If X is a Real Number

May 2016

There is a number on my screen so small it’s just a line of zeroes too long for the ship’s console to display.

It is our chances of survival.

We’ll call it X.

You throw yourself into the comms chair beside me to catch your breath, dumping your EVA helmet and gloves on the floor. “Sealed up tight,” you puff, running fingers through those black curls, where sweat has slicked them to your scalp. You do the same to the wisps of dirty-blonde that have escaped my braid, and drop my plait gently against my breasts. “We lost hydroponics; medibay and comms are open to space . . . actually it’s faster to list what we still have. This,” you gesture to the ship’s bridge. “The galley, quarters, the cryo pods. The lander module, though it’s got a slow leak somewhere. Can’t get to engineering; we’ll have to send someone on a spacewalk to check the core.”

The captain and his second had been in comms, the chief engineer and medical officers at their posts. I don’t even know who’s next in command after that. Certainly not me. I’m a maintenance engineer, a statistician, and a programmer. I don’t do people; that was always your domain.

As you slick off the rest of your EVA suit, the bridge HUD streams damage reports past my face; some red, others orange, few green. Behind, the alert lights blare on every console; the alarms would be shrieking if I hadn’t ripped them off the wall. Whatever we hit has torn through half the ship and most of the crew, and all I can do is try to make X large enough to read, writing lines into the computer’s simulations.

“How many cryo pods?” My voice has no inflection. I should pull my head out of this, comfort you, but the pods could help. I write them into my equation.

“Sixteen. Not enough, even with the casualties.” You massage the bruises on your knuckles from the suit.

Casualties. I didn’t even ask. “Who?” I manage. That’s not the real question, but you know, of course you know.

“It’s okay Yas,” you say, kneeling beside my chair. “Mira and Tas were asleep when it hit. They’re fine, they’re watching cartoons.”

Relief floods from my midsection where my hand is pressed to my caesarean scar. You pull my hand away and thread your fingers through mine, like always, and flip our hands to press my knuckles to your heart, between your breasts. The pulse flutters through to my hand and I want to capture it in my equation somehow.

“We lost Bates,” you say. “And Norm’s lot, and Saph, and most anyone who could do a damn to fix this. We’ve got us and Cooper from comms. Everyone else is civilian.” You aim a kick at the rubbery suit on the floor.

“Oh.” I turn back to X, and take out the options for fixing the ship.

That simplifies things horribly.

“I’ll check engineering; I need you to confine everyone to their quarters,” I say.

“Why?”

Because we don’t have enough pods I want to say, but don’t. Nobody else knows about X. I mumble something about structural integrity and risk, and you wince at my lie. You always know. I squeeze your hand, hard. I’m not shutting you out, my fingers say. But you don’t want to be in my heart for what my head has to do next.

You stride off the bridge, my second, my stalwart. You were always a much better liar.

I grab your EVA suit, transfer my equations to its forearm console as I pull on the sweat-slicked polymer. There’s a faint ridge where you must have sliced it open on something; it heals itself smooth before I grab your helmet.

When I open the airlock, pieces of ship float by. We must have hit hard: up ahead is a huge chunk I can’t even place; all squat angles and coppery lines in my searchlight, nothing like our ship’s smooth curves. I check my tether and push off to investigate.

It’s a cryo pod, and it’s not one of ours. It’s occupied, but the power’s long gone; they wouldn’t have even woken up to know they were dying. I roll the pieces over, checking their origin stamps. It’s not even a ship I recognize.

We’re the third wave of colony ships, and somewhere in the first two, this ship disappeared. They went by the book, and waited in cryo to be rescued, while nobody even realized they were missing. Until we ran right through their debris.

They don’t put escape pods in long-haul flights. You might as well rescue a speck of dust in an ocean.

But we have our lander module. I tug myself back to the ship on the tether and inspect the leaks. They’re repairable. The lander has no navigation, no real engines other than the landing thrusters, but it could fit six of our cryo pods, if I jettisoned everything else.

I turn back to my console with a much smaller, much more specific equation.

X is now the survival of you.


Hours later, I stagger back through the airlock. People are milling in the corridor, and I smack into Cooper. His gaze flicks over the oil, coolant, and sealant that now covers me, and he frowns.

“What’s going on? We’ve seen equipment floating by, even helmets. The civs are getting edgy.”

“Get them to hunt down the EVA suits.” I keep hold of my helmet and try to shove my way forward. “Get some teams together. Electrical, structural.” Please just go away. “I’ll get back to you on where to start.” I try to move past, but he blocks my way.

“Did you see what we hit out there?”

“Rogue asteroid. Tiny thing, chance in a bloody million.”

“Can we fix it?”

I keep my face blank. I’m better at this than I thought. “Move away from this area, there’s a leak in the lander module.” I herd them into the galley and lock the door with the emergency seal. It won’t hold them for long, if they figure it out.

You’re waiting with the kids in our quarters, curled up on the bed with Tas cupped in your crossed legs and Mira asleep, leaning into your shoulder.

