A space explorer takes up the role of a giantess playing siege equipment for aliens.
My name is Freya Savitri, and I never much enjoyed long hikes through the desert.
I can’t recall if anyone ever said walking was good for the soul. Caminar in Spanish, tafiya in Hausa, prochazka in Czech, eci in Albanian, loop in Afrikaans, Ga in Swedish, chodit in Slovak, yurish in Uzbek, tsamaea in Sesotho, lumakad in Filipino, kuyenda in Chichewa, yurumek in Turkish, taug kev in Hmong, lopen in Dutch, marche in French, andar in Galician, gehen in German, lumaku in Javanese, camminare in Italian, ukuhamba in Zulu, rin in Yoruba …
Was I really this nervous?
My job was to be this mission’s linguist, which meant recognizing patterns and cracking codes. Discerning the culture behind a language and helping to translate meaning. I was good at it. These were not talents that directly translate to being a glorified delivery girl in a cosplay outfit.
Crunch went the plastic boots into unpolished stone. A rough path built by some years of travel to and from the eastern front, my footprints dwarfing the tracks any traveling natives might have left. It was warm in the direct sun. Flat and open for miles, but I could see the hint of an ocean to the far east. I could see green and trees way off to the north. And south there was cold, just snow and wastes where farmland was difficult. A harsh place for a people who rely on seeds and possess low body mass. How cold did it need to be to harm them?
Well, they didn’t exactly handle heat well either, so I could only assume anything that made me uncomfortable would be unmanageable for a Gesshru. That was the general way these things went.
“How are you holding up?” Doth asked before we’d even left sight of the Ontal max compound. I wasn’t able to turn back and look at it, but I knew we were close and I knew how far one could see in open desert.
“I’m bored, I’m hot, I’m sweaty, and in a few hours I’m going to smell like ass.” I responded in squeaks, trying to sound harsh and annoyed. Such a shame the darned rats can’t hear emotion and inflection either. “What about you?”
“Thought so.” She responds, my head nodding as if she knew what I said. “But you see the thing is, there’s only one person around here.”
Crunch, step, crunch, and another step. The tarp and supply crates bouncing gently and my fingers having no trouble at all holding up that paltry weight. My legs forced to pull forward, ever forward, stiff and slow and painfully robotic.
“There’s two people here. Unless you decided to not count yourself for some reason.” I chirped back, teeth clacking. And all too suddenly my body stopped in place.
I moved my eyes …
Nothing, for a while, waiting to see what Doth would do next.
“How about now?” she said aloud without bothering the use the speaker, her voice just behind my skull. And then I moved my head.
I moved my arms, raising one to glance at the hand, I tilted my head down to see the road. I twisted in place, looking back to a grim prison on an alien world, and I was the one doing it.
“You’re letting …” but the Gesshru’s voice piped back up.
“We still need to make it to Galm before sundown, but do you think you can do the walking?”
I took a step backward, away from Ontal. I turned to see the world, examining under my own power, moving under my own power. There would be consequences to this, and for a moment my first instinct was to grab at the back of my helmet and tear away her access panel. If not for my sake in using this as a chance to escape, then for her sake. Perhaps I could protect her from the fallout when her superior’s discover this? She isn’t quiet, her ideas aren’t new, and if she keeps talking then she’ll just disappear.
But if I could make it to the jungles or the wastes …
One could almost have missed the broad smile creeping off my face until the grim realization brought it back to a frown. Spirits high while weighted in blood, it was all I could do to keep from a rueful laugh. I’ve already tried before, there’s no way I’d get the panel off before she flicks a switch and I’m back under her control.
“Thank you.” So why not enjoy this? Did I have to keep looking into the future when I could live for the now? I didn’t just walk, I bolted. Leaning forward and breaking into a full run.
“W-wha .. wwaoohaha gah, h-heyheyheeeey!” judging by the woman’s screams she probably didn’t expect this, but I didn’t slow down.
