By Christopher Burgis
(212) 554-6410 Ph.
(212) 554-6407 Fx.
Major Goss knew he was in serious trouble. The enemy missile has impacted and severely damaged his primary drive module. He was lucky the nuke warhead hadn’t detonated, but he wasn’t certain that dying of slow asphyxiation was such a great stroke of luck. His panel was a mass confusion of red blue and green warning lights. The integrity of his command capsule had been breached and he was on suit oxygen until that ran out in less than an hour. Besides his flight battlesuit AI heads-up display, none of the fighters AI systems had survived the impact including most importantly his ether-com communication link with fleet. Vinge, his wingman, had taken the first hit and had vaporized in a violent nuclear firestorm. The enemy warhead that took out Vinge had probably knocked out his own hardened primary systems; at least that’s what he thought. Major Goss was left with nothing more than his existing velocity, manual control over maneuvering thrusters and weapons, and the ejection system for his command module. The enemy fighter had made the mistake of coming in for a closer look at the Majors disabled craft. A strange looking craft with swept wings for atmospheric operation, the enemy craft displayed bizarre markings including what appeared to be the mouth of a predator with gaping jaws and teeth directly under the nose below the pilots position. He paid this only scant attention as he released his last hunter killer drone directly into the craft as it passed, the singularity weapon absorbing it into nothingness instantly.
The war had been going quite badly for the fleet. It had started with a typical first contact scenario gone horribly wrong, much like a bad fiction story. Initial contact via AI ether-com had, for some reason, been construed by the enemy as some sort of attack. The enemy ship, utilizing arcane but effective missile and projectile weapons, destroyed the fleet scout without any mercy. Records salvaged from the wreckage of the scout ship revealed the AI had linked with the enemy control and communication systems, but had been cut-off during the initial ‘handshake’. For twenty years the war had raged across and wiped out many system colonies, the ebb and flow of victories favoring one side and then the other, but the tide had finally turned and the enemy was now operating virtually unopposed in the home system. Despite rapid startling technological advances in armaments and flight systems, the enemy was able to match and within months improve upon every advance that Fleet made. Fleet continued to try to establish contact with the enemy but received no response other than renewed aggression. The Fleet had attempted to capture enemy craft intact and take command crews and pilots alive for research and interrogation, but had failed dismally, expending irreplaceable resources to do so. Most command officers acknowledged that defeat was only months if not weeks away.
With nothing more than a slow death facing him, Major Goss closed his eyes and reduced his heart rate in an attempt to conserve air. Only minutes into his meditation he was roused to alertness by the proximity alarm built into his flight battlesuit. Opening his eyes he saw and heard the impact of dozens of small but deadly meteorites, puncturing the hardened armor of his fighter without any effort. Instinctively the Major toggled his maneuvering thrusters and pushed the dying fighter above the plane of the meteorites. His realized his mistake as soon as he cleared the field of floating rocks, as above him loomed the gray black bulk of a large pockmarked asteroid. His velocity and his escape maneuver had brought his craft on an intercept course with the huge rotating astral body. Using the emergency resources of his flight battlesuit AI he realized that the remaining thrusters would not be enough to change his intercept trajectory. With less than minutes to impact he ran every possible scenario through the AI until he found one which could possibly allow him to maneuver, eject and live with less than half an hour oxygen remaining. He only had seconds to engage the maneuver. Keeping the fighter oriented with the asteroid above him, he toggled the thrusters with his joystick flight control. The delta-V gauge on his heads-up began its’ rapid countdown to the ejection sequence. The irregular surface of the rock rotated towards the fighter at an astonishing speed until he was only within hundreds of meters of impact. The counter hit zero and he toggled the emergency escape release, the massive G-force causing him to momentarily black out.
