I. A Place Between
There was a ceremony: the Bluehorse colonies were developing the habit of ceremony. This one was held at the landing site of the Argentina, whose captain, Ted Trein, had always struck Clay as obnoxious. He agreed with Rachel that landing on a planet had been good for Captain Trein, who was turning into the sort of elder statesman who kissed babies while lending a sense of decorum to the deliberations of the colonists’ democratic assembly. His speech, on a cool day of thin high clouds, was short and gracious if a bit clumsy.
“I know we all harbor happy memories of good old Earth,” he said, “but these two are going to actually go see the damn place.” He smiled and seemed to fumble for words, and then all of a sudden wiped tears off the right side of his face. He got control of himself, looked at Rachel and Clay and said, “Behave yourselves, you two, okay? You’re representing the Bluehorse System!”
Then there was another party, through a nice afternoon, with beer and wine and root beer, and salad and ice cream and protein in various forms, and soccer and frisbee and some sort of baseball and swimming in the Argentina colony’s big lake. And then there was an even larger party, with representatives from all four colonies, but the guests of honor slipped away for a walk by the lake and a brief, very close kiss in the shade of a boulder.
“Thought we’d find you here,” said Natasha as Rachel and Clay finished kissing and caught their breath.
“Crap, Natasha,” said Rachel.
“It was my idea,” said Vera. “Blame me. Look, you guys.”
“This is about us being apart, right?” said Clay.
“Yes. This is about us being apart, damn it.” She glared at them, dark and shining in the dim light of the little white moon, her dark eyes disappearing into holes in the night. They were all in their vac suits, their helmets deflated behind their heads. They had all acquired possessions in their weeks turning to months on the planet, but they had all they really needed or wanted with them or in their fighters. They all could have been in space in minutes.
“You’re going to be on your own,” said Natasha. “We’ve been together straight through, the three of us, and Vera most of the time. Ever since the Moon. Now we’re not together. That means—!”
“I had this talk with Clay before the last battle,” said Rachel. “He was not allowed to die in battle. We agreed that I was not allowed to either. We had to keep the colony ships in one piece, and make sure you guys were all right, but neither of us was allowed to die. So.”
“So,” said Vera, “let’s just say we extend this to the four of us, okay?”
“Agreed,” said Rachel. She looked at Clay: they all did.
“Agreed,” said Clay.
Natasha stuck out her hand, pale in the moon’s thin bright light. “Swear on it.”
“Make,” said Rachel, “the unbreakable vow.”
“Ah,” said Vera, “Harry Potter reference. Nice.”
Clay put his hand on Natasha’s, palm down on the back of her hand. “I swear.”
“I swear,” said Vera, adding her hand.
“I swear,” said Rachel, putting hers on top, the smallest of the four small hands of the four small humans on a small planet in the light of a small moon. “Tash, you didn’t swear.”
“I swear,” said Natasha, “that I will complete my mission and return to this planet and find you again. I swear that Vera will be with me. I swear that we will live through it and I swear that the four of us will meet again. Good enough?”
“I swear on my mother’s memory,” said Clay.
“Me too,” said Rachel. “My mom,” said Vera.
“Yes,” said Natasha, thinking through the black memory of her childhood. “I swear on my mother’s memory.” She laughed dryly. “None of us will ever see our mothers again. But we will see each other.”
“I will see my mother again only in memory,” said Clay. “I will see you two again in the light of this little moon.”
“Sworn,” said Rachel and Vera together. They laughed.
There they stood in the moonlight, their hands stacked up. They laughed a little more, then they pulled their hands apart. “Well,” said Clay, “all right. That’s settled.”
“Just about,” said Vera. “Now all we have to do is keep our oaths.”
In the dawn, after drinking and romancing themselves to a decent amount of sleep, Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert got up, took a final briefing with Su Park and Captain Kalkar and Captain Schwinn and Alice Grohl at Jalis’s café. Each had sent files of instructions but needed to give verbal appendices as well.
“We have a lot to educate them about,” said Schwinn, “whoever’s running Earth these days, so they can go make some more colonies. We may be the first one to succeed.”
