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Chapter 1

November 3, 2406 AD

27 Light-years from the Sol System

Thursday, 10:45 AM, Expeditionary Mission Standard Time

“What was that?” Deanna turned and looked over her shoulder for the glimmer of movement she was certain was there. She saw nothing on her sensors.

“What? I don’t see it. Nothing on the scanners, mate. Don’t be getting jumpy on me, Marine,” Navy SEAL Lieutenant Davy Rackman replied in his thick Aussie accent. He swept the barrel of his hypervelocity automatic rifle from left to right behind them watching for the sensors of his armored environment suit to detect a potential target. Deanna could tell by the look on his face that he was certain that there was nothing there.

“This place is creepy. It looks just like the resistance compound on one of the moons of Ares we found, but it is more, uh—” Deanna paused, this time certain she saw something. There was something there just out of the corner of her peripheral vision.

Bree, she thought to the artificial intelligence counterpart (AIC) implanted in her head. You finding anything?

Yes. The sunflower-seed-sized superquantum computer answered through its direct-to-mind link to Deanna. Unnerving quiet. In fact, there are no returns on any sensors at all. It is almost like we are being jammed, but there is no evidence of jamming sources.

I was afraid of that. This stinks of Copernicus.

We’ve seen it before, her AIC agreed.

Copernicus had taken over the mind of Dee’s grandmother and turned her into the most crazed, bloodthirsty woman in human history. Dee and her family had been mopping up the remains of the evil AIC’s reign for more than seven years. Dee was hoping that this was the last of the hideouts that the artificial intelligence had managed to construct without its human counterpart’s knowledge.

“DeathRay, you listening?” she broadcast over her suit’s quantum communications system. The Blue force tracker system displayed directly into her mind a blue dot for his location. He wasn’t that far away.

“Affirmative, Dee. It’s too quiet. Keep an eye out,” Navy captain and mecha pilot Jack “DeathRay” Boland responded. The two of them had known each other a long time. In a lot of ways Dee looked up to Jack as her mentor, at least when it came to flying. DeathRay had literally saved her life on several occasions, at great risk to his own personal safety. He was like a brother to her. A much older big brother who was also superior to her in military rank. Of course, Dee certainly wouldn’t admit that he was a better pilot—a fact that, after many drinks, had often led to embarrassing competitions—embarrassing for her, not DeathRay.

“Bree tells me that we’re being jammed,” she said nervously as she checked her scanners again. She hated fighting bots. The damned things could look like anything and be anywhere. Dee longed to be in a firefight with real people for a change.

“I’m getting the same inputs on my end. Listen, we’re getting ourselves a bit too far apart. We should pull your squad in tighter and meet at the end of the hangar bay on your level. We’re just above you by two levels. Stay frosty and work your way there carefully,” Jack ordered.

“Roger that, DeathRay. Dee out.”

Dee brought up the floor-plan schematic in her direct-to-mind (DTM) link. Six blue dots popped into place around her. There were two of her squad members, Chief Simmons and Specialist Adams, one hall to her right, and two more, Sergeant Phillips and Corporal Hawkins, one hall to her left. The quantum imaging system mapped the hallways out, showing that they joined together about a hundred meters in front of them in an elevator foyer.

The hallways were large enough to drive small mecha loaders through and had bluish-gray metal girders rising from the floor to the ceiling about every five meters. The lighting was nonfunctional but the armored environment suits that Dee and her team were wearing had sensors that made the view better than broad daylight. That was, as long as the sensors were fully functional and not being jammed.

“Hold up, Marine!” Lieutenant Rackman dropped to one knee bringing up his weapon. The metal armor on the knee of his suit clanked against the deck plates. Dee could see his helmet visor sweeping left to right, then up and down. Something had spooked him.

“What?” Dee hugged the hallway wall behind one of the blue-gray I-beams scanning from one end of the hall to the next. She just wished there was something definite to shoot at. And better yet, something to duck behind. The hallway seemed to stretch out in front of them forever, with nothing but the girders for cover.

“I, uh, I am sure I saw movement in front of us.” Davy rose slowly. Dee could really tell he looked spooked now. “Sorry, mate. Maybe it’s just the shitty lighting in here.”

“Damn. I don’t like this. I’m turning my lights on.” Dee flipped the visible floods on her helmet, illuminating the hallway with a brilliant white light. The sensors adjusted contrast on her visor screens and refocused for direct viewing. The white light splashed across the dull black floor and the blue-gray metal walls in a circle that extended in front of them about ten meters. There were thousands of what Dee thought looked like claw marks all down the hallway floor panels.

