Whatever Clay had done and forgotten with Miss Jana Bluehorse, there was no tearful parting as he and the rest of Alpha and Gamma departed. Vera was coming with and Jana wasn’t, not the other way around: why was it that the woman he last kissed was the woman staying behind?
Ally Schwinn and Alice Grohl, who seemed to be seeing eye to eye these days, had ordained that there should be a departure event, and hundreds of colonists along with scores of big ship crew showed up to see them off. Schwinn and the other three colony ship captains shook hands with each of the pilots, and Kalkar shook Park’s hand for a good minute while they conferred and joked in low voices, and Grohl hugged Park, then Rachel, and then apparently decided that all eight needed to be hugged. Meanwhile Clay and Natasha found themselves making faces at a trio of children among the colonists.
“That’s what it’s all about, right there,” said Natasha. “Finding them a place to grow up.”
“That isn’t powered by giant engines and giant batteries,” said Rachel.
So they all waved, climbed into their fighters and pulled their hatches shut. Clay cast a glance at Gamma Wing, but Vera wasn’t looking at him at that moment: she was joking with Timmis, then saying something to Bouvier. Clay couldn’t help smirk—the official facial expression of Alpha Wing. Then he was hatched up, then he was sending a “ready” signal to Park, then with a bump they were dropped, thrown really, into space.
Alpha Wing formed up and attached by conduit. “Engage nav program Gliese 163,” came Park’s voice. And there it was, faraway Gliese 163, a cozy little system as imagined by the computers, a ruddy little star and its family of five little gas giants, the innermost one scarlet and practically grazing the outer veils of the red dwarf, the outermost one blue and chilly and looking like an outcast from the family.
“Pretty,” came Natasha’s comment.
“Full of possibilities,” said Rachel.
“A long way to go before we find out,” said Park. “Sixty-nine light years. We will still be only forty-nine light years from home. A colony there would be easily serviceable. But I think the sentiment among the captaincy is to go further afield if this doesn’t pan out.”
“The captaincy?” replied Natasha.
“There is disagreement,” said Park.
“Commander,” said Clay, “if I may be so bold, I know I’m just the Tail of this wing, but if you would open the door just a smidge to the counsels of the Wise, what exactly do you mean by, there is disagreement?”
Park did not answer immediately. Clay was just bracing for sarcasm when she said, “Well, as you must have noticed, Captain Schwinn and Captain Trein were not exactly in tune during our Grand Meeting. She was one of the main reasons we even had the Grand Meeting, which I certainly had my doubts about—!”
“You won that meeting,” said Natasha. “You totally did.”
“One does not win a meeting, Miss Kleiner.”
“Well, maybe not,” said Rachel, “but if one did, one would have knocked that particular meeting right out of the ballpark, if one had been you.”
“And if one had been inclined to use ball game metaphors,” said Clay.
“In any case,” said Park, “Captain Trein and Captain Mark were not nearly so inclined to submit the whole thing to discussions among the stake holders. Thus the, uh, attempt to steer the discussion to choosing a provisional leadership. You noticed how well that went.”
“We noticed,” said Rachel, “how you steered it right back to reality.”
“I did not entertain an opinion,” said Park. “I wanted to be sure we did what we needed to.”
“Commander,” said Clay, “I won’t ask you whether you think Admiral Georges is ever going to reappear. I’m going to ask how the leadership issue is going to be resolved.”
Again there was a brief pause. Then Park said, “Whatever happens amongst the big ships, Alpha Wing answers to Commander Su Park.”
“We knew that already,” said Rachel.
“And you will notice that Park and Bouvier and Vilya do not have public disagreements, as do Schwinn and Trein and Garant and Mark.”
“And we noticed,” said Rachel, “that Kalkar seems to be in our camp. Does he think the Tasmania is a gigantic fighter?”
“We’ll see,” replied Park. “Are you ready to explore a new system?”
“We’re ready,” said Rachel, and a few seconds later the private comm light showed a message from her to Clay. He touched the screen over his head and heard her voice saying, “Are you ready to get trounced in chess, or would you prefer to be trounced on the simulator?”
The eight fighters, formed up in two tight tetrahedra about 100,000 km apart, shot out of the 55 Cancri system at just over 100 gees of acceleration: only their acceleration buffers prevented them all from being squashed into paper-thin filets. As their ships approached light speed, they gained mass and their acceleration slowed a little, but by the magic of innovations uncovered by the mechanics on the armored freighters, and the tiny rest masses of ships and pilots alike, they managed to squeeze past 99% and 99.9% and 99.99% of the speed of light, ultimately cruising at 99.9999%. At that speed, their journey, which to an outside observer would be seen to take approximately 69.3 years, would take about a month of their time. The anchor freighters, lumbering along at a mere 99.9997%, would take four weeks longer; the colony ships, at their snail-like speed of just above 99.999% of the speed of the common photon, would take 100 days.
No Earthling had ever traveled as fast as they were traveling. Now into their second light speed traverse, Alpha Wing felt inclined to push the old pedal to the metal. They suffered no ill effects, and, given the increasing incoherence of the signals from the slowpoke universe around them, Clay did not feel like he was moving especially fast. From his shuttle pilot days he was used to the idea that a wafer-thin hull separated his cozy seat from the cold vacuum of space; the bizarre nearness of the speed of light gave him the vague feeling of sailing cased in lead through a gulf of radioactive lava. But since his speed was relative, in a real sense he wasn’t moving at all, nor were the ladies around him, and it was the rest of the universe which was shooting the other direction at a bizarre speed. There was no experiment or observation he could make that would tell him he was moving and all those stars were standing still, as opposed to the other way around.
So he played chess (losing, still, much more often than winning or drawing) and Set (a pattern game that Rachel was even better at than chess) and fought on the simulator (holding his own with Rachel and Natasha and managing to get Park zero times in twelve tries). He joined his wing mates for soccer (they were terrible at first, but soon started playing like fighter pilots and immediately began destroying their random computer opponents). He exercised and read (the Sparrow Kills series that had been all the rage in his teen years, then the Harry Potters, finally getting through Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince), he watched videos, feelies-smellies of the 23rd Century and good old fashioned “films” (including, perversely, Apollo XIII, which he had somehow bonded with during his shuttle pilot days), he re-listened to his 20th through 22nd Century music collections (that band with the haunting song about shelter was called the Rolling Stones for some reason). And he let Rachel dissect his romance with Vera Santos.
“I didn’t think it would last,” she said as they let their brains relax after a hard-fought draw. “I mean, did you?”
“I don’t know,” said Clay. “I guess I did.”
