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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Monday, June 16, 2008 07:51 EDT



    " To the primitive who spent six months hollowing out a log, the clinker-built longship was an advance so great as to be beyond comprehension. It carried so much more, and was so much more seaworthy—and measured per person involved and transported by it, cost less. Then the calked planks of a medieval carrack carried a vast load, unthinkable to earlier sailors. Its untreated timbers meant a short few years use out of 150 year-old oak timbers. It took skilled craftsmen in the best ship-yard in Europe eight months to build… and by 1570 AD there were ships of 400 ton capacity. To those sailors, a supertanker would have been an unimaginable vessel—carrying 250 000 tons. Yet, per ton carried over time, the supertanker was far cheaper than the carrack. The space habitat of the future will be far bigger still… and far cheaper per ton carried, with an infinitely longer depreciation. Stretch your minds, and start leaving everything you have learned about engineering behind. This isn't the just mechanical engineering of heavy machinery… it's that, metallurgy, architecture and trajectory computation, all in one big, new package."

Prof. Marcus T. Chede. Inaugural lecture on assuming the Chair of Space Science, University of Wisconsin.

    Kretz blinked. "You have seen other Miran?" he asked, hopefully. Perhaps others of his group had somehow found their way to this apparently friendly group.

    They both shook their heads. "Never."

    Someone knocked and the tall male, Howard, went to let them in. He led in a group of these Howards… Humans into the room. Some had facial hair and others did not, and most of their hair had obviously not begun to turn lustrous and colored yet. Some hadn't yet grown any hair at all, or just had a few wispy strands.

    Kretz was—to his fellow Miran—unusually tolerant of closed in spaces and crowded places. That didn't mean—like poor Derfel, who was completely mad as most Miranese would see it—that he enjoyed being crowded. All of these aliens around the bed made him feel very confined. Two of them were showing teeth, too. That, he had to remind himself, was one of the pieces of social display that didn't translate.

    It wasn't a threat among the aliens, although, thinking back, it could be. Well. Politeness first, even if they were making him most uncomfortable. "Peace be with you," he said.

    That seemed to startle them. Several of them raised a hand—not two hands, Kretz noted—as the stripe-faced aliens had. A single hand at about face level, and not above their heads. "Peace be with you too, Stranger," said one in a slightly shaky voice.

    "Sister Thirsdaughter. Why is his face that color?" asked another.

    "I think he just is that color," said the small wrinkled female who had tended his hurts. "Why don't you ask Brother Kretz yourself, Brother Lee? Kretz, Brother Lee would like to know why you are that color? He does speak some English, Brother Lee, although I must warn you that he's obviously still learning it."

    Kretz did his honest best to answer the question. He was sure that Transcomp would get some words wrong, but they had asked. "It is because of chromophores in the dermis… the skin," Kretz elaborated, seeing the alien shake his head. "Why do you not have striped faces like the other aliens that look quite like you?"

    "I've never heard of anyone with a striped face," said the one called Brother Lee. "Where did you meet these?"

    "It was when we came into the habitat from our spacecraft," explained Kretz earnestly. "We were met and later attacked by them. They pretended to be friendly. Peaceful. They are going to attack and kill my people at our home."

    "And they hurt you like this?" asked Sister Thirsdaughter. "Bothers, Sisters, as I told you, I think he was shot. Shot with a projectile that looks very like a bullet in medical texts from pre-New Eden."

    Much of what the wrinkled little female said didn't translate. But Kretz had a good idea what she was trying to say. "The striped-faced ones used some kind of tube-weapon, that drove a projectile very fast. They tried to kill me." He could see that not all of it had translated either, but the part about trying to kill him that had got to them, by the reaction. "I think they killed my companions—the rest of my friends. I ran. I was very hurt. I lost a lot of blood. I did not know where I ran. Thank you for helping me."

    The humans were silent for a bit, then another asked: "Where have you come from?"

