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5.

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 being slow 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. Or, they just might be the colony ships.”

“I think,” said Kalkar, “we will proceed on the assumption that it’s the colony ships. 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 that, 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, 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 smiling glare 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 million 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.

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