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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Friday, June 27, 2008 20:08 EDT



Re Habitat 37.
Date: 2120-11-4 Time: 15:31 NMT
From: Chief Scientist S. Guthrie (Environment Construction)
To: Chief Construction (Spacefitting) Officer M. Kabongo

Re: repair and maintenance robots.

    Mike K, you're a cantankerous and ornery pain in the butt. Look, the Brethren are archaic agriculturalists. These guys actually kill pigs and chickens to eat. That's had the animal welfare groups on Earth in ferment and it’s got the Brethren claiming they're victims of religious persecution. The habitat environment is set up on the lowest degree of mechanization we can contrive. They've even got synthetic soils instead of stable granule growing mediums. They're planning on growing trees! The microdrop set-up is supposed to be manually serviceable, which as you know from A23 the others aren't. These guys plan to cart dung and fertilize their soils. It's primitive but it might just outlast those JB232 units you're fussing about. Where the hell is this lot going to get the knowhow to repair a JayBee? Our modeling analyses show that complex and varied agricultural units have a degree of plasticity and biofeedback that more mono-focus ones don't have. There will still be micro-monitoring and macro-consumables replacement while they're in Deep Space. They're way under carrying-capacity and as long as they restrict their population growth, they'll be probably be better off than some of the other habitats.


    Now that Kretz was healing and talking, and had proved less demonic than Howard had secretly feared, Howard found that he was beginning to enjoy his house-guest. For starters, he never knew quite what Kretz would say next. For a second thing, Kretz liked talking about mechanical things. He liked to work out just how they worked. And he kept asking Howard. This gave Howard a great rationalized excuse to think about them. Of course there were some areas of confusion to clear up.

    Firstly, that pigs were not intelligent part owners of New Eden.

    And, secondly, that humans were very different from Miran, despite the similarities.

    "Transcomp wishes to know what the honorifics 'Brother and Sister' mean, since they seem to be more than simple family references."

    "Who is Transcomp?" asked Howard.

    "It is my mechanical translator. It works on the vocabulary I have established and also deduces other meanings and words and the way the speech should be structured. Zawn is… was our expert on translation. He said that your language was old, because it was complex and had absorbed structure and words from several logical rule-pattern stems."

    That didn't clarify very much. Well, Howard thought, it was his turn now. He blushed, just thinking about trying to explain sexual differences in humans to Kretz. Perhaps he could get Sister Thirsdaughter to do it. She was a midwife, and Kretz… was somewhere between the two of them. Hopefully… she'd do it when he wasn't around!

    He heard her outside. She had a habit of singing choruses while she walked. Howard hastily found a reason to go and do some chores in his kitchen. Never had chores seemed so attractive.

    But scrubbing his table-top was interrupted by Sister Thirsdaughter calling. Reluctantly, but worried in case something was really wrong, he went.

    "Explain to Brother Kretz that you are not female, Howard. He believes that because you are big and your skin is taut you might be."

    Howard lost himself in a tangle of half-sentences. The only small comfort was that Kretz was obviously as embarrassed as he was. He was attempting to hide his face behind his hand.

    Sister Thirsdaughter was taking all too much pleasure in it all. "He also labored under the delusion that because you were bigger than I was, you were much older. I gather that you were able to persuade him that pigs were not another form of human this morning?"

    "Yes," said Howard, eager to change the direction of the conversation. "One of my shotes got out of the sty and looked in at the window this morning. Kretz had seen wild ones up near the core."

    "You will be relieved to know that I can tell my fellow councilors that you did not undress a woman after all, Howard. Kretz is male, at the moment, and will be for some years, still. Then he'll change to having babies instead of fathering them. They keep growing throughout life, like trees. They have babies when their bodies are large enough. It makes good sense actually." She cocked her head and looked at him. "A penny for your thoughts, young man."

    "I have just realized that 'looks like' does not mean 'is like'," said Howard. "A door is still a door if it is made of wood or metal, but the stuff of it, and the making of it is not the same."

    "You're too bright for your own good," she said with a smile. "Now, I have decided that it would do Kretz a bit of good to take a short walk outside. I've never believed in bed-rest unless absolutely necessary. The muscles become pulp, and the digestive system doesn't work properly. But he needs someone your size—even if you're not female—to catch him before he falls over. That arm needs protecting. Walk him around your garden. And then I shall sit with him while you go and irrigate your crops."

    So Howard took Kretz out to the look at the herbs and then—to Kretz's evident excitement—to the chickens. Kretz stared at them for a long time, before Howard went and caught him a new hatched chick to hold.

    Kretz shook his head. "They are so much stranger than you. We have nothing like this on Miran!"

