J. S. Dewes, author of The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet, returns with another science fiction space opera, Rubicon, that melds elements of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War with Edge of Tomorrow.
Sergeant Adriene Valero wants to die.
After enduring a traumatic resurrection for the ninety-sixth time, Valero is reassigned to a special forces unit and outfitted with a cutting-edge virtual intelligence aid. They could turn the tide in the war against intelligent machines dedicated to the assimilation, or destruction, of humanity.
When her VI suddenly achieves sentience, Valero is drawn into the machinations of an enigmatic major who’s hell-bent on ending the war—by any means necessary.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Rubicon by J. S. Dewes, on sale 3/28/23.
Blasts of sand pelted Adriene’s back as the dropship’s thrusters flared into blinding blue-white halos. It lifted off the ground, kicking up a static hum of fine white sand that pelted the carapace of her hardsuit.
“We’re skyward,” the pilot called over comms. “Good hunting, Specialist Valero.”
Adriene acknowledged him with a quick two-fingered salute. The ship’s silver hull blanched, then became a mere shimmer of light as the stealth system engaged and it shot into the darkening atmosphere.
She switched to squad comms. “Rhodes?”
Private Harlan Rhodes approached, obscured through the eddy of sand drifting in the wake of the dropship. “Go for Rhodes.”
“Nothing, boss.” Harlan stopped next to her, his scuffed, dark gray hardsuit dusted with a layer of fine sand. He flashed a grin from under his shaded visor. “You’ll be the first to know, Valero. Er—sir. After me. Obviously.”
Adriene humored her second’s congeniality with a stilted smile. “Thanks for the clarification.”
He nodded. “You got it, boss.”
Through the lingering haze of sand, Adriene surveyed the planet’s landscape. Beyond the inlet of a choppy sea, the fragments of an ancient metal city jutted up through dense forest, colossal husks of some once-great civilization. On the horizon beyond the water, the system’s red dwarf star hovered like a massive dying cinder, casting the long-abandoned landscape in a hazy amber glow. And there it would sit, always watching, skirting eastward along the rim of the world until morning, when it’d pull itself back up into the sky and make its lazy, almost forty-two-hour arc back to this spot. The same amount of time she’d been given to complete this mission.
“Overwatch is up,” Private McGowan announced, stepping to the other side of Harlan. Her fingers flashed across her survey tablet. “Clear, presently.”
“Keep an eye on it.” Adriene glanced back at the hunched man towering off her shoulder. “Booker, what’s our ETA?”
The private’s deep voice crackled through her earpiece, “Er, ’bout fifty minutes if you wanna keep boots on the ground. Twenty if you’re up for a little rappelling.”
Adriene’s squad fell in behind her as she crossed a few meters of rocky terrain toward an uneven cliff edge, dusted with tawny saltbush.
She peered over the edge to the turbulent surf three hundred meters below, where algae-laden waves crashed against the worn basalt cliff face.
“Book, you got a local survey?” she asked.
Booker pinged her HUD, and Adriene quickly reviewed the topography. The descent was doable, but it’d be a risk with the rough surf.
“Nah, let’s hoof it,” she said. “We’ve got time. Rhodes, you got the COB kit.”
“Copy,” Harlan acknowledged.
McGowan stowed her tablet, then helped Harlan lift the heavy Colonial Operations Base kit onto his back.
Adriene double-checked the atmospheric readout in her HUD before sliding open the visor of her helmet. She drew in a slow inhale of the warm, salty air. It wasn’t every day they were deployed in breathable atmosphere. And she couldn’t remember the last time she’d smelled an ocean.
“Atmo’s clear, guys.”
Harlan slid his visor open and sucked in a long breath through his nose. “Ahh. Isn’t it nice when a planet’s not trying to kill us?”
“Not yet, anyway.”
McGowan and Booker opened their visors as well. Adriene shouldered her own pack and let Booker lead the way north along the edge of the cliff. The breeze off the sea cooled with the waning sunlight as they descended along a steep game trail, worn into the landscape by some manner of vertically accomplished fauna.
“So, Rhodes,” Booker said, “what’re we thinkin’?”
Harlan lifted his chin and sniffed the air deeply. “I’ll give it an eight point five.”
“That high?” Booker asked, skeptical. “I’m pegging it at a six.”
