Follow TV Tropes


Cold Equation

Go To

"Yesterday afternoon, they gave me the order to send more than 20,000 Jews out of the ghetto, and if not — "We will do it!" [...] I must perform this difficult and bloody operation — I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself. I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well — God forbid."
Chaim Rumkovsky, Judenrat Leader of the Łódź Ghetto, Speech of 4/9/1942 explaining decision to deport all members under 10 and over 65 to Treblinka

Contemplating killing people so that others can live longer.

In Science Fiction, the Ur-Example is that of a spaceship or Escape Pod which is Almost Out of Oxygen (or food or fuel). But then someone calculates that if they had one fewer crewmember, they just might make it back safely...

Many incidents of this trope have occurred in real life, such as sailors in lifeboats running out of food or freeboard. These seldom involved any fine calculations, just desperate people willing to do anything to live a bit longer. Those who travel on spaceships are presumed to be a different breed, or perhaps they're just more educated; therefore expect a Lottery of Doom, Drawing Straws or Heroic Sacrifice.

See also The Needs of the Many, Emergency Cargo Dump (the non-lethal version), No Party Like a Donner Party, Cut the Safety Rope, Trial by Friendly Fire, We Have Reserves and Restricted Rescue Operation. See Someone Has to Die for the voluntary variant of this trope.


Note: Please do not include discussions on the short story "The Cold Equations" or for the novel trilogy Star Trek: Cold Equations here. Post them on the discussion page for those stories.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In the second season of Vandread, The Stoic Meia has to take care of Ezra's baby daughter when a space battle breaks out and in the confusion, they accidentally launch in an escape pod. When oxygen begins to run out, Meia has no choice but to throw herself out of the airlock with a smile to make sure Karu lasts until the pod is picked up by Nirvana. It turns out, the pod has just been picked up, and Meia didn't notice until she walked out.
  • Lampshaded in the Martian Successor Nadesico episode "The Lukewarm 'Cold Equation'", where Anti-Hero Akito gets stranded without fuel after piloting his Humongous Mecha out of range of the Cool Starship, and the two leading contenders in the Love Dodecahedron get stranded with him when their rescue attempts fail due to enemy attacks. Akito ejects the mecha's limbs to get it moving, but the oxygen issue comes up again. Akito finally decides to Take a Third Option before they discover that they'd drifted back in range of their starship.
  • Planetes:
  • The reason for a series of murders in The Kindaichi Case Files. The victims are all survivors of a crashed ship, with the same initials. One of them had worked out this equation and pushed a girl off who was trying to climb aboard a full lifeboat; in falling, she managed to grab their keychain with their initials.
  • Played for Laughs in Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu. A viral agent is released in the school resulting in Crowd Panic until Kaname dresses down the class. Everyone starts hugging each other, determined to Face Death with Dignity... until Sousake reveals he has enough vaccine for one person. Hilarity Ensues with send-ups of the requisite Lottery of Doom, Heroic Sacrifice and Must Not Die a Virgin tropes. And then they discover that the virus only eats clothing.
  • Attack on Titan:
    • Humanity's attempt at reclaiming Wall Maria by sending out 250,000 drafted citizens, many of whom came from the recently-fallen ward of Shiganshina, was done knowing that the operation would likely fail so that humanity would not starve from overpopulation.
    • Jean also performs one during the Battle of Trost, using several cornered comrades as a distraction so that the rest of the soldiers following him may escape safely.
      Marco: I want you to listen to me without getting angry. You're not strong, Jean. That's why you understand how the weak feel. And you're adept at properly assessing a situation, so you know exactly what has to be done at any given time.
  • A variation of this comes up in an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh!. Grandpa tells the main protagonists - via flashback - how he and his colleague Arthur were on an archaeology dig when a cave-in trapped them in an isolated pocket, separated from the others, with limited supplies. Eventually, they decided to play cards to pass the time, and Solomon suggested wagering the last of the water, knowing that there wasn't enough to share, and without it, one of them might die of thirst before they were rescued - if they ever were. Eventually, Solomon realized Arthur was about to pass out from fatigue, and forfeited the game in order to give it to him, even though he could have won on his next move. Fortunate, too, as the rescue team found them soon after.
  • Dragon Ball Super: Broly: When Broly, Paragus, and Beets were stranded on Planet Vampa due to a broken spaceship, Paragus coldly murdered Beets so that their food would last longer.
  • Fate/Grand Carnival: Parodied when Ritsuka is informed that Chaldea has too many Servants and it is straining resources. Rather than accept a dock in pay to support them, she puts her Servants in a tournament where the losers are killed, and before the tournament even starts, she eliminates all the 3 Star or less Servants, plus all incarnations of Cu Chulainn.
  • A Certain Magical Index: The New Testament novels introduce Kakeru Kamisato, a reluctant hero. Whenever a disaster happens, he only saves one or a few, almost always pretty girls, and leaves the rest to die. He cynically says trying to save everyone is utter foolishness and will only lead to everyone getting killed. However, when Touma Kamijou consistently manages to save everybody by never giving up and using methods Kakeru never though of, Kakeru eventually admits he was wrong.
  • Fate/Zero: Towards the end of the Fourth Grail War, Kiritsugu Emiya — a cynical and pragmatic assassin — is doused in Grail Mud and comes into contact with Aŋra Mainiiu, who asks him a series of philosophical questions wherein Kiritsugu must choose between two groups of people, one of which is slightly larger than the other, and the group he chooses to save is divided before the experiment repeats. Kiritsugu consistently chooses the larger number of people in accordance with his Well-Intentioned Extremist philosophy, only for Aŋra Mainiiu to mockingly point out that in the end he's killed far more people than he saved.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! GX: When Austin O'Brien was a child, his parents were knocked out when their van crashed in the jungle and caught fire. Austin was struck with indecision on who to save, but ultimately decided to save his father, reasoning that since his father was an expert mercenary that they would have a higher chance of survival in the wilderness together. Fortunately, his father woke up and was able to save his mother before the van exploded. Afterwards, Austin was filled with self-loathing over the fact that if it wasn't for that stroke of luck, he basically condemned his mother to death. When Austin duels Trueman, Trueman reads his mind and taunts him about his past decision. Trueman forces him to relive his trauma by playing a card called The Unchosen One, which forces the opponent to pick one Monster they control and the others get destroyed, then Trueman will get to revive one of the destroyed Monsters on his side of the field. At the time, Austin controlled Volcanic Doomfire, which represents his father, and Volcanic Queen, which represents his mother. Though it tears him up inside, he choses to save Volcanic Doomfire, reasoning that if he saved Volcanic Queen, then Trueman would attack it with the stronger Volcanic Doomfire. Trueman mocks him for chosing to save his father again and ultimately defeats him. Right before Trueman traps him in the World of Darkness as a penalty for losing, Austin hits the Despair Event Horizon and says he should have just let all three of them die.

    Comic Books 
  • It is alleged that Godwin (author of "The Cold Equations") essentially took the story from a story published in EC Comics' Weird Science #13, May-June 1952, called "A Weighty Decision," scripted by Al Feldstein. In that story there are three astronauts who are intended to be on the flight, not one, and the additional passenger, a girl that one of the astronauts has fallen in love with, is trapped aboard by a mistake rather than stowing away. As in The Cold Equations, various measures are proposed but the only one which will not lead to worse disaster is for the unwitting passenger to be jettisoned. Other sources note that the theme of Feldstein's story is itself strikingly similarly to the story "Precedent", published by E.C. Tubb in 1949; in that story, as in the others, a stowaway must be ejected from a spaceship because the fuel aboard is only enough for the planned passengers. These sources argue that neither Feldstein nor Godwin intentionally "swiped" from the stories that came before, but merely produced similar variations on an ancient theme, that of an individual being sacrificed so that the rest may survive.
  • In the Tintin comic album Explorers on the Moon, when Thompson and Thomson turn up as accidental stowaways on the Moon-Rocket, Calculus worries that, since oxygen supplies were assessed for only four people, there might not be enough for six, and decides to shorten the trip from fourteen to ten days. It gets worse when Colonel Jorgen is revealed to have smuggled himself on board, with the help of The Mole. He intends to maroon Tintin and his companions on the surface of the Moon, pointing out that they don't have enough oxygen to bring prisoners back to Earth. Later when the villains are overpowered, Tintin refuses to leave them behind despite having exactly the same problem. After Jorgen is killed in a Gun Struggle, Wolff decides to atone for his actions by stepping out the airlock. Even so Tintin and his companions almost don't make it back to Earth.
  • Rick Random: Space Detective, a comic of the 1950's. In "Kidnappers from Mars!" Space Pirates get caught in a space tide and realise the only means of escape is the two-man space shuttle. The Big Bad and his Femme Fatale girlfriend hide until all the other pirates have killed each other fighting over the shuttle, then take off in it.
  • Twisted for a Xxxenophile story. The bomb shelter will only hold two, and the female character tells her two male companions that if she has to repopulate the Earth she wants to enjoy herself doing it, so "auditions" are now in order. World War III did not just break out, she said it had as an excuse for threesome sex.
  • Echoed and possibly referenced by Mark Verheiden and Mark A. Nelson's follow-on graphic novel set ten years after Aliens. Hicks smuggles Newt aboard a weight-critical ("gravity-balanced") ship on its way to the alien homeworld. The situation is averted on this occasion, as he took pains to dump stores equivalent to her weight before takeoff.
  • Star-Lord once blew up a moon inhabited by 35,000 people in order to generate enough energy to defeat the Fallen One, a former herald of Galactus who had been serially destroying planets. He promptly turned himself over to the Nova Corps and stopped using the title of Star-Lord for a time.
  • Robin Series: When Tim is stuck in the back of an armored truck that's been buried in cement with the Cluemaster one of his first thoughts is that he'd live longer if he killed Brown to prevent him from using up any more of their limited oxygen. He's immediately ashamed he was thinking about it and feels Bruce would be disappointed in him. Luckily Spoiler saves them before it becomes too much of an issue.
  • Star Wars: Doctor Aphra: Early in the Remastered arc, Triple Zero puts Dr Aphra in this position just to Kick the Dog. He hires one too many mercenaries for her mission so her spacecraft is too heavy to take off, then lets her choose who gets to stay behind and get killed by the Imperial stormtroopers he's tipped off about their presence. He's not the last person she ends up sacrificing on that mission either, which Triple Zero also knew would happen.

