Epilogue: Beyond Bluehorse

Epilogue: Beyond Bluehorse

1.

There was still considerable caution and widespread distrust, and neither the Primoid fleets nor the human ones were commanded by military idiots. Most of the Primoid Center forces hit the proverbial brakes and remained outside the orbit of Bluehorse-5, while a super-wing of nine Primoid fighters was detailed to threaten or monitor the fighter wings outside the orbit of Bluehorse-3. “Laughable, of course,” Clay said to Rachel. “Nine fighters? Park, Tasha and Vera could chew those up by themselves.”

“And maybe they know that,” said Rachel, “but in this context, it’s just a token of their interest.”

Meanwhile, the two or three or possibly more sides of the conflict went about the dicey business of assembling a parley. The fleets watched each other closely; the fighters flew paths carefully chosen to show readiness to defend rights without threatening offensive aggression. For another thirty hours the two huge yet scattered beasts got close enough to hurl peace proposals at one another, and eventually it was determined that the Heavy Cruiser Miranda and an unarmed Earthling freighter would rendezvous, somehow, with one of the invaders’ cruisers, and that the parley would take place on the freighter, which happened to be the Tessa. The ships maneuvered, talking all the while, as best they could considering they did not share anything even close to a common language, and then, once a link-up had been jerry-rigged, the officers on both sides actually got together in the empty freight section and negotiated.

At the center of this process was a sixteen-year-old girl who had basically been raised by wolves. So while her mother was interviewing with the paleo-exobiology faculty of the University of India, where the largest paleo-exobiology program in the human universe was situated, Angelica Zane was working an eighteen-hour day getting the Primoid admiral, or whatever, understood by Admiral Kalkar, and vice versa.

Clay and Rachel were not yet allowed to land. Tensions were not yet resolved. There was still the possibility of deadly action in space. For eighteen more hours they flew patrol between the two fleets, joined by Daria Acevedo and another pilot named Tee Case, and then by Vera and Natasha, along with three Primoid rebel fighters; nine Primoid Center fighters flew similar patrols. All their paths were carefully choreographed to avoid one another.

“Okay,” Angelica broke in on the comm about Hour Seven, “Miss Andros, Mister Gilbert, are you ready for a quick lowdown?”

“What? Yes, oh, yes,” said Clay. “Please,” said Rachel.

“Well,” said Angelica, “it’s the Ngugma, but it’s not just the Ngugma. Okay? The Center is having issues with someone else, these crawly dudes, I saw pictures, I guess they’re considered dangerous in their own way, anyway, there’s this war on—!”

“The Vyai,” said Daria Acevedo over the comm. Her face, seeming as young as Angelica’s, appeared on the other side of Clay’s screen. “They’re disorganized but they’re pretty ruthless, that’s what we got from what the explorers told us. But they’re having a civil war of their own—!”

“Finally we get to find out what a Vyai is,” said Rachel.

“Anyway,” said Angelica, “I have to get back, but the original idea was to come here and blow the crap out of humanity and not have to worry about us on their flank, but you have to think the way Primoids think, there’s all these factors, and three factors changed. One, they saw the number of ships we had and they knew it would be just a little harder than expected. They figured they’d still win, but they’re not huge risk takers. Two, they saw the video and even though they already knew Earth was eliminated as a source of colonists, they didn’t really completely get what the Ngugma were about. And three, um, apparently you sent them something more persuasive.”

“Me?” asked Clay. “What did they think of my little presentation?”

“I don’t know. I guess they were, um, moved or something. Listen, I have to get back. I’ll see you guys. This could be hours yet. Many, many hours. Fortunately the Freighter Tessa has some decent latte.” With a quick smile around, Angelica clicked off.

“I hope it’s anything like what they had on the Canada when I caught up with you after you walked out on that meeting,” Clay sent to Rachel.

“Oh, you take me way back,” said Rachel. “We were so much younger 188 years ago.”

“We were here,” said Clay.

“We’re always here,” said Rachel. “We’re here now. We’re always here, now.” She held his eyes with hers, that slight smile hovering on her lips. “I want to be with you, Clay Gilbert.”

“Oh, Rachel Andros, we need to be together. I need to kiss you a lot.”

Rachel looked away as if checking if anyone was looking. “Well,” she said, “we get this thing settled, we can land and do that walk along the beach again.” She leaned closer on the screen. “I love you.”

“I love you, Rachel.”

