Chapter 5: A good Plan B

V. A good Plan B

1.

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 (imitating the SCEP pilots, the escort crews called their ships 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 which had accompanied them to light speed. 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.

Each set of three big ships flew from Earth to 55 Cancri together, with the five groups separated by millions of kilometers. The three ships in each set flew on parallel courses a few thousand kilometers apart: quite close in relative terms, practically touching, but 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 humans 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 incorrect 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: neither she nor her instruments seemed to know anything useful, including how she had wound up behind where the France was supposed to be and not in front of it. 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 pretty rough time,” said Bonnie Bain, pushing back her 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. She took her position as ordered, ten million kilometers in front.

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, so she had no experience to go by anyway.

Light speed had been lonely at first. But it didn’t remain so. She felt watched, she said. And when Old Bessie crested at 99.9993%, 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 99.9975%.”

“The France couldn’t have pushed past 99.9 or so, then, right?” asked Timmis.

“No, France was pushing faster than that,” said Bonnie Bain. “They would max out at 99.99%. I was going faster than they were. But something happened. I swear I went further than I was supposed to. It felt like I went the long way around something or other.”

“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. “We saw nothing, but it was a weird kind of nothing.”

“What did I see? 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.”

2.

The discussion broke up gradually all of a sudden after an hour and a half. Several people had to go to the bathroom and everyone seemed to realize that as much as could be said had been said.

Clay came out of the ship’s odd little toilet—he normally just peed and pooped in his vac suit, and he was in danger of forgetting what a real bathroom was like—and found Vera waiting out in the hall. She didn’t say anything. They walked along together aimlessly and found themselves, holding hands, in a little observation room at a corner in the hallway. It was full of stars, arranged in unfamiliar ways, and the long profile of the Milky Way behind all of them.

“Clay,” said Vera. Neither of them looked away from the view.

“Things got more complicated, didn’t they?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Vera. They stood there for a minute, a full minute, and then she looked at him and he turned and let her take control of his eyes. Her brown eyes were glistening. “Clay,” she said, “this is what I was worried about when you went and I stayed. Oh, Clay, I am so not ready for this. I am so not ready for losing people.”

“They may not be lost.”

“Clay. Be real. They’re lost.” She turned back to the window and they both stood there looking outward. Clay could not help thinking that he could see forever, but there were still an awful lot of places out there to hide.

They parted with a few soft words and a little kiss a few minutes later. An hour later, Clay was lying in bed, rereading another old classic on the display on the ceiling of his bunk. Frodo was getting caught in a snowstorm. Rachel was lying on her bunk reading as well: an old fantasy called The Tale of Countess Vivian.

“You think we’ll ever see them again?” Rachel asked suddenly.

“Vera doesn’t think so,” Clay replied, not losing his place.

“So that means what about what you think?”

“I don’t know,” said Clay. “I didn’t get this far with her by questioning women’s opinions. What do you think?”

“Questioning women’s opinions?”

“Asking a woman her opinion is still okay, however,” said Clay. “Otherwise how’s a guy supposed to ever know the right opinion?”

“Good point,” said Rachel.

“So?”

“So,” said Rachel. She sat up cross-legged on her bed. “So maybe they mis-navigated. It could be something like a software glitch. You hear about ships getting lost in the fog and somehow messing up their global positioning.”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “I flew freight shuttles, right? They get messed up sometimes. So you’re aiming for a 420 km orbit and you end up on free return to the Moon. I knew a guy who had to get rescued. He was by himself on a shuttle and it didn’t have enough oxygen for a trip to the Moon.”

“Sure. But if you mis-navigate on the way to 55 Cancri? Where do you end up?”

“Maybe just out in space a ways,” said Clay.

“That would be nice. They might just cruise in here three months from now.” They sat silent for a bit. “Or,” said Rachel, “didn’t we just say we thought we saw something out there? Spaces or openings or something?”

“Yeah,” said Clay, rolling onto an elbow to look at Rachel. “Like an opening into a dark room.”

“So the question might be, what’s in that room?” Clay just smiled. Rachel said, “And what does this do for the greatest romance in the history of 55 Cancri?”

“I don’t know, Rachel,” Clay said with great deliberation.

They both lay back down and went back to reading. A minute later, Park and Kleiner came in. “Hey guys,” said Kleiner, “guess what?”

“We decided in our little meeting,” said Park, standing at the door in her vac suit, “that what we needed was a big meeting. On the Canada, one hour after they finally pull into dock. And the good news is, you’re all invited.”

“Great,” said Clay. “The Council of Elrond has been called. Does that make me Frodo, or Gimli?”

3.

The colony ships lumbered in and eventually hooked up to the anchor freighters, vastly increasing the size of the faux planet orbiting 55 Cancri A. Their accompanying freighters, much larger than the three anchor freighters but still dwarfed by the colony ships, hooked in as well, so the faux planet was now eleven ships connected at hatches and by tubes. The four escort ships buzzed about nearby or went on patrol jaunts. The fighters, numbering an unlucky thirteen with the adoption of Bonnie Blain, zipped down to Algaeville to conduct tours or went out on their own patrols. They also found time for a dance party on the Tasmania: Captain Kalkar and Irah Chontz put in an appearance just to show that they were tolerant.

