When the bullets start flying, it’s only a matter of time before fear catches up with a soldier.
There you are, steel death whizzing past in the air.
Distant shells thunder low and muddy, a hollow sound you feel more than hear. The close ones ring high and clear. They scream with a voice that rattles your teeth, and you know they’re the ones headed for you. They cut deep into the ground, throwing up a veil of dust that hangs there, waiting for the next round to come ripping through.
Thousands of shells, burning through the sky-slices of metal no bigger than your finger-and it only takes one to kill you. Only takes one to turn your best buddy into a steaming side of meat.
Death comes quick, in the beat of a heart, and he ain’t picky about who he takes.
The soldiers he takes quick-before they know what hit ’em-they’re the lucky ones. Most die in agony, their bones shattered, their organs shredded, leaking a sea of blood onto the ground. They wait alone in the mud for Death to steal up behind them and wring out the last drops of life with his icy hands.
If there’s a heaven, it’s a cold place. A dark place. A lonely place.
I grip the trigger with stiff fingers; my arms shake as I send a rain of scorching steel down onto the enemy. The rifle kicks as I fire it. Vunk. Vunk. Vunk. A beat steadier than my heart. A soldier’s spirit isn’t in his body. It’s in his weapon. The barrel warms until it glows, the heat turning fear into anger.
Fuck the brass and their fucking pathetic excuse for air support!
Fuck the suits and their plans that aren’t worth a damn once the shit starts flying!
Fuck the artillery for holding back on the left flank!
Fuck that bastard who just got himself killed!
And more than all of ’em, fuck anything and everything aiming at me! Wield your anger like a steel fist and smash in their faces.
If it moves, fuck it!
I have to kill them all. Stop them from moving.
A scream found its way through my clenched teeth.
My rifle fires 450 20mm rounds per minute, so it can burn through a clip fast. But there’s no point holding back. It don’t matter how much ammo you have left when you’re dead. Time for a new magazine.
The soldier I was shouting to was already dead. My order died in the air, a meaningless pulse of static. I squeezed my trigger again.
My buddy Yonabaru caught one of the first rounds they fired back-one of those javelins. Hit him straight on, tore right through his Jacket. The tip came out covered in blood, oil, and some unidentifiable fluids. His Jacket did a danse macabre for about ten seconds before it finally stopped moving.
There was no use calling a medic. He had a hole just below his chest nearly two centimeters across, and it went clean through his back. The friction had seared the wound at the edges, leaving a dull orange flame dancing around the opening. It all happened within the first minute after the order to attack.
He was the kind of guy that liked to pull rank on you over the stupidest shit, or tell you who’d done it in a whodunit before you’d finished the first chapter. But he didn’t deserve to die.
My platoon-146 men from the 17th Company, 3rd Battalion, 12th Regiment, 301st Armored Infantry Division-was sent in to reinforce the northern end of Kotoiushi Island. They lifted us in by chopper to ambush the enemy’s left flank from the rear. Our job was to wipe out the runners when the frontal assault inevitably started to push them back.
So much for inevitable.
Yonabaru died before the fighting even started.
I wondered if he suffered much.
By the time I realized what was going on, my platoon was smack dab in the middle of the battle. We were catching fire from the enemy and our own troops both. All I could hear were screams, sobbing, and “Fuck!” Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The profanities were flying as thick as the bullets. Our squad leader was dead. Our sergeant was dead. The whir of the rotors on the support choppers was long gone. Comms were cut off. Our company had been torn to shreds.
The only reason I was still alive was because I’d been taking cover when Yonabaru bought it.
While the others stood their ground and fought, I was hiding in the shell of my Jacket, shaking like a leaf. These power suits are made of a Japanese composite armor plating that’s the envy of the world. They cover you like white on rice. I figured that if a shell did make it past the first layer, it’d never make it past the second. So if I stayed out of sight long enough, the enemy would be gone when I came out. Right?
I was scared shitless.
Like any recruit fresh out of boot camp I could fire a rifle or a pile driver, but I still didn’t know how to do it worth a damn. Anyone can squeeze a trigger. Bang! But knowing when to fire, where to shoot when you’re surrounded? For the first time I realized I didn’t know the first thing about warfare.
