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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 18:44 EDT



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


    "Tolerance breeds tolerance. The only thing a tolerant society should not tolerate are things which impact on the lives, liberty and happiness of its citizens, such as, for example, bigots. Personally I think shipping them out of the system is a wonderful idea."


Carmen Albert, Representative for Ceres-West



    Kretz found some comfort in a female dominated society. Mind you, so far he'd seen little or no evidence of it being any more rational. In his world, Miran females were older, and once they'd got over the hormonal riot of change-over, more stable. These females didn't have that advantage.

    The room full of women gave him his first chance to really study human female form. Fascinating convergence! He'd had a talk with Sister Thirsdaughter about child-rearing and had wanted to see human mammary glands. It was a bit that odd they only had two, and they were larger than the Miran ones. That was natural enough as they only had two, he supposed.

    "What are you staring at?" asked the large woman that they'd all had to stand up for. She'd sat herself down behind the desk, and everyone else in the room had sat too.

    "You," answered Kretz. "You're quite different from us, but quite alike. I have not had a chance to examine you without clothing. I am sorry if I am offending some taboo."

    She gave him no reply, but instead asked: "What are you?"

    "We call ourselves Miran. I believe your term for us is 'alien'."

    There was sudden buzz from the watchers on the seats."Silence," said the woman firmly. Then she turned to Kretz. "I can see that you aren't human. But what I want to know is whether you are male or female. Looking at you, you could be either or both."

    Something about the way she asked made Kretz suspect that this was a trick question. But he had no real idea what the trick was. All he could do was answer and hope he'd be lucky. "I am, at the moment, male. I should become female in about two of our years time. This is how Miran are. We begin as male and then become female. All animal life on our world that doesn't reproduce by binary fission follows this pattern."

    The woman at the desk made a note on her page. "It's a lesser charge, I suppose. As a male yourself you can't be held responsible for another male. So, where are you from? What are you doing here, in the Matriarchal Republic of Diana?"

    For a brief moment Kretz toyed with trying a lie, for instance that there several thousand other Miran males armed to the teeth coming to fetch him. He decided to stick to the truth. These aliens were definitely more technologically advanced than Howard's people had been, although there were small signs of breakdown to be seen.

    "I am from the second planet of a sun some 1.8 light-years away. We saw this ship and came to investigate. We mean you no harm. My companions were attacked in the first habitat, by primitives with weapons that flung projectiles at us. Most of my friends were killed. I was separated from my companion. She is now back on our ship. I was hurt, fled down the central cable and reached the habitat of my companion. They are primitive humans, having regressed from technology, or for some reason turned their backs on it. They tried to help me, and sent one of their number with me, as an escort, helper and guide. I could not get back, but there is a lifecraft from our ship some four habitats on. We are trying to reach it."

    He paused. "The human who is with me has saved my life. I apologize if we have broken your taboos. I plead for you to understand. You are an advanced people. He is very primitive."

    The woman at the desk made a note on her pad, then steepled her fingers. "Nonetheless, you broke our laws about clothing. And while I am sympathetic about you trying to reach your mistress, and being separated from her, you were still moving in the wrong direction, without a woman to escort you."

    "We did not know of your law," said Kretz.

    "Ignorance of the law is no excuse," said the woman, firmly, in the manner of one using an accepted truism to clinch an argument.

    That struck Kretz as an excuse itself. After all, what kind of legitimacy did a regime have that did not inform its citizens (or visitors) of the rules it expected them to follow? That surely was its responsibility? The law-setter had failed, not the citizen.

    But there was no point in fighting with her about it. "I have no objection to being without clothes. The clothes that I wore were simply to protect me from space. It is cold and airless out there."

    "I know that," she said dismissively. "You could have taken them off once you were in."

    A thought struck Kretz. "These laws of yours apply to your people? You are humans?"

    The large woman nodded. "In full, alien, to human females. Males are considered as minors under law."

    Kretz nodded back, pleased to found a loophole. "I am not human. Therefore surely I don't fall under your law. My wearing clothes then is no worse than…" What was that animal Howard had found so amusing that he'd thought was another intelligent species called? "A pig wearing clothes."

    The woman frowned slightly. "You're very well informed about the animal-life on old Earth. Very well. It'll do away with a tricky case. I suppose, as you're not human, you belong to those who handle animal tissue."

    She turned to the woman who had escorted him in. "Have him shipped off to Dr.. Geriant at the protein vat research unit at the university. Make him her problem, at least until he changes sex."



    Kretz wondered if he'd been cataclysmically stupid. They'd made no attempt to take the cuffs off his wrists and had transported him in the same cage-vehicle, and left him sitting in it for long enough for curious faces to peer from windows.

    Then two people came down with the woman who had brought him here. Howard would have approved. They wore clothing. From head to foot—some sort of overall garb in bright orange. They were both scowling. This looked like trouble. And then the shorter one—the one with the red head filaments peered at Kretz, and stopped scowling.

    "I do believe the silly bitch is right this time! I suppose statistically that was inevitable," she said, sticking her head forward like a attacking tunnelworm. Kretz had to remind himself, pointedly, that exposed teeth were not always a sign of aggression. She could just be smiling. He wasn't that good at alien expressions on these unfamiliar faces yet.

    The red-head filamented one turned to the woman who had brought him there. "Well, what are you waiting for, woman? Get him out of there. Hurry up."

    "First you insult me, then you argue with me, then you tell me to hurry up," said the woman who had driven the cage, moving with exaggerated slowness.

