• Jesse Abbott


Updated: Dec 22, 2019

Douglas Vox watched the incoming barge cautiously circle his brother’s smoking drop ship as it lay exposed and unmoving in a crater near the heart of the city. He thought there must have been a park there once, before the ash and debris of this wasteland. The bulky angular barge overhead was looking for a place to set down. It moved slowly, circling like a vulture. The barge looked cumbersome. It wasn’t intended for quick or even precise maneuvers like the drop ship below it. After a few passes and Doug’s twin brother Daniel, waving his arms from atop the drop ship’s hull, the barge’s pilot steered for a large open square not far from the crater, only a few collapsed buildings away. It was right where Doug had told Dan they would land.

The barge was responding to the drop ship’s distress beacon and the piles of burning trash stuffed around her hull and Dan’s wave for help did the job of convincing whoever was on board that the downed drop ship in the crater would be an easy mark. Doug watched as the rusted landing gear of the barge slowly extended from the corners of its blocky rectangular hull. He heard the roar of the barge’s pulsating thrusters wind down to an idle and the clang of its landing gear locking into place as his vision was obscured by the sudden wall of dust kicked up by the barge’s landing thrusters.

The dust settled, half covering the view screen of his powered down Cossack. Good, Doug thought to himself, let me look like just another piece of trash. Hidden in the dark recess of the cavernous garage Doug Vox and his platoon, the Destroyers, watched the triangular prow of the barge drop slowly, transforming into a large cargo ramp as wide as the barge itself. The barges mouth groaned mournfully in protest and the vibrations of its agony set loose little pieces of debris that skipped down the decaying walls of the buildings around the square.

The platoon’s cossacks all had their reactors powered down so that they would not show up on whatever sensors the barges crew were using. It felt cold in the pilot’s compartment without the heat from the ‘bots reactor seeping through the compartments rear wall. The air tasted stale, musty and metallic. The Destroyers would wait to power up until the barges crew had committed to investigating the drop ship. Their task was to disable and secure the barge before helping Death’s Head platoon, hidden across the crater, finish off any other resistance.

In the meantime they could run their radios and sensors off of battery power. It was enough to give Daniel a description of what was coming his way. On his view screen Doug watched as red arrows popped up next to the one that he had already labeled as “ barge”. The heads up display, or HUD indicated that six other reactors had come online in the hold of the barge. Doug would label them with a description for Dan as they emerged from the barge’s ramp. The Cossacks that the Destroyers now used were once part of a Union mechanized light recon company so collecting target information and sharing it with Death’s Head platoon was a simple task for them.

Since the Union Navy had disintegrated Doug and Dan had tried to get by making salvage runs to Earth, but that had proved dangerous and it was difficult to find cargo worth the fuel that it took to land and take off. It had proven much easier to let others do the work of recovering material and then taking it from them. However, most anyone who had something worth taking was prone to put up a fight. Doug and Dan Vox had perfected the trick of luring in a stronger opponent by making them believe that the brothers were vulnerable and worth robbing.

The barge had received the Vox brothers distress signal, but wasn’t showing up to help. Someone in distress meant an opportunity to take cargo, or more, maybe a ship, or at least slaves. Of course some one with the means to take them would have something of value as well. Judging from the size of the barge that had just landed the Vox brothers and their crew would have a lot of loot to sort through in a few minutes.

A lone Cossack strutted down the barge’s ramp. It was battered and oil stained so badly that its green coat of paint looked black. That was reasonable, Doug thought to himself, the barges crew were proving cautious by sending out a quick ‘bot to scout out the drop ship. He tagged the Cossack’s red arrow on his hud as “black cossack” and updated the network that both platoons shared for targeting data.

Doug was momentarily concerned that none of the other targets in the barge’s hull would leave until the Cossack had thoroughly looked around, giving their victims an opportunity to spot the trap. His fear was short lived. Three G.I. Patton medium war’bots sauntered down the ramp and turned directly toward what remained of an open roadway leading to the crater. The black Cossack sprinted ahead and leapt up on to the remains of a crumbling building. It stopped, turret scanning the area.

