The master caution alarm blared. Michaela’s eyes ran across the cracked panoramic screen, the schematic blinking: hydraulic fluid leak in the right leg actuator, 5.7mm gun damaged … not good. And her mech was on its side. Also not good. She tapped the screen. The alarm ceased, the crack propagated another inch. Great. She winced as she pried away the panel which pinned down her right arm.

Michaela held her breath and listened. Nothing. And as far as she could see: concrete columns, beams and manholes; overhead, multiple levels of road arterials stretched in all directions, disappearing into the distant black. The usual.

She huffed, thrust her feet against the pedals, gripped both joysticks and gently pulled back, bringing her mech up onto its feet. Quietly. Or as quietly as a fifteen-ton AVB-25E mech could. It was Thursday afternoon—not that any daylight got down here—meant to be just another patrol. And that was the problem initially: just another patrol. She wasn’t the bored cop wishing for combat. It was that she had another three months in this miserable dustpan, out here in Sector 44. Cartel territory. And now she might die in it.

“Wolf Two to Wolf One, report,” said Michaela. “Sergeant?”

Just pulsing static. Damn jamming. Before she got hit, Sergeant Eldritch ordered a formation change. He said, “Corporal, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but let me take the right.” Translation: I don’t trust you to cover our flank. Michaela wasn’t offended. She did her job. And if the sergeant was really the hotshot he thought he was, he wouldn’t be assigned to this sector either. Seconds after the reposition, it was all tracers and clanking steel. She glanced at her weapons status and sighed: seventy-four rounds left on the 30mm cannon. Now where the hell was everyone?

The mech stepped forward with a thud, kicking up dust. On her left, a pillar provided some cover. She looked right: nothing. Inching forward, she peeked left and caught a glimpse of a black barrel and arm rounding a column nearby.

“Fuck it.” It wasn’t grey so it wasn’t a police mech. Her trigger finger curled: a burst of thunder, a puff of dust. Twisted metal flew.

Michaela floored the pedals, dashing forward, albeit with a slight limp. Emerging from the settling dust was a massive black mech with the insignia of a bruin baring its sharp teeth. Fricking Cartel. It still had its left arm. A 50mm muzzle filled her screen. Whoop!

But she had hit the dirt. The shot grazed the armor as she slid under the enemy and rammed her mech’s left arm with its cannon right under the cockpit and fired. The entire torso section blew open with a spray of red.

“Wolf Three to all units— unde—”

Michaela frowned. “Say again, Wolf Three.” Well, at least the guy she just liquefied was carrying the jammer.

A rumble.

“Heading your way, Harrison,” she uttered.

Michaela stomped the pedals and hobbled towards the sound. Tracers streaked by. Shit. Even if they couldn’t see her, they could see the dust with every step she took. Sparks lit her screen as rounds ricocheted with loud clangs. But she smirked: tracers went both ways.

She ducked behind a support, let off a few rounds to one side before spinning out from cover on the other. Gotcha, bastards. Right in front of her was a black mech with one foot on a police unit lying on its back. Some paces away were two thugs with shoulder-mounted launchers. None of this put-down-your-weapons crap. Michaela unloaded. The two guys turned to red mist and all that remained of the mech were two charred legs.

“Wolf Three, you alright?”

“Behind!” yelled Harrison.

Michaela spun around to see streams of smoke. Frigging rockets. She let the 5.7mm gun rip but it jammed. There was a flash, the screen shattered in her face and—

“Wakey wakey!”

Michaela woke to a big bearded man standing over her. Her eyes darted around … at least she wasn’t blinded. A man and a woman stood behind the big guy, both armed with assault rifles and launchers. Her own mech laid to her right, the cockpit blown open. Fluid leaked. Torn cables exposed. Shredded armor plates were glowing red. And Harrison was nowhere to be seen. Thanks a lot.

“Your colleague got up and split,” said Big Beard, leaning in and chuckling. “Now, where’s the package?”

Michaela scowled. Whack. That hurt. She drew in air. That hurt too. Not that she expected any better from a punch in the gut.

She glanced at the leaking fluid dripping down the panels, then gritted her teeth, brought her knee into his ribs and rolled left. A flash, then a wall of heat slammed into her back.

Staggering up, she saw that Big Beard’s head was at an unpleasant angle relative to his neck; well, unpleasant for him but pleasant enough for her. The other two writhed on the ground. Michaela brushed her sleeve across her bloody face. Just a few cuts. But they stung.

