Everyone around me was so strong.
Sveta was the foremost example. She went through a lot, dying and reincarnating and losing her memory, a second death of personality. Despite all that, she retained such a powerful, bubbly and cheerful energy. Now here she was, acting as the AI of no less than three separate superweapon Gravity Frames, the literal crux of our last-ditch war effort, and she still manifested the presence of mind and snap-second judgement to save one of her girlfriends from death. I’m not sure if Sveta realized it herself, but she’d come a long way from that initial, naïve girl she had been a few mere months ago, if the reports were to be believed.
Kometka also suffered tribulations much the same as her sister. Her original world, that doomed wasteland of nightmare machines and nuclear fire, was far grimmer; and although she’d never had to deal with the loss of her memories, she'd been torn away from her surrogate mother just the same as Sveta. She was strong too, although it was a quiet strength tempered by her rigidly analytical mind and calm personality.
Everyone else in our little Maid Squadron was equally strong. Maurice, the oldest, was filled with confidence in every imaginable situation, from the hazardous to the absurd. Sabina’s poverty-stricken childhood forged her into an unstoppable fireball, fiercely protective of those she cared about. Coming from the same background as her sister, Genevi developed the deep, quiet courage to challenge her own shortcomings. Miette, reckless as she was, honed her skill to a fine edge, and with further refinement I had no doubt she’d surpass every other pilot alive.
They were so strong, all of them. Despite facing such adversity, they still came out on top, fighting for every centimeter. And what was I doing?
Shaking. Quivering in fear like a child.
The flashbacks started when Sveta first presented her insane plan to us. Can you imagine it? Me, who had my legs eaten by Moby, was now being asked to willingly fly back into her mouth, into her stomach and intestines. And when we actually followed through on that plan, well…
It hit me hard.
There, on her ridiculously huge tongue, were those very same tentacles that once gorged themselves on my flesh. Add to that the massive, gnashing teeth, and it’s no surprise I was reduced to helpless palpitation.
Kometka realized right away, of course. For over three years she had monitored my vital signs every second of every day, and there was nothing I could hide from her. She wasted no time in taking control of her body from me and cutting my comms. I was thankful for that. Could you imagine if the others in Maid Squadron saw their supposedly fearless commander in such a state? Saw me for the pathetic, quivering coward I truly was?
Here we were, in the final confrontation with Moby, the very goal that I chased for three long years. And I was a useless mess once again.
God DAMN IT.
I had warned the Captain this might happen, warned her I’d choke under pressure. She dismissed my concerns. What did she say again? Some babble about time healing all wounds?
I clenched my teeth, trying to recall. The conversation seemed like a lifetime ago. I dragged the memory kicking and screaming out of the recesses of my mind.
“You’re surrounded by good people. Rely on them. That support is the most important thing,” the Captain had said.
Well no shit. I was surrounded by people who were better than me in every way. Even now my giant robot was doing my piloting for me.
More of her words appeared, unbidden.
“Have a little confidence in yourself, Senior Lieutenant. I can’t PROMISE you it will get better, but I can at least reassure you that, for me, it did. With a lot of time, and a lot of hard work, it got better.”
Huh. That’s right. She went through this same thing, didn’t she?
The strong, confident, dauntless Captain Savitskaya. A decorated hero, an iron woman of unmatched personal strength. Someone I greatly feared and respected. What horrible thing did she experience that caused even her invincible determination to waver?
Or was her determination and will the result of overcoming her own PTSD? Is that the experience that forged her into what she is today?
And if she could do it, why couldn’t I?
Maybe the strength of those around me wasn’t something for me to be ashamed of. Even if I was their leader, I could stand to rely on them a bit more.
I suppose I’d just have to take this one step at a time.
And the first step was confronting the source of my trauma. Ramming a nuclear bomb straight down Moby’s gullet would surely do more good for me than years of therapy.
I realized my hands had stopped shaking. Was this strength? Determination? Divine providence? I didn’t rightly know.
I gripped Komeka’s controls, threading her throttle a bit. I felt her release her autopilot.
“I’ve got this, Kometka. I’m good now.”
“I know,” she replied, simply. She probably could tell by my pulse and brainwaves.
She smiled, gently, and I smiled back. Nothing more needed to be said.
We headed into Mega-Moby’s esophagus single-file. Sabina was on point, followed immediately by Maurice, then me, then Miette at the rear. I was near the center of the formation because my X-23 held our payload, the precious nuclear bomb.
