Chapter 7: Waltzing Mathilde

VII. Waltzing Mathilde

1.

Clay and Rachel had a smoke in the lee of the cliff, then got back into Clay’s Ghost and made love with the hatch open, then napped together, then woke and kissed and talked softly to each other, and then they got themselves up out of the fighter in the evening sun. They stretched, and then they laughed at each other. “Dinner?” Clay suggested.

“Here?”

“As opposed to going down to Ville de Quebec and seeing what’s the special at Zoot? I don’t think we’d like it.”

“Okay,” said Rachel, “your waste or mine?”

“Speaking of,” said Clay, “I’ll be right back.” He started off toward a patch of brush near the upward ciff.

“But Clay! You mean you’re just going to pee over there?”

“Yes, Rachel, I am just going to pee over there. I don’t know. I might take a bit of a dump actually, if it’s okay with you.”

“But—!”

“You worried about me polluting the environment?”

“No, no, but what about your food-waste system? You’re losing mass here. And/or water. Don’t you need to replenish the waste system’s—um, well, like, mass?”

He just smiled. He went over and took his needed pee, and then he really did feel the need to do more, so with another smile back at her—she was still naked, busying herself about something around her own fighter—he got behind a bush and did more. Then he had a look at the result; further details are not needed in the present narrative. Then he picked up a double handful of dirt and pine needles and walked back to his Ghost.

“Okay,” said Rachel, “show me what you’re doing.”

“Happy to,” he replied. He used a thumb to get a small outside hatch open, and he dropped his pile of dirt and needles into it. Then he left the little hatch open and went over to where a drizzle of water came streaming down the cliff and fell into a little crystalline pool, and he scooped some of the pristine liquid up with two hands and carried it, dripping, to the little hatch. There was more than enough. He shut the hatch, made absolutely sure it was sealed so that the skin of the Ghost closed solid over it, and then he walked back over to Rachel. He gave her a kiss, then bent to pick up his vac suit. “You really should do that too,” he said. “Padfoot told me it’s good for the system.”

“All right,” said Rachel, seeming a bit miffed, “perhaps I will. Oh, you’re not getting dressed yet, are you? Boo.”

“Just to clean up,” said Clay. He pulled his vac suit up and zipped it partway just to make it snug, and he pulled his hands into the suit’s gloves. He twiddled his fingers. “Ahhh. Feel the clean.”

Rachel gave him a funny look. “Well, then,” she said, “if Padfoot thinks it’s a good idea, I’d better do it myself, huh?”

“If you’re looking for a place to take a dump,” said Clay, “try a different bush.”

“I do not take a dump,” said Rachel. “I am a lady. I merely relieve myself of some more ex-husband.” She left her grin behind her as she walked away. Ah, that mole.

A few minutes later, they were both in their vac suits, and while Rachel was measuring out cups of what looked like red wine, Clay was using a composite lid from his Ghost to fry up what amounted to tofu over a little twig fire. Some minutes later, no longer in their vac suits, they sat side by side on a big rock eating and drinking.

“This is the life,” said Rachel.

“Yep.”

“So,” said Rachel. “What is our next move? Is there anyplace you want to visit before we leave Earth? Your home town maybe?”

“No,” said Clay. “It’ll be wrecked. Anywhere coastal would be. The operations in the Atlantic would create fluctuations that would make the Bay of Fundy tides look like ripples. And the wave action is probably pretty bad too. For all we know, Camden is underwater, or it might be high and dry, or it might just be all smashed up. I don’t even want to see it.”

“Bangor? You lived in Bangor, and that was inland, right?”

“Yeah. No. I don’t want to go there.” He shook his head. “Actually, I can’t think of anything I’d less like to do than go see where, um, where I used to live, you know.” He took a drink. “Full of dead people.” He put his cup carefully down and stared off to sea. “Dead people who might be my own relatives.” He smiled at her. “I’m fine. I’m, as they say, good to go.”

“Okay,” said Rachel, taking a drink. “So go. Go where?”

