This is, I guess, the conclusion to the “first two episodes of a mecha anime” story that these pieces – The Circus in the Sky, Time to Get Up and Get It By Your Hands – tell. The stories began with a young boy witnessing a mecha battle above his hometown, helping the downed pilot – written intentionally to evoke Ledo from Suisei no Gargantia and Bernie from War in the Pocket – and joining the military to help defend his hometown. Now, as this introductory-feeling story concludes and some greater plot begins, the phony war that has preoccupied the Pillar of Heaven Army comes to an end and the enemy’s main forces are revealed. This is the part where some catalyst for the development of the story – something like Renton’s fateful dive off a cliff to help the Nirvash in the opening episodes of Eureka Seven – marks the protagonist’s journey beginning for real.
I feel like I want to write more in this setting. The drawing above is the work of an artist I encountered on the online mecha anime community /m/, intended to be a design for the Armours that this story skirts about. It absolutely nails the aesthetic I was hoping for here – a mixture of Eureka Seven, Dragonar and Reconguista in G.
I’d lived on an island all my life and yet never really been sailing. That I lived in Sail Cay, which was largely marina for the superannuated super-rich, perhaps makes this even more ironic. I mean I’d taken plain, oily motor-ferries with overstuffed seats and drab flatbeds for parked cars to the other islands, but never really done that thing so many living in the archipelago did of taking a launch or yacht out and fishing, or just sunbathing or diving in the beautiful water that’s copper-blue under the sun.
As a result when we were assigned to a light Armour carrier for an extended patrol of the islands on the far side of the Lily, I had a lot to learn. At the end of my first day I was salt-blasted, sunburned raw and aching, after a day spent on the deck helping prepare the Armours for combat. Even laying down was painful, and so it was with significant embarrassment I had ended up in the sick bay. The following day I remembered to put my cap on, and learned to stay in the shade a little better. My job – and I don’t know how many favours Toki had to call in for this to happen – is called Support Officer, and it involves doing whatever needs doing. I have enough knowledge of computers to help set up Armour operating systems, enough knowledge of radio-operation to be the friendly voice on the line for our pilots, and enough mechanical knowledge to not get in the way and pass tools as needed. If we were not confined to this ship, I would probably be driving a command car, and that is something I quite enjoy. It is somewhat like an ungainly armoured caravan, comfortable with air-conditioning and rudimentary home comforts for long periods operating away from base. Even a small camp bed.
But for now, I have to get used to finishing my day caked in salt-spray and exhausted, ready to fall into a bunk opposite Caile’s and sleep through to breakfast where the whole cycle of doing whatever needs doing begins again. We have some free time, but it rarely coincides. Caile is a pilot, expected to either be on duty – so he will be waiting with the other pilots for something to happen while I make sure his machine is ready to go – or at rest, usually at times when I am carrying out some other duties. At first it seemed like the block of hours at the end of the day when we were both, apparently, at rest would be the perfect time to catch up – but even a week into our trip now I still finish my dinner, perhaps watch a little television or play a hand of cards or round of darts, and then fall asleep within seconds of stopping activity. And yet for all this constant motion, nothing has really happened. Every day the Armours fly out on patrols of whatever locations they are ordered to inspect. They return unimpressed. Sometimes we hear that some ship elsewhere in the archipelago has found something, that there has been a battle – but then nothing, again. For the first few times, this was terrifying. The thought that we could be thrown into combat without warning put quite the dampener on our mealtimes. But then days of inactivity turned into a whole uninterrupted week, and the Lily remained resolutely secure. Whatever is happening, it is not for us to know, and it is annoying Toki. She brought us all together yesterday and told us what she knew – that apparently the attack on the Lily came from an enemy ship somewhere out in the waters around here, that it is very likely it foreshadows a wider offensive, and that until there is better intelligence, we are on the defensive.
You don’t realise how big the ocean is until it’s put in perspective like that. There are ships out there, regrouping, biding their time. Waiting to try and tear the sky apart once again. And the Defence Army just doesn’t have the resources to search all that space. A war broke out, and then stopped because neither side could do anything much after that initial battle.
So we are sailing between verdant green islands, silvery beaches with thick treelines and sometimes the odd waterfront divers’ shack or boat hire or bar. This part of the archipelago is just tourist resorts, luxurious retreats where nobody lives but people will stay a fortnight or a month to get away from it all. Those in command sensibly think this is the best place for enemy forces to hide. It is basically impossible to see anything with radar in a tangle of small islands, large rocks and thick foliage, and so all we can do is fly constant missions.
Every day Toki has reminded us to stay alert, to not get complacent, because should something happen we need to be ready for it. Pride at how her unit helped fight off that opening strike still pervades everything she says. Disillusionment at being shot down still crosses Caile’s face whenever she starts talking about that night.
Twenty-one days after the initial attack on the Lily our war begins again. The night is hotter than ever, a whole new degree of humidity overstressing the ship’s inadequate ventilation and making the small bunk-room thick and heavy with the leathery smell of hanging flight suits and the damp, worn cloth smell of the helmet-collars that permeates through the slits in the locker-doors. It is almost choking me. For some reason I am more aware of it than ever, unable to sleep as somewhere in the air-ducts or the ceiling-braces a fly whines from one side to the other. As a result when the bell rings there is not the moment of hesitation, of wondering if this is a dream, that some of the others feel. I simply fall from my bunk, climb to my feet and run.
The ship’s forward deck is still and almost empty as I burst out of the door and begin running to my post. A few engineers are performing final fuelling and rearming on the last Armours to return after the day’s patrols, but for this moment that we have all been drilled to be ready for, there is surprisingly little readiness.
This battle is not being fought in brass twilight but the cool blue moonlight over the water, where the trees are greyish-black lines on a deep navy field and white beams paint the waves in odd patterns. Instinctively I look up to see if I can get some sense of the situation, but I cannot see anything. Orders are falling to the floor on sharp-cornered teleprinter paper in my little crow’s-nest and I begin reading them ready to relay to Toki and her pilots.
Surface contacts in grid 5.05N 127.83E – 3.97N 126.00E // 4 Confirmed 4 Possible // Contrails 6
Instinctively I compare those to my maps and realise they are possibly within a hundred miles of us. Distances that sound safely, absurdly long but that an Armour could cover in less than an hour. And Contrails 6 means there are possibly six Armours in flight looking for us.
I pass the information to the Armours. Our four suits – Toki and Caile, Yuki and Aden – are now airborne, spreading out to cover the skies around us. Within the ship’s command centre, operators are beginning to look for the enemy ships and Armours. The night, so humid I could not sleep, suddenly feels cold, every movement of the once-stagnant feeling air now a bitingly cold draft down my back.
More and more papers are clattering from the printer. I begin relaying them like I did the initial orders but before long decide to stop. They all tell the same story. Every ship we sent out, every installation across the archipelago, under attack. All the unconfirmed reports of ships, all the skirmishes driven off, have added up to this. We have been spread out, sent chasing single specks on the blue expanse, and now the enemy have made themselves visible on their terms.
One last paper falls to the floor and for some reason I decide to read this one. It once again lists our co-ordinates.
Revised Intelligence // Surface Contacts 6 Confirmed 0 Possible // Contrails 7
Beneath that a blurry aerial photograph. Behind the two fans of three Armours flies one more, and just from the grey-on-grey smears I can tell there is something so very, very wrong about this picture.
Armours don’t fly alone.