Four sols later, the Cheap Trick fell into Venus orbit like an exhausted runner falling to the ground. With its fuel reserves depleted, the Heavypicket had only burned for a few hundred seconds of the return journey, and coasted the rest of the way. The other reason it had not attempted significant acceleration was because it was towing the cathedral.
The Nagasaki’s main drive had quit within five minutes of launch. Actually, Father Hirayanagi had shut it down just in time to prevent it from overheating and blowing up the ship. Making contact with the Cheap Trick, he had coaxed the cathedral to a rendezvous using its better-maintained attitude adjusters.
The Heavypicket had grappled the cathedral and hauled it all the way back to Venus orbit. During their journey, spacewalkers and bots had shuttled perilously back and forth between the two ships, carrying oxygen and water one way and casualties the other. Those initial seconds of thrust had temporarily put the cathedral under 0.6 gees. Given that twenty-nine thousand people had been floating, unsecured, in the hab module at the time, it was amazing (a miracle, the Galapajin said) that only eleven had died. Broken bones and contusions, however, numbered in the thousands. The sanitation problem was also out of control. Bots from the Cheap Trick (designed for hazardous waste management) tirelessly swept the air in the cathedral, but barely made a dent. Their efficiency, it was fair to say, was degraded by the Galapajin children’s determination to play with them.
Glory spent most of the journey under sedation, getting her bones nanocemented together. The Cheap Trick’s extreme burn in pursuit of the last PLAN ship had flattened her and Lieutenant Kliko against the bulkheads under five gees. “I told you to strap in,” Petruzzelli had said tearfully afterwards. “But you didn’t! I couldn’t wait.”
“You made a decision to potentially sacrifice two people to save thirty thousand.” Glory had smiled through her agony. “It was the right call, but not everyone would have made it. You’ve got a stellar career in Space Force ahead of you, if you still want it.”
“I’m not sure I do.” Petruzzelli had wincingly cupped her hands over her cheeks to catch her tears. Although she had been strapped in and breathing gel during the extreme burn, she had two black eyes that made her look like an exotic raccoon. “This is so stupid. You’re the one with a zillion fractures and two collapsed lungs, and I’m the one crying.”
“Maybe you’re not crying for yourself.”
“No, I guess I’m not,” Petruzzelli had said, turning away.
While the Cheap Trick was rendezvousing with the cathedral, it had picked up Elfrida Goto’s Mayday signal. Glory had been unconscious at the time, and Petruzzelli’s excuse was that she hadn’t noticed the signal. Glory suspected that maybe she had, but had again made the—technically correct—decision to sacrifice one individual to save thousands. She wondered if she herself could have made the same choice. She was glad she hadn’t had to.
By the time they’d secured the cathedral, the Mayday beacon had gone dark, and a drone dispatched to its last recorded location had found nothing.
Venus orbit was now quite crowded. In addition to the Kharbage Can and the newly-returned Cheap Trick, a squadron of Graves fighters circled the planet. These had been dispatched in response to the attack on Botticelli Station by Space Force, which had to be seen doing something, even if that consisted of sending resources to where the PLAN had been a week ago.
Glory and Dr. Hasselblatter, in their original calculation, had deemed that the fighter squadron would show the flag and then buzz off before the Cheap Trick returned to Venus orbit. That way, no one else would ever have to know about the Heavypicket’s unauthorized side trip. As it turned out, the fighters hadn’t left yet. But that didn’t matter: The recovery of the cathedral had already changed their calculus.
During the Cheap Trick’s return journey, in a series of contentious and occasionally vituperative screen calls, Glory had hashed out a new bargain with Dr. Hasselblatter. The cover-up was abandoned. Instead, COMLI would trumpet the rescue of the Galapajin as a humanitarian triumph. Space Force would also get credit for executing the operation. The only people who would not get credit, in fact, were Petruzzelli and dos Santos themselves.
Commander Andrew Kim, putative pilot on the operation, found himself transformed in the blink of an eye from middle-aged no-hoper to media darling. His characteristic response of “Ah—ah” to every interview question was taken for the condign modesty of a hero. Though apparently dazed by the spotlight, neither this, nor his own knowledge that he had not in fact done any of what he was being credited for, deterred him from trousering a promotion to commodore and the increased pension that went with it.
Dr. Hasselblatter maximized the media opportunity, easily parrying the few skeptical questions that came his way, and positioning COMLI for a substantial budget increase in the next fiscal year.
Amidst the encomiums, the death of Elfrida Goto struck a harmonious note of sadness. She alone was acknowledged to have gone along on the Cheap Trick. That acknowledgment had to be made, since she hadn’t come back. Dr. Hasselblatter shed a few crocodile tears on Tonight In Space and described her as one of COMLI’s rising stars. “Her loss diminishes all of us.”
But Glory refused to accept it.
Within hours of reaching Venus orbit, she had herself stretchered over to the Pearl Jam, the lead fighter of the Space Force squadron. The captain was disgusted at having missed all the fun and resentful at being used for PR purposes. To top it all off, he had gotten involved in a running battle with Captain Okoli about the rescue of Botticelli Station. He invited Glory into his cabin and offered her a duty-free miniature (correctly labelled) of Bushmills. As she had foreseen, her full-body cast intrigued him. It proved that the brass were lying about something.
“I’ll tell you what really happened,” she said, “if you do me a favor.”
Glory’s BCI awakened her with a ping. (She was connected to the net once more: with the media narrative shifting in UNVRP’s favor, Captain Okoli’s bosses had ordered him to do everything in his power to cooperate with them.) The aquiline visage of Captain Nikolopoulous of the Pearl Jam floated before her retinas. Through a haze of sedation, she could see he was smirking. “We’re back,” he said.
“And?” Glory said groggily.
“You want to do this IRL?”
“Yeah.” Glory looked down at her full-body cast, the various tubes penetrating it and the wires hooked up to it. “Gimme ten.”
“Your chariot awaits.”
The captain clicked out. Glory started the excruciating process of getting dressed.
Half an hour later, she hobbled into the toilet-sized, brass-knobbed vestibule of the Pearl Jam. She could take baby steps in her cast, although a helper bot still had to shuffle behind her to keep her vertical. Her neck was the only part of her that she could move independently. She had got dressed by commanding the bot to perform all the actions she’d normally have performed for herself: legs into trousers, hands into sleeves, feet into gecko boots … The only garment she’d found that fit over the cast was a coverall with the Kharbage LLC logo on the back. At least it hid her catheter bag. Vanity, oh vanity.
The cockpit door irised.
Out floated Elfrida Goto, carrying Yumiko Shimada’s head by the hair.
“Hi,” she said. “I’d like to go back to the Kharbage Can.”
She transferred the head to her other hand in order to salute Captain Nikolopoulos, who loomed behind her. It was a semi-ironic salute, a bit cheeky. Nikolopoulos returned it solemnly.
“Nothing against your ship, sir, but I miss gravity.”