“Somebody had some big fucking dogs,” Dee muttered, then she thought for a second to herself, What would Daddy do?

He’d likely go barreling ass-down into the unknown as fast as he could, laying waste to anything in his path, Bree added.

In short, he’d kick ass. Well, it works for him, Dee replied. Maybe it’ll work for us.

Dee connected to her team. “Listen up—Go floods and eyeballs, expect hostiles, and go balls-out to the rendezvous point I just sent you. Don’t trust your sensors and be prepared for anything. Go now!”

Dee raised her weapon and dropped into a full-speed run. In an armored environment suit, full speed was about four times faster than a human could do by herself.

“What the hell was that!” one of the squad shouted over the tac-net.

“Shoot that thing! Get it off me—” the guttural scream that followed from Sergeant Phillips was unnerving. The rapid gunfire immediately after was at least reassuring to Dee that somebody had found whatever it was that was stalking them.

At that point Dee’s world commenced an upheaval all around her. The walls started to move. The girders were not girders at all. They sprang open like multilegged insects. Each appendage not supporting weight was supporting what appeared to be razor-sharp claws. The walls were covered with them.

“At least we found the dogs! Rackman, shoot that mother.” Dee opened fire, blasting anything that moved, which in this case was pretty much everything in every direction. Several times the creatures managed to slice her, but the armored suit protected her—mostly. One of the blades managed to get through the armor on her back and into her flesh, but the organogel layer immediately sealed both the wound and the suit. Her life-monitoring system injected pain meds, stimulants, and immunoboost into her body almost immediately afterward. The pain was almost instantly gone and the stims gave her a rush of adrenaline that boosted her performance on all levels. The bots were moving in on them fast, but Dee was a pro and the game had just slowed down for her.

She turned and could see that Lieutenant Rackman was doing even a little better than her. In fact, he managed to drop the thing with the butt of his rifle. He quickly rolled to her left, firing his weapon the entire while. A bot flung itself from the wall toward Rackman, but he didn’t let up firing at the targets on the right as he reached out with his armored left hand and grabbed at the appendage of the bot, using a ju-jitsu-like move to use its own momentum against it. Rackman yanked the leg of the bot and rolled to his back, tossing the thing behind him and Dee. Dee quickly realized what was going on and managed to take the bot out with the heels of her jumpboots as soon as it hit the deck plating.

“We’ve got to keep moving!” Rackman shouted, not missing a beat, pulling the trigger on his rifle as he rolled back to his feet.

“Damned right! What the hell are these things?” Dee ducked her head and barreled right through, blasting away. The spitap-spitap of her hypervelocity rounds zinged into the hallway bulkheads, spraying orange molten metal on impact. “Screw this. Drop some grenades!”

“Now you’re talkin,’ Marine! Droppin’ some fucking grenades!” The rear launchers on his suit popped open, tossing out two grenades behind them. Dee and Rackman could see the countdown of their fuses in their visor displays. “Run, Marine!”

“Damn right.” Dee responded by kicking her jumpboots against the floor for an added thrust to her stride. Just as she hit the floor on her next stride, she kicked again with a metal clashing sound reminiscent of a car wreck at a rocket plant as the grenades went off.

A fraction of a second passed before the concussion wave from the blast tossed the two armored soldiers even farther forward, sprawling in the air with limbs akimbo. They came to a stop on the floor, rolling, clanking sounds turning to a final kathunk to bring the wreck to a halt. The remains of multiple menacing mechanical creatures lay sprayed about. But there were hundreds more still moving and attacking and swarming like killer ants, only worse. Far worse.

“Move, dammit!” The SEAL grabbed Dee by the shoulder harness and yanked her to her feet as he fired several more grenades from the launchers on his back.

Dee could see the tubes pop with each grenade ejected, almost as if it were in slow motion. Something inside her told her to just keep moving.

Move your ass, Dee! Move it, soldier! Her AIC was screaming in her head to run. A large I-beam in front of her and to her right morphed into a—well, Dee wasn’t sure what, but something that looked like a metal praying mantis with buzz-saw mandibles and razor claws on each limb. It swung out from the wall, right at Dee. The saw passed millimeters from her face. Had it hit, she would likely have been decapitated even with her armor suit.

