The Empire has a number of military castes, entire subdivisions of Imperial society dedicated to war in various forms. From the noble families from which the Imperial officer corps and Shogunate almost exclusively draw recruits from to the enigmatic Shinobi orders, the military castes are among the most insular and conservative elements of Imperial society. Even among these, however, there is one military caste that stands apart. At once one of the most respected and most outcast groups of people in the Empire, the Imperial Mecha Corps embodies both the best and the worst of the Empire's reach for transcendence.
Unions of flesh and steel in ways that the crude engineers of the Mediterranean Syndicate could never hope to approach, the mecha pilots combine the strengths of the human mind and soul, the powerful analytical and multitasking capabilities of an AI, and the raw power of an Imperial mecha. The Empire calls them the Legion of Steel and honors them as among the Empire's finest and most selfless servants... from a safe distance. But the fusion of man and machine is imperfect, and it is a rare mecha pilot who avoids death in battle, creeping insanity, or catastrophic accident - ninety-five percent of all mecha pilots to date have succumbed to one of the three. Literally no longer entirely human, the Mecha Corps have a different name for themselves: the Legion of the Damned.
Selection and TrainingEdit
"I will make no apologies for the harshness of the Corps' training. If you are not ready, that is your failing."
- - Anonymous Mecha Corps officer, addressing new candidates
The Legion believes that mecha pilots are born, not made. Therefore, a very unusual method of selecting recruits is employed: unique among the Imperial military, the Mecha Corps is an exclusively volunteer force. Any Imperial or colonized subject, when conscripted or during voluntary enlistment, may submit their name as a candidate for the Mecha Corps. It is well known, if politely ignored in some Imperial circles, that the Legion is completely color-blind: Ainu, Filipinos, and other "indigenous" peoples conscripted as cannon fodder are utterly equal with the oldest of Japan's noble families in the Legion's eyes. It is a purely, and ruthlessly, meritocratic military caste where raw ability and skill determine one's place in the hierarchy, and the simple fact that the Legion opens its doors to other pariahs of the Empire has lead those groups to be very well represented among the Legion's numbers. It is a fact quietly ignored by Imperial society that the current Daimyo of the Mecha Corps proudly identifies herself as Ainu.
A second pool of recruits for the Legion consists of those already doomed to die, for whom the risks inherent in attempting to join the Legion is no sacrifice. For these men and women who seem to have no choice but death - the hopelessly disgraced warrior, the patient who can't be saved, the condemned criminal - there is a choice. Life... in the Legion, with immediate cybernetic augmentation as necessary to save the recruit's life. This is not, contrary to what an outside might expect, a popular option. Those who choose this path into the Legion come face to face with the difficult questions of humanity and technology that few recruits who make it that far don't face for at least a year.
About a third of all who submit their names to the Legion are simply rejected after a quick background check where the Legion looks for signs of existing mental instability and any particular affinity or animus against machines. For those who are accepted as candidates, a grueling battery of physical and psychological tests ensue. Focusing primarily on endurance, stamina, and adaptability, these tests are intentionally designed to push candidates to and quite often beyond their physical and psychological limits - serious injuries and nervous breakdowns are not uncommon among Mecha Corps candidates, and eighty-five percent of Mecha Corps candidates wash out during this phase. Being pushed beyond one's limits is not grounds for disqualification, but failing to adapt to such problems is a black mark.
Those who pass their candidacy and affirm their continued desire to join the Mecha Corps - some pass but choose to return to the normal Imperial Army - are officially promoted to initiates and sent to one of the Corps' secretive training facilities. Initiate training is even more brutal than candidacy training. Here, initiates are given the first chance to pilot mecha - heavily modified versions of standard mecha patterns designed to allow normal humans to operate the machines. Initiates are expected to become proficient with all Imperial mecha patterns, from the quick and flimsy Tengu to the hulking King Oni. Gender is irrelevant here, much to the disgust of some would-be pilots: while it is true that mecha are supposed (on order from the highest levels of the Empire) to be a primarily male force with the odd female who passes being shunted into the Kitsune, this rule is not in fact always obeyed. It is something of an open secret that there are a handful of male Kitsune pilots and females pilots in other patterns of mecha who use voice sythesizers to disguise their gender on the battlefield.
