National Not-Novel Writing Month, day 15: A Robocraft story

I play only two video games: Minecraft and Robocraft. What I like about both of them is that they don’t feel like video games to me. As a kid (and as an adult when my kids gave me a great excuse) I loved building awesome futuristic vehicles out of Legos and imagining them in combat. With Robocraft, I now build digital versions of those awesome vehicles and pilot them in virtual combat against a whole bunch of other people’s robots. It’s almost too much fun.

So here, for day 15 of the National Not-Novel Writing Month challenge, is my take on how one of these robot battles — featuring me and my kids, who also play the game (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), and plenty of science-ish handwavium — might play out in a story. 

Nanos Working Overtime (A Robocraft story) 

“I know, damn it!” the pod tech shouted. “Get out of my ears and let me fix this!” 

The com silence that followed her outburst proved more effective than any reprimand could have been. The pod techs and the pilots they cared for had more leeway than anyone else in Azure Group’s Exoplanetary Forces, but there were still limits. 

“I’m sorry, Admiral, sir,” she panted as she plugged another heavy dynamo pack into the rack of pilot pods. It was her job to keep everyone in her squad alive. “The battle isn’t going well, and we’re running out of juice up here.” 

“Understood, Pteri. Just keep me in the loop.” 

The admiral, pacing the floor in an operations center on the other side of the solar system, scowled in frustration. Somehow the Crimson Coalition had managed to place an attack squad on exoplanet Spitzer. How had the sensor network not detected their mothership? He shook his head to clear his thoughts. It didn’t matter now. 

The whole situation was out of his hands. All he could do was wait for news. The fate of Spitzer Dam and the planetary core reactor, and with it the Azure Group’s ability to maintain its vital energy pipeline, rested on a squadron of five bots that had been scrambled on an emergency basis. 

In the orbital base above Spitzer, Pteri resisted the urge to scream and tear her hair out. She had faith in Baz’s Wendigo and Ing’s Murcia, but the other three bots, whose bays they had brought up from the nearest moon and hastily docked to the orbital base, were not up to scratch. The enemy’s gyromortars and plasma bombs had disabled them in nothing flat. 

The bots’ three human pilots sat unresponsive in their pods. On the exoplanet’s icy surface, their combat craft had been reduced to lifeless piles of scrap. Here in the orbital base, the pilots’ heads lolled to the side and cold sweat soaked their coveralls as the nanocytes inside their twitching bodies struggled to repair the biological damage that had been done by the abrupt severing of the link with their destroyed robots. 

Next to the three disabled pilots, Baz and Ing sat strapped into their pods, sweating and trembling, but feverishly focused. Their hapless teammates had managed to take out one of the enemy bots, but that still left them outnumbered four to two. And unfortunately, the enemy squad was good

“Crap! No!” Baz shouted. His mouth moved and his eyelids twitched, but no sound escaped the pod. The movements were only reflex; the actual communication occurred between the quantum-connected nanocytes in his body and the nanites in the equipment. “I’ve lost thirty-five percent of nanite capacity. Movement is damaged.” 

On her screen, Pteri analyzed the situation. Wendigo had raced far forward, outpacing its slower support. The enemy mortar had sprung an ambush and lobbed an explosive round over an iceberg right onto Wendigo’s nose. Baz’s Tornado Class hovercraft was the toughest of its type ever built, but a direct mortar hit was bad news. And the mortar wasn’t their only worry. “That flyer is going to lock missiles on you any second, Baz. Get Wendigo under cover, now!” 

“I’m trying…” 

Down on exoplanet Spitzer’s frozen surface, ice crystals billowed and a mighty, shrieking whine split the atmosphere as the three remaining turbofans struggled to keep the massive hovercraft upright and moving in the right direction. Nanites flowed through the robot’s superconducting structure toward the damaged area to begin repairs. But it would take time to rebuild the shattered components. Time that Wendigo didn’t have. 

An enemy bot darted out from behind a massive slab of ice, speeding across the frozen plain toward the injured hovercraft. Its twin ion cannons were nearly as big as its body. Fast, small, and lightly armored, the Piranha Class hovercraft usually ambushed from cover, relying on a massive close-range burst to smash its victims before they could fight back. 

This time the Piranha raced out into the open to finish off the damaged craft before its nanites could effect repairs. Most of Wendigo’s nose was missing and the starboard side was scraping the ground, but the visible damage was deceptive. Wendigo’s rear turbines were still intact and four of its 40-millimeter laser cannons remained. 

The big hovercraft’s hull dug a furrow in the frozen ground as its engines painfully slewed it around to face the incoming threat. Guns blazed into action, punching huge holes in the lightly armored assassin. 

By the time the Piranha pilot registered the sheer volume of incoming fire, it was already too late. There was no turning back. It got off a single ion blast, vaporizing two of Wendigo’s remaining hover units and causing the larger craft to settle onto the ground. Then, thrusters and hoverblades destroyed, it tumbled to the ground, unable to bring its ion cannons to bear. Wendigo’s lasers reduced it to a pile of glowing slag. The nanites weren’t going to bring that thing back to life.  

