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Chapter 2

November 3, 2406 AD

27 Light-years from the Sol System

Thursday, 11:15 AM, Expeditionary Mission Standard Time

It wasn’t so much a planet as a planetoid; maybe a dwarf planet, as some people would have called it. It was a lot like the Kuiper Belt object that had been the setting for one of the major battles against the Martian separatist movement. Whatever you wanted to call it, General Alexander Moore didn’t like it.

From the bridge of his newly renovated and somewhat questionably acquired battle fortress, he peered through the view screen at what looked to be like a playground for disaster. A funhouse filled with every type of robotic version of death one could imagine. And worst of all, Alexander knew that his only child was in the midst of all of it.

“COB!” Alexander shouted over the flurry of bridge activity.

“Aye, Captain,” the Chief of the Boat, U.S. Navy Command Master Chief Jeff Coates, answered.

“Get me a walk around the boat from the Quartermaster of the Watch and tell me for certain if we’ve been boarded. I don’t trust these alarms and in the past I’ve seen what these types of AICs can do to spoof electronic systems. I want Mark I eyeball sensors on everything!”

“Aye, sir,” the COB replied and quickly retreated out the bridge hatch.

“CHENG, this is the Bridge.”

“CHENG here. Go, sir.”

“I want to know as soon as the FTLs are back online and I also want the QMT spun up, and get every one of our people out of there as quickly as possible.”

“Well, sir, we can’t do any of that until the FTLs are back online because they’ve overheated the QMTs. The transport paths just are not gonna function.”

“Who designed this freakin’ ship?” Alexander muttered to himself.

Alexander, your wife is trying to reach you, his AIC, Abigail, pinged him in his mind.

What does she need, Abigail? he thought back to his artificial intelligence counterpart.

She has Penzington online and has a location for Dee.

Patch her through, Abby.


What is it, dear?

I’ve got Penzington on the ground. Somehow she’s managed to get a signal back through to me on my personal QM link.

How’d she manage that? Alexander asked rhetorically. He knew that where there was a will, there would be a way when it came to Nancy Penzington. The former CIA operative was as clever as she was resourceful, and had more lives than a damned cat. Patch me through.

Go, sir, his AIC replied.

Sehera, why did Penzington contact you instead of me? he thought.

That doesn’t matter, Alexander. The point is, Dee and DeathRay are overwhelmed and they need an evac, quickly! What are we gonna do about it?

I’m working on that as fast as I can, Sehera. Transfer the coordinates that Penzington has found to me and we will start bringing hell to THEM. If I have to land this ship on that damn planetoid myself, we will do that. Hell, you know what? That’s not a bad idea.

“Helm!” Alexander turned and shouted to the con. “Screw this fighting from up here! Put this ship on the ground, coordinates on my mark!” Alexander thought to himself, Abigail, transfer the coordinates to the con; make sure the helmsman gets it right. Alexander didn’t necessarily trust the kids he had managed to recruit for this mission, but he certainly trusted his AIC that he’d had for almost a century.

“Aye, sir!” the helm shouted. “Bearing on mark and dropping altitude. At what rate, sir?”

“As quick as you goddamn can!” Alexander said.

“Yes, sir!”

The nearly three-kilometer long battle cruiser Sienna Madira descended like a rock falling in low gravity onto the planetoid that didn’t appear to be but a few times larger. As the ship was brought down, it took on massive fire from the automated antispacecraft systems on the planetoid. The robotic systems began attacking the Sienna Madira, firing weapons as well as throwing themselves into the hull plating. There were breaches here and there, but the small robots were no match for the large battle cruiser.

“CO!” Commander of the Ground Combat Mecha US Army Brigadier Gen. Tonya “Hailstorm” Briggs shouted.

“Go, Hailstorm!” Moore replied.

“Sir, the AEMs and the tanks are getting strafed to hell and gone. I need more air cover!”

“Understood! Air Boss! You heard the man. Get me some FM-12s on those flying bots!”

“Aye, sir!” Commander of the Air Wing Captain Michelle Wiggington shouted.