“Can we trade with them? That’s what I want to know,” said Kalkar.
“We need to know what Earth thinks our legal and political situation is,” said Grohl. “Do they think we’re a territory or something? Do they imagine they can tell us what to do at a distance of ninety plus light years? I hope they don’t, and if they do, we need to disabuse them.”
“Watch for mouthholes,” said Park. “Watch for Primoids. Watch for all the other things we haven’t seen yet.”
Then they got up, shook hands and headed out onto the open plaza before the Canada. A crowd of some hundreds were gathered around, laughing and milling and drinking their morning coffee and gawking at the pint-size celebrity alien killers in front of them. The two pilots, in a small pack of pilots, moved toward the two Ghost-201s sitting open. Tasmania’s chief mechanic, Patricia “Padfoot” Hixon, stood there with her underling Gene Bell, shipbuilder and director of the Canada colony’s high school band.
“We tweaked the tweaks you requested,” said Bell. “Now you’ve tested our improvements and we re-improved the improvements, you should be good for a couple centuries travel.”
“And you should be setting speed records,” said Padfoot. “Gene’s had some ideas, and so did Poto and Matt and Alicia, so we might get you to the next place in oh, eight to ten days this time.”
“Eight to ten days? To cover thirty plus light years?” said Rachel.
“Sure, to you,” said Padfoot.
“Don’t push it the first time,” said Bell. “99.99998% will be plenty. Next time you can go for seven or eight nines.”
“Are we going to see you when we get back?” asked Clay.
“We should be about your age still,” said Padfoot. “Tasmania’s going traveling too.”
Clay looked into his fighter. “That glare thing’s okay now?” he asked.
“Yeah, we fixed that,” said Bell, leaning in. “I made it so you can dial any level of gleam you like. Heck, you can make everything shades of pink if you want.”
“I made him put in a display reset too, just in case,” said Padfoot.
“And the combat systems?” asked Rachel.
“Can now burn through thirty alien gun emplacements per minute,” said Padfoot.
“And we loaded you with exactly 716 combat missiles,” said Bell. “Each. Doubt you’ll run out.”
“Hope we don’t need them,” said Clay.
“Nice to have them in case,” said Rachel, “because I think we’ll need them.”
Rachel and Clay shook hands with the mechanics. Then they turned and hugged Vera and Natasha. Then they hugged Bonnie Bain and Jamaica Leith, Timmis Green and Li Zan, Jane Tremblay and Maria Apple and Anand Ree and Gemma Ozawa and Lidi Moss. Clay arrived at Su Park, who was somehow glaring primly at him. She stuck out her hand, he took it, and she pulled him close for a hug with some iron in it. She let him go, and everyone laughed, and then she gave Rachel a like hug, and then the two of them waved and went to their fighters. They looked around, then turned to each other and kissed, then climbed in and shut hatches. Their fighters hovered up a meter, waited a second, then rose faster, and at a hundred meters they engaged thrust and accelerated away at 10, then 100, then 1000 meters per second per second.
The two fighters slanted up and out of the atmosphere, their flectors sweeping the air aside, their acceleration buffers keeping them from turning into pancakes. In five minutes, they were in space, moving at twelve kilometers per second. In five more minutes, they were doing three hundred kilometers per second, enough to cross North America coast to coast in twenty seconds.
“Chess?” asked Rachel. “Or would you rather hook up?”
“Well, what do you think?”
An hour later, Rachel and Clay were leaving Bluehorse-3 behind, a pocked globe of rock with glints of water, and heading for the orbit of Bluehorse-4. Their ships were one ship, combined along the elongated hatches, and the two little pilots floated together, their vac suits stowed, their legs and hair mingling.
“Mmm, Clay,” Rachel murmured, “I think they improved the erectile supplements in the food processor formulas again.”
“Or it could just be you,” said Clay.
They kissed languidly, then again, and giggled. They kissed again, and let themselves get carried away for a minute.
“Oh,” said Rachel, “well, whichever it is, it seems to be working again.” And so, further entangled, they flew on past the orbits of Bluehorse-4 and Bluehorse-5 and accelerated into the darkness.
