The sudden shakes that somehow seem to bounce inside the Cutlass’ hull as it shuts its Quantum drive down drag me out of the near lethargy I had fallen into. They vibrate a dozen more times, their strength decreasing with each repetition until they vanish in a weird and uncomfortable thud.
Alix, my referee and the person I was told never to leave, pushes her elbow against mine, about the only thing she can do as we are tightly locked to our seats by the anti-shock harnesses going over our shoulders and down our torsos.
“Ready to have some fun?” she asks with a grin, clearly noticing I am far from enjoying my ride so far.
I answer in a hesitant voice that I’ve never been big on sudden stops. The truth is it’s just a lie. And a big one, considering it comes from someone who has left a comfortable job on Terra to join a journalism school. A mid-life crisis, one would say. No, it’s not about that. What we’re about to do has been a part of her job, and of the rest of the Cutlass’ crew, for a few years now, and they have all grown accustomed to it. But me? It’s barely my first time. And there is an idea I can’t seem to ever shake away despite the ship’s accelerations and sudden brakings – to know we’ll be the firsts on scene.
“Just keep an eye on him. He looks like he’s about to return his whole lunch inside that helmet of his,” a voice says from outside my field of view. Do I really look that bad?
These men and women are the home cleaners, as they so ironically define themselves. A Caterpillar was supposedly ambushed by pirates on a merchant route not far from the planet Hurston, in the Stanton system, and they were tasked by the shipowner – a fret company – and the deceased crew members’ families to clean the wreckage. Piracy has been a growing concern for years now, and yet the death toll keeps going up despite reinforced security measures. Their reasons for being here are noble, and yet I feel some kind of knot down in my chest. The impression that we are about to disturb something, much like the looters from ancient times that broke into pyramids and disrupted their occupants’ thousands of years-long sleep.
The four contractors, Alix included, remove their harnesses as the ship engages its thrusters in a more controlled deceleration. They follow the same routine that I suppose they’ve been reenacting hundreds of times and don’t even seem to notice me. They all check and double-check each other’s pressurized suits, make sure the pilots’ door is properly locked. So deep into space, the black and empty void our companion for millions of kilometers of emptiness before encountering a single rock more than a millimeter in diameter, the smallest detail can cause a man’s death long before he even has time to realize it.
Oxygen tanks are checked and rechecked, pressure seals examined over and over again. Still, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for the EVA crew to be ready to proceed and bang twice on the ship’s frame with their fist. Only now do I notice it, but we are not moving anymore. The group’s leader walks up to the airlock, waiting for his entire team to lift a finger into the air once more in a universal gesture to signal they are all ready. Everything is so silent. Not only when the airlock slides open and that the vast deafness of space hits me once more, but even amidst the contractors. No one is cracking up jokes anymore. They all know about the Caterpillar’s crew fate, and their silence is a way of paying them their respects.
If all goes well, we are expected to depart the crash site in about an hour with the ship’s black box and all the bodies they’ll find. Out of the six-men crew, only two will be lifted out of the wreckage; their remains quickly packed in separate body bags, whose name tags would be left blank. I have already wondered on my way here how the families – let alone any doctor – could identify the bodies we would find, but gladly shake this thought out of my mind as the first silhouette lights an old but reliable chemical stick on its torso and steps into the void. Two more follow, and it is not long before Alix is waiting for me, pointing outside with the same grin as before.
“Unlike most other jobs, the living aren’t the only ones worth our concerns and interest,” one of the teachers back at my journalism school used to tell. How easy it was to agree with him when I didn’t stand where people had died, but I get what he meant – it’s up to us to tell their stories. To remember them. And my presence here is a way of having more people know of those merchant vessel operators than they could have ever thought. I hope, at least.
Gathering what little courage I think I have, I step forward into the unknown and let my suit gently stabilize me. I just have to move a little for it to understand which way I want to go and fire its gas exhaust ports accordingly. Damn, this is really easier than I thought.
The first thing I see is not the wreckage, surprisingly, but rather another Cutlass. It stands in the darkness with all its lights on – red, white, even an enormous spot probably meant to search for survivors during rescue operations. From my point of view, it looks just like the doors of heaven, in its own grim and ironic way.
I turn around and finally glimpse at the Caterpillar’s remains. The wreckage is resting perfectly still, roughly cut in four different sections. I would have thought debris to be sent in all directions and scattered over hundreds of kilometers, but the whole ship fits in my field of view, surprisingly. Cold, dead, and perfectly still. Was it not for the contractors already making their way to the main part of the destroyed ship, it would look like a picture. Frozen. Peaceful, nearly.
Alix waves at me from the front section of the wreckage. I orient myself and slowly propel my body toward hers, passing on the starboard side of the Cutlass. I even swear I can notice the pilots glancing at my funny way of swimming into space.
“We’re lucky,” she says as I reach her. “They are not always looking that good.”
I think she’s speaking about the ship for a second, but only when a faint white and blue silhouette catches my eye do I realize she is not. A body is standing perfectly still a dozen meters from us. A woman, apparently.
From here, it looks like she’s quietly resting underwater, bathing in space, laying on her back and letting the sunlight radiate on her skin. But she’s not. The sun’s rays cover her body, yes, and she’s indeed resting on her back in her underwear, but the slightly reddish tint of her widely opened eyes and nearly purple skin tell a whole different story. I’m standing a few meters away from a dead body, and yet it all seems so peaceful. Mesmerizing.
I’ve heard about people whose ships had been blown away and that had miraculously been brought back from the dead thanks to cutting-edge technology, but I’m pretty confident she won’t have that chance. It’s not so much about the likely size of her bank account, but rather has to do with a commodity we are all so desperately short on – time. The Caterpillar has been declared missing two days ago; it has simply been way too long for any body cell to stay alive in good enough condition to start any rebuilding process.
I explore the wreckage, cautiously following my guide and looking out for any power cable hanging from the ceiling while trying not to get electrocuted. We are all back aboard the Cutlass before I can really process what I have just been through. I’ll have the pictures at least – hopefully.
The ship departs as swiftly as it had arrived, and the contractors can finally let go of their helmets. So do I.
Alix looks over the two body bags her comrades had just gently laid on the ground, and I notice her grin has faded away. They couldn’t recover them all. The other crew members have probably been burned to ashes as the ship got destroyed, or sent thousands of kilometers away in a cascading depressurization. It hardly matters anymore.
“They’ll all be remembered, thanks to you,” I say in an effort to comfort her, stepping closer.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” she sighs after a second that felt like a whole minute, glancing away from the corpses. “Been remembered once we won’t be around anymore.”
I silently nod, but her last words keep resonating and I can’t shake them off my mind on the whole return trip. So many won’t have that luxury, but is that really a curse more than a blessing?
Zirmarg for Imperial Geographic, Stanton system