III. Into 55 Cancri
Home behind, the void ahead, Alpha Wing formed up, attached comm wires and engaged thrust at full power. Behind them, Beta Wing was doing the same thing.
It was known from Park’s and Vilya’s experiences that communications became impossible between spacecraft moving at relativistic speed. Photons carrying communications between two ships had to move at the speed of light relative to the two ships, which were moving at nearly the speed of light relative to the Sun, and also relative to solar photons which were moving the same direction as the ships were, at the speed of light, and yet had to be overtaking the ships at the speed of light; meanwhile, photons from Alpha and Beta and Proxima Centauri, coming at the ships at the speed of light while the ships were coming at them at nearly the speed of light, still could only meet the ships at the speed of light, not nearly twice the speed of light. It was all so paradoxical, one sympathized with the poor confused photons.
One also connected the spacecraft via mostly rigid, slightly extendible wire conduits, so that the wing flew in a tight tetrahedron, each craft about three meters from each other craft. Beta Wing followed Alpha Wing at a distance of a hundred thousand kilometers, two tiny tetrahedra packed with human shooting across the solar system at 1%, 2%, 5% of the speed of light.
“Goodbye, life we leave behind,” said Rachel. “How are you guys doing?”
“I’m happy as a clam,” said Natasha. “Wonder if I’ll ever have clam chowder again.”
“Just program your regurgitator,” said Clay.
“Replicator,” said Su Park. “Honestly.”
“Yeah,” said Rachel, “it’ll probably produce something almost but not entirely unlike clam chowder.”
“Hey,” said Clay, who had been catching up recently on classics of science fiction. “That’s what we need. Improbability drive.”
“What’s that?” asked Natasha.
“Hitchhiker’s Guide,” said Rachel.
“Okay, great,” said Su Park, “Miss Kleiner and I have some reading to do. There will be plenty of time. Any other suggestions? We have approximately forty-two days.”
“Forty-two!” said Clay. “Funny.”
“I loaded us up on literature,” said Rachel. “I thought the Odyssey might be relevant. Some of the fantasies from the twenty-second century are pretty good. Oh, and Star Wars, Star Trek, Star This, Star That. Those are pretty amusing. Any of you ever see something called ‘Firefly’?”
Life inside a tiny fighter was not as restrictive as might be expected. For one thing, the all-around screen made it feel as if Clay were shooting through a tunnel filled with stars, albeit weirdly streaky stars, distorted by the vagaries of near light speed travel. They shot across the solar system, their ships speeding up at an obscene rate made possible by discoveries made only in the past thirty years, including acceleration buffers that allowed them to far exceed five gees. They did not, like the space men in children’s books still did, fly past Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune close enough to wave at local aliens; indeed, all five of these objects were mere dots among the other dots, unless Clay put a finger on one of them and chose Magnify. The all-around screen also allowed Clay a view of the other three fighters, but only their outsides, unless he was specifically allowed in by the resident turning on the internal camera. So they all flew along in rigid formation, surrounded by stars and by three black ellipsoids, and it was only in Clay’s imagination that he could see Rachel and Natasha, reclined as he was but in the nude.
For another thing, the pods were designed to exercise their inhabitants. Clay could literally run a marathon if he chose—well, he could literally virtually run a marathon. He could and did run cross country routes chosen from an extensive library; several times he tried his pod’s selection of New England and Canadian mountain hikes, but these were somehow unsatisfying. He could also stretch or weight lift or do gymnastics, and he could, and often did, take part in games of soccer with Alpha Wing as teammates against randomly generated opponents. He couldn’t shower, but his suit cleaned him up after a workout.
The food was uninteresting and wasn’t helped by the replicators’ attempts to make it interesting. They did produce a decent enough whiskey, but it made his heart sink to remember that the known universe’s supplies of pale ale and red wine were being left further and further behind.
All in all, the experience of spending six weeks in a space about 30% larger in volume than his own body was best described as “not as bad as one might have expected.” It certainly shouldn’t have been exciting, but a few misfiring warning signals gave them all a few scary moments: Rachel wondered out loud if it wasn’t part of the programming, designed to make sure they were paying attention.
The same could be said for the one unexplained extrernal event, or encounter, or merely phenomenon, of their 1,014-hour journey.