Chapter 3: Gaps in the Argument

III. Gaps in the Argument

1.

Clay and Rachel spent a couple of hours in the rock chamber on Holey-3, taking every reading they could think of regarding the platinum disks. There were 26 of them, in five groups of five and one extra. The organization was only obvious after some examination, when they each separately noticed that the center of each disk had a tiny regular polygon, barely big enough to see with the unaided eye. Five were pentagons, five were seven-gons, five were decagons, five were 12-gons and five were 17-gons; the odd one out had a circle.

“Or maybe it’s a 257-gon,” said Rachel. “It would be hard to tell. And you know, five, seventeen and 257 are all Fermat primes.”

“I did not know, actually,” said Clay, inspecting the odd disk.

“And that would be significant because I recall from my math studies, and I did at one point take a bunch of math courses, that the only constructable regular polygons are those with a Fermat prime number of sides. I think I said that right. There’s a power of two thing in there too.”

“Fascinating.”

“Except of course for seven; why would that be in there? And why not three? What’s wrong with triangles? So it’s not like it explains everything. I suppose they just liked the design.”

“Still,” said Clay, “it’s not coincidence that there are five each of five things plus one extra. Okay, have you thought about this vis-a-vis those osmium-iridium plaques?”

“Okay,” said Rachel. “Look. We already had what, two alien civilizations? No, one, the Primoids, plus mouthholes, they’re not a civilization as far as I know, they’re just, like, beasts of the field. Sorry, mouthholes. Anyway, so then there are the plaque guys. And now this, and these guys aren’t the plaque guys because, because of a bunch of things really, but let’s see. They used an osmium-iridium alloy, which is very hard and very resistant to corrosion, and these guys used pure platinum, which is very hard and very resistant to corrosion. You wouldn’t do the same thing two different ways, right? Those plaque guys put their plaques out in the open in predictable places, but these guys hid theirs and made pointers to the cache, and I kind of think it was in a big city of theirs and the hexagon grid is their street grid or something, and that’s all that’s left now because the buildings fell.”

“And the beacon things?”

“I don’t know, maybe they put those there after the buildings fell? I’ll get back to you on that one. Okay, what else? So the plaques are written in symbols, actual like hieroglyphs, but these are like memory disks or something, like those old disk memory things. But in platinum. And,” she added, “these are not that old.”

“Compared to the plaques? Keep in mind that we don’t have any idea how old the plaques are.”

“No, though I’m gonna guess in the billion with a b rather than the million with an m range, years-wise. But these. Comparing the dust outside, that’s been in the rain of cosmic gamma rays all this time, with the dust inside the little compartment: these were buried somewhere around 64 million years ago.”

“About the time the dinosaurs went extinct,” said Clay. “Whereas the miners were here 22,000 plus or minus 5500 years ago, when our forebears were already painting on cave walls.”

“Yeah. And the osmium plaques, they date to when life on Earth consisted basically of slime.”

“Literal slime,” said Clay. He held one of the platinum disks up in front of his face, not looking at it really, just letting its existence sink in some more. “The depths of time, they’re just dizzying.”

“Yup.” She stood up. “Well, I’m getting a little itchy, aren’t you?”

“Itchy?” he replied, thinking in terms of skin issues.

“To get in space,” she said. “This place is too weird. Good old Holey. Two alien civilizations were here, neither of which we had met up to now. That brings us to five—us, the Primoids, the plaque guys, the platinum disk guys and the miners, who certainly aren’t the same as the Primoids, right? I mean, Primoids are kinda subtle, wouldn’t you say?”

“Compared to folks who dig holes a hundred kilometers across? I would have to concur.”

“Plus mouthholes about. And I think you can understand if I’m feeling a bit shy of them.”

“I got bit too,” said Clay.

“Yes,” said Rachel, her eyes flashing a bit through the visor, “and Vera saved you, huh?”

“Rachel.”

She laughed. “I’m just teasing you. That was before you surrendered your soul to me. So you concur? Shall we hit the road, as they say?”

