Clay and Rachel separated their bodies, then their fighters, and then they were curving apart around the dinky little system. They played SET as long as they were still reasonably close, and Rachel killed Clay repeatedly. She was not one to gloat, but winning clearly made her happy. They played chess once they were too distant for a game involving timing, and this time Clay did reasonably well, losing three, winning two and drawing six. Presently they were light hours apart and even chess became too cumbersome, and then they were on their own, conducting their own investigations.
Clay had not been all by himself in a long time. He had always been good at solitude, but now he found himself thinking about Rachel almost nonstop, thinking about her kisses and her smiles and her sweet words and how she had seemed quiet when he first met her but had turned out to be exuberant and interesting and intellectual and extravagantly curious. He also found himself wondering whether he had said the right thing, whether they had done the right thing, whether he had understood her correctly, thinking what she might have meant, thinking how else he might have interpreted every little thing she had said to him.
And he found himself thinking of Vera, of Natasha, remembering their embraces better than he might have expected. But his guilt did not extend very far in that direction: sure, they were quite beautiful and sexy, but Rachel was as beautiful and, to him, much sexier. Sure, he had made love to both of them, he had even been in love with both of them, but what he felt for Rachel was to what he had felt for Vera or Natasha like the Sun to Jupiter or Saturn.
Or so he thought. Or so it seemed when he thought he knew what Rachel thought. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Aside from a thin dust (perhaps Joseph Curwen had wound up here, thought Clay, who had been rereading his Lovecraft), there really was nothing to see, even out here in what would have been Neptune and Uranus territory in the system of Sol. Much further in, the ice planet gleamed dimly at roughly Earth distance. Inside that, the beat-up terrestrial, the volcano-bound molten, and the tightly bound ringed Jovian gazed in rapture at their little orange-pink sun. After Rachel and Clay rendezvoused on the far side of the system, they would see about those inner planets; perhaps they could even de-helmet and walk whatever Planet Three had for beaches. Perhaps he would get to see that mole, his favorite mole in the universe, en plein air.
And then he was off into another series of reveries, fantasies and paranoias, and then he was having a sleep period, and then he was awakening to the bing of a message from Rachel, and then he was watching her video and smiling, and then he was writing her a love note and sending a video of his own, which showed to her in no uncertain terms what her video did for him.
And then he was starting to bend toward the plaque, that amalgam of iridium and osmium and traces of palladium, orbiting like a tiny hexagonal planet, trailed by a very thin cloak of silicates. He slowed and slowed and presently he was gliding along next to the thing taking 3D pictures and recording readings. He was soon done, but he couldn’t resist popping his hatch and putting his gloved hands on it: those odd little designs, letters perhaps, most in cartouches, some flying solo around the edges of the others. Both sides.
As Clay looked at it, though, he realized that the two sides were different. The obverse, as he thought of it, was heavily lettered just like the other plaques, the ones at Gliese 163 and Candy One and 55 Cancri. The reverse, like the side of the 55 Cancri plaque which he and Vera had retrieved—55 Cancri, where he had been in love with Vera Santos—the reverse was not without lettering but was dominated by nested regular polygons, ranging from a smallish hexagon out through a dozen larger polygons with many more sides, until the outermost looked almost like a circle, tangent to the six edges of the plaque. And the central hexagon had silicate matrix attached to it still, also known as dirt.
“That is where it was attached to,” he said to himself, “attached to, well, whatever it was attached to.” But by the time he finished enunciating those thoughts, he was staring off into space. “Huh,” he said, but nothing wiser came out, so presently he added, “why wasn’t there a plaque at Bluehorse?”
But he had no answer. He was sure there wasn’t a plaque there, he was sure that they had not simply missed it.
So Clay said goodbye and began curving away toward the other side of the system and the rendezvous point in the lee of a kilometer-wide methane ice ball. And he started looking for Rachel’s ghost, and he saw it, now just three light hours away, curving toward the same place.
And then with a bump and a burst of energy, something was happening near her or to her. Something had come from somewhere or from nowhere, something small and dark, and while she flew on, her last transmission was a half second of static cut short, and now Rachel’s ghost was tumbling as it flew on in a straight line.
“Rachel,” called Clay. After some seconds he called again, “Rachel, Rachel, come in.” He kept trying, knowing that it would be hours yet before she replied even if, even if, even if she could. “Dang it, Rachel,” he said to himself, really, “what the hell.”