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Al l You Need I s Ki l l © 2004 by Hi roshi Sakuraz aka

Al l ri ght s reserved. Fi rst publ i shed i n Japan i n 2004 by SHUEI SHA I nc ., Tokyo
Cover I l l ust rat i on by yoshi t oshi ABe
Engl i sh t ransl at i on © VI Z Medi a, LLC
No port i on of t hi s book may be reproduc ed or t ransmi t t ed i n any f orm or by any means wi t hout wri t t en permi ssi on f rom t he c opyri ght hol ders.
HAI KASORU
Publ i shed by
VI Z Medi a, LLC
295 Bay St reet San Franc i sc o, CA 94133
www.hai kasoru.c om
I SBN: 978-1-4215-4244-7
Hai kasoru eBook edi t i on
CONTENTS
Chapt er-1
Privat e Kiriya
Chapt er-2
Sergeant Ferrell
Chapt er-3
Full Met al Bit ch
Chapt er-4
Killer Cage
Aft erword
About t he Aut hor
1
When t he bullet s st art flying, it ’s only a mat t er of t ime before fear cat ches up wit h a soldier.
There you are, st eel deat h whizzing past in t he air.
Dist ant shells t hunder low and muddy, a hollow sound you feel more t han hear. The close
ones ring high and clear. They scream wit h a voice t hat rat t les your t eet h, and you know
t hey’re t he ones headed for you. They cut deep int o t he ground, t hrowing up a veil of dust t hat
hangs t here, wait ing for t he next round t o come ripping t hrough.
Thousands of shells, burning t hrough t he sky—slices of met al no bigger t han your finger—
and it only t akes one t o kill you. Only t akes one t o t urn your best buddy int o a st eaming side of
meat .
Deat h comes quick, in t he beat of a heart , and he ain’t picky about who he t akes.
The soldiers he t akes quick—before t hey know what hit ’em—t hey’re t he lucky ones. Most
die in agony, t heir bones shat t ered, t heir organs shredded, leaking a sea of blood ont o t he
ground. They wait alone in t he mud for Deat h t o st eal up behind t hem and wring out t he last
drops of life wit h his icy hands.
If t here’s a heaven, it ’s a cold place. A dark place. A lonely place.
I’m t errified.
I grip t he t rigger wit h st iff fingers; my arms shake as I send a rain of scorching st eel down
ont o t he enemy. The rifle kicks as I fire it . Vunk. Vunk. Vunk. A beat st eadier t han my heart . A
soldier’s spirit isn’t in his body. It ’s in his weapon. The barrel warms unt il it glows, t he heat
t urning fear int o anger.
Fuck t he brass and t heir fucking pat het ic excuse for air support !
Fuck t he suit s and t heir plans t hat aren’t wort h a damn once t he shit st art s flying!
Fuck t he art illery for holding back on t he left flank!
Fuck t hat bast ard who just got himself killed!
And more t han all of ’em, fuck anyt hing and everyt hing aiming at me! Wield your anger like a
st eel fist and smash in t heir faces.
If it moves, fuck it !
I have t o kill t hem all. St op t hem from moving.
A scream found it s way t hrough my clenched t eet h.
My rifle fires 450 20mm rounds per minut e, so it can burn t hrough a clip fast . But t here’s no
point holding back. It don’t mat t er how much ammo you have left when you’re dead. Time for a
new magazine.
“Reload!”
The soldier I was shout ing t o was already dead. My order died in t he air, a meaningless pulse
of st at ic. I squeezed my t rigger again.
My buddy Yonabaru caught one of t he first rounds t hey fired back—one of t hose javelins. Hit
him st raight on, t ore right t hrough his Jacket . The t ip came out covered in blood, oil, and some
unident ifiable fluids. His Jacket did a danse macabre for about t en seconds before it finally
st opped moving.
There was no use calling a medic. He had a hole just below his chest nearly t wo cent imet ers
across, and it went clean t hrough his back. The frict ion had seared t he wound at t he edges,
leaving a dull orange flame dancing around t he opening. It all happened wit hin t he first minut e
aft er t he order t o at t ack.
He was t he kind of guy t hat liked t o pull rank on you over t he st upidest shit , or t ell you who’d
done it in a whodunit before you’d finished t he first chapt er. But he didn’t deserve t o die.
My plat oon—146 men from t he 17t h Company, 3rd Bat t alion, 12t h Regiment , 301st Armored
Infant ry Division—was sent in t o reinforce t he nort hern end of Kot oiushi Island. They lift ed us in
by chopper t o ambush t he enemy’s left flank from t he rear. Our job was t o wipe out t he
runners when t he front al assault inevit ably st art ed t o push t hem back.
So much for inevit able.
Yonabaru died before t he fight ing even st art ed.
I wondered if he suffered much.
By t he t ime I realized what was going on, my plat oon was smack dab in t he middle of t he
bat t le. We were cat ching fire from t he enemy and our own t roops bot h. All I could hear were
screams, sobbing, and “Fuck!” Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The profanit ies were flying as t hick as t he
bullet s. Our squad leader was dead. Our sergeant was dead. The whir of t he rot ors on t he
support choppers was long gone. Comms were cut off. Our company had been t orn t o shreds.
The only reason I was st ill alive was because I’d been t aking cover when Yonabaru bought it .
While t he ot hers st ood t heir ground and fought , I was hiding in t he shell of my Jacket ,
shaking like a leaf. These power suit s are made of a Japanese composit e armor plat ing t hat ’s
t he envy of t he world. They cover you like whit e on rice. I figured t hat if a shell did make it past
t he first layer, it ’d never make it past t he second. So if I st ayed out of sight long enough, t he
enemy would be gone when I came out . Right ?
I was scared shit less.
Like any recruit fresh out of boot camp I could fire a rifle or a pile driver, but I st ill didn’t know
how t o do it wort h a damn. Anyone can squeeze a t rigger. Bang! But knowing when t o fire,
where t o shoot when you’re surrounded? For t he first t ime I realized I didn’t know t he first t hing
about warfare.
Anot her javelin st reaked past my head.
I t ast ed blood in my mout h. The t ast e of iron. Proof t hat I was st ill alive.
My palms were clammy and slick inside my gloves. The vibrat ions of t he Jacket t old me t he
bat t ery was almost out of juice. I smelled oil. The filt er was on it s last legs, and t he st ench of
t he bat t lefield was fight ing it s way int o my suit , t he smell of enemy corpses like t he smell of
crumpled leaves.
I hadn’t felt anyt hing below my waist for a while. It should have hurt where t hey hit me, but it
didn’t . I didn’t know whet her t hat was good or bad. Pain let s you know you’re not dead yet . At
least I didn’t have t o worry about t he piss in my suit .
Out of fuel-air grenades. Only t hirt y-six 20mm slugs left . The magazine would be empt y in
five seconds. My rocket launcher—which t hey gave each of us only t hree rocket s for anyway—
got it self lost before I could even fire t he damn t hing. My head-mount ed camera was wast ed,
t he armor on my left arm was shredded, and even at full t hrot t le t he Jacket was only
out put t ing at 40 percent . Miraculously, t he pile driver on my left shoulder had survived wit hout
a scrat ch.
A pile driver is a close-combat weapon t hat uses an explosive charge t o fire t ungst en
carbide spikes—only good against enemies wit hin arm’s reach. The powder cart ridges it fires
are each as big as a man’s fist . At a ninet y-degree angle of impact , t he only t hing t hat can
st and up t o it is t he front armor plat ing on a t ank. When t hey first t old me it s magazine only
held t went y rounds, I didn’t t hink anyone could live long enough t o use even t hat many. I was
wrong.
Mine had four rounds left .
I had fired sixt een t imes, and missed fift een—maybe sixt een.
The heads-up display in my suit was warped. I couldn’t see a goddamn t hing where it was
bent . There could be an enemy st anding right in front of me and I’d never know it .
They say a vet who is used t o t he Jacket can get a read on his surroundings wit hout even
using t he camera. Takes more t han eyes in bat t le. You have t o feel t he impact passing
t hrough layers of ceramic and met al and int o your body. Read t he pull of t he t rigger. Feel t he
ground t hrough t he soles of your boot s. Take in numbers from a kaleidoscope of gauges and
know t he st at e of t he field in an inst ant . But I couldn’t do any of t hat . A recruit in his first bat t le
knows shit -all.
Breat he out . Breat he in.
My suit was rank wit h sweat . A t errible smell. Snot was seeping from my nose, but I couldn’t
wipe it .
I checked t he chronomet er beside my display. Sixt y-one minut es had passed since t he
bat t le st art ed. What a load of shit . It felt like I’d been fight ing for mont hs.
I looked left , right . Up, down. I made a fist inside one glove. Can’t use t oo much st rengt h, I had
t o remind myself. Overdo it , and my aim would drift low.
No t ime t o check t he Doppler. Time t o fire and forget .
Thak thak thak thak thak!
A cloud of dust rose.
The enemy’s rounds seemed t o ride t he wind over my head, but mine liked t o veer off aft er
leaving t he barrel, as if t he enemy simply willed t hem away. Our drill sergeant said guns could
be funny like t hat . You ask me, it seems only fair t hat t he enemy should get t o hear shells
screeching down on t hem, t oo. We should all have our t urn feeling Deat h’s breat h on t he back
of our neck, friend and foe alike.
But what would Deat h’s approach sound like t o an inhuman enemy? Did t hey even feel fear?
Our enemies—t he enemies of t he Unit ed Defense Force—are monst ers. Mimics, we call
t hem.
My gun was out of bullet s.
The silhouet t e of a misshapen orb mat erialized in t he clay-brown haze. It was short er t han a
man. It would probably come up t o t he shoulder of a Jacket ed soldier. If a man were a t hin pole
st anding on end, a Mimic would be a st out barrel—a barrel wit h four limbs and a t ail, at any
rat e. Somet hing like t he bloat ed corpse of a drowned frog, we liked t o say. To hear t he lab rat s
t ell it , t hey have more in common wit h st arfish, but t hat ’s just det ails.
They make for a smaller t arget t han a man, so nat urally t hey’re harder t o hit . Despit e t heir
size, t hey weigh more t han we do. If you t ook one of t hose oversized casks, t he kind
Americans use t o dist ill bourbon, and filled it wit h wet sand you’d have it about right . Not t he
kind of mass a mammal t hat ’s 70 percent wat er could ever hope for. A single swipe of one of
it s limbs can send a man flying in a t housand lit t le pieces. Their javelins, project iles fired from
vent s in t heir bodies, have t he power of 40mm shells.
To fight t hem, we use machines t o make ourselves st ronger. We climb int o mechanized
armor Jacket s—science’s lat est and great est . We bundle ourselves int o st eel porcupine skin
so t ough a shot gun fired at point blank wouldn’t leave a scrat ch. That ’s how we face off
against t he Mimics, and we’re st ill out classed.
Mimics don’t inspire t he inst inct ive fear you’d expect if you found yourself facing a bear
prot ect ing her cubs, or meet ing t he gaze of a hungry lion. Mimics don’t roar. They’re not
fright ening t o look at . They don’t spread any wings or st and on t heir hind legs t o make
t hemselves look more int imidat ing. They simply hunt wit h t he relent lessness of machines. I felt
like a deer in t he headlight s, frozen in t he pat h of an oncoming t ruck. I couldn’t underst and how
I’d got t en myself int o t he sit uat ion I was in.
I was out of bullet s.
So long, Mom.
I’m gonna die on a fucking bat t lefield. On some godforsaken island wit h no friends, no family,
no girlfriend. In pain, in fear, covered in my own shit because of t he fear. And I can’t even raise
t he only weapon I have left t o fend off t he bast ard racing t oward me. It was like all t he fire in
me left wit h my last round of ammo.
The Mimic’s coming for me.
I can hear Deat h breat hing in my ear.
His figure looms large in my heads-up display.
Now I see him; his body is st ained a bloody red. His scyt he, a t wo-met er-long behemot h, is
t he same vivid shade. It ’s act ually more of a bat t le axe t han a scyt he. In a world where friend
and foe wear t he same dust -colored camouflage, he cast s a gunmet al red glow in all direct ions.
Deat h rushes forward, swift er t han even a Mimic. A crimson leg kicks and I go flying.
My armor is crushed. I st op breat hing. The sky becomes t he ground. My display is drowning in
red flashing warnings. I cough up blood, saving t he rest of t he warnings t he t rouble.
Then my pile driver fires. The blast t hrows me at least t en met ers int o t he air. Bit s of t he
armor plat ing from t he back of my Jacket scat t er across t he ground. I land upside down.
Deat h swings his bat t le axe.
Met al screams as he cut s t hrough t he uncut t able. The axe cries out like a freight t rain
screeching t o a halt .
I see t he Mimic’s carapace sailing t hrough t he air.
It only t ook one blow t o reduce t he Mimic t o a mot ionless heap. Ashen sand poured from t he
gaping wound. The t wo halves of t he creat ure shuddered and t wit ched, each keeping it s own
st range rhyt hm. A creat ure humanit y’s great est t echnological invent ions could barely scrat ch,
laid wast e by a barbarian weapon from a t housand years past .
Deat h t urned slowly t o face me.
Amid t he crush of red warning light s crowding my display, a sole green light winked on. An
incoming friendly t ransmission. “. . . as a lit t le . . . kay?” A woman’s voice. Impossible t o make it
out over t he noise. I couldn’t st and. The Jacket was spent and so was I. It t ook everyt hing I had
left just t o roll right side up.
Upon closer inspect ion, I was not , in fact , in t he company of t he Angel of Deat h. It was just
anot her soldier in a Jacket . A Jacket not quit e like my own, as it was out fit t ed wit h t hat
massive bat t le axe where t he regulat ion pile driver should have been. The insignia on t he
shoulder didn’t read JP but inst ead U.S. In place of t he usual desert camouflage mix of sand
and coffee grounds, t he suit shone head-t o-t oe in met allic crimson.
The Full Met al Bit ch.
I’d heard st ories. A war junkie always chasing t he act ion, no mat t er where it led her. Word
had it she and her Special Forces squad from t he U.S. Army had chalked up half of all confirmed
Mimic kills ever. Maybe anyone who could see t hat much fight ing and live t o t ell about it really
was t he Angel of Deat h.
St ill carrying t he bat t le axe, t he blazing red Jacket st art ed t oward me. It s hand reached
down and fumbled for t he jack in my shoulder plat e. A cont act comm.
“There’s somet hing I’ve been want in’ t o know.”
Her voice filled my suit , clear as cryst al. A soft , light t one, at odds wit h t he t wo-met er axe
and carnage she’d just creat ed wit h it .
“Is it t rue t he green t ea t hey serve in Japan at t he end of your meal comes free?”
The conduct ive sand spilling out of t he fallen Mimic danced away on t he wind. I could hear
t he dist ant cry of shells as t hey flew. This was a bat t lefield, t he scorched wast e where
Yonabaru, Capt ain Yuge, and t he rest of my plat oon had died. A forest of st eel shells. A place
where your suit fills wit h your own piss and shit . Where you drag yourself t hrough a mire of
blood and muck.
“I’ve got t en myself in t rouble for believing everyt hing I read. So I t hought I’d play it safe, ask a
local,” she cont inued.
Here I am, half dead, covered in shit, and you want to talk about tea?
Who walks up t o someone, kicks t hem t o t he ground, and t hen asks about t ea? What was
going t hrough her fucking head? I want ed t o give her a piece of my mind, but t he words
wouldn’t come. I could t hink of t he words I want ed t o say, but my mout h had forgot t en how t o
work—a lit any of profanit ies st alled at t he gat e.
“That ’s t he t hing wit h books. Half t he t ime t he aut hor doesn’t know what t he hell he’s
writ ing about —especially not t hose war novelist s. Now how about you ease your finger off t he
t rigger and t ake a nice, deep breat h.”
Good advice. It t ook a minut e, but I st art ed t o see st raight again. The sound of a woman’s
voice always had a way of calming me down. The pain I’d left in bat t le ret urned t o my gut . My
Jacket misread t he cramps in my muscles, sending t he suit int o a mild spasm. I t hought of t he
dance Yonabaru’s suit did just before he died.
“Hurt much?”
“What do you t hink?” My reply wasn’t much more t han a hoarse whisper.
The red Jacket kneeled down in front of me, examining t he shredded armor plat e over my
st omach. I vent ured a quest ion. “How’s t he bat t le going?”
“The 301st has been wiped out . Our main line fell back t o t he coast t o regroup.”
“What about your squad?”
“No use worrying about t hem.”
“So . . . how do I look?”
“It pierced t he front , but t he back armor plat e st opped it . It ’s charred bad.”
“How bad?”
“Bad.”
“Fuck me.” I looked up at t he sky. “Looks like it ’s st art ing t o clear.”
“Yeah. I like t he sky here.”
“Why’s t hat ?”
“It ’s clear. Can’t beat islands for clear skies.”
“Am I going t o die?”
“Yeah,” she t old me.
I felt t ears well up in my eyes. I was grat eful t hen t hat t he helmet hid my face from view. It
kept my shame a privat e t hing.
The red Jacket maneuvered t o gent ly cradle my head. “What ’s your name? Not your rank or
your serial number. Your name.”
“Keiji. Keiji Kiriya.”
“I’m Rit a Vrat aski. I’ll st ay wit h you unt il you die.”
She couldn’t have said anyt hing I’d rat her hear, but I wasn’t going t o let her see t hat . “You’ll
die t oo if you st ay.”
“I have a reason. When you die, Keiji, I’m going t o t ake your Jacket ’s bat t ery.”
“That ’s cold.”
“No need t o fight it . Relax. Let go.”
I heard an elect ronic squelch—an incoming comm signal in Rit a’s helmet . It was a man’s
voice. The link bet ween our Jacket s aut omat ically relayed t he voice t o me.
“Calamit y Dog, t his is Chief Breeder.”
“I read you.” All business.
“Alpha Server and vicinit y under cont rol. Est imat e we can hold for t hirt een minut es, t ops.
Time t o pick up t hat pizza.”
“Calamit y Dog copies. Running silent from here in.”
The red Jacket st ood, severing our comm link. Behind her an explosion rumbled. I felt t he
ground t remble t hrough my spine. A laser-guided bomb had fallen from t he sky. It plunged deep
int o t he eart h, piercing t he bedrock before it det onat ed. The sandy whit e ground bulged like an
overcooked pancake; it s surface cracked and sent darker soil t he color of maple syrup spewing
int o t he air. A hail of mud splat t ered on my armor. Rit a’s bat t le axe glint ed in t he light .
The smoke cleared.
I could see a writ hing mass in t he cent er of t he enormous crat er left by t he explosion: t he
enemy. Red point s of light sprang t o life on my radar screen, so many t hat every point was
t ouching anot her.
I t hought I saw Rit a nod. She sprang forward, flit t ing across t he bat t lefield. Her axe rose and
fell. Each t ime it shone, t he husk of a Mimic soared. The sand t hat poured from t heir wounds
spiraled on t he whirlwinds t raced by her blade. She cut t hem down wit h t he ease of a laser
cut t ing but t er. Her movement s t ook her in a circle around me, prot ect ing me. Rit a and I had
undergone t he same t raining, but she was like a juggernaut while I lay on t he ground, a st upid
t oy t hat had run down it s bat t eries. No one had forced me t o be here. I had dragged myself t o
t his wast eland of a bat t lefield, and I wasn’t doing a damn bit of good for anyone. Bet t er I’d
got t en plugged alongside Yonabaru. At least t hen I wouldn’t have put anot her soldier in harm’s
way t rying t o prot ect me.
I decided not t o die wit h t hree rounds left in my pile driver.
I lift ed a leg. I put a hand on one knee.
I st ood.
I screamed. I forced myself t o keep going.
The red Jacket t urned t o me.
I heard some noise over my headphones, but I couldn’t t ell what she was t rying t o say.
One of t he Mimics in t he pack st ood out from t he rest . It wasn’t t hat it looked different from
t he ot hers. Just anot her drowned, bloat ed frog. But t here was somet hing about it t hat set it
apart . Maybe proximit y t o deat h had sharpened my senses, but somehow I knew t hat was t he
one I was meant t o fight .
So t hat ’s what I did. I leapt at t he Mimic and it lashed out at me wit h it s t ail. I felt my body
light en. One of my arms had been cut off. The right arm—leaving t he pile driver on t he left
int act . Lucky me. I pulled t he t rigger.
The charge fired, a perfect ninet y-degree angle.
One more shot . A hole opened in t he t hing’s carapace.
One more shot . I blacked out .
2
The paperback I’d been reading was beside my pillow.
It was a myst ery novel about an American det ect ive who is supposed t o be some sort of
expert on t he Orient . I had my index finger wedged int o a scene where all t he key players meet
for dinner at a Japanese rest aurant in New York. The det ect ive’s client , an It alian, t ries t o order
an espresso aft er t heir meal, but t he det ect ive st ops him cold. He st art s on about how at
Japanese rest aurant s, t hey bring you green t ea aft er dinner, so you don’t have t o order
anyt hing. Then he veers off on how green t ea goes great wit h soy sauce, and oh, why is it t hat
in India t hey spice t heir milk t ea? He’s finally gat hered everyone involved in t he case in one
place, and he t alks a blue st reak about everyt hing but whodunit .
I rubbed my eyes.
Passing my hand over my shirt I felt my st omach t hrough t he clot h. I could make out a newly
formed six-pack t hat hadn’t been t here half a year back. No t race of any wound, no charred
flesh. My right arm was right where it should be. Good news all around. What a crappy dream.
I must have fallen asleep reading t he book. I should have known somet hing was up when
Mad Wargarit a st art ed st riking up small t alk about myst ery novels. American Special Operat ors
who’d crossed t he ent ire Pacific Ocean just for a t ast e of blood didn’t have t ime t o read t he
lat est best seller. If t hey had spare t ime, t hey’d probably spend it t weaking t heir Jacket s.
What a way t o st art t he day. Today was going t o be my first real t ast e of bat t le. Why
couldn’t I have dreamed about blast ing away a few baddies, get t ing promot ed a grade or t wo?
On t he bunk above me a radio wit h it s bass blown out was squawking music—some kind of
prehist oric rock so ancient my old man wouldn’t have recognized it . I could hear t he sounds of
t he base st irring t o life, incoherent chat t er coming from every direct ion, and above it all, t he
DJ’s over-caffeinat ed voice chirping away wit h t he weat her forecast . I could feel every word
pierce my skull. Clear and sunny out here on t he islands, same as yest erday, wit h a UV warning
for t he aft ernoon. Watch out for those sunburns!
The barracks weren’t much more t han four sheet s of fire-resist ant wood propped up
t oget her. A post er of a bronze-skinned bikini babe hung on one of t he walls. Someone had
replaced her head wit h a shot of t he prime minist er t orn from t he base newspaper. The bikini
babe’s head grinned vapidly from it s new home at op a macho muscle builder on anot her
nearby post er. The muscle builder’s head was MIA.
I st ret ched in my bunk. The welded aluminum frame squealed in prot est .
“Keiji, sign t his.” Yonabaru craned his neck over t he side of t he t op bunk. He looked great for
a guy I’d just seen get impaled. They say people who die in dreams are supposed t o live
forever.
Jin Yonabaru had joined up t hree years before me. Three more years of t rimming t he fat ,
t hree more years of packing on muscle. Back when he was a civilian he’d been t hin as a
beanpole. Now he was cut from rock. He was a soldier, and he looked t he part .
“What is it ?”
“A confession. The one I t old you about .”
“I signed it yest erday.”
“Really? That ’s weird.” I could hear him rifling t hrough pages above me. “No, not here. Well,
sign one for me again, will ya?”
“You t rying t o pull a fast one on me?”
“Only if you come back in a bodybag. Besides, you can only die once, so what difference
does it make how many copies you sign?”
UDF soldiers on t he front line had a t radit ion. The day before an operat ion, t hey’d sneak int o
t he PX and make off wit h some liquor. Drink and be merry, for t omorrow we die. The shot t hey
gave you before bat t le broke down any acet aldehyde left in t he bloodst ream. But if you were
caught , t hey’d bring you up before a disciplinary commit t ee—maybe a court mart ial if you
screwed t he pooch real bad—aft er t aking st ock of invent ory once t he fight ing was over and
everyone was back on base. Of course, it was hard t o court -mart ial a corpse. Which is why
we’d all leave not es before t he bat t le explaining how t he robbery had been our idea. Sure
enough, when t he invest igat ion st art ed, it was always some poor sap who’d got himself killed
who had mast erminded t he whole t hing. It was a good syst em. The people running t he PX
were wise t o t he racket , so t hey made sure t o leave out some bot t les t hat wouldn’t be missed
t oo much. You’d t hink t hey’d just go ahead and give everyone a few drinks t he night before a
bat t le—for morale’s sake, if not hing else—but no, it was t he same old song and dance every
t ime. Good ideas don’t st and a chance against good bureaucracy.
I t ook t he paper from Yonabaru. “Funny, I t hought I’d be more nervous.”
“So soon? Save it for t he day, man.”
“What do you mean? We suit up t his aft ernoon.”
“You nut s? How long you plan on wearing t hat t hing?”
“If I don’t wear it t oday, when will I?”
“How about t omorrow, when we roll out ?”
I nearly fell out of bed. For an inst ant , my eyes set t led on t he soldier lying on t he bunk next
t o mine. He was flipping t hrough a porn magazine. Then I st ared up int o Yonabaru’s face.
“What do you mean, t omorrow? They post pone t he at t ack?”
“No, man. It ’s always been t omorrow. But our secret mission t o get hammered st art s t onight
at ninet een hundred hours. We drink ourselves blind and wake up wit h a helluva hangover in
t he morning. A plan not even HQ could fuck up.”
Wait. We’d broken int o t he PX last night . I remembered t he whole t hing. I was nervous about
it being my first bat t le, so I’d decided t o duck out a bit early. I had come back t o my bunk and
st art ed reading t hat myst ery novel. I even remembered helping Yonabaru up t o his bed when
he came st aggering in from part ying wit h t he ladies.
Unless—unless I had dreamed t hat t oo?
Yonabaru smirked. “You don’t look so good, Keiji.”
I picked t he novel up off my bed. I’d brought it along t o read in my spare t ime, but I’d been so
busy drilling format ion t hat it had st ayed st uffed in t he bot t om of my bag. I remember t hinking
how appropriat ely ironic it was t hat I hadn’t had any t ime t o st art reading it unt il t he day before
I was probably going t o die. I opened t he book t o t he last page I’d read. The American
det ect ive who was supposed t o be an expert on t he Orient was discussing t he finer point s of
green t ea, just like I remembered. If t oday was t he day before t he bat t le, when had I read t he
book? Not hing was making any sense.
“List en. There’s not hin’ t o t omorrow’s operat ion.”
I blinked. “Not hin’ t o it , huh?”
“Just get yourself home wit hout shoot ing anyone in t he back, and you’ll be fine.”
I grunt ed in reply.
Yonabaru curled his hand int o a gun and point ed his index finger at his head. “I’m serious.
Sweat it t oo much, you’ll t urn int o a feedhead—end up losing your mind before t hey even get a
chance t o blow your brains out .”
The guy I’d replaced had gone a lit t le haywire, so t hey pulled him from t he front lines. They
say he st art ed picking up comm feeds about how humanit y was doomed. Not t he kind of shit
you want heavily armed UDF Jacket jockeys list ening t o. We might not lose as many t o t hat as
we do t o t he enemy, but it ’s not pret t y eit her way. In bat t le, unless you’re sound of body and
mind, you’re a liabilit y. I’d only just arrived on t he front lines—hadn’t even seen any act ion—and
already I was having hallucinat ions. Who knows what warning light s were going off in my head.
“You ask me, anyone come out of bat t le not act in’ a lit t le funny has a screw or t hree loose.”
Yonabaru grinned.
“Hey, no scarin’ t he fresh meat ,” I prot est ed. I wasn’t act ually scared, but I was growing
increasingly confused.
“Just look at Ferrell! Only way t o make it is t o lose what ever it is t hat makes you human. A
sensit ive, caring indiv’dual like myself ain’t cut out for fight in’, and t hat ’s t he t rut h.”
“I don’t see anyt hing wrong wit h t he sergeant .”
“Ain’t a quest ion of right or wrong. It ’s about having a heart made of t ungst en and muscles
so big t hey cut off t he blood t o your brain.”
“I wouldn’t go t hat far.”
“Next you’ll be t ellin’ us t hat Mad Wargarit a is just anot her grunt like t he rest of us.”
“Yeah, well, t he t hing wit h her is—” and so t he conversat ion went on, back and fort h like we
always did. Our badmout hing of Rit a was just hit t ing it s st ride when t he sergeant showed up.
Sergeant Ferrell Bart olome had been around longer t han anyone else in our plat oon. He’d
lived t hrough so many bat t les, he was more t han soldier, he was t he glue t hat kept our
company t oget her. They said if you st uck him in a cent rifuge, he’d come out 70 percent big
brot her, 20 percent ball-bust ing drill sergeant , and 10 percent st eel-reinforced carbon. He
scowled at me, t hen looked at Yonabaru, who was hast ily bundling up our liquor confessions.
His scowl deepened. “You t he soldier who broke int o t he PX?”
“Yeah, t hat ’s me,” my friend confessed wit hout a t race of guilt .
The men on t he surrounding beds ducked under t heir sheet s wit h all t he speed of
cockroaches scat t ering in t he light , porn magazines and playing cards forgot t en. They’d seen
t he look on t he sergeant ’s face.
I cleared my t hroat . “Did securit y, uh . . . run int o some kind of t rouble?”
Ferrell’s forehead knot t ed as t hough he were balancing a st ack of armored plat ing on his
head. I had a st rong feeling of déjà vu. All this happened in my dream! Somet hing had gone
down, unrelat ed, at t he exact t ime Yonabaru and his buddies were breaking int o t he PX.
Securit y had gone on alert , and t he robbery had come t o light ahead of schedule. “Where’d you
hear t hat ?”
“Just , uh, a lucky guess.”
Yonabaru leaned out over t he edge of his bunk. “What kind of t rouble?”
“Someone st epped in a knee-deep pile of pig shit . Now t hat may not have anyt hing t o do
wit h you, but nevert heless, at oh-ninehundred, you’re going t o assemble at t he No. 1 Training
Field in your fourt h-t ier equipment for Physical Training. Pass t he word t o t he rest of t hose
knuckleheads you call a plat oon.”
“You got t a be kidding! We’re goin’ int o bat t le t omorrow, and you’re sending us off for PT?”
“That ’s an order, Corporal.”
“Sir, report ing t o t he No. 1 Training Field at oh-nine-hundred in full fourt h-t ier equipment , sir!
But , uh, one t hing, Sarge. We been doin’ t hat liquor raid for years. Why give us a hard t ime
about it now?”
“You really want t o know?” Ferrell rolled his eyes. I swallowed hard.
“Nah, I already know t he answer.” Yonabaru grinned. He always seemed t o be grinning. “It ’s
because t he chain of command around here is fucked t o hell.”
“You’ll find out for yourself.”
“Wait , Sarge!”
Ferrell t ook t hree regulat ion-lengt h paces and st opped.
“C’mon, not even a hint ?” Yonabaru called from where he was t aking cover behind t he met al
bed frame and bundled confessions.
“The general’s t he one wit h his pant ies in a bunch about t he rot t en excuse for securit y we
have on t his base, so don’t look at me, and don’t look at t he capt ain, eit her. In fact , you might
as well just shut up and do what you’re t old for a change.”
I sighed. “He’s not gonna have us out t here weaving basket s, is he?”
Yonabaru shook his head. “Maybe we can all do a group hug. Fucking asshole.”
I knew where t his ended. I’d dreamed all t his, t oo.
Aft er t heir defeat a year and a half ago at t he Bat t le of Okinawa Beach, t he Japanese Corps
made it a mat t er of honor t o recapt ure a lit t le island perched off t he coast of t he Boso
Peninsula, a place named Kot oiushi. Wit h a foot hold t here, t he Mimics were only a st one’s
t hrow away from Tokyo. The Imperial Palace and cent ral government ret reat ed and ruled from
Nagano, but t here wasn’t any way t o relocat e t he economic engine t hat was Japan’s largest
cit y.
The Defense Minist ry knew t hat Japan’s fut ure was riding on t he out come of t his operat ion,
so in addit ion t o must ering t went yfive t housand Jacket s, an endless st ream of overeager
generals had been pooling in t his lit t le base on t he Flower Line t hat led down Boso Peninsula.
They’d even decided t o allow Americans, Special Operat ors, int o t he game; t he U.S. hadn’t
been invit ed t o t he part y at Okinawa.
The Americans probably didn’t give a damn whet her or not Tokyo was reduced t o a smoking
wast eland, but let t ing t he indust rial area responsible for producing t he light est , t oughest ,
composit e armor plat ing fall t o t he Mimics was out of t he quest ion. Sevent y percent of t he
part s t hat went int o a st at e-of-t he-art Jacket came from China, but t he suit s st ill couldn’t be
made wit hout Japanese t echnology. So convincing t he Americans t o come hadn’t been
difficult .
The cat ch was t hat wit h foreign t roops came t ight er securit y. Suddenly t here were checks
on t hings like missing alcohol t hat base securit y would have t urned a blind eye t o before. When
t he brass found out what had been going on, t hey were royally pissed.
“How’s t hat for luck? I wonder who fucked up.”
“It ain’t us. I knew t he Americans would be wat chin’ over t heir precious bat t alion like hawks.
We were careful as a virgin on prom night .”
Yonabaru let out an exaggerat ed moan. “Ungh, my st omach . . . Sarge! My st omach just
st art ed hurt in’ real bad! I t hink it ’s my appendix. Or maybe I got t et anus back when I hurt
myself t raining. Yeah, t hat ’s got t a be it !”
“I doubt it will clear up before t onight , so just make sure you st ay hydrat ed. It won’t last unt il
t omorrow, hear me?”
“Oh, man. It really hurt s.”
“Kiriya. See t hat he drinks some wat er.”
“Sir.”
Ignoring Yonabaru’s cont inued performance, Ferrell walked out of t he barracks. As soon as
his audience was gone, Yonabaru sat up and made a rude gest ure in t he direct ion of t he door.
“He’s really got a st ick up his ass. Wouldn’t underst and a good joke if it came wit h a fucking
manual. Ain’t no way I’m gonna be like t hat when I get old. Am I right ?”
“I guess.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck. Today is t urnin’ t o shit .”
It was all playing out how I remembered.
The 17t h Armored would spend t he next t hree hours in PT. Exhaust ed, we would list en t o
some commissioned officer, his chest brist ling wit h medals, lect ure us for anot her half hour
before being dismissed. I could st ill hear him t hreat ening t o pluck t he hairs off our asses one by
one wit h Jacket -augment ed fingers.
My dream was looking less like one by t he minut e.
3
There’s an exercise called an iso push-up. You lift your body like you would in an ordinary push-
up, t hen you hold t hat posit ion.
It ’s a lot harder t han it sounds. You can feel your arms and abs t rembling, and event ually you
lose your sense of t ime. Aft er you’ve count ed somet hing like t he t housandt h sheep jumping a
fence, you’ll beg t o be doing ordinary push-ups, anyt hing but t his. Your arms aren’t designed t o
be pillars. Muscles and joint s are t here t o flex and bend. Flex and bend. Sounds nice just
t hinking about it . But you can’t t hink about it , or you’ll feel even worse. You’re pillars, hear me?
Pillars! Nice strong pillars.
Muscle isn’t really all t hat import ant for a Jacket jockey. Whet her a person’s grip is t hirt y kilos
or sevent y, as soon as t hey put on t hat Jacket , t hey’ll have 370 kilos of force in t he palm of
t heir hands. What a Jacket jockey needs is endurance and cont rol—t he abilit y t o hold one
posit ion wit hout t wit ching a muscle.
Iso push-ups are just t he t hing for t hat . Wall sit t ing isn’t half bad, eit her.
Some claimed iso push-ups had become t he favored form of discipline in t he old Japan Self-
Defense Force aft er t hey banned corporal punishment . I had a hard t ime believing t he pract ice
had survived long enough t o be picked up by t he Armored Infant ry Division—t he JSDF had
joined t he UDF before I was even born. But whoever t hought of it , I hope he died a slow, painful
deat h.
“Ninet y-eight !”
“NINETY-EIGHT!” we all cried out .
“Ninet y-nine!”
“NINETY-NINE!”
St aring int o t he ground, we barked desperat ely in t ime wit h t he drill sergeant , sweat
st reaming int o our eyes.
“Eight hundred!”
“EIGHT HUNDRED!”
Fuck OFF!
Our shadows were crisp and clear under t he scorching sun. The company’s flag snapped
and flut t ered high above t he field. The wind t hat buffet ed t he t raining grounds reeked of salt
and left a briny layer of slime on our skin.
There, mot ionless in t he middle of t hat gargant uan t raining field, 141 men from t he 17t h
Company of t he Armored Infant ry Division held t heir iso push-ups. Three plat oon leaders st ood,
as mot ionless as t heir men, one in front of each plat oon. Our capt ain wat ched over t he scene
wit h a grimace from t he shade of t he barracks t ent . Sit t ing beside him was a brigadier general
from t he General St aff Office. The general who’d opened his mout h and st art ed t his farce was
probably off sipping green t ea in an air-condit ioned office. Cocksucker.
A general was a being from t he heavens above. A being perched on a gilded t hrone, higher
t han me, higher t han Yonabaru, higher t han Ferrell, higher t han t he lieut enant in charge of our
plat oon, t he capt ain in charge of our company, t he lieut enant colonel in charge of our bat t alion;
higher t han t he colonel in charge of our regiment , higher even t han t he base commander. The
generals were t he gods of Flower Line and all who t rained, slept , and shat wit hin it s walls. So
high, t hey seemed dist ant and unreal.
Generals didn’t st eal liquor. They were early t o bed, early t o rise, always brushing t heir t eet h
aft er every meal, never skipping a morning shave—goddamned messiahs. Generals went int o
bat t le facing deat h wit h t heir chins held high, calm as you please. Hell, all t hey had t o do was
sit back in Nagano drawing up t heir bat t le plans. One order from t hem and us mort als on t he
front lines would move like pawns across a chessboard t o our grisly fat es. I’d like t o see just
one of t hem here wit h us in t he mud. We had our own rules down here. Which is probably why
t hey st ayed away. Hell, if one of t hem showed, I’d see t o it a st ray bullet put t hem on t he KIA
list . This was t he least damning t hought running t hrough my head, any one of which would
have been enough t o send me t o a firing squad.
The brass in t he t ent weren’t t he only spect at ors around t o wat ch our t ort ure.
The guys in 4t h Company were really laughing it up. A while back we beat t hem in an
int ramural rugby mat ch by more t han t hirt y point s, so I guess t hey felt t his was some sort of
t wist ed payback. The liquor we’d swiped was for t hem t oo, so t his display of solidarit y was
t ouching. What a bunch of assholes. If t hey got int o t rouble on Kot oiushi, I sure as hell wasn’t
going t o bail t hem out .
The U.S. Spec Ops and some journalist imbedded in t heir squad had gat hered around t he
field t o wat ch us from a safe dist ance. Maybe t hey didn’t do iso push-ups where t hey came
from, but what ever t he reason, t hey were point ing t heir fat fingers at us and laughing. The
breeze coming off t he wat er picked up t heir voices and dumped t hem on us. Even at t his
dist ance, t he comment ary was loud and grat ing. Fingernails on a chalkboard grat ing. Oh, man.
Is t hat a camera? Is he seriously t aking pict ures? All right , t hat ’s it , mot herfucker. You’re next
on my KIA list .
Pain and fat igue racked my body. My blood pumped slow as lead.
This was get t ing old. Count ing my dream, t his was t he second t ime I’d endured t his
part icular session of PT. Not just PT, iso push-ups. In t raining t hey t aught us t hat even when
you’re in excruciat ing pain—especially when you’re in pain—t he best t hing t o do was t o find
some sort of dist ract ion, somet hing else t o focus on ot her t han t he burning in your muscles
and t he sweat st reaking down your forehead. Careful not t o move my head, I looked around
out of t he corner of one eye.
The American journalist was snapping pict ures, a visit or’s pass dangling from his neck. Say
cheese! He was a brawny fellow. You could line him up wit h any of t hose U.S. Special Forces
guys and you’d never know t he difference. He’d look more at home on a bat t lefield t han I
would, t hat ’s for sure.
I got t he same vibe from t hose Special Forces guys t hat I got from Sergeant Ferrell. Pain and
suffering were old friends t o men like t hem. They walked up t o t he face of danger, smiled, and
asked what t ook him so long t o get t here. They were in a whole ’not her league from a recruit
like me.
