• Jesse Abbott


Captain Viktor Ivanovich Kuznetsov, or “Cyclops” glanced around the cramped crew compartment of his Golem war ‘bot to make sure everything in it was strapped down. Earth's atmosphere was always turbulent during insertions. The last thing he needed was to lose his one remaining eye because his driver had left a wrench unsecured. Satisfied, he keyed his mic, "Valkyrie One this is Iron Wolf One, my units are ready and standing by." Kuznetsov gave an abrupt nod to his driver, Vladimir, who watched him, while silently biting his mouth guard. A burst of static preceded the drop ship's acknowledgment. "Iron Wolf One, this is Valkyrie One, I copy Iron Wolf element standing by. Departing in five. Four…” Kuznetsov slipped his mouth guard in place as the countdown reached one. The Golem's whole chassis vibrated and then lurched slamming him into his seat as the drop ship carrying his squad of three Golem war 'bots broke through the carrier bay's magnetic field. As rough as departure was it was mild compared to landings. "Iron Wolf and Reaper elements this is Valkyrie One, we are away and fifteen minutes to insertion,” the drop ship’s pilot informed the two squads that comprised his cargo of one way passengers. Kuznetsov waited for Reaper One to respond before acknowledging the transmission and then relayed their timeline to his other two 'bot's pilots. Of course they already knew how long of a flight this would be, but a few radio transmissions gave the crews something to do other than think about the spray of Molot fire that would be waiting for them. Both of Kuznetsov‘s other Golem crews were capable veterans and he was confident they would keep their cool and do what was needed when the shooting started. He couldn't say the same for the Reaper squad. Truthfully, they weren't even a squad, but a group of random individuals. Although each of them claimed to have participated in several previous missions for the government of New Kiev, Kuznetsov and his crew had never heard of them. Reaper squad were freelancers, and professional 'bot pilots like Captain Kuznetsov never trusted freelancers. They were sloppy, undisciplined and unreliable. While Kuznetsov and his men fought for the future of their clan's colony and hopefully one day for a home back on earth, the freelancers, only fought battles that would make them a profit. The government of New Kiev paid mercenaries in gold, silver and other precious metals that were sure to be tradable on the lunar market. That was better than most of the other lunar cities who promised only food or future citizenship in yet to be established colonies on earth. Even though he would have greatly preferred to have loyal Kievans with him waiting in the belly of Valkyrie One, Kuznetsov was glad to have anyone help out in a fight. With Earth's radiation subsiding to a more manageable level over the last decade increasing numbers of Lunar and Martian colonial salvage teams and raiding parties had been competing for Earth's lost troves of stockpiled weapons and abandoned industrial equipment. Currently they were headed for a pre-radiation military compound where a large number of bot chassis and weapons had been located. The fact that they were found by someone else first didn't matter to New Kiev’s leadership. The colonial lunar government of New Kiev had hired every mercenary readily available and combined them with their own forces to try and seize control of the valuable hardware. While Iron Wolf squad consisted of three Golems Reaper squad consisted of two Cossacks each with a single pilot and the two man crew of a Patton, piloted by Reaper One. Hopefully Reaper One's Patton would be useful with its four AC Molot auto rifles. Kuznetsov’s briefing to the platoon while still on the carrier had explained his intentions to both squads. Reaper One was to advance from the drop zone with the three Iron Wolf Golems. Reaper Two and Three, with their much faster Cossacks, were to flank to the west and obtain positions that would allow them to fire on any enemy attempting to close with the Golems and reaper one. Hopefully being engaged by Reaper One's longer range molots would keep the adversary occupied long enough for the Cossacks to begin sewing confusion. By the time the enemy decided to deal with the Cossacks it would be too late to engage them without receiving withering weapons fire from the Golem's chain guns, commonly called "Punishers" and ECC Thunder heavy cannons. Just in case the enemy ignored the Cossacks altogether, Kuznetsov had replaced his Thunder with an Ancile shield generator for this mission. It could absorb enough damage to protect his squad and Reaper One long enough to bring down one or two adversaries if they concentrated their weapons fire. After that they would likely be at a considerable numerical advantage and able to quickly overpower remaining adversaries. The Intel officer had presented scans indicating at least six enemy bots at the target location but it was possible that there were about double that. Kuznetsov had wanted to initiate the assault with