The docking procedure went through without a problem, but as soon as the airlocks were sealed tight, their ship groaned as it was forced to match the rotation of the derelict Sanison space station. It settled soon after and the uncomfortable sounds stopped.
"Any signs of life, Aron?" Henry said, tapping some buttons to make sure the lock was tight.
"Still none, just like before," Aron responded. "Let's just go and check it out, the life support systems are still running and are reporting a safe environment."
"Ah, the beauty of nuclear power sources. 15 years later and it's all still running."
"Still weird how the station's just been abandoned like this. These things don't come cheap. You'd think someone would inform someone about it and do something. Repurpose it, or at least mark it as closed and turn off the lights."
"Well, that's why we're here, ain't it? Specifically because nobody seems to care," Henry said with a chuckle.
Aron laughed. He got out of his seat and set the autopilot to simply make sure the ship wouldn't go anywhere. The autopilot system beeped to acknowledge and he floated through to the corridor. Henry got up and did the same. As he stood up, crumbs from the cupcake he'd been eating floated away from him. Henry wasn't quite the type of clean most people expected spacefaring folk to be, but he was his own boss, so who cared?
Finding a derelict space station had been the highlight of the past year. They had set out scouting drones to survey the area ever since, starting almost exactly a year ago. He'd been hasty once, and nearly got caught. Ever since he'd played the waiting game and been patient instead, and so far it had always paid off. The drones were unmarked and untraceable, and that had come in extremely handy back when some company ships had shown up and intercepted some of them.
They had tried to trace the communication signals but they bounced through several satellites and he had early warning systems set up so he could cut it off before they found him.
So they had not found him.
The drones that had tracked this space station had reported that no ships had been near the entire time they were observing it. The station wasn't acting as it should, however, since its rotation was more erratic than it should be. They would find out as they explored it, he'd thought.
"Henry! Get a move on!" Aron shouted from what Henry assumed was the airlock. He hurried along, grabbing the rungs they used to move about in zero G just a bit faster. He could feel the station's rotation pushing him away from where they were docked to it. It had once afforded the station artificial gravity, but it was spinning on low power mode or something, because this was the weakest artificial gravity he'd ever felt.
"Alright, alright," Henry said. "Let's do this," he added as he keyed in the code for the airlock. The inner door closed, the ship's sensors scanned the atmosphere on the other end, beeped, he acknowledged that the report said it was safe, and the outer airlock hissed open. A rush of musty-smelling air came in. Overpressurized. Not massively, though. But it did mean there was no atmospheric leak.
The lights inside the station were off, so they were dependent on their helmet lights. The first few corridors they went through, there wasn't much special. Metallic walls and floor, this was not a high-quality comfort station like some he'd seen. This was a working station for working people.
They made their way to the central command room, and it was a sight to behold.
Wild streaks of blood across the walls, long dried out. They stopped in their tracks.
"See, this I don't like," Aron said, "at all."
"Me neither," Henry said, uncomfortably moving forward.
He made his way into the command room and looked around intently.
"No bodies," he said, as much to himself as to Aron. "Hm."
He made it to the central console, usually operated by the commanding officer and tapped the screen to turn it on. He flipped through some menus and found out how to turn on the lights. He tried turning them on, but the screen flashed red. He then noticed a battery icon flashing in the corner. Low power.
"Guess the nuclear power source is running low," he said.
"That would explain why the station's in low power mode," Aron said sarcastically.
Henry tapped some more and found some notes by the commanding officer, a Commander Tengoku.
"Another one. They seem fine for a while, but eventually it starts to show that something is wrong. The doctors haven't figured out what it is yet, but eventually all we can do is quarantine them. They're not themselves anymore, and containing them to sick bay is currently all we can do."
Henry signaled for Aron to come over.
"Look, something odd was going on here. People were getting sick or something."
"Sick? The atmosphere is fine, so we should be, right?"
"Hm. There's a couple more," Henry said as he looked back at the console.
He tapped the next message.
"Doctor Kenzie says that the time between first symptoms and the full change is about a week. Going back to patient zero, that means that a week before we noticed, first symptoms were happening. We don't know the time between infection and first symptoms, however. Kenzie says he'll keep looking. By now we're running out of space in the sick bay. Chief Engineer Dulev and his team are working on transforming one of the shuttle bays into a makeshift quarantine location. Self-reminder: When Dulev is done, ask him to check the heating, it's warmer than normal. We don't need to be uncomfortable with all this going on."
Aron coughed. "I guess it got out of hand. How big are the sick bays on these stations?"
"No idea," Henry said, "but usually they're sizable."
He tapped the next message.
"We've moved everyone from the sick bay into the shuttle bay. There's over 90 people sick now, but Doc Kenzie has used the now freed up sick bay to keep a group of about 20 volunteers for experimentation and close monitoring. He says he has promising leads to go on. I hope he's right. I contacted Sanison headquarters weeks ago and they finally answered. Their official decree is that we are quarantined in its entirety. Only basic necessities will be provided, and we are expected to fix this ourselves. May the gods help us."
Henry noticed something about the next message. It was not written by Commander Tengoku but by someone else. First Officer Gerin.
