But in the event, the seven fighter escort and the three armored freighters did not encounter anything that wanted to eat yummy starship. They coasted in and went into orbit around the most promising planet, Gliese 163 c. The initial verdict from Gamma Wing was that no place in the system offered a decent colony opportunity without a lot of terraforming, and while they could possibly make a go of it in a few places, at this stage they were content to move on. While waiting for the colony ships to trundle in, the fighters and anchor freighters did a more thorough investigation and came to the same conclusion, only more so.
They also powered up their depleted batteries by simply flying in for close passes of the local Sun, again and again until their compact and high-concentration power stores were full again.
Meanwhile Beta Wing was assigned the unenviable task of patrolling the outskirts of the system to watch for the colony ships and try to prevent them getting chomped. There were many theories about how this might work out, ranging from the assumption that the things in the videos were just artifacts of relativistic travel and the damage to the conduit was from a space rock, to the expectation that the colony ships would never arrive, or would arrive looking like Swiss cheese. Vilya, Rojette, Li Zan and Bluehorse were more or less prepared, or equally unprepared, for any imaginable eventuality.
Alpha Wing spent a week or more based on Tasmania. Natasha got her fighter fixed up; in a lapse of oversight, Clay was left on Tasmania too while Rachel and Park took samples on c’s moons. Clay and Natasha took every opportunity to repair to his or her bunk and seal the door behind them. Sound buffers were not neglected.
“You know what I can’t get my head around,” said Natasha, as she and Clay lay entangled and naked in her bunk. “We’ve been gone from Earth now for like 85 years. If we went back by the straightest route, everyone we knew would be like 120 years older. We’d be oh, a year older, maybe. Everyone we knew would be dead. Clay,” she said, smiling and running her fingers through his thin dark chest hair, “your niece, that little girl? She could still be alive.”
“She’d have great grandkids,” said Clay. “I don’t even have kids yet. I could go back and have a kid and they’d be like first cousins four times removed or something.”
“You want children?” she asked in a noncommittal way, considering they were both naked.
“I don’t know,” said Clay. “It would be difficult in our business. No going away for a short twenty light year journey and coming back. They’d be forty years older.”
“I don’t want children,” said Natasha.
“Is it because—?”
“Clay. Never tell anyone what I told you. Okay?”
“Of course. Of course.” She kissed him, and then she lay against him, lost in thought. In another minute he noticed that she was softly snoring, and in a minute more he was too.
A few days, well, a few 24-hour periods later, Natasha’s fighter was fixed up and she was ready to go try it out. She and Clay asked Park for something they could usefully do near the c planet, and Park assigned them, and Bonnie Bain, to take samples on the moons of the next planet out, the one with the poetic name of f. Whether Bain thought of herself as a chaperone or not, it didn’t matter much: there was nowhere on any of the moons where one could safely remove one’s vac suit.
So they zipped over to planet f, a dull blue little gas and ice ball, full of methane and nitrogen and not a lot else. Its moons were low density affairs, each at least 50% water ice. The largest had a bit of an atmosphere—hydrogen and helium and argon. The Sun was almost Sun-sized in the sky, but it was a dull red.
The three of them landed on a highland and took ice cores and rock samples in the dull pink glow of the red dwarf, mixed with a bluish purple shine from the planet. “That’s quite a view,” said Bonnie Bain. “So. Are we looking for anything in particular?”
“I was hoping for algae,” said Natasha. “But I don’t think we’re going to get it.”
“I was hoping for a nice air-tight cave with a big ol’ bed,” said Clay on a private line. Natasha gave him a grin and a wagging finger.
They didn’t find either one, and they took off after an hour. Other sites yielded different samples but no life and certainly no good place for a colony, much less a sealed room with a big bed. So they took off and visited the next three moons in size.
“I liked the volcanic one,” said Bain as they rose up off a highly cratered ice ball crisscrossed by cracks where the ice crust had been broken by the expansion of the ice mantle.
“Why?” asked Natasha. “You’d never want to live on a place like that.”
“It was just cool,” said Bain. “Where next?”
“Let’s try,” said Clay, looking over the pile of data from the smaller moons. “Oh.”
“That one,” said Natasha. “The far out one.”
“It’s not very big,” said Bain.
“It’s not the size that matters,” said Clay. “It’s got a high metal content. I read iridium and palladium. Huh. As in, a hexagonal plate made of them and with weird letters on it.”