Breathing hard and the light plastics creaking, with enough force they might crack in places even if one didn’t have to worry about it breaking under ordinary use. I didn’t care. Just move, just breathe, just be! The bag of supplies trailed behind me while I was swinging my other arm for balance, each step a leaping stride ever forward.
Kicking rocks aside, watching floating dust smack against the helm and visor. I only wish I could have felt the breeze of air against my skin.
“Y-you gaahh, we don’t need to rush! Seriously, it’s … ggnn …” the woman was struggling. Each bounce rocking her around, each impact a jolt on her tiny bones. It might have been selfish but I didn’t care, this was a chance to run and I was taking it. “You’re dedication is adorable but you don’t have to push this hard, honest! I was kidding, the time limit isn’t something to stress over! Sloooww doooowwn!”
“Ha. Ha! HA!” Of course I did no such thing. She didn’t have to understand my laughter to tell I was having too much fun. A running crouch, then a leap! I was airborne and practicing a long jump. A heavy land and then a tumbling roll, the rocks useless against even this weak armor and the poor disoriented rodent pretending to be Jiminy cricket was left with an unexpected roller coaster ride.
I still didn’t care.
“OhCoreWow” she mumbled, bracing into her hand-holds and hoping the straps kept her in a stable seat. If I was careful enough I might be able to crack open the helmet with a well placed rock, perhaps pull her out. But if I attempted that then she’d take control back for sure.
“What were you expecting, you move like a three year old.” A taunt on my part. And perhaps more, as I only gave her a few more yards of running before my head lurched to the ground and my legs swung overhead, arms pushing against the dirt in a longside tumble.
I don’t know if any Gesshru has ever documented a human performing a cartwheel, or if the one who first did so lived to share the findings. But Doth was now counted among a rare and lucky few who was allowed to experience one from a firsthand account.
“AAAAahhhhhhh! What is hapeniiiing!”
I don’t think she considered herself lucky.
“Come on, pilot! Surely you know what fun looks like.” But I did manage to slow down, enough to hop in place and shadowbox. Spinning at random to strike the air before me, leaping up to deliver fast kicks and bounce around like a schoolgirl out of class. I didn’t walk to the east, I danced. And for the first time in a long time I had room to move, sunlight just inches away, and no one was forcing me to stop.
“H-hhhhh …” I heard Doth breathing, heavy gasps and panicked fluttering. “T-that was …” she struggles, occasionally having to grip her seat as a sudden movement throws her to the right. Or a fast drop makes her own stomach lurch. I could feel the scrambles. One could all but feel the restrained panic, clearly having not expected so explosive a response.
“That was just fun and you know it, now hold on tight because I’m about to start running again.” A bounce. A twirl! No, I stopped and just breathed. Slipping back into a casual walk to let her catch her breath.
“I had no idea a Max could move like that. How fast were we going? Who taught you? Oh Core if we just get a Max to run like that we could bolt all the way to the capital. No army could catch you, just zip right past their lines!”
“You’re barely a year old and you move like a toddler, sorry kid but no Gesshru is going to break into a full run without tripping over themselves. You couldn’t even stack blocks with any quickness.” I felt like an off-screen heckler, or maybe comedy relief. How long can a linguist talk knowing that nobody she meets will ever understand a word she says? A careful crouch making sure to keep my head level, I scooped up a good sized rock just to show off how much better I was at moving my hands than her.
A second. One. That’s all it took. See, Doth? This is how arms are supposed to work. Get it right.
“By the core this is amazing, I have got to get that kind of speed working when I’m at the controls.” Doth fumbled excitedly, and it took her only moments to take over my eyes. Forcing me to look at the rock in my hand, down at the road. Wait, no, my eyes scanned over the whole of by body as if checking for injuries? When she satisfied her own curiosity I could move them again.
“Hate when people do that, you know. I don’t actually gain anything from a pilot.” I tossed the rock and caught it in a thick glove, only to toss it again. Walking casually and letting her feel like she mattered. Or perhaps just catching my breath, pace the length of time I get to move freely.