“I don’t know, Rachel. Got anything?”

“Well, we could go all Star Treks or whatever, and attack the biggest enemy ship with just our two fighters, you know, shoot for that one vulnerable spot.”

“Star Wars. Yeah. Because every designer of gigantic spaceships needs to leave that one spot.”

“But seriously,” said Rachel, “let’s just say we have better things to do than get killed. What then? I don’t know if I feel quite ready to head home.”

“Home,” Clay repeated. Their eyes met, then parted again. “Well, actually,” Clay said, “I think while we’re here, and no one’s hassled us yet, we might want to check out the situation.”

“You know,” said Rachel, “the Mathilde colony is unaccounted for. They might still be there. We should at least check it out. Miranda too, though that’s further out, maybe they stayed hidden.” She had another bite of fried waste tofu. “Got any better ideas?”

“Nope,” said Clay, taking a bite and distracting himself from thoughts of dead relatives by eying his wife’s lovely breasts in the warm Greenland sun.

2.

There wasn’t anything more to do for old Earth. Rachel and Clay walked along the cliff naked, smooched a little in the stiff breeze, held hands and gazed out over the blue distance, wasted a few more fractions of an hour, and then they found themselves standing there fidgeting. Clay had been waiting for the deep significance to sink in, and he realized now that it pretty much had sunk as far as it was going to.

“We better go,” said Rachel.

“Yeah,” said Clay, turning to head back toward the Ghosts. “I don’t know anyone here anymore.”

“Well,” said Rachel, falling in beside him, walking along looking down to find smooth rock for their feet, “not trying to be funny at a funeral, let’s just say the fight has moved elsewhere. Possibly to Bluehorse.”

“Possibly to Alpha C,” said Clay. “Possibly to 667, did you think of that? Gliese 667. 581’s sister colony in the Venture Program.”

“Clay,” said Rachel, “we had three colony attempts before Human Horizon: 581, Alpha C and 667. What do you think the odds are that all three of them worked out? What do you think the odds are that 581 is the worst of the three? What do you think the odds are that 581 is the best of the three?”

“Besides,” said Clay, “I mean, I would feel bad if, say, Gliese 667 had a lovely colony but it got ruined by a mining invasion. But that would just mean half the Venture program down the drain. It’s not exactly to compare with losing Earth.” He stopped and looked around, and she stopped, and the two of them stood there, the tallest and second tallest humans on Earth, naked as the day they were born, glowing in the sunlight, looking out with their eagle eyes over the cliff and out across the North Atlantic.

“Sucks,” said Rachel.

“And so we proceed from where we are,” said Clay. “What say, Commander? Check the mining ships? Have a look at our old digs on the Moon? Head for Mathilde?”

Rachel kept looking out, then raised her eyebrows and said, “I don’t know. Is it my call?”

“I say so.”

“Okay. Okey dokey, like you say, Clay babe, husband hunk-alicious. Let’s take our little Ghosts out and see if we can’t execute a little fun maneuver and learn something.”

“Okey doke, commander wifey, I go where you go.”

She smirked at him, and then looked serious, her green-blue eyes piercing his blues. “Clay,” she said. “Extra careful. Kay?”

“You too,” he replied.

A few minutes later, vac suited up, they were in their Ghosts and rising off of Greenland: probably, almost certainly, thought Clay, never to return. But now Rachel was pulling out and Clay had to hustle to keep up, which he didn’t mind since it sucked his mind away from the sentimental doldrum dragging at him. Earth. Not his planet anymore. Important, meaningful, nostalgic, tragic, but not his planet anymore.

They dropped down off the cliff and then sloped outward over the sea. The waves were rather towering, twenty meters between crests and troughs, so Rachel set a course five meters above the crests, doing a mere soccer field per second. They made for the central Atlantic operation, and within a few minutes, ahead of them, they saw a freight shuttle emerge.

“Catch that one, or wait for the next?” asked Rachel.

