6 min read

Bare Metal | Chapter Seventeen

Bare Metal | Chapter Seventeen
Photo by runnyrem / Unsplash

MS Glacial Adventurer
Somewhere in the Arctic Ocean

Simone couldn’t stand it anymore. Her eyes burned and watered. Snot poured from her nose in an endless river. She could barely see. Barely think. She slowed her pace, just a little, and with one hand, reached up and tugged at the scarf covering her nose and mouth. As soon as she did this, the laundry cart she was pushing veered off course and plowed straight into the wall on her right with a loud crash. A putrid odor wafted up from the bin, sending her reeling away. The sickly-sweet ammonia stench of death permeated the air of the hallway. It was impossible to escape. Every instinct told her to turn and run for fresh air.

But she didn’t. She had a job to do.

“Hey!” A man called out from behind her. “Are you alright?”

Simone held up a hand to indicate she needed a second.

“Jesus!” The guy said as he pulled up alongside her. “That guy reeks.”

Simone grimaced. She didn’t need this idiot to state the obvious. She needed him to get the hell out of the way so she could get this over with.

“Do you need any help?”

“No. I’ll be fine,” Simone said. She glanced along the corridor toward the door at the far end. She could make it. She grabbed the handle and steered her cart forcefully back toward the center of the passageway and she marched onward.

A minute later she was outside with open sky above her. Light rain pissed on her, not quite enough to soak her, but enough to make her hair damp and to make the deck slick like grease. Ominous black clouds clumped on the horizon, promising worse weather to come.

But at least she couldn’t smell the dead anymore.

Simone navigated past several lifeboats before finally coming to a stop around mid-ship. Miles was there, along with Colin. Behind them was an unlocked section of retracted railing, leading to an abrupt drop straight to the sea.

“Easy does it,” Miles said, guiding Simone in like she was parallel parking on a crowded street. “You’re almost there.”

Simone stopped about a foot before the precipice and took a deep breath. She despised this part. It all felt so God-damned impersonal. She turned her gaze away as Miles and Colin gently tilted the dolly, allowing the putrid corpse of the man inside to roll out on a blue tarpaulin. The reek of decomposition exploded in intensity. Simone glanced up at the sound of caster wheels approaching from her rear. She righted her cart and dragged it aside, making room for the guy from inside. As soon as she was clear, Miles and Colin closed in on either side of the dead man. On a count of two, they lifted the end of the tarp, shifting the weight toward the precipice. The body slipped into the void. A faint splash a moment later announced the man’s arrival at his final resting place.

The first bodies dumped over the side had belonged to  loved ones and friends of survivors. After that, the process became almost routine, like cleaning out an attic or a garage. Pickup. Transport. Dump. Repeat.

Simone hated it. She hated every single second of it. But it had to be done. A warm front had moved in earlier in the week, and the dead had begun to thaw. The smell was unbearable. The last she had heard, this deck was almost clear. Once that was done, they would move to the next, and keep working until the entire ship was purged.

“Have you seen Oscar around today?” Miles asked, massaging his hand. It had been almost a week since their altercation.

Simone shook her head. “No. Not today.”

Miles flexed his fingers. “We’ll let’s hope it stays that way. The less I see of him the better.”

Simone couldn’t agree more.

***

Oscar was waiting in the vestibule when Simone went back inside for her next body. He watched in silence as she pulled open the exterior doors and muscled her cart through, making no effort to help the entire time. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung low in the enclosed space, making Simone’s eyes water. She wanted nothing more than to get away from this man, but he blocked her way forward.

“The smoke helps with the smell,” Oscar said, taking a long drag and exhaling a fresh stream of smoke. “Don’t you think?”

Simone glanced up and down the corridor, searching for someone, anyone, to intercede, but there was no-one. Oscar’s behavior since shooting Miles had become increasingly erratic. Frightening, even. He spent days at a time either roaming the halls or sequestered in his cabin, coming out under the cover of night only long enough to dole out rations for the next day. Any attempt to speak with him, to talk some reason into him, was met with complete silence. His promise to work on the communication and propulsion systems had gone unfulfilled. Everyone was busy disposing of the dead.

