Slowtrain By Eric Flint and Dave Freer available from booksellers October 2008,
Extract from the Transcript of the Sysgov. Space Development Agency Administration meeting 325:2120.
Director Palin: “One of the problems with handing over man’s greatest enterprise to a bunch of fanatics and lunatics is that most of them are fanatics and lunatics, not really the sort of people we should use for such a grand enterprise.”
Chief Director Morpet. “That’s all very well, but the only people willing and ready to go are nutters by definition. Maybe we just have to shift that definition, or acknowledge that man’s future among the stars lies in the hands of oddballs.”
Extract from televid conference of Nest Mothers.
“Most of the crew are severely mentally aberrant, but that simply can’t be helped. Mass is an issue and quarters will have to be cramped. Still, we need to be aware that madness in one area spills into others.”
Senior Nest-mother Daleen
Abret almost wished that he’d offered to go into the alien habitat again, rather than cope with being in the lifecraft with Derfel. The aliens had scared him, but so did Derfel. The male loved crowds and small spaces. He kept standing too close to Abret. Derfel was the spacecraft’s problem-child. The others had formed friendships and cliques. Everyone felt sorry for Derfel, but not sorry enough to sleep with him. Well, it wasn’t going to happen in this lifecraft either.
“It’s not fair. They get to discover the exciting stuff and they send us off on the boring missions,” grumbled Derfel. “I want to go inside.”
“Well, you can’t,” said Abret, wishing that they’d sent someone else with him. Guul. Or Kastr. Or Kretz. Of course getting a crew at all for this expedition had been fraught with difficulty. All of them had to be able to cope with claustrophobia to a greater extent than 99% of Miran. And they’d needed multiple skills, because there hadn’t—even with crowding—been enough space. Abret had come simply because of the journey-phase. Most of the others had been drugged comatose, their metabolisms slowed to a crawl for the entire time. He’d been awake and working for repeated periods along the way. His field of expertise was deep space, and of course he’d trained as a pilot so that he could work on his specialty. He’d taken a course in life-support maintenance too, learning how to maintain the growth-vats protein, and carbohydrate reformatters, just to earn a place on the trip. The ship—silent except for the sound of life-support mechanisms—had not been too crowded. Now, with everyone awake, it had been uncomfortably full. Well, at least he would not be going into the alien habitat. Merely examining the laser-transmitter. It couldn’t possibly send data back to where this ship had originated from. Ten light years was about the ceiling for practical laser messaging.
They touched down on the polar plate of the alien habitat. It was an excellent landing, if he had to say so himself. They suited up and set out across the surface to the laser pod. It wasn’t operative right then. As far as they’d been able to assess, it only fired once every rotation, aiming back at a specific place. They’d be close by when it next pulsed. Then with the equipment photographed and, hopefully, the purpose understood, they could go back.
Abret was no engineer in the way that Kretz was. He had little interest in taking alien machinery apart. He took the readings and left the incomprehensible sealed device alone. “It has pretty low power. Unless there is something less than two light years back it isn’t going to get there,” he said to Derfel. “It must be a relic. Well, that was waste of a trip.”
Derfel’s eyes were wild. “It’s not going to be,” he said.
Abret realized that Derfel was holding a laser pistol.
“I’m going to be famous too,” said Derfel. “All the females will want to mate with me. I am going to discover things. I get left out of everything. I’m not going to be left out this time.”
Abret looked at the laser. It was true that Derfel had been left out of the second expedition to the aliens, and now this one. He was… not someone who you wanted on a first contact.
“Put it away, Derfel,” he said, trying to keep calm. “Everyone who went on this expedition will be famous.” And most of them don’t care, he thought, but did not say.
“No!” said Derfel furiously. “We are going in. Going to see a different habitat. I will be the first!”
“You’re crazy, Derfel.”
“Don’t say that,” snarled the claustrophile. “Everyone else is getting famous. I’ll be more famous. The aliens are friendly. These ones are trying to signal to us. Now move.”
So, reluctantly, Abret did, secure at least in the knowledge that Derfel’s craziness was being transmitted back to the spacecraft. Perhaps Zawn or someone could talk some sense into him.
They walked to the airlock, and Abret made yet another attempt to talk Derfel around to some common sense. “There is no record of your great arrival, Derfel.”
“I have a recorder running.”
Well, that wasn’t surprising, communications was one of Derfel’s specialties. He’d gotten onto this expedition, despite his mental instability, because he had so many of them.
The second airlock opened. The place was similar in structure to the alien habitat he had visited before. There were some major differences though. The last lot of alien vegetation had looked scraggly. This area looked manicured. The aliens they had met there had been hiding in the vegetation. These were working methodically. So methodically that they didn’t notice the two Miran for a moment or two.
And when they did, they knelt and bowed.
All Abret could do was hope that this meant the same thing to them as it did to Miran. “Can we go back now, Derfel?” he said, trying to keep calm. “You’ve met them and seen them. You’re famous now.”
For a moment he thought that he had won.
But then the aliens crowded closer. Not threatening. Fawning.
Looking at the expression on Derfel’s face Abret knew that he was in even deeper trouble.
And then the radio-call came. “This is Guul for Abret and Derfel. Return to the ship immediately! We need you to join us in a rescue attempt for Leader Zawn and his party. They’ve come under attack.”
The aliens surrounding them suddenly looked very threatening.