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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 22:06 EDT



    "Surface area, not volume, is the key to many biological processes. By layering the inside of a habitat we increase—at approximately four meters per layer—the surface area from roughly 5500 hectares to X. By using vertical surfaces too—by growing plants on the growth medium on the walls we increase that growing area—assuming tightest possible corridors—at about 3 meters to X. Now that's just not practical and you lose too much space to interstitial support and piping and so on. So the optimum corridor width is about ten meters. Of course that's optimum for materials use. For practicalities and aesthetics—which may be even more important than we realize on longer trips—we need some wider and higher areas. It's a series of trade-offs. It's going to make the inside of theses structures into a maze. The biggest maze ever built. More easy to get lost in than any jungle. Capable of carrying—physically—if not sustaining, several million people."

Transcript of Prof. Lucas Teich's presentation to the Interstellar Colonization and Exploration Society, on the bio-environmental factors in the proposed habitats for the Slowtrain Project. From: A CONCISE HISTORY OF HUMAN SPACE COLONIZATION. P233, Chipattari, H, and Shah, G.D. (Ed)




    "He's in jail. I have heard that they want to castrate him. Neuter him," explained Amber.

    The idea didn't seem to horrify her the way it did Kretz. Sterility seemed to be more or less acceptable to these aliens. To a Miran it was social ostracism. To humans—well, to some humans—it seemed a mere fact of life. But then… the species didn't need nesting territory, either.

    They were odd, there was no getting away from it, no matter how used to them you thought you were getting. "I have to save him!"

    "You're very loyal," said Amber. "I thought they tried to kill you?"

    Kretz shook his head. "Those were the humans in the first habitat. Howard saved my life. He cared for me—and I brought him here. To face a fate worse than death." He shuddered.

    Amber smiled wryly. "A male might see it like that, I suppose. Well, we'd better spring him then. He's good at making friends. I had a call from his mistress a few minutes ago, which is why I knew where he was. She wanted me to intervene because he has unique genetic material. It's true enough. But she didn't like it when I pointed out that all I could justify was a few cc of cell-sample. Her comments on my suggestion that she collect a sperm sample and freeze it were an education to me. That girl can swear!" she said, admiringly.

    Kretz doubted that he'd ever get the hang of this language. Transcomp gave him the words, and several subtext guesses as to what they might possibly mean. "I will have to try and get him out," he repeated. "And then I must try to move as fast as possible to rescue Abret and then we can return to our spacecraft and Selna. Are you still determined to accompanying me?"

    "Into a life of crime, and strange places…" she said flippantly.

    Kretz was getting used to alien expressions. She didn't look as if she objected to the idea. Well, some humans were probably insane too. By the sounds of it they'd not selected the most normal parts of their society for this colonial expedition, just as the Miranese expedition had required odd individuals to chase down this alien target. "We just need to go quietly, if we can just get to Howard."

    Someone pounded on the door and Amber went to open it. A disheveled looking female human stood there, bleeding slightly from a cut above one eye. "Dr. Geriant. You haven't seen Howard have you?" To Kretz's ear she sounded on the edge of panic, the words rushing out, high pitched.

    His human host tugged her chin. "You'd better come inside, Lani."

    "He's here?" The hope in Lani’s voice transcended species barriers.

    "No. We were just about to go and try and see what could be done for him. But you need help right now. Come. Then let's see what can be done about him and you."          

    Lani hovered on the doorstep… and then came inside, and allowed Amber to lead her to the bathroom.

    She sat there, letting Amber stitch the cut.

    "They claimed he'd escaped. I… I didn't believe them. I beat a couple of people up trying to find out where they'd taken him to. I think he really has run. He's got no more sense than a child." She wrung her hands. "He'll be killed."

    Water leaked from her eyes, which Kretz gathered was a sign of extreme distress. "He's just a big fool. I've got find him."

    "We were just planning to go and break him out of the cell. We'll try looking for him with you," said Amber crisply, "If you'll just hold still and let me finish stitching first."



    Lani looked at the head of Protein Production and Research, incredulously. "You were going to help him escape? I thought about it, but I decided that they couldn't possibly convict me. I haven't done anything wrong. Well, I hadn't, before I went in and found he was missing. I'm afraid they're looking for me too now."

    "And they will doubtless think of looking here soon," said Dr. Geriant. "Which means we'd better move out." She got up from where she'd knelt to sew up Lani's temple. "Do you still have your scoot?