Meanwhile on the far side of the crater Daniel Vox sprinted away from the drop ship. He would have sworn if he wasn’t so out of breath. He knew he had been in space to long. Running with gravity was harder than he remembered it being. He was sweating and the dust that blew across the wasted city stuck to his skin and the inside of his mouth, choking him as he panted, heart pounding and scrambled over the rubble at the edge of the crater. He threw himself over a shattered piece of concrete, exposed rebar tearing a gouge in his arm. He slid, ass and elbows, down the debris outside the craters edge. Dan felt relief at being beyond the crater, but didn’t let himself rest. His pilots were only about seventy five meters away.

Dan ran as hard as he could to the corner of the building that concealed his platoon. He made a weak attempt of brushing himself off as he stepped into the shadowy space between two large buildings, one half collapsed and leaning on the other. The space between the buildings was just high enough for the Cossacks of Death’s Head platoon to walk underneath. Dan briefly caught his breath, hands on hips, before pulling himself up the leg of his Cossack. His arm throbbed and he decided not to look and see how bad he was hurt. A few more moments and he was on his turret then through the hatch.

Dan grabbed his headset and through it on. “Death’s Head One, …in position,” he tried not to sound out of breath. “Destroyer One, what is your status?”

Dan reached up to pull his hatch shut and winced with pain. His arm was hurt bad. The hatch slammed shut.

“Death’s Head, this is Destroyer One, the last target is leaving now. I will advise when I have lost visual.”

Just another minute then, Dan thought. They needed to give the last of the enemy war’bots enough time to get far enough away from the barge so that they could not protect it when the shooting started.

Dan looked around his cockpit for something to try and stop the bleeding from his arm. An old jacket and roll of electrical tape were all he could find.

“Death’s Head two, this is One, are we good?” He should have sounded more confident he thought, but he needed to be sure that his pilots were ready. Death’s Head Two was responsible for making sure the ‘bots and their pilots were prepared to attack while Dan provided the decoy at the drop ship. He could have had one of his men do that unpleasant task, but he wasn’t about to ask them to do something he hadn’t done himself.

“We’re good” was the only reply needed.

Dan gave the jacket a quick shake and then through it on, falling into his pilot’s seat. He flipped the HUD on and grabbed the electrical tape. Peeling the end of the tape free he studied the HUD while wrapping the tape tightly around his injured arm, trapping the coat to it. Doug, had done well for his part. The HUD displayed seven red triangles indicating seven reactors. Dan ignored the one titled “barge” the destroyers would handle that. The other target tags gave him a rough idea of what he was facing. In addition to the enemy Cossack there were three Pattons, with various weapons, a Vityaz labeled “long vit” and last but certainly not least was a reactor labeled “boa ork.”

Dan knew that a Boa medium ‘bot equipped with a R40M Orkan rocket launcher could give them hell. They were best off using their maneuverability to avoid it until they had eliminated some of the other targets. He knew they could handle it, but it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park this time.

Back across the crater Doug watched the enemy Boa and Vityaz move out of sight on their way to loot the helpless looking drop ship..

Doug held his breath for a moment then keyed his radio’s mic, “All units this is Destroyer One, we are going hot, time now, I say again all you units, engage.” He released the mic’s key on his control yolk and flipped the engine kill switch to the open position then flipped the ignition cover and pressed down forcefully with his palm. The cockpit rattled and bounced momentarily while the reactor spun up before settling into its familiar vibration. The HUD blinked off and then back on as the systems switched from battery power to draw from the reactor.

“Surprise,” Doug said under his breath. His HUD began displaying the known friendly identifiers of He and Dan’s platoons. He knew their victims would be about ready to panic as they saw the unknown reactors power up in front of and behind them.

“Destroyer Three and Five on me. Two, Four, Six, cover us.” Doug pushed forward on the yolk, its worn plastic cover was smooth and torn in some places. He felt for the familiar exposed metal under his index fingers as the Cossack lurched forward into a sprint out from the dark garage.

The six Cossacks of Destroyer platoon emerged from the garage like a pack of hungry hyenas. Doug and his squad made a mad dash for the barge like it was an injured water buffalo. Its cargo ramp still sat open, but wouldn’t for long. By now the barge’s crew would be realizing they were in a trap and would be trying frantically to close it, getting their armored hull between themselves and danger.