a larger force but the drop zone was only large enough for one drop ship at a time. Valkyrie Two and Three would have to wait for Iron Wolf and Reaper squads to clear the area before inserting the follow on squads they carried. Waiting for those squads to assault was out of the question. Waiting would only give the enemy more time to organize themselves. Besides, he reassured himself, the enemy were likely to only have a few ‘bots powered up by the time his Golem's feet slammed into the snow. If everything went well they could win this thing before the enemy was able to commit all of his ‘bots. The sudden turbulence of earth's atmosphere broke Kuznetsov away from his mental rehearsal. It wouldn't be long now. His headset crackled as Valkyrie One transmitted it’s notice, "Inserting in five minutes." Kuznetsov acknowledged," insertion in five minutes." He switched to his platoon talk group. "Iron Wolf and Reaper units, five minutes to insertion." The others each acknowledged his transmission as the turbulence worsened. His helmet bounced off of his head rest before his whole body was thrown forward against the seats harness. Kuznetsov gripped the edge of his seat and was slammed backwards as the drop ship smashed through varying atmospheric pressures like a sledgehammer. Insertions always made him pray for the fighting to start. Kuznetsov glanced over at Vladimir, but the big man had his eyes closed and was holding an amulet that he kept around his neck. He left Vladimir to his prayer, and forced himself to check his gauges again. It seemed like an eternity before Valkyrie One gave the one minute warning. Kuznetsov was relieved that the insane descent was almost over. To his left Vladimir flipped a switch that activated their scanners, not that they were worth much with the radiation’s interference. Just the same, they helped give an idea of where the enemy was. "Scanners active, and shields stable," Vladimir reported. Kuznetsov placed his hand on the weapon's safety switch ready to flip it off as soon as Valkyrie One released them. "Thirty seconds," Valkyrie One’s pilot came across their headsets again. Kuznetsov clenched his teeth down on the mouth guard, and waited for the gut wrenching deceleration. Before a drop ship could release its ‘bots it had to come to a near stop. In a matter of just ten seconds they would slow from about five hundred kilometers an hour to a hover at about one hundred meters above the drop zone. Kuznetsov felt the sensation of growing suddenly heavier. It was painful, his vision blurred and he wanted to throw up but the g-forces made it impossible. All around him the hull of Valkyrie One shook and rattled and groaned as it's reversing thrusters stressed its hull close to the breaking point. And just like that, it was over. Valkyrie One was in his ears again giving the final countdown, while the pilot double checked her positioning. "Five, four, three, two, one, Away!" Kuznetsov opened his eyes. The bay doors were open, flooding the drop ship's narrow bay with light. He flipped the safety switch at the same time that Valkyrie One's load master released the magnetic tether. The drop ship's hull disappeared from his vision and he felt weightless again. As he fell Kuznetsov scanned the terrain around the drop zone. Through his view screen he could see the remains of a military base half buried under decades worth of snow and ice. War ‘bot hangars were built close together across a partially damaged bridge that connected the two major sections of the base. There must have been a river when the base was built but it was evaporated or turned to solid ice since, and the space under the double laned bridge looked easily traversable. There was a platform between the bridge’s two lanes that could provide some cover while crossing the low ground. Suddenly Kuznetsov’s view of the bridge was obscured by other structures as his Golem slammed into the frozen drop zone. A spray of ice and dirt shot up around the ‘bots momentarily blinding them. He could see the red arrows appearing on his heads up display (HUD) indicating that the reactors of enemy war 'bot's were being fired up somewhere across the bridge. Kuznetsov glanced left and right to check that his platoon had landed safely. Blue arrows lined the peripheral space of his view screen. The arrow labeled "Reaper 3" suddenly shot straight up in the air before disappearing from the HUD. "Damn it," Kuznetsov thought spitting out his mouth guard and keying up his platoon channel. "Reaper One, this is Iron Wolf One, Reaper Three is down." Vladimir already had their Golem moving forward before Reaper One responded. There was a moment of hesitation and static before Reaper One's acknowledgement, "roger." One of the problems with hiring freelancers or mercenaries is that most of them do all of their own maintenance. It wasn't uncommon, especially for Cossack models, to have electrical problems and the more patching together a bot had in place of an actual maintenance schedule the more chance there was of malfunctions. Something had caused Reaper Three's