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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Twenty Six

       Last updated: Friday, September 26, 2008 07:47 EDT



e-vox to: Sarah Printemps
From: H. Obisando
Subject: uThani


    Sarah, their language doesn't even have words for any number above four. That bitch is sending them out there to get killed. I've given you the tapes. Can't you stop it?





e-vox to: H. Obisando
From:Sarah Printemps
Subject: uThani


    Van Pensdorm is history, Henry. But we can't stop them going. This came as a bit of shock to me too, but they're as keen to see the back of us as she was to see the back of them. We flooded their valley, and they haven't forgiven us. They're not stupid. A deal is a deal, and just because they're a primitive Pacaraima culture, doesn't mean we can break the law. Besides, there are some real heavyweights in SysGov Social psychology branch sitting on this one. I don't know why, but they want the uThani to go. Look, they'll have the best of everything, and the place will be stocked with livestock and plants from the that area they came from. There are only two hundred and thirty nine of them. Yes, they have a unique language. Yes, they been cut off from most of the rest of the human race for several hundred years. At low population densities… well, the habitat will be about twenty times as big as their valley. Maybe they'll evolve a civilization. Learn to count. With the repair bots and low pop. density, they'll have a thousand years (at least) to do it in.





    It was a long night, in which nothing happened. Nothing… other than buzzing things biting them, and, at least in Howard's case, not much sleep. The noises—from the slightest splash of water or crack of twigs, to echoing, yarring cries—fed the imagination. The truth was that the things they probably needed to be afraid of, they wouldn't hear. But that didn't stop Howard straining his ears. Before the lights began to warm up again, Howard had had a lot of time to think as well as time to worry. He thought about home. About his confused feelings for the woman next to him. About the vastness of space.

    He had to acknowledge that Kretz's sudden arrival in their midst had changed his perspective somewhat. Perhaps she'd been right. What he needed was a world of his own, where they took the good out of New Eden, and added it to the good in her world, had a place like this to develop, and where “outside” was not a place to fear, but to go out into, to explore.

    Lani stirred against his shoulder. He patted her arm, awkwardly. She woke. He felt her tense against him. "Is everything all right?" she whispered.

    "Fine. I'm sorry if I disturbed you," he said quietly.

    "It's okay. I didn't mean to go to sleep. Did I sleep for long?"

    "A century, I think."

    She snorted. "Doesn't feel like it. Must have been one of the short centuries. Have you slept at all?"

    "No," he said. "I thought someone had better stay awake."

    "Yeah. Right. True. Well, I will now. It's time you slept. You can't do without any at rest at all either," she said gruffly.

    "I will try," said Howard. "But have you had enough sleep to stay awake?"

    She chuckled. "I need the bathroom badly enough to keep me awake. And no, I will not go out there in the dark. You close those eyes. I'll shoot and scream if anything comes too close."

    "Thank you," said Howard. Tiredness washed over him in a huge wave, with handing his responsibility over to someone else. Lani might be a woman, but she was more dangerous—and probably more reliable—than any of the male Brethren he could think of.

    As he was drifting off, in that zone where he was between sleep and wakefulness, when the guard on his tongue and mind are less than alert, He said: "Lani… do you think this place could actually be made into a world of our own? It's good farmland."

    If she answered, it was in his dreams.



    Lani sat in the dark, thinking about that last sleepy statement. It had… interesting implications, not least about how he saw her.

    The place did change your perspective. True, it was pretty vile right now. But you had to start thinking about what it could be, rather than what it was. Diana was having trouble with food production. A few tons of these pumpkins, say, and there was the possibility of trading for some of life's little essentials, like a scoot and a fitted bathroom and a food-nuke. True, there were some minor problems, like some difficulties with Diana's Law. And a gulf of space to transport the stuff across. She knew a few other girls who were fairly peeved with life at the bottom of the ladder. And if Howard knew a few other New Eden farmers…

    It was a pleasant daydream, anyway. They still had to survive at least until morning, but there was a faint glow in the lights. Dawn was always a lovely time of day. The breeze that picked up from the air recirculation system was always gentle then. Someone had once explained it that it was a question of temperature differential. It was hotter during the light-period and by dawn the differential between air temperature and the cooling and moisture scrubbing loops was less. That took the magic out of it somehow.

    The different chickens of this place had started their calling. That was quite magical too. She almost woke Howard to listen to it, but he was sleeping so peacefully. She was getting hungry enough to think of those chickens with some interest.

