Author : Theric Jepson

“Did you hear that?” Dave fiddled with these and those switches and dials and flung his hands across a dozen touchscreens. “Huh.”

Liz swallowed her water and let the bottle float across the cockpit. “Hear what?”

“I don’t know. Like a barking sound.”

“Like a dog.”

“No . . .” Dave frowned. “More like . . . a seal?”

“A seal.”

“Yeah. Kinda like a seal.”

Liz nodded. “Nope. No seals around here.”

Dave rolled his eyes and returned to the dash. “No kidding?” No seals in the asteroid belt? That’s why I love you.”

“Don’t be sarcastic. The bots are almost done with the extraction, then we’ll be full and we can detach and head home. Keep your seals till then.”

Dave flipped his visor and muttered, “I never said it was a seal.”

“And stop muttering.”

Dave exhaled and unlatched from his seat. He pushed himself through the cockpit locker and floated face up through the kitchen and into their sleeping quarters. He raised his head so his shoulders hit the padding, then pushed up into the machine room. From here he could pick up vibrations from the excavators. He listened carefully. Nothing. He opened the display to the molter—seemed to be running correctly—then shut it down again. He drummed his fingers on the wall and slipped back down and shot towards the cockpit.

“Any seals?”

“Hardy har.” Dave latched back in and, just following the click, there it was again. “There! There! You can’t tell me you didn’t hear that?”

“C’mon, Dave. You can’t gaslight me.”

“Can’t—what’s that?”

“Never mind.”

“There! Again!”

“Are you bored? Is that it? Should we break out the backgammon? Have some sex? Try to catch a signal?”

Dave paused and took a long look at Liz’s face. It showed mostly impatience. He strained for signs of amusement or even worry, but nothing. “You—you really think I’m messing with you?”

She rolled her eyes and scrolled up a book on her sleeve.

* * * * *

Five days later. Dave has held his ear to every surface of their ship. He’s floated absolutely still for ninety minutes at a time. Liz has ignored him.

He’d still only heard the sound in the cockpit, but Liz never gave any sign of hearing. Not that he’d ever been actually looking at her when the seal barked—because that’s exactly what it sounded like—but of course it wasn’t that—but nothing else made sense either. Nothing was coming from inside the ship and nothing could come from outside the ship. So why the hell not a seal?

* * * * *

Liz scrolled through the redundancy list. “You sure you checked all of these intentionally?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course I am!”

“Okay. Initializing countdown. Detach at eight minutes, launch at ten.”

“Sounds goo—” Dave felt the blood fall from his face. He couldn’t speak, but he shakily lifted a finger to the display. “S-s-s—”

Liz didn’t look up from the controls. “Okay. We’re set.”

Dave slammed a hand down, pausing the countdown. “Be right back. I’m going out for a sec.”

“What? Out? Dave! You can’t take our suits outside the ship! They’re barely rated for ten minutes! And were leaving! We’re leaving.”

“So five minutes won’t matter.”

“David! Gaaah!”

But he was gone. She heard him fumbling with the lock and closing it behind him. She waited until he’d closed the outer lock then restarted the countdown, bumping it up—detach in one, launch in two. She took the speaker from her hair and stashed it in a cubby, then attached her shoulder restraints. She glanced at the display to see David going over the edge, chasing nothing more than a carefully engineered trick of the light. She queued up his cord then popped it off.

“Hope I don’t get lonely,” she said to herself. “Too long alone in empty space can drive you mad.”

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