He laughed. “Let’s hit the road, Jack,” he said, quoting his ancient music again. “Should we take any of these disks? Or settle for the scans we made of them? I’d kind of like to take the circle one.”

“Definitely,” said Rachel, picking it out and packing it in a side pocket of her suit.

They wound their way out through the halls of boulder, and found their fighters sitting on the ancient plaza unmolested. “Up, then rendezvous?” said Clay.

“Sounds good,” said Rachel. “You love me?”

“I love you. You love me?”

“I love you lots,” said Rachel. They giggled. Then they climbed into their Ghosts and hovered up a few meters. She appeared on his screen. “Weather forecast shows not a mouthhole in the sky,” she said. “Let’s send back our log and head out of the lovely Holey System.”

“Okey doke,” said Clay.

They hovered up a little further, engaged thrust and took off, Rachel a bit in front, accelerating at a mere fifty gees to start with. Darkness was falling across the lands below them as the slow nightfall of Holey-3 covered the mountains and the cleft below. Clay sent Rachel the compressed version of his complete data logs from the Holey system, and she combined that with hers, and with a press of a spot on her screen, it all turned into photons headed for a satellite orbiting Bluehorse-3. Then they smiled at each other in their screens, and then they looked around.

Ten degrees behind them, where night was already full, things dropped from the shadow of space to the shadow of the planet, and then came up and headed after the two Ghosts. “Crap,” said Clay and Rachel together. “Guess who,” said Rachel.

2.

The mouthholes, four in number, shot after the two Ghosts, closing fast. Clay experienced that familiar defeated confusion, followed by that familiar detachment. Fear was just a medium, like space. It was too late for passive countermeasures, and joining the fighters was certainly off. All he had to do was wait for the time to be right, just like when he and Rachel had fought training battles together, two on four or five on the Earth’s Moon.

A word flashed in red italics before him: FLIP.

He flipped, and, still accelerating backwards and approaching two percent of light speed, they faced their spherical attackers. The mouthholes were coming in staggered, the foremost one on the right, the second behind but also a little to the left, the third behind but also to the right and above the second, the fourth below the three in front of it. Concentrating their fire on the second in line, they made it bust open and fly apart. Then the third burst in a shower of metals. The front mouthhole, almost in their laps, suddenly faced those construction lasers at a range of under two kilometers; just a hundred thousandth of a second of that and it blew out.

The fourth zipped away backwards, executing a flip of its own and taking a powder.

“Phew,” said Clay. “But: Damn, we’re good together.”

“On my mark, 30 degrees left, 22 degrees down, 110% acceleration, get passive countermeasures ready,” Rachel rattled off. “Darling.”

“You romantic fool,” said Clay, entering all the coordinates. “On your mark.”

“Mark,” said Rachel, and they shot away at an angle. “Ready correcting angle in—let’s give it five minutes. That should carry us a couple million km.”

“Link up?”

“Doing 110% acceleration? You romantic fool. Okay.”

It took them most of their five minutes to get lined up and sealed together. They pushed their helmets back and hugged and smooched a little. “You okay?” asked Clay.

“Yes, actually,” said Rachel. “Not a scratch. You?” He shrugged, still embracing her. “Well, we’re not out of the woods yet,” she said. “Didn’t you notice?”

“What?” He turned to his sensors. She shook her head, adjusted the view to center on Holey-3, diminishing into the void behind them, and magnified, and shifted wavelength. Tiny metallic shapes, tagged by the sensors for high metal content and energy output, zipped down to the planet’s surface and back out, and shot around it like insane little moons. “Holy bleep,” said Clay. “Holy Holey. How many are there?”

“My computer’s tracking 25 of them,” said Rachel. “It’s the most we’ve ever seen at once.”

“Well, they’re not like a star fleet, are they? What are they doing, eating the remains? Nothing left down there looked like mouthhole food to me. Are they tourists?”

“Food for thought,” said Rachel. “Look, here comes another busload of tourists. Time for some PCM.” She switched off the timer with ten seconds left on it, then switched on their combined passive electromagnetic countermeasures, which she had designed way back on Gliese 163. Clay looked around his screens, and found the new arrivals coming in almost along their former course out of the system. There were at least six of them. “Shut the engines down to ten percent,” she said quietly, as if they were in the next room from the mouthholes.