Another javelin streaked past my head.
I tasted blood in my mouth. The taste of iron. Proof that I was still alive.
My palms were clammy and slick inside my gloves. The vibrations of the Jacket told me the battery was almost out of juice. I smelled oil. The filter was on its last legs, and the stench of the battlefield was fighting its way into my suit, the smell of enemy corpses like the smell of crumpled leaves.
I hadn’t felt anything below my waist for a while. It should have hurt where they hit me, but it didn’t. I didn’t know whether that was good or bad. Pain lets you know you’re not dead yet. At least I didn’t have to worry about the piss in my suit.
Out of fuel-air grenades. Only thirty-six 20mm slugs left. The magazine would be empty in five seconds. My rocket launcher-which they gave each of us only three rockets for anyway-got itself lost before I could even fire the damn thing. My head-mounted camera was wasted, the armor on my left arm was shredded, and even at full throttle the Jacket was only outputting at 40 percent. Miraculously, the pile driver on my left shoulder had survived without a scratch.
A pile driver is a close-combat weapon that uses an explosive charge to fire tungsten carbide spikes-only good against enemies within arm’s reach. The powder cartridges it fires are each as big as a man’s fist. At a ninety-degree angle of impact, the only thing that can stand up to it is the front armor plating on a tank. When they first told me its magazine only held twenty rounds, I didn’t think anyone could live long enough to use even that many. I was wrong.
Mine had four rounds left.
I had fired sixteen times, and missed fifteen-maybe sixteen.
The heads-up display in my suit was warped. I couldn’t see a goddamn thing where it was bent. There could be an enemy standing right in front of me and I’d never know it.
They say a vet who is used to the Jacket can get a read on his surroundings without even using the camera. Takes more than eyes in battle. You have to feel the impact passing through layers of ceramic and metal and into your body. Read the pull of the trigger. Feel the ground through the soles of your boots. Take in numbers from a kaleidoscope of gauges and know the state of the field in an instant. But I couldn’t do any of that. A recruit in his first battle knows shit-all.
Breathe out. Breathe in.
My suit was rank with sweat. A terrible smell. Snot was seeping from my nose, but I couldn’t wipe it.
I checked the chronometer beside my display. Sixty-one minutes had passed since the battle started. What a load of shit. It felt like I’d been fighting for months.
I looked left, right. Up, down. I made a fist inside one glove. Can’t use too much strength, I had to remind myself. Overdo it, and my aim would drift low.
No time to check the Doppler. Time to fire and forget.
Thak thak thak thak thak!
A cloud of dust rose.
The enemy’s rounds seemed to ride the wind over my head, but mine liked to veer off after leaving the barrel, as if the enemy simply willed them away. Our drill sergeant said guns could be funny like that. You ask me, it seems only fair that the enemy should get to hear shells screeching down on them, too. We should all have our turn feeling Death’s breath on the back of our neck, friend and foe alike.
But what would Death’s approach sound like to an inhuman enemy? Did they even feel fear?
Our enemies-the enemies of the United Defense Force-are monsters. Mimics, we call them.
My gun was out of bullets.
The silhouette of a misshapen orb materialized in the clay-brown haze. It was shorter than a man. It would probably come up to the shoulder of a Jacketed soldier. If a man were a thin pole standing on end, a Mimic would be a stout barrel-a barrel with four limbs and a tail, at any rate. Something like the bloated corpse of a drowned frog, we liked to say. To hear the lab rats tell it, they have more in common with starfish, but that’s just details.
They make for a smaller target than a man, so naturally they’re harder to hit. Despite their size, they weigh more than we do. If you took one of those oversized casks, the kind Americans use to distill bourbon, and filled it with wet sand you’d have it about right. Not the kind of mass a mammal that’s 70 percent water could ever hope for. A single swipe of one of its limbs can send a man flying in a thousand little pieces. Their javelins, projectiles fired from vents in their bodies, have the power of 40mm shells.
To fight them, we use machines to make ourselves stronger. We climb into mechanized armor Jackets-science’s latest and greatest. We bundle ourselves into steel porcupine skin so tough a shotgun fired at point blank wouldn’t leave a scratch. That’s how we face off against the Mimics, and we’re still outclassed.