    Unfortunately, breakfast was more pumpkin, washed down with more of this free-running water. It was all very well for Amber to point out that the dilution factor for the goat and any other animal dropping was huge. It was still there, which eroded her desire to look at this place positively down to a hub. There had to be a way around that aspect!

    They moved on, upwards, skirting water, avoiding a small herd of animals and later another group with coarse short hair that squeaked at them before plunging into the water. None of this seemed to give Howard pause. "It’s in bad repair, but it can be fixed," he'd said at least half a dozen times that morning.

    And then on a small spit of sand, they came to something that did halt him in his tracks.

    Ashes. A few bits of burned twigs. One still smoldered.

    "There are people here." Howard's voice was full of the death of his hopes.

    "But there is room for us, surely? I mean, we haven't even seen them," said Lani.

    "Maybe. But this is their place, and will always be their place."



    The big guy looked absolutely shattered by that spot of ash. Johnny Bhangella didn't see it the same way. It did away with one of his worst worries. Food. The Men's Liberation Army had always survived by eating food gathered from the plants of the upper corridors, by stealing from the women, and, principally, from “donations” from sympathizers. If they didn't give willingly, they would under pressure. He was within reach of two automatic shotguns, and a pistol. Power beyond the dreams of the MLA. If there were people here, well, their men could be pressured the same way. This place was wild enough to lose an army in.



    To Howard and Lani, the fire seemed to spell disappointment. Kretz puzzled over that, especially the young female’s reaction. Then it came to him. She was looking for a mating territory!

    He decided that Miran were much more sensitive to behavioral cues than humans. He'd noticed the way she was looking at Howard, even if Howard hadn't. Her posture changed subtly when she addressed him, and, if Kretz was any judge, her tone. The food Amber had made for him—a little odd to think of eating a cell culture of himself—was plainly helping his own metabolism. He was thinking about sex again. That was more like a normal Miranese male. Females only thought about it—and nothing else—when they were in heat. Popular belief held that that was how they managed to get work done… Unlike most males, who had half their brain otherwise occupied all the time. The other popular theory was that they'd gotten it out of their systems by the time they changed.

    Kretz found himself now thinking about sex with aliens, even though the fire ash spelled danger to him. To Miran a relationship with another male was perfectly normal. One way or the other, it was an exploration of a possible future, and recreational too. Kretz wondered how the little male would feel if he told him he looked appealing? Judging by Howard, male humans did not make these approaches. It was all very confusing and frustrating. He must ask Howard what the polite way to seduce a human was.

    That distracted him from studying the undergrowth.

    And that would possibly have saved Howard from a little arrow in his shoulder.

    Lani shot in the direction of the trees. Maybe she'd seen something. She was rewarded by a scream. She didn't follow it up, as Kretz and then Amber did. The young female caught the swaying Howard and did her best to stop him falling. As a result the two crashed down together into a patch of creepers.



    Amber had never fired a weapon before, and nothing had prepared her for the reality of it. Her shots were not of much use, unless you counted blowing the top off a tree. Kretz might have been more accurate, but she didn't wait to see. Lani was yelling for help. Howard lay log-like. Lani held a little arrow in her hand.

    "It barely cut him! He can't be dead."

    If he wasn't already, he was going to be pretty soon, if Amber was any judge. She opened the pack he'd fashioned from her spacebag, spread out the medical kit, and gave the anti-shock-cortico-steroid injection with shaking hands. Then she put the little med-diagnostics unit onto his arm. It was useful for viruses and bacteria, running blood analysis. She didn't know if it would be in the least useful for this kind of injury.

    "It must be poisoned. Just keep away from it," she said, pointing to the arrow.

    "I'll kill the son-of-a-bitch. I hit him." Lani turned and stood up in one fluid movement, and ran into the brush. She emerged moments later, dragging a bleeding man. She hauled him up to Howard, grabbed the arrow and held to his face. "I need an antidote, asshole, or I'll shove this down your throat."

    The plainly terrified man said something incomprehensible. Lani slapped him. "Speak English, you son-of-a-bitch."

    "It's possible that he can't," said Amber, staring at the small readout screen on the med-diagnostics unit. "Induces paralysis of heart muscle, and stops nerve function. Heart massage time, Lani. The med-diagnostics is administering counter-treatment. It says standby for CPR now. His heart hasn't stopped yet."

    "Kretz," snapped Lani, taking up position. "Shoot this bastard if he tries to run."