    The cow and the pigs and even the sheep, while plainly fascinating, failed to make as much of an impression as a single egg, and the flip-flop of rooster-flight.



    "One thing I have been meaning to ask you," said Kretz, watching Howard laboriously shovel animal feces into a simple one-wheeled barrow with two handles. "Why do you do everything yourselves? A machine could do this in seconds. I have seen your repair machines…"

    Howard lowered his spade and looked around in what seemed to be a wary manner. "Don't let anyone, even Sister Thirsdaughter, hear you say that word. I know you don't understand, Kretz, but it's sacrilege to even suggest doing such work by machine. They robbed mankind of their purpose and their dignity. Robots are an invention of Satan."

    Robots. Kretz told Transcomp to file that word, and to use it only with prior notification. Personally he couldn't see what purpose and dignity had to do with shoveling animal manure, but then he wasn't human, for which he was deeply thankful. Increasingly, he was realizing that these humans were primitive—not because they'd lost their technological knowledge, but because they'd chosen to do so. That made for a simple life, but a rather tedious one at times. It also seemed rather counter-intuitive to their long-term survival in space.

    Today he had walked, with a pause to sit down, with Howard to the water reservoir in the nearby polar region.

    He was still getting over the shock of that experience.

    Besides watching Howard carrying buckets made of hard plant-matter, and rolling a barrel made of the same stuff, which was bad enough, he'd also seen something that made him despair.

    It was a sight he'd longed for.

    The airlock.

    But it was not the right one.

    Now it was finally clear to him just what he had done while his mind had been hazed with pain and blood-loss. He had indeed escaped the stripe-faced humans—by leaving their space-habitat entirely. He'd crawled down the inside of the linking cable to another habitat. No wonder the locals didn't know what he was talking about. No wonder these “brethren” managed to live such peaceful lives. They had a gulf of space to protect them.

    Of course, that also made getting back to his ship nearly impossible. Not only did he have hostiles to contend with but space too. If only he hadn't closed the door to the cable behind him.

    He sat down on the bed in Howard's room and examined the re-breather and suit-tank—and his radio. It was only the high-gain aerial that taken a direct hit. And even that was a testimony either to the toughness of the aerial, or to the ineffectiveness of the weapons of the stripy-faces. It still hung by a thread of metal. It was still useless and unfixable without the proper tools. Howard watched, fascinated. When Kretz dropped it onto the bed in disgust, he said "I could mend it for you, Brother."

    Kretz resisted the temptation to say with what? Cow dung and spit? It was kindly meant. "I think it is beyond your ability," he said.

    "The solder we use for stained glass might work." Howard obviously had learned to recognize Miran bewilderment by now. He just walked out and came back with a little glass container, made up of multicolored fragments in a metal frame-matrix. It was a picture, Kretz realized, made by sticking fragments together. A delicate, intricate and very decorative item that would have been intensely desirable on Miran. He blinked. It was not what he'd expected of the aliens.

    "Look," said Howard, "You join the calmes like this." He pointed to a tiny spot of shiny metal, plainly melted into place.

    "You did this?"

    Howard nodded. "It is my hobby."

    Hobby was a new word to Kretz. It seemed wrong that a man who could do this kind of work was shoveling animal excreta.

    "I suppose you can try," he said. After all, what did he have to lose? The radio didn't work now. Howard's attempts could only leave him just as badly off. Besides he wanted to see how the alien did this feat of dexterity. Having a grasping finger—which they called a thumb—on the inner side of the hand made everything that Howard did seem either awkward or intensely miraculous to Kretz.

    He found himself both amazed and aghast at just how Howard did the job. He didn't have a single real tool, just heat and some small steel rods. But he was very dexterous with them and very, very precise. At Kretz's direction he joined the aerial and soon had it appearing fixed.

    Warily, Kretz switched it on. Flicked send. "This is Kretz for the Spacecraft or any other receivers. Respond."

    He waited. It crackled. Well, it had been a forlorn hope anyway. The system seeded granule-sized passive repeaters at communication intervals, but they probably were of insufficient strength to carry across the distance needed, relaying into and out of the cable-tube.

    He tabbed to search-beacon just in case. That would scan and ping off any radio source. It was a search and rescue device which had saved many a lost traveler. It would give strength, directional and distance data, if it picked up anything—if the alien's soldering hadn't wrecked more than it healed. If there wasn't other, less visible damage…

    He got three pings.

    For a brief instant he knew wild hope. Suit radios?

    One was definitely not of any use. Distance suggested that it must be in the region of the fusion plant. Presumably alien.

    The other two… one was forward on the bead-string, in the same direction as the ramscoop. The second was a powerful signal too—in the opposite direction. It must be the beacon on the spacecraft. The first must be beacon on the lifecraft.

