A mech could breathe for a person, fill the pilot chamber with oxygen or pipe it through slender tubes that sat in their nose, winding behind their ears. A mech could walk for someone, taking thoughts and the slightest twitch of their muscles and translating them into smooth footsteps that indented the earth. A mech could allow someone to work to pay their debts, giving them employment they long thought was impossible. For Caris, the mech did all. Her body had been, still was, still would be, ravaged by cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t so bad that she needed a transplant, but she’d been on disability for some time, each paycheck slim, each breath feeling numbered and tighter than the last.
Her unit was sleek black carbon fiber, ten feet tall and humanoid in shape, albeit with elongated arms and legs. Where the head should be was the cockpit, surrounded by layers of acrylic that was supposedly bullet-proof, not that they were supposed to test that. Both hands had three fingers, perfect for grasping and pulling but not otherwise very dexterous. Someone had painted dark green stripes onto the mech, alongside a unit number, a kudzu winding up one leg. This was the eco-corps.
Humanity had done a very good job of fucking things up, environmentally speaking. By the time people had thought to fix things, it was almost too late. Invasive plants choked the life from the soil, while feral bioengineered animals presented a very real threat to life and limb. It was possible to send people out to manually clear plants and kill animals, but it was safer to send out people in mechs. They did the work of five, and as it turned out, the units interfaced well with people who had disabilities of almost every form. It was an employment option where there wasn’t one before. It was a hint of danger in the air, the possibility that they would have to fight and face down man-made monsters. It was too tempting to resist and for Caris, it meant making a dent in her own medical debt. Three hundred thousand a year, and that was one medication. Besides, the corps had health insurance. Deep down, if pressed, Caris would talk about the books she read as a child, the glossy magazines she received at her house monthly, filled with pictures of animals and places that no longer existed in their unaltered forms. Before reality had set in, she wanted to make documentaries or be a park ranger or save animals. This was the next best thing.
The cadets used clumsy and ancient mechs for their training. There was noticeable lag between the embedded jack that went into your head and actual movement of the mech’s body. Compared to that, Caris’ new unit responded instantly, each step fluid. She had thought she would have to get used to the balance and weight of a body not her own once again, but it was like slipping on a second skin.
She saw her fellow alumni practicing similar movements. They moved gracefully, almost lightly, in the constrained space of the mech bay, knowing they had just a few hours to practice before they were actually sent out into the field. They had to earn their keep, the pressure placed on all their heads all the more heavily for their perceived weaknesses. Prove your worth, some said. Prove your productivity. Prove the value of your disabled life.
“Hey Lungs,” a voice crackled over her headset, “you practicing ballet or you piloting a mech?” Harsh laughter accompanied it. Turning the unit, Caris could see some former students watching every move she made—people who had graduated from the real military, piloting combat units. It was easier, at least financially, to lump every mech together in the same building, rather than build separate facilities, but it was more difficult for the pilots. Sometimes it seemed like the other operators enjoyed showing off their physical prowess, working out conspicuously, always laughing with their eyes on the eco-corps. “How you like playing dress up, Lungs? Feel good to be wearing our cast-offs?” Caris had earned her nickname only recently, when a coughing spasm had overtaken her in the middle of the bay, racking her body until blackness was crowding the edges of her vision.
Another voice cut in. “Shut the fuck up, Booker. Go enjoy being cannon fodder somewhere else.” Jordan, one of Caris’ former classmates, managed to sound permanently pissed off whenever they spoke.
“How is it feeling?” Caris asked, afraid that reality wouldn’t match up to expectations. The small twitches and arm movements that piloted her new robotic partner didn’t aggravate her body, but arthritis was a different beast from Jordan’s own Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
“Feels fucking great. Do you even remember running?”
“Not really,” Caris laughed, and suddenly she and Jordan were running full tilt side by side. It was an extension of her body, more natural than anything else she had felt. She was large. She was powerful. She was prepared to take on the world. She couldn’t even feel the jack in the back of her head, the oxygen tubes that wound around her head, feeling like a permanent tether at all other times. They were all a part of her now, flesh and metal indistinguishable in their purpose.
