by Stephen C. Evans
“I do not mean to suggest it is a bad thing, Metzie.”
Despite the thick Swahili accent, Hugh Metz had no trouble hearing the hidden chuckle in his friend’s words. “Oh no?” he asked. “Please tell me how your disparaging remarks regarding my physical appearance were meant as a compliment.”
“I am just thinking about the perks,” Samu Eboh answered. “A man like you, you will never have to face the horrible temptation of cheating on your wife and destroying your family.”
“Because all the women are throwing themselves at you out here,” Metz countered, waving an indiscriminate hand at the main view bay.
“Metzie, my friend. I come out here to escape the burden of this face. And to make it more fair for all the men not blessed as I am. I only chase the simple life.” Samu sat back, the white of his smile filling the Command Bubble, outshining the stars beyond.
“Must be so hard being you,” Hugh offered with a sardonic smile of his own. It was their strong friendship that made these jobs bearable in the barren desert of this new frontier.
“You have no idea. All women love African dark chocolate, Metzie. Just one of many curses I bear being born so perfect.”
“I can only--”
Samu cut him off. “Do you...?”
“Yeah, I feel it too.”
The explosion rocked the Dove before the two men could consult on the change in their ship any further. With a knowing look, they immediately shifted to the seriousness called for in a situation like this.
“Engines,” Hugh called.
“Then I shall see to Life Support.”
They scattered, a tickle of preemptive panic over their off-ecliptic shortcut fluttering in Hugh’s gut as he triggered an automated diagnostic.
Scuttling aft, Hugh tried to temper his panic with the knowledge that whatever the source of the explosion, it hadn’t killed them.
“Life Support appears intact,” Samu called from the upper deck a few minutes later. “The computers appear to be uncompromised as well.”
Giving the engines a once-over, Hugh couldn’t see any obvious continuity interruptions or damage. “Propulsion systems seem fine, too. It’s likely the damage was external.”
“Agreed. We should, however, inspect the hull interior for compromise nonetheless. I will see to the upper deck,” Samu offered.
“I’ve got the Bowel.”
“Your rightful place in the universe....” Samu’s voice trailed off, and Hugh saw his Cheshire grin vanish over the upper-deck balustrade. He couldn’t suppress his own nervous smile with a shake of his head at his friend’s pervasive good spirits. Pulling a “pudding pack” from the wall, he moved to the center of the space, tearing open the package and squeezing out a measured portion of the gel. Staring at it floating before his eyes, he watched tensely for movement towards any of the bulkhead surfaces.
With a sigh of hopeful relief, he moved first aft and then fore, repeating the process, watching to see if a micro-leak to the vacuum of space would draw the substance towards the hull. If indeed there was such a leak, the gel would serve as a temporary adhesive stop. If not, it was cohesive enough to be recaptured, so as not to run free-floating havoc with any of the ship’s systems. A firmer relief took hold when the gel remained relatively stationary, reacting to nothing more than the inertia he’d provided while squeezing it from its pack. Anxiety still had the largest hold on him, however.
“My pudding’s good down here,” he called up to Samu. “Recovering it now.” The silence from his friend immediately dissipated his struggling optimism. He waited painfully, until a few seconds later Samu’s finally appeared over the balustrade.
“As it is here. No leaks or ruptures. Today must be our lucky day, Metzie.”
“Sure. Everyday something blows up on the Dove is one of my favorites. Especially when we don’t know the extent or the cause.”
“Then let the joy of the hunt continue, my friend. Do not worry,” Samu offered, displaying his knack for always knowing the workings of Hugh’s mind. “We will get you home to Karen. I would hate to deprive her of the comfort of her second-favorite individual.” He winked. “Besides, I cannot die before I learn if that bump in her belly will be blessed with her likeness, or cursed with yours. To the diagnostic, no?” That ceaseless smile launched itself from the upper-level bracings. Hugh followed, his anxiety somehow rising despite the elimination of the most dangerous potential threats.
~ ~ ~
Samu and Metz huddled together, their heads close enough to touch as they read the diagnostic report on the screen.
“The Honeycomb has been violated,” Samu said. “Something made it all the way through.”
“Shit.” Hugh’s brow was damp with cold sweat, despite the regulated atmospherics of the Dove. He fought to keep his emotions in check, to mirror his friend’s cool demeanor. “Seal all the active flows. Isolate propulsion and water tanks.”
“One step ahead of you.” Samu’s hands flew across the touchscreen controls.
The Honeycomb was a series of layered, polycarbonate cavities filled with gaseous compound designed to absorb incoming micrometeorites before they could breach the pockets all the way through to the most vital of the ship’s systems and supplies. In deep space, there was no way to prevent impact from the microscopic dust storms, and at intra-solar velocities, micrometeorites the size of sand could rip through ships like tin foil under the right circumstances. The risks were usually light among the well-travel spaceways, but out here.... Hugh shut down that unproductive line of thought as quick as it came on.
“I have shut down circulation of water and propulsion for now,” Samu reported. They didn’t want their fuel or water passing from an uncompromised tank into one that had been breached... or was no longer there altogether. “All storage sealed and isolated. I am running a remaining supply check now.”
