• Jesse Abbott

WAR ROBOTS 03 - VOICE OF DEATH

Updated: Dec 31, 2019

The day had been a success. The disabled barge proved to be a ripe bounty and with the minimal expense of three damaged Cossacks and fuel. The ambush had been well worth the effort. Once the drop ship 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 few surviving crew members 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 they 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 one of the drop ships. The Vox’s cruiser, 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 or ‘bots 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. Afterward, 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 Vox’s 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 of its market value near Luna if it could somehow be transported to 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 the days plunder, salvage, and prisoners. Doug still feeling and smelling quite wretched was happy regardless, and he smiled malevolently at the pilot and gunner of the hard to kill Boa as they sat, faces beaten bloody and strapped to the hydraulics of Doug’s wrecked Cossack. The tough medium ‘bot’s crew had been competent and determined. If their comrades had not panicked and been overwhelmed, allowing the Vox Cossacks to focus on the lone Boa they might have stood a chance in the fight. Doug 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. The two men looked miserable, doubtlessly wondering what their fate would be. The pair of broad winged hawkish drop ships flew like two predators leaving the carcass of their prey after gorging themselves. They departed slowly over the darkening Earth, as if they felt tired and in no particular hurry. Doug remembered when he had been a boy, seeing the lights of Earth from space. He had traveled with his father, and he would marvel at the clusters of lights indicating the refugee centers and ports. Doug and Dan’s parents had left Earth as young children themselves and had shared only a few memories of it. Most of what they had shared with the twins was all of the destruction and suffering they had witnessed. However, both of their grandfathers had memories as young men on Earth and while they never saw it before the wars that poisoned the planet both of the men had strong memories of the stories their own parents had told them about when Earth and its inhabitants were still healthy and full of life. According to those stories one could look down from orbit and see whole continents lit up with the lights of Earth’s cities. That seemed hard to believe now, more like a legend. Now looking down as they left, Doug struggled to see if he could pick out any lights at all. Even the refugee centers had gone dark in the last decade. Back on Voice of Death, Dan’s drop ship, Death Hawk eased into contact with its hangar’s floor. The floor’s magnetic anchoring system activated and the hangar echoed as Death Hawk’s landing gear locked into place. Normally Dan would have waited to disembark until after the platoon had moved their ‘bots into the hangar and maintenance crews took over, but his arm had started hurting again, and as the adrenaline of the fight wore off his discomfort advanced beyond pain. He nodded at the deck chief as he eased down the drop ship’s loading ramp. His magnetically rimmed deck boots made it possible to walk in zero gravity, but he had to hold his injured arm close to his body so that it didn’t bump into something as it floated along limply. Each of the cruiser’s six hangars were attached to its long main hull, with three on each side. The hull, or spine of the cruiser was narrow with only limited systems and infrastructure. The main purpose of the spine was for movement of personnel and materials between the hangars, crew compartments, bridge and power plant located at the cruiser’s rear. A large rotating ring, centered around the cruiser’s spine created the living quarters and allowed for artificial gravity making long term life on the vessel possible. Dan left his hangar through its pressurized airlock and hopped on a mag shuttle headed back toward the ring. Each of the six hangars were completely self contained and isolated from the spine and other Hangars. If there were ever a serious accident in one hangar their modular isolated design would minimize potential damage and loss of life. Dan closed his eyes for the short trip, feeling nauseous and trying not to vomit. Dan didn’t remember getting off the shuttle or taking one of the ring’s elevators down to its grav decks, but once there a surprised medical aide helped him onto an exam table shortly before he passed out. Landing in his own hangar aboard Raptor, Doug was unaware of his brother’s trip to the med bay. Though they had both overseen the plundering of the barge they had remained aboard their respective drop ships directing crews and work parties and had not yet seen each other. The feel of Raptor setting down on Voice of Death’s deck seemed to take away some of Doug’s lingering queasiness and he grinned at his deck crew when the ramp lowered. He knew he would be buying them and his platoon a round of drinks tonight for being “popped” as they called a pilot who was ejected. Doug was still overseeing recovery of Destroyer platoon’s Cossacks and the unloading of plunder when he was hailed by Captain James Reagan over the cruiser’s intercom system. Reagan was one of the few officers on the Voice of Death who had not first been part of its once Union Navy crew. He had been a Union Naval Officer as a younger man, but was now in his late sixties. He had retired from the Union Navy years before the collapse of the government and gone into business for himself with a decommissioned MK1 Transport Cruiser, almost identical to the Voice of Death. The twins had first met Reagan on Mercury, where he was trying to sell his then, nearly derelict and decrepit cruiser, Skye. No one else had been interested in the hulk, but the brothers bought it and hired Reagan as Captain of Voice of Death. His steadfast leadership and experience allowed the brothers to focus on the operations of their war’bot platoons and handle other business rather than worry about the ceaseless operation and maintenance of their own aging cruiser. The Skye had been cannibalized and its parts used to significantly improve and expand the performance of Voice of Death. Though both vessels were early model transport cruisers, Reagan had modified Skye significantly and those upgrades, as well as her power plant, standard weapons systems and armor were moved to Voice of Death. The skeletal leaking hull of Skye was then sold for scrap. This left Voice of Death better armed than any transport cruiser in the Solar system and faster than a standard expeditionary cruiser. She wasn’t a match for any dedicated fighting vessel but she could outrun most of them. Doug made his way to one of the hangar’s diagnostic stations to use a direct line to answer the captain’s call. His short walk was clunky and jolted, deck boots clumsily grasping the magnetized deck with each step. Walking on a mag deck never seemed to become natural no matter how long you did it. Doug held onto the work stations edge while he selected a direct call to the bridges receiver on the touch screen, then put the station’s receiver up to his ear. “Bridge, Reagan,” the captain must have been aggravated because he normally would allow a com officer to take the call and then transfer it to him. His irritated mood was further betrayed by his use of his last name instead of his rank. “Captain, its Douglas. What’s going on?” “Sir,” The Captain collected himself. “We’ve got guests. They arrived while you were... you were… ahh… gone.” “Who? Should I clean up first?” Doug wasn’t going to impress anyone smelling like sweat and vomit. “I reckon, sir. Shall I have the Kievan ambassador wait in the conference room?” Doug knew that was more than a suggestion and Reagan’s way