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There followed a testy debate among the captains, or the “captaincy” if one preferred, and their mission administrators and the freighter captains, which was both polarized and boring to the fighter pilots. Schwinn and all her people, and Renaud Garant and most of his, were on one side, favoring dialog and a “service orientation” toward the colonists; on the other were Mark and Trein and most of their officers, who wanted the colonists to leave the driving to them. Alice Grohl and some of the other colonist reps sort of sided with Schwinn; other colonists were just generally hostile. Sister Shia Tang and some of the junior officers and administrators, and a few of the colonists, settled for throwing in vague messages of tranquility every now and then.

At last, Ted Trein and Alice Grohl were practically yelling at each other, and the most radical of the colonist reps were pounding their fists and cheering Alice, whom they had all within the previous twenty-four hours derided as Ally Schwinn’s lapdog. For the pilots, a little of this went a very long way. Park stood up a few minutes into the contretemps.

“Don’t stop for us,” said Park. “We’ll just set up a bit of a patrol schedule for ourselves, if that’s all right. You all may go right on discussing to your heart’s content.”

Outside, she had nothing to say, but led a murmuring crowd of fighter pilots through the Canada to its bay, where all their fighters except for the two already on patrol were waiting. Then she turned to them.

“I hope none of you mind my doing that,” said Park.

“Oh, as if,” said Rachel. “Commander, I have an idea I’d like to try out.”

“What would that be, Miss Andros?”

“I’ve plotted the locations of the two plates we’ve found,” said Rachel. “At first blush, the locations seem quite different: one was on a moon of a gas giant, and the other was on basically a Kuiper belt object. But both objects were small, under a kilometer long, both were irregular, both were largely water ice and get this, to a thousandth of a percent, both have orbital companions, other objects, that are one fifth of an orbit ahead of them and one fifth their mass.”

Park just glared at her patiently. “They what what what?” asked Bouvier.

“Well,” said Rachel, “I am looking for patterns. Right? How to narrow down the search. And so I like run every bit of data we have on these guys. And this does, you know, sort of jump out at you if you look at it right.”

“What jumps out at me,” said Park, “is that you’re an even better wing second than I thought you were. So the punch line. Is there such an object?”

“The punch line,” said Rachel, “is, yes. In the inner part of the Kuiper belt.”

“All right,” said Park. “Take Mr Gilbert, who seems to collect these things, and go look at the object in question. If you fail to locate anything, then identify other objects like it. Miss Kleiner is assigned to the linguistic team. Commander Bouvier, I suppose once Mr Green has returned, your wing can take up whatever patrol functions are needed near Planet Five. Possibly you could try those smoke signals I spoke of.”

“And Beta Wing,” said Agneska Vilya, “can take up patrolling the outer system. Is that something you would like us to do?”

“Who knows if it’s necessary even,” said Park. “What do you think, Celeste? Is it worth the danger?”

“We should have a handle on those mouthholes, at least,” said Bouvier.

“I don’t see any real risk,” said Vilya. “Of course there is always the unexpected that people keep telling us to expect. I think the way to approach it is to fly a long sweep around the system at, oh, twelve light hours, just to see what we see, and react accordingly.”

“Which means what,” said Bouvier.

“Which means, when in doubt, I fall back on my instinct,” said Vilya. “You know I’m a veteran of the mission to Alpha Centauri, don’t you?” She smiled at Park. “What will you be up to in the meantime, my fellow Centauri vet?”

“I,” said Park, and then she sighed. “I fear I shall have to remain on the Canada to limit the number of stupid flags that get run up the flagpole and saluted.”

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