Chapter 3: Into 55 Cancri

III. Into 55 Cancri

1.

Home behind, the void ahead, Alpha Wing formed up, attached comm conduits and engaged thrust at full power. Behind them, Beta Wing was doing the same thing.

It was known from Park’s and Vilya’s experiences that communications became impossible between spacecraft moving at speeds above about 30% of the speed of light. Photons carrying communications between two ships had to move at the speed of light relative to the two ships, which were moving at nearly the speed of light relative to the Sun, and also relative to solar photons which were moving the same direction as the ships were, at the speed of light, and yet had to be overtaking the ships at the speed of light; meanwhile, photons from Alpha and Beta and Proxima Centauri, coming at the ships at the speed of light while the ships were coming at them at nearly the speed of light, still could only meet the ships at the speed of light, not nearly twice the speed of light. It was all so paradoxical, one sympathized with the poor confused photons.

But what one did about it was: connect the spacecraft via mostly rigid, slightly extendible wire conduits, so that the wing flew in a tight tetrahedron, each craft about three meters from each other craft. Beta Wing followed Alpha Wing at a distance of a hundred thousand kilometers, two tiny tetrahedra packed with human, shooting across the solar system at 1%, 2%, 5% of the speed of light.

“Goodbye, life we leave behind,” said Rachel. “How are you guys doing?”

“I’m happy as a clam,” said Natasha. “Wonder if I’ll ever have clam chowder again.”

“Just program your regurgitator,” said Clay.

“Replicator,” said Su Park. “Honestly.”

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “it’ll probably produce something almost but not entirely unlike clam chowder.”

“Hey,” said Clay, who had been catching up recently on classics of science fiction. “That’s what we need. Improbability drive.”

“What’s that?” asked Natasha.

“Hitchhiker’s Guide,” said Rachel.

“Okay, great,” said Su Park, “Miss Kleiner and I have some reading to do. There will be plenty of time. Any other suggestions? We have approximately forty-two days.”

“Forty-two!” said Clay. “This must be Thursday.”

“I loaded us up on literature,” said Rachel. “I thought the Odyssey might be relevant. Some of the fantasies from the twenty-second century are pretty good. Got Harry Potter, text, game and video. Oh, and Star Wars, Star Trek, Star This, Star That. Those are pretty amusing. Any of you ever see something called ‘Firefly’?”

Life inside a tiny fighter was not as restrictive as might be expected.

For one thing, the all-around screen made it feel as if Clay were shooting through a tunnel filled with stars, albeit weirdly streaky stars, distorted by the vagaries of near light speed travel. He shot across the solar system, his ship speeding up at an obscene rate made possible by discoveries made only in the past thirty years, including acceleration buffers that allowed him to far exceed the usual human limit in gees. He did not, like the space men in children’s books still did, fly past Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune close enough to wave at local aliens; indeed, all five of these objects were mere dots among the other dots, unless Clay put a finger on one of them and chose Magnify. The all-around screen also allowed Clay a view of the other three fighters, but only their outsides, unless he was specifically allowed in by the resident turning on the internal camera. So they all flew along in rigid formation, surrounded by stars and by three black ellipsoids, and it was only in Clay’s imagination that he could see Rachel and Natasha, reclined as he was but in the nude.

For another thing, the pods were designed to exercise their inhabitants. Clay could literally run a marathon if he chose—well, he could literally virtually run a marathon. He could and did run cross country routes chosen from an extensive library; several times he tried his pod’s selection of New England and Canadian mountain hikes, but these were somehow unsatisfying. He could also stretch or weight lift or do gymnastics, and he could, and often did, take part in games of soccer with Alpha Wing as teammates against randomly generated opponents. He couldn’t shower, but his suit cleaned him up after a workout and recycled the sweat and lost hair and skin.

The food was uninteresting and wasn’t helped by the replicators’ attempts to make it interesting. They did produce a decent enough whiskey, but it made his heart sink to remember that the known universe’s supplies of pale ale and red wine were being left further and further behind.

All in all, the experience of spending six weeks in a space about 30% larger in volume than his own body was best described as “not as bad as one might have expected.” It certainly shouldn’t have been exciting, but a few misfiring warning signals gave them all scary moments: Rachel wondered out loud if it wasn’t part of the programming, designed to make sure they were paying attention.

The same could be said for the one unexplained external event, or encounter, or mere phenomenon, of their 1,014-hour journey.

They were at the 507 hour mark. Their readouts read 99.99983% of the speed of light. Rachel Andros was playing chess with Clay by comm; Rachel was winning, as she did about 60% of the time.

