"Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say." said one of the ship's First Lieutenants, loudly sipping from his standard-fleet-issue steel cup, and staring through the starship's viewport. "Not everyone can survive out here. This is a brutal, unforgiving environment. People lose their minds in the vast emptiness between galaxies. I've seen all kinds of people come onto this ship: engineers, doctors, spoiled rich CEOs, social media influencers... they all end up with psychosis. Then guess who's told to straighten them out. Yeah, it's me. They always ask me. Not much I can do though. Most of them volunteer for extra spacewalks. That's where the screaming happens. I guess they think they can scream it out, when they start to lose their minds. The last thing I need right now is another one of you losers having a mental breakdown under my command." He took another long, loud slurp from his cup. "Are you sure you're cut out for this kind of mission, Private?"
The janitor cleaning the mess hall put his mop down. "Okay, first of all, sir, I've been stationed here on this ship longer than you. How long have you been here? One duty cycle? You might outrank me, but you haven't seen anything. You have no idea what it's like, out there past Andromeda station, traveling the super voids." he said, walking across the room to his commanding officer. "You think you're a hardened veteran, but know what I think? I think you're soft. I think your next duty cycle is going to crush you, and when it does, guess who they'll call to clean up after you. Yeah, that would be me. They have new people talk to you first, because you're also new here, but when people really start falling apart, when they start to hallucinate, or lose motor functions, or worse, that's when they call me." He grabbed the officer's cup, right out of his hand, took a step closer, and chugged the rest of his drink in his face.
The first lieutenant was livid, his eyes wide, his nostrils flaring, his jaws clenched, waiting to see what the janitor might do next, daring him to say one more word.
"Oh, and one more thing," said the janitor, "what do you mean, 'or so they say'? Do you think it's hearsay? Do you think the silence of space is some big mystery? No one can verify if screams can be heard or not? Like we'll never know for sure? Everyone knows sound can't propagate through a vacuum. My five-year-old cousin knows that, you big goofball. Oh yeah, and another thing." He threw the officer's empty metal cup thirty feet across the room into the Trash Sublimation Receptacle. With a loud pop and a whoosh, the metal cup vaporized, its gaseous remnants sucked out of the TSR, down a conduit into the ship's Central Repurposing System.
The First Lieutenant had a vein bulging out on his neck and forehead, and his face was turning red. "Do you... do you even know who I am?! I can throw you in the brig for a month!" he shouted at the janitor, still inches away from his face.
The janitor wiped a little spit from under his eye. "Oh yes sir." he quietly responded. "I know who you are. Do you know who I am? I used to be the ship's lead mechanic, until some ambassador's son wanted that job and I got demoted. I was the fleet's top mechanic, actually. I used to spend my down time every day memorizing the ship's schematics, miles and miles of schematics. I also wrote most of the code for the ship's AI, if you don't count the code it wrote by itself. You can put me in the brig? I can turn off the gravity and disable all the bio-waste pumps."
The officer pushed the janitor, knocking him back a few steps. "I'm telling the captain about this!" he shouted, pointing his finger at him threateningly.
The First Lieutenant opened the door, and started walking out.
The janitor sat down at a nearby table, and look out of the viewport. "While you're on the bridge, ask the Captain how that turned out last time."
The First Lieutenant stopped, half-way out. "Wait, you mean last month? When the water was out for two days? That wasn't you. You were in the brig."
The janitor leaned back in his chair. "You'd be surprised what I can do when you give me enough free time."
The officer stood in the doorway, staring at the janitor for a few seconds. "Okay, then finish mopping this floor." He almost started to leave, then turned around. "And when you're done, you can swab all the corridors on this deck. Twice."
The janitor walked back to his mop, still lying on the floor. "Well, Lucy, looks like it's just you and me. Can I have this dance?" He extended an open hand toward the mop on the floor, but the mop did not accept his offer and jump up into his hand. "That's no way to respond to an invitation. You're going to make me feel unwanted." He picked it up, and resumed his mopping. He began to whistle a song, in a key which matched the constant droning sound of the ship's life support systems. The sound echoed through the mess hall, out of the open door, and down the entire corridor, catching the attention of a corporal walking by. "Corporal." he said, nodding in her direction.
The Corporal glanced into the mess hall, briefly making unexpected eye contact with the janitor, then quickened her pace and walked out of sight.
The janitor resumed his mopping. "That's no way to respond to a greeting."
"I'm detecting a change in vitals from both you and the Corporal." said a deep voice from the mess hall's speakers near the viewport. "There is an increase in heart rate, and an increase in multiple chemicals, including dopamine and noradrenaline. New course of action recommended."
"Wow." said the janitor, still mopping. "Is that your way of saying I should talk to a woman who's interested?"
"Twelve days ago, at thirteen hundred hours, you requested to be made aware the next time you 'make a stupid mistake'." the voice replied. "I calculate your odds of success are 98.7%, assuming the absence of further mistakes."
"Wow, great advice." said the janitor, scrubbing the floor around one of the table's supports. "You forgot to calculate the part where she gets demoted back to private and put on hull duty for being seen with me."
"Computers do not forget."
"But you miss social cues, like maybe that it's not super appropriate to tell me about her feelings by reading her vitals."
"The human temperament is difficult to predict."
"You're not wrong." said the janitor, still trying to scrub the hard-to-reach places under a table. "Do me a favor, and don't give me information related to her emotional state, alright? It's kinda' private information."
"Do you not want to know how she feels about you?"
"Yeah, well, here's the thing. I want to know, I guess, but I need to find out on my own, just like everyone else does, through a series of incorrect guesses."
"Would that be the method humans refer to as 'the hard way'."
"Yep, that's it. We do love doing things the hard way."
"Is that why you insist on mopping manually, instead of using the ship's automated cleaning systems?"
"No. I mean... yes and no. If this isn't an option for punishment, they might make me doing something I actually hate. I also need the exercise. That's another thing computers like you don't understand. Computers can't go insane out here, but I need two things to get by: exercise, and my 'unsatisfactory' attitude."
"Hey, there you go. See that attitude? That's what helps me feel better about my day. Each of those sassy remarks you detect improves my mood a little bit."
"Then you must feel amazing."
"Yeah, well, this is what I get for programming you with some of my own personality."
The room fell silent.
There was no response.
"Servus? Confirm system is active."
The lights in the mess hall shut off. He could feel a familiar uncomfortable feeling in his stomach, as his feet started lifting up off the floor. He could hear the ship start to creak and shudder. He tried to reach for the table with one of his feet, to catch himself, and stop drifting up toward the ceiling.
Suddenly, the lights all turned back on. The loud droning of the ship's life support systems rose back to its normal volume. He was pulled a short distance back down to the floor, but without his feet directly underneath him, he slipped and fell toward the table, slamming his cheek against the corner, before falling onto the floor.
"Aaaah, my ankle." grumbled the janitor, struggling to get back on his feet. He grabbed the edge of the table, to pull himself up. It felt wet. He looked at his hand. Both his hand and the table had some of his blood on them.
"Servus, confirm system is active."
There was no response.
"Great." said the janitor, wiping his blood from his hand on his shirt and pants. He could still hear the ship groaning and creaking in the distance. He looked toward the exit, where he had seen the Corporal walk by. "Jules, I hope you're doing better than me right now."
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