This is a story following on from the short series of tropical-set military mecha pieces I wrote a while ago. It is, I suppose, the inevitable next part of the archetypal story progression – the protagonist has a first encounter with the military, ends up alongside them, the super-prototype or charismatic ace is introduced – and then the enemy are humanised and given a perspective character.
This is that character’s story. While talking with a friend recently the subject of conversation turned to Code Geass and the terror in the characters the Lancelot and Guren – both sides’ most powerful weapons – caused in their enemies. I liked that aspect of the series, even if its impact felt lessened by later plot developments – for those early episodes one unit with capabilities most others did not was enough to psychologically turn the tide of the battle even if it offered only a limited material advantage.
I ran with that in this story in a slightly different direction – what if, rather than the effect of a new enemy ace arriving being mad suicidal glory-seeking, it was a more defensive, evasive response? Would there be the usual protagonist-driven carnage against an enemy less interested in attacking than defending? And, what would a putative ace think about this?
Buttons seemed difficult that morning. The small gold studs running down one side of a dark teal tunic slipped between fingers shaking and numb and each time they did the cloth fell back down, slack and open. Abandoning it for a moment, she stumbled and tripped until she was wearing trousers, sat back on the narrow metal bed and tried again with the buttons. The problem was some combination of a lack of sleep and something else meant she was feeling dizzy, her head swimming and her eyes half-closing every time she looked down. A glass of water momentarily helped, but the very act of getting it from table to mouth took an unusually long time.
“Aren’t you dressed yet?” Whoever was outside was past knocking, and she really didn’t remember hearing him ever knock.
“Yes.” She had a voice, and it was not pathetic and sickly. In fact, now fully clothed and once again feeling her clothes rapidly turning into a sauna in the morning heat, she was not sure she was actually sick.
Last night had been difficult and it had, more specifically, been difficult in ways she was unused to. Taking a new machine up for its first combat was the same sensation as launching for the first time, and she – a pilot of sufficient flight hours to really be past all that – had choked like a rookie once again. That – the feeling of being back to square one – was what had made this morning difficult. The actual battle had been inconclusive. While her side had had an almost two-to-one advantage, they had found an unobliging enemy, and a lot of glancing hits and tentative attacks had resulted in both sides expending their ammunition and returning home. If anything, the enemy had come away better. She remembered looking across the flight deck in the few minutes between landing and not wanting anything to do with Armours until morning and seeing a lot of needling, expensive damage that looked far worse in the spotlights than it had under fire. That was the way it was, really. There was no way in hell you bailed out in a dogfight if you had just had a hand crippled or a leg dragging. The pilots she flew with were the model of the academy attitude, aggressive and prideful and, time and again, dragging themselves back home to launch again as soon as possible. Explosions would burst pastel-coloured in the night sky, colours warped by blue moonlight, and for nauseating moments it would look like another victim had been claimed, and then the smoke would ripple and burst and an Armour would burst into view, paint perhaps blistered and burned away by the blast, maybe armour cracked or torn or in some cases shorn clean off, but more often than not it would carry on flying, loosing its own spray of missile-trails and hearts that had leapt into dry mouths would eventually steady back into their proper place, beating fast enough to feel like a boxer’s unrelenting assault on a victim’s chest.
She remembered one of those moments from last night particularly clearly. One of the pilots flying with her had gone ahead, raised his rifle in one hand, pointed it with painful slowness to line up a shot. The barrel-tip had wavered, computers twitching it to match its target’s evasion. He had fired at the same time as his enemy, the beams not opposing each other like solid walls or jets of liquid but just warping and dissipating in luminous rings to form a neon mist that washed over the Armour and left tiny white-hot acne on its metal skin. The next shot had not punched cleanly through the night. Her wingman’s rifle had exploded, and only one shot had found its mark. There had been a sudden bright pulse, then a double-detonation, the misfiring gun and the impact explosion, and then the world had hesitated. She had fired. The enemy Armour had panicked, dodged inelegantly but still her shots, a shower of dull orange rapid-fire pulses, hand fallen short. The wreckage of the rifle had splashed into the ocean, the smoke had begun to clear and a broken, skeletal hand had reached out from it, followed by a scorched arm and then a shoulder with a neat beam-hole through its armour. As if trying to grasp the smoke the hand had clenched into a fist, and the pilot had fired his last missiles before falling to the back of the formation impotent and unarmed.
The rifle is wrong, it just… I just… It was heavy, longer than those used by her wingmen. Weight was irrelevant, she knew, the hydraulics of the arm made it weigh effectively nothing, compensated for firing-poses that no human could ever hold steady. It did not fire solid beams with a deafening bass thunk like the usual rifle. It spat ungainly darts through the sky with a higher-pitched snap that seemed to move in a way she was unused to. A way which, she realised as she sat trembling, hoping whoever was outside would go away, she should know. It worked like a ballistic rifle, those out-of-date, obsolete weapons she had trained with and put to one side. She could hardly make excuses, knowing that.
“I’m not waiting any longer.” The handle of the door moved.
It was a familiar face, someone she had flown with for a long time.
“When you missed breakfast we thought we’d let you sleep.”
“Thanks.” Moving had definitely allayed the nausea, but brought with it new discomforts. A deep ache in all her muscles, her back and legs and arms rebelling against the motions of walking after a night of cramped micro-movement.
“You’d earned the break. You saved me last night.” Associations fired in her tired brain and the moment of smoky uncertainty now had a face attached to it. “They were terrified of you. Just seeing you there was enough to send them running.” He looked pleased, excited and proud and happy to ignore the fact that they had failed to score a single kill last night. The nervous exhalation of survival had turned in his head to a celebration of victory.
They were afraid of a pilot who could barely aim, who was still fighting the controls as much as flying elegantly. The walkway she had been led to overlooked the flight deck, and the gleaming silver-and-red chassis of her Armour that blazed under the sunlight as hoses sprayed it with water. No. They were afraid of the machine. Afraid of something they didn’t know.