“I found another one,” Jen said, whispering into her shoulder-strapped microphone. “She’s dead too.”
Mart started to say something, but Jen muted the speakers and approached the dead woman. She lay stretched out fully clothed on the large bed, looking peaceful, the wrinkles around her eyes and lips soft and relaxed, her fingernails clean, no blood visible on her skin or clothes. Just like the man on the bridge.
She stepped away from the woman, feeling very cold all of a sudden. She unmuted the speakers.
“Where were you?” Mart said in that tightly controlled voice that was almost scarier than if he’d just yell. “Did you turn me off again? I told you how much I hate that, Jen.”
“The microphone malfunctioned,” she said. “I’ll keep checking the ship.”
The next room was another bedroom, a single bed against the back wall. Not a third body, she thought; please not a third body. Beside the bed a terminal sat on a desk, and next to that were piled some books.
“Well?” Mart said.
Jen stepped out of the room. “Did you call the cops yet?”
“No. We talked about this.”
Jen walked down the halls slowly, expecting to stumble upon another body at any moment. “Someone has to do something for these people.”
“Like what? They’re dead.”
“Like bury them,” she said, as she walked into the kitchen. “Like find out how they died.” A set of dirty dishes filled the sink, including three dinner forks and three dinner knives, crusted with gravy.
“There’s another body on this ship,” she said, unable to keep her voice from trembling.
“Come back, Jen.”
“All right.” Her mom would hear of this, of course. She might even be the one sent to investigate.
Jen considered reaching out to her directly, but decided that would be too strange a conversation. Hi Mom, I know we haven’t talked in almost five years, but I found some dead bodies on a spaceship and thought you should look into it.
“We’re not calling the cops.” Jen didn’t like how he spoke as if that were the end of the discussion. He handed her a plate — “yours” — and another — “mine.”
“Your dad will forgive you,” she said, placing the plates on the table.
“I told you, I don’t like cops. And if we call them, we’re stuck here until they’re satisfied we’re not involved with whatever happened on that ship.”
Jen was too hungry to argue. Mart poured two glasses of red wine and brought them to the table.
“Is it good?” he said, after a long time.
“You’re mad at me.”
She swallowed the bit of beef in her mouth without chewing. “Well? Those people are dead and you don’t want to do anything about it.”
Mart put his fork down. “Okay.”
“You’ll call the patrol?”
“We’ll give them a proper burial.”
He nodded, his hair dancing. She resisted the urge to reach out and tuck the curls behind his ears. “We’ll fly their ship into the sun.”
“What are you talking about? Something happened to those people. We have to find out what.”
“Why does it matter?”
“But you have to come!” Mart had insisted, via screen, two days earlier.
Jen arched her eyebrows.
“I don’t mean it like an order,” Mart said.
She lowered the volume on her screen, then looked over her shoulder to make sure her boss wasn’t around.
“I haven’t seen you in forever,” he said, almost whining. “Not since grad.” Suddenly a light came into his eyes. “Remember we said we’d take a trip together?”
“I remember. Okay — I can afford two weeks, tops.”
“That’s great!” She couldn’t help but smile; Mart was pretty cute when he got excited. “I’ve missed you!”
They’d kept in touch for just a few months after university. His fault more than hers; she’d sent a few more messages but he’d stopped answering. And yet … all this time later … here he was.
“I’m at the spaceport,” Mart said. “Can you come tonight?”
“You’re here?” Jen said, raising her voice without meaning to. “On Elma?”
“I thought you meant in a couple of weeks. I can’t leave now.”
“What’s the rush, Mart? Why can’t we—” But she’d seen it, that old look flash across his face before he could wipe it away. Her voice dropped even lower than before. “What did you do?”
“Nothing!” A few moments passed. “I borrowed my dad’s ship, okay? He just doesn’t know I have it.”
She tried not to show her surprise. Mart’s parents weren’t very well-off, certainly not wealthy enough to afford a spaceship. They’d struggled to send Mart to school, and he’d worked nights and weekends at both of the campus restaurants to make up the difference.
But that was a long time ago, she thought, and maybe they’d come into some money since then.
“I wasn’t calling to be interrogated, Jen. I just thought it’d be fun to hang out for a little while. But if you’re not interested—”
They met at the spaceport the next morning. “So where are we going?” she said.
Mart threw his arms around her. “Anywhere we want, Jen!”
Anywhere we want.
As she soaked in the bath a few hours after leaving orbit, Jen wondered why she’d agreed to go with Mart. She’d told herself it was to keep him from getting into more trouble, but secretly, she had to admit it might be more that she was flattered that Mart still had her on his mind.
He knocked on the bathroom door.
“I’m in the bath,” she called out.
“I found something.” He opened the door slightly, presumably so he could hear her better, and his head poked through; she slipped further under the soapy water. “It’s a ship.”
“Is this an excuse to watch me bathe?” She said the words in a playfully chastising way, but the expression on his face was blank.
“There are lots of ships in space,” she said, in a flatter tone.
“This ship … it’s just floating.”
“So you think it’s a ghost ship?” Some joy ride, she thought; first thing they’d encountered was a dead ship.
“Why don’t you go check?”
“I don’t like the idea of ghosts.”
Jen shook her head, more in confusion than reproach. Mart had never struck her as a coward. During frosh week their first year in school, when they were all sitting around complaining about their group leader and fantasizing about belling that sadistic cat, Mart was the only one willing to do something about it, sneaking some powder into the group leader’s beer and knocking him out with stomach problems for the rest of the week.
