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3.

Alpha Wing, in its current form, strode into the conference room in the giant building that used to be the Colony Ship Canada. They were one minute early, but everyone else was there already: Beta Wing, Gamma Wing, the so-called Su Park Special Wing, along with Kalkar and the Tasmania crew and Captain Cassiopeia Root and her Honshu crew. Su Park gave the Alphas a look as if they were late, then smiled and ostentatiously fiddled with her tablet. They sat next to the younger ladies of Beta and Gamma.

“Wow,” said Mizra Aliya to Natasha as they sat down. “You’re married. You guys are a married couple. Wow. Congratulations! I’m still in shock.”

“It was a beautiful ceremony,” said Gemma Izawa. She was across from Aliya, next to Clay; she was holding hands with Maria Apple on her other side. “Not too large, not too small.”

“Vac suit formal,” put in Peri Schmitt from Aliya’s other side.

“We were pretty happy to be invited,” said Apple. “I mean, I didn’t know I rated. I wasn’t even an alternate pilot when we left Earth.”

“At least we all remember Earth,” said Natasha. She smirked at Vera, who squeezed her hand. “You’re my family, guys. You’re our family.”

“It was more than we had at our wedding,” said Rachel. “I’m sorry we didn’t get around to inviting you guys. Clay thought to invite those ravens at the last minute.”

“We’re going to do what you guys did,” said Maria Apple. “Right, Gem?”

“We’re thinking about which planet,” said Gemma Izawa. “You know, it matters.”

“Not Bluehorse?” asked Rachel.

“The thing is,” said Apple, “we only want to invite you guys. The fighter people.” She looked around. “Maybe the Tasmania people.”

“Kalkar can officiate,” said Clay.

“I thought Park lent a certain solemnity,” said Vera. “Why don’t you ask her?”

“You may ask me anything,” said Park, looking at Apple but talking to the room, “but you have to wait till I’m done briefing. And in any case, you need to decide whether to invite any of the Primoids. Perhaps they can officiate.”

“We could invite the Fyaa,” said Clay. “Commander?”

“Thank you. An excellent suggestion, should our first task succeed. Well, I hope all of you have enjoyed your four whole months of rest and relaxation on Bluehorse. Because it’s been decided that we are all needed elsewhere again.”

“It’s been decided,” said Kalkar, with a grin at Cassiopeia Root, “by Commander Su Park.”

“Nonsense. We make decisions communally, do we not?” The two armored freighter captains made concessionary gestures. Park touched a point in the air, and a three-dimensional display of stars came to life around her hand. She began touching stars, which grew brighter: “Bluehorse is here, this is Candy, and these are Primoid Center systems. And over here,” and she reached to the edge of the region on display, “forty-two light years off, is what we think is the Fyaa home world. And this,” she said, “is PSB6.”

“This is the one,” said Rachel, “that’s under attack by the Fyaa.”

“We don’t know what’s going on there at present,” said Park, “if you can even use such a term. The Fyaa did not send enough forces to take the planet in question from the Primoids, so they settled for building up in the outer reaches of the system, but of course the Primoids have been building up as well, they have a Center system about nine light years away, so apparently it remains a stalemate. One is sure the Fyaa thought it would be a walkover, but instead it’s turned into a quagmire.”

“And the Fyaa being the way they seem to be,” said Kalkar, “they can’t give up on it.”

“Because they don’t know the meaning of retreat,” said Vera.

“At least their fighter pilots don’t,” said Park. “In any case, PSB6 is only twelve from here, we should get there before everything’s resolved. Our marginal objective is to stop the Fyaa from overwhelming the Primoids. Our substantive objective is to win them over to the fight against the Ngugma.”

“This fight at PSB6,” said Clay, “it’s been going on how long?”

“Oh, who really knows? Less than a century, but it had been through at least one cycle of reinforcement when we became aware of it, which would be just a couple of months ago, but that only after twelve years of travel time. We get back there in twelve more years, and add perhaps another twenty to start with: forty plus years?”