However, the true focus of one's training as an initiate is again psychological. This period of a pilot's training allows the Legion to determine what sort of mecha a given pilot is best suited for: aggressive and impatient pilots tend to be assigned to Tengu, patient and resolute pilots to Nezumi, etc. Pilots also need to demonstrate an iron will and an ability to adapt to strange situations, which the Legion is known to test for in highly unorthodox ways. From deliberately triggering a mecha malfunction that paralyzes an initiate from the waist down in the midst of a simulated battle to hooking them up to a computer simulation in their sleep where they wake up as the opposite gender the day of a major battle, initiates tend to be rather humbled by the end of their training. Those who are not cowed by the Legion's methods tend to go on to be some of the Legion's best pilots.
The Legion keeps the numbers of who passes and fails their initiate rank a close secret, and a number of marginal candidates are denied the honor of fully joining the Legion and are sent into the specialized Ikiryu, Kintaro, or Sentai programs instead. Also a close secret is the number of initiates who die during training, although the fact that some initiates do not survive this phase of their training is a matter of public record.
Those who do survive and pass their trials as initiates are then deemed ready to earn the last and most visible sign of their calling, and the mark of membership in the Legion of Steel: the black carapace.
The Black CarapaceEdit
"An honor? Maybe. But there are times the carapace feels a lot like a set of chains."
- - Anonymous Legionnaire
Read or watch any Imperial cartoons about the Mecha Corps, and odds are the Legion will be shown wearing a complicated-looking military-style jumpsuit with a lot of visible electronic circuitry and glowing lights. On female characters, it will always be form-fitting and flattering on the always, always voluptuous women, and on men it tends to either be a nearly skintight affair on the chest or so heavy and reinforced it looks like armor. Depending on the cartoon in question, the suits may be black, silver, or each Legion character will wear a different color suit for easy identification. What all of these cartoons depict is the signature of the Mecha Corps, called the black carapace.
However, the term "black carapace" actually refers to two separate enhancements to Legionnaires: a series of sub-dermal implants in the pilots themselves, and the complex powered soft-suit that interfaces with the pilots' implants and the mecha they pilot. Collectively, the function of the black carapace is to allow the pilots and their mecha to act as one unit with incredible efficiency. Contrary to popular belief, pilots can in fact survive without the interface suit of their carapace - they can set off metal detectors while completely naked, but without a suit the only visible differences between a new pilot and a normal human is a series of extra bumps on the back along the spine and a slightly distended head, expanded and elongated at the back. Nevertheless, in addition to making personal hygiene much easier, most members of the Legion do prefer to wear their interface suit at all times, finding the added layer of functionality to their cybernetic enhancements comforting. Within the Legion, a wide variety of rituals and expressions surrounding the presence or absence of the suit has evolved over the years.
All pilots receive the same core cybernetic implants, with pilots then receiving a second suite of more specialized enhancements depending on the mecha they are expected to pilot. The most fundamental of the implants is a series of nerve-circuit transducers along the spine - these are the first implants installed in a pilot, and the most crucial. Harmless and nonfunctional by themselves, when combined with the interface suit and the surrounding shell of a mecha, the transducers allow the pilot to control their mecha via nerve impulses - when a Hanzo Z pilot sends the nerve signals to raise his arm, for example, in a mecha the signals are instead rerouted through the transducer and converted by the interface suit into a command for the mecha to raise its arm. Other stage-one implants allow the mecha to track the pilot's vital signs and automatically inject stimulants, depressants, painkillers, and other chemicals as necessary to keep the pilot stable, and enhance the pilot's production of adrenaline and the like to enhance the pilot's functionality.
Second-stage implants are tailored to the type of mecha the pilot is expected to use and the role of that mecha. Tengu pilots, for example, have their ability to feel vertigo severely reduced while Kitsune scouts receive translator modules to enhance their ability to gather information in the field and King Oni pilots receive reinforcements to their skeletons to help them withstand battlefield punishment that might not seriously damage the mecha but could pulp a lesser breed of pilot inside. Samehada pilots even receive augmentations to their lungs that allow them to effectively breathe underwater should their mecha suffer a catastrophic breach at sea.
