The Captain’s Men
T.J. Land © 2016
All rights reserved
The captain isn’t wearing any shoes.
Thomas had developed a crick in his neck from craning his head back for glimpses. As luck would have it, his chair was positioned farthest from the captain’s because God hated Thomas and didn’t want him to have even one thing in his life that didn’t suck.
But Thomas didn’t care, not today, because he could see the captain’s feet. They were long, with high arches and short toes. His toenails were impeccable and even, as if he’d filed them with a ruler and a magnifying glass. Just below his left ankle, there was a scar, like an old burn, and Thomas wondered where it had come from. On the whole, they were much better-looking feet than should have belonged to anyone who’d spent the last four years of their life stranded in deep space, trapped on a ship with twelve crewmembers and one shower.
What made it even weirder was that this was the captain. Not quite a month ago, he’d raked Rick over the coals for arriving at his station without having shaved. If Rick, or any of them, had showed up without their shoes on, Thomas had little doubt the captain would have had them shot.
Thomas jumped and knocked over the mug of synthesised nutrients that were supposed to be his breakfast. Shit. Fuck. He’d been so focused on the captain’s feet he hadn’t noticed the captain’s head swivelling in his direction, like a periscope on a nuclear submarine.
“Yes, sir,” he said, swallowing.
Anyone who looked at the captain for long enough would eventually realise they were staring at one of the most handsome men they’d ever seen. However, if they only eyeballed him for a few seconds, the dominant impression would be one of severe austerity. With slightly sunken cheeks and a thin, prominent nose, the captain’s face was almost sinister in its sternness, particularly given that the expression most habitual to it was a dark scowl. He had a small, impeccably neat beard, more grey than black, and when you fucked up—and you would fuck up—he’d rest his chin in his palm and tilt his head in a way that made you feel like the worst human being alive.
Not only was he doing it right now, the captain was also giving Thomas that rare look he wore when he’d had to say someone’s name three times to get them to answer a question. Shit. “Tell me, Mister Meléndez; did you, by any chance, have a catastrophic aneurism before arriving at your post this morning?”
“Uh…no. No, sir, I did not.”
His liquid breakfast had now spread across his station and was beginning to drip onto the floor, each wet plink louder and more embarrassing than the last.
“Truly? Is there, then, some problem in your personal life you’re working through at the moment?”
“No, I didn’t think there would be. Because you don’t have a personal life; do you, Thomas? You barely have a life, in all but the most purely biological sense of the word.”
The captain had been born in Cairo—one of the only things anyone knew about him—and his first language was Arabic. When he was pissed, he got a bit of an accent, which Thomas thought was supposed to sound menacing, but it just sounded sexy. He shifted in his seat, hoping the captain wouldn’t notice how turned on he was.
Everyone had swivelled around to stare at him with either pity or amusement. Assholes. Like they hadn’t all been gawking at the captain’s feet right along with him a moment ago. Because, of course, no one had any real work to do. Every single screen on the deck was saying the same thing it had been saying for the last one thousand, four hundred, and fifty-three days, which amounted to a big, fat You’re all fucked, boys.
The captain was now leaning on his chair’s left arm, his chin still in his palm. “So what could be the problem, then? After all, no one else seems to be having any difficulty demonstrating a basic level of workplace competence. Let me consult the crew to make sure. Ricardo?”
“Yes, Captain?” said Rick, smirking like the little asshole he was.
“Are you finding your duties particularly onerous today?”
“Excellent. Echo? What about you?”
Echo didn’t speak—whether he could speak was something none of them had yet figured out—so he replied with a languid headshake.
The captain sat back in his chair. “It seems the only person unable to avoid fucking up my morning is you, Thomas.”
Thomas hung his head. “I’m sorry, sir. Won’t happen again.”
“If I throw you out the airlock, it won’t,” agreed the captain. Not for the first time, Thomas reflected that the captain was sort of a massive prima donna. “Now that you’ve rejoined our ranks, would you be so good as to check whether we’ve had any communications in the last twelve hours?”
The captain, of course, knew what the answer to that would be. Thomas knew, without even looking. Every single person in the room knew. But they still did this every single day, every single morning, because as long as they did, it meant they hadn’t completely given up. So, dutifully, Thomas turned to his screen, ran his fingers over it, and said, “There are no messages today, sir.”
Except, perhaps, some tiny stupid part of them was still intent on deluding itself, because as Thomas spoke, he watched disappointment flicker over every face in the room. Even his own shoulders had slumped just a fraction when he turned away from the screen.
The captain’s expression, of course, hadn’t changed one iota.
“Thank you, Thomas,” he said with a touch of sarcasm and then ordered Rick to read out his report on the status of their oxygen garden.
Consumed by embarrassment, Thomas forgot to wonder where the captain’s shoes had gone.