“You’re armor clearly didn’t hold up as well as it should have. This high strength polymer isn’t built to withstand that kind of stress, and I’m seeing a lot of scrapes and a few cracks. That’s odd though, even a full strength punch from another Max unit wouldn’t break this armor …”
“Nothing you rats do in the pilot seat is anywhere near full strength.” I shot back, more with annoyance than pride. Another toss, another catch, treating this rock like a ball. All too suddenly I wished there was some method to sneak it into my prison cell. If nothing else it’d be a toy to play around with, and with luck it might be geologically fascinating. Alien rocks in an alien desert, and here I was left to wonder if they would be nicer than the alien life.
“It will take a long time to clean that stuff you know, might even need to replace some of the cracked parts. But Core if that wasn’t amazing to see. Anything else you can … hey, just why do you have that rock anyway?”
A pause on my part. Me. I controlled when we stopped, I got to decide, it was all me. Oh how glorious this felt! But to answer her tiny little question, I wasn’t really sure. I looked to the rock and realized I didn’t exactly have pockets, but it might go into my shorts or the bra. Soldiers would see it though …
“How about I show you another trick?” I pulled my hands up the helmets visor and closed two delicate fingers over the cheap plastic. Thumb and index working at the screen while the other three held the rock. A pluck. A scrape, just working to dig my nails into the crack between helm and visor.
“Are you showing off …” Doth muttered in amazement.
Scrape. Pluck. And then puullll, the plastic bends as fingers tear it away, but nothing actually breaks. The carefully folded gears and segments try to resist, but this was a child’s toy in every literal sense of the word. No match for the focused strength of even two digits, forcing the visor to retract up into its slot.
I could feel it. Wind. Sun! I could feel that glorious fresh air and breathe. Only now was I acutely aware of the sweat beading down my face and soaking into the pads, but this was wonderful. My jaws opened, a hand shoved into the helmet to try and force that decent sized rick just past the lips, then- …
“Ah! No, nonono, that’s not food. NO! Spit that out.” My hand stopped moving. A frown, she didn’t have control of my face, and she couldn’t stop my lips from working. My movement however …
As the amateur took control away from my legs there was a sickening lurch, the pilot not all that comfortable in keeping me balanced.
“You’ll let me stuff enemy soldiers inside, but not a rock? I’m not going to swallow it.” I squeaked and clicked, but the most she understood was the fact I offered a complaint. So much for smuggling this back to my cage.
“If you’re hungry then we’ll let you eat something later, alright? There’s probably some food for you at the outpost.” Robotically my legs lurched forward, once. And then twice. My arms dropped to one side, and from her forcing my head to stare at each one I could tell she needed to carefully check which hand held the rock and which one held supplies before forcing my fingers to release. An annoying reminder that even if she was more pleasant than Tasgal, she was still a Gashn pilot.
We walked a little ways forward, the movement slow and bouncing with occasional wobbles on uneven soil. Rocks that were the size of boulders for her made out to be tripping stones that scuffed into my boots.
The Galm outpost was getting a fresh supply of rations, and it didn’t have a Max storage facility. There was only one supply of food they might have in store, and it obviously wasn’t the mush gruel. That knowledge left me wondering if the outpost was attacked, and if so how recently?
“There.” Doth mumbled with a heavy sigh. “Now you can start walking again, but no rocks. Bad. You’ll get sick if you eat one, alright?”
I rolled my eyes right back, and it wasn’t a stretch to say my sigh was heavier. “Well I’m sure you could kiss something and make it all better.”
“More of those noises, I wish I could tell what you were trying to say. Oh and you have no idea, just like, no idea at all, how cute it is that you babble every time I talk at you.” Doth gushes, sitting back to relax in her cockpit while I did most of the work. Well, all of it really.
“And yet of the two of us I highly suspect my academic knowledge vastly outstrips yours in every measurable area of expertise.” I shot back, only prompting squeaks and giggles from a thoroughly amused Gesshru.