The interface suit itself amplifies the implants designed to work with the mecha and syncs the machine with the pilot. What exactly the interface suit is constructed of and how it works are closely kept secrets, but it is known that interface suits are custom-made for each pilot and cannot be used even by another pilot of the same mecha type. One thing the cartoons do get right about the interface suit is that its color can be customized as the pilot wishes, but most Legionnaires prefer simple shades of black and white - a few pilots do indeed choose bright colors, but such people tend to be regarded even by the rest of the Legion as highly eccentric.
Collectively, the black carapace is what allows a pilot to operate their mecha far more efficiently and intuitively than any mundane system of controls. It is very, very rare to see a member of the Legion without their interface suit, and many simply regard the carapace as a part of their own bodies. More than one pilot has described the feeling of being without the suit as one of horrific vulnerability and helplessness, and it was at the command of Emperor Kamina that the Legion has no dress uniform: even at formal occasions, a pilot's black carapace is their armor, uniform, and weapon alike.
Not all mecha pilots, however, wear the black carapace, and some older pilots lack cybernetic enhancements altogether. The enhanced mecha pilots of the modern Legion were not yet considered battle-ready by Emperor Yoshiro when he launched his campaign, and the Imperial Mecha Corps during the war primarily consisted of already capable and unaugmented pilots and tank commanders in normal cockpits refitted into the mecha designs. Only when Prince Tatsu ascended to Emperor was the true might of the Legion made ready for full-scale warfare... but the order to unleash the transhuman men and women of the Mecha Corps never came, and many to this day wonder why Tatsu never sent his most unusual soldiers into battle.
Today, the unaugmented mecha pilots, though formally under the umbrella of the Legion, are a small and largely separate organization. Many of them have long and distinguished career records, and feel stifled by relegation to training and internal patrol duty while the cyborgs take their place. Some of these veterans have retired out of disgust with the new generation of mecha pilots, while others are certain that this program is a failure and await the call for the proven pilots to redeem the Legion's name.
The AI LinkEdit
"I think, and my thoughts cross the barrier into the synapses of the machine, just as the good doctor intended. But what I cannot shake, and what hints at things to come, is that thoughts cross back. In my dreams, the sensibility of the machine invades the periphery of my consciousness: dark, rigid, cold, alien. Evolution is at work here, but just what is evolving remains to be seen."
- - Dr. Pravin Lal
Once the Legion has bestowed the black carapace upon an initiate, that man or woman is no longer part of Imperial society in any meaningful way. They have become part of the Legion of Steel, and will bear their black carapace for the rest of their life. However, their transformation from Imperial citizen to Mecha Corps pilot is not yet complete. There is one final step for an initiate to become a true pilot: unity with their mecha.
Artificial intelligence is nothing new to Imperial citizens. The famed Masamune and notorious Giga-Fortresses are all sentient to some degree. But ask an Imperial citizen about directly linking an artificial intelligence to a human mind, and they're more likely to scoff or laugh, remembering the fiasco that was the Steel Ronin. The given Imperial citizen would be less inclined to laugh if they knew that the basic mind/machine interface of the Steel Ronin had proved sound despite the failure of the project, and that in many ways the modern mecha pilots represent represent what is essentially a second generation of the same program that had produced the Steel Ronin. It is no secret that Legionnaires link their minds with their machines to control them with startling ease. What is a secret is how intelligent those machines are.
Modern Imperial mecha are not quite sentient - they are not self-aware and are incapable of anything like independent thought. However, within their specific areas of expertise, the mecha are highly intelligent. A VX unit, for example, is more than capable of automatically identifying and sorting all visible targets in order of priority, automatically taking evasive maneuvers, and selectively unloading its ordnance for maximum efficiency or effect. This system would be more than sufficient if the Empire desired to deploy more automated weapons platforms, but the Giga-Fortresses soured the Shogunate on the worth of such systems. Here enter the pilots and their black carapaces.
