Already Dead

“Already Dead” is a 1,500 word short story about two people on a broken spaceship, each arguing that the other should take the ship’s last functional escape pod. It features arguments about and between loved ones, a conversation about responsibility, and one ongoing countdown to catastrophic failure.

It was released to the Creative Commons with an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license after being funded on Kickstarter.


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The door shut with a long, soft hiss and a click. Somewhere beyond it would be the hydraulic sounds of an escape pod disengaging, soon to be ejected into black space. On this side of the door, though, the click was followed by the patter of fingers against a glass console and, finally, a half-uttered curse as work was done to ready the next ejection.

“What’s the matter, Rose?”

“Just an inconvenience. You’d best take the next pod after this one, Jennith.” The last pod, it went unsaid.

“Why not this one?” Jennith paused, then spoke again before Rose could respond. “Another faulty pod, then. We really went down to the wire on this one. And past it, I suppose.”

“I’ll get it figured out.”

“I’m sure you will,” Jennith said. “It definitely looks like you have it all handled.”

Sʜɪᴇʟᴅɪɴɢ ꜰᴀɪʟᴜʀᴇ ɪᴍᴍɪɴᴇɴᴛ, declared the ship’s alert system. Cʀᴇᴡ ᴀʀᴇ ᴀᴅᴠɪꜱᴇᴅ ᴛᴏ ᴘʀᴏᴄᴇᴇᴅ ᴛᴏ ᴇᴠᴀᴄᴜᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ᴄᴀᴘꜱᴜʟᴇꜱ. Cᴀᴛᴀꜱᴛʀᴏᴘʜɪᴄ ꜰᴀɪʟᴜʀᴇ ᴇꜱᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇᴅ ɪɴ ᴇɪɢʜᴛ ᴍɪɴᴜᴛᴇꜱ.

“It’s that or nothing,” Rose said. “So I’ll have to figure it out.”

“There’s not a chance that I’m leaving you behind to die here while I head off, spinning away in a pod like I don’t have a care in the world.”

“Then what do you propose, exactly?” Rose asked. “Two passengers won’t work here. There’s room, sure, and the mayday beacon has been going off long enough that somebody’s going to catch the signal, but it’s probably going to be two weeks before any vessel can reach us.” Rose’s eyes turned to the floor, as if there was something particularly interesting about its hexagonal patterns. “Three, if we’re unlucky. Now, the pod has supplies enough to last that long if they’re rationed well, but not if the two of us share the last pod. In the best-case scenario we’ll still have been dead for days before anyone comes across us.”

“I can run the numbers, too,” Jennith said, “but I’m not leaving you here to die.”

Rose’s response was immediate. “You have children, Jennith.”

“Who also have children, every one of them. While you are young.”

“And therefore replaceable!”

“Not as much as you seem to think, Chief Engineer Cordon Rosenbaum. Or do you think that expertise in a vessel’s systems is that much easier to come by than my own skillset? They have schools for my sort as well, you know, and neither of us is going to be found just growing out back like a patch of weeds.”

Cᴀᴛᴀꜱᴛʀᴏᴘʜɪᴄ ꜰᴀɪʟᴜʀᴇ ᴇꜱᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇᴅ ɪɴ ꜱᴇᴠᴇɴ ᴍɪɴᴜᴛᴇꜱ.

“Look at what I did! At least thirty people are already dead, to say nothing of anyone who’s going to die in a pod before they’re rescued. This is my fault.” Rose snorted, then continued. “Some Chief Engineer I turned out to be in the end.”

“Really? This is really all your fault?”

“I overlooked something. An error with the sensors, something that didn’t let us know what we were going to run into, or maybe that was fine and it’s the shields that aren’t holding up like they ought to. It’s not like I can figure out what went wrong, not with half or more of the vessel’s systems offline already.”

“Whatever it was, it was an accident,” Jennith said. “Besides, you got things up and running again.”

“Hardly.”

“Enough of the vessel is still running, and well enough, that most of us are still alive, and most of the pods could be disengaged.”

Somewhere else, there was a noise like shrieking metal, and it echoed down through the corridor. Rose gestured in the direction that it came from. “Ensuring that we still have air and pressure in this section is not a stellar accomplishment. Doors can do that too.”

“At least twice as many would be dead by now without you, and that’s not counting everyone who would have been left to die. You ensured that most of the pods were ejected successfully. We just saw Lorenz out. There went another one saved.”

Cᴀᴛᴀꜱᴛʀᴏᴘʜɪᴄ ꜰᴀɪʟᴜʀᴇ ᴇꜱᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇᴅ ɪɴ ꜱɪx ᴍɪɴᴜᴛᴇꜱ.

“It doesn’t matter how many people I saved. Nobody should have needed saving to begin with. This shouldn’t have happened. I should have seen this coming. I should have seen something coming.”

