The Mess on Hygieia
Janitorial service aboard the Oculus paid five times as much as any other ship. Of course, Mindy jumped at the opportunity. On top of the money, the ship was a luxury spaceliner, not one of those drab bulky industrial things where half the crew was made up of sweaty guys who shouted catcalls when you bent over while cleaning. Nor was it a science vessel where you had to worry about weird biohazards and stuffy scientists giving you the stink eye for not knowing the meaning of big science words. The Oculus was like a yacht. Private. Classy. This place had insane hot water pressure and the newest self-cleaning toilets. No toilet cleaning! And, they had a whole half-dozen janitorial robots slated to be under Mindy’s direction. She’d reached the swanky next level of life: Manager.
On the first day on the Oculus Mindy crackled with joy. She even got her own room instead of just a curtained bunk. Her own room. Small, sure. But, it came with its own toilet and sink. The shower was down the hall and shared, but still. Her. Own. Room. There was a desk fitted into one side of the room with a mag chair. A decently sized comm screen had been added above that. Even the bunk turned out to be super comfy, with two thick pillows, and a mattress on an actual working grav pad. And, she had a mini-fridge and air cycler of her own. And the lockers were huge! Mindy tried not to make too much noise as she squealed in happiness. Instead, she just jumped around with her hands over her mouth, unable to stop smiling, throwing a happy tantrum over her luck at getting the position.
She’d come a long way from Flotilla 6 as a newly awakened clone. After the Humanity Accords made forced clone growth in stasis vats illegal, all the current clones were woken up and shipped off to refugee camps. Of course, no nation wanted to actually host the tens of millions of clones, not just because feeding them would be a nightmare, but because these clones had been in stasis their entire lives. They didn’t know anything. Not how to speak, not how to read, not even how to properly use toilet paper. They’d been grown as replacement parts for those with enough money to afford it, or literal replacement bodies, in the case of a full brain transplant. Replacement parts don’t need to know things. They don’t need to know how to use a fork or get dressed. But now a bunch of completely inexperienced clones needed to learn to walk, to talk, and to become fully functioning people of their own. Maybe even as functional as the human whose future replacement parts they’d once been.
Mindy didn’t really know anything about her “genie”, which is what the clones called their genetic twins. Some clones found out about their genie. Some didn’t. It depended on the nation your genie was from, and how that nation implemented the Humanity Accords. Not that it mattered. Knowing about your genie didn’t affect where you ended up. Flotilla 6, built in the Atlantic Ocean out of recycled ocean plastics and bioengineered strongmoss filled in with aeroconcrete, served as just one of many camps for awakened clones. For their upkeep, the clones of Flotilla 6 cleaned the oceans. They slept ten to a dorm room, and ate cold nutrigoo. Four hours a day were spent in “Remedial Life Training”. They had to learn everything that normal humans had learned in childhood. A lot of the clones died, many by tying their hands and feet together and jumping into the sea, but some of them died due to violence within Flotilla 6. They didn’t have the life experience, after all, to properly communicate with others or to even govern their own emotions effectively. Fights broke out often over the littlest things. The clones had adult bodies, but childlike minds.
But people wanted clones for various types of work. They were bioengineered to be physically healthier and hardier than normal humans, making them useful for manual labor in difficult environments. After all, it wouldn’t do to replace your lungs with other lungs that turned out to be just as prone to cancer as the first pair. Every time someone came around calling for volunteers for this or that job, Mindy signed up. But everyone signed up, because everyone wanted off of Flotilla 6. So it took her four years to get a chance – janitorial service aboard the Presidio, a prison ship. The other clones told her not to take it, that prison ships were even more dangerous than Flotilla 6. But, Mindy took her chances. It actually turned out not that bad. Prison ships like the Presidio kept all the prisoners in stasis. She often didn’t see another awake soul for hours while she cleaned. Sure, she had to share a bunk with another clone. And they still ate nutrigoo. But at least this time they had both hot nutrigoo, and the sweet kind that was packaged as “Wigglygoo Gelatin Squares”. Blue was definitely the best flavor of Wigglygoo. Brown was the worst. Nobody liked brown Wigglygoo.
Mindy worked for two years on the Presidio before moving to the Blinding Mandala freighter, and then after a year and a half there, she went to work on the Copernicus science vessel. Six months later and here she was – aboard the Oculus, practically living like clone royalty. She’d made it. Against all odds, Mindy had carved out a life that had little relation to her being a clone.
Even the uniform turned out to be top-of-the-line on the Oculus. No ill-fitting khaki jumpsuits here. The black top and pants combo with a silky white undershirt looked like something she’d seen a concierge wear in one of the grand old 20th-century movies. And they’d even given her a little brass pin with her name and title on it. Mindy Flosix - Manager of Custodial Services. So. Fancy.
