Freya Campbell / @spdrcstl

Calm Futures

Pepper's Mech

The TS-3400b stands at eleven metres tall, weighs something incredible, and is outfitted with 2-4 inches of reinforced carbon armour, and carries a 155mm autocannon on its shoulder, with twin high-powered lasers on its left arm and a thermoplasma cutter on its right. It was the workhorse of the Garian 2nd Mecha Division during the ten-year war, a towering force on the battlefield to inspire awe and fear.
 
Pepper & Camomile perch on the opened cockpit of their TS-3400b, hanging the laundry from the autocannon, a blanket and some shirts flapping in the breeze.
 
“Cam?”
“Yeah?”
“I think it’s time we hoovered the inside.”
Cam groans and glances back inside the mech. Where Pepper fell asleep last night halfway through snacking, the remains of the biscuits slipped from her fingers and scattered the interior with crumbs.
“It’s not my fault,”, Cam mutters, but Pepper ignores him.
“So, if you can just pop down and grab it...”
Cam sighs and stands up, balancing on part of the frame. He shields his eyes from the sun, its rays piercing through the trees at a low angle. Pepper grins at him and yawns, stretching her arms.
“Go on, Cam. I’ll check the solar panel whilst you scurry down.”
Camomile starts making his way down the mech. Each side of the body is covered in small hand and footholds, each providing a place to clip a tether cord for careful descent. Cam doesn’t bother with a cord, and climbs quicker without one, descending five metres to the left thigh compartment, where the hoover is stashed along with other cleaning products.
Pepper calls down, voice muffled from the inside.
“Woops! Get some cloths, too, Cam?”
The hatch opens with a click and Cam reaches inside. There’s three clean cloths left, all looking a little frayed but perfectly serviceable to clean up whatever mess Pepper has made. Cam stuffs these in his pocket and grabs the hoover, hooking the strap over his shoulder. Kicking the hatch closed, he climbs up carefully, readjusting every few steps to push the hoover out of the way.
Quite a few metres down, he spots a small bird land on the mech’s right foot, and recognises it as a Ruddy Quail-Dove, quite rare in this area. He stops to watch it from his perch, being careful not to move and spook it.
“Hey! Hurry up and help me mop this up!”
The bird flies away at the sound of Pepper’s voice.
 
“I was watching a bird,” Cam says, mopping up cold tea from the pilot’s seat.
“So? There’s tons of birds here. They land on the bonnet all the time and get in my way.”
“This was a rare one. It flew away when you shouted, though.”
Pepper rolls her eyes and turns on the hoover, drowning out Cam’s voice. She sticks the nozzle into all the corners and crannies she can find, drawing up crumbs new and old from the mech’s interior. The cabin is a little cramped with the hoover and two people, and Cam climbs up to the gunner’s seat to get out of her way.
The hoover makes a sudden clunking noise.
“Hoo! That’s where the plum stone went.”
Cam’s sure they haven’t had plums in at least a week.
“Righto, coming up, switch places!”
Pepper climbs up to the gunner’s seat, leading the way with the hoover nozzle in the air. Cam wriggles past her and gets a face full of hair. It tickles his nose and he sneezes without warning.
“Ew! You sneezed on me!”
“S-sorry...”
 
Pepper sits reclined in the pilot’s seat, a paper map splayed out across her lap. She hums to herself whilst tracing a path with a single finger, passing over a series of crosses and circles marked out in pen. After a few minutes she leans her head back to shout.
“Whatcha think the fuel’s like?”
Cam leans in from the hatch to outside and shrugs.
“I don’t know. Can’t you tell from there?”
“I think the fuel gauge is broken.”
Cam pouts and climbs down into the cabin. He settles in next to Pepper and prods the dashboard. It doesn’t respond.
“Here, you’ve got to hit that switch first...”
Pepper quickly runs through a pattern of three switches and one of the screens boots up. From somewhere in the back, behind and below the cabin, the engine growls into life, and the whole mech shudders. A series of numbers flicker into life on a second screen, and the pair of them read down them.
“45 percent. Reckon that’s accurate?”
“Umm... it’s been a week at least. Maybe eight days?”
Pepper shakes her head and prods the screen with her finger. The readout changes into a graph of fuel consumption.
“Here’s leaving Ganeda... this spike’s that stupid hill with all the loose rocks. This bit will be stopping at the lake for two days, so...”
The line turns dotted on the current date, and slowly slopes towards zero over the course of three days. They stare it for a minute in silence, before Pepper switches the mech back down and sighs. The engine sighs too, much lower in pitch, and ends with a final rumble before going quiet.
Cam looks at the map on Pepper’s lap, and mutters something inaudible.
“What?”
“Um... maybe we should detour to Holleran. It’s not far north of here. If we take...” - he traces a route with a finger - “if we avoid the trees, we can keep the solar panel up whilst moving.”
“What, and drive electrically only?”
“I know it’s slower, but...”
 