    Fan Works 
  • This is the dark side of Doctor Strange's history manipulating methodology in Child of the Storm, with the end goal of stopping Thanos' omnicidal rampage. Generally, he's good enough at manipulating the timeline that this isn't necessary. At times, though, it's explicitly compared to triage, and at points it is also explicitly noted that by refusing to step in, he lets a lot of people suffer and die for the sake of ensuring the Earth will be ready.

    Film - Animated 
  • In The Transformers: The Movie, the Decepticons' ship is filled with wounded from their failed attack on Autobot City and its weighing down their ship during its escape. Starscream, being Starscream, tells them to dump their wounded, which includes their leader Megatron, on the grounds that they won't make it back to Cybertron anyway. Big mistake: they end up drifting into the direction of Unicron and are turned into his heralds.
  • In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Peter B. Parker, Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir, and Spider-Ham all come from other universes, and dimensional incompatibilities mean that they cannot survive indefinitely in Miles's universe. They have a way back to their own dimensions in the form of the control goober for the collider, but they also need to destroy it to prevent the multiverse from collapsing, and that has to be done in Miles's dimension. Miles insists that he can handle the job, but because he's only been a superhero for a day at that point, nobody believes him, meaning that the plan ends up being that one of them will send the other four home, then destroy the machine, sacrificing themselves for the multiverse. Naturally, these being superheroes, all five insist that it should be them who stays behind. It ends up not being necessary because Miles takes a level or three in badass just in time for the climax, however.

