Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Nothing had changed since the last time they were at the transfer station – the Raire looked the same, still idle and pristine, docked into the station’s main loading port while their shuttle approached the smaller entrance on the opposite side. Inside the station, the panel by the airlock door that separated them from the Anthar Kai supply vessel indicated that there was nothing wrong with the atmosphere or the temperature in the Raire. Still, they opted for full-body environmental suits with their own oxygen supply before they attempted entry.
“Looks like everything’s docked properly,” Yarmar said as the enormous station-side door began to open to fit the dimensions of the Raire’s cargo door. “So as long as the Raire’s crew didn’t bypass any standard security protocols, which I wouldn’t put past them, we should be able to open the ship from this side.”
After a few more keystrokes and some ominous beeping, the seam in the Raire’s doors started to open and as the two halves slid part, it gave the three Vaparozh their first glimpse of the inside of the Anthar Kai ship’s cargo hold.
“Must be an all-Thorian crew,” Yarmar commented. The lighting inside the Raire resembled twilight with a slight red tint – not too dark to make out shapes but not optimal for climbing onto a starship with a mysteriously disappeared crew.
With the reddish colour and general dimness, the cavernous cargo compartment, which was five times their height and one of several that comprised the overall cargo space of the supply ship, looked like the open mouth of an enormous beast. The image had not made it any easier for Hilosh to take a step forward, but Yarmar headed in, neural devastator at the ready, so him and Charosar had no choice but to follow. They had to walk past rows of crates and large containers on the way to the door visible on the other side of the vast room.
“Keep an eye out for anything we might want to bring down to the surface.” Yarmar motioned in the direction of a refrigerated container, which may have been filled with consumable goods. It still didn’t sit fully right with Hilosh to be pilfering anything from the Raire, but having now been on the ship and seeing no signs of life, the idea started to become more palatable. Much to his annoyance, even salvage wasn’t going to be an easy task since most of the containers here were marked only with serial numbers. They’d either need to find a way to access the Anthar Kai ship’s manifest or go through each container with brute force. And this was only the top deck of the cargo hold, with several layers beneath their feet to scour. Going through the daunting task in his head only swelled the desire to find at least one survivor that could aid them in the search.
They had nearly made it to the door leading to the rest of the ship when they encountered the first of the crew.
All three of them almost walked by it, but an unusual dark shape between the crates caught Hilosh’s eye and made his knees buckle momentarily. Yarmar turned sharply at that, devastator pointing at the narrow space. The shape, however, was not moving, though it was clear to them that sometime previously, it would have been able to.
They approached slowly, and Hilosh wondered whether dragging the process out this way was better or worse for his twin hearts that seemed to be competing as to which one could beat the most desperately in his chest. There was a new kind of dread that filled him when they were close enough to distinguish the position the body was lying in – fetal, arms wrapped around its knees and head mostly tucked in. It was wearing the crisp black uniform of the Anthar Kai, with the silver buttons up the sleeves and short coattails on the back. Of the head, only the hair was visible, so it was difficult to tell whether they were Thorian, and no one was eager to move the body to confirm.
It’s not that Hilosh had never seen a dead body before. Working at mine sites and construction sites, there was no avoiding coming face to face with the aftermath of an accident. But there was a sense of obviousness about those incidents – a fall, getting crushed by machinery, malfunctioning equipment that exploded. Here, there was nothing clearly wrong with the victim – no blood, no visible injury, just the crumpled shell of something that used to be alive, now discarded like the outer skin of some insect or crustacean. There was nothing revolting about it, and their respirators would have dealt with any smell, but it left Hilosh feeling hollowed out. He turned away, and noticed for the first time the reactions of his crew – Charosar with the distant stare of someone who’d seen enough senseless death up close and Yarmar with her mouth slightly pursed, her eyes moving in small rapid motions.
“What do you think happened?” Yarmar asked, which made Hilosh worry that she would bend down and inspect the body.
“No idea,” Hilosh answered refusing to look back.
“I don’t know,” Charosar admitted, “Hands look weird though.”
At this, Hilosh looked over his shoulder in time to see Yarmar take a step forward and push with her boot against the corpse’s hand.
“They look shriveled, almost dried. And what’s that?” Yarmar’s nudge revealed busted darkened fingertips covered in what looked like dried blood.
“We should get out of here,” Charosar said, “We have access to the cargo, so we should just find what we need and go.”
“We need to find out what happened here,” Yarmar’s tone was even, like she was quoting from somewhere instead of speaking for herself.
“What more do we need to find out? They’re dead.” Now it was Charosar who turned around abruptly and walked back in the direction of the main passage between the containers. “The Anthar Kai will come pick up their ship eventually, there’s nothing else we can do.”
They’d all clearly heard it, as even Charosar stopped in her tracks and turned her head in the direction of the sound. Hilosh would never have imagined that within the silence that the curled-up body seemed to have enveloped them in, a single distinct metallic clang coming from deeper within the ship could invoke such terror.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.