by Joachim Heijndermans
Eight days. Eight days since the ‘Jerry’ closed in on them. Eight days she laid there, completely still, strapped tightly into her metal cage. The little red light above her head blinked less frequently now. Once every ten seconds, maybe. It used to be five, the standard emergency light display that signaled the suit was using up the last of its power. The only parts that still worked were the life support system and that little red emergency light—flashing night and day.
She hated that red light above. It was just far enough above her head that she couldn’t crush it with her skull, so she was stuck with it. If she closed her eyes long enough, she could block out the red hue for just a moment at a time to permit other colors to dance briefly in her retinas. But it was the red light that always prevailed. No matter how much she squinted, it eventually shone right on past her eyelids. She wondered if the constant blinking would make her go blind, or at least give her permanent vision damage.
Then there was the damage the rest of her body sustained, from all she endured inside this suit. Muscle atrophy. Brittle bones. Intestinal damage due to starvation. She was in for a whole slew of medical procedures once she got out of her prison. That was, if they ever found her.
It was her own damn fault. She should have been quicker to get out of the ‘Jerry’ when it came down. At least, that’s what she told herself for the last two days. The first three days of her entrapment she was too preoccupied with figuring out how to get out of her Mech-6 to waste her thoughts and time on ‘what-ifs’. Once she’d exhausted all the other possibilities, she had no choice but to wait for someone to find her. The emergency beacon should have activated the second she became trapped. They’d be there soon and help her out, as long as the system did as it was supposed to.
All she needed to do was wait. Then she would have three days to plan how she would get back at the company. She would sue them for negligent deployment, dumping her and her crew out on the Illia-12 moon with outdated Mechs. Because, let’s face it, those pieces of shit hadn’t been produced since before the war, and they were expected to descend eighty kilometres into a mine in them? She doubted the company ever even checked how rough the weather conditions were going to be.
She hated them, and she was going to let them know it. They fucked with the wrong person this time, and they were going to pay. That was the plan. Or at least, it was before her violent coughing fits that thundered through her lungs. Before she saw blood spatter against the black screen in front of her face. By now, getting back at the company didn’t seem so important anymore. Freedom from steel and polymer encased bondage was all that mattered.
Another sound. A heavy creak. Ice and snow being pushed down. The suit trembled. The moaning of metal bending under pressure, as hundreds of tons of debris pressed itself down on the Mech, echoed all around her. This was it. The suit would give in. She’d be crushed to death, buried underneath steel, snow, ice and unrefined ore. Lost forever.
But nothing happened. The moans stopped. Her metal prison remained intact. Her heart raced. She was okay. Still alive. Trapped, but alive.
Water dripped down through the hairline crack in her helmet onto her head and down her face where it formed a small pool near her chin. With her tongue, she managed to clean it up. It was so much easier the first few days of her entrapment when she could still move her neck without feeling like she was a million years old. By now it was a struggle just to lean forward. She could hardly move her neck now. Still, she forced herself. Water was the one thing she got without any cost. With no food, the water was a welcome gift. It even staved her hunger off for brief periods. She could last a little longer without food, couldn’t she? They’d find her soon enough. Then she could eat as much as she wanted. Stuff herself until she burst. But she had to stay hydrated.
She couldn’t die here. She wouldn’t. Not here, on some rock that orbited Illia. She’d never even been on Illia. That was the first place she’d visit after they got her out. No, wait. That would be the second thing. The first thing she’d go and see was her home, back on Menelaus. The tiny apartment with the two rooms and a balcony with a view of the indigo sunrise.
Home. Family. The only people crazy enough to want her around. She missed them so very much. Garee, her husband, and Esta, her wife. She missed every little thing about them. The things she never figured to be important, until she began to wonder if she’d ever experience them again. The way they held her close whenever they made love. Or the way they used to kid around when they took a bath together, spraying water at each other or making bubble beards. How Esta would make them dinner from the leftover ingredients she swiped from the restaurant. Or when Garee would read to them from his work as they relaxed on the couch. How she would take them out on trips in the Stardancer-26 to Neo-Rhea. Or when they would just lie in bed together, wrapped in each other’s arms. Soft breaths against their skin and dreams of nothing but each other.
She also missed the little annoyances. Whenever Garee left his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor, or when Esta forgot to pick up their wash, or lost it altogether because she got distracted and left the receipt somewhere. The little arguments, sometimes between just two of them, and often between all three. It was Esta who would get them all into bed and make them forget why they ever fought at all. But there were also nights when they said nothing. Nights when they went to bed and turned their backs toward each other and no goodnights were uttered, only Esta’s soft sobs to break the cold silence.
