Tony let out the breath he had been holding. His crew had made the same calculation, but some part of him held onto the hope they were wrong, that Base Control would provide them with a lifeline home, only two hours away.
He stared out the viewport at the expanding blue and green orb. Two hours to Earth, ninety minutes of air. They would be so close to that infinite atmosphere of air when their own reserves ran out.
Tony looked over his two crewmates. Beth gazed out the other viewport, her face furrowed in thought, and her breathing purposefully long and laboured. How was she taking the news? An hour ago she couldn't have been in higher spirits, what with her--or rather their --discovery. Beth made it sound like she took the subsurface sample, she did the tests, she determined that water existed in the equatorial regions, and not just the poles.
Beth wasn't an emotional person. At least, she never outwardly showed her feelings. Always serious, and to the point. That attitude might just save them.
He turned his attention to Robert. Their threesome had almost broken up because of the tension between him and Beth during the training sessions. Only a lot of convincing on Tony's part allowed them both to stay on the mission. These were the two he had wanted, the two he felt sure would make this mission a success.
Occasionally, Rob still annoyed Beth with a sarcastic remark or practical joke. Not that she showed any sign of being bothered. Tony knew, however, that it got to her on some level. And so did Rob.
There's barely enough for two of you...
The three of them would slowly suffocate as they ran out of air. Someone needed to be awake for any last minute course adjustments prior to re-entry, so they couldn't hope to survive the last half-hour deprived of oxygen.
He considered the possibility of sacrificing himself for the sake of Beth and Rob. He was, after all, the senior officer, and the oldest member of the crew. Yet the others didn't have the same commitments. His own family to look after, a wife and two kids. Though shouldn't they get that chance?
It was his job to make those final course changes. He had trained for it, and was the one most qualified to make the proper realignments for re-entry. If those calibrations were off a fraction of a percent, they would burn up in the atmosphere. Or worse yet, bounce off the stratosphere and forever into space.
So it had to be Rob or Beth. How did you tell someone to give up their life?
The time read 0844. Tony had already made the calculation in his head. 0905 was the cut off. If all three of them were still breathing oxygen, there would no longer be enough for two of them to make it home. It was time for a decision.
"Well," Tony began. Rob gave him an appealing look. Beth half-turned her weightless body from the viewport.
"There isn't an easy solution to our predicament. Whatever becomes of us, I want you all to know that it has been a pleasure serving with you. We made some historic discoveries out there."
Rob nodded, adding, "We made quite the team as well." Beth only offered a half-hearted smile.
"There isn't a lot of time," Tony continued. "You know as well as I that there isn't enough oxygen for the three of us." But enough for two.
Tony paused. He needed to choose his words carefully. He certainly wasn't going to mention having already excluded himself.
"Two of us, however, can survive. I know what that implies, and I can't make such a decision for either of you. Yet if any of us are to get home, we have to resolve this now."
Tony left it there, hoping one of them would speak.
Silence lingered, thick and tangible.
Rob wanted to say something. He couldn't. Not until he knew his answer.
Tony was right in one respect. Why should all three of them sit here when there was more than enough air for two of them to make it? Deciding who got the short straw, a short life, was what terrified Rob.
Back in university, one of his friends had tricked him into taking a philosophy course. It felt like a waste of time, a big joke, and he was the punch line.
Not anymore. Science and math were meaningless at the moment.
One of the topics, probably the only thing he remembered, was utilitarianism. Each person was to act in such a way as to maximize happiness. If he offered his life for Tony and Beth, wouldn't he be following those rules? But the theory was flawed. Someone with two kidneys shouldn't be forced to give up one of them, even if it meant saving another's life. That would be a virtuous act, but it wasn't required by nature. So he shouldn't have to volunteer himself to be thrown out the spacecraft.
But why not? That seemed the best solution.
He needed to be objective. Hell--that wasn't possible. He was the youngest of the three. Why shouldn't Beth be the lucky one? The heroine of the day. She would love how politically correct that sounded. Tony couldn't be asked to do such a thing, what with his wife and two little ones. Yet Tony was the senior officer here. He should make the decision, and not leave them dwelling on their own thoughts.
