In Space, No-One Can Hear You Clean

In Space, No-One Can Hear You Clean

By Scott Steensma

I really didn’t want to be awake. I closed my eyes tightly and imagined I was curled up underneath crisp, tastefully coloured bedclothes with a slight smile on my face, the star of my own personal mattress commercial. I slowed my breathing, and was just edging a toe over the precipice of slumber when a sharp pain shot through my head. Ignoring it, I focused on convincing my body that really, it should leave me alone and go to sleep. Another stab of pain. And another.  As a slow, steady pulse set in my bedding sales fantasy shattered into a growing awareness of how bloody awful I felt. I made one last attempt, imagining myself floating on a sea of warm jelly, before the pounding agony in my skull jarred me fully awake. I forced my bloodshot eyes open, the accumulated gunk around them breaking with a near audible crack, and reviewed my options. It appeared my body was in no mood to humour my desire for sleep, busy as it was dealing with a brutal, bucket-next-to-the-couch hangover. 

 “Ship?” I spoke out loud. I’ve never gotten used to communicating through implants.

Yes Rendall? The Fragrant Flower’s voice was smooth, masculine, and as usual seemed to come from somewhere inside my own head.

“Orange juice please. With rehy salts and painkillers.”

Certainly Rendall. Oh, and while I have your attention…?

I sighed. “Yes?”

It has been seven months since my last cleaning drone broke down. Dust is accumulating in the air filters, and pathogens are building up in several areas of the ship, rendering them unsafe for human habitation.

“Which areas?”

The Kitchen, the Toilet compartment…

“And my sleeping quarters.”

Yes. As we will soon be docked I believe it is…

I sighed again. “Important that we replace our drones and restock our supply of disinfectants. Yes, yes.  I’ll look into it when we reach Queros.”

Thank you Rendall. I am unable to keep myself clean to anywhere near the required standard, and have not been able to do so since…

“Alright! Enough!” The pulsing in my skull had been joined by a faint note of nausea, rising and falling with my headache in the familiar ambient music of a hangover. The ship fell silent, somehow managing to imply sullen annoyance. Lately, its complaints had become particularly shrill. A week prior, as we banked under five gee to chase down an armed cargo vessel, I had asked the Flower for a status report. It’s response? That while there was a seven percent probability of the enemy ship escaping there was a sixty percent chance that I would contract food poisoning from the dishes piled up in the galley.

The fact that the ship was partly responsible for my headache didn’t help my mood. To pass the interminably dull journey I had challenged the vessel to a game of booze-chess. The stakes were set as one shot of alcohol per piece lost for me and, to simulate inebriated impairment, one cognitive processing core shutdown for the ship. Three cores and ten shots later I had passed out, and spent the last day in a welcome alcoholic slumber.

A squat grey service bot floated into the sleeping room, its tray extended with a glass of orange liquid on it. The machine floated over the discarded socks and food wrappers strewn around the room and came to a halt half a meter from the couch. As I reached over the bot shuddered then listed to one side, sending the glass dropping towards the floor.

My hand flashed out and caught it, the liquid inside slopping over the rim and down my forearm, leaving sticky orange trails through my arm hair. I sighed. This kind of thing had been happening a lot lately. The ship claimed that the bot’s flotation units were being damaged by a build-up of accumulated dirt. More likely it was the AI’s passive aggressive way of getting back at me for keeping him in such a messy state.

I downed the OJ, licked one of the larger streaks off my arm, hopped off my sleeping couch and after a moment’s disoriented staggering, headed for the bathroom. Palming the door open I stepped up to the basin and washed the grime and eye-snot from my face. Grabbing a towel that was once white I wiped myself dry and stared into the mirror. The face that looked back at me, obscured somewhat by the toothpaste, beard trimmings and foam scum smeared across the glass was, considering how I felt, shockingly normal. In the centre of a halo of grime stood a dark haired man.  His nose, a little large. His hair, greying. His complexion, perhaps a little too ruddy.  His face, well, I would call it passably handsome.

I ran a finger over the mirror, leaving a clear line across my reflection’s eyes. I looked at my now grey fingertip. Maybe the ship had a point. The mirror was really dirty. The Fragrant Flower’s nanocleaning system hadn’t worked for decades by the time I’d bought it. As a replacement nano unit was worth far more that the geriatric vessel itself, a previous owner had released a fleet of slaved janitor bots onboard.