“Ten percent? We’ll be crawling.”

“Just long enough to let them fly by us,” said Rachel. “Look. We took four. We could take six. But if either of us gets damaged, we’re going to have to find somewhere to fix it. And somewhere is suddenly attracting quite the crowd.” They both looked at the six mouthholes shooting toward Holey-3 out of the darkness, still half a light hour away. “I wonder why.”

“I swear there’s nothing there they like to eat,” said Clay. “I mean, there was basically nothing left intact that was tech in any way. They could eat the glass or whatever of those beacons.”

“No, that’s silica, not metal,” replied Rachel. “Only crazy people eat sand.”

“And mouthholes aren’t crazy,” said Clay. “I don’t know if they’re people, but they’re not crazy.” They stared at the screen a little longer. “So,” said Clay, “we lay low and then shoot off toward 581? We’ll have to bend left now, and we’re going pretty darn fast already.”

“I know,” said Rachel. “I got it all covered.”

They watched the screens. Two more little groups appeared out of the emptiness around the system and headed for the planet, while a group of five suddenly shot off in formation, splitting up only as they passed 10% of light speed on their way somewhere else.

“I figured there would be alien species,” said Rachel. “But I always thought their, uh, attitude would be more obvious. But we have the mouthholes, which every time I think I understand them, I find out I don’t understand them, and the Primoids, which are almost exactly like us, only compared to the mouthholes, and the guys with the osmium plaques, who are what, handing out literature? Leaving labels on everything? Who is the enemy? Who’s our friend? Who do we understand well enough to even be enemies or friends? You know?”

“And then there’s the miners,” said Clay. “22,000 plus or minus 5500 years. That’s practically contemporary, you know. Dudes come in and grind up the asteroid belt and dig huge holes in planets so they can carry off the mantle in tankers.” He smirked at Rachel. “They may be the most like humans of all of them.”

3.

Floating naked in their combined Ghost, Rachel and Clay played five games of Set, and the result was three wins for Rachel and two for Clay. The mouthholes were still extant in the system. They simulated a bit, and again Rachel had a slight edge: he hoped she was never so mad at him that she started actually physically shooting at his actual physical Ghost. The last fight was so thrilling that Rachel followed her destruction of his simulated craft by easily overcoming his meager defenses and taking what she wanted from him, not in simulation but in very real life. They napped, woke up and had a little food, smooched, made aimless love, exercised a little, replotted their navigation to Gliese 581, and took another in-depth look at the Holey System.

There were still mouthholes coming and going, including a tetrad departing on a path that would take them within twenty million kilometers of Clay and Rachel as the Ghosts scooted along quietly under passive countermeasures. Rachel talked Clay into a few games of speed chess, and beat him ten games to none. Then they resorted to regular chess and he managed to take one of four with one draw.

By and by they were up to 20% of light speed and at least 200 million kilometers from the nearest identified mouthhole. Rachel gave up trying to mate Clay in the draw, king and rook to king and bishop, and went for the mate in real space. Then they lay in each other’s arms in the dark, dozed off, woke up a few hours later at 22% and 400 million kilometers from any known spherical beastie.

“Are we good to go?” Clay asked.

“I bleepin’ hope so,” said Rachel. She kissed him, then started ordering his Ghost and hers to drop their PCM and slide on up to 100% acceleration, which would take them to 99.9999% of light speed in sixty hours. Clay lay back, naked, and watched. “Well,” said Rachel when she was done, “whatever shall we do with ourselves?”

“Keep an eye out for mouthholes?” he suggested. “This place seems rather infested with them.”

“Yes. Isn’t that curious.” They both spend twenty seconds watching the screens, in which the spherical beasties still seemed focused on the planet Holey-3. “Well,” she said, reaching down to her folded-up vac suit, “in a few hours we’ll be over thirty percent, and not long after that we should be completely invisible even to them. In the meantime, I think maybe I’ll let my suit clean all the man funk off me. Before you get me all man funky again.”

