I couldn’t tear my gaze from the blood.
The body had been removed an hour earlier by security. We didn’t have a morgue on the Atwood, but one of the empty cargo holds could be refrigerated. Cargomaster Lewis promised it would work in a pinch, and I trusted her opinion. But with the body dealt with, that left the larger question looming over me.
Why was the doctor dead? I had last spoken to her… I wracked my brain. The night before? Yes, we exchanged a greeting as we passed in the commissary. She had seemed fine at the time, but then, isn’t that what people said after a tragedy like this? Besides, we had never had what I would call a close relationship. Dr. Mendenhall had been a cipher to me since she joined the crew two months earlier.
Someone cleared his throat behind me. I turned and found Security Chief Olson standing with his hands clasped behind his back.
“What do you have for me, Chief?” I asked.
He stepped closer. “I did like you asked, Captain. Checked the security logs and asked around. Last anyone saw the doc was last night in the commissary. Security logs show her going into her quarters at 1800, and then nothing, not until you this morning. Near as I can tell, no one even went through the corridor outside her quarters overnight. Looks pretty cut and dried to me.”
So a suicide, then. I frowned. That didn’t feel right. The thought of the doctor killing herself clashed with my scant memories of her, creating a dissonance that soured my stomach.
“How’s the crew taking this?” I asked.
Olson scuffed at the floor. “Pretty shook up, all things considered. Took the liberty of having them assemble in the commissary. I figured they might need a few words from their captain.”
I patted Olson on the shoulder and slipped out of the room. It took me a few minutes to walk to the commissary. As I went, I considered what I should say. I couldn’t offer much comfort. If the doctor was religious, I had no idea. Besides, I was hardly qualified to officiate. Better to wait until we made it back to port for that sort of thing.
But that was the question: Should the Atwood make Danforth’s delivery or should we go back? Continuing without a doctor was risky, but it wasn’t against regulations either. And I trusted the crew to be careful in their jobs. And we were closing in on our destination, the heart of the Expanse. A few extra days wouldn’t hurt the body.
A familiar scent, salt and mold, tickled my nose. I paused and breathed deeper, trying to determine its source, but it had vanished as quickly as I detected it. I frowned, but then shook my head and kept walking. By the time I reached my destination, I knew what we had to do.
Sure enough, the crew had gathered in the commissary. There were only two dozen of them, and they had clustered in smaller knots and were talking quietly. As I stepped through the door, they fell silent and turned to me, their faces somber but attentive. Well, almost all of them. Jones sat at one of the table, slumped over, and he seemed to be asleep. I cleared my throat, hoping he’d at least pretend to pay attention. No good. I ground my teeth. Maybe I’d have to talk to him. He was a senior officer; he should set a better example.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll keep this brief. We all have duties to attend to.” My throat closed up and I swallowed the lump. “As I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, Dr. Gretchen Mendenhall has died. We are investigating what happened. While she was the newest member of our crew, she will be missed.” Would that be good enough? It would have to be. I nodded. “All right. Back to stations. We’ll continue on as scheduled, and—”
“No, Cap’n, don’t do it!” Jones looked up at me, fear painted across his face. “Not with a dead body on board. Not through the Expanse.”
A murmur swept through the crew. My hands clenched into fists. I should have known that Jones would object.
The doors to the commissary slid open, and Danforth stepped through. He skirted along the edge of the room, close the walls, his gaze locked on me.
“We are,” I said. “We’ve made it this far. If we turn around now, we’re only going to cost the company a lot of money in fuel and wages. And I have every confidence in this crew that we’ll be fine without a doctor on board.”
Jones shook his head. “I don’t like it. This ain’t right. None of it is. All these worlds, sucked dry like old corpses. Whisperings from the shadows! We’re not gonna make it.”
I rubbed at my temples, trying to forestall the headache that I knew would build with this argument. Now the crew members were whispering to each other, but if it was because they agreed with Jones or were disturbed by his ravings, I had no idea. A few of them inched away from him as if worried he would attack them.
All the while, Danforth’s gaze kept drilling into me.
“Enough!” The word burst from my mouth in a bark. “We’re going. Jones, if you have a problem with that, you’re relieved of duty and confined to your quarters.” If the doctor were still alive, I would have ordered her to sedate him for good measure. “The rest of you, back to your stations.”
Jones sputtered but didn’t answer. Then he got up and, with a glare at Danforth, left the commissary in a rush. The rest of the crew followed, some of them casting sympathetic looks in my direction, others studying the floor as they walked.
I stepped forward and snared the arm of Chief Engineer Daniels. “A word, Chief.”
He glanced at his team as they filed out of the room, then turned to face me. He was a young man, fresh out of university a year earlier. He’d been with us for the last six months. Good kid, all things considered, but still inexperienced. Maybe that was why he looked so nervous. I know I would have been too if someone died on my first posting like this.
“I know you’ve got the engines running at peak efficiency, but see if you can’t eke out a little more power, okay?” I tried to phrase the order like a question if only to set him at ease. “I want to finish this run as quickly as we can. It’d be better for the crew, for the doctor’s family, for all of us.”
His jaw worked as if he were chewing on the request, but he still nodded. “I’ll see what I can do, sir.”
He started to leave, but I caught his arm again. “One other thing. I want someone to check the atmospheric filters.”
He frowned. “Why?”
Couldn’t he smell it, the tang of salt in the air? Did he think that was normal? Maybe he grew up in a coastal city and thought the air was supposed to smell like this. It didn’t matter in the end. “Just double check to make sure everything is working, got it?”
“Yes, sir.” He escaped through the door.
I took a few moments to breathe and compose myself, but even as I left the room, the memories of the doctor’s blood and the scent in the air chased me through the corridors.
Click below to continue reading…