Clay and Vera went on patrols together several times, they ate meals together more often than not, and they visited the school set up on the colony ship India and read to the younger children. They discovered a small observation booth on the India which afforded them sweeping views of black space and white stars. It was possible to lock the door, and this afforded them further opportunities, as well as affording interesting views to any alien who might have been able to look in through the genuine glass dome window.

Meanwhile they confronted their uncertainty about the future, theirs or anyone else’s, by not discussing it. Once, floating naked and drowsy in the observation dome, Clay sighed and said, “Vera,” and Vera immediately said, “Clay, let’s not talk about it.”

So they went on thinking the same things in the same circles of doubt, even as they came in and sat side by side in the big meeting on the Canada.

The room was meant for the purpose of large meetings, unlike their previous meeting room in the Greenland’s freight section. The food was somewhat better: some sort of fried wonton, an array of realistic meats and cheeses, some very nice croissants (very realistic, despite a total lack of wheat or cow in their ancestry), a variety of realistic fruit spreads. There was coffee, tea, not terribly realistic juices, and cold, clean water. The room was built to hold four hundred people, and it was full. There were three panels, arranged along three adjacent sides of the hexagonal room. The left panel hosted all twenty-one fighter, er, SCEP pilots; the right panel was occupied by the anchor freighter captains, navigators and a few others; in the middle, the captains and executive officers of the four remaining colony ships sat, along with a colonist representative from each ship.

The executive officers, headed by the intimidatingly tranquil Sister Shia Tang, were essentially the local administration of the Project command structure. Sister Shia was old in a graceful way, very beautiful with silvery hair and grey robes, while the other executive officers tended to dress like cruise ship crew: just military enough to show that they thought they had rank, but not so military as to be military. Now that everyone was forty light years away from that command structure, the status of these XO’s was on the line. The same was true of the colonist representatives, who had been chosen by the captains and executive officers.  The colony-ship SCEP pilots were not about to put their statuses on the line: they stayed quiet as church mice and let the twelve fighter pilots do the talking.

The rest of the room was filled with long tables, equipped with clips and magnets for papers and tablets; and seats, equipped with seat belts. Whether sitting made any actual sense in zero gravity was not the issue: the issue, to the designers of the room, was to allow everyone to see the guy who was doing the talking. A large room full of people floating about at random, like a bunch of air molecules with personality, was not what was wanted. At least that was how the captains of the four colony ships saw it: Caterin Mark of the India, Renaud Garant of the Egypt, Ted Trein of the Argentina and Ally Schwinn of the Canada. They felt it important that everyone could see the leadership and hear their wisdom. It was not how the colonists saw it. In addition to their four recognized representatives, three hundred more had managed to gain entry to the discussion, several with dogs and one with a cat on her shoulder, and these floated freely in the five meters of height while Schwinn and her officers strove to make them take seats.

Meanwhile the pilots chatted, laughed among themselves and did little bits of weightless acrobatics in the vicinity of their panel. Alfred Kalkar, who was feeling rather allied to them, sashayed over, as did Bonnie Bain, who had been assigned to the colony ship panel.

“Quite the display of unity so far, huh?” said Kalkar, his grin animating his vast black beard. “Think we should fire some weapons over their heads? Oh, that’s right. We’re not supposed to have any.”

“The colonists are better armed than we are,” said Natasha. “They’ll have pitchforks.”

“I heard you guys souped up your lasers or something,” Bonnie said to Clay and Vera.

“Do not tell anyone or you are toast,” said Vera.

“If you’re nice to us,” said Clay, “we’ll show you how to fix up your own.”

A series of loud horn calls cut through the noise. Captain Ally Schwinn of the colony ship Canada was holding up a personal comm, and it was emitting sounds far out of proportion to its size.

“I’d like to get started,” she said into the silence. As soon as she stopped speaking, noise erupted all over again. She used her horn call once more and people shut up to a somewhat greater extent than before. “All right,” she said, standing at her place in the panel, holding onto the table with one hand, “the first thing we need to do is get the facts straight and separated from the rumors and the speculation.”

“Uh, no,” said Captain Ted Trein of the Argentina, “first we need to decide what the chain of command looks like, given that Dr Georges is not with us.”

“I think we need to know what the situation is,” said Captain Renaud Garant of the Egypt, “before we start discussing the succession. Admiral Georges is,” but most people didn’t hear what Admiral Georges was, as Trein objected strenuously to whatever suggestion Garant might be making about his motives, and the colonists’ official representatives at the table and unofficial ones in the seats tried to make their objections known, and a number of other issues were raised loudly.

