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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Friday, August 15, 2008 08:13 EDT



e-vox to: Marlene Tzu-Lee

From: Jean Mbuli, GAL Centre


Subject: Recruiting among our members to join the Women's Matriarchal Movement habitat.


    The answer is 'no'. They're not a real woman's liberation movement. They're just a bunch of man-haters led by a woman with too much money and a chip on her shoulder. Have you read her take on gay rights? You know why they're taking men at all? To be second-class citizens and get her rocks off. And you know who'll be next once she's finished kicking male butt? There has to be a dominant woman in control of any relationship in their eyes. You know what that'll make the other partner?



    Dr. Amber Geriant, chief microbiologist for the Matriarchy of Diana's protein vats, had had two major turning points in her life. When she was sixteen she'd suddenly realized that, unlike her peers, she did not find men sexually attractive—and that no amount of trying was going to change the situation. That one had been dealt with easily enough. She'd channeled herself into her work—again, unlike her peers. It wasn't an entirely satisfactory alternative, but it did speed up her academic progress, a progress only interrupted by a brief and exploitative relationship that did at least clarify her sexuality if not help the situation.

    Like her mother before her, she'd been heading up the ladder of the administration. When you're a retired deputy-matriarch's daughter things were smooth for you, in this direction.

    The second turning point had been the result of attending, as an observer, a governing council meeting. The infighting had been vicious and the level of intellectual debate had been… absent. That came at a point in her life when Amber had been studying ancient Earth history, and had increasingly come to the conclusion that the social pendulum had swung to an extreme in Diana, and remained stuck there by its isolation. The move, sideways, into the Science faculty and microbiology, the only area of real substance there, had been accompanied by the shouting-match to end all shouting-matches at home. An only daughter should follow her mother! Amber knew she probably shouldn't have pointed out that she was an only daughter by design, and that her mother could have had a permitted second daughter if she'd chosen to.

    Still, living on her own had suited her, without the constant stream of “boys from good families.” And science had suited her far better than politics.

    She'd been taken aback to inherit her mother's estate, and even more taken aback at the size of it. In retrospect she knew that she shouldn't have been. Political success took money.

    Now, she realized, she'd reached another turning point. It had taken another shattering argument to do it, and the grim realization that every single day she was going to have to work with and see someone indispensable to the protein-culture unit, and, until the argument, indispensable to her.

    Now, with nothing to turn to but work, where daily contact with Jean kept the wounds raw, she realized just how bored with her work she had become. It had been the better alternative to be at the top of protein culture, rather than to take orders. She'd inherited her mother's political skill as well as her money. That, her relationship with Jean, and some research had kept her relatively happy for some years.

    She hadn't realized how stale it had become until the alien arrived.

    Amber had never agonized over her decisions. She made them and moved on. She hated having them made for her by circumstances.

    Only there was no place to move on to. Not here in Diana. Not in Science. No, “On” was elsewhere. To see a universe she'd never seen before. A universe that didn't greet her with Jean's face every day. All she had to do now was persuade Kretz. And, of course, to prepare things. One of the joys of money was that she could afford to do that.



    In relative terms, Kretz could almost say that he was happy. At last he'd fallen among his own kind, in a mental if not a physical sense. Even alien scientists were still scientists. And these were nearly his own kind of scientist. True, they were microbiologists rather than focusing on macroscopic things. But there was, despite the differences in discipline and species, some convergence of world view. Amber Geriant was sensible enough to be a woman of his own kind. Perhaps it was because she was well-rounded like a Miran female. He knew that he'd been away from his own kind too long when he found aliens arousing.

    It could also be the food. It was, now that she'd explained the term, a form of auto-cannibalism. He could only regret that he wasn't a sociologist. The idea of Miran eating other Miran for ritual reasons was… disturbing. But the cultured protein had definitely helped.

    "You need me to open other file-accesses for you?" asked Amber, bustling in. She walked too fast for a female.

    Kretz shook his head. "It takes a long time with having to use the audio output. I am still busy with the one about the setting up of the 'Slowtrain' . Fascinating! It is what we came so far to find out about. I only regret that my colleagues could not hear it too. You're so alike… and yet so different. Miran do not remain in space. We go there, but we return to Miran. To the place of our birth, to breed."

    "Always to the same place?" she asked, eyebrows raised.

    Kretz shrugged. "As close as possible. A female must have a reasonable territory, so it is not necessarily the exact spot. When we colonized the second continent, the first generation females always needed some tons of earth from home. There are laments written of the misery they suffered, nonetheless. For males it is easy, but for females, once the nesting instinct begins, they must be at home. If I live that long, it will happen to me too."

    "So, although I'm tempted to keep you here, I think you'd better get on your way back there." Amber sighed. "You wouldn't like a passenger, would you?" There was a tentativeness in that voice.

    Kretz struggled to grasp what she'd just said. "On a one way trip with aliens? Never to return to your birth-nest area to breed?"

    "I'm not going to breed," she said.

    As soon as you started to get used to these aliens, they showed you, again, how alien they were. To admit this to a stranger! It was distinctly perverted.

    "I do not know if there is still anyone to return to," he said. "Only Selna survived, that I know of. And the injuries and the stress he had sustained caused sex-changeover. The hormonal imbalance is hard, normally. Loaded as she was with administered male-hormones, she's, uh… unstable. Difficult to speak logically to, when I briefly managed to contact her. Females are usually the cautious, logical sex, being older and more experienced. But not during changeover."

