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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Twenty Five

       Last updated: Monday, September 15, 2008 01:09 EDT



    "Let's face it, Henry, primitive cultures have no place in a modern world. We can't keep them in the damn reserve. They won't stay there, and they're damaging the biosphere anyway. They need, in that ancient military parlance you like so much, to either shape up or ship out. The trust fund is awash with UN guilt money. So we buy them a habitat. So what if they barely understand it? Let them take their dirt, their disease, their stupid culture and die somewhere a long way from me. "


Transcript of secretly recorded discussion between Assistant Commissioner H. Obisando and Commissioner of Indigenous Rights (South American subregion) Phaedra Van Pensdorm.


    Within the constraints that the surface area must be vastly increased, and that the shaping of this must also assist the water and air circulation—as the main vehicles for thermoregulation—there is tremendous scope for variation and imagination in habitat architecture.


Extract from notes: Space Architecture 101, University of Beijing, South Campus.



    A red and blue bird greeted them with a raucous cry as it flew up into the vegetation. It was an odd looking chicken, Howard had to admit, but there was no call for Lani to shoot it.

    Howard picked himself up off the ground. There wasn't much left of the chicken. Just some red and blue feathers. Here they were barely ten yards into this place—and she'd killed someone's livestock!

    "Do you mind," he said trying to keep his temper, "telling me next time you're going to shoot at something? You gave me a terrible fright, and now we've got a dead chicken to explain to some householder, and there's not enough left of it for dinner."

    She stood there looking shaken. "What the hell was that thing?"

    "A funny colored chicken," he said.


    "An animal we grow for eggs and meat," he explained, realizing that she really meant it. When she still looked blank he went on. "A domestic animal. Harmless. Where have the others gone?"

    "I think they ran away, said Lani. "It… do they always make that noise?"

    Howard shook his head. "Not the ones at home. But this is a different place. Warmer. They would have chickens that were suited to their environment, I imagine. I suppose we'd better look for the others. I hope the owner is not too upset about his chicken."

    They found Kretz, Amber and John in his tutu peering around the door of the airlock. "It's all right. It was just a chicken."

    "More mobile than most chicken-vat culture," said Amber, grinning. She appeared, despite the fright she'd just had, to be recovering her tone of mind now that they were inside again. Howard wondered if it had occurred to her that the whole purpose of being inside… was to get to the far side and go out again. What would they do then. Would she stay behind?

    "You mean that's the same as the chicken we eat?" said Lani. "Oh, how gross. I just killed it. I think I'm going to be sick."

    Every time he thought he was getting to understand these people, they mystified him afresh. Chicken had to be killed before you could eat it. Even the squares of dull meat they ate had to have been killed, didn't they? But they could contemplate killing people with no qualms.

    Well, best not to make an issue out of it right now. "We need to move on," he said, practically. "Please don't kill any more chickens or other livestock. The owners might get very angry."

    "It's pretty wild and unprocessed looking greenery. Maybe it was a runaway… chicken," ventured Lani.

    There was something in what she'd said, thought Howard, looking at the plants carefully now, instead of just looking for naked women wanting to attack them. "I'm not sure I recognize the plants, but, as you say, none of them look farmed, do they?" he admitted.

    "No. No signs of any cutting," agreed Lani.

    "Some of the leaves do look familiar, but not too familiar," said John, plucking and sniffing one. He chewed a piece and spat it out, pulling a face.

    Amber spoke up. "It's cooler than Diana. The plants would need to be adapted to that. And they might come from different geographical areas. I read somewhere once that the vegetation of old Earth's continents was quite different."

    Howard nodded. "It is warmer, and more humid, than New Eden. I suppose different plants would flourish here. Still, it's not as warm as your Diana was, and I recognized those plants. There was less variety in your place than at home, and yours appeared to be all soft-plants. I don't think I saw any trees. We have trees—many different fruit trees. This place here is quite different from both my home and yours. The passages are taller than those of home, and much taller than yours. There is far more plant variety. Those are trees, back in the undergrowth.”

