“THE UNEXPECTED GUEST”
By Robert Bloch and Jeff Blend
“An obstinacy’s ne’er so stiff,/As when ‘tis in a wrong belief.”
- SAMUEL BUTLER
The day after he died, Captain Avatar came down from his quarters to take part in the celebration of the Star Force’s return to Earth.
It kinda took the crew by surprise.
Sandor looked at Venture, Venture looked at Nova, Nova looked at Wildstar, and everyone looked at everyone else. Then they just looked at the Captain.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Nobody said, but they knew the reason. It had only been last night when they were standing at attention by his bedside, saluting the passing of Earth’s greatest hero. But here he was.
“What’s on the menu?” he asked.
The lively party was suddenly quiet, until Eager gulped. “You... you wish to eat, sir...?”
“Of course I do. I’m famished.”
Eventually all eyes fell on Wildstar, since he was the Deputy Captain. He gave a nod, and the caterers and mess crew passed a heaping plate of party victuals to the Captain. The way he dug into it, there was obviously nothing wrong with his appetite.
In the midst of seconds, the Captain noticed everyone staring at him again.
“May I ask why no one else is eating?”
“We’re not hungry, sir,” replied Venture. He was not lying.
“Pardon me for sounding like Doctor Sane, but you’ve got to eat to keep up your strength,” replied the Captain. “This is supposed to be a party. By the way, where is the good Doctor?”
As if on cue, a scream erupted from the doorway. The Doctor was flat on his rear staring in astonishment and terror at the white-bearded figure wolfing down his food.
“Oh My God!” exclaimed Sane, at that moment anything but. “How...? What are you doing here?!”
“What’s it look like?” returned Avatar. “What is wrong with all of you? Can’t a man eat in peace?”
“Rest in peace, that’s what you should be doing,” said the Doctor.
“What does that mean?”
“I mean you’re dead!”
Just like that, it was out. Wildstar did not know whether to back up or verbally scold the Doctor but before he could make up his mind, the Captain was laughing, a rare sight.
“What on Earth gives you an idea like that?!”
“It’s true. You passed on last night when we returned to Earth. Don’t you remember?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me. It was just my old wound acting up on me.”
“Not this time, I’m afraid,” sighed the Doctor. “You asked me to leave you alone for a moment in your quarters. When I came back a few minutes later, you were gone.”
“But I’m not gone. I’m here.”
“When I examined you, you were to coin the phrase ‘deader than a doornail.’’’
“I think you’ve been sipping too much of your ‘spring water,’ Doctor.”
“I witnessed it, sir! You were and should be deceased!”
“What kind of talk is this? ‘Witness’? Do you want to hold a board of inquiry to determine whether I’m alive or dead?”
“Forget it!” he roared. “You’re not burying me if I have anything to say about it!”
Doctor Sane ignored him. “Perhaps I was mistaken,” he said, approaching the Captain. “Mind if I examine you?”
“Fine,” replied the Captain. “I have all the time in the world.”
So Doctor Sane opened up his instrument bag and got to work. First he plugged a stethoscope in his ears and tapped Avatar’s chest. He listened, and then his hands began to shake.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said.
“What did you expect to hear?” shot back the Captain.
“What if I told you that your heart wasn’t beating?”
“What if I told you that your stethoscope’s broken?”
Doctor Sane began to break out in a sweat. He took out a mirror and held it to the Captain’s mouth. The hand shaking grew worse.
“See this?” he said. “The mirror’s clear. There’s no respiration.”
“Try it on yourself,” said Avatar with surprising sarcasm. “I can smell the booze across the room.”
The Doctor then motioned to the large robot standing nearby. “IQ-9, can you detect life signs from the Captain?”
“Negative,” was the immediate reply.
“I see he’s due for another 10,000-hour checkup,” said Avatar.
“Maybe this will change your tune.” The Doctor reached into a pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “See for yourself.”
“What is it?”
“Your death certificate. Just read what it says on this line. ‘Cause of death - radiation poisoning.’ This will stand up in court.”
