“Inti’s arsehole, it’s hot.”
Mariel unzipped her crimson jumpsuit to a few centimeters above the navel and wiped her brow with the back of her mechanical hand. Though her perch—astride the mech’s open cockpit—was shaded by a towering, purple-trunked tree, the jungle’s sultry air rejected her sweat like a monk declines alcohol.
A voice wafted up from several meters below. “Little early in the a.m. for blasphemy, you think?”
“Never took you for a believer, Tambay.”
The tekkie’s bandana-wrapped head appeared from beyond the great machine’s battered shoulder. “Not. Hedge my bets, is all.”
Epsilon Eridani A3 was about as exciting as its name: hot and humid, bio-seeded with starter plants, teeming with annoying insects, and completely devoid of human civilization. A “ripe fruit”—as the settlement people called them—waiting for the mech corps to finish blowing each other to shreds so the winning conglom could start populating and mining the shit out of it.
As Mariel watched a knot of grey-feathered avian analogs flit from treetop to treetop, she half-wished this one could stay unsettled. Do we need to ruin every hospitable planet we find?
Tambay coughed. “Why they drop you on this rock anyway?”
“What do you mean?” asked Mariel. “To salvage this heap.”
He slapped his upper arm. “Four stripes. Means you hot-dropped three times and made it back alive. Veteran. Not bad for a binsa t-bird.”
Tagalog slang was mostly gibberish to Mariel, but the tomboy dig had broader—and ruder—connotations. “Jealous I get more pekpek than you?”
“I got a wife. You should get one. Might suit you.”
Mariel huffed. “Machines, I can handle. But people? Forget it. Can’t just plug in and take control.”
Tambay smirked. “Keeps things interesting.”
A telltale boom-and-echo crossed the sky, silencing them both. As it rolled back from the distant mountains, Mariel’s skin began to tingle.
Scrammers, she thought. Just broke the upper atmosphere.
“Hear that?” she called. “We’re gonna have company soon.”
“Hell,” spat Tambay. “They coming, huh?” He’d been pulled up from a reserve company to help her revive and extract an expensive piece of hardware. He’d never been in theater before.
“Zone’s about to get a lot hotter,” Mariel said. “So it’s important we stay cool and on-task.”
The tekkie vanished. A few moments later, the clang of metal on carbon amalgam gave Mariel a start, but then Tambay reappeared below.
“Got it,” he said. “They sent you here because they knew shit’s gonna hit.”
Mariel swung her legs around and sat in the control seat. “And because a mistake I made on my last drop cost the company a lot of zeroes.”
Tambay hopped onto the mech’s frozen forelimb and lit a cigarette before assaulting a loose friction bearing with an oily rag. “Disgraced stilt-jockey with something to prove? Shit, it’s like a bad movie.”
“It’s gonna get worse if you don’t fix our ride.” She activated the cockpit’s status readouts. “In a few hours, there’ll be too many hostile atmocraft up there to send down a lifter.”
“Roger,” said Tambay, and he slid back down out of sight. “Don’t know how you stay so calm in the middle of all this bullshit.”
“The high-adrenaline stuff, I can handle. It’s waiting that kills me.”
Projection displays painted the cockpit’s cramped space with colorful ribbons of data. Mariel wrinkled her nose.
“We’re well hidden from satellites, and the mineral deposits in this region should blur us on metallurgical scans. But the moment we fire up the Möbioid drive, we’ll light up the emissions spectra like a Christmas tree.”
There was a moment of quiet before Tambay answered. “What’s a Christmas tree?”
“You can’t honestly—”
The sky flashed blue-white for a heartbeat. After a second of silence, a sickly rumble shook the ground and trees for almost a minute, causing the mech to sway on its flexible frame.
“Cascade bombardment,” Mariel said as she slid into the pilot seat. “Time to get moving.”
“Ah, tae!” cried the tekkie. “Shock dampeners are still disconnected!”
“No time! Get in!”
Mariel felt her restraints auto-buckle and her helmet slide into place. The cyberlink engaged and filled her vision with startup counters ticking across competing overlays.
Noise behind her confirmed Tambay scrambling into the second seat. “Had to leave my tools,” he grumbled.
“I’ll get you a new kit.”
“Gets, T-bird … I’ll hold you to it! Now where we going?”
Mariel switched to fine optics and zoomed through a gap in the trees. Beyond blue-green hillocks, a trapezoidal shape stood mist-swathed on the horizon.
“Right there,” she said, pointing with the mech’s enormous arm. “Old volcano with the top blown off. Probably the only place within fifty kliks a lifter could set down.”
“Big trip through the jungle, kenkoy. How we gonna get there in time?”
Mariel spun through system status diagrams. “No burst jets?”
“Stuck in their hive. Safeties are jammed.”
Marial began to wonder why Command wanted this heap of garbage back so badly.
“Alright,” she sighed, “we’ll improvise, then.”
Her visual field shifted to include the view from the cockpit as well as the mech’s virtual control halo. With a hiss and a clack, the canopy sealed; the rumble and whine from beneath her seat signaled the drive had engaged. With that, an energy coursed through the machine … it felt suddenly alive. It became part of her.
This moment always brought calm to Mariel’s turbulent thoughts.
“Let’s go,” she whispered, and willed the mech to move.
With loping strides and thumping footsteps, the mech surged out of its crouch and bounded between trees. Its simian design made it nimble despite its twenty-meter length, and the miraculous composition of its skeleton and skin rendered it light enough to move with shocking speed over rough terrain.
“What’s so funny?” asked Tambay.
Marial realized she was laughing. God, I love this.
Tracking alarms shattered her ecstasy.
“Scrammers inbound!” shouted Tambay.
Mariel felt her thighs and calves tense.
Jason Clor, 2023