There was a lot of pain in Nova’s legs.
It felt familiar, except this time there was no screaming. A groggy, dull pain was a reminder that he was supposed to focus, or a lot of people would die - it was the truth that had been drilled into him since the day he had joined the base of the Eurasia Zone.
He brushed some wet locks of dark hair away from his face. Despite the sweat, his skin was cold to touch. There’s so much pain.
A creaking, whirring, beeping construction of artificial intelligence, metal and top-notch programming shielded him from the outside world. Vaguely human-shaped. Robot, exoskeleton. A mecha.
Nova thought about Tiger. Tiger had been Nova’s choice for piloting ever since the model came out, and it had never let him down. Tiger had gotten him and Liam through everything.
But Liam wasn’t here. In his memories, Liam never stopped screaming.
“Come on,” he grunted and punched the lever that was supposed to move the mechanical arm. “Move. Do it. Move.” He knew there should have been a voice next to him, on the piloting platform at his left-hand side, because nobody piloted alone. The system should have connected him to his pilot partner, he should have been able to feel the presence of someone else’s mind intertwining with his own.
Two minds, one machine, one connection between the three.
Maybe he did feel it. Maybe it was buried somewhere under all the pain.
Or maybe the partner was dead and he didn’t realise it.
Nova grunted and punched the lever forward once more.
This time there was a response, just not the one he had expected: golden red lights, like the glow of a phoenix, just at the edge of his vision.
Zoya thought she had performed the correct moving sequence, but nothing was happening. She was alone like she had never been in her life, and she knew there wasn’t too much time before her connection to the mecha would be severed.
The lights, she realised as she glanced across the dashboard. They were supposed to be green, not red.
And then the blast hit her. She was tossed against the monitors, some of the lights went out and there was a loud sound, many loud sounds of metal and ice and soil and stone and rock and screaming, not her own, but someone was screaming.
Then the sound disappeared, and with it, most of the other sounds as well. The cockpit fell dark as the lights went out. She was laying down on the floor of the cockpit, a mess of wires tangled with her arms and legs. Only one light flickered in the darkness, blue and pale and eerie.
Backup energy, she remembered, for the connection.
So that her connection to her piloting partner would not be terminated, even when the systems would fail. But Ildar was no longer here.
This connection was only between her and the machine. She felt her own blood pumping, just like she felt the electric current running through the mecha. They were both alive; the realisation brought her solace.
Zoya closed her eyes and drew deep breaths, counting down the sixty seconds it would take for the connection to terminate. After they would run out, she would be truly, irreversibly alone.
I love you, she thought, uncertain of whether it would reach anyone.
Sixty seconds passed, but the connection didn’t terminate. The backup light kept flickering its soft blue light when she opened her eyes.
Now that it was finally silent, she could feel the curious presence at the edge of her consciousness.
A part of her dared to hope it was Ildar, and she reached out to it - even when at the back of her mind another part knew that it couldn’t be him. It was that latter part of her that wanted to know.
The possibility of the impossible, the connection she had been looking for.
After all, there was nothing more to do, and she had been tasked to hold them back for as long as she could. Until everyone would get away.
She closed her eyes once more and placed her hands on the levers. Somewhere in the distance, she saw golden red lights flashing through the darkness, illuminating the visor of her mecha like a sunrise.
Caspian watched the red spots waning from the digital map, one by one. The largest of them, a pulsing area of the rift, expanded and collapsed on itself as soon as Kieran had given the order to detonate the bombs.
As soon as the rift went down, two things started to compete for Caspian’s attention. First of them was the enormous blow that sent his pilots crashing down a landslide. He wouldn’t have thought much of it - Nova was the best pilot in the base, after all - but for some reason, his pilots were doing nothing to push themselves away from danger.
The second was Kieran’s sudden, alarmed voice two monitors away from him.
“Zoya, situation report. Why is Ildar outside the cockpit? Zoya, answer. Zoya!” Kieran’s voice grew more anxious with each word, and at the last one he punched the table in visible, anxious frustration.
Caspian bit his lip and pressed his headphones tighter against his ears.
“Nova,” he called out. “Situation report. I can’t see your data on the screen anymore.”
There was a golden red glow at the horizon, a narrow line of phoenix red. The sun was rising.