SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 16:
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.