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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Twenty Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 19:09 EDT



    There is a life zone around every sun. Around some suns it is huge, and lasts for billion of years. So what sort of lease do you think a settler needs? What do you think we can do if anyone breaches the agreement?


Johnson Defarge. Slowtrain Legal commitee, SysGov.



    Bhangella took the automatic shotgun from the hand of the sleeping woman, before she was carried to the boats. Kretz made no move to stop him. It seemed wiser that they were all armed.

    The hollowed-log boats slid through the water, close, but never too close to the overhanging trees. Inside them Howard and the two women slept, oblivious to the brightly fliers that darted between the branches, or the troops of reddish furred creatures that scattered, roaring, swinging through the tree-tops. Kretz watched all this, and attempted to fathom out if there was any evil motive on the part of their hosts. He couldn't see one.

    It was a long journey, involving many portages, but eventually the locals hauled up the boats and lifted out the two women. A hundred paces away you just see the airlock door.

    Lani woke as they put her down. She groaned, blinked, and said: "Where are we?"

    "At the airlock," explained Kretz.

    She tried to sit up, but plainly found the exercise too much. "Oh, Holy Susan, let me sleep again." She collapsed.

    Kretz waved at the departing canoes. His study of human behavior seemed to indicate that it was an innocuous gesture. Hardly a reason for the small male human to be pointing a weapon at his head. "What is wrong?" he asked puzzled and suddenly afraid.

    "You are. Put the gun down slowly."

    Kretz complied. "But what are you doing?"

    "Taking over for the Men's Liberation Army. Lie down on your stomach, freak."

    Kretz found himself being tied up and then gagged.

    "I guess I'll just deal with the scientist before I get to the cop. The bitch is lying on her gun," said the small male. "By what those savages said, they should be waking up soon."

    Moments later, Kretz heard a brief scream.



    The scream pierced Lani's uneasy sleep. She hadn't meant to sleep! Had she been poisoned? It felt like the mother of all hangovers. Never—not even after the force academy graduation—had she felt like this. She tried to get up. It was a question of whether she threw up or stood up.

    Standing up won. Narrowly. But she only remained standing by holding onto the vegetation.

    The adrenalin rush that came from realizing that she had a shotgun pointed at her helped. But not even that would get across the ten yards between her and the perp. It wasn't going to be easy to draw and fire, either.

    Then she realized she wasn't even going to have that opportunity. Now he wasn't pointing the shotgun at her. He was pointing it at Howard.

    "The gun, cop," he said. "Take it out of your belt with your left hand and throw it down."

    She look at the shotgun, evaluating her chances. They weren't good and she knew it.

    "You've got to the count of three. I'll blow him away if you don't co-operate."

    She did. Alive he had a chance. Dead, none. You learned after dealing with many perps and situations just which ones were for real. Who meant it when they threatened. This one wanted the chance. The weapon landed on the floor a foot or two from Howard. His eyes were open, she noticed. She hadn't even had a chance to ask how he was doing. What the hell had happened? How had they arrived here? All she remembered was that burned dead animal and having to eat it. The thought was too much for her. She leaned over and started being sick. And then fell to her knees and did some more of the same.

    At least that stopped the perp from shooting her. He watched, grinning nastily.

    "They said you'd feel like death when you woke up," he said with malicious glee. "You drank more than ten people do normally, you and that other bitch. Come on. There is nothing left inside you now. I need you to tie her up."

    She managed to get up. She felt weak and drained but at least that muck was out of her. He pointed to where Amber lay holding her head. She wasn't just hungover. She was bleeding.

    "I need to see to that," she said.

    "Let her bleed," said the perp callously. "It's not that serious, and it's her own fault. Tie her up. Here.” He tossed some cords at her. She recognized them as being from the basket of the local who shot Howard. She knelt next to Amber.

    "Do a proper job. I'll check it and it'll be worse for both of you, if you don't," said the little creep.

    So she did. And tried to follow force training: keep them talking. Talking people don't act. "What are you going to do, perp, uh, Bhangella? The locals will kill you."

    He laughed. "Not likely. They're not getting close enough to put any arrows into me. They scare easy. This place is wide open for us. The Men's Liberation Army is gonna have a hideout that the women will never find, and anyway you can't do nothin'. We'll take this lot's women. Shoot any men that won't join us."

