Short Story – Across the Stars, I Love You (Part 2)

Cobra Pilot (ilisvela).jpg

Sketch of a Gear pilot, drawn by request and reproduced with permission from ilisvela.tumblr.com

In writing this half of the story I found myself looking somewhat more closely than I ordinarily would at the mechanics of mech combat – how smaller, “real robot” type mechs like those of Heavy Gear would lead to brutal, uncomfortable battles – the pilot close to the action rather than in a small part of a much larger machine, heavy weapons deployed against what is ultimately personal armour rather than a whole fighting vehicle, and an immediacy and physicality that makes the breeziness of rolling dice on a wargaming table a little more interesting from a narrative perspective.

It is easy to get excited as a wargamer about cool unstoppable unit combinations that mitigate the probability of a dice-based system and assure you victory – my Southern Fire Support unit (which turns up in slightly stylised form here) is an impressive wall of armour and guns built around highly effective rotary cannons and laser rifles. In game terms this means I can roll a lot of dice. But as I ran some basic statistics, effectively playing a solitaire wargame to see how this scenario might play out, and then thought about how this reflected on what you might watch in a robot anime, the combat itself became perfunctory and brutal.

This ended up being, for all it set out to be a heroic army background piece for a tabletop game, a depiction of the sort of grunt mech slaughter usually reserved for an OVA like War in the Pocket.


Sai, Lemul thought, was not likely to die on her first sortie. This was not a bad result for a day and a half of intense training in unfamiliar and uncomfortable conditions, but it was definitely not a level of experience that she felt comfortable with. Their first mission with any chance of enemy contact had been put up on the board, and it called for the whole team.

9th Team, patrol attached co-ordinates. Locate and intercept separatist patrol, route indicated. Operational discretion granted.

It was the simplest of missions, to be fair. The uneasy expansion of both sides’ front lines had, as it often did, resulted in two patrol routes intersecting. As yet, neither side seemed aware enough of this to act. Thus, the first move was to make an enemy patrol disappear, and await their retaliation with an ambush. Force the opponent into making the aggressive move, meet them in a prepared line and then secure the grid square. Gears made counterpunch-style warfare like this significantly easier, able to switch from defence to offence in moments.

But first, make the enemy make a move. And for that, three enemy units seen only as smears on a black-and-white photograph needed to disappear. A recon unit had tailed them as far as was safe, declining to engage what had turned out to be three frontline units with only a sidearm. Their route had been plotted onto the map, and now Lemul had operational discretion – the responsibility of planning the attack fell on her.

“Is everyone listening?” She had chosen to hold the meeting in the relative privacy of the dormitory rather than the open-plan operations room below. “We’re five on three here but I can’t rule out the possibility the enemy has a firepower advantage. Our scout said she was following at a safe distance, because whatever the hell the enemy were she didn’t want to test the odds. But there were definitely three silhouettes.”

The scout, Connie Sanga, wasn’t embarrassed to say precisely how nerve-racking enemy contact was when all you had was a backpack full of electronics and a peashooter. So nobody had held her hanging back against her.

“Safest place to take them looks like this river-bed. Lots of low rocks we can use for cover, but it’s open enough for them to not be able to hide if we strike from here.” Amalgan, a veteran of this sort of thing, poked at the map.

“Even with cover they could have the firepower to just blast through us.” Sheryl was still nowhere near popular, but at least was not stupid. “I’d want more than just a rock between me and a beam.”

“If we hit them right we can get in the dead-zone of a beam.” Lemul smiled. “But you raise a good point.” Sai had learned much about this sort of thing. Beam weapons caused all manner of havoc at short range with the firer’s own optics, and so were best used over longer distances from a braced position. Fire then reposition, rather than try and bring a heavy, hot weapon to bear on the move.

“Timings are going to suck.” Zyaba traced a route from their base to the river bed. “I wouldn’t want to be setting up our little ambush during the day, but it looks like if they keep to schedule they don’t reach the place until late afternoon. So we’re sitting there all day.”

“Well, if we hit them as they reached the place, we’d have high ground, attacking from this ridge.”

“And we’d have zero cover. All they’d need is a couple of chainguns and we’d be chickenwire. We’d have one shot, and I’m not sure we can bring down the enemy with that.”

“Camping trip it is then. I’ll show you how to pack an extended operation kit, Sai.”

And so, Gears laden with tent, extra water canteens, food and blankets, the 9th Team set off. Their route was taking them well away from civilisation, into the depths of the desert where the front lines were drawn over ground hard to care about. From an outsiders’ perspective the front here was contesting harsh ochre rock, lurid green sludge and pathetic excuses for plants that clung to life in shaded cracks in the ground. Of course, there was the constant hope for minerals – after the armies swept forward and declared a zone safe the migrants and prefabricated structures would come and the ground would be torn open in a destructive treasure-hunt. Then, once it looked like prosperity was around the corner, would come the counteroffensive, and the villages would be abandoned in a panicked evacuation and a new population might move in.

