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6.

The escort ships and SCEP pilots had fully documented 55 Cancri A and its planets, and their conclusion was the same as Alpha Wing’s: the system was interesting but uninhabitable. They took piles of pictures and made tons of readings. Meanwhile, eleven linguists and cryptographic experts from among the colonists had examined the hexagonal plate and come up with nothing: there seemed to be too few symbols to generate a translation.

The orders came in twelve hours later: the captains (and Su Park) had agreed on a lone red dwarf star called Gliese 163, which lay 42.8 light years away from 55 Cancri, and was known to have at least five planets.

“They’re all on the large side,” said Rachel, as she and Natasha and Clay ate what appeared to be enchiladas at the hole in the wall aboard the Canada. “The innermost one is a Hot Neptune or something, it’s got an orbital period of one day. A year is a day, how about that?”

“No colony there,” said Clay.

“No, and the outer two are too cold, but the second and third out have possibilities. It’s a dwarf star so you can be way inside the orbit of Mercury and be okay. They are all about two, three percent of the mass of Jupiter, so they’re way bigger than Earth, but it doesn’t matter about the planets, no one’s going to live on the planets. It’s the moons.”

“Just like Cancri,” said Natasha. “You know, I kind of liked this system. Too bad it doesn’t have much going for it colony-wise. Or maybe that’s a good thing. We don’t have to fight to protect the rights of the algae.”

“Wait till they find palladium there or something,” said Rachel. “Well, we’ll be long gone. Okay, so I was 26 when we left Earth. I was born in 2307. Twenty-six and a half. Now it’s freakin’ 2374, so I’m 67. We fly to 163, and all of a sudden I’m 110 years old.”

“It’s all relative, baby,” said Clay. “You’re still 26 in every way that counts.”

“Why, Clay. I think that might have been a flirt.”

“What is the story, anyway?” asked Natasha. “You and Miss Santos no longer an item?”

Clay leaned back and took a sip of that nice ale. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’re on the back burner or something. No, I guess we’re not an item for a little bit. Anyway, it’s Alpha and Gamma going on ahead this time, right? So we don’t have the romantic pressure of parting.”

“Did she say or did she not say,” asked Natasha, “I think we should just be friends?”

“No, she did not say that. She said, Wipe that smirk off your face, Clay Gilbert.”

“You do smirk a lot.”

“We all do. Alpha Wing. I honestly think she has a complex about that. Also, I beat her in the fighter simulations a lot. She didn’t like that.”

“You need to let her win,” said Natasha, smiling. Natasha, Clay now remembered, was kind of on the sexy side. And someone was playing footsie with him. He looked at Natasha, who was smirking. But Rachel was also smirking.

“I guess I don’t understand girls,” said Clay.

“You just have to learn to let us win,” said Rachel.

“What’s this ‘let’?” he replied, sure that it was two right feet.

The sixteen hours before Alpha and Gamma took off, under Park and Bouvier, with Rachel, Natasha and Clay, and Tremblay, Vera Santos and Timmis Green, were supposed to be restful, but Park and Bouvier sanctioned a dance party on the condition that everyone would be in their bunks by minus eight hours. The Alphas had their usual bottle of wine and then their usual squash match, and then they cleaned up—ah, a shower, such a luxury—and danced the hours away with the Betas and Gammas and Bonnie Bain, an honorary Beta, and a couple of the other pod pilots from the colony ships.

Clay danced with Vera, sexy but distinctly friendly; he also danced with Natasha, flirty but with a definite boundary she still dared not cross; and with Rachel, who was her usual buttoned-up self, and yet what would he find if he could ever unbutton her? Well, a mole on her back, for one thing. He got drunker, and the cannabis they grew on the Canada didn’t help that situation, and then he was dancing with Jana Bluehorse, while Rachel and Natasha were trying to get Gil Rojette to come out of his shell, and Timmis and Li Zan were dancing and talking.

He remembered talking to Bluehorse, who was a couple of centimeters taller than him, strawberry blond and mouthy. He only wished he remembered more of that big smiling mouth kissing him in the dark in a cramped and empty access hall, of those finely tuned hands checking him for weapons, of that well-exercised body pressing against him, of that husky Bluehorse laugh. But when he woke up in his own bunk on the Tasmania, and spent a few nauseous, head-achy minutes sorting dream from memory, he was sure they had kept their clothes on. He was sure she hadn’t said, “God damn it, Clay,” or anything like that. He was sure he wasn’t going to be thinking about Jana Bluehorse all the way to Gliese 163.

He wasn’t sure what was going to be interesting, perplexing, important or dangerous about this next little jaunt. But he was pretty sure there would be something in each of those categories.

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