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2.

No one, no primoid, no mouthhole, no alien of unknown origin, interrupted the rest of the journey out of the Candy One system of the Tasmania, the Greenland and Alpha and Gamma Wings. They trundled on up to 99.9996% of the speed of light at a mere 89 gees of acceleration, the eight fighters ensconced in the bays of the two freighters. Thus Alpha Wing partied, ate and had morning meetings with the sixteen members of Tasmania’s crew (four of whom were refugees from the late lamented Corsica), while Gamma Wing did the same on the Greenland.

Clay spent a lot of his time in his bunk dreaming of Vera Santos. Oh, for the old days, a few months or a century ago, when Vera was in love with him, or a month or fifty years later when she wasn’t but was perfectly willing to use his romantic services. “I’m just not sure we’re right for each other,” she could say, without meaning that they shouldn’t smooch if it was clear they weren’t planning their long-term future. He didn’t even know anymore what a long-term future was. They were now over a hundred years, in Earth time, down the road from where they had started, so that, except for his biology, which thought he was still in his mid-thirties, he was in fact a century and a half from the year of his birth. And then there was the fact that he had several times lately come face to face with death in the shadow of space. And still, the pretty face, the soft voice, the touch of a tinkling laugh, and all the other things that to Clay Gilbert went along with the concept of Woman, attracted and tormented him.

Natasha was talking to him, at least, but clearly as a buddy pal and not as a girlfriend. “You’re a really good listener,” she actually said to him during one of their parties. He steeled himself for a slap on the back that didn’t come.

Rachel, on the other hand, was oddly quiet. He remembered what she had been like when he had first known her, when he had thought her a quiet type. Then he remembered the many long talks they had had, the games of chess, the simulated fights, the explorations.

He missed her. And what had he done? She had saved his life; he had saved hers. When he saved Natasha’s life, she responded by falling in love with him. Hmm.

But then she had gotten over him. And Vera had needed no such stimulus to move in either direction.

Clay found himself wondering about his old girlfriend. Wendy. He couldn’t remember her face. He could remember what a failure she was, or what a failure he was at being her boyfriend. Was there something wrong with him? Was there something wrong with women?

And then he pictured his sister, Marie, now (in the chronology of the Earth that he would eventually be sent back to for a visit) closing on two centuries old, probably decades in the grave. He pictured her a few years older than him, almost forty and quite beautiful, with her long straight brown hair, her sea-blue eyes, her curious little smile. He pictured Yvette, now a hundred years old or more herself, her black hair blowing in the sea breeze, her little kid smile bending his heart. He felt, as he lay in his bunk on Tasmania, weighted only by the buffered acceleration, her hand in his on the shore on a long ago day in Camden, Maine.

He let out a sigh, then took it in and let it out again.

And then they were over to deceleration, and then the haze of relativistic speed was evaporating, and then they could see the system before them that they were calling Candidate Two. The star was mustard yellow and slightly larger than Earth’s Sun, and there were four planets, plus a tightly clumped inner asteroid belt with one almost Earth-sized planet in its midst. Those asteroids were all blasted clean by a vigorous solar wind; the next planet out, somewhere between Mercury and Venus distance, was a big lummox of a terrestrial planet, baked to a crisp and covered with deep and toxic clouds. Further out, at Jupiter distance, was a shaky looking Jovian planet almost the size of Saturn; inside its orbit, a little further out than Mars distance, was another gas giant, almost exactly Saturn size but with more the personality of a Jupiter, colorful and stormy and without major rings.

But the Tasmania crew and Alpha’s pilots, packed tightly into the Tasmania bridge, only had eyes for Planet Three. It was small, about Mars size, and mostly desert, but it had rifts and craters that shone with the glint of blue water, and it shimmered with white clouds in lovely bars of cirrus and clumps of cumulus and even a cute little cyclone over a parallelogram of ocean. It had ice caps of real white ice and volcanoes smoking in lines of mountain and a single cute little moon a quarter the diameter of the one that Clay and company had trained on.

“And the atmosphere?” asked Park.

“Patience,” said Kalkar with a grin.

“I see nothing green, anyway,” put in Jack Dott. “I think it may be largely lifeless.”

“I’m picking up biological processes in the ocean,” said Natasha.

“Atmo data coming in,” said Ram Vindu, in the pilot seat. Everyone shut right up. After ten seconds, and five seconds longer than Clay thought absolutely necessary, Vindu added, “Oxygen. Nitrogen. CO2. Pressure at 92% of Earth.”

“Poisons? Radioactivity?” asked Irah Chontz.

“No radioactivity,” said Natasha.

“And,” said Vindu, and again he paused, apparently for effect, “no poisons in the atmosphere. You people should be able to take your helmets off and breathe free.”

There was cheering and congratulation in the bridge, and then Clay asked, “So do we think this could be the colony planet?”

They all looked at Vindu, who looked at Kalkar, who looked at Natasha and Park.

“Yes,” said Natasha. “Yes, I think this could be home.”

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