For four days they accelerated, until they were well into the 99% range. The acceleration continued, though the proverbial needle no longer moved much: 99.8, 99.9, 99.999% of light speed. Time dilation meant that, maxing out at 99.99998% of light speed, their 34.8 light year journey would seem to them to take about ten days. It was a long time to spend in a small space, but not long compared to the 34.8 years it appeared to take to those at either end of the journey. And it was definitely a new record.
“You know,” said Clay, as he performed a series of checks on his display and Rachel, her naked back (and mole) to his naked back (and slightly hairy butt), “Borman and Lovell spent fourteen days just orbiting Earth in a spacecraft with about the internal volume of what we have here.”
“Really? Did they have sex at all?”
“I don’t think so,” said Clay. “It was the 20th Century.” They did some more checks, then giggled as their butt cheeks rubbed against each other. “Ha,” said Clay.
“Jim Lovell and Frank Borman. They were asked about spending so much time together in close quarters. They said they were thinking about getting married. That’s what it says here.” He turned half around, and so did Rachel, and they kissed. “I need to show you Apollo XIII,” he said. “It’s about this same Jim Lovell. He was married his whole life to this woman, I guess you’d say it was kind of romantic.”
“But 20th Century. They dressed funny, I bet.”
“And everyone smoked tobacco.”
They turned back away and finished their chores. Clay noticed Rachel had started a chess game with him. He made a play: standard king’s side opening. She was up three games to one with two draws already this trip. “Clay,” she said, in an inquisitive tone that gave him the willies.
“Are you attracted by Bonnie Bain? Sexually?”
“The Bain woman??” He laughed, but even facing away he could sense she wasn’t going to accept anything dismissive. “Sure,” he said. “She has all those girl traits, you know, breasts and stuff.”
“So would you—? Did you?”
“Ha. Seriously, Rachel.”
“Seriously! Like, I don’t mind if you admit something from the past, obviously.”
“Admit. Ha. And ha. And ha and ha and ha, ha, ha. The Bain woman. So glad she’s found love in the arms of the Leith woman.”
“Any others you’re attracted to? Obviously Natasha, Vera Santos. You slept with them.”
“Rachel. Really. You slept with Gil Rojette. That was before Love came to town.”
“I know. I know.” It was her turn to laugh. She brushed against him as she rotated in place, and he did the same, and they were facing each other, naked, at a range of about two centimeters. “I just thought, you know, I wondered how a man like you views other women. It kind of matters.”
“I get that. Um, Rachel, I never know how much stock you put in words. I know it’s not going to be settled in your heart till you’ve seen—Rachel, were you cheated on?”
She got a funny, angry look, then smiled. She poked him in the slightly hairy chest with a finger. “You are bleeping brilliant,” she said.
“Up the wazoo. Up the frippin’ wazoo. Gil—!”
“Deal with it, Clay. Gil, may he rest in peace, he and that Bain woman—!” She gave him a look full of her deep blue eyes. Blue in some lights, green in others. And he was such a sucker for eyes. And moles. And breasts. And everything else. And wasn’t that the whole point of the discussion? Rachel looked down, then into his blue eyes again. “And I will admit that I had a husband back on Earth, in Vancouver, and we were together for six years, and then he announced that he was divorcing me. And he had another woman. And he had been seeing her for months. And he needed me to move out soon, no rush, take a whole two weeks if I want, so they could be together.”
She giggled. She pulled his head in for a kiss. “It’s fine,” she said. “I don’t have a complex or anything.” Another long kiss. “Just be aware. That if you take up with another girl, I will have to kill you. I’ll try and make it a clean kill.”
“I will not give you the slightest reason,” he replied. They kissed some more.
Some time later, he half woke and half rolled out of Rachel’s arms. He had a look at the sensors.
“Uh, Rachel,” he said.
“Mmmm, what, baby?”
“Check your port side sensors.”
“What? Oh. Oh my. Oh my.”
“The readings dropped 70% on that side,” said Rachel. They were still naked, but now they were paying much less attention to the feel of their back sides touching. Clay was sliding things around and poking things on his screen, and Rachel was poking, pushing, watching, running back video and manipulating graphs. “It’s like what we saw between Earth and Cancri but more. And they haven’t gone up yet.”
