The fact that Li Zan and Bonnie Bain got away with stealing one Ghost 201 with pilot from the Argentina and another from the Egypt said everything about how the colony ships’ “captaincy” now viewed Su Park and her minions. The colony ship fighter pilots themselves were clamoring to join a fighter wing; to them, the disappearance and presumed death of Jules Javert on board the France was a total waste, and a much more glaring tragedy than the death at the teeth of mouthholes of Jana Bluehorse or the demise of Vilya and Rojette, avenged by the illustrious Alphas. Thus the main problem Li had was to disappoint six other pilots.
Meanwhile, five of the original eight alternates from the Moon training were found among the colonists and induced to retrain for service. (The other three alternates had remained on the ancestral planet; one was an engineer, one a dentist and one a home-maker and wedding photographer. All three were, by now, in the time frame most relevant to the expedition, over a hundred years old.)
Alfred Kalkar, captain of the freighter Tasmania, allowed himself to be persuaded to go on a rubble-picking run. Alpha and Gamma Wings were encouraged to go along; the Captaincy was informed, but not asked for permission. Several ships’ mechanics from the colony ships wangled invites. No doubt the parties were excellent; Clay didn’t find out, because the Alphas were sent out ahead of the Tasmania, in spread formation, in case the three fighters they had blown up were going to be followed by a dozen more or whatever.
“So Tasha,” called Rachel, an hour out from the colony ships. “What are we calling this species?”
“Well,” said Natasha, “maybe we should wait till we see what they look like. I mean, the one thing we know about them is that they don’t like to talk. The Non Talkers?”
“That would differentiate them from H. sapiens,” said Park.
“They like prime numbers,” said Clay. “Maybe they’re the Primoids.”
“Can’t be Primates,” said Rachel. “It’s already taken.”
“It would be just our luck,” said Clay, “if they were like these demon chimpanzees. Anyone else here ever see The Planet of the Apes?”
“Yes,” said Rachel and Natasha as one. “No,” said Park. “Enlighten me. It’s about a planet that’s full of apes.”
“Yes,” said Clay, “but the twist is—should I give away the twist?”
“It’s supposed to be happening on some far away planet,” said Rachel, “but it turns out it’s on Earth in the future. It’s a homecoming story.”
“How heartwarming,” said Park.
“No,” said Rachel, “no, it’s not.”
“Well, you do know that at some point when we found an actual colony someone is going to be sent back to Earth to report.”
“Just one?” asked Rachel.
“One assumed,” said Park, “that it would be a whole wing, but perhaps we only send two. Now the question is, Clay and who?”
“What?” asked Clay. “Why me?”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “To keep you out of trouble? But that rather limits who the other person could be. Maybe Timmis.”
“Anyway,” said Clay.
The discussion moved on to other aspects of their ordinary fighter pilot lives, and then to what Candidate Two would be like, and what the colony would be like, and then Park set up a round robin of chess and simulations, and Clay came up last in both, and thus the hours flew by and they found themselves approaching a loose assortment of space junk so far out that the light of Candy One hardly touched it.
“Come around and match speed with the wreckage,” Park told them, as if they needed to be told at this point. “Flat four.”
There was time for a good round of Squad Blaster, which a team of teenagers on the India had programmed. It was a game about teamwork in military mayhem, and it suited Alpha Wing pretty well. They knew they had succeeded in their maneuver when they began to find the debris moving with them, and that was when they left off killing orcs and aliens.
“Bingo,” said Rachel. “Pickin’ up some big pieces. Yoohoo, Padfoot!”
“She can’t hear you yet,” said Clay. “Yeah, this is their debris field all right, this here’s the drive engine but it looks totally different and exactly like one of ours.”
“It’s big, actually,” said Rachel.
“Oh crap,” said Natasha. There was silence for a second. Then she said, “There’s one of them. There’s one of the aliens.”
“What?” asked Rachel and Park.
“No, it’s dead, it’s cold as space,” said Natasha. “But it’s—!”
“Come around,” said Park. “Clay, you fly patrol around us. Girls, let’s come in and share this wonderful first contact.”