Draygon hated drone fighting. The Moon, Mars, Neptune, it was always the same despite climatic differences: the drones always got so covered in dust he couldn’t get a visual on which drone belonged to his side or his opponent.
A rocket shot by noiselessly in the thin atmosphere. He looked behind to see a bunker explode in a muted burst of steel and wiring. The lack of oxygen meant there was no flame, just the dumb toss of fragments of building and shattered mesh across the dirt plain until the slim gravitational pull finally let them fall. At least in space no one hears your comrades scream.
He hated flying blind too. He was using the e-Drive to overcome the visual limits, but it was too easy for hackers to control enemy drones, or disguise themselves as one of yours, to devastating effect. Conflict was always the same whatever the age: you had to out-tech and outwit your opponent at every turn.
He checked his oxygen levels: an hour to go.
A squad of landers were dropping about him. He hit the floor of his hollow when one was knocked out of the sky, spraying supplies and munitions in dangerous cartwheels overhead. The rest waddled away on their gigantic mechanical legs towards the mine. He shook his head. The fuckers, we’re in the middle of a raid and they just get on with the lithium mine. Like HomeCorp gives a shit. Another one bounced into the atmosphere as it was swiped by a shell. He watched it tumble like a stuck beast, its load spinning from within its mechanical belly like endless scarves from a magician’s hat.
He turned on to his back and stared at his screen. He sent a 10 pod of D-64’s higher to get a drone’s eye view of where the flak was coming from. Through the clouds of dust he could make out a group of bunkers behind a low hill. Five infrared figures ran from one block to another.
He knew them, the fuckers. Ted, Sally, Iain, and probably Genesis and Lython. They’d drunk together in the Far Bar at the shores of Mare Laetitiae. The Sea of Mirth. Irony. When you’re mining at the frontier you take what company you can get, but none of it’s trustworthy. That’s always the same too: in the lands where the law is as weak as warfare your friends will kiss you as soon as kill you.
Draygon smirked at the memory: Genesis had tasted good that night in the basement amongst the stills. She was rough, willing, and had laughed a lot. But her barcode hid a different logo from his, so now she was an aggressor, and a target. Fuck it, the heart plays second fiddle to too much. He’d never settle down, he knew that, but there was always the lure of the little death, the want for coitus and not capture.
Another rocket slipped past and a flurry of dust and lander bits rose to the dark heavens. More landers dropped noiselessly through it like stones sinking into a mirky underworld. He felt the vibrations when they hit the ground and steered themselves through the dust towards the mine, but they were noiseless in their progress.
He contemplated the best way to reach his attackers. He knew he had Danny on his left flank, Ruby, Mudlark and Ajani on his right. Forty-five drones at their command – a mix of the D-64’s (his favourite), the E-35’s (clunky and obtuse but good in ultra-thin air) and A-4’s (leftover hardware only good for diversionary fodder), a bevy of rocket launchers and rock cutters. When you’re up in space these latter were always fun – twirling about at a coupla thousand clicks a second you can shred a whole station with a hand full of rocks. But on the ground they were the brother of useless.
From what he could tell his assailants had better firepower, but he didn’t know how much. Rockets for example, he’d love a pack of those in his pocket. He wondered where they had got them from. Probably the Fanguard mob at the other side of the moon, they arrived with a lot of fanfare. Come to think of it, Genesis and her boys had said they’d been out that way. He wondered how many Fanguard guys were left: they were newcomers in a pioneer world. He didn’t think he’d waste the oxygen finding out. Still, it’d be a nice stash when he won the fight, assuming they didn’t expend their prize in this little spat.
It meant though was that stealth and guts were key to this one. He’d have to get close enough to do some real damage, unless his drones could do the work. An alarm pinged on his CommWatch, and he saw an Escal Sharphead aimed at his pod above the enemy. He split them, and the missile shot through the space. But he knew it’d turn and chase. He spread his squad in random paths, low, high, in four directions.
The rocket turned. He taunted it with a decoy drone, lined up a platoon and sent it spinning after the offending beast. The game was on. He’d prefer not to sacrifice a drone if possible but he left it open to attack, not too open, enough to taunt the Escal’s bot detectors and ignore commands from below. It plummeted, the drones spat fire and struck. The rocket burst and spun, scattering shrapnel pieces of itself in all directions. Draygon dug himself close to his dirt hole and waited for the rain of steel to stop.
That’ll give Genesis an afterglow.
