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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 20:23 EDT



"Engineering and Robotics—especially with microbots doing maintenance—have increased mechanical safety beyond the real need for redundancy. We still build it in. What we haven't been able to do much about is the fragility of bio-systems, and the ability of humans to mess with them. We need multiple redundancy here. We can get that partly with size and species diversity, and party by simply having a number of habitats, strung together. This will also give us a crack at avoiding the other area of which is never considered for redundancy—social systems. Humans are even more likely to destroy their own habitat than engineering disasters are."


Transcript of Dr. W. Andrea Asiago's address to the new-formed Interstellar Colonization and Exploration society, considered by many to be the germinal point of the Slowtrain Project. From: A CONCISE HISTORY OF HUMAN SPACE COLONIZATION. P233, Chipattari, H, and Shah, G.D. (Ed)




    Howard was relieved to be discharged from the hospital, even if Lani still had that Jersey bull look in her eye. "The local elevator banks are out. I'd forgotten that," she said, as they came to the closed doors a few yards from the hospital gates. "We'll have to take a taxi down to the public transport-system and those cost…"

    "I want to walk," he said, firmly. "I would like to walk, and I feel in need of it."

    "But you've just been to the hospital," protested Lani.

    "My legs were in no way injured," he said with a smile. He had enough on his conscience without impoverishing her further. Besides, the pill they'd given him had left him feeling as if he was on top of Eden. A bit muzzy headed, but fine.

    She sighed. "We don't have a lot of choice, anyway. There isn't a vehicle in sight. They're all driving people up at this time of day, with the elevators out. This place is falling apart."

    "At least we are walking down," he soothed.



    Lani spent the walk feeling guilty. She'd only agreed to do it because the bank balance was perilously low. As a single young woman she'd lived pretty fast and freely. It was now becoming rapidly apparent that she'd spent more on beer and boys than was wise. At least he'd taken her arm for the walk. They stopped to rest at the next elevator station. A dispirited-looking crew were emerging from a door next to the shaft. She and Howard got several wolf-whistles. Well, Howard did. Still, it made a girl walk tall. "You watch it. He's mine," she said.

    One of the repair-crew raised an eyebrow. "I did watch it! It's gruesome. And if you play with it it'll grew some more. Hello, Lani. Big piece of beefcake you got yourself."

    Lani recognized the blond under the helmet… funny how it changed someone's face. "Hello, Dee. So this is where you got to after school?"

    The woman came and flopped down on the bench next to them. "It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And the pay's good even if it doesn't have the glamour of the force."

    "Besides you never could fight your way out of a brown paper bag," said Lani, grinning. "Hey, leave him alone. He's mine. Besides he doesn't like it, see."

    "He's yours? Entirely? Not just trial? Wow! Bid sealed, the lot?"

    Lani nodded proudly. "Paid for, too. I'm settling down."

    "I'm still playing the field," said Dee with a chuckle. "I heard about this one. I heard that the other one has a tentacle instead. They've got him up at the Vats and they're charging the girls a dollar a look, or ten a time. I reckon you could get twenty…"

    "Stop it. You're making him cringe and he's all mine. You haven't gotten any less coarse, have you, Dee? You've got a mind like a sewer."

    The repair-crew worker shook her head, cheerfully. "Nope, just as coarse. Not much else to think about on the job except fried electronics, and sex is more fun."

    "So what's up with the elevators-bank?" asked Lani, more to stop Howard actually getting up and running away than out of any real interest.

    The blond repair-worker shrugged. "Search me. It's none of the electronics modules. We've tried pulling and replacing all of them in case it was something that wasn't showing up on the tell-tales. We had a job getting out the people who were stuck, I'll tell you. Took about four hours, and the car stinks like hell. It stuck just here, where the control module is too, so we have to work with the pong in the background. At least all the others came to a stop at the nearest floor."

    "Could we have a look?" asked Howard, for once pressing against Lani, as a defense, presumably to the predatory Dee. Well, you could understand that.

    "Sure," said Dee, getting up. "Lovely bouquet in there, mind you. I'll just take him in there for a little while, Lani. You have a nice rest."

    You couldn't help laughing at Dee. She hadn't changed an iota. "Holy Susan. You never give up, do you? Put another hand on him and I'll take it off at the wrist, you maneater."

    "Huh. Just selfish, that's all you are," said Dee, her lips quirking and eyes full of mischief. "Come and have a look."



    Howard's eyes took in the mechanical guts of the elevator with fascination. It was safer than looking at that scarlet woman anyway. His ears were still burning. And now she'd assumed a posture which no decent woman would put herself into, not even in private! His nose told him about other things besides distressed trapped passengers. It told him of hot metal. It reminded him of a bearing which had seized in the corn-mill.