Su Park sashayed around in front of the fighters’ panel. They all looked at her, including Bonnie Bain and Captain Kalkar. “We’re walking,” said Park. To a woman and man, the pilots all got up and headed after her, sashaying along the wall to the main hatchway; Kalkar remained impassive, leaning on the wall behind the now empty panel, stroking his beard. Park did not make her pilots move very fast, and just as she reached the door, Ally Schwinn’s air horn communicator sounded. Park stopped and turned, looking as if she was just curious what the noise was.

“Miss Park,” called Schwinn in the relative silence, “where are you going?”

“Out for a drink,” Park replied in her loudest voice. “We’ll be in the galley when everyone’s ready to be productive.”

Captain Schwinn looked around at the still muttering factions: the colonists worried about being dumped on an uninhabitable and possibly radioactive rock and worried about going back into a space that seemed full of holes large enough to lose a colony ship in; the colony ship captains frozen between desire for the mythical admiral’s rank and fear that one of their rivals would get ahead of them, hope that Admiral Georges and the France would show up and dread that Admiral Georges and the France would show up, protective of the vague privileges that the continuing voyage gave them and anxious about resuming that voyage; their crews, and the lesser ship captains, smiling at the big brass to their faces and plotting and whining behind their backs; the anchor freighter captains like Kalkar, whose instincts were somewhere between administrator and pirate and who seemed to be sliding into the political camp of the SCEP pilots.

The single crew explorer pod pilots. They were supposed to be technicians, boots on the ground, eyes and ears, geologists. They were not supposed to be military. But here they were, lined up behind Commander Park—Commander? Captain Schwinn passed a hand across her face, pushed her greying black hair back, straightened her sturdy frame, held the comm above her head set on its loudest air horn, and let it rip.

“Commander Park,” she said exactly as soon as the horn decayed, “how do you suggest we proceed, to be more productive?”

Park glanced at the other pilots and gestured slightly toward their table on the left; all twelve, including Bonnie Bain, headed straight there. Captain Kalkar was standing against the wall, smiling through his ruddy beard. Park propelled herself toward the front of the room, her helmet hanging behind her, her short black hair fluttering ever so slightly in the breeze of her flight.

“She’s so graceful,” Clay heard Vera say. He grinned, smirking the smirk that was one of the established badges of Alpha Wing.

“All right,” said Park, joining and dwarfed by Schwinn at the podium, “all I want is this: before we hear everyone’s very understandable concerns, we establish what the facts are and what we think is probably true and what we reasonably guess, and we distinguish those things. And one person speaks at a time. Is that too much to ask?”

“I don’t think it is,” said Captain Renaud Garant of the Egypt.

“Because,” Park went on, “we could just get five or ten people together in private and hash it all out and then let everyone else know what we think, but this is the better way if we can manage it. Because I think we need a Plan B and everyone knows there’s no such thing as a good Plan B.”

A low murmur of dissent from here and there died in a moment. Park smiled and nodded at the crowd as if they had signed on her dotted line, and sashayed back toward the other fighter pilots.

“All right,” said Schwinn, “so let’s find out what the situation is. Does anyone want to summarize?”

“What we know is this,” said Captain Garant. “We started to light speed, and the France was in the forefront. By the time we were past fifty percent, we could no longer see each other through the noise. My Egypt could just about make out my escort Abstraction and my freighter Pohacz nine hundred kilometers away on either side. We pass peak velocity and begin deceleration, and we come down to 25%, and there is India, there is Canada, there is Argentina. But there is no France. There is no France, there is no escort Resilience, there is no freighter Humbert. There is only the one explorer pod, with Mademoiselle Bain, that France sent out ahead of her.”

“Captain Garant,” asked Captain Caterin Mark of the India, standing up, “did you send out an explorer pod ahead of you as well?”

“No,” said Garant, “the Admiral suggested we might think of doing that, at our last meeting, but I didn’t think it necessary. Did you?”

“We did,” said Mark, “but nothing came of it and we retrieved her at 22% on decel.”

“May I ask,” said one of the colonist representatives, a grey-haired woman named Alice Grohl, standing up at her panel, “why do you think the Admiral made this suggestion? Do you know?”

“I think it was just some protocol he came up with,” said Garant. “I thought, frankly, that he was just, shall I say—?” Everyone looked at him. He too had a beard, a trim brown one, but he couldn’t hide behind it. “Well, I and my executive officer,” he said, glancing at the efficient looking woman sitting next to him, “felt that he might have been interfering a bit. That he thought for some reason it might be advisable, and that he wanted to see us following his advice.” He smiled around apologetically.

“I felt that way too, Renaud,” said Captain Trein of the Argentina.

“One is sure the Admiral had his reasons,” said Sister Shia Tang, and they could feel the anxiety in the room damp right down under that cool voice, and then bounce right back as soon as that cool smile checked around her to see if that cool voice had achieved the desired effect.

