Slow Train 7

Posted: 13th June 2008 by onyxhawke in Uncategorized
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This is Eric Flint and Dave Freer’s Slow Train to Arcturus available from Baen October 2008

Chapter 7

External e-vox

from: Congress-Representative Frank Nalinno ( sub-committee on system emigration support)

To: Dr. Anthony J. Jamieson, University of Nebraska

While you say that we do not appreciate what a legacy of traditions, culture, and of a living example of religious society for students to study we’re throwing away here, what you may not appreciate, Dr. Jamieson, is what the general System-dwelling public think of these people, and their archaic belief systems. The truth is most of the public don’t care, but SysGov has a sizable voting bloc—about 14% from various interest groups—who do care. We’ve been under considerable pressure from a number of animal rights groups to have their traditional form of agriculture—which includes slaughter of meat animals instead of growing vat-protein—declared illegal. There are a number of women’s rights groups who have campaigned to have them declared an illegal association, because their beliefs are patriarchal. Before you argue with me, my hands are tied. I know—for a small group—they retain under humane conditions a surprisingly large proportion of domesticated animal diversity, which, as pointed out by various studies, has declined catastrophically since protein vat-culture’s inception. I’ve already had letters from your learned colleagues in zoological research. I know it’s an open society with members choosing to live under a patriarchal system. It is simply not politically expedient to oppose the groups wishing to be rid of them. As a student of political history myself, this is a pattern which has frequently been repeated. I recall a similar problem with the anti-fox hunting legislation at the end of the twentieth century. Research and logic don’t come into it. Voter sentiment does. Most people don’t know, or have much contact with domestic animals, these days. Patriarchy is politically incorrect, and their holier-than-thou attitude gets up the voters’ noses. They want our funds to get out of here? They’re going to get them.

__________________________________________________________________

Kretz woke up, finding himself blessedly warm. He felt as if he hadn’t been warm for a long, long time. Loss of blood, probably. Perhaps he was now in the final stages before death. Certainly things were strange enough to be hallucinations. He was in a room of some sort, and not in the endless plant-corridors. It was a starkly plain room, and was lit by a single flame burning on the end of some sort of yellowish stick. He was lying on something soft, under a cover. He felt curiously naked. And on the chair beside the bed sat one of the dreaded aliens.

Instinctively he attempted to get up and run away. His arm hurt as he moved. The alien pressed him back down. “It’s all right. Calm down,” Transcomp supplied.

Kretz lay still, rigid with fear, trying to gauge what to do now. His head swam with the pain, and the sudden exertion.

“Your arm is broken. It is splinted, but you mustn’t use it,” said the alien. “Do you want to sit up? I can help you.”

Kretz closed his eyes. He remembered, now, through a haze of confusing pain, the escape from the aliens who had tried to kill him. He remembered this one, or one very like it, also without the face-stripes, saying “Peace.”

“Can I give you something to drink?” asked the alien, via Transcomp.

Opening his eyes again, he saw that its clothes were also different from the mottled brown and green of the aliens he’d encountered previously. These were an unpatterned gray. It also seemed larger. Perhaps it was a female? Logic slowly came to his mind and to his rescue. If it had wanted to kill him, it could have done that while he was insensible. Whatever its intentions were, it was not going to kill him, at least not immediately. And the mention of drink did bring home to him just how incredibly thirsty he was.

“Drink” he said, and the Transcomp unit around his neck provided an alien sound. He reached his mouth for the water-nipple of his suit and realized he was not wearing it. Anyway, the water tank had been dry for some time.

“I will help you to sit up. You cannot drink lying down.” The big alien hauled him up to lean back against something soft and gently yielding.

It lifted a container to his lips, while supporting his head, gently. “Here. Don’t drink too much.”

The water tasted a little odd. But it was wet. And if alien bacteria survived in his body… well, it was too late now. He’d been exposed to enough airborne bacteria, and without fluids he was not going to live for very long, even if the aliens didn’t kill him.

He leaned back against the softness they had piled behind him. “What do you wish to do with me?”

The big alien looked at him. “You asked for help,” it said.

Was that all that it took? But surely they had used the word before? Thinking back he was sure that Selna had called out for help before they’d shot him.

“Are you going to kill me?” he asked.

It was the alien’s turn to back away, shaking its head. “We don’t kill. That is why the Brethren left the Solar system. We are a people of peace.”

Kretz, his mind flooding with the terrible images of destruction and the death of his fellows, struggled to reconcile this with the facts. “You killed my companions,” he said.

The big alien shook its head. “The last person to commit the sin of Cain was Brother Lewisson in the year 79. He coveted his neighbor’s wife. That was more than two hundred years ago.”

