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6.

Clay and Rachel were shooting through space near but not attached to one another, accelerating at full toward a chunk of rocky ice about the size of a soccer pitch and the shape of a cylindrical pill. It orbited at the near edge of Candy One’s Kuiper belt. The system kept its largest planets close to the star, so the outer belts were rather neatly ordered. Clay had no trouble picking out the object and its orbital companion from many hours away.

“So Rachel,” he said after she finished beating him the first game of chess, “you figure these guys put that thing there so that someone like you would notice and be able to find it.”

“I guess that’s the conclusion,” she replied. “It’s eerie. Right?”

“There are a lot of things that are eerie,” Clay replied. “There’s a civilization that got wiped out so long ago we’re not even sure there was complex life on Earth yet. There’s a species of spaceship-eating gangster bowling balls. There’s an alien race that shoots but doesn’t talk. There’s someone who put up signs on all the star systems. Two could still be a coincidence, but if we find another one now, in the same type of place, then that qualifies as eerie. Oh, and by the way, there’s also the France, remember the France?”

“I assumed that was mouthholes,” said Rachel, “but that’s rather post hoc ergo propter hoc, wouldn’t you say?”

“Sure,” said Clay. “So if every star system has a plaque, then would it be weird to think that Earth might have a plaque?”

“Ours would be a warning label,” said Rachel. “Another game of chess?”

Two sleep times, four hours of simulator work and ten serious chess games later—Clay won one and drew four—they were curving to the left to come in behind the object in question, and decelerating hard.

“And guess what,” said Rachel.

“I’m picking it up too,” said Clay. “Iridium and palladium.”

“Okay, Muscles, let’s go in and put you to work.”

The work wasn’t that difficult, however. As with the other two, by some sorcery this plaque, 1.3 meters long, sat on the surface, on its own little pillar of uneroded strata. The rest of the planetoid lay under a blanket of dust but the plaque lay above it all, clean as the day it was laid, aside from a thin veneer of hard-frozen ice. Clay and Rachel managed to pry it loose and then they secured the thing to the outside of Clay’s Ghost for the flight home. They took off and charted a course for the colony ships, orbiting between the fourth and fifth planets, and played chess.

“It seems weird,” said Clay as he fought for a draw in their third game, “just going out there and taking these things back with us. I really thought about just taking a picture of it this time.”

“But,” said Rachel.

“But the record might not all be visual, if you get my drift,” said Clay.

“Yeah, and the composition of the plaques might tell us something, it might be a signal on its own, you know, thinking of the way they put the plaques on just such and such a planetoid, I’d guess they might tinker with the metal composition of these things a little and that might encode information somehow. And anyway, we want to know everything we can. I mean, we can put them back later. Clay?”

“Rachel,” he said, “I’m picking up stuff coming into the system.”

“I got that too, actually,” said Rachel. “Well, we’re all accounted for, and it’s too big to be mouthholes. And it’s coming from the opposite direction from Earth. Clay, this is concerning me. What do you think—?”

“I haven’t a clue,” said Clay. “But I don’t think it’s the France.”

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