Homecoming

By John W. Otte

 

Another dead planet drifted past on the navigation display, a husk of stone and ash orbiting a flickering star. I had seen so many at that point in the journey I didn’t bother to log it. No one at the home office would care; they all knew the Expanse was populated with barren worlds and dying stars. The Atwood had already skimmed past a dozen similar planets and, if the old charts I had pulled up were true, we would see at least a dozen more before this run was over. While the lack of hospitable worlds didn’t bother me, the same couldn’t be said for the rest of the Atwood’s crew.

“It ain’t right, Cap’n.” Jones didn’t turn from the navigation controls. “This many barren planets, all clustered together in one region. Ain’t right. Ain’t natural.”

I rolled my eyes. Thankfully, I was the only audience on the bridge for our navigator’s latest rant. Maybe if I ignored him, he’d settle down. I called up the ship’s status to distract me. I scrolled past three messages from our only passenger. He was likely trying to remind me that we were behind schedule. On to the departmental reports: Life support, nominal. Engineering, within recommended tolerances. Security, all secure.

Apparently, Jones took my silence as an invitation to continue. “Everywhere else in the galaxy, you find all sorts of planets. Big’uns and littl’uns, some rocky, some gassy. Some with water, some dry. But you don’t see so many dead worlds, not like this. Why we gotta go here, Cap’n?” He swiveled in his chair and fixed me with a pointed look, as if daring me to disagree.

Far be it from me to disappoint him. “You’re being paranoid, Jones.”

Jones shook his head so rapidly it looked like he was having a seizure. “No, the Expanse is cursed, and I know it. We should turn around and head back to port. Now!”

I pinched the bridge of my nose to stave off a mounting headache. “The company would love that. ‘We would’ve delivered it, but our navigator got a bad case of the willies.’ We’ve got a contract, and we can’t break it just because the Expanse gives you the shakes.”

Maybe that wasn’t the most polite way to phrase it. Jones stiffened in his chair and launched into a string of old spacers’ tales, how uncountable ships had disappeared or were destroyed or the crews all went mad when they dared to venture into the Expanse. I did my best to tune him out as I continued to scroll through the ship’s status. All departments except for medical had checked in with nothing to report. I was about to show the list to Jones just to shut him up, but I hesitated and scrolled through the list again. Medical didn’t just have nothing to report, there was no report at all. I frowned. That wasn’t like Dr. Mendenhall. Even if the crew was completely healthy, she would at least log her presence in the medical bay. It was worth checking, if for no other reason than to give me an excuse to leave Jones to his rambling paranoia.

“I’ll be back in a sec.” I hauled myself out of my chair and left the bridge, not waiting for Jones to respond.

My eyes had trouble adjusting to the shadowy corridor outside the bridge. Our passenger had insisted on dimming the lights during the trip. Something about power levels and energy fields or something like that; I left the details to Chief Engineer Daniels. We’ve dealt with stranger requests in the past, but somehow, the darkness muted the rest of the ship, swallowing the sounds and vibrations and colors.

I shook my head. Ridiculous. I had let Jones get into my skull.

The doors to the medical bay parted before me. The room was dark and empty. Dr. Mendenhall wasn’t in her office either. I glanced at my chrono. She should have logged in fifteen minutes ago. She was never late.

The doctor’s quarters weren’t far from the medical bay. Maybe Dr. Mendenhall was sleeping in, or she could be sick herself. Everything might be fine, but I still hustled through the corridors. The sooner I could be back on the well-lit bridge, the better, even if it meant spending more time with Jones. The walls loomed large in the shadows, and a strange scent, like that of mold mixed with salt water, tickled my nose. I frowned. Had the lowered power settings compromised the atmospheric scrubbers? Something to look into later.

I turned a corner and nearly slammed into our sole passenger. Mr. Henry Danforth looked like someone had animated a skeleton and stretched a thin layer of mottled skin over its frame. He was almost completely bald, save for a few wisps of hair that defied the ship’s gravity. He wore suits that may have been fashionable sixty years ago, but each was rumpled and dotted with old stains. He peered at me with his wet eyes, and his lips twitched into an expression that was neither sneer nor smirk but some combination of both.

“In such a rush, Captain?” he asked. “Whatever could be the matter?”

“Just ship’s business, that’s all.” I stepped around Danforth and kept walking. Hopefully he would catch the hint.

He didn’t. Instead, he fell into step with me. “How much longer until we reach our destination, may I ask? It is imperative that we get there as soon as possible. After the delay with our departure…”

“Mr. Danforth.” I stopped and faced him. “I understand your frustration. But it wasn’t our fault that the ground crew was late in refueling the Atwood. We’re doing the best we can, especially since we’re venturing so deep into an uninhabited region of space.” I frowned, some of Jones’s earlier rantings tickling the back of my mind. “But if you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Danforth, why are we taking you so deep into the Expanse? So far as we know, there’s nothing to find here.”

Danforth’s eyes glittered as a smile tugged at his lips. “Ah, but you can only find if you know what you seek.”

“And you do?”

“Of course. I am guided by ancient wisdom.”

Oh, great. I should have known that Danforth would turn out to be a religious nutter. Who else would spend so much to transport one crate to the middle of a vacant region of space?

“I do hope that you will do your best to make up for our delay, Captain. It would be most…unfortunate if you didn’t.”

Even better. I could parse the threat underneath Danforth’s words. If I didn’t hop to, he’d lodge a complaint with the company. Or worse, file a lawsuit. The company would love that. I ground my teeth, fighting to remain civil. “We are making our best possible speed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some urgent matters to attend to.”

Both statements were lies, but Danforth seemed to accept them. I kept going and thankfully, this time he didn’t follow.

When I arrived at Dr. Mendenhall’s quarters, I pressed the signal button and waited. There was no answer. I tried again, this time counting the seconds while I waited.

Upon reaching two hundred, I tapped in my command override code into the lock. I could have been overreacting to nothing, but I figured better safe than sorry.

The doors to the doctor’s quarters hissed open. As I stepped through, the lights flickered on, revealing a pool of blood. Then I saw her: Doctor Mendenhall slumped against a bench, her eyes open and vacant.

I dropped down next to her and examined her body. She was dressed in her uniform, the front of which was stained with blood. A closer look revealed the source. Her throat had been slit. Metal glinted in her right hand, a surgical scalpel gripped in a fist. Had she killed herself?

“Oh dear.”

I turned around. Danforth stood in the doorway, his gaze on the doctor’s body. And for a brief moment, a look of worry crossed his face.

“Mr. Danforth, please return to your cabin.” I shouldered my way past him back into the corridor.

Much to my relief, he didn’t argue. Instead, he watched as the door to the doctor’s quarters slid shut, then retreated without a word. I blew a breath out through my nose, trying to calm my stuttering heart. Maybe, just maybe Jones was right. Not that I would ever tell him that. But at that moment, I wished I was safely home.

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