The Working Conditions of Shift Three

by P.L. McMillan

From CHM #37 July 2023

“No outward signs of trauma,” Morris said, loud enough for the ceiling-mounted mic to pick his voice up. “Body temperature still reads 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.”

He gripped the corpse by one shoulder and lifted it so he could examine its back, probing the muscles, checking along the ridges of the spine. Behind him, the medbay doors hissed open. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Engineering Officer Maybelle Golde.

“Nothing’s wrong with the cryopod as far as I can tell without fully taking it apart,” she said, grasping her elbows in a position that warmly reminded Morris of a child.

“I’m not seeing anything surface level on the body either. I’ll have to cut him open,” he replied.

Golde shifted back and forth on her feet. “Shouldn’t we get permission from the next of kin?”

Morris picked up a gleaming scalpel. “We can’t risk waiting until planetfall. We need to know what happened so we can protect the other passengers. The Company can issue a settlement if the family pushes it.”

“Alright, it’s your decision.” She flashed a half smile. “Happy to throw you under the bus.”

Morris made the first cut.

“Advanced desiccation of bodily organs.” He gently pushed the organs around, this way and that.

The Citizen had been found dead in his cryopod a few hours ago. Outwardly, he appeared to have just died, but internally his organs were dry and much of his blood was gone. Where there was once blood, there were now large scarlet jelly-like orbs nestled around vital organs. Morris scooped out one of those orbs and placed it into a tray. “Unnatural coagulation of subject’s blood…”

He poked the sphere with the point of his scalpel. Nothing. Pinning the orb with his forceps, Morris sliced in. The orb popped audibly, spraying a thick, viscous ichor across the tray and the front of his medical apron. By the door, Golde gasped sharply. He glanced up at her as she staggered back, averting her eyes. With a faint moan, she vomited on the floor.

Morris shook his head and smirked. “The blood…pod, for a lack of a better word, pops with incision. Will collect a sample and run scans.”

He removed the organs one by one, scraping off samples, and bagging them to be freeze-dried in case the Company wanted to conduct their own post-mortem study. He paused before stapling the now very hollow man closed.

“Huh.” he said and made another incision at the throat. “I’m seeing signs of excessive trauma and tears in the esophagus region.”

He poked at the torn flesh and ripped muscles. “Weird.”

* * *

 Morris picked at the sad lump of protein the food replicator had promised to be ‘meatloaf”. The mess hall door slid open and Navigational Officer Pavlo Holovko walked in, wiping his sweaty forehead with a cloth.

“Did you get that comms out to the Company?” Morris asked.

Holovko grunted, heading straight for the replicator. He punched through the menu, made his selection, and stood there, waiting.

“Golde didn’t find anything when she examined the cryopod, but I still think something went wrong with the hypersleep process. The Company might know more.” Morris pushed his plate away, deciding that the slice of carrot cake he’d replicated would be more than enough for a meal.

The replicator hummed as it processed Holovko’s meal. The mess hall door hissed open again and Golde entered, her face pale. She sat shakily across the table from Morris, glancing at his meal, then just as quickly looking away.

 Holovko sat with a heavy thump next to her, setting his food in front of him. “Not hungry, Golde?”

She shook her head.

“She saw her first dead body today,” Morris teased and she blushed, as he hoped she would.

“You didn’t authorize the autopsy with the Company,” Holovko said around the food he’d stuffed in his mouth.

“Did you send the comms?” Morris pressed again.

“Yah.” The other man returned to eating as if it were the only thing that had ever mattered to him.

Morris frowned. Holovko wasn’t initially assigned to be the Navigational Officer for shift three. Morris had been unpleasantly surprised upon waking out of hypersleep to see a strange face. All Holovko had said was that the original Navigational Officer had asked to switch so she could spend more time with her husband on a different colony shift.

Switches like these rarely happened. It made Morris uneasy. As an officer of science, he didn’t like to think he was superstitious, but at the same time, it felt like bad luck. The exodus of Ulingark had been hectic in those last few months as the neighbouring sun had faded slowly but surely. Hundreds of colony ships, stuffed full to the brim with Citizens, seedlings, and animal DNA, launched away from the cooling condemned planet to find new homes among the stars.