Sai felt quite calm at this point. This was just the same as the last sortie she had been sent on, an early-morning trek across the desert to take water samples from a new spring that had been found by surveyors. Just the movement of the Gear as it coasted over uneven ground, the swaying of the horizon and the vibration up through the back of the seat from the engine. The battle between air conditioning and desert heat was a fairly forlorn one for a unit built to be used in temperate conditions, and the best anyone could hope for was a temperature in the cockpit somewhere just above comfortable and just below unbearable.

At the moment it was just warm enough to make a pilot sleepy, which was quite frankly lethal. Technology could keep a machine upright and moving quite happily in a straight line but there was no real autopilot to speak of, so all it would take was giving into sleep and the Gear would launch itself off a cliff should the opportunity arise.

“Lemul, can we break a minute? I need some air.” They had been going for several hours and it was generally recommended patrols found somewhere safe to rest at about this point, just to stop desert madness from setting in.

“Break’s at noon, you know that. We’re running to a schedule here.” Lemul’s voice made it clear her heart wasn’t in that hardline attitude. “I know it’s not safe, I know you’re probably all wishing me dead here but we absolutely need to make it to the ambush point by sundown. That will give us the evening to get the Gears hidden and make camp, and we can be well-rested and ready to get suited up in time for their arrival tomorrow.”

Sai’s eyes ached. Her vision was just good enough to have got her into the pilot seat. Had the war not been going how it was she wouldn’t have been allowed to. Trouble was just good enough meant able to see without glasses well enough to pass the test.

The heat, the sun reflecting off the sand and the long period spent without glasses was giving her a headache.

They had to stop before noon, not from Sheryl’s complaining about the heat but because Amalgan’s engine was overheating. This was a serious problem. It could be kept running, for sure, and fixed overnight when things were cooler and the fault could be found. But that would mean refilling the radiator from their canteens, and the idea of making the trip back with incredibly little water, or going way off course to find one of the known oases, was not exactly appealing. Squeezed under an outcropping that offered just enough shade to let the Gear cool down, Lemul fought with a map until the relevant grid square was visible.

“Realistically we can’t go out of our way on the way out. Well, we could, but it would mean delaying the ambush three, four days. And we don’t have the supplies for that.”

“Couldn’t we radio back to base and see if Intel knows the schedule of separatist patrols? If they run them every couple of days then we could hit their next-”

“We know this one lines up with the schedule of a three-man team. What if they alternate that with a five-man one? You should know how we alternate scouting parties with recon in force.”

“True. So, if we’re going to capitalise on this intel we can’t delay.”

“Hold on.” Sai decided to speak up. “Why don’t we get to the ambush point and then scout around for supplies while we’re there?”

“You mean-”

“The map says there’s a mining camp here, it’s only, what, half an hour from where we’re making camp? I mean we couldn’t stay there but they’d probably have a workshop to fix Amalgan’s Gear. The rest of us can get most of the prep done while, say, you and Amalgan fix the Gear.”

“Not a bad idea. One downside. Connie didn’t say where the patrol was coming from, so what if that’s their staging ground or the little supply base where they stop for dinner and a shower?”

“It’ll be a risk.” Zyaba flattened the map with his finger, leaving a smear of dust over it. “But it wouldn’t make sense. The river bends away from the camp here and Connie said she tracked the dust cloud along its course for several hours. I’d pin their base here and their route going somewhere that way after Connie lost them.”

Sai hadn’t thought about any of that at the time. She’d followed Connie’s explanation of this being a section of a patrol route, and vaguely understood that intercepted code-clicks back to HQ had made it clear the next patrol would be tomorrow, but hadn’t thought that this was only a small section of a longer route. Or indeed that the separatists would have waystations within friendly territory.

“So, Lemul, are we in enemy territory at the moment?”

“Yes. Have been for a while. Or at least we’re well past where our normal teams usually go, deep into the realms of long-range recon. And on that note, I’m going to need you to give me five litres of fresh water so we can patch up Amalgan’s radiator and limp to the target point before sundown.”

Before they had needed to stop, Sai had been looking forward to taking a drink, as oily and rubber-tinged as it was going to be. Now, as half her water supply was given up to the cause of repairs, it didn’t seem as appealing. Of course, she knew Lemul and the others wouldn’t let her go thirsty, but if the trip back was likely to be a dry one, she had better get used to it.

The ambush point was a welcome sight. Sai ached, her throat dry, whole body screaming, eyes burning from the glare, a migraine digging like knives into her temples. Setting her Gear down in the assigned location, in the shadow of a strip of fallen rocks, she shoved the hatch open and stumbled to the ground, world spinning, before being wracked with nausea, her body just giving up after the day’s travel.

“You OK?” She was in a cave in the valley. That much was obvious. It was cooler. The world was still only visible through blinking white lights that streaked before her eyes, but the pain had died down a little. “I gave you a shot of antinauseants and another for the pain.” Zyaba kicked at a stone, trying not to stare. “You didn’t drink anything today, did you? Dehydration’s a hell of a thing.”

“Thought we needed to save supplies.”

