SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS — snippet 9

 

SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 9:

 

 

            When he woke up, Kretz had no idea how long he'd been lying there. The alien he'd fallen with would have no idea either. By the stillness and the odd angle of his head, Kretz guessed that he was dead. The alien had been less lucky about where he had landed. He was lying on a metal girder, and not half-buried in a mass of stinking, rotting, soft vegetation. Kretz tried to move.

            The agony that came from his arm told him that he'd been a fraction less lucky than he had thought. Cautiously, using the other hand, he sat up. His toes still moved. So did his legs. Now if he could only get to his feet and back to the spacecraft and see Selna…

            Then it hit him. Selna was dead. Kretz had seen him fall, had seen the alien mob kicking him and spitting on him. The physician wouldn't ever treat anyone again. The Miran spacecraft, the refuge, might just as well be on another planet. All he could do now was to try to survive. Or maybe he should just die and prevent the aliens from making him tell them how to get into the Miran spacecraft.

            Kretz struggled to his feet. He staggered through the debris, across the gap created by the explosion and into the darkness beyond.

            Whatever had happened here had cut water and power to this section of the alien corridor labyrinth. After a short distance it was absolutely black. He had to turn his headlight on. It was plain from the bones and the skeletal remains of plants that this piece of the alien Habitat had been dead for many years. The dust too was undisturbed. No one, neither alien nor their little robots, had been here for many years. Swaying, half delirious with pain and the loss of blood, Kretz made his way forward. There was a stair ahead, possibly the reason that this hole had been blown in first place. Kretz began climbing the stair, with painful slowness.

            How many times he fell and how many steps he climbed Kretz could never be sure. Eventually he arrived at a point where there was no more up. Just a curving landing, a thick horizontal pole, layered in microtubules, and very little gravity from the spin.

            Or it could be his head spinning. He'd lost a lot of blood.

            Eventually, he realized that it wasn't a pole. It was the line, the cable, that linked the habitats. He was right at the center of the habitat, possibly near a pole. Off to one side of him—that was an elevator! An alien elevator, yes, but still function defined form. The explosion-hole he'd fallen down… someone must have blown out an elevator shaft. Possibly they had filled an elevator with explosives in the shaft, and then exploded it. The stair he'd followed had been a mere standby.

            His mind had been drifting between extreme lucidity and delirium for some time. It was in one of its lucid phases just then. There had to be a reason for the stairs and the lift shaft being right there—and looking at the cable he could see it.

            A door. A door set into the central cable, with the millions of microtubules that surrounded the core in brackets around the door to allow access to it. Well… it would have been a door—if there had been any sign of a handle. And off to the side was a wide passage with a rail set into it. With an odd start Kretz realized that he'd seen one like it before—at the airlock they'd come in by.

            The engineering side of Kretz's mind clicked in. This was for heavy equipment transport. And it had to run between the central cable and airlock. The question was… which airlock? Had he ended up at the wrong end of the habitat? And mostly, what should he do now? He knew that he'd been shot by the aliens. The suit had of course protected him to some extent. But he was badly bruised and still losing blood, and he had a broken arm. He stood, swaying, indecisive. Eventually he set off down the wide corridor. It was not one of the greenhouse ones, and was lit only by small lights on one wall. It curved quite steeply downwards and he found himself desperately hoping that he'd found an unguarded way to the airlock. He had to stop and lean against the wall quite often. But at least he found no more of the murderous aliens. And it brought him out into an antechamber with an airlock.

            A glance at the surrounding water-reservoir was enough to tell him it was the wrong airlock. There was no way that, in his present state, he could make it out and over the equatorial ridge. He doubted if he had the air for such a trip anyway. And—thinking slightly more coherently—he realized that it wouldn't have helped if this had been the airlock by which they'd come in, anyway, right now. His suit-fabric would knit and repair itself, but not in time. He needed a place to hide. Perhaps inside the airlock would do.

            He was about to step forward when he heard alien voices. He turned and fled up the ramp again. In the darkness he felt slightly more secure, just wishing it wasn't all uphill. There were no exits off this tunnel either, which made escape awkward.

            At last he came to the cable. Here were other passage-entrances. He could hide here in one of the dead areas, surely? And then in one of those odd moments of lucidity he had an idea. If he could open that handleless door, he could hide inside the cable. Surely the only reason for it being handle-less was to keep the passengers out? It was big enough to hide in. And, if there was a similar door on the far end of the habitat core, well, that should take him to the other down-ramp to the airlock that he wanted to reach.

            All he had to do was to open a handle-less alien door, which seemed impossible. But he still had his tools. It was worth trying surely? The thought of a hiding-place where these alien murderers couldn't find him was attractive. The thought that it might just open into a vacuum also occurred. Well. That would kill him. And them.

            He began an electromagnetic probing of the door with a basic electronic workman's remote. It detected the active circuits within easily enough. The question was—could he open it?

            He gambled and used a pulsed signal to interrupt the circuit. It was just the first thing to try…

            And it worked.

            There was no rush of air into a vacuum as the door swung open. Just a puff of old, stale, cold air, at slightly higher pressure. There was perfectly ordinary handle on the inside.

About Eric Flint

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