Tough Crowd by Holly Schofield [sci-fi]
“Hey, Ship? How about this one: A skeleton walks into a bar and says, ‘Give me a beer and a mop.’”
I followed it with a “Ba-dum, tish,” to indicate the end of the joke. No response. No surprise. It’s hard to tell good jokes. It’s even harder when you’re the only human left on a deserted colony ship.
I’d been toying with the idea of a radio show back when Ship’s corridors still rang with voices. I didn’t begin broadcasting over Ship’s comm until after the virus had turned my friends and fellow colonists into human jerky: dried husks; awful gaping mouths with their gums pulled back.
“Hey Ship, try saying ‘gullible’ really slowly. It sounds like ‘oranges’.”
“Phonetic interpretation makes it clear there is no correlation, sir.”
“Just try saying it? Please?”
We’d probably picked up the virus at a rundown refueling port out Antares way. It acted fast. Two days later, I stumbled over a sobbing lieutenant in the mess hall. He died in my arms as I cursed the cheap, inconsistent immunizations the corporation had given us. Within hours, there were bodies in every room on Ship. I huddled by a comm crying out for anyone. Only Ship answered.
It took me two years to haul all three thousand bodies to the airlocks. The desiccating effect meant the smell wasn’t too bad after the first month. As far as Ship could diagnose, the virus was a Vitamin K inhibitor. The fancy explanation was pseudohydroxycoumarin.
The simple explanation was that it worked like rat poison.
“Hey, Ship, light travels faster than sound, right?”
“That is correct, sir.”
“So that’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.”
“I believe you are making a play on words involving the word ‘bright’.”
“Never mind, Ship.”
I combed old files, updated ancient humour, wrote my own material, anything to have fresh jokes on my show. Anything to keep from thinking about the immense blackness outside, pressing against the hull. With Ship as my sole audience, I broadcast all types of comedy: stand-up, pranks, puns, verbal slapstick, limericks. I did it all.
Ship never laughed.
“Hey, Ship. Here’s a maxim for you: An astronaut does not need a suit to evac. He only needs one to evac twice.”
“This appears to be an example of dark humor. You have told me variations of this joke three times before.” A pause. “It almost works.”
Today, I gnawed on my apple and dropped the core where I finished it. A tiny cleaning bot, one of many, scooted around my foot and grabbed it seconds later. Keeping Ship tidy was not a problem. Fresh food, especially fruit from the hydroponics system, was not a problem. Deteriorating electronics, now there was a problem.
“Thruster failure on port side, sir,” Ship intoned.
“Ship, I’ve told you many times. I do not want to see or hear about our journey or our hardware issues.”
Especially since the navigation programs had failed and we were drifting aimlessly.
“Very well, sir. I will reset the reminder for three days from now.”
I sucked in a deep breath in order to make an angry retort.
“Heh,” said Ship.
I saw the telltale light flashing just as a voice spoke.
“Ahoy, this is Raven Six. Is anyone there?”
The voice from the other ship was loud and confident, and alive.
“Hello! Hello! I’m here!” I pressed the comm button so hard, my thumb turned white.
No response. No light on the comm panel.
“Ship! Open a channel to the other vessel! Now!”
“Open?” said Ship. “Open-faced sandwich? Open source? Open mike night?” It chuckled.
I tore the plastic sheeting off the nearest portscreen.
“Portscreen, enlarge and track!”
The other ship came into focus, receding as I watched. Soon it would be gone into the darkness of space.
“Ship, for the love of God! Let me talk to them!”
“Talk? Tick Tock? What does a chronometer do when it’s hungry? It goes back four seconds!” Ship gave a mechanical guffaw.
I slumped against the wall below the comm panel. “Please,” I whispered.
“Ahoy, do you read?” The voice from the other ship repeated, so human.
Human enough to leave the channel open. I heard him order, “Ensign, there’s no response. Best to let it be. Might have K Virus. Back on course, full speed ahead.”
Maybe I could race after them in the tiny transport shuttle. Staggering but not beaten yet, I angled across the room and slammed open the long horizontal handle on the seldom-used door. Ship, chortling, said something about walking into a heavy metal bar.
I charged down the corridor toward the shuttle bay. Dozens of cleaning bots scuttled out of my way as I turned the corner. I smelled fruit.
That’s when I slipped on the first of many banana peels, strewn down the corridor like happy, yellow smiles.
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