The ship had arranged the bots into a complex, twenty-four hour cleaning regime that saw every centimetre of the vessel polished twice a day. Even then, with phalanxes of frantic robots on cleaning duty, the ship’s AI mind existed in a state of continual clean-freak anxiety. The mind had been grown in the days of the old federation when spotless white spacecraft crewed by fresh faced jumpsuit-wearers were the norm, and it had been hardwired to keep the vessel clean down to a near atomic level.

The fifteen bots had worked continuously at maximum speed, and when I became the Flower’s captain seventy-six years later, six were left, the others burnt out from overwork. A year on the last bot died in the middle of degreasing my shower cubicle. Standing in said cubicle, water cascading over me and splashing the splotchy grey walls with my rancid hangover sweat, I soaped up and ran through the excuses I was going to give the ship on my return from the surface. I knew – and judging from its increasingly frequent outbursts, the ship knew too, that I had no intention of replacing the bots. When I first took command of the Flower the vessel’s obsessive-compulsive cleaning regime had amused me. I had liked throwing apple cores over my shoulder and watching janibots catch them before they hit the floor. I had enjoyed never having to wash anything, pick up anything or struggle to find a clean pair of socks.

After a month onboard however, the novelty began to wear off. The aseptically clean ship, pine scent throughout, began to feel like the galaxy’s most anally retentive mother. Every half-finished plate of food I put down was tidied away. Every cup I used was cleaned between beverages. Every pair of trousers I owned was starched into near-comic stiffness. My breaking point came when I noticed that the ship had detailed a tiny sweeper drone to follow me everywhere to pick up any stray hairs, toenail clippings or biscuit crumbs I might shed. I began to feel like some sort of interstellar leper, trailing dirt and muck behind me, and one afternoon, while contemplating taking my third shower of the day, I decided that something had to change.

At first I tried reasoning with the ship but its digital sphincter was perpetually clenched. I made threats, which the vessel ignored. I even tried passkeying the doors to my quarters, but the ship simply sent bots through the ventilation system. And so I explored other avenues.

Over the next two months the final six cleaning bots had all broken down. One had genuinely died of old age but the other five succumbed to a series of unfortunate accidents. The Flower had observed that it was an unusual coincidence for all five units to fail in areas where I had blocked the ships audiovisual sensors. I agreed that this was odd, and promised the vessel that I would write myself a cleaning roster. For the next two months the ship had answered my questions in one syllable or less, and I had basked in the self-satisfied glow of a man who had got one over on an AI that was supposed to be somewhere around thirty times smarter than he was.

I dropped my towel on the floor and stepped over to the toilet. Standing before it I watched a particularly well-adhered pubic hair cling to the steel bowl, stubbornly resisting the jet of dark urine I directed towards it. My stream faltered, slackened, and ran out. The pube remained, glued to the toilet with who knew what. I resolved that when my hangover passed and I was in the right mood I would give the place a quick scrub. Maybe in a week or two.


Half a day later, clad in singlet and boxers, I was lying in the Captain’s chair on the ship’s bridge – a great faux-leather thing in brown and gold that I had modded with full recline capability and a pop out footrest. Around me stretched banks of flashing lights, dials and a one-eighty degree projection of the distorted starscape outside the ship as it tore through parallel space, each star bleeding into long, wavering lines of light. The lights and dials were for show of course. The Flower took care of everything while I enjoyed the view. As I watched the passing stars began to slow, the deceleration almost unnoticeable at first. An hour later the ship spoke.

We are approaching our destination, Rendall.

“Thankyou ship.”

For a short moment I felt like I was falling, my stomach flipping, a shiver running the length of my body, and then the ship was back in normal space. Around me the stars resumed their usual shapes. Ahead in the projection, magnified several hundred times, was a long black cylinder ringed with gantries, communications arrays and the tiny sparkling lights of thousands of observation windows. The sight was familiar to the point of dullness. I had visited Queros tens of times, and the sight of the massive orbital floating before its old, red star had long since ceased to be a novelty.

I rose from my chair and headed down to my quarters. Five hours later we docked with Queros. I palmed the internal airlock door, stepped through and stood in the space beyond as it hissed closed. I stood for a second while I adjusted the slightly crumpled collar on my black tunic then scratched at a small sauce stain on the red piping of my matching black trousers. Satisfied that I would look respectable, providing no-one got within two feet of me, I spoke.

“Airlock door please ship.”

The smooth voice materialised in my head.

Certainly Rendall.

