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4.

Alpha Wing, at Park’s direction, rendezvoused on a cute little planetoid about the size of Pluto’s second biggest moon and in about the same position relative to the star, which was barely a red dot at this distance. Natasha and Clay suited up and separated their craft as they coasted in. They landed side by side and got out to stretch, looking as if they had just finished a long drive across country, not a long period of nudity at close quarters.

Su Park and Rachel Andros had already set down and were already out of their fighters, standing together as if conferring, as if they had to be physically near to talk in whispers. Natasha and Clay joined them. They both reached out to touch Rachel, and immediately they could hear Park talking: “…It would have wiped the slate clean. Hey, guys. So, yes, there seems to be evidence that the star had an outburst perhaps ten million years ago, and it might well have wiped out any life that might have evolved in the system.”

“Really?” said Clay. “You can tell that?”

“Oh, it would leave a mark,” said Natasha. “That c planet was the one we had high hopes for. But the star is small so the planet’s quite close in. And the better life did there, the more likely it would be to get wiped out by any sort of burst of radiation.” She looked at the star, now magnified in their helmets: a red-orange orb like a well-let Mars. “Hard to believe that little thing could generate that much radiation.”

“It’s only little compared to other stars,” said Rachel. “Radiant pressure drops, the outer shell collapses a little, and there’s a burst of new radiation.”

“So no life here,” said Clay. “That’s actually not necessarily bad news, not for us anyway. How about a colony? Could c support a colony?”

“It’s doubtful,” said Park, “but of course we can’t know without paying it a visit. But now we’re all here, what have you figured out about what attacked you?”

“We think it was alive,” said Natasha.

“You’re sure it’s not a spacecraft? Or a machine of some sort?”

“Machines don’t have mouths,” said Natasha. She went back to her fighter and reached in the open hatch. She put a finger in, then came back to the others. She held out her left index finger and Rachel touched it.

“How long is the video?” asked Rachel.

“Just give it a sec, will you? Sheesh.” They stood there looking at their touching fingers. Su Park looked at Clay, and Clay could tell she was just bursting with something else to say. After ten seconds, Natasha took her finger back and Rachel touched hers to her helmet visor.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I can see it.” She laughed. “I never tried that before. Cool.”

“Rachel,” said Natasha, “did you see it? Clay’s fighter got a different point of view, but this one was from my fighter and it’s the most—do you see it?”

“Oh yeah,” said Rachel. She was tapping on her visor, evidently rewinding and re-watching. “Oh, mannn. Look at that.”

“I’d love to,” said Park.

“Oh, sorry,” said both Rachel and Natasha. Natasha stuck out her finger and Su Park got to see the video for herself. In a few moments she was saying “Oh my” herself.

“I’ll need to see Mr Gilbert’s view as well,” said Park. “But—I would have to say it looks like a living thing, doesn’t it to you?”

“Well,” said Clay, “the Horse Head Nebula looks like a horse, as do sea horses, but this, not gonna lie, it sure looks like it took a bite with that mouth.”

“I’d say it’s lucky it didn’t take a bite out of one of us. Repairs needed?”

“Yes, actually,” said Natasha. “The conduit connector in the middle of my hatch. It leaks pretty good. I had to hook up with, uh,” and she paused, as if trying to backspace and reword her previous clause. “With, uh, Clay. Hatch to hatch.”

Rachel smirked. Park, incongruously, looked up at the stars toward 55 Cancri and said, “Gamma Wing will be along in a few minutes. I told Bouvier to join us here. Nice place, don’t you think?”

They looked around at the surface: stars glinted in clear ice pools and flashed in specks of snow. “Sure,” said Rachel, “as long as you didn’t want, you know, air or water or sunlight.”

“Well, maybe over on c,” said Natasha. “There’s plenty of warmth in the inner orbits. Maybe nothing much else, but it’s not going to be cold.”

“No,” said Park. They all stood there for another minute or so. Park cleared her throat and said, as preamble, “On the subject of relationships within Alpha Wing.”

“What?” said all of the other three, though none of them could have been surprised.

“I want to only have to say this once. Clearly you are all normal, sexually active young adults. Clearly you are part of a colonization expedition and you may well want to find mates and start families, or at least to find mates. That is all fine and normal. Understood?”

“Yes, understood, yes, commander,” they said.

“Fine. There are exactly three people who are off limits for each of you. You have seventeen other fighter pilots, and scores of other crew, and over eight thousand colonists, many of whom are of whichever gender fits your preferences. It is not too much to ask that you do not form romantic relationships with other members of Alpha Wing. Do you hear me?”

“Yes,” said Clay and Natasha, both glancing at Rachel, who gave each of them a sympathetic look.

“I’m glad we understand each other,” said Park, looking up toward the incoming Gamma fighters, while Natasha and Clay looked at each other and winked.

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