A family of three smiled out from the static monitor of the frame that sat atop the desk inside of the captain’s quarters. There was a handsome brunette, strong in her looks as well as her frame, and a tall, tired-looking man, with his arm slung lazily around her waist. In front of them was a grinning boy, smiling at the camera as he clutched a model spaceship. Behind them stood a large house and white picket fence to complete the cliché.
Keeping it company was an assortment of sheets, plastic substrates that reflected photos and details, scattered about as if someone had thrown them out of a box. The man behind the desk made perfect company for the mess. His eyes were puffy and didn’t seem to open past the slats that served as windows into a dark and dangerous place.
Winchester Hayes picked up one of the sheets and flipped it around in order to read the information on the back. “Everything checks out,” he muttered to himself and then got up and walked across the room to where the circular porthole revealed the monochromatic horizon line of the asteroid. “If I die on this spud I’m slapping god,” he muttered and then shifted his eyes to watch the miners.
“Yeah, that’s it, work as slow as possible,” he muttered, “this is what they send me out here with. Laggards.” He shook his head and turned back to his desk, his hand smoothing back his thick brown hair.
A slight movement distracted him and he glanced at his bed where a smooth, shapely leg had managed to escape from beneath the covers. “I’ll see you up there,” he announced, as he grabbed his jacket and threw it on before exiting the door.
As he passed by his desk, the edge of his jacket knocked over the frame, and the family became as forgotten as they had been for the last few hours of his life. He walked the dark passageway and then rounded the corner, pushing his way past a deckhand who was going back to his room.
“Morning Captain!” The man said, and Winchester stopped, turned around and regarded him.
“Morning? How the hell can you tell?”
“By the time, sir, it’s 5—”
“Goddamn it, Richard, it’s a friggin joke. I know what time of day it is. We’ve been here, what, fourteen days? Anyway, as you were,” he said and pushed past him to resume his march. The tight passageway was beginning to see a lot of activity, so Winchester pushed past several other workers to climb the stairs that led up to the bridge.
“Captain on the bridge,” a man in a powder blue jumpsuit announced and Winchester stopped and stared at him. When he had looked at the man long enough for it to become uncomfortable, he slowly looked around the room, as if to see if anyone would respond.
“Lu, it’s only us. Who the hell are you announcing that to?”
“Sticking to protocol, Skip, the way you instructed me to. Would you prefer if I stopped announcing your taking the bridge?”
“I need coffee, where the hell is my coffee?”
“It’s been tapped out. Vega went below to get us some more. I had gone last time and she tried to get me to fill it again, and I was—”
“What an interesting story, Lu, I’d love to hear more, but since I’m old and impatient, can you please skip forward to the part where I actually give a shit.”
“You need your coffee,” Angelo Lu said, and waved to another man that ascended the steps to the bridge.
“Captain,” the man said with a thick German accent and he made a slight bow to Winchester Hayes. When Hayes did not acknowledge him he turned to Angelo, “Lu,” he said and the shorter man smiled and told him good morning.
“How long have we been together, gentlemen?” Winchester asked without looking at either of them.
“Five years now,” Lu replied, “well, two years for you, right Gauge?” And the tall, muscular German nodded affirmatively.
“Five years,” Winchester whispered. He touched a screen that was on the podium in front of him which caused the control panels to light up as the darkened shades slid up into the ceiling to reveal the unimpressive, pock-filled landscape of Egeria-13.
Winchester didn’t say anything more as he placed one foot on his chair then leaned forward resting his elbow on top of his knee. He set his eyes on a pair of miners going about their duties, and lost himself into trying to figure out why he felt uneasy. “We need to shove off soon,” he said. “I’m not liking the way she’s been feeling lately, not to mention that noise from last night.”
“Noise, Skip?” Lu asked, looking up at him questioningly.
“The noise, the incessant clicking that I had you investigate. Sounded like it was coming from downstairs, like something wormed its way into the primary grid.”
