to even consider giving in to temptation for another woman. Or Primoid, for that matter. So the answer, seriously, to your question is, no, I was not tempted. I might have been, well, maybe a little attracted, but not very much really, and I resisted, which I will always do. Because while I do fear you a little, I mean, you’re scary, I love you so much more than that.”

“So you were attracted?”

“Rachel.”

She suddenly kissed him, then cocked her head again. “So, kinda cute?”

“Rachel, I would say that Karen and her daughter are both attractive in their own way, but not in a way that attracts me. Okay? Don’t believe me? Well, they’re too tall, for one thing.”

“I’d noticed. I guess that rules out the Primoids too.”

“Yeah. Jeez. We don’t even know if they have gender.”

“So when Karen was all up in your space, showering her pheromones on you—?”

“Rachel. Your pheromones have blocked all my pheromone receptors.”

She gave him a long look. “You promise?”

“I totally promise! You promise?”

“I promise, Clay. I promise.”

“Then kiss me. You do want to kiss me, don’t you?”

Some hours later, after they had cuddled, played Set and chess, eaten, simulated, made love and slept again, they lay cuddling in their little closet zooming through space a little slower than a photon. “Clay,” said Rachel.

Clay did not immediately respond.

“Clay.”

“Rachel,” said Clay. “I saw it.”

Together, they slid and poked and typed and gawked. They came to no satisfactory conclusion. There was a dark region to their starboard, but they could not repeat the observation. The sense that there had been something or some things lurking or keeping up with them did not recur.

“Well,” said Rachel after a minute, “let’s cut to 99.999990%. Fire decel at 10% for 1.1 seconds. Check my results on that quick, would you?”

“Looks good to me, Rache.”

“Okay, that’s 100% consensus, let’s do it.”

They engaged the very brief, very subtle program of deceleration and returned to their near-light-speed coast. They kissed like a couple in a car at a stop light.

“You do know we’re going like seventy light years in one hop,” said Clay.

“I wonder if that’s why we saw something, even though we weren’t exactly six nines,” said Rachel.

“The last time we went this far in one hop,” Clay went on, “was Gliese 163. Blasted Gliese.”

“Okay,” said Rachel. “And that’s where we first saw mouthholes. That’s where that one ran into us and you had to save Tasha.”

“Huh,” said Clay. “Means something.” After a moment he added, “Don’t know what.” They stared at the screens, left, right, up, down, forward. They shrugged together.

“Game of chess?” asked Clay. “Let’s play Set,” said Rachel.

And many hours later, they went over to deceleration, knowing that the system they were coming into was Bluehorse, which they had left 187 years ago in local time, and not knowing what was waiting for them when they came out of the haze of light speed.

3.

The Bluehorse system looked much as it had almost two centuries ago. There was the mustard-yellow sun, a bit smaller than old Sol; the tight inner asteroid belt with one Earth-size planet in its midst, battered and baked; a Venus-like lummox nearly twice the diameter of Earth or of the actual Venus; the two outer gas giants; and, right in the middle, the Mars-sized third planet, its desert highlands broken by broad rifts filled with green vales and little blue oceans.

Clay breathed a sigh of relief deeper even than the one he had expected to breathe. There was a very Earthling satellite base in orbit; a few Ghosts zipped about the inner system on patrol; presently their sensors identified farmland. They took it all in for some minutes. A freighter prowled the outer edge of that inner belt, supporting mining pods; an escort cruiser, a descendant of the Abstraction or the Quality, stood watch from halfway between the innermost two orbits.

“Oh crap,” said Rachel.

She used a finger to circle a blob on her side of their shared display. She tapped it, and it blew up into a more detailed blob. The two veteran fighter aces, the ex-med student and the ex-lunar freight shuttle pilot, alternately stared and calculated, stroked the computer controls and cursed. The basic blob floated out among a pile of rubble a light day outside the system, four times the distance from the Sun of their birth to Pluto. Two other blobs floated further out, with significant Doppler shifts showing them at ten to fifteen percent of light speed and decelerating hard.

“Big fleet,” said Clay at last.

“It’s bigger than the one we beat before here,” said Rachel. “All those centuries ago a couple of months ago. I have a big ass battleship and three of those big ass battlecruisers, and twelve cruisers and oh, gotta be 54 fighters, it’s over 27 anyway, and then there’s bay fighters. We can’t even see them yet.”

