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7.

They looked around the room. Clay suddenly realized that all six walls were covered with video screen, just as all the inner surface of his Ghost, minus the seat, was covered with screen. But the screens were all dark, a quiescent slate grey. He looked around at Wolf, Marty, Lor.

“I don’t suppose you really want to see the pictures, do you?” asked Lor.

“I don’t suppose we do,” said Clay. “But I suppose you might want to see ours.”

“If they don’t include a sampling of a population of 205 million corpses,” said Mike Lando, “then, yeah, that would be great.”

Rachel raised her left hand, the glove hanging loose from her wrist. She pulled the glove on, and pointed her index finger. “Got connectors that match my plug-in?” she asked. “After all these years?”

Lor produced a little box and Rachel touched her finger to a circle on top of it. Suddenly they were looking at video of Algaeville. “Whoa,” said Marty. “Where are we here?”

“55 Cancri,” said Rachel. “Sorry. I haven’t had a chance to get things in order. Bear with me here, okay?” The Mathildeans did not object: they looked like they were family members ready to relax and watch videos of summer vacations past. Rachel started right in, talking about 55 Cancri and the mystery of the disappeared France, and Gliese 163 and the attack of the mouthholes, while two of the younger fighter pilots ordered up some crunchy snack food and a mildly alcoholic soda.

They kicked back and absorbed and it occurred to Clay: the death of Jana Bluehorse, the deaths of Vilya and Rojette and Bouvier, had been so traumatic, but they were just four people. Even with the loss of the France and the crews of the Corsica and the other ships that were lost, the Human Horizon Project had suffered only about twenty percent mortality, amounting to about a fortieth of the 24th Century population of Portland, Maine. Now it was the 26th Century and the population of Portland, Maine, and everywhere else on Earth, was rotting.

The Mathildeans watched in rapture as Rachel, with her usual off the cuff panache, led them through the discovery of the mouthholes’ weaknesses, the developing complexity of relations with the Primoids, and the exploration of Candy One and Bluehorse. They smiled and shook their heads at an overview of the colonization in its first months, and seemed not too bored at a few too many bits of the party before Rachel and Clay set off for Earth.

And they remarked on the state of the Holey system, with its distinctive hundred kilometer mine holes, the diagnostic mark of a visit from the Ngugma. And they spent a good half hour debating the situation at Gliese 581.

And they laughed and chattered amongst themselves about the personalities of Vera Santos and Ted Trein and Natasha Kleiner and Alfred Kalkar and Padfoot and Gene Bell and Alice Grohl and Commander Su Park.

“That’s Lor,” said one of the girl fighter pilots.

“No,” said Rachel, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you have a Su Park, because I don’t think anyone has a Su Park. No offense.”

“None taken,” said Lor. “But clearly you two could kick our butts all the way to Miranda if we ever got on your bad side, even with your archaic Ghost 201s.”

“Would you be wanting upgrades?” asked Mike Lando.

Rachel and Clay exchanged looks. “Not sure,” said Rachel. “We kinda like what we have.”

“You’re stealthy enough,” said Lor, “but you could be stealthier. It’s one thing we’ve made even better in the last six months. We do have a Padfoot of our own: his name is Marco Veda, and I bet if you gave him a couple of days with your craft, you wouldn’t be sorry.”

“Well,” said Clay, “this all gets to one basic question. And that is, what are you guys going to do? Stay here?”

Again the gathered Mathildeans, the elite, the ruling class as it were, exchanged glum glances, the official facial expression of Mathilde. “There’s no way we could make it out of here,” said Janis Axelrod. “We have nine functioning Ghost fighters. Let’s say they can get away.”

“Those Ghost 214s,” said Lor, “they can beat the crap out of those little robo-fighters the Ngugma have.”

“But the armored merchant,” said Wolf, “the two light cruisers, they would be run down for sure.”

“You’re absolutely right,” said Mike Lando. “They are not designed to outrun fighters, and they don’t have the stealth features to maintain concealment.”

“And,” said Ann Bolls, the chief of medicine, “we couldn’t fit a tenth of our people in those three ships. We have over thirteen hundred. It’s the maximum population our facilities can support, but it’s far too many for us to carry anywhere. And if we sent the three bigger ships with everyone they could hold, that would give away Mathilde as a hidden colony. Everyone has to be on a ship if they’re going to go, and everyone can’t be on a ship. We don’t have enough ship.”

“What did you have in case of a disaster on the asteroid?” asked Rachel.

“Shuttles,” said Lor. “Just a bunch of shuttles. The Ngugma would blow the crap out of them. Anyway, we’re not going anywhere. None of us are.”

“You could go,” said Janis. “You certainly could go, Lor. You weren’t even assigned to Mathilde, you’re here because you were one of Earth’s elite fighter pilots. Perhaps we should send you to, um, Bluehorse, just to serve as our liaison.”

“Perhaps we should,” said Wolf.

“No,” said Lor. “Nope. No way.” She gave Rachel a level look. “I think you understand, Commander Andros. I owe allegiance to Earth defense. And this is all that’s left of it. I can’t leave Mathilde undermanned. I would happily leave if every colonist here could leave, but not as things are. My duty is here.”

“No, I totally understand,” said Rachel. “And I agree. You need everyone you can get to defend the place.” She laughed a little. “The population of the Solar System,” she said.

“It’s possible,” said Janis Axelrod, “that we will outlast the Ngugma, and then we might be able to go back to Earth and start over.” She looked at Clay. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“I won’t say it isn’t,” Clay replied. “I think it’s very dangerous, but I can’t think of anything you can do safely.”

“I think it’s extremely dangerous,” said Rachel. “But I think it’s what you have.” She smiled at Clay. “Just don’t abandon the Lonely Mountain completely just to try to restart your ancient kingdom in Moria.” She looked around.

“Ah,” said Wolf. “A Lord of the Rings reference.” He smiled under his white mustache. “You see, we have not abandoned the classics here. Well,” he went on, stretching, the weightless equivalent of standing up to signal the end of the meeting, “you will not leave Mathilde till we have given you aid according to our capabilities. You know, help will always be given at Hogwarts and all that.”

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