Kaori’s elbow brushed alongside Eric’s, expertly demonstrating platonic support. Such incredible intuition. Moving like a specter, she’d marshaled the most imperceptible techniques to make her presence felt without interrupting or startling people. Eric didn’t look away from the white sky when she spoke.

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“It feels cold for such a nice day,” she offered. Other than the chaos of tanks and infantry berating the downtown streets, it did indeed look like an ordinary Tokyo day. Eric hummed in reply, but said nothing. He knew why it was cold. It was the same reason there were no birds. The thought broke his reverie.

Looking down at the throng of people watching the army barricade the long, straight street below, Eric could see cyclists breathing on their cold hands in confusion, and inadequately clothed children huddling close to their parents for warmth. The cold was falling from the troposphere, through vortices created by the descending ship’s braking thrusters. The invasion fleet was approaching Earth at incredibly high speed, and had fired its powerful decelerators as it entered the bottom layer of atmosphere two hours ago.

They’d been waiting for the signs for weeks, but it still caught them off guard. Eric’s team wasn’t finished building the weapon. The incomplete calculations began racing through Eric’s mind again.

Kaori registered the change in his face, and understood there was no longer any need to fortify his emotions with kindness. It was time for business.

“General Nishikado’s waiting in the hanger. The tracks will be laid in a few minutes, and the weapon will be ready to drive.” Kaori spoke neither officiously nor friendly. That’s why Eric relied so heavily on her to deal with his administrations; she handled facts like a magician handled coins.

“Then I guess it’s time to play. Run me through the targeting protocols again as we head downstairs please, Kaori,” he said, staring at his shoes as he set a quick pace toward the elevator. It helped him avoid distractions and concentrate on his thoughts, although his mother had always chastised him for it. Maybe she’d have the opportunity to rebuke him again, he mused.

Nishikado stood in the narrow hatchway of the rail cannon, his brow furrowed. He leaned heavily on his walking stick as he turned around inside the doorway to look at the approaching engineer. The general winced, invisibly, as he studied the bedraggled, washed-out man approaching him. Furrer couldn’t even make eye contact with his colleagues; how was he supposed to look into the eyes of a merciless alien enemy? Fifty years of military discipline kicked in, and Nishikado buried his disgust deep inside his ordered mind.

“A fine weapon, Dr. Furrer. I have every confidence it will bring us honor during our final stand.” This micro-speech wasn’t directed at Eric. It was meant for the whole hanger, and Nishikado’s commanding voice carried to every distant corner of the makeshift base.

Eric’s reply was meant only for the old soldier. “It’s going to be cramped inside, General. I hope you’ve studied the design brief, because there won’t be room for me to operate everything. If you’re at all unsure -“

“I was controlling weapons while you were still chasing around the yard with a toy ray gun, Dr. Furrer.” Not a trace of fury could be heard in Nishikado’s voice, but it was there. Burning deep below the surface – anger so powerful it eclipsed the rail-mounted terawatt laser cannon Eric had spent the last six months building.

Eric checked his sarcasm and reminded himself of the general’s burning desire for the honor he was robbed of years before. Eric didn’t share Nishikado’s thirst for vengeance against an enemy long since conquered – he fully intended to survive this ordeal. If anyone else was capable of working with the incomplete weapons system, he’d have gladly stepped aside.

But there was only him, and Nishikado had refused to leave Earth’s last line of defense in the hands of a civilian engineer – insisting he accompany Eric during the attack. Eric would have been insulted if he didn’t agree completely.

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“Of course, General. Shall we?” The two men entered the small cockpit and took their seats, back to back. Eric looked awkwardly at Kaori as she closed the door. She immediately loaded an expression of respect and affection, but Eric knew it was only for his benefit. Kaori felt nothing about his imminent death, no matter how pathetic his longing gaze.

“See you,” he mumbled. She considered his parting words just a micro second too long to reassure him.
“Yes. You certainly will, Doctor,” she said with a jaunty smile. Eric shook his head in surrender. The least she could have done is learned to bullshit properly.

Engineers and military personnel scattered as the powerful electromagnets lifted the jaggedly conical vehicle off the mirrored rails. Silently, it began to glide out into the street, and a monitor to Eric’s left showed the mile-long length of track stretching down the debris-covered road.

In front, he could see the people of Tokyo pointing in amazement at the huge cannon aiming directly into the sky.