In t he middle of t he t est ost erone display, t he lone woman st uck out like a sore pinky. She
was a t iny lit t le t hing st anding off by herself a short dist ance from t he rest of t he squad.
Seeing her t here beside t he rest of her super-sized squad, somet hing seemed out of whack.
Anne of Green Gables Goes to War.
I figure t he book would be a spin-off set around World War I. Mongolia makes a land grab,
and t here’s Anne, machine gun t ucked daint ily under one arm. Her hair was t he color of rust ed
st eel, faded t o a dull red. Some redheads conjured up images of blood, fire, deeds of valor. Not
her. If it weren’t for t he sand-colored shirt she was wearing, she’d have looked like some kid
who’d come t o t he base on a field t rip and got t en herself lost .
The ot hers were fanned out around t his girl who barely came up t o t heir chest s like awed,
medieval peasant s gawking at nobilit y.
Suddenly it hit me. That’s Rita!
It had t o be. It was t he only way t o explain how t his woman, who couldn’t have looked less
like a Jacket jockey if she had been wearing a ball gown, was in t he company of t he spec ops.
Most women who suit ed up looked like some sort of cross bet ween a gorilla and an uglier
gorilla. They were t he only ones who could cut it on t he front lines in t he Armored Infant ry.
Rit a Vrat aski was t he most famous soldier in t he world. Back when I signed up for t he UDF,
you couldn’t go a day wit hout seeing t he news feeds sing her praises. St ories t it led “A
Legendary Commando,” “Valkyrie Incarnat e,” t hat sort of t hing. I’d even heard Hollywood was
gonna make a movie about her, but I was already in t he UDF by t he t ime it came out , so I never
saw it .
About half of all t he Mimic kills humanit y had ever made could be at t ribut ed t o bat t les her
squad had fought in. In less t han t hree years, t hey’d slaught ered as many Mimics as t he whole
UDF put t oget her had in t he t went y years before. Rit a was a savior descended from on high t o
help t urn t he odds in t his endless, losing bat t le.
That ’s what t hey said, anyway.
We all figured she was part of some propaganda squad t hey were using t o make inroads
int o enemy t errit ory. A front for some secret weapon or new st rat egy t hat really deserved t he
credit . Sixt y percent of soldiers were men. That figure shot up t o 85 percent when you st art ed
t alking about t he Jacket jockeys who were out bleeding on t he front lines. Aft er t went y years
fight ing an enemy whose ident it y we didn’t even know, losing ground day by day, we grunt s
didn’t need anot her muscle-bound savior who grunt ed and sweat and had hamburger for
brains just like we did. Yeah, if it were me calling t he shot s in t he General St aff Office, I’d have
picked a woman t oo.
Wherever t he U.S. Spec Ops were deployed, morale soared. The UDF had been beat en t o
t he cliff’s edge, but t hey were finally able t o st art moving back from t he brink. Aft er finishing t he
war in Nort h America, t hey moved on t o Europe and t hen Nort h Africa. Now t hey’d come t o
Japan, where t he enemy was knocking on t he door of t he main island of Honshu.
The Americans called Rit a t he Full Met al Bit ch, or somet imes just Queen Bit ch. When no one
was list ening, we called her Mad Wargarit a.
Rit a’s Jacket was as red as t he rising sun. She t humbed her nose at t he lab coat s who’d
spent sleepless mont hs refining t he Jacket s’ polymer paint t o absorb every last radar wave
possible. Her suit was gunmet al red—no, more t han t hat , it glowed. In t he dark it would cat ch
t he faint est light , smoldering crimson. Was she crazy? Probably.
Behind her back t hey said she paint ed her suit wit h t he blood of her squad. When you st and
out like t hat on t he bat t lefield, you t end t o draw more t han your share of enemy fire. Ot hers
said she’d st op at not hing t o make her squad look good, t hat she even t ook cover behind a
fellow soldier once. If she had a bad headache, she’d go apeshit , killing friend and foe alike. And
yet not a single enemy round had ever so much as grazed her Jacket . She could walk int o any
hell and come back unscat hed. They had a million st ories.
Your rank and file soldier ended up wit h a lot of t ime on his hands, and list ening t o t hat sort
of t alk, passing it on, embellishing it —t hat was just t he sort of t hing he needed t o kill t ime and
t o keep t he subject off dead comrades. Rit a had been a Jacket jockey eat ing and sleeping on
t he same base as me, but I’d never seen her face unt il t hat moment . We might have resent ed
t he special t reat ment she got , if we’d had t he chance t o t hink about it .
I couldn’t t ake my eyes off t he line of her hair—she wore it short —as it bobbed in t he wind.
There was a graceful balance t o her feat ures. You might even have called her beaut iful. She
had a t hin nose, a sharp chin. Her neck was long and whit e where most Jacket jockeys didn’t
even have necks. Her chest , however, was complet ely flat , at odds wit h t he images of
Caucasian women you saw plast ered on t he walls of every barracks cell. Not t hat it bot hered
me.
Whoever had looked at her and t hought up t he name Full Met al Bit ch needed t o have his
head checked. She was closer t o a puppy t han a bit ch. I suppose even in a lit t er of pit bulls
t here’s room for one sweet one in t he bunch.
If, in my dream, t he shell of t hat red Jacket had popped open and she’d climbed out , I would
have shit my bunk. I’d seen her face and Jacket plent y on t he news feeds, but t hey never gave
you a good idea of what she really looked like in person. I had always pict ured Rit a Vrat aski as
t all and rut hless, wit h a knockout body and an air of t ot al self-confidence.
Then our eyes met .
I looked away immediat ely, but it was already t oo lat e. She st art ed walking t oward me. She
moved wit h purpose, one foot plant ed firmly on t he ground before t he ot her moved—a
relent less, unst oppable force. But her st eps were small, t he net result being a harried, flust ered
gait . I’m not sure I’d ever seen anyone walk quit e like t hat before.
C’mon, don’t do this to me. I can’t even move. Give a guy a break and get lost, would ya? Go
on. Get!
Rit a st opped.
The muscles in my arms st art ed t o t remble. Then, purposefully, she walked away. Somehow
she’d heard my prayer, making a ninet y-degree t urn right in front of me and heading t oward
t he brigadier general where he sat under t he t ent . She snapped a perfunct ory salut e. Not so
sloppy as t o be insult ing, but not so st iff you could hear anyt hing cracking, eit her. A fit t ing
salut e for t he Full Met al Bit ch.
The brigadier general cast a doubt ful glance at Rit a. Rit a was a sergeant major. In t he
milit ary hierarchy, t he difference bet ween a brigadier general and a sergeant major was about
t he same as t he difference bet ween a four-course meal at a snoot y rest aurant and an all-you-
can-eat buffet . Recruit s like me were st rict ly fast food, complet e wit h an oversized side of fries.
But it wasn’t t hat simple. It never was. Rit a was U.S. milit ary, t he linchpin of t he upcoming
operat ion, and one of t he most import ant soldiers on t he face of t he planet . Rank aside, it was
hard t o say which one of t hem really held more power.
Rit a st ood in silence. The brigadier general was t he first t o speak.
“Yes, Sergeant ?”
“Sir, would it be possible for me t o join t he PT, sir.”
The same high voice from my dream, speaking in perfect ly int oned Burst .
“You have a major operat ion coming up t omorrow.”
“So do t hey, sir. My squad has never part icipat ed in t his form of PT, sir. I believe my
part icipat ion could be vit al in ensuring t he successful coordinat ion and execut ion of t omorrow’s
joint operat ion.”
The general was at a loss for words. The U.S. Special Forces around t he field st art ed t o
whoop and cheer.
“Request permission t o part icipat e in t he PT, sir,” she said.
“Grant ed.”
“Sir, t hank you, sir!”
She flashed a quick salut e. Doing an about -face, she slipped among t he rows of men st aring
int ent ly int o t he ground.
She chose a spot beside me and st art ed her iso push-up. I could feel t he heat coming off her
body t hrough t he chilly air bet ween us.
I didn’t move. Rit a didn’t move. The sun hung high in t he sky, showering it s rays over us,
slowly roast ing our skin. A drop of sweat formed in my armpit , t hen t raced it s way slowly t o t he
ground. Sweat had st art ed t o bead on Rit a’s skin t oo. Fuck! I felt like a chicken crammed int o
t he same oven as t he Christ mas t urkey.
Rit a’s lips made t he subt lest of movement s. A low voice only I could hear.
“Do I have somet hing on my face?”
“What ?”
“You’ve been st aring at me for a while now.”
“Me? No.”
“I t hought maybe t here was a laser bead on my forehead.”
“Sorry. There wasn’t —it ’s not hing.”
“Oh. All right .”
“Shit -for-brains Kiriya! You’re slipping!” t he lieut enant barked. I quickly ext ended my arm
back int o posit ion. Beside me, Rit a Vrat aski, wit h t he disint erest ed expression of someone
who’d never had a need for human cont act her ent ire life, cont inued her iso push-up.
PT ended less t han an hour lat er. The general, t he t ast e of bile in his mout h forgot t en,
ret urned t o t he barracks wit hout furt her inst ruct ions. The 17t h Company had spent a
product ive pre-bat t le aft ernoon.
It hadn’t played out t he way I remembered it . In my dream, I never made eye cont act wit h
Rit a, and she hadn’t joined in t he PT. Maybe I was reading t oo much int o t hings, but I’d say she
did it just t o piss t he general off. It t ook a Valkyrie reborn t o t hrow a monkey wrench int o a
disciplinary t raining session planned wit h milit ary precision and get away wit h it . Then again,
her ant enna may just have picked up somet hing t hat made her want t o see what t his weird iso
push-up t hing was all about . Maybe she had just been curious.
One t hing was for sure, t hough. Rit a Vrat aski wasn’t t he bit ch everyone made her out t o be.
4
“How about last night , huh? That shit was t ight .”
“You said it .”
“Wit h reflexes like t hat , t hat girl must be hiding springs in t hat lit t le body of hers. I could feel it
all t he way int o my abs.”
“She hears you t alkin’ like t hat , best wat ch out .”
“Who doesn’t like a compliment ? I’m just sayin’ she was good.” As he spoke, Yonabaru t hrust
his hips.
Seeing someone move like t hat in a Jacket was pret t y damn funny. An everyday gest ure
wit h enough power behind it t o level a house.
Our plat oon was on t he nort hern t ip of Kot oiushi Island, wait ing t o spring t he ambush,
Jacket s in sleep mode. A screen about half a met er t all st ood in front of us, project ing an image
of t he t errain behind. It ’s what t hey called act ive camouflage. It was supposed t o render us
undet ect able from an enemy looking at us head on. Of course, we could have just used a
paint ing. The t errain had been bombed int o oblivion, so any direct ion you looked, all you saw
was t he same charred wast eland.
Most of t he t ime, t he Mimics lurked in caves t hat t wist ed deep under t he seabed. Before a
ground assault , we fired bunker bust er bombs t hat penet rat ed int o t he ground before
det onat ing. Eat that. Each one of t hose babies cost more t han I’d make in my ent ire lifet ime.
But t he Mimics had an uncanny way of avoiding t he bombs. It was enough t o make you
wonder if t hey were get t ing a copy of our at t ack plans in advance. On paper we may have had
air superiorit y, but we ended up in a drawn-out land war anyhow.
Since our plat oon was part of an ambush, we weren’t packing t he large-bore cannons—
massive weapons t hat were each t he size of a small car fully assembled. What we did have
were 20mm rifles, fuel-air grenades, pile drivers, and rocket launchers loaded wit h t hree rounds
apiece. Since it was Ferrell’s plat oon, we were all linked t o him via comm. I glanced at my
Jacket ’s HUD. It was t went y-eight degrees Celsius. Pressure was 1014 millibars. The primary
st rike force would be on t he move any minut e.
Last night , aft er t hat endless hour of PT, I’d decided t o go t o t he part y. It wasn’t what I
remembered doing from t he dream, but I didn’t really feel like rereading t hat book. The part
about helping Yonabaru up t o his bunk aft er he st umbled back t o t he barracks st ayed t he
same.
Word around t he plat oon was t hat Yonabaru’s girlfriend was a Jacket jockey t oo. Wit h t he
except ion of Special Forces, men and women fought in separat e plat oons, so we wouldn’t
have run int o her on t he bat t lefield anyway.
“If—and I’m just t alkin’—but if one of you got killed . . .” I vent ured.
“I’d feel like shit .”
“But you st ill see each ot her anyway.”
“Heaven ain’t some Swiss bank. You can’t squirrel away money in some secret account up
t here and expect t o make a wit hdrawal. You got t a do what you can before goin’ int o bat t le.
That ’s t he first rule of soldierin’.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“But I’m t ellin’ ya, you got t a hook yourself up wit h some pussy. Carpe diem, brot her.”
“Carpe somet hing.”
“What about Mad Wargarit a? Y’all were t alkin’ during PT, right ? You’d t ap t hat , I know you
would.”
“Don’t even go t here.”
“Tiny girl like her—I bet she’s a wolverine in t he sack. The smaller t hey are, t he bet t er t hey
fuck, you know.”
“Show some respect .”
“Sex ain’t got not hin’ t o do wit h respect . From t he lowest peon t o His Majest y t he general,
everybody want s t o do a lit t le poundin’ bet ween t he legs. All I’m sayin’ is t hat ’s how we evolved
—”
“Just shut t he fuck up,” I said.
“That any way t o t alk t o me in front of t he sergeant ? I’m hurt . I’ve got a very sensit ive
disposit ion. I’m just t alkin’ t rash t o keep my mind off t hings. Same as everybody else.”
“He’s right ,” someone else chipped in over t he comm link.
“Hey, don’t I get a vot e?”
It was like t his was t he excuse everyone in t he plat oon had been wait ing for. Everyone
st art ed t alking at once.
“I’m gonna have t o cast my ballot for Yonabaru.”
“I’ve set t his t hing t o filt er out your jokes, so st op wast in’ your breat h.”
“Sounds like Kiriya’s gonna have t o st ep up his t raining if he doesn’t want Yonabaru t o t ake
t he piss out of him so easy.”
“Sir! I t hink I need t o reboot my Jacket , sir! I don’t want it crashing during t he bat t le!”
“Aw man, I’d kill for a cigaret t e. Must a left ’em in my ot her Jacket .”
“I t hought you quit smokin’?”
“Hey, keep it down! I’m t ryin’ t o get some sleep!”
And so it went . Back and fort h t hrough t he comm link, like it was an Int ernet chat room. All
Ferrell could do was sigh and shake his Jacket ed head.
When you’re so nervous you’ve run out of nails t o bit e, t hinking about somet hing you enjoy
helps t ake t he pressure off. They t aught us t hat in t raining t oo. Of course, you get a bunch of
animals like t hese t oget her, pret t y much t he only t hing t hey t hink about is sex. There was only
one girl I could t hink about , my sweet lit t le librarian whose face I could hardly pict ure anymore.
Who knew what she was doing. It ’d been half a year since she got married. She was probably
knocked up by now. I enlist ed right aft er I graduat ed from high school, and she broke my heart . I
don’t t hink t he t wo t hings were relat ed. Who can say?
I had signed up t hinking I could make some sense of t his fuckedup world by bet t ing my life in
bat t le and seeing what fat e dealt me. Boy was I ever green. If I was t ea-green now, I must ’ve
been lime-green back t hen. Turns out my life isn’t even wort h enough t o buy one of t hose
pricey bombs, and what cards fat e has dealt me don’t have any rhyme or reason.
“Nut s t o t his. If we’re not gonna dig t renches, can’t we at least sit ?”
“Can’t hide if we’re diggin’ t renches.”
“This act ive camouflage ain’t good for shit . Who’s t o say t hey don’t see bet t er’n we do,
anyhow? They aren’t supposed t o be able t o see t he at t ack choppers eit her, but t hey knock
’em out of t he sky like balloons in a shoot in’ gallery. Made for a helluva t ime at Okinawa.”
“If we run int o t he enemy, I’ll be sure t o give ’em an eye t est .”
“I st ill say t he t rench is man’s great est invent ion. My kingdom for a t rench.”
“You can dig all t he t renches you want once we get back. My orders.”
“Isn’t t hat how t hey t ort ure prisoners?”
“My pension t o t he man who invent s a way t o fast en your—shit , it ’s st art ed! Don’t get your
balls blown off, gent s!” Ferrell shout ed.
The din of bat t le filled t he air. I could feel t he shudder of dist ant shells exploding.
I t urned my at t ent ion t o Yonabaru. Aft er what happened in PT, maybe my dream was just a
dream, but if Yonabaru died by my side at t he beginning of t he bat t le, I’d never forgive myself. I
replayed t he event s of t he dream in my head. The javelin had come from t wo o’clock. It had
flown right t hrough t he camouflage screen, leaving it in t at t ers, all about a minut e aft er t he
bat t le st art ed, give or t ake.
I t ensed my body, ready t o be knocked down at any moment .
My arms were shaking. An it ch developed in t he small of my back. A wrinkle in my inner suit
pressed against my side.
What are they waiting for?
The first round didn’t hit Yonabaru.
The shot t hat was supposed t o have killed him was headed for me inst ead. I didn’t have t ime
t o move a millimet er. I’ll never forget t he sight of t hat enemy javelin flying st raight at me.
5
The paperback I’d been reading was beside my pillow.
It was a myst ery novel about an American det ect ive who was supposed t o be some sort of
expert on t he Orient . I had my index finger wedged int o a scene where all t he key players meet
for dinner at a Japanese rest aurant in New York.
Wit hout rising, I looked carefully around t he barracks. Not hing had changed. The swimsuit
pinup st ill had t he prime minist er’s head. The radio wit h t he bust ed bass grat ed out music from
t he t op bunk; from beyond t he grave a singer admonished us against crying over a lost love.
Aft er wait ing t o be sure t he DJ would read t he weat her report in her bubblegum voice, I sat up.
I shift ed my weight as I sat on t he edge of t he bed.
I pinched my arm as hard as I could. The spot I pinched st art ed t o t urn red. It hurt like a bit ch.
Tears blurred my vision.
“Keiji, sign t his.”
Yonabaru craned his neck over t he side of t he t op bunk.
“. . .”
“What ’s t he mat t er? St ill asleep?”
“Nah. You need my signat ure? Sure.”
Yonabaru disappeared from view.
“Mind if I ask somet hing a lit t le weird?”
“What ? I just need you t o sign on t he dot t ed line.” His voice came from over t he bed frame.
“Don’t need you t o writ e anyt hing else. No funny drawings of t he lieut enant on t he back or
not hin’.”
“Why would I do t hat ?”
“I dunno. It ’s what I did t he first t ime I signed.”
“Don’t st art comparing—ah, forget it . What I want ed t o ask was, t he at t ack’s t omorrow,
right ?”
“Sure. That ’s not t he kinda t hing t hey go changin’ up.”
“You’ve never heard of anyone reliving t he same day over and over, have you?”
There was a pause before he replied. “You sure you’re awake? The day aft er yest erday’s
t oday. The day aft er t oday is t omorrow. If it didn’t work like t hat , we’d never get t o Christ mas or
Valent ine’s Day. Then we’d be fucked. Or not .”
“Yeah. Right .”
“List en. There’s not hin’ t o t omorrow’s operat ion.”
“. . . Right .”
“Sweat it t oo much, you’ll t urn int o a feedhead—end up losing your mind before t hey even
get a chance t o blow your brains out .”
I st ared blankly at t he aluminum piping of t he bed frame.
When I was a kid, t he war against t he Mimics had already st art ed. Inst ead of cowboys and
Indians or cops and robbers, we fought aliens using t oy guns t hat fired spring-loaded plast ic
bullet s. They st ung a lit t le when t hey hit , but t hat was all. Even up close t hey barely hurt . I
always played t he hero, t aking t he hit for t he t eam. I’d spring out courageously int o t he line of
fire, absorbing one bullet aft er anot her. I did a lit t le jump wit h each successive hit , performing
an imprompt u int erpret ive dance. I was really good at it . Inspired by t he hero’s deat h, his
comrades would launch a bold count erat t ack. Wit h his noble sacrifice, he’d ensured humanit y’s
salvat ion. Vict ory would be declared, and t he kids who’d been t he bad guys would come back
t o t he human side and everyone would celebrat e. There was no game like it .
Pret ending t o be a hero slain in bat t le was one t hing. Dying a hero in a real war was anot her.
As I got older, I underst ood t he difference, and I knew I didn’t wanna die. Not even in a dream.
Some night mares you can’t wake up from, no mat t er how many t imes you t ry. Me, I was
t rapped in a night mare, and no mat t er how many t imes I woke up, I was st ill t rapped. That I
knew I was caught in a loop I couldn’t break out of was t he worst part of all. I fought back panic.
But was it really happening t o me again?
The same day I’d already lived t hrough t wice was unfolding again around me. Or maybe it
was all a night mare, aft er all. Of course t hings would be happening t he way I remembered
t hem. It was all in my head, so why not ?
This was ridiculous. I punched t he mat t ress.
Had I dreamed t hat black point flying at me? Was t he javelin t hat shat t ered my breast plat e
and pierced my chest all in my head? Had I imagined t he blood, t he coughing up bit s of lung?
Let me t ell you what happens when your lungs are crushed. You drown, not in wat er, but in
air. Gasp as hard as you like, crushed lungs can’t pass t he oxygen your body needs t o your
bloodst ream. All around you, your friends are breat hing in and out wit hout a second t hought
while you drown alone in a sea of air. I never knew t his unt il it happened t o me. I’d never even
heard about it . I definit ely hadn’t made t hat up. It really happened.
It didn’t mat t er if I never t old anyone, if no one ever believed me. It would st ill be t rue. The
sensat ion it had imprint ed on my mind was proof enough of t hat . Pain t hat shoot s t hrough
your body like a bolt of light ning, legs so damn heavy it feels like t hey’ve been st uffed wit h
sandbags, t error so st rong it crushes your heart —t hat ’s not t he st uff of imaginat ion and
dreams. I wasn’t sure how, but I’d been killed. Twice. No doubt about it .
I didn’t mind list ening t o Yonabaru t ell some st ory I’d already heard before. Hell, I’d do t hat
t en t imes, a hundred, t he more t he bet t er. Our daily rout ines were all filled wit h t hat same
repet it ive shit . But going back int o bat t le? No t hanks.
If I st ayed here, I’d be killed. Whet her I died before or aft er Yonabaru didn’t really mat t er.
There was no way I could survive t he firefight . I had t o get away. I had t o be anywhere but
here.
Even saint s have limit s t o t heir pat ience, and I was no saint . I’d never been one t o blindly
believe in God, Buddha, any of t hat shit , but if somebody up t here was going t o give me a t hird
chance, I wasn’t about t o let it go t o wast e. If I sat here st aring up at t he t op bunk, t he only
fut ure I had ended in a body bag. If I didn’t want t o die, I had t o move. Move first, think later. Just
like t hey t aught us in t raining.
If t oday was a repet it ion of yest erday, Ferrell would be around any minut e. The first t ime he
showed up I’d been t aking a dump, t he second I’d been chat t ing it up wit h Yonabaru. Aft er t hat
we’d be off t o a ridiculous session of PT, and we’d come back exhaust ed. That got me t hinking.
Everyone in t he 17t h Armored would be in t hat PT. Not only t hat , everyone else on t he base
wit h t ime on t heir hands would be gat hered around t he field t o wat ch. I couldn’t have asked for
a bet t er chance t o sneak out of t he base. Considering how t ired I’d be aft er t raining, it was t he
only chance I was likely t o get .
If I hurt myself, t hat would probably do it . They wouldn’t send a wounded soldier t o PT. I
needed an injury t hat looked bad enough t o get me out of PT, but not hing so bad it would lay
me up. A man wit h even a shallow scalp wound would gush blood like a st uck pig. It was one of
t he first t hings t hey t aught us in First Aid. At t he t ime, I wondered what good first aid or
anyt hing else would do aft er a Mimic javelin had sliced off your head and sent it flying t hrough
t he air, but I guess you never know when a lit t le piece of knowledge will come in handy. I had t o
get st art ed quick.
Fuck! I had a whole day t o repeat , but I didn’t have enough t ime when I needed it . That
blockheaded sergeant was on his way. Move! Move!
“What ’s all t hat noise down t here?” Yonabaru asked casually.
“I got t a head out for a minut e.”
“Head out ? Hey! I need your signat ure!”
I dove int o t he space bet ween t he bunks wit hout even bot hering t o t ie my shoes. Concret e
slapping under my feet , I t urned just before hit t ing t he post er of t he girl in t he swimsuit . I dart ed
past t he guy wit h t he porno mag lying on his bed.
I wasn’t headed anywhere in part icular. Right t hen my t op priorit y was making sure I didn’t
run int o Ferrell. I had t o get somewhere out of sight where I could hurt myself, t hen show up
covered in blood around t he t ime Yonabaru and Ferrell were finishing t heir conversat ion. For a
plan I’d cooked up on t he fly, it wasn’t half bad.
Shit . I should’ve brought t he combat knife I kept under my pillow. It was useless against
Mimics, but for opening cans or cut t ing t hrough wood or clot h, it was somet hing no self-
respect ing soldier should be wit hout . I’d cut myself wit h t hat knife a t housand t imes during
t raining. I wouldn’t have had any t rouble making a scalp wound wit h it .
I’d made it out t he ent rance of t he barracks, and I want ed t o put as much space bet ween
me and HQ as possible. I let my speed slacken as I rounded t he corner of t he building.
There was a woman t here. Terrible t iming.
She grunt ed as she pushed a cart piled high wit h pot at oes. I knew her: Rachel Kisaragi, a
civilian post ed over in Cafet eria No. 2. A snow-whit e bandana, neat ly folded int o a t riangle,
covered her black wavy hair. She had healt hy, t anned skin and larger t han average breast s.
Her waist was narrow. Of t he t hree t ypes of women t he human race boast ed—t he pret t y, t he
homely, and t he gorillas you couldn’t do anyt hing wit h save ship ’em off t o t he army—I’d put
her in t he pret t y cat egory wit hout bat t ing an eye.
In a war t hat had already last ed t went y years, t here just wasn’t enough money for all t he
milit ary support st aff t o be government employees. Even at a base on t he front lines, t hey filled
as many noncombat ant roles wit h civilians as t hey could. The Diet had already debat ed t he
possibilit y of handing over t he t ransport of war mat ériel in noncombat zones t o t he privat e
sect or. People joked t hat at t his rat e, it wouldn’t be long before t hey’d out source t he fight ing
t o civilians and be done wit h t he whole t hing.
I’d heard t hat Rachel was more of a nut rit ionist t han a cook. The only reason I recognized
her was t hat Yonabaru had been chasing her skirt before he hooked up wit h his current
squeeze. Apparent ly she didn’t like guys who were t oo forward, which pret t y much ruled out
Yonabaru.
I smirked at t he t hought and a mount ain of pot at oes slammed int o me. Desperat ely, I st uck
out my right foot t o cat ch my balance, but I slipped on one of t he pot at oes and went sprawling
on my ass. An avalanche of spuds pummeled my face, one aft er anot her, t he eager jabs of a
rookie boxer on his way t o t he world heavyweight championship. The met al cart delivered t he
finishing blow, a hard right st raight t o my t emple.
I collapsed t o t he ground wit h a t hud sufficient ly resounding t o give a fuel-air grenade a run
for it s money. It was a while before I could even breat he.
“Are you all right ?”
I groaned. At least it looked like none of t he pot at oes had hit Rachel.
“I . . . I t hink so.”
“Sorry about t hat . I can’t really see where I’m going when I’m pushing t his t hing.”
“Nah, it ’s not your fault . I jumped out right in front of you.”
“Hey, don’t I know you?” Rachel peered down at poor flat t ened me wit h her green eyes.
A sheepish grin spread across my face. “Looks like we ran int o each ot her again . . .”
“I knew it ! You’re t he new recruit in t he 17t h.”
“Yeah. Sorry for all t he t rouble,” I said. A spud rolled off my belly.
Wit h a hand on her hip, Rachel surveyed t he damage. Her delicat e eyebrows sank. “Couldn’t
have spread t hem out fart her if you t ried.”
“Sorry.”
“It ’s t heir fault for being so round.” She arched her back slight ly so her chest st uck out . It was
hard t o ignore.
“I guess.”
“You ever see pot at oes t hat round?”
I hadn’t . Not among t he t ubers lit t ering t he floor eit her.
“Shouldn’t t ake t hat long t o grab t hem, if you help.”
“No—I mean, yeah.”
“Well, which is it ?”
The clock was t icking. If I wasn’t out of here now, I’d be dead t omorrow. I didn’t have t ime t o
st and around grabbing pot at oes—or anyt hing else for t hat mat t er. But somet hing else was
kicking in, an at t ract ion I’d felt for t his girl since t he first t ime I’d met her, right aft er my post ing
at t he base.
I sat t here on t he ground, st alling and pret ending t o be in pain.
I was just about t o give her my answer when I heard t he sound of precisely measured
foot st eps approaching from behind.
“What are you doing?” came a growl like a hound from t he gat es of Hell. Ferrell.
He’d appeared from around t he corner of t he barracks and was now surveying t he pot at oes
st rewn across t he concret e pat h wit h disapproval.
“I-I was pushing my cart , and—”
“This your mess, Kiriya?”
“Sir, yes sir!” I scrambled t o my feet . A wave of vert igo washed over me. He rolled his eyes
and fixed his gaze on me.
“S-Sir?”
“You’re hurt . Let me t ake a look.”
“It ’s not hing. I’ll be fine.”
Ferrell st epped closer and t ouched my head, right at t he hairline.
A sharp pain shot across my scalp. His sausage-like fingers pried open t he wound. Warm
blood spurt ed from my forehead t o t he beat of an unseen rock band. The st ream ran lazily
down t he side of my nose, t ouched t he corner of my mout h, t hen hung briefly on t he t ip of my
chin unt il a st eady drip drip drip began. A rose of fresh blood blossomed on t he concret e. The
sharp smell of iron filled my nost rils. Rachel gasped.
“Hrmm. Nice, clean ent ry wound. What ’d you hit it on?”
Rachel st epped in. “My cart fell over. I’m sorry.”
“Is t hat how it happened?”
“Act ually, I’m t he one who ran int o her, but yeah, pret t y much.”
“Right . Well, it ’s not as bad as it looks. You’ll be fine,” Ferrell said, giving t he back of my head
a playful slap. A spray of blood flew from my brow, st aining my shirt . Leaving me where I was, he
walked over t o t he corner of t he barracks and shout ed, loud enough t o scare t he cicadas off
t he walls, “Yonabaru! Get your but t out here!”
“There some soldierin’ needs doin’? I’m here t o—oh. Morning, Rachel. Sergeant , anot her fine
day in t he corps, I t rust ? So fine, it looks like t he concret e up and sprout ed pot at oes.”
“Shut your piehole and get some men out here t o pick t hese up.”
“Who, me?”
“Well he’s not going t o be picking anyt hing up, is he?” Ferrell nodded in my direct ion.
Yonabaru gaped. “Dude, what hit you? You look like you went t went y in t he cage wit h a
t hree-hundred-pound Irishman.” To t he sergeant : “Wait , t hat means Keiji’s t he one who
knocked all t hese over?” Back t o me: “Helluva way t o st art t he day, goin’ and ruinin’ a guy’s
morning like t hat .”
“What ’s t he mat t er, don’t you want t o help?”
“Don’t be silly! For you, I’d pick up anyt hing. Pot at oes, pumpkins, land mines—”
“Enough. Is t here anyone in t his lousy excuse for a plat oon whose head isn’t lodged securely
up his asshole?”
“That hurt s, Sarge. You wat ch. I’ll bring t he hardest workin’ men in t he 17t h.”
“Kiriya! Quit st andin’ around like a scarecrow and get your but t over t o t he infirmary! You’re
excused from t oday’s PT.”
“PT? Who said anyt hing about PT?”
“I did. Someone st epped in a knee-deep pile of pig shit in t he PX last night . Now t hat may
not have anyt hing t o do wit h you, but nevert heless, at oh-nine-hundred, you’re going t o
assemble at t he No. 1 Training Field in your fourt h-t ier equipment for Physical Training.”
“You got t a be kidding! We’re goin’ int o bat t le t omorrow, and you’re sending us off for PT?”
“That ’s an order, Corporal.”
“Sir, we’ll report t o t he No. 1 Training Field at oh-nine-hundred in full fourt h-t ier equipment ,
sir! But one t hing, Sarge. We been doin’ t hat liquor raid for years. Why give us a hard t ime
about it now?”
“You really want t o know?” Ferrell rolled his eyes.
Leaving t he conversat ion I’d heard before behind, I escaped t o t he infirmary.
6
I was st anding at t he gat e t hat divided t he base from t he out side world. The guard who
checked my ID raised his eyebrows doubt fully.
There was an ext ra layer of securit y on t he base t hanks t o t he U.S. crew’s visit . Alt hough t he
Japanese Corps oversaw general base securit y, t he balance of power wit h t he U.S. prevent ed
t hem from int erfering wit h anyt hing under U.S. jurisdict ion. Luckily, U.S. securit y didn’t have any
int erest in anyone t hat wasn’t one of t heir own.
Wit hout leave papers from a commanding officer, Keiji Kiriya wasn’t get t ing off t he base. But
t he U.S. soldiers could come and go as t hey pleased, and all t hey had t o do was flash an ID.
Everyone used t he same gat e, so if I got an American guard, he might let me t hrough, no
quest ions asked. All t hey cared about was keeping undesirables away from t heir precious
Special Forces squad. A recruit t rying t o go AWOL wasn’t likely t o cat ch t heir eye.
The guard must not have seen many Japanese ID cards, because he st ared at mine for a
long t ime. The machine t hat checked IDs just logged who passed t hrough t he gat e. No need t o
panic. Why would t hey change t he syst em up t he day before an at t ack? The muscles in my
st omach t ensed. The guard was looking back and fort h bet ween me and my card, comparing
t he blurry pict ure wit h my face.
The cut on my t emple burned. The sawbones who t ended t o me in t he infirmary gave me
t hree st it ches wit hout any painkiller. Now it was sending searing bolt s of elect ricit y shoot ing
t hrough my body. The bones in my knee creaked.
I was unarmed. I missed my knife, warm and snug under my pillow. If I had it wit h me, I could
lock t his guy in a half nelson and—t hinking like t hat wasn’t going t o get me anywhere. I
st ret ched my back. Gotta stay cool. If he stares at you, stare right back.
St ifling a yawn, t he guard pressed t he but t on t o open t he gat e. The doorway t o freedom
creaked open.
I t urned slowly t o look back as I slipped past t he yellow bar. There, in t he dist ance, was t he
t raining field. The sea breeze, heavy wit h t he scent of t he ocean, blew across t he field t oward
t he gat e. On t he ot her side of t he fence, soldiers t he size of ant s performed t iny, miniat ure
squat s. They were t he soldiers I’d eat en wit h and t rained wit h. They were my friends in t he
17t h. I swallowed t he nost algia t hat rose up in me. I walked, unhurried, t he moist wind blowing
against my body. Keep walking until you’re out of sight of the guard. Don’t run. Just a little
farther. Turn the corner. I broke int o a sprint .
Once I st art ed running, I didn’t st op.
It was fift een klicks from t he base t o Tat eyama, a nearby ent ert ainment dist rict . Even if I
t ook a roundabout rout e, it would be t went y klicks at most . Once I was t here, I could change
my clot hes and lay in t he supplies I needed. I couldn’t risk t rains or t he highway, but once I hit
Chiba Cit y I would be home free. Neit her t he army nor t he police st uck t heir noses in t he
underground malls-t urned-slums t here.
It was about eight hours unt il Squad 1830’s meet ing. That ’s when t hey’d probably figure out
I’d gone AWOL. I didn’t know if t hey’d send cars or choppers aft er me, but by dusk, I planned t o
be just anot her face in t he crowd. I remembered t he t raining we’d done at t he foot of Mount
Fuji. Sixt y-kilomet er marches in full gear. Crossing t he Boso Peninsula in half a day wouldn’t be
a problem. By t he t ime t omorrow’s bat t le st art ed, I’d be far away from days t hat repeat
t hemselves and t he brut al deat hs t hey ended in.
The sun hung high in t he sky, washing me in blinding light . Fift y-seven millimet er aut omat ic
guns sat covered in whit e t arps at hundred-met er int ervals along t he seawall. Red-brown
st reaks of rust marred t he ant ique st eel plat es at t heir base. The guns had been inst alled
along t he ent ire coast line when t he Mimics reached t he mainland.
As a kid, when I’d first laid eyes on t hose guns, I t hought t hey were t he coolest t hings I’d ever
seen. The black lacquer finish of t heir st eel inst illed an unreasonable sense of confidence in
me. Now t hat I’d seen real bat t le, I knew wit h cool cert aint y t hat weapons like t hese could
never repel a Mimic at t ack. These guns moved like t he dinosaurs t hey were. They couldn’t
hope t o land a hit on a Mimic. What a joke.
They st ill had service crews assigned t o t hese t hat came out and inspect ed t hem once a
week. Bureaucracy loves wast e.
Maybe humanity would lose.
The t hought came t o me out of t he blue, but I couldn’t shake it .
When I t old my parent s I’d enlist ed, t hey’d want ed me t o join t he Coast Guard. They said I’d
st ill get a chance t o fight wit hout going int o bat t le. That ’d I’d be performing t he vit al t ask of
defending t he cit ies where people worked and lived.
But I didn’t want t o fight t he Mimics t o save humanit y. I’d seen my fill of t hat in t he movies. I
could search my soul t ill my body fell t o dust around it and I’d never find t he desire t o do great
t hings like saving t he human race. What I found inst ead was a wire puzzle you couldn’t solve
no mat t er how many t imes you t ried. Somet hing buried under a pile of puzzle pieces t hat didn’t
fit . It pissed me off.
I was weak. I couldn’t even get t he woman I loved—t he librarian—t o look me in t he eye. I
t hought t he irresist ible t ide of war would change me, forge me int o somet hing t hat worked. I
may have fooled myself int o believing I’d find t he last piece of t he puzzle I needed t o complet e
Keiji Kiriya on t he bat t lefield. But I never want ed t o be a hero, loved by millions. Not for a minut e.
If I could convince t he few friends I had t hat I was someone who could do somet hing in t his
world, who could leave a mark, no mat t er how small, t hat would be enough.
And look where t hat got me.
What had half a year of t raining done for me? I now possessed a handful of skills t hat
weren’t good for shit in a real bat t le and six-pack abs. I was st ill weak, and t he world was st ill
fucked. Mom, Dad, I’m sorry. It took me this long to realize the obvious. Ironic that I had to run
away from the army before I figured it out.
The beach was desert ed. The Coast Guard must have been busy evacuat ing t his place over
t he past six mont hs.
Aft er a lit t le less t han an hour of running, I plant ed myself on t he edge of t he seawall. I’d
covered about eight kilomet ers, put t ing me about halfway t o Tat eyama. My sand-colored shirt
was dark wit h sweat . The gauze wrapped around my head was coming loose. A gent le sea
breeze—refreshing aft er t hat hot wind t hat had swept across t he base—caressed t he back of
my neck. If it weren’t for t he machine guns, props st olen from some long forgot t en anime,
int ruding on t he real world, it would have been t he very pict ure of a t ropical resort .
The beach was lit t ered wit h t he husks of spent firework rocket s— t he crude kind you put
t oget her and launch wit h a plast ic t ube. No one would be crazy enough t o come t his close t o a
milit ary base t o set off fireworks. They must have been left by some bast ard on t he feed t rying
t o warn t he Mimics about t he at t ack on Boso Peninsula. There were ant i-war act ivist s out
t here who were convinced t he Mimics were int elligent creat ures, and t hey were t rying t o open
a line of communicat ion wit h t hem. Ain’t democracy grand?
Thanks t o global warming, t his whole st rip of beach was below sea level when t he t ide came
in. By dusk, t hese fucking t ubes would be washed away by t he sea and forgot t en. No one
would ever know. I kicked one of t he melt ed t ubes as hard as I could.
“Well, what ’s t his? A soljer?”
I spun around.
It had been a while since I’d heard anyone speak Japanese. I’d been so lost in my t hought s, I
didn’t realize anyone had come up behind me.
Two figures, an elderly man and a lit t le girl, st ood at op t he embankment . The old man’s skin
would have made fine pickle brine if you set it out in a jar on a bright day like t oday. In his left
hand he clut ched a t hree-pronged met al spear right out of a fairy t ale. What’s he doing with a
trident? The girl—she looked about t he right age t o be in element ary school—squeezed his
right hand t ight ly. Half hidden behind t he man’s leg, t he girl looked up at me unabashedly from
under her st raw hat . The face beneat h t he hat was t oo whit e t o have spent much t ime
cooking under t he sun.
