SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 3:
The team had set up the laser-video links, before retreating on the Miran spacecraft. Kretz had had the frisson of knowing they would forever be the first Miran males who had finally penetrated an alien spacecraft. That laser relays would have those pictures on datafiles back home.
He'd also had the fear of walking into an alien airlock, and the knowledge that Selna was furious with him.
Abret painstakingly checked the atmosphere being pumped into the airlock. "We'd breathe this and live, you know," he said, looking at the readouts again. "More nitrogen and less carbon dioxide than we're used to. Traces of methane. And sulphur compounds… But the oxygen level is tolerable."
"Sorpon's prediction on the environmental requirement for intelligent life comes true," Kretz said regretfully, pausing in the setup of the radio repeater. "I'd have preferred you to prove him wrong, as I always thought his premises for the evolution of intelligence were simply too narrow. What's the temperature like?"
"Chilly," said the scientist. "Enough to make you sprout cilia, but not to kill you."
The inner airlock door beckoned. Aside from bridges and religious tetrahedrons… function demanded that a door look like a door. It was lower and wider than Miran would have made it, but it was still a door.
"Well?" asked Kretz. "Do we open it? Or do we examine this area carefully first?"
"Caution and good archeology suggests the latter," said Leader Zawn. "But I am still a young enough male to be foolish and reckless," he said, smiling. "Besides, our time is limited. If we follow good archeological principles we'll still be looking at the edge of the launch-pad when the artifact heads on for the next star, and we've had leave or go along for a one-way ride. I suggest we have lasers pistols at the ready, but don't hold them obtrusively."
He began pulling on the wheel-device on the door. It responded. External sound pick-ups on the suit recorded a faint creak. But Kretz had not even had time to draw the laser pistol, when the door slid open. Inside…
Inside the alien ship was not, as some had suggested, a huge hollow space. They were in a large open area, true, but it was not high-roofed. An elderly female Miran would have had to duck her head. Before them, open entryways gaped. One passage was wide enough to take a lander, and had, Kretz noticed, a roof-rail. But most of them were narrow. Some were lit, as this area was, with a light that seemed a little too yellow and too bright. And they could see spindly green things there.
The truth dawned on Kretz then. "It's not a probe. Or a spaceship. It's a habitat. A space habitat. They've got away from the space-constraint issue with layering."
His engineering side was doing some hasty recalculation as to the surface area in the habitat. This would increase area by several thousand percent. True, it would be more than a little claustrophobic in the passages—walking closer they could see the walls were covered in growing things.
"I think it is both a habitat and a spaceship. Those inside have a small world to live in," said Zawn, slowly. "They must be a species far more adapted to life in space than us. Better able to tolerate enclosed spaces, for starters."
"But why?" asked Abret peering around. "I mean, why build a ship that appears to do nothing but transport their habitat across maybe a hundred light-years? The ship isn't slowing. It hasn't slowed—according to examination of back data—for at least a hundred years. And yet… a species content to dwell in space habitats could make their home around any star. And there is more room around any one star than they could ever use."
It was quite a question, thought Kretz. "Maybe they like to travel or to explore, and this is just to provide them with a home while they do?"
"Could be, I suppose," said Zawn, staring around. "We make the arctic observatories as home-like as possible. Or maybe this is a failed colony ship. Do you think anything is still alive in here? Besides the plant-life that you're peering at, Kretz?"
"Could be too," said Kretz peering at the divided leaves. The convergence was amazing! He clipped a tiny piece off with a monomolecular-edged sampling blade and dropped it into a sample holder on his belt. Of course it would have to be examined under the strictest quarantine conditions, even if the risks of bio-contamination were minuscule. But he could hardly wait to get a microscope to it, and to begin investigating its chemical makeup.
"Then why aren't they here?" asked Abret, moving back nervously from the leafy passage-mouth.
"Maybe they're not expecting visitors in deep space," said Zawn, flippantly. "I don't think you should be damaging the flora, Kretz. It's their property. They might take offence—"
And then something moved, darting forward towards them.
Abret must have been nearer to the thin edge of panic than he'd let on, because he fired.
A piece of alien greenery was cut and fell, and something exploded and burst into flames briefly.
A stripe-faced creature clad in green and brown mottling that had made it difficult to see, dropped something, and raised its hands. So did two others that had been so perfectly hidden that none of the Miranese explorers had seen them.
Three Miran had faced three aliens for a long moment before Zawn said "Raise your hands too. It must be a greeting. See, empty palms, a gesture of friendship and peace."
The aliens stood like statues as Zawn and Kretz echoed the two handed greeting, while Abret, obviously almost paralyzed with fear, stood with his laser pistol at the ready.