crew compartment to eject on impact and the chassis now lay limp and lifeless in the drop zone. If he was lucky the pilot hadn't slammed into the belly of the drop ship that may have still been overhead. If he hadn't then a recovery ship would be headed to pick up the disgraced pilot. With Iron Wolf Two on his left and Three on his right, Vladimir steered Iron Wolf One forward toward a ramp that descended to the low ground. The squad of three Golems would advance under the limited cover available until their weapons were in range. The HUD showed the nearest enemy at just over a kilometer away. That meant that they needed to close over five hundred meters before they could put effective fire on the enemy. If the defending 'bots had long range weapons that could make it a long walk. As they reached the low ground Iron Wolf Two and Three moved into a tight wedge with Kuznetsov’s 'bot. They were close enough that the shield generator on Iron Wolf One would envelop them as well and help them avoid damage while closing the distance. The first enemies came into view. Three Cossacks, marked with red arrows by the HUD, jumped from a low wall that supported a giant inoperable gun battery. The turrets power had long ago been depleted and its mechanisms seized up with two centuries worth of ice. The Cossacks were moving toward the platform centered in the open ground, a move that could deny the cover it provided to Kuznetsov’s squad, as well as delay their advance while the enemy’s heavier, slower 'bots did their best to get into the fight. Reaper One broke to the right, staying along the raised wall that comprised the edge of the drop zone. The Patton fired all four AC Molots on the first Cossack as it raced for the center. A barrage of the Molot 25mm rounds tore through the Cossack’s light armor and almost instantly disabled its jump system. It attempted to move behind a ramp to the central platform for protection but continued fire from Reaper One disabled it's legs and it limped helplessly for a moment before the auto ejection system launched the small crew compartment upwards and out of sight. "Shift left," Kuznetsov ordered over his squad channel. “Reaper One, continue your current course and provide cover fire from that bridge on the right,” Kuznetsov was glad to have the quad Molots suppressing the Cossacks, even if they belonged to a freelancer. The other two Golem's stayed in formation as the squad moved left around the platform to engage the other Cossacks. Reaper One's swift destruction of the first Cossack had caused the remaining two to try and position the platform between themselves and Reaper One. They did not count on the three Golem's changing their course. "Left one first," Captain Kuznetsov ordered his other two crews. Cossacks weren't a serious threat but it was good practice to always take down one target at a time as a squad, rather than each crew firing at the first thing they saw. Two damaged adversaries were still more dangerous than one in perfect condition. Not that either of these two would be around long. All three Iron Wolf Golems faced the Cossack farthest toward their left. Kuznetsov saw the targeting system lock the same moment that Vladimir engaged. The rapid spray of rounds from the Punishers looked like a flood of water bursting from a broken pipe. The torrent of rounds shredded the Cossack as it tried to jump away. Thanks to the targeting system’s auto tracking only a minimal adjustment was needed to keep rounds on target. A second burst from the squads two Thunder cannons sent the Cossack's carcass crashing to the snow covered ground. The remaining Cossack returned fire, but his rounds vaporized against Iron Wolf One’s energy shield. Kuznetsov’s view screen glowed blue as the shield weakened slightly, expending some of its energy to intercept the incoming fire. Kuznetsov checked the other hostiles on the HUD. They were close now, about five hundred meters but still out of sight. The last enemy Cossack escaped the worst of the Golems’ return fire and ducked under the platform just out of the line of fire for either Reaper One or the Iron Wolf squad. It would only take a few moments until they could bring their weapons to bear on it. It was trapped. Checking the HUD again Kuznetsov saw that Reaper Two had moved up a significant distance on the left flank. The mercenary was in a position to see the other hostiles. Suddenly, the Cossack made a sharp change of course and leapt beneath the bridge just as the bone jarring concussion of two heavy rounds split through the air and impacted against the structure he had been near. Even at this distance Kuznetsov could feel the unmistakable shock wave of the Kang Dae cannons. "Two Natashas," Reaper Two blurted out across the net as he landed, unscathed, under the bridge. Kuznetsov checked their shield's status. It was at ninety two percent and recovering. If both Natashas were equipped with Kang Dae cannons that would allow them shield protection for one full volley from each of them before they started taking hull damage. Kuznetsov needed to take