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Chapter 11

November 7, 2406 AD

27 Light-years from the Sol System

Monday, 4:42 PM, Expeditionary Mission Standard Time

“The edge!”

General Mason Warboys sat on the front of his tank-mode hovertank, lecturing the Warlords tank squadron—his Warlords.

“The very Goddamned edge! We are at the edge of where humanity has ventured into space, and seem to find remnants of the Separatist faction automated threats everywhere we turn.” Warboys pounded a fist downward onto the hovertank’s armored hull. “I don’t care if we do have some down time. Who knows, at any moment we might find ourselves in another shitstorm with these godforsaken soulless computer-driven attackers. So we’re gonna train. And train. And train. And when we finish we’re gonna train some fucking more. Is that a hoowah?”

“HOOWAH!” the Warlords answered.

“Great. Johnny, get us set up, and we’re gonna run this sim again and again until we get through it with zero casualties,” Warboys ordered.

“Roger that, One,” Warlord Two Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Stacks responded. “All right, you heard the general—everyone load up and let’s get with it.”

Mason Warboys nodded. He understood that there was a lot of work to be done. His team was new, raw, and from disparate groups throughout the fleet. They were still learning to be a team. He had beaten them into a decent tank squadron over the last eighteen months or so but they weren’t there yet. At least they weren’t where he thought they should be.

Once the Sienna Madira had been decommissioned and then recommissioned, General Moore—or President Moore, it was confusing to everyone—asked Mason to bring his team along for this long-haul mission. Mason was thrilled by the prospect, but the problem was that the Warlords had already been disbanded and reassigned. Warboys had to start over and pick a new team. While there were plenty of tank drivers in the Army, the Warlords were elite, and Mason only chose the best. The problem was finding elite tank drivers who could and would volunteer for an open-ended, long-duration assignment to unknown locations. In other words, he did the best he could in the picking process. What he couldn’t get in experience, he was damn sure going to make up for it in training.

Mason slid the cockpit canopy closed and cycled the restraints into his E-suit. His AIC processed the startup sequence and completed the handshaking with the ship’s sim-center computers. Warboys could see the battlescape pop into his direct-to-mind view in full detail. The ten Warlords stood still in a V formation, all in tank mode. The virtual landscape was very similar to the planetoid they had recently been on, but was different in a random-shuffle sort of way. Some of it actually reminded him of the Battle of the Oort years ago. But back then, his team was the shit. Every tank driver in the U.S. Army wanted to be a Warlord.

Sir, the scenario is loaded and ready to begin, his AIC Major Brenda Bravo One One One Mike Hotel Hotel Two advised him in his mindvoice.

Roger that. Start it up, Brenda, he thought.

“All right, Warlords, stay sharp. We have an overwhelming hostile force over the ridge and our AEM brothers are pinned down. Those crazy bastards are outgunned, outnumbered, and outmatched, and if I know Marines, that is a perfect situation for them to attack! They’re going to need our help!”

Armored Environment Suit U.S. Marine Corp Master Gunnery Sergeant Tommy Suez had always had a talent for driving an armored e-suit. Even as a private, he could unwrap a piece of candy while wearing the suit. The armored heavy gauntlets of the suits typically made that level of control and precision extremely difficult if not impossible, but not for Tommy. Since he’d seen pictures of the suits when he was a child, he had studied everything about them. He had always wanted to be an AEM. He ate, slept, and breathed the function of his suit. The more he understood it the better he could use it. But it was more than just suit function, it was also suit use. He had studied tactics and strategy and performance protocols. He’d read history books on the suits and how they had changed over the years. He had studied the Martian Desert Campaigns and the famous exploits of Major Alexander Moore. As a kid, he had idolized the Marine turned president. He wanted to know how Moore had managed to set the all-time, still-standing record for living in an armored suit for more than a month way back then when the technology was not supportive of such a feat. There had been many of his superiors and friends alike who had suggested he go to Officer Candidate School, but Tommy didn’t want to take the time out of being in the suit and being an AEM. Tommy was most at home in the suit. One day he hoped to test Moore’s record.

Today, Tommy had the day off due to regulation. In order to protect their leader, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Jones, he’d taken a metal claw in his chest. It had punctured one of his lungs, but his suit had sealed it off before he had any issue with it, and he’d ripped the metal buzzsaw bot bastard to hell and gone. The doctors in the medbay had fixed him up without any problem but rules were rules. He was sidelined for several days, but Tommy liked staying fit and sharp. And really, did any E9 master gunnery sergeant ever have the day off? Being “Top Sergeant” kept him busy, always.

He clanked down one of the long, abandoned corridors of the Madira in his suit. Tommy fired his jumpboots, launching himself headfirst into a rolling front flip. As his body and suit twisted through the flip, he had his DTM targeting system track protrusions, bolt heads, and rivets in the bulkheads. Red targeting reticles zipped across his mindview in three dimensions all around him. He locked one onto a bolt head on the ceiling a bit aft of his position and fired a simulated shoulder mounted rocket at it. He did all this in less than the second it took to complete the maneuver. He stopped on one knee, with his weapon drawn and targeting objects in front of him. He scanned for movement and mentally took note of the sensor views in his mind. It was really dark in the long corridor, especially with his suit lights off. He pressed on deeper into the ship.

Occasionally he’d pass a portal that let some light from the planetoid’s star in, but only a little. The blue-gray metal bulkheads did little to brighten up the place. The corridors on this part of the ship were mostly abandoned and lights were only turned on when engineering crews needed them.

Tommy visually scanned but decided he was going to bump into something if he didn’t switch over to a different view or bring up his suit’s lights. He didn’t want to use the harshness of the lights. There was something sort of serene about working out in the near darkness that he liked. He didn’t want to disturb the darkness.

Then he checked his AIC for any other sensor movement. The area battlescape came online and switched to full DTM mindview. On full mindview the data was so overwhelming that one couldn’t follow it and visual view at the same time. Typically, on full mindview, the visors went dark to help remove the distraction. Tommy didn’t really need that aid. He’d learned years before to focus his mind just on the sensor view he needed at the moment. Others could do it, but most simply allowed the suit or their AIC chose the best view for the moment. Tommy had programmed his suit and told his AIC not to black out his visor unless ordered to or emergency protocols required it.

Nothing on QMs or IR? He asked his AIC.

Nothing. As it should be. They were in an abandoned area of the ship almost all the way to the bow on the starboard side.

Okay then, let’s switch to pure mindview and I’ll practice maneuvers blind.

Switching off visible and going to mindview sensor data only.

Good girl, Jackie, Tommy thought. He looked for the layout of the ship around him in his mindview, but nothing was there. That wasn’t right. The computer always generated a layout map of the ship. There were no actual images from the sensors overlaid on the map. Jackie? DTM the sensors for me.

The mindview is fully functional, Tommy, his AIC replied. Tommy’s stomach turned over. What you see is what I’ve got.

What? That makes no sense, he paused to think. They were working fine a hundred meters or more aft when I did the targeting flip.

Sorry, Tommy, my diagnostics show the DTM is fully functional and operating normally.

That isn’t right. I should see bulkheads and heat flows and potential targets. But there is nothing DTM. Nothing. Then something occurred to him and he didn’t like it. Eyeballs and full floods! Sims off and weapons online! Get me coms to the bridge!

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