Art Pact 77

Wit a full twelve of our shields down, the chances of us getting back through the atmosphere looked slim, so we rolled the ship over and bounced off the air when it got dense enough, using our speed to throw us back up into our awkward orbit for another few hours.

"We can't keep this up," Jones told me, watching the predictions that the computer on the ground was feeding him. His face glowed red, a troubling hint to the machine's estimations of our chances. He said nothing, though, still nervous about how the captain would respond.

"He'll think of something," I said. But Captain Morello himself did not respond. His seat was at the front of the cockpit, and from my angle in the engineer's chair all I could see was the back of his head and one ear. I wondered if he was even listening to us - one of the cockpit's terrible design flaws was that the acoustics were terrible. The noise from the air recirculators was enough that if he'd turned off his earpieces he might not be able to hear what we were saying. It was the sort of thing that Morello might do, the sort of thing that the assessors glossed over in their reports because of the pressure put on them from above. Morello was a great captain, according to the brass, and there was to be some leeway accorded to him in respect of his talents. Were Jones and I, I wondered, to pay the price for those talents?

The thought reminded me that the three of us in the cockpit were not the only living things on board the ship, and I redirected the cargo cameras to my console - assuming that Jones had neither the time nor the motivation to look in on his charges. The two cats we'd plucked off the station were in a pretty ragged state - nervously pacing their cage spitting at each other, probably all riled up by the massive bump when we'd skimmed off the atmosphere. The other thing... well, it was still moving, and obviously alive, but it seemed considerably more subdued than it had been. It had formed itself into an odd shape - a central cylinder around which all the black fur seemed to have coalesced, and then two outrider arcs of flesh that left the body at the "back", reached out in simple arcs, then rejoined the body at the "front". It looked for all the world as though it had made itself into a backpack, although the slow undulation of the central area would have made it far too disturbing to put on. The cats were ignoring it, though, rather than trying to reach through the cage to bat at it as they had when we'd first brought them on board, so I suppose it had taken the shape for the sake of a quieter life. It was still odd, though.

"Pearson," Morello said sternly. The first word he'd said in an hour.


"If we jettison the cargo, what difference would that make to our mass at this point? Enough to regain control?"

"I.. uh.."--I did a few quick calculations--"I suppose so, there's about half a ton. It wouldn't be enough on its own, I don't think..."

"No," Jones confirmed.

"...but if we were rolled and the cargo were ejected the right way it would be reaction mass. Low energy, sadly, but a half a ton push might help if it were timed perfectly. We can't do it, though. Not without venting the whole hold."


"..uh, well the sample is in there. And the cats from the station."

"Screw the cats," Morello said angrily. "If we hadn't stayed to grab them we wouldn't be in this situation."

I glanced over at Jones, who rolled his eyes. I wasn't too eager to sacrifice my life to save the cats either, but it seemed a bit cold-blooded. And it hadn't really been the cats I'd been thinking of.

"The sample, though. I'm not saying it's not an option completely, I'm just - well, it is important. Perhaps the most important thing. If we kill it now we might not come out of this looking particularly good."


There was his weak spot. If we got back to Earth, everyone knowing that we'd picked up alien life, only to have to admit that we'd killed it to save our own skins... It would be understandable, but it would put on display for everyone the feet of clay that Morello had been so diligently hiding.

I wondered if the cats would ever know that they owed their lives to the travelling companion that they were so displeased about.


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