This time Howard kept his eyes on the metal floor of the hanging catwalk, trying not to be distracted by the vast panoply visible through the bars.

            The headlights helped, making a narrow pool of light for his feet. He couldn't help but see some of space, and the vastness of New Eden above him, but at least it kept him from being too distracted.

            They walked a long way. And then, when he was just daring to take a peek sideways, they stopped. Kretz was at a gate. Beyond it, Howard could see a metal-runged ladder. However, despite Kretz's efforts, the gate did not open. It appeared to have no form of catch. After some passage of time, they walked back to the airlock.

            Howard had gotten far more used to looking around by then. He could see, across the blackness, the cable that linked New Eden to the next habitat. It was a good five cubits thick—still an incredibly frail link for something as vast as their world.

            Once the airlock had cycled closed, Howard removed his helmet. Kretz sat down, next to the bones of the exiled brethren, and—even if he was alien—looked despairing. "I've lost the tool I need to open the gate," he said. "I used it to gain access to the tube I crawled down to reach your habitat. I thought we could go around, outside and over the equatorial ridge."

            He sighed, again, an oddly human mannerism. "I cannot get back to my ship. The only possibility is the lander, and that is five habitats on from here."

            Howard patted his arm, awkwardly. "Then that is what we must do."

            "I am afraid," said Kretz.

            "So am I," admitted Howard. "Although, for me, these experiences have almost become dreamlike, they are so far beyond my understanding, Kretz. I think I would be rigid with terror if I wasn't… somehow detached." He paused. "I have one question… all of those spots of light?"

            "Suns, yes. Very distant suns, as I told you."

            "Why are the suns moving? Where are they going to?" asked Howard.

            "The suns are not moving. Or at least they're not moving very fast. The space habitat—New Eden—spins, to provide a simulated gravity through centrifugal force."

            Howard looked blankly at him. "I don't understand it," he said, eventually. "But I want to. I want to understand it all."

            Kretz drew his lips into his smile. "Like space, there is quite a lot of it. What I am going to suggest we do now is entirely insane. That was how I got my place on this expedition. Because I am a little mad."

            "Mad?" asked Howard, warily.

            "Yes. By the standards of my people. Of course there are many mad people, but not all of them are biologists and mechanical engineers." He paused. "We need to cross the gap between the two habitats. I crossed the gap by crawling down the hollow inside of the cable. It is plainly intended to be possible. There are other pipes in there, perhaps linking all the habitats, perhaps there to replenish ones that are in need. But we can't get in there. So we must go along the outside."

            "It looked like a long way to climb," said Howard, doubtfully.

            "It would be too far to climb. Besides I do not think we could. But I think we can fly," said Kretz.

            Howard looked long and hard at him. "You have assured me you were not an angel, or a demon. I have seen your body, and I know you have no wings. How do you plan to fly? Even in the low gravity heart of New Eden, men cannot fly. Can you?"

            "I'd forgotten that you would be familiar with low gravity. When we leave the ship and go along the cable, there will be virtually no gravity. And the slightest thrust would send us away into the heavens. There is nothing to push against to come back, either."

            Howard digested this. "Then I think we must use this rope that they have seen fit to equip these suits with. If we tied it to one wrist and then passed it around the cable, and then tied it to the other wrist again… but how strong is that arm of yours?"

            Kretz nodded. "I had thought about that. My arm will be strong enough. But I am surprised you thought of it, Howard. You have surprised me a great deal. You appear to be such primitive people, and yet you grasp things with speed."

            "I've surprised myself," said Howard, standing just a little taller. "But all of this has left me very hungry. I saw you put the food into a suit. Were you planning to take it with us, or should we eat?"

            Kretz shook his head and smiled. "Perhaps we Miranese need you humans. I had forgotten about it."

            "Why did you put it in the suit?" asked Howard.

            "Depressurization and cold would have ruined it," explained Kretz.

            "There is still so much for me to learn," said Howard humbly.

            He hadn't yet learned to work out quite what alien laughter sounded like, but he suspected the gurgling noise Kretz made might just be that.

            They ate, carefully sitting where the bones were not visible. Then Kretz rigged a sling from a safety rope to carry several extra bottles of air. Or tried to, at least. Once Howard worked out what the alien was doing, he took over. Howard had made things with his hands all his life. Kretz plainly had not. Besides, if they could take cylinders he could take his clothes, even use them to make part of the carrier.

            When it was time to go, Kretz turned to Howard. "We could be dead, shortly. Do you not wish to remain here?"

            A part of Howard wanted to stay, very, very badly. Even staying here with the bones was better than what even the alien plainly regarded as a mad enterprise. But…

            He'd lived through so many mad enterprises since he came through that airlock. The frequency of them had numbed him. He just stood up, and took the sling. They had no way of taking the rest of the provisions, sadly. It went against every grain of Howard's conservative soul to waste.

            They went out again. By now Howard felt that he was becoming a seasoned explorer of space. He was quite blasé about it. Not even shaking that much.

            But he was totally unprepared for what Kretz did, this time.

            The alien climbed out between the bars of the catwalk where it met the airlock and was a little wider, and turned himself upside-down so his boots came into contact with the white roof… well, not really the roof. The outside of New Eden itself. He hung upside-down. Like a bee. And then he motioned for Howard to follow.

            Doing so was the greatest leap of faith that the New Eden man had ever made.

            His boots also stuck… and sank slightly into the white stuff. But to walk—having to pull loose each foot, hanging—was pure torture. Howard was sure that he was going to fly off into the endless void with each step


About Eric Flint

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