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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 01:37 EDT



    Internal confidential e-vox. Inward laser transmission.
    From: Field Agent P. Firston, deep-space sector 3.
    To: Agent Supervisor FJ Lu-Hellens
    re: Weapons seizure.
    Habitat unit 36 (Free Federation of Aryan Survivalists).
    Illegal weapons detected with remote sensors in the personal effects of the attached list of embarkees. Will require at least four full enforcement units, and heavy ordinance and armor for confiscation before departure. Permission to schedule raid for 3.30 CMT, 11/1/2153

    Internal confidential e-vox. Outward laser transmission.
    From: Agent Supervisor FJ Lu-Hellens
    To: Field Agent P. Firston, deep-space sector 3.
    re: Weapons seizure.
    Permission denied.
    Attached vox: private
    From: Fenella Lu-Hellens
    To: Paul Firston.
    Word from on high, Paul. Ignore it. Ignore anything smaller than tactical nukes. We've been tracking most of the stuff for months. Most of it is twentieth century, obsolete, but better out of the solar system than in it. The boss says: So long as they're taking it outsystem on a one-way trip, who cares? Maybe the stupid bastards will find something to shoot at out there. If not, they can always shoot each other.

    The platter-table was stacked with… things. The scientist part of Kretz wanted to categorize them more precisely but… he really wasn’t sure what they were. They steamed. The blackened bits looked… almost animal like. As if someone had dismembered and charred some creature. A large creature, about the size of a small alien. They oozed red liquid. The aliens waved them forward.

    “Zawn. What is going on here?” asked Borch.

    The archeologist smiled. “I think that we are being invited to a feast. A gesture of hospitality.”

    “It looks like a burned alien hatchling,” said Selna.

    “Hush,” said Zawn, sternly. “They’re bound to be offended by that, if their transcomp picks it up.”

    “So what do we do?” asked someone. Most of the ship’s crew was here now, and several of them were still very wary of the aliens.

    Kretz didn’t care what Zawn did. He wasn’t getting too close to the things first. He noticed that Selna too had thought this out and was at the very back of the Miran crew. The aliens had stepped back to give them a wide berth, a clear passage to the feast.

    Zawn turned and smiled. “We go through the motions. Pretend. We can’t really eat of course. But it is a primitive gesture of welcome common to most soc—”

    Whatever Zawn had been about to say was cut off by the roar of flame, leaping from the nozzle of a device held by two of the aliens. The fiery blast engulfed the Miran party.

    The fire died back and Kretz, still stunned with shock, saw how the bare handful of stripe-faced aliens that had welcomed them forward to the feast had somehow multiplied. Now they were a mob, swarming forwards, screaming, teeth exposed, knives and other strange objects brandished. Kretz had little time to think about it, though. The aliens were onto them, attacking, attempting to pull them down.

    The suits had withstood the fire easily enough. They were made to survive vacuum and the temperature variations of deep space. The fabric was tough, self-healing. It would take more than some primitive knife to cut it, with one slash. But the aliens were gleeful about giving the Miran a death of a thousand cuts. And there were just so many of them. Even setting fire to their own environment with the flame-thrower had not stopped them.

    As he struggled with the aliens in this mad place of fire and smoke, Kretz heard Zawn desperately yelling over the radio for help from those still on the ship.

    Knocked off his feet, pinned down with an alien stabbing repeatedly at his chest, Kretz hoped they’d come fast.

    And then from somewhere closer at hand came other intervention. Selna had not obeyed Zawn’s instructions about the laser pistols being left behind. And somehow he’d managed to get it out and pull the trigger.

    Selna hadn’t been aiming. His laser-bolt burned through several of their attackers—and navigator Bortch.

    The aliens should have fled. But instead the mob turned on Selna like a pack of blood-crazed feral animals.

    Kretz staggered to his feet as the aliens charged at Selna. He was still firing as they struck him. The laser pistol discharged most of its charge into the now exposed stanchions as Selna and an alien fought for it, while others pulled him to the ground. Kretz, struggling with the shock, reacted like any Miran male in danger. He tried to run. The best he managed was to retreat into a fallen fold of vegetation- clad wall. He saw that Zawn too was miraculously still on his feet, trying to flee with Pelta clinging to him.

