By J. L. Ender
At forty feet tall, the Megabot was smaller than most, but I knew it could get the job done. I piloted my mech down through shadows deeper into the heart of the massive cavern. Even seconds after leaving the surface, I felt far removed from the bright yellow light of the sun.
The feet of the bot went from crunching over snow and hoarfrost to scraping over icy stones. Treacherous footing. I would have to be careful. The little Megabot was an upgraded digger. Drill on one side, grapple arm on the other. And a bandolier of explosives looped across its chest.
“Control, I’ve entered the cave,” I reported.
Great. The cave blocked the signal. We’d planned for that. If I didn’t report back soon, they’d send more Megabots to check up on me.
I’ll just have to be quick.
I felt the weight of all of my command responsibilities slide off as I activated my floodlights and lit the cavern. It was just me, my mech, and the infinite darkness. The brass, well the brassier brass, didn’t like me in the field, but I’d made them promise fieldwork in my contract. I’d refused to ride a desk for the rest of my career merely because I’d made captain.
I maneuvered forward and felt the mech’s left foot slide.
That wasn’t ice.
Tipping the cockpit to investigate, I found a slime patch on the floor of the cave.
But that likely meant we could trust our intel. There was a nest.
Most of the monsters that crawled from the Earth’s core tried to make their way north, to leave Antarctica and attack the world beyond the walls and defenses we’d built, but sometimes they found caves and crevasses to lay their eggs or whatever nasty things they coughed up and called offspring.
I really hoped it would just be eggs.
The cave forked in two directions. I studied the ground again. The slime trailed off to the left, but… I could hear something coming from the right.
Deciding to let sleeping monsters lay, I crept left. The tunnel widened, revealing hundreds of fat, purple egg sacs flecked with gold spots. They dangled from the ceilings, clung to walls, and sprouted from the floor. I hefted the bandolier off my mech’s shoulders and dumped it, pressing a button on my console to activate a countdown.
A little light glowed next to it. The bombs were proximity activated and wouldn’t go boom if I was dumb enough to stay close.
Satisfied, I turned to leave. I would report the monster and let a team deal with it. I wasn’t equipped for a full-on battle. And if we got lucky, maybe the blast would trigger a cave-in and kill it.
I returned to the fork and headed for the surface. I’d be back in time for afternoon coffee—
I slipped on the slime, and my viewport slammed into the ground so hard it cracked. Just a feathery little fissure down one side, but it rattled me. These mechs could withstand a lot. This one had to be getting old to crack so easily.
I focused my breathing, put the mech’s claw-like hand to the ground, and hefted myself up as the sound of my fall finished echoing.
And that breathing sound had stopped.
I raced for the tunnel entrance. The Megabot’s footsteps were thunderous as I struggled after those weak strains of distant yellow sunlight.
Something grabbed one mechanical leg and pulled. A tentacle. This time I put a claw out to brace the mech as it impacted the cavern floor.
“I hate tentacles.” I turned the drill arm around and activated it with a flick of my thumb. The high-pitched whine drowned out the distant snuffling of the monster.
It dragged itself into my floodlights’ view. Dark, beady eyes glared at me from within a massive reptilian head, like a turtle with oversized tusks jutting from its mouth. Its body was squishy, even the shell, and it had tentacles instead of legs.
“Die!” I lowered the drill into the tentacle gripping my leg as it pulled me backward. My mech’s claw slipped, and the viewport took another blow. The crack widened. A hint of cold air brushed against my face.
The drill did its work, though, and the tentacle pulled back. Sighing with relief, I bolted for the ice above.
I glanced at the timer. Fifteen seconds left and I wasn’t quite out of range. I had to move fast so the bomb could explode before the monster caught up with me.
A few strides later, I burst into open air. The sun had never been a more blessed sight, even as it painted the world a vivid, buttery yellow, blinding my eyes until I pulled down my goggles.
The console light went dark just as the timer ran out with a little beeeep. The boom brought my mech to its knees. A roar shook the ice as the turtle-thing screamed and thrashed. Tentacles stretched eighty feet above. The monster’s head blotted the sun…
Slime dripped from its wounded belly, pooling on the frozen landscape. The creature lurched toward me, a tentacle reaching for my mech, then hit the ice with a thunderous crash, sending up a wave of snow, ice, and pebbles that rattled my mech.
Another mission complete. I turned to face the sunshine.
Hello, old friend.
Antarctica was a scary place on a good day, and the giant monsters didn’t exactly help, but even at the bottom of the world, the sun still shone down on the men and women fighting to protect the Earth.