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The hypotenuse doesn't exist for the two ships - they will not 'observe' one. Yes, they can only 'know' it's there. They are the same distance as ever, as far as they are concerned. They will observe c to be c using their local timing and distance measurements..For a 'stationary' observer, the light will take an appropriate length of time to traverse the hypotenuse (which he will observe) and his observed time intervals between transmission and reception will also be modified by SR. He will also observe c to be c. I was expecting a space curve like a negative lens which would shorten the hypotenuse to the proper length.
When you say "know it's there" - they can deduce what the 'stationary' observer will see if they know his speed relative to them. They know he will see a hypotenuse.
Perhaps it is neither space nor velocity that is distorted... Matter must distort when it moves because of its composition.