“Symptoms appeared hours ago. They’re all dead by now.”
Tuck shook his head. “You sure, Joe? The ship’s sensor-masked.”
“Trust me, kid,” said Joe, with a slight chuckle. “The distress call was pretty clear. Their goose is cooked.”
Tuck watched the viewer as the Tripodian cruiser in the distance became distinguishable against the field of stars. Her engines were firing, on course for the nearest star.
“Anyway, even if there is a poddie or two left kicking, I’m packing heat.”
Tuck glared a Joe, his eyes wide.
Joe glanced back and laughed aloud. “Don’t be stupid. Nothing’s gonna save these poddies now.”
“I’m no pirate.”
Joe laughed. The cruiser was close enough now to see the lights were still on.
“Anyway,” said Joe, his voice sharpening. “Fleet’s paying a fortune for that boat. If we don’t bring her in, another scav will. Or she’ll burn up. Waste.”
Joe brought the shuttle close to the airlock nearest the bridge. With a jolt, the two vessels made contact. The shuttle shook with a squeal of tearing metal.
“We’re in!” said Joe, grabbing his mask. “This atlantium drill really does a number on Tripodian armor. Hey, put your mask on.”
Tuck grabbed his mask and pulled it over his head. “Humans are immune.”
“You wanna smell the puked up guts of 200 dead poddies, be my guest.”
Joe unbuckled his harness and drifted toward the airlock in the rear of the shuttle. Tuck followed. A soft hiss filled the airlock chamber as pressure equalized.
Tuck pushed himself feet first through the airlock and onto the deck of the cruiser, feeling the familiar queasiness of entering an artificial gravity field. The tug on his stomach was weaker in the Tripodian gravity.
“Come on, kid,” said Joe, heading into the corridor beyond the airlock chamber. “Bridge is this way.”
The corridor was brightly lit with a bluish glow, its walls lined with active interface panels. Nothing like the ghost ships Tuck had imagined when he signed up with Joe’s salvage crew.
A loud bump echoed down the corridor from the direction of the bridge.
“What was that?”
Joe drew his sidearm. “Stay here kid. Watch the shuttle.” Joe hustled down the corridor.
Tuck stood still by the airlock entrance. His heart raced as he watched Joe disappear around a corner. He glanced back the other way. He waited, his eyes darting to each side.
Another noise rumbled from the direction Joe had gone. Tuck thought he heard a voice, but nothing on the communication link. “Joe? Everything okay?”
No response. Tuck took a few steps after him toward the corner where Joe had turned. He peeked around. Nothing. He turned back toward the airlock.
Tuck’s breath stopped. Behind him stood a three-legged, reddish mass of warts, oozing a blue liquid from its mouth and eyes. It grabbed him.
“Joe!” Tuck screamed, grasping at the Tripodian’s arm around his neck. Its grip was weak, but tentacle-like suction cups held firm. “Joe! Need some help!”
Still no response. Tuck reached out and grabbed the Tripodian by what he thought was the throat. Its flesh was soft and clammy, and its skin tore slightly as he squeezed. He shoved the alien back, and it toppled to the floor with surprising ease, Tuck falling on top of it. It writhed and clawed against him, but Tuck’s panicked grip tightened.
“Joe! Where are you?”
Static. The Tripodian’s movement slowed in Tuck’s hands, but he kept clutching its neck. In a last defiant gesture before death, the alien sprayed blue goo from its mouth, covering Tuck’s mask. For a moment, he was blind, and his air intakes clogged. He kept squeezing.
The alien went limp. No breath. In a flash, Tuck remembered that even healthy Tripodians were weaker than humans, and this one in particular was sick and dying. The alien must have been driven mad to attempt an unarmed attack against a human.
“Tuck!” Joe yelled from behind. “What happened?”
Tuck finally released his grip. He started to take his mask off, but instead wiped the blue liquid away with his hands.
“Looks like you got one!” said Joe. “Not bad, kid.”
Tuck looked down at the alien, lying motionless, its eyes still wide. He felt a wave of pity for the creature. “I freaked. Where were you?”
“Noise was just a maintenance bot, but had to check it out. Poddies’ tech must be jamming our comm. Anyway, bridge is all clear. Let’s go.”
Tuck sat still. The Tripodian had attacked him, but he was the intruder. “I killed it.”
“Yep, well done! Now move your ass!” Joe grabbed Tuck’s arm and pulled him off the alien corpse.
They made their way down the corridor to the bridge. It was empty, save for one dead body in the command chair.
Joe grabbed the body and carried it back toward the corridor. He tossed it through the bridge exit. “Okay kid, you’re up.”
“You ain’t paid by the hour, kid.”
Reaching into his pack, Tuck glanced at Joe for a moment, then turned to the captain’s chair. He pulled out a computer pad, placing it on top of the main command interface. A few swipes and he was in.
“Tulie, lock down the bridge.”
The exits sealed around them. “Done,” said the computer voice.
“Not bad for your first job, kid,” said Joe, slapping Tuck on the shoulder. “Relax, we’re in the clear now. Tulie, reverse course and open all airlocks.”
Tuck glared at Joe with a start as a low rumble coursed through the ship. “What?”
“Gotta clean house.”
Tuck turned to the main view screen, eyes and mouth wide. The space around the ship slowly filled with debris and Tripodian bodies, drifting toward the star. He thought he saw one move its arms.