“Catch that one,” said Clay. Half a second later, Rachel was shooting away from him, approaching a kilometer a second, and just as he caught up with her, she was slamming on the metaphorical brakes. The shuttle was still laboring upward through its first kilometer of altitude, and the two little fighters easily got close.

The thing was boxy: the miners clearly shared the human preference for rectangles. It was alien in an indefinable way, in something about the design and the ratios and the color of the material, but it was also familiar. Even its size, its unprecedented size, seemed like something humans might conceive of, although even star fighter pilots like Clay and Rachel had never seen anything that size take off from a planet. It had plenty of widgets and gizmos attached to its flanks, plenty of braces and ladders and linkages and tracks and trusses, but it was so huge that it seemed almost as smooth as a Platonic solid. They followed it, both in awe of it, both scorning it, both wondering what the hell to make of this thing which seemed so banal, so impossibly crude and clumsy, which was taking part in the taking apart of the home planet of their species.

The trio, one huge and two tiny, came up out of Earth’s atmosphere and headed for one of the vast mining vessels. The fighters were tooling along in the immediate wake of the shuttle, when suddenly Clay saw Rachel’s Ghost topple backward and float off, dead in space. His heart raced, but he mastered himself and flipped his craft into the same behavior. Seconds later, both Ghosts were tumbling along with the rubble of many satellites in Earth’s upper orbits.

Above them, the shuttle maneuvered ponderously to rendezvous with the mining vessel, while eight tiny spidery ships, smaller even than Ghost 201s, raced around the shuttle as if checking it for ticks. They didn’t find any.

A few minutes later, two small black objects quietly accelerated in the opposite direction and then curved upward, taking the most covert route they could find into the sky.

3.

Clay and Rachel were accelerating at fifty gees and were up to 150 km/sec before they said anything to each other beyond brief technical notes.

“No sign of pursuit,” came Rachel’s message, in text, from ten meters away. “Let’s up to full accel.” She finished the sentence not with a period but with a heart, then a stop sign. Then she shot away.

Clay pursued Rachel and they lined up again as they were passing the Moon’s orbit. Their navigation systems snapped them into formation ten meters apart, and suddenly there was Rachel, taking up the left third of Clay’s screen, smiling sidelong at him. “Exciting, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Clay. “Like, who knew they had fighters too?”

“Well, it stands to reason,” said Rachel, “though I grant that it was a bit of a shock given that they had kept them hidden up to now. I mean, we still don’t know what these little bastards look like.”

“We could hail them and see if they want to talk.”

“I will take that as humor,” said Rachel. “But in case it wasn’t, you did notice that they didn’t bother with viruses or phagocytes at the Mars base, or the Moon or Ganymede. They just blasted the poo out of everything.”

“Yeah,” replied Clay, “including putting holes in the three people who managed to get outside in their vac suits at Ganymede. I’m pretty sure they would put some nice big holes in us if we gave them the chance.”

“Thinking this through,” said Rachel, “the miners must have obtained a few human specimens to determine what our weaknesses are. Because what they came up with, well, it was gosh darned effective, but I don’t think you’d have something like that just lying around.”

“Feeling that feeling again,” said Clay. “That feeling of a ghost breathing on me. Know what I mean?”

“I’ve been feeling that ever since we passed Ganymede.”

“So, any idea how to approach Mathilde, Commander?”

“Oh, talk dirty to me,” said Rachel. “Do you fantasize you’re making love with Su Park?”

“Oh, that would be a mood killer,” Clay replied. “Seriously.”

“Seriously. Well, I have an idea. I guess I feel like I have an intuition. Trust me?”

“Trust you.”