Some of the words did not translate. “Years” was obviously some measure of time, and the reference to “his” made clear this was a bi-sexual species. But “Sin of Cain”? Transcomp made sense only of the middle word. If only Kretz didn’t feel so weak and tired. Consciousness left him, blurring away into the horrors he’d been through.

When he next awoke there was another alien sitting beside him. A much smaller one, although the color of its clothing was similar. Was this one of the males? The aggressive sex? He eyed the alien warily. But it had nothing which was even reminiscent of the projectile flingers that the earlier aliens had all carried.

“Ah. I see that you are awake again, stranger,” Transcomp supplied. “Peace be with you. I am Sister Thirsdaughter. Brother Dansson is out tending his crops.”

Once again Transcomp struggled with some of the terms. “Sister” was confusing, given that the comparative size of the alien meant it was presumably male. But, whatever else, the word “peace” was a comforting one.

“What is your name?” The small alien inquired.

“Kretz.”

“Do you want some more to drink, Brother Kretz? Perhaps some broth?”

“Yes. Drink.”

So. “Brother” as well as “Sister.” Clearly bi-sexual—but which sex was which?

The small alien got up and walked out, leaving the door open. Kretz knew he ought to seize this opportunity to get away. He was not constrained, in any way that he could see, constrained. Perhaps…

He tried to sit up, and found that there was one constraint—his arm was strapped and bandaged, and did not enjoy his attempt to move. He remembered, now, the fall. Weakly, he remained half-sitting, as the small alien returned. It—he? she?—carried a bowl that steamed. The alien saw what he had done and set it down and put a careful hand under his armpit and helped him to sit up against the soft things. He remembered that he’d been sitting against them, when he’d drunk a little, earlier. He must have either slid down or been helped to lie down then. The little alien lacked the strength of the big one. It struggled with the task, and Kretz was too weak to help much.

Then the large alien came in to the room, and helped with no apparent effort. The little one said: “Well, I am glad you chose to get back just then, Howard. When you get to be as old as I am, you’ll find strength isn’t what it should be.”

Kretz struggled with the rationale in this one. Surely the larger one was older? That was the only thing that made any biological sense. Even with his body in distress, and his person in all sorts of trouble, Kretz remained a biologist first. It was the reason he’d been considered insane enough to come on this mission.

The small, wrinkled-faced one must still be growing. Just like any young Miran, its skin was too large, still. The alien’s statements about age were either a mistranslation or—a pleasant thought, this—a joke.

The small alien picked up the bowl while the larger one supported Kretz. The small one took a spoon—it was amazing how convergent some things were—and lifted a tiny quantity of the steaming stuff to his mouth. Alien scents assaulted his nares.

“I don’t know if you can eat our food,” said the little alien. “But you must eat something or you will die.” Feeling his weakness Kretz realized that it was a true statement. He took a tiny sip.

It was hot! And salty. He spat weakly. Coughed. “Hot.” he said, as soon as he could speak.

“Well, there goes Galsson’s theory that you’d need boiling brimstone to survive,” said the little one. “I’m going to add some cold water to this, Howard. And I think some honey.”

“To soup?” the larger alien seemed taken aback.

The little wrinkled one nodded. “It will make something similar to the rehydration fluid I use on my patients with gastro.”

Most of this made little sense to Kretz. But Transcomp was gathering vocabulary. Eventually, it would make complete linkages. The small alien went away again with the bowl, and the larger one allowed Kretz to settle back against the softness, only to sit him up again when the little one returned. Steam no longer rose from the bowl, but the scent rising from it was just as alien. Once again, the alien raised a small quantity to his lips. It was both sweet and salty and just vaguely reminiscent of the energy nutrient drink that he’d had from the suit-nipple. It stayed down. The little one patiently fed him more, and then, just when he was almost getting used to it, stopped.

“I have a feeling we’d better not overdo this,” it said. “When did you last have food?”

Kretz struggled to think. Of course Transcomp would not have units of time for the alien language yet. “A long time,” he said. It had been, he was vaguely aware, a very long time.

“Then we’ll let you digest this for a bit,” said the little one. “Is there anything else we can do for you?”

The little alien really seemed to have no ill intent. So he said: “My suit.”

They looked at him, tilting their heads at an oddly Miranese-seeming angle. Perhaps this was another example of both convergent evolution and the effect of binocular vision, tilting the head like that when querying something. It was plain that they did not understand him. He used his good hand to take the sleeve of the large one. “My,” he said.

The alien nodded—another commonality—and stretched its lips out as if in discomfort, showing her oddly shaped teeth.

Well, perhaps that expression differed in meaning. Kretz certainly hoped so!

“I washed it,” said the alien. “I have it in my cupboard.” Whatever that meant…

“Do you want me to bring it to you?”

Kretz nodded, scarcely able to believe this. Were these the same kind as the aliens who had hunted him so mercilessly? Who had burned the others, and who he’d seen bring down Selna like a pack of predators? It seemed almost impossible. The only difference he could see was the absence of stripes on their faces, and the way that they dressed.

