1997 - 2006 G. Dallman
March 12, 1997 Version 3.0
Revision Date: 05/20/2006
Howard couldn't say how long the trip lasted. Because he was so completely enthralled by the whole experience, it never occurred to him to look at his watch. Suffice it to say that whether it was fifteen minutes or fifteen hours, it seemed like only a few moments and the shuttle was approaching a large object that blotted out the stars for a considerable distance in all directions. As they got closer, it looked the size and general shape of a kilometers-long aircraft carrier. This was Howard's first view of SoulRipper. The appellation being an approximate translation of the name of the blade worn at the left hip of all Watchers.
The aircraft carrier analogy was quite appropriate, because when it came time to land, their shuttle was drawn down onto a square, lighted area, which after the shuttle made contact, sank into the interior of the ship. As it descended, Howard noted as they passed through the plane of the outer hull, the space around the shuttle seemed to shimmer with a blue radiance. It occurred to him that this was perhaps some sort of electromagnetic buffer separating the docking bay from the hard vacuum of space.
After the darkness of space the lighting in the docking area was almost painfully bright, casting stark shadows and reflections. As the section of deck their shuttle rested upon came to a stop in the middle of a large enclosure, Howard could see parked ranks of similar shuttles, perhaps two hundred in all, extending off into the cold-hazed distance.
With the whine of motors and a rush of equalizing pressure, the rear door of the shuttle opened, pivoting down with a resounding metallic CLANG against the deck. The air that poured into the vehicle was dry and freezing cold, smelling of machine oil, plastic and a thousand other unidentifiable odors. With a thrill of understanding, Howard realized he was breathing air from another world, perhaps a mélange of worlds, co-mingled with the accumulated odors of a working spaceship.
From the time they'd left Earth, neither Gashka or Human had spoken. Aarrl seemed content to watch as Howard struggled to absorbed the wonders around him. The Watchers were equally silent, occasionally exchanging BattleSign between themselves, and watching.
At an unspoken command from the pilot, the two guards stood and exited the shuttle, deploying in a single rank to the right side of the door-become-ramp. With a sweep of his arm, Aarrl indicated that Howard should precede him down the ramp. Behind him, Howard could hear Aarrl and the pilot making their way to the rear of the craft, their toe-claws clicking on the metal deck.
As Ripley's feet touched the surface of the landing pad, the pilot growled something in his direction, which Aarrl translated. "PackCaptain Raall bids you well-come to SoulRipper."
The growling manner in which Aarrl spoke the name of the ship made Howard shiver from more that the cold. It seemed such a strange name for a starship.
From the shuttle it was a long, cold walk to a very large hatch, welded into the wall of the dock. Its concave shape and dogging mechanism made it look as though it were an enlarged part of a submarine, scavenged from some terrestrial scrap yard and grafted onto the bulkhead. The hatch opened onto an airlock no less that five meters tall and large enough to accommodate about forty people. The controls mounted on the walls of the airlock were all manual valves and switches, leading Howard to believe its designers had a more than healthy respect for Murphy's Law.
In due course, they exited the airlock into a wide, tunnel-like corridor, its conduit-lined ceiling at least five meters above their heads. The walls of the corridor were painted a light yellow-green, reminiscent of spring foliage. Unlike the shuttle bay, the lighting was a subdued yellow color, almost dim, adding further to the forest-like ambiance.
To either side of the corridor were large rooms, their doors ajar. Inside each, Howard could see row after row of oblong pallets arranged on the floor, about one hundred to the room. He stopped at a random door and looked in. The air within was somewhat stale, with a definite 'doggy' odor. As`he continued down the corridor, the Human noticed that every fifth room had a taller door, over three and a half meters in height. These rooms held huge round, bowl shaped pallets, about four meters across, each spaced so there were only twenty in a chamber. Ripley stopped and pushed the huge door open wider. This room too had a distinct odor, faintly acrid and musky. It was familiar, yet for a moment Howard couldn't place it.
It was then that his olfactory memory kicked in. Cats - No - Big Cats! Howard's imagination produced an image of ten foot tall, bipedal tiger-creatures. For some reason, the thought almost unnerved him and he withdrew to the corridor to regain his composure. Howard was standing at the door, his right hand against the door jam, when Aarrl came up beside him.
"These are unused?" the Human asked, indicating the vacant rooms in general. "Where are the crew? There's room for thousands!"
Aarrl looked down the corridor, as though he were making sure none were listening. The two guards were about ten meters ahead.
"These are sleeping dens. There are accommodations for twenty thousands. Though now there are less the one hundred Dirhal aboard. Alas, there are no Sasskal."
Howard didn't have to ask what a 'Sasskal' was, as it wasn't hard to imagine the terrors that might be visited upon a planet by several ships full of such creatures.
Just then, one of the Watchers, having grown tired of waiting, doubled back unobserved. Howard nearly jumped out of his skin at the sudden metallic clash of the wolven creature's rifle barrel striking the door-jam a scant centimeter above his fingers. The Dirhal motioned him on with a swing of it toothy muzzle.
"We must proceed," growled Aarrl.
As the Human turned back down the corridor, the Watcher stared intently. After that, Howard restrained himself from any further sight-seeing, making sure to keep close to the Dirhal's heels. They proceeded down the corridor for slightly more than a hundred meters before the two Dirhal turned right, into a seemingly random doorway. Howard followed, and found himself in a dimly lit den laid out much the same as the others. This den had a more lived-in look, with black composite foot-lockers placed at the ends of the sleeping pallets and an assortment of weapons racked to the right of the door.
The Watcher closest to Howard touched the Human's right arm and pointed to the nearest corner of the den, on the left-hand side. Several ranks of pallets had been removed to create an open space about nine meters on a side. Against the wall were two pallets over three meters long. In front of them was a single pallet of standard length.
