After a number of fantasy short stories laying out the groundwork of an imagined nation’s culture, I have turned back to writing science-fiction for a change. Over Christmas, I watched Aim for the Top 2 – Diebuster, and found its handling of the super-robot genre to be unexpectedly moving and emotional – it was a huge spectacle and yet all that mattered was a few lives, a few characters who were shown to be heroes.
It was a quite impressive feat of storytelling to make a colourful visual spectacle of absurd scale feel completely immaterial compared to the lives of a few individuals and it quite inspired me to try and emulate that sense that behind the visual spectacle of the most exaggerated, over-the-top of genres, there have to be people. Thus I wrote this, unashamedly indebted to Gunbuster and Diebuster and Gurren Lagann and more. Its inspirations are obvious, but I wanted to try and see if I could bring across in my own writing what I love about them.
Another thunderstorm. They have hardly let up these last few days, our lives a near-constant night-time punctuated only by unnatural flashes as if the near-permanent darkness and smog had not been enough. Early on, not long after this all began, the power was switched off for certain hours – apparently this rationing is needed to help prepare something that will fix this unseasonal weather. So most evenings I leave work, having shut the shop and locked it up, head home, eat something then once the television broadcast ends I sit and read by lamplight.
I have not been back to my old workplace for some time – months, I realise, but every day I am reminded of it by the littlest things I hurry to hide away. A pager, screen dull and batteries probably dead. My old motorcycle helmet, one of the first things I replaced after leaving my job. Letters, and photographs, and old documents I pick up, take to a shredder and then end up filing away in boxes in my overcrowded cupboards. Tonight I am eating very little, I did not have the time to visit a supermarket on the way home, and so I boil a little rice and fry a few vegetables on my two-ring hob, and eat them while watching the news.
“Construction of the new government facility in Tokyo Bay proceeded today, and is likely to continue late into the night. Spokesmen from JAXA and from the Special Ministry of Science once again declined to comment on the nature of the project, but requested citizens remain calm in this trying time.
A number of protestors were arrested last night for trying to break into the facility, among them a former Special Ministry member-”
I have zoned out, about to turn the television off, when that comes up. The picture on the screen is familiar. My old boss. The man whose ridiculous whims I would entertain, whose far-out plans would send me off doing the strangest things and risking my neck for no real recognition or congratulation. The man who, one day, after an argument, walked out and vanished and, as people say now, brought the darkness with him. Obviously, because he was a public servant, and he left his role just as things got bad, he was responsible for them. Him leaving might not have caused the problems, though, but I have a horrible feeling that without him we might not be able to solve them.
I begin paying more attention.
“Professor Kenji Kodansha, former head of the Incident Response Division, was released with a caution alongside a number of other activists. We will- one moment, please. What follows is a special broadcast from the current director of the Special Ministry of Science.
-People of Japan, I am Director Fuuka Minase of the Special Ministry of Science. I am speaking to you today to request that you remain calm, obey all special laws implemented during this extraordinary situation, and await instructions. Yesterday, a number of people attempted to break into the Tokyo Bay Special Facility, among them my former superior, Kenji Kodansha. Professor Kodansha is a man much like many of you, scared for his family and the other innocents whose lives have been affected by the tragedies of recent time. However, I must urge all concerned citizens that the Special Ministry is currently working in partnership with JAXA and space agencies worldwide to address the issues facing Earth, and that there is nothing that you can do except leave this work to the experts. Please spend your efforts helping the vulnerable and those whose lives are impacted by the current events, and, I beg of you, have faith in your government. By the end of the month, the Special Facility will be completed and we will, as a nation and as an international community, begin working to resolve the current humanitarian crisis directly.”
Kenji had no family. I doubt very much of what Director Minase said was true, whether it was about Kenji or about JAXA or about the international response to these events.
If he is not in prison, he-
Ignoring the curfew I head outside into the rain, feeling it warm against my skin. It is not hard to avoid the police.
Kenji’s home, the tiny flat above an off-license that was all he could afford after being fired, is empty, the lights out. His spare key is missing, so I visit the landlady, apologising for it being late, and lie to her. I tell her that Kenji is a close friend, and that he has been in trouble with the police, and I need to get some papers from his flat to secure his release and aid in their investigations. She looks at me strangely, probably weighing up whether or not she will evict him for being a troublemaker, and lets me in. I don’t know what I should look for, but I have a feeling there is something he will have left for me. It is always the way in films that the estranged mentor leaves a coded note if something is going wrong, and Kenji loved theatrics.
