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“How long ago was this?” asked Rachel. “From the bodies, we estimated six to twelve months.”

“Eight,” said Mike Lando. He turned grey.

“They pulled in,” said Marty, “and we were all here except for Mike and Lor, Mike was at a conference with the others, Lor was assigned to Earth patrol, she actually escorted their big ship in, the one that supervises the whole thing. It’s okay to talk about it, isn’t it?”

“Oh yeah,” said Lor, recrossing her legs in the weightless meeting room. “I had no idea. Not an inkling. They left their big mining ships way out there where we couldn’t pick them up. We were inside the orbit of Mars when the Ngugma gave us the next version of their story. They were going to bring these big supposed freighter support ships in, to help us load and market to their group, which was supposedly halfway across the galaxy. So that supposedly explained why they brought in all these other big ships. And then they parked two of them at Jupiter and two at Mars and one at Uranus, and the other three came up and got into Earth orbit.”

“And they just started dumping stuff on you guys?”

“They had it all planned out, of course,” said Marty. “They were telling us just what we wanted to hear, they gave us estimates of how much tech and stuff we could get in return for grinding up a few asteroids for the metals. And then all of a sudden there’s this bunch of shuttles coming down all over the planet, and they get to a hundred meters up and they all burst and these mini-shuttles come out and drop down and burst and there’s this shower of misty stuff, and then that’s over. And we’re all, like, what the heck was that? And they maintain silence, and like ten minutes later we get video of them blowing up the Mars base. And then these little fighters of theirs, they must be robotic, attack the Moon base and blow the crap out of it. And we’re like, whoa, what is going on here?”

“And still silence,” said Lor. “I high-tailed it to secure base in Spitsbergen. They’d already sent Mike there, we were ordered to head to Mathilde in secret, but only if we could make it in total secret. So we took two Ghosts and yeah, we managed to avoid detection, apparently. I’ll tell you, the people here did not trust us for the first week or two. Especially once the videos started coming in from the planet.”

Mike Lando made an uncomfortable noise. Marty said, “Mike was witness to the start of it, so forgive him if he suddenly has to leave the room.”

“I’m fine,” said Mike.

“You saw the start?” asked Rachel. “No, I’m sorry, let’s let Marty tell it. You’re a surgeon, right?”

“Yes,” said Marty. She smoothed her tunic over her six-month bulge. “The toxicity was 100%. The onset was pretty fast, maybe twelve to twenty-four hours. Whatever the virus wound up being, they engineered the heck out of it. People started getting sick the first day after the attack on the colonies, and then they started keeling over the second day. People we knew. Everyone we knew. At first, people were just feeling kind of rotten. It took us a good six hours to connect it to the Ngugma. And then we’re like, wait, you would do this? And they totally would. I mean, Earth Presidency lodged inquiries and protests. But in about two days, Earth Presidency was all dead.”

“People I knew,” said Janis, “woke up sick, threw up a few times, there was blood, then they would rush outside and fall dead. Right on top of other people who just died, and new dying people would fall dead on them. The whole thing ran its course in about four days. Four awful days.”

“We assumed,” said Wolf, “that we would see 90% or 99% mortality. We thought maybe they were softening us up. It was 100%. On the dot.” He got a slightly exasperated look, which was all the emotion Dr Wolf ever managed.

“I kept getting,” Marty started, and then she melted down for just a few seconds, while everyone else wiped tears or looked away. The pregnant surgeon got control of herself and said, “I kept getting messages from my family, my friends. So and so has it, we’re hoping we get passed by. People would post on the Social, ‘I’ve got aches but no fever yet,’ or ‘Lost my husband, still managing.’ No one posted ‘Oh crap, I think I’m dying.’ And no one got better. A couple of people I knew, early on, thought they were over the worst of it, that’s what they wrote. But no one was over the worst of it till they were dead.”

“And you guys, here on Mathilde?” asked Rachel.

“They went around blowing up all the colonies around the Solar System,” said Lor. “Mars, Moon, Ganymede, Callisto. Vesta. Eros, there was a little colony there, they literally blew the whole asteroid apart. Mike and I managed to sneak in here, I don’t know how, but then we were all basically glued to the videos to make sure the Ngugma didn’t come blow the crap out of Mathilde.”

“And they didn’t.”

“Nope. And here we sit, watching them chew up our birth world. Yours too, not trying to be exclusionary here.”

“So this puts us in an interesting position,” said Clay, who had spent the whole meeting so far holding his sister and his niece at bay in his mind.

“Interesting?” Rachel repeated.

“Yeah. Because you know what it means. It means that Bluehorse, knock wood, if it’s still there, is now the largest population human colony we know of.” He smiled at Rachel. “Farmland. Square kilometer upon square kilometer of farmland. Open water. Good oxygen.”

“I bet it is the largest,” said Lor. “You had ten thousand? We know 581 was limping, and 667 wasn’t doing great, and Alpha C, well, they’re okay but they don’t have anything like farmland. Yeah. You might just be the home planet now.”

“We had ten thousand,” said Rachel, “but we lost one of the colony ships en route to our first stop at 55 Cancri, so we were down to eight. Heck, if they’re still alive, by the time we get back there in another, oh, ninety years? They should’ve doubled eight or nine times, we could have, oh,” and she stopped to calculate.

“Four or five million,” said Clay. “How many were living on Earth at the end?”

“205 million,” said Wolf gravely.

The others looked down at their legs, then around, in the already familiar somber custom of Mathilde. “Let’s talk more of life,” said Marty. “Did you meet aliens? The Ngugma?”

“Not the Ngugma,” said Clay, “though we may have seen their handiwork.”

“We certainly did,” said Rachel. “But we actually met at least three other life forms. Heck, we fought star battles. When we left Earth, we were under orders not to even imagine we were going to fight star battles.”

“Are you going to tell us your story?” asked Janis. “We’d like to hear some good news for a change.”

“Of course,” said Rachel. “Something uplifting. Conflict, heroism, happy ending—or maybe it’s a cliffhanger. You tell us.”