For no reason other than I can I declare today Slow Train Sunday! There will be three chapters posted.
From Baen this October, by Eric Flint and Dave Freer
In 2050 there was the Alpha habitat. By 2070, there were seven habitats; by 2080, there were 23; by 2100, there were 1300, and size and volume had increased seventy-fold. It is estimated that by 2500 more surface area will occupied by humans in space than on Mars or the moon. At first, these provided a haven for miners. Then, gradually as they grew larger and more environmentally stable, they became havens for more out groups, people who were poorly adjusted to mainstream of Earth society.
SPACE AND SOCIOLOGY. May-Mertins, J. 2230, Wirral and
It was obviously all settled, thought Howard, looking at the procession of elderly brothers and sisters from the council. If it had been anything but a good verdict they’d have been accompanied by a couple of the sturdy young men, at least.
One of the junior council members, a relatively young man of sixty or so years of age, came to call them. “Peace be with you, Brother Dansson,” he said. “Will you and the stranger come out now and hear the council’s decision?”
All fifteen of them could hardly have fitted into Howard’s front room. He turned to Kretz, who was sitting in the tensed up position that Howard had learned meant “nervous, extremely nervous,” in the alien’s body-language. Howard felt, not for the first time a combination of sympathy and irritation. Sympathy because Kretz was obviously scared. This was hardly surprising, if you considered the treatment he’d had from the stripe-faced monsters, whom Howard had decided were probably minor demons of some sort.
The alien was also obviously missing contact with his own kind. But why had he chosen to collapse into Howard’s tomatoes? Besides the damage to the plants, which was considerable, Howard really hadn’t needed more trouble with the Elder and the Council. It had all been… interesting, no doubt, but he could use some peace to get on with farming. Kretz’s advice had worked with the flooding pipe, and that area could be planted now.
Howard would miss the alien’s unafraid-of-mechanical-things attitude. He wouldn’t mind getting his own bed back, though.
They walked out. Kretz had insisted on wearing his own alien clothes, even though Howard had told him it was a bad idea. “They don’t like different things, Brother.”
The alien had just given him the narrow-lipped look that Howard had learned was his equivalent of a smile. Howard found he’d gotten used to the expression. He knew by now what Kretz meant by it, without thinking about the matter. “It is some sort of protection against weapons of attack. It may save me from being killed.”
“I explained to you,” said Howard stiffly. “We do not believe in violence. At worst the council would sentence someone to be taken to the airlock, which is what you’ve asked them to do to you.”
“I see,” said Kretz. He cocked his head sideways, a surprisingly human gesture. “And then what has happened to those who have been put out of the airlock?”
Howard had to admit privately the and then? part had occurred to him too. “They must go elsewhere,” he said stiffly.
“But I have explained to you what is out there,” said Kretz.
Howard shuddered. “Yes, but you say that you have to go there.”
“Indeed,” agreed Kretz. “Which is why I must wear my suit. There were human suits that our second party from our spacecraft discovered in the airlock of the first habitat, but they would not fit me.”
“They won’t do that to you,” said Howard, suddenly feeling guilty. So what if he had had to give up his bed and had his life disturbed? They couldn’t do this to Kretz. He was harmless. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“But that is what I asked them to do. Must I go and find something wrong to do, then?” said the alien, with the expression that Howard had learned meant worry rather than amusement. “I do not like milk, and although the honey is palatable, I cannot stay here. I want to go back to my spacecraft. I want to go home.”
Howard was at something of a loss. Being put out of New Eden was an inconceivable horror to him. From earliest childhood, it had been drilled into him that that was the worst thing that could happen to you.
“Let’s just see what they have to say,” he said, lamely. Whatever happened, at least it would stop being his problem. He felt guilty all over again about the relief that knowing this brought to him.
They reached the semi-circle of councilors. Elder Rooson cleared his throat. “Stranger,” he said, refusing to acknowledge that Kretz might not be human. “You say that you come from a far-off place, outside of New Eden. You have asked our help in getting yourself back to this ‘spacecraft’ of yours. I have examined the Elder’s texts, and they have borne what you say, although I don’t pretend to understand all of it. Still, it is our God-given duty to help those in need and those in distress.”
He paused and looked at Howard. “It seems very clear to me that our duty is to assist you, to send you home to your own people,” said the elder firmly. “But we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. To go out through the airlock has always been our ultimate sanction. It does not seem to me, or to Sister Thirsdaughter, that you are ready and healthy enough to do this on your own strength. Therefore, we will send one of our number to be your assistant, to be a strong shoulder for you to lean on, and to guide you.”
He pointed at the horrified Howard. “We have decided that Brother Dansson will accompany you. We will provide food, good honest clothes, and our blessing for your journey.”
“I thank you,” said the gaudily-clad Kretz. “You are very different to the aliens we met in the first habitat. As you know, I have much enjoyed seeing your animal life. What sort of animal is this ‘Dilemma’?” he asked earnestly. “While my principal purpose is to return to my spacecraft, I am a scientist. I wish to learn as much as possible. There are many convergences between the life-forms on our worlds. We have a long, thin, legless creature which uses three long horns on its head to attack prey. It uses the long outer horns to trap the prey, while the inner mobile horn stabs them. Is this ‘Dilemma’ similar? I am curious.”
For a moment they all looked at him in silence. Then Elder Rooson laughed. The others followed. “It would appear that we’ve chosen the right companion for you. Someone of equal curiosity.”
Howard had stood numbed, up till now. Now, finally, he found his voice. “But, Elder… What have I done to deserve exile? Why do you send me out of New Eden?”
“You are free to return, Brother,” said the old man. “That is not exile. We know that it is a great deal to ask of one of our brethren. But to be fair, you are the best suited to do it. It is the opinion of a large number of my fellows that you are the right, and possibly only person for the task.”
Kretz nodded eagerly. “I will send the… Brother back to you when I get back to the ship.”
“But no one who has been sent out of the airlock has ever come back,” protested Howard.
“No one in all the history of New Eden has been free to do so,” answered the old man, with a sigh. “I do wish God had not seen fit to make these things happen in my time, but doubtless he has his reasons.”
“We pray that you do not bring some evil communication back with you,” said Brother Galsson, sourly. Howard was sure that he had pressed for them to make this a real exile. There was also no doubt in Howard’s mind that Galsson was praying that he wouldn’t make it back at all, never mind bring back some problem with him.
Howard’s mouth was too dry to reply. Yes, he’d experimented with a few things to find out just how they worked. Fixed things which perhaps he shouldn’t have. But did they have to exile him? Call it whatever they liked, that’s what it was. From talking to Kretz, Howard was sure that the end result of exile was always death. And suddenly, life seemed very precious. It was more than mildly blasphemous to doubt your security in the hands of God. But life had handed him any number of doubts in the last while, shattering things he’d always known to be true. Maybe they were right to exile him. He couldn’t have gone on, living in the closed box, now that he knew there was so much outside of it.
It still frightened him.