of letting Doug know that their guests were on the bridge with him and he wanted them out of his way. “Yes, Captain, and make sure they get some drinks.” The Kievans weren’t known for hiring mercenaries Doug thought. Politics on the moon must be getting rough. He couldn’t imagine an unannounced visit from an Ambassador of New Kiev for any other reason than needing extra muscle though. It wasn’t unusual for parties seeking some hired guns to recruit pirates or mercenaries like the Vox brothers in person. Transmissions over common frequencies were always vulnerable to interception even if they were encrypted or otherwise secure. Doug placed the intercom’s receiver back in its place and scanned the hangar for Destroyer Two. Doug’s second in command and the leader of the Destroyers second squad went by the nickname Tuna. His real name was Thomas Una, but since the first time his name had appeared on the cruiser’s roster as T. Una he had been involuntarily renamed Tommy Tuna. Doug made eye contact with him and waved him over to the terminal. The hangar was too noisy to bother shouting. Tuna, gave a nod and then finished explaining something to one of the mechanics. He made an awkward bending motion with his arms and pointed to the left leg of his Cossak. The mechanic pulled a short ladder up to the leg’s bird like reversed knee while Tuna clunked his way over to Doug. “What’s up?” Since the Vox had taken command of their cruiser the strict adherence to military bearing had significantly diminished. Neither Doug nor Dan minded that though, because they knew they were held in high regard by both their ‘bot pilots as well as the cruiser’s crew. A sure sign of that was that whenever an outsider was present the obvious familiarity vanished and was replaced by a mostly silent professionalism. “I just got off the horn with Reagan,” Doug explained, “It looks like we had an unexpected client show up while we were Earth side.” “Need me to take care of your scrap?” Tommy asked with an obvious grin glancing at Doug’s crumpled Cossack laying on the deck.. “I don’t think that one is going to walk again. Tell the mechanics to evaluate it, but it’s a low priority. Get the intact Cossacks back to one hundred percent first.” Doug, thought about what else needed to get done. “Make sure those prisoners get to a cell soon, we can't have them just sitting on this deck all night. I’ll deal with them tomorrow. I’m going to find Dan and go meet with Reagan. Hopefully it won't be long. Help the crew chief start a better inventory of everything we hauled off that barge too.” Tommy nodded. They weren’t tasks he hadn’t performed dozens of times before. “Thanks,” Doug added, patting Tommy’s shoulder, before turning toward the hangars personnel access door, “I'll meet you in the mess later.” He turned after a few steps and half yelled to be sure Tuna could hear him, “Make sure Bri doesn’t start drinking until the work is done.” Tommy smiled and laughed, “I’ll do my best,” he yelled back. Unlike his other tasks, keeping Bri, the Destroyer’s loud mouthed belligerent, and often drunk brawler, out of a bottle was something he had never been able to do. Doug sealed the hangar’s personnel door behind him and the noise of the cluttered deck vanished. The airlock to the cruiser’s spine had no magnetic deck and Doug pushed himself once off the door he had just closed, floating across to the opposite door. He waited briefly, orienting his feet toward the arrow that pointed to what would be down when he exited into the spine’s main causeway. The light by the inner door’s lock went from yellow to green, indicating a safe environment on the other side and Doug pulled on the heavy handle to open it, then floated through pushing himself to the floor until his boots got close enough to latch on. Clang. He snapped onto the floor and checked to make sure no trams were approaching before walking across the spine to Dan’s hangar. The spine’s interior space was about fifty meters wide which allowed for a spacious four lanes of magnetically levitated and propelled tram and shuttle traffic along the deck. The wide open space above was left without magnetization for the convenient transport of large equipment to the hangars topside equipment doors where robotic crane arms could secure items and position them on a hangar deck. Inside Dan’s hangar Doug looked for his brother, but not seeing him motioned a mechanic over who was passing a coolant hose up to another worker hanging on the side of a Cossack. The mechanic handed off the hose and trotted over, as much as the awkward magnetic gravitation would allow him too. “Where's Dan?” Doug asked. He recognized the mechanic but couldn’t remember his name. The mechanic leaned forward turning an ear toward Doug to hear over the sound of a nearby impact wrench. His hands were behind his back in a sloppy parade rest and he tried not to stare at the gross vomit stains on Doug’s flight suit. The cruiser’s population was large enough that the different hangar and section crews rarely interacted and the lack of total familiarity between the two prompted a minimal show of formality toward one of Voice of Death’s co-leaders. “He left, sir,” seeing that Doug wasn’t satisfied with his answer the mechanic explained. “He went to the med bay.” Still not enough. “For his arm, sir.” Apparently Doug was already supposed to know all of this because the mechanic looked like he was explaining something to a child. “Alright,” Doug said too quietly for the mechanic to hear, but a hand on his shoulder let the mechanic understand he was dismissed. A quick call to the medical bay brought Doug up to speed. His brother had a minor fracture to his arm and had suffered a moderate amount of blood loss. The doctor scolded Doug for allowing his brother to forego medical treatment as long as he had. He received a second scolding when Doug asked if Dan could be released to attend a meeting. However, after venting his wrath, Doc conceded that Dan could be released, but needed to take it easy. Doug asked that the medical staff help clean Dan up and said he would bring him some clothing. A few minutes ride on a tram brought Doug to the cruiser’s large aft section where he took a lift down to the ring’s crew deck. The circular deck was positioned at the appropriate distance from the ring’s spinning axis to replicate Earth’s gravity. The ring’s gravity was one of the major life support systems that allowed planet class ships to keep crews healthy in space for long periods. Unlike the magnetically simulated gravity systems throughout other portions of the vessel the ring’s gravity was generated entirely by centrifugal force. The ring was large enough that the deck’s curved floor was minimally inconvenient. It was just enough that anyone walking on the deck felt as though they were walking uphill whichever direction they traveled. The system’s greatest shortcoming was that only one deck could be at the necessary distance from the ring’s axis to replicate Earth’s gravity. There were a total of five decks in the ring with a large empty space that fit around the cruiser’s spine. Two of the deck’s were further out than optimal from the axis causing them to have a heavier than Earth gravity, while two were closer to the axis having proportionately less gravity than Earth. Both Doug and Dan’s quarters as well as the med bay were on Deck three where the gravity matched Earth’s as long as the ring kept spinning. A quick hot shower wiped the grime and feelings of tiredness away and a fresh uniform brought Doug’s mind to focus on the task at hand. It might mildly offend the ambassador to see Doug and Dan wearing Union uniforms, but it would still come across as more serious and professional than if they met him in their worn out flight suits. Doug was amused by the irony of so many pirates, mercenaries and even the small militaries of the lunar city states, to include that of Kiev, still using Union uniforms