“It doesn’t help,” said CaptainTed Trein, “if we don’t know what those were.” He looked at Park’s panel. “I would like to hear what the explorers saw when they were flying the same route, and I would like to hear Bain’s testimony again. I am sure the colonists would wish to hear it too.”

So Park and Bain and Bouvier gave a short description of their sensations at light speed. Park made note, without emotion, of the sense that Alpha Wing had all shared of something dark opening on their right, and of the sensor readings that seemed to show an anomaly. Bain described her entire journey from leaving the France for the last time, but with less emotion than she had shown in the galley of the Tasmania. Bouvier confirmed that Gamma Wing, traveling just ahead of the anchor freighters, had picked up some of the anomaly, but only in an inconclusive form. Finally, Park and Vilya described their journey half a century(but only a few years in their biological chronologies) ago to and from Alpha Centauri, a journey that had been very low on anomaly.

“So before we speculate,” Park concluded, “note that what we don’t know about this stuff is much more than what we do know. We don’t even know if the France isn’t about to appear. Or if it’s somewhere off course. Or what.”

The murmurs threatened to rise again. Schwinn did not resort to her air horn, but simply raised her hand for silence, and that sort of worked. “All right,” she said, “we’ve got some things to think about there, but, um, definitely let me underscore that we’re not helping ourselves by speculating. Now for the fact side of things—let’s discuss the system we’re in. Commander Park?”

“I think,” said Park, “that I will let my wing second, Rachel Andros, talk about the exploration of the system. Andros?”

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 Alice Grohl, who seemed to be the most extroverted of the colonists’ representatives, 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 no liquid 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? Like him. 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 doesn’t make our problem any better,” said Grohl.

“All right,” said Ally Schwinn, “if I may make a suggestion, and then we can all go back to what 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,” Sister Shia Tang gently corrected. “They’re explorers.”

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

“There is no fighter pilot,” said Sister Shia with mild sternness. “There are explorer pod pilots. It is not something to be ashamed of: explorer is an honored calling. But there are no fighter pilots. One is not in some old movie. One is in the real universe. And it is a dangerous place, but it does not contain anything one fights with a spaceship. This is our third star to explore, after the one we come from and Alpha Centauri, and we have yet to meet anything we need these so-called fighters to take on. All we have met are things we need to explore.”

“With due respect,” said Bouvier, as Park and Vilya watched her and nodded, “we still don’t know what might be out here, and the more jumps we make, the more chances we have of running into something that will make us glad we have fighters and not just explorer pods. The disappearance of the France may be an accident or it may be the first sign of a threat from outside our solar system, but it’s definitely something. It’s unexpected. And we need to be ready for unexpected things.”

“And having fighters around,” said Vilya, “makes us readier to deal with the unexpected.”

“I’m inclined to that view too,” said Schwinn, cutting off Sister Shia’s reply, “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 make a thorough 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 colonist named Piet Ring, “humbly suggest, may you let the colonists choose their own representatives? In addition to the ones you chose for us, maybe? 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. We will come up with a process for that. 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?”

4.

An hour later, Clay and Rachel were playing squash in an empty freight box on the Canada. “Boy, you lucked out,” said Rachel. “I just don’t think traveling for four weeks linked up with Natasha is going to be all that exciting.”

“I think it would be,” said Clay. “Oof! It’s bad enough you always beat me at chess. Do you have to always beat me at squash too?”

“Why do you think they call it squash?” She served another hot ball and Clay managed to return, only to have Rachel’s return nearly put a hole in his forehead. “Anyway,” she panted, waiting for the ball to drop below relativistic speed before she grabbed it to serve again, “it sounds quite the romantic getaway.”

“I don’t know,” said Clay. “I’d rather—well, never mind.”

“Rather have a romantic getaway in Ville de Quebec?”

“Something like that.”

Fourteen hours later, Clay and Vera were in their fighters heading away on their honeymoon or something. Clay was honestly not sure how to feel about it: he felt like he’d lost his mood ring. Goddess, did he ever lust for her. He would be crushed if she was headed off with Gil Rojette while he was headed somewhere else with Natasha or Rachel. Mmm. Or both. Maybe crushed was not the word. And then he was feeling weirdly guilty, which only made him smirk. Ah, yes. The Alpha Wing Official Facial Expression.

Heading off in other directions were Natasha and Rachel, Jane Tremblay and Timmis Green, and Gil Rojette and Jana Bluehorse. They were connected in pairs by short conduit tubes which held them a couple of meters apart but made sure they could communicate.

“Let’s link up,” came Vera’s call once she and Clay had gone through their initial checkoffs.

“Conduit or hatch to hatch?” asked Clay innocently.

“Which would you prefer?”

Several hours later, their fighters were joined side to side at their hatches, forming a sort of double wide fighter. With a mostly buffered extreme acceleration to make things interesting, Vera and Clay lay in each other’s arms, their sloughed-off vac suits bunched up near their feet.

“So Clay,” said Vera lazily, “what do we do for two weeks besides that, and talk?”

