“Now that you mention it,” Marhtimid said, “I’ve always wondered about it, but I thought it would be rude to ask.”
He raised an upper limb above his head to reach the overhead light, adjusting it for the third time that hour.
Nadine glanced up at the overhead light and then down to her mission partner, her brows and cheeks rising. “I think I know where there is going.”
“Am I proceeding, or…?”
Nadine did a quick check of their telemetry on the tiny screen running at her left. “Go for it, Marty. Attack this delicate little human ego of mine.”
“Well, it’s just…cheesecake, when not synthesized from the default nutrient blocks, is made from some kind of cheese.”
“Correct. Cream cheese.”
“And the ‘authentic’ cheese that you are so longing for is made from milk, dairy milk, which is nourishment a whole different mammalian species produces for their young.”
Nadine grinned as she brought up the end-of-shift task list and started checking items off. “So what are adult humans doing consuming the stuff?”
“You have to admit, of all the unfathomable things we’ve discussed so far, this one…”
“Takes the cake?” Nadine started the laughing.
Not familiar with the colloquialism, but catching on based on context, Mahrtimid nodded, his silken strands of wavy blue-violet hair bouncing gracefully even against the padded shoulder of his uniform.
The two colleagues were returning to their base-ship from a routine preliminary mapping mission of a nearby nebula. Part of their job was to provide descriptions. Nadine had noted a lot of “dense and creamy white regions” alongside “crumbly toasted margins.” At one point, when the two had been staring at hypnotic data streams in silence, and were both at risk of nodding off, Nadine had stood up to stretch as much as she could in the confines of the vessel. She declared her longing for her favorite dessert, bringing Mahrtimid out of his trance.
Their daily distance and sector quota met, they had called an end to their shift, an hour later than expected. They’d been instructed not to engage their superlightspeed engine until they were a safe distance from the nebula, just in case the engine disrupted the natural space of and around the nebula.
Nadine was about to concede that Marhtimid had won that particular round of “Your People Are More Unfathomable Than Mine.” She glimpsed that her partner’s middle limbs were positioned over the SLS engine controls. They were no more than a standard hour away from a fresh hot meal for Nadine and a soothing evening oil bath for Marhtimid.
Something collided with their vessel.
Nadine blinked and glanced around. She was taking short shallow breaths. She saw the blinking lights first and then her ears, as if catching up, heard the alarms.
She reached up to silence the main one, but something stopped her. She looked down at herself. The emergency restraints had engaged.
She looked over at Marhtimid. He was restrained too. All his limbs and his long hair were floating.
His head turned slowly.
Their gazes met, broke, and landed on the main status panel in front of them.
“Something hit us,” Nadine said.
“Gravity is gone. That means…I’m checking vital systems.”
“Acknowledged,” Mahrtimid said. “We’re also spinning. I’m going to get the vessel to stop spinning and drifting.”
“Okay, and let’s make sure whatever just hit us—“
“Or what we hit—“
“—doesn’t hit us again. Or…we don’t hit it again.”
Using a combination of hand and voice controls, the two brought their vessel to a standstill, checked each other for injuries—there were none, thankfully—and pulled up the appropriate protocols and checklists.
Besides internal gravity, which was not critical at the moment, they had lost their tracking and guidance system. They attempted to reset it, and it did give them a route, but their telemetry was slightly off, by just a hair, but at the distance they were from their base-ship, a hair would expand to the size of several systems. The engines seemed okay. But they couldn’t navigate. They were stranded.
The good news was that their communications were all still operable. They reported to their base-ship and awaited instructions.
“Maybe we should have lied and told them one of us was injured,” Nadine said, a few hours later.
They had not yet received any instructions, and the only communication they’d been sent was an assurance their “leadership” was aware of their situation and would be addressing it. Two different departments had reached out to them requesting updates.
Despite being told not to take any actions, Mahrtimid and Nadine decided to attempt investigating the cause of the collision.
Amidst jokes about wanting to make sure they weren’t attacked by invisible interdimensional beings or caught in some deep space anomaly that no one had ever encountered before, they scanned the ambient sensor logs, the maps of the sector, hull condition logs, repair and quality control check logs…they reviewed a lot of logs.
They reset systems that they could safely take offline, succeeding in restoring internal gravity. And they ran as many tests as they could without exceeding assigned resource levels.
An hour later, they heard from their manager.
“We’re receiving data streams from your vessel,” he said. “Are you two running tests out there?”
To be fair, he did ask how they were doing first.
“We decided to try and investigate the accident,” Mahrtimid explained.
