Story by Joshua Sky; art by Ian Tolmay
Avi ran across the tarmac among a squad of 20 pilots. All of Israel and Palestine was in a state of emergency.
The threat was real and the threat was big, but this time, everyone was unsure exactly what the threat was. All they had were vague rumors and solid orders.
Quickly Avi stepped into the docking elevator. The lift ascended and he watched the plains of the Negev expand. The once barren desert was flourishing with towns, new cities, and vegetation that had grown across the ancient surface in the last thirty years. In the far distance lay Jerusalem, white and brilliant, and beyond that, barely visible, were the spires of Tel Aviv.
The lift halted. Doors parted revealing the cockpit of the mech. A flat leather chair positioned itself horizontally as the access point. Avi slid in as buckles clicked, A.I. booted, and the chair curved over, revealing a panoramic view that looked out to the gray runway where Golems began to deploy to their various destinations.
Cool air streamed through the vents, yet Avi’s upper lip perspired. He wiped the sweat away with the back of his hand and began locking in coordinates. Across the front visor, holographic interfaces booted, displaying mission readouts and maps.
“Shalom!” A whimsical voice called from behind.
Avi smirked. It was his co-pilot, Mohamed ‘Mo’ Ezrachi, an Arab-Israeli with a cheerful sense of humor. “As-salamu alaykum, glad you could make it, buddy. I was only about to deploy.”
“Please. We both know you can’t go nowhere without me. I’m your navigator, your North Star, your –”
“Sometimes.” Mo slid into his seat which locked into place. Quickly his fingers raced across an interface, tapping away as his eyes drank streams of data. He released an exaggerated yawn.
“Okay. She’s good to go.”
“You look like you just woke up.”
“I did. And so did the lady who stayed over.”
Avi scoffed as Mo lightly kicked the top of his shoulder from his seated perch above. “Don’t be jealous.”
“Oh, I’m not. I’m just saving myself for the right lady.”
“Good. More for me.”
Sparring had always been the cornerstone of their relationship. Both had sharp tongues, keen minds, and plenty of practice goading each other ever since they struck a friendship back in Basic. The Golem’s computer spoke in Hebrew, cutting through their jests. “Ready to launch in Shalosh …. Shtayim …. Ahat….”
Outside the mech, support cables detached as it slowly lurched forth. The Golem reached a large lift that raised it to the top of an elevated platform.
Both pilots were now dead silent, focusing all their energies on the launch. Their hands tapped across the holos, tracing mathematical trajectories to the next platform ten miles away, and the two beyond. The landing platforms made it possible for the Golems to make long distance leaps, covering miles without damaging terrain and infrastructure during touchdowns. They also doubled as repair and maintenance stations. The massive mechs were slow on foot. Fly-leaps were more expedient, but physics was the catch.
The combination of metal, momentum, and pyrotechnics was deadly, each element needed to be balanced in design. The trick engineers devised was to maximize the weight in the base of the craft, while making the upper body as light as possible. Heavier metals composed the bottom-most sections, thinner material the top, with the exception of the faceplate.
Their destination was New Gaza. There were no platform landers there. The incursion would have to be walked. Gazan corridors had only grown denser over the years, and Golems were far more versatile than tanks, making them ideal for brief armored raids. The machines were capable of digging trenches, lifting heavy objects, transient stints of flight, and were intimidating as hell.
The screen locked-in on the targeted platform and Mo silently triggered the leap. The Golem’s thick legs bent in on themselves like a grasshopper’s appendages, then uncoiled as rocket boosters ignited. The clay-colored giant catapulted towards the burning disk of the sun. This was always the scary part, as the g-force pressed against the pilots, making it difficult to breathe. The mech arced into the apex of the leap — gravity seemed to let go, and the illusion of weightlessness kicked in as the momentum of 35 tons of metal hurtled through the air. All the while they silently hoped to Hashem, Allah, what have you, that the platform landing calculations were correct. Otherwise this leap would be their last.
All the pilots had seen the training videos of failed landings, of platforms struck at the wrong angle, or not slowing in time. Those images showed the horrific aftermath of botched touchdowns where the pilots had been pureed into pâté, and the Golems, the beautiful ground assault protectors became nothing but hulking scraps of tin foil.
It was silent in the cockpit, breath withheld as they pensively watched miles of acreage pass below. Moments before striking tarmac, wind resistors fanned out from the arms, legs and back, slowing its fall. Rocket boosters spat blue flames from its rear, decelerating its decent as the Golem’s wide feet designed to take unimaginable impact struck the landing strip with a BOOM and skidded along its surface several hundred feet.
