This story came from an idea that was initially something else. I was trying to write a super-robot story that had a professional woman pilot, someone in the mold of Cima Garahau or Haman Karn (both, notably, villains – but both good examples of the mature, skilled and powerful woman I meant – maybe the hero equivalent is Miria Jenius), in the lead. Someone who would pilot in “sensible” clothes rather than whatever the hell the woman pilots of Godannar or Gravion wear. Someone ultimately a bit like Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, a super robot pilot who is a woman rather than the archetypal “woman robot pilot” of anime.
The initial plan was for this story to have a good chunk of robot action in it – I even sketched a robot, with a suitably silly name – 月騎士ダイルーナ (Moon Knight Dailuna) full of stock Masami Obari-inspired robot ideas like shoulder-cannons, a huge sword, missile launchers on its ankles and so on. My hero would be basically the female counterpoint to Klein Sandman, the super-cool operator and pilot from Gravion. She would be on the run from the evil empire, the equivalent to Duke Fleed from Grendizer.
When I began writing, I found it was far more interesting to explore the hero’s backstory; Achelois (pictured above) turned out to be a character who “lost” the political games that define the scheming super-robot villain hierarchy and changes sides – but whether or not this is a wholly humanitarian, Soldier of Justice style move or simply a pragmatic survival move is left vague. I have plans for writing more in this setting; on Earth, Achelois would assume a secret identity to fight her former comrades – that of a professional, competent businesswoman and socialite, someone phenomenally rich, empowered and independent. This almost felt like a satirical move; the scheming alien general who proved not quite good enough to scheme her way to the top of the evil empire instead excels in the world of corporate capitalism. Whether or not this angle remains, should I write more, is up in the air.
Stepping from near-weightlessness into gravity, in the process of leaving the hangar with its still, condensation-dusted machines, always threw Achelois off-balance and made her grateful that her boots were flat-soled and sensible. Grasping the railing that ran along the corridor’s wall, she pulled the top off a pen with her teeth and set about trying to fill in the mess of paperwork that had been waiting for her as she had left the cockpit. For that hour or so after a mission, the tangle of papers and your body screaming to get out of the suit you had been wearing for the previous, nerve-wracking hours of combat and the need to simply unwind and rest, nobody was ever formal or stylish. Once she had washed the battle’s residue off, chosen some clothes that were not form-fitting and synthetic and without fail a sauna after half an hour, and dealt with all the reports, she would once again be the woman she wanted to present herself as to others.
This time there was an added embarrassment to the process. One of the forms that needed filling in was a special repair request, for a full refit of one of the limbs of her machine. Someone had wounded her personal armour, and that stung. Not necessarily because it was irreplaceable, or even because the damage had been a result of her mistake, but simply because no matter the circumstances a crack in the machine’s armour was a crack in her image. It was not necessary to plan excuses, those above her would not need them. All it was necessary to do was work out how to spin it to seem like she didn’t care. There would be the expectation of a speech over dinner to make herself look important, and there it would be necessary to – perversely – talk up the enemy she had just slaughtered. Admitting how weak they were made the damage sustained seem unforgiveable. Praising them as fighting valiantly, even if they had for the most part just burned in their collapsing, warped shipwrecks, made it all better.
The first step would be to create some kind of fiction about the incident, relying on the fact that none of her peers would ever admit to watching the battle. That would be completely below them, an utterly graceless display of superiority calling into question the irreproachable nobility and valour of a general of the Eclipse Empire. That such an act was so despicable meant, of course, everyone did it, and pretended they did not. Finding the courage to actually call out a peer on their inevitable lies was never an act of particularly great integrity but a carefully timed coup de grace in a political tussle, saved for when someone absolutely needed bringing down a rung or two. This, of course, hung in the back of everyone’s mind, and served to temper any lies that were told. Unspoken rules had emerged; one could invent motivations and feelings and unprovable faults, but it was rarely advisable to fabricate kill counts or ambushes. Thus a kind of honesty did prevail; the events described in the reports and speeches and dry-throated, back-against-the-wall phone calls probably did happen, but why, how and to what end would vary for any given audience.
First, though, her bath was waiting. Ordinarily she would look out over space as she bathed, the viewing screens showing the immense fleet she commanded as a reminder of precisely how powerful she was. Today she was not in the mood, and demanded that it showed the vista from one of the villas she owned back on the violet-skied home planet that was many thousands of light-years away. Having lost her sense of the inviolability of her weapons, the security of her wealth was much more restful. The water was comforting, hotter than many would find pleasant and smelling chokingly of a perfume that only she really liked. Easing her aching back against the pool’s side, she closed her eyes and almost completely submerged herself in the bath.
