By J. L. Ender
I arch my back and gasp awake.
I lie in a circle of grass. Blades flutter in a gentle breeze. Despite the wasteland of ice and snow that swirls outside the circle, the wind reaches me as a warm summer breeze.
My ruined mech lies at my feet, inches past the green.
How…? I run my fingers through the growth. Soft yet solid, with soft dirt beneath. My bomber jacket, boots, and gloves lie beside me, as though placed there by the careful hand of a loving mother.
I stand and flick an unruly lock of hair from my eyes. My legs are wobbly, brain fuzzy from sleeping long. I could go for a cup of coffee.
I glance at the big robot I piloted, my megabot. The legs are a mangled mess. It isn’t going anywhere without a truck, a crane, and a crew of twenty.
I sigh and turn to the right—
And scramble back in terror.
I’m mere feet from the Devil Pit, a hole in the world at the heart of Antarctica. I can see the fiery glow of the Earth’s core raging far below. I sway, feeling sick.
I need to call command. The emergency beacon is in the cockpit. I slip my boots on, hands shaking as I tie up the laces.
Don’t they know I wrecked? Why hasn’t anyone come for me? I try to remember what happened. I’d been on routine patrol, and then I’d…
The sides of the Pit soared past. I fell fast. Fire roiled below me. And lava. Emerald eyes glowed from dark recesses, lit by hellish flames. The monsters watched me crash.
No. I tighten my hands into fists. I couldn’t have fallen into the Pit. Seven pilots have gone down over the years. None have ever come back.
I pull on my gloves. Tight mechanic’s gloves. Little protection against the chill I’ll soon face, but there’s a bag of emergency cold weather gear in every megabot. I can picture it, tucked beneath my chair.
Last comes the bomber jacket. I almost feel too warm wearing it. I kick a toe at the green blades. How can grass grow in Antarctica? I keep expecting it to vanish.
Focus. I take a deep breath, turning my back on the Devil Pit and facing the megabot.
Yep, this is gonna suck.
The mech’s access hatch doesn’t look too damaged. It would take less than thirty seconds to get the door open. I flex my fingers. Maybe two minutes to get the warming plates operational, assuming they work at all. If they don’t, I’ll be lucky to last half an hour. Luckier still if I get to keep all my fingers and toes.
I dart out of the grassy circle. The cold bites into my skin with familiar ferocity. It feels like sparring with an old foe, an ancient enemy. Yeah, I definitely don’t trust the magic circle.
I fumble with the hatch. My hand slips. The door refuses to open. The cold tears deeper. I’m already shivering, fingers numb. With a scream of frustration, I tug again.
The door gives, releasing a little puff of warmer air. I drop gratefully and gracefully inside, pulling the hatch closed behind me.
The mech landed on its legs, crushing them in the fall. The pod was built of sterner stuff, though, crafted to withstand monsters the size of skyscrapers. Thrown against my restraints, I felt bruises forming along my shoulders. I gaped in shock, too stunned to move. Green eyes watched me from the darkness, with cat-like pupils as tall as my body. The fear made my heart skip and turned my intestines to water.
I shake my head. Cold. Even inside the megabot, I won’t survive for long. I stumble to the dashboard and fumble with the emergency controls. I activate the generator with one hand and the emergency beacon with another.
The generator fails with a cough.
The beacon, however, has its own separate power source. In the absence of warming plates, I crawl to my chair. The leather is shredded, claw marks as thick as my calves running across it.
The access hatch popped open. I froze with fear. A monstrous silhouette towered above. Something like a lion crossed with a dragon. A cat-like face with lizard scales and curving horns studied me. I felt myself being lifted from the cockpit. My safety harness snapped painfully.
A voice thundered in my mind. You don’t belong here, little one.
Sick to my stomach, I fumble for a shimmery silver space blanket and wrap myself in it. I’m still curled up when the beacon crackles to life.
“Lieutenant Ford? This is Control. Do you copy?”
Relieved, I crawl to the radio. “I read you, Skip. Please come get me. I’m at the edge of the Devil Pit.”
“The edge? We thought you were dead!”
I swallow hard, remembering the eyes. How had I survived when no one else had? “I think I was.”
“We’ve got a team coming to pick you up. Hang tight.”
Like I have a choice.
“Thank you.” I almost sobbed the word. I felt the gratitude from somewhere primal, deep in my gut. I was going to survive.
An hour later I’m welcomed into the cab of a hauler, one of the massive trucks we use whenever a megabot goes down. I sip hot cocoa—the fools hadn’t brought coffee—while wrapped in an estimated twenty-seven blankets.
The circle withered and blew away. That doesn’t surprise me; I hadn’t expected it to last. But now no one is going to believe my story.
I glance outside again—and drop my chocolate. Pressing my hands to the cold glass, I gape at the sight. There, leading from my mech to the hauler, is a path of grassy footsteps. A worker kicks at one of them, confused.
My path. I’d been the one to make the green circle, not the monster.
Maybe they’ll believe me after all.