Science Fiction Mystery

“Dr. Lancaster, thank you for coming.” Director Langton smiled as he spoke, but David nodded in response.

“It’s a pleasure to visit the Department for Extraplanetary Exploration,” he said, seating himself on the edge of his chair and bracing his feet against the carpeted floor.

Langton smiled again. “You’re one of many who hold that opinion, I’m sure.” Leaning back in his chair, he added, “We don’t get many people from Medical up here, you know. Perhaps you made an appointment just for the pleasure of seeing me?”

David refused to laugh. “Of course, Director Langton. Of course.”

Langton chuckled. “Flattery will only get you so far—but now that travel beyond Earth’s confines is possible, you could go very far indeed.”

“I have been, sir.” David looked behind Langton to the photographs hanging on his wall. “In fact, I’ve just returned from a mission with the cruiser Titan, in that exact system.”

Langton glanced over his shoulder. “Beautiful, isn’t it? I’m sure the cartographers enjoyed drawing up their maps.”

“As much as they ever enjoyed mapping a single-star system without satellites,” David said.

Langton smile dimmed, and he reached inside his desk drawer for a tablet. “Agreeing with everything I say would defeat the purpose of a discussion, doctor.”

David reached for his pen, remembered that he had left his lab coat behind, and dropped his hand. “Was I repeating, sir? I wasn’t aware that we should be having a discussion.”

Langton began scanning the tablet. “David Lancaster. Medical officer, first class. Specialization in neuroscience. Commendations for exemplary service—”

“Please, sir.” David leaned forward in his chair. “Extend flattery to me, by all means.”

Langton slid the tablet into his desk drawer and smiled. “I’m sure there’s a commendation included for diplomatic speech, but I won’t embarrass you.”

David realized he was mimicking Langton’s smile. “My profound thanks, sir.”

For a moment, Langton didn’t speak. “My assistant informed me,” he resumed, “that you’ve just returned from your fourth extraplanetary mission. Perhaps you’re seeking an alternate occupation after so many years in service, perhaps even here in the department?”

David glanced at Langton’s pictures again. “Perhaps. This last mission made clear that space travel can bring any personnel into situations of great risk.”

Langton laughed. “Surely that fact formed the basis of your most elementary training?” Then he sighed. “I understand, doctor. The department constantly balances possible risk with possible success, and decisions can be—wearying.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” David said, “but all your decisions must be correctly balanced.”

Langton nodded. “We pride ourselves on consistently correct conclusions.” He chuckled. “I should report that to Marketing.”

“Certainly,” David said. “But I’m not in Marketing. I’m in Medical, and Medical decided that one of the department’s conclusions should be confirmed.”

“Confirmed?” Langton repeated. “In what way? Medical should have no reason to doubt.”

David smiled. “Surely your assistant showed you Medical’s clearance papers? We have evidence that the permanent decommission of a Titan crewmember is connected—in a minor capacity, of course—to a command decision effected through this department.”

Langton stared at his photographs before turning back to David. “We’ll be more than happy to accommodate Medical’s request, if you’ll produce the evidence.”

David reached into his suit pocket. “Pardon the paper, sir, but the evidence was only available in old-fashioned form.”

Langton reached across his desk and unfolded the paper square. As Langton read, David planted his feet more firmly against the carpet. He noticed the steady hum of the intercom, and the pulse of his own heartbeat. When Langton reached up to activate the intercom, he caught his breath.

“Nothing to be worried about, doctor,” Langton said, with another smile. “I’m only requesting the complete files for Mission 404.” Moments later, his assistant brought in a tablet, which he scanned.

“I admire your efficiency,” David said, satisfied that his breathing had returned to standard rhythm. “Your assistant must keep extensive files, ready to be read at a moment’s notice.”

Langton looked up from the tablet. “The department insists that we retain complete files. You’re certain that your evidence pertains to Mission 404?”

David nodded. “The data from the asteroid belt should match the data in your files—unless I’ve been mistaken.”

Langton shook his head. “You’ve been commendably thorough—but you have missed a slight detail. Only a slight detail, of course.”

David reminded himself to breathe. “And what slight detail would that be?”

Langton pointed to the tablet, prompting David to lean over the desk. “You’ll notice that the pilot of shuttle D7—the permanently decommissioned pilot—was Peter Dallen.”

David glanced up at Langton. “And the pilot’s name is a relevant detail, I’ll assume?”

Langton shook his head and smiled. “Dr. Lancaster, don’t you remember your history? The Dallen family was known for—”

“I fail to see how Peter Dallen’s ancestry is relevant,” David interrupted. “He was—permanently decommissioned—in connection with the Department of Extraplanetary Exploration. You won’t deny facts, will you? Think of the department’s reputation.”

Langton’s smile hardened. “The department is not in the business of denying facts, doctor.”

David tried to laugh. “And I would never imply that you were. Since the department does deal in facts, I may be interested—slightly interested, of course—in knowing what those facts are.”

Langton chuckled. “Dr. Lancaster, I fail to see what interest Medical would have in the facts of Peter Dallen’s permanent decommission. As you doubtless already know, he was collecting data from an asteroid belt when a solar flare incapacitated his shuttle. The department merely balanced the risks—the loss of asteroid data over Peter Dallen.”

David nodded. “And any member of the service should be able to discern the department’s motives for doing so?”

Langton nodded. “Of course, doctor, of course.”

David stood up, rocking his chair backwards. “Then I’m afraid I’ve encroached on too much of your valuable time, sir. Please accept my apologies.”

He reached for the square of paper, but Langton slid his tablet over it. “I believe we’ll retain this data,” he said. “It will be a valuable addition to the information concerning Mission 404.”

David waited a moment too long before answering. “Always happy to be of service to the department, sir. It’s been a pleasure.”

Langton smiled. “A pleasure, Dr. Lancaster. A true pleasure.”

January 14, 2021 01:23

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Janey Finch
15:47 Jan 29, 2021

Wow! This was great! You can really sense the underlying insinuations in the way they're talking. I love this whole series! It's so interesting and really intriguing!


16:00 Jan 29, 2021

Thanks! I wasn't sure that the insinuations would come across, and I'm glad they did


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01:26 Jan 14, 2021

Hello readers! This is a companion story to "Mission 404," following David as he attempts to connect the dots behind Peter's 'permanent decommission.' The third story in the set will be published soon


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