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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Friday, May 23, 2008 18:27 EDT



Extract from the Transcript of the Slowtrain funding debate of Lower House, Sysgov.

    "… What the representative from Ceres is missing is that the costs of this expedition are being offset in several ways. While it is hard to quantify, precisely, what sort of saving in Safety, Security and Monitoring we're talking about, I have been told that we're going to save approximately 84% of our humint bill alone. Besides we get rid of a lot of misfits. Frankly, there is no place for them in the system."

    Speaker of the ruling party, System Secretary Pablo Paris

    Creeping along the greenery-hung passages in what he hoped was the right direction, Kretz had every sense alert. He knew that he was badly equipped for this. Besides the fact that he'd never stalked up on anything in his life, there was his suit. The clothing of the aliens and their striped facial pigmentation made them hard to see in the jungle-like corridors. Kretz's suit was designed to be seen. Seen clearly, so that there were no chances of an accident. One wanted bright—garishly bright—colors and contrasts, so that the user could be spotted from a safe distance. Right now the lights were dim, barely a glow, obviously some part of the plant-life environmental requirements. That would have helped Kretz , except that part of the suit was luminous. He'd draped branches over himself and tried to tie them in place, but they kept falling off. Other than the equipment belt, the suit had been designed to be as snag-proof as possible. That made sense. You didn't want hook up on something when you were operating in a dangerous environment. It also meant that camouflage, even dirt, would not stick to the suit.

    That made hiding out very difficult, and trying to creep back toward the airlock even more so. The internal structure made the habitat just so much bigger than it appeared from the outside, and the airlock was certain to be guarded.

    Tired and frightened, Kretz could see no other option but to try and get there anyway. He'd been trying to think of an alternative, but right now could see none. So he crept onward.

    Into ambush.

    He hadn't even spotted anything wrong. The rope noose had been cunningly hidden, and had snatched him off his feet, upside down, a full body-length into the air, so fast that he barely had time to scream.

    The aliens came running out of hiding, showing teeth, weapons at the ready.

    Reacting with the strength born of pure terror Kretz took the monomolecular sampling knife and slashed at the cord. The slash was in too much haste, and Kretz's sampling knife went flying, and, to Kretz's shock, buried itself in the shoulder of one of the advancing aliens. The alien screamed, just as the cord around Kretz's ankles snapped.

    Kretz fell, and would have landed on his head if he had not hit an alien on the way. They went down together. Kretz squirmed and struggled to get away from the strange grasping hands. He struggled to his feet, kicked free of the grip on his foot and tried to run, again. He tripped over the remains of the noose around his ankles.

    It saved his life. The projectile weapon that one of the alien crew fired was not just one of the little tubes they'd used before. It was a massive tube and spat fire and smoke with a roaring boom that almost deafened Kretz. It shredded a wall-full of greenery before the projectile exploded further down the passage. Kretz didn't know how he'd gotten up and started running again. He just found that he had.

    There was one alien with a raised hand-weapon ahead of him. The alien was yelling something, his striped face savage, his red mouth open and his odd square teeth exposed. Kretz was beyond thought. He just kept running.

    The hammer-blow on his shoulder nearly stopped him. It did spin him. He staggered against the wall. Somehow he kept on running through the pain. Another shot hit him from behind. He nearly fell again, but his nervous system was on full overload by now, hormones released to cushion him from the shock, letting him run on, blood warm and wet on his shoulder and buttocks.

    He ran until he fell.

    Then he got up onto hands and knees and crawled.

    Eventually he stopped, because there was nowhere to crawl to. There was just a hole. The volume of explosives used here must have been enormous… because the hole was huge. It appeared to go all the way to the skin of the habitat. It was wide enough to park the ship's lifecraft in.

    He was lying there, panting, desperate, and with the pain beginning to overwhelm him at last, when something hard pressed into his back.

    The alien said something in the guttural language they used. Kretz—logic no longer functioning but struggling against despair—turned Transcomp on.

    Transcomp coped quite well. "Turn over, [untranslated]. Turn over or I'll blow your spine in half."

    Slowly Kretz turned. "Not that way!" snapped his alien captor. "You'll fall over the edge. Ah [untranslated] just stay still." The alien stared down at him teeth exposed in aggression. "The [untranslated] wants you alive to beat some answers out of you. Kill the rest of you, [untranslated]."

    Kretz was not a particularly brave male. But he knew that he had very little choice.

    He rolled.

    The alien tried to catch him as he went over the edge. And, perforce, fell with him.

    Screaming together.

    It was a long way down.

    There was a moment of glancing impact. Pain.

    And then… nothing.



