Due out from Baen, October 2008
Dave Freer and Eric Flint’s Slowtrain
Re Habitat 37.
Date: 2120-11-3 Time: 13:53 NMT
To: Chief Construction (Spacefitting) Officer M. Kabongo
From: Systems Engineer (Maintenance) W. Ankar
If they don’t want maintenance robots, we can’t force them to take them. The micro-bots are in place already and the externals will be here within 24 hours. There are standby ‘bots in storage. What they don’t see, they won’t complain about, and it’s not like work and safety people are going to come after us. You know that environmental planning is only giving the 350 year plus habitats a less than 50% chance of survival anyway. Their lookout. Their religious convictions.
As he stumped irritably through his corridors, inspecting the tomatoes that now flourished in the section of drip-irrigators that he’d repaired, Howard Dansson wished that if God indeed had a plan for him, that he’d show him what it was. Howard knew that the thought itself was blasphemy, but he was so angry and frustrated that he took a kind of perverse pleasure in thinking it.
The brethren do not meddle with mechanical things. God gave us our hands to work with.
“Oh yes, Brother Galsson, perhaps we should all just starve,” muttered Howard savagely, looking at the bountiful crop he was going to produce. If God had made the drip irrigators then they would have been perfect, not prone to clogging up. And if they were made by God and not intended to be touched by human hands then why did he make them so simple that anyone with half a brain could open them and clean them?
Deep inside himself knew what someone like Galsson would say to that:
Idle hands! The devil makes work for those idle hands, puts those thoughts into your head.
Howard felt guilty in spite of his anger. Some of those thoughts he’d agree with Brother Galsson about. But being twenty-eight and still unmarried did have something to do with it. It wasn’t that he was ugly, precisely. Just… different. And, in New Eden, girls’ father’s did not find that an attractive feature in a prospective son-in-law.
Always in trouble with the teachers, for asking too many irreligious questions—and once even for questioning holy writ. With the regional council, for making a barrow. Everyone used them now, but when Howard thought that he’d been so clever to devise the thing, it’d been called a device of Satan. Fortunately, someone had found pictures of the brethren using them on lost earth before the unbelievers had driven the brethren off to found New Eden, so they could see the fulfillment of God’s promise and have a world of their own. So, if they founded it, how could God have made the drip-irrigators?
And lately he’d found himself in trouble with the Council of Elders. The bucket yoke. It was just so obvious.
He sighed and bent to remove a growing tip, before continuing with his ruminations. It wasn’t that he meant to breach holy writ, or to set people on end. It was just that he thought about things, and then did them without considering what others might think. It was a severe character flaw. But, like finding a man who would bestow his daughter’s hand on someone with a reputation for trouble, and who had been given one of the worst holdings in all of New Eden, it was something he hadn’t succeeded in changing.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t prayed about both issues. With all his heart and soul, he’d prayed. Repented too. It might have resulted in his growing the best tomatoes in New Eden, but it hadn’t changed anything else, he had to admit. And then the next question would come up, and his mind would race off and try to answer it, leading his body into all sorts of trouble, like his flying experiments near the core. He’d only wanted to work out what the wingspan of an angel had to be! Of course it had subsequently occurred to him—though he’d never dared to mention it to anyone—that angel bodies were almost certainly lighter than mortal ones. That realization had come to him while looking at a broken chicken bone.
He’d really love to do a comparison between bone thicknesses of flying creatures and walking ones…
As his mind started to steal off down far more interesting corridors than the latest fuss about his water-management—either with the buckets or with clearing the drip-irrigators—something stopped him dead in his tracks. In pure dismay, at first.
Broken tomato vines will do that to even the most heathenly inventive tomato-farmer. Near-ripe fruit lay scattered around and the dying plant lay on the walkway. Howard bit back a word that would have had Elder Galsson read him out from the altar at Sunday’s meeting. It must be pigs. Feral pigs from up in low G! That was one of the reasons no-one liked the holdings this close to the polar core. The beasts were dangerous, besides all the damage they could do to a man’s crops. But it was unusual that they hadn’t eaten the fruit.
And then he realized that it wasn’t pigs—although pigs eating half his crop might just have been better than the thing that was lying against the corridor wall. Howard couldn’t have missed it in those shades of purple and orange. That was the color of its clothing, anyway. The creature’s human-like face was a pale golden color.
And the blood of it was red.
There was quite a lot of blood, too, on the walkway and on the walls. Howard was about to run, when the thing it opened its eyes. It cowered back against the wall, its lips moving.
Howard would still have run if it hadn’t said “help” quite so weakly. And then it said something else that finally persuaded him that he could not just leave it here in the ruins of his prize Romas: “Peace.”
“Peace be with you too, stranger,” Howard managed to croak back.
After that, he could hardly leave the thing there. Whatever it was, demon or angelic messenger, it was hurt. And it had asked him for help. Howard picked it up in his arms. It was light. The thought occurred to him: As light as an Angel might have to be to fly. But there were no wings.
At least there was no spiked tail or horns, either.
He carried the creature home, the strange face warm against his shoulder. Just short of his door he saw two of the younger boys making their way back from the reservoirs. They’d sneaked off to swim, no doubt. He’d done it himself when he was their age. It had seemed worth the chastisement, as he recalled.
He called them. For a moment, it looked as if the guilty parties might bolt. But the brethren did raise children to be obedient to their elders, even if their hair was still dripping and the elder was someone like Howard. They came, fearful at first and then wide-eyed when they saw his limp burden. He pointed with his head to the smaller of the two boys. “I need you to run to Elder Rooson’s home. Tell him I have some… thing which is hurt. I need his counsel. And you—”
He fixed the freckle-faced larger boy with his stare. “You will go to the healer. To Sister Thirsdaughter. As fast as your legs can carry you.”
And no, I had no idea the names these nefarious writers would use until it was written.