Short Story – “Figurehead”

Following my previous short story, The Miracle of Jupiter, people requested more from the setting. I’m not sure the episodic nature of how I imagine it (a series of battles in an ongoing, hopeless conflict) suits a longer-form kind of writing so I will probably stick to short vignettes like this.

This offers more insight into the future – and the society that creates the Figureheads referred to previously. It’s from the perspective of a pilot just finishing their training, thinking back over how they ended up where they are and what it all means to them.

Measuring the worth of a Figurehead in terms of kills – the old-fashioned measure of a pilot’s ability – is pointless. In one sortie they would be an ace ten times over.

On the other hand, that we measure their worth in terms of missions survived is likely telling of our faith in them.

There is no money nowadays for statues like that of the hero of Titan, but nevertheless pilots need to see and learn from their predecessors, and so the Avenue of Heroes on most colonies is a succession of display screens showing the greatest Figureheads of times past. Genesis Star, of course. Arc Striker, saviour of Jupiter. And then the other names, Hero Wing, Lance Defender – I know them all, of course. You aren’t allowed to pilot a Figurehead without showing due respect for those who have piloted before you.

To be selected, you have to be a survivor; fifteen missions, at least, survived in a Regular Frame, all in confirmed combat against the enemy. Then, when you return, they take you to one side and ask if you want to be considered.

Tests follow, physical and mental; dragging your body unbroken through fifteen battles is one thing but that on its own is hardly enough to warrant the massive expenditure the program requires. I must have spent a week being pressed for results, flying more hours than I ever had in combat, and yet feeling empty; a week off the front lines as a possible prologue to a whole year away from the war felt like a betrayal of my comrades. They keep you isolated on the program; they tried, once, letting the candidates know how the war was going and saw five drop-outs and a failed batch of pilots. It turned out knowing that while you were receiving preferential treatment your friends had probably died in their ships was very, very bad for morale. The only graduate from that batch anyone remembers now is Silver Aggressor, and it is only memorable for its being destroyed in its first battle as the pilot froze.

So I had to forget.

The year of training – learning the intricacies of that alien technology which permitted the Regular Frames to be upgraded into Figureheads – was not some typical, aggressive boot camp. We had all passed those days when we first set foot on a carrier as winged soldiers. Instead it was intensely personal; evaluations, tests and endless mock battles against every known enemy ship. Each result – and it’s worth noting a single defeat would lead to expulsion from the program, here – was recorded and pored over by the officials to form a complete profile of the candidate. That, in turn, was sent to the engineers down on the factory levels and turned into plans.

So it is, after a year in this hermetic world of simulation and examination, I will meet my Figurehead today. I do not know much about it; I know it is a single-seater, because unlike some of the other candidates I was removed from partnered-combat exercises early on in the program. I know how I fight – unglamorously, brutally, unafraid to cut corners if it will get results. The program is forgiving of this; intuition and unpredictability are virtues.

Ten candidates entered this wave of the program. Five graduated – one of the highest rates for some time at this colony.

The Avenue of Heroes seemed longer than ever as we walked it today, stunned in the realisation our war truly begins now. Perhaps I was expecting crowds, or some celebration, to accompany my graduation. There is nobody to spare for that kind of extravagance.

The program’s leader salutes us heroes-in-the-making, and then the moment of introduction is finally here.

Four bodies – for we had one pair of pilots build the bond needed for a two-seater – hang in microgravity. The program leader speaks.

“Fujiko Date, Kasumi Shiranui, to you the colonies offer the Figurehead Breakthrough Hurricane.” In the old days, this would have been televised, it would have been a moment of pride for everyone. A physical show of force, a reminder of our will to fight. That is why it is so reverential.

The two women nod, and say the correct words in response before setting off down the gantries.

“Arado Mardan, to you the colonies offer the Figurehead Galaxy Link.” His is a slight thing, black-and-grey with a pair of slender cannons hanging parallel to its back, ready to fold into position when needed.

To Ilya Talik, the colonies offer Meteor Delta, a thickset, brutal machine that doesn’t resemble its pilot at all.

So, I am alone. My machine also stands unique, the only one unaccompanied, but I will wait for the procedure to be followed.

The colonies offer me, Takuya Ohmori, the Figurehead Crusader Overlord. It gleams in the orange light of the colony’s hangar, its red-and-gold form brushed to a solid brass colour. Before its torso I am tiny, small enough to crawl down gun barrels that stud recessed panels in front of me. Behind almost-black glass I can see the lozenges of dead eyes, waiting to come alive as I complete its existence.

The counsellors told me about this sensation – the drunkenness of power. The belief that the Figurehead is invincible.

The ceremony of inauguration continues.

“These pilots, selected from those among us who have served the colonies well, stand before you its first line of defence. They will go and face great danger, insurmountable odds and they will prevail.”

There should be applause. There should be a gun salute, or something. Instead there are a few tired-looking instructors and scientists watching a tired old man read words that don’t really mean anything any more, while outside alien fleets swirl among our last outposts.