“Hey Clay,” she suddenly said, in a tone of voice that made him stop pondering how she’d gotten up two pawns when he thought she was only up one.

Clay checked the comm display. Their communication was closed to just them: the Commander couldn’t hear them on this channel. “What?” he replied.

“The last night on the station,” said Rachel in a teasing voice. “Anything to say?”

“About…?”

“Don’t act innocent. You and Santos.”

“Rachel,” he said, “please tell me everyone wasn’t watching me and Vera.”

“Everyone was not watching you and Vera,” said Rachel. “Just me and Tash. And she’s sworn to secrecy. Come on, you can trust us—we think it’s very cute. Was it just last night stuff, or is this something serious?”

Clay thought about that for a while. He made a move, trying to get her king’s side pawn structure screwed up. She let him do that, but they traded down and she was left with a solo pawn—in an open file with a rook behind it.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Any advice would be appreciated.”

“Well, do you like her?”

“Of course I like her,” he replied. “Honestly. Have you looked at her? Have you fought her?”

“She’s good, I know that,” said Rachel. “You want a woman who can beat you? Or is that a problem for you?” He didn’t reply and she went on, “It didn’t look like a problem that last night.”

“No, Rachel, it wasn’t a problem.” He laughed. “But I don’t know. I think it might have been just last night stuff or whatever you called it. But maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know, I—geez, Rachel, I have no idea what women think. I mean, any help you can offer.”

“Well, you have about another month and a half to think about it. Because you’re not going to know till she’s in the same system as you. So don’t overheat your brain thinking about it.”

“Gosh, Rachel, I’ll just get right on that, because as you know, male human beings are totally in control of our emotions. Um—!”

But he didn’t get to say the next thing, because the next thing they both said was along the lines of, “Whoa, what was that?”

A second later, the comm was open to the whole wing. More expressions of surprise or something were coming through. Clay may have been uttering some of them. But when the next three seconds were over, he wasn’t sure what it had been. In the streaky and speckled darkness that surrounded them, Clay was fairly sure that a very black tunnel had opened up on his right, or a dense cloud of dust had passed on his right, or a monster had nearly eaten the whole wing from his right, or his sensors had simply malfunctioned or experienced an anomaly on his right.

“Record readings,” came Park’s voice.

“Photon intensity to starboard down 35%,” said Natasha Kleiner. “It’s back up now.”

“I got that too,” said Rachel. “37%.”

“Same,” said Clay, who was reluctant to say he thought a monster mouth had opened up to starboard. “We’re just switching to deceleration,” he noted. “Could it be an artifact of that?”

“We didn’t see anything like that en route to Centauri,” said Park. “But this is about ten times as far out, so maybe. I don’t know.”

“I wonder if Beta saw the same thing,” said Rachel. “Or anything.”

“I wonder if Beta is still back there,” said Clay.

“You think it might really be that serious, Mr Gilbert?” asked Park.

“I don’t know, Commander. Not gonna lie. It definitely gave me the willies.”

“Well, willies or no,” said Rachel, “we are still on course. Star streaking is normal for early deceleration, not that I know anything about what’s normal, since we are the first four people to go this far this fast.”

“Or just this far,” said Natasha.

“For the record,” said Park, “I will be quite happy when we next catch sight of Beta Wing. Because, Mr Gilbert, I also got the willies. I expect it won’t be for the last time.”

2.

The deceleration phase went without further unexpected event, other than a two-game streak of draws for Clay against Rachel, bracketed by Rachel winning streaks. He also played Natasha—he was almost as good as she was—and Park, whose only fault was that chess made her impatient. She still beat him much more often than she lost; she simply didn’t draw a whole lot. They also played Set, which went faster and which was even more dominated by Rachel than chess was.

They also fought simulated fighter battles, but these did not take nearly so long and were not dominated by Clay or Rachel or Natasha: whatever side Su Park was on generally came out on top. The computers had a wide variety of guesses as to what the terrain would be like, and Clay and Rachel and Natasha invented new ones; they fought in denser environments such as Earth-like air or Jupiter-like methane or ocean water or weightless drifts of sand, and they fought in tubes and mazes and on surfaces of all sorts of topologies, but Park tended to prefer the nakedness of open space. It didn’t make much difference to the outcome: Park was skilled and also wily. She also had the good commander’s ability to pay sincere compliments.

“You’re getting better,” she said, after they had managed to beat her three on one, which they didn’t always manage to do. “You were already the best besides me.”

