Essar tried hard to calmly breathe through her nose as tears of fright dribbled down both cheeks, leaving a sticky and salty path. Two pieces of gray adhesive strips covered her mouth, and as she sat in the dark closet, she prayed that she could hold out until the pirates left them alone. But Eliza didn't have confidence that they'd left the ship go.
"When they are done with looting," she said, "I bet you they blow us all up."
Essar squeaked in resigned fear, her protests waining into futility as snot bubbles popped in her left nostril.
"Shut up before I tape your nose, too," Eliza said. "I can't hear them."
Despite their present situation, Essar privately understood where Eliza was coming from. She had acted foolishly when Eliza informed them that they were about to be boarded.
Only minutes before, Eliza had down to the engine room, stinking of sweat and stale corn chips. "Okay, they have trapped us in a gravity pump, and they will board us within a few minutes. I can already see their gang-tube slithering towards us. They have disabled our nano-shield, and when they are done looting, I bet they blow us all up. That's what I would do, anyway."
Essar, looking at the unconscious Cayman she had just wrapped a head bandage on, started wailing in fear. Even with the repeated slapping by her screaming captain, Essar simply cried like she was four years old again, and had just fallen down a short flight of stairs. Finally, Eliza punched her in the stomach, and as Essar tried to catch her breath, Eliza taped Essar's mouth shut, and then bound her wrists in the adhesive strips.
"We're going in the closet in the main room. DON'T make a sound, or I will crush your aorta until you pass out. I am not very good at that technique, in fact, I have accidentally killed a few people did it to. Well, all of them, really. I think. Just... forget it, SHUT UP!"
The last thing Essar saw before she was plunged into the darkness was Eliza making some changes on her main control panel, and spraying some kind of gunk in the air out of a can. Whatever the stuff was, it turned into messy strands on all surfaces, making the areas of the ship look like it was covered with cobwebs and dust.
Now she was packed in the closet, pressed against her captains skinny and wiry frame, listening to the pirates pick around the ship.
"The entire access panel has been removed," said chief security officer Derrick over the communications ear piece. "They have a huge cut in the control conduit. They probably did this on purpose."
"Why would they abandon and disable the ship?" asked one of the pirates who went by the name of Dan.
"And again, like I said five minutes earlier, I don't know." Captain Bolart opened one of the cardboard boxes near him. "They are packed to the rafters with ill-gotten goods. Look, sugar skulls. They were doing the Verde Mujeres run."
"I don't like the looks of this. Something is funny here," Derrick said. "Maybe it's a trap."
Bolart chuckled. "I think everything is a trap, which is how I am still among the living."
"More sugar skulls, sir," said Dan. "Okay, I think this is the main control and navigation room for this model of cargo ship. Behind this access door."
"What's all this white stuff on the ceiling?" asked another pirate, shining a flashlight into the various conduits in the ceiling.
"Dust and neglect. Perhaps this ship has been here a long time, Roy," said Dan.
"Scan this door for signs of life," Bolart ordered.
"It's the same as the general sweep, sir. The entire ship is reporting organic matter."
"The sugar skulls, partly," Bolart picked one out of an open box and chewed on it. "Pretty fresh. I am sure they are so ripe, they are registering organic matter by the tons. You could hide a damn dinosaur in here and we wouldn't see it until we were on top of it. Okay, get ready to blast the door--"
"It's unlocked, sir," Dan said as the door slid to one side.
Roy shuddered. "They must have left in a hurry--"
"Or wanted us to find the main control room," Derrick said over the intercom. "I am coming up. Don't go in there until I get there."
"Let's wait for Derrick," Bolart said. "We need him to access the ship logs anyway."
Not more than a few meters away, on the other side of the door, Eliza whispered, "Don't. Say. A thing. Not a whimper. Not a sneeze or snuffle. If they find us, I will kill you before they get to. Understand?"
Essar nodded in the dark, hoping Eliza could notice. But she got no acknowledgement. Her nose began to itch.
"Dan," said Derrick as he came up behind them. "I want you to go back to the aft of the ship. There's some personal effects there, looks feminine, but it's the only evidence we have a human lived here. All the rest of the quarters are storage areas."
"What do you make of the webs?"
Derrick scanned the material. "Organic in nature, probably why the entire ship is reading so strongly. I don't see any inhabitants."
"Maybe they are Verdian lung spiders," Bolart chuckled.
