, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The answer was yes, sort of. Park and Bouvier came away from a heroic meeting with the okay to continue fighter practice—as long as they put in at least eight hours a day on freighter maneuver and exploration. “Who wants to dock with the freighter again?” asked Bluehorse, with mock enthusiasm. “I’ve hardly got that one down at all. Oh, I know. What if the hatching clamp housing got ripped off by some space junk?”

“Why do we have to explore the Moon again?” whined Vera. “Hasn’t it been explored already?”

So they practiced standard maneuvers with a variety of improbable disabilities, and they explored the already fully explored Moon. The most useful version of this training was when Alpha and Beta went to the lunar north pole and pretended they were fifty or sixty light years from the nearest human being. They spent sixty hours there, out of communication with the base, or the brass. They drank water and nutri-drink and whiskey recycled by their pods from their own urine, and they ate a variety of wafers and pseudo cheese made from their own solid wastes, and from their exhaled carbon dioxide and their skin and hair sheds. They never left their vac suits. They had the time of their lives, although they obeyed strict orders not to engage in any silly mock fighting.

The three wings, plus all eight alternates, took part in a rare opportunity to explore a space rock that happened by, about two weeks into training. It missed Earth by more than the Earth-Moon distance, and it was only a kilometer long and couple of hundred meters wide and thick, but it was also unexplored by humans, unless there had been space missions unknown to Earth’s space exploration authorities. The twenty fighters swarmed the rock, measured everything headquarters could think to measure, and definitively ascertained that it had no life. They left a certain amount of unauthorized graffiti.

Meanwhile, the “babies,” the ten SCEPs assigned to the colony ships, practiced escorting the colony ships. The fighter pilots felt bad for them.

The fighter pilots managed to get in a couple of hours of practice almost every night, and the result was that they were worn out when they got back to their lodgings every night. Still, Park managed to make them play drunken squash, and almost every night they conked out in view of a movie, with another liter or two of wine and something to smoke.

Vilya instigated dances every four or five nights, at which Clay was repeatedly flirted with and danced with, but the boundaries were clear by now. Up against those boundaries, Bluehorse and Santos could flirt mercilessly, and Clay went to bed after every dance thinking naughty things about them, and, inevitably, about Rachel, who was so pretty but so precise and daunting, and about Natasha, whose open smile hid mysteries. He had thought of them as sisters rather than co-workers, but he had a sister, and he never felt this way about her.

Four weeks of lunar surface training flew by, and then they were sitting through a last day of summing up, further warnings, final briefings and a self-congratulatory banquet. During dessert, Su Park went off to confer with Vilya and Bouvier. Rachel, watching her walk away in the springy step of the lunar explorer, raised her glass.

“Here’s to us,” she said. “Clay? Tasha?”

“Sure,” said Clay. “Us.”

“Where would Su Park be without us?” said Natasha. They clicked glasses.

“Two months,” said Rachel. “Report for pre-launch in January.” She sighed and half laughed.

“I’m gonna miss you guys,” said Natasha. “Message me.”

“What are you guys doing for the holidays?” asked Clay, opening a door onto the personal that they had never tried to open. The other two both looked a bit nervous, and he got nervous too.

“Family stuff,” said Rachel. “I mean,” she said, laughing a little over an obvious dread, “not seeing them again, right? My mom. Dad. You?”

“I’m going to my sister’s,” said Clay. “It’s rough, she has a little girl, Yvette. I have a picture somewhere here.” He got out his pad, and flipped the photo roll to a 3D of Yvette.

“Cute,” said Rachel. They both looked up at Natasha. She was wiping a tear, but she was under control.

“I’m fine,” she said. She took a sip of wine, cleared her throat and added, “Let’s just say I can’t wait till we get back together again.”

And the next morning, it was bright day on the Moon as the fighter pilots, or the single crew explorer pod pilots, boarded the shuttle to return to Earth one last time.