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7.

Parthon and five of her best young muscular friends swept Clay out of the madding crowd and up a set of steps. The planet’s gravity was roughly that of Earth—Clay couldn’t really tell if it was more or less, but it was more than Bluehorse-3, of that he was sure. By the top step of the second stair, he was feeling winded. The air didn’t taste great either, though his vac suit was still telling him it was fully breathable, with contaminants and poisons well within acceptable parameters. On the third floor, they came out into a large room full of what seemed like steel and plastic park benches. Everyone sat down: Parthon took her position in a big chair with a rolling desk next to her, a portable computer tablet beside her. It was the first computer Clay had seen on 581.

“Tea,” said Parthon. A big lug grunted, got up and went to make a big pot of tea. Parthon looked at Clay, who was at the near end of the bench closest to her. “So. Nee has your comrade.”

“Well, she took her away,” said Clay. “It was very strange. It seemed like Nee and Relien were going to come to blows—in fact, their underlings did come to blows—but then they made this compromise. Relien got me and Nee got Rachel. She’s not going to hurt her, is she?”

“Not Nee,” said Parthon. “She knows all about chits.”

“Chits?”

“Wampum. Quid. Quid pro quid.” Clay looked blank. “Gold of the realm,” said Parthon. “Stuff to barter with? What do you trade for in Blue Thingy?”

“Ohhh. Bargaining chips.”

“Yes. No harm will come to your Rachel. Is she just your comrade, or—?”

“Or,” said Clay. “Can I ask another question? Or two?”

“Two is the limit,” said Parthon. “Go.”

“Okay. You all have guns but you hit people with them. You ever shoot them?”

“No,” said Parthon flatly.

“The bubble things?”

“Yeah. Some years back, when my maw was one of the Council bosses before me, there was a bit of a set to, pretty much brought down Dome 50a. Bunch of folks killed. Never have rebuilt that one, and it’s not like we could afford to lose a whole lot of domes. So we did manage to all agree to put the ammo away out of easy reach.”

“But Nee and Relien were outside,” said Clay. “I know. They were still too close.”

“And they didn’t have any ammo,” said Parthon. “Or more likely, they didn’t have any they wanted each other to know they had. Folks get in big trouble. We strung up one of Ullen’s group, young man was out shooting rocks outside the domes, still a no no. We killed his butt.”

“Capital offense, huh? Okay. I don’t have any weapons to declare. Okay, I get two questions, right? I still have one more?” Parthon half-grinned and waved a long arm. “Well,” said Clay, “might I ask, how exactly did you guys get into this, ah, situation? What happened here?”

Parthon looked around at her dozen or so hench-persons, smiling. She looked back at Clay with those steely eyes and said, “We screwed up, that’s what we did. We wasted our opportunities.”

“Boss,” said the big lug, bringing back the tea on a big tray with a dozen cups and an enormous pot. He stood before her and said, “There were some disasters and stuff, weren’t there?”

“Everyone has disasters,” Parthon said to him. “We didn’t overcome them.” She turned to Clay. “They crashed one of our two freighters. A lot of supplies and materials got wasted right there. We didn’t know the planet would have sand storms, I don’t know why, so we lost a bunch of solar panels and stuff. We tried to set up big farms. But our decontamination gadgets didn’t do the job. I don’t know what all else went wrong that wasn’t anyone’s fault, but all of those things, you could argue someone should have sussed them out. It’s not quantum physics.”

“Rocket science,” Clay muttered, nodding. He was thinking about what the difference was between his group and Venture One: Human Horizon was more rubust, more duplicated, more technologically seamless; oh, and they had Su Park and Alfred Kalkar and Natasha and Vera and Rachel.

“So things went wrong and a generation later we were having famines. People fought all the time. We had a civil war, basically. And another. And then no one could really win, so we settled for a, what do you call it? A mode of living. So we don’t have a system. But we have to stick to certain rules, even though we don’t agree what they are. It may not look like it, but, Mister Gilbert, what can I say. The stupid system works, it sort of does.” She challenged him with her eyes. He tried hard not to smirk. “So we can’t reproduce too much. So people have two kids, that’s it. And we keep the ammo out of the way. And no one messes around about the air locks and valves and filters and stuff. It sort of works.”

“But you lost space. You lost space travel.”

“You gonna serve that tea?”

“Uh, yeah, boss,” said the big lug. He put a cup on an end table between her and Clay and filled it. Then he gave Clay, and then everyone else in the room, a slightly smaller cup. Clay lifted his. It was a bit grungy, it was dinged and cracked, but Parthon was right. It did sort of work.

“I don’t need space,” she said.

“But you do. There’s all kinds of aliens out there. You don’t know?”

“I have enough problems, Mister Gilbert,” said Parthon. “We never had much for space craft anyway. No one thinks about it anymore.”

“You lost all your spacecraft too?” Clay waited, gazing blankly into her eyes, then added, “You need your comm back anyway. What about your satellites? You must’ve had satellites.”

“We used to. They just went down. All at once. A dozen or more of them. Twenty years back. You think you can fix them?”

“Maybe we can. But I need Rachel back.”

Parthon sipped, so everyone else did. “That’s fine with me,” she said. “I’ll agree. You need Rachel back.”

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