“And it’s all normal on the other side,” said Clay. “Normally abnormal instead of—well, this.”
They spent some seconds just staring at their displays. Rachel said, “Do you think it’s anything to do with our record speed?”
Clay thought a moment. “Yeah, could be,” he said. “But it can’t be the whole deal.”
“No. We weren’t setting records when we saw what we saw between Earth and Cancri. Well, we were, for the time. But we haven’t gone that slow to light speed since then.”
“Yeah. Heh heh. Slow.” They stared for another half minute, and Clay found Rachel’s hand finding his hand behind them. They squeezed hands. “It’s interesting,” she said.
“That’s one way to put it.”
“Being out here with you. In nothing.” She didn’t turn and kiss him, but the effect of her voice, in the void, had the same effect on his nether regions as if she had.
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t think Park and Vilya had anything like this when they flew to Alpha C all those years ago.”
“All those years ago,” said Rachel.
“Whoa,” said Clay.
“What the bleep,” said Rachel. Then they were both poking and pushing, and then Rachel grabbed her pilot stick, pushed and prodded and then swung out. The change in acceleration, given that they were already moving at almost impossible speed, threw them around barely within the capacity of the buffers to contain their momentum. They bashed into each other, naked but definitely not thinking of sex.
“Rachel,” Clay blurted.
“Clay, sorry, but—!” He hung on while she steered and then they were coasting again.
“The screens are clear,” he said. “We’re back to normally abnormal.” He turned, and she turned, and there they were, naked, facing each other as they flew through the void. “What the hell?”
“I seriously don’t know, Clay.” He started to say something but stopped, so she said, “I just felt the need to steer around, um, something. You know?”
“I don’t,” said Clay, “but I have a feeling that you did the right thing. Whatever the hell you did.”
“Holy bleep, holy bleep, holy bleep,” said Rachel, putting her hands over her eyes. She slowly let them slide off. She smiled: a panicky pale grin. She sighed. He raised his eyebrows and she explained, “Now I feel like I can panic a little. What the bleep was that?”
“Them,” said Clay with a very panicky calm. “Pretty sure it was a them.”
“Legions of them,” said Clay. They studied their own displays for a minute or two, facing apart again. Clay half turned and said, “I don’t know. Ever read Lovecraft? H. P. Lovecraft?”
“A little,” said Rachel. “In college. We were required to. What about him?”
“The cosmos is out to get you.”
Rachel half turned, so they were floating side by side. “Knew that. What else?”
“Okay, well,” said Clay. “Mr Lovecraft explains the Universe, okay? Um, where to start. There are things you don’t even know about lurking in the depths of the stars. It’s not people who pose the greatest threat. People? Don’t make Mr Lovecraft laugh out loud. It’s those—things, those—indescribable—for the love of God, Carter, put back the slab and beat it!”
“Well,” said Clay, “how would you describe them?”
Rachel looked around, as if she could see through the hulls. The screens, all around them, were quiescent. She shivered and leaned into Clay. “Okay,” she said, “let’s watch Apollo XIII.”
And so they did, and then they watched a few modern romances, and a nature documentary, and they made love and ate and slept and made love and checked readings and ate and slept and made love, and then one fine day in the black void they woke up and found that the next system was opening before them through the confusion of relativity.
Soon they were decelerated enough to be able to pick up clear readings from the little pink-orange star and its four planets. At first that was all they could see, but they had just spent a week with nothing to see at all, interrupted by short periods of seemingly seeing less than nothing. Hour by hour the planets and even the smaller objects, the moons and rogue planetoids and comets and Kuyper belt objects, began to come into focus.
The new system did not look especially interesting on first glance. It had a single sun, a bit too large and a bit too bright to count as a true red dwarf. Its four planets were huddled close: the furthest out, a cold airless desert the size of Mars, would have been just outside the orbit of Earth in the solar system Clay and Rachel were born in. The closest planet in, a Jovian the size of Saturn, orbited at just eleven million kilometers, close enough to make contact with some of the star’s more enthusiastic mass ejections. It had rings, chaotic and colorful rings, not perfect circles but stretched out toward the surface of the little orange sun. The second planet out was a nearly molten lump of rock, and then, at about 95 million kilometers, a terrestrial planet with signs of both air and water.