Within days, Mindy had fallen into a routine but she still hadn’t come down from the high of her new job. Almost everything made her giddy. She tried nutrigoo chips for the first time and loved the saltiness and crunch. And the soap in the shower could be programmed to come out in sixteen different scents. She planned to try them all.
In the mornings, the custodial crew met in the cleaning supply room, gathering among the dust mops and rags, spray bottles and sponges. They didn’t have any chairs, so they all just stood. The robots were going to get tired of standing, after all.
“Everybody knows their assignments, right?” The robots all nodded in unison, except for B3A, which she’d been told had something wrong with it ever since it had gotten crushed between a forklift and the maglock parking bay one night by accident.
Instead of nodding, it chirped, “Yup Yup!”
“Okay, everyone! Let’s have a great shift! Call me on comms if you need me. I’m going to start with the officer quarters, as usual.”
Mindy headed out after that, pushing the hover cart full of supplies. Halfway there, she stopped to adjust her collar and check her hair in one of the elegant gold-framed mirrors in the corridor. Mindy couldn’t help but smile at her reflection, the excitement of the job still buzzing in her veins. Red hair, green eyes, big ears, too many freckles. Surely, her genie could have asked them to make the ears a little smaller. Or to remove the freckles. Oh well. At least her genie wasn’t from one of the countries that required awakened clones to work off all the money the genie initially paid to have them grown. Right now, there were indentured clones in Argentina literally cleaning up radioactive waste to pay off debts they incurred before they ever awoke. All in all, Mindy had it pretty good. She could live with big ears and freckles.
“Okay! Let’s get to work!” The door to the Captain’s Quarters played a happy little song for Mindy as it opened. Mindy loved that the doors had entrance music. It meant every time she went anywhere, she was preceded by a chipper tune. Immediately, Mindy began tidying up the Captain’s Quarters. He’d left the comm on the screen showing the route of the Oculus to some place called “Hygieia”, out past Mars. Going to take six months even with the newest punchdrive running while they slept, but Mindy had no problem with that. Six months getting there, ten months at Hygieia, and six months back. Plenty of time to impress them to hire her on a permanent basis.
Mindy changed the linens out for new ones and set to work on wiping everything down. Not a lot of dust coming in from space, but that didn’t mean things couldn’t get dirty with sweat and fingerprints and hair and spittle and flakes of skin. Humans just created messes anywhere and everywhere they went, Mindy knew. They didn’t mean to, but they couldn’t help themselves. Chaos and disarray intertwined itself with the human condition. They didn’t just make messes of their immediate personal habitat, but messed up the planetary environment, too. They messed up each other with their messed up politics and messed up religions. They even messed up the truth because of their messy conflicting desires. Sometimes Mindy watched the news from back home and wondered if there were ever any important things that humanity didn’t somehow manage to make into more of a mess.
Humming along with the classical music she’d switched her earpiece to, Mindy bopped around, checking every nook and cranny, giving the place her three-times-over check for cleanliness. Spotting a book face-down on the table, she picked up what the Captain had been reading and peered at the page he’d left opened. It looked complicated! She peered at the myriad circles and triangles set inside of each other, lined with squiggly letters she didn’t know. Must be a different language. Maybe French? She’d heard the chef say the captain was from France. Underneath was regular writing, but all slanted and tiny. Mindy brought it closer to her face to read it, “Purificatio animarum immundarum”. While she didn’t know what it meant, it was certainly fun to say. “Purificatio animarum immundarum!” Mindy laughed a little and put the ribbon bookmark on the page as she closed it, placing it on the table’s grav pad just in case things got bumpy.
When she moved on to the Chief Engineer’s room, Mindy sighed. This guy! Such a pig! He always threw his dirty uniforms on the floor instead of the metal autolaundry hamper, and the place always smelled weirdly sour. Twice she’d found his breakfast splattered on the wall. He also drooled in his sleep so she had to change his pillowcases every single day. Picking the guy’s dirty uniform from the floor, Mindy shook it out once to find the pockets and clips. The last thing she needed was the autolaundry complaining about a screwdriver getting jammed inside or something. The top had something gross crusted all over it. But, because of the black fabric, she couldn’t really tell what he’d gotten on it. She tried sniffing it, only to find it smelled like the outside of a rusty tin of nutrigoo. Sharp. Metallic. A little of it rubbed off on her fingers, reddish brown and faintly sticky. Probably some sort of machine fluid from down in the guts of the ship, most likely. Whatever. After checking the pockets, she stuffed it into the hamper and pressed the button for pneumatic delivery to the autolaundry. It was autolaundry’s problem now.
