Chapter 13


Transcript of meeting 37 of the Deepspace design and Engineering team (Slowtrain project), and Sysgov Administrator Belthazar Lowe (Accounts)


            .One of the things you've got to accept, is that it isn't the habitat launch that we consider important. The gauss-rings are being set up to serve our future purposes of moving materials insystem—ice from the Oort rings, particularly—not sending a bunch of misfits outsystem or launching the Astronomy Commission's probes. Therefore the positioning and size of the gauss-rings must fit our principal purpose. You'll have to prove that to me if you want me to release the money."




            Kretz had wanted the other airlock, the airlock closest to his spacecraft. But it had defied him too, and refused to open. So they had taken the long walk to the up-pole airlock. Howard had no idea why it was called that. It just was.

            And God had not intervened to stop them going through it.

            The airlock closed behind them with a hiss. Howard looked around the metal-walled room with some horror—for good reason. There were several skeletons lying there. The grey utilitarian clothes of the brethren remained but the flesh had gone the way of all flesh. A few strands of hair still clung to some of the skulls.

            A voice spoke from the box on the far wall. "Depressurization will begin in ten minutes. Please don your suits and run through pre-vacuum-checks. Depressurization may be interrupted by pressing the red buttons, at any point. To re-initiate the sequence press the green button on the control console."

            "There is someone here," said Howard, alarmed. "Perhaps one of the ones who was exiled? Are they actually in that little box?"

            Kretz shook his head. "It will be a recording. Or a computer voice simulation."

            The thing Kretz called Transcomp had no human words for either of those devices. Or maybe it did—it extrapolated words, but Howard recognized neither.

            "We'd better look for a suit for you," said Kretz. "If this matches the design of the lock on the last habitat they should be on a rack inside that wall-plate there."

            They were. The wall-plate slid open and revealed them. The suits were ranged in a large number of sizes, hung neatly above the boots, with helmets on the top shelf. "Dress," said Kretz.

            "Do I have to put one of those on?" asked Howard, doubtfully. "It is our belief that the simple garb of the brethren is far better protection than clothes which serve vainglory and folly."

            Kretz felt the cloth of the homespun of Howard's sleeve. Then he lifted it to his mouth and drew breath through it. He shook his head. "It is not airtight, Brother Howard. Here. Try it on my sleeve." He held up an arm to Howard's mouth. "Breathe through it."

            Embarrassed, but obedient, Howard did. It was like sucking on a sheet of glass.

            The only reason that he could think of that such a fabric might be valuable was to keep one dry. "Is it going to be wet on the other side of that airlock?" he asked, being glad that he had learned to swim, on those frowned-on trips to the pole reservoir.

            "No. Airless, as I said to you," said Kretz. "But like being underwater, in that you cannot breathe out there."

            "Uh. Brother Kretz. I can't hold my breath for very long. I didn't actually like putting my head underwater," admitted Howard. How was something “airless”?

            "There are tanks of air here. The same as the thing that you took to be a backpack on my suit," explained Kretz.

            The idea fascinated Howard. He'd often dreamed of making a device that would have allowed him to go underwater in the end-seas. His idea had been to take a heavy bath that could be inverted and be pressed down into the water, taking the trapped air under with it. He'd even done a few simple experiments in his own bath in this direction. But it had been something that had never gone beyond the realms of speculation, really. He knew that the council would never have allowed it.

            "I think that you will have to undress first," said Kretz.

            Howard was shocked. A man did not undress before another person, unless it was his wife. Kretz was half-female, after all, even if he was not human. "I can't," he said.

            "Howard," said Kretz.

            He was learning to read the alien's expressions by now. That was irritation. "Yes?" he answered.

            "Do you see these bones? That is what will happen to you if you do not put on a suit, helmet and boots and clip on the air tank."

            It was a powerful argument, when you put it like that. Howard stripped. He allowed Kretz to help him dress, and they dealt with the unfamiliar fastenings together. Kretz also found a rack of cylinders. He took one and fitted it onto a box-device on the back of the suit. Howard was startled to see a plate on his wrist change color from red to green. He pointed it out.

            Kretz pursed his lips into his smile. "Good. It must be an air-pressure indicator. I did not know if the cylinders would still retain pressure. The humans who built this were first-class engineers."

            He didn't say that the Brethren weren't, but somehow Howard got the feeling that he was saying and you carry water in wooden buckets.

            Kretz handed Howard a helmet. "Once that is on we will not be able to talk. I am going to attach you to me. If you need to say something, press your helmet against mine." Howard noticed, in the dissociated way of someone who is on the verge of panic, that Kretz had extended a hood from the suit that he was so fond of and that a transparent screen now covered his face. He noticed that Kretz had taken the little parcel of journey bread and preserves and soup and put it into a suit too. And then put boots and hood onto that, which was truly strange. Did the alien think that it had a life of its own?

            "Depressurization sequence beginning," said the box voice, as Kretz clicked the helmet into place. Howard still wanted to know: how did they fit someone into a box that size? Anyway, he preferred thinking about that type of problem than about what he was about to see, outside of New Eden. Ideas on the subject kept troubling his mind as Kretz attached a rope onto a clip on his suit's belt. Would there be the corridors of Earth—the source of persecution and corruption—out there? Or would there be a way through to Kretz's “ship”?

            Kretz had tried to explain. All that Howard had managed to understand was that it was big and empty and that the light out there did not come from light-tubes. And it was not easy to cross.