What follows is a short story I wrote for a family writing club last year.
Dom woke in a panic, straining against the canvas straps taut over his chest, waist, wrists, and ankles. The ship was spinning. The blinking lights in the cabin filtered through a fog and the engines throbbed with a menacing intensity. But as the nightmare faded, his orientation returned. Gulping in air, he lay back on the mattress. Relax, he told himself. Just a dream.
His jaw ached. The sweat on his chest and forehead had collected and was sliding down his skin in dewy beads. Terrifying though it had been, he sought to recall the nightmare’s particulars. He failed. Details were already lost to him, vanished into the deep dark void of memory. Their escape was frustrating. The journal by his bed would go empty again. It was the ninth of its kind, the previous eight already full with the tales imagined by his slumbering subconscious. There were eleven more neatly packaged in the storage unit below him, pages yet blank, awaiting their turn. They would have to wait one night longer.
Stretching his wrist, he punched in his code. The machine intoned softly and the straps released. Brushing them away, he sat up, resigned to an early morning. A preliminary glance towards the cockpit found no warning lights flashing. All was right with the ship. It struck him as odd that nobody was seated there. They slept in shifts. Elisa and Arthur should have been up.
Blinking away the residue of sleep, he found Arthur across from him, breathing softly into the apnea machine that protected the rest of the crew from his snoring. Camden slept peacefully in the cot beside Arthur’s, curled up like a child. Dom had to twist to look around the bunk at Elisa’s mattress. Empty. He looked down the length of the ship towards the bathroom door. Slightly ajar. Strange. He confirmed her disappearance with a slow turn of his head that took his eyes across the whole of the ship’s interior.
Nothing. She was gone.
He rose and took a few long, fast steps to the cockpit. The main computer was dormant, a sign it had been untouched for over an hour. It took several minutes to wake. Once it did, he accessed the console and refined the data to show only the history of the single portal in the rear of the ship. His suspicions were correct. It had been opened several hours earlier, the external door for two minutes and then the exterior door for a mere fifteen seconds. Another few keystrokes told him that both spacesuits were still housed in their individual closets.
The cursor blinked at him, ambivalent. The minutes passed, still as the stars beyond the windows. His breathing filled his ears. He shut his eyes tight against the reality and prayed that he was still sleeping. Somehow, this was a sequel to the nightmare that had awakened him. As fleeting and unimportant. When he woke, truly woke, Elisa would be sitting beside Arthur in the navigation chair. He would be talking about some esoteric, astrological nonsense and she would be listening dutifully. She would flash him a smile when she saw him rise. Roll her eyes at Arthur’s verbosity. He would smile.
When he opened his eyes, the blinking cursor told him clearly what was real. Gritting his teeth, he brought up the console and sought out the code that had opened the portal doors. It took a moment to load and then, at the bottom of the list, the code glared at him.
It was the same series of numbers he had entered to access the console. It commanded the highest clearance and was intended to be known to the captain alone.
He turned around slowly. Camden was sitting on the edge of his bed, long hair disheveled. “Where’s Elisa?”
A long slow intake of breath and a longer exhale. The console’s quiet ticking in time to the blinking of the cursor filled the space. Dom stared at the lieutenant’s face so long he began to see through it. He wanted desperately to find an alternate series of events that fit the evidence but his analytical mind couldn’t. A member of his crew had discovered his code. That person had opened the inner door. Elisa had gone into the boarding chamber. The inner door had been shut. The outer door had been opened and, after Elisa had disappeared through it into the cold, sure death of space, it had been shut again.
Though the portal doors could be opened and closed from inside, the console registered that the code had been entered on the keypad just inside the inner door. Elisa could not have done it herself. Her murderer had ejected her into space and returned to sleep.
Camden had risen and taken a few steps towards him, concerned. “Captain. Sir. Are you ok? What happened to Elisa?”
He walked past the lieutenant without looking at him. Stepping up the small gray metal box beside the portal, he punched in the only code that would open it.
It was empty. There was only space where the 9mm should have been.
He turned back to face the lieutenant, jaw set. Camden was watching him with wide eyes. The captain advanced with short, menacing steps. “Your hands, lieutenant.” Each step against the hard steel of the ship’s interior rang harshly. “Put them up.”
Camden did as commanded without question. Dom closed the distance between them and grabbed him roughly by the front of his jumpsuit. He did not hear the lieutenant’s protests as he shoved him against the inner door. Holding him in place with one hand, Dom punched in the code to open the door and then forced Camden through. “You need to stay here.” The door shut with a rush, silencing the lieutenant’s questions.