But this terrestrial planet looked less like Earth than like something kicked around by big stony feet. It had just the faintest signs of life, algae in the waters, possibly mosses and lichens in the low-lying areas of land. For seas it had deep wide holes, shafts a hundred kilometers wide. They looked like craters, but craters with water in them—many, many kilometers deep. Around them, the dry parts of the globe were tumbled in a way that did not suggest seismic activity so much as a single convulsion, a planetary shrug. Mountains rose in huge mounds hundreds of kilometers high, far up out of the thin atmosphere, gouges and cracks ran deep and straight across the highlands or fractured into labyrinths of black-floored valleys, piles of kilometer-sized cubes and balls and cylinders of rock stood about the deeper holes. At least one of the three moons seemed made of the same stuff by the same sort of process: the smallest of the three, it was a cylinder twenty kilometers thick, rough hewn on one end and cut off on a smooth parabolic slant on the other.
“It’s been mined,” said Rachel. “That moon, it’s just what they dug up from one of those holes.”
“They mined the heck out of this planet,” said Clay. “I think they were mining the magma. Yeah. They made holes and took out the hot metals. I wonder how long ago.”
“And who ‘they’ were,” said Rachel.
They coasted in for some minutes, each of them examining scattered details of this peculiar system. “Two moons on the outer planet,” said Rachel. “The molten is hotter than Venus,” said Clay. “It’s got an atmosphere,” said Rachel, “but it’s nothing you’d want in your lungs.” Clay said, “The big moon of the terrestrial, it’s been mined some too, not as much.”
“I wonder about the asteroids,” said Rachel.
There was silence. Then Clay said, “There aren’t any. Hardly any. What’s up with that?”
“Mining,” said Rachel. “Yeah. I pick up a scattered dust. The asteroids that are left are just chunks of ice, nothing worth anything. They would’ve chewed up the asteroids and taken the good stuff.”
“All that powder,” Clay said after a few seconds, “it’s scattered far and wide, it’s hard to detect it’s so scattered, but it covers such a wide space that it really adds up to a lot.”
“You could make Sol’s asteroid belt out of what was left.” He calculated a bit more. “No iron left. No nickel, no cobalt, no copper. No P group. Some zinc, some aluminum, magnesium and calcium compounds, silicates, but a lot of metals are totally missing. I wonder if it wasn’t a planet or two, and that powdery belt is just what was left when they were done.”
“I am picking up iron and stuff here and there on that third planet,” said Rachel. “But wait. That might just be technological. Sure. They left mining equipment here.”
“Mining equipment?” Clay repeated. “Oh. I see. Not a lot, just what was broken or something.”
“Or not worth the trouble to carry off,” said Rachel, “when they took their five bajillion tons of iron and manganese off to sell at the market.”
“Still. Who would spend the time and resources to fly from one star to another, just to haul around loads of iron and manganese?”
“Maybe there was a lot of gold and platinum.”
“It would have to be a lot. Or they’re from somewhere that’s low in iron.”
“Where would that be?” asked Rachel. “Iron has to be the most common metal. The fusion argument.”
“Yeah, that’s my impression too,” said Clay. “Wish we had a real astrophysicist with us. But we know the fusion that powers stars fuses hydrogen into helium, then helium into—carbon, right? And so on, but it gets to where it’s fusing, I don’t know, silicon into iron, and it can’t release any more energy by fusing iron.”
“Yes,” said Rachel. “And fusion stops there. And gravity takes over and crushes the star till it explodes in a supernova, and that should spray iron and nickel and manganese all over the area. So who ever heard of a system with too little iron?”
“Well, this one,” said Clay. “Now. But you can tell they used to have iron. It’s just been mined out, down as far as they could go, I bet.”
“And they could get all of what was in the asteroid belt,” said Rachel. “Um, Clay.”