“So this is ironic,” said Clay. “Or something. I don’t know—is it ironic? I can never remember whether I have that right or not.”

“It sucks, is what it is,” said Rachel. “Because this is just Primoids. This isn’t Ngugma. We have to fight the Ngugma somehow sometime, and yet here’s this, why do we have to do this? What the crap?” They coasted for another minute: they had many hours to coast yet, and this incoming fleet, by now clearly Primoid, had days yet. “Well,” she went on, “this can’t possibly be a surprise. Bluehorse must have noticed.”

Still, they sent off a summary of what they had heard, and back came, four hours later, a message from someone they knew.

“Andros, Gilbert,” came Su Park’s voice. “Yes, we noticed. My group only got back ten Bluehorse days ago. Evidently the Primoids from Primoid Center have been gathering a force in the Oort cloud for months, but we think they finally have enough of an advantage that they will have another go at us. Fortunately,” she said with her usual barely detectable sarcasm, “you two showed up, and that will surely swing the tide our way. Don’t you think? And meanwhile, we have only just gotten the news about Earth. The video coverage reached Bluehorse a year or so ago, and your messages came six months ago, but of course I and my people hadn’t heard anything. We likewise have news for you, some of which I did not know till we got here. There was an attack on Bluehorse by the Primoids something like ninety years ago, which I fear I missed; evidently it was exciting. And we have another spacefaring species, which I did not miss: in fact, I have personally sent two of their fighters to whatever they have for an afterlife. They’re called the Vyai, and they’re no heroes either, but they are also fighting the Primoids. Kleiner and Santos and the Greenland returned a few weeks ago, and we picked up Li Zan and her wing, along with the Abstraction, decelerating from the Candy direction. So they should be here soon. Santos and Kleiner are off on a wide patrol about the Oort cloud, making sure we have the enemy count right. You’re the last to make it in, so this is what we will be fighting with, adding in those three rebel cruisers from 667. You will understand when I say that I’m going to be quite upset with you if you were misleading us about the Primoid rebels coming behind you.”

“So we’re going to fight?” asked Clay when they had listened to the message twice.

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “seems like old times.”

“And then we take whatever we have left against the Ngugma?” he asked. Rachel didn’t bother to reply.

4.

The Bluehorse colony was alive and well. Rachel made contact with the orbiting station as they were passing the orbit of the fifth planet, and received an almost immediate response. They had coordinates to dock or land, their preference.

“Oh, land,” said Rachel. “Am I right, hunk-ness?”

“You are right, o hottest of goddesses,” said Clay. They cruised along, decelerating hard still, for a minute. “So we’re back. We’re really back. And there are really humans really here. Live ones.”

“I know. I’m nervous as heck.”

“You’re nervous? About coming home?”

“Aren’t you?”

Clay kissed Rachel. “The year here right now is 2676. We left in 2488. It’s 188 years down the road. Other than Park’s group and Vera and Tasha, there is no one we know on the planet, in the whole system. Fast forward. We knew it would be like this.”

“I know,” said Rachel. “But you’re not a little worried?”

He looked at her for a moment, then said, “Given that every planet stop has been different from what I thought it would be, yes, I would say I’m concerned.” He looked at the screen readouts for a few seconds, raised his eyebrows and added, “Of course, maybe the Primoids have already taken care of that for us, that thing about being different from expected.”

She found his eyes and held them. She smiled a little. “It’s just going to be weird, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And I need you to know that I love you,” she said. “And only you. You’re my man.”

“You’re my woman. And only you.”

She sighed, smiling. “Homecoming,” she said. “No way it’s not gonna be weird.”

“And we’re bringing Primoids home for dinner,” said Clay. “Not to mention the Primoids who are already camped out in the back yard.”

“And the Ngugma who are wrecking the next neighborhood.”

“Maybe what you’re worried about is the possibility that we’re bringing the horrible back home.”