“Simulator,” he replied lazily, “chess, work out, eat, sleep, simulator, chess…”

“Well,” said Vera, “it could be worse.”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “You could be Bluehorse. She doesn’t play chess.”

“Or you could be Bluehorse,” said Vera. “You have something she doesn’t.”

“Or you could be Timmis,” said Clay. “Or Rachel, because she kills me at chess even worse than you do.”

“Do you like Rachel?” asked Vera. “I mean,” but she didn’t say what she meant. She just focused those brown eyes on Clay.

“She’s all right,” said Clay.

Two weeks later—well, 300 hours later, the doubled fighter was decelerating again, dropping down into a normal relation to the ambient photons of the universe. Vera and Clay had done everything on their list at least ten times, and some things they hadn’t thought to put on their list, including getting in a snit, getting over it and joking around, arguing, making up, arguing some more, ignoring each other, then arguing heatedly and making up heatedly. They had accelerated hard, and then they had coasted just briefly, and then they had decelerated hard. Now they found themselves ten light days from 55 Cancri A and sixteen from the red dwarf, moving at a mere 10% of light speed and still dropping. There was almost literally nothing to see. The star field looked exactly the same as it had from 55 Cancri, except for the fact that 55 Cancri wasn’t as bright. The density of matter appeared to be approximately one molecule per cubic meter. There was no wreckage, there were no rogue planetoids, and there was no Colony Ship France, nor escort Resilience nor freighter Humbert.

But as they came around, taking all the readings they could think of and intending to not drop below 5% of light speed, they did indeed pick up something they didn’t expect.

Several hours later, Vera and Clay had argued a little, come to an agreement, and gotten their fighters to agree with them. They had turned around and come back and were slamming on their brakes to come to a full stop one hundred kilometers from a log-shaped hunk of rock and ice about 400 meters long and 200 meters thick.

“Metal signatures,” said Vera. “It’s no instrument malfunction. It’s iridium and osmium. The planetoid’s nothing. There’s something made of iridium and osmium stuck to it.”

“Weird,” said Clay. “And wait a minute. It’s a hexagon. A regular hexagon. 1.3 meters on a side.”

“I got that,” said Vera. “A plate. A freaking metal plate. What is it, a license plate?”

“Let’s pull it over and see if it has its registration in order.”

In another ten minutes, they had separated their craft and were gliding in for a landing on the planetoid, which was so small as to not have any significant gravity. They clamped down near each other and climbed out. “Set your boots to clamp,” said Vera.

“Yes, dear,” said Clay. He looked up and smiled at Vera, who gave him a crooked smile through her visor. They got together and walked along the fifty or so meters to the metal signature. “No radioactivity,” said Clay.

It was indeed a hexagon of silvery metal, thinly covered with ancient dirt, 1.3 meters on a side. It stood on an eroded pedestal of dirty ice and rock, which lifted it half a meter above the rest of the planetoid. On cursory inspection, it was clear that the plate had once sat flush with the surface of the planetoid, or possibly a much larger planetoid of which this was a fragment. Over some vast stretch of time, the surface of the planetoid had eroded away except where the plate protected it. More than that was clear from a cursory inspection.

“It’s writing,” said Clay.

“What? It can’t be.” They both carefully pulled themselves close to it. The symbols were hexagon-ish, arranged in little bent arcs around the edges of the plate and here and there inside little hexagonal cartouches. Some were repeated often and others seemed unique. They glinted in the starlight and the two fliers’ helmet lights. “It is,” she said.

They stared at it. They marveled. They looked at each other. They looked under and around the object. They looked at one another.

“It’s no writing I ever saw before,” said Clay. “But it’s writing.”

Vera stared at the thing a little longer. “Yep,” she said, “exactly.” She bent close to look at the carvings, inlaid into the metal in grooves so fine they were not filled with the crud of which this planetoid’s dust was composed.

“And,” said Clay, also leaning close to get a look from two centimeter range, “it’s certainly not from Earth.”

“God damn it,” she said. She looked up at him. “So, leave it here, take it back with us?”

Clay thought about it. He could see various reasons for leaving it in place, but it all came around to one fact: if the plate stayed here, it would have no effect on anything. It might matter to their journey, and it might not, but it seemed like something that needed to be taken into consideration. Suddenly he stood up, his clamps barely holding him onto the planetoid.

“We need to take it with us,” he said. “I don’t know why it took so long to get through to me what this means.”

“We’re not alone.”

“Well,” he said, “we may be alone, but someone sometime long before us knew how to make writing. In space and time, we’re not alone.” He bent to lift it, and she bent to help: the plate came loose easily, leaving a shiny, icy spot where the plate had been. “It’s not a beacon,” he said, “it’s not a gizmo for interfering with communications, it’s not any kind of gizmo, it’s just a plate with writing. It can’t have anything to do with whatever happened to the France. It’s not anything that could take a colony ship off its course, but it’s definitely a thing.”