"Commander Tengoku has been relieved of duty and been taken to quarantine. We saw the signals but he was still sound of mind and actions, until he wasn't. It took some force to get him under control -- we waited too long -- but we managed. I have sent a dispatch to headquarters that we are unlikely to get this under control fast enough. Kenzie deduced from his data that before symptoms first show, it's likely that initial contamination happened between 3 and 4 weeks before. Which, if you look at patient zero, coincides with when we picked up the object. We have locked the storage bay where the object is stored."
Henry looked at Aron. "They picked up an object, people got sick, and now this is what the station is like."
"You found us a great place to loot, buddy," Aron said.
"I wonder what the illness even was. The commander mentioned people weren't themselves. The first officer mentioned the commander had contracted it, and he was eventually no longer capable of commanding."
"And that everyone was shuffled into the shuttle bay."
"Well, they're all dead now," Henry said, "or there would have been life signs."
"True. We could go to the sick bay and see if this Doc Kenzie kept notes."
"Yeah, good idea. If there's a reason for us to get out, we should know."
They used the center console to show them a map of the station, and found the sick bay. It wasn't that far. They started towards it. The hallway out of the command room was clean again. So far they'd only seen blood in the command room itself, and it was freaky, but at least limited to there.
The sick bay itself had a white door, and there was a bloody streak along it. At the base of it, the floor had a dried puddle of blood. Henry sighed and moved up to the door. It slowly opened.
Inside, they saw what they hadn't seen in the command room. Bodies. Floating all around. The floor was covered in dried blood.
"Gods," Henry said breathlessly. "This was a massacre."
"Let's just get the data or get out, okay?" Aron said hastily.
"Right," Henry said. "Find the doc's console."
They looked around, and eventually found another door to an office. In there, there was a console that, upon starting it, was indeed the good doctor's.
"Notes, notes..." Henry said as he went from menu to menu. Eventually he found a folder called "Experimental data" and opened it. There it was, the notes they were looking for. He immediately tapped the first one, but it mostly repeated what they already knew. He tapped the next one and found the same. He kept going until something new showed up.
"Patients show no recollection of who they are. Dead eyes and non-communicative. They move, but not in a meaningful way. They try to get up, and when we try to restrain them they are far stronger than they should be. It took 5 of us to restrain Commander Tengoku, and to get him to the shuttle bay. We are now outnumbered by Them."
"Them," Aron said. "This is getting weird, man. He even capitalized it. That's never a good sign."
"I'm not liking this very much."
"Next one," Aron said, tapping the next message.
"They're alive but they're not. I cannot explain it medically. Gods, who turned up the heat up? Anyway, as I was saying, they're not themselves anymore. We already knew they acted oddly, and it was no longer possible to deal with them as one would have been able to do before they turned, but this goes much farther. Today we found out that the further along the illness develops, the lower life signs get. The heart beats slower and less strong, lungs are not working as hard, and brain activity goes down significantly. This is all very interesting, but also terrifying. This should not be happening."
"Uhm," Aron said. "Lower life signs?"
"Shit," Henry said. He quickly tapped the next message.
"The end stage of the disease is no life signs at all and an aggressive temper. They don't seem to attack each other but any of us comes near, they go into a frenzy. On a personal note, I know that I'm infected. I'm hot. That's one of the symptoms. My muscles are tense and my joints are stiff. I'm slurring my words. Most of us now show one or more of these symptoms. We've decided not to wait until we turn into Them."
"Shit, shit, shit," Henry said.
He tapped his wrist communicator and requested a new life sign scan of the station. After a few seconds it beeped. Two life signs. As expected. Then he requested a movement scan. Was there anything moving on the ship that wasn't to be expected?
There was movement. Slow, uncoordinated movement. The shuttle bay was full of it. Of Them.
"Oh gods," Henry said, "they're still moving."
"No life signs but there's movement in the shuttle bay, where all of Them were put?"
"Yes," Henry said with teeth clenched, as he looked at Aron.
"Let's get the hell out of here, Henry," Aron said, fear evident in his eyes.
"Let me download the rest of these notes first," Henry said as he pulled a cable from his wrist communicator and plugged it into the console. Two beeps followed each other relatively quickly and he pulled the cable loose. "Let's go."
They made their way back to their ship quickly. They might be looters, but they weren't stupid. This was way beyond their expertise, and they weren't in the business of risking their lives for anything. And staying on a ship that turned people into shambling, brain-dead things without any life signs?
Way beyond their expertise.
They undocked from the station and sped away.
"You're leaving the scout drones?" Aron said.
"Yeah. I want to know what happens here after we leave."
Henry sent a dispatch to Sanison soon after, stating very clearly what they had found, with an equally clearly stated expectation that they would do something about it, since this was a risk to anyone who came across the station. His stated expectation was strengthened by the threat of releasing Doctor Kenzie's messages to the news networks, along with a detailed description by him. It would be bad for Sanison's bottom line and that was what Henry was hoping would get them to move on it.
He never got an answer.
But his drones eventually chimed in. Movement. Ships. Multiple. When the video signal finally reached Henry and Aron, they could see that Sanison ships had arrived in significant numbers.
After being docked for a few bours, they undocked again and left.
Then the station exploded quietly.
Henry and Aron hadn't made any money off this, but they still felt like they had achieved something.
Sometimes even looters do good.