* * *

“Three more bodies,” Holovko grumbled, wiping his forehead.

Morris crouched next to the cryopod and looked at the output on its monitoring screen. “An alarm should have gone off, right? When he flat-lined? Isn’t there an alarm?”

Holovko shrugged. Footsteps echoed as Golde jogged over with her toolbelt jingling. She knelt next to Morris.

“Shouldn’t there have been an alarm?” he asked.

The Engineering Officer nodded, her strawberry blond hair bobbing around her face in gentle waves. “No alarm because the pod still thinks the Citizen is alive. The monitor is glitching and showing a faint heartbeat.”

Morris shook, stretching out his aching knees. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, too old to be moving planets, still it was what it was. His sweet tooth also didn’t help, giving him a generous belly which he had to heft around. “Holovko, help me move this body to medbay.”

“Another unapproved autopsy?” the other man frowned.

“We need to identify the source of these deaths,” Morris replied. “We have to stop the spread. Yesterday, it was one, today three. Tomorrow, ten?”

Holovko shrugged.

* * *

Seven bodies lay in airlock four, side by side.

“It’s disrespectful,” Golde said, biting her lip. “Their families might want to bury them once we make planetfall!”

Morris shook his head. “We can’t risk it if it’s an infection.”

“It’s not an infection,” Holovko said, wiping his face with a grubby cloth.

Morris’s chest swelled. His face flushed. “Oh yeah? What makes you say that?”

Holovko shrugged. “We would have got it by now. Especially you, doctor. Playing with so many dead bodies.”

“P—playing?!” Morris’s bald spot prickled with rage, his vision narrowing down to Holovko’s face.

“We should just put them back into their pods!” Golde began to sob, pressing her hands to her face.

Morris hadn’t bothered to autopsy these bodies. He could only assume he’d find the same as the others: desiccated organs, strange crimson blood orbs, throat trauma.

The light above the inner airlock door lit up and a loud alarm sounded. The outer door opened and the bodies disappeared in a flash, banging against each other and the doorframe as they were ejected into the void.

Beside him, Golde wept. Holovko wiped his face with his grimey handkerchief and just stared at the now empty airlock chamber.

Morris made a note to check into Holovko’s personnel file.

* * *

The food replicator gurgled, filled the air with the rich scent of fabricated coffee. Morris and Holovko sat across from each other, glaring. Golde eventually sat next to Morris, setting a mug in front of each of them. She’d made his the way he liked it—four sugars, a heap of powdered cream. She’d remembered.

“Thanks,” he said with a soft smile.

He noted that she looked pale still, frightened. She was young, probably this was her first deployment, and what a rough first mission. Normally colonization migrations were relatively calm, boring work.

“More bodies today,” Holovko said, digging into a bowl of eggs and oatmeal.

It upset Morris how cold and callous Holovko sounded about the loss of so many Citizen lives. He made it sound like a minor inconvenience rather than death. Though his file had failed to turn up anything, Morris felt it in his gut. Holovko couldn’t be trusted.

“Golde, anything?” Morris asked.

The Engineering Officer shook her head. “I’ve run every diagnostic test I can think of. I can’t pinpoint why the monitors produce a false heart rate or what might be causing the deaths. Do you think there is some kind of cryopod corruption? Maybe in the suspension compound?”

Morris nodded. “Though why we haven’t lost everyone at this point then, I’m not sure. The deaths are happening at random locations, all over the cryopod chamber, rather than in a particular sector.”

“Have we heard from the Company yet?” Golde asked, looking at Holovko.

“Nothing,” the man replied.

“And the bodies?” She turned to Morris. “Are you planning on ejecting them too?”

Morris shook his head. “We’ll leave them sealed for now. Until we understand more or get orders from HQ.”

Golde stood and left, arms wrapped around herself. Her coffee sat untouched on the table.

* * *

Morris snapped awake with a sickening abruptness. For a moment he sat upright on his small bunk, his heart thundering, staring at the opposite wall. His mind, still half asleep, wondered if his steady diet of cakes had finally come to take its reckoning in the form of a heart attack. Then a scream broke through the quiet. Another scream, Morris realized. Golde. He stumbled out of bed, nearly wiping out as his feet tangled in the blankets. Hopping free, he dashed out of his quarters, down the hall, where the echoes of terror still reverberated.