    "You're crazy. They'll shoot you full of those little arrows. They nearly killed Howard."

    "Yeah," said the Perp, nastily. "And now they don't believe that the poison works on us. And you better believe they know how well shotguns kill. They're good and scared, thanks to you. And we know where they live. Now shut up, or I'll blow a foot off you. You'll still be good for what I plan to use you for. Take those handcuffs from your belt and put them on your own wrists. Then throw the keys down and back off, and lie down next to the others. I'm going to tie your feet together."



    Howard's muscles still felt as if they belonged to some far smaller, weaker person. But he couldn't just lie there. John Bhangella had ignored him, assuming that he was still unable to move. Whether he was capable of wrestling the shotgun from the small man was another matter. But he definitely could move. And Lani's weapon still lay on the ground a few yards off. He'd refused to let her teach him, but he'd learned all the same, by watching. Safety catch. Squeeze the trigger…

    He pulled himself out of the stretcher, slowly. Bhangella was busy rifling through the bags. The gun lay on the ground, temporarily forgotten. He edged himself closer. He actually felt a little better once he was moving.

    After an eternity, he reached it. Felt the weight of it in his hand. He pushed the safety catch over.

    Now… could he use it? To kill a man was a sin. Yet, in inexpert hands, this was a much less deadly weapon than the one which Bhangella had in his hand. If Bhangella put it down, Howard could threaten him.

    It wasn't going to work like that.

    The small man walked over to Kretz and put the shotgun under his chin.

    "Leave him be," said Howard. "He's done nothing to you."

    Bhangella looked at Howard. "So you're back with us. You're talking a little oddly," he said matter-of-factly, swinging the shotgun to cover Howard instead.

    "My muscles aren't quite right. I feel very weak. Leave Kretz. As I said, he has done you no harm. If you want to blame anyone, blame me."

    "You? I wouldn't give you that much credit." The muzzle of the shotgun had dipped, as Bhangella realized that there was no immediate danger from his victim.

    "We've all helped to keep you alive," said Howard carefully. "Perhaps you resent the way Lani treated you…"

    "Silly bitch," said the small man disdainfully. He pointed the shotgun vaguely at her. "She let you stop her. And she didn't kill the guy who shot you. I'm gonna have fun teaching her some manners."

    Howard took a deep breath, and kept calm, resolutely. The man was baiting him, enjoying making his victim suffer. He also seemed quite serious about it all. So Howard said, calmly: "You asked me once what a man had to do, if he turned the other cheek and the offender kicked him in the teeth."

    Bhangella smiled nastily. "Yeah, I remember that, you stupid big soft dick. You never did answer it. You've got a last chance before I shoot the alien and you. I thought it over. I don't need him and I'm pretty sure I don't need you." The gun-barrel was now pointed somewhere between them.

    "I've thought about turning the other cheek again," said Howard. "The Brethren believe that all people have a better nature to appeal to. But I have decided it is not always possible to reach it."

    He raised Lani's pistol and shot Bhangella.

    As Bhangella crumpled, Howard said sadly, "This is not the right answer, but it is the best one I could think of."

    The Men's Liberation Army captain lay on the ground. He was obviously dying. Howard stood up, as fast as he could, despite protesting muscles. He walked over and picked up the automatic shotgun Bhangella had dropped. "May God have mercy on your soul," he said. "And forgive me, Lord. I did what I believed I had to do."

    Howard shot him again, between the eyes. The brethren killed livestock. They killed them as mercifully and quickly as possible. Who was he to deny even a man like this, what he'd give to a hog?

    Whether it was the right answer or not, Howard didn't know. But a man had to make decisions sometimes, and leave the final judgment of his deeds to a higher authority. He staggered across to Kretz and the bound women.



    Lani held up the cuffs. "He's got the keys on a thong around his neck. She looked at his pale face. "Do my feet and I'll get them."

    He touched her cheek, gently. She'd held his hand, talked to him through the paralysis and through the fear. "I am strong enough."

    "You're stronger than I ever guessed. And I don't just mean in muscles."

    Howard walked back to the corpse. Bhangella looked very small, now. Howard took the thong off his neck. He carefully ignored the condition of the dead man's face.

    He went back and freed Lani, and then the others. "They're still watching us," he said quietly.

