Eden ducked under the gull wing door of the sim­u­la­tion cock­pit and set­tled into the fake leather chair. From the out­side, the room was a plain space with four doors, but inside Eden rec­og­nized the screen and con­trol lay­out of the defense force’s lat­est mech. Soldiers with appro­pri­ate train­ing and clear­ance pilot­ed six­teen-to-twen­ty-meter-tall machines against the alien mon­sters that con­tin­ued to assault the walls of the coun­try. They were heroes, born and bred for the fight of their lives, cham­pi­oned by their home provinces and cel­e­brat­ed across the nation. Being select­ed for train­ing was an hon­or. To Eden, it was mere­ly a step­ping stone. She was­n’t here to fight and die for her coun­try. Pilot train­ing was nec­es­sary, but she was here for more impor­tant work and she need­ed more than a squad to pull it off.

So she set­tled her­self in the chair, pulled the door down to seal her­self in, and low­ered the immer­sion hel­met over her head. The cock­pit screens were blank, the but­tons unla­beled, but when the hel­met seat­ed around the back of her head and Eden acti­vat­ed her neur­al con­nec­tion, every­thing came to life. Through a hard­wired plug into her spinal cord, the sim­u­la­tion bloomed direct­ly into her brain in vibrant, scin­til­lat­ing col­or. The hatch door was gone, as were the blank screens. In their place, she was sur­round­ed by bay view­ing win­dows and a tray of but­tons and dials for her com­mand sys­tems. She was a three and a half meter human inside the head cav­i­ty of a giant robot.

Eden’s mech topped out at eigh­teen meters. The left hand had four manip­u­lat­ing dig­its, while the right was an arm-long plaz­ma knife that could cut through any­thing. The chest-cav­i­ty of her machine con­tained a rail can­non. It was the most pow­er­ful weapon she had, but it took a while to charge up and Eden pref­ered to use it as a final, debil­i­tat­ing attack.

Eden turned her head and the view panned with her. She stood on the east­ern shore of the coun­try, its land slow­ly descend­ing into the sea for kilo­me­ters on either side of her. The white sand was lit­tered with black and tar­nished met­al, twist­ed pieces of mech that had been torn from their machines mid-bat­tle. The husk of a mech lay akim­bo up the hill to her right. It’s weapon­ry had been torn off, and the pow­er­ful rail­gun in its chest was miss­ing. Only a gap­ing cav­i­ty was left. This was a sim­u­la­tion, but with every detail fil­tered direct­ly into Eden’s ner­vous sys­tem, it felt all too real. The wind blew in gusts across the surf and sand, kick­ing up dust that swirled against Eden’s screens. She could hear the indi­vid­ual grains impact­ing the met­al, the faint hiss­ing of a thou­sand pieces of sand falling against the mech.

Eden turned away from the skele­tal husk on the beach and faced the ocean. The attacks always came from the ocean and hold­ing the shore was her pri­ma­ry task. She acti­vat­ed sev­er­al sen­sors and data read­outs, which clus­tered in the mid­dle of her view as over­lays. Eden orga­nized them to her lik­ing: dam­age reports and gen­er­al sta­tus of her mech in a low­er cor­ner; the sonar and topog­ra­phy infor­ma­tion on her visu­al field; bul­lets, slugs, and ener­gy reserves in anoth­er corner.

She fin­ished orga­niz­ing just as the rest of her squad joined the sim­u­la­tion. She saw their huge mechs dig­i­tize into exis­tence on the vir­tu­al beach, one on either side of her. Their builds were sim­i­lar to Eden’s, hand on the left, knife on the right, rail can­non in the chest. But while Eden’s mech reached eigh­teen meters, these two were mod­eled on slight­ly old­er, larg­er tech. They tow­ered at twen­ty meters high. With that extra size came bet­ter defens­es; both of them sport­ed a wide shield mount­ed on the back of the left arm that Eden’s build lacked in favor of maneuverability.

There were fur­ther dif­fer­ences in the cock­pit and soft­ware. Eden had only just begun to dig into the code of what made a mech tick but what she’d found so far excit­ed her. There were pos­si­bil­i­ties here, oppor­tu­ni­ties to pro­gram and process data for the pilot to give them an advan­tage in bat­tle that had­n’t yet been exploit­ed. When Eden imag­ined the future of mech war­fare, she saw pilots with half a dozen mechs under their com­mand, each one run­ning on cus­tom sub­rou­tines and react­ing in real time to the battlefield.

