By Mikel Andrews
For a long time—the eternity of three minutes—Mr. Z tried to talk me out of it. He brought up a lot of good points; most of them had the words ‘crash’ or ‘death’ in them.
But I had good points too, with phrases like ‘possible reward’ and ‘not living in a trailer with a monkey.’
If you had asked me a few months ago what I was going to do this summer, my answer wouldn’t have had anything to do with donning a hulking metal robot suit from the Fifties and flying it into a dogfight with some air pirates.
Up until a half hour ago, I didn’t even know ‘air pirate’ was a thing.
But there I was, shooting across the lake like a missile barely above the surface. Too afraid to try and gain altitude for fear of doing the opposite and skipping across the lake like an ugly copper-and-rust pebble. To anybody on shore, I probably looked like some sort of hotshot daredevil.
Yeah, that’s what they’ll be thinking when they see this robot suit, Marc. How brash your piloting skills are.
Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what I looked like. Other than the poorly-copied flyer and murky view of the ‘Clockwork Man’ before I suited up, I really hadn’t seen this thing. From the silhouette, it looked something like the Tin Man on steroids.
And instead of an ax, the Clockwork Man had a sword. A really big sword.
In fact, I clutched it in a two-handed grip something like a Knight Templar. I probably looked like a rocket-propelled chess piece, but in actuality, the sword acted as a rather genius rudder system.
Through a pair of built-in goggles, I could see that I was fast approaching Candelabra Island. A couple of the Crimson Gulls circled the island, keeping watch like a pair of flying guard dogs.
“Professor?” I said. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Zambda answered, a crackling voice through an old speaker system.
“Good,” I replied. “Now what?”
Zambda laughed in my ear. “Just move about as you would normally, kid. The motion controls are really quite sophisticated.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh are they?”
“Let’s not forget whose idea this was.”
Metal groaned as I brought a knee up trying to right myself. The roar of the rocket on my back winked out, replaced by the sporadic hissing of steam. Needles of gauges that blurred at my peripherals went haywire. But suddenly I was upright. The rocket kicked in just lightly enough to hold my position, and the steam jets kept me from launching spaceward.
I was hovering.
“Okay,” I said, “I think I got this.”
Zambda crackled in my ear. “Good. Now, Marc, pretty soon you’ll be out of radio range and on your own.”
“Just remember the foot pedals in your soles are pressure sensitive. Kind of like a car. If you do everything full-blast, you’ll burn up all your fuel.”
“I mean it, Marc, you need to land that thing, get your little girlfriend, and get out. No extensive acrobatics, understand?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I corrected.
“Right,” Zambda sighed. “Because we have time for this. Look, just—”
The professor’s words cut away and were replaced by a sound like a distant waterfall. He was gone. I was on my own.
In order to ease back into my flight path, I had to sort of freefall forward; a stage dive towards the big blue. The aging suit reacted accordingly and I gave the rocket on my back a little gas via the foot pedals. After all, they were pressure sensitive.
My focus returned to the swirling Gulls that floated in pattern around Candelabra Island. I wasn’t sure what their purpose was; it was a rather loud, gaudy way to keep a vigil—
It hit me just as one of the seaplanes groaned in my direction. I was cut off by a metallic tink-tink-tink; the sound a tack hammer might make against a tin roof.
Bullets. These trick planes came fully loaded: the Gulls had guns.
I cried out. This was the end of my offensive. I tried to imagine searing hot metal tearing through my guts. Would I feel it right away? Would I know if it was a fatal wound? Were my tetanus shots up to date?
That’s right, I remembered. I’m bulletproof.
A new wave of confidence overtook me. Both of the planes were now heading in my direction, coming right at me. I didn’t have much time to think. I tried to right myself and overdid it; the suit and I careened into a backwards somersault, forming a cannonball that slammed through the first Gull. The plane exploded into a shower of flames and shrapnel as I plowed through it like butter. Outside the suit was a chaotic fireblast; inside, however, the worst damage I took was nicking my chin on the little fan meant to keep me cool by pumping air in from the exterior. I was still covered in sweat, so it wasn’t doing much good.
After shedding the last remnants of my smog cloak, I righted myself much more gracefully as the second Gull came around for another pass. I managed to bring up my ruddersword in time to cleave the Gull’s wing right off its fuselage. Though I didn’t stop to watch the splashdown, I could have swore I heard the splash.
Also, I couldn’t bear to know the fate of the pilot; if they’d ejected or not. I didn’t even want to think about the first Gull that I’d downed.
My sweaty fingertips twitched in the armored gauntlets. Stay focused.
I was approaching the island so I cooled my jets. It was funny to use that phrase literally.
Just off the shore in the shallows, three more of the Gull’s seaplanes were parked. That red paint really was inflammatory, igniting my nerves like a bullfighter’s cape. I landed on the middle plane, feet first, striking it like lightning. Splinters of crimson went everywhere with a mighty crack! With my ruddersword, I made short work of the other two.
It wasn’t until I’d hacked neatly through the last plane that my brain suggested I might possibly need one of these planes to escape if something went wrong. I sheathed the ruddersword and bit my lip inside the suit.
Nothing can go wrong then.
I was losing light; sunset was coming quick. Too quick. Ahead of me, Candelabra Island was nothing but shadowy leaves swaying in a gale that swept off the lake. Thick, primordial trees formed a castle wall of dark emerald from shore to shore.
I took a couple steps inland, shallow water giving way to wet sand that the suit struggled to slog through. Wasn’t sure what I expected to find once I got here. This wasn’t a garage sale or a grad party; the pirates weren’t going to have signs with arrows posted to their hideout. If said hideout even existed.