“I am picking up one signature in the asteroid belt. One chunk of iridium and osmium.”
Rachel and Clay debated, in what seemed to Clay a mild and noncommittal way, the tactics of exploring the system before them. But of course he was still getting used to the secrets of dealing with Rachel Andros. He had yet to learn all the details and warning signs.
The piece of iridium and osmium, identifiable now even at a distance of five billion kilometers as consistent with a regular hexagon 1.3 meters on a side, orbited in an ellipse between 1.3 and 2.5 billion kilometers out, nowhere near any sizeable object.
“It’s not the pattern we saw before,” said Rachel. “It’s loose in space, if I’m reading this right, not attached to anything, much less something that has another thing one fifth its mass and one fifth of an orbit ahead of it.”
“No,” said Clay, “it’s not the pattern we saw what, three times already, but that’s easy to explain if the miners were here after the plaque-makers.”
“So,” said Rachel, “that’s weird. I mean, why didn’t they mine it too? Just toss the plaque in with everything else? Maybe it was their plaque?”
“I don’t know,” Clay replied. “I don’t know. It’s not the right vibe.”
“Okay. Commander Park’s protocol for us exploring this system was going to be that we, um, separate and each take half the circle at ten billion kilometers. We could do that and then swing back to pick up the plaque, or the person who does that could just swing through and pick up the plaque, or we could just take pictures of it, and then rendezvous for exploring the inner system, or we could stick together and say the heck with Commander Park’s protocol.”
“Not to her face, of course,” said Clay.
“She won’t know for 180 years either way,” said Rachel. “But of course if you feel like it would be better to separate—?”
“It’s not my preference,” said Clay carefully, “but it would at least be quicker.”
“It would,” said Rachel. “So is that what you want to do?”
“I said it wasn’t my preference. Is it what you want to do?”
“You said it would be quicker.”
The conversation went on lazily with several pauses and a few side tracks about items of interest in the data—there were some larger objects among the dust of the old asteroid belt, but they were made of water ice or methane ice; the star, though small and old, did not seem very stable and emitted about ten percent more gamma rays than would be expected; the Ghosts’ new engines were purring away still even after their record-breaking exertions.
“Well,” said Rachel, “we have no reason to expect a problem even if we do separate. No signs of life. No mouthholes, no Primoids. Just old abandoned mines.”
“We hope they’re abandoned,” said Clay. “Or whoever it is, they’re lying low.”
“Something to think about, I guess,” said Rachel. “Along with all the other things we can think about. Like, um, legions of them, isn’t that what you said? About whatever we—well, saw, or didn’t see, at 99.99998 percent.”
“Or didn’t see. Rachel, how nervous are you? About that?”
“Just the usual amount,” she replied. “Safest to be a little nervous, I guess. And, you know, expect the unexpected, ha ha.” Clay didn’t say anything, so Rachel concluded, “Might as well obey Commander’s orders.”
“I’ll pick up the plaque, if you want,” said Clay.
“Just take readings and leave it. We don’t need to carry it all the way to Earth.”
“They might find it interesting,” said Clay. “Or, of course, it might be infected with some weird alien virus or something! And destroy all life on Earth!”
“Ha,” said Rachel. “Like I say, just take measurements and pictures and leave it.”
The desultory tete-a-tete continued for a while, and devolved into desultory, then exhilarating, lovemaking. Finally they were pulling their vac suits on and getting ready to separate.
“You sure you want to do it this way?” asked Rachel.
“I said it wasn’t my preference,” said Clay. “But Commander’s orders.”
“Et cetera,” said Rachel. She kissed him, then zipped up the front of her suit. She smiled her little smile at the way his face darkened by ten percent when her breasts disappeared. “Ready to initiate separation?”
“Sure,” said Clay, still not sure if he wasn’t making some romantic tactical error. “Hey, we won’t ever be more than twenty light hours apart.”
“Let’s pull that orbit in to three billion kay em. That would make max separation just six light hours.” She smiled and kissed him. “Isn’t that better?”
“Definitely,” he said, and they had another little kiss, then pulled each other together in a tight embrace.
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 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. 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 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 they had chosen, 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.”