"Don't joke about that," Dan said. "I had a brother who died from a spore infection on some contaminated cargo." He nervously looked at the boxes of sugar skulls.
Bolart put on his serious face. "Dan, the longer you wait, the more spores you inhale. Go check out the aft of the ship." Dan didn't need an additional command, and quickly sprinted down the hallway. Bolart laughed with Derrick, "Verdian lung spiders..."
Eliza could hear them through a seam in the closet door. She couldn't make out what they said, but she recognized the pentamer of the term "Verdian lung spiders," and she smirked.
"Look at the main controls. What a wreck," Roy said.
Bolart didn't think the main control room looked much different than their own, but it did have a strange nest quality to it. The floor was littler with dirty clothes, newspapers, food wrappers, and assorted technical manuals. He picked one up and raised an eyebrow.
Derrick sat in the captain's chair, and pushed aside some papers. "The main console is not even locked." He was so focused on the panel, he never noticed the seat was still warm.
Roy shook. "This place gives me the creeps. Nobody tried to fight us or anything. This place was abandoned like a... ghost ship."
Bolart put down the book and sniffed the air. "Things are not what they seem..."
"Hello!" said Eliza's voice. A hologram appeared in the center of the room.
"A lady!" Roy said.
"If you are seeing this message, you must already know of our fate. On date 7600114.0312 we found that a recent shipment of sugar skulls from Verde Mujeres was infected by Verdian Lung Spiders and a massive amount of spores. We jettisoned the ship and cut power to the engines to allow it to drift into the Verdian sun. As your sweep indicated, the massive infection spread rapidly. There are multiple spore siphons located in cargo bay 2, 5, and some in the air ducts."
Roy turned pale, but Bolart laughed heartily.
"We have to assume that if you are viewing this recording, the ship is still intact. You are either in hazmat suits, or you have unwittingly stumbled into a very dangerous airspace, and must, repeat MUST seek hospitalization immediately. Spores will hatch in 24-28 hours in a moist environment, the larvae will become mobile shortly afterwards. To continue, please enter an executive level access code."
Roy held his breath, trembling.
"To continue, please enter an executive level access code."
Bolart smiled. "And what if I don't?"
"To continue, please enter an executive level access code."
"User Theron alpha alpha."
"One moment." Eliza's face, staring off to the right of the viewer's perspective froze while a slider bar measured "contacting S.U.N.G.O.D. Corporate."
Derrick watched the process from his main screen.
"User confirmed. Please state password."
Bolart roared, "Zero one four alpha lime zero zero brandy ten waltz one one five seven."
"Password rejected. Please state clearly."
"YOU state clearly!" Bolart roared.
"Password rejected. Please state clearly."
"Derrick, can we get rid of this interface and view the ships logs?"
"Password rejected. Please state clearly. Last attempt."
"Password rejected. No more attempts will be made. Ship's auto-self destruct will start countdown. Please evacuate the ship and leave a clearance of 500 kilometers. You have five minutes."
"Password rejected. Four minutes, fifty six seconds."
"Derrick, please shut this thing down."
"I can't, sir, this is the real thing."
Bolart looked thoughtful. "You're kidding."
"Password rejected. Four minutes, fifty one seconds."
Derrick tried to access the main panel, but it was locked as the rest of all the screens on the ship on a red background with a countdown timer. "Bolart, I don't think this is a bluff!"
"It has to be. Oldest bluff in the book."
"Password rejected. Four minutes, forty five seconds. At 2 minutes, all escape hatches will be released. In a vacuum environment, this will cause rapid cabin pressure fluctuation. Fire doors are being lowered."
"What's going on up there?" asked Dan. The engine room door has slammed shut. I'm stuck in here with an unshielded conduit vent and an alarm stating self destruction. Are you guys being dicks?"
Bolart thought for a few moments. "Evacuate," he said, and briskly walked out towards their entry. Derrick and Roy followed close behind.
"What? Guys? Hello?"
"What about Dan?" asked Roy.
"Either this is a bluff, and he'll be fine, or this is real and it won't matter," Bolart said as they entered cargo bay 2 and towards their gang tube connection. "Order an emergency detach of the gang tube."
"But we're infected with spores--"
"THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS LUNG SPIDERS, THAT'S A MYTH **OUR** PEOPLE CREATED!!" The moment the cargo access door shut, he screamed, "DETACH GANG TUBE!!"
