Untitled, Elise Ketch
Some would say you’d get lonely out in the big darkness with not a soul on board except for the empty husks of the dead. Marty Corpus would say that they’d be wrong. Of course, though, it must be noted that Captain Corpus was a different sort of man.
The hold was quiet. There was never a need for noise besides the simple purr of the engine room down the hall and the less subtle moaning of the cryogenic caskets that lined the hull. Caskets, like these, found themselves draped in ribbons and rewards. The rebellion hadn’t been easy; piles of the dead still rose high on some of the central planets, but Corpus didn’t like to think about that. That stuff was for more important men. He was rather partial to the simple life of keeping his own head and keeping it inline.
His job was straightforward, albeit a tad morbid. Carry that growing pile of dead to where they belonged along the outer rim. Give ‘em back to their families, maybe prepare a funeral if requested, calm a hysteric wife down.
Corpus shifted himself, laying his boots atop one of the caskets. They seemed sleek, much like the rest of the Unified Colonies’ ship. Everything above atmo was painted a cheap looking chrome. To those on the ground it was foreign and that meant expensive, but to Corpus, he had seen enough to think it sterile. It was much like the rest of his ship: devoid of any signs of vitality.
Outside the hull quiet stars winked at the captain. It was empty out there; although the captain couldn’t quite admit it, space was cold and unforgiving. It had much to do with the bodies in his hold, but more so to do with their fates. Corpus breathed deep and filled the ship with a sense of life, even if his ghostly white wisps disappeared moments after.
“Captain,” static frizzled over Corpus’s earpiece as it came to life. The voice was robotic, augmented with the slightest hint of annoyance. “Entering atmosphere. Touchdown on Coleridge in fifteen minutes.” The UC Albatross shook to confirm the voice of its robotic companion.
“Thank you, Box,” Corpus spoke, his tongue was thick with a magnanimous inflection. The captain moved his way up from the hull to the one-man cockpit. “How many we got today?” a belt clipped itself around his waist, with what he thought to be a less-than-playful tug. Corpus gave a smile, though he knew that Box could not see it.
“One, sir.” Gears whirled inside the console of the ship. Blast shields pulled back to reveal a snowy scene. The Unified Colonies ship buffeted towards the ground, as stable as a meteor amidst a blizzard.
Box’s voice came once again in his earpiece. Joining it was a blue projection that flickered to the wall adjacent to Corpus. Coleridge, a little orb, nestled in the pocket of deep space, flashed over the blue tinted screen. “Coleridge, fourth planet of the twin-pale sun system,” Box continued to spout off, filtering information.
Groaning once in effort, Corpus’s com-link gave off a harsh bit of ear piercing static, Box spoke again, a twang of smarminess in his tone, “Coleridge: Terraforming status: 98.3% complete. Gravity: Earth-like. Oxygen Levels: Normalized. Weather: -21 degrees Celsius. Multiple layers recommended-“
“Thank you, mother.” Corpus silenced the information, “That is sufficient.”
“Certainly, captain,” Box’s gears grinded once more. A rather laconic punctuation to an even terser statement. It was times like these when Corpus couldn’t tell if his companion had a personality, or if he had forced himself to imagine one.
“Don’t get snappy with me.” With an absent hand, Corpus pulled off his purple and blue baseball cap. Unified Colonies arched across the flat of it. He played with his hair as the Albatross shuddered out of atmo.
The night sky showed a surface wintery and quiet. Void blankness tainted with the ever present nature of snow, a split image of the twinkling stars above and the black gaps in between.
Corpus rolled his neck and wiped a hand past the smile on his face, forcing it into a thin-lipped frown. It was game-time.
“One drop,” Box whirred with a taste of excitement. His newest charge appeared on the console screen. Pixels formed themselves into a recognizable face. Brown eyes, wide lips, a ‘Unified Colonies’ hat, freshly printed, sat on his curly, unforgiving red hair. His skin was pale, and his smile turned up. The man was at peace, moving within the twelve by twelve frame of his ID portrait, safe there. The picture stapled past into present.