“Clay, it is over, isn’t it? Or is there some question in your mind?”
“I don’t know,” he said. She let him think for a bit. He remembered how much he had wanted Vera, and how magical her look was. He remembered how enchanted their love life had been. How hot her kisses. How hot her glances. He remembered how hard it was to impress her, how annoying some of her habits of thought and speech were. Everything was “God damn it.” Well, what was it about her? That attracted him? That was easy. That annoyed him? That was harder.
It made him wonder what was wrong with him. It made him wonder what about him annoyed her.
“You okay over there?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I have no idea why I’m fine, but I’m fine.”
So they shot through empty space, giving the photons a run for their money, cutting their perception of the distance from 55 Cancri to Gliese 163 down from 69.3 years’ travel to what seemed to their bodies and their clocks to be a mere four and a half weeks. And then they went over to deceleration, and all those quotes from Apollo XIII popped up in his mind: “Get ready for a little jolt, fellas,” and “And that, gentlemen, is how we do that,” and “Gentlemen, what are your intentions?” And then “Looks like we just had our glitch for this mission,” when on deceleration they hit some sort of bump or wave or something and for a few seconds it seemed as if the conduits might break and set them loose from each other to finish the journey alone. But the conduits held. Everyone checked in. They were down to 60% and still braking hard, and soon the rest of the universe would make sense again to their sensors.
“What the bleep was that?” asked Park.
“I’ll tell you what it wasn’t,” said Rachel. “It wasn’t a hole in space-time, it wasn’t a bunch of boogie men chasing us like whatever Bain saw, and it wasn’t something trying to swallow us like whatever swallowed the France.”
“I picked up gravitons,” said Natasha. “Yes, gravitons. A wave. I hypothesize that we passed near something massive, a black hole or a neutron star or even just a regular star.”
“How near?” asked Park.
“I don’t know. If it was massive, we wouldn’t have to be that close to get at least a little bump.”
“Anything like that lie along our trajectory?”
“Not that we know of.”
“Well, there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Park.
And so they continued decelerating, and the red dwarf that was Gliese 163, and then its little coterie of midget gas giants, began to come into distant view. And that was when really did they did hit something, or something hit them. It was dark and the sensors were still picking up a lot of noise. Whatever it was, it was curving around as they picked it up; it wasn’t large, not larger than the fighters; and it was coming from behind. It didn’t fire or signal. It remained black. And then it hit the conduit connecting to Natasha’s fighter and snapped it before shooting away to the side and vanishing in the haze.
Rachel and Su Park were calling to Natasha and then to each other, adjusting and guessing like mad, and all Clay could think at first was, Houston, we have a problem.
Clay went totally blank for about a tenth of a second from sheer brain overload. Park was telling Rachel something, and maybe telling him too, but he couldn’t hear. Natasha was gone from the tetrad, her circle on the display black. He could see the conduit hanging loose, broken. He could also see her Ghost veering left, a black blob disappearing in distance, wobbling. The black blob that had broken her loose from the tetrad was nowhere to be seen. Bits of communication were coming in from her; her end of the conduit had broken off, and he picked up signs that she was venting cabin air into space. Apollo XIII indeed. He put that and everything else out of his mind. He pulled the emotional tablecloth off the mental table.
Clay said, “Manual” and hit the sign that said “Manual: Yes?” on his display. He said “Detach Conduit” and had to hit “Yes” on that too. He pulled left with the joysticks and commenced to wobble after her. He willed himself straight and he was straight, considering he was also moving sideways at 22% of the speed of light. He could see her Ghost again: he set off after her, as best he could. She began to get closer, both of them curving off from the path of the other two as they continued their insane flight through emptiness.
He took a breath and started working on aligning with Natasha’s Ghost. The comm from her was still noisy; he replied by boosted signal, “Seal your helmet and open your hatch.” He did the same. Natasha objected: she swore profusely, in fact, now that he was close enough to get her signal. She pointed out that this was not going to work and they were both likely to find out if there was life after death in space.
“I know what I’m doing,” he lied.
But whatever he was trying to do, the goddesses were smiling upon him, because in another ten seconds he had closed the gap to centimeters and he was literally looking out his hatch and into Natasha’s hatch. There was someone in there, in a dark grey vac suit with a helmet sealed up. He did not so much see as imagine correctly her look of apprehension and horror.
Then the two Ghosts bumped, but gently. They bumped again. The third time, it was not especially gentle, but it was final: he jammed his left index finger on the Dock button on his overhead display, and the hatches sealed together. The interiors refilled with air.
“Clay,” came Natasha’s voice, preceded by three pungent obscenities and some helpful adjectives and adverbs.
“Air’s fine,” said Clay. “I’m reading a good seal. You?”
Natasha responded by unsealing her helmet. Clay did the same. They were looking at each other through their joined hatch, almost as long as they were. “Clay, for goddess sake,” she said. “What the,” she went on, adding a verb.
“No idea,” he said, unsealing his own helmet.
“How did you think to—?”
“No idea on that either.”
Natasha pushed her frizzy blond hair around a bit. She was not smiling. After a few seconds of thought, she observed, “I just assumed I was going to die.”
“I,” he started, and then he stopped. They were very close together, in a context he was only used to with Vera. This could not have been more different from that, in spite of the similarities. He realized that the thought of losing Natasha Kleiner had flashed across his mind but had not found residence there. “I, uh,” he said, “Natasha, I was not going to let that happen.”
Natasha reached across to touch his face. Now she was smiling, though her eyes were moist. So were his, actually. Suddenly, just when he thought she was going to start weeping, she grabbed him by the vac suit’s collar. She pulled them together. She was starting to cry, and so was he, just out of the exhaustion that followed the adrenaline rush. Natasha found a way to stop them both from sobbing. When the comm light lit up and Park’s voice came over, their lips were together in a long, slow kiss after a short intense one.
“Kleiner, Gilbert,” she said, “status?”
“Mmm,” said Clay, separating a little. “We’re fine here.”
“Yeah,” said Natasha. “Fine. Clay saved, uh, Clay saved my life, actually.”
“We noticed,” came Rachel’s voice.
“Any idea what that thing was?” asked Park.
“I’m trying to get my readings together,” said Rachel. “Anything on that, Tash?”
“Um, no, not really,” said Natasha. “Too busy, uh, almost dying.” She looked at Clay and mouthed Thank You, or something like that, and then she kissed him again rather than burst into tears. He was thinking the exact same thing.
“All right,” said Park, “let’s coast in and find a planetoid or something where we can get out and have a look. I spy Gamma Wing back there, intact. We’ll just stay linked by conduit, and you two sit tight with your hookup, and we’ll see what’s what when we can have a look at the damage.”