one down quick, but they were still behind cover and more red arrows on the HUD indicated more 'bots powering up. Another burst of Molot fire from Reaper One on his right told Kuznetsov that the Patton's pilot had at least one of the Natashas in his sights. The trapped Cossack pilot must have thought that he was the target and panicked, because he sprinted out in front of the Golems who were still positioning to put fire on him. Iron Wolf Three picked it up immediately and the first burst from his Thunder cannon at close range ripped the enemy Cossack’s side mounted Punisher off. Vladimir swung their own turret to bear and pulled the master trigger that linked the fire of both their light and medium Punishers. The enemy's crew compartment ejected like a rocket into the air. From the beating he had just taken the pilot was probably torn to pieces inside of it though. "Reaper One Reloading," came the Patton’s update. The Molot was a great weapon but could have used a larger magazine capacity. "Reaper One, Iron Wolf One, relocate to this platform to cover our advance. Break. Reaper Two, you’re with me." Kuznetsov didn't want either of the Reaper ‘bots exposed and on their own. They'd be pounded to pieces by those Natashas. At least on the platform Reaper One could take cover and still have a good firing position to support their advance. Reaper Two could add his firepower to strike against the Natashas and use the Golems as cover. Reaper Two's Cossack leapt from under the bridge towards Kuznetsov’s position. At the same moment a Vityaz type bot stepped out from cover onto the bridge, launching a barrage of rockets down at Iron Wolf Two. The rapid multiple impacts shook the ground and the HUD’s sensors momentarily faded in the bright explosions. "High left!" Kuznetsov called out on the platoon net. Three Golem's swung their turrets around to return fire. Kuznetsov noticed Reaper Two's skill when he reversed his turret, mid air and engaged the Vityaz with his R40M Orkan rockets. The first few impacted on its hull as it retreated back behind cover to reload. The rest of the rockets and a hail of punisher rounds dug into the concrete and steel structure that it dipped behind. Iron Wolf One’s shield had absorbed the impact, preventing damage to Iron Wolf Two, but it’s strength was now down to twenty eight percent. The Golems needed to close the rest of the distance and put fire on those Natashas, but to do that it meant to move deeper into the kill zone of the Vityaz waiting just out of sight. "Covering," Reaper One came across the radio indicating that he was reloaded and in position. "If he pops out at all, light him up," Kuznetsov forgot his typical radio etiquette. He meant that for Reaper One but wouldn't complain if any of the others threw something at the Vityaz if it stuck its nose out again. They were almost passed the platform’s far side when the first Natasha appeared on the hill straight ahead of them. It's pilot didn't rush and used the 'bots slow speed as an opportunity to check his targets out before engaging. It's first barrage ripped through the air and slammed into Reaper One's Patton. The impact crumpled one of its Molots as well as a portion of its outer hull. The Patton had come out from cover to better engage the Vityaz when it reappeared. The Natashas gunner had capitalized on a fully exposed target. Reaper One scrambled back out of harm’s way just as the Vityaz appeared again. More rockets reigned down from the bridge, overpowering the shield's remaining strength and ripping off several layers of armor on Iron Wolf Two. Reaper One, had made an obvious mistake. After first overexposing himself he had then withdrawn after being hit, when he should have realized that despite having taken damage, both his exposed adversaries were now themselves vulnerable while they reloaded. "Damn!" Kuznetsov yelled as Vladimir turned away from the still partially obscured Natasha back to the Vityaz. This time Vladimir, as well as Iron Wolf Two and Reaper Two were able to get full effect on target. The massive sustained barrage of weapons fire damaged the Vityaz’s legs and the normally quick 'bot was stranded in the open. It soaked up more and more damage, was smoking and small pieces of armor were continuously chipped off under the torrent of lead and depleted uranium rounds. It must have been about to trip its auto ejector, but both the Golems and Cossack were suddenly out of ammunition. The snow covered ruins were silent except for the lingering echo of weapons fire. From behind them on the platform Reaper One had collected himself and let out a short burst of rounds from his three remaining Molots. That was all it took to send the Vityaz's crew compartment up in a trail of black smoke. A barrage from the second Natasha ripped through Reaper One's reactor and sent him and his driver off in the same manner. Meanwhile Iron Wolf Three was putting fire on the first Natasha. "All units engage as one!" Kuznetsov didn't know he was yelling over the radio. Vladimir brought their turret back to the first Natasha just as