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6.

Rachel and Clay debated, in what seemed to Clay a mild and noncommittal way, the tactics of exploring the system before them. The piece of iridium and osmium, identifiable now even at a distance of five billion kilometers as consistent with a regular hexagon 1.3 meters on a side, orbited in an ellipse between 1.3 and 2.5 billion kilometers out, nowhere near any sizeable object.

“It’s not the pattern we saw before,” said Rachel. “It’s loose in space, if I’m reading this right, not attached to anything, much less something that has another thing one fifth its mass and one fifth of an orbit ahead of it.”

“No,” said Clay, “it’s not the pattern we saw what, three times already, but that’s easy to explain if the miners were here after the plaque-makers.”

“So,” said Rachel, “that’s weird. Okay. Commander Park’s protocol for us exploring this system was going to be that we, um, separate and each take half the circle at ten billion kilometers. We could do that and then swing back to pick up the plaque, or the person who does that could just swing through and pick up the plaque, or we could just take pictures of it, and then rendezvous for exploring the inner system, or we could stick together and say the heck with Commander Park’s protocol.”

“Not to her face, of course,” said Clay.

“She won’t know for 180 years either way,” said Rachel. “But of course if you feel like it would be better to separate—?”

“It’s not my preference,” said Clay carefully, “but it would at least be quicker.”

“It would,” said Rachel. “So is that what you want to do?”

“I said it wasn’t my preference. Is it what you want to do?”

“You said it would be quicker.”

The conversation went on lazily with several pauses and a few side tracks about items of interest in the data—there were some larger objects among the dust of the old asteroid belt, but they were made of water ice or methane ice; the star, though small and old, did not seem very stable and emitted about ten percent more gamma rays than would be expected; the Ghosts’ new engines were purring away still even after their record-breaking exertions.

“Well,” said Rachel, “we have no reason to expect a problem even if we do separate. No signs of life. No mouthholes, no Primoids. Just old abandoned mines.”

“We hope they’re abandoned,” said Clay. “Or whoever it is, they’re lying low.”

“Something to think about, I guess,” said Rachel. “Along with all the other things we can think about. Like, um, legions of them, isn’t that what you said? About whatever we—well, saw, or didn’t see, at 99.99998 percent.”

“Or didn’t see. Rachel, how nervous are you? About that?”

“Just the usual amount,” she replied. “Safest to be a little nervous, I guess. And, you know, expect the unexpected, ha ha.” Clay didn’t say anything, so Rachel concluded, “Might as well obey Commander’s orders.”

“I’ll pick up the plaque, if you want,” said Clay.

“Just take readings and leave it. We don’t need to carry it all the way to Earth.”

“They might find it interesting,” said Clay. “Or, of course, it might be infected with some weird alien virus or something! And destroy all life on Earth!”

“Ha,” said Rachel. “Like I say, just take measurements and pictures and leave it.”

The desultory tete-a-tete continued for a while, and devolved into desultory, then exhilarating, lovemaking. Finally they were pulling their vac suits on and getting ready to separate.

“You sure you want to do it this way?” asked Rachel.

“I said it wasn’t my preference,” said Clay. “But Commander’s orders.”

“Et cetera,” said Rachel. She kissed him, then zipped up the front of her suit. She smiled her little smile at the way his face darkened by ten percent when her breasts disappeared. “Ready to initiate separation?”

“Sure,” said Clay, still not sure if he wasn’t making some romantic tactical error. “Hey, we won’t ever be more than twenty light hours apart.”

“Let’s pull that orbit in to three billion kay em. That would make max separation just six light hours.” She smiled and kissed him. “Isn’t that better?”

“Definitely,” he said, and they had another little kiss, then pulled each other together in a tight embrace.

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