Dorothy J. Heydt

A challenge went up on USENET: write a short story, 500 words or so, that takes place within the space of five minutes.

The hull was breached, the Ioroni somewhere on board, the klaxon sounding. "There are now five minutes till lifeboat separation. There are now four minutes and fifty seconds till lifeboat separation." Feet pounding in the corridors, noses counted in the airlock, and nobody could find Pyewacket.

I didn't even bother to meet the eye of someone who would have told me 'No.' I turned around and ran.

She wasn't in the galley. She wasn't in the lounge. She might be in Hydroponics basking under a sun lamp. All the time my mind kept chanting This is what makes stupid movies stupid, that with certain alien death stalking the corridors, somebody runs off to find the cat. She wasn't in Hydroponics, but a trail of wet pawprints led outboard and spinward. Now I could hear other feet pounding in the corridors, heavy feet in chitin plate. "There are now two minutes and thirty seconds till lifeboat separation." A grey shape just in view, calmly turning the corner. I ran, I bent, I snatched her out from under the chelicerae of a startled Ioron and backpedaled. No one has ever seen them run. Maybe they can't run fast.

But they ran like the wind. One of them came up even with me, ahead of me, raised a mallet claw to crush me: and another came up even faster and brushed its fellow aside with a careless gesture that sent it ringing like a gong against the bulkhead. The mechanism glued to its thorax sputtered. It moaned like a whale song, sputtered again, chirped. It cleared its throat, or whatever it used for a throat, and said, "You gave--" Sputter. "You willed to give--" Chirp. "You risked your life to save a cat. Good heavens. You might be human after all."

I backed up against the wall, slapped the comm-panel open. "Hold the last lifeboat. They're talking." I sagged against it, breathing, while Pyewacket purred and the Ioron raised one delicate feathery palp, cautiously, to rub her ears.

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