Rob couldn't bear this any longer. He needed to talk this through.
"It can't be Tony," he said openly. "I think we can all agree on that."
Tony frowned and Beth stirred. Maybe that was too direct. But they had to come to an agreement. Hiding the fact that one of them was going to die wouldn't help matters any.
"Listen. One of us has to go. Otherwise all three of us do. It won't be Tony. Beth, it's either you or me."
She finally twisted around far enough around so he could see her face. Their eyes met for a moment.
"I bet I know your preference," she said.
"I'm certain of yours."
He didn't really dislike Beth. Some part of him considered her pretty, in a platonic way. They just didn't gel. Similar to how he got along with his impossible-to-please sister.
"How do you suggest we reach a decision?" Beth asked coolly.
"Wanna flip a coin?"
Beth shook her head and turned away. She shouldn't let him get to her so easily. The truth of the matter was Rob didn't have an answer for her. At least, not yet.
He could only imagine what Beth the control freak was going through. When the error message first appeared, she refused to believe it, kept insisting it was an erratic reading. But none of them could deny what they saw out the viewports. Something had hit their spacecraft. A completely unpredictable and uncontrollable event. That's what would really get to Beth.
"Why did you make us go out on that last expedition?" he asked her.
"What are you talking about?"
"On Mars. You made us take that extra trip to the equator, and go out onto the surface. Made us deplete the rest of the oh two reserves in our spacesuits."
"If we hadn't done so, we never would've discovered evidence of water."
"If we hadn't done so, we would have plenty of air left."
"If," Tony stated emphatically. "If we hadn't detoured to fly by the moon. If we stayed one month instead of two. Or just one minute longer. If we hadn't come on this mission. "
Again, Tony was right. Why would he say something like that?
"Sorry Beth, you aren't to blame."
A piece of space debris one centimeter across, travelling thousands of kilometers a second, was the likely culprit. Something that size could easily puncture a hole in their hull. Luckily that hadn't happened. But the oxygen tanks were damaged. Tanks one and two were empty, and number three had a steady leak.
0851. Fourteen minutes. The numbers wouldn't lie. Or would they? Machines were known to make mistakes.
He grabbed a clipboard attached to the wall with velcro, and pulled a pen from a pocket in his suit. Scribbling down the oxygen reading from tank three, the distance to Earth, and the litres of oxygen each of them needed to consume, he did all the work by hand.
Tony saw what he was doing.
"The computer's done all that."
"I need to do this myself."
"Want a calculator?"
Twenty-seven minutes before they arrived home the excess carbon dioxide would render them unconscious.
There wasn't a solution in the numbers. The answer they were looking for would have to come from Tony or Beth--or himself.
Watching the venting oxygen made Beth shudder. Yet she couldn't move from the viewport. She found it hard to accept: their mission would end in failure. Sure they had discovered fossilized water on the surface of Mars. But that's not what the headlines would read.
Astronaut Sacrifices Life for Crewmates.
She didn't know what to do. Didn't know what was better. To die for a just cause. Or live in guilt.
The nobler option didn't appeal to her. Dying, entering nothingness, petrified her. Next to this, defending her thesis was a joyful experience. Of all the things she had come to terms with--her father, her inhibitions--death was something she never thought about. There wasn't enough time to make a decision like this. She hated to admit it, even to herself, but she cracked under pressure. She took a long, slow breath, trying unsuccessfully to calm her mind in this suffocating capsule, and then turned to face her comrades turned adversaries.
Lost in thought, Tony didn't notice her staring. An efficient leader, and a kind man, he probably would've offered his own life if he didn't have family obligations. She had always put her career before her love life, and could only imagine finishing her biochemistry PhD flying solo. Yet now, she couldn't shake her maternal remorse. She always thought motherhood would happen, eventually. But she was nearing middle-age, and her career was still keeping her busy. Maybe if she made more time for herself, didn't work so hard all the time...
