The Iron Library

DASH: Part I

  • Author: Norse Patriarch
  • Genre: fiction piece
  • Bonus points for: lore!

Following is an unofficial story about the origin of the, commonly called, Dash family of War’bots. It falls shortly after the events that I described debuting the Gunslinger Robots. As with all of my War Robot Stories I’ve made an effort to tie this one as closely to game experiences as possible while still developing a universe beyond the matches players experience. You will doubtlessly notice that the Dash ‘bot described here has no link to Korean culture. That is because I began this story before that piece of lore was established and now that it is, I am working on aligning this ongoing story with that fact. So stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

The hangar was cold and dark. Isaac Colt worked alone. It was late. His regular staff had been released from their shift hours ago. Isaac hadn’t realized it yet but he’d forgotten to eat again. It was easy to do when he was focused on a task. Alone in the hangar, with only the silent titan sized war’bots for company the hours slipped away. There was always something to fix, or for Isaac, something to improve or a problem to solve. He didn’t have much interest in making repairs. That was for mechanics. Isaac was an engineer.

At least that is what his degree from the, now destroyed, Union Academy said. Isaac wondered sometimes, if the director of weapons development here in New Texas must have thought it read miracle worker. War made resources scarce and ingenuity became a necessity. New Texas had been at war with the Peoples Republic of Mars for almost a year. Long on the losing end the Texans had finally turned the tide against their superior foe, but the fight was far from over.

The turning point had finally come when Isaac had proposed and developed a new war’bot chassis redesigned from the abundant supply New Texas had of antiquated Destrier chassis. The new light ’bot, called Jesse, had been just the cost effective and versatile design New Texas had needed to stay in the fight against an opponent who could easily outspend them. Isaac’s own brother, Sam, had believed in his brother’s design and lead the first two squads of Jesses into combat where they had performed well. As a result upscale medium and heavy versions of the ‘bot were put into production, and although few in number, had significantly aided in the conflict being fought over the mining region called Gordon’s Canyon.

So while Isaac was infinitely proud of his work in designing Jesse, his success had insured that he was now permanently assigned to weapons development. It was a task he enjoyed, but hated being forced to work on. Previously he had been a war’bot pilot and even a platoon leader. That was when he had designed Jesse and inadvertently sentenced himself to work in this cavernous hangar. Most days he would have much preferred to be behind the controls of a war’bot fighting along side his younger brother.

Fate had other plans for him he supposed. He took his work seriously whether or not it was what he wanted. He could save lives, and help his fellow Texans stand strong against a belligerent enemy. The latest project that had him up late and missing meals was another repurposing project. Isaac had been asked to come up with a way to improve on the designs of some older ‘bots that had been in storage. Many were in significant need of repair. Isaac and his small team were essentially given nothing but scrap from the front lines to work with beyond the antiquated chassis they had been provided.

Standing in silent formation for him in the Hangar was a row of five war’bots in various states of functionality. Essentially they were all prototypes, but he was only adding to each as he was inspired by the spare parts from other war’bot carcasses in heaps along the hangar walls. Many of those ruined ‘bots had been salvaged from battlefields and they emitted a burnt metallic smell that permeated the air in the hangar.

Directly before Isaac was a piecemeal Frankenstein of a war’bot. It had started life as a Carnage chassis. New Texas did not have any of the versatile and maneuverable medium ‘bots itself. This one had been used by The Peoples Republic of Mars forces, and defeated in battle. It had been stripped of its weapons and sent to Isaac for his repurposing project. When he received it, three and a half weeks ago it was barely recognizable. The distinct upper chassis and crew compartment was obliterated. Its armor was split from front to rear and its radioactive fusion reactor was so full of holes that Isaac had immediately called for a hazardous material team to help remove it from the chassis. Isaac was glad for the parts and opportunities it did provide though. If it had been even close to functional it would have certainly been patched together and sent back to the front. With it in as bad shape as it was, at least he was able to use it for parts.

The Carnage’s legs and transmission were all in one piece along with the rest of the lower chassis. The Carnage had a great drive system and Isaac new that he could build something useful around it. His first problem had been a power source. The Carnage was a fast maneuverable and somewhat heavy medium ‘bot. That meant that simply pulling the reactor from one of the Golems or Vityaz at his disposal would not provide the amount of power he needed. He had decided he would have to use an oversized reactor out of one of the few junked heavy war’bots in his hangar.

In the end it was easy to choose the reactor of a Griffin over the other options. The Griffin’s overdrive system that was used to power its jump thrusters could be modified to power the Carnage chassis’ boost system. The reactor and overdrive were big though and that presented Isaac with a new problem. The hardware he was using would easily take up too much space to fit inside any of the ‘bot turrets he had. The Boa came close but he would have had to remove the cockpit, an obvious problem, unless he wanted to make the ‘bot remotely operated. He could do that fairly easily of course, but New Texas, like most armed forces had a strict policy of weapons being directly controlled by a human. Hacking a control system and taking over enemy hardware was too simple and left too great a risk.

Isaac was left with only one option. He would have to build a new turret from scratch. He had started by placing his reactor and overdrive on a skeletal metal frame that extended behind the war’bot, leaving space for a future cockpit in the front. It was an unusual arrangement with the major components arranged more or less in a line from behind the pilot toward the rear of the turret. Most chassis were arranged to have their reactor and other equipment surrounding or next to the pilot, while others placed it below the crew to allow a better vantage point.

