Hard Reboot by Django Wexler

Like Kas herself, they wore the gauzy, translucent robes of academia, wound multiple times around the body and fastened with a line of silver pins. But they, of course, had the tall, slim frames of first- and second-waves, which made the wrap look shimmery and elegant, while on Kas it bunched and twisted uncomfortably. There were a few other academics in the group, who gravitated to Firidi and Vanalt to do the usual pecking-order dance. The tourists—a more colorful group; scales and feathers seemed to be in this year—bunched around the buffet, chattering happily and ignoring the view. That left Kas with nobody to talk to, which was a blessing. With no network, you couldn’t even fake an urgent blip to get out of a dead-end conversation.

The bubbling blue thing had a sour aftertaste, but at least it had some kick. Kas sipped, made a face, and stared down at the Drome. It wasn’t much to look at—an oval floor a few hundred meters across, surrounded by level after level of tiered seating. Time and neglect had stripped off the fabric and paint, leaving only the monocrete foundations, a brutalist sketch of an amphitheater in keeping with twisted, decaying skyline that stretched beyond it. Overhead, the sky was nearly black with endless clouds, which flickered with caged lightning but refused to actually rain.

When Kas had pictured the famous mecha fights of Old Earth, she’d imagined—well, not this. Something grander than a box full of overstuffed tourists staring down at a wreck.

“Pretty good, yeah?”

Kas blinked and looked up. A young woman was standing beside her, looking down at the arena with shining eyes. She was paler than anyone from Sentinel, built like a third-wave, with a dusting of freckles, a pug nose, and flyaway brown hair. She wore a blue jumpsuit, half open, with a stained gray undershirt beneath. Kas guessed her for twenty, though age was a tricky thing to figure between planets.

“I suppose.” Taking a sip from her blue bubbling thing to cover her confusion, Kas considered how best to get rid of this person. If they’d been on a civilized planet, she’d have had a dozen options; then again, on a civilized planet, she’d have been broadcasting mood signifiers and contact protocols that would have made it unforgivably rude to speak to her in the first place when she wanted to introvert. Things being what they were, she settled on a haughty indifference. “If you like ruins.”

“Not the Drome,” the girl said. She had an odd singsong accent Kas had never heard before. “The warbots. ’Ent seen those before, I spec.”

“Not in person,” Kas admitted. She pinch-to-zoomed on one of them, and when that naturally failed to work leaned forward with a sigh. “The one on the left looks like a DreadCarl mark four.”

“DC-3B1,” the girl corrected, but she sounded impressed. “You know your warbots. A fan, yeah?”

“Of a sort,” Kas said. When the girl’s raised eyebrows invited her to continue, she sighed and admitted, “I’m a research historian. Old tech is my job.”

“Really? Killer.” The girl grinned. Two of her teeth were crooked, Kas noted absently. “You spend all day poking old bots?”

“I spend all day going to meetings and begging for grant money,” Kas muttered. A little too honest, there; probably the alcohol speaking. “Poking old bots is more like a hobby.”

The girl gave a cheerful blink of incomprehension, then shrugged. “Killer,” she said, an apparently all-purpose adjective. She extended a hand, which it took Kas a moment to remember she was supposed to shake, something she’d only seen in period dramas. “I’m Zhi.”

“Scholar Zychtykas Three,” Kas said, trying to figure out how long one was supposed to spend clasping the other’s hand. “Call me Kas.”

“Kas,” Zhi said, trying out the sound. She disentangled their fingers and pointed down to the arena floor again. “What do you think of the other? Flash, yeah?”

Kas peered down into the arena again, bemused. In truth, mecha were not her area of expertise, but the DreadCarl was an Eighth-Empire mainstay, manufactured by the million. Its basic shape—ten meters tall, wide enough that it looked squat, with powerful arms and a crested “helmet”—was instantly recognizable. The other mecha, the one that was to be its opponent, looked like a hodgepodge, with one arm longer than the other and one leg painted a bright green that didn’t match. She raised her eyebrows.

“It looks like scrap,” she said.

“It ’ent scrap,” Zhi said. “You should see it move. Like lightning.” She gave her gap-toothed smile again. “Quick-an’-smart beats big-an’-dumb every time, yeah?”