“Bring them,” I say. I keep my focus on the fall of Mira’s hair, the curl of Tas’s fingers around your wrist, push everything else out of my head, or you might see it. I’m just here to save our children, Mira and Tas. You, Mira, and Tas.

“No.” You don’t move from your perch. I’m too guarded to show surprise, and you set your jaw firm at my hesitation. “You’re not putting them in cryo.”

“I found a way. It’s safe.”

“What’s your value for ‘safe’?”

I wince. “Safer than here.”

Your green eyes narrow. You’ve figured it out, at least some. I can’t let you work out the rest. X does not account for your refusal.

“What about the others?” Your selflessness used to be beautiful, now it’s excruciating. “They have children too.”

I face the wall to your left, where the civs are in the galley, probably wondering why no one’s seen any EVA suits. “They’re safest here for now. The hull is strongest.”

“Oh Yas.” You divest yourself of tiny limbs and gracefully climb toward me. Tears brim in your eyes, but they won’t fall, not from you. “I’ve never seen you flinch from anything.”

“Please just come with me.” I lower my voice to a whisper so it can’t break, and take a breath. “I’ve run the numbers.”

I can face you now, honesty ringing hot down my spine. “I’ve run them until my eyes bleed. We can’t save everyone. There’s no way out, not for them. I’m not the captain. I’m not anyone in authority, but I can save a handful of people, and yes, I’m going to save my children. So bring them with you, please.”

My hands shudder from skating so close to the rest of the truth, the factors that X is dependant on, the things you can’t know. To hide it, I walk over to Mira, now sprawled on the bed, and I gingerly kiss her forehead. I hope she wakes, I want an excuse to say goodbye, to explain, to apologize, but if she wakes I don’t know that I’ll be able to let her go. I carry her out of the room, asleep. You follow me with Tas, and I shuffle us quietly to the lander dock.

“What about suits?”

“I fixed the leaks.” I override the dock safeties, opening the airlock into the lander slowly, so the air from the rest of the ship fills it. Your eyes widen, but you trust me.

That trust has never felt so bitter.

The lander is cramped with cryo pods and a dozen pod power supplies. The air is thin, but the repairs hold. I push you forward, hoping you won’t notice what I fixed the leaks with, but you run your fingers over the self-healing polymer.

“Did you use every suit?” Your voice is faint, like you’re describing a nightmare.

I push you forward again. “We don’t have time.”

You’re shaking, trying to work out just how far I’ve gone. “You took all the suits . . . So they can’t reach us, didn’t you? You’re going to detach the lander, so they can’t take the cryo pods for themselves.”

“Please just trust me.” Please stop thinking it through.

I settle Tas into the first of the coffin-shaped cryo pods, his tiny body engulfed under the gel and sensors. I kiss his forehead, hold the kiss until my lips numb between his skull and my teeth, and let him sink under the gel. You look at me nervously as we lower Mira, still sleeping, into her gel.

“There’s only three. Where’s yours?”

“Not ready yet,” I grunt, and lower my face down to Mira’s so I can lie with impunity. “I’ve got things to do first.” I kiss her cheeks, her tiny nose, her brow, now sticky with the gel where I brushed her hair from her face. I breathe her hair in as hard as I can, try to fill myself with that memory.

“I’m not going if you’re not.”

“They’ll need you.” I try to keep things matter-of-fact as I close up Mira’s capsule. “They need their mother.”

“And you don’t count?” your voice shrills.

“Just in case.” I half turn so you can’t see me palm the stunner from my hip.

“There isn’t room for four,” you say, voice rising. “You took the power supplies from the others. You’re not coming!” You’re easily loud enough for the crew to hear through the bulkheads. “You’re all dying here.”

I stun you, full in the chest. Your body crumples and I stretch to catch your weight. The old scar across my belly strains. The crew pounds on the galley door behind us.

You’re awake, but limp. I ease you into your capsule, place the sensors along your body like kisses.

Cooper buzzes in my ear from the suit comms. “Yas, there aren’t any suits. What’s going on?” No more thuds to the door. They’re trying something else. I have to launch the lander before they stop me.

“But there’s more pods,” you slur, your muscles not moving quite right for speech. “Why aren’t you coming?”

“There’s still one pod left. I’ll do mine on auto when I get everything set up,” I promise, smoothing down your hair. The truth presses against my throat, swelling my tongue, but I bite my lips silent.

“Liar.”

I plant a kiss on your limp lips. You try to move them, to kiss me back, but they’re insensate. You can’t feel our last kiss, and it’s barely a kiss for me.

There’s a faint hiss up the corridor, and the metal spits. Someone’s found an arc torch. They’re melting through the door.

“It’s the only way you’d have a chance,” I whisper.

You try to shake your head but the gel holds you fast. “Worth it.”

“Not to me.” I stroke your cheek, and the tears finally spill down your face as I seal you in.

I cram my helmet on and fire the separation procedure for the lander module. I’ve already programmed the thrusters to time its path. A warning klaxon sounds, and the dock’s inner airlock slams shut behind me to seal the ship. With a series of clunks, the module detaches itself from the ship, and shoots out into space.