The Major came-to just as the command capsule impacted the asteroid. Rolling end over end, the diamond hard bubble over his head began to crack and chip. His momentum began to slow, the microgravity of the asteroid pulling the capsule downward, but his lateral movement threatened to push him off of the approaching edge of the rock. Luck was again with him as a jagged outcrop pierced the underside of the capsule, the cold rock emerging into his enclosure next to his feet, and held the capsule fast. Looking out his cracked bubble, he realized that he had tumbled to within several meters of the edge of the asteroid. He just missed floating off into oblivion by the narrowest margin. He rested momentarily; looking up towards the inner system, his homeworld and the small sun that shed an alternating dim illumination on the surface of the rock as it rotated into and out of the light. The asteroid rotated back into the sunlight and his complacency was broken as he saw the silhouette of an enemy fighter passing against the sun. Releasing himself from his four-point harness, he reached for the emergency bubble release, pulling the ring, which would detonate the explosive charges and would blow off the dome. Nothing happened. He pulled again and again in frustration with no result. Looking across the cockpit for anything he could pry loose and use as a lever, he happened to glance outside, just in time to see a line of incoming projectile fire impacting the asteroid surface and advancing on his position. He ducked under the protective armor of the cockpit below the bubble, which immediately shattered upon being hit by the enemy fire. He had not seen the enemy fighter, only the projectile rounds impacting, and didn’t have time to look for it. He vaulted from his enclosure, realizing too late that he had neglected to compensate for the extremely low gravity of the asteroid. Floating meters above the surface, almost achieving escape velocity, the flight battlesuit thrusters cut in and brought him down to the uneven jagged surface. He had wasted valuable seconds in free-fall, and rushed to make up the time by putting as much distance between himself and the remnants of his cockpit escape capsule as possible.
Within minutes, hopping and using the battlesuit thrusters, Major Goss was able to put well over a kilometer between himself and the crash site. Concealed below a crater shelf, he ran a systems check on his suit and air supply, all were in the green, but he had only 25 minutes of air left. The suit AI displayed a rough image of the Asteroid on his heads-up. Five kilometers long, and three in circumference, it was a very small rock to hide on. If the enemy were determined enough, they would have little problem in capturing him, or getting close enough to try to. Although Goss wanted to survive, Fleet had dictated that the enemy would be allowed no prisoners, and had installed self-destruct mechanisms, small nukes actually, in all field and flight battlesuits. Goss surveyed the image again, looking to see if there was a better place to hide, when he saw that the AI had also displayed where the main section of his fighter had crashed. Goss subconsciously knew the enemy would come after him, and was not about to allow himself the indignity of being sacrificed, self destructed, without a fight. Orienting himself towards the wreckage field of his fighter he began skipping in haste to the site, perhaps there was something he could salvage from the wreckage, something he could use to take out as many of the enemy as he could before becoming his own miniature nuclear bomb.
He began to recognize the debris field within minutes. Some of the lighter elements were still falling, incredibly slow due to the microgravity, but the main fuselage appeared to be somewhat intact. Approaching the twisted metal and hybrid alloy hulk he saw that the space above was visually distorted by the atomic waste products radiating off the surface of the wreckage. His suits rad. counter crept into the red on his heads-up and began to issue an audible tone as he approached the side of the craft. Ignoring the dire warnings being issued by his suit, he circled the craft looking for something to salvage. On the opposite side of the craft, he found to his utter dismay that this portion of the fighter had suffered virtually no damage. Protruding from the fuselage was the muzzle of the one remaining plasma energy weapon. He was becoming wary of all the luck he was having today, at some point it would run out, and according to his suit gages, it would run out in 15 minutes. Moving to the rear of the weapon he was able after a fashion to pry loose the service hatch and get at the modular self contained assembly inside. In home standard gravity the weapon required three crewmen and a winch hoist for installation and removal. In the nearly zero gravity environment of the Asteroid he was able to uncouple the command harness and ease the weapon free without assistance. Intimately familiar with the weapon, having simulated its use as a self standing weapons platform, Major Goss checked ammunition, power, and tested the manual firing mechanism. The glowing green shell hurtled skyward into the outer system. The test fire of the weapon produced an additional beneficial result as the fighter that strafed him had witnessed the test fire and homed on his position from spin-wise below the horizon. Using a smaller portion of the wrecked ship, not as badly irradiated as the main section, he took cover and waited for the enemy to make its move.