    Surely this couldn't be as simple? The “car,” as she'd called it, ran on rails. The central ratchetted rail in between the rails was obviously what provided movement. It was quite worn, he noticed. He sniffed at each of the wheels… and then realized that his nose wasn't even necessary. There were little pieces of metal—fragments of roller, on the rim of the third wheel.

    He coughed diffidently. "I think you should look at this."

    "I am, big boy," said the lewd woman.

    "I mean at this wheel. The bearing has gone."

    The scarlet woman got up and came across to where he stood. "That stuff is tough, big boy. It's the electronics that doesn't last forever. Oh."

    "Nothing actually lasts forever, except God's love," said Howard stiffly, but she was too busy looking at the wheel in the light of her helmet headlamp to notice, and giggling to herself. She turned around and punched him on the arm. "You could just be right, beefcake! Heh. And we've spent days testing the electronics! I reckon I could just get a bonus out of you two."

    "Well, I think you owe us a ride down in the cargo-elevator, if that's still working," said Lani. "And keep your hands off him, Dee."

    "Tch. He's big enough for both of us, aren't you, big boy?"

    "No!" protested Howard, backing off and nearly falling down an elevator-shaft.

    They got their ride down to the transport system, which took them close to Lani's home. It would appear that no one walked any distance here. If Howard was any judge, they'd have to start soon. Things were plainly beginning to break down. Anything will, eventually. Maybe that was what that scarlet woman had had in mind with his morals.

    When they got home, the part for Lani's scoot awaited them.



    He had a knife in his hand, and a look of triumph in his eyes. However, the most censorious woman in the Matriarchy might have forgiven him. Howard's knife was an old rounded buttering knife—and the reason for his triumph was finding that its tip fitted the slot on the top of the shaft. They had the part. What they didn't have was any tools. The little ring of metal the online manual had described as a circlip had been hell to remove. It had taken the near destruction of her tweezers to finally send it whizzing across the yard. Then they'd had to hunt for it.

    She'd hugged him when he spotted it. He'd gone bright red and hastily backed off.

    "What's wrong?" she asked.

    "I forget myself. I… wish you were wearing clothes," he said, slowly.

    She considered him, standing there looking awkward. Looking at anything but her. "I could wear clothes if it would make things easier for you." It was perverted, she knew. And un-natural. But, if it would help to free him of his inhibitions… excite him and arouse him… Well, if rumor was to be believed quite a few women did it in the privacy of their own homes anyway. Was a piece of cloth really that bad? A guilty part of her subconscious said 'yes'.

    He looked at her face with those adoring-puppy eyes. "It would be much easier. I must be honest, your body is a temptation, and as much as I try to resist, I find my eyes drawn to it. It would help me greatly to resist the temptations of the flesh that are set in my way by the evil one. Thank you."

    It wasn't quite what she'd meant to achieve, but the very idea had somehow made him more at ease, able to hunt a makeshift tool in her kitchen with her, without him leaping like a startled child if they touched. He was very good with those big hands, she thought, clinically.

    He spun the scoot's wheel, beaming with pleasure at the achievement. "I really believe," he said earnestly, "that if God hadn't meant us to do such things he would scarcely have made it such a wholesome pleasure to succeed."

    I wonder if I could stretch your mind as far thinking that about sex, thought Lani, far from clinically. But she held her tongue, and took the scoot for a brief test-ride.

    It alarmed her with its sudden, easy acceleration, and the smoothness of its ride. The back wheel had always had a bit of a shake at speed. That was gone. It seemed quite obvious now that problem had been developing for a while. Well, if it was going to be this simple, maybe they should start repairing scoots. After all, there was nothing wrong with your man helping you, working as a team with you, on a job. The idea of being in the force was giving her a sour taste in the mouth, now.

    She came back to her yard, smiling. The smile didn't last long. Not when she saw two officers standing waiting, with what was obviously a writ.



    "Captain Lani LaGarda, you've been charged with neglect, improper man-care, and common assault," said the belted woman. "Accordingly, I must ask you to proceed to the station with me until your pretrial hearing. Your man will be held in protective custody until the matter is resolved."

    Howard stood stock still, waiting to see what would happen next.

    It obviously worried the arresting officer too. "It's a technicality, Captain. But it is the letter of the law. I'm sorry. I can't see why you won't be released on your own recognizance…"

    Lani scowled: "Chapter three, paragraph 7. They'd be breaking the law themselves if tried to do otherwise as the people who laid these charges are themselves facing charges placed by me. I assume these charges come from Captain Rodgers and her patrol, and are unsubstantiated except by their accusations?"