Well, maybe she wasn’t quite ready to do every task just yet. A scant few hours later, the corps members were dumped in Monterey County, up near the coast. Lots of land had been left to reseed and re-wild, but it needed more help than human hands could do alone. Kudzu duty it was, the incipient vine crawling up trees, its lush green a comforting lie of health. It was not dissimilar to the mucus in her lungs; a little lighter, maybe, but just as choking. Airways and veins, nightmares of a leaflet crawling out of her mouth to face the light, holding her in place more than oxygen ever could. To face all this, Caris had her metal body, by now pumping fluids into her with a small IV, nutrients via her feeding tube. She would never have to leave, if she didn’t want to.
It was going to be an easy in and out mission. The mechs would move forward, tearing out the kudzu as they went. They were supposed to get as close down to the root as they could; everyone was paid per pound of what they managed to pull up. The plant was never supposed to spread this far, but once it made a foothold in the west coast, it seemed to thrive, spreading more and more. It choked out all things beautiful and native, constricting them more and more. Caris’ lungs constricted in sympathy.
The squad leader followed behind, meandering in their own mech, which had a flamethrower attached. Scorched earth policy, fire units standing by. The land would recover from a fire. It wouldn’t recover from kudzu. Caris’ body would recover from the antibiotics that made her so ill she couldn’t physically leave her bed, but they would never recover from the scar tissue the mucus left behind.
There was an easy rhythm to the work, despite rumors passed around by other corps members about strange creatures and danger lurking in the hills—both the real and the imaginary, Bigfoot and big cats. The mechs had music they could play, and Caris felt herself enjoying the physicality of hard labor. She hadn’t done this since she was a kid weeding her grandma’s garden. They’d banned her from playing in the dirt soon afterwards, afraid of the superbugs that might lurk within. Too late and too bad. They were already there, and like the vine, they had made enough foothold to make themselves comfortable. Each plant she pulled out was like extracting the liquid from within. She could even imagine a pleasant ache in her muscles, even as she knew they were perfectly fine. When she imagined herself extending an arm, the mech did it. Every step she took was just a fraction of a second behind thought. Her second skin may have been bulky and metallic, but it was swiftly becoming home. You’d have mental fatigue before physical fatigue doing this kind of work. Before she had fallen so ill, in the distant past, Caris could remember working hard and playing hard, and how it felt this effortless.
The corps members slowly spread out. Jordan had her unit do a comical, three-fingered wave as they marched off to their own section of land. The hills rose gently so that Caris was cut off visually from the others, but they always had open comms. Slowly she zoned out, imagining a future where she didn’t have to emerge from her pilot’s seat at the end of the day, so that she wasn’t going to spend her free time longing to feel arms and legs pumping so easily again.
Move forward, pull up a plant, move a step forward again. Watch the dead trees underneath reveal themselves, the bronchi of branches still reaching up to the sky. The crashing noises didn’t interrupt her until they were far too close. She whirled the unit around in a clumsy side step that nearly overbalanced her.
A wild hog regarded Caris slowly and carefully. It was one of the modified ones, descended from a pig that someone had made bigger and bigger, until it was the size of a small horse. Somewhere along the way, the pig had escaped and bred with existing wild population, bits of wild boar thrown in there for fun. The tusked monstrosity that stood before her was “kill on sight”; there was a fat bonus for killing feral pigs. The hog was next month’s supply of medication, wrapped in hundreds of pounds of muscle and fat.
They didn’t leave the corps members completely unarmed. With shaking fingers, Caris pushed a single button and her mech extended a machete, usually used to chop through unusually thick clusters of plants, but with an edge sharp enough that she could defend herself if need be. She could use that bonus. More altruistically, she knew that the pigs were something else that pushed out anything native and good from the environment, leaving only space for their own kind.
As the blade extended, the pig bolted, and with her heart pounding, Caris urged the unit forward, faster than they had ever done in practice, laughing at the exhilaration. “You need help?” Jordan called out, voice broken up by distance. Caris just laughed in response, imagining her hair streaming behind her, pretending that she wasn’t attached to a glorified oxygen tank.
The pig vanished right away, but she could hear its squeals. War mechs had heat vision; an eco mech had plain old vision and a guide in it that could identify any plant just by turning the unit’s optic receptors towards it.