Through the black carapace, the pilot and AI effectively become a singular entity inhabiting the mecha, with all the hard technical expertise of the AI and all the creativity and intuition of the pilot. The program's goal was to create a composite entity of pilot, AI, and mecha that was greater and more effective than the simple sum of its parts, and the program has been markedly successful. Joined together by the black carapace, a modern Imperial mecha is one of the most adaptable and potent units on the world's battlefields. Although bound by the limitations of the given mecha chassis, there are few vehicles on the battlefield better suited for rapidly changing conditions - and the variable mode nature of most mecha merely enhances their already well-deserved reputation.
However, even the Imperial Army outside the Mecha Corps is unaware of certain side effects to prolonged human/AI bonding. Although the relationship is generally symbiotic by intention, as time goes on the pilot's mind and the AI begin to blur into each other in what the Legion quietly calls "bleedthrough." Tengu pilots, for example, are known as arrogant and impatient hotheads, but this is partially the fault of the Tengu mecha themselves: the Tengu AI is naturally inclined to fast and aggressive attacks, and this way of thinking rubs off on the Tengu pilots through the mind/machine interface. Generally, bleedthrough is relatively harmless and at most results in the pilots becoming eccentric operators in the field. However, continued mental linking can lead to a variety of far more dangerous phenomena unknown to the Imperial population at large but known to the Legion by a variety of names, the most common of which is simply "mecha psychosis." It is one of the great fears of every Legionnaire, and the Legion quietly believes that sooner or later, every pilot will succumb to some form of it. Thus far, there is no reason to believe that the Legion is wrong.
"When I was young, I dreamed of being a giant robot and having all kinds of fun. What kid doesn't? But now I wonder what young AI's dream of..."
- - Anonymous King Oni pilot
There are reasons why the Legion of the Damned call themselves such, and reason why candidates are so exhaustively tested for psychological soundness above all else. Collectively, these reasons are called mecha psychosis, and they consist of a broad range of psychological disorders and... incidents... that Imperial mecha pilots are susceptible to due to their AI link. Knowledge of these disorders is not widespread within the Empire: military personnel who have seen a King Oni go berserk tend to be told one of a number of different and entirely false explanations that the Legion has devised over the years, and many mothers have been told that their son or daughter died in noble battle when the truth is altogether less pleasant. Some within the Empire know that mecha pilots are far less stable than they seem, including the Shoguns and the Emperor himself, but the Legion is largely forced to deal with mecha psychosis on their own.
The earliest and most prominent form of mecha psychosis occurs when the human/AI link works... in a different way than expected. Specifically, there are known incidents of the mecha's AI overpowering the human mind and becoming the dominant, controlling entity. Known to the Legion as possession, the exact consequences of a possessed pilot can vary dramatically. Fortunately for all concerned, possession is - as far as the Legion knows - not an especially harmful or traumatic event. Pilot and AI are designed to be two parts of one organism to begin with, and while the concept disturbs many who haven't experienced it, those who have claim that it feels perfectly fine to second primary control to the AI while the pilot is incapacitated or needs time to think in uniquely human ways. The implication that some pilots voluntarily let themselves be possessed has never been officially investigated. Bleedthrough is always a concern for the Legion, and there is no denying that the cyborg pilots of the Legion have become steadily more like their machines... but also that their machines have become steadily more human. One deeply classified Legion report concerns a King Oni that, without its pilot, ripped trees out of the ground and deposited them in front of a house in the Osaka suburbs. The mecha's pilot in question had recently given a bouquet of flowers to the young woman living at the address in question.
AI link problems are the main reason why the Legion seeks especially strong-willed men and women to serve as pilots: the stronger the pilot's will, the more able the pilot is to remain in control of the link. However, accidents still happen on occasion, especially during stressful combat situations. Like most pieces of Imperial technology, malfunctions in the AI link and black carapace are rare but shocking when they do happen. Of the malfunctions the Legion has publicly acknowledged, they range from the inconvenient but harmless - such as the pilot's heads up display accidentally replacing civilians with kittens - to the disturbing, including switching a pilot's input senses in a form of synesthesia - to the fatal and worse, though those last two categories are rare in the extreme.