    He looked around, frowning. “Very untidy," he said, disapprovingly. "It's worse than the upper core sections of New Eden that have gone wild."

    "Has this place gone wild?" asked Amber. "Have all the people died off?"

    "It could have happened," said Kretz thoughtfully. "You're a very robust and adaptable species, but bio-habitats are relatively fragile, although it is obvious that they're less fragile once they get to this size. We had several experimental ones on Miran. They all failed. But they were all small and very micro-managed."

    "It's wrong to hope that all the inhabitants have died," said Howard, knowing he sounded self-righteous, but unable to help himself. "Even if it would make things easier for us. But we need to get you through to the other side of it, Kretz. Shall we go? And, Lani… please don't just shoot things."

    "Sorry. Just a nervous over-reaction," she said apologetically. "I think you'd better lead this time, Howard. Not," she said fiercely, "Because of that stupid argument of yours that men ought to lead into danger, but because you at least know what chickens look like."

    She paused. "And this other 'livestock,' whatever that is. I'm too inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. It was why they wouldn't have me on the firearms squad, in spite my graduating top of marksmanship." She scowled at John in his pink tutu. "Or we could send the perp first to be a target for any trouble."

    So Howard led them off into the corridors. It was much harder than he'd thought it would be. There was a path, but unlike the practical ones of New Eden this one was not straight. It was narrow, and wound around the trees.

    "It does seem very wild. I don't see any signs of farming or harvesting," he said Howard after a while.

    "The tops are trimmed," said Amber.

    It was true enough. The tops were trimmed, cut short of the actual roof. Howard walked forward cautiously. Several more flying things exploded out of the underbrush and flew up the trail, shrieking.

    "More chickens?" said Lani as Howard got up. "They gave you a fright this time. They certainly come in a range of colors, don't they?"

    Howard felt as if he was on far less certain ground than he had believed he was. "Um. I don't think those ones were chickens. They could fly—like chickens did—but they didn't look at all like chickens. They didn't even fly in the same sort of way as chickens, or sound like them. They must be some other creature."

    "Not dangerous?" asked little John, peering around him.

    The sheer unfamiliarity of the environment injected a bit of caution into Howard's reply. "I don't think so. Chickens aren't."

    They walked on. "I really do think you're right, Lani. This environment has gone wild," said Howard, as they had to push through a section where the branches overhung the the path.

    She gave him a half-smile. "Well, anyway, there's no shortage of these chickens of yours. In all sorts of sizes and colors… urgh. What is that thing?"

    Her gun was in hand again, menacing a small green creature with bright black eyes on the branch next to the path. It had a tail, four legs, clawed feet and was covered—by the looks of it—in tiny scales, rather like a bird's legs. Howard looked warily at it. It looked back at him… and abruptly turned and scurried off. "I don't know." admitted Howard. If Kretz had looked like that, instead of human-ish, the people of New Eden would have killed him. Was it some kind of small demon?

    "Maybe it has gone to call its friends," said John.

    Howard nodded. "Let's move along."



    They did—but not for long. The trail led into water. A stream ran down the path. "Pipe burst somewhere."

    There was nowhere to walk but in the water, and, like dense vegetation, that was full of life. Things that darted off in the water, shoals of tiny fish, and a sucker- footed croaking thing that jumped on prodigiously large back-legs.

    The “path” got deeper and then ahead… Water spread out into an expanse, covered by splotches of floating flat round leaves. One of the tree-edges of the trail continued, going off into the water.

    "Pipe burst,” repeatead Howard, gloomily. "A huge, long-ago pipe-burst. Look how the grass-stuff is growing out of it. We'll have to start wading."

    "Do we have to?" asked Kretz. "It looks as if it could be quite deep."

    Howard had to admit that he didn't like the look of it himself. "I suppose if we went up to the higher levels, closer to the core. But that'll mean going back."

    "Back is better than on, by the looks of it," said Amber. "I'm tired. I'm not used to all this walking. But we can't even sit down here."

    "You would be dead-beat," said Lani, waspishly, holding on to Howard's shoulder.