    Lani nodded. "Yes. Howard fixed it."

    "I have a small personal car. I can hide Kretz in that. I need to change your appearance, and then I think we can search in reasonable safety." She pushed Lani ahead of her to the bathroom. "If we listen in on the police channel on your communicator we may get some idea where he is, or if he's been caught or killed."

    A hasty hair-dyeing followed. "I thought I'd try blond, once upon a time. Fortunately, I'm terrible at throwing stuff away." Double braids, and a quick down-and-dirty paint job and they were on way, Lani eavesdropping on the police channel. Howard was just too big to go unspotted for too long.

    Yet it would seem that he had. He'd vanished. Lani even heard someone getting instructions to search the protein production unit.



    The ceiling had lifted. It had taken Howard thirty-two tries, before something moved, with a sound of tearing metal. A little stud popped and the roof rose three inches, tearing the next stud. Looking up, Howard could see that the room above was dark. He dropped the ceiling boards down and waited. No one came to investigate the noise, so he lifted again. Another stud tore free. The assembly method was tongue-and-grooved, quick to assemble and impervious to rot. Very useful, light and easy. It was similar to the old barn, a relic that had collapsed under too much hay, but was made of something that wasn't wood.

    And now that he'd lifted it, it was possible to get the tongue out of the groove. It wouldn't go back down, leaving a finger-wide gap. With a lever, he'd be out of here in thirty seconds. Unfortunately, he didn't have a lever. All he had was himself. It took him quite some time to get the next boards to part, giving him a hand width gap. Then he managed to haul himself up and feel into the room above. His hand hit a chair leg. He grabbed it, pulled it into the crack. A lever…

    …And the sound of footsteps coming down the passage to his cell. Hastily Howard dropped down and went to far corner of the cell. There was a piece of chair-leg sticking through the corner of the roof. Howard sat down on the floor. Maybe they'd look down at him.

    It was a little male with two bowls. The man was graying, and his face was lined and tired.

    And he did not just look down.

    All he said, very quietly, as he passed the bowls through the bars: "Run to the badlands near the core."

    He turned and walked away, leaving Howard with water, a sort of stew, and some idea of direction. The food was not particularly tasty, but it seemed wholesome. They weren't cruel to prisoners in that way, at least. The water was even more welcome after all the effort. But the hope that there was somewhere to go to was sweeter. He set the empty bowls down and took hold of the chair-leg with vigor.

    A minute later he was standing in a dark room—the only light coming from his cell, below.

    Howard was a tidy worker by nature. He slipped the tongues into the grooves and put the floor-ceiling back, before even thinking of trying the door he'd spotted in the light from his cell. It was not locked and led onto a passage, lit with dim-set glow-lights. He walked quietly down the passage until he found a door marked "Fire Exit. Emergencies only."

    Under the circumstances, using it seemed reasonable. He walked out, closed it, and walked down a fire-escape to freedom. A freedom he intended to keep, along with his testicles. He'd had time to think of strategy. These women had everything done by machine. They lived in a different world to the society of Brethren, but the basic design of the habitat was close to identical. Howard would bet that they did no crawling along the water-arterials to check for leaks, like the Brethren did. He'd spotted one of the belled arterial walls when they came in. It was a bare hundred yards off. Of course, he'd have to find an access door, but there was usually one every few hundred meters. He simply had to wait for a lull in the passing people and vehicles—not hard, even here in this town, as it was plainly after the working day and things were slowing down.

    He reached the water arterial unobserved, and found an access door. For a horrible moment he thought that it was locked in some way, but it was simply stiff from lack of use. He crouched down and got inside, pulled it behind him, and began crawling. He wished, briefly, that he was as small as the local men. He crept onwards. He wanted to rescue Kretz. He wanted the sheer joy of wearing clothing, but firstly he wanted to be as far from these women and sharp knives as possible.

    Then, in the sheltering darkness, there was something else. Something with green and red eyes that flickered. Howard nearly knocked himself unconscious, trying to turn and flee, before realizing that it was a machine. It flashed lights at him—and then began to reverse, far faster than he had been able to crawl. So Howard crawled on. True to his memory of the water system of home, this too came to a larger belled tunnel—with a larger pipe system and just as little space for a man.

    It was no place for a man. Only, there were men here. Men, and light.

    They had weapons. Knives. They were smiling, though. 



    "We're not going to find him, if the Force can't," said Lani, dispirited, when they paused in a quiet corridor. "I think we need to split up. At least that way we can cover more ground, and if I'm caught, you won't be implicated."

