Painful SacrificesBy Susannah Shepherd
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much more weight must we lose before we can achieve escape velocity?'
Avon asked tersely.
`Twenty-five kilos, Avon,' Orac replied.
`Only twenty-five kilos...' Avon's eyes lost focus as he thought hard and fast. `Vila, strip off the insulation material in the cargo hold.' Vila nodded and headed towards the door.
`Damn it, what weighs twenty-five kilos?' Avon's voice seethed with impotent frustration.
`Vila weighs seventy-three kilos, Avon,' Orac announced in a smug voice.
Avon looked hard at the plastic box, then at the door Vila had just walked out of. It was still slightly ajar, and he knew Vila would be standing behind it with ears pricked.
`I've told you before, Orac, you'll have to do better than that if you expect me to kill any of them. There must be another way. We've still got time!'
He leapt to his feet and followed Vila out the door. He found him still hovering there, as he'd expected, and shoved him towards the ladder. `Get on with it!'
Both men slid down the ladder almost without bothering to use the rungs and set about stripping off the large sheets of insulation from the walls of the cargo hold, then shoved it frantically into the airlock.
`This stuff's too light, Avon! It'll never work!' Vila panted as he scrabbled at the walls then dashed to the airlock.
`Can you see anything else just lying about?' Avon snarled back. Vila remembered Orac's words and shuddered. Best not to give Avon any ideas about how to make up the shortfall.
`Only that cube on the floor, but it's glued or welded down or something. I couldn't shift it, and it's only plastic anyway. Wouldn't weigh much even if I could move it,' Vila said.
Avon slammed the airlock shut as he threw in the last armful of loose waste, spun the wheel hard, and spaced the load. Both men then bolted back up to the flight deck.
`How much weight to lose now, Orac?' Avon shouted as they dashed back through the door.
`Six point five kilograms. Remaining time three minutes, forty three seconds.'
Vila's face turned nasty. `How much do you weigh, Orac?'
The computer sputtered for a moment, and its lights flashed in an agitated pattern. `You cannot possibly be suggesting...'
`Oh, can't I?' Vila replied snidely. `I heard you say it, you little bastard--"Vila weighs seventy-three kilos, Avon",' he mimicked. `Well, we've still got a few kilos to lose, haven't we? And I'm sure as hell not walking out an airlock in your place.'
`There is limited time left,' Orac said, its voice high-pitched with the strain. `You will need me to calculate the escape vectors once the shuttle's weight has been reduced. There will not be time for you to calculate them manually.'
`Orac's right,' Avon broke in, although he gave the box a meaningful look. `We'll have to find something else. We shouldn't have tossed that metal bar out quite so early, we could have used it to break bits off the frame. Damn it, we've jettisoned everything moveable!'
`It's no good, Avon, we're going to die,' Vila said, a hint of tears in his eyes. Avon looked at him for a moment, and a cold, calculating gleam came into his dark eyes as his face took on a forbidding expression. He took one step towards the console, where the gun lay half-forgotten in the cupboard.
`Avon, no,' Vila whispered, his eyes widening in fear. He grabbed at Avon's arms, then gasped and flinched. His eyes opened even wider.
`That's it!' he cried. `Avon, take your clothes off!' Vila stripped off his tunic, then started to pull off his shoes. `Come on, come on!'
`Vila, if this is some mad plan to go out together in a blaze of passion...' Avon trailed off as he realised what Vila was saying. `Of course!' he hissed, and started to pull at his own clothes.
Avon pulled his arms from his sleeves so roughly that he almost became entangled in the heavy jacket, but it came free and was unceremoniously dumped to the floor, followed by the black top he wore underneath. The long tight boots also provided a momentary struggle but were eventually added to the untidy pile, followed by the trousers. Avon looked up for a moment and saw Vila stepping out of his underpants then pulling off his socks.
`I'd hate to fall just a few grams short,' Vila explained, and Avon had to admit that he had a point. There was only going to be time to jettison one more load. He followed suit, feeling slightly stupid as he slid off his tight black briefs. It was also rather cold on the shuttle, and he had the irrational and entirely incongruous thought that he wouldn't be looking at his best. Strange, the things the brain threw up at the most inappropriate moments.
`And we won't be needing this, will we, Avon?' Vila added in a tighter voice as he added the concealed handgun to his own pile of clothes. Avon nearly protested, but choked it down. He wasn't about to make Vila think too hard about his options if the clothes weren't enough, now that he'd lost control of the weapon. That had been a foolish oversight on his part. Vila had been demonstrating a far more calculating edge of late.
`Stop talking and let's get rid of this stuff,' Avon snarled, then bent to scoop up his clothes and headed for the door. The floor of the shuttle was cold and harsh against his bare feet. He tossed his and Vila's clothes down the ladder, then Vila climbed down and Avon followed him. The bars of the ladder bit even more harshly into their tender flesh. Avon noticed Vila kept hold of the gun. Sensible, he'd have done the same himself. Vila's survival instincts were not letting him down.
Vila made the mistake of looking up once he'd gathered up an armful of clothes, and got a prime view of Avon's naked body coming down the ladder bottom first, with a tantalising glimpse of hairy bollock each time he came down another rung. `Charming view,' he joked, and Avon twisted to look down at him.
`This isn't the time to be admiring my arse, Vila,' Avon growled as he scurried down the last few rungs and dropped to the floor. He picked up the last few pieces that Vila had missed and strode to the airlock, where Vila had already dumped his load of clothes. Avon tossed everything through the door, but the load fell awkwardly from his arms as his fingers tangled in still-warm cloth. His leather jacket fell on his feet, and he bent to pick it up.
The leather felt good against his palms, worn to softness and moulded to the shape of his body by extended wear. The very smell of it was comfortingly familiar. He ran a loving finger across a silver stud, and sighed. The things he and this jacket had been through together...
`Come on, Avon, what the hell are you doing?' Vila's voice had a high-pitched edge to it. `Throw the damn thing in there and let's space this load! We're running out of time!'
`I'm cold, Vila,' he said, aware of just how pathetically weak and disingenuous that sounded.
`I don't bloody care! That jacket weighs as much as your bloody boots, if not more! Would you rather we were warm or dead?'
Avon looked at Vila and wished, for a single irrational second, that he had the gun. Then he realised just how stupid that thought was. Good thieves were even harder to replace than favourite jackets. Vila took the matter out of his hands before he had time to react. He snatched the jacket from Avon, tossed it into the airlock, spun the door shut and spaced the load.
Vila then turned and grabbed Avon by both shoulders, shaking him. `What the hell is wrong with you!' he shouted. `Get back up that ladder and find out if that's enough!'
Good question, Avon thought. What the hell is wrong with me? He took in a deep breath and ran back to the ladder, with Vila behind him. He didn't care what sort of view he was giving him as he swarmed back upwards. He threw himself into the pilot's seat and barked at Orac.
`The shuttle's weight has been reduced sufficiently to reach escape velocity, although I will need to calculate the correct vectors to allow docking with Scorpio once orbit has been reached under manual control.'
Avon pulled back hard on the control column, pulling the shuttle into a steep climb. The indicator on the dash edged upwards towards Mach 15. `Then do it!!'
Vila followed not far behind and sat in the other seat, reaching out a hand to stop Orac sliding to the floor.
After a moment or so, Orac spoke again. `Fuel levels are now critical. As orbit has now been reached, I recommend that you shut down all propulsion units and allow Scorpio to make the docking.'
`Very well, Orac,' Avon said, and shut down the drive unit. `They must have realised by now that something is wrong.'
`And how long are we going to be stuck here waiting?' Vila asked. He was starting to feel the cold himself.
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