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4.

“Clay,” said Rachel. “Wake up.”

“What? What?” He shook it off. He was still quite groggy, but he forced himself to examine the readouts. “What the?”

“Oh, nothing’s wrong, Clay. I just wanted to talk.” She smiled at him and shrugged, which would have been sexy just in being a complete relief, but in this particular case, with the colored lights and gleams of the screens reflecting on her naked skin, it was beyond sexy and almost to ridiculous.

“Oh, good,” he managed to say.

“Clay,” she said seriously, “do you feel the need for coffee or a smoke before you reassure me?”

“Yes,” he said, “both.”

So they made her ship create a latte to share, and they made his ship produce a couple of bubbles of the smoke of cannabis. A minute later, he was leaning back into his cushions and she was using him for cushions. She half turned on him and kissed him.

“You look pretty relaxed,” she said.

“I’m not going to be really relaxed,” he said, “until you tell me what you want to talk to me about. You woke me from a, a—!”

“Clay,” she said, “did I wake you from a strange dream?”

“Yeah,” he said. “You and I were riding horses. Like, in the Middle Ages. There was a war on, I think, but there was like radioactive—I don’t know—wait, I’m sorry, Rachel, what was your dream?”

“Well,” said Rachel, “we got back to Earth and it had been taken over by wasps. Or something. Giant freaking wasps. We managed to hide, and then eventually we came out into this big city, it was like New York in the bad old days from the films, actually it was like the New York you’d see in all the romantic comedies. We kept seeing people but then we’d get up close to them and they’d turn out to be dead. People just rotted before our eyes.”

“You mean like zombies? Were the wasps still after us?”

“Clay.”

“Rachel. I’m listening. I’m definitely not judging. I get that this was scary. I get that you can’t even put into words how scary it was.”

“Sorry, Clay. No one was after us. People weren’t zombies. They were just dead. We kept thinking we were about to meet someone alive, they’d be waving at us, but it would turn out they were just sort of waving in the wind, and then they’d fall down and break into pieces and rot away before our eyes. I felt dirtier and dirtier.”

“And I bet I was no help.”

“At least you didn’t rot.” She pulled up her glove-less vac suit sleeve, unzipped it at the wrist, turned it inside out, and started using it to swab her skin clean, not that she was actually dirty. “Sorry,” she said when she realized what she was doing. She ran it over her front, and Clay smirked at her lovely and newly clean chest. “Just felt dirty,” she said, smiling.

“It wasn’t silly,” said Clay. “It was scary. We’re going home, we’re almost there, but we know that everyone we know is going to be long gone. Dead. That’s what you were dreaming.”

She took a long drink of their cup of joe, then half burped and said, “That would pretty well explain it. We’ve lived, what, a year, fifteen months, since we left Earth? But when we get back it’ll be what, 240 years later? 250?”

“Maybe you’re just getting your big ol’ brain around the idea that you’re stuck with me for the rest of your life.”

“Maybe,” she said as huskily as she could. “No, Clay, don’t get all hurt on me. You’re stuck with me too. The only person left who remembers that reggae band at Le Pub Zoot.”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Now explain my dream. Why horses? And why no Black Plague? Why radioactivity?”

“Was I your princess and you my shining knight?”

“No,” said Clay, “we were traveling mercenaries or something. I don’t remember the gist of it. Someone woke me.”

“Sorry.” She kissed him. “So what do you think we’ll see? What do you think will be waiting for us? Zombies? A fascist dictatorship?”

“Maybe they’ll throw us in the lockup,” said Clay. “I don’t know. I can at least say that for sure.” He pushed a few lit spots on the screen, and then slid a few shapes around. A window opened showing a schematic of a system. Four blobby planets circled a yellow star. Far within the orbit of the largest and innermost of these, four little rocky planets circled too, one of them with a big rocky moon. Between the big blobs and the little rocks, a belt of littler rocks turned. Far outside, a few dozen more chunks of icy rock slowly moved along highly elliptical or highly slanted paths. Clay gestured at the diagram, poked and shifted it, but didn’t say anything. He shrugged.

“I don’t know either,” said Rachel. “It’s bugging the crap out of me. But we’ll find out. In about two more days.”

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