But the pilot pro­gram was­n’t try­ing to train engi­neers, it want­ed pilots as robot­ic as their mechs. People who would obey orders with­out ques­tion for the good of the squad and the country.

Well Eden had already made a name for her­self going against squad lead­er­ship, why not coun­try as well?

As her squad­mates Charli and Zoe set their mechs up for the sim­u­la­tion, Eden plugged a small dri­ve into her con­sole and acti­vat­ed the boot sequence. Her cus­tom pro­gram­ming was­n’t as sophis­ti­cat­ed as the vir­tu­al real­i­ty she prac­ticed in, but she would only get bet­ter with more test­ing. With a del­i­cate chime, Eden’s voice spoke out of her own mech speak­ers: ”System active. Tracking initiated.”

The final mem­ber to enter the sim­u­la­tion was their squad leader Harlow. Her mech was the largest of the four of them, over twen­ty five meters high, and it sport­ed a flashy shoul­der rifle for long-dis­tance shots. Accordingly, the mech dig­i­tized into the sim­u­la­tion fur­ther up shore, on the ruined remains of the sea break where she would have a clear view of the field. With all four of them estab­lished, the sim­u­la­tion ini­ti­at­ed a 2 minute count­down. It showed up in red num­bers on the upper half of Eden’s screens.

Harlow issued place­ment orders imme­di­ate­ly. ”Eden, clear out of the field. Charli and Zoe, shield up and pre­pare for ini­tial vol­ly.” Harlow her­self acti­vat­ed a sta­ble stance on her mech and her shoul­der rifle unfold­ed to its full how­itzer length.

Eden pulled back on her mech’s con­trols. Despite its size and weight, the machine lept back­ward off the sand some fif­teen meters. A red line appeared across her view, indi­cat­ing the shot dis­tance of her chest can­non, her most pow­er­ful weapon. It was the first use­ful graph­ic Eden pro­gramed. Anything beyond that line, she could­n’t hit, so she did­n’t waste her time trying.

The timer ticked past thir­ty sec­onds. Two blue cir­cles appeared on Eden’s dis­play some dis­tance out into the ocean. Their posi­tion was an esti­ma­tion, indi­cat­ed by a lighter blue cir­cle around each icon. The indi­ca­tor float­ed with­in this esti­mat­ed field. As the timer passed fif­teen sec­onds, a red ring began charg­ing inside each mark­er. These icons were new to Eden’s sys­tem. The mech could detect all kinds of infor­ma­tion: son­ic, tec­ton­ic, pres­sure, and mag­net­ic, but with­out a sim­ple visu­al way to con­vey that data, the infor­ma­tion was sim­ply lost in the sys­tem and of no use to the pilot. Eden’s icons weren’t slick, but she knew what they meant at a glance.

”Enemy visu­al,” Eden report­ed. She cit­ed their posi­tions and both Charli and Zoe adjust­ed their shield angles. ”Volley in three… two… one.…” Eden saw the red rings indi­cat­ing a pow­er charge close. They flashed once and the icon over­lay fad­ed. In their place, two ener­gy beams lanced out of the ocean and struck Charli and Zoe’s shields. The lasers flash-boiled the water around them, throw­ing up a cloud of steam that would cov­er the ini­tial advance in a haze of mist. The beams fad­ed, but now that Eden’s sys­tem had seen the crea­ture’s exact loca­tions, the esti­mat­ed blue rings had also dis­ap­peared. Instead, spe­cif­ic ene­my details began stream­ing across Eden’s field of view, obscur­ing every­thing else. That was­n’t sup­posed to hap­pen. Eden swiped the data impa­tient­ly to the side. ”Note to self, tar­get info needs a box.” A vir­tu­al spot that would hold it until Eden knew what she want­ed to do with it. There was so much data, she would prob­a­bly only select a few use­ful pieces and dis­card the rest.

