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5.

A few day-periods later, the fighter pilots met in the Canada’s second-largest meeting room, with Kalkar and the Tasmania crew. Clay took a spot between Vera and Timmis.

“What are you, switching to Gamma Wing?” asked Vera.

“Why would I switch out of the best wing?” Clay replied, and Vera punched him in the shoulder, bouncing him off Timmis.

“All right, people,” said Su Park, “we have our orders.”

“Are you implying that someone gives you orders?” asked Rachel.

Park gave her a flat glare, then went on. “Beta Wing has been augmented by the addition of Anand Rees, from the Egypt, and Jamaica Leith from the Argentina. Welcome, Anand and Jamaica.”

“Do whatever she says and you won’t get hurt,” said Rachel.

Anand Rees, a vaguely Indian fellow of about 22, and Jamaica Leith, a vaguely African woman of about 17, both started to laugh but stopped and nodded sagaciously. They both glanced at Li Zan, who smiled at them.

“So the plan is this,” Park went on. “Candidate Two has been designated. We know where we are going. We are approaching this one a little differently, however. It’s considered dangerous, apparently, for two veteran wings to go someplace new all by themselves, and consequently it has been decided that while Beta Wing, which has new people, will hang back with the colony ships, Alpha and Gamma will proceed to Candidate Two in the company of Tasmania and Greenland.”

“It’s been decided?” Jane Tremblay repeated. “By?”

“I guess she means,” said Kalkar, “that I suggested it and it made sense to her. The Goddess knows that she wouldn’t do something just because I suggested it.”

“I’m glad you’re letting Beta hang back again,” said Bouvier. “Last time they got to hang back, and they were the wing that suffered losses.”

“Listen,” said Park. “This is serious. Okay? We don’t want to suffer any losses. None. I will not care if your Ghost, or your freighter, Captain Kalkar, has more holes in it than—what was it that had all the holes, Gilbert?”

“The Albert Hall,” said Clay.

“More holes than that. Just so what is inside the fighter survives. It was too bad we lost the Corsica, but the tragedy is that we lost four crew, and also two more pilots. I especially did not like losing Agneska, and Celeste, you are under strictest orders not to get yourself blown up. Because while the mouthholes were just about having a lovely spaceship-flavored snack, the Primoids can and do blow up fighters. How large was the largest bit of Agneska we found?”

“Eight grams,” said Natasha.

“And it’s not just that I like you all, although I do, most of the time. It’s that it’s bloody difficult to train up new pilots. So teamwork, watch out for each other, and most of all, be intelligent. Do not go charging into fights.”

“Like you,” said Clay.

Park glared at him. He quailed. She kept her eyes on him but smiled slightly and said, “I shall try very hard not to do anything stupidly brave, Mr Gilbert, thank you for reminding me.”

“Because,” said Clay, “it would be bloody difficult training up a new you.”

They talked some more, and then food was brought in—pizza that had been waste, and salad that had been grown hydroponically using waste, but all quite tasty, as was the delectable waste product cheesecake. Wine, produced from waste, was also brought, and presently the fighter pilots had music on and were starting to dance.

“So tell me,” shouted Jamaica Leith over the piquant strains of some sort of techno pop from the last century—or, well, the 23rd Century, which would be the one before last. Rachel and Clay, neither of whom felt like dancing, leaned closer, while watching Natasha and Vera dancing very suggestively, and Bonnie Bain dancing with Timmis and Jane Tremblay dancing with Anand Rees.

“What?” shouted Rachel.

“What’s the secret to surviving in a battle?” asked Jamaica. “Concentrate? Open your mind? Be in the effing moment?”

“All that,” said Clay. “And you have to be really lucky too.”

“You can’t plan ahead on anything,” yelled Rachel. “You just have to practice so much that your instincts are good.”

“You have to have good wing mates,” said Clay. “My ass has been saved like three times so far. And you have to trust your commander.”

“Can I have your commander?”

“No,” said Rachel and Clay together.

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