So they tried some new ideas. They tweaked the photon frequencies. They changed them wholesale. They fiddled with the missiles. They tried changing their guidance to pick up something that the mouthholes emitted. None of it was much help, but then neither Rachel nor anyone else knew what might blow one of the things up, so that couldn’t be built into the program, at least not with any reliability.
They did get a little better at it. Four on one, Alpha Wing, with slightly altered photon numbers, managed to surround their single foe and beat it mercilessly: it became no more than a punching bag with a biting mouth. Later, facing three at a time, the Alphas dodged and shot and dodged and shot and survived four whole minutes before Clay, then Natasha, got the bite put on them, rendering them less maneuverable; soon they were being chomped. From there, Park and Rachel were goners, though their missiles, at short range, did seem to put the simulated mouthholes off their feed for a bit.
The other wings reported similar progress, if that was what it was. “Rachel,” said Bouvier, “you have to build in some way we can kill these guys.”
“I did, actually,” said Rachel, “but I was just guessing on that. I told the simulator what I thought they were made of, and it made them that way. I guess I could assume a bit less.”
“It would do wonders for morale,” said Bouvier. “And who knows, it might possibly be accurate.”
“Accurate, schmaccurate,” said Vilya. “Let’s go have a drink or ten.”
This time, the observation lounge was full of colony ship officers. It looked like they were having a sort of Christmas party. They looked like giants to the fighter pilots, of course, and giants floating around weightless and drunk.
“Tasmania,” said Park, and they repaired thither, taking over the open regions of Main Freight. Rojette and Rachel and Jane Tremblay set up the sound system, which involved three different music disks, each one representing a different wing second’s take on music history: somehow this all fell naturally into the job description of wing second. So the pilots drank replicated wine and sake and ouzo and rum and whisky and pale ale and even egg nog. They passed around pipes of all sizes, mostly made from spare ship parts. Kalkar and Padfoot and Jack Dott all put in an appearance, and Park left with them, in animated conversation with Kalkar. They were all carrying sippy cups of wine.
Clay tried to keep his drinking down to a low level, and he had a very polite relationship to the various kinds of pipe that were being passed around. He found himself chatting with Rachel about weaponry and programming the simulator; just when he was feeling a little bored, she said, “Enough shop talk. I’m going to go try and get Timmis to dance.”
“You wanna dance, Romeo?” asked Natasha, and they danced for a couple of songs, the usual Tech Dreck of 2331, which, Clay supposed, might now pass for classical music. He did love dancing with Natasha. He never felt, with her, that she was grasping at his heart: her aim was always a little higher or a little lower or both. Between the first dance and the second, they looked around, giggled, and smooched a little in the middle of the dance floor. After the second song, Clay went to see what he could order up on the music list, mere tail pilot that he was.
Clay managed to get “Gimme Shelter” onto the list before Timmis and Li Zan interrupted him to talk about weapons. Bonnie Bain joined them. He let the talk wash over him, while Natasha was dancing with Vera and Tremblay, Rachel and Gil Rojette were dancing, and Vilya and Bouvier were sort of vaguely dancing, while still talking. Clay supposed they were talking about photon frequencies and missile guidance. He floated a little away from the other three, gazing at Natasha and Vera. Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away.
“Everyone’s having such a good time,” said Bonnie Bain from about a centimeter away.
“This is your first fighter pilot party, isn’t it?” asked Clay.
Bain said something he couldn’t hear. She was dancing, floating in the air, her short blond hair flouncing around her head, her vac suit unzipped almost to her navel. She said something else and laughed.
“What?” asked Clay.
“I said, do you want to dance?”
“Can I stand here like this and pretend to dance?”
“We can do other things and you don’t have to pretend,” he thought she said.
“Clay,” said Vera right next to him. She grabbed his arm. “We need to talk.”
“What? What about?” he said, looking at Bonnie Bain. She and Vera looked like they were about to start a shoving match. “Vera.”
“God damn it, Clay,” said Vera. “We’re in trouble here and you’re—!”
“What? He’s what?” Bain challenged her. “I thought the idea was to party. Or am I not part of the group enough yet? Is that it?”
“Yeah, that’s it, actually,” said Vera. “I don’t think you get it yet. Bain,” she added, as though it were another word starting with B.
“Hey, hey,” said Clay.
“Hey, settle down, you guys,” said Natasha, coming over.
“Hey Clay,” said Rachel in Clay’s ear. “I had a bright idea. Want to help me work on it?” He turned: she nodded toward the forward freight door. “Doesn’t that sound better than being in the middle of this?”
He followed her through the door, and she padded it shut behind them. “I’m so confused,” he said. “Does Vera still care for me? Or what?”
“Typical ex behavior, actually,” said Rachel. “I’ve seen it all before.”
“Seriously? You have?” he asked. “And Bonnie?”
“She only wants you because you’re the Chosen One,” Rachel quoted.
“But I am the Chosen One,” replied Clay, dazed as much by Rachel knowing the Harry Potter films as by anything else that had happened.