Lu looked over his charts to make sure that all of the Kerwood’s readouts looked normal. “Ion propulsion engine is in tip top shape, Skipper. If there was something inside of it, the Kerwood would let us know. Are you sure that the noise came from there? Everything here looks stable, and the computer estimates that with our supplies, we could cruise for another two years.”
“Did the computer tell you that, Lu? Is that why you’re here? To tell me what the computer estimates is good for my crew? I know what I heard, and the rest of you heard it too. I don’t care what the damn computer says, even if Booker comes up here and tells me that she’s good, I’m getting a second opinion from the engineers. We don’t take off with that noise.”
Winchester looked poised to grab something and throw it, and Lu surmised that he hadn’t gotten any sleep. “CAN SOMEONE PLEASE GET THE CAPTAIN SOME COFFEE,” he barked into his communicator, and then looked over at Winchester with an impatient glance. “Skip, this noise, where did you hear it, and what did it sound like at the time?”
“Sounded like whispers, but I was alone up here. Couldn’t sleep so I came up here to be with my girl.”
Both Gauge and Lu exchanged looks, then Lu asked, “You mean, the Kerwood?”
“Who else? I come up here sometimes. Stare out at all that blackness and wonder what else is out there. I heard whispers like … Hey, you ever been in a car where the window is cracked and that whispering sound lets you know to wind it up?”
“Sure, sure, I’ve done that.”
“That’s what it sounded like, so I looked around the bridge. Figured a couple of you were up here, having a private talk or something else. After a while I found out that the noise was coming from the HUD, so I called up Booker and made him run a few tests.”
“That would account for the crew’s tardiness,” Lu sighed. “Was it the old intuition thing again, Skipper? I’ve been trying to pick up on it and I just don’t feel, or hear it for that matter.”
Winchester turned slightly with his face tilted down and he stared at Lu above his nose. “Could be, but I know what I heard, and when my girl’s feeling uneasy, I know that something’s up. Maybe it’s something that only a captain can understand. When you spend years with a ship, the soul of the thing begins to talk to you. Running a ship is a lot more than computer read outs and sticking to protocol, mister Lu, but you won’t believe me until you’re in this seat, now will you?”
Their conversation was interrupted by loud chatter as three more people climbed up to the bridge. The ship’s pilot, Booker Hawkins, was having an argument with his relief pilot, Femke Gerhardt. They were going on about the likelihood of the crew’s survival if he was unable to fly. Booker thought Femke was not ready and she of course took offense and was pleading her case quite loudly.
Another woman, Marisol Vega, trailed behind them with two cups of coffee. She was dressed differently than the rest who all wore the blue, cooling and ventilation jumpers that were meant to go beneath their spacesuits. It had become the unofficial uniform of the Kerwood—coffee stains not required—but she was dressed in a t-shirt and jogging pants, a luxury of the communications officer.
“Hey, Skip, am I not an able pilot?” Femke pleaded as Booker smiled slyly from behind her where she couldn’t see.
Winchester Hayes stood up and glanced at his crew, but the only thing that he could see was the piping hot coffee being handed to him by Marisol. He took it and sipped it slowly as if he never heard Femke’s question. “How’d it go with the tests last night, Book?”
“Strangest thing, Captain. We didn’t find a thing. The logs read clean, the DCIU is showing all green, and every simulation that I have run on the computer has given us positives.”
“How many simulations did you run?”
“Fifteen, Captain, after manual checks, and I still can’t figure out what could have made that noise. Should I call engineering? They would be able to tell us, but—”
Winchester Hayes made a face and then put down the cup. He removed his foot from his chair and cracked his back. “Okay,” he said finally, “I guess I’m going crazy. Based on that look you gave me earlier Gauge, I’m apparently the only one that thinks something is off. Femke, you are a fine pilot, don’t second guess yourself. Book’s just afraid that this mission isn’t all about him.”
His eyes found Vega’s before looking down to read the logs that Lu had put up for him. The remainder of the crew took their stations and began to run the routine checks that they did daily to pass the time.
