Incursion: Chapter 1
Tristan woke with a start. He’d slept for centuries and now it was time to die.
His training kicked in. The pod release button was exactly where it was supposed to be, and he pressed it without hesitation.
Nothing happened. The transparent lid of his sleeper pod, deep in the hold of the troop transport ship, should have popped open on hydraulic lifts, but it stayed resolutely where it was. He chuckled. No matter how many times they tell you that everything has been worked out and that nothing can possibly fail, something always does. Usually multiples of something. Fortunately, his training covered this contingency.
The lid was a lightweight plastic molding held in place by four latches, two near his head and two near his feet. By unclipping the upper ones, he would be able to bend back the plastic. This method had the effect of rendering the stasis pod useless, but no one was expecting this ship to make a return trip, so the loss was acceptable. In the unlikely event that anyone survived the mission, there would be time to remedy the problems later.
It should have been easy. The plastic was so thin that a child could have pushed it away.
Tristan Polaris Han, a well-trained shock marine, found that he could barely budge it. He rechecked the clasps, and saw that they were both open. There was nothing holding the lid down. What the hell?
There was no such thing as a claustrophobic marine. Those got weeded out early and aggressively, but he was damned if he was going to lie inside a plastic cylinder until Marc or one of the others came along and rescued him. In the corps, there are some incidents that are impossible to live down, and he suspected that getting stuck in a stasis tube was one of them. He pushed against the transparent shielding with all his might. His muscles screamed and, inch by agonizing inch, the plastic gave way.
With a soft crack, it creased about halfway along its length and Tristan let his arms drop with relief. He couldn’t see what the lid had snagged on, but it had to have been something pretty solid. He sat up, pulled his legs back towards him and out of the tube, and dropped the eighty centimeters to the floor.
And kept right on going as his legs collapsed under his weight. The floor applied a nasty blow to his head before he could get his arms up to prevent it.
Tristan lay in a daze. He’d been in stasis several times—the nature of interstellar war made it inevitable—but he’d never suffered from stasis sickness. That was something for desk jockeys and transport pilots, not grunts. A marine’s body should be able to take up to two thousand years in transit before feeling any ill effects. Afterwards, a week in the gym should get them back in excellent shape.
But here he was, facedown on the metal grating of the floor, unable to stand under his own power.
He realized that the unusual nature of the situation went beyond the fact that he felt as weak as a baby. The revival chamber should have been pandemonium as troops bounced out of their tubes and got into their uniforms. For shock units, the time between revival and battle-readiness within their exoskeletons was five minutes. Ninety seconds to get dressed, one minute to get their ass to the exoskeleton bay, and the other two and a half minutes to get the suit systems up and running.
He’d already been awake for longer than that, and hadn’t seen movement from any of the other bays.
That could only mean one of two things: he’d either been woken before the preset time because his tube had malfunctioned, or he was in such bad shape that his crew had decided not to bother with him and gone on to the battle. Neither would explain his inability to move, however.
Tristan turned his head to study the stasis pod beside the one he’d emerged from. To his relief, his neck muscles responded reasonably well, with only minor pain, and he brought the tube into his field of view.
The problem he had now was that the tubes were too close together. Lying beside one made it impossible to see the lid of the one beside it. All that was visible from his vantage point was the bottom of the tube, partially obscured by a mess of refrigeration lines and wiring.
He gritted his teeth. If he’d been woken early, it was extremely likely that he was the only person awake anywhere on the ship. Help was not on the way, which meant that he had to help himself. By extending his arm as far as he could, Tristan managed to take hold of the railing which ran around the tube. These were usually used by maintenance teams to haul the stasis pods around from one place to another, and were sturdy enough to grab onto.
Now that he had a firm grasp of the railing, he knew he had to pull himself up very carefully. His training had extended to the assistance of victims of stasis chamber failure, but he’d always assumed that he’d be the one helping, not the victim in need of aid. At least he knew the problems he was likely to encounter.
If he was correct and his tube had gone bad, then there would be a boatload of problems to deal with, but the most pressing was that he would have lost both muscle mass and muscle tone, to a degree that might cause the muscles to tear with movement that he wouldn’t think twice about if he were healthy.
This meant that he needed to move slowly and he needed to ensure that any exertion was spread among as many muscles as possible. For example, instead of pulling himself up by the hand, he should pull with his arm at the same time as he pushed with his legs. If he coordinated it correctly, he would minimize the strain on any one of them. They might all tear simultaneously and leave him to die of starvation on the ground, of course, but at least this gave him a better chance.
