The story crowd amounted to Lor and five other fighter pilots, of whom four were women; two men and a woman who seemed administrative; and a couple of women scientists, one of whom was pregnant. Maddy Mark had gone back on patrol, while Lor Bayance parked herself next to Rachel. They all hung in a well-lit box of a room, perhaps five meters on a side, with bars to hang onto and screens on the walls showing the cave entrance, the Sun, the Earth, and a variety of charts and graphs. One of the male administrators played with a tablet, then raised heavy pale brown eyes to Rachel and Clay.
“Your story checks out,” he said. “You are genetically who you say you are. So unless the Ngugma have gone to incredible trouble to infiltrate, you presumably really are Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert.”
The pregnant scientist said, “Not that we were really worried about that. You knew where to look for us, and clearly the Ngugma do not or we would not be here.” She glared for one second at the male administrator, then smiled at Lor, who smiled over at Rachel.
“We totally get that you’re paranoid,” said Rachel.
“I don’t think you really can get that,” said the other scientist, “until you hear how our last year has been.” She looked at her colleague. “And yet, some have the faith to start anew, eh?”
“Let me introduce everyone,” said the male administrator. “My name is Dr Wolf, and I have the privilege of being the director of astronomy and acting head of the Mathilde colony. This is my head of security, Mike Lando, and this is my chief of medicine, Ann Bolls.”
“I’m chief of medicine,” said the female administrator, “but Marty here,” and she indicated the pregnant scientist, “is our senior surgeon.”
“And this,” said Dr Wolf, indicating the other scientist, “is Dr Janis Axelrod. She is our chief geologist.”
“Pretty much everyone with a doctorate is chief something,” said Dr Janis Axelrod. “We were caught a bit short. Our colony head and several of the department heads were back on Earth for training when the Ngugma came.”
“The second time they came,” said Lor. “Let me just introduce my pilots: this is Parent, that’s Scots, Bourdain, Zeel and Archer,” of which Clay only managed to catch that Bourdain was the male pilot. They all looked a little overgrown for fighter pilots: Clay thought he’d have no hope “taking” any of them hand to hand, but that he and Rachel each could have “taken” all five of them together.
“So,” he said, “Ngugma? What’s that?”
Every resident of Mathilde in the room took a long, dubious breath. Many looks were exchanged. “I think,” said Dr Wolf, a bit pontifically, “that perhaps we shall allow Mike to explain.”
The other male administrator shifted, and managed to do so uncomfortably in spite of the lack of gravity. “I’d prefer someone else talk,” said Mike. Wolf just raised his eyebrows. Clearly being the acting head of a besieged colony was not a very satisfying power trip.
“Oh, allow me,” said the pregnant surgeon Marty. “So what was it, twelve years ago? 2569. It was in the fall. I remember the leaves all red and gold. In the forests of Mathilde.”
“Anyway,” said Lor Bayance.
“And,” Marty went on, “I believe the politicians of Earth were still debating whether it was time to go back to the stars. We’d managed something good with Venture, on both Gliese 581 and 667, we managed to get a base going on Alpha Centauri, we even got a base up on Tau Ceti, but we hadn’t heard anything back from you guys, and we sent one more out in the 25th Century, to Kapteyn and Gliese 832, and they’re not far away but we got nothing from them. So we had the sense that we’d come up against a bit of a wall, and then these big spaceships roll in.”
“And start attacking,” Rachel guessed.
“No, not at all. No, they made contact, they went into orbit around Earth, they sent down a peaceful delegation. Their ships were huge, but not huge like mining super-freighter huge. No, we figured that the ships were huge because the aliens were huge, fifteen or twenty meters tall, weighing a ton or two. Big brown blobby things, like big furry land octopi. They called themselves the Ngugma. They picked up our languages pretty fast, English, French, Chinese, I think they had trouble with Inuit and Russian, I have no idea what it means. Anyway, they wanted to be friends. They told us we would be welcomed into the complex web of interstellar trade. They asked what we had to trade, just so they could, you know, be our agents, and we said, I guess, well, metals, is that a thing? And they told us they could probably find markets. Funny, isn’t it, sort of?”
“I’m laughing on the inside,” said Clay.
“Well, they asked us for a delegation to go with them to their home system, supposedly hundreds of light years away but they could get there really fast. And they wanted—!”
“Representatives from across the planet,” said Rachel.
“So that all the peoples of the Earth would be represented,” said Clay.
“That’s the size of it,” said Dr Wolf.
“It makes me sick to think on it,” said Mike Lando.
“I’m nauseous enough as it is,” said Marty. “So they took about eighty Earthlings, lo and verily from all across the globe, and they bore them thither in their winged space chariots, and we never did see any of those poor unfortunates again. And lo, these dozen years later, the Ngugma returned.”
“From where?” asked Rachel. “Where do they actually live? They don’t really exceed the speed of light, do they?”
“No idea,” said Marty.
“I doubt it very much,” said Janis. “But they were not full of information, not reliable information anyway. But they were reliable on one thing. They told us they’d come back, and they came back.”