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6.

“You mean me?”

The bullish, villainous-looking man scowled. Of course he did. He took Clay in for some seconds. Clay would have to estimate that the bullish man had about twice his mass. Then the bullish man scowled around the square. He looked back at Clay and raised his eyebrows as if he wasn’t sure what to say about the situation.

“He’s not a prisoner, Fulmar,” said Relien, “and neither is the other one.”

“I don’t have any other one,” said Fulmar, scowling at Relien.

“Then you need to see about getting her here,” said Relien. The two closed distance as they talked at each other and scowled. She was smaller than Fulmar (but a good bit larger than Clay) and yet her scowl was at least the equal of Fulmar’s.

“Who has her.”

“Nee has her.”

“Nee.” Fulmar scoffed.

“What the frip is going on out here?” announced a new entrant, a statuesque older woman in a slightly elegant tunic and shorts.

“Parthon,” said Relien. “Gor dang Parthon,” said Fulmar. “Frippin’ Parthon,” said several of Fulmar’s supporters.

“That’s Parthon,” said Vashir in Clay’s ear.

“I guessed,” said Clay. “Listen, Parthon,” he said in his loudest voice, but several other people chose to address the statuesque older woman in their loudest voices.

In her loud low voice, Parthon, pointing a long and emphatic arm at Clay, said, “Who or what exactly is this?” Another surge of voices resulted. Parthon lowered her pitch and raised her volume further and said, “You. What exactly are you?” She looked around the crowd, which quailed a little. “I want him to answer, you ridiculous rabble.”

Clay cleared his throat. It was sort of quiet. “Well,” he said, “I’m a fighter pilot. An explorer pod pilot, you know?” He looked around. People were at least muttering rather than shouting. “My, um, comrade and I come from the Bluehorse System, you wouldn’t know what that was because we, I mean, the Human Horizon Project—um, okay, so we left Earth in 2334, right? That’s over two hundred years ago now. Right?”

“You’re from Earth,” said Parthon.

“Yeah, they’re both from Earth,” Relien said, while Fulmar said, “How do we know any of this is actually—?”

“Oh, shut,” said Parthon. “What is your name, pilot?”

“Gilbert, Clay Gilbert. My comrade is Rachel Andros. The Human Horizon Project left Earth with ten thousand colonists and oh, twenty-two fighters and, well, assorted other ships. And we.” He stopped and looked around. He had everyone’s attention. “Rachel and I are headed back to Earth with news of the colony we founded at Bluehorse. And the brass, the, uh, Commander, she thought it would be sort of nice to stop by 581, see what’s happening.” He looked around, past the faces and up across the tops of the buildings to the grimy surface of the bubble, where the red sun gleamed its noonday dusk light on the colony. “It doesn’t look like you’ve had a great time of it.”

“We’re fine,” said Parthon. She glared at Fulmar, then at Relien. “What did this one tell you, Clay Gilbert?”

“Who? Her? Nothing really. She was proud of the barley.”

“Parthon,” said another woman next to the councillor, “maybe they can—?” She quailed.

“Um,” said Clay, “we did notice that your communication isn’t working. You know that, don’t you?”

“Well,” said Parthon grudgingly, “the satellite systems all went down about twenty years ago.”

“All at once? Okay, that’s interesting. What about the farmland outside the bubbles?”

“That never worked,” said Fulmar. “Lot of people died in the early days,” said an old man.

“See, we could help,” said Clay. “Me and Rachel. All you have to do is get Knee or whatever her name is to—!”

Four ATVs roared into the square. Speak of the Devil, there was Nee jumping out with her gun ready, and Jomes and Blanda and bunches of friends jumped out with their own guns. Shouting ensued, and shoving, though Clay noticed that no one seemed to want to shoot: the bubble membrane, whatever it was, was vulnerable. Clearly this colony already had enough trouble. He was trying to figure out who was winning the melee when someone hit him over the head with something.

“Ow,” he said, turning. Someone turned out to be none other than Miss Jomes, holding her weapon. She was being wrestled down by several other people. “She hit me!”

“Come on,” said Parthon, grabbing him by the arm. She took a look around at the general strife, then looked down on him with her cool blue eyes. “Let’s go have a nice chat.”

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