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3.

The two Ghosts rose from the turquoise crater and followed a gently spiraling course in toward the fourth planet. They took all sorts of readings of all sorts of things, but they only had eyes for d.

“So according to the encyclopedia,” said Rachel, “Venture One started with three colony ships of 400 each. They would have brought 1200 colonists to start off with.”

“I read some mining operations,” said Clay. “Nothing else currently going on outside those bubbles they put up. Which look like original equipment, or copies of original equipment. I don’t see anything they have now that they didn’t basically bring. Lots of things they would have brought that they don’t have now. Satellites for instance.”

“That farmland. You’d think maybe they just didn’t solve their atmosphere problem, but I can see where they laid out a hundred thousand hectares of farmland. It’s just not in use.”

“They definitely don’t have any farming going on outside the bubbles,” said Clay as they came into orbit over the narrow equatorial zone, the eight or ten degrees of the planet’s latitudes that were not covered by ice. “They can’t have a population of over twenty thousand.”

“Two hundred years on,” said Rachel, “even just through reproduction they should have doubled every twenty years or so, right? That’s two to the tenth, which everyone knows is basically a thousand. They should have gone from their initial 1200 colonists to 1.2 million. And that’s not even counting immigration, but they’re close enough to Earth that they should have had plenty of that too.”

“They got constricted. They’re stuck.” He magnified a spot just outside one of the bubbles. “There. There’s one of the colony ships. It landed intact. Um, you going to communicate?”

“Here goes,” said Rachel. She sent the canned Su Park colony greeting, waited, then sent it again. “Nothing,” she said after a minute. “Gliese 581 base, this is Rachel Andros of the Human Horizon Project. Come in, please. —They won’t answer. I’ll try once more. —Venture One, this is Rachel Andros, request permission to land.” She waited another minute. “Nothing. Well, the equipment is broken or else they’re all out fishing. Shall we just land?”

“Or they’re all dead,” said Clay.

“Negatory on that one,” said Rachel. “I see people. Clay! I see people! Well, I’m excited. I mean, this whole thing could go very wrong, but you know—people!”

“Okay,” Clay said after a moment. “And they don’t answer the phone. Where do we land?”

“Right by that colony ship. They’ll have a way in through it. In one bay from outside the bubble, out another bay inside the bubble.”

“What?” said Clay, who had missed out on all the explanations he’d probably been given of how the colony ships were supposed to work if the air was not breathable yet.

“Just follow me.” She plotted a course and sent it to him, followed by her smiling face. “It’s going to be fine,” she said. “I can just feel it.”

“Okey doke,” he said, half to himself, as her smile disappeared from his screen like the Cheshire Cat. Out there in space, her Ghost dropped its nose and started splitting the upper airs to let it pass. Clay switched his flectors to atmosphere plow mode and followed. They came down around the equator, with its rolling seas and gentle barren hills, and as they came back around, she led him in for a landing. The two Ghosts circled the colony ship twice, but no one seemed to notice yet: it wasn’t like they were spitting fire or sonic booms. They decelerated to a stop at 100 meters, then settled downward gently onto the sandy ground side by side. They got out of their Ghosts.

Out of a side port of the colony ship came three all terrain vehicles, open, with vac suited figures on them, two and four and four. Rachel gestured to Clay, and they both shut their hatches. The ATVs rolled to a stop in front of them, and two of the figures on the second ATV jumped off, aiming what looked like old fashioned rifles at them.

“Okay,” said Clay, “we have contact.”

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