A static-filled sigh comes across the comms link. Richard leans close to the speaker housed in the control unit. When his wife speaks, he jolts back in alarm.
“Toss a coin, Rich?” Meryl sounds both fragile and husky at the same time.
Richard thumps the input panel. “You scared me, going quiet like that. What can you see?”
“We were right. I can see her. In fact, I’m standing on her.”
“Good grief! You don’t mean—”
“I do. Here’s the ID plate. Waltzer-Three.”
Richard checks and rechecks the array of screens before him. This is the only panel fully operational on the deck of the spaceship, the rest hum in standby. “She’s not showing up anywhere.”
“Except out here. Toss a coin.”
Richard knows better than to ask for clarification. Meryl has a sense of theatre. He pulls a coin from his pocket and flips it with a thumbnail.
“Tails never fails. Right, I’m going in.”
Richard leaps to his feet, sending his chair skittering across the floor to thud against another unit. “Are you hell! Gregg stipulated absolutely clearly—”
“So maybe you should wake him up to check.”
The captain, along with the bulk of the crew, are scheduled to sleep until May at least. Richard clicks his tongue.
“I’ll tell one of the others, then.”
“Who, the bursar? As it stands, we’re the top dogs, Rich. You and me.”
“Then I say no.”
“Fine. And I say yes, so the coin gets the deciding vote. The door’s open.”
Richard pulls at his beard. “Meryl, you’ve got no right. There’s no telling what actually happened to Waltzer-Three.”
“Smell you later.” The tone of the comms transmission has changed, the hush surrounding Meryl’s voice replaced with a low hum. Richard hears distant, muted bumps, the sound of his wife clambering into the airlock. In sympathy, he experiences the closure of the outer door as a popping of the ears.
He breathes deep to slow his heart rate. “Check readings.” He says this only in order to hear her voice, he realises.
“Centripetal sim-gravity superb. Waltzer by name, waltzer by nature. Toxins normal. Oxygen adequate. Radiation normal-ish.”
“Kidding. Helmet’s coming off.”
The helmet release sounds like the fizz of an opened lager bottle.
“Keep talking, love,” Richard says.
He hears a gentle snort. Meryl is smiling.
“You forget how bare-bones these old ones were,” she says. “Bare, moulded plastic, all magnolia. Looks like an intergalactic starter home. It could do with Laura Ashley wallpaper, or something. And the smell of coffee or freshly-baked bread or they’ll never sell it. Still, the foyer’s pretty big. Room for a pram.”
“Sorry. OK, I’m going all the way in.”
He hears another mechanical groan as the interior door opens. Meryl’s footsteps punctuate the static.
“Oh.” Meryl’s voice has become smaller.
“What? What’s going on? What do you see?”
“Nothing. Seriously, I mean it. The control room’s desolate, not a soul here.”
Richard chews his cheek. “What could that mean? All the final transmissions indicated that they were operating normally.”
“So I guess the final transmissions weren’t the end, then.”
“This is no good. Come back, Meryl.” Without meaning to, he ends with a rising inflection, a request rather than a command.
His wife ignores him, or doesn’t hear. “It’s all pristine, though. No damage, like Ops predicted. There are more blinking lights in here than there are out in the starfield.”
The hissy footsteps begin again. Meryl is heading towards the bunkhouses, he supposes. She’s a people person.
“Strange,” she says.
“Please,” Richard says, “Stop saying vague, alarming things. What’s strange?”
“It’s double-locked from this side.”
Richard ponders this. “So nobody could enter the control room?”
“Don’t be silly. Of course they could. What earthly good would there be in a door that could be locked tight from only one side? The point is that whoever last came through the door locked it from here.”
“So then they left.”
“So then they left.”
“You should too, Meryl. Don’t go in there.”
“Too late.” The whoosh from the door follows several seconds later, revealing her lie.
“Seriously, love,” Richard says. “Talk to me. Where are you now?”
“Just checking the third room, sleeping quarters. Nobody here, but that’s not so much what’s weird about it. I’m thinking of our room, Rich. It’s a pigsty, right?”
“Are you saying it’s my turn to tidy it?”