The pilots released twin sighs of relief.
Immediately Mo began punching in coordinates for the next jump. “Tell me, do you know why they’re moving so many Golems? I heard they’re rallying the whole Corps, from the bottom of Eilat to the tip of the Golan.”
“My briefing read the same as yours. From what I gleaned, they think some kind of weapon may’ve been smuggled into the country, and they’re diverting units to patrol the border.”
“Great, and we get shit duty, moseying into Gaza. I hate visiting that side of the family, even under happy circumstances, let alone incursions.”
“Which pisses them off more, Mo: That you aren’t married yet, or that you’re bi?”
“That I’m in the IDF.”
Again, their mech rocketed skyward, arriving safely to the next platform. Flanking them were three more Golems, which had just landed generating thunderous reports that echoed across the silent desert. To the far left, from their vantage, they could see the tiny village of Shlomit, with its modest clay homes, baking in the desert heat, just 700 meters from the Egyptian border.
The Golems stood awaiting orders.
A face appeared on their display, the face of Colonel Emanuel. A bald, stern Jew who spoke with a voice that sounded like dried mud. “Boker tov, Golem platoon. Today’s mission will be the most vital one of your military careers. The entire country, and the surrounding region are depending on you.”
“No pressure,” Mo mouthed. Attentive yet grim expressions came across both pilots’ faces.
“You are to enter via the southern border of New Gaza. Terrorists foreign to the region have smuggled a type of weapon we’ve never directly encountered before. A mini-bomb roughly the size of a duffle bag with the blast radius of an entire city. We believe it was the same type of weapon detonated in the fall of Rome, and another that was caught by Saudi authorities in a smuggle attempt near Mecca. The terrorist group call themselves the ‘Nonbelievers‘ and are comprised of radical atheists who are trying to transport the weapon into Israel. We believe that the only reason it has not been detonated yet is because the group is desperately trying to smuggle it into the heart of Jerusalem. We cannot allow this to happen.”
Emanuel’s eyes pierced each of the pilots with utmost seriousness. His gaze perfectly communicated what was at stake. “Due to the make of the weapon, it’s extremely difficult to detect. We need Golems on the ground to take energy readings and hunt for it. We don’t have an exact location for the device, but have narrowed the search to two estimated districts based on reports. The weapon must be found and removed from the region at all costs, including your lives.”
Mo swallowed a wad of bile, scratched the back of his head.
“Yael Hazan is platoon leader, Avi Aaronson is First Lieutenant.” He exhaled, grimacing. “Time is short.”
Half an hour passed. Mo and Avi sat, tightly packed in the eggshell of a cockpit.
Both focused on triple-checking their instruments, trying not to let the stress of the mission creep too deeply into their minds.
Mo chuckled, at first it was a light laughter, that gradually grew into a heavy one. Avi peered up, “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, just – everything. This predicament.”
Avi said nothing, which was his way of saying everything.
“You’re right. You’re right.” Mo wiped a tear from his eye. “Tell me, are you really trying to get married. Trying to find ‘the one’?”
“Why? We’re pilots in our prime.”
“Because one-night stands make me feel lonely.”
“Aw, you’re adorable. Weak, but adorable. Relationships are tough. You have to be willing to leave yourself exposed.”
“And I’m the weak one?”
Mo shrugged. “Men, women, they find me alluring at first, but quickly grow sick of my shtick.”
“Remember, I’m mixed. I’m exotic. Something to try, but only once.”
“At least you get flights of fancy. Some never get any at all. Don’t get me wrong, I grew sick of you a long time ago. Day one.”
They both laughed and then were quiet for a while. Focusing on their readouts.
“You think it’s really radical atheists?”
“Their victory in Rome emboldened them. A whole city. Thousands of years of history. Poof! Gone in an instant. I hate thinking about these things. I was hoping tempers would cool.”
“Fat chance.” Mo sniffed. “I still don’t get it, if the weapon is so small, why send Golems? Why not infantry?”
“Our scanners are more sophisticated. We’d be able to transport it quicker. A grunt can’t chuck it far enough, and a tank lacks dexterity.” Avi rubbed his face. “Not to get too personal, but do you ever feel strange? Being an Arab-Israeli — in-between cultures. It must feel — complicated.”
“What do you mean?” Mo asked, pretending he wasn’t paying much attention, but actually wanting to read deeper into Avi’s reasoning.
“Well. I mean, your family goes all the way back to pre- World War II Palestine. You’ve got a big one, both from New Gaza and the West Bank, many of whom aren’t exactly pro-Israel, yet here you are with us.”