“Mmm. Same to you, source of all my woman funk.” He pulled his vac suit up his legs and leaned to kiss her, ogling her one more time as her body got steadily more concealed.

“I love how you look at me,” said Rachel. She smirked. “I look at you the same way.” She left that for a beat, then added, “I suppose you looked at Vera like that.”

“Oh, I must have,” said Clay.

“I mean, she does have the breasts, as you would say.”

“Rachel,” said Clay. “Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. I am slow to wisdom, but being in your company, inevitably I become wise. You are not going to catch me in your clever webs. Not this time.”

“Why would you think I was trying to catch you in webs? Is that just a bit of misogynistic paranoia?” But she was smiling.

“Rachel,” said Clay, “you delight in the game, and you do defeat me in every game. I long ago lost everything to you. But I understand that you still need a challenge. And so, with all the courage I can muster, I face you in the simulator, in Set, on the chessboard, and when I’m feeling especially sacrificial, in speed chess. But when we turn to issues that bear on romance and the sexual, there is no contest. There is only you.”

“Mmm,” she said, somehow looking coy even with her suit all the way on, helmet included, and floating just centimeters from him. “You do know the right words.”

“Because we are partners and even the sex makes us better partners. And it’s—!” He stopped. She cocked her head to the left. He said, “It’s not about words,” he said. “I love you. I am yours. There is no other.” He kissed her, then shook his head. “And all the words I could say mean nothing. Except that I am yours and you are mine. Where are we getting married?”

“What did we decide? Top of Everest? Might be a tad frigid.”

“No doubt, especially if we’re having a naked wedding.”

“Mmm, Clay. How long till our vac suits have us all clean and I can strip you naked and get us both all dirty again?”

“Oh, I think I feel clean enough already,” said Clay.

So they took each other’s suits back off with a slow thoroughness and checked each other again from head to toe for unkissed regions. And that was the pattern of life for another sixty hours, as Holey blinked out behind them and the stars became weird streaks and circles and the Milky Way itself blurred and distended until they were shooting through a universe of polka dots and 4D rotations. They were setting new records again: 99.999995, 99.999998%. Two nines, a dot, and five nines. Closing on six nines.

And then, like going through a door, they were in a very different sort of place, or so it seemed to them and their sensors.

4.

“What the,” said Clay after a while.

Still they gawked. Starting on their port side and below, the realm of their sensors opened out like they were coming out of a forest and onto a frozen lake. They could see for ever and ever, but there was nothing to see. It was hard to say how they knew they weren’t just staring at a flat black wall, but they both had the distinct sensation of infinite distance. On the starboard side and above, at first, there was still the busy blur of relativistic space, with the confused photons coming to them at the speed of light even as they met them at the speed of light, while others from behind barely managed to catch up, only traveling few dozen meters per second faster relative to the rest of the universe, and yet meeting the combined fighters at the full speed of light. No wonder they were confused. But even they gave up and opened out, and then the doubled Ghosts were drifting in a blackness deeper than oceans, in a cosmos of vast extent, empty of all matter or energy but that belonging to Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert and their attached Ghosts.

“99.999999,” said Rachel. “Six nines past the decimal.” They still gawked side by side, naked in their familiar little space, surrounded by uninformative screens interrupted by uninformative data displays. “Um, Clay,” she said after another while, “should we cut the thrust? We’re still trying to accelerate.”

“It does seem rather gilding the lily,” said Clay in a flat voice. “Considering we’re already setting records every second. And, um, this.”

“This,” said Rachel. “I’m not going to even ask where we are. Frickin’ neutrinos are pulling over to let us pass. I mean, no wonder it looks—!”

“What the bleep was that,” said Clay quietly.

“I mean, it looks weird because looks are determined by photons reflecting off things, and we’re running with the photons right now. I mean, maybe we’re finally so close to the actual speed of frickin’ light that we’re within some sort of quantum thing, you know, and so we’ve like graduated to oneness with the photons. Scary, huh? And I mean, there is this quantum thing, this one effect where a photon turns into an electron and a positron, and then back again, and it loses a little time in the process so it’s slowed down a tiny bit, so maybe we’re basically going the—!” She stopped. “What the bleep was that?”