Dee ducked and rolled onto her back, firing into the deadly robot. One of her rounds broke the thing’s back structure, but not before its claws had separated the SEAL’s right arm from his body just above the elbow. Lieutenant Rackman didn’t even scream. But he did fall forward onto his face.

This time Dee grabbed him by the shoulder harness and yanked him upward to his feet. She popped three more grenades behind her, stamped her jump boots to the floor and sprang the two of them forward a good thirty meters as the explosives went off.

“Stay down, Captain!” a voice said to Dee as the room filled with automatic gunfire, grenades, and fire raging from a plasma thrower.

“Roger that!” Dee replied to the voice. Both her DTM display and her own brain’s recognition of the voice told her it was Gunnery Sergeant Sandra James. Dee flipped through screens in her mind to check on Rackman’s vitals. His suit had him in great shape. “Davy? Status?”

“A Navy SEAL with one arm is still better than a jarhead with two, Captain,” Rackman replied. Dee could tell from his voice, though, that it was more a shot at humor than bravado. The SEAL had lost an arm. Even with the suit killing the pain and stopping the bleeding, there were psychological aspects to that. She couldn’t imagine how she’d react in the same situation.

“Stay with it, Lieutenant,” Dee ordered. Though effectively they were the same rank, being O-3s, she was in charge of the recon team. The shooting had almost completely stopped around them, which Dee took as a good sign. “Sandy, we have to keep moving.”

“Roger that, Captain. I think we’ve slowed the metal bastards a bit.” Gunny James offered Dee a hand up. Dee took it. “We lost Sergeant Phillips and Ensign Melot.”

“Shit.” Her casualty page scrolled in her mind at the thought. “If you hadn’t got here when you did we might have lost more than that.”

“Looked like you had them right where they wanted you, Captain,” Sandy replied. Dee ignored the comment. The sergeant was well known for untimely puns and clichés that were poor attempts at humor. This one was certainly par for the course.

“Alright, DeathRay is almost to the rendezvous location and we are a good minute away,” Dee said. “Keep eyes out for those things and move, balls out. Let’s go.” Dee nodded to the older and more experienced enlisted Marine. She knew her father had somehow managed to get her assigned to her squad to watch over her. Sandy had pulled Dee out of some bad scrapes several different times. Dee had come to accept and appreciate her parents’ concern.

The resistance down the rest of the hallway was just as bad. Everything seemed to move from every direction. As Dee’s team joined together and met down the corridor, it was a nonstop firefight. Finally, they reached DeathRay’s team.

“Those things are all over!” Dee shouted.

“Everybody, go safemode on your suits now!” DeathRay ordered. Dee complied as quickly as possible. She could see, as soon as all the suits showed safemode status in her DTM display, that DeathRay had an ace in his sleeve.

Navy Captain Boland pulled a small spherical object from his suit and depressed a single red button on it. He tossed it ten meters or so down the hallway past Dee’s team, and a second later, a wave of bluish-white light washed over them. When the light passed over, the electromagnetic pulse zapped the robots and fried every circuit within fifty meters. Dee’s suit started to reboot.

“Where’d you get that?” Dee asked him.

“That was one of three experimental devices your father’s AIC came up with to fight these things. I only have two more left,” DeathRay explained. He attached one to her suit’s harness. “Your team left before they were finished.”

“That clever little computer,” Dee said. “Wonder how she knew we’d need one of those?”

“When it comes to your father and his AIC, I gave up wondering a long time ago,” DeathRay replied.

“Right. Moving on.” Dee’s sensors came back online and she scanned for movement. Nothing was moving but them. “That way. About fifty meters.”

The corridor opened into a large hangar bay with a single launchway and opening on one end. Dee could see the asteroid field glinting in the faint red sunlight of the uninhabited system outside. Copernicus had created so many of these completely uninhabited hideouts that Dee was losing count as to how many they had retaken. Nobody seemed quite sure why the bases had been constructed, but General Moore’s expedition continued to find them and take them from the bots.

In the middle of the hangar bay was a single vehicle of some sort with hundreds of robot creatures swarming around it welding, soldering, wiring, and constructing various parts of the craft. Dee was certain it wasn’t mecha but it did look like a spacecraft.

“DeathRay? What’d you make of that?”

“Dunno. Probably the reason we’re here.” DeathRay replied. Dee was afraid he was going to say that. Dee had her recon team but DeathRay, a Navy captain, was an O-6 and he was in charge of the overall program. The program her father and mother set in place to mop up the aftermath of Copernicus.

“Orders?” Dee looked at DeathRay.

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