Today, I have an exclusive snippet of a new military scifi adventure, Endpoint
I hope you enjoy it.
Squad Transport Shuttle Bravo-Three-One
Two hours out from Earth, Sergeant John Chapman glared at the message on his helmet’s HUD, his gaze lingering on the final line: Not everyone has what it takes to be a Cutter. He rubbed his thumb across his gloved fingertip, swiping the message away. Thanks for the pep talk. There’d be more messages from the Colonel during the exercise, and whether the team passed or failed, the debriefing session afterward would make root canal treatment seem like a holiday. It was almost reason enough to make it through this task: succeed and he’d get to walk away from Camp Echo, and Colonel Blende’s tender mercies, once and for all. And the only obstacle between him and that golden day of deployment was an eighty percent score on this exercise: the culmination of three months of blood, sweat, and finely honed aggression. I’ll do it, he told himself. If it takes my last breath. He focused, running through the mission in his mind, recalling his preparatory research: enemy capabilities, theater parameters, threats, and opportunities. It was all in there, waiting to be put to good use.
Sitting next to him in the cramped compartment, Corporal Nate Parker nudged his arm. “Hey,” he said, raising his voice instead of using comms. “You read the love letter from our favorite officer?”
“Oh yeah,” Chapman replied. “Only two threats to send us all back to basic. I think he’s starting to like us.”
Parker grinned. “No worries for you, man. Your sim scores are through the roof. The son of a bitch bots won’t know what’s hit them.”
“This is no sim,” Chapman said, and as if to prove his point, the shuttle swayed and shook, a hollow thud thrumming through the steel deck. Six men and women stiffened their spines, exchanging meaningful glances, game-faced behind their tinted visors, ready to rock.
“There she is,” Parker said, pointing to the viewport. “Our home for the next twenty-four hours.”
“Forget twenty-four hours. We’ll be done long before then.” Chapman peered out through the grimy glass, watching as the gray hulk of a battered destroyer slid past the oblong viewport. The Pride of Titan, a legendary ship in its time, now serving out its days as a training ground for all those driven enough to try out for the Cyborg Tactical Response Regiment: the Cutters.
Chapman searched The Pride’s flank. He’d spent many hours studying the destroyer, learning its specs inside and out, and he soon found what he was looking for: the gash in the ship’s hull, scorched metal curling outward in ragged shards of twisted alloy. The place where it had happened. The place where his sister Elizabeth had drawn her last faltering breath.
“Are you okay?” Parker asked.
Chapman fixed him with a look. “Never better.”
“That’s cool.” Parker’s eyes flicked to one side, distracted by his HUD, and Chapman focused on his own display:
> Docking Sequence Initiated.
As one, the squad went into action, hitting the quick release catches on the racks alongside their seats and grabbing their rifles. Chapman ran his fingers over his weapon, setting it for three-shot bursts. Live rounds. The bots on The Pride were at a disadvantage, armed only with plastic-tipped sim rounds and held back by their hard-wired protocols. The bots weren’t permitted to shoot at the candidates’ visors or life support units, but Chapman knew that the cyborgs’ non-lethal rounds, custom-built for the Cutters’ training program, were powerful enough to punch the breath from his lungs. And every hit he took would be registered by his EVA suit; take a critical hit or too many minor ones, and he was done. Washed out. Not going to happen, Chapman told himself. I know these bots. I know the way they work. Still, this exercise wasn't going to be a walk in the park. The bots were programmed to hold the ship at any cost; they wouldn’t go down without a fight.
“I heard they put more than thirty bots in there,” Parker said. “Could that be right?”
Chapman allowed himself a grim smile. “Doesn’t matter to me. We take them out one at a time, my friend. One at a time.”
From across the compartment, Corporal Lucille Wallace caught Chapman’s eye. “Sergeant, can we run a comms check? I’m getting an error. Low signal strength.”
“Affirmative,” Chapman replied, tapping his forefinger and thumb together to open a channel to the whole squad. “Sound off, people. Let’s put Corporal Wallace’s mind at rest.”
Parker and Wallace responded first, closely followed by Sergeant Leo Vygotsky, and Corporals Gus Dern and Clare Samson.
“Anything I need to know?” Vygotsky asked, and Chapman detected an edge of resentment in the man’s voice. Although they held equal rank, Chapman had been designated squad leader for the exercise, and Vygotsky wasn’t about to forget it.
“No. We’ll stick to the plan,” Chapman replied. “Wallace and Parker, you’re with me. We’ll take the control center and run diagnostics on critical systems. Sergeant Vygotsky, you’ll take Dern and Samson and secure the engine room. We’ll mop up the bots as fast as we can, eliminating all threats, then we’ll rendezvous at the bridge.”
“First team to the bridge fires the engines,” Vygotsky put in, and the answering chorus of cheers was suddenly loud on the comms. Firing up The Pride’s engines would signal the end of the exercise, and although there were supposed to be no individual winners on this mission, regiment lore said otherwise. Being the first to take The Pride’s bridge was a badge of honor, and back on the base, the champion would have a good night in the bar without spending a cent.
“Don’t even think about it,” Chapman said. “We play this by the book. I want a complete diagnostic on the bridge before we risk firing the engines.”
“Are you serious?” Vygotsky asked. “You want us to cool our heels while Wallace checks every goddamned nut and bolt?”
“Absolutely,” Chapman insisted. “Right now, the bots have the run of the ship, and God knows what kind of shit they’re pulling, but it isn’t going to be good.”
Nobody spoke, the only sound in the compartment made by the spasmodic rumble of the retros easing the shuttle closer to The Pride’s dock. They all think I’m some kind of paranoid nut, Chapman thought. Let them! He didn’t give a damn. He’d read the report on his sister’s death, and there was no way he’d ever accept it. Elizabeth hadn’t died in a training accident; she’d been murdered by the bots, blown through the hull by an improvised device. No one believed him, but they weren’t going to argue. Not here. Not now.
Vygotsky glared, but Chapman didn’t blink. “Are we clear, Sergeant Vygotsky?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Vygotsky said. “Understood.”
“Good.” Chapman had more to say, but the message in his HUD persuaded him to bite back his words:
> Docking in 5 seconds. Prepare to deploy.
Chapman released his safety harness, planting his grav boots firmly on the deck and pushing himself to his feet. “Let’s move it, people. Into position.”
Vygotsky took his place at Chapman’s side, the teams forming up directly behind their respective leaders. Vygotsky flashed Chapman a knowing smile. “Ten credits says I’ll be the first to put a bullet in a bot’s brain.”
Chapman shook his head. “No bet. M3s are the only bots with anything like a brain, and anyhow, it takes a team to make a kill, Vygotsky. Shared kill, shared credit.”
“Brain, neuro-gel, whatever they’ve got, I’m going to be splashing it all over the walls.”
Chapman busied himself checking his scope, switching on his mounted tactical light. “Sure. We’re all on the same page.”
A resounding thud ran through the shuttle, and Chapman’s HUD told him the vessel had docked. “Hatch open on three,” he called out, his hand on the release lever. “One, two, go!”
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