SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS — snippet 63:    


        It was his turn to look thoughtful. He nodded, took it and tucked it into his sash. Parole offered… and accepted.

            They walked back to Howard with the makeshift stretcher. "You let him have that knife," complained Bhangella.

            "Yep. And I'll let him keep it just as long as he behaves himself," she said. If he was faking it, best that he got he message. "He's going to be carrying the stretcher in front of me. If he wants to try his knife against my gun, he'll die. But he might just need it here. Now fetch that basket of his for him while we try and get Howard onto the stretcher. I hope it'll hold him."

            The material creaked and cracked. But it did hold. Still, even the five of them weren't going to be able to carry Howard very far. He was a heavy lump. And Lani wasn't too sure where they were trying to carry him to. But the man she'd winged did have ideas on that, apparently. He pointed with his injured arm. They walked along the stream-path until it widened out. There was the usual small lake… and a four-log raft.

            So that was how they got around here. The local stopped, looked around very carefully and then walked them into the water until they could off-load Howard onto the raft.

            "It's not as good as a scoot, but it beats walking, hands down," said Lani to Kretz, as she sat next to Howard, holding his hand.

            Kretz nodded. "It is better than walking hands up too. When I first came to human habitats, we assumed that it was a greeting. Walking like that is very tiring for a non-arboreal species. Is Howard going to recover?"

            "I wish I knew. I wish I knew where we were going, too," said Lani.

            On the bank, two of the brown-furred creatures they'd seen earlier appeared in a clearing. By mime the local explained that that was what he'd been hunting. "Do you want me to shoot it?" asked Lani… and then played it again in mime. It was hard to tell if he got it, but when she mimicked shooting it with a bow, and pointed at herself, he nodded.


            That was enough for her. Besides, it might just give him a message.

            "Lend me the shotgun for a moment, Amber."

            She took careful aim. No point in showing off… and failing.

            Once they'd hauled their local guide back onto the raft, they poled to the edge of the water, and collected the dead creature. The man was all smiles now—and very respectful.

            A little while later, Howard managed to tilt his head over and be sick. Never had someone throwing up looked so good to Lani. He'd moved to do it.

            They rounded a bend and there were huts. Well, roofs. Roofs that went down to the ground without any walls. And a fire. All of Lani's instincts from her training said "Put it out," but the locals didn't seem much worried.

            They were very worried about the strangers, though. There were an awful lot of bowmen hiding behind those odd wall-less dead grass roofs. Their guide's gabble didn't do much to relax them. But an old man came out of one of the huts and spoke a string of slightly different sounding gibberish.

            Lani looked at Amber. They both shrugged. Howard tried to look at the man.

            The old man spoke again. "You are spikking Engrish?"


            "I am spikker-for-uThani. You sign paper. This is our place for always. You not welcome. Go."

            "We don't want to stay. We want to go." Amber pointed to Howard. "He is hurt and needs help. Help us and then are very happy to go and never come back. We do not want your place."

            The local who had shot Howard gabbled to the old man.

            "What's he saying?"

            "He says not possible. Man dead. Shot with poison for carpincho. Man not dead. Therefore: not man. Demon," explained the old man. He seemed to find demons more acceptable. "Healer come look," he said. "Then you go. Never come back or we kill. Our place."

            Amber wrinkled her nose at him. "Trust me, old boy. I can't wait to get to the airlock, even though I don't know how I will face what lies beyond it. Maybe, I'll just sit there and rot, but at least it'll be clean and dry."


            The strangest thing about all of this, thought Howard, as the chanting and drumming rang in his ears, was that he remembered all of it, perfectly. He could hear Lani taking. He just couldn't answer her. Or move. Things had all gone a little dim, for a while, after he'd been shot.

            "This is just mumbo-jumbo rubbish," said Amber. "A waste of time. Either we take him back to the Matriarchy, and take what they hand out, or we try to find help further on."

            Howard couldn't tell her how much he agreed with her. This was not just mumbo jumbo, but pagan mumbo jumbo—and he was determined not feel any better because of it. Even if he did.

            "We'll try this first," said Lani, firmly. "It's their damn poison. The woman seemed to have some idea of what was wrong."

            Howard could tell her what was wrong. His muscles didn't want to work. He was used to being strong. Right now he felt like a weak little newborn.

            "He's crying," said Lani. "Have we got anything for pain, Amber?"

            Her distress was so palpable that somehow he made the effort. Bigger muscles were responding a little… He could lift his legs. It was finer movements like smiling and talking that were impossible. He managed to make a noise. He'd tried earlier when he'd been sure he was dying. Telling her then that he did love her seemed the right thing to do, even if she hadn't been able to hear him. She knelt over him, intent, listening. Unfortunately, talking was out. So was smiling reassuringly. He managed to shake his head.

            "What are you trying to say, Howard? Do you need water or something?"

            Now that she mentioned it, he was devilishly thirsty and his mouth tasted vile. He nodded.

            Lani on a mission to get water became the queen of mime. And a few moments later he was lifted and given a trickle of fluid.

            It very nearly killed him. His swallowing reflex was still not right. And the stuff they gave him… burned.

            "It's not water, Lani," said Amber, sniffing the gourd, as Lani patted his back. Howard saw how Amber lifted it to taste it, but the healer-woman pushed it away from her mouth. Pointed at Howard. Not more!

            More. And this time at least none of it went into his lungs. But it, or the poison, were making him feel woozy. Very woozy. With interesting visions…