‘Killing and Dying’
Writing: Albertine Clarke
On the seventy-seventh day of our trip, I noticed that Jason was trying to kill me. There was nothing that particularly distinguished that day from any other: we were in orbit around a small, unremarkable planet, monitoring it for signs of life. It was grey, and rather ugly. Jason wrote lab reports at the table in the kitchen, strands of his thinning hair falling sporadically onto the wet ink, leaving smudges. He did not look different, but the unveiling of his capability for murder gave him an unfamiliar feeling. He insisted on writing with a fountain-pen, believing that it gave his reports an intellectual touch. I watched his balding head dip over the rolling lines of numbers from the other side of the glass wall that separated the kitchen from the laboratory.
Seventy-seven days. Surely, with all that time, he would have managed it? The ship was designed to mimic the day/night rhythms of Earth, with LED lights that faded gently into a sunset substitute in the evening, and dawned nine hours later: I had become conscious of his murderous intent when I watched him, in the middle of the fake-night, pour acid granules into the large tub of instant coffee that sat on the kitchen counter. Had I ingested this mixture, I would have coughed up shreds of my own lungs until it became impossible to breathe. Resisting the urge to confront him, I watched his face betray his confusion the next morning, when I declared that I was sick of coffee, and would from that point onwards be drinking only water.
I was not surprised. He did not hide his frustration with me well: when I filled out charts in non-standardised shorthand, using the less elegant method, he clenched his fists so hard that small drops of blood ran down his palms, staining the white linen of his uniform. I left mugs in the sink, and watched him on the CCTV as he paced the kitchen, muttering to himself under his breath, picking them up, putting them back, before washing them in an explosion of soapy rage. He cut his fingers on the the scalpels I left bare, leaving red fingerprints across the laboratory as he searched desperately for the plastic cases, which resided in my pockets. I had not intended to torture him - I did not know why, when he asked me if I knew where the scalpel covers were, I said no.
He finished writing his report, and sat back in his chair, closing his eyes. I could tell he was upset. Did he feel guilty? I wondered if he would try again. I had my back to him, but I could see him in the reflection of the glass before me. He opened his eyes and looked at me, unblinking, like a snake.
On the seventy-eight day, he seemed to burn up with remorse. I could see the redness creeping beneath his skin when our eyes met, like a rash. He could not scratch it, for fear of arousing my suspicion.
In the middle of the seventy-ninth night, I woke up. He was standing in the corridor, watching me through the glass of my sleeping-pod. It was never really dark on the ship, as the celestial light of space streamed in through the windows, and I could see that he was bleeding from the head. He had ripped out his hair in handfuls, which he held like a bunch of flowers. He wiped his face, leaving a red smear on his sleeve. It was a shame - he didn’t have that much hair to begin with, but what had been there was fine, and dark. I was afraid of him. The door to my sleeping-pod did not lock. After approximately half an hour, he turned, wandered away down the soft carpet of the corridor.
The next morning, there was no evidence of his erratic behaviour. He had cleaned the blood from the floor, and changed his uniform. He shredded the bloodstained shirt and threw it out of the airlock, where, instead of vanishing into the nothingness, it orbited our ship, passing the kitchen window every few minutes, like a blood-stained ghost. His head was bandaged, but he did not mention it. I wondered if I should mention it, innocently. Outside, I felt the probing fingers of the vacuum. Any small crack would provide a sufficient opening through which the blackness could rush, crushing us, two sparks of life in a lifeless place, two things which should not exist.
I kept close to him. I felt comfortable when he was in my line of sight, unable to slip away to cut a hole in my space-suit, or unscrew the valves in my oxygen tank. He clearly resented this, and wanted to be alone. I wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him, tell him that in twenty-one days we would set foot on Earth, and everything would feel alright again: the damp soil would drink up his guilt and redistribute it. I was afraid he might shatter. I could see the strain with which he held himself together.
Strange scratches began to appear on the walls. I rewound the CCTV, and watched Jason clawing at the white plastic like an animal, until his fingernails ripped, leaving long, red lines. Blood had no place in our sanitised, plastic home, but it was everywhere, a trail for me to sniff out and follow, like a dog. Every now and again, barely audible on the crackling audio feed, he would say ‘let me out’. I wondered if he was infected with something, some mite of stardust which had wandered in through his ear, and settled in the centre of his brain.
I was woken in the night to a knocking on the door of my sleeping-pod. It was Jason, wrapped in what appeared to be a bedsheet. I had concealed a kitchen-knife beneath my pillow, in case of attack, and took hold of it now.
‘What do you want?’
He looked extremely distressed. It was as if he was trying to speak, but a large hand held him by the throat, stopping the noises from emerging. I opened the door and went out into the corridor.
‘I know you tried to kill me’
He shook his head, and tears bloomed in his eyes like flowers. I felt suddenly angry.
‘How dare you’
I hit him, across the face. The swiftness with which he fell was pathetic. I wanted to stamp on his head until it collapsed. The grey planet hung outside our window, impartial.
The white plastic walls made the blood look like paint. It swung in delicate arcs, fine lines inter-webbed with larger patches, still gleaming wet. The kitchen knife, which had been in my hand, had transferred itself to Jason’s chest. I wondered how that had happened. The bloody shirt swung past the window. These thoughts grow like invasive weeds in the soil of the mind. On the eighty-first day, I was alone.