SLOW TRAIN FROM ARCTURUS – snippet 52:
Lani looked at her gentle giant. He was an idiot, besides being confused about his status as her man. He'd also waded into a pack of wild ones for her. And then stopped her blowing one of them away. She might just understand him, one day. She was beginning to think it might just be worth waiting for, aside from the physical gratification.
"I can't go back either, Howard. I… I thought they'd, uh, done something to you. So I'm afraid I beat up three of the station-cops to try and get them to tell me where they'd taken you. Your cell was empty, no sign of a forced exit."
"I went out through the ceiling," said Howard, sounding as humble as ever. "I put the planks back. I thought they might put me back in the same cell, or perhaps some other poor person. I'm sorry. I just was afraid they'd…" He blushed. Bit his lip. "I'm sorry. I think I have ruined your life."
She shrugged. "It was just a matter of time, I guess. I've been heading for trouble with everything I do." She paused. "Howard, will you take me to this New Eden of yours?"
She bit her lip nervously, and tried something unfamiliar. "Please?"
Howard cringed internally, looking at her. It was amazing just how fast you forgot about being naked. Well, with her body, it was impossible to forget entirely, but you did become accustomed to anything, to some degree. However, his now-broadened mind admitted, New Eden would not get used to her. Brother Galsson and his ilk would have fits. It had taken Howard—while out of his home environment—a lot of time to acknowledge that she wasn't just a painted Jezebel. If he'd been at home in New Eden, it would never have happened.
And that, as far as he could see was just the smaller part of the problem. He simply couldn't see her becoming Goodwife Lani, wearing clothes and obeying he husband in all things. That would kill her. Anyway, besides the undeniable physical attraction, she was a long way from the ideal wife he'd dreamed of. There was no getting away from the fact that she was bad-tempered, violent at times, and used to ruling the roost.
His long silence plainly worried her. "Don't you like me?" she asked quietly.
Howard tugged at his beard, trying to find the right words. He did like her, in spite of his better judgment. He'd been raised to speak the truth. But… she would be much happier here, his conscience said. Even if they punished her for her wayward actions, they accepted violence here—and reaped the bitter fruit of it, too, of course.
He saw the tears starting to form in her eyes, and tried for compromise, which, as he knew, usually ended up pleasing no one. "It's not that I don't like you. It's just… New Eden would kill you, Lani."
She looked doubtful. "I thought you said that they were gentle people who never killed anyone."
"Well, yes," said Howard, diffidently. "But they do put people out of the airlock. You can make people's lives a misery too, without actually killing or imprisoning them. That's not what I meant, Lani. It's… well, we don't have any machines. We wear clothes all the time. We work, every day—except Sundays—for our food. We eat meat. Real meat, not this vat stuff. A wife promises to honor and obey her husband. She doesn't have as many men as she likes. You would have to give up everything."
She cocked her head on one side, and looked at him with eyes full of uncertainty. "So you do like me, a little? Do you love me? If you do… I think I could do that."
Howard swallowed, hard. "I don't think it would be right for me to ask that of anyone."
"So do you love me?" she asked directly.
Love? Did this place even know the difference between love and lust? He'd always thought of love as some remote ideal flower, not… well a rather earthy bad-tempered woman. "I… I like you. I didn't mean to like you. It is too early to speak of loving." He sighed. "We come from different worlds, Lani. Yours would kill me, I think. And mine would kill you."
She sighed. "We need a world of own, I guess."
"You two lovebirds can mount up again," said the woman in the car. "They're past. And I have to break this to you, Lani. There is no way he can take you back where he comes from. To do that you'd need to go out of the other airlock. This one—will take us on, not back. And I don't think we've really got any choices. They'll have been looking for Kretz here. Some of those injured men will also be caught and talk, probably. I've taken things from the office and museum that are not supposed to be removed—that I doubt if I could get back into place anyway. Lani would sit in jail for half her life. Howard here would be gelded. Kretz would die when he changed sex. His companions will die if he doesn't get to them. We haven't really got many choices. And who knows, the next habitat on might be that world of your own? Now. I've plotted a clear path. Shall we go?"
So they went.
Kretz clutched the alien weapon, keeping it carefully pointed at the window. He had very little idea of what it could do. He'd only learned to work it quite by accident, after his panicky flight. At least he'd found the resolve to turn back. And the alien weapon had worked when it had to. He had no idea if it would again, or if he'd exhausted its charges. But it gave courage to beat back the fear. He wasn't going anywhere without it again.
This area of the habitat was in bad repair. Yet, on the biological side, they were far more advanced than Howard's people. So: what was going wrong? Kretz didn't know, but he was beginning to get an inkling. However, his main worry right now was that the next bead might turn out to be as inimical as this one had turned out to be.
Amber pulled her vehicle to a halt. The female with Howard on the second seat of her two-wheeled vehicle pulled up next to the window. "There is one person at the airlock. We'll have to wait," said Amber.
"It's probably a guard,” she added. “We can't wait—the police channel tells me they're starting a systematic sweep. We might be able to hide ourselves, but not the vehicles. We can't get far enough from them not to be found by the kind of search they'd start then. I'll leave Howard with you. Let me go and deal with it."
She grimaced and tugged at her braided hair. “Even my mother wouldn't recognize me with this."
Riding on alone, Lani had to ask herself why she was doing this. It was crazy. But… having gone this far, how did you get out? A mercenary part of her mind said: by turning the others in.
Could she? She'd get a plea-bargain deal, probably. Amber was too valuable for them to punish very severely. Besides… what was scientist or the alien to her?
The answer was clear enough: People who'd helped her, with hair dye and a pump-action shotgun. And then there was Howard. Taking on thirty men to stop her being raped…
And then stopping her dealing with their leader, the loon!
She'd forgotten all about that worm lying quietly on the back seat. The others could let him go now—except that she had the keys to his cuffs. And she couldn't turn around now. There was the airlock, and someone looking at her.
She pulled the scoot up at the airlock, and, as she'd correctly surmised, a police guard.
"You're late. As usual," said the woman, scowling. "Oh. Sorry. I thought it was Marianne."
"She called in sick," said Lani, scowling right back. "No sign of anyone here, is there?"
"Nah. A waste of time." The woman got on her own scoot, and, to Lani's horror took off up the same passage she'd just come out of. The passage the others were waiting down.
After an instant's hesitation, Lani leapt onto her own scoot and set off after her.
She caught up as the policewoman was radioing in "…. backup. Have encountered armed—"
She slumped as Lani hit her. "We'd better move!" yelled Lani. "Why did you apes let her call in?"
"Because we're less good at violence than you are," said Amber, engaging the vehicle's transmission.
They raced onward to the airlock.
It opened in front of them. "I put the access code in," said Amber, holding up the her portable. "Let's get the stuff out of the back and get in there. The cops will be here any moment."
They leapt out.
Their unwilling passenger chose this moment to squall. "What about me?"
Lani unlocked the cuffs hastily. "Run, you little rat. Be lucky you're still alive."
He darted down the passage, and Lani turned back to the vehicle.
Amber had three large bags. Did she think she was going on holiday and needed a ton of body paint? Lani grabbed one, and Howard the other two.
"What the hell is in here?" she asked, struggling forward.
"Dehydrated cell culture for Kretz,” said Amber, grabbing the other handle. “Spare ammunition. Clothes from the museum. Some tools. I hear sirens. Let's try to run."
The lock was only yards off, but the siren sound showed that the Diana police force was coming in fast. Lani could almost be proud of them.
Then, suddenly, running as if his butt was on fire, their former hostage ran straight past them and into the airlock.