Mimics don’t inspire the instinctive fear you’d expect if you found yourself facing a bear protecting her cubs, or meeting the gaze of a hungry lion. Mimics don’t roar. They’re not frightening to look at. They don’t spread any wings or stand on their hind legs to make themselves look more intimidating. They simply hunt with the relentlessness of machines. I felt like a deer in the headlights, frozen in the path of an oncoming truck. I couldn’t understand how I’d gotten myself into the situation I was in.
I was out of bullets.
So long, Mom.
I’m gonna die on a fucking battlefield. On some godforsaken island with no friends, no family, no girlfriend. In pain, in fear, covered in my own shit because of the fear. And I can’t even raise the only weapon I have left to fend off the bastard racing toward me. It was like all the fire in me left with my last round of ammo.
The Mimic’s coming for me.
I can hear Death breathing in my ear.
His figure looms large in my heads-up display.
Now I see him; his body is stained a bloody red. His scythe, a two-meter-long behemoth, is the same vivid shade. It’s actually more of a battle axe than a scythe. In a world where friend and foe wear the same dust-colored camouflage, he casts a gunmetal red glow in all directions.
Death rushes forward, swifter than even a Mimic. A crimson leg kicks and I go flying.
My armor is crushed. I stop breathing. The sky becomes the ground. My display is drowning in red flashing warnings. I cough up blood, saving the rest of the warnings the trouble.
Then my pile driver fires. The blast throws me at least ten meters into the air. Bits of the armor plating from the back of my Jacket scatter across the ground. I land upside down.
Death swings his battle axe.
Metal screams as he cuts through the uncuttable. The axe cries out like a freight train screeching to a halt.
I see the Mimic’s carapace sailing through the air.
It only took one blow to reduce the Mimic to a motionless heap. Ashen sand poured from the gaping wound. The two halves of the creature shuddered and twitched, each keeping its own strange rhythm. A creature humanity’s greatest technological inventions could barely scratch, laid waste by a barbarian weapon from a thousand years past.
Death turned slowly to face me.
Amid the crush of red warning lights crowding my display, a sole green light winked on. An incoming friendly transmission. “… as a little… kay?” A woman’s voice. Impossible to make it out over the noise. I couldn’t stand. The Jacket was spent and so was I. It took everything I had left just to roll right side up.
Upon closer inspection, I was not, in fact, in the company of the Angel of Death. It was just another soldier in a Jacket. A Jacket not quite like my own, as it was outfitted with that massive battle axe where the regulation pile driver should have been. The insignia on the shoulder didn’t read JP but instead U.S. In place of the usual desert camouflage mix of sand and coffee grounds, the suit shone head-to-toe in metallic crimson.
The Full Metal Bitch.
I’d heard stories. A war junkie always chasing the action, no matter where it led her. Word had it she and her Special Forces squad from the U.S. Army had chalked up half of all confirmed Mimic kills ever. Maybe anyone who could see that much fighting and live to tell about it really was the Angel of Death.
Still carrying the battle axe, the blazing red Jacket started toward me. Its hand reached down and fumbled for the jack in my shoulder plate. A contact comm.
“There’s something I’ve been wantin’ to know.”
Her voice filled my suit, clear as crystal. A soft, light tone, at odds with the two-meter axe and carnage she’d just created with it.
“Is it true the green tea they serve in Japan at the end of your meal comes free?”
The conductive sand spilling out of the fallen Mimic danced away on the wind. I could hear the distant cry of shells as they flew. This was a battlefield, the scorched waste where Yonabaru, Captain Yuge, and the rest of my platoon had died. A forest of steel shells. A place where your suit fills with your own piss and shit. Where you drag yourself through a mire of blood and muck.
“I’ve gotten myself in trouble for believing everything I read. So I thought I’d play it safe, ask a local,” she continued.
Here I am, half dead, covered in shit, and you want to talk about tea?
Who walks up to someone, kicks them to the ground, and then asks about tea? What was going through her fucking head? I wanted to give her a piece of my mind, but the words wouldn’t come. I could think of the words I wanted to say, but my mouth had forgotten how to work-a litany of profanities stalled at the gate.
