Space is vast, incomprehensibly so. Stretching out from one tiny finite point and exploding outwards on an infinite axes far beyond human comprehension. Millions of lifetimes can transpire across the distance between one point and the next, a swirling chaos that takes millennia to amount to anything tangible and solid. Millennia more until life can come along and contemplate everything to be discovered.
Akrea Orson gently floated through the blackness, she had drifted some hundred kilometers from the ship. Contained in her power armor, she had little concern for the ship growing smaller and smaller or for contemplating the inconceivable expansion of space.
She was instead, focused on the game of pong taking place on her visor. Her beacon has been set off automatically due to the sudden and dramatic pressure change, her pick up would be by shortly. Regardless she wasn’t very concerned she had three days worth of air in her suit, and a filtration system to insure she was hydrated. Getting spaced was just part of the job. Clear out a ship and get out.
“Hey Orson.” a male voice checked into the woman’s ear. It was Dallas, another cleaner. He had blown out from the same air lock as Orson but had been propelled in a different direction. Orson had watched him drift away giving the thumbs up like he always did when they completed a job. The light in his helmet allowing Orson to see his big dumb smile.
“Sure is pretty isn’t it?” He continued.
“It’s shit all, like always Dallas.” Orson replied. Dallas laughed over the intercom. The two had worked together for a few months. They had cleared a lot of ships in that time and had spent plenty of time floating out in the nothingness surrounded by stars.
The signal from the pickup ship triggered a bright light to flash on Orson’s back. The ship was getting close. About fucking time, Orson thought. It wasn’t normally a long wait to be picked up, an hour at the most, but that’s a long time to drift and try to move as little as possible. Too much movement could deplete the oxygen reserves or send someone off in a completely different direction, better to just relax and wait. Orson saw the ship coming into view, below her and to her left. It drifted closer it was the Umato, Phoenix class. Not the sleekest looking ship, but it got a person from one place to the other with few problems. It approached Orson, stopping some hundred feet away. Orson fired her jets to coast the rest of the way. Grabbing hold of the ship’s side and pulling herself along its hull to the airlock hatch. She hit the door twice and it hissed open. She put a foot down gingerly. Going from zero gees to near Earth gravity took a touch of grace or you might end up flat on your face. She was an old hand at it but never the less was a little off in her footing, stumbling forwards, but quickly righting herself. She punched the button to close the door behind her. She was blasted with a disinfecting spray then headed for the next door.
Orson was in the equipment room taking off her gear when Dallas came through the air lock. He popped off his helmet and gave his typical goofy grin. He was in his early thirties, his head was shaved a few days growth on his face.
“Another one in the bag.” He began pulling off his armor piece by piece. Orson kicked off her boots, then stripped down to her underwear. Orson was also in her thirties, her Japanese heritage was faintly apparent in her face. Her black hair was cut very short. Dallas was West Coast Native and probably something else. Ethnicities didn’t matter much, everyone had been thrown into one big genetic stew. Orson returned her assault rifle back into its locked cabinet she also had a knife that she set aside on the bench. She headed for the showers. She stood under the hot blast, letting the heat soak into her sore muscles. Dallas was in the neighboring shower and started to sing, some cheesy pop song. Orson tossed her bar of soap over the wall, the thud on his head made him stop.
“You’re such a downer you now that.” Dallas said. “You volunteered for this.”
“And you didn’t.” Orson replied. “So why are you so chipper?”
“Freedom does that to a guy, I apologize.”
Orson got dressed in a fresh jump suit and picked up her knife from the bench and cleaned it in the sink. She always found cleaning her knife relaxing somehow. It was the final step in finishing a job. She slipped the knife back into its holster and attached it to her belt. She headed out into the main corridor of the ship. The Umato had housed Orson for three years, it felt more like home then her place back at the Thermopylea station in the Geeks asteroid cluster. She entered a room three doors down. The room was small, like every room on the Umato, small and metal. There was a hexagon table surround by chairs, Orson selected one. Dallas wasn’t far behind, with a white haired man in tow.
Captain Lanza was in his fifties, earthborn. It was evident by his much shorter height compared to the colony babies sitting before him. He wore a t-shirt and khakis. He took a seat and put a tablet on the table. The tablet’s screen showed a star chart, with a red circle marking off a small section of space.
“Hope you’re ready to go out pretty quick. There’s another ship an hour from here.” He said. “How’d the last job go?”
“Fine. Pretty text book.” Orson said. She was leaned back in her chair, arms folded. “Dallas didn’t dick around even.” She gave a sarcastic grin to her coworker.
“Come on. You don’t ever get curious about stuff on those ships.” Dallas defended.
“You have to keep exposure down to a minimum.” Lanaz said with a sign, having said it many times before. He stood up, the debriefing was over. The two cleaners got up as well.
