"Author's note: Just finished writing this one, so I'm sure it has all the fallacies of a first draft, and is in dire need of critique. It started out as just one scene, so I had to spin a coherent story out of it somehow, and I'm not quite sure how believable the premise is. It's sci-fi (ish), and is 1700 words. Yes, I know, the title is terrible."
He stared out of the window. The infinite, yet uninviting darkness of space stared back. He had once been proud to look out of this window, knowing that it was a view that few people were fortunate enough to experience, but not now. Not anymore. Space had once looked back at him with respect; now it mocked him.
He, Lewis, had been living in this floating spaceship for far too long. He shared the ship with only one other astronaut. They were both incredibly gifted people, and the two of them were probably a selection of the most intelligent humans that had been on the planet. And they were part of a space agency that employed several hundred more intelligent humans. And yet, they'd made such a frustratingly simple mistake. And worse, they hadn't noticed it for years.
They were on their return trip now. After years of living in the floating metal behemoth, traversing the solar system to carry out research tasks that had once seemed drastically important but now felt feeble and uneducated, Earth was practically at arm's length once again. But they wouldn't make it. The ship would, of course. All their research would survive. It would help progress humanity's understanding of other worlds exponentially, and the astronauts' names would be forever tied to that progress. That was supposed to be their consolation. Some trade, thought Lewis.
The fact was that the two astronauts would not breathe for much longer; and it was a definite fact. After days of what the people on Earth had claimed to be painstaking efforts to save the crew, they had given up, saying that the only plausible solutions were too costly to even consider, and had retired their lives with infuriating formality. Lewis was convinced it was due to a combination of manned expeditions becoming less necessary; astronauts becoming surplus and expendable; and the fact that the two on the spaceship could easily be held accountable for their own ignorance. Their families had of course been given the opportunity to speak to them for one last time, although it had felt less like a goodbye and more like speaking to the casket at a funeral.
An oxygen leak. Embarrassing, really. Children could have planned for it. But Lewis was not angry at anyone – after all, he had been on the ship as well, and hadn't noticed, not for years. He had been a fool in good company. No-one had noticed the small leak – and it was indeed so small that it would not have mattered, even after months left unfixed. But after years, it mattered. Especially since the mission had once been extended, giving the leak even more time to do its work. The leak was patched now, and it had been annoyingly simple to fix, but the damage had been done. They no longer had enough oxygen to make it home.
The ship had had oxygen stored far in excess, of course – but even this precaution was ultimately squandered by the stubbornness of time. It was stupid that neither of the two astronauts had noticed. Science-fiction would have dealt with this by using a computer system that easily detected the dwindling oxygen supply and alerted the crew – but these ships had been designed with the simple assumption that the crew would be competent. If times had been different – if they had been a few years into the past, at the birth of extended space-travel – a leak such as this would have been defeated by simple routine-checking. But no one really expected such elementary mistakes anymore.
Lewis closed his eyes. Perhaps he'd thought, deep down, that looking into the infinity of space would have inspired something in him – something good, noble, or even heroic – but it had only made him sick. He wanted to go home.
He turned around and walked to the other end of his white-walled shuttle-room. He pressed the button to open the door, and the large, silver plates slid apart satisfyingly. He walked through the small connecting corridor and found himself in the main section of the ship. There was no trouble walking, of course – the centrifugal rotation of the entire spaceship simulated earth gravity perfectly – a concept that had been perfected for decades. It was darkly humorous that they had mastered walking in space, but not breathing.
The actual design of the ship had not stopped seeming clever to Lewis, despite every other part of space-travel now being infuriating. He was the type of man to appreciate good design above most else. The ship had been manufactured as building-blocks. Expensive and high-tech building-blocks, but building-blocks nonetheless. Every room was a perfectly measured cube, called a shuttle-room. The main room of the ship was multiple cubes long and stretched through the middle, and auxiliary rooms were attached symmetrically along it. Multiple shuttle-rooms had been designated as spaces for each astronaut's research; each astronaut had their own private room where they'd sleep or spend their time how they wished; a few computer rooms with enough processing power between them to run anything required ten-fold; a handful of storage rooms; and of course, many engine rooms, usually furthest out from the main strip of the spaceship, with thrusters to make the mammoth move as necessary. All of this, as a series of white cubes with more cubes protruding from each face. Wonderfully efficient.