well over a decade after the government and military had disintegrated. He supposed wearing the old uniforms was convenient and helped lend the wearer an air of credibility. Credibility was especially important to the lunar cities, the most powerful of which were each attempting to assert themselves as the new Lunar capital and reunite Earth’s moon under one government again. None were likely to succeed, especially with the Lunar ship yards operating in the form of a guild and independent of, but just as powerful as any of the cities. Doug dismissed his introspection as he walked the uphill corridor to the med bay entrance. At least the gray and red, square shouldered uniforms looked sharp. He winked playfully at the blonde receptionist who greeted him upon entering. In turn he got a friendly smile and the slightest indication that she was blushing. Without too many words the receptionist led him to a small room where two orderlies were helping Dan out of a steam shower. The receptionist left as quickly as she could, unable to keep from blushing any longer. Doug laughed freely, “You scared her away!” he said in an accusing tone. Spreading his arms in feigned dismay and confusion. “Mom always said you were the ugly one.” Dan managed a smile and took a towel from one of the orderlies. He wore a plastic splint that locked tightly around his forearm. After wrapping in the towel he braced himself against a handrail and nodded at one of the orderlies. “Thanks fellas, I think I’ve got it.” The orderlies had been holding Dan’s arms afraid he might fall, but slowly let go, and then seeing they were no longer needed left. “How's the arm?” Doug asked, leaving the jokes aside. “Hurts, It’ll be alright though. You brought me a uniform?” Doug set Dan’s uniform on the bench next to him. “How the hell did you bang that up?” he motioned at the splint with one hand. “I'm the one that got popped, remember?.” Dan smiled and laughed at that, as he slid down the wall to sit on the bench. During the fight he had been worried about his brother but now it was funny. “You try fighting a squad of Pattons outside of your ‘bot and see how well you fair!” Dan demanded. “Doc said you needed me for a meeting,” Dan changed the subject. There would be plenty of time for jokes later. “What is it about?” “Reagan paged me from the bridge. He said we’ve got an ambassador from New Kiev here to meet with us.” “Kiev? Really?” Dan’s surprise was reasonable. New Kiev was one of the most powerful of Luna’s cities and prided itself on maintaining an efficient and professional military that did not rely on mercenaries like many of the other its competitors. Among the circles of mercenaries and smugglers that the Vox brothers associated with it was well Known that Kiev held them in considerable disdain. “Things must be heating up for them,” Dan thought out loud. “Either that or they need something dirty done, or someone expendable, maybe both.” Doug countered. Dan shrugged his agreement, while pulling on his pants. “I guess we’ll see.” Doug helped Dan slide his uniform’s jacket over the rigid splint and buttoned the cuff. Dressed in fresh uniforms and recently showered there was no indication that they had both been covered with dust, sweat, blood and vomit less than an hour ago. And it had almost been an hour since Reagan had first notified Doug of their waiting guests. Hopefully Reagan had gotten the Ambassador drunk enough to work out a good deal, or at least gain some useful information if no deal could be struck. “We should get going,” Doug said checking the antique but sturdy data band, he wore on his wrist, for the time. The conference room where the Ambassador waited was on the first deck of the ring. The gravity at about eighty percent of Earth’s was more comfortable for guests who had been away from gravity or only had the moons one third gravity for extended periods. Doug and Dan felt lighter as the lift rose. The doors opened to Deck one’s corridor and a sharp looking lieutenant named Corzan greeted them. Doug casually returned the lieutenant’s salute. “What are we walking into lieutenant?” “Sir, Ambassador Polzin from Kiev and his assistant, Boris Nikolaev are being entertained by Captain Reagan, and have enjoyed the best refreshments we have available. The mood seems light and as of a moment ago, when I left the room they had not discussed the purpose of their visit.” “Standby outside the door,” Doug directed, pointing to the door for emphasis. Using the same finger he turned and pressed the conference room door’s open button. The lieutenant nodded and stepped to the side as the brothers walked into the room. Inside the conference room Reagan laughed heartily, then set down his glass to stand as his employers entered. The ambassador and his assistant, seated across the room’s large oval table, stood as well, both were smiling. Reagan had done well. If there were two things Reagan excelled at they were commanding a cruiser and telling drunken stories about cruisers. Reagan glanced back at his guest, “Ambassador Polzin, allow me to introduce Daniel and Douglas Vox.” He gestured with an open hand back to the brothers now approaching the table. “A pleasure to meet you both,” Polzin extended a hand across the table, still smiling. He was a tall man, but of a slight, some would say, wiry build and had sharp features with dark hair. His uniform, very similar to the Vox’s, was immaculate. He wore a red sash indicating his office as well as several metals hinting at a distinguished past. “Thank you for receiving us.” Dan suppressed a grimace extending his injured arm and returned a solid handshake. “The pleasure is ours,” he smiled back, “we are honored to have such a distinguished guest as yourself.” Doug just smiled, and returned a similarly enthusiastic handshake. He laughed to himself at his brother’s well delivered bull shit, before managing a congenial, “Ambassador,” and a nod. Releasing Doug’s hand Polzin gestured to the mountain of an assistant that stood at his right. “Gentlemen, this is my assistant, Boris Nikolaev.” Nikolaev was tall and broad, with heavy features and dark close cut hair. His uniform was a simple gray with no adornment accept for a name plate and the symbol of Kiev, the Arch-Angel Michael with his flaming sword, on his left shoulder. Doug bravely extended a hand to the bear of a man across from him, worried that it might be crushed. Nikolaev shook Doug’s hand gently, but smiled in a way that suggested he enjoyed the knowledge that he could crush the others hand easily. Dan avoided the risk of a second painful hand shake by inviting everyone to sit. Reagan poured the brothers drinks from the open bottles on the table and then made sure their guest’s glasses were full before topping off his own tumbler and sitting. The table had a generous spread of expensive foods. Several bowls of fruit as well as a platter with cheese and bread had been made available for the guests. Just as the obvious purpose of Polzin’s giant assistant was to project power the generous spread of food indicated wealth and that the Vox brothers couldn’t be enticed with trivial offerings. The reality was that most of Sol’s citizens were used to eating whatever was available. The Vox brothers and their crew, usually ate some form of nutrient pack manufactured from one of the numerous synthetic food factories spread across the Solar system on different planets, stations and cruisers. All present enjoyed the expensive meal of actual food while pretending that it was what they were accustomed to. Captain Reagan finished the story he was telling about a pirate he ran into near Ceres, long ago. After enough food had been sampled the conversation finally turned to business. Polzin sat up slightly straighter and pushed his small and now empty plate away before folding his hands on the table’s edge. “Gentleman, you have quite an impressive operation. In fact it was surprisingly difficult to locate you. I was initially misled by a ship claiming to be yours and two men claiming to be the two of you when I inquired as to your whereabouts. The two were an obvious fraud once I met them in person. I suppose the existence of these impostors is a testament to your accomplishments. