20 January, the fifth day in Quebec, consisted of yet further meetings, which was no more exciting or interesting than it sounds. At least the food was good. And then on the sixth day, instead of creating man, the crews began lifting off for orbit.
The first to go up, on 21 January 2334, were the colony ship crews. The colonists, and their many animals and plants, would come aboard much later, less than a week before the early March launch time, but the crews, fourteen per colony ship, had to prepare and test the systems ahead of time. “There is no cargo more precious,” Admiral Georges often said of the colonists, to which the colonists often replied, “Cow manure,” though not perhaps in those words. Then the freighter and armored freighter crews, and then the escort crews and colony ship SCEP pilots, and finally, in early February, the fighter, er, SCEP wings.
To Clay this looked like two weeks off in Quebec City with a small expense account and a bunch of pretty women. To Commander Park, and to the other commanders, it looked like a chance to do low-altitude maneuvers in an atmosphere. The three wings had permission to fly south over the abandoned lands of southern North America and northern South America, hard hit a century and more ago by war and climate change: once they were out beyond the ragged shores of the land of Carolina, and headed on toward the shrunken, sandy archipelago the maps called Florida, they no longer seemed to be on the same planet they had been on before. Clay was used to the shapes of the land masses from space, but he had never gotten a close look to the half-rotted, half-redeemed jungle that stretched along the coast from below the ruined desert of southern New Jersey all the way to the ruined desert of northern Brazil. Cities were not in evidence, though he knew there had been many cities down here. Only occasionally did they detect the work of twentieth or twenty-first century humanity. Between Carolina and Florida were the cratered remains of the old city of Atlanta; out on the islands beyond Florida, the long tilde of Cuba was half jungle and half desert. Everywhere, there was radioactivity, as there was really everywhere on the planet; but while Bangor and Quebec and Halifax had only a mild dose, everywhere else still buzzed detectably with small remaining amounts of cesium-137 and strontium-90, and less awful but longer-lived isotopes like protactinium-231 and its friends. The Caribbean practically boiled under the Sun and an atmosphere soaked with carbon dioxide.
“But is it safe to set down?” asked Rachel over the comm.
“Sure,” said Park. “Just let’s not build a house there.”
So they set down on a Cuban beach and had a picnic, of vac suit wafers and vac suit water. The commanders allowed their fliers to wander off within sight, and took the opportunity to confer on commander stuff.
“What are they doing, actually?” asked Vera Santos, who had wandered off along the beach with Clay.
“I think,” he said, “they’re drawing in the sand with sticks.”
“Geniuses at work,” said Vera. She laughed that laugh that Clay always thought was half at his expense. He smiled at her. Her eyes were dancing. “Dare you to skinny dip with me,” she said.
He had to think about that. For one second.
They flew back to Quebec, low over the ocean, screaming past an empty and boiling Bermuda, then up over a New York Harbor that would have made Charlton Heston weep. Beyond Yonkers, civilization suddenly returned, and that night, Rachel and Clay and Natasha had a late dinner at a pub on Rue St Jean before retiring for a last session of drunken three-way squash.
The next few days, still feeling insufficiently supervised, the three wing commanders decided to set up some simulated shooting matches over the Caribbean. While Alpha Wing continued to do well, the other two wings significantly closed the gap. Whichever wing was not in action was supposed to practice in-atmosphere exploration, but even Park didn’t really see much point in it. “What’s the chance we’ll be exploring a planet like Earth?” she asked the first afternoon as they stood on a beach on the Venezuelan coast.
So Park sat in her Ghost with the hatch open and ran simulations and rearranged formations. Rachel and Natasha and Clay mostly skinny dipped. Thus Clay got to see his two comrades without their vac suits: again, they were up against the boundary of the acceptable in the regime of Su Park, but they were happy walking along just inside the boundary, walking along barefoot and bare everything else on the sand in the broiling sun. “She’s right,” said Rachel. “We’re not going to have much chance to do this in 55 Cancri.”
“Who knows?” said Natasha, giggling. Clay just smiled, unable to think of anything appropriate to say while trying to keep up with his unclothed comrades.
In another hour they were back in their vac suits and back in their fighters, maneuvering; in another three hours they were back in Quebec debriefing and eating. Each night, back in Quebec City, they partied, again to the exact extent Park and the other commanders partied. Romantic involvement was still off limits, in their quasi-military pose, but dancing was not, and dance Clay did, with Jana Bluehorse and Vera Santos and Jane Tremblay and even Li Zan.
“Which one do you like best?” Rachel needled him at breakfast one day, when everyone was at a baseline level of hung over. “I mean, Santos is definitely hot for you. But then there’s Bluehorse, she could kick your butt and still make you her dance partner. Or Li, you always have to look out for the quiet ones, am I right? Or can’t you pick?”
“Which one do I like best for what?” replied Clay. “Which one do you like best?”
“I don’t see a need to decide,” said Rachel. “But I think Tasha likes Gil pretty well, am I wrong?”
“Oh, he’s okay,” said Natasha. “How come you don’t have to decide, but I do?”
“Because I asked you first,” said Rachel.
Su Park came and joined them, smiling slightly, from a short tete-a-tete with Vilya and Bouvier. She put her tray down amongst theirs (coffee, milk, croissant, an orange, a slice of cheese, a bit of blueberry jam, a bit of butter) and asked, without looking up from the tray, “What’s the topic of conversation today?”
“Maneuvers,” said Rachel with a smirk. “Combat operations,” said Natasha.
“I don’t believe you,” said Park. “Or should I?”
“I believe,” said Clay, “that the ladies were speaking metaphorically.”
“Whatever, I’m sure it’s fine,” said Su Park. “Just so you’re not talking about sex.”
Clay, Rachel and Natasha exchanged various grades of smirk while Park, still not looking up, devoted herself to her croissant.