They watched what the bleep was that out there for perhaps five minutes in silence. It wasn’t going on all the time: just every so often, what the bleep would happen. They gradually, like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave, Rachel and Clay both began to get an idea about what they were seeing. They floated there naked in their combined Ghost, coasting along at a speed with which neutrinos had to hustle to keep up, as something seemed to move over here, and something seemed to move over there.

Move was not quite the right word. Move implied a continuous change of position through a real-number-indexed progression of intervening positions, a continuous function from [0, 1] into the three or whatever dimensional space in which Rachel and Clay found themselves. Move implied that the rules of motion they had understood as children in Maine and Canada were more or less inviolate. Those rules were already in shreds. But rules of some sort held, and over the course of five minutes or so, Clay and Rachel began to get some idea of what those rules were, and the things they were seeing began to make sense in a way that a screen full of static did not.

Rachel cleared her throat. Clay looked at her, then back behind him, as if something were lurking or creeping or sneaking. Then, gazing off obliquely into one of the infinitely many directions of black infinity, he said, “I kind of fancy decelerating.”

“You mean pull out of light speed somewhere.”

“Yes.”

“We have no idea if there’s a star about or what,” said Rachel, non-judgmental. “Is that okay?”

“Fine with me,” said Clay.

“Me too,” said Rachel, pulling back the sliders on both her side and his to maximum deceleration.

5.

The next sixty hours were just a little different from the sixty hours they’d accelerated to light speed out of Holey. They played a few games and simulated some, but they also watched some old videos and listened to music. They stared at the screens while various actors of the 21st, 22nd and 23rd centuries acted out their passions and foibles in that most durable of modern forms of drama, the romantic comedy. At some point Clay decided it was time for Star Trek, with Captain Kirk acting up a storm and making Ted Trein look reasonable and easy to work with. In any case, Harry Potter was off. The way the storm clouds billowed in the later movies was just a little too familiar.

For music, there were the 22nd Century romantics, there was the jazz-grass movement of the early 2300s, and then there was Clay’s gigantic play list of songs from the turn of the millennium.

“I’m not dead, just floating” … “Can’t start a fire, worrying about your little world falling apart” …and of course “It’s just a shot away,” and on that song, Rachel and Clay were dancing, verily dancing in the dark. They danced in their closet, they danced, and then they were dancing to the very song that Hermione let Harry dance her around the tent to. “I’m hanging in there, don’t you see, in this process of elimination.” Dance, dance. Kiss, kiss. Then they were making passionate love, and when they were done, they had a drink from their own wastes and a smoke from their own wastes and, sufficiently emboldened, they made passionate love more, longer, until they fell into an utterly exhausted slumber, one where their dreams did not bring up any unpleasant subjects from the last few dozen hours of their journey.

They woke up at the same moment, naked and half entangled. They smiled at each other. Then they began the task of decoding their sensors.

“We’re down to 34%,” said Rachel. “It’s still quite the blur out there. Coffee?”

“Your pee or mine?” Clay replied.

“It must have some poo in it. Think of the color.”

“Are you implying my coffee tastes like crap? Jeez, don’t even ask about the cream. Sure, I’ll have some coffee. Are you serious?”

“I know that much about you, Clay Gilbert. Hey, Bell and Padfoot put some work in on the food processors too, this stuff’s almost up to colony ship standards.” She made him a cup of coffee and herself one too, and they joked some more in a non-memorable way, and then Clay had his Ghost make up a couple of sticky buns, and those were acceptable, and they joked about them too. They played a little Set, and then they set about seriously trying to figure out where they were.

Where they were was in a patch of empty space ten light years short of Gliese 581. There was not a star close enough to look like anything more than just a star in the sky.

“We’re about thirty from Earth,” said Clay. “We could skip 581 and just head straight for home.”

“We’d get there a lot faster in our personal time,” said Rachel, “but we wouldn’t save more than a year or two in Earth time.”