    Howard blinked. All this walking? They'd hardly done any. But looking at them, all three of the Diana people were tired. He supposed that they weren't used using their legs much, what with scoots and cars and trolley-busses. And Amber had probably wasted a lot of energy on fear.

    "We'll go back, at least until we find a cross-trail or a riser.” He remembered seeing one back just before water started running down the track.

    They walked back, and across into another passage. Fortunately Lani spotted a riser—a steep curve of path that took them up one more level. There was a small clearing, a grassy patch. "Rest time," said Amber, panting, and sitting down. The others followed suit with obvious degrees of relief.

    Howard wasn't tired. He'd passed from nervousness to fascination with this environment. His mind had already been fixing it, mending the broken pipes, thinning the trees, and planting crops. Kretz was peering intently at something on a leaf, but the others looked nearly comatose. The alien gave him his odd smile. "This place is a biologist's paradise. I enjoyed seeing your domesticated animals, Howard, but I think this place must be a conservation area. A place to preserve the wild ones. We have many of them on Miran, outside of the hunting areas. Fascinating. Look at the tiny little animals on this leaf."

    Howard looked. They had six legs, like bees. Definitely the New Eden council would have killed Kretz if he'd looked like that. Kretz continued. "We have tried to set up conservation areas on Miran that are just like the planet must have been before we became intelligent. This is like that."

    "Eden," said Howard. "So you think this is our paradise?"

    "Paradise," announced Lani firmly, "has scoots."

    It was a little too warm here, but otherwise it did look like an untamed paradise, ripe for a farmer. Howard walked over to the trees a little beyond the glade. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that John had got to his feet and was walking across to him, looking around. Howard wondered what he wanted. Perhaps he was looking for a place in Eden to call his own. Mind you, this Eden didn't seem in very good repair. He thought he heard more water…

    He wasn't wrong. There was another stream of it. Was all the piping in this habitat rotten? The stream of water ran into a hole. It must be a deliberate drain of some sort. It was too square to just be water-worn. Come to think of it, he hadn't actually seen any of the ubiquitous drains of New Eden. He knelt to have a closer look. As he did so, he heard a sort of half-gurgling-scream. Turning, he saw that the small man from Diana was looped in the thick, sinuous coils of some creature. Howard ran to help, and found himself in the creature's coils too. As he yelled in surprise, a second and a third horrid length looped around him, trapping one arm.

    It squeezed.

    As he tried to draw breath the creature—as thick as a feeder-pipe—contracted around him again. A forked tongue flickered at him.

    With his free hand he grabbed the creature's neck just below its head and tried to pull it away from him, to throttle it, as it was throttling him. The creature was winning, when Lani came running up. She calmly put her weapon against his clutching hand and fired upwards through its skull.

    The cracking coils spasmed briefly and painfully, and she helped him to push it away. He sat down, drawing air into his lungs, hauling the heavy scaled creature away from his body. John squirmed out of the coils, panting and sat next to him.

    "Now, what sort of livestock is this?" asked Lani, kicking it. "Beef? Lamb? If you ask me, growing them in a nutrient vat is much safer, even if you don't like the taste as much."

    "It's a huge snake. A serpent." He was shocked and shaken by all of this, but even if he'd never seen it, he knew that much from the holy book. "Don't eat any apples it offers you. Maybe this is Eden."

    "I don't think so," said Amber. She had her portable computer out. "Look. I can't hook up to the dataweb here, but I have found that there is an onboard encyclopedia. Looks as if that thing was an anaconda. From South America. Not Eden."

    "Perhaps South America was in Eden, then? Or Eden was in South America? It was lost you know when man was driven out of it." Howard was reluctant to abandon the idea. It would be something to return home and tell them he'd found Eden. He stood up.

    "Come and sit down over there for a bit, you two. We still need some rest, and I really get the feeling that you shouldn't wander off on your own here," said Lani, kicking the snake again. "Or do you think its owner is going to come demanding compensation? I'll give him compensation…" She pointed the gun. "That thing could have hurt you."

