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So Rachel and Clay turned their fighters left sixty degrees and made for the d planet, the largest of 55 Cancri A’s little clutch of planets and the furthest out by a wide margin. They played chess to a desultory draw, but then they napped and settled into businesslike chit chat.

“Funny shaped system,” said Rachel. “Of course it’s not like I’ve seen more than two star systems. But all those planets are sort of bunched up around the star like they’re huddling for warmth, and here’s this big boy way out here with rings and moons and everything.”

from NASA by way of Wikipedia

from NASA by way of Wikipedia

“Well,” said Clay, “you have two stars here, so an orbit the size of Neptune’s would be constantly disturbed. But a really big planet like d can stand up to the tugging and hold its place. It might even sweep up the debris of lost other planets, that might be why d is so huge. I mean, it’s four times the mass of our largest planet. It’s got a moon the size of Earth, almost.”

“It’s got one the size of Earth,” said Rachel, “and two the size of Mars.”

“So, think that Earth-size moon might have life? Coffee shops?”

“Super doubt it, Clay,” Rachel replied. “It’s soaking up the radiation from that big ass planet. It’s like Jupiter and Io. Yeah. I’m picking up hot spots on that moon. I bet it’s got volcanoes. I bet it’s just squeezed and flexed by those tidal forces.”

“The other two bigger moons don’t look so bad,” said Clay. “They’re a little further out. Shall we head there? I’m, uh, rather itching to actually stand on something.”

“Yeah, me too, let’s head for the streaky one. Hey, it’s got a bit of an atmosphere. See that?”

“Clouds,” Clay replied. “Let’s see. Methane. CO2. Methane clouds in CO2 air. Okay. We’ll leave the helmets sealed, obviously.”

“Obviously,” said Rachel. They coasted along, decelerating still but not as hard. A minute later, Rachel said, “So, anything you want to say about—?”

Clay did a sort of laugh-sigh to himself. Then he said, “I told Bluehorse I would have to be standing on a planet before I’d talk about—what you want to talk about.”

“Which is Vera,” said Rachel. “But I’m not Bluehorse. I’m your wing second. I have rank over you, which she never will.”

“You’re going to order me to get in touch with my feelings?”

“That’d be a waste of time,” said Rachel. “Just lay it on the line. Was there some precedent for this behavior with the lips and stuff, or was that all spur of the moment?”

“Precedent? Huh. I don’t know.”

“You stinkin’ do know, you male guy person. What made you kiss her just then? I mean, and then you were off the next morning. Was that what got the hormones going?”

“Oh,” he said vaguely, “I guess you’d say there was precedent. I mean, we went skinny dipping together on Cuba. We didn’t do anything. We frolicked. I’m sure we flirted a lot. We had danced quite a bit. That can’t have escaped your notice, Miss Wing Second Woman.”

“Oh, I had noticed. I didn’t know about the skinny dipping, and I’m shocked because I thought you’d only done that with me and Tasha. Ha! I’ve seen you peeing. I know about the mole on your rear end.”

“I know about the big mole on your back,” said Clay, who couldn’t help think of how very much he had liked looking at Rachel’s naked back. He really couldn’t decide whether he liked Rachel’s naked back better or Natasha’s, nor did he feel any need to. And then there was Vera’s naked back. Vera’s naked front. He smiled at himself, thinking it was lucky he wasn’t flying in a debris field because he was sure his course control was a wee bit lacking.

“Let’s leave the mole on my back out of this for now,” said Rachel. “I had some thought of having it removed.”

“Oh, don’t do that.”

“Why, Clay. I think that was a flirt. Totally inappropriate, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure,” he replied, and he was sure. Whether he was in love with Vera, or thought of Rachel as a good friend, or was under her command, or considered his team relationship to her and Natasha sacrosanct, it was totally inappropriate for him to think about her naked. She was flying along dressed in a vac suit and a Ghost 201 fighter, about 20 kilometers to his left and a little ahead, and they had an important and possibly dangerous exploration ahead of them, in this star system forty light years from human civilization, this star system that might become the furthest-out human colony: surely he shouldn’t be thinking about her breasts. Or anyone else’s. He felt really bad about it. Or not. He smirked. There were advantages to not being in touch with one’s feelings.

But what if Vera was his love? What if that kiss really mattered? That fully clothed kiss, that kiss before parting?

“All right, not gonna get anymore out of that just now, obviously,” came Rachel’s voice. “We got eighty million kilometers. Shall we vote on a landing spot?”