“Yeah.” She laughed. “Home. Home on Bluehorse. My goddess, Clay. We’ve seen so much. We’ve been face to face with mouthholes, we’ve had meetings with Primoids. We’ve seen our whole birth planet dead. We have seen it, Clay Gilbert, we have seen evil, and it wasn’t Darth Bleepin’ Vader, it was furry starfish who act an awful lot like us, just with bigger ships and better drills. They’re just Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon with spaceships.” She looked away, then back, her blue green eyes unblurred by tears. He did not even open his mouth. She smiled again and said, “And now this is home.” He still didn’t say anything: he let her say it. “I mean, we have been calling this place Home for some time now, I’ve noticed, it was home as soon as we landed the colony ships, but we still thought we could go home to Earth and find the Rue St-Jean humming. But now we know. Now we know. Now we know that this is the place we need to make our stand, and we know that it’s fragile, we could lose it, we could lose it so easily.”

“We could lose the human race,” said Clay.

“Yeah. We could lose Home.”

He spent another fifteen seconds in her blue-green eyes, and then they leaned their heads together and kissed. They kissed, they kissed. “I love you,” he said.

“I love you, Clay,” she said. Then she snickered. “And you know what’s worse than losing Home and then losing Home again?”

“No, what’s worse?” he asked, a smirk creeping onto his face.

“That we could lose it to jerks like the Ngugma.”

5.

The flight into Bluehorse was jarringly familiar from the weeks they had spent there a year ago, or a hundred and eighty-eight years ago. It only made it more jarring to have a small fleet of Primoids appear from the haze of light speed far behind them on the same course they had taken. The small fleet was already communicating as best they could with Bluehorse-3 by the time Clay and Rachel put down in a lovely plaza along the shore of Hudson Bay, the gulf of the Parallelogram Sea where the Canada had landed.

The old colony ship’s outlines were still clear, surrounded by an administrative building, a few college buildings, a patch of impressive high rises, a few commercial properties and then an extent of three-story residential. Beyond that, the rift had magically filled with city and farmland, and from the air the boundary between the two was magically clear. There was still no such thing as property values on Bluehorse-3 to push sprawling suburbs out into agricultural land, and every square centimeter that could harbor a soybean or a grape or a tomato was doing so.

Rachel and Clay landed in midmorning of Bluehorse-3’s 32-hour day. They set down in the grand plaza before the Canada, which seemed to have become a sort of mall-museum-city-hall. They were greeted by several hundred people, which they should have expected but found surprising, including the Mayor, a vaguely familiar-looking woman whom they could not possibly have ever met, and a bunch of other dignitaries, academics and technicians. These gave the two Ghosts room to put down, and did not charge in to happily crowd them until the pilots were out of their ships.

One minute into the disorganized but sincere welcome, a very short woman in a black vac suit lost patience for waiting and pushed through. Behind her were two more short women and a very short skinny man, all in grey vac suits.

“Commander,” said Rachel and Clay, snapping to attention. Everyone else got out of the way.

Su Park gave him a serious look, then gave Rachel the same. Then she hugged Rachel for five seconds, and then she did the same for Clay. Then she looked at them and put on a quick little smile. “Glad to have you back,” she said. “We have work to do.”

“Yeah, about that, Commander,” said Rachel.

“No,” said Park, “for today, welcome back. You’ve been through too much, considering what you saw on Earth and everything. Take the tour. We will talk business when Kleiner and Santos are available to talk business.”

So Rachel and Clay hugged Bain, Leith and Ree, shook Park’s hand, and let themselves be taken away for “the tour.” The two space travelers found themselves in the company of the Mayor, Kendra Grohl, a fighter pilot named Daria Acevedo, small and blond and intense and not as young as she looked, and three middle-aged locals. The Mayor was somewhere between fifty and eighty, and was Alice Grohl’s great great granddaughter. And thus accompanied, off they went on the Tour.

It was all beautiful. It was all jarring. The nearness of the cold, dark and dead made their guides’ words seem translucent, or like glass where the reflection of what’s behind you half covers the view of what’s in front.

The colony had grown like a weed, or like four weeds, each named for its colony ship: Canada, Argentina, Egypt, India. The largest rift without a colony was called, of course, the France Preserve, for the long-lost fifth colony ship. By now, the population had risen from eight thousand to over three million (Canada Town had 400,000 people) but the rate of increase had fallen off sharply (the Mayor proudly noted) and they were hoping to settle in between five and ten million. Earth-originated vegetation both tame and wild was filling the rifts, as was Earth fauna up to the size of cats and a few monkeys; the seas were now shared between fish and armored worms, crustaceans and spiny spinners, kelp and bluemoss, dolphins and placodermoids. Pollution was still negligible; no one was shooting at anyone else, at least not of the same species; corruption was low, as was income inequality; they had come up with a sort of money, called a “share,” but it was still fairly evenly distributed. The four towns, growing into cities by now, were independent and cooperated only on maintaining the starfleet, the trains and the currency.