“Thanks, Commander,” said Rachel. “We agree.”

After another two weeks or so of this, two weeks, that is, without a dawn or a dusk or a quitting time or a weekend, two weeks of exercise and play and work and reading all while reclining in a weightless and acceleration-buffered tube, Alpha Wing began to pick up meaningful signals from the universe around them. Before that happened, they were cheered to pick up meaningful signals from Beta Wing, still 100,000 kilometers back, moving about that far each second.

“Alpha, are you all awake?” came Vilya’s voice. “Commander Park, are you with us still?”

“Yes, Commander Vilya,” said Park, “you haven’t lost us yet. Reset your clocks, everyone: it’s now 41 years later than it was when we set out from Earth.”

“Hey Andros,” said Gil Rojette. “Hey Rojette,” said Rachel. Similar greetings went around amongst the wings. Presumably everyone was experiencing similar feelings of anxiety about everyone they knew on Earth being now 41 years older than they had been. Yvette, a mom or maybe a grandma. Marie, a distinguished professor, or a famous novelist, or a cancer fatality.

Clay’s display showed a private text, in cyan, directly above his face. It was from Jana Bluehorse and it read, “HEY CLAY, SAW YA KISSING SANTOS, YOU AN ITEM NOW?”

He swallowed his concerns about loved ones he would really never see again. “I refuse to talk
about it until my feet are on a planet,” he texted back.

The two wings glided on through increasingly realistic space. They retracted the cable conduits that connected them, and the fighters returned to being separate objects flying parallel courses. They found themselves in the vicinity of a yellow star, with a dimmer red companion a little distance away. As the system steadily resolved, and as their sensors and computers made increasing detail visible, they could identify three, five, six, seven planets of significant size, along with a diffuse rubble of asteroids and comets circulating in the gravitational wash of the two stars. None of the six planets already known to orbit the yellow star, from “e” so close in that it orbited in under a day, to the gigantic “d” in its Jupiter-like position, were going to offer decent skinny-dipping opportunities. Most were far too large; e was far too hot; g, which had hidden from astronomers for over a century after the others were fully catalogued, was far too cold. Goldilocks would have burned her tongue on e, would have had her saliva freeze on g.

But as they continued to decelerate like mad, they began to pick up more objects. Moons appeared around the planets (except for e, which would have had its moons gobbled by the star); planetoids from Pluto size down began to show up, mostly too far out to have liquid water and too small to have atmosphere; rings glinted orange-gold around gigantic d. A seventh, previously unknown planet was noted by several of the pilots: the reason it had never been seen was that it was very far out from A, on a highly inclined and highly elliptical orbit. Its temperature above absolute zero would be ten times as high in its summer than its 900-year winter: Planet h, as it was designated, went from seven degrees Kelvin to seventy. The nitrogen ices would melt into nitrogen pools.

All eight pilots became engaged in the task of studying the system like they were shopping in a catalog. Every several minutes someone would say, “Check that moon at 580,000 kay from b,” or
“Ohhh, sun-grazing comet,” or “Asteroid at 1.1 billion, got some deep craters.”

“B has planets!” cried Li Zan, as they came within a couple of hundred billion kilometers of the
yellow A star, with B another hundred and fifty billion kilometers away at a right angle.

“By golly,” said Gil Rojette, “I pick up one, no, two.”

“Inner one is a Jupiter,” said Vilya. “It’s right in B’s lap. Hot Jupiter. Outer one, are there two? What am I seeing there?”

“One,” said Li, “but a large moon.”

“Goldilocks zone?” asked Clay.

“Outer edge of,” said Li.

“Agneska,” said Su Park, “what say your wing goes and checks the dwarf? You’re doing new science here, you know. No one knew B had planets at all.”

“Sounds excellent,” said Vilya. “We’ll split in two pairs when we get closer. Gil, Li, you get the little guy with the big moon. Jana, you’re with me checking the giant in the dwarf’s lap.”

“Okay, happy journeying,” said Su Park. “Rachel, you and Gilbert head for d, our ringed giant. Kleiner, you’re with me, we’ll leave them to sift through all those moons and we’ll head inward. We’ll leave h for last, that can be our meet-up point. If anyone sees any cute little aliens, let’s try not to let them blast us with their photon cannons.”

3.

So Rachel and Clay turned their fighters left sixty degrees and made for the d planet, the largest of 55 Cancri A’s clutch of planets and the furthest out besides newfound h. They played chess to a desultory draw, but then they napped and settled into businesslike chit chat.

