SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 39:
Kretz wondered if he'd been cataclysmically stupid. They'd made no attempt to take the cuffs off his wrists and had transported him in the same cage-vehicle, and left him sitting in it for long enough for curious faces to peer from windows.
Then two people came down with the woman who had brought him here. Howard would have approved. They wore clothing. From head to foot—some sort of overall garb in bright orange. They were both scowling. This looked like trouble. And then the shorter one—the one with the red head filaments peered at Kretz, and stopped scowling.
"I do believe the silly bitch is right this time! I suppose statistically that was inevitable," she said, sticking her head forward like a attacking tunnelworm. Kretz had to remind himself, pointedly, that exposed teeth were not always a sign of aggression. She could just be smiling. He wasn't that good at alien expressions on these unfamiliar faces yet.
The red-head filamented one turned to the woman who had brought him there. "Well, what are you waiting for, woman? Get him out of there. Hurry up."
"First you insult me, then you argue with me, then you tell me to hurry up," said the woman who had driven the cage, moving with exaggerated slowness.
"Yes. And if you don't hurry up I'll see that you get transferred to driving sludge. Now move it."
The driver's pace accelerated dramatically, and Kretz found himself stumbling out. No attempt was made to remove the handcuffs, but the women led him inside the building.
He was put into an empty room, an empty store, by the looks of it. "I'll be back down and have a look at him properly when I've adjusted the lysine levels in the batch in A17," said the woman, and left Kretz to himself and his fears. There was not much else in the enclosed space to distract him from them. The walls throbbed faintly with machinery-vibration. And no one came. The door was securely locked and there were no windows. Eventually—cold, tired, hungry and thirsty, Kretz lay down on the hard floor and slept.
He awoke, aware that he was being stared at. It was the woman with the red head-filaments. "Hmm. I suppose I'll have to start with communication. Sign and point," she said. "And organizing food and drink and something for you to sleep on.
Kretz sat up. "I can speak your language. Please, I am very thirsty."
"Holy Susan!" the woman blinked. “Naturally that idiot from the court didn't tell me you could talk our language. Let's get you some water."
She led him to another room, down the passage, gave him a container with water in it. At least his handcuffs were in front of him, unlike Howard. He wondered what had become of the young man.
"Now, where are you from?" she asked when he drunk his fill.
Kretz gave his standard answers, told the same story. The only difference was that she seemed to understand it.
"So what have you been eating?" she asked.
Kretz did his humble best to name the foods that Howard and Sister Thirsdaughter had fed him. She took notes on a small pad with a tiny stylus—both taken from the pocket of her orange overall. She stopped him and got descriptions from time to time. When he'd finished, she closed the pad, which was not the “paper” that Howard's people or the court had used but some kind of thin hard substance—probably a computer, Kretz realized.
"Right, we'll analyze that lot and see what we can come up with on the ones that made you feel sick. In the longer term, you're almost certainly missing some dietary requirements. We'll have to see what we can synthesize. I'll need a tissue sample."
"Tissue sample?" Kretz repeated.
"A small piece of your flesh," explained the woman. "To grow you some food that will match your dietary needs. I could do it with other food material from your world but we don't have any. And the one thing that material taken from a species has: it has all the dietary requirements for that species, if not in the right concentrations and format. Looking at your teeth you're probably omnivores." She scowled. "And if you even offer me that ridiculous cannibalism argument I'll be tempted to let you starve."
"I wouldn't think of doing so," he paused. "I presume you mean cell-culture. We do that on shipboard, as well some degree of other food synthesis." He paused again. "Transcomp needs information. What does 'cannibalism' mean, actually?"
"A word to describe what politicians do," she said.
"Could you clarify 'politician'?"
"No," she said, showing her teeth in what could be humor. "I haven't understood them myself. They're a kind of parasite. An animal that looks superficially like us, but has no brain and lives only to breed and devour our food. Now, tell me, why is your fur in constant motion? It looks as if waves are running down it. Or is that just a light-property?"
"Fur?" Another new term. Transcomp had deduced that it was probably another word for the long and apparently permanent filamentous manes which grew on the face and heads of the aliens.
She confirmed that. "Hair." She touched her own. "You've got a layer all over.”
"Oh. That is not the same as your hair. It is an extruded cilia to try and help my body thermo-regulate. The motion is a relic of our evolution when it helped to keep us dry."
"I see. Are you too hot or too cold?"
"Too cold. If I am too hot, the cilia stand out to increase the cooling surface. If I was the right temperature then the cilia would resorb. It is an energy expensive process with high metabolic demands. My suit helped me to thermo-regulate."
"What happened to your suit?" she asked, walking to a locker and measuring him with her eyes.
"I was made to remove it by the people who brought me here. There is some taboo here against the wearing of clothing. My companion and I were not aware of it and we got into difficulty with your authorities."
She snorted. "They're not terribly bright. What have they done with your companion? Is he also one of you aliens?" She tossed him an orange overall. "Here, put this on. I'll get this suit of yours back from them."
"No. Howard is human. He was sent to help me get back to my spacecraft."
The red-head-filamented one lost interest in Howard. Kretz held up his cuffed wrists. "I cannot put this on with these. And… will I not get into trouble again for wearing it anyway?"
She laughed. "You would, out of this building. But unlike the rest of the environment of Diana, this area has coldrooms. There are also various things you wouldn't want to have exposed to the skin, and there are cultures we need to keep dead skin cells out of." She looked at the cuffs and sighed. "It would take them a month of Sundays to get up here with the keys. I'll need to get some bolt-cutters."
She pointed at a chair. "Sit down. I'll be back in few minutes."
She came back, not much later, with an enormous clipper-device, with which she cut the links between the cuffs. Kretz had got himself into the lower half of the overall and now he was able to pull it on. It was thick and soft.
"Don't go wandering beyond the courtyard in that," she said. "The matriarchy are obsessed about nudity. It's an overreaction to a piece of ancient history. The reason is lost to them, but they've become obsessed with the form of the thing."
"It is a little odd," admitted Kretz. "Clothing is worn for protection from weather or to help with temperature-regulation in our society."
"Oh, it's all about sex with us. You aliens will find that we humans are crazy. After all, what sane species could believe that covering someone from head to would lessen their sexual attractiveness?" She laughed, patting her own rounded midriff. "Mind you, in a lot of cases seeing someone naked will do that. Covering it up just feeds the imagination. And the imagination is always better than reality."