Just outside the bridge, he found her. Holovko straddled her, his hands clutching the neck of her jumpsuit as he shook her, violently slamming her head against the plexicarb floor. The small woman struggled, raking her nails across his face but the Navigational Officer only snarled and threw her harder against the floor.

Morris didn’t hesitate, leaping, barreling into the other man and knocking him away from Golde. He scrambled to his feet and sent a kick straight to the side of Holovko’s head. The Navigational Officer went limp with a haggard sigh. Breathing heavily, Morris turned to tend to Golde. She moaned, rolling away, clutching the back of her head, blood leaking between her fingers.

“Don’t worry, Golde,” he said, kneeling. “I’m here.”

She allowed him to pull her hands from her head, so he could examine her wound. It seemed surface level, nothing a few temporary stitches wouldn’t fix, and he sighed in relief. The woman shuddered and sat up.

“What the hell happened?” Morris asked.

Tears leaked from her eyes, running down her cheeks, but Golde’s voice was remarkably steady. “I was worried. About him. I snuck into the bridge and tried to pull up a record of the comms he was supposed to send the Company.”

Morris’s guts felt like lead, weighted down with foreboding. “Holovko didn’t send any comms, did he?”

She shook her head. “He caught me, I confronted him, then he…” She made a vague gesture, her eyes distant and unfocused.

* * *

With Golde resting in her bunk, Morris went to the brig. Holovko was awake, sitting on the plain plexicarb bed. Blood had crusted around the swelling over Holovko’s right cheekbone, where Morris had kicked him. Loathing ran through Morris’s veins like icicles at the sight of the implacable Navigational Officer.

“Why did you lie?” Morris asked.

“Lie?” he replied.

“About the comms, I know you never sent it.”

“I sent it,” Holovko replied, crossing his arms.

Morris shook his head. “Why else would you attack Golde after she found out?”

“She was spying on me, snooping where she didn’t belong,” Holovko replied.

“Of course she was spying on you!” Morris snapped. “You can’t be trusted! And the deaths? Is that you too?”

Holovko sighed, laid down, and turned his back to Morris.

* * *

Morris went to the bridge and sent out a brief comms, hoping it would be relayed quickly enough to the Company that they could help him. It was obvious to the Medical Officer that Holovko could not be allowed to continue in his capacity as Navigational Officer but whether the man should be forced back into hypersleep or vented into the void of space, Morris wasn’t sure.

As he made his way down the halls towards the crew bunk area, the ship felt quieter than usual. The heating vents whispered loudly over the humming of the wiring, the rumble of the oxygen scrubbers. Distantly something clanged, thumped. He shivered, running his hands over his arms, then knocked on Golde’s door.

No response. Worried about her state after her head injury, Morris activated the door which opened with a pneumatic hiss, revealing an empty room. He stepped back into the hall and hit his comms, “Golde, where are you?”

Static answered him.

He jogged to check the mess hall, the medbay, the engineering storage room, the communal showers; empty, empty, empty, empty.

His breaths came in shallow gasps as his jogging turned to running, turned to sprinting. His next stop: the brig.

Empty.

Bracing a hand against the wall, Morris bent over gasping. His heart beat a rebellious tempo against his ribs, threatening repercussions.

Holovko was gone. His cell door open. Somehow he’d managed to escape. Or worse, he tricked Golde into letting him out. Clutching a cramp in his left side, Morris stumbled out of the brig and went back to the medbay. If Holovko was loose, he’d need a weapon, and for that, Morris grabbed his favourite scalpel.

* * *

The cryopod chamber was dark, massive, quiet save for the incessant buzzing of machinery. Morris entered the room, the motion activated light directly overhead flashed on, and immediately he felt vulnerable, standing in the huge space. He tried his comms again, horribly aware that Holovko would be able to listen in as well.

“Golde? Are you okay?”

A susurrus of static.

He took another step, another light flashed overhead. Besides these lights and the dim green glow from the pods, the room was wreathed in shadow.

“Golde?” he called.

He gripped his gold medallion. Morris never considered himself a cowardly man but, alone and surrounded by the corpse-like figures of his fellow Citizens, the Medical Officer couldn’t bring himself to go farther into the chamber.