He logged on to his team, saw his three colleagues on his screen. Signal: What were the plans? A rocket burst to his right and the three figures disappeared. Shit! He’d been hacked. He lunged to his left, floating in the thin atmosphere just as a repeat shot bit into his dugout. The blast force, such as it was in their thin world, pushed him further along, and he watched Danny pass below him as he sailed across the brown sands of his moon mine. He landed in a field of bloated landers who stood like sleeping sentinels in the dirt, devoid of feeling. They were chock full of refined ore, waiting for the next scheduled lift. Once the new arrivals had done their work and been filled they’d join this silent army.
They would provide cover anyway. He wondered if his attackers knew they’d missed him. He couldn’t count on it. He felt shitty about disclosing his mates’ location, but this was warfare. Friendships are short. The moon is old.
But it left just two of them – he and Danny – against six. Not odds he liked.
He looked at the logo on the somnolent lander: Hambarton. That’s how you get rich: you supply the same shit to both sides. His landers were the same as theirs: competition wasn’t rife in space mining supplies – it wasn’t a business that you got into quickly. Fuck it, when his barcode time was done he’d sign up with them, and make a middle man’s money.
More rockets flared. Idiots, they were wasting their spoils. Still, it suggested they hadn’t seen his escape. It gave him an advantage.
He wondered how Danny was going. He couldn’t contact him now. He was alone. More landers fell. He looked up but couldn’t see their delivery craft. They never bloody stopped these guys. Just for the fuckers on earth, the paradise of the elite. He’d never been to earth; he was fifth gen spacesider, spent most of his life in the mines, or in circular tessellated buildings with racks of edible greenery and machines that pumped out proteins. He’d heard there was flowing water there. Like you could just stick your face in and drink. That’d be a thing. No wonder they had no idea what was happening here: heads full of water.
He knew why he was under attack: simple buccaneering. Genesis was a tantalum miner. It meant her team had received orders for lithium. Take it, they’d been told, fight for it maybe, but get us lithium too. It was always the same on the fringes. You just take, there’s no room for chat beforehand. The costs were too high otherwise. Maybe somewhere along the chain of command – probably midway up – there was some lop eared bureaucrat who thought they’d negotiate access across a pot of tea on a sunny afternoon, oblivious to the grubby truth that quotas are a life and death contest. It was money through and through. Monopoly by conquest, with rewards of some grand – but ultimately mediocre – import for the victors. So Draygon had to fight for his life.
Such as it was.
He looked at his e-Drive; it was encrypted well enough. He knew what was next. The drone fight. They work hard, these little buggers, trawling the atmosphere with their featherweight blades, lugging a limited amount of hardware. Five had been spent on the Escal, but he had the leftover drones that had been controlled by his dead comrades. He looked over towards his attackers. A pod was rising. They had more than he, but he would outskill them. He pressed auto. He had programmed them well.
His team sprang to life, some went low, others high, some slunk along the side of the ridge. He snaked a line of them between the dark flanks of the landers as they mutely trampled the dirt towards the mine.
His opponents spread; they were searching. Bad move. He sooled a platoon on to them, spitting fire as they lunged from the sky. Itty bits of drone shattered into the dust, bounced off landers and scudded into the dirt. He lost two, three, but took twice that with them. A fourth lost, three of the attackers with it. But they were still coming. How many did they have in store? His squad from the landers sprang out to meet them, dodging like insects in the grit. More went down. It was a war of attrition.
He kept it on, while he devised a route towards their camp, using the waste landers as camouflage. He snorted. Waste landers. Bitterly apt.
He knew this would come down to hand to hand. His drones were good in his programming skills, and they kept up their constant attacking charges to outsmart the squadrons looming from the enemy camp. He left them to their devices and snuck along a line of grey lander flanks, keeping in the shadows, bounding from leg to leg of the dumb machines. At the end, he was removed from the melee, but had the advantage of coming from left of field.
In only a few strides he was among larger rocks at the rim of a small rise behind the enemy camp. It was not hard to reach the ridge above it all and get a view of the scene.
He paused to check his oxygen levels: half an hour to go. That had passed quickly.
He watched the drones fighting. He watched the landers thump on to the ground and wend their mechanical ways to different mines. He watched as rockets took aim at drones. Closer to him he saw the sheds and rounded buildings of their mine. He saw his assailants, the six of them spread across the space about their HQ. Lights shone from the building. But six outside meant inside was empty. It didn’t take too many to run a mine. Most of it was remote. The few people on site were there just to keep watch and remedy the occasional hiccup.
He began to plan his attack. This close he knew it would be risky to contact his drones with his e-Drive as it was too open to hacking. But he had to chance it: the hackers were amongst the six. He guessed Lython was probably the best; she had talked a lot of jargon over cocktails at Far Bar.
