by Steve 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 the bay.
"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
"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. Then the Command Bubble was abandoned as the two floated
off to assess the potential damage done to the most critical of their
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 none-the-less. 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
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 were
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 pause from his friend immediately dissipated his struggling
optimism. He waited in painful silence, until a few seconds later Samu
"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."
"Damn." 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
"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
Honeycomb was highly effective at catching most space debris and
preventing any relevant damage, and you could often sell it after a
deep-space mission for an additional pretty penny, to any number of
groups who might want to study what had been captured between the
No matter how much the stuff could net, it wasn't worth anything when it didn't work.
"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."
"Less than two-and-half tanks." 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 and find a way to strip the 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 and burning all that fuel to make a
beeline against the gravimetrics of the solar system had been pure
idiocy, the experiment 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. "We are down to only two remaining Hydrogen Oxide
"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 the stores they needed to survive left.
"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, the spaceways completely abandoned, for what? So that now, not
only will we die, but also 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
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
"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
"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
"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 Hydrogen Oxide systems--see if it's even
possible to rig a converter to purify a greater take and strip 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." 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 angry, 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
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
"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 African
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 one of
the water pumps be jettisoned into deep space.
© 2016 Steve Evans
Bio: Mr. Evans is a mental health therapist by trade and
occupation. An avid reader and aspiring writer of all things
speculative fiction, he has written numerous science fiction and
fantasy short stories, one novel, and has another book coming down the
pike. He has a beautiful and amazing wife who thankfully decided
to marry down in life, and two awesome kids too innocent to know how
big of a nerd their father is. His website is www.speculativity.com.
E-mail: Steve Evans
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