She cleared her screen just in time. ”Charli you have incom­ing at eleven and one. Zoe, on your three, mov­ing fast.” Both women acti­vat­ed their plas­ma knives. They glowed green even in the bright­ly sim­u­lat­ed day. Charli dis­en­gaged her shield and adjust­ed her stance to clear the path for her chest can­non, point­ed at her sec­ond ene­my. Before Eden could warn her about the dis­tance lim­it, Charli fired. Water evap­o­rat­ed in Charli’s imme­di­ate vicin­i­ty, blown away by the sheer force of her slug pass­ing by. Then it punched into the ocean and began descend­ing. She hit her tar­get, but only weak­ly, the dis­tance and water sap­ping most of the ener­gy out of the shot.

By then, the first alien beast had made it to shore under the cov­er of the mist and it rushed Charli with a blis­ter­ing roar. The alien matched Charli’s mech in height, tow­er­ing over humans with­out their robot suits. Its skin appeared tough, like a lizard, and light glit­tered along the scales in var­ie­gat­ed blue and pur­ples. It used four pow­er­ful arms to grip Charli’s shield. Eden saw Charli’s mech lurch for­ward as the alien yanked. Then Charli swung her plas­ma knife around and buried it into the thick neck of the mon­ster. Teal blood burst from the crea­ture. Charli drove the ani­mal to the sand and sliced her knife through. Without its head, the crea­ture’s body reflex­ive­ly twitched.

But there was no time to watch. A sec­ond alien lunged on all six limbs from the surf and rammed Charli’s mech from one side. She stag­gered. Another crea­ture stood off­shore and Eden’s HUD blinked a red charg­ing icon.

Eden warned her squad­mate. ”Zoe, incom­ing vol­ley in four… three… two.…”

Zoe hun­kered behind her shield, pre­pared for the ener­gy beam, and Eden saw a charg­ing icon appear on Zoe’s mech as well. As soon as she weath­ered the vol­ley, Zoe planned to blast the alien with her rail can­non. A good move now that the crea­ture was close enough to hit.

Charli con­tin­ued to grap­ple with her sec­ond alien, final­ly putting it down with the plas­ma knife in its gut. Teal goo cov­ered her mech’s left arm and splat­tered across the sand.

Zoe took the vol­ley square on her shield, where the ener­gy dis­si­pat­ed harm­less­ly. Then she thrust her mech’s chest for­ward and fired her can­non. The mag­net­ic slug punched a hole clean through the mon­ster off shore and Zoe fol­lowed up with her knife to be sure.

A clus­ter of blue icons appeared on Eden’s HUD in deep­er water. ”Second wave incom­ing,” she warned. ”Seven… no, ten.” So far this skir­mish had fol­lowed the stan­dard lay­out. Scouts to test the defens­es fol­lowed by a larg­er push to over­whelm them. ”This group should have a jack.”

They were big­ger, beefy, and their vol­ley was far more pow­er­ful. They were called tanks, reds, or some­times bombs for their rud­dy col­or and abil­i­ty to blow holes in defens­es. Officially the alien ranks had been labeled jacks, queens, and kings, after play­ing cards, and with luck, noth­ing more dan­ger­ous than a king would ever show itself. Eden had nev­er been one to rely on luck, though.

”Eden, you inter­cept the jack, let Charli and Zoe han­dle the chaff. Put its back to me,” ordered Harlow. ”Don’t let the vol­ley hit you.”

Without the shield, Eden’s mech had no way to inter­cept and redi­rect the ener­gy beam safe­ly, and a jack could throw over twice the pow­er in a sin­gle strike. Her maneu­ver­abil­i­ty was key and with the new pro­gram Eden was con­fi­dent she could dodge the big hits at the right time.

Her antic­i­pa­tion picked up as the clus­ter of blue mark­ers fur­ther sep­a­rat­ed them­selves. Four began charg­ing. ”Volley incom­ing,” Eden report­ed. She gave Charli and Zoe the most accu­rate coor­di­nates her sys­tem could find. Both of them hun­kered into posi­tion behind their shields.

The remain­ing six icons con­tin­ued to advance. Abruptly one of the blue icons shift­ed to red. Eden jerked her mech for­ward and gasped. ”Intercepting the jack!”

