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 Cold Equations

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JulianAmici
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PostSubject: Cold Equations   Wed Jan 13, 2010 6:06 pm

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There is a story that they tell in bars and spaceports across the galaxy, wherever the crews of freighters and passenger boats gather. To those who work the spaceways, who spend their whole lives in fragile little bubbles of steel and air all alone in the night, this story never fails to chill the soul. On Mars, they say it happened to John Carter; on Io, the crew of one of the first ships through the jump gate; on Proxima, to one of the early colonists. Whoever the protagonists are, the story always ends the same way.

There were once these two crew members on a slow boat. It was an interplanetary voyage, a long arc between two planets. They were three weeks out from the spaceport, with another two to go. Then, something went wrong. A micrometeoroid impact, a slow leak, venting the wrong compartment – it doesn’t matter. When anything goes wrong on a spacecraft, you are in trouble.

In this case, their fuel reserves were shot, so much so that they wouldn’t be able to decelerate when they approached their destination. Instead of going into a stable orbit, they’d end up slingshotting around the planet and firing themselves out into the abyss.

Out in space, the mathematics become real simple. No air resistance, no variations in topography or slope or anything to worry about. Force is mass by acceleration. The mass of a ship is exactly known; the mass of its cargo and crew and fuel were all logged down to the microgram. They know how much fuel they have, so they know how much force they can apply.

The equations say that it’s not enough force to get the ship into a stable orbit.

So, they lighten the ship. Dump the cargo, pile every bit of junk they can into the airlock and space it. Go on short rations and throw out the food, throw out the water, throw out everything they can spare. They throw out everything except themselves and a scrap of paper, and they do the cold equations again.

The ship’s still too heavy, too much mass. There’s only one thing left the two crew members can throw out. One of them has to go. One has to die so the other can live.

The thing is, the equations don’t just say that one of them has to die, it even tells them when. Right up until perigee, it doesn’t matter – but if the ship’s still too heavy when they begin their burn, they’re screwed.

How do you live with another person for two weeks, knowing that either you or them is going to have to die to keep the other alive? What do you say? What do you do?

The cold equations don’t care. They just demand a death.

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