    Film - Live Action 
  • Woman in the Moon (1929). After a struggle punctures the oxygen tank, the two male crewmembers draw straws to see who gets to return to Earth on the rocket. The Dirty Coward gets the short straw and breaks down sobbing, so the hero makes the Heroic Sacrifice and stays behind on the Moon instead.
  • Destination Moon (1950). The rocketship loses reaction mass landing on the moon, so someone has to stay behind even after they've thrown out every piece of equipment they can unbolt. While the Science Heroes are arguing over who gets to make the Heroic Sacrifice, the Plucky Comic Relief sneaks outside and laconically tells the others to take off without him. Fortunately someone realises how to dispose of an extra piece of equipment so they can all return safely.
  • Alien (1979). After the xenomorph does some snacking, there are four crew members left.
    Lambert: I say that we abandon this ship. We get the shuttle and just get the hell out of here; we take our chances and hope that somebody picks us up!
    Ripley: Lambert, the shuttle won't take four.
    Lambert: Well why don't we draw straws then—
    Parker: I'm not drawing any straws. I'm for killing that goddamned thing right now.
  • Starflight One (1983). Disaster movie involving a hypersonic passenger plane that gets stuck in orbit. Most of the passengers are successfully evacuated and the crew intends to try and achieve reentry, but they're running out of oxygen (the plane is only meant to pass through space for a short time before returning to Earth). A Corrupt Corporate Executive on the ground half-heartedly suggests that if there were three less passengers... The pilot demands this jerk be thrown out of the control room, and he is.
  • Lifepod (1993), set in an escape pod ejected from a sabotaged spaceship with limited air, food and water. Stating that their odds of survival would increase if one of them dies, a blind passenger tries to cut his wrists. He's actually the saboteur, and did it knowing the others would stop him.
  • Sunshine (2007).
    • Icarus II is damaged on its mission to reignite the sun, but the crew realize there is still enough oxygen to get there if one of them dies. A scientist who's lapsed into depression after indirectly causing the death of The Captain (and soon the rest of them even more indirectly) is an obvious candidate. All but one of the crew vote to kill him (their mission is, after all, to save the entire human race) only to find he's already killed himself. Or he was killed by a stowaway whose presence makes the whole question moot.
    • When there's only one spacesuit to cross back to the Icarus II, the other crewmen immediately start putting Capa (the only man who can fire the payload that is their mission) into the suit, ignoring the protests of their acting commander.
    • The Master Computer takes control of the spacecraft from the astronauts because it has been programmed to prioritise the mission. Exposure to sunlight has started a fire in the garden that provides their oxygen, so the computer turns the Icarus II so the heatshield is fully facing the sun, killing the captain who is on the heatshield doing repairs. The astronauts try to re-establish manual control to prevent this, but the captain refuses to give his permission.
  • Flash Gordon (1980) has first Zarkov then Flash himself attempt to sacrifice himself to stop Ming. "It's a rational transaction; one life for billions."
  • Marooned (1969 — made before the Apollo 13 disaster). The crew of an Apollo mission is left stranded in Earth orbit with no means to deorbit and a dwindling oxygen supply. Both an emergency rescue mission and a passing cosmonaut eventually help the crew, but not before Mission Control calculates that there's only enough left to save two of the crew. The mission's commander decides to sacrifice himself.
  • This is evoked at one point in Red Planet, and one of the three still-alive crewmen decides to try and reach the old Russian module alone. The second crewman later dies protecting the third one.
  • The Transporter has one in the opening sequence. Frank is hired to be the wheel man for a bank robbery, with the express and very clear agreement that there will be three men at 254 kilos. The gang shows up with four men. Frank refuses to budge, since he has planned for a very precise amount of fuel to optimally carry three men plus himself and not one smidgen more. The gang's left with the choice of kicking out one man to make weight or sitting still and waiting to be caught. There's nothing tying Frank to the gang, so he's perfectly willing to cool his heels. Finally, the gang leader shoots one of the accomplices and throws his body out, at which point Frank springs into action and proves himself and his ways worth every penny.
  • In Titanic (1997), this is the reason given why the lifeboats don't go back to try to save those in the water after the Titanic sinks: if they go, they'll be mobbed by people trying to get on the boat, causing the lifeboats to sink and killing the passengers aboard them.
  • After The Dark is all about debating this trope, when a teacher sets the below-mentioned nuclear bunker scenario to his students.
  • In Interstellar, Cooper does a Heroic Sacrifice by detaching himself from the spaceship to ensure Brand's safe onward travel to Edmunds planet. Apparently, resources weren't enough for both of them to survive.
  • One of the pub crowd in An American Werewolf in London tells a joke about a plane full of U.N. representatives who need to lighten the load or they'll crash. Just tossing out the baggage and seats isn't enough.
    British Diplomat: God save the Queen! (Jumps out.)
    French Diplomat: Vive la France! (Jumps out.)
    American (Texan) Diplomat: Remember the Alamo! (Tosses out the Mexican.)
  • The Last Days on Mars (2013). Campbell, Irwin, and Rebecca escape the Mars expedition base in the solar-powered land Rover, but as it's night the Rover doesn't have enough power to reach the landing zone where a Drop Ship will pick them up. They could walk the rest of the way, but their infected colleagues are coming after them and Rebecca has been wounded in the leg. She's a suspected Zombie Infectee, so Irwin suggests they leave her behind. Campbell refuses, but then Irwin remembers there's another Rover nearby they can use instead. The Take a Third Option trope is defied however when Irwin steals the Rover after unsuccessfully trying once more to persuade Campbell to abandon Rebecca.
  • Five Came Back: A plane has crashed in the jungles of the Amazon. The pilots fix it, but due to one of the engines being damaged beyond repair, the plane can carry only five people. Unfortunately there are ten people in the party, and it's a Cold Equation because the sound of drums has revealed that The Natives Are Restless, and they're headhunters, and they're about to attack.
  • The Abyss: Bud and Lindsey are trapped underwater with one set of breathing equipment, which Bud is already wearing. Bud offers the gear to Lindsey, which would doom him. Lindsey presents what she calls "the logical option", which gives both of them a chance of survival: she drowns, and Bud drags her body to safety, and hopes she can be revived. Bud is the stronger swimmer, so Lindsey has to drown. Bud's initial response is "Fuck logic!", but he soon comes round.
  • Apollo 13, as in the Real Life incident, runs up against the Equation a few times, but the guys in mission control are able to ensure that Everybody Lives.
    • Once the explosion happens and the mission switches to "get them back home", the overarching concern is how they get three men to survive for four days in a lunar module designed to sustain two people for a day and a half — the biggest issues are power and carbon dioxide. Thankfully, with rationing of the former and a clever solution for the latter, there turns out to be enough resources to pull it off without sacrificing anyone.
    Kranz: I don't care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do.
    • The Equation does get alluded to aboard the Aquarius when it comes to the carbon dioxide level being too high. When the crew is first alerted to the problem by Mission Control, Haise doesn't believe it at first having gone over the calculations thrice. Haise eventually figures out where his math went wrong — he only calculated for two people, i.e., he forgot Swigert, who on a normal mission wouldn't have been in the lunar module.
    Swigert: Maybe I should just hold my breath.
  • I, Robot: Spooner was once in a car accident where both cars plunged into the river. The driver of the other car died on impact, but a little girl was still alive. When a robot came to aid the humans, it didn't have enough time to save both and chose Spooner because he had a higher probability of survival. This event led Spooner to harbor hatred for robots as unfeeling machines, saying that any human would have chosen to save the little girl no matter the odds.
    Spooner: That was somebody's baby. 11 percent's more than enough. A human being would've known that.
  • The trope is spoofed in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. The spaceship has too much weight to take off so they have to leave behind...all the gorgeous space-babes that Orville is trying to sneak back to Earth.
  • Seven Waves Away (aka Abandon Ship) a 1957 film starring Tyrone Power, has the survivors from a torpedoed ship in an overloaded lifeboat. The captain tries to keep it afloat by ruthlessly throwing out those who can't survive and keeping those he feels can, making no moral judgments on who is worth saving. Inspired by the Holmes case (see Truth in Television).
  • 3 Godfathers: Robert, Pedro, and the little baby they're carrying are desperately trying to cross a salt flat in the Thirsty Desert in order to reach the town beyond. When Pedro falls and breaks his leg, a frantic Robert suggests either fixing him a splint or fixing up a travois and dragging him. Pedro calmly points out that either way, they'll be too slow and all three of them will die of dehydration before they make it across. So Robert has to leave Pedro behind.
  • Dunkirk: A group of soldiers conceal themselves on a Dutch trawler that's washed up on the beach. The tide comes in, but the boat doesn't float so they start arguing that someone should get off. Rather than ask for volunteers they try to force a French soldier off at gunpoint, then when a British soldier tries to object they declare he'll be next, because he's not a member of their regiment. It becomes a moot point because the trawler floats off at that point, but the German see this and start riddling it with gunfire, causing it to sink.
  • Pitch Black: As the spaceship Hunter-Gratzner is Coming in Hot, its pilot Carolyn Fry starts to purge the cargo compartments. She then decides to purge the passenger compartment as well, but her navigator jams the airlock door open between themselves and the compartment to stop her. Much of her subsequent heroism is atoning for this action.
  • Avengers: Infinity War: This is what Thanos thinks he's doing with his 'kill half of all life' plan. In his backstory, he suggested killing half his species as a desperate plan to prevent an overpopulation crisis, but his plan was rejected and everyone but him died. So now he's decided to push the solution on the entire universe as much to prove to himself that it would work as anything. Avengers: Endgame shows the results of this logic: massive environmental damage, as population control does not work that way.
    • Avengers: Endgame, for its part, reveals that Doctor Strange, in pushing for the one timeline where Thanos was stopped, had to have known it would involve the Heroic Sacrifices of Black Widow and Iron Man.
  • Morning Departure: When Lt. Cdr. Armstrong discovers that there are not enough breathing sets to allow all of the crew to escape to the surface, he has to decide which of the remaining crew will be allowed to leave, and which will have to stay and wait for a rescue that might never come.
  • The Meg: Jonas' career as a deep sea rescue specialist was spoiled by one when he was forced to decide between going back into a sunken nuclear submarine to save his best friends (which would've risked the lives of everyone down there), or return to the surface with the eleven people they had already rescued by then. He chose the latter, something he has never forgiven himself for even years later.
  • When Worlds Collide (1951). A rocket ship is built to escape The End of the World as We Know It, but it can only take forty people selected by a Lottery of Doom with the exception of some reserved seats, such as the jerkass financier who's funding the rocket's construction on condition that he be taken along. When the girlfriend of one winner has to stay behind he decides to stay as well, so it's arranged for both to go. Then the protagonist is also brought in as back-up pilot. Therefore when the rocket is about to take off the scientist who thought up The Ark idea stays behind and forces the financier to stay with him, so the rocket will have enough fuel.
  • Threads. After a nuclear attack devastates Britain, the Sheffield emergency council argue over whether to distribute food to people in irradiated zones who are going to die anyway, or horde it as currency to conscript the survivors to work on clean-up operations.
  • The Final Destination films are built around the idea of people being slated to die at particular moments in time, and Death coming back for them (in the order in which they would've died naturally) when somebody, thanks to a premonition of a coming disaster, manages to save themselves and some of their friends. Final Destination 5 raises the idea that somebody marked for death can kill somebody else and gain the time that their victim had until they were fated to die. Nathan accidentally kills Roy and so gets passed over in Death's order, causing Peter, who is next in line, to try and kill Molly (the one person in their group who didn't die in Sam's premonition of the disaster) in order to claim the time that she had left. The ending reveals that Nathan only bought himself a couple of weeks, because Roy's autopsy revealed a massive aneurysm in his brain that would've burst "any day now" had he not died sooner — meaning that the film ends with Nathan getting squashed.
  • Chariot. Operation Chariot is a secret government program to save valuable or useful people in the event of a massive attack on the United States. Those on the list are kidnapped from their homes by government agents, regardless of whether they might want to stay and die with their families.
  • In The Time Travelers, Councilman Willard points out that the four time travelers cannot be brought on to the rocket to Alpha Centauri because the number of passengers has been precisely established. Adding four extra people would require extra air and provisions, which would reduce the amount fuel they could carry, which would cause them to miss their rendezvous with the planet. The time travelers will have to remain on Earth and either find a way to survive in the caves or attempt to rebuild their time portal.
  • The story of Stowaway (2021) is based on the Trope Namer, so the usage of this trope is not surprising. Being a realistic sci-fi, the spaceship is built with enough spare resources to bear the extra crew member, but the breakage of the carbon-dioxide scrubber results in oxygen shortage.
  • A Discussed Trope in I Am Mother with the Ethics course that A.I. robot Mother gives to the human Daughter she is raising in a bunker After the End. One of the questions on the practice exam is whether a doctor should let one of their patients die so that their organs can be donated to five other patients who need organ donors; if the doctor should save the patient but let the other five die; or if the doctor should let themselves die and give up their own organs for the patients. Daughter points out that sacrificing someone to save the others depends on the type of people they are, because it would be a Senseless Sacrifice if these people are murderers/bad people. Mother finds her answer interesting. This foreshadows The Reveal that Mother brought about the extinction event herself in the hope of raising more ethical humans under her guidance.
  • Bird Box. Melanie has to row a boat down the river with herself and the children blindfolded so they won't be driven insane by the Brown Note Beings. But to get past the rapids, one of the children has to remove their blindfold and guide her. Her son volunteers, but it's implied Melanie will force the Girl to do it instead. In the end Melanie can't bring herself to do it and tries to row unguided, causing the boat to capsize—fortunately they all make it to shore.
  • Dune (2021): Discussed when Duke Leto Atreides leads a rescue operation using 3 vehicles to try to evacuate 21 spice harvesters from an approaching Sand Worm. The vehicles each only have room for six more people, so Leto's men say they'll have to leave three behind. Fortunately, Leto's son Paul comes up with the idea to dump their shield generators, making enough room to save them all.
  • The Imitation Game: Referred to as "blood-soaked calculus." After the team has cracked the German Enigma code, they realize that they can't act on every decoded message as the Germans will realize their communications are compromised and come up with a new code, prolonging the war. The decision is made to identify key German operations to counter but leave the rest alone, meaning that they will knowingly allow allied soldiers to walk into certain death in order to end the war more quickly and save more lives in the long run.