“You can bring it for him, Howard,” said the little wrinkled one. “But he’s not to put it on. It won’t fit over the cast. Your arm”—it pointed one of its upper limbs—“is broken. I’ve set it as best I can. Your bones are not quite the same as ours. I had to guess what I was doing.”

The biologist wondered just how different they were. The Miranese crewman side of him remembered reading of a similar concept in primitive Miran, where the bones would be positioned, immobilized and allowed to knit of their own accord. It should still work, he supposed, doubtfully. But it seemed amazingly primitive for a species that could traverse the depths of interstellar space.

The sugars and possibly some of the other nutrients were working on his mind, at least. Now, with a definitely clearer head, he knew that eating alien food had been taking an enormous chance. A ridiculous one. Simple sugars—and as pure as possible—would be safest, he supposed. But Kretz could not live on sugars alone, and it seemed unlikely that he could get chemically pure sucrose—or the glucose his body broke it into, from such primitive-seeming people.

Perhaps, it occurred to him with sudden insight, they really were primitive. Perhaps the aliens had once been a technologically advanced species, but weren’t any more. He wished that he had a sociologist like Ferbren to discuss it with. Perhaps this was what happened if you isolated people totally.

Still, they must have been technological masters of immense skill, once. The Miran time record for a self-contained habitat was only ten years. This string of habitats had been traversing space for far, far longer. Perhaps longer than the Miran had realized. Some of the ideas he’d seen—the gut-like increase in surface area, the use of low g capillary action—were so simple and elegant that he wondered how they’d not become part of the sealed habitat projects of Miranese mainstream science.

But the truth was, he had to admit, that Miran had devoted less energy to space each year. There wasn’t the drive to build such a craft, or a craft of any sort for that matter. The expense of creating environments large enough to keep the average Miran from chronic claustrophobia was prohibitive. That was why it was necessary to find freaks like himself for this voyage. Space interest had definitely been dying.

At least, until an alien ship had been spotted by the astronomers.

The larger of the two aliens came back carrying his suit. It was shaking its head so violently the brownish tuft of hair looked in danger of flying off. “I was going to mend it. But look, Sister. The holes are gone!”

“And there I merely thought that the fineness of the weave was miraculous,” said the smaller wrinkled alien.

As bizarre as it seemed, Kretz was coming to the conclusion that the large alien was male and the small one female. That was the only explanation, at least, that matched their consistent use of the terms “brother” and “sister.” But, at the moment, he was far more interested in the suit itself. The sight of the suit in its comforting high-visibility colors lifted Kretz’s spirits. These aliens seemed disposed to be kind. Indeed, if anything they appeared to be scared of him. But…

The Miran had thought the aliens in the first habitat had been friendly, too, at first. He couldn’t trust them too much.

A third alien appeared. This one was also small but had a facial mane, like the large male. Perhaps the males had multiple mates. That was an odd idea, but not beyond the limits of biological possibility. “You could have knocked,” said the large one.

“I go where the work of the Lord takes me,” said the newcomer. “I must watch over this spawn of Satan, this thing from cities of the plain.”

“It’s a pity your piety doesn’t take you to your crops more often. They look as if the devil has been at them,” said the big one. It was hard to judge aliens, but the two seemed to dislike each other.

“How dare you?” demanded the newcomer.

The small wrinkled alien held up her hands. “Peace. If you two wish to make a loud noise go out and do it in your corridors. The patient needs rest.”

They looked at her and were still. A powerful and influential female this! Well, it could also be that they could see that when the loose skin filled out she was going to be larger than either of them.

****

The patient needs rest, thought Howard, might well be true, but the patient had slept virtually uninterrupted for three days now. Howard was very underslept himself, from trying to do his chores and share in the nursing of the patient. He understood that the council had placed them in quarantine. He understood why, too. But it was a busy time on the farm-corridors right now and there was the section where the sub-irrigation had failed. He had to carry a powerful number of buckets for that, and, after all the trouble he was in about it, he didn’t dare to use his four bucket yoke, although then he could have got the job done much, much faster. He had to work at night, to avoid others on his walk through to the water.

Having Sister Thirsdaughter virtually living in his home didn’t make things any easier, either. There was nowhere he could really even hide the drawings without her possibly finding them. At the moment they were rolled up under his underwear. It was very frustrating. Still, she’d saved him from getting into an open fight with Galsson—something that would have had them both up before the discipline committee. That was something he didn’t need, as they were still mired in debating his bucket-yoke.

“The council has deputized me to keep an eye on this…” said Galsson quietly, after standing fulminating for a while. He pointed at the stranger with a shaking forefinger. “And him. It is my opinion that it is his un-Godly meddling with the drip irrigators that has brought this visitation upon us!”