On the third story balcony level, another light flicked on.

Morris’s palms were slick with sweat, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

“Golde?” he called.

The light flicked off.

Morris stumbled back, his free hand reaching blindly behind him, seeking the door while he held the scalpel in front of him defensively.

The same light flicked on and he froze. He activated his comms again, his voice even softer, a whisper, “Golde?”

A high pitched scream ripped through the air, shattering the silence, and lighting his nerves on fire. The intensity of it, the sheer volume, was maddening, filling his chest with an intense pressure—a primal fear. The scream went on forever, an eternity, then cut off, dousing Morris in a silence even worse than the sound.

He turned and ran.

* * *

Morris didn’t go far. In fact, he stopped as soon as the cryopod chamber doors hissed shut. Pressing himself against the wall opposite, he forced himself to breathe. Holovko was just a man, after all. Morris had to apprehend him. He had to save Golde, if he could. Yet, he couldn’t muster the courage to go back into the chamber and, instead, waited.

A minute passed, then five, and his heart rate resumed normal rhythm, his breathing regulated. Ten minutes, then twenty, the doors hissed open and Holovko stepped into the hall.

The Navigational Officer was drenched in blood, so much of it that it dripped in long ropes, trailed behind him in a macabre path of crimson horror. In one hand, Holovko clutched a large wrench, his other was pressed to his chest in a fist. The man’s lips were torn up, his face a map of mottled bruises. Reeking of copper, Holovko looked up at Morris and took another step forward.

Morris lunged, Holovko snarled, revealing shattered teeth, and raised his wrench, but Morris was faster and slashed Holovko across the neck. The wrench clipped Morris’s elbow, he spun away but the impact was enough to make him drop his weapon. He scrabbled for it as the blade skittered away on the plexicarb floor. A low moan caused him to look up. Holovko clutched his throat, slipped on the blood pooled at his feet and fell. His legs kicked, his feet beat a faint tempo on the floor, fast then slow, then still.

Morris grabbed the scalpel, approached cautiously.

The Navigational Officer’s eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling. Slowly, Morris knelt and fumbled at Holovko’s throat, seeking a pulse while avoiding the gaping smile he’d sliced there. The man was dead.

Standing, Morris wiped his hand on the leg of his jumpsuit, and stared down at the officer’s body. He wondered at the absolute lack of remorse and dismay he felt killing a man. All he felt was distaste. Relief.

Then he remembered Golde and guilt washed over him for having forgotten her. He made his way back into the chamber and up to the third level, where he’d seen the light. It was easy to follow the trail of carnage Holovko had left, but he didn’t find Golde at the end of it. There was just a pool of blood and nothing else.

* * *

Back on the bridge, Morris stared at the new message from the Company: Received the two comms. Continue voyage, mitigate loss as much as possible. Cyrolock Holovko.

“Received the two comms?” Morris whispered to himself.

Behind him, the bridge door hissed open. He grabbed the scalpel, now covered in a fine coating of rust-coloured crust, and turned.

“Morris.” Golde stood, backlit by the hall light.

“You lied,” Morris said, his voice almost a whine.

The small woman stepped into the room. She was pale, her hair lank and greasy around her face, her lips and clothes stained burgundy with blood.

“Why? Why did you lie?” Morris shouted, brandishing the knife out in front of him.

She shrugged. “He caught me studying his star maps and flight path. He was smart—too smart. Guessed that I was learning how to fly this beast myself.”

“You—you tricked me!”

“It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” she said. “I figured we could finish out the shift together, then I’d stay up. Lock everyone in cryosleep, manage planetfall…”

Morris’s vision narrowed to tunnels as he watched her, every muscle tense and aching, his grip on the scalpel painfully tight.

“He just wouldn’t stop watching me, following me.” She shook her head. “It’s unfortunate, but not unmanageable.”

Golde lunged towards him, but Morris was ready, slashing left-right, right-left with his knife. The razor sharp blade caught her hand, her left shoulder, slicing through her flesh like it was nothing. Blood spouted, hot and thick, as she flinched back with a cry. Morris followed through, intending to do what he had to do to ensure his own survival, except she turned, ripped the cover off the closest vent, and slithered inside at an inhuman speed.