With little choice left, I picked a path that cut through the center of the island and followed it. If not for the pinched setting sun leaking in between the trunks, I would’ve barely seen my path.
But it was a path. I wasn’t just imagining the subtle parting of trees; this had been a trail for something. Hopefully someone.
In order to keep my mind off the fact that I had no clue what I was getting into, I tried to picture Callie’s face. The scarlet wisps on the soft skin of her cheeks. Eyes like warm caramel. Those lips…
Yeah, I had to do this. My resolve was solid cement. I quickened my pace as best I could, and the suit groaned in kind; a whir of gears and the strained creak of fine, metal ligaments.
Up ahead, I began to make out a few glowing yellow squares. An array of windows, but the light wavered like a candle’s flame.
It wasn’t a house, but no longer the grand hotel that the crumbling sign boasted. It was a long-abandoned bed and breakfast; somebody’s livelihood, somebody’s dream to own a place on the mysterious island.
And now it was a kidnapper’s lair. Sickening.
I knew Zambda’s cumbersome suit wouldn’t keep me stealthy very long, so I tried to see what I could from my approach. There were figures moving in the decrepit building,but I couldn’t say for sure who was who. None of them looked like Callie.
The inn was missing a roof I noticed as I came closer. Vines and moss suffocated the chipping baby blue paint. It felt like coming upon a haunted house—ghosts of someone’s life still clung to the floorboards. Hopefully no one had died there, especially today.
I trudged forward in the brutish contraption. When I was so close that I became self-conscious of my footfalls, I went with the element of surprise. I mustered my best hop, eased the foot pedals, and burst forward, carried by the rocket. I cracked through the feeble wall of the inn like a bullet. The decaying material exploded in a dusty cloud of insulation and wood splinters.
I righted myself—more or less—in the middle of the lobby. Very luckily, I had downed one of the pirates with my entrance. Another of the Gulls’ lackeys was against the far wall, clutching a maimed hand. A bloody pistol lay at his feet as he cried. His high-pitched shrieks filtered right into my ear through a copper tube. I cringed and I felt like retching; far worse than when I first took flight. What was I doing? I was a monster. And that ear horn tube was a constant reminder; the man’s cries were a continuing siren.
Drowning out the pleas, I turned away from the hurt pilot and took in the other half of the room through my tempered goggles.
There she was. Callie Brechtold. She looked panicked; those dark eyes were wide and flickering in the light from an antique candelabra that was lit on a tiny table. Her chest heaved—rapid breath—and she bled freely from a cut on her lip and another above her eyebrow. She’d been struck. At least twice.
My blood boiled. The room took on a hue the same color as the Gulls’ coats.
Connected to her head at the temple was a gun barrel.
My breath quickened to keep up with my pulse. Sweat trickled down my brow and an electric tingle was creeping up my spine.
The revolver was held by the head pilot that had taken her. I recognized the gun more than the red bomber jacket. Now exposed, I could see his face was tan and chiseled, like a model or actor. His cap-sculpted black hair was long, breaking into wisps and streaks, adding insanity to his polished look. Lips cut into a crescent moon sneer.
Through gritted teeth, the pilot hissed. “What are you?”
I was a bit taken aback. From his perspective, between the dim light and the flickering candle glow, I must have looked like a golem or gargoyle. I wondered if he could even tell I was a machine. Piloting a machine, I mean.
What are you?
I considered answering him. There was a mouthpiece that I only needed to angle my head and talk into if I had to speak. Though, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what I would say.
Instead, I took a step forward.
“Don’t!” the pilot cried and aimed the gun in my direction. I smirked. Yes, do exactly that. Kept the heat off Callie.
He wasn’t going to shoot her. She was his goose that laid golden eggs. Precious. But me? He was afraid of me.
My eyes again caught the gashes on Callie’s face. He should be.
I ran a few lines through my head to say, but they all sounded like cheesy comic book one-liners. In the end, I picked the one that was as functional as it was cheesy.
“Let the girl go.”
I spoke into the mouthpiece as gruffly as I could. Didn’t matter much; by the time my voice broke free of the suit, it came out tinny and deep, warbled by the tiny fan I was forced to speak through.
Zambda had thought of everything; it sounded like a robot. It sounded inhuman.
The pilot cocked his pistol. I took another step forward.
With a crack, the pilot had pulled the trigger. I’m not entirely sure where the bullet struck, but I remember flinching. I had seen the bullet straight on. In the split second that I clenched my eyes the projectile had ricocheted with the almost cartoony sound you hear in Wild West movies.
All I saw next was the pilot down on the floor clutching his knee, screaming. I heard the shriek of Callie as she ran forward in her flouncy princess dress, the color of sunset. If she had reservations about who or what I was, she wasn’t showing it. She climbed up onto my frame, tearing her dress on a vent opening.
“Go! Go!” she managed, nearly blowing my eardrum. “Now!”
I didn’t know what I was waiting for as I watched the pilot squirm in pain on the floor. I suppose I was considering the ethics of leaving a crippled man on an abandoned island surrounded by water. But every second I waited was another second the plan could go wrong.
Nothing can go wrong, remember?
I repositioned the ruddersword and scooped up Callie with my free arm. She gave a tiny plea, startled. And I just grinned.
All things aside, I could only imagine the points this was going to score me. After all, I was rescuing Callie Brechtold.
I had just saved the girl of my dreams, hadn’t I?
– TO BE CONCLUDED –