I. Moon Training
First there were four whole days in Quebec City. The crew recruits, who numbered somewhere around three hundred, were all assembled for the first day’s workshops, and any interaction among the recruits, applicants, candidates, whatever, was limited to the general areas of sports and the weather. Keynote addresses alternated with break-out sessions, but the recruits were not expected to do any of the talking: today was devoted to cheerleading, organizational blather and the reading of warning labels. All the recruits wore the same grey jump suits. The already-chosen officers either wore grey to black vacuum suits (like Su Park, recognizable as the shortest and skinniest person on the panel during the welcome address, far to the left and looking like she had other things on her mind) or formal dinner wear (like the captains of the colony ships and freighters). The organizers and Earth-bound employees went either for the dinner wear option or ventured into science lab white.
Still, some things were obvious. One was which were the fifty or so candidates for the twenty-two positions as SCEP (single crew explorer pod) pilots and which were the 300 or so candidates for the 246 positions on the colony ships, freighters and escorts. The SCEP pilots were tiny. Since the SCEPs were supposed to be able to travel to light speed on their own, and since the pilot would represent eighty to ninety percent of the mass of her craft, making the pilots as small as possible made their craft cheaper to operate, more reliable, and more maneuverable. The size difference was just enough to be noticeable, as if they were fifty middle schoolers in the midst of a convention of adults. They recognized each other and gave each other special regard, just like middle schoolers from different towns or countries meeting on a city street.
Of course there was another difference between the regular ships’ crews and the SCEP pilots: more than three fourths of the pilots were women.
The second day, the pilots were pulled aside and were never mixed back in with what they all referred to as “big ship people.”
For another day the pilots received old-fashioned training, but some things had to be made clear, some more warning labels read out loud, specific to the job. Among the more emphasized:
1. You are not “fighter pilots.” You are single crew explorer pod pilots. You have things you can do to defend yourself if necessary, but your tools are not to be confused with any kind of weapon, because, well, shame on you for even thinking you were going to have to shoot at alien spaceships.
2. Your job is to explore. Discipline is vital. Obey your wing leader.
3. You may find yourself sixty light years from any other humans. It would take sixty years for your message, sent as laser pulses and traveling at the speed of light, to reach other humans. It would take the recipients of your message at least sixty more years to respond. Depend on your wing.
4. You are under your own command, separate from the big ships. Obey your wing leader.
5. And when the big ship people are out of the room, and especially when the project organizers were out of the room, that’s when you call her Commander (it will be a her), and that’s when, if she says poop, you ask what color. Of course they did not call it poop, but Clay was still thinking of his niece Yvette and translating.
6. And when the big ship people and project organizers were out of earshot, well, no one calls the SCEPs anything but fighters or doubts that at some point a wing would be sixty light years from any other human, facing a squadron of alien space cruisers coming in with photon cannon blazing.
7. And in those circumstances, Commander Su Park, Commander Agneska Vilya and Commander Celeste Bouvier, rarely called anything but Ms Park, Ms Vilya and Ms Bouvier in front of outsiders, would disclose how to adjust the laser set so as to create a beam weapon capable of cutting a slice a tenth of a millimeter wide ten kilometers away in space, and how to retool the robot scout probes into missiles the size and shape of guitar picks, capable of blowing a hole three meters across in a reinforced bulkhead by overloading a certain circuit in the probe’s propulsion.
The SCEP contingent on the mission was actually two contingents. The true fighter pilots were the three wings of four “single crew explorer pods” each, each wing associated with an armored freighter but intended to be sent ahead to the next star or sent to the far reaches of the current star system. Most of the bullet points in the seminars of Day Two were directed at them. But there were ten more SCEPs, two for each of the five colony ships, and these were intended to remain close by
their colony ship mothers. They were the tiny left and right arms of the tyrannosaurs. No one admitted to wanting that assignment, although it was better than being left on stupid old Earth.
Clay had lunch with two other male candidates. They seemed confident they would get on the project, but one of them, Pierre or something, apparently had medical school as a backup plan. In any case, after glimpsing them over the next two days, he never saw them again.
At night, the big ship people and the dozens of non-flying organizers and researchers and funders of the project held parties and went out on the town. The SCEP pilots did not go. They stayed in and played Asteroid Pirates and got drunk and stoned to the exact extent that Commander Su Park did, which was moderately. They got to bed on time, and if any hanky panky was going on after lights out, it was kept below the notice of the commanders or of Clay Gilbert.
The last two days of the Quebec conference, the SCEP candidates were turned loose on the simulators. Nearly all of these involved maneuvering with unexpected problems or challenges: the docking instrument of the armored freighter is damaged, there’s an air leak in a colony ship, your left thrust is stuck at half, your ranging software is unreliable. The night between the two days, the commanders called in some of the candidates, sixteen or so, and put them back on the same simulators, but with alien cruisers aplenty with bad attitudes and beaucoup photon cannons.
Clay, who had spoken about eight words in the past twenty-four hours, was one of those called upon. And now he got to speak lots of words—to three other pilots, all women, all unseen among the simulators, who were the rest of his wing. He got killed about twenty times. They all did, most of them more than twenty: there were at least five battles in which Clay was the only survivor.
“The upper quadrant of the cruiser bridge,” said the best of the other three, in Clay’s earphones, after the fifth time it happened, “it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” said Clay. “Just dodge the twin battery fire and you can put a missile there or slice it up with the mech laser.”
