The memory of the klaxons still sound in my ears despite the heavy pressure door slamming shut moments ago. Without warning I’m thrust back against the bulkhead, cushioned only by the unforgiving jump seat between me and the cold metal wall. Strong g-forces compress my whole body and I momentarily black out, thankful for the forced break from my own panic. The ship is gone and I am alone. Nobody else came. The small pod is empty except for the corpse strapped in opposite me. An unnatural grin is wired to his face as the silent passenger sleeps through the danger. There are two corpses in this pod, or at least there will be given enough time. A coffin big enough for two.
The recycled air is fresher than it was on the ship. I can taste the newness of the oxygen, bitter and smelling faintly of plastic. The pod’s thrusters cut as we begin to drift into the emptiness. The corpse lifts up and away from the wall harness in the absence of gravity. A hastily secured buckle gives way and my grave companion floats soundlessly before me. His closed eyes stare at me as he drifts past. I can see the ridges of the eye caps poking from under his eyelids, keeping them shut in a false sleep.
My own harness bites into my shoulders as my body tries to float away uncontrolled. I too am a corpse floating in this metal casket, except my eyes are wide open, and my jaw unwired. I begin to scream silently in protest of this half burial. Yet the tears don’t stream down my face, instead they bubble and peel off around me. How I miss that sad comfort of hot tears running down my cheeks. I struggle hard against the harness and yell and scream aloud this time, with much the same effect, cursing the teachers who put me here. I claw uselessly against the apprentice stripes sewn into my jumpsuit, willing them to come away and free me from this fate.
The corpse bumps into the roof of the pod and turns in on itself, contorted with limbs splaying out in an unnatural state. My rage interrupted, I stare at this mess of flesh and bone, no amount of post-mortem tricks and embalming fluid can keep up the appearance of slumber in this state. I begin to laugh, my tears floating around my eyes. How long till I join him, how long till my own body becomes a floating corpse unable to look after itself? There will be no posing for my body, no fake slumber, no one to mourn over me in this state. I suddenly feel envious of the dead man. He has me to grieve for him. I only have myself.
I unbuckle the harness and with trepidation push myself gently across the empty void, colliding messily with the corpse. We wrestle for a moment, free falling through the pod’s interior coming to rest against the far wall. I hook my foot around one of the support rails and gently coax the body back towards the jump seat. As I begin to buckle him in I take the time to look over his strange clothes. Growing up I only saw academy uniforms, or that of higher ranking members when they returned for a respite, or to lecture.
This man, this body, is dressed in a plain white uniform that could be military in nature. The large medals pinned to his chest and various lengths of gilded braids that hang from his shoulders backed this assumption up. I wondered who he was and what he had been. Was he respected or despised in life? Is he missed or ignored in death? The body was already on the ship when I arrived, my only interaction was when an unknown crew member buckled him in to the pod and told me not to leave his side.
In tending to his body, my panic was replaced by a familiar calmness. At the academy I would often sit with corpses, waiting with them for viewings, or for their next step in the death process. My hands worked lightly over his uniform, straightening it out, fixing buttons, making him look presentable in death. There can still be dignity in death, I recall one of my teachers saying. Something I saw no reason for, to be honest. Once you’re dead you cease caring about dignity.
But looking into those closed eyes, wisps of stray grey hair floating across his face, I could begin to see it and strangely wanted it for myself. I thought of bouncing around this pod, my arms bent at wrong angles, as my own long brown hair spilled about in free fall. Would I have to lock myself into a harness and wait to die, just to preserve what little dignity I had left? This nameless dead man wordlessly serving as my death doula, keeping me company while the oxygen slowly ran out and I gasped and thrashed against the inevitability of death. His eyes closed in a knowing expression, telling me it will be ok death doesn’t hurt, only the transition from life does.
I looked up at his face, searching for the kind of comfort a dead man could bring to a dying woman. I brushed his hair back and pushed my forehead against his and sighed. What was more useless, the living comforting the dead or the dead comforting the living? Releasing my foot from its hold I relaxed backwards, letting the gentle momentum of the pod slowly carry me away from my companion. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds around me. The gentle hum of the pod’s support systems, the consistent clicks from various control panels, and the rush of air from the vents. I breathed deep, for that’s all I could do in this moment. I was trapped between worlds, both as a carer for the dead, and the soon to be.
In this moment I began to recognise the need for those rituals and viewings I had so readily dismissed in my classes. Those little moments that allow us to mourn in our own way. When the time came I would mourn for myself, alone, half alive in my shared coffin. But that time was yet to come. While I still drew breath there was life, and with it came hope. I opened my eyes and decided to try living.