There are roughly two hundred mechs - part of an international Space Defence Coalition - posted around the world. They are arranged roughly evenly, though there's some clustering around more densely populated areas, which have proved to be more popular targets for Eridanian attacks. The United Kingdom is defended by two of these. There are five to ten pilots taking shifts at being on call to pilot these at a moment's notice - until Ed went to America he was among them. One pilot, named Marcus, was activated a few minutes ago and instructed to fly his mech to here, to the market square near where I work, as fast as possible. Meanwhile I made my excuses at work and came here, where I've been waiting for only about a minute total.
"As fast as possible" could use clarification. Ed released a whole bundle of new technologies to the public back when he announced the energy virus's existence, and while it's taking an agonizing amount of time for practical implementations of these technologies to filter through to the general public, the SDC have had the means and motivation to basically pounce on them. Consequently the basic mech design has been upgraded considerably in the past few years. For example, it used to be powered by jets, rockets and thrusters: that is to say hot, dangerous flames. The new design doesn't have that, it has a version of Ed's reactionless screw drive - or "liftweave" as the marketing types seem to be calling it now - woven into its superstructure instead. Screw drives are actually insanely dangerous devices in that, supplied with enough power, there is no theoretical upper limit to the level of acceleration they can provide. So, without overrides forcing acceleration to stay within a certain tolerance, it would become very easy for a pilot to ramp up to twenty or more gees and simply crush himself to a pulp. This in turn means that even though the robots themselves aren't what you'd describe as aerodynamic, they are quite capable of breaking the sound barrier at sea level.
Technically it is illegal to break the sound barrier over land, and as the sonic boom echoes distantly over the market square I consider it to be highly doubtful anybody managed to get special permission before Marcus' mech launched. He probably did a lot of damage en route. He'll probably do even more on the next leg of his journey. Hey ho. Price of saving the world.
Almost everybody in the square scatters in alarm as the mech draws to a halt over the square, and gently comes in to land, all in almost eerie silence. These days, a mech is just another piece of military hardware like a tank, but it's still pretty unusual for the average member of the public to see one in action, so many remain (foolishly, really) at the edge of the square, waiting to see what will happen next. Some take photos.
From the mech's external speakers boom the words: "Sam Hughes?"
I run over to stand in front of the huge thing, and wave. "Yo," I shout back at it.
There's a momentary pause, and then the mech folds down, until its torso is at ground level. Panels of armour move apart to provide access to the cockpit. It's empty. Of course. To pick up the pilot en route would waste time - he'll be flying it remotely. I climb inside.
The cockpit hasn't changed much from the prototype that Ed and I designed. The seat is a huge, whole-body-enveloping acceleration couch with armrests and heavy restraints all over. There's a big LCD screen - curved, a full one-eighty degrees wide - which relays a composite image from the mech's many external monitor cameras. At the bottom of the seat is an array of foot pedals, and at the end of the armrests are... an unfamiliar set of controls.
These are new. I've heard about this kind of interface before, but never seen a real one, though you can buy them for your computer if you have enough cash. Replacing the old-school keyboard and mouse, there are now five tiny blobs at the end of each armrest, into which I can slide my fingers. They are attached to the armrests but only magnetically - and there are sensors around the cockpit which can detect their positions in space, meaning I can make essentially any gesture I like with my fingers and hands, and the machine will be able to interpret it as a movement or some other instruction. Very clever. I haven't a clue how to work them, of course.
It seems I won't need to: Marcus' image flicks up on the main screen. He is in his late thirties, and the image looks like its being relayed from a webcam in his house. From what I can see he is wearing an identical set of finger controls. "Where are we going?" he asks. He hasn't had the whole plan - or indeed any of it - explained to him yet. Time has been very short.
I give him the address of the student house where Ed and I stayed during college. He tells me to hold tight, and my stomach drops away underneath me, as the mech leaps about a mile into the air. Marcus' chosen route is direct, but takes us a fair distance up in the air, partly to limit the damage caused by the sonic boom and partly because air resistance decreases at higher altitudes.
The mech levels out into a counter-intuitive upside-down Superman sort of posture - aerodynamic, and also leaving me on my back, in relative comfort, as opposed to face-down, hanging out of the seat for the entire journey. I relax very slightly.
Marcus sets up a flight path in the approximate right direction, then I help him find some map data on the internet that he can use to navigate to the right address. That takes a few minutes. Once the course is laid in, he asks what's going on.
"There's an asteroid coming towards Earth. It's going to hit central India in... an hour and ten minutes. You and I are part of the plan to stop it. Do you know what a wormhole is?"
"Yeah. I think so."
"Right now there are some people in America building a ring wormhole big enough to capture the asteroid. Once they're done, we're going to build a second one in India. Then we connect them up. We'll intercept the asteroid before it hits Earth, diverting it through the wormhole: passing from one side of the Earth to the other without ever hitting it. That's it. Pretty simple, eh? Only problem is, the asteroid is one point seven kilometres wide. Which means to stand a good chance of catching it, our wormhole is going to have to be about three kilometres wide. And the question of how you build a ring of metal the size of Gibraltar in less than seventy minutes is a very good one indeed. We're on our way to collect some of the equipment we need to build it, though to be honest, I don't know where any of the necessary raw materials are going to come from..."
"Is this wormhole thing gonna be heavy?"
"It'll probably weigh... uh, upwards of a hundred tonnes, I'm guessing. Why?"
"How strong is it?"
"Well, what's it made of?"
"Um... metal? You know, right now, I honestly don't know. It depends. Like I say, last time I checked we hadn't solved the raw materials problem yet. Why do you ask?"
"This mech is strong enough to lift a hundred tonnes, but that's about the upper limit. And if the ring is too weak, it'll snap when I try to lift it anyway. We're gonna need more than one mech to do this."
"That's not a problem. It'll have liftweave running all around it - it should be totally mobile on its own. Anyway, we're going to- we're here? Already?" I take a look down in utter amazement and see that Marcus is right - the road we're descending on is the one where my old student house is. Fifty miles in something less than ten minutes. Staggering.
The mech lands with a dull crunch, putting a sizeable dent in the road underneath it. The mech's shoulders are narrower than the two-lane road, so Marcus has little difficulty guiding it down to the right house. It folds down and I jump out, and ignore the large numbers of people peering curiously out of windows as I run up to my old home and ring the doorbell. As I wait for somebody to answer, I wonder what in the world I'm going to say.
"Hello?" asks the bespectacled female student who answers the door, staring in surprise at the fifty-foot robot behind me.
"Hi, you don't know me, my name's Sam, I used to live in this house when I was a student here. Um. When he moved out, my housemate Ed left some stuff in your basement, and needs it back urgently, so I came to pick it up. Is there any chance I could nip into your basement and get it? I swear I'll be in and out in less than a minute."
"We don't have a basement," she replies.
"Ah, you do. Trust me."
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