SLOW TRAIN FROM ARCTURUS – snippet 57:
They did—but not for long. The trail led into water. A stream ran down the path. "Pipe burst somewhere."
There was nowhere to walk but in the water, and, like dense vegetation, that was full of life. Things that darted off in the water, shoals of tiny fish, and a sucker- footed croaking thing that jumped on prodigiously large back-legs.
The “path” got deeper and then ahead… Water spread out into an expanse, covered by splotches of floating flat round leaves. One of the tree-edges of the trail continued, going off into the water.
"Pipe burst,” repeatead Howard, gloomily. "A huge, long-ago pipe-burst. Look how the grass-stuff is growing out of it. We'll have to start wading."
"Do we have to?" asked Kretz. "It looks as if it could be quite deep."
Howard had to admit that he didn't like the look of it himself. "I suppose if we went up to the higher levels, closer to the core. But that'll mean going back."
"Back is better than on, by the looks of it," said Amber. "I'm tired. I'm not used to all this walking. But we can't even sit down here."
"You would be dead-beat," said Lani, waspishly, holding on to Howard's shoulder.
Howard blinked. All this walking? They'd hardly done any. But looking at them, all three of the Diana people were tired. He supposed that they weren't used using their legs much, what with scoots and cars and trolley-busses. And Amber had probably wasted a lot of energy on fear.
"We'll go back, at least until we find a cross-trail or a riser.” He remembered seeing one back just before water started running down the track.
They walked back, and across into another passage. Fortunately Lani spotted a riser—a steep curve of path that took them up one more level. There was a small clearing, a grassy patch. "Rest time," said Amber, panting, and sitting down. The others followed suit with obvious degrees of relief.
Howard wasn't tired. He'd passed from nervousness to fascination with this environment. His mind had already been fixing it, mending the broken pipes, thinning the trees, and planting crops. Kretz was peering intently at something on a leaf, but the others looked nearly comatose. The alien gave him his odd smile. "This place is a biologist's paradise. I enjoyed seeing your domesticated animals, Howard, but I think this place must be a conservation area. A place to preserve the wild ones. We have many of them on Miran, outside of the hunting areas. Fascinating. Look at the tiny little animals on this leaf."
Howard looked. They had six legs, like bees. Definitely the New Eden council would have killed Kretz if he'd looked like that. Kretz continued. "We have tried to set up conservation areas on Miran that are just like the planet must have been before we became intelligent. This is like that."
"Eden," said Howard. "So you think this is our paradise?"
"Paradise," announced Lani firmly, "has scoots."
It was a little too warm here, but otherwise it did look like an untamed paradise, ripe for a farmer. Howard walked over to the trees a little beyond the glade. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that John had got to his feet and was walking across to him, looking around. Howard wondered what he wanted. Perhaps he was looking for a place in Eden to call his own. Mind you, this Eden didn't seem in very good repair. He thought he heard more water…
He wasn't wrong. There was another stream of it. Was all the piping in this habitat rotten? The stream of water ran into a hole. It must be a deliberate drain of some sort. It was too square to just be water-worn. Come to think of it, he hadn't actually seen any of the ubiquitous drains of New Eden. He knelt to have a closer look. As he did so, he heard a sort of half-gurgling-scream. Turning, he saw that the small man from Diana was looped in the thick, sinuous coils of some creature. Howard ran to help, and found himself in the creature's coils too. As he yelled in surprise, a second and a third horrid length looped around him, trapping one arm.
As he tried to draw breath the creature—as thick as a feeder-pipe—contracted around him again. A forked tongue flickered at him.
With his free hand he grabbed the creature's neck just below its head and tried to pull it away from him, to throttle it, as it was throttling him. The creature was winning, when Lani came running up. She calmly put her weapon against his clutching hand and fired upwards through its skull.
The cracking coils spasmed briefly and painfully, and she helped him to push it away. He sat down, drawing air into his lungs, hauling the heavy scaled creature away from his body. John squirmed out of the coils, panting and sat next to him.
"Now, what sort of livestock is this?" asked Lani, kicking it. "Beef? Lamb? If you ask me, growing them in a nutrient vat is much safer, even if you don't like the taste as much."
"It's a huge snake. A serpent." He was shocked and shaken by all of this, but even if he'd never seen it, he knew that much from the holy book. "Don't eat any apples it offers you. Maybe this is Eden."
"I don't think so," said Amber. She had her portable computer out. "Look. I can't hook up to the dataweb here, but I have found that there is an onboard encyclopedia. Looks as if that thing was an anaconda. From South America. Not Eden."
"Perhaps South America was in Eden, then? Or Eden was in South America? It was lost you know when man was driven out of it." Howard was reluctant to abandon the idea. It would be something to return home and tell them he'd found Eden. He stood up.
"Come and sit down over there for a bit, you two. We still need some rest, and I really get the feeling that you shouldn't wander off on your own here," said Lani, kicking the snake again. "Or do you think its owner is going to come demanding compensation? I'll give him compensation…" She pointed the gun. "That thing could have hurt you."
Even if he didn't approve of violence, it was hard to disagree entirely with her. Howard went to sit on the grass. Looking carefully, he could see something had been cropping it.
"What are these black things?" Lani held them up to him.
"Goat droppings. Well," he corrected himself, in the light of his recent experience, "droppings from an animal possibly something like a goat." That was obviously what had been doing the cropping.
"Droppings?" she looked at him in puzzlement and sniffed the black ovoid objects. "Poo." She wrinkled her nose.
"Uh, yes. Dung."
That was plainly another word that had been lost from Diana's vocabulary. "What?" Lani peered at them, wrinkling her nose.
"He means excretion. Shit," supplied Amber.
Lani dropped the droppings as if they were burning hot. Looked around and raced to the stream, ignoring the dead snake, and washed her hands frantically.
"Can't they be taught to use bathrooms?” she said crossly to Howard. “If that's what they do all over the place they deserve to be eaten!"