the HUD displayed it's good news in red letters. "RELOAD COMPLETE," Vladimir didn't hesitate, but began to pour rounds into the behemoth on the hill. The others engaged as they marched en masse up the hill sending everything they had ahead of them. The first Natasha had reloaded and knew exactly where to send its rounds. The pair of heavy cannons belched fire and flung their projectiles into Kuznetsov’s Golem ripping off his shield generator before it could regenerate its protective field. The impact jerked Kuznetsov and Vladimir back in their seats. Vladimir recovered quickly and continued firing. The roar of incoming Spiral missiles made Kuznetsov grab onto his chair. He was anticipating the sudden launch several kilometers into the air. The missile's impact came and battered him and Vladimir until they couldn't see, but they didn't eject. They had lost their light Punisher in addition to the Ancile unit. Vision returned and they could see the crumpled remains of a Natasha in front of them. Kuznetsov couldn't hear and time seemed to stand still. There was a Golem standing in front of his 'bot, absorbing secondary weapons fire. The rounds, from the second Natasha’s Molots were intended for the weakened Iron Wolf One. He checked his structural integrity sensors. His hull was only at eleven percent integrity, mobility was at sixty eight percent. They weren't done yet. Kuznetsov checked the HUD. The second Natasha was still reloading and had reversed attempting to get behind cover. Kuznetsov ‘s other Golems had shifted fire onto it while moving to protect him with their own hulls. From behind him Kuznetsov felt the boost of a jump drive as Reaper Two jumped over the Golems to get into range with his rockets. He launched his salvo before landing in front of them. One final shotgun like blast from a Thunder cannon finished it off and the Natasha seemed to stand briefly before slumping into an awkward looking sitting position while it’s crew arced heavenward. Kuznetsov laughed and his hands shook as he checked his sensors for the source of the missiles that had all but finished off his Golem. Three more red arrows on the HUD indicated more enemy ‘bots had come online just beyond a large structure that overlooked the bridge. He scanned his own forces with his one eye. The other Golems looked rough but in much better shape than he was. "Shit," he thought to himself, "where was that second drop ship?" Valkyrie Two should have been here by now or at least communicated their approach. Of course long range radio transmissions were always uncertain due to the radiation. He leaned forward in his seat and strained to search the sky. He could just make out the shadowy silhouette of a ship high above. "Was that coming or going? Was it friendly?” "Status," he demanded over the platoon net. Time seemed relevant again. He could hear now, but it was mostly just the ringing in his ears. "Reaper Two, up." "Two, hull at forty, weapons up." Iron Wolf two reported. "Three, seventy, reloading." At least their weapons were operational. "Three, your on point, I'll support with what I've still got," that was Kuznetsov’s way of putting a positive spin on the fact that it was a miracle he was still in the fight. With his damaged drive system he would lag behind if they moved. "I've got limited legs, so we need to hammer the first thing we see." Reaper Two jumped forward again, peeking around the structure's corner. He let loose with another salvo, at whatever he saw and then sprinted back toward the structure for cover as another volley of Spiral missiles launched from the other side. The deadly cluster of missiles swerved and then arced toward the Cossack. He came up against the side of the building as the missiles plummeted toward him. Most of them detonated against the roof's edge before the remaining few impacted on top of the Cossack. The battered Iron Wolf squad limped closer to the structure between them and the enemy. Reaper Two had survived the barrage and came across the platoon net with a distorted transmission. "Patton, with spirals and two Griffins. My jump system is down, reloading." "Take the Patton first," Kuznetsov responded as they crept toward the corner. They seemed to be moving impossibly slow. They needed to put fire on that Patton and take its weapons out of the equation before it reloaded. It's ability to launch missiles from behind cover made it their most immediate threat. It's medium rated hull also made it easier to take out than the stout heavy Griffins. The Griffins were another story, but hopefully they could catch them before they were fully operational. If they were fully powered up Kuznetsov knew that the reality was, even one Griffin, with a decent crew should be able to eliminate his entire squad in the sorry condition they were currently in. "Where was their back up platoon?” Iron Wolf Three approached the corner as Kuznetsov counted in his head. There were only a few seconds left before they would have Spirals launched at them again. The hollow thud of Iron Wolf Three's Thunder cannon sounded in unison with