    That, at least, was easy. "From Miran. Our world." Looking at the shaking heads he realized it was not going to be quite so easy after all. Had they forgotten that there was anything outside?

    "Are many of you going to come to New Eden?" asked another.

    Kretz shook his head, hoping that he was reading the questioner aright. The posture—if they were behaviorally at all like Miran, and seemed to be—was defensive. "It is very far away. It took us much time to get here. You are going past us, very fast. We cannot do it again."

    "This Miran place. Is it hot?" That came from one with a misshapen face.

    "You mean full of brimstone, Brother Lewis?" asked the wrinkled physician.

    "Let him answer the question, Sister," said the one who'd asked. "I see he's huddled under blankets. Tell us about this Miran-place… stranger."

    Kretz thought carefully. How did you explain a planet? "It is a place like this—with plants and things much like yours. It is a little warmer, but not very much."

    "So, if it is such a good place, why have you come here?"

    How could he explain? "We came to see what was here. Your… place shines like a star in the sky."

    That plainly impressed them. "And your light shall be a beacon to the multitudes," said one. Transcomp filed away several more unknown words.

    It didn't appear to satisfy the one who had worried about Miran being warmer than this place. "Are there many of you?" he asked, sticking his head forward like a predatory tunnel-worm. He had bristly cilia above his eyes.

    Kretz gave him as fair an answer as possible. "I do not know. Do you mean on Miran or here? On Miran, many. Here, I do not know. I may be the last of my kind. The striped faced ones killed my companions. Two of the others were due to go to bead six."

    "And how do we know all of this is true?" asked the inquisitor, pursing his lips and looking at Kretz with narrowed eyes.

    Kretz guessed that the pursed lips were not an invitation to sexual congress here. Truth? Well, he could use Howard's earlier words. The big male had seemed very intense about it when trying to reassure him. It was probably a way of indicating a deeply held belief in that truth.

    "I swear on the Bible." he said, pointing to the object Howard had put his hand on. He hoped that he read the alien's expression right, and that the alien wasn't going to piqued at the lack of response he got.       



    Nothing he'd managed to say thus far had the same effect. Male Miran are very observational about postural cues. It was how they survived the moodiness of those undergoing changeover. Several of the aliens visibly relaxed.

    "Are you of our Faith?" asked the one who had wanted to know why he was that color.

    Transcomp rendered the last word as it heard it, as it had no Miran equivalent or near equivalent yet. By the way the posture changed, and by the way they looked at him, this was an important question. "I do not understand the word 'faith'. Please explain," he said, playing for time and more clues. He was at their mercy, and he was still not sure if the Miran had done something wrong with the other aliens, to make them murder his companions. This group seemed friendly. But so had the stripy faced ones, at first.

    "Do you believe in Almighty God?" asked one. It didn't seem to be an explanation. But they were all leaning in on him.

    "I do not understand 'Almighty God'? Please explain."

    "Aha!" The one who was possibly piqued because of a lack of attention pointed a finger at him. "An emissary of Satan, just as Brother Galsson said! His words are all lies!"

    "If they're all lies, then why didn't he lie about that?" asked Howard. "Brother, why not get him to swear on the Bible? If he's a demon it should burn him."

    "Who asked you to speak?" snapped Kretz's chief inquisitor.

    "It's a good idea, all the same, Brother Lewis," said one of the others. "I think we should do it." The small still-bald male picked the Bible-thing up and put it on the bed. Kretz felt that he would never get the hang of this alien hierarchy, let alone the questions they were putting to him.

    "Put your uninjured hand on it and say the following words after me. "I swear'," instructed the small male.

    Kretz did he was instructed. "I swear." The Bible-thing was a fascinating artifact. It looked reminiscent of a text-screen. Kretz wished, rather sadly, that Zawn could be there to examine it.

    The man continued. "By almighty God, to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God."

    The words were confusing, but there seemed no harm in them, and no way to avoid saying them without causing offence. So Kretz repeated them.

    "Well, he didn't burst into flames," said someone.