“Ha!” Baz shouted through coms. “It’s only three against two now.” 

Baz’s enthusiasm abruptly vanished as a splash of plasma made a crater in front of his precious hovercraft, scorching the hull and ablating the armor. One of Wendigo’s laser cannons disintegrated in the blast. Grounded and below 40 percent of nanite capacity, Wendigo was a sitting duck for the mortar and its aerial support. 

“Uh…hey, Murcia, where are you? I could use some nano juice about now.” 

Baz nudged his crippled bot into the shadow of a bulging ice outcrop, hoping to get some little bit of shelter from the aerial plasma bombardment. If its nanite level dropped under 5 percent, Wendigo would be unable to maintain structural integrity. It would either explode as its capacitor banks blew, or it would collapse into a heap of high-tech scraps. 

Up in orbit, Pteri dreaded the outcome. If Wendigo went down, she wasn’t sure there would be enough power for the nanocytes in Baz’s blood to help him recover. He might die with his hovercraft. 

More than that, if the enemy reached the reactor that tapped into the planet’s crystal core, it was over for all of them. Deprived of energy, the nanocytes and nanites that kept everything moving would power down. The pilots would die in their pods. Their fate, slipping into a coma and then death, would be preferable to that of the tech who looked after them. Without the planetary source of power, life support systems in the orbital base would fail one by one, leaving Pteri to die in the agony of suffocation and hypothermia.

Suddenly Ing’s voice crackled through coms. “On my way, Baz. Pteri just gave me your location. Oh, by the way, it’s two against two now. I killed their aerial missile battery.” 

“Nice!” Another plasma burst. Down to 28 percent now. “Well, just hurry, would you?”  

“I’m going as fast as I can.” You wouldn’t ever call a Colossus Class mech fast. Lumbering was more like it. “That damn plasma bomber is focusing me now… I’m going to take the tunnels.”

“No, don’t take the tunnels!” Baz shrieked. “You know you always get lost in there!” 

“Argh! Dammit, you’re right. Better hope he doesn’t take out my legs…” 

The coms fell silent as Ing put all his concentration into defending himself against the aerial attack. There was a flash of light above the ridge as the bomber rained down plasma on the climbing mech. 

“Ha!” Ing shouted. The bomber executed a shaky turn and dipped down out of view. Three seconds later, a dull thump registered on Wendigo’s sensors. Murcia’s railguns had hit the flying bomber hard. “That’ll keep his head down for a minute.” 

To Baz, that minute stretched into what seemed like hours.  

Then he saw his doom approach. The momentary lull in the action had prompted the enemy mortar to come out of the tunnels. With a hollow thoop, the squat, flattened machine launched its explosive round. It landed off target, but the periphery of the blast took Wendigo down another 8 percent. 

The next one wouldn’t miss. It would be the death blow for Wendigo, and Murcia would be left alone against a coordinated air and ground assault. The mech was tough, but it wasn’t built to deal with those odds. Azure Group was about to lose its last foothold in the exoplanets.  

Then a concussive ka-thow!ka-thow! shook the air, raining bits of ice down onto Wendigo’s broken hull. Murcia had made it over the ridge and was standing atop Spitzer dam. Small craters from missile impacts and melted patches from plasma strikes marred its body, but the enormous mech still soldiered on. Heat waves and wisps of vapor rose from its twin Impaler mega-rails. The tungsten projectiles had demolished the enemy bot’s mortar mount and punched two giant, converging holes slantwise through the body. It would take a while to come back from that. 

Murcia jumped down from the dam in a great arc, its dual hover units whining as they struggled to control the 17-ton mech’s descent. It hit the ground with a massive thud, leaving craters easily two meters deep and tearing out chunks of ice and stone as its armored legs hit their stride. As big as it was, Wendigo was dwarfed by the Colossus Class mech. There was a deep hum as Murcia’s nanoconstructor guns powered up. Plasmatic arcs carried nanites to Wendigo, wrapping the injured bot in a greenish halo. 

The enemy bomber flew overhead, dropping a full volley of plasma on Murcia. The gigantic mech shuddered as it soaked up the damage, but the nanoconstructors kept humming. Its weapon systems were a heavy draw on power, and only one could run at a time. Getting Wendigo back in action was far more important than shooting back. 

Pteri sighed in relief as she watched Wendigo’s nanite levels rise on the satellite feed. Engines reassembled themselves and the hovercraft rose up from the ground. New hull material grew to replace what had been lost. New energy surged into the weapon systems. The repair work was still ongoing when Baz decided to open fire on the enemy again; with Murcia feeding nano, Wendigo could now afford to reconstruct and fight at the same time.

On the other side of the solar system, the admiral pumped his fist when he received Pteri’s call. The ops room erupted in cheers. Azure Group was going to survive after all. 

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