    "That might be true," admitted Dr.. Geriant. "But I was planning on using you, and your ability to look and act the part to get Kretz and me to the airlock."

    "It won't work," said Lani. "They've stationed officers at my home, and at the airlock he came in. They're expecting him to head there."

    "That wasn't the airlock I had in mind," explained Amber. "There is the forward one. You could take us to that."

    "I'm sorry," Lani said with genuine guilt. This woman had helped her, after all. "I've got to find Howard first. I'd gladly help you if I could. I'd even gladly go with you, but it wouldn't work. There are alarms on the airlocks. It's part of the original system."

    The Chief Microbiologist slapped her own cheek. "Of course! I didn't think of that. Don't worry about the alarm. I have the system codes… but, aha! We can ask the system if this Howard of yours been detected by any of the machines in the system."

    Lani blinked. "You can do that?"

    "Oh, yes," the scientist said casually. "It's quite possible. All I need is an approximate weight—you say that he's very large?" she said, opening up a portable computer and linking with the web.

    Lani gaped at her. "Do you know how easy that would make police work, Dr.. Geriant?"

    The woman scientist raised her eyebrows and smiled wryly. "Call me Amber. Yes. That's why I never pointed the idea out to anyone. Now, how much would guess he weighs? Approximately?"

    "About… I don't know, two hundred and fifty pounds?" said Lani.

    "We'll try that. There are a few women in that bracket, but it does make the search narrower." She looked at the screen. "Ah. Two hundred and eighty-three pounds, moving here, at a speed of fifteen miles per hour. Let's get some more detail…. Good grief. There are four of them, on a pipe-maintenance machine, heading inward to the core, toward sector Zed Alpha 32. That's one of the damaged sections."

    "Four? He's been captured?"

    She looked at the screen and tapped something in. "The other three weigh less than one hundred pounds each. Males, at a guess. No, I would say that he's with some of the runaways."

    "We need to rescue him!" said Lani, starting the scoot. "They're dangerous!"

    Amber looked at her, very squarely. "To us, yes. To him, no. He's quite safe, except from being caught by one of the patrols that the force periodically sweep those areas with. We aren't."

    Lani shook her head. "We don't know that he's safe. Look, there are only three. I can deal with three easily enough."

    "And then?" asked Amber.

    "And then I'll help you get to the airlock, and out of here. I think… we might have to go too," said Lani, quietly. "It doesn't sound too bad, back where he came from. Let's go."



    Amber had to smile at the child. She was pretty, but really not her type. Too large and Juno-esque by half. Lani had absolutely no idea what anything outside her own environment was like, but she was plainly so cockstruck that she was ready to leave Diana. Well, it suited the rest of them. Amber wasn't going to point out, just yet, that “back” to her Howard's habitat was not going to be possible.

    Instead she engaged the transmission of her car, and they went up, corewards, heading into lower G and areas that showed definite signs of breakdown. The lighting had gone in a number of places, and so too had the irrigation network and with it the plant life.

    It made sense to concentrate the system's resources on the working areas, she supposed, but this was alarming. In downtown Diana one forgot that there was a problem. This was not an area that anyone lived in these days, but it had been very popular up to a hundred years back as a retirement haven for the elderly. Less strain on the heart, and on old joints. Now it was the sort of environment where only the brave or the foolhardy went without a police escort. And not just one policeman, either. Preferably about twenty.

    Well, she had a few surprises for any troublemakers, if the worst came to the worst. They possibly wouldn't be enough to help. Unlike that young woman, she was not a fighter.

    She continued to track the pipe-maintenance engine, until it stopped. A door to the arterial opened… and Amber that realized she should have watched the surrounding area more carefully before coming to a stop.

    There were a good number of people in the shadows. People and the gleam of steel.

    It was amazing how much less attractive a life of adventure suddenly seemed.



    Howard had found the ride on the back of the pipe-checking machine an education, not only in how the work might be done mechanically but also in how men—runaways—had adapted their lives around the system. They used what the women running Diana ignored. It appeared that they'd learned the schedules of these machines, and used them rather like Lani used the trolley-bus system out in the open. The runaways also plainly had more contact with the kept males than the women rulers realized. They knew who he was, and that he'd escaped—and that he was being searched for.

    "We get traitors and spies, sometimes," said the leader of the three men, a swarthy-skinned fellow with a gap between his teeth. It was hard to see more in the dim light that shone from the instrument panel. "But you're probably all right. How did you know about the hidden ways?