“That’s what video files are for.” Orson said to Dallas. The three parted ways, Lanaz back to the bridge, Dallas to the common room, and Orson to her private quarters. It was a small crew, ten in all. What they did was a risky job, and a rather unappreciated one.
Dallas flumped backwards onto the bench in the common room. He pushed up his sleeves to trace the lines tattooed on his arm. I hate quick turnarounds Dallas thought. He turned his attention to the monitor in the room and decided to play a video game to pass the time.
Orson was sitting on the edge of her bed in her room dropping her knife into the floor paneling over and over. Ripping it out then dropping it again. There was dozens of deep cuts in the floor. She focused on nothing else just putting new gashes in the floor.
Orson and Dallas suited up again in silence. Helping each other putting on the torso parts. They grabbed their rifles from the cabinet. Dallas smacked the top of his helmet to make sure there was a good seal. Orson attached her knife to the outside of her armor.
“You guys ready?” Lanza's voice entered the cleaners helmets. “We’re in place. There’s an airlock to the left when you get out there.”
“Copy that.” Orson replied. The two headed out through the air lock pressed the button and drifted out into the void once more. The new ship was a few meters away. The two drifted towards the ship heading for its airlock. They both hit the ships side with silenced thuds. Dallas pried a panel off the side of the ship to expose wires. He skillfully worked at them until the airlock lurched open. They entered to do the same to the next door.
The Umato fired up its engines and pulled away quickly. Dallas just about had the second door open, Orson stood at the ready, looking through her view finder. She gave a quick nod, the door opened. They walked into the body of the ship. The lights on the end of their rifles were all they had to show them a path. The ground was rough metal paneling had been popped up by mounds of rocky growth. Creeping branches networked from one mound to another. Solid calcified tentacles breaking the ship down slowly crushing doorframes and ripping through the walls and ceiling.
Orson nodded for Dallas to head one way down the hall she went down the other. “Clean sweep. Make it quick.” She said. Dallas turned his back to mock her bossiness.
Orson followed the small light, circling the walls ahead of her. It was more of the same rocky outcroppings of mass, most of it a lifeless grey. Her flashlight ran over a patch of pale red, she fired a bullet at the only patch of color in the grey scale. She continued on, watching out for the faint splotches of color. Like she had done many times before.
“How are things?” Orson asked on her radio, after some time had passed.
“Fine here. Heading for the lower level.” Dallas replied
Orson pressed on watching her step on the uneven ground, and watching out for red. The mounds had intricate snaking patterns, if they had any color left in them it sunk into the patterns valleys. When Orson came along with her rifle the color drained away sinking below the surface. Orson came across a mound that was large enough nearly block off the whole the hallway before her.
“Orson...” Dallas said. “Not sure if you want to see this or not...” His signal was full of static.
“What is it?” Dallas was breaking up too much for her to get a clear answer. She retraced her steps back to where they had started the air lock still wide open to space. She tried to get directions from Dallas but all she got was crackling she quickened her pace following the trail of bullet holes.
The rapid tacking sound of an assault rifle echoed off the walls. Orson moved even quicker dodging through the maze of calcification. Dallas leapt out of the room, nearly crashing into Orson.
The color red radiated out of the room sending out a blast of heat and screaming static into the cleaners radios. Orson without further thought leapt to the wall and pried open the paneling, the door lurched shut. Once the two were back in the black and cold Orson headed off, quickly leaving Dallas behind in confusion by his saviors sudden retreat.
“Hey thanks for saving my ass.” He said sarcastically as the interference waned.
“You’re infected.” Orson said over the radio.
“Wha? I wasn’t in there long. I can’t be I’ve got your guys big fancy suit.” He sped up to keep up with Orson. “Wait up!”
Orson’s gun was suddenly aimed point blank at Dallas’s head when he got too close. He shot up his hands, surrendering. Orson’s face was emotionless and cold and ridged just like the mounds of grey stony outcroppings.
“The infection takes a long time to set in...” Dallas was no longer chipper, no more goofy grin. He was face had gone grim, his voice nearly whimpering. “You can’t be seriously thinking of killing me.” His voice rattled inside Orson turned helmet. She broke into a sprint to get out of the encroaching interference from the red blast. Once the static had let up, once she could hear Dallas pleading out clearly she switched frequencies to the Umatos channel. She was nearly to the airlock.
“Lanaz. Do you copy? This is Orson. Dallas has been exposed.” Dallas was hot on her tail. His pathetic cries had morphed into anger. His face red, his eyes blood shot voice muffled by his helmet. Orson stood before the door gun at the ready. Dallas lunged at her, she leapt back into space her guns fire propelling her further out. Dallas’s suit spared him from the bullets. His silent screaming continued, as he waved his arms out in front of him. Orson fired a few more rounds but it was pointless. The bullets bounced off the suit and spun off into the void. She switched on her jets to put some distance between them. But it wasn’t long before Dallas cut through his madness to jet up to her. Orson was ready with her knife in hand. She cut at the wrist joint of Dallas’s suit when he grabbed one of her feet.