    "Yes. And if you don't hurry up I'll see that you get transferred to driving sludge. Now move it."

    The driver's pace accelerated dramatically, and Kretz found himself stumbling out. No attempt was made to remove the handcuffs, but the women led him inside the building.

    He was put into an empty room, an empty store, by the looks of it. "I'll be back down and have a look at him properly when I've adjusted the lysine levels in the batch in A17," said the woman, and left Kretz to himself and his fears. There was not much else in the enclosed space to distract him from them. The walls throbbed faintly with machinery-vibration. And no one came. The door was securely locked and there were no windows. Eventually—cold, tired, hungry and thirsty, Kretz lay down on the hard floor and slept.

    He awoke, aware that he was being stared at. It was the woman with the red head-filaments. "Hmm. I suppose I'll have to start with communication. Sign and point," she said. "And organizing food and drink and something for you to sleep on.

    Kretz sat up. "I can speak your language. Please, I am very thirsty."

    "Holy Susan!" the woman blinked. “Naturally that idiot from the court didn't tell me you could talk our language. Let's get you some water."

    She led him to another room, down the passage, gave him a container with water in it. At least his handcuffs were in front of him, unlike Howard. He wondered what had become of the young man.

    "Now, where are you from?" she asked when he drunk his fill.

    Kretz gave his standard answers, told the same story. The only difference was that she seemed to understand it.

    "So what have you been eating?" she asked.

    Kretz did his humble best to name the foods that Howard and Sister Thirsdaughter had fed him. She took notes on a small pad with a tiny stylus—both taken from the pocket of her orange overall. She stopped him and got descriptions from time to time. When he'd finished, she closed the pad, which was not the “paper” that Howard's people or the court had used but some kind of thin hard substance—probably a computer, Kretz realized.

    "Right, we'll analyze that lot and see what we can come up with on the ones that made you feel sick. In the longer term, you're almost certainly missing some dietary requirements. We'll have to see what we can synthesize. I'll need a tissue sample."

    "Tissue sample?" Kretz repeated.

    "A small piece of your flesh," explained the woman. "To grow you some food that will match your dietary needs. I could do it with other food material from your world but we don't have any. And the one thing that material taken from a species has: it has all the dietary requirements for that species, if not in the right concentrations and format. Looking at your teeth you're probably omnivores." She scowled. "And if you even offer me that ridiculous cannibalism argument I'll be tempted to let you starve."

    "I wouldn't think of doing so," he paused. "I presume you mean cell-culture. We do that on shipboard, as well some degree of other food synthesis." He paused again. "Transcomp needs information. What does 'cannibalism' mean, actually?"

    "A word to describe what politicians do," she said.

    "Could you clarify 'politician'?"

    "No," she said, showing her teeth in what could be humor. "I haven't understood them myself. They're a kind of parasite. An animal that looks superficially like us, but has no brain and lives only to breed and devour our food. Now, tell me, why is your fur in constant motion? It looks as if waves are running down it. Or is that just a light-property?"

    "Fur?" Another new term. Transcomp had deduced that it was probably another word for the long and apparently permanent filamentous manes which grew on the face and heads of the aliens.

    She confirmed that. "Hair." She touched her own. "You've got a layer all over.”

    "Oh. That is not the same as your hair. It is an extruded cilia to try and help my body thermo-regulate. The motion is a relic of our evolution when it helped to keep us dry."

    "I see. Are you too hot or too cold?"

    "Too cold. If I am too hot, the cilia stand out to increase the cooling surface. If I was the right temperature then the cilia would resorb. It is an energy expensive process with high metabolic demands. My suit helped me to thermo-regulate."

    "What happened to your suit?" she asked, walking to a locker and measuring him with her eyes.

    "I was made to remove it by the people who brought me here. There is some taboo here against the wearing of clothing. My companion and I were not aware of it and we got into difficulty with your authorities."

    She snorted. "They're not terribly bright. What have they done with your companion? Is he also one of you aliens?" She tossed him an orange overall. "Here, put this on. I'll get this suit of yours back from them."

    "No. Howard is human. He was sent to help me get back to my spacecraft."

    The red-head-filamented one lost interest in Howard. Kretz held up his cuffed wrists. "I cannot put this on with these. And… will I not get into trouble again for wearing it anyway?"

    She laughed. "You would, out of this building. But unlike the rest of the environment of Diana, this area has coldrooms. There are also various things you wouldn't want to have exposed to the skin, and there are cultures we need to keep dead skin cells out of." She looked at the cuffs and sighed. "It would take them a month of Sundays to get up here with the keys. I'll need to get some bolt-cutters."

    She pointed at a chair. "Sit down. I'll be back in few minutes."

    She came back, not much later, with an enormous clipper-device, with which she cut the links between the cuffs. Kretz had got himself into the lower half of the overall and now he was able to pull it on. It was thick and soft.

    "Don't go wandering beyond the courtyard in that," she said. "The matriarchy are obsessed about nudity. It's an overreaction to a piece of ancient history. The reason is lost to them, but they've become obsessed with the form of the thing."

    "It is a little odd," admitted Kretz. "Clothing is worn for protection from weather or to help with temperature-regulation in our society."

    "Oh, it's all about sex with us. You aliens will find that we humans are crazy. After all, what sane species could believe that covering someone from head to would lessen their sexual attractiveness?" She laughed, patting her own rounded midriff. "Mind you, in a lot of cases seeing someone naked will do that. Covering it up just feeds the imagination. And the imagination is always better than reality."

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