The thin white metal of the wall shrieked as I scoured another tally mark into the wall with a jagged shard of steel broken off from one of the exterior plates on the ship. The last grains of sand in the hourglass trickled out. I watched them fall and then immediately flipped the hourglass over to the other side. Another twelve hours gone by. The colored sand slid down into the funnel, the seconds dribbling out once again. Earth seconds, earth minutes, earth hours, earth days. All our calculations written in numbers meaningless without these tally marks etched into the wall..
Stars, I hated having to do everything manually. The desk, normally full of glassy, blinking displays, was now scattered with papers all marked with my awful scrawl of a handwriting. Pages of equations and numbers, calculations of everything from the amount of power necessary to propel myself away from the gravity of this junky space rock to the amount of water that could be produced per (earth) hour, to the number of (earth) days I had left to live. My least favorite papers were the ration charts. Everything precisely counted out, split up to mathematically keep me alive for the longest stretch of time possible.
The math cared about the calories, the blood oxygen level, the point where dehydration would lead to mental incapacity, the temperature necessary to prevent frostbite. Math did not care about my stomach trying to gnaw its way out of my body, or the headache throbbing behind my eyes, or the numbness of my toes when this scrawny planet finally rotated away from the light of its orange star.
Even time was rationed out. Every moment counted in situations like these. Next on the schedule was outside work. I was trying to get the solar panels hooked up so that enough energy could be stored to power a few things up. I also needed to check all the hull breaches to see what damage had to be repaired. Most of my inspections had revealed damage to the exostructure--to heat shields, to hull plates. Most of those repairs I had been able to do already, or patch up enough to make flight possible. But still no explanation as to why the ship had no power.
The answer probably lay in the one area I had not yet explored--the hole caused by the blasted asteroid that had caused my crash in the first place. The asteroid had been like a spear hurled through the universe at such speed that it had punched a hole through my ship just seconds after radar had detected it. The back third of my ship had immediately closed itself off, trying to seal in the damage, so I hadn’t been able to access it internally. Accessing it from the outside had been too dangerous at first, but the power had been off for at least two (earth) weeks now--judging from the tally marks.
I walked through the dark corridors of the ship. At first I had stumbled through them, one hand against the ridged metal wall, trying to make my way though, blind. Now, I could count my steps and know when to turn, or where the doorway to each new room was. Another part of my life quantified. In the silence, the ship seemed more alive than before, but alive in an organic way--there was no hum of power in the walls or the floor, but I could hear every creak and clank of all the metal sheets that made up the ship’s body. The planet’s breath rattled the outer scales of my ship, and the internal shiftings made little sounds normally drowned out by the buzz of electronic life.
I suited up in one of the outer pods, weak light filtering through the tinted glass to waver on the floor and turning the whole room the red-orange color of sunlight piercing through wildfire smoke. Maybe it was from my years on earth, associating reddish shades of sunlight with sunsets or smoke, that caused my dismal response to this planet’s red-hued light. It was the only light I had except for the abnormally white battery-powered lamps that I used in the essential interior rooms of the ship--the lab, the workrooms, the bathroom. But every time I stepped beneath those red-orange rays I felt like I was nearing the end of time. My time? The planet’s time?
I clicked my helmet into place, double-checking the clasps. The remaining battery-power in the suit was reserved for essential life functions. I hated wearing the helmet. It magnified the sound of my breath, making me conscious of it, and reminding me once again that I was alone, the only thing breathing on this rock floating in the universe. I triple-checked the seals on the interior door, using the physical gauges to measure the pressure. All-good. I cranked open the door and felt the rush of escaping air.
The sun burned low in the sky, a massive red circle throbbing in the sky. Its light tinted the barren rock of this tiny planet the color of dried blood. Wide veins of hard black stone, like smooth, glassy obsidian ran through the softer, pockmarked rock, and patches of broken-up earth, like sand dunes, heaped up in odd places. This was no gentle, beautiful planet. The surface of this desolate little marble looked more like a diseased skin. Thankfully, I had crashed into a sand pit, and not on some strip of smooth black stone that would have shattered us all to pieces.
I trekked through the loose dirt, around the side of my ship, to the back quarters where the asteroid had ripped through. Part of me had avoided this task because of the danger. Part of me had avoided this task because I didn’t want to know how hopeless my situation was. I shook rusty grains from my boots as I walked, uselessly. I eyed the sky, a deep, hazy orange, the thin atmosphere soaking in the color of its sun. Perhaps this wasn’t even a planet at all, but a moon, or perhaps a dwarf planet. Sometimes I thought I caught faint pale lines in the sky, the outline of a great planet’s rings.
