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3.

For a long time, Clay and Natasha soared along, decelerating steadily, lying in a chaste embrace, their vac suits on, their helmets off. After a while, Natasha began to talk.

“Remember,” she said, “when we were going back to Earth from the Moon for the holidays. And you were going to see your sister and Rachel was going to see her mom and dad. And you wanted to know where I was going and I didn’t say anything.”

Clay didn’t reply: he was trying to reconstruct the scene, and he sort of could, but it was either six months ago or eighty years.

“My mom dropped out of engineering school,” said Natasha. “She and my dad had problems. He was addicted to some things. They both were, but she straightened out. I don’t remember him at all, actually. I’ve seen him in videos, I would know his voice, but I never remember actually what he was like.”

“He died or left?”

“Both,” said Natasha. There was silence for a while. Then she said, “He died of an overdose. I think Mom thought it was on purpose. He was really a nobody, I don’t know why she was with him. She was bad at choosing men. She chose another one, of course, and another one. My dad at least left her alone mostly. But her parents never forgave her for being with him, so I didn’t even know my grandparents. I guess I can’t blame them. I guess he was responsible for her dropping out and getting into the killer.”

“The killer?”

“It’s a drug. Nethalen. Butter.”

“Oh. Heard of nethalen.”

“He was into other things too. Heroin. Alcohol. Downers. It all killed him in the end. There were a couple other guys, and I sort of remember Mom trying to go straight, but we were poor when I was little. But then my mom took up with Ryne. Rhino people called him.”

“Rhino.”

“Yeah. Him I remember.” She was silent again for a little, but Clay didn’t interrupt. She said, in a voice as flat as the Sea of Tranquility, “Rhino was a partier. He would have these guys over. One time when I was seven or eight, they got me in a room and did stuff to me.” She stopped again. The Spanish Inquisition could not have made Clay say anything. She went on, “Of course I couldn’t tell Mom. They threatened me, but they didn’t need to. After that, I always stayed away from them. From Rhino. I’d only be home when Mom was home, because then he’d be distracted. The two of them would get high, and on the killer you can just get totally strung out and stay that way for hours. So that was safe, you see.”

“Doesn’t it kill?”

“Yeah, but slowly. You see. Mom was an addict but she wasn’t stupid. It didn’t kill her fast at all, not like Dad, who also did all this other stuff. It doesn’t mix with alcohol very well.”

“So,” said Clay, “you didn’t spend much time at home.”

“No. I hid out at school. I started coming home from school after dark. A few times, I spent the night in the back yard and snuck in to get food. My math teacher, I was, oh, nine or ten? She got me into this advanced program because I worked so hard and I was really good. Then I had a science teacher named Burkard, he was so great, he turned me on to biology, astronomy. I got into exobiology when I was a teenager.”

“What did Rhino think?”

“He was dead by then,” said Natasha.

“Drugs?”

“A fight.” She shifted a little. Then she lifted herself and said, “I had a teacher when I was thirteen, named Jeremy, Jeremy Hanssen. Oh, Jeremy.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes. I had an affair with a thirty-year-old chemistry teacher when I was thirteen. We carried on for several years.” She stared past Clay, expressionless. “I did great in my classes, though. Great.” She shook her head. “He got in trouble, and I got straight A’s.”

“What did Mom think?”

“She was pretty far gone,” said Natasha. “When I was sixteen I got a chance to go to the Vermont Institute. I never went back home.” Clay didn’t say anything. Natasha went on, “I don’t know what happened to Mom. She’s gone, she died, I just don’t know how.” She laughed a little. “All I know is the year on her plaque. She died when I was eighteen, and I didn’t find out till I was twenty.” She wiped her eyes. “Well, I did great at the institute. Of course I had an affair with a prof. But he cut it off before anyone got in trouble. I thought about killing myself.”

“Clearly you didn’t.”

“Nope,” said Natasha. “No, I signed up with the Human Horizon Project.”

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