So the two of them disappeared into the blackness. After three hours of acceleration at full throttle, they were zipping along at nearly 3% of the speed of light, and Rachel sent a new navigation plan: they spent another hour accelerating at full, and then cut their thrust to zero after a final adjustment. As if magnetically connected, the two fighters, covering 9000 kilometers every second, adjusted their positions and velocities exactly enough to keep them ten meters apart. For six hours they coasted through the vacuum, playing chess (Rachel, five to three with six draws), Set (Rachel, eight to one) and simulator (Clay, six to five; Rachel was clearly miffed). Presently they were among the orbits of main belt asteroids, of which the major ones hung in ghostly dotted curves across Clay’s screens. Of course, the asteroid belt being what it was, they were not among asteroids exactly, just among their orbits; Clay could have flown blind through the heart of the belt a hundred times and not come close to hitting anything. Still, their path did take them, stealthy as a billiard ball rolling, fairly close to a medium-sized asteroid, a bruised-looking but fairly round object their computers identified as 442 Eichsfeldia. Rachel’s orders told Clay to fire his thrust to get in behind it and slow down to stay behind it. For an hour and a half they followed the little world, which looked like a puffball and seemed bathed something like dirty flour to a depth of several meters. They were completely out of sight of Earth’s orbiters, and at least for now out of the view of the freighter fleet that was currently trooping out of the system.

“What are we hoping for out of this?” Clay called. “I get Mathilde about twelve degrees ahead of us. Now how we possibly get there unnoticed—!”

“We drop back,” said Rachel, “just out into the open behind Eichsfeldia, fire our thrusters just as its gravity gets a good tug on us, fire all the way behind it and cut thrust just as we come into view from Earth again. We can afford a couple more thrust bursts, I expect, if we take them far enough apart, say, here and here and here—without anyone connecting the dots. We should be able to cross to Mathilde in twenty hours and be slow enough at the end that we can stop in the time we’re within its shadow.”

“I guess you’ve thought this out a bit, huh.”

“That would be yes, hubby-licious.”

So, not thinking about the familiarity of the Solar System any more than he had thought about the familiarity of the Earth, not thinking about the absurdity of flitting from rock to rock in his own Solar System any more than he had thought about the absurdity of flitting from dead city to dead city on Earth, and definitely not thinking about how easily he and Rachel could both wind up dead in space any more than he had thought about that on Earth, Clay followed his wife as they hopped and skipped and jumped a few dozens of millions of kilometers across the blackness toward the busted chunk that was 253 Mathilde, with its wide smooth curved surfaces and single enormous bhalf-broken crater and scattered impacts and with that very interesting cavernous interior that was not at all evident to the casual passerby, and which had made Mathilde such a tempting destination for early colonists of the asteroid belt.

What else was not at all evident to the casual, alien observer, on, say, a mission to destroy all sentient life forms and conduct a massive mining operation, was a couple of Ghost 201 fighters coasting in toward that little cave opening in the heart of the big crater, hidden deep in shadow.

And what was not evident even to them, until they were too close to miss it, was the distinctly Earth-made Ghost fighter that floated in the mouth of the cavern, which zipped back inside as Rachel and Clay got within the little planet’s shadow.

4.

“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 fly right on 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 not a robotic one, 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. If they were evil aliens, then 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 Commander Lor Bayance,” she said. “I’m what you might call the acting 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 left Earth 250 years ago. 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, 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 are eager to meet some of the other residents?”

“Inmates, more like,” said Maddy.

“I don’t care what 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. “Lots of people on Earth who looked quite surprised.”

5.

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 hold onto and screens on the walls. Only a few of these were on, showing the cave entrance and some views along the bleak exterior of the asteroid. 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, who left Earth in 2334.”

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?”

“Or maybe,” said the pregnant scientist, “I’m just too dim to comprehend that there’s no hope.”

“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 in space fighters.

“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, so neither one was anything amazing but there they were, 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. Which they were. 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 that means. Everyone has trouble with Russian. 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 with a wry, comfortable slowness. “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. “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.”

6.

“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. They took out what we had for space defenses, like twenty fighters and a couple of cruisers or something, that battle didn’t take long. And we’re like, whoa, what is going on here?”

“And still silence,” said Lor. “I was on Earth orbit patrol. I was ordered to the planet at first. 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. They bundled us up into space when the shuttles started into the atmosphere, and we got into polar orbit. We seemed not to merit notice. 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. “We saw some of it from the Spitzbergen base, but the bleepers blew that place up good. Right after we got airborne.”

