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5.

Clay had felt hyper-aware of the events immediately following his and Rachel’s landing on Gliese 581d. Now he felt completely distracted, so off balance and frazzled by seeing Rachel hustled away by armed guards that he hardly noticed the odd sort of tour that Ensign Relien was giving him. They hopped on an ATV and headed off around the side of the bubble collection, Relien driving, Clay in the shotgun seat, Glencal and Vashir in back, Relien talking a mile a minute. He was conscious of little other than his own feelings, but Relien’s nervousness came through loud and clear. What she was nervous about did not: was she afraid of making a bad impression, or worried that Nee had been right and that Clay here was some sort of alien in disguise, or was she more worried about what lurked hidden in all these—all these transparent buildings?

The colony, from ground level, looked like a city of rounded glass. It looked like a city made up of snow globes. They buzzed around a small one that seemed to have more buildings inside, buildings built of plastic and local rock, which had a characteristic purple sheen. The next bubble was much larger and seemed to be full of crops, but its windows were a bit fogged. They rounded it and headed for a sort of city gate, an airlock for vehicles.

He wondered why they hadn’t gone in through the grounded colony ship. He wondered why they had passed at least two other entrances. He wondered where Nee, or Knee perhaps, had taken his beloved Rachel. He wondered just how mad his beloved Rachel would be at him. He wondered what he could have done, and every three minutes, like clockwork, he found himself shocked by the thought that he should be doing something right now, something desperate and just the brave side of stupid.

He finally steeled himself to take a chance and try asking politely what was happening to Rachel.

“Oh, they won’t do anything to her,” said Relien, and then, less reassuringly, she added, “They’d better not. Okay, so this is the North Port, through here to the left you’ll see the barley fields.”

“Barley?” Clay was thinking beer. Relien did not elaborate, but went off about the geology of the colony site. He was fairly sure she was covering something with all this talk, and he was fairly sure what she was covering was how nervous she was. He discarded the hypothesis that she was nervous about entertaining a visiting dignitary, because he was starting to have the strongest feeling that Clay Gilbert hardly rated notice right now.

Relien talked them through the North Port, a big air lock and then a cylindrical passage that looked and smelled like it belonged in a space port back on Earth: all long empty spaces and faint noxious fumes. Now everyone doffed their helmets and unzipped their vac suits a little: it was warm and moist in here, not to mention a little polluted. Clay thought about resealing, but figured it would seem hostile: wouldn’t want that. There was enough hostility already here. At the far end of the long chamber a dozen armed men and women in open vac suits loitered; there was some sort of argument with at least three sides; Relien’s sheer verbal force got them out of the place without bloodshed. Clay was not sure bloodshed wasn’t going to occur behind them.

“What exactly is going on here?” asked Clay as they sped away. “How is our landing here controversial? Don’t you get visits from Earth?” He looked at Relien, who now seemed just a little too agitated to reply. At a loss for words, for once, she concentrated on barreling around the sandy roads inside the bubble.

“Not that often,” said Vashir. “Last time was what, thirty years ago?”

“So if we were from Earth,” said Clay, after spending a minute digesting that and gazing ruefully on what turned out to be sickly corn and barley, “would you have put out the welcome mat a bit? Or would you have had to send half of them to Security or whatever?”

“Ahh, who the merde knows,” said Relien. Clay smiled to himself, and Relien went on, seeming a bit put out by the question. “We’re going to show you both the welcome mat, trust me,” she said, “we just have to get this all sorted out. The Council will take care of this, at least if we get to, ah,” and her voice dwindled, “the right people on the Council.”

“Let’s go see Parthon,” said Vashir.

Relien swerved right and sped off down a sort of alley between purplish buildings. “Just what I was going to suggest,” she said.

They sped down the alley, then zig-zagged and turned hard right and then hard left and sped down another alley, now scattering a few children and some very large chickens and skinny looking cats. Then they swerved to a stop in a small square. The buildings around were all three stories tall: not so much brownstones as purple-stones. A few more kids sitting on steps ran for cover inside. A half dozen men and women emerged from two trucks parked on the sides of the square and gathered menacingly in the middle.

“Relien,” said the amplified voice of the leader of this group, a bullish looking man with a shaved head. He would have made a great villain in an old video. “Yield up your prisoner.”

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