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.
“Some unknown planet. What bloody good is that?”
“There’s a chance–“
“Chance. You calculated the odds I suppose?”
Jackson drifted towards me, his face reddened. His fists balled and turned white.
“But!” I sunk down in my seat as he loomed in the air above me. “I’ve calculated the time for the beacon to reach the nearest station,” I muttered quickly, “and then factoring in time dilation and deceleration speeds as they approach, no one is coming to rescue us for at least five months. Do you want to drift in space with no air or take a chance the planet might be habitable? It’s up to you.”
I peer out the round portal of the wrecked ship. Broken up by just a ripple of water, the bleak rocky land spans as far as I can see and as far as Anya dared to explore. A planet with water and breathable air and nothing but microscope life forms–what are the odds? I could probably work it out if my brain was functioning properly. It’s just not getting enough of a workout, I tell myself.
“Three to the power of two is nine. Three to the power of three is twenty-seven. Three to the power of four is eighty-one. Three to the power of five is … two hundred and forty-three. Three to the power of six is … is” Oh, crap. I gnaw on my knuckle, savouring the chewing sensation. “Pi is three point one four one five nine two six five three five … nine … Nine … What comes after nine?”
No, no, no. This can’t be happening. The only skill I ever excelled at is fading.
“Fat lot of good you are then.” Jackson’s irate voice chimed in my head. “We have a dilapidated shuttle smouldering on some God-forsaken planet and what are you doing?”
“Calculating! We don’t need to bloody calculate anything. We need to find food and fix the ship. At least Anya is using her exobiology skills for something useful.” Jackson waved his hand in the direction of the welder on the ground.
I picked it up and handed it over. What the point of fixing the ship without fuel was, I didn’t know. Nor was I game enough to ask Jackson. I guess, like me, he was just keeping his mind busy.
“You still with us?” asked Anya, walking up to the shuttle.
What did that mean? Why wouldn’t I have been with them?
“Keeping busy I see.” She thrust a dozen sample containers full of water and rocks in my direction. “Can you help me label these specimens?”
I took the vials and followed her into the ruined shuttle.
“Nothing but lousy microscopic phytoplankton. Can you believe it?” She placed her samples on a scrap of metal and picked up a glass slide and scalpel.
Scalpel. Why did she need a scalpel? Perhaps they’d secretly been calculating too. The food would last a little bit longer divided by two instead of three. Minus one person, they would last a little bit longer. They were plotting to kill me off. The useless person. They didn’t need me. But even minus one person, if my calculations were right, the food wasn’t going to last long enough.
“Hey, Kenneth. You still with us? You seem a bit lost there,” she said.
“Just doing the maths.”
I sit down in the old lab and twiddle the scalpel around in my fingers. “Four to the power of two is sixteen,” I recite in a sing-song voice. “Four to the power of three is sixty-four. Four to the power of four is two hundred and fifty-six.”
With brain feeling refreshed, I run the numbers around in my head again. If Jackson and Anya lasted me almost four months, then the calorific value of my legs and left arm might just last long enough until rescue arrives.
I look at the gnawed bones at the far end of the shuttle.
If only they’d done the maths before me, they might have lasted longer.
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 www.flexirees.wordpress.com 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.Follow us online: