SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 31:
Kretz opened his eyes, feeling something patting his face. Vaguely he remembered beginning the walk to the habitat airlock. And then nothing, except for the alien prizing his feet off the metal of the habitat. Yet, plainly, he'd got here. He opened his eyes. The alien Howard was staring down at him, with the wrinkled expression he'd learned meant worry. Howard wore it a lot.
"Are you all right?" asked the alien.
A good question. He was feeling extremely exhausted, actually. But that was not surprising considering the physical exercise and the fact that he'd barely recovered from his last set of injuries. Also the human food hadn't killed him, yet, but his diet was probably short of a fair number of things. Marin were broadly omnivorous, and historically had adapted to living on everything from an almost pure vegetable diet to one which had been almost entirely made up of deep-water invertebrate creatures, but never alien food, even if some of it was very appetizing. "I think so." he said, moving his limbs experimentally. "What happened?
Howard sat back and exhaled. "I thought you might have died. Or run out of air like I did."
"You did?" It had not occurred to Kretz that that was a possibility. His own suit-re-breather system was good for at least another trek across the surface. He had of course no real idea what the oxygen requirement of these aliens was. Perhaps their metabolisms were much faster than a Miran's metabolism. Perhaps their re-breathers were less efficient. "So how did you get here? How did I get here?"
"I carried you," explained Howard.
Well. The metabolic requirement for that sort of load-carrying would have been high, no matter how fast the alien metabolism was. "Thank you."
It seemed that statement was as important to aliens as it was to Miran. The big human flushed. "It was nothing. I expect you'd have done the same for me."
Kretz had to feel somewhat guilty. Actually, what he had done was to risk the human's life for his own benefit. True, he had intended—if reasonably possible, to return Howard to his habitat—well, if he could. But he'd wanted a human escort to protect him against humans. And he'd wanted a human escort to enable him to get back to his people and warn them that it was no probe coming through their system but a habitat full of settlers. Vicious, cruel, Miran-killing settlers. A plague that would have to be destroyed first before it killed Miranese. In that first habitat they had abused him and the other Miran explorers. It dawned on him now that he had in turn abused the hospitality and kindness of the New Eden 'Brethren'. True, they were primitive and their habitat was going to break down further as the technical support systems—which they plainly no longer understood—broke down. They needed help. And what had he done: take one of their people as a human shield. He suspected—by the speed that Howard had understood and adapted—that he had taken one of their best. One of those that offered some kind of hope of survival. It was still something of a wild guess as to how long this string of habitats had been streaming through space at one third lightspeed, but it must be a long time. Perhaps the habitat that he and the others had been ambushed in, had once been peaceful and the occupants as hospitable as these 'brethren' before their society collapsed. His own people had been quite savage in the distant past. Nowadays they were peaceful—but now—with shrinking populations and plentiful resources they could afford to be.
"Shall we see what this new habitat holds?" he asked, unlocking the switches to convert his pressure suit into something he could wear with more comfort.
"I should like to change first," said Howard stiffly.
Kretz had been somewhat puzzled by the the clothing taboos of the humans of New Eden. It probably came of having two distinct birth-to-death sexes. Every Miran knew after all that they were going to have intimate knowledge of male and female bodies sooner or later. There seemed to be a great deal of conflict and misunderstanding between the human sexes. It seemed to make for all sorts of behavioral and societal problems. He'd love to study it, if he had time. "I still have the sling," he said, handing it to Howard.
Howard didn't understand Kretz's feeling on clothing. Or on sexes for that matter. He just knew that he wasn't comfortable in the space suit, and longed for the familiarity of his own clothes.
Alas, he was poorly prepared for the effects of deep space on natural fabrics.
His woolen homespun trousers were shredded. He held them up in horror. "What happened!"
Kretz put his hand to his face. "I'm sorry, Howard. I think there must have been moisture in the fabric. Of course it froze out in the cold of space. And with the movement it must have needed to bend. Bent frozen fabrics crack."
Howard shook his head, looking at the tatters. "But what am I to wear," he asked desperately. "I can't go out there naked! I…I'll have to stay in this clumsy thing. The people here can't see me undressed!"
"Then you will just have to remain in it," said Kretz. "Let us go on, Howard."
They walked to inner lock. It opened before they touched it, and Howard saw a startled looking local staring in at them—and Howard realized that they might not see him undressed… but he was going to see them in that state.
It seemed that Brother Galsson was right after all. This was one of the cities of the plain. Gomorrah, at a guess.