Isaac’s staff had performed early tests on it and the power from the Griffin’s reactor had been excessive. It was more than was needed, even after optimizing the Carnages boost system to accelerate more quickly, into what Isaac and his staff had called a dash. That lead to the half finished ‘bot’s name. Dash could have been capable of more, but the Carnage’s drive system was not able to convert any more power into speed. Looking for beneficial uses of the excess power that the reactor produced lead to the idea of adding a shield generator to the ‘bot. The Carnage had one when it was intact but the battle damage it had received had destroyed its reactor. Since the shield generator on a Carnage is built into the reactor for efficiency there was no chance of salvaging this one. The team sent in requests for an Ancile, but the Heavy shield generators were in high demand and short supply so the requests were denied. A lucky break came when more scrapped ‘bots were received at Isaac’s workshop.

Two or three times a week Isaac would get a call that some salvage from the battlefields had been picked through, by the combat company’s repair crews and that there were some chassis in such bad shape that no one wanted them. Isaac would send one of his guys down to the salvage ware house on the giant flatbed crawler they had for moving ‘bots and haul back the lifeless iron carcasses. This trip’s yield was especially ugly. There was some random armor plating, from a Natasha and Leo, one leg from a Griffin and a few other hardware systems that probably didn’t work. Just as beaten as the rest was the turret from a Fujin.

The Fujin was one of the quad legged war ‘bots produced by the TriTek corporation for The Peoples Republic of Mars. The medium ‘bot had a shield generator like the Carnage, but it was separate from the reactor. The reactor and cockpit and even the fire control systems were completely destroyed in the Fujin, but the shield generator was intact. The Fujin was a capable ‘bot, but in Isaac’s opinion had one serious flaw. It’s power reactor was not strong enough to energize its shields and its drive system at the same time. This meant that a Fujin pilot had to divert power from his shields when he wanted to move or stop altogether to power up his ‘bot’s shields. In Isaac’s opinion and experience having to choose one or the other was a bad decision to force on a pilot. With the heavy rated Griffin reactor Isaac and his crew were able to power the Fujin’s shied generator, now installed on Dash, full time.

With enthusiasm restored in the Dash ‘bot, Isaac’s crews worked hard building a frame for the turret out of the plentiful armor scrap around the hangar. Isaac chose to discard the two heavy weapons mounts that had belonged to the Carnage in favor of using the three medium mounts from the Fujin. Heavy weapons were powerful, but the ‘bot that they were assembling would be fast and capable of closing with the enemy. Heavy weapons would be too slow to reload in a close proximity fight. Finally, just two days ago, Isaac’s welders had finished the turret by cutting the crew compartment mounts out of a Rogatka that would never walk again, and implanting them into the armored nose of Dash. Then yesterday the Pilots compartment itself, contained within its ejection capsule had been inserted and wired in.

Isaac stood below Dash at a portable diagnostics terminal. Cables ran across the ground to an open port in the ‘bots armored leg. From the ground Isaac tested Dash’s functions. Bringing systems online and running them at various capacities to make sure there were no shorts or cooling problems. Everything was working fine. Of course it should be. Isaac had run the same tests late last night. This morning, he had notified his boss, Commander Davis, the head of weapons development, that he had a viable prototype ready to demonstrate. Davis, had responded positively, but then wanted to know if it could be ready for a demonstration in twenty four hours.

Isaac had informed him that it needed weapons and further testing. It turned out to be perfect timing for Isaac to get what he wanted. The Chief of defense was scheduled to receive a brief from Davis the following day, and Davis was expected to defend his program, and his job, with results. Isaac was his hope for gaining favor with the military’s top leaders. So when Davis pressed Isaac for a quick unplanned demo he said that he could do it if he could get three Taran plasma cannons by mid day to be installed and tested before the following morning. To his pleasure the three weapons showed up two hours later on a hauler.

He and his crew got to work on them and were busy getting the third Taran installed when Davis had showed up unannounced. His neck was on the line the next day and he wanted to inspect the project that he had ignored up until this point.

A technician called the hangar to attention when he recognized Davis approaching through a side corridor with his small entourage of subordinates. The commander waived a dismissive hand for everyone to just keep working. The hangar had been busy with activity, and now after a brief pause to show respect resumed its noisy business. Davis waived Isaac over and gazed up at the patchwork of armor plating that sat atop the green Carnage legs.

“So this is it?” Davis had asked waiving his hand at the Dash again, seemingly unimpressed and skeptical.

Isaac tried not to laugh. By this time tomorrow Davis would be taking credit for the ‘bot as if he had designed it himself.

“Is it ready?” He looked at Isaac this time, as if to say that he had better make him look good or else.

“She will be sir, after some diagnostics and calibrations. I can run those tonight.”

“Good, make sure it is ready for a live demonstration tomorrow. I’ve reserved range nine for you all day tomorrow. Get it,” he waived his hand unsure what to call it, “there as soon as its ready and let my office know. We will be over with the Chief of Defense.” Davis looked from Isaac to the ‘bot and back, then back again. “Its ugly isn’t it? See if you can get some paint on it at least,” and just like that Davis started back toward the corridor he had entered by. His dutiful entourage started with him.

Paint! Isaac thought. He was worried about paint. The old fart was lucky the Dash existed at all and he was worried about paint. He’d paint it alright.

So, while Isaac worked on the diagnostics he had his crew use painting sprayers to coat the Dash from top to bottom in a bright white paint. He had hoped for a ridiculous yellow or orange, but the best they could do was white. It was sure to grind Davis’s gears when he saw it.