Hugh stared out the generous cockpit bay, wishing instead he had a view of the rear of their ship. Despite knowing his eyes would be a vastly inferior source of information compared to the diagnostic software, he still wanted to see it for himself.
Samu’s face flinched uncharacteristically sour, and Hugh could tell it was a visible effort to reassert his trademark grin. “It got five of the eight propulsion tanks. And one of the tanks left intact was active access. It’s down to only forty-three percent. A hell of a storm.”
“Less than two-and-half tanks of fuel.” Hugh started to pace in the limited space, pushing off the hulls, trying to think through the problem. “Could we rig a conversion factory? We could break into what we mined out there; find a way to strip our excess water for its hydrogen. We’d have to vent all the excess oxygen--no way to store it. But if we could somehow rig the engines to run on pure hydrogen, it might at least get us enough fuel to make it back home. It only has to work for a one-way trip.”
Hugh once again kicked himself for allowing this shortcut in the first place. Leaving the elliptic to make a beeline against the gravimetrics of the solar system had been pure idiocy. Especially in the face of all the other risks: the increased micrometeorite density, no comms traffic, the excessive fuel cost; the experiment had been an ill-considered failure. Their current predicament was proof of that.
Samu’s face softened, which was infinitely worse than all the man’s good-natured jibes. “It got the water too. Both of the whales.” The whales were the large holding tanks used to store captured water mined from whatever asteroid they found to suck dry. Hugh tried to picture all that water flash-evaporated into the vacuum of space while Samu continued. “And we are down to only two of the remaining internal-use tanks left intact.”
“That’s only a quarter of our water...” Hugh’s voice trailed off as he pulled himself into his captain’s chair, his brain whirling but seeming to accomplish no actual thinking. Their entire haul of mined H2O gone, and just a fraction of what they needed to survive left remaining.
“Indeed,” Samu confirmed. “We shall need all of that water for ourselves. We could probably rig a conversion factory, and the engines, but there is not enough superfluous supply to allow for anything to convert, even if we could. I would recommend we sacrifice our bathing privileges, but it still will not be enough. And I am afraid I like myself too much to allow you to make that sacrifice anyway, my friend.”
Hugh took a deep breath, perhaps subconsciously embracing the only resource that wasn’t in short supply, trying to put his thoughts together. “So... options?”
“It is grim. The fact that we do not follow an ecliptic route places us in a position where help is an impossibility.”
“Which is your damn fault, Samu.” The anger that leaked into his voice surprised even Hugh. Samu flinched as if visibly slapped, a look of hurt and confusion invading the man’s face, fully evicting his trademark smile. Hugh didn’t care. That stupid, face-eating grin had talked him into too many bad decisions over their long friendship, and this time it had very likely killed them. “We’re out here, completely alone, for what? So that now, not only will we die, but when we do Karen won’t even be able to mourn my death. She’ll just be stuck wondering forever what the hell happened to us. To me. And I’ll never get to meet my baby girl.” Tears pooled in his eyes, and he dabbed them angrily away before they floated off and made things even worse. He knew he was ranting, but couldn’t stop. Didn’t want to. “All just because I didn’t have the sense not to listen to you when you proposed this idiotic gamble in the first place!”
Metz could see Samu playing with the idea of trying to lighten the mood, employ some deprecating banter to get them back to themselves. And could equally see the moment he decided against it.
“I am sorry, Hugh. It was a gamble, but a gamble we both committed to. If it had worked, it could have made us the most successful runners in the belt. But we can argue merits and blame later, when we have the luxury for it. Now, we must answer the question as to how to survive. And I believe there is only one practical option.
“We must reorient and burn the last of our fuel to push back into range of the ecliptic. It is a small chance, yes, but I think our only one. Once we are back in range of the primary spaceways, we can transmit an SOS and hope to providence that someone is close enough to receive before we drift out of range again.” The sides of Samu’s mouth twitched up, and Hugh couldn’t tell if that half smile was an attempt to conjure a fuller one, or repress it.
Hugh usually went along with his friend, but not this time. Not when it would likely cost him--cost them both--their last chance at life.
“Samu, that’s insane. Without a laser-line and a set receiving point, that would be like cupping our hands to our mouths and calling to the mainland from the middle of the ocean. The signal would dissipate before it even makes it a few AU’s! The background solar radiation would tear it up even further. And, even if someone miraculously did pick it up, they’d never be able to pinpoint the source back to our location. Especially if we’ve drifted through an elliptical point and out the other side by then. It’s madness!”
“We must try something.” Samu’s expression was flat, something Hugh could not remember ever having seen before. It didn’t matter. He had his own idea. Something that would work.
“We reorient... the other way. We burn the last of our fuel and head back out to the belt. We find a nice pregnant rock, find a way to rig a conversion factory, and at least then we won’t run out of air or water. Without the tanks we can’t store enough fuel to get back home, but we can at least cry for help from there. We’ll have a better chance other runners will catch and track the signal from within the belt before it dissipates.”