“And we’d miss Gliese 581,” said Clay. “I hear it’s lovely this time of century.”

“Seriously,” said Rachel, “it might be a very long time before we were in a position to see if the colony there made it. I think we need to do it.”

“So do we need to decel any further? Or just pick it up and head on?”

Rachel thought about that. Then she was pushing the sensors around, forcing as much clarity on the noise as she could.

“Holy bleep,” she said. “PCM now. Cut thrust to 20%. Give me a 10 degree vector up and starboard. Five minutes, then cut engines to zero.”

“PCM on, thrust 20%,” said Clay, not adding a question about how she had become Commander. Instead, they bent their course just a bit, ran five minutes, then shut down and drifted, doing 31% of light speed, in the midst of a loose cloud of several dozen mouthholes.

6.

“So this is a great situation,” said Rachel, some hours later. They were still drifting, and while they were not exactly jostling against mouthholes, there were at least twenty identified bogies within a mere hundred million kilometers.

“Well,” said Clay, “we’re safe as long as we don’t engage thrust or anything.”

“Sadly we’re not on course for anything in particular,” said Rachel. “Other than growing old together in this lovely closet of ours.”

“Don’t worry,” said Clay. “I have a plan. Do you want to hear my plan? It’s incredibly clever.”

“Okay, tell me your plan.”

“My plan is that you’ll come up with a plan.”

“Ah.” She turned her attention to the screens on her side, the part of their closet that was her fighter. “Well, I’d best get to it, then.”

So Clay played around with the data he had, and Rachel played around with her own data, both still naked in their shadowy booth zipping through the emptiness fast enough to orbit Earth three and a half times each second. Clay was just playing around, hoping something would come to him, but when he looked over his shoulder, Rachel seemed to be cross-checking matrices of numbers and plotting graphs in multiple dimensions. Then she sighed, shook her head and erased a bunch of stuff. Then she began again, but this time she was clearly just playing around.

Clay looked back at his own matrices of data. He made a graph or two. But he couldn’t keep out the thought that those unimaginable metallic beasties were out there, swooping and diving and swerving in the inky blackness. He remembered all too well the way they had behaved at Gliese 163, with their impossible accelerations and decelerations, their U-turns and bends and zig-zags that should have torn them apart from sheer gee force. He also remembered that first encounter, first contact forsooth, when something from nowhere had appeared and taken a bite out of the strut that connected Natasha to the rest of Alpha Wing, and how well he recalled, just a little later, two of them taking him, taking Clay himself, from two sides and nearly finishing him off.

And then there was space: empty space was just outside this shell, this membrane of metal and plastic and fluid, empty cold space emptier and colder than the empty and cold that was to be found en route to the Moon or Mars, space without a sun or planet, without even another spacecraft in case of trouble.

And just when he thought his willies could not get worse, it occurred to Clay that there were other spacecraft somewhere about: hulking tankers full of molten iron, titanic mining ships with unimaginably powerful drilling lasers or whatever, and no doubt hordes of fighters of types they had never met. It had taken several encounters to get an idea of what worked against the mouthholes, and then it had taken several more to figure out the same thing with the Primoids. And they’d had other people to rely on, and the facilities of the anchor freighters and the colony ships, and the expertise of Padfoot and her ilk.

“But Rachel figured out the passive countermeasures,” he muttered.

“What?”

“Sorry. Just reassuring myself.”

“Well, reassure me,” said Rachel testily.

“Just that you were the one who figured out the PCM settings. You did that. And Jana Bluehorse and Gil Rojette figured out the laser settings for the mouthholes.”

“Yes, well,” said Rachel, clearly in a rebellious mood—rebellious? Her, the commander? “We were on the Canada when I, with your help, figured out the PCM settings. And Jana died in that battle. The mouthholes. Ate. Her.”

“Well, what I’m saying is,” he started.

“And friggin’ Gil Rojette,” she went on, “who is also dead, by the way, he went and friggin’ slept with Bonnie Friggin’ Bain, who you probably did too, I know she wanted it and you don’t like to let the ladies down, do you?”

