Available from Baen Books October 2008
The fault with early slowship concepts was simple: When you get there, the place may not be habitable. It may not even be terraformable. Maybe there won’t even be a planet: And then one has to start the journey over. Even probes can let you down—arrive on the one habitable spot, or at the only habitable season. With space habitats, the equation changes. Man stops colonizing planets. He colonizes space around suns. There is a life zone and everything he will need from m-asteroids to ice around every star.
From SLOWTRAIN: THE STARS WITHIN OUR GRASP, Conquist, A., Mordaunt Scientific Press, NY. 2090.
Howard looked at the creature on his bed, and then covered it gently with an angora-wool blanket. The… person was still breathing, anyway. It didn’t seem right to call it a creature. It wore clothes and had the trappings of an intelligent being. Howard looked at it again, a troubled man. He looked at the large Bible open on the stand. He’d searched, and yet found no pleasantly direct, clear advice about what one should do with a clothed creature you found unconscious among your tomato-plants.
There was a knocking at his door. He walked across and opened it. He was not really surprised to find not just Elder Rooson, but Brother Galsson, and Sister Thirsdaughter too. It was inevitable that the Elder would bring at least one of his senior councilors with him. It was just as inevitable, now, that the news should spread through all of New Eden like wildfire. Brother Galsson could not have left his home without telling his wife, and Goodwife Galsson was the worst gossip in the entire universe. She could hardly be expected to keep something like this quiet.
And she could get any story chaotically wrong, too. Look at the affair with Goodwife Sanderson’s twins! Somehow she’d turned that event—the greatest excitement in New Eden since the two headed calf—into “an unnatural child, a visitation of Satan.” The midwife had told her the birth was “something special,” but refused to say more and of course Goody Galsson had embroidered the snippet of information in the wrong direction entirely.
“Peace be with you, brothers and sister.” Howard greeted the Elder and the councilors with a heavy heart. He was in enough trouble without this. He was still under probation after the last incident. But what could he have done? Left it? The… being had plainly been in distress. And those had been recognizable English words. “Help,” and most importantly, “Peace.” To have ignored them would have been contrary to his faith and his nature.
“And with you, Brother Dansson,” said the old man, with a wry smile, his palm dry against Howard’s sweaty hand.
Elder Rooson wasn’t the worst. Howard shuddered to think what life in New Eden might be like under an Elder like Galsson. Everything would be forbidden, on principle.
“What strange thing have you brought upon us this time?” The Elder said, with gentle irony, indicating that he certainly hadn’t forgotten the last time.
“A… stranger, Elder. As I said in my message. I found it—him—in my tomatoes.”
Sister Thirsdaughter was amused. “Have you been experimenting on those too, young Howard? Is it a strange fruit—or a real man?”
She was all right. She’d never married. Maybe that was why. Or maybe her practice of medicine and midwifery needed a more pragmatic approach. “No, Sister. Not a man. I undressed the being—”
Galsson interrupted. “You undressed a woman!” he said in righteous horror.
Inwardly, Howard restrained himself. “It’s not a woman, Brother.” He kept his doubts on this to himself. He’d never actually seen a naked woman, but he didn’t think that it was a woman. But it wasn’t a man either, not in the sense that Galsson would have interpreted it, in the sense of being human. “I had to remove its garments to staunch its blood. It asked for help. What else could I do?”
“Let us see this… being,” said the Elder, calmly, a raised hand silencing Galsson’s incipient tirade.
So Howard led them through his front room, hoping they be too distracted to notice much there—his drawings were still on the table—and into his small bedroom.
They stood in silence looking at the occupant of Howard’s bed. Even the face, all they could see above the bed-clothes, did not look human.
Galsson was the first to react. “A demon!” he choked, backing off, his soft hands held up in a warding gesture.
The strange being’s eyes opened. The eyes had no white in them at all. They were almost violet in color and the pupil was a double crescent, like a cat’s eyes. The strange pupils flared and contracted as if trying to focus.
“Hush. It is trying to say something,” said Sister Thirsdaughter.
In the sudden silence they all heard it, clearly. “Peace.” The voice was oddly metallic and artificial sounding. But there was no doubt he’d said it. Howard saw his lips move.
“Peace be with you too, stranger,” said Elder Rooson, his voice quavering slightly.
The only reply was an indistinct muttering. The vivid purple-blue eyes closed again.
“It’s a demon, trying to entrap us,” whispered Galsson, still backing fearfully towards the door.
“What is the extent of its injuries?” asked Sister Thirsdaughter, ignoring him. She came forward to peer at the golden face with its crest-like peak of golden hair.
“Various cuts. A bad one on the shoulder,” said Howard, grateful for the calm matter-of-fact tone of the healer. “A hole that seems to be festering. There might be something in it. I also think that one arm is broken. I’ve splinted it as best I can. If you could have a look, Sister?”
