Chapter 2: Run up to launch

II. Runup to launch

1.

Clay got back to Bangor ME in mid-November. His universe had turned completely upside down, as he knew it would: no, inside out was a better analogy. He wasn’t working anymore, though he was playing a lot more Asteroid Pirates. His small circle of friends were surprised to see he still existed, but couldn’t get their minds around the fact that he was leaving for good in a couple of months. Two of them seemed offended and essentially stopped talking to him; the rest seemed ready to bid him a sincere and fond farewell. He did go to a few parties; people he hardly knew asked him all about what he thought other planets would be like. For his part, Clay found himself wondering where Rachel or Natasha was, or what Su Park would think of his choice of clothing, of breakfast, of video game.

He was killing on Asteroid Pirates. That cheat code, along with some upgrades, made his Ghost even more realistic, and gave him partners who almost seemed to be Park and Kleiner and Andros. Now the program had difficulty giving him opponents who were a sufficient challenge one on one.

At Christmas, he took the train to Portland and stayed with his sister’s family. The question of his leaving hung in the air like a faint smell of cooking. But he was so comfortable with his sister (now that they were both grown up) that they could ignore it or talk about it as suited their mood. Mostly they stayed off it when Yvette was awake. It was brought up over a glass of brandy when she was asleep. They were sitting on the sofa in front of the window looking out on the blackness of the sea under the rising late moon.

“You’re going to be what, ten, twenty light years away?” asked Clay’s brother-in-law John.

“More like fifty or a hundred,” said Clay.

“So, you go fifty light years, we’ll all be fifty years older when you get there?”

“A hundred, when I might get back to Earth,” said Clay.

“Do they freeze you?” asked John.

“No, no,” said Clay. “Time dilation means I’ll hardly age.” He looked into his brandy.

“You’ll be way the younger brother,” said Marie. They laughed. Clay’s laugh was insufficiently sincere. Marie snuggled against him. “Look, Clay,” she said, her arm around him. “It’s fine. I mean, I don’t like it, but someone has to go do this thing. I’m glad you’re doing it.”

“Marie,” he started to say.

“Ssh, baby brother.” She smiled. “I’ll be okay. You be okay. Okay?”

“Okay,” he said. “You’re sure you don’t like it?”

Marie laughed out loud. “I’m sure I don’t like it, Clay. I’m going to miss you. Oh, Clay. There’s just no right way to say goodbye, okay? So when it comes down to it, let’s just hug and say do something good, and be careful, and let it go at that. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Because I know you’re going to make a difference. I know you’re going to do good out there somewhere.” She smiled a bit longer at him, her eyes moist. Then she said, “So, any nice ladies going along on this?”

2.

On the fifteenth of January, Clay took the train from Portland to Quebec City. Marie and Yvette took him to the station and hugged him goodbye. Marie promised to be at the launch: each departing crew member could have three family members shuttle up to the Earth-orbiting space station from which the colony fleet would be setting out.

Clay did not see any moose on the train trip this time. He slept through a lot of it, and spent several hours rereading the Stephen King novel he’d been forced to read in school and never appreciated. He dozed off while the Gunslinger was chasing the Man in Black, and woke up to find himself gliding through snowy mountains. He read a little more and dozed off again, and when he woke, the morning sun was lighting up the valley of the Chaudiere.

In another half hour he was changing to the subway in Ville de Quebec, and in ten more minutes he was getting off at the underground station of the hotel where the crews were all staying. He got off and was still adjusting his point of view when he was blind-sided by a weight almost the same as his own weight.

“Clay,” said Natasha, hugging him, “oh, I can’t even believe how much I missed you!”

“I missed you too,” he said, which was not untrue. He looked over her shoulder: there were Rachel, in a nice jacket and slacks and pretty black boots, and Su Park, in a black jump suit with an old vac suit upper, unzipped, over it as a coat.

“The guy would be the last to show up,” said Rachel, smiling.

“Hey now.” He let go of Natasha and looked at Rachel, who moved forward, looking sheepish, and gave him a hug too. They all looked at Park.

“Well,” said Park, “they have a racquetball court. Want to get some beer and pizza and then smash some balls?”