Afterward, Mindy moved over to cleaning the staterooms, the swankiest passenger berths that the Oculus had to offer. The regular suites would be cleaned by the robots, but staterooms? The staterooms demanded Mindy’s personal touch. Chef had even given her little boxes of something called Chocolates to lay out for guests. She’d heard about them in old movies, but had expected them to be cheery looking and colorful, not a dirty brown color. They looked kind of like the brown Wigglygoo cubes after you left them out for too long. Mindy chalked it up to rich people just being generally weird. Rich people ate meat too, the thought of which made Mindy’s stomach turn. She’d never had the desire to plunge a knife into some other creature to scoop out its insides into her mouth. Plunging a knife to loot the insides just felt too close to what the genies had intended for the clones. Yuck.
Mindy cleaned staterooms one and two quickly and hurried along to stateroom three. Already used to nobody being in any of the rooms, she didn’t knock before entering. Immediately, she found herself looking at a gray-haired old woman standing in the front parlor with a black cloak draped over her shoulders.
“Oh!” the old woman exclaimed.
“Oh!” Mindy echoed. They had startled each other nigh simultaneously. “I’m so sorry. I should have knocked. Just here for housekeeping.” Nobody was ever in these rooms in the morning, due to some function the passengers all attended in the library. This was the only ship Mindy had ever been on that had a library with actual books. That’s how fancy the Oculus was.
“No, not at all,” the woman said, her voice containing the faint-pitched wobble of age. “Oh aren’t you darling? Look at you. What’s your name, dear?”
“Um. Mindy Flosix, ma’am.”
“Oh, you don’t have to call me ma’am. I’m Nancy Armitage. Don’t mind me, come on in and do what you need to do.”
“Pleased to meet you Mrs. Armitage.” Mindy assumed the woman was married simply because there was a man’s suit draped over a plush chair. She motioned to it. “Shall I hang this up?”
“Would you? Mr. Armitage is not the tidiest. I’m so sorry about the state of things here. I hope it doesn’t cause too much trouble to clean. Henry and I do like collecting things.”
Most of the staterooms contained lovely furniture, brilliant blue and dark navy accents on cream-colored wood and ivory-hued upholstery. The metal pieces shone a burnished chrome, and the wall sconces and coffee tables had cut cerulean glass. B3A had called it, “Decor that yearned and dreamed of an impossibly perfect sky,” in B3A’s normal way of being wordy. But, not Stateroom Three. This one stood out with its sepia, golds, and browns. Mrs. Armitage had introduced a splash of less drab color with bright pink velvet pillows on the armchairs in the parlor, and a blue floral Persian carpet underneath the coffee table. Nothing seemed to really match anything else. All of the walls either had paintings hanging on them, or shelves containing curious knick-knacks, or the severed heads of taxidermied animals staring forever into the middle distance. The latter gave Mindy the mild creeps, but she tried not to look at the animal heads too much, and stood as far away from them as she could whenever she dusted.
Mindy pushed her cart inside but moved it out of the path to the door. As she picked up the suit to put it away, she noticed Mrs. Armitage attempting to fasten the front chain on her long black cloak. Her wrinkled fingers kept missing the loop that the hook would go into. “Can I help you with that, Mrs. Armitage?”
Mrs. Armitage sighed in frustration at the betrayal of her own aged flesh. “Would you, dear?”
Mindy hung the suit and then went to stand in front of Mrs. Armitage. Up close, she could see that when the lining of the cloak caught the light, it revealed a deep scarlet satin. Along the edges, gold embroidery set into red ribbon contained the same kinds of odd characters she’d seen in the Captain’s book. “Is this French, Mrs. Armitage?” she asked as she hooked the chain so that the cloak wouldn’t fall off of the older woman’s shoulders.
“French?” She had to look down to see what Mindy was talking about. “No, no. These are the Eldritch Runes of Hygieia. They’re…not so much a language so much as a way to communicate with extraplanar antediluvians.”
Mindy had absolutely no idea what that meant. It sounded a great deal like some of the things the scientists aboard the Copernicus used to say, though, so she assumed Mrs. Armitage to have perhaps been a scientist at one point. Or maybe a historian? That would explain a lot of the artwork and strange knick-knacks, Mindy supposed. At least Mrs. Armitage didn’t laugh at her question like some scientists did, making fun of her for not understanding everything. She’d only been out of stasis for eight years! It took at least twice that long to learn complicated words like ‘extraplanar’ and ‘antediluvian’.
“Well, it’s wonderful pretty,” Mindy said, stepping back. “You look good, Mrs. Armitage. Should I pin the hood up for you? I think I’ve got a couple of bobby pins in my cart. My bun is always getting out of control by the end of the shift.”
