Clay opened her eyes slowly as she came back from the brink of nothingness, her head pounded and her chest burned. She could feel the hard bed through the thin mattress beneath her and was vaguely aware of the heavy blankets covering her clothed body. After a while the pounding in her head gave way to the muted sounds of conversation going on around, but not directed at her. Clay couldn’t yet turn her head but she was aware of another bed in the room. The voices around her seemed interested in whomever was occupying it. She concentrated on the gentle sound of a woman as it questioned a soft spoken masculine voice.
'Do you recognise the uniform, Shin?' asked the woman as she looked over the body laying in the infirmary.
'Not really, captain, it could be from any number of planets,’ came the reply. ‘Pretty standard military uniform, gold piping, medals aren’t that significant. Probably from a fairly established outer colony.'
The captain looked the body over, an older man with short grey hair, his crisp white uniform looked new and stood in contrast to the black and grey of the ship. 'Facial recognition would be pointless then,’ she said, ‘without narrowing down the focus to a planet it’ll take years to get a result.'
Shin hummed in agreement.
'What about her?' the captain said, pointing over to Clay. Clay froze and closed her eyes, trying to hide her consciousness from them.
'She’s an apprentice to The Order, if those stripes on her uniform are to be believed.'
'Well that would explain why she was in an escape pod with a corpse.'
'Does it?' asked Shin, raising their eyebrows at the captain.
'They were probably transporting the body back home. But why would you put a corpse into a pod? The Order has its flaws but they don’t tend to prioritise the dead over the living.'
'From what the black box tells us, this was the only escape pod that launched before contact with the ship was cut off,’ said Shin, punching up the flight data on a nearby console.
'Something is not right about all this…'
'Well,’ said Shin, ‘you could probably just ask her, she’s been awake for a while now.'
The captain glared at them before moving to loom over Clay. ‘Is that right?’
Clay squeezed her eyes tight but the sudden silence in the room became too much to bare. Carefully she opened one eye and then the other to see a woman frowning down at her. Black hair pulled back tightly into a high bun gave a slight angular look to her sharp features, but despite this, there was a gentleness in her dark brown eyes. Clay’s eyes scanned the woman’s uniform, her black jumpsuit bore familiar looking captain stripes on her shoulders and an embroidered name of ‘Morrigan’, but it wasn’t until the glint of her necklace that Clay knew she was safe. Two silver hands clasped together hung from a simple chain around the captain’s neck, the symbol of a death doula, one of the most respected roles in The Order of the Good Death. She had been rescued by an Order ship.
Recognition must have flashed over her face as Captain Morrigan put a hand to her necklace and tucked it behind her undershirt.
‘So you’re awake, young apprentice, we almost lost you there’ Morrigan said smiling. ‘Care to tell us your name?’
Clay tried to speak but found her voice stuck at the back of her throat, a horse rasp came out of her mouth and turned into a dry cough. The one she assumed was Shin handed her a glass of water and helped her sit up slightly to drink it. Strong hands held up her body and they smiled at her as she drank greedily. Draining the glass she found her voice again, ‘Clay’ she said. ‘My name is Clay.’
The captain shifted back and folded her arms. ‘Well Clay, I’m Morrigan and this is Shin’ she said. ‘Welcome aboard my ship, Another One Bites The Dust.’ Clay smiled and mumbled a thanks to the captain. ‘Do you remember anything about the evacuation?’
Swallowing hard, Clay began to tell them how she ended up floating in space in an escape pod, after waking up to sounds of alarms and the crew running to their posts. ‘I headed to my designated pod and waited like I had been taught,’ she said. ‘A senior crew member was there already and he,’ she said, pointing to the corpse, ‘was already strapped in.’
Morrigan looked over at Shin, her face scrunched up in puzzlement. With a nod, Shin encouraged Clay to keep talking.
‘I was told to keep the corpse safe and then they sealed the door and that’s all I know,’ she said. ‘Did you pick up any of the other pods? Maybe they can tell you more,’ said Clay, her eyes were wide in hope. It was Shin’s turn to look at the captain, a frown showed their concern.
‘Yours was the only pod we found, Clay’ said Morrigan.
