Special Commander Joshua Cook opened his cruiser’s hatch while it was still shooting through the atmosphere.
The computer immediately blared an alarm. He ignored it.
He latched one armored hand onto the side of the hatch, and leaned right out into the air.
Clouds shot past him, billowing and puffing like smoke on fast forward.
The cold didn’t chill his bones, nor did the clouds obscure his sight; he was wearing some of the most sophisticated armor in the Milky Way.
As his ship broke through the cloud bank, he saw the planet below.
It was a broken mass of brown and grey rock. Nothing but a barren wasteland stretching from horizon to horizon.
Without a word, or a prayer, Josh suddenly jumped. His ship was still miles up, but it didn’t matter.
He walked right out into the air.
He didn’t have a chute – he didn’t need one.
As his body plunged through the sky, his ship suddenly stopped its descent, leveling out with a jerk.
It would descend to pick him up when he called. Now it was time to complete his mission.
Shifting his body around until he dropped with his head angled to the ground, he tucked his arms against his side and squeezed his legs together.
He reached terminal velocity, his body shooting down towards the planet. Though the air was technically thin and the cold should have punched him unconscious by now, he was safe behind his armor. He couldn’t even hear the scream of the howling wind.
The surface of the planet got closer and closer – the dust and rocks and crags growing in detail until he could see each shadow and count each stone.
Three. Two. One.
With a massive thud, he landed, his body cracking the rock and sending an almighty cloud of dust billowing around him.
He didn’t pause to orient – he leapt into action.
He had a mission, one only he could complete.
He wasn’t an ordinary Coalition officer. He was a special commander, for one. That meant he had certain privileges, certain powers, and a certain kind of history.
Josh hadn’t always worked for the Academy. A little over five years ago he’d been a pirate for hire. Now he ran top-secret missions for the same Coalition he once despised.
Josh powered forward, his boots sending up a hail of dust and small rock as he sprinted across the landscape. Over hills, around crags, along cliff faces – he was aiming for a cavern.
He had to get in there, get his mission done, and get the hell out of Barbarian space before they found him and strung him up to die.
With a grunt, he leapt over a massive boulder, landing on his shoulder and rolling until he jumped back to his feet and continued the plunge.
In the distance, a valley opened up. Along a sheer cliff face against the far side he saw a black dot.
His sensors went haywire.
They were in there.
Your average Coalition citizen was naive enough to believe they were a myth. Josh was unlucky enough to know they weren’t.
According to a legend scraped together from various ancient galactic races, 20,000 years ago life was almost extinguished in the Milky Way.
Planets were overrun, civilizations toppled, all at the hand of the same enemy. The Rebuilders.
They weren’t human or biological – they were machines. The first true machine virus, in fact. They could infect any advanced technological device, reprogramming and recreating it in their image.
To the modern hi-tech Coalition, they were a nightmare. A true monster of myth. An unstoppable enemy that could not be reasoned with, and was after one thing and one thing alone: total annihilation of biological entities.
To the Milky Way of 20,000 years ago, they spelt certain doom. One race, however, stood in their way. 498. That was it – that was their name. There was insufficient historical data to know what it meant. One fact was known, though: they sacrificed everything to bring the Rebuilders under control.
Now, back in the modern day, the Coalition only dealt with sporadic infestations. Maybe some cruiser would crash on a previously undisturbed asteroid, or some foolish treasure hunter would come across the wrong cave.
The Rebuilders had not reached plague proportions since 498 sacrificed its civilization to destroy them. It was now up to crack soldiers and teams like Josh and the other specialized units of the Academy to ensure the Rebuilders never gained a foothold again.
They were no normal enemy. You couldn’t fight them like you fought a Barbarian raiding party. The Rebuilders were attracted to anything electrical – anything they could infect. If you landed your cruiser on their planet, they would swarm. If you walked up to them with your Coalition pulse rifle, they would swarm.
As soon as they sensed technology, they became like a hive of frantic, chaotic bees. They attacked from all directions, relentlessly and unpredictably.
If you wanted to fight them, you had to do it quickly and with as little technological impact as you could.
If it had been up to Josh, he would have stayed in orbit and peppered this dead planet with high-yield plasma blasts. Unfortunately it wasn’t up to him. He was deep in Barbarian space and a heck of a long way from Coalition help.