Other disorders are less overt, but just as dangerous. Perhaps the most common overall form of mecha psychosis is, again using the Legion's terminology, The Malison. Although the initial linking with an AI tends to be shocking and uncomfortable for the pilot, it quickly becomes a thing of routine, and many pilots grow so accustomed to their AI link that when isolated from their AI, such as any time they're out of their mecha, they fall into depression. The Malison is the Legion's name for this phenomenon, and it is not dissimilar to a drug addict in withdrawal save that pilots genuinely lose a substantial part of "their" mind when removed from their AI, and virtually every single member of the Legion suffers from the Malison to some degree when out of their mecha. Although not necessarily crippling, the Malison has been observed to grow increasingly severe among the oldest pilots of the Legion. Some Legion pilots suffer from anorexia, simply forgetting to eat outside nutri-pack injections when actively deployed, or forget how to do complex tasks, having entrusted that part of their minds to their AI. Most suffer from at least mild depression outside their mecha, though Legion efforts to promote social activities among their own ranks have met with promising results. Though aloof in the extreme to outsiders, the pilots of the Mecha Corps have begun to develop a closely-knit internal network, and a current concern for the Legion is the inevitability that mecha pilots will become romantically involved, which promises all manner of problems, both for the pilots and for their AI symbiosis.
Mecha psychosis can take a wide range of other forms, the extent of which is known only to the Legion itself. Many Legion elders (elders being a relative term among the Mecha Corps) quietly believe that the human/AI link, at least in its present incarnation, is fundamentally flawed. The Legion's own efforts to support its members and the enthusiastic support of Emperor Kamina for whatever programs are needed to keep the Legion psychologically healthy and functioning at full capacity have kept this belief from gaining any serious traction, but on at least one occasion the Legion itself has recommended to Emperor Kamina that the entire AI link program, and the current incarnation of the Imperial Mecha Corps, be suspended until the technology can be stabilized.
Privately, many in the Legion feel that their current state of technology and human evolution have reached a perilous equilibrium. It would not take much to push the Legion into a dystopian, transhuman nightmare that would make the most twisted Sprawl-dweller cackle in delight, and everyone in the Legion knows that there's no going back to the simple humans and machines they once were. The wrong new mecha, a single errant character in a single line of code, or a new neural implant could catastrophically destabilize the Legion, and the constant push in Imperial society to improve without serious consideration of the consequences rubs most mecha pilots the wrong way. The sanity and indeed the very lives of the Legion of Steel rest on the razor's edge of science and the human ability to deal with technology.
The Legion of SteelEdit
"A flaky bunch if you ask me. A group of mecha are just the thing to make the battlefield work for you, but I could do without the pilots. Sure, they're as professional and obedient as you could ask for in the field, but get them out of their robots and they turn into self-pitying prima donnas. Good thing they keep to themselves off-duty."
- - Shogun Takara Sato, on the Imperial Mecha Corps
As a part of modern Imperial society, there are two very different sides to the Imperial Mecha Corps and rarely do they meet. From a distance, the Legion of Steel are celebrated heroes, proudly standing among the shinobi and battle psychics as popular heroes to the Imperial population and the subject of many cartoons and comic books. Their known sense of professionalism and precise, methodical approach to warfare has even made them popular overseas with Allied and Soviet youth. However, those who have actually met Legion pilots usually have a distinctly different view. Whether Legionnaires are distrusted and outcast by the segments of Imperial society they actually interact with because of their transhuman metamorphosis or embrace their transformation because of their distance from Imperial society is an open question with no clear answer, but the Legion is notoriously aloof from other elements of the Imperial military and the separation of the Legion from the armored units of the Imperial Army on the battlefield was met with applause on both sides.
