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“The Other Commander” by W. O. Hemsath

In Florida’s SpaceCorp mission control room, waves of comforting heat rose from Brendan’s mug then disappeared in the air. He sat in the back, alone except for two fellow techs on the bottom tier who monitored all pertinent data for the lunar orbital refueling station. Rows of vacant desks faced a wall of screens with status reports mutely scrolling in the pre-dawn quiet. At their center slept the communication screens, black as the space between stars.

Brendan’s leg bounced restlessly. There was nothing to be nervous about. Mark was fine. All reports from the refueling station said so. The fact his best friend—no, his brother nowhadn’t been present for a live chat since he and Mandy docked over a week ago was coincidental.

Purely coincidental.

A recent photo from Mark and Mandy’s wedding hung crooked on Brendan’s monitor. In the photo, he and Mark boasted tuxes and smiles; his sister Mandy stood between them.

Brendan repositioned the tape on the back of the photo to straighten it and forced his restless leg to still. Mark would be at this morning’s call, laughing about the improbability of everything that had kept him away. They’d joke how with odds like his, they should head to Vegas when he got back.

Brendan straightened the photo again. Mark would be on this call. He had to be.

A door opened, and Sareema climbed the wide stairs to the top tier, never looking from her tablet as she called to the techs below.

“Look alive. They’re back in range any moment, and we only get five minutes before China takes the bandwidth.”

She took her spot a few desks from Brendan. “Your shift’s not until tonight, Maloney. Go home. Sleep. You’re no good to me—or them—exhausted.”

Her tone was kind. For now, it was advice. Not an order.

He stayed seated and raised his mug in salute.

She turned her attention to the techs down by the wall of screens. “Open the call.”

A small feed of Sareema’s face appeared in the top corner of the communication screens. The surrounding panels remained black, waiting for the refueling station to orbit into range.

Brendan’s leg jittered away the moments. Any second Mark would be up there, standing at Mandy’s side, like the made-for-each-other couple they were. All Brendan needed was to hear his best friend’s voice and see his face. Then he’d go home and get all the sleep his worry had stolen. He took a calming sip.

With a chime, the display came alive. Mandy sat, poised and smiling.

And alone.

“Good morning, Commander,” Sareema said. “Will the other Commander Darnell be joining us?”

“No,” his sister said. “Nyugen got some bad news about his family down in Canberra, and Mark spent the night consoling him. He just fell asleep himself. I’d hate to wake him.”

“Of course,” Sareema said. She moved the conversation on.

Brendan lowered his mug. Everything in him sank with it.

Working on repairs. Using the restroom. Running diagnostics. Making dinner. Sleeping in. On their own, each was a reason. But together? They were excuses.

Mark wouldn’t miss a chance to chat. He was the king of every social realm and had a million-dollar laugh he loved to spend. He was the only guy good enough to introduce to your perfect sister, which meant he was the kind of friend who would never disappear into space without so much as a reassuring wave in the background of a call.

Something wasn’t right.

“Wake him,” Brendan said softly.

But Sareema and Mandy kept chatting about something that wasn’t Mark. The two techs down front carried on with business as usual.

Brendan stormed into frame behind Sareema so his sister could see him.

“Wake him!”

His command hushed the control room. Hundreds of thousands of celestial miles away, Mandy fell silent as well. Sareema spun around.

“Take a seat, Maloney, while you still have a station to sit at.”

He stayed fixed on Mandy. “Please. I need to see him.”

Sareema stood, forcing him to meet her gaze. “You need to leave.”

“Not until I know what’s really going on!” His voice trembled. “Why won’t you let me talk to Mark?”

“Let you?” Sareema cocked an eyebrow. “You think we’re doing this on purpose?”

“They docked ten days ago. Even with the bushfires taking out Canberra’s DSN, and LORS on the far side every other hour, there’s still eight calls a day. That’s eighty calls he’s missed. He’s been gone the whole mission!”

“He’s there, and medical read-outs show he’s healthy,” Sareema said. “Things have simply come up.”

“For every call? That doesn’t make you suspicious?”

“Of what?” Sareema asked incredulously. “Do you think he died, and your sister is faking his medical data so we don’t find out?”

On screen, Mandy kept silent as the moon, clearly wounded by the mere idea he might think that of her.

His logic cracked at the sight of her pain.

She was his sister. The person who’d stayed up late with him when they were kids, naming constellations. The one who had coached him on how to ask out his first date. The one who held him as he wept after their dad’s funeral.

“No,” Brendan admitted. “She wouldn’t do that.”

Sareema folded her arms across her chest. “Perhaps you think she has him locked up somewhere because she’s jealous and wants to be the only face any of us see.”

“Of course not, but—”

“Then you tell me. If her reasons don’t make sense, what does? What explains his absence?”

“I don’t know!” Brendan collapsed into Sareema’s chair with the fatigue of a sleepless week. Nothing made sense. Every possibility felt wrong.

After a long moment, Sareema laid a hand on his shoulder. “Go home and sleep.”

It was no longer a request.

Brendan looked to Mandy. Grown, married, and sailing through space, she was the same capable and wise sister he’d known all his life. In her eyes, he could see she loved him as much as ever.

As much as she loved Mark.

“You promise he’s there? He’s okay?”

“Yes. And I promise, he sends his love.” She sighed, eyes heavy with sympathy. “Sometimes the timing really just isn’t right.”

Things still didn’t add up, but no amount of logic could change the fact that Mandy would never do anything to hurt him or Mark. It wasn’t in her nature, and that much Brendan could trust. It was enough to give him hope, and hope would have to be enough to bridge the gap between the truth he had and the questions that remained.

He relinquished Sareema’s chair and did his best to look appeased. The last thing he needed was Mandy worrying about him.

“I’m heading home this weekend,” he said with a small but sincere smile. “Anything you want me to relay?”

Mandy smiled back. “Just tell Mom I said hi.”

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