  • A joke that surfaces with every election: The President, the Pope and a Boy Scout are on a plane when the pilot dies of a heart attack. Every passenger grabs a parachute and jumps, but the last three realize there's only two parachutes left. The President grabs a handle and says "I'm sorry, but as the leader of the free world, my life is worth more than yours", and jumps. The Pope looks at the Boy Scout and says "Take mine, my son." The Boy Scout says "Don't worry, your Holiness, he grabbed my backpack by mistake!"
  • In a similar setting, a plane carrying a delegation of diplomats suffers an engine loss and has to lighten its load.
    British Diplomat: God save the Queen! [Jumps from plane].
    French Diplomat: Viva la France! [Jumps from plane].
    Texan Diplomat: Remember the Alamo! [Throws out the Mexican]. note 

  • The Trope Namer is of course The Cold Equations, the classic 1954 sci-fi short by Tom Godwin famous for averting the Always Save the Girl trope. A young girl stows away on a shuttle carrying vital medicine to a planetary colony, not knowing that its fuel has been precisely calculated and her extra weight is enough to cause disaster.
  • The Redeker Plan in World War Z was a strategy used in the zombie war, which involved isolating smaller though well supplied groups of survivors in such a way that the undead would converge on them, ultimately dooming them. This would have the effect of distracting the hordes away from the larger populations (giving them time to regroup and prepare for an attack themselves), and perhaps even reducing their numbers in the process.
  • Arthur C. Clarke's excellent short story "Breaking Strain" is about a two-man spaceship that (after a micrometeor strike) has only enough oxygen for one of them to survive the trip. It follows one of the characters' thoughts as he becomes more and more tempted to murder his companion and save himself. It has two different Adaptation Expansions: the novel Venus Prime 1: Breaking Strain, in which the story's aftermath is investigated, and the film Trapped in Space (which expands the crew to six people and has a more And Then There Were None kind of plot with successive murders).
  • Jack McDevitt's Priscilla Hutchins series has a couple of examples:
    • In The Engines of God, Hutch is piloting a spaceship which crashes into a Big Dumb Object, shutting down their fusion engine. The spaceship starts to lose heat (so much that it starts snowing inside) and the oxygen pumps fail, leaving them with only a week's worth of air in the shuttle and the nearest rescue ship ten days away. A Lottery of Doom is half-heartedly suggested, but Hutch tells everyone to sleep on it, then sneaks out with the intention of committing suicide (as pilot it's her responsibility to ensure the safety of the others). At the last moment Hutch realises all they have to do is melt the 'snow' (actually frozen atmosphere) to get the needed oxygen. Later on another pilot is looking at his shuttle — named after a pilot who famously performed a similar sacrifice — and bemoans the fact that such exciting heroics don't happen now that spaceflight has become routine and safe.
    • In Chindi, Hutch is piloting a ship being sent for standby duty at a research station near an unstable star. When she's nearly there, she realizes that the list of Academy personnel on the station includes a teacher, which suggests that the researchers may have their families there—but due to a bureaucratic snafu, her ship is only large enough to carry the listed personnel! At which point, an EM pulse from the star fries everyone's communications systems, and the explosion that caused the pulse looks like it will destroy the station. A number of researchers volunteer to go down with the station, so that others might live, but fortunately, someone back home noticed the snafu, and when communications go out, hurriedly redirects another ship, which arrives just in the nick of time.
  • Stanisław Lem played with this scenario in Moon night. And an entirely sensible punchline turned it into great Black Comedy.
  • The Dragonriders of Pern story "Rescue Run" had this problem turn up when the rescued colonists try to smuggle in several hundred kilos of precious metals (which turned out to be less valuable than the homemade medicines and seeds they packed legitimately), throwing the mass calculations off. Instead of spacing people, the crew spaces the metal, along with some furniture.
    (bending one of the retrieved platinum plates) "Individually, these don't weigh very much, but they damn near coated the ship with them. Ingenious"
  • In Down To A Sunless Sea by David Graham, at one point the narrator's Boeing and his new girlfriend's Antonov are fleeing to Antarctica to escape the nuclear devastation of the entire civilised world. Unfortunately, they run into heavy clouds which are lethally contaminated with fallout, and the Antonov doesn't have the fuel to make the trip at the higher altitude required to clear the fallout. So the Russian co-pilot calls for volunteers and opens the Anti's cargo doors, and leads a procession of about one-third of the passengers on the long drop into oblivion. In some editions of the book, it turns out that they were the lucky ones when all was said and done.
  • In Frederik Pohl's Gateway, it's one of the many occupational hazards of space travel when all your ships are alien craft with preset trips of unknown length. The ship will go somewhere, but there's no telling where, or how long it will take until the ship starts decelerating, meaning you damn well better have enough supplies to last the trip. If you haven't reached the midway point of the outbound voyage by the time a quarter of your food is gone, you draw straws... loser goes into the fridge. At least a couple of trips return with nothing aboard but corpses. The protagonist Robinette Broadhead also finds himself in an accidental version when a two-ship expedition is trapped by a black hole; one ship has to be flung into the black hole to provide the boost for the other ship to escape. He suffers Survivor Guilt when his ship survives at the cost of his companions when he had been trying to sacrifice himself.
  • A non-space example shows up in The Book of Questions, a book with scenarios with no clear-cut answer intended to provoke thought. It involves getting trapped in a cave-in with another miner. You have a gun with two bullets and sleeping pills. You know that there is only enough air for one sleeping person to survive for six hours and it's likely to take at least six for the rescuers to reach you. After agreeing to that conclusion, the other miner takes the sleeping pills, hands you the gun, and says it's your decision.
  • Subverted in Starquake, the sequel to Dragon's Egg. When the crew of a starship discover they'll be stuck in orbit for six months, with an insufficient food supply, The Spock of the group calculates that they'll need to kill and eat two crewmembers to survive. Then she points out that they'd never feel at ease again among humans if they did, and suggests they Face Death with Dignity instead. They are later rescued by the Cheela, who are by then a Higher-Tech Species with few of the Terrans' limitations.
  • Discworld:
    • Snuff all but invoked the trope name with the concept of the "dreadful algebra" of survival. When faced with lean times, a goblin mother will eat her child. Their religion involves the construction of pots to store certain bodily excretions, and the most precious of these is the jar in which a goblin mother will place the soul of her devoured child, to be reborn when food is more plentiful.
    • The Last Hero references this when the crew aboard a makeshift spaceship note that there isn't as much oxygen as there should be. Food shows up missing, and they briefly theorize that they have picked up an alien intruder, in a shout-out to Alien. Turns out it's the Librarian, who stowed away before takeoff. Luckily, Discworld's moon has breathable air, so they are able to land there and refill.
  • Oxygen by John B. Olson and Randall S. Ingermanson. A bomb explodes on a NASA spaceship heading for Mars, leading to the venting of much of their oxygen supply. The crew might survive if all but one of them are placed in a drugged coma. The question is: can you trust that one person who's going to be conscious?
  • Subverted in The Seventh Tower, when Tal accidentally seals himself and Crow into a corner by producing a shield of solid magic to protect them from a spiritshadow. Tal accidentally makes the shield airtight and he can't dispell it. Tal considers killing Crow (and Crow is clearly considering killing Tal) but both decide it was better to to try to wait out the spell than to take the selfish way out.
  • In Dune Messiah it is Fremen tradition that blind men must leave the tribe go to the desert in self exile, and probably get eaten by a Sand Worm. Paul ends up blinded and must do the same to ensure the Fremen would be loyal to his children Leto II and Ghanima.
  • Averted in short story by Lino Aldani. A ship is stranded on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, and can't return to Earth because of sixty-two kilograms overweight. The crew can't leave their cargo (it's an important cure for an epidemic back on earth), but they consider a lot of different options... In the end, every member of the crew got one arm amputated, so No One Gets Left Behind.
  • In Black Man, a Super Soldier has smuggled himself on board a spacecraft travelling from Mars to Earth. However Cryonics Failure means he wakes up too early. Because he can't call for a rescue without abandoning his mission, his only recourse is to unthaw and eat the other passengers. Unsurprisingly he's got a major screw loose by the time he gets to Earth.
  • The Martian. Johannsen tells her father that the crew of Hermes have made a secret pact that if their food resupply mission goes wrong, the others will commit suicide straight away. Johannsen, who is the youngest and smallest crewmember, will then have the maximum amount of food for the return journey to Earth. But that still won't be enough to survive, so she'll be required to eat the bodies of her crewmates.
  • Flashman at the Charge. Flashman and Scud East are in a horse-drawn sled being pursued by Russian Cossacks, and have to Bring News Back of a Russian plan to invade India. So Flashman decides it's time for an Emergency Cargo Dump. Amoral bastard that he is, instead of making a Heroic Sacrifice Flashman throws overboard a Russian princess they're carrying. He then suffers Laser-Guided Karma when the sledge crashes, pinning him beneath it, and Scud decides to leave him to his fate under the same trope.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire, among the families of the North, in the continent of Westeros, it is common during winters—which can span decades—for old men to announce they are "going hunting" and leave their homes so so as to leave a little more food for the young. In times of war, instead of "going hunting", the old men enlist in join the armies in order to die in battle.
  • In Peter David's Star Trek: New Frontier novel, "Stone and Anvil", Mackenzie Calhoun, a former teenage warlord now on the Command path in Starfleet Academy, creates an unusual solution to the Kobayashi Maru test — firing on the Maru's leaking engines, with the resulting blast destroying two Romulan Warbirds and allowing him to retreat, thus 'beating' the scenario. When debriefed by the scenario proctors, one of them mentions it was an acceptable albeit unorthodox solution, stating that sometimes a Starship captain has to make very hard choices. Brutal choices dictated by the cold equations of space.
  • The Cthulhu Mythos short story The Preserved Ones by Christopher Geeson has the nuclear bunker version. When the remaining survivors emerge they discover Earth has been taken over by the Mi-Go, and having already crossed the moral horizon with this trope, find it easy to justify becoming Les Collaborateurs in a Vichy Earth as just another necessary evil to survive.
  • In The Dark Forest, following a Curb-Stomp Battle in which a single alien probe wipes out most of the human space fleet, two small groups of ships survive: the "Starship Earth", consisting of the Ultimate Law, Natural Selection, Blue Space, Deep Space and Enterprise, and the Bronze Age and the Quantum going off in a different direction. Both groups run the numbers and find that they do not have enough fuel to get to another system alone, nor are they able to effectively transfer people to one ship, but there are enough supplies within the fleets to get one ship out of the system. The resultant engagements, which feature heavy use of infrasonic H-bombs in order to kill crews without damaging supplies, are referred to as "Battles of Darkness", and kill thousands of people. To be fair to the crew of the Blue Space, the victor of the "Starship Earth" incident, they did at least hold a funeral ceremony for the casualties on the other four ships. In a broader sense, this is also the nature of interspecies relations for most of the galaxy: due to the difficulty of establishing trust, and the finite resources of the universe, pretty much all surviving species have concluded that every other species is by definition taking up resources they could use and are likely to be a threat, typically leading directly to "dark forest strikes": system kills.
  • The Langoliers: Eventually, the characters figure out how to get out of being trapped in the past - fly through the time rift backwards. However, they have two problems. First, the titular Langoliers (who eat the past) are actively trying to stop the plane, and second, they must be asleep to survive going through. The solution to the first problem involves throwing a passenger out as a distraction to the Langoliers, and the second, by lowering the cabin pressure to knock them all unconscious, for which someone must be awake to restore it so they'll wake up on the other side. The first victim chosen is Craig Toomy, who's been having a violent breakdown throughout the novel, and the second is Nick, to atone for accidentally killing children.
  • Xandri Corelel: During the Second Zechak War, the Zechak took over Halcyon, a mining planet in a strategic location, and filled it with slaves so they could manufacture powerful weapons. The Starsystems Alliance tried to take the planet back, but the Zechak easily defeated their armies. Fearing that the Alliance's planets might be invaded if the Zechak kept Halcyon, Admiral losTavina ordered the surface of the planet destroyed, making it useless to the Zechak, but also wiping out millions of innocent slaves.
  • In Scavenger Alliance, Scavenger Blood reveals Cage and his followers' plan to escape the coming firestorm: to leave behind "burdens" like the sick, injured, elderly and small children, allowing them to move faster and saving all the supplies for themselves. They also plan to kill any of the able-bodied who aren't on board. The fact that Hannah is on board with this is the final straw that pushes Blaze to lock her away with the others.
  • Judge Dee: In The Willow Pattern, the Judge is running the capital due to a plague shutting down the government. There's also a famine, so he has the grain warehouses under military guard to prevent looting. The Heat Wave doesn't help, and a riot is preventing by the soldiers firing into the crowd, killing thirty people.
    ‘By shooting those thirty men,’ Judge Dee said gravely, ‘you saved uncounted thousands of citizens from starvation. If the mob had succeeded in plundering and burning the Granary, a few hundred people would have eaten their fill tonight, but that would have been all. If doled out in the regular rations, on the other hand, the stores will supply the population of the entire city with their basic food for at least another month. It was not a pleasant duty, but it couldn’t be helped.’