“You’re an idiot. Never pull a stunt like that again, if you’d had that fit an hour or so earlier we’d have had a crashed Gear. Lemul’s looking for something to kill, she’s so angry.”

That was hardly reassuring, and Sai wanted very much to be nowhere visible when Lemul and Amalgan returned.

It turned out Zyaba had been exaggerating slightly.

“You’re no use to any of us dead, Ludol. If you were worried about running out of water, you should have said something at the time.”

“But-”

“I don’t know what illusions you’re under but we are not exactly the separatists here. We don’t let our troops suffer. We’d have all gone with less rather than make anyone go without.”

They set clocks for the time of the attack, and slept. It almost reminded Sai of her childhood camping trips.

Morning. Breakfast. Final checks. Lunch. The last few moments of fresh air and free movement, and then, with two hours before the enemy’s arrival, they climbed back into their Gears and the world became a tiny vision-slit. Sheryl, being furthest back and best-hidden on a convenient bit of high ground, would send a message once the enemy came into view.

Two pulses of static. Enemy sighted, half an hour out. The plan was simple. Let them get a few dozen metres past the furthest-forward ambush line and shoot them in the back. If you looked very hard, you could see Amalgan’s bazooka jutting out from a pile of rocks and camo netting, and possibly the rifle-barrels of Zyaba and Lemul’s Gears. Maybe if a pilot looked up at the worst possible time they would see Sheryl’s scope gleaming. But there was a belief among the 9th Team that this patrol would be like their own – by now almost a day into methodical scouring of empty desert, hot, thirsty and aching to get home. Probably thinking about their next waystation, or even the trip back to base for cold beer and a terrible but welcome meal.

Four minutes.

Three minutes.

Sai had completely blanked what was going to happen next from her mind. The attack signal would be given and she would just do what she knew she had to. She wasn’t thinking about it as killing enemy Gears. It was just the mission.

Two minutes.

She could hear engines clearly. There had been a drumming in her ears for a while now but it was close, like cars headed past your house as you tried to sleep.

The signal was due any moment. The Gears were in her sights.

They suddenly stopped. No signal from Lemul.

Sai tentatively activated her cameras, switching from the emergency view slit to minimum sensor power.

The enemy turned as one, three solidly-built assault Gears in slate grey and mustard-yellow, and as if on a silent signal opened fire while strafing left and right away from the ambush point. It was as if they were in a training course, completely calm.

The whining of rotary cannon motors pierced Sai’s skull like a dentist’s drill before being undercut with the scream of a river of bullets tracking agonisingly slowly towards Amalgan’s hiding-place. He stood up, trying to get a shot on the enemy as they pivoted and weaved. A missile, trailing smoke and flying erratically from a poorly-aimed, unready shot, threw up a plume of dust and rock as it missed all three targets.

The two streams of tracers met on Amalgan’s torso and Sai saw his Gear stagger, reel backwards and then explode. Without hesitating the guns spun down, their barrels glowing white-hot, and Sai saw heavy cannons mounted on the enemy’s shoulders level at Lemul’s location. She opened fire, barely paying attention to the reticle for her own rocket launcher, and fired until the tubes were empty. Explosions threw thick black smoke into the river-gully, and Sai allowed herself a moment of relief as Zyaba and Lemul opened fire, then the air was split with the crack of Sheryl’s sniper rifle.

There was the sound of a solid round spalling against a ballistic plate, and then the smoke rippled to a high-pitched sound. Something, pale-pink and indistinct and leaving heat-haze in the air, gleamed towards Sheryl and then there was a double report of exploding ammunition. The smoke cleared, dissipating in grimy streaks, and the lead Gear was standing tall, a neat streak of bare metal in its leg armour where Sheryl had hit low, and its beam rifle recycling in a cloud of steam.

Then came the artillery. The whistling, spiralling trails of Sai’s rocket pack and the steady drumroll of explosions had been the sort of impressive display of force that had made victory seem inevitable. What came back – painful bass roars of field guns, wave after wave of rockets and bullets, made even the idea of trying to stand and fight seem hopeless.

And, behind the salvo, as Sai saw Zyaba break cover and have his Gear’s legs shot out from beneath him to leave a helpless torso bouncing across the rough ground, rifle clattering out of reach, as she saw Lemul’s bullets bounce ineffectually off the enemy’s armour, she felt like she could hear laughter.

After only a scant few minutes of fighting, the separatist patrol left the shattered, crippled Gears cooking in the afternoon sun and set off to deliver their report over cold beers and microwaved rations. Their conversations would be gleeful recollections of the carnage through breathless suppressed laughter, the elation of victory and the adrenaline rush of having survived another day of war.

Somehow, Sai had survived all but unharmed. She had waited until the sun had gone down before even thinking of ejecting from her powerless, weaponless Gear, and as soon as she did she ran to where Zyaba had gone down.

He had survived. Lemul was wounded, but it was probably treatable. They had a few supplies left. It was half an hour by Gear to the mining-camp. It would be most of a day on foot, carrying Lemul. Tomorrow was going to be, somehow, worse than today.

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