I float untethered, out of reach of the ship.

“The lander airlock is open to space. Do not open the door,” I say through my comms. I try to sound commanding, like the voice you pulled up from your boots when you’re mad, but my insides are hollow — there’s nothing to pull.

Questions fire through my headset in confusion and outrage, a babble of “what are you doing” and “how dare you” and “what’s going on.”

“You should go back to your quarters and be with your loved ones,” I say, “The core has gone critical. We’ve a few hours before we’re vapor.”

More outrage, more ranting.

I try to twist to see your path, all strength draining from my limbs. They can figure it out themselves, they can tear open the door and suffocate, it doesn’t really matter. I float in the suit you wore hours ago, and try to breathe the air you exhaled.

The comms crackle through our air.

“Yasmine, the cryo power supplies are gone.” It’s Cooper. Cooper with a son younger than Tas, whose wife had been in the medibay. I want to shove needles in my ears.

My numbers are staring back at me from the console on my forearm. I close my eyes and pull Mira’s hair into my mind, the scent that I filled my head with, the rough of it across my lips.

“Yasmine, what did you do?”

The memories slip. He’s just going to keep asking. “There were never enough pods—”

“We’d have had a fair lottery!” Cooper interrupts.

“It wouldn’t have mattered if we had had enough. That wasn’t the problem.”

“The problem’s the psychopath in the docking bay,” someone yells.

“The problem is,” I snap, “we’re arse-deep in space, out where nobody travels.” I’m spinning, slowly, the ruin of our ship in front of me. “This is where ships go to die, like the derelict we hit. Nobody found them before the cryo power gave out. No one will find us.”

“You don’t know that,” Cooper shoots back.

“Cryo pods are short-range, fifty years at best.” They were always a bit of a sop on long-haulers, but you couldn’t send civs out with nothing. “But you can chain their power supplies with a bit of work. It’s not pretty, but it works: you cannibalise one pod to support another.” The numbers are rattling out of me now, unstoppable. “You can fit four power supplies in the space of one cryo pod.”

They were quiet a few seconds. “So where did the other batteries go?” Cooper asks.

“Do the math.” Don’t make me say it. “If you’re doing it again and again, if you’re only flying three people instead of fifteen, those three can fly a few thousand years before their cryo dies. Far enough to reach a sun and recharge, maybe. Far enough to live.”

If you call it living when you stood on that many corpses to get there. I hope to god you never figure it out.

“But the lander can’t steer. You’ve fired it off like a dart. How do you know you haven’t sent them straight into a planet?”

Shut up, Cooper. “I calculated. Carefully.”

“We could have sent the children,” Cooper protests. His voice is hollow.

“One extra battery would give them a few hundred years at best. It wasn’t enough.” Not out here. Not with nobody looking.

“That wasn’t your decision to make,” Cooper says.

“It wasn’t. But I made it anyway. I’m not a psychopath, I know what I did.”

They’re silent again. My spin has brought me around to see your vector. You’re already out of sight.

“Go back to your quarters, Cooper.” My anger’s all washed out. “Go be with your son. Life support will fail in four hours, the power will fail in ten. Even if the core wasn’t going critical, there’s nothing left we can do.”

“Why didn’t you go with them?” Cooper’s voice is soft, now.

I crunch my body to squeeze the scar over my belly until it hurts a little more than my heart. “One more person in the lander, and there’s only room for eight power supplies, and then those eight are feeding four cryo pods. The numbers only work with three.”

Not exactly true. They might have worked with four. But if I’m making a list of those who’re expendable to save you, there’s only one column I fall under.

“You left one cryo pod with a power supply.”

“Merry Christmas.” Tell me how to choose which one I loved got the extra battery. “We’re gonna be stardust in a few hours.”

“Aren’t you taking it?”

“I’m not tethered out here.”

The comm is silent. I draw your face in the stars with my mind. Galaxies hollow your cheeks, and a nebula blushes your lips.

“What’re their chances?” He means well. He wants to share my hope.

“Shut up, Cooper.”

There’s little over three hours before the core goes — long enough for you to get out of the radius, I made sure of that. Then it’ll be over. Honestly I’d rather go that way than choking or freezing. A mini-nova, a bright burning flare saying “look over here, something happened here.” Someone might see. Another bump to your numbers, the last I can give.

I float, arms waving in the space you left. I fill my mind with Mira’s hair, Tas’s laughter, your smile, until I’m a solid tug of longing.

The line of zeroes glare up at me from my console, still too long to display.

About the Author

Sofie Bird writes speculative fiction in Melbourne, Australia, and pays the bills as a technical writer, where no one looks at her askance for wanting to know everything. She also programs, weaves, sculpts glass, and maintains a website at sofiebird.net. Sofie is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, has published poetry in the Australian periodical Blue Dog, and her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and the anthology Temporally Out Of Order, by Zombies Need Brains. You can follow her on Twitter @sofie_bird.