“Funny shaped system,” said Rachel. “Of course it’s not like I’ve seen more than two star systems. But all those planets are sort of bunched up around the star like they’re huddling for warmth, and here’s this big boy way out here with rings and moons and everything.”

“Well,” said Clay, “you have two stars here, so an orbit much larger that the one d is in, like say the size of Neptune’s,  would be constantly disturbed. But a really big planet like d can stand up to the tugging and hold its place. It might even sweep up the debris of lost other planets: that might be why d is so huge. I mean, it’s four times the mass of our largest planet. It’s got a moon the size of Earth, almost.”

“It’s got one the size of Earth,” said Rachel, “and two the size of Mars.”

“So, think that Earth-size moon might have life? Coffee shops?”

“Super doubt it, Clay,” Rachel replied. “It’s soaking up the radiation from that big ass planet. It’s like Jupiter and Io. Yeah. I’m picking up hot spots on that moon. I bet it’s got volcanoes. I bet it’s just squeezed and flexed by those tidal forces.”

“The other two bigger moons don’t look so bad,” said Clay. “They’re a little further out. Shall we head there? I’m, uh, rather itching to actually stand on something.”

“Yeah, me too, let’s head for the streaky one. Hey, it’s got a bit of an atmosphere. See that?”

“Clouds,” Clay replied. “Let’s see. Methane. CO2. Methane clouds in CO2 air. Okay. We’ll leave the helmets sealed, obviously.”

“Obviously,” said Rachel. They coasted along, decelerating still but not as hard. A minute later, Rachel said, “So, anything you want to say about—?”

Clay did a sort of laugh-sigh to himself. Then he said, “I told Bluehorse I would have to be standing on a planet before I’d talk about—what you want to talk about.”

“Which is Vera,” said Rachel. “But I’m not Bluehorse. I’m your wing second. I have rank over you, which she never will, ever.”

“You’re going to order me to get in touch with my feelings?”

“That’d be a waste of time,” said Rachel. “Just lay it on the line. Was there some precedent for this behavior with the lips and stuff, or was that all spur of the moment?”

“Precedent? Huh. I don’t know.”

“You stinkin’ do know, you male guy person. What made you kiss her just then? I mean, and then you were off the next morning. Was that what got the hormones going?”

“Oh,” he said vaguely, “I guess you’d say there was precedent. I mean, we went skinny dipping together on Cuba. We didn’t do anything. We frolicked. I’m sure we flirted a lot. We had danced quite a bit. That can’t have escaped your notice, Miss Wing Second Woman.”

“Oh, I had noticed. I didn’t know about the skinny dipping, and I’m shocked because I thought you’d only done that with me and Tasha. Ha! I’ve seen you peeing. I know about the mole on your rear end.”

“I know about the big mole on your back,” said Clay, who couldn’t help think of how very muchhe had liked looking at Rachel’s naked back. He really couldn’t decide whether he liked Rachel’s
naked back better or Natasha’s, nor did he feel any need to. And then there was Vera’s naked back. Vera’s naked front. He smiled at himself, thinking it was lucky he wasn’t flying in a debris field because he was sure his course control was a wee bit lacking.

“Let’s leave the mole on my back out of this for now,” said Rachel. “I had some thought of having it removed.”

“Oh, don’t do that.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t have that mole removed, Rachel.”

“Why, Clay. I think that was a flirt. Totally inappropriate, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure,” he replied, and he was sure. Whether he was in love with Vera, or thought of Rachel as a good friend, or was under her command, or considered his team relationship to her and Natasha sacrosanct, it was totally inappropriate for him to think about Rachel naked. She was flying along dressed in a vac suit and a Ghost 201 fighter, about 20 kilometers to his left and a little ahead, and they had an important and possibly dangerous exploration ahead of them, in this star system forty light years from human civilization, this star system that might become the furthest-out human colony: surely he shouldn’t be thinking about her breasts. Or anyone else’s. He felt really bad about it. Or not. He smirked. There were advantages to not being in touch with one’s feelings.

But what if Vera was his love? What if that kiss really mattered? That fully clothed kiss, that kiss before parting?

“All right, not gonna get anymore out of that just now, obviously,” came Rachel’s voice. “We got eighty million kilometers. Shall we vote on a landing spot?”

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.

“What??”

“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. But it was a tiny disk. The Milky Way shed almost as much light as the distant sun.

