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Clay Gilbert did not have sex with another person for several weeks. Padfoot was fairly friendly to him, which was good because she was helping him to rebuild his fighter; Li Zan smiled at him, but she was sitting with, sashaying with, chatting in low voices with lots of giggling with, or dancing with Timmis Green. Rachel was not talking to anyone; Natasha seemed to have exhausted the set of things she wanted to talk to Clay about; Jane Tremblay was just plain too scary. That was also true, now he thought about it, of Bonnie Bain. The Bain woman distressed him for reasons he could barely compute. Did she want his body? If she did, then was that wrong because he still thought he could salvage his relationship with Natasha, or because he was afraid of winding up in a relationship with the Bain woman, or because he didn’t consider her worthy of his attentions because, in some corner of his unconscious mind, she wasn’t really a fighter pilot, or what?

Vera was talking to him at least, but clearly talking was now the level on which their relationship sat. Perhaps she was afraid of being considered sluttish, but he was pretty sure she had not made love to more male fighter pilots than he had females. It made him wonder whether he was considered sluttish.

But with communication with his own species at a standstill, Clay, along with Rachel and Natasha and Vera and Timmis Green, threw himself into the question of how to communicate with the aliens on Candy One’s fifth planet.

The freighter captains, Alfred Kalkar and Maya Nilsstrom, were understandably not as interested in that, or in the socio-romantic difficulties among fighter pilots, as they were in what to make of the loss of the Corsica. The eight rescued crew members were distributed between the Tasmania and the Greenland, and one of the Corsica mechanics, Poto Wall, was assigned to fixing fighters on Tasmania. He immediately started a very cute romance with the lovely Padfoot. It didn’t stop them or anyone else from working: Kalkar was the sort of boss who didn’t care what you did as long as you did what he needed and didn’t cause problems.

By the time the colony ships were due, the crews of the anchor freighters had landed on the outer planetoid and tossed up a sort of town hall next to the fighter pilots’ tent. They brought in portable food processors and set up some furniture and there was where people ate pseudo-food and got drunk while discussing the problem of communicating with the aliens.

And the time the colony ships began to appear, all twelve fighters were in service. They were, as Vera had predicted, better than new, with especial attention paid to upgrades in what were now admitted to be combat systems. “We should add a new mechanical laser,” said Padfoot. “The old one’s a frickin’ photon cannon now.”

“Next upgrade,” said Su Park.

Beta and Gamma Wings were assigned to go out and escort the giant ships in. Word had it that major debates were going on all over all three colony ships as to whether this was or was not the place. Clay heard about it as he and Park headed back from Four to Five. At Four, they had done a more thorough appraisal of living conditions and concluded that, no, one would not want to raise one’s children and grandchildren there. At Five, they were planning on joining Rachel and Natasha gawking at the alien hold.

“Clay,” came the message from Vera from ten light hours out, “whatever you guys are writing up in the way of executive summaries, please underline and bold face the parts about how both Four and Five are too radioactive to live on. The colonists are pretty anxious to stay here, but that’s only because they think living here is safer than flying to the next place. But honestly, except for Ally Schwinn, the captains have zero idea how to deal with their colonists. God damn Caterin Mark, she can’t open her mouth without saying something that offends some of the colonists. And her mission admin, Plame, he’s like, who was that guy in that video? Darth Vader? That’s who he reminds me of. He’ll be lucky if they don’t march on his bunk-up with torches and pitchforks.”

“Open flames aren’t allowed in the passageways,” Clay said to himself, admiring how well she had chosen how far to unzip her vac suit.

“The others aren’t much better, and Trein has already staked himself to the position that we should carpet bomb the aliens on Five, that was the exact terminology he used. Oh, the linguists would like you to find just one more of those lovely plaques. Remember our flight back at Cancri? Good times.”

“Yeah,” said Clay to himself. “Every minute of it, actually, thanks for mentioning it.”

“So the evidence has to be crystal clear. Oh. The moons of Three? You might mention that they’re all just as molten as Three itself, and that they’re all bathed in jets of natural radiation from the red dwarf. If you don’t flesh it out for these people they’ll let their imaginations get busy with any object in the system.”

“Vera,” Clay said to himself, “I checked that myself. Believe me, the first thing they would notice if they landed on one of the moons of Three would be their livestock cooking on the hoof.”

Vera was looking behind her. “Captain Schwinn is holding another session,” she said. “It’s useless arguments but it does keep them cooled down. I’m going to bed.” She gave him a very cute little smile and the video ended.

Yes, Clay would want to be going to bed too, with Vera. No, he didn’t see how it was leading to anything. Yes, he was sure Natasha would be very hurt, even though no, Natasha didn’t seem to consider them to be an item anymore, and no, he did not want to do anything to hurt her. Yes, Clay was sick of relationships. He sighed. He supposed that now, approaching 150 or whatever, he was ready for a real relationship.

“Clay, you have never had a successful relationship in your life, have you?” Natasha had asked. Well, maybe he hadn’t, but he was ready for one now.

Clay dropped down behind Park and landed on that same highland, next to the fighters of Rachel and Natasha. He got out and walked over to join them and the four of them stood there, gazing in magnification at two aliens out doing maintenance on their anti-aircraft weapon.