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“There's nothing left but the cleanup,” Roger said. He led his crew through the once blinding white corridor of the Cruiser Balthasar, now an ashen gray from the fire that raged earlier in the night.

Roger pulled the oxygen mask low across his face as he twisted the knob on the tank to release the flow of air. The acrid smell of burnt flesh and insulation from the multiple fist-sized holes in the walls made the air unbreathable. The overloaded ventilation system wouldn't have a handle on it until well after he and his team were done with the cleanup and repairs.

Captain Cristo ordered Roger to get to work right away while he worked with the ship's engineering team to figure out how long before they'd be able to get underway. They could see Waltu in the distance, a tiny speck of blue-green floating in space. With the damage from a victorious battle ravaged his ship, it might be a few days before they reached their destination.

Roger manned the bucket brigade and his team of twenty spread out in tight formation with mops and brooms to clean up the debris.

“If this is what victory looks like, I'd hate to imagine defeat,” Eric said.

“All you have to do is look out that portal behind you, and you'll get a good picture of it,” Roger said. He didn't need to see it and kept on with sweeping up craggly shards of metal and polycarbonate.

The crippled Cruiser Katerina floated three hundred meters away, dark and empty with a gaping hole where her bridge once stood. Eric crossed himself as he stared at the damage, thinking of all the souls lost in the conflict. “Even though our side won, I still feel bad for them,” he said. “They were once like me, doing their jobs and hoping to make it home to see their families.”

“Get back to work, Eric,” Roger said. “You'll make yourself crazy if you start to worry about things like that. We're here to clean up and get this corridor up and running again, that's all.”

He knelt to sweep the fragments into a flat metal pan and dumped them into the waist-high orange toxic waste barrel beside him. They treated all the debris like toxic waste to save time. It didn't matter as it would all end up jettisoned into space with the rest of the garbage, compacted into tight balls, floating forever in the vast emptiness.

Once the team wrapped the easy part of sweeping the corridor clean, Roger ordered Johnson, the newbie on the crew, to push a train of waste bins out of the way. Though the battle ended hours before, Johnson's body still shook with fear from the sound and fury of the fight.

Roger took it as a sign that Johnson wasn't long for the crew, that he'd never make it past this mission. He'd seen it before. A newbie scared out of his wits after the reality of combat would soon request a transfer back to the safety of the Gregorian Station before heading back to a peaceful existence on Earth.

Roger didn't blame any of them. If it were up to him, they'd all be going home soon. But that wasn't in the cards. Captain Cristo outmaneuvered the captain of the Katerina, but the war was far from over. Peace stood far out of reach.

Eric pulled up a cart with buckets of hot, soapy water and long-bristled brushes for the next phase of cleanup. Scrubbing the walls and ceiling was the worst part, pure physical labor compared to the easy monotony of pushing a broom. The men attacked the walls with a vengeance just to get it done.

“Looking good, men,” Roger said. “Before you know it we'll be able to see our ugly mugs reflected back at us.”

Soon the corridor was as shiny and clean as the day she launched, though the scars of battle remained in small sections of the wall, jagged sections of plaster and rat's nests of exposed wires. The engineering crew would have to work that out on their own.

Roger wiped his wet hands on a dirty beige cotton towel and surveyed the scene. “Good work, team,” Roger said. “Our job here is done. Pack it up and move it out.”

Roger waited for the crew to leave as he noted the worst damage on his comm pad. As he finished, he saw that Johnson lagged behind, his hands still shaking. Roger felt bad for the kid, but he wasn't cut out for that line of work. He put his arm around Johnson's shoulder as they walked to the break room in silence.

Copyright © 2018 Chad V. Holtkamp.

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