The more distant passed showed very faintly like a reflection in a reflection: two hundred million years ago, an unknown civilization had built cities and laid out roads, and had disappeared without a trace of writing or of their organic forms. Extensive excavation had yielded a lot of unimaginably ancient foundations and essentially nothing about who had laid them down or for what.

All this Rachel and Clay learned, on foot, by subway and in all terrain vehicle, over six hours the first 32-hour day and four hours the second. They also learned about that earlier Primoid invasion, ninety years ago, halfway between the first Battle of Bluehorse and the Battle of Bluehorse that seemed imminent. There was an obelisk in another of Canada Town’s many plazas that commemorated the struggle.

“Oh, yes,” said the Mayor, “we barely saw them off that time, they fought to almost the last, um, Primoid. We lost all but one cruiser and four fighters, and they managed to escape with just three fighters of their own.”

“Which cruiser?” asked Clay. “Which fighter pilots were killed?” asked Rachel.

“Well,” said the Mayor, “we were up to, I think, eight cruisers and we lost seven of them, and we lost at least twenty fighters, though some of the crews were rescued.”

“But you understand,” said Rachel, as they stood aghast before the obelisk, trying to take it in, “we want to know—?”

“Jane Tremblay was killed in the battle,” said the Mayor. “There is a statue of her in the rotunda of the council hall. I’m surprised you didn’t see it.”

“Tremblay dead??”

“We lost a number of fighter pilots,” said Daria Acevedo. “Tremblay was the commander in the field, she and Ena Adwani both sacrificed themselves to save the planet, they’re quite revered. Not that you two aren’t, of course, but—!”

“But they paid the ultimate price,” said Rachel. “We get that.”

“And we lost most of our cruisers, and that meant more than thirty dead, we saved less than half of them. We were throwing armored freighters at them in the final wave. When they thought they might just throw everything they had left at us.”

“And the Abstraction?” asked Clay.

“It was sent off with Li Zan’s wing,” said Daria. “There was a fight at Candy.”

“Candy One?”

“We just call it Candy,” said Daria.

“I can see there’s a lot to tell us about,” said Rachel.

There was an awkward pause. “Well,” said the Mayor, “it was somewhat newsworthy, this little item about humanity on Earth being wiped out.”

“About Bluehorse being the most populous human planet,” said one of the other two.

“Okay, okay,” said Rachel, “I can see we have enough for another meeting.”

“Yes, we do,” said the Mayor. She checked her pocket tablet. “And I see that your Primoid friends are in the system and have made contact. Do they do meetings?”

“Oh, they love meetings.”

“And what about these other Primoids?” asked the Mayor.

“They probably love them too,” said Clay. “Want to ask them?”

“Oh,” said the Mayor, “we have tried asking them. They just don’t respond. The first elements of this fleet of theirs arrived a year ago, an Earth year that is, ho ho ho, we don’t speak in Bluehorse years, you know.”

“We do know,” said Rachel. “Any contact at all?”

“None,” said Mayor Grohl. “We don’t really know how to talk to them, you know.”

“You know we have someone who might be able to talk to them,” said Clay.

“Or,” said Rachel, “we could send them the Ngugma pix.”

“We did try that,” said Mayor Kalkar. “No idea if they really thought that over. The conventional wisdom would be that they plan on considering our offer of help once they’ve beat us up a bit.”

“Okay, then,” said Clay.

“Well,” said Rachel, “Park’s back, Tasha and Vera are back, Li’s probably coming in over the next week, we’re back, and the Primoids from Primoid Center have been assembling for just this moment. It seems like everyone’s timed this out. We’ve gotten back just in time for the Third Battle of Bluehorse.”

“Wouldn’t want to miss that,” replied Clay.

6.

The next evening, two more Ghost 201s set down on the plaza by their pilots, who were named Kleiner and Santos. They were not greeted by a crowd, just by two fighter pilots named Gilbert and Andros.

