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art by Alan Bao

Cold Cuts

Don Norum writes things. Sometimes they are published.

***Editor's Warning: Graphic. This story is not for the faint of heart.***
"There's supposed to be a margin of safety. These capsules are overengineered."
He took his hands from the controls to hold his head.
"Yes, and we used up that margin of safety when we loaded the emergency generator for Farside," he said. "The simulations gave a ten percent chance of structural failure on descent anyway, and that was coming in from the ideal orbit."
"I'm only fifty kilos! The generator has to weigh twenty times that!"
He clenched his jaw and felt the muscle pop tight over bone.
"The calculations had to be done to eight decimals."
The clock in the console ticked down, and he hoped that she didn't know what it meant and he knew that she did. He had thirty minutes left, and he'd allotted five minutes for her.
"Can't you jettison the spacesuits? Cut out the chairs and empty the cabinets? We could lower the oxygen, set it on autopilot and be unconscious so we won't use as much air."
He loosed the restraints and turned. She was crammed into the niche where the reserve EVA suit would have been kept, the alcove doubling as the airlock. Spacer head shaved, short-sleeved jumpsuit, he felt his blood rising and did his best to fuel that rage. It would make it easier, when the time came.
Twenty-nine minutes.
"It's not the air. It's the engines having enough delta-v with you on board to drop us into the right orbit. We'll come in too fast and if we can even make it out of orbit intact, we'll shatter on landing." He gestured around the cabin, stopping his spin with his feet tucked under the console. "They offloaded the suits on New Canada, and the only thing in the cabinets is this--" He held up the repair kit, titanium multitool and micro torch strapped together by an elastic sleeve.
"Weighs two kilos," he went on, "the clothes we're wearing another two. Still forty-six to go. The burn is in less than half an hour--think we can cut out the seats by then?"
She glared back at him and he refused to meet her stare, turning back to the console to double-check the flight plan for the fifteenth time, repair kit tucked behind his calf.
It was five minutes before the burn when she spoke again.
"I'm going to die just because I made a mistake?"
"Every choice has a cost up here. You want it safe and secure, you should have stayed on Earth."
She spat at him, hitting the back of his head.
He looked down at his lap, feet tucked back as his hands rested on the controls, and saw the tool kit, driver heads and razor-edged blades tucked away inside the pliers handle. He knew what he had to do and hated himself for it. Knew it would almost be the end of him, and worse for her.
"You have a choice to make," he said as he turned to face her, "and either way it's going to hurt, but I'll be as quick as I can, one way or the other."
The airlock opened once, just before the engines fired to drop the capsule into a landing orbit around Luna. Blood boiled off of bared limbs as a hundred pounds of dead weight tumbled away.
Lauren Lapato stopped the crawler and jumped down, waving the maintenance crew forward as she landed. The capsule touched down a perfect hundred yards from the reactor building, and odds were good that they could get the replacement in place before the backup batteries reached red.
She keyed the outside of the airlock and waited for it to repressurize. They'd heard the radio, and she was prepared for the splash of blood inside the airlock. Lauren broke the seal on her helmet and slid the inner hatch back, the molten-penny smell of blood and burned flesh kneading her gorge. She wasn't prepared for the cabin.
Blood had spattered everywhere; it had jetted out before he could stop it, misting into the atmosphere and falling out when the retrorockets fired. He sat slumped in the chair with his hands on the controls, held upright by the straps across his chest, breathing hard. The girl clung to the back of the chair with her remaining hand.
"Arm and a leg," she whispered.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, December 29th, 2011
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