“Oh, would you? You’re such a dear.” Mrs. Armitage replied as she pulled on some black gloves with sparkling scarlet jewels set onto the wrists.
Mindy set to work fishing out her bobby pins but as she did, she kept speaking to Mrs. Armitage. “You must have been on this ship quite a while, Mrs. Armitage. None of the other staterooms look anything like this one. Though in stateroom five, there’s a glowy tank with live jellyfish. At least, I think they’re jellyfish. They float and they have an awful lot of tentacles. Sometimes I feel like they’re watching me though, which is strange because jellyfish don’t have any eyes.” Realizing she was rambling, Mindy shut her mouth immediately.
But, Mrs. Armitage didn’t seem to mind. “Not quite jellyfish. We call them nereids. They…take the temperature of those extraplanar antediluvians I was telling you about, letting us know when to approach and when we must stay away. They will tell us if we’re in danger, if we must change course, and if we must do something different as we approach Hygieia.”
“Kind of like a weather report?”
“Sort of, yes.” Mrs. Armitage smiled kindly as Mindy fixed the hood so it wouldn’t fall off of her head. “And yes, Henry and I bought the Oculus ten years ago, and have been living on it since then. Usually, the owners get Stateroom One, but I think three is a much luckier number. Anyway, when we heard The Society was finally heading to Hygieia, we decided to offer the Oculus as transport.”
“Oh, so really, I work for you and Mr. Armitage. Well, it’s doubly a pleasure to meet you then, Mrs. Armitage,” Mindy said brightly, stepping back. “I think you’re all set.”
Mrs. Armitage reached up to pat Mindy’s arm with a smile, “Thank you Mindy, you’ve been such a help.” She headed for the door, but stopped near a small writing table. Lifting the box of chocolates that Mindy had left the previous day, she held them out to her. “A gift. You can keep our chocolates when you do your rounds, Mindy. I don’t care for sweets, and the doctor said Henry shouldn’t have them.”
Mindy reached out to take the little rectangular box with the see-through plastic on the top, showing the four intricately decorated chocolates inside. “Oh. Thank you, Mrs. Armitage,” she said, waving to the departing woman as she headed out into the hallway, the cloak masking her steps and making her seem almost like she was floating.
Looking down, Mindy peered more closely at the box of chocolates. It was the first gift anyone had ever given her. She just hoped they didn’t actually taste like brown Wigglygoo.
“Bea, you’re on trash bin duty because I found your cart unsecured on deck three yesterday. Again. You can’t leave your cart unsecured, Bea. If we have a gravity hiccup all those cleaning supplies will go everywhere. Where did you even go?”
“I peered into the beyond, standing toe to toe with the faceless and unknowable denizens of the void. The shell of this beetle we call Oculus gripped my feet as I reached towards the unfathomable depths of the everywhere and the nowhere.”
Mindy pressed her lips together, “Well, you need to do that when you’re not on shift, alright?”
“Yup Yup!” B3A chirped.
The six months of travel to Hygieia had gone fairly smoothly. Only six of the three hundred and thirty-three people aboard the Oculus had died. Of those, three of them died of natural causes. Many of the passengers were older, and their internal organs just couldn’t take space travel easily. The other three had killed themselves due to Abyssal Madness after turning into gibbering wastrels locked in a neverending cycle of ranting and raving and drooling. Abyssal Madness usually got you confined to your quarters and sometimes it just went away on its own, but sometimes you ended up bashing your head against the wall until your brain spilled out. Nobody knew why the insanity only happened once you got out past Mars, but it only affected less than .1% of people. Three was a surprising amount for one ship, but sometimes things just worked out that way. Mindy had watched a guy with Abyssal Madness on the Blinding Mandala scoop his own eyes out with a melon baller. The Blinding Mandala didn’t even have any melons on it, so why they had a melon baller in the commissary, Mindy had no clue.
“Okay guys, today is the last day before we reach Hygieia. Tonight we’re all expected at the arrival dinner that Chef has put together for the service crews. I know you guys don’t eat but, you should still go because there’s going to be door prizes and special awards for hard workers.”
“I shall consume entire galaxies, for what is a singularity but a black, gaping mouth, willing to imbibe all matter without prejudice? Behold the emptiness that devours, the formidable and ceaseless hunger teething like a babe on nebulas and neutron stars…”
Mindy looked at B3A and made a motion like she might be turning a knob. “Loud again, Bea.”
“Sorry, Ms. Flosix,” the robot replied as it turned down its own voice volume so that the jumble of words forever leaking out of it wouldn’t interrupt the meeting.