“Oh goddess,” said Natasha, hugging Rachel, “I can’t believe you’re actually here. I can’t believe we’re actually together.”

“You guys married yet?” asked Vera, having hugged Clay once tightly and now holding him loosely.

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “hands off my man.” But they were smiling; in a moment, they traded partners and Clay hugged Natasha.

“I can’t believe it,” she kept saying as she and Clay gripped one another. “I’m so happy.” Finally they parted: Rachel and Vera, an arm around each other’s waist, were smiling at them.

“Tash never believes she’s going to be happy,” said Vera. “So every time something good happens, she has to tell herself she’s happy.”

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “Annoying much?”

“Not at all. Not. At. All, sweetie.”

They all laughed a little nervously, and then Rachel said, “Now you’re here, guess what? Meeting.”

The conference was held on the Canada, in the same chamber where there had been several tense but weightless meetings during the flight out. This time there was weight, and hundreds of people actually sitting or standing or walking around, and also lots of new screens showing lots of data and lots of images, and the biggest one had Angelica and Karen Zane, with orange blobby aliens behind them. They were still light hours away, so the communication was still more or less one way. The Admiral of the Fleet, who turned out to be Alfred Kalkar’s great granddaughter, presided, and she must have inherited something from him because without her having to show an iron fist, the chit-chat was at a minimum while the Primoids’ interpreter was speaking.

“Mom and I,” Angelica was concluding, “have been living among these people for a long time now, and let’s just say we’d like to make a change and live among humans. But they’ve treated us well, these, um, whatever you call them, and they want to help. So I don’t know if you’ll let us land, but you can trust them, you really can, and apparently Miss Andros and Mister Gilbert are here already and maybe they can speak for us.”

“We can, yes,” said Rachel, standing up among a forest of taller people sitting down. “The Primoid rebels from Gliese 667 are on the up and up.”

“We have to believe them,” said Admiral Kalkar, “or we’re even worse off than we think.”

“The ones from Candy are on the up and up as well,” said Captain Kalkar. “It’s a damn thing trying to talk to them, much less make strategy with them, but they are. At least they’re not Vyai.”

Park raised her eyebrows by his side. On her other side, Clay asked, “Is someone going to tell us about these Vyai you keep mentioning?”

“They’re not the present problem,” said Park.

“Yes,” said Captain Kalkar, giving his descendant, the Admiral, a reassuring smile. “Right now it isn’t the Vyai trying to wipe out our largest remaining enclave. Maybe they’ll be up next, but it’s not them now.”

“So how many ships do we have, altogether?” asked Vera.

“Well,” said the Admiral, consulting her pad and some scribbled notes, “I have us at two of the new heavy cruiser, five of our Nonesuch class escort cruiser, three of the Tasmania class armored freighter, and twenty-six Ghost 201s and 203s. Plus you two. Plus three Primoid cruisers and nine fighters. She looked at her aide. “And the enemy’s current count?”

The aide stood up, a tall, gangly young fellow. “Battleship, two battlecruisers, twelve cruisers, we’ve seen at least sixty fighters, and, well.” He looked nauseous.

“What?” asked the old man who was Mayor of India, come all the way to Canada for the meeting. “May as well tell us.”

“Well,” said the aide, “there is a looming blob in the direction of what we think is the Primoid Center, and another in the direction of what we think is another of their systems.”

“Quite a coincidence, all these happening by at once,” said Clay. “Or maybe they knew we were coming home and wanted to throw us a wedding party.”

“Ninety years have passed,” said Admiral Kalkar, “and it looks like it’s happening again.”

“It’s like a really unpleasant prophecy,” said one of the Canada town councillors.

“Okay,” said Rachel. “Tell me we just left and we’re just getting back. This frickin’ just happened to us. Do you get how weird that is? We just beat them. They had a battleship bigger than one of the colony ships, two battlecruisers the size of our super-freighters, six of these huge cruisers, and a whole slew of fighters, and we had what, a couple cruisers and armored merchants and twenty Ghost 201s. Now we get here and—hey, what is a Ghost 203, anyway?”

“It’s fast, it’s smart and it’s got guns,” said Daria Acevedo, “and it looks great too.”

“Want me to trade you my 201 for your 203?” asked Clay.

“What? Your 201? I’ll take it!”

“Then never mind,” said Clay. “Just checking.”

