I can’t wait to see you. It should be less than a week. I’m sure you want to talk. I want to talk too. Do you want to try and communicate this way for now? It seems awkward, waiting hours between replies. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot and I’m sure you have too. I’m not sure if thinking is any help.
Damn it, none of this sounds like what I really mean. I guess that may be because I don’t know what I really mean.
Since I can’t seem to think of how to describe what I actually want or feel, I should at least reassure you that I felt the magic that night. That should be obvious, right? And, well, whatever else we may both be thinking, I definitely wouldn’t mind another night of magic.
Can’t wait to see you,
Clay read it and read it again and reread it again. Then he started right in trying to form a reply but he wound up deleting hundreds of words and deleting them again and re-deleting them again.
What did she mean? What did she mean by “I don’t know what I really mean?” Was it a good kind of “I don’t know what I really mean” or a bad kind?
But then he knew he didn’t really know what he wanted or meant or remembered, except for one thing. He definitely remembered that kiss. So he finally got himself squared away and wrote:
I feel the same way, in the sense that I don’t know what I feel, because I feel so many things. And you’re right, I’ve been thinking a lot and I’m not sure if it’s any help. And you’re right, I definitely wouldn’t mind another night of magic. But there won’t be another night like that.
I fear this system is a bit short on accommodations. I literally have not been out of my vac suit since we left Earth orbit. There are lots of places we can go to be by ourselves but we’d have to keep our helmets sealed. Any suggestions?
I can’t wait to see you either. Clay
Meanwhile, the freighters were busily communicating with Commander Park. “They’ll be slowed down into orbit around A in about ninety hours,” she informed Alpha Wing as they flew a recreational tour over the moon they were calling Algaeville. “Kalkar wants to have a get together on board the Tasmania. The freight hold is big enough for basically everyone. They’ll be linking the three freighters together once they’re in orbit: I think they’re going to settle into the empty orbital slot between g and d. We can talk in there, have it all out.”
“Commander,” said Rachel, “he doesn’t still think he’s over you, does he?”
“I assure you he does not,” said Park. “But the complicating factor is that we have at least a week to show him and his colleagues what we’ve found, and then the colony ships show up and we have to show everyone everything all over again.”
“So we can’t decide anything,” said Rachel.
“No. Well, we can decide whatever we want. But Admiral is going to roll in about eight days from now and he will re-decide everything.”
“So, we’re just the children waiting for the adults to come home,” said Clay.
“That’s the size of it,” said Park.
“Even Kalkar is just a teenager, right?” said Natasha. “Well, do you think Mom and Dad will like the algae we discovered?”
Thirty hours later, Alpha Wing got its first communication from Beta Wing, just as light reached Alpha Wing showing Beta Wing leaving the red dwarf. If they had hoped for a decent spot for a colony around 55 Cancri B, they were destined to be disappointed.
“The preliminary word,” Agneska Vilya called ahead from six light days away, “is that they’re not going to want to colonize anywhere around the red dwarf. The inner planet is practically on fire, the outer one is basically covered in an ocean of methane sludge, and the asteroids are all comets. The moons are barren or radioactive or just plain explosive. I got that you found some sort of low level life: we didn’t even see that. Plenty of CO2 ice and water ice and methane ice. The most interesting thing that happened was that Bluehorse almost got blown into space when she set off a patch of methane ice. You should see the expression on her face in the videos. You’ll get the full story when we reach you, and by that time the colonists should be in the system. They’re not going to fall in love with this place. More later. Vilya out.”
“So,” Clay said to Rachel as they were walking on Algaeville, trying not to step on the algae, “first system, no gold star.”
“Not from the colonists’ point of view,” she replied. “You got a message from Vera. What’d she say? Come on, spill the beans.”
But of course there wasn’t much in the way of beans to spill. Rather a lack of beans. Clay told Rachel, more or less, what Vera had sent him, and they parsed it out and came up with the Rachel pronouncement that “she clearly is hot for you. But she isn’t sure where it’s going.”
“Well, it’s fair to say that I’m hot for her too,” said Clay, “but I’m not sure where this is going.”
“Well, there you are,” said Rachel. “You’re a good match.”
Clay trudged a little further over the surface ice. He stopped, looking down into a night-dark valley, the orange light off the planet reflecting in the greenish ice. Rachel came and stood next to him.
“It’s going to be weird,” he said.
“Clay,” she said, “what part of we’re in another solar system is evading you?”
“Among other things,” said Clay, “the part where I haven’t been out of my vac suit in like fifty days—or is it sixty? Fortunately it cleans me as I sleep.”