“These people should have been warned. Taken to safety somewhere,” he muttered to himself.

The general answered regardless. “There is no such place. If we fail, it’s over, no matter where these people hide.” The pure absence of emotion in the old Japanese man’s voice sent clammy shivers along Eric’s curved spine.

The temperature outside was rising. The alien fleet was fully within the atmosphere, their landing thrusters heating the air into a stifling, sordid gel. A thin line of black shapes dropped through the thick atmosphere, parallel to the cannon’s track.

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“What if our friends up there change course? This weapon is fixed in one plane of movement. I assume this has been factored into your equations?” It didn’t take a psychologist to figure out Nishikado assumed nothing of the sort. Eric wasn’t a psychologist, but neither was he particularly skilled at snide conversation. He took the general’s challenge at face value.

“They’re traveling too fast. Once they’re inside the atmosphere, it takes everything they’ve got just to decelerate. Other than a degree of uniform lateral adjustment, the fleet is fixed on the course at which it entered the atmosphere.” Eric had calculated the alien’s navigational capabilities so many times, he felt like he’d held this conversation over and over again. In fact, it was the first time.

“Then this track will allow the cannon to move within the fleet’s … uniform …”
“Uniform lateral adjustment. Yes.”

A long inhalation signified the closest thing the general had expressed toward approval since Eric had met him. The temperature rose inside the cockpit, ever so slightly.

“They’re almost in range. I’m going to move us to a central position where we can engage the targeting scanners. After that, it’s just a matter of keeping the cannon moving and out of the fleet’s return fire.”

“I have a little something that might help with that. Here it comes now.” Nishikado switched his monitor onto feeds from the top of the hanger as Eric turned to silently enquire why the general had been making unapproved additions to the plan.

Four freight jetcopters were carrying enormous, disk shaped ceramic heat shields, each equipped with anti-gravity generators to hold them about six meters above the cannon’s rails. The copters placed them at regular intervals along the length of the track. The generators underneath the convex shields spun up and pumped out an invisible flux that mottled the air like rising heat.

Eric threw a fatigued look at the shields and put his back to the proud general’s monitor.

“We dismissed the idea of heat shields weeks ago. They’re only good for a few shots, and the grav generators can’t keep them in the air long enough. I’m afraid it’s wasted effort, General.” Eric felt Nishikado’s countenance harden behind him, and flinched.
“A heat shield’s effectiveness in a prolonged frontline defense is negligible. Against an immediate, aggressive threat like this, it’s my belief they will protect the track and maximize our maneuverability, Doctor. At the very least they might damage one of those ships should we fail and the viral entities inside swarm out to devour our planet,” Nishikado snarled over his shoulder – quiet, yet skillfully menacing.

The cannon glided down a small ramp and onto the rails. Eric checked the alien fleet’s altitude. As the radar data returned, the sensor stream suddenly disappeared.

Panicked, Eric jumped to his feet, banging his head on the inwardly sloping roof as he switched on two large, ceiling-mounted displays. The displays acted as windows so the driver could see what was directly above the cannon – it was dark, with a faint shimmer in the air.

They’d moved beneath the first heat shield. Eric sighed with relief and halted the cannon to check through the rest of the weapon’s equipment, cursing quietly as he did.

The general turned to see why they’d stopped.

“Is there a problem, Doctor?”
“Yes. These damn shields of yours are blocking our sensors. We’re completely blind when we’re under them!”
“We still have our eyes and ears, Doctor. There’s no cause to go to pieces just yet.”

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The engineer shrank under the suggestion of cowardice, because he knew it was true. He was balanced on a crumbling precipice of fear, desperately afraid of moving, yet equally aware he couldn’t stay still.

The jetcopter released the last attachments of the heat shield above them, the enormous disk bobbing on its anti-gravity generators. Without warning, a single shot from a black dot in the sky tore through the copter and impacted hard on the shield. The sound was deafening – magnified by the pressure flux of the generators as they compensated for the violent shock.

Panic tore through the on-looking crowds.

It seemed like an eternity until the cacophony subsided, only to be followed by another powerful blast from the lead ships in the landing party – this time blowing a crater in the ground. It was the moment Eric had feared and the general had been waiting for – the invaders were in range.

Try as he might, Eric wasn’t moving – his head was still buried in his tense shoulders after the first explosion.