“The photon cannon, you mean,” said another of the three, and they all laughed.
The fourth day was like the third day, except that at breakfast Clay was called over to Su Park’s table. The commander sat by herself sipping coffee and juice and chewing on Canadian bacon. She waved him over, but they didn’t say a word to each other for five minutes. Then suddenly she said, “Hey, that’s Kleiner, wave her over,” and they both waved at a gingery blonde holding a mug of coffee and a plate of apple crisp. Before Kleiner could do more than grin and say hi, they were waving over a particularly little brunette called Rachel Andros.
It transpired that the wing Clay had fought with last night, the group he had sacrificed himself many times for, the group which had been completely wiped out together eight times, had been Su Park, Natasha Kleiner, Rachel Andros (she pronounced it Ahndro) and Clay.
They joked about their defeats, they dissected the simulated enemies, they hypothesized about what it might be like in the real world, and Su Park threw out advice. They spent ten minutes on what exactly Clay had been doing right. They also spent ten minutes on Rachel picking enemy missiles off Natasha, and Natasha chasing a gunboat of some kind out of an asteroid’s grooved terrain. And everything led back to the two-cycle lesson of Su Park:
1. You have to rely on each other. No one is good enough to manage alone.
2. The enemy that can be simulated is not the real enemy. What’s actually out there will be wild and unpredictable.
Clay was tired all Day Four. But so were Natasha and Rachel. He found that the three of them just seemed to wind up sitting in a row at the simulators, exactly like three college students who have had classes together for years. They did not exchange addresses or anything, nor did they have any occasion to exchange life details. At the ending dinner, they sat together and chatted lightly, but by the time Clay and Natasha and Rachel had a beer in them, the only subject of conversation was shooting at alien spaceships.
He loved his imaginary Ghost. He loved it. It bothered him when he blew it up, which he did a lot. When it took a lot of damage but was still, somehow, stumbling along through space, wildly colored photon blasts all around, he felt the desperate need to keep it together and make it out alive. And when he was stumbling at half thrust and with the left side flectors all down, and one of his wing mates was the same, and they were alone against three alien fighters (aliens don’t fly explorer pods), an intense pride welled up inside him and the goals of winning and of both of them surviving the fight merged into one goal, the one goal, the only thing that mattered.
The next morning, Clay woke to a phone call before dawn. It was Su Park.
When it took off, less than two hours after Clay got the call from Park, the passenger shuttle to the Moon carried the three wing leaders and exactly twenty-seven recruits for SCEP pilot training. Looking at the three wing leaders standing together outside the shuttle, Clay was struck by two things: one, that they all looked alike in the way all doctors look alike or all sculptors look alike, or more so because the three were all tiny women; and two, that Park was clearly the most intense of the three. She clearly was old friends with Vilya, a redhead with a squared-off face, while Bouvier, despite greying black hair, gave the impression of being the youngest of the three. Clay got onto the shuttle and saw Rachel and Natasha; Rachel smiled and patted the seat next to her, and he took it.
A significant winnowing had already occurred. A little more would yet occur: eight of the twenty-seven would wind up on the list of alternates. Ten others would be SCEP pilots on the gigantic colony ships, zippy babies tied to lumbering mothers.
In theory, those decisions hadn’t been made. And in practice, some of them had not: Commander Bouvier, like Commander Vilya, seemed still to be auditioning her candidates. And the difference between an alternate and a colony ship SCEP pilot seemed not yet settled. But the impression Clay had, that he was already part of a team with Natasha Kleiner and Rachel Andros under the command of Su Park, was reinforced when they got to the Moon after a ten hour flight.
The lunar base in the Sea of Serenity was a sprawling thing with a dozen slightly integrated regions. The multi-purpose pilot training zone on the south side of the base was where people learned to fly and work in space, and that was where all the crews and alternates went. Clay had been there half a dozen times before, including a two-month training period seven years ago, when his employers in Bangor had decided he ought to certify up a bit. The place had been fully retooled since he had last been there; in particular, the living quarters looked like a completely different place. The quarters had been a college dormitory weirdly plunked down on an object with 1/6 the gravity of Mother Earth; one forgot one was on the Moon until one put down a coffee cup a bit too hard and one’s coffee flew up in a dark tsunami. Now, every room and every hall seemed to have extensive windows, even skylights. The SCEP trainees were housed on the top floor of a tower, in little single rooms with glass roofs and glass outer walls, presumably to focus them on thinking about the stars. Their mess was down the elevator and over and up, the smaller cafeteria on top of the bigger one where the big ship people ate.
Park had secured four single rooms around a common living room for herself and her trio of recruits. They staked out a table in the corner of the dining room and ate every meal together. The first night, after welcomes and orientations and tours of the base, they all went back to the living room and collapsed in four different sofas, and after five minutes Park jumped up and said, “Two on two squash. You know there are squash courts.”
No one said, “Oh, no, not one more step,” even though they were all completely worn out. Nor did anyone say, “Yes, Commander, yes sir ma’am.” Instead, they all got up, headed down to the underground squash courts in their grey jump suits and played. First Clay and Park beat Natasha and Rachel 11 to 9; then Park and Rachel beat Clay and Natasha 11 to 6; then Park and Natasha beat Clay and Rachel 14 to 12. Rachel was little, a wisp, but Rachel was tough and she didn’t like losing and Clay and Rachel gave Park and Kleiner a scare before losing on a point that left them both lying half dead on the floor after slamming into walls.
