The twelve pilots took a half hour off to have what amounted to lunch. It amounted to wafers they could eat without hands, popped out inside their helmets. They were something in the neighborhood of a fig newton, and they didn’t taste awful, but Clay knew that in some circumstances they might constitute his entire nutrition for days at a time, and he didn’t look forward to it. Water, of course, was also immediately available from his vac suit; one did not want to spend too much time thinking about it, but both wafers and water would, on a long hike, be recycled from his own waste.
While they stood around on the lunar surface, the pilots chatted about this and that, with their comms on general. “This” was maneuvering and shooting, and “that” was the ridiculousness of their armored freighter “anchor” ships, and by extension, their captains.
“Macdonald’s an ass,” said Tremblay. “He expressly told us not to practice low flying. He feels we should never do any maneuvers that the freighter can’t do.”
“Commander Bouvier,” said Santos as if Bouvier were God, “set him straight on a few things.”
“How’s Kalkar?” Bouvier asked Su Park. “Trained to your specifications yet?”
“Nearly,” said Su Park. “Irah, his navigator, helps with him sometimes. I think he had his head too far up the manual. She helped pull it back out a bit.”
“Nilsstrom’s cool,” said Jana Bluehorse.
“She’s a fighter’s freighter pilot,” said Commander Vilya. “When I told her about this practice session, I think she’d already heard about it from Kalkar and Macdonald. She was cool with it.”
“Well,” said Park, “Celeste and I had to go all the way up the chain of command. We had a chat with the Admiral.”
“Did you?” replied several.
“Oh yes,” said Bouvier. “Rather put our little tiny feet down, we did. Someone needed to remind those big folks about the different needs of their fighter piltos. SCEP pilots, I mean.” She looked around at the others. “Well? Are we ready, darlings?”
They were, of course. They spent another three hours flying over the hills. For an hour, Alpha and Beta Wings squared off, dog fighting and maneuvering and playing cat and mouse, or cat and cat, while Gamma Wing ran low-level exploration drills; then they switched and it was Alpha versus Gamma, with Beta exploring; the final hour, Beta fought Gamma and Alpha practiced what the “big ship people” thought was the only thing they should be practicing.
Exploring was okay. It was better than sitting in a room listening to people talk and watching slide and video presentations. But the two hours of shooting were sheer fun.
Between Alpha and Beta, it was clear that Alpha was the better of the two: they were individually very good, and functioned very well as a unit. Gil Rojette was competent but could with patience be caught unawares; Li Zan was too conservative and inevitably fell victim to bold thrusts; Bluehorse was dangerous, and in every square-off got at least one kill (usually on Clay, because they were both “tail” of their wings), but her boldness put her in the line of fire a lot. Again and again Vilya was the only one surviving against Park, Kleiner and Andros, and they never botched a three on one bottle-up. When Natasha got killed a couple of times in such a scenario, she got quietly balled out by Su Park. The one time that it was Rachel out and Clay was with Park and Natasha against Vilya, he got Vilya going after him and managed to dodge her for fifteen seconds while the other two nailed her to the lunar surface and made the kill.
Alpha and Gamma were much more evenly matched. That was when they all got drilled into their heads the value of formation, formation, formation. Clay squared off with Timmis several times and won more than lost, but the point was to stay in their diamond or flexible tetrahedron formations and use their teamwork to outmaneuver the enemy. Clay, as tail, had fewer kills than the others—he was beginning to suspect that quiet Rachel had a mean streak several feet wider than her. But after an hour of fighting, Alpha had beaten Gamma eleven times, and Gamma had beaten Alpha eight.
Alpha Wing’s ladies and gent celebrated that night with several liters of wine, and then they went and had half an hour of rather drunken squash. Then they cleaned up and went back to their pad, and there was a message from Vilya inviting them to Beta’s pad for a dance party. The twelve fighter pilots—no alternates or colony ship babies allowed—got more wasted and danced for hours to music from across the past three centuries. Rock and roll had in fact not died as of yet. Clay found himself flirted with by Vera Santos and Jana Bluehorse, but of course nothing came of it other than sweet glances and sweaty dances. Rachel and Natasha danced together, or danced with Timmis and Gil, or danced with Tremblay and Li Zan, but at 0100 hours they grabbed him by one hand each and gently dragged him back to the apartment, where they put him in his own bed and went off to theirs.
He lay in bed afterward, naked, thinking of Vera Santos and Jana Bluehorse, and they melded into one fun-loving, sweet-smiling teenage girlfriend. And then he was thinking of Rachel Andros and Natasha Kleiner, and how they had come and got him, and they turned in his mind from protective sisters to serious and seriously attractive college women. Their smiles, their looks, their remarks to each other, what could they mean for him?
But it was all a mystery. He had never understood women, except possibly for his old girlfriend, whom he had perhaps come to understand entirely too well. And anyway, they would have to work together, and possibly save one another’s lives, and they couldn’t afford to confuse matters. And there would be time. So, with a last brief recreational fantasy, Clay fell into the sleep of a drunk and did not wake up any earlier than the other pilots.