The eight fighters, formed up in two tight tetrahedra about 100,000 km apart, shot out of the 55 Cancri system at just over 100 gees of acceleration: only their acceleration buffers prevented them all from being squashed into paper-thin filets. As their ships approached light speed, they gained mass and their acceleration slowed a little, but by the magic of recent innovations and the tiny rest masses of ships and pilots alike, they managed to squeeze past 99% of the speed of light, ultimately cruising at 99.9998%. At that speed, their journey, which to an outside observer would seem to take approximately 42.8 years, would take under a month. The anchor freighters, lumbering along at a mere 99.9995%, would take three weeks longer; the colony ships, at their snail-like speed of 99.999%, would take 70 days.
No Earthling had ever traveled as fast as they were traveling. Now into their second light speed traverse, Alpha Wing felt inclined to push the old pedal to the metal. They suffered no ill effects, and, given the increasing incoherence of the signals from the slowpoke universe around them, Clay did not feel like he was moving especially fast. From his shuttle pilot days he was used to the idea that a wafer-thin hull separated his cozy seat from the cold vacuum of space; the bizarre nearness of the speed of light gave him the vague feeling of sailing cased in lead through a gulf of radioactivity. But since his speed was relative, in a real sense he wasn’t moving at all, nor were the ladies around him, and it was the rest of the universe which was shooting the other direction at a bizarre speed. There was no experiment or observation he could make that would tell him he was moving and all those stars were standing still, as opposed to the other way around.
So he played chess (losing, still, much more often than winning or drawing) and fought on the simulator (holding his own with Rachel and Natasha and managing to get Park once in twelve tries), he exercised and read (the Sparrow Kills series that had been all the rage in his teen years, then the Harry Potters, finally getting through Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince), he watched videos, feelies-smellies of the 23rd Century and good old fashioned “films” (including, perversely, Apollo XIII, which he had somehow bonded with during his shuttle pilot days), he re-listened to his 20th through 22nd Century music collections, and he let Rachel dissect his romance with Vera Santos.
“I didn’t think it would last,” she said as they let their brains relax after a hard-fought draw. “I mean, did you?”
“I don’t know,” said Clay. “I guess I did.”
“Clay, it is over, isn’t it? Or is there some question in your mind?”
“I don’t know,” he said. She let him think for a bit. He remembered how much he had wanted Vera, and how magical her look was. He remembered how enchanted their love life had been. How hot her kisses. How hot her glances. He remembered how hard it was to impress her, how annoying some of her habits of thought and speech were. Everything was “God damn it.” Well, what was it about her? That attracted him? That was easy. That annoyed him? That was harder.
It made him wonder what was wrong with him. It made him wonder what about him annoyed her.
“You okay over there?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I have no idea why I’m fine, but I’m fine.”
So they shot through empty space, giving the photons a run for their money, cutting their perception of the distance from 55 Cancri to Gliese 163 down from 42.8 years’ travel to what seemed to their bodies and their clocks to be a mere four weeks. And then they went over to deceleration, and all those quotes from Apollo XIII popped up in his mind: “You’re about to feel a bit of a jolt” and “And that is how we do that,” and “Gentlemen, what are your intentions?” And then “Well, that’s our glitch for this mission,” when on deceleration they hit some sort of bump or wave or something and for a few seconds it seemed as if the conduits might break and set them loose from each other to finish the journey alone. But the conduits held. Everyone checked in. They were down to 60% and still braking hard, and soon the rest of the universe would make sense again to their sensors.
“What the bleep was that?” asked Park.
“I’ll tell you what it wasn’t,” said Rachel. “It wasn’t a hole in space-time, it wasn’t a bunch of boogie men chasing us like whatever Bain saw, and it wasn’t something trying to swallow us like whatever swallowed the France.”
“I picked up gravitons,” said Natasha. “Yes, gravitons. A wave. I hypothesize that we passed near something massive, a black hole or a neutron star or even just a regular star.”
“How near?” asked Park.
“I don’t know. If it was massive, we wouldn’t have to be that close to get at least a little bump.”
“Anything like that lie along our trajectory?”
“Not that we know of.”
“Well, there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Park.
And so they continued decelerating, and the red dwarf that was Gliese 163, and then its little coterie of midget gas giants, began to come into distant view. And that was when they did hit something, or something came at them—it was dark and the sensors were still picking up a lot of noise. Whatever it was, it was curving around as they picked it up; it wasn’t large, not larger than the fighters; and it was coming from behind. It didn’t fire or signal. It remained black. And then it hit the conduit connecting to Natasha’s fighter and snapped it before shooting away to the side and vanishing in the haze.
Rachel and Su Park were calling to Natasha and then to each other, adjusting and guessing like mad, and all Clay could think at first was, Houston, we have a problem.