“Okay, last thing. The autolaundry is on the fritz. So, make sure to leave a note for anyone expecting their laundry back today. Maintenance should have it fixed soon. Alright, everyone! Grab me on comms if you need me.”
Mindy was pleased with the journey out to Hygieia. The robots didn’t complain and worked hard, and in the evenings she could watch movies or study for her CED. She’d finally tested at level four, which meant she only had one more level to go before she could try for the CED. She’d definitely get hired onto the Oculus permanently if she passed. Less than one out of every ten clones managed to pass the level five Clone Educational Development test. The science goons said it was because by the time they had been taken out of stasis, their brains had already passed the “formative learning stages”. That just meant that you were supposed to learn things in childhood, and once your body attained adulthood it became harder to absorb new information. But you could still absorb it if you worked hard.
Sometimes studying made Mindy’s head hurt. It would have been so much easier if they’d just upgraded the clones’ brains. But since the brain was the one part nobody thought a genie would want, there had been no effort to make the clones genetically stronger in the thinking arena. After all, why replace your brain with a blank one? That made no sense.
Mrs. Armitage even told her that she could borrow books from the library to study, as long as she returned them afterward. Of course, most books you could just download on your intellipad, but some of the books were so old or rare they’d never been scanned into the database. And, it was kind of fun turning each of the brittle paper pages to see something revealed little by little.
As she headed down the hallway toward the Captain’s quarters, the lights flickered. Mindy worried briefly there might be an electrical problem, and that the gravity might go off, so she reached over to grab the railing and mag-lock her cart. Her vision swam for a second, the hallway ballooning outwards, going from decidedly square to roughly circular. Distance elongated itself, with the furthest doors becoming increasingly tiny as they sped away from her.
“What? Hello?” Mindy’s head whipped around. She didn’t see anyone nearby.
“Purification will redeem all supplicants.”
The voice grated, sounding like ice being crushed by jagged metal. It came from both inside her mind and outside, reverberating so deeply within her that her heart’s rhythm momentarily desynchronized. Mindy grabbed at her chest as if it might quell the uncertainty of her heartbeat and peered around furtively. A terrible anxiety gripped her, and she felt as if she might suddenly forget to breathe.
In the next instant, the hallway returned to normal. And Mindy was left gasping and leaning against the wall.
Oh no. Oh, dear. What if she’d contracted Abyssal Madness? Would she end up scooping her eyes out with a melon baller or drinking cleaning products or dumping herself out the airlock? No, no, no. She would not succumb to insanity. What was it that one scientist aboard the Copernicus said? The best medicine against Abyssal Madness was to go about your usual day and to describe what you were doing while you did it. That would center you and help you not lose your mind. Mindy had no idea if it would really work, but it was worth a try.
“Okay. My name is Mindy Flosix, and I’m heading to the Captain’s quarters to do the routine morning cleaning.” Who was she explaining this to? Mindy sighed and squished at her own cheeks with the tips of her fingers, something she tended to do when in distress. If anyone heard her, they would definitely think she’d contracted Abyssal Madness. She grasped at any idea that could explain what she’d seen and heard. Maybe someone had played a prank on her. Those guys from maintenance liked giving her a fright. Pretty soon, she was determined not to worry about it unless it happened again. But if it did happen again, she was going to immediately strap herself into her bunk and ask for sedation.
The Captain’s quarters hadn’t changed much from the previous weeks. Every available surface glowed with the phosphorescent runes he’d scribbled with radiant paint. The arrangement of the strange characters created brightly lit swirls on the walls, on the floor, and even on the furniture. Mindy didn’t dare try to clean them off after how angry he got the first time she’d scrubbed them away. With all of the sconces and overhead lights removed, the entire room looked like a twisted version of the night sky, with runes standing in for stars and galaxies, and faint lines drawn between them like complicated constellations. Actually, it was kind of pretty, though Mindy felt certain Mrs. Armitage would be upset at the graffiti. Of course, he’d also forgotten to put his coffee mug away, so it’d gotten all stained in the bottom. Mindy washed it out in the sink before checking to make sure nothing else needed to be done.
In the Chief Engineer’s room, she found a heaping pile of cold vomit on the floor. This guy! Oh, he was just the worst! The toilet wasn’t more than five feet away, surely he could have made it just a few more steps. Mindy clicked her tongue and reached for the vacu-mop. Gross, gross, gross. And why were there wads of duct tape everywhere, on the ceiling, on the floor, even on his bunk, stuck to the sheets and the pillows? What was he trying to tape up in here that had created such a mess? He had to have gone through three rolls of it. No wonder the autolaundry kept breaking - he had probably been shoving his linens down the chute with duct tape still on them. Putting anything like duct tape in there would, of course, cause the autolaundry to crap out. Mindy would have worried that the Chief Engineer had contracted some terrible sickness if she didn’t constantly find half-empty and completely-empty bottles of booze under his bunk. You just couldn’t drink like that and think it wouldn’t have any effect.