Plus, he had to be sure he got the root of the infection. The only way to do that, was to get up close.
He powered into the valley, his boots skidding over the rock and dust.
The more sophisticated and larger the technology, the more the Rebuilders would swarm. Josh’s armor and weapons were small enough that the Rebuilders wouldn’t take this planet by storm, but sufficiently enticing to get their attention.
Just as Josh reached the cave, he heard the scrabbling.
His mouth became dry.
Though he’d done various sorties like this before, familiarity didn’t make it easy. Nor should it. Rebuilders were one of the most dangerous enemies the Coalition faced, even if most of her citizens were unaware of it.
So he had an understandable but thankfully brief moment of hesitation before he pushed himself forward. Hands gripping into fists, Special Commander Joshua Cook entered the cave.
He wasn’t met with a hail of Rebuilder technology. Those mechanical viruses didn’t wash forward in a wave of terror.
But his sensors did detect they were straight ahead.
The cave mouth was rough, just rock hewn by weather and age instead of the hand of intelligence. After he travelled 100 meters or so, it opened into a room of carved pillars. If he hadn't been so focused on finding Rebuilder tech and keeping himself alive, he would have appreciated the beauty. There was something stark about this place, something that reminded him of the carved palaces of the Centaur I Plains.
For all the bad in Josh's life, at least he’d travelled. He'd seen more of the galaxy than most Coalition commanders. But part and parcel of the experience was seeing the dark side. From the slums of the Phoenix Sector to the inside of a Barbarian prison, Josh had witnessed brutality. And though he hated to remind himself, he'd doled it out time and time again until the Coalition had found him. They'd resurrected him, washed away his sins, and given him a purpose in life.
For the first time Josh Cook was saving people, not condemning them.
So he wasn't going to fail now.
Instinctively, he grabbed the rifle from the holster along his back. There was a barely audible hiss as it disconnected from its magnetic lock.
Once he held it in his hands he felt stronger. It didn't chase away the fear, though, and nor should it. If you wanted to survive in this galaxy, you soon learnt fear had its place. Only the fortunate and safe ever sought to eradicate it. For them it was a niggling anxiety. For Josh it was survival.
Then he saw it. He finally saw it.
Shifting out of the darkness like interconnected vines, or veins trailing up a human’s wrist, came the machines. On close inspection, they were cables, thick black and textured with a matte finish. Cables that could move, snaking along the walls and floor like a pernicious infection climbing flesh.
This was the first stage of a Rebuilder infection. Their true nascent form. Once they started infecting tech, they’d become more robotic, like an army of scuttling metallic spiders.
The Rebuilder technology would be attracted to his armor, his gun – anything and everything electronic. They were like mosquitoes beckoned by blood, or leeches by breath. As soon as they got a whiff of electromagnetic activity from any electronic device, they swarmed.
He stopped as he saw them amassing in the dark. Primal fear pulsed through his mind, the kind of white-knuckled panic that blasts the hindbrain before certain death.
Then he pushed past it.
He brought up his gun and started firing. Bullet after bullet slammed into that coiling dark mass.
As one cable whipped to his left, he dipped to the side, rolling out of reach.
As another cable sliced towards his throat, he grabbed the electro whip from his holster and caught it. Then he shot it with his gun.
It was frantic, like a horror movie condensed into every passing second.
He had to be careful to keep hold of his weapons. If the Rebuilders got hold of them, they'd surge. Not only would their numbers grow as they carved up his gun and whip into more of their own, but their intelligence would grow too.
Though this situation was unquestionably dire, it wasn't the worst he'd faced.
The worst had been on Fori Prime approximately five years ago.
He'd come across them, not as a special commander of the Coalition, but as a pirate for hire.
He'd barely gotten out alive, and it had been the turning point of his life. Though he hadn't known at the time, a Coalition team had been trapped by that same Rebuilder tech, and he’d saved their lives.
He wouldn’t be here today if he’d lost.
And he wouldn’t live through another day if he lost now.
The black, snake-like pipes kept amassing over him. Though their intelligence was still rudimentary compared to the full-blown genius of a Rebuilder swarm, they kept trying to lure and trap him. As he fought a seething mass to his left, several tried to flank him from the right.
The battle was frantic, but somehow he managed to keep his distance.
