Battlenaut_crucible_cover_final

Robert Jeschonek is an award-winning author whose envelope-pushing fiction has made waves around the world. He has an eye for the unusual, which he puts to work in freaky-cool novels like Day 9 (narrated by a Spanish cathedral and an Amish serial killer) and A Pinstriped Finger's My Only Friend (starring a pinky finger with a mind of its own). His stories have appeared in Pulphouse, Fiction River, Galaxy's Edge, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, Boundary Shock Quarterly, and many other publications. He has also written official Doctor Who and Star Trek fiction and Batman and Justice Society comics for DC Comics.

Battlenaut Crucible by Robert Jeschonek

The Red Battlenauts show no mercy. Roaring out of the darkness of deep space, these ultra-high tech war machines pound the hell out of both sides in a bloody interstellar civil war. No one can even SEE the Reds—no one except Marine Corporal Solomon Scott. Recruited by the hardcore SEAL-like Diamondbacks, Scott becomes a secret weapon in the ultimate struggle for survival. In battle after battle on perilous alien worlds, Scott and the Diamondbacks fight back against the ruthless Reds, desperately holding the line in furious clashes of muscle and metal. But when a face from the past exposes the secrets behind the carnage, a quest for answers becomes a race against time. Because the masters of the Red Battlenauts have more on their minds than a thirst for conquest...and only Solomon Scott can hope to stand against them.

Don't miss this exciting sequel to BEWARE THE BLACK BATTLENAUT by award-winning storyteller Robert T. Jeschonek, a master of hard-hitting science fiction that really packs a punch.

 

REVIEWS

  • "If you are a fan of mecha action or just sci-fi in general, you're going to love this action packed book. There are plenty of exciting battles to keep your heart racing, plus great, fully drawn characters and some really unique and thought provoking science fiction concepts and themes."

    – SandyK, Amazon Reviewer
  • "A fantastic book with cool full-on high-tech BattleMech action and a gripping back story. Fast paced and a real page turner. Recommended."

    – Anna, Amazon Reviewer
  • "Bob Jeschonek has done it again! Full of suspense, action, neat characters, Battlenaut Crucible is a must for every BattleMech fan."

    – Brea, Amazon Reviewer
  • "The author definitely has a way of gripping the reader and keeping you engaged all the way to the end. Great read, highly recommend."

    – Smithy, Amazon Reviewer
  • "Robert Jeschonek is a towering talent."

    – Mike Resnick, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Corporal Solomon Scott held his gray-plated Mark VI Battlenaut armor perfectly still in the thick white mist. Around him lay the broken armor of two opponents, dead pilots who'd fought to the last for the cause of the Rightful rebels. Scott had killed them both just moments ago in a firefight that had left his own armor damaged.

Unfortunately, the larger battle going on around him was nowhere near finished. According to comm traffic and the telemetry displayed on the visor of his helmet, dozens of Battlenauts were still smashing the hell out of each other in all directions. The battle for the Commonwealth outpost on planetoid Chelong III was still raging, the outcome up in the air.

But the big picture wasn't the main thing on Scott's mind at the moment. He was more concerned about where the next attack on his own armor would come from and how he'd survive it with a breach in his belly plating.

Tapping buttons on the left armrest keypad, he switched views on the visor, superimposing the telemetry data over feeds from the onboard cameras. As far as he could tell, there was nothing nearby...but the mists of Chelong swirled with crystalline particles that played tricks on sensors as well as eyes.

As he stared at the feed from his aft cameras, the smell of sweat and metal in the cockpit grew sharper, and the hairs on his neck stood up straight. He thought he glimpsed a flicker of movement and gripped the stick tight, ready to fire his rear-mounted guns.

But nothing bounded out of the mist back there, and he didn't shoot. No problem; he was good at keeping a cool head.

Not that anything else in the cockpit of his Mark VI was cool at that point. One of the topside cooling vents had taken a hit, and the whole rig was overheating like crazy. Sweat ran down his sides and soaked every part of him. At least the padded halo mount inside his helmet kept the sweat from running into his eyes and burning the crap out of them.