    Live-Action TV 
  • Considering it's something of a Crapsack World setting, this comes up rather frequently in Babylon 5.
    • The reason why the "Battle of Coriana VI" is not the "Battle of Centauri Prime" is quite simply down to respective population sizes.
    Lyta Alexander: I've heard that some of the Vorlons would be within striking distance of Centauri Prime about the same time we reach Coriana 6. So... why are we here instead of there?
    Marcus Cole: 6 billion lives on Coriana. 3 billion lives on Centauri Prime. We have enough ships to make a stand at one of them, so which do you choose? It's numbers - cold, unsympathetic numbers.
    • The Minbari Grey Council learned of the reawakening of the Shadows long before all the other younger races. Instead of warning them, they prepared against the Shadows in secret (albeit with the assistance of the Vorlons, who were also only too well aware). After G’Kar made his expedition to Z’ha’Dum he also learned that the “Ancient Enemy” that devastated his homeworld a millennia ago had returned, and tried to warn the other races. The Grey Council (of which Delenn was a member at the time) chose not to verify his story, so ultimately he was ignored. With the help of the Shadows, the Centauri were later able to capture the Narn homeworld, resulting in the death and enslavement of millions of his people. Delenn confesses as much to G’Kar in “Ship of Tears”, but in her defence tells him that had the Minbari spoke in his support the other races may have still disbelieved him, and the Shadows would have completely exterminated his people in retaliation. He accepts this explanation, but with a very heavy heart.
  • Basically every action taken in Chernobyl will result in exposing people to extreme amounts of radiation, which will likely give them cancer at best or kill them from radiation poisoning at worst. But if they didn't do it, the massive amount of radioactivity from Reactor #4 would poison all of Europe. For specific examples:
    • The three divers are sent into Chernobyl's basement to drain the water tanks and prevent a steam explosion, but it's so radioactive that they would probably die in a week. Legasov even tells Gorbachev that he's asking permission "to kill three men". It's not depicted in the show, but in real life, all three lived.
    • The miners have to dig a tunnel under Chernobyl to install a heat exchanger to prevent radioactive lava from burning through the concrete and contaminating the groundwater (there was about a 40% chance of that, so better safe than really sorry). It's also too hot to wear their protective equipment, and they can't use fans because it would expose them to even more radiation. Many of the miners died from radiation exposure, and the heat exchanger was never needed. The surviving miners are proud of their work anyway, because again, better safe than extremely sorry.
    • While two out of three roofs could be (and were) cleared off by robots, the most dangerous ("Masha") was so intensely radioactive that it fried a robot meant for moon landings (and so hardened against radiation), so they have to use "Bio-Robots" to clean off the roof, working in shifts of 90 seconds each because any more would be too unsafe.
  • Game of Thrones: Stannis' arc in Season 5, leads to an almost classic example. He burns Shireen in a Human Sacrifice involving Blood Magic which in the series is shown to be real, powerful and effective. His other alternative is for his entire army to die in the bitter cold since their supplies and horses were set on fire, and Shireen would die anyway, alongside everyone else. Effective or not, though, his forces start deserting in disgust, and the understrength remainder is defeated soon afterwards.
  • A strange, comedy example from the episode "Real Time" of Workaholics—the guys are still drunk in the morning, and need to stay drunk rather than get hungover before they arrive at work. Adam runs back to get beers for them, but drinks them all himself (along with a few pulls of whiskey). He meets up with the others, tells them all the beers are gone, and we get this exchange.
    Ders What are you talking about? I just saw you drink one right now.
    Adam: Yeah, the last one, Ders. Think, speak.
    Blake: Okay, well, I know we had more than one beer in the house.
    Adam: - No, we had four. But there's three of us. And 1 1/2 beers each? That's not enough to get us kablamo-ed. But for one person? that might be enough to take us to the level.
  • Star Trek: Enterprise ("Shuttlepod One"). Trip Tucker and Malcolm Reed are stranded on a shuttle, and Tucker decides to throw himself out the airlock to give his companion more time, only to be ordered back at phaser-point by Reed.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series:
    • "The Galileo Seven". When the shuttlecraft Galileo crash lands on a planet, it loses so much fuel that it can't even reach stable orbit unless they lighten their load by 500 lbs. It's immediately pointed out that 500 lbs. is the weight of three men. Two of the crew die while on the planet, and they eventually take off and achieve orbit. Unfortunately they had to use the boosters to do so, so they're guaranteed to burn up on re-entry.
    • "The Conscience of the King" had this, not in a space ship but on a planet. Kodos "the Executioner", former governor of the Earth colony of Tarsus IV, was responsible for the massacre of over 4000 people, including members of Kirk's family. Governor Kodos had ordered the executions of more than half Tarsus IV's population after the food supply was all but destroyed by a fungus. This would have allowed the rest of the population to survive until relief came. It so happened that the vital resupply ships that could have saved the whole colony arrived much sooner than Kodos had anticipated, rendering all the executions unnecessary. A large part of his infamy came from the fact that he didn't choose randomly or pragmatically, but based on some eugenics formula he had developed.
  • Star Trek: Voyager:
    • In "Deadlock" a Negative Space Wedgie creates two Voyager's occupying the same space. One is damaged in the process, so the captain of that Voyager decides to destroy her own ship so the other can survive. But hostile aliens board the other Voyager, so that Captain Janeway ends up destroying her ship instead.
    • "One" had the ship traversing a deadly nebula with most of the crew in stasis for their safety. Near the end of the trip, the ship's systems start breaking down, and there isn't enough energy to keep the engines running. Seven of Nine has to choose which systems to divert power from, and hallucinations of the crew mock her for thinking that she could take a few of the stasis pods offline to get the engines running, calling it heartless Borg efficiency. She does so, then takes life support offline to keep the stasis pods running. Luckily for everyone, the ship exits the nebula in time to for the crew to awaken and save her.
    • In "Year of Hell", the EMH has to close a hatch on two crewman who wouldn’t make it before the hull breaches. In "Jetral", the EMH elects to save Harry Kim over the life of a Red Shirt. While as a doctor with Artificial Intelligence he's programmed to make such decisions, the advancement of his personality over the past few years cause him to malfunction as he's caught in a Logic Bomb between his ethics and his pragmatism.
  • Blake's 7:
    • The episode "Orbit" was inspired by the Trope Namer. Avon and Vila are on a shuttle desperately trying to achieve escape velocity. They throw out everything they can but are short seventy kilos. It turns out that the shuttle is being weighed down by a piece of super-dense matter. Once Avon finds it all he has to do is push it out the airlock - if he can, because it's so damn heavy. Trouble is, he can't get Vila to help him because he's scared Vila into hiding.
      Avon: Not enough, not nearly enough! DAMMIT! What weighs 70 kilos?!
      Avon: (pulling out a handgun) Vila...
    • Also happens in "Stardrive". With Federation cruisers closing in on them, the Stardrive's inventor says she needs 50 minutes to connect it up. Eventually it comes down to a few seconds they don't have, so Avon ends up sacrificing her to save their ship by setting the controls to launch when she makes the final connection.
    • However Avon shoots down the idea in "Warlord" (thought the person suggesting the idea has already betrayed them, so Avon is hardly inclined to sacrifice his friends to save him).
      Zukan: If two of them volunteer to die, the oxygen they have left will last the rest of them.
      Avon: If just one of them dies, for any reason at all, so do you, Zukan!
    • In "The Harvest Of Kairos", a Federation transporter with a valuable cargo is too heavy to reach orbit from a Death World, so Servalan orders the captain to leave some of his laborers behind. There's a moment of Black Comedy when a guard is taunting the laborers as he locks them out, only to find the transporter taking off without him as well.
  • In one episode of Bones twins had been abducted by The Gravedigger, who buries his victims and demands ransom or they will die in exactly 24 hours (due to suffocation). Except in this case since the Gravedigger didn't expect to abduct two people so they only have 12 hours of air. One was seriously injured and killed himself so the other might be able to hang on a bit longer.
  • An episode of Space: Above and Beyond involved a vast ship with a bunch of survival modules, one of which had to be sacrificed for power. The guy has trouble pushing the button, because his younger sister is in the one module that isn't full.
  • The lifeboat version is mocked in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The sailors in the lifeboat compete with each other, each of them voluntering to sacrifice himself to provide food for the others.
  • Played for Laughs in Red Dwarf. Due to the ship exploding, the crew are stuck in a Starbug shuttle, with limited supplies, and neither enough fuel nor oxygen to get to the nearest planet.
    Rimmer: (to Kryten) Well, you and I don't use oxygen, do we? So, if we kill [Lister and The Cat] and dump their bodies out the airlock, will that save us enough fuel to get to safety?
    Kryten: The point is moot, sir, as we only have enough battery power [to run your holographic emitter] for two minutes.
  • Dad's Army. Captain Mainwaring is presented with this scenario to test his decision-making skills: You are in a balloon over enemy territory that is slowly running out of air; who do you throw out? Mainwaring claims he would normally throw himself out but he realises he is too important for that. He decides on Godfrey, who doesn't look very happy. Wilson then suggests they wait till the balloon reaches the ground then Godfrey can step out.
  • In Lost's fourth-season finale, as the group of main characters attempts to finally leave the island, Frank notices that the helicopter is running low on fuel, and says they'll have to jettison someone to stay in the air. It initially looks like Hurley will have to jump (judging by his reaction when Frank says this), but Sawyer performs a selfless act by jumping out of the aircraft himself and allowing everyone to escape.
  • Subverted in the Stargate SG-1 episode "Tangent". Instead of killing himself, Teal'c places himself in a kel'no'reem trance to reduce his oxygen consumption for O'Neill's benefit.
  • In Legend of the Seeker, Cara and Kahlan both realize that the tomb that they're trapped in doesn't have enough air for both of them. They both give reasons that they should die and the other live - Kahlan that Cara could revive her, and Cara that she's less important to Richard, to whom she's sworn. They even briefly fight to prevent the other from committing suicide - and in doing so, use up the last of their air. Seconds later, Richard and Co bust in.
  • In "The Joining", an episode of The Outer Limits (1995), a group of scientists are trapped on Venus with limited life support. When there are only two of them left, one kills himself to prolong the other's life.
  • On My Name Is Earl, one of the people on Earl's list happens to be an eccentric old woman (played by Betty White) that the citizens of Camden accused of being a witch. She gleefully traps them in her basement, but she's running out of room, and says she'll have to start killing them. But she's "nice" enough to let them choose who that is. Cue lots of arguing.
  • The 100: A running theme of the series are these popping up. However, it turns out the characters don't often have access to all the data.
    • The Ark has only four months of life support left for its current population, so the option is quickly raised to "reduce" the population to buy time to repair it. This is rejected only because the person with the authority to make such a decision refuses to kill hundreds of innocent people without a legal reason. Eventually, however, it is decided that they will make it look like an accident and kill everyone in a certain part of the Ark, with the leader sacrificing himself as well. Before this can go through a member of the governing group who voted against it broadcast a video that explains what's going on. After that a bunch of people willingly sacrifice themselves and die. Less than a day later, however, communications with the group on Earth is established and it is revealed that, unbeknown to everyone on the Ark, the Earth is habitable and no one had to die.
    • All crimes on the Ark are punishable by death in order to save on life support. The only exception is if the convict is under 18.
    • In season 5, flashbacks to the bunker show that all crimes are now punishable by being forced into gladiator games, also to conserve on resources, and to provide food for the other survivors.
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003). In the webisode series "The Face of the Enemy" Felix Gaeta and a mixed company of humans and Cylons make an emergency jump in their Raptor and (due to a computer error) get stranded far from the fleet. One of the Cylons murders the others (with the exception of Gaeta, her former lover) so they'll have the maximum chance of survival.
  • Played for laughs in 30 Rock: Jack wants to prove that there's no way Kenneth is as selfless as he seems, so he fakes a setup where nine people, including himself and Kenneth are trapped in an elevator, and tells them all that they have only enough air for eight and there is a gun in the emergency telephone panel; Kenneth immediately tries to shoot himself. When it turns out it isn't loaded, he pulls off his own belt and tries to choke himself, much to everyone's horror.
  • In the 1970's British sitcom Come Back Mrs. Noah, a rescue ship manages to make it up to the space station, but due to damage sustained it has to leave someone behind. The decision is made on everyone's 'worth' to society, so it's obvious the Butt-Monkey (who's only job is to change the lightbulbs) is going to be left behind. Then it turns out the damage is worse than they thought, so only the pilot and co-pilot can return.
  • On Arrow a flashback shows that when the "Queen's Gambit" sunk, three survivors made it to a lifeboat: Oliver, his father and an unnamed crewmember. Once they realized that there was no immediate rescue coming they inventoried their supplies and Oliver's father figured out that three people would run out of drinkable water long before they could reach any land. He then promptly pulls out a gun, shoots the crewmember dead and then kills himself. This way Oliver would have a chance of surviving long enough that he could reach land. Oliver survived but the experience messed him up really badly and he became obsessed with trying to make his father's sacrifice meaningful.
  • Metal Hurlant Chronicles: In "Three on a Match", three men flee their destroyed spaceship in an escape pod, but the pod gets hit with debris and suffers an air leak. A rescue ship is coming for them, and to save air, two of the men turn on the third and throw him out the air lock. They allow him to put on a spacesuit, but after they throw him out, they mock him and say they will enjoy watching him slowly suffocate. When they realize they are still losing air, the two remaining men fight to the death. One kills the other, but he ironically runs out of air and dies mere moments before the rescue ship arrives. The ship brings their corpses in, then the man they threw out drifts into range and is rescued. When asked how he is still alive, he explains that an oxygen tank was in the debris. The other two men's selfishness ironically saved his life.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959)
    • Combined with What Measure Is a Non-Human? in "The Lonely". A spaceship is sent to pick up a prisoner in exile on a distant asteroid who's been acquitted. Due to fuel restrictions they can only take 15 pounds of baggage, which is more than the Robot Girl who's been his only companion on the asteroid weighs.
    • The episode "I Shot an Arrow into the Air" involved a space ship crashing onto what the astronauts think is a distant desert planet. One Jerkass member of the crew, determined to survive, kills the rest of the crew one by one so he can steal their water canteens. Shortly after killing the captain, the crew member finds out they were on Earth All Along, not far from a freeway leading to Reno, Nevada.
  • An episode of CSI: Miami reveals this as the motive for the murder of the week. The crew of a private Space Plane kill one of the passengers (the non-famous one) in order to conserve oxygen, after a micrometeor punctured the oxygen line, then they try to make it look like an accident. Both crew members, plus the movie star, are arrested for murder: one of them pulled the trigger, the other one gave the order, and the movie star opened the airlock to dispose of the body. They try to use this trope as their defense (i.e. it was either one or all four), only for Horatio to tell them that it wasn't their decision to make.
  • Downplayed in Space: 1999. The moon is being pulled into a black sun (now called a black hole), but a single Eagle is prepped on the slim chance that six men and women might escape and survive. When the Ace Pilot finds out, he insists that he must be included as he'll have the best chance of getting them away. Commander Koening says however that the Master Computer has already compiled a list of those most likely to survive in space...which includes the Ace Pilot. However it's implied that Koening was originally on the list but he chose Going Down with the Ship.
  • In Avenue 5, Rav, who is Mission Control for Avenue 5's misadventures in space, asks the Other President for help rescuing the ship. The president's response: the crew would have to first eliminate "500 non-essential passengers." Perhaps a literal example, given that the Other President is an AI.
  • Breaking Bad: An unconventional example in "Full Measure": Walt and Jesse are on the ropes with Gus Fring, with it becoming increasingly obvious that he's grooming Gale Boetticher to replace Walt in the Meth lab, and planning to dispose of Walt once he's no longer needed. Meanwhile, Jesse is wanted dead for killing two of Gus' street dealer in revenge for their murder of an eleven year-old. The only way Walt and Jesse can live is for them to kill Gale in return, so that Gus would still have use for them.
  • In Squid Game, Sang-woo takes a calculated approach to the games, being willing to do whatever necessary to increase his chances of winning, including cold-blooded murder. For example, during the fifth game, the player in front of him is hesitating before the last pair of glass panels- the right one will support his weight, but the wrong one will break under him, causing him to fall to his death. Since the clock is ticking and everyone who's left- Sang-woo, the player in front of him, Gi-hun and Sae-byeok- will fall to their deaths if they don't cross to the other end in time, Sang-woo pushes the other player forward, causing him to fall through the glass and die, but allowing him, Gi-hun and Sae-byeok to reach the end in time although Sae-byeok is mortally wounded when the glass is destroyed.