“So will I, if you want to drag the law into this,” Avatar told him. “That would be a sight - you standing on one side with your piece of paper and me standing on the other! Which do you think the board of inquiry is going to believe?”
Doctor Sane’s eyes bugged. He tried to put the paper back in the pocket but his hands shook so bad he almost didn’t make it.
“What’s wrong, Doc?” asked Wildstar.
“I don’t feel well,” replied the Doctor. “I’ve got to get back to my office and lie down for a while.”
“Don’t lie down too long,” Avatar called to the departing Sane. “Somebody’s liable to write out a paper saying you died of a hangover.”
The party continued, but nobody was hungry. Nobody but the Captain, that is. He kept putting away plate after plate and showed no signs of stopping anytime soon. The cooks no doubt appreciated that the food they had slaved over to prepare for this party was not going to waste. They could not help but notice, however, that it was beginning to smell like it was wasting… If it was not for the fact they were onboard ship, a swarm of flies might have been buzzing around the room.
“Good God, what is that stink?!” exclaimed Commander Singleton as he entered the room. He had finally gotten away from the many other festivities going on all over the planet to celebrate the Star Force’s return. It was a bittersweet feeling to be enjoying the success of the Iscandar mission and yet simultaneously losing a close friend. So it was no surprise to imagine the reaction of Singleton and his entourage to find his “dead” friend Captain Avatar stuffing away various species of nutritional enzymes.
“Hello, old friend,” greeted Avatar between bites. “I told you we would make it back.”
Commander Singleton blinked and opened his mouth, but no words came forth.
“What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue? Please come over and enjoy yourself, sir.”
Singleton slowly pulled up a chair and sat across from the Captain, being certain not to get too close - it could not be helped to notice that Avatar was getting ripe.
The Commander swallowed hard. “I thought I heard some mutterings among the crew as I came up here. Now here you are.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
Singleton swallowed again, and decided to take the direct approach. “Meaning a man in your condition has no right to be asking questions. If God calls, you’re supposed to answer.”
“I haven’t heard anyone calling,” replied Avatar, again with unaccustomed bite. “My hearing’s not what it used to be.”
“I can imagine. I overheard people saying something about no heartbeat. If you can’t notice that...”
“It’s only natural for it to slow down a bit. I told Doctor Sane during the trip that I must be getting old to let my old wounds bother me.”
Avatar’s fork dug into his food for another bite, but as he raised it to his mouth, his motions were becoming more and more rigid.
Singleton gave him a look. “Hands getting stiff?”
Avatar nodded. “I’m stiff all over.”
“Just as I thought. You know what that means? Rigor mortis is setting in.”
“I have a bit of rheumatism, that’s all.”
The Commander wiped the sweat from his forehead. “You sure need convincing,” he said, his voice taking on a mocking tone. “You won’t take the word of a medical doctor; you won’t take my word. You’re the most stubborn man I ever met.”
“It’s my way,” returned Avatar. “But I’m not unreasonable. All I’m asking for is proof. You’ve got to show me.”
“I suppose so,” said the Commander, rising to his feet. “I’m going to mingle with the crew for a while. Enjoy yourself, old friend.” He walked away quickly, before Avatar would have a chance to offer a handshake. As he strolled to the exit, he subtly motioned for Wildstar to join him.
“We have a bit of a sticky situation here, don’t we, Wildstar?” muttered Singleton, sadly shaking his head.
“It can’t last forever, sir.”
“Nor can we. If Avatar doesn’t come to his senses soon, I have this bizarre image in my head of a stripped skeleton eating dinner in the mess hall. And what do you think this will do to public image when it’s revealed that the Star Force is under the command of a bag of bones?”
Wildstar had difficulty telling whether the Commander was speaking in jest at this point, but maintained his silence.
“Wildstar, you were a good student at the Training School. You performed exceptionally well on this mission. You have great potential. We have to come up with something to resolve this. The man obviously has a severe case of the stubborns. He’s always been that way. Never say die. Do you have any ideas at all?”
