, , , , , , , , ,

I. Moon Training


First there were four whole days in Quebec City. The crew recruits, who numbered somewhere around three hundred, were all assembled for the first day’s workshops, and any interaction among the recruits, applicants, candidates, whatever, was limited to the general area of sports and the weather. Keynote addresses alternated with break-out sessions, but the recruits were not expected to do any of the talking: today was devoted to organizational blather and the reading of warning labels. All the recruits wore the same grey jump suits. The already-chosen officers either wore grey to black vacuum suits (like Su Park, recognizable on the panel during the welcome address, far to the left and looking like she had other things on her mind) or formal dinner wear (like the captains of the colony ships and freighters). The organizers and Earth-bound employees went either for the dinner wear option or ventured into science lab white.

Still, some things were obvious, and one was which were the fifty or so candidates for the twenty-two positions as SCEP (single crew explorer pod) pilots and the 250 or so candidates for the 196 positions on the colony ships, freighters and escorts. The SCEP pilots were tiny. Since the SCEPs were supposed to be able to travel to light speed on their own, and since they would represent eighty to ninety percent of the mass of their craft, making them as small as possible made their craft cheaper to operate, more reliable, and more maneuverable. The size difference was just enough to be noticeable, as if they were fifty middle schoolers in the midst of a convention of adults. They recognized each other and gave each other special regard, just like middle schoolers from different towns or countries meeting on a city street.

Of course there was another difference to the SCEP pilots: more than three fourths of them were women.

The second day, the pilots were pulled aside and were never mixed back in with what they all referred to as “big ship people.”

For another day the pilots received old-fashioned training, but some things had to be made clear, some more warning labels read out loud, specific to the job. Among the more emphasized:

1. You are not “fighter pilots.” You are single crew explorer pod pilots. They have weapons, but you should not rely on them to even work, because, well, shame on you for even thinking you were going to have to shoot at alien spaceships.

2. Your job is to explore. Discipline is vital. Obey your wing leader.

3. You may find yourself sixty light years from any other humans. Stick together.

4. You are under your own command, separate from the big ships. Obey your wing leader.

5. And when the big ship people are out of the room, and especially when the project organizers were out of the room, that’s when you call her wing leader (it will be a her), and that’s when, if she says poop, you ask what color. Of course they did not call it poop, but Clay was still thinking of his niece Yvette and translating.

6. And when the big ship people and project organizers were out of earshot, well, no one calls the SCEPs anything but “fighters” or doubts that at some point a wing would be sixty light years from any other human, facing a squadron of alien space cruisers coming in with photon cannon blazing.

7. And in those circumstances, Commander Su Park, Commander Agneska Vilya and Commander Celeste Bouvier, never ever called anything but Ms Park, Ms Vilya and Ms Bouvier in front of outsiders, would describe how to adjust the laser set so as to create a beam weapon capable of cutting a slice a tenth of a millimeter wide ten kilometers away in space, and how to retool the robot scout probes into missiles the size and shape of guitar picks, capable of blowing a hole three meters across in a reinforced bulkhead.

The SCEP contingent on the mission was actually two contingents: the heart was in the three wings of four pilots each, associated with an armored merchant but often sent ahead to the next star or sent to the far reaches of the current star system. Most of the bullet points in the seminars of Day Two were directed at them. But there were ten more SCEPs, two for each of the five colony ships, and these were intended to remain close by their colony ship mothers. They were tiny left and right arms of the tyrannosaurs. No one admitted to wanting that assignment, although it was better than being left on stupid old Earth.

Clay had lunch with two other male candidates. They seemed confident they would get on the project, but one of them, Pierre or something, apparently had medical school as a backup plan. In any case, after glimpsing them over the next two days, he never saw them again.

At night, the big ship people and the dozens of non-flying organizers and researchers and funders of the project held parties and went out on the town. The SCEP pilots did not go. They stayed in and played Asteroid Pirates and got drunk and stoned to the exact extent that Commander Su Park did, which was moderately. They got to bed on time, and if any hanky panky was going on after lights out, it was kept below the notice of the commanders or of Clay Gilbert.

The last two days of the conference, the SCEP candidates were turned loose on the simulators. Nearly all of these involved maneuvering with unexpected problems or challenges: the docking instrument of the armored merchant is damaged, there’s an air leak in a colony ship, your left thrust is stuck at half, your ranging software is iffy. The night between the two days, the commanders called in some of the candidates, sixteen or so, and put them back on the same simulators, but with alien cruisers aplenty.

Clay, who had spoken about eight words in the past twenty-four hours, was one of those called upon. And now he got to speak lots of words—to three other pilots, all women, all unseen among the simulators, who were the rest of his wing. He got killed about twenty times. They all did, most of them more than twenty: there were at least five battles in which Clay was the only survivor.

“The upper quadrant of the cruiser bridge,” said the best of the other three after the fifth time it happened, “it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” said Clay. “Just dodge the twin battery fire and you can put a missile there or slice it up with the laser.”

“The photon cannon, you mean,” said another of the three, and they all laughed.

The fourth day was like the third day, except that at breakfast Clay was called over to Su Park’s table. The commander sat by herself sipping coffee and juice and chewing on Canadian bacon. She waved him over, but they didn’t say a word to each other for five minutes. Then suddenly she said, “Hey, that’s Kleiner, wave her over,” and they both waved at a gingery blonde holding a mug of coffee and a plate of apple crisp. Before Kleiner could do more than grin and say hi, they were waving over a particularly little brunette called Rachel Andros.

It transpired that the wing Clay had fought with last night, the group he had sacrificed himself many times for, the group which had been completely wiped out together eight times, had been Su Park, Natasha Kleiner, Rachel Andros (she pronounced it Ahndro) and Clay.

They joked about their defeats, they dissected the simulated enemies, they hypothesized about what it might be like in the real world, and Su Park threw out advice. They spent ten minutes on what exactly Clay had been doing right. They also spent ten minutes on Rachel picking enemy missiles off Natasha, and Natasha chasing a gunboat of some kind out of an asteroid’s grooved terrain. And everything led back to the two-cycle lesson of Su Park:

1. You have to rely on each other. No one is good enough to manage alone.
2. The enemy that can be simulated is not the real enemy. What’s actually out there will be wild and unpredictable.

Clay was tired all Day Four. But so were Natasha and Rachel. He found that the three of them just seemed to wind up sitting in a row at the simulators, exactly like three college students who have had classes together for years. They did not exchange addresses or anything, nor did they have any occasion to exchange life details. At the ending dinner, they sat together and chatted lightly, but by the time Clay and Natasha and Rachel had a beer in them, the only subject of conversation was shooting at alien spaceships.

The next morning, Clay woke to a phone call before dawn. It was Su Park.