By J. L. Ender
The engine in my mecha whined as its knees strained, taking the last step onto the icy rise. In the grand view of cold white horizons, the Aurora shimmered vivid green overhead. Despite unceasing mortal peril, the endless ice had her consolations.
None of which made it worth it to me.
“You think we’ll find anything?” I asked, popping another Tums. Watermelon flavor. Alas, I’d run out of cherry.
“I hope so,” my partner, John Orwell, replied from his own mecha. “Been too long since my last battle. I’m getting bored.”
I winced. “I’d rather… I mean, it would be nice if we could just get back without incident.”
“You don’t want that, Tuttle.” Excitement colored his words. “The tension isn’t worth it. You need the battle. You need to find your mastodon.”
“Woolly mammoth. Your first great hunt. Something to make a man out of you. Like our ancestors. They’d go on a great hunt to initiate into manhood.”
I bit my lip. “You mean like… cavemen? I’m Catholic, I don’t think we believe in cavemen.”
Orwell chuckled. “I’m Baptist; we definitely don’t. So what? It’s a metaphor.”
“For what, exactly?”
“For finding yourself in battle. Trust me, when you find your mastodon, you’ll know.”
I stared out across the ice, feeling lonely. I missed my family. I’d transferred to the Antarctic Defense Force for the same reason I thought everyone did—fantastic hazard pay, and a chance at prestige. Killing a monster was a great way to make a name for yourself. The world above moved for men and women with ADF experience.
You just had to live long enough to get it.
“Let’s head back,” I said. “There’s nothing on this frozen rock but penguin droppings.”
“Not true,” Orwell’s voice crackled. “Plenty of seal droppings too.”
I rolled my eyes. “I stand corrected.”
“It does look like a quiet night.” Orwell turned toward the descent. “Let’s go. Might be some pizza left—”
A swooping shadow slanted across the sky and slammed into Orwell. It knocked his mecha sideways. I cried out, trying to find the source of the blow as Orwell tumbled down the rocky outcropping and disappeared from view.
A snake with bat-like wings and a hideous goblin face leered at me. It hissed and slammed into me with its tail. My megabot staggered, but I managed to keep it upright.
Orwell was far below me at the bottom of the cliff. His mecha was rising, but he was out of the fight for now.
Hands shaking, I fired a blast from my mecha’s left-hand laser, but it bounced off the snake’s scaly hide. I extended the other hand’s retractable sword.
Don’t throw up. Please don’t throw up. I should have taken an extra Tums!
Every instinct screamed RUN. RUN NOW. But I couldn’t leave my partner. As the snake coiled in the air to strike again, I swung the sword as hard as I could. This too bounced off the monster’s belly, but it knocked thick scales loose.
The snake wound its serpentine body around me like a giant boa constrictor, pinning the mecha’s arms to its sides. I could just barely aim the tip of the sword. The serpent raised enormous, gleaming fangs to bite down…
And I shoved my sword into the opening I’d created.
It let out a hiss, constricting until the metal of my megabot groaned, before its death finally released me.
“There you go, bud.” Still below, Orwell’s mecha pumped its fists. “Mastodon! You’ve—”
The snake screamed and reaffirmed its grip, lifting its enormous bat wings and flapping into the sky, somehow dragging my mecha into the air with it. I thrashed the controls but couldn’t bring my sword to bear. We flew thirty, then forty feet up. The snake was straining now, leathery wings flapping hard as it grunted.
This seems improbable. How is it lifting me off the ground? My mecha weighs over thirty tons!
The metal of my mecha groaned again, but this time the snake’s grip loosened.
Fight now, physics later!
I was high enough that I wasn’t sure I could survive the crash. But I have to do something.
I fumbled at the controls, my hands sweaty. I shifted my sword arm, and the snake turned to bite down again. I retracted the blade and shoved its jaws apart with both hands, then angled my left hand down its throat and fired my laser.
The blast fried its insides. We flopped through the air. Nausea spread deep in my gut. I shoved the beast onto its back, and its wings spread out. For two seconds, I glided on long, leather wings.
And then we hit the ground like a meteor.
I woke up staring at black sky. Orwell’s mecha stood over me. “Tuttle! Can you get up?”
I tried and found that I could. The remains of the beast had been crushed beneath me. We’d left a crater in the icy rock. My mecha was covered in dents, but otherwise unharmed.
Orwell laughed. “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. How did it feel?”
My stomach groaned. “Nauseating.”
His mecha clapped mine on the back. “Attaboy. It gets easier.”
“When does the feeling of wanting to vomit pass?”
“Oh, I dunno. I still get that sometimes. Part of the fun! The thrill of battle.”
“Right. The thrill of battle.” I popped another Tums.
I glanced down at the dead bat-snake. So that’s how it feels to save the world.
I wasn’t sure about the nausea, but…
I smiled. Maybe I could get used to this.