Robot 55

A shift of air currents as the tunnel opens onto a colossal cave. A raised hand to protect from the glare of countless lights. The suspended walkway vibrates underfoot, just one in a maze of steel tubing intersecting at different heights. Hulking shapes looming at either hand, framed by the harsh glare from below.

Staircase landings coming together to form a small platform. A group of young people in red jumpsuits standing or sitting with bottles in hand. One of them, a girl, shifts her legs to make way, looking on with bleary eyes.

"New guy, eh?" she asks slowly. "Let's see how long you last. Down that way, and keep to you left for two more levels."

"What was that about?" inquires someone as the group remains behind.

"They gave him Robot 55."

"Ah," resumes the first voice. "That's too bad, he's cute."

The voices fade away among the growing noise of cutting and welding. The stairs end at the side of a wider walkway. Then it comes into focus: a human torso as tall as a house, flanked by thick arms; on top, a strong neck supports the head, from which a pair of burning eyes look down on the passer-by with an impenetrable expression. Flat, shiny armor panels are open here and there, revealing the machinery inside.

"Majestic, isn't it." The graying man seems to come out of nowhere. His brown jumpsuit is barely a shade darker than his skin. "Oh, don't look at me like that, there's no curse. Those hotheads back there were messing with you."

The young man runs a hand through his spiky hair. "You heard?"

"Just a guess, knowing them. I'm Ahmed, by the way. What's your name, blondie?"

"Roy." They shook hands. "So, you're my mechanic?"

"That's me! You can meet the rest of the ground crew later."

"Actually I'm supposed to meet my wing leader. For the orientation."

Ahmed smiles widely, a twinkle in his eye. "Well, you don't have to stand around waiting. Wanna climb into the cockpit?"

He turns around without waiting for an answer, and gestures towards a nearby elevator. The wire cage takes them up to a narrow bridge. They walk across; the older man fiddles with something and the robot's face plate opens, while the neck guard slides forward and down, revealing a ladder.

"Go right in, Roy. Just like in the simulator."

It's not like in the simulator, of course. The cockpit feels more spacious, if anything, though still a fraction of the robot's internal volume. The harness is more comfortable, too, embracing every curve of his body at once, like no chair could. Big screens come to life, linking with his goggles; electrodes press down on the back of his neck and hands. And then he's right there, no longer just a boy but instead a towering giant, standing on a launchpad as the vaulted ceiling suddenly seems much closer.

"Hey, Ahmed," he says into the headset. A small human shape standing on a model scaffolding at chest level cringes and squeaks something indistinct, waving a toy walkie-talkie. Oh, right.

"...your radio, blondie, not the external speakers!" his headset crackles.

"Sorry!" He flips several more switches in a hurry.

"S'all right. How's it feel?"

"Amazing." He turns around slowly, taking in the entire place. There are maybe a dozen robots in all. Across the walkway, a different one raises a hand carefully and waves to him from the elbow. He tries to answer in kind, but almost knocks over a pile of crates and gives up.

By the time he gets back down, there's someone else with the mechanic: a short, muscular girl with a shock of jet-black hair and golden jumpsuit.

"You must be Roy," she declares cheerfully, extending a hand. "I'm Hikaru."

"I thought Hikaru was a boy's name," says Roy. "Ow."

"Me too," she retorts, letting go of his remaining fingers, "but the robot doesn't care."

The young man coughs in the sudden silence. "What happened to the other pilots?"

"Ah, you've heard. Look. Akira got hit square in the chest with an ion blast. By the time the battle was over, she had been without life support for too long."

"Mechanoids have damn good aim," Ahmed interjects.

"Right. And Jose spun out of control towards the end of a rescue mission. He ejected. His capsule was pelted with debris."

"Just bad timing," adds the mechanic.

"Yeah. As for Isaac... that's complicated. But how about you, Roy? What brings you here?"

He scratches his head. "Well... I tried everything. Racing cars. Helicopters. Heavy construction cranes. It never felt enough."

"You might get more than you bargained for," she points out. "We're at war."

He nods vigorously. "I know. In fact, I'm surprised the SAM isn't a military organization."

"We tried that at first," she explains. "But you don't beat a race of machines by trying to be more disciplined and organized than they are."

Another silence follows.

"Anyway!" resumes Hikaru, patting his shoulder. "Let me show you around. Cheers, Ahmed!"

She doesn't look behind as the older man holds up a hand, looking serious. "One more thing, Roy."

"What is it?"

"Space is too big for us humans. We built these robots to try and even the odds, but it doesn't work that way. Can't build a robot big enough. Be careful out there."

"I'll keep that in mind. Thank you."

He hurries to catch up with Hikaru, followed by multiple shadows.