SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 65:
There is a life zone around every sun. Around some suns it is huge, and lasts for billion of years. So what sort of lease do you think a settler needs? What do you think we can do if anyone breaches the agreement?
Johnson Defarge. Slowtrain Legal commitee, SysGov.
Bhangella took the automatic shotgun from the hand of the sleeping woman, before she was carried to the boats. Kretz made no move to stop him. It seemed wiser that they were all armed.
The hollowed-log boats slid through the water, close, but never too close to the overhanging trees. Inside them Howard and the two women slept, oblivious to the brightly fliers that darted between the branches, or the troops of reddish furred creatures that scattered, roaring, swinging through the tree-tops. Kretz watched all this, and attempted to fathom out if there was any evil motive on the part of their hosts. He couldn't see one.
It was a long journey, involving many portages, but eventually the locals hauled up the boats and lifted out the two women. A hundred paces away you just see the airlock door.
Lani woke as they put her down. She groaned, blinked, and said: "Where are we?"
"At the airlock," explained Kretz.
She tried to sit up, but plainly found the exercise too much. "Oh, Holy Susan, let me sleep again." She collapsed.
Kretz waved at the departing canoes. His study of human behavior seemed to indicate that it was an innocuous gesture. Hardly a reason for the small male human to be pointing a weapon at his head. "What is wrong?" he asked puzzled and suddenly afraid.
"You are. Put the gun down slowly."
Kretz complied. "But what are you doing?"
"Taking over for the Men's Liberation Army. Lie down on your stomach, freak."
Kretz found himself being tied up and then gagged.
"I guess I'll just deal with the scientist before I get to the cop. The bitch is lying on her gun," said the small male. "By what those savages said, they should be waking up soon."
Moments later, Kretz heard a brief scream.
The scream pierced Lani's uneasy sleep. She hadn't meant to sleep! Had she been poisoned? It felt like the mother of all hangovers. Never—not even after the force academy graduation—had she felt like this. She tried to get up. It was a question of whether she threw up or stood up.
Standing up won. Narrowly. But she only remained standing by holding onto the vegetation.
The adrenalin rush that came from realizing that she had a shotgun pointed at her helped. But not even that would get across the ten yards between her and the perp. It wasn't going to be easy to draw and fire, either.
Then she realized she wasn't even going to have that opportunity. Now he wasn't pointing the shotgun at her. He was pointing it at Howard.
"The gun, cop," he said. "Take it out of your belt with your left hand and throw it down."
She look at the shotgun, evaluating her chances. They weren't good and she knew it.
"You've got to the count of three. I'll blow him away if you don't co-operate."
She did. Alive he had a chance. Dead, none. You learned after dealing with many perps and situations just which ones were for real. Who meant it when they threatened. This one wanted the chance. The weapon landed on the floor a foot or two from Howard. His eyes were open, she noticed. She hadn't even had a chance to ask how he was doing. What the hell had happened? How had they arrived here? All she remembered was that burned dead animal and having to eat it. The thought was too much for her. She leaned over and started being sick. And then fell to her knees and did some more of the same.
At least that stopped the perp from shooting her. He watched, grinning nastily.
"They said you'd feel like death when you woke up," he said with malicious glee. "You drank more than ten people do normally, you and that other bitch. Come on. There is nothing left inside you now. I need you to tie her up."
She managed to get up. She felt weak and drained but at least that muck was out of her. He pointed to where Amber lay holding her head. She wasn't just hungover. She was bleeding.
"I need to see to that," she said.
"Let her bleed," said the perp callously. "It's not that serious, and it's her own fault. Tie her up. Here.” He tossed some cords at her. She recognized them as being from the basket of the local who shot Howard. She knelt next to Amber.
"Do a proper job. I'll check it and it'll be worse for both of you, if you don't," said the little creep.
So she did. And tried to follow force training: keep them talking. Talking people don't act. "What are you going to do, perp, uh, Bhangella? The locals will kill you."