Inside its cockpit, Crusader Overlord is no different to a Regular Frame. It may be mine, it may have been designed based on a whole year’s analysis of my fighting style and my personality, but it is a machine, built like so many others. Like I so often did back aboard the carrier where I fought before, I savour the few moments of still, metallic silence, of blank screens and dead controls. Perhaps steeling myself for the inevitable day when that sensation returns as my power fails and I begin to drift dead in space. In the safety of a hangar, though, it is all I need to clear my mind for combat.

The machine activates. Awakens. The world returns, the orange wash of the hangar flooding my vision as cameras send their images to the bubble of screens I inhabit. I watch diagnostics fill my vision, a sea of information about weapons, systems and capabilities. It sounds absurd, doesn’t it, that I might be expected to fight in a machine I have only just stepped into?

The intention of the Figurehead project was to ensure that a pilot stepping into their machine would need no induction, no acclimatisation. That it would be designed so perfectly to their needs that they could operate it intuitively.

Crusader Overlord drops and even in the half-weightlessness of the colony I feel it pull at my insides for a moment before I am pulled into space and its total emptiness. The other machines are there around me, looking this way and that, making uncertain movements as their pilots get to know their new companions.

Ships returned from the front, depleted and tired, are waiting for us, ready to take on new bodies to fight our endless war. There is my reception, there are the waiting crowds.

I settle into the controls like well-worn clothes, and return home.

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8 comments

  1. runoverpebble

    Wow thanks a lot for writing this. And I have to say I think the vignette format works, though it might just be me; I’ve always had a fondness for frame-story structures.
    I like how, even though the entire story is about a war, we are given no insight into what exactly is happening, why the war is taking place, even who the enemies are. As someone who lives in a country with such a history with a neighbor, I find the feeling uncannily familiar. It’s a well-worn concept, yes, but the way it is executed (brothers on the battlefront, surviving, return home) really makes the lack of explained motivation stand out, which, once again, I like. That could be a theme in later stories.

    Two other things: the “history is being made here” vibe of the last story is rather diminished here, and it is replaced with “technical details are being recounted”. While that is the point of this story, I think you could get the best of both if you framed the story in some way (This is a diary?/this is a datalog?/this is the pilot’s mental data stored in Crusader Overlord?) or if it had more than one character. The other is that Crusader Overlord is a badass name.

    • r042

      That’s a good point actually – I think a contextual note would help.

      It’s supposed to be the robot’s pilot at the point of his/her graduation thinking back over how they got there – a kind of internal monologue segueing into the present narrative.

    • runoverpebble

      On second thought, having more (interacting) characters feels like a bad idea; it would come at the expense of the lonely and impersonal nature of the setting.
      The setting is chock full of implications that only become evident on a second read and I like that too. The colonies practically throw away soldiers(since the MC seems to regard running out of power as normal), seem to have a very stratified power structure with lots of aimlessness in the higher echelons and zealousness and brotherhood among the grunts, and generally seem to regard recruits as expendable test subjects, which makes me wonder how much the higher-ups exploit propaganda and social doctoring. Though all this might just be the consequence of the style…

      • r042

        On a re-read myself I think I was trying to channel the kind of religiosity in the newer Battlestar Galactica series – something about that spiritual SF appealed and also seemed to fit the big, pompous idea of super robots being humanity’s saviour.

        I also rather liked the idea of a slightly more sad and tired take on the big heroic speech – still trying to be a Bill Adama or Stacker Pentecost but there not being the enthusiasm or support for it to be found.

        • runoverpebble

          I haven’t seen either Battlestar series.
          But, I have to say the tired take on the heroic speech both diminishes and adds a darker edge to the religiosity element. I’m less inclined to believe the Figureheads are humanity’s saviours, but more inclined to note that the religiosity is a product of expedience and contrast that with how seriously it’s supposedly taken. It also makes me curious about what civilian life is like in the colonies.
          Curious little tidbit: this is the first time we’ve been introduced to an enemy “ship”. That could be a nice topic to bounce off of: the wreckage of a vessel might be able to tell you a lot about a side, since they are usually used as emblems of might, power and a civilization’s ideals.

          Also,
          “The counsellors told me about this sensation – the drunkenness of power. The belief that the Figurehead is invincible.”
          Haha, Chekhov’s gun right here. And it’s loaded.

          • r042

            I’d say the 2000s BSG is one of the best long running SF series I’ve seen – a really nice look at spirituality in a scifi setting.

            You’re giving me lots of ideas on how to continue this series, I’ll say that! Thank you.

  2. schneider

    I love the idea of short, personal stories set in the backdrop of a larger war. There’s a dry and jaded mood that this story conveys. I wonder if that’s the overall mood you want to show or if there are some outliers–I’d probably latch on to those!

    One idea I can suggest is to tell stories in the viewpoint of a few Figurehead pilots, tracking their careers and eventual deaths. It could allow for intersection (if Figurehead A and B were to participate in a joint mission), and the whole thing could be structured as a chronicle of each machine, as they are progressively idolized as the war prolongs and teeters against humanity’s favor.

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