Canto Fourteen – Aboard the Orbital Station
In Gracie’s opinion, Tanith was a natural leader. Gracie was the older, wiser head, even though she inhabited a little girl’s body now. But she had no trouble with letting Tanith give the orders, and being herself the resource they could call upon when needed.
“Tanith, dear, how do these weapons work?” Gracie asked. She held the ray gun in her two hands and studied the Buck-Rodgers-looking thing. The end of the pistol-looking part had a silver ball thingy on it surrounded by a concave reflecting mirror.
“You point the end you are looking at towards your target and pull the trigger,” Tanith answered. “It’s simple, really. But I want all three of you to let me have the first shot if we have to defend ourselves. Like Dav said, the consequences of missing the target could be fatal.”
“What do you mean?” asked Brekka while pointing the silver ball end at her own face. Tanith grabbed the gun before Brekka could accidentally pull a trigger.
“Just think what would happen if a stray shot hits a station wall and disintegrates it. First the space station goes pop with catastrophic depressurization, and then each one of us does. It would be a horrible way to die. And we would be killing the boys too.”
Menolly began holding her skortch pistol by the tail end using only two fingers. She wouldn’t be much help in a shootout. Neither would Brekka, it seemed. But Gracie had gone squirrel hunting and pheasant hunting in the winter with her dad back in Iowa. She knew how to hit a moving target with a regular gun, even a pistol. She would definitely be the back-up Tanith would need in case the poop hit the fan blades.
“Follow me,” said Tanith, heading deeper into the mysteriously dark and quiet space station.
“Oh! Tanith!” cried Menolly. “There are bodies over here! Dead bodies!”
Menolly was right. There were lizard-people piled in one corner like they had been trying to claw their way out through a space station bulkhead. They were scale-covered, possessing a tail, and they were definitely in a state of being deceased. Deader than a door nail as Gracie’s father would’ve said thirty years ago.
“What killed them?” asked Brekka.
“I don’t know,” said Tanith, a little bit shakily.
“They haven’t been bitten or chewed on by an animal,” said Gracie, “though they appear to have been trying to get away from something. There are no bullet holes in them, either.”
“What do you think it was, Gracie?” asked Tanith.
“Well, look at the way their eyes are filmy and cloudy-looking. And the crust under their nostrils. They may have been sick with some disease. People with fever can sometimes imagine things, even things they are afraid of.”
“How do you know so much without ever being programmed in the egg?” asked Brekka.
“I’ve seen a lot of farm animals in my day,” said Gracie, nodding, “and cows, pigs, and especially sheep often get sick. Don’t they program you with knowledge like that in your eggs?”
“We are specialized by our programming,” said Tanith. “The computers try to match our training to the genetic markers we exhibit that indicate what natural skills we probably possess.”
“My, my…” clucked Gracie, “Earth children would never be able to say a sentence like that at your age, much less perform some of the skills you are gifted with by your egg programming.”
Tanith smiled in answer to that. Gracie was truly impressed by these wonderful alien children, and she was coming to love them more and more as she got to know them.
“Do you think we will find anybody alive here?” asked Menolly. Menolly was the child more easily moved to happiness and glee than either Tanith or Brekka, but she was also the one more quickly terrified of things, especially unknown things.
“There’s a special room over here,” said Brekka. “It looks like it has a lot of plants in it.”
The other three girls followed Brekka into the room.
“It’s a hydroponic greenhouse,” said Gracie.
“How do you know that?” asked Brekka.
“Look at all the plants growing in hanging baskets. And there is no dirt under any of them. They are growing out of some wet, spongy material. I was a farm girl, born and bred. And a farm wife after that. It is only natural that I would know about plants and growing them.”
Suddenly a voice came on over the intercom. “What are you doing in my space station?” said an angry female voice. “Especially Tellerons? Don’t you know we Galtorrians eat Tellerons for breakfast?”
All three Telleron girls suddenly wet their pants.