    Even if he didn't approve of violence, it was hard to disagree entirely with her. Howard went to sit on the grass. Looking carefully, he could see something had been cropping it.

    "What are these black things?" Lani held them up to him.

    "Goat droppings. Well," he corrected himself, in the light of his recent experience, "droppings from an animal possibly something like a goat." That was obviously what had been doing the cropping.

    "Droppings?" she looked at him in puzzlement and sniffed the black ovoid objects. "Poo." She wrinkled her nose.

    "Uh, yes. Dung."

    That was plainly another word that had been lost from Diana's vocabulary. "What?" Lani peered at them, wrinkling her nose.

    "He means excretion. Shit," supplied Amber.

    Lani dropped the droppings as if they were burning hot. Looked around and raced to the stream, ignoring the dead snake, and washed her hands frantically.

    "Can't they be taught to use bathrooms?” she said crossly to Howard. “If that's what they do all over the place they deserve to be eaten!"



    The problem was that they just couldn't keep going in the same direction. There was water everywhere. A few hundred yards on from where Howard had proved that, if this was Eden, it still had its serpent, they came to a lake—again. This was quite a narrow one, barely thirty yards wide. "We can't just keep going back. We've got to cross it," said Howard. "I'll go first. I can swim."

    He stepped into the water. A black drifting log in the middle… submerged suddenly. Amber grabbed his shoulder and hauled him back. "Don't." She said. "I looked up dangerous South American animals…" Part of the black log came up, much closer to them. It had eyes. Curiously flecked eyes—about six inches apart. Evil eyes. Hungry.

    "I think we need to back away from the water," Howard said in a steady voice. "Don't run." Running was the worst thing you could do with Jersey bulls… and this creature looked even nastier.

    They retreated. Gradually the whole “log” surfaced too. It must have been four or more yards long, ridged and spiked. Amber pointed to her portable. "I think it is a black cayman. See."

    The onscreen picture included teeth.

    "I think we have to avoid the water," said Kretz, thoughtfully.

    "That's not all." She flicked to a picture of a fish. A fish? It looked like a fish…

    "Those are its teeth below," she said, pointing. They were triangular, interlocking. "They're not very big fish, but they move in large schools. It says here they can skeletonize large mammals very quickly, although they do not often attack man."

    "Do they have those here too?" asked John fearfully, dancing his feet out of the water.

    "Who knows, perp?" said Lani. "Shall we send you ahead to find out?"

    "What other animals are listed as dangerous?" asked Howard, to keep the peace.

    So Amber showed them. They made mere Jersey bulls seem attractive, good tempered and friendly. "Of course they won't all be here," she said.

    Lani put an arm around Howard. "We've already met two of them. I don't think we need to take any chances."

    That seemed like common sense… The only trouble was that they were thoroughly lost as a result. Howard was still sure of up and down—but which direction to go on, though, was another matter. And they seemed hemmed in by interconnected waterways. There was no help for it but to wade in the very shallow ones.

    The Diana people were finding it very hard going. Walking was an unfamiliar exercise, the creatures they encountered in the water and the vegetation were quite terrifying to people who had never seen any animal except a live human before. Not only did the color of their clothing make them very visible but the progression of screams and shrieks made it seem certain that the entire habitat must know of their passing. Yet they had seen no signs of people, and no certain signs that humans had ever lived here at all. The cuts on the trees could be the teeth of some big animal. They were rather straight for tooth marks, but until today Howard hadn't known half these things existed.



    "Whaa whhaa whaa woooo-huh."

    "What's that noise?" asked Howard.

    It came again. "Whaa whhaa whaa woooo-huh."

    "Fortunately, it sounds far off." Amber was too tired to be frightened by anything that wasn't within biting range.

    "Good. I don't think I can run," said the younger policewoman, sitting down on a low bank and rubbing her feet.

    Amber sat down too. "I'm glad I'm not the only one. I don't know how much further I can walk, to be honest." She sighed. "You know, I calculated the distance to your life-craft, Kretz. At top speed I could have driven there in two hours. I thought of walking. I thought I was so good with my calculations. I worked on the speed one can walk in Diana. On the flat, on a nice open walkway. I'm beginning to realize that the only sure way past the water is to head for the core. That's uphill. About a mile straight up."

