Less than a half hour later, the gears of war turned at full speed. The technicians tending to the Ravens in the New Delhi's cavernous launch bays prepared a drop ship for the mission.
During that time, Sergeant Major Velasquez roused his men from the sleeping quarters. He issued them Fenris Enterprise's JAW-200 sealed, self-contained environment armor and marched them into the launch bay.
A dozen soldiers now stood before him, assault rifles in hand. Their curved bayonets gleamed in the launch bay's cold fluorescent light. Their older suits were meant for deep sea diving, but they had to improvise.
"Ladies! The Admiral's found a ship. The Vidar came in from the third kill zone, destroyed the Locrix on its own. Back in my day we'd break out the whiskey and celebrate, but the Vidar is apparently a ghost ship."
"Before the Admiral nabs the Vidar for the coming home fleet, he wants to know precisely what's going on inside. Your orders are to board the vessel and eliminate any hostile threats. Am I clear!?"
They all snapped crisp salutes. "Sir! Yes sir!"
The soldiers marched into the Raven drop ship. They stowed away their equipment—incendiary pastes, explosive foams and hand-held plasma cutters. Minutes later, the Raven cleared the New Delhi's launch bay.
The Sergeant Major was by the open aft hatch when the target ship's hull appeared below. The soldiers rose from their crash seats and prepared for the drop.
"Sergeant," Admiral Ng'ambi sounded in his helmet. "The senior navigation officer says your best point of egress is the empty forward missile silos. Make your way into the ship and find out what's going on."
"And one more thing," the Admiral continued. "I've received a message from Captain Wilkes. Things aren't looking so well down stairs. Be prepared to bug out if you have to."
"Yes sir," the Sergeant Major turned to his men. "Go-Go-Go!"
The soldiers still had forward momentum when they left the Raven's aft hatch. They pulsed the maneuvering jets on their hands and feet to accelerate toward the Vidar, only now blasting air instead of water.
Sergeant Major Velasquez led the way. Less than three minutes later, the soldiers blew a hole through the forward missile silo's and sealed it behind them. They crawled through maintenance tunnels to the armory.
"Shut off your breathing tanks, boys," Velasquez told his soldiers. "The air-reclamation system just went active. There's some oxygen in the ship. We might need the tanks if we have to bug out into hard vacuum."
The large, vaulted room was unlit, so they had to search by their helmets' night vision. Towering steel shelves lengthened into the dark, neatly stocked with pistols, assault rifles and sub-machine guns.
"The armory is clear," Velasquez reported. "The ship's nuclear power plant is completely silent. All electronics appear dead or disabled. We'll proceed to the sleeping quarters, cryo and finally the medical bay."
"Understood, Sergeant. Keep us posted."
He did not report for three hours, during which they searched the sleeping quarters, storage decks and the cryo bay without success. The Sergeant Major began to worry.
Down the corridor was the medical bay's security door. He approached the keypad, but hesitated. He was an old dog of war, this Sergeant, and he knew something was wrong.
For twenty-five years he fought the Coalition's enemies. He sung war, from the frozen tundra of Titan to the sweltering rainforests of Paradise. Even at forty-two years, his instincts were still razor sharp. And right now, his instincts were on the edge. He felt chilled, nervous even, and yet he did not hear the plague's calling.
"Sarge!" One of his rear guards cried. "Stissen is down!"
Fear struck through his bowels. The Sergeant Major fast-walked to the rear of the squad, dread coiling in his gut. Three of the soldiers guarding their rear kneeled around the fourth on the ground.
When the Sergeant Major removed Stissen's helmet, a torrent of bloody vomit spilled forth, flecked with white lumps. The Sergeant Major eased by the younger soldier's side, took his hand.
"Calm down, son. You're not going anywhere."
But then, Stissen was no longer there. The Sergeant Major realized this when the soldier's hand suddenly clamped his in a vice grip. Stissen's green eyes were shockingly wide, ridges of vein standing stark against white flesh.
Stissen's armor cracked at the chest plate as muscle bulged beneath. Green eyes turned white. The turning soldier's head lifelessly cocked back, great crimson froths spilling from his mouth.
The hand that held the Sergeant Major's was now an iron vice. It throbbed with obscene strength, and the older soldier now fought to break free from the crushing grip.
The rest of Velasquez' men dumbly gawked, confused. Like most soldiers fighting the plague, they were trained quickly. They were shipped to the front lines and died before they gained any worthwhile experience.
Planting his boot to the turning soldier's chest, the Sergeant Major tore Stissen's rifle from the ground. In one swift move, he brought the rifle's curved bayonet swinging wide.
The Sergeant Major flew clear from the turned soldier, sheared arm still clasping tightly. Sprawling to his back, he brought the assault rifle to bear, but the fallen soldier was already upon him.
The armor had crumbled away. Laid bare, Stissen now wore his yellow, corpselike skin like shreds over naked flesh. Even as his other arm lashed out, muscle borne with unnatural strength still peeled through skin.
Velasquez rolled away a split second before the blow struck. Stissen's limb tore a great swath through the steel floor. The Sergeant Major rose just as the turned soldier closed and lashed out again, such unspeakable strength in his limbs that the bones imploded, crushed into splinters.
Even then what was once Stissen struggled to rise, a writhing mass of pulsating muscle. The familiar howl of an Acolyte tore through his throat, a moment before it crushed itself shut.
"Bug out!" Velasquez cried. "The plague! It's evolved!"
But then a lightning bolt of energy shot through him, too. His stomach instantly constricted, impossibly tight, unrelenting. He tasted vomit and blood in his mouth, followed by a spell of dizziness.
The Sergeant Major slammed to the deck, screaming.
Biceps exploded through armor. Muscle tore through skin.
He rose as one of the plague, no longer a man. The last thing the Sergeant Major saw before he lashed out at his own men was the blast of gunfire, and Stissen, ever close at his side.