Major Goss smiled to himself as the fighter acted as he had anticipated, and came in low on a strafing run on the main fuselage. Either the pilots aim was poor, or the enemy deliberately missed to flush him from his cover, for the dual lines of projectile impacts neatly bracketed in the wreckage on either side, but made no direct impact. Once the enemy was finished with the run and directly over the wreckage, the pilot inverted, toggled maneuvering thrusters to flip the craft completely around reversing its orientation 180 degrees, and engaged its afterburner thrust to slow and return for another pass. Goss popped up from his position, well to the left of where the enemy believed him to be and opened fire, unleashing a deadly hail of plasma shells into the underside of the fighter. The enemy craft shuddered under the fusillade and appeared to take evasive action when his continued fire hit home and the craft immediately mushroomed into an expanding sphere of nuclear fire and debris. Goss smiled as he looked upon the destruction and determined that he must have hit one of the enemies nuclear tipped missiles, the plasma charge detonating the warhead upon contact. His reverie was cut short however for out of the cloud he saw an escape vehicle, probably the enemy pilot, descending towards his position. Years of training took control of his thoughts once again as he determined his next course of action; evade and defend, take as many with you as you can.
Goss checked his systems, air and ammo. The AI had taken some damage from the EMP from the enemy ship blowing up, and was operating basic systems only. His heads-up display was non-functional, and he had no idea if the radiation dose he had taken was lethal or not. His air supply was down to ten minutes, now less than nine and a half actually, but his ammo was good and the suit thrusters were still operational. He immediately proceeded spin-wise away from the enemy escape pod until he found good ground from which to make his stand. It was a large ravine that ended in a small crevasse with an overhang that was suitably blocked by a large boulder. He had protection on three sides and a clear field of fire to his front with only minor cover for any potential enemy forces. He waited.
Major Goss was paying close attention to his air readout when he felt rubble showering him from above. Looking up he realized he was under fire, and had allowed the enemy to approach and take cover unmolested by defensive fire. He swore under his breath for such a foolish mistake but also realized that he was no ground-pounder so such a mistake was acceptable. The enemy was keeping the fire constant and was expending considerable ammunition on his position when suddenly the firing stopped. Edging around the small gap to the right of his position he was able to see, but not maneuver his weapon towards, the enemy position. Toggling the built-in optical enhancer on his visor he saw the enemy clearly. The enemy appeared to be having difficulty with its’ weapon. He realized that he was perhaps the first member of the Fleet to see an actual member of the enemy force. From wreckage salvaged during the twenty-year war they had determined that the enemy was bipedal, humanoid and probably very similar to themselves in many respects. Fiction writers who were later drafted as war propagandists had painted the enemy as hive minded green bug eyed monsters. Fleet however had dispelled these rumors to the officer corps immediately as intelligence analysis had determined the enemy clearly acted as individuals and were capable of amazing acts of courage and selflessness. This point had been proven on both sides too often. Unlike his own flight battlesuit, the enemy was encased in a bright white, segmented hardsuit, on the back of which was an extremely large and bulky service pack of some sort. Rising from his cover he aimed at the exposed service pack and opened fire. The enemy was thrown into the air by the explosive reaction of the plasma shell piercing what must have been its air supply. Major Goss tracked the wildly flailing enemy pilot and with three more bursts of fire ended its life. He repositioned himself in firing position waiting for the reinforcements, probably ground units, which were certain to come and take him out. His air readout read at three minutes. Three minutes of life, then once the air was completely gone, the self-destruct mechanism would activate.