“We didn’t ask you to do that. And I don’t have any record of a request from you to perform these tests.”
Mahrtimid loomed over the communications screen. “Don’t you want to know what happened? In case it happens again, to us, or another vessel?”
“Yes, of course, we do. But we have to be systematic about it.”
“We are being systematic. Nadine and I are both trained to start preliminary investigations.”
“I understand, Mahrtimid, but you have to get our okay first, before you take any action.”
“We haven’t received any instructions.”
“Yes you have. We’ve asked you to stay put and let us come up with a plan.”
“Shouldn’t the plan be to tow us back?”
There was a pause, and Nadine, who had agreed (eagerly) to let Mahrtimid do all the talking, noticed their manager pressing his lips together.
“When you sent your first message,” their manager said, speaking slowly, “you said you were both alright, and you would assess the vessel status, and get back to me if you needed help. But the next I hear, you’ve independently contacted Security with a distress signal and a tow request, and—”
“They contacted us,” Nadine said. “We reported the same thing we did to you, that’s all.”
“Actually, they seemed to have more information than I do.”
“Only because we spoke to them after we spoke to you.”
Their manager pressed his lips together again. “Arranging for a tow is a lengthy process. And shortening it, frankly, is expensive. And you two are not in any imminent danger. But I’m still trying to make it happen. So you’ve got to be patient.”
Nadine said nothing. Mahrtimid said nothing.
“I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on,” their manager said. “You’ve got to come to me. I’m your manager, not the Security Chief. Not the Base Commander. I’m the one who can help. But I’ve got to know what’s going on. Send me updates every hour, minimum.”
Nadine and Mahrtimid answered at the same time. “Acknowledged.”
“Good. No more tests, please. Just hang tight. We’re coming for you.” He smiled a professional smile.
The channel disconnected.
Nadine confirmed the channel was closed before she turned to Mahrtimid. She held out her hands. “I am so sorry!”
Mahrtimid’s feathery brows furrowed. “About what?”
“I wasn’t supposed to say anything.”
Unexpectedly, Mahrtimid laughed. “I can see why you ‘volunteered’ to remain silent. But I appreciate you stepping in.”
“How does he know we’re not in any imminent danger, unless he lets us look into it?” Nadine said.
“Is that any more logical than telling us to do nothing and send an hourly status update about how we’ve done nothing?”
“He is aware that each time we send a needless update, it’ll drain our reserves, right?” Nadine said. “I’d like to be able to eat while I’m waiting twice as long for them to send someone for us.”
“I know it’s not the same as the ‘authentic’ stuff, but I think you’ve earned a synthesized cheesecake,” Mahrtimid said.
“That would be nice, but irresponsible.”
“We have enough power for weeks.”
“I’d rather act as if we were already in conservation mode.” Nadine shook her head. “If only they’d let us through directly to Passenger Transport. I know someone who’d come get us right now.”
A few hours, a few card games, a meal, and a stretch routine later, they received another message. Nadine answered this one.
“This is the Reclamation Department. We just received word that you’re stranded. How long has it been?”
“About six hours,” Nadine said. Mahrtimid pointed to a screen where he had tracked the exact duration. “That is, six point five-four hours. And counting.”
The folks at Reclamation preferred precision.
The Reclamation officer frowned. “Why are you just reporting in now?”
Mahrtimid and Nadine exchanged a glance.
“We aren’t,” Nadine said. “We reported in immediately. Six point five-four hours ago.”
“We’re sending someone out. Expect them in forty-seven minutes. Your vessel will be towed. But we’ll jump the two of you back to base. That will take three-point-five minutes.”
Nadine sighed with relief. “Thank you. Acknowledged.”
The channel disconnected. Reclamation prided itself in efficiency in all tasks.
“Nice to know someone is on the job,” Marhtimid quipped, only after they confirmed that the communications line was disengaged.
Nadine twisted her lips. “Next time, let’s send a broadcast communication to the entire base-ship.”
“In other words, next time, let’s get ourselves fired?”
Nadine threw up her hands.
Mahrtimid crossed all his arms and leaned back in his chair. “At least they’re finally coming for us.”
“Right when I decided a nap would be nice.”
“Go ahead. I’ll wake you,” Mahrtimid offered.
It seemed to Nadine that she’d only just rolled herself into the “shelf” (one of the four bunks that lined the back part of the vessel) and closed her eyes for a few minutes, before Mahrtimid’s gentle nudging woke her up.
“They here?” she mumbled.
“Not yet, but I thought I’d give you a chance to wipe away the various puddles of drool before our rescuers arrived.”