“You know there’s going to be more fighting to come. You know there’s long journeys and shots in the dark ahead for us. You know that.”

“And another century or two or three,” said Clay. “With you.”

2.

The entire collection of ideas in the agreement, written in English and also in the pictorial format of the Primoids, and finally in a third edition in a mixed style of English and picture, ran to about 300 English words. Everyone walked away more or less confident in their ability to understand what had been agreed to, which was:

(1) The Primoid Center would remove its fleet from Bluehorse within the week, and re-abandon the secret base a light month out into the dark of space, the one they had abandoned originally after Bluehorse was founded and first defended, and re-fortified and abandoned again after the costly invasion of ninety years ago. (2) The Earthlings would not expand further in the direction of Primoid space, though unarmed freighters would be greeted at the eight systems that formed the core of support for the Center. (3) And the rebels would not be further pressed, at least those on the Bluehorse side of Primoid space. (4) The now three hundred Primoids on Bluehorse-3, which included five of the six captured 188 years ago along with their descendants, were repatriated to the Center, though an embassy of sorts, consisting of a dozen Primoids from the Center, was to be respectfully maintained at Bluehorse. (5) And, finally, it was understood that everyone party to the agreement would cooperate somehow to thwart the Ngugma.

The majority of the time spent in those two meetings between the humans of Bluehorse, the Primoids of Candy and Gliese 667, and their foes, the Primoids of the Primoid Center, literally went to trying to understand each other. The negotiators, or whatever they were, a dozen Primoids and eleven humans, hadn’t planned a teach-in on interspecies communication, but that was, perforce, what  happened. Four linguists from the University of India and three of what were apparently Primoid scholars worked out the mixed script; Admiral Kalkar , her big-bearded ancestor Captain Kalkar, and Captain Palmette, the trim-bearded skipper of the Heavy Cruiser Miranda, had a long “chat” over food and drink with the admiral, perhaps, of the invaders, along with a diplomat of some sort and another completely mysterious Primoid. They wore Angelica completely out; Karen was finally induced to take part as an exobiologist and soon turned into an interpreter.

The proclamation was publically posted, and then the experts of both species went back to trying to comprehend each other. It was seen to be a matter of life and death.

“They’re starting to get more people learning the basics,” said Angelica, as she and Clay and Rachel and Daria Acevedo sat at a café in Canada Town the day after the proclamation. “I think we’re up to twelve people who can write the mix-a-bet.”

“The what?” said Clay.

“The mixed alphabet,” said Rachel. “I’m not one of those twelve. I’ve spent hours staring at the explanations, and I can’t even figure out how to write ‘my name is Rachel’ in it.”

“I can show you how to do that,” said Angelica. “Anyway, I’m sure the more the better. I mean, I like the attention I get from having a, you know, unique skill set, but this is hard work, it’s like lifting friggin’ weights.”

“So what do we know about them?” asked Rachel. “What do you know about them?”

“Okay,” said Angelica. “I knew you’d ask me that. Okay. First, they live to be like thousands of years old. I don’t know how long, but their unit of time is funny, it’s somewhere between a month and a season, it doesn’t always seem to mean the same amount of time, so the margin of error is like huge. But they do live at least a thousand years.”

“Time dilation?” asked Clay.

“No, no, not that way. I guess there must be fighter pilots who are ten thousand. I don’t even know how long they’ve been flying in space, but their interstellar flying started, they call it something like the Great Enlightenment, five or ten thousand years ago. They’ve been in the ten to twenty system range for that long.”

Clay and Rachel exchanged looks. “That long,” said Clay. “I’d be happy with that.”

“And get this. They have sexes, they sexually reproduce, but they all start out neuter, then spend some time as male, then some time as female, have a few orange blobby babies, then they become neuter again. And they stay that way for, like, a thousand years. Unless there’s a sudden need for more reproduction, you can live like three fourths of your life working and contributing but not being a, you know, gender.”

“So every female,” said Clay, “knows what a male orgasm feels like, but the males don’t know what a female orgasm feels like.”

“Just like in humans,” said Rachel, while Daria and Angelica rolled their eyes. “Except for you, hubby-licious.”

“Mmm, thanks for exempting me,” said Clay. They kissed.

“I knew the thing about their gender,” said Daria. “My first wing, when I was a tail, was sent to explore the nearer systems. It was my first assignment. We managed to fly by one of their less advanced colonies, and got away with video and without being shot at. The exo-bios studied the heck out of those videos.”

