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“We are a wing,” said Natasha, for the tenth time. She took a drink of her fourth glass of wine, smiled at the other three, then burst out laughing.

“We are the best wing,” said Rachel, not smiling. “The. Best.” She looked at Clay, who smiled crookedly.

“I agree,” said Su Park. “We are the best wing because I am the best flier and I chose you. Now we simply have to practice more and harder than anyone else and we can remain the best wing.”

She looked across them. Natasha still smiled, but with no teeth and a hint of tears in her eyes. Rachel mouthed darn right, looking down. Clay met Park’s eyes.

“Commander,” he said, “does this mean the four of us are together for the duration?”

“If we can keep all of us in one piece,” said Su Park, “yes, we are together for the duration, Mr Gilbert.”

“What do you think we will meet, Commander, during the duration?”

“When do we start shooting aliens?” asked Natasha.

“I do not think,” said Su Park, “that we will be firing our, what did you call them, photon cannon at alien spaceships the very first system we come to.”

“It’ll be the second system,” said Rachel. “The first one will be too barren to colonize.”

Su Park gave Rachel Andros a long inscrutable look, and then said, “Yes, that is exactly what I expect will happen.”

“But remember,” said Rachel.

Su Park finally smiled. “But remember,” she said, leaning forward to pour herself a little more wine, “we are explorers. We are not in the business of shooting at anything. Remember that?”

“Sure, Commander,” the other three all murmured. They all refilled and took drinks. The wine wasn’t bad. Clay looked around: he felt lucky to be with these three women, talented, brainy, together. Not unattractive, but something about the way Park ran her wing placed a boundary there, a boundary he was not even tempted to cross just yet. No, he was just lucky to be here. And beneath that, beneath the drunk he was feeling, there was something else that seemed to have grown from nothing: the certainty that they were the best. The wanting for them to be the best.

The next morning, Alpha Wing dragged themselves out of their individual beds. The ladies took over the shower, and Clay played himself a few battles of Asteroid Pirates. Then they all came out, looking at him as if they knew something he didn’t, and he went in and took his shower. Then they all headed down to the mess, dressed in their vac suits, and silently smirked at each other while they swilled coffee and the alternates stole glances at them.

It was another morning full of meetings. First, Dr Aron Sweis, one of the elder statesmen of the Human Horizon Program, got up and gave a windy talk to the entire chosen fleet crew, 196 big shippers, twenty-two SCEP pilots, thirty alternates, about how amazing it was to be in this place at this time. Fifty minutes of that included perhaps five minutes of startlingly emotional reminiscence and good wishes; the rest was dreadful, especially for people who had consumed an average of a bottle of wine each the previous night.

Then Dr Rayanne Good, she of the five graduate degrees, spoke for thirty minutes on what the mission was and what it was not. “We expect that by the third jump, you will have found excellent grounds for a colony,” she said. “We do not wish to settle for less than excellent, because this fleet should be capable of going on however many jumps it will take. In that time, we consider that the probability of encountering alien intelligences to be vanishingly low. I presume that in three or four jumps, you will find one planet with mold on it. We do not expect to meet resistance. We do not think there is anything out there capable of doing worse to us than we have already done to ourselves.” She repeated the message with charts and pictures for half an hour.

Then Dr Henri Georges, the most senior scientist going on the journey and the Admiral in charge of the primus inter pares Colony Ship France, laid out the strategy.

“We do not know yet if the colony ships sent decades ago to Gliese 581 and Gliese 667c have succeeded or failed,” he said. “We do not even know if the Centaur project has arrived safely. We will leave those journeys to others. Our plan is to leap past them, forty light years in our first jump, to a system we already know has planets in the so-called Goldilocks Zone. Alpha and Beta Wings will arrive ahead of the main fleet, and begin exploration and evaluation. And,” he added, but the rest of his speech was lost on Clay, who spent the next thirty minutes imagining what it would be like to arrive in a new star system with just a handful of other humans.

Would it be lonely, so far from any other people? He didn’t think it could possibly be. He only felt lonely in crowds.