    It took Howard a while to figure this one out. The doors to arterials weren't obvious—unless you know what you were looking for. "Among the brethren they are not a secret," he explained.

    Apparently his explanation was less than clear. "Who are the 'brethren'? Have they told any women?" asked the scar-faced one, worriedly.

    "You are quite safe," reassured Howard. "The brethren are the people of New Eden. My habitat." He was proud of that word. "I am the first man to come from there to here. Women do not rule there. God does."

    "Is he a man?"

    Howard was spared having to answer this one by the pipe-checker slowing down. "Time for us to get off," said the gap-toothed leader. 

    They jumped, and, with a small flashlight, gap-tooth led them to the door. "Welcome to the kingdom of men," he said sardonically, opening it.



    Outside was dim. A number of the light-emitters were missing and the place was full of shadows and… people. Mostly short men—but there was a surprise too. A strange woman and Kretz in a car, with a woman beside it, swinging her nightstick in a defensive arc.

    "Howard!" she yelled. There was no mistaking the relief in her voice, even though, until he heard it, he hadn't recognized the blond-braided woman.

    He waded through the armed men to them, holding up his hands in a pacifying gesture. "Peace be with you," he said. Lani dropped her nightstick and hugged him, fiercely. One of the men decided this was a good opportunity to grab her. Howard caught him by the hair. "Now. There is no need to fight," he said, trying to calm the men and cope with being hugged at the same time. Holding off the small attacker was easier. "No-one needs to do anyone any harm."

    "She's a cop! We kill them if we catch them on their own," said gap-tooth, "after we've had our fun with them."

    "Yeah. You want to try your luck?" said Lani, snatching up her nightstick again, trying to push Howard aside.

    "Calm down," said the woman from the car. "Or I'll have to shoot some of you." Her voice quivered. She sounded far from calm herself. She had some device in her hand that Howard failed to recognize, but several of the men obviously did. A frightened keening echoed around them.

    "We're runaways too. And Lani is a wanted woman, I believe. Not a 'cop'."

    "What?" The shocked exclamation came from Lani.

    "I don't think that you can still be part of the force, Lani. Not after beating up several officers in your attempt to find Howard."

    "Uh. I suppose not," said Lani, looking shame-faced. "Look, we just came to fetch Howard. We're out of here."

    "No," said gap-tooth firmly. "You—and him especially, know too much. And also, this stinks. How did you get here at the same time as him? How did you know where to come to, to find him?"

    "A computer system I have never bothered to show the police," the other woman said. "It is possible…"

    She never got any further because someone snatched the weapon out of her hands and the little men swarmed over them.

    Howard was totally unprepared for the ferocity of it, or the suddenness. They were trussed up before he could even start to struggle. Howard had to admit that he'd done more to get in Lani's way than anything else.

    "What are you doing this for?" he demanded.

    "They're women and you're a traitor," snarled gap-tooth.

    "I'm not," protested Howard. "I hardly know who you are. All we want is go to where we need to. We're not intending any harm to you."

    "Yeah?" said gap-tooth sardonically. "Well you're not going to have a chance. Spread their legs, boys. Captains get first share. Those of you who like a bit of bum can have him."

    They'd tied Howard up well, by their standards, but not by the standards of the furious disgust and rage that went through his thews right then. As Lani screamed furiously, the cord they'd used snapped at the same time as his temper did.

    "Have you no decency!" he roared, snatching up the fallen nightstick and laying about him as if he were threshing corn.

    They were small, and he was in such a rage that he had forgotten that he was a man of peace. But there were still too many of them.

    Then there were a sharp series of bangs.

    "Stand still or I will shoot all of you!" said Kretz. He emerged from behind the car with a smoking metal pipe in his hands. Thinking back now, Howard realized that he must have fled in the first attack. At least he'd come back!

    Gap-tooth had the device that someone had struck from Amber's hand. He pointed it at Howard. "I'll shoot him first." Howard stalked towards him.

    Gap-tooth was standing just above Lani, where he'd been about to exercise his “rights” as a captain of this filth.

    The device went flying. Lani's second kick sent him sprawling.

    Howard helped her to her feet. "Get the gun," she said urgently. "And then untie us."

    "Gun?" Sister Thirsdaughter had said that a “gun” was what had inflicted those wounds on Kretz. That metal device was a gun? He picked it up, and a fallen knife.

