24. Death Ship
Date: 176-993 Imperial.
Location: 069-526 system (0721), high above orbital plane.
"No lighting. No atmosphere. No AG from the deck plates. And finally no spin. Thanks, missus."
Fish, Maelcum and Sir David were through the aft dorsal airlock which Silea had selected for docking. It gave her the right leverage to cancel the freighter's tumble, using 0.02g attitude thrusts to keep the stress on the coupling within limits. Docking had been "complex" - Luan went green watching the screen as Silea flew a path like a demented ball of string to align the airlocks. They'd sent her off to "get the sickbay ready".
The away team set out to explore the ship, led by Fish who was the best in zero gravity. The entry point was a long way from the bridge, where one would normally expect to find the computer they were after. Silea had offered to shift to another airlock now that the nameless freighter was stable, but the guys seemed to like the idea of an expedition through the hull.
They worked their way in towards the central spine of the ship, expecting to find a corridor running along its length. This upper deck was an accommodation area for crew and perhaps passengers - most freighters took the odd passenger, just as most liners would carry some freight - and it seemed eerily mundane in their helmet lamps. The walls were cream, the carpets pale grey, and the pictures were apparently fixed to the walls because none of them were drifting around. The cabin doors were closed and un-powered, so they ignored them for the time being.
Apart from a couple of frozen/desiccated pot plants, they didn't see any deceased life forms for about nine minutes. The first dead sophont was a little girl, in pyjamas decorated with a cartoon Ursa (or perhaps a bear) playing grav-ball. She was drifting up near the ceiling, with a deflated survival ball1 dangling off her like a translucent silvered shroud.
Maelcum eyed the body neutrally. Fish, who was seeing his first dead child, grabbed a handhold and gasped "shit" over the voice net. Sir David bounced off a couple of walls and came to a rest next to the corpse.
After a long look, he opened a channel to Silea. "Note for the log. We have encountered the body of a human female child, estimated age ten, floating in an emergency life support bag. No signs of rapid decompression or rupture to the bag, it appears the child died of suffocation before the air drained out. Two fingers have snapped off since the body froze. That may have happened when we docked. She doesn't look to be carrying identification. Coordinates from airlock are..." he read off the figures from the inertial locator on his suit cuff.
"I think you might have to open all the doors after all, Fish. But let's go to the bridge, first. We'll see if we can find anything useful there."
They moved on, the Fish not looking quite so graceful now. After a couple of minutes they found the first open cabin door. Inside was a dead woman, again in a deflated survival ball, again the apparent victim of suffocation after her air ran out. There were clothes and toys suitable for a ten year old girl, several with an Ursa motif.
"She doesn't exactly look like a pirate." Sir David sent back another log entry.
"The air in the ball would last longer for a child, right?" asked Maelcum. The others confirmed. So, thought the retired counter-insurgency officer, she stayed here like she was told but when she saw her mother suffocating she opened the door and fled outside. Just like hiding from guerrillas in a burning building. He didn't say anything to the others.
"Alright, let's get to the bridge. Then we'll take stock." Sir David waved them back out of the cabin.
 Ships carry at least one survival ball per passenger in each cabin. They're like big plastic bags. Passengers can step into them and inflate them with the incorporated air cylinder, which lasts about four hours for an adult. They're usually transparent, with a vapour-deposited metallic pattern added to reflect light and radar. Even if they are undamaged, the air will eventually leak out of them by osmosis.