Faster, faster. She still couldn’t see the hog, but Caris thought she had to be catching up. If pushed, she knew she could get 40mph out of her unit, and she had to be close to that now. Running so freely and so easily was something she had never imagined she would do again, even after a transplant. Pain free, legs pumping, no worrying about choking and having to stop to cough.
Suddenly, a large tree was looming too close, an oak draped in kudzu, standing in a clearing. She managed to stop, but barely, skidding and falling, feeling the jostle of the mech hitting the earth in her very bones. Getting up would be tricky, but not impossible.
Had she lost the pig? She managed to get her mech up again, damage report on her screen. Nothing too bad, but she’d scratched the hell out of it. Paint was just paint though, right? She needed that money, still had the machete out…
There was no sign of the pig, but as she pushed past the oak, letting the vines catch the blade and then snap against it, feeling a sense of strain, she thought she saw something else, something running towards where the ground was still open. The pig? She had to see, had to find out.
Caris tried to creep now, but there was no stealth in a giant robot. The crashing sound of her own footsteps filled her ears, drowning out the music. So close… there. Just there.
It was a lone zebra, something that would have made more sense in Kenya than here. Caris raked her mind for an explanation; was she hallucinating from a lack of oxygen? No, her O2 stats displayed were good. She could feel the rub behind her ears from the tubes. It was a real zebra, the description filtering over the screen.
Memories from a childhood field trip filtered into her mind. Down south, there used to be a big house. They called it a castle, a publisher’s monument to hubris from decades ago. The owner had filled his land with wild animals, and long after he died, the zebras had remained, breeding and carefully managed. Then, about five years prior, wildfires had burnt the whole thing down, destroyed the fences. No one knew what happened to the zebras that lived there, but here one was, miles away from home and looking at her, eyes rolling in its head, white foam at the corners of its mouth.
No pig, but her eyes were riveted on the animal, watching as it slowly backed away, then turned and ran, galloping across dry earth and grasses that would probably burn in a few weeks. It might have been the last one, for all she knew, and in every movement there was beauty and sadness. Zebras were meant to live in herds, from what she remembered of long-ago nature documentaries. Then again, this zebra wasn’t meant to be alive at all. Not here, not now. It was supposed to be a relic of the past, something not meant to last in the current environment. What would happen to it?
Was adaptation possible when the environment kept shifting beneath its hooves? She watched the zebra for a few minutes more, its eyes searching for an escape. It had long scars along one of its flanks, the sign of battles fought, yet it appeared healthy otherwise. Like so many other creatures, it had survived. It had carved out a niche for itself here. Where the world would not willingly yield, the zebra had made it. It had survived.
Then, perhaps, so would Caris. Survival was not made for them. They existed on a plane that denied their very right to endure, but there were no other options. As the zebra pushed and pushed to make a space for itself in these kudzu-choked hills, so too did Caris. It was not cowardice, she realized, to make the world accommodate you. It was not asking too much to survive.
The zebra was alone, but so vibrantly alive. Its muscles quivered, preparing to run. It would be so easy to give in without the support of the herd or facing a robotic terror armed with a blade, yet even now the zebra sought a way out. Escape was possible. Life was possible.
Sheathing the machete, Caris turned back. There was kudzu still to cut, bounties to be earned. There was a group of corps members that waited for her. Most importantly, there was the power, the autonomy that the mech gave her. The world had not made space for her. Instead, Caris would punch a woman-shaped hole into it. She was not alone, as the zebra was. She had her friends, the other corps members. She had the memory of the zebra springing away, the sound of its hooves hitting the dry earth. One improbable survivor. Two, if she counted herself.
With another laugh, she ran back simply for the joy of running, of feeling the oxygen in her veins and knowing that the mech too, was a part of her body.
© 2021 by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers
Author’s Note: I was thinking about the future of assistive tech and also thinking about giant robots, as I usually am. Somehow the two conflated in my mind and managed to weave their way in and around my sometimes day job of writing about the native environment to form “Kudzu.”
Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers is a California based writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Creative Writing and has since worked primarily as a nature/conservation writer. Her essays have also been in the Mary Sue and Strange Horizons, while her fiction has appeared in Translunar Travelers Lounge. Her poetry can be found in Strange Horizons and Kalediotrope.