Clear of the garage Doug pressed down with his left thumb engaging the jump system. Suddenly he accelerated up and forward seeing the top of the barge and glancing a view of weapons fire off to his left before descending rapidly and settling hard into his seat then jolting against his harness as the Cossack’s bird like legs absorbed the impact. His two wingman followed, landing about two hundred meters from the barges ramp. He could see crew running around the deck inside frantically. A press of his right thumb sent a torrent of weapons fire from his twin linked side mounted medium Punisher. The two six barreled auto-cannon’s spun angrily as rounds tore through crew and cargo. Doug gently eased his steering yolk left and right, rotating the turret to cover the large cargo bay. Destroyer Five joined in hosing the helpless crew with rounds that would rip them to shreds just by the shockwave created from passing by.

Small fires broke out on the deck and it soon filled with smoke. Nothing moved, but the reactor labeled “barge” still showed on the HUD. “Destroyer Three, give it one rocket and asses.”

A single rocket launched from Destroyer Three’s Yellow rimmed Orkan rocket pod, disappearing into the smokey bay. Even though they had just torn up the barges cargo area with punisher fire Doug wanted to minimize the destruction they caused to the ship. The more it was intact the more loot it could yield. Orkan rockets stood to do a lot of damage, but were the simplest means to disabling the barge’s reactor and preventing its escape. Another rocket vaulted into the smoke cloud and flared orange. The barge’s identifier suddenly disappeared from the HUD.

Off to Doug’s left his other three Cossacks crested the top of the same crumbling building the enemy’s black Cossack had first perched on to observe the crater. Without hesitation they opened fire. Rockets and auto-cannons poured down on the rear element of the would be raiders. As quickly as they had begun the three Cossacks leapt backwards toward the barge, still firing, and narrowly avoiding a counter barrage of weapons fire from the Vityaz and stouter Boa.

From across the smoke hazed crater Daniel Vox observed the three Destroyer Cossacks appear and harass the enemy Boa and Vityaz, before disappearing again. The green lanky Vityaz and squat dome topped Boa weren’t visible from Dan’s position but the HUD indicated their positions behind the drop ship that had baited them in. From the look of it the Destroyer platoon Cossacks had given the Vityaz, equipped with long range weapons according to its HUD tag, a hell of a beating. That was prudent on Destroyer Two’s part. The Vityas was considerably maneuverable for a medium ‘bot and its long range capabilities made it more of an immediate threat to the Cossacks than the Boa. Once it was dealt with the destroyers could take their time playing cat and mouse with the less maneuverable but dangerous at close range Boa.

Dan’s concern was the three G.I. Patton medium War’bots that sat closest to his platoon in the base of the crater. They had moved far enough into the crater before the ambush that they were between Dan’s platoon and the drop ship. They had immediately recognized the threat when Death’s Head platoon had powered up their reactors and began moving towards the Cossacks up the slope of the crater to engage. The Black Cossack was with them and jumped to Dan’s left, away from the Pattons and out of range, as the six Death’s Head Cossacks crested the crater rim. Just as the Cossacks appeared the Pattons unleashed a hellish barrage.

The G.I. Patton was a simply designed medium ‘bot first manufactured about two hundred years ago during Earth’s third world war. Its designers had not made it especially fast or maneuverable, like the Vityaz, nor was it particularly durable like the predictably rugged German designed Boa. The Patton excelled at one thing and that was firepower. Four light weapon mounts, two on each side, allowed a Patton to be equipped for a specific task with maximum efficiency. The ability to mount common inexpensive weapons in high quantity made the Patton a common choice for getting the job done, especially when the job was hammering the the ever living daylight out of an enemy.

Three Pattons were more than a match for six Cossacks and so as soon as they had come into range the Pilots of Deaths Head Platoon pulled back on their yolks and fired their jump drives, leaping clear of the wall of rockets and Punisher rounds that had been launched at them. The rockets shook the air, filling it with smoke and flying pieces of shrapnel, but missed the nimble Cossacks entirely. Only a few rounds from one of the Pattons, equipped with four six barreled punishers had struck any of the cossacks, and the damage was negligible. Two of the Pattons were equipped entirely with rockets and were now helpless while they reloaded. They were entirely dependent on the Punisher Patton and the Black Cossack for protection between rocket salvos. The Cossacks slammed into the ground outside the crater and immediately started maneuvering back up its berm.

