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Three Graves on Io

"All primary systems have failed," Ibarra sighed.

"Probably lost sync with those when we left Pytheas," Denver said.

"Communications array was destroyed," Ibarra replied wearily. "We are deaf and mute."

"What do we have?"

Ibarra used one finger to tap out another command.

"Only a few secondary systems are fully operational, but we do have reserve power. Some of the power cells must have survived the crash," she speculated. "I'm surprised we survived the crash."

"Weak gravity."

"The shuttle took a beating."

"We came in hot," Denver countered coarsely before momentarily burying his face in his hands.

Ibarra rolled her eyes and shook her head. She did little to hide her frustrations.

As the pilot, Denver was ultimately responsible for the disastrous emergency landing on Io. His fingers came away from his forehead covered with fresh blood. The bandages around his head were soaked. He was experiencing all the hallmark symptoms of a concussion. His temples thumped, his vision was blurry, and his mouth was as dry as this barren moon. Despite his condition, he still had enough forethought to ask an especially dire question.

"What about the stasis pods?"

Ibarra manipulated the emergency shuttle's rudimentary operating system with her good hand. Her other hand had been hopelessly smashed in the crash. She suspected that not a single metacarpal remained intact. A makeshift brace of fiberglass and plastic prohibited her from examining the injuries herself.

"Operational," Ibarra answered.

"Finally, some good news," Denver said. He searched his body for other injuries, finding a few substantial bruises on his stomach and right thigh. While significant internal bleeding was undoubtedly serious, there was blood all over the shuttle. Denver knew that one of the crew had externally bled plenty.

"We haven't got the power to run all four. If we run at the lowest level, we can power two of the pods for maybe two years."

"And that's at the lowest level?" Denver asked.

"Yes."

"Can we even survive in stasis for two years at that level?"

"Theoretically," Ibarra sighed again.

There were four stasis pods on the emergency shuttle. Of course, Pytheas had four crew members. When Pytheas suddenly suffered a catastrophic power system failure, the crew abandoned ship. All four crew members reached the shuttle. All four were present seconds before the shuttle struck the surface of Io. However, Denver woke up with only Ibarra for company.

The shuttle rocked uneasily. The surface quaked beneath the tattered spacecraft. Denver braced himself against a supply cabinet in the diminutive bridge. Ibarra allowed herself to be jostled back and forth.

"I don't know that we have two years," Denver observed. He looked out of the small starboard window. A mottled green, orange, and gray surface swept away from the shuttle. Mountains rose dramatically in the distance. Jupiter loomed large in an ugly green and black sky.

"I know," Ibarra muttered.

Any Jovian explorer was dutifully aware that Io was the most volcanic active planetary body in the solar system. With no sure idea as to where the shuttle had crashed, there was no way to know the proximity of the nearest volcano. A major eruption nearby could bury the shuttle in burning sulfur, rending stasis a moot point.

The ground trembled again. Empty sedative vials tumbled from the medical locker. Denver had already noted these, along with a few disposable syringes on the shuttle floor.

"Our stay here may be very brief," he observed.

"Well, we need to last five years if we're going to be rescued. That's if Pytheas II launches today."

That statement nearly made Denver laugh. He did smile. He felt small cracks develop along both lips.

Ibarra rubbed her forehead, brushing aside her short, brown hair as she attempted to soothe away a headache.

"So, let's go over this again," she said between rubs.

"Okay."

"We crashed. You and I were knocked out and banged up. The shuttle obviously didn't depressurize."

"I'm sure the others must have been hurt."

The others were also the missing.

"Well, you and I must have taken the worst of the crash," Ibarra continued.

"Right."

Ibarra studied the makeshift cast on her hand. Creating such a support would have taken time. She mulled several possibilities inside her jumbled mind. A perplexed expression flowed over her face.

"I just don't understand. Patrickson and Nikolaeva get us out of our suits. Bandage us. Help us. Sedate us."

"Right."

"And leave us to die?"

Denver didn't respond to that question. He brought a hand to each temple and gently worked his fingers over the pain. He couldn't imagine that Patrickson and Nikolaeva would abandon the ship for the hostility of the nightmare world outside.

"Two suits are missing. All of the portable oxygen canisters and the radiation shielding," Ibarra added.

Patrickson was a no-nonsense commander and resolute problem solver. He wasn't the type to leave anyone behind to die. Nikolaeva was the glaciologist, geologist, and science officer of the mission. A quiet and reserved academic, she was hardly the type to do any backstabbing or conspiring.