Cam brings the washing in whilst Pepper does checks on the engine and hydraulics. Every few minutes the mech moves an arm, or crouches, and Cam struggles to balance whilst carrying sheets in and out.
“Hey! Warn me each time, please...”
“Sorry! Adjustment coming up!”
“What kind of adjus-“
The mech heaves again, and the torso twists around to the left. Cam drops himself into the cabin to stay out of the way whilst folding laundry up. Pepper’s laughter echoes down to him.
After twenty minutes the checks are done, and the mech is in roughly the same condition as it was yesterday - that is, not brilliant, but not broken. The three of them will keep travelling another day.
“Ready to go?”
Cam finishes buckling up, and opens the viewing hatches around the gunner’s seat. From ten metres up the view across the woods is fantastic, and he squints into the distance.
“Yeah. All good. You strapped in too?”
“Oh, right.”
Pepper pulls her own buckles across and fastens them sheepishly.
 
Cam uses his binoculars to spy out of the windows as they march. His vision bobs up and down in time to the mech’s footsteps, the twin circles shown in the distance waving about erratically. He’s used to it by now, and tries to compensate for it, with little effectiveness.
“Hey navigator! What’s the path like?”
Cam swings his gaze around from the lake to the east, and looks to the north instead. Ahead of them fields spread out for ages, trees surrounding their flank to the west. Their path is the narrow half-kilometre strip of unforested land between the trees and the water.
“Path’s good,” Cam mutters, and when Pepper doesn’t hear he removes the seatbelt and climbs down instead. She glances his way as he crouches next to her, holding onto the arm of the pilot’s seat.
“Well?”
“Path’s good,” he repeats, and unfolds the map again to look. Coming up ahead is a hilly area to the left, and the pair of them find it and gauge their progress.
“This is taking forever. I hate running on solar.”
“But if the readout’s broken - “
“Yeah yeah. Safety...”
Pepper sighs, and brings the fuel gauge up again. It’s gone up, and now reads 57 percent. She snorts and stares ahead at the thin band of scenery visible from the interior.
 
“This is bullshit,” Pepper mutters. She gestures upwards to Cam. “Strap in.”
“What?”
“I’m switching over. We can go twice this speed, easy.”
Cam protests, but knows full well she means it. He clambers up to his seat as quickly as he can.
“Five! Four!”
Pepper punches three buttons to start the engine turning over. The mech groans and shakes.
“Three!”
“W-wait! I’m nearly - “
“One!”
Pepper turns the switch to engage the engine proper. A thick, powerful tone echoes through the inside. Cam finally straps in to his seat, and grabs the arm to brace.
“Power!”
From the gunner/navigator’s seat, the view lurches upwards, the mech falling forward to change gait. Cam’s eyes bulge and his stomach turns, and he desperately tries to hold it together, stare at the horizon, get your bearings. The view lurches up suddenly as the footsteps fall in time, lunging forward metres each time. They accelerate too fast, the engine groaning, the feet thudding into the ground, Pepper laughing all the way.
 
“Don’t say it, Cam.”
“I wasn’t - “
“Don’t.”
Cam doesn’t, and works on unfolding the right-hand solar panel in silence. The mech whines and ticks as the engine compartment cools back down, the metal shrinking after incredible heat and power. Pepper unfolds the left-hand solar panel whilst grumbling to herself.
“This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone up that stupid hill.”
“Mm.”
“Or if our stupid fuel gauge wasn’t broken.”
“Mmm.”
“Now it’s going to take a million hours just to turn the thing on again.”
Cam finishes unfolding the panel and locks it in place, angled towards the sun in the sky, estimating its path and averaging the facing to catch the next few hours.
“I can’t get it to - lock, you dumb - ah, there.“
Pepper fixes her panel and sighs dramatically. She clambers back down to the pilot’s seat and slumps in the chair.
“I’m hungry.”
Cam quietly adjusts the left-hand solar panel to face a different angle.
“CAM. I’m hungry!”
He looks down at Pepper, who pouts and stares back up.
“There’s protein bars in the cabin.”
“I don’t want protein bars. I’m sick of them.”
Camomile looks away and surveys the grass around them, the trees at the edge, the lake nearby, the plants half-crushed under the foot of the mech.
 
Pepper picks the bones out her fish quickly, making a small pile of them on the floor. The outside is a little charred, but the inside is cooked perfectly, flaking apart under the knife and fork. As she finishes, Pepper takes a forkful and screws up her eyes in glee.
“Yummy! Cam, you can cook every day!”
“I do cook every day...”
Camomile picks through his fish slowly, and sighs as he drops another bone.
“Here, let me - “
Pepper whisks his fish away and removes the bones with speed, making a second pile next to her own. She steals a small bite of the fish when done before handing it back to Camomile, who thanks her quietly. The two of them eat in companionable silence, matching the fish with some foraged greens and small, colourful plums. Next to them is the remains of the fire, a single log still smouldering, sat in the blast crater from the laser.

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