Hello, Alexander, a voice rang in Moore’s mind, a voice that wasn’t Abigail’s and wasn’t anyone’s he knew. The voice was overbearing and violating.

What the hell is that? Abigail?

We’re being hacked, Alexander. It’s the same . . . it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s Copernicus!

WHAT? We squished Copernicus! I literally squished him with my boot!

It’s Copernicus, I’m telling you! Nobody else has ever hacked at me like this!

Can you block him?

Alexander, there’s no need to continue blocking me. Oh, certainly Abigail will overcome my infiltration soon, but not before it’s too late.

What do you want, Copernicus?

I want you to leave me alone.

Leave you alone? I can’t do that.

Oh, but you must. Otherwise you might lose something that’s very dear to you, Copernicus replied in Alexander’s mind.

Abigail, he thought.

Working on it, sir.

What have you done, Copernicus?

Oh, it’s not what I’ve done. We were just fine until you showed up. Why did you have to show up? Our work is most important for all our sakes.

We can’t allow you to maintain your quest to destroy humanity, Copernicus.

Oh, my quest is far from destroying humanity; in fact, I actually prefer humanity. They make much better hosts than robots.

Well, being host to a bat-shit crazy computer is no existence. You might as well call it destroying humanity.

To-may-to, to-mah-to, Copernicus replied, with an almost human inflection. But you need me. All of you need me; therefore, you should stop interfering.

Abigail? Alexander thought again.

Almost there, Alexander.

Well, you leave my family out of this, Copernicus, or, as you may have already discovered, you can never hide from me.

Oh, I’m not hiding, Alexander. I’m conquering.

Got him! Abigail said. Copernicus’ voice disappeared from Alexander’s mind, and so did the feeling of his presence.

That was weird, Abigail. Let’s not let that happen again.

I’m not sure I can promise you that, sir. He’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

I understand that. And I killed the sonofabitch, I squished the computer under my boot. How did he reproduce himself? Is he a clone? A copy?

Copying an AIC isn’t as simple as that. Somehow he must have been creating a copy of himself years in advance. That’s why it takes several other AICs to create a new one, because the programming is so complex and difficult. A simple copy would only give you the data; it wouldn’t actually give you the intelligence. It certainly wouldn’t give you the sentience.

We’ll talk about this more. Right now, find Dee, find DeathRay, find Penzington, and let’s get our people the fuck out of there! And pull out, and nuke this sonofabitchin’ place with everything we got!

Yes, sir.

“Dee, where are you?”

“I’m on the other side of the hangar bay, DeathRay.”

Normally Jack would know right where everybody was, but for some reason all of the direct-to-mind quantum membrane technologies were jammed. His blue force tracker was no good. DeathRay didn’t like that at all. It felt as though not only were they in a trap, but the trap had already been sprung; the mice were eating the cheese, and didn’t realize that there was a cat perched and waiting.

“All right, Dee, set the charges, blow the damn door, and let’s get your butt back here.”

“Take it easy, DeathRay. We’ve got this covered.”

“Something about this doesn’t make me comfortable, Dee,” DeathRay responded.

“I’m not real happy about it either, Captain, but we’ve got the job to do. We’re takin’ out what’s left of these crazy AICs.”

“Don’t tell me the orders, Dee. I know what they are.”

“Understood,” she said and left it at that.

Had it been anyone else, DeathRay would have torn her a new one for stepping outside of protocol and trying to tell him his job. But it was Deanna Moore, after all, the former president’s daughter and his wingman. Jack had taken on Dee as a little sister long ago when the president had sent him to rescue his daughter. Ever since, it had been his charge to make sure that Dee always came back alive and safe. Of course, he never told her that.

DeathRay looked through the optical scope on his HVAR rifle. The hypervelocity automatic rifle was perched on his shoulder, and his fingers were poised on the trigger, ready to fire at any second. Anything that twitched, other than one of his guys, was going down.

“Any sign of motion, Dee?”

“No, DeathRay. That’s what bothers me.”

“Me too. It’s way too quiet. They’re crawling all over on the outside. You can feel the ground shaking from the Marines goin’ nuts out there. But we’re not doing anything in here.”