It worked like a dream. There was much less pain than he imagined as he brought himself into a kneeling position. He felt a passing dizziness and the sensation of fierce pins and needles in his limbs, but not the searing pain of ripping muscle fibers.
Tristan paused to catch his breath and study his arm and thighs. Visually, at least, his muscles looked pretty much the way they always had, full and strong with just the slightest touch of flabbiness from the forced inactivity, and which the tubes weren’t quite calibrated to counteract. He shouldn’t be having this much trouble standing.
Emboldened by that discovery and his success in getting off the floor, Tristan attempted to rise. It took the strength of both his arms pushing on the railing, but he was soon upright, albeit wobbling more than he would have liked.
The stasis chamber was closed and locked down.
For a second, Tristan felt relief as his brain registered what that meant. A closed stasis chamber meant that the time to open the tubes hadn’t arrived yet, and that his own must have malfunctioned. All he needed to do was to get himself into one of the emergency spare stasis pods and hunker down. Hopefully, he’d wake up in better shape once they reached their destination.
But the feeling was fleeting, lasting only the time it took for his mind to comprehend the other thing his eyes were telling it: under the plastic lid beside him he could clearly make out a human body, desiccated and mummified.
There was no sign of decomposition. It was the body of a person who’d been dead in a completely sterile environment for a very long time.
The faded plastic tag on the tube told him that he was looking at the remains of Crista Rigel Wagner. He didn’t remember much about her, except that she had dark hair and was hard as nails in training, neither giving quarter nor expecting it.
“Crap,” he said. Speaking was difficult, the words grinding like stuck gears. But he insisted, just to prove to himself that he could, in fact, speak. “What the hell is going on here?” The words echoed around the chamber.
And something came back, a muffled grunt.
He turned in the direction of the sound. He could see a row of ten tubes from where he was standing, and apart from his, two others were open. One was empty, while the other held a marine who’d managed to get halfway out before weakness overcame him.
“Don’t move,” Tristan said. “I’ll be over as soon as I can.”
The other man nodded and let himself fall back into the tube.
Tristan took a halting step, then another. It was like trying to walk with rubber legs, but at least his strength seemed to be returning as the muscles warmed up. He proceeded from tube to tube, grabbing onto the rails of each as he went. By the fourth, he was able to walk stiffly and held on only for precaution’s sake.
The tubes between his starting point and the struggling man held only dried-out corpses.
“Tristan,” the guy whispered. “What’s happening?”
“I was hoping you knew.” The guy’s name was Klaus, and he had just transferred in from another unit. “All I know is that it gets better the more you move.” I was standing without holding on which meant that, in my case at least, I was telling the truth.
“Help me out of here.”
Between them, they were able to get him unsteadily on his feet. “Hold on a second.” Tristan hobbled over to the third open lid and found the unit’s young lieutenant, Cora, sprawled on the floor beside her open tube.
He didn’t even take a second to admire the view, but immediately knelt beside her to see if she was alive and breathed a sigh of relief when he found a steady pulse. She’d probably tried to walk and hit the ground just like Tristan had.
“Klaus, see if you can get over here. The lieutenant needs help.”
The man grunted as he approached. It took him a while, and the woman began to regain consciousness. Her eyes flickered open. “Relax, Lieutenant. You took a bit of a bump to the head.”
Young as she was, she knew enough not to argue. She just nodded once and awaited further instructions. Tristan found that a bit ironic. Five minutes before, he’d been wondering what the hell he was going to do, and now there were two people waiting for him to guide them.
Well, you had to play the cards you were dealt.
“I’ll need to check you for a concussion later, but I can’t do that yet. You’ll have to try to stand. We can help you up.”
Klaus had arrived, already walking without help. He gave what aid he could and Cora was up. She wore her blond hair cropped close, and her body was lean, but there were still enough curves there to distract any male with a pulse.
Tristan kept his eyes firmly on hers and gave her a rundown on what he knew. He finished by saying: “What are our orders, ma’am?”
Her ice-blue eyes didn’t blink. “Until I hear otherwise, the orders haven’t changed. Every able-bodied marine needs to get to the exoskeleton bay right now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tristan saluted and was about to turn.
