V. A good Plan B
Over the next week, the colony ships India, Egypt, Argentina and Canada glided into the system, braking hard, each accompanied by its freighter (Noko Rengata, Douglas Pohacz, Kelly Flynn and Tessa) and its escort ship (their crews called them cruisers: Persuasion, Abstraction, Quality and Responsible).
There was no sign of the lead colony ship, the France, or its freighter Humbert or the escort Resilience. There was no signal from the France, there was no wreckage, there was no sign of trouble that anyone knew of. The three ships had not been in direct physical contact of the sort that the fighters used to maintain communications at light speed, and yet it seemed that they had met the same fate, or taken the same wrong turn. The three ships were on parallel courses a few thousand kilometers apart; it was hard to see how an explosion on one could have affected the other two. And yet, there it was: here they weren’t.
It took most of the week for most of the people in 55 Cancri to conclude that the France was in fact not about to pop out of light speed, that everything was not, in fact, going to be okay. It would be wrong to say there were no clues, or that there was no turning point in people’s opinions. Sixty hours after the France should have been visible, one Ghost 201 appeared from the direction of Earth: it was none other than Bonnie Bain, the one human being out of the two thousand plus in the France’s group who had made it to Cancri.
Decelerating hard, Bain managed to come to a halt in the chosen orbit of the three anchor freighters a day before the four colony ships did. She was debriefed by Park, Kalkar, Captain Nilsstrom of the Greenland and Captain Macdonald of the Corsica. Afterward, she went and slept for about twelve hours, and then she came to the galley and found that it had been taken over by the fighter pilots. Rojette and Kleiner were out on patrol, and the three commanders were back in meeting, but the other seven were all watching the door.
Bonnie Bain came sashaying in, stopped, looked at the seven and slumped a little.
“Bonnie, it’s fine,” said Tremblay. “We just want to hear what happened.”
“I had a rough time,” said Bonnie Bain, pushing back her loose and weightless off-blond hair.
“Have some coffee,” said Rachel. “Have a donut. It’s all pretty good, considering.”
So Bonnie Bain got her coffee and had a donut and over the course of the next hour she told the fighter pilots what little she knew. She had been sent out to patrol ahead of the colony ship and its group, for reasons that she did not entirely understand. Did Admiral Georges think they might meet bug-eyed aliens in space cruisers in the rarefied world of near light speed? No one told Bonnie Bain. So, while her comrade Jules Javert slept in a bunk and partied with the crew and colonists, Bonnie Bain climbed into Old Bessie (she seemed to be the only pilot so far to have named her Ghost) and took off from the France, which was already moving at 25% of the speed of light at the time.
It did not take long for the France group to disappear from Bain’s sensors, but at 50% or more of light speed, sensors tended to be uninformative, what with stars smeared out into streaks, signals racing the noise in all directions and the spacecraft’s tendency to run away from its own communications. Bain thought the France had blinked out a tad early, but her speed relative to France was substantial and growing as Bain’s Bessie accelerated as only a Ghost 201 could do. And, like everyone else in the room, she had never been to light speed before.
Light speed had been lonely at first. But it didn’t remain so. She felt watched, she said. And when Old Bessie crested at 99.993%, she swore things were flying along beside her, things she couldn’t see. She shook her head as she talked about them. She tried to laugh. “It was nothing,” she said, “nothing showed up on the sensors, so it must have been the effect of light speed on my own perceptions. Right?”
“I thought I saw a window into total blackness,” said Clay. “So did the rest of my wing.”
“We didn’t see a thing,” said Jane Tremblay. “But we were sticking with the freighters and they didn’t click over beyond 99.5%.”
“The France couldn’t have pushed past 99 or so, then, right?” asked Timmis.
“No, that’s about right,” said Bonnie Bain. “They would max out at 99%.”
“Well,” said Jana Bluehorse, “you wonder what they saw in their sensors. I guess we’ll never know.”
“What did you see in your sensors, Jana?” asked Clay.
“You and Vera makin’ out. Oh wait, that was what I was watching on video.”
“Bonnie,” said Tremblay, “do not feel guilty about this. You had a very rough time. Not one of us went to the speed of light all by ourselves. And the France—well, it may be out there somewhere still. No one knows. Even if it isn’t, you were doing your job. You’re here because you did it well, not because you didn’t do it well.”
“Anyway,” said Rachel, “you’re one of us now.”