Art Pact 211 - In Orbit


When a fortnight had passed, we went over central Europe again.

"Hey, I can see your house!"

I glanced over at Critz, who was pointing excitedly down at some microscopic spec on the landmass slowly rotating under us. Could he actually see my house, or was he just making a joke? His understanding of human idioms had increased vastly over the previous two weeks, so he could just have been parroting something he'd heard elsewhere. On the other hand, it was not completely impossible that he could indeed see all the way down to the surface. His eyes were certainly better than mine - as well they should have been, given how big and numerous they were - and I supposed that if a spy satellite were able to see my house there was no reason why a living thing shouldn't be able to. I checked the continent - it was only patchily visible under a great mass of cloud, but I could see the boot of Italy and the outswelling bulge of southern Spain, so tracking up there were definitely parts of Germany visible, and it could well have included the town-house in Koln.

"Can you-no, no, never mind."

I tried adjusting the radio channel knob again, watching the numbers click up smoothly on the computer screen beside it. The little light beside the knob - the one that had flashed green on the first day we were here, when we'd talked to Manfred - stayed resolutely red. I knew enough English also to understand the word "No", although "Signal" beside it I had to guess at.

It occurred to me that Critz might read - or even speak - English himself. He had obviously done some research on Earth during the long course of his journey, was it possible that he had prepared himself so badly that he had decided to learn only German? Had I been an alien myself rather than simply a shop assistant I would certainly have paid more attention in my English lessons at school - perhaps I'd have learnt Spanish and Chinese too. That would have been a smart thing to do, although it was clear that perhaps Critz wasn't the smartest example of his race. I thought of our position up here, aboard the little space station. I hadn't even know of the orbiter's existence, that was how ignorant I was of space matters (in my defence, the cryptic message from Manfred hinted at and the presence of what were very obviously missiles clearly implied that it was not something people were supposed to know about, whether they did or not). I knew about the ISS, but nothing about how it worked, or how it had been put into orbit save that it was something to do with rockets. Perhaps Critz was no brave star-faring astronaut but merely some redneck who'd bought a space-ship in a dealer's lot and taken off in it with no plan whatsoever. Although how he'd then come to learn German I did not know. The whole thing seemed utterly preposterous, and it was only with a very strong application of willpower that I dragged myself away from considering the practicalities of his trip to the more important matter at hand - namely, freaking out over the fact that I was a shop-assistant from a supermarket in Koln who was now orbiting the planet in a mysterious satellite accompanied by a giant alien.

"We need to get out of here," I told him. He turned away from the big viewing window and stared at me with four of his eyes while the other two - the head-end ones - wheeled and gyrated in their sockets disturbingly, examining the rest of the station's interior bit by bit.

"We can't get out," he told me. "We'll die."

"I meant," I explained slowly, "that we needed to get out of here into your spaceship, or into something else that would take us back down to Earth safely. Is there such a thing?"

"There's my ship," he said.

"Good. Yes. Can you call it?"

"Call it?"

"Yes, don't you have a remote or something? Can't it fly up here again and get us?"

"How would it do that? There's no-one in it!"

The plot thickened - did Critz's spaceship really have no autopilot? Then he himself must have navigated the vast distances between his unknowable homeworld and Earth itself. That would have taken a great intellect, certainly not whatever was displaying itself to me now. I turned the knob again, watching the numbers click up from channel 0 to channel 120 without, again, any of them actually locking onto a signal.

"Critz, were you joking when you said you could see your house?"

He pulled a weird expression, the three eyes on the left side of his face pointing one way, the others pointing the other, while his right mouth opened and his left one pursed in a grotesque moue.

"No, of course I wasn't. Why would I joke about your house?"

"So if you can see that, can you see your ship?"

"Yes, of course," he said. "It went straight back down again. It's in the Vorgebirgspark, right where we started. There are lots of people standing around it." The expression cleared, to be replaced by the same one he'd had one when we first met. "Ooh, I see where you're going! We could ask one of them to fly up and get us!"

I just stared at him for a moment. He'd said it in such a matter-of-fact tone that for a moment I thought it really would be as simple as him lending someone else his car keys so that they could nip out and pick us up. Then I remembered again that I was supposed to be freaking out, and that there was no-one on the planet below us that could fly the alien's weird spaceship - perhaps some that could learn, but not, I guessed, in the time available to us. Still...

"Could we get their attention somehow?" I asked, thinking that he might be able to signal the ship to glow or flash or something.

"Sure! HEY!" he leant over the viewing window, waving wildly. "HEY DOWN THERE!"

"Oh lord," I muttered.

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