This story, initially written as a brief idea, ended up significantly longer than initially planned. It has also shifted between being a properly researched bit of backstory for my Heavy Gear army and being a generic 1980s mecha anime inspired bit of pulp sci-fi. It still wears all its inspirations – Heavy Gear, Metal Armour Dragonar, Armoured Trooper VOTOMS, etc – very obviously, but it is rather more my own universe than any existing one.
Consider this the first episode of a television series’ arc, or maybe even the first half of an episode.
Pictured above are its principal characters, kindly illustrated for me by request by an artist taking suggestions for drawing topics.
Hold on to the safety bar, make sure your seatbelt is fastened and- Trying to remember the remainder of the orbital insertion instructions was interrupted by a violent wave of nausea that doubled several of the unfortunates in the ship’s passenger section over. Re-entry like this, under no fire, into clear skies, was to be fair the least unpleasant kind. But in a ship designed to plunge inelegantly into far more unwelcoming environments and survive long enough to land its cargo, every re-entry was the same sudden rush of shaking and gravity hitting the body like the kind of punch to the gut that left one writhing on the floor.
There was a safety procedure. It made no difference.
And then, it was over. Shutters screeched open and sunlight filtered in, and the craft had stopped moving. One person had succumbed to airsickness, and their attempt to head outside was rather slower and more unsteady than the others’. But, eventually, five figures in variously scruffy fatigues stood holding kitbags in the jet-scorched basin used as a landing pad, and the sun beat down in a blue sky streaked with pathetic white clouds. They would need to wait until the shuttle’s cargo – numerous rusted, scuffed containers slung underneath the ship’s body – was unloaded and their arrival authorised before they could leave. There was no shade, the sun positioned in the sky such that the only way to escape it was to be standing in the path of the trucks loading cargo. There was no terminal building to wait in. There was simply cracked pale earth and a strong smell of fuel, yet this was somehow more palatable than returning to oily darkness and memories of sickness.
A battered truck, much smaller than the flatbeds that had carried the containers off, pulled up and they were ushered in.
“Sorry for the wait. System was down and we couldn’t get your papers transferred.”
The explanation was met with insincere acceptance. Making new arrivals uncomfortable was one of the small joys taken by the sorts of dull people who became adminstrative officers in places like this. In any sensible posting there would have been a much faster turnaround – the landing-pad being on-site, and the handover taking place in person rather than evidently over the phone between the shuttle and the headquarters. But on the edges of civilisation, in places most people lived blissfully ignorant of, two kinds of soldier gathered. The officious and lacking in prospects, and the hard-edged who enjoyed discomfort and ruthlessness.
Their new home came into view at the bottom of a long valley through the ragged canvas of the truck and it was a slightly less sorry sight than perhaps might have been expected. A few low stone buildings surrounding a larger structure that had been repurposed, rather than the usual uncomfortable prefabricated structures, offered at least the hope of proper facilities, shade during the day and warmth at night.
“Bet you’re not used to this.” The fifth passenger seemed better-prepared for the heat than the others. “Last I heard you’d been assigned here from the land of the ice and snow.”
The attempt at conversation fell flat.
“We’re going to have to get used to each other soon enough.”
“That’s true.” An older man rolled an unlit cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. “Want to make a start? Where are you from, anyway?” The trip from one planet to another had been spent aboard a transport ship picking up and dropping off people at every stop. It had not been worth getting to know anyone too well, because every time you entered the unpleasant sleep of a warp jump you would be soon enough getting a whole new group of companions.
“I’m Sheryl Imhof. Born on a small moon in a sick bay that was only geared up for mining injuries. Delivered by a corporate-employed surgeon who had somehow never seen a childbirth before. Raised on an ore freighter. Or that’s what my parents said.” The way she delivered that had the pride and suppressed laughter of someone who has one, perhaps two good anecdotes about their life and will not hesitate to tell them.
“Want to explain this?” Her neighbour in the truck pulled at a frayed thread on her shoulder. “Looks like there was a badge here. It’s gone now.” The others smiled. Good eyes.
