Short Yarn: Countdown
Jerome peered out the small port window. He had a wonderful view of the planet’s barren surface; Pluto was a desolate, gray wasteland of frozen water and rock. Icicles had formed on the outside of the escape pod but inside it was still warm.
“Anything?” Malcolm asked. He wasn’t optimistic about the condition of their small, temporary living quarters.Sparkswere always a bad sign. “I don’t trust this hunk of metal to withstand the beating much longer.”
“Nothing. I can hardly see a thing, though,” Jerome replied, shaking his head at Malcolm. “With our luck the distress beacon is destroyed.”
Malcolm sighed and sank into his seat. He had been warned about taking the virgin run into uncharted space, but had paid little attention. The black depths of the infinite beyond beckoned him, even if he was only a lowly mechanic. He could picture his wife, hand on her hip, angrily shaking her finger while needling him with “Ah hell no’s” and “I told you so’s.”
“How many days of oxygen does this bucket of bolts hold?” Jerome asked, tapping at the dial indicating there was no oxygen left to breathe.
“I don’t know, man, I’m just a mechanic. I didn’t read the manual on escape craft, did you?”
“Nope. Figured you might know… seem like a smart guy.”
“What gave you that impression?”
“Uh, the glasses. I always relate the two; smart people and glasses.”
“I see. What was your job?”
“Communications,” Jerome replied. He unclipped the nametag from his breast pocket and tossed it to Malcolm. “Specialist in deep space operations.”
“You don’t wear glasses,” Malcolm said with a chuckle. “Shouldn’t you be able to tell if the signal beacon is working then?”
“Ever use a computer?”
“Run a few programs, tinkered with the internet, that sort of thing?”
“Yeah, that would be the extent of my experience. Why?”
“Well, think of my expertise as your familiarity with computers. I know the software, doesn’t mean I know dick about the hardware.”
“You could have just told me that instead of the elaborate example,” Malcolm said, glowering.
“I suppose, but it’s not like we don’t have time.”
Silence seemed quieter on the dead surface of an ice world. The constant hum of the pod was broken up by the sharp snap of electrical sparks. It startled Malcolm and Jerome every time.
“It’s getting colder,” Jerome said, rubbing his hands together.
“Yeah, I noticed.”
The two strangers both nodded and tried to act as though the situation were entirely normal. It wasn’t about the awkwardness that ordinarily accompanied meeting new people, but the impending sense of doom that neither wanted to talk about. Malcolm was biting his nails.
That’s a nasty habit you got there, Malcolm. My brother chewed on his nails too, drove me up the damn wall. Made my ma crazy as hell too, but the boy never learned.”
“My wife bought me this clear nail polish that tasted like a dog’s ass. She made me paint my nails with it. It was meant to stop me from biting them, but I couldn’t stop licking it. Tanika figured I was some kind of goddamn masochist.”
“That’s pretty weird, bro,” Jerome said with a quirked brow.
Malcolm peered out the window, ignoring Jerome’s comments. He already had a wife and the communications officer was starting to sound a lot like her.
“You ever watch those old science fiction serials?” Malcolm asked over his shoulder.
“When I signed up for this shit I had such a distorted view about the reality of space travel,” Malcolm said with a half grin. “Swear to God I thought I might get myself some alien action when we blew past Jupiter.”
“I guess I watched too much television,” Malcolm said as he slid back in his seat.
The pod shook and groaned for several seconds, silencing the conversation. The men grabbed the armrests of their seats and gripped them with all the strength they could muster. They both exhaled when the rumbling subsided. Jerome wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Shit,” Malcolm whispered.
“My thoughts exactly.”
“How long have we been down here, anyway?”
“Um, just over four hours,” Jerome replied after checking his watch.
“Do you think anyone else got off of the ship?”
“I don’t know, bro; it broke up pretty fast after the first asteroid plowed through the hull.”
“There’s something I don’t understand, maybe you can enlighten me.”
“Shoot,” Jerome said.
“Didn’t anyone consider asteroids to be a bit of a hazard before sending Expedition so goddamn far from Earth?”
“I would imagine so,” Jerome replied.
“Then why did one measly asteroid rip a stadium sized hole out of it?”
“That’s a good question.”
“Damn right it is, but one that hardly matters now,” Malcolm muttered. “You’ve got icicles growing over your head.”
Jerome looked up to where Malcolm was pointing. It was true; small drips of ice dangled from the ceiling of the pod, growing as the temperature slowly dropped. Jerome rubbed his hands together again.
“I have a feeling running out of oxygen is the least of our worries,” Jerome said with a sigh. “You ever play football, Malcolm?”
“A little bit, mostly backyard scrums with friends.”
“Man, I loved me some football. I was All-State back in ’63, had legs like you wouldn’t believe. I was injured my senior year and that was the end of it. My brother, the nail biter, went on to live my dream and played both college and pro.”
“That’s rough, bro.”
“Not really. Marcus always wanted to be an astronaut, so it worked out in a funny way. I watched this program once when I was a boy, about how in the future, young men like me would be playing football on Pluto thanks to revolutionary leaps in habitation technology. I loved that show.”
“Yeah, I remember that. It had that little penguin that got his ass sacked by a big linebacker wearing a jersey sponsored by Envirotec, right?”
The men both laughed long and hard. When the laughter died, the awkward silence returned. Malcolm faked a cough and stared at the ceiling.
“Yeah, our situation just reminded me of that,” Jerome said, glancing casually out the window. “Damn, my fingers are going numb.”
White clouds of vapour accompanied every breath as the men sat in silence. They tried not to think about the ramifications of sitting on Pluto for too long.
Malcolm thought of his home back on Earth. He loved coiling up in front of the fireplace, sipping on imported coffee with Tanika at his side. She was a warm woman. He wished he had listened to her; Malcolm smiled when he pictured the stern look Tanika often gave him when she was proven right.
“What does your wife do?”
“Tanika? She’s a doctor,” Malcolm replied with a proud grin.
“Damn, and here I am a single guy living the poor man’s life. I wish I had me a sugar mamma.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Just kidding, bro,” Jerome said, holding up his hands.
The pod groaned again and Malcolm stood to his feet as a low, rumbling sound vibrated somewhere beneath his feet. A shrill crack stung their ears. The temperature started dropping faster.
“Goddamn it!” Malcolm shouted. Shards of electrical light showered down from the ceiling and bounced across the floor before winking out. The pod was coming apart at the seams.
“Can’t you jury rig this thing?” Jerome screamed over the chaos.
“Can’t you send out a more powerful distress signal?” Malcolm retorted.
“Look, this thing’s got to hold together and you’re the mechanic, bro!”
“I need time and tools, of which I have neither. This is it, Jerome, this is your last moment. What are you going to do with it?”
Jerome looked blankly at Malcolm and then punched him in the face. The crack of his fist against the man’s face was drowned by the roar of the disintegrating pod. Icy death slipped through the gaping cracks, sucking life from the heart of it. Malcolm stared up at Jerome through blood covered fingers. It was freezing to his skin.
“I want to feel alive before I die,” Jerome shouted. His limbs seared with white hot pain.
Malcolm balled his fist but struggled to drive his arm forward.
“It’s like Tanika always said…” Malcolm growled with clenched teeth. He stood there, the words flashing in his mind, but his mouth unable to move. Malcolm remembered his hot coffee woman next to the hot fire with hot cocoa in his hand.
Then the world ended.