SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 23:
"One thing I have been meaning to ask you," said Kretz, watching Howard laboriously shovel animal feces into a simple one-wheeled barrow with two handles. "Why do you do everything yourselves? A machine could do this in seconds. I have seen your repair machines…"
Howard lowered his spade and looked around in what seemed to be a wary manner. "Don't let anyone, even Sister Thirsdaughter, hear you say that word. I know you don't understand, Kretz, but it's sacrilege to even suggest doing such work by machine. They robbed mankind of their purpose and their dignity. Robots are an invention of Satan."
Robots. Kretz told Transcomp to file that word, and to use it only with prior notification. Personally he couldn't see what purpose and dignity had to do with shoveling animal manure, but then he wasn't human, for which he was deeply thankful. Increasingly, he was realizing that these humans were primitive—not because they'd lost their technological knowledge, but because they'd chosen to do so. That made for a simple life, but a rather tedious one at times. It also seemed rather counter-intuitive to their long-term survival in space.
Today he had walked, with a pause to sit down, with Howard to the water reservoir in the nearby polar region.
He was still getting over the shock of that experience.
Besides watching Howard carrying buckets made of hard plant-matter, and rolling a barrel made of the same stuff, which was bad enough, he'd also seen something that made him despair.
It was a sight he'd longed for.
But it was not the right one.
Now it was finally clear to him just what he had done while his mind had been hazed with pain and blood-loss. He had indeed escaped the stripe-faced humans—by leaving their space-habitat entirely. He'd crawled down the inside of the linking cable to another habitat. No wonder the locals didn't know what he was talking about. No wonder these “brethren” managed to live such peaceful lives. They had a gulf of space to protect them.
Of course, that also made getting back to his ship nearly impossible. Not only did he have hostiles to contend with but space too. If only he hadn't closed the door to the cable behind him.
He sat down on the bed in Howard's room and examined the re-breather and suit-tank—and his radio. It was only the high-gain aerial that taken a direct hit. And even that was a testimony either to the toughness of the aerial, or to the ineffectiveness of the weapons of the stripy-faces. It still hung by a thread of metal. It was still useless and unfixable without the proper tools. Howard watched, fascinated. When Kretz dropped it onto the bed in disgust, he said "I could mend it for you, Brother."
Kretz resisted the temptation to say with what? Cow dung and spit? It was kindly meant. "I think it is beyond your ability," he said.
"The solder we use for stained glass might work." Howard obviously had learned to recognize Miran bewilderment by now. He just walked out and came back with a little glass container, made up of multicolored fragments in a metal frame-matrix. It was a picture, Kretz realized, made by sticking fragments together. A delicate, intricate and very decorative item that would have been intensely desirable on Miran. He blinked. It was not what he'd expected of the aliens.
"Look," said Howard, "You join the calmes like this." He pointed to a tiny spot of shiny metal, plainly melted into place.
"You did this?"
Howard nodded. "It is my hobby."
Hobby was a new word to Kretz. It seemed wrong that a man who could do this kind of work was shoveling animal excreta.
"I suppose you can try," he said. After all, what did he have to lose? The radio didn't work now. Howard's attempts could only leave him just as badly off. Besides he wanted to see how the alien did this feat of dexterity. Having a grasping finger—which they called a thumb—on the inner side of the hand made everything that Howard did seem either awkward or intensely miraculous to Kretz.
He found himself both amazed and aghast at just how Howard did the job. He didn't have a single real tool, just heat and some small steel rods. But he was very dexterous with them and very, very precise. At Kretz's direction he joined the aerial and soon had it appearing fixed.
Warily, Kretz switched it on. Flicked send. "This is Kretz for the Spacecraft or any other receivers. Respond."
He waited. It crackled. Well, it had been a forlorn hope anyway. The system seeded granule-sized passive repeaters at communication intervals, but they probably were of insufficient strength to carry across the distance needed, relaying into and out of the cable-tube.
He tabbed to search-beacon just in case. That would scan and ping off any radio source. It was a search and rescue device which had saved many a lost traveler. It would give strength, directional and distance data, if it picked up anything—if the alien's soldering hadn't wrecked more than it healed. If there wasn't other, less visible damage…
He got three pings.
For a brief instant he knew wild hope. Suit radios?
One was definitely not of any use. Distance suggested that it must be in the region of the fusion plant. Presumably alien.
The other two… one was forward on the bead-string, in the same direction as the ramscoop. The second was a powerful signal too—in the opposite direction. It must be the beacon on the spacecraft. The first must be beacon on the lifecraft.
Still forward. Abret and Derfel must have had a problem there too.