It is hardly coded. He has left his computer, a small, dusty nicotine-brown desktop taken from our old workplace, on. On it are space photographs he has taken with the telescope that sits on his window-ledge, from the eyepiece of which a webcam trails leads. They are pathetic things, blurry and almost nothing but static in places – but I used to be an astronomer in my youth, and I can immediately see what he wanted people to see. The moon… does not look like the moon. Even obscured by thick clouds, its shape is vaguely visible, and something is wrong with it. Taking some papers at random to keep my story convincing, I lock up and head outside. As I begin running down the shopping street, the landlady realises where I lied, remembers that Kenji Kodansha was released with a caution, and I hear her shouting for the police.
I will probably have about ten minutes before they work out where I am going. There are no taxis this time of night, and I have a lot of ground to cover. Progress is at first slow and unpleasant as I hide in nests of rubbish-bags, or in the acrid-smelling underpasses and the gated entries to metro stations, but before long I consider myself safe.
The JAXA building – the old JAXA building, the one on the waterfront where Oifuto Seaside Park used to be – is boarded up and fenced off, like it has been since Kenji stepped down. When I first look at it, I see no sign of a disturbance and think I must be mistaken. The fence seems secure, the padlock on the gate is still on and the barrier is still down. But there is a sign, when I look again. Trampled flowers in a flower-bed, a cleverly concealed hole dug under the chain-link fence. I widen it a little and crawl under, pulling my satchel behind me. From there it is more obvious. A fire-exit is open slightly, doors have been inexpertly closed, and I am being led down a familiar staircase.
“We agreed never to meet again. You said you would put your faith in the Government, boy.” There are only emergency lights on in the vast underground room Kenji’s trail has led me to. It is a forest of silhouettes and tarpaulin-covered hulks, and he is sat in a swivel-chair on the balcony. “We parted on pretty unkind words, and yet you are back.”
“I saw you were arrested yesterday.”
“The police let the daft old man go. Is that all?”
“I stopped by your flat.”
“Have months of retail made you wholly stupid? I know you’re working in the supermarket in Shinagawafutaba now.”
“You noticed it?”
“And you want to do something about it?”
“I wanted to see what you knew. Why you were trying to get into the building site. You don’t do anything without a reason.”
“I wanted to see what Minase knows. What her plan is.”
“Whatever it is, it won’t work.” He speaks too confidently. “And I think you probably know that, too. So, shall we get to work?” He begins typing at the laptop before him before I can even speak, and lights begin flickering on. I feel sick – not just the queasiness of anticipation, but genuine, freezing fear that makes me fall to my knees. “Get up, boy.”
“I’ve made a mistake coming here and you know that.” I want to run away. Nothing in the world would be more appealing than to run from this room, shut myself away in my flat, take some sick leave and hope whatever they are building in the bay ends the darkness.
“If you were that scared you would have stayed at home. Now, get up and save the world.”
It has been a very long time since I sat in a plane. Very few planes have gone anywhere since the darkness fell. I feign forgetfulness, will my body to unlearn the manoeuvres and processes that have been taught to me, but I nevertheless begin preflight checks.
“This will probably be the last time we ever do this, boy. Either we’ll do what we set out to do all that time ago, or we’ll die, or they’ll lock us up for good.” Kenji is trying to hide what I can tell is genuine sadness. “You going to say it?”
I can’t. In choking silence, I let the engines hammer me back into the seat, and the world briefly becomes a wall of water as-
For the first time since Kenji Kodansha stepped down from his position, shooting stars light up the Tokyo sky. Nobody notices, save a few air-traffic controllers, and the self-defence force’s listening-stations, because their eyes and ears are all pointed futilely into space, analysing the clouds.
“Can you hear me?” Kenji’s voice is staticky. “More importantly, can you hear anyone else?” Green lights fill the board before me, and a button pulses impatiently. “Can you say it this time? Humour an old man.”
Unsure of what is going to happen next, swimming in a sea of unnaturally dark space, I press the button. With no heart to it, with a voice unable to shout that sounds like someone whispering theatrically, I spit out the words “Four star combination, form Dairegis.” Lines of yellow flow from the button to the green bulbs on the instrument panel, and my seat lurches ninety degrees as blue light fills the windows.
