July 17, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Death Ship

[An excerpt from a long-in-the-works short story.]

The bright morning sunlight belied the dark mission that the U.S.S. Charon pursued. The cheery, indifferent sun smiled down from a clear blue sky, just as it had for the last five billion years. The death of a few thousand more human beings meant nothing to it.

Pluto put on his sunglasses and pulled his cap farther down on his head. After two years of duty on this ship, he felt more at home in the bowels of the cargo hold than in the crisp topside air. At least the frothy water of the Adriatic seemed to pay some respect to the Charon's errand. Whitecaps speckled the surface of the restless sea, and spray borne aloft by a stiff breeze misted the ship's bulkheads with weepy droplets.

In the distance, columns of smoke rose from various parts of Trieste's outskirts. Closer, Pluto could just make out their next load of cargo: hundreds of metal boxes neatly stacked on the quay. He shook his head bitterly. How orderly, how neat death had become. The Wartime Repatriation Act may have forced the military to return casualties to their loved ones, rather than burying them abroad and erecting sterile monuments, but the logistics of casualty collection and transport were still handled with precise military efficiency. No flags at half-staff here, no weeping widows standing on the pier. No humanizing of their cargo. The contents of those metal boxes may have lived and breathed last time they were on this pier, but now they waited to be stored in the cargo hold of the Charon just like the provisions and ammunition being loaded onto the two warships moored on either side of the pier.

As Pluto turned to go back inside until docking was completed, a sun-browned deckhand intercepted him. "Light load today, eh Pluto?"

Pluto stared back at him blankly. "Yes, for once."

"Maybe I'll be able to get back to my poker game before my next watch." He lit a cigarette and spat over the side. "How's it looking down below? Getting pretty full? I'm ready for another liberty stop in Venice."

"It's always too full."

"War is hell, man. And we work in Purgatory." He cackled at his own joke and shook another cigarette out of its package. "Smoke?"

Pluto shook his head. "No thanks, I have to get back down below."

The man threw his butt overboard. "Yeah, me too. I still haven't gotten in on the pool. The pot's up to a thousand bucks this time."

Pluto's mind whirled with terrible thoughts as he clambered down the ladder, away from the crowded mess deck and into the silent hold. The dead were nothing but cargo to his shipmates. A load of supplies to bet on. These dead had dollars thrown before them, not lilies.

He entered his small workspace and rechecked his supplies for the tenth time. The bodies would have been embalmed already, but he laid out the formaldehyde and prepped the embalming machine nevertheless. His makeup kit also sat at the ready. This was a personal choice—it wasn't standard issue for a mortician's mate. The Navy frowned upon such final preparations, preferring to leave such work to the civilians back stateside. But Pluto's chief turned a blind eye to this minor transgression, knowing what it meant to Pluto to have a hand in giving the dead back a little dignity.


©2003 Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year (almost), I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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July Columns:

7/21: Hiatus
7/17: Death Ship
7/16: The Da Vinci Code
7/15: Bad Moon Rising
7/14: Adios, Compay
7/13: Ty Odeh
7/10: Muse
7/6: Memories
7/4: On the Road Again
7/3: Onion Valley
7/2: Happy Independence Day
Previous months in The Archive

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