“Have you seen the nurse?” He said, stepping close. The smell of his breath was almost worse than that of the dead body she had just dumped overboard. Simone stifled the urge to gag and shook her head.

Oscar moved closer. “Are you sure? I know you’re friends with her.”

Simone wanted to melt into the wall. “I’m sure she’ll be back soon.”

“Can you help me look for her, then?” He asked. “I need to speak with her.”

Simone glanced down at her cart and then back up at Oscar. His eyes shone with an uncharacteristic desperation. For a moment, she felt a twinge of pity. Only for a moment, though.

“Sure. I guess,” she said, sliding to the side and putting some much needed space between them. “She’s probably upstairs, on the bridge.” This was only a guess, but it would give her an excuse to get away from the stench of death on this deck.

“No.”

She stopped short. “No?”

Oscar put his hand to his mouth and stifled a cough. “I’ve already checked. She’s down here. Somewhere.” He coughed again, a deep wet hack that came from the far recesses of his lungs. He didn’t bother covering his mouth. “I need to find her. Now. It’s important.”

Simone couldn’t tell what he really wanted, but it was clear he wasn’t going to leave her alone.

“Fine,” she said. “Let’s go.”

***

“Strange,” Simone muttered as she and Oscar arrived the far end of the corridor. “Where did everyone go? There were several people clearing rooms down here just a little while ago.”

Oscar said nothing.

Simone glanced over her shoulder in the direction from which they had just come, expecting at any moment to see someone emerge from a cabin pushing a laundry cart full of dead people.

Oscar put up a finger and cocked his head. “Wait. Do you hear that—”

“No,” Simone said, instantly realizing her error as she recognized the echo of footfalls descending in a nearby stairwell. The door swung open with a bang and Scott, Gemma, Miles, and Colin spilled out. They took up position in a half-circle around her and Oscar.

“What the hell are you all doing?” Oscar asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. To Gemma, he added “and where have you been? You know you’re not supposed to leave Marie alone.”

“Your wife is safe,” Gemma replied. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

“We need to talk,” Miles said to Oscar, taking a half-step forward.

Oscar crossed his hands over his chest and planted his feet at shoulder width. He bristled with defiance. “Say what you have to say.”

“We want the weapon,” Miles said with steel in his voice. “And the keys to the food.”

Oscar smiled and put his hand on the butt of the pistol. “And what would you do with my gun if I were to give it to you? Haven’t we already had this discussion?”

Simone thought back to the previous day, when Gemma had asked her, unprompted, what she thought of Oscar. She had answered that he often seemed distracted, and that while she didn’t agree with all his decisions, especially locking up the food supply, she accepted his authority out of necessity. In hindsight, she now realized the question had been a test, and that she may have failed.

“We’ve decided we should store the weapon in a more secure location,” Gemma said, gesturing at the pistol. “Where no one else can be hurt.”

Miles and Colin shared a look. Out of the corner of her eye, Simone caught a faint nod of acknowledgment from Scott.

Oscar rolled his neck. “And if I say no?”

This seemed to be the cue the other men had been waiting for. Miles and Colin rushed forward.

“Get back!” Scott shouted at Simone, shoving her aside.

“What the—”

The gun cracked and Miles fell to the floor, clutching at his stomach.

“Miles!” Gemma said, taking a step toward the fallen man.

“No!” Oscar growled, swiveling the pistol in her direction. “Get back!”

Gemma pointed at Miles. “But we need to help him!”

Oscar stared into Gemma’s eyes for a second, then stepped over Miles until he straddled his chest. With a casualness that chilled Simone to her core, he pointed the pistol at Miles’ face and pulled the trigger twice.

“No,” Oscar said in a dead voice. “We don’t.”

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