At least I didn't feel nauseated while I was still unconscious. Of course I didn't feel anything else either. Unfortunately, my Pro-tech suit didn't think I was sufficiently injured to keep me that way. Actually, it didn't think at all, at least not in the true sense of the word.
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"...provided you are able to do so," said the suit.
"What? You could at least give me time to come to my senses before you start communicating survival instructions to a semi-conscious body. Where's the enemy ship?"
"500 meters, dead ahead, 1468."
Damn AI's. If they're so smart, why can't they call us by our names?
The alien and I had fought to a stalemate of sorts. Both of our ships were badly damaged and floating dead in the cold blackness of space. I checked the status board and saw about twice as many red lights as I should have. I shook my head vigorously, bringing my eyes into proper focus and half of them went away. Still too many for my liking.
"Repeat previous message, suit," I commanded.
"500 meters, dead ahead, 1468."
"No, the one before that, when I was still unconscious and you were talking to yourself."
"The message was directed to you, 1468."
There was no sense in arguing with the suit. It couldn't comprehend the possibility of talking to itself. Vocalizing instructions was a convenience designed into the Pro-Tech model for the sake of making humans feel more comfortable with it. The fact that I took too long to regain consciousness and never heard the information didn't change the fact that it was talking to me, whether I was able to hear it or not.
"Repeat the message, suit!"
"The message was that front scan sensors detected activity in the enemy ship, indicating that the alien pilot is making repairs. It is recommended that you do so as well, provided you are able to. In addition 1468, it is good that you are in zero gravity, as you have a broken ankle. This unit has administered the proper medication. You should seek professional medical attention."
"Is the doctor in?" I said sarcastically.
"There is no doctor assigned to this single man fighter, 1468."
"Never mind, I'll make an appointment." It was second nature for me to joke around, even in the worst of situations. There was just too much gloom and doom going around lately. We had lived side by side with the alien's for years with no trouble. Then a little border dispute got out of control and we have been killing each other ever since.
"Why do I have a broken ankle? You are supposed to be the latest in the Pro-tech design. Bone fractures are supposed to be a thing of the past. Nothing short of total destruction of the ship is supposed to damage me!"
"The hull integrity of this ship has been compromised. This unit provides the ultimate in flexibility and protection. You should actually be dead 1468, but thanks to this unit's new advanced features such as instantaneous air cushion under high stress activity and maximum canceling of direct energy through advanced absorption techniques, you only sustained..."
"Enough!" I was sorry I asked. "Have you activated the emergency beacon, suit?"
"Yes, but it is not functioning."
"Why all the red lights on the status board? Why haven't the backups initiated?"
"The backups did initiate, but there were secondary failures. The ship's primary and secondary power conduits have been damaged. 1468, auxiliary power up has been detected in the enemy ship."
I wondered why I had to be such a hot shot. I just couldn't let the last one get away, could I? I was out on patrol, minding my own business when the proximity warnings sounded. Three bad guys came swooping in for a quick raid.
The first two must have been rookies. I could have taken them both blindfolded. Didn't even work up a sweat on them. The last one was a challenge. I should have let him run, but I couldn't resist the chase.
"What is our position in the sector, suit?"
"Negative 1468, you are not in your assigned sector."
"We aren't? Are you telling me that you let me chase the alien out of the sector?"
"As you know 1468, this Pro-Tech suit has an interdiction circuit to protect humans from inadvertently disobeying explicit orders, such as leaving your sector. You disabled that interdiction circuit so you would be in total command. This unit will be re-commissioned if it is found intact. However, it is most certainly a fact that you will not be re-commissioned. You will face a court-martial if you live. Leaving a sector unprotected is a violation of the..."
The suit's recital of current regulations went on for minutes and was finally interrupted by a signal on the local space band. The transmission was garbled at first, but then the translator kicked in and rebroadcast the message.
"Human," said the alien, "if you have a god, you may want to prepare yourself, for you will be seeing him soon."
Deadly, but polite. You could at least say that about the enemy. I ignored him for the moment.
"Suit, can you reroute any of the circuits? I need something! Either maneuvering jets or some weapons to fight back with!" I pleaded.
"The capacity to make repairs has been severely limited due to damage inflicted on this unit's hard wire interface with the ship. Diagnostic and sensor data is being received, but no corrective instructions from this unit are accepted by the ship's mainframe," the suit explained.
"Has the alien restored his weapons?"
"Several of the alien's systems have come online, and I detect a power buildup indicative of a plasma burst."
"Plasma? We have to get out of here or we're finished!"
But it was too late. The alien had already fired. I looked out through my canopy and could see his ship recoil from the flash of his cannon. Luckily for me, the blast immediately started to dissipate.
"A fizzle! It fizzled on him! He must not have had enough power!"