“And then you eat and drink what it took off you. Yup. Going to be weird.” They walked a little further. “You know what would be weirder?”
“If you were having a relationship with Natasha. Or me, actually. Think about it. Here we are, we’ve spent the last three weeks or whatever basically doing everything but sleep and pee together,
and we can’t get outside our own suits. Could you imagine if that was Santos you were hanging around with? Even just holding hands would be a bit stilted, don’t you think?”
“Kissing could be downright dangerous,” he said, and she agreed, and they trudged along checking sensors they had planted, making sure the algae were none the worse for wear, and thinking about the impossibility of things.
It was another week still before the three armored freighters assumed their position in an orbital slot around 55 Cancri A. Even before they got into their orbit, Alpha Wing was coming out to meet them: Beta was still only about halfway back from the dwarf.
Clay was following Natasha into the bay of the Tasmania when he had a moment of panic. Vera was going to be aboard, and in moments he would be facing her, no vac suit. But the moment was delayed, of course, because Vera was actually aboard the Corsica, the freighter run by skipper and known butthead Rob Macdonald. Instead, Captain Alfred Kalkar, Navigator Irah Chontz, Chief Mechanic Patricia “Padfoot” Hixon and 2nd Engineer and self-appointed quartermaster Jack Dott met the four fighters in the little “SCEP bay.”
“Miz Park,” said Kalkar. “Mr Dott will show your wing to their very roomy cabins. Padfoot will be running checkups on the pods. Is this satisfactory?”
“It is, Skipper,” said Su Park.
They looked at Rachel, Natasha and Clay, who were stretching and shaking out their legs as they held onto metal bars in the weightless bay. The bars were of a type that was literally all over the freighter’s hallways. They had an official name, but everyone called them sashay bars, and soon the pilots were sashaying out of the bay, down a hall, turning down another hall, all the way to their quarters, perhaps twelve whole meters. The quarters were essentially closed-in bunks off a shared space the size of a normal small bedroom. Thee bunks were roomy, but only compared to the fighters. The pilots, without a word of discussion, went into the little room, shut the door and stripped naked, then dressed in their more casual jump suits. They tossed their vac suits and their tiny bags, which was all they had for luggage, into their bunks, and then Dott was showing them to the galley.
“It’s been a while since you’ve eaten anything but your own output, right?” he asked.
“So now we get to try your output,” replied Park.
“It has to be someone’s,” he said, leading them into a small room that looked huge to them. There were four tables with four chairs each, all with seat belts. The tables had magnetic strips to hold the trays down. The whole place was decorated in a solid green, approximately the color of vomited pea soup. One supposed it had to be some color or other, and the freighter’s designers had simply chosen the one least likely to encourage the appetite. “Here’s coffee,” said Dott, “and here’s where you get your trays of food, you have some choice, either poop lasagne or poop stew, or there’s a green salad, it’s very nice, it was poop but then we grew some kelp in it. Very tasty. Anyway, the coffee’s good. Welcome aboard, commander, commandoes.”
The four members of Alpha Wing watched Jack Dott sashay out the door and into the hall, where he was already glad talking at someone else. Then they looked at each other. They went over to the coffee machine, and got it to give them decent coffee with some semblance of cream, in cups with lids and little mouth holes. They took seats but didn’t strap down and settled for floating in the vicinity of the table.
“So,” said Clay, “are we fighters or SCEPs?”
“We are fighters, of course,” said Park, “and in addition, Captain Kalkar calls us fighters. I believe this is because Irah and Padfoot call us that.”
“So we operate from the Tasmania from now on?” asked Natasha.
“Until the next jump,” said Park, “assuming someone doesn’t get the clever idea of trying to farm on Algaeville.” She looked around. “So, we explore some more, we do tests for resources, you never know if there’s a source of platinum or something. Is there anything else we can accomplish before the big babies roll in?”
Natasha and Rachel smirked at Clay, who went a little pink.
The Alphas had been on the Tasmania for three hours, getting settled, getting oriented, getting bored, when Kalkar announced over the ship-wide comm that they were preparing to dock with the other two “anchor” freighters, the Greenland and the Corsica. Meetings aplenty would follow, in which the not-so-organized leadership of the three freighters and Alpha and Gamma wings would try to decide what to do before the colony ships arrived and told them what to do. The Alphas were lying around on their bunks with their bunk hatches open, all reading different things: Clay was back into Stephen King, on the screen above his head.
