Lifeboat: Part 3

Part Three: Degrees of Freedom

“What went wrong?”
Cowra made a pained noise. “I had bugs crawling all over my hatch, and I thought they were about to burn through. Maybe they got into the electronics somehow. Chewed up the guidance computer, I don‘t know. Something.”
Alan recounted his own last-ditch effort to launch from the rattling deck of the Hercules.
“And your crew?”
“No,” the voice echoed. “Well I hope you’re one of the deep thinkers, mate, because it looks like we’re the only two left.”
Alan cried with laughter, at that. “Sorry. National ballot.” Cowra laughed as well. Most of the pod pilots had been selected for some special skill or knowledge that might benefit mankind. The remaining few had been chosen at random. Alan was a nobody.
Alan wiped the moisture out of his eyes. “I don’t understand. How am I receiving you? I don’t have any power.”
“Me neither. Stuffed if I know, Coburg. The radio just started making noises one day. It sounded like someone scrunching up a paper bag, only… nastier. I thought someone might be in trouble, so I just picked up the handset and started talking. I’m beyond asking about the ‘why’ of it, just thankful for the end result.”
Alan gripped the radio handset harder.
“We need to figure this out.”
“Alright, let’s think. You’re in the same boat as I am, figuratively speaking: no reactor, and no backup battery. And the air’s getting mightily thin.”
“Right,” Alan admitted. It was hard to keep to edge of despair out of his voice.
“But our radios both work. Without power. That means the rules have changed, Coburg.”
Rules? What was Cowra talking about?
Cowra paused before continuing, as if he were about to recite a planned speech. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about things. It’s easier now that we’re two. It’s logical. We have to make the decision.”
Cowra’s speech became laboriously slow. “Coburg, one of us is going to have to open their hatch. To find out what’s outside.”
Alan shook his head vigorously. “I made a scan of the surrounds before my display died. There’s nothing out there. No air, no geography. It’s a void.”
Cowra’s voice hardened and slowed into a patronising drawl. “But we’re talking over the radio. With no power. What’s to say that out there, we might not be able to breathe without air?”
A feverish sweat collected near Alan’s eyebrows, and worked its way down.
“Someone has to do it,” Cowra said. His voice reverberated around the drum.
“I’m not ready,” Alan pleaded. “I might have missed something. A bad circuit. Bypass.” He felt his face crumple. He felt stifled, unable to form his thoughts into words.
Cowra, though, sounded perfectly calm and rational. The detached voice of reason. “If there was a mechanical solution, one of us would have found it by now. Time’s up, Alan. One of us has to go. Even if he dies, the other might learn something to help him survive. So who is it going to be? You or me?”
“Stop,” Alan whimpered. “I need time to think.”
“You don’t have any. Can’t you hear the air running out?”
Alan‘s eyes were forced shut by a sudden harshness from the direction of his console. What he saw when he opened them beggared belief: An uncertain green line, jittering across the black crystal display. After days in absolute darkness, it appeared super-bright. “Oh my God.” He kept his unblinking stare locked on the line, terrified that it might suddenly vanish if he turned away.
“What are you doing?” Demanded the voice from beyond.
“I’m leaving.” He clapped his hands and cried out. His breathing ran wild as the words ‘system restored’ cycled through each of the dead monitors. Every surface in the pod rippled with the beautiful green of renewal.
“I’m leaving! I’ve got power!”
The voice had wholly diminished when it replied. “You can’t.”
Alan’s hands shuddered across the control surfaces.
“Wait a minute. What about me?”
“You’re a figment,” Alan stated. “A delusion, a fabrication.”
“What are you talking about? You can’t just strand me here. I mean, bloody hell.”
“You called me by name.”
“I’m sorry! I panicked, alright? I gave you an impossible choice. I wasn’t thinking rationally. I cracked.” Undignified laughter dripped through the speaker. “I’m begging you. Please don’t leave me here. Alan, don’t cut me off.”
“I never told you my name, Cowra.”
“Yes you did. You said something about bo-”

The sound of Cowra’s pleading voice was disassembled, inverted. It became a low, subliminal roar, like the capitulation of a dam wall in slow motion. A scream like a diving cargo plane with four engines burning.

Alan didn’t have time to lock anything down. He was in his seat, his mind wrestling through check-lists, while loose detritus rocketed through space around him. He felt his stomach leap upwards, and his arms become weightless over the console. Then he heard the muffled boom of the parachute deploying. His world slanted from left to right, back again, and then all motion ceased with a resounding thud.
He felt heat on his legs, and smoke was piling into the cabin. A finger of daylight poked at him through a puncture in the drum. Alan couldn’t take to the rungs quickly enough. He lost control of his breathing. The hatch was a stone slab, the lid of a sarcophagus, and Alan was some reborn hero from legend, as he roared and heaved it into the sky. The last thing he saw before he went blind was a circle of blue, and a careworn smear of paint the shape of a bounding kangaroo.

Lifeboat: Part 3


Burnie, Australia

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Artist's Description

Part 3 of 4. The title, ‘degrees of freedom’ is a term from physics I stumbled across while doing some preliminary research for this story. I only chose the title because I liked the sound of it, not because I have any real understanding of quantum theory or physics in general. Apologies to anyone who does!

Artwork Comments

  • Arcadia Tempest
  • AndrewJP
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