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Chapter 3

November 3, 2406 AD

27 Light-years from the Sol System

Thursday, 11:15 AM, Expeditionary Mission Standard Time

The standard mission was always, “The recon team hits the objective in search of leads to any other quantum membrane teleportation addresses or hidden bases that were remains of the Martian separatist movement.” Mainly, the only things left were outposts that the crazy AIC Copernicus had created, probably completely unknown to his host, the terrorist leader Elle Ahmi. And history would never reveal the true nature of the American history during the civil war between the United States of the Sol System and the Martian separatists. Only a handful of trusted senior officers and family members related to the former President Moore—and now-reinstated U.S. Marine Corps General Moore—knew what had happened. And the orders were that it would remain that way forever.

One of the few trusted soldiers in the inner circle of the U.S.S. Sienna Madira’s senior crew was Army Brigadier General Mason Warboys. Warboys had brought along with him the Warlords, the top hovertank unit in the entire U.S. military. And as standard procedure, once the recon team had been inserted, then, as diversionary tactics, the Armored Environment Suit Marines and the Army Tank Squad were dropped—and let loose hell—with the intent of mopping up any extra resistance forces and totally wiping out the existence of any automated threats.

The AEMs had ridden on top of the tanks after deployment from the Madira all the way to the surface, as was the usual procedure. It was a technique that Warboys and one of the senior Marines had come up with years ago at the battle for Kuiper Belt Station.

Warboys’ tank hit the surface of the planetoid with a soft crunching sound. He quickly transformed it to bot mode and drew up a phalanx line with the rest of the Warlords, running in a V, directly into the enemy line where the Army and Marines were drawing heavy fire. There was very little gravity on the planetoid, so the computer systems and the AICs onboard the hovertanks had to make up for the exaggerated motion with the propulsionless drive and thrusters. Sensors showed a well of artificial gravity several kilometers up, but the computers would take care of all that without having to bother the tank drivers.

“All right, Warlords. This is Warlord One,” Warboys said. “Stay tight on me, and let’s push a hole through these bots so that the Marines can spread out and make sure none of them get past us. And keep an eye on the strafing runs from above. Duck and cover as you see fit.”

“Roger that,” was the resounding response from the Warlords. “Fuckin’ hoowah, One!”

Warboys looked at the scene in his direct-to-mind display of the battlefield and could see hundreds of red targets in any direction he looked. They were several klicks from where the recon team had been inserted, and he hoped that at least some of that excitement the Warlords could draw toward themselves. Warboys pounded across the surface with his DEGs on auto, firing at any threats from above, and his cannons taking out any surface threats. The planetoid’s automated defensive systems were mostly small, unarmored robotic threats, little bots with weapons but not much in the way of armor. It didn’t take a whole lot for a hovertank to squash them, Warboys thought, but they were still deadly if their cannon fire were to come through the hull plating and hit the cockpit, something that he’d seen on the last drop. Fortunately the automated bots weren’t that good at fighting. Nobody had quite figured out why that was, because they ought to be just as good as, if not better than, the humans.

“All right, Warlords, let’s bring hell,” Warboys thought out loud.

“Warlord One! Warlord One! This is Warlord Six.”

“Go, Six.”

“I’ve got some big movement just over the horizon.”

“Roger that, Six. I see it in the QMs. I’m going to infrared. See if it has a heat signature,” Warboys replied. Hmm, he thought to himself. What’s this? Something new?

Running a full scan on it, sir, his AIC replied into his mind. The signature is quite large. Very similar to that of a tank.

No shit, Warboys thought.

Bringing up a full electro-optical view now, sir. The image of the new automated threat appeared in his mind and was almost an exact copy of a Martian separatist hovertank.

“Son of a bitch!” Warboys said out loud. “Warlords! Warlords! We got something new! Looks like the bots have built themselves some tanks! Be alert and be ready to go, and here they come! Fan out! Fan out!”