“So what’s their system like?” asked Rachel.

“They’re decentralized, actually,” said Angelica. “This fleet has elements from four different star systems. They agreed but it was clear they didn’t all see things the same way. But the thing is, they have a real tendency toward consensus. They love meetings, right? They hate arguing.”

“But they don’t all wait for orders from the Center?” asked Rachel.

“You couldn’t run an Empire from a central location,” said Daria. “Their core systems are all ten or twenty light years apart, it would take forty years to send someone to another system and tell them what you wanted, and then come home. And if you wanted just to check if they’d done it? Another forty years.”

“But they’re evidently really good at logistics,” said Clay. “They got things scheduled about as well as they could.”

“So did we,” said Rachel. “We learn quick, huh? Decentralize but make sure everyone’s on the same page. Who knew humans would be a natural at that. So, politically? What’s their system?”

“Okay,” said Daria, looking at Angelica. “Did they have, like an Old Kingdom and a New Kingdom? Did I get that right?”

“Yeah, that’s what I got,” said Angelica. “They’re so long-lived, and they’re also really tolerant but really strict in some ways. And they’re incredibly risk-averse, but they’re definitely not stupid. So there was the Old Kingdom, you can call it, and they had lots of cults or whatever, and the Center basically fell apart eventually but everyone looks back on those days with, I don’t know, something, nostalgia, reverence, wishful thinking, something like that.”

“Ah yes,” said Clay, “how well I know the feeling.”

“And after the Center reasserted itself, they took this lesson that they had to ruthlessly suppress anyone who disagreed on anything important. But lots of Primoids are nonconformists, and rebellions kept right on breaking out. The Center probably controls oh, fifteen or sixteen systems all told. There are eight that sort of qualify as the top systems, and they think of them all as equal.”

“So what is the Center?” asked Clay.

“It’s on a station in deep space, away from any star,” said Daria. “You didn’t think it was an actual place, right? Well, it is. They have some kind of council, and they decide long-range things, but who knows how they decide who’s a member.”

“Elections, what’s an election,” said Angelica. “I think that with the Primoids, if you show up, you’re on the team.”

“And do they have a whole ecosystem like them?” asked Rachel. “That they evolved from?”

“I guess they must, somewhere. No idea where.”

They all sipped. Clay said, “Well, I think you have a long-term job here, Miss Zane.” He smiled at Rachel. “But we’re the ones who have to figure out how to cooperate with them.”

“Yes, we are,” said Rachel, looking at Daria. She smiled back at Clay. “Well, Park will be back from the big meeting tomorrow. She can instruct us.”

3.

Li Zan’s wing returned to Bluehorse the next 32-hour Bluehorse day, and she and Timmis Green walked the streets of Canada Town with Rachel and Clay for hours, recalling the Earth that they had left and this planet, whose current population was on a par with 21st Century Chicago, that they had come home to. They held hands: two old couples, Rachel and Clay, Li and Timmis. Their repeated joke was: “That café on the corner—didn’t there used to be a tree there? And over here, isn’t this where that one boulder used to be?”

“Funny to think,” said Timmis, as they rested on a rock wall overlooking the harbor, “this could have been Candy One. We could have colonized Candy. We could be Candians.”

“Is that like a Primoid metropolis now?” asked Clay.

“The rebels have like thousands, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a million. They’re still all underground.”

“They find it more secure,” said Rachel. “The Primoids are all about security. They’re a lot like humans, but they’re also a lot like cats.” The others nodded sagely. “So,” she asked, “you were here more recently than us, right?”

“We were here 24 years ago, local,” said Li Zan. “Before that, we were back here—what?” She turned her slightly smiling round face to Timmis Green’s always smiling round face. “Another 24 years, correct? That was when we went to bolster the rebels.”

“And you fought a battle at Candy?” asked Clay.

“Yes!” said Timmis. “I got three of their fighters and a cruiser all by myself! And ended up dead in space and Li had to rescue me.”

“He was quite the hero,” said Li Zan. “They outnumbered us, actually, but not by much.”

“And you cooperated well with the Primoid rebels?” asked Clay.

“We had no difficulties. Their tactics are sufficiently like our own that we understood each other intuitively. But they were certainly amazed by Timmis’s exploits. I know I was.”

“Yeah,” said Timmis, “you only notched two and helped on two cruisers. But you didn’t end up with half your fighter gone.”

