SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 20:

 

 

            Nothing he'd managed to say thus far had the same effect. Male Miran are very observational about postural cues. It was how they survived the moodiness of those undergoing changeover. Several of the aliens visibly relaxed.

            "Are you of our Faith?" asked the one who had wanted to know why he was that color.

            Transcomp rendered the last word as it heard it, as it had no Miran equivalent or near equivalent yet. By the way the posture changed, and by the way they looked at him, this was an important question. "I do not understand the word 'faith'. Please explain," he said, playing for time and more clues. He was at their mercy, and he was still not sure if the Miran had done something wrong with the other aliens, to make them murder his companions. This group seemed friendly. But so had the stripy faced ones, at first.

            "Do you believe in Almighty God?" asked one. It didn't seem to be an explanation. But they were all leaning in on him.

            "I do not understand 'Almighty God'? Please explain."

            "Aha!" The one who was possibly piqued because of a lack of attention pointed a finger at him. "An emissary of Satan, just as Brother Galsson said! His words are all lies!"

            "If they're all lies, then why didn't he lie about that?" asked Howard. "Brother, why not get him to swear on the Bible? If he's a demon it should burn him."

            "Who asked you to speak?" snapped Kretz's chief inquisitor.

            "It's a good idea, all the same, Brother Lewis," said one of the others. "I think we should do it." The small still-bald male picked the Bible-thing up and put it on the bed. Kretz felt that he would never get the hang of this alien hierarchy, let alone the questions they were putting to him.

            "Put your uninjured hand on it and say the following words after me. "I swear'," instructed the small male.

            Kretz did he was instructed. "I swear." The Bible-thing was a fascinating artifact. It looked reminiscent of a text-screen. Kretz wished, rather sadly, that Zawn could be there to examine it.

            The man continued. "By almighty God, to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God."

            The words were confusing, but there seemed no harm in them, and no way to avoid saying them without causing offence. So Kretz repeated them.

            "Well, he didn't burst into flames," said someone.

            Kretz's leading inquisitor was either very promiscuous—or the facial expression which he gave the alien who said that meant something else entirely. The inquisitor turned his attention to Kretz: "I ask you directly. Are you a demon sent here by the evil one to lead the faithful in the ways of unrighteousness to perdition?"

            Kretz was growing tired of all of this. He was sore, tired, confused, and suddenly sick at heart again, thinking of Zawn. If they wished to kill him, perhaps they should just do it. "I do not want to lead anyone. I am male. I want to go back to my kind and back to my spacecraft and back to my home." They could find their own way to this place they wanted to go to. It was probably somewhere in the striped-faces' ones' territory.

            To his surprise he saw that his answer hadn't offended them at all. "I think it is our duty to send you there," said the one with the bald head.

            "Immediately," said the inquisitor. It was hard to tell, but he seemed relieved.

            "Not quite," said the wrinkled little human who had bandaged him with Howard. "He needs to recover at least slightly first. He's weak from a lack of blood, and his blood is as red as yours, Brothers and Sisters. He's also half starved. And we must try not to send him to his enemies. They shot him, remember. We give succor to the weak and helpless."

            "As soon as possible!" said Kretz. "Can you get me back to my spacecraft? Please?"

            They looked perplexed. "I'm not too sure what this 'spacecraft' is," said the bald one. "But you can certainly leave as soon as you wish."

            "Yes," said the inquisitor. "The land of milk and honey is not for evil unbelievers. You should go."

            That was comforting, at least. They seemed sincere enough, although it was hard to judge. It seemed that what they really wanted was for him to get out of their lives. They probably didn't want trouble with the striped-faces.

            If they had some way to get him past them?

            He looked at the 'Bible' on his legs. The black marking on the thin white sheets undoubtedly had some meaning… unless it was some collection of computer circuits. It could be. It could be anything. They plainly valued it, though. Was it what kept the striped-face ones away? It might be something he could learn about, that he could take back to his people as a defense. "Can you explain this thing to me?" he said. "I would learn about it and tell my people."

            "If he's a demon, he's a clever one," said one of the aliens.

            "It shows that the path to grace may yet be open," said the bald one.

            They did speak in riddles. Perhaps the path they referred to led past the stripy faced ones by a secret route. That would be very welcome. The thought of facing them again made him feel sick. Or it could just be the alien soup, he supposed. He wanted to rest now. He tried a traditional farewell. Surely that would be hint enough?

            "May you all father many sons, and may your clan mothers always be large, gentle and wise."

            Several of the facially-maned ones looked taken aback at this. The ones with no facial manes snorted oddly. They seemed to be having trouble breathing.

            "Some of us," said the wrinkled young female who had treated his hurts, "cannot father children, Kretz."

            Kretz cringed. You didn't talk about this kind of thing. Well, Miran didn't. But perhaps the human's sexual etiquette and taboos were different. Sterility didn't appear to worry them, even if to the average Miran male it was a nightmare. Perhaps they only grew that mane if they were sterile? They were the ones who seemed distressed.

            "It happens sometimes in space," he said sympathetically. "Radiation. No matter how careful you are. It's one of the things that goes with being male, I suppose, before we settle down and have sons. It might be safer if females would do it, but they won't."

            That seemed to confuse them even more. "What do you mean?" asked the inquisitor-human.

            Kretz was really feeling his exhaustion now. He was too tired to wrestle with alien social behavior. "Young males like me and yourselves go out-venturing. When they become female they remain at home in their breeding territory."

            His reply caused that odd snorting noise among some and a reddening in faces of others. "It looks like it is not just theology he needs help with understanding," said the still-bald one.

            "I also think he needs to rest. Councilors, we can take this further another time," said the wrinkled female.

            Kretz could only be grateful when they left.

            He was drifting back into sleep already when Howard came back, still making odd snorting noises. He must find out what that meant sometime. Was it a respiratory ailment? It made him very red faced.