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The pilots didn’t have much to say to each other as they returned to Hot Spot. The two joined their fighters and went mostly silent. The six caught up with the two and they all flew along in loose formation, playing chess and Set and virtual squash. Clay landed by Rachel and got out, and next to them Li Zan and Timmis Green were getting out, as were Natasha and Vera, and there were Apple and Izawa, somehow already waiting for everyone.

“Okay,” said Maria Apple, the colonist teen, “let’s just take it as read that we’re in trouble. It was my idea.”

“Just because I didn’t say it first,” said Gemma Izawa. “I was thinking it. And anyway, I’m the responsible party.”

“Well,” said Rachel, “you two certainly came down out of the sky with some attitude.”

“So are we in trouble or not?” asked Apple.

The other six all looked at each other. “Okay,” said Li Zan, “you do understand the meaning of the words ‘numerical advantage,’ don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Apple and Izawa.

The six, the three older couples, all looked at each other again. Natasha gave Izawa a little grin. Clay rolled his eyes and turned to smile at the stars above, in their trillions. “And did you think,” said Li Zan, “that you had a numerical advantage?”

“I felt we had a distinct advantage,” said Izawa, “as you could—!”

“Did you think two is more than six?” asked Vera.

“No,” said Izawa, looking at Apple. “Two is not more than six.”

“And are you going to follow orders better in the future?” asked Li.

“Yes, we will,” Izawa and Apple both said.

Li and Rachel exchanged looks. Rachel said, “And you know how much trouble you would be in if Su Park were here with us.”

“Oh yeah,” said Izawa. Apple drew a finger across her vac-suited throat.

“Okay, then,” said Li. “Anyway. Good job, by the way.”

Both the young pilots hesitated. Izawa said, “In that…?”

“In that two of you defeated six of them and suffered zero damage. That would be considered good, don’t you think?”

“Since two is a lot less than six,” said Natasha.

Izawa and Apple looked at each other, not sure if they were being lured into some sort of sarcasm trap. They looked back at their wing commander, still not ready to smile.

“Just do what I say next time. It’s a deal?” asked Li.

“Deal,” said Izawa and Apple.

“Given everything and yada yada,” said Vera, “and I hope you learned your lesson, I’d have to say it was damn good. What are you guys, teenagers still?”

“I am,” said Apple. “Gemma’s twenty-two.”

“When I was your age,” said Rachel, “I was married to my first husband, and trying to be an engineer.”

“Really?” said Natasha. “I wanted to be an engineer.”

“Anyway,” Rachel went on, her commander face shifting into position, “don’t do it again, but if you do, do it exactly like that. What did you think, Clay Gilbert?”

“Me?” said Clay. “I thought, well, I thought it was a very Vera Santos performance.”

“Not the three in a row thing,” said Vera. “That’s so Kleiner.”

“The fact that they all blew up,” said Natasha, “that could be either of us. So, are we putting up a tent or anything?”

“Do we need to?” said Rachel. “Tasmania and Honshu are going to be in orbit in about six hours. Come on, we’re fighter pilots, damn it. We pee in our suits. We don’t need a stinkin’ tent. If I want some whoopee, I’ll make Clay go up into orbit and we’ll, you know, rendezvous our pods.”

She walked away and the others trailed after her. They went up a rise and looked at each other, then looked back. Maria Apple and Gemma Izawa were back by their fighters, hugging and sort of helmet-kissing. Then, with a giggle the others could hear in their helmets, they turned and followed, holding hands.


Eight hours later, the eight fighters lifted off the Hot Spot and rendezvoused with the arriving task force. Honshu and Tasmania hooked up with the Primoid freighter, and the fighters zipped into Honshu’s bay. They got out and were met by Su Park and Captains Kalkar and Root, among others. Two Primoids were there, their head tentacles waving like grass and colored a faint scarlet.

“So,” said Kalkar, “everything going according to our lack of plan so far?”

“So far, so good,” said Rachel. “Izawa and Apple went on recon and got chased back here by twelve Fyaa fighters.”

“We saw,” said Kalkar. “Quite the performance by your younger members, eh?”

“You could say that. Clay got one, Natasha got two, but they both took major damage. Vera and Li and I each got one, and these two over here blew through the other six without a scratch.”

“I’m interested,” said Park.

“I’ll write a full report,” said Rachel. “With exciting video. But when you read and watch, just remember that we turned out okay.”

“I promise to keep in mind that they killed six Fyaa and got through without damage.”

“I did not get through without damage, however,” said Clay, “so, um, Padfoot.”

“Some new flectors?” asked Padfoot.

“If you don’t mind.”

“And meanwhile we should talk,” said Rachel.

“Who we should talk to,” said Park, “is the Primoids on the planet, if talk is the proper word.”