SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – Snippet 66
Lani held up the cuffs. "He's got the keys on a thong around his neck. She looked at his pale face. "Do my feet and I'll get them."
He touched her cheek, gently. She'd held his hand, talked to him through the paralysis and through the fear. "I am strong enough."
"You're stronger than I ever guessed. And I don't just mean in muscles."
Howard walked back to the corpse. Bhangella looked very small, now. Howard took the thong off his neck. He carefully ignored the condition of the dead man's face.
He went back and freed Lani, and then the others. "They're still watching us," he said quietly.
"Who? The locals?" She took the pistol he gave her. Then, took out the magazine and reloaded it from the pouch on her belt. Clicked it back in – and handed it to Howard. "I think you'd better keep it."
"No, thank you." He took a deep breath. Even that hurt. He turned to the undergrowth. "It's time for us to talk," he said loudly. "What do you want?"
There was a silence. Then someone came out of the bushes. Just one person. Howard was certain there were others. The local held up an empty hand. "No weapon," he said.
Howard held up his empty hands. "And no weapons in my hands, either."
Lani looked at the local, suspiciously, with narrowed eyes. "I thought only one of you spoke any English?"
The local shrugged. "Others of us learn."
"But don't tell the foreigners," said Amber, holding a gauze pad against her head-wound. "He was sitting next to us when we drank that stuff, Lani."
"You strong woman. No uThani drink half so much," he said admiringly.
Amber cocked her head on one side. "Pretend you don't speak the language. Ply the visitors with strong, drugged liquor and listen to what they say between themselves?"
"So . . . what do you want?" asked Howard, sticking to the point.
"We make sure you not go. You bring others. We take you to the opposite airlock," said the local with a disarming smile.
"Which is actually where we wanted to go," said Amber. "So why didn't you just kill us?"
The man pointed at Howard. "He did not die. Hunter shoot him too." He pointed at Kretz. "He did not even get sick."
"My suit," explained Kretz, "is quite tough. I probably didn't notice. Besides I am not sure how it would affect my metabolism."
"So . . . we're demons you can't kill. Accept it," said Lani.
"We really don't want your land," said Howard calmly. "I promise."
"But we want yours," said the uThani, smiling cheerfully. "Not enough here for us any more. Fights in subclans over place. So our chief say: follow. Find. See. Also get iron things. Knives and guns. We know about guns."
"But . . . How many of you are there, here? We never saw anyone."
"Need a lot of jungle to hunt and to gather. Comp say one hundred hectare for one. Too many persons. Food short. Now we fish a lot. But there still too many of our people. We need place. We send others to airlock. They have not come back." He pointed to the group. "You know how to go to another place."
"So how come you are telling us this?" asked Lani.
The uThani shrugged and smiled slightly. "Because chief could not tell me how to look through the door. And here we can still kill you. Or try."
"It makes a lot more sense than a sudden outbreak of truthfulness," said Lani sourly.
Howard bowed his head. "Let us go and talk among ourselves."
"Without any help from your long ears," said Lani.
The coffee-skinned uThani gave a flash of sudden white teeth, and put his fingers in his ears.
The four of them walked off into a clear area.
"We cannot do this," said Howard, his face stiff. "They want to make war."
Amber held up her hand. "Look. Firstly, not everything here is what it seems at all. One of the things I did find out on the portable encyclopedia – once I got the tribe name – is that the uThani were a tiny Colombian tribe. They were something of a cause célèbre when they were discovered – only after their valley was being flooded for a hydro-electric scheme. They were barely two hundred odd members strong. They claimed never to have seen outsiders, which was called into doubt over some steel tools. Anyway – there has been intervention here. Their gene pool was too small to start with for them to have survived without that intervention. They plainly talk to this 'comp.' Beside any of these Conquistador dreams they may have – which are wildly impractical given the number of suits available in the airlocks – within the next hundred years they're going to be on their own, positioned around a sun, with the potential of a million space-habitats – or extinction. So what do we do? I think we bite the bullet and start teaching them. And the best way we can do that is take at least one of them and show him."
"Yeah? So why hasn't this 'comp' helped them with this airlock dream?" asked Lani. "I'm not saying that I think we shouldn't do this, just that it still smells a bit."
"Maybe 'comp' wants them to stay primitive," said Amber slowly. "To keep them in a conservation state, as Kretz suggested. In the time elapsed they could have moved from primitive to machine culture, if it and they wanted to change."