Have you ever seen an endoscopy of the swallowing reflex from INSIDE someone’s throat? It’s fucking nasty. The pharynx and larynx look strangely yonic, but pulse and squirm around like a jittery snail made out of half-melted gelatin. The disgusting flesh pressed against us from all sides, skittering off Sveta’s Strike Fin gravity barrier. My emotions moved beyond horror into detached, morbid fascination.
And then we entered the stomach, which was equally as gross; a pulsating cave of pink-red flesh and veins and weird ripples EVERYWHERE. I was half expecting a pool of gastric acid at the bottom, which in retrospect feels quite silly.
Maid Squadron must have been every bit as horrified as me by the sight because they were all deer-in-headlights and not saying anything.
“So, uh…” Sveta said, interrupting our stupor. “We leave the bomb in here.”
“Just… leave it?” I asked, frowning as I realized my voice was a pitch higher than normal.
“I’ll form a shield around it with seven Strike Fins so it doesn’t get, uh, dissolved by the stomach acid. Then we just need to set a timer.”
“For how long?”
Sveta ran some quick calculations. “Five minutes.”
Five minutes to fly all the way through Mega-Moby’s labyrinthine upper and lower intestines, and out her anus. That seemed… possible. Barely.
Kometka set the bomb’s timer, programming it to begin counting down when we sent the signal. Then I detached it from her back, watching as it tumbled away into its own little gravity bubble pinched off from ours.
We turned to exit the stomach, and immediately ran into a problem. The hole leading to the upper intestine was closed off, covered by some sort of fleshy sphincter that was closed tight. We had to get past that in order to exit.
“Open fire,” I ordered.
Positron blasts poured into the sphincter. Ten seconds… twenty… thirty… forty… no effect. There wasn’t even any visible damage. Apparently Mega-Moby’s interior gravity fields, despite being relatively weaker, were still capable of turning aside our peashooters.
I looked at Kometka. “Strike Fin?”
“Strike Fin.” she agreed. One of the Strike Fins in our gravity shield darted upwards, almost to the stomach lining, then accelerated downwards towards the sphincter. The bright flash of a kinetic impact followed. And when the light faded…
“Oh, come ON!” I groused.
“Just how tough IS that thing?!” Miette added, sharing my frustration.
The sphincter was intact. There was evidence of damage around it, including a few popped blood vessels, which were now pouring their contents into the stomach. But our exit remained sealed tight.
“If we sacrifice too many more Strike Fins, we’ll weaken our gravity shield too much.” Kometka said matter-of-factly.
“And if we try to go back up the throat, we’d run afoul of her swallowing reflex,” Maurice added. “If only we could make her vomit.”
“OR!” Sveta said, and everyone looked at her sourly. That seemed to startle her. “W-What is it? What did I say?!”
“Nothing,” I said wearily, “We all just know you’re about to propose something crazy and dangerous and unpleasant.”
Sveta puffed up her cheeks in a pout. “HEY! Not all my plans are crazy and dangerous!”
I waved my hand dismissively. “Whatever. Just tell us.”
“We ruptured a few blood vessels, see? Let’s take an alternate route through her body… through her bloodstream!”
Oh, great. Now instead of a journey through her intestines, we’d be flying through her blood. Probably fighting off giant white blood cells and shit.
“Fine. Whatever. Let’s go.” I said flatly. The rest of Maid Squadron responded with similar enthusiasm.
“H-Hey, don’t make me feel like the bad guy here. Think of this like a Magic School Bus adventure! We have to save Arnold from eating too many carrots and turning his skin orange!” Sveta said uselessly as we all ignored her and begrudgingly flew into the bloodstream.
As my Frame passed the stomach lining, Kometka sent the signal and the nuclear bomb we left behind began counting down.
“Well, this was a GREAT idea!!” Miette scowled, looking angrily at Sveta who shrank back guiltily.
“Oy! How was I supposed to know her blood was full of Frame-class creatures?!” Sveta shot back defensively.
We hadn’t encountered any giant white blood cells or anything like that. Instead, her blood was swarming with thousands of Bladebugs, Clawteeth and Spineballs… all of which immediately charged us. Since all the available Strike Fins were powering our dwindling gravity shield against the torrent of alien blood, we had to blast this swarm the old-fashioned way, with handheld and mounted positron guns.
Sveta expanded the gravity shield to nearly the full diameter of the blood vessel to give us a little room to maneuver, but it was still cramped. And to add insult to injury, we weren’t so much swimming as riding the rapids. The bloodflow, driven by the steady THUMP THUMP THUMP of Mega-Moby’s heartbeat, was carrying us God-knows-where.
“Kometka, where the HELL are we going?!” I asked during a brief lull in the combat.