  • Referenced in the song "Nautical Disaster" by The Tragically Hip.
    I was in a lifeboat designed for ten
    Ten and only
    And anything that systematic would get you hated
    It's not a deal nor a test nor a love of something fated
    The selection was quick, the crew was picked
    In an order
    And those left in the water were kicked off our pantlegs
    And we headed for home
  • Steve Taylor's "Lifeboat". An elementary school teacher leads her class in a thought experiment of being stuck in an overcrowded lifeboat, and asks the students which of the various "undesirables" should be thrown overboard. The kids learn the lesson a little too well: applying the message to their current situation, the kids decide the teacher is dead weight and throw her out the classroom window.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Paranoia:
    • One mission includes a Running Gag with malfunctioning elevators to the 99th floor, one of which is airtight and slo-o-o-ow. Sure, the PCs could just use their lasers to ventilate the wall - and face a fine for damaging Computer property - but, this being Paranoia, they're just as likely to instead ventilate the traitors who were using up all the air.
    • Another mission gives the PCs an ever-expanding authority role over a project driving all of Alpha Complex toward mass starvation. Near the end, someone may notice a politically-discredited but effective device that converts any organic material into food.
      "Gentlemen, how many citizens does this sector really need?"
  • Battletech, in the Wars of Reaving Clans Steel Viper, and Star Adder just obtain a great deal of isorla(spoils of war) from fleeing Clan Snow Raven fleet. When they didn't have enough room for all their isorla, they decided to throw out clan civilians out the air lock.