She nodded and stepped forward.
Galsson grabbed her arm. “On the peril of your soul, Sister. Demons are masters of deception!”
She shook off his hand impatiently. “At this stage, it could be a demon or even an injured angel. And surely the hand of God is over anyone who treats an injured being, be they devil or angel.”
He tried to get in front of her. “Sister, I implore you, do not touch it! It may be diseased. Or the contact may cause evil communications!”
She pushed him aside firmly, stepping up to the bed. “Then that has happened to Brother Dansson already, and we have touched him in greeting. It appears to be wearing his nightshirt, and he can hardly have put that on it without touching it.” She seemed quite calm and imperturbable. “Howard, I will require boiled but cooled water, and some boiled cotton cloths.”
Howard nodded. “I have the water cooling. And the bandage-cloths have been boiled. I sent a message to you, Sister. So I prepared.”
She smiled. “I was treating the Elder’s hands when the boy brought your message to him.” She looked him up and down, quizzically. “Are my wants that predictable, or is just that you were the child who always had to be bandaged, splinted or sewed up?”
Howard flushed. He had indeed spent a disproportionate amount of his life being patched up. “The latter, Sister,” he admitted, feeling sheepish. “I’ll go and get the cloths and bowls for you.”
“Do that.” She was already unrolling a neat little cloth package of instruments. “And some boiling water too. I’d better re-sterilize these.”
Howard noticed that Elder Rooson had said nothing. But the old man’s normally tranquil face wore a troubled expression. He looked a lot more like Brother Galsson than his usual tranquil self.
By the time Howard got back with the bandages and both the hot and cooled boiled water, Sister Thirsdaughter had laid out her instruments on his bedside table on a clean cloth, and folded back the blanket. The hands and feet that protruded from Howard’s spare nightshirt had the wrong number of fingers and toes. But they lacked demonish talons. They lacked any form of nail at all. The toes were nearly as long as the fingers. Yet… they were clearly fingers—albeit three on each hand, with a broader almost central thumb, and too many joints.
The sight seemed to fill Brother Galsson with horror. Almost as much horror as Sister Thirsdaughter lifting Howard’s nightshirt. “Sister! You shame yourself!”
She flicked an irritated glance at him. “I’m a midwife, Russ. I delivered you, among others. If this poor creature is male—then for once I may see something different. Give me a hand here, Howard. He’s very heavy for an old woman to move.”
“We need to roll him, Sister,” said Howard. “The principal injuries are to his back and… uh… buttocks. We must just have a care for his right arm.”
She looked at the awkwardly bandaged arm. Shook her head. “You did your best, I suppose. Well, let’s look at the rest first.” She looked at Howard’s sheet. “His blood is red enough, whatever he is.”
Howard nodded. “If it had been say, black, I don’t think I would have dared to touch him,” he admitted. “But he seemed so helpless, and so hurt. I couldn’t just leave him there.”
“It might have been better to treat him first and move him afterwards, Howard,” said Sister Thirsdaughter grimly. She was old enough to call nearly every person in New Eden by their first name. Howard wouldn’t have dared to do the same to her. He nodded again, shamefaced. “I know. I just didn’t think. He was cold, and bleeding and he asked for help.”
She smiled at him again. “What else could one of the brethren do? But next time think with your head and not just your heart.”
“His heart’s in the right place,” said Elder Rooson heavily. “It’s his head that I am not too sure about. Do you need us for this, Sister? I think I must convene a full council, to pray and discuss this matter.”
“You do that, Elder,” she said. “Tell them to pray for this poor fellow’s survival.” She looked at the exposed wound. “He may need all our prayers and all our skill. There is something lodged in there. I’m going to have to get it out. Ask Sister Melson to come please. I will need her skill with herbals. Not that we know what herbs may do to this…”
“Demon,” supplied Galsson. “I shall stay here and protect you, sister.”
“Well, then you may occupy yourself in boiling some more water,” was all the reply he got.
The being moaned as she gently probed the wound with her forceps. They were old. The fine metalwork made Howard desperately envious. He had done some work in forge making spades and axes, and he knew just what craftsmanship he was looking at.
“They’re a relic of the first
Howard could only look at them in wonder. True, the brethren had been surrounded and repressed in that place, and evil had attacked them from all sides, threatening the faith and their way of life. But such craftsmanship…
She drew something out of the wound. A little red blood trickled out of the hole as she held it up, critically.
“What is it?” asked Howard, ever curious. He knew—enough people had told him—that it was his besetting sin.
“A piece of metal,” said Sister Thirsdaughter. Her voice was curiously flat. She looked at it carefully. “It is something I have only seen in my medical text, that date from before the creation of New Eden. I think it is a bullet.”