Mo shrugged. “Israel is my home. I grew up here.”
Just then, Emanuel’s visage broke the silence, issuing orders to advance. Twice more their Golems leapt, and twice more they were, thankfully, smooth landings. Their platoon then marched down a ramp to the Earth then across a thin, barren strip between the Israel-New Gaza border. The squad easily made it over the high-wall and onto dusty brown hills covered with a patchwork of mottled grass.
The Golems plodded forth. Jetfighters screamed above. And coming over a hillcrest, they came upon the interior of Southern Gaza.
It was like the entire country of India was wedged into a tiny corridor, one side made of water, the other concrete. Countless tents were fused into rickety structures, jam-packed into the horizon. Layer upon layer, they rose like massive cakes of ruin.
As the Golems advanced, they could hear the Tock! Tock! Tock! of rocks harmlessly pinging off their hulls. Several angry locals cautiously followed the outskirts of the craft, keeping their distance and scattering each time legs advanced.
Careful not to crush pedestrians below, Mo and Avi meticulously directed each limb as the Golem lumbered deeper into the city. It was frustrating, delicately balancing such indelicate machines. Each movement, if executed incorrectly, could lead to numerous deaths.
Suddenly sensory alarms blared — a voice from the comm screamed, “Look out!”
On the right viewscreen, a barrage of incoming rockets was detected. At first neither Mo nor Avi were quite concerned, as rockets were generally harmless to Golems. But a grim realization quickly dawned on them – these were different. These were Mech Busters: titanium tipped, armor piercing, Iran-developed rockets that were more than capable of penetrating the Golem’s defenses. Helplessly they watched as the first rockets rained down on the leading Golem. Two missed, exploding on the ground, eviscerating a small crowd of people in an instant. The third rocket struck the Golem’s face, decapitating it – and just like that two pilots, one of them their squad leader, were extinguished.
Avi and Mo leaned forward, hearts in throat.
Over the comm, the sound of seasoned but panicked pilots broke through:
“Where’s it coming from?!”
“Hamas? Tawid Al-Jihad? Civilian fire?!”
“Yael and David just bought it!”
Avi dared to rein in the panicked team, barking into his comm, “Platoon, activate portable Iron Domes now.”
“We can’t.” Mo stated. “The lead Golem had the only unit.”
“Why didn’t it go off?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it malfunctioned?!”
“Damn it.” He exhaled, trying to ignore the rising white lines of more incoming fire. “Nobody has an I.D. System installed?!”
“Negative,” all of them remarked.
Before Avi issued the order, Mo replied, “I’m on it.” Quickly the Golem lunged over to their decapitated comrade, and pulled apart its back, finding the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, which was nothing but a scrap pile.
“Damn it!” Avi spat, as missiles strafed their positions, blowing off the legs of another unit. “Where the hell is it coming from?!”
In the far distance, Mo could see several news drones, trying to keep their distance, capturing footage being streamed worldwide.
As they continued fumbling with the failed Iron Dome, they saw it coming: A fast moving rocket bearing towards them. Mo quickly raised the mech’s hand trying to shield them as the projectile exploded in its exposed palm. Metal lacerated outward as the concussion blew the Golem’s left hand off.
Avi went into a shocked trance. His mind scattered to every part of the known universe except for the present.
“Avi.” Mo said, sounding like a scared kid. “What do we do?”
“Avi! We’re going to die!”
Suddenly everything came into sharp, nirvana-like focus. The primal leader that laid in Avi’s heart awakened, the Decision Maker. “We need to go deeper into the city.”
“What? That’s against orders. We need permission.”
“We don’t have time.”
Mo called Emanuel up on the screen. Already more death lines rose out from the dark horizon. Avi spoke into the comm, “Golemim, we’re going deeper into Gaza. Follow if you can.”
“But, it doesn’t matter if we go deeper. The rockets will track us. They’ll kill their own people.”
“Mo — prepare a leap, on my mark.” In that instant, Mo knew Avi’s plan. They were going to attempt a short-range jump as the missiles would land. It was their only chance to outmaneuver them, the Golems weren’t fast enough otherwise, but in the air they might have a chance.
Mo punched in a brief trajectory. Leaps were dangerous without platforms to land on, but if kept to short distances, the pilots could usually manage touchdowns without getting into a wreck. Usually.
Collateral damage was another story.
“Avi,” Mo said. “Is there a way we can leap back to an unpopulated zone? Back from where we came?”