He summoned three drones who dove to her location, and watched impassively as they showered her with shrapnel. He didn’t hear her scream of course.
It put a dust storm in the kitchen though. The other five leapt to safety as more drones tore after them. Their own pieces were slow to retaliate: Iain went down, then Mudlark, who fell in a fit of apparent fury, firing his hand guns feebly in the air. Their drones chased Draygon’s, a number fell, either spent of ammunition or taken by their opponents.
That left Ted, Sally and Genesis. He peered through the dust.
To his surprise a grubby little bulk appeared in the periphery of the battlefield. It was Danny, bounding in long strides firing maniacally into the void. Draygon never really understood Danny. He was impetuous, even after all his time on the mine. He said it kept him young, as he picked at his grubby fingernails. He was big but agile, quick to anger, but quick to act as well.
It drew out Ted and Sally. They had reacted stupidly. One at least would get it, if not both. In fact all three did. It was classic gunfire, a volley of shots, a trio of bodies bulked in their outer suits twisting and flailing as the shots cleaved them apart, or, in Ted’s case, shattered his helmet and quickly starved him of breath. Draygon watched him convulse and stop.
He snapped his e-Drive shut and scoured the scene below him for Genesis. His line of sight was obscured by lumbering landers as they marched towards the mine. Dim lights split awkwardly amongst the moving forms: they created more shadow than light. She could be anywhere. But where?
There was a tap on his helmet.
He spun around and faced her, her gun pointed at his chest.
He could see her dark hair pinned to the back of her suit, the dark lines of her eyebrows, the raw stare in her eyes.
She was mouthing something. He couldn’t hear. Didn’t want to anyway: her intent was clear.
He swept her gun hand aside and leapt down the incline. The low gravity pulled him a long way down and he landed amidst the maul of landers marching through the encampment. He dodged a massive leg as it swung past him, then another. He needed to keep a visual on them, as there was no sound. But he needed a visual on Genesis too. He was conscious of a bullet hitting the steel belly of one of the landers; it kicked up the dust when it ricocheted off the metal hide.
He hopped between the machines, careful not to take too big a step lest he overreach and get crushed. He searched for Genesis amid the pillars of mechanical limbs and clouds of dust they raised. He thought he saw here, ducking among the landers. There was no sot though; she had to cope watch the lander legs too. He darted beneath a lander, keeping pace with its step, his gun at the ready. This was both safe and dangerous. Safe for its cover, dangerous for its blind momentum.
He peered out from beneath the lander, turning as he did, hopping from one foot to the other. There was still no sign of her. The dust enveloped his sight line. He knew he had to make a move, to see her and draw her into the fray. He drew level with the HQ, maybe he could find solace there.
He skipped out, a long floating step forward out of the main path of the landers. There were a few outsiders, but he would be out of the throng.
He saw her. Her back was to him. She was searching among the landers. He sprung over to her and knocked her to the ground, and her gun spun out of reach. She rolled and leapt up, flying above the line of landers. He followed her. He had a gun, she did not. As he rose he saw her descend. She leapt again, trying to flee his pursuit, but he stayed with her, and angled his rise to meet her as she fell. He flung a fist into her side as she did, and she bounced off the side of a lander and crashed to the dirt.
He had her now.
He landed, and pointed the gun at her.
“Why?” he shouted. “Why, bitch?” He didn’t expect her to hear him. He wanted her to see the anger in his features. She lay on the ground propped up on her elbows and stared at him. He held the gun steady. Landers pounded by, and the dust circulated around them.
Her hair had loosened in the fall; it covered half her face. Her eyes were hungry. He had seen that the other night, feeding a driving lust. She had ridden him, purged herself on him; he had repaid the courtesy.
She spread her legs. He saw her sneer at him. It was a mockery of Far Bar.
It was always the same: you get close with a bird and she’ll screw you the next chance she gets. Bitch. Bitch of a place. Bitch of a life. Bitch of a desolate lander ridden stinking dust bowl of an existence. Once he shot her, he’d be the only one in two mines, for miles around. There was Fanguard, but they were far side of the moon. And besides, who knows what was left of them given Genesis and her mates had filched all their weapons. Fuck it. Space is a lonely place.
She wouldn’t talk though. There was too much in it for her. She had her orders. This was a take over. She’d be richly rewarded for carrying off the mines. With a better choice of bloke to ride afterwards. Better than him. Better than his worn out wrinkled time scarred offering.
He signalled for her to get up. Who knows, maybe something would happen.
