SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 24:
And then… a voice. A frantic voice speaking Miran. "Who is out there? Reply."
Along with the joy and the relief came shock and a degree of horror.
With sex-change came changes in vocal pitch. And Kretz had seen them shoot him… now, by the sounds of it, her. He'd seen Selna fall, and be kicked and spat at.
But this sounded like… Selna. A female Selna. Shock and trauma could bring on early sex change.
Female Miran needed certain things. Firstly, they needed territory. And then, before they could start gathering a harem, they needed to have lots of space and only cautious people anywhere near them. The hormonal adjustment made them very snappy.
Selna was loaded with male hormone supplements. Readjustment was going to be dangerous—for anyone who couldn't run. And there wasn't a lot of space on the ship to run in. "Who is out there! Answer me! If you're some alien scum you might as well know I've got the airlock booby-trapped. If it is Abret again, I can't get to you. You'll have to get yourself free, idiot!" screamed the changed-over Selna, raw fury and anxiety mixed in equal quantities.
"Kretz calling in," he said, as speaking calmly as he could.
He tried again. But, as Selna began a tirade about being alone, he realized that the problem was a simple one. The suit-radio just lacked the power to send far with clarity enough to transmit voice. He could receive, as the spacecraft's radio unit was far higher powered, with far greater range and signal clarity. He couldn't to anything to soothe her anxiety. He also couldn't ask for help, even if she was in a position to render it. The spacecraft's physician could manage the hydroponics, as a second skill, but she couldn't fly the ship alone. Navigationally, the return did not require as much skill as matching trajectories and landing had, but it still required more than Selna possessed. Kretz himself might have managed it, especially with laser-sent guidance from Miran. He would still have to get a braking orbit right, but there was a little more space for a margin of error…
The situation did leave him feeling comforted on one issue. Laser messages would have surely beamed back from her to Miran. Yes, it was too far-off to be of any help to Selna, but they would be warned of the impending attack.
Looking up, Kretz realized that Howard was staring into his face with that forehead wrinkling that signified worry in the aliens.
"What's wrong?" asked Howard. "It is working properly now? I heard voices issue from it. Is it possessed?" He had the Bible-thing in one hand… and a piece of heavy dried plant-material in the other. For a moment Kretz thought he was being threatened. Then he realized that Howard's gaze was now focused on the radio aerial.
"It is working. That is what it is supposed to do," he said soothingly. "That was the voice of one of my companions. She was injured but managed to get back on the ship. She is alone and very afraid. My transmitter—the part of this machine that can send my voice across the distance—is too weak to reach her with my voice. All she knows is that there is a signal from far away. Her sender is very much more powerful. I can hear her."
The alien proved much more empathetic than Kretz had expected. "You must go to her, then. She must be in a terrible state."
"She is. She was the expedition's healer. I hope she can help herself." Kretz paused. But he felt he had to tell someone. "I left Selna for dead. I ran and hid when Selna fell."
Howard tugged his face-mane. And then, awkwardly, he put a hand on Kretz's shoulder. "Don't blame yourself, Brother."
"I can't help it. I should have stayed," said Kretz.
"By what you've told me both of you would have died. Maybe because they followed you, she got away."
For an alien he was very understanding.
"We must get you back there, Brother. She'll need you."
"She'll need a man's guidance."
Howard did not understand Miran at all. Even with Selna in an emotional and disordered state, Kretz felt in need of female guidance. They were bigger, older and wiser… Except, well, if he was logical about it, Selna wasn't much wiser.
But in one way Howard was right. Kretz had to get back to the ship. The trouble was that he was space and a hostile bead away from the spacecraft. The answer was simple—yet terrifying. He'd have to go out onto the surface, because he couldn't get back inside the cable-tube… somehow cross the gulf between the habitats, and then instead of going inside the bead full of stripe-faced murderers, cross the outside of it. Then he just had to climb the equatorial ridge, and walk to the Miran spacecraft.
Compared perhaps to drinking an ocean or the alternatives. He'd need an army—not likely to be forthcoming from the Brethren—or fantastic luck to get through the hostile bead. The only further problem he could see was that even if he could get through, Selna might not let him in. Not surprisingly, she’d sounded a little paranoid.
The other alternative, if he could not get back in that way…
Then he could go on. The lifecraft was on the sixth bead. From what Selna had said, Abret and Derfel had run into trouble in that one too, and were captives, asking for help. Whether he could help them or not, the lifecraft held the key. That could go to its docking station and bypass the booby-trapped airlock.
There was, of course, one small problem. The sixth bead was four more habitats away. However, as this one proved, they need not all be full of hostile aliens. And as both this one and the last had proved, the aliens didn't expect visitors. That, he supposed, was hardly surprising. Still, having to go through it all over and over again was an even worse choice.