    "And it's not straight or flat underfoot either. Our sandals are not really made for this sort of thing," said Lani, looking at hers.

    "Not to mention all of these dangerous creatures," said little John. He was staying right in the middle of the group, now.

    "I’m tired, I'm hungry and I'm thirsty. And I can't believe there are no bathrooms," said Lani. "If this is paradise, there ought to be bathrooms."

    "Well, we're not in jail," said Howard, trying to look on the bright side. "And we are closer to Brother Kretz's lifecraft. There is plenty of clean water in the streams…"

    "Please!" Lani cocked her nose up. "We've been walking in that. Not to mention those goat-drippings that have probably ended up in the water too."

    "Droppings, not drippings," corrected Howard.

    "Droppings and drippings, probably," said Lani, looking at the water in distaste. "It's bad enough that we have to walk in it. And it's full of slimy swimming things."

    The more everyone talked about it, the more Amber wished that she was home. It was one thing to dream of the wonders of space-travel. Another entirely to find that space was big and empty and that your decision had brought you to sore legs and feet and a shortage of water and food. She'd brought plenty of food. For Kretz. The idea of needing water hadn't crossed her mind. Like it or not, goat drippings and feet, and slimy things too, she was going to have to drink some, soon.

    Then Kretz pointed out something even more unwelcome. "Is it just me, or does the light intensity seem to be dimming?"

    It wasn't just him, and the idea was terrifying. "We can't be out here in the dark," said Amber, hastily. "Let's get back to the airlock! At least it is clean and dry."

    Howard shook his head. "To be honest I don't know if I could find my way there. At least, not in a hurry. I'm sorry. I think it is back that way, but we have changed direction so often…"

    That was accurate enough, thought Amber, and not based on imagined problems—unlike Lani's attempt to always put herself between Amber and Howard. That came from living in a society where wealth and position had major pulling power, Amber supposed. She must find a way to reassure her soon, although Howard seemed oblivious to the matter.

    "We'd better find a place we can wait out the darkness then," said Kretz. "Or do you think we should travel on in the dark? Perhaps these creatures sleep then."

    Amber shrugged tiredly. "Not according to the encyclopedia," she said. "We need to beware of vampire bats and jaguars and…"

    "And find a spot, soon, where we can fort up for the night," interrupted Howard. "I do not wish to have one of those drop on me during the night. Nor do I think that a black cayman is a pleasant thing to meet in the dark, let alone all these other horrors. We need a place that is high enough for us to fend them off and which has no trees overhead. We need to find it before the lights go off."



    The spot was not ideal, Howard admitted to himself. Still, as the light had faded far more quickly than at home, they were lucky to have found something this good. They had a patch of interstitial wall which had no trees against it, and where the ground was a little higher. The little mound was covered in grass.

    "Something's been cutting this vegetation," said Lani, suspiciously.

    Howard looked. "I think it is some kind of grazing animal. Like those ones that fled from us two levels down, perhaps."

    She sighed, tiredly. "Well, we'd better look for something else then."

    "Grazers would be food for caymans and jaguars. If they come here it’s probably fairly safe," said Amber. "Besides, I don't think I can go on."

    "At least there are no trees for that serpent thing," said little John, sitting down on the grass. "Do we have any food?"

    Amber scowled at him. "Freeze-dried protein for Kretz. Analysis says it wouldn't be good for us to eat."

    "You brought me here to starve," whined the little man.

    "Oh, for Holy Susan's sake!" snapped Lani. "We didn't bring you here at all. You brought yourself and you're welcome to leave as soon as possible. In fact I think you should go now."

    John looked into the gathering gloom "With those serpent things? No way."

    "Then stop complaining. I'm hungry and thirsty too. I might even have to drink some dripping-water at this rate."

