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7.

Clay woke up in a bunk in the station by himself, and realized that what had woken him, from very nasty confused dreams, was the click of the latch closing behind Rachel. He rolled over and drifted back into sleep, but the dreams were no better. He woke again, hung over and with a horrible taste in his desert-like mouth. He thought about it for a bit, then he sat up and banged his head on the metal ceiling of the bunk. Drifting between ceiling and bedding, he found the latch and opened the door.

“Hey, hubby-licious,” said Rachel, standing there in his favorite of her costumes, holding a handle with her left hand, combing out her wet hair with her right. “Shower’s a real treat.”

“They have a shower?” he asked somewhat stupidly.

“Right through there.”

When he next caught up with her, she was just sitting down to breakfast with three young women and an older man who could only have been a space mechanic. Clay was quite presentable, even shaven, though his hair was a bit long. His suit normally took care of shaving and showering him, but the shower, shooting water at him from all directions, had indeed been a treat. Breakfast was some sort of eggy concoction with things in it that looked like potato. And there was coffee.

“Darling,” said Clay, “I’ll snip your hair if you’ll snip mine.”

“Ar,” said one of the young women. “We got barbers, ya know.”

“I’ll trust them if you do,” said Rachel. “Now Clay, these young ladies want to be fighter pilots. And this gentleman—!”

“Wants to build them fighters,” said Clay.

“It’s more than just that,” said Rachel. “You see, it’s terribly romantic, in a sense. This is Mr Glees, and these two are his daughters, they’re Andrea Glees and Susa Kelly, their mom was named Kelly. She was one of those killed.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” said Clay.

“Well,” said the young woman with the badge that said KELLY, “this is how we would be handling this. It’s all right, Da?”

“It will be all right,” said the old guy. He looked Clay in the eye. “I can build any craft I can take apart, but I have to see its insides before I can build it. You get me?”

Clay gave him a long look, actually quite taken aback once the nature of the request was quite taken in. “Well,” said Clay at last, “all right. I am willing to let you make a copy of my Ghost.” He took a drink of coffee. “But,” he said to the wall, “I shall be most ticked off if you can’t get it back together again.”

The two fighter pilots smiled around at each other, and old Mr Glees and his daughters, and their friend whose name, apparently, was HELLE, exchanged serious looks. “All right,” said Rachel, “all according to plan. So Clay, if you’re wondering what you’re going to do while Mr Glees is making copies and I am trying to train these three young ladies—!”

“You have a plan for me. So surprised.”

“I don’t,” she said. “But Court left me a note for you.” She handed him an actual, honest to Goddess little card.

“Lidzey?” Clay read off the card.

“Husband and wife,” said Rachel. “Linguists.”

The Lidzeys met Clay over more coffee in a room that was a cross between a university library reading room and a grain silo. They had the platinum disks floating in a narrow space over a table and under a glass sheet, and they projected magnified versions of the same disks on the walls.

“How old did you say these were?” asked Mrs Lidzey.

“Our estimate,” said Clay, “was 64 million years.”

“Well,” said Mr Lidzey, “there was a species which rose and fell with the dinosaurs on bloody old Earth.”

“Do tell the story,” said Clay.

“There’s not much to tell, or there’s a lot,” said Mr Lidzey. “This was their whole story, though I can’t say we’ve figured out more than a percent or two of it. We don’t know what they looked like, we don’t know what their world was like. But we do know how they fell.”

“How did they fall? Did they destroy themselves?”

“Not really,” said Mrs Lidzey. “They left a lot of images. We haven’t got the entire hang of their language, but their image files, we can translate those. And here is what we get.” She hit a button on her tablet and projected on the wall was a picture of space, a space of stars and a nearby moon. The image began to move, things swooping through and chewing and disappearing.

“Goodness,” said Clay. “Mouthholes.”

“There’s no doubt about it,” said Mr Lidzey. “I don’t know if they could be wiped out by mouth, as you say, holes, but the things certainly seem to have played a central role in their demise.”

A vast spaceship hove into view, a magnificent battlecruiser surrounded by cruisers and shuttles and fighters, and then the swarm of locusts descended on them, and in a few minutes they were reduced to wreckage. Then different spaceships swept in, black and gleaming and non-metallic, and laid low the cities of the planet.

“This is their final statement,” said Mrs Lidzey. “It’s their farewell. The black ships were their enemies. The mouth, um, holes just turned the odds.”

“Any idea who they were, those black ships?” asked Clay.

“We can only keep studying,” said Mr Lidzey. “We have historians, linguists, ethnographers. May we keep the platinum disks? We will of course provide you with the full image set.”

“Oh, sure,” said Clay. “It’s fine.” He watched the last of the cities on the planet destroyed. Whatever the black ships were, they were not Ngugma: they swept away, leaving the last survivors to die on that moon where the platinum plates were left. They did not stay and mine the place: no, they settled for mere genocide, whoever they were. “It’s funny,” he said after a moment. “These black ships. Their people are probably long gone as well. The mouthholes survive.”

“The mouthholes survive,” said Mrs Lidzey. “What about the humans?”

“That is the question,” said Clay.

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