“Forget I brought it up,” said Clay, hoping she wasn’t reading his mind, where he was remembering (and this was before he and Rachel were even an item) how, after he was chomped on by mouthholes, it was Vera Santos who saved him and who, in fact, had sex with him repeatedly afterward.

“You didn’t say forget it to Vera, did you, when she saved your hiney from mouthholes?” said Rachel. “You didn’t—!” She started pulling on her vac suit. “I need to pee. Leave me alone.”

“Okey doke,” said Clay.

“I hate it when you say okey doke,” said Rachel. She got her suit on, relieved herself, then went back to idly playing with the data. Clay went back to playing a stupid video game and worrying, and looking back at the sensors every few minutes.

“Rache,” said Clay forty minutes later, “they’re dissipating.”

“What?”

“They are dissipating,” he said. “Mind you, there may be some I can’t see, but all the ones I was tracking have gotten their zipping shoes on and zipped away. The nearest one is now 500 million kilometers and”

She did a scan, checked this, checked that. “By golly, you’re right,” she said. “Well, I only hope this is real, because we can’t keep decelerating and accelerating like this, we need a battery charge from a star at some point.”

“Agreed,” said Clay. “Shall we send back data on this little encounter?”

Rachel twisted her face, then untwisted it and shrugged. “Sure, why not.” Side by side, they assembled what data they thought they might need, and Rachel sent it. “So now what, hunkster?”

“Set course for 581?”

“Okey dokey,” said Rachel.

7.

“So what do we have?” asked Clay, as he and Rachel sped off at a mere 99.99999% of light speed. Just five nines after the decimal.

“Hmm?” She rolled toward him, their arms around each other, her small breasts in his slight chest hair, his hand straying to the vicinity of that mole.

“About the mouthholes,” he said, thanking whatever deity there might be that she was over whatever she had been mad about. “I mean, what are they, where are they from, what do they like to do in their free time.”

“Well,” said Rachel, “facts? Speculation?”

“Facts, then speculation,” said Clay. “They’re both likely to play a role in our survival, don’t you think? I mean, these things are bleeping ubiquitous.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “that’s fact one. Well, not quite ubiquitous. They haven’t wandered into Earth space yet, or we wouldn’t have robot spacecraft all over the system. But they’re a lot of places. Maybe a list of questions is better, what do you think? Like, where aren’t the mouthholes?”

“And why do they have a fascination for Holey?”

“And what do they eat in their natural state? Spacecraft can’t be that common. Or metal structures. Maybe they graze on iron asteroids.”

“Maybe they mined Holey. No, that doesn’t make sense. Okay. Why did they follow us when we decelerated back there—in empty space? We dropped there because we were a bit freaked out by the, uh, whatever, but I don’t guess the mouthholes had the same experience. Maybe they were somewhere nearby and came when they scented us.”

“Scented us??”

“Another great question,” said Clay. “How do you smell something hundreds of millions or billions of kilometers away?”

“And what were they doing ‘somewhere nearby,’ shopping at the Mouthhole Mall?”

“Hmm,” said Clay.

“Okay, what?” asked Rachel.

“Well, um, if it’s okay to say, um, how shall I put this?” She gave him a skeptical look. He let her hold his eyes and said, “What, if I may, do the mouthholes have to do with what we just, um, saw, if saw is the right word?”

“In the blackness?” asked Rachel. “Six Nine City?”

“Yeah, that, actually,” said Clay. They gazed at each other. “Bad subject?”

“Yeah, actually,” said Rachel. She glared half smiling at him for some seconds, then kissed him on the lips and said, “Watch some more Star Trek?”

So it was that while Captain Kirk and Mister Spock were up to their armpits in Tribbles, Rachel and Clay went over to deceleration. In a few more days, their sensors were beginning to clear. There was no cloud of mouthholes fellow-traveling; there were no mouthholes in sensor view at all. There were no spacefaring creatures of any kind. But there was a star, a main sequence small red sun, and a little clan of planets, one of which showed definite signs of habitation by H. sapiens.

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