It’s been a long time since I last put a short story up on my blog, so here is another. It’s a science-fiction piece about a pilot trying to come to terms with unexplained events he witnesses during a battle.
It’s intended to draw heavily on the sorts of events that happen in super-robot anime of the kind I’ve written about in other articles, but from a different perspective to the usual hero.
I think it was a miracle.
Fuel low, ammunition gone. The point where suddenly pushing forward for victory becomes trying to live on. They said life expectancy for our kind was measured in missions; it wasn’t so bad as to be minutes again, not like before the discovery.
Some of us – I’m one of an ever-falling number, mind, still remember the first victory. I wasn’t there, I was fourteen, watching it on a tiny screen in a rusting quarter-space in one of the colonies that had been rush-built after the scouring. Watching as one woman turned the tide. It seems presumptuous to build a statue of a hero after only one battle but, well, when you are the woman who saved an entire species from extinction in one hour it’s probably appropriate. It’s got her words – her whole speech prior to the Battle of Titan – printed underneath it, engraved in the base in three languages so everyone can see what true courage means. One of them, as perhaps the ultimate insult, is the language of them.
Things change, though. We built more, more ships, more machines, but we couldn’t build more heroes. I don’t know if it was complacency setting in, or if that first victory was a fluke, but now, three years on, things are only marginally better than they were before.
Jupiter burns – and I mean that, storms and flares are still lingering on its surface from that attack four years ago – in front of me. I’ve lost track of my partner somewhere in the sea of lights in the sky, but I can still see the clouds of destruction our Figurehead is laying down.
The Figureheads. The first one, Genesis Star, single-handedly won the Battle of Titan. Then they adapted, and suddenly they were just weapons among many for us.
Then there’s something in the distance, a burning red whip of lightning out from the enemy main fleet straight into the melee I’m skirting the edge of, trying to find a way out of. It leaves a trail of blossoming explosions in its wake, and then stops. Our Figurehead is Arc Striker, one of the old models, a two-pilot one.
I hear its main pilot’s voice. “All escorts, retreat now! Attack is aborted, repeat attack is aborted! Arc Striker will provide cover and retreat once all fighters are clear!”
There’s screamed orders over the radio. I’m supposed to be a squadron leader but when I call up my wing’s channels they’re all blank.
I run, watching Jupiter – and the enemy fleet, and Arc Striker out there alone – diminish behind me.
The first thing I was told when I finished my training was you never saw or felt the shot that killed you.
Somehow my fighter’s autopilot landed it safely. I’m on a moon, somewhere. The fleet is distant, stars in the sky among many, and I realise this is probably the end.
The second was that being alive to realise you got hit was far, far worse.
Life-support in a fighter is a cruel joke; it’s put in because not having it at all led to far, far higher incidences of people refusing to fly. Yet what good does it serve? Assuming for a moment that there is enough of my fighter intact for the distress beacon to have survived the crash, and that the sheer amount of radio interference that their ships throw out somehow still allows an operator back on the Mark 25 to detect it, what will they do? Risk a lander in the middle of the largest enemy fleet we’ve seen for weeks to recover one pilot?
The stars seem quite bright, actually. Beautiful. Even Jupiter has some of its school-book elegance, the amber, marbled eye in space that mankind has always looked to. Two of them are getting closer, twin stars in red and blue.
The moon’s surface is a field of icy rock, and suddenly it shatters. When the storm clears, my canopy is a spider-web of microscopic cracks, but I can still see enough out to know that it was no shooting star I saw. Arc Striker is sprawled across a crater, one leg dangling by a few fibrous artificial muscles from wrecked thigh plating, half its head caved in and a camera-eye exposed from behind a shattered green coating. Its sword is nothing but a hilt and perhaps two metres of broken blade, and I notice the remainder is sticking out of its torso roughly where the copilot’s access hatch should be.
Standing over its body is an enemy machine, about twice the size, shiny and black and chitinous with long spines of silvery metal jabbing out from its shoulders around which balls of lightning crackle. One arm protrudes from beneath a cloak-like beam-reflective veil holding an elaborate sword-hilt, and the blade materialises as it brings it up, as if you can only see it from one angle. From its shadowed, bulbous head a single red eye glows, flaring brighter.
I am going to die and I am going to watch Arc Striker die first. I’m crying, unsure if it is for me, for Earth or for the machine before me and its pilots.
And then I am almost blinded. Arc Striker is burning. The enemy’s blade is stayed, the pilot uncertain what is happening, but the dying Figurehead is suddenly standing again, its shattered eye blazing green, its damaged leg dragging against the ground as broken and twisted thrusters pull it upright.
With one blazing hand it pulls the blade from its chest, and I see crystals of frozen blood and water cascade from the wound. Its sword-hilt is discarded, it is holding the blade by one of the broken spars, and it is burning gold. Its dull red-and-blue body has taken on a bright, vivid glow and I am sure the sword is on fire.
Arc Striker leaps forward, sword out towards the stunned foe, and there is an explosion as it flies right through the target. And then, its enemy destroyed in one blow, it turns to me and cradles the wrecked fighter in its hand.
The Fifth Battle of Jupiter was a crushing defeat for the Earth Federation. Figurehead Arc Striker fought bravely for two hours to support Federation ships retreating, and returned to its mothership with the pilot of a downed fighter who had been separated from his squadron during the retreat.
Arc Striker’s pilot was unable to account for the survival of her co-pilot, who emerged from the machine’s damaged secondary cockpit apparently unharmed. She was similarly unable to recall precisely how the Figurehead unit had returned to the mothership in a state described by the chief engineer as incapable of movement owing to severe reactor damage. Repairs on Arc Striker are expected to take several months.
Reports from the fighter pilot, who apparently witnessed Arc Striker’s defeat of the enemy Combat Machine, described the Figurehead apparently shrugging off catastrophic damage to destroy the enemy in a single blow.
Arc Striker’s co-pilot disappeared between the unit’s return and the debriefing, and has not been seen since despite multiple engineering staff confirming his leaving the unit. Certain crew members have subsequently claimed to have seen him around the ship, but these sightings remain unconfirmed.
I don’t know how I survived that day. I don’t think anyone will.