SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 6:
Only his headlong sprint had saved his life, as there was now a smoking hole where the passage floor had been. This area was relatively unravaged otherwise. The walls of the passage were dense with hanging plant growth. Kretz crashed in among the fragile branches. Red fruits cascaded down onto him. An oddly lucid part of his stunned mind registered that these were the first fruiting bodies he'd seen. But this was hardly the time for exercising one of the specialties that had got him onto the intercept ship, xeno-botany. He cowered back into the bush.
They were firing some kind of projectile weapon at him. The suit absorbed some of the impact, but some of the objects had cut it. He was bleeding. And his body took longer to mend than the self-repairing fabric of the suit.
A yell came from the direction where Kretz had hoped to find safety. Transcomp struggled. "Insufficient for present extrapolation," it said, calmly. A computer could be calm. Kretz could not. He'd seen four of his companions killed before he and Selna had managed to flee. Zawn and Pelta had also fled in the opposite direction. Like Selna, they could also be dead by now. Or perhaps they'd gotten back to the ship. Desperately, Kretz wished he could be there too.
"He's ours," Transcomp supplied the Miranese words in a cool level computer voice. Transcomp would eventually learn to translate nuances, but it was struggling with a too small established vocabulary and an alien species.
There was a barricade across the passage, in the direction he'd planned to go. It seemed a sin to destroy alien technology and habitat, but, by the looks of it, they were busy destroying it themselves. Kretz used the monomolecular-edged sampling-knife to cut through the tough passage wall he was cowering into, making a narrow slit. He squeezed through, as quietly as possible.
"He's getting away!" Transcomp supplied, dashing the hope that he could escape unnoticed.
The passageway he'd forced his way into was severely damaged. Unlike the spiral passage he'd come from, this one was just dead. Lightless and lifeless. Using his headlight, he could see that the skeletal remains of the aliens' plants still hung from the walls. Either a systems failure or warfare had destroyed this part of the space habitat. Kretz picked a direction to run at random. The direction he wanted to go—back towards the end pole where the Miran intercept ship stood—was not an option. He didn't wait to find out if he was still being chased. Instead he raced down the dark passage as fast as his feet would carry him. He nearly fell to an unpleasant death as a result. Once again the passage showed signs that it had been damaged by some form of explosion. The incredibly tough wall fabric hung in tatters and even the girders that supported the spiral passages were twisted. Two hung broken.
Cautiously, Kretz began climbing along them, and then swung down to the remains of a small metal structure. It had been burned and pieces of blackened wire dangled inside, showing that at some stage, electronic equipment had been ripped from it. Distantly, Kretz could hear voices again. He crawled into the hanging little chamber, and curled up against the back wall, willing himself to be small, if not invisible. Neither were something he could really achieve, but there was nothing else he could do. He was just too tired to run any further, right now.
Flickering light from the torches of his pursuit began to cut the darkness. They were using brands of burning vegetation, as if they had no other form of light. Kretz lay very still, hardly daring to breathe. He could hear the shouting clearly. Transcomp began translating, but Kretz hastily flicked the audio off, before the sounds could betray him. All he could do was lie there and listen to the beating of both his hearts and the clatter of the pursuing aliens clambering along the beams.
At length the sounds faded. They'd moved on. Obviously they expected him to keep running. Well, he would have done so, had he not been just too tired. He tongued a suit food-fluid nipple into place and drank. As energy slowly seeped back into his body from the glucose, Kretz began—for the first time since the alien owners of this space habitat had attacked them without reason or provocation—to actually think, not just to flee their brutality. Had the Miran said or done something wrong? Why had the aliens suddenly attracted them? It made no sense!
Hiding in the wreckage of an equipment console Kretz had to admit: they'd expected almost anything but the flamethrower ambush. And then the remaining crew from the ship had fallen into some kind of explosive trap when they'd tried to come to their rescue.
Kretz waited until the sound and light had gone. Then he hauled himself out of his refuge, and tried to decide where to go. The Miranese expedition had, as yet, established very little about the internal geography of the space habitats. Externally, of course, the string of habitats had been studied in some detail while they closed with them. He knew as much about that as any fascinated scientist could. Well, Zawn had been wrong. They should have explored the outer equatorial ridge first and studied the still-active motors giving the structure spin. But the alien airlocks had been too tempting, too simple and too logical to operate. And, after all, this had been why they'd come.
Now lost, hunted and frightened, Kretz knew a little more about the inner structure. It appeared to consist of an endless “gut” of passages, not just in layers, but spiraling around the ovoid habitat, winding inside each other again, making tier on tier of surface area for the plant-life of the habitat. It was almost like a ball of hollow string.
It was good biology. It was hell for a fugitive. It was impossible for Kretz to judge accurately, but it seemed to him that the pursuit had forced him away from the entry lock and into the labyrinth of passages. He'd broken the antenna on his suit some time back, so there was no way he could communicate to see if anyone else had escaped.
It could have been worse, he knew. Abret was right. The air of the alien's habitat was cooler and lower in oxygen than his own. But he could breathe it. The suit-punctures hadn't lead to explosive decompression. However, that would at least have been mercifully quick. This wasn't. He might have contemplated suicide, had one thing not been painfully obvious: It was his duty to the people of Miran to warn them.
The aliens had lied about being friendly. There could be only one reason for the attack. The astronomers had detected some high-speed objects being launched as the alien artifact came close to each sun. Now it was clear. They weren't exploring probes, or ships of peaceful colonists looking for new worlds. This was a habitat full of conquerors. He had to survive to get back to the ship, to tell the people of Miran that a murderous plague was coming, infalling into their system. There hadn't been a war on Miran for millennia. They would need to prepare. Or it would be flame-thrower time for all of them. He had to get back to that pole. To the airlock, and somehow, to the ship. He had some oxygen in his tank, and, given enough time, the fabric of his suit would knit. But he could not afford to ditch the heavy tank and rebreather system if he was ever to leave the airlock of this hell-hole, and he needed time. The alien hunters were determined not give him any.