"Yeah," Denver finally responded.

"And no message?"

"Not that we've found," Denver answered. "Of course, I don't see any footprints outside. The tremors may have already erased any tracks."

"We can't go outside if we wanted to," Ibarra pressed. "We have no oxygen. Patrickson took every single canister."

"I'm sure he knew that wasn't an option for us. Our suits were both ruined in the crash. If we stepped outside right now, the radiation or pressure would kill us immediately even if we held our breath. I'm sure Patrickson knew that."

"Where the hell is he?" Ibarra asked in a whisper that Denver wasn't sure he was meant to hear.

That was a good question. Denver didn't have an answer. Patrickson was missing. Whatever had happened while Denver and Ibarra were unconscious or sedated could only be speculated.

Denver mentally filed that along with his other speculations. Such a query fit nicely with his curiosities about Europa and searching for life on that Jovian moon. Of course, Europa was the intended destination of Pytheas. That was why a Russian glaciologist was included on the mission. That was why he readily accepted the opportunity to replace the original pilot. Pytheas was intended to answer that ancient question that men had asked whenever looking at the heavens.

"We must have been out for hours," Denver speculated. This particular speculation came vocally, as opposed to mentally.

"I'm sure. That was a lot of sedative," Ibarra replied. She nodded toward the empty vials.

"Patrickson must have thought we were in serious pain or that we were dying."

"Or he wanted to kill us."

"What?"

"He tried to kill us."

Denver shook his head. He didn't understand what he was hearing.

"Do you see how much sedative he used?"

Denver hadn't been able to wrap his mind around the dosage. Significant cognition seemed to amplify his headache.

"Either he tried to kill us or he didn't want us to wake up for a very long time," Ibarra said while closing her eyes.

Denver wondered if the shuttle was starting to spin for her, too.

"He took our oxygen and our shielding," she said coolly.

"The shuttle has plenty of oxygen. What we don't have is power. We're hurting for long-term power."

"We could power one of the stasis pods for up to five years," Ibarra said tersely.

"One?"

"One."

Io trembled on cue. The shuttle rocked violently. This caused Denver to feel distinctly nauseous.

"Five years would be a very long time to be in stasis on the lowest setting," Ibarra continued, "but, aside from the volcanism and potential tissue degradation, there shouldn't be any other significant risks."

Denver thought those dangers were incredible serious, but Ibarra made each sound mild.

"For one pod?"

"One," Ibarra answered. "The shuttle could even be buried in an eruption or landslide. Hell, the hull could be breached. As long as the pod was protected, the occupant could survive as long as the remaining power cells function."

Denver sat back against the supply cabinet. He imagined Europa and the stark, white landscape of that moon. He imagined operating the specialized drill with Patrickson and Nikolaeva. His mind clearly depicted water sporadically splashing to the surface before freezing or evaporating.

He glanced through the window. Io seemed to be the complete opposite of Europa. Crashing the shuttle on this desolate hellscape had been preferable to being crushed in the upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere. However, the chances of anyone surviving would have been much greater if he could have nosed the shuttle toward Ganymede or Callisto. The immense gravitational pull of Jupiter had simply prevented such a maneuver.

"How long should we wait for Patrickson to come back?" Denver asked.

"Come back?"

"Yeah."

Ibarra tapped a few keys on the surviving instrumentation inside the shuttle. She frowned. She tapped additional commands.

"He may have left hours ago. He may have left several hours ago."

"And?"

"He and Nikolaeva couldn't have survived this long, even with all the canisters."

Denver groaned loudly. He didn't want to ask his next question, but he knew the same query was bounding through Ibarra's bruised mind.

"What do we do?"

"Control surely knows about Pytheas by now. I'm sure Earth knows more than we do about whatever happened. Control probably knows that we are on Io, too."

"Rescue is five years away," Denver offered.

"Right," Ibarra replied.

"So, one of us sleeps for five years?"

"Yeah."

"And the other?"

Ibarra shrugged at the question. She grimaced at a new internal pain. The sedative was definitely running the final lap of a long course through her body. Even in the low gravity, she felt as though standing for a long period may be beyond her abilities. She suspected the same was true for Denver.

"So, which of us is more tired?" Denver asked with a smile after a period of silence.

Ibarra shrugged again. Her mind went completely blank. She seemed unable to process even the slightest suggestion.