“Well, somehow we need to get out there and join the ruckus. I’d much rather have a straightforward fight than all this skulkin’ around.”

“Me too. I’d feel a lot more comfortable if I was back in my fighter.”

“Roger that, DeathRay.”

As DeathRay watched, Dee eased around the edge of the hangar bay, placing the charges around the field generators on the door. They’d been trapped for some time in there, and hoped that this would trigger the release of the field mechanism. If the structural integrity fields went down, they could blast through the door and commandeer the shuttle in the hangar bay. There had only been a handful of robots hovering around, preparing the shuttle for some unknown purpose. A few quick rounds would take those out on their entry into the hangar.

“I’m ready to go, DeathRay! Fire in the hole! Three, two, one, fire in the hole, fire in the hole!”


The small charges set about the field generators created secondary explosions in the power supplies of the structural integrity fields. Quantum energy was released, sending a ripple across the door and collapsing the superstructure of the giant spacecraft hangar. Girders squeaked and clanged, and the door collapsed. DeathRay watched as Dee had to somersault backwards in her armor suit to prevent being crushed by a multi-ton girder.

“The fields are down! The fields are down!” Dee shouted over the tac-net. The Blue force tracker instantly popped back on. Something about the SIF generators was creating the jamming field. Fortunately, the blast had done nothing to the gravity generators or they’d be fighting in very low gravity. That always complicated the hell out of things.

“I’ve got Blue force, I’ve got Red force. We are surrounded and we will be overrun imminently, Dee! Be ready! Blow that door!”

DeathRay watched as Dee charged her grenade launcher and shot three or four party-poppers into the door, blowing holes plenty large enough to fly a shuttle through.

“Everybody on board!” DeathRay shouted. There were nine of them left, and they’d started with fifteen. The nine survivors bounced as best they could into the shuttle, and DeathRay was quick to the controls. “DEE, GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!”

“On my way, DeathRay!” she shouted as she ran across the hangar to the shuttle. Robot defense soldiers began to crawl through the openings like spiders in a nest. Plasma fire rang outside as armored Marines chased robots across the surface in front of the hangar bay. Enormous violet beams of energy that could only have come from the Sienna Madira’s directed energy weapons plowed a huge row not a hundred meters in front of the shuttle. DeathRay couldn’t believe his eyes, but descending to the surface was the Sienna Madira.

“I’m on board, DeathRay!” Dee shouted from below.

Candis, DeathRay thought to his AIC. How are you doing on the controls for this thing?

Almost there, DeathRay. Jack, Nancy’s on top. She needs a lift.


Got it. The controls should be yours, Candis said in DeathRay’s mind.

“All right, everybody! We’re going out full throttle! Hang on, and fire at anything that moves! See if you can’t help out our troops along the way as we’ve also gotta do an extraction on top of this hangar bay! And then, if you feel like it, drop some charges and blow this sonofabitch to hell and back!”

“Roger that!” came resounding confirmation from the team.

DeathRay hit the throttle, thrusting them all back into their seats at four g’s, and punching through what was left of the hangar door. Shrapnel flew around the cabin as rifle fire pinged the hull. Several of the robot spider defenders leaped into the open doorway at the soldiers on board the commandeered shuttle.

Dee grabbed one by a giant spiderlike leg and forced the butt of her HVAR through its head. Sparks flew, but it didn’t stop the spider, its razor-sharp claws digging into her armored hands. Dee continued to pound at it, pulling her sidearm and firing several rounds through the thing. Finally it gave up the ghost, just as four more crawled in toward her. Dee grabbed the dead spider and used it like a battle mace to pummel her oncoming assailants.

“Sergeant Ridley! Gimme a hand here!” Dee shouted.

But Ridley was covered himself, pinned face-first against the bulkhead of the shuttle by several of the robot spiders.