The wound in my ship finally came into view. It wasn’t a smoking, smoldering ruin. In fact, it was the cleanliness that made the hole all the more terrible. The breaks on the outside were sharp and clearly defined. The less carnage meant the more damage done in space, the detritus sucked out of the body of the ship to be scattered in the void of the universe. The contents of entire rooms could be floating out there now, newly minted space junk. The entirety of essential systems too.
I ducked underneath a dangling metal panel and clambered through the ragged hole and into the belly of my ship. The first section, illuminated by the red glow outside, was little more than an empty room with mangled walls. The trajectory of the asteroid could be seen in the pieces of metal folded inwards. Anything not attached must have been sucked right out into space. I tried to remember the purpose of this room. I thought it might have been a storage chamber or another suit-up room. I climbed over the crumpled remains of what might have been a locker once welded to the floor. It was difficult to tell now that the impact had entirely reshaped its structure. Another gaping hole led to a more interior part of the ship. I prayed that I might find some debris inside. I could repair broken parts, but not if there was no material left behind.
The next space was also clean, any debris vacuumed out by the pressure of space. It looked as if the passage of the asteroid had actually sealed up the corridor with a big hunk of metal from some other part of the ship. That wasn’t good for whatever part of the ship the chunk had come from, but perhaps it had prevented further destruction.
I climbed through the rest of the sections the asteroid had punched through. It was like an obstacle course, the rooms rendered unrecognizable, metal inexplicably crumpled into twisted shapes, abstract shapes torn into walls and ceilings. The exterior rooms were wiped pretty clean. The real problems would be in the interior rooms--labs, engines, essential systems.
Sure enough, one of the interior rooms in the path of the asteroid had housed important electrical components. Much to my relief a massive rock was embedded in the electrical unit. Unlike the outside rooms, this one was an absolute mess. Debris was strewn everywhere. Wires dangled from the ceiling, frayed ends exposed to the air. I avoided those. I had shocked myself once, years ago, resulting in months in rehab building up full use of my left arm. It still tingled at random moments. The floor was scattered with shattered pieces, and one wall was dented slightly inward. Most notable was the piece of asteroid lodged in the electrical systems. I would have to find a way to pry it out, and then I would have to see what I could repair.
I scrambled around the piece of asteroid. The rough edges showed where it had broken off from the main projectile, and the rest of it looked like a burnt boulder. I might have to break it up and remove it piece by piece. I had brought some tools with me. One was a sturdy crowbar. I wedged it under a section of the asteroid. Then I tried to pry the asteroid free of the section. It didn’t budge. I threw more of my weight against it. Still nothing. I shoved against it with my entire weight. The boulder shifted slightly. I repeated this again and again, loosening the rock from its crater. Then suddenly, the whole thing began to move. I scrambled back, tripping over a transformer box. The shriek of metal ripping pierced my ears, and something popped loudly. The rock slid down, like an avalanche in miniature, then toppled forward, crashing into the corridor.
I was covered in sweat inside my suit, muscles trembling from the force I had put into loosening the asteroid. And now came the hard part. Even if I had not been trained in the mechanics of a ship, one glance would have told me that the damage to the electrical workings was pretty significant. For one thing, there was now a dent in the panel almost large enough for me to curl up inside of. For another, there were definitely scorch marks on the steel plating. How many delicate parts had been burnt up in the fire?
My survival now depended on whether or not I could fix enough of the damage.
I needed more supplies. Already the light affixed to my shoulder flickered. I needed more power. Time to fight with the solar panels once again.
I climbed through the wreckage and around the side of the ship, but instead of heading back inside, I pulled myself up to the top. I had reviewed my calculations earlier. Perhaps the reason the solar panels weren’t working was the angle. The wiring didn’t seem to be the problem.
The other possibility was that the light from this star was too weak or lacked some essential property, but I couldn’t change environmental factors. I went from panel to panel, heaving some up at a steeper angle, turning others, always eyeing their positions, lining them up with the lines in my head. By the time I had finished, the sun had risen in the sky. The rotations of this planet were slower than that of earth, and this sun lingered so long on the horizon.
An alarm blipped once in my ear. Oxygen low. Time to head inside. I needed to eat, even though the freeze-dried food was generally bland and now reduced to the fourth of a regular meal. After that, I needed to refill the oxygen tanks. I couldn’t remember the rest of the schedule.