    For the next ten minutes they worked on Howard. Amber watched the med-diagnostic anxiously.

    It bleeped suddenly.

    "Dear Holy Susan," said Amber. "Stop, Lani."

    "He's not dead! I won't let him die!" said Lani desperately. "We go on, damn you!"

    Amber patted her shoulder. "He's breathing and his heart is beating on its own, Lani."

    Amber almost needed the service of the little med-diagnostics unit herself. The hug nearly cracked her ribs. Tears were streaming down the young woman's face. "He's too big and dumb to die," she said gruffly.

    "Yep. The heartbeat's strengthening slowly. But I don't know what other damage may have been done, Lani. Fortunately—by what the diagnostic unit is saying—the poison must be something like what is used for surgical operations. Med-diagnostics thinks we must have botched the dose! It's giving us a stern warning!" The laughter was like heady wine.

    "I suppose I'd better deal with the new perp," said Lani. "I'd rather sit here and watch Howard, but he might try something with you."

    Amber was intensely grateful not to have to deal with the man. "Just be careful, Lani."

    "Trust me. He's not getting any of that muck into me. I'm just not sure whether I should shoot him or patch him up and keep him as a hostage too. But this one does not come with us to the next place!"

    Amber was in no mood to be merciful either. "See how badly hurt he is."



    From the moment he'd seen the strangers in their strange clothes, Dandanidi-ti-dala-po-rado had known that his life, having been complicated, had got worse beyond his most lurid imaginings. He was a good hunter. By uThani standards, too good. Too good to be unmarried anyway. It was fun being chased by several women, but sometimes the consequences of letting more than one catch you….

    Caught up with you. Especially if your name meant hunter-whose-balls-are-bigger-than-his-brains. So he'd gone off on a hunting trip, a long hunting trip. The longer the better, right now.

    And instead of getting him out of trouble, it had brought him this.

    He'd known what his duty was the moment he'd seen the strangers.

    Kill them.

    So he'd put an arrow in the back of the scary looking one. He did not miss. Not at this sort of range. Not a target in those bright colors.

    The target had winced slightly, and kept right on walking. So Dandani put another arrow in him.

    He still kept on walking.

    Dandani was really, really scared now. One of those arrows had enough vine-poison on to drop a jaguar. He lost his head and shot the big man in front.

    He'd fallen, all right.

    And somehow that woman had shot him. The stories told about those weapons. “Guns,” they were called. What they never told you was just how painful it was and how much of shock it gave you. Or how loud and sudden it was.

    He knew that now. And how stupid a hunter could be to choose a hide too thick to run from. He had chosen it with care. The carpincho were very spooky these days. There were too few of them to shoot easily any more.

    Dandani was used to women wanting to hit him. He just wasn't used to one that could do it with such ease. If this was what the women were like, what would the man who could take two doses of poison and still walk do to you?

    She spoke one of tongues of the enemies-of-the-people. He wasn't supposed to know any, but with Nama-ti-spaniti-goro-y-timi as his hunting companion and childhood friend, he'd learned a few words. Enough to know that he was very close to death, even if her tone of voice hadn't told him that.



    Lani didn't explain to Amber that chances were that it wouldn't matter how badly hurt he was. She needed something to hit back at after her fright. And if the new perp moved a muscle wrong it was going to be him that got whacked.

    Her first act was to rip the wicker arrow-quiver off his shoulders. "I'll have that." He was a stocky man, brown-faced and brown-skinned, smaller than Howard—almost anyone was, of course. But slightly bigger than she was. Still, it was fair to say that right now he looked frightened out of his wits, and in shock too.

    His wound wasn't going to kill him… unfortunately. He'd stopped the bleeding with the cloak he had knotted around his neck. She pulled it aside roughly. He'd been lucky. Another few inches left and her instinctive shot would have taken this perp out of this world and into the next without messing around with airlocks.

    She went back to the first-aid kit, and hauled out some antiseptic and local anesthetic. Then, by training rather than any sense of kindness, slapped it on the wound before putting a piece of gauze and a dressing over it.

    He winced as she tightened the bandage. "Stop that. You nearly killed him," she gestured at Howard. "You're just lucky I didn't kill you. And that's 'yet'. If he dies, you are dead meat."

    He answered her with some gabble. All that was recognizable was the hand-gesture. Throwing out your hands is pretty universal.