That obviously got through to Lani. "What the hell. I don't like the idea of a machine keeping them eating burned meat. If that's the case . . . Let's take the country boy to the bright lights. Who knows, we might want to turn this lot loose on the next lot."
"It wouldn't work," said Amber. "Too few suits."
"Besides, it would be immoral," said Howard. "After all, Kretz wishes to get back to warn his people of incipient invasion by evildoers himself."
Lani lifted her eyebrows at him. "Even if the next lot are like the guys that attacked Kretz and his friends? I think that would be pretty fair."
"They do need help, Howard," said Amber.
Now that Howard had seen space, seen technology, and was beginning to understand what Kretz had said to him about this being an enormous colony-ship, a ship that was beginning to need repair, he could see that also. "It is our bounden duty to try and help those less fortunate than ourselves. But not to attack others. And by that token the people of New Eden will need help soon too."
"You might say that they are training you for the job," said Amber.
Howard pursed his lips. Shook his head. "I don't think I could go back. But yes. I agree."
"Well, that's all of us," said Lani, practically. "Unless Kretz has some objection, or wants to ask something?"
Kretz nodded. "Yes. Why does one bite this bullet? Is it edible? And which bright lights?"
"Very well. We have conferred. We will take one of your people with us."
"You will need to leave a hostage," said the uThani warrior. "They will be well treated." He obviously saw the hesitation. "Eat meat nearly every day."
"That does it. I'm not staying," said Amber firmly.
"Obviously Kretz needs to go. I don't think I can stay," said Lani, equally firmly. "Howard needs a proper medical check . . . and I won't stay without him." She paused, looking thoughtful. "Why do you want a hostage?"
"To make sure that you do not kill me."
Lani gave him a wry smile. "We will need to cross your land to go back home. Your friends can stop us if we don't bring you back on our return. You don't need a hostage and we need all of us to succeed in crossing."
He looked thoughtful. "Let me confer."
He melted back into the bushes.
He returned a little later. With a familiar face – the local who had shot Howard. "We say yes. If you take two of us."
"Yeah, but why him?" asked Lani.
The local translator grinned. "He says you are very much of a woman. He wishes to marry you."
When she stared at him, open-mouthed, he added. "He is good hunter. Shoot much meat."
"If I'm going to teach you anything, I need names," said Lani.
So they introduced themselves. "Me Nama-ti-spaniti-goro-y-timi. Him Dandanidi-ti-dala-po-rado. Names very important thing to us," explained the translator. "Mine means he-who-stalks-jaguar-without-bow-and-falls-over-root."
"They're certainly a very long thing," Lani said. "Anyway, I refuse to bend my tongue around that much of a mouthful. Perp One and Perp Two will do for you two."
The hunter looked at the translator. Said something that made the other crack up. The translator turned back to Lani. "Perp-one is good for me. But my friend he say you not call him name that sounds like bad smell. Not respectful for future wife."
"I suppose 'My-Lord-and-Master' would suit him?" said Lani with a dangerous level of sarcasm.
Translator gabbled. His shoulders shook at his friend's reply. A sense of humor was obviously an uThani trait. "He say you too strong a woman for that. Call him Dandani."
"I'll call him 'Uppity'," she said with a nasty grin. "It's shorter than 'Delusions-of-Grandeur'."
So Uppity and Perp-one cheerfully continued with their lessons in elementary space safety and the basics of what a vacuum actually was, either in happy unconcern about the meanings of their new titles, or just humoring this woman who could shoot. When it came down it, they were quick learners, and their smiles were quite infectious.
So, according to med-diagnostics, were they.
"You're all next," said Amber. "It appears that population control here is via disease. And Med-diagnostics picked up plasmodium in my blood. Firstly I don't want anyone getting sick, and secondly we don't need to pass our new germs and parasites on to the next bead. I should have thought of it before we came here."
The space-bags were packed – with everything from the strange clothes to the bows and poisoned arrows. And two of the brightly colored flying creatures, recently deceased.
"Do you have to take chickens?" asked Amber, looking dubiously at them.
"Not chickens. Parrots," said Perp-one. "Why you want to put our bows in here?" he asked. "What if we meet dangerous animals or good food?"
"Trust me. You won't meet either. I should let you leave those things out. Hard vacuum would sort them out, PDQ. Now, close up those helmets. And do what you're told and don't panic. Breathe slowly and calmly. Decompression sequence is beginning. And I'm just popping a few tranquillizers . . ."