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, or so they say.” The ambassador let the words hang in the air as he took a satisfying sip from his drink. Doug, bit his tongue before speaking. He hated someone trying to cash in on his reputation and wanted to ask for more information, but he knew that Polzin was baiting him to ask for something before he had made a request himself. Dan intervened. “We have no shortage of impostors, to be sure, but I don’t recall anyone claiming to have Voice of Death before. Was she even a cruiser? Most of the time it is just someone looking for a free drink.” “A heavy barge,” Polzin conceded waiving a hand dismissively, “ and a rather shabby one at that.” “I am sorry for your difficulty finding us, perhaps if you can tell us more about this barge we can make sure it doesn’t cause you any inconvenience in the future. It seems that you must have gone to considerable lengths to come to us. What is it that brings you here?” Dan sipped his own drink. Polzin smiled. He was no fool. He had been outmaneuvered. Seeking to entice the brothers to ask for something from him he had hinted at how important they were to him and Dan had exploited that. Of course Polzin had not needed to win that little exchange but only needed to test his hosts in order to know how to proceed. He would be straightforward, these were not men to be needlessly toyed with. “If it pleases you, here is all of the information we have on the barge claiming to be your vessel.” Polzin drew a small data stick from his uniform’s pocket and slid it across the table. “Again, let me express my thanks to you for receiving us. You are correct, we did go through considerable trouble to locate you. If we had been looking for just anyone we would have found interested parties in ample supply.” “What do you propose then?” Dan was glad things were moving along. His arm was starting to hurt again, and the little bit of whiskey he had drank had taken its toll quickly. He knew he couldn’t drink anymore. Between the blood loss, painkillers and whiskey it was a wonder he was doing any talking. He looked across Captain Reagan, sitting silently in the middle of their side of the table, to Doug hoping he would take over for a bit. Polzin got to the point. “We would like to hire you to train some of our War’bot pilots. As you may know Kiev has a very strong corp of ‘bot pilots, however with the exception of one squad of Griffins we have no pilots experienced with jump capable chassis. We would like your experience and skill in training a new company of Rogatkas. I have been assured they operate very similarly to the Cossacks your own pilots are so famous for.” Doug was surprised. They had never received an offer to be hired as trainers. They had only ever been wanted as muscle or to take out someone else’s rival anonymously. Equally surprising was the claim that Kiev was assembling a Rogatka company. The Rog, as it was called, was a valuable and rare medium ‘bot with double the firepower of the light Cossack, and almost as fast while being much tougher. Its greatest feature, though, was its ability to use jump thrusters, making it more maneuverable than any other medium or heavy ‘bot ever produced. Possessing enough of them to operate an entire company was unheard of. The Vox brothers possessed one, and it had been a great asset, until it had taken a few too many blasts from an ECC Thunder cannon. It sat in the corner of Doug’s hangar with the hope of being restored one day. “You have a company of Rogs?” Doug asked, not hiding his disbelief. “Four platoons worth plus spares,” Polzin was matter of fact. “Two more platoons have been ordered to field a complete company.” “That is impressive,” Douglas admitted, “you say they are ordered. I have not heard of anyone manufacturing Rogs in decades, unless they were cobbling a collection of second hand chassis together. Who is producing them?” “Why the government of New Kiev, of course!” The ambassador pretended to be surprised that anyone would doubt his government's ability to manufacture its own war’bots. The truth was he was as thrilled as anyone would be at the discovery of a Rogatka warehouse and factory that had been located on Earth and was now reassembled on Lunar Kiev. The find had yielded twenty four Rogatka chassis as well as other war materials, but most importantly the precision machinery needed to produce the old Russian ‘bot. “What kind of training do you have in mind?” Doug liked the possibility of being able to climb back into the cockpit of the powerful medium war‘bot. “We would expect your service for at least two months or longer if necessary to adequately train approximately forty pilots culminating in your participation in a live operation.” “What kind of operation?” Doug asked. “We would expect you to lead the company on their first action as your assurance to us that they are sufficiently capable.” Polzin clarified. His friendly demeanor evaporated revealing a grim ruthlessness. Doug glanced at his brother, and then at Reagan, who stroked his chin and stared at the table. Dan looked like his eyes were starting to glaze over. Doug needed to talk with them alone before he could make a decision. Reagan clearly had something to say, and Dan was the one who should be talking in the first place. “And what are you prepared to offer as compensation?” Doug could at least get them a reference point from which to start. “Mr. Vox, since you are already aware that my superiors are specifically requesting you for this task you can be sure that we are prepared to meet your demands. What is it that you require?” Polzin smiled. He was amused at how unsettled the three men across from him had become. Reagan, he thought, must be an old drunk, and Dan he was sure was ill or injured, or simply couldn’t handle his liquor, while Doug Vox seemed indecisive without his brother. “I see,” Doug thought briefly. “Allow us a moment to discuss your offer, Ambassador.” This could be a great opportunity, but there was also a considerable risk in becoming so deeply involved with any of the lunar governments. Doug rose from the table. “Please enjoy some more refreshments and we will rejoin you shortly.” At that Reagan rose, and pulled Dan’s chair back so that he wouldn’t trip on it on his way out of the room. The trio made it into the corridor and breathed a collective sigh of relief once the conference room door slid shut behind them. Lieutenant Corzan still stood in the corridor waiting and unsure of what he should do. Dan stepped toward him and raised an arm to steady himself on the lieutenants’ shoulder. Dan’s face beaded sweat that soaked Corzan’s uniform as the lieutenant awkwardly struggled to support his stumbling employer. Reagan and Doug came to Corzan’s aid and grabbed Dan’s arms, helping to steady him and then lean his back against the corridor wall. “Sweet Mary,” Reagan patted Dan’s shoulder as he bent, hands on knees still propped agains the wall, “you going to make it, son?” As if to answer the Captain, Dan vomited on the floor, spattering Corzan’s deck boots. Doug stepped to the side to avoid the puddle of vomit before breaking out in laughter. “I can't wait to hear Reagan tell this story.” Dan began to laugh too, but vomit came out his nose and he gagged instead. He stood up and leaned his head against the wall. Reagan produced a handkerchief and handed it to Dan. “Lieutenant, get somebody down here to clean this up,” the old man barked at the lieutenant behind him. Corzan jogged a few paces down the hall to a comm station. “Better. Thanks,” was all Dan said before wiping his face clean and then checking his jacket. Satisfied that he was