By J. L. Ender
Flying through midair, I brought my megabot’s blade down hard on the neck of the tentacled beastie. Inky-blue blood splattered across the rough, uneven surface of the Antarctic ice.
A direct hit! I yelled in exultation as my megabot landed on one leg, slid in the ice, and crashed onto its side. My cowboy hat went flying, landing somewhere down near the azure-stained viewport.
I blinked, dazed. I’d killed my first monster. I’d wrecked too, sure, but I’d won!
“Private Cordone?” The voice of my instructor, Sargent Cecilia Ford, crackled over the radio. She stood nearby, operating her own mech, a newer model with four arms.
My attempts to garner a cool nickname like The Northeaster had been unsuccessful. So far, I was still Edmund Ulysses Cordone IV, Private First Class. “Yeah, I copy y’all.” I reached forward and grabbed my cowboy hat. “I’m fine, Sarge.”
“Then get up. Control says we got more inbound. This was a big outbreak. They’re swamped at the Pole.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I put my hat back on, then wrestled with the controls till I got my megabot back on her heavy iron feet.
Since my training hadn’t finished yet, I got an early model. 35 feet tall, bulky as sin, and blessed with short, inarticulate arms. She was the kind of mech they handed to trainees like me. Too sturdy for me to easily kill myself, too old to be missed if I did happen to kick the cheese.
In short, not the best thing for a footrace.
Our outpost stood behind us, a little cluster of small buildings and the taller monolith of the megabot dock meekly huddled together against the eternal cold. Posted near the shore of Antarctica, we could only deploy five mechs on a good day.
This wasn’t that.
I turned toward the South Pole, frowning at the snow flurries on the gray horizon. I could vaguely make out three silhouettes. Big silhouettes. Our new dance partners.
What could best be described as 50-foot lobster-rabbits with antlers scuttled toward us across the ice on a disgusting number of thin, twiggy legs. I raised my left arm, which had a retractable blade in the palm.
The first jackalobster thundered by on my left, a blue-white blur kicking up snow that splattered against my stained viewport. “Dagnabit, these things are fast!”
Barely turning to look, Sarge swung a blade, decapitating a monster as it hustled past her.
The last jackalobster ran between us. I sliced with my own blade and missed.
Sarge grunted in surprise. “After them!” she ordered.
“Yes ma’am,” I said, already throwing my megabot into pursuit.
Sarge’s taller, faster megabot quickly outran mine. “Control, they’re bypassing the base.”
“Stay in pursuit,” Control ordered. “We’re sending backup. We think they’re trying to get over the Wall.”
Sarge agreed, letting loose a few choice words I wouldn’t consider proper for a lady.
Moving at top speed, we scrambled across the icy ground after our enemies.
“Where did you say you’re from, Cordone?” Sarge asked.
She wants to talk now? Why did everyone have to make such a big deal outta where I was from? I mumbled my reply.
Her voice crackled again. “What was that?”
I cleared my throat. “New Hampshire.”
“You’re the only cowboy I ever met from New Hampshire.”
“We’re a rare breed.”
The Wall loomed before us, black and forbidding. There was no patrol visible. Must have been tied up elsewhere. The jackalobsters really did have a shot at escape. That would be embarrassing. No monster had escaped the Antarctic Defense Force since the 70s.
The first jackalobster reached the Wall and started scaling the enormous black bricks. Sarge thundered after it and grabbed it by one of its long, dangling antennae.
“Get the other one!” she ordered, hauling the monster back.
“Yes ma’am.” Tipping my cowboy hat back on my head, I charged after the jackalobster. Mine was higher, already near the top of the wall.
As consolation for being on the slow side, my megabot had thick springs built into the hydraulics in her legs, so she could leap like a kangaroo in a kitchen fire.
I tensed the hydraulics and the mech shot up. The huge claw in the right hand grasped the lip of the enormous stone edifice.
Claw slipping, I nearly fell back down to the ice and snow, but I managed to get the other arm up and haul myself on top of the wall. The smooth expanse ran like a black road into either direction and out of sight.
And before me, the Southern Ocean spread in all its terrible glory, blue depths checkered haphazardly with ice floes. I gaped at its frigid beauty, but only for a second. The jackalobster scuttled along far below in the shadow of the wall.
Far far below. The ground sloped away, so the drop was much steeper on this side. My head spun with vertigo.
I watched the monster for a moment. It hadn’t seen me yet, and seemed to still be debating the best way to get out onto the water.
The simplest solutions are usually best. Sometimes you just have to take the easy way out. I pulled my cowboy hat down low over my forehead, muttered a quick prayer, and dropped.
Landing on the monster.
Blue blood and bits of exoskeleton splattered everywhere.
“Take that, you overgrown varmint,” I muttered.
Churning through slime and guts, I got the megabot back on its feet, then tilted the cockpit so I could glance up. The Wall was far higher than I could jump. Crud.
I keyed my mic. “Control, I’ve got a situation.” I settled back, staring out at the wild blue edge of the Earth.
“What is it? Have you contained the monster?”
“Yep. But I’m on the wrong side of the wall.”
Sarge cut in. “Can’t you ski your way back, Private Thumper?”
Not the kind of nickname I was hoping for.
I sighed. “You’re thinking of Vermont, ma’am.”