    And then came the sound of Guul—one of the drive technicians who had been left on the ship—yelling down the radio.

    “Some kind of projectile weapon…” And then the sound of a mighty explosion echoed down the earphones.

    Nutrient splashed out of tubes severed by Selna’s laser-pistol and hissed on the fires, as the alien mob pulled Selna down.

    For a few seconds Kretz watched in horror.

    The air was hazy with smoke. The little 'bots were trying to quench the flames. The crazy aliens didn't seem to care that they were destroying their own home. Warily, Kretz moved from behind the cover of the vegetation, heading across the gap. If he was to get back to his ship he'd have to get past them. They were dancing around Selna's body, kicking him and spitting on him. Making strange wild caterwauling noises. The sight was enough to make him want to rush in, to try and protect his companion.

    But he knew that it was too late for that now. Instead he had to try and survive himself.

    With relief he reached the next segment of luxuriant greenery. Nutrient fluid still dribbled from the pipes high up the flexible plastic wall, where Selna's last desperate laser-bolt had cut into it. The plants further across were burned by the aliens crude flame-thrower, but in this area still provided him with cover.

    The piece of passage tore free of its stanchion under his weight. As he fell with it Kretz realized that cover did not equate with safety. That last bolt from Selna's weapon had not just cut nutrient tubes. And, worse still, the fall had drawn the aliens’ attention.

    Even through the helmet, Kretz could hear the yammering and baying of the stripe-faced aliens. Transcomp was beginning to cope with some of the words, adding to the vocabulary that they'd already established, and applying inductive logic to try and deduce meanings and words. It coped with this particular input. It appeared that they were all screaming "Kill it!"

    The entire pack of aliens surged after him as he staggered and clambered into the next passageway full of greenery. All he could do was run. So he did. His legs were longer than theirs, but they knew their way around in these labyrinthine passages and he had barely an idea of which direction he was going in. There was no thought now about making his way back towards the ship. The only direction open to him was further in, towards the core of the space habitat. He ran on down the endless coiled passages.

    The baying hunters seemed almost frantic now.

    Then an explosion knocked him flying.



    Only his headlong sprint had saved his life, as there was now a smoking hole where the passage floor had been. This area was relatively unravaged otherwise. The walls of the passage were dense with hanging plant growth. Kretz crashed in among the fragile branches. Red fruits cascaded down onto him. An oddly lucid part of his stunned mind registered that these were the first fruiting bodies he'd seen. But this was hardly the time for exercising one of the specialties that had got him onto the intercept ship, xeno-botany. He cowered back into the bush.

    They were firing some kind of projectile weapon at him. The suit absorbed some of the impact, but some of the objects had cut it. He was bleeding. And his body took longer to mend than the self-repairing fabric of the suit.

    A yell came from the direction where Kretz had hoped to find safety. Transcomp struggled. "Insufficient for present extrapolation," it said, calmly. A computer could be calm. Kretz could not. He'd seen four of his companions killed before he and Selna had managed to flee. Zawn and Pelta had also fled in the opposite direction. Like Selna, they could also be dead by now. Or perhaps they'd gotten back to the ship. Desperately, Kretz wished he could be there too.

    "He's ours," Transcomp supplied the Miranese words in a cool level computer voice. Transcomp would eventually learn to translate nuances, but it was struggling with a too small established vocabulary and an alien species.

    There was a barricade across the passage, in the direction he'd planned to go. It seemed a sin to destroy alien technology and habitat, but, by the looks of it, they were busy destroying it themselves. Kretz used the monomolecular-edged sampling-knife to cut through the tough passage wall he was cowering into, making a narrow slit. He squeezed through, as quietly as possible.

    "He's getting away!" Transcomp supplied, dashing the hope that he could escape unnoticed.