"Rock-paper-scissors?" Denver asked, jokingly holding out a fist.

Ibarra initially hesitated but eventually held out a fist. There was a brief bout of movement. One fist turned into two splayed fingers. The other fist remained a fist.

"Rock beats scissors," Denver said warmly. "I win."

"Be my guest," Ibarra replied.

Certainly, he would be her guest. She was the life systems technician.

"I can't," Denver said.

"You can't?"

"This is my fault. The crash is my fault. We're in this predicament because of me."

Ibarra didn't say anything. She merely nodded.

"If I had landed better," Denver continued, "there might be some kind of plan. All the systems and cells would be functioning. Patrickson would know what to do. We could all go into stasis."

"Maybe."

"Please," Denver continued, "I insist."

"Are you sure?"

"You're the expert. If anyone is going to survive on the lowest possible level for the length of time necessary for someone to come out here and rescue you, well that's you."

Ibarra nodded.

Denver looked around the bridge for a long moment. Ibarra saw that he was obviously contemplating his own fate.

"I'll turn off all the power in here. We will divert everything to the pod. I'll probably freeze to death before I run out of oxygen."

Ibarra nodded again, but then her face inexplicably changed.

"Plus, I'll get to see you naked one last time," Denver joked. He reached out a hand and rested a palm on one of Ibarra's shoulders.

Ibarra smiled weakly. She took a deep breath and tapped on a nearby control panel.

"Okay," she said flatly.

Denver stood easily in the weak gravity. Io offered another tremble, but he managed to stay on his feet. He took a deep breath and carefully cracked a few knuckles.

Ibarra stood and ran a hand down her face. Her expression was cold and tired.

"I need you to leave," she said.

"What?"

"In the back of my mind, I have this fear."

"What about?"

"That you're going to wait until the stasis process starts and kill me."

"What?"

"And you'll have the power and the pods to yourself."

"That's ridiculous."

"It's a fear. I'll never relax enough to enter stasis thinking that. My heart rate will never slow down enough. The cardiac implications would kill me."

"Come on, I wouldn't do that."

"How do I know? I don't know you. You were a replacement for Kang. I knew Kang. I trusted him."

"Unbelievable," Denver said. He sat back down against the cabinet and ran a hand over his lips. There was blood coming from his mouth.

"You woke up before me. You knew about the missing suits and the sedatives. Patrickson is gone. He wouldn't have left me."

Denver knew Ibarra had an argument, even if only a weak one. Ibarra doubled as the medic, and Patrickson had been foolish to put her under for such a long time with the variety of injuries sustained by the crew.

"Why not?" Denver probed.

"He wouldn't have left me. I knew him, too. He wouldn't have used all that sedative, either. Not on me."

"The shuttle recorder has been on the entire time. That is one of the secondary system still functioning. I can see the light from here," Denver reasoned.

"And that can be manipulated," Ibarra countered.

The aches in Denver were extending downward from his head and neck. He was already missing the numbing quality of the sedative. His mind was working enough to understand the implication.

"Look, there isn't enough sedative left to put me under," Denver explained. "I mean to permanently put me to sleep."

Ibarra studied the ugly landscape outside the starboard window. Io was an incredibly unsightly place. The entire moon seemed to be rotting, and there was a corresponding smell that affirmed this appearance.

"Walk outside," she said after a long moment.

"Outside?"

"Yes," she answered. "Put your suit back on and walk outside. I'll watch you from here. Come around to the starboard side and I'll watch from here."

"You'll watch me die?"

"Yes."

"I just don't understand."

"Either you go outside and I watch you die," Ibarra stated coldly, "or you go into stasis."

"The shuttle recorder?" Denver asked while nodding to the aforementioned light.

"You go willingly outside or into stasis."

Denver wanted to select stasis at this point, but he suspected that Ibarra would assure he didn't survive the process.

"And then you'll have the power and pods to yourself," he muttered.

"What?"

"Nothing," he replied with a smug grin. "Let me get my suit."

Patrickson developed a bizarre relationship with Io. He hated that he was stranded on such a dangerous place, but he appreciated that such danger afforded him an opportunity.

So much had gone wrong to get him to this point, he genuinely believed that he was due some good fortune. The system failure on Pytheas, the poor piloting of the emergency shuttle, and the causalities of the crash were each beyond his direct control. Of course, he was named commander of the mission for a reason. His resolve was unmatched, and he subscribed to the belief that luck could be created.

