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So Rachel started in explaining about the system, occasionally prompted by Clay or Natasha. Vilya inserted her wing’s discoveries at the red dwarf. Rachel summarized as best she could.

“Can I ask a question?” was the first question asked by a colonist representative named Alice Grohl, when Rachel paused long enough.

“Um, sure,” said Rachel.

“So in your opinion, no place in this system is inhabitable? And yet you say there’s life?”

“Yes, that’s what I think,” said Rachel.

“Well, how do you resolve that? I mean, can’t we live where they live? Is this about protecting a fragile ecosystem or something? Because I’m all for that, but not if it means I have to take my family and a couple thousand other families on another risky trip to the speed of light.”

“No, no,” said Natasha, standing up, “you have to understand, the algae on Algaeville isn’t living anywhere we want to live. I mean, we’re talking about one celled plants, basically, eking out a living in a layer about two centimeters thick in ice on the highlands of a moon so far from the star that the star looks like, oh, Venus in the night sky of Earth. There’s no air, there’s not much water, there’s not much for resources, there’s no soil. The algae is really interesting, it evolved right here all on its own, but it’s not like we could do what it does, nor would we want to. Okay?”

“For the record,” said Su Park, “we could plant a colony on that moon or on some of the others, but you would never be able to terraform a place like that. It’s just too cold.”

“So why don’t we just go back to Earth?” asked a male colonist in the crowd. A chorus of agreement and also argument swelled from immediately around him.

“Okay,” said Park, “then you need to go back to light speed again to get there. And if you’re worried about something happening to you at light speed, well, that’s where that happened. On the way between Earth and 55 Cancri.”

“I wish we’d never heard of 55 Cancri,” said a woman from the crowd. Again a swell of agreement sounded.

“Nonetheless,” said Captain Garant, “here is where we find ourselves. Do we stay here, do we go back, do we go on? That is the basic question.”

“If I may,” said Alice Grohl, “maybe we need a little more info before we decide that. Like, are we sure about Admiral Georges? I think a lot of your problem is that Admiral Georges, well, a lot of the colonists liked him, all right? Maybe we need to be sure he’s really fallen into one of those holes. Or whatever. And we also would like to get a chance to really be sure this system here isn’t liveable in some way. I mean, you understand our problem here, right?”

“You’re not in the pilot chair,” said Garant, “that’s your problem.”

“That only compounds our problem,” said Grohl.

“All right,” said Ally Schwinn, “if I may make a suggestion, and then we can all go back to whatever we were doing before this meeting, productive or not.” She looked around at her fellow captains.

“Go with it,” said Garant. Park gave an expressionless thumb up. Grohl nodded and shrugged.

“Several suggestions, actually,” said Schwinn. “What if we send out some of the explorer pods—er, whatever you call yourselves—!”

“They’re not fighters,” said Garant’s mission administrator, Sister Shia Tang. “They’re explorers.”

“Hey,” said Vilya. “You need us, you better call us what we want to be called.”

“I’m inclined to that view too,” said Schwinn, “but in any case, let’s send some of them out, say four pairs? To check space around here for any sign of the France, or of wreckage. And let’s get the escorts to have a good survey of this system to confirm what Commander Park and Commander Vilya have established about habitability. And meanwhile, perhaps Commander Park, and the four colony ship captains, and Captain Kalkar, and several of the colonists’ representatives, can convene a council to decide on how to deal with the situation in case the France never does reappear.”

“If I may,” said a colonists’ representative named Piet Ring, “humbly suggest, may you let the colonists choose their own representatives? Say, one from each colony ship?”

Schwinn looked around at the other colony ship captains, then at Park and Kalkar, who were standing together against the wall behind the fighter pilots, looking very conspiratorial. They both gave the thumbs up. “Well,” said Schwinn, “that sounds reasonable. Commander Park, will you figure out some people to send out?”

“I certainly will,” said Park.

Schwinn immediately started adjourning, but the fighter pilots didn’t hear any of that, because Park, Bouvier and Vilya were gathering them for a huddle. “Okay,” Park said, “Four pairs. Tremblay and Green, back the way we came, just to 50% of light speed, then arc back here. We’ll get flight plans together before you all go. So the other three, out at the points of a tetrahedron from here: oh, let’s say Bluehorse and Rojette; Natasha and Rachel; and oh, say, Santos and Clay Gilbert. Any objections?”

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