clean, he added, “I guess I shouldn’t have had that drink with those meds.” The color was returning to Dan’s face already, and his mind was drawing into focus on the business at hand. “What do you think?” Doug asked. Reagan spoke up first. “If you’re asking me sir, we are doing just fine without being tied to anyone. Men like Polzin always have something that they aren’t telling you.” Dan spit into the handkerchief, trying to get the taste of bile out of his mouth. “We’ve been doing well enough, you are right. We have been playing this game for a while though, and sooner or later somebody will beat us at it. Even if they don’t, we need ‘bots and supplies to keep at it and we are the worse off we have ever been as far as serviceable chassis go. We are able to meet our needs, but our capitol is giving out. Right now we don’t have a means to replace it. This could be that opportunity.” Dan tossed the handkerchief into the mess on the floor and took a few steps further down the corridor. Doug and Reagan followed Dan away from the stinking puddle. Doug ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “What about Polzin? Reagan is right. Guys like him are always working an angle.” “So let him.” Dan shrugged. “The way I see it we can keep at what we are doing until we fizzle out, or we can play his game for a few months and stay on top. We need a change. If somebody is going to start manufacturing Rogs again, then why shouldn’t we have some of them?” “That would more than make up for the Cossacks we have lost.” Doug was sold. “Two platoons worth?” Reagan frowned, “Well if we are doing this than I have a long list of needs for the voice. She has more backlogged maintenance items than I can count.” Reagan could be convinced into almost anything if it benefited the cruiser. “Corzan!” Reagan, shouted down the corridor at the lieutenant still speaking on the comm station. “Tell Major Ernise to generate an item list for all maintenance needs and have it delivered here, then call Harkins and have him bring me a list of 9 months worth of consumables. Not just food, but fuel, water, meds, disposables, everything. You got it?” He stepped toward the lieutenant as he shouted and then turned back around to the twins with his hands on his hips. “Alright,” Doug said. “Alright,” Said Dan as two maintenance workers scurried down the corridor toward them with a portable cleaning system. The Vox were in business. After a brief negotiation over the precise terms Doug and Dan agreed to train the Kiev pilots for no less than two months and to accompany them on an operation selected by Kiev’s military leaders, but of the Vox’s planning and with Kiev’s approval. In return Ambassador Polzin agreed that New Kiev would pay for all needed maintenance on the Voice of Death to be performed by the Lunar shipyard’s guild and to provide the supplies the cruiser would require for nine months of operation. On the point of Rogatkas he was less willing to comply but eventually agreed to one platoon’s worth, a total of six chassis, and spare parts for them. In place of the requested second platoon of Rogs the Vox brothers agreed to take six Golems, equipped with ECC Thunder heavy cannons, and the commonly relied upon GAU Punisher chain guns. The Golem war’bot was a staple of most the lunar cities militarys because it had been the only ‘bot with production facilities established on Luna under the Union Government. In order to secure the Rogatka chassis, the brothers had to agree that they would not work with parties hostile to the City of New Kiev in any manner. The demand made Reagan scoff, but seemed understandable to the twins. They wouldn’t want to turn Rogs loose to their enemies either. Once an agreement was reached to have the Vox brothers and their pilots assist New Kiev with training and leading a new War’bot company Doug and Dan stood to shake hands with Polzin, but he surprised them by raising a finger as if asking for one more moment of consideration. “There is one more thing, forgive me,” Polzin spoke humbly for the first time. “It is regarding the barge, that I told you about.” Dan, Doug and Captain Reagan were all puzzled, and Polzin wasted no time explaining himself. The ambassador explained that the arrangement between the city state of New Kiev and the Vox must remain secret. New Kiev had many competitors on Luna and no shortage of enemies either. The information that they were manufacturing Rogatkas was sensitive as were the rest of their plans surrounding a military expansion. It was imperative that no one knew about these secrets who did not have to, and as Polzin pointed out that included the proprietor of the Barge that had impersonated the Vox. In short, it needed to be destroyed in order to protect Polzin’s operational security. Dan spoke up immediately as soon as it became clear what Polzin wanted from them. “Ambassador, I see your point, but before you even ask, let me be straightforward, why should we clean up your mess?” Polzin looked annoyed at the question, but only for a moment. He glanced at his large assistant, who still remained silent. “You are no fool, Daniel Vox,” the ambassador folded his hands in front of his belt and sighed imperceptibly. “You are correct, I could have the support of the Navy and remove the barge easily, but,” he hesitated, “this would cause considerable embarrassment for myself and my superiors.” Reagan snorted. Polzin was not just an accomplished operative and diplomat, he was also a politician. If there was ever one thing politicians didn't like it was loose ends, especially ones that could be a liability to their careers. “What’s it worth to you?” Doug saw where this was going, and cut right to it.” Of course they could snuff out a miserable old barge, but they wouldn’t do it for free. “Mr. Vox,” “Polzin countered smiling slightly. His humility seemed to vanish as quickly as it had appeared. “Perhaps you misunderstand the situation. With that barge in possession of the knowledge that you are in the employ of New Kiev, we jeopardize all of our security.” The ambassador looked smug. What he really meant was that if the Vox brothers wanted this job, now there was an extra price. Polzin would rather report back to his superiors that the Vox brothers and their pilots refused his offer, than have to inform them that he had caused a breach in the informational security of his assignment. With the deal finally settled on and the follow on caveat that the barge must be eliminated it was clear the Vox had a lot to gain by complying. Neither Doug or Dan wanted to do Polzin’s chores, but if that was all that stood in the way of a profitable path forward then it was hard to object. The target was hijacking their identity and reputation anyway. They had both seen men killed for less. With so much to gain, what choice was there, really? The bargaining with Polzin was resolved. The barge crew had to die. Accommodations were arranged for Polzin and his entourage. He had agreed to return to Luna with the Voice of Death, instead of departing in his shuttle. Both vessels could travel at about the same speed, but there was no need for the Kievan vessel to burn fuel when it could travel docked in one of the cruiser’s hangars. So the Ambassador, his assistant, the shuttle’s two man crew and a three man security detail of brutes who looked like they could be Nikolaev’s brothers, all settled into a sizable suite on the larger cruiser for the relatively short trip to Earth’s moon. The suite had been living space for mid grade officers when the cruiser was known as Voice of Unity under Union Government service. The Impromptu mutiny that had changed the vessels name, had also resulted in most the cruiser’s senior officers being killed as well. The once mid level and Junior officers that had inhabited the suite had moved to occupy the quarters of their former superiors, and now the modest, but comfortable rooms were used for the occasional guest or