“Can I dump my stuff first,” asked Clay, “before you guys smash my balls?”

“Ah, you big baby,” said Rachel, “we’re going to get you drunk first.”

The fleet of ships that would set off on the Human Horizon expedition consisted of five colony groups and three explorer wings of four SCEPs each. Each of the five colony groups consisted of a colony ship carrying 2130 colonists, along with a big “box” freighter, an escort ship and two SCEPs; each explorer wing had an “anchor,” an armored freighter designed to serve as a base for preliminary exploration.

The way the theorists, most of whom were staying home on Earth, saw it, the explorer wings and their anchors would arrive in the new star system a month or two ahead of the colony groups, and would be able to warn the lumbering colony ships off in case of dangerous conditions like an unexpectedly high level of radiation. The anchor captains, who were all experienced haulers within the Solar System, did not see it quite this way: to them, it seemed more plausible for one wing alone to arrive first and detect dangerous conditions; then for the anchors and the other two wings to pull in and commence thorough exploration of the system; and when the colony groups began to arrive, a month or two later, they would be told whether to head for the fifth planet out or whatever, and get ready to land their colony ships forever, or to buzz through the system just slowly enough to repower their solar batteries and head on for the next likely star.

But of all the pilots, two had actually been to another star system. Clay had not realized it at first, but it became clear from discussions amongst the fighter, er, SCEP pilots the first full day in Quebec, between pep talks, panels and planning group breakouts, that the new drive systems the ships were all using had indeed been successfully tested—by Su Park and Agneska Vilya. They had been the two Ghost 200 pilots who had flown the 4.2 light years to Alpha C in under 4.3 years, an escort ship with a six-person crew tagging along behind them. Inevitably the Ghosts were the ones who did all the close up looking at things. Of course the Centaur mission had not arrived yet, even though they had launched eighty years earlier; in reality, no one had expected the Centaur mission to have arrived yet. So the two Ghost pilots had taken a bunch of pictures and readings and samples, and generally surveyed the system. They and their escort ship left a helpful and informative time capsule and then headed home, arriving in the system of Sol about eight years and nine months after leaving it.

As it happened, Alpha Centauri had one little planet in the Goldilocks Zone. It was cold, it had no water, it had no atmosphere, and it was awash in solar radiation, but maybe something could work out underground somehow. And there were several moons orbiting one of the gas giants that had water ice, at least. Looking at the pictures, Earthlings could be forgiven for thinking that maybe Earth was the best planet in the Galaxy.

Due to time dilation, Park and Vilya had returned, almost nine years later, about five months older than they had been when they left, and three of those five months were spent decelerating at Centauri, exploring Centauri, and accelerating from Centauri.

Clay was startled by the revelation that two people among them had already been to another star system and back, and also startled by the fact that he hadn’t realized it before. “You’re serious?” Clay kept asking Bluehorse after they went back in, to a panel on colonization strategies. “Really?”

“Yeah, yeah, now shut up, I’m actually trying to listen,” said Bluehorse.

He sat back and stared at little Su Park, who was herself listening with slight patience to Captain Alfred Kalkar, whose armored freighter Tasmania was Alpha Wing’s anchor. Kalkar was espousing the anchors’ view of colony strategy. The Admiral ahem’d several times during Kalkar’s spiel, and then got his chance to restate his own position.

Admiral Georges felt that the colony ships ought to arrive in the system and then do the thorough exploring. He did not want to be informed by Kalkar and his fellow anchor captains what the plan was; he wanted to get there, have some meetings, and then retire to deliberate before issuing his conclusion. He had a list of reasons to feel this way; Kalkar and the other anchor captains had their own list, but they were outnumbered.

Su Park, of course, and Vilya and Bouvier with her, felt that the fighters, er, SCEPs, could make the preliminary determination as to whether things were dangerous or not, and though she did
not actually say so, she clearly felt that the anchors might just as well stick close to the colony
groups and not bother actually anchoring anything, thank you very much.

Clearly nothing was going to be decided at an open panel in front of a variety of crew members, alternates and Earth-bound scientist-administrators. Nor was anything going to be decided by twelve SCEP pilots, er, fighter pilots, sitting around a large hotel room that night, drinking dark beer and wine and passing a pipe.

