This story by Marc deSantis came third in the 2020 Antares Action Fiction Competition.
The high albedo of the crystalline ice shield in front of the ship alerted the Isorian frigate Diligent to its presence in the depths of the system.
The antique design of the strange vessel intrigued Diligent’s captain.
The long gash in its starboard flank worried the phase troopers sent to investigate her.
Sorkarn turned in a circle to take in the full expanse of the cavernous chamber. ‘There must be ten thousand sleepers in here,’ he said, surveying the multitude of cryogenic cells.
‘And this is just one of five chambers,’ replied Phase Leader Krantaros. ‘Look sharp,’ he said to the squad he’d boarded with. ‘Something cut its way inside. It may still be around.’
‘What was the ice for?’ asked Sorkarn, still stunned by the scale of the ship.
‘That was how the Ancients often protected their colony ships during the Spill. Hitting something, even something very small, when traveling at high sublight velocities would have destroyed a ship outright. So they projected water ahead. The water froze and crystalized, forming a barrier for the vessel behind it. Crude, but it worked.’
‘They were clever,’ said Sorkarn. “But this ship must have missed its target. It can’t have been aimed at a star this far out.’
‘No,’ agreed Krantaros. ‘The people in these cryocells are still alive, after all this time, waiting to colonize a world that has probably been settled for millennia by now.’
Sorkarn’s response was interrupted by a trio of alert beeps. ‘The scout probes have found something.’ He pointed toward the gargantuan craft’s bow. ‘Up ahead.’
‘Why no holofeed?’ Krantaros asked impatiently.
‘Interference?’ offered Sokarn.
‘We’ll find out.’ Krantaros waved to the three other phase troopers with them. ‘Follow me.’
Ten minutes brought the squad to the foremost cryogenic chamber. Like the first one they had seen, it was filled with some ten thousand cells, each holding a human in suspended animation.
‘Why did the scout probes send an alert?’ Krantaros asked. ‘Why have they stopped transmitting?’
Sorkarn raised a finger to his lips, and inclined his head. Less than one hundred meters away, a pair of alien machines were busily pulling apart the two scout drones. The cryocells surrounding them had also been pried open, the bodies of the humans within yanked out, warming blood oozing slowly to the deck. Other cells, a bit further off, must have been opened earlier, and had more time to thaw, as blood flowed far more freely from the dissected occupants torn from them. Cascades of blood poured forth, coating the deck in claret-hued ichor.
<<WORKER CLASS DRONES. ENTITY IDENTIFICATION: VIRAI>> declared the squad’s shard in Krantaros’s earbud. <<EXTREMELY HOSTILE. LETHAL FORCE AUTHORISED.>>
Krantaros raised his plasma carbine to his shoulder. You don’t have to tell me twice!
His first shot took the leftmost Virai drone squarely in the flank, sending it spinning into the distance where it crashed into a bank of cryocells. Its companion absorbed the attention of the other four phase troopers, its gray-green hide melting under a mephitic torrent of ionised particles. It exploded, superheated fragments spraying the cells around it. The semi-molten projectiles cut through the plasglass easily, penetrating the bodies of the sleepers. The instantaneous transfer of ultra-high heat boiled their cooled, gel-like blood, sending pinkish vapours rising.
Krantaros placed a gloved hand on the plasglass of one cryocell. He wiped away the rime of frost that clung to it. The youngster inside was about the same age as his own son. Krantaros looked to the cells on either side. Likely the mother and father. They had done that in the Spill. Sent whole families off into the black void. The parents had not been so fortunate. Both had been dismembered by the alien Virai.
‘New contacts!’ Sokarn hissed. ‘All around us!’
Krantaros scanned the huge cryogenic chamber, his plasma carbine held high. ‘I see nothing.’
A half-dozen Virai drones emerged from the gloom. <<Heavily-armed soldier variants>> advised the squad’s shard.
‘Must have been summoned by these two,’ Krantaros said. ‘Open fire!’
The Isorian phase troopers delivered a stunning amount of fire in under a second, speeding roiling plasma hurtling into the foreparts of the oncoming Virai. One drone faltered and fell, smashing into several cells. The others seemed to shrug off the attacks, gliding remorselessly forward.
Krantaros aimed the X-Sling on his left forearm at the nearest drone. A stream of microbombs splashed against the hull of the machine, engulfing it and its closest companion in a fierce blast. Knocked sideways, the first careened into its brother, entangling their dangling appendages before both thudded to the deck.
His sense of triumph was short-lived. The remaining four drones opened up on the Isorians. Two troopers were cut in half, their lifeblood geysering upward from the ruins of their bodies.
A third trooper leaped up, grenade in hand, and tossed it at one of the drones. It detonated, shrouding the drone in plasma. It came to a halt, but the exposed Isorian was sliced from shoulder to groin by the claw of a second drone that had come up from the side. He shrieked, and then was silent.
‘We have to get out of. . .’
Sokarn never finished his sentence. His head vanished, a reddish mist left in its place. Blood poured from his falling torso.
Krantaros ran back the way he had come. He raced through the cells, each containing a person who, though still alive, had truly died when he’d been put into suspended animation. They would never awake.
The phase leader felt a heavy kick in his lower back that knocked him into one of the cells. He came to rest atop the unit, inside of which was a man, of roughly his own age.
As his eyes fluttered, Krantaros watched the blood pouring from his wound, puddling on the deck below. He looked next at the man, his face serene and peaceful.
Sleep comes for me too.
If you enjoyed this story, the overview page with links to all the winners can be found here.
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