    When he woke up, Kretz had no idea how long he'd been lying there. The alien he'd fallen with would have no idea either. By the stillness and the odd angle of his head, Kretz guessed that he was dead. The alien had been less lucky about where he had landed. He was lying on a metal girder, and not half-buried in a mass of stinking, rotting, soft vegetation. Kretz tried to move.

    The agony that came from his arm told him that he'd been a fraction less lucky than he had thought. Cautiously, using the other hand, he sat up. His toes still moved. So did his legs. Now if he could only get to his feet and back to the spacecraft and see Selna…

    Then it hit him. Selna was dead. Kretz had seen him fall, had seen the alien mob kicking him and spitting on him. The physician wouldn't ever treat anyone again. The Miran spacecraft, the refuge, might just as well be on another planet. All he could do now was to try to survive. Or maybe he should just die and prevent the aliens from making him tell them how to get into the Miran spacecraft.

    Kretz struggled to his feet. He staggered through the debris, across the gap created by the explosion and into the darkness beyond.

    Whatever had happened here had cut water and power to this section of the alien corridor labyrinth. After a short distance it was absolutely black. He had to turn his headlight on. It was plain from the bones and the skeletal remains of plants that this piece of the alien Habitat had been dead for many years. The dust too was undisturbed. No one, neither alien nor their little robots, had been here for many years. Swaying, half delirious with pain and the loss of blood, Kretz made his way forward. There was a stair ahead, possibly the reason that this hole had been blown in first place. Kretz began climbing the stair, with painful slowness.

    How many times he fell and how many steps he climbed Kretz could never be sure. Eventually he arrived at a point where there was no more up. Just a curving landing, a thick horizontal pole, layered in microtubules, and very little gravity from the spin.

    Or it could be his head spinning. He'd lost a lot of blood.

    Eventually, he realized that it wasn't a pole. It was the line, the cable, that linked the habitats. He was right at the center of the habitat, possibly near a pole. Off to one side of him—that was an elevator! An alien elevator, yes, but still function defined form. The explosion-hole he'd fallen down… someone must have blown out an elevator shaft. Possibly they had filled an elevator with explosives in the shaft, and then exploded it. The stair he'd followed had been a mere standby.

    His mind had been drifting between extreme lucidity and delirium for some time. It was in one of its lucid phases just then. There had to be a reason for the stairs and the lift shaft being right there—and looking at the cable he could see it.

    A door. A door set into the central cable, with the millions of microtubules that surrounded the core in brackets around the door to allow access to it. Well… it would have been a door—if there had been any sign of a handle. And off to the side was a wide passage with a rail set into it. With an odd start Kretz realized that he'd seen one like it before—at the airlock they'd come in by.

    The engineering side of Kretz's mind clicked in. This was for heavy equipment transport. And it had to run between the central cable and airlock. The question was… which airlock? Had he ended up at the wrong end of the habitat? And mostly, what should he do now? He knew that he'd been shot by the aliens. The suit had of course protected him to some extent. But he was badly bruised and still losing blood, and he had a broken arm. He stood, swaying, indecisive. Eventually he set off down the wide corridor. It was not one of the greenhouse ones, and was lit only by small lights on one wall. It curved quite steeply downwards and he found himself desperately hoping that he'd found an unguarded way to the airlock. He had to stop and lean against the wall quite often. But at least he found no more of the murderous aliens. And it brought him out into an antechamber with an airlock.

    A glance at the surrounding water-reservoir was enough to tell him it was the wrong airlock. There was no way that, in his present state, he could make it out and over the equatorial ridge. He doubted if he had the air for such a trip anyway. And—thinking slightly more coherently—he realized that it wouldn't have helped if this had been the airlock by which they'd come in, anyway, right now. His suit-fabric would knit and repair itself, but not in time. He needed a place to hide. Perhaps inside the airlock would do.

    He was about to step forward when he heard alien voices. He turned and fled up the ramp again. In the darkness he felt slightly more secure, just wishing it wasn't all uphill. There were no exits off this tunnel either, which made escape awkward.

    At last he came to the cable. Here were other passage-entrances. He could hide here in one of the dead areas, surely? And then in one of those odd moments of lucidity he had an idea. If he could open that handleless door, he could hide inside the cable. Surely the only reason for it being handle-less was to keep the passengers out? It was big enough to hide in. And, if there was a similar door on the far end of the habitat core, well, that should take him to the other down-ramp to the airlock that he wanted to reach.

    All he had to do was to open a handle-less alien door, which seemed impossible. But he still had his tools. It was worth trying surely? The thought of a hiding-place where these alien murderers couldn't find him was attractive. The thought that it might just open into a vacuum also occurred. Well. That would kill him. And them.

    He began an electromagnetic probing of the door with a basic electronic workman's remote. It detected the active circuits within easily enough. The question was—could he open it?