He was flipping between camera views again when Captain Rollins got on the horn. "Echo Charlie Bravo!" The man's gravelly voice burst from the comm speaker. "Stop standing around, Scott! Dewar and Shen need backup! I just flashed you the stats!"

As promised, Dewar and Shen's telemetry appeared on the visor. They were thirty meters to the right, both taking heavy hits...but from what? It didn't look like there was anyone else in their immediate vicinity. Was the mist screwing with their sensors?

"Damnit, Scott," snapped Rollins. "Get your ass moving!"

Suddenly, something caught his eye on the feed from the rightside camera. He played the armrest keypad, clearing the telemetry data from the visor screen and punching the rightside feed to maximum magnification. "Stand by, sir." He saw nothing...nothing...

Then something. A glint, a spark, a flicker in the fog.

"The hell with stand by!" Rollins' voice became a roar. "Shen just went down!"

Scott brought the telemetry back up and saw Shen's specs crashing hard. She was alive, but her armor was fried.

And whatever had fried it was out there somewhere in a rightside direction, exactly where Scott had seen the glint.

Rollins was still roaring over the comm, but Scott blocked him out. His neck hairs were still up, his gut was twisting; telemetry said nothing was out there, but his instincts told him otherwise.

Jaws clenched, he ran spectral overlays on the feed, scanning the full range of infrared and ultraviolet frequencies. Still nothing.

He cut his audio mic so he could talk to himself. "Come on, you piece of oosh. I know you're out there."

Scott threw all five feeds on-visor at once—rightside, leftside, frontside, backside, topside—and hit them all with the spectral overlays. Still, he saw no telltale signs of an enemy Battlenaut in any direction.

His instincts were usually good, but maybe they were off this one time. He'd been in battle before; even without actual fog, things could get confusing in the thick of it.

Just then, something Rollins was shouting broke through. "Dewar is down! Get over there now, you son of a..."

Grabbing the stick, Scott brought his Battlenaut back to life. He was just about to turn it toward Shen and Dewar when he spotted a blip on the radar. It only lasted a split-second, but it was enough to jolt him into action.

The monitors tracking his vital signs pinged faster across the board. The radar blip had appeared not to the right of him, but the left.

Whatever was coming, whatever had taken out Shen and Dewar, it had managed to circle around him.

Instead of turning right, Scott swung his Battlenaut left. At the same time, he played the armrest keypad, jumping all weapons out of standby mode.

That was when he saw the Red Battlenaut for the first time.

It burst out of the mist with guns blazing, marching straight toward him. It was bigger than his own Battlenaut armor—twelve meters tall compared to ten for the Mark VI—with skin that gleamed bright red from tip to toe. And there wasn't a mark on it that Scott could see.

Without thought or hesitation, Scott opened fire with his main guns. At the same time, he threw a half-dozen missiles at the Red. He needed to hit it hard and fast, not give it a chance to get at his damaged belly plating.

Slugs from the Red's guns peppered the Mark VI, pocking the shielding over the cockpit. His own missiles hit the Red's chest in a cluster, exploding with shuddering force.

But they didn't slow it down or leave a scratch.

"What the flux?" Scott opened up with his lasers and sonics at the same time, focusing on what he hoped was a weak spot—the backward-flexing knee joint of one leg. The armor narrowed there and lacked any visible shield plating.

Unfortunately, that didn't mean it was any weaker. The searing crimson beam from Scott's laser tagged the joint, accompanied by waves of oscillating vibratory force...but the Red didn't slow down a bit.

Scott clenched his teeth and stepped his Battlenaut back, then leaped forward, propelling his armor's shoulder toward the Red.

He was met by a shower of heavy slugs thudding into his plating, but they didn't stop him. His Mark VI covered the distance in seconds and slammed into the Red with its full weight and momentum.

Collision alarms wailed, and damage reports flashed on his visor. His vital signs spiked, and his head swam from the powerful impact. It had been a hell of a hit.