Their last great argument was right before she left for this assignment. Esta wanted kids. It was her life-long dream. But she and Garee didn’t think the time was right. Their marriage license debt wasn’t paid off yet, let alone their condo. With Esta not working full time, and Garee receiving only a minor freelance income, they simply couldn’t afford kids. And what if Esta wasn’t eligible for pregnancy? Who was going to carry a kid for nine months? Not her. She was the one with the steadiest income. No company in the system would allow a pregnant woman to pilot a Mech. She’d have to take mission control jobs, which only paid a quarter of a pilot’s wages.
They argued all night. Esta, being seven years younger, accused them of not treating her as an adult. Garee felt like he was pigeonholed into the role of the loser husband, who needed his wives to support him. And what did she do? She ran out, to ‘clear her head’ as she said. Really, it was an excuse to go to the port bar and get stupid drunk.
She spent the entire night there, drinking away two bottles of Tranquinelle, unsure if is she should even go home at all. When she met the eyes of a shapely Persilian girl in the back, she even contemplated having some fun. The girl’s skin was dark and beautiful. Bright red lips shone like the Ruby Sea. Indigo eyes that had to be implants, but looked amazing on her anyway. From a distance, they threw each other looks, a strange dance of winks, peers, and ‘come hither’ glances.
Despite the temptation, she still decided against it. She went home and crawled into bed without saying a word. She dreamt of long fingers, touching her deep within, and red lips caressing her own light brown skin. Ivory white teeth bit her, while her own fingers stroked through wavy dark hair as she wrapped her legs around a beautiful creature. But she also dreamt of sad eyes. One green pair and one brown. Eyes filled with hurt and love. The eyes of those she could never betray, even in her fantasies. She loved them. As much as they pissed her off sometimes, she loved them. Their marriage wasn’t perfect, but she learned long ago that perfection was bullshit, and striving for it was lost time she could have spent with her family.
The next day she kissed them both and told them she’d be back in a month. She could kick herself now for not telling them they were the great lights of her life. That they were the ones who made her feel like she was worth a damn. That they were the reasons she even felt alive. Every Mech she piloted was bound to end up with an image of her little family on its display screen. It was a snapshot from their trip to Earth, a little backwater place in the first system. Their honeymoon. It was the only place they could afford to go, but they loved every moment of it. They stood before a ‘Redeemer’, some sort of ancient statue in a place called ‘Brassil’ or ‘Braze-il’. It didn’t matter that the entire place was flooded with slums, or that they couldn’t stay out in the sun longer than an hour. They were happy just to be together. She could dream that image, she’d seen it so many times. But she couldn’t see them now. The screen went dark when all power was rerouted to the climate control. Their smiling faces were absent, replaced only by the blinking of the hollow red light.
The stinging woke her up. Her legs had fallen asleep again. When she first got trapped, it was a minor annoyance. Another itch she couldn’t scratch. However, so many days without decent nutrition or exercise left her in agony. Pins and needles had become daggers and swords, skewering her muscles apart. If she wiggled her feet slightly, she could get the blood flowing to them again. She began to hate how strict she’d been about strapping herself in as tightly as possible.
Her mental state was getting worse. Once per day, she felt like she’d lost her mind. She shook violently, while her binds dug into her skin until she bled, struggling against them for freedom. But all it did was cause the metal hull of her Mech to groan. At the start, she would freeze the moment she heard that sound, afraid to even breathe. By now, after hearing the same empty threat so many times a day, she wished it would just get on with it.
Break down already! Collapse in on me! Rupture the Mech’s hull and expose me to temperatures of a hundred below freezing. Begin dancing to holla-drums! Anything! Anything but this endless waiting!
Losing her temper did no good. She was still trapped. Her only achievement was getting herself worked up. If she didn’t pass out from exhaustion, she’d spend the rest of the day quietly sobbing inside her metal suit. The best way to alleviate the frustration and boredom was to go over what went wrong in her head, again and again and again. What caused the collapse? How did she get trapped down here? Could she have avoided it? Did the others survive? Just picture it again, she told herself. One more time, step by step, from the beginning. Remember the snow, the wind and the chasm of ice. When she was down in the ‘Jerry’.