    Video Games 
  • In one ending of Ever17, Tsugumi and Takeshi find an escape module with which to leave LeMU, but it turns out not to be able to carry both of them to the surface, so one of them ends up having to sacrifice themselves for the other. In case you were morbidly curious as to who self-sacrifices for whom, Takeshi sacrifices himself so Tsugumi can live.
  • Played with in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, in which the nine characters have nine hours to find their way off of a cruise ship. Along the way, they must solve puzzles behind numbered doors, which only three to five people may enter. They may escape when they make it through a door with a nine on it, and some of the characters realize early on that no more than five people can escape. Later subverted when the doors with the nines are found, and the protagonist contemplates that the purpose of there being two was to inflict regret upon those who sacrificed members after doing the math. However, this is soon double subverted when, after the two doors, there is another room with a single door with a nine; characters who are left behind after that will still have a chance to escape, but they don't know that when deciding who passes through the door. Triple Subverted, because...well, the author is like that. The door with Nine will ONLY open if every single person is alive to do it, except the one person who was unavoidably killed.
  • In Sands of Destruction, a desperate and depressed Kyrie decides that if Naja kills him, Morte and the others will be able to continue to live because he can't destroy the world if he's dead. An interesting case where this trope meets Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Mass Effect: During the time the Reapers were cleaning up after themselves, the AI Vigil was tasked with keeping an eye on a bunker full of Protheans in stasis, waiting for the Reapers to leave. However, in that time, the bunker's systems began running low on power, forcing Vigil to turn off the life support for the less "essential" personnel. Agreeing with Vigil that this was a necessary move (which it kind of was, since it's only because of that choice Shepard has a chance of stopping the Reapers at all) nets the player a few Renegade points.
  • In Mass Effect 3 this trope is discussed by Shepard and Garrus, calling it "ruthless calculus." Shepard is tasked with making many hard decisions in the war with the Reapers, including allowing some planets to fall in order to save others. Shepard invokes this in one of their many speeches:
    Shepard: It's hard enough fighting a war. But it's worse knowing that no matter how hard you try... you can't save them all.
  • A couple from The Last of Us. The first happens in the prologue where Joel decides against his brother Tommy’s wishes to leave a family even though they have the room because he doesn’t want to put his daughter Sarah at risk. The second, ironically, results in Sarah's death when the military official who rescues them is ordered to kill all survivors. Later on it happens with Henry leaves Joel to die to save Sam and Ellie. And finally, the ending has Joel turn on the Fireflies after they reveal they'll need to sacrifice Ellie to produce a vaccine.
  • No matter what his or her status, you always have the option to just up and kill a party member in Organ Trail. Of course you'll inevitably have to kill a member who's been bitten, but you can also choose to kill a perfectly healthy member just to have one less person to divide your limited food and medical supplies with. They'll come back as an enemy toward the end of the game if you do though, you monster.
  • Fate/Grand Order:
    • Mephistopheles puts Jeanne d'Arc in an illusion where she is on a ship that is fleeing a disaster. They run into her mother and Pierre Cauchon, the bishop who had her burned at the stake, but the ship only has room for one more person. Mephistopheles clearly expected her to leave Pierre to die, and this would prove she has darkness in her heart out of a need for revenge. Instead, Jeanne gives up her seat so that both her mother and Pierre can live. Pierre refuses to thank her and calls her a witch. Jeanne merely comments she expected that, and Mephistopheles comments that the real one would react the same way.
    • In the Camelot Singularity, the Lion King believes the Incineration of Humanity cannot be stopped, so she starts a project called the Holy Selection. She will choose 500 people she deems worthy and absorb them into Rhongomyniad so they can survive. She is emotionless and does not care about everyone else that will die. The heroes end up stopping her.
    • In the Norse Lostbelt, humanity is barely surviving. Due to lack of resources, people are exiled from villages when they turn 15 (25 if they managed to bear a child), where they will surely be killed by the giants roaming outside.
  • In Super Robot Wars 30, this is one of several types of questions the villain periodically asks Captain Mitsuba throughout the campaign, with the game's ending determined by her decisions. Taking both routes, however, reveals that both options are really just an excuse for the villain to do whatever he wants: either humanity is unable to deal with this trope, in which case it's too foolish to let live, or it can deal with it, which makes it too dangerous to let live.