“Yourn an unf’milyar face.”
“I’m from t he Flower Line base.” Dammit ! I’d run my mout h before my brain.
“Ah.”
“What , uh, brings you t wo out here?”
“Sea has fish want in’ t ’be caught . Family’s all gon’ up t o Tokyo.”
“What happened t o t he Coast Guard?”
“Word come ’bout t he whoopin’ we t ook down on Okinawa. Why, t hey all up ’n’ left . If t he
army kin t ake care t hem croakers for us, we’d breat he easier, t hat ’s fer sure.”
“Yeah.” Croakers was obviously some local slang for Mimics. Ordinary people never got t he
chance t o see a Mimic wit h t heir own eyes. At best t hey’d cat ch a glimpse of a rot t ing corpse
washed up on t he beach, or maybe one t hat had got t en caught in a fishing net and died. But
wit h t he conduct ive sand washed away by t he ocean, all t hat would remain would be empt y
husks. That ’s why a lot of people t hought Mimics were some t ype of amphibian t hat shed it s
skin.
I only caught about 70 percent of what t he old man said, but I heard enough t o know t hat
t he Coast Guard had pulled out of t he area. Our defeat at Okinawa must have been more
serious t han I t hought . Bad enough for t hem t o recall our combined forces up and down t he
Uchibo line. Everyone had been redeployed wit h a focus on major cit ies and indust rial areas.
The old man smiled and nodded. The girl wat ched him wit h eyes wide as saucers, wit ness t o
some rare spect acle. He put a lot of hope in t he UDF t roops st at ioned at Flower Line Base. Not
t hat I had signed up t o defend him or anyone else for t hat mat t er. St ill, it made me feel bad.
“You got any smokes, son? Since t he mil’t ary left , can’t hardly come by none.”
“Sorry. I don’t smoke.”
“Then don’t you worry none.” The old man st ared out at t he sea.
There weren’t many soldiers in t he Armored Infant ry who suffered from nicot ine addict ion.
Probably because you couldn’t smoke during bat t le, when you needed it t he most .
I st ood silent . I didn’t want t o do or say anyt hing st upid. I couldn’t let him find out I was a
desert er. They shot desert ers. Escaping t he Mimics just t o be killed by t he army didn’t make
much sense.
The girl t ugged at t he man’s hand.
“She t ires out real easy. Good eyes on her, t hough. Been born a boy, she’da been quit e a
fisherman.”
“Yeah.”
“Just one t hing ’fore I go. Ain’t never seen anyt hin’ like t his. Came runnin’ out my house quick
as I might , found you here. What you make of it ? Anyt hin’ t o do wit h ’em croakers?” He raised
his arm.
My eyes followed t he gnarled t wigs of his fingers as he point ed. The wat er had t urned green.
Not t he emerald green you’d see off t he shore of some island in t he Sout h Pacific, but a frot hy,
t urbid green, as if a supert anker filled wit h green t ea ice cream had run aground and spilled it s
cargo int o t he bay. A dead fish float ed on t he waves, a bright fleck of silver.
I recognized t hat green. I’d seen it on t he monit ors during t raining. Mimics at e soil, just like
eart hworms. But unlike eart hworms, t he soil t hey passed t hrough t heir bodies and excret ed
was t oxic t o ot her life. The land t he Mimics fed on died and t urned t o desert . The seas t urned
a milky green.
“Ain’t like no red t ide I e’er seen.”
A high-pit ched scream filled t he air. My head rang t o it s familiar t une.
Eyebrows st ill knit t ed, t he old man’s head t raced an arc as it sailed t hrough t he sky. The
shat t ered pieces of his jaw and neck paint ed t he girl’s st raw hat a vivid red. She didn’t realize
what had happened. A javelin exit s a Mimic’s body at t welve hundred met ers per second. The
old man’s skull went flying before t he sound of t he javelin had even reached us. She slowly
looked up.
A second round sliced t hrough t he air. Before her large, dark eyes could t ake in t he sight of
her slain grandfat her, t he javelin ripped t hrough her, an act of neit her mercy nor spit e.
Her small body was oblit erat ed.
Buffet ed by t he blast , t he old man’s headless body swayed. Half his body was st ained a
deep scarlet . The st raw hat spun on t he wind. My body recoiled. I couldn’t move.
A bloat ed frog corpse st ood at t he wat er’s edge.
This coast was definit ely wit hin t he UDF defense perimet er. I hadn’t heard report s of any
pat rol boat s being sunk. The base on t he front was alive and well. There couldn’t be any
Mimics here. A claim t he t wo corpses lying beside me would surely have cont est ed if t hey
could. But t hey were dead, right before my eyes. And I, t heir one hope for defense, had just
desert ed t he only milit ary unit in t he area capable of holding back t his invasion.
I was unarmed. My knife, my gun, my Jacket —t hey were all back at t he base. When I’d
walked t hrough t hat gat e an hour ago, I’d left my only hope for defense behind. Thirt y met ers
t o t he nearest 57mm gun. Wit hin running dist ance. I knew how t o fire one, but t here was st ill
t he t arp t o deal wit h. I’d never have t ime t o get it off. Insert my ID card int o t he plat form, key in
my passcode, feed in a t hirt y kilomet er ammo belt , release t he rot at ion lock lever or t he barrel
won’t move and I can’t aim, climb int o t he seat , crank t he rust ed handle—fuck it . Fire,
motherfucker! Fire!
I knew t he power of a Mimic. They weighed several t imes as much as a fully geared Jacket
jockey. St ruct urally t hey had a lot in common wit h a st arfish. There was an endoskelet on just
below t he skin, and it t ook 50mm armor-piercing rounds or bet t er t o penet rat e it . And t hey
didn’t hold back just because a man was unarmed. They rolled right t hrough you like a rot ot iller
t hrough a gopher mound.
“Fuck me.”
The first javelin pierced my t high.
The second opened a gaping wound in my back.
I was t oo busy t rying t o keep down t he organs t hat came gurgling up int o my t hroat t o even
not ice t he t hird.
I blacked out .
7
The paperback I’d been reading was beside my pillow. Yonabaru was count ing his bundle of
confessions on t he t op bunk.
“Keiji, sign t his.”
“Corporal, you have a sidearm, don’t you?”
“Yeah.”
“Could I see it ?”
“Since when are you a gun nut ?”
“It ’s not like t hat .”
His hand disappeared int o t he t op bunk. When it ret urned, it clut ched a glist ening lump of
black met al.
“It ’s loaded, so wat ch where you point it .”
“Uh, right .”
“If you make corporal, you can bring your own t oys t o bed and ain’t nobody can say a t hing
about it . Peashoot er like t his ain’t no good against a Mimic anyhow. The only t hings a Jacket
jockey needs are his 20mm and his rocket launcher, t hree rocket s apiece. The banana he
packs for a snack doesn’t count . Now would you sign t his already?”
I was t oo busy flicking off t he safet y on t he gun t o answer.
I wrapped my mout h around t he barrel, imagining t hat 9mm slug in t he chamber, wait ing t o
explode from t he cold, hard st eel.
I pulled t he t rigger.
8
The paperback I’d been reading was beside my pillow. I sighed.
“Keiji, sign t his.” Yonabaru craned his neck down from t he t op bunk.
“Sir, yes sir.”
“List en. There’s not hin’ t o t omorrow’s operat ion. Sweat it t oo much, you’ll t urn int o a
feedhead—end up losing your mind before t hey even get a chance t o blow your brains out .”
“I’m not sweat ing anyt hing.”
“Hey man, ain’t not hin’ t o be ashamed of. Everyone’s nervous t heir first t ime. It ’s like get t in’
laid. Unt il you’ve done t he deed, you can’t get it out of your head. All you can do is pass t he
t ime jerkin’ off.”
“I disagree.”
“Hey, you’re t alkin’ t o a man who’s played t he game.”
“What if—just hypot het ically—you kept repeat ing your first t ime over and over?”
“Where’d you get t hat shit ?”
“I’m just t alkin’ hypot het ically is all. Like reset t ing all t he pieces on a chess board. You t ake
your t urn, t hen everyt hing goes back t o how it st art ed.”
“It depends.” St ill hanging from t he t op bunk, his face lit up. “You t alkin’ about fucking or
fight ing?”
“No fucking.”
“Well, if t hey asked me t o go back and fight at Okinawa again, I’d t ell ’em t o shove it up t heir
asses. They could send me t o a fuckin’ firing squad if t hey want , but I wouldn’t go back.”
What if you didn’t have a choice? What if you had t o relive your execut ion again and again?
At t he end of t he day, every man has t o wipe his own ass. There’s no one t o make your
decisions for you, eit her. And what ever sit uat ion you’re in, t hat ’s just anot her fact or in your
decision. Which isn’t t o say everybody get s t he same range of choices as everybody else. If
t here’s one guy out t here wit h an ace in t he hole, t here’s sure t o be anot her who’s been dealt
a handful of shit . Somet imes you run int o a dead end. But you walked each st ep of t he road
t hat led you t here on your own. Even when t hey st ring you up on t he gallows, you have t he
choice t o meet your deat h wit h dignit y or go kicking and screaming int o t he hereaft er.
But I didn’t get t hat choice. There could be a giant wat erfall just beyond Tat eyama, t he edge
of t he whole damn world, and I’d never know it . Day aft er day I go back and fort h bet ween t he
base and t he bat t lefield, where I’m squashed like a bug crawling on t he ground. So long as t he
wind blows, I’m born again, and I die. I can’t t ake anyt hing wit h me t o my next life. The only
t hings I get t o keep are my solit ude, a fear t hat no one can underst and, and t he feel of t he
t rigger against my finger.
It ’s a fucked-up world, wit h fucked-up rules. So fuck it .
I t ook a pen from beside my pillow and wrot e t he number “5” on t he back of my left hand. My
bat t le begins wit h t his number.
Let ’s see how much I can t ake wit h me. So what if t he world hands me a pile of shit ? I’ll comb
t hrough it for t he corn. I’ll dodge enemy bullet s by a hair’s breadt h. I’ll slaught er Mimics wit h a
single blow. If Rit a Vrat aski is a goddess on t he bat t lefield, I’ll wat ch and learn unt il I can mat ch
her kill for kill. I have all t he t ime in t he world.
Not hing bet t er t o do.
Who knows? Maybe somet hing will change. Or maybe, I’ll find a way t o t ake t his fucking
world and piss in it s eye.
That ’d be just fine by me.
1
“If a cat can cat ch mice,” a Chinese emperor once said, “it ’s a good cat .”
Rit a Vrat aski was a very good cat . She killed her share and was duly rewarded. I, on t he
ot her hand, was a mangy alley cat padding list lessly t hrough t he bat t lefield, all ready t o be
skinned, gut t ed, and made int o a t ennis racquet . The brass made sure Rit a st ayed neat ly
groomed, but t hey didn’t give a rat ’s ass about t he rest of us grunt s.
PT had been going on for t hree grueling hours, and you can be damn sure it included some
fucking iso push-ups. I was so busy t rying t o figure out what t o do next t hat I wasn’t paying
at t ent ion t o t he here and now. Aft er half an hour, U.S. Special Forces gave up on wat ching our
t ort ures and went back t o t he barracks. I kept from st aring at Rit a, and she left along wit h t he
rest , which meant I was in for t he long haul. It was like a soft ware if/t hen rout ine:
If checkflag Rit ajoinsPT =true, then end.
Else continue routine: FuckingIsoPush-Ups
Maybe t his was proof t hat I could change what happened. If I st ared at Rit a, she’d join t he
PT, and t hey’d end it aft er an hour. The brass had convened t his session of PT for no good
reason; t hey could end it for t he same.
If my guess were right , my cause wasn’t necessarily hopeless. A window of opport unit y might
present it self in t omorrow’s bat t le. The odds of t hat happening might be 0.1 percent , or even
0.01 percent , but if I could improve my combat skills even t he slight est bit —if t hat window were
t o open even a crack—I’d find a way t o force it open wide. If I could t rain t o jump every hurdle
t his lit t le t rack-meet of deat h t hrew at me, maybe someday I’d wake up in a world wit h a
t omorrow.
Next t ime I’d be sure t o st are at Rit a during PT. I felt a lit t le bad about bringing her int o t his,
she who was basically a byst ander in my endless one-man show. But t here wasn’t really much
choice. I didn’t have hours t o wast e building muscle t hat didn’t carry over int o t he next loop.
That was t ime bet t er spent programming my brain for bat t le.
When t he t raining had finally finished, t he men on t he field fled t o t he barracks t o escape t he
sun’s heat , grumbling complaint s under t heir collect ive breat h. I walked over t o Sergeant Ferrell
who was crouched down ret ying his shoelaces. He’d been around longer t han any of us, so I
decided he’d be t he best place t o st art for help on my bat t le-t raining program. Not only was he
t he longest surviving member of t he plat oon, but it occurred t o me t hat t he 20 percent drill
sergeant he had in him might just come in handy.
Waves of heat shimmered above his flat t op haircut . Even aft er t hree hours of PT, he looked
as t hough he could run a t riat hlon and come in first wit hout breaking a sweat . He had a
peculiar scar at t he base of his t hick neck, a t oken from t he t ime before t hey’d worked all t he
bugs out of t he Jacket s and had had t o implant chips t o height en soldiers’ react ion t imes. It
had been a while since t hey’d had t o resort t o anyt hing so crude. That scar was a medal of
honor—t went y years of hard service and st ill kicking.
“Any blist ers t oday?” Ferrell’s at t ent ion never left his shoes. He spoke Burst wit h a roll of t he
t ongue peculiar t o Brazilians.
“No.”
“Get t ing cold feet ?”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, but I’m not planning on running, if t hat ’s what you mean.”
“For a greenhorn fresh out of basic, you’re shaping up just fine.”
“You st ill keep up wit h your t raining, don’t you, Sarge?”
“Try t o.”
“Would you mind if I t rained wit h you?”
“You at t empt ing some kind of humor, Privat e?”
“Not hing funny about killing, sir.”
“Well, t here’s somet hing funny wit h your head if you want t o st uff yourself int o one of t hose
damn Jacket s t he day before we head out t o die. You want t o work up a sweat , go find a
coed’s t highs t o do it in.” Ferrell’s eyes st ayed on his laces. “Dismissed.”
“Sarge? Wit h all due respect , I don’t see you running aft er t he ladies.”
Ferrell finally looked up. His eyes were 20mm rifle barrels firing volleys at me from t he bunkers
set deep in t he lines of his t anned, leat hery face. I cooked under t he glaring sun.
“You t ellin’ me you t hink I’m some sort of faggot who’d rat her be st rapped int o a Jacket
reeking of sweat t han up bet ween a woman’s legs? That what you’re t ellin’ me?”
“Tha-t hat ’s—not what I meant , sir!”
“Right , t hen. Take a seat .” He ran his hand t hrough his hair and pat t ed t he ground.
I sat down as a gust of ocean wind blew bet ween us.
“I was on Ishigaki, you know,” Ferrell began. “Must a been at least t en years ago. Jacket s
back t hen were cheap as hell. There was t his place near t he crot ch—right about here—where
t he plat es didn’t meet quit e right . Rubbed right t hrough your skin. And t he places t hat had
scabbed over during t raining would rub t hrough again when you got int o bat t le. Hurt so bad
some guys refused t o crawl on t he ground. They’d get up and walk right in t he middle of a fight .
You could t ell ’em it would get ’em killed, but t here were always a few who got up anyway.
Might as well have walked around wit h t arget s paint ed on t heir chest s.” Ferrell whist led like a
falling shell. “Whap! Lost a bunch of men t hat way.”
Ferrell had a mix of Japanese and Brazilian blood in him, but he came from Sout h America.
Half t hat cont inent had been ravaged by t he Mimics. Here in Japan, where high-t ech was
cheaper t han good food, our Jacket s were precision pieces of machinery. St ill, t here were
plent y of count ries where it was all t hey could do t o send t heir t roops off wit h a gas mask, a
good old-fashioned rocket launcher, and a prayer. Forget about art illery or air support . Any
vict ory t hey did happen t o win was short -lived. Nanobot s spilling from Mimic corpses would eat
t he lungs out of what ever soldiers t hat were left . And so, lit t le by lit t le, lifeless desert spread
t hrough t he lands people once called home.
Ferrell came from a family of farmers. When t heir crops st art ed t o fail, t hey chose t o abandon
t heir land and move t o one of t he islands in t he east , safe havens prot ect ed by t he wonders of
t echnology. Families wit h people serving in t he UDF were given priorit y for immigrat ion, which is
how Ferrell came t o join t he Japanese Corps.
These “Immigrat ion Soldiers,” as t hey were known, were common in t he Armored Infant ry.
“You ever hear t he expression kiri-oboeru?”
“What ?” I asked, st art led t o hear t he Japanese.
“It ’s an old samurai saying t hat means, ‘St rike down your enemy, and learn.’ ”
I shook my head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”
“Tsukahara, Bokuden, It ou, Miyamat o Musashi—all famous samurai in t heir day. We’re t alking
five hundred years ago, now.”
“I t hink I read a comic about Musashi once.”
“Damn kids. Wouldn’t know Bokuden from Bat man.” Ferrell sighed in exasperat ion. There I
was, pure-blooded Japanese, and he knew more about my count ry’s hist ory t han I did.
“Samurai were warriors who earned t heir living fight ing, just like you and me. How many people
do you t hink t he samurai I just named killed in t heir lifet imes?”
“I dunno. If t heir names are st ill around aft er five hundred years, maybe . . . t en or t went y?”
“Not even close. The records from back t hen are sket chy, but t he number is somewhere
bet ween t hree and five hundred. Each. They didn’t have guns. They didn’t have bombs. Every
single man t hey killed t hey cut down in hand-t o-fucking-hand combat . I’d say t hat ’d be enough
t o warrant a medal or t wo.”
“How’d t hey do it ?”
“Send one man t o t he great beyond each week, t hen do t he same for t en years, you’ll have
your five hundred. That ’s why t hey’re known as mast er swordsmen. They didn’t just kill once
and call it a day. They kept going. And t hey got better.”
“Sounds like a video game. The more you kill, t he st ronger you get —t hat it ? Shit , I got a lot
of cat ching up t o do.”
“Except t heir opponent s weren’t t raining dummies or lit t le digit al aliens. These were living,
breat hing men t hey slaught ered. Like cat t le. Men wit h swords. Men fight ing for t heir lives, same
as t hem. If t hey want ed t o live, t hey had t o cat ch t heir enemy off-guard, lay t raps, and
somet imes run away wit h t heir t ail bet ween t heir legs.”
Not t he first image t hat sprang int o your head when you t hought of mast er swordsmen.
“Learning what would get you killed and how t o get your enemy killed—t he only way t o know
a t hing like t hat is t o do it . Some kid who’d been t aught how t o swing a sword in a dojo didn’t
st and a chance against a man who’d been t est ed in bat t le. They knew it , and t hey kept doing
it . That ’s how t hey piled up hundreds of corpses. One swing at a t ime.”
“Kiri-oboeru.”
“That ’s right .”
“So why do t hey bot her t raining us at all?”
“Ah, right t o t he point . Brains like t hat , you’re t oo smart t o be a soldier.”
“What ever, Sarge.”
“If you really want t o fight t he Mimics, you need helicopt ers or t anks. But helicopt ers cost
money, and it t akes money t o t rain t he pilot s, t oo. And t anks won’t do you a lick of good on t his
t errain— t oo many mount ains and rivers. But Japan is crawling wit h people. So t hey wrap ’em
in Jacket s and ship ’em t o t he front lines. Lemons int o lemonade.”
Look what happened t o t he lemons.
“All t hat shit t hey drum int o you in t raining is t he bare minimum. They t ake a bunch of
recruit s who don’t know t heir assholes from t heir elbows and t each ’em not t o cross t he st reet
when t he light ’s red. Look left , look right , and keep your heads down when t hings get hot . Most
unlucky bast ards forget all t hat when t he shit st art s flying and t hey go down pret t y quick. But
if you’re lucky, you might live t hrough it and maybe even learn somet hing. Take your first t ast e
of bat t le and make a lesson out of it , you might just have somet hing you can call a soldier—”
Ferrell cut himself off. “What ’s so funny?”
“Huh?” A smirk had crept across my face while he was t alking and I didn’t even not ice.
“I see someone grinning like t hat before a bat t le, I st art worrying about t he wiring in his
head.”
I’d been t hinking of my first bat t le, when Mad Wargarit a t ried t o help me, when my mud-
st ained gut s were burnt t o cinders, when despair and fear st reamed down my face. Keiji Kiriya
had been one of t he unlucky bast ards. Twice.
The t hird t ime, when I ran, my luck hadn’t been what you’d call good eit her. But for some
reason, t he world kept giving me anot her chance, challenging me t o find a way t o survive. Not
by luck, but on my own.
If I could suppress t he urge t o run, I’d keep waking up t o a full day of t raining followed by a
day on t he bat t lefield. And what could be bet t er t han t hat ? Almost by default , I’d keep learning,
one swing at a t ime. What t ook t hose swordsmen t en years, I could do in a day.
Ferrell st ood and gave my backside a slap wit h his hand, bringing my t rain of t hought t o a
screeching halt . “Not much point worrying about it now. Why don’t you see about finding one of
t hem coeds?”
“I’m fine, Sarge, I was just t hinking—” Ferrell looked away. I pressed on. “If I live t hrough
t omorrow’s bat t le, t here’ll be anot her bat t le aft er t hat , right ? And if I live t hrough t hat bat t le, I’ll
go on t o t he next one. If I t ake t he skills I learn in each bat t le, and in bet ween bat t les I pract ice
in t he simulat ors, my odds of surviving should keep going up. Right ?”
“Well, if you want t o overanalyze—”
“It can’t hurt t o get in t he habit of t raining now, can it ?”
“You don’t give up easy, do you?”
“Nope.”
Ferrell shook his head. “To be honest , I had you figured for someone different . Maybe I’m
get t in’ t oo old for t his.”
“Different how?”
“List en, t here are t hree kinds of people in t he UDF: junkies so st rung out t hey’re hardly alive,
people who signed up looking for a meal t icket , and people who were walking along, t ook a
wrong st ep off a bridge somewhere, and just landed in it .”
“I’m guessing you had me pegged for t he last group.”
“That I did.”
“Which group were you in, Sarge?”
He shrugged. “Suit up in first -t ier gear. Meet back here in fift een minut es.”
“Sir—uh, full bat t le dress?”
“A Jacket jockey can’t pract ice wit hout his equipment . Don’t worry, I won’t use live rounds.
Now suit up!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
I salut ed, and I meant it .
The human body is a funny machine. When you want t o move somet hing—say, your arm—
t he brain act ually sends t wo signals at t he same t ime: “More power!” and “Less power!” The
operat ing syst em t hat runs t he body aut omat ically holds some power back t o avoid
overexert ing and t earing it self apart . Not all machines have t hat built -in safet y feat ure. You
can point a car at a wall, slam t he accelerat or t o t he floor, and t he car will crush it self against
t he wall unt il t he engine is dest royed or runs out of gas.
Mart ial art s use every scrap of st rengt h t he body has at it s disposal. In mart ial art s t raining,
you punch and shout at t he same t ime. Your “Shout louder!” command helps t o override t he
“Less power!” command. Wit h pract ice, you can t hrot t le t he amount of power your body holds
back. In essence, you’re learning t o channel t he body’s power t o dest roy it self.
A soldier and his Jacket work t he same way. Just like t he human body has a mechanism t o
hold power back, Jacket s have a syst em t o keep t he power exert ion in balance. Wit h 370
kilograms of force in t he grip, a Jacket could easily crush a rifle barrel, not t o ment ion human
bone. To prevent accident s like t hat from happening, Jacket s are designed t o aut omat ically
limit t he force exert ed, and even act ively count eract inert ia t o properly balance t he amount of
force delivered. The t echs call t his syst em t he aut o-balancer. The aut o-balancer slows t he
Jacket operat or’s act ions by a fract ion of a second. It ’s an int erval of t ime so minut e t hat most
people wouldn’t even not ice it . But on t he bat t lefield, t hat int erval could spell t he difference
bet ween life and deat h.
In t hree full bat t les of t en t housand Jacket s each, only one soldier might have t he misfort une
of encount ering a problem wit h t he aut o-balancer, and if t he aut o-balancer decides t o hiccup
right when you’ve got a Mimic bearing down on you, it ’s all over. It ’s a slight chance, but no one
want s t o be t he unlucky bast ard who draws t he short st raw. This is why, at t he st art of every
bat t le, vet erans like Ferrell swit ch t he aut o-balancer off. They never t aught us t his in t raining. I
had t o learn how t o walk again wit h t he aut o-balancer t urned off. Ferrell said I had t o be able t o
move wit hout t hinking.
It t ook me seven t ries t o walk in a st raight line.
2
Two sent ries were post ed on t he road leading t o t he sect ion of t he base under U.S.
jurisdict ion. They were huge, each man carrying a high-power rifle in arms as big around as my
t highs.
Their physiques made t hem look like suit s of armor on display. They didn’t have t o say a
word t o let passersby know who was in charge. Clust er bombs could have rained from t he sky,
and t hese guys would have held t heir ground, unblinking, unt il t hey received direct orders t o do
ot herwise.
If you kept t hem in t he corner of your eye and headed for t he main gat e, you’d be on t he
pat h I’d t aken when I t ried going AWOL on my t hird t ime t hrough t he loop. Running would be
easy. Wit h what I’d learned, I could probably avoid t he Mimic ambush and make it t o Chiba Cit y.
But t oday I had anot her object ive in mind.
It was 10:29. I was st anding in t he sent ries’ blind spot . Wit h my eight y-cent imet er st ride, t he
sent ries were exact ly fift een seconds from where I st ood.
A gull flew overhead. The dist ant roar of t he sea blended wit h t he sounds of t he base. My
shadow was a small pool collect ed at my feet . There was no one else on t he pat h.
An American fuel t ruck passed by. The sent ries salut ed.
I had t o t ime my walk just right .
Three, two, one.
The t ruck approached a fork in t he road. An old cleaning lady carrying a mop st epped out in
front of t he t ruck. Brakes squealed. The t ruck’s engine st alled. The sent ries t urned t oward t he
commot ion, t heir at t ent ions divert ed for a few precious moment s.
I walked right by.
I could feel t he heat cast by t heir sheer bulk. Wit h muscles like t hat , I had no doubt t hey
could reach up my ass and yank out my spine. For an inst ant , I felt an irrat ional desire t o lash
out against t hem.
Sure, I might look like I’d blow over in a stiff wind, but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Want to try me? Who wants a piece of the little Asian recruit?
Would the skills I’d learned to pilot a Jacket translate to hand-to-hand combat against another
human? Had I gotten any stronger, any better? Why wait for the Mimics, why not test myself on
these fine specimens now?
The guard on t he right t urned.
Stay calm. Keep your pace steady. He’s pivoting to the left. When he does, you’ll slip into his
blind spot behind the other sentry. By the time he looks around for any sign of Keiji Kiriya, I’ll be
part of the scenery.
“Did you see somet hing?”
“Quiet . Capt ain’s wat chin’, and he don’t look happy.”
“Fuck you.”
And like t hat , I’d infilt rat ed U.S. t errit ory.
My t arget was a U.S.-made Jacket . Aft er a few t imes t hrough t he loop, I’d come t o t he
conclusion t hat I needed a new weapon— somet hing we didn’t have in t he Japanese Corps.
The st andard-issue 20mm rifles weren’t very effect ive against Mimics. They walked a t hin line
of compromise bet ween t he number of rounds a soldier could carry, t he rat e of fire necessary
t o hit a fast -moving t arget , and t he accept able amount of recoil. They were more powerful
t han t he weapons t hey used t o issue, but if you really want ed t o pierce t hat endoskelet on,
50mm was t he only way t o be sure.
The basic UDF st rat egy was t o employ a line of prone armored infant ry firing 20mm rounds
t o slow t he enemy enough so t hat art illery and t anks could t ake t hem out . In pract ice, t he
support never came fast or heavy enough. It fell t o us t o finish t he Mimics on our own.
The weapon of last resort for t he old-t imers, and one I’d used myself, was t he pile driver
mount ed on t he left shoulder. You could punch open a hole and spill a Mimic’s gut s wit h one of
t hose babies. The rocket launcher could come in handy t oo, but it was hard t o a score a hit
wit h, and more oft en t han not you’d be out of rocket s when you really needed one. As I grew
accust omed t o t he fight ing, I relied more and more on t he power of t he 57mm pile driver.
But t he pile driver had one major drawback: It s magazine only held t went y charges. Unlike
our rifles, you couldn’t change magazines, eit her. Once you fired t hat t went iet h round, you
were finished. At best , a soldier was going t o punch t went y holes in somet hing. Once t he pile
driver was out of charges, you couldn’t even use it t o drive a st ake int o t he heart of a vampire.
The people who’d designed t he Jacket just hadn’t considered t he possibilit y t hat someone
would survive long enough in hand-t o-hand combat wit h a Mimic t o use more t han t went y
rounds.
Fuck t hat .
Running out of charges had killed me plent y of t imes. Anot her dead end. The only way t o
avoid it was t o find a melee weapon t hat didn’t run out of ammo. I’d seen one, once, in t he
bat t le t hat had st art ed t his whole loop.
The bat t le axe. Rit a Vrat aski, a Valkyrie clad in a crimson Jacket , and her axe. It might have
been more appropriat e t o call it a slab of t ungst en carbide in t he shape of an axe. A bat t le axe
never ran out of ammo. You could st ill use it if it got bent . It packed plent y of punch. It was t he
perfect melee weapon.
But as far as t he world was concerned, Keiji Kiriya was a new recruit who had yet t o see his
first bat t le. If I asked t hem t o replace my st andard-issue pile driver wit h a different weapon
simply because I didn’t like it , t hey sure as hell weren’t going t o list en. Yonabaru had laughed at
me, and Ferrell act ually t hrew a punch. When I t ried t aking it st raight t o our plat oon
commander, he ignored me complet ely. I was going t o have t o acquire t he weapon I needed on
my own.
I headed for t he barracks of t he supply division t hat had accompanied U.S. Special Forces.
Five minut es aft er crossing int o t he U.S. side of t he base, I came t o a spot guarded by only one
soldier. She was t wirling a monkey wrench in her hand.
The pungent scent of oil drift ed in t he air, swamping t he ocean’s briny t ang. The ever
present drone of men bust ling about t he base had receded. In t he darkness of t he barracks,
t he st eel weapons humanit y used t o st rike down it s enemies were enjoying a short nap.
The woman wit h t he wrench was Shast a Raylle, a civilian t ech. Her pay was at least on par
wit h a first lieut enant . Way above mine, at any rat e. I’d snuck a look at her papers: height , 152
cent imet ers; weight , 37 kilograms; visual acuit y, 20/300; favorit e food, passion-fruit cake. She
had some American Indian blood in her and wore her black hair pulled back in a ponyt ail.
If Rit a was a lynx on t he prowl, Shast a was an unsuspect ing rabbit . She belonged at home,
curled up in a warm, cozy room wat ching vids and st uffing her face wit h bonbons, not smeared
wit h oil and grease on some milit ary base.
I spoke as gent ly as I could. “Hello.”
Shast a jumped at t he sound of my voice. Damn. Not gent le enough.
Her t hick glasses fell t o t he concret e floor. Wat ching her look for t hose glasses was like
wat ching a quadriplegic t read wat er. Inst ead of put t ing down t he monkey wrench and feeling
for t hem wit h bot h hands, she groped in vain wit h just t he one. Not exact ly what you’d expect
from someone who’d graduat ed t op of her class at MIT, developed some of t he most
advanced milit ary Jacket s at her first defense indust ry research post , and t hen, for an encore,
leapt int o t he UDF as t he crack t echnician assigned t o a part icular gunmet al red Jacket .
I bent over and picked up her glasses—more like a pair of magnifying lenses t hat had been
jury-rigged t oget her.
“You dropped t hese,” I said, holding t hem up where I hoped she could see.
“Thank you, whoever you are.”
“Don’t ment ion it .”
Shast a looked me over. The glass-bot t le lenses made fried eggs of her eyes.
“And you are . . .?”
“Keiji Kiriya.”
“Thank you, Keiji Kiriya. I’m Shast a Raylle.” I had deliberat ely left out my rank and plat oon.
Shast a’s head sank. “I realize t his might look like a plain, ordinary barracks—well, it is, but t hat ’s
beside t he point . The point is, it cont ains highly sensit ive milit ary t echnology. Only people wit h
t he appropriat e securit y clearance are allowed in.”
“I know. I don’t want in.”
“Oh. Well! I’m glad we cleared t hat up.”
“Act ually,” I said, t aking a st ep forward, “I came t o see you.”
“Me? I-I’m flat t ered, but I’m afraid I can’t —I mean, you seem very nice and all, it ’s just t hat I
don’t t hink t his would be appropriat e, and t here are st ill preparat ions t o be made for t omorrow,
and—”
“It ’s not even noon.”
“It will t ake t he rest of t he day!”
“If you’d just list en—”
“I know it looks as t hough all I’ve been doing is removing and reat t aching t his one part —and
well I have, but I really am busy. Really!” Her ponyt ail bobbed as she nodded t o herself,
punct uat ing her sincerit y.
She’s getting the wrong idea. Got to steer this thing back on course—
“So t he ext ernal memory unit on t hat suit ’s been damaged?”
“It has, but —how did you know t hat ?”
“Hey, you and I bot h know t hat an ext ernal memory unit doesn’t see a whole lot t a use in
bat t le. But since t hose cust om chips cont ain sensit ive milit ary t echnology by t he met ric t on,
you have t o fill out a mount ain of paperwork t o requisit ion one of t he damn t hings, am I right ?
And t hat bald sonofabit ch over at t he armory hit t ing on you no mat t er how many t imes you t ell
him you’re not int erest ed doesn’t make t he sit uat ion any bright er, I’m guessing. It ’s almost
enough t o make you consider st ealing one off one of t he Japanese Corps’ Jacket s.”
“St ealing one of t he—I’d never even t hink of it !”
“No?”
“Of course not ! Well, t he t hought may have crossed my mind once or t wice, but I’d never
act ually do it ! Do I really look like t he t ype t o—” Her eyes widened as she saw what was in t he
sealed plast ic bag I pulled from my pocket .
A sly grin spread across my face. “What if someone else st ole one for you?”
“Could I have it ? Please?”
“How soon we change our song!”
I raised t he bag cont aining t he chip high above my head. Shast a hopped as she t ried t o grab
it , but she and her 158 cent imet ers were out of luck. The oil st aining her clot hes made my
nost rils flare.
“St op t easing me and just hand it over, would you?”
Hop. Hop.
“You don’t know how much I had t o go t hrough t o get t his.”
“I’m begging you. Please?”
Hop.
“I’ll give it t o you, but I need somet hing in exchange.”
“Somet hing . . . in exchange?”
Gulp.
She clut ched t he monkey wrench t o her chest , flat t ening t he swells of her breast s t hat lay
hidden beneat h her overalls. She’d clearly got t en used t o playing t he vict im aft er a few years
wit h t he animals in Special Forces. If it was t his easy t o get a rise out of her, I can’t say I blamed
t hem.
I waved t he plast ic bag t oward t he giant bat t le axe hanging from a cage at t he rear of t he
barracks and point ed. Shast a didn’t seem t o underst and what I was looking at . Her eyes
dart ed warily around t he room.
“I came t o borrow t hat .” I jabbed my finger st raight at t he axe.
“Unless my eyes have got t en worse t han I t hought , t hat ’s Rit a’s bat t le axe.”
“Bingo.”
“So . . . you’re in t he Armored Infant ry t oo?”
“Japanese Corps.”
“This isn’t easy for me t o say—I don’t want t o be rude—but t rying t o imit at e Rit a will only get
you hurt .”
“That mean you won’t loan it t o me?”
“If you really t hink you’ll need it , I will. It ’s just a hunk of met al— we have plent y of spares.
When Rit a first asked me for one, I had t hem cut from t he wings of a decommissioned bomber.”
“So why t he reluct ance?”
“Well, because frankly, you’ll be killed.”
“Wit h or wit hout it , I’ll die someday.”
“I can’t change your mind?”
“Not likely.”
Shast a grew quiet . The wrench hung in her hand like an old rag, and her eyes lost focus. A
lock of unkempt hair st uck t o t he sweat and grease smeared across her forehead. “I was
st at ioned in Nort h Africa before,” she said. “The best soldier of t he best plat oon down t here
asked me for t he same t hing as you. I t ried t o warn him, but t here were polit ics involved, t hings
got complicat ed, so I let him have it .”
“And he died?”
“No, he lived. Barely. But his soldiering days were over. If only I could have found some way t o
st op him.”
“You shouldn’t blame yourself. You didn’t make t he Mimics at t ack.”
“That ’s just it , he wasn’t injured fight ing t he Mimics. Do you know what inert ia is?”
“I’ve got a high school diploma.”
“Each of t hose bat t le axes weighs 200 kilograms. A Jacket ’s 370 kilogram grip can hold on t o
it , sure, but even wit h enhanced st rengt h t hat ’s a t remendous amount of inert ia. He broke his
back swinging t he axe. If you swing 200 kilograms wit h t he amplified power of a Jacket , you can
lit erally t wist yourself int o t wo pieces.”
I knew exact ly what she meant —t he inert ia she was t alking about was exact ly what I was
aft er. It t ook somet hing massive t o shat t er a Mimic endoskelet on in one hit . That it could kill
me in t he process was beside t he point .
“Look, I’m sure you t hink you’re good, but Rit a’s no ordinary soldier.” Shast a made one final
at t empt t o dissuade me.
“I know.”
“She’s extraordinary, really. She never uses her aut o-balancer. And I don’t mean she t urns it
off before bat t le. Her Jacket isn’t even equipped wit h one. She’s t he only member of our squad
wit hout it . In an elit e squad, she’s more t han elit e.”
“I quit using an aut o-balancer a long t ime ago. I never t hought about removing it ent irely. I’ll
have t o do t hat . Less weight .”
“Oh, so you’re t he next Rit a, I suppose?”
“No. I couldn’t hold a candle t o Rit a Vrat aski.”
“You know what she t old me t he first t ime I met her? She said she was glad she lived in a
world full of war. Can you say t he same?” Shast a appraised me from behind her t hick lenses. I
knew she meant what she was saying. I ret urned her st are wit hout a word.
“Why are you so hung up about her bat t le axe?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t say I’m hung up about it . I’m just t rying t o find somet hing more effect ive t han a
pile driver. I’ll t ake a spear or a cut lass, if you have one. Anyt hing I can use more t han t went y
t imes.”
“That ’s what she said when she first asked me t o cut her t he axe.” Shast a relaxed her grip
on t he monkey wrench.
“Any comparison wit h t he Full Met al Bi—uh, Valkyrie is high praise.”
“You know, you’re very . . .” Her voice t railed off.
“I’m very what ?”
“Unusual.”
“Maybe so.”
“Just remember, it ’s not an easy weapon t o use.”
“I have a lot of t ime t o pract ice.”
Shast a smiled. “I’ve met soldiers who t hink t hey can follow in Rit a’s foot st eps and fail, and
I’ve met some who recognize her for t he prodigy she is and never even t ry t o mat ch her. But
you’re t he first person I’ve met who realizes t he dist ance bet ween t hemselves and Rit a and
yet is prepared t o run it .”
The more I underst ood war, t he more I knew just what a prodigy Rit a was. The second t ime
t hrough t he loop, when Rit a joined us in t he PT session, I’d only st ared at her t he way I had
because I was a new recruit who didn’t know any bet t er. Now t hat I’d been t hrough t he loop
enough t imes t o call myself a real Jacket jockey, t he gap bet ween her and me seemed even
great er. If I didn’t have, lit erally, an infinit e amount of t ime, I would have given up.
Wit h a magnificent leap, Shast a plucked t he silicon chip from my hand. “Hang on. Let me give
you some papers for t hat axe before you go.”
“Thanks.”
She made t o leave for t he papers, t hen st opped. “Can I ask you somet hing?”
“Shoot .”
“Why do you have t he number fort y-seven writ t en on your hand?”
I didn’t know what t o t ell her. On t he spot , I couldn’t come up wit h a single believable reason
a soldier would have t o writ e a number on his hand.
“Oh, was t hat —I mean, I hope I didn’t say anyt hing I shouldn’t have?”
I shook my head. “You know how people cross off days on a calendar? It ’s somet hing like
t hat .”
“If it ’s import ant enough t o writ e it on your hand, it must be somet hing you don’t want t o
forget . Fort y-seven days t ill you go home, maybe? Or t he days unt il your girlfriend’s birt hday?”
“If I had t o put a name t o it , I’d say it ’s t he number of days since I died.”
Shast a didn’t say anyt hing else.