“Negative.” Emanuel’s voice spoke from the screen. “You must push forth and run an energy scan in populated zones. The weapon is being hidden amongst civilians. You must pinpoint any abnormal signatures. We’re sending new coordinates; our scanners haven’t determined an exact location. They’ve managed to conceal it against our attempts.”
“Clearly.” Avi muttered.
“The scan must be done up close and in multiple spectrums. Leap, but inflict as little damage as possible.”
Mo sighed. That was a damn contradiction if he ever heard one. Inflicting little damage in this situation was comparable to a dancing hippo failing to knock over anything in a petite antique shop. Speedily he plotted the jump, as a new barrage of rockets arced forth. Their Golem leapt, a few seconds later, the next unit did as well, too late – two rockets detonated against its back, obliterating the pilots, as well as a crowd of bystanders.
Mo and Avi pensively observed the land below, it seemed like they were above a vast network of alien structures, as inhospitable to them, as they were to its inhabitants. The pilots yearned to close their eyes, yet couldn’t. They were hoping beyond hope that wherever they landed, nobody would get hurt. That it would be clear of people. That it would be an empty zone.
Several crushed vehicles and unmoving bodies were the result of the mech’s heavy, uncontrolled landing. Guilt and panic chipped away at their composure – both pilots put the feelings out of their minds when Emanuel’s command cut through — “Run scan now!”
Mo initiated, running spectrum after spectrum, until — finally — something came up strong and blue on the radar in the midst of a massive field of red. The hard energy reading was tiny, miniscule, but far more powerful than anything for a 15-mile radius.
Emanuel’s image on the feed was momentarily stunned, his voice had lost some authority, overtaken by subtle shock. “Take it out.”
Mo punched in the coordinates, the reading was less than a mile away, they could walk it, but it would take too much time. The weapon could be set off at any moment. So again, they leapt.
The Golem struck ground with an explosion of black dust and debris. There was the sound of screaming, and rocks, and small arms fire pinging off their hull and in the distance were more rising lines of armor-piercing death. The other Golems had been destroyed. Only they remained. Mo had identified the source of the energy reading, it was in the top-most clock tower of a small sandstone building.
“There!” Mo exclaimed, pointing. “The tower!”
Avi maneuvered the remaining arm, swinging a hand forth so it smoothly sliced the top off the turret. The roof collapsed, inside a handful of men, maybe four, half of them had been killed, the other two were working furiously over a computer.
Mo magnified their image. They didn’t appear to be of Arab decent, but foreign, perhaps European. One of them wore a beard and glasses, and the butt of a pistol protruded from his pants.
Mo ran a radiation scan, revealing exactly where the energy signature was emanating from. The device, whatever it was, hung in a leather gym bag slung on the shoulder of the bearded man.
Avi commanded the hand to reach forth and clench, the man exploded into marinara sauce in the machine’s grip.
Then the screen shifted — detecting a massive energy fluctuation – the device now rapidly pulsed.
“What’s going on?” Avi said, staring at the energy readings. “The weapon is destabilizing.”
Sweat percolated across Mo’s forehead, as fear uncoiled throughout his being. “The pressure of the mech’s hand, it activated the weapon.”
Emanuel’s face came on – and he was issuing some kind of order, but the men couldn’t hear him over the sound of their dual beating hearts.
The two pilots held each other’s gaze, knowing it was the end. Knowing that all their hopes and aspirations needed to be cast aside forever, and in that very moment. It wasn’t fair, but it didn’t matter.
“Let’s set this thing off over the Mediterranean.” Avi uttered.
Mo nodded, and again the Golem’s legs buckled back and launched, incoming rockets just missing the airborne mech. Avi and Mo had expended every drop of fuel from its reserve with this final jump. Up and up the gleaming giant went – miles away from land – it floated above the glistening blue waters that had seen a hundred empires try their hand at glory.
They didn’t stare at the ocean though, but above at the sky, where suspended was the half pearl of the moon peeking out from the bright azure. Israel, Palestine, and New Gaza lay safely far behind, seemingly insignificant from their vantage.
The engines spat and coughed as the last of the fuel reserves depleted. Just before gravity kicked-in, Avi reached up and held Mo’s hand. “Shalom,” he said.
“Salam,” he repeated.
For a brief moment a new star had been born between Heaven and Earth.
Heavy Metal would like to thank Ian Tolmay for the use of his Desert Mech artwork. Tolmay is a 2D/3D game artist, and you can see more of his work on his blog, his Twitter @lil_elvis1, and his portfolio at ArtStation.