Living and Dying Sample Story: “Mouths to Feed”

For those of you who haven’t downloaded and read Living and Dying yet, either from the TS Store or the Kindle Store, I thought I’d post one of the stories from the collection to give you a sense of what it’s like.

This story, Mouths to Feed, was originally written on TypeTrigger, based on the prompt phrase “I first knew.” After writing it on TypeTrigger, I spent a fair amount of time polishing and rewriting it before including it in Living and Dying. The end result was what you can read below.

 

Mouths to Feed

I first knew how much trouble we were in when the engine sputtered for the fourth time.

The first couple of sputters didn’t seem like a big deal. Let’s be realistic: you’re bound to get the occasional booster hiccup when you’re fourteen years into a twenty-year journey to the center of the solar system and back. But I’m a smart kid, and I know that while two can be coincidence, three is a pattern, which means four is something worth paying attention to.

So I called up the engineer. “Dad,” I said, “I think we might have a problem.” And he put down his call-it-breakfast-but-we’re-pointed-straight-at-the-sun-so-really-it’s-pretty-much-always-lunch-time, and he popped his head up into the cockpit with a relaxed, what-is-it-this-time-bud grin, and by then I’d counted eight-and-a-half sputters, and a look at the diagnostics screen made his smile disappear pretty quickly.

He entered a handful of bypass codes to shut the boosters off, which made the trip calculator go absolutely crazy with warnings and red numbers, and then, as he scrolled through the emergency maintenance manual, he started humming.

I’d never heard him hum before. The song was slow, and soft, and haunting. It made me feel like I was looking out a porthole into space, but couldn’t see any stars.

It creeped me out, so I went and found the captain, and she told me the last time she’d heard my dad humming was when he found out she was pregnant with me, which was almost ten years ago, and she bet she knew what song he was humming, too.

“Mom,” I said, “for every hour we have the boosters shut down, we’re adding a month to our trip time.”

“I know, bud,” she said.

“And with three people drawing from the supplies, we can’t afford to add on any more than about two years, or we’ll run out of rations before we arrive.”

“I know, bud,” she said.

“That means we have 24 hours to fix—”

I know,” she said. And then she climbed up into the cockpit with my dad and locked the hatch behind her.

We’d all memorized those numbers a long time ago, of course. They were one of the first things I learned as a kid, when I started to ask questions about what we were doing here, my mom, my dad, and I, tearing through space in a tin can made for two.

If I’d never shown up, there would have been a lot more margin for error with a problem like this one. The rations and the recycling system had been designed for two mouths, not three. There wasn’t supposed to have been a romance. There wasn’t supposed to have been a pregnancy. There wasn’t supposed to have been a Me.

But a Me there was. My parents had learned to cope. They’d recalculated the rations. They’d made the sacrifices they needed to make. And now we had less than two days to save ourselves from seven years of hopelessness and one year of death by dehydration.

 

That all happened about nine months ago. I don’t remember much about the frantic whirlwind that those two days became, but I do remember two failed reboosts, three emotional breakdowns, a lot of yelling, and being locked out of the sleeping quarters “overnight” at the end of it all.

Ultimately, we found a way to keep the engine burning, but our workaround means that someone has to constantly be watching to manually make the small, vital adjustments that are keeping our hopes, our faintest of hopes, alive.

I take a regular shift. I didn’t, at first, but eventually I had to, out of sheer necessity, because of my parents’ fatigue, and now I think they’ve grown to trust me.

And they should. I do a good job, even though it’s sometimes hard to concentrate when there’s a newborn around.

My dad hums all the time, now.

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