I had my bat t le axe.
3
0600 Wake up.
0603 Ignore Yonabaru.
0610 St eal silicon chip from armory.
0630 Eat breakfast .
0730 Pract ice basic body movement .
0900 Visualize t raining during fucking PT.
1030 Borrow bat t le axe from Shast a.
1130 Eat lunch.
1300 Train wit h emphasis on correct ing mist akes of previous bat t le. (In Jacket .)
1500 Meet Ferrell for live bat t le t raining. (In Jacket .)
1745 Eat dinner.
1830 At t end plat oon meet ing.
1900 Go t o Yonabaru’s part y.
2000 Check Jacket .
2200 Go t o bed.
0112 Help Yonabaru int o his bunk.
This was more or less how I spent my day.
Out side of t raining, everyt hing had become rout ine. I’d snuck past t hose sent ries so many
t imes I could do it wit h my eyes closed. I was st art ing t o worry t hat I’d become a mast er t hief
before I made it as a professional soldier. Not t hat t he abilit y t o st eal anyt hing in a world t hat
reset s it self at t he end of every ot her day would do much good.
The daily grind didn’t change much from one pass t hrough t he loop t o t he next . If I st rayed
really far from t he rout ine, I could force somet hing different t o happen, but if I didn’t do anyt hing
it would play out t he same as always. It was like everyone kept reading from t he same script
t hey’d been given t he day before and ad-libbing was frowned upon.
It was 1136 and I was eat ing lunch in Cafet eria No. 2. The lunch lady served me t he same
amount of onion soup at t he same t ime in t he same bowl. I moved my arm t o avoid t he same
splash as it t raced t he same arc t hrough t he air. Dodging calls from friends t hroughout t he
cafet eria, I sat in t he same seat .
Rit a was sit t ing t hree rows in front of me, her back t o me as she at e. I hadn’t chosen t his
t ime t o eat because it coincided wit h her lunch; it just worked out t hat way. For no part icular
reason, I’d got t en used t o wat ching her eat from t his same angle each day.
Cafet eria No. 2 wasn’t t he sort of place a sergeant major like Rit a would normally be
expect ed t o dine. It ’s not t hat t he food was bad. It was pret t y good, act ually. But it didn’t seem
likely t o impress someone who woke up in an officer’s privat e sky lounge each morning and had
half t he base at her beck and call. I’d even heard t hat U.S. Special Forces had brought along
t heir own cook, which only deepened t he myst ery of her presence. She could have swallowed a
live rat and wouldn’t have seemed more a snake in our midst . And so our savior at e alone. No
one t ried t o t alk t o her, and t he seat s around her were always conspicuously empt y.
For all her prowess in bat t le, Rit a Vrat aski at e like a child. She licked t he soup from t he
corners of her mout h and drew pict ures in her food wit h t he t ips of her chopst icks. Apparent ly
chopst icks were somet hing new t o her. At 1143 she dropped a bean on her plat e. It rolled,
picking up speed, bouncing first t o her t ray, and t hen t o t he t able. The bean flew t hrough t he
air wit h a clockwise spin, careening t oward t he concret e floor. Every t ime, wit h light ning
reflexes, Rit a would ext end her left hand, pluck t he bean out of t he air, and cram it int o her
mout h. All in under 0.11 seconds. If she’d lived back in t he Old West , I imagine she’d have
out drawn Billy t he Kid. If she’d been a samurai, she could have read every flash of Kojiro
Sasaki’s kat ana. Even when she was eat ing, t he Full Met al Bit ch was t he Full Met al Bit ch.
Today, like every day, she was t rying t o eat an umeboshi pickled plum. She must have
confused it for an ordinary piece of dried fruit . Aft er t wo or t hree at t empt s t o pick it up wit h her
chopst icks, she put t he whole t hing in her mout h.
Down the hatch.
Rit a doubled over as t hough she’d t aken a 57mm round right in t he gut . Her back t wit ched.
Her rust -colored hair looked like it was about t o st and on end. But she didn’t cough it back up.
Tough as nails. She had swallowed t he whole t hing, pit and all. Rit a gulped down a glass of
wat er wit h a vengeance.
She must have been at least t went y-t wo years old, but you’d never guess it wat ching her.
The sand-colored milit ary uniforms didn’t flat t er her, but if you dressed her up in one of t hose
frilly numbers t he girls in t own were wearing, she’d be pret t y cut e. At least I liked t o imagine so.
What’s wrong with this food? It tastes like paper.
“You enjoyin’ yourself?” The voice came from above my head.
Holding my chopst icks wit hout moving a muscle, I looked out t he corner of my eye. A
prehist oric face looked down at me from beneat h a flat t op haircut t hat leveled off about t wo
met ers above sea level. His feat ures were more dinosaur t han human. Definit ely some
velocirapt or lurking in t hat family t ree. My spirit s fell when I saw t he t at t oo on his shoulder: a
wolf wearing a crown. He was from t he 4t h, t he company holding a grudge against us over t hat
rugby game. I went back t o lift ing food t o my mout h wit h machinelike regularit y.
He raised his eyebrows, t wo plump bushes t hat would have been t he envy of t he cat erpillar
world. “I asked if you were enjoyin’ yourself.”
“How could I not enjoy myself in such fine company?”
“So how come you’re gulpin’ down your chow like it was somet hing you found st uck on t he
end of a t oilet brush?”
There were only a handful of soldiers sit t ing at t he oversized t ables in t he cafet eria. The
smell of somet hing sweet waft ed from t he kit chen. Art ificial light from t he fluorescent s in t he
ceiling washed over t he fried shrimp heaped ont o our heavy-dut y plat es.
If you had t o cat egorize t he food prepared in t he UDF as good or bad, it was definit ely good.
There were only t hree t hings a soldier in t he UDF did, aft er all: eat , sleep, and fight . If t he food
wasn’t good you’d have a morale problem on your hands. And according t o Yonabaru, t he food
on Flower Line Base was bet t er t han most .
The first t ime I t ast ed it , I t hought it was delicious. That was about five subject ive mont hs
ago now, maybe more. About a mont h int o t he loop, I st art ed heavily seasoning my food. The
int ent ionally mismat ched condiment s creat ed a t ast e just horrible enough t o remind me t he
food was t here. And now, even t hat had st opped working. I don’t care if you’re eat ing food
prepared by a four-st ar chef, aft er eight y days of t he same t hing, it all t ast es alike. Probably
because it is. By t hat point , it was hard for me t o t hink of food as anyt hing ot her t han a source
of energy.
“If t he look on my face put you off your lunch, I apologize.” No use t rying t o st art a fight .
“Hold it . You t ryin’ t o say t his is my fault ?”
“I don’t have t ime for t his.”
I st art ed shoveling t he rest of t he food on my plat e int o my mout h. He slammed a palm t he
size of a baseball glove down on t he t able. Onion soup splashed on my shirt , leaving a st ain
where t he lunch lady’s best effort s had failed. I didn’t really mind. No mat t er how t ough t he
st ain was, it would be gone by t omorrow, and I wouldn’t even have t o wash it .
“Fourt h Company grunt s not wort h t he t ime of t he might y 17t h, t hat it ?”
I realized I’d unwit t ingly set a very annoying flag. This loop had been cursed from t he get -go,
really. I had accident ally killed Ferrell at t he end of t he last loop, and t hat had t hrown everyt hing
out of whack t his t ime around. From where I was, it hadn’t even been five hours since he’d died
vomit ing blood. Of course I’d been KIA t oo, but t hat was t o be expect ed. Ferrell had died t rying
t o prot ect a fucking new recruit . It had been just t he spur my migraine needed t o kick int o a
gallop.
I’d planned t o ease my mind by st aring at Rit a t he way I always did, but my foul mood must
have been more obvious t han I realized. Clearly, it was bad enough t o t rigger somet hing t hat
hadn’t happened in any of t he previous loops.
I picked up my t ray and st ood.
The man’s body was a wall of meat blocking my way. People st art ed t o gat her, eager for a
fight . It was 1148. If I lost t ime here, it would knock off my whole schedule. Just because I had
all t he t ime in t he world didn’t mean I had t ime t o wast e. Every hour lost meant I was an hour
weaker, and it would cat ch up wit h me on t he bat t lefield.
“You runnin’, chickenshit ?” His voice rang t hrough t he cafet eria.
Rit a t urned and glared at me. It was obvious she had just realized t hat t he recruit who’d
been st aring at her during PT was eat ing in t he same cafet eria. Somet hing t old me t hat if I
ret urned her gaze, she’d help me t he way she’d helped during PT—t he way she’d helped in my
first bat t le. Rit a wasn’t t he t ype who could t urn her back on someone in t rouble. Her humanit y
was st art ing t o show t hrough. I wondered what her play would be. Maybe she’d st art t alking
about green t ea t o cool t his guy off. I laughed under my breat h at t he t hought .
“What ’s so funny?”
Oops. “Not hing t o do wit h you.”
My eyes left Rit a. The Keiji Kiriya st anding in t he cafet eria t hat day was no green recruit . My
out ward appearance may have been t he same, but inside I was a hardened vet eran of
sevent y-nine bat t les. I could deal wit h my own problems. I’d imposed on Rit a once during PT
and once more, indirect ly, by smoot h-t alking my way int o one of her spare bat t le axes. I didn’t
need t o involve her a t hird t ime just t o make it t hrough lunch.
“You fuckin’ wit h me?” He wasn’t going t o let t his go.
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t have t ime t o wast e screwing around.”
“Whaddayou have hangin’ bet ween your legs? A pair of ping pong balls?”
“I never opened my sack t o look. You?”
“Mot herfucker!”
“That ’s enough!” A sult ry voice cut short our argument . It wasn’t Rit a.
Salvat ion had come from an unexpect ed quart er. I t urned t o see a bronze-skinned woman
st anding beside t he t able. Her apron-bound breast s int ruded rudely on a good 60 percent of
my field of view. She st ood bet ween us holding a st eaming fried shrimp wit h a pair of long
cooking chopst icks. It was Rachel Kisaragi.
“I don’t want any fight ing in here. This is a dining room, not a boxing ring.”
“Just t ryin’ t o t each t his recruit some manners.”
“Well, school’s over.”
“Hey, you were t he one complaining about how miserable he looked eat ing your food.”
“Even so.”
Rachel glanced at me. She hadn’t shown t he slight est hint of anger when I’d knocked over
her cart of pot at oes, so for t his t o have got t en t o her, I must ’ve been making quit e t he
impression. A part of her probably want ed t o embarrass anyone associat ed wit h Jin Yonabaru,
widely regarded as t he most annoying person on base. Not t hat I blamed her. I’d t ripped t he
spilled pot at o flag, and now I’d t ripped t his one. The aft ermat h was my responsibilit y.
In a base dyed in coffee-st ain splot ches of desert eart h t ones, a woman like Rachel was
bound t o at t ract an admirer or t wo, but I’d never realized just how popular she was. This man
hadn’t picked a fight wit h me over some company rivalry. He was showing off.
“It ’s all right . I shouldn’t have said anyt hing.” Rachel t urned t o face t he looming giant and
shooed me away wit h a gest ure from behind her back. “Here. Have a shrimp. On t he house.”
“Save it for t he penguins.”
Rachel frowned.
“Doesn’t t his runt have anyt hing t o say for himself ?” He reached one big, meat y arm over
Rachel’s shoulder and t hrew a jab.
I react ed inst inct ively. Subject ive mont hs in a Jacket had condit ioned me t o always keep my
feet plant ed firmly on t he ground. My right leg pivot ed clockwise, my left count erclockwise,
bringing me down int o a bat t le st ance. I parried his lunge wit h my left arm and raised t he lunch
t ray in my right hand t o keep t he plat es from falling, my cent er of gravit y never leaving t he
middle of my body. Rachel dropped t he fried shrimp. I snat ched it from it s graceful swim
t hrough t he air before it s t ail could t ouch t he ground.
The parry had t hrown t he guy off balance. He t ook t wo t ot t ering st eps forward, t hen a t hird,
before t umbling int o t he lunch of t he soldier sit t ing in front of him. Food and plat es went flying
wit h a spect acular crash. I st ood, balancing my t ray in one hand.
“You dropped t his.” I handed Rachel t he fried shrimp. The onlookers broke int o applause.
“Fucking piece of shit !” The guy was up already, his fist flying t oward me. He was st ubborn. I
had a few moment s t o consider whet her I should dodge his punch, launch a count erat t ack of
my own, or t urn t ail and run.
Speaking from experience, a st raight right from a man who’d been t rained t o pilot a Jacket
definit ely had some bit e, but it didn’t regist er compared t o what a Mimic could do. This loser’s
punch would be st rong enough t o inflict pain, but not a mort al wound, unless he got ext remely
lucky. I wat ched as he put every ounce of his st rengt h int o t he swing. His fist went sailing right
past t he t ip of my nose. He was neglect ing his foot work, leaving an opening. I didn’t t ake it .
There went my first chance to kill you.
He recovered from t he missed punch, his breat h roaring in his nose. He st art ed hopping
around like a boxer. “St op duckin’ and fight like a man, bit ch!”
Still haven’t had enough?
The gap bet ween our levels of skill was deeper t han t he Mariana Trench, but I guess t hat
demonst rat ion hadn’t been enough for it t o sink in. Poor bast ard.
He came wit h a left hook. I moved back half a st ep.
Whoosh.
Anot her jab. I st epped back. I could have killed him t wice now. There, my t hird chance. Now a
fourt h. He was leaving t oo many openings t o count . I could have laid him out on t he floor t en
t imes over in a single minut e. Lucky for him my job wasn’t sending able-bodied Jacket jockeys
t o t he infirmary, no mat t er how hot headed t hey were. My job was sending Mimics t o t heir own
privat e part of Hell.
Wit h each punch he t hrew and missed, t he crowd cried out .
“Come on, you haven’t even scrat ched ’im!”
“St op prancin’ around and t ake a hit already!”
“Punch him! Punch him! Punch him!”
“Wat ch t he doors, don’t want nobody breakin’ t his up! I got t en bucks on t he big one!”
Followed immediat ely by, “Twent y on t he scrawny guy!” Hey, t hat ’s me! I t hought as I dodged
anot her punch. Then someone else cried out , “Where’s my fried shrimp? I lost my fried shrimp!”
The wilder t he crowd grew, t he more effort he put behind his punches and t he easier t hey
were t o avoid.
Ferrell had a saying: “Break down every second.” The first t ime I heard it , I didn’t underst and
what it meant . A second was a second. There wasn’t anyt hing t o st ret ch or break down.
But it t urns out t hat you can carve t he percept ion of t ime int o finer and finer pieces. If you
flipped a swit ch in t he back of your brain, you could wat ch a second go by like frames in a
movie. Once you figure out what would be happening t en frames lat er, you could t ake
what ever st eps you needed t o t urn t he sit uat ion t o your advant age. All at a subconscious
level. In bat t le, you couldn’t count on anyone who didn’t underst and how t o break down t ime.
Evading his at t acks was easy. But I didn’t want t o t rip any more unnecessary flags t han I
already had. I’d gone t o a lot of t rouble t o shift my schedule, but if I kept t his up t he 17t h would
be in t he cafet eria soon. I needed t o bring t his diversion t o a close before t hey showed up.
I decided t hat t aking one of his punches would wast e t he least amount of t ime. What I didn’t
count on was Rachel st epping in t o t ry t o st op him. She alt ered t he course of his right punch
just enough t o change t he hit t hat was supposed t o glance off my cheek int o one t hat landed
square on my chin. A wave of heat spread from my t eet h t o t he back of my nose. The dishes
on my t ray danced t hrough t he air. And t here was Rit a at t he edge of my field of vision, leaving
t he cafet eria. I would make t his pain a lesson for next t ime. I lost consciousness and wandered
t hrough muddy sleep . . .
When I came t o, I found myself laid out across several pipe chairs pushed t oget her int o a
makeshift bed. Somet hing damp was on my head—a woman’s handkerchief. A faint cit rus
smell hung in t he air.
“Are you awake?”
I was in t he kit chen. Above me an indust rial vent ilat or hummed, siphoning st eam from t he
room. Nearby, an olive green liquid simmered in an enormous pot like t he cauldrons angry
nat ives were supposed t o use for boiling explorers up t o t heir pit h hat s, except much larger.
Next week’s menu hung on t he wall. Above t he handwrit t en menu was t he head of a man t orn
from a post er.
Aft er st aring at his bleached whit e t eet h for what seemed an et ernit y, I finally recognized it .
It was t he head of t he body builder from t he post er in our barracks. I wondered how he had
made it all t he way from t he men’s barracks t o his new wall, where he could spend his days
smiling knowingly over t he women who worked in t he kit chen.
Rachel was peeling pot at oes, t ossing each spiral skin int o an oversized basket t hat
mat ched t he scale of t he pot . These were t he same pot at oes t hat had come raining down on
my head my fourt h t ime t hrough t he loop. I’d eat en t he goddamned mashed pot at oes she was
making sevent y-nine t imes now. There weren’t any ot her workers in t he kit chen aside from
Rachel. She must have prepared t he meals for all t hese men on her own.
Sit t ing up, I bit down on t he air a few t imes t o t est my jaw. That punch had caught me at just
t he right angle. Things didn’t seem t o be lining up t he way t hey should. Rachel caught sight of
me.
“Sorry about t hat . He’s really not such a bad guy.”
“I know.”
She smiled. “You’re more mat ure t han you look.”
“Not mat ure enough t o st ay out of t rouble, apparent ly,” I replied wit h a shrug.
People were always a lit t le high-st rung t he day before a bat t le.
And guys were always looking for an opport unit y t o look good in front of a knockout like
Rachel. The deck was definit ely st acked against me, t hough I’m sure t he face I’d been making
hadn’t helped t he sit uat ion any.
“What are you, a pacifist ? Rare breed in t hese part s.”
“I like t o save it for t he bat t lefield.”
“That explains it .”
“Explains what ?”
“Why you were holding back. You’re obviously t he bet t er fight er.” Rachel’s eyes st ared down
at me int ent ly. She was t all for a woman. Flower Line Base had been built t hree years ago. If
she’d come t o t he base immediat ely aft er get t ing her nut rit ionist ’s license, t hat would make
her at least four years older t han me. But she sure didn’t look it . And it wasn’t t hat she went
out of her way t o make herself look young. The glow of her bronze skin and her warm smile
were as nat ural as t hey came. She reminded me of t he librarian I’d fallen for in high school. The
same smile t hat had st olen my heart and sent me happily t o work airing out t he library t hat hot
summer so long ago.
“Our lives should be writ t en in st one. Paper is t oo t emporary— t oo easy t o rewrit e.”
Thought s like t hat had been on my mind a lot lat ely.
“That ’s an odd t hing t o say.”
“Maybe.”
“You seeing anyone?”
I looked at her. Green eyes. “No.”
“I’m free t onight .” Then she added hast ily, “Don’t get t he wrong idea. I don’t say t hat sort of
t hing t o just anyone.”
That much I knew. She’d brushed Yonabaru aside readily enough. For an ent ire week I’d
heard complaint aft er complaint about t he hot t est woman whose knees were locked t oget her
wit h t he biggest padlock. “It ’s a t ravest y in t his day and age,” he’d t ell me. And I had a feeling it
wasn’t special t reat ment just because Yonabaru was who he was.
“What t ime is it ?” I st ill had a schedule t o keep.
“Almost t hree o’clock. You were out for about t hree hours.”
1500. I was supposed t o be t raining wit h Ferrell. I had t o make right what I’d done in t he last
loop—t he move t hat had killed Ferrell and t he lieut enant . They’d died prot ect ing me because I
was showboat ing. I could st ill see t he charred, smoldering family pict ures Ferrell had decorat ed
t he inside of his Jacket wit h flut t ering in t he wind. A shot of him smiling under a bright Brazilian
sun surrounded by brot hers and sist ers burned int o my mind.
I didn’t possess any ext raordinary t alent s t hat set me apart from my peers. I was just a
soldier. There were t hings I could do, and t hings I couldn’t . If I pract iced, in t ime I could change
some of t hose t hings I couldn’t do int o t hings I could. I wouldn’t let my overconfidence kill t he
people who’d saved my life t ime and t ime again.
Under ot her circumst ances I might have accept ed her invit at ion.
“Sorry, but I’m not t he guy you’re looking for.”
I t urned and st art ed running t oward t he t raining field where Sergeant Ferrell was wait ing,
reeking of sweat and pumped wit h adrenaline.
“Asshole!”
I didn’t st op t o ret urn t he compliment .
4
At t empt #99:
KIA fort y-five minut es from st art of bat t le.
5
At t empt #110:
They break t hrough our line. Yonabaru is t he weak link.
“Keiji . . . t hat myst ery novel. It was t hat guy eat ing t he pudding who . . .”
Wit h t hose words, he dies.
KIA fift y-seven minut es from st art of bat t le.
6
At t empt #123:
The migraines t hat had st art ed aft er about fift y loops are get t ing worse. I don’t know what ’s
causing t hem. The painkillers t he doct ors give me don’t work at all. The prospect of t hese
headaches accompanying me int o every bat t le from here on out isn’t doing much for my
morale.
KIA sixt y-one minut es from st art of bat t le.
7
At t empt #154:
Lose consciousness eight y minut es from st art of bat t le. I don’t die, but I’m st ill caught in t he
loop. What ever. If t hat ’s how it ’s gonna be, t hat ’s how it ’s gonna be.
8
At t empt #158:
I’ve finally mast ered t he t ungst en carbide bat t le axe. I can rip t hrough a Mimic’s
endoskelet on wit h a flick of t he wrist .
To defeat resilient foes, mankind developed blades t hat vibrat e at ult ra-high frequencies,
pile drivers t hat fire spikes at velocit ies of fift een hundred met ers per second, and explosive
melee weapons t hat ut ilized t he Monroe Effect . But project ile weapons ran out of ammo. They
jammed. They broke down. If you st ruck a slender blade at t he wrong angle, it would shat t er.
And so Rit a Vrat aski reint roduced war t o t he simple, yet highly effect ive, axe.
It was an elegant solut ion. Every last kilogram-met er per second of moment um generat ed by
t he Jacket ’s act uat ors was convert ed t o pure dest ruct ive force. The axe might bend or chip,
but it s ut ilit y as a weapon would be undiminished. In bat t le, weapons you could use t o
bludgeon your enemy were more reliable. Weapons t hat had been honed t o a fine edge, such
as t he kat ana, would cut so deep t hey’d get wedged in your enemy’s body and you couldn’t
pull t hem out . There were even st ories of warriors who dulled t heir blades wit h a st one before
bat t le t o prevent t hat from happening. Rit a’s axe had proven it s wort h t ime and again.
My plat oon crawled t oward t he nort hern t ip of Kot oiushi Island, Jacket s in sleep mode. It was
five minut es before our plat oon commander would give t he signal for t he st art of t he bat t le. No
mat t er how many t imes I experienced it , t his was when my t ension ran highest . I could see why
Yonabaru let his mout h run wit h what ever bullshit came out . Ferrell just let our chat t er wash
over him.
“I’m t ellin’ ya, you got t a hook yourself up wit h some pussy. If you wait unt il you’re st rapped
int o one of t hese Jacket s, it ’s t oo lat e.”
“Yeah.”
“What about Mad Wargarit a? Y’all were t alkin’ during PT, right ? You’d t ap t hat , I know you
would.”
“Yeah.”
“You’re a cool cust omer.”
“Yeah?”
“You haven’t even popped your cherry, and you’re calm as a fuckin’ whore. My first t ime I had
but t erflies beat in’ up a t ornado in my st omach.”
“It ’s like a st andardized t est .”
“What ’re you t alkin’ about ?”
“Didn’t you t ake t hose in high school?”
“Dude, you don’t expect me t o remember high school, do ya?”
“Yeah.” I’d managed t o t hrow Yonabaru off what passed for his t rain of t hought , but my mind
was on aut opilot . “Yeah.”
“Yeah what ? I didn’t even say anyt hing.” Yonabaru’s voice reached me t hrough a fog.
I felt like I’d been fight ing in t his same spot for a hundred years. Half a year ago I was a kid in
high school. I couldn’t have cared less about a war t hat was slowly drowning t he eart h in it s
own blood. I’d lived in a world of peace, one filled wit h family and friends. I never imagined I’d
t rade classrooms and t he soccer field for a war zone.
“You’ve been act in’ funny since yest erday.”
“Yeah?”
“Dude, don’t go losin’ it on us. Two in a row from t he same plat oon—how would t hat look?
And I been meanin’ t o ask: what t he fuck is t hat hunk of met al you’re carrying? And what t he
fuck do you plan on doin’ wit h it ? Tryin’ t o assert your ind’vidualit y? Workin’ on an art project ?”
“It ’s for crushing.”
“Crushin’ what ?”
“The enemy, most ly.”
“You get up close, t hat ’s what your pile driver’s for. You gonna t ell me you’re bet t er off wit h
an axe? Maybe we should fill our plat oon wit h lumberjacks. Hi ho, hi ho!”
“That was t he dwarves.”
“Good point . Well made. Point for you.”
Ferrell jumped int o our conversat ion. “Hey, I don’t know where he learned how, but he sure as
hell can use t hat t hing. But Kiriya, only use it once t hey’re up in your face and you don’t have a
choice. Don’t go rushin’ up askin’ for it . Modern warfare is st ill waged wit h bullet s. Try not t o
forget .”
“Yessir.”
“Yonabaru.”
I guess t he sergeant felt he needed t o spread t he at t ent ion around.
“Yeah?”
“Just . . . do what you always do.”
“What t he hell, Sarge? Keiji get s a pep t alk and I get t hat ? A delicat e soul like me needs
some inspiring words of encouragement , t oo.”
“I might as well encourage my rifle for all t he good it would do.”
“You know what t his is? Discriminat ion, t hat ’s what it is!”
“Every now and again you get me t hinking, Yonabaru,” Ferrell said, his voice t inny over t he
link. “I’d give my pension t o t he man who invent s a way t o fast en your—shit , it ’s st art ed! Don’t
get your balls blown off, gent s!”
I sprang int o bat t le, Doppler cranked, t he usual buzzing in my helmet . Just like t he ot her
moment s.
There. A t arget .
I fired. I ducked. A javelin whizzed past my head.
“Who’s up t here? You’re t oo far forward! You wanna get yourself killed?”
I pret ended t o follow t he plat oon leader’s orders. I don’t care how many lives you have, if you
followed t he orders of every officer fresh from t he academy, you’d end up get t ing bored of
dying.
Thunder erupt ed from t he shells crisscrossing t he sky. I wiped sand from my helmet . I
glanced at Ferrell and nodded. It only t ook an inst ant for him t o realize t he suppressing fire I’d
just laid down had t hwart ed an enemy ambush. Somewhere deep in Ferrell’s gut , his inst inct s
were t elling him t hat t his recruit named Keiji Kiriya, who’d never set foot in bat t le in his life, was
a soldier he could use. He was able t o see past t he recklessness of what I’d just done. It was
t hat sort of adapt abilit y t hat had kept him alive for t went y years.
To be honest , Ferrell was t he only man in t he plat oon I could use. The ot her soldiers had
only seen t wo or t hree bat t les at most . Even t he ones who’d survived in t he past hadn’t ever
got t en killed. You can’t learn from your mist akes when t hey kill you. These greenhorns didn’t
know what it was t o walk t he razor’s edge bet ween life and deat h. They didn’t know t hat t he
line dividing t he t wo, t he borderland piled high wit h corpses, was t he easiest place t o survive.
The fear t hat permeat ed every fiber of my being was relent less, it was cruel, and it was my
best hope for get t ing t hrough t his.
That was t he only way t o fight t he Mimics. I didn’t know shit about any ot her wars, and
frankly, I didn’t care t o. My enemy was humanit y’s enemy. The rest didn’t mat t er.
The fear never left me. My body t rembled wit h it . When I sensed t he presence of an enemy
just out side my field of vision, I could feel it crawling along my spine. Who had t old me t hat fear
had a way of seeping int o your body? Had it been t he plat oon leader? Or was it Ferrell? Maybe
it was somet hing I’d heard during t raining.
But even as t he fear racks my body, it soot hes me, comfort s me. Soldiers who get washed
away in a rush of adrenaline don’t survive. In war, fear is t he woman your mot her warned you
about . You knew she was no good for you, but you couldn’t shake her. You had t o find a way
t o get along, because she wasn’t going anywhere.
The 17t h Company of t he 3rd Bat t alion, 12t h Regiment , 301st Armored Infant ry Division was
cannon fodder. If t he front al assault succeeded, t he Mimics fleeing t he siege would wash over
us like a t orrent of wat er surging t hrough a dry gully. If it failed, we’d be a lone plat oon in t he
middle of a sea of host iles. Eit her way our odds of survival were slim. The plat oon commander
knew it , and Sergeant Ferrell knew it . The whole company was pieced t oget her from soldiers
who’d survived t he slaught er at Okinawa. Who bet t er t o give t his shit assignment t o? In an
operat ion involving t went y-five t housand Jacket s, if a lone company of 146 men got wiped out ,
it wouldn’t even rat e a memo on t he desk of t he brass in t he Defense Minist ry. We were t he
sacrificial lambs whose blood greased t he wheels of war’s machinery.
Of course, t here were only t hree kinds of bat t le t o begin wit h: fucked up, seriously fucked up,
and fucked up beyond all recognit ion. No use panicking about it . There’d be plent y of chaos t o
go around. Same Jacket s. Same enemy. Same buddies. Same me, same muscles t hat weren’t
ready for what I was asking of t hem screaming in prot est .
My body never changed, but t he OS t hat ran it had seen a t ot al overhaul. I’d st art ed as a
green recruit , a paper doll swept on t he winds of war. I’d become a vet eran who bent t he war
t o my will. I bore t he burden of endless bat t le like t he killing machine I’d become—a machine
wit h blood and nerves in place of oil and wires. A machine doesn’t get dist ract ed. A machine
doesn’t cry. A machine wears t he same bit t er smile day in, day out . It reads t he bat t le as it
unfolds. It s eyes scan for t he next enemy before it ’s finished killing t he first , and it s mind is
already t hinking about t he t hird. It wasn’t lucky, and it wasn’t unlucky. It just was. So I kept
fight ing. If t his was going t o go on forever, it would go on forever.
Shoot. Run. Plant one foot, then the other. Keep moving.
A javelin t ore t hrough t he air I had occupied only a t ent h of a second before. It dug int o t he
ground before det onat ing, blast ing dirt and sand int o t he air. I’d caught a break. The enemy
couldn’t see t hrough t he shower of falling eart h—I could. There. One, t wo, t hree. I t ook down
t he Mimics t hrough t he improvised curt ain of dust .
I accident ally kicked one of my buddies—t he sort of kick you used t o break down a door
when bot h of your hands were full. I had a gun in my left hand and a bat t le axe in my right . It
was a good t hing God had given us t wo arms and legs. If I only had t hree appendages t o work
wit h, I wouldn’t be able t o help t his soldier out , whoever he was.
As I t urned, I cut down anot her Mimic wit h a single blow. I ran up t o t he fallen soldier. He had
a wolf wearing a crown paint ed on his armor—4t h Company. If t hey were here, t hat meant
we’d met up wit h t he main assault force. The line was giving way.
The soldier’s shoulders were t rembling. He was in shock. Whet her it was t he Mimics or my
kick t hat had sent him int o it , I couldn’t t ell. He was oblivious t o t he world around him. If I left him
t here, he’d be a corpse inside of t hree minut es.
I put my hand on his shoulder plat e and est ablished a cont act comm.
“You remember how many point s we beat you by in t hat game?”
He didn’t answer. “You know, t he one you lost t o 17t h Company.”
“Wh . . . what ?” The words rasped in his t hroat .
“The rugby game. Don’t you remember? It was some kind of int ramural record, so I figure we
must a beat you by at least t en, t went y point s.”
I realized what I was doing.
“You know, it ’s funny, me t alkin’ t o you like t his. Hey, you don’t t hink she’d charge me for
st ealin’ her idea, do you? It ’s not like she has a pat ent on it or anyt hing.”
“What ? What are you t alkin’ about ?”
“You’ll be fine.” He was snapping out of it pret t y quick—he was no rookie like I’d been. I
slapped him on t he back. “You owe me, 4t h Company. What ’s your name?”
“Kogoro Murat a, and I don’t owe you shit .”
“Keiji Kiriya.”
“That ’s some at t it ude you got . Not sure I like it .”
“The feeling’s mut ual. Let ’s hope our luck holds.”
We bumped fist s and part ed ways.
I swept my head from left t o right . I ran. I pulled my t rigger. My body had long since passed
exhaust ion, but a part of me maint ained a height ened sense of alert ness impossible under
normal circumst ances. My mind was a conveyer belt sort ing good apples from t he bad—any
piece of informat ion t hat wasn’t vit al t o survival was aut omat ically shut out .
I saw Rit a Vrat aski. The rumble of an explosion heralded her arrival. A laser-guided bomb fell
from a plane circling overhead, far out of reach of t he enemy. It covered t he dist ance bet ween
us in under t went y seconds, det onat ing precisely where t he Valkyrie had called it down.
Rit a was headed for t he spot t he bomb had st ruck, a shat t ered mix of debris, equal part s
living and dead. Creat ures st reamed from t he crat er t oward her swinging bat t le axe.
Even in t he midst of bat t le, seeing Rit a’s red Jacket st irred somet hing in me. Her mere
presence had breat hed new life int o our broken line. Her skill was peerless, t he product of U.S.
Special Forces’ effort s t o make a soldier t o end all soldiers. But it was more t han t hat . She
really was our savior.
Just a glimpse of her Jacket on t he bat t lefield would drive soldiers t o give anot her t en
percent , even if t hey didn’t have it left t o spare. I’m sure t here were men who’d see her and fall
in love, like a man and a woman on a sinking ship spying one anot her bet ween waves. Deat h
could come at any moment on t he bat t lefield, so why not ? The wise guys who’d named her
Full Met al Bit ch had really fished around for t hat one.
I didn’t t hink t hey had it right . Or maybe I was st art ing t o feel somet hing for Rit a Vrat aski
myself. That suit ed me fine. Trapped in t his fucking loop, I had no hope of falling in love. Even if I
found someone who could love me in one short day, she’d be gone t he next . The loop robbed
me of every moment I spent wit h someone.
Rit a had saved me once, long ago. She had kept me calm wit h her random t alk of green t ea.
She had t old me she’d st ay wit h me unt il I died. What bet t er t arget for my unrequit ed love t han
our savior herself ?
My OS cont inued t o respond aut omat ically, despit e t he dist ract ion my emot ions were giving
it . My body t wist ed. I plant ed a foot on t he ground. I didn’t have t o t hink about t he bat t le
unfolding before my eyes. Thought only got in t he way. Deciding which way t o move, and how,
were t hings you did in t raining. If you paused t o t hink in bat t le, Deat h would be t here wait ing,
ready t o swing his scyt he.
I fought on.
It was sevent y-t wo minut es since t he bat t le had st art ed. Tanaka, Maie, Ube, and Nijou were
all KIA. Four dead, seven wounded, and zero missing. Nijou had hung t he post er of t he swimsuit
model on t he wall. Maie was from somewhere deep inside China. He never said a word. I didn’t
know much about t he ot her t wo. I et ched t he faces of t he men I’d let die deep in my mind. In a
few hours t heir pain would be gone, but I would remember. Like a t horn in my heart it
t orment ed me, t oughened me for t he next bat t le.
Somehow our plat oon had held t oget her. I could hear t he blades of t he choppers in t he
dist ance. They hadn’t been shot out of t he sky. This was t he best at t empt yet . The plat oon
leader had no words for t he recruit who’d t aken mat t ers int o his own hands. Every now and
t hen Ferrell would fire a few rounds my way t o help out .
And t hen I saw it —t he Mimic I’d fought in t he first bat t le t hat had t rapped me in t his fucking
loop. I’d fired t hree pile driver rounds int o it t hat day. I don’t know how, but I knew it was t he
one. On t he out side it was t he same bloat ed frog corpse as all t he rest , but here on my 157t h
pass t hrough t he loop, I could st ill recognize t he Mimic t hat had killed me t he first t ime.
It had t o die wit h ext reme prejudice.
Somehow I knew t hat if I could kill it , I’d pass some sort of boundary. It may not break t his
loop of bat t le aft er bat t le aft er bat t le, but something would change, however small. I was sure
of it .
Stay right there. I’m comin’ for ya.
Speaking of crossing boundaries, I st ill hadn’t read any furt her in t hat myst ery novel. I don’t
know why t hat occurred t o me t hen, but it did. I’d spent some of my last precious hours reading
t hat book. I’d st opped just as t he det ect ive was about t o reveal whodunit . I’d been so
preoccupied wit h t raining I hadn’t given it anot her t hought . It must have been nearly a year
now. Maybe it was t ime I got around t o finishing t hat book. If I killed t his Mimic and made it t o
t he next level, I’d st art on t hat last chapt er.
I readied my bat t le axe. Caut ion t o t he wind, I charged.
St at ic crackled in my headphones. Someone was t alking t o me. A woman. It was our savior,
t he Full Met al Bit ch, Valkyrie reborn, Mad Wargarit a—Rit a Vrat aski.
“How many loops is t his for you?”
1
A brilliant sun t raced crisp shadows on t he ground. The air was so clean you could have got t en
a clear sniper shot from kilomet ers away. Above t he field, t he 17t h Company’s flag snapped in
a moist sout herly breeze blowing off t he Pacific.
The sea air held a scent t hat snaked it s way down your nose and t ickled your t ongue on it s
way t o your t hroat . Rit a knit t ed her brow. It wasn’t t he st ench of a Mimic. More like t he slight ly
fishy fragrance you got from t hose bowls of nuoc mam sauce.
Wart ime t ensions and t he const ant t hreat of deat h aside, t he Far East really wasn’t so bad.
The coast line, so difficult t o defend, afforded beaut iful sunset s. The air and wat er were clean. If
Rit a, who had about one t ent h t he refinement and cult ure of an average individual, t hought it
was wonderful here, an act ual t ourist might have considered it paradise. If t here were one mark
against it , it was t he cloying humidit y.
The weat her t hat night would be perfect for an air st rike. Once t he sun had set , bombers
laden wit h GPS-guided munit ions would t ake t o t he sky in swarms t o blast t he island int o a
lifeless moonscape before t he next morning’s ground assault . The beaut iful at oll and t he flora
and fauna t hat called it home would all share t he same fat e as t he enemy, if everyt hing went
according t o plan.
“Beaut iful day, don’t you t hink, Major Vrat aski?” An old film camera dangled from t he man’s
t hick neck, a redwood t runk by comparison t o t he average Jacket jockey’s beech-t ree. Rit a
casually ignored him.
“Great light ing. Days like t oday can make even a st eel-and-rivet s airplane look like a da
Vinci.”
Rit a snort ed. “You doing fine art phot ography now?”
“That ’s hardly any way t o speak t o t he only embedded phot ojournalist in t he Japan
expedit ion. I t ake great pride in t he role I play conveying t he t rut hs of t his war t o t he public. Of
course, 90 percent of t he t rut h is light ing.”
“Pret t y slick t alk. They must love you over at PR. How many t ongues you figure you have?”
“Only t he one t he Lord saw fit t o best ow Americans wit h. Though I hear Russians and
Cret ans have t wo.”
“Well I hear t here’s a Japanese god who pulls out t he t ongues of liars. Don’t do anyt hing t o
get yours in t rouble.”
“Perish t he t hought .”
The corner of t he t raining field Rit a and t he phot ographer were st anding on caught t he full
force of t he wind coming off t he ocean. In t he middle of t he giant field, 146 men from t he 17t h
Company of t he 301st Japanese Armored Infant ry Division were frozen in neat rows along t he
ground. It was a kind of t raining called iso push-ups. Rit a hadn’t seen it before.
The rest of Rit a’s squad st ood a short dist ance away, t heir t hick, brist ly arms jut t ing out
before t hem. They were busy doing what soldiers did best , which was mocking t hose less
fort unat e t han t hemselves. Maybe this is how they practice bowing? Hey, samurai! Try picking
up a sword after an hour of that!
None of Rit a’s squadmat es would go near her wit hin t hirt y hours of an at t ack. It was an
unspoken rule. The only people who dared approach her were a Nat ive American engineer who
couldn’t hardly see st raight and t he phot ographer, Ralph Murdoch.
“They don’t move at all?” Rit a seemed doubt ful.
“No, t hey just hold t hat posit ion.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it samurai t raining. Looks more like yoga if you ask me.”
“Is it odd t o find similarit ies bet ween Indian myst icism and Japanese t radit ion?”
“Ninet y-eight !”
“Ninet y-eight !”
“Ninet y-nine!”
“Ninet y-nine!”