Kuznetsov as he counted down to the inevitable barrage. "Two, thunk. One, thunk," the cannon drummed. "Zero," Kuznetsov said out loud as the third blast from Iron Wolf Three tore through the enemy Patton's fire suppression controls and triggered its auto ejector. A trail of exhaust from the systems propulsion traced through the sky and was visible from behind their scant shelter. Kuznetsov glanced up at the lingering smoke, just in time to see a Griffin jump through it. It immediately disappeared over head as its jump system completed its burst and cut off. It would land right behind them. "Behind us!" Kuznetsov bellowed over the net. He hoped others had seen the Griffin jump and might already be preparing to engage. Vladimir brought their turret around as quickly as it would move. The battered Golem only had its Twin Punisher still operational, but it was better than nothing. Kuznetsov had seen crews lose all of their weapons systems before and have to make the tough call to punch out while their platoon was still struggling. It was that or put yourself in harms way to soak up bullets protecting your platoon mates. "Why weren't they receiving fire yet?" Kuznetsov wondered. Perhaps the Griffin’s crew was struggling to acquire a target. The hill they had ascended was behind them. Sometimes an elevation change would interfere with the targeting system’s ability to lock, especially against multiple targets close together like Iron Wolf squad was. As Vladimir brought the turret about Molot Fire erupted across the icy ruins. Three blue triangles appeared at the edge of Iron Wolf One’s HUD. Archangel Squad had touched down. Archangel Squad was one of the colony's heavy squads composed entirely of Griffin ‘bots. They were usually used as support or secondary assaulters in conjunction with assault squads using medium ‘bots, like Iron Wolf. The Archangels were efficient and deadly with their Molots and made short work of the enemy Griffin who had still not been able to track a target when its hull had been ripped apart by the Archangels’ massed fire. The squad of Griffins had engaged their target mid jump and now shattered the icy low ground as they landed behind the tattered assault platoon. Their massive hulls sent chunks of ice and powdery snow into the air. Kuznetsov let out a deep breath. He suddenly felt exhausted. The remaining enemy Griffin crew powered down and surrendered, along with the crews of several other ‘bots who had been in various stages of powering up. Some of the older reactor models made starting in a hurry impossible. The captured crews would be reasonably well treated. Most colonies would pay a steep price to recover skilled war ‘bot pilots. They were hard to replace because it took many months of experience before someone became efficient at operating the unwieldy war machines. If they weren't ransomed they could always be conscripted and forced to man the clans Destriers. Kuznetsov was sure that he and his pilots would be well rewarded after he saw the spoils from their assault. In the frozen warehouses and assembly bays they discovered a huge stockpile of weapons and ammunition. Even more incredibly, one warehouse contained two platoons worth of Rogatka medium assault ‘bots. The Rogatka was a very versatile and hard to come by machine. Put into production by the Russian Empire shortly before Earth's nuclear holocaust they were arguably the most affective war ‘bot ever built. Between all of the colonies combined there were less than two hundred Rogatkas in service, New Kiev only had three and maintenance technicians had worked hard to keep them operational. Most clans reserved their treasured Rogatkas for special operations, but now with two entire platoons worth New Kiev had the advantage that it needed to unite the lunar colonies. There was one unforeseen loss. Enemy scientists had wiped the memory of several computer systems in the assembly bays. When interrogated they admitted that the computers had contained several schematics for weapons and ‘bots that were under development at this base but that had not ever been produced. Worse, the scientists confessed to having transmitted the schematic files to their superiors before deleting the data. New Kiev technicians took the computers to search for files, but Kuznetsov doubted it was worth the effort. "Besides," he thought, "what good was someone's two hundred year old idea?" In less than twenty hours all of the captured weapons, war ‘bots and other equipment were loaded on recovery ships and barges and headed back to New Kiev. The battered Iron Wolf Golems were sent home on the first ship, but Kuznetsov had his crews stay back and man three captured Vityaz to provide security with the Archangels. The Iron Wolves and Archangels crowded into the last barge to leave. The vessel, named Shrieker looked and sounded like it would disintegrate at any moment. Not that the pilots cared, they were used to everything falling apart around them. Today had been a good day. Tonight they would get drunk.

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