Mahrtimid smiled. “Reclamation is for the vessel.” He pointed between the two of them. “We…are people.”
They took their seats at the main console and waited until the exact time they’d been given for Reclamation’s arrival. Their vessel’s sensors didn’t detect any of the typical signals indicating the arrival of another vessel. Space remained silent around them for several more minutes.
Reclamation, it seemed, was running late.
“I didn’t receive any updated arrival times,” Mahrtimid said, as he brought up the recent communication logs.
“I believe you,” Nadine said, hearing the grogginess in her voice.
“Wait a minute…this can’t be right.”
Nadine blinked herself to full wakefulness. She leaned over to see what he was seeing.
“Do me a favor,” Marhtimid said. “Will you check the status of the secondary transmission gear?”
Nadine checked. “All good according to sensors.”
“But let me actually bring up the video,” she said. “Give me a few minutes to maneuver the little guy. If it’s where I expect it to be, oh, yes, found him.” The micro-camera in the area of the ship where the secondary transmission gear was installed was in the tiny alcove where it remained until the ship was undergoing repairs or a comprehensive quality check.
Following the schematics that she’d brought up, Nadine directed the little camera to the transmission gear. She widened the view and focused the camera.
Nadine cursed and Marhtimid gasped.
A spray of fluid from out of view was arcing over half the secondary transmission gear, dripping down. The gear was already corroded.
Nadine felt the heat rise in her face as she directed the camera to the source of the leak. “I should have checked.”
“We checked a few hundred things. We just missed one.”
“Yeah, but we’ve just been sitting here after that.”
Marhtimid pointed to the screen, to the source of the leak. “That’s what we were told to do.”
Sealing off the leak was a simple matter of activating the neutralizing foam in the proper conduit compartment. But it was too late to save the acid-damaged parts and components within that conduit. Nadine painstakingly checked every other part or piece of equipment that might have been affected by that particular leak. She was especially worried about some primary sensors in the area. They weren’t offline, but they might be malfunctioning.
“Well, this is great,” she said. “We have something dire to report and that news is that we have lost communications.”
“Not all communications,” Mahrtimid said. “We have the standard array. We can send a message at light speed.”
“How long will it take for messages to go back and forth at this distance?”
“About two hours for ours to reach them, and the same for theirs to reach us. That’s assuming they respond right away. If they take time to meet again and compose a response…longer.”
“Then I vote the only message we send from this point forward is ‘Come and get us, now,’” Nadine said.
“I’m in total agreement.”
They sent the message that only their light-speed communications were operational due to an undetected leak, and that someone should come and get them right away.
Within an hour of them sending their message, they received one from their manager.
Nadine volunteered to read it. She paraphrased the contents aloud for Mahrtimid, both of them keeping in mind that their manager didn’t yet know about their compromised ability to communicate.
“He is wondering why we are refusing to respond to his attempts at communication. Interesting choice of word. He requests that we contact them right away upon receiving this message.” Nadine exhaled a sigh after reading the next part. “He stopped Reclamation from coming out to get us. He said he doesn’t know why they contacted us directly. They haven’t gotten the proper authorization yet. He needs to sort out the confusion first. Also, as a reminder, he hasn’t received our latest update.”
“Oh, the update. I forgot,” Marhtimid said. “Allow me to take care of that.” He activated the console camera on his side and raised all his arms, his fingers bending and twisting into a gesture that Nadine knew to be a considerably rude one. “Normally, I’d wait twenty-four hours before sending but…”
Nadine offered a sympathetic smile. “I want to activate all the internal cameras and check every other conduit, compartment, nook, and cranny. It’ll take a while, and it’ll eat up some resources. But I think it’s worth it. If there are any more leaks or damage that the sensors didn’t catch, I want to find it. We can’t afford to lose something vital, even more vital than communications.”
“Agreed. Let’s split the work.”
It took a standard day for the two of them to finish checking all areas of the vessel, including breaks for meals, and for sleeping—or resting in Mahrtimid’s case. His people didn’t sleep daily, but hibernated for a few months every year.
During that time, they continued sending the same response to every message they received from the base-ship.
Their manager asked for an update on their power reserves. They gave it, and they were honest. They had several more days’ worth of oxygen, food, and water. They should have had more, almost three times more, but the collateral damage to some primary sensors from that leak of acidified engine lubricant had thrown off their most recent calculations.
Their manager then requested an explanation of how and why they hadn’t caught the leak sooner.
