Literal language portrays things as they really are using words that do not vary from their standard definitions. The emergency dispatch pilot describes his ship as “small and collapsible [...] made of light metal and plastics, [...] driven by a small rocket drive that consumed very little fuel.” This image can be taken literally. The ship is small, metal, and fuel efficient. Contrast this with figurative language, which conveys meaning beyond standard denotation or syntax. As the pilot looks toward the closet he believes a stowaway has hidden themselves in “He lets his eyes rest on the narrow white door on the closet.” This is figurative; the pilot does not literally remove his eyes and rest them on the door. It’s also an example of imagery, a literary device used to bring a story to life by appealing to the reader’s senses. As we saw in the description of the ship, imagery doesn’t have to be figurative. Imagine Godwin had instead written, “The pilot looks at the door.” It’s an image, but it doesn’t do much to help readers see it for themselves. Another example of figurative imagery occurs when the pilot tells himself that the stowaway “had signed his own death warrant when he concealed himself on the ship.” Did he really? Surely not, but even if the reader does not directly imagine a man signing a death warrant, they still sense the magnitude of the decision. According to the Interstellar Regulations “Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.” In this world, jettisoning a stowaway is a literal use of imagery.
One of the story’s primary symbols, so central as to be included in the title, is coldness. The cold symbolizes, in turn, the indifference of the ship’s math, the pilot’s demeanor and lack of control, space and death, and the meaninglessness of being killed without being punished. Discovering a human presence in a closet, the pilot walks toward it “coldly, deliberately, [to] take the life of a man he had yet to meet.” When she’s told she’ll have to die, the stowaway asks if another cruiser might help her. “No,” the pilot responds. “The word was like the drop of a cold stone and she again leaned back against the wall, the hope and eagerness leaving her face.” The pilot knows the stowaway’s family will hate him “with cold and terrible intensity.” The girl asks the pilot if it seems cold on the ship, and he sees that the temperature gauge reads normal and still responds “Yes, it’s colder than it should be.” Her hand feels cold on the pilot’s shoulder as she tells her brother, via “cold metal” communicator, that she stowed away. After ejecting the girl into (cold) space, the pilot considers the “forces that killed with neither hatred nor malice” (but rather, presumably, coldness).
The initial conflict occurs when the pilot, “inured to the sight of death,” is surprised to discover that the stowaway is a teenage girl:
He stared without speaking, his hand dropping away from the blaster, and acceptance of what he saw coming like a heavy and unexpected physical blow.
The central conflict arises after the pilot questions her motives and finds them pure:
Why couldn’t she have been a man with some ulterior motive? A fugitive from justice hoping to lose himself on a raw new world; an opportunist seeking transportation to the new colonies where he might find golden fleece for the taking; a crackpot with a mission. Perhaps once in his lifetime an EDS pilot would find such a stowaway on his ship—warped men, mean and selfish men, brutal and dangerous men—but never before a smiling, blue-eyed girl who was willing to pay her fine and work for her keep that she might see her brother.
The pilot knows the rules apply to everyone. He knows what he must do as soon as he sees the girl. His commander confirms that he’ll have to go through with it. The girl comes quickly to understand and accept her imminent death. They all know she hasn’t done anything to deserve it, but it is her alone or her and seven others when the overweight ship runs out of fuel. The girl is ejected. The cold equation is balanced.