    Amber nodded. "She's having the PMT of a lifetime loaded into one session. It can make for interesting times with humans and it's not of that magnitude. So when were you last able to contact her?"

    Kretz explained.

    Amber bit her lip and tugged at her chin, social signs of thought in this odd species. "I think I can get you to a high-gain antenna, which would allow you to re-transmit," she said. "Electronics isn't a discipline that has survived well, whereas microbiology is reasonably healthy. There is some gear left over from the original construction team, in the museum, though. There's stuff in the orbital hub, too, but that is unreachable until we detach from the slowship string. It's intended to provide the solar-panel and some elementary construction equipment for starting a new habitat construction in whatever solar system we fetch up at."



    The truth dawned on Kretz then, with the brightness of a starburst. "Your species does not colonize planets. You colonize space."

    She nodded. "We colonize suns. Or, rather the life-envelope around suns. That was the idea, anyway. Most suns are unlikely to have suitable planets, and terraforming of the ones that do have would take centuries. We're not interested. We stopped being a planet-bound species two centuries before we left our own solar system. Why should we want to climb back down the gravity-well? There was no evidence of other intelligent life out there, and the habitat inhabitants wanted away from the restrictions of system government." She smiled wryly. "A few writers have speculated that the SysGov wanted to get rid of us as badly as we wanted to see the back of them."

    The vastness and sheer grandeur of the undertaking was almost overwhelming. Kretz shook his head. "Miran stayed on Miran. There was once talk of colonizing other planets around other stars, but when we failed to exceed the speed of light and discovered that the nearest star—our sun's companion—had no planets of suitable size and potential habitability, interest turned back to the Miran system. Even the ideas about making other insystem planets habitable to Miran were abandoned many years ago. The furthest—beside this expedition—that we've been was an automated probe to the companion-star. Less than one in forty thousand Miran ventures into space, at all. Our few industries struggle to find personnel. If the people of your last habitat were friendly, and prepared to work up there, they could have been welcomed."

    "We nearly had the same thing happen, apparently," said Amber, "if ancient history is to be believed. Humankind nearly turned inwards. Space was too big, too expensive, too remote from the problems we had on our own world. Then the space habitat and the ideas of increasing the surface area within them changed the equation."

    She stood up. "Anyway, I have to get back to work. The old systems are creaking, and the administration is too busy spending money on themselves to allocate real resources to refurbishment, let alone the vat replacement we ought to do. Besides, we'd have trouble with the electronics and heavy engineering. I'll see if I can finagle some bits out of the museum for you later."

    Kretz had fairly little hope of his being able to patch alien components onto his suit radio… but, she'd gotten the suit back for him, after all He had to keep trying. Trying and hoping. And later he realized that he'd under-estimated her grasp of the situation. What she brought back was a powerful transmitter—with a frequency scanner. "We'll just use it as a repeater," she said. "I found out that you can still hook this lot up to an old external aerial. There is a jack in the main lab. I'll set it up there, and you can stay here."

    When she came back, Kretz switched on the suit-set. Tabbed send. "This is Kretz calling the Spacecraft or any other receivers. Respond."

    He waited and repeated. "This is Kretz calling the Spacecraft or any other receivers. Respond."

    An incredulous Miran voice came from the speaker. "Kretz! Kretz, come and get me! Come armed. Come quickly."

    It was a male Miran voice. Abret. Abret on the edge of hysteria.

    "Abret, give me a full situation report." Kretz tried to keep his voice calm, his own emotions under control. He knew that he was probably failing. Fear and hope mingled. Hope because at least he and Abret could fly the spacecraft, together. Fear because Abret might be unreachable. He braced himself mentally for the worst. He still didn't expect what he got.

    "It's Derfel. He's gone mad. The locals have made him their ruler. I think… I think they're going to kill me. I'm a prisoner."

    A voice cut in. A female voice. Selna. "Kretz? Kretz, where in the name of the first mother are you? Are you safe? Are you injured?" She sounded rational, and scared.

    "I am safe. I am alive and reasonably well," he said reassuringly.

    Abret spoke. "Kretz. Selna's alternating between fury and screaming and suicidal despair. I've been receiving her, but I haven't been able to talk to her. The hormonal imbalances and the situation has been very hard for her. Be careful. She's not stable."

    "I want to come and get you. Kretz, I need to get back to my birth-nest area, NOW," said Selna. "Tell me how to find you?"

    "You can't get here, Selna. I am two beads away. I am in touch with Abret. I'll be trying to reach him, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can," Kretz said soothingly.

    "No! You must come NOW!" She shouted. "Don't you understand you stupid male? I need my nest territory. I need it NOW."

    "Calm down, Selna. I'll come as soon as possible, I promise. I just need to rescue Abret," said Kretz.

    The name sent her snarling "Abret? Abret has the lifecraft. Tell him to come back here NOW!" she screamed.

    "He's a prisoner, Selna. I've just got to free him," And cross two more of these alien habitats, which could be occupied by… almost anything, thought Kretz, but he didn't say that. She was frightened enough.

    It was difficult, talking to Abret, with Selna constantly butting in and alternately being reasonable, shouting at them and then pleading, but Kretz felt better for it all the same. There was nothing quite like feeling that you were not totally alone. The awkward part was going to be explaining to his hosts that he had to leave soon. Preferably as Selna put it, NOW.

    There was also the question of Howard.

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