Finally the work was done, and Isaac had set the hangars alarms as he’d left early in the morning. He would get a few hours sleep and then be back to load dash on the hauler to deliver her to range nine. He would pilot her himself, with his crew chief and friend Grant Parker. Grant knew how Dash was cobbled together almost as well as Isaac and if she needed hasty patches or repairs tomorrow, Isaac would want Grant in the cockpit with him.

That same morning, just a few hours later, Isaac returned to the hangar, wiping the sleep from his eyes and tying to remember when the last meal he ate was. He was already in his crew suite and carried his old crew helmet with him. Painted on the side of his helmet was a snarling wolf head. He was fond of that symbol, form his old platoon.

Grant meant Isaac with a plastic tray of something hot that was supposed to be food, but missed the mark.
“I figured you’d probably forgotten to eat.” Grant said as a matter of fact.
Isaac wrinkled his nose at the questionable offering. “Can you blame me?” He asked turning his head away to avoid the smell.

“Hey,” Grant complained, “my sister made that.”

Isaac took the plate, and followed Grant to a bench where there were two mugs of steaming spiced tea waiting for them. “Thanks,” Isaac said sliding onto the bench holding the tray. He gulped down a big bite of a yellowish protein jello and chased it with the drink. No one else was in the hangar yet.

“I think this is going to go well today.” Isaac said, forgetting to eat. “I just wish Davis wouldn’t be there trying to take credit.”

Grant just nodded. It was a known fact that Davis was an opportunist and had climbed to his position by playing politics and using other people’s work.There wasn’t much to be done about it though, until someone important enough saw through the front.

They finished the meal and the tea and started their day. By the time the rest of the hangar’s staff showed up everything was set and Dash was waiting to be loaded. One of the hangar’s giant ceiling mounted cranes was used to lift Dash and center the ‘bot on the hauler’s wide and long bed. The giant tracked crawler moved slowly, but was the only way to transport the war’bot the short distance it needed to travel through the industrial labyrinth that surrounded New Texas.

The Heart of the city had been a colony under the now collapsed Union government, based on Luna, but since its independence New Texas had grown rapidly and with no coordination. The result was rings of tangled industry that surrounded the older planned out and printed districts. It was a short distance to the sprawling city’s outskirts where the range was, but just that short of a trip in a war’bot was bound to cause accidental damage to buildings or other infrastructure.

The route they followed was flat. The colonies planners had selected the bed of a giant and ancient crater for New Texas. Its broad flat floor made for easy construction, and the crater’s mountainous rim protected New Texas from bad dust storms. The cities center rose from the middle of the crater as a cluster of hexagonal towers. The towers were identical at their bases and laid out in a symmetrical pattern. As they grew and dependent upon their purpose the towers changed. Some, especially at the center grew slowly narrower and the very tops of their spires reached elevations higher than the crater’s rims. Others stopped abruptly and a few were topped with giant dish shaped saucers to receive local shuttle traffic. The old towers were home to the wealthiest inhabitants of New Texas. They were connected by tunnel like bridges that crossed the empty space between towers. Inside those towers was a hive of efficiency. Private residences as well as businesses, factory’s and public works had all been planned for by the designers. The growth of New Texas would have continued in an ever expanding pattern of those towers, but the robotic printing machines that built the city were deactivated by the Luna government during a political stand off with the briefly unified and non compliant Martian cities. The local government had failed to stop its citizens from commandeering the equipment that made up the printing system and when a work around was developed by other Martian cities to gain independent control of the printers New Texas had no printers to resume work.
The result was the labyrinth of uncoordinated industrial sprawl that encircled the city.

The Hauler approached the edge of that sprawl now, still a few kilometers away from the mountainous crater rim. A small structure with an attached shuttle pad sat by itself in the empty plain. Davis, would arrive there with his important guest and watch Dash go through the paces in the empty portion of the crater. Burn marks marked patches of packed dirt where heavy lifters landed to collect war’bot units departing for a mission.

This was range nine. From here looking back at the city it was hard to distinguish the individual towers. They looked like a grayish smudge streaking up the far side of the giant crater. There were over twelve million people in New Texas. Most of them had never left the city. Around the crater’s rim, situated on mountain peaks about a kilometer apart were massive control and defense towers. Under Union government control there had only been one. It had served as a traffic control point for the colony as well as assisted in relaying signals from on the ground to the satellites that orbited Mars. In the years since Texan and Martian independence though, it had been modified heavily to serve for defense purposes as well as its initial use.

That first tower was nearest range nine and it sat like a gray sentinel over the city. Its gray obelisk shape had black and white streaks up and down its sides from some aging effect of the atmosphere on the silicrete used in its printing. Dug into the red mountain slope beside it was the mouth to an underground hangar. There, safe from bombardment in the crater’s mountain stood squads of war’ bots ready to respond in the event the city was attacked. There was a fighter squadron stationed in one of the rim hangars as well, but Isaac was unsure which one. The fighters were not the best, but the six of them were the only true combat space craft New Texas had. As such they were moved around secretly to try and avoid an enemy strategically targeting them during an invasion.

The war with their competitors, the Peoples Republic of Mars, was not the first conflict New Texas had been involved with since their independence from Luna. The numerous martian states had struggled to establish a pecking order after their united fleet had succeeded in destroying Luna city. New Texas had not commanded the loyalty of any cruisers during that massive engagement and their lack of apparent standing afterward had not attracted any cruiser captains looking for a port to call home in the aftermath. New Rhineland, one of the largest cities on Mars had over fifty million residents and had sent seven dedicated war cruisers to the battle at Luna. Rhineland and other large city states like it, had quickly bought the loyalty or at least loyal service of any rouge captains looking for a sponsor after the dust settled and it was clear that the Union of Humanity was no more.