“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. And everyone was dead, absolutely everyone.” She looked from one to the other of the fighter pilots, her face halfway between stony and quizzical.

“A few bases were secure,” said Mike Lando. “They sent ships special to blow those up.”

“But the virus,” said Janis, “it got up into all the little villages, Mongolia, Antarctica, Alberta, Madagascar, Siberia. It got everywhere. It hit every electoral precinct.”

“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 bothered with.

“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.” She melted down again and only partially got control, but no one interrupted. She went on after some seconds: “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 on your way out there and back? 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 Axelrod. “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.”

7.

They looked around the room. Clay looked around at Wolf, Marty, Lor. “I notice you haven’t shown us video of the attack.”

“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. The fact that they were recovering from a holocaust to end all holocausts was not obvious.

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 Padfoots of our own: there’s Marco Veda, and Marty’s husband Auden. I bet if you gave them 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 Janis, “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. It’d be target practice. 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.”

“I’m not a Commander,” said Rachel, “but yeah, I totally understand 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 actually smiled under his white mustache. “Keep it secret, keep it safe. 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.”

8.

But Clay and Rachel were not bearing a precious thing into a far and unknown land, nor were they fleeing the school where they had spent a third of their lives, as they tried to understand a collection of ambiguous and contradictory clues under the shadow of swiftly descending evil. They were home, Home as best they knew Home. And having found it brutally changed, they were now in flight, ninety year flight, to reach their new home and protect it from an evil so ridiculously more vast and powerful than they were that they could almost, but not quite, forget how much, really, it looked like humanity.

Home. Mathilde, at least, was somebody’s home, and Rachel and Clay made themselves at home there. They hardly talked, but they held hands a lot, sashaying around the inner halls of the asteroid, sipping hydroponic coffee or replicated liquor while listening to music or watching, for gosh sakes, video shows from Earth’s last ten years. Home?

And now the two of them, children of Earth, citizens of far Bluehorse, moved among the Mathildeans in their daily lives, a world with 1300 human residents. It was an ecosystem even, if a limited one. Its halls and chambers were hollowed out of what little of the fifty kilometer asteroid was actually completely solid rock, and within its confines, among or in spite of the people, lived several hundred cats, perhaps several thousand mice, a somewhat larger number of arthropods (mostly spiders, silverfish, tiny flies and beetles) and a base of assorted innocuous fungus, mold, lichen and moss; higher-level plants were tended in the hydroponics chambers. Surrounded by cold vacuum and besieged by murderous aliens, bracketed by disaster past and mystery ahead, Mathilde lived. It could go on living this way for millions of years, if allowed.

Meanwhile for hours at a time, their thoughts churned around the same small circuit of ideas: how could it be gone, the place of their birth, what could they possibly do now, what would have become of Bluehorse by the time they got back, what would they find at Alpha C or Gliese 667, what possibly might be left of the species Homo sapiens, why had God, why had History, why had evolution even bothered creating them only to be wiped out so brutally, so stupidly, so meaninglessly, so easily? Honestly, what did it mean, the science, the literature, the billions of lovers holding hands in the millennia of rainy evenings, the mothers rocking their babies, the couples fighting and making up and making a desperate choice to transcend their troubles, the children dancing in the sunlight, the old men smiling as they made peace between their peoples, the billions, the billions of stories of sad, flawed, brilliant, hopeful humankind, which had driven itself to wars and contaminations that nearly destroyed it, and which had pulled itself up from near self-immolation, had learned peace and tolerance and learned to look hopefully to the stars—the stars from which had come, not a cosmic horror, but a bunch of shaggy tentacled space blobs who used several of the oldest tricks in the book to get the better of H. sapiens, to the extent of complete planetary genocide, just to gain unchallenged mining rights?