“Clay,” said Vera as they zoomed back toward the colony fleet in orbit around 55 Cancri A. She lay in his arms facing away, vaguely looking at the star field in the screen of her fighter.

“Yes,” he said, shadows across his heart.

“Why did you leave Earth? And leave everything behind? Everyone you knew and all that?”

“My mom died a few years ago,” he said. “My dad died. They’d been divorced; it hadn’t been happy. I didn’t have a lot of family left. I didn’t like my job that much: it was flying in space, but it was a dead end, just back and forth to Earth orbit and occasional jaunts to the Moon. And I had been recruited. Park, you know. She showed an interest in me. And so there I was. Standing there at Dad’s funeral, I just knew it was time. You?”

“I didn’t really have anyone,” she said. “So did you love your dad a lot?”

“I don’t know how I felt about him. It’s complicated. I mean, obviously I loved him, but—well, I loved Mom too, but they didn’t love each other that much and—well, what do you mean you didn’t really have anyone?”

“Oh,” she said faintly, “that’s the old days, Clay. It’s complicated, right? Maybe we should just keep things simple.”

Some hours later, still naked, but wearing her helmet, Vera Santos pushed away in disgust. “You beat me again, you bastard. You beat me every stinkin’ time.”

“Ahh,” said Clay, pulling off his helmet, also the only thing he was wearing. “You beat me what, seven times in twelve games of chess? And drew three? Four? So I’m good on this simulator. It’s not even the real thing, you’re definitely a better flier than I am.”

“God damn it,” said Vera. “You stop frickin’ smiling like that.”

“I’m not smiling.” Clay thought about it. He didn’t think he was smiling. But perhaps a tiny smirk had crept onto his face. Yes. The official facial expression of Alpha Wing. “I wasn’t smiling,” he asserted.

“You get that look. God damn it. You and your little girlfriends Rachel and Tasha.”

“Hey,” said Clay. “Hey,” he said again, not having thought of any other response.

“Ah, forget it,” said Vera. “Let’s have another go.”

“At the simulator?”

“Yes, at the simulator.”

“You sure you don’t want to play chess again?”

“So which do you think is a bigger thing,” said Vera some hours later, as they floated naked back to back, “the algae or the plate thingy?”

“Oh, the plate thingy,” said Clay. “It’s got writing on it.”

“How old do you think it is? It sure didn’t look new.”

“I have no way of even guessing. I wonder what it says on it. Maybe it’s a no parking sign.”

“Well,” said Vera, “if it’s, like, a billion years old—I mean, it could be, right? Then whatever left it has to be gone for hundreds of millions of years, right? But the algae, that’s still alive. That’s the bona fide first contact.”

Clay spun slowly, and Vera spun the other way, till they were looking at each other. He leaned forward, she leaned forward and they kissed. “So,” he said, “we have a message from someone who’s probably long dead. And we have life, but it can’t speak.”

“And we have a missing colony ship with two thousand people.”

Clay, not looking away from Vera’s eyes, not even to check out her lovely breasts, nodded slowly.

A few hours later, they floated, a little apart, their feet tangled together.

“Clay,” said Vera, “in the area of keeping things simple.”

“Yes?”

“Clay, if we were to, God damn it.” She looked away. He made himself neither smirk nor roll his eyes. She was so full of poo, but it was poo with big brown eyes and a brain the size of a planet. And. Those. Breasts. Looking down at their feet, she said, “If we decided not to actually go on with this relationship, or to stop it for a while or something, it would be way too awkward to continue our, you know, sexual relationship.”

She looked up and he met her vivid brown eyes. “I understand,” he said. “I understand.”

She kept looking at him. She looked down, then she looked up, and then she said, “God, Clay. God, I want you so bad right now.”

They were braking hard when Vera and Clay finally made themselves pull on their vac suits and stuff themselves back into their individual fighters. “Hey,” said Clay before they shut their hatches. “Nice mission.”

“Unlike any other, that’s for sure,” said Vera. They laughed. “A lot more fun than Tremblay had with Timmis, I hope. He’s half her age.” They laughed, and then they got serious. They leaned together and kissed. “Bon voyage,” she said.

“Bon voyage,” said Clay. “Thanks for a memorable trip.”

“Do not get that smile, Clay Gilbert. Wait till you have the hatch shut.”

“Sorry. Um, Vera.”

They looked each other in the eye again. “Clay,” she said. And then, without smiling even a little, they kissed, and then they slid shut their hatches and separated.

5.

Rachel and Natasha grabbed Clay almost as soon as he was in the Tasmania and dragged him off through the freighter’s halls, then through the gangway onto the colony ship Canada. “Where are you taking me?” he asked as they sashayed him along, Rachel on his left and Natasha on his right.

“Very cute little enchilada place,” said Natasha. “Hole in the wall, really, but the cook is excellent.”

“We have to enjoy it before everyone finds out,” said Rachel.