“Death’s Head Two, this is One, we will keep these busy. Take care of that Cossack,” Like his brother Dan wanted to exploit their maneuverability and the first step in doing that was making sure the enemy had none of his own. Death’s Head Two broke off leading his squad to pursue the Black Cossack among the hollow gutted and crumbling buildings. Dan and Death’s Head Three and Five would harass the three Pattons without fully committing to a fight, until the Black Cossack was destroyed and unable to limit their maneuvers.

The Rocket Pattons were still reloading as Dan pushed his Cossack just over the craters ridge and pressed his right thumb on the Punishers trigger, giving one of them a long burst of rounds before letting up and darting down out of sight. The Patton with Punishers fired as he slipped away, sending up a spray of dirt and debris. Along the crater’s edge, Death’s Head Three and Five, seeing that the only threat was preoccupied, leapt up and fired down into the crater then landed safely behind cover before the patton could change targets.

It was a hopeless fight for the barges pilots. Despite having more fire power and tougher chassis, they were outnumbered and paralyzed. The three Pattons seemed determined to defend the crater which they had occupied and the damaged Vityaz attempted to flee back to the barge, perhaps not realizing it had already been disabled. The Vityaz’s pilot broke out from the cover of a narrow alley heading straight back the way it had first approached. Focused on the three Cossacks that had ambushed them the pilot and his gunner appeared unaware of three more between them and the barge. Doug almost felt sorry for them as they walked into range and he depressed the trigger. He sustained the burst even after the crew ejected, dumping a few more rounds to force his punisher to reload. He lead his wingmen, jumping over the pathetic looking green carcass, to help Destroyer two corner the Boa.

The squat Boa’s crew had better instincts than the Vityaz. The grey clunky looking ‘bot was backed into an alley corner like an angry badger defending it’s den. It defiantly guarded the entrance, daring the destroyers to peek in. There was no way for them to engage the Boa without being well within its range and the narrow alley it had occupied made it impossible to distract by flanking. The Boa only had one direction to guard and its heavy top mounted cannon, an ECC Thunder, twitched back and forth slightly as the ‘bots gunner cycled targets, looking for a change in range, indicating who would come first.

Destroyer Three took the dare and eased up to the edge of the ally. He stopped short of exposing the Cossack and fired his Orkan rockets, but the angle was too tight and the explosive rounds detonated against the building’s corner. Three cut the burst short and stepped away from the entrance, before quickly reversing and jumping high across the ally’s entrance unleashing the rest of his rockets in a wild arc that sprayed the cramped space and Boa from one side to the other. The ruse had failed and the Boa returned fire, its own Orkan rockets missed Destroyer Three completely, but two quick bursts from the Thunder mangled the Cossack’s legs so badly that it was a wonder the ‘bot was able to land without collapsing.

The crippled Cossack landed out of sight of the ally and continued to limp farther away from the Boa’s lair. The ‘bot’s legs were leaking fluid and the right foot was half missing. It dragged part of its hydraulics behind it. Destroyer Two’s squad was positioning along the roof of one of the buildings adjacent to the ally, but a barrage of rockets from one of the pattons in the crater forced them to abandon their approach and rejoin Doug and the rest of the platoon out of sight from the crater’s bowl.

“Hold fast,” Doug thought quickly. He couldn’t risk one of his Cossacks making another pass like that.

“Destroyer Three, status,” Doug demanded.

“Legs at ten percent, jump is down, weapons green,” Destroyer Three’s condition was no surprise.

“Three, get to cover, the rest of you on me,” Doug turned his Cossack away from the ally and leapt farther to the right, down the rim of the crater. Ahead of him he saw the red HUD label, “Black Cossack” launch into the air and disappear from the midst of three Death’s Head blue arrows.

The Destroyers followed Doug along the crater’s rim except for Three who limped his Cossack toward the nearest building corner in the opposite direction. Doug hoped he would make it to cover before the Boa’s crew got bold. They completed their second jump and then turned toward the crater and climbed half way up the berm. He stopped and checked the HUD. His brother’s platoon was reorganizing on the other side.

“Death’s Head One, Destroyer One, we’re ready for an in and out, if you can keep there attention.” The Boa still hadn't moved.