“But who is going to decide?” asked Natasha. “Who’s really going to decide?”

“I’ll tell you exactly how it’s going to be,” said Su Park. She sometimes said those magic words and whenever she did, all the other fighter pilots shut up and listened. “The executive directors and lead scientists and stuff, they’ll give the orders for the first jump. We’ll head for 55 Cancri and when we get there, stuff will happen and we’ll no doubt make a new plan. And that plan won’t have any input from people who are staying here on Earth. For better or worse.”

“And when we’re in the system and no one else is,” said Bouvier, “no one else is going to tell us what to do.”

“No one’s going to tell us what to do anyway,” said Vilya.

“Who decided what when you guys went to Centauri?” asked Tremblay. “The escort ship’s commander wasn’t Kalkar, was it?”

“Escort ship?”

“The one you and Park went to Alpha C with.”

“No, Kalkar’s an old freighter guy,” said Bouvier.

“The commander was someone named Marchant,” said Su Park. “He let us take the lead.”

“Smart,” said Jana Bluehorse.

“Scared,” said Agneska Vilya.

“What was it like,” Clay got the courage to ask, “sailing into a new star system, being the only humans?”

“You’ll find out,” said Vilya.

3.

The crews spent four more days on Earth. The next day was for lots of workshops on things like someone’s guess about what one might run into on 55 Cancri, not including alien space cruisers.
There were certain topics that were instantly reinterpreted: for instance, life forms was by some
consensus taken to mean barely surviving single celled things. Other topics were studiously
avoided: decision making processes, for example, or any hint of whether the governing structure of the colony would be military or commercial or scientific or pioneering.

But there was a lot of useful information about what would and would not constitute acceptable conditions for a colony. No one expected them to find an Earth without life just waiting for them, or an Earth with only the plant life and nothing else. They were looking for some very basic requisites: some amount of oxygen, some source of water, not too much solar or cosmic radiation, not too much volcanism. Temperatures didn’t have to be perfect: it might never get above 200 Kelvin, but an enclosed region might be coaxed up past the melting point of water at 273 K. Wide irrigated fields of corn might be nice, but one could feed oneself on a hydroponic garden powered by solar cells. Of course there were ten thousand mouths to be fed, but there were also ten thousand hearts and brains and twenty thousand working hands and twenty thousand feet.

The colonists were not invited to these deliberations, of course, but they were represented. Every panel had a couple of their leaders, chosen by the Human Horizon directors the same way they had chosen the crews of the ships, through some sort of computerized meritocracy. The colonist leaders were dressed nicely, but amongst the scientists and starship crew they stuck out as hayseeds in the middle of a faculty meeting. They had concerns, of course, and they voiced them:

How many tries would it take to find a suitable place? Answer: Of course no one knows, but the very first might well be suitable; 55 Cancri was chosen with as much intelligence as science could provide.

What would they tell their children as they made ready to jump for the fourth, fifth, sixth time? Answer: Really, no one imagines it will take six tries. Four? Well, it’s possible, but we think it highly unlikely.

What guarantee do we have you won’t just dump us all out on someplace that’s not really suitable? Answer: We would never do that. It would be a waste of all this effort and expense.

How do we know there aren’t bug-eyed aliens out there waiting to eat our kids? Answer: Put it out of your mind. There are no bug-eyed aliens.

Admiral Georges reassured the colonist leaders at the last panel of the day: “We understand completely how concerning it must be to seem to have so little control over your futures. But I assure you that you will be consulted at every stage of this process, and you will not be forced to accept conditions you do not want. The whole purpose of this expedition is to find a place for your colony to grow into a new civilization.”

“Is that what we think the whole purpose is?” Clay asked the rest of Alpha Wing as they ate dinner that night. “I mean, I want the colonists to be happy and everything, but the whole purpose?”

“I’m in it for exploration,” said Rachel. “I certainly hope the Admiral doesn’t think I’m going to marry some hydro farmer and raise a bunch of rug rats.”

“No,” said Natasha, “we want to sail the starry void. Right, Commander?”