Gauge Schneider put on headphones and began to study a star map, while Booker “Book” Hawkins continued to argue with Femke “Funky” Gerhardt—quietly. Angelo Lu, forever the professional, took Marisol Vega to the side where they were out of earshot.
“You were gone for over an hour, did something happen down there?”
“I had a personal situation,” she said as she leaned against the wall, her dark hair was uncharacteristically loose and she blew at a stray lock that was threatening to obscure her vision.
“He’s crazy without his coffee, I wanted to have it ready when he took the bridge.”
“Then you should have gotten it yourself, pendejo. You sent me to do you a favor and I did what you asked. Why are we over here? It looks really suspicious.”
Winchester Hayes flipped through the logs but his eyes floated up to meet Vega’s again. A smile came to her lips and she took another sip of her coffee. “I’m going down a level to check on the miners. There was something funky going on with them yesterday and I want to make sure that they’re okay,” she said.
“Something funky going on with the miners?” Booker said, and then he began to laugh.
“Ignore him, Marisol,” Femke Gerhardt muttered but Marisol didn’t seem to notice them.
“See if you can get me an ETA while you’re down there,” Winchester said. “But, uh, do it in a casual sort of way, y’know, as if you’re just being curious. I’m sick of the run around and I want to know what they really think.”
“Sure thing, Winn, I’ll see what I can find out,” Marisol said as she took to the steps.
Winn, she called me Winn, why did she have to do that? Winchester thought as he looked over the podium to make sure than no-one else had noticed. Booker was still being annoying and Femke defended herself, but Lu was glancing after her as if he wanted to say something. Damn it, Winchester thought to himself and closed the log report. “Everything looks good, mister Lu, the logs are as clean as you say.”
“How come she gets to call you, Winn?” Femke asked, and Winchester closed his eyes and inhaled slowly.
“Say what, now?”
“Winn, Captain, your Communication Officer just called you, ‘Winn’. The last time I heard someone do that, you had us all line up to remind us about your rules.”
“I missed it, did she call me by my name? That doesn’t make sense, my name is Captain, Captain Hayes if you’re feeling creative. Maybe I was too busy doing captain stuff to notice,” he looked around at the others as if to stress his point. “I see Gauge over there working, I bet if I call him Gary he wouldn’t notice. Right Gary?” Gauge pretended not to hear him. “You see that, Femke, work has made him impervious to nonsense. But now that you have taken me away from work to address my name, I am curious as to why you felt the need to point this out to me?”
The air in the room got uncomfortable and Lu rubbed his face. If Winchester was to go off into one of his temper-laced speeches, they would all be made to suffer for the next few hours. “Miss Gerhardt is just pointing out a lapse in Miss Vega’s memory, Skip. The big talk we all had on protocol yesterday? She was in attendance, so she should remember that on this bridge, like everywhere else, you are Captain Hayes.”
Winchester nodded and then glanced over at Lu who was still staring after Vega. “Protocol or no protocol we all need to be friendly, you hear me? I don’t want to hear anything more about this Winn business with Marisol. Let’s get back to the jobs that they pay us for, alright? And Book, knock it off, the woman doesn’t like you. I know that we’ve been out here long, but do you really need to start picking at flowers from your own backyard?”
Femke turned to stare questioningly at Winchester Hayes. “Protocol, Miss Gerhardt” he said with a wink, and then looked down to try and hide the smile that was on his face.
After an hour of silence as they went through their steps, Winchester began to hear the whispering again. At first it was slight, but then it grew louder and he began to make out words in the voice’s hushed chatter. He looked around to see who it was, but everyone was bent over at a console, flipping through readouts or typing in notes to one of their many logs.
His eyes met Lu’s who was watching him intently and a part of him wondered if it was him. “Did you say something, Lu?” he asked suddenly, and Angelo shook his head and eyed him curiously.