“Blink of an eye,” said Kalkar.

“So we all go in as a fleet?” asked Timmis Green.

“That is the plan,” said Park. “This will probably be the start of a rather long journey, and in future planet-falls, we may send Alpha ahead, along with, if they behave, possibly Beta or Gamma. In any case, we’re all behind you, Commander Andros, Commander Li.”

“Thank you, commander,” Rachel and Li Zan said. “We’ll behave!” said Apple.

“We’ll see,” said Park. “But listen. As I say, this could be a very long mission: we could be back in Bluehorse centuries from now. We will be our own command, because no one else will be able to stay in touch with us. So our mission, as I see it, is twofold.” Park, the smallest person in the room, took in Kalkar, Root, Li Zan, and Rachel with a glance around, as if she weren’t the boss. “One, we go forth to degrade the capacity of the Ngugma to mine planets. The reserve fleet, which is much larger than ours, has the task of defending Bluehorse.”

“They’ll be slaughtered, Commander,” said Clay. He looked around. “Do you guys think the Ngugma are going to attack Bluehorse in the next five hundred years?”

Everyone else including Park made a gesture of surrender: rolled eyes, hands up, head shake. Rachel looked Clay in the eye and said, “Hope not.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gilbert. The plan is to find and destroy their local depot, their local hub. That may cause them to pull back temporarily, and we can figure out what to do next. But simply staying here and waiting for them and hoping to win on our home ground may not be the optimal solution. It wasn’t at Earth.”

“Or at Holey,” said Rachel. “Okay. That’s mission one.”

“Mission Two,” said Park, “is this: none of us is allowed to get killed. I once thought it ill to have members of the same wing be in a relationship.” She looked around at Rachel and Clay, their shoulders touching; Natasha and Vera, holding hands; Ozawa and Apple, holding hands; Li and Timmis, her hand on his. “Suffice it to say, my strategic thinking has adjusted. My tactical thinking has also adjusted. And I recall hearing, and I did not approve of this at the time either, of a certain oath that you four swore, Andros and Gilbert and Kleiner and Miss Santos.”

“Ah,” said Vera, “the Unbreakable Vow.”

“Yes. And I would like to adopt that as a tactical principle as well.” She looked around the fighter pilots before her. “We are the best. We are superior fighter pilots to all we have met. I know this, because I have been trying to create a realistic challenge to your skills, in the simulator. I have not found it, and not through lack of imagination. We can create a simulation that you cannot defeat, and we can make a simulation that is realistic, but it seems we cannot do both.” She let them think about that for a moment, then went on. “We are going on a long journey. We will have many fights along the way. It is important, it is my chosen strategy that we lose no one during those fights. We can win a battle in which we do not lose a single pilot. Everyone here knows we can do that. I only ask that we adopt this as a strategic principle.”

“Lose no one?” said Li Zan.

“It’s a weird concept,” said Rachel, “but it makes sense when you think about it.”

“It makes sense,” said Park, “because we are the best fighter pilots we have met, and thanks to Padfoot over there,” and Patricia “Padfoot” Hixon and her underlings Gene Bell and Poto Wall all bowed their heads, “we have the best fighters we know of.” She paused and glared at the gestalt fighter pilot in front of her. “You play chess. It makes no sense to sacrifice your rook for theirs when your rook is so much better than theirs. We have a dozen queens and rooks, and they have thousands of pawns. Why would we trade one of ours for one of theirs?” She looked around.

Rachel looked around too. “Commander,” she said, “I don’t think any of us believes otherwise.”

“All right. Consider those your orders. We leave in fifty hours.”

Everyone looked around: fighter pilots and freighter crew members stood up in this conference room where, months or centuries ago, they had floated weightless. Then, starting with Clay and Vera, they started high fiving.

“We’re going in space again,” said Rachel, high fiving her husband and Tasha. “Yay!”

 

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