This was a difficult story to begin writing, because I had so many ideas for it and it was so difficult to condense them into a piece of short fiction. Initially there were going to be a whole squadron of pilots and it was going to be a fun caper about some soldiers trying to throw a surprise party for their captain – elements of Full Metal Panic and Patlabor perhaps. The protagonist was going to be a slightly too serious bridge officer called Hitomi, and it was going to be a farce. The problem was I couldn’t write a caper story as funny as Butch Minds the Baby and I couldn’t hit a suitably easygoing tone without it seeming smug.
Then I decided I quite liked some of the supporting cast more, and there was going to be a Super Robot Wars-esque story about the pilots alone, with the brash, Excellen Browning-like character constantly annoying her wingman. That didn’t go anywhere either.
Then I hit on the characters I really liked from the original idea – a well-meaning but slightly intimidating ace pilot, and a very nervous copilot. I downplayed the initial plan for heartwarming cuteness and focused more on a genre parody drawing on Godannar, Gunbuster and similar super-robot stories. The narrative voice ended up more akin to The Stainless Steel Rat, and this was the result. Also included is a picture, drawn by a sadly anonymous artist, of the two main characters of the story – its style, very muscular and pin-up like, somewhat informed the tone.
There was no shortage of reading material for the time spent sitting in a mostly empty corridor, but none of it made any sense. Zash had always been a pilot who flew on instinct, whenever anyone asked. He could read the machine, know its capacity and make it achieve greatness, he always said. That had been the advantage of being posted on the other side of the sector to where he had trained, and nobody on board the mining-flotilla being much inclined to check his claims. In fact, he had had the barest minimum live cockpit time possible, no contact with the enemy, and his hundreds of kills were all, truth be told, computer-controlled simulations. His time aboard the mining-ships had been brief and tedious. Once the crew had got used to his claims of being a great pilot, and it was pretty obvious he would never need to back them up with anything resembling actual skill, he had settled into a fairly tolerable life there shooting rocks in an uncomfortable old Frame and a pilot suit that smelled like a long-abandoned locker, before returning home to fried things, unpredictable efforts at making alcohol and the usual pastimes of bored miners. Mostly gambling, sports and watching bad films.
Spending his military service doing this had seemed like the best possible result. He got to pilot, in a fashion, a Frame – without any particular risk to himself. The war was over, and unlikely to start again. His trajectory through the ranks had begun with a starry-eyed child on one of the glimmering cylinders twirling through the cosmos they called colonies, setting off to become a great pilot with images of exciting war stories filling his head. The glamour had disappeared probably a week into basic training, the piloting lessons had become incredibly boring a month in. Yet this was because he was, worryingly, good at it. Almost a natural, in fact. Set to hit the front lines where the battles would be fiercest, the instructors said. They needed good pilots.
At this point he began to realise he very much did not want to die, and that as a promising cadet he was, in fact, very likely to. All the rumours going around the academy were focused on the enemy’s top ace, who went by many names most of which were pretty bad news. Apparently he had destroyed a carrier in his first deployment. Apparently his Frame was unnaturally fast, and he had fought off three-to-one odds without even being damaged. There were reports of him sighted on numerous battlefields. News like that hardly filled Zash with confidence, no matter how promising his grades were. The days had ticked away towards graduation, each report that the war was going badly in one sector or another accompanied by rumours that they would all be shipped off immediately to relieve a beleaguered fleet. And then, quite unexpectedly, they had won. Historians would argue about how for a very long time, but nevertheless, the First Space War ended very suddenly, about a week before Zash Grace was set to hit the front lines. A whole school year’s worth of piloting cadets were suddenly without a reason to exist, and so they were shipped out to distant colonies to do things that meant the new PeaceTime Government didn’t have to pay soldiers’ pensions for soldiers who had never done any fighting.
So the weeks on the mining-flotilla had turned into months, and he had quite forgotten that he was nominally a soldier and that soldiers, generally, had to fight other people. Then there was a strange news story. A mining-flotilla just like the one he was sitting on watching the television had apparently vanished. Not simply gone quiet for a bit, but actually vanished – the supply-ship had reached its location and found no ships, no miners, and weirdly, no asteroids. An enquiry had been opened, and while the PeaceTime Government were arguing about it, a small planet also vanished. There was some debate among scientists as to whether the missing object had been a planet at all, and it seemed to Zash that this was more of a concern to everyone than where it had gone. There was general grumbling, and with some consternation the Fleet was deployed to see what was happening in this odd corner of space. Most of the Fleet vanished, too. Those that got back claimed there was something out there in space that could eat pretty much anything, from a destroyer up to a small planet-like object. This did make people sit to attention. Whatever the something was, it did nothing for a while. Anything that went near where it had eaten the planet would vanish, but it seemed quite happy otherwise. Zash once again forgot about soldiering for the moment.
Then it was decided that the Fleet would once again go and launch an attack on the something in space, and everyone was coming. Everyone, it turned out, included Zash Grace. So, distinctly panicking – for an ace in a Frame that was faster than usual was one thing, but a space something that ate planets was quite another – he had been put on a ship towards the Fleet and – for some reason – given a lot of reading material. The first part, the part he had actually read in depth, had been full of impressive sentences – promising candidate… specially selected… test pilot… – but said little about what any of it meant. The remainder was a weighty book of specifications and blueprints that he was not quite clever enough to understand. And as part of his return to duty, he had been told to have a medical, which explained why he was sat outside the ship’s doctor’s office.
