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4.

Clay woke up. The display above him was glowing dimly. He was lying face up, but without gravity. He was naked and sweaty and he felt and smelled another naked sweaty person near him. Vera Santos. Of all people. He rolled to look at her. He had only gotten in about ten seconds of this when she opened her eyes.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” he said. “Want to talk about how complicated it is?”

She stretched. That was distracting. She smiled. She finally said, “Oh, Clay. Clay, Clay. It’s so stupid.” She curled, put an arm across him and smiled again. “Yeah. It’s complicated.”

They lay together for a minute or so. Clay said, “Do you think we’re in trouble?”

“I don’t know. I definitely don’t think they’re going to want us to carry on like this a lot.” They kissed lightly. “What are they going to do,” she said huskily, a couple of centimeters from his face, “fire us?”

“Mmm.” After another peaceful, time-resisting period, he said, “What shall we do today?”

“Well,” said Vera, in a businesslike way, “I guess our agenda is basically to look around for stuff. I mean, for you to show us what you found and so on. Is it true you actually found life?”

“You want to see?”

“You’ve shown me pretty much everything else,” said Vera.

Clay and Vera ascertained that the little shared area between the pilots’ bunks was empty. They emerged and dressed in their vac suits. They checked their messages.

“Bouvier wants me to get out in space,” said Vera.

“So does Park, actually,” said Clay.

Two minutes later, the two Ghosts emerged from the pod berths and exited the bay. Three fighters were hovering outside: Park, Bouvier and Andros. Clay could pick out Timmis and Natasha zipping around the amalgam of the three freighters, and Tremblay just entering the Corsica’s bay.

“Thank you very much, Mr Gilbert,” came the call from Commander Park, “for vacating my berth.” In the video feed, her face had that expressionless expression she reserved for her milder sarcasms. “Now, would you mind joining Rachel and giving Commander Bouvier the lowdown on Algaeville? Santos is going with you. I take it you’re already acquainted with Santos?”

“Yes, Commander,” he sent back. Park gave him a quick slight grin and ended the call before shooting into the bay. Clay poked the next call icon, Rachel’s smiling face, and said, “What?”

“Nothing, dear, of course,” said Rachel.

“Mr Gilbert,” came the call from Bouvier, “are you ready to show us what you’ve found?” Suppressing thoughts of the naked Vera, Clay replied in the affirmative.

The four fighters dashed across the space from the orbit of the artificial planet composed of the three freighters to the orbit of the ringed giant with the unpoetic name “d.” They could see, now, Beta Wing still plodding, at a few percent of the speed of a photon, across the space between 55 Cancri’s two stars. They chatted lightly, while Vera and Clay sent slightly lewd messages to each other on a private connection, and Clay and Rachel sent differently slightly lewd messages on another private line. Clay assumed that Rachel and Vera were probably messaging each other about him the whole time.

Hours later, after they had all had a nap or two, and Clay had lost three games of chess to Bouvier, two to Rachel (and won one) and one to Vera (with one draw), they were dropping to land on Algaeville.

“Wow,” said Bouvier. “Wow. Wow.” Clay had to stare at her to make sure it was really her. As with Park, he forgot that Bouvier was not just a space commander. “Wow. This. Is. Amazing. Look! Look, Vera. Cell structure!” She held out her sample probe, where the little video screen showed the microscopic view of a brickwork lattice of square cells dotted with little green circles.

“It really is,” said Vera.

“Commander Bouvier,” said Rachel, “the most intense areas are on the sort of peaks. Like there,” she added, indicating a very slight rise in the flat ridge top. “But tread carefully, okay? Park noticed that our boots can crack the ice and their ecosystem is really fragile.”

“Is it really an ecosystem as such?” asked Bouvier. “Are there various species? Anything that eats the algae, for instance?”

“Natasha thinks she might have identified a parasite, anyway,” said Rachel. “And the algae in different areas are noticeably different.”

They moved up the rise, leaving Vera and Clay facing away, side by side by their fighters. They looked up and the stars. Clay took Vera’s gloved hand.

“Wow,” said Vera.

“The stars, you mean,” said Clay. “Wonder where we’ll end up? Which one of those stars?” He turned to her. He laughed. He could see her face through the helmet window. He wanted to kiss her, he wanted to really badly.

She read his mind. “That’s one reason why it’s complicated,” she said.

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