SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 20:
The strangest thing was that it got slowly better. By the time the base of the cable came in sight, Howard didn't feel as if he was walking upside-down any more. Instead, the force tried to drag him backwards. But it decreased, step by step, until, at last, they stood at the cable.
There was a railing around the base of it, and it stretched up into the blackness, to the distant curve of another habitat, like a huge bead on a string. The cable was several feet thick, but it seemed very thin when it had the gulf of the void all around it. Without conscious thought, Howard began to pray, the simple prayers of his childhood.
They walked around the cable—it was more like a very thick pole in appearance—and put the ropes around it, attached them to their belt snap-links. Then came the worst. Kretz reclaimed the sling-bag, and got up onto the rails, using the rope around the cable to keep his balance. Breathing hard, although Kretz had said he shouldn't, Howard got up too. He put a hand against the great cable to steady himself.
As he fell, he realized that the cable was turning—or perhaps New Eden was. But he was floating only secured by the thin cord on his belt. And his fall had pulled his partner too… Or perhaps Kretz had jumped.
They were free-floating a few yards above the turning railings. And then Kretz took out an air cylinder, opened the valve at the top, and pointed it back at the outside of New Eden. They began to move, not too fast, but steadily, toward the next space habitat.
Flight was something the bees could keep to themselves, so far as Howard was concerned.
Theirs was not a fast progression. As they crossed further out into the gulf, Howard had the a long time to consider how insignificant he was against the hugeness of God's creation. He even got detached enough to think that the experience would do the likes of Brother Galsson the world of good.
They were using the third and last cylinder when Howard noticed something faintly alarming. The disc on his arm that Kretz had said indicated air-pressure was no longer green. Instead a good two thirds of it was now red. And although Kretz was shaking the cylinder in his hand furiously… they weren't moving forward very fast.
The turning surface of the new habitat was still a good hundred yards below them. And if he was any judge of alien expression—Kretz was at edge of panic. Kretz threw the cylinder back toward New Eden. It produced a few yards of movement… They were still a long way from the next Habitat.
And plainly the alien was out of ideas as well as the air that had pushed them this far.
Howard took a deep breath—even if he shouldn't do so. And pulled himself closer to the cable. He was one of the Society of Brethren. He knew God had given man muscles to use, and the cable was thick, but not frictionless.
Wrapping his hands around the rope clipped to his belt, he pulled himself flush against it, and began shinning his way along the cable to a new world, towing his alien companion. After the briefest pause, Kretz pulled himself in and then, alien and Human, they linked hands and pulled themselves towards what was slowly becoming down.
The Brethren believed in the virtue of hard work, and by the time they reached the railings of the habitat, Howard was glad of it. It was hard to judge through the view plate of Kretz's suit, but the alien's grip had weakened on the last part. Howard would bet he was tired too. Still—their feet were down on the outside of whole new habitat. A new world!
They un-clipped and began walking… Howard noticed that the disk on his sleeve now showed a thin band of green and was otherwise almost entirely red. If he understood it correctly that meant he had very little air left. He tried to walk a little faster. Then he noticed that Kretz—whose line had constantly pulled him forward on their walk to the cable, was lagging. Actually, the alien had stopped completely. Kretz staggered, almost pulling Howard from his upside-down stance. Now that he understood that the habitats spun on the cable, the feeling of being upside down was quite understandable. Logical, in fact. It was still uncomfortable, but he could see the railing of the catwalk ahead. It drew him like a magnet. Besides they were walking with the spin—it was less effort.
Something in his helmet flashed red just above his eyes. At the top edge of the visor, Howard saw text appear, as if by a miracle.
If it was a divine message, it was not a kindly one. It read:
WARNING. 10 MINUTES OF RESERVE.
And his alien companion was standing still, and leaning gently with the spin, his eyes closed.
The end of his ordeal was just so achingly close. And if he understood the message right he had very little air left. Well. He had no choice really. He could not just abandon the alien here. But carrying him, upside down like this, was going to be difficult. He went back. It took all the strength and courage the he had, but there was enough. He pulled one of Kretz's feet away from the surface, and then the other… and then realized he should have held on to him… The alien was floating away. But they were tethered together. And towing him had to be easier than trying to carry him.
It worked. But the red text now said WARNING 6 MINUTES OF RESERVE. Howard tried to keep calm, keep walking. It was a long way, towing his companion behind him. Was Kretz dead? He could never do that crossing back home without the alien. His blind faith in Kretz's knowledge and ability had carried them this far. But he was sure that it wouldn't carry him back. And the red text was ticking away the minutes of reserve air. It was reading seconds only when they got to the railing of the catwalk. He had to walk along the outside until he found a corner they could fit through. Howard squeezed between the bars, and hauled Kretz in and through. Now, the right way up again, Howard resolutely ignored the red text and picked up Kretz and began walking to the airlock. Breathing was difficult.
He knew how to open the airlock after having watched the last time… and he how to close it for re-pressurization… But he was not sure that he could manage the helmet, before he died here. He needed to breathe, his body shrieked. He forced himself to keep calm, to wait, as they had when Kretz had taken him out twice before. The 'pressurization complete' light did nor seem to be coming.
When it did, he was almost too weak to do the catch.
He sucked air. It smelled just like the air of New Eden. This airlock, however, had no old bones in it.