    He gambled and used a pulsed signal to interrupt the circuit. It was just the first thing to try…

    And it worked.

    There was no rush of air into a vacuum as the door swung open. Just a puff of old, stale, cold air, at slightly higher pressure. There was perfectly ordinary handle on the inside.



    He stood there, leaning against the thick door, and staring into the blackness inside. A transport tunnel. That's what it had to be. A way of replenishing lost water or air from the stockpiles that were just behind the ramscoop. One stockpile for the entire string of habitats, fed through this tube. Simple. Elegant. Alien. Did he dare crawl into it?

    A wave of giddiness nearly overwhelmed him. And then an alien voice said "I told you those were his tracks. Shoot him before he gets away!" There was an explosion. Water from broken microtubules splashed onto him. As quickly as he could with one good arm, Kretz scrambled up into the tube, and pulled the door closed behind him. It shut with an audible click. And the sound of the alien voices was gone as if cut off with a knife.

    They probably wouldn't have an electronic workman's remote with them, thought Kretz. It was then, to his horror, that he realized that he didn't have his, either. He must have dropped it. That set his hearts racing even faster. If they knew how to use it…

    And then he panicked. The tube was too small for him to stand up in. And crawling with a broken arm hurt. He shuffled and somehow made his way away from that door. He wasn't too worried about where he was going. The crucial direction was… away. Away from aliens with guns.

    It was much later, in the dark, with no sounds of pursuit behind him, that he finally thought of putting his headlight on. When he got to another door… he lay down. It was not sleep really. More like half coma, half delirium. But no one and nothing disturbed him until his thirst did. There was nothing left in his suit tank. He cursed. Lay there and shivered with the tube going around and around. He tugged feebly at the door handle. It opened. It was obviously not intended to be secure from the inside.

    Kretz was reluctant to leave the sanctuary of his refuge. But he knew that he had to drink. Had to. And besides, all Miran were somewhat claustrophobic. Females far more so than males, but no Miran liked confined places that much. It seemed better to let them kill him in the open. He was sure that he was too near death for them to beat anything out of him now.

    Getting out and onto the ground was a difficult process. He hurt himself so badly that he passed out for a while. When he finally managed to stand up, he saw to his horror that the door he'd come through had somehow closed.

    But at least there were no aliens around. To his blurred senses this end of the pipe seemed more verdant. There were certainly no burned-out passages, and the air smelled different. Perhaps they had local air-current circulators. The Miran explorers had barely begun to fathom the engineering of the habitat before the attack. Kretz still found it nearly incomprehensible that the aliens were so cavalier about destroying their own habitat. It was almost as if they did not know, or care, about how fragile an enclosed environment was. Of course a huge, complex one like this had far more self-correcting bio-feedback loops than a smaller environment, but still, there had to be a point at which those could not compensate, and then collapse would be swift. The aliens must be pushing that limit, he thought, deriving some savage satisfaction from the idea, as his feet seemed to become more wayward and distant.

    Suddenly, there was a squeal in front of him. A squat, four-footed pink alien peered malevolently at him from the shelter of the bush it had been rooting behind. This side of the habitat was very different. There was soil underfoot, along with plant-cover, even in this, the wide passage with the overhead rail. And there were transverse passages here too.

    The alien was unclothed and rather muddy. It looked at Kretz… and turned and ran. The last he saw of it was its curly tail disappearing around a corner, into a transverse passage. Kretz watched it from a sitting down position and through a haze of pain, because his legs had gone wobbly on him and deposited him on his butt—which, by the feel of it, had started the bleeding again, and had jarred his arm.

    Still: it stirred a kind of hope. There was more than one species of alien. Perhaps they were not all evil. Or perhaps it had just gone to call its friends. Doing his best to hurry, Kretz pressed on downward. But by now his eyes were having trouble focusing. And he kept hearing things—whether they were real or imaginary—he was not too sure. But he had to hide every time, in case.

    It couldn't be much further… surely? In his present state every step felt an enormous distance. And everything seemed so confused. Looking around him at the plants laden with heavy pink and green fruit, Kretz realized that he'd somehow lost the passage with the roof-rail, and wandered into some side passage.

    He was lost even from the vague hope of a path he'd been keeping to.

    It was a small blow but the final one. He fell into the staked plants breaking the fragile stems to half-lie, half-sit against the growth matrix-wall full of plants.

    When consciousness came back he was aware of the sound of footsteps. Instinctively he tried to cower back the broken plants. But there was nowhere to hide this time. And he could not get up to run, although he tried. He closed his eyes, as if not by looking at it, it would not see him.

    When he finally opened his eyes, the alien loomed over him. It looked like the alien monsters that had killed his friends and companions and hunted him down, except that it was much bigger.

    There was one other difference, too. Its face was not striped.

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