Brandon O’Brien’s mecha-warriors have much to learn about life beyond the battle, beginning immediately, in this week’s high-tech love story. ~ Julian and Fran, April 30, 2023
The Officer in Your Heart
<Whitney Orozco, Crimson Rank Messer Pilot>
Around me, the silver-clouded amnion of the cockpit against my skin was like needles and sunlight and napalm and the touch of a dozen lovers. I hated myself, and it felt wonderful.
I shrieked, and the jaw of my Messer echoed the sharpness of the cuspids in my mouth, flaring like arrowheads, cutting my cheek as if they were carving something fearsome on the wall of a cave hidden inside me. I could hear my superiors over the comms, but they came distant and muddled, like passing through water in my ears.
The taste of the leuchromatolipids surrounding my skin felt like what I thought mercury or lightning would. I tilted my head back just enough so the mech’s mouth sank into the meat of the alien Husk’s side. Pools of its clear blood gathered at my feet. I was a deity of death, the sole pilot in my unit still standing to push back the alien Husks and the fascist Haters and any other enemy we couldn’t yet name. I had the Husk’s torn limb in one hand, and a heated blade in the other, and my fury made my knees buckle with glee.
This is bad.
This was the worst time for theriomorphosis. I hated how it took all the parts of my body I worked hard to cultivate and threw them away without even letting me know. How it made parts of me harsher, colder—what it couldn’t return to femininity it tried to make entirely jagged. Even the rare pockets of something masculine, the throaty bass or the idle whisker, which I also dreaded, were more palatable than this. I tried to cling to whatever remained: when it made me long for bloodshed, I tried to settle on a beautiful thing I could see in the battlefield and bring the memory of it back for Alia. She loved learning that even during the founding of our Survival, there were still things that thrived because they were lovely. I saw a bird the last time, red just under its beak, a thing with a name we never learned because it could never kill the Husks that threatened our home or make us proud of the fact that we had to. It was allowed not to have a history, or a philosophy.
I could hear Commodore Chaplin call out to me through my comms—“WIO-239? Pilot Orozco, please respond! Whitney, can you hear me?”—but as I made to reply, I bit down on my tongue instead.
Alia asked me once whether I thought birds look at their plumes and have feelings. Whether they ever wake up and feel weird, too ugly or too bright or too loud. Whether they ever debate among their nests about the pride of being colorful, instead of simply being colorful. I said I don’t even think birds care about what we see when we see them. I wasn’t sure whether she found that comforting or not. But then again, I was buzzing when I said it, barely conscious from trying to suppress this feeling, the one I was having now in this cockpit, hunger and lust and other things without names.
I promised Alia some nights ago that one day I would bring her a visor screenshot of a bird. A real one, one of the fancy beautiful ones, small enough to fit in your hand. They were so hard to see in the dark gray sky where glass-rain falls to cut through concrete and the translucent balloon-like witchwrens that the Husks lay stinging the trees and overhunting the rivers. But if I did see one, I would.
But that was before the Code Administration officers took her.
Three young slim figures stepping into her apartment without even looking her in the eye, wearing their purple jacket uniforms, their peaked lapels with gold accents sharp as blades, and the gold spearhead pins above their hearts pointing upward and catching the artificial light of the apartment. Are you Alia Knowles? The slimmest and shortest of them, brown-skinned and feminine, piercing hazel eyes seeming to burn through our skin as she gazed. Did you make this post on Salvation’s private social network three weeks ago? When Alia looked at the screen, she seemed to go white. You await a public vote for the charge of sowing disunity for critiquing the philosophy of Kyra Pasternak.
I didn’t get it. Pasternak hadn’t lived here since before I became a pilot. E was responsible in eir own way for even forging this nameless city in which we live, and even e could be cast out for speaking ill of our Survival. They had em exiled for a code violation just like Alia’s barely a year ago—and yet it felt so long ago that I could barely remember what e did. What could my friend ever possibly say about a dissenter that would warrant its own dissent?
At the very thought of it, I felt my jaw tighten. In it, even though I was biting only the cloudy milk of my cockpit, I could feel the Husk’s soft, juicy frame give way to incisors, collapsing into soft crystalline ooze, like biting into a lychee. I could feel my own incisors, too—guillotines begging for bone to crack. The alien’s pained scream sounded like so many different things at once: like the chimes that my grandfather had over his hostel in the early days of the war, like a thousand infants crying to be fed, like a heavy machine’s gears scraping against itself. It felt like a marble bouncing in my skull.
Out of the corner of my eye, a secondary reticle locked on to what it must have thought was a distant contact. I squinted at it through the glittering LCL, through my own hungry blurred vision. It was . . . a bird. The tiniest thing, with a pink breast and a beak barely bigger than a thumbnail. The visor struggled for a moment on whether to kill it, and the very notion made my eyes burn with fury.
“Pilot Orozco, check in! Are you alright?”
At least I would have deserved to be held—Alia scrambled that very night to hide every document I had printed or searched on LCL, on theriomorphosis, on the drugs I could use to curb it so it wouldn’t make me so manly. Alia was the one who cleared all my chats with the young folk who would whisper for a nation so understanding of our bodies, they sure ask us to give them up to win a few skirmishes with enemies we’re too young to name in the same breath as giving me the room codes for suppliers who would ask no questions. Just a single line of text from any of those would have gotten me coded for dereliction of duty.
But any minute now, the vote on whether Alia would be exiled from our Survival, cast out into the dust and sorrow to die like she was not our sister, and she wouldn’t even live long enough to see this bird I found even if she walked beneath every dirty street it flew above.
Alia didn’t deserve this.
I let out a scream that I could feel rattle through the broken flesh of the dead Husk in my Messer’s arms. Then, I tried my best to whisper so softly that Commodore Chaplin wouldn’t hear it, even if my cockpit would:
“Coordinates for the Code Administration cells.”
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