He laughed. "Not likely. They're not getting close enough to put any arrows into me. They scare easy. This place is wide open for us. The Men's Liberation Army is gonna have a hideout that the women will never find, and anyway you can't do nothin'. We'll take this lot's women. Shoot any men that won't join us."
"You're crazy. They'll shoot you full of those little arrows. They nearly killed Howard."
"Yeah," said the Perp, nastily. "And now they don't believe that the poison works on us. And you better believe they know how well shotguns kill. They're good and scared, thanks to you. And we know where they live. Now shut up, or I'll blow a foot off you. You'll still be good for what I plan to use you for. Take those handcuffs from your belt and put them on your own wrists. Then throw the keys down and back off, and lie down next to the others. I'm going to tie your feet together."
Howard's muscles still felt as if they belonged to some far smaller, weaker person. But he couldn't just lie there. John Bhangella had ignored him, assuming that he was still unable to move. Whether he was capable of wrestling the shotgun from the small man was another matter. But he definitely could move. And Lani's weapon still lay on the ground a few yards off. He'd refused to let her teach him, but he'd learned all the same, by watching. Safety catch. Squeeze the trigger…
He pulled himself out of the stretcher, slowly. Bhangella was busy rifling through the bags. The gun lay on the ground, temporarily forgotten. He edged himself closer. He actually felt a little better once he was moving.
After an eternity, he reached it. Felt the weight of it in his hand. He pushed the safety catch over.
Now… could he use it? To kill a man was a sin. Yet, in inexpert hands, this was a much less deadly weapon than the one which Bhangella had in his hand. If Bhangella put it down, Howard could threaten him.
It wasn't going to work like that.
The small man walked over to Kretz and put the shotgun under his chin.
"Leave him be," said Howard. "He's done nothing to you."
Bhangella looked at Howard. "So you're back with us. You're talking a little oddly," he said matter-of-factly, swinging the shotgun to cover Howard instead.
"My muscles aren't quite right. I feel very weak. Leave Kretz. As I said, he has done you no harm. If you want to blame anyone, blame me."
"You? I wouldn't give you that much credit." The muzzle of the shotgun had dipped, as Bhangella realized that there was no immediate danger from his victim.
"We've all helped to keep you alive," said Howard carefully. "Perhaps you resent the way Lani treated you…"
"Silly bitch," said the small man disdainfully. He pointed the shotgun vaguely at her. "She let you stop her. And she didn't kill the guy who shot you. I'm gonna have fun teaching her some manners."
Howard took a deep breath, and kept calm, resolutely. The man was baiting him, enjoying making his victim suffer. He also seemed quite serious about it all. So Howard said, calmly: "You asked me once what a man had to do, if he turned the other cheek and the offender kicked him in the teeth."
Bhangella smiled nastily. "Yeah, I remember that, you stupid big soft dick. You never did answer it. You've got a last chance before I shoot the alien and you. I thought it over. I don't need him and I'm pretty sure I don't need you." The gun-barrel was now pointed somewhere between them.
"I've thought about turning the other cheek again," said Howard. "The Brethren believe that all people have a better nature to appeal to. But I have decided it is not always possible to reach it."
He raised Lani's pistol and shot Bhangella.
As Bhangella crumpled, Howard said sadly, "This is not the right answer, but it is the best one I could think of."
The Men's Liberation Army captain lay on the ground. He was obviously dying. Howard stood up, as fast as he could, despite protesting muscles. He walked over and picked up the automatic shotgun Bhangella had dropped. "May God have mercy on your soul," he said. "And forgive me, Lord. I did what I believed I had to do."
Howard shot him again, between the eyes. The brethren killed livestock. They killed them as mercifully and quickly as possible. Who was he to deny even a man like this, what he'd give to a hog?
Whether it was the right answer or not, Howard didn't know. But a man had to make decisions sometimes, and leave the final judgment of his deeds to a higher authority. He staggered across to Kretz and the bound women.