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But of course there wasn’t much in the way of beans to spill. Clay told Rachel, more or less, what Vera had sent him, and they parsed it out and came up with the Rachel pronouncement that “she clearly is hot for you. But she isn’t sure where it’s going.”

“Well, it’s fair to say that I’m hot for her too,” said Clay, “but I’m not sure where this is going.”

“Well, there you are,” said Rachel. “You’re a good match.”

Clay trudged a little further over the surface ice. He stopped, looking down into a night-dark valley, the orange light off the planet reflecting in the greenish ice. Rachel came and stood next to him.

“It’s going to be weird,” he said.

“Clay,” she said, “what part of we’re in another solar system is evading you?”

“The part,” said Clay, “where I haven’t been out of my vac suit in like fifty days—or is it sixty? Fortunately it cleans me as I sleep.”

“And then you eat and drink what it took off you. Yup. Going to be weird.” They walked a little further. “You know what would be weirder?”

“What?”

“If you were having a relationship with Natasha. Or me, actually. Think about it. Here we are, we’ve spent the last three weeks or whatever basically doing everything but sleep and pee together, and we can’t get outside our own suits. Could you imagine if that was Santos you were hanging around with? Holding hands would be a bit stilted, don’t you think?”

“Kissing could be downright dangerous,” he said, and she agreed, and they trudged along checking sensors they had planted, making sure the algae were none the worse for wear, and thinking about the impossibility of things.

It was another week still before the three armored freighters assumed their position in an orbital slot around 55 Cancri A. Even before they got into their orbit, Alpha Wing was coming out to meet them: Beta was still only about halfway back from the dwarf.

Clay was following Natasha into the bay of the Tasmania when he had a moment of panic. Vera was going to be aboard, and in moments he would be facing her, no vac suit. But the moment was delayed, of course, because Vera was actually aboard the Corsica, the freighter run by skipper and known butthead Rob Macdonald. Instead, Captain Kalkar, Navigator Irah Chontz, Chief Mechanic Patricia “Padfoot” Hixon and 2nd Engineer and self-appointed quartermaster Jack Dott met the four fighters in the little “SCEP bay.”

“Miz Park,” said Kalkar. “Mr Dott will show your wing to their very roomy cabins. Padfoot will be running checkups on the pods. Is this satisfactory?”

“It is, Skipper,” said Su Park.

They looked at Rachel, Natasha and Clay, who were stretching and shaking out their legs as they held onto metal bars in the weightless bay. The bars had an official name, but everyone called them sashay bars, and soon the pilots were sashaying out of the bay, down a hall, turning down another hall, all the way to their quarters, perhaps twelve whole meters. The quarters were essentially closed-in bunks, and they were roomy compared to the fighters. But the pilots just tossed their vac suits and their tiny bags, which was all they had for luggage, into their bunks, and then Dott was showing them to the galley.

“It’s been a while since you’ve eaten anything but your own output, right?” he asked.

“So now we get to try your output,” replied Park.

“It has to be someone’s,” he said, leading them into a small room that looked huge to them. There were four tables with four chairs each, all with seat belts. The tables had magnetic strips to hold the trays down. The whole place was decorated in a solid green, approximately the color of vomited pea soup. One supposed it had to be some color or other, and the freighter’s designers had simply chosen the one least likely to encourage the appetite. “Here’s coffee,” said Dott, “and here’s where you get your trays of food, you have some choice, either poop lasagne or poop stew, or there’s a green salad, it’s very nice, it was poop but then we grew some kelp in it. Very tasty. Anyway, the coffee’s good. Welcome aboard, commander, commandoes.”

The four members of Alpha Wing watched Jack Dott sashay out the door and into the hall, where he was already glad talking at someone else. Then they looked at each other. They went over to the coffee machine, and got it to give them decent coffee with some semblance of cream, in cups with lids and little mouth holes. They took seats but didn’t strap down and settled for floating in the vicinity of the table.

“So,” said Clay, “are we fighters or SCEPs?”

“We are fighters, of course,” said Park, “and in addition, Captain Karkal calls us fighters. I believe this is because Irah and Padfoot call us that.”

“So we operate from the Tasmania from now on?” asked Natasha.

“Until the next jump,” said Park, “assuming someone doesn’t get the clever idea of trying to farm on Algaeville.” She looked around. “So, we explore some more, we do tests for resources, you never know if there’s a source of platinum or something. Is there anything else we can accomplish before the big babies roll in?”

Natasha and Rachel smirked at Clay, who went a little pink.

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