Then, covered in sweat, they picked up a couple of liters of wine from the galley in what Clay suspected was an informal deal arranged on her own authority by Su Park. They returned to their quarters and watched old movies and drank wine until they were all barely able to clean themselves up for bed, and then they all slept in until Park buzzed them all awake exactly eight hours later.
The next week consisted of days of training and nights of squash, drinking and old science fiction movies. They quite blurred. Training was not much more than an extension of the simulator work, but from the fourth day onward they were flying real Single Crew Explorer Pods, real Ghost 201s. The more he thought about it, the less like Single Crew Explorer Pods and the more like Star Fighters they seemed: they were disturbingly tiny, perhaps two meters long, dark grey, cigar-shaped and utterly featureless. They had no wings and no windows and no guns and no dishes or antennae and their hatches fit flush so they couldn’t even be seen without close inspection. All their capabilities were essentially distributed throughout their skins. In his seat, Clay found he could see out in every direction not blocked by his own body. His instruments and read outs sat amongst the mobbing stars. He could stretch his legs out or pull them in, he could shift around as he liked, and he could do a sort of exercise sequence in the tiny confines, and he soon lost any remnant of claustrophobia, because it sure looked and felt as if he were zooming through space with only his vac suit and a steering stick for company.
“Is it mine?” he asked Park as they stood on the lunar surface after an hour of low-speed, low-altitude training. “Is this Ghost the one I’ll be flying?” Having asked, he was instantly petrified, but Park just gave him a slight, sidelong smile.
“Do you want it to be?” she asked.
He thought a moment and then said, “Of course I do. Yes. Of course I do.”
“Then it will be yours,” she said, turning to walk away. Her voice still sounded inside his helmet: “You may write your name on the seat leather with a permanent marker, Mr Gilbert.”
Clay was, as has been established, a male. He had distinct heterosexual tendencies, as did, so he guessed, both Natasha and Rachel. They were both fine women in various ways; it was not as if he did not admire their attractiveness. Rachel was a trim, precise brunette, quiet with a sly sense of humor alongside her killer instinct; Natasha was a wide-smiling blonde, just a tad voluptuous, her jump suit unzipped a few centimeters. But they did not flirt, they did not make eyes, and they definitely did not shower together. No, they trained together, trained and trained and trained, until those little fighters seemed like they really were just vac suits shooting through space.
Of course they weren’t supposed to imagine they would ever shoot at anything. Of course they weren’t supposed to train for combat operations. Of course they weren’t even officially a Wing, until the end of the first week, when, after dinner, provisional assignments went out to the recruits. Natasha, Rachel and Clay wandered over to the screens where they were posted, a little nervous, a little confident, a little ready to fall into pits of despair.
Natasha got there first. Her eyesight was even more incredible than Clay’s or Rachel’s, and she was a little in front. She stopped, took a second, then turned, not looking at the other two, and gave a little fist pump and a yesssss. Clay and Rachel got to the screen and had a good look. The entire assignment list was there, but they only had eyes for:
Leader Su Park
Second Rachel Andros
Third Natasha Kleiner
Tail Clay Gilbert
“We are a wing,” said Natasha, for the tenth time. She took a drink of her fourth glass of wine, smiled at the other three, then burst out laughing.
“We are the best wing,” said Rachel, not smiling. “The. Best.” She looked at Clay, who smiled crookedly.
“I don’t even mind being called the tail,” said Clay. “I’m the tail of the best wing.”
“I agree,” said Su Park. “We are the best wing because I am the best and I chose the best. Now we simply have to practice more and harder than anyone else and we can remain the best wing.”
She looked across them. Natasha still smiled, but with no teeth and a hint of tears in her eyes. Rachel mouthed darn right, looking down. Clay met Park’s eyes.
“Commander,” he said, “does this mean the four of us are together for the duration?”
“If we can keep all of us in one piece,” said Su Park, “yes, we are together for the duration, Mr Gilbert. I admit that the selection procedure might seem odd. But I have learned that if you recognize the best people, you ask for those people, and you keep them together. For the duration.”
“What do you think we will meet, Commander, during the duration?”
“When do we start shooting aliens?” asked Natasha.
“I do not think,” said Su Park, “that we will be firing our, what did you call them, photon cannon at alien spaceships the very first system we come to.”
“It’ll be the second system,” said Rachel. “The first one will be too barren to colonize.”
Su Park gave Rachel Andros a long inscrutable look, and then said, “Yes, that is exactly what I expect will happen. The test mission to Alpha Centauri did not meet aliens; it’s my sense that the only reason for that was that Alpha Centauri is not far enough.”
“But remember,” said Rachel.
Su Park finally smiled. “But remember,” she said, leaning forward to pour herself a little more wine, “we are explorers. We are not in the business of shooting at anything. Remember that?”
“Sure, Commander,” the other three all murmured. They all refilled and took drinks. The wine wasn’t bad. Clay looked around: he felt lucky to be with these three women, talented, brainy, together. Not unattractive, but something about the way Park ran her wing placed a boundary there, a boundary he was not even tempted to cross just yet. No, he was just lucky to be here. And beneath that, beneath the drunk he was feeling, there was something else that seemed to have grown from nothing: the certainty that they were the best. The wanting for them to be the best.