client, when they spent time on board. There was no shortage of housing on board the cruiser. Most of the inhabitants on board worked in the hangars supporting the war’bot pilots by keeping their old rigs operational. The actual crew of Voice of Death was only about one third of what it had been over a decade ago, as Voice of Unity. The trip from Earth’s inner orbit to the Lunar shipyards only required about one Earth day’s travel for the average cruiser or shuttle. The twins and Reagan planned to take longer though, adding one short detour along the way to Luna. The information that Polzin had provided them about their impostors was less than seventy two hours old and included the offending barge’s last known location. The location was too far away to scan with Voice of Death’s sensors but a few hours travel would have them in range to search for its signature. Despite the fact that Polzin had manipulated them into cleaning up his mess, Doug, Dan and Reagan agreed that it was not a bad idea to go after them anyway. Men lived and died by their reputations and the owner of this barge seemed to have found a means to cash in on someone else's. That couldn't be allowed to stand in the Vox’s line of work. Dan had returned to his quarters for some needed rest but Douglas along with Reagan had joined the Death’s Head and Destroyer platoon pilots along with the crews from the drop ships Death Hawk and Raptor for the drinks Doug owed them, and a few extra. Doug also made sure to invite the dutiful Lieutenant Corzan to join them as they departed. The young man, who they had picked up on Mercury just a year ago, was very pleased to be included among the tight knit group of warriors. Doug entered the cruisers mess, located on the grav rings second deck, to a sudden uproar of applause and laughter, as his pilots and friends made ridiculous popping sounds by flipping a finger or thumb from the inside of their cheeks. The deck crews and ‘bot pilots laughed and raised a glass, glad that one of their leaders had joined them, and inwardly thankful that he, and their other pilots who had been popped were each still alive. It had been a rarely good day. Doug raised his hands and grinned welcoming their raucous laughter. Their jeering was all in affection and he was glad that they had something to laugh about. There were few war’bot pilots on Voice of Death more capable than Doug Vox or his brother, and a chance to tease one of them, was an opportunity that must not be squandered. Doug motioned for silence, still grinning, and the crowded mess hall gradually drew to silence. Foolishly grinning faces waited expectantly for what Doug was about to do or say. He made them wait a moment longer, before shouting, “Drinks on me!” And throwing his hands up in the air. The room cheered and laughed louder than it had when he entered. Two of the Voice of Death’s most veteran pilots, Max Kilhenny and Mark Benjamin, left the table they were standing by and both came to greet Doug with a hearty slap of the shoulder. Neither of them had been with the squads that had been in action this time but both had been with the Vox brothers for as long as anyone. They were two of the best, and they worked hard to make sure that all of their pilots were taken care of. They asked how Dan was, with genuine concern, before being swept away by the other pilots coming to welcome or tease Doug. Doug was tired but the concerns of the day melted away in the company of this proud band of brothers. He put aside his negotiations with Polzin and the impostors they were now on course to deal with, if only for a few minutes. After making the rounds, Doug finally made his way up to the mess halls service line, that more often than not simply functioned as a bar. The cooks assistant laughed, shaking his head, as Doug pushed through the small crowd to reach him. “Welcome back, sir,” the man said knowingly and setting a drink on the stainless steel of the bar top between them. “I'll bet you need one of these.” Doug laughed appreciatively, “Thanks Jim, but I had better start with some noodles,” he explained by rubbing his stomach in a circular motion and making a face that suggested he was still feeling ill. Jim laughed again, and raised a finger, indicating he would need a moment. The noodles in the Voice of Death’s mess hall were about the best affordable food one could get. Short of spending a fortune on fresh foods, or forcing yourself to eat tasteless nutrient packets that were a necessity, algae noodles were about the best you could get. And after all he’d been through Doug thought anything else would make him vomit, and that was the last thing he needed in front of this motley crew. Captain Reagan slid into the vacant bar stool next to Doug and apologetically picked up the untouched glass as if it had been placed their for him. “So Doug, what do you have in mind when we find them? You know they’re probably still sitting in the same spot trying to conserve fuel.” He was of course talking about the barge Polzin had encountered. “I haven't given it much thought yet, why?” That wasn’t true of course, but Doug already knew the older man had an opinion. “If it were me, I wouldn't want to risk losing any men right now, when we don't need to. We should hit them at a distance and leave them to rot and be off to a profit at New Kiev. Whatever goods they've got on board aren't worth our boys fighting like caged rats trying to board her.” Reagan’s gaze told Doug he meant what he was saying. Reagan had been around long enough to see what could happen when someone got greedy, and he saw the opportunity for that failure now. Crippling the barge from a safe distance was enough to satisfy justice and ego alike, there just wasn't any profit in it. Capturing the heavy barge was certainly achievable, but men fought like savages when they were cornered and no one was ever more cornered than when their ship was crippled and being boarded in the middle of the void. The barge was small compared to the Vox’s Transport Cruiser. Most barges only required a crew of about twelve and could be expected to carry just the crew and possibly up to sixty people in the unlikely case that it had passengers. That was potentially a lot of people to fight in a narrow corridor. The Voice of Death’s crew numbered forty two and including all other personnel and their families carried one hundred fifty seven souls. Souls that Douglas and his brother were responsible for. The cruiser was old and the crew was sparse. She could have comfortably carried three hundred personnel and used to, under the Union Navy, but these were different times, leaner times. Reagan was right of course. Voice of Death had a sufficient arms room of small arms of various types, but none of the armored exoskeletons commonly used in boarding actions. Even if they had the best equipment, none of their personnel were trained or experienced in that kind of fighting. The Union Navy Marines would have been up for the task, but there were few outfits that could match there proficiency, not without the academy that used to produce them. Some cruisers still carried contingents, but most of them were pirates, or the honor guard of a cities flagship. At any rate, there weren’t any here to assist with the barge. “Leave it crippled then,” Doug conceded with a nod, “wake me when we get close.” Reagan was satisfied with that and raised Doug’s neglected drink to that before leaving him alone to eat his algae noodles. Doug said goodnight to his pilots and made his way back to his own rack without having a drink. He needed whatever sleep he could get before focusing his efforts on their new undertaking. Reagan left with his confiscated drink, and sauntered back to the bridge, but not before whispering to Jim, who had pretended not to listen to the private conversation at the bar, to cut off the drinking after one more round. The men would grumble, but they’d get over it. Sleepy drunks weren't