Many of those larger states were embroiled in their own conflicts or tense stand offs. That was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it meant that one super power could not demand compliance from the smaller cities like New Texas. At the same time it was a curse, because there was no means by which to trust the other governments. The Peoples Republic of Mars and New Texas were left to their own devices. So the wealthier and larger city of the PRM was able to buy the services of the TriTek corporation in what for TriTek was supposed to be a profitable arrangement. Isaac and his brother Sam, along with many other Texans had done their best to ensure that TriTek lost enough that it would abandon the PRM and change the course of the ongoing conflict.

TriTek, and the PRM had three combat cruisers all together, and the greatest fear of New Texas leadership was that they would be used to try and siege the city itself. The sole cruiser of the PRM other than its collection of transport vessels, was an aged expeditionary cruiser, built originally by the Union Government for the various tasks of surveying and establishing colonies for the many refugees from Earth. That role had evolved into security and law enforcement of the remote Martian colonies as the flow of refugees from Earth had evaporated. The result was a versatile cruiser that could support any mission imaginable. Due to the age and numerous modifications of older vessels like the expeditionary cruisers it was impossible to predict exactly what its capabilities were based on its type alone. Like the PRM, TriTek and New Texas also had numerous transport cruisers at their disposal. In the case of New Texas, some had been improved for combat duty, but they were not formidable enough to be pitted against dedicated combat cruisers. New Texas’ small fleet was put to use protecting the import of ice water from Ceres. The ice routes would be vulnerable to pirates if left undefended but were also too broad of a target for TriTek or the PRM to focus on. The armed Texan transport cruisers were sufficient enough to deter all but the most dedicated pirates and ensured life in New Texas could be sustained.

TriTek’s two cruisers were the game changers for New Texan strategists. Through ingenuity they had stood toe to toe with TriTek’s state of the art ‘bots, but the cruisers had no apparent counter. So the New Texans held their sole fighter squadron in reserve and ringed their crater with sentry towers as well as several anti orbital batteries, that if given the opportunity, could knock a cruiser out of low orbit. The two cruisers in question were another expeditionary cruiser, assumed to be much more updated than that of the PRM and a full battle cruiser. The battle cruiser of the TriTek corporation was aptly named Tsunami. The massive cruiser dwarfed all other vessels produced by the Union Government and was easily the match for several other combat vessels.

Isaac sat in the middle seat of the crawler and stared up at the red brown sky. They were close to the observation and control structure for range nine but there was no sign of Davis’ shuttle approaching the small landing pad. A message had sent to his office before they left in the slow hauler. He should have had plenty of time to be here by now.

Isaac tapped the operator’s arm, “here is good,” he said. He stood up in the cab and pulled his helmet on. He sealed the neck flaps tight and checked his suites air pressure. It was stable. Next to him Grant was donning his own helmet. He gave Isaac a thumbs up after checking that his own suite was sealed properly. Most ‘bots, except for the oldest, had life support systems on board. Dash had one as well, but the problem was being able to get in and out of the ‘bot as needed. Unless in a hangar the pilot would at some point need to leave the ‘bot and without a pressurized suite equipped with a rebreather he couldn’t do that.

“Head back to the hangar when we get here off,” Isaac directed the Crawler’s operator who nodded his understanding. The helmet muffled his voice slightly, but not enough to prevent the man from hearing. “Stay ready to come pick us up though.” The man nodded again. There was no telling how short or long this demonstration could be.

With that Isaac flipped up the foldable center seat he had been sitting on. The cabin was spacious and included a cramped but adequate living space in the back portion of the cab. Similar haulers were commonly used to make long treks to one of many mines or refineries and the operators in them might spend a week or even longer making the haul. That required considerable accommodations. Below the seat was the Haulers only entrance, a one man’s air lock that lead to a ladder that protruded a short way below the vehicles frame. It was a short jump down to the red dirt.

Isaac walked a few meters away from the giant tracked vehicle. This one had seen better days. It was dented, rusted and generally just worn out. Its tracks were cobbled together to the point where it was hard to find two that wheel made of the same color steel, indications production at the same time. Many of the track treads had different patterns. It was the state of things everywhere on Mars. Life itself, seemed to be cobble together, but some how it persisted.

Grant followed Isaac around the tired dusty tracks and to another ladder attached between two of the first track banks guide wheels. It was three meters to the top of the track, and then a less than elegant scramble to stand on the track and throw himself up onto the cargo bed. Isaac sat and extended a hand down to Grant, saving him the hassle and risk of rolling off the edge of the vehicle. He pulled his friend and crew chief up beside him. Grant landed stomach first on the cargo deck and rolled over sighing. He sat up, brushing the red dust off of himself.

For a moment they just sat there. Feet dangling four meters off the martian ground. There was still no sign of Davis. Dust hung in the air, and a small whirlwind whipped it into a spiral across range nine. “I hope they do build a dome over this place,” Isaac said, waiving at the dreary scene spread across the giant crater.

“I don’t think that will happen, at least not as long as we are tied up fighting Jins,” Grant stood up and brushed himself off, then offered his dusty gloved hand to Isaac. Jins were slang for the unique four legged War’bots built by the TriTek corporation. Grant pulled Isaac to stand up and patted his shoulder.. “Look at what we have to do for war’bots.” He waived the same hand at the cobbled together Dash, who stood, tethered at its enormous feet, waiting to be freed. The bright white paint Isaac had ordered the ‘bot primed with was already covered in dust. The paint probably wasn’t fully cured, and the extent of his insolence would never be realized. Instead of white Dash was only a shade lighter than the reddish brown dust that swirled around them. She looked perfectly camouflaged.