St aring int o t he ground like farmers wat ching rice grow, t he soldiers barked in t ime wit h t he
drill sergeant . The shout s of t he 146 men echoed in Rit a’s skull. A familiar migraine sent wires
of pain t hrough her head. This was a bad one.
“Anot her headache?”
“None of your business.”
“I don’t see how a plat oon wort h of doct ors can’t find a cure for one headache.”
“Neit her do I. Why don’t you t ry t o find out ?” she snapped.
“They keep t hose guys on a pret t y short leash. I can’t even get an int erview.”
Murdoch raised his camera. It wasn’t clear what he int ended t o do wit h t he images of t he
spect acle unfolding in perfect st illness before him. Maybe sell t hem t o a t abloid wit h not hing
bet t er t o print .
“I’m not sure t hat ’s in very good t ast e.” Rit a didn’t know a single soldier on t he field, but she
didn’t have t o know t hem t o like t hem bet t er t han Murdoch.
“Pict ures are neit her t ast eful nor dist ast eful. If you click on a link and a pict ure of a corpse
pops up, you might have grounds for a lawsuit . If t hat same pict ure appears on t he homepage
of t he New York Times, it could win a Pulit zer Prize.”
“This is different .”
“Is it ?”
“You’re t he one who broke int o t he dat a processing cent er. If it weren’t for your slip-up,
t hese men wouldn’t be here being punished, and you wouldn’t be here t aking pict ures of t hem.
I’d say t hat qualifies as dist ast eful.”
“Not so fast . I’ve been wrongly accused.” The sound of his camera shut t er grew more
frequent , masking t heir conversat ion.
“Securit y here is lax compared t o cent ral command. I don’t know what you were t rying t o dig
up out here in t he boondocks, but don’t hurt anyone else doing it .”
“So you’re ont o me.”
“I’d just hat e t o see t he censors come down on you right when you land your big scoop.”
“The government can t ell us any t rut hs t hey please. But t here are t rut hs, and t here are
truths,” Murdoch said. “It ’s up t o t he people t o decide which is which. Even if it ’s somet hing t he
government doesn’t want report ed.”
“How egot ist ical.”
“Name a good journalist who isn’t . You have t o be t o find a st ory. Do you know any
Dreamers?”
“I’m not int erest ed in feed religions.”
“Did you know t he Mimics went on t he move at almost exact ly t he same t ime you st art ed
t hat big operat ion up in Florida?”
The Dreamers were a pacifist group—civilian, of course. The emergence of t he Mimics had
had a t remendous impact on marine ecosyst ems. Organizat ions t hat had called for t he
prot ect ion of dolphins, whales, and ot her marine mammals died out . The Dreamers picked up
where t hey left off.
Dreamers believed t he Mimics were int elligent , and t hey insist ed it was humanit y’s failure t o
communicat e wit h t hem t hat had led t o t his war. They reasoned t hat if Mimics could evolve so
quickly int o such pot ent weapons, wit h pat ience, t hey could develop t he means t o
communicat e as well. The Dreamers had begun t o t ake in members of a war-weary public who
believed humanit y could never t riumph over t he Mimics, and in t he past t wo t o t hree years t he
size of t he movement had ballooned.
“I int erviewed a few before coming t o Japan,” Murdoch cont inued.
“Sounds like hard work.”
“They all have t he same dream on t he same day. In t hat dream, humanit y falls t o t he Mimics.
They t hink it ’s some sort of message t hey’re t rying t o send us. Not t hat you needed me t o t ell
you t hat .” Murdoch licked his lips. His t ongue was t oo small for his body, giving t he dist inct
impression of a mollusk. “I did a lit t le digging, and it t urns out t here are part icularly high
concent rat ions of t hese dreams t he days before U.S. Spec Ops launch major at t acks. And over
t he past few years, more and more people have been having t he dream. It hasn’t been made
public, but some of t hese people are even in t he milit ary.”
“You believe what ever t hese feed jobs t ell you? List en t o t hem long enough and t hey’d have
you t hinking sea monkeys were regular Einst eins.”
“Academic circles are already discussing t he possibilit y of Mimic int elligence. And if t hey are,
it ’s not far-fet ched t o t hink t hey would t ry t o communicat e.”
“You shouldn’t assume everyt hing you don’t underst and is a message,” Rit a said. She
snort ed. “Keep on like t hat , and next t hing you’ll be t elling me you’ve found signs of int elligence
in our government , and we bot h know t hat ’s never going t o happen.”
“Very funny. But t here’s a science here you can’t ignore. Each st ep up t he evolut ionary
ladder—from single-celled organism, t o cold-blooded animal, t o warm-blooded animal—has
seen a t enfold increase in energy consumpt ion.” Ralph licked his lips again. “If you look at t he
amount of energy a human in modern societ y consumes, it ’s t en t imes great er t han t hat of a
warm-blooded animal of similar size. Yet Mimics, which are supposed t o be a cold-blooded
animal, consume t he same amount of energy as humans.”
“That supposed t o mean t hey’re higher t han us on t he ladder? That ’s quit e a t heory. You
should have it published.”
“I seem t o recall you saying somet hing about having dreams.”
“Sure I have dreams. Ordinary dreams.”
To Rit a, looking for meaning in dreams was a wast e of t ime. A night mare was a night mare.
And t he t ime loops she’d st umbled int o in t he course of t he war, well, t hey were somet hing
else ent irely. “We have an at t ack coming up t omorrow. Did any of t he people you int erviewed
get a message?”
“Absolut ely. I called L.A. t his morning t o confirm it . All t hree had had t he dream.”
“Now I know it ’s not t rue. That ’s impossible.”
“How would you know?”
“This is only t he first t ime t hrough t oday.”
“That again? How can a day have a first t ime or a second t ime?”
“Just hope you never find out .”
Murdoch made a show of shrugging. Rit a ret urned her gaze t o t he unlucky men on t he field.
Jacket jockeys didn’t have much use for muscle. Endurance was t he order of t he day, not
st amina-draining burst power. To build t heir endurance, Rit a’s squad pract iced a st anding
t echnique from kung-fu known as ma bu. Ma bu consist ed of spreading your legs as t hough
you were st raddling a horse and maint aining t he posit ion for an ext ended period of t ime. In
addit ion t o st rengt hening leg muscle, it was an ext remely effect ive way t o improve balance.
Rit a wasn’t sure what benefit , if any, t he iso push-ups were supposed t o have. It looked
more like punishment , plain and simple. The Japanese soldiers, packed t oget her like sardines in
a can, remained frozen in t hat one posit ion. For t hem, t his probably ranked among t he worst
experiences of t heir lives. Even so, Rit a envied t hem t his simple memory. Rit a hadn’t shared
t hat sort of t hrowaway experience wit h anyone in a long t ime.
The st ifling wind t ugged at her rust -red hair. Her bangs, st ill t oo long no mat t er how many
t imes she cut t hem, made her forehead it ch.
This was t he world as it was at t he st art of t he loop. What happened here only Rit a would
remember. The sweat of t he Japanese soldiers, t he whoops and jeers of t he U.S. Special
Forces— it would all be gone wit hout a t race.
Maybe it would have been best not t o t hink about it , but wat ching t hese soldiers t raining t he
day before an at t ack, sweat -soaked shirt s st icking t o t heir skin in t he damp air, she felt sorry
for t hem. In a way, t his was her fault for bringing Murdoch along wit h her.
Rit a decided t o find a way t o short en t he PT and put an end t o t his seemingly point less
exercise. So what if it inst illed a samurai fight ing spirit ? They’d st ill wet t hemselves t he first
t ime t hey ran int o a Mimic assault . She want ed t o st op it , even if it was a sent iment al gest ure
t hat no one but herself would ever appreciat e.
Surveying t he t raining field, Rit a chanced upon a pair of defiant eyes st aring direct ly at her.
She was accust omed t o being looked on wit h awe, admirat ion, even fear, but she’d never seen
t his: a look filled wit h such unbridled hat red from a complet e st ranger. If a person could shoot
lasers from t heir eyes, Rit a would have been baked crisper t han a Thanksgiving t urkey in about
t hree seconds.
She had only met one ot her man whose eyes even approached t he same int ensit y. Art hur
Hendricks’s deep blue eyes had known no fear. Rit a had killed him, and now t hose blue eyes
were buried deep in t he cold eart h.
Judging by his muscles, t he soldier st aring at her was a rookie not long out of boot camp.
Not hing like Hendricks. He had been an American, a lieut enant , and t he commander of t he U.S.
Special Forces squad.
The color of t his soldier’s eyes was different . His hair, t oo. His face and body weren’t even
close. St ill, t here was somet hing about t his Asian soldier t hat Rit a Vrat aski liked.
2
Rit a had oft en wondered what t he world would be like if t here were a machine t hat could
definit ively measure t he sum of a person’s pot ent ial.
If DNA det ermined a person’s height or t he shape of t heir face, why not t heir less obvious
t rait s t oo? Our fat hers and mot hers, grandfat hers and grandmot hers—ult imat ely every
individual was t he product of t he blood t hat flowed in t he veins of t hose who came before. An
impart ial machine could read t hat informat ion and assign a value t o it , as simple as measuring
height or weight .
What if someone who had t he pot ent ial t o discover a formula t o unlock t he myst eries of t he
universe want ed t o become a pulp fict ion writ er? What if someone who had t he pot ent ial t o
creat e unparalleled gast ronomic delicacies had his heart set on civil engineering? There is
what we desire t o do, and what we are able t o do. When t hose t wo t hings don’t coincide,
which pat h should we pursue t o find happiness?
When Rit a was young, she had a gift for t wo t hings: playing horseshoes and pret ending t o
cry. The t hought t hat her DNA cont ained t he pot ent ial t o become a great warrior couldn’t have
been furt her from her mind.
Before she lost her parent s when she was fift een, she was an ordinary kid who didn’t like her
carrot -t op hair. She wasn’t part icularly good at sport s, and her grades in junior high school were
average. There was not hing about her dislike of bell peppers and celery t hat set her apart .
Only her abilit y t o feign crying was t ruly except ional. She couldn’t fool her mot her, whose eagle
eyes saw t hrough her every ruse, but wit h anyone else she’d have t hem eat ing out of her hand
aft er a few seconds of wat erworks. Rit a’s only ot her dist inguishing feat ure was t he red hair
she’d inherit ed from her grandmot her. Everyt hing else about her was exact ly like any ot her of
over t hree hundred million Americans.
Her family lived in Pit t sfield, a small t own just east of t he Mississippi River. Not t he Pit t sfield
in Florida, not t he Pit t sfield in Massachuset t s, but t he Pit t sfield in Illinois. Her fat her was t he
youngest child in a family of mart ial art ist s—most ly jujut su. But Rit a didn’t want t o go t o a
milit ary academy or play sport s. She want ed t o st ay at home and raise pigs.
Wit h t he except ion of t he young men who signed up wit h t he UDF, life for t he people of
Pit t sfield was peaceful. It was an easy place t o forget t hat humanit y was in t he middle of a war
against a st range and t errible foe.
Rit a didn’t mind living in a small t own and never seeing anyone but t he same four t housand
people or so. List ening t o t he squeals of t he pigs day in and day out could get a lit t le t iresome,
but t he air was clean and t he sky wide. She always had a secret spot where she could go t o
daydream and look for four-leaf clovers.
An old ret ired t rader had a small general st ore in t own. He sold everyt hing from foodst uffs
and hardware t o lit t le silver crosses t hat were supposed t o keep t he Mimics away. He carried
all-nat ural coffee beans you couldn’t find anyplace else.
The Mimic at t acks had t urned most of t he arable land in developing count ries t o desert ,
leaving luxury foods like nat ural coffee, t ea, and t obacco ext remely difficult t o come by. They’d
been replaced wit h subst it ut es or art ificially flavored t ast ealikes t hat usually failed.
Rit a’s t own was one of many at t empt ing t o provide t he produce and livest ock needed by a
hungry nat ion and it s army.
The first vict ims of t he Mimic at t acks were also t he most vulnerable: t he poorest regions of
Africa and Sout h America. The archipelagos of Sout heast Asia. Count ries t hat lacked t he
means t o defend t hemselves wat ched as t he encroaching desert devoured t heir land. People
abandoned t he cult ivat ion of cash crops—t he coffee, t ea, t obacco, and spices covet ed in
wealt hier nat ions—and began growing st aples, beans and sorghum, anyt hing t o st ave off
st arvat ion. Developed nat ions had generally been able t o st op t he Mimic advance at t he
coast line, but much of t he produce t hey had t aken for grant ed disappeared from market s and
st ore shelves overnight .
Rit a’s fat her, who had grown up in a world where even Midwest erners could have fresh sushi
every day, was, it is no exaggerat ion t o say, a coffee addict . He didn’t smoke or drink—coffee
was his vice. Oft en he would t ake Rit a by t he hand and sneak off wit h her t o t he old man’s
st ore when Rit a’s mot her wasn’t wat ching.
The old man had skin of bronze and a bushy whit e beard.
When he wasn’t t elling st ories, he chewed t he st em of his hookah hose bet ween puffs. He
spent his days surrounded by exot ic goods from count ries most people had never heard of.
There were small animals wrought in silver. Grot esque dolls. Tot em poles carved wit h t he faces
of birds or st ranger beast s. The air of t he shop was a heady mix of t he old man’s smoke, unt old
spices, and all-nat ural coffee beans st ill carrying a hint of t he rich soil in which t hey grew.
“These beans are from Chile. These here are from Malawi, in Africa. And t hese t raveled all
t he way down t he Silk Road from Viet nam t o Europe,” he’d t ell Rit a. The beans all looked t he
same t o her, but she would point , and t he old man would rat t le off t heir pedigrees.
“Got any Tanzanian in t oday?” Her fat her was well versed in coffee.
“What , you finish t he last bat ch already?”
“Now you’re st art ing t o sound like my wife. What can I say? They’re my favorit e.”
“How about t hese—now t hese are really somet hing. Premium Kona coffee grown on t he Big
Island of Hawaii. Seldom find t hese even in New York or Washingt on. Just smell t hat aroma!”
The wrinkles on t he old man’s head deepened int o creases as he smiled. Rit a’s fat her
crossed his arms, clearly impressed. He was enjoying t his difficult dilemma. The count ert op was
slight ly higher t han Rit a’s head, so she had t o st and on t ipt oe t o get a good look.
“They got Hawaii. I saw it on TV.”
“You’re cert ainly well informed, young lady.”
“You shouldn’t make fun. Kids wat ch way more news t han grownups do. All t hey care about
is baseball and foot ball.”
“You’re cert ainly right about t hat .” The old man st roked his forehead. “Yes, t his is t he last of
it . The last Kona coffee on t he face of t he eart h. Once it ’s gone, it ’s gone.”
“Where’d you get ahold of somet hing like t hat ?”
“That , my dear, is a secret .”
The hempen bag was packed wit h cream-colored beans. They were slight ly more round
t han most coffee beans, but t hey looked ordinary in all ot her respect s.
Rit a picked up one of t he beans and inspect ed it . The unroast ed specimen was cool and
pleasant t o t he t ouch. She imagined t he beans basking in t he sun of an azure sky t hat spread
all t he way t o t he horizon. Her fat her had t old her about t he skies over t he islands. Rit a didn’t
mind t hat t he skies in Pit t sfield were a t hin and wat ery blue, but just once she want ed t o see
t he skies t hat had filled t hose beans wit h t he warmt h of t he sun.
“Do you like coffee, young lady?”
“Not really. It ’s not sweet . I prefer chocolat e.”
“Pit y.”
“It smells nice, t hough. And t hese ones definit ely smell best of all,” Rit a said.
“Ah, t hen t here’s hope for you yet . What do you say, care t o t ake over my shop when I
ret ire?”
Rit a’s fat her, who unt il t hen hadn’t looked up from t he coffee beans, int errupt ed. “Don’t put
any ideas in her head. We need someone t o carry on t he farm, and she’s all we’ve got .”
“Then maybe she can find a promising young boy or girl for me t o pass on my shop t o, eh?”
“I don’t know, I’ll t hink about it ,” Rit a answered wit h indifference.
Her fat her set down t he bag of coffee he’d been admiring and kneeled t o look Rit a in t he
eye.
“I t hought you want ed t o help out on t he farm?”
The old man hast ily int erject ed, “Let t he child make up her own mind. It ’s st ill a free count ry.”
A light flared in t he young Rit a’s eyes. “That ’s right , Dad. I get t o choose, right ? Well, as long
as t hey don’t make me join t he army.”
“Don’t like t he army eit her, eh? The UDF isn’t all bad, you know.”
Rit a’s fat her scowled. “This is my daught er you’re t alking t o.”
“But anyone can enlist once t hey t urn eight een. We all have t he right t o defend our count ry,
son and daught er alike. It ’s quit e t he opport unit y.”
“I’m just not sure I want my daught er in t he milit ary.”
“Well I don’t wanna join t he army in t he first place, Dad.”
“Oh, why’s t hat ?” A look of genuine curiosit y crossed t he old man’s face.
“You can’t eat Mimics. I read so in a book. And you shouldn’t kill animals you can’t eat just for
t he sake of killing t hem. Our t eachers and our past or and everyone says so.”
“You’re going t o be quit e a handful when you grow up, aren’t you.”
“I just wanna be like everybody else.”
Rit a’s fat her and t he old man looked at each ot her and shared a knowing chuckle. Rit a didn’t
underst and what was so funny.
Four years lat er, t he Mimics would at t ack Pit t sfield. The raid came in t he middle of an
unusually harsh wint er. Snow fell fast er t han it could be cleared from t he st reet s. The cit y was
frozen t o a halt .
No one knew t his at t he t ime, but Mimics send out somet hing akin t o a scout ing part y before
an at t ack, a small, fast -moving group whose purpose is t o advance as far as possible t hen
ret urn wit h informat ion for t he ot hers. That January, t hree Mimics had slipped past t he UDF
quarant ine and made t heir way up t he Mississippi River undet ect ed.
If t he t ownspeople hadn’t not iced somet hing suspicious moving in t he shadows, it ’s doubt ful
t he scout ing part y would have t aken part icular not ice of Pit t sfield, wit h it s livest ock and acres
of farmland. As it t urned out , t he shot fired from t he hunt ing rifle of t he night wat ch led t o a
massacre.
The st at e guard was immobilized by t he snow. It would be hours before a UDF plat oon could
be lift ed in by helicopt er. By t hen, half t he buildings in t own had burnt t o t he ground and one
out of t hree of t he t own’s fift een hundred resident s had been killed. The mayor, t he preacher,
and t he old man from t he general st ore were among t he dead.
Men who had chosen t o grow corn rat her t han join t he army died fight ing t o defend t heir
families. Small arms were no use against Mimics. Bullet s only glanced off t heir bodies. Mimic
javelins ripped t hrough t he walls of wooden and even brick houses wit h ease.
In t he end, a ragged bunch of t ownspeople defeat ed t he t hree Mimics wit h t heir bare hands.
They wait ed unt il t he Mimics were about t o fire before rushing t hem, knocking t he creat ures
int o each ot hers’ javelins. They killed t wo of t he Mimics t his way, and drove off t he t hird.
Dying, Rit a’s mot her shelt ered her daught er in her arms. Rit a wat ched in t he snow as her
fat her fought and was killed. Smoke spiraled up from t he flames. Brilliant cinders flit t ed up int o
t he night . The sky glowed blood red.
From beneat h her mot her’s body, already beginning t o grow cold, Rit a considered. Her
mot her, a devout Christ ian, had t old her t hat pret ending t o cry was a lie, and t hat if she lied,
when God judged her immort al soul she wouldn’t be allowed int o Heaven. When her mot her
t old Rit a t hat if Mimics didn’t lie t hey could get int o Heaven, t he girl had grown angry. Mimics
weren’t even from Eart h. They didn’t have souls, did t hey? If t hey did, and t hey really did go t o
Heaven, Rit a wondered whet her people and Mimics would fight up t here. Maybe t hat ’s what
await ed her parent s.
The government sent Rit a t o live wit h some dist ant relat ives. She st ole a passport from a
refugee t hree years older t han she who lived in a run-down apart ment next door and headed
for t he UDF recruit ing office.
All over t he count ry, people were get t ing t ired of t he war. The UDF needed all t he soldiers
t hey could get for t he front lines.
Provided t he applicant hadn’t commit t ed a part icularly heinous crime, t he army wouldn’t t urn
anyone away. Legally, Rit a wasn’t old enough t o enlist , but t he recruit ing officer barely even
glanced at her purloined passport before handing her a cont ract .
The army grant ed people one last day t o back out of enlist ment if t hey were having second
t hought s. Rit a, whose last name was now Vrat aski, spent her last day on a hard bench out side
t he UDF office.
Rit a didn’t have any second t hought s. She only want ed one t hing: t o kill every last Mimic
t hat had invaded her planet . She knew she could do it . She was her fat her’s daught er.
3
On t he next clear night , look up in t he direct ion of t he const ellat ion humanit y calls Cancer.
Bet ween t he pincers of t he right claw of t hat giant crab in t he sky sit s a faint st ar. No mat t er
how hard you st are, you won’t see it wit h t he naked eye. It can only be viewed t hrough a
t elescope wit h a t hirt y-met er apert ure. Even if you could t ravel at t he speed of light , fast
enough t o circle t he eart h seven and a half t imes in a single second, it would t ake over fort y
years t o reach t hat st ar. Signals from Eart h scat t er and disperse on t heir journey across t he
vast gulf bet ween.
On a planet revolving around t his st ar lived life in great er numbers and diversit y t han t hat on
Eart h. Cult ures more advanced t han ours rose and flourished, and creat ures wit h int elligence
far surpassing t hat of H. sapiens held dominion. For t he purposes of t his fairy t ale, we’ll call
t hem people.
One day, a person on t his planet invent ed a device called an ecoforming bomb. The device
could be affixed t o t he t ip of a spacecraft . This spacecraft , far simpler t han any similar craft
burdened wit h life and t he means t o support it , could cross t he void of space wit h relat ive
ease. Upon reaching it s dest inat ion, t he ship’s payload would det onat e, showering nanobot s
over t he planet ’s surface.
Immediat ely upon arrival, t he nanobot s would begin t o reshape t he world, t ransforming any
harsh environment int o one suit able for colonizat ion by t he people who made t hem. The act ual
process is far more complicat ed, but t he det ails are unimport ant . The spacecraft ferrying
colonist s t o t he new world would arrive aft er t he nanobot s had already complet ed t he
t ransformat ion.
The scholars among t hese people quest ioned whet her it was et hical t o dest roy t he exist ing
environment of a planet wit hout first examining it . Aft er all, once done, t he process could not
be undone. It seemed reasonable t o conclude t hat a planet so readily adapt ed t o support life
from t heir own world might also host indigenous life, perhaps even int elligent life, of it s own.
Was it right , t hey asked, t o st eal a world, sight unseen, from it s nat ive inhabit ant s?
The creat ors of t he device argued t hat t heir civilizat ion was built on advancement s t hat
could not be undone. To expand t heir t errit ory, t hey had never shied away from sacrificing
lesser life in t he past . Forest s had been cleared, swamps drained, dams built . There had been
count less examples of people dest roying habit at s and driving species t o ext inct ion for t heir
own benefit . If t hey could do t his on t heir own planet , why should some unknown world in t he
void of space be t reat ed different ly?
The scholars insist ed t hat t he ecoforming of a planet which might harbor int elligent life
required direct oversight . Their prot est s were recorded, considered, and ult imat ely ignored.
There were concerns more pressing t han t he preservat ion of what ever life might be
unwit t ingly st omped out by t heir ecoforming project s. The people had grown t oo numerous for
t heir own planet , and so t hey required anot her t o support t heir burgeoning populat ion. The
chosen world’s parent st ar could not be at t oo great a dist ance, nor would a binary or flare st ar
suffice. The planet it self would have t o maint ain an orbit around a G-class st ar at a dist ance
sufficient for wat er t o exist in liquid form. The one st ar syst em t hat met t hese crit eria was t he
st ar we call t he sun. They did not worry for long t hat t his one st ar might be t he only one in t his
corner of t he Milky Way t hat was home t o int elligent life like t heir own. No at t empt was made
t o communicat e. The planet was over fort y years away at t he speed of light , and t here was no
t ime t o wait eight y years for t he chance of a reply.
The spacecraft built on t hat dist ant planet event ually reached Eart h. It brought wit h it no
members of t heir species. No weapons of invasion. It was basically not hing more t han a
const ruct ion machine.
When it was det ect ed, t he int erst ellar craft drew t he at t ent ion of t he world. But all Eart h’s
at t empt s t o make cont act went unanswered. Then t he ship split int o eight pieces. Four of t he
pieces sank deep under t he ocean, while t hree fell on land. The final piece remained in orbit .
The pieces t hat landed in Nort h Africa and Aust ralia were handed over t o NATO. Russia and
China fought over t he piece t hat landed in Asia, but China came out on t op. Aft er much
arguing among t he nat ions of Eart h, t he orbit ing mot hership was reduced t o a small piece of
space junk by a volley of missiles.
The crèche machines t hat came t o rest on t he ocean floor began carrying out t heir
inst ruct ions quiet ly and met hodically. In t he dept hs, t he machines chanced upon echinoderms
—st arfish. The crèche-produced nanobot s penet rat ed t he rigid endoskelet ons of t he st arfish
and began t o mult iply in symbiosis wit h t heir host s.
The result ing creat ures fed on soil. They at e t he world and shat out poison. What passed
t hrough t heir bodies was t oxic t o life on Eart h, but suit able for t he people who had sent t hem.
Slowly, t he land where t he creat ures fed died and became desert . The seas where t hey spread
t urned a milky green.
At first it was t hought t hat t he creat ures were t he result of mut at ions caused by chemical
runoff, or perhaps some prehist oric life form released by t ect onic act ivit y. Some scient ist s
insist ed it was a species of evolved salamander, t hough t hey had no evidence t o support t heir
conclusion. Event ually, t hese new creat ures formed groups and began vent uring out of t he
wat er. They cont inued t heir work t o reshape t he eart h wit h no regard for t he societ y of man.
When t hey first appeared on land, t he alien xenoformers were not weapons of war. They
were sluggish, and a group of armed men could easily dispat ch t hem. But like cockroaches t hat
develop resist ance t o pest icides, t he alien creat ures evolved. The crèche machines t hat
creat ed t hem concluded t hat in order t o fulfill t heir object ive of xenoforming t he planet , t hey
would have t o remove t he obst acles st anding in t heir way.
War engulfed t he world. The damage wrought was swift and massive. In response, a
worldwide Unit ed Defense Force was est ablished. Mankind had a name for t he enemy t hat had
brought t he world t o t he brink of ruin. We called t hem Mimics.
4
Rit a Vrat aski joined U.S. Special Forces aft er t he bat t le t hat earned her t he Thor’s Medal of
Valor. The medal, which bears a likeness of said deit y brandishing a hammer, is awarded t o any
soldier who kills t en or more Mimics in a single bat t le. The Mimics had emerged as t he only foe
capable of st anding against a plat oon of fift y armed infant ry raining a hail of bullet s. Few Thor
medals needed t o be st ruck.
The officer who hung t he gleaming medal around Rit a’s neck praised her for joining t he elit e
ranks of t hose who could claim t o have t aken down a double handful of Mimics. Rit a was t he
first soldier in hist ory t o receive t he honor on her second bat t le. There were some who
wondered aloud, t o her face, how Rit a could have possibly acquired t he skills needed t o
accomplish such a feat by what was only her second field operat ion. Rit a answered t hem wit h
a quest ion of her own:
“Is cooking dangerous?”
Most would answer no. But what is a gas range but a short -range flame t hrower? Any
number of flammable mat erials might lie wait ing beneat h t he average kit chen sink. Shelves
lined wit h pot s could weaken and fall in an avalanche of iron and st eel. A but cher’s knife could
kill as easily as a dagger.
Yet few people would consider cooking a dangerous profession, and indeed, t he act ual
danger is remot e. Anyone who has spent any t ime in a kit chen is familiar wit h t he inherent
risks, such as t hey are, and knows what can be done safely and what can’t . Never t hrow wat er
on an oil fire, keep t he knife point ed away from your carot id art ery, don’t use rat poison when
t he recipe calls for parmesan cheese.
To Rit a, war was no different .
The Mimics’ at t acks were simpleminded. They reminded Rit a of t he swine she’d raised back
in Pit t sfield. Soldiers would single out a Mimic t o at t ack, but Mimics did t hings t he ot her way
around. Like a broom sweeping dust off t he floor, Mimics at t acked ent ire groups of soldiers at
once. As long as you knew how t o avoid t he broom, no mat t er how many t imes t he Mimics
at t acked, you wouldn’t get swept away. The secret t o fight ing t he Mimics wasn’t avoiding
danger, it was running headlong int o it .
Try it yourself next time. It’s easy.
That was usually enough t o get t hem t o leave her alone. They’d shrug and st umble away,
dumbfounded.
Rit a, who’d only just t urned sixt een, didn’t underst and why she was so gift ed in bat t le. She’d
have been happier having a knack at baking meat pies, or knowing just where a sow want ed
scrat ching, but apparent ly God had a sense of humor. He must have not iced her dozing during
t he sermons all t hose Sundays her parent s had t aken her t o church.
Special Forces was a place for individualist s, for people wit h aut horit y problems. Everyone in
t he squad was supposedly a vicious murderer who’d been given t he choice bet ween t he army
and t he noose. They were guys who’d as soon shoot a person as t alk t o him, and t hey didn’t
discriminat e bet ween friendlies and Mimics when t hey were let t ing fly wit h 20mm rounds. It
was hard dut y, and t hey were always looking for more warm bodies t o fill t he spot s left by all
t he KIAs.
In fact , Rit a’s unit t urned out t o be a squad full of bat t le-hardened vet s. If you melt ed down
all t he medals earned in t hat squad, you could have made one hell of an Olympic-class
weight lift ing barbell.
The squad was full of badasses who had been t hrough Hell and back so many t imes t hey
were on a first name basis wit h t he Devil. When shit st art ed flying, t hey st art ed t elling jokes.
Not t he kind of jokes you t old your mot her over dinner, eit her. Cont rary t o t heir reput at ion,
however, t here were some good guys in t he bunch. Rit a t ook t o her new comrades
immediat ely.
A first lieut enant by t he name of Art hur Hendricks held t he squad t oget her. He had gleaming
blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and a beaut iful wife so delicat e you had t o be careful not t o
break her when giving her a hug. No mat t er how minor t he operat ion, Hendricks would always
give his wife a call beforehand, for which he was const ant ly derided by t he rest of t he squad.
In a squad where everyone, men and women bot h, used language t hat would have sent a
nun int o cardiac arrest , Hendricks was t he only man who never ut t ered a single profanit y. At
first he t reat ed Rit a like a lit t le sist er, much t o her const ernat ion. She’d never admit it , but she
grew t o like it .
Rit a had been in t he squad for about half a year when she became t rapped in t he t ime loop
t hat had dict at ed t he rhyt hm of her life ever since. The bat t le t hat would t urn Rit a Vrat aski
int o t he Valkyrie was a special operat ion even by U.S. Special Forces st andards. The president
was up for reelect ion, and he want ed t o deliver a milit ary vict ory t o secure his own.
Over t he object ions of his generals and t he media, he poured it all int o t he operat ion, every
t ank wit h t reads, every at t ack chopper t hat could st ay airborne, and over t en t housand
plat oons of Jacket ed soldiers. Their goal: t o regain cont rol of t he Florida peninsula. It was t he
most dangerous, most reckless, and by far t he hardest bat t le Rit a had ever seen.
Special Forces had a lot of four-let t er words in t heir vocabulary, but fear wasn’t one of t hem.
Even so, it t ook more t han one squad t o t urn around a hopeless war against a superior enemy.
A Jacket grant ed superhuman st rengt h, but t hat alone didn’t t urn people int o superheroes.
During t he Second World War, Erich Hart mann had shot down 352 planes on t he Russian
Front , but Germany st ill lost t he war. If t he brass draft ed plans t hat called for t he impossible,
t he mission would fail, simple as t hat .
Aft er t he bat t le, derelict Jacket s lit t ered t he Florida peninsula, t heir shat t ered shells serving
as coffins for t he corpses inside.
Rit a Vrat aski had somehow managed t o t oe t he piano-wire-t hin line t hat snaked bet ween
life and deat h. She had bent her pile driver before losing it ent irely. She was low on ammo. She
clut ched her 20mm rifle so t ight ly it might as well have been welded t o her hand. Fight ing back
t he urge t o vomit , she st ripped bat t eries from t he bodies of her fallen friends. She cradled her
rifle in her arms.
“You look like you’re having a bad day.”
It was Hendricks. He sat down next t o Rit a where she was squat t ing in a hollow on t he
ground and looked up at t he sky as t hough he were t rying t o pick shapes out of t he clouds.
Right in front t hem, a javelin, screaming it s high-pit ched wail, shot int o t he ground. Thick black
smoke billowed from t he impact crat er. Images of Pit t sfield burning against a red sky filled
Rit a’s t hought s.
Hendricks knew he had t o walk Rit a back from wherever she was. “My mot her once t old me
t hat in part s of China, t hey mix animal blood wit h t heir t ea.”
Rit a couldn’t speak. Her t hroat was sandpaper, and she doubt ed whet her she could even
manage t o swallow.
Hendricks went on. “The nomads t here can all ride horses. Men, women, even t he children. In
t he Middle Ages, it was t heir mobilit y t hat enabled t hem t o conquer t he bulk of Eurasia. Not
even Europe was spared. They came from t he east , moving t hrough one count ry aft er anot her
—savage foreigners who sipped blood from t eacups— drawing nearer and nearer. It ’s enough
t o give you night mares. Some people t hink it was act ually t hose Chinese nomads who gave
rise t o t he vampire legends of East ern Europe.”
“. . . Lieut enant ?”
“My lit t le st ory boring you?”
“I’m all right now, Lieut enant . I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“Hey, we all need a break somet imes. Especially in a marat hon like t his. Just a lit t le more, it ’ll
be t ime t o hit t he showers. I promise.” He finished speaking and moved on t o t he next soldier.
Rit a rejoined t he fray.
And t hen she saw it . One Mimic t hat st ood out from t he rest . It didn’t look different from t he
ot hers—anot her bloat ed dead frog in a sea of wat erlogged amphibians. But t here was
somet hing about t his one t hat set it apart . Maybe spending so much t ime in such proximit y t o
deat h had sharpened senses she didn’t know she had, revealing secret s t hat lay hidden from
normal sight .
When she killed t hat Mimic, t he t ime loop began.
There was always one Mimic at t he heart of t he net work, a queen of sort s. It s out ward
appearance was t he same as t he ot hers. Just as all pigs looked alike t o someone not in t he
business of raising pigs, t he difference bet ween t hat Mimic and t he rest was one only Rit a
could see. Somehow, as she fought and slew count less Mimics, she began t o t ell t hem apart . It
was somet hing subliminal, bordering on inst inct . She couldn’t have explained t he difference if
she t ried.
The easiest place t o hide a t ree was in t he forest .
The easiest place t o hide an officer was in among t he grunt s.
The Mimic at t he heart of each pack was hiding in plain sight . Think of it as t he server of t he
net work.
When you kill t he server, t he Mimic net work emit s a specific t ype of signal. The scient ist s
would lat er ident ify it as a t achyon pulse, or some ot her part icle t hat could t ravel t hrough t ime,
but Rit a didn’t really underst and any of t hat . The import ant part was t hat t he signal emit t ed by
Mimics t hat had lost t heir server t raveled back in t ime t o warn t hem of t he imminent danger
t hey faced.
The danger appeared in t he memory of t he Mimics as a port ent , a window int o t he fut ure.
The Mimics t hat received t his vision could modify t heir act ions t o safely navigat e t he pending
danger. This was only one of many t echnologies discovered by t hat advanced race from a
dist ant st ar. The process, built int o t he design of each crèche machine, served as a warning
syst em t o prevent some freak accident from upset t ing a xenoforming plan t hat had t aken so
long t o place in mot ion.
But t he Mimics weren’t t he only ones who could benefit from t hese signals. Kill a Mimic
server while in elect rical cont act wit h it , and a human would receive t he same gift of foresight
meant for t he net work. The t achyon signal sent int o t he past doesn’t dist inguish bet ween
Mimic and human, and when it came, humans perceived t he port ent as a hyperrealist ic dream,
accurat e in every det ail.
To t ruly defeat a Mimic st rike force, you have t o first dest roy t heir net work and all t he
backups it cont ains, t hen dest roy t he server Mimic. Ot herwise, no mat t er how many different
st rat egies you t ry, t he Mimics will always develop a count erst rat egy t hat ensures t heir survival.
1. Dest roy t he ant enna.
2. Massacre every Mimic being used as backup for t he net work.
3. Once t he possibilit y for t ransmissions t o t he past has been eliminat ed, dest roy t he server.
Three simple st eps t o escape t o t he fut ure. It t ook Rit a 211 passes t hrough t he loop t o
figure t hem out .
No one Rit a t old would believe her. The army was used t o dealing in concret e fact s. No one
was int erest ed in far-fet ched st ories involving t ime loops. When Rit a finally broke out of t he
loop and reached t he fut ure, she learned t hat Art hur Hendricks had died. He was one of
t went y-eight t housand killed in t he bat t le.
In t he t wo days Rit a had spent in an endless circle of fight ing, she’d managed t o research
t he hist ory of war, scour t he feeds for informat ion about t he Mimics, and enlist a goofball
engineer t o make her a bat t le axe. She had succeeded in breaking t he loop, in changing her
own fut ure, yet Hendricks’ name st ill ended up wit h t he let t ers KIA print ed beside it .
Rit a finally underst ood. This was what war really was. Every soldier who died in bat t le was
not hing more t han anot her figure in t he calculus of est imat ed casualt ies. Their hardships, joys,
and fears never ent ered int o t he equat ion. Some would live, ot hers would die. It was all up t o
t he impart ial god of deat h called probabilit y. Wit h t he benefit of her experience in t he t ime loop,
Rit a would be able t o beat t he odds for some and save cert ain people in t he fut ure. But t here
would always be t hose she could not save. People wit h fat hers, mot hers, friends, maybe even
brot hers, sist ers, wives, husbands, children. If she could only repeat t he 211t h loop, maybe she
could find a way t o save Hendricks—but at what cost ? Rit a Vrat aski was alone in t he t ime
loop, and in order for her t o make it out , someone would have t o die.
Hendricks made one last phone call before t hat bat t le. He learned he had just become a
fat her, and he was upset t hat t he pict ure of his kid he’d print ed out and t aped inside his Jacket
had got t en dirt y. He want ed t o go home, but he put t he mission first . Rit a had heard t he phone
conversat ion 212 t imes now. She knew it by heart .
Rit a was awarded a medal for her dist inguished service in t he bat t le—t he Order of t he
Valkyrie, given t o soldiers who killed over one hundred Mimics in a single bat t le. They had
creat ed t he honor just for her. And why not ? The only soldier on t he ent ire planet who could kill
t hat many Mimics in a single bat t le was Rit a Vrat aski.
When t he president pinned t he gleaming medal on Rit a’s chest , he lauded her as an angel of
vengeance on t he bat t lefield and declared her a nat ional t reasure. She had paid for t hat medal
wit h t he blood of her brot hers and sist ers.
She didn’t shed a t ear. Angels don’t cry.
5
Rit a was redeployed. The name Full Met al Bit ch and t he awe it inspired rippled t hrough t he
ranks. A t op secret research t eam was creat ed t o st udy t he t ime loop. Aft er poking, prodding,
and probing Rit a, t he lab coat s draft ed a report claiming it was possible t hat t he loops had
alt ered Rit a’s brain, t hat t his was t he cause of her headaches, and half a dozen ot her t hings
t hat didn’t act ually answer any quest ions. If it meant wiping t he Mimics off t he face of t he
eart h, she didn’t care if t heir space-feeds split her skull in t wo.
The president had given Rit a aut horit y t o act wit h t ot al aut onomy on t he bat t lefield. She
spoke less and less wit h t he ot her members of her squad. She had a rent al locker in New York
where she st ored t he medals t hat kept pouring in.
6
Rit a was st at ioned in Europe. The war went on.
7
Nort h Africa.
When Rit a heard t heir next assignment would be on some islands in t he Far East , she was
glad. Asian corpses would be a fresh change from t he usual blacks and whit es of t he West ern
front . Of course, no mat t er how much raw fish t hey at e over t here, t he blood st ill came gushing
out t he same shade of red when a Mimic javelin ripped up a man and his Jacket . When all was
said and done, she’d probably t ire of seeing t hem, t oo.