The Warlords spread out. Warboys turned back to hovertank mode and increased speed to drive straight through the line of bot tanks approaching them. And they were approaching fast. At over seventy kilometers per hour in tank mode, Warboys pounded through the line, crashing into one of the bot tanks’ legs. Sparks flew as the metals scraped against each other, and Warboys was thrown forward with a jolt.

Immediately he toggled the tank to bot mode and rolled over headfirst, coming up in a forward flip onto one knee. He instantly brought his shoulder-mounted cannons to bear behind him at the bot that he’d just clipped in the leg, targeting weak points at joints and the head. Warboys had fought the hell out of the Martian Seppy tanks for years and he was good at it. These bot tanks didn’t seem to respond much differently. It was almost as if they had watched old battle data and copied the Seppy maneuvers and tactics.

The purple plasma balls spread out from his cannons, exploding on impact at the joint just below the left hip of the bot tank. The leg blew apart in a shower of debris and shrapnel and what appeared to be various fluids required to keep the bot tanks functional. The droplets and fragments spread out into a rapidly dissipating cloud in the low gravity. Before Warboys could turn to finish off the bot, Warlord Three landed, feet first, onto the torso of the bot, smashing the metaphorical piss and other fluids out of it.

“Thanks, Three,” Warboys said.

“No problem, One. We’ve got your back.”

Warboys spun just in time for two other bot tanks to dive for him. In a judo roll, he took the motion of one and tossed it aside, but the other caught him mid-back and splayed him out toward the surface. Debris flew thirty meters high and began to create a cloud of slowly settling dust in the light gravity. Warlord Three dropped his cannons and loosed several rounds into the bot tank, sending it flailing backwards and throwing dust and debris into a long, slow, falling arced trajectory. The dust cloud surrounding the battle continued to get thicker and thicker. Warboys briefly hoped it wouldn’t cause an issue for sensors. Almost as soon as he hit the ground he rolled over to find another tank in bot mode kicking him in the face and landing directly on him.

“We’re kickin’ up so much dust that you can’t see shit, One!” Warlord Seven said over the tac-net.

“Stay on the QM sensors and IR. The dust is too much for eyeballs,” Warlord One replied. He pushed up from the surface as hard as he could with his forearms, tossing both himself and his attacker upward, off the surface. Warlord One spun with an elbow, crashing into the side of what should be the head of the tank. But with these robotic tanks it was hard to say where the controls were. The blow had little discernable effect on the bot.

Warboys continued to sling elbows, kick, and knee at every opportunity, fire his cannons, and roll as best he could, but the enemy tank in bot mode was relentless, and he couldn’t seem to shake it from his back. Warboys could hear metal creaking and groaning against the strain, and he was afraid that his tank wouldn’t take it much longer without popping seals and other important mechanical components, like himself, for instance.

“One, you’ve gotta shake that one on your tail! You’re beginning to lose plasma from your rear thrusters!”

“No shit, Two! Tell me something I haven’t figured out yet! Somebody shoot this son of a bitch off my back! Where are you, Three?”

“Negative, One, we might hit you!”

“So?” Warboys rolled and still couldn’t shake the bot. “I don’t give a damn! Shoot this son of a bitch, that’s an order! I don’t care if you hit me, one of us is gonna have to have some relief!”

Warboys could see in his direct-to-mind virtual battlesphere that Warlord Four rammed into both of them in tank mode and forced them into a hill just ahead of them. That was all the relief that Warboys needed. He rolled with the momentum and turned within the grip of the bot, slamming his armored tank fist into the inner workings of the enemy tank, pulling it closer to him.

“Guns, guns, guns,” he said with a grunt as his cannons fired a burst of rounds into the bot tank at point-blank range, blowing it apart and scattering debris and orange plasma about them in each direction, the glowing cinders of metal leaving a slowly falling lazy “M” traced out from where they had been. Warboys bounced to a stop as his thrusters and propellantless drive attenuated the momentum to something controllable.

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