They turned him down a wide side hall. Now he had to sashay himself along the “ceiling” (Clay always found himself inserting air quotes around any word that indicated up-ness or down-ness in space) while the other two sashayed along the walls. Then they came out into a crowded open space, veritably a freight bay filled with boxy houses. “Wait,” he said, as literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of eyes aimed at him. “This is where the colonists live.”

“This way,” said Rachel, dragging him to the left. They kept on sashaying, though the hand holds were more varied. They were also dirty. There were dozens of children, playing weightlessly in the pale light of the chamber and the varicolored lights affixed to the outsides of the box houses. There were men and women out too, doing what amounted to yard work: corralling trash, cleaning the hand holds, repainting dented houses. They watched the little fighter pilots, but some, meeting their eyes, smiled and said howdy. The kids just watched them. The dogs, the surprisingly many cats, and the assorted birds (slightly confused in the weightless environment) watched them intently.

“Here,” said Natasha. She pulled Clay into a long box, orange with green lights on the outside and golden lights on the inside. It was not brightly lit, but instead of light, a dense aroma flowed out of it, and if Clay had been there blind, he would have gone in there led only by his nose.

A dozen people of various ages turned and looked at them. A dog and a fat black and white cat managed to lie on the gravity-free floor. An older male cook, with a strong male pattern baldness, frowned at them and then smiled and said howdy.

“Can I buy you lunch,” said a woman behind them. They turned around and recognized Alice Grohl, the colonists’ representative.

“It’s on the house,” said the bald cook.

“No, no, we’re buying, I insist,” said Rachel.

“I don’t understand,” said Clay to Natasha.

“We can argue all we like,” she replied. “The food’s free.”

“I won’t ask what it’s made from,” said Clay. “I’ve spent the last four weeks eating my own waste products.”

“And Vera’s,” said Rachel. “Miz Grohl,” she said to Alice Grohl, “you saw us come in?”

“I thought it was my best chance to find out what the real story is,” said Grohl.

“Darn it,” Natasha said to Clay, “we were going to quiz you about the Vera situation.”

“Oh, darn it,” said Clay. “Oh well.”

The food was excellent. Clay couldn’t identify a lot of ingredients, but he had the distinct sense of ingredients. There was a feeling of tomato, a feeling of corn, a feeling of cheese. There was also beer, a genuine ale almost like one from Earth.

“They used real yeast, didn’t they?” said Clay, holding up the clear plastic-like cup. “The colony ships’ food production systems are a lot more complicated than the ones we have on our fighters. You pretty much have an entire cycle of life in those cylinders, bacteria and fungus and everything. The only thing that’s missing is cows for the milk and beef.”

“Well,” said Grohl, “I don’t think any of us really comprehended what they were telling us when we signed on, that we’d have to bring with us anything we wanted to grow to eat. That’s the thing about this Algaeville thing you guys are talking about. It’s not like we could eat the algae.”

“They’re not really algae,” Natasha noted, “and maybe they’re not even plants, I mean, it’s not like they have a common ancestor. The cells are totally different and the genetics, if that’s what it is, are all different too.”

“Yeah, but they’re like algae,” said Rachel.

“And what’s on the plate is like writing, right?” said Alice Grohl.

“Oh,” said Clay, “it’s writing. We just don’t know what it means.”

“Just so it doesn’t mean, ‘Yummy colonists this way, bring your knives and forks,’ or something.”

“It seems really old,” said Clay.

“I think it’s just amazing,” said Grohl. “But excuse me if I remind us all that my colonist pals aren’t going to be especially reassured by all these disclaimers. I mean, the two whatchamacallits that went back the way we came—okay, you want to be called fighter pilots, right? The two fighter pilots who went back that way.”

“Tremblay and Green,” said Rachel. “They didn’t find a thing. Mind you, they didn’t go very far.”

“But no wreckage. No nothing. So what happened to the France?”

“Well, here it is,” said Rachel. “They were on course in a straight line to 55 Cancri. Even if they blew up, their bits should still be on course for here. Bain saw them last when they were already going relativistic speeds. There’s no way Admiral Georges suddenly decided to go back to Earth to check if he left the water running. And there is nothing in between. So where are they?”

“Nothing in between,” said Grohl. “Except that you saw something. Miss Bain saw something.”

“Don’t pay any attention to that,” said Rachel. “Relativistic speeds mess up your sensors. We know that. I mean, it’s like saying the boogie man got them. Maybe the boogie man did get them, but seeing shadows and artifacts of light speed isn’t evidence.”

“All right,” said Grohl. She gave her glass of red ale a long look, then drank it. She held it up for the cook. “Can I have another?” she asked. “Beer all around, in fact. It’s on Captain Schwinn.”

“Nonsense,” said the cook, taking their cups. “This round is on me. For the fighter pilots.”

“That’s the ticket,” said Grohl. She looked around at them. “And let’s hope you don’t have anything to fight for a while.”

6.