McGowan perked up, her voice crisp over comms. “Preliminary reports do support the likelihood of a high viability rating.”
“I wouldn’t put too much stock in the reports,” Adriene warned. “Their survey was scant at best.”
Harlan sighed. “Seems to be the case more often than not these days, huh?”
Adriene grunted her agreement.
“Guess we’ll leave it up to good ol’ COB kit to decide.” Booker thwacked the large pack on Harlan’s back, causing Harlan to stumble slightly. Harlan glowered, but kept walking.
Half an hour later, the cliff-side path ended abruptly in an over two-meter drop to the sandy shore. Booker and McGowan hopped down first, then Harlan slid the COB kit off his back and passed it down to Booker.
Harlan leapt off the edge, landing with a grunt. “They couldn’ta dropped us a little closer?”
McGowan replied, “Radiological signature’s too easy to trace. A COB’s only good to us if we can keep it from the scrap heaps.”
Harlan hefted the bag onto his back again. “Sure, but Intel says we’re by our lonesome, yeah?”
Booker scoffed. “A Mechan-free system? In this sector? I’m not buyin’ it.”
Harlan gave a soft grumble of acquiescence. “Maybe not. Doesn’t mean they’re hangin’ around on this deserted rock, though.”
Adriene slid off the ledge and landed beside them. “Keep comms clear, guys.”
Booker pulled a laminated sheet of paper from his utility belt, turning to get his bearings. “Eighteen degrees, one point six seven klicks.”
“Copy,” Adriene said. “Lead the way, Private.”
Booker tucked the sheet away, then started along the narrow shore at the foot of the cliff. They remained quiet as they found their footing on the rocky beach, strewn with pools of glassy water that teemed with variegated marine life. Thick strands of latticed coral-like invertebrates covered the reef, their orange and lime- green bioluminescence already visible in the dwindling daylight. A trio of flat, fishlike fauna skimmed the surface, staining the glowing display like drifting sunspots.
Adriene’s chapped lips had just started to go numb when her suit beeped a warning. She checked the flashing atmo sensor on the arm of her hardsuit. “Temp’s dropping, seal up,” she ordered. She waited for the distinctive hiss of three visors closing before she sealed her own.
“Nice while it lasted,” Harlan’s resigned tone mumbled over comms.
Twenty minutes later, they rounded a corner into a large cove. A wide basalt cliff face sat a hundred meters back from the shore, covered with a mask of corroded scaffolding—the framework of some ancient sentry post. Adriene spotted a single, narrow entrance barely visible between two vertical striations of dark stone.
Booker came to a stop. “This’s it, sir.”
Adriene glanced back. “Mac, any other entrances?”
“Not according to survey,” McGowan said. “But the basalt doesn’t always make for the most accurate readings.”
“All right. Drop a patrol beacon at the threshold.”
Harlan nodded. “You got it, sir.”
“Otherwise, we stay dark.” Adriene opened the control panel on her arm and switched off her hardsuit’s master controls. “No tech except comms and overwatch till we’ve cleared the interior.”
“Powering down,” Harlan said, and the others echoed him. The few dim lights on the exterior of their hardsuits faded away.
“And don’t forget mods,” Adriene said.
Booker grumbled something unintelligible but distinctly sullen, then turned off the targeting unit on the side of his rifle. Adriene hauled the heavy coilgun rifle off her back and did the same. She checked the charge on the weapon, then shouldered it and led the way to the cave’s entrance.
The interior wasn’t nearly as imposing as the facade had suggested. The single-entrance tunnel branched off every dozen or so meters, but each new path quickly culminated in a dead end. Fifteen minutes in, Adriene arrived at the apparent end of the main passage, where it widened into a black abyss. She swept her headlamp across the darkness, and the light caught the edge of a rocky outcropping a few meters in.
“Light drones?” Booker suggested.
“Overwatch?” Adriene asked.
“Still clear,” McGowan confirmed.
Adriene nodded. “Deploy illumination drones.”
Harlan knelt and opened the narrow hardsuit compartment that ran along the outside of his calf. He pulled out a half dozen palm-sized discs, activating each before tossing them into the air. They buzzed off, illuminating slowly with a faint aura of white light. They landed equidistant from one another throughout the fifty-meter- wide, roughly square-shaped chamber. The mouth of the tunnel opened onto a raised tier, perched on a rocky platform four meters above the rest of the chamber.