But perhaps Lewis appreciated it for other, less innocent reasons. His own guilt prodded this thought into his head – was he about to desecrate the pristine design with his disgusting actions?
Lewis' mind continued to be flooded with doubt and apprehension, and yet, he walked on with such blind determination. He did not want to die on this spaceship. His morals were well and good, but he was not ashamed to say that he valued his own life above anyone else's.
Had anyone been looking at the spaceship, be it by technological surveillance or divine omniscience, they would not have noticed anything strange. The many-cubed spaceship continued on its doomed journey, spinning through the emptiness of space. There were far less cubes now than there had been when the mission had started, of course. Many of the engine rooms had become obsolete – and like all obsolete thrusters, they had been ejected. Their cubes – the outermost cubes – had been detached from the spaceship. Lewis had been the one to detach many of them.
He strolled through the bulk of the spaceship, his breathing barely noticeable. He came to his destination; a shuttle-room on the other end of the ship. It was strange, he thought, that the design could be so easily exploited for something like this. Private rooms on the edge of the ship, so that astronauts could have a view of space. Perhaps it was not as clever as it had seemed.
The shuttle-room was Mark's private room. Lewis' partner; the astronaut who had worked alongside him for years. He would be in that room now, perhaps lost in thought, equally crushed by the fact that his breaths were limited. Could he have had the same fleeting thoughts as Lewis? Or was he too good of a man?
Lewis' contemplations over the last few days, combined with his superior logical capabilities, had led to his understanding of a few important factors. The first was that, as all the shuttle-rooms had been connected to the ship in the same fashion, and had been designed before their purpose was designated, they would all have the same functionality – functionality that Lewis used very often. The second was that his life may not be entirely doomed. Every infuriating calculation about the remaining oxygen levels had been done using a single derived factor – their combined living conditions. There was certainly not enough oxygen to last them both. But it turned out that there would be just enough remaining if the demand was cut in half.
There was a plane of plastic in the door to the shuttle room that served as a window. Lewis could make out the blurry figure of Mark, lying down in his sleeping quarters, unaware of the judgment that had been placed on him.
Lewis opened the control panel next to the metal door. He thought about the magnitude of the decision he had made – but there it was: it was already made. He wondered again why the technologically infallible behemoth even allowed things like this to happen; but again, it had been designed under the assumption that the crew would be competent.
Lewis typed in a few numbers. Remarkably few, in fact, but this was merely a routine procedure to get rid of obsolete shuttle-rooms. It was a simple task. He pressed the final button. He heard the whoosh of suction that he had heard many times before, as Mark's shuttle-room detached from the ship. The black, rubber border around the double-plated door split in two, leaving two entirely separate entities floating in space.
The detached shuttle-room was mere centimeters from the ship, but it was done. There was no way for Mark to return. Lewis knew full well the weight of what he had just done; willingly taken a life.
Mark had heard it happened; perhaps he had felt it. As the shuttle-room drifted slowly away from the ship, centimeter by centimeter, he ran up to the window on his door. He pressed his face against it. Lewis watched. The two men were an inch apart -- one doomed early; one saved.
Mark began shouting. He pounded against the window. Lewis stared unmoving, deaf to the sound. It could not traverse the miniscule vacuum.
Mark's pounding was accompanied by a face of equal parts fear and anger. But no disbelief. He knew what had happened. He was doomed; to a far more swift doom than before.
Lewis looked down. The sound of the pounding and shouting may not carry, but he could see Mark's expressions, and he didn't want to. He was certain of his choice, but wasn't proud of it. The shuttle-room continued to drift. Lewis began to walk away.
Mark would last minutes. Lewis would now last the journey home. What would happen after he arrived on Earth? After the man who should not be alive returns alone? He would be called a coward. His arrival would be announced by global shaming. He would be condemned for murder. And rightfully so. He wouldn't argue; but at least he'd be alive.