The largest moon of Planet d was indeed a volcanic wasteland. The second and third largest, almost the same size, were as different as Earth and Venus, though neither of them would be confused with wet, blue-green Earth or baking hot, breezy Venus. One of them did have clouds, streaks of white and pink vapor on a thin hazy atmosphere over a land of folded hills and low-lying patches of black goo. The other was also folded, but it was folded rock, fingerprint wrinkles pocked with tiny recent craters, and it had no atmosphere. Rachel decided the airless one was a safer landing spot.
They set down on a flat-topped ridge and got out of their fighters in a gravity a little higher than that of Earth’s Moon. They got out and stretched, then walked around a little to get used to the gravity and the surface.
“It’s as hard as any rock,” said Rachel, “but it’s got a lot of water ice in it.”
“I’ll put a probe into it,” said Clay. “You never know.”
“I doubt it’ll matter much, Clay. The place seems pretty barren. At least the view’s good.” Looking back up from leaning into his fighter, Clay saw what she was talking about. Rachel was standing, her arms up toward the black sky, and before her the gas giant called 55 Cancri A-d rose, enormous, covering fifty degrees of the sky, its rings reaching up to the zenith. The planet was orange and red and white and dirty yellow in bands with chaotic ripples or tightly wound storms; the rings glinted and gleamed, mostly white or gold but with dark lumps and spokes and wavelets following behind moonlets like ripples behind a swan swimming on a pond.
“Oh my,” said Clay. Rachel turned toward him. He couldn’t see a thing inside her helmet, but he knew she was smiling. “You could build a summer place up here,” he said. “It really is quite the view. To think no one has ever had this view before. That we know of.”
Rachel turned and looked again. “That we know of,” she said. “That’s an interesting thought.”
“Well, the Milky Way has been around for twelve billion years,” said Clay, jamming the metal probe into the icy rock. “That’s a long time for observers to come and go. I always figure I’m not the first. Maybe I’m just not used to being the first for real.”
“What about with Vera?” Rachel needled. “Do you think you’ll be the first?”
“Ha,” said Clay.
“Well, you said you’d open up when you were standing on hard ground. It doesn’t get a lot harder than this, not at 75 degrees above absolute zero.”
“Well, hell,” said Clay. He had pulled the probe back out and was inspecting it closely.
“Well, what do you think of this luck? I swear this is algae.” He looked up at the star in the sky, the Sun as it were, 55 Cancri A, a star much like Sol, at a distance much like Jupiter’s distance. It was a bit more than a dot; it was a disk, actually, in the star-speckled blackness with the Milky Way spread across just like a bunch of spilled milk. The Milky Way shed almost as much light as the daytime sun.
“Let me see,” said Rachel. She took the probe from him, saying, “I think you’re just trying to avoid the question.”
“No, actually,” said Clay, walking a little way away and gazing up at 55 Cancri A, then over at its distant red dwarf companion, 55 Cancri B, a mere bright red spark in the night. “I don’t think I’m her first. And she’s not my first. So that’s okay. But do I think she’s in love with me? She was in love with me that night. I was in love with her. I don’t know if she’ll feel the same way when they all get here in another three weeks or whatever.” He looked back at her. “Got any insight on that? Because I really could use some insight.”
“You think I understand women?” But Rachel wasn’t looking up from the probe. Presently she held it out to him, and then used a screwdriver from one of her pouches to pry up a bit more permafrost. She held it to her helmet and held an instrument from another pocket up to it. “Yes indeed,” she said, “Mr Gilbert, I think we have discovered life on other planets.” She pushed the flakes of ice into a vial and sealed it, and she put the vial into a compartment in her fighter. “It’s not much, but it’s all over this ridge top.”
She walked over to Clay, who had wandered off to look at the planet some more. “This is good,” she said. “It will give the scientists something to get all excited about. Because I’ll tell you, I just don’t think anyone’s going to want to colonize this system.”
“This place is too far out,” said Clay, “and all the other planets are too close or too big. I mean, someone might be able to colonize here, but it’ll take a lot of work. We’re looking for something a little easier, at least on the first try.”
“I can’t predict what the big ship people will do, I don’t think like they do,” said Rachel, “but I’d be surprised if they wanted to colonize here.”
“It’s too bad,” said Clay. “It’s a fine system.” He looked at the probe. “If you don’t expect too much. Like this algae, or whatever it is. Just a place high up, some water nearby even if it is frozen, a little sunlight.”
“And you?” asked Rachel. “Do you expect too much? Are you going to colonize the first system you kiss in the dark? Or are you going to roll the dice on the next one?” Clay only laughed as they stood there watching those glimmering rings.