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4.

“The readings dropped 70% on that side,” said Rachel. They were still naked, but now they were paying much less attention to the feel of their back sides touching. Clay was sliding things around and poking things on his screen, and Rachel was poking, pushing, watching, running back and manipulating graphs. “It’s like what we saw between Earth and Cancri but more. And they haven’t gone up yet.”

“And it’s all normal on the other side,” said Clay. “Normally abnormal instead of—well, this.”

They spent some seconds just staring at their displays. Rachel said, “Do you think it’s anything to do with our record speed?”

Clay thought a moment. “Yeah, could be,” he said. “But it can’t be the whole deal.”

“No. We weren’t setting records when we saw what we saw between Earth and Cancri. Well, we were, for the time. But we haven’t gone that slow to light speed since then.”

“Yeah. Heh heh. Slow.” They stared for another half minute, and Clay found Rachel’s hand finding his hand behind them. They squeezed hands. “It’s interesting,” she said.

“That’s one way to put it.”

“Being out here with you. In nothing.” She didn’t turn and kiss him, but the effect of her voice, in the void, had the same effect on his nether regions as if she had.

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t think Park and Vilya had anything like this when they flew to Alpha C all those years ago.”

“All those years ago,” said Rachel.

“Whoa,” said Clay.

“What the bleep,” said Rachel. Then they were both poking and pushing, and then Rachel grabbed her pilot stick, pushed and prodded and then swung out. The change in acceleration, given that they were already moving at almost impossible speed, threw them around barely within the capacity of the buffers to contain their momentum. They bashed into each other, naked but definitely not thinking of sex.

“Rachel,” Clay blurted.

“Clay, sorry, but—!” He hung on while she steered and then they were coasting again.

“The screens are clear,” he said. “We’re back to normally abnormal.” He turned, and she turned, and there they were, naked, facing each other as they flew through the void. “What the hell?”

“I seriously don’t know, Clay.” He started to say something but stopped, so she said, “I just felt the need to steer around, um, something. You know?”

“I don’t,” said Clay, “but I have a feeling that you did the right thing. Whatever the hell you did.”

“Holy bleep, holy bleep, holy bleep,” said Rachel, rolling her eyes. She fixed them on him again. “Now I feel like I can panic a little. What the bleep was that?”

“Them,” said Clay with a very panicky calm. “Pretty sure it was a them.”

“Them?”

“Legions of them,” said Clay. He chuckled without humor. “I don’t know. Ever read Lovecraft? H. P. Lovecraft?”

“A little,” said Rachel. “In college. We were required to. What about him?”

“The cosmos is out to get you.”

“Knew that. What else?”

“There are things you don’t even know about lurking in the depths of the stars. It’s not people who pose the greatest threat. People? Don’t make Mr Lovecraft laugh out loud. It’s those—things, those—indescribable—for the love of God, Carter, put back the slab and beat it!”

“Indescribable things.”

“Well,” said Clay, “how would you describe them?”

Rachel looked around, as if she could see through the hulls. The screens, all around them, were quiescent. She shivered and leaned into Clay. “Okay,” she said, “let’s watch Apollo XIII.”

And so they did, and then they watched a few modern romances, and a nature documentary, and they made love and ate and slept and made love and checked readings and ate and slept and made love, and then one fine day in the black void they woke up and found that the next system was opening before them through the confusion of relativity.

Soon they were decelerated enough to be able to pick up clear readings from the little pink-orange star and its four planets. And Rachel summed it up pretty well, as far as Clay was concerned, with those two little words: “Well, bleep.”

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