“Four,” Doug had switched back to his platoon’s frequency. “move with us but hold your fire, I want you back out and on that Boa if it moves.” Both Doug and Dan’s platoons had two Orkan equipped Cossacks, numbered Three and Four, one for each squad. With Destroyer Three out of the fight, that gave the Destroyers one good chance at that Boa. It would have been simple to throw everything they had at one of the Pattons and destroy it but if the Boa moved they would have nothing to counter quickly.

“Roger,” Destroyer Four replied, “Saving it for stumpy.”

Doug ignored the light hearted comment. He was glad that his pilots felt confident.

“Moving now,” Dan announced across the operation frequency. His Cossacks crested the berm and unleashed a barrage on the beleaguered Pattons, who obliged the provocation with their own counter fire.

Doug leapt immediately, almost floating above the crater’s ridge. In front of him the Death’s Head Cossacks leapt and swarmed like locusts harassing three enraged titans. All three Pattons had their backs to the Destroyers and Doug picked what looked like the weakest target. A patton, missing two of its four punishers sprayed rounds wildly at Dan’s platoon. The Patton crew was aggravated and unable to focus on one target at a time. Dan put a long burst into the smoking Patton while he waited the few seconds for his Jump drive to reset. With his Cossack’s legs already reversed he hit his jump button as the Patton’s reactor was pierced and its crew compartment ejected at an odd angle that sent it careening into the side of a building not far away.

Doug turned his turret to see the Boa emerge from its sanctuary. It’s crew knew that it was now or never and believing that the other Cossacks had abandoned Destroyer Three and committed to attacking the Pattons took the best opportunity it had to try and turn this fight into something winnable.

Destroyer Three was about twenty meters from the corner of a ruined concrete building when the Boa opened fire. Three had limped along with his turret reversed but it was no use. Before shooting into the air like a rocket Destroyer Three had barely depressed the trigger and had only gotten off two rockets. That was barely enough to dent a Boa, which was likely to withstand two full barrages from an Orkan rocket launcher, before suffering any critical damage.

Doug and the other Destroyers opened fire while still in the air. They were less accurate than if they had been stabilized by standing on the ground, but there was no time for accuracy when inside two hundred meters of an ECC Thunder. The Boa turned purposefully. Its gunner took but a moment to cycle targets and identify its biggest threat. Destroyer Four landed on a ledge near Doug as it exhausted its Salvo of Orkan rockets. That pounding was sure to have significantly damaged the Boa’s armor but it had also gotten the attention of its crew, who unloaded their Orkan at Destroyer Four.

The other Destroyers maintained their hose like spray of punisher rounds, but the Boa ignored them. The impact of the Orkan rockets and the shotgun like blast of the Thunder ripped Destroyer Four’s only weapon free, flinging the launcher through the air beyond the craters edge.

“Eject!” Doug bellowed in his mic, but he didn’t need to. Four punched out in the same moment that his Cossack’s left leg was ripped out from underneath his cockpit.

The Boa crew was on a rampage and did not hesitate a moment, but continued firing at the next nearest Cossack. Doug, scrambled forward attempting to avoid the tidal wave of destruction being flung at him by jumping over the Boa. Still firing he arced forward, but the Boa’s gunner was good, really good.

Ignoring the sustained punisher fire the Boa turned smoothly putting burst after burst of Thunder fire into Doug’s Cossack as it soared over head. He no longer fired rockets, knowing that they would miss. Instead he depleted the Thunder until Doug landed. A short barrage of Orkan fire followed.

Doug’s stomach tightened in a sudden agonizing knot. His legs were disabled, and his HUD disappeared, view screen cracking like a spiderweb. He let go of his control yolk and grabbed his harness grinding his teeth and closing his eyes involuntarily.

“Thunk,” went one more blast from the Thunder Heavy Cannon.

All Doug heard was the sound of screaming metal as his cossack was ripped to shreds and his body slammed into the seat that carried him up and away from the fight. He couldn’t seem to see, hear, or even breath as the adrenaline coursed through his veins. He felt so heavy he was convinced he would fall through the bottom of the ejected pilot’s compartment. Fear gripped him, crushing him, then suddenly weightlessness, followed by the terror of plummeting back to earth. He vomited, choked on it and then vomited again. Finally, after an eternity of seconds the pod’s parachute deployed and Doug felt like he was floating. Fear vanished and utter disbelief that he was alive overtook him as he began to shake uncontrollably.