very useful and while Doug and Dan Vox might have been his employers, James Reagan was very much in charge of their cruiser. The revelers in the mess didn’t know it but they were already underway in search of the Vox impostors and they’d be glad they were sober if there was much of a fight. The second shift crew had just come on and Reagan informed the off going first shift officers as well as the third shift officers to have their people prepared to return to duty at short notice. Even a minor seemingly routine action like swatting a barge out of the void could become complicated and costly if a crew became lax. Reagan hoped everything would go smoothly, and his crew would just get a needed readiness drill in, but if it didn’t, he wanted them prepared. The Voice of Death had two heavy weapons turrets, which was a considerable armament for a Mk one transport cruiser. It was common for the civilian variants to have been initially produced with no weapon emplacements at all and even the Union Navy’s combat support variant had only been built with one rear dorsal mounted turret meant to deter pursuit or cover an escape. When Reagan had captained Skye he had a salvaged turret installed on the nose of that cruiser and now it sat proudly on the nose of the Vox’s Voice of Death. Both the nose, and rear dorsal turrets were equipped with twin linked heavy plasma cannons. They were slow to charge up but had an incredible range and inflicted horrific damage that ignored a vessel’s energy shields entirely. While conventional lasers could reach the same ranges, plasma dealt its damage in a sudden burst and did not require sustained weapon’s fire to affect its target. According to Polzin’s data, the barge had only two belly mounted medium auto-cannons for defense. If that were all, it wouldn’t even put a dent in the Vox cruiser’s shields before its hull was punched full of holes. The auto-cannons were a good weapon, but they didn’t have the range or the punch of the plasma cannons. They were more suited to deter small attack craft or engage ground forces. Voice of Death should be able to destroy the barge before it was even close enough to return fire. Just the same Reagan directed his weapons officer to perform pre-combat inspections and checks on both turret systems as well as the Voice of Death’s shield generator. He listened over a headset as the gunners talked through their drills to the stocky bald headed weapons officer standing beside him on the bridge’s raised center portion, called the pulpit. Everything was in order. Time passed on the bridge as unremarkably as the featureless blackness of space slipping passed the cruiser. Systems were checked and rechecked. The Voice of Death’s six hangars were locked down and their contents all secured firmly to their decks. Reagan, stood grasping the edges of his command console, boots locked to the metallic grate of the pulpit’s deck. He watched the distant stars seemingly motionless, through the bridges giant view screen. There were few windows, in the Mk one cruiser’s design and most of them were here on the bridge. It was impossible for Reagan to gaze out into the blackness and not be compelled into deep reflective thought. He searched his mind for anything left unattended. He had a nagging feeling about Ambassador Polzin, but he repeatedly dismissed it. If the wolfish ambassador had a trap for them this wasn't it. If it were he wouldn’t have stayed on the cruiser. The Lieutenant at the sensor console interrupted the chatter from the weapons drills with his transmission. “Sir, I have a heavy barge at our eleven o’clock. Distance ninety Klicks. There is no ID yet, but it appears to be sitting in a high orbit.” “That’ll be it,” Reagan replied. “Inform Doug Vox he is needed at the bridge.” “Roger,” the sensor officer switched channels and made a call to the senior officers quarters security post. The lieutenant didn’t bother calling Doug directly, because he never woke up until someone pounded on his door. The guard who answered knew the routine. “Call all hands to ready stations,” this Reagan directed to Major Ernise, his executive officer and the on duty watch officer responsible for the cruiser’s general security and readiness. The weapons officer terminated his drills and directed his personnel to standby. Everyone waited as the cruiser drew steadily closer to the barge. The Voice of Death didn’t usually see a lot of action and every time she did Reagan wished that one of her six hangars held a squadron of fighters instead of a drop ship and its brood of war’bots. He thought to himself that he should have demanded fighters from Polzin during negotiations and cursed under his breath. Damn, but he was a fool. “Captain,” the sensor lieutenant interrupted his thoughts, “target is at seventy klicks and closing. ID signal transmitting reads Voice of Death.” The sensor lieutenant sounded pleased. Reagan just nodded. At this rate they would be within weapons range in about a half hour, unless the barge tried to run, and it did. “Target is firing its thrusters,” the lieutenant updated. “Do you see anywhere for it to go? Any other ships, or cruisers?” Reagan knew that the barges crew was likely in a panic after seeing a cruiser bearing the legitimate identification tag they had been posing as, but he wanted to be sure that it didn’t have a big brother lurking somewhere in the blackness. “Negative, sir.” “Keep checking and advise on distance.” Reagan turned to the bald, stocky weapons officer next to him. “Lieutenant Hall, go hot, engage at ten klicks.” Placing a hand on the pilot’s shoulder Reagan spoke calmly, but firmly, “Bring our nose around and keep the target in front of us. Be ready to cut thrusters and tip the nose when I say.” Dropping the cruiser’s nose once in range would ensure that the dorsal turret was able to depress enough to make a shot, as well as the nose emplacement. The pilot nodded and Reagan patted his shoulder again before turning back to the view screen to study what little data was displaying on it. Even with the barge attempting to flee it should easily be under an hour when the heavy plasma cannons would be in range to hurl death at it. Just a few minutes later Reagan looked up as someone entered the bridge door. It was Doug, and to Reagan's displeasure, Ambassador Polzin was with him. Reagan stopped himself from rolling his eyes and instead nodded in their general direction as the two walked haltingly across the lower bridge region’s mag deck called the bull bit. They made their way through the various control consoles and junior officers manning them, toward the narrow stairs that accessed the pulpit where Reagan and his senior officers oversaw operations. Doug jogged up the stairs, his magnetic deck boots snapping to each step. He was familiar with the bridge, having spent a good deal of time on it. The reason the Vox had hired reagan wasn’t because they didn’t know their way around the cruiser. They had both spent many years on it even before the Mar’s fleet had destroyed Luna City, the Union of Humanity’s Capitol and seat of power. The brothers preferred to have Reagan lead the crew for two reasons. Practically speaking Reagan’s presence allowed them to focus on what they considered business, running their company of war’bots and making a profit for themselves and those they cared about, all of whom lived on the cruiser with them permanently. Personally however, both Douglas and Daniel had never wanted to command the cruiser. When the Mar’s fleet had suddenly arrived in Luna space, what seemed like a lifetime ago, the two young officers, popular throughout the Voice of Unity had lead a desperate mutiny against the cruisers captain and senior officers, in order to save the cruiser and her crew, and later renamed her Voice of Death. The memory of that day, and Captain Gray choking on his own blood, haunted Doug every time he came to the bridge. Gray’s blood had spattered Doug’s face