SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 19:
"To the primitive who spent six months hollowing out a log, the clinker-built longship was an advance so great as to be beyond comprehension. It carried so much more, and was so much more seaworthy—and measured per person involved and transported by it, cost less. Then the calked planks of a medieval carrack carried a vast load, unthinkable to earlier sailors. Its untreated timbers meant a short few years use out of 150 year-old oak timbers. It took skilled craftsmen in the best ship-yard in Europe eight months to build… and by 1570 AD there were ships of 400 ton capacity. To those sailors, a supertanker would have been an unimaginable vessel—carrying 250 000 tons. Yet, per ton carried over time, the supertanker was far cheaper than the carrack. The space habitat of the future will be far bigger still… and far cheaper per ton carried, with an infinitely longer depreciation. Stretch your minds, and start leaving everything you have learned about engineering behind. This isn't the just mechanical engineering of heavy machinery… it's that, metallurgy, architecture and trajectory computation, all in one big, new package."
Prof. Marcus T. Chede. Inaugural lecture on assuming the Chair of Space Science, University of Wisconsin.
Kretz blinked. "You have seen other Miran?" he asked, hopefully. Perhaps others of his group had somehow found their way to this apparently friendly group.
They both shook their heads. "Never."
Someone knocked and the tall male, Howard, went to let them in. He led in a group of these Howards… Humans into the room. Some had facial hair and others did not, and most of their hair had obviously not begun to turn lustrous and colored yet. Some hadn't yet grown any hair at all, or just had a few wispy strands.
Kretz was—to his fellow Miran—unusually tolerant of closed in spaces and crowded places. That didn't mean—like poor Derfel, who was completely mad as most Miranese would see it—that he enjoyed being crowded. All of these aliens around the bed made him feel very confined. Two of them were showing teeth, too. That, he had to remind himself, was one of the pieces of social display that didn't translate.
It wasn't a threat among the aliens, although, thinking back, it could be. Well. Politeness first, even if they were making him most uncomfortable. "Peace be with you," he said.
That seemed to startle them. Several of them raised a hand—not two hands, Kretz noted—as the stripe-faced aliens had. A single hand at about face level, and not above their heads. "Peace be with you too, Stranger," said one in a slightly shaky voice.
"Sister Thirsdaughter. Why is his face that color?" asked another.
"I think he just is that color," said the small wrinkled female who had tended his hurts. "Why don't you ask Brother Kretz yourself, Brother Lee? Kretz, Brother Lee would like to know why you are that color? He does speak some English, Brother Lee, although I must warn you that he's obviously still learning it."
Kretz did his honest best to answer the question. He was sure that Transcomp would get some words wrong, but they had asked. "It is because of chromophores in the dermis… the skin," Kretz elaborated, seeing the alien shake his head. "Why do you not have striped faces like the other aliens that look quite like you?"
"I've never heard of anyone with a striped face," said the one called Brother Lee. "Where did you meet these?"
"It was when we came into the habitat from our spacecraft," explained Kretz earnestly. "We were met and later attacked by them. They pretended to be friendly. Peaceful. They are going to attack and kill my people at our home."
"And they hurt you like this?" asked Sister Thirsdaughter. "Bothers, Sisters, as I told you, I think he was shot. Shot with a projectile that looks very like a bullet in medical texts from pre-New Eden."
Much of what the wrinkled little female said didn't translate. But Kretz had a good idea what she was trying to say. "The striped-faced ones used some kind of tube-weapon, that drove a projectile very fast. They tried to kill me." He could see that not all of it had translated either, but the part about trying to kill him that had got to them, by the reaction. "I think they killed my companions—the rest of my friends. I ran. I was very hurt. I lost a lot of blood. I did not know where I ran. Thank you for helping me."
The humans were silent for a bit, then another asked: "Where have you come from?"
That, at least, was easy. "From Miran. Our world." Looking at the shaking heads he realized it was not going to be quite so easy after all. Had they forgotten that there was anything outside?
"Are many of you going to come to New Eden?" asked another.
Kretz shook his head, hoping that he was reading the questioner aright. The posture—if they were behaviorally at all like Miran, and seemed to be—was defensive. "It is very far away. It took us much time to get here. You are going past us, very fast. We cannot do it again."
"This Miran place. Is it hot?" That came from one with a misshapen face.
"You mean full of brimstone, Brother Lewis?" asked the wrinkled physician.
"Let him answer the question, Sister," said the one who'd asked. "I see he's huddled under blankets. Tell us about this Miran-place… stranger."
Kretz thought carefully. How did you explain a planet? "It is a place like this—with plants and things much like yours. It is a little warmer, but not very much."
"So, if it is such a good place, why have you come here?"
How could he explain? "We came to see what was here. Your… place shines like a star in the sky."
That plainly impressed them. "And your light shall be a beacon to the multitudes," said one. Transcomp filed away several more unknown words.
It didn't appear to satisfy the one who had worried about Miran being warmer than this place. "Are there many of you?" he asked, sticking his head forward like a predatory tunnel-worm. He had bristly cilia above his eyes.
Kretz gave him as fair an answer as possible. "I do not know. Do you mean on Miran or here? On Miran, many. Here, I do not know. I may be the last of my kind. The striped faced ones killed my companions. Two of the others were due to go to bead six."
"And how do we know all of this is true?" asked the inquisitor, pursing his lips and looking at Kretz with narrowed eyes.
Kretz guessed that the pursed lips were not an invitation to sexual congress here. Truth? Well, he could use Howard's earlier words. The big male had seemed very intense about it when trying to reassure him. It was probably a way of indicating a deeply held belief in that truth.
"I swear on the Bible." he said, pointing to the object Howard had put his hand on. He hoped that he read the alien's expression right, and that the alien wasn't going to piqued at the lack of response he got.