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6.

“Okay,” said Clay, “bear with me here. First off, this equipment.”

“Equipment?” replied Rachel. “Sorry. Bearing with.”

“Thanks. Anyway. Short version? Miners came here, big huge ships, zip into the system, chew through the asteroid belts, dig up the moons, then they get to the planet. They can’t do the whole planet like they did the asteroids, but they can dig these huge holes and get down to the good stuff maybe fifty or a hundred kilometers down, you know, the mantle or whatever. They open up the lower layers of the geology and even if it was solid or semi-solid under pressure, now it’s released and they are basically harvesting lava. Can you picture this?”

“No,” said Rachel.

“Well, no one really can until you see it and I hope we never see it. But I picture like big space ships, so big they’d make the colony ships look like Ghosts. I mean, they’re not just hauling a few hundred tons of platinum or iridium or something, they are hauling iron and manganese and nickel and you’d be hauling that by the cubic kilometer, don’t you think? I mean, you can see from the moon how much they were prepared to take out of here. They were doing this interstellar mining in a big ass way, whoever they were.”

“How do we know they didn’t live here? How do we know they weren’t natives, just using it themselves?”

“Do you see how big a mess they made of the place? Even Earthlings didn’t tear their own planet to shreds. Anyway, there’s not much infrastructure on the ground, is there? Just this stuff.” He waved at the wreckage. “It’s processing equipment, pumping equipment, I see stuff that looks like both. It’s not that old, either, maybe what, ten or twenty thousand years?”

“How do you—?” Rachel frowned, raised her eyebrows and punched some buttons on her sensor. Clay watched her, glad she had her helmet off so he could see it. She raised her eyebrows again, those black line eyebrows. “22,000 plus or minus 5500. ‘Kay.”

“So you see the bite marks?”

“Bite marks??”

“Bite marks.” She looked, raised her eyebrows again. He went on, “Miners finish up. How long to do all this? I’m guessing they worked fast. Maybe they spent five years on the planet. They had all kinds of ships up there, fighters, cruisers, freighters, whatever. Big ass mining ships. Tankers. Insulated frickin’ tankers to hold all the lava or whatever. I don’t know. Anyway, mouthholes remain at arms’ length till they’re finished, then when they leave, the mouthholes come swooping in to eat whatever they left, satellites—you notice the metal debris in orbit still? But there’s stuff down on the planet too. Tasty stuff. Mouthholes don’t dig atmosphere, of course they don’t—they’re built for outer space, way outer space. But too much tasty stuff to resist, and the atmosphere’s probably still pretty perturbed. It hasn’t all settled back into the low areas yet. So they start diving in, chomping, charging back out before they get too, I don’t know, oxygenated. Yeah, maybe they corrode in air, I bet they do. They’re escaping back to space and going, phew, made it, hate that stuff, that air stuff. You kind of get it?”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, her hips cocked in that sexy way only women seemed to have perfected. Rachel was very good at that. She said, “Weirdly enough, I do get it. So these three or so?”

“They chomped what they shouldn’t have chomped. Mouthholes don’t have much experience with gravity. They never played Jenga in their lives. They took the wrong bites and the whole thing came down on them, the whole whatever it was structure. They got trapped.”

Rachel took a long look at the victims, then looked Clay in the eye and said, “Okay. I believe that. So what does it tell us?”

“It tells us that this part of the galaxy is even more populated than we thought.”

“Well,” said Rachel, “you are a very observant guy.” She picked up a piece of plant, a weed stem that could have been a sort of flower, unless, that is, it was actually a fungal spore head or some sort of slow moving crinoid. “And do you observe anything else?”

“I observe that you think this is not the whole story.”

“No,” she said. “I don’t. I don’t know. Something about the life on this place—mosses, or flowers, or tiny trees—they don’t strike me as the apex of evolution in a limited ecosystem, like Algaeville was, more like the leftover after someone else had their own catastrophe, you know?”

“Is this all intuition? Or are you saying I should have made you a bouquet of those?”

“No, no,” she said, holding the grey-green weed at a safe distance. “Sniffing it might kill me for all I know. No, I’d just like to get back in my stinkin’ Ghost and have one more look around. Can we do that?”

“Sure,” said Clay, utterly relieved at having the old Rachel back, the Rachel for whom using her brain, problem solving and hypothesis testing, was a kind of foreplay. “Let’s get in space and make a survey, sexy lady.”

“That’s the way I like to hear you talk, hotness,” she replied.

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