“Up and at ‘em,” said Su Park. “Kleiner, you and I are heading out into space to direct traffic.” She gave Clay a look. “One of the Gamma Wing fighters is coming over here to check things out, I guess.”
Rachel gave him another look. “So,” said Rachel, “want to head for the bay?”
The four pulled themselves out of their bunks and sashayed down to the pod bay. “Oh, I just remembered something I need to do,” said Rachel. “Take care, guys, don’t let any freighters run you over.”
“We won’t,” said Natasha.
In under a minute, Park and Kleiner were out in space, and Clay was left alone in the bay control, waiting just inside the airlock. A minute later, the entry request signal flashed and beeped, and he ordered the bay door open. A fighter zipped in. The door shut, the fighter was robotically shifted into a berth, and the airlock door opened. Out came a fighter pilot in a vac suit. The helmet pushed off. And there she was: Vera Freakin’ Santos.
They looked at each other. Her usually smiling face did not look anywhere near a smile. After some unknown time, Vera said, “Well, hello, Clay.” Clay said, “Vera.” That was as far as the conversation got before she propelled herself at him and they were hugging in the little bay control
room, hugging and kissing.
The second kiss was much more thought out than the first, and they were sober. Clay noticed her taste and her smell, neither of which was unpleasant. She used something coconut on her lips. No fighter pilot used perfume, but her vac suit had an intriguing faint scent to it. Her hair came out of her deflated helmet, black as night and straight and a little longer than shoulder length. She had not stopped being pretty. Her body had not stopped feeling good against his.
They held each other finally at arms’ length. “How complicated is it?” he asked.
“Clay,” she said. “It’s—well, let’s just not talk about it now.”
“Yeah,” said Clay.
“Commander Bouvier cautioned us not to expect to get into permanent relationships just yet,” she said in a burst of words, and then she laughed a tiny nervous laugh. “I guess she’s right but. God damn it,” she said in a softer voice, “kiss me like that again.”
Clay showed Vera around the Tasmania. They had coffee and a pastry in the galley. She agreed that the color was even worse than the brick pink that the Corsica had. They had a look at freight, they peeked through the window into the bridge: Karkal and Irah were busy at side by side stations resolving some difficulty with docking. They looked at life support, where the waste products of the ship’s crew were brewing back into something that could be called food.
“I miss my mother’s enchiladas,” said Vera.
“The lasagne’s pretty good,” said Clay, “once you get past its origins.”
“It’s the same as what happens on Earth,” said Vera, “they just cut out some steps.”
“Vera,” said Clay, “are we off duty?”
“Here’s the thing about that,” said Vera. “As long as you can hear your helmet comm, you’re on duty. Bouvier and Timmis are out there helping with the rendezvous. Tremblay is on Corsica helping out there. I am supposed to be off. Tremblay told me that, not Commander. So I guess I’m only off when I have my helmet out of the way. You?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s about the size of it. Want to see our quarters here on Tasmania?”
“I would say yeah, I do.”
They headed up the hall and around a corner and there was the little room with the bunks off it. Two hatches were open: his, and the one where Rachel was reading, an actual bound book. She glanced at them, then jumped up. “Santos!” she said. “This is a surprise.”
Vera looked at Clay, then back at Rachel. “I got a little free time,” she said, “so I thought I’d see how you operate over here. How are you?”
“Terribly busy,” said Rachel. “Reminds me. I need to get Padfoot to look at my manual maneuver joystick. Nice seeing you!” Without bothering to glance meaningfully at Clay, Rachel headed out. The hatch shut behind her.
“God damn it,” said Vera. “Does everyone stinking know?”
“Know what?” asked Clay.
“Good answer. Um.”
“Yeah.” Still they stood, or floated just off the ground, each holding a metal sashay bar. Vera looked around, then met Clay’s eyes again: hers such a gorgeous brown, his blue as the noon sky. “Clay,” she said, “it occurs to me that the suit itself has a comm too.”
“So,” said Clay, “if you really didn’t want to get interrupted, we’d both have to stow our suits.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” said Vera, reaching to the zip on the front of his vac suit. “So.”
“So that’s one thing that’s not complicated,” he replied, reaching to unzip her.
Clay woke up. The display above him was glowing dimly. He was lying face up, but without gravity. He was naked and sweaty and he felt and smelled another naked sweaty person near him. Vera Santos. Of all people. He rolled to look at her. He had only gotten in about ten seconds of this when she opened her eyes.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he said. “Want to talk about how complicated it is?”
She stretched. That was distracting. She smiled. She finally said, “Oh, Clay. Clay, Clay. It’s so stupid.” She curled, put an arm across him and smiled again. “Yeah. It’s complicated.”
