Empty chairs at empty tables

Contributed by on 19/01/12

“Epsilon Theta Radiation.”

The words hung in the air for a long moment before the short, squat man sat at the desk swore, eloquently but softly. The captain rubbed his hand over his face. He was tired, too tired, but he lifted his eyes from the image on his desk to the man wearing the lieutenant’s uniform.

“How bad?” he asked the slim man, standing to attention before his desk.

“Bad enough to affect the best camera we had on board,” the lieutenant replied. “We tried scanning with different filters but there’s so many different strains in the air that… Well, that’s the best we could do.”

The captain glanced at the ship’s chronometer. The dial was orange. The poison even reached out into space, edging its way through the ships protection. An hour and the colour would be pink, and they’d have to leave. Three hours after that and it’d turn red. And they’d all be dead, whether they knew it or not.

“No survivors?” he asked, disappointed at himself for asking the question. If there had been, his crew would have told him.

“None,” the lieutenant confirmed. The captain listened for any contempt in the younger man’s voice and was mildly surprised to find none.

“What did you do with the bodies?”

“There weren’t any,” came the reply from the third man in the room, a lean saturnine faced man, sitting on a chair to the side, and suddenly the captain was wide awake. He stood and came around from behind the desk, staring down at his subordinate.

“Say that again, Commander,” he demanded, then repeated it before the other man could say a word.

“There weren’t any bodies, captain,” the man said, allowing just a trace of excitement into his voice. “Not just there, but anywhere. Not a single body on the planet.”

The captain turned and gripped his lieutenant’s arm. “Are you sure, man? Are you absolutely sure?”

The lieutenant struggled to keep his face impassive, somehow won the battle, and with a voice of stone, reported that his team had scanned, scoured and searched for eighty-six hours and they had detected not a single sentient life form on the planet.

The captain returned to his seat, and fell into it, his brow suddenly covered in sweat.

“They did it”, he whispered. “They finally did it. Those bastards in the science department finally came up with the perfect weapon – to eliminate all life forms, all traces of life forms and yet leave infrastructure untouched.”

He wiped his brow.

“How long before we can scrub the radiation and the planet can support life?”

“With the new anti-rad treatments?” the commander spoke aloud, leaning forward, his face crumpled in thought. “About fifty years.”

“Acceptable,” rapped out the captain, now all business. “Convey my compliments to the science department, Commander. Let Fleet Command know of the success and start transmitting the paperwork around the other ships.”

He smiled for the first time in months, and took another look at the static image on his desk.

Blue water, eh? He wondered briefly whether that was an effect of the radiation bombardment and whether the indigenous population had also been blue; he’d not bothered to check them out before ordering the attack.

He dismissed the other two officers and leaned back in his chair, his eyes straying again to the out of focus image.

Fifty years? Hell, maybe he’d retire here; it looked like such a nice place, after all.

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