Shin interjected with a cough, ‘Captain…’
They were cut off by Morrigan raising up an open hand. ‘The kid has to know, Shin.’
‘Know what?’ asked Clay, her pleading eyes darting back and forth between them.
The captain sighed and leaned back against the other bed in the small infirmary.
‘The ship is gone, Clay.
‘What does that mean, they left without me?’ asked Clay, her hand covering the apprentice stripes on her chest. Morrigan looked at Clay, her face softened and her voice dropped an octave.
‘We found wreckage of The Choir Invisible. It’s been destroyed and as far as we can tell, you’re the only survivor,’ said Morrigan. She stepped forward to hold Clay’s free hand in her own.
‘As Order members we may see death every day but it still hurts when it happens to us, Clay. We’re here for you if you need it.’
Clay snatched her hand away from the captain and glared back at her.
‘Don’t do that. Don’t treat me like someone who doesn’t know the first thing about what The Order does.’ She looked at Shin, ‘I don’t need your help, I’ve seen death before and I know all your silly rites and rituals.’ She breathed heavily as she shouted the words at her rescuers. Tears started to leak from her eyes as she clutched the stripes peeling away from her jumpsuit. ‘Leave me alone, I don’t need you. I don’t need you…’ she said as tears overtook her face and she collapsed into a ball on the bed.
Clay knew the bitter sting of the cold vacuum of space. She had felt it first hand as the escape pod’s systems slowly failed and all that sat between her and death was a thin layer of frozen metal. It was cold in the room Shin had setup, not the freezing cold of space but the cold of the dead, which was the intent. The sickly sweet smell of infused oil that pumped out from a hidden vaporiser filled the room and clung to everything, almost suffocatingly so.
Dealing with rites and rituals, Shin had made it their duty to continue her Order teachings over the past few weeks. ‘Rituals,’ said Shin as they switched on small LED candles around the corpse, ‘allow us to understand concepts that are elusive to us. Sometimes we need to experience things before we can learn to deal with them.’ Shin turned to look at Clay, though their face was worn with with life, their eyes held a similar softness that the captain shared. ‘You, my young apprentice, have met death head on, an experience most of us don’t get the chance to learn from.’
Clay rolled her eyes and looked away from Shin’s too kind face. ‘Rituals are things we do because we’re expected to,’ she said. ‘Washing bodies, lighting candles, scattering ashes, they’re all meaningless busywork.’
Shin smiled back at Clay, which surprised her a little. ‘We bring our own meaning to the rituals,’ they said, ‘like the tai chi form we do. If you practice the movements without intent they are empty and weak, but if you focus and engage your mind they are strong and rewarding,’ Shin said turning back to the preparations.
While Morrigan insisted they were an Order ship, charged with providing independent funerary services and support to the outer colonies, things were slightly odd. There was no viewing room on this ship, unlike the large Order ships she was used to. The morgue served many purposes and Shin had created a relatively serene environment using small lights and draped cloths of various colours. Both the captain and Shin had spent the last few days trying to convince Clay that she needed to hold a funeral for the crew of The Choir Invisible, something she had dodged around claiming she was still recovering from the ordeal. Truth be told, she was still grieving for herself.
‘Here,’ said Shin, passing Clay a gloss black skull. Its eye sockets had been filled with curved mirrors that glared back at her, distorting her reflection eerily. The skull sat heavy and cold in her hands as she locked eyes with the memento mori, unable to escape its gaze and more worryingly what it showed her in return. The young woman reflected in those eyes looked sad and tired, her unkempt brown hair hanging long over her face hiding her pale skin and the dark patches under her eyes. The more Clay stared into skull the sadder the reflection became.
‘While The Order of the Good Death provides death and funerary services for many cultures, did you know we have our own?’ Shin asked, turning towards Clay. She nodded slowly, eyes unmoving from her reflection.
‘Do you know what the skull means, apprentice?’
‘It reminds us that we will die,’ said Clay, tears welling up in the corner of her eyes. Shin placed a soft hand on her back, their large hands warm even through the thick material of her jumpsuit.
