But the Mariah was empty of any sign of life. A half-inch of dust covered the crates; it looked like the room hadn’t been touched in weeks.
Edging forward, Eve suddenly called, “Yoo-hoo! Anybody home?” into the empty maze of the ship. When no voices responded, she mumbled, “Doesn’t sound like anyone’s here.”
“Goodness, isn’t that surprising,” Dez muttered sarcastically.
“Well, let’s keep lookin’,” said Eve, waving him off. “Someone could still be here. Someone could be real hurt.”
“Exactly,” added Leta sharply.
Standing in that deathly quiet bay, Fiearius sure as hell didn’t savor the thought of venturing further into this ship, but nonetheless he picked a hallway and started down it, gun hanging loosely in his hand. Unease crawled along his skin, although that might have been a side-effect: he purposely hadn’t taken any Flush this morning. Not when he had Leta’s company. Now, he wondered if that had been a mistake.
He didn’t have much time to consider it. Suddenly, as he rounded a corner, it hit him: the smell.
“Dov’ha tia’rte, the hell is that?” Fiearius growled as Leta grimaced and Eve slammed her forearm over her visor; the odor was foul enough to penetrate their suits. The sour stench of decay filled his lungs, making him cough. “Cy, where are we?”
“You should be right outside the medical ward,” came his brother’s voice in his helmet. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Wait,” Leta hissed quietly, brushing past him into the ward. “It’s coming from — ”
Fiearius followed. What he found made him freeze.
Inside the ward, under a single flickering light, were rows upon rows of bodies laid on beds, on the floor, anywhere they fit, all of them their skin rotting, their fingers gnawed on by ship rats, and streams of dried, caked-on blood spilling from the corners of their eyes. Fiearius was stunned into cold, eerie silence. Nausea swam in his stomach.
At his side, Eve reacted much more vocally, with a string of curse words. ” — fucking shit!” she finished with a gasp. “What the hell happened to them? I never … never seen anythin’ like that … ”
Leta was shaking her head, eyes widened with disbelief. “This must be the crew.”
But what the hell had happened to them was beyond Fiearius. The smell was making his stomach churn, and he couldn’t stand the sight any longer.
“Guess that explains the lack of welcoming party,” he muttered and tilted his head towards the hallway. “Let’s start with the bridge. See if there are any survivors up that way.”
Dez snorted his disapproval, but nonetheless followed Eve as she filed out. Leta, however, lingered, examining the bodies with discerning, narrowed eyes. She circled around the stained floor, wrinkling her forehead in thought.
“I don’t know what could’ve … ” She shifted between speaking aloud and speaking in her head. “Some kind of … that wouldn’t match the decay rate, though … Unless — “
She looked up at Fiearius, perplexed, and shook her head as she left the room to follow the caravan.
As she fell into step beside him, she said quietly, “There weren’t any gunshot wounds or signs of foul play on any of those people. What killed them — definitely disease. A fast-spreading one. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Guns at the ready, Eve and Dez led the slow, uneasy caravan toward the command deck. Fiearius felt ready to bolt back to the Dionysian. This ship and its silent, empty halls, was giving him the creeps, but he knew they first had to at least check the bridge. If there was anyone left alive on this ship, surely they would stick close to the main COMM, just in case somebody managed to get through. Somebody had to send that distress signal after all.
But when he cracked open the door to the bridge, Fiearius had to hold his breath: the smell reached him again, fainter this time, but still putrid.
In the shadowy corner of the room, a man was slouched against the wall, eyes wide and staring, clearly dead. Affixed to his shoulder was a gold pin, an old tradition that the leadership of some civilian vessels followed.
“Captain on deck,” Fiearius muttered darkly under his breath, exchanging a look of alarm with Leta.
Eve kicked the fallen man with the edge of her foot. “Poor bloke.”
By now, Fiearius felt he’d seen enough unexplained dead bodies for one day. Keyed up and edgy and ready to leave, he remarked, “So I’m willing to bet he was the last.” He glanced at Leta. “Guess we were a bit late.”
“Well hang on,” Cy pitched in suddenly. “Do me a favor. Check the communications records from before the system went down.”
Fiearius turned toward a console, flipping through the screen quickly. “There’ve been no new messages logged since…September 30th. A voice call.”
“Play it,” said Leta at once. “Maybe we can see what happened here.”
Or maybe, Fiearius thought, we should just get the hell out of here. Throwing her a pointed look, he hit play.
“Oh thank god,” the voice said, followed by a cough. “Thank god someone picked up the signal.”
The recording dipped into silence. It seemed the other end of this call hadn’t been saved. After a moment, the first voice spoke up again. “Oh, you can’t even imagine. We need medical attention. Desperately. We picked up a disease, I don’t know from where, but it’s running its course through the whole crew. We don’t have a doctor aboard. Can you help?”
Another silence passed and then. “What? I–I don’t understand.” The voice began to sound worried. “N-no I didn’t–Well, yes of course.” When it spoke again, it was downright hopeless. “Please, we’re just a cargo vessel, we aren’t equipped for– Yes. Yes alright. I understand. I just want my crew made well, that’s all. Alright. I’ll meet you outside the airlock.” There was hesitation before the final, “Thank you,” and the click of a disconnect.