They were at the 507 hour mark. Their readouts read 99.93% of the speed of light. Rachel Andros was playing chess with him by comm; Rachel was winning, as she did about 60% of the time.
“Hey Clay,” she suddenly said, in a tone of voice that made him stop pondering how she’d gotten up two pawns when he thought she was only up one.
Clay checked the comm display. Their communication was closed to just them: the Commander couldn’t hear them on this channel. “What?” he replied.
“The last night on the station,” said Rachel in a teasing voice. “Anything to say?”
“Don’t act innocent. You and Santos.”
“Rachel,” he said, “please tell me everyone wasn’t watching me and Vera.”
“Everyone was not watching you and Vera,” said Rachel. “Just me and Tash. And she’s sworn to secrecy. Come on, you can trust us—we think it’s very cute. Was it just last night stuff, or is this something serious?”
Clay thought about that for a while. He made a move, trying to get her king’s side pawn structure screwed up. She let him do that, but they traded down and she was left with a solo pawn—in an open file with a rook behind it.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Any advice would be appreciated.”
“Well, do you like her?”
“Of course I like her,” he replied. “Honestly. Have you looked at her? Have you fought her?”
“She’s good, I know that,” said Rachel. “You want a woman who can beat you? Or is that a problem for you?” He paused and she went on, “It didn’t look like a problem that last night.”
“No, Rachel, it wasn’t a problem.” He laughed. “But I don’t know. I think it might have been just last night stuff or whatever you called it. But maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know, I—geez, Rachel, I have no idea what women think. I mean, any help you can offer.”
“Well, you have about another month and a half to think about it. Because you’re not going to know till she’s in the same system as you. So don’t overheat your brain thinking about it.”
“Gosh, Rachel, I’ll just get right on that, because as you know, male human beings are totally in control of our emotions. Um—!”
But he didn’t get to say the next thing, because the next thing they both said was along the lines of, “Whoa, what was that?”
A second later, the comm was open to the whole wing. More expressions of surprise or something were coming through. Clay may have been uttering some of them. But when the next three seconds were over, he wasn’t sure what it had been. In the streaky and speckled darkness that surrounded them, Clay was fairly sure that a very black tunnel had opened up on his right, or a dense cloud of dust had passed on his right, or a monster had nearly eaten the whole wing from his right, or his sensors had simply malfunctioned or experienced an anomaly on his right.
“Record readings,” came Park’s voice.
“Photon intensity to starboard down 35%,” said Natasha Kleiner. “It’s back up now.”
“I got that too,” said Rachel. “37%.”
“Same,” said Clay, who was reluctant to say he thought a monster mouth had opened up to starboard. “We’re just switching to deceleration,” he noted. “Could it be an artifact of that?”
“We didn’t see anything like that en route to Centauri,” said Park. “But this is about ten times as far out, so maybe. I don’t know.”
“I wonder if Beta saw the same thing,” said Rachel. “Or anything.”
“I wonder if Beta is still back there,” said Clay.
“You think it might really be that serious, Gilbert?” asked Park.
“I don’t know, Commander. Not gonna lie. It definitely gave me the willies.”
“Well, willies or no,” said Rachel, “we are still on course. Star streaking is normal for early deceleration, not that I know anything about what’s normal, since we are the first four people to go this far this fast.”
“Or just this far,” said Natasha.
“For the record,” said Park, “I will be quite happy when we next catch sight of Beta Wing. Because, Mr Gilbert, I also got the willies. I expect it won’t be for the last time.”