I rose out of bed to another migraine headache. It was six in the morning based on the searing luminescent glow of the alarm clock. Every morning for as long as I could remember I had awakened to a feeling that could only be described as the type of headache you get when drinking something cold too fast. I looked over at my itinerary for the day next to my flight suit. I was scheduled for another test of the latest Pi-Mech (Piloted Assault Mechanism) today. This one was an upgraded version of the AF-45F Hellfire. I ran my hand through my hair holding my head trying to force the headache away before I rolled out of bed to get dressed for the day.
After breakfast I walked into hangar nine to receive my missions brief. Bob Franklin was standing next to the new prototype Pi-Mech. We had been friends for years and I had to admit that he wore the years a lot harder than I did. I could see the crease in his forehead where a thick mane of hair used to fall. The old adage, ‘youth is wasted on the young,’ came to mind. The new Pi-Mech had all the bells and whistles when it came to armament, but good ol’ Bob neglected the paint job.
“So, this is the next big thing eh, Bob?” I asked.
He turned half startled, “Hey, Nate. Yeah, this is her.” He smiled and shook my hand for a little longer than I considered necessary and there was something odd about the way he was looking at me. He turned back to the unit and jotted down a few notes into his tablet. “The controls are the same as always, we just made things a little more user friendly and things like that. It should be relatively straight forward. Do you have any questions?” he asked with an exhale.
“Nope, I’m just ready to get going,” I slapped him on the back and he laughed awkwardly. “Are you alright, Bob?” I asked. “You look kind of ill.”
“No, I’m fine. Let’s get you strapped in and ready.” He stood behind me as a donned my head gear. I climbed into the cockpit of the Pi-Mech and strapped myself in. I fiddled with the controls again before closing the egress hatch. I looked over at Bob as it closed and noticed there was something behind those eyes. I shook the thought out of my head when I heard General Parker take the com and initialize the mission program.
“Are you ready, Captain?” he asked in his brisk, snarly sort of way. The holographic video fed onto the Heads-Up Display and the detail of his face was striking. I could even see the cigar smoke emanating out of his mouth as he spoke.
“Yes, sir,” I replied with a half-assed salute that he never returned.
“Now start the countdown procedure,” the General said into the com just before the sequence began. An electronic voice counted down from ten and I was reminded of the migraine I had wakened to this morning. I pushed it aside as the hangar doors opened and I could see bright sunlight pour into my visor. I dropped the darkened lenses into place and controlled the Pi-Mech onto the battleground. The desert area was rocky and steep. The temperature was so high that I could see the blur of heat radiating off of the ground in the distance.
It did not take long for the first strike to happen. In fact I was barely two minutes into the training exercise before the first shot was fired. My morning was to be filled to the brim with bombardment after bombardment. It became a blur of smoke and fire. I was so used to the programming that I did most of the battle on autopilot save for a few rough sensory inputs here and there. I pulled the trigger liberally at the U-Mechs (Unmanned Assault Mechanism) and rained fire and bullets into the machines. No loss of human life today, except maybe mine if I lost my focus. Even with the headaches I was more focused than the next guy. That must be why I was so revered as a test pilot.
I took out at least a dozen of the other units before I had a chance to catch my breath. I scanned the horizon under a glaring sun for the next wave of the attack. I could feel the heat radiating from the fiery remains of the U-Mech that was burning beneath me. At some point in all the fun I was having I had seemed to damage my unit’s oxygen generating system. I mistakenly made the decision to open the vent that allowed the outdoor air to filter into the cockpit. I wasn’t ready for the putrid smell of burning chemicals so I quickly closed the vent door shut. I would have preferred hypoxia over the death brought on by sniffing the burning hazardous materials surrounding me.
I worked the controls of my P-Mech and ran a quick diagnostic of its operating systems. The Heads-Up Display showed that my oxygen system was degraded as well as my thrust propulsion system. Other than that, everything was passable. I cued the targeting scanners to survey for any immediate threats. I was still reeling from the last battle and it retriggered the migraine I had wakened to this morning. I had been having trouble shaking these headaches for what seemed like an eternity. I swore under my breath as two bleeps illuminated onto my HUD.
The lead U-Mech landed about sixty yards away as its wingman continued an aerial hover tactic. God, I wished that my thrust propulsion was working at that moment. They were perfectly lined up for the Captain Nathan Stout pinball drop. I’m sure another name would be more fitting for the maneuver but my ego liked that name more. The grinding gears of my unit moving sideways would be a tell-tale sign of its degrading performance to another human combatant; lucky for me I was fighting machines.
I could see the reflection of my Pi-Mech in the reflective surface of my new enemy that stood before me. Not to sound trite, but I looked like utter hell. I had failed to notice a drop in hydraulic pressure before, but the red mist escaping the lubrication system of my twenty millimeter canon brought that to my attention. I stood still as I calculated my next move. The obvious target would be the ground unit, it’s closer and an easier target to hit, but the risk of leaving myself open to an air bombardment by the hovering unit was not one that I was willing to take.
