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8.

Parthon was not the President of Gliese 581 or anything near that, but after several more rounds of tea, and without further messaging, she stood up and announced, “It’s time.”

“What?” Clay babbled, but Parthon’s followers all got up and the whole gang shambled back down the stairs and out into the square. There Clay fidgeted for a few minutes while Parthon conferred and joked around with a few old ladies, and then up roared three ATVs, and out of the middle one, Rachel was pushed. To Clay’s relief, Rachel did not flop on the ground inert, but rolled neatly to her feet and dusted her vac suit off. She looked around: she had her helmet off, hanging behind her. Her eyes fell on Clay like an eagle spotting a squirrel far from its home tree.

They were put in an ATV belonging to Parthon, and, escorted by two more ATVs, one of which was driven by Relien, they were taken out to their Ghosts. Rachel had her helmet up and she could perfectly well have talked on private line with Clay just by touching him, but she did not.

He knew what that meant. She was mad at him. He didn’t know exactly what he should have done differently, but it was suddenly clear to him that all his actions since their landing here were of dubious wisdom at best. He also did not know what to do to get out of deficit with Rachel. He reflected that he had never known how to do that, not with any woman, although really, his deficits with Rachel had all been far deeper than those with, say, Wendy or whatever her name had been, and it was only Rachel he really felt the strong need to get his debts paid off with.

Perhaps Parthon knew what was going on between the two pilots, but all she said was, “Go check around and come back and we’ll talk.”

“Okey doke, uh, roger that, yes,” babbled Clay.

Rachel was forced to utter a few words as they got into their Ghosts, hovered up and took off. They got into orbit, and her Ghost, a few hundred meters away, seemed to be steaming with brooding anger. The data she sent seemed sarcastic and her graph colors struck him as a bit rude. He sent only the most reassuringly colored charts and tables back, but he kept the commentary to a minimum.

The data were certainly suggestive.

Clay made note of the gauge of the debris in orbit around Gliese 581d. In effect, the largest moons of the planet were chunks of twisted composite material the size of garbage cans. There was not really a whole lot of debris—not enough, for instance, to make a decent moon, or a decent set of rings. “No,” he said in a low voice, “just about enough to make a decent set of satellites.”

“What?” Rachel challenged him. Clay wasn’t sure if he knew he’d left his comm on, or not. He wouldn’t have put it past himself to do so without thinking about it, as a way for his subconscious brain to reach out to her. What the hell. Clay was born in 2301. By some ways of reckoning, he was over two and a half centuries old. He wasn’t sure he was ready to grow up yet.

“Rachel,” said Clay, swallowing the feeling that he was trying to distract an angry and indignant school administrator, “this stuff was the satellite system.”

She was silent. Then she said flatly, “What makes you think so?”

“Rachel. Circumstantial evidence. Add up all this debris, and you have oh, twenty, thirty little satellites. And the one thing there isn’t is solid metal. There’s composite, but it’s like a ceramic composite, it’s not like, you know, what spaceships are made of. And there is no iron. Not one bit of iron or steel.”

Again that moment of silence. Then she said, “And what else?”

He smirked. Yes, the official facial expression of Alpha Wing. He was looking at his rubble pictures: here was the biggest piece, one of the garbage can size pieces, a twisted clump of composite orbiting in the midst of an almost geostationary cloud of blackish powder over the equator. A close-up showed the base of a metallic stalk still embedded in it.

“Well,” he said, “how about bite marks?”

An even longer silence. Then she said, “Okey dokey, not like we should be surprised. And you know what else we shouldn’t be surprised by?”

“What’s that, Rachel?”

“The fact that I’m picking up osmium and iridium out in the Oort cloud.”

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