    "Don't get between me and them, Howard," said Kretz. Too late—several darted away up the passage.

    "They'll call the others," said gap-tooth savagely, as Howard cut Lani free.

    Her first act with her hands free was to snatch the gun-thing from his hand. Click something. "Damn safety was still on." She pointed it at gap-tooth. "It won't help you if they call anyone. I'm gonna blow your stupid balls off first." She took a stance, both legs apart, and the gun-thing held in both hands.

    Howard paused in cutting free the other woman, suddenly realizing what was going to happen here. He stepped in front of her.

    "Get out of the way, Howard." Lani's eyes had a dangerous glint to them.

    His temper had cooled now, and with the cooling his conscience had returned. He'd hit… and hurt those men. Some of them were still lying on the ground. "No," he said calmly. "I cannot let you do this. It is a sin."

    "That's what they were going to do us, you idiot!" she snapped.

    The defiance was not all out of gap-tooth either. "You treat us like that, why shouldn't we do the same or worse to you, bitch?"

    It was an awkward question, but for once Howard had an easy answer. "Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you."

    "Yeah? And if they turn around and kick you in the teeth?" said the gap-toothed one. "What you do then? Give them the rest of your teeth?"

    That was less easy to answer. "Rape is not right. Neither is violence."

    "We were just doing what they do to us. A woman's got to know her place up here," said gap-tooth sullenly. "And we share and share alike here when we get one. Not fair that you keep her to yourself, big one. Two is greedy, anyway!"

    Howard hadn't thought of it quite like that. "She's not mine. None of them are."

    "Correctly speaking, he's mine," said Lani crossly. "Although it doesn't seem to have gotten through to him."

    "Can we get out of here, and you can argue about who belongs to whom somewhere less dangerous?" said the other woman.

    Lani nodded. "You've got a point. And now we've got these jerks to avoid as well as the Force."

    "I've thought about it. I can get the computer to simply give me all warm bodies, not just those over a certain weight. We should be able to avoid any more charming incidents. I do begin to understand why Diana came into being."

    Lani had picked up her scoot, with one hand, and kicked the stand down. She moved towards the remaining men. "Don't worry, I won't shoot anyone—as long as they co-operate. We'll keep this one as a hostage." She grabbed gap-tooth, twisting his arm up behind him. He squealed. "I'm not hurting you, yet. But I will if you don't shut up. I'll let you go as soon as we're in the clear, idiot. All right, the rest of you lot. Move out and we'll move out too… In opposite directions. Those of you who can walk take those who can't. And don't try anything stupid. I was top of my marksmanship class."

    They backed off. Lani slipped the weapon into her belt, took a pair of cuffs off it, and handcuffed the gap-toothed man. "Open the back. I'll put him in there," she said to the woman in the car.

    A minute later and Howard was again holding onto her waist as they followed the little car down the passages, and into a cross-passage. They stopped in a wide chamber, where a mechanical-shredder asthmatically chewed plant-matter.

    Lani pulled up next to the car-window. "What are we stopping for?" she asked.

    For an answer the woman pointed to the screen of the little black box next to her. "A group of people in our way. A force patrol by the looks of it, judging by the individual weights."

    Howard got off the scoot and looked at them. "It's me they're looking for, isn't it?" he asked. "If they catch me they'll leave you alone. I'll go."



    Lani looked at her gentle giant. He was an idiot, besides being confused about his status as her man. He'd also waded into a pack of wild ones for her. And then stopped her blowing one of them away. She might just understand him, one day. She was beginning to think it might just be worth waiting for, aside from the physical gratification.

    "I can't go back either, Howard. I… I thought they'd, uh, done something to you. So I'm afraid I beat up three of the station-cops to try and get them to tell me where they'd taken you. Your cell was empty, no sign of a forced exit."

    "I went out through the ceiling," said Howard, sounding as humble as ever. "I put the planks back. I thought they might put me back in the same cell, or perhaps some other poor person. I'm sorry. I just was afraid they'd…" He blushed. Bit his lip. "I'm sorry. I think I have ruined your life."

    She shrugged. "It was just a matter of time, I guess. I've been heading for trouble with everything I do." She paused. "Howard, will you take me to this New Eden of yours?"

    She bit her lip nervously, and tried something unfamiliar. "Please?"



