Arrogant Damned

My stomach has given way to so many gruesome things that I’m pretty sure it just gave up feeling anything a long time ago. Why else could I be licking a spoonful of extra-crunchy peanut butter, while the remnants of a former engineer’s skull and brain-bits floated by? Blood looks pretty surreal in zero-gravity; the red globules reminded me of a lava-lamp I had on Earth. Mullen let out a noise of disgust, and said, “They sure as hell don’t show you this in the recruitment video.”

“Try to think of it as job security,” I said between licks. “This guy was ground up by the engine so that we could collect a paycheck.”

“God Sukie, how can you eat that now? Do you see what’s happened?”

“Yup. I also take into consideration that peanut butter only arrives on this can once a year.”

“Just watching you eat is enough to make me want to vomit.”

“Newbie,” I said with a chuckle.

“This is a human being floating around in here…and over there, yuck. And you don’t even give a hoot.”

“He was a human being,” I said, licking the spoon clean. “He’s gone whoever he was. Now all we can do to help is clean him up.”

“You act like he’s a bug we need to wipe away.”

“That bothers you?”

“It bothers me that it doesn’t bother you.”

“That’s life in space, Mullen. It could be you, or me tomorrow. And someone will still clean us up. What did you think life would be like on a mining ship? There are those who die and those who clean up the mess, and the lucky bastards in-between who actually live long enough to enjoy the money they make. If you actually stop and give a care about anything, you’ll go mad, and what good is money when you’re mad?”

“I didn’t sign up for this,” he said bitterly.

I grabbed the vacuum and began to collect the blood floating in the air, drop by drop. Like a gardener picking cherries.

I thought Mullen wouldn’t talk for a while, but he disappointed me.

“What do you think happens to them after this?”

I ignored Mullen and zipped up the last body-bag. The black sacks were stacked one on top of the other, like the Indian burial grounds I’d heard about as a kid. Very efficient mass graves: one body goes on top of the other, until it forms one giant anthill.

“They are packed into rockets and blasted outside with the rest of the garbage,” I finally said, pulling the rubber gloves from my sweaty hands. It felt like I was pulling off my own skin it was so wet, the blood slipping off in a way that would make Macbeth jealous.

“No, you know what I mean,” he said in an irritated voice. “I mean death. Where do they go?”

“Nowhere.”

“You can’t believe that. You’ll go crazy if you believe that.”

“Fine,” I said. “Maybe they come back here.” And then I broke out into a peal of raucous giggles. He thought I was crazy? Oh, I’d show him!

“See those stars out there?” I asked him once I had regained control over myself. I pointed to the nearest window. “Millions of them, just as there are millions of us. We see their light, but what we don’t know is that the very stars we think we see could be dead already. Imagine that; darkness could be rushing towards us so fast, and we wouldn’t know it.”

“You’re very fascinated with stars then?”

I smirked.

“With death, I suppose.”

“What about death, though? Do you think something else waits for you on the other side?”

“Of course not. I’m merely relishing in the irony of it. Everyone is so afraid of it, and yet we are all dead already.”

“But what if we’re not? Will you pass up the chance?”

“Chance?”

“Yes,” he said, reddening and looking at his feet. “Of, well, salvation I guess.”

“You mean life’s like a giant poker game? I must wager? I must conduct myself as if there is some eternal reward for behaving in such a way? I’m not a gambling woman; I control myself and everything around me.”

“How can you? The world is too big for you alone to control all of the forces that will affect you.”

Yes, Mullen would feel that way. It was how cowards felt. He had just as much blackness in him as I did, but he would never admit it.

“Mullen, we are never getting off this ship. Don’t you ever forget it. Own it. Be your own maker, like me. At least that way, you know who’s in control.”

“How very convenient,” a booming voice answered behind us. Mullen looked down at his feet and reddened; he didn’t like the foreman. He was a large man whose presence took up any room he was in. His brow was always furrowed and serious.

He continued, “Perhaps you could exert your control over the electromagnetic storm. It does not seem to be letting up anytime soon. We can expect more accidents.”

“We can handle it,” I said.

“How very reassuring,” he replied with a smirk. “I’ve never had a crew-member so self-assured. I’d like you to do some repairs in the engine room.”

“Looking forward to it.”

He turned away from me as if he were about to leave, and then stopped.

“Sukie, do you ever regret coming here? Do you ever want to leave?”

“No.”

I thought I heard him chuckle. And then he left.

Mullen rounded on me as soon as we were alone.

“Why in the world would you want to stay on this dump?”

“I might actually like it here, Mullen. Did you ever think of that?”

He looked at me in horror.

“You’re delusional! This place is like prison! S-surly if you’d had another option-”

“Nope,” I interrupted, feeling very smug. “In fact, there is one drawback to this place. Annoying coworkers. What, do you think you’re going to help me see the light? You weren’t so keen on it back on Earth, when you were covering up your own tracks with me.”

“But you can’t progress in a place like this.”

“Progress? What exactly am I progressing towards?”

I picked up a wrench and kicked the tool-bag aside with a little more gusto than necessary. We were in the engine room now.

“I’m here because I didn’t have a choice,” he replied, turning his back to me while he observed the pressure levels. “So many things back on Earth were beyond my control, and it resulted in my arrival here. I couldn’t possibly live with myself if I didn’t believe that there was something better waiting for me afterwards.”

Mullen’s prattling buzzed in my ears like a swarm of flies. The short-sightedness of such a claim writhed in the pit of my stomach and scorched my very blood. What kind of worm was this, to fall back on fate instead of owning his decisions?

