So they left their Ghosts sitting above the tide line, above the mats of wet green stuff and among the mats of dry, powdery green stuff. At first they walked the tide line itself, south under the sun of noon as the ocean rolled on their left. Clay attempted to make chit chat about the weather.
“Lovely patterns in the clouds,” he said. “I wonder what causes them. I suppose there’s a different dynamic up high enough for the winds to pass right over the plateaus from down here in the rifts. Those high cirrus—they’re not like cirrus clouds on Earth but they’re definitely what you’d call cirrus. And these down below are like stratus and cumulus, but again, they don’t look exactly the same, so I wonder what the dynamics are.” He looked at Rachel, who was walking along smiling vaguely at her footsteps. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel, not looking up at the lovely clouds.
“Not much for tides,” he said. “I’d make it maybe a few meters up the beach, that can’t be more than a few centimeters vertically, right? But it’s quite a tiny moon.” He looked up. The little moon was white against the blue-purple just above the horizon to the southeast. “I wonder if the Sun doesn’t have more effect than the moon,” he muttered, but Rachel had nothing to say on the matter.
They went on a little further, and now Clay could see the distant cliffs where to the west where the nearest plateau rose. “I know it’s volcanic,” he said. “But do you think it has plate tectonics? I don’t think they have to occur together. I mean, look at Mars.”
“No, they don’t,” said Rachel.
“Olympus Mons is so big exactly because there’s volcanism, or there was, but there wasn’t plate movement, so the same volcano just got bigger and bigger, unlike the Hawaiian chain where the same volcano punched new holes and made new islands as the plate moved. I always thought that was cool. I took a couple of geology classes in school.” He looked at Rachel. “I’m not just some dumb freight shuttle jock, you know.”
“Clay,” said Rachel irritably, “I never thought you were just some—!” She stopped. “Sorry. Obviously you didn’t think I thought you were—!” She rolled her eyes at herself and started off again, leaving Clay to catch up.
“Rachel,” he said as he came up beside her. “What is going on?”
Rachel stopped and looked around, up, out over the water as if checking the weather. Then all of a sudden she was taking off her vac suit. Before Clay could react, Rachel was stepping out of her black plastic skin, which she folded up and put on a rock in the sun to recharge. She was buck naked. She crossed his path to get to the water, and there she stood, her feet in a couple of centimeters of surf, her eyes gazing out to sea and up to the thin clouds, the sun shining on that interesting mole just above her butt.
“That feels so much better,” she said to the sea. She turned and smiled at Clay. “Trust me,” she said. “It feels better.”
Better than what, he wanted to ask, but he didn’t. It certainly looked like it felt better. She was no more tan than he was after months in space and seemingly millions of unbroken hours in a vac suit, but her skin was naturally a little dark, as was his: not like Natasha, who could probably sunburn from moonlight. Natasha was the furthest thing from Clay’s mind: he was still studying that mole, and its environs.
“Aren’t you going to?” she asked. That official Alpha Wing smirk was on her face: surely a good sign. “Don’t you trust me?”
“The wisdom of Ginny Weasley,” Clay muttered.
“What? Harry Potter ref?”
“Yeah,” he said. Hardly capable of tearing his eyes away from that mole, or its environs, Clay unzipped his own suit, stepped out of it, folded it up and put it next to hers. The sand was warm and moist and fine-grained; the breeze was cool in a good way; the thin spray floated in the air from some under-surface rocks. It felt great. “Okay,” he said, “now that we’ve got that out of the way, shall we walk and talk?”
So they walked and walked, but they hardly talked at all. For quite a while Rachel was locked into her own thoughts, and Clay, having Y chromosomes, had no way of knowing what those thoughts might be. He was pretty sure she wasn’t mad at him in particular: their mode of dress had been her idea and that seemed to indicate against her being angry.
After several kilometers Rachel stopped suddenly, looked at Clay, then turned to the sea. She stepped forward into it until it was up to her knees, the wave crests rising to splash her belly. She looked down and said, with her first words in half an hour, “Think there’s fish?”
“Who knows? Maybe leeches.”
She looked at him, then grinned: no creature here could possibly be dependent on H. sapiens for its nourishment. She stepped forward until she was up to her waist, the crests splashing her quite small breasts, which she defended with her hands more out of chill than modesty. She laughed the nervous laugh of cold water. “No leeches,” she called over her shoulder. “Try it!”
So he did. They played in the surf, they swam, they dunked under, they opened their eyes underwater. It was a bit salty, but not like oceans of Earth. Clay, in the blue-green water, kept having to remind himself he wasn’t off Acadia: he kept pinching himself to be sure he got that he was on another planet, in another solar system, in an ecosystem that had evolved entirely on its own, with unknown, possibly Cambrian-style creatures. And he was cavorting in the waves with Rachel Andros. And her mole. They laughed and splashed each other and giggled and came out exhausted and lay on their backs looking at the sky, absorbing the sunlight.
When they got up, the Sun was clearly a little lower in the sky. “We’d better go back,” said Rachel.
“Yeah,” said Clay.
All the way back up the beach, they hardly talked. It seemed like Rachel, naked, was constantly on the verge of saying something, and Clay, who was not a complete idiot about women, kept respectfully quiet while he waited. Finally they saw ahead of them their vac suits, folded up and happily recharging in the sunlight, unmolested by alien fungi-arthropods or whatever.
“Clay,” said Rachel, as she picked up her suit by the shoulders and shook it out.
“Dang it,” she said. “Message light.” She pulled on just the helmet, and he unfolded his suit and held his right ear to inside the right ear of his own helmet.
“Andros, Gilbert,” came Su Park’s voice, “get your butts out here. The colony ships are coming in and they’ve got a problem.”