The mas­sive alien lum­bered to shore on all six legs, it’s heavy for­ward plat­ing crush­ing the waves. Eden met it in the mid­dle, where the ocean was still high enough to crash against her mech’s knees. With her plas­ma knife held high, Eden bare­ly matched the jack­’s stature, but she was used to uncom­fort­able odds. Her pro­gram gave her an edge the rest of her squad did­n’t have. It iso­lat­ed now a series of weak­er points in the jack­’s heavy plat­ing she could use. With pre­ci­sion, Eden crashed against the jack and aimed her knife at the joint of its upper arm where thick red plat­ing fold­ed in against the chest. Her mech strug­gled to match the jack­’s strength and the plas­ma knife flared off of its plat­ing, but now Eden had the beast­’s attention.

She dis­en­gaged to the right, push­ing the boost­ers in her mech’s legs to their lim­it in the water. She acti­vat­ed the charge sequence on her rail can­non in case it need­ed more incen­tive. Slowly, the jack turned to face her. Eden smiled.

”Firing,” Harlow said.

Eden saw the flash of the mag­net­ic rifle behind the jack, even though the mist obscured Harlow’s mech. Then an explo­sion rocked the jack for­ward, bloom­ing into a cloud of smoke. The crea­ture roared. It began the slow turn to face Harlow and Eden saw the charg­ing sta­tus light up in deep red.

”Move, Harlow, it’s tar­get­ing you.”

”On it.”

Eden dart­ed for­ward to inter­cept the jack. She dodged around a small­er alien as it rose from the water and lift­ed her plas­ma knife to slice it in two on her way by. Teal blood foun­tained into the ocean.

The jack­’s vol­ley was more than half way charged when Eden final­ly maneu­vered in front of it. Her plas­ma knife refract­ed against its thick armor. She tried to punch its head with her left hand, but the crea­ture caught her arm instead. She had­n’t dis­tract­ed it at all. Harlow’s snipe had real­ly pissed it off.

”I’m clear,” Harlow reported.

The jack did­n’t know that. It opened its mouth, show­ing off a shark’s col­lec­tion of dead­ly teeth, and the impend­ing red glow of a vol­ley began to build in the back of its throat. Eden yanked her mech’s arm, but found her­self stuck fast. Harlow may have been clear of the vol­ley, but Eden had put her­self direct­ly in line. The HUD blinked alarm­ing­ly: vol­ley incoming!

Eden acti­vat­ed her rail can­non, not at the jack, who would shrug off her attack, but at her own mech’s arm. Her slug oblit­er­at­ed the machine and she strained the boost­ers to dodge. Warnings popped up on the HUD. They obscured her view, but when the jack launched its vol­ley, all of Eden’s screens went white. The over­load shrieked through the mech’s armor plat­ing as a high-pitched tone, fol­lowed by a dis­ori­ent­ing sense of falling.

When Eden’s screens cleared, a wave crashed over her mech. She was alive. She was hor­i­zon­tal. Horizontal and lack­ing a left arm, but alive.

An explo­sion struck the jack from the right and it tipped left­ward out of Eden’s view. Harlow had struck again with her rifle. Eden lurched her mech back onto its feet in time to see the jack shrug a piece of frac­tured plat­ing off of its shoul­der. She reac­ti­vat­ed her rail can­non’s charg­ing sequence. Harlow’s heavy blows had bro­ken into the jack­’s best defense and Eden rushed in to take advantage.

She shoul­dered into the alien with her ruined left arm to keep it off bal­ance, then drove her plas­ma knife into its side. The knife glanced off pieces of armor, then sank into the soft leath­ery hide under the first arm. Eden quick­ly backed off again, draw­ing the jack­’s atten­tion to the left now. It’s top left arm hung use­less­ly, hem­or­rhag­ing teal blood.

Eden’s HUD warned of a vol­ley charg­ing up, but before it could get far, Harlow fired. Her slug explod­ed against the jack­’s ruined left side in a cloud of smoke and teal blood. The charg­ing icon flick­ered and died. Eden fol­lowed with her plas­ma knife before her vision cleared. She sliced deep into the alien’s sec­ond arm, then up into its body cav­i­ty. When she dart­ed back to shore, the jack top­pled in the surf.