Isaac sighed and walked toward the giant. ‘’You get the left side,” he said starting toward the right foot and ignoring Grant’s practical observation. Massive retractable cables anchored the ‘bots seven ton feet to the flat bed of the hauler. A small console protruding off the side of the crawler’s flat bed allowed the cables to be easily manipulated.

The dome Isaac had wished for was the dream of a minority group of visionaries in New Texas. Many deemed it impractical and pointless, but stopped short of saying it wasn’t possible. The practice of doming over, or containing geographic features to create livable atmospheres was not new on Mars. Many small craters and narrow canyons had been successfully contained and turned into green oasis for over a decade. Many of them had Quickly become the focal point of Martians who longed to live near something green, and the domes, as they were called often became focal points of new colonial cities. Isaac thought that not only could New Texas create a massive dome and self contained environment for itself, but that doing so would ensure their survival and propel them to a place of natural leadership amongst even the greatest Martian cities. Of course Grant was right. None of that mattered when the city had to piecemeal ‘bots together just to keep from losing a war. Instead of Dash perhaps they should have named the ‘bot spare parts, Isaac thought to himself, rather sourly, because that is what she was.

The wind swirled around Isaac and Grant as they secured the last of the cables. Outside of the crater the Horizon was more brown than usual, indicating a storm. That was of no concern though, there was only likely to be a slight increase in winds within the shelter of the Texan’s crater. Not enough to keep them from climbing the long series of narrow ladders up the leg and chassis of Dash. Isaac had nearly overlooked the necessity of ladders. As focused as he was at ensuring the bizarre combination of mechanical systems aligned and functioned as required he had overlooked that almost none of the salvaged parts had contained any access ladders and the parts that did have them, failed to align or come even close to the ground. Grant had pointed that out a week ago, and ensured that a consecutive column of steel rungs were welded up one leg and the chassis to the Rogatka’s cannibalized and now unrecognizable cockpit.

The Rogatka Cockpit was an old design and did not include an air lock like the hauler that had brought them out here. Once inside, Dash had to completely power up and begin generating atmosphere, venting the dusty martian air, before the two friends could take the breather mandibles out from their helmets. Isaac slid his visor back as well. Newer model ‘bots utilized an in helmet display, but the first generation Rogatka still used a screen projected heads up display, or HUD. The back of their helmets made contact with each of their seats data transfer pads and established a link for communications and voice command.

After a few minutes for the reactor to come safely online Dash was alive and her cockpit lit up with a soothing sea of blinking lights. A thorough run through of all systems showed everything as it should be. Isaac breathed a sigh of release. So far so good. He’d seen some random behavior form Frankenstein projects like this though, and he didn’t stop watching for an unexpected problem.

“You good?” He asked Grant through the intercom. The steady dull hum of the Griffin’s reactor was not loud enough to have drowned out his voice but the Rogatka’s cockpit was configured for a copilot to sit behind the pilot and so not able to see Grant’s face it was easier to just use the intercom linked through their helmets.

“I am green.” Grant affirmed.

“Alright, I have control,” and with that Isaac swung the turret around ninety degrees and simultaneously stepped to one side with the legs, clearing the side of the crawler’s bed and turning to face the lonely observation building of range nine. There was still no shuttle on the pad.

Dash’s suspension adjusted automatically for the relatively short drop to the crater floor. Behind them the giant crawler groaned painfully and swayed left and right under the massive weight shift. Isaac keyed his radio up on his hangar crews designated short rang network. “Crawler we are clear.”

“Roger, departing.” Was the operators simple reply as the crawler slowly started a broad turn that would allow it to creep back toward the city. Its massive treads flattened rocks and churned up red dry dirt as it turned leaving a clear trail that would be hidden by wind and dust in only a few days.

Isaac activated the targeting display, wondering if he could spot Davis’ shuttle. Turning toward the city a cluster of tiny yellow dots came into view on the cockpit’s HUD. Each of those triangles was a reactor signal, but they should all be displaying blue. He checked Dash’s network status. He should have been tied into the cities system for identification. He had set it up two days ago, received authorization and a network ID for the new ‘bot and tested it twice, but now there was no connection.

“Seems like we lost our network link, see if you can get it back up.” Grant was already working on it before Isaac finished speaking.

“We shouldn’t have lost it,” Grant thought out loud, “it might be a bad auxiliary battery.”
That made sense Isaac thought. Without a powered auxiliary battery a ‘bot would lose all of its saved data and other preset configurations a crew had established. They had tested the battery of course, but it was possible it passed the test while not actually holding a charge. The ‘bot had been attached to the hangars powers supply when the tests were run and that may have tricked the test.

“I’m reconnecting now,” Grant reassured, “It won’t be a problem now that we are under reactor power, but once we shut down we will lose connection again I think.” It was aggravation but trivial. If that was the worst that went wrong it would still be a good run.

Yellow triangles, indicating unknown vehicles, started turning blue as the network link enabled Dash’s targeting system to identify friendly vehicles in the distance as they swarmed across the city. Names, or at least identification numbers were displayed next to each triangle as they turned blue. Larger triangles indicated closer objects, but nothing stood out as being in their general vicinity. Where was Davis?