“When was the last time you slept, Cap—”
“Fine, take the bridge,” Winchester grunted, his mind settling on the prospect of sleep. There was a feeling of paranoia that had come over him and he worried that the whispers were all in his head. Am I losing my mind? He asked himself, if any of the others had heard the voices, they would have said something, right?
He descended the stairs and marched through the passage, running his hands against the bulkhead, letting his fingers explore the carbon fiber panels. A few hours of sleep to set my head straight, he thought as he nodded in response to the numerous greetings from the crewmen that walked past. His trip felt a lot longer than it did when he had made it earlier on, and the whispers slowly began to fade away.
Once he got to his door, he fumbled for the lock and punched in his entry code. The door slid open and he stepped inside, he wondered why the coffee wasn’t doing its job. He had gone without sleep before, plenty of times, and normally one cup of Marisol’s brew would carry him through several hours into the work period.
Winchester stepped forward and stopped, there was something amiss, his bed was in order and the desk had a stack of neatly filed substrates next to the picture of his family. There was a hint of pine, and the shutters were closed, and he wondered who could have come into his room while he was gone.
“What the f—,” he started and looked around, stunned. “Did I? No … but that wouldn’t make sense, now would it?” he laughed, removed his jacket and hung it on a hook. Would lack of sleep cause me to forget that I cleaned up? He crossed to the bed and lay on his back staring up at the eggshell white overhead. Sleep came to him fast and he dreamed of earth, where he watched his boy, Colt, as he dribbled the ball on the soccer field. His wife, Cheyenne was with him, her arm interlocked with his as the sun beat down mercilessly, burning his neck.
This was their standard Saturday afternoon activity, watching little Colt train to become America’s next soccer star. It was the highlight of his week, and he didn’t know why, but something about the way Colt would look at him in the stands whenever he would score a goal. His family was like a bridge crew, well his son was, not so much his wife, she was more like the Kerwood, keeping him going through the darkest of night.
He missed them, he always missed them, especially when he had to go out this far. Then there was that sound, the whispers again, and this time they came on so loud that he woke up out of that wonderful dream.
“UGH!” he exclaimed, “this has to stop, and he got up and desperately tried to find its source. A buzz came over the speakers and he grabbed for his robe then walked over to the door to see who it was. He peeped through spyhole and saw a pretty blonde woman, so he shook his head and opened the door. “Are you trying to make this harder?” he whispered to Femke as she stepped inside, “I thought we agreed to sleep period only!”
“Relax, Winn, I’m aware of protocol. You do realize that you’ve been asleep for twelve hours?”
“Have I? No wonder my head is throbbing, and that incessant whispering sound is driving me mad!”
“Whispering sound?” she asked as she slid out of her suit, and walked over to where he stood in nothing but her panties and a sheer tank top. Winchester felt better when she touched his face, and the pain of remembering his deceased wife and son was pushed back to the big box where they rested in his heart. He touched her slight waist and pulled her in, kissing her plump lips while listening to the whispers.
“Jesus Christ!” he shouted, “I need it to stop.” He drew back from his lover to look around, desperately trying to find its source. Femke smiled and looked at him strangely, then shook her head as if she felt sorry for him.
“Turn around,” she said, and he complied, then she reached up and plucked something from the corner of his ear. “I knew something was up when Robot Lu asked about your earring. I was like, Winn doesn’t have his ears pierced. That makes no sense. The next time you lay down, I want you to do me a favor. Remove the hardware so you don’t go having Gauge and Lu thinking that you’re losing your mind.”
Winchester thought about his erratic behavior and the way he forced Booker to run scans for nothing. He had used Marisol to hide a mic in the miner’s locker room, and had forgotten that he was wearing the receiver on the tip of his ear. Whiskey, Femke, and a long night of insomnia, had made him stumble unto the bridge, forgetting that it was there.
“Whispers,” he said, “the crew thinks that I’m hearing whispers. There’s no way in hell that I will be able to live this down.”
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Next: Chapter 03