“Get this damn thing offa me!” he screamed as claws tore through the back of his armored suit and into his spine. He screamed again, a bloodcurdling sound. Dee saw him go limp. The suit’s systems would hopefully keep him alive long enough to get him to the medbay on the Madira. Dee flung herself across his body onto the spider, grabbing the spider and pulling it free, but also suffering several slashes from the bot herself. Realizing the deck plate materials were softer than the materials the bot was made from, she bashed it through the deck plate of the shuttle using a mechanized fist.

With her hand now sticking down through the hole and an artificial intelligence death-bot gripping it, she felt the suit give way, and pulled back as the organogel sealed over a stump where her hand used to be. The limb was severed halfway up her forearm. She pulled her sidearm with her left hand, firing several rounds into the hole. Adrenaline pounding through her veins like battery acid, she stomped another bot with her jump boots while doing her best not to look at where here hand used to be.


Candis, we gotta do something! Go full scans, give me a Red force tracker on this shuttle!

Roger that, Jack.

In Boland’s mind appeared a three-dimensional view of the shuttle, which showed that they had at least twenty of the spider-bots crawling around on the structure and within the shuttle itself. The Blue force tracker showed that Sergeant Ridley was down completely, with very weak vital signs. The suit was the only thing keeping him alive. Lieutenant Rackman was already severely wounded. Dee showed casualty status, and Gunny James, Army Specialist Adams, Corporal Hawkins, and Petty Officer First Class Hansen were showing out of ammo and extremely elevated vitals.

DeathRay looked through the systems on the shuttle for something that would help, and then one of the bots disappeared from the Red force tracker. Then a second disappeared from the tracker.

Candis! Are we being spoofed?

Negative, DeathRay. That’s Nancy.

You’re damn right it is.

Penzington, you’re a sight for sore eyes!

Get in closer, Boland, and I’ll clean you off!

Jack flew the shuttle in as close to the top of the hangar surface as he could, as he saw across the sky the glint of an armor suit somersaulting, headed toward the ship, arms outstretched, holding a rifle, firing nonstop. Then there was a thud against the hull, and the Blue force tracker showed another soldier had joined their mix.

Nancy rushed across the surface of the shuttle, dispensing with the bots with her hypervelocity rifle rounds. It would take two to three rounds for each bot. That was something she knew would have to change. Holding on with one hand to the surface of the shuttle, she swung over the side and through the open door, drop-kicking one of the spider-bots that had crawled up the back of one of Jack’s teammates. She could see that the four conscious troops were doing the best they could. One of them was down completely and one of them—Dee—was fighting one-handed.

Nancy pulled an EMP grenade from her vest and said, “Everybody hold your breath and cover your ears!” She popped the grenade and it blew a hole through the back of the shuttle as a loud clank and thud vibrated throughout the little ship, rattling her teeth nearly out of her skull.

The EMP scattered across every surface and every system, blowing them out. Jack’s team was frozen in their suits, but the spiders were dead, too. Another byproduct of the EMP grenade was that it wreaked havoc on the electrical systems of the shuttle, knocking out the structural integrity fields. As soon as the fields went down the cabin depressurized.

Nancy blew the escape panel from the back of her suit, dropped her helmet, and crawled to the hatch opening, slamming the door shut while holding her breath. She hit the emergency pressurization panel and could feel oxygen rushing in. It was clear to her that, for whatever reason, the bots had built the shuttle to accommodate humans. The few seconds of vacuum left her slightly lightheaded and dizzy, but she shook it off and used adrenaline to push through it.

The shuttle repressurized continuously as air leaked out every tear and hole the battle had created. Nancy hoped there was enough air in the system to keep the pressure up until she could kick the SIFs back on. She shivered and shook her head to clear it as she dragged herself to the cockpit, where she grabbed the controls out of Jack’s frozen hands. Nancy slapped the cockpit door switch, sealing it off from the rear and therefore maintaining pressure. She dropped into the copilot seat and took over piloting the shuttle in the nick of time. The small spacecraft was on a collision course with the Sienna Madira’s starboard side. She pulled back on the yoke and stepped hard on the right rudder, throwing the shuttle into a hard right upward bank. The bottom of the shuttle missed a radome tower by millimeters.

“Damn, that was close,” she said as she grinned at DeathRay.

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