    Howard sought to pour some oil on the water. He was, to some extent, responsible for keeping Kretz alive—which had dragged all of them into this. "I believe that is a pumpkin climbing up the edge of that bit of underbrush," he said, pointing. “The fruit is not quite the same as the ones at home, but the leaves are right, and so are the flowers." You can eat the young leaves and the flowers too. And I am sure there is other food here."

    "Is that what a pumpkin looks like in the raw? It had to be my least favorite vegetable, didn't it?" said Lani, eyeing it. "Well, it's better than nothing, I guess. So how do we nuke it?"

    Howard picked the large knobbled fruit, thinking about this and the other problems of provisioning the party. The water system in New Eden had been a bucket that you let down into an arterial canal. The faucets of Diana seemed like a recipe for things to wear out and get broken, to Howard. They were convenient, true. Right now he'd be glad of a bucket to haul clean New Eden water for Lani. She still hadn't brought herself to drink. Mind you, then he might as well wish for a sparker, and a nice flow of methane from the slurry-digesters to cook the pumpkin on. What was it going to be like raw? He'd heard you could grate it, raw, to make a salad out of it…. Well, they didn't have a grater. They'd have to find out what it was like just chewed. He picked flowers, some leaf-tips and two immature fruit for good measure.

    "We need to cut this thing." The skin was thick and hard.

    "I could shoot it, I suppose," volunteered Lani. "We should have brought that snake. Snake steak."

    The idea made Howard shudder. Raw snake! How could she be so casual about a creature like that and yet worry about chicken or drinking the water? The thing was, he supposed, that the snake was just so alien to her that it had no meaning. He tried dropping the pumpkin, hard. It cracked.

    There are better things than raw pumpkin. Raw pumpkin seeds for instance—they ate those when they'd finished with the pumpkin. But at least it was food. It was sweetish, and provided a good, long chew. The cracked seeds were delicious, but took a lot of cracking for very little meat. Lani eventually braved drinking the water, too.

    She sat down next to him, and started laughing.

    "What is so funny?" asked Amber. Howard hadn't dared ask.

    "I was just thinking," said Lani. "We went through all of this to escape from the Diana police force. And right now a nice clean cell sounds pretty safe and pretty good."

    "And they feed prisoners," said Amber

    "Yeah," agreed Lani. "I was just thinking if the force turned up here, now, I'd be pretty hard-pressed not to kiss them."

    Howard didn't think this place was that bad. But he kept his opinion to himself. "I wonder how they would do with the cayman and the serpent?"

    "Oh, hell, they'd all be back in the airlock, any that were still alive," said Lani. "This place is not what we trained for, but it was a fun thought. And I guess I don't really want to be in a cell. I wouldn't say ‘no’ to a hot bath and a cup of coffee, though."

    "I'd like a strong drink," said Amber. “Strong enough to knock me out."

    Then there was just the darkness to wait out. They sat together, listening to the noises that came out of the dark. Howard had to admit that "Silent Night" was not something you would ever sing here. There were croaks and whistles and odd hollow calls, and strange deep grunts out in the darkness. Instinctively, they huddled closer together. No one slept. They just sat there, waiting for the light. Gradually, things got quieter. Little snores came from at least two members of the group. Howard was tired himself, but he felt that sleep might be the last thing that they did. He'd sleep when they could see. Lani nodded against his shoulder. Snuggled into him. He sighed. It was all a heavy cross to bear.



    Sitting in the darkness John Bhangella pondered his next move. This place frightened him. It was too strange and too alien. He wasn't planning to go off on his own either, especially not unarmed. The scientist woman was a better target than the cop. He could snatch that semi-automatic shotgun out of her hands before she knew what he was doing…

    And then? He wasn't going to run off into this darkness. He might have been tempted, before the snake incident. But he also wanted to keep at least one woman. He wasn't too sure, yet, where this place actually was. The whole experience hadn't made a lot of sense to him. His mind still struggled with what he'd seen out there in that funny suit. It didn't make a clear, understandable picture. What was clear was that the others regarded this place as beyond the reach of the cops. If he could bring the other Mens Liberation Army members here, they could raid, loot and capture women—and never be followed. That had appeal.

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