    The passageway he'd forced his way into was severely damaged. Unlike the spiral passage he'd come from, this one was just dead. Lightless and lifeless. Using his headlight, he could see that the skeletal remains of the aliens' plants still hung from the walls. Either a systems failure or warfare had destroyed this part of the space habitat. Kretz picked a direction to run at random. The direction he wanted to go—back towards the end pole where the Miran intercept ship stood—was not an option. He didn't wait to find out if he was still being chased. Instead he raced down the dark passage as fast as his feet would carry him. He nearly fell to an unpleasant death as a result. Once again the passage showed signs that it had been damaged by some form of explosion. The incredibly tough wall fabric hung in tatters and even the girders that supported the spiral passages were twisted. Two hung broken.

    Cautiously, Kretz began climbing along them, and then swung down to the remains of a small metal structure. It had been burned and pieces of blackened wire dangled inside, showing that at some stage, electronic equipment had been ripped from it. Distantly, Kretz could hear voices again. He crawled into the hanging little chamber, and curled up against the back wall, willing himself to be small, if not invisible. Neither were something he could really achieve, but there was nothing else he could do. He was just too tired to run any further, right now.

    Flickering light from the torches of his pursuit began to cut the darkness. They were using brands of burning vegetation, as if they had no other form of light. Kretz lay very still, hardly daring to breathe. He could hear the shouting clearly. Transcomp began translating, but Kretz hastily flicked the audio off, before the sounds could betray him. All he could do was lie there and listen to the beating of both his hearts and the clatter of the pursuing aliens clambering along the beams.



    At length the sounds faded. They'd moved on. Obviously they expected him to keep running. Well, he would have done so, had he not been just too tired. He tongued a suit food-fluid nipple into place and drank. As energy slowly seeped back into his body from the glucose, Kretz began—for the first time since the alien owners of this space habitat had attacked them without reason or provocation—to actually think, not just to flee their brutality. Had the Miran said or done something wrong? Why had the aliens suddenly attracted them? It made no sense!

    Hiding in the wreckage of an equipment console Kretz had to admit: they'd expected almost anything but the flamethrower ambush. And then the remaining crew from the ship had fallen into some kind of explosive trap when they'd tried to come to their rescue.

    Kretz waited until the sound and light had gone. Then he hauled himself out of his refuge, and tried to decide where to go. The Miranese expedition had, as yet, established very little about the internal geography of the space habitats. Externally, of course, the string of habitats had been studied in some detail while they closed with them. He knew as much about that as any fascinated scientist could. Well, Zawn had been wrong. They should have explored the outer equatorial ridge first and studied the still-active motors giving the structure spin. But the alien airlocks had been too tempting, too simple and too logical to operate. And, after all, this had been why they'd come.

    Now lost, hunted and frightened, Kretz knew a little more about the inner structure. It appeared to consist of an endless “gut” of passages, not just in layers, but spiraling around the ovoid habitat, winding inside each other again, making tier on tier of surface area for the plant-life of the habitat. It was almost like a ball of hollow string.

    It was good biology. It was hell for a fugitive. It was impossible for Kretz to judge accurately, but it seemed to him that the pursuit had forced him away from the entry lock and into the labyrinth of passages. He'd broken the antenna on his suit some time back, so there was no way he could communicate to see if anyone else had escaped.

    It could have been worse, he knew. Abret was right. The air of the alien's habitat was cooler and lower in oxygen than his own. But he could breathe it. The suit-punctures hadn't lead to explosive decompression. However, that would at least have been mercifully quick. This wasn't. He might have contemplated suicide, had one thing not been painfully obvious: It was his duty to the people of Miran to warn them.

    The aliens had lied about being friendly. There could be only one reason for the attack. The astronomers had detected some high-speed objects being launched as the alien artifact came close to each sun. Now it was clear. They weren't exploring probes, or ships of peaceful colonists looking for new worlds. This was a habitat full of conquerors. He had to survive to get back to the ship, to tell the people of Miran that a murderous plague was coming, infalling into their system. There hadn't been a war on Miran for millennia. They would need to prepare. Or it would be flame-thrower time for all of them. He had to get back to that pole. To the airlock, and somehow, to the ship. He had some oxygen in his tank, and, given enough time, the fabric of his suit would knit. But he could not afford to ditch the heavy tank and rebreather system if he was ever to leave the airlock of this hell-hole, and he needed time. The alien hunters were determined not give him any.

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