    Howard groaned. It was a very quiet sound, but audible nevertheless. That seemed to frighten the man even more. He gabbled again.

    "Shut up," said Lani, and handcuffed him. "Sit down."

    He looked blank. She pointed at the ground, and he hastily lay down. Well, that was probably even better. "You," she said to the little runaway male, "go and collect the rest of his kit. He dropped a basket and a sort of big knife up there. Kretz, will you keep watching him?"

    She ran back to Howard. His eyes were open. Well, that was a start. His lips moved faintly. She knelt and listened. He was trying to say something… She hugged him fiercely. "At least you can't push me away right now, you big lunk. You're going to be all right. I promise."

    His lips moved very slightly. He was trying to smile. Would the poison wear off or had it damaged his nerves forever? If jungle boy talked anything but jungle-gabble, she'd have an answer out of him. But by the looks of it, he thought Howard ought to be dead.

    Amber got up and smiled at her. "His heart beat is reasonably strong, and he's breathing. Now that that's over, can I go and be sick?"

    "You were just wonderful." Lani felt the tears prick in her eyes. "I'd have lost him without you. I'm sorry I moaned about the weight of that stuff. And I'm sorry that I was catty… Jealous, I guess."

    "Honey. I don't do men. I thought you knew that. Everyone else in Diana seems to."

    Lani blushed fiercely. "Uh. I suppose I was the one who didn't." She was a little uncomfortable. Gay-bashing was… sort of Force standard. Someone who was a fake man was really a weak sister… She tried hard to remember if she'd made any comments.

    "So now can I go and be sick?" asked Amber, with a slightly impish smile.

    "Hell, no, you can pick up your shotgun and go and see what happened to that little runaway male. You're too tough to be sick," said Lani with a return smile, stroking the big hand she was holding. "The perp had a basket. Maybe it has coffee in it. I'd kill for coffee—anyone but this idiot, that is."

    "I'd kill for a cream donut,said Amber wistfully. "Simply to replace the extra calories I've sweated off in this place, not just because I'm hopelessly addicted to them. Ah. Here he comes."

    "Taking his own sweet time as per usual," scowled Lani. "Let's see what's in the basket, perp."

    "My name's Bhangella," he said, smiling his best smile. "John."

    He still made her flesh crawl. She grabbed the basket. It had a variety of plant-fruits in it, none of which she recognized, three dead chickens and some mysterious smelly dry stuff. A little bow and a piece of dry punk, several lengths of line, some with bone hooks on the end. All in all, what someone who was out hunting and gathering might have with them. "The knife. Where is it?" she said flatly.

    Sullenly, he dug it out of the back of his tutu top. It must have barely fitted. "I'm the only one who hasn't got a weapon."

    "Good. Let's keep it that way."

    "But there are dangerous things here," he said, not parting with it.

    "You included," she said, snatching it out of his hand.

    "You don't trust me."


    "I didn't do anything to you," he protested.

    "You were going to. And that's enough for me. You don't have to stay here. You can walk off on your own right now. I won't miss you." That, she thought to herself, was very true.

    He shut up and went and sat down in the shade. Lani went back to the other prisoner. He'd gotten over some of his shock and was now just looking sullen and angry. How the hell could she communicate with him? As far as he knew they were going to kill him or enslave him, whereas, if Howard was going to be all right, she'd just as soon kick his butt, hard, smash his arrows and send him about his business. But she really didn't need him calling all his friends and having all of them shoot at them. Maybe Howard had been right. If they'd stuck with the space suits…

    She had to tell the suspicious-faced prisoner, somehow, that they were just passing through and meant him no harm. She started by giving him the basket. He blinked uncomprehendingly at it. She had to press it into his hand. He gabbled at her again. And held it out to her. Pointed with his eyes at the cuffs.

    She shook her head. Pointed at Howard.

    He shrugged. Put the basket down. Held out his hands, palms up. And then indicated with a finger drawn across the throat. Eyes closed.

    She shook her head, and as if to confirm what she was saying Howard groaned again, softly. He stood up and walked toward Howard, plainly incredulous. She stood ready to kill him if he made one false move. He bent over Howard and listened. Slowly, carefully, he took Howard's wrist. Shook his head as felt the pulse. And smiled tentatively at her. Gabble gabble.

    Now it was Lani's turn to throw up her hands in a lack of understanding.

    So he mimed. Lani could follow that. But how in the hell could they carry Howard? She was the strongest of them, and there was no way that she could manage more than a few yards. Howard was just too big.