“Exciting times,” said Rachel. “Fighting off the Primoid Center, helping out the rebels. We thought that was what it was all about out here. That was before we knew of the Ngugma.”

“What do you figure to do about the Ngugma?” asked Li.

“I want to know what anyone can figure to do about them. Well, Tasmania has been in flight all this time just like us and Park, right? That means Gene Bell and Padfoot ought to be still going. I can’t wait to put that little problem before them.”

“Did you shoot at any of the Ngugma fighters?” asked Timmis.

“Oh, we blew up a bunch of them,” said Clay. “And one of their little cruisers, it was almost as small as one of the Primoid cruisers. They blow up just like anything else.”

“Are their mining ships really as big as they look on video?” asked Li.

“Bigger.”

“Why does everyone else in the galaxy build things so darn big?” asked Timmis.

“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “I kind of like it.” They all gazed out over the sunlit sea. “So anyone know anything about these Vyai? Daria mentioned them.”

“I don’t,” said Li. “We’ve been operating on the Candy side of Bluehorse. I had never heard the name until this morning’s briefing, and that was less than informative, I thought. I expect Park will know more.”

What Park knew, as it turned out, extended beyond the existence of yet one more star-faring species. The Vyai were indeed crawly things, snakes with tentacles, or possibly those were just the space crews for a more diverse population: Daria seemed to think there were other species among the Vyai who did not fly starships.

Park, Kleiner and Santos traded places with Li Zan’s wing the day (in Bluehorse terms) after the walk in town. Gamma Wing went on patrol, and the Tasmania and the Greenland crews and fighter pilots took leave while their ships got software and hardware updates. Captain Kalkar got together for further briefings with his descendant Admiral Kalkar and Alice Grohl’s descendant Mayor Kendra Grohl, and the Tasmania and Greenland mechanics started to work on new challenges. Meanwhile Su Park, Natasha Kleiner, Vera Santos, Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert hiked up the side of the rift and onto the low corner of the headland overlooking the Parallelogram Sea.

“We had heard of the Vyai,” said Park. “First, from seeing them across systems we explored. Their fighters are, well, different, you wouldn’t confuse them with human or Primoid. They’re, I would describe them as—!”

“Snaky,” said Vera. “Tricky,” said Natasha. “Fragile,” said Vera. “Vera killed a couple, when we saw them,” said Natasha.

“We were supposed to be doing diplomacy with Tasmania,” Vera explained. “Of course we couldn’t actually communicate with the Primoids, but we did run into a system where the Primoids had a colony. It was sort of under siege by these little fighters. I think we got on the Primoids’ good side when the Vyai attacked us and we turned them away. Actually, I killed four, Tasha killed three, so don’t let her be all self-effacing. Tasmania took down a couple as well. Lidi Moss got one, Gemma got two but almost got killed. Still, we kicked ass, and the Vyai clearly totally thought they were going to kick ass. Yeah. Bold, but fragile.”

“Yes,” said Park. “This accords with my experience: the Vyai are very willing to throw away lives, which the Primoids are not. We had two skirmishes with them. They nearly killed both Mister Ree and Miss Leith, but we all got kills: I think Miss Bain got three in the second one, she’s starting to show quite the killer instinct. Then, from Miss Acevedo and other local fighter pilots, afterward, I and my people heard what they call themselves, and apparently somehow Acevedo and Captain Zender of the Antioch managed to capture a couple of them. Snake-like. A meter long, or a little more. Their heads, oddly enough, are in the middle of their bodies. I’m not sure if they’re snakes with a few tentacles, or if they’re tentacled creatures that have two particularly large tentacles, one in back and one in front. They’re growing, in terms of systems they control, and they seem to be putting pressure on the Primoids from the other side; one is fairly sure one would prefer the Primoids as neighbors. In any case, this was the news I sent to the rebels to transmit to the other Primoids, and it just possibly may have helped sway them: we had come from what we call PSB3—!”

“PSB3?” Rachel repeated.

“Yes, sorry. Nomenclature. Primoid System B3: the B indicates the second rank of Primoid colonies, so that would be a system of some tens or hundreds of thousands of Primoid colonists, and the Vyai were clearly making a push there.”

“And the news?” asked Rachel.

Park did not answer as they clambered up a slanted rock face. She climbed up and helped the others up, and then she said, “The Vyai were in the process of overwhelming the Primoid fleet there. It was somewhat of a mismatch.”