Goss was almost pleasantly surprised when with two minutes air left the ground forces finally arrived. He saw them approaching, shadows more than anything else, from the head of the ravine. They employed the same segmented hard-suits as the pilot, however these suits seemed to blend in with the asteroid’s rock surface and appeared to be more heavily armored and extremely more mobile. Goss opened fire at the first sign of the enemy assault and was rewarded several times by the telltale explosive decompression of the invaders suits when he scored a direct hit. The enemy however continued to press forward their attack in greater numbers, and began to return fire with their own version of energy weapons. He scored several more hits when he himself was hit. The enemy discharge was non-lethal. This surprised him. He felt the force of the blow, and realized too late that the discharge had only succeeded in disabling the electronics of his suit. The enemy was always smart like that, too smart, and now they were using some kind of EMP weapon and were intent on capturing him. Without readouts or heating, all he had left was the hiss of his dwindling air supply. His weapon was still functional however and he continued to fire. He knew he was down to less than a minute of air, and determined to commit his own selfless sacrifice for the homeworld, he rushed from his position his finger depressed on the fire switch, raking the enemy positions without remorse. The attackers were somewhat stunned at his brazen tactic and dived for whatever defensive cover they could find. Major Goss knew that he had to advance further towards them to be able to take out the most enemy possible with his self-destruct device. The world became still as the air hiss in his helmet died to nothingness, and his last plasma round ejected from his weapon. The cold vacuum of the asteroid was clearly seeping through the unheated protection of his battlesuit and as he was buffeted by blast after blast of the enemy EMP weapons, he gently fell backwards in the microgravity onto the surface of the asteroid. His mind became cloudy as a result of the lack of oxygen, but before he lost consciousness he saw the bulk of a large ship floating over him, perhaps his mini nuke would take it out as well.
He awoke in shock and dull pain. His first realization was that he was alive, his second that his self-destruct had not activated and that he was indeed alive, but how and why? He was confused and somewhat dazed. He looked around and recognized that he was in a recovery bed in a medical ward. He had never been in a medical ward, he had in fact never been injured, but by the look of the bulkhead and dull vibration he felt in his gut, he knew he must be on a hospital ship. His feet hurt badly, and pulling aside the bed-sheet saw that his feet had turned black from frostbite. Then he began to remember the firefight with the enemy, how the enemy EMP weapon knocked out his suit power, and how his heating unit had been deactivated. That was how he had gotten the frostbite on his feet. Looking down the ward he noticed that most of the beds were occupied but the were covered by oxygen tents and huge amounts of medical machinery. He couldn’t see the patients inside. He appeared to be the least injured of the lot and was counting his blessings when he saw a nurse emerge from a small room at the end of the ward. He attempted to call out and was surprised that he was unable to speak, his throat and mouth were extremely dry; all he was able to do was issue an barely audible croak. The nurse had exited through a bulkhead pressure door before he could get her attention. Looking through the slightly ajar door from where the nurse had emerged, he saw that it was a bathroom, and suddenly had a pressing need to relieve himself.
Goss tried to sit up and stand, but a painful tug at the inside of his elbow revealed he was attached to an IV. Moving to the opposite side of the bed, Goss grasped the IV stand for support and stood on his heals. He was shaky and in pain but the IV probably contained some kind of painkiller, as he was able to walk on his heels with only moderate discomfort. He proceeded towards the head down the aisle between the beds rolling his IV along as he went. He stopped at one bed and peered through the oxygen tent. The poor soul inside was swathed in bandages and was nothing more than a badly burnt body with a head, his arms and legs had been amputated or worse. Other beds revealed almost the same, critically injured soldiers who by rights should have been allowed to die, as any life after recovery would be worse than death. The bed nearest the bathroom was occupied but covered over with a gray plastic cover. The sorry bastard inside must have been too bad off to even allow the medical staff to view his injuries. As Goss passed to the door however we was shocked when from under the plastic he heard a whispered voice.
“Hello, is anyone there, I need help, hello?”
Goss couldn’t bear to leave the man in silence so he responded. “Yes I’m here, are you OK? Can I get the nurse?”
“My god someone is there, I’m Captain Svither of the Benevolence, do you know of the ship, did she make it?”
Goss recalled the ship, but with such huge Fleet losses recently he couldn’t recall what the action status of the ship was. He answered honestly, “I’m not sure sir. I remember your ship, but honestly I just don’t know.”
“Thank you, the nurses and doctors don’t answer any of my questions, in fact they don’t talk at all. You’re the first person I’ve spoken to since I woke up here. Thank you.” Then a momentary silence followed by another question, “Who are you, your ship, how did she fare, is everyone alright?”
Goss smiled, as badly injured as the officer was, he was more concerned for the fate of others. ‘God-bless the line officers,’ he thought.