The escort ships and SCEP pilots had fully documented 55 Cancri A and its planets, and their conclusion was the same as Alpha Wing’s: the system was interesting but uninhabitable. They took piles of pictures and made tons of readings. Meanwhile, eleven linguists and cryptographic experts from among the colonists had examined the hexagonal plate and come up with nothing: there seemed to be too few symbols to generate a translation. It could as easily be a warning sign or a computer program or a recipe or the preamble to an alien constitution.

The orders came in twelve hours later: the captains (and Su Park) had agreed on a lone red dwarf star called Gliese 163, which lay 69.6 light years away from 55 Cancri, and was known to have at least five planets.

“They’re all on the large side,” said Rachel, as she and Natasha and Clay ate what appeared to be enchiladas at the hole in the wall cafe aboard the Canada. “The innermost one is a Hot Neptune or something, it’s got an orbital period of one day. A year is a day, how about that?”

“No colony there,” said Clay.

“No, and the outer two are too cold, but the second and third out have possibilities. It’s a dwarf star so you can be way inside the orbit of Mercury and be okay. They are all about two, three percent of the mass of Jupiter, so they’re way bigger than Earth, but it doesn’t matter about the planets, no one’s going to live on the planets. It’s the moons.”

“Just like Cancri,” said Natasha. “You know, I kind of liked this system. Too bad it doesn’t have much going for it colony-wise. Or maybe that’s a good thing. We don’t have to fight to protect the rights of the algae.”

“Wait till they find palladium there or something,” said Rachel. “Well, we’ll be long gone. Okay, so I was 26 when we left Earth. I was born in 2307. Twenty-six and a half. Now it’s freakin’ 2374, so I’m 67. We fly to 163, and all of a sudden I’m 110 years old.”

“It’s all relative, baby,” said Clay. “You’re still 26 in every way that counts.”

“Why, Clay. I think that might have been a flirt.”

“What is the story, anyway?” asked Natasha. “You and Miss Santos no longer an item?”

Clay leaned back and took a sip of that nice ale. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’re on the back burner or something. No, I guess we’re not an item for a little bit. Anyway, it’s Alpha and Gamma
going on ahead this time, right? So we don’t have the romantic pressure of parting.”

“Did she say or did she not say,” asked Natasha, “I think we should just be friends?”

“No, she did not say that. She said, Wipe that smirk off your face, Clay Gilbert.”

“You do smirk a lot.”

“We all do. Alpha Wing. I honestly think she has a complex about that. Also, I beat her in the fighter simulations a lot. She didn’t like that.”

“You need to let her win,” said Natasha, smiling. Natasha, Clay now remembered, was kind of on the sexy side. And someone was playing footsie with him. He looked at Natasha, who was smirking. But Rachel was also smirking.

“I guess I don’t understand girls,” said Clay.

“You just have to learn to let us win,” said Rachel.

“What’s this ‘let’?” he replied, sure that it was two right feet.

The sixteen hours before Alpha and Gamma took off, under Park and Bouvier, with Rachel, Natasha and Clay, and Tremblay, Vera Santos and Timmis Green, were supposed to be restful, but Park and Bouvier sanctioned a dance party on the condition that everyone would be in their bunks by minus eight hours. The Alphas had their usual bottle of wine and then their usual squash match, and then they cleaned up—ah, a shower, such a luxury—and danced the hours away with the Betas and Gammas. Bonnie Bain, an honorary Beta, was allowed in, along with a couple of the other pod pilots from the colony ships.

Clay danced with Vera, sexy but distinctly friendly; he also danced with Natasha, flirty but with a definite boundary she still dared not cross; and with Rachel, who was her usual buttoned-up self, and yet what would he find if he could ever unbutton her? Well, a mole on her back, for one thing. He got drunker, and the cannabis they grew on the Canada didn’t help that situation, and then he was dancing with Jana Bluehorse, while Rachel and Natasha were trying to get Gil Rojette to come out of his shell, and Timmis and Li Zan were dancing and talking.

He remembered talking to Bluehorse, who was a couple of centimeters taller than him, strawberry blond and mouthy. He only wished he remembered more of that big smiling mouth kissing him in the dark in a cramped and empty access hall, of those finely tuned hands checking him for weapons, of that well-exercised body pressing against him, of that husky Bluehorse laugh. But when he woke up in his own bunk on the Tasmania, and spent a few nauseous, head-achy minutes sorting dream from memory, he was sure they had kept their clothes on. He was sure she hadn’t said, “God damn it, Clay,” or anything like that. He was sure he wasn’t going to be thinking about Jana Bluehorse all the way to Gliese 163.

He wasn’t sure what was going to be interesting, perplexing, important or dangerous about this next little jaunt. But he was pretty sure there would be something in each of those categories.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 5: A good Plan B”

  1. I continue to like the science in this. Very realistic and very true (for relativity anyway). A bit of over all tension now that space isn’t all warm and fuzzy. Looking forward to the later chapters.

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