    He did some more miming. Cutting something? He pointed at some saplings, and she had it. A stretcher. On sudden impulse she handed him his overgrown cheese-cutter and pointed at the saplings. After two ineffectual strokes she came over to him and, scowling, unlocked the cuffs. She stepped back, and stood watching him, one hand on the pistol-butt. She saw that Kretz had taken a flanking position too, and had the automatic shotgun at the ready. But all the new Perp did was to cut two thick saplings, and trim them into poles. He put the overgrown knife down and untied the cloak from around his neck, and started tying the corners to the pole. She came to join him, tying opposite corners.

    He slowly picked up the knife again when they'd done. Reversed his grip on it, taking it by the blade, and offered it back to her.

    Lani narrowed her eyes. Thought hard. Took it, reversed it, and handed it back to him.



    It was his turn to look thoughtful. He nodded, took it and tucked it into his sash. Parole offered… and accepted.

    They walked back to Howard with the makeshift stretcher. "You let him have that knife," complained Bhangella.

    "Yep. And I'll let him keep it just as long as he behaves himself," she said. If he was faking it, best that he got he message. "He's going to be carrying the stretcher in front of me. If he wants to try his knife against my gun, he'll die. But he might just need it here. Now fetch that basket of his for him while we try and get Howard onto the stretcher. I hope it'll hold him."

    The material creaked and cracked. But it did hold. Still, even the five of them weren't going to be able to carry Howard very far. He was a heavy lump. And Lani wasn't too sure where they were trying to carry him to. But the man she'd winged did have ideas on that, apparently. He pointed with his injured arm. They walked along the stream-path until it widened out. There was the usual small lake… and a four-log raft.

    So that was how they got around here. The local stopped, looked around very carefully and then walked them into the water until they could off-load Howard onto the raft.

    "It's not as good as a scoot, but it beats walking, hands down," said Lani to Kretz, as she sat next to Howard, holding his hand.

    Kretz nodded. "It is better than walking hands up too. When I first came to human habitats, we assumed that it was a greeting. Walking like that is very tiring for a non-arboreal species. Is Howard going to recover?"

    "I wish I knew. I wish I knew where we were going, too," said Lani.

    On the bank, two of the brown-furred creatures they'd seen earlier appeared in a clearing. By mime the local explained that that was what he'd been hunting. "Do you want me to shoot it?" asked Lani… and then played it again in mime. It was hard to tell if he got it, but when she mimicked shooting it with a bow, and pointed at herself, he nodded.


    That was enough for her. Besides, it might just give him a message.

    "Lend me the shotgun for a moment, Amber."

    She took careful aim. No point in showing off… and failing.

    Once they'd hauled their local guide back onto the raft, they poled to the edge of the water, and collected the dead creature. The man was all smiles now—and very respectful.

    A little while later, Howard managed to tilt his head over and be sick. Never had someone throwing up looked so good to Lani. He'd moved to do it.

    They rounded a bend and there were huts. Well, roofs. Roofs that went down to the ground without any walls. And a fire. All of Lani's instincts from her training said "Put it out," but the locals didn't seem much worried.

    They were very worried about the strangers, though. There were an awful lot of bowmen hiding behind those odd wall-less dead grass roofs. Their guide's gabble didn't do much to relax them. But an old man came out of one of the huts and spoke a string of slightly different sounding gibberish.

    Lani looked at Amber. They both shrugged. Howard tried to look at the man.

    The old man spoke again. "You are spikking Engrish?"


    "I am spikker-for-uThani. You sign paper. This is our place for always. You not welcome. Go."

    "We don't want to stay. We want to go." Amber pointed to Howard. "He is hurt and needs help. Help us and then are very happy to go and never come back. We do not want your place."

    The local who had shot Howard gabbled to the old man.

    "What's he saying?"

    "He says not possible. Man dead. Shot with poison for carpincho. Man not dead. Therefore: not man. Demon," explained the old man. He seemed to find demons more acceptable. "Healer come look," he said. "Then you go. Never come back or we kill. Our place."

    Amber wrinkled her nose at him. "Trust me, old boy. I can't wait to get to the airlock, even though I don't know how I will face what lies beyond it. Maybe, I'll just sit there and rot, but at least it'll be clean and dry."



    The strangest thing about all of this, thought Howard, as the chanting and drumming rang in his ears, was that he remembered all of it, perfectly. He could hear Lani taking. He just couldn't answer her. Or move. Things had all gone a little dim, for a while, after he'd been shot.