“Yeah,” said Rachel, “you two, sit tight, you gave me and Commander a fright.”
Natasha clicked the comm off. She and Clay were in the middle of the combined fighter, holding each other. “I was going to say, don’t leave me,” said Natasha, “but I guess there’s no point.”
“Are you okay? Really, are you okay?”
“Just don’t leave me,” she said, laying her head against his, and then kissing him again for want of anything better to do with her face.
For a long time, Clay and Natasha soared along, decelerating steadily, lying in a chaste embrace, their vac suits on, their helmets off. After a while, Natasha began to talk.
“Remember,” she said, “when we were going back for the holidays. And you were going to see your sister and Rachel was going to see her mom and dad. And you wanted to know where I was going and I didn’t say anything.”
Clay didn’t reply: he was trying to reconstruct the scene, and he sort of could, but it was either six
months ago or eighty years.
“My mom dropped out of engineering school,” said Natasha. “She and my dad had problems. To say the least. He was addicted to some things. They both were, but she straightened out. I don’t remember him at all, actually. I’ve seen him in videos, I would know his voice, but I never remember actually what he was like.”
“He died or left?”
“Both,” said Natasha. There was silence for a while. Then she said, “He died of an overdose. I think Mom thought it was on purpose. He was really a nobody, I don’t know why she was with him. She was bad at choosing men. She chose another one, of course, and another one. My dad at least left her alone mostly. But her parents never forgave her for being with him, so I didn’t even know my grandparents. I guess I can’t blame them. I guess he was responsible for her dropping out and getting into the killer.”
“It’s a drug. Nethalen. Butter.”
“Oh. Heard of nethalen.”
“He was into other things too. Heroin. Alcohol. Downers. It all killed him in the end. There were a couple other guys, and I sort of remember Mom trying to go straight, but we were poor when I was little. But then my mom took up with Ryne. Rhino people called him.”
“Yeah. Him I remember.” She was silent again for a little, but Clay didn’t interrupt. She said, in a voice as flat as the Sea of Tranquility, “Rhino was a partier. He would have these guys over. One time when I was nine, they got me in a room and did stuff to me.” She stopped again. The Spanish Inquisition could not have made Clay say anything. She went on, “Of course I couldn’t tell Mom. They threatened me, but they didn’t need to. After that, I always stayed away from them. From Rhino. I’d only be home when Mom was home, because then he’d be distracted. The two of them would get high, and on the killer you can just get totally strung out and stay that way for hours. So that was safe, you see.”
“Doesn’t it kill?”
“Yeah, but slowly. You see, Mom was an addict but she wasn’t stupid. It didn’t kill her fast at all, not like Dad, who also did all this other stuff. It doesn’t mix with alcohol very well, that’s what killed him, it doesn’t mix with a lot of things very well.”
“So,” said Clay, “you didn’t spend much time at home.”
“No. I hid out at school. I started coming home from school after dark. A few times, I spent the night in the back yard and snuck in to get food. My math teacher, I was, oh, ten? She got me into this advanced program because I worked so hard and I was really good. Then I had a science teacher named Burkard, he was so great, he turned me on to biology, astronomy. I got into exobiology when I was a teenager.”
“What did Rhino think?”
“He was dead by then,” said Natasha.
“A fight.” She shifted a little. Then she lifted herself and said, “So drugs was the thing I was never tempted to do. No, it wasn’t drugs. No, I had a teacher when I was thirteen, named Jeremy, Jeremy Hanssen. Oh, Jeremy.”
“Oh yes. I had an affair with a thirty-year-old chemistry teacher when I was thirteen. We carried on for several years.” She stared past Clay, expressionless. “I did great in my classes, though. Great.”
She shook her head. “He got in trouble, and I got straight A’s.”
“What did Mom think?”
“She was pretty far gone,” said Natasha. “When I was sixteen I got a chance to go to the Vermont Institute. I never went back home.” Clay didn’t say anything. Natasha went on, “I don’t know what happened to Mom. She’s gone, she died, I just don’t know how.” She laughed a little. “All I know is the year on her plaque. She died when I was eighteen, and I didn’t find out till I was twenty.” She wiped her eyes. “Well, I did great at the institute. Of course I had an affair with a prof. But he cut it off before anyone got in trouble. I thought about killing myself.”
“Clearly you didn’t.”
“Nope,” said Natasha. “No, I signed up with the Human Horizon Project.”
They flew on, while Gliese 163 appeared around them. There were five, no, six, no, eight planets appearing: a big one far too close to the star; one a mere ten times Earth’s mass and close enough that water would boil on the surface of its two moons; and the outer three planets, all small, cold, airless and dark. That left a Neptune clone, a slightly smaller ice blue giant and the one called Gilese 163c.
This was considered the star of the system, and it looked promising. The planet itself was a little too large and swathed in clouds, but it had a slew of moons, of which the largest two were Mars-sized. One of those had an atmosphere, thick like Saturn’s moon Titan, and including water vapor and nitrogen. The whole system read a little heavy on the nitrogen, which didn’t seem like a bad thing. But it was still a little too blurry to be sure of anything.
Meanwhile, Natasha and Clay cuddled, still somewhat chastely. He looked upon her and wondered that she was so close to him: at this range, he found her quite beautiful, as if he looked upon her for the first time. The feeling was so strange that he ignored it and pretended they were just talking in a quiet café somewhere.
“So what about you?” asked Natasha. “You lost your mom and dad.”
“Well, Mom died some time ago, in a train accident, her and my younger sister. My dad died of cancer. I just had my older sister Marie, and her family. My grandparents were all gone long ago of one thing or another. My parents were in their forties when I was born, and they were both youngest children, so it’s a surprise any of my grandparents were alive when I was twenty. I was 33 when we left Earth. So,” but he didn’t say anything more. Natasha looked at him, then snuggled against him.
“So,” she said softly after a while, “you miss them? You had a normal childhood?”
“No,” he said softly, “no one does.”
“Neither of your folks was addicted to anything?”
Clay laughed. He thought about it and then said it: “Well, my dad was, if you count sex.” Natasha laughed. Clay said, “Dad. Dad had affairs. And you know, I think he always fell in true love. Over and over: his administrative assistant, a sales woman, his boss, he ended up with one of my kid sister’s soccer coaches. True love every time. He couldn’t help himself.” He smiled and shook his head. How much he had loved his father, and how little he had respected him. Perhaps he did not respect him enough.
“So did they break up?”
