By Donald Sullivan Ernie Jensen watched as the mining crew unloaded the last supply container from the

ship. The foreman, who had been checking off supplies as they were unloaded, signed for the supplies and handed the clipboard to Ernie. “Everything’s there,” the foreman said. All signed and ready. You guys can head back to Earth now. I know you must hate to leave our beautiful asteroid belt, but all good things must come to an end.” He grinned. “How many asteroids did you visit this trip?” “Counting yours,” Ernie replied, “we supplied six mining crews on four asteroids. We’ve been out here nearly three weeks, and as much as we like it here, we’re glad to head back to terra firma.” “You guys are lucky,” said the foreman. “Our crews have to stay on these rocks for one year tours.” He winked. “If it wasn’t for the money, I’d quit.” “Hey, Ernie, you gonna gab all day?” It was the voice of his copilot, Mac McGinnis, coming through his headphones. “Let’s get away from this forsaken place, pronto.” Ernie laughed as he stepped through the airlock. “Ready when you are.” ***** The ship’s chronometer indicated forty-two hours had passed since leaving Asteroid Alpha Kay. Ernie had just finished his coffee and was ready to relieve Mac at the Controls when the ship went crazy. The ship shuddered, as an aircraft does when it hits air pockets. Bells sounded and lights flashed. Ernie raced to the control cabin to find Mac getting a readout on damage. Mac turned to Ernie. “A small meteoroid went through the ship,” he said. “A one in ten million chance, and it hit us.” Ernie looked at the readout. ABANDON SHIP. LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM DAMAGED. MAN LIFE PODS IMMEDIATELY. “We’re near enough to Alpha Kay that we can make it in a life pod easily,” said Ernie. “Give them a call that we’re on our way.” “I’ve been trying,” Mac replied. “Looks like our communications are knocked out. We’d better grab a pod before life support goes out completely. One of the pods, LP-I, was damaged, but the remaining two are OK. Be sure you don’t take that one.” The two men sped to the pod launcher. Mac leaped in one of the pods. “I’ll take LP-II,” he said. Ernie reached Bay III, and was ready to jump in the pod before he noticed that the bay, which should have held LP-III, actually held LP-1. Damn! A maintenance worker had mixed up the life pods and placed them in the wrong bays. A siren went off indicating that only seconds of life support remained. Ernie quickly jumped into the remaining pod and activated the launcher. Seconds later he was launched from the supply ship. Ernie tried to contact Alpha Kay with the pod radio, but without success. “Mac, are you reading me?” “Loud and clear, Ernie. Pod-to-pod communications seem to be okay. We must be a little too far from Alpha Kay for the range of these radios.” “We’re damn lucky to be near enough to the asteroid to make it in these pods,” said Ernie. “We’d have been up the creek without a paddle if we’d been much farther out.” Mac was quiet for a few seconds, and then spoke. “Ernie?” “Go ahead.” “How you feel?” “Okay. No problems. Why do you ask?” “Before I tell you why I ask, I want to remind you of something. Remember when you stole Judy from me?”

Ernie wondered why Mac was brining this up. “Mac, I thought that was all forgotten. Anyway, I didn’t steal her. You know that. Judy’s got a mind of her own.” “Before you came along, she was mine. We were deeply in love and engaged to be married. But you changed all that. You enticed her away from me. You stole her, Ernie. You were my friend, and it was a dirty low-down thing to do.” “I thought we were still friends, Mac. I thought this was settled long ago. Judy and I were attracted to each other from the start. We just gravitated toward each other, that’s all. We’re going to be married soon. Why the devil are you bringing this up now?” “Because I’m going to get even with you now. You wanted to know why I asked how you felt. I asked you that because you are in the damaged pod, my friend. Your life support will be going out soon. You see, it was LP-III that was damaged, not LP-I as I told you. “When I saw the readout indicating that LP-III was damaged, I decided that fate was giving me a way to pay you back. When I get back Earthside, I’ll reclaim her.” “Mac, this is crazy. Look, there’s still a way out of this. These are one-man pods, but are designed to carry two in an emergency. We cam still link up the two pods. Let me aboard your pod, and I swear there won’t be another word said about it. The two of us can make it to Alpha Kay in one pod easily.” “Judy should see you now. The great Ernie Jensen begging. C’mon, Ernie, beg some more. Grovel. I like to hear it.” “Dammit, Mac, be reasonable. What will you gain by this?” “I’ll get my girl back. And I’ll get to hear you sniveling and begging. I wish Judy could hear you whining now. But don’t worry. I won’t tell her that you whined. I’ll tell her how you died bravely while I tried to rescue you.” “C’mon Mac. This has gone far enough. Let’s link up the pods. Let me aboard, and as far as I’m concerned this never happened.” “Even if I gave in to your groveling, we couldn’t link up. I saw to that by sabotaging the linkup mechanism in my pod. I’m afraid you’re stuck on LP-III until the end, my friend.” “Mac?” “Yeah.” Just before we left the ship, I noticed something. The pods somehow got mixed up and were not placed in their matching bays. LP-I was in Bay III. I jumped into the pod in Bay I. I was in a hurry, and didn’t notice which pod was there, but I am looking at the ID plate in my pod, Mac, and I see LP-II. That means that LPIII, the pod you jumped in, was in bay II. The computer is linked directly to the pods, not the bays, so the readout you saw was correct. You are in LP-III, Mac, the damaged pod. Check your ID plate. After a moment of silence, Mac’s voice came over the radio. “Hey look, I was only kidding about sabotaging the docking mechanism in my pod. It works fine. Don’t leave me, Ernie. You said you’d be willing to forget what happened, remember?” “We’ll discuss that later. But right now we’d better start docking maneuvers.” “Please hurry.” Mac’s voice was urgent. “The warning light just came on. I only have about a minute until life support fails.” They completed docking maneuvers, and Ernie activated the docking mechanism. A red light flashed: DOCKING MECHANISM OUT OF ORDER. “Mac, we can’t link up. My docking mechanism doesn’t work.” “Damn, Ernie, this is no time for games. My life support’s going.” Mac was gasping. “Please, Ernie. I’ll die...do something. Help me.” “It’s for real, Mac. I’m not playing games. The mechanism isn’t working.” Mac was sobbing. “Please, please Ernie. Can’t you do something?” “Sorry, Mac. There’s nothing I can do. But I promise to tell Judy that you didn’t whine, and that you went bravely.” ***THE END***