The Original
by James Frierson

A temporal rift in the clouds expelled a Time Pod that displaced flurries of snow. The Leader positioned her Prime Combat Mech between the crash site and a charging Vek Beetle. She died on impact.

They carried her body in a stretcher covered by a Detritus Disposal flag. Those who were idle removed their hats and saluted in solemn respect. The mech's hands needed to be washed of mucus and mud and melted ice. The air smelled of coolant gel and disinfectant.

We were mobilized across the continent to the Pinnacle Robotics HQ. Mess hall tables buzzed with gossip over the rescued time traveler, our only remaining human pilot. Legend said he'd made over a thousand jumps; how many of those timelines ended in annihilation is uncertain. To some he was a miracle from heaven, to others a rushed hotfix for a system approaching catastrophic failure.

I didn't know what to think. I'd seen The Leader coordinate elaborate attack patterns like a choreographer directing a ballet. I watched her Rift Walkers decimate invasions with ruthless precision. She left the battlefield littered with Vek corpses smoldering from cannon fire or crushed against a mountainside. She commanded her giant with the grace of an ocean wave and the ferocity of a pre-war silverback gorilla.

But she also let many die. When I stare at the barracks ceilings at night I see entire blocks of skyscrapers perforated by a Firefly's accelerating thorax. I hear the screams of those who looked to her to save them. I see her back turned to the calculated loss, her armored fists ready to counter-attack.

On one of those sleepless nights, I decided to grab my gear and run some tests to take my mind off the impending battle. At 0300, the hangar was dark except for a smattering of faces illuminated blue by the laptops warming our legs. I was nestled in a web of fiber optics leading to the Combat Mech's Titan Calibration Architecture, elevated to the height of its chest.

He appeared like a ghost amid the din of rumbling engines. The time traveler glided along the floor in a long black coat. The whine of the power lift brought him slowly to my level.

His face was cut deeply like a canyon wall. I could see a faint resemblance of a man behind an impenetrable veil. He looked at me the same way a mathematician would regard a geometric shape. It was in that moment I thought I could ask God a question, but the gravity in his eyes told me everything I'd need to know.

The Original clambered towards the cockpit and sunk hard into the weathered seat that had grown cold. He settled with the estranged bedfellow who swallowed him whole. He bowed his head and began to dream. I watched as he reached across realities to communicate with an old friend. ◒

 

James Frierson is an Austin-based writer curious about how media influences our self-interpretations. You can find more of his writing, including fiction, game criticism, and travel blogging, at Polyphonic Prayer. His Twitter, @JamesB_Frierson, is very silly and sometimes has nothing to do with anything.