Every officer had their weakness, the thing about them that was leverage for any opponents they may make. Achelois’ was, she knew her opponents believed, the utter lack of interest anyone had shown in marrying her. Weighed in the balance, she was phenomenally rich and technically in command of thousands of ships, pending the successful invasion of the third planet. At the same time she was not exactly more beautiful than many less dangerous women of comparable wealth, definitely not sufficiently interesting to attract the attention of a nobleman looking for money and similarly not powerful enough yet to attract the attention of anyone seeking a fleet. There were those who gleefully held on to that – the hard-faced spinster who had yet to quite win a major victory – as some kind of weapon to throw at her. They, she smiled to think, did not yet know there was no way in hell she planned to marry. When a suitor did find the courage to ask Achelois of the Moon to be his wife, the rejection would be firm enough to be heard back on the homeworld.
Lost in this spiralling thought-chain that ultimately could not escape the need for a narrative for tonight, she completely failed to hear the bathroom door open.
“Mm?” The codeword for her quarters’ internal security system was on the tip of her tongue until she could place the voice as one of her servants. “Can this wait until I am done bathing?”
“The other Theatre Commanders have requested your presence at dinner, the hour changed to…” Hesitation as the servant checked a watch. “The shuttle to the central command ship leaves in twenty minutes.”
Oh, very good.
Putting dinner forward an hour meant she would be going unprepared. She would not have had time to prepare her platitudes and stories well enough to stand the scrutiny of her dining-partners. She would not have had time to properly choose an outfit that struck a careful balance between military formality and noble fashion, to decide which medals to wear and which jewels.
Who has done this? I will need to work that out.
“Well then, bring out the white dress with the fur collar, and the long coat that goes with it. And the black gloves and ankle-boots, yes the ones with the heel. Quickly!” No jewels tonight. That could easily be spun back round into something to blame someone else for. Her towel joined her discarded piloting uniform in a damp mound of clothes that could be sorted out later, and she let herself be dressed and her hair dried as much as was reasonably possible in the time available.
“Next time you are set upon by a sudden hunger in the early evening, either find a snack or endure a little longer. The war, you may be interested to know, has little concern for your metabolism, General Usil.” She had thought of that on the shuttle over. Whether or not Usil was the one who had arranged the rescheduling (and it was almost certainly not, she had a fairly sure feeling it was General Izanagi), he was a useful victim for feigned outrage. Better to enter, accuse someone wrongly for ridiculous reasons and let whoever’s scheme it was choose how they wished to reveal their hand than go in assuming one knew everything and appearing simultaneously too clever for one’s own good and completely ignorant.
Usil was an easy target because he was renowned for his overeating.
“How amusing, General Achelois.” Usil glared at her through small-rimmed glasses. “Of course, it must be I who demanded dinner be rescheduled. Well it was not, and it was most irritating, too.”
As he blustered she scanned the reception-room. Izanagi was lurking by the door to the dining-room, tall even with his back arched as he talked down to an officer she did not know. The other members of the Special Invasion Force, Lutin and Clermeil, were a respectful distance from him but nevertheless close enough to show their support for everything he did. And, as usual, Izanagi had perfectly positioned himself. Just far enough away to be able to see Achelois making a scene, too far away to overhear her insulting Usil and set her right. And, with Lutin and Clermeil so clearly eager to get to the business of eating, she appeared late to the party as well. A good officer would be able to salvage this situation. Easy.
“Mm?” He was a strange-looking man, tall and angular with jutting elbows, a beak-like nose beneath narrow, vivid green eyes and hair that spiked back from his head. Whenever he moved it was like some ancient flying reptile unfurling its wings to walk. “I must apologise for… interrupting anything.”
He’s dangerous, appear like you know it. “Apology accepted, sir. I shoud probably convey one to General Usil, as well. I may have blamed him for this.”
“Ha, hardly necessary. It will be forgotten soon enough. But as you will. Have you much appetite, Achelois?”
“Regrettably little, sir. Some people say fighting brings one out but I find my body still anticipating the next movement of the armour, and…”
“Such delicacy. Well, I am sure the assembled guests will not see food wasted. Shall we enter?”
The first course appeared, soup, cutlets and small songbirds roasted then re-studded with feathers to look appealing on the plate. Eating little of it, Achelois instead watched the others. Usil had the reputation for gluttony but in fact ate most unremarkably, in what could be described as a workmanlike fashion. He never seemed to particularly enjoy or dislike any meal, but merely appreciated them as one does other daily rituals. It was Izanagi who was unnerving to watch. His skeletal limbs moved with bizarre speed to reduce everything on his plate to small pieces, which he would then mechanically consume in quick succession with almost mathematical logic to which followed which.
An idea came to her as she refused another songbird.
“Ah, my lords?”
“Yes?” Despite the speed of his eating, Izanagi’s mouth was empty at precisely the moment he needed to speak.
“A toast, to those lost today. And to the future invasion, maybe?”
“Ah-ha-ha, yes, of course. The battle. Of course.”
