Chapter 21



            "Surface area, not volume, is the key to many biological processes. By layering the inside of a habitat we increase—at approximately four meters per layer—the surface area from roughly 5500 hectares to X. By using vertical surfaces too—by growing plants on the growth medium on the walls we increase that growing area—assuming tightest possible corridors—at about 3 meters to X. Now that's just not practical and you lose too much space to interstitial support and piping and so on. So the optimum corridor width is about ten meters. Of course that's optimum for materials use. For practicalities and aesthetics—which may be even more important than we realize on longer trips—we need some wider and higher areas. It's a series of trade-offs. It's going to make the inside of theses structures into a maze. The biggest maze ever built. More easy to get lost in than any jungle. Capable of carrying—physically—if not sustaining, several million people."


Transcript of Prof. Lucas Teich's presentation to the Interstellar Colonization and Exploration Society, on the bio-environmental factors in the proposed habitats for the Slowtrain Project. From: A CONCISE HISTORY OF HUMAN SPACE COLONIZATION. P233, Chipattari, H, and Shah, G.D. (Ed) ___________________________________________________________________



            "He's in jail. I have heard that they want to castrate him. Neuter him," explained Amber.

            The idea didn't seem to horrify her the way it did Kretz. Sterility seemed to be more or less acceptable to these aliens. To a Miran it was social ostracism. To humans—well, to some humans—it seemed a mere fact of life. But then… the species didn't need nesting territory, either.

            They were odd, there was no getting away from it, no matter how used to them you thought you were getting. "I have to save him!"

            "You're very loyal," said Amber. "I thought they tried to kill you?"

            Kretz shook his head. "Those were the humans in the first habitat. Howard saved my life. He cared for me—and I brought him here. To face a fate worse than death." He shuddered.

            Amber smiled wryly. "A male might see it like that, I suppose. Well, we'd better spring him then. He's good at making friends. I had a call from his mistress a few minutes ago, which is why I knew where he was. She wanted me to intervene because he has unique genetic material. It's true enough. But she didn't like it when I pointed out that all I could justify was a few cc of cell-sample. Her comments on my suggestion that she collect a sperm sample and freeze it were an education to me. That girl can swear!" she said, admiringly.

            Kretz doubted that he'd ever get the hang of this language. Transcomp gave him the words, and several subtext guesses as to what they might possibly mean. "I will have to try and get him out," he repeated. "And then I must try to move as fast as possible to rescue Abret and then we can return to our spacecraft and Selna. Are you still determined to accompanying me?"

            "Into a life of crime, and strange places…" she said flippantly.

            Kretz was getting used to alien expressions. She didn't look as if she objected to the idea. Well, some humans were probably insane too. By the sounds of it they'd not selected the most normal parts of their society for this colonial expedition, just as the Miranese expedition had required odd individuals to chase down this alien target. "We just need to go quietly, if we can just get to Howard."

            Someone pounded on the door and Amber went to open it. A disheveled looking female human stood there, bleeding slightly from a cut above one eye. "Dr. Geriant. You haven't seen Howard have you?" To Kretz's ear she sounded on the edge of panic, the words rushing out, high pitched.

            His human host tugged her chin. "You'd better come inside, Lani."

            "He's here?" The hope in Lani’s voice transcended species barriers.

            "No. We were just about to go and try and see what could be done for him. But you need help right now. Come. Then let's see what can be done about him and you."          

            Lani hovered on the doorstep… and then came inside, and allowed Amber to lead her to the bathroom.

            She sat there, letting Amber stitch the cut.

            "They claimed he'd escaped. I… I didn't believe them. I beat a couple of people up trying to find out where they'd taken him to. I think he really has run. He's got no more sense than a child." She wrung her hands. "He'll be killed."

            Water leaked from her eyes, which Kretz gathered was a sign of extreme distress. "He's just a big fool. I've got find him."

             "We were just planning to go and break him out of the cell. We'll try looking for him with you," said Amber crisply, "If you'll just hold still and let me finish stitching first."


            Lani looked at the head of Protein Production and Research, incredulously. "You were going to help him escape? I thought about it, but I decided that they couldn't possibly convict me. I haven't done anything wrong. Well, I hadn't, before I went in and found he was missing. I'm afraid they're looking for me too now."

            "And they will doubtless think of looking here soon," said Dr. Geriant. "Which means we'd better move out." She got up from where she'd knelt to sew up Lani's temple. "Do you still have your scoot?