The plasma dispersed into a weak, transparent, expanding ball of harmless neutral particles. By the time it reached us, it barely had the energy to rattle my ship's canopy.
I couldn't resist. I opened the local space band channel and sent the alien a taunt...
"Is that it, big guy? I can spit harder than that! Where'd you learn how to fight?"
"Shut up, human!" he yelled back. "I am coming for you."
I should have kept my mouth shut but I doubt it would have mattered.
"What does he mean, suit? What's he doing?"
"The plasma burst drained the last of his power, 1468. Sensors detect that he has exited his ship and activated a small escape sled of some sort. He will be here in fifty-seven seconds. It is apparent that he is coming to finish the battle in person."
"What does he think, that I am going to open the hatch and invite him in for tea? His hand weapon won't penetrate the ship's armor. Will it?"
"That is highly unlikely, 1468."
I could see the alien coming. He was riding a compressed-air powered sled. He was in such a hurry to get to me, it looked like he was going to over shoot the ship. He made a last minute adjustment of the sled's thrusters and collided head on into the nose of the ship. It must have hurt like blazes because he doubled over in pain. Against my better judgement, I taunted him again.
"I see you can't pilot your sled any better than you can fly your ship!" I yelled.
"I'm coming for you," he said groggily.
The alien smacked the side of his helmet and shook his head as if to clear his vision. It was amusing to watch, and not so unlike what a human would have done. I wondered what he planned on doing, though I found out soon enough.
I had to admit, he was a lot braver than I was. Without all my fancy ship hardware behind me for support, I would just as soon have sat it out and waited for a rescue team to find us. He, on the other hand, wasn't about to give up just because his ship was out of commission. Or maybe he just believed more in his cause than I did in mine.
He reached into a compartment in the back of his sled and brought out what looked like a heavy drill. With controlled bursts from the maneuvering jets mounted in his suit, he made his way to the canopy view port I was watching him through. He put the drill bit against the Plasti-glass and started drilling.
"Suit! Can he do that? Can he drill through the Plasti-glass?"
"Sensors detect laser emissions. It appears to be some sort of low energy laser device that softens Plasti-glass, enabling a diamond bit to penetrate. This unit is uncertain if the alien can drill through."
"It doesn't matter. So what if he does drill through. What's he going to do, pump water in and try to drown me? The suit is pressurized and the fighter has lost its pressurization anyway. He's wasting his time."
Or so I thought. I watched in fascination as the alien worked away at the hole he was drilling. The cabin of the fighter was small, but there was enough room that you could move around the pilot seat to get at the various onboard equipment. I stood directly below the hole he was drilling, fascinated by the alien's single minded determination to continue the fight. Suddenly, the drill bit broke through my side of the centimeter thick Plasti-glass.
I stared up through the hole as the alien withdrew the drill, and just as quickly, replaced it with a blaster!
"Gaahhh!" I yelled as I jumped out of the way, barely in time to avoid being hammered by the alien's blaster! The crazy fool was firing blindly through the hole he had drilled. The cabin filled with smoke and sparks of molten metal were flying around like the Fourth of July.
I was only saved by the fact that the hole was just small enough so the alien couldn't stick the barrel of his weapon in and aim it properly. He could only shoot straight down. The blaster was not powerful enough to do any real damage to the inside of the ship. Besides, there was little left he could damage that wasn't already out of commission.
Even realizing he couldn't hit me, the alien fired his gun until it was empty. Then, in defeated agitation, he threw the blaster at the Plasti-glass canopy. It bounced harmlessly away and went spinning into the void of space. I chuckled in uncomfortable laughter as the alien shook his fist at me and started pounding in anger on the canopy.
"Suit! How much air can his armor hold? How long does he have out there?"
I waited for the Pro-tech to answer but was greeted only by silence.
Having received no answer, I examined what I could of the suit and that's when I saw the damage. I guess I wasn't quite quick enough when the alien started shooting. My communications interface with the Pro-Tech suit had been hit by an errant shot and had shorted out. Luckily, even though the interface was mounted on the arm of the suit, the suit itself hadn't been punctured or I would already be dead.
The alien had gone back to his sled and was rummaging around inside its cargo compartment again. I saw him pull something out, but couldn't tell what it was. He then disappeared around the side of my fighter. I could hear him working on something. What was he up to now? I kept scrambling around from one side of the ship to the other, trying to get a look at what he was doing.
Suddenly, he reappeared at the top of the canopy where he had drilled the hole. He rammed something through the hole and immediately, a weak spray of fuel began spurting into the cabin. He had found some tubing and somehow attached it to my external fuel tank! The alien wasn't going to give up until he blew my ship and me all to hell! I knew as well as he did that it would only take a little ignited fuel to finish me off. I keyed the space band...
"Hey! Hey alien! Stop! You're going to blow us both up! Don't you see that?"