They lay together for a minute or so. Clay said, “Do you think we’re in trouble?”
“I don’t know. I definitely don’t think they’re going to want us to carry on in public.” They kissed. “What are they going to do,” she said huskily, a couple of centimeters from his face, “fire us?”
“Mmm.” After another peaceful, time-resisting period, he said, “What shall we do today?”
“Well,” said Vera, in a businesslike way, which was quite fascinating given their current state of dress and entanglement, “I guess our agenda is basically to look around for stuff. I mean, for you to show us what you found and so on. Is it true you actually found life?”
“You want to see?”
“You’ve shown me pretty much everything else,” said Vera.
Clay and Vera ascertained that the little shared area between the pilots’ bunks was empty. They emerged and dressed in their vac suits. They checked their messages.
“Bouvier wants me to get out in space,” said Vera.
“So does Park, actually,” said Clay.
“Great,” said Vera. “Heh heh. How embarrassing. Our fighters coming out of the bay together, everyone will know.”
“Right,” said Clay, “hardly anyone knows about this so far.”
Two minutes later, the two Ghosts emerged from the pod berths and exited the bay. Three fighters were hovering outside: Park, Bouvier and Andros. Clay could pick out Timmis and Natasha zipping around the amalgam of the three freighters, and Tremblay just entering the Corsica’s bay.
“Thank you very much, Mr Gilbert,” came the call from Commander Park, “for vacating my berth.” In the video feed, her face had that expressionless expression she reserved for her milder sarcasms. “Now, would you mind joining Rachel and giving Commander Bouvier the lowdown on Algaeville? Santos is going with you. I take it you’re already acquainted with Santos?”
“Yes, Commander,” he sent back. Park gave him a quick enigmatic grin and ended the call before shooting into the bay. Clay poked the next call icon, Rachel’s smiling face, and said, “What?”
“Nothing, dear, of course,” said Rachel.
“Mr Gilbert,” came the call from Bouvier, “are you ready to show us what you’ve found?” Suppressing thoughts of the naked Vera, Clay replied in the affirmative.
The four fighters dashed across
the space from the orbit of the artificial planet composed of the three freighters to the orbit of the ringed giant with the unpoetic name “d.” They could see, now, Beta Wing still plodding, at thirty percent of the speed of a photon, across the space between 55 Cancri’s two stars. They chatted lightly, while Vera and Clay sent slightly lewd messages to each other on a private connection, and Clay and Rachel sent differently slightly lewd messages on another private line. Clay assumed that Rachel and Vera were probably messaging each other about him the whole time.
Hours later, after they had all had a nap or two, and Clay had lost three games of chess to Bouvier, two to Rachel (and won one) and one to Vera (with one draw), they were dropping to land on Algaeville. They landed as delicately as they could and got out and soon the Gamma pilots were enthusing about the algae.
“Wow,” said Bouvier. “Wow. Wow.” Clay had to stare at her to make sure it was really her. As with Park, he forgot that Bouvier was not just a space commander. “Wow. This. Is. Amazing. Look! Look, Vera. Cell structure!” She held out her sample probe, where the little video screen showed the microscopic view of a brickwork lattice of square cells dotted with little green circles.
“It really is,” said Vera.
“Commander Bouvier,” said Rachel, “the most intense areas are on the sort of peaks. Like there,” she added, indicating a very slight rise in the flat ridge top. “But tread carefully, okay? Park noticed that our boots can crack the ice and their ecosystem is really fragile.”
“Is it really an ecosystem as such?” asked Bouvier. “Are there various species? Anything that eats the algae, for instance?”
“Natasha thinks she might have identified a parasite, anyway,” said Rachel. “And there is some geographic diversity. The algae in different areas are noticeably different. The first ones we saw had two nuclei.”
They moved up the rise, leaving Vera and Clay facing away, side by side by their fighters. They
looked up and the stars. Clay took Vera’s gloved hand.
“Wow,” said Vera.
“The Milky Way is really bright out here,” said Clay. They stood hand in hand and gazed up and around the panoply of suns. “Wonder where we’ll end up? Which one of those stars?” He turned to her. He could see her face through the helmet window. He wanted to kiss her, he wanted to really badly.
She read his mind. “That’s one reason why it’s complicated,” she said.