My pace picked up, starting into a light jog with the rations swaying in my arm. Boots heavy and the air stale. My helmet visor being entirely unhelpful without my fingers holding it at bay. Of course. Little Doth, like most other pilots, probably assumed I’d be vulnerable to dust or something. In truth the visor protecting my eyes with all the effectiveness of safety goggles was more to ease the damage a pilot could cause when they inevitably controlled me like a toddler. A little bit of the purpose was just to keep the pilot well concealed, didn’t want a stray spear or an out of control Max to get in that one lucky hit.
“Guess there’s a lot of things you don’t know.” Doth continued in her boredom.
“I would rather heartily mirror that statement with acknowledgements of my own, considering how readily you accept you’re leadership’s propaganda.” My own words felt hollow and empty. Is this what hopelessness was like? I don’t really care for it.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been fascinated by Max units.” The woman chirps, stroking the back of my head like I was some sort of pet.
“Another statement I feel compelled to mirror, albeit I’ve been fascinated by your culture, you’re architecture, and you’re native fauna for longer than you’ve been alive. Still not the length of a childhood I must confess.” Her affection made me realize how long it’s been since anyone has understood me.
“I got to see you once when I was really little you know, or well I think it was you. My school was taken to the Ontal base as a field experience, and the whole class was there watching as you’re armor was fitted. I just couldn’t grasp how you were so big, so fluid. You looked like you should have fallen apart any minute, but … no.”
“That happens every month or so miss Doth, and I’m not usually allowed to see the groups at floor level. Much less recognize them. Forgive me if I’m incapable of ascertaining the exact trip that so inspired you.” Me! The linguist, my entire purpose on this mission was to understand and be understood, and yet I’ve failed so spectacularly.
“I really, really didn’t understand it at first. The realization that you aren’t just cogs and wires. That you are alive, that you breathe and eat and think. I kept imagining there were entire cities of eager Max units lining up to join the army and help us crush those easterner scum. Haha, my teacher kept trying to knock sense into me. A starflung old woman with a mean streak, but she helped me see the truth and dispel those childish dreams.” Doth sounded wistful.
“Spoken from the mouths of babes. While you would hardly register as a babe in the standard sense of my primary culture back home, I do believe if you saw the actual truth things would have appeared even more remarkable. A shame you would not live long enough to survive a return trip to earth.” A roll of my eyes at this familiar story from an eager pilot who doesn’t even know her days are numbered. Another adorable little rodent who’s story will end in tragedy. If she was lucky she’d die to enemy action, that was always cleaner than what her superiors got away with.
“But I knew, okay. I knew from then on that I just had to work with Maxes, and By the Stars here I am! Ahaha. If you work hard enough and show enough dedication, any dream can come true. And I don’t just want to be any old pilot alright, I want you to trust me. I want us to be friends, even without the collar.” She seemed to gulp, I could hear the nervousness. But the adoring affection one might thrust onto a family dog was still present above all else.
She didn’t have anything to be afraid of, not from me.
“A touching sentiment. I can honestly say you are a marked improvement over that idiot, Flits. Speaking of which, you wouldn’t mind helping me convince that rat to spend a night in my cage, would you?” I rather doubt she could catch that hopeful optimism inflected in my tone.
“That’s the spirit, keep this up and we can make a singer out of you. Record and play back all these weird sounds to make a really funny musical.” She rubbed into my hair again, and with a grumble I accepted. Her touch did feel pleasant I could assure myself, it was just tiring to hear so blatantly how little this race could understand.
“If you want me to sing then I will sing in my own language, thank you very muc- …”
“AAAAhhh!owowowow, stopstopstop, no more singing! OOoowwww” she screamed out, but carefully didn’t take control of the legs away from me. My voice goes silent and my lips curl into a smirk, speaking English and with human vowels and constantans always had this effect. Her being so close to the source didn’t help.
“Well my sincerest apologies. Would this be a terrible time to mention I adore rock music? It’s rather difficult to stay current deep in cold transit and even harder when I’ve been held prisoner for so many years, but we all have our tastes.” Switching back to squeaks and chatters now, that cheeky grin on my face the only sign that this was deliberate payback.
