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Natasha and Clay were lying, or floating in a lying position, their arms loosely around each other, their vac suits stowed in their little vac suit compartments. Their feet were in his Ghost and their heads were in hers. Clay was looking over Natasha’s curly golden hair at her display rerunning the encounter with the unknown object from Natasha’s Ghost’s point of view. Natasha was looking past Clay’s naked shoulder at Clay’s display, rerunning it from the Clay perspective.

“Park’s not going to look kindly on this,” said Natasha. “I mean, us getting all intimate like this.”

“No, she’s not,” said Clay. “I don’t think she really approved of me and Vera.”

“She would rather you married up with some farm girl on the Canada.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Maybe you will,” she said. After a moment, she said, “I might as well ask you what you think that was that almost killed me.”

Clay thought a moment. “Well,” he said, “it seems to me there are either three or four possibilities, depending on how you subdivide the question.”


“So maybe it was a natural object, like a tiny asteroid. I mean, it wasn’t very large, and it was fairly dense, right? So it could have been a chunk of rock or a comet fragment or something.”

“Clay. It moved. It changed course.”

“I know. So there’s that hypothesis out the window. So, what else? Maybe it was a robot probe.”

“It sure didn’t seem like a robot probe,” she said, and she put a kiss on his chest, then each shoulder, and then his lips. She smiled at him. “Anyway, that’s not a very comforting hypothesis. If it was a robot probe, then something put it here.”

“Yes. And that leaves us with life forms. And those are your bailiwick. You’re the exobiologist.”

“So all that was just to deflect the question back to me. Did you do this to Vera?”

“Nooo. No, our conversations were a lot less interesting.”

“I won’t pry,” said Natasha. She kissed him again in a friendly way. Her naked body was still pressing against his. “Well,” she said, “either it was a robot made by some sort of alien, or it was a fighter kind of thing with some sort of alien pilot. Either way it was an intelligent alien species, someone who could use technology. And if we’re just meeting them on our furthest ever journey into the galaxy, then the usual argument is that they’re probably a lot more advanced than us.”

“It didn’t seem that advanced,” said Clay. “It tried to ram us.”

“That’s exactly what it did,” said Natasha. “Maybe that’s what they’re good at. Maybe they’re immune to our attacks and they just bull into things. There is another possibility, however.”

“What would that be, Professor Kleiner?”

“Well, suppose it was an alien species, but suppose that was not technology. Suppose that was just the way it locomoted. Suppose the edge of the system is its environment. Suppose it’s capable of surviving in a vacuum and traveling at x percent of the speed of light.”

“How could that be, though?”

“How the hell should I know? Clay, no one has any real idea what alien creatures might be like. They could go relativistic speeds, I suppose. Why not? Maybe they eat thorium and have nuclear powered intestines. They could easily have evolved in a vacuum, I mean, I guess they easily could have, no one really knows, it’s the first thing you always say in exobiology. All I know is that the most comforting explanation is that it was just some hunk of rock, and it’s too bad that it’s the explanation that has the least credibility.”

He kept looking at her video and she kept looking at his. After a bit she turned and kissed him, then maneuvered so they were both looking at her display. His hand moved up her belly to rest near her breast.

“That’s interesting,” she said, raising her hand to the screen. The video paused. She used a finger touch to twirl the picture. “Look,” she said. “A mouth.”

“What?” said Clay. He would have sat up, if there was an up. “What the?”

“Yeah,” said Natasha. She let the video run back a little, then forward, then let it loop over those five seconds again: no black blob, then black blob coming in from the right, then black blob meets conduit just off of Natasha’s Ghost, then black blob flies on, already turning. Then it was gone. It had taken something with it. The conduit was not just broken. There was less of it.

“It ate a piece of the conduit,” said Clay. “Is that what it did?”

“Yeah. Yeah, Clay. It ate. A piece. Of the conduit.”