It was their second week on the Illia-12 moon. Their outpost was built on the edge of the canyon, housing a crew of eight. They called the deep chasm ‘Jerry’. She had no idea how it even got that name. Most likely, it was named after someone’s kid or husband. Down at a depth of forty kilometers, the halfway point, was a massive vein of uranium ore, which they’d been given a month extract. The seismic scans indicated no chance of earthquakes, so they didn’t worry too much about being rough. Maybe that was what caused the collapse, though she still didn’t know for sure.
There were three of them down below in the chasm that day. Herself, that kid from Morricone, and Steevee the supervisor. They were the only ones licensed to operate Mechs up to generation ten. Bringing up ore only a few tons at a time was slow, and they were on a tight schedule. It must have been something they overlooked in their rush. A crack in the chasm wall? Or a dramatic shift in temperature? Whatever it was, the ‘Jerry’ collapsed on them, dragging the outpost along with it. Five people were still inside the refinery. They were probably dead, smashed to bits when the structure fell down into the abyss. Had there been power in the Mech to spare, she would’ve checked the comm frequencies for the others. Perhaps someone was trapped the same way she was.
She nearly got herself out when the ‘Jerry’ collapsed, blasting her thrusters at maximum capacity. With some of the best flying she’d ever done in her life, she avoided the debris as she climbed up into the air like a bottle rocket. But even a silver-ranked pilot like her couldn’t dodge it all. A boulder the size of a couch knocked her off course, while a crane cable hook-lined her back down into the deep. Then, nothing.
She didn’t remember passing out, but when she woke up, she was trapped. The Mech couldn’t budge an inch, and her screen showed both her battery and life support dying. It was sheer luck that her fingers were still free to use the control pad in the Mech’s arm, which allowed her to reroute power away from all secondary systems to the vital systems.
With nothing else to do, she waited. Eight days of waiting. Eight days of catching the water that leaked into the suit, while trying to concoct scenarios of escape. Eight days of trying to ignore the hunger, and failing. Eight days of nothing.
Before her entrapment, her stomach used to growl when she got hungry. Now it roared like a caged animal, eating away at her insides every time she woke. In her reflection on the screen she could see grooves on her cheek. She’d fallen asleep against the helmet again. It was still better than leaning her neck back, as that pain took days to fade.
She hated the sight of her own reflection now. She didn’t recognize herself as she once was. In the monitor, she saw a withered ghost of her past self. She shuttered at the thought of Esta and Garee seeing her like this. Is that even me? Or is my hunger warping my mind into seeing myself like this? Is any of this real anymore? She hissed aloud, though unsure as what she was directing her anger at. She spat at the red light. Her spittle missed the bulb, which blinked on, ignoring the attack, while she cursed herself for wasting valuable fluids like that.
She began to wonder. When, or if, they found her body, would they know how much she suffered, trapped inside this suit? When this began, she hoped they would find her quickly. Now she wished her family would never see her again. Not like this. Not as this thing, this creature. Her sobbing echoed throughout her metal prison, only to be followed by sudden laughter, an almost child-like giggle. She was no longer the woman from before the collapse. Instead, when she looked at her reflection now, she saw a dark parody of her former self. Whatever she had once been, that woman was gone, replaced with a dry husk teetering between death and giddy madness.
She calmed down, her laughter subduing. For a brief while, she simply breathed in and out, focusing on returning to a lucid state. Then, a scream. The most primal of screams. No trace of fear or pain, but simple, unfiltered rage. With all her might, she slammed her head into the blank screen before her. And she did this again and again, in an enraged attempt to blot away the sight of her own withered face. Destroy the reflection that peered back at her. Destroy the woman that wasn’t her. Smash it with her skull to see which one would break first. The screen cracked, but remained in one piece. In fact, the gash above her eyebrow made her reflection seem even more twisted, as a stream of blood poured into her eyes. She let out a dark chuckle before she drifted off again. For a brief moment, she dreamt. She dreamt of being held by her husband and wife. Dreams of a warm indigo sunrise. Dreams of being able to move once more.
The dizziness was the worst. Or maybe it was the stomach pains? Scratch that; this whole situation was the worst. Was it still only her eighth day? Or was she on her ninth? Her tenth? Who knew anymore?
There was nothing for her inside the Mech. Water had stopped dripping into the suit the day before. There was only the red light; practically mocking her, as if to count down the minutes to her end. The suit would eventually run out of power. Then the temperatures outside would kill her.
This was it—her last moments. She would not see another day. The reflection of the withered specter in the screen seemed to mock her. Hollow eyes and sunken cheeks stared back. She tried to move, but only her thumb actually followed her command. Her thumb, which was on the control pad inside the Mech’s arm. The last time she used the panel was to reroute all power to the life support. It seemed so long ago. Like a dream. Now, with the power slowly dying, there was only one command left to issue.