“Where’re the other two police units?” she asked the man, pulling out her sidearm. “And who told you I was making a delivery?”

He sneered. “Don’t know … and you’re not gonna shoot me, you’re a cop.”

“You’re right, not gonna waste ammo,” responded Michaela. “Not gonna waste time either.”

She holstered her weapon, strode over to her ruined mech and tore off a thin shaft about two feet in length. It was hot but nothing her gloves couldn’t cope with. With both hands, she lifted it high and drove it down hard, right into his face with a chunky crunch. The woman’s eyes bulged as Michaela turned to her and mentally hit the repeat button.

She eyed her mech. They didn’t outright destroy her nor executed her when they could have. Whatever they wanted must be stowed inside. She marched over to the smashed cockpit. She first grabbed the carbine, a few grenades and the med-kit. Her eyes scanned the interior: nothing out of the ordinary. The compartment underneath the cockpit was also busted. She peeped. Under the wires was a chrome case. She ripped it out. More like a briefcase. Locked. Relatively light. Knowing these thugs, it was either concentrated drugs or creds.

She knitted her brow. She could destroy it. Or not. Either way, she needed backup but she couldn’t trust—

“Over here!” – “She’s got it!” – “Hurry up.”

Michaela wheeled around. Half a dozen men with assault weapons were a couple hundred feet away. She bolted towards the nearest manhole. Thank God one of them was already open, the cover probably broken in by a trampling mech. Shots rang out. Dust spat at her feet. She thumbed the safety on the grenade and lobbed it. Bullets whizzed by and something clipped her. She looked down, a patch of dark red in her right side. She tossed the briefcase down the hole and dived in, hoping it didn’t go too deep.

She heard the grenade go off. Screams and shouts followed. Good. The hole overhead was merely several feet away. Her legs and back ached. Her head throbbed. Somehow, she didn’t break any bones.

Michaela switched on the torch which was attached to her carbine and squinted at her waist. She could tell the round missed vital organs but she could still bleed out. Clenching her jaw, she dragged the med-kit toward herself. Her hand shook but she managed to flick it open and seized the tube of trauma gel. Holding it against the wound, she squeezed. The transparent gel turned blue and hardened almost instantaneously. Then she dropped the thing. Gotta keep moving.

She rolled onto her knees, detached the strap from the carbine, clicked it onto the briefcase and slung it onto her back. Once on her feet, she tottered forward, just able to make out the manholes farther down.

Spotlights were panning this way and that. Two mechs, too big to be police models. She kept low and skimmed the concrete column beside her, then up at the girders. All were lined with fractures.

Michaela switched the torch on and threw the carbine away, then began to clamber up the column. Grimacing, she checked her wound: the gel was still holding. Up top, she stared at the two mechs—measuring their strides—then set the time on the two grenades and jammed them into one of the fissures near where the concrete girder connected to the column.

Then she painfully scaled down and stumbled toward a nearby pillar. She pressed her hand against her wound as she watched the two mechs approach, stopping to inspect her carbine. She smirked.

Two small explosions. The girder dropped and the two mechs disappeared.

As Michaela was about to turn away, a police mech stepped forward.

The cockpit opened. Harrison climbed down and rushed over. “I’m sorry, there were three mechs. As soon as you got hit, I knew I couldn’t win. I had to—”

“Three?” she groaned.

“I bagged one before. Had to play hide-and-seek though. What’re you carrying?”

Michaela drew her sidearm. He held up his hands and nodded at her waist. “Cartel guys are still out there.”

“No way you two could’ve escaped the initial ambush like that,” said Michaela. “Who put the package in my mech?”

Harrison shook his head … then three thumps and he dropped. A bloodied Eldritch stood stiffly with his sidearm in hand. He lowered it. Michaela kept hers up.

“He’s their inside man,” the sergeant whispered.

“But you ordered the formation change,” she grunted.

Eldritch’s lips twisted. So did Michaela’s. “You wanted me to be the disposable delivery girl, to be the dirty cop. Except the Cartel must’ve wanted to get rid of you two as well.”

“A misunderstanding. As for you, your demotion after that incident at the shopping mall suited the image.”

“I was doing my job,” stated Michaela.

Then she did her job again, putting four rounds into Eldritch: three in the chest, one in the head. Stuff him. No way a sergeant could deal with the Cartel without some help from the brass. No way she could win if she reported all this. Besides, she could use some extra income. As Michaela dragged herself toward Harrison’s mech, her mind raced to formulate a plausible after-action report.