Outside, the aircraft in formation with me twist and warp and divide, dust-dulled blue and gold components slamming together. Eventually this dance is over, and I sit before a wall of buttons and levers looking out into the gloom. Something – a nostalgic shiver, perhaps – ripples up my spine and for a moment I feel like the old days are back. But I am an ill-shaven bag-packer from a supermarket, still wearing a green-and-white t-shirt and black trousers, and I do not fit in this seat.
“Captain, you have control.” The familiar voice, of the computer that Kenji built to help me in this impossible task, seems as lacking in vigour as I am.
We breach the clouds and I see what is wrong with the moon. A warship, a huge palace of spikes and guns and brushed metal, hovers in front of it. Behind me, Earth is enveloped in black clouds.
“I can’t see what you’re seeing now, the clouds are too think. But I think I’ve taught you well, so all I can say now is do me proud.” That is the last thing Kenji says before he closes the line. It reopens moments later. “No. Do humanity proud.”
I don’t have anyone to think of at this moment. No girlfriend’s face to hold dear, no parents any more, no real friends save the equally despondent shop-workers I avoid talking to every day. But even so I let my fingers close around the control-lever with determination, force myself to feign enthusiasm. A sword is waiting for the giant metal fist outside, and holding it ready I rush forward.
There is an obvious window on the ship in front of me, and with a battery of thrown switches missiles and lasers trace a direct route into it, erupting into white-orange spheres of light that are suddenly consumed, dying against some invisible wall. I test it, firing the heaviest weapon I think I have, a flickering purple tornado of what Kenji called raw star energy, and watch as the beam warps, divides and fizzles out.
Very well. That this thing is doing nothing annoys me. It is familiar, I think. Different in some ways, but I am sure I have seen parts of it before.
“Regis, tell me what is happening.” Some of my old fight is coming back. “Tell me how to kill this.”
Diagrams flit across the screen, replays of the Star Cross Tornado (as Kenji called the wholly ineffective beam) dissipating into the void.
“Captain, it is clear that this vessel exists partially within a-”
Before the computer finishes, I fire again, angry and impotent. Kenji made me do this. He sent me up here to die so at least he could die with no guilt.
“Ranged weaponry is ineffective, Captain, but-”
I press the stud on the side of the control lever. Dairegis’ free hand begins to spin at the wrist, fingers extended and pressed into a rough pyramid. The entire wrist mount slowly begins turning in the opposite direction, and with recoil that throws my vision slightly off-centre the entire lower arm is launched onwards. Where the missiles and beams vanished, it hesitates slightly, then there is what looks like the shattering of glass and it continues on until it is embedded in the panoramic windows I have been staring at. Its engines sputter, spark blue and then engage, pulling back outwards, dragging furniture and what look like bodies with it. The shield – it must be a shield, I decide – breaks again and my arm is whole once more.
I shout, meaning to make a proper war-cry, a proper statement of my desire to stand for humanity, but all I can do is scream. The sword vanishes back to a jewelled hilt embedded in the wrist, and both arms fly out, shattering the shield again and tearing a great gouge in the metal before me.
As my arms return I grab the sword again, and with the other arm prepare a punch to break me through the field.
“Stop.” It is a voice I can hardly disobey. Deep, edged with guttural machine-filters, a voice I have heard once before. “We have been in this situation previously, and you proved… unable to continue. Do you remember why?”
“Captain?” Regis’ voice is full of concern, insofar as a computer can be. “Analyses indicate there is a thirty-percent chance that-”
“Shut up, Regis.” Again I let the sword recede. The same threat. The very thing that whoever is talking to me knows will make me stop. If you destroy this ship, then the Earth will be placed in a nuclear winter, and you will be the man who let humanity starve to death. Regis tells me, Kenji told me, that there was a thirty-percent chance that this enemy was lying. Minase is probably banking on this chance. Perhaps a hero would bank on it. Perhaps a hero would bank on a one percent chance, or a one in a million chance. A shop-assistant from Tokyo can’t, couldn’t then and can’t now.
Alarms begin to flash and now the thing fires. I try to dodge, to pull the metal titan I control out of the line of fire, but I am slow and it is ungainly and parts of it I can see melting off from the status display.
“Captain, you must act.” At first I think it is Regis, and then I realise the voice is wrong. “You must make a choice, Dairegis. Shoot me, and seal Earth’s fate, or leave and accept that your species has no future save as my servants.”
I hesitate, and another wave of fire engulfs Dairegis.