“Uh… I don’t really want to talk about it. Personal stuff. Bad memories.”
“I want to talk about it. We’re going to have to get used to each other soon enough.”
“Don’t you have any secrets? Like, you know, personal things you don’t want to talk about?”
“Not when they involve my work. Start talking.” This line of conversation had apparently set another of the truck’s passengers into a squirming panic. “And you, Ludol, something you want to share?”
“It’s… it’s just I, well, I wasn’t entirely honest about how inexperienced I was.”
“I’ve never fought before. I’ve… never been in a Gear outside a simulator. Apart from the basic training one.”
The well-worn woman who had made things serious barely reacted. “I’ve dealt with rookies. You I can manage. But you, Imhof, start talking.”
“Can we talk about what exactly you’re going to do to me if-”
“If I don’t like your answer? Well, I’m going to inform the authorities here I won’t work with you if I feel you are incompatible with my unit. That’s all. How they proceed from there is up to them. But if you are so reticent to talk to me about your incompatibilities then I am sure you won’t want to talk to someone more important about them.”
“You win. I… well, I’ve always had a difficult-”
“I was given the choice of the frontier post or being marched out of the base because apparently fighting with your superior officer is a serious offence.”
“Whose fault was it?” With a flash of perfect teeth behind a welcoming smile one of the other passengers made an ill-advised entry into the conversation.
“Not helping, Zyaba.”
“Mostly his. A little bit mine. We disagreed about the right way to approach a disciplinary matter. I was squadron commander, he was in charge of the section. He wanted one of my best pilots grounded for something that wasn’t their fault. Wouldn’t see reason. Got me a bad reputation for challenging him and we couldn’t deal with it like civilised folk so, well, after he’d been drinking it up with the higher-ups one evening I jumped him and left him with a black eye and broken arm.”
“It sounds emotive.”
“Look, there’s a few accounts of it in my records. Mine, his, my squad’s, and the witnesses to the various incidents. Take your choice of who’s lying. And can we not talk about it any more?”
“We’ll see about that. Thank you for your honesty. My name is Lemul Issa, for all it’s worth. I want to think I’m a reasonable woman, but the world seems to make that a very difficult task nowadays.”
They were glad to get back outside, standing in the shadow of an old building, too many times bombed out and repurposed to make its initial function clear. In the heat of early afternoon, nobody else was willing to leave its walls, with the only signs of life visible the overheated, bored figures of sentries manning the upper floor windows.
The building’s interior was one half command centre and one half dormitory, the shattered upper floors rebuilt in new and interesting ways with wooden boards and piles of crates to separate them roughly into officers’ quarters and men and women’s barracks. The remainder of the complex had been identifiable by smell before anything. Grease, petrol and unidentifiable chemicals denoted the hangar. Bleach and sweat was probably the shower block. And then the hospital, which no matter how well-run still had an unpleasant atmosphere around it
“Home.” Lemul threw her bags down on the bed and loosened her boots. “I’ve heard from down below we’ve got a couple of hours to get over the trip before they have need of us, so make the most of it. Apparently the mess isn’t open until six, and the hot water’s off until three, but-”
“Did you just say the water’s off?” The young girl who had admitted her inexperience in the truck looked panicked. “How do we-”
“We are in the middle of a desert where apparently instead of the oases having useful things like drinkable water they’re either salty enough to preserve meat or full of toxic sludge from years of strip mining. Running the purifiers 24/7 is noisy and eats power which is needed to keep important things like comms up. So improvise.”
“I hate this place already.” Sheryl had collapsed onto her own bunk and was picking at the blanket. “These look like teeth marks. Maybe the last unfortunate to have this bed got so hungry she ate it.”
“Once you’ve got your head straight, Ludol, let’s put you through the basics of piloting.”
Sai Mo Ludol, with no interesting anecdotes to her name, wasn’t sure how long it would take to get her head straight but nevertheless headed out to resit basic training within the hour.