The next morning, Alpha Wing dragged themselves out of their individual beds. The ladies took over the shower, and Clay played himself a few battles of Asteroid Pirates. The cheat code Park had given him let him fly a very credible Ghost 201 against those poor pirates. He blew their fighters up in a row, then took on their biggest ships, dodging and weaving, his simulated wing mates dodging and weaving around him and laying down covering fire as he went in for the kill.
Then the gals all came out, dressed in their vac suits, looking at him as if they knew something he didn’t, and he went in and took his shower. Then they all headed down to the mess, dressed in their vac suits, and silently smirked at each other while they swilled coffee and the alternates stole glances at them.
It was another morning full of meetings. First, Dr Aron Sweis, one of the elder statesmen of the Human Horizon Program, got up and gave a windy talk to the entire chosen fleet crew, 196 big shippers, twenty-two SCEP pilots, thirty alternate crew members, about how amazing it was to be in this place at this time. Fifty minutes of that included perhaps five minutes of startlingly emotional reminiscence and good wishes; the rest was dreadful, especially for people who had consumed an average of a bottle of wine each the previous night.
Then Dr Rayanne Good, she of the five graduate degrees, spoke for thirty minutes on what the mission was and what it was not. “We expect that by the third jump, you will have found excellent grounds for a colony,” she said. “We do not wish to settle for less than excellent, because this fleet should be capable of going on however many jumps it will take. In that time, we consider that the probability of encountering alien intelligences to be vanishingly low. I presume that in three or four jumps, you will find one planet with mold on it. We do not expect to meet resistance. We do not think there is anything out there capable of doing worse to us than we have already done to ourselves.” She repeated the message with charts and pictures for half an hour.
Then Dr Henri Georges, the most senior scientist going on the journey and the Admiral in charge of the primus inter pares Colony Ship France, laid out the strategy.
“We do not know yet if the colony ships sent decades ago to Gliese 581 and Gliese 667c have succeeded or failed,” he said. “We do not even know if the Centaur project has arrived safely: it had not arrived when the Human Horizon test mission was there. So we will pass on these nearer worlds. We will leave those journeys to others. Our plan is to leap past them, forty-one light years in our first jump, to 55 Cancri A, a system we already know has planets in the so-called Goldilocks Zone. The system consists, as you perhaps already know, of a yellow star much like our sun, and a red dwarf orbiting at a considerable distance; the yellow, the A star, has at least seven planets we know of. What do we know of them? Much, and yet almost nothing. Alpha and Gamma Wings will arrive ahead of the main fleet, and begin exploration and evaluation. And,” he added, but the rest of his speech was lost on Clay, who spent the next thirty minutes imagining what it would be like to arrive in a new star system with just a handful of other humans.
Would it be lonely, so far from any other people? He didn’t think it could possibly be. He only felt lonely in crowds.
“What we actually know about 55 Cancri,” said Rachel as the four of them sat down to lunch, “is that it has two stars, about a thousand astronomical units apart, and the larger one has seven or eight planets, including two in the Goldilocks Zone.”
“Why is it called the Goldilocks Zone?” asked Natasha.
“I don’t know, some old myth or something. It’s ‘just right.’ Does that mean anything to you?”
“I got nothing on that,” said Natasha.
“Okay,” said Clay, “I know this. So there’s this little girl named Goldilocks. She gets lost in the woods and she finds this house that these three bears live in. They’re out for the day but they leave their bowls of oatmeal sitting there: I don’t remember why. Anyway, I guess one bowl was too hot, one was too cold and the middle one was just right. So they applied that to planets. Back in the old days.”
“The Kepler program,” said Su Park.
“Is this the same Kepler with the three laws?” asked Natasha.
Park and Clay looked at each other. They both looked at Rachel. “I think that was an actual guy,” said Rachel. “I think the program was named for him.”
They all exchanged glances, a habit, Clay noticed, that they were all picking up, and then they all sort of shrugged and went on with their sandwiches.
That afternoon, the twenty-two SCEP pilots and eight alternates had a couple of hours of workshops on things like pod familiarity (Clay was fairly sure that was related to plant husbandry)
and small group dynamics (at which Alpha Wing suppressed a collective yawn). They were told
that they should practice and practice some more; they should know their SCEPs better than they
knew their own elbows; they should never, ever haze or bully junior members of the wing; they
should treat their associated armored freighter captains with due respect; and they should not
under any circumstances fire the weapons that everyone knew they didn’t have.
Then the three explorer wings met by themselves. In theory it was a workshop conducted by the three wing commanders, er, leaders, but in practice it was just a big bull session about what it meant to be a fighter pilot. The first thing the leaders did, even before having everyone introduce themselves, was remind everyone that there were some things they all knew that no one else outside the room should know.
“We know we’re fighter pilots,” said Celeste Bouvier, “but if I hear from Admiral Georges that my people are calling themselves fighter pilots, then I am going to make use of that alternate pool.” And that was all the threat anyone in the room needed, if they even needed that.
Then they went around and gave their names. Beta Wing was Commander Agneska Vilya, and Gil Rojette (at second, the highest ranking male among the pilots), Li Zan and Jana Bluehorse; Gamma Wing was Commander Bouvier, and Jane Tremblay, Vera Santos and a very young man named Timmis Green. He was very little; he looked about ten years old, though evidently he was twenty two and a month. Timmis had sandy hair and blue eyes and a round face with an innocent-looking smile; Clay suspected that he really was innocent. He kept looking at Clay: geez, Clay, the role model? Clay smiled at him.