“That’s the thing with books. Half the time the author doesn’t know what the hell he’s writing about-especially not those war novelists. Now how about you ease your finger off the trigger and take a nice, deep breath.”
Good advice. It took a minute, but I started to see straight again. The sound of a woman’s voice always had a way of calming me down. The pain I’d left in battle returned to my gut. My Jacket misread the cramps in my muscles, sending the suit into a mild spasm. I thought of the dance Yonabaru’s suit did just before he died.
“What do you think?” My reply wasn’t much more than a hoarse whisper.
The red Jacket kneeled down in front of me, examining the shredded armor plate over my stomach. I ventured a question. “How’s the battle going?”
“The 301st has been wiped out. Our main line fell back to the coast to regroup.”
“What about your squad?”
“No use worrying about them.”
“So… how do I look?”
“It pierced the front, but the back armor plate stopped it. It’s charred bad.”
“Fuck me.” I looked up at the sky. “Looks like it’s starting to clear.”
“Yeah. I like the sky here.”
“It’s clear. Can’t beat islands for clear skies.”
“Am I going to die?”
“Yeah,” she told me.
I felt tears well up in my eyes. I was grateful then that the helmet hid my face from view. It kept my shame a private thing.
The red Jacket maneuvered to gently cradle my head. “What’s your name? Not your rank or your serial number. Your name.”
“Keiji. Keiji Kiriya.”
“I’m Rita Vrataski. I’ll stay with you until you die.”
She couldn’t have said anything I’d rather hear, but I wasn’t going to let her see that. “You’ll die too if you stay.”
“I have a reason. When you die, Keiji, I’m going to take your Jacket’s battery.”
“No need to fight it. Relax. Let go.”
I heard an electronic squelch-an incoming comm signal in Rita’s helmet. It was a man’s voice. The link between our Jackets automatically relayed the voice to me.
“Calamity Dog, this is Chief Breeder.”
“I read you.” All business.
“Alpha Server and vicinity under control. Estimate we can hold for thirteen minutes, tops. Time to pick up that pizza.”
“Calamity Dog copies. Running silent from here in.”
The red Jacket stood, severing our comm link. Behind her an explosion rumbled. I felt the ground tremble through my spine. A laser-guided bomb had fallen from the sky. It plunged deep into the earth, piercing the bedrock before it detonated. The sandy white ground bulged like an overcooked pancake; its surface cracked and sent darker soil the color of maple syrup spewing into the air. A hail of mud splattered on my armor. Rita’s battle axe glinted in the light.
The smoke cleared.
I could see a writhing mass in the center of the enormous crater left by the explosion: the enemy. Red points of light sprang to life on my radar screen, so many that every point was touching another.
I thought I saw Rita nod. She sprang forward, flitting across the battlefield. Her axe rose and fell. Each time it shone, the husk of a Mimic soared. The sand that poured from their wounds spiraled on the whirlwinds traced by her blade. She cut them down with the ease of a laser cutting butter. Her movements took her in a circle around me, protecting me. Rita and I had undergone the same training, but she was like a juggernaut while I lay on the ground, a stupid toy that had run down its batteries. No one had forced me to be here. I had dragged myself to this wasteland of a battlefield, and I wasn’t doing a damn bit of good for anyone. Better I’d gotten plugged alongside Yonabaru. At least then I wouldn’t have put another soldier in harm’s way trying to protect me.
I decided not to die with three rounds left in my pile driver.
I lifted a leg. I put a hand on one knee.
I screamed. I forced myself to keep going.
The red Jacket turned to me.
I heard some noise over my headphones, but I couldn’t tell what she was trying to say.
One of the Mimics in the pack stood out from the rest. It wasn’t that it looked different from the others. Just another drowned, bloated frog. But there was something about it that set it apart. Maybe proximity to death had sharpened my senses, but somehow I knew that was the one I was meant to fight.
So that’s what I did. I leapt at the Mimic and it lashed out at me with its tail. I felt my body lighten. One of my arms had been cut off. The right arm-leaving the pile driver on the left intact. Lucky me. I pulled the trigger.
The charge fired, a perfect ninety-degree angle.
One more shot. A hole opened in the thing’s carapace.
One more shot. I blacked out.