“And then?” asked Clay.

“We did sufficient damage,” said Park innocently. “One thing led to another, and the Vyai attacked us, and I fear we may have swung the odds in favor of the defenders. One assumed the Vyai would attempt to wipe out the Primoid colony.”

“They would have done the same to us, these Primoids,” said Rachel.

“Yes,” said Su Park. “Welcome to the galaxy.” She looked up at the sky. “We had no idea, back on old Earth, did we? We had no idea, when Agneska and I flew to Alpha Centauri, how many people are out here with sharp knives. And now it appears that the Primoids and the Earthlings, or the Bluehorseans, will need to ally just to keep us all from being mined out of existence by your discovery, Miss Andros, Mister Gilbert. Perhaps we can persuade the Vyai to sign on.”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Here’s to the Ngugma. They might create peace in the galaxy one way or the other.”

4.

“So where do mouthholes come from?” asked Natasha as she and Vera walked down the beach in Bluehorse-3’s long early evening. Clay and Rachel were a few meters ahead: naked as they all were, Rachel made sure Clay was not walking behind his former loves. They could ogle him, for all she cared.

“They seem suspiciously associated with the Ngugma,” said Rachel.

“Are you joking?” said Vera. “We saw mouthholes everywhere after 55 Cancri, and I’ve never been in the same system as Ngugma.”

“We had them flying along next to us a couple times,” said Natasha. “When we pushed our speed to, oh, 99.999999%.”

“Six nines past the decimal,” said Rachel. “It’s bad.”

“So what then? Somehow flying faster than the speed limit makes them appear?”

“No idea. We saw them trailing Ngugma. Maybe that’s how that happens: the Ngugma flout the speed limit and the mouthholes show up. But at Alpha C, they thought the Ngugma dragged the mouthholes there on purpose. So maybe the Ngugma knew what they were doing. Maybe they had it happen by accident, and then figured out how to use it, whatever this thing is that the mouthholes have with light speed.”

“Ngugma,” said Vera. “So vile.”

“When did you see the video?” asked Clay over his shoulder.

“Clay, man, I’m sorry,” said Natasha, her eyes floating near his buns. “I can’t imagine what that was like to find. Like your cat left you a dead bird in your bed. Um, so where did we see the video from Earth? That would be R5, we call it the Ice Palace but Park doesn’t want that to be an official, like, name.”

“Ice Palace,” said Rachel. “I like it.”

“There are three white dwarf stars,” said Vera, vaguely admiring Rachel’s mole. “One of them’s going to win in the end and it may actually wind up as a supernova in, oh, I’m told, twenty or thirty billion years. There are sheets of nebula around them, but there’s not much for planets, every single thing in that system is either a star or a hunk of ice. Anyway, we actually have a little base out there, it’s about four light years from here and around 87 light years out from Earth, a little closer than here. It’s quite pretty, it’s actually a great spot for a base though we don’t stay there much. Anyway, we were coasting on in there, this last time, on our way back to catch up to you at Bluehorse, very calculated, you see, us and Tasmania, and we were receiving the last live videos from Earth when everyone was dying. It was quite the thing to see, it must have been quite the thing to actually walk the streets. We didn’t get your video until we got here, but we’ve seen some of it.”

“At least they had been dead for a while when we got there,” said Clay. “It would have been a lot worse to get there while they were still dying.”

“We wouldn’t have landed,” said Rachel. “Forget about it. It would’ve been bad enough from space.”

“And you think,” said Tasha, “that any of these races would do the same thing if they could.”

“I don’t think that’s clear,” said Rachel. “I do not believe the Primoids would commit quite that level of genocide. I believe they might have wiped out Bluehorse, but I will say I think learning that Earth was gone and that this was the largest place humanity had left, I think that stymied them. I think they couldn’t bring themselves to do it.”

“I think you’re right,” said Clay. “They live in their skin a lot longer than we live in ours. I think moral decisions are very weighty to them.” He laughed and looked out across the horizon, feeling Rachel’s hand in his. “Anyway, I like to think our little slide show made them see us as people.”

“They sent us their version of the same slide show,” said Rachel. “Cute little Primoid tots and toddlers. So funny. But sort of, I don’t know, poignant, you know?”

“Definitely,” said Clay.

“So the problem to you is all about the Ngugma,” said Vera.