“We’re currently in one of Mega-Moby’s veins, headed for her heart. Once there, we’ll breach the left atrium via a kinetic impact to the septum and enter an artery that leads to her head. Our plan is to exit via one of her fragile membranes, possibly an eardrum or eyeball. Turn left up ahead, please.”
The entire squadron followed her directions while desperately holding back the oncoming swarm.
The heart was a torrential nightmare; so much pulsing and thrumming, not to mention the extraordinarily strong torrents of blood. We all tumbled around like crazy, and even our pursuing Sarcophage friends couldn’t fight against the stream. The entire experience was bone-rattlingly surreal… so when Kometka guided us through the left atrium and away from the heart, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
The arteries began to narrow, and the Sarcophage swarm thinned out. Probably wary of blood clots or something. I glanced at the countdown timer… three minutes left… then turned my attention to the map of the arteries we were currently traversing. I noticed we had moved past Mega-Moby’s neck and were now in the base of the skull.
“Kometka, are we going into her brain?”
She nodded. “We plan to punch out through one of her optic nerves.”
Well, that sounded fun. Gouge out one of Mega-Moby’s eyes before blowing her up from the inside with a nuke. Poetic.
As we reached the center of her brain, we blasted a hole in the blood vessel with another kinetic impact… and found ourselves in a cavern of some sort. The walls were made of wrinkly grey matter, alight with electricity. I looked around in confusion. Did Mega-Moby literally have a hole in her head?
The electrical impulses all seemed to be emanating from a single point, halfway up the cavern wall. I magnified the display, and my jaw hung open in shock.
Moby was there.
Not Mega-Moby, but the human-sized original version. Completely naked, immobile and defenseless.
This was my first time seeing my alien clone in person, and she looked far different than through the filter of a gravity comm window. She was younger than I’d expected, probably two decades younger than me… barely out of her teens. And she was gaunt, not a shred of body fat or muscle on her, almost as if she’d been fed intravenously for her entire life. Which, I suppose, made sense. Her back was fused to the brain matter of the cavern walls via several large bundles of nerves, which glowed blue with electricity.
Moby looked just as surprised as we were. Her eyes widened, and she mouthed something. We couldn’t hear her, of course. The other pilots of Maid Squadron, shocked, were unsure what to do… but I didn’t hesitate.
I aimed with my handheld positron rifle and pulled the trigger. There was no gravity barrier in place to protect Moby, probably because strong gravity fields would mess with Mega-Moby’s neural infrastructure. The shots tore into her body, and she vaporized into a cloud of blood and viscera. Large chunks of liquefied brain matter rained down to the cavern floor.
“Sveta!” I barked.
“R-Right!” she replied, deploying the brain-scanning laser from Miette’s Frame. “I have a lock… downloading a scan of her neural energy now…”
I looked at the clock. Two minutes, fifteen seconds remaining. Hopefully this download didn’t take too long.
The seconds seemed to crawl by as we watched the progress bar. Moby’s download was taking longer than Genevi’s. We suspected her mind was larger than that of an average human, and now we had proof. I just hoped her neural architecture was still human-like enough for the process to work.
The progress bar hit 100%. “Successful?” I asked Sveta.
“I won’t know until I try to run her program. For now, let’s get out of here.”
I checked the clock. One minute, thirty-six seconds.
We accelerated down the optic nerve, Sveta and Kometka used their Strike Fins to kinetic-blast any fleshy obstacles in our way. The gravity shield gave out completely, and our Frames were buffeted by fluid, but they kept accelerating. The X-23s were tough, bless them.
We blasted out of Moby’s eyeball with seconds to spare, and our AIs instantly shut off our acceleration safeties and pushed the drive fins to maximum. There was an unimaginably bright flash behind us, and a shockwave that accelerated us even further. It felt like my body was being crushed into liquid. I shut my eyes and clenched my teeth.
When the light and acceleration died down, I gingerly opened my eyes again. I reached for the controls, only for Kometka to shake her head.
“The drive fins are completely burned out. We’re not going anywhere. Backup squadrons are en route.”
I nodded. “The others?”
“Everyone’s fine, although their Frames are damaged as well. Miette still has partial gravity drive, but Sabina and Maurice are stranded like us.”
“…and Moby?” I asked in a quiet voice.
Kometka brought up a rear display. Mega-Moby had been dismembered by the explosion, her entire lower and mid torso vaporized. Her legs and upper torso drifted away from each other, trailing blood.
I leaned back in my chair and let out a long sigh. The feeling of relief was immense.
After three long years, it was finally over.