    "Who? The locals?" She took the pistol he gave her. Then, took out the magazine and reloaded it from the pouch on her belt. Clicked it back in - and handed it to Howard. "I think you'd better keep it."

    "No, thank you." He took a deep breath. Even that hurt. He turned to the undergrowth. "It's time for us to talk," he said loudly. "What do you want?"

    There was a silence. Then someone came out of the bushes. Just one person. Howard was certain there were others. The local held up an empty hand. "No weapon," he said.

    Howard held up his empty hands. "And no weapons in my hands, either."

    Lani looked at the local, suspiciously, with narrowed eyes. "I thought only one of you spoke any English?"

    The local shrugged. "Others of us learn."

    "But don't tell the foreigners," said Amber, holding a gauze pad against her head-wound. "He was sitting next to us when we drank that stuff, Lani."

    "You strong woman. No uThani drink half so much," he said admiringly.

    Amber cocked her head on one side. "Pretend you don't speak the language. Ply the visitors with strong, drugged liquor and listen to what they say between themselves?"

    He nodded.

    "So . . . what do you want?" asked Howard, sticking to the point.

    "We make sure you not go. You bring others. We take you to the opposite airlock," said the local with a disarming smile.

    "Which is actually where we wanted to go," said Amber. "So why didn't you just kill us?"

    The man pointed at Howard. "He did not die. Hunter shoot him too." He pointed at Kretz. "He did not even get sick."

    "My suit," explained Kretz, "is quite tough. I probably didn't notice. Besides I am not sure how it would affect my metabolism."

    "So . . . we're demons you can't kill. Accept it," said Lani.

    "We really don't want your land," said Howard calmly. "I promise."

    "But we want yours," said the uThani, smiling cheerfully. "Not enough here for us any more. Fights in subclans over place. So our chief say: follow. Find. See. Also get iron things. Knives and guns. We know about guns."

    "But . . . How many of you are there, here? We never saw anyone."

    "Need a lot of jungle to hunt and to gather. Comp say one hundred hectare for one. Too many persons. Food short. Now we fish a lot. But there still too many of our people. We need place. We send others to airlock. They have not come back." He pointed to the group. "You know how to go to another place."

    "So how come you are telling us this?" asked Lani.

    The uThani shrugged and smiled slightly. "Because chief could not tell me how to look through the door. And here we can still kill you. Or try."

    "It makes a lot more sense than a sudden outbreak of truthfulness," said Lani sourly.

    Howard bowed his head. "Let us go and talk among ourselves."

    "Without any help from your long ears," said Lani.

    The coffee-skinned uThani gave a flash of sudden white teeth, and put his fingers in his ears.

    The four of them walked off into a clear area.

    "We cannot do this," said Howard, his face stiff. "They want to make war."

    Amber held up her hand. "Look. Firstly, not everything here is what it seems at all. One of the things I did find out on the portable encyclopedia - once I got the tribe name - is that the uThani were a tiny Colombian tribe. They were something of a cause célèbre when they were discovered - only after their valley was being flooded for a hydro-electric scheme. They were barely two hundred odd members strong. They claimed never to have seen outsiders, which was called into doubt over some steel tools. Anyway - there has been intervention here. Their gene pool was too small to start with for them to have survived without that intervention. They plainly talk to this 'comp.' Beside any of these Conquistador dreams they may have - which are wildly impractical given the number of suits available in the airlocks - within the next hundred years they're going to be on their own, positioned around a sun, with the potential of a million space-habitats - or extinction. So what do we do? I think we bite the bullet and start teaching them. And the best way we can do that is take at least one of them and show him."

    "Yeah? So why hasn't this 'comp' helped them with this airlock dream?" asked Lani. "I'm not saying that I think we shouldn't do this, just that it still smells a bit."

    "Maybe 'comp' wants them to stay primitive," said Amber slowly. "To keep them in a conservation state, as Kretz suggested. In the time elapsed they could have moved from primitive to machine culture, if it and they wanted to change."

    That obviously got through to Lani. "What the hell. I don't like the idea of a machine keeping them eating burned meat. If that's the case . . . Let's take the country boy to the bright lights. Who knows, we might want to turn this lot loose on the next lot."

    "It wouldn't work," said Amber. "Too few suits."

