Two to the Power of One

An essay by Dr Kenneth Mueller, as provided by Melanie Rees
Art provided by America Jones

“It’s an arm. Just an arm.” I look at the skinny piece of meat attached to my shoulder. Devoid of muscle definition, it looks more like beef jerky. But beef jerky is edible, right?

I lift my left arm with my right, trying to assess the weight. There isn’t much. Leg. What about a leg? Not much more to cut and possibly greater returns. That would have to at least be ten percent of my body weight. Even assuming I’ve lost considerable weight and the bone weighs about fifteen percent, it’d be at least five or six kilos. Based on my prior calculations, it’ll last eight days. Two legs and an arm, not even a month. But then I’d have to factor in the additional calorific requirement to heal from the incision. How on earth do I calculate that? My mathematical brain is turning to mush. I’m not keeping my mind active enough. That’s the problem. I almost convince myself.

“Two to the power of two is four. Two to the power of three is eight. Two to the power of four is sixteen. Two to the power of five is thirty-two. Two to the power of six is sixty-four. Shut up, Kenneth. You shouldn’t be wasting energy talking.”

My head hurts. The moon rising over the planet’s horizon blurs. The stars seem to spin. Is that brain overload from all the arithmetic or signs of starvation? My brain and stomach seem to disagree on the answer. Both are unsettled and irritable.

As the air cools, I stagger back to the metal wreck behind me. The red flashing light of the distress beacon still flickers even though the control panel has half melted. Flash … flash … flash. I glance at my watch. Flashing thirty-two times per minute, whereas it was once a second. At this exponential rate, it’ll be another six weeks before the battery completely dies and the signal stops. So much for indefinite power.


“For God’s sake, Kenneth. Don’t stand there looking at the distress beacon.” I can still hear Jackson’s voice echoing in my head. “Reroute all the power to the command module,” he shouted over the alarms.

I nodded but paid little attention. There was a chance. The planet we’d been surveying was the right mass, the right distance from the sun, right size. There was a slim chance.  

“Bloody mathematical geek, get your arse to the console, now! Even Anya is making herself useful, rather than sitting there like a stunned mullet. We have less than five hours of air left–“

“Four point three hours, to be precise,” I said matter-of-factly.

Jackson glared at me, eyes narrowing, lines on his forehead deepening.

“If we hard burn, we might just make it to the planet.”

Confidence drained from my voice as I caught Jackson’s expression.

Art for "Two to the Power of One"

“Just doing the maths.”

To read the rest of this story, check out the Mad Scientist Journal: Autumn 2018 collection.

Dr Kenneth Mueller was born on Tau Station, where he completed his study and research fellowship. He later went on to win the Centauri Prime Peace Prize for mathematics before joining the Intergalactic Space League. What remains of Kenneth’s body and mind can be found in Phoebe’s Psychiatric Ward, where he has been counting prime numbers for the past seven years.

Melanie Rees is a South Australian speculative fiction writer. She has published over 70 stories and poems in markets such as Apex, Aurealis, Daily Science Fiction, and Persistent Visions. More information on her work can be found at or on Twitter @FlexiRees.

AJ is an illustrator and comic artist with a passion for neon colors and queer culture. Catch them being antisocial on social media @thehauntedboy.

“Two to the Power of One” is © 2013 Melanie Rees
Art accompanying story is © 2018 America Jones

This story was originally published in Penumbra.

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