“I would not disagree with that,” said Su Park.

“So what happened to Captain Marchant and that escort crew with you guys?” asked Natasha. “The ones who went to Centauri with you and Vilya?”

Su Park did not look at first like she was going to answer. She was sitting back in her chair, gazing across the hotel dining room. Then she leaned forward and put her coffee cup and her forearms on the table; the other three did the same. “Marchant,” she said. “He was not a good choice. That crew had problems. They fought a lot. You have to be together for months, and then you find yourself so far from anyone else.” She sipped, then put her cup down. “Agneska and I got along fine. We got along with the escort okay. But the escort crew had problems within themselves.”

“Bad work place?” asked Rachel.

“That’s it,” said Park. She looked around the room, then met Rachel’s eyes. “I see some of the same here. I’m not so worried about the colonists. I’m not even worried about Kalkar, he’s a jerk sometimes but he follows rules and he tries to work with you. Irah says he’s a good boss. But a lot of the big ship crews. I see trouble.”

“What do we do?” asked Clay.

“We do our jobs,” said Park.

“These Ghosts,” said Rachel. “You could just set out across the galaxy. Generate power from starlight. Recycle your own food. I mean, once you get over eating your own poo and all that, you could keep going basically forever. We could just head off on our own.”

Park laughed, which was unusual. “We have a job, you know,” she said. “But what you say is certainly true.”

Among the SCEP community, the third day in Quebec was spent on system checks. It was necessary, and it got them out of more meetings. The fourth day was given over to meetings on SCEP “strategy,” but this divided sharply between morning sessions with Earth-bound experts, who called the fighters things like “pods” and the pilots “explorer technicians” and the like, and afternoon sessions attended only by the twelve explorer wing pilots. At the afternoon sessions, the twelve sat around and brain-stormed about the etiquette of entering a new system, taking an overview, choosing a base planetoid to work from, and splitting up to reconnoiter.

“I think we want to buddy up,” said Park. “I think until we’re fairly sure of the situation in the new system, we work in pairs if not full wings.”

“I agree,” said Vilya. “We split up several times at Centauri, I think we were light hours apart several times, and it was worrying in case something went wrong.”

No one disagreed with this. The last session of the day included the ten colony ship SCEP pilots and the eight alternates, who would be strung along until the last minute, and then, presumably, added to the colonists. Park, Vilya and Bouvier used the time to make sure everyone who wasn’t in a wing had no illusions about how the people who were in wings looked at the universe. Afterward, Clay was nudged by the colony-ship-bound pilot next to him, a stocky blonde named Bonnie Bain who was a little taller than him and looked about fifteen years old.

“Aren’t you scared?” she asked. “Being out all by yourself like that?”

“Actually not,” said Clay. “I’d rather be with my wing than anywhere else. I honestly think it’s safer.”

“Your wing leader is scary.”

“Park? Yeah. She’s serious. But I know I can trust her. How do you feel about your leadership?”

Young Miss Bain turned a little grey. “Don’t even ask,” she said. “Could you guys use a fifth member?”

4.

20 January, the fifth day in Quebec, consisted of yet further meetings, which was no more exciting or interesting than it sounds. At least the food was good. And then on the sixth day, instead of creating man, the crews began lifting off for orbit.

The first to go up, on 21 January 2334, were the colony ship crews. The colonists, and their many animals and plants, would come aboard much later, less than a week before the early March launch time, but the crews, twenty-four per colony ship, had to prepare and test the systems ahead of time. Then the box freighter and anchor freighter crews went up, and then the escort crews and colony ship SCEP pilots, and finally, in early February, the fighter, er, SCEP wings.

“There is no cargo more precious,” Admiral Georges often said of the colonists, to which the colonists often replied, “Cow manure,” though not perhaps in those words. It didn’t seem to occur to the Admiral that the colonists might not want to be referred to as cargo.

