Morgue Ship

This was Burnett's last trip. Three more shelves to fill with space-slain warriors--and he would be among the living again.

Genre: Science fiction
Year:
1944
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He heard the star-port grind open, and the movement of the metal claws groping into space, and then the star-port closed. There was another dead man aboard the Constellation. Sam Burnett shook his long head, trying to think clearly. Pallid and quiet, three bodies lay on the cold transparent tables around him; machines stirred, revolved, hummed. He didn't see them. He didn't see anything but a red haze over his mind. It blotted out the far wall of the laboratory where the shelves went up and down, numbered in scarlet, keeping the bodies of soldiers from all further harm. Burnett didn't move. He stood there in his rumpled white surgical gown, staring at his fingers gloved in bone-white rubber; feeling all tight and wild inside himself. It went on for days. Moving the ship. Opening the star-port. Extending the retriever claw. Plucking some poor warrior's body out of the void. He didn't like it any more. Ten years is too long to go back and forth from Earth to nowhere. You came out empty and you went back full-cargoed with a lot of warriors who didn't laugh or talk or smoke, who just lay on their shelves, all one hundred of them, waiting for a decent burial. "Number ninety-eight." Coming matter of fact and slow, Rice's voice from the ceiling radio hit Burnett. "Number ninety-eight," Burnett repeated. "Working on ninety-five, ninety-six and ninety-seven now. Blood-pumps, preservative, slight surgery." Off a million miles away his voice was talking. It sounded deep. It didn't belong to him anymore. Rice said: "Boyohbody! Two more pick-ups and back to New York. Me for a ten-day drunk!" Burnett peeled the gloves off his huge, red, soft hands, slapped them into a floor incinerator mouth. Back to Earth. Then spin around and shoot right out again in the trail of the war-rockets that blasted one another in galactic fury, to sidle up behind gutted wrecks of ships, salvaging any bodies still intact after the conflict. Two men. Rice and himself. Sharing a cozy morgue ship with a hundred other men who had forgotten, quite suddenly, however, to talk again. Ten years of it. Every hour of those ten years eating like maggots inside, working out to the surface of Burnett's face, working under the husk of his starved eyes and starved limbs. Starved for life. Starved for action. This would be his last trip, or he'd know the reason why! "Sam!" Burnett jerked. Rice's voice clipped through the drainage-preservative lab, bounded against glassite retorts, echoed from the refrigerator shelves. Burnett stared at the tabled bodies as if they would leap to life, even while preservative was being pumped into their veins. "Sam! On the double! Up the rungs!" Burnett closed his eyes and said a couple of words, firmly. Nothing was worth running for any more. Another body. There had been one hundred thousand bodies preceding it. Nothing unusual about a body with blood cooling in it. Shaking his head, he walked unsteadily toward the rungs that gleamed up into the air-lock, control-room sector of the rocket. He climbed without making any noise on the rungs. He kept thinking the one thing he couldn't forget. You never catch up with the war. All the color is ahead of you. The drive of orange rocket traces across stars, the whamming of steel-nosed bombs into elusive targets, the titanic explosions and breathless pursuits, the flags and the excited glory are always a million miles ahead. He bit his teeth together. You never catch up with the war. You come along when space has settled back, when the vacuum has stopped trembling from unleashed forces between worlds. You come along in the dark quiet of death to find the wreckage plunging with all the fury of its original acceleration in no particular direction. You can only see it; you don't hear anything in space but your own heart kicking your ribs. You see bodies, each in its own terrific orbit, given impetus by grinding collisions, tossed from mother ships and dancing head over feet forever and forever with no goal. Bits of flesh in ruptured space suits, mouths open for air that had never been there in a hundred billion centuries. And they kept dancing without music until you extended the retriever-claw and culled them into the air-lock. That was all the war-glory he got. Nothing but the stunned, shivering silence, the memory of rockets long gone, and the shelves filling up all too quickly with men who had once loved laughing. You wondered who all the men were; and who the next ones would be. After ten years you made yourself blind to them. You went around doing your job with mechanical hands. But even a machine breaks down.... "Sam!" Rice turned swiftly as Burnett dragged himself up the ladder. Red and warm, Rice's face hovered over the body of a sprawled enemy official. "Take a look at this!" Burnett caught his breath. His eyes narrowed. There was something wrong with the body; his experienced glance knew that. He didn't know what it was. Maybe it was because the body looked a little too dead. Burnett didn't say anything, but he climbed the rest of the way, stood quietly in the grey-metal air-lock. The enemy official was as delicately made as a fine white spider. Eyelids, closed, were faintly blue. The hair was thin silken strands of pale gold, waved and pressed close to a veined skull. Where the thin-lipped mouth fell open a cluster of needle-tipped teeth glittered. The fragile body was enclosed completely in milk-pale syntha-silk, a holstered gun at the middle. Burnett rubbed his jaw. "Well?" Rice exploded. His eyes were hot in his young, sharp-cut face, hot and black. "Good Lord, Sam, do you know who this is?" Burnett scowled uneasily and said no. "It's Lethla!" Rice retorted. Burnett said, "Lethla?" And then: "Oh, yes! Kriere's majordomo. That right?" "Don't say it calm, Sam. Say it big. Say it big! If Lethla is here in space, then Kriere's not far away from him!"
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Alice MacGowan

Ray Douglas Bradbury was an American author and screenwriter. One of the most celebrated 20th- and 21st-century American writers, he worked in a variety of genres including fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery fiction. more…

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