And apparently, it hadn't done any damage. The Red stood firmly in place; according to Scott's sensors, its armor hadn't buckled or ruptured in the slightest.

But that wasn't the worst of it. As Scott tried to push his Battlenaut back, he quickly realized it was stuck. He couldn't break away from the Red.

Cursing, he summoned new sensor data on the Red Battlenaut. According to the numbers, the Red's skin had become highly magnetized; its grip was more than strong enough to resist the full torque of Scott's armor's fusion-powered servos.

Seconds after he realized this, two panels popped open on the Red's chest, and twin circular blades mounted on extensible arms spun toward him. A heartbeat later, they were biting into the armor plating over Scott's cockpit, sending up showers of sparks.

Scott flipped on the mic and shouted over the grinding screech of the blades. "Mayday! Echo Charlie Bravo! Mayday!"

The blades cut fast, shearing their way through the super-hardened metal of Scott's armor like it was cardboard. Sensors showed the cockpit would be breached in less than a minute.

Scott jabbed the keypad, prepping all weapons to fire at once. It was a desperate move, but he couldn't think of anything else.

Not at first, anyway.

What would Bern do? The question flashed through his mind like a flame running down a trail of lit fuel. Bern was an inspiration to him, the reason he'd become a Commonwealth Marine in the first place. She was his grandmother, and she'd been a hero in an earlier war.

What would Bern do?

Suddenly, an idea flared to life. He would barely have time to try it; the blades were about to penetrate the shell of the cockpit.

Scott's fingers flew over both armrest keypads as he hastily shot commands into the armor's control network. Twice, he had to override fail-safes with pass codes and retinal scans.

"Yeah, I know," he said after jumping the last hurdle. "The armor wasn't built for this. Safety specs exceeded. Blah blah blah."

Just then, the Red's dual blades screamed through the armor, whirling mere inches away from his face. His flesh, skull, and brain were seconds from splattering all over the cockpit.

"Let's see how you like it." Scott sneered as he punched the last button. His heart was hammering, adrenaline searing through his bloodstream...and now he'd made his last play.

The lights and displays in the cockpit flickered and went out. The fusion power plant in the bowels of the Mark VI roared, and the armor rumbled violently. All around him, he heard a loud, sizzling crackle and hum.

Suddenly, the Red's blades stopped spinning and shot back toward the slits they'd cut. One popped right out, while the other twisted and caught on the edge of the slit. It pulled hard, working its way free—then snapped off the stem on which it was mounted and clattered down into the bowels of Scott's armor.

"Now we're talkin'." Scott braced himself against the cockpit couch and waited for what was coming. He'd fought fire with fire, charging his armor with streams of electrical current from the power plant, turning his Battlenaut into an electromagnet. An electromagnet with the same polarity as the Red Battlenaut.

Since two magnets with the same polarity repel each other, the two Battlenauts could no longer stay locked together. With a loud clang, Scott's armor shot away from the Red and crashed to the dusty ground.

"Yeah!" Scott scrambled in the cockpit, redirecting power from his Battlenaut's skin to the rest of its parts. The lights quickly came back up, and the control system rebooted. His helmet visor flickered back to life in a matter of seconds.

Just in time for him to see the Red stomping toward him.

Scott pounded the keypads and worked the stick, fighting to get his armor back on its feet. Servos hummed as he got the Mark VI to sit up, then roll to one side and brace itself with both gauntlets on the ground.

Meanwhile, the Red kept coming. Scott saw it march closer on his visor's video feed, even as he rolled his own armor onto its knees.

"Come on!" His Battlenaut lurched its upper body erect. Scott hammered buttons, and it drew up one knee, planting its right foot firmly under it.

He felt the ground shake as the Red stormed closer. Why it hadn't already opened fire, he couldn't guess.

Wrenching the stick, he focused the armor's power on the right leg, trying to push up and bring the other foot forward. Once he had both feet flat under him, he'd have the leverage to get the whole unit standing again.

But would he have time to finish the maneuver? The Red's footsteps were getting closer, its image growing larger in the visor video feed.