8
Rit a was familiar wit h cormorant fishing, a t radit ional Japanese t echnique. The fishermen t ie a
snare at t he base of t he t rained cormorant ’s neck just t ight enough t o prevent it from
swallowing any of t he larger fish it cat ches, and t hen play out enough rope t o enable t he bird
t o dive int o t he wat er and fish. Once t he cormorant has a fish, t he fishermen pull t he bird back
and make it spit out it s cat ch. Rit a felt t hat her relat ionship t o t he army was a lot like a
cormorant ’s relat ionship t o a fisherman.
Rit a was in t he army because t hat was how she made her living. Her job was t o go out and
kill Mimics and bring t heir corpses back t o her mast ers. In ret urn, t hey provided her wit h
everyt hing she needed t o live and t ook care of life’s lit t le annoyances wit hout her ever having
t o know t hey were t here. It was a give and t ake relat ionship, and in her mind it was fair.
Rit a t ook no pleasure in t he not ion of being t he savior of t he eart h, but if t hat ’s what t he
army want ed, so be it . In dark t imes t he world needed a figure for people t o rally behind.
Japan’s quarant ine line was on t he verge of collapse. If t he enemy managed t o break
t hrough at Kot oiushi, Mimics would swarm t he indust rial complex on t he main island. Wit h t he
cut t ing-edge fact ories and t echnologies Japan brought t o t he t able lost , t here would be an
est imat ed 30 percent drop in t he effect iveness of t he Jacket s t hey used t o wage t he war. The
ramificat ions would be felt t hroughout t he UDF.
Wit hout someone t o int errupt t he t achyon t ransmissions, t he bat t le would never end.
Technically it was possible t o drive t hem back wit h an overwhelming show of force. Aft er
several loops t he Mimics would realize t hey couldn’t win, and t hey would wit hdraw wit h as few
casualt ies as possible. But t hat wasn’t t he same as defeat ing t hem. They would simply ret reat
beneat h t he ocean, out of humanit y’s reach, and gat her t heir st rengt h. Once t hey had
assembled an insurmount able force, t hey would at t ack again, and t here would be no st opping
t hem a second t ime.
Fight ing a war wit h t he Mimics was a lot like playing a game wit h a child. They had decided
t hey were going t o win before t he game had even st art ed, and t hey wouldn’t give up unt il t hey
won. Lit t le by lit t le, humanit y was losing ground.
The durat ion of t he Mimic t ime loops was approximat ely t hirt y hours. Rit a repeat ed each
loop only once. The first t ime t hrough a bat t le she assessed t he casualt ies her squad
sust ained; t he second t ime t hrough she won. In t hat first pass she could see what t he st rat egy
was and learn who died. But t he lives of her friends were in t he merciless hands of fat e. That
couldn’t be changed.
Before each bat t le, Rit a secluded herself t o clear her t hought s. One of t he privileges of her
st at ion was t hat Rit a had her own privat e room t hat no one was allowed t o ent er.
Rit a’s squad underst ood t hat t he t hirt y hours before a bat t le were a special t ime for her. The
average soldier in t he squad wasn’t aware of t he t ime loop, but t hey knew t hat Rit a had her
reasons for not want ing t o t alk t o anyone in t he t ime leading up t o bat t le. They kept t heir
dist ance out of respect . Even t hough space was exact ly what Rit a want ed, it st ill made her
feel alone.
Rit a was admiring t he sparkling wat ers of t he Pacific from her perch in t he sky lounge. The
only st ruct ure on Flower Line Base t aller t han Rit a’s t ower was a nearby radio ant enna. The
t ower was pract ically begging t o be t he first t arget when t he Mimics came ashore. You could
only laugh at t he audacit y of locat ing an officers’ lounge in such a vulnerable locat ion. This was
t he t rouble wit h count ries t hat hadn’t been invaded yet .
Japan had largely managed t o escape t he ravages of t he war. If t he island had been locat ed
a lit t le furt her from Asia, it would have been reduced t o desert long ago. If it had been any
closer, t he Mimics would have invaded before moving on t o t he cont inent . The peace Japan
enjoyed all came down t o luck.
The area set aside for t he officers’ lounge was needlessly large and almost complet ely
empt y. The view it afforded of t he ocean was fit for a five-st ar hot el. By cont rast , t he heavy
dut y pipe-frame bed t hat st ood in t he middle of t he room seemed t o have been chosen as a
joke.
Rit a pressed a but t on. The liquid cryst al embedded in t he blast -resist ant glass opacified,
obscuring t he view. She had chosen t he officers’ recept ion room for her quart ers because it
was a place t he ot her members of her squad weren’t likely t o visit . The operat ing syst ems
embedded in t he bodies of her squadmat es had been programmed for war. They wouldn’t set
foot in a building t hat made for such an ost ent at ious t arget . Rit a didn’t care for it much herself.
To allay her fears, a Japanese t ech had explained t hat t he glass was int erwoven wit h
carbon fibers, giving it st rengt h on par wit h t he shell of a Jacket . If t he st uff was so great , Rit a
wondered why it didn’t seem t o work t hat well on t he front lines. At least here she was alone.
The next day she might have t o wat ch one of her friends die. She didn’t want t o have t o look
t hem in t he eye.
A soft knock roused Rit a from her t hought s. The glass at t he ent rance t o t he lounge was
also embedded wit h liquid cryst al. It was set t o opaque wit h t he rest .
“I don’t appreciat e dist ract ions wit hin minus t hirt y hours. Just leave me alone.”
There was no reply. She sensed an odd presence from t he ot her side of t he door. It felt like a
small animal being hunt ed by a pack of wolves, or a woman being st alked down a dark alley. It
could only be Shast a.
Rit a pressed t he but t on. The glass cleared t o reveal t he pet it e Nat ive American woman
st anding at t he door. First Lieut enant Shast a Raylle was older t han Rit a and, t echnically,
out ranked her, but t he Valkyrie didn’t have t o bend over backward for any engineer. St ill, Rit a
found Shast a’s deference and polit esse endearing.
Thud.
Shast a bumped her forehead against t he glass. She’d mist aken t he suddenly t ransparent
glass for an open doorway and walked right int o it . She was holding somet hing in t he hand she
pressed t o her head. She crouched on t he ground, t rembling like a leaf. It was hard t o believe
t he brain in t hat head could be so brilliant . Then again, maybe t hat ’s how geniuses were. Some
people called Rit a a milit ary genius, and she wasn’t all t hat different from everyone else. The
only t hing about her t hat was especially unique was her abilit y t o focus. Shast a’s t hought s
were probably consumed by what ever it was she held in her hand, just as Rit a’s were by t he
coming bat t le.
Rit a opened t he door halfway. Shast a’s glasses were st ill askew from t he impact wit h t he
glass. She adjust ed t hem as she st ood.
“I’m sorry t o bot her you. But t here was somet hing I just had t o show you. I’m really, really
sorry.” Shast a lowered her head and bumped it against t he door t hat st ill blocked half of t he
ent ryway. This t ime she hit t he corner.
Thud.
“Ow.” Shast a squat t ed on t he ground again.
“No need t o apologize. You’re always welcome, Lieut enant . Wit hout you, who would look
aft er my Jacket ?”
Shast a sprang t o her feet , eyes moist wit h t ears.
“You called me lieut enant again! Call me Shast a, please.”
“But , Lieut enant —”
“Shast a! I just want everyone t o t alk t o me like a normal person.”
“All right , all right . Shast a.”
“That ’s bet t er.”
Rit a smiled. “So . . . what was it you want ed t o show me?”
“Right ,” Shast a said. “Look at t his. You won’t believe it .”
Shast a opened her hand. Rit a looked int ent ly at t he st range object rest ing in her t iny palm.
Only slight ly larger t han a 9mm bullet , it was int ricat ely shaped and paint ed bright red. Rit a had
heard of people who paint ed t he t ips of t heir bullet s a separat e color t o dist inguish bet ween
t ypes of ammunit ion, but never t he ent ire casing.
She picked it up. It was shaped like a person.
Shast a raced on. “This is supposed t o be secret , right ? Someone on t he base t old me about
t hem. I went all t he way t o Tat eyama t o get it . It t ook almost all t he money I had on me t o win
it .”
“Win it ?”
“You put money in t he machine, t urn t he knob, and one of t hese figures pops out in a lit t le
plast ic bubble.”
“Is it some kind of t oy?”
“Oh no, it ’s a valuable collect or’s it em. The rare ones can t rade for over a hundred dollars
each.”
“A hundred dollars for this?”
“That ’s right .” Shast a nodded gravely.
Rit a held t he t iny figure up t o t he whit e light s of t he room. Upon closer examinat ion, it was
clearly meant t o resemble a soldier wearing a Jacket . That it was paint ed red and wielding a
bat t le axe could only mean it was supposed t o be Rit a’s Jacket . “They did a good job. Even t he
fins look just like t he real ones. I guess milit ary secret s aren’t what t hey used t o be.”
“They use professional modelers. All t hey need is a glimpse t o make somet hing almost
exact ly like t he original. The models made in Japan are t he best . They can auct ion for a lot of
money.”
“What a wast e of perfect ly good t alent .” Rit a flipped t he figure over in her hand. Et ched
across t he feet were t he words MADE IN CHINA. “China st ill has t ime t o make t oys? I heard
t hey can’t even keep up wit h t he product ion of t he Jacket cont rol chips.”
“They’ve got a bigger workforce t o go around. Remember t hat senat or who was forced t o
resign aft er he said China could afford t o lose as many people as t here are in t he ent ire Unit ed
St at es and st ill have over a billion left ? Well, t hey act ually have lost millions of people down in
t he sout h, but t hey’ve been able t o t hrow enough resources at it t o hold t he line.”
“It ’s hard t o believe we come from t he same planet .”
“America’s at war, and we st ill find t he t ime t o t urn out t errible movies.”
Rit a couldn’t argue wit h t hat .
The UDF existed to protect a world obsessed with creating worthless piles of crap, Rit a
t hought . It was amazing how people could pour t heir heart s and souls int o such t rivial t hings.
Not t hat t his was necessarily a bad t hing. No one appreciat ed t hat more t han Rit a, whose only
skill was killing.
“I have lot s more.” Shast a pulled a handful of figures from her overalls.
“What ’s t his? Some sort of pig-frog from t he dark reaches of t he Amazon?”
“That ’s a Mimic.”
“So much for your professional modelers.”
“This is what t hey look like in t he movies. So it is t he real t hing as far as t he public’s
concerned, anyway. Believe me, t his is what ’s in t he movies, down t o t he last wrinkle.”
“What about t his one?”
“You should know. It ’s Rit a Vrat aski—you!”
The figure was lean, prodigiously endowed, and sport ed curly blonde hair. It was hard t o find
a single feat ure t hat even remot ely resembled Rit a. As it happened, Rit a had act ually met t he
act ress cast t o play her in t he movies once. It was difficult t o say she didn’t fit t he role of a
Jacket jockey, since Rit a herself hardly did. But t he woman t hey picked for t he part was far t oo
glamorous for a soldier fight ing on t he front lines.
Rit a compared her figure wit h t hat of t he Mimic. Suddenly, t he Mimic modeler wasn’t looking
so far off.
“Mind if I hold on t o t his?” Rit a picked up t he Full Met al Bit ch figurine t hat bore her no
resemblance.
“What ?”
“You won’t miss one, will you?”
Shast a’s react ion was somewhere bet ween t hat of a sleeping cat kicked out of it s favorit e
spot in bed and a five-year-old whose aunt had denied her t he last piece of chocolat e
macadamia nut t offee because she’d been saving it for herself. The look on her face would
have sent applicat ions t o MIT plummet ing if prospect ive st udent s had known she was an
alumna who had graduat ed at t he t op of her class.
Rit a reconsidered her request . People like Shast a who went t o hyper-compet it ive upper-
crust universit ies were probably more likely t han most t o randomly explode if pushed. “Sorry,
bad joke. I shouldn’t t ease you like t hat .”
“No, I’m t he one who should apologize,” Shast a said. “It ’s just t hat it ’s kind of, well, really rare.
I mean, I bought every single bubble in t he machine, and t hat was t he only one t hat came out .”
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t dream of t aking it from you.”
“Thanks for underst anding. I’m really sorry. Here, why don’t you t ake t his one inst ead? It ’s
supposed t o be pret t y rare t oo.”
“What is it ?”
“It ’s t he engineer assigned t o Rit a’s squad in t he movie. So it ’s basically . . . me.” A nervous
laugh escaped Shast a’s lips.
It was t he worst cliché of a female engineer Rit a had ever seen. Rail t hin, freckled,
exaggerat ed facial feat ures at t he ext reme edge of t he probabilit y curve. If t here were ever a
t en-millimet er-high perfect ionist who would never misplace so much as a single screw or run
t he risk of kissing a member of t he opposit e sex, t his was it . Of course t he real, brilliant
engineer it was supposedly based on probably hit her head on her own locker at least t wice a
day, so it just went t o show t hat you never knew.
Shast a looked up at Rit a wit h worry in her eyes. “Don’t you like it ?”
“It doesn’t look anyt hing like you.”
“Neit her does yours.”
They looked at each ot her.
“All right , t hanks. I’ll keep it . For luck.”
Shast a lift ed anot her figure when Ralph Murdoch, t he requisit e camera hanging from his
t hick neck, walked in.
“Good morning, ladies.”
Rit a cocked one rust -red eyebrow at t he arrival of her unwelcome guest . Her face hardened
t o st eel. The sudden change in Rit a’s demeanor st art led Shast a, who looked as t hough she
couldn’t decide whet her she want ed t o hide from Rit a behind t his st range hulk of a journalist or
t he ot her way around. Aft er a few awkward moment s of hesit at ion, she opt ed for t aking cover
behind Rit a.
“How did you get in here?” Rit a made no at t empt t o hide her disdain.
“I’m a regist ered member of your personal st aff. Who would st op me?”
“You’re your own st aff, and we bot h know it . You can leave now.” Rit a didn’t care much for
t his man and his never-saw-a-speck-ofbat t lefield-mud running shoes. People like him and
Shast a could meet and t alk in t ot al safet y whenever t he mood t ook t hem. His words were
never limned wit h t he dread of knowing you would have t o wat ch your friends die in t he next
bat t le. It was t hat dread, t hat cert aint y, t hat kept Rit a away from her squadmat es, t he only
family she had left . Not hing t his rambling fool would ever have t o deal wit h in his ent ire life.
“That ’d be a shame aft er coming all t he way up here,” Murdoch said. “I happened upon an
int erest ing piece of news, and I t hought I’d share it wit h you.”
“Send it t o t he New York Times. I’ll be happy t o read all about it .”
“Trust me, you’ll wanna hear t his.”
“I’m not all t hat int erest ed in what you find int erest ing.”
“The Japanese t roops are going t o have some PT. Punishment for t roublemaking last night .”
“I asked you t o leave. I’m never in a good mood before bat t le.”
“Don’t you want t o come wat ch? They’re going t o do some sort of samurai-st yle t raining. I’d
love t o hear t he Valkyrie’s t ake on t he whole affair.”
“Your mot her must have been disappoint ed when t he abort ion only killed your conscience,”
Rit a said.
“Such t alk from a nice, sweet girl like you.”
“I’d say it next t ime t oo, but I can’t be bot hered.”
“Come again?”
“Believe me, I’d rat her not .”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “Okay, so you t alk t rash and nonsense. Two for one.”
“I guess it must be cat ching.”
“Fine, so I have no conscience and I’m going st raight t o Hell. You t old me t he same t hing in
Indonesia when I t ook t hose pict ures of t he crying kid running from a pack of Mimics.”
“Hell’s t oo good for you. You’d just find a way t o get a pict ure of Sat an and use it t o worm
your way t hrough Heaven’s back door.”
“I’ll t ake t hat as a compliment .”
A smile spread across t he Valkyrie’s lips. It was t he same smile t hat came t o her in t hose
dark hours on t he bat t lefield, when it was at least hidden behind her helmet . Shast a’s body
t ensed. Murdoch t ook a st ep back wit hout even realizing it .
“Well,” t he Full Met al Bit ch said, “I’m about t o st ep int o Hell. And unt il I do, I don’t want t o see
your face again.”
9
Rit a ended up going t o wat ch t he PT. Shast a didn’t . The only person near Rit a was t hat
damned Murdoch. The rest of her squad maint ained a respect ful dist ance.
That was when Rit a’s eyes met t hat challenge from t he field, t hat gaze bearing t he weight
of t he world. There was somet hing about t he kid t hat Rit a liked. She st art ed walking t oward
him.
She st rode wit h purpose, each st ep a perfect movement designed t o propel a Jacket across
a bat t lefield wit h t ot al efficiency. She advanced across t he field effort lessly and wit hout a
sound. To get 100 percent out of a Jacket , a soldier had t o be able t o walk across a room full of
eggs wit hout cracking a single one. That meant being able t o perfect ly dist ribut e t heir body
weight wit h every st ep.
The soldier was st ill st aring at Rit a. She walked right t o him, t hen made a ninet y-degree t urn
and headed t oward t he t ent where t he brigadier general was sit t ing. She gave him one
regulat ion salut e.
The brigadier general cast a doubt ful glance at Rit a. Rit a was a sergeant major by rank, but
she was also in t he U.S. corps, so t heir act ual relat ive places in milit ary hierarchy were a lit t le
muddy.
Rit a remembered t his man. He had been at t ached at t he hip t o t he general who had made a
beeline t o shake Rit a’s hand at t he st art of t he frivolous recept ion held t o welcome t he Special
Forces. There were plent y of officers who had climbed t he ranks wit hout ever fight ing on t he
front lines, but t his one seemed t o have a special love for grandst anding and ass-kissing.
They spoke briefly, t he general seemingly bemused and Rit a’s st ance and body language
well-pract iced. Then Rit a ret urned t o t he field, walking past t he ranks of men who seemed t o
bow before her. She chose a spot beside t he soldier who’d been st aring daggers at her and
st art ed her iso push-up. She could feel t he heat of his body radiat ing t hrough t he chill air
bet ween t hem.
The soldier didn’t move. Rit a didn’t move. The sun hung high in t he sky, slowly roast ing t heir
skin. Rit a spoke in a low voice only t he soldier beside her could hear:
“Do I have somet hing on my face?”
“Not t hat I can see.”
Ot her t han a slight ly odd int onat ion, t he soldier’s Burst was clear and easy t o underst and.
Not hing like back in Nort h Africa. People from t he former French colonies couldn’t speak Burst
t o save t heir lives.
Burst English, or simply Burst , was a language creat ed t o deal wit h t he problem of
communicat ion in an army comprised of soldiers from dozens of count ries. It had a pared-down
vocabulary and as few grammat ical irregularit ies as possible. When t hey draft ed t he language,
t hey deliberat ely st ruck all t he profanit ies from t he official vocabulary list , but you couldn’t keep
a bunch of soldiers from adding “fuck” in it s various noun, verb, and adject ive forms t o
everyt hing anyway.
“You’ve been st aring at me for a while now.”
“I guess I have,” he said.
“There somet hing you want from me?”
“Not hing I want t o discuss like t his.”
“Then let ’s wait unt il t his is done.”
“Shit -for-brains Kiriya! You’re slipping!” t he lieut enant barked. Rit a, wit h t he disint erest ed
expression of someone who’d never had a need for human cont act her ent ire life, cont inued
her iso push-up.
Iso push-ups were a lot rougher t han t hey looked. Beads of sweat formed along your hairline,
st reamed past your t emples, ran int o your eyes—making t hem burn from t he salt —and t raced
t he line of your neck before falling from your chest . Having t o endure t hat it ch as it makes it s
way down your body was a lot like what a soldier had t o endure encased in a Jacket . This
samurai training isn’t completely worthless after all, Rit a decided.
When t hings got t oo hard t o bear, it was best t o let your mind wander. Rit a let her t hought s
drift from her own body’s screams of prot est t o t he surroundings. The brigadier general from
t he General St aff Office looked baffled by t he int ruder in his proceedings. For him, a man who
had never experienced a moment of real armed conflict , maybe t his t raining field, wit h it s gent le
ocean breezes, was part of t he war. To people who had never breat hed in t hat mixt ure of
blood, dust , and burning met al t hat pervaded a bat t lefield, it was easy t o imagine t hat
deployment was war, t hat t raining was war, t hat climbing some career ladder was war. There
was only one person for whom t he war ext ended t o t hat t ranquil day before t he bat t le: a
woman named Rit a Vrat aski and her t ime loops.
Rit a had oft en dreamt t hat someday she would come across anot her person who
experienced t he loops. She’d even come up wit h a phrase t hey could use t o ident ify
t hemselves t o each ot her. A phrase only Rit a knew. A phrase t he t wo of t hem would share.
For anot her person t o be caught in a t ime loop, it would mean t hat someone ot her t han Rit a
had dest royed a Mimic server by accident . Just as Rit a was forced t o leave people out side t he
t ime loop behind, t his person would have no choice but t o leave her behind. He would be alone.
She might not be able t o t ravel t hrough t he t ime loop wit h him—t hough she also might be
able t o, and t he t hought t errified her—but she could give him advice eit her way. Share his
solit ude. Tell him how t o break out of t he loop, knowledge it had t aken Rit a 211 deat hs t o
learn. He would fight t hrough his doubt s, t he way Rit a had. He would become a great warrior.
Deep in a quiet corner of Rit a’s heart , she was sure no one would ever come t o t ell her t he
words only she knew.
The Mimic t achyon signal was t he pinnacle of an alien t echnology, a t echnology t hat had
enabled t hem t o conquer t he vast ness of space. Rit a’s ent rapment in t he t ime loop during t he
bat t le t o recapt ure Florida had been an impossible st roke of luck for humanit y. If not for t hat
chance occurrence, t he eart h would have fallen t o xenoforming. Not just humans, but virt ually
every species on t he planet , would already be ext inct .
Rit a’s fame grew wit h each bat t le, and her loneliness wit h it . She had broken out of t he t ime
loop, but she felt as t hough she were st ill reliving t he same day. Her one hope was t hat
humanit y’s vict ory, t he day when every last Mimic had been blast ed t o ext inct ion, would
somehow rid her of her t errible isolat ion. Unt il t hen, she would cont inue t o play her unique role
in t he conflict .
Rit a didn’t mind t he bat t les. She didn’t have t o t hink t o fight . When she climbed int o her red
Jacket , t he sadness, t he laught er, t he memory t hat haunt ed her more t han t he rest —it all
slipped away. The bat t lefield, swirling wit h smoke and gunpowder, was Rit a’s home.
PT ended less t han an hour lat er. The general, t he bile in his mout h forgot t en, hurried off t o
t he barracks.
As Rit a st ood, t he man beside her st aggered t o his feet . He wasn’t part icularly t all for a
Jacket jockey. He was young, but he wore his fat igues as t hough he’d been born in t hem. His
clot hes looked as t hough t hey’d just come from t he fact ory, so t here was somet hing st rangely
jarring about his appearance. His lips were t wist ed in a Mona Lisa smile t hat did a good job of
concealing his age.
The number 157 was scrawled in Arabic numerals on t he back of his hand. Rit a didn’t know
what it meant , but it was an odd t hing t o do. Odd enough t hat Rit a didn’t t hink she’d be
forget t ing him anyt ime soon. She had heard of soldiers t aping t heir blood t ype t o t he soles of
t heir feet in t he days before Jacket s were st andard-issue, but she’d never heard of a soldier
who kept not es in ballpoint pen on t he back of his hand.
“So you want ed t o t alk. What is it ?”
“Ah, right ,” he said.
“Well? Get on wit h it , soldier. I’m a pat ient girl, but t here’s a bat t le t omorrow, and I have
t hings t o do.”
“I, uh, have an answer t o your quest ion.” He hesit at ed like a high school drama st udent
reading from a bad script . “Japanese rest aurant s don’t charge for green t ea.”
Rit a Vrat aski, t he savior of humanit y, t he Valkyrie, t he ninet een-year-old girl, let her mask
slip.
The Full Met al Bit ch began t o cry.
1
“Shit , it ’s st art ed! Don’t get your balls blown off, gent s!”
Bat t le 159.
I dart forward, my Jacket ’s Doppler set t o max.
I spot a t arget , fire, duck. A javelin whizzes past my head.
“Who’s up t here? You’re t oo far forward! You wanna get yourself killed?”
The lieut enant said t he same t hing every t ime. I wiped sand from my helmet . Thunder
erupt ed from t he shells crisscrossing t he sky. I glanced at Ferrell and nodded.
This t ime t he bat t le would end. If I st ood by and wat ched as Yonabaru and Ferrell died, t hey
wouldn’t be coming back. It all came down t o t his. There was no repeat ing t his bat t le. The fear
t hat clawed at my gut s wasn’t fear of deat h, it was fear of t he unknown. I want ed t o t hrow
down my rifle and axe and find a bed t o hide under.
A normal react ion—t he world wasn’t meant t o repeat it self. I grinned in spit e of t he
but t erflies in my st omach. I was st ruggling wit h t he same fear everyone st ruggles wit h. I was
put t ing my life— t he only one I had—on t he line.
“You’re not act ually caught in a t ime loop,” Rit a had explained t o me. My experiences of t he
158 previous bat t les were real; it was me who didn’t really exist . Whoever it was t hat had been
t here for t he excruciat ing pain, hopelessness, and t he hot piss in his Jacket , he was only a
shat t ered memory now.
Rit a t old me t hat from t he point of view of t he person wit h t he memory, t here was no
difference bet ween having had an act ual experience and only having t he memory of it .
Sounded like philosophical bullshit t o me. Rit a didn’t seem t o underst and it all t hat well eit her.
I remember reading a comic, back when I st ill read comics, about a guy who used a t ime
machine t o change t he past . It seemed t o me t hat if t he past changed, t hen t he guy from t he
fut ure who went back in t ime t o change it should have disappeared—like t he guy in t hose old
Back to the Future movies—but t he comic glossed over t hose det ails.
I had become an unwilling voyeur t o t he dreams of t he Mimics. In my very first bat t le, t he one
where Rit a saved my life, I had unknowingly killed one of t hose Mimics she called “servers.” In
every bat t le since t hen, from t he second right up t o t he 158t h, Rit a had killed t he server. But
t he net work bet ween me and t he server had already been est ablished t he inst ant I killed it ,
meaning I was t he one t rapped in t he loop, and t hat Rit a had been freed.
The Mimics used t he loop t o alt er t he fut ure t o t heir advant age. The javelin t hat missed
Yonabaru in t he second bat t le had been meant for me. My chance encount er wit h a Mimic
when I ran from t he base hadn’t had anyt hing t o do wit h chance. They’d been hunt ing me all
along. If it hadn’t been for Rit a, t hey would have had me for breakfast , lunch, and dinner.
The fight ing cont inued. Chaos st alked t he bat t lefield.
I slid int o a crat er wit h t he rest of my squad t o avoid get t ing vent ilat ed by a sniper javelin
shot . The squad had moved a hundred met ers nearer t o t he coast since t he st art of bat t le.
The conical hole we had t aken cover in was court esy of t he previous night ’s GPS-guided
bombardment . A st ray round landed near my feet , spraying sand int o t he air.
“Just like Okinawa,” remarked Ferrell, his back pressed against t he wall of eart h.
Yonabaru squeezed off anot her round. “Must a been a helluva fight .”
“We were surrounded, just like now. Ran out of ammo and t hings got ugly.”
“You’re gonna jinx us.”
“I don’t know—” Ferrell sprang up from t he cover of t he crat er, fired his rifle, t hen sank back
against t he wall. “I got it in my head t hat t his bat t le’s going somewhere. Just a feeling.”
“Shit , Sarge is t alkin’ happy t alk. Bet t er wat ch out we don’t get st ruck by light ning.”
“You have any doubt s, just wat ch our newest recruit in act ion,” Ferrell said. “Wouldn’t
surprise me t o see him get up and dance t he jit t erbug just t o piss t he Mimics off.”
“I don’t know t he jit t erbug,” I said.
“No shit .”
“Maybe I’ll give t hat pret t y bat t le axe of yours a t ry.” Yonabaru nodded at t he gleaming slab
of t ungst en carbide in my Jacket ’s grip.
“You’d just hurt yourself.”
“That ’s discriminat ion is what t hat is.”
Same old, same old. Everyone t alking over each ot her, no one list ening.
“Bogies at t wo o’clock!”
“Our t hirt y-fift h cust omer of t he day!”
“Which one of you assholes just sent me t his huge-ass file? We’re in t he middle of a fuckin’
war, if you haven’t been keepin’ up!”
“Man, I need some smokes.”
“Shut t he fuck up and shoot !”
The front line edged out of cover and leveled t heir rifles at t he approaching t hrong. Bullet s
pierced t he air, but t he Mimic blit z kept coming. I gripped t he handle of my axe.
Wit hout warning, a bomb fell from t he sky. The laser-guided precision munit ion smashed t he
bedrock, digging deep int o t he eart h before det onat ing. The Mimics t umbled int o t he crat er.
A crimson Jacket appeared amid t he downpour of eart h and clay. Tungst en carbide slashed
away at flailing limbs and t hose t hick, froggy t orsos. Aft er a few minut es, not hing was left
moving. Not hing alien anyway.
St at ic filled my ears, t hen her voice came t hrough. “Sorry t o keep you wait ing.” The Full Met al
Bit ch st ood, heft ing an enormous bat t le axe, amid our sand-colored plat oon. Her gunmet al red
armor glist ened in t he sun.
I lift ed my hand so she could pick me out of t he crowd. “We just got here ourselves.”
“What ’s t he Full Met al Bit ch doin’ here?” Yonabaru forgot all about t aking cover and st ared
st upidly at her Jacket . I would have paid good money for a look at his face.
Rit a addressed Ferrell. “I need t o t alk t o whoever’s in charge of t his plat oon. Pat ch me in.”
Ferrell opened a channel bet ween Rit a and t he lieut enant . “You’re good t o go.”
“This is Rit a Vrat aski. I have a request for t he officer in charge of t he 3rd Plat oon of t he 17t h
Company, 3rd Bat t alion, 12t h Regiment , 301st Armored Infant ry Division. I need t o borrow Keiji
Kiriya. That all right wit h you?”
She didn’t st at e her rank or division. In a milit ary cult ure where t he sky was what ever color
your ranking officer said it was, only t he Valkyrie was free t o operat e out side t he chain of
command. Even back in t hat first bat t le, it hadn’t been t he Full Met al Bit ch who cradled my
head as I lay dying. It was Rit a Vrat aski.
The lieut enant ’s reply was unsure. “Kiriya? Maybe you’d like someone wit h more experience,
someone—”
“Yes or no?”
“Well, uh, yes.”
“I appreciat e your help. Sarge, how ’bout you? Mind if I borrow Kiriya?”
Ferrell shrugged his approval, his Jacket ed shoulders rising like an ocean wave.
“Thank you, Sarge.”
“See t hat he doesn’t do any jit t erbugging near our squad.”
“Jit t erbugging? That some sort of code?” Rit a asked.
“Just a figure of speech.”
“Keiji, what ’s all t his about ?”
“Sorry, Sarge. I’ll explain lat er,” I said.
“We’ll hit ’em from t welve o’clock.”
“Uh, right .”
“Hey, Keiji! If you see a vending machine, pick me up some smokes!” Yonabaru called out
right before I disconnect ed from t he comm link.
Rit a chuckled at Nijou’s wisecrack. “You’ve got a good squad. You ready?”
“Be gent le.”
“I’m always gent le.”
“That ’s not t he way I hear it .”
“Just worry about t he Mimics, okay?”
Slamming against t he sides of t he impact crat er, scrabbling, and finally climbing over one
anot her, Mimics had begun t o push out from t he hole Rit a had blast ed in t he ground. We dove
int o t he pack headfirst . It was wall-t o-wall bloat ed frogs.
Run. Fire. Ret reat . Fresh magazine. Run some more. Fire. Breat he.
Precision bombs hunt ed for t he Mimics where t hey hid. Smoke spiraled skyward where t hey
had found t heir quarry. Sand and dirt followed t he smoke int o t he air, and chunks of Mimic flesh
weren’t far behind. We rushed int o t he crat er and t ook out everyt hing t he bombs left . Root ’em
out , mow ’em down.
Even when you were just repeat ing t he same day over and over, life on t he bat t lefield was
anyt hing but rout ine. If t he angle of your swing was off by so much as a degree, it could set off
a chain of event s t hat would change t he ent ire out come of t he bat t le. A Mimic you let slip
t hrough one minut e would be mowing t hrough your friends t he next . Wit h each soldier t hat
died, t he line grew weaker, unt il it event ually collapsed under t he st rain. All because your axe
swung at fort y-seven degrees inst ead of fort y-eight .
There were more Mimics t han I could count . Dot s filled t he Doppler screen. The rule of t humb
was t hat it t ook a squad of t en Jacket s t o bring down one Mimic. Even t hen, t o make it an
even mat ch t he squad had t o be fanned out t o spray t he damn t hing wit h bullet s unt il t here
weren’t any bullet s left .
Rit a was in const ant mot ion. She swung her axe wit h t he ease of a child swinging a plast ic
t oy sword. The air was t hick wit h Mimic part s. Anot her st ep, anot her swing, anot her limb. Wash,
rinse, repeat .
I’d never seen anyt hing like it . Javelins carried deat h t hrough t he air. I was close enough t o
reach out and t ouch half a dozen Mimics. In spit e of t he danger all around me, I felt an uncanny
calm. I had someone t o wat ch my back. Rit a was a filt er t hat dist illed and neut ralized t he fear. I
was in t he valley of t he shadow of deat h, no t wo fucking ways about it , but I had Rit a at my
side.
I learned t o survive by mimicking Rit a’s skill wit h t he axe, and in t he process, I’d come t o know
her every move—which foot she’d t ake t he next st ep wit h, which Mimic she’d st rike first when
surrounded. I knew when she would swing her axe, and when she would run. All t hat and more
was hardcoded int o my operat ing syst em.
Rit a sidest epped danger and moved t hrough t he enemy ranks, carving a pat h of perfect ly
execut ed dest ruct ion. The only t hings she left st anding were t arget s she couldn’t be bot hered
t o kill. I was only t oo happy t o mop up aft er her. We’d never t rained t oget her, but we moved like
t wins, vet erans of count less bat t les at each ot her’s side.
Four Mimics came for Rit a at once—bad odds, even for t he Valkyrie. She was st ill off balance
from her last swing. Wit h my free hand, I gave her a gent le nudge. For a split second she was
st art led, but it didn’t t ake her long t o underst and what I’d done.
She really was a mast er. In less t han five minut es, she’d learned t o work in t andem wit h me.
When she realized I could use a free arm or leg t o knock her clear of an at t ack, she t urned and
faced t he next enemy head on, wit hout any int ent of dodging. A Mimic foreleg came wit hin a
hand’s breadt h of her face and she didn’t even flinch.
We worked as a single unit . We t ore t hrough t he enemy wit h fright ening power, always
keeping t he ot her’s Jacket in t he corner of our eyes. We didn’t need words or gest ures. Every
mot ion, every foot st ep said all t hat needed t o be said.
Our enemy may have evolved t he abilit y t o rewind t ime, but humanit y had evolved a few
t ricks of it s own. There were people who could keep a Jacket in t ip-t op condit ion, people who
could conjure up st rat egies and handle logist ics, people who could provide support on t he front
lines, and last but not least , people who were nat ural-born killers. People could adapt
t hemselves t o t heir environment and t heir experiences in any number of ways. An enemy t hat
could look int o t he fut ure and perceive danger fell vict im t o it s own evolut ionary at rophy. We
learned fast er t han t hey could.
I had passed t hrough deat h 158 t imes t o emerge at height s no creat ure on t his planet could
aspire t o in a single lifet ime. Rit a Vrat aski had ascended even higher. We st rode ahead, far
from t he rest of t he force, an army unt o ourselves. Our Jacket s t raced graceful clockwise
spirals as we pressed on—a habit I’d picked up from Rit a. Twit ching mounds of carrion were all
we left in our wake.
Fort y-t wo minut es int o t he bat t le, we found it . The Mimic at t he root of t he whole
mot herfucking loop. The t hread t hat bound us. If not for t his server, I would never have
drowned in my own blood, wat ched my gut s spill ont o t he ground dozens of t imes over,
wandered aimlessly t hrough t his Hell wit h no way out . If it weren’t for t his server, I would never
have met Rit a Vrat aski.
“This is it , Keiji. You have t o be t he one t o bring it down.”
“Wit h pleasure.” “Remember: ant enna first , t hen t he backups, t hen t he server.” “And t hen
we go home?” “Not quit e. When t he loop ends, t he real bat t le begins. It ’s not over unt il t here
isn’t a Mimic left moving.” “Not hing’s ever easy.”
Genocide was t he only way t o win t his war. You couldn’t shave t heir forces down by 30
percent and claim vict ory. You had t o dest roy every last one of t hem. Take down t he server,
and t he war would go on. All Rit a and I could do was free our t roops from t he quagmire of t he
Mimics’ t ime loops. A last ing vict ory would require more force t han t wo soldiers alone could
ever bring t o bear. But on t he day we did win, I could die, Rit a could die, Yonabaru, Ferrell, and
t he rest of our plat oon could die, even t hose cunt -lipped assholes in t he 4t h could die, and t ime
would never repeat again. A new day would dawn on Eart h.
Rit a said t aking out a Mimic server was as easy as opening a t in can. All you needed was t he
right opener. Cat ch was, up unt il t hen she’d been t he only person on t he planet who had one.
People of Earth, rejoice! Keiji Kiriya just found another can opener! Act now, and for every
Rita Vrataski–brand can opener you purchase, you’ll receive a second Keiji Kiriya–brand can
opener at NO ADDITIONAL CHARGE!
Of course, you couldn’t buy us separat ely if you want ed t o. I suppose Rit a and I wouldn’t
have made very honest salesmen. What t his night marish t ime loop from t he bowels of Hell
hat h joined t oget her, let no man put asunder. Only Rit a and I underst ood each ot her’s solit ude,
and we would st and side by side, dicing Mimics int o bit e-size chunks unt il t he bit t er end.
“Ant enna down!”
“On t o t he backups.”
“Copy t hat .”
I raised my bat t le axe and brought it down in a swift , clean st roke—
I opened my eyes. I was in bed.
I t ook a pen and wrot e “160” on t he back of my hand. Then I kicked t he wall as hard as I
could.
2
It ’s not easy t elling a person somet hing you know is going t o make t hem cry, let alone doing it
wit h an audience. And if Jin Yonabaru is in t hat audience, you’re up shit creek in a concret e
canoe wit h a hole in t he bot t om.
Last t ime it had come out sounding t oo forced. I was t rying t o t hink of a bet t er way t o say it ,
but I couldn’t come up wit h anyt hing short and sweet t hat would let Rit a know t hat I was also
experiencing t he t ime loops. Maybe I should just t ell her t hat . Hell, I didn’t have any bet t er ideas.
I’d never been part icularly smart , and what lit t le brains I did have were preoccupied wit h
t rying t o figure out why I hadn’t broken out of t he loop according t o plan. I’d done everyt hing
just as Rit a t old me, but here I was on my 160t h day before t he bat t le.
The sky over t he No. 1 Training Field was as clear t he 160t h t ime as it had been t he first .
The t en o’clock sun beat down on us wit hout pit y. PT had just ended, and t he shadows pooled
at our feet were speckled wit h darker spot s of sweat .
I was a t ot al st ranger t o t his woman wit h rust -colored hair and skin far t oo pale for a soldier.
Her rich brown eyes fixed on me.
“So you want ed t o t alk. What is it ?”
I was out of t ime, and I was fresh out of bright ideas. I’d have been bet t er off t aking her aside
before PT. Too lat e now.
I looked at Rit a and said t he same bit about green t ea I had before. Hey, that didn’t go so
bad this time, I t hought . Maybe she’s not going to—oh, fuck.
Tears st reamed down Rit a’s cheeks and dripped from t he point of her chin, t hen splashed as
t hey landed in t he palm of t he hand I held out t o cat ch t hem. I was st ill hot from exercising, but
t he t ears burned like 20mm slugs. My heart was pounding. I was a junior high school st udent
asking a girl t o t he dance. Not even bat t le pumped my blood pressure t his much.
Rit a clut ched t he bot t om of my shirt , squeezing so t ight t he t ips of her fingers were whit e.
On t he bat t lefield I could see every move coming before she made it , but here I was clueless. I’d
programmed myself t o dodge a t housand Mimic at t acks wit h ease, but what good was my OS
when I really needed it ? My mind wandered, looking for an out . I wondered if my shirt was
sweat y where she was grabbing it .
The last t ime, I had st ood like a park st at ue unt il Rit a regained her composure and spoke.