“For the record, yes. But I mean, that’s how people live. Clothes draped on chairs, piles of shoes, books on the bed. Not here. Immaculate pile of personal items on each bedside table, everything at right angles. I bet you — yep, I’ve just opened a drawer. Even the underpants are folded, Rich.”
Richard shudders without fully understanding why.
The comms static becomes thick, a grunting squall.
“Door’s stuck,” Meryl says.
“As in jammed? Locked?”
“Nope. It’s a swing-open. At least, it would be if it actually swung.” She grunts again. “There. Oh shit.”
Richard bends double over the control unit, staring at the speaker as it might give him a view onto Waltzer-Three.
“It’s a body,” Meryl says. “A body blocking the door.”
“Hold your horses. What’s the big surprise, scaredy cat?”
Richard’s mouth twitches into a smile, despite everything. Meryl called him ‘scaredy cat’ back when they were kids, goading him at kiss-chase in the school playground.
“We expected crew, didn’t we?” she continues. “No big deal. The only odd thing is how she’s dressed. What year did Waltzer-Three go AWOL? Eighty-nine?”
Meryl humphs. “Well, no disrespect to the dead, but this style of evening gown went out of fashion in the seventies. It’s all ruffles, uck.”
“Evening gown? The corpse is wearing an evening gown?”
“Rich, that sounds gruesome. She wasn’t a corpse when she put it on. And the automated life-support is doing overtime. She hasn’t decayed a bit. A redhead, you’d like her.”
“Made me laugh. Sorry. You know how I get when I’m anxious.”
Richard feels a pang of relief. At least she admits that much.
“So I’m just heading into the canteen. And—”
“And there they are.”
“Who?” When she doesn’t reply, he repeats, “Meryl. Who?”
Her voice sounds strained. “The crew. Twenty, twenty-five of them. Sitting around three big round tables, bigger than in our canteen. Must have been more sociable back then. Hasn’t everyone become more cynical nowadays? Nobody likes large groups, people keep themselves to themselves.”
“Meryl, please! You’re rambling.”
He hears her draw three deep, sputtering breaths.
“Rich. I’m terrified, suddenly.”
Richard reaches out as if he might grasp her hands. “I’m here. I’m here.”
“They were all eating,” she says. “When it happened, whatever it was, they were eating.”
“It had to be sometime, Meryl. Does it matter if they were asleep, or in the control room, or here?”
“You don’t understand. They knew.”
“How can you tell?”
“It’s so eerie. Some are face down on the table, but some are still leaning against each other, somehow. And it wasn’t just the woman in the doorway. They’re all dressed up, Rich. Like it’s a prom or something. All the women in gowns, hair done, caked in makeup. Most of the men wearing tuxes, and those that aren’t made do with those black engineer jackets. White bowties made from toilet paper. And the food! Roast chicken, potatoes, petits pois. Cut-glass goblets filled with red. Did ships really carry all this stuff, back then?”
Richard’s eyes water. “Please, Meryl. Come back. I’ll do anything. Don’t spend another minute there. If you love me, come back to me now.”
To his relief, Meryl’s supply of wisecracks has exhausted.
Meryl pants heavily as Richard helps her out of the bulky suit. Once it has been discarded the two of them topple together, wigwam-like, into an awkward embrace. Richard’s hands explore her back, tracing familiar contours.
“I love you so much,” he says.
“So you’re always telling me.” She pulls away, holding him at arm’s length. She grins. “Sorry. I love you too, you beautiful oaf.”
They walk back to the control room, hand in hand.
“So what happens now?” Richard says.
Meryl pauses. “We should wake the captain.”
“In fact, we should wake them all,” she says. “We should all be together.”
She turns to look at him. Her eyes are a calm sea.
“Rich, I’m hungry.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tim Major lives in Oxford in the UK with his wife and son. His novella, ‘Carus and Mitch’, was published by Omnium Gatherum in February 2015 and his short stories have appeared in Interzone and the Infinite Science Fiction One anthology, among others. He blogs about writing and reading at www.cosycatastrophes.wordpress.com.
“Finding Waltzer-Three” was originally published in Interzone.