“I can’t shoot while we’re under the shield, Doctor! We need to keep moving if we want to get through this! The targeting scanners are waiting for a signal!” The general was clearly adept at battlefield psychology, and his casual allusion toward their survival jolted Eric into action. The cannon cruised out over the crater and the ceiling monitors flooded the cockpit with artificial daylight.

The general handled the weapon controls like a machine. Relief washed over Eric when he saw the old soldier coping with the incomplete equipment so adeptly. A silent but palpable throb ran through the cannon as the terawatt laser diodes came online. The instant they were charged, the general sent a powerful infrared blast to split the sky.

Eric watched the first shot through the ceiling monitors. Although the diodes were infrared, their intensity spilled over into the visible spectrum, giving the cannon fire a translucent red hue surrounded by a powerful aura of superheated nitrogen as the atmosphere ignited around it. A microsecond later and the shots were gone, but their image burned on in Eric’s retinas. Just like the cold summer sky that had transfixed him earlier, the cannon fire had a powerful, horrid beauty about it that mesmerized the engineer – briefly relieving him of his soul-destroying fears.

He jumped back to reality as the general pounded the control panel.

“Damn! You’re machine isn’t working, Doctor! The targeting scanners aren’t compensating for the fleet’s lateral movements! It’s not working, damn you!” Eric was suddenly grateful for the cramped cockpit. All the old soldier could do was sit there and boil, waiting for the fleet’s return fire to free him from dishonor.

Swallowing his anxiety, Eric attempted to mimic Nishikado’s previous confidence.
“Well then, you’ll just have to target them manually.” He felt the general flinch like struck flint, then – surprisingly – relax.

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“Very well” he said, his stolid demeanor quickly restored. “You drive, I’ll shoot.”

A quivering half smile snuck across Eric’s face as they moved back out into the open. The approaching fleet – now visible in the sky – began raining lasers on Tokyo.

The general immediately proved his expertise, as his first shot (which Eric felt sure had gone wide) split one of the large landing craft cleanly in two. Molten, organic material from the ship’s alien hull rained down on the heat shields, then evaporated.

Eric felt as though he could barely keep up with the general, even though it was he who was leading the balletic assault from the driver’s seat. Until a ball of flame appeared in the sky, Eric couldn’t even be sure which ship, in which of the five rows of the fleet’s dominating formation, Nishikado was even aiming at.

The enemy fire was taking its toll on the heat shields, but their number was rapidly dwindling. An unspoken communication began to form between the two men; Nishikado’s shots hinting to Eric in which direction to move next, while the cannon’s path attempted to match the fleet’s lateral landing maneuvers and guide the defensive fire.

The general sent off one last shot before the cannon slid under the furthest heat shield. The cannon shook with fury as the discharge from the laser diodes suddenly quadrupled in intensity. The cockpit lost power, and the weapon dropped heavily onto the rails. The shot ripped through the entire alien fleet, and it was pure good fortune that the cannon had come to a lifeless halt under a crumbling shield.

After a few moments of stunned silence, the two men spoke at the same time.

“What did you do?” demanded Eric, as the general fired back the exact same question. As Eric’s analytical mind wound up to speed, the lights in the cockpit gradually came back on, and the cannon exhaustedly lifted back off the rails. Eric punched at control panels with alacrity.

“It was the collimating crystal in the laser diodes. As it heated up, it hit resonance frequency and multiplied the blast yield exponentially.”

“What does that mean to our mission, Doctor?” enquired the general with irritated expediency.

“They’ve cooled now, but I think it’ll happen again every …” Eric’s mind visibly burned with silent calculations, “fifteenth shot. The diodes can take it, but the cannon’s frame wasn’t designed to absorb that kind of force. Next time, the laser mechanism will probably crush the cockpit.”

To Eric’s surprise, there was no hint of blame emanating from the general. Instead, he was quite simply contemplating the effect of only fourteen remaining shots, before accepting this new constraint and turning back to his controls unperturbed.

“Then let’s make them count.”

Eric put his bewilderment aside and took up his own controls.

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The remaining ships used their limited maneuvering thrusters to increase their speed, and the general’s shots began to go wide. Two of the heat shields had exploded, while the third’s anti-grav generators collapsed.