My grip on the wrench was so tight that bits of his head splattered onto my shirt when I brought it down into the back of his skull. His pious platitudes crumbled in his throat as he folded into himself. I felt the corners of my mouth twitch upwards as I surveyed his fluttering limbs. Again, again I hit him, the writhing bug! I watched the blood fill the creases in the tile around him.

His body wouldn’t even be a problem; who would think it odd in the midst of all that chaos? But I would cover my tracks accordingly.

The engine hummed, the fans like blades. It needn’t be more inviting.

Swish! Swish!

No one would even recognize him when he came out the other end. I’ll show you what happens when you die, Mullen. I’ll show you!

There was a bright flash of light, and then the ship shook with a sudden tremor. The slow roll of a thunderclap followed, and then everything was dead still. The gravity boosters shut off, and everything began to float in midair. We’d been hit by an electromagnetic burst.

I laughed out loud. Fortune either loved me, or this God-fellow didn’t know whose side he was supposed to be on. I heard footsteps on the other side of the wall, and peered through the vent. Mullen’s guts would be flying around in there, and I was eager to hear their reactions.

“They sure as hell don’t show you this in the recruitment video.”

“Try to think of it as job security,” I heard a female voice say. “This guy was ground up by the engine so that we could collect a paycheck.”

“God Sukie, how can you eat that now? Do you see what’s happened?”

“Yup. I also take into consideration that peanut butter only arrives on this can once a year.”

My head began to spin as I watched Mullen clean himself up. I closed my eyes to right myself only to succumb to a fall as my mind drifted back to a time before.

I was back on Earth.

“Ugh,” Mullen said, wringing his hands as I unlocked the door. “The smell, how can you stand it?”

“Are you going to help me or not? I can’t lift this lump all by myself; he’s got to weigh at least 200 pounds.”

The alleyway was deserted, the sound of traffic a few blocks away. I didn’t know if Mullen was talking about the dumpster and the smell of piss around it or the sack of dead meat I was dragging. He let out a small squeal, but hoisted up the other end of the bag, and together we deposited it into the dumpster.

When we returned to my apartment via the subway, Mullen made a beeline for the bathroom. I smirked.

“Bent over the bowl again? My, such a softie.”

“You’re telling me you aren’t sick?” He was white as a sheet, wiping the sweat from his brow as he took a seat at the table.

“You know, not really,” I said, taking a spoonful of peanut butter and sticking it into my mouth. “I had practice before my first. Small stuff; cats, dogs, what have you. My stomach must have built up some resistance.”

Wait, before your first? You’ve done this before?”

“Well, yeah. How else could our plan be so flawless? Practice makes perfect. I can’t wait until my mother calls me when she finds out he’s dead.”

My mother never had very good taste in husbands. Her first one beat her, and Harry was a spoiled deadbeat who just wanted a share in her fortune. In high school, I would come home at three every day, and I’d make sure my headphones were on before I went into the house. I’d have the music up so loud that I couldn’t even hear my furious heartbeat over the baseline. And then that bastard would come strolling down the hallway past my bedroom, zipping his pants up with a smug look on his face. Every time, he’d stop at my bedroom door and ask if I wanted a peppermint.

Mullen was staring at me.

“What?” I said, irritated.

“He’s dead, Sukie.”

“Of course he is. How else should he be?”

“Oh,” he said, lowering his head, “I don’t know about this . . .”

“Mullen, you winey puss, I swear if you back out and ruin the whole thing-”

“No!” he answered abruptly. “No, I won’t, but God Sukie! I just can’t believe it. He’s dead. Gone, gone forever.”

I giggled. “Yeah, he is. Isn’t it great? Know what I did, too? I stuck a few peppermints in his mouth before we dragged him out.”

Mullen did not share my glee. His face was waxy and his eyes seemed to sink into the dark shadows of his face.

“Oh good God Mullen,” I said. And I didn’t even believe in God. “If you’re going to spill your guts, at least clean up after yourself.”

“What if Hell is real?” he whispered.

“If it is, I’ll see you there,” I said with a smirk, and at a normal decibel.

I opened my eyes and gazed out at the stars. The great thing about electromagnetic storms in this place is that they have the tendency to poke little fissures in time on occasion. Time moves forward or back, and I loved it when it went back. What would be the point of working if my past-self was covering my tracks? No point. So I went to my bunk. The loop would right itself.

I woke up to the sound of the new shift switch. I reported to the foreman’s office for my assignment. I stopped in the doorway when I saw Mullen standing near his desk. It seems I was to be forever tormented by his Sunday-school hypocrisy.

“Good morning, Sukie,” the foreman said, shifting through papers on his desk. “I’ve asked Mullen to assist you today. I’m afraid the work you have here today will be messy. There are electromagnetic storms bombarding the ship, and there have been some unfortunate deaths.”

“I’m sure I can handle it.”

“It’s pretty horrible,” Mullen squeaked.

“Hell’s not so bad if you can make it for yourself,” I answered. “Attitude is everything.”

“Yes,” the foreman replied, “And some attitudes are unmoving, for which I am grateful. I couldn’t run this ship without people like you.”

“Is my tool bag here?” I asked.

“In the corner. Like it is every day,” the foreman answered.

So it was. I unzipped it to make sure that the wrench was inside, but I needn’t have. It was always there. And I would use it the same way I had before. That’s the thing about being damned. Everyone assumes you’re unprincipled.