She blinked, pushing that fantasy away. Beth assumed marriage would've ended her life, at least career-wise; she never thought it could possibly save her.
Rob was studying her, for once without a grin. Maybe we should flip a coin. How could he joke at a time like this? It shouldn't surprise her. Maybe he had been serious. Maybe flipping a coin was the most reasonable way.
"How are we going to decide, Rob?"
"You mean, between you and me?"
"Like I said, we'll flip for it," he said, sounding ambiguous enough to both annoy and worry her.
"I heard you the first time. What I mean is, how will we choose, rationally ."
"We can let Tony do it," Rob said. Tony didn't look too excited at the idea. "If you don't want to leave it to chance, we'll leave it to the captain."
"I don't think I can do that," Tony interjected. "Please don't make me decide. I can't be an executioner."
Rob coughed. "You're the lucky one, you shouldn't complain."
"I wouldn't call myself lucky," Tony replied in earnest.
"From where I stand, you have it pretty good."
Beth interrupted. "You won't be an executioner, just an arbitrator."
"I told you, I can't ."
"All right. I'll do it," Rob solemnly pledged. "But Beth has to give me a reason why it should be me instead of her."
"What?" she exclaimed.
"You heard me. Tell me why I should buy the farm, check out, go to a better place--whatever you want to call it--and I'll nominate myself."
"Rob, what the hell are you--"
"Do you want to die? I didn't think so. Now. Give me one good reason."
Was he serious? Beth wasn't sure. Why couldn't he just go honourably, instead of teasing her to the very end?
"Well?" he prompted.
"Well, you've, uh...." She struggled to find the words that weren't there.
She blurted it out. "You've experienced more in life than me."
"True enough. But you've received far more awards and admiration. I would say that evens things out."
"Rob! I thought you said I only have to give you one reason."
"It has to be a good reason"
"And what would qualify as--"
Tony broke in.
"We're running out of oxygen."
"What?" she said, but knew what he meant. 0857. Eight minutes. Or they all died.
"We can't reach a decision in the little time remaining. So we'll have to pick straws. Whoever gets the short straw, the other two will inject with anesthetic. They won't feel any pain. I'm including myself in this."
"Tony, you shouldn't have to--" Rob had started but Beth spoke over top of him.
"You're leaving this to chance? I don't believe this. How can we let the most important decision of our lives depend upon a lottery?"
"How can we decide otherwise? There's no other way."
"There must be, Tony. We just haven't considered all our options."
"There's no time . We have to make a choice, and make it now."
Beth started flailing her arms. Visions of her childhood enticed her with their innocence.
"You've had a good life, Tony," she pleaded. "You're already married and have kids."
"I thought you didn't want any children."
"I don't know anymore. Maybe I do, maybe I don't." Beth knew she was babbling, but couldn't help herself. "I just...I can't let luck determine my fate. I can't think clearly. There must be another way."
"There isn't. And even if there was, none of us have the time or mindset to work it out."
"There has to be some way, something we can do. A drug, the spacesuits, another ship..."
"Guys," Rob interrupted. "Look at the time."
All three turned to watch the numbers change from eight fifty-nine to nine o'clock. Five minutes. Three hundred seconds.
They were all startled by the sudden crackle of the radio.
"Voyager VII, this is Base Control. Do you copy? Over."
No one answered, because they didn't have an answer. Precious seconds ticked by. Beth sucked in precious air.
"Voyager, do you read?"
Finally, Tony clicked on the intercom.
"Yes, we read you. Has our status changed?"
"Negative. Have the three of you come up with a solution?"
After a moment, Tony replied:
"Yes, we have a solution."
Lee Beavington is a Biology Lab Instructor at Kwantlen University College. His passions include writing, music, film, running, nature, and far too many others to pursue in one lifetime. Over the last few years, he has written thirty science-fiction stories and a fantasy novel, for which he is currently seeking publication. Lee currently resides on the west coast of Canada, on a little street called Zero Avenue.
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