    Howard cringed internally, looking at her. It was amazing just how fast you forgot about being naked. Well, with her body, it was impossible to forget entirely, but you did become accustomed to anything, to some degree. However, his now-broadened mind admitted, New Eden would not get used to her. Brother Galsson and his ilk would have fits. It had taken Howard—while out of his home environment—a lot of time to acknowledge that she wasn't just a painted Jezebel. If he'd been at home in New Eden, it would never have happened.

    And that, as far as he could see was just the smaller part of the problem. He simply couldn't see her becoming Goodwife Lani, wearing clothes and obeying he husband in all things. That would kill her. Anyway, besides the undeniable physical attraction, she was a long way from the ideal wife he'd dreamed of. There was no getting away from the fact that she was bad-tempered, violent at times, and used to ruling the roost.

    His long silence plainly worried her. "Don't you like me?" she asked quietly.

    Howard tugged at his beard, trying to find the right words. He did like her, in spite of his better judgment. He'd been raised to speak the truth. But… she would be much happier here, his conscience said. Even if they punished her for her wayward actions, they accepted violence here—and reaped the bitter fruit of it, too, of course.

    He saw the tears starting to form in her eyes, and tried for compromise, which, as he knew, usually ended up pleasing no one. "It's not that I don't like you. It's just… New Eden would kill you, Lani."

    She looked doubtful. "I thought you said that they were gentle people who never killed anyone."

    "Well, yes," said Howard, diffidently. "But they do put people out of the airlock. You can make people's lives a misery too, without actually killing or imprisoning them. That's not what I meant, Lani. It's… well, we don't have any machines. We wear clothes all the time. We work, every day—except Sundays—for our food. We eat meat. Real meat, not this vat stuff. A wife promises to honor and obey her husband. She doesn't have as many men as she likes. You would have to give up everything."

    She cocked her head on one side, and looked at him with eyes full of uncertainty. "So you do like me, a little? Do you love me? If you do… I think I could do that."

    Howard swallowed, hard. "I don't think it would be right for me to ask that of anyone."

    "So do you love me?" she asked directly.

    Love? Did this place even know the difference between love and lust? He'd always thought of love as some remote ideal flower, not… well a rather earthy bad-tempered woman. "I… I like you. I didn't mean to like you. It is too early to speak of loving." He sighed. "We come from different worlds, Lani. Yours would kill me, I think. And mine would kill you."

    She sighed. "We need a world of own, I guess."

    "You two lovebirds can mount up again," said the woman in the car. "They're past. And I have to break this to you, Lani. There is no way he can take you back where he comes from. To do that you'd need to go out of the other airlock. This one—will take us on, not back. And I don't think we've really got any choices. They'll have been looking for Kretz here. Some of those injured men will also be caught and talk, probably. I've taken things from the office and museum that are not supposed to be removed—that I doubt if I could get back into place anyway. Lani would sit in jail for half her life. Howard here would be gelded. Kretz would die when he changed sex. His companions will die if he doesn't get to them. We haven't really got many choices. And who knows, the next habitat on might be that world of your own? Now. I've plotted a clear path. Shall we go?"

    So they went.



    Kretz clutched the alien weapon, keeping it carefully pointed at the window. He had very little idea of what it could do. He'd only learned to work it quite by accident, after his panicky flight. At least he'd found the resolve to turn back. And the alien weapon had worked when it had to. He had no idea if it would again, or if he'd exhausted its charges. But it gave courage to beat back the fear. He wasn't going anywhere without it again.

    This area of the habitat was in bad repair. Yet, on the biological side, they were far more advanced than Howard's people. So: what was going wrong? Kretz didn't know, but he was beginning to get an inkling. However, his main worry right now was that the next bead might turn out to be as inimical as this one had turned out to be.

    Amber pulled her vehicle to a halt. The female with Howard on the second seat of her two-wheeled vehicle pulled up next to the window. "There is one person at the airlock. We'll have to wait," said Amber.

    "It's probably a guard,” she added. “We can't wait—the police channel tells me they're starting a systematic sweep. We might be able to hide ourselves, but not the vehicles. We can't get far enough from them not to be found by the kind of search they'd start then. I'll leave Howard with you. Let me go and deal with it."

    She grimaced and tugged at her braided hair. “Even my mother wouldn't recognize me with this."



    Riding on alone, Lani had to ask herself why she was doing this. It was crazy. But… having gone this far, how did you get out? A mercenary part of her mind said: by turning the others in.

    Could she? She'd get a plea-bargain deal, probably. Amber was too valuable for them to punish very severely. Besides… what was scientist or the alien to her?