“You may want to get dressed first,” Cora said with a smirk. “They might look at you funny if you arrive with everything hanging out. Plus, I’m not sure if the equipment is rated for nude use.”
It took them an agonizingly long time to get dressed. The uniforms, meant to be pulled on easily after a few hundred years in storage, had turned brittle and tore under ridiculously light loads. The boots simply disintegrated when they tried to don them.
Finally, Cora had simply told them to follow her to the exoskeleton bay. They plodded barefoot and in tattered uniforms down the steel tunnels of the ship. First, though, Cora limped from tube to tube, checking that every other member of their platoon was, indeed, long dead. Tristan winced as she read out Marc’s name on the label. He’d become a close friend over the course of three campaigns and various training cycles. They’d even volunteered for this mission together.
Then she tried the intra-ship comm system, which didn’t even power up.
The corridor was another challenge. It was intermittently lit, and only every second door or so was fully operational. The remainder had to be winched up manually. By the third, they were exhausted.
“At least we’re getting our exercise. No need for the two-week retraining period to get back up to speed this time around. I should be good to go once we get to the end of the hall,” Tristan quipped as he struggled with the winch.
“I don’t think this mission was going to last two weeks anyway,” Klaus responded. “From what I heard, we were going to go in, do as much damage as possible, and then fight to the last man. Dead in hours was the general consensus. That’s why they asked for volunteers for this mission.”
“Guys,” the lieutenant said, “this isn’t helping. If that were true, don’t you think we’d have felt something by now? The Minstrel isn’t particularly heavily armored. If there were people shooting at us, then we should feel it, shouldn’t we?”
“Maybe they’re dealing with the spaceborne elements of the fleet first. Shooting down the fighters and the battle station before coming after the grunts.”
“We’ve been awake for an hour at least, and they have no way of knowing which vessels are carrying what. I think someone would have noticed a big ship flying around and taken a potshot or two.”
“There,” Tristan grunted. “That should be far enough.”
They got down on their stomachs and crawled under the half-raised door. To their dismay, just twenty meters ahead, there was another darkened door. They’d come to realize that the ones with power to the lighting also had power to the opening mechanisms. They leaned against it and Tristan said, “I need to get some rest. Do either of you feel up to moving this one?”
“Let’s take a few minutes,” Cora agreed.
They slumped against the blast door. “Where do you think everyone else is?” Klaus said.
“I don’t want to think about that right now. Once we get to the staging area, we can ask anyone else who happens to be there.”
They’d walked past the entrance to a few more stasis tube chambers, all sealed. Cora had forbidden them to attempt any detours because they would only slow them down and keep them from carrying out their orders.
“What if there’s no one there?”
The lieutenant shrugged it off. “We’ll deal with that if it happens. I personally don’t think it’s all that likely. After all, there are three of us alive out of ten people in our platoon. If that holds for the ship, there should be thousands of troops moving towards their battle armor.”
“Or maybe our room had a malfunction and we’re the only ones awake.”
“I don’t think so. Look around: all the lights are on. Well, kinda, anyway. The ship is pressurized. The system wouldn’t be spending all this energy and air if we were the only ones using it. It would have powered up our room lights, and our room air and let us deal with things the best we could.”
“So what happened? A bad batch of stasis pods?” Tristan asked. That was the biggest nightmare of every person who boarded an interstellar flight. A stasis failure meant that you’d never wake or, worse still, find yourself alone in a ship with five hundred years still to go and no way to get back to sleep. It was the thing everyone tried to avoid thinking of, the part of space travel that required true bravery.
Cora shrugged. “Or maybe we took a hit. Enemy fire somewhere. Or even a space object through our ice shield. The odds of that are about as high as having multiple tube failures, so it’s a valid possibility.” She looked into Tristan’s eyes. “So, marine, ready to get on with it?”
Are you kidding? Not even close, he thought. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good. Let’s take turns on this winch. I’ll go first.”
Five minutes later, there was a big enough gap under the door to allow them to squeeze through.
They entered a fully illuminated corridor which stretched all the way to a door about twice as wide as the ones they’d been using.
“Hope that one works; I don’t think I’m up to winching it.”
“Come on.” Cora strode ahead. When she arrived at the door, she unhesitatingly pressed the big blue button.
Tristan heaved a very un-marinelike sigh of relief when it opened without a hitch.