It was then Howard discovered that the bed farthest toward the corner was occupied. In the semi-gloom of the den, he had failed to see the large recumbent form of a quietly sleeping Gashka.
Aarrl pointed to the sprawled form, as way of introduction. "That one is the Planetologist, Krrenn." In his supine position, his gender was obvious. At the sound of his name, the snoozing Ursine roused, growling irritably before rolling over to bury his muzzle into the pallet.
Without further ceremony, the two Watchers turned and departed, leaving Ripley alone in the den with Aarrl and the now snoring Krrenn.
After the combined fear and exhilaration of the past hours, Howard's lack of sleep was starting to catch up with him. He looked at his watch and saw that it was a few minutes after nine in the morning. Or it would have been if he were still back in Seattle. He'd been awake for over twenty-four hours and the odd-shaped pallet was looking better every second. Wearily, Howard lowered himself to the edge of the pallet and started to unlace his boots.
Aarrl, who was standing beside his own pallet, pointed to Howard's saying, "It is best we sleep now. Much to do later."
That said, Aarrl peeled off his jacket and cammo pants, tossed them into a bin by the door and curled up on his pallet. He was snoring thunderously by the time Howard got his boots off.
There were no blankets, but as the temperature in the den was comfortable, the Human stripped to his shorts and tee shirt. Piling his clothes at the foot of his pallet, Howard assumed a fetal position and tried to clear his mind of the myriad thoughts and impressions chasing one another through the maze of his cerebral cortex. Ripley didn't know how he could have more than closed his eyes, when The Dream started, the familiarity of its bitter-sweet mélange of commingled soothing peace and aching longing was a strange comfort in his still stranger surroundings.
Howard had been sleeping soundly, slipping in and out of The Dream, when the muted growl of many Dirhal voices woke him. He rolled over to face the source of the sound, looking up with a start to see five sets of topaz-gold eyes staring down at him. They were conversing about something, and from the glances aimed his way, the Human was sure that he was the topic of conversation. Squinting at his watch, he saw that back home, it was a bit after eleven in the morning.
Propping himself up on one elbow, Howard blearily surveyed the activity in the dimly lit den. There were about forty Dirhal milling about, as though getting ready to bed down. The first thing he noticed was that none of them were clothed. Either they'd already removed them, or it was their custom to go without. After a few moments of observation it was also obvious that they were of both sexes. As all of the Dirhal he'd seen previously were wearing fatigues, it had been impossible to tell male from female. Howard noted with interest that the Dirhal form didn't exhibit sexual dimorphism. When clothed, the males were outwardly identical to the females of the species. Au-natural, however, the differences were obvious: The males had the same sheathed sexual apparatus as their Lupine ancestors, while the females' sexual characteristics were hidden beneath their fur. In the dim light, he could see that all those present were the same steel-gray color, fading to off-white at the chest and groin.
Eventually, the assembled Dirhal settled down on their pallets, singly or in pairs. For a long time the Human lay sleepless, distracted by the snoring and other sounds emanating from the beings around him.
Once again, Howard was roused from a deep sleep. This time by Aarrl shaking his shoulder, before briefly returning to his pallet and rummaging through his foot-locker. The Human blearily sqinted at his watch noting that was almost six P.M. Around him, Dirhal were waking up, stretching with tooth-filled yawns. As he was hauling himself vertical, Aarrl returned. "Come. We shall bathe."
Howard was somewhat embarrassed at the thought of baring all, but being the only being present not completely naked, if one didn't count fur, he was in a distinct minority. The situation thus rationalized, the Human stripped, leaving his shorts and tee shirt on the pallet with the rest of his clothes. As none of the others present seemed to notice, Howard's shyness soon subsided. After living for so long in the same clothes, a bath sounded good.
Howard accepted a plastic bottle filled with green gel from Aarrl and followed the Ursine and a group of six Dirhal down the central isle of the den and through a door at the far end. The sound of spraying water and the smell of Alien soap filled the damp air as they trooped around a corner, and into a hundred nozzles like fire hoses. The sound of splashing water was suddenly mingled with that of Human sputtering and a tonsil ripping scream as Howard discovered that the water seemed as cold as liquid nitrogen! It didn't take him long to soap up, rinse and get out, emerging shivering and blue! He felt somewhat embarrassed that he had whimped out so quickly as Aarrl was obviously enjoying himself, oblivious to the cold. Watching him, Howard hoped He liked it cold, because it was going to take him a long time to apply conditioner to all that fur!
At the far end of the shower room was an area with a grill-like floor through which hot air gushed upward, to be wafted away, along with no small amount of shed fur, through vents in the ceiling. Howard joined about a half dozen Dirhal in the roasting upward draft, the floor-grill burned his feet. It didn't take long for the hot blast to do its work and after the glacier-cold shower, it felt wonderful!
When the Human returned to his pallet, he made an unexpected discovery. In something of a panic he nervously waited for Aarrl's return.
"Aarrl, my cloths are gone!" Howard shouted, searching frantically about as though he expected to see one of the Dirhal walking out with them on.
"They reeked," growled the Ursine. "They having been taken, along with the soiled anti-detection garments to be cleaned. Soon they will be returned."
"But, what am I going to wear?" demanded Howard, his voice rising.
"Why need you these garments?" Aarrl questioned. "Is the atmosphere too cold? Need you conceal your body's radiation from detection?"
"No…" Ripley reluctantly answered. "You don't understand. I… just need them."
"You are right. I do not understand," growled Aarrl. "What will occur if you do not posses garments?"
"Then you do not need them," retorted the Gashka impatiently.
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