Isaac moved his hand slowly on the Dash’s leg controls as he started them toward the landing platform and observation tower. He keyed his mic, “Alpha control this is Dash, over.” Alpha was the designation of Isaacs hangar and team of mechanics and tinkerers. He hoped someone would hear his transmission and that the whole crew weren’t goofing off while the boss was gone. They had no particular reason to monitor radio traffic, but it should have been secondary for most of them, having had radio awareness drilled into their heads through various roles in the military. There was no answer. “Any unit on this net, this is Alpha Actual, over.” Isaac pronounced his formal call sign slow and deliberately. As the Alpha project’s direct supervisor his call sign was alpha actual but he had the habit of using the name of whichever prototype he was testing when in the cockpit. Hopefully hearing his formal call sign would get someone’s attention.

A few moments passed and Isaac sighed, annoyed. He was about to repeat his message, when the radio keyed up from another source. “Alpha Actual, this is Alpha Base, go ahead.” Isaac thought he heard someone laughing in the background, but he ignored it. He had someone’s attention now and that was all that really mattered.

“Alpha, this is Dash,” Isaac paused to form his next statement before continuing. “Have you received and communications from Commander Davis since I departed.”

“Roger, Dash,” the voice replied, Isaac thought it was Grant’s younger brother, Shawn, but there was enough distortion to be uncertain. “His staff asked if you had left for range nine, over.”

“What time was that?, over,” Isaac wasn’t surprised that Davis had double checked to make sure he was in place. God forbid Davis have to wait on anybody.

“Ahh, approximately fifteen minutes ago.” That was definitely Shawn, Isaac thought.

“Roger. Dash out.” Isaac wondered how long it would take Davis to actually arrive. That was of course assuming that he was still showing up. It would probably be about a half hour shuttle flight from his headquarters, so if they left right after the inquiry than they could be hear in as little as fifteen minutes.

Of course it could be longer. It was almost midday and if Davis decided on a meal for his VIPs before coming to the range then Isaac and Grant could be out here all day long.

Isaac brought Dash up next to the observation tower. It was just a little taller than the war’bot. He let go of the controls and Dash stopped. He leaned back in his seat and watched the darkening stormy skyline beyond the crater’s rim.

“Might as well take a nap,” Isaac sighed into the intercom.

Grant laughed, “you don’t have to tell me twice!”

It had been an early morning, and when there was no work to do, then a nap was a good use of time. Isaac and his crew worked six or seven days a week and their hours were as needed, which met they were basically working on one project or another as long as they were awake. When the war was over, he would take a long vacation, he promised himself, and closed his eyes. He wouldn’t sleep, he’d let Grant do that, but he could at least rest his eyelids a moment.

……………

“Inbound!” Grant exclaimed across the intercom.

Isaac snapped his eyes open and head back. Had he fallen asleep?

The sky was darker now, as Isaac scanned the HUD for the commander’s shuttle.

“It looks likes they are circling around,” Grant explained when Isaac couldn’t see them.

A blue triangle larger than the others on the HUD and at the edge of Dash’s view screen, indicated the close proximity of a vessel, registered on the city’s database approaching from their right and decreasing its elevation. Moments later Commander Davis’s red and gray shuttle came into view as it slowed and settled on the observation building’s landing pad. The shuttle was a broad crescent shape with maneuvering thrusters at the crescent’s tips. A thick thruster bank at its rear plainly displayed its ability to move fast and a pair of ball turrets with their twin mounted auto-cannons sat on opposite sides of its cockpit, which protruded forward from the center of the crescent’s concave shape. The shuttle was smaller than the drop ships used to transport war’bots. Its purpose was primarily for carrying passengers, although it had room for limited cargo, but not even anything as small as a light war’bot.

After slowly descending the Shuttle settled into place on the pad. Its landing and maneuvering thrusters kicked up a cloud of reddish brown dust as its pilot carefully eased the vessel down and then throttled back on the thrusters allowing the dust to dissipate. A few moments later the observation towers retractable docking tube began to slowly move out to attach to the shuttles circular side door. With no personnel stationed at the lonely outpost the shuttle’s crew had to remotely attach it. In a few minutes those on board would be able to safely walk to the tower and take an elevator up to its broad glass windowed observation deck.

Grant sighed into the intercom. Isaac knew how his friend felt. They were exhausted and Davis was a pain to deal with on a good day.
“I know buddy.” He rubbed his eyes. He must have fallen asleep after all. “Hopefully they won’t want to receive a full brief after.”

“Right,” Grant agreed, but they both knew that Dash was a formidable ‘bot and that Davis would be too eager to show his superiors more if they were interested.

As Isaac and Grant watched, something strange happened. The docking tube, half way extended stopped. Then it began to retract, but only for a moment before stopping abruptly again. Suddenly, the shuttle’s stabilizing thrusters fired, lifting it less than a meter off of the landing pad and stirring up another dust cloud. Before it had gained much altitude the shuttle’s nose tipped up into the darkening red sky and its pilot fired its primary thrusters launching the shuttle up and forward and kicking an even bigger plume of red dust back at Grant and Isaac who sat, confused in Dash’s cockpit.

Isaac was about to key his intercom and ask Grant what just happened. He stopped, and just stared in disbelief instead, as bright red beams of laser weapon’s fire stretched across out from the horizon and burned into the thrusters of the fleeing shuttle. It seemed like eternity before he looked away, but finally Isaac realized they were under attack. Looking at the HUD he didn’t see any red triangles, which would have indicated a threat. A few unidentified yellow markers were in the mix of the usual blue traffic but that was to be expected. When a vehicle fell out of sync with the identification network or was not current for some reason it would show up as yellow. There were always a few vehicles tagged in yellow in New Texas’s busy traffic patterns.