“Why don’t you call the cops?” she said. “We’ll make the call and disappear.”
“No, they’ll trace it.”
“Fine,” she said, “I’ll go check it out.” She waited. “Can you leave so I can get dressed?”
He gave her an impish smile. “Do I have to leave?”
In the flattest voice she had, Jen said, “Yes.”
His smile didn’t collapse. “I’ll be in the cockpit. Take your time, Jenny.”
As she dressed, Jen wondered why he’d asked her to come on this trip, after all that time apart. A moment later, she wondered how many other girls he’d asked before thinking of her.
“I’m ready,” she said as she walked into the cockpit, the spacesuit’s helmet hanging against her hip.
Above Mart, through the screen that looked like a viewport, she saw the faint outline of a large ship, mostly hidden in the shadow of the planet around which it had fallen into orbit, dark itself but reflecting the glow of their own ship’s external lights.
“We’ll be lined up in another minute,” Mart said. “You can head down to the air lock.”
She walked out without saying anything, not even in response to Mart’s shout of “Good luck.”
When the two ships were lined up, and Mart had extended the connector tunnel, Jen opened the doors and floated down to the other ship’s doors. She tugged on the handle, almost hoping it was locked, but the door slid open. She floated inside and shut the door behind her. The ship pressurized the small room. You didn’t run out of energy, did you? Jen opened the inner door, then held up her arm and squeezed her fist. Her watch flashed green.
Jen took her helmet off and set it down. The sound echoed in the empty hall. The walls were smooth and white, similar to the ones on the ship she’d just left. She started walking, following the curve of the halls, her heart pounding. She had a bad feeling about this.
When she came out of her cabin the day after the EVA, Mart stood in front of her. “You used the communicator?”
Taken aback by his tone, she said, “Yeah, I called your dad. I wanted him to know you were all right.”
“What did he say?”
“He thought it was a prank. I told him you’d message him when you woke up.”
“Right.” His narrowed eyes searched her face for a long time. “Anyway, breakfast will be ready soon.”
“Okay,” she said, and had to push past him to get by.
Later, in the kitchen, Mart handed her the plates and she set them on the table.
Neither spoke for a while. Mart alternatively pushed forkfuls of food into his mouth and stared at her as she ate. Jen gave him an encouraging smile during the latter, something about the way he was acting making her want to pacify him.
Mart finally put his fork down and said, in a voice that was quiet but simmering with restrained aggression, “I know you called the cops.”
“No, I didn’t,” Jen said. “Stop looking at me like that — you’re scaring me.”
“It’s over, Jen — and I’ll be long gone before they show up.”
The pieces finally fell into place — Mart’s insistence on not involving the police, his strange behaviour, the missing third body. “You killed them?”
Mart stared back at her, then nodded. “She just wouldn’t listen,” he said, the grip on his vocal chords straining them. “She was my mom, but he wasn’t my dad. They were making a fool of him. I couldn’t let that keep happening. It wasn’t right. I had to stop it.”
He glanced down at Jen’s plate, and she felt a sense of peace surround her like a warm blanket. “Why did you ask me to come?”
“Because I needed to get rid of that ship. But after I left with this runabout, I just couldn’t go back. You were the nearest person I knew. I’m sorry I involved you,” he continued, in a lower voice. “It was supposed to be easy … you just wouldn’t listen, Jen!”
“I ate your plate, Mart.” She paused to allow her words to sink in. “You’re so controlling about the dishes — yours, mine — even though they’re the same and it shouldn’t matter. So I always switch them.”
He stared at her.
“You don’t like being ignored,” she said. “I don’t like being ordered around.”
Mart was quiet for a long time. “ I’ve got about twenty minutes, then.”
“No, this is better.”
His eyes closed, then opened partway. “Don’t cry, Jenny. I won’t feel a thing. I’ll just get really tired, then go to sleep, then—” Suddenly his eyes came wide open; he struggled to his feet. “You have to help me get to the cockpit,” he said, speaking quickly. “I have to record something. He has to understand.”
Jen used the back of her hands to wipe her tears away, then stood and threw Mart’s arm over her shoulders. With her own hand around his waist, she helped him down the hall.
”Remember the last time you had to help me walk?” he said.
The first time they’d met: Mart was smoking naji and stumbling back to his room, and she ran up to catch him before he fell or set himself on fire. She started to cry again.
“I wish things had turned—”
“Stop talking,” she said, through her tears. “Save your energy for your dad.”
The sound from the cockpit was deafening when Jen got back to the ship.
Exhausted — drained emotionally and physically from dragging Mart’s body through the ship, across the tunnel, and to his bed on the parent ship — she still ran to answer the call.
“Honey?” her mother said. “Is everything okay?”
She smiled in spite of herself; she couldn’t get over how different she looked: the extra weight on her face, the dense pockets of wrinkles around her eyes, the completely white, close-cropped hair.
“I’m fine,” Jen said. “I messaged you because … I’d like to come home. To Dharma.”
“You want to come home?”
“For a while at least.”
A shadow passed over her mother’s face.
“I just need to see you and dad,” she said, fighting against fresh tears.
“Okay, honey. I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”
Goodbye, Mart, she whispered under her breath, looking up at the dark ship in the viewport. She returned her attention to the smaller screen, where her mother’s image stared at her with concern. “That’s good, Mama,” she said. “I miss you.”
Karl El-Koura was born in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and currently lives in Ottawa. Karl holds a second-degree black belt in Okinawan Goju Ryu karate, is an avid commuter-cyclist, and works for the Canadian Federal Public Service.