“Yes. I was a teenager. Dad had had affairs before that. I know my mom put up with a lot from him. He was really wonderful in some ways, but. Well. You learn a lot from your parents. How to be and how not to be.” He turned his head. She was looking at him from five centimeters away. Her eyes glowed in the glow of the stars in the screen above and around them, half in her fighter, half in his. Her blond mess of hair gleamed silver and orange and purple in the screen light. “As you know,” he finished.
“So your mom died when you were how old?”
“I was in my twenties. I was 24, 25. Yes. Gina, my kid sister, she was 17.”
“She died in the accident.”
“Clay,” she said, “didn’t you have a girlfriend or something?”
“Yeah,” said Clay. “I had one in college, then we went our separate ways, then I had a girlfriend for about six years but it sort of devolved. Pretty pathetic, really.”
“Was she named Vera?”
Clay laughed out loud. “No, she wasn’t,” he said. “Wendy,” he added, slowly, making sure he got the name exactly right. “Boy. Maybe that’s why I was so hot for Vera. My girlfriend—oh, geez. Vera makes her look like a block of cement. She did not know how to flirt, she did not know how to take a compliment or how to give one, she couldn’t kiss her way out of a paper bag or whatever. She was the most unromantic romance ever. Don’t even get me started.” He laughed again.
“So do you have a history of poorly developed romantic relationships?” asked Natasha.
“In the sense that I haven’t met a woman I wanted to stay with forever, yeah,” said Clay. “And I’m not attracted to men, so that’s out. I don’t know. Are all my failures alike? Like, is there a pattern?”
“Well, is Vera definitely a failure?”
“I think so,” said Clay. “I guess so. She hasn’t informed me definitively. I mean, I like her and everything. So what about you? Does history always have to repeat itself?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a historian.”
“Oh, you’re an exobiologist, it’s almost the same thing.” They laughed, five centimeters apart, their warmth all around them as they shot through the chilly vacuum.
She smiled, her eyes mostly shut and hidden in shadow. She leaned toward him, a black blob surrounded by silvery-gold hair. She kissed him, and then again. “I’ve never had any luck with the men in my life. I tend to fall in love with inappropriate older men. Men who are a risk, men who are trouble. No, men who are going to get in trouble for being with me. So I don’t know,” she said. “You don’t seem my type and yet I find myself drawn to you.”
“Drawn to me?” said Clay, who was feeling very drawn to her. But he had a sense that saying “Gee, Tasha, I’m drawn to you too” was not what was called for.
“Yeah.” She gave him another look that might have been pouty or might have been hot. Which it was seemed to be resolved when she gave him another kiss, slow on just the lips of the open mouth, then the tip of her tongue lingering on the tip of his, flirting with it really. She kissed him again, more forcefully, and then pulled back a little, breathing hard. “I can’t explain it.”
“It’s not just that I somehow managed to save your life?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, her hands taking the attachment at the neck of his vac suit. “I don’t think so.” She paused to consider, and then kissed him on one cheek, then the other, then his lips. “If Rachel had saved my life, I don’t think I’d be doing this,” she added, starting to unzip him and placing kisses on his skin as she went.
Natasha and Clay were lying, or floating in a lying position, their arms loosely around each other, their vac suits stowed in their little vac suit compartments. Their feet were in his Ghost and their heads were in hers. Clay was looking over Natasha’s curly golden hair at her display rerunning the encounter with the unknown object from Natasha’s Ghost’s point of view. Natasha was looking past Clay’s naked shoulder at Clay’s display, rerunning it from the Clay perspective.
“Park’s not going to look kindly on this,” said Natasha. “I mean, us getting all intimate like this.”
“No, she’s not,” said Clay. “I don’t think she really approved of me and Vera.”
“She would rather you married up with some farm girl on the Canada.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Maybe you will,” she said. After a moment, she said, “I might as well ask you what you think that was that almost killed me.”
Clay thought a moment. “Well,” he said, “it seems to me there are three possibilities.”
“So maybe it was a natural object, like a tiny asteroid. I mean, it wasn’t very large, and it was fairly dense, right? So it could have been a chunk of rock or a comet fragment or something.”
“Clay. It moved. It changed course.”
“I know. So there’s that hypothesis out the window. So, what else? Maybe it was a robot probe.”
“It sure didn’t seem like a robot probe,” she said, and she put a kiss on his chest, then each shoulder, and then his lips. She smiled at him. “Anyway, that’s not a very comforting hypothesis. If it was a robot probe, then something put it here.”
“Yes. And that leaves us with life forms. And those are your bailiwick. You’re the exobiologist.”
“So all that was just to deflect the question back to me. Did you do this to Vera?”
“Nooo. No, our conversations were a lot less interesting.”
“I won’t pry,” said Natasha. She kissed him again in a friendly way. Her naked body was still pressing against his, a constant unintentional distraction. “Well,” she said, “either it was a robot made by some sort of alien, or it was a fighter kind of thing with some sort of alien pilot. Either way it would be an intelligent alien species, someone who could use technology. And if we’re just meeting them on our furthest ever journey into the galaxy, then the usual argument is that they’re probably a lot more advanced than us.”
“It didn’t seem that advanced,” said Clay. “It tried to ram us.”
“That’s exactly what it did,” said Natasha. “Maybe that’s what they’re good at. Maybe they’re immune to our attacks and they just bull into things. There is another possibility, however.”
“What would that be, Professor Kleiner?”
“Well, suppose it was an alien species, but suppose that was not technology. Suppose that was just the way it locomoted. Suppose the edge of the system is its environment. Suppose it’s capable of surviving in a vacuum and traveling at x percent of the speed of light.”
“How could that be, though?”
“How the hell should I know? Clay, no one has any real idea what alien creatures might be like. They could go relativistic speeds, I suppose. Why not? Maybe they eat thorium and have nuclear powered intestines. They could easily have evolved in a vacuum, I mean, I guess they easily could have, no one really knows, it’s the first thing you always say in exobiology. All I know is that the most comforting explanation is that it was just some random hunk of rock, and it’s too bad that it’s the explanation that has the least credibility.”
He kept looking at her video and she kept looking at his. After a bit she turned and kissed him, then maneuvered so they were both looking at her display. His hand moved up her belly to rest near her breast.
“That’s interesting,” she said, raising her hand to the screen. The video paused. She used a finger touch to twirl the picture. “Look,” she said. “A mouth.”
“What?” said Clay. He would have sat up, if there was an up. “What the?”
“Yeah,” said Natasha. She let the video run back a little, then forward, then let it loop over those five seconds again: no black blob, then black blob coming in from the right, then black blob meets conduit just off of Natasha’s Ghost, then black blob flies on, already turning. Then it is gone. It takes something with it. The conduit was not just broken. There was less of it.