Scott smelled burning metal and plastic. Servos whined, the armor wobbled...and the legs locked up. The right leg got stuck halfway up, leaving the left foot jammed toe-first in the dirt, unable to flatten and fully extend the leg above it.

Cursing a blue streak, he fought the controls...and then it was too late. Proximity alarms squealed, and the Red Battlenaut suddenly towered over him.

Scott ground his teeth and scowled. Looking past the visor, he saw gleaming red metal fill the blast-tempered glass of the forward viewport.

It wasn't about getting on his feet anymore. The best he thought he could hope for was to take advantage of the Red's close range and unload everything he had.

Is that what Bern would do? Scott took a deep breath, then released it through his teeth. Hell, yes.

He counted to three, then played the keypads, quickly bringing every onboard weapon to bear on the Red looming over him. Without pausing, he keyed the system-wide fire command, letting everything loose at once.

Slugs poured up from his guns, bracketed by crimson streams of laser energy. Sonic blasts rippled out of his emitters, and the full complement of missiles leaped from their racks.

The Red took every bit of it without flinching. When the smoke cleared, it was still standing over him, shiny and unmarred as ever.

"Flux me." Scott's voice was soft in the cockpit. Sensor data scrolled on the visor before him, displaying the lack of damage in columns of figures that left him stunned.

It didn't seem possible. How could a Battlenaut take that much firepower at close range and not suffer the slightest damage?

No Battlenaut he'd ever seen or fought or heard of could do it, that was for sure. The Red was something new, something completely outside his experience. It was the kind of thing that could win the civil war between the Commonwealth and the Rightfuls.

It was also the kind of thing that could kill him with ease.

Switching to the image from his topside camera, he saw the Red lean down and aim its forward cannons at him. Yellow and red plasma danced in the heart of both barrels as the guns powered up and made ready to fire.

This is it. Even as the words burned in his mind, Scott recalibrated his own lasers, guns, and sonics, bringing them to bear on the Red. He also tripped the self-destruct and started the 60-second countdown; maybe his exploding fusion power plant would finally put a scratch in the Red Battlenaut's hide.

He felt zero fear as the glowing red digits on his visor ticked from 60 seconds to 50 to 40. He wasn't a fearless man, but death itself didn't scare him; it hadn't frightened him since the time he'd died at the age of thirteen. He'd come back a different person...a Marine in the making even then.

The digits read 30...then 20. Come and get me, he thought as he opened up hard with all weapons, frying circuits and emptying out his remaining ammo.

Nothing he did seemed to faze the Red Battlenaut at all. When the Red suddenly straightened, it did so with no sign of strain, as if the barrage had nothing to do with its choice of movement.

That's okay, thought Scott. "You'll notice this." He grinned wickedly as he watched the countdown on the visor tick from 20 to 15.

And then to 10.

Scott hooted and howled and kept pouring on the punishment. The timer changed to nine, then eight, then seven, then six...

And that was when the Red Battlenaut abruptly charged away from him.

"Scudge!" With the timer at four seconds, Scott put the self-destruct on hold. He threw all camera feeds on the visor at once, looking for the Red that had gotten away.

But it was already gone, vanished into the dense mist.

Suddenly, the voice of Captain Rollins burst out of the speaker. "Echo Charlie Bravo! This is Kilo Papa Zulu, responding to your Mayday!"

"About time," said Scott, and then he flipped on the mic. "Watch your six, Kilo! There's some kind of souped-up Red Battlenaut on the loose!"

"I've got eyes on you, Scott." As Rollins said it, Scott spotted him on his leftside camera. "Looks like you've taken a beating."

No kidding. "Recommend you call additional backup, Kilo Papa." Scott's eyes roamed the feeds, watching for signs of his red-hulled foe. "I threw everything I had at that thing, and it didn't even chip the paint."

"I didn't see it on radar or telemetry," said Rollins as he walked his sand brown Battlenaut toward Scott. "How long ago was it here?"

"Thirty seconds before you arrived," said Scott. "At the most."

