Neural Burn

Cohost writing prompt: @Making-up-Mech-Pilots — Mech Pilot who has kept you alive, even if you begged to die, to the point that you are ready to live again

"Maybe," one of Grant's well-fed, sheltered, civilian nephews says dolefully, smoking outside the residential care block, "when she asked you to put her down, it would have been kinder."

A brief montage unspools behind Merrill's eyes, a basic-training hand-to-hand training sequence demonstrating how to dislocate his arm, kick his knee out, crush his throat.

She grinds her smoke out on the provided ash bin, instead. "I'll lend you my sidearm, next time," she suggests. "If she's feeling lucid enough to take it out of the holster, press it into your hands, jam the barrel into her own face and plead, you can pull the fucking trigger and paint brains all over the wall, how about that?"

He starts to snivel something, but she's halfway indoors already, fists tight on the webbing straps of her heavy military backpack.

The neural interface is supposed to burn out, in the event of damaging feedback. Bad enough to have dead metal in your head, cut off from your machine, gruelling surgery and re-acclimatisation away from piloting again; but very occasionally the feedback amplitude is just shy of threshold, hot transients just too fast, and the fusible circuits don't blow. And in a badly damaged mech, injured, you might be dangling there unable to jack out, your brain slowly frying.

Grant had begged her to take care of it, as Merrill rushed her to a field hospital. Merrill hadn't realised, then, how rare that much lucidity was going to be.

She gets back in time for Grant's sister to come out of the room, drawn and tired. One of the ones who blames Merrill, because she's there, as a proxy for the fact Grant had even been there, for the war, for mechs, for Grant loving piloting so much, for not saving her.

They don't exchange pleasantries. They've been at this too long to pretend they're going to work this out in civilised fashion.

"Hey, Foxy," Merrill says, hip-checking the door shut behind her. "What's the news for your old pal Crimescene?"

Grant, soft sweater dotted with spoonfed baby mush, softly drums her fist on the arm of her chair.

"Got you a present," Merrill says, eyeing the desk bolted to the wall, with its dust-clotted personal computer. She slides the backpack off her shoulder, to the bed. "Quartermaster-looking-the-other-way special."

Some obsolete version of the pilot training program had used PC-based simulations of basic movement functions, with a genuine Core Mech Functions Console repotted in incongruous Generic PC Peripheral beige plasic boxes with edge-of-table clamps and standard computer connectors. It took a little doing to get into the dusty training rooms and liberate one, then get it off base; Merrill sets to work bolting the parts back together, then clamping them to the table, shoving the unused computer back against the wall to make room.

While she's screwing the joysticks back in, Grant wanders up behind her and rests her chin on Merrill's shoulder to watch. She does, occasionally, when something catches her interest; Merrill's breath catches for a second when she casually slides her hands into Merrill's hip pockets.

She knows Merrill — on good days, when she knows people — but there's never been any conclusive sign she particularly knows what any given person meant.

"Careful, Foxy," she jokes for her own benefit, as her chest squeezes tightly around her feelings. "You'll get us busted for fraternisation," and Grant's hands flex against her thighs, registering that she said something, if nothing else.

The staff keep talking about enrichment and engagement and lamenting that they can't get Grant to pay attention more, that it would be good for her if they could, hopefully stimulate recovery. But they don't find things that will get her attention.

"All set up," Merrill says. "Take a seat, pilot," and Grant plops into the desk seat in front of the sticks, stares at the CMFC, and reaches out tentatively to touch the left stick. "That's it, Foxy, show me what you've got," and then, "holy shit."

Grant runs right through a textbook mech startup, cold boot to ready, then says, in a rusty voice, "Five niner nominal, over." Which triples the number of unique words Merrill's aware she's said in the last six months, most of which have been "No."

"What's your status, five niner?" Merrill says, voice and hands shaking.

"Food sucks, over," Grant says, and Merrill wrenches the door open, cry-laughing, to frantically wave Grant's sister over from the row of sad only-one-visitor-at-a-time-please chairs.