Alone now on the bridge, Morris listened. Thuds, rasp of cloth against metal, growing distant, then gone.

There were vents everywhere. Morris thought of the cryopod chamber, the pool of blood, the absence of the body he’d expected to find. He knew if he went back there and looked again, he’d find a vent without its cover. Too late now.

Switching the scalpel to his other hand, Morris wiped the sweat from his palm, never taking his eyes from the exposed vent. Overhead, a snap. He looked up as she fell on him from above, kicking the knife from his hand. His knees gave out at the impact and Morris crumpled.

She was far stronger than he expected, snapping his wrists, rendering him defenseless as she pinned his head between her hands. Golde smiled, then tilted her head back.

Her throat bulged, discoloured to a deep, violent purple. The muscles in her neck strained, distended, as her mouth stretched wide, and her jaw dislocated. Her tongue snaked out, longer than any human’s, muscular and prehensile. Tipped with a hollow needle point, Golde’s tongue stretched three feet from her mouth. She looked down at him, smiling around it, before she plunged it downward, piercing through his lips, shattering his clenched teeth.

His throat shredded and stretched, Golde’s tongue skewered him. The pain was unlike anything he had ever known, unbearable waves overwhelming his mind. His sanity drowned in agony, until tears ran down his cheeks, until he wanted to beg for Golde to kill him.

Tenderly, like a lover, she stroked his cheeks with her delicate fingers and closed her eyes. Morris batted at her with his broken hands, kicked at the floor but found no traction.

An intense cold settled over him, followed by a sensation of lightness, of being emptied. Of a void new within him. His head buzzed. The roaring in his ears deafened him. His limbs went limp without permission, falling to the floor.

His chest felt as though it were deflating, his lungs collapsing, his heart struggled, fluttered, desperate to keep him alive, though now, he wanted death. His mind broke, finally, relief in a way as everything grew distant, the pain became an echo.

Golde hunched over him, going still. Her body bloated with the new blood, she was almost twice her original size. Her skin no longer pale but lively and soft, her hair now thick and full. Her massive tongue convulsed, trembled as she arched. Her throat dimpled, dully glowing red orbs pressing against her skin and slithering up, up her throat, into her tongue. The tongue’s surface pimpled with the orbs, as they travelled down, down into his throat, his body. The taste of musk, copper, sour pus filled his mouth.

The sucking sensation reversed. Something new, no less terrible, a feeling of fullness, of being fit to burst. A fever-heat, balls of star-sparks in his body, infesting his lungs, his belly, his groin.

Morris prayed he would choke, die. He prayed for release. His stomach grew distended, new pain as his skin stretched to accommodate. Golde reared back and her tongue ripped from his, dripping blood as it returned inside her.

She threw him over her shoulder and took him to his cryopod.

* * *

Morris woke from the vestiges of a bad dream, of sucking mouths, of crimson eggs, of desiccated corpses, and found himself in his cryopod. He felt weak and stared at the raised lid above him. Around him people screamed, pain drenched wails of the damned.

His belly rumbled, a rib cracked. He looked down and saw his flesh boiling with movement, faint limbs pressing against the fleshy prison of his body. Another rib cracked. In front of him, a body fell from an upper floor, smashed against the floor. The screaming grew louder, all around him, everyone was screaming. Morris opened his mouth to join, instead his throat split, as the creatures inside scrambled to find their way out, find their first breath.

End.

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P.L. McMillan’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of anthologies and magazines such as Cosmic Horror Monthly, Strange Lands Short Stories, Negative Space, and AHH! That’s What I Call Horror, as well as adapted to audio forms for podcasts like NoSleep and Nocturnal Transmissions. In addition to her short stories, McMillan’s debut collection, What Remains When The Stars Burn Out, and debut novella, Sisters of the Crimson Vine, are available now. Besides being a fiction writer, PLM has experience as an editor (Howls from the Dark Ages and an upcoming anthology from Salt Heart Press), hosts PLM Talks on Youtube (interviewing peers and professionals in the horror industry), and is the co-host of a horror writing craft podcast, Dead Languages Podcast. Find her on her website: plmcmillan.com

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