    The answer was clear enough: People who'd helped her, with hair dye and a pump-action shotgun. And then there was Howard. Taking on thirty men to stop her being raped…

    And then stopping her dealing with their leader, the loon!

    She'd forgotten all about that worm lying quietly on the back seat. The others could let him go now—except that she had the keys to his cuffs. And she couldn't turn around now. There was the airlock, and someone looking at her.

    She pulled the scoot up at the airlock, and, as she'd correctly surmised, a police guard.

    "You're late. As usual," said the woman, scowling. "Oh. Sorry. I thought it was Marianne."

    "She called in sick," said Lani, scowling right back. "No sign of anyone here, is there?"

    "Nah. A waste of time." The woman got on her own scoot, and, to Lani's horror took off up the same passage she'd just come out of. The passage the others were waiting down.

    After an instant's hesitation, Lani leapt onto her own scoot and set off after her.

    She caught up as the policewoman was radioing in "…. backup. Have encountered armed—"

    She slumped as Lani hit her. "We'd better move!" yelled Lani. "Why did you apes let her call in?"

    "Because we're less good at violence than you are," said Amber, engaging the vehicle's transmission.

    They raced onward to the airlock.

    It opened in front of them. "I put the access code in," said Amber, holding up the her portable. "Let's get the stuff out of the back and get in there. The cops will be here any moment."

    They leapt out.

    Their unwilling passenger chose this moment to squall. "What about me?"

    Lani unlocked the cuffs hastily. "Run, you little rat. Be lucky you're still alive."

    He darted down the passage, and Lani turned back to the vehicle.

    Amber had three large bags. Did she think she was going on holiday and needed a ton of body paint? Lani grabbed one, and Howard the other two.

    "What the hell is in here?" she asked, struggling forward.

    "Dehydrated cell culture for Kretz,” said Amber, grabbing the other handle. “Spare ammunition. Clothes from the museum. Some tools. I hear sirens. Let's try to run."

    The lock was only yards off, but the siren sound showed that the Diana police force was coming in fast. Lani could almost be proud of them.

    Then, suddenly, running as if his butt was on fire, their former hostage ran straight past them and into the airlock.



    As soon as they were in, Kretz activated the closing switch. Glacially, the door began closing. The sirens were really on top of them now. The door closed just as tires screeched outside. Lani breathed a sigh of relief.

    And then the door began to open.

    Frantically Amber opened her portable and entered numbers.

    The door began to close again.

    Someone shoved a nightstick into the crack.

    The stick crushed. Lani sat down, tension easing.

    "Seal cannot be achieved," said a mechanical voice. "Inner airlock seal must be achieved to commence lock sequence.”

    "What does that mean?" asked Lani.

    "It means that the airlock is inoperable," said the alien. "If it is like ours, one door won't open if the other is not closed. We are trapped here."

    Lani looked around at the chamber. Including a small alcove it was about ten meters long. "Can't we break open the outer door? Or… isn't there a manual over-ride?"

    "Probably," said Amber. "But that will kill everyone in Diana, even if it’s only a slow leak. I'm not prepared to do that. I've altered the access codes, and made this an entry-code required door. We're safe enough for now. But we can't go anywhere."

    Lani felt remarkably foolish. She knew what space was, after all. She'd seen pictures and read about it. Living inside the habitat, she had just forgotten.

    Howard was on his hands and knees, studying the end of the nightstick. He tugged at it. The high-impact plastic had not broken, just crushed down into filaments. You could vaguely hear hammering on the door.

    "Can they possibly break it down?" he asked.

    "I doubt it," Amber replied. "Eventually lack of food and water will force us to go back, though."

    "If it were opened a fraction I could remove this," Howard said.

    Lani shook her head. "If we open it a fraction, they'll put more in. And then, if they can get it to open more than a bullet-diameter, they'll just call in a weapons team and let the ricochets take care of all of us." It was grim, Lani found, being on the wrong side of her own profession. "In fact, I'll bet the firearms squads are on their way right now."

    "Hmm." Amber looked thoughtfully at the door. "If we could get them to back off, we could snatch the obstruction in and close it."

    "And how will we do that?" asked Lani. "We can't even talk to them—not that they'd listen to us telling them to back off."

    "Even though they know we're armed? If we said we were coming out, shooting, and they'd better get out the way…" The scientist started typing in to her portable again. "I can access a speaker outside the airlock door. And we can count and position them onscreen."

