The deceleration phase went without further unexpected event, other than a two-game streak of draws for Clay against Rachel, bracketed by Rachel winning streaks. He also played Natasha—he was almost as good as she was—and Park, whose only fault was that chess made her impatient. She still beat him much more often than she lost; she simply didn’t draw a whole lot.
They also fought simulated fighter battles, but these did not take nearly so long and were not dominated by Clay or Rachel or Natasha: whatever side Su Park was on generally came out on top. The computers had a wide variety of guesses as to what the terrain would be like, and Clay and Rachel and Natasha invented new ones; they fought in denser environments such as Earth-like air or Jupiter-like methane or ocean water or weightless drifts of sand, and they fought in tubes and mazes and on surfaces of all sorts of topologies, but Park tended to prefer the nakedness of open space. It didn’t make much difference to the outcome: Park was skilled and also wily. She had also the good commander’s ability to pay sincere compliments.
“You’re getting better,” she said, after they had managed to beat her three on one, which they didn’t always manage to do. “You were already the best besides me.”
“Thanks, Commander,” said Rachel. “We agree.”
After another two weeks or so of this, two weeks, that is, without a dawn or a dusk or a quitting time or a weekend, two weeks of exercise and play and work and reading all while reclining in a weightless and acceleration-buffered tube, Alpha Wing began to pick up meaningful signals from the universe around them. Before that happened, they were cheered to pick up meaningful signals from Beta Wing, still 100,000 kilometers back, moving about that far each second.
“Alpha, are you all awake?” came Vilya’s voice. “Commander Park, are you with us still?”
“Yes, Commander Vilya,” said Park, “you haven’t lost us yet. Reset your clocks, everyone: it’s now 41 years later than it was when we set out from Earth.”
“Hey Andros,” said Gil Rojette. “Hey Rojette,” said Rachel. Similar greetings went around amongst the wings. Presumably everyone was experiencing similar feelings of anxiety about everyone they knew on Earth being now 41 years older than they had been. Yvette, a mom or maybe a grandma. Marie, a distinguished professor, or a famous novelist, or a cancer fatality.
Clay’s display showed a private text, in cyan, directly above his face. It was from Jana Bluehorse and it read, “HEY CLAY, SAW YA KISSING SANTOS, YOU AN ITEM NOW?”
He swallowed his concerns about loved ones he would really never see again. “I refuse to talk about it until my feet are on a planet,” he texted back.
The two wings glided on through increasingly realistic space. They retracted the cable conduits that connected them, and the fighters returned to being separate objects flying parallel courses. They found themselves in the vicinity of a yellow star, with a dimmer red companion a little distance away. As the system steadily resolved, and as their sensors and computers made increasing detail visible, they could identify three, five, six, seven planets of significant size, along with a diffuse rubble of asteroids and comets circulating in the gravitational wash of the two stars. None of the six planets already known to orbit the yellow star, from “e” so close in that it orbited in under a day, to the gigantic “d” in its Jupiter-like position, were going to offer decent skinny-dipping opportunities. Most were far too large; e was far too hot; g, which had hidden from astronomers for over a century after the others were fully catalogued, was far too cold. Goldilocks would have burned her tongue on e, would have had her saliva freeze on f.
But as they continued to decelerate like mad, they began to pick up more objects. Moons appeared around the planets (except for e, which would have had its moons gobbled by the star); planetoids from Pluto size down began to show up, mostly too far out to have liquid water and too small to have atmosphere; rings glinted orange-gold around gigantic d.
All eight pilots became engaged in the task of studying the system like they were shopping in a catalog. Every several minutes someone would say, “Check that moon at 580,000 kay from b,” or “Ohhh, sun-grazing comet,” or “Asteroid at 1.1 billion, got some deep craters.”
“B has planets!” cried Li Zan, as they came within a couple of hundred billion kilometers of the yellow A star, with B another hundred and fifty billion kilometers away at a right angle.
“By golly,” said Gil Rojette, “I pick up one, no, two.”
“Inner one is a Jupiter,” said Vilya. “It’s right in B’s lap. Outer one, are there two? What am I seeing there?”
“One,” said Li, “but a large moon.”
“Goldilocks zone?” asked Clay.
“Outer edge of,” said Li.
“Agneska,” said Su Park, “what say your wing goes and checks the dwarf? You’re doing new science here, you know. No one knew B had planets at all.”
“Sounds excellent,” said Vilya. “We’ll split in two pairs when we get closer. Gil, Li, you get the little guy with the big moon. Jana, you’re with me checking the giant in the dwarf’s lap.”
“Okay, happy journeying,” said Su Park. “Rachel, you and Gilbert head for d, our ringed giant. Kleiner, you’re with me, we’ll leave them to sift through all those moons and we’ll head inward. If anyone sees any cute little aliens, let’s try not to let them blast us with their photon cannons.”