    Kretz's leading inquisitor was either very promiscuous—or the facial expression which he gave the alien who said that meant something else entirely. The inquisitor turned his attention to Kretz: "I ask you directly. Are you a demon sent here by the evil one to lead the faithful in the ways of unrighteousness to perdition?"

    Kretz was growing tired of all of this. He was sore, tired, confused, and suddenly sick at heart again, thinking of Zawn. If they wished to kill him, perhaps they should just do it. "I do not want to lead anyone. I am male. I want to go back to my kind and back to my spacecraft and back to my home." They could find their own way to this place they wanted to go to. It was probably somewhere in the striped-faces' ones' territory.

    To his surprise he saw that his answer hadn't offended them at all. "I think it is our duty to send you there," said the one with the bald head.

    "Immediately," said the inquisitor. It was hard to tell, but he seemed relieved.

    "Not quite," said the wrinkled little human who had bandaged him with Howard. "He needs to recover at least slightly first. He's weak from a lack of blood, and his blood is as red as yours, Brothers and Sisters. He's also half starved. And we must try not to send him to his enemies. They shot him, remember. We give succor to the weak and helpless."

    "As soon as possible!" said Kretz. "Can you get me back to my spacecraft? Please?"

    They looked perplexed. "I'm not too sure what this 'spacecraft' is," said the bald one. "But you can certainly leave as soon as you wish."

    "Yes," said the inquisitor. "The land of milk and honey is not for evil unbelievers. You should go."

    That was comforting, at least. They seemed sincere enough, although it was hard to judge. It seemed that what they really wanted was for him to get out of their lives. They probably didn't want trouble with the striped-faces.

    If they had some way to get him past them?

    He looked at the 'Bible' on his legs. The black marking on the thin white sheets undoubtedly had some meaning… unless it was some collection of computer circuits. It could be. It could be anything. They plainly valued it, though. Was it what kept the striped-face ones away? It might be something he could learn about, that he could take back to his people as a defense. "Can you explain this thing to me?" he said. "I would learn about it and tell my people."

    "If he's a demon, he's a clever one," said one of the aliens.

    "It shows that the path to grace may yet be open," said the bald one.

    They did speak in riddles. Perhaps the path they referred to led past the stripy faced ones by a secret route. That would be very welcome. The thought of facing them again made him feel sick. Or it could just be the alien soup, he supposed. He wanted to rest now. He tried a traditional farewell. Surely that would be hint enough?

    "May you all father many sons, and may your clan mothers always be large, gentle and wise."

    Several of the facially-maned ones looked taken aback at this. The ones with no facial manes snorted oddly. They seemed to be having trouble breathing.

    "Some of us," said the wrinkled young female who had treated his hurts, "cannot father children, Kretz."

    Kretz cringed. You didn't talk about this kind of thing. Well, Miran didn't. But perhaps the human's sexual etiquette and taboos were different. Sterility didn't appear to worry them, even if to the average Miran male it was a nightmare. Perhaps they only grew that mane if they were sterile? They were the ones who seemed distressed.

    "It happens sometimes in space," he said sympathetically. "Radiation. No matter how careful you are. It's one of the things that goes with being male, I suppose, before we settle down and have sons. It might be safer if females would do it, but they won't."

    That seemed to confuse them even more. "What do you mean?" asked the inquisitor-human.

    Kretz was really feeling his exhaustion now. He was too tired to wrestle with alien social behavior. "Young males like me and yourselves go out-venturing. When they become female they remain at home in their breeding territory."

    His reply caused that odd snorting noise among some and a reddening in faces of others. "It looks like it is not just theology he needs help with understanding," said the still-bald one.

    "I also think he needs to rest. Councilors, we can take this further another time," said the wrinkled female.

    Kretz could only be grateful when they left.

    He was drifting back into sleep already when Howard came back, still making odd snorting noises. He must find out what that meant sometime. Was it a respiratory ailment? It made him very red faced.

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