Commander Davis’s shuttle attempted to maneuver, but it was still accelerating and not moving fast enough to avoid the successive laser shots. Isaac swung Dash’s chassis around towards the source of laser fire. Whatever it was, it was still out of sight, apparently in the air beyond the crater’s ridge. Grant was bringing the Dash’s weapons up to a full charge. The three powerful Taran plasma cannons were a rare commodity. Salvaged off of TriTek war’bots the Texans had defeated, the state of the art weapons were a great addition to the arsenal of any Texan war’bot company.

Both Isaac and Grant were glad to have the Tarans now as they wondered what was happening. Finally a pair of yellow triangles appeared on the HUD over the canyon rim. More laser fire deliberately ate away at the shuttles frame, thrusters and armor. Isaac doubted the commander’s crew had even bothered to prepare their weapons. They would have thought that transporting some officers to a simple ‘bot demonstration would be safe. New Texas was relatively far from where the fighting had been worst and had never been directly attacked during the conflict with the PRM and TriTek.

All that had changed now, as something ruptured in the side of the Cresent shaped shuttle. Grant painted the two unidentified contacts on the HUD red, instantly alerting anyone else using the network that two hostile vehicles were closing with the city. The objects were closing fast.”

“Fighters,” Isaac exclaimed, as the now red bracketed targets sped into visual range. The long slender bodies with four symmetrically placed foils were called Darts. The pair of Dart fighters stayed close as they sped a few hundred meters above the crater floor burning a final round of laser fire into the shuttle as its maneuvering thrusters failed and it spun out of control, arcing toward the ground.

The doomed shuttle left a black arc of smoke in its wake, before impacting anticlimactically into the flat dusty ground of range nine. There was no fire or explosion, but the impact sent dust and gravel spraying out in a fan pattern followed by small pieces of the shuttle’s devastated hull. There was no way to know if anyone had survived the crash. It was possible, if their life support systems were intact and if they weren’t killed by the impact, but not very likely.

Pushing shock and disbelief from his mind, Isaac looked up as the two Dart’s tore through the sky, slicing through the dead shuttles trail of smoke and turned, apparently circling the landing platform. They were about eight hundred meters away and making a circle with Dash and the platform at its center. The Taran’s for all of their good qualities were a short range weapon and unless those fighters decided to come in dangerously close to them Isaac and Grant had no way of fighting back against them.

So Isaac did the only thing he could think to. Pulling back on Dash’s control sticks he pivoted the big war’bot on its right foot and backed up against the observation tower. He pulled back until he felt the ‘bots chassis bump into the tower and then reached up and flipped the emergency shut down switch’s cover to open and immediately pulled the switch to the kill position, shutting down Dash’s reactor.

Isaac and Grant rocked forward and back again in their seats in the suddenly darkened and swaying cockpit. After a moment Isaac reached up, and flipped another switch, activating Dash’s emergency power system. Running off of emergency batteries meant that they weren’t able to move Dash or fire weapons, but it also meant that in a few moments, once the ‘bot’s reactor had cooled sufficiently, they would be invisible to their attacker’s targeting systems. It was possible that they could still be spotted with natural vision but that was unlikely given the enemy Darts’ elevation and speed. Even if they were seen, targeting the powered down Dash would be difficult for the pilots to do manually. With any luck though, the enemy pilots would assume that any signal they had briefly seen on their HUDs was just a reading from the outpost at range nine.

Grant and Isaac watched as Dash’s HUD fired back up populating their view screen with yellow arrows.

It was Isaac’s turn to sigh. He had forgotten about the bad auxiliary battery causing the network sync to be lost. “Can you fix that again?” He asked Grant through the intercom.

“On it,” grant replied. “I guess it’s better to have to do this than have the emergency battery out.”

Grant was right. It would only take a few minutes to update and synchronize Dash’s identification and targeting system again. If the emergency battery had been bad instead of the auxiliary one, then they would not have had any systems available until they restarted the easily spotted reactor.

Isaac watched the view screen as he waited. The two enemy fighters passed directly in front of them as they completed their circular maneuver around the outpost. Beyond them Isaac could see the city of New Texas and barely make out the far edge of the city’s crater. He wondered what was going on, and tried the radio. The only station programmed into Dash was their own workshops network though, and no one answered.

“This must be a large scale attack,” Isaac thought out loud.

Grant didn’t respond while he continued to work.

“There is no way PRM or TriTek would send a pair of fighters this deep into our territory by themselves. Something bigger has to be going on.” Isaac tried the radio again, but there was still no answer. He wanted to be angry with his crew back in the city, but was also worried for their safety.

“They’re probably desperate to try and finish this fight.” Grant added as he finished re-establishing Dash’s data link with the city’s network.

Grant was probably right. Since the New Texans had managed to turn the tide of war from certain defeat to a drawn out and expensive stalemate both The People’s Republic of Mars and their corporate allies had shown signs of frustration.

For the PRM their conflict was about resources and planetary standing. They had thought to overwhelm and absorb their smaller neighbor, firmly establishing themselves as one of the dominant world powers on Mars. Instead they had become mired in a protracted conflict with an obviously weaker enemy and were losing influence and credibility each day the conflict remained unresolved.