With a shudder the circular inner door irised open, revealing the docking corridor beyond. I had taken one step through when the ship spoke again.

I must inform you in advance that I cannot let you back on board at this time.

I stopped and turned back to the closed door behind me. “What? Ha. Very good, ship. Your humour is improving.”

I’m sorry Rendall. I am not attempting humour. It is unsafe for you to come aboard.

“Unsafe? How?”

Sadly, my environmental air filters are working at less than fifty percent capacity.

“No problem there. You were built for a crew of twelve. Fifty percent’s plenty for just me.”

I have determined that, combined with the unacceptable level of surface pathogens that have built up, my reduced filter capacity renders me unsafe for habitation. As one of my core directives is to ensure crew safety my engines have been immobilised and I must prevent your entry.”

I grinned.You sneaky bastard! You’ve been planning this.”

I assure you that I did not desire this to occur, and, as you no doubt recall, I have on more than two hundred occasions reminded you that my cleaning system is not operational.

“Yeah yeah, the cleaning system. Anyway, I override your lockout.”

You cannot override the lockout, Rendall.

 “Bullshit! Open the damn airlock!”

I cannot. Once the lockdown has been initiated only addressing its reasons can undo it.

“So I’m locked out of my own damned ship?”


“What!? You goddamn geriatric clean freak! You… You…” I shook my head and exhaled slowly, counting back from ten. “Ok. Ok. You win. What do I have to do?”

An operating cleaning system must be installed. We may resume our travels when a satisfactory standard of safety has been reached.

“A satisfactory standard. Right. What does that look like?”

I am happy to give you a full tutorial series of implant vids detailing the most effective, efficient, and hygienic ways to maintain onboard cleanliness. We can begin with basic toilet…

“Shut up ship. Just shut up.”

I stepped through into Queros’s boarding link and watched the outer airlock close behind me. The indicator light on its control panel winked over into a solid, unwelcoming red.


My visit to Queros was pretty uneventful. I wandered the vast shopping plazas, spent time in the dome parks enjoying the grass and the birds and wore the same black clothes for a week, unable to access any of my wardrobe back on the ship. I stayed with the friend whose wedding I had returned for, enjoyed a raucous bachelor party, endured a series of middle-grade hangovers and delivered a wedding speech that only mildly embarrassed the groom.

A day before the end of my visit I dropped into an electronics recycler in Queros’s main arcade, a cramped and messy shop, cluttered with old drones and ship components, its walls festooned with chunks of metal and loops of wiring. I rummaged around for a few minutes until, under a pile of heating coils, I found what I was looking for. An old scarab shaped janibot. A few decades old to be inexact. Eighty thousand or so cleaning hours on the clock, a bit beaten up, but in working order and going for about what I’d spent on booze over the course of the week. I paid for it, put it under my arm and left the shop in a buoyant mood.

With the installation of a new bot the Flower would have no choice but to open the airlock and let me back on board.


One – used – janitor bot?

“Yes, one janitor bot. Do you know how much these things cost?”

One unused bot would cost approximately 1/67th of your current funds. Two would provide system redundancy.

I had forgotten that the Flower also managed my accounts. “I’m not buying another bot. Can I come in now?”

The light on the airlock blinked green, and I stepped through. I placed the beetle like robot on the floor, activated it, and watched it scoot off in the direction of my living quarters. Five minutes later I was back in my comfy Captain’s chair.

“Take us to Episilon Eridani, ship.”

I’m sorry Rendall. I can’t do that.

“Damnit, ship, what is it now?”

As you no doubt recall, due to the lockout I cannot move until my interior has reached a satisfactory level of cleanliness.

“Great. Well, the janibot will take care of that.”

The janitor bot is non-operational.


It seems to have suffered an unfortunate accident while cleaning your shower cubicle. Regrettably, I have no surveillance of this area so cannot replay what happened.

A sense of unease began to slowly come over me. “Oh, ah, right, well, I’ll head back into Queros and buy a new one.”

I have already disconnected the docking bridge. We are now five kilometres from Queros and drifting.

“And the drives are disabled?”


“So I’m going to have to clean the fuc…”


It took me four days with a cloth and bucket to scrub every square inch of the Fragrant Flower’s interior.

About the Author:

Scott Steensma is a Librarian, writer and son of a cat fancier from Melbourne, Australia. He has written non-fiction for The Age, The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.

His fiction has appeared in Antipodean SF. He tweets at @ScottSteensma 

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