After the crash, he found his determination to survive alive and well, even if his body was worse for the wear. He tended to his needs and those of the other survivors. Denver and Ibarra were in poor condition. The pilot had lost a considerable amount of blood. The life systems technician was almost entirely black and blue. Both had head injuries and significant fractures.

Nikolaeva, the demure science officer, had taken the brunt of the collision to her abdomen. She was dying and in great pain. After sedating the others, he used the remaining drugs to make Nikolaeva's final minutes comfortable. Before he had got the idea for his current mission, he had dragged Nikolaeva's body outside and did his best to bury the woman under some soil and debris. He knew the science officer possessed strong pioneer sensibilities, and he imagined that she would have preferred such a burial.

After that bleak task was completed, he coaxed enough life out of the failing primary system on the shuttle to learn that the remnants of the Pytheas had also come down on Io. He carried the remaining portable oxygen canisters and the radiation shielding with him to the wreckage. He had the last intact pressure suit and needed each of the canisters to enable him to make the journey. This was no easy task, but the weak gravity did prove to be a blessing. The Pytheas had crashed near a series of faults, but only a few kilometers away.

Successfully recovering equipment from the wreckage, he made a hasty return to the shuttle. Time was of the essence for multiple reasons. Oxygen and power on the shuttle were limited, although the failure of the primary system allowed for the remaining power to be diverted to the surviving secondary systems. The volcanic nature of Io left the surface to remain unmolested for only short periods of time. Before the wreckage succumbed to any eruptions, he wanted to salvage any usable equipment and power cells. He also rightly suspected that some of the specialized Europa equipment may be reworked to serve new needs on Io.

With this new mission largely completed, Patrickson hurried back to the shuttle. His wildest dreams were within reach, but only if the oxygen and remaining power cells held out. Io possessed a tremendous amount of geothermal energy, and, with some help from Ibarra, Patrickson hoped that a transformer could be rigged. Power generated from the immense heat within Io could allow three of the stasis pods to function until a rescue arrived.

Patrickson was painfully aware this was a long shot. Equipment would be repurposed to an extreme extent. He knew that the sheer functionality of his idea was only theoretical.

He could sleep on that, though. He could sleep knowing he and the others had hope - even if the ultimate outcome was a rest of the eternal variety.

A few meters from the shuttle, with his hands full of equipment and his heart racing, Patrickson noticed an abnormality.

Nikolaeva was no longer buried. She was face down in the ugly surface of Io, just starboard of the main lock of the shuttle.

That made absolutely no sense. Patrickson was certain the science officer was dead. He dropped the equipment he carried and rushed forward. He covered the remaining distance in long awkward bounds.

He rolled the body over and made a horrible discovering.

"Oh no," he whispered.

Through the helmet visor, he was able to discern a bloated, grotesque face. There was no doubt that this was Denver. The pilot had ambled outside the shuttle in a damaged suit that was unable to be properly pressurized.

Patrickson moved into the airlock, deeply concerned about what he may find inside the shuttle. He waited impatiently for the lock to pressurize. He pounded on the controls and cursed. This entire process was expending more energy from the power cells. The lock malfunctioned.

Patrickson attacked the controls, entering the code necessary to override the lock system. For whatever reason, the shuttle appeared to be depressurized. Pulling at the lock with his gloved hands, he was barely able to move the door enough to slip inside.

One of the stasis pods had been activated. The operating system controls had been hopelessly damaged beyond use. Ibarra had activated a stasis pod, diverted all remaining power to that pod, ruined the operating system controls to pervert a reversal, and sealed herself inside.

Patrickson allowed himself to drift to the floor of the shuttle. Whatever good fortune he had momentarily created escaped his embrace. He looked around the shuttle and imagined what must have occurred in his absence. He checked a gauge on his wrist. He had little oxygen left.

He hadn't known Denver well, but he allowed himself to believe that the pilot had the same frontier mindset that the science officer had possessed. With his final breaths and the last of his energy, he raked out two more shallow graves. He pulled the pilot into one, and he laid down in the other.

He sighed as he felt Io tremble. There was no need to expend any more time with completing the burials, Io would see to that last step shortly. He wanted to fall asleep naturally one more time. He crossed his hands over his chest and closed his eyes.

About the Author
Joshua Scully is an American History teacher from Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of California University of Pennsylvania. His speculative fiction can be found online at www.jjscully.wordpress.com or @jojascully.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link