“What happened down there?” Nathan asked, looking out the portcullis.
His uncle was a few meters away, inputting new coordinates into the navigation computer. The question made him freeze.
He was an older man, in his sixties. His white hair made a half halo around his head. The scalp that was showing had spots. Little lumps had formed from the long exposures to the radiation of deep space.
“A terrible accident,” he coughed.
His voice sounded heavy, gravely, and worn. Years of yelling commands from one end of the ship to the other had taken its toll.
“An accident?” Nathan asked, his upper lip coming up with his eyebrows.
He was only fourteen. It was fortunate that the radiation had not touched him in the familiar, horrible ways. Advances in shielding and cancer prevention had come too late for his uncle.
Nathan’s head was shaved, as customary for any long term spacefaring voyage. His skin was normally dark, but it was lightening each year he and his uncle Ken made the longest supply run XenoTravel had to offer.
“Do you need to know what happened? Right now?” Ken refused to turn.
“You can’t even look at that planet, can you?” Nathan said.
“I don’t think you would understand,” Ken said, pretending to input more coordinates on the dash.
“Was it populated?” Nathan asked with a smirk.
Ken turned his chair to face Nathan. He pointed a finger at the younger one.
“You have NO idea! Wipe that god damned smirk off your face!” Ken said.
Nathan’s face dropped, “I’m sorry Uncle Ken. I just wanted to know…”
“You’re pushin my buttons right now. You keep going and I might tell you to play outside,” Ken rose from his chair and passed the young one.
Nathan dreaded “outside time”. Repairing exposed systems on the hull was boring, and the constant spinning of the stars made him nauseous. But he needed to know.
“Wait, is this where…”
“Boy! I told you!”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“That’s it. Get your suit on, take a trip outside,” Ken ordered.
“This is the ghost planet!?”
“Boy! Get. Your. Suit. ON. NOW!”
“This is where Cousin Val died,” Nathan said, looking out the portcullis.
“Nate. I don’t wanna talk about it,” Ken said.
“Just. Give me the short version,” Nathan turned to look at his uncle.
Ken was looking right back at him. His lip was pulled in on the right side; he did this whenever he was unsure.
“They fucked up. Big-time. Ignited the atmosphere in some mining accident,” Ken turned away.
“How many people?”
“Millions,” Ken said, “Millions gone in an instant.”
“Who did this?”
“XenoTravel. They were looking for alternative fuel.”
Nathan looked up at his right hand against the edge of the window. On the wall, there was a fire extinguisher; on it was the label “XenoTravel”. He pulled his hand back towards his body.
“This ship is from them. We work for them,” Nathan said.
“That’s right. So keep your mouth shut if you want to keep eating,” Ken said.
“But, they killed her,” Nathan said.
Ken’s teeth ground against one another.
“It was an accident,” he said through a closed mouth.
“Did they apologize?” Nathan asked.
Ken laughed, and then sniffled. A tear came loose from one of his eyes and he wiped it away.
“Yeah, they sure did,” Ken went to the main console, sat down and began locating a file.
“What did they send?”
“Here, you read it,” Ken said.
He rose from the chair, patting Nathan’s shoulder as he left the room.
The younger one stared at the console’s screen. There was a single paragraph with some signatures at the bottom.
He sat down.
“We here at XenoTravel regret to inform you that a member of your family is one of the victims in an accident on Planet Earth. One of the ways we extract minerals from deep within the planet is with Xavium explosions. These explosions….”
Nathan took his eyes away. Right above the screen, was a small label. Again, XenoTravel.
“Son of a bitch,” he said to himself, “Son of a BITCH!”
He slammed his fists on the dash. All he could think of was his Uncle, gritting his teeth through this.
Their ship and the passengers went by the ghost planet and continued on their way.