Author : Viktor Kuprin

“This is the last call for evacuation. Everyone must leave. Go to the park for water, food, and medical care. If you cannot move, call out or make a noise, and we will help you.”

Spaceman Kuzmin tried not to look at the bloated red sun as he walked the deserted urban streets. No one had come even though he played the message three times at every city block just as he had been ordered. Only fools or the deranged would wait so long, he thought. The unstable sun the locals called Sosnovka would soon end this miserable world.

The motion detector pinged, and Kuzmin halted. Something in the shadows of an alley, but he couldn’t see anyone there. He keyed his helmet’s external speaker.

“Come out. I am CIS Space Force. I have water.”

Then he saw it. Scruffy and dusty, a big orange tom cat wobbled out of the alleyway and collapsed onto the hot pavement. It panted and gasped for breath as it looked up at Kuzmin, its tongue distended from its mouth.

Kuzmin gently picked up the cat and felt its sides heaving.

“Poor old koshka, did you get left behind? Here, a little of this.”

He drew a handful of water from his drink tube and slowly, carefully, dripped the cool liquid onto the cat’s lips and tongue. It began to lap and swallow.

Kuzmin unzipped his light suit. The air felt like an oven’s heat striking his chest. Slowly, he slipped the cat inside his cooled coverall, and there it rested without complaint or struggle. He could barely feel the old tom feebly rumbling, trying to purr.

And so, he continued on to complete his route, but no other strays, human or animal, were met.

As Kuzmin walked back to the evacuation center, he saw others who had been successful. The last inhabitants of Sosnovka Prime were a sorry lot. Two of his crewmates forcibly led a wild-eyed man who cursed them for their efforts. Others helped a grossly overweight woman whose clammy white skin indicated severe heat stroke. Dirty street children huddled, looking anxiously at the shuttles.

Kuzmin was refilling his drink tube when a hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around on his heels.

“You durak! Idiot! I told you that looting was forbidden!”

It was Second Lieutenant Burkhanov, the section commander. With a jerk, he pulled open the front of Kuzmin’s suit. A furry orange face with flattened ears and frightened eyes stared back at the officer.

“What the?! Kuzmin, get rid of this … infectsia! It can carry disease! Understand me?!”

Kuzmin shook his head. “No, sir. Sorry. I won’t leave it here to burn.”

Burkhanov eyes opened wide with rage. But then he paused. It wasn’t often that a Spaceman Recruit refused an order. And never Kuzmin, one of the better spacehands.

“Bah! Make ready for liftoff!” He stomped off towards the shuttle.

As the days passed, the orange tom took to starship life quite well. Kuzmin was in the mess hall, slipping a few sproti fish to the new mascot when a crewman yelled, “It’s started!” Everyone dropped their food and ran to the portholes.

The flashpoint had been reached: Immolation. Waves of fire swept over the planet below.

A man next to Kuzmin gasped and made the sign of the cross. It was Burkhanov, his sad face illuminated by the hellish flame storms.

Kuzmin watched nervously as the old koshka wandered between the officer’s ankles. He was amazed when Burkhanov picked it up, placed it against his shoulder and began to pet Sosnovka’s littlest refugee.

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