Lieutenant Russ Ensign stood on the bridge of the SFS Axelos studying the data floating above the science table. Before him was a colorful holographic representation of sensor data for the planet the Axelos orbited. What puzzled him most was the total lack of water within the planet’s atmosphere.
“There is life,” he mumbled, “but no water.”
“Curious,” the ships commander, Captain Tanita Brooks replied as she stepped up to the lieutenants shoulder, startling him.
Capt. Brooks offered him a look of reproach.
“Sorry ma’am, I was deep in thought.”
“That’s fine lieutenant.”
“The Sol Federation has been exploring the galaxy for over a century, and the one thing always necessary for life is water.”
“Maybe the water is deep underground.”
“Beg your pardon ma’am, but the Axelos is the latest in deep space science exploration. If there is water on that dust bowl, this baby will sniff it out,” Lt. Ensign replied with respectful confidence.
Capt. Brooks eyed her science officer up and down to make sure he wasn’t forgetting his station in life, then looked to the science table and the constantly shifting data it presented. She was just an old space captain, and did not understand most of what she saw, but the field that showed water was plain as the nose on her face.
“Looks like you get to do some real sciency stuff lieutenant. You have your work cut out for…”
The Axelos shuttered, and Capt. Brooks felt the ship yawing viciously, “What the hell just happened?” She called out to the helm.
Lieutenant Commander Tiwary’s hand flew over the console before her, she paused, studying one of her displays, then turned to the Captain, “Something hit the ship ma’am. Something big, we have lost all power.”
Lt. Ensign released his grip from the science table, swiped through the displays until he found the data he wanted, then he turned to his captain.
“Captain, we lost most of the engineering section, and our water tanks have vented to space.”
Capt. Brooks gazed at Ensign with wide eyes, immediately understanding the implications of his words.
Ensign nodded, “Whatever we have in our water bottles, flasks, and toilets is all the water we have after crash landing on that desert down there.
* * * * *
Capt. Brooks assessed the situation from atop a sandy knoll. For as far as the eye could see it was desert. Further exploration was not necessary to determine that was all this planet offered, that was something they established from orbit, and visually on their descent in the lifeboat. Below her, her crew of nine inventoried their supplies and setup shelters. No one wore helmets because somehow, this planet offered a breathable atmosphere.
“We have air, food, a lab, and everything we need to live for decades on most any other habitable planet,” she grumbled aloud, “except water.”
She had seen the insect like critters that flew through the dry air and burrowed into the sand. There was life, but how?
Her second in command, Commander Russ Broker trudged through the lose sand towards her, stopping three paces in front of her.
“What is the situation?” Capt. Brooks asked.
“With strict rationing, we have enough water for three days. We lost the waste processing equipment with the engineering section and those crewmembers that went with it,” Broker reported, his face showing the pain of losing his wife.
“Sorry for your loss commander.”
Cmdr. Broker composed himself, before continuing, “Unless there is some miracle, we will all be dead in a week or two anyway.”
Without waiting for dismissal, he turned and headed back to the encampment.
“I don’t believe in miracles,” Brooks whispered to Broker’s back.
* * * * *
Lt. Ensign could not believe a human could be so thirsty and still be alive. He was doing better than most of the others, but death wasn’t far away. His lips split and cracked if he moved them. His skin developed sores, his head pounded.
He lay with his back propped against an empty water tank, before him, the others were in similar prone positions. He was sure Tiwary was dead. She had not moved for most of the day. She was not the first, but no one had the strength to bury the dead.
Ensign thought back to the last couple of days, and how proud he was to be a part of this crew. Even up to the last liter of water, the rationing protocol was followed. No one fought for more. No one considered mutiny. Maybe the fact that nothing could change the outcome helped, but he liked to think it was a damned good disciplined crew.
Inwardly he winced at the pain his prideful smile inflicted. Then his eyes closed, and unconsciousness swept over him.
* * * * *
Brooks’ eyes flew open. Thirst still consumed her, but she felt better than the last time her eyes stared into the cloudless blue that enveloped this desert planet.
“I should be dead,” she croaked, her lips not splitting this time. She could not lift her head, she was still to weak, but she could turn it, and in doing so saw that one of her crew was trying to stir. Hope swelled within her. For the first time since some stray hunk of ice tore through her ship, she didn’t feel as though death was certain.
“I don’t believe in miracles,” she whispered to herself, not feeling the same conviction as the previous utterance.
* * * * *
As the SFS Runge established orbit around a desert planet. Science officer Lieutenant Fitch was perplexed by the readings that reflected off his optic nerves. With mental swipes he adjusted the display of data, but still the results were the same.
“Captain Demney, you have to see this,” he called out to the ship’s commander.
“Put it up on the holotable,” the captain ordered.
“The Axelos is down there, at least what is left of her. But more puzzling is that scans show a human colony.”
“What is so strange about that, even three hundred years ago, our deep explores were well equipped.”
“The planet is bereft of water sir. Scans don’t even show water within the confines of the colony.”
“Interesting,” the captain said, mulling over the data displayed before him. “Send a small party. Select four others, you will be in command.”
* * * * *
Ensign watched as five fully suited human space explorers approached his hut. He followed their shuttles approach to the colony from the moment the first glint of sunlight reflected off its hull. As the lead officer approached, Ensign recognized the insignia of his former rank.
“Lieutenant, you don’t need those helmets, the air is fine.”
“Protocol,” Fitch responded,” and who are you?”
“I was Lieutenant Russ Ensign, now, sans lieutenant.”
Fitch’s implanted computer instantly queried that Solar Federation databases and the results of the query sent a shiver down his spine. His mouth worked behind the face shield as he struggled for words.
“Your…you…according to our records, that makes you over three hundred years old,” Fitch finally said.
“I know, and a glorious three hundred years it’s been.”
“How can that be?”
‘Oh, you will soon discover, as we did, water is poisonous. Without it, we estimate humans can live five hundred years…but the withdrawal sucks!”