"We're both dead anyway, at least I'll have the satisfaction of killing you, human! I'll die in honor!" he responded.
"There's no honor in dying!" I shot back.
"There is no honor in living in defeat, human!" he growled back.
He pumped in a little more fuel and then pulled the hose out of the hole. Then he reached for his blaster, finding only an empty holster.
I almost taunted him again. Almost. But I had decided I wanted to live, and that would be a lot harder to accomplish if I kept insulting the alien.
The alien looked around for his blaster but it was long gone and empty anyway. He looked back towards his fighter.
He jabbed his finger at me to make his point and said, "I'm coming back for you, human!" He jumped on his sled and flew back to his ship.
If he had another hand weapon stashed away, he could fire it from a distance, setting off the excess fuel. And he might actually live! I had to get out of the ship. I went for my weapons locker but the door was buckled and jammed shut. Just my luck.
I crawled into the back of the fighter where my escape sled was attached. The sled was an integral part of the fighter. When locked in place, the bottom side of it was actually part of the armored outer skin. Normally, you just strap yourself on it, switch the locking levers off, and it drops away. I would have to manually disengage it and push it away from the ship before I fired it up, or I would set off the fuel the alien had pumped in. Unlike the alien's air powered sled, mine was fuel propelled.
I grabbed the only spare oxygen tank I had and attached it to my suit. I then unlatched the manual retaining clamps and pushed the sled down, and then away from the ship. I would have to take my bearings on the star pattern and try to head towards my sector in hopes of being picked up before my air ran out. A quick scan gave me the general direction in which to aim, so I shoved off with the sled and waited to drift a safe distance away before firing it up.
As I floated away from the ship, I saw the alien coming back to finish me off. I could only hope he wouldn't spot me. He must have been pretty anxious to kill me because he fired from to far away. The blaster would be almost impossible to aim accurately at that distance in the bulky armored suit he wore. Unfortunately, the fuel was still leaking from my external tank where he tapped into it, and all too soon, a wild shot set it off. At least I had managed to put enough distance between the ship and me before it blew.
It's kind of funny, but all I could think was that the ensuing explosion was sort of disappointing. There must have been very little fuel left in the tank. It was still enough to rip my fighter to shreds though. I was hoping the alien would be sufficiently distracted by the fireball of the wreckage so he wouldn't see me fire up my sled in an attempt to sneak away. I strapped myself on and hit the ignition.
There was a nice ten second burst of speed from the engines and then it flamed out. Damn thing must have been damaged in the battle and lost most of its fuel. And to make things worse, the alien had spotted me and was in hot pursuit.
"Coming for you, human!" chimed the space band unit.
He sure was, and I was through with the smart comebacks. He fired off a few shots from his blaster, but he was too far away and couldn't aim accurately enough. A quick look over my shoulder told me he was gaining on me. I was just gliding from the initial thrust before my fuel ran out.
He was crouched down low like you would ride a bicycle in the wind to cut down on air resistance, except there was no air in space of course. I pounded on my sled controls hoping to bring it back to life, but all I did was hurt my hand.
"Coming for you..." repeated the alien.
He was still gaining on me. He fired again and a few more errant shots from his blaster went whizzing past. If he got much closer, he couldn't miss. I tucked my head down to make me as small a target as possible.
"Coming..." he said calmly.
Another minute went by, and then another. I didn't dare look back. I was waiting for the searing heat from his blaster to cut me in half and end the chase. I finally hazarded a quick look back and saw he was practically right on top of me! Why hadn't he fired? He was still tucked down low and staring right at me! The chase was over, and then...
He went right by. He kept right on going like he didn't even see me. Never even looked back. Never slowed down. Then it dawned on me. His suit had run out of air. He had died with his hands locked on the sled and my death on his mind and never realized he was dying himself. Or maybe he did realize it and the delicious thought of my death overrode any thoughts as to his own life.
I felt like laughing and taunting him one last time, but I didn't have it in me. This was insane. We were both so intent on killing each other that nothing else mattered, not even our own lives.
As I watched him race ahead of me and nearly out of sight, a friendly rescue craft came swooping in out of nowhere. Evidently, they thought I was chasing the enemy, because they fired off a quick blast and vaporized the already dead alien.
"Stand by 1468, we have you on visual," my com unit crackled. Even the rescue craft only knew me by a number.
They picked me up and I explained to the rescue party that my ship was disabled and had drifted out of my designated sector, but that I had also destroyed two alien ships and disabled one other. In other words, I lied through my teeth.
Of course, when they repaired my Pro-tech suit, it related the entire incident from its data disk to them as it actually happened. I was dishonorably discharged, which was fine by me.
I wondered who got the best deal, the dead alien, or me? At least he was free of this crazy life, the politics and the war. Me? I still had to try to find a way to survive in it.