My targeting system locked onto the hovering U-Mech a fraction of a second before I pulled the trigger. Bingo, the three remaining 20mm rounds may not have taken it out, but the eighty foot drop onto the sharp rocks below sure did! Unfortunately my Pi-Mech’s audible warning tone alerted me to a complete hydraulic failure in the weapons system. I was left with only two small fractal rounds that I could only shoot at an object directly in front of me. Every other weapon in the unit was either empty or disabled. I wasn’t sure if my Pi-Mech could sustain another round of physical combat. Franklin Technologies did not design them for Mech Jousting, but when you’re up a creek sometimes you’ve got to jump ship and swim through the crap to victory. That was my plan now.
My Pi-Mech crunched over the blackened earth under foot as I ran it towards the U-Mech. At twenty yards I triggered the fractals and squinted at the blinding explosions before me. I could have sworn that both of the fractals were direct hits. I would have sworn wrong, the U-Mech stood before me with black smoke rising from its hull. It appeared that the fractals damage was minimal and now I was unarmed against a fully armed and ready U-Mech. Damn.
I rode the forward momentum of the Pi-Mech for all it had, slamming into my opponent. We both fell over in a loud metallic clash. One of the biggest drawbacks of the design of my unit was the lack of the internal stabilization system. I had to control every movement of the Pi-Mech, including those required to stand after falling. The U-Mech on the other hand simply fell over and rolled immediately back up into a standing position. In a battle like this, every second mattered. I was still face down in the dirt when I felt the strain of my Pi-Mech’s mechanical system buckle under the pressure of the U-Mech. I pressed security camera buttons frantically trying to figure out the U-Mechs position. I finally stumbled upon the right angle and peering through my optical interface I realized that it had one foot on the back of my unit and it was targeting my center section, essentially it was targeting me!
In a flash of brilliance I activated my counter measures system. Flares erupted from my unit in a whirl of blinding light. I winced at the spectacle as it shone on my optical interface. By a stroke of luck I felt the pressure subside as the weight holding me down eased up. I seized control of the situation by jamming the controls full right, causing the Pi-Mech to roll out from under the U-Mech. As I looked at the machine I could see that I had fried its targeting and guidance systems. It stood there and I could hear the whining of the engine powering the unit. U-Mechs are known for being able to bypass failed systems and continue to fight so this was far from over if I just stood there and looked at it. I took a few steps forward and drove the right arm of my Pi-Mech straight into the center body of the other unit. In a spray of sparks I pulled out wiring harnesses that powered the unit, effectively killing it. The whining of the machine spooled down and I stood in relative silence. Sweat dripped down my face and I realized the cockpit was a sweltering cocoon. The game was over so I pressed the egress icon on the forward console and welcomed the rush of cool air blowing against my face. I wiped the sweat from my face with my arm and it came back black with soot. Apparently I had reopened the vents sometime during the battle.
As I sat against a rock outside of my Pi-Mech a few military vehicles pulled up. Like most military types, the suits driving waited until the last moment before hitting the breaks, kicking the loose sand into the air. I waved my hand through the air to dissipate the choking sand trying to enter my lungs. Mr. Brass himself walked up to me with a smirk on his face.
“Captain Stout,” he said. “Excellent demonstration, I think we’ll be able to work the kinks out this time. How do you feel?”
“Great, sir.” I stood up and gave the old man a half assed salute. It wasn’t a sign of disrespect; it’s just that the old man doesn’t give a damn to salute you back. I guess that’s what happens when you become a General. A couple of suits followed behind him. One was Bob Franklin, the CEO of Franklin Technologies who designed the ride I had just taken.
“Nathan,” he said.
“Bob,” I nodded. We go far enough back that titles like ‘captain’ and ‘sir’ don’t mean anything.
“By my calculations we will need to find a more secure spot for the oxygen generator, a sturdier thrust propulsion system, and maybe see about doing something to beef up the hydraulics. You have anything to add, Nate?”
“Yeah, she could use some paint,” I laughed, patting Bob on the back. I leaned forward and could see Bob smiling until he saw the general walking back towards us. He gave me a strange look before turning his attention back to the general.
They said they’ll take her,” General Parker said.
“Alright, write me up the order and my company will get started on manufacturing,” he smiled back at me before trotting back to the vehicle he had arrived in. his shoulders drooped in an awkward way for a man who just made billions of dollars. I don’t know, maybe it was just stress. I looked up at General Parker and ran my hand through my hair. He leaned against the same rock I was sitting on and leaned in real close to me as some suits made a semicircle around our perimeter.
“I just want you to know that you did a great job today, Nathan,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I also want you to know that we couldn’t have done this without your blessing.”
“What do you mean ‘my blessing’?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said and he straightened up and walked back toward the vehicles. “Gentlemen, secure the clone.”
“Clone?” it was the only word to escape my mouth. Every thought, hope, and dream ended in a rain of gunfire under a gleaming sun.
Another migraine headache drove me out of bed. Every morning for as long as I could remember I had awakened to a feeling that I could only describe as the type of headache you get when you drink something cold too fast. I looked at my itinerary for the day, laid across the table next to my flight suit. I had testing and evaluation for a new Pi-Mech today. This one was an upgraded version of the AF-45H Hellfire. I brushed my hand through my hair and held my head in my hand trying to force the headache away mentally. “It’s going to be a long day,” I thought to myself before standing up to get dressed.
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