Twilla’s Beast was hollow-bellied. The lumbering juggernaut, a comfy shelter custom-built for her. Light years away from home, they were fighting a war waged in outer space.
An enemy warhead blew a gaping hole into the back of Beast’s head. The mecha was now a gnarled mess of scorched metal, wires, and exposed tubes. The damage prompted a critical system failure.
The massive humanoid robot and its pilot veered off course. They plummeted down into planet E42-ALPHA’s atmosphere. On the windward shore of the desolate planet’s western continent, the metal giant knelt. As if in prayer, its head tilted at an odd angle, blind eyes fixed on the rising sun.
On the seventeenth morning after the crash, the young pilot awoke aboard the metal giant. Hunger clawed at her gut. She reached for her dwindling rations. What speared in through the cracks of her faulty brain, though, was the memory of honey, sweet and pure.
Twilla tried her damnedest to ignore the jackhammer drilling into the left side of her head. She punched the green RELEASE button by the hatch. She thanked her lucky stars for the fact that the robot’s basic functions and AI were still intact.
The hatch flew open. She tossed her boots out first then out she scrambled. She plopped down onto the pebbly ground and hauled her boots on.
She contemplated her predicament. Beast was still broadcasting a distress beacon. Not that anyone would feel especially driven to come to her rescue. Twilla didn’t have a family to miss her or even friends.
She was a soldier. Had been for as long as she could remember. From the moment she was old enough to reach the controls to pilot her robot. She was nothing more than a military asset, but a valuable one at least. Controllers of her caliber were rare. She could trust in the knowledge that someone would come looking at some point. All she had to do in the meantime was survive.
Easy enough, she supposed. It was the waiting that was murder.
The sky blushed. The boisterous sea was vermilion, spitting bloody froth onto the spiky teeth of the shore. Twilla stood, woebegone morning wind tossing her messy dreadlocks about.
She shucked off the sleeves of her jumper, letting the top hang loose around her waist. Her sleeveless tank top which stuck to her torso like a second skin had seen far better days.
Two weeks of fruitless toiling under the glare of the aged sun gave her nutmeg skin a coppery tinge. Blood seeped through the thick bandage wrapped around her head overnight and dried. Hunger and the pain in her head made her unsteady on her feet.
“Watch your step.” Beast’s mechanical voice was like the air forced out of a rusty loudspeaker.
Twilla glared up at the bossy appliance. “What are you, my mother?”
She turned but tripped and landed on her butt with a pained yelp.
“Ah — ” said Beast.
“Not a word!” Twilla growled.
Crow and hunger bitter in her mouth, she sprang back to her feet and dusted off her bruised behind. She reached into Beast’s belly for a gun. The big one because between Twilla and the honey was the garou and the alien wreckage of his juggernaut.
Days earlier, the castaways had clashed. They came to an unspoken agreement to leave each other alone. Twilla didn’t trust the alien pilot as far as she could throw him. She hadn’t seen either hide or hair of the reptilian in days and that suited her.
She could tolerate marooning along with an enemy soldier or two. Provided they kept out of each other’s hair. She refused to acknowledge that teeny tiny part of her that felt relief. Now that she wasn’t all alone on this terraforming reject world.
She left Beast behind. She headed farther inland between two hills overlooking the sea. The knee-high grass was blue and smelled like burned cinnamon. Thick clusters of spindly trees with cotton-candy foliage circled the grassy expanse. Puffy clouds hung low.
Twilla arched her back and shielded her brows. Her gaze swung upward, scanning for… maybe a silver lining. The trick was to pretend she wasn’t looking. It was important but she couldn’t quite remember why. Not that it mattered. What mattered now was the sweet, sweet honey from the mouth of the forest.
Feeling steadier on her feet, Twilla advanced. As nimble and resolute as a tiger, she clambered over jagged rocks. She waded through the sea of grass and into the lush maw of the hollow.
The garou’s juggernaut was a twisted and scorched heap of metal. It sprawled across the loamy foot of the hill like a stepped-on spider. There was no way that the Garou could have walked away from that kind of crash completely unscathed.
Still wary, Twilla gave the wreckage a wide berth. She fingered the trigger of her gun. In case the Garou was alive and ready to end their uneasy ceasefire. Her nostrils quivered. She grimaced, catching a whiff of something stinking to high heaven.
Her mind swung back to days earlier.
She emerged from her robotic cocoon to find the Garou waiting outside. He carried a filthy water bottle in one hand and a dripping honeycomb in the other. Twilla got her first close-up look at humankind’s mortal enemy.
Greenish gray with leathery skin, he wore a tattered robe. He seemed as wild and uncivilized as the war propaganda videos made his kind out to be.
His reptilian gaze was impenetrable. Trying to get a read on him was like trying to peer into Beast’s microscopic soul. He bared his teeth. He gestured with the honeycomb and water again. He addressed Twilla in a language she didn’t speak. When she didn’t respond gestured again emphatically.
Twilla drew her gun, circumventing him with wary hostility.
She eyed the Garou’s meager offering, “that supposed to be the carrot or the stick?”
The Garou set the water bottle down on the ground and took a few steps back.
Twilla clicked her tongue in annoyance and fired her weapon. She watched the water bottle explode.
“You’re my enemy!” she declared, gaze shifting back to the Garou. “My enemy. Understand?”
He’d retreated and Twilla had seen or heard neither hide nor hair of him ever since.
Halfway between the garou’s juggernaut and the mouth of the forest, she halted. The meaning of that god-awful stench finally registered. The fog clouding her brain cleared. Hesitant, she drew closer to the alien wreckage.
The dead smell intensified.
She found him still sitting upright before a campfire that had long gone cold. Dried green blood crusted at his nostrils. Parts of his neck and arms were missing. Something wormy writhed in the hollow of his eye sockets. Twilla backed away from the corpse, chest heaving, her mind in turmoil.
There were other insects besides honeybees on E42-ALPHA, it seemed. The fearsome, flesh-eating kind.
It wasn’t that. No, it wasn’t just that. She was alone now. Completely alone. It would only be a matter of time before she succumbed to her injuries from the crash. Just like the Garou had succumbed to his.
She was going to die here. On this strange world. On this wild alien shore.
She turned and ran full tilt across the field of tall, blue grass. She didn’t stop running until she was back by the shoreline and sheltered under the shadow of Beast’s torso. She leaned against her robot, gasping for breath.
“Twilla,” the giant robot’s voice boomed in her ears, “I’m picking up a signal from an incoming ship.”
She didn’t answer.
Tears sprang forth, stinging her eyelids. She sank to her knees and was trembling as she wept.