“Or, of course, die.”
Arms up to guard my face, I fall out of its firing-range. “Regis, talk to me.”
“What do you want of me, Captain?”
“What do I do?”
“The Professor always said that I was created to fight. If you cannot bring yourself to do this, I can do it for you.”
“No. Is there… is there another way?” I will not doom Earth with my hand and I will not let Regis do it while I watch. “There must be. There always was. There was always something.” Memories are rushing through my head of last-moment miracles, of new weapons that stopped certain death, of strategies Kenji formulated to get around tricks and deceptions. “There was always something, old man, so what did you bring me here for?”
“I have nothing, boy. I just thought… I just thought you would do the right thing.” Kenji is back on the radio, by some miracle. “We had no time. We never finished it. Dairegis… we never finished it, boy.”
“Make your mind up.” The guttural voice of my enemy.
“You’re lying, Kenji, You have to be.”
I can hear him going through papers, searching the lab.
“What would you… what, boy, would you give to save Earth?”
“Anything.” Staring down a gun, with this impossible choice, I can’t say anything else. I don’t think about what it means, what someone as driven as Kenji might think “anything” could entail, I just know that I have to do my best.
“Regis, tell him.”
The cockpit lights flicker momentarily. “Captain, Dairegis’ final armament has been unlocked by remote authorisation and awaits your activation. However-”
“What have you done, Kenji?”
“I’m sorry.” The line goes dead and this time I realise it will not reopen.
“The system is currently incomplete, Captain, and its activation will- will-” Regis itself is stuttering. “Its activation will result in the termination of all future system operations. Irreversibly.”
It takes next to no time for what this means to dawn on me. The only way to save the Earth for sure is for- is for an unremarkable man with no prospects who will be forgotten by his colleagues within a few weeks to die alone and unnoticed in space.
“I don’t want to die, Regis.” The ship is closing on me, I can see that now. “Not like this. Not alone, not…”
If I had someone to fight for, if I could pin down one face that I cared for, this decision would be harder. Impossible, even. But I have not exactly enjoyed the life I ended up with. I hated the curfews, and the power cuts, and the menial work and the food shortages. I picture myself going home a failure, returning to perpetual darkness and whatever slow fate this thing before me has planned for us all. Living the same day-to-day life I always have-
It wouldn’t be the same life. I would be living knowing I had the chance to make something of myself and couldn’t do it. That I chose a life I professed to hate because I couldn’t face dying.
But who wants to die? Who can, with an honest heart, take their own life just like that, obey unquestioningly when told to end it all? People must live on with guilt in their hearts, it must be possible.
“I don’t want to die, Captain.”
I never expected a computer to say that.
“I don’t want to die, but- but- but-” The lights on Dairegis’ control panel flicker again, and I can see on the screens that the enemy ship is preparing to fire. “I don’t want to die, Captain.”
I don’t know why, then, I press the button. I think that hearing Regis’ fear distracts me from what I have done, makes me act just to put an end to the spiral of thoughts I could not level in my head. But I can hear now it is irreversible. Armour plates are falling off Dairegis, jettisoned by explosive bolts. The cockpit is very warm now, comfortable and just like being under a blanket on a winters’ night.
The ship is getting closer, and I don’t think I’m that scared any more about what is going to happen next.
“Following the unexplained launch of a number of aircraft from an abandoned JAXA facility last night, police are investigating the disappearance of Professor Kenji Kodansha under suspicious circumstances. Professor Kodansha, formerly- one moment, please. We are receiving breaking news from NASA’s Cape Canaveral rocket facility that the unnatural cloud coverage over the United States is beginning to disperse- this just in from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, ROSCOSMOS reports that for the first time since the clouds appeared, satellite transmission has been restored. We would like to repeat that- no, we can confirm that the skies above Tokyo Bay are clearing right now. Experts are currently investigating the potential cause of this miraculous event, but-”
“American astronauts performing debris-clearing operations in Earth orbit reported today that they had recovered a wrecked spacecraft, believed to be a missing JAXA vessel last heard from before the extraordinary events which shook the world of late. The mission commander claims that although the vessel was largely intact, its crew were missing without a trace and all power, even the emergency distress beacon installed in all spacecraft in accordance with international regulations, had failed. An inquiry into this tragic accident will be held, with Director Minase at the helm. Furthermore, a memorial to the missing astronauts will be constructed on the site of the former Oifuto Observatory.”