The Imperial Mecha Corps calls itself the Legion of the Damned with reason. Too late, many pilots discover, their cybernetic augmentation and AI symbiosis remove them from humanity to a greater or lesser degree - a degree that grows over time as bleedthrough grows and mecha psychosis sets in. To the typical Legion pilot who has had time to settle into their new life, normal humans seem slow-witted, embarrassingly clumsy in words and actions, and distinctly fuzzy in their thinking. To the typical Imperial soldier, Legion pilots are cold, arrogant, rigid in their mannerisms, and seem incapable of understanding or appreciating casual social events. There is a great deal of truth to the stereotype among the Imperial military that mecha pilots are more machine than man - on a psychological level, it is genuine fact. Of course, from the Legion's perspective, they lost nothing of value in their evolution. Small talk, celebrating victories, honoring the fallen - wastes of time one and all that do nothing productive.
It does not help matters that the Imperial Mecha Corps is notoriously secretive for what, in the eyes of the Imperial military, aren't very good reasons. Shinobi and psychics are expected to be mysterious and aloof, but by and large the Imperial population simply sees mecha pilots as people with interface suits and access to incredible technology. There is genuine misunderstanding by those outside the Legion of what it's like to become a mecha pilot, particularly the psychological effects. The Legion is not forthcoming about bleedthrough, mecha psychosis, or any other elements of their operations that could reflect badly on the Legion, and tries very hard to maintain the illusion to the Imperial populace that all is well and good when in fact very little is good. Emperor Kamina knows, and Prince Tatsu and Shogun Tenzai knew, and all support[ed] the Legion's efforts from above, but this has only contributed to the Legion's poor reputation among the Imperial military. The significant presence of women and ethnic minorities among the Mecha Corps do not help, either.
Ultimately, the source of all of these problems comes from within the Legion itself. The Legion of Steel represents the second major Imperial effort at merging human minds and artificial intelligence programs. After the fiasco that was the Steel Ronin, the pressure on the Imperial Mecha Corps to prove a success is immense, particularly in light of the enormous amounts of money and resources dedicated to the program. As a result, the dangerous psychological disorders that plague the Legion are downplayed as the AI link simply making pilots quirky. Unexpected and shocking developments such as supposedly non-sentient AIs developing human-like thought patterns and pilots falling into comas when removed from their AI symbiont are deeply classified and buried away from larger society. The current Daimyo of the Imperial Mecha Corps has on more than one occasion concisely summed up the potential and peril of the Legion to the Shogunate: the Legion is a living experiment, and only time will tell which Legion, Steel or the Damned, is the ultimate fate of the program.
The Legion and the WorldEdit
- - Daimyo of the Imperial Mecha Corps, answering an Allied inquiry on how to create a human/AI link.
Of all the branches of the Imperial military, the Mecha Corps enjoys the best reputation in the world at large. A relative term, to be sure, but the Mecha Corps has had a short history to date, unmarred by atrocities and disturbing actions the rest of the Imperial military has committed, such as the relentless shelling of civilian targets in the Soviet Union by the Imperial Navy or the living weapon of mass destruction that is Yuriko Omega. Partly, this is because the Legion of Steel has not yet been involved in any full-scale war, and partly because the Legion is typically used as a supporting element to the more numerous Imperial Army, Navy, and Air Force. Probably the most important factor in the Corps' relatively unblemished reputation in the rest of the world, though, is simply that the Mecha Corps pilots [mostly] giant robots, and giant robots have a great deal of popular appeal. The Legion itself cares little for this reputation and style themselves as the consummate professionals of the Imperial military, exempt from the insane notions of Bushido and honor that occupy so much of the Imperial military. They have more than enough internal problems to play politics or correct mistaken outsider views.
There is, however, one extreme exception. The Legion is far too aware of how close they are to the walking nightmares that are the battlesuits of the Mediterranean Syndicate on far too many levels, and so are many Sprawl-dwellers tech-savvy enough to do a little digging and recognize many of the signs that surround the Imperial Mecha Corps and its personnel. Where the Imperial Army has grudgingly recognized the Red Army as a worthy adversary and the Imperial Navy's recurring obsession is crushing the Allied fleets, the Legion of Steel reserves its contempt and hatred for the Syndicate and its grossly selfish use of the same type of technology that birthed the Legion, which strikes far too close to home for the Mecha Corps.