Wildstar pondered for a moment. “He wasn’t exaggerating when he said you had to show him. He’s a born skeptic. Normally the medical evidence would be enough, but we’re talking about his own death, aren’t we? We have to SHOW him.”
They walked for exactly ten more paces before Wildstar suddenly stopped and slapped a fist into a palm. “That’s it!” he exclaimed.
“I have the answer, sir!” And he told him.
The Commander almost fell over. “With all due respect, Wildstar, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard!”
“Do we have any other ideas?” asked Wildstar. “I think we have to take the chance.”
The Commander gave a sigh that sounded like it came up from his military boots. “All right...”
Wildstar and the Commander returned to the party. Wildstar asked Nova how the Captain was doing.
“Moving slow,” said Nova. “Must be the rigor mortis.”
“No such thing.” Avatar walked around the salad bar, struggling like an animal stuck in a tar pit. “I’m just a bit stiff.”
“Stiff as a two by four board,” replied Doctor Sane, back from his ‘nap’. “You should be up in your quarters in bed with a lily in your hand.”
“Don’t start that again!” roared Avatar. “I’ve told you I’m not dead so many times I’m blue in the face!”
And he was blue and bloated but he paid it no heed. He was starting to look like a... Gamilon. Wildstar remembered the Commander’s vision of a skeleton at the dinner table, and gulped. This plan had to work, because Captain Avatar was getting deader by the moment. But one wouldn’t have thought that from looking at the display of food on the table - it just kept disappearing.
“Well, now,” Avatar said, returning his plate of pasta salad to his chair. “My compliments to the Kitchen Police. This has been absolutely delicious!”
He was ready to take a swipe at the pasta when he noticed what was sitting next to his plate.
“What is this?”
“Nothing but a napkin, sir,” Wildstar replied.
“But it’s black! Who ever heard of a black napkin?”
“We thought this was a special occasion,” answered Singleton. “If you take my meaning...”
Avatar snorted. “I know what you’re hinting at, and it won’t work!” He started to dig in to his food.
The crew just stood there staring, first at the Captain, then at each other. The Commander shot Wildstar a distressed look; Wildstar just replied with a “let’s wait” gesture.
Avatar went right on eating, though his arms were petrifying and his fingers barely had enough curl left to hold a fork. His jaw muscles worked overtime but he went right on eating. And talking.
“Dead, am I? Look, I may be stubborn, but that doesn’t mean I’m unreasonable. If I was truly dead and knew it for a fact, I’d be the first one to go right upstairs to my quarters and lie down forever. But you have to show me proof before I do. That’s all - let me see some proof!”
“Captain,” said Wildstar.
“Begging your pardon, but you have...” Wildstar pointed to his chin.
Avatar put down the fork. “Oh, thank you, Wildstar.”
And before he realized what he was doing, Avatar wiped his mouth on the napkin.
When he finished, he looked down at it. He looked once and he looked twice. Then he set the napkin down quietly, stood up from the table, and headed straight for the door.
“I said it before, and I’ll say it again. No man ever had a finer crew. Good-bye.”
Captain Avatar left the room and everything was quiet. After a moment Doctor Sane left the room as well. Nobody said a word until he came down again.
“Well?” asked Wildstar.
“Nothing more to worry about,” the Doctor replied. “He’s gone to his deserved rest at last.”
“Well done, Wildstar!” exclaimed the Commander. He looked at Wildstar and pointed a finger at the napkin. “Best get rid of that.”
Wildstar walked to the table and picked the napkin up. Nova gave him a strange look. “Are you going to tell me what happened?” she asked.
Wildstar didn’t answer. The napkin was quickly taken out and shoved into the nearest waste disposal unit. There was no sense telling anyone else. He was inwardly pleased with himself. He knew Captain Avatar would get his proof just as soon as he wiped his mouth.
There was nothing like a black napkin to highlight a little white maggot.
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