From the point of view of mission planners, the part of the fleet that had already reached 55 Cancri did not have anything to decide. All they had to do was wait for the colony ships and keep looking under rocks. From the point of view of the fighter pilots and their anchor freighters, now was just the time for a quick get-together to make sure they had their story straight. So a working lunch was decreed, in the freight section of the Greenland, Beta Wing’s anchor ship. Beta Wing could not be in attendance, as they were still plodding across the light week distance between the red dwarf and 55 Cancri’s A star. Tables were not set up; rather, food and drink in various forms were dispensed here and there about the freight section, and eaten or drunk while floating. Everyone was there: the crews of the three freighters, the eight available fighter pilots. They grouped according to their wings; Clay and Vera only exchanged looks every ten or fifteen seconds.
Captain Kalkar, perhaps due to his Ahab-like beard, got to kick off the discussion. “The colony ships should start being visible in a day or two,” he said. “Mr Darien, of the Greenland, has already identified a signal that might be them.”
“It’s just a fuzzy blob at present,” said Darien, the Greenland’s navigator. “But it’s on their course and more or less consistent with their size and speed.”
“More or less?” asked Su Park.
“It’s impossible to be sure of anything yet,” said Irah Chontz. “The blob looks a little on the light side, but it’s at least 24 hours away from slowing down enough that we can really tell anything.”
“You think it might be bug-eyed aliens?” asked Rachel.
“We can’t be sure whether they are bug-eyed or not,” Darien replied. “They may not have anything like eyes at all, of course; we can’t tell yet. They might just have antennae or something. Or, they just might be the colony ships.”
“I think,” said Kalkar, “we will proceed on that assumption. In any case, we will soon know for sure. And as soon as they get slowed down, the Admiral will want a full update. He’ll want us to have a report ready for some big meeting of his bigwigs.”
“They shouldn’t even slow down for this dump,” said Captain Rob Macdonald of the Corsica.
“But they will, they will, Rob,” said Kalkar. “Admiral Georges has already made up his mind. He’s made up his mind as to not letting us make up his mind for him. He’ll want to get here, settle in a bit, have a three-day conference, then adjourn for an executive session, read all the reports, chew it over and then tell us what he’s made up his mind on.” He looked around. “So,” he said, “what is going to be in our report?”
“Clearly,” said Park, “we do not feel that this system is a good choice for a colony. There is life, we were quite thrilled with our discovery, but, shall we say, first contact was not particularly exciting or rewarding. And no place in the system offers sufficient quantities of enough of our needed resources.”
“There’s not enough water,” said Rachel. “There’s too much damn carbon.”
“You could put a colony here eventually,” said Bouvier, “but it’s not the first place you would try. You would need to bring some sort of newer technology, and you would probably need to have supply ships rolling in on a regular basis at first, till this place became self-sustaining.”
“Is there any danger from this algae?” asked Raoul Diemi, the Corsica navigator.
“No, it just sits there,” said Clay.
“It doesn’t have our kind of genetic material,” said Natasha. “The cells have two nuclei, well, that’s true of some of the species, and the genetic stuff seems to be sort of printed all over the nuclear membrane. It’s weird like that, but it wouldn’t be able to infect you or anything. It’s also not going to evolve into larger critters.”
“It’s already at the apex of the ecosystem,” said Park. “So, who writes this report?”
“I think we turn this over to the navs and the science officers,” said Kalkar. He gave a beardy smile to Irah Chontz. “Anyone got any objections?”
A couple of hours later, Vera, Timmis, Natasha and Clay were flying some sort of ill-defined patrol, out toward d and then off at a tangent toward the red dwarf. They exchanged greetings with Beta Wing, now at a mere twelve light minutes’ distance, not much more than from the Earth to the Sun. “Interesting spot,” Gil Rojette summarized. “Not really worth a 30-day expedition there and back. No exciting algae or anything.”
“That algae is quite the sensation,” Natasha sent back. “It’s going to be on all the talk shows.”
“Hey Clay,” Timmis called, “are you still excited? I’m still excited.”
“I am still excited, actually,” Clay sent back. He copied it to Vera.
“Clay,” she called from about a hundredth of a light second away, “you’re very excitable.”
“So are you.”
“And we have blobs,” came the call from Irah Chontz back on the Tasmania. “Four blobs.”
The four fighters on patrol turned to the left, led by Vera, and headed directly toward the blobs, which suddenly came into a sort of focus: they could make out that each blob had a big piece and two little pieces, and that the blobs were separated by a tiny space that was perhaps ten thousand kilometers. They were decelerating as hard as they could, and were already down to 25% of light speed.
“Great,” said Natasha, “here come the adults.”
“Four,” said Vera. “Huh.”
“Aren’t there supposed to be five?” asked Timmis.