For the TriTek corporation the conflict was only a matter of profit. The PRM had assured TriTek, one of Mars’ major technology developers and manufacturers that, with their material support, New Texas could be quickly brushed aside. In return for their help TriTek was promised Sole access to PRM mined metals at low prices. TriTek had now invested three times the initial amount of money PRM had told them would be necessary and also had a rising death toll.

Unknown to Isaac and Grant, TriTek had given PRM an ultimatum to end the war succesfully, or they would withdraw their support, cut their losses and allow the PRM to possibly lose in a fight that they had felt could be easily one. Without TriTek’s support of Fujin and Raijin combat companies and the integration of TriTek plasma weapons on the older and more common PRM war’bot forces New Texas would easily leverage its new found momentum to achieve victory against its larger and wealthier neighbor. So in a bold, some would say desperate, move to achieve complete victory the PRM military leaders organized a large scale invasion of the city of New Texas.

Isaac thought about their situation and tried to predict what he should expect. More fighters appeared in formation across the crater that harbored New Texas. They were barely visible and he gave up trying to identify them without the assistance of the HUD which was just starting to update again.

As the first ID indicators synced with the cities identification tracker, a giant bolt of yellow plasma lanced upward from a defense battery imbedded in the canyon’s rim. The dazzling bright light seared a pattern into Isaac’s. He raised a hand reflexively but to late, as a follow on barrage plasma fire flashed across the rust colored Martian sky at targets so far above that even Dash’s targeting system did not register any signals.

Isaac blinked as his eyes recovered. The HUD was updated again, and he tried to gain some insight about what was happening by studying the chaotic traffic displayed over his view screen. A formation of blue dots raced across the canyon’s far edge towards explosions that seemed haphazardly scattered around one of the batteries that had just fired up into the void above.

Grant pointed out what was happening at the same time Isaac recognized what was taking place. “They are trying to clear out enough defense batteries to insert ground forces.”

New Texas’ orbital defense batteries were powerful cannons, that would deter prudent cruiser captains and slower ships like shuttles, barges and even the slightly more agile drop ships used to insert War’bot platoons. Fighters were not significantly vulnerable to the batteries though, and if uninterrupted would be able to at least disable them so that other ships could insert ground forces.

“That volley must have been at a cruiser.” Isaac thought out loud, “They were drawing fire so their squadrons could locate the batteries before committing drop ships.” It made sense, a sturdy cruiser could take a lot of punishment, certainly more than a single volley from the Texan’s Cannons. It was most likely moving to a safe distance now that its fighters would be able to pinpoint locations.

Isaac and Grant watched as the city’s only squadron overtook a pair of unsuspecting enemy darts and snuffed them out. Their two small red triangles suddenly disappeared from the HUD. Other isolated pairs of red highlighted fighters scattered away from the hunting pack along the far edge of the crater’s ridge. The success of the Texan fighters was short lived. In just moments, triangular red indicators on the Dash’s HUD relayed the enemy fighter’s reorganizing and reserve squadrons seemed to join the fray, descending from above. Isaac considered what he and Grant should do, while watching, helpless, as the Texan fighters disappeared, from the view screen display, one after another.

Isaac’s heart sank. Drop ships would arrive as soon as the enemy fighters stopped the New Texas’ orbital defense cannons. He knew that the wide opened space of the range they were stranded in the middle of would certainly be an insertion point of the city’s attackers. New Texas would have to make its stand on the ground, and Isaac and Grant were stuck in the middle of the killing grounds.

“Think we can make it back to the city before they land?” Isaac asked Grant, hoping that his friend would see a possibility where he didn’t. In the city, they would be able to coordinate with friendly forces and use the urban terrain to their advantage.

“Not a chance”, Grant grimly replied, “Even if they didn’t pick us off from above, our people won’t recognize this rig, and are just as likely to zap us as the, damn Reds.”

Isaac made two fists and pressed them together in front of his chest, thinking. He squeezed his eyes shut, focusing, trying to look for a solution, but there wasn’t one. They’d have to stay, that’s all there was to it. Once the enemy had started to insert they could at least respond to their location, and with any luck, hide long enough to fight their way to maneuvering friendly platoon.

“At least with them on the ground we can be in the fight,” Isaac didn’t need to tell Grant how one sided a fight that would likely be.

Along the ridge smoke started to rise from the sites of the defense cannons. Two, where the fighters had been wiped out, were already omitting thick columns of black smoke, that rose up to trail off into the Martian wind. A sudden flash of light from behind them, past the ranges observation building preceded a loud explosion. The two friends wouldn’t have to wait long.

Suddenly a radio keyed up on their network. “Grant, Isaac, do you hear me?” It was Adeline, Grant’s twin sister.

Isaac scrambled to key his mic before Grant responded. “We copy, what’s your status?”

Grant translated to plain English for his sister, “We’re okay, what is going on in the city?”

“They’ve activated the siege shield and..” the transmission cut out as she released the mic’s button, “… all personnel to the nearest perimeter stations. Where are you?”

“Range nine,” Isaac said flatly, “we need you to let someone know that we are out here.”

“Someone who can do something useful,” Grant added.

“’Oh, okay…” her concern was obvious, “I’ll call Sean, and Sam.”

Grant and Isaac’s younger brothers. Both were skilled ‘bot pilots, and absolute fearless. Their adventures in Gordon’s canyon over the preceding months had turned a losing fight into one that there was at least hope for.

“Then, get somewhere safe!” Grant exclaimed.

There was no response though, she had already gone. The HUD displayed new red triangles overhead. Smoke from the ruined cannons wreathed the crater’s rim like one of the mythical volcanoes of Earth. They were coming.

Categories: The Iron Library