“It is possible,” said Sister Thirsdaughter. “But we do not know whether this visitation is a demon, an angel or merely a test of our faith. And you might say that Brother Dansson has had his just reward for what he has done to the drip-irrigators in his crops.”

“But they’re good crops!” protested Howard.

“Exactly,” said the healer.

“We will test its faith,” said Galsson, grimly. “And God moves in mysterious and not always direct ways, Sister.”

“And chooses his instruments as he wills, according to his purposes,” said the Sister tranquilly. “You may test his faith, Russ Galsson. But not now. He’s been insensate for three days. Howard. Sit with him. Brother Galsson will escort me to meet with my fellow councilors, and we can discuss how best to proceed.”

So Howard found himself left to sit with the stranger-creature. It didn’t seem to be in any danger of slipping back into a coma-sleep just yet. Its eyes were wide open, and it had a wary look about it. Mind you, that could just be its way of looking happy for all he knew.

He tried smiling at it. It shrank back against the pillows; plainly, no matter what kind of creature it was, afraid. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said hastily. “It is all right. I promise.”

The wariness was still there in posture. “Promise? Means?”

“I give my word.”

The strange creature shook its head in a curious round bobbing motion. “Means?”

“I swear.” He stepped over to the Bible on its stand. Put his hand on it. “On the Bible.”

The occupant of his bed looked no less puzzled. “Means? Bible?”

“The holy book! It means what I say is true.”

“True. You do not wish to hurt?” It was still plainly doubtful.

Howard decided to try logic. “I have given you help. I have given you my night-shirt, my bed, and I bandaged you up. Why would I do that if I wanted to hurt you?”

“Bandaged? Means?”

Howard pointed to the injured arm. “Like that.”

The occupant of Howard’s bed looked at his splinted arm. Nodded slowly. “It is the teeth,” it said.

Without thinking, Howard pulled back his lips and felt them with his tongue. He was surprised to see the Stranger-creature shrink back again. “I’m sorry,” he said hastily. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’m not going to eat you.”

The creature sat silent for a time, as if absorbing this. “Peace,” said Howard, trying all he could think of. “Peace.”

It seemed to find that comforting. “Peace,” it said. “Teeth to Miran mean to fight.”

It was clear enough when you put it like that. “You Miran?”

The creature nodded again. “You name?”

“Howard. Howard Dansson,” supplied Howard, careful not to show his teeth when he smiled.

The creature looked uncomprehendingly at the hand Howard had extended. “Drink?”

So Howard fetched it water, and helped it to sit enough to drink, cautiously.

“Who hurt you?” asked Howard, when it had finished and rested against the pillows again.

Miran looked at him for a long time. “Howard,” he said finally. “Howard with stripy face. Howard tried to kill me. Kills my distod. Miran come in peace. Howard kill.”

Distod? “Howard with a stripy face”? Howard blinked at the creature as he puzzled over these terms.

Miran looked suddenly afraid again. “Howard with a stripy face close?”

Howard shook his head, more in puzzlement than anything else.

Miran closed his eyes, making little mewling noises, almost as if it were crying, but there were no tears. Gradually the sound stopped and the breathing slowed. It appeared to have slipped back into either sleep or a coma. Howard wished he could leave, as he had a myriad chores to do and tasks to attend to, today. But he’d been told to stay and watch the being.

So he did. It as a long, solitary vigil, until Sister Thirsdaughter came back.

“How is the patient?” she asked, smiling at him, but with a little frown of worry between her eyes.

“If you smile at him, don’t show your teeth,” said Howard. “He’s scared of teeth. And I think he believes that all men are called ‘Howard’. He says Howard with a stripy face hurt him and killed his ‘disdod’, whatever they are.”

Sister Thirsdaughter shook her head ruefully. “All we need is him saying that to the council. As if your act of charity hadn’t landed you in enough trouble. They’re sending five members here. I hope Kretz wakes soon.”

“Kretz?”

“That’s his name.”

“Oh.” said Howard, disconcerted. “He told me it was Miran.”

Sister Thirsdaughter cocked her head at him. “In the same conversation that you told him all humans are called Howard?”

“Uh, yes,” he admitted, getting the drift. “You mean they’re called Miran?”

“And his name is Kretz. Yes.”

Obviously the sound of his name, or Howard’s stifled laughter, was enough to wake the sleeper. His violet-blue eyes snapped open. “Greeting, Howard,” he said respectfully to Sister Thirsdaughter on seeing her. She covered her eyes with her hand, and, after the briefest pause, he did likewise. “I think the council may almost deserve this,” she said, her voice shaking a little. “Our greeting is ‘Peace be with you’, Brother Kretz. This is Howard. Or rather Brother Howard. I am Sister Thirsdaughter. We are human. You are one Miran, right?”