They spun around and around in the blackness, jostling for a grip on each other. Orson took any chance she could to drive the knife into joints, to pry them open to get to the flesh inside. Forceless punches and weightless kicks toss the two into a wilder spin. Two bodies struggling to get hold over forces beyond them. Orson managed to get her knife into the shoulder joint blood dribbled out, freezing and boiling at the same time. The red liquid crystallized into steaming black then fazed into nothing. Orson kept hammer at the opening she had made. Again and again. More of Dallas seeped out to be dissolved away. Orson’s back lit up as she pushed off of the mans chest with her feet. He drifted away red pouring from him. The color draining from his face. The gap Orson had made let the elements enter Dallas’s suit. His face began to turn black and fade away. His blood filled eyes expanded in size before collapsing in on themselves. Orson blasted way as quickly as she could. The Umato was in view.
Orson peeled off her armor, put away her gun. She took a shower. She washed her knife. There was no blood left on it, it had all dissolved out in the vacuum. But a job was never complete until her knife was clean. When she was done she returned to the debriefing room. Lanaz seated at the table waiting for her.
“Don’t give me another prisoner.” she said flatly.
“I’m afraid that’s all we have to offer.” Lanaz sat across from her. “No one wants this job. No one wants to be reminded. There’s a single ship left to clear. Then we’re done. You can go home. We can all go home.”
* * *
Home. Beyond the some trillion light years of emptiness. Now just out of reach. Sitting in the dark with a voice that couldn’t vibrate, making ever subsequent action pointless. Drifting without propulsion but no lack of conviction. Zoe rested her head on the window of her ship. The coolness of the several inch think Plexiglas didn’t do much for her fever but it was something. She looked out at the nothingness the sun was nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the stars. The engines had given up five days ago. So the Hannah was left to coast at a snail’s pace towards earth. Zoe pulled away from the window, everyone was asleep in whatever crevice they could find, any area they could lay their head down. Some on the bunks some on the floor. Young and old. Zoe crouched down to the bunk, her daughter Becca was curled up in. She ran her fingers through her brown hair, she stirred.
“Mom? Is everything ok?” She asked rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Zoe ran her hand down to Becca’s forehead it to was hot, sweat was dripping from the young girls skin
“Shh. Everything’s fine.” She smiled sweetly, reassuring Becca who rolled over and fell back to sleep. Zoe withdrew her hand, her fingers recoiled inwards then locked in place. Zoe frowned and began to massage her hand back into working order, before she tip toed her way out of the room. Taking great pains to not wake anyone.
The hall lights were blazing white compared to the dark sleeping quarters. Zoe stuffed her hands into the pocket of her sweater. There wasn’t much going on, on the Hannah. Most were asleep dreaming of getting home soon.
Zoe was 27 she had been born on Lupa, a colonized planet in the Wolf system. She had no memory of Earth but never the less she understood its significance. Three generations had lived on Lupa, had carved out lives, had begun to tame the new world. The original settlers left the ships, happy to start completely anew, away from their original home to build a new one. The ships sat unused, left to collect dust. It was understood to be a miracle that they had made it to the border of the Solar system. Zoe made her way to the broken powered door, it had gotten jammed a week ago and no one had gotten around to fixing it. The engines took top priority. The ships electrics had been unreliable, power outages were becoming more common, communications with Earth had been spotty at best. Zoe stood at the door and called through the six inch gap. “Harrison.”
A man a few years older than Zoe came into view. His face was kind with ashy skin and yellowing eyes. He smiled gently. “Hey. How is she?” he asked.
“Becca’s fine but how are you? You look terrible.” Although there was no one to wake Zoe still spoke softly. Harrison stopped her hand from touching his face. Her hand began to cramp again she swiftly pulled it away.
“When did that start?” He asked concerned.
“It’s nothing. You need to rest. You’re not well.”
“None of us are, Zoe.” Harrison said. His kindly nature drained from his already pale face. He shifted around behind the door. Zoe caught a glimpse of his right arm, it was contorted, ridged and atrophied. The skin red and blistering. Zoe felt the tears working their way from her throat up into her eyes. Her knees buckled and slowly she descend to the floor. Harrison followed on his side. His hand slid through the gap and took hers. He reassured her rubbing his thumb over the back on her hand.
“When did that happen? To your arm” Zoe asked tears pouring from form her eyes.
“It’s been a few weeks....after the cramping starts....” His voice broke away. He looked at his arm it was hot to the touch. The skin peeling away in large flakes revealing raised bony ridges beneath. “I love you. You know that right?”
Zoe nodded, squishing his hand. “They’ll come. They’ll have a cure. Don’t. Don’t talk like that.”
They sat in the silence with one another. Hands intertwined Harrison gently massaged her hand then it went stiff. She reached for his face. “We’ll make it home soon.”