Corpus knew right then that the picture was about a year old. Any younger, couple months maybe, and there would be no smile, no head really; just a gaping hole from jaw to crown. “Rex Rainor. Family: One Mother. Source of Death: Suicide,” Box whirled slightly, a laugh almost, “April 15th, 2762. Age 19. Occupation: Deceased Transportation Unit, Unified Colonie-” Corpus’s fingers, as dexterous as an anosmatic bloodhound, found the mute on his earpiece.
His stomach slushed with ice. He had to be on my ship.
They had been classmates; although the academy had placed them at different ends of the spectrum they ended up in the same occupation. Rainor never had the flight aptitude for anything more than small freighters. Corpus had chosen the DTU not because it fit his talents, but because it fit his crippling desire for self-preservation. Odd, Corpus mused sourly, that the one to prove his choice fallible would be Rainor.
Rex Rainor’s eyes grinned at him, an apparition back from the dead. Corpus had heard the whispers far too late. The Deceased Transportation Units were one manned. Space was a big place. Especially when the only company to spare was rotting beneath your heels. Corpus had never thought his job easy. Simple, yes, but never unburdened.
Box flipped the screen once more. It showed the face of Rainor’s mother. They shared the same eyes and innocuous smile. Suicide. Corpus pawed at his hair. Suicide was not natural, not pretty. He shivered inside his ship. Not from the cold, but his from his mind’s eye. It saw Rainor, his head a tossed salad of brain matter and ichor.
Behind him, down the hall, and into the hull, his eyes found the only casket on his ship without military garnish.
The captain cursed.
Box brought the Albatross to a standstill. It softened onto the snow.
On the loading dock, Corpus stood in his parka, wringing the brim of his hat between his hands. The tundra was desolate. Only one small home iglooed into the snow sat before him, yellow lights bleeding out onto the ice.
It took Meredith Rainor little time to appear outside. And even less time to see why Corpus had come. She had the same red hair, the curls a little more forgiving on her. Trenches, dug deep by age and supposed sorrow, cratered her face. In the cruel air and with her shivering, tear-less sobs, Corpus thought she looked ugly.
The speech he had said a thousand times came out once again; truly he had not known Rainor well, but he still knew the man. He had thought there would be slush, icy distance between his feelings and his duty, but there was nothing. Just that it came out, as easily as he had wanted it to.
She hugged him then. A ferocious one. Stinging straight to his back, causing him to flinch in more than one way. “I’m sorry.” It was all she repeated, again and again, until his toes became cold. He didn’t remember breaking free, just that he had taken off his hat, bowed his head, and let the casket fall to the snow, a louder thud than the Albatross had made.
“He talked about you,” she said once they had gone inside. It was warmer than he expected, being surrounded by snow. Much warmer than metal. “Often. You’re were best friends at the academy, right?”
Corpus nodded. His fingers, entrenched deep within his parka, unwilling to pick up the spoon from the steaming bowl she had put in front of him. He couldn’t remember a time when he had talked to Rex. Alone that was.
“You helped him pass the first flight test,” she got up and rummaged around in a cupboard at the back of the room. She was alone too. “I had his graduation medal. Can’t seem to find it.” She smiled at him from across the room. So similar to the one he had seen an hour earlier on the deck of the Albatross. Closed eyes, but the same.
No mother should be cursed to know their son died alone and afflicted out on the fringes of space. But no mother deserved to be lied to. “It was suicide you know,” this was harder to say. “He killed himself.”
“Not in the war, eh? Never was much of a brave boy,” Meredith sat back down slowly, her quest for the medallion abandoned. The white faded further from her complexion; racing away as quickly as an avalanche. She addressed the ceiling, letting her mouth hang open at the end of each word. “So this is what you did up there. Travel around. Bring the dead ones to their parents.”