    Lani pursed her lips and nodded. "You're going to have to do some tricks with that thing to get it all done fast enough."

    Amber pulled a face. "I'll set up the opening and closing sequence to one key-stroke macros. You want to talk to them."

    "Okay. When you're ready," Lani said. "Howard, will you pull it in? Kneel next to the door. We won't get more than one chance."

    He nodded, took up his position and a grip on the end of the stick.

    "Ready," said Amber.

    "Let's just move back from a direct line of fire." Lani pointed to the wall. "Right. What do you want me to say? Will we be able to hear them too?"

    "Can set that up. Hang on… Okay. Say whatever you think will get them to back off. Speak to the portable's pickup. You're live… now."

    Lani cleared her throat. "Hear this! We're coming out! We will come out shooting! Back off!"

    A pause and then someone yelled. "Let the hostages out and you men will be well treated. No harm will come to you if you lay down your arms."

    Hostages? The only “hostage” they had the police were welcome to. They wouldn't consider him one anyway. They must assume Amber, at least, was a hostage. There was no sign of movement from the screen. "Back off and we'll let the hostages out!" said Lani. "We don't trust you. Back off first."

    "We are," replied the officer on far side of the airlock door, a statement belied by the screen. They were bunching to rush the door. It was exactly what she would have done, had she been on the other side of that door. There must be mechanical pick-ups in more places than she'd ever dreamed of.

    "I can see you," said Lani. "Move away from the door."

    "Speak up. Sorry, we can't hear you clearly." Negotiating technique. Keep them talking…

    Lani saw how a sudden brightness leapt into Amber's eyes. "Heh! Thank you!" She hastily opened a screen window. "Wav. File generator. Block your ears, all. They say they can't hear us. Let them hear us. At full volume."

    Even on the other side of a meter-thick door, the shriek was penetrating. By the scattering of people indicators on-screen, on the other side of the door, it was intolerable.

    "Now!" The door began opening.

    Howard twitched the nightstick inside. And the door… closed.

    "Seal achieved," said the mechanical voce from the speaker-box. "Depressurization will begin in ten minutes. Please don your suits and run through pre-vacuum checks. Depressurization may be interrupted by pressing the red buttons, at any point. To re-initiate the sequence press the green button on the control console."

     Behind them, the burned bridges fell.



    Howard sighed with relief. Yes, it meant going out into the vastness of space again. But that was a less frightening place to him now, compared to coping with a female-dominated world. He breathed a little prayer of thanks. Why God saw fit to send not one, but two, of these women with them, he did not know. Part of him admitted he was glad Lani was here. Another part rejoiced because he was going to don clothes again, even if they were heavy, bulky space-suits.

    He smiled at the two women. It was a minor pleasure to feel that for once he knew more than they did. "The suits, helmets and boots are in alcove-cupboards. Let me show you."

    "Clothes?" said Lani, warily.

    The other woman—the one Lani referred to as Amber, laughed. It was a little tinged with hysteria, but it was still laughter. "Skin may be beautiful and natural, dear, but it doesn't deal well with vacuum. We're going into space, remember."

    "How do we get out of here?" asked a scared voice from the huddle in the corner.

    Howard had forgotten the man. "What do we do with him?" It was rather their fault that he was here, he supposed.

    Lani had also obviously forgotten his existence. "Damnation, what the hell did you run in here for, Perp?" she snapped.

    "It was you or the cops," he said defiantly. "And if they catch me, I'm dead meat. Or I might as well be."

    "You might as well be dead as here too," said the Amber woman. "We're going to have to get him out there."

    "Can't. I'll bet they have ear-muffs and are just about solid at the door. If we open it, we'll never get it closed again," said Lani, decisively.

    Howard remembered the bones in the airlock on New Eden. "We can't leave him here," he said with equal firmness. "He will die."

    Lani scowled. "And the world would be a better place without one perp. What else can we do with him?"

    "At least help him into a suit," said Kretz "Vacuum will kill him."

    Howard nodded. "He can wait here and go out when the hue and cry has died down."

    "That could be difficult," said Amber. "I have reset the doors so they will not open without a pass-code input direct to the computer. We don't dare change that. I wouldn't put it past the matriarchy to try and follow us. I could maybe set a time delay and he could sneak out later, I suppose. Long after we've gone."

    "After this, there'll be guards on the airlock doors until doomsday, I reckon." Lani scowled. "You're going down, you little perp scumbag."

    He stared in defiance at her, but said nothing.

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