Dom raced past Arthur, still sleeping, to the cockpit console where he quickly deleted all codes from the system save his. He glanced back only once during the process to be sure Camden hadn’t used the keypad inside the boarding chamber to release himself. The lieutenant made no effort to do so. He obeyed his orders. It was evidence of the youngest shipman’s innocence but Dom couldn’t yet be sure.
With the lieutenant locked away, he turned his attention on Arthur. He watched him sleep for a moment before he ferociously tore the apnea machine away, tubes flailing. Arthur sputtered and woke angrily, cursing. When he saw the captain over him, he relaxed a bit. “Ay, god. Was I being loud again?” Dom only stared him down, searching for any indication of his guilt. There was none.
Fighting through Arthur’s half-hearted resistance, he lifted the commander to his feet and pushed him stumbling toward the boarding chamber. “Get in there with him,” he ordered coldly. Arthur glanced around the cabin, getting his bearings, and finally saw Camden looking back at him woefully through the round window in the inner door. Arthur turned back with a question on his lips but the look on Dom’s face frightened him into silence. “I said, get in there with him.”
Arthur paused. “What the hell is going on here, captain?”
“I’ve given you an order, commander.”
There was no further doubt. His word was law in the small space of that ship. Arthur stepped up to the inner door and keyed in a series of numbers but it didn’t budge. He tried again. Still it refused to admit him. He glanced over his shoulder. “My code’s not working.”
“I’ve deleted all but mine.”
Arthur snorted. “I suppose that explains it then. But why?”
“Get in there,” he commanded with slow, succinct enunciation.
Arthur laughed, regretted it, and responded with frustration. “If you’ve deleted my code, I’ve got no way to open the door. I can’t obey orders that can’t be obeyed.”
“So use my code.”
“What is it?”
“You already know.”
“I certainly don’t.”
“Don’t fucking lie to me.”
The commander threw up his hands, exasperated. “What the hell is all of this about, captain?”
Dom approached, stepped up just beside him. Arthur flinched. The captain punched in the code and the portal door slid open. Rounding on his commander, their faces only inches apart, Dom gave the order again. “Get. In.”
Arthur stepped through the doorway with a sigh. Camden moved to make room and tried to ask again about Elisa but Dom shut the door before he could finish. The captain brought his face close to the round window and looked in, studying them. Neither had struggled when he had told them to enter the chamber. Though Arthur’s body language was angry and Camden’s was saddened, neither struck him as particularly guilty. Yet he knew that one of them was. She hadn’t ejected herself into space.
Instead of interrogating them then and there, he left them and began searching the drawers and closets beside their beds for the 9mm. He began calmly but it wasn’t long before he was tearing the ship apart, tossing the contents on to the floor. Even as he became more desperate, the analytical side of his mind forced its way through to his consciousness. Whoever had stolen the 9mm would have done so to protect himself from the captain after Elisa’s disappearance was discovered, yet neither of them had put up any resistance. Why take it if they never intended to use it?
When at last he determined he would not find the gun, he returned to the portal. Pressing a button against the frame, he activated the communicator. “Commander. Tell me about last night.”
Arthur pushed the communicator button on his side petulantly. “I don’t know what you want me to say. We ran our reports, did a system diagnostic. Everything was running fine. Officer Woolf had a journal entry to complete but she said she’d wake you and Cam when the shift was over so I went to bed.” He raised his eyebrows. “Does that answer your question?”
“When did you go to sleep?”
The portal doors had been opened thirty minutes later. He turned his attention on Camden. “And you? What do you have to say about last night?”
The lieutenant shook his head. “Nothing, sir. I went to sleep before you did. I woke up after. I don’t remember waking up between.” He stifled a sob. “Sir, where is Elisa? Do you know what happened to her?”
The communicator only worked one way at a time. By holding the button, he muted Arthur’s attempts to ask the same question, now the commander had realized Elisa was gone. The captain watched them in their cage with cold intensity. The killer was giving nothing away. Whichever one of them it was, his plan was to deny it. Dom couldn’t keep them in the boarding chamber for the remainder of the journey, and he would need at least one of them to help him land the ship once they reached Mars.
So be it, he thought. If the killer will not confess, I will work it out myself.