“It ate a piece of the conduit,” said Clay. “Is that what it did?”
“Yeah. Yeah, Clay. It ate. A piece. Of the conduit.”
Alpha Wing, at Park’s direction, rendezvoused on a cute little planetoid about the size of the Bangor metro area. The star was barely a red dot at this distance. Natasha and Clay suited up and separated their craft as they coasted in. They landed side by side and got out to stretch, looking as if they had just finished a long drive across country, not a long period of nudity at close quarters.
Su Park and Rachel Andros had already set down and were out of their fighters, standing together as if conferring, as if they had to be physically near to talk in whispers. Natasha and Clay joined them. They both reached out to touch Rachel, and immediately they could hear Park talking: “…It would have wiped the slate clean. Hey, guys. So, yes, there seems to be evidence that the star had an outburst perhaps ten million years ago, and it might well have wiped out any life that might have evolved in the system.”
“Really?” said Clay. “You can tell that?”
“Oh, it would leave a mark,” said Natasha. “That c planet was the one we had high hopes for. But the star is small so the planet’s quite close in. It would get wiped out by any sort of burst of radiation.” She looked at the star, now magnified in their helmets: a red-orange orb like a well-lit Mars. “Hard to believe that little thing could generate that much radiation.”
“The star is only little compared to other stars,” said Rachel. “Radiant pressure drops, the outer shell collapses a little, and there’s a burst of new radiation.”
“So no life here,” said Clay. “That’s actually not necessarily bad news, not for us anyway. How about a colony? Could c support a colony?”
“It’s doubtful,” said Park, “but of course we can’t know without paying it a visit. But now we’re all here, what have you figured out about what attacked you?”
“We think it was alive,” said Natasha.
“You’re sure it’s not a spacecraft? Or a machine of some sort?”
“Machines don’t have mouths,” said Natasha. She went back to her fighter and reached in the open hatch. She put a finger in, then came back to the others. She held out her left index finger
and Rachel touched it.
“How long is the video?” asked Rachel.
“Just give it a sec, will you? Sheesh.” They stood there looking at their touching fingers. Su Park looked at Clay, and Clay could tell she was just bursting with something else to say. After ten seconds, Natasha took her finger back and Rachel touched hers to her helmet visor.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I can see it.” She laughed. “I never tried that before. Cool.”
“Rachel,” said Natasha, “did you see it? Clay’s fighter got a different point of view, but this one was from my fighter and it’s the most—do you see it?”
“Oh yeah,” said Rachel. She was tapping on her visor, evidently rewinding and re-watching. “Oh, mannn. Look at that.”
“I’d love to,” said Park.
“Oh, sorry,” said both Rachel and Natasha. Natasha stuck out her finger and Su Park got to see the video for herself. In a few moments she was saying “Oh my” herself.
“I’ll need to see Mr Gilbert’s view as well,” said Park. “But—I would have to say it looks like a living thing, doesn’t it to you?”
“Well,” said Clay, “the Horse Head Nebula looks like a horse, as do sea horses, but this, not gonna lie, it sure looks like it took a bite with that mouth.”
“I’d say it’s lucky it didn’t take a bite out of one of us. Repairs needed?”
“Yes, actually,” said Natasha. “The conduit connector in the middle of my hatch. It leaks pretty good. I had to hook up with, uh,” and she paused, as if trying to backspace and reword her previous clause. “With, uh, Clay. Hatch to hatch.”
Rachel smirked. Park looked up at the stars toward 55 Cancri and said, “Gamma Wing will be along in a few minutes. I told Bouvier to join us here. Nice place, don’t you think?”
They looked around at the surface: stars glinted in clear ice pools and flashed in specks of snow. “Sure,” said Rachel, “as long as you didn’t want, you know, air or water or sunlight.”
“Well, maybe over on c,” said Natasha. “There’s plenty of warmth in the inner orbits. Maybe nothing much else, but it’s not going to be cold.”
“No,” said Park. They all stood there for another minute or so. Park cleared her throat and said, as preamble, “On the subject of relationships within Alpha Wing.”
“What?” said all of the other three, though none of them could have been surprised.
“I want to only have to say this once. Clearly you are all normal, sexually active young adults. Clearly you are part of a colonization expedition and you may well want to find mates and start families, or at least to find mates. That is all fine and normal. Understood?”
“Yes, understood, yes, commander,” they said.
“Fine. There are exactly three people who are off limits for each of you. You have seventeen other fighter pilots, and scores of other crew, and over eight thousand colonists, many of whom are of whichever gender fits your preferences. It is not too much to ask that you do not form romantic relationships with other members of Alpha Wing. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” said Clay and Natasha, both glancing at Rachel, who gave each of them a sympathetic look.
“I’m glad we understand each other,” said Park, looking up toward the incoming Gamma fighters, while Natasha and Clay looked at each other and winked.
Gamma Wing came in and landed and everyone had a good hug, and then the video from Natasha’s fighter was passed around.
“It looks like it comes from nowhere,” said Bouvier, looking at Clay’s video, “takes a chomp and then shoots off to nowhere.”
“But a different nowhere,” said Timmis Green.
“So it lives out there?” said Vera Santos. “It, them? There can’t be just one, right?”
“Who knows,” said Natasha. “I guess you can’t have just one of an organism.”
“Let’s just say not much is known about it,” said Su Park. “Even calling it an organism is a bit of a—hypothesis, at present. I’m going to send my wing second back out there with Mr Gilbert to have a look around: Miss Kleiner is grounded, unfortunately, until her fighter gets some repairs.”
“We’re going back out there?” said Clay.
“For one thing,” said Park, “even if you can’t find out any more information than the tiny amount we now have, you can warn the ships following us to take care. Somehow.”
“Somehow,” said Rachel, “as in, telling Kalkar to take evasive action?”
“I don’t have any other ideas, Miss Andros, do you?” Rachel shrugged. “In any case,” Park went on, “one can only imagine what could happen if that, uh, thing were to meet a large target. As has been observed, it appears to have a mouth and to take bites of things made of the stuff of starships. What might happen if it did that to the Tasmania?”
“What if it had some friends?” Bouvier added.
“So we’re supposed to go out there and hang out?” Rachel asked. “Transmit warnings, take sensor readings, look under rocks?”
“And if we see one of our little friends?” asked Clay.
“I would avoid direct contact,” said Park, “obviously.”
“But if you can figure out how to put a hole in it,” said Jane Tremblay, “please do. Did you literally save Natasha’s life?”