“That is the problem,” said Clay. “It’s quite straightforward, really. Sadly—!”

“We don’t have a solution,” said Vera. “We’re still understanding the problem. Well, whatever is going to be done, guess who is going to be sent to see it done.”

“You and Tasha,” said Rachel.

“Oh no. Not by ourselves.” She smiled at Natasha. “You knew Park and old Captain Kalkar have been given a task force, right? Tasmania, Abstraction, Miranda, two more new cruisers, twelve fighters, and a Primoid component as well. You would have known you’d be on that with us.”

“But we get to be Alpha Wing, just the four of us,” said Natasha.

“What?” said Clay.

“How do you know this and we don’t?” asked Rachel.

“Now you do,” said Vera. “We’re to be sent out ahead. The cat’s paw. And you know who’s going to be Commander?”

“Don’t say it,” said Rachel. “Do not even say it.”

“I’ll say it,” Tasha replied. “You are. Of course. Vera’s Second, because she was a second before. I’m stuck at Third.”

“You know second and third, there’s no difference,” said Clay, turning around and walking backwards looking back at the other two. Then he turned and walked on. “It all looks the same from the tail position,” he added.

The ladies laughed in a way befitting ladies, naked ones, walking in the waves of a sunny beach. Rachel put her hand on Clay’s buns. “Don’t worry, hunk-a-licious,” she said. “I’ll take care of you.”

“Rachel. I can’t tell you how glad that makes me. Really. Really really. Losing Earth—it’s still getting through to me. It’s like when I lost my mother. I literally thought, I can’t go back and be with her, home is basically closed off now, that place I grew up, it’s now officially gone. I’m on my own, I can’t go home, I can’t have my old room back. I have to live my life out here in the hard cold world, I have to make my own home. Well, losing Earth is the same thing. We’re finally having to grow up and live our lives.” He smiled at Rachel.

“With you,” said Rachel. Vera and Natasha just kissed and giggled.

They walked in silence, gazing out over the sea, and up along the volcanic peaks, and then Clay said, “Home.”

“Yup,” said Vera from behind. “This is the place.”

“We have to treat it right,” said Clay. “We wrecked old Earth. We wrecked the climate, we killed off thousands and thousands of species, we dumped radioactivity and toxins in the water, in the air, in the ground. It was starting to get better but it would have been another ten thousand, hundred thousand years before it was healed.”

“We didn’t do that,” said Natasha. “Our stupid great grandparents did.”

“Okay, sure,” said Clay. “Our stupid great grandparents. Anyway, we have the chance to start fresh. We are so lucky. We cannot afford to make a mistake. We cannot afford to blow it this time.”

“We won’t,” said Rachel.

They walked as the sun descended toward the polygonal sea. It looked like any sea on any planet that experienced sunset, the waves rolling slowly up against the long strand. Presently they stopped and gathered Bluehorse driftwood and built a bonfire and lit it with the laser Rachel had in her backpack. Soon they were sitting around the fire, sipping Bluehorse brandy and passing a bowl of Bluehorse smoke.

“Begin, and cease, and then again begin,” said Clay. “With tremulous cadence slow, and bring / the eternal note of sadness in.”

“Sophocles heard it long ago,” said Vera. “Love that poem.”

“Sophocles long ago,” said Clay, “heard it on the Aegean, and it brought / into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / of human misery; we / find also in the sound a thought, / hearing it on this distant northern sea.”

They gazed into the sunset, and Rachel said, “Whatever. We have our thing to do, and we’re lucky enough that it’s kind of important. I look at you guys, and I look at this place, and I think I have only the vaguest idea how lucky I am.”

“Yes,” said Natasha. “Even if we all die in the next battle, I wouldn’t trade what happened to me for anyone else’s what happened to them.”

“What the hell,” said Clay. “We’re the best wing ever. We get to go search among the stars.” He raised the flask. “Here’s to the next place we drink together on a beach in the sunset.”

“Maybe it’ll be Earth,” said Rachel, taking the flask and drinking in her turn. And the flask went around, and the bowl went around, and the sun drifted beneath the horizon, and the four fighter pilots got their vac suits back on, and the stars wheeled above them, a city in the sky more populous than any on old Earth. The tiny moon broke from the horizon and added its thin light to the starlight. One by one, Clay and Rachel, Vera and Natasha lay back and gazed up at the heavens, just like mariners gazing out to sea.

THE END

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