    "Besides, it would be immoral," said Howard. "After all, Kretz wishes to get back to warn his people of incipient invasion by evildoers himself."

    Lani lifted her eyebrows at him. "Even if the next lot are like the guys that attacked Kretz and his friends? I think that would be pretty fair."

    "They do need help, Howard," said Amber.

    Now that Howard had seen space, seen technology, and was beginning to understand what Kretz had said to him about this being an enormous colony-ship, a ship that was beginning to need repair, he could see that also. "It is our bounden duty to try and help those less fortunate than ourselves. But not to attack others. And by that token the people of New Eden will need help soon too."

    "You might say that they are training you for the job," said Amber.

    Howard pursed his lips. Shook his head. "I don't think I could go back. But yes. I agree."

    "Well, that's all of us," said Lani, practically. "Unless Kretz has some objection, or wants to ask something?"

    Kretz nodded. "Yes. Why does one bite this bullet? Is it edible? And which bright lights?"



    "Very well. We have conferred. We will take one of your people with us."

    "You will need to leave a hostage," said the uThani warrior. "They will be well treated." He obviously saw the hesitation. "Eat meat nearly every day."

    "That does it. I'm not staying," said Amber firmly.

    "Obviously Kretz needs to go. I don't think I can stay," said Lani, equally firmly. "Howard needs a proper medical check . . . and I won't stay without him." She paused, looking thoughtful. "Why do you want a hostage?"

    "To make sure that you do not kill me."

    Lani gave him a wry smile. "We will need to cross your land to go back home. Your friends can stop us if we don't bring you back on our return. You don't need a hostage and we need all of us to succeed in crossing."

    He looked thoughtful. "Let me confer."

    He melted back into the bushes.

    He returned a little later. With a familiar face - the local who had shot Howard. "We say yes. If you take two of us."

    "Yeah, but why him?" asked Lani.

    The local translator grinned. "He says you are very much of a woman. He wishes to marry you."

    When she stared at him, open-mouthed, he added. "He is good hunter. Shoot much meat."



    "If I'm going to teach you anything, I need names," said Lani.

    So they introduced themselves. "Me Nama-ti-spaniti-goro-y-timi. Him Dandanidi-ti-dala-po-rado. Names very important thing to us," explained the translator. "Mine means he-who-stalks-jaguar-without-bow-and-falls-over-root."

    "They're certainly a very long thing," Lani said. "Anyway, I refuse to bend my tongue around that much of a mouthful. Perp One and Perp Two will do for you two."

    The hunter looked at the translator. Said something that made the other crack up. The translator turned back to Lani. "Perp-one is good for me. But my friend he say you not call him name that sounds like bad smell. Not respectful for future wife."

    "I suppose 'My-Lord-and-Master' would suit him?" said Lani with a dangerous level of sarcasm.

    Translator gabbled. His shoulders shook at his friend's reply. A sense of humor was obviously an uThani trait. "He say you too strong a woman for that. Call him Dandani."

    "I'll call him 'Uppity'," she said with a nasty grin. "It's shorter than 'Delusions-of-Grandeur'."

    So Uppity and Perp-one cheerfully continued with their lessons in elementary space safety and the basics of what a vacuum actually was, either in happy unconcern about the meanings of their new titles, or just humoring this woman who could shoot. When it came down it, they were quick learners, and their smiles were quite infectious.

    So, according to med-diagnostics, were they.

    "You're all next," said Amber. "It appears that population control here is via disease. And Med-diagnostics picked up plasmodium in my blood. Firstly I don't want anyone getting sick, and secondly we don't need to pass our new germs and parasites on to the next bead. I should have thought of it before we came here."

    The space-bags were packed - with everything from the strange clothes to the bows and poisoned arrows. And two of the brightly colored flying creatures, recently deceased.

    "Do you have to take chickens?" asked Amber, looking dubiously at them.

    "Not chickens. Parrots," said Perp-one. "Why you want to put our bows in here?" he asked. "What if we meet dangerous animals or good food?"

    "Trust me. You won't meet either. I should let you leave those things out. Hard vacuum would sort them out, PDQ. Now, close up those helmets. And do what you're told and don't panic. Breathe slowly and calmly. Decompression sequence is beginning. And I'm just popping a few tranquillizers . . ."

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