“Major Goss sir, I was in a fighter squadron based on the moon, we were patrolling the outer sector when my flight was ambushed. My wingman got it, but I was able to eject onto a moonlet. I thought I was done for, it was down to the wire, the enemy was right on me, ground troops even. I was certain that my self destruct was going to activate and then, well…then I woke up here.”
“You sound like a lucky son of a gun, but you fighter pilots always have the luck don’t you?”
“Luck, yeah,” he had had quite a bit of luck recently, too much in fact, but he continued on without thinking “But I’d gladly trade places with you lugnuts on big fleet dreadnoughts, you’ve got it made...” then Goss realized that the Captain was probably the only surviving member of his crew, and went silent.
“I can’t see, I can’t feel anything either, they’ve got me on lots of pain medication, can you see me son? How bad does it look?”
Goss was reluctant to lift the edge of the tent, but honor between officers required he look and give the man an honest assessment. Reaching over and pulling aside the plastic Goss was repulsed and enraged by what he saw. The officers’ entire body was gone. His upper chest and head were attached to a massive array of medical machinery, tubes, pipes pumps and filters that were keeping the poor man barely alive. Who, no, what kind of bastard in Fleet would allow this travesty to exist. This officer would never recover. What was the purpose of keeping someone marginally alive like this? Surely honor dictated that the man be allowed to perish with some dignity. He lowered the tent flap, and coughed to hide his revulsion and rage. Despite the rules of honor he couldn’t bring himself to tell the poor man the truth.
“You look OK Cap’n, don’t worry, I’m sure the Doctors will patch you up as good as new.”
“Thank you Major, I was beginning to worry.”
“No Problem Cap…”
Goss was interrupted by the Nurse returning to the room and shushing him. “Shhhhhh,” she said her finger to her lips. She was gorgeous, stunning, perhaps the most beautiful nurse, or woman, Goss had seen in some time.
“Sorry Ma’am, I had to use the bathroom,” said Goss pointing to the open door, “and I passed the Captain here and well I had to talk to the guy.”
The nurse silently shook her head and pointed to Goss’s bed indicating he return, and handed him a plastic container for him to use.
“OK sorry Ma’am, I got it.” Goss said reluctantly returning to his bed.
Major Goss slept, woke, slept and ate several times. He recalled several bad dreams, dreams about the Enemy, interrogation and something about AI ether-com, but every time he cried out in his sleep, there was one of the beautiful nurses at his bedside holding his hand and stroking his face. He woke and found that his feet were heavily bandaged and he surmised that he had been under heavy sedation for a number of days following the surgery. Relatively refreshed from his slumber and wishing to avoid the indignity of using the bedpans, he stood and walked on his heels to the bathroom. He got to the door and remembered the poor Captain, master of the Benevolent, who was in the nearest bed. He turned and found the bed empty and covered with new clean sheets. He sighed and thanked god for sparing the poor man any further suffering, Fleet had finally decided to let the Captain die with dignity. Goss opened the bathroom door, walked up to the urinal and began to go. Thinking of nothing in particular his eyes wandered across the surface of the bulkhead; covered in generic plastic tile, the wall was well, a wall. Finished he reached for the flush mechanism. He stopped, and a cold chill ran up his spine, the written logo on the plumbing mechanism was wrong, very wrong. It hit him all at once, and he knew, he knew that the Enemy had somehow disabled his self-destruct with their EMP weapons, that his nightmares weren’t nightmares at all. Slowly he backed out of the small toilet and into the ward. He turned and found himself face to face with a doctor flanked by two military looking guards with weapons ready.
The doctor held up a small black box and pressed a button. From the box there issued a statement in Goss’ own voice:“DO NOT BE ALARMED. YOU ARE A PRISONER OF WAR ABOARD THE BATTLESHIP AMERICA FROM THE PLANET EARTH. THE WAR IS OVER BETWEEN OUR PEOPLES. YOUR CAPTURE ALLOWED US TO UTILIZE AI ETHER-COMM AND FINALLY COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PEOPLE. WE ARE HUMAN JUST LIKE YOU. DO NOT BE ALARMED. YOU ARE A PRISONER OF WAR ABOARD THE BATTLESHIP AMERICA FROM THE PLANET EARTH…”