The wait to go up to the space station gave the wings a chance to do low-altitude maneuvers in an atmosphere. The three wings had permission to fly south over the abandoned lands of southern North America and northern South America, hard hit a century and more ago by war and climate change: once they were out beyond the ragged shores of Carolina, and headed on toward the shrunken, sandy archipelago the maps called Florida, they no longer seemed to be on the same planet they had been on before. Clay was used to the shapes of the land masses from space, but he had never gotten a close look at the half-rotted, half-redeemed jungle that stretched along the coast from below the ruined desert of southern New Jersey all the way to the ruined desert of northern Brazil. Cities were not in evidence, though he knew there had been many cities down here. Only occasionally did they detect the work of twentieth or twenty-first century humanity. Between Carolina and Florida were the cratered remains of the old city of Atlanta; out on the islands beyond Florida, the long tilde of Cuba was half jungle and half desert. Everywhere, there was radioactivity, as there was really everywhere on the planet; but while Bangor and Quebec and Halifax had only a mild dose, everywhere else still buzzed detectably with small remaining amounts of cesium-137 and strontium-90, and less awful but longer-lived isotopes like protactinium-231 and its friends. But the damage was not all nuclear. Chemical contamination was only slowly self-remediating; the planet harbored a third as many species as it had in 1800; and the global climate was now stuck in a Cretaceous without dinosaurs. The Caribbean practically boiled under the Sun and an atmosphere soaked with carbon dioxide.

“But is it safe to set down?” asked Rachel over the comm.

“Sure,” said Park. “Just let’s not build a house there.”

So they set down on a Cuban beach and had a picnic, of vac suit wafers and vac suit water. The commanders allowed their fliers to wander off within sight, and took the opportunity to confer on commander stuff.

“What are they doing, actually?” asked Vera Santos, who had wandered off along the beach with Clay.

“I think,” he said, “they’re drawing in the sand with sticks.”

“Geniuses at work,” said Vera. She laughed that laugh that Clay always thought was half at his expense. He smiled at her. Her eyes were dancing. “Dare you to skinny dip with me,” she said.

He had to think about that. For one second.

Clay was still thinking about the naked but elusive miracle of Vera as the wings made their return journey. They flew back to Quebec, low over the ocean, screaming past an empty and boiling Bermuda, then up over a New York Harbor that would have made Charlton Heston weep. Beyond Yonkers, civilization suddenly returned, and that night, Rachel and Clay and Natasha had a late dinner at something called Le Pub Zoot on Rue St Jean before retiring for a last session of drunken three-way squash.

The next few days, still feeling insufficiently supervised, the three wing commanders decided to set up some simulated shooting matches over the Caribbean. While Alpha Wing continued to do well, the other two wings significantly closed the gap. Whichever wing was not in action was supposed to practice in-atmosphere exploration, but even Park didn’t really see much point in it.

“What’s the chance we’ll be exploring a planet like Earth?” Rachel asked the first afternoon as they stood on a beach on the Venezuelan coast.

“Not high,” replied Park. “We didn’t see a single Earth-like planet at Centauri.”

So Park sat in her Ghost with the hatch open and ran simulations and rearranged formations. Rachel and Natasha and Clay mostly skinny dipped. Thus Clay got to see his two comrades without their vac suits. Again, they were up against the boundary of the acceptable in the regime of Su Park, but they were happy walking along just inside the boundary, walking along barefoot and bare everything else on the sand in the broiling sun.

“She’s right,” said Rachel. “We need to get in our skinny dipping here and now. We’re not going to have much chance to do this in 55 Cancri.”

“Who knows?” said Natasha, giggling. Clay just smiled, unable to think of anything appropriate to say while trying to keep up with Natasha and Rachel and that mole just above Rachel’s rear end.

In another hour they were back in their vac suits and back in their fighters, maneuvering; in another three hours they were back in Quebec debriefing and eating. Each night, back in Quebec City, they partied, again to the exact extent Park and the other commanders partied. Romantic involvement was still off limits, in their quasi-military pose, but dancing was not, and dance Clay did, with Jana Bluehorse and Vera Santos and Jane Tremblay and even Li Zan.

“Which one do you like best?” Rachel needled him at breakfast one day, when everyone was at a baseline level of hung over. “I mean, Santos is definitely hot for you. But then there’s Bluehorse, she could kick your butt and still make you her dance partner.”

“If you know what I mean,” said Natasha.