that day. Now he wiped a bead of sweat from his brow and the memory of Gray’s face with it. He involuntarily looked at his hands to make sure there was no blood on them. Polzin followed Doug up to the pulpit slowly, taking in the details of the business around him. “We are inside seventy kilometers and closing,” Reagan addressed Doug pretending not to see Polzin behind him. Doug didn’t speak, but nodded his acknowledgement. There was not much conversation during the following drawn out minutes. Everyone waited for the distance to close, focused on their tasks and vigilant for any sign of trouble. As the cruiser closed to within fifteen kilometers of its target Reagan ordered the pilot to depress the cruisers nose by thirty degrees and cut the primary forward thrusters. This allowed Voice of Death to maintain its forward speed, drifting toward the barge and present both the nose and rear dorsal turrets to allow them wide fields of fire. It also brought the barge into sight from the bridges large view screens. The heads up display, or HUD, highlighted the barge with a red box and small arrow next to its fraudulently broadcasting name. Despite the increasingly detailed information displayed on screen the barge was still just out of clear visual range, its yellow glowing thrusters were barely distinguishable from the distant stars that if fled toward. At thirteen kilometers the HUD suddenly registered four more objects, appearing without warning in quick succession near the barge. It was a tense moment while the computer analyzed the new objects. Finally a designator appeared next to each of them, labeling them life pod, numbers one through four. Doug, looked at Reagan, rubbing his chin. If the crew was abandoning ship maybe they should board and loot her after all. Before Doug could say a word the older man’s eyes locked with his, already knowing Doug’s mind. The salty captain shook his head imperceptibly. It still wasn’t worth it. Doug held his chin a moment longer, thinking, until he remembered Reagan’s story of how he had once feigned abandoning ship when attacked by a pirate assault cruiser. The younger Reagan had been running water from Ceres to Mars and been ambushed by the faster and more lethal pirate, who had been hiding among asteroids along the common water route. After a short chase Reagan had cut his engines and ejected a single life pod. Wanting prisoners to sell, the pirate had secured the pod in its small hangar before the greater work of boarding Skye. A task it never undertook, because Reagan detonated the explosives that his crew had loaded in the pod, crippling the pirate cruiser badly enough for Skye to escape. Doug nodded, dropping his hand from his chin. Reagan turned to Lieutenant Hall again. “Ignore the pods until the barge is disabled.” Hall nodded and relayed the order to his gunners, then sent information provided by the sensor officer to assign specific targeting points to the two turrets. One or two well placed hits on critical systems would mean a quick victory. It would be foolish to hammer away at the hull indiscriminately, giving their prey time, and a chance. Everyone on the bridge, watched the distance displayed on the HUD count down to ten kilometers. They drifted into range and suddenly the bridges view screen was filled with the bright orange lances of the heavy plasma cannons. The searing spears of energy vanished as soon as they had appeared, leaving ghost images in the eyes of the bridge’s onlookers. The barge, still difficult to see was suddenly illuminated by the incinerating plasma. There was no sound for those on the cruiser, but all watching new that part of the large heavy barge was now shredded, twisted, and molten scrap. The HUD displayed distance to the barge immediately decreased more rapidly as the target suddenly slowed. The first barrage had torn apart its thrusters. Subsequent explosions and hull ventilations countered some of the smoking wrecks forward momentum. Next they would take the shield generator, not that it had done the barges crew any good. “Pilot, decrease our forward speed and maintain distance,” Reagan stopped short of barking the order, but his urgency was clear. They were already within nine kilometers and there was no benefit to gain from getting closer. Getting too close could mean an unnecessary collision or receiving weapons fire. Reagan wasn’t about to take any chances. The crew shifted slightly at their stations as the pilot quickly decreased the Voice of Death’s speed, by firing the cruiser’s maneuvering thrusters. The plasma cannons lanced out again then vanished as another blossoming cloud of all incinerating flames ravaged the dying barge. The blue bar that indicated the presence of the barge's shields on the HUD blinked and vanished. The impostor's vessel could be seen quite clearly now from the bridge though still appearing small and distant. She listed to her port side and spewed smoke and atmosphere, leaving a white trail behind her like a drunken lazy comet. Anyone still on board the barge, was either dead or having the oxygen sucked out of their lungs by the decompressing hull. Lt. Hall turned from watching his data display to Reagan, and then Doug. “Pods?” he asked, wondering if he should engage them. Captain Reagan glanced at Doug, his white beard seemed to bristle as he pursed his lips. He knew Doug wanted prisoners, and neither one of them liked leaving some one adrift in a pod, but Reagan knew better than to make decisions based on what he wanted. Doug didn’t speak and so Reagan turned his attention back to Lieutenant Hall. “There is no sense in making them wait to die, Lieutenant.” Hall nodded, and Reagan turned his back to face the sensor station, down in the bull pit. “Any changes?” The twin beams from one of the turrets made the bridge glow orange for an instant. “The targets signal has gone offline. Other than the pods I haven’t seen any other objects.” The officer replied as the second turret lanced its plasma bolts through another hapless life pod. “Good. Set a course for Luna,” the last statement was directed at the navigation officer sitting adjacent to the sensor station. Reagan turned back to Doug, still ignoring Polzin. His employer looked exhausted. “Our reputation is everything, and today we upheld it.” He spoke softly for only Doug to hear. “We’ve got this job because of our reputation. Don’t ever forget that the crew of that barge, and others like them were stealing from you.” Reagan turned standing next to Doug. The two watched Polzin, who in turn watched the bridges view screen for the next bolt of plasma. The ambassador took everything in. Was he amused, or was it something else? “And you passed that one's test, I reckon,” Reagan added even more quietly. The Voice of Death’s pilot applied the maneuvering thrusters again as the navigation officer relayed the coordinates and way points needed to travel to New Kiev. This maneuver was more gentle than the sudden deceleration earlier and imperceptible to the crew. The only indication of their change of course was the debris of the barge and a few bright stars shifting out of view. For years the Vox brothers and the crew that had become their family had lived on Voice of Death and only made port when absolutely necessary at Mercury or one of the hundreds of small obscure stations, trade posts and hide outs scattered throughout the orbits of Venus and Earth. That long exile in the stars was ending. They had been tried and tested, refined in hardship, and emerged hard themselves. Now the very powers they had avoided for so long had sought out their service. The Voice of Death cruised through the blackness toward Luna. She had not visited Earth’s moon since she had taken her infamous name.

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Jesse
Abbott
The Adventurs of Henry the Rabbit King. The Rabbit King's Castle in the Green Valley.
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