So for two weeks, for about fourteen twenty-four hour days, they sashayed the halls and prowled the observatories of the asteroid Mathilde. They ate often with Dr Janis Axelrod and Dr Marty Marston and Marty’s husband, a software engineer named Auden Blair. He told them all about the clever tricks their Ghosts were being taught about stealth; after several meals together, Clay and Rachel were feeling like they could fly right past a Ngugma patrol cruiser without being seen. Janis and Marty, after several meals with the fighter pilots, tended to turn the conversation toward the nature of the Ngugma themselves, and, with a horrified fascination, Clay found himself engaged in the same study.

Ngugma were a dark brown color, in the neighborhood of chimpanzee or cockroach. They had long, thick fur over bodies which had ten significant tentacular appendages, of which four were primarily used for ground locomotion. Their mouths, apparently, were on top of their more or less spherical bodies, and had their own set of six small tentacles. Eight to twelve more pods around their mouths seemed to be sensory: at least four of these were optical. Their central bodies were, when seen in Earth gravity during their original visit, about four meters across and two high; in weightlessness they went spherical. Their six non-locomotor tentacles stuck out to the sides an additional meter in all directions, making them look, from above, like chocolate-colored suns.

They had seemed nice enough. They had first announced themselves from space, after monitoring Earth media, in English, Chinese, Russian and French, and, despite glaring idiomatic difficulties, had made themselves understood. They were understood to be sympathetic, intelligent, and presumably far too advanced for cupidity or belligerence. They were not understood to be ruthless, or even very interested in Earth itself.

They had hardly communicated at all during their second visit, whose first objective was, of course, to eliminate anyone they might have to communicate with.

“So where do you really think they came from?” Clay asked their hosts one night over replicated wine. “Let’s discount the possibility that they can travel by wormhole from a distant galaxy.”

“Well, if you discount that,” said Marty, “then who the heck knows.”

“You’d think it would be close by, wouldn’t you?” asked her husband, Auden Blair.

“I’m going to guess,” said Clay, “that they have a base not too far away, but that their home is somewhere further off. Look, we know so little that almost anything is possible, aside from violating relativity.”

“Not letting go of Einstein, are you?” Rachel said.

“No, but they might be, oh, loading up on huge supplies of iron for some cluster out in deep space, away from the galaxy, that’s low on metals. They might be pillaging dozens of systems just to get enough to use in their home cluster or whatever. Kind of like what happened when humans discovered how useful oil is. We went anywhere there was an oil supply and did anything we needed to get it back to where we could use it.”

“You’re saying that wherever the Ngugma live, they’ve just discovered the charm of steel cutlery.”

“It makes a nice snick-snack noise,” said Clay.

“Suffice it to say,” Janis Axelrod put in, “we don’t spend a lot of time working out how far away they came from.”

The conversation wound on, and other conversations followed the same course, and in a few more days, Rachel Andros and Clay Gilbert were ready to make a run for it. A grouping of small asteroids were just passing on the outside of Mathilde’s position in orbit. Clay and Rachel bid farewell to the residents, or inmates, of the asteroid Mathilde, and everyone knew that come what may, they would never see each other again.

“Good luck,” said Dr Wolf, shaking their hands in the airlock. They got hugs from Janis and Marty, and Lor saluted them. Mike Lando and Auden Blair gave them a few last pointers on maneuver and stealth, and then Lor, Marty and Janis had to hug them one more time.

And then they were out in the big crater’s deep shadow, and then they were out in space in the shadow of Mathilde itself, and then they were skittering across to the half dozen little asteroids that would be their cover for a few more days before they began the more dangerous sprint out of the Solar System.

They linked up, and now they floated, naked together, chatting after making love.

“So not quite what I expected,” said Clay.

“Clay.”

“Rachel. I can be all serious about what happened. You know I can. Humans have always reacted to situations like this with gallows humor.”

“Situations like—? Oh, forget it,” said Rachel. “Forget how humans have always reacted. Clearly that didn’t work for us here either.”

“So what should we think instead?”

“We should think about what will do justice on our deadly enemies,” said Rachel, in a quiet voice that made him shiver.

But I’m not the one who needs to be afraid, he thought.

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