Clay stood there for a moment, struck dumb by sudden wonder. Was he really here, on a moon orbiting a planet that orbited a star 40 light years away from the Sun he knew? Was the deadly cold of space really only millimeters away? Was he really one of the only eight humans in this entire solar system? Was the nearest significant body of breathable air still trillions of kilometers from here, the nearest patch of actual nature forty light years away?

He stood there looking around at the icy surface, cratered then melted and frozen again and again over the billions of years. There was not even a molecule of oxygen outside their vac suits and their Ghosts. The black sky stood speckled with blindingly white stars. The vast belly of the planet stood over them, stretching its rings high above their heads. It made Jupiter look rather restrained. Clay stood staring at it, and then he looked down at the probe. He held it close to his visor.

“Green,” he said. “Definitely green.”

“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 spark in the night. “Actually I don’t expect 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.

4.

Rachel and Clay spent the next sixty hours flitting about the moons of the gas giant 55 Cancri d, the planet that combined the ridiculous beauty of Saturn and the frightening beauty of Jupiter and was bigger than the two of them put together. They landed on five moons, all told, but not the biggest: they settled for spectroscopic analysis of its volcanically evolving surface.

The methane cloud moon turned out to have hydrocarbon pools, lakes of sticky black goo that might have been reasonable rocket fuel in the steam punk era that had never been. It was terribly interesting, but no human in his or her right mind would try to colonize it. The three moons of the next size range down, half the size of the one that orbited Earth, were interesting too, each in its own way. One was rocky and rich in the transition metals around iron in the periodic table; one was icy, covered with at least a twenty kilometer crust of water and methane ice; one was possessed of a thin argon-neon atmosphere and a surface of frozen carbon dioxide which evaporated to join the argon and neon in the moon’s noontime and then fell as dry ice snow in the evening.

“I don’t really see the need to settle down with someone just yet anyway,” said Clay as they took samples in a light flurry.

“Oh, play the field, huh,” said Rachel.

“Why is it everything’s about sex with you, Rache?”

“Oh, that’s funny, coming from a guy. Okay, so Vera shows up in three weeks or whatever, what do you do?”

“Honestly?” He stood up and looked at Rachel. He could actually see her features in the helmet. “I do what any intelligent male would do. I let the woman lead. Okay, no algae here, that’s for sure.”

“This place would kill a tardigrade,” said Rachel. “You know what I notice?”

“What?” asked Clay, expecting her to make an observation about men.

“This whole system is high in carbon. Carbon everywhere. The star, well, we already knew from its emission lines that there would be a lot of carbon. So the planet, it’s packed with methane and
ethane and CO and CO2, the rings are half water ice and half CO2 ice, this place is all carbon dioxide, that one with the lovely fleeting clouds, it’s all methane and hydrocarbons.” She had been looking around, turning slowly and gesturing; now she turned to Clay. “So does that make carbon based life more likely? Oddly the answer seems to be no.”

“It does seem to be no,” said Clay. “But I think d was unlikely to support a colony anyway. You want a bit more sunlight than this, don’t you?”

“I sure do,” said Rachel. “You’ve seen me at the beach.” They both laughed defensively. “You think Park and Tasha will come up with anything better on the inner planets?”

“Not e,” said Clay. “The Sun basically licks it with flares. Where it is? Coronal mass ejections must massacre that place.”

“Okay, and most of the others, not so much either,” said Rachel. “Who was that girl? Goldilocks? Everyplace in 55 Cancri is too hot, too cold, too big. Too full of carbon. ‘I don’t like this oatmeal, it tastes like tarmac.’ Oh well.” She shook her head at the whole system. “It’s the Drake Equation in action, that’s what it is.”

“Yeah,” Clay agreed, “the dice didn’t come up very well on this. The only planet that’s square in the Goldilocks Zone is g, and it doesn’t look like it has an atmosphere.” They walked a little way. “So, we done here?”

“I guess,” said Rachel. “Let’s have a last wafer in this lovely snow of CO2 and then take off forever. So Clay.”

“What?”

“We jump to another system. Then another. Say that one’s fine. Are you going to settle down with someone, raise a family? Use your fighter skills to protect the home and hearth?”

“Jeezum,” said Clay. “Rachel, don’t start with me.” They munched recycled wafers for a moment. “Well,” he said, “they’d have to stop calling them SCEPs. What about you? You’re great at dodging those questions.”

“Well, it’s different for a girl, isn’t it? I mean, for me, settling down would mean raising a brood of rug rats. Do I want to wipe baby butts, or go soaring through the universe? Gosh, that’s a tough one.”