Maybe aft er t en more t rips t hrough t he loop t his would all be rout ine. I’d know just what t o say
t o soot he her as I held her gent ly against my shoulder. But t hat would mean reducing my
int eract ions wit h t he one and only person in t he world who underst ood me t o a rot e
performance. Somet hing t old me it was bet t er t o just st and t here and t ake it .
Yonabaru was gaping at us like a t ourist in a zoo gapes at a bear who has suddenly st ood
up and begun t o walt z. At least I’d finally found a sit uat ion t hat would shut him up. Ferrell
polit ely avert ed his eyes, but only halfway. And t hat was more or less how t he rest of t he
plat oon behaved. Fuck me. I was t he dancing bear. Don’t stare. Don’t say anything. Just throw
your money in the can and move along.
What was it you were supposed t o do when you were nervous— pict ure everyone naked?
No, t hat was for speaking in public. In t raining t hey t aught us t o hold ourselves t oget her by
t hinking of somet hing we enjoyed. Somet hing t hat made you happy. In bat t le, t his would
probably be one of t hose happy t hings t o t hink back on, so why was it so nerve-racking now? If
God had an answer, He wasn’t t alking.
I t ook Rit a by t he wrist . She looked lost .
“I’m Keiji Kiriya.”
“Rit a. Rit a Vrat aski.”
“I guess I should st art wit h ‘Nice t o meet you.’”
“Why are you smiling?”
“I dunno. Just happy, I guess,” I said.
“You’re an odd one.” Rit a’s face soft ened.
“Let ’s make a break for it .” My eyes glanced over her shoulder. “My t wo o’clock. You ready?”
Rit a and I sprint ed away, leaving t he men on t he field scrat ching t heir heads. We slipped
past t he chain link fence bordering t he t raining grounds. The breeze blowing off t he sea was
cool against our skin. For a while we ran for running’s sake. The coast line lay far off t o our left ,
cobalt -blue wat ers spreading beyond t he meaningless barricade of barbed wire t hat lined t he
beach. The ocean st ill blue because we had fought t o keep it t hat way. A pat rol boat cut t ing a
course parallel t o our own t railed a whit e wake along t he sharp line t hat divided sea and sky.
The deep shout s of t he soldiers faded. The only sounds were t he roar of t he sea, t he
faraway shuffling noises of milit ary boot s on concret e, my t oo-loud pounding heart , and t he
sigh of Rit a’s breat h.
I came t o an abrupt halt and st ood dumbly, just as I had before we st art ed running. Rit a
couldn’t cut her speed in t ime and came crashing int o me. Anot her OS slip-up. I t ook a few
awkward st eps. Rit a st umbled as she regained her balance. We held on t o each ot her t o keep
from falling. My arm was wrapped around Rit a’s body and hers around mine.
The impact risked breaking any number of regulat ions. Her t oned flesh pressed against me
like react ive armor. A pleasant scent assault ed my senses. Wit hout my Jacket , I was
defenseless against any st ray chemicals t hat chanced int o t he air.
“Uh, excuse me.” Rit a was t he first t o apologize.
“No, my bad. I shouldn’t have st opped.”
“No. I mean, excuse me, but —” she said.
“You don’t have t o apologize.”
“I’m not t rying t o apologize. It ’s just —would you mind let t ing go of my hand?”
“Ah—” A red ring st ood out on Rit a’s wrist where my fingers had gripped her skin. “Sorry.”
To me, Rit a was an old friend, a companion of many bat t les. But t o her, Keiji Kiriya was a
st ranger she’d just met . Not hing more t han an ashen silhouet t e from anot her t ime. Only I
remembered t he relief we’d felt when we st ood wit h our backs pressed against each ot her.
Only I had experienced t he elect ricit y t hat flowed bet ween us when our eyes met in implicit
underst anding. Only I felt a sense of longing and devot ion.
Before I joined t he army, I saw a show about a man in love wit h a woman who’d lost her
memory in an accident . He must have gone t hrough somet hing like what I was going t hrough
now. Hopelessly wat ching all t he t hings you love in t he world being carried away on t he wind
while you st and by powerless t o prevent it .
“I’m—well . . .” I didn’t even know what t o say t o her t his t ime, despit e t he previous loop.
“This your clever way of get t ing t he t wo of us out of t here?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Good. Now where exact ly are we?” Rit a spun on her heel as she t ook in her surroundings.
We st ood in a wide space bordered on one side by t he barbed-wire barricade and a chain-
link fence on t he ot her t hree. Weeds sent shoot s of green t hrough t he cracks in t he concret e
t hat covered t he roughly t en-t housand-square-met er enclosure.
“The No. 3 Training Field.”
I’d managed t o t ake us from one t raining field t o anot her. Smoot h. I’d been spending t oo
much t ime wit h Ferrell. His love of t raining bordered on serious ment al illness, and it had st art ed
t o rub off on me.
Rit a t urned back t o me. “It ’s kind of bleak.”
“Sorry.”
“No, I like t he empt iness of it .”
“You have unusual t ast es.”
“Is t hat even a t ast e? The place I grew up was hopelessly empt y. We didn’t have any
oceans, t hough. The sky out here is—it ’s so brilliant ,” she said, her head t ilt ed back.
“You like it ? The sky?”
“Not t he sky so much as t he color of it . That shimmering blue.”
“Then why’s your Jacket red?”
A few moment s of silence passed bet ween us before she spoke again.
“The sky in Pit t sfield is so washed out . Like t he color of wat er aft er you’ve rinsed out a
paint brush wit h blue paint in it . Like all t he wat er in t he ground rushed up in t he sky and
t hinned it .” I gazed at Rit a. She looked back at me, rich brown eyes st aring int o mine. “Sorry.
Forget I said t hat ,” she said.
“How come?”
“It wasn’t a very Rit a Vrat aski t hing t o say.”
“I don’t know about t hat .”
“I do.”
“Well, I t hought it was nice,” I said.
Rit a opened her eyes wide. For an inst ant , t hey flashed wit h a glint of t he Full Met al Bit ch.
The rest of her face remained st ill. “What ’d you say?”
“I said it sounded nice.”
She looked surprised at t hat . A lock of rust -colored hair fell t o her forehead, and she raised
her hand t o play wit h it . I caught a glimpse of her eyes from bet ween her fingers. They were
filled wit h a st range light . She looked like a girl whose heart st rings had begun t o unravel, a
child whose lies had been laid bare by t he piercing gaze of her mot her.
I broke t he awkward silence. “Is somet hing wrong?”
“No.”
“I wasn’t making fun of you. It ’s just somet hing I want ed t o say. Guess I didn’t get t he t iming
right .”
“We’ve had a conversat ion like t his before in an earlier loop, haven’t we? But only you
remember,” Rit a said.
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
“No, it doesn’t bot her me,” she said, shaking her head.
“Then what ’s wrong?”
“Tell me what you’re planning.”
“Well, t here’s a lot I st ill don’t underst and,” I said. “I need you t o explain how t o end t he loop,
for st art ers.”
“I’m asking what you’re planning t o do next so I don’t have t o t hink about it .”
“Are you kidding?” I asked.
“I’m dead serious.”
“But you’re Rit a Vrat aski. You always know what t o do.”
“It will be fun being t he one out side t he loop for a change.”
“Not much fun for me,” I said. I wondered what she meant by saying “will”; I t hought she’d
been freed from t he loop already, aft er 211 t imes t hrough t hirt y hours in Florida. I opened my
mout h t o ask, but she int errupt ed.
“I t hink I’ve earned t he right t o sit back and wat ch,” she said. “I’ve had t o handle enough shit
as it is. It ’s your t urn. The sooner you accept t hat , t he bet t er.”
I sighed. “I know.”
“Hey, don’t blame me.”
“Well t hen, it ’s st ill a lit t le early, but my next st op is t he cafet eria. I hope you’re in t he mood
for Japanese food.”
The cafet eria was noisy. In one corner, a group of soldiers was seeing who could do t he most
push-ups in t hree minut es. Anot her group we walked past was playing gast ronomic chicken
wit h a myst ery liquid t hat looked like a combinat ion of ket chup, must ard, and orange juice. At
t he far end of t he room some guy was singing a folk song—or maybe it was an old anime
t heme song—t hat had been popular at least sevent y years ago, complet e wit h banjo
accompaniment . One of t he feed religions had originally used it as an ant i-war song, but t hat
wasn’t t he sort of det ail t hat bot hered guys who signed up wit h t he UDF. The t une was easy
t o remember, and t hat ’s all it t ook t o be a hit wit h a crowd of Jacket jockeys.
Let’s all join the ar-my!
Let’s all join the ar-my!
Let’s all join the ar-my!
And kill ourselves some things!
I’d wat ched all t his 159 t imes. But since I’d been caught in t he loop, I hardly not iced a t hing
about t he world out side my own head t hat didn’t direct ly pert ain t o my way out of here. I sat
quiet ly in a small, gray cafet eria, devoid of sound, met hodically shoveling t ast eless food int o my
mout h.
Even if t omorrow’s bat t le went well, some of t he soldiers here wouldn’t be coming back. If it
went poorly, even fewer would ret urn. Everybody knew it . The Armored Infant ry was Sant a
Claus, and bat t le was our Christ mas. What else for t he elves t o do on Christ mas Eve but let
t heir hair down and drink a lit t le eggnog.
Rit a Vrat aski was sit t ing across from me, eat ing t he same lunch for t he 160t h t ime. She
examined her 160t h umeboshi.
“What is t his?”
“Umeboshi. It ’s ume—people call it a plum, but it ’s more like an apricot —dried in t he sun, and
t hen pickled. You eat it .”
“What ’s it t ast e like?”
“Food is like war. You have t o experience it for yourself.”
She poked at it t wo or t hree t imes wit h her chopst icks, t hen t hrew caut ion t o t he wind and
put t he whole t hing in her mout h. The sourness hit her like a body blow from a heavyweight
fight er and she doubled over, grabbing at her t hroat and chest . I could see t he muscles
t wit ching in her back.
“Like it ?”
Rit a worked her mout h wit hout looking up. Her neck t ensed. Somet hing went flying out of
her mout h—a perfect ly clean pit skidded t o a halt on her t ray. She wiped t he edges of her
mout h as she gasped for breat h.
“Not sour at all.”
“Not at t his cafet eria,” I said. “Too many people from overseas. Go t o a local place if you
want t he real st uff.”
I picked up t he umeboshi from my t ray and popped it int o my mout h. I made a show of
savoring t he flavor. Trut h be known, it was sour enough t o t wist my mout h as t ight as a crab’s
ass at low t ide, but I wasn’t about t o give her t he sat isfact ion of seeing t hat .
“Pret t y good.” I smacked my lips.
Rit a st ood, her mout h a st ern line. She left me sit t ing at t he t able as she st rode down t he
corridor bet ween t he t ables, past t hrongs of soldiers, and up t o t he serving count er. There,
Rachel spoke t o a gorilla of a man who could reach up and t ouch t he ceiling wit hout so much
as st ret ching—t he same gorilla from t he 4t h whose fist my jaw had encount ered all t hose
loops ago. Beaut y and t he Beast were underst andably surprised t o see t he subject of t heir
conversat ion walk up t o t hem. The ent ire cafet eria could sense t hat somet hing was up; t he
conversat ions dimmed, and t he banjo music st opped. Thank God.
Rit a cleared her t hroat . “Could I get some dried pickled plums?”
“Umeboshi?”
“Yeah, t hose.”
“Well, sure, if you like.”
Rachel t ook out a small plat e and st art ed piling it wit h umeboshi from a large, plast ic bucket .
“I don’t need t he plat e.”
“I’m sorry?”
“That t hing you’re holding in your left hand. Yeah, t he bucket . I’ll t ake all of t hem.”
“Um, people don’t usually eat t hat many at once,” Rachel said.
“That a problem?”
“No, I suppose not —”
“Thanks for your help.”
Bucket in hand, Rit a walked back t riumphant ly. She t hunked it down in t he middle of t he
t able right in front of me.
The cont ainer was about t hirt y cent imet ers across at t he mout h— a t ub big enough t o
serve about t wo hundred men, since nobody ever want ed more t han one—packed halfway t o
t he t op wit h bright red umeboshi. Big enough t o drown a small cat . The base of my t ongue
st art ed t o ache just looking at it . Rit a went for her chopst icks.
She singled out one of t he wrinkled, reddish fruit from t he bucket and popped it int o her
mout h. She chewed. She swallowed. Out came t he pit .
“Not sour at all.” Her eyes wat ered.
Rit a passed t he barrel t o me wit h a shove. My t urn. I picked out t he smallest one I could find
and put it in my mout h. I at e it and spit out t he pit .
“Mine eit her.”
We were playing our own game of gast ronomic chicken. The t ips of Rit a’s chopst icks
quivered as she plunged t hem back int o t he barrel. She t ried t wice t o pick up anot her
umeboshi bet ween t hem before she gave up and just skewered one on a single st ick, lift ing it
t o her mout h. The fruit t railed drops of pink liquid t hat st ained t he t ray where t hey fell.
A crowd of onlookers had begun t o gat her around us. They wat ched in uneasy silence at
first , but t he excit ement grew palpably wit h each pit spat out on t he t ray.
Sweat beaded on our skin like condensat ion on a hot day’s beer can. The revolt ing pile of
half-chewed pit s grew. Rachel was off t o t he side, wat ching wit h a worried smile. I spot t ed my
friend from t he 4t h in t he t hrong, t oo. He was having such a good t ime wat ching me suffer.
Each t ime Rit a or I put anot her ume in our mout hs, a wave of heckling rippled t hrough t he
crowd.
“Come on, pick up t he pace!”
“No t urnin’ back now, keep ’em poppin’!”
“You’re not gonna let t his lit t le girl show you up, are you?”
“Fuck, you t hink he can beat Rit a? You’re crazy!”
“Eat ! Eat ! Eat !”
“Wat ch t he doors, don’t want nobody breakin’ t his up! I got t en bucks on t he scrawny guy!”
followed immediat ely by, “Twent y on Rit a!” Then someone else cried out , “Where’s my fried
shrimp? I lost my fried shrimp!”
It was hot , it was loud, and in a way I can’t explain, it felt like home. There was an invisible
bond t hat hadn’t been t here my previous t imes t hrough t he loop. I’d had a t ast e of what
t omorrow would bring, and suddenly all t he lit t le t hings t hat happen in our lives, t he minut iae of
t he day, t ook on new import ance. Just t hen, being surrounded by all t hat noise felt good.
In t he end, we at e every indust rially packed umeboshi in t he barrel. Rit a had t he last one. I
argued t hat it was a t ie, but since Rit a had gone first , she insist ed t hat she had won. When I
object ed, Rit a grinned and offered t o set t le it over anot her barrel. It ’s hard t o say whet her t hat
grin meant she really could have gone on eat ing or if t he overload of sour food had made her a
lit t le funny in t he head. The gorilla from t he 4t h brought in anot her full barrel of t he red fruit
from Hell and placed it in t he middle of t he t able wit h a t hud.
By t hat point , I felt like I was made of umeboshi from t he waist on down. I waved t he whit e
flag.
Aft er t hat , I t alked wit h Rit a about everyt hing—Yonabaru who never shut up, Sergeant
Ferrell and his t raining obsession, t he rivalry bet ween our plat oon and t he 4t h. For her part , Rit a
t old me t hings she hadn’t had t ime t o get t o in t he last loop. When not encased in her Jacket ,
t he Bit ch wore a shy smile t hat suit ed her well. Her fingert ips smelled of machine grease,
pickled plum, and a hint of coffee.
I don’t know which flags I’d set or how, but on t hat 160t h loop my relat ionship wit h Rit a
deepened as it never had before. The next morning, Corporal Jin Yonabaru didn’t wake up on
t he t op bunk. He woke up on t he floor.
3
I found no peace in sleep. A Mimic would snuff out my life, or I’d black out in t he middle of bat t le.
Aft er t hat , not hing. Then wit hout warning, t he not hingness gave way. The finger t hat had
been squeezing t he t rigger of my rifle was wedged t hree quart ers of t he way t hrough my
paperback. I’d find myself lying in bed, surrounded by it s pipe frame, list ening t o t he high-
pit ched voice of t he DJ read t he day’s weat her. Clear and sunny out here on the islands, same
as yesterday, with a UV warning for the afternoon. Each word wormed it s way int o my skull and
st uck t here.
By “sunny” I had picked up t he pen, by “islands” I was writ ing t he number on my hand, and by
t he t ime she’d got t en t o “UV warning” I was out of bed and on my way t o t he armory. That
was my wake-up rout ine.
Sleep on t he night before t he bat t le was an ext ension of t raining. For some reason, my body
never grew fat igued. The only t hing I brought wit h me were my memories and t he skills I’d
mast ered. I spent t he night t ossing and t urning, my mind replaying t he movement s it had
learned t he previous day as it burned t he program int o my brain. I had t o be able t o do what I
couldn’t t he last t ime t hrough t he loop, t o kill t he Mimics I couldn’t kill, t o save t he friends I
couldn’t save. Like doing an iso push-up in my mind. My own privat e night ly t orment .
I awoke in bat t le mode. Like a pilot flipping t hrough swit ches before t akeoff, I inspect ed
myself one part at a t ime, checking for any muscles t hat might have knot t ed up overnight . I
didn’t skip so much as a pinky t oe.
Rot at ing ninet y degrees on my ass, I sprang out of bed and opened my eyes. I blinked. My
vision blurred. The room was different . The prime minist er’s head wasn’t st aring out at me from
at op t he swimsuit model. By t he t ime I not iced, it was t oo lat e; my foot missed a plat form t hat
wasn’t t here and my inert ia sent me t umbling from t he bed. My head slammed int o a t ile-
covered floor, and I finally realized where I was.
Sunlight shone t hrough layers of blast -resist ant glass and spilled across t he vast , airy room.
An art ificial breeze from t he purifier poured over my body as I lay sprawled on t he floor. The
t hick walls and glass complet ely blocked out t he sounds of t he base t hat were usually so loud
in my ears.
I was in t he Sky Lounge. In a base of exposed st eel and khaki-colored, fire-ret ardant wood,
t his was t he one and only properly appoint ed room. Originally an officers’ meet ing room t hat
doubled as a recept ion hall, t he night view of Uchibo t hrough it s mult ilayered glass would have
fet ched a good price.
As nice as t he view was, it was a lousy place t o wake up, unless you were a mount ain goat
or a dedicat ed hermit wit h a love of height s. Or you could be Yonabaru. I’d heard he had some
secret spot up here one floor higher t han even t he officers were allowed t o go. “His love nest ,”
we called it .
More like a love aerie.
Looking out across t he ocean I could see t he gent le curve of t he horizon. Uchibo beach was
dimly visible t hrough t he morning mist . Triangles of waves rose, t urned t o foam, and faded back
int o t he sea. Beyond t hose waves lay t he island t he Mimics had made t heir spawning grounds.
For a moment , I t hought I saw a bolt of bright green shoot t hrough t he surf. I blinked my eyes. It
had only been a glint of sunlight on t he wat er.
“You cert ainly slept well last night .” Rit a st ood over me, having walked in from t he ot her
room.
I looked up slowly from t he t ile floor. “Feels like it ’s been years.”
“Years?”
“Since I had a good night ’s sleep. I’d forgot t en how good it is.”
“That ’s crazy t ime-loop t alk.”
“You should know.”
Rit a gave a wave of her hand in sympat hy.
Our savior, t he Full Met al Bit ch, looked more relaxed t his morning t han I had ever seen her.
Her eyes were soft er in t he cool morning light , and t he sunlight made her rust -colored hair glow
orange. She gave me t he sort of look she might give t o a puppy who’d followed her home. She
was placid as a Zen monk. She was beaut iful.
The room suddenly grew t oo bright , and I narrowed my eyes against t he glare. “What ’s t hat
smell?”
An unusual odor mingled wit h t he clean air coming from t he filt er. It wasn’t necessarily a bad
smell, but I wouldn’t have gone so far as t o call it pleasant . Too pungent for food, t oo savory for
perfume. Quit e frankly, I didn’t know what t he hell it was.
“All I did was open t he bag. You’ve got a sharp nose.”
“In t raining t hey t old us t o be wary of any unusual odors, since it could mean t here was a
problem wit h t he Jacket filt er—not t hat I’m in a Jacket right now.”
“I’ve never met anyone who confused food wit h chemical weapons before,” Rit a said. “Don’t
you like t he smell?”
“Like isn’t t he word I’d use. It smells . . . weird.”
“No manners at all. Is t hat any way t o t hank me for boiling a morning pot of coffee for us?”
“That ’s . . . coffee?”
“Sure is.”
“This isn’t your way of get t ing back at me for t he umeboshi, is it ?”
“No, t his is what roast ed coffee beans picked from act ual coffee t rees t hat grew in t he
ground smell like. Never had any?”
“I have a cup of t he art ificial slop every day.”
“Just wait t ill I brew it . You ain’t smelled not hin’ yet .”
I didn’t know t here were any nat ural coffee beans left in t he world. That is, I suspect ed real
coffee st ill exist ed, somewhere, but I didn’t know t here was anyone st ill in t he habit of drinking
it .
The beverage t hat passed for coffee t hese days was made from lab-grown beans wit h
art ificial flavoring added for t ast e and aroma. Subst it ut e grounds didn’t smell as st rong as t he
beans Rit a was grinding, and t hey didn’t fight t heir way int o your nose and down your ent ire
respirat ory t ract like t hese did, eit her. I suppose you could ext rapolat e t he smell of t he art ificial
st uff and event ually approach t he real t hing, but t he difference in impact was like t he
difference bet ween a 9mm hand gun and a 120mm t ank shell.
“That must be wort h a small fort une,” I said.
“I t old you we were on t he line in Nort h Africa before we came here. It was a gift from one of
t he villages we freed.”
“Some gift .”
“Being queen isn’t all bad, you know.”
A hand-cranked coffee grinder sat in t he middle of t he glass t able. A uniquely shaped lit t le
device—I’d seen one once in an ant ique shop. Beside it was some kind of ceramic funnel
covered wit h a brown-st ained clot h. I guessed you were supposed t o put t he ground-up coffee
beans in t he middle and st rain t he wat er t hrough t hem.
An army-issued port able gas st ove and heavy-dut y frying pan dominat ed t he cent er of t he
t able. A clear liquid bubbled noisily in t he frying pan. Two mugs sat nearby, one chipped wit h
cracked paint , and one t hat looked brand new. At t he very edge of t he t able sat a resealable
plast ic bag filled wit h dark brown coffee beans.
Rit a didn’t seem t o have many personal effect s. There was not hing in t he way of luggage
save a semi-t ranslucent sack at t he foot of t he t able—it looked like a boxer’s heavy bag.
Wit hout t he coffee-making equipment t o support it , t he bag had collapsed, nearly empt y.
Soldiers who had t o be ready t o ship out t o t he far corners of t he eart h at a moment ’s not ice
weren’t permit t ed much cargo, but even by t hose st andards Rit a t raveled light . That one of
t he few t hings she did bring was a hand-powered coffee grinder didn’t do anyt hing t o lessen
t he percept ion t hat she was a lit t le odd.
“You can wait in bed if you like.”
“I’d rat her wat ch,” I said. “This is int erest ing.”
“Then I guess I’ll get grinding.”
Rit a st art ed t urning t he handle on t he coffee grinder. A gravelly crunching sound filled t he
room and t he glass t able shook. Rit a’s curls quaked at op her head.
“When t he war’s over, I’m gonna t reat you t o t he best green t ea you ever had—in ret urn for
t he coffee.”
“I t hought green t ea came from China.”
“It may have st art ed t here, but it was perfect ed here. It was a long t ime before t hey’d even
allow it t o be export ed. I wonder what kind we should have.”
“They serve it for free in rest aurant s?”
“That ’s right .”
“After t he war . . .” Rit a sounded just a lit t le sad.
“Hey, t his war will be over someday. No doubt about it . You and I’ll see t o t hat .”
“You’re right . I’m sure you will.” Rit a t ook t he ground beans and spread t hem on t he clot h
covering t he funnel. “You have t o st eam t hem first .”
“Oh yeah?”
“Complet ely changes t he flavor. Somet hing an old friend once t aught me. Don’t know how it
works, but he was right .”
She moist ened t he freshly ground beans wit h a lit t le not -quit e boiling wat er. Cream-colored
bubbles hissed t o life where t he wat er t ouched t he grounds. A st riking aroma woven of
t hreads bit t er, sweet , and sour filled t he air surrounding t he
t able.
“St ill smell weird?”
“It smells wonderful.”
Using a circular mot ion, Rit a carefully poured in t he wat er. Drop by drop, a glist ening brown
liquid began filling t he st eel mug wait ing beneat h.
A t hin line of st eam had begun t o rise from t he mug when an earsplit t ing sound pierced t he
t hick walls and blast -hardened glass of t he Sky Lounge. The t ile floor shook. Rit a and I were on
t he ground in a heart beat . Our eyes met .
There was no chandelier t inkle of shat t ered glass, only a sharp concussive sound, as t hough
someone had t hrown a t hick t elephone book ont o t he ground. Spiderweb fract ures spread
t hrough t he window glass, a sand-colored javelin st icking from t he middle of t he web. Deep
purple liquid cryst al seeped from t he cracks and ont o t he floor below.
Too lat e, sirens began t o blare across t he base. Three plumes of smoke rose out side t he
window. The wat er off t he coast had t urned a livid green.
“An—an at t ack?” My voice was shaking. Probably my body t oo. In all 159 loops t here had
never been a surprise at t ack. The bat t le was supposed t o st art after we landed on Kot oiushi
Island.
A second and t hird round impact ed t he window. The ent ire glass pane bulged inward but
somehow held. Cracks crisscrossed t he window. Pinpricks of light swam before my eyes.
Rit a had got t en t o her feet and was calmly ret urning t he frying pan t o t he t op of t he
port able gas st ove. She killed t he flame wit h a pract iced hand.
“This glass is really somet hing. You never know if it ’s all just t alk,” Rit a mused.
“We have t o hit back—no, I’ve got t o find t he sergeant —wait , our Jacket s!”
“You should st art by calming down.”
“But , what ’s happening!” I hadn’t meant t o shout , but couldn’t help it . None of t his was in t he
script . I’d been looped so long t hat t he idea of novel event s t errified me. That t he novel event
in quest ion happened t o involve Mimic javelins exploding against t he windows of t he room I
was st anding in didn’t help.
“The Mimics use t he loops t o win t he war. You’re not t he only one who remembers what ’s
happened in each loop.”
“Then t his is all because I screwed up t he last t ime?”
“The Mimics must have decided t his was t he only way t hey could win. That ’s all.”
“But . . . t he base,” I said. “How did t hey even get here?”
“They came inland up t he Mississippi t o at t ack Illinois once. They’re aquat ic creat ures. It ’s
not surprising t hey found a way t hrough a quarant ine line creat ed by a bunch of land-dwelling
humans.” Rit a was calm.
“I guess.”
“Leave t he worrying t o t he brass. For you and me, t his just means we fight here inst ead of
Kot oiushi.”
Rit a held out her hand. I clasped it and she helped me t o my feet . Her fingers were callused
at t he bases—rub marks from t he Jacket cont act plat es. The palm of t he hand she’d been
holding t he frying pan wit h was much warmer t han my own. I could feel t he t ight apprehension
in my chest begin t o ebb.
“A Jacket jockey’s job is t o kill every Mimic in sight . Right ?”
“Yeah. Yeah, t hat ’s right .”
“We’ll go t o t he U.S. hangar first . I’ll put on my Jacket . We’ll get weapons for bot h of us. I’ll
cover you on our way t o t he Japanese hangar. Got it ?”
“Got it .”
“Then we hunt down t he server and kill it . End t he loop. Aft er t hat , just need t o mop up
what ever’s left .” I st opped shaking. Rit a flashed an ironclad grin. “No t ime for our morning cup o’
joe.”
“Just got t a finish t his before it get s cold,” I said, reaching for a cup.
“That an at t empt at humor?”
“It was wort h a t ry.”
“That would be nice t hough. Coffee never t ast es t he same when you reheat it . And if you
leave t he nat ural st uff sit t ing out , aft er about t hree days it st art s t o grow mold. That
happened t o me once in Africa. I coulda kicked myself.”
“Was it good?”
“Very funny.”
“If you didn’t drink it , how do you know it wasn’t ?”
“You can drink all t he moldy coffee you like. Don’t expect me t o clean up aft er you when you
get sick. Come on.”
Rit a moved away from t he t able, leaving behind t he freshly brewed, all-nat ural coffee. As we
st art ed t o walk from t he room, a small woman who’d been pressed up against t he door came
t umbling in, feat hered headdress and all. Her black hair was braided int o a ponyt ail t hat flopped
behind her bizarre choice of headgear. Everybody’s favorit e Nat ive American, Shast a Raylle.
“We’re under at t ack! We’re under at t ack!” she shout ed, nearly breat hless. Her face was
st reaked wit h lines of red and whit e warpaint . I began t o wonder if t he whole loop t hing was
just me going crazy for t he last few seconds of life in a st eaming crat er somewhere.
Rit a t ook a st ep back t o appreciat e one of t he bright est minds MIT had t o offer. “Which
t ribe’s at t acking?”
“Not a t ribe! The Mimics!”
“This how you always dress for bat t le?”
“Is it t hat bad?” Shast a asked.
“I’m not one t o crit icize someone’s cust oms or religion, but I’d say you’re about t wo hundred
years lat e t o t he powwow.”
“No, you don’t underst and!” Shast a said. “They forced me t o dress up like t his at t he part y
last night ! This sort of t hing always happens when you’re not around.”
I suppose everyone has a cross to bear, I t hought .
“Shast a, why are you here?” Rit a said, wit h surprising pat ience.
“I came t o t ell you your axe isn’t in t he hangar, it ’s in t he workshop.”
“Thanks for t he heads-up.”
“Be careful out t here.”
“What are you going t o do?”
“I can’t fight , so I figured I’d find a nice place t o hide—”
“Use my room,” Rit a said quickly. “The javelins can’t make it t hrough t he walls or t he glass.
It ’s t ougher t han it looks. You just need t o do me one lit t le favor.”
“A . . . favor?”
“Don’t let anyone in here unt il eit her he or I come back.” Rit a jabbed a t humb in my direct ion. I
don’t t hink Shast a even realized t here was anyone st anding next t o Rit a unt il t hen. I could
almost hear her big eyes blinking from somewhere behind her glasses as she st ared at me. I
hadn’t met Shast a Raylle yet in t his loop.
“And you are. . .?”
“Keiji Kiriya. A pleasure.”
Rit a st epped t oward t he door. “You’re not t o let anyone in, no mat t er who t hey are or what
t hey say. I don’t care if it ’s t he president , t ell him t o go fuck himself.”
“Yes sir!”
“I’m count ing on you. Oh, and one ot her t hing—”
“Yes?”
“Thanks for t he good luck charm. I’ll need it .”
Rit a and I hurried t o t he hangar.
4
By t he t ime Rit a and I had made t he relat ively long t rip from t he Sky Lounge, U.S. Special
Forces had est ablished a defensive perimet er wit h t heir hangar at it s cent er.
Two minut es for Rit a t o put on her Jacket . One minut e fort y-five seconds t o run t o Shast a’s
workshop. Six minut es fift een seconds t o put down t wo Mimics we encount ered on t he way t o
t he Nippon hangar. In all, t welve minut es and t hirt y seconds had passed since we left t he Sky
Lounge.
The base had descended int o chaos. Tongues of flame shot int o t he sky and vehicles lay
overt urned in t he roads. Smoky haze filled t he alleyways bet ween t he barracks, making it
difficult t o see. The firecracker popping of small arms fire, useless against Mimics, rang t hrough
t he air, drowned out by t he occasional roar of a rocket launcher. Javelins met at t ack choppers
as t hey scrambled int o t he sky, shat t ering t heir rot or blades and sending t hem spiraling t oward
t he ground.
For every person running nort h t o flee t he carnage, t here was anot her running sout h. There
was no way of knowing which way was safe. The surprise at t ack had smashed t he chain of
command. No one at t he t op had any bet t er idea of what was going on t han anyone at t he
bot t om.
There were hardly any Mimic corpses, and of t he t en t housand plus Jacket s on t he base
t here was no sign at all. Human bodies were scat t ered here and t here. It didn’t t ake more t han
a glance at a crushed t orso t o know t hey were KIAs.
A dead soldier lay face down on t he ground t hirt y met ers in front of my hangar. His t orso had
been shredded t o ground beef, but he was st ill clut ching a magazine wit h bot h hands. Beneat h
a t hin layer of dust a smiling, t opless blond st ared up from it s pages. I would know t hose
prodigious breast s anywhere. The guy in t he bunk next t o mine had been looking at t hem
during all t hose heart -t o-heart t alks I’d had wit h Yonabaru in t he barracks. It was Nijou.
“Poor bast ard died looking at porn,” I said.
“Keiji, you know what we have t o do.”
“Yeah, I know. There’s no going back t his t ime. No mat t er who dies.”
“There’s not much t ime. Come on.”
“I’m ready.” I t hought I was, for t hat one second. “Fuck! This isn’t a bat t le, it ’s a massacre.”
The hangar door st ood open. There were marks where someone had jimmied t he lock wit h
somet hing like a crowbar. Rit a t hrust one of t he bat t le axes int o t he ground and unlat ched t he
20mm rifle slung on her back.
“You’ve got five minut es.”
“I only need t hree.”
I ran int o t he hangar. It was a long narrow building wit h Jacket s lining eit her side of t he
passage down t he middle. Each building housed enough Jacket s for one plat oon, t went y-five
t o a wall. The air inside was heavy and moist . The light s set int o t he walls flickered off and on.
Most of t he Jacket s st ill hung from t heir hooks, lifeless.
The overpowering st ench of blood almost knocked me off my feet . A huge dark pool had
collect ed in t he cent er of t he room, st aining t he concret e. Enough t o fill a bird bat h. Two lines
t hat looked as t hough t hey’d been paint ed wit h a brush ext ended from t he pool t oward t he
ot her ent rance at t he far end of t he hangar.
Someone had been horribly wounded here, and whoever dragged t hem away didn’t have t he
manpower or equipment t o do it neat ly. If all t hat blood had leaked out of one person, t hey
were already dead. A handful of Jacket s were st rewn in disarray on t he ground, liked t he
desiccat ed molt s of some human-shaped beast .
A Jacket was a lot like one of t hose ridiculous cuddly suit s employees dress up in at t heme
parks t o look like some maniacally grinning mouse. When t hey’re empt y, t hey just hang on t he
wall wit h gaping holes in t he back wait ing for someone t o climb in.
Since Jacket s read minut e muscular elect ric signals, each one has t o be cust om made. If you
were t o wear someone else’s Jacket , t here’s no t elling what would happen. It might not move
at all, or it might snap your bones like t wigs, but what ever t he result , it wouldn’t be good. No
one made it out of Basic wit hout learning at least t hat much. The Jacket s on t he ground were
clear evidence t hat someone had ignored t hat basic rule out of desperat e necessit y. I shook
my head.
My Jacket had been left unmolest ed in it s bert h. I climbed in. Of t he t hirt y-seven pre-suit -up
checks, I skipped t went y-six.
A shadow moved at t he far end of t he hangar where t he blood t rails led—t he end of t he
hangar Rit a wasn’t wat ching. My nervous syst em jumped int o panic mode. I was t went y met ers
from t he door, maybe less. A Mimic could cover t he dist ance in under a second. A javelin even
fast er.
Could I kill a Mimic wit h my bare hands? No. Could I deal wit h it ? Yes. Mimics moved fast er
t han even a Jacket ed human could, but t heir movement s were easy t o read. I could dodge it s
charge and press t ight against t he wall t o buy enough t ime t o work my way t o Rit a.
Unconsciously, I assumed a bat t le post ure, rot at ing my right leg clockwise and my left
count erclockwise. Then t he shadow’s ident it y finally clicked: It was Yonabaru.
He was covered in blood from t he waist down. Dried blood caked his forehead. He looked like
a sloppy paint er. A smile replaced t he t ension in his face and he st art ed running t oward me.
“Keiji, shit , I haven’t seen you all morning. Was st art in’ t o worry.”
“That makes t wo of us. Glad you’re all right .” I canceled t he evasion program my body was
running and st epped over t he clot hes I’d left on t he floor.
“Whaddayou t hink you’re doin’?” he asked.
“What ’s it look like? I’m going t o kill some Mimics.”
“You crazy? This isn’t t he t ime.”
“You have somet hing bet t er t o do?”
“I dunno, how about a nice orderly ret reat , or findin’ a place t he Mimics aren’t and goin’ t here.
Or maybe just runnin’ t he fuck away!”
“The Americans are suit ing up. We need t o join t hem.”
“They’re not us. Forget ’em. If we don’t leave now, we may not get anot her chance.”
“If we run, who’ll be left t o fight ?”
“Have you lost it ? List en t o yourself !”
“This is what we t rained for.”
“The base is lost , dude, it ’s fucked.”
“Not while Rit a and I are here it ’s not .”
Yonabaru grabbed my Jacket ed arm, act ually t rying t o t ug me along like a child pulling wit h
all his weight on his fat her’s hand t o get t o t he t oy st ore. “You’re t alkin’ crazy, dude. There’s
not hin’ you or me can do t hat ’ll make a difference,” he said wit h anot her t ug. “Maybe t his is
your idea of dut y, honor, all t hat shit . But believe me, ain’t none of us got a dut y t o get
ourselves killed for not hin’. Me and you are just ordinary soldiers. We’re not like Ferrell or t hose
guys in Special Forces. The bat t le doesn’t need us.”
“I know.” I shook off Yonabaru’s hand wit h t he slight est of t wit ches. “But I need t he bat t le.”
“You really mean it , don’t you?”
“I don’t expect you t o underst and.”
Rit a was wait ing for me. I’d t aken four minut es.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
I ignored Yonabaru’s glib comment and ran out of t he hangar. Rit a and I weren’t t he only
soldiers wearing Jacket s now. My HUD was sprinkled wit h icons indicat ing ot her friendlies.
Clust ered in groups of t wo or t hree, t hey’d t aken cover in t he barracks or behind overt urned
vehicles where t hey could spring out at int ervals t o fire short burst s wit h t heir rifles.
The Mimic surprise at t ack had been flawless. The soldiers were complet ely cut off from
command. Even t hose wearing Jacket s weren’t fight ing like a disciplined plat oon—it was more
like an armed mob. For armored infant ry t o be effect ive against a Mimic, t hey had t o fan out
from cover and t hrow everyt hing t hey had at t he enemy just t o slow t hem down. One on one,
even t wo on one, t hey didn’t st and a chance.
Friendly icons blinked ont o my display, t hen winked out . The number of friendlies was holding
st eady solely t hanks t o
U.S. Special Forces. The number of Mimic icons was st eadily increasing. Half t he comm t raffic
was st at ic, and t he rest was a mix of panicked screams and “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” I didn’t hear
anyone giving orders. Yonabaru’s dire predict ions didn’t look far off.
I opened a comm channel t o Rit a. “What now?”
“Do what we do best . Kill some Mimics.”
“Anyt hing more specific?”
“Follow me. I’ll show you.”
We joined t he bat t le. Rit a’s crimson Jacket was a banner for our fragment ed army t o rally
behind. We moved from one lone soldier t o t he next , herding t hem t oget her. Unt il t he last
Mimic was dead, we’d keep at it .
The Valkyrie flew from one end of Flower Line t o t he ot her at will, carrying her unspoken
message of hope t o all who saw her. Even t he Japanese t roops, who’d never seen her Jacket
in person, much less fought at her side, gained a renewed sense of purpose at t he sight of t hat
glit t ering red st eel. Wherever she went , t he heart of t he bat t le followed.
In her Jacket , Rit a was invincible. Her sidekick, yours t ruly, might have had an Achilles’ heel or
t wo, but I was more t han a mat ch for any Mimic. Humanit y’s enemy had met it s execut ioners. It
was t ime t o show t he Mimics just how deep int o Hell t hey’d fallen.
Lift ing energy packs and ammo from t he dead, we kicked and st omped a jit t erbug of deat h
across t he bat t lefield. If a building got in our way, we carved a new pat h t hrough wit h our bat t le
axes. We det onat ed a fuel depot t o dest roy an ent ire mob of Mimics. We wrenched off part of
t he ant enna t ower’s base and used it as a barricade. The Full Met al Bit ch and t he squire at her
side were st eel deat h incarnat e.
We came across a man hidden behind t he burning hulk of an armored car. A Mimic was
bearing down on him, and I knew wit hout being t old t hat t his one was mine t o t ake care of. I
st ruck, and t he Mimic fell. Quickly, I put myself bet ween t he Mimic’s corpse and t he man t o
prot ect him from t he conduct ive sand spilling out of it s body. Wit hout a Jacket t o filt er t he
nanobot s, t he sand was deadly.