    "This is just mumbo-jumbo rubbish," said Amber. "A waste of time. Either we take him back to the Matriarchy, and take what they hand out, or we try to find help further on."

    Howard couldn't tell her how much he agreed with her. This was not just mumbo jumbo, but pagan mumbo jumbo—and he was determined not feel any better because of it. Even if he did.

    "We'll try this first," said Lani, firmly. "It's their damn poison. The woman seemed to have some idea of what was wrong."

    Howard could tell her what was wrong. His muscles didn't want to work. He was used to being strong. Right now he felt like a weak little newborn.

    "He's crying," said Lani. "Have we got anything for pain, Amber?"

    Her distress was so palpable that somehow he made the effort. Bigger muscles were responding a little… He could lift his legs. It was finer movements like smiling and talking that were impossible. He managed to make a noise. He'd tried earlier when he'd been sure he was dying. Telling her then that he did love her seemed the right thing to do, even if she hadn't been able to hear him. She knelt over him, intent, listening. Unfortunately, talking was out. So was smiling reassuringly. He managed to shake his head.

    "What are you trying to say, Howard? Do you need water or something?"

    Now that she mentioned it, he was devilishly thirsty and his mouth tasted vile. He nodded.

    Lani on a mission to get water became the queen of mime. And a few moments later he was lifted and given a trickle of fluid.

    It very nearly killed him. His swallowing reflex was still not right. And the stuff they gave him… burned.

    "It's not water, Lani," said Amber, sniffing the gourd, as Lani patted his back. Howard saw how Amber lifted it to taste it, but the healer-woman pushed it away from her mouth. Pointed at Howard. Not more!

    More. And this time at least none of it went into his lungs. But it, or the poison, were making him feel woozy. Very woozy. With interesting visions…



    Amber was doing her best to be soothing. "Med-diagnostics says his pulse has strengthened and slowed. His color is better too, Lani."

    "Yeah. I suppose so, but did they have to feed him that stuff? I thought she was giving him water. It's alcohol and some drug—that crushed-up seed she showed us. From what I can work out it's some kind of hallucinogen."

    She scowled. "It's given him a hell of an erection."

    "Well, that's one muscle that's working, Lani."

    Amber put a hand on her shoulder. Lani fought off an irrational desire to shrug it off. By now she'd come to accept that most of the stories about gay women were ignorant BS, but it took a while to shake the reaction completely. "I don't know how best to say this so I guess I should just say it. We don't know what damage that poison did. He could never recover. Or he could be brain-damaged. He stopped breathing."

    Lani felt her nails cutting into her palms. "I know. But I've got to try. Thanks. You've been great and I've been a bitch. A stupid bitch, at that."

    "We both made judgment mistakes, I guess."

    "Yeah. Look, sorry," said Lani, awkwardly.

    The little perp—Bhangella—came into the long, thatched hut. "They're calling us to eat," he said.

    "I can't leave Howard here." She wasn't leaving him unwatched, that was for sure.

    Amber stood up. "I'll get some help to carry him out there with us."

    A few minutes later, Lani was wishing desperately that they'd left Howard where he was and stayed to sit vigil over him. They wouldn't have had to sit here around the fire and eat pieces of not very well charred animal. The cooked roots and vegetables were one thing, but meat that had squealed when she shot it?

    By the looks of her, Amber wasn’t any happier about it. "We have to look like we're enjoying it," she Amber, sotto voce.

    "Next time I ask to borrow your shotgun, see that you shove it up… Don't give it to me," said Lani, looking warily at the “feast.”

    "I can see the appeal of vat-protein again. I never thought I wanted to see another vat," said Amber. She drank some of the stuff in the gourd. "Holy Susan. That's… strong. Enough of that stuff and you won't care that you're eating half raw dead meat. Here, have some."

    Lani did. And some more. Whatever it was, it loosened the tongue a bit. A little later, having eaten some of the meat without gagging to much, she said "I've been meaning to ask you…"

    "Ask. Whatever that stuff is, I don't think I should drink any more of it."

    "Why did you do this? I mean, come with us. Uh. You had everything."

