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The fleet of ships that would set off on the Human Horizon expedition consisted of five colony groups and three explorer wings of four SCEPs each. Each of the five colony groups consisted of a colony ship carrying 2130 colonists, along with a freighter, an escort ship and two SCEPs; each explorer wing had an “anchor,” an armored freighter designed to serve as a base for preliminary exploration.

The way the theorists, most of whom were staying home on Earth, saw it, the explorer wings and their anchors would arrive in the new star system a month or two ahead of the colony groups, and would be able to warn the lumbering colony ships off in case of dangerous conditions like an unexpectedly high level of radiation. The anchor captains, who were all experienced haulers within the Solar System, did not see it quite this way: to them, it seemed more plausible for one wing alone to arrive first and detect dangerous conditions; then for the anchors and the other two wings to pull in and commence thorough exploration of the system; and when the colony groups began to arrive, a month or two later, they would be told whether to head for the fifth planet out or whatever, and get ready to land their colony ships forever, or to buzz through the system just slowly enough to repower their solar batteries and head on for the next likely spot.

But of all the crews and pilots, only two people had ever been to another star system. Clay had not realized it at first, but it became clear from discussions amongst the fighter, er, SCEP pilots the first full day in Quebec, between pep talks, panels and planning group breakouts, that the new drive systems the ships were all using had indeed been successfully tested—by Su Park and Agneska Vilya. In 2121, the two, in early-edition Ghosts, had zipped off to Proxima Centauri, a distance of 4.2 light years, and had taken approximately 4.3 years to do so. A small escort ship with four crew had gone with them, though inevitably the Ghosts were the ones who did all the close up looking at things. They got there and found, not to anyone’s surprise, that the Centaur Project had not arrived yet. So they took a bunch of pictures and readings and samples and headed home, arriving in the system of Sol about eight years and nine months after leaving it. Due to time dilation, Park and Vilya had returned about five months older than they had been when they left, and three of those five months were spent decelerating at Centauri, exploring Centauri, and accelerating from Centauri.

“You’re serious?” Clay kept asking Bluehorse after they went back in, to a panel on colonization strategies. “Really?”

“Yeah, yeah, now shush, I’m actually trying to listen,” said Bluehorse.

He sat back and stared at little Su Park, who was herself listening with slight patience to Captain Alfred Kalkar, whose armored freighter Tasmania was Alpha Wing’s anchor. Kalkar was espousing the anchors’ view of colony strategy. The Admiral ahem’d several times during Kalkar’s spiel, which was somewhat longer than necessary, and then got his chance to restate his own position.

Admiral Georges felt that the colony ships ought to arrive in the system and then do the thorough exploring. He did not want to be informed by Kalkar and his fellow anchor captains what the plan was; he wanted to get there, have some meetings, and then retire to deliberate before issuing his conclusion. He had a list of reasons to feel this way; Kalkar and the other anchor captains had their own list, but they were outnumbered.

Su Park, of course, and Vilya and Bouvier with her, felt that the fighters, er, SCEPs, could make the preliminary determination as to whether things were dangerous or not, and though she did not actually say so, she clearly felt that the anchors might just as well stick close to the colony groups and not bother actually anchoring anything, thank you very much.

Clearly nothing was going to be decided at an open panel in front of a variety of crew members, alternates and Earth-bound scientist-administrators. Nor was anything going to be decided by twelve SCEP pilots, er, fighter pilots, sitting around a large hotel room that night, drinking dark beer and wine and passing a pipe.

“But who is going to decide?” asked Natasha. “Who’s really going to decide?”

“I’ll tell you exactly how it’s going to be,” said Su Park. She sometimes said those magic words and whenever she did, all the other fighter pilots shut up and listened. “The executive directors and lead scientists and stuff, they’ll give the orders for the first jump. We’ll head for 55 Cancri and when we get there, stuff will happen and we’ll no doubt make a new plan. And that plan won’t have any input from people who are staying here on Earth. For better or worse.”

“And when we’re in the system and no one else is,” said Bouvier, “no one else is going to tell us what to do.”

“No one’s going to tell us what to do anyway,” said Vilya.

“Who decided what when you guys went to Centauri?” asked Tremblay. “The escort ship’s commander wasn’t Kalkar, was it?”

“No, he’s an old freighter guy,” said Bouvier.

“The commander was someone named Marchant,” said Su Park. “He let us take the lead.”

“Smart,” said Jana Bluehorse.

“Scared,” said Agneska Vilya.

“What was it like,” Clay got the courage to ask, “sailing into a new star system, being the only humans?”

“You’ll find out,” said Vilya.

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