The staging area, one of four identical hangars within the ship, stretched out before them. It was a colossal rectangular chamber with balconies along each side, each consisting of row upon row of niches, and each niche holding a single armored exoskeleton. The hold held three thousand machines: a hundred per row, by ten stories, replicated on each of the three walls of the room. The fourth side consisted of a gigantic doorway, the only thing between them and hard vacuum.
The room was dimly lit. Lights on the floor gave off some illumination, and there were also lights on the roof that looked like a tiny starscape in the distance. Most of the room was lost in shadows.
“Hello!” Cora shouted.
Tristan was expecting echoes, but the room swallowed the sound. He saw movement up ahead and a voice responded. “Just a second,” someone shouted. “We’ll be right there.”
A few moments later, a small group trudged out of the shadows. Five men and two women approached and saluted. “We’re the 74th platoon,” a tall, greying man said.
Cora returned his salute. “243rd,” she replied. “Or what’s left of us.”
“Casualties already? Have you been in combat?”
“No. But we had seven tubes fail on us. Did you guys all make it out okay?”
“We lost one man to a fall, but that was after awakening. He hit the back of his head against a corner trying to get out of the tube. Other than that, we’re all right, but we seem to have gotten a bad batch of stasis chambers as well. I’ve never been this weak after a trip, and I’ve taken some long ones.”
“I count only seven. With one dead, that leaves two of you unaccounted for.”
“They’re inside, checking out the suits.” He grimaced. “It’s not looking too good on that front. The batteries are all dead and they won’t hold a charge for more than a few seconds.”
“That’s stupid. They told us the equipment was all brand new. No way it can be dead after a four-hundred-year trip.”
“Well, we’ve only tried some exoskeletons on the lower levels, but so far, it’s all the same story. One dead suit after another. Maybe when we go higher, we’ll have more luck.”
“Somehow, I doubt it,” Cora told him.
“Yeah. The whole ship looks like it’s held together with duct tape. I hope the rest of the armada is in better shape, because if not, we’re not going to be much of a diversion.”
Tristan smirked to himself. The rumors were true: this was a suicide mission, start to finish. And a diversion at that, meant to draw attention away from more important action elsewhere.
Then he shrugged inwardly. It had never been much of a secret. He’d heard the rumors weeks before launch, while they were training with the new suits. He’d volunteered anyway. The war was going so badly that he just thought it was better to go down on his terms than in some doomed rearguard action.
And besides, how much of a secret could it be if even the platoon lieutenants had been briefed? Those guys were always the last to find out about anything. Even the newest recruits would hear about it days before it reached a single lieutenant.
“Even if the ship was in perfect shape,” the greybeard continued, “we don’t have any suits. What good is infantry without suits?”
“I’m still not sure what good infantry is in a space war against an enemy that isn’t interested in territory, so I’m not the right person to ask. Find a general. Or better yet an admiral; I’m pretty sure they don’t care how many grunts get vaped as long as their precious ships don’t get damaged. They can probably give you a thousand reasons to send people in suits against relativistic projectiles.”
“I hear you, but I’m still hoping the navy people are all right. I have no idea how to fly this thing, much less fix it if it isn’t in perfect condition. And I have a feeling it’s far from perfect.”
The 74th led the three marines deeper into the bay, and demonstrated the suits. As they’d warned, the exoskeletons were receiving power from the ship, but not holding a charge. To make things worse, the lubricant seemed to have petrified in every joint. Every time an exoskeleton moved, a cloud of dried lube flew into the air with a crack.
“Man, I sure hope the maintenance people get here soon,” Tristan said.
“Hell, I hope anyone gets here soon. Where are they?” Cora said. Then she turned to her counterpart. “What do you think? Did they wake us up too soon?”
“No. I actually thought we’d been woken too late and we’d missed the fighting. Before we made it here, my theory was that everyone had been killed and we were drifting around in a ghost ship, just waiting for the air to run out. I thought our timer had malfunctioned and the fighting was over.”
“But then the exoskeletons would be gone,” Tristan blurted.
“Exactly. Either the exoskeletons would be gone or there would be a whole boatload of marines sitting around playing cards, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider the twelve of us to be a boatload by any stretch of the imagination.”
A voice from the entrance hailed them and they went over to investigate. Six soldiers who’d lost their CO and three of their friends to some kind of weird stasis tube failure had one question for the group already in the exoskeleton bay.
“Where the hell is everybody?” one of them asked.
“Damned if I know,” was the only reply they got.