“To their families.”
“No Rainor ever went off world. He was the first. Not since my great grandfather.”
“It’s a good job. An honored position.” Corpus spoke fast. He had himself to convince as well. “We mainly deal with the military deaths. They used to send, well, other military personnel. But, you know, the fighting is getting worse. Not enough manpower to go around.”
Meredith nodded. The curtness of it betrayed where she placed her attention. Her shoulders were rounded in old age, she was a small woman, and soon enough she would be smaller. The older you got the more it seemed death gnawed at you, taking bits and pieces, a little height, some weight; your hip here, a few teeth there. It could take years, but it also could take days.
“Here,” Corpus began his lie. His hands pushed his hat from the table to her. The Unified Colonies logo glistened with chrome in the lamp light. “It was his.” She took it into her hands, griping it tight with thin, spider-like fingers. So tight, they looked to bleed white.
Rex had done the same, he assumed; proud to be of service.
Corpus was surprised the first tears were his. “I’m sorry, Sonny. I really am.” Mrs. Rainor had him in her arms again. A sweeping, sobbing embrace. Again it went to Corpus’s spine; shaking it to his very core. “Don’t let him hang around your neck.” He cried into her shoulders. Feeling, for the first time in a long while, the weight of gravity.
Corpus unmuted his earpiece. He was back in the hull of the Albatross. Box chimed in. Its light tone and calculated syntax a pestilence to his ear. “Welcome aboard, captain. Where shall we depart next? Four drop targets within the system.”
With a fixed fascination, Corpus stared at the rows of coffins buried in his ship rather than in the ground. A new-age Smith & Wesson sat loaded in his lap. It was, probably, the same model Rex had used. On a small ship like the Albatross the revolver was the only true defense against boarders. His fingers circled the trigger, like a scavenger above its carrion.
Outside, after Box had made the proper arraignments, the Albatross pushed off the surface. The Rainor house became just a patch of snow in the endless tundra. But further on down the valley, lights blinked through the mists and icy fog. They lined the ground of white with a plume of orange warmth. For a moment, Corpus begun to see the stars in the little hamlets and cities below, but that was wrong. Village lights were nothing like the stars. People lived here. People will continue to live there. The Albatross pushed itself through the atmosphere, leveling off just outside of Coleridge’s pull.
No one lives in space. Out there. Rex proved that.
“Captain, I need an order.” Box needled himself into Corpus’s mind, each syllable twisting deeper. What a linear beast.
“My duty, sir, is to communicate-“ Corpus reached into his ear, ripping free the com-link, it detached deep in his ear drum, spurting a single shot of blood. Corpus winced. The humming of the caskets was louder now. Much so.
He tossed the earpiece down the hull, it bounced between the caskets, disappearing from sight. There were dozens of them. He had never stopped to count them all. Or take the time, really, to think of them as more than paperwork and a destination. Yet, each body has a story. And one day I’ll have my own.
Corpus sighed once, feeling his warm breath turn wispy in front of him. He moved from the hull, locking it behind him, and walked up the ramp to the cockpit.
He headed the Albatross away from Coleridge. The revolver shook in his hands, numb as they were, when they twisted the cylinder. A half bit wiser and whole bit sadder, he put the gun down. Perhaps till the next morning, perhaps, he truly believed, for much longer.
He ignited the engines, slammed off the autopilot, and powered the Albatross further from Unified Colonies’ space. Corpus watched, as outside the ship the stars disappeared closing their eyes ready for sleep.
About the Artist
Elise Ketch · Virginia Commonwealth University
Elise Ketch is a Communication Arts major and Product Innovation minor at Virginia Commonwealth University. She specializes in concept illustration and plans to pursue a career in user experience design. For four years she has served as an editor on Poictesme, VCU’s Undergraduate Literary Journal. This piece first appeared in Poictesme.