It was time. Time to implement her last idea. Not an idea for a brilliant escape, which would end with her bursting triumphantly through the ice and debris, soaring up into the heavens as she was cheered on by an audience. This was a more practical idea. She would have to depend on her memory and her sense of touch.
Carefully, she let her fingers graze over the panel. She needed to do this right. One wrong command entered, and this would be over immediately. She flicked the switch on the side, then struggled for a moment to remember where the “R” key was exactly. She let her finger rest on the key for a moment. This was it. No turning back. She pressed the key down.
The red light, that little bastard of a light that tormented her for so long, went dark. A sigh of relief escaped her. She looked up at the screen. Nothing. Only darkness. At least she wasn’t forced to see herself anymore. The complete absence of light would have been soothing, if she hadn’t begun to panic at that moment. Why wasn’t the screen reacting? It was a simple reboot command. Minimal power required. Unless the battery was completely empty. If so, then she had failed. Tears began to swell in her eyes. She was on the verge of a complete breakdown, when white letters popped up before her.
Yes! It was beautiful. The absolute best rendition of that phrase to be written in the history of command queries. A symphony of words. She did her best to stay calm, but if she wasn’t strapped down inside the Mech, she would’ve been dancing.
This was no time to get crazy, though. Normally there would be a small projection in the upper-right corner of the screen, to show her what keys she was about to press. Not this time. She’d never performed a full system reboot outside of a hangar before, so doing it buried under mountains of ice was quite the challenge. If she was going to do this, she would need to rely completely on her memory and touch.
With trembling fingers, she pressed down on the keys. She carefully selected each, with one eye locked on the screen to see what she was typing. Garee could type blind. He would’ve breezed through this. Now she wished she had asked him to show her how he did it. She took her time. And slowly but surely, her command began to take shape.
“Reroute-power/screen.exe” was the first line she finished. When she pressed ‘enter’, the Mech’s little sounds went dead. She didn’t realize that the life support made that constant hum until it completely shut down. There was little time left now. She needed to type quicker for the next command, before the lack of oxygen knocked her out. It wasn’t hard, though. She knew exactly where it would be.
“Open/folder-images/img2771.exe”, she typed. For a moment she struggled to find the ‘enter’ key, as her hands shook with excitement. She found it, and pressed down without a moment of hesitation.
There it was on screen. It was so beautiful. More beautiful than the “Enter Command” option from before. Not even the crack she made with her head could tarnish that image. It was her, with Esta on her left, and Garee on her right. All three of them, standing before the ‘Redeemer’ statue on Earth. They all smiled. Her own skin was much darker, tanned by the ‘Braseel’ sun. Esta’s big hat, with her gorgeous red hair coming out from underneath it. Garee’s face, burned to an even redder hue, with those ridiculous sunglasses he bought from that vendor. She looked at them so intensely she didn’t even notice she’d begun to cry. The tears stung her eyes, but she ignored the pain. She was too happy. Happier than any words could describe. Overjoyed to see them again. She hoped that when they missed her, they would look back at this exact image of the three of them. That was the person she was, not the creature trapped underneath tons of debris inside a little tin suit, but someone who could make them smile like that. Someone who loved them more than anything, and would go through hell to see them again. She may have failed at that last part, but that didn’t mean she loved them any less.
She whispered something as her eyes grew heavy. The dizziness went away, but she grew even more lightheaded than before. She didn’t notice when she began panting for air. All she cared about was right there, right on that screen. Nothing else mattered. She never broke her smile, even after she closed her eyes.
She was unconscious for about ten minutes before the screen finally lost power. Lights out, for good this time. A blanket of darkness embraced her, as the Mech’s battery died. There she would remain, on a frozen world, trapped under ice and snow, strapped down inside a machine that had once kept her alive, yet became her prison. But she escaped it. Despite everything she endured, she was free. Buried in the cold, with a smile on her face, dreaming of an indigo sunrise on Menelaus.
Joachim Heijndermans writes, draws, and paints nearly every waking hour. Originally from the Netherlands, he’s been all over the world, boring people by spouting random trivia. His work has been featured in a number of publications, such as Mad Scientist Journal, Asymmetry Fiction, Metaphorosis, Econoclash Review, and Gathering Storm Magazine, and he’s currently in the midst of completing his first children’s book. You can check out his other work at www.joachimheijndermans.com, or follow him on twitteror Instagram.