I climbed down from the top of the ship, checked the pressure gauges on the outside, and then headed back inside the ship. It was a relief to remove the helmet and wipe the sweat from my forehead.
The clatter of the ship seemed more frequent as I walked back to the workroom. I smacked my knee against a table in the dark. That was, what, the fourth time I had run into that table?
I smashed the button on the lamp. And I stepped back with a gasp. The milky electric light lit up my wall, but the tally mark scratches were gone. I switched the light off and back on again. I pressed my palm against the wall. Just cool, smooth metal. Had I stumbled into the wrong room? I thought I had counted all my steps like normal.
But no, here was the desk, scattered with all my papers. All the numbers that defined my life. I slapped the wall, but it remained smooth metal. I had scratched those tally marks deep into the wall. They weren’t pencil marks on paper or marker on a whiteboard. They couldn’t just be erased.
I stepped back. For a brief moment, I wondered if my ship was really alive. A creature healing its skin somehow. But no, that was insane.
How had the marks vanished? And then I saw that the patch of wall where I had been keeping track of time was actually a different color. There was a square of dull silver steel where the white had once formed a protective coating. I placed my hand against it once again. Had it been replaced? Had someone stripped the coating away?
I was alone. I put a hand to my forehead. Had I somehow done this? In a dream? Was I missing time?
I was exhausted, but not delusional. Or at least I didn’t think I was. I didn’t have a fever.
“Hello?” I shouted, “Is somewhere here?”
Had a rescue team found me? My heart leapt in my chest and I ran out to the corridor. “Anyone here? Hello? I’m here!”
My voice echoed down the dark corridor, but nothing answered me except the ship creaking above. My voice was a hollow wind sweeping down the abandoned interior.
I ran back to the work room, banging my shin soundly against the same stupid table. As I hopped back to the desk, I fumbled about for something heavy I could use as a weapon. What if this god-forsaken rock had spawned some kind of life? I couldn’t imagine that it would be any kind of pleasant, benevolent life form. I had seen the old alien movies.
But there was no indication of any breach. I hadn’t seen any tracks. Nothing else had been disturbed except for the wall.
I studied it again. I needed those tally marks. They were the basis of my calculations. I had to know how much (earth) time had passed. Numbers and equations didn’t stick in my head the way they did for other pilots. I knew two guys who could calculate flight paths almost instantly. It was sickening how fast they could calculate things, running through equations like they were the alphabet. I had never really been able to wrap my head around differing day lengths. All of my material was in earth lengths. Minutes were sixty seconds, hours were sixty minutes, days were 24 hours. I suppose it was like how the old empire, America, had continued to measure things with feet and inches when the rest of the world had used the metric system. It was familiar and instinctual and I just couldn’t change my thinking to comprehend it another way.
I needed those tally marks. My food rations, my oxygen rations, my entire schedule depended on how long I had been here and how long I had left.
I dropped, leaning against the desk. I was going to die here, on this desolate planet. I had held that truth at bay for so long, keeping myself busy with the math and the science. But the certainty had lurked around the edges of my thoughts. It had only overcome me once, in the first few hours after the crash when my whole body had ached and the power had blinked out and I had had no plan.
These numbers had kept me alive. This schedule had kept the creeping knowledge of my impending death from overtaking me. But now, my work had been erased.
Breathe, I thought to myself. I allowed myself thirty seconds of panic and then I gritted my teeth and eyed the hourglass. A fourth of the sand had trickled out, up to the four hour mark. I rifled through my papers, trying to mark where I thought I was in the schedule, what the last ration I had eaten had been. I could count them all again. Start over.
This was just a setback.
As I sat contemplating this, I noticed a strange beeping. I turned, blinking, to see one of the ship’s robots rolling towards me. I had thought they were all dysfunctional, since most of them had been plugged in during the crash. The power surge should have fried their circuit boards.
“Mistress Astria, I have fixed the wall,” it trilled at me in its tinny voice.
“You. You fixed the wall,” I said, laughing in disbelief.
“Yes, Mistress. What is my next assignment?”
“How...how do you have power?”
“I am a S35 unit. When not connected to ship power I recharge my battery from solar energy. My battery can last for 8760 hours if I run in low power mode.”
Did this mean that the solar power was working?
“What repairs are in your manual?”
“I can repair ship infra-and-exostructure, minor damage to engines, electrical infrastructure, mechanical mainframes…”
I laughed. “S35, you’re gonna save my life.”