The third installment in the linked short stories I have been writing; this one sees the protagonist finally engaged with the enemy in defence of a space station under siege.
The story owes quite a debt to the perhaps underrated and certainly divisive opening episodes of Aim for the Top! Gunbuster, especially the atmospheric first fight in space in I believe episode 3. Gunbuster, much like the action climax of Pacific Rim, plays well with the inherent isolation and limited vision experienced by a super-robot’s pilot and I tried to get something of that across as well as the ponderous power of machines such as the Ideon and Giant Robo – where the sheer slow bulk of a massive robot is weapon enough for most instances.
Mining Station Crocus hangs at the edge of my vision, the largest in a sea of smears of light around which a net of glittering streaks flickers. It would be beautiful had I time to look at it.
Arcing, whiplike flashes scorch lines of static across my world, and I lash out, watching a blade flatly crush darting fighters before me. Crusader’s sword doesn’t cut these worthless things, it doesn’t need to. They have closed in because they think they are safe there, away from those craft supporting me, but it just means they are given the honour of dying at the hands of a Figurehead.
My guns blaze out in dancing, intermittent, chattering shell-clusters, exploding in pale spheres that throw fighters off-course and leave sympathetic streams of prematurely detonating missiles in their aftermath. I am saving my heavier weapons, my missiles and the longer folding blade at my wrist that burns white-hot, for when I find the real enemy. These chaff need to be dealt with first and for that the clumsy swings of an enraged giant suffice.
We are buying time, keeping the enemy amused, trying to find our real target. Somewhere out there is the enemy fighting-machine, Scar Needle. It has been waiting on the edges, killing our engineers and miners without mercy, disinclined to fight its equals. At my back is Miracle Chance, Crocus’s own Figurehead, itself swarmed and swatting away with elegant blades.
From an outstretched palm a beam diffracts into a dozen dancing streaks that whip between the enemy fighters. Missiles spray out in smeary fans of engine-trail to ring the slender Figurehead with explosions. She is experienced, graceful, able to predict where the enemy will be while I slash at where it is.
“This is no different to before.” Miracle’s pilot has a dead, tired voice. “It will just be two of us worn down to immobility, to limp back home with nothing achieved. These are not manned craft, you know?”
She has been engaged in this pointless chase for days, trying desperately to buy enough time for vital repairs to Crocus that will stop its people starving. Scar Needle is clever. It has damaged Crocus, left the beast slowly dying, its food production levels slowly overheating as the heat exchangers sit as shattered, misshapen lumps. Each time anyone steps out, they die. And now it waits, letting its supporting fleet gnaw at us until our ammunition is spent and our pilots tired and careless, and as we retreat it will pick a few more of us off. The main fleet cannot provide useful support to us save a few Frames; enemy capital ships dance at the edge of the asteroid field and they trade beams while fighters and Frames dance between the shots. Their ships are silvery-blue things, curved and elegant yet spiked organically, repulsively with long slender cannons.
Ours sit geometrically in space, gnarled, studded slabs covered with squat turrets that vomit wasteful energy beams in response to their needle-thin scalpels that burst against our shields in sprays of light.
“Go towards the rocks. It must be there.”
“It will be gone.”
I know full well Scar Needle will be gone. But breaking towards the rocks will be unexpected, it will force the fighters attacking us into unusual courses and crucially it may disorient their main force. That is what I want to believe – that I am fighting properly as a Figurehead not merely as a diversion.
Crusader charges, I bring its blade up flat and watch another few enemies burst against it like flies. A missile, squat and blunt-nosed, loops slowly towards me and I catch it on the hilt of the sword.
Then the beam, black beyond the blackness of the space around me, a slit of darkness that sucks the eye in, hits, carving my sword in half. It hangs in space a moment and then implodes in on itself leaving only a shower of debris as the severed sword is shattered by an invisible shockwave.
“Is that it? Is that…”
“Scar Needle. You flew too close to it.” Miracle’s pilot is still emotionless. “It will fire again, be ready.”
I keep moving, the memory of that darkness beyond ink giving me a direction. Crusader highlights movement among the rocks, just one of a crowd of motion tracker blips but I am sure it is the sniper moving.
Another beam. I try to second-guess it, fake a dodge, but instead it just burns along Crusader’s wrist and I watch my folding blade explode into shards. Then I hear the scream. Miracle is rapidly diminishing behind me, its leg missing at the knee and its unbalanced engines throwing it into nauseating death-throes. I am used to beams scoring across my armour, burning deep into the metal skeleton inside, maybe even severing a limb. Scar Needle has crippled Miracle with a shot that had already gone through my armour.
Crocus has never seemed so distant, and I am now in a terrible position. If I go back to help Miracle, which is already swarmed by fighters, Scar Needle will kill us both. If I go on, I cannot guarantee I will make it back in time. There will be no miracle.
Then a channel opens, an unfamiliar one; a communication outside the military bands. Its voice is dead, emotionless, the perfect reproduction of the sorts of voices heard in the corridors of Crocus.
“If you help your friend, and leave now, I will not fire again.”
I say nothing, hold course; the fighters surrounding Miracle are hanging back.
“Your friend will die if you do not change course.”
This is the first time I have heard the enemy talk. It will not reply, it simply repeats its message as I wait, frozen.
I cut out all other conversation, and let the deadpan voice repeat again and again for what seem like the longest minutes in all of time. It is taunting me, invisible in the sea of collision warnings that makes up the asteroid belt.
I do not want to die and I do not want Miracle to die.
To a chorus of anger fading in as I switch my radio back, I return, taking Miracle with my unit’s crippled arm, ignoring her shouts and the threats from the fleet. The enemy ships are retreating, and Crocus is safe a while longer and she has not died.
The hangar is uncomfortably warm, like so much of Crocus. Everything is being diverted to keep the plants alive, the garden-decks that keep our air fresh and feed us. Before anyone can say anything, before the accusations, I slip away, trying to shut them out but still feeling the burning shame as the engineers assigned to Crusader look at the coward before them. Tomorrow I will probably fight again, even if Miracle cannot.
Tonight will be a hungry, lonely one. I have disobeyed; while soldiers are too scarce and Figureheads too valuable to ground, we are not given special status any more and so I will be punished. Perhaps I should have killed Scar Needle, or tried to. Maybe my life would have been the perfect seasoning to the loss of Miracle if I had charged in unready and damaged. We have learned, as a people, that Figureheads can fail; it was a hard lesson at first and an unwelcome one still. But this was my first mission since Jupiter and the taste of imminent death is still too fresh. Tomorrow, Scar Needle will feel that fear.
I think, even if she will never admit it, Miracle’s pilot did not want to die today. Perhaps hope is the better word, because that thought is all that is holding my beliefs in what I did together.