It was all Eric could do to avoid the incoming fire, no longer able to accommodate Nishikado’s targeting. Nevertheless, the fourteenth shot ripped through one of the smaller alien vessels, leaving only one infantry lander hurtling toward Tokyo. As the general had already reminded Eric, that was all the viral alien species needed to spread throughout the world.

The cannon ground to a halt beneath the remaining shield.

“How many shots do we have left?” asked Eric.
“One. The 15th shot.” said Nishikado, defeated.

Pieces of the heat shield hit the cannon, as the alien ship zipped past and fired at the two men.

“You’ve earned a great honor in what you’ve achieved today.” Just as it was with his anger, there was no hint of admiration in the general’s tone, but it was there, deep beneath the surface.

Nishikado had meant what he’d said to Eric, but his despondent fatigue suggested he felt otherwise about himself. It had been 15 years since the general survived the battle that had wiped out his regiment and left him lame. The wounds on his honor hadn’t healed, and now they never would. Eric considered offering some kind of reciprocal gesture of mutual respect, but he knew the general wouldn’t appreciate it. His courteous silence was far more appropriate for the old soldier.

Eric looked up at the ceiling monitor and saw the landing craft shoot past through a widening crack in the heat shield. Above it, he could see the ice blue of the torn Tokyo sky. An arrowhead of starlings floated high above the city, returning to the heavens as they settled back into a warm cyan majesty. He thought about Kaori standing next to him on the hanger roof, the gentleness of her touch against his elbow (such wonderful control, she had) and her flawless rendition of inspirational conversation. He heard the roar of the alien assault ship, but it couldn’t break his reveries this time. One more shot and the shield would separate, exposing the two men to certain death along with the rest of life on Earth, but for this moment, for as long as it lasted, he felt good. Better than he ever had.

“Well, you can’t save us while we’re stuck under this heat shield, General. How about we get moving?” said Eric, as calm as he’d been in the last 30 years.
“What are you saying, Doctor?”
“I can’t calculate any way out of this, so it might as well be on our terms, eh?” He turned as far as he could, to meet the general’s surprised eye. Nishikado inspected Eric for any signs of doubt. He could find none, and the steely fire reignited in the old soldier’s eyes.

The alien ship rocketed downward, veering toward the failing heat shield. A powerful blast tore up the tracks next to the cannon as Eric grabbed the controls to move them out underneath the shield.

The drive mechanism jammed against the twisted rails – snaring the two men underneath the heat shield.

“We … we’re stuck. We’re stuck under the shield!” Eric’s voice wavered as he felt his newfound courage about to go unused.
“No. No! There has to be a way to get clear!” Emotion racked the old man’s voice for the first time in his adult life. The roar of the landing craft rose in a deafening crescendo – one more pass and it would be on the ground.

Eric jolted as a lightning bolt of inspiration struck him. Squeezing from his seat, he yanked the eject cord. The section of the cannon’s housing directly above his chair blew outward as the seat rocketed up into the collapsing heat shield.

“What the hell are you doing? Get back in here, you coward!” screamed the general, desperately grabbing at Eric.

“General! I’ll be your targeting scanner. When I tell you, fire the laser. It’s the 15th shot – it should be more than enough to blast through the heat shield and still take out the ship!”

The general contemplated Eric’s idea for the briefest moment, then turned back to the controls.

“That’s quite a trick, Doctor. You’d have made a fine soldier. With a little discipline, of course.”

Eric laughed as he climbed frantically onto the control panel and put his head out of the cockpit to find the alien craft. The air was sharp with the acrid scent of destruction, but as it spilled into the cannon’s cockpit, it had never smelled sweeter.

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The invader raced toward them, its landing apparatus emerging from beneath the ship – a dark green hue gathering in the weapons port.

The general’s hand hovered like a finely carved piece of granite above the fire button; unshakably steady.

“Here it comes, General! Now!”

Casually, the general pressed the weapon.

The cannon exploded, sending a column of light and fire straight through the heat shield and into the landing alien ship – disintegrating the last of the invaders.

Although the people of Tokyo didn’t know it at the time, the searing blaze that cut through the summer sky that day was a beacon of their freedom.

From the hanger, amid the spontaneous celebrations that had erupted, Kaori looked out at the motionless wreckage of the cannon. Pride was something she’d wanted to sample for a long time, and now, thanks to Eric and Nishikado, she could experience the mixed sensations of comfort and sadness that such courageous endings bring.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

Smile and Nod: That Which Does Not Matter

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