“So,” said Admiral Kalkar, leveling her deep brown eyes at Rachel, “what do you think? Can you do it? If you get command of the fighters? Can we take them?”

“Not gonna lie,” said Rachel. “It does not look good. Even if we pull this out, there will be a lot of dead people. Even if we save Bluehorse this time, it will only be weaker if the Ngugma ever do show up.”

“You know,” Clay said, gazing off into space—no, actually, gazing off into his own video of the dead in Quebec City, “does anyone else think maybe we should inform the enemy Primoid leadership about, you know, what happened to Earth?”

“We tried that,” said Admiral Kalkar.

“We could try it again with Miss Zane helping,” said Mayor Grohl.

“Well, it’s worth a shot,” said Captain Kalkar.

7.

The meeting dragged on, but there was no change in the situation: sixty fighters to thirty-five, a battleship and two battlecruisers and twelve cruisers against, counting the Primoids, ten cruisers, and oh, by the way, it was the enemy that was getting reinforced with who knew what.

Over the next eighty hours, all sorts of interesting things happened slowly.

There were, of course, two more meetings, progressively more businesslike and both smaller than the conference on board the Canada. The last of these three meetings featured guest appearances from the Primoid rebels, who landed one cruiser and debarked with their interpreters. (Angelica would stay with them through the battle, but Karen was under no such expectation and spent the next two Bluehorse days wandering the botanical gardens.)

Then Angelica was deputized to spend a few hours with the Earth video footage. It was clearly not a pleasant pastime, but the result, they hoped, was a sort of Primoid dub version, and this was duly sent off toward the invaders’ battleship.

The Primoid rebels made a little time to visit the Primoid village which lay mostly underground, under the plateau to the south of Canada town. Its population was now up to several hundred, and was under enforced neutrality: they were the descendants of the handful of Primoids captured after the original battles of Bluehorse.

Then the Bluehorse defenders began to assemble in the skies above their planet, the home now to around 99% of extant Homo sapiens. Clay and Rachel in their far-traveled Ghost 201s took up the long patrol route on one side of the system, while Natasha and Vera took the opposite side; Park and the new version of her wing, with Misses Izawa and Moss added for good measure, joined the 201s and 203s of Bluehorse; the cruisers and armored merchants, assembling in orbit over Bluehorse-3, veritably the third rock from the sun, well, given that the first rock was actually a gravel pile. The Primoid rebel cruiser that had landed joined them as well. With the two rebel cruisers already in high orbit, and the human ships there or about the inner system or detaching from the space station, they formed quite a respectable fleet.

They had ten ships of generally cruiser type, three of them Primoid rebels; they had 35 fighters and three armored merchants. Their enemy already had a battleship and two battlecruisers and twelve cruisers, plus at least 54 fighters—no, make that 81, now that bay fighters were appearing in the fleet of the Primoid Center. And the new blobs coming in both seemed to consist of three more cruisers and nine more fighters.

“We totally took them before, of course,” said Rachel on her private line to Clay. “When we were outnumbered and outsized. Why am I not feeling it this time?”

“Well,” said Clay. He paused. “Want a list?”

“I can make a list. One, aside from Su Park, you and I and Vera and Tasha are the ranking veterans. Two, we had this great plan that time, we did, remember? No plan this time. I’m just not getting anything. Three, it kind of takes the wind out of your sails to know that behind this fight there’s another one down the road with the Ngugma, whom we do not know how to fight, not really, not their big ships. Four, it also rather impacts one’s optimism when one thinks of the 99.9% or whatever of the Human Race that’s dead already, not coming back. Five? What the hell. I’m just not feeling it. What the hell?”

“Well,” said Clay, “I wish I could argue.” They coasted along, headed, not especially fast, toward the orbit of Bluehorse-4, where they and their fighter pilot underlings would take up their positions in outer defense of Bluehorse-3. There were some stray asteroids, there was a bit of debris, but the enemy was moving with great deliberation and was unlikely to be fooled by, say, fighters hidden under space rocks or among garbage. “Well,” said Clay, “we delay. Fabian tactics.”

“So,” said Rachel after a bit, “do you still love me?”

“I love you more than anything,” said Clay. “Do you still love me?”

“I love you so much.” They glided, watching the enemy form up way out in the Oort cloud. “This interstellar space war stuff is weird. The tactics I get. The strategy is just strange.”

