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3.

The Greenland had been looking at the same thing. Soon the two freighters were decelerating in plain sight of one another, and the two fighter wings got together on the Tasmania for a quick planning session.

“Everyone has a slip of paper?” asked Park. Everyone nodded. “Okay. Celeste, draw the number for the Kuiper Belt patrol.”

Bouvier reached into the extra helmet and drew out a card. She held it up: 3. Vera and Timmis held up their threes, then did a half-hearted high five.

“Real exciting,” said Vera. “No life, no enemies.”

“Possibly one of those iridium-palladium plates,” said Timmis.

“Okay,” said Park. “Inner planets.” Bouvier reached in and pulled out a 2. She turned her slip of paper: a 2, the same as Tremblay. “Also terribly exciting,” said Park.

“Love me some hot asteroids,” said Tremblay.

“So what next?” asked Bouvier. “Outside patrol, or the live one?”

“Outside patrol,” said Park. “We’ll save the best for last.”

“One,” said Bouvier, holding up the card marked 1.

“Oh frickin’ A,” said Natasha. “I wanted the live one.”

“You’re with me,” said Bouvier. “I guess that leaves Rachel and Clay.”

“The terrestrial,” said Clay. He smiled at Rachel, who smiled back.

“I will pay either of you to trade with me,” said Natasha. “I don’t know what currency that would be in, but whatever. Name it.”

“I don’t think so,” said Clay. “Looking forward to dipping my feet in the ocean. But not my ghost.”

“Rachel?” asked Natasha. But Rachel just smiled slightly and waved her off.

“Come on,” said Bouvier, “I need to put my practically totally new fighter through her paces. And look on the bright side, we might get to fight some totally new alien species.”

“There’s that,” said Natasha.

Rachel and Clay dropped from the Tasmania’s bay and, simply by not decelerating, sped on ahead of the freighters. Behind them, Bouvier and Natasha were curving off toward the Oort cloud on “outer patrol,” and Vera and Timmis turned aside toward the Kuiper belt outside the orbit of the outer gas giant, while Su Park and Jane Tremblay mirrored Rachel and Clay on their way to the inner system.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Tremblay, while Rachel and Clay played an oddly silent game of chess. “If we colonize this system, why don’t we call it the Bluehorse System? For Jana?”

“I think that’s an excellent suggestion,” said Park. “Shall we bother to ask if anyone else agrees? Certainly let us not let the Captaincy think it has anything to say about it.”

“We can present it as a fait accompli,” said Clay. “Hey Rachel, what do you think?”

“It’s what I was thinking, actually,” said Rachel.

“And the next one could be the Vilya System,” said Clay, “and—!”

“Your move,” said Rachel.

Rachel and Clay skimmed into orbit over Bluehorse-3 and spent two hours taking pictures and scans from sixty kilometers up. The planet’s data looked absolutely smashing: the atmosphere was very breathable and not especially thick or thin, the water showed no signatures of poison and appeared to be home to some type of native plant-like life, the gravity was just a bit below Earth’s, the temperatures around the equator would have been warm for September in Maine at the highest, and the coldest nights around the equator would be just above freezing.

But the planet had a lot of personality, the way an old apartment might. And it appeared to have once, long ago, been lived in. They saw no surface ruins, but there were long straight lines of ancient roadway and gatherings of disturbance where these lines met from afar. Scans showed underground structures here and there looked like constructions. But nowhere on land seemed to have any form of life beyond lichen-like and moss-like mats of green and other colors. In fact, most of the land area was high desert, with the ocean and most of the waterways in broad, long-eroded rifts between the busted plates of plateau. The edges of these plates carried lines of mountains, many of them volcanic.

“No radioactivity,” said Rachel.

“None at all,” said Clay. “I had to check my sensors to see if they were working.”

“They were,” said Rachel.

“You’re Miss Talkative these days, aren’t you?”

“Clay,” she said, “actually? Yeah. I need to talk. I just would rather do it, you know, on a planet.”

“Okay, cool,” said Clay. “Because, yeah, there happens to be a planet down there.”

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