“He keeps assuming that we are being defiant or delinquent,” Nadine said, shaking her head after sending off their latest request for aid, two days later. “Is he going to wait until we’re suffocating out here? Why do that when you can just handle this like an ordinary problem that has an obvious and doable solution? We aren’t the first people who’ve been stranded on the job.”
“No, we aren’t.”
“Maybe he isn’t getting our messages. His responses seem—no wait, he did respond to one specific thing you said in your last message.” She shook her head.
“Lost communication? Miscommunication? Or maybe someone doesn’t want to take action because they don’t want to get in trouble for taking the wrong action, so they’re not taking any kind of action.”
Nadine threw up her hands. “That makes no sense to me in this situation.”
Mahrtimid smiled. “That’s because you’re operating on reason and logic, my friend.”
Ignoring instructions to not attempt making changes to the vessel’s parts or programs, Nadine and Mahrtimid tried to analyze the problem with their navigation array and plan out a repair. But even if they had the expertise—which they didn’t—they didn’t have the tools and materials.
They reviewed the local maps again, to see if they could navigate by sight to reach a habitable planet or moon. But if there had been a habitable planet or moon nearby, the company wouldn’t have sent a base-ship to the sector.
They finally received an estimated time of reclamation. They would have to wait four to five more days.
“I am grateful you’re with me,” Mahrtimid said. “My body is capable of lasting much longer than yours. But if I were alone right now, my mind would be in big trouble.”
They were having a meal, seated at the makeshift dining table they’d fashioned by pulling one of the cots from the wall.
Nadine looked down at her dessert. “Yeah, I was surprised they let us partner up on this one. If it weren’t for the accident, this would have been a short excursion, a one-person job. You talked the boss into it?”
Mahrtimid nodded. “Boss’s boss.”
“You’re better at talking them into stuff than I am. They denied my request to order back-up power generators—the old kind—for each of our vessels. They denied me even when I said I only wanted it for our vessel. And even when I offered to fix a defunct spare, qualify it, and mount it myself.”
“You have such skills?”
“No, but I know a few folks in Engineering who do.”
“And they owe you favors?”
Nadine shook her head. “I was just planning on paying them to do it.”
“That’s going above and beyond.”
Nadine gave a weak shrug.
“I’ve been meaning to let you know,” Mahrtimid said, “that my flesh is safe for human consumption.”
Nadine’s brows crumpled and her eyes whipped up. “Excuse me!”
“There’s been no right time for me to mention it before. Well, actually, there was, when I told you I can go for a month or so without needing to eat or drink anything. I just thought it would be awkward to say anything.”
Nadine coughed out a nervous laugh. “Yeah…wow, it’s good that you waited until it wouldn’t be awkward.”
“I’ve made you uncomfortable with my offer,” he said, leaning back and away from her.
Nadine gaped and shook her head. “Sorry, it’s…an incredibly kind sacrifice, Marty. I’m—I’m overwhelmed. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Mahrtimid raised a feathery brow. “I wouldn’t be offended if you found me distasteful.”
Nadine’s lips quivered for a few seconds before she let herself burst into laughter. She laughed so hard she started coughing. Mahrtimid’s brows shot up and he reached for her with one limb and offered a canister of water with another. She recovered and cleared her throat. Then started giggling. She looked at him and held a hand to her stomach. After a few minutes, she sighed.
“I needed that,” she said. She beamed at him, and his wide eyes relaxed.
Mahrtimid smiled. “Does that mean I get out of having to try that?”
He glanced down at the plate that lay in the center of the table. A plate with a generous slice of synthesized cheesecake on it, with a syrupy cherry topping dripping down the sides.
He peered at it. “I don’t think I would like it.”
Nadine scooped a forkful and brought it to her mouth. “I never said you had to try it.”
“Your expression did.”
“You made your eyes big and shiny, like a fictional orphan child or a puppy dog.”
Nadine’s eyes went wide. “I did?”
Mahrtimid sighed. “Alright, let me have a taste.”
He sliced off the thinnest possible piece from one edge and carefully placed it in his mouth. He chewed, his eyes rolling thoughtfully from side to side.
Nadine peered at him, waiting.
He looked at her. “It’s…not offensive.”
Nadine chuckled. “More for me, then.”
Marhtimid leaned toward her. “My favorite human dessert,” he started, in a low voice.
Nadine nodded. “Donuts are good. I’m guessing you don’t do the custard-filled.”
“Glazed…icing. And sprinkles. Oh, the tiny bits of crunch with a burst of pure sweetness—no other flavor allowed!”
Nadine smirked. “Okay, okay. Now that I know…I foresee many sprinkles in your future, my friend.”