Before Doug’s ejection pod had deployed it’s chute Death’s Head platoon had dispatched the remaining Pattons while they reloaded, helpless and vulnerable as newborn babes. The six Cossacks had joined the dwindling Destroyers on the crater’s edge and quickly executed the crippled yet defiant Boa.

Dan had forgotten the pain in his arm. He was missing half of a platoon including his brother. After giving quick guidance to Destroyer Two and Death’s Head Two to set up security. He contacted Raptor, Doug’s Drop ship, that was standing by for support.

“Raptor, this is Death’s Head One,” He was all business.

“Go for Raptor,” the Drop ship replied.

“Raptor, Death’s Head, I’ve got three MIA. Do you have a read?” If functioning properly, each of the three Cossack’s ejection pods should have deployed a parachute and begun transmitting a location beacon upon commencing their decent. While it wasn’t too common, it was a very real possibility that one or both of these features would fail due to damage in combat or poor maintenance.

“Roger, Death’s Head, we are tracking three beacons and en route for recovery.” That was a relief. Dan allowed himself to breathe a moment before transmitting again.

“Good copy, Raptor. Advise when complete and relocate to our location for follow up and recovery.” In addition to functioning as a recovery element for this operation the drop ship, Raptor also carried the crew for the Death’s head drop ship Death Hawk, that had been staged in the crater to create a centerpiece for the Vox’s trap.

The crews of the two drop ships’ were joined by a large working party made up of crew members and residents of the Vox’s planet class cruiser, home and base of operations, Voice of Death. The antique, but heavily modified MK1 Transport Cruiser had formerly been named Union of Humanity Ship (UHS), Voice of Unity, when in service with the Union Navy. She had been assigned to a quick response force tasked to put down the riots that had plagued Union refugee and emigration districts on Earth. Her six modular bays had been configured as hangars each housing one drop-ship and platoons worth of light War’bots. Twin brothers Dan, and Doug Vox, had been officers on Voice of Unity until they had assumed control of her during the aftermath of the Mars Rebel’s attack on Luna that effectively collapsed the Union Government. From then on the survival of their crew became the Vox mission and over time they had become a legend, both feared and respected by ships and cities from Luna to Mercury.

Once Raptor returned, with three intact, though battered Cossack pilots the profitable side of work began. A short standoff ensued between the Vox salvage teams and the surviving crew of the disabled barge. The barge’s crew had armed and barricaded themselves in the bridge but after the threat of being incinerated by rocket fire surrendered and were taken prisoner. The barge held a large quantity of mundane but important supplies, weapons, ammunition, food and water were plentiful. A few war’bots in various states of disrepair were on board and quickly moved to the drop ships.

The Voice of Death had once carried eighteen Cossacks and six of each other light ‘bot in Union service, totaling thirty six war’bots in all. However after years of raiding and scavenging the count of functional ‘bots on board had been depleted to only twenty three, most of them having needed major repairs at least once. The Vox brothers were in need of new equipment so any parts and pieces they acquired were hoarded away or put to immediate use.

The captured barge was mostly intact but its reactor was beyond repair so everything was stripped from it and its coordinates marked and saved so that once a suitable reactor was located crews could return for it and get it into space. After it would most likely be sold to another crew or to the guild that operated the Luna Shipyards. The barge was only a moon class ship which meant it wasn’t outfitted with drives or support systems capable of a voyage between Sol’s planets, similar to the drop ships but too large to be stowed in a cruiser’s hangar. That was a pity, because a barge this size would have sold for two or three times the amount at Mercury, where there was very limited ship production.

It was getting dark by the time, Death Hawk, and Raptor, finally left Earth’s atmosphere, heavy laden with plunder. Doug still feeling and smelling quite wretched was happy regardless, and he smiled at the pilot and gunner of the hard to kill Boa as they sat, faces beaten bloody and cuffed to the hydraulics of Doug’s wrecked Cossack. He had insisted on finding them, at first because he wanted to kill them, but then after he had beaten them he knew they deserved to live. They had fought well and stayed in a losing fight.

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