The events of the incident she had been fretting over played out once more in her head. “I do not know if our enemy is stupid, courageous, or made stupid by a surfeit of courage but one of them was audacious enough to crash his ship into my armour. I presume it was to let his friends escape, but he rather seemed to forget I had other weapons.”
There was discussion in whispers around her. Obviously all present had seen that.
“Well.” Unsurprisingly it was Izanagi speaking. “I think a toast is needed to that creature that did the honourable thing and ended his life rather than challenge our empire. May the rest of his species do likewise.”
“To victory.” The sharp-toothed cruelty of Izanagi stuck rather in the throats of even the other generals, and thankfully it was Clermeil who found a compromise. The matter had been raised, and – worryingly – ignored.
The second course. Larger fowl, artfully prepared to hide how atrophied they had become in the growth-areas of the supply ships. A pie containing meat in a gravy thick like clotted blood. Small slices of an unappetisingly pink-brown terrine. Rich food that – to someone whose stomach was still recovering from the startling closeness of death at the hands of a suicidal pilot – was quite nauseating. Again Achelois ate modestly; the conversation’s hijacking by Izanagi, and his vile mockery of the battle, needed to be addressed. Rumours that he wanted to consider himself ahead of the remainder of the invasion force, in some way a leader among equals, abounded; while there could be no actual promotion for him, no title to assume, it was more than possible for an aspirational officer to simply end up fortuitously the architect of victory time and again.
“General Achelois, today’s engagement represents the fall of the enemy’s last line of defence outside of the asteroid belt, correct?” Clermeil, grey-haired and paternal, seemed oblivious to the bloodstain-like specks of tomato sauce in his beard, one of which quavered above his napkin as he spoke.
“That is true.”
“Your forces must be tired, after having fought so long among these outer planets?” She could see where this was going. “Do you feel they are the most appropriate force to open the initial beachheads?” Fang-like teeth peered from a withdrawn lip on the face of Clermeil’s neighbour at table. Superbly planned. Answering here was difficult. There was nothing Achelois would have wanted more than the chance to repair her armour, rest her pilots and take on fresh supplies. On the other hand, she had just impressed upon Izanagi how surprised she had been to even take damage. Which meant, clearly, she disdained the enemy’s resistance. And if she did not rate the enemy’s forces, then why should she need to arrest the advance and regroup?
“I cannot comment on whether they are appropriate, I can merely say that any sane commander would not dispatch them so soon regardless the foe. At this stage, we have simply no idea of the disposition of the enemy’s defences around the inner planets. We know their home planet is the third of this system. We know as yet they have nothing that is a reliable threat to our forces. We know nothing else. Obviously as a commander who would rather not be perceived to be wasting resources, I would-” No, no, no. That was completely the wrong thing to say.
“-Rather someone else wasted their own, very good.” Izanagi laughed. “Most people are less transparent in playing the political game, you know.” Her face burned with embarrassment as she noticed the whole table were studiously not looking at her. Yet this was not simply the heat of a social faux pas, this was a potentially fatal error in a room waiting for her to trip up. “I feel we should make a decision about the exact nature of the planetary beachhead operation tomorrow, once General Achelois’ men are well-rested.”
The third course. She did not wait to see what was under the silver dishes, but simply stood up.
“Please excuse me, sirs. I have a matter of female delicacy to attend to.”
Laughter around the table as she left. Initially her plan had been to return to her flagship and stew on this humiliation, try and find some useful ally to call on higher in the social strata than Izanagi. She was some way back to the shuttle dock with this in mind when a very pressing need struck her, and she was forced into a diversion.
Returning to the main accessway proved more awkward than she realised. Turning the wrong way out of the door she had taken, she ended up in a sea of identical-looking briefing-rooms and map-rooms on the vessel’s command level.
Ordinarily, reading someone else’s orders was unthinkable, the gravest breach of protocol on a level comparable to watching someone else’s gun camera footage. As a result, when she realised she was looking into Izanagi’s office – in an already precarious position that needed strengthening in any way – what happened next was inevitable. It also happened to provide no leverage whatsoever.
Izanagi’s plan was comically simple. He would simply drop a significant number of torpedoes from orbit on the third planet’s ice caps and let its coastal cities flood. Percentages and proportions spelt out beneath the charts seemed to imply that even if vast swathes of the landmasses ended up submerged, there would be enough left to rule over.
The files happened to go missing that night. The following morning, when word was sent round that the planning of the attacks was to begin, General Achelois was sadly – and embarrassingly such that she was quite incapacitated – indisposed. A number of other files had also been taken, anyone who checked would have realised. Reconnaissance reports about the third planet’s civilisation, about major population centres and cultural notes. Particularly information about how poor and underdeveloped for a spacefaring race their orbital sensor grid was, the very information that Izanagi had used to base his plan on.
By the time Izanagi was unable to find his dossier on the bombardment plan, General Achelois had, it became clear, ceased to exist.