            Lani nodded. "Yes. Howard fixed it."

            "I have a small personal car. I can hide Kretz in that. I need to change your appearance, and then I think we can search in reasonable safety." She pushed Lani ahead of her to the bathroom. "If we listen in on the police channel on your communicator we may get some idea where he is, or if he's been caught or killed."

            A hasty hair-dyeing followed. "I thought I'd try blond, once upon a time. Fortunately, I'm terrible at throwing stuff away." Double braids, and a quick down-and-dirty paint job and they were on way, Lani eavesdropping on the police channel. Howard was just too big to go unspotted for too long.

            Yet it would seem that he had. He'd vanished. Lani even heard someone getting instructions to search the protein production unit.


            The ceiling had lifted. It had taken Howard thirty-two tries, before something moved, with a sound of tearing metal. A little stud popped and the roof rose three inches, tearing the next stud. Looking up, Howard could see that the room above was dark. He dropped the ceiling boards down and waited. No one came to investigate the noise, so he lifted again. Another stud tore free. The assembly method was tongue-and-grooved, quick to assemble and impervious to rot. Very useful, light and easy. It was similar to the old barn, a relic that had collapsed under too much hay, but was made of something that wasn't wood.

            And now that he'd lifted it, it was possible to get the tongue out of the groove. It wouldn't go back down, leaving a finger-wide gap. With a lever, he'd be out of here in thirty seconds. Unfortunately, he didn't have a lever. All he had was himself. It took him quite some time to get the next boards to part, giving him a hand width gap. Then he managed to haul himself up and feel into the room above. His hand hit a chair leg. He grabbed it, pulled it into the crack. A lever…

            …And the sound of footsteps coming down the passage to his cell. Hastily Howard dropped down and went to far corner of the cell. There was a piece of chair-leg sticking through the corner of the roof. Howard sat down on the floor. Maybe they'd look down at him.

            It was a little male with two bowls. The man was graying, and his face was lined and tired.

            And he did not just look down.

            All he said, very quietly, as he passed the bowls through the bars: "Run to the badlands near the core."

            He turned and walked away, leaving Howard with water, a sort of stew, and some idea of direction. The food was not particularly tasty, but it seemed wholesome. They weren't cruel to prisoners in that way, at least. The water was even more welcome after all the effort. But the hope that there was somewhere to go to was sweeter. He set the empty bowls down and took hold of the chair-leg with vigor.

            A minute later he was standing in a dark room—the only light coming from his cell, below.

            Howard was a tidy worker by nature. He slipped the tongues into the grooves and put the floor-ceiling back, before even thinking of trying the door he'd spotted in the light from his cell. It was not locked and led onto a passage, lit with dim-set glow-lights. He walked quietly down the passage until he found a door marked "Fire Exit. Emergencies only."

            Under the circumstances, using it seemed reasonable. He walked out, closed it, and walked down a fire-escape to freedom. A freedom he intended to keep, along with his testicles. He'd had time to think of strategy. These women had everything done by machine. They lived in a different world to the society of Brethren, but the basic design of the habitat was close to identical. Howard would bet that they did no crawling along the water-arterials to check for leaks, like the Brethren did. He'd spotted one of the belled arterial walls when they came in. It was a bare hundred yards off. Of course, he'd have to find an access door, but there was usually one every few hundred meters. He simply had to wait for a lull in the passing people and vehicles—not hard, even here in this town, as it was plainly after the working day and things were slowing down.

            He reached the water arterial unobserved, and found an access door. For a horrible moment he thought that it was locked in some way, but it was simply stiff from lack of use. He crouched down and got inside, pulled it behind him, and began crawling. He wished, briefly, that he was as small as the local men. He crept onwards. He wanted to rescue Kretz. He wanted the sheer joy of wearing clothing, but firstly he wanted to be as far from these women and sharp knives as possible.

            Then, in the sheltering darkness, there was something else. Something with green and red eyes that flickered. Howard nearly knocked himself unconscious, trying to turn and flee, before realizing that it was a machine. It flashed lights at him—and then began to reverse, far faster than he had been able to crawl. So Howard crawled on. True to his memory of the water system of home, this too came to a larger belled tunnel—with a larger pipe system and just as little space for a man.

            It was no place for a man. Only, there were men here. Men, and light.

            They had weapons. Knives. They were smiling, though.