“Ssh,” came Rachel’s three-letter text. The two old Ghost 201s drifted into the crater’s depths. On cue, both fighters’ thrusters turned to full deceleration. It would be bad form to shoot out the other end of Mathilde, if that was even possible. Before they could come to a complete stop, they were through the cavern entrance and into a vast dark space within the asteroid.
There were two more Ghosts there, a kilometer away on either side of them.
“Looks like we found you,” Rachel sent to all ships within a kilometer and a half of her position.
“Prove you’re human,” came the reply to both of them. It was a female voice, and it was on a frequency reserved, in the Human Horizon rule book, for top secret transmissions, which the Human Horizon Project had never needed to use. “Drop your flectors and let us scan you.”
“Okey dokey,” said Clay over the same channel.
Ten seconds later, the same female voice said, “I think we need more proof you’re human. Please exit your fighters so we can see you in your vac suits.”
“What the hell?” replied Clay. “How will that prove anything at all?”
“I have to object,” said Rachel. “How do we know you won’t just shoot the crap out of us? And how will you know we’re human even if you see us looking human in vac suits?”
“We’ll know,” came the reply. “Just do it.”
“We could take them,” Rachel texted to Clay.
“Maybe,” Clay texted back. “Maybe not. What do you think the probabilities are? I mean, how likely is it we can beat them both, vs how likely that they’re actually evil aliens. Why would they even bother luring us in here?”
“Okay, we’re coming out,” Rachel called. “Clay Gilbert, if they blast the poo out of us, I will never forgive you.”
“Noted,” Clay replied on the open channel.
Some seconds later, the female voice called them to say they could get back in their fighters. “Hope you forgive us,” she said. “Security is kinda tight.”
“No prob,” said Clay. Rachel said, “Where are we headed?”
“I’ll lead you, Maddy will take up the tail spot.”
Rachel and Clay followed the lead fighter to the left and into an almost invisibly dark cave, about big enough to fit an escort cruiser or a small freighter. It opened out just a little after ten meters, and there was an inner cave, just big enough to hold two escort cruisers, an armored freighter about a third the size of the Tasmania, and several Ghost fighters hooked directly up to airlocks. The spaceships all looked somewhat evolved from the 24th Century relics Clay and Rachel were used to, but not to the point of obvious superiority. A hatch opened ahead of them and the lead fighter led them into what turned out to be a bay for at least a dozen more Ghosts. They set down and climbed out, hanging onto the ubiquitous “sashay bars”: Mathilde’s gravity was not much more than no gravity at all.
The pilot of the lead fighter was out first, and when Clay and Rachel emerged, they found her hanging onto bars with a hand and a foot. Her helmet, even more flexible and form-fitting than theirs, was already pushed back. She was small but several centimeters taller than them; she had dark hair cropped to two centimeters long. Her face showed perhaps fifty years of age, lined with the cares of siege and loss. Right now she looked relieved.
“I am Lor Bayance,” she said. “I’m the patrol wing leader. This is Maddy Mark. Where are you from in these old ships? 581?”
“No, no,” said Rachel. “I’m Rachel Andros, and this is my, this is my husband, actually, Clay Gilbert, we’re with the Human Horizon mission. We set up a colony on a system about ninety light years from here, and they sent the two of us back to report.”
“So here we are,” said Clay. “Reporting.”
“You look okay,” said Lor Bayance. She looked past them. “Mad, you think they’re okay?”
“I think so, yes,” said the other pilot, pushing her helmet off. She had dark skin and straight dark hair, not quite as short as Lor Bayance’s. She looked about fifteen years old.
“So,” said Rachel, looking from Maddy back to Lor. “I think it’s story time. And I take it it’s not just the two of you here.”
“Thank goddess no,” said Lor. “No offense meant, Mad Girl. Yes, I do think it’s story time. Let us go and find some more people to tell stories with. I’m certain you’re rather eager to meet some of the other residents?”
“Inmates, more like,” said Maddy.
“I don’t care what the hell you call them,” said Rachel, “they’ll be better company than the people we tried to report to down on good old Earth.”
“You didn’t know about what happened?” said Lor. “No, how could you have. Yes, I bet that was quite a surprise. It was a surprise to us as well, and we were here when it happened.”
“It was a surprise to a lot of people,” said Clay. “Are you going to tell us what you know about the mining operators? It would seem a good place to start.”
“Yes,” said Lor, “we can start with that, and maybe we can end with what to do about them.”