So it was that, just a couple of weeks later, all of the original crew were back aboard the Endeavour. In the end, the vote had been unanimous and there had not been even the slightest hint of coercion: no moans or grumbles around the coffee machine or the mess-room tables. I guess that there were so few of us that nobody wanted to reduce the group any further by splitting up, or perhaps we just needed to cling to each other for support.

We had been cut loose from the Yelcho at a much slower velocity than the one at which we had been intercepted, and directed at a stellar system already clearly visible in our instruments and indeed had all of the desirable properties which Waldo had promised. We would have no difficulty in decelerating at a very modest rate which engineers from both Endeavour and Yelcho confirmed would have minimal risk of further movement of The Maw, the vast crevice which had opened up in the ice which formed the bulk of our ship.

It had been a fortnight of frantic activity, checking and repairing and refurbishing systems which we had expected not to be using again, but were now vital to our future well-being. The quest for self-sufficiency which had driven the original design of the Endeavour was nearly perfect: there was little we could not construct for ourselves given enough time. But, as time was short, we accepted the aid of the Yelcho in the manufacture of some particularly complex replacement parts.

My own focus during these repairs was the inertial suppression generators, the space-warping capability which allowed our ship to accelerate at tens of gravities for months at a time without squashing the humans aboard to a paste on the floor. These colossal machines had long been my principal responsibility: in operation, they used a substantial fraction of the output of the three fusion reactors which were the Endeavour's primary power source, indeed, they used more energy than the reaction engines which actually provided the thrust.

One of the repairs aided by the Yelcho was a key component in the control subsystem for the inertial suppressers. Admittedly the failed unit was one of a redundant triple and, if we had been really pressed, we might have risked proceeding without the second back-up; certainly, more desperate measures had been undertaken during the war with the Consolidationists. Waldo had appeared aboard the Endeavour a few days after the decision to leave had been made, clutching the replacement unit in his human hand.

Waldo hung around for a few minutes which I started to check out the device, perhaps, I imagined, hoping for a reprise of our previous physical intimacy; our relationship had cooled quite a lot when we both realised we would be forever separated. Once he recognised that I was going to be focussed on the delicate task of installing the control unit, he left with a rather perfunctory peck on the cheek and a promise to catch up later on. I hardly noticed him leave; my attention was already elsewhere.

As a matter of course, I gave the new component a thorough functional check; it performed flawlessly. Curious, I looked more closely; it was identical in appearance to the failed subsystem, even under microscopic examination. There was nothing unexpected to be seen, all functions were well within tolerances. So, I installed the device in its proper place and set about re-checking the entire inertia suppression system, even a microsecond failure of which would mean death for everybody on board.

We had bid farewell to the Yelcho and its crew with genuine warmth and thanks, tinged with a certain sense of relief that we would no longer be asked to live up to some impossible measure, some standard of comprehension and behaviour totally beyond any of us. Waldo and I had parted as friends, with kisses and just a few tears; the separation had the feeling of an affair that I might in the future remember fondly every now and then, but not with heart-wrenching anguish or guilt.

Ship-board life resumed almost as if it had not been interrupted, although morale was noticeably better. One measure of that psychological improvement was that more than a few of the women became pregnant; a physical expression of the feeling, not quite stated explicitly by anybody, that we suddenly all had a real future in front of us.

Part 5 Part 7