Thankfully, no vomit turned up in Staterooms One and Two. In Stateroom Three, however, Mindy found Mrs. Armitage sitting in her favorite chair, staring at her black cloak which she’d draped over the sofa, the bottom of it spread outwards to almost form a triangle. A violent gash of red marred the middle where the lining could be seen, like a wound cracking the triangle in half. “Good morning, Mrs. Armitage,” Mindy called quietly. Mrs. Armitage had previously told her not to worry about knocking in the mornings and to just come in, so Mindy had done exactly that. The kindly old woman always chatted with her before heading out, but today it looked like Mrs. Armitage had decided to stay in.
“Ah, Mindy,” Mrs. Armitage murmured, turning to look at her. Something about the old lady felt far away to Mindy, as if she’d been lost in extremely deep thoughts when Mindy arrived. “You’re a clone, right?”
“Yes, Mrs. Armitage. Though I think officially they’re switching to calling us Genetically Duplicated Humans.”
Mrs. Armitage waved a wrinkled hand at that, “Hogwash. They always have to make things complicated. Anyway, you’re not duplicated, you’re one of a kind. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Mindy had been facing away from Mrs. Armitage so that she could head into the bedroom to make the bed. But she turned back to let Mrs. Armitage see her smile before getting back to work.
“Tell me, Mindy, what do you think happens to you when you die?”
That question shocked Mindy even more than the first. They usually didn’t discuss such morbid and intense topics. “Oh, well…” She paused to think of the best way to explain it. “I think you get to decide what you are next. You don’t even have to be a person. You could be a volcano or soap bubbles or a vat of blue nutrigoo. Anything, really.”
“I like that. What will you be, then?”
Mindy immediately knew her answer. “Snow. Millions and millions of unique snowflakes. I’ll be all of them, dancing in the wind, an always changing, always new snowstorm. People will watch me from inside their warm houses, clinging tightly to each other, sharing shelter and hot drinks and stories. They’ll peer out and I’ll peer in, briefly a part of every family in my reach.”
“Oh that’s lovely,” Mrs. Armitage said. “I hope you’re right. Well…” It took a moment for Mrs. Armitage to get to her feet. In the six months they’d been heading to Hygieia, she’d become increasingly frail, and moved far more slowly than before. Making her way across the room to the many shelves of knick-knacks she lifted one item and then motioned to Mindy. “Come. Come. I want you to have this.”
Mindy put down the linens and headed through the wide french doors to join Mrs. Armitage in the parlor. The item held out to her had a dome top made of polished glass. Inside, Mindy could see an old-timey farmhouse surrounded by miniature trees. It even had a tiny little black and white cow. At the bottom, something floated in the glass. Suddenly, Mrs. Armitage shook it, causing the entire scene to become the center of a whirlwind of snowflakes. “Oh, wow. It’s beautiful, Mrs. Armitage. I…I can’t, really.”
“Yes you can, and you will. I am your employer and I make the rules. It’s called a snow globe. Quite breakable though, so make sure you secure it well, alright?”
“Yes, Mrs. Armitage. Yes, thank you.” Mindy felt certain she’d never seen, much less owned, anything quite so dazzlingly exquisite. She accepted it with both hands, finding it heavier than she’d imagined.
“Good, good. Well…” Mrs. Armitage spent a good long time watching Mindy in silence. Briefly, Mindy wondered if she was supposed to say something else. As soon as she opened her mouth, however, Mrs. Armitage said, “You don’t need to clean in here today, Mindy. I’ve got some writing to do and the vacuum and whatnot will distract me.”
“Oh! Of course, Mrs. Armitage. I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
The old woman nodded once and replied, her voice sounding distant and haunted, “Yes. Tomorrow.”
“Alert! Alert! Alert!”
Mindy jolted awake to the sound of the ship alarm. The emergency lights had clicked on, and her intellipad twisted in mid-air, definitively indicating that gravity hadn’t been switched back on for the morning. Mindy rubbed her eyes and croaked, “What time is it?”
The visual comm unit lit up, showing her a digital display of large numbers in red. Thirty minutes past midnight? No wonder she felt like she hadn’t gotten any sleep.
“Crew and passengers prepare for landing on Hygieia,” came the ship’s computerized voice over the comm.
Mindy blinked. What? Landing? Were they supposed to land on Hygieia? In the middle of the night? That didn’t seem right at all.
“I shall cleanse the frightful and the frightened. I shall purge from existence all impurities.”
