It took a few minutes to get the crowd into the meeting hall, and somehow the fifty or so turned into the hundreds it took to fill the place. Word, apparently, had gotten around. Rachel took the opportunity to contact God, or the nearest approximation, Su Park, via her helmet.
“She says we can give them the general outlines of what we’ve learned,” said Rachel. “But not take any policy positions, that’s how she put it.”
“On, like, whether to stay here or go home or go on.”
“Well, we’re going on, aren’t we?” asked Clay. “I just assumed.”
“Yes. We are. We just don’t want to say so and get in an argument.” She looked around the room. “Are you feeling the herb as much as I am?”
“You’ll be fine,” said Clay.
It did not appear likely at first. The meeting began with a long warm-up session in which the loudest mouths shouted themselves hoarse, mostly yelling at each other. Alice Grohl had not gotten to be whatever she was by arguing with people who weren’t inclined to listen. She was in her element, perhaps, but Captain Schwinn and her three underling officers were not. Schwinn was not a military type: Clay could not help wonder how she had gotten to be whatever she was. At least she was built on the same size scale as the people who yelled disturbing suggestions at Grohl about what to do with the Canada’s officer corps. Clay and Rachel were built on significantly smaller chassis, and their considerable self-defense skills were all predicated on the assumption that they were inside their Ghost 201s.
But Ally Schwinn’s skills became clearer once the assembled throng had released the initial wave of their concerns, which fell under four headings: the old ones, which were
1. Not knowing and having no control over where they were going to be dumped with their families and meager possessions, and
2. Missing their old lives on Earth and, you know, such amenities as blue sky and forests and rivers and dirt
and which were now joined by
3. Rumors and guesses about what had happened and what might happen if they went to light speed again, or if they tried to establish themselves here in Gliese 163, and
4. Suspicion of everyone who actually did know something or was in control of something, in particular, the captains of the colony ships and the pilots of the fighters.
That last one hit Clay like a brick thrown at his head from behind. He was fidgeting, trying to follow the arguments and work out who really thought what, when one of the young hotheaded men pointed at him and Rachel and said, “What I want to know is, who has any control over what they’re doing? Who gives them their orders? Who’s in charge of our lovely scouting pilots and what they’re up to?”
“They are,” said Grohl.
“They are what?” several yelled back.
“They are in charge of themselves,” said Alice Grohl. “It’s dangerous out there, they have to face things by themselves. Every place we go, they have to go first and how do they know what they’re going to run into?”
This did not meet with general approval. “I think they’re laughing at us,” said one voice. “Who knows what they’re up to, and with who,” said another. “These aliens they met,” said several in several ways, “how do we know they haven’t taken them over?”
But the pilots had their defenders too, and another crescendo of voices ensued. Indignant answers were given to insinuating questions. Fingers were pointed in all directions. Accusations that were already exaggerated were exaggerated further by the accusers’ opponents. People gradually got quiet, however, as they noticed Rachel standing out from the wall, holding up her right hand.
“I can’t out-shout you,” she said. “Would you mind letting me talk?”
After one more round of yelling and counter-yelling, they subsided. “Miss Andros, isn’t it?” said Captain Schwinn.
“Yes,” said Rachel. “Okay. My name is Rachel Andros. I was born in Winnipeg. I went to school in Anchorage. I worked as a waitress in college. Okay? I’m here because I’m short and light and I have good eyesight and good reflexes.”
The crowd quieted down more or less all the way. Good eyesight and good reflexes: Clay was thinking about how Rachel, who was probably the shortest and lightest adult human in the Gliese 163 system, was in the 99th percentile of the 99th percentile among Earthling humans in eyesight and reflexes and possibly chess skill as well. She was never a public speaker or a military officer, but she was managing.
“And like you,” she was saying, “I gave up family and friends and everything else when I came on this, and there is just no going back. There is no. Going. Back.
“So. We met something. That’s not too surprising. We came into a new star system and we met something we didn’t expect. I am authorized to tell you everything we know about that thing. So here goes. It seems to eat metals. It lives in outer space and moves really fast. It communicates and can operate in groups. And while we don’t know yet how to damage it, Clay here and I have managed to work out a way we think will make us invisible to it. We have never seen the things attack a big ship, only fighters. We lost one of our own to them, so no, we’re not in any danger of making a separate peace with them or something. We’re their enemies.”
There was mostly silence, and while the colonists’ many questions bubbled up, the first one was voiced scornfully by a hotheaded youth: “Enemies? Like you’re gonna fight them?”
“Yeah,” said Clay, pushing up to float out past Rachel, who grabbed him to keep him from floating too far. “Enemies. And if they’re going to go up against Rachel, I’m glad I’m on her side.”