“So, what do you think?” Will looked at his companion expectantly.
“Huh?” Russ looked up from his book. “What did you say?”
“I was saying,” Will hissed with a thin veneer of patience. “That we should be able to get some power back into the reactor if we can melt down one of those ice blocks out there!”
Russ craned his neck and squinted through the window at the front of the small spacecraft.
“What ice blocks?” he said, still squinting.
“This is space!” Will huffed in exasperation. “There are ice blocks everywhere!”
Russ resumed his reading but looked up again when he felt the needles of Will’s gaze burrowing through the shield of his thick novel.
“What now?” Russ sighed.
“Are you really just going to sit there and read your book?” Will demanded.
“I don’t see what else there is to do.”
Will got up from the metal chair and paced around the small control room. “We need to come up with a plan,” he drove his fist into his palm. “If we can get some ice into the reactor, we can fire it up and get back home.”
Russ abandoned the book, placing it down on a small table. “Just how do you expect to be able to capture half a million tons of ice, travelling at however many thousands of meters per second and usher it gently into the reactor?”
Will stopped pacing and faced Russ. His cheeks flared in anger. “If you will not help, then you might as well just carry on reading that book of yours,” he snapped.
“Look.” Russ raised his hands and attempted to soothe his angry friend. “It’s not that I’m trying to be unhelpful. I just don’t think your plan has legs. We can’t possibly capture a rock in our state, let alone refine the ice from it and re-pressurise the reactor.” He shook his head. “Just not possible, I’m afraid.”
Will returned to the chair with a dejected slump. “What do you suggest, then?”
“We’ve started the automated distress call,” Russ shrugged. “I don’t see what else we can do now except wait.”
“And pray, I suppose?” Will glared at Russ.
“It can’t hurt,” Russ smiled.
Will shook his head furiously and left the seat once more. “I’ve never met a more stupid, smart person,” he exclaimed. “If you put half as much effort into considering our current problems as you waste on praying, then we’d be out of here in no time!”
Russ thought for a moment. “I agree,” he said finally.
Will stopped pacing. “You do?”
“Of course I do,” Russ said. “This is a matter of life and death. It requires us to work together to come up with a solution.”
Will looked at him, his brow furrowed in suspicion.
“It won’t help,” Russ continued. “If I just wander off and spend hours asking for some god to save us when we should be working on our own solutions.”
Will nodded with enthusiasm. “So, what can we do?”
“Pray that someone hears our distress call, I suppose,” Russ shrugged.
Will growled at his companion and stormed out of the control room. He followed the short corridor to the vessel’s reactor and leaned over the computer station. Flicking through various screens, he saw nothing he didn’t already know. The reactor was cold—stopped dead, taking with it all the power that the engine required to fire. Batteries would keep the ship’s systems running for a day, but they would be cold and dead after that.
Something had ruptured a line in the reactor, causing super-heated water to erupt into the chamber. The ship should have exploded with the force of a nuclear detonation. However, the computer had intervened by quickly venting the expanding liquid into space. The automatic systems had saved the ship, but it left the two men inside with the problem of how they would get their crippled vessel home with no means of propulsion. They had roughly twelve hours to work it out before they used up their remaining air.
Will spent the next few hours testing different ideas and failing on all of them. No matter what he tried, he could not restart the reactor. He saw little of Russ during his work, and when he saw him, he simply smiled with infuriating cheer and asked Will how he was getting on. He was growing increasingly frustrated by Russ’ apparent lack of help. After trying to understand an eye-watering amount of physics dispensed by a book entitled Starship Nuclear Reactors—An Everyman’s Guide, he decided he’d had enough.
An alarm sounded from a console, and he shifted the book to get a better view. His heart sank as he read the inevitable warnings of ‘Low Oxygen’ and ‘High Carbon Dioxide’- they had little time. He jumped up and stormed down the small corridor to the crew’s quarters.
“Look here, Russ,” Will demanded as he burst through the door of Russ’ private room. “You’ve hardly left your room since the accident, and you …”
The first thing Will noticed was that the room was completely dark, and he had the distinct impression that the light from the open doorway was trying to push back a physical presence of in utter blackness. The darkness shrank into the corners, and slowly the hallway lights outside the room filled the space left behind.
Russ was kneeling with his back to the door. Will could hear him mumbling quietly, but he did not know what he was saying. He gave out a small cough, and Russ jumped up from the floor.
“Will,” he said. “You should have knocked!”
“What in space is going on here, Russ?” said Will. He had the unnerving impression that the darkness in the room’s corner had continued to retreat along the walls, revealing drawings of unusual symbols on the matte grey surface.
“I was praying,” said Russ.
“To what?” said Will, pointing at the strange symbols painted on the wall. “Is that blood?”
“It’s going to -” An alert chirped from the control room, and both men turned towards the sudden interruption.
“Was that -” Will started, but Russ was already rushing past him.
“It was the communicator!” Russ called.
Will got to the control room as Russ was glancing over the controls. He hovered briefly over the blinking lights that showed the almost depleted air supply, then flicked the switch that activated voice communications.
“Hello,” he spoke into a small microphone. “Did somebody call this ship? We could use some help here.”
The panel crackled for a moment before barking into life. “Hello there. Are you stranded? What’s happened? Do you need help?”
Will whooped at the sound of the voice, and Russ’ ever-present smile seemed to stretch further across his face.
“Yes,” said Russ, barely containing his joy. “We lost power. We need help, please!”
“Sit tight,” came the reply. “We’re right on top of you. Nearly bumped into you! You should have put out a distress call or a beacon.”
Will stopped mid-whoop, looked at the communications panel, and frowned. “We put out a distress call,” he said.
The voice on the panel continued. “It was sheer luck we stumbled across you here. A miracle, really …”
Will rushed to the emergency console and checked the distress beacon’s status light—it was off.
“I thought you turned this on?” Will turned to Russ.
Will noticed darkness creeping into the control room—it was the same darkness he’d seen in Russ’ room.
“Russ, what did you do?” Will’s voice quivered.
The darkness enveloped the room, flowed over the walls and crawled into the spaces between the consoles. Will choked on the slick, oil-like substance as it flowed into his mouth and seeped into his eyes.
The radio stammered. “We’ve got a bit of an issue here ourselves, actually. Just lost engines and the damn lights -” There was a hiss and nothing further.
The darkness was in Will’s head now, pushing his consciousness aside and occupying the space. He looked at Russ for the last time—the smile on the other man’s face had become a dreadful sneer.
“More help will come soon,” Russ grinned.