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In another minute, Celeste Bouvier, Jane Tremblay, Vera Santos and Timmis Green were climbing out of their fighters. In the base, Bouvier was dark of complexion with black hair going a bit grey, Tremblay was a tiny bit tall but pencil thin, with pale brown hair cut very short, Santos was Latina dark with brown eyes and an insouciant smile, and Green was a little boy with sandy hair and a wide open grin; here, Bouvier was dark grey all over with a helmet with a glass front that wrapped around the sides, like a humanoid with a single huge eye and no mouth or other features, and the others, including Alpha Wing, looked exactly the same. The only distinguishing marks were that Bouvier’s wing all had big shiny gammas on both shoulders, while Park’s wing all had alphas; and Park and Bouvier got to have solidly black helmets while the rest had helmets that were the same dark grey as their suits.

“Hey,” said Timmis to Clay, touching his arm to establish one-to-one communication. Around them, the others were similarly touching elbows to talk person to person.

“How’s it going?” asked Clay. “Nice day for it.”

“Excited,” said Timmis. “Can’t wait. You’ll kill me repeatedly.”

“I plan on killing your friends too,” said Clay. “I’m sure they’ll kill me.”

He touched Natasha’s elbow and heard Santos saying, “Just between us, Tash,” so he cleared his throat. Santos laughed and said, “Just between all of us, any of us could thrash anyone in Beta Wing except maybe Vilya, and I do mean maybe.”

“I’d worry about Bluehorse,” said Natasha. “She’s a crusher.”

“You fought her in simulator?”

“She thrashed me three times straight.”

“Yes,” said Clay, “but you thrashed her three times straight right back.”

Santos made a little laugh, and Clay was aware that through the visor her odd smile was focused on him. He had the feeling of a squirrel being watched by an eagle. He looked back at her, wondering if she could see him, if she felt the same way he felt about her. He wondered, not for the last time, if there really was anything in the galaxy more formidable than the people gathered on this cliff top.

“Here they come,” said Rachel. The eight pilots moved to the edge of the cliff and looked out. Far in the distance to the east, almost against the curve of the Moon and the black of space, a few lights and shapes showed where the base lay. Below them, roaring up the cliff came four specks of black against the grey-brown rock. They shot past, four elongated ellipsoids, then curled over and dropped to hover at one meter, then settle. Only one hatch opened.

Vilya stepped out. “Sorry we’re late,” she said, “some of mine had trouble with the wakey wakey thing today. Shall we?”

“So she’s not letting them come out?” asked Timmis, still rubbing elbows with Clay.

Clay smirked. It was a habit he was picking up from the rest of his wing. “Got to learn the lesson,” he said.

There followed the most enjoyable six hours of Clay’s life, at least until the next wake period when they would get to do it again. It was better than sex, at least better than sex with his old girlfriend. It was better than ice cream.

First, they paired up and fought duels, with half the pilots watching while the other half dog-fought in different parts of the sky. Clay beat Timmis; Timmis got Clay on a failed Clay maneuver; then Clay got Timmis when he didn’t turn out of a maneuver in time. Then they rested, and then Clay went up against Jana Bluehorse, who was murderous, getting him quick twice and continuing to shoot once he was “dead,” but he turned it to his advantage on their third match-up, faking her out and zapping her and spinning away as she cursed. They had time for a fourth duel, and Clay was smirking again as he toyed with her: Bluehorse had shown him her one mode and he had worked out how to defeat that mode. The others were done when he finally opened up broadside from above and finished her off.

They landed. Bluehorse was out of her Ghost before Clay was on the ground. She closed the twenty meters between them in seconds. She high fived him and then hand-clasped. “You are awesome,” she said. “Whooo! Awesome!” She looked around and lit on Rachel. “You next?”

“Gilbert,” said Bouvier, “take on Tremblay.”

Jane Tremblay was way too good for Clay. She took him out three times quickly. On the fourth, he maneuvered single-mindedly away from her targeting, never staying in the same line through her ship for more than a moment. Turn and turn and turn back and then drop or rise. Seconds ticked by. The duel had gone on for a minute, two minutes.

He could hear the other pilots on the ground cheering for him in his audio. He could hear Timmis muttering, “Go Clay, go Clay,” and Jana Bluehorse hooting every time he flipped backward or dropped out or spun away. But Tremblay was implacable. At 3:17 (none of the duels had gone over forty seconds up to now) he spun out and dropped, and there she was, and his displays made red and gold fireworks go off all around him. He swore under his breath, but now, with Tremblay’s comm open too, he heard her sigh with impatient relief. They hovered down.

“Very entertaining,” said Park. “You need to work out how to kill her, Clay. Not all your opponents will be as easy as the rest of us.”

“As you, Commander?” he asked.

“Oh,” said Park, and he couldn’t tell if she was smiling or not, “whenever you think you’re ready for me, just let me know.”