“Or Li, you always have to look out for the quiet ones, am I right? Or can’t you pick?”

“Which one do I like best for what?” replied Clay. “Which one do you like best?”

“I don’t see a need to decide,” said Rachel. “But I think Tasha likes Gil pretty well, am I wrong?”

“Oh, he’s okay,” said Natasha. “How come you don’t have to decide, but I do?”

“Because I asked you first,” said Rachel.

Su Park came and joined them, smiling slightly, from a short tete-a-tete with Vilya and Bouvier. She put her tray down amongst theirs (coffee, milk, croissant, an orange, a slice of cheese, a bit of
blueberry jam, a bit of butter) and asked, without looking up from the tray, “What’s the topic of
conversation today?”

“Maneuvers,” said Rachel with a smirk. “Combat operations,” said Natasha.

“I don’t believe you,” said Park. “Or should I?”

“I believe,” said Clay, “that the ladies were speaking metaphorically.”

“Whatever, I’m sure it’s fine,” said Su Park. “Just so you’re not talking about sex.”

Clay, Rachel and Natasha exchanged various grades of smirk while Park, still not looking up, devoted herself to her croissant.

5.

So the first half of February 2334 passed in relative bliss. It couldn’t last.

At some point, the brass discovered that their SCEP pilots were flying all over abandoned equatorial Earth, skinny dipping, walking barefoot and bare everything else on pristine beaches, and even worse, pretending to shoot at each other. On 16 February, the three wings were ordered up to the space station and the next day began drills practicing what the brass thought they should be practicing: escorting armored freighters.

They spent the seventeenth touring the space station, which they had all been to for one reason or another before, and touring the Colony Ship France, their flagship. Each wing had a tour of its anchor freighter. It was, for most of them but not for Clay, the first chance to move about a large space in weightlessness: broad handles called sashay bars were everywhere, and everyone learned to sashay rather than walk. They got to tour Ye Olde Space Station, once known as the ISS or International Space Station, attached to the new space station as if it was a worm that had grown a dinosaur as an appendage. Then they got some time off schedule, which they used to roam the space station like a pack of small, vac suited teenagers at a no-gravity mall. It was still called “the space station,” which said something about the humility of post-nuclear Earth. It had a population of eleven thousand people, several hundred cats, and assorted birds, small mammals, insects and spiders. There were restaurants, stores, pubs, gyms, offices, weightless gardens, and a number of observation lounges with glass ceilings. The ones looking down on Earth were popular; the pilots favored a disused one facing the opposite way.

“Which one is 55 Cancri?” asked Timmis.

“That one,” said Jane Tremblay, tweaking a remote control. A golden circle appeared around a faint star near the ecliptic. “You can see 55 Cancri A, it’s about like our sun. You can’t see B, it’s a red dwarf. You’ll see it soon enough.”

“Wow,” said Natasha. She smiled at Clay. “Did I just say that?”

“It’s what I was thinking,” said Clay.

Then, on 18 February, Clay came to breakfast in the general mess assigned to expedition crews, joined Rachel and Santos and Timmis Green and Li Zan and found that the commanders had been called to an Important Meeting. Within fifteen minutes, all nine Wing Seconds, Thirds and Tails were sitting around the table turning over the news.

“We’re in deep doo doo,” said Bluehorse. “They got video of me and Rojette on Aruba or wherever.”

“What were you doing on Aruba or wherever?” asked Timmis.

“Never you mind,” said Bluehorse. “Suffice it to say we didn’t have regulation uniforms.”

“They probably have video of all of us,” said Vera Santos. “I don’t think we have anything to hide.” She winked at Clay in a way that made him very pleasantly uncomfortable.

“Ha ha, funny,” said Rachel. “This won’t be about skinny dipping. This will be about shooting.”

“They’re gonna take away our weapons,” said Bluehorse.

“We’ll just rebuild them,” said Santos.

“Let’s not freak out until we know what we’re freaking out about,” said Jane Tremblay, Bouvier’s second. “We have three weeks till the fleet detaches and Alpha and Gamma Wings go on ahead. No more skinny dipping; how sad. What shall we do with ourselves while they have their Important Meeting?”