“So just to be clear,” said Commander Vilya, “every time we make a jump to light speed, they send two wings ahead. Assure me it’s not always Alpha and Gamma.” Gil Rojette, who had dark brown skin but spoke English with a French accent, nodded and shook his head at the same time and muttered, “That’s an amen.”
“No,” said Su Park, “sometimes it’ll be Alpha and Beta.”
“Hey,” said Bouvier.
“Seriously,” said Jane Tremblay, “isn’t Admiral gonna decide who goes on ahead? I mean, do we have to listen to him on things like that? When do we have to listen to him?”
The commanders shared a little laugh. “We don’t have to,” said Park. “We definitely don’t have to if we’re not in the same star system as he is,” said Bouvier.
“This raises some questions for me,” said Tremblay. “Do we actually want to answer any of them? I mean, I’m okay if we don’t.”
They all looked around at the commanders. Vilya laughed, and then so did the other two. “I don’t feel a need to answer questions about why we’re not really under them,” said Bouvier. She looked at Park, who looked around the room.
“Okay,” said Park, “I think we’re done here. Tonight off. Tomorrow, we start low-level fight training. You guys know enough to be careful, right?”
Clay looked around. No one was laughing, and what smiles showed were serious ones.
Clay already knew all the rules and regulations and warning labels on flying a Ghost 201. He hadn’t actually flown one until just a few days ago, and those were half under the control of the base trainer computer so the trainees wouldn’t crash into things. But now the training wheels were off. After breakfast, Su Park led her wing pilots down to the side airlock, and in a few seconds they were out on the lunar surface kicking up dust. Four Ghosts sat on the tarmac twenty meters from the airlock, in a little row: the same four Ghosts that Alpha Wing had been hovering about the hangars in.
“Cold out,” said Natasha as she headed for the second from right.
“Nice and clear, though,” said Rachel, heading for the second from left. “I think it’s going to be a nice day.”
“Don’t expect much for wind,” said Su Park, reaching the left-most SCEP and patting the hatch open. In a few more seconds, all four were dropping gently into their cushioned seats and pulling their hatches shut.
Inside, in a dim ambient light, Clay flipped on a series of systems. The outside became visible all around him, as if the fighter were all window. The dim light vanished, and he sat in the dark with readouts glowing in the midst of the stars and the lunar surface.
The engine hummed: well, both engines did, the hover and the thrust. Life support came up and breathed sweet air on him; it connected to his vac suit, which itself was equipped to channel out all his bodily wastes including bits of skin. Comm came up.
“Hover three meters,” said Park. The four Ghosts, as one, hovered up three meters. She was supposed to say, “Hover on my mark,” and then say “mark,” but they were perfectly well coordinated without all that.
“Diamond formation 1,” said Park, moving her Ghost forward to the point of the diamond. Natasha took the left, Rachel the right, Clay the tail. “You guys good?”
“Good,” they all chimed in.
“Then let’s head for Zone 30.”
“What speed, Commander?” asked Rachel.
“Just keep up.”
And they did, though Su Park’s preferred altitude was about three meters and her preferred speed was two hundred meters per second. The Sea of Serenity was not uniformly flat, and at the speed they were going it was only a few minutes before low mountains loomed ahead of them. Once Park was into the folded hills, it was all any of the rest could do just to stay with her. For the next five minutes, Clay’s collision warning system was constantly at yellow and sometimes red; but suddenly he sort of got it, and he was smiling as he stayed twenty meters behind his commander and three meters off the undulating ground. It wasn’t hard. It was easy. He reached over and flicked off his collision warning system.
This was life. Whatever he’d been doing before this, he wasn’t sure what to call it, but this: this was life. He felt as if he’d just been born. He wondered what to name his craft, but he realized the only meaningful name for it would be either Clay Gilbert, or just the Ghost. The Ghost: it was not his ship or his place to sit, it was his body. It protected him from space and radiation, it processed his breath, his waste products, his lost skin and hair into his food and drink and his next breath. Its display was so huge that he didn’t notice it was a display: it was an enhanced universe he flew in, one with little superimposed menus and readouts telling him his speed and condition. He heard his wing mates talking as if they were all in neighboring cubicles.
He could hear Natasha laughing. Park warned her to keep quiet or people would think she was having fun.
Park led them on a tour of the rills and gullies and smaller craters, and then she pulled out of a deep little crater and took them at mad speed straight at the bottom of a cliff. It was a kilometer away, then a hundred meters—they were traveling three hundred meters each second.
Then Park pulled up and the others pulled up with her. It took a moment but Clay fell in behind the others again, shooting up the cliff. Suddenly it ended and they shot over the top like waves over a sea wall. Clay and Natasha and Rachel looked down and there, on top of the cliff, Park was setting her fighter down. They cut thrust and hovered down, and by the time Bouvier’s wing had come up over the cliff, Park’s wing were all out of their fighters, standing around Park.
“We going up against Bouvier’s wing?” asked Rachel.
“Is this training going to involve photon cannons?” asked Natasha.
“What about Vilya’s wing?” asked Clay.
“She’ll be along,” said Park. “As to photon cannons, only simulated ones.”