“Yes,” said Natasha, “he literally saved Natasha’s life.”
“Well,” said Vera, “Clay Gilbert, hero of the hour.”
“What do you mean by that?” Clay asked.
“I mean what I said! God, Clay, take a compliment, dude.”
“It could just as easily have been Rachel,” said Clay. “I was just nearer.”
“It wouldn’t have been as interesting,” said Rachel, and Natasha giggled.
They need not have worried about Park overhearing them. The two wing commanders were busy discussing their plans for the exploration of the Gliese 163 system, while the other six chatted about what they would name the unfamiliar constellations. Presently the commanders emerged from conclave and set forth their plans. Natasha was grounded, for safety reasons, until the anchor freighters came in and they could fix up her leaky hatch; she would get to accompany Park on a thorough investigation of the planetoid. It did not turn out to be any more interesting than it looked. Meanwhile Bouvier’s wing had the assignment of looking over the five gas giant planets and their moons—which meant, in particular, looking over the c planet and its two largest moons, both the size of the Earth’s moon and similarly pocked and airless. “They don’t look habitable from here,” said Bouvier, “but I guess we have to go check it out. I’ll take Timmis in to b, e and c. Tremblay and Santos will do f and d and the three outer ones, the cold rocks.”
“We, uh, don’t think you’re going to find any life,” said Rachel. “This place got blasted good by some sort of solar burst.”
“So no Algaeville,” said Timmis.
“There could still be places for colonies,” said Bouvier. “It might make that more likely rather than less.”
“And you two,” said Park to Rachel and Clay, “obviously be very careful, all right?”
“And try not to let anything take bites out of you,” said Natasha.
“Yeah,” said Timmis, “it sounds like you have the fun job, huh, Clay?”
“I’ll trade you,” said Clay, though deep down he found himself looking forward to heading out into the void. He had it in the back of his mind that he might get to interview the thing with the mouth, ask it what its hopes and dreams were. He had to remind himself that it bit.
“How fast do you want us to get up to?” asked Rachel. “We might not even see the thing or things until we get to relativistic speed. Right?”
“We were going 22% of light speed at that time,” said Natasha.
“Well, all right,” said Park, “go up to 22% of light speed, then turn in an arc and drop down to ten percent and cruise around out there till the freighters roll in. And don’t forget that your batteries will be getting a bit low after two trips to light speed, so you’ll need to sun-graze a little later on. Just try to learn something, try to warn Mr Kalkar and his colleagues, and stay out of trouble. I should have listed that one first.” She gave Clay a pointed look and then said to Rachel, “You’re in charge, Wing Second Andros.”
“Oh goody,” said Rachel as she and Clay walked toward their Ghosts. She rubbed her vac suit gloved hands together. “I like being in charge of you.”
“So what shall we talk about?” asked Rachel as they sped back outward from Gliese 163 and its blasted little gas giants. “I can think of two things I’d like to talk about. We could talk about what cosmic force was attacking you and Natasha, or shall we talk about the thing in the video?”
“Can’t we just play chess or something?” replied Clay.
“We can do that too. So? What do you say? Want to update your old pal Rachel on your relationship status? You in a relationship again?”
“Rachel, are you angry with me? I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what’s going on between me and Natasha. I know about as much about that as I know about the thing that really did try and take a bite out of us.”
“Oh, bull sticks,” said Rachel. “Don’t hide behind your guy-ness. Are you two now an item? Didn’t we just have this conversation, about someone else?”
“Rachel,” said Clay, “I remind you that I have not been in a romantic relationship in over forty years. I am a typical male of somewhere over 110. Um, bull sticks?”
“My parents taught me not to swear. And don’t pull out those time dilation gimmicks on me, I majored in astrophysics. No, I’m not angry with you.” They shot along in silence for a few seconds, covering approximately 100,000 km side by side at a distance of about ten meters. “So it’s definitely over with Vera? By the way, I thought she was a bit snide back there on the planetoid, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I had that feeling too,” said Clay. “Do you think she knows?” Before Rachel could answer, Clay added, “Rachel, can women read men’s minds?”
“You’re kind of obvious sometimes. It’s hard not to.”
“Well, I apologize for that. For my whole gender. I mean, did everyone on that planetoid with us know what we—?”
“Clay,” she said. “Clay, Clay, Clay. I don’t even know what you. What you what? Were you guys makin’ whoopee? Ha. Makin’ whoopee. Is that even a thing?”
Clay sat in silence thinking through possible replies as they covered another million kilometers. “Rachel,” he said, “do you not approve? I guess I mean, do you feel the same way Park feels about it? You shouldn’t get in a romance with your wing mate?”
“Well, are you? Romance with your wing mate. Is that a thing?”
Clay thought about that for another million kilometers. Those million kilometer stones were coming faster and faster. Finally he said, “Yeah, it’s a thing. I don’t know. I know I’ve put you in a difficult situation. I mean, I didn’t think I was putting anyone in a situation, but—!”
“Yes,” said Rachel, and her overworked patience came through clearly. “You put me in a difficult situation. No, you didn’t think about it, and actually? I understand that. So you had to link up, because her hatch was leaking and her vac suit would have been a bit overworked to keep her air up all by itself. And there you are, with your hatches linked up, and obviously what one does when one finds oneself in that situation—!”
“We were very emotional after I frickin’ saved her life.”
“So you took advantage of her? Or she took advantage of you? Or both?”
“Rachel. No one took advantage. I mean, that would sort of indicate that I wouldn’t have saved her if I hadn’t expected to get some, you know, whoopee or whatever in return. Right?”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “I can’t add up the columns that fast. Ask me a math question instead.” They sped another million kilometers.
“I just wasn’t not going to save her life,” said Clay. “It wouldn’t have mattered if it was Timmis Green. Or you, for that matter.” Another million kilometers. “Rachel,” he said.
“Yes?” she said, and she didn’t take long saying the word.
“Do you disapprove?”
“No,” she said, and then, after a few hundred thousand kilometers, she added, “I don’t disapprove. I love you both, I hope you have a great time together. Just don’t expect me to cover for you.”
“I don’t.” He laughed. “What’s Park going to do, fire us?”
“She might trade you for Bonnie Bain. Who is very eager to get on a wing, you know.”
“You now have my full attention,” said Clay.
Still, they shot through the blackness. Rachel sent Clay an opening chess move, and for a while they played chess. Clay pissed off Rachel by sneaking out of a sure trap and earning a draw, then doing it again. She then beat him mercilessly. But of course they were also watching the screens.