“Asteroid Pirates,” said Gil Rojette. “And thanks a lot for rubbing it in about how Beta has to stick with the fleet.”

So they grabbed their pads and headed for the disused observation lounge and soon the nine of them were all fighting Asteroid Pirates together. They broke for lunch, roamed the station some more, then played some more in the lounge. “They can’t get mad at us for playing a stupid video game,” said Bluehorse.

“It’s almost like practice but to them it’s just wasting time,” said Rojette. “They can’t complain because they didn’t think to have us do anything else.”

“Trust the brass to make me feel like a high schooler again,” said Tremblay. Santos smiled and winked again at Clay: they had somehow paired up in Asteroid Pirates and were holding off all comers. Even the way Santos maneuvered her Asteroid Pirate Ghost was flirty.

“At least we’re not in an Important Meeting,” said Natasha.

“Yeah,” said Rachel, “that’s why they pay Park the big bucks.”

But all meetings must come to an end, and it was just past 1730 hours when all the pilots’ personal communicators beeped as one, in chorus. They giggled nervously, not quite in chorus, as they
checked their messages. Then they all began to whine.

“This can’t be right,” said Tremblay.

“I don’t even believe this,” said Rojette.

“They said what??” said several others.

“Please come to a meeting of the wing fliers in our dormitory lounge,” read the message. “I see no need to beat about the bush. There has been a change of plan. Instead of Alpha and Gamma Wings heading to 55 Cancri on 8 March, it will be Alpha and Beta Wings, and the departure date has been moved up to 1 March. See you soon, can’t wait to hear your objections, Su Park.”

6.

The objections were many, and a surprising number came from Beta Wing. Rojette did not feel like they were ready; Jana Bluehorse suspected someone was out to punish them; Li Zan just shook her head and looked concerned. Gamma Wing was up in arms.

“They’re punishing you?” said Tremblay. “They are punishing us!”

“I don’t get it,” said Timmis Green. “What did we do wrong?”

“I think they’re just messing with us,” said Rachel. “Trying to get in our heads.”

“Well, they’re succeeding,” said Vera Santos. She gave Clay a reproachful look.

“They’re not making us wait for our anchor freighters before we explore, are they?” asked Clay, who felt like he ought to ask something.

“No, no,” said Commander Bouvier. “No, in fact, your wings are going to have at least twenty-one days in the system before anyone else gets there. Then Gamma Wing and the anchor freighters will
roll in, and maybe a week later, the colony ships.”

Clay missed the next few complaints, pushing down a wave of fear. Three weeks in a system with no known life forms. No known water, no known air. No known food. No known repair shops. Just a lot of empty space, a couple of stars, a few planets, a lot of dust, some radiation. The whole thing didn’t seem like a great idea all of a sudden.

But he looked around, and if he didn’t look at Timmis, if he didn’t look at Vera: if he looked at his own wing, Rachel, Natasha, Su Park, if he looked at Vilya and Bluehorse and Gil Rojette and the calm, competent, conservative Li Zan—not so great in a firefight but then they were officially not expecting a firefight—he felt a lot better.

The commanders concluded the complaint session by promising to take the subject up with the brass. It was a half-hearted gesture at best, and satisfied no one, not even those making it. But Rachel and Natasha and Clay were smirking again. No matter what happened, no matter what the brass might yet decide, no matter what awaited them at 55 Cancri, forty light years from human
civilization, they knew they were going on ahead.

So the training went on. Alpha Wing spent a week training intensively with Captain Kalkar and Navigator Irah Chontz and the armored freighter Tasmania. Kalkar was all right most of the time, when he wasn’t miffed about something, and Irah, which was what everyone called her, was a sweetie on the comm. Tasmania’s pilots, Ram Vindu and Emily Gray, were precise and competent, as were the mechanics, led by a woman everyone called Padfoot, a sort of Harry Potter reference perhaps. Padfoot and her minions were also clearly on the side of the fighter pilots when it came to combat capabilities In case of disaster, the fighters, er, SCEPs, could take refuge in the Tasmania’s bay; Alpha Wing’s pilots had four little bed spaces and a common living space there, cramped but comfy. None of them intended to make much use of these accommodations.