    "Er. Yes," admitted the officer.

    Lani shrugged. "Well, we'd be playing into their hands if we didn't co-operate. I'm sorry, Howard. First they beat you up then they want to jail you. Let's go."

    But they discovered that it wasn't quite so simple when they got to the police station. Lani could go, yes, and just come to her pre-trail. But Howard…

    "I'm afraid he'll have to stay in, Captain. I've got a gelding-order here for him. If he is found to have been beyond your control, well, they'll cut. Of course charges of irresponsibility on your part would be diminished by that."

    "What?" she demanded.

    "He's too big," explained the desk-officer. "The attached affidavit reads that they do not want any aggressive tendencies linked to high testosterone levels and large size to enter the male population again."

    "That's ridiculous!" snapped Lani.

    "If you sign the disclaimer," said the desk-officer holding out the form, "the medical officer can do it quickly now and we can release him into your custody, while your restitution claim goes through."

    Howard listened in horror. If he hadn't been in the cage, he'd have been running. He was relieved to hear Lani say "No," firmly.

    The desk-officer shrugged. "I've heard that they're easier to manage and far less inclined to stray after they've had the chop. And they still do the housework well, even if they don't father children any more." She was talking about him as if he was a troublesome dog. "Well, then, he'll just have to stay locked up. I'm sorry."

    "But you can't do that!" said Lani, hitting the desk hard enough to make it vibrate.

    The desk-officer folded her arms. "I'm sorry, Captain. I have to. You know the rules about visiting times."



    Howard found the loneliness and fear even worse this time. Lani was a naked painted Jezebel from a Godless culture. But she had her good points too. When she'd reached through the bars and squeezed his arm, her eyes wet…

    There’d been a shift in the foundation rock of his beliefs. The edifices of the life he'd built on it, trembled.

    In the meanwhile he had to get out of here. There are some male fears, Howard discovered, that are shared beyond religion or culture. As soon as he was left alone, he began exploring his cell for a way out. The walls seemed solid. The bars too. The roof…

    They hadn't thought of anyone easily reaching that, he'd bet. The ceiling was low. With his arms straight up Howard had to bend his knees. Ideal. He pushed. Hard. Howard had done enough labor to know that human strength was principally in the legs.

    Nothing happened.

    So he tried again. He was about to try a third time when he heard voices. Two of the little local men were herded into his cell. They were tiny, Howard realized, seeing them close up for the first time. He was tall, large and muscular from farm work. These men were half his size, with little muscle-tone. The two plainly found him intimidating, too, by their posture.

    Well, they could hardly help being painted and pallid; and, like him, they were in trouble. "Peace be with you, strangers," he said, smiling and holding out his hand.

    Their hands were very small in his. By the way they trembled, they were expecting him to do terrible things to them. Still, the one with scar on his head called him closer. "We are from the Men's Liberation Movement. We want you to join us. Escape and flee to wildlands near the core, to join our liberating army. Men must be free!"

    Howard had to agree with the philosophy. Men here certainly needed liberating!

    "When we march," said the other, "all the men are going to rebel. We will capture all the elevator banks, seize city hall, behead the matriarch and declare male rule."

    It would have been even more shocking if the poor little mite had sounded more convincing. He sounded as he was reciting timetables.

    "And these women with the belts and clubs?" asked Howard. "Won't they stop you?"

    "They'll have to be killed if they try," said the first one. "Of course, we'll keep some. Every man will have as many women as he pleases to take whenever he wants. Male rule!"

    The smaller, more miserable looking one took him by the arm, just as he was about to reply. In his hand was a small piece of paper. It read: DON'T. LISTENING. He put the piece of paper in his mouth and ate it.

    As Howard had been about disagree—at least to ends and means—this made things easier. Men weren't supposed to read, but inevitably some would learn. "You are wrong, brothers," he said, calmly. "Violence and killing will not achieve anything. We must be gentle."

    "But they beat us!" protested the first man.

    "And then we must turn the other cheek," said Howard.

    Howard actually had a very enjoyable half hour repeating sermons and scripture to the two. The smaller one, who had originally been so frightened, was now plainly hard-pressed not to laugh. Howard was shocked to notice that the two had their finger's entwined. But then perhaps men did that here.

    The two belted women who came to fetch them soon after that looked decidedly sour. It had undoubtedly been a trap. Was there such bitterness here? Or was there really a men's liberation movement to fear, to fuel this?

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