Roy inhaled deeply for the first time in several minutes with great relief as the gang tube sealed off behind them and quickly coiled back to their ship.
"Guys?" Dan called out.
"Password rejected. Three minutes, 35 seconds," answered the recording.
"The damn closest door stuck!" Eliza shouted. "I knew there was a reason I never stored anything in here."
"Password rejected. Three minutes, 25 seconds."
Essar mumbled through her taped mouth. She wasn't too worried, since she knew the countdown was a bluff, but was concerned that Eliza seemed a little more desperate than normal. Finally, she pushed herself up against Essar and started kicking at the door with her feet. "OPEN DAMMIT!" Essar protested as the force crushed Essar's ribcage against the back of the closet wall.
Meanwhile, at the pirate ship, Bolart was barking out orders. "I don't think we're dealing with a normal captain, so I want to steer this ship a thousand kilometers away and wait for the destruction... if there is one"
Roy knew that his buddy Dan was back there, but there was little he could do.
"Captain Bolart," Derrick said, looking at the snoop screen the moment he threw himself into his chair. "What are the odds the ship will actually blow it self up, in your opinion?"
That was coincidentally the very same thing Essar thought when her ears popped.
"What was that?" she tried to say, but found the air was very hard to come by suddenly.
But Eliza didn't answer, and gave one final shove, pushing the closet door apart from its moorings far enough to wedge herself halfway out the door. There was a horrible hissing noise and all the moisture in the air condensed instantly. Essar started to feel faint.
"What's going on???" she screamed, but the words would not come out.
"The hatches have popped!" Eliza said angrily. She sounded out of breath, too.
"I thought the self-destruct was a simulation!" Essar huffed. Then, in a moment that seemed to be an insult, the closet door slid away from its bent railings and floated to the floor as gentle as a piece of cardboard.
Eliza struggled through the brisk cold air to the panel. "What simulation?" she gasped. "Is this decompression a simulation?"
Essar paused as she walked out into the cold, damp air. She pulled off the adhesive tape from around her hands, but no matter how hard she shook them, she couldn't seem to shake off one last piece of tape. The world around her started to slow down. "Then we ARE going to blow up??"
"Password rejected. Self destruction in... one minute, fourteen seconds," said Eliza's hologram.
"Not if I can help it! Shut that countdown off!"
Essar ran to her navigation panel, gasping for air. She knew that if it weren't for the door to the main control room, they would have been sucked into space. For a second, Essar realized that all the sugar skulls and other assorted cargo left loose in the hallways must be spinning rapidly away from the ship by now. Same with all the contents of her sleeping area, since it was not less than two meters from the aft cargo door. Her panic burned out like an overheated engine, and suddenly through the hissing of escaping atmosphere, the cold mist, her horrible earache, and the stars swimming before her eyes, she knew what she had to do. Her fingers nimbly danced over the control panel, and sent an emergency hatch close, but the self-destruct sequence was overriding her.
Eliza shouted something, but as the air turned a reddish-purple, Essar's ears only registered a fading dull roar. Standing proud, she merely waited for the red panel in front of her to turn green. She would wait for as long as it took. She suddenly had faith in Eliza, maybe out of necessity than anything else, who was barking out override codes despite the fact she had very little air left in her lungs, and sounded like a out-of-shape runner trying to sing an opera. Essar was barely aware that the oxygen left in her lungs was some of the last in the air, which were trying to suck what it could from the nearest high pressure. She only faintly saw a green glow beneath her fingers before she became aware that she could no longer hear anything, and that her vision was giving way to a dark red fog. The last thing she would remember was a shuddering noise of 7 hatches on the ship groaning in a chorus of protest.
A minute later, there was a bright flash on Derrick's snoop screen, then his target circle turned yellow and vanished. "Well... we did the right thing," he said.
Bolart shifted his jaw in thought, looking at his visual holographic display while Roy tried hard to hold back his anguish. "Gone, are they...?" the captain asked.
Derrick nodded. "I can see the debris cloud spreading on the material scopes. Organic matter, ship material... heh... look, those must be some sugar skulls."
Roy sighed and asked to be excused. Bolart waved him off.
"Shame about Dan, sir," Derrick said when Roy left. "He was a good cook. Roy and him... well, were more than just ship mates, you know."
Bolart grinned. "Let's wait until the debris cloud settles. I want to sweep for what's left."