    Still forward. Abret and Derfel must have had a problem there too.



    And then… a voice. A frantic voice speaking Miran. "Who is out there? Reply."

    Along with the joy and the relief came shock and a degree of horror.

    With sex-change came changes in vocal pitch. And Kretz had seen them shoot him… now, by the sounds of it, her. He'd seen Selna fall, and be kicked and spat at.

    But this sounded like… Selna. A female Selna. Shock and trauma could bring on early sex change.

    Female Miran needed certain things. Firstly, they needed territory. And then, before they could start gathering a harem, they needed to have lots of space and only cautious people anywhere near them. The hormonal adjustment made them very snappy.

    Selna was loaded with male hormone supplements. Readjustment was going to be dangerous—for anyone who couldn't run. And there wasn't a lot of space on the ship to run in. "Who is out there! Answer me! If you're some alien scum you might as well know I've got the airlock booby-trapped. If it is Abret again, I can't get to you. You'll have to get yourself free, idiot!" screamed the changed-over Selna, raw fury and anxiety mixed in equal quantities.

    "Kretz calling in," he said, as speaking calmly as he could.

    "Speak louder!"

    He tried again. But, as Selna began a tirade about being alone, he realized that the problem was a simple one. The suit-radio just lacked the power to send far with clarity enough to transmit voice. He could receive, as the spacecraft's radio unit was far higher powered, with far greater range and signal clarity. He couldn't to anything to soothe her anxiety. He also couldn't ask for help, even if she was in a position to render it. The spacecraft's physician could manage the hydroponics, as a second skill, but she couldn't fly the ship alone. Navigationally, the return did not require as much skill as matching trajectories and landing had, but it still required more than Selna possessed. Kretz himself might have managed it, especially with laser-sent guidance from Miran. He would still have to get a braking orbit right, but there was a little more space for a margin of error…

    The situation did leave him feeling comforted on one issue. Laser messages would have surely beamed back from her to Miran. Yes, it was too far-off to be of any help to Selna, but they would be warned of the impending attack.

    Looking up, Kretz realized that Howard was staring into his face with that forehead wrinkling that signified worry in the aliens.

    "What's wrong?" asked Howard. "It is working properly now? I heard voices issue from it. Is it possessed?" He had the Bible-thing in one hand… and a piece of heavy dried plant-material in the other. For a moment Kretz thought he was being threatened. Then he realized that Howard's gaze was now focused on the radio aerial.

    "It is working. That is what it is supposed to do," he said soothingly. "That was the voice of one of my companions. She was injured but managed to get back on the ship. She is alone and very afraid. My transmitter—the part of this machine that can send my voice across the distance—is too weak to reach her with my voice. All she knows is that there is a signal from far away. Her sender is very much more powerful. I can hear her."

    The alien proved much more empathetic than Kretz had expected. "You must go to her, then. She must be in a terrible state."

    "She is. She was the expedition's healer. I hope she can help herself." Kretz paused. But he felt he had to tell someone. "I left Selna for dead. I ran and hid when Selna fell."

    Howard tugged his face-mane. And then, awkwardly, he put a hand on Kretz's shoulder. "Don't blame yourself, Brother."

    "I can't help it. I should have stayed," said Kretz.

    "By what you've told me both of you would have died. Maybe because they followed you, she got away."

    For an alien he was very understanding.

    "We must get you back there, Brother. She'll need you."

    Very understanding.

    "She'll need a man's guidance."

    Howard did not understand Miran at all. Even with Selna in an emotional and disordered state, Kretz felt in need of female guidance. They were bigger, older and wiser… Except, well, if he was logical about it, Selna wasn't much wiser.

    But in one way Howard was right. Kretz had to get back to the ship. The trouble was that he was space and a hostile bead away from the spacecraft. The answer was simple—yet terrifying. He'd have to go out onto the surface, because he couldn't get back inside the cable-tube… somehow cross the gulf between the habitats, and then instead of going inside the bead full of stripe-faced murderers, cross the outside of it. Then he just had to climb the equatorial ridge, and walk to the Miran spacecraft.


    Compared perhaps to drinking an ocean or the alternatives. He'd need an army—not likely to be forthcoming from the Brethren—or fantastic luck to get through the hostile bead. The only further problem he could see was that even if he could get through, Selna might not let him in. Not surprisingly, she’d sounded a little paranoid.

    The other alternative, if he could not get back in that way…

    Then he could go on. The lifecraft was on the sixth bead. From what Selna had said, Abret and Derfel had run into trouble in that one too, and were captives, asking for help. Whether he could help them or not, the lifecraft held the key. That could go to its docking station and bypass the booby-trapped airlock.