In another minute, Celeste Bouvier, Jane Tremblay, Vera Santos and Timmis Green were climbing out of their fighters. In the base, Bouvier was dark of complexion with black hair going a bit grey, Tremblay was a tiny bit tall but pencil thin, with pale brown hair cut very short, Santos was Latina dark and terribly gorgeous with brown eyes and an insouciant smile, and Green was a little boy with sandy hair and a wide open grin. Out here, Bouvier was dark grey all over with a helmet with a glass front that wrapped around the sides, like a humanoid with a single huge eye and no mouth or other features, and the others, including Alpha Wing, looked exactly the same. The only distinguishing marks were that Bouvier’s wing all had big shiny silvery gammas on both shoulders, while Park’s wing all had alphas; and Park and Bouvier got to have solidly black helmets while the rest had helmets that were the same dark grey as their suits.
“Hey,” said Timmis to Clay, touching his arm to establish one-to-one communication. Around them, the others were similarly touching elbows to talk person to person.
“How’s it going?” asked Clay. “Nice day for it.”
“Excited,” said Timmis. “Can’t wait. You’ll kill me repeatedly.”
“I plan on killing your friends too,” said Clay. “I’m sure they’ll kill me.”
He touched Natasha’s elbow and heard Santos saying, “Just between us, Tash,” so he cleared his throat. Santos laughed and said, “Just between all of us, any of us could thrash anyone in Beta Wing except maybe Vilya, and I do mean maybe.”
“I’d worry about Bluehorse,” said Natasha. “She’s a crusher.”
“You fought her in simulator?”
“She thrashed me three times straight.”
“Yes,” said Clay, “but you thrashed her three times straight right back.”
Santos made a little laugh, and Clay was aware that through the visor her odd smile was focused on him. He had the feeling of a squirrel being watched by an eagle. He looked back at her, wondering if she could see him, if she felt the same way he felt about her. He wondered, not for the last time, if there really was anything in the galaxy more formidable than the people gathered on this cliff top.
“Here they come,” said Rachel. The eight pilots moved to the edge of the cliff and looked out. Far in the distance to the east, almost against the curve of the Moon and the black of space, a few lights and shapes showed where the base lay. Below them, roaring up the cliff came four specks of black against the grey-brown rock. They shot past, four elongated ellipsoids, then curled over and dropped to hover at one meter, then settle. Only one hatch opened.
Vilya stepped out. “Sorry we’re late,” she said, “some of mine had trouble with the wakey wakey thing today. Shall we?”
“So she’s not letting them come out?” asked Timmis, still rubbing elbows with Clay.
Clay smirked. It was a habit he was picking up from the rest of his wing. “Got to learn the lesson,” he said.
There followed the most enjoyable six hours of Clay’s life, at least until the next wake period when they would get to do it again. It was better than sex, at least better than sex with his old girlfriend. It was better than ice cream.
First, they paired up and fought duels, with half the pilots watching while the other half dog-fought in different parts of the sky. Clay beat Timmis; Timmis got Clay on a failed Clay maneuver; then Clay got Timmis when he didn’t turn out of a maneuver in time. Then they rested, and then Clay went up against Jana Bluehorse, who was murderous, getting him quick twice and continuing to shoot once he was “dead,” but he turned it to his advantage on their third match-up, faking her out and zapping her and spinning away as she cursed. They had time for a fourth duel, and Clay was smirking again as he toyed with her: Bluehorse had shown him her one mode and he had worked out how to defeat that mode. The others were done when he finally opened up broadside from above and finished her off.
They landed. Bluehorse was out of her Ghost before Clay was on the ground. She closed the twenty meters between them in seconds. She high fived him and then hand-clasped. “You are awesome,” she said. “Whooo! Awesome!” She looked around and lit on Rachel. “You next?”
“Gilbert,” said Bouvier, “take on Tremblay.”
Jane Tremblay was way too good for Clay. She took him out three times quickly. On the fourth, he maneuvered single-mindedly away from her targeting, never staying in the same line through her ship for more than a moment. Turn and turn and turn back and then drop or rise. Seconds ticked by. The duel had gone on for a minute, two minutes.
He could hear the other pilots on the ground cheering for him in his audio. He could hear Timmis muttering, “Go Clay, go Clay,” and Jana Bluehorse hooting every time he flipped backward or dropped out or spun away. But Tremblay was implacable. At 3:17 (none of the duels had gone over forty seconds up to now) he spun out and dropped, and there she was, and his displays made red and gold fireworks go off all around him. He swore under his breath, but now, with Tremblay’s comm open too, he heard her sigh with impatient relief. They hovered down.
“Very entertaining,” said Park. “You need to work out how to kill her, Clay. Not all your opponents will be as easy as the rest of us.”
“As you, Commander?” he asked.
“Oh,” said Park, and he couldn’t tell if she was smiling or not, “whenever you think you’re ready for me, just let me know.”
The twelve pilots took a half hour off to have what amounted to lunch: wafers they could eat without hands, popped out inside their helmets. They were something in the neighborhood of a fig newton, and they didn’t taste awful, but Clay knew that, in certain imaginable circumstances, they might constitute his entire nutrition for days at a time, and he didn’t look forward to it. The water was excellent; something like coffee and something like whiskey were also available in-suit, but the latter would not be advisable during low-altitude flight. All, of course, were recycled from his own waste.