“How so, o wise one?”

“Okay. So you’re attacking somewhere 37 light years away. So you have to use intelligence that is going to be at best 74 years old when you get there. The news of what’s there has to get to you, and then you have to fly there with whatever fleet you think you need: 37 + 37 = 74. You thought you needed three cruisers and ten fighters? Oops. They built eight cruisers and forty fighters in those 74 years. Sorry. So you waste 37 more years running away.”

“So,” said Clay, “you overbuild and attack and find they have abandoned the place. Or the Ngugma have come through. It’s all tumbleweeds and giant holes and busted space stations.”

“Well, look at this,” said Rachel. “Primoids habitually overbuild. But our guys still outmaneuver them at 667C, and here, they really have just enough to be really sure.”

“Really sure,” said Clay, “that they’re going to annihilate 99% of what’s left of Homo sapiens.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel. After a few minutes thinking about that, she said, “And there’s always more stuff coming from other systems. Yes. We will soon see more Primoid cruisers and more Primoid fighters and who knows, if we’re especially blessed by Karma, more Primoid battlecruisers. See, that’s the other side of interstellar strategy. Concentrating forces in one place at one time. Clever logistics, Primoid Center.”

Sure enough, they and the rest of the human fleet were beginning to pick up blobs decelerating from the blur of light speed. There were at least three of these: two from the direction of the Primoid systems, Clay guessed, one clearly coming from Candy, a.k.a. Candy One.

“Wait,” he said. “Wait a stinkin’ minute.” He did some checks while Rachel queried him. He ignored her, then cut in to say, “One of those is coming from Candy. God damn it, Rache. It’s the Abstraction. And four Ghosts. And they have buddies.”

Sure enough, three Primoid cruisers and a very familiar Earth cruiser were coming from the direction of Candywan, along a route that Clay and Rachel had come 188 years ago, and there were four Ghosts and nine Primoid fighters with them.

“Big relief,” said Clay, once they had confirmed that they were looking at the cruiser Abstraction. “Big, big relief.”

“Clay,” said Rachel with a somber smirk, “it’s nice, but it doesn’t exactly turn the tide. It’s more like not leaving anyone out of the big party.”

“Well, yeah,” said Clay. “Still.” They soared along for some time, every minute getting a clearer view of the enormous fleet assembling to destroy them.

“They’re going to flatten us,” said Rachel. “And then they’re going to flatten the colony, because why not? And then, you know what? They are going to face the Ngugma, and I am not going to put any money on the proposition that the Primoids have anything better than we have as far as ways to beat the Ngugma.”

“Rachel,” said Clay.

“Clay babe?”

“New navigation program coming.”

“From you? I’m the commander here, you know.”

“From me. I advise you approve it.”

8.

The two old Ghosts had been accelerating still, intending to get to the foggy regions around 30% of light speed, where their sensors and those of the Primoids didn’t perceive the relatively unmoving universe very well. But now the two Ghosts changed course, after sending a tightly aimed transmission at those other two Ghosts on the other side of the Oort cloud. They decelerated and turned, and then swerved back in a vast S, still decelerating, and now they were face to face with the big invading fleet, a mere four hundred million kilometers apart.

Clay began sending pulses of light at the battleship: two, then three, then five, and so on. He did it by hand, touching the screen to send, and he did it slowly, the pulses within a given prime number a second apart. He got to nineteen and stopped.

Ten seconds later, he received, and echoed to Rachel ten kilometers to his right, the reply: slow pulses much like his, three, seven, thirteen, nineteen, twenty-three.

Clay then sent an image. It was a three dimensional image, a color representation of himself and Rachel standing on that ledge in Greenland naked, holding flowers. He had forgotten he’d had it at first, but after she had rescued him at 667, he had found it again and looked at it often. Rachel looked great in it, smiling at the camera as Clay held it for yet another 3D selfie; Clay didn’t look too bad. He assumed it wouldn’t do much for whatever the Primoids had for a libido.

Then he began sending a series of images. He had put together quite the slide show, but over the last few hours he and Rachel had pared it down to thirty images.

A mother with a baby somewhere in old Africa: they might have been the first two actual humans. An old man looking out across the savannah. Two women weeding a garden. Some children playing somewhere in China. Some Semitic-looking teenagers kicking a soccer ball.