“Clay,” said Rachel, as he pushed his king pawn out into the dangers of their fourth game.
“Rachel,” said Clay at almost the same time, “I’m picking up something.”
“I am too,” said Rachel. “And I have a feeling it’s a thing.”
The two fighters banked left and turned in a wide arc, slowing from 15% to 5% of light speed over twelve hours. They skirted a spherical region perhaps two billion kilometers across, in which they managed to detect and track as many as eight objects at a time. The objects were the size of fighters but dark as night: they gave off a tiny amount of radiation in a very low infrared frequency, and another tiny amount at a high ultraviolet, but mostly they appeared by blocking the light from the background Milky Way. They zipped about unpredictably, following continuous paths but not, perhaps, Clay thought, continuously differentiable. They zigzagged, they stopped and started again, they went straight or on a simple curve for minutes and then suddenly accelerated in a random direction. An individual would be lost against the background, and another would appear, zigging happily like a gnat in a shaft of sunlight. Then it would zip away at ten percent of the speed of light, accelerating at well above a thousand gees, which would not only kill an unprotected human, it would make a fully protected human in a tiny spaceship black out while his tiny spaceship would start coming apart at the seams.
“It’s them,” said Clay. “I’m sure of it. I checked. I picked up that same ultraviolet wavelength in the video.”
“They’re in the exact same place where we met that one, aren’t they?” asked Rachel.
“Yeah. If by ‘exact’ you mean within a billion kilometers.” They coasted along, curving around the edge of the imaginary sphere. “I’m sure there was only one in the area before,” said Clay.
“You mean when we were attacked, that one was the only one within a billion kilometers.”
“Um, yeah, I guess that’s what I mean.”
“Well, I concur, Clay, because Park had us both scanning the whole area for signatures like that ultraviolet frequency and they weren’t there. After the attack, I mean. It was what we were doing while you and Tasha were doing whatever you were doing.” She paused but Clay didn’t rise to the bait: he was getting used to resisting Rachel’s bait. After a minute or so she said, “I can’t say as I like the way they start and stop.”
“No, I don’t like that either.” He watched them disappear and reappear, zip about, turn and fly off. “Are they flying away? Are there less of them than before?”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “It’s hard to tell. But I think you’re right. Maybe they’re getting bored waiting for the freighters.”
“You don’t suppose they know there are freighters coming, and colony ships, do you?”
“Goddess, Clay,” said Rachel, “don’t even start me on what we don’t know about these things. Are they even sentient? Would we be any worse off if they were?”
“You mean, these things operating on total instinct might be worse than these things having intelligence and the ability to communicate and cooperate? No, I think them communicating and cooperating is the scary one. But I could be wrong.” They coasted, their eyes glued to their displays. “It gives me the willies, Rachel. Let’s see, for instance, question: what do we have that can harm them if they attack?”
“Oh, good one,” said Rachel. “How about this? What if the one told the others that they’d seen some lovely morsels over that-away, and here they are, looking for lovely morsels?”
“What if eight or ten or twelve isn’t very many of them?” asked Clay. “What if there’s a whole fleet of them, army, whatever. What if even this is just a scout crew?”
“What if these are just the little ones and there are big ones out there too?”
“Okay. What if the Tasmania shows up just about now? Because guess what I’m getting an image of, out at the threshold. I’ve got just a big faint blob, but it looks kinda familiar.”
“Clay. Is it? Is that what that is?”
“I just boosted the signal at 1.42,” said Clay. “Advise you do the same. Point it out along our inbound course.”
“Oh sure,” said Rachel, a moment later. “Great timing, Alfred. If that’s not the Tasmania, it’s one of the other anchors. They’ll be close together.”
“They’ll still be doing thirty, thirty-five percent,” said Clay. “We can warn them.”
“Okay,” said Rachel, “that’s what we’re going to do. I’m plotting a flight plan. I’ll send it back to Park so she’ll know, um, exactly what we were trying to do when the giant space monster ate us. Feel like cutting across where those things were patrolling? I don’t see any there now.”
“Food dish is empty,” said Clay. “So the cats have wandered off. Okay. I have no common sense. If one of those things pops up, what should I try first—photon blast, or missile?”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “Missile. It’s earlier in the alphabet.”
The anchor freighters and the escorting Beta Wing had made better than expected time. It was, according to calendars aligned with the rest of the universe, fifteen days from the moment when the conduit connecting Natasha’s fighter to the others was chomped to the moment when Rachel and Clay pulled their fighters into the pod bay of the armored freighter Tasmania.
An hour before their arrival onboard, the two pilots had sent ahead their story and their videos, including a long one from their outward journey showing perhaps a dozen of whatever those things were. So when Rachel and her underling debarked onto the Tasmania, they were met not only by Life Support Officer Angele Lafitte but also by the Captain himself.
“Didn’t like those pix you sent,” said Kalkar. “Hoping for something a bit more erotic. Or some comedy or sports perhaps.”
“You didn’t find our little friends exciting enough?” asked Rachel.
“Oh, they were exciting,” said Kalkar. “You think they eat starships. Why ever would they do that?”
“No idea.” She looked at Clay. He shrugged.
“Well, you’re here,” said Kalkar, “we might as well have a big ol’ meeting.”
“So you think they’re alive,” Kalkar said, as they floated, an hour later, in the open back area of the freighter bridge. Captains Nillstrom and Macdonald, of the armored freighters Greenland and Corsica, had joined them, along with their navigators. Irah Chontz floated beside Kalkar, while both Tasmania pilots, Ram Vindu and Emily Grey, sat loosely attached to their chairs, turned away from the pilot consoles toward the meeting. Behind Kalkar and Nilsson, Agneska Vilya and her wing quartered the big screen, talking among themselves, trying to analyze the videos. “Are they sentient?” asked Kalkar.
“These are our questions, actually,” said Rachel. “If I had to guess, I’d say yes to the first and a qualified no to the second. I think they communicate somehow.”
“And they can actually fly at relativistic speeds,” said Nilsson’s navigator, Han Darien. “No, I’m not arguing or anything. I’m just, uh, marveling.”
“And you’re sure they eat starship?” asked Rob Macdonald.
“Yes, they fly at relativistic speeds,” said Rachel. “No, we’re not sure they eat starship. This one could have even taken a chunk out of the conduit by accident. But how likely is that?”
“Not,” said Clay and Kalkar at the same time.
“But as for speed, we were overtaken by that one at about 22% of light speed, and we observed them accelerating routinely at 1000 gees.”
“Bull,” said Macdonald.