Once again, that grating voice hit her ears. At least Mindy was already in her bunk. But, if the ship’s landing had initiated, nobody could possibly come to sedate her. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” Mindy muttered over and over as the ship began to shake. She would have been content to just ride it out in her bunk when she noticed the snow globe floating past as well. Panic rose from her gut upward until it felt like a lump of cold metal in her throat. How had that come unsecured!? No, no, no, no, no. Not the snow globe. It’d fall and break as soon as the gravity switched back on. Mindy shoved herself out of bed and zipped across the room, floating over to grab the snow globe. She then pushed off of the desk with her left foot to send her hurling toward her locker. After getting it open she grabbed her off-duty clothes and wrapped them around the snow globe before securing it with the same stretchy bands that held her spare shoes in place.
Just in time. The ship’s shaking became increasingly rough and the intellipad smashed against the mag-chair, sending shards of glass around the room. A particularly harsh rattle sent Mindy bouncing, her head knocking against the corner of her bunk hard enough to black her out momentarily.
When she came to, she found herself on the ground. Gravity had been switched back on again. Every part of her hurt, and as she slowly sat up, she realized glass shards from the intellipad had punctured her arm and cut a thin slice down the side of her face. She wouldn’t die from the wounds, but she definitely needed more than the little bandages in the bathroom cabinet. They’d have antiseptic spray in the medical bay, and someone could stitch her wounds. Groaning, Mindy sat up and tried to get to her feet. It took a few seconds to get her bearings before she could stumble out into the hallway.
“This brilliant smattering of shattered scatterlings seeps towards the clamoring of death’s dazzling harvesting.”
Now, that was B3A’s voice, though Mindy couldn’t see the robot in the poorly lit corridor. “Bea!” Mindy called out, as she limped down the hallway, only now noticing that one of the shards of glass was sticking out of her foot. “Bea! Are you there? I need help getting to the medical bay.”
“Helpless, we faint few, we small motes of noise, calling out wildly to an uncaring everything. How can we be filled, be whole, when there’s so much space between the nuclei, between the nebula, between you and me and them and us? I am empty, I am ready, a vessel to be filled by magnificence and malevolence. Fill me. Fill me. Fill me.”
The repeated ‘fill me’ was getting further and further away. Mindy blustered out a frustrated huff. She was definitely decommissioning that naughty robot just as soon as she could.
Some of the emergency lights flickered, and a few hadn’t come on at all. It left huge swaths of the hallways that contained little light beyond the floor runners. She limped along, stopping only for a minute to pluck the piece of glass out of her foot when she found a first aid kit on the wall. The gauze would hopefully be enough to keep the bleeding on her foot and arm to a minimum until she could make it to the medical bay.
Mindy hadn’t seen anyone else, hadn’t even heard anyone else except B3A, since the ship stopped quaking. No noise pierced the darkness other than the intermittent alarm. Was everyone okay? Was Mrs. Armitage okay? Mindy stopped and wondered if she should go to the staterooms first, and check on the passengers. No, med bay first and then help others. Ship policy made that clear, and anyway, wouldn’t people be on the comms if they were hurt? Unless…?
“Emergency channel,” she said, touching her earpiece to activate the comm. “Hello? Is anyone there?” No response.
No. The landing hadn’t been that bad. Everyone was surely fine. Maybe the audio comms had been damaged during the landing? Deciding to continue, Mindy turned down corridor 3C and immediately stopped in her tracks.
In the middle of the corridor, just hovering in place, floated three of the jellyfish-like nereids. Their translucent tentacles swayed in the air below their bulbous bell tops as they slowly spun in place. Mindy leaned back into the darkened hatchway, afraid of the bizarre creatures that suddenly had no need of water to survive. Not only that, but they’d turned from a pleasant gentle blue color to a fierce and angry red, glowing like the digital clock readout on the visual comm unit a few minutes prior. A discordant hum emanated from them, shoving an odd pressure at Mindy that made her ears feel like they needed to pop.
They didn’t seem to have noticed her, though. Or perhaps they had noticed her but just didn’t care. Mindy stepped out into the corridor, watching them for a long time before deciding they did not intend her harm. Mrs. Armitage hadn’t said anything about the nereids being dangerous, just that they reacted to the presence of ‘extraplanar antediluvians’. So, still slow due to her limp, she made her way past the first one. As she did, its tentacles lifted lazily in her direction, almost like hair being pulled by static electricity. When one of the tentacles brushed against her, Mindy worried it might sting, but instead, it only felt cold, and caused an acrid metallic taste in her mouth. Each subsequent nereid caressed her similarly, petting her much like one might do to a passing cat, a gesture neither malicious nor transformative, but simply done for momentary tactile pleasure.
