SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 10:
He stood there, leaning against the thick door, and staring into the blackness inside. A transport tunnel. That's what it had to be. A way of replenishing lost water or air from the stockpiles that were just behind the ramscoop. One stockpile for the entire string of habitats, fed through this tube. Simple. Elegant. Alien. Did he dare crawl into it?
A wave of giddiness nearly overwhelmed him. And then an alien voice said "I told you those were his tracks. Shoot him before he gets away!" There was an explosion. Water from broken microtubules splashed onto him. As quickly as he could with one good arm, Kretz scrambled up into the tube, and pulled the door closed behind him. It shut with an audible click. And the sound of the alien voices was gone as if cut off with a knife.
They probably wouldn't have an electronic workman's remote with them, thought Kretz. It was then, to his horror, that he realized that he didn't have his, either. He must have dropped it. That set his hearts racing even faster. If they knew how to use it…
And then he panicked. The tube was too small for him to stand up in. And crawling with a broken arm hurt. He shuffled and somehow made his way away from that door. He wasn't too worried about where he was going. The crucial direction was… away. Away from aliens with guns.
It was much later, in the dark, with no sounds of pursuit behind him, that he finally thought of putting his headlight on. When he got to another door… he lay down. It was not sleep really. More like half coma, half delirium. But no one and nothing disturbed him until his thirst did. There was nothing left in his suit tank. He cursed. Lay there and shivered with the tube going around and around. He tugged feebly at the door handle. It opened. It was obviously not intended to be secure from the inside.
Kretz was reluctant to leave the sanctuary of his refuge. But he knew that he had to drink. Had to. And besides, all Miran were somewhat claustrophobic. Females far more so than males, but no Miran liked confined places that much. It seemed better to let them kill him in the open. He was sure that he was too near death for them to beat anything out of him now.
Getting out and onto the ground was a difficult process. He hurt himself so badly that he passed out for a while. When he finally managed to stand up, he saw to his horror that the door he'd come through had somehow closed.
But at least there were no aliens around. To his blurred senses this end of the pipe seemed more verdant. There were certainly no burned-out passages, and the air smelled different. Perhaps they had local air-current circulators. The Miran explorers had barely begun to fathom the engineering of the habitat before the attack. Kretz still found it nearly incomprehensible that the aliens were so cavalier about destroying their own habitat. It was almost as if they did not know, or care, about how fragile an enclosed environment was. Of course a huge, complex one like this had far more self-correcting bio-feedback loops than a smaller environment, but still, there had to be a point at which those could not compensate, and then collapse would be swift. The aliens must be pushing that limit, he thought, deriving some savage satisfaction from the idea, as his feet seemed to become more wayward and distant.
Suddenly, there was a squeal in front of him. A squat, four-footed pink alien peered malevolently at him from the shelter of the bush it had been rooting behind. This side of the habitat was very different. There was soil underfoot, along with plant-cover, even in this, the wide passage with the overhead rail. And there were transverse passages here too.
The alien was unclothed and rather muddy. It looked at Kretz… and turned and ran. The last he saw of it was its curly tail disappearing around a corner, into a transverse passage. Kretz watched it from a sitting down position and through a haze of pain, because his legs had gone wobbly on him and deposited him on his butt—which, by the feel of it, had started the bleeding again, and had jarred his arm.
Still: it stirred a kind of hope. There was more than one species of alien. Perhaps they were not all evil. Or perhaps it had just gone to call its friends. Doing his best to hurry, Kretz pressed on downward. But by now his eyes were having trouble focusing. And he kept hearing things—whether they were real or imaginary—he was not too sure. But he had to hide every time, in case.
It couldn't be much further… surely? In his present state every step felt an enormous distance. And everything seemed so confused. Looking around him at the plants laden with heavy pink and green fruit, Kretz realized that he'd somehow lost the passage with the roof-rail, and wandered into some side passage.
He was lost even from the vague hope of a path he'd been keeping to.
It was a small blow but the final one. He fell into the staked plants breaking the fragile stems to half-lie, half-sit against the growth matrix-wall full of plants.
When consciousness came back he was aware of the sound of footsteps. Instinctively he tried to cower back the broken plants. But there was nowhere to hide this time. And he could not get up to run, although he tried. He closed his eyes, as if not by looking at it, it would not see him.
When he finally opened his eyes, the alien loomed over him. It looked like the alien monsters that had killed his friends and companions and hunted him down, except that it was much bigger.
There was one other difference, too. Its face was not striped.