“And yet it’s true,” said Clay, who had a visceral reaction to Captain Macdonald. Clay was never a violent sort, but every time Macdonald opened his mouth, Clay wanted to stuff it full of Macdonald’s foot. It was not a fantasy likely to translate to real life: Macdonald was about 25% taller and 80% heavier than Clay.
“It clearly is, Sir,” said Macdonald’s navigator, Raoul Diemi, a handsome dark-skinned young man with a curious ability to get around his boss. “We ran the three dimensional movements, and some of these things exceed 1000 gees.”
“So are they things or are they ships?” asked Vilya, turning around to join the discussion.
“Not sure if it matters, Commander,” said Gil Rojette. “Rather an angels on the head of a pin sort of thing, isn’t it?”
“Any idea how to blow one up?”
“Not a clue,” said Clay.
“Well,” said Nilsson, “how did your wing escape that first one’s clutches?”
“It left,” said Clay.
“Was it scared?” asked Han Darien.
“It didn’t look scared.”
“We think,” said Rachel, “that maybe that one went and got his friends. The thing is, we don’t know how many more friends they have.”
“Or they might have found nothing and told that first guy he was crazy,” said Kalkar. “Well, there’s not much to go on, but I would have to say that erring on the side of caution seems like the side to err on. I don’t know if they eat ships but we don’t want them eating Tasmania, and we definitely don’t want them to eat the colony ships.” He looked at Macdonald. “Maybe they can’t maneuver like that. God knows they shouldn’t be able to. But maybe they can, and if they can run rings around a Ghost 201, what makes us think an armored freighter can outmaneuver them?” Macdonald raised his eyebrows and waved off the question with both hands. Kalkar asked, “So how are we going to manage this?”
“Send us out in front,” said Vilya. “All six. Plus Bain, she’s on the Corsica.”
“What weapons do you have?” asked Nilsson.
“Oh, we have a few things,” said Rachel. “It’ll be a learning experience. Or, just maybe, we won’t see a thing.”
“All right,” said Kalkar. “All I can say is, if these things are sentient, this is a hell of a first contact.”
But in the event, the seven fighter es
cort 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 163c. 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 retreat 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 ar
ound,” said Natasha, as she and Clay lay entangled and naked in her bunk. “We’ve been gone from Earth now for like 110 years. If we went back by the straightest route, everyone we knew would be like 150 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? Think 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 osmium. Huh. As in, a hexagonal plate made of them and with weird letters on it.”
“Well, I’ll be darned,” was Park’s response, as Clay, Natasha and Bonnie Bain headed back. Natasha’s Ghost had a 1.3-meter hexagon of iridium and osmium attached like a dead deer in hunting season back in old Maine.
“The geniuses never did figure out what the last one said,” came Captain Kalkar’s voice.
“Now they’ll have twice as much information,” said Natasha. “The letters look basically the same. Let’s just hope they aren’t exactly the same. Where did they put the other one?”
“It’s on the Canada,” said Park. “But we have holographs of it. You can start right in deciphering it, Miss Kleiner.”
“Sounds great. Can I have Mister Gilbert to help out?”
“Sure, have Miss Bain too.”
“Natasha,” Clay called as they headed back to c. “Chess?”
“Love to,” Natasha called back, “since we can’t hook up hatch to hatch under the Commander’s watchful eye. Just know that I’m thinking of you.”
“Oh, same to you, Miss Kleiner, same to you.”
So the trio of Ghosts plodded across interplanetary space at a mere 2% of light speed, also known as six thousand kilometers per second. But by the time they were in the vicinity of planet c and the three anchor freighters, there was news. From far out in the black shadows of the system, they could tell something was happening, and they caught the chatter half a minute before the Tasmania did.
There was a looming buzzing, as the first of the colony ship groups lumbered down to a speed at which their photon reflections made sense. They too had made good time and now they were just about here. There were also the four Ghost 201s of Beta Wing, on patrol in pairs a few million kilometers apart, headed back together as the big folks rolled in on a predictable path.
Something was happening near Bluehorse and Rojette. The photons carrying their fighter to fighter communications were just arriving after a journey of hours. Gil Rojette, the wing second, was heard giving coordinates and a vector, then saying “Whoa, look out,” and then cursing: “What the bleep was—? Oh God.”
“I got you,” they heard Bluehorse say, and then she stated a vector and a few settings. “Red 1.5, green 40.5, full amp,” she said, then “Direct hit.” Then, “Did nothing. Gil, I got nothing. Get out of there.”
“I’m getting, there’s three,” he said. “I got a hole, I got a bite out of—!”
“What the—? Where did they—?”
“I don’t know, okay? Ah, I’m screwed, just run, Bluey.”
“Not going to,” said Bluehorse. “Direct hit! Dangit! Nothin’, man, up the blue, dump the stupid green. Got 1.5, 3.5, uh, 50 or so, there, hey,” she said.
“What were those numbers?”
“1.5, 3.5, 51.4, full,” said Bluehorse.
“Dang! Bluey, get out of there, I’ll cover!”
“Negative, wing second, you got damage, just cover me, got the settings? Dangit,” she added. Clay thought he could hear her gritting her teeth.
“Fire, Bluey! Look, oh man! Oh bleep,” came Rojette’s voice.
“Rojette, Bluehorse, get out of there,” came Vilya’s voice: she was finally close enough to have heard their communications in real time, at least her real time.
“Rojette!” came Li Zan’s voice. “Get out!”
“Cover me, bleep,” he replied, “got those numbers? Cover me!”
“What numbers?” asked Li Zan.
“Got the settings, 1.5, 3.5, five one point four, full,” said Vilya. “Dammit, you call that effective?”
“God damn it,” said Rojette, “keep on, it’s working a little. God damn it.”
“Uh, Kleiner, Gilbert, Bain,” came Su Park’s voice. “Turn around. We’re going out there. We’ll rendezvous en route. Over?”
“Roger that,” said Natasha. “Come on, we’re turning around.”
“Why? What happened?” asked Bonnie Bain.
She wasn’t answered for half a minute, as the three of them reset their navigation and went grimly over to full acceleration toward the system’s edge.
“Bluehorse got bonked,” said Natasha, “she got bumped by the things that went bump in the night. Mind you, this is all hours ago. They bumped Rojette, but they really bumped Bluey. Okay, so set your photon cannons to red 1.5, green 3.5, blue 51.4 and full amplitude. We have about, oh, twelve hours to punch in four numbers.”
“And see if they work,” said Clay. “Mannn.”
“What? Was it those things?” asked Bonnie Bain.
“It must have been,” said Clay. “They got Bluehorse. She’s not even there now. Bluehorse is gone.”