    Web Original 
  • The short film "Vacuity" involves a man on a damaged space station who's forced to choose between saving himself by ejecting the escape pod he's in (its airlock will open in a few minutes and due to the damage suffered, ejecting is the only way to abort the opening) or sacrificing himself so that the rest of the station's crew can cut their way into the escape pod and use it. Complicating matters is the fact that he can't contact the rest of the station, so he has no idea if the rest of the crew is even still alive. Ultimately, he decides to let himself die after he manages to hear the other crewmembers trying to get in to help him, feeling that he can't be as selfish as to let others die so he can live.
  • In Swan Song, part of the Roll Play series of Dungeons & Dragons livestreamed shows, this is the core of the plot of the 8th "episode" or week. After a couple of botched jumps on already-low life support by the ship's navigator, the crew math-out that they have significantly fewer person-days of life support than they need for their five-man ship. The doctor of the ship has to put first their escorted passenger, then the rest of the crew bar the navigator, including himself, into a risky experimental coma to preserve the little remaining life support (cutting resource usage into a tenth). Piling on the problem, they are also low on fuel with their method of manual fuel extraction destroyed, so they discuss and realize that their only option is to go to a modern-day-era tech-level system and hope they can refuel on the desolate refueling station until they find a higher-tech system that offers a way to resuscitate the comatose crew... assuming they can even be put into a coma with the combination of space-morphine and dice rolls. Miraculously, they do... but the navigator then realizes that while he made it to the system, he doesn't have the life support to fly to a fuel station and must instead crash-land onto the only inhabited planet.

    Western Animation 
  • In an episode of Futurama, this occurs when the Space Titanic is sinking into a black hole. The main characters board an escape pod, but the extra weight of Bender's Girl of the Week is causing the escape pod to drift towards the black hole, so she willingly lets go, saving the other characters. She is, of course, killed by falling into the black hole, and is never heard from (or even mentioned) again.
  • The nuclear shelter scenario is spoofed in The Simpsons episode "Bart's Comet". A comet is about to strike Springfield and so the entire towns' population tries to cram into Ned Flander's bomb shelter. They somehow manage this, but can't get the door closed. After arguing about who should be sacrificed Homer points out that the one skill future society doesn't need is the ability to sell left-handed products, so Ned gets thrown out of his own shelter. Eventually they all feel guilty about this decision, so leave the shelter to die with him. The comet ends up striking the bomb shelter and destroying it.
  • In the first episode of Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series, the Ducks' ship is traveling through dimensional limbo. Unfortunately, the ship will fall apart unless some weight is jettisoned, and everything onboard is bolted down. Team leader Canard decides to jettison himself. Wildwing tries to stop him, but only manages to save the mask of Drake Dukane.
  • Averted in a season 5 episode of Archer. When Ray, while piloting the plane he, Archer, and Cyril were on, realizes they won't make it to the runway because there was only enough fuel for 2 people to be on the flight, Archer attempts to convince Cyril to jump out, until Cyril begins dumping the shipment of guns aboard the plane.
    • The season four finale sees Archer, Lana, Cyril and Ray trapped in a room quickly filling with water and only three sets of scuba gear to swim out and to the surface. The dying station captain they're with tells them that one one them will have to drown and die, hopefully temporarily, while the other three took the scuba suits and tried to get themselves to safety and resuscitate the volunteer. Archer immediately volunteers after Lana reveals she's pregnant.
  • Princess Bubblegum makes the decision to sacrifice James to distract the zombies so the other three can escape in the Adventure Time episode "James". Comes across as a harsh moment for Bubblegum because she chooses James as the least valuable person to save, rather than him volunteering.
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series faces this in the episode One Of Our Planets Is Missing.The alien of the week is a literal planet eater who has already demonstrated its capacity, and it is heading straight for a populated planet. There aren't enough ships (or time, for that matter) to evacuate everyone, so the planet's leader opts for saving the children.The population of the planet cooperates readily with the decision once they know what is happening.
    • In the same episode, Kirk makes a similar choice - there is a chance of stopping the Planet Eater and saving the doomed planet...but only by flying the Enterprise right into the creature and triggering self-destruct. Fortunately, it turned out that the monster in question was Obliviously Evil, and once convinced by Spock that the planets it is eating has living beings along, chooses to back off.
  • In King of the Hill during one of Cotton's war stories. His ship was attacked and was able to rescue Fatty, Stinky, and Brooklyn. A Zero fighter attacked him and he had to sacrifice Fatty to the sharks to swim to safety.

  • This scenario can also be about the evils of nuclear proliferation: there's six people but only room in the nuke shelter for five — whom do you throw out? There would usually be an obvious Red Shirt character like a priest, supposedly proving the irrelevance of organised religion. These scenarios never included the details that would matter in real life, such as who was your best buddy, who was an attractive member of the opposite sex or who was holding a firearm at the moment the crucial decision was made. It also doesn't factor in Values Dissonance. A devoutly religious person might well decide that having a priest is far more important than having a doctor, for instance. In the end, the resulting argument is intended to make everyone conclude that nuclear war is wrong as Take a Third Option.
  • There's an urban myth where people found the dead body of a man in the desert holding a piece of straw. In a line from his body are clothes and equipment. It's impossible for him to have walked and there are no tracks leading away from a vehicle. The solution to the mystery is that he was on a balloon that was descending over the desert; the passengers threw out everything they could to gain height, before realizing one person would have to go. The corpse drew the short straw.
  • Another scenario meant to teach to never judge a book by the cover uses this, and runs thusly: You are in a balloon that is rapidly losing height at a rate such that any impact will prove fatal for all aboard. The passengers are you, a geriatric old woman, a wealthy looking man in a suit, and a teenager about to inject himself. One person must be thrown out, but who? Turns out the old woman fought for women's rights, the businessman earns hundreds of dollars through fraud, and the teenager's actually injecting himself with insulin—he's diabetic. (Of course, many people would just pick the wealthy-looking man immediately, giving it a rather different message: Eat the Rich. Or specifically in this case. . . yeet the rich.)
  • The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment that makes use of a Cold Equation to gauge people's ethics: You see a runaway trolley moving toward five incapacitated people lying on the tracks, and you are standing next to the lever that will redirect the trolley onto a side track that misses the five people. However, there is one person lying on the side track. Your only two options are 1: pull the lever and kill the one person to save five, or 2: do nothing and let the five people on the main track die. According to numerous surveys, 90% of people opt to pull the lever. However, according to further surveys, that number drasticaly decreases if they are the ones who must push someone into the path of the oncoming trolley directly, or are given other various qualifiers, such as it being five drunks who shouldn't be on the tracks vs a railroad employee doing their job.

    Real Life 
  • NASA attempts to avert this trope by building in several levels of redundancies and overengineering into their space vehicles. Despite this, even the Shuttle launches had several windows where any malfunction or error would result in "LOV" (Loss Of Vehicle).
  • Apollo 13 ran into this dilemma. After an oxygen tank in the Service Module exploded, and the Command Module the crew was forced to use the life-support systems of the Lunar Excursion Module. Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem, but the LEM was only designed to support two people, not the full crew. note  The problem in this case was actually of a buildup of carbon dioxide instead of a lack of oxygen, since the LEM was designed to support its crew for several days on the lunar surface, including being completely vented out every time they needed to open the door. The carbon dioxide scrubbers on the LEM, however, were not up to the task of filtering the atmosphere with all three crewmembers inside, and the LEM's ports did not fit the CM's more powerful filters. Luckily, NASA was able to MacGyver up a solution that did not include murder, and all three returned safe and free of CO2 poisoning.
  • There are two famous court cases in The Common Law tradition involving survivors of shipwrecks who took to the lifeboats and were charged with murder for their subsequent actions. Both cases ended with the accused being convicted of murder (albeit with vastly reduced sentences), setting the precedent that self-preservation does not excuse the murder of an innocent.
    • United States vs. Holmes - a US federal case in which sailors forced passengers (including women) off an overcrowded lifeboat.
    • R vs. Dudley and Stephens - an English case 40 years later that cited Holmes, in which sailors murdered and ate the weakest member of their lifeboat crew, on the grounds that they were starving and he was likely to die anyway. note 
  • Lawrence Oates went out into a blizzard after supplies for the ill-fated Scott Antarctic Expedition ran low, in an ultimately futile attempt to save his companions.
  • The commander of a Cold War-era underground base in North Bay, Ontario would have been forced to invoke this had a nuclear bomb detonated near the base and forced it to be sealed. To prevent radiological contamination, the entire base's air supply would be sealed. Even the air-supply for the emergency generators! They had a choice: keep the generators running so that the base's air defense computers kept running, and kill everyone within hours, or keep them off, survive for weeks, but weaken the defenses of a continent? Luckily, this never happened.
  • In a mass casualty incident where there are minimal resources available for rescue, this becomes an aspect of triage. Standard triage tags for injured people have four colours: green for minor injuries that can be safely ignored by first responders, yellow for a non life-threatening injury (such as a broken arm) that can have treatment delayed until resources are available, red for someone who needs immediate attention (such as someone going into shock or having trouble breathing), and black. A black tag on someone who isn't dead yet means they're not to be given any medical treatment except pain medication until everyone else is dealt with because their injuries are almost certainly fatal with the resources available and efforts spent on them would end up unavailable to people who have a higher probability of living.