Rit a secured a perimet er around t he wounded man. Smoke billowed from t he car, reducing
visibilit y t o next t o not hing. Ten met ers away, at about six o’clock, lay a st eel t ower t hat had
fallen on it s side. Beyond t hat , our Doppler was swarming wit h whit e point s of light . If we
st ayed here we’d be overrun by Mimics.
The man’s leg was pinned beneat h t he overt urned vehicle. He was well-muscled, and an old
film camera hung from a neck which was much t hicker t han my own. It was Murdoch, t he
journalist who’d been snapping pict ures at Rit a’s side during PT.
Rit a kneeled and examined his leg. “I t hought you t ried t o st ay out of bat t le.”
“It was a good shot , Sergeant Major. A Pulit zer for sure, if I’d managed t o t ake it . Didn’t count
on t he explosion, t hough.” Soot and grime fouled t he corners of his mout h.
“I don’t know whet her t hat makes you lucky or unlucky.”
“Meet ing a goddess in Hell must mean I st ill have some luck,” he said.
“This armor plat e is dug int o your leg pret t y deep. It ’ll t ake t oo long t o get you out .”
“What are my opt ions?”
“You can st ay here shoot ing pict ures unt il t he Mimics crush you t o deat h, or I can cut off
your leg and carry you t o t he infirmary. Take your pick.”
“Rit a, wait !”
“You have one minut e t o t hink it over. The Mimics are coming.” She rose her axe, not really
int erest ed in offering him t he full sixt y seconds.
Murdoch t ook a deep breat h. “Can I ask you somet hing?”
“What ?”
“If I live—will you let me t ake a proper pict ure of you? No t ongues st icking out , no middle
fingers?”
The Japanese and U.S. t roops met up just over t wo hours aft er t he at t ack had begun. In t he
t ime it had t aken t he sun t o climb out of t he east ern sky and shine down from direct ly
overhead, t he soldiers on t he ground had cobbled t oget her somet hing you could act ually call a
front . It was an ugly bat t le, but it wasn’t a rout . There were plent y of men st ill alive, st ill moving,
st ill fight ing.
Rit a and I ran across t he remains of t he base.
5
The front ran down t he middle of Flower Line Base, cut t ing a bulging half-circle t hat faced t he
shoreline. U.S. Special Forces anchored t he cent er of t he ragged arc where t he enemy at t acks
were most fierce. Soldiers piled sandbags, hid among t he rubble, and showered t he enemy wit h
bullet s, rocket s, and harsh language when t hey could.
If you drew an imaginary line from t he U.S. soldiers t o Kot oiushi Island, t he No. 3 Training Field
would be smack dab in t he middle. That ’s where t he Mimics had come ashore. Generally,
Mimics behaved wit h all t he int ellect of a piece of gardening equipment . Surprise at t acks
weren’t in t heir milit ary repert oire. And you could be sure t hat t heir weak point —t he server
calling t he shot s—would be heavily defended, surrounded by t he bulk of t he Mimic force.
Missiles t hat dug under and shat t ered bedrock, clust er bombs t hat fragment ed int o a
t housand bomblet s, vaporized fuel-air bombs t hat incinerat ed anyt hing near t hem. All of
mankind’s t ools of t echnological dest ruct ion were useless on t heir own. Defeat ing t he Mimics
was like defusing a bomb; you had t o disarm each piece in t he proper order or it would blow up
in your face.
Rit a’s Jacket and mine were a perfect mat ch, blood and sand. One axe covering t he ot her’s
back. We dodged javelins, sliced t hrough Mimics, blast ed holes in concret e wit h t ungst en
carbide spikes. All in search of t he Mimic whose deat h could end t his.
I knew t he rout ine well enough: dest roy t he ant enna and t he backups t o prevent t he Mimics
from sending a signal int o t he past . I t hought I’d got t en it right on my 159t h loop, and it wasn’t
likely Rit a had screwed t hings up. But somehow everyt hing had reset again. Get t ing t o know
Rit a a lit t le more int imat ely on t his 160t h loop had been nice, but in exchange Flower Line had
t aken it on t he chin. There would be heavy noncombat personnel casualt ies and a lot of dead
when t he dust had finally set t led.
I could t ell t hat Rit a had an idea. She’d been t hrough more loops t han I had, so maybe she
saw somet hing I didn’t . I t hought I’d t urned myself int o a vet eran, but next t o her I was st ill a
greenhorn fresh out of Basic.
We were st anding on t he No. 3 Training Field, barbed wire barricade overt urned t o one side,
chain link fence t rampled flat along t he ot her t hree. Mimics packed int o t he area, shoulder t o
shoulder—as if t hey had shoulders. Unable t o support t he massive weight of t he Mimics, t he
concret e had buckled and cracked. The sun had begun t o sink lower in t he sky, cast ing
complex shadows across t he uneven ground. The wind was as st rong as it had been t he day
before, but t he Jacket ’s filt er removed all t race of t he ocean from it s smell.
Then t here it was, t he Mimic server. Rit a and I spot t ed it at t he same t ime. I don’t know how
we knew it was t he one, but we knew.
“I can’t raise my support squad on comm. We won’t have any air support .”
“Not hing new for me.”
“You remember what t o do?”
I nodded inside my Jacket .
“Then let ’s do t his.”
The field was packed wit h t en t housand square met ers of Mimics wait ing for our axes t o
send t hem int o deat h’s oblivion. We advanced t o meet t hem.
Four st ubby legs and a t ail. No mat t er how many t imes I saw a Mimic, I’d never be able t o
t hink of anyt hing but a dead and bloat ed frog. To look at t hem, t here was no t elling t he server
from it s client s, but Rit a and I knew t he difference.
They at e eart h and shat out poison, leaving behind a lifeless wast eland. The alien
int elligence t hat had creat ed t hem had mast ered space t ravel and learned t o send informat ion
t hrough t ime. Now t hey were t aking our world and t urning it int o a facsimile of t heir own, every
last t ree, flower, insect , animal, and human be damned.
This t ime we had t o dest roy t he server. No more mist akes. If we didn’t , t his bat t le might
never end. I put all t he inert ia I dared behind my axe—a clean hit on t he ant enna. “Got it !”
The at t ack came from behind.
My body react ed before I had t ime t o t hink. On t he bat t lefield, I left my conscious mind out of
t he business of running my body. The cool, impart ial calculat ions of my subliminal operat ing
syst em were far more precise t han I could ever be.
The concret e at my feet split in t wo, sending gray dust shoot ing int o t he air as t hough t he
ground had exploded. My right leg rolled t o maint ain balance. I st ill couldn’t see what was
at t acking me. There was no t ime t o swing my massive bat t le axe int o play.
My arms and legs moved t o keep pace wit h my shift ing cent er of gravit y. Shudders coursed
t hrough my nerves, st raining t o provide t he necessary evasive response in t ime. If my spine
had been hardwired t o t he armor plat ing on my back, it would have been clat t ering up a st orm.
I t hrust wit h t he but t of my axe. Done right , it would pack a punch similar t o t hat of a pile
driver. Wit h t he possible except ion of t he front armor plat ing on a t ank, t here weren’t many
t hings t hat could wit hst and a square hit wit h 370 kilograms of piercing force.
The blow glanced off. Fuck!
A shadow moved at t he edge of my vision. No t ime t o get out of t he way. I held in t he breat h
I’d t aken before t he jab wit h t he axe. The hit was coming. There. For an inst ant my body lift ed
off t he ground, t hen I was rolling, my vision alt ernat ing bet ween sky and ground, sky and
ground. I came out of t he roll and regained my feet in a single, fluid mot ion. My axe was at t he
ready.
There, wit h one leg st ill lift ed in t he air, st ood a gunmet al red Jacket . Rita!
Maybe she had knocked me out of t he way of an at t ack I hadn’t seen coming, or maybe I’d
got t en in her way. But she had definit ely been t he one who sent me careening across t he
ground.
What the hell. . .?
The red Jacket crouched and charged. The axe blade was a gleaming razor’s edge. I
surrendered my body t o t he bat t le. One hundred fift y-nine loops had t rained it t o move wit h
ease, and it did. The first st rike came from t he side, missing me by a hair’s breadt h. I deflect ed
t he second, a vicious overhand swing, wit h t he haft of my axe. Before t he t hird swing could
come, I leapt out of harm’s way and put some dist ance bet ween us.
I caught my breat h and t he realit y of t he sit uat ion sank in.
“What t he fuck are you doing?”
Rit a walked slowly t oward me, bat t le axe swinging low, almost brushing t he ground. She
st opped, and her voice crackled over t he comm link. Her high, delicat e voice, so out of place on
t he bat t lefield:
“What ’s it look like I’m doing?”
“It looks like you’re t rying t o fucking kill me!”
“Humans perceive Mimic t ransmissions as dreams. Our brains are t he ant ennas t hat receive
t hose t ransmissions. But it ’s not just one-way. Our brains adapt —we become t he ant ennas.
I’m not even looping anymore, but I’m st ill connect ed; I can st ill sense t he server Mimic because
I am st ill an ant enna myself. The migraines are a side effect . You’ve had t hem, haven’t you?”
“What are you t alking about ?”
“That ’s why t he loop repeat ed last t ime, even t hough you dest royed t he backups. You didn’t
dest roy t he ant enna—t hat was me.”
“Rit a, I don’t underst and.”
“It works bot h ways. If you become an ant enna, t he Mimics will st ill be able t o loop. I’m an
ant enna. You’re t rapped in a loop. You kill me, t he loop doesn’t propagat e. I kill you, it ’s for real.
Forever. Only one of us can escape.”
None of it made any sense. I’d been a new recruit t rapped in a t ime loop I didn’t underst and.
I’d prayed t o become as st rong as t he Valkyrie I saw st riding t he bat t lefield. I’d got t en myself
t urned int o a corpse count less t imes t rying t o follow in her foot st eps, and aft er 160 t ries, I’d
finally earned t he right t o st and at her side. We’d fought t oget her, laughed t oget her, eat en
lunch and t alked bullshit t oget her. I’d dragged myself t hrough Hell t o get near her, and now t he
world was going t o t ear us apart . It didn’t get much more fucked up t han t hat . The same loop
t hat had made me int o t he warrior I had become was going t o kill me.
“If humanit y is going t o win, we need someone who can break t he loop.” Rit a’s voice was
cool and level.
“Wait , t here has t o be—”
“Now we find out whet her t hat someone is Rit a Vrat aski or Keiji Kiriya.”
Rit a charged.
I t hrew down my rifle; t he t ime needed t o t ake aim and squeeze t he t rigger was t ime I didn’t
have against t he Full Met al Bit ch. I gripped my bat t le axe wit h bot h hands.
Our fight unfolded across t he ent ire base. We moved from t he No. 3 Training Field t o t he
field we’d used for PT, t rampling t he remains of t he t ent t he general had used t o t ake shelt er
from t he scorching midday sun. We passed t he smoldering remains of t he 17t h Company
barracks and crossed axes in front of t he hangar. Our blades slid past each ot her. I ducked t o
avoid t he st rike and kept running.
The ot her soldiers st opped and st ared as we passed. Their helmet s hid t heir expressions,
but not t heir shock. And why not ? I couldn’t believe t his was happening eit her. My mind was in
denial, but my body cont inued t o funct ion, oblivious, like t he well-oiled machine it had become.
Wit h movement s honed t o perfect ion, I pressed t he at t ack.
As we approached t he U.S. t roop line, a green light on my HUD winked on—incoming comm
for Rit a. The link bet ween our Jacket s relayed t he t ransmission t o me.
“Chief Breeder t o Calamit y Dog.” A man’s voice. Rit a slowed almost impercept ibly. I t ook t he
opport unit y t o widen t he space bet ween us. The voice cont inued, “Enemy suppression near
ops successful. You look a lit t le busy, need a hand?”
“Negat ive.”
“Any orders?”
“Keep t he Japanese out of t his. I won’t be responsible for what happens if t hey get in my
way.”
“Copy t hat . Good hunt ing. Chief Breeder out .”
The channel closed, and I screamed at Rit a. “That all you got t o say? Hello? What t he fuck!”
There was no reply. Rit a’s red Jacket closed on me. No more t ime t o t alk. I was t oo busy
fight ing for my life.
I didn’t know whet her Rit a was really t rying t o kill me or only t est ing me. I was a precision
fight ing machine wit hout processing cycles t o spare on ext raneous informat ion. Rit a and
anyt hing more complicat ed t han run/parry/dodge would have t o wait . What ever her int ent ions,
her at t acks were deadly real.
The base’s main gat e was t o my right . We were on t he pat h I’d t aken all t hose t imes t o
sneak int o t he U.S. side of t he base t o st eal one of Rit a’s axes. The line U.S. Special Forces
held ext ended right across t he spot where t he t wo beefy sent ries had st ood.
Rit a swung her weapon wit h no regard for who or what it might hit . I didn’t see any reason t o
bring anyone else int o t his, so I st art ed backing us away from t he line. Cafet eria No. 2 was
about one hundred met ers ahead. The javelins had t aken t heir t oll on t he st ruct ure, but
against all odds, it was st ill st anding. It was a good dist ance from t he line—it would do. A
heart beat lat er I’d covered t he hundred met ers and was making my way inside t hrough t he
door on t he far side of t he building.
It was a dim t wilight inside, just light enough t o see. Tables lay on t heir side, piled int o a
makeshift barricade in front of t he ent rance opposit e t he door I’d come t hrough. Food and half-
empt y soy sauce bot t les lay scat t ered on t he concret e floor. There was no sign of anyone—
dead or alive—in t he ent ire room.
This was where I’d spent count less lunches wat ching Rit a eat . Where I’d fought t hat
overgrown ape from 4t h Company and played culinary chicken wit h Rit a and a t ub full of
umeboshi. What bet t er place for Rit a and me t o decide our lives in a duel t o t he deat h?
Orange light shone t hrough a hole in t he west wall. When I glanced at t he chronomet er
beside my display I could hardly believe eight hours had elapsed since t he bat t le st art ed. It was
already dusk. No wonder I felt like my Jacket was lined wit h lead. I didn’t have t he muscle for
t his. My bat t eries were drained and syst ems were about t o st art shut t ing down. I’d never been
in a bat t le half t his long.
Rit a’s red Jacket crept int o t he cafet eria. I blocked a horizont al swing wit h my axe; my
Jacket ’s frame creaked. If I’d st opped it head on, t he t orque from t he act uat ors would have
t orn my Jacket apart from t he inside out . Fear of what Rit a was capable of gripped me anew.
Rit a Vrat aski was a prodigy in bat t le—and she had learned t o read my every parry and feint .
Each move in bat t le happens at a subconscious level. This makes it doubly difficult t o
compensat e when someone learns t o read t hose moves. Rit a was half a st ep ahead of me,
already spinning t o deliver a deadly blow t o t he space where I would be before I even got t here.
It hit home. I inst inct ively st epped int o t he arc of her axe, narrowly avoiding t he full brunt of
t he swing. My left shoulder plat e went flying. A red warning light lit up on my display.
Rit a kicked, and t here was no way t o avoid it . I sailed across t he room. Sparks flew as my
Jacket grat ed along t he broken concret e floor. I spun once and crashed int o t he count er. A
shower of chopst icks rained down on my head.
Rit a was already moving. No t ime t o rest . Head, check. Neck, check. Torso, right shoulder,
right arm unit —everyt hing but my left shoulder plat e checked out . I could st ill fight . I let go of
my axe. Digging my gloves int o t he count er’s edge, I vault ed up and over. Rit a swung,
shat t ering t he count er and kicking up a spray of wood and met al.
I was in t he kit chen. Before me st ret ched an enormous st ainless st eel sink and an indust rial
st rengt h gas range. Frying pans and pot s large enough t o boil ent ire pigs hung along one wall.
Piles of plast ic cut lery reached t o t he ceiling. Neat rows of t rays st ill held uneat en breakfast s,
now long cold.
I backed up, knocking plat t ers t o t he ground in an avalanche of food and molded plast ic. Rit a
was st ill coming. I t hrew a pot at her and scored a direct hit . It sounded like a gong as it
bounced off her cherry-red Jacket helmet . Apparent ly not enough t o dissuade her. Maybe I
should have t ried t he kit chen sink inst ead. Wit h a swing of her axe, Rit a dest royed half t he
count er and a st eel-reinforced concret e pillar.
I backed up furt her—int o a wall. I dropped t o t he ground as a vicious horizont al swing sliced
t oward me. The bodybuilder’s face, st ill grinning mindlessly down over t he kit chen, t ook t he hit
in my place. I dove for Rit a’s legs. She sprang out of t he way. I let t he moment um carry me back
t o t he ruins of t he cafet eria count er. My axe was right where I’d left it .
Picking up a weapon you’d already t hrown away could only mean one t hing: you were ready
t o fight back; no one picked up a weapon t hey didn’t plan on using. It was clear I couldn’t keep
running forever. If Rit a really want ed t o kill me—and I was st art ing t o t hink she just might —
t here would be no running. Fending off one at t ack aft er anot her had left my Jacket running on
empt y. It was t ime t o make up my mind.
There was one t hing I couldn’t let myself forget . Somet hing I’d promised myself a long t ime
ago when I resolved t o fight my way out of t his loop. Hidden beneat h t he gaunt let on my left
hand was t he number 160. Back when t hat number was only 5, I had made a decision t o t ake
all I could learn wit h me int o t he next day. I’d never shared t he secret of t hose numbers wit h
anyone. Not Rit a, not Yonabaru, not even Ferrell who I’d t rained wit h so many t imes. Only I
knew what it meant .
That number was my closest friend, and so long as it was t here, I had no fear of dying. It
didn’t mat t er if Rit a killed me. I would never have made it t his far wit hout her anyway. What
could be more fit t ing t han redeeming my savior wit h my own deat h?
But if I gave up now, everyt hing would be gone. The gut s I’d spilled on t hat crat er-blast ed
island. The blood I’d choked on. The arm I’d left lying on t he ground. The whole fucking loop. It
would vanish like t he smoke out of a gun barrel. The 159 bat t les t hat didn’t exist anywhere but
in my head would be gone forever, meaningless.
If I gave it all I had and lost , t hat was one t hing. But I wasn’t going t o die wit hout a fight . Rit a
and I were probably t hinking t he same t hing. I underst ood what she was going t hrough. Hell,
she and I were t he only t wo people on t he whole damn planet who could underst and. I’d
crawled over every inch of Kot oiushi Island t rying t o find a way t o survive, just as Rit a had done
on some bat t lefield back in America.
If I lived, she’d die, and I’d never find someone like her again. If she lived, I would have t o die.
No mat t er how many different ways I ran it t hrough my head, t here didn’t seem t o be anot her
way out . One of us had t o die, and Rit a didn’t want t o t alk it t hrough. She was going t o let our
skill decide. She’d chosen t o speak wit h st eel, and I had t o give her an answer.
I picked up my axe.
I ran t o t he middle of t he cafet eria and t est ed it s weight . I found myself st anding almost
exact ly where Rit a and I had gone t hrough t he umeboshi. Ain’t life funny? It was only a day
ago, but it felt like a lifet ime. Rit a had beat en me at t hat , t oo. I t hink it was fair t o say she had a
gift for compet it ion.
Rit a’s crimson Jacket advanced one st ep at a t ime, sizing me up. She st opped just out side
of axe range, her gleaming weapon gripped t ight ly in her hand.
The sounds of t he fight ing out side int ruded on t he quiet of t he cafet eria. Explosions were
t he beat of dist ant drums. Shells t earing t hrough t he sky were t he high not es of flut es.
Aut omat ic rifles played a st accat o percussion. Rit a and I brought t oget her raucous cymbals of
t ungst en carbide.
There were no cheering onlookers in t he crumbling ruins of t he cafet eria. Piles of t ables and
overt urned chairs were our only spect at ors, silent observers t o t he deadly dance of our
crimson and sand Jacket s. We moved in a spiral, as Rit a always did, t racing a pat t ern in t he
concret e floor. We were dancing a war ballet , wrapped in t he pinnacle of mankind’s t echnology,
our crude weapons singing a t housand-year-old dirge.
My axe blade was not ched and dull. My Jacket was covered in scars, it s bat t ery all but
deplet ed. My muscles moved by sheer willpower alone.
A t remendous explosion shook t he cafet eria. We jumped at t he sound.
I knew her next st rike would be a killing blow. There would be no avoiding it . No t ime t o t hink
—t hinking was for t raining. Bat t le was all about act ion. The experience et ched int o my body
t hrough 159 bat t les would guide my movement s.
Rit a pulled her axe back for t he swing. My axe would answer from below. The t wo giant
blades crossed, shredding plat es of armor.
There was only one real difference bet ween Rit a and me. Rit a had learned t o fight t he
Mimics alone. I had learned t o fight t he Mimics wat ching Rit a. The precise moment she would
swing, t he next st ep she would t ake—my operat ing syst em had recorded it all. I knew what her
next move would be. That ’s why Rit a’s swing only grazed me, and my swing t ore open her
Jacket .
A hole gaped in Rit a’s crimson armor.
“Rit a!”
Her bat t le axe t rembled in her hands. Rit a’s Jacket was doing it s best t o filt er t he
unint ended commands t riggered by t he convulsions in her muscles. The axe’s t ungst en
carbide handle clat t ered noisily against her gaunt let s. Blood, oil, and some unident ifiable fluids
oozed from t he newly opened split in her armor. The scene was eerily familiar t o me, and I felt a
renewed sense of t error. She ext ended her arm and fumbled for t he jack on my shoulder plat e.
A cont act comm. Rit a’s voice was clear in my helmet .
“You win, Keiji Kiriya.” The crimson Jacket leaned hard against me. Rit a’s voice was dry and
laced wit h pain.
“Rit a—why?”
“I’ve known for a long t ime. Ever since I first got t he Mimic signal. The bat t le always ends.”
“What ? I don’t —”
“You’re t he one who makes it out of t his loop.” Rit a coughed, a mechanical sput t ering sound
t hrough t he link.
I finally underst ood. When I met Rit a yest erday, she had decided t hat she was going t o die. I
didn’t recognize it for what it was at t he t ime. I t hought I’d accident ally t ripped some sort of
flag. I should have been t rying t o find a way t o save her, but I let t he day slip t hrough my
fingers.
“I’m sorry, Rit a. I—I didn’t know.”
“Don’t apologize. You won.”
“Won? Can’t we just . . . just keep repeat ing t his? We may never leave t he loop, but we’ll be
t oget her. Forever. We can be t oget her longer t han a lifet ime. Every day will be a bat t le, but we
can handle bat t le. If I have t o kill a t housand Mimics, a million, I will. We’ll do it t oget her.”
“Every morning you’ll wake up t o a Rit a Vrat aski who doesn’t know you exist .”
“I don’t care.”
Rit a shook her head. “You don’t have a choice. You have t o break out of t he loop before
what happened t o me happens t o you. End t his goddamn t hing while you st ill can.”
“I can’t sacrifice you t o do it .”
“The Keiji Kiriya I know wouldn’t sacrifice t he human race for himself.”
“Rit a—”
“There isn’t much t ime. If t here’s somet hing you want t o say, say it now.” The crimson Jacket
slumped.
“I’ll st ay wit h you unt il you die. I—I love you.”
“Good. I don’t want t o die alone.”
Her face was hidden beneat h her helmet , and I was grat eful. If I’d been able t o see her t ears,
I never could have ended t he loop and left her forever. Light from t he set t ing sun, red and low
in t he west ern sky, played across Rit a’s crimson Jacket , enveloping her in a brilliant ruby glow.
“Long fight , Keiji. It ’s already sunset .”
“It ’s beaut iful.”
“Sent iment al bast ard.” There was a smile in her voice. “I hat e red skies.”
It was t he last t hing she ever said.
6
The sky was bright .
Rit a Vrat aski was dead. Aft er I killed t he Mimic server and mopped up t he st ragglers, t hey
t hrew me in t he brig. They said it was for derelict ion of dut y. By recklessly ignoring t he orders of
a superior officer, I had placed my fellow soldiers in harm’s way. Never mind t hat t here hadn’t
been any superior officers t o give any fucking orders. They were scrambling t o find someone t o
pin Rit a’s deat h on, and I couldn’t blame t hem for want ing a scapegoat .
The court mart ial t ook place t hree days aft er t hey locked me up; I was cleared of t he
charges. In t he end, t hey decided t o pin a medal on me inst ead.
A general, t he one who had ordered up t he PT, pat t ed me on t he back and t old me what a
fine job I’d done. He all but rolled his eyes when he said it . I want ed t o t ell him t o shove t he
medal up his ass for all t he good it would do, but I st opped myself. Rit a’s deat h was my
responsibilit y. No point in t aking it out on him.
The medal was t he Order of t he Valkyrie, awarded t o soldiers who killed over one hundred
Mimics in a single bat t le. An award originally creat ed for one very special soldier. The only way
t o receive a higher honor was t o die in bat t le—like Rit a had.
I really had killed a lot of t he fuckers. More t han all of Rit a’s kills combined in just one bat t le. I
don’t remember much of what happened aft er I dest royed t he server, but apparent ly I found a
replacement bat t ery for my suit and proceeded t o single-handedly t ake out somewhere
around half of all t he Mimics t hat had at t acked Flower Line.
Reconst ruct ion of t he base had been moving forward at a fever pit ch. Half t he buildings on
t he base had burned t o t he ground, and hauling off t he wreckage was a monument al t ask in
and of it self. The 17t h Company’s barracks were gone, and t he myst ery novel I’d never got t en
around t o finishing was not hing but ashes.
I wandered aimlessly as people hurried t o and fro across t he base.
“Fight like a mot hefuckin’ maniac? That how decorat ed heroes do?”
The voice was familiar. I t urned just in t ime t o see a fist flying st raight at me. My left leg
reposit ioned it self. I didn’t have t ime t o t hink. All I could do was decide whet her or not t o t hrow
t he count er at t ack swit ch in my head. If I flipped t he swit ch on, t he reflexes burned int o me
t hrough 160 loops would kick in, t aking over my body like a robot in a fact ory.
I could shift my weight t o my left leg, deflect t he punch wit h my shoulder, and grab my
at t acker’s elbow as I st epped forward wit h my right foot and jammed my own elbow int o his
side. That would t ake care of t he first punch. I ran t he simulat ion in my head and realized I’d be
shat t ering my assailant ’s ribs before I even knew who he was. I opt ed t o just t ake t he punch.
The worst I would walk away wit h was a black eye.
It hurt more t han I’d bargained for. The force of t he blow knocked me back, and I landed hard
on my ass. At least not hing was broken— all according t o plan. It was good t o know I had a
career of being a punching bag ahead of me if t he army didn’t pan out .
“I don’t know about you bein’ a prodigy, but you sure as fuck are full of yourself.”
“Leave him alone.”
Yonabaru was st anding over me. He looked like he want ed t o keep t hrowing punches, but a
woman in a plain soldier’s shirt had st epped in t o st op him. Her left arm was in a sling. The
bleached whit e clot h st ood in sharp cont rast t o her khaki shirt . She must have been
Yonabaru’s girlfriend. I was glad t hey’d bot h survived.
There was a light in t he woman’s eyes unlike any I’d ever seen before, as t hough she were
wat ching a lion t hat had broken free of it s chains. It was a look reserved for somet hing ot her
t han human.
“Come st rollin’ in here like not hin’ happened—makes me sick just lookin’ at you.”
“I said, leave him alone.”
“Fuck him.”
Before I could st and up, Yonabaru had walked off. I st ood slowly and dust ed myself off. My
jaw didn’t hurt t oo badly. It was not hing compared t o t he empt iness Rit a had left inside me.
“He landed a good one,” I heard from behind me. It was Ferrell. He looked t he same as
always, wit h maybe anot her wrinkle or t wo in his forehead t o show for t he fight .
“You saw t hat ?”
“Sorry, I didn’t have t ime t o st op him.”
“It ’s okay.”
“Try not t o hold it against him. He lost a lot of friends t hat day. He just needs some t ime t o
set t le down.”
“I saw Nijou—what was left of him.”
“Our plat oon lost sevent een men. They’re saying t hree t housand casualt ies all t oget her, but
t here’s no official number yet . You remember t hat pret t y young lady who ran Cafet eria No. 2?
She didn’t make it , eit her.”
“Oh.”
“It ’s not your fault , but t hat hardly mat t ers at a t ime like t his. You know, you gave Yonabaru’s
lady friend quit e a kick. Among ot hers.”
“Ot hers?”
“Ot hers.”
Add Ferrell t o t he list of people I’d walked all over in t he bat t le. Who knew what else I’d done.
I couldn’t remember a damn t hing, but it was clear I had been a homicidal maniac on t he
bat t lefield. Maybe I was t he one who’d put Yonabaru’s girlfriend’s arm in t hat sling. No wonder
he was so pissed. A kick from a Jacket would be more t han enough t o do t hat . Hell, you could
liquefy int ernal organs wit h ease.
I hoped Yonabaru would remember t hat fear. It would help keep him alive in t he next bat t le.
He may not have t hought of me as a friend anymore, but he was st ill a friend t o me.
“I’m sorry.”
“Forget it .” Ferrell definit ely wasn’t angry. If anyt hing, he seemed grat eful. “Who t aught you
t o pilot a Jacket like t hat ?”
“You did, Sergeant .”
“I’m serious, son. If we were t alkin’ format ion drills t hat would be one t hing, but t here’s not a
soldier in t he ent ire Japanese Corps who could t each you t o fight like t hat .”
Sergeant Bart olome Ferrell had more bat t les under his belt t han almost anyone in t he UDF.
He knew what a warrior was. He underst ood t hat if I hadn’t kicked him out of t he way, he’d be
dead. He knew t hat t he green recruit st anding in front of him was a bet t er warrior t han he
could ever hope t o become. And he knew t hat in bat t le, t he only rank t hat mat t ered was how
good you were.
Sergeant Ferrell was responsible for t he foundat ion I’d built my skills on. But I couldn’t begin
t o explain it t o him, so I didn’t t ry.
“Oh, almost forgot . Some mouse of a woman from t he U.S. Corps been askin’ for you.”
Shast a Raylle. A Shast a Raylle I’d only met briefly in t he Sky Lounge. We’d hardly spoken at
all. The Shast a I’d borrowed a bat t le axe from was a figment of t he loop now.
“Where are t he 17t h’s t emp barracks? And what about t he hangar? I’d like t o check on my
Jacket .”
“Just out of t he brig and you want t o check your Jacket ? You’re t he real deal.”
“I’m not hing special.”
“The U.S. squad t ook your Jacket . Come t o t hink of it , t hat mouse was one of t he ones who
came t o t ake it .”
“What do t hey want wit h my Jacket ?”
“The brass has plans. Don’t be surprised if you wind up in U.S. Special Forces.”
“Seriously?”
“They need someone t o t ake t he Valkyrie’s place. I’m sure you’ll fit right in.” Ferrell clapped
me on t he shoulder and we part ed ways.
I headed for t he American side of t he base t o find Shast a and my Jacket . The barracks and
roads were so badly burnt it was hard t o t ell where t he Japanese side ended and t he U.S. side
began. Even t he sent ries and all t heir muscles were gone.
I found my Jacket in Shast a’s workshop. Shast a was t here t oo. Someone had scrat ched t he
words “Killer Cage” int o t he breast plat e. “Cage”—t hat was how t he Americans pronounced my
name. I guess I had a call sign of my own now. They didn’t wast e much t ime. It was a good
name for a pig’s ass who won medals by killing his friends. I’d have t o t hank whoever t hought of
it . What a fucked-up world.
Shast a saw me st aring at t he inscript ion. “I kept as close an eye on it as I could, but t hey got
t o it anyway. Sorry.” I had t he feeling she’d said somet hing similar t o Rit a in t he past .
“Don’t worry about it . They t old me you were looking for me?”
“I want ed t o give you t he key t o t he Sky Lounge.”
“Key?”
“Like Rit a asked me t o. No one’s been inside since you left . It wasn’t easy keeping people out
for t hree whole days, but I can be very resourceful.” Shast a handed me a key card. “Just ignore
t he st uff by t he ent rance.”
“Thanks.”
“Glad I could help.”
“Can I ask you somet hing?”
“What ?”
“Do you—do you know why Rit a paint ed her Jacket red? It was hardly her favorit e color. I
t hought you might know.”
“She said she want ed t o st and out . I’m not sure why anyone would want t o st and out on a
bat t lefield. Just makes for an easier t arget .”
“Thanks. That makes sense.”
“I suppose you’ll want horns on yours?” I must have frowned because she immediat ely
added, “Sorry! I was only joking.”
“It ’s fine. I need t o learn t o wat ch t hat scowl. Thanks again for t he key. I’m gonna go check
out t hat Sky Lounge.”
“Before you go—”
“Yeah?”
“It ’s none of my business, but I was wondering . . .”
“What is it ?” I asked.
“Were you an old friend of Rit a’s?”
I pressed my lips t oget her int o a wry smile.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it ’s okay. Act ually, we—”
“Yes?”
“We’d only just met .”
“Of course. We’d only just come t o t he base. It was a st upid t hing t o ask.”
I left Shast a and made my way t o t he Sky Lounge. I opened t he door gent ly, even t hough I
knew I wouldn’t be dist urbing anyone.
Yellow t ape wit h t he word “BIOHAZARD” print ed at regular int ervals crisscrossed t he
ent ryway. There was a fire ext inguisher near my feet , and a grainy residue covered t he floor. I
guessed t his was Shast a being resourceful. The base was st ill covered in conduct ive sand
from t he Mimics, and decont aminat ing non-vit al facilit ies like t he Sky Lounge wouldn’t rat e high
on t he priorit y list . Clever.
I st epped inside. The air was st ale. Rit a’s smell was already fading from t he room. Not hing
had been moved from where we’d left it . The collapsed vinyl bag, coffee grinder, and port able
range underscored just how short her st ay here had been. They were t he only t races she’d
even been here. Almost everyt hing else she owned was milit ary-issue. The coffee set was t he
only personal belongings she had. Of course she hadn’t left me a not e—t hat would have been
t oo sent iment al for t he Full Met al Bit ch.
The mug on t he glass t able st ill held t he coffee Rit a had made. I picked up t he mug. The
coffee was dark and st ill. It had cooled t o room t emperat ure days ago. My hands shook,
sending t iny ripples across t he jet black surface. This was how Rit a had faced her solit ude.
Now I underst ood.
You were just a piece on t he board, and I was t he piece t hat replaced you. Not hing more
t han t he false hero t he world needed. And now t his good-for-not hing world was going t o push
me across t he same bloodst ained, smoke-filled bat t lefield. But you never hat ed t he world for
what it did t o you.
So I wouldn’t let t he world lose. It could drop me int o a field of Mimics wit h not hing but a
t ungst en carbide axe and a dying Jacket and I’d fight my way out . I’d march waist -deep in
blood t hrough more massacres t han all t he vet s in t he UDF had seen combined, and I’d emerge
unscat hed. I’d t rain unt il I knew t he precise nanosecond t o pull t he t rigger, t he exact moment
t o t ake every st ep. I wouldn’t let a javelin so much as scrat ch t he paint on my Jacket .
While I live and breat he, humanit y will never fall. I promise you. It may t ake a dozen years, but
I will win t his war for you. Even if you won’t be here t o see it . You were t he only person I want ed
t o prot ect , and you were gone.
Hot t ears t hreat ened t o fall from my eyes as I looked out t hrough t he cracked glass at t he
sky, but I wouldn’t cry. Not for t he friends I would lose in t he bat t les ahead. The friends I
wouldn’t be able t o save. I won’t cry for you until the war is finally over.
Through t he warped window I saw t he sky, cryst al blue, seeming t o st ret ch forever. A cloud
drift ed lazily along. I t urned t o face t he window, and like a bone-dry sponge soaking up wat er,
my body absorbed t he clear boundless sky.
You hat ed being alone, but you kept your dist ance from t he barracks, slept and woke in
solit ude, because it was t oo hard t o face t he friends you knew were going t o die. Trapped in a
cruel, unending night mare, your only t hought s were for t hem. You couldn’t bear t o lose even
one of t hem, no mat t er who.
Red was your color, yours and yours alone. It should rest wit h you. I will paint my Jacket sky
blue, t he color you t old me you loved when we first met . In a field of a million soldiers, I will st and
out from all t he rest , a light ning rod for t he enemy’s at t acks. I will be t heir t arget .
I sat t here for some t ime holding t he last cup of coffee she’d ever made, for someone she’d
barely known. It s t hin aroma st irred in me an insufferable longing and sadness. A small colony
of blue-green mold bobbed on t he surface of t he coffee. Raising t he cup t o my lips, I drank.
Afterword
I like video games. I’ve been playing t hem since I was a snot -nosed kid. I’ve wat ched t hem grow
up along wit h me. But even aft er beat ing dozens of games on t he hardest difficult y mode, I’ve
never been moved t o cheer unt il t he walls shake. I’ve never laughed, cried, or jumped up t o
st rike a vict ory pose. My excit ement drift s like ice on a quiet pond, whirling around somewhere
deep inside me.
Maybe t hat ’s just t he react ion I have wat ching myself from t he out side. I look down from
above and say, “Aft er all t he t ime I put int o t he game, of course I was going t o beat it .” I see
myself wit h a shit -eat ing grin plast ered on my face—a vet eran smile only someone who’d been
t here t hemselves could appreciat e.
The ending never changes. The village elder can’t come up wit h anyt hing bet t er t han t he
same, worn-out line he always uses. “Well done, XXXX. I never doubt ed t hat t he blood of a
hero flowed in your veins.” Well t he joke is on you, gramps. There’s not a drop of hero’s blood in
my whole body, so spare me t he praise. I’m just an ordinary guy, and proud of it . I’m here
because I put in t he t ime. I have t he blist ers on my fingers t o prove it . It had not hing t o do wit h
coincidence, luck, or t he act ivat ion of my Wonder Twin powers. I reset t he game hundreds of
t imes unt il my special at t ack finally went off perfect ly. Vict ory was inevit able. So please, hold
off on all t he hero t alk.
This is t he sort of t hing t hat went t hrough my head while I was writ ing. Wit hout t he help of a
great many people, t his novel would never have made int o t his world. It ’s a dark st ory, wit h
charact ers dying left and right , but I’m happy wit h how it t urned out .
I’d like t o t hank Yoshit oshi Abe for so perfect ly realizing t he world of t he novel in his
illust rat ions; my chief edit or, Miyuki Mat sumot o, who went above and beyond t he call of dut y
for t he book; Aft er Glow’s Takeshi Yamazaki for his wonderful design work; Jun Masuda and
his incredible friends for t heir help checking all t hings milit ary; and finally Chōhei Kambayashıi
for his many insight ful suggest ions.
Oh, I nearly forgot . Thanks t o all t he good lit t le boys and girls out t here sending me t hose
jet -black feeds.
—Hiroshi Sakurazaka
About The Author
Phot o by Yoshi hi ro Hagi wara
Hiroshi Sakurazaka was born in 1970. Aft er a career in informat ion t echnology, he published his
first novel, Wizard’s Web, in 2003. His 2004 short st ory, “Sait ama Chainsaw Massacre,” won
t he 16t h SF Magazine Reader’s Award. His ot her novels include Slum Online and Characters
(co-writ t en wit h Hiroki Azuma).
HAI KASORU—The Future I s Jap anese
The Lord of t he Sands of Time
Only the past can save the future as the cyborg O travels from the 26th century to ancient Japan and beyond. With the help
of the princess Miyo and a ragtag troop of warriors from across history, O has a chance to save humanity and his own
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All You Need Is KILL
It’s battle armor versus aliens when the Mimics invade Earth. Private Kiriya dies in battle only to find himself reborn every
day to fight again. Time is not on Kiriya’s side, but he does have one ally: the American super-soldier known as the Full
Metal Bitch.
ZOO
A man receives a photo of his girlfriend every day in the mail...so that he can keep track of her body’s decomposition. A
deathtrap that takes a week to kill its victims. Haunted parks and airplanes held in the sky by the power of belief. These are
just a few of the stories by Otsuichi, Japan’s master of dark fantasy.
Usurper of t he Sun
Schoolgirl Aki is one of the few witnesses to construction on the surface of Mercury. Soon an immense ring has been
built around the sun and Earth has plunged into chaos. While the nations of the world prepare for war, Aki grows up with a
thirst for knowledge and a hunger to make first contact with the enigmatic Builders. Winner of Japan’s prestigious Seiun
Award!
Bat t le Royale: The Novel
The best-selling tour de force from Koushun Takami in a new edition, with an author’s afterword and bonus material.
Brave St ory
The paperback edition of the Batchelder Award-winning fantasy novel by Miyuki Miyabe.
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