    "Except a life," said Amber, pulling a face. "The old story I suppose. I broke up with my girlfriend. After five years. She works… worked with me. No way I could avoid seeing her every day, and nowhere else that either of us could work. Kretz came along and, well, I could get out of there. Really get out there. Right out of the whole world. I'd… I'd been thinking of taking myself out of it completely before. You can only put on a brave face for just so long." She laughed. "I suppose that whatever else comes out of this I haven't really thought about Jean for days."

    "There have to be easier cures, though."

    Amber shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. We never really did develop a cure for broken hearts. At least not a cure that leaves no scar-tissue to stop the thing working properly."

    "Why isn't it simple?" asked Lani, feeling as if she was going to burst into tears.

    "Yeah. I thought we weren't going to drink any more of this stuff?" said Amber, who just had.

    Lani looked blurrily at the gourd. "I can't drink any more. I finished it. If this is what they gave Howard no wonder he's unconscious."

    "You know I read somewhere that before the Slowtrain left, before Diana, that all men regarded women as inflatable sex dolls that could cook and clean house."

    Lani blinked owlishly at her. "I had an inflatable mattress once."

    "So?" said Amber, looking almost equally owlish.

    "So they must have needed a lot of puncture repair kits," said Lani after deep cogitation. She looked at Howard. "I'd have less problems with an inflatable man."

    Amber agreed. "Or me with an inflatable woman, but they'd be less fun."

    "We could get a bulk order of puncture kits."

    "And comp-installed ‘cause misery’ units, so they'd feel real."

    "And buy a dishwasher."

    It seemed very funny at the time.



    Dandani judged that Chief Fripara-wa-reepal was a worried man. Too worried to be thinking too much about what his youngest daughter had said about a hunter called Dandani. "I put not one, but two arrows in him, chief. He should be dead. But the other one may not be dead, but he's pretty sick," he explained.

    "But he's getting better," said the chief sourly. "I think we should change your name to 'hunter-who-could-not-hit-a-jaguar-from-the-inside.' I think you saw women and shot skewed."

    He wasn't serious. Except maybe about the women. However, Dandani knew it was obligatory to look affronted. "I always hit what I aim at."

    "With arrows for small birds," said the chief. "Anyway, we need to talk about what we do now, not your lousy marksmanship."

    "We do what uThani always do," said he-who-talks-to-strangers. "We behave like good little ignorant savages. 'We don't understand what you say', while we listen and learn."

    "And then we cut their throats and hope more don't come looking," said the chief. He sighed. "But maybe their throats don't cut any easier than they poison, old man. Dandani fools around with too many women, but he doesn't miss."

    He-who-talks-to-strangers shook his head. "We don't cut their throats. We don't let them go home either. We see if they can solve our other problem."

    "Hmm. It's nine warriors so far. Who are we going to send?"

    "Him." He-who-talks-to-strangers-pointed at Dandani. "And Nama-ti-spaniti-goro-y-timi."

    "Good," said the chief. "Even if they get killed, it will get him away from my youngest daughter."

    So he hadn't been that distracted, Dandani thought. But like a good uThani he misled. It was how the small tribe had survived.



    Kretz was increasingly convinced that Miran in general were better observers of behavior than humans. Maybe it came of having to survive tempers at sex-changeover. Sitting on the far side of the circle he'd noticed that the local humans took tiny sips from the gourd they passed around. By the time he tried to warn the others it was too late. Well, for the females, anyway. The little male appeared to be behaving with circumspection.

    Their spokesman came and sat down next to him. "So, demon," he said conversationally, "why does the other demon try look like people and you don't? Him better demon?"

    Transcomp had given Kretz a number of approximations on “demon.” None of them had been flattering. Obviously it was one of those words that depended on your viewpoint. He thought about his reply, carefully. "If I change my appearance too much, I cannot talk across the distances to all the other demons, and they will have to come and look for us. One of us had look as we do."

    "Hmm. Teeth very small for Jaguar-demon," said the speaker.

    How did you answer that? He did recall the picture Amber had showed them. Best to head off the question with another. "How come you speak the language of hu… the women."

    The speaker pulled a face. "One man learn. In case outsiders come back. Clever. O-Mike Computer teach." He looked at the two women, lolling against each other. Giggling. "Be very sick tomorrow," he said, clinically.

    Interesting. So there was some kind of live computer network, even in this primitive environment. Well, miniaturization could take computing power and robots to the microscopic. Big machines were still more efficient for doing tasks of scale, a fact the miniaturization lobby eventually learned.

    The speaker shifted his attention to the little human male. "You demon's child?" He said conversationally. "Which one your mother?"

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