Eden assessed the beach. The jack was dead, but nine oth­er aliens had sur­faced and her squad was only four. Charli and Zoe were down-beach, fight­ing back to back against four aliens. Pieces of their mechs had been torn, or bit­ten, off, and Charli’s shield lay strewn some dis­tance away. The sec­ond alien stepped out of knife range and began charg­ing a vol­ley at Charli. Harlow fired her rifle at alien four, eras­ing it’s head and most of its tor­so from exis­tence. Zoe turned on num­ber three with gus­to while Charli tan­gled with num­ber one.

Eden pushed her mech for­ward as she real­ized Charli did­n’t have any way to defend against the vol­ley. With Zoe occu­pied and Harlow’s rifle just spent, there was noth­ing to inter­rupt the alien or its attack. Eden’s mech ran across the beach as quick­ly as she could push her engines, rac­ing the lit­tle red charg­ing line she saw cir­cling to a close. Her rail can­non was still out of range.

Charli crushed the first alien beneath her mech’s feet and removed its head with her knife. The charg­ing icon blinked: vol­ley incom­ing! And at point blank range, Charli would­n’t even see it com­ing. Eden’s acti­vat­ed her rail can­non just before the range meter passed her tar­get. Her for­ward momen­tum crashed to a stop as the bolt launched from her mech’s chest. It struck the alien at a glance, not enough to kill it. But the vol­ley angled up over Charli’s head and missed.

Charli turned and fin­ished the beast with her plas­ma knife as the vol­ley’s blue ener­gy still crack­led over her shoulder.

Eden let her breath out hard.

”Close call,” Harlow said. ”But well done, team!”

The sim­u­la­tion abrupt­ly froze and Eden was jolt­ed back into real­i­ty. The beach was a con­struct and these aliens were just dots of data. None of it had been real. But Eden had felt real fear when the jack had near­ly shot into her face, and again when Charli had nar­row­ly missed cer­tain death. Her deci­sion to sac­ri­fice her mech’s arm had been real. The not-quite-close-enough line of her rail-can­non’s dis­tance lim­it had been very real.

Eden took her hel­met off and lost sight of the beach entire­ly. The cock­pit was once again a blank slate, ready for the next pilot to test their skills. She removed her small pro­gram chip from the sys­tem and turned it over in her hands. Just a sim­ple pro­gram with sim­ple graph­ics, but they had giv­en her the edge she need­ed to save her­self and her squad­mate. Eden knew this was the rea­son she was real­ly here. Pilot train­ing was nec­es­sary, but this lit­tle pro­gram would change how human­i­ty fought for their plan­et. And maybe one day Eden could take the fight to them.

Her cock­pit sud­den­ly opened and Charli leaned in, back­lit. ”Hey, you com­ing? It’s time for grub.”

”Yeah, but some­one is in my way.” Eden waved Charli back and climbed out of the sim­u­la­tor. Harlow was help­ing Zoe into her wheel­chair. Eden pock­et­ed her pro­gram and linked arms with her squad­mate. ”I saved your ass today. You owe me.”

”I owe you a rematch, maybe. I had it under control.”

”Sure you did–”

”Eden! Hardcore shoot­ing off your own arm,” Zoe ran into them both from the side and Charli laughed, keep­ing them all upright.

”I was going to eat a jack volley!”

”That was pret­ty cool,” Charli agreed.

Eden grinned. Their infec­tious mood spread to Harlow, who chuck­led behind them. Yeah, pilot train­ing was nec­es­sary, and her lit­tle pro­gram might change the world, but this was more impor­tant. Friendships so close she could rely on any one of these women to have her back, no mat­ter what. In a mech or out of one. They were more than a squad, they were sisters.

–//–

This sto­ry is avail­able from August 5th — 13th. If you’d like to be noti­fied of free fic­tion when it goes live, please join the newslet­ter! You can buy your own copy on my web­store, or your favorite ebook store. Special thanks to my Patrons who made this short sto­ry possible.

This sto­ry was avail­able from August 5th — 13th. If you’d like to be noti­fied of free fic­tion when it goes live, please join the newslet­ter! You can buy your own copy on my web­store, or your favorite ebook store. Special thanks to my Patrons who made this short sto­ry pos­si­ble.