I picked up the pace, leaning forward into a heartier run. Legs pounding and sweat pooling away, the wind scraping dust against my armor. This wasn’t just walking, this was a marathon now.
“Maybe you singing isn’t such a good idea. Or … I’ll teach you! Real singing that is, songs from the soul. Not whatever war trumpet you just belched out.” She chided playful with another careful head scratch. “oowww, my bones are still ringing from that.”
“It wasn’t even a song!” I squeaked. “And that’s how you can tell it’s good music, if it won’t make your joints wiggle then it’s clearly not loud enough.”
“My father used to sing to me when I was really small, you know. Sweet melodies, it was like hearing the sound of candy.” Doth grinned. I couldn’t see it, especially not at what amounted to a full gallop, but I could hear her smile.
“I didn’t get to see my father very much. He was always busy, always working. I spent time with my nanny instead.” A reply on deaf ears. I could make them deafened ears if she didn’t have a way to shut up any obnoxiously loud screams I made. Such a shame it wasn’t enough to escape the first time, and these little bastards always adapt faster than I can exploit.
“Wish the old man was still around, you know? Oh what I wouldn’t give to show you to him right now. Just imagine driving you up into town, walking strait up to my front door. Leaving the controls down so you can just move around as you please. And then I freak everyone out by hopping down to greet them and you stand up without me.” Doth seemed to be as talkative as I wished I could be.
“I can imagine it.”
“Oh can you just imagine that? I’d be like ‘no-no, it’s perfectly safe, just walking with a Max unit’ no big deal. And they’d be all like ‘e-e-y-you brought a Max! Over t-t-to my house!’ and then one of my brothers would probably faint or something. And at least one neighbor would try to shove someone into your food bowl to see if you’d eat them.” That petting again, she really did think of me as a pet.
“While far be it from me to ruin your fantasies, I feel it only fair to inform you that the first thing I’d do upon being granted freedom is run away. Preferably to somewhere in which I am not being given young adults on a daily basis with the expectation that I will eat them.” My dignified squeaks were lost on her as always.
“Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not ever going to happen. You aren’t even assigned to me, but I think if I pulled a few strings and embarrass Tasgal enough I can make it happen. He wants to partially lobotomize you for some reason, just can’t admit that he’s a bad pilot.” Doth spoke with a pleasant disdain for the man.
“The unfortunate reality miss Doth.” I spoke more for my own benefit than hers, rushing headlong through sunlit desert toward a distant compound I could just barely see. “Is that Tasgal Flits is exactly the kind of soldier the higher command thinks they want, in particular because he’s not going to uncover their little secrets. Takes orders without question and enforces brutal ruthlessness. The kind of man they think will help them rule with an iron … paw, I guess. If you pull too many strings then you’re going to end up on a dinner plate yourself. With all of your so-called friends calling you scum.”
“Wow.” Doth seemed impressed. “That was a really long one, you must be really getting into this back and forth chatter. Did you ever think about having kids?”
“I have had no children of my own by direct natural birth, however I suspect there is a great likelihood of my DNA being used in the artificial construction of a new child back home. I realized I would never have the time to care for a family myself, always loved the job too much. Loved space with all my heart. I didn’t want to put someone else through what I grew up with, having to compete with your parent’s passion. So I didn’t, I kept my own relationships formal and based around work, and in case someone else wished to raise a child properly then I had no trouble donating the necessary biological material.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“You didn’t understand a word I said.”
“I’ve always wanted kids but, what happens if I go out on some mission. And then one day I don’t come back? That’s hard on a kid, ya know. But I don’t want to give up my work, the chance to see a Max, to be this close, to talk with you! I … I don’t think I could give that up. So I stay away from family. Don’t want to put the next generation through what my dad did to me. You know, if ... if that makes any sense to you.”
The first sound she got in response was heavy breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth, calm and steady. The next words were soft, but no human’s whispering would be above those sensitive ears.
“I take it back, miss Doth.” And so I ran. Hard and fast I ran, faster than before but no sign of slowing down. “You understand everything.”