While they stood around on the lunar surface, the pilots chatted about this and that, with their comms on general. “This” was maneuvering and shooting, and “that” was the ridiculousness of their armored freighter “anchor” ships, and by extension, their captains.
“Macdonald’s an ass,” said Tremblay. “He expressly told us not to practice low flying. He feels we should never do any maneuvers that the freighter can’t do.”
“Commander Bouvier,” said Santos as if Bouvier were God, “set him straight on a few things.”
“How’s Kalkar?” Bouvier asked Su Park. “Trained to your specifications yet?”
“Nearly,” said Su Park. “Irah, his navigator, helps with him sometimes. I think he had his head too far up the manual. She helped pull it back out a bit.”
“Nilsstrom’s cool,” said Jana Bluehorse.
“She’s a fighter pilot’s freighter pilot,” said Commander Vilya. “When I told her about this practice session, I think she’d already heard about it from Kalkar and Macdonald. She was cool with it.”
“Well,” said Park, “Celeste and I had to go all the way up the chain of command. We had a chat with the Admiral.”
“Did you?” replied several.
“Oh yes,” said Bouvier. “Rather put our little tiny feet down, we did. Someone needed to remind those big folks about the different needs of their fighter piltos. SCEP pilots, I mean.” She looked around at the others. “Well? Are we ready, darlings?”
They were, of course. They spent another three hours flying over the hills. For an hour, Alpha and Beta Wings squared off, dog fighting and maneuvering and playing cat and mouse, or cat and cat, while Gamma Wing ran low-level exploration drills; then they switched and it was Alpha versus Gamma, with Beta exploring; the final hour, Beta fought Gamma and Alpha practiced what the “big ship people” thought was the only thing they should be practicing.
Exploring was okay. It was better than sitting in a room listening to people talk and watching presentations. But the two hours of team shooting were still playing over and over in Clay’s head as they flew scanning the tumbled, airless land below them.
Between Alpha and Beta, it was clear that Alpha was the better of the two: they were individually very good, and functioned very well as a unit. Gil Rojette was competent but could with patience be caught unawares; Li Zan was too conservative and inevitably fell victim to bold thrusts; Bluehorse was dangerous, and in every square-off got at least one kill (usually on Clay, because they were both “tail” of their wings), but her boldness put her in the line of fire a lot. Again and again Vilya was the only one surviving against Park, Kleiner and Andros, and they never botched a three on one bottle-up. When Natasha got killed a couple of times in such a scenario, she got quietly balled out by Su Park. The one time that it was Rachel out and Clay was with Park and Natasha against Vilya, he got Vilya going after him and managed to dodge her for fifteen seconds while the other two nailed her to the lunar surface and made the kill.
Alpha and Gamma were much more evenly matched. That was when they all got drilled into their heads the value of formation, formation, formation. Clay squared off with Timmis several times and won more than lost, but the point was to stay in their diamond or flexible tetrahedron formations and use their teamwork to outmaneuver the enemy. Clay, as tail, had fewer kills than the others; Natasha was good, and he was beginning to suspect that quiet Rachel had a mean streak several feet wider than her. After an hour of fighting, Alpha had beaten Gamma eleven times, and Gamma had beaten Alpha eight.
Alpha Wing’s ladies and gent celebrated that night with several liters of wine, and then they went and had half an hour of rather drunken squash. Then they cleaned up and went back to their pad, and there was a message from Vilya inviting them to Beta’s pad for a dance party. The twelve fighter pilots—no alternates or colony ship babies allowed—got more wasted and danced for hours to music from across the past three centuries. Rock and roll had in fact not died as of yet. Clay found himself flirted with by Vera Santos and Jana Bluehorse, but of course nothing came of it other than sweet glances and sweaty dances. Rachel and Natasha danced together, or danced with Timmis and Gil, or danced with Tremblay and Li Zan, but at 0100 hours they grabbed him by one hand each and gently dragged him back to the apartment, where they put him in his own bed and went off to theirs.
He lay in bed afterward, naked, thinking of Vera Santos and Jana Bluehorse, and they melded into one fun-loving, sweet-smiling teenage girlfriend. And then he was thinking of Rachel Andros and Natasha Kleiner, and how they had come and got him, and they turned in his mind from protective sisters to serious and seriously attractive college women. Their smiles, their looks, their remarks to each other, what could they mean for him?
But it was all a mystery. He had never understood women, except possibly for his old girlfriend, whom he had perhaps come to understand entirely too well. And anyway, they would have to work together, and possibly save one another’s lives, and they couldn’t afford to confuse matters. And there would be time. So, with a last brief recreational fantasy, Clay fell into the sleep of a drunk and did not wake up any earlier than the other pilots.
The next morning, or the next day period, Clay managed to get up and forget the low gravity of the Moon. He banged his head on an overhead cabinet, then his shin on the bed corner. Cussing, he managed to pull on his robe and go out to the common area. Natasha sat there in her robe with a cup of coffee. Clay managed to get a cup for himself.
“Rachel’s got the shower,” said Natasha.
“You guys all showered together before.”
“I didn’t get up in time or something.”
They sat there sipping coffee. Clay said, “So where’s the boss?”
“Commanders are having some sort of meeting.”
“Was this planned?” he asked.
“Nope. Message came this morning early.” She sipped. She was not smiling.