    There was, of course, one small problem. The sixth bead was four more habitats away. However, as this one proved, they need not all be full of hostile aliens. And as both this one and the last had proved, the aliens didn't expect visitors. That, he supposed, was hardly surprising. Still, having to go through it all over and over again was an even worse choice.



    And there was also the small matter of his arm, and his physical weakness. Thank heavens Miran were evolved from a fairly small omnivorous species. There was little doubt that proto-Miran had lived principally by scavenging after the larger predators and the tall-stalk fructivores in winter. It had meant in his present predicament that alien food had only once made him feel very queasy, and did appear to be—in the short term at least, capable of sustaining life. In the long term, the matter might not resolve itself so happily. There were bound to be problems with the various fatty acids needed for nerve-repair, for starters, and amino acids…

    The question was, how long did he have? How long before a desperate Selna attempted to take the launch window alone? How long before the alien substances killed him? How long before the bone knitted without modern medicine, but just on its own? He struggled to recall the physiology he'd studied back as a new student. The human healer had said three weeks, minimum, which worked out as twenty-one of their day-night periods. He'd been meaning to time these periods and get a precise conversion to his own time-units, but hadn't got there yet. It was—to be awkward—going to be slightly longer than a Miran day. He was sure that it didn't take that long for Miran physiology to do these sort of internal repairs. Isolate, inject bone-matrix, and rest for three days was the modern norm. If he remembered it right, stilt-legged sathin—the high-stalk fructivores of the plains—often broke those thin legs. If they could survive for eight days they could walk and feed again. Of course that healed bone would still be fragile, but it gave him a vague figure. Counting the days which he had been unconscious, he'd been here for five days now. That left him with plenty of time to the launch window. But the sooner that he got back to Selna the better.

    He waited until Sister Thirsdaughter returned and then asked her opinion. "I need to go to her as soon as possible."

    "As a possible alternative to driving Brother Stephensson insane while he tries to explain the Bible to you?" said the elderly female, smiling and then remembering hastily to hide her teeth.

    "Perhaps you need to ask him to start me on this 'reading' instead," said Kretz. "Maybe with something with simpler words than in your Bible. He reads to me and I have to keep asking him what he means."

    She shook her head. "Books—other than the holy book—are vain-glory. The society of healers and midwives have three texts for teaching. The Elder keeps some printed texts in trust, on the workings of New Eden, for emergencies. He has been searching them for advice on you, by the way. He has decided that you are not a demon or an angel, but something called an alien. The book said that it was very improbable that you existed."

    "Most of our scientists had decided the same about you. Then we detected your spacecraft."

    "What is this 'spacecraft'?" asked Howard, curious as ever.



    As he asked that question, Howard was still bubbling with curiosity about the books. He hadn't even known they existed! Perhaps they included information on how to fix the pipes taking water to the canal on the lower section of his holding. He was sure that the odd flanged device he'd taken a secretive look at was suppose to allow water to pass—but one way only. Instead it flooded the ground in that section.

    "This is a spacecraft," said Kretz. "Or at least this is part of one, a very big one. It is a whole world to you, but it is a spacecraft, traveling across the emptiness between the stars. We came from our world to have look at it in a very much smaller craft."

    Howard blinked. Some of that was probably being lost in translation. The rest didn't mean much. Howard knew there was an outside to New Eden. Being sent there was the ultimate sanction the council of New Eden could impose. The airlocks were shown to every youngster. The one near his own home had apparently been used long ago. But the adulterer Samsson had been pardoned by a sign from God, in that the door would not open when they tried to put him out. That episode was often used as an example of the miracle of redemption.

    "New Eden is the promise that was made to our forefathers," said Sister Thirsdaughter. "If we forsook the paths of unrighteousness, we would have a world of our own, where only the Godly would be, and our sun will not shine on the unjust, and we will be safe and secure in his love, from henceforth."

    Howard had heard that before too. It was part of the creed. But what, exactly, was the sun? Well, he had animals to feed, a cow to milk and chores to do. He could ask Kretz more that evening.

    Sister Thirsdaughter got up. "You seem too well to need my attentions, Kretz. I'll pass on your request to the council. They don't really know what to do about you. Half of them wanted to throw you out of the airlock."

    "But that is where I need to go," said Kretz

    Sister Thirsdaughter smiled. "The outer darkness is where they believe you belong, so that'll make things easy for them."

    Of course, thought Howard, it wouldn't be quick and easy. The council would argue for weeks. Days if it was clear-cut. Brother Stephensson would want more time to read the Holy book to the heathen, for starters.

    He was right about the time, anyway. In the meanwhile Kretz wanted to see the sludge traps. And the wildlands. The alien found the strangest things fascinating.

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