He also made a serious dent in their numbers.
He could keep fighting for hours like this – days if he absolutely had to.
Josh's life had been all the training he needed. When he'd gained his commission as a special commander, Admiral Gaks had told him no one else could do what Josh did. Because no one else shared his checkered history. For better or worse, the Coalition recruited from the most peaceful planets of the Milky Way. A lot of their cadets came from Earth itself, and Earth hadn't seen an attack for almost 50 years.
While that made for hopeful, kind, sympathetic recruits, you needed someone like Josh to fight for hours on end.
He rolled to the side, bringing up his whip and collecting one of those slithering black tubes as he fired several bullets from his gun and destroyed it.
Shifting to the side, he dodged as several Rebuilders snaked towards his leg, trying to coil around his ankle to trip him up.
'Christ, how many of you are there?' Josh stuttered as he shot bullet after bullet at the black sea of pipes.
No matter how many he attacked, more took their places.
If he wanted to contain this infection, he had to destroy each and every last one of those pipes. Even a fragment of Rebuilder could rebuild itself.
His plan of attack was to decimate the population before setting up a land mine.
Packed with sophisticated explosives, the land mine would obliterate this entire cave system. From rock to water to metal – it would superheat everything to temperatures beyond the molten core of a heavy cruiser.
He couldn't deploy the mine until the Rebuilders were so few they couldn't infect it. The very last thing he wanted was to give them one of the most sophisticated explosives in the Coalition arsenal.
So he kept fighting and fighting. Time passed, but he wasn't aware of it. Hours could have ticked by, but it wouldn’t matter.
He concentrated on one task alone. Not even a sun going nova next to him would shift his attention.
Slowly but surely the Rebuilders began to thin. As they did, they became more desperate. As their numbers dwindled, their intelligence became fractured. Their moves were more erratic, more chaotic.
Those black tubes flipped around like snakes with their heads cut off.
“Come on,” he breathed to himself as the last few Rebuilders twitched towards him.
Though he was on the verge of winning, he couldn't afford to get cocky. He couldn't afford to lay aside his fear and desperation, only to make a mistake.
So he kept on his toes right until the end.
The last Rebuilder shifted before him, its black undulating body making scraping noises against the stone floor.
Josh took a single second to stare at it.
There were few enemies in this galaxy you could indiscriminately destroy without a feeling of regret. Though the Barbarians were vicious and by all accounts anathema to everything the Coalition stood for, they were still alive, still sentient.
The Rebuilders were a virus. Devoid of true sentience, devastation was programed into them. They would never stop for reason, never stop for compassion. They were not constrained by the same set of moral laws the Coalition army was. The only law that constrained them was rebuilding.
So as Josh leveled his gun and shot the final Rebuilder, he did so without blinking, without even a scrap of regret.
Then he jogged into the center of the cavern, un-latched the land mine from the holster on his back, and proceeded to set it up. He worked as quickly as he could, his fingers a blur as he programmed the land mine to explode as soon as he got out of range. He also set it to continually sense its environment and relay those scans directly to his armor. If whatever scraps were left of the Rebuilders managed to rebuild themselves before the land-mine exploded, Josh would head back into the tunnel to begin the battle anew.
Once he was done programming the land mine, he snapped to his feet, then he stared for a single second at the mess of black tubes that had once been the Rebuilders. He waited to see movement, and when he saw nothing, he pivoted on his foot and sprinted forward.
He ran as fast as he could out of the cavern and back into the light.
Before he’d set the land mine, he’d relayed a message to his ship, instructing it to fly to the mouth of the cave. So once he exited into the light, he saw it hovering several meters away.
Dashing towards it, his feet a blur against the dust and rock, he jumped into the air, latched his hands over the open hatch, and pulled his body up, rolling until he snapped to his feet. Then he commanded his small experimental shuttle to shoot into orbit as fast as it could.
Seconds later the land mine exploded.
With it, it destroyed the cavern and every last remaining speck of Rebuilder technology.
There would be more, though. Maybe not on this planet, but out in the Milky Way. Josh’s task was endless. But it needed to be done. He had sins to expunge, and every time he dealt with a Rebuilder infection, he came a step closer to expunging them.
The rest of Broken Episode One is currently available from most ebook retailers.