Nadine was in the middle of a yawn, when the orange light above her head blinked, and the console in front of her automatically brought up an alert. A ship was approaching, the alert said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Nadine muttered, as she sat up, swiveled around, and activated Mahrtimid’s station. She called back to him, but he must have seen the blinking orange lights from where he’d been lying, just resting.
He was already getting seated when the space in front of their vessel warped and wobbled.
Nadine held her breath. For half a heartbeat, she feared that they were about to encounter another setback, a hostile ship appearing. A pirate ship maybe.
But the ship that solidified in front of them was a familiar one. The pill-shaped Reclamation vessel announced itself, and asked them to do the same.
Nadine glanced over at Mahrtimid, seeing in his shoulders the same tension she was holding in her own. Neither of them was relieved yet.
They were allowed a few days off to recover.
Nadine was surprised by how many people left messages for her in those days. Some of them commended her and Mahrtimid for their handling of their situation. Some of them asked for details of what happened, and whether Nadine thought anyone else might be in danger. A few of them apologized to her for not being able to help, even though they were ready and willing to.
Nadine and Marhtimid returned to work, having been assigned a different vessel. Nadine sent the sensor data from their accident to a few friends who might help her figure out what they had actually encountered. She wasn’t supposed to, but she wasn’t worried about being found out.
A week later, when they received their pay, she noticed that the overtime and hazard pay she’d reported and applied for had not been included.
An accompanying note stated that her request was denied. It was denied based on the initial report that Nadine and Mahrtimid made that stated they were not in any immediate danger following the actual danger they had just encountered. Their situation did not fall within the company’s definition of “immediate danger.” And their estimates of their remaining resources changed too many times, which meant that support staff on the base-ship didn’t have accurate information to work with for the reclamation parameters.
She was grateful when Mahrtimid volunteered to speak to their manager about the denied request.
On their next day off, Nadine sat in one of the food dispensaries on the leisure deck, waiting to meet up with Mahrtimid.
She already knew from the look on his face as he walked over that his attempt to appeal to their manager had not worked out as they’d hoped.
“We’re getting a bonus,” he said, as he settled into the chair, his hair bouncing with an angry grace. “A pittance compared to what we’re owed.” He started looking through the menu. “I’m going to angry eat,” he said, though the explanation was unnecessary for Nadine.
He glanced up at her, then down, and up again. He peered at her. “How are you so calm?”
She reached for her bag and pulled out a tablet pad. She didn’t show him what was on it yet, but held it to her chest.
“We all end up as cosmic dust,” she said. “That’s never bothered me. But I was really scared that we would die out there, in the middle of nowhere, before we could live the rest of our lives. Not because someone just couldn’t get to us in time. That would be tragic. But because someone just didn’t get to us that day. They figured they could handle it tomorrow, as if it were just the vessel hovering in space, and there weren’t two people inside, waiting and waiting for someone to come get them.”
She shook her head. “To go back to work for someone who’d let that happen, just because I have no choice…”
Mahrtimid blinked and dropped his gaze.
“But I do have a choice.”
Mahrtimid raised his gaze.
Nadine smiled and turned the tablet’s surface toward him. “I’ve been saving and preparing. And I’m not ready yet, but then again, if I keep giving all my time—my own time and resources—to this company, I’ll never be ready.”
On the tablet was an image of a vessel, an inter-system range vessel, sized and equipped to transport goods and passengers. There was an active stream at the bottom. An auction. Nadine had the top bid.
“Don’t say anything,” she said. “I don’t want them to find a reason to let me go before I’m ready to leave.”
A gentle smile raised Mahrtimid’s gentle features. “I have no reason to say anything to anyone. Except…” His smile faded. “…to tell you that I will miss you.”
Nadine shrugged. “Look me up in a few years, when I’m rich,” she joked. “I’ll hire you on as co-pilot.”
“I hope you remember that offer. I know I will.”
Nadine inhaled. She put the tablet away and she felt her shoulders relax just as her stomach grumbled.
“You should have gotten commended for how you handled the accident and the aftermath,” Mahrtimid said.
“I don’t have any money you could borrow,” he said, “but there’s got to be something I can do. So other than staying quiet while you execute your master plan, how can I help?”
Nadine blinked. She leaned toward him. “You? Oh you already have.” She pointed to him. “You saved my life.”
Mahrtimid stared at her. “You’re doing that shiny eyes thing again.”
Nadine blinked and leaned back. She grinned. “I’ve made you uncomfortable with my praise.”
Mahrtimid grinned back. He tilted his head and raised a feathery brow. “Tell me more about this future co-pilot opportunity.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel