The Beholder was a very small ship. After taking into consideration that almost all of its space was dedicated to the cargo holds, the living quarters were nearly nonexistent. A single, small compartment was all that existed and acted as both cockpit and living quarters. A small bunk and a tiny table along with enough food supplies to make short trips was all that was really required so it was what they had learned to live with. It was the tiny table where Sophie sat, head in her hands, somber and nearly asleep as a terminal behind her quietly played a recent news broadcast about their region.
"You hear that, hon?" Walt said aloud from the cockpit chair. "Katana Curly finally got put to death. Wasn't he on death row for like a million years?"
"Something like that" was the drowsy, half-hearted reply. She had only listened to a couple bits of the report as it was announced. Katana Curly was a serial murderer that had been found to have killed hundreds on one of the planets closer to the center of the empire. One of the worst serial murderers of recent history. Women. Children. Family pets. His bloodthirstiness had shown virtually no limit but the government had still taken their damn time in the legal process before the execution finally took place.
"I can't imagine having to deal with that sort of shit. I realize the guy deserved what he got. I mean he more than deserved it, but I still can't imagine what it's like to be alive and knowing exactly how and when you are going to die. The brain just isn't meant to cope with that sort of information."
"Yup" she replied again. "I know exactly what it's like. I know that I'm going to die in a few minutes as we try to jump into Anckee and I know it will because of your shoddy piloting."
Walt grinned and looked behind him at his wife. "Just a few more hours and we'll be there. I know these trips always bore you but sales haven't been great recently. We need to get our goods onto the better markets if we want to make any real money."
Their conversation sputtered out as the Beholder came out of warp and slowed only a few kilometers from the next stargate. "Permission to jump granted" announced a garbled voice over the terminal. Walt began to guide the ship into jump range.
Walt sighed with relief as the ship settled and began to align to their next destination. Jumping through gates was never actually dangerous but he couldn't help the natural nervousness and lump in his gut regardless. "People just aren't meant to be flying around in space jumping through stargates. It's just not natural" he would always say as the other merchants rolled their eyes. "Then you're in the wrong business" was the usual reply. Walt glanced up at the massive planet above his ship and the gate and dreamed again about retiring and never having to fly in a ship again. Ever.
"What is that?" Sophie asked, awakening him from his thoughts. A red light was flashing on one of the seldom used panels to the left of the cockpit area. It was the distress beacon indicator and Walt had never seen it actually flash before. Someone nearby was transmitting for help. "Walt?" she asked again but he ignored her long enough to bring up the message information.
"It looks like a ship less than a few million kilometers from us around that planet is transmitting a distress signal. There isn't any specific information associated with the message though, it's just a generic S.O.S." he told her.
"What do we do? Can we send for help?"
He hesitated and thought about it. They really couldn't waste any time with these goods but it could take hours or even days for any sort of patrol to come check out the ship. Depending on what trouble they were in, their inaction could mean other peoples lives. "I don't know. It could be a mistake. It could be bait for pirates. I... I don't know. We really should not risk it though."
"We can't just leave them to die" Sophie said forcefully, suddenly much more awake and alert than at any other point during the trip. "We have to at least take a look. It's only minutes away!"
Walt sighed again. "How I wish I was just a farmer like my dad" he whispered silently as the ship began aligning in a new direction, towards the enormous, ominous sphere above them.
They came out of warp a good distance away from what looked to be some sort of small transport ship, not that different from their own. It was in somewhat of a weird orbit and in a slow spin, obviously not being piloted properly but otherwise appeared unharmed. The planet behind flashed and churned as storms battered the atmosphere.
"I don't see any sort of battle damage. Nothing appears to be wrong according to our sensors or visuals but I am not getting any response when trying to communicate." He looked at his wife as if to say "Do we really need to go any further?" but he knew her too well to predict anything but the glare he got in return. She wasn't going to let them leave until they boarded that ship and found out what was going on. Walt instructed the navigation computer to put them into a perfectly aligned spin with the slightly out-of-control transport they needed to board. They went to grab their suits.
The airlock on the outside of the ship opened easily. Most ships were programmed to automatically unlock all entrances and allow easy access once their emergency beacons were set off. It would be quite difficult for rescue parties to gain entrance otherwise and this ship was no different. The airlock door closed behind them, the chamber filled with air and they made sure to be standing on the floor as the pressure and gravity kicked in. A green light signaled that they could now enter the ship and remove their suits. Walt pulled out the small energy pistol that they carried in their ship for emergencies. It had never even been fired but he did not want to be caught unarmed if this was a pirate bait or worse.
"No one is in here" Walt stated confidently after taking a quick look around the room just beyond the airlock. They removed their suits completely and opened the door leading to the hallway. The hallway too was empty but there were simply not that many rooms to check on such a small vessel. If anyone was here to find, they would know soon. Both Walt and Sophie edged slowly to the door directly across the hall and opened it by pressing the control on its side. They looked inside. Walt froze in unbelief as Sophie quickly raised her hands to cover her mouth in surprise... and disgust.
Inside was what looked like the ships medical facility. It was relatively small with only one bed, some terminals, a few pieces of equipment and a tiny alcove for the medical officer to sit. Somehow in this tiny space were jammed what looked like around half a dozen people. Or they had been people. Entire chunks of their corpses were missing and their insides were exposed. As Walt examined them strewn around the room and in positions that looked extremely unnatural he noticed that ironically, none of them had managed to perish on the only bed in the room. These thoughts were quickly washed away by as the smell hit them both. It was absolutely horrendous and nearly unbearable. Sophie turned to look away and gagged once. The second gag brought up her lunch as she dropped to her knees in the hallway, unable to look back into the room. Walt put his hands softly on the back of her shoulders and kissed her head in understanding. "Go check the rest of the ship, I will see what happened here" he said quietly.
She got up and walked away, her hands still partially covered in her own vomit and her eyes turning red. Walt watched her for a second, covered his nose with his shirt and turned to enter the room. He took a very close look at the nearest corpse and noticed that almost its entire chest cavity was exposed as though an acid had eaten right through the skin and muscle and bone. This was a consistent feature all around the rest of this particular individual and most of the others in the room. He stood up to walk out when suddenly one of the corpses jerked. Walt jumped in surprise and very slowly crept over to the corpse that had moved. It jerked again, it's leg kicking out as if trying desperately to move. He bent down to look closely and the mangled body moved again. This time the one remaining eye, with a complete lack of eyelid and skin around it, moved to look directly at him. This body, eaten and destroyed and unable to move was awake and aware. This destroyed person was alive and he could only imagine in incredible pain. This zombie was staring at him.
Every bone in his body was telling him to get up and run out the door and get back in his ship. This was so unnatural and so unnerving. Walt took a deep breath of the gross, awful smelling air in the room and pulled out his pistol. There was not much blood or gore left to splatter as he put the live victim out of its misery. He shivered, closed his eyes for a moment and then go up to step over to the medical officers alcove. Fortunately the seat was empty and he sat down to see what he could glean from the terminal at the workstation. It was almost immediately that he found a log from the medical officer and set it to play.
"...is so fast acting that I don't think we can even get to port before we are all incapacitated. I am already starting to feel sick myself. It starts with a pretty severe cough and soon after a burning sensation in the skin. All of the crew has reported feeling the symptoms and Jed and Slim are already in incredible amounts of pain. As best I can tell it is some sort of bizarre flesh eating parasite or bacteria but it affects people more than anything I have ever-"
The message was muted and obscured as the screen displayed a warning to the previous owner of this terminal to take her daily medications. Walt quickly scrambled to close it and put focus back on the video log.
"...spreads through the air. It seems that just being anywhere on this ship is enough to ensure infection. I just hope that somehow we can get to port and find help before it is too late."
The figure on the screen coughed and then leaned forward to press a button. The video ended and Walt sat back in his chair in absolute shock, unable to comprehend what he had just heard. An airborne contagious illness that killed its victims in such a horrific and painful manner that it was almost incomprehensible. Worst of all, they were certainly now infected. All feeling left his hands and the horrible smell seemed suddenly like something he wanted to experience to remind him he was still alive. Walt dropped his shirt off of his face, put his head in his hands and sobbed. Why did it have to happen like this?
Walt walked out of the medical bay and back into the hall. Sophie came walking down the corridor from where she had checked the rest of the ship. "It's empty in every other room" she stated soberly, still clearly disturbed from what she had seen a few minutes ago.
"We should go" said Walt, emotionless. Sophie coughed loudly as she went to walk by and into the airlock room. Walt kissed her on the cheek. She gave a weak smile and continued past him into the room. Walt held up his pistol directly behind her head. He could barely hold his composure as his hands shook and his mouth curved into a frown. Never in his entire life could he remember having felt so empty and crushed. It was the worst feeling he had ever felt and he wished the same upon no one, not even his worst enemy. No one deserved to feel this way.
There was considerably more splatter this time. Tears flooded Walt's eyes and he was unable to see clearly by the time he worked up the courage to raise the gun to his own head.