The wings also took further opportunities to zip
about the system, pushing their little craft hard enough to make a wide swing about Jupiter and get back in sixteen hours—well, more like fifteen, since they went fast enough to time dilate slightly. Maxing out at 18% of the speed of light, it was the fastest any of them had ever gone, except for Park and Vilya. It felt weird, in that it didn’t feel at all weird, though at their maximum speed, the waves of light from ahead and behind were already significantly distorted, mashing the starry scenery in ways Clay couldn’t begin to understand. Of course when they were closing on Jupiter, rounding it at a safe distance and accelerating away, they weren’t going more than a percent or two of light speed; the king of the planets stood roundly before them in all his regal glory, surrounded by his court of moons.

But in a couple more days, Alpha and Beta Wings would be speeding on past Jupiter, leaving Saturn and Uranus and Neptune, and Pluto and Charon and Varuna and Quaoar and Eris and Sedna, in their rear-view mirrors, and among them that blue dot, the planet where they had all been born.

The first day of March 2334 dawned, in the sense that the clocks flipped from 2334:02:28:2359 to 2334:03:01:0000. The pilots were having one last dance party, just the twelve of them in the disused observation lounge, and the mood was significantly darker than usual. Everyone was drinking, and smoking, more than had been the accepted standard. Bluehorse wanted to fight someone, and had to be taken off and put to bed under threat of being traded out for one of Gamma Wing. There was a lot of messy dancing, and some rambling conversations, and other near fights, and Tremblay and Rojette were sitting together holding hands and whispering. Clay was dancing with Natasha and Rachel together, and Vera Santos happened along to watch them.

“Bathroom break,” said Rachel. “Oh, you read my mind,” said Natasha.

“My dance then,” said Vera. So she and Clay danced, to something old: presently he figured out it was the same old song about shelter being only a shot away. They danced, not well but with feeling, not happily but with their eyes locked together. Vera’s eyes: brown but looking black as night in this light. Her mouth, her tiny mouth, as far from smiling as could be. Presently they stopped. They were far around the lounge from the others, who were paying no attention: Timmis had dozed off in his chair, Li Zan was filling a pipe and handing it to Bouvier, and Park and Vilya, quite drunk, were still scrawling notes and diagrams on napkins.

“Clay,” said Vera. He turned and looked at her. He had no idea what he could safely say, so he waited for her to have the next word. “Damn it,” was what she said. “This sucks.”

“I know it does,” he replied.

“Clay,” she said, “I don’t suppose you’ve thought of all the things that might happen.” He held his face absolutely still. “Of course you have,” she said. “We’ve all thought through the possibilities.”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “There’s a lot.”

“Damn it, Clay. I should be going with you.” She looked back at the others. Rachel and Natasha were standing in the far doorway, holding themselves in place, laughing about something. “Clay,” she said, “I know you’re in good hands. God damn it! I’m sorry.”

“Vera.”

“Damn it, Clay,” said Vera. “Three stinking months. Damn it.”

That song. Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away.

She hooked him with those eyes again. She reached a hand to his cheek, prickly with a thin stubble. Those sharp, deep eyes half closed. Their faces were coming closer, closer. No woman in history had ever been more beautiful. Their lips met. They kissed. They kissed, they kissed. She sighed. He sighed. They kissed some more, their bodies meeting through their vac suits. He kissed her neck, and she sighed, and she kissed behind and around his ear and he sighed. Their lips met again like long lost friends. Finally just their lips parted and Vera said, “You’ll be careful.”

“Of course I will,” he said. “You won’t forget me.”

“How could I.”

It was only seven hours later that Rachel and Natasha got to meet Marie and Yvette. They made small talk of the sort only possible to people who have never met, who are about to do something momentous, and who will never meet again.

And at 1200 hours, Clay Gilbert was waving at his sister and her daughter, then waving across the space station’s bay at Vera Santos, then exchanging looks with Rachel and Natasha and Su Park, and then they were climbing into their pods, and then Alpha Wing and Beta Wing were falling out of the space station, engaging thrust and beginning acceleration away from Earth, and it would be a long, long time before Clay Gilbert would be back.

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