“What is that?” asked Howard.
Sister Thirsdaughter answered in the same expressionless voice. “A projectile driven at great speed by exploding gasses in a tube, I believe. The writers of the text seemed to assume that we would know about them. They were obviously common then, and intended to hurt or kill. Somewhere, someone tried to kill this…” She gestured with the forceps at the golden-skinned subject of her surgery. “Person.”
Her watchers were nearly rigid with shock. Nothing could be more alien to the Society of Brethren.
“That’s not possible,” said Galsson, as usual, finding his wind first. “No one in New Eden would do such a thing.”
Howard had to agree with him, for the first time ever.
Sister Thirsdaughter looked at both of them, silently. Then she said, “If that is the case, then he must have come from elsewhere. Outside.”
If she’d said that all of Howard’s neighbors were murderers and that Goody Galsson danced naked and sacrificed cats to the devil she could scarcely have had quite as stunning an effect.
Outside. Beyond New
“We have a tradition of keeping ourselves to ourselves,” said Galsson stiffly. “It must go back to its kind.”
Howard looked at the pale golden-skinned creature on his bed. To his eye it seemed to be developing goose bumps. So he covered it. “We also have a tradition of sanctuary,” he said, quietly but with a firmness that surprised even himself. “If the outside is a place of evil, and they tried to kill him, perhaps he has repented, and tried to flee the world of sin.”
“Perhaps he was too evil even for them,” muttered Galsson.
“We also have a tradition of leaving God to judge,” said Sister Thirsdaughter, “and of charity, and of healing the sick, and helping the weak. I,” she said pointedly, “will not just pass by on the other side of the road.”
“I think we must put it out of the airlock, and return it to it’s own kind,” said Galsson. “I will speak to the council and say so. We have had no contact with the evils outside of New Eden, and we should not start now.”
“First, however let us heal it and allow it to speak for itself,” said Sister Thirsdaughter firmly. “Is it not true, Brother Galsson, that there are things that evil cannot endure? Such as the name of the Lord?”
He blinked. That had, obviously, given him serious pause. “I shall go and confer with my fellow councilors on this. Perhaps we can banish evil by spiritual means.”
Howard was very relieved to see the back of the man.
“Pass me the lint, Howard,” was all Sister Thirsdaughter said. But her tone indicated that she too was pleased.
They worked on in relative silence, with barely a whimper of pain from their strange patient, as the healer adjusted and re-bandaged the splint on the broken arm. Eventually they were finished. The elderly woman turned to her large helper and said, “Now, if I do not get a cup of your tea, I will fall over.”
Howard tucked the blankets in around the patient’s neck. “There are very strict injunctions against fallen women,” he said solemnly, “so I’d better make you some.”
The healer laughed. “You’ve a good sense humor anyway, young man. It’s an asset for someone who seems to spend his life in trouble. Come. We can leave him for a few minutes. He seems to be quiet. Whether it is sleep or unconsciousness, one cannot know.”
They went through into the small kitchen. “Plenty of food for a bachelor,” she said, looking at the strings of dried tomatoes and peppers. “And a clean and well-set up kitchen. I’d think you’d be a catch for any young woman looking for a wife, Brother Dansson.”
“I thought it would work better like this,” he said, hasty to explain the odd layout, rather than discuss his marital status. “I always needed water when I was cooking and I got tired of fetching it. And I grow fine crops. There is always excess.”
“On a holding that was thought to be largely unusable,” said Sister Thirsdaughter, quietly. “You were expected to end up laboring for your keep.”
“It was just a water problem, which I fixed,” said Howard awkwardly, as he finished filling the kettle. “If I’d had to carry buckets, one at a time… then, yes, it would not be viable.
She twinkled at him “You’ve got the council in an uproar even without finding this strange being on your land. Did you know that despite the censure, a number of them want you fix the water sprayers on their land?”
Howard looked gloomily at the next room. “The nay-sayers will claim this stranger is a punishment from God.”
He bit his lip. “I still don’t know what he is myself. Is he a demon or an angel?”
“He may be neither,” said Sister Thirsdaughter. “In fact, Howard, I am not entirely sure he is a he.”
Howard nearly dropped the mug he was holding. “But… but he…uh, it has… um…” he said, turning puce.
She nodded. “And also has a second orifice, and no external testicles. For all that it looks generally like a male, it may not be. Whatever it is, it isn’t human. Unless the Lord made demons of baser flesh, and easily subject to wounding, I would say that the correct answer was neither angel nor devil, but quite frail, withal. I think it may die, Howard. We must say prayers for its soul.”
“If it has a soul,” said Howard. Such theology was beyond him. But was it not written that God had made man in his image?
“That is up to God to decide,” she said, tranquilly. “We must just do our best. Now, make us that tea.”
Btw, does anyone want to read more?