She hurled a leg at him, and swept his feet from beneath him. He toppled to the ground. She was up, and he took a blow to his gut. He rolled on the dust, winded. Another blow, to the nuts. Fuck it. He curled over and looked up. Genesis was preparing for another kick, framed by the passing parade of landers. Do these fuckers never end?
He rolled as her leg swung, and he floated a small distance closer to the lander horde. She leapt after him, but he was up and running. He jumped high, to escape, and floated above the landers. His float was knocked off course though, as a bullet struck his suit, and he tumbled into the dirt. Fuck, he realised, he’d dropped his gun during her assault. At least it missed his body.
He plummeted to the ground and as he rolled he heard a sound, a sound, that, in a silent world, is a sound no one wants to hear: the whistling of pressure from his suit. She had missed his body, but already the cold was seeping in, and his lungs began to labour. He twisted to find the hole. He pinched it, both front and back, and the noise ceased. But he had no free hand now. He was vulnerable. He looked at the HQ. He could manage it. A lander lumbered past.
He got up, but was kicked to the ground. The whistle again and he pinched it shut. She cracked her boot on to his elbow as he fought to hold the hole shut. That hurt. She kicked him again. He took it, and turned on to his back to stare at her. To see if she had any of the empathy that had just cost him so dearly. He did not see redemption in her gaze.
She held the gun straight at him. He saw her malice glaring inside her helmet.
Come on bitch, if you’re going to do, do it. He fought for breath. Even his last breath was a fight. His body ached. He forced his eyes open; he would not wince at the coming shot. Would it be head? Heart? Or just anywhere to finish him off?
“Come on!” His voice was deafening in his helmet.
The bullet ripped another hole into his suit, but just nicked his waist. Her aim had been thrown off as a lander crushed her to the ground. He saw her helmet pop in majestic silence and a shower of red guts burst from her suit as the gargantuan lander leg ground her indifferently into the dirt. Her limbs were rendered from her torso by the sheer might of the mechanical being.
He clambered to his feet. The landers were random, he was losing pressure, and was beginning to freeze. He had no choice, he let his suit go, grabbed one of Genesis’ crushed arms and bounded to the HQ, his suit whistling and rapidly freezing up. He grimaced with the pain on his side. He jammed her severed hand on to the security tag. The door swung open, so slowly it seemed to him he would breathe his last out there. His lungs were bursting for want of air, and his legs were shaking.
The door closed as he collapsed. His body rasped for air, his stomach churned and his limbs cramped tight in the fight for oxygen. His side ached. His mind blackened. He thought, this is it.
But the air lock was working.
When it was full he lay still, basking in the freedom to breathe. After a while he stood awkwardly, and opened the door to HQ.
He stripped off his torn suit and left it on the floor. He examined his side. The wound was not large; he had had worse. The bleeding was congealing already. His legs were lead, but he walked as fast as he could along the bland corridors to the mess area. He needed first food, then rest.
In the mess area he found chocolate. The bastards had chocolate. He ripped it open. On the rear of the pack he saw the word Fanguard. Well that answered that. He gobbled the chocolate.
Around him were the cream walls of a camp mine HQ, the undecorated fenestrations, the industrial formwork of the walling, the metal shelving, and rows of green plants beside the water filter inlet. The same as his place. Except they had chocolate, even if stolen. Sweet, rich, milky chocolate that hummed on his parched palate.
He figured if they’d stolen chocolate they’d stolen liquor too. He rummaged in the fridges and found a six pack of beer. My god, what luxuries. The paint stripper at Far Bar paled. He ripped a can open and slugged its cool contents. It barely fizzed in the low pressure. He breathed in with delight, but a sudden pang in his waist told him to take it easy.
He opened another and stretched his legs out on a couch. It felt good to relax. Through the windows he could see the dogged march of the landers. He sighed and chewed his chocolate. Fucking bots. Fucking big fucking bots. And now he owed them his life. Fucking fuck fuckers. Fucking woman. Why did he always he get the snarky ones, the ones who’ll love you and rip your heart out at the same time?
He ripped open another chocolate bar. As he bit off a piece he chuckled. He held up the beer and chocolate in front of him. Dream meal after a fight.
Chewing on the Fanguard chocolate and drinking the Fanguard beer he knew he was the only one left on this godforsaken moon mine. He wondered what the Fanguard accommodation was like. Given the weaponry they’d had, and the chocolate, he was sure it was good. Assuming this lot had left it standing. He could take a trip there tomorrow and check it out.
Or the next day. It didn’t really matter.