“Sergeant Grace?” A new ship, with an unfamiliar doctor. The first impression, from the voice calling him in, was someone more sober than the mining-flotilla’s chief medic. Younger, and more female, too. “It’s good to see you. Now, you’ve been off-duty for a while, so let’s just run some tests…” Body fat was dangerously elevated. Cholesterol likewise. Liver was somewhat eroded, probably due to alcohol. But, under the new regulations, Zash Grace was A-OK to pilot a Frame. Precisely the opposite of what he had wanted to hear. He was rushed off to the quartermaster, and there he realised something was afoot that he should have known about. His new uniform was not standard – a shiny blue suit, close-fitting to his slightly-out-of-shape body with white and gold trim. It had his name on it, and underneath it Arc 2. From the quartermaster he was rushed to the briefing room, and there he met her.
He was wearing his ill-fitting blue pilot suit, and the first thing he saw on entering the room was a woman wearing the same thing, but in red, and properly fitted. From the way she was sat she was clearly tall, and leanly athletic, and quite unexpecting of his underwhelming form. When she stood up, he realised how tall she was. She had at least a foot on him in height, and was significantly broader across the shoulders too. Nearly seven feet, he reckoned, dark-skinned and toned and – a hand that dwarfed his own was thrust out to be shaken before he could dwell on what he could see for too long.
“Meldy Feil. You’re late, by the way. Did you read the briefing?”
“No. Zash Grace. Am I late, I’m sorry?” Words came slightly awkwardly as he struggled to retrieve his hand from her grip that had removed all sensation from his fingers, and tried very much not to notice how unzipped her pilot suit was. “Why am I here?”
Meldy pushed him into a seat with a derisive look. “You’re here because you’re the best. Like me.”
“I’ve read your file, top grades, you showed real promise at the academy. It must have been terrible to have the war end before you could use your skills. I’d have liked to have seen you in action.”
“Um, yes, it was a shame, wasn’t it? But good in a way. Less people died. You know, that’s bad isn’t it? People dying?” He was stalling for time, trying to work out what parts of the papers he had been given would have explained this. Explained her.
“Well, there’s another war now so that’s something. Now be quiet.” Somehow it didn’t seem right to point out she had said far more than him as a tall, long-nosed man in an enormous cap and maverick fashion took to the stage.
“I am Professor Gadlight, you are Zash Grace and Meldy Feil so we can safely skip any actual introductions. We don’t have much time, you see. There’s lots to do today. Now, this is what we know about the Space Consumers, they’re-”
For the next half hour Zash’s brain swam in a sea of facts and figures about humanity’s new enemy, and he came very close to falling asleep when at that moment, Gadlight changed the slide. A Frame. Zash understood Frames, in theory.
“Enter my pet project, and your new best friend. Arcalibur. Now, ignore this part about the Arc Engines, we’ll come to that later. What you need to know is that Arcalibur – and by extension you – is, or are, forgive my grammar, probably the only thing that will fight the Space Consumers effectively. It’s a Frame. You’re both good at Frames. Let’s go.”
“Is that it?”
“What?” Gadlight stared at Meldy.
“It’s a Frame. Is that all we need to know?”
The waiting outside the medical room had been slow, but since then the day had been a peculiar rush from place to place, far too fast to be scared. From the briefing-room they were rushed to the hangar to put the last of their uniforms on and get into their Frames. This lack of time to think, outside of the tedious lecture about space aliens, was probably the only reason Zash got into the cockpit before him without panicking or having reservations. A two-seater Frame wasn’t entirely unknown, and it seemed yet another stroke of luck, in fact, to simply be a navigator or gunner. Well, that was assuming Meldy wasn’t quite as insane as she came across when it came to picking fights.
“Can you hear me?” The professor sounded surprisingly distant. “Turn up the volume if you can’t.” There was some fiddling with controls and then his voice was clearer. “Right. Meldy, I want you to bring Arcalibur online. Zash, I want you to manage the power and weapons, is that clear?”
“Is it supposed to be hot in here?”
“That’s why you have a lighter suit than most people, I’m still working on fixing that part.”
They took one step, got halfway into a second, and then everything went dark. All Zash could hear was the sound of cooling metal around him, and he tentatively began pressing buttons until something happened.
“-remember to balance the power supply, Zash. Heat management is very important.”
Another step, this time successful.
“How’s it going up there? I’m damnably hot in here. Next time I’m bringing some water.”
“It’s… not really comfortable.”
“Well, let’s get used to it. This sure is a piece of tech, you know. Look at all the guns it’s got.”
“Why are they all blank?”
“It’s telling me I need to authorise them.”
“Oh, I got something like that. I just put some stuff in that sounded right based on the manual, it wanted names for the weapons you know. You did read the manual, didn’t you?”
“Are you listening in there? Armcalibur is, let’s say, a temperamental machine and I didn’t want just anyone using it. So the activation codes and weapon authorisation has to be approved by you two. At the moment you can only walk, and the weapons are offline. To get the engines going you need to-”
There was a moment’s silence that indicated Meldy was talking.
“-yes that’s exactly what I was going to say, have a go.”
Confused, Zash opened a line to the lower cockpit just in time to hear Meldy shouting full volume into her microphone.
“CALIBUR DRIVE, FULL POWER!”
The engine-force pushed him back into his seat as the Frame lurched forward.
“What was that?”
“Read the manual, I swear. There’s a password. That’s the password.” She sounded… embarrassed. “Now you need to authorise weapons to fire them. That’s…”
“Zash, I want you to begin the combat test. Meldy should have told you the deal.”
Zash looked at the control panel, now lit up. He looked at the manual. He looked again at the control panel.
“What the hell is a Spin Cross Booster?”