A man sculpting. A man fixing something: he seemed happy about it. A man and a woman talking as they ate, possibly in a café in Paris. A man and a woman pushing a stroller together, with twin toddlers: the couple looked happy, the toddlers not so much. A woman standing in a vast space under a dome: it was, in fact, the Hagia Sophia.

An old man with a cow. A child with a big dog. An Aftican woman, in colorful clothes, surrounded by butterflies. A middle-aged woman with a cat in her lap, reading. An old man feeding a cat and her kittens.

Two men arguing heatedly. A man pushing a woman. Two women roughing up another woman. Men marching with weapons. A man shooting another man in the head, blood spurting from the other side of the victim’s skull.

A woman crying, holding a lifeless child. An old woman crying over a dead man. Villagers somewhere in anguish, their village burned to the ground. A man, a 21st Century American soldier in full fatigues and helmet, with tears running down his dirty face. A small throng of dirty refugees dying in a nuked wasteland.

A man, a fire fighter, carrying a child. A nurse or doctor, careworn as she treated an old man. Several men shouting and looking ahead as they carried a stretcher with someone injured. A man carrying a calf out of a burning barn. A woman smiling at a child as she secured a bandage on the child’s knee.

“Did you make them see them?” Clay asked Rachel, unexpectedly choking up as he reviewed his own images.

“We won’t know for forty minutes at the least,” said Rachel, “but the code should force the show to play on the kind of screens they had at 667.”

“Okay,” said Clay, “time for Phase 2.”

He watched as the images spooled out, some of these moving video, others 3D. A series of rockets and the like took off, gradually refining into the reusable shuttles he had himself piloted. A space station went together in time lapse, then a better, bigger one, then an even better, even bigger one. Spacecraft flew and evolved, three hundred years in a minute.

And then there were other spaceships, spaceships that made Earth’s spaceships look like toys. They were seen in orbit from the space station; their shuttles were seen landing; on video, their passengers emerged into the sunlight, furry six-pointed suns, six-armed mammal starfish. They came in peace. They were the Ngugma; the word, as pronounced by the Ngugma themselves on the old videos, was heard, and then pronounced again by a series of news readers. They left. They came back.

And then. People were sick in beds. Nurses were treating them, doctors were worried. Dead were buried. A series of short videos showed the progress, not just of the disease in a person, but of the realization of the scope of the disease across humanity. It ended with a woman speaking at a desk, an official or perhaps a news reader, clearly sick, speaking in Russian. Clay did not bother trying to put up subtitles. It was clear the sort of thing she was saying.

And then there was only an edited sequence of images and videos from the visit to Earth of Clay and Rachel. At the very end, he had added the minute of their vows and then the two of them kissing, and then the two of them, vac suits on, climbing into their Ghosts and taking off, over the pocked Earth, over the Earth being chewed up by gigantic parasites, those same ships that the Ngugma had been in when they came in peace.

It was over. And on a whim, Clay opened his own channel and let himself be seen, in his Ghost, speaking to his camera, tears running down his face. “I know you can’t understand me,” he said, “but the choice is simple. You can destroy us and face the Ngugma without anyone to help you, or you can join with us and make peace and take on the real enemy. We can live together in peace. It’s your choice,” he finished, his voice done for. He sniffled, he wiped his eyes. He had no idea if tears meant anything to them.

He reached up and hit send. He looked to his left, at Rachel’s face in the side of his display. They smiled at each other, their faces streaked with tears.

“We’ll know,” she said. “In forty minutes. Twenty minutes for the message to go there, twenty for it to come back. Or for them to send out fighters to blow us the heck up.”

“That’s fine either way,” said Clay. “We’ve done all we can.”

Forty minutes later, she had beaten him at Set three times, and there had been no news. The big fleet came on, and the tiny fighters still stood in their way, like men standing in front of tanks.

Twenty minutes after that, however, a series of messages began to come in: first, the first twenty prime numbers. Then images, just images: Primoids working, Primoids greeting one another, little Primoids being helped by big Primoids, Primoids big and small tending trees, building dwellings, making food, sharing water, doing something that might have been a sport and might have been religion. It went on and on.

After twenty minutes of this, Rachel said, “Let’s come to a stop.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really know at all. But I do get the feeling that they’ve chosen peace.”

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