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3.

The Alphas had been on the Tasmania for three hours, getting settled, getting oriented, getting bored, when Kalkar announced over the ship-wide comm that they were preparing to dock with the other two “anchor” freighters, the Greenland and the Corsica. Meetings aplenty would follow, in which the not-so-organized leadership of the three freighters and Alpha and Gamma wings would try to decide what to do before the colony ships arrived and told them what to do. The Alphas were lying around on their bunks with their bunk hatches open, all reading different things: Clay was back into Stephen King, on the screen above his head.

“Up and at ‘em,” said Su Park. “Kleiner, you and I are heading out into space to direct traffic.” She gave Clay a look. “One of the Gamma Wing fighters is coming over here to check things out, I guess.”

Rachel gave him another look. “So,” said Rachel, “want to head for the bay?”

The four pulled themselves out of their bunks and sashayed down to the pod bay. “Oh, I just remembered something I need to do,” said Rachel. “Take care, guys, don’t let any freighters run you over.”

“We won’t,” said Natasha.

In under a minute, Park and Kleiner were out in space, and Clay was left alone in the bay control, waiting just inside the airlock. A minute later, the entry request signal flashed and beeped, and he ordered the bay door open. A fighter zipped in. The door shut, the fighter was robotically shifted into a berth, and the airlock door opened. Out came a fighter pilot in a vac suit. The helmet pushed off. And there she was: Vera Freakin’ Santos.

They looked at each other. Her smiling face did not look anywhere near a smile. After some unknown time, Vera said, “This is complicated.” Clay said, “Vera.” That was as far as the conversation got before she propelled herself at him and they were hugging in the little bay control room, hugging and kissing.

The second kiss was much more thought out than the first, and they were sober. Clay noticed her taste and her smell, neither of which was unpleasant. She used something coconut on her lips. No fighter pilot used perfume, but her vac suit had an intriguing faint scent to it. Her hair came out of her deflated helmet, black as night and straight and a little longer than shoulder length. She had not stopped being pretty. Her body had not stopped feeling good against his.

They held each other finally at arms’ length. “How complicated is it?” he asked.

“Clay,” she said. “It’s—well, let’s just not talk about it now.”

“Yeah,” said Clay.

“Commander Bouvier cautioned us not to expect to get into permanent relationships just yet,” she said in a burst of words, and then she laughed a tiny nervous laugh. “I guess she’s right but. God damn it,” she said in a softer voice, “kiss me like that again.”

Clay showed Vera around the Tasmania. They had coffee and a pastry in the galley. She agreed that the color was even worse than the brick pink that the Corsica had. They had a look at freight, they peeked through the window into the bridge: Karkal and Irah were busy at side by side stations resolving some difficulty with docking. They looked at life support, where the waste products of the ship’s crew were brewing back into something that could be called food.

“I miss my mother’s enchiladas,” said Vera.

“The lasagne’s pretty good,” said Clay, “once you get past its origins.”

“It’s the same as what happens on Earth,” said Vera, “they just cut out some steps.”

“Vera,” said Clay, “are we off duty?”

“Here’s the thing about that,” said Vera. “As long as you can hear your helmet comm, you’re on duty. Bouvier and Timmis are out there helping with the rendezvous. Tremblay is on Corsica helping out there. I am supposed to be off. Tremblay told me that, not Commander. So I guess I’m only off when I have my helmet out of the way. You?”

“Yeah,” he said, “that’s about the size of it. Want to see our quarters here on Tasmania?”

They headed up the hall and around a corner and there was the little room with the bunks off it. Two hatches were open: his, and the one where Rachel was reading, an actual bound book. She glanced at them, then jumped up. “Santos!” she said. “This is a surprise.”

Vera looked at Clay, then back at Rachel. “I got a little free time,” she said, “so I thought I’d see how you operate over here. How are you?”

“Terribly busy,” said Rachel. “Reminds me. I need to get Padfoot to look at my manual maneuver joystick. Nice seeing you!” Without bothering to glance meaningfully at Clay, Rachel headed out. The hatch shut behind her.

“God damn it,” said Vera. “Does everyone stinking know?”

“Know what?” asked Clay.

“Good answer. Um.”

“Complicated.”

“Yeah.” Still they stood, or floated just off the ground, each holding a metal “sashay bar.” Vera looked around, then met Clay’s eyes again: hers such a gorgeous brown, his blue as the noon sky. “Clay,” she said, “it occurs to me that the suit itself has a comm too.”

“So,” said Clay, “if you really didn’t want to get interrupted, we’d both have to stow our suits.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” said Vera, reaching to the zip on the front of his vac suit. “So.”

“So that’s one thing that’s not complicated,” he replied, reaching to unzip her.

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