“I’ll say it again: really? We don’t know half of what’s out here,” Jennith said. “There are superliminal phenomena and dead technologies that nobody’s encountered. That’s why we went, Rose.”

“But something went wrong on our end,” Rose countered. “Maybe we don’t know what hit us, maybe we’ll never know, but when it hit us, something warped, and the warp was on our end. That means that it’s my responsibility. The buck stops here.”

The emergency lighting pulsed a few times, slowly fading as another reactor began to fail and the ship reestablished stability across crucial systems.

“You know,” said Jennith, “that phrase traditionally would refer to someone more in my position than in yours, being your captain and all. And even if everything should have stood up and the failure was on this end–and I’ll remind you that we don’t know that–you don’t even know where the point of failure was. One minute we’re fine and the next, some of us are looking open space in the eye. It could have been Jim or Sarah or what’s-his-name, the junior one, Taylor. It could have been one of them, if anyone has to shoulder the blame. Say it was Jim, and let the dead carry the guilt.”

“If it was their fault then it was still mine. I could have vetted them better!”

“Then I could have vetted you better, as your captain. Listen to yourself!” Jennith put a hand on Rose’s shoulder. “I chose you for this expedition. That was me. It was my decision. Yours to accept, maybe, but mine to offer. And if I had to make the choice over again, I’d choose you again. We had a good run together. A lot of them, in fact.”

Cᴀᴛᴀꜱᴛʀᴏᴘʜɪᴄ ꜰᴀɪʟᴜʀᴇ ᴇꜱᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇᴅ ɪɴ ꜰɪᴠᴇ ᴍɪɴᴜᴛᴇꜱ.

“You’re a good engineer,” Jennith continued. “You did your job.”

“Then let me do my job one more time–not as an engineer, but as a human being.”

“Can’t I say that too? You saved my life on Flolla Nonus. Let me pay it back.”

“I don’t accept that debt. You would have done the same.”

“Just as I do the same now.”

“I won’t leave you to die, Jennith! I won’t have your death on my conscience!”

“And you’d have yours on mine? I’m the captain of this vessel, by God, and I swore I’d get you all home and safe or die trying. Are you going to make a liar of me, Rose?”

“You’re needed,” Rose insisted. “Your life is more important than mine.”

Cᴀᴛᴀꜱᴛʀᴏᴘʜɪᴄ ꜰᴀɪʟᴜʀᴇ ᴇꜱᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇᴅ ɪɴ ꜰᴏᴜʀ ᴍɪɴᴜᴛᴇꜱ.

“The logs have already been preserved,” Jennith said. “There isn’t anything that I know that the home office won’t be able to learn for themselves.”

“You have experience.”

“I have a duty. The captain goes down with the ship, right? At the very least, the captain doesn’t let somebody else stay behind”

“Then I strip you of your office, and your good-for-nothing responsibilities.”

“One person alone does not make a sufficient quorum. That’s not something you can do all by yourself.”

Rose straightened up. “The Browder Act of ‘39. ‘When a commanding officer is determined to be non compos mentis and there are not enough–”

Jennith smacked the wall. “I am not deranged and I order you to go.”

“I refuse.”

“That’s insubordination in a state of emergency, then. I could–”

“What, court-martial me? And then what, have me executed when we get home? Or maybe carry it out yourself, since we’re in the field? That would rather defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”

Cᴀᴛᴀꜱᴛʀᴏᴘʜɪᴄ ꜰᴀɪʟᴜʀᴇ ᴇꜱᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇᴅ ɪɴ ᴛʜʀᴇᴇ ᴍɪɴᴜᴛᴇꜱ.

Jennith’s arms folded and unfolded in an obvious effort to regain some modicum of calmness. “We could play for it,” Jennith said after a couple of seconds. “A little game of Rock Paper Scissors.”

Rose waved the idea away. “You always win. You’d lose this time, sure, but it’d be on purpose. No deal.”

“What if I pulled my move out of a hat, to make it really random?”

“And would you really go into the pod and leave me behind just because you won the throw?”

“Probably not. No, definitely not,” Jennith admitted, looking away under Rose’s glare. “But it was worth a try.”

Rose’s eyes softened, even as they welled with tears. “Yeah. It was. You have to take that chance,” Rose said slowly, and the engineer took a long look at the console, then sighed. “But we don’t…have one. There’s no other way to run the numbers. We both go, we both die.”

Jennith nodded. “That’s how it appears.”

“Then something has to give.” Rose shrugged. “Or we stand here forever.”

Cᴀᴛᴀꜱᴛʀᴏᴘʜɪᴄ ꜰᴀɪʟᴜʀᴇ ᴇꜱᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇᴅ ɪɴ ᴛᴡᴏ ᴍɪɴᴜᴛᴇꜱ.

“Well, not forever.”

Rose turned away. Jennith sighed. And in the next breath, their eyes met again, and they decided.