“Standard IDs deployed,” Harlan confirmed. “Positions locked.”
Adriene kept her rifle raised as she crossed the threshold. A steep but serviceable ramp-like slope led from the ridge down into a large, open area. Piles of unrecognizable, rusted-out metal sat in mounds around the chamber, the remnants of ancient furniture or machinery.
“On me.” Adriene led her squad clockwise around the perimeter, checking every narrow slice in the stratified basalt for entry points, but found nothing.
They trudged back up the ramp to the entrance, and Harlan slid the COB kit off his shoulders onto the dusty gravel floor. “One way in, one way out.”
Booker grunted. “Least it’ll be easy to defend.”
“Tough to get supplies in, though,” Harlan said. “Shit’s narrow.”
Adriene gestured to McGowan. “Mac, boot up the COB, run a geo survey. See if the structure will hold if we blow the entrance tunnel a little wider.”
“Yes, sir.” McGowan passed her overwatch tablet to Booker, then knelt beside the COB kit.
Booker’s heel tapped out an anxious rhythm in the dry dirt. “Can we light up?”
“One at a time,” Adriene agreed. “Harlan, sync on my marks. Book, keep an eye on overwatch.”
“On it,” Booker acknowledged.
Adriene tapped the control panel on her forearm. “Therms up.”
“I got nothin’,” Harlan said.
“Me either,” she confirmed, then tossed another switch. “Sonic.”
Harlan nodded. “Clear.”
“Nothin’ on overwatch,” Booker said.
“All right, we’re clear. Keep visors down, though. CO2’s reading elevated in here.”
Booker switched his systems back on with a single swipe of his large palm. “Permission to check out this old junk, sir? Maybe somethin’ of use in the rubble.”
“I doubt it,” she replied, “but go ahead.”
Booker tossed the overwatch tablet to Harlan, then made his way down the ramp toward the ruins.
McGowan mumbled, “Strange . . .”
Adriene knelt beside her. “What is it?”
“GPR shows a passage above this room.”
“No, it’s vertical.” McGowan angled the screen of the survey kit toward Adriene, indicating a narrow spike in the radargram. “Depth estimations say it’s over three hundred meters. I think it connects to the surface.”
Harlan asked, “Like a sinkhole?”
“That wasn’t on Intel’s orbital survey,” Booker put in, already halfway across the room, digging through a pile of rubble.
McGowan shook her head. “I know. But it should have been visible.”
“Could it have been masked by something?” Adriene asked. “Obscured on radar?”
“It’s possible,” McGowan said. “Especially if there was weather in the area.”
“Or the eggheads just missed it,” Booker groused. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Could it be outdated intel?” Harlan asked.
Adriene shook her head. “They did the survey three days ago.” She flinched as an alarm blared in her earpiece, accompanied by a readout in her HUD: Warning: Seismic activity detected.
“Fuck,” Booker groaned. “Anyone’s seismic just have a heart attack?”
“Yeah.” Adriene silenced the alarm and glanced at the seismic sensor in the corner of her HUD. It only showed a generic warning.
A faint sound crackled against Adriene’s visor, like dry pine needles crunching underfoot. She looked up as a dusting of rock floated down from the ceiling five meters overhead. A barely discernible vibration rumbled in the cavern floor, sending a prickle up her spine.
“Mira’s end,” Harlan cursed, his congenial tone flattened with concern. “You guys feel that?”
“Booker, get back up here,” Adriene ordered.
“On my way.”
Adriene turned to McGowan. “What’s the tectonic rating of this site?”
“A1, sir,” the private assured. “All plates were designated stable and inact—”
A sharp crack rang out as the stone ceiling over the main area split. Shards of rock rained onto the corroded metal debris, followed by a torrent of gravel that quickly overtook the cavern with a plume of basalt dust.
Flashes exploded from the haze.
A shock of pain lanced Adriene’s shoulder, knocking her to the ground.
Harlan’s voice crackled through comms. “Boss, what the—”
“Enemy fire!” Adriene shouted. She flipped over, then crawled into cover behind the rocky ridge along the edge of the raised tier. Her HUD flashed a warning: Hardsuit quadrant R2b compromised. Integrity: 7%.
Copyright © 2023 from J. S. Dewes
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