Chapter 4



Extract from the Transcript of the Slowtrain funding debate of Lower House, Sysgov.


"… What the representative from Ceres is missing is that the costs of this expedition are being offset in several ways. While it is hard to quantify, precisely, what sort of saving in Safety, Security and Monitoring we're talking about, I have been told that we're going to save approximately 84% of our humint bill alone. Besides we get rid of a lot of misfits. Frankly, there is no place for them in the system."


            Speaker of the ruling party, System Secretary Pablo Paris




            Creeping along the greenery-hung passages in what he hoped was the right direction, Kretz had every sense alert. He knew that he was badly equipped for this. Besides the fact that he'd never stalked up on anything in his life, there was his suit. The clothing of the aliens and their striped facial pigmentation made them hard to see in the jungle-like corridors. Kretz's suit was designed to be seen. Seen clearly, so that there were no chances of an accident. One wanted bright—garishly bright—colors and contrasts, so that the user could be spotted from a safe distance. Right now the lights were dim, barely a glow, obviously some part of the plant-life environmental requirements. That would have helped Kretz , except that part of the suit was luminous. He'd draped branches over himself and tried to tie them in place, but they kept falling off. Other than the equipment belt, the suit had been designed to be as snag-proof as possible. That made sense. You didn't want hook up on something when you were operating in a dangerous environment. It also meant that camouflage, even dirt, would not stick to the suit.

            That made hiding out very difficult, and trying to creep back toward the airlock even more so. The internal structure made the habitat just so much bigger than it appeared from the outside, and the airlock was certain to be guarded.

            Tired and frightened, Kretz could see no other option but to try and get there anyway. He'd been trying to think of an alternative, but right now could see none. So he crept onward.

            Into ambush.

            He hadn't even spotted anything wrong. The rope noose had been cunningly hidden, and had snatched him off his feet, upside down, a full body-length into the air, so fast that he barely had time to scream.

            The aliens came running out of hiding, showing teeth, weapons at the ready.

            Reacting with the strength born of pure terror Kretz took the monomolecular sampling knife and slashed at the cord. The slash was in too much haste, and Kretz's sampling knife went flying, and, to Kretz's shock, buried itself in the shoulder of one of the advancing aliens. The alien screamed, just as the cord around Kretz's ankles snapped.

            Kretz fell, and would have landed on his head if he had not hit an alien on the way. They went down together. Kretz squirmed and struggled to get away from the strange grasping hands. He struggled to his feet, kicked free of the grip on his foot and tried to run, again. He tripped over the remains of the noose around his ankles.

            It saved his life. The projectile weapon that one of the alien crew fired was not just one of the little tubes they'd used before. It was a massive tube and spat fire and smoke with a roaring boom that almost deafened Kretz. It shredded a wall-full of greenery before the projectile exploded further down the passage. Kretz didn't know how he'd gotten up and started running again. He just found that he had.

            There was one alien with a raised hand-weapon ahead of him. The alien was yelling something, his striped face savage, his red mouth open and his odd square teeth exposed. Kretz was beyond thought. He just kept running.

            The hammer-blow on his shoulder nearly stopped him. It did spin him. He staggered against the wall. Somehow he kept on running through the pain. Another shot hit him from behind. He nearly fell again, but his nervous system was on full overload by now, hormones released to cushion him from the shock, letting him run on, blood warm and wet on his shoulder and buttocks.

            He ran until he fell.

            Then he got up onto hands and knees and crawled.

            Eventually he stopped, because there was nowhere to crawl to. There was just a hole. The volume of explosives used here must have been enormous… because the hole was huge. It appeared to go all the way to the skin of the habitat. It was wide enough to park the ship's lifecraft in.

            He was lying there, panting, desperate, and with the pain beginning to overwhelm him at last, when something hard pressed into his back.

            The alien said something in the guttural language they used. Kretz—logic no longer functioning but struggling against despair—turned Transcomp on.

            Transcomp coped quite well. "Turn over, [untranslated]. Turn over or I'll blow your spine in half."

            Slowly Kretz turned. "Not that way!" snapped his alien captor. "You'll fall over the edge. Ah [untranslated] just stay still." The alien stared down at him teeth exposed in aggression. "The [untranslated] wants you alive to beat some answers out of you. Kill the rest of you, [untranslated]."

            Kretz was not a particularly brave male. But he knew that he had very little choice.

            He rolled.

            The alien tried to catch him as he went over the edge. And, perforce, fell with him.

            Screaming together.

            It was a long way down.

            There was a moment of glancing impact. Pain.

            And then… nothing.