“Hugh, you do not need me to tell you how expansive the belt is, and how irregularly frequented. That is what makes our jobs so lucrative in the first place: how dependent the spaceways are on us, and how few take the risks. It could be months... or longer, before anyone would come sniffing after whichever rock we choose. We likely would not be alive when they did. We are much better off trusting to the frequency of travel along the ecliptic lanes. It is the lesser roll of the dice.”
“I disagree.” Without his smile, Hugh thought Samu’s face was one of blatant condescension. To be fair, it was an expression he had never seen in all the years the two had been friends, but Hugh just couldn’t bring himself to embrace a benefit-of-the-doubt kind of mindset at the moment.
“Then have we reached an impasse? Do we sit and let the gods of indecision take us?”
“No.” Hugh took a deep breath. “We cool off. We’ve never had something like this thrown at us, and we need to take a breather. Calm down and figure it out the right way.”
Samu visibly relaxed, finding a semblance of his old equilibrium in even the slight lessening of tensions. “Yes, my friend. There is great wisdom in this.”
“I’ll go take a look at the water systems--see if it’s even possible to rig a converter to purify a greater take and strip enough oxygen to buy us extra time on a rock,” Hugh offered. “You see if anything can be done for communications. If we’re going to slingshot across the ecliptic and scream like hell, let’s at least figure out if we can make ourselves a little louder. We’ll compare notes and then see which plan makes the most sense to us from there.”
“It is a deal.” Samu turned to go, heading off to the Communications Bubble. At the last minute he turned back, flashing his smile. “I love you, brother. We will get out of this, I promise you. Your ugly face shall be the first thing your daughter ever sees.” And then he was gone.
Hugh waited a minute, ensuring that Samu was out of sight, and then left the Command Bubble, turning away from the H2O systems. He knew his friend, knew that his exaggerated optimism had no place in this crisis... would in fact very likely get them killed. What they needed was realism. The only problem was that Samu would never face the true, gritty reality of this situation unless he had no choice. Hugh had to take steps to give him that one and only choice; to save them both. It was the only way.
He slipped into the Core Bubble, briefly studying the electronics schematics. When he found what he was looking for, he paused only briefly before going to work. Reaching in, he severed connections required to operate the longer-range communications equipment. He made sure to circle back, destroying the components that could be used to rig a patchwork fix. Without long-range communications, there was no way Samu’s plan would be viable. It wasn’t viable anyway; Samu just couldn’t see that. In the belt, their short-range systems would be enough to call out to other miners, and they’d have all the extra time a rigged converter would buy them to keep trying. Not just a ridiculous skip across the travel lanes and a prayer. This was the only way to save them both, the only way to get back to his family.
It took the better part of half an hour to make sure his work was thorough and accurate; to be sure he had left no workarounds Samu could use for his ridiculous plan. Samu would be pissed, but with only Hugh’s option he would have no choice but to embrace it. And in the end, his friend would thank him. Samu was right about one thing: they had been as close as brothers for too long. It wasn’t in the man’s nature to hold a grudge, especially a grudge over an act that had saved his life.
When Hugh floated back to the Command Bubble, Samu was already waiting for him. “News, my friend?”
Hugh knew better than to hold off. This was a rip-off-the-band-aid-moment if ever there was one. He told his friend what he had done, with minimal justification. He expected Samu to be angry, resentful, potentially bordering on rage. But his friend’s expression baffled him. Samu looked to be in almost physical pain, an expression that grew in anguish exponentially as Hugh spoke. After only a few moments, he could no longer take seeing that look on his friend’s face.
“This isn’t a betrayal, Samu. I know you must be furious, but you’ll see. This will save us. The pumps will keep us alive for however long they need to on a plush rock. We’ll rig a converter, suck it dry, and do what we need to do. I promise: My way is going to save us.”
Samu still did not speak, but his face was drawn and the rich darkness of his face had paled dramatically. Silent, Samu reached out and called up a menu board on a command screen. Drifting out of the way, he presented it to Hugh.
An action history index filled the screen, displaying in clear detail how fifteen minutes earlier, Samu had ordered that each and every one of the water pumps be jettisoned into deep space.
About the Creator
Steve is a mental health therapist by day, but has always been a fan of making things up. He is an avid reader of all things, but especially speculative fiction, which is where his heart has been ever since he discovered the incredible "alternative normal" that is sci-fi. Steve has published multiple short stories to date to positive review, and his debut novel Minutiae is available on Amazon. He's mildly amusing; you should follow him on Twitter (@C00LpenNAME).
World's Shortest Creator Interview
Q: If your brain were an extinct animal or mineral, what would it be and why?
A: A Dodo bird. Definitely a Dodo bird. But on a golden plinth so I could feel special...
Q: Due to a bureaucratic mixup, you have just been appointed Czar of All Mammalian Nutrition. What is your first edict?
A: First, I praise all the Mammalians for their excellent judgement; I won't let you down. Edict #1: I vow to put an end to the kale propaganda. Glutton is automatically doubled in all servings of every edible (and quasi-edible, what the hell) substance. Some things are worth dying for...
About the Artist
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and he has a janky retro JRPG on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.