I pulled the straps tight, making it hard to breathe. The cockpit closed. I checked the HUD, everything was green. I flipped the three switches next to the right joystick to prepare for launch.
“Ready to launch,” I said.
“Initiating launch sequence,” Harlow, the operation’s director, said.
My body shook as the hypercoil kicked into drive, speeding up past its idle hum. I looked up and saw each section of the hexagonal ceiling door retract, revealing the hazy sky. The countdown reached three. I braced myself.
My mech shot upward the moment “Launch!” was uttered by the director. My stomach dropped, and before I knew it, I was hovering above the smoldering wreckage of the city. I checked the meters—still green. I had twenty minutes to complete the mission or Odessa would run out of battery power.
I peered left and right, then checked my back. No sign of what caused the damage, just the destruction left in its wake. Buildings were leveled like a crisp autumn leaf stepped on by a child. I walked around carefully, trying to avoid causing any additional damage to what was still intact.
“No sign of the target,” I said.
“We’re tracking a large energy source just shy of eight klicks north of your current location. It’s moving fast.”
I leaned in, tilted both joysticks forward, and lightly pressed the right foot pedal. Odessa immediately lifted off the ground and shot forward. The maxed-out hypercoil squealed.
Thirty-seconds later I saw a quick flash of it. Then it was gone before I could even comprehend what it was. “I think I saw it,” I said. “Pursuing.”
“Stay calm,” Harlow said.
This wasn’t my first time piloting Odessa in combat, but this battle had the highest stakes. They kept attacking relentlessly. No matter how many times we stopped them, they’d come back stronger, able to defend against our ever-increasing firepower. But we had this new prototype to try, something they hadn’t seen yet, something unpredictable, nearly human. They could stop bullets and missiles and tanks and bombs and fighter jets, but they hadn’t faced off against something so dynamic.
Odessa and I were Harlow’s projects from the start. She oversaw the building of the mech and jumped over every hurdle she came across until she had this beautifully functional combat machine with a pilot. She told me once that if it were different times, if humanity wasn’t up against the wall, she’d be doing anything other than developing weaponry.
The military took every single breakthrough she had and applied it elsewhere—the hypercoil, the battery, the high-strength poly that made up most of Odessa’s body. The higher-ups had no interest in something so volatile as a human-like combat machine. They wanted heavily armored ground and air vehicles. They wanted massive firepower. But Harlow’s project was a rounding error in the entire defense budget. Leadership gave her scientists, money, and mechanics, and they let her be. She earned it all that during her tenure as Lead Scientist during the Eight-Year War.
The early days of the project, from what I’ve been told, moved slowly. Harlow and her team started small and worked their way up. The initial engines they built drained the batteries way too quickly. Battery tech hadn’t come far enough to support such an inefficient machine.
They had a breakthrough six years into the project. She unlocked the door that was preventing the project from moving forward. They pioneered the hypercoil, tightly wound synthetic hyperconductor around a rotating battery. It took air in, converted the oxygen into energy, and greatly extended the battery’s charge. Within a year they had a prototype that could be piloted by a person. They called the mech Odessa. All that was left to figure out was me, the pilot. Odessa and I were humanity’s last chance at survival, at least that’s what they told me.
The HUD started flashing red and orange. I looked at the rear-view display. It was behind me and approaching fast. I shifted hard left. Too slow. I braced for impact. It speared headfirst into the back of Odessa, causing us to fall forward onto our face. I opened my eyes, my head pounding, eyes like stone.
“You okay?!” I barely heard Harlow yell over the comm. “Odessa’s systems are all critical. We’ll try to run a full diagnostic from here.”
“I was hit hard,” I said. “I’m OK.” I regained my awareness a little bit. Flashing red lights covered the cockpit. I engaged the front torso boosters and pushed up to get Odessa back on its feet. I looked around, and it was nowhere to be seen.
“Odessa’s rear frame is cracked,” she said. “I don’t know how much more damage it can take.”
I checked the battery gauge. Seven minutes left. The battery couldn’t sustain such demanding use. “I’m going to pursue.”
“It’s a little north-northwest of you, still close. Be careful!”
I piloted Odessa in that direction and saw it clearly for the first time. It was permanently hunched over with a large spike protruding from its back. Two arms dragged along the ground, longer than its legs. It must have been at least ten meters tall. It was covered in translucent gray skin, revealing its internals. It turned its head and two small white holes peered at me. I tightened my grip on Odessa’s controls.
“I’ve spotted it,” I said.
“Now’s your chance!” the director yelled.
It used its arms to lunge forward and run directly at me. I pulled the trigger on both joysticks to fire a series of three missiles from each side of Odessa’s torso.
“Yes!” I heard yelled from the operation room. Four missiles hit the target directly with the other two exploding off in the distance. It stopped moving. Smoke surrounded the target, billowing up into the sky. I shifted Odessa backward and to the left to keep our distance.
“You’ve got four minutes left before you run out of power. What are you doing standing there?! Finish it!”
I fired every weapon Odessa had—small rockets from the wrists and incendiary bullets from the built-in turrets on the waist.
The smoke began to clear. It still stood in all its terrifying glory. I managed to knock an arm off, at least, and other parts of its body were torn to shreds. It turned its head to face me and Odessa again, and its eyes changed from white to red.
“Stand your ground. Keep giving it everything you’ve got it, this is it!”
The monster moved like a hobbling tornado toward me, slower than before, but still surprisingly fast given the state it was in. I fired some more of the projectiles I had left, but it wasn’t even phased, like hail hitting a car.
I punched both joysticks forward and slammed on the pedal, thrusting toward it at full speed with what little power Odessa had left. I flew right into it, tackling it to the ground. I swung Odessa’s arms at its head as quickly as I could, trying to finish it.
With the arm that remained, it picked Odessa up off its body. I immediately reacted by sticking Odessa’s arm out and firing the last two rockets right into its face, point-blank. Its grip loosened, and Odessa dropped to the ground. One minute left of battery power.
“What’s your status?” Harlow asked.
I didn’t respond. There was no time.
As I maneuvered Odessa to get up, it towered over us, its head blown away but still moving. It grabbed Odessa again with its arm and started to squeeze, cracking the arms and frame of the mech.
“There’s no other option. Do I have permission to use the last resort?”
There was a slight pause on the comm. “Fine, permission granted,” she said.
In the few moments I had left, I flipped the four toggles, turned the key, and smashed down the large red button on the left-side dash of the cockpit. I started the transfer process. Then it all went dark.
Odessa exploded, and the monster and I were incinerated along with it. Years of research and development were gone in an instant. But at least it was gone. We’ll have to rebuild Odessa and a new frame for me, but it always goes quicker the second time around.
They told me three days have passed since the attack. It took them that long to map my consciousness to this temporary frame. There’s no point in training in it since it has extremely limited mobility. But once they build me a new frame, I’ll return to my daily training regiment. They’ll be back. It’s only a matter of time.
Collected in Fleeting