“You could get your husband to do diapers.”

She fixed him with a look. “Are you saying you do diapers?”

They laughed even more defensively. “Well, I would,” he said. Then they laughed again. “But I am not proposing,” he went on.

“I bet Vera’s the settling down type,” said Rachel. “And you know what’s made of carbon? Diamonds are made of carbon.” She finished and walked over to her fighter. She climbed in, said, “Stick that in your pipe and smoke it,” and closed the hatch.

5.

After d, Rachel and Clay dropped in on a few outer asteroids, which would have been called Kuiper Belt Objects back home, except that the red dwarf a light week away pulled 55 Cancri A’s outer belt outward and made the orbits chaotic and unstable. So only the hardy few survived out here. They were not candidates for life or cononization, just for mineral rights. The two pilots duly took readings and headed back toward the star.

They could see Su Park and Natasha Kleiner (well, tiny lights labeled “Park” and “Kleiner” in their displays) when they lifted off from a barren ice moon of planet f. Park’s communication came soon after: “Let’s meet on that airless moon of d. Park, out.”

“Oh yes,” Rachel sent back. At this distance, a billion kilometers, transmissions took an hour to cross the distance between the two pairs. If one believed in simultaneity, at the moment Rachel and Clay received their communication, Su Park and Natasha Kleiner were one hour on their way out from f. “We have made a discovery of a sort. We don’t know whether to be amazed or underwhelmed. We have discovered algae on that moon. You’ll definitely want to see it. Even though it didn’t actually ask us to take it to our leader. I’m attaching the coordinates. Andros, out.”

“You’ll never make commander,” Clay said to Rachel. “Not that I will either.”

“Oh no,” said Rachel. “I think we know who’s your commander.” Clay just smirked to himself.

Fifty hours later, the two pairs of fighters were converging on the airless, Mars-sized moon where Rachel and Clay had first landed. They could see four more fighters on screen, still decelerating toward the red dwarf.

When Rachel and Clay reached the airless moon, Park and Kleiner had beaten them by some six hours. Park was already gushing about the amazing algae. “This is amazing,” she kept saying in her calm voice. “Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve just discovered life in another solar system.” She said this eleven times in six hours, so by the time they landed, Rachel and Clay were well aware of what they had done.

They found that Park and Kleiner had chosen a different ridge, in a different part of the pocked and folded planetoid. It too was made of bare, barren hard-frozen water ice and rock with an infusion of methane, bitumen and general soot, and it too had an upper layer of an inch or so that was infused with little green cells. Clay landed his fighter near Natasha’s, Rachel landed by the Commander’s and they climbed to the shallow peak.

“They must be their most intense here,” said Park. “Look at it. It’s the superior elevation. They get a little more sun here.”

“They don’t get a lot of sun anywhere,” said Rachel, looking up at the pill-sized 55 Cancri A in the black speckled sky. “Okay. So we decided not to be underwhelmed. How about colony sites? Did you see any? We didn’t.”

“Of course that determination will be made by others,” said Su Park, “but frankly, not so much. Well, we came here because it was pretty close. We knew we’d probably need more than one candidate.”

“This algae,” said Natasha, “it’s fascinating, it actually has a sort of chlorophyll, it can suck just enough water out of the ice and just enough light out of the, um, nearby star to survive and propagate. And you know what else? It’s the crown of frickin’ creation in the Big Five Five.”

“Big Five Five, I like that,” said Rachel.

“So, commander, what do we do now? Vilya’s wing won’t even be near the dwarf for a couple of days. And the anchor dudes are due in about ten days.”

“We explore, and we catalog, and we document,” said Park. “We take lots of pictures of the interesting cell structure. Did you see? Two nuclei. Totally different organelles. And we make more precise determinations about resources. And we should get a communication from Vilya about the red star right about when the armored freighters are cruising in.”

“With Gamma Wing,” said Natasha.

“And you know who,” said Rachel, poking Clay.

Alpha Wing split up again after a shared meal of figgy wafers. Rachel and Clay zipped about 55 Cancri A for a week and a day, documenting titanium on a moon of f, a geyser of black goo on the cloud-strewn moon of d and a fascinating line of vast yellow storms on b. Meanwhile Park and Kleiner did a thorough survey of the algal population, which turned out to cover roughly 5% of the surface. They slept in their fighters and partied as only a pilot in a vac suit can party on an airless moon.

Nine days later, the blurs at the edge of the system began to condense into three freighters and four free-flying fighters.

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