They had left Earth two terran years ago. In all that time, alone aboard the small vessel with only each other for company, there had been remarkably few incidents. They had been chosen for their complimentary personalities. This had protected them from unnecessary conflicts but it had also meant that all three of the men had become attached to the young, attractive pilot at one time or another. They had undergone gene therapy before launch and took pills daily to control the baser instincts that would have made years in space impossible for companies with a mix of genders, but their need for social attention and validation remained. All the men had sought to get those needs fulfilled by Elisa. She had been accommodating, needing to have them fulfilled for herself in return. Each of his other sailors, Camden and Arthur, had come to him at one point to confess their attraction to her, despite the therapy and drugs. He had convinced them to remain professional and for the most part they had.
Yet it had been a long time since he’d had a heart-to-heart with either of them. Perhaps there was a relationship happening behind his back, while he slept. Had she and Arthur been growing closer over the last thirty days that they had been working the same shift? Or had she sent Arthur to bed early so she could be with her lover, Camden?
He considered the men desperately trying to get his attention through the round window. Which of them would Elisa have fallen for? Camden was young and fit with an incredible intelligence for his youth. Arthur was older, more of a father figure to the young pilot, but Dom had known his commander a long time and had seen the scores of women that had fallen for his detached demeanor and hyper-intellectualism. Elisa herself had been confident and strong, an ex-Marine guided by a sense of duty that made her emotions hard to read. Would she have preferred someone her own age and more similar or could her deep respect for the mature commander have blossomed into something romantic?
There had been a time when the captain himself had guiltily considered the possibility of moving his relationship with Elisa in a physical direction. She had looked up to him as a mentor, frequently bending his ear for advice or complimenting him on his leadership abilities. He had caught himself stealing glances at her body when she changed on their shifts together and had caught her doing the same to him. Without saying so, she had made it clear that she would have accepted his advances, but he had been unwilling to become a hypocrite after having told the other crewmembers to keep their hands to themselves. Recently, her attitude had changed and he had decided the opportunity was lost. He had not been saddened to see it go.
He was losing focus. A blink brought him back from his thoughts. Arthur and Camden were shouting at him from the other side of the door, their eyes bulging wide, but they were utterly muted. They seemed even more upset about discovering Elisa’s disappearance than he was. Odd, particularly since one of them had killed her.
Relenting, he released the button. He still couldn’t hear them as they had given up on depressing the communicator on their side but he could see the anxiety in the veins bulging on their foreheads. Camden was pointing at him. Or past him.
Dom turned. She was at the cockpit console, bent over it, her long fingers playing across the buttons like the keys of a piano. The long bin under her bed was open, its lid laying on top of the drawers and clothes that he had tossed into the center of the ship while searching for the gun.
She rose to her full height and turned to face him. The wide smile on her face contrasted the 9mm she took from the chair. Though seemingly unrelated, the dual questions of what she had been doing at the console and why she had the gun came together to provide him with a total awareness of the situation. When he turned back to the portal door to let the others in, he caught sight of the external door sliding into place. The boarding chamber was empty.
“Captain,” she started. “I know what this looks like. I know. But I promise you it’s what had to happen. If you’ll just let me speak, I’ll explain it to you.” Dumb silence was all the response he could muster. She laughed softly and began taking slow steps towards him. “It was six months ago when Cam came to me, told me of his affection for me. He said you had told him not to say anything but he couldn’t help himself. I declined his advances. He was heartbroken. To make him feel better, I told him the truth. I was already in love with someone else. With you.”
He swooned to the side but caught himself. The ship was spinning again. He prayed he was waking from another bad dream.
“Arthur came to me a few months later and told me basically the same thing that Camden had. That he had grown fond of me. I told him the very same thing, that I already had feelings for you.” She was closing on him, only a few steps away. “I blame myself. I couldn’t make a move. I knew you felt the same for me that I felt for you but I knew you wouldn’t do anything about it. At least, not with Camden and Arthur around. How could you, as their leader? After having ordered them to do nothing?”
She stepped close to his body, only inches away. He could feel her heat and her breath on his neck. Her free hand, the one that wasn’t holding the gun, touched his hip. He flinched. “You killed them…”
“So we could be together!”
She was insane. Somewhere in the last two years, she had lost her sanity. He should grab her, take the gun. Force her into the portal and jettison her body into space. But he couldn’t. He needed her, and she knew it. The ship was too complicated to pilot alone. It took two people. Now they were the only two people on board.
He brought his hand up to her neck. She sighed in anticipation, eyes closed. He hesitated, thumb stroking the side of her chin. It would be so easy to grab her throat, to silence her, to punish her for the death of his crewmen… Instead, he ran his fingers through her hair and pulled her lips against his. He had years of space flight ahead of him to forgive her for the murder yet somehow he managed it over the course of their long kiss.