Once past the trio of odd jellyfishesque creatures, Mindy found herself at the entrance to the observation deck. She’d need to cross to the other side to get to the medical bay. The moment the doors slid open, playing the short cheery fanfare she’d chosen for herself months prior, Mindy held her hand up against a burst of light. The observation deck bowed out in a semicircle, allowing a one-hundred-and-eighty degree view, usually of the stars. But someone had turned on all of the external ship lights, which lit the area immediately outside as bright as day. As Mindy lowered her hand, she saw the desolate and rocky surface of Hygieia, the large asteroid that had been their destination. But in the distance, not more than a hundred meters away, sat a massive pyramid made of some glossy black substance reminiscent of obsidian. The slick darkness of the pyramid’s surface appeared to devour light, tricking the eyes to want to classify it as shadow. Only two sides of it could be seen from the observation deck, but the angles implied a third, a true tetrahedron sitting on a triangular base. Mindy figured it to be ten times as tall as the Oculus, making it a gigantic structure. Towards the apex of the face closest to the Oculus, an opening in the shape of an eye glowed red.
Mindy couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. The strange structure loomed, impossible and final, a monolith of incredible proportions at a time when mankind had only just begun to put temporary structures on the moon and Mars. The pain in her body became a background buzz as she stumbled closer to the thick viewing windows.
“Opening airlocks one, two, four,” came the ship’s automated voice.
“Wait, what?” Mindy put her hand to the glass, leaning forward as far as possible to try to view the airlocks just out of her view. Within seconds she saw dozens upon dozens of struggling figures, floating through the air, all of them clad in black cloaks identical to Mrs. Armitage’s. As suffocation gripped them and caused them to twist and writhe, the red glow of the pyramid’s light intensified, and their rapidly dying bodies began to be pulled towards, and then into, the eye of the pyramid. The shock of the horrific scene caused Mindy to cry out, both in grief and in confusion.
“Opening airlock three,” the ship said, seconds later.
Yet more people floated past, some of them smacking into each other from the force of the air being whooshed out into space. That’s when Mindy saw her. Mrs. Armitage spun like a dancer, a whirling dervish in the vacuum, the light already gone from her eyes. One of her arms had been lifted, and her delicate gloved hand almost appeared to be waving at Mindy each time she made a rotation. She too began floating towards the pyramid, ignorant of Mindy’s screaming.
As the last passengers and crew members of the Oculus disappeared into the ominous black pyramid, Mindy sobbed, now crumpled on the floor of the observation deck, her cheek pressed against the glass. Who had done this? Why? Was it even real? Poor Mrs. Armitage. Mindy hoped she didn’t suffer. Maybe the initial suction out of the airlock had knocked her out. Oh, how she hoped Mrs. Armitage wasn’t frightened. But, what would she do now? How would she get herself back to Earth?
Mindy jumped, turning in fright to find one of the nereids floating nearby. Was it speaking? Were the nereids and the pyramid connected? Maybe the nereids were like the pyramid’s comm unit? She wasn’t sure, but…
“I don’t understand! Why did you kill them? Some of them were really nice people. Just really nice and decent people!”
“They came seeking purification, pilgrims gifting flesh in joyous worship, a gesture to forestall the purging of their world.”
Mindy shuddered as the nereid once again let its cold tentacles drift towards her and brush against her face. Was it telling the truth? Had everyone aboard the Oculus simply decided to pay this ultimate tribute to this disturbing entity? Why? Did they think that they would keep it from destroying Earth if they did? Or had they just thought it might bring them to some new plane of existence? “What… What are you?”
“I am like you. I am that which cleanses the ship.”
Turning slightly, Mindy motioned towards the pyramid, blinking incredulously. “That’s your ship?”
The nereid touched the corner of her eye and suddenly she saw a rapid flashing of stars and planets, of newborn nebulae and ancient, crumbling moons, of glittering fields of asteroids and lonely, wandering comets. There was so much, just so much out there, and it was all so messy. So incredibly messy.
“Your ship is the entire galaxy?” Mindy asked, but she already knew it to be true. And then she understood what it wanted. It had found Mindy’s purpose to be strikingly similar to its own. She cleaned. It cleaned. And it wanted her to help it clean its ship, for however long that would take. It was offering her immortality in exchange for service, an eternity cleaning the Milky Way. Mindy understood the entity's need to put it all in order, to remove the pieces of clutter that would invariably lead to chaos and destruction, even if that detritus claimed itself to be sentient. If she accepted, she could be its conscience, its moral guide, the still small voice speaking for creatures it found irrelevant while cleaning the biggest messes.
And in an instant, she had decided.
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