“So what shall we talk about?” asked Rachel as they sped back outward from Gliese 163 and its blasted little gas giants. “I can think of two things I’d like to talk about. We could talk about what cosmic force was attacking you and Natasha, or shall we talk about the thing in the video?”
“Can’t we just play chess or something?” replied Clay.
“We can do that too. So? What do you say? Want to update your old pal Rachel on your relationship status? You in a relationship again?”
“Rachel, are you angry with me? I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what’s going on between me and Natasha. I know about as much about that as I know about the thing that really did try and take a bite out of us.”
“Oh, bull sticks,” said Rachel. “Don’t hide behind your guy-ness. Are you two now an item? Didn’t we just have this conversation, about someone else?”
“Rachel,” said Clay, “I remind you that I have not been in a romantic relationship in over forty years. I am a typical male of somewhere over 110. Um, bull sticks?”
“My parents taught me not to swear. And don’t pull out those time dilation gimmicks on me, I majored in astrophysics. No, I’m not angry with you.” They shot along in silence for a few seconds, covering approximately 100,000 km side by side at a distance of about ten meters. “So it’s definitely over with Vera? By the way, I thought she was a bit snide back there on the planetoid, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I had that feeling too,” said Clay. “Do you think she knows?” Before Rachel could answer, Clay added, “Rachel, can women read men’s minds?”
“You’re kind of obvious sometimes. It’s hard not to.”
“Well, I apologize for that. For my whole gender. I mean, did everyone on that planetoid with us know what we—?” He paused rather than finish with “were doing”.
“Clay,” she said. “Clay, Clay, Clay. I don’t even know what you. What you what? Were you guys makin’ whoopee? Ha. Makin’ whoopee. Is that even a thing?”
Clay sat in silence thinking through possible replies as they covered another million kilometers. “Rachel,” he said, “do you not approve? I guess I mean, do you feel the same way Park feels about it? You shouldn’t get in a romance with your wing mate?”
“Well, are you? Romance with your wing mate. Is that a thing?”
Clay thought about that for another million kilometers. Those million kilometer stones were coming faster and faster. Finally he said, “Yeah, it’s a thing. I don’t know. I know I’ve put you in a difficult situation. I mean, I didn’t think I was putting anyone in a situation, but—!”
“Yes,” said Rachel, and her overworked patience came through clearly. “You put me in a difficult situation. No, you didn’t think about it, and actually? I understand that. So you had to link up, because her hatch was leaking and her vac suit would have been a bit overworked to keep her air up all by itself. And there you are, with your hatches linked up, and obviously what one does when one finds oneself in that situation—!”
“We were very emotional after I frickin’ saved her life.”
“So you took advantage of her? Or she took advantage of you? Or both?”
“Rachel. No one took advantage. I mean, that would sort of indicate that I wouldn’t have saved her if I hadn’t expected to get some, you know, whoopee or whatever in return. Right?”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “I can’t add up the columns that fast. Ask me a math question instead.” They sped another million kilometers.
“I just wasn’t not going to save her life,” said Clay. “It wouldn’t have mattered if it was Timmis Green. Or you, for that matter.” Another million kilometers. “Rachel,” he said.
“Yes?” she said, and she didn’t take long saying the word.
“Do you disapprove?”
“No,” she said, and then, after a few hundred thousand kilometers, she added, “I don’t disapprove. I love you both, I hope you have a great time together. Just don’t expect me to cover for you.”
“I don’t.” He laughed. “What’s Park going to do, fire us?”
“She might trade you for Bonnie Bain. Who is very eager to get on a wing, you know.”
“You now have my full attention,” said Clay.
Still, they shot through the blackness. Rachel sent Clay an opening chess move, and for a while they played chess. Clay pissed off Rachel by sneaking out of a sure trap and earning a draw, then doing it again. She then beat him mercilessly. But of course they were also watching the screens.
“Clay,” said Rachel, as he pushed his king pawn out into the dangers of their fourth game.
“Rachel,” said Clay at almost the same time, “I’m picking up something.”
“I am too,” said Rachel. “And I have a feeling it’s a thing.”