They had a little more coffee. It was still blistering hot. He had no idea what it was actually made from, the coffee or the cream, but it did taste good, to the extent he could taste it. He tried to meet Natasha’s eyes but Natasha wasn’t looking up. He said, “I’ll tell you one thing. They are not going to find the wing commanders in the best of moods this morning.”
Natasha smirked and snorted a tiny derisive feminine snort.
Clay managed to get his shower in, after Natasha. He and Natasha and Rachel got down to breakfast and joined the other six wing recruits. They had seconds, they had lots of coffee, they
went to the bathroom several times.
“So anyone know,” Jane Tremblay said, “what we’re going to do today?” She looked at Rachel. “You’re Park’s second. She tell you anything?”
“She said, and I quote,” said Rachel in her precise way, “we will get in a practice today somehow. That was all she told me.”
“That was all she said?” asked Gil Rojette.
“Celeste swore some,” said Tremblay.
“Tell me we’re not in trouble,” said Jana Bluehorse. “Tell me they’re not bleepin’ with us. I’m gonna tear some people some new buttholes if—!”
“Do you think there’s really a problem?” Timmis asked Clay.
“No,” said Clay, “it’s just organizational.”
The door to the lift slid open and out came Agneska Vilya. She saw the nine fliers and smiled as she headed for them. She wore her vac suit with her helmet collapsed behind her shoulder-length red hair. She got a cup of coffee, went over to the tables they had pushed together and put the cup down. She leaned on the table, looking as though she was barely in contact with matter: at one sixth Earth gravity, these little people all felt like they were about to float away. Vilya turned her smile around all of them: she was almost pretty smiling.
“We’re going to have a little practice without the other two,” she said. “Do some low-level, far off where we’ll be out of people’s way.”
“Commander Vilya,” said Tremblay, Bouvier’s second, “are you the only one who didn’t get fired?”
Vilya laughed. “No, no,” she said. “But Commander Park and Commander Bouvier have stayed behind to fully convert the brass to our point of view.” She looked around. None of them was soothed. “They stayed because honestly, among the three of us, they got all the negotiating skills.”
Gil Rojette, her wing second, laughed slightly and said, “Isn’t that the truth.”
“And all the putting up with buttholes skills,” said Bluehorse, her wing tail. “Okay. Let’s.”
And that day the ten pilots flew informal maneuvers, ran races over the Sea of Tranquility, did an hour of one on ones (Clay beat Timmis, Rojette and Li Zan, and got beat by Timmis, Tremblay, Santos and Rachel) and then they fought five on five. Clay was with Tremblay as commander, Rachel, Timmis and Bluehorse against Vilya, Rojette, Natasha, Li Zan and Vera Santos.
They ran the battle three times. The first time, Clay, Timmis and Jana Bluehorse all fell victim to Vera Santos, who was on a streak; they set their fighters down on the surface and watched Vilya’s group nail down Tremblay and Rachel, who worked out a nice defensive pas de deux on the fly and survived longer than they should have. The second round went to Vilya’s crew as well, but this time it was Rachel and Clay left at the end, against Vilya, Santos and Natasha. Clay did whatever Rachel told him to do. They dove to the surface till he could practically reach out and touch it, simulated lasers slicing through the space they had just vacated.
Then they sped out across the flat surface of the mare, Rachel ahead and to the left of Clay. The other three came in behind them, slicing away. They would be sliced into lunch meat soon. Rachel said, “Flip!” and Clay did, rolling over his Ghost’s left shoulder and coming out facing back and firing at the first target he acquired. He hit the middle of the target, and was rewarded by Natasha swearing. Behind him, Rachel flipped and blasted Vera Santos to simulated hell. But then Vilya shot through both of them, coming from the left and above, and it was over.
“What did we learn?” Vilya called, hovering above in her ghost, as they set down among the others on the surface.
“Two on three,” said Rachel, “someone is going to be open.”
“Two on three,” said Clay, “one of you has to look for two enemies. Simple math.”
“That’s right,” said Vilya, landing, “simple math.”
The last fight of the day looked much the same as the first two, except for one thing: Bluehorse in her usual way placed herself in Vilya’s face and they knocked each other out. Vera managed to take out Tremblay and Timmis. At the fifteen second mark, it was Rachel and Clay again—against the other four. They chased back across the mare and around a rough highland. “We have got to stop doing this,” said Rachel as they sped away, weaving to avoid the blasts from behind.
“Flip?” asked Clay.
“I’m thinking,” said Rachel. “Come around that spire. But have two targets, okay?”
“Have three,” said Clay, “just in case we overlap.”
“Good thinking.” And that was all the planning they had time for. Clay whipped around the central mountain of a small crater, and the four pursuers were coming at him in diamond pattern. He targeted them in quick order: one, two, three, all but the rightmost one. He dodged left, then blasted One, dodged right and blasted Two. Three matched his next dodge and was about to blast him when she suddenly lifted and went into hover. She landed: it was Santos, and Rachel had gotten her with her second shot. Her first had knocked out Rojette. Clay had gotten Li Zan and Natasha.
“God damn it, Clay,” said Natasha as they jumped out of their Ghosts and headed for each other. Rachel landed nearby and headed over.
“What can I say?” asked Rachel. “We’re the best wing.”
“Yeah,” said Clay, “that’s the truth, but will they let us keep doing it?”
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 harbored 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 and partly unzipped suit 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. 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, you know, we’re the last of the family together, she has a little girl, Yvette, I’m gonna miss her like crazy. 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.