"Well, it's gone now," said Rollins. "And no reports of a Red Battlenaut elsewhere, either."

"Trust me, it's out there," said Scott. "And I'm telling you, the damn thing's a colossus."

Searchlights flared to life on Rollins' armor, combing the mist around him on all sides. "Must be fast, too, if it ran out of sensor range just before I got here."

"Must be." Even as Scott said it, he didn't think it rang true. If the Red had been a speedster, wouldn't it have beaten him a lot faster? Wouldn't it have crushed him before he could get in any shots?

"Wish I could get my hands on this thing." Rollins kept combing the mist with his searchlights. "Sounds like the kind of tech we could put to good use."

Just then, Scott glimpsed a flicker of movement on his frontside feed, in the mist behind Rollins. "Bogie on your six!"

Rollins spun and focused his forward light on the mist. "You sure about that? Sensors read all clear."

There it was again. "Bogie confirmed!"

Rollins aimed his guns at the area in question. "I don't see it, Corporal."

Suddenly, there it was—the same Red Battlenaut, stalking out of the mist...heading straight for Rollins.

"Incoming!" Playing the stick, Scott rocked his armor back and forth, trying to get it unstuck. "Repeat, incoming!"

"What are you talking about? There's nothing out there." As Rollins said it, his forward light shone directly on the red behemoth marching toward him.

"Can't you see it?" Scott's heart hammered. Servos whined, then whirred as he regained control of his Battlenaut's right leg. He straightened it, then pulled the left foot up from where it was wedged and flexed it forward, planting it solidly on the ground. Finally, he was back on his feet.

But he was too late to help his C.O. "All I see is fog," said Rollins, even though the Red Battlenaut was storming toward him in the beam of his own searchlight. "Nothing's there."

It was that exact moment when the Red came to a stop, standing fewer than two meters away. Its forward cannons glowed with roiling energy about to be unleashed.

And then it was unleashed. Twin beams of concentrated golden energy blasted point blank at Rollins' armor.

"No!" Scott couldn't shoot from where he stood for fear of hitting Rollins. He rushed his Battlenaut forward and around until he had an open line of sight.

Rollins' screams over the comm filled his ears...but not for long. Just as Scott started firing, Rollins' Battlenaut exploded. There were no more screams after that.

Then, the Red charged toward Scott with cannons blazing.

The same beams of golden energy that had obliterated Rollins crashed into Scott's armor, stopping him dead in his tracks. The lights in the cockpit flickered, and he knew what he had to do next.

Eject or die.

His armor shrieked as the Red's energy beams blasted it. Sucking in a deep breath, Scott swung his left hand out and smacked the big red button on the cockpit wall.

For a second, nothing happened. The lights dipped, the control systems shut down, and the ejection sequence was interrupted.

Then, everything flashed back to life. The top of the Mark VI blew off, and the cockpit couch launched upward.

As the couch gained altitude, Scott saw his Battlenaut blow to pieces under the Red's assault far below. If the colossus knew the armor's occupant had escaped, it gave no sign—just stormed through the flames and debris and disappeared into the mist.

Then, Scott went higher and lost sight of the whole scene. As the couch leveled off, following its programmed autopilot coordinates to get him to safety, he found himself staring up at the pale gray sky.

Fighter craft zigged and zagged far above him, firing lasers and missiles at each other. A massive carrier ship hung in the distance, a Commonwealth vessel dispatching fresh fighters and Battlenaut reinforcements. A Rightful destroyer cruised toward it, unleashing a fusillade of missiles.

It would all be over soon. If the Rightfuls had an army of Red Battlenauts at their disposal, they would make short work of the Commonwealth forces on every front. They would tear down the Commonwealth government in nothing flat and institute their own form of domination.

Because nothing he knew could oppose the Red Battlenaut. His own Captain hadn't even been able to see it when it had been right in front of him.

Which left Solomon Scott with just one question to consider as the cockpit couch whisked him through the raging battle: why had he been able to see it when Rollins hadn't?