It was a dilemma. When I was a little girl, I had different words for it, but I think it was the same problem. I wanted atoms to have identity, memory. Maybe they didnít need to have the same kind of memory as a person. Maybe not that much. But, I donít know, at least as much as a shoe or an old mattressóthe way they anticipate your body from long use. Reflect you in some part of themselves. You know, like an old married couple finishing each otherís sentences. In that way, I could still think of the ship as Earth.
I guess that is somehow selfish of me, being possessive of atoms, but it needs to be that way. If not, it would all just be mathóthe balance and imbalance of charges expressed as this element or that element. The good math of the ship protecting us from the bad math of empty space.
Donít get me wrong. I donít mean to sound like math is soulless or crude or that it strips life of its elegance. That was never the problem with math. The trouble is, even with everything math has given us, our near mastery of matter, it just couldnít drive out the ghosts. That seems to be our peopleís Achillesí heel. Apparently, itís bad luck to put an opposable thumb too close to a developed cerebral cortex Ėlike breaking a mirror. Ghosts. I donít believe in ghosts, of course, but that doesnít mean Iím not afraid of them.
The real problem here was the blood. It didnít count as part of Marcusís body. If it had counted, it would have left the ship with him and wouldnít have remained on the commissary wall waiting for yours truly to come clean it up. I have to wonder if he timed it this way, waiting for it to be my week on janitorial duty. Maybe some twisted part of him thought this wouldnít be any different from the pranks he used to play on me in high school.
This ship could work miracles. Everything, and I mean everything, was reused Ėbroken down into component parts and repackaged through automated wizardry into air or water or foodstuffs. Math. It would strip down the blood into its component elements. It would pluck every last cell from the pinkish water of my wash bucket.
I supposed the iron and protein would be repurposed as nourishment. Protocol dictated, when possible, the ship would let expediency dictate the fate of recyclables. Not that the ship couldnít tug at the stitching of matter on an atomic level, but laws of expediency and economy of energy usually made such processes unattractive to the central computer.
All of these technical marvels meant two things. First, we could travel much further and longer than ever before without resupplying. And, second, it meant that matter was not allowed off of the ship. Nothing wasted. Except, of course, bodies. In the battle of math versus ghosts, the ghosts usually win.
I always thought there was some irony in our shipís body policy. Our bodies are so liberal with their atoms, constantly shedding and replacing cells. Nothing in us stays in place. Marcus once told me that he thought naming people was a lot like naming rivers. The riverbanks shape the water, but itís never the same water as it was the day before. The banks of the river are worn away with the motion of the water, but the water isnít changed. And, in the end, the name is the riverís only real distinguishing characteristic.
Marcus killed himself. Iíve never heard of a river that could do that. So, I guess his metaphor still needed some work.
When I poured my wash bucket into one of the central drains, I told myself that even though the ship was Earth, the bloodied water was just a jumble of math. I didnít believe it, but it was worth a try. I felt like I was pouring some sort of spiritual poison straight into the shipís veins. If the shipís atoms had to stay Earth, then the bloodís atoms would stay Marcus. Atoms had place and identity and a soul. Atoms could be haunted.
That didnít make any sense. I knew that. There was no reason not to recycle Marcusís body with the rest of the trash. We all knew that. We knew that there was no real reason for that frozen corpse-shaped swarm of atoms to be drifting through the vacuum. I tried not to picture it.
After I finished cleaning, I sunk into my favorite chair. This chair, like me, had once actually been in Arkansas. Marcusís frozen corpse floated into my mind. Damn it. I pictured him, open-eyed, staring into the abyss for eons upon eons. There he was, singular and uniqueóa configuration of atoms unseen anywhere else among the starsóthe relic of a man who rejected the premise of individuality. A man who was tired of being second-hand matter.
I wondered if the probability that Marcusís atoms would ever end up inside another living thing could be expressed mathematically. I wondered if the recent change in the crewís total biomass would alter the shipís allocation of certain elemental resources. I wondered if Marcusís blood was in the water I was drinking. I shivered. The ghosts always win.
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Copyright 2011, J. Kelley Anderson. All rights reserved.
J. Kelley Anderson has been a lifelong Science Fiction fan. His creative work has appeared in Fourteen Hills, Mosaic, Eclectica Magazine, The Absent Willow Review and elsewhere.