SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 56:
"Let's face it, Henry, primitive cultures have no place in a modern world. We can't keep them in the damn reserve. They won't stay there, and they're damaging the biosphere anyway. They need, in that ancient military parlance you like so much, to either shape up or ship out. The trust fund is awash with UN guilt money. So we buy them a habitat. So what if they barely understand it? Let them take their dirt, their disease, their stupid culture and die somewhere a long way from me. "
Transcript of secretly recorded discussion between Assistant Commissioner H. Obisando and Commissioner of Indigenous Rights (South American subregion) Phaedra Van Pensdorm.
Within the constraints that the surface area must be vastly increased, and that the shaping of this must also assist the water and air circulation—as the main vehicles for thermoregulation—there is tremendous scope for variation and imagination in habitat architecture.
Extract from notes: Space Architecture 101, University of Beijing, South Campus.
A red and blue bird greeted them with a raucous cry as it flew up into the vegetation. It was an odd looking chicken, Howard had to admit, but there was no call for Lani to shoot it.
Howard picked himself up off the ground. There wasn't much left of the chicken. Just some red and blue feathers. Here they were barely ten yards into this place—and she'd killed someone's livestock!
"Do you mind," he said trying to keep his temper, "telling me next time you're going to shoot at something? You gave me a terrible fright, and now we've got a dead chicken to explain to some householder, and there's not enough left of it for dinner."
She stood there looking shaken. "What the hell was that thing?"
"A funny colored chicken," he said.
"An animal we grow for eggs and meat," he explained, realizing that she really meant it. When she still looked blank he went on. "A domestic animal. Harmless. Where have the others gone?"
"I think they ran away, said Lani. "It… do they always make that noise?"
Howard shook his head. "Not the ones at home. But this is a different place. Warmer. They would have chickens that were suited to their environment, I imagine. I suppose we'd better look for the others. I hope the owner is not too upset about his chicken."
They found Kretz, Amber and John in his tutu peering around the door of the airlock. "It's all right. It was just a chicken."
"More mobile than most chicken-vat culture," said Amber, grinning. She appeared, despite the fright she'd just had, to be recovering her tone of mind now that they were inside again. Howard wondered if it had occurred to her that the whole purpose of being inside… was to get to the far side and go out again. What would they do then. Would she stay behind?
"You mean that's the same as the chicken we eat?" said Lani. "Oh, how gross. I just killed it. I think I'm going to be sick."
Every time he thought he was getting to understand these people, they mystified him afresh. Chicken had to be killed before you could eat it. Even the squares of dull meat they ate had to have been killed, didn't they? But they could contemplate killing people with no qualms.
Well, best not to make an issue out of it right now. "We need to move on," he said, practically. "Please don't kill any more chickens or other livestock. The owners might get very angry."
"It's pretty wild and unprocessed looking greenery. Maybe it was a runaway… chicken," ventured Lani.
There was something in what she'd said, thought Howard, looking at the plants carefully now, instead of just looking for naked women wanting to attack them. "I'm not sure I recognize the plants, but, as you say, none of them look farmed, do they?" he admitted.
"No. No signs of any cutting," agreed Lani.
"Some of the leaves do look familiar, but not too familiar," said John, plucking and sniffing one. He chewed a piece and spat it out, pulling a face.
Amber spoke up. "It's cooler than Diana. The plants would need to be adapted to that. And they might come from different geographical areas. I read somewhere once that the vegetation of old Earth's continents was quite different."
Howard nodded. "It is warmer, and more humid, than New Eden. I suppose different plants would flourish here. Still, it's not as warm as your Diana was, and I recognized those plants. There was less variety in your place than at home, and yours appeared to be all soft-plants. I don't think I saw any trees. We have trees—many different fruit trees. This place here is quite different from both my home and yours. The passages are taller than those of home, and much taller than yours. There is far more plant variety. Those are trees, back in the undergrowth.”
He looked around, frowning. “Very untidy," he said, disapprovingly. "It's worse than the upper core sections of New Eden that have gone wild."
"Has this place gone wild?" asked Amber. "Have all the people died off?"
"It could have happened," said Kretz thoughtfully. "You're a very robust and adaptable species, but bio-habitats are relatively fragile, although it is obvious that they're less fragile once they get to this size. We had several experimental ones on Miran. They all failed. But they were all small and very micro-managed."
"It's wrong to hope that all the inhabitants have died," said Howard, knowing he sounded self-righteous, but unable to help himself. "Even if it would make things easier for us. But we need to get you through to the other side of it, Kretz. Shall we go? And, Lani… please don't just shoot things."
"Sorry. Just a nervous over-reaction," she said apologetically. "I think you'd better lead this time, Howard. Not," she said fiercely, "Because of that stupid argument of yours that men ought to lead into danger, but because you at least know what chickens look like."
She paused. "And this other 'livestock,' whatever that is. I'm too inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. It was why they wouldn't have me on the firearms squad, in spite my graduating top of marksmanship." She scowled at John in his pink tutu. "Or we could send the perp first to be a target for any trouble."
So Howard led them off into the corridors. It was much harder than he'd thought it would be. There was a path, but unlike the practical ones of New Eden this one was not straight. It was narrow, and wound around the trees.
"It does seem very wild. I don't see any signs of farming or harvesting," he said Howard after a while.
"The tops are trimmed," said Amber.
It was true enough. The tops were trimmed, cut short of the actual roof. Howard walked forward cautiously. Several more flying things exploded out of the underbrush and flew up the trail, shrieking.
"More chickens?" said Lani as Howard got up. "They gave you a fright this time. They certainly come in a range of colors, don't they?"
Howard felt as if he was on far less certain ground than he had believed he was. "Um. I don't think those ones were chickens. They could fly—like chickens did—but they didn't look at all like chickens. They didn't even fly in the same sort of way as chickens, or sound like them. They must be some other creature."
"Not dangerous?" asked little John, peering around him.
The sheer unfamiliarity of the environment injected a bit of caution into Howard's reply. "I don't think so. Chickens aren't."
They walked on. "I really do think you're right, Lani. This environment has gone wild," said Howard, as they had to push through a section where the branches overhung the the path.
She gave him a half-smile. "Well, anyway, there's no shortage of these chickens of yours. In all sorts of sizes and colors… urgh. What is that thing?"
Her gun was in hand again, menacing a small green creature with bright black eyes on the branch next to the path. It had a tail, four legs, clawed feet and was covered—by the looks of it—in tiny scales, rather like a bird's legs. Howard looked warily at it. It looked back at him… and abruptly turned and scurried off. "I don't know." admitted Howard. If Kretz had looked like that, instead of human-ish, the people of New Eden would have killed him. Was it some kind of small demon?
"Maybe it has gone to call its friends," said John.
Howard nodded. "Let's move along."