‘True, but it also shows life and death coexisting as one. When things come together though, they are bound to be changed. The you that looked into the skull is not the same you that holds it now.’ Shin took the onyx skull from Clay’s hands and looked deep into the mirrored eyes. ‘I died once you know?’ said Shin. Clay raised her eyebrows at this revelation but remained silent, tears still in her eyes. ‘Know that there are those of us who have walked your path,’ Shin kissed the top of the skull before placing it on the makeshift altar in front of them. Clay looked at Shin with a puzzled expression as she sniffed and wiped away her tears.
‘We are forever changing, and each change can be seen as a rebirth into something new. We are born, we die, we are reborn again.’ Shin gestured at the ring of small LED candles surrounding the alter and the body before them. ‘Ideally they would be actual candles flickering and burning but in space you have to make do sometimes,’ Shin smiled at her.
‘But what about him,’ she asked, ‘what about all those people who were on The Choir Invisible? They don’t get to be reborn again.’ Anger slipped into her quiet voice as she fought back more tears. Silently Shin pondered the question while Clay stood by, her fists clenching and unclenching at her side.
‘Let me ask you a question Clay, how long did you spend floating through the void with this body?’ Shin looked her in the eye waiting for a response.
‘I…I don’t know. Days?’ said Clay, her face hardening and her fists closing.
‘In all that time did you ever worry for the soul trapped in there? If you were suffering then surely they were as well.’ Shin pulled a cream linen sheet resting at the foot of the body up and over, covering the dead man. Clay tilted her head in thought, her eyes darted upwards, focused on past trauma. Lips pursed together and eyes narrowed. ‘No I didn’t’ she said.
‘Then why are you worried about the souls of your crew mates? They’ve long moved on to the next step in their journey, their suffering has come to an end. Now it’s your turn.’
Clay turned her head sharply, her eyes wide, ‘what do you mean, my turn?’
‘This isn’t a ritual for him,’ said Shin nodding towards the covered body, ‘this is a ritual for you, young apprentice. You died out there, it’s time you accepted that. Let go your suffering, accept what is real and what is not and be reborn.’
Silence filled the space between them, only the constant and unwavering hum of the ship’s engines spared Clay from complete nothingness. The LED candles flickered in their programmed fashion, orange light dancing along the cold dark metal walls of the morgue and shedding an eerie glow over the body she almost joined in death. Bright red blood dripped from her clenched palms as her nails bit into the soft flesh, bringing with it pain and rage that spread across her face as she clenched her jaw and opened her eyes wide.
‘How dare you!’ said Clay through gritted teeth. ‘You call me dead and try to bury me like him?’ She picked up the black skull from the altar, careful to avoid its mirrored stare. ‘You say the dead don’t suffer, then if I were truly dead I wouldn’t feel these burns on my chest, nor the pains in my heart that each waking moment brings! Would I?’ she all but screamed at the calm and emotionless Shin. ‘You can perform your rituals and say your words as much as you like, but I know that I live because I suffer. I suffer because I lived, and that’s all I have, old man. Don’t you dare take that away from me!’ she threw the shining black skull hard against the bulkhead, shattering it into a handful of smaller pieces, all reflecting the fake orange light of the room.
Her rage slipped for a moment as the horror and sacrilege of what she had done filtered through to her mind. Clay fell to her knees, burying her face in her hands and began to sob uncontrollably. Shin stood by unsure of how to comfort the crying girl.
‘I told you she wasn’t ready,’ came the soft voice of captain Morrigan as she stepped out from the hallway.
‘Perhaps,’ Shin said after a brief moment, ‘but she’s on the path now, all we can do is guide her.’
‘I think you’re going to need a few more skulls for that journey, Shin.’
‘Hmmm,’ said Shin, frowning.
‘We should leave her alone,’ said the captain, slowly coaxing Shin towards the door. They both looked back sadly at the young girl on the floor of the morgue, her thick brown hair spilling out covering her head like a funeral shroud.
‘When you’re ready, we’ll be here, Clay,’ said Morrigan.
Clay curled herself into a tight ball and her sobs became louder. Shin and the captain backed out shutting the door behind them, leaving Clay alone once again with only a corpse for comfort as she mourned the loss of her friends and herself.