The paperback I’d been reading was beside my pillow.
It was a mystery novel about an American detective who is supposed to be some sort of expert on the Orient. I had my index finger wedged into a scene where all the key players meet for dinner at a Japanese restaurant in New York. The detective’s client, an Italian, tries to order an espresso after their meal, but the detective stops him cold. He starts on about how at Japanese restaurants, they bring you green tea after dinner, so you don’t have to order anything. Then he veers off on how green tea goes great with soy sauce, and oh, why is it that in India they spice their milk tea? He’s finally gathered everyone involved in the case in one place, and he talks a blue streak about everything but whodunit.
I rubbed my eyes.
Passing my hand over my shirt I felt my stomach through the cloth. I could make out a newly formed six-pack that hadn’t been there half a year back. No trace 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 the book. I should have known something was up when Mad Wargarita started striking up small talk about mystery novels. American Special Operators who’d crossed the entire Pacific Ocean just for a taste of blood didn’t have time to read the latest best seller. If they had spare time, they’d probably spend it tweaking their Jackets.
What a way to start the day. Today was going to be my first real taste of battle. Why couldn’t I have dreamed about blasting away a few baddies, getting promoted a grade or two?
On the bunk above me a radio with its bass blown out was squawking music-some kind of prehistoric rock so ancient my old man wouldn’t have recognized it. I could hear the sounds of the base stirring to life, incoherent chatter coming from every direction, and above it all, the DJ’s over-caffeinated voice chirping away with the weather forecast. I could feel every word pierce my skull. Clear and sunny out here on the islands, same as yesterday, with a UV warning for the afternoon. Watch out for those sunburns!
The barracks weren’t much more than four sheets of fire-resistant wood propped up together. A poster of a bronze-skinned bikini babe hung on one of the walls. Someone had replaced her head with a shot of the prime minister torn from the base newspaper. The bikini babe’s head grinned vapidly from its new home atop a macho muscle builder on another nearby poster. The muscle builder’s head was MIA.
I stretched in my bunk. The welded aluminum frame squealed in protest.
“Keiji, sign this.” Yonabaru craned his neck over the side of the top bunk. He looked great for a guy I’d just seen get impaled. They say people who die in dreams are supposed to live forever.
Jin Yonabaru had joined up three years before me. Three more years of trimming the fat, three more years of packing on muscle. Back when he was a civilian he’d been thin as a beanpole. Now he was cut from rock. He was a soldier, and he looked the part.
“What is it?”
“A confession. The one I told you about.”
“I signed it yesterday.”
“Really? That’s weird.” I could hear him rifling through pages above me. “No, not here. Well, sign one for me again, will ya?”
“You trying to 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 the front line had a tradition. The day before an operation, they’d sneak into the PX and make off with some liquor. Drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The shot they gave you before battle broke down any acetaldehyde left in the bloodstream. But if you were caught, they’d bring you up before a disciplinary committee-maybe a court martial if you screwed the pooch real bad-after taking stock of inventory once the fighting was over and everyone was back on base. Of course, it was hard to court-martial a corpse. Which is why we’d all leave notes before the battle explaining how the robbery had been our idea. Sure enough, when the investigation started, it was always some poor sap who’d got himself killed who had masterminded the whole thing. It was a good system. The people running the PX were wise to the racket, so they made sure to leave out some bottles that wouldn’t be missed too much. You’d think they’d just go ahead and give everyone a few drinks the night before a battle-for morale’s sake, if nothing else-but no, it was the same old song and dance every time. Good ideas don’t stand a chance against good bureaucracy.
I took the paper from Yonabaru. “Funny, I thought I’d be more nervous.”
“So soon? Save it for the day, man.”
“What do you mean? We suit up this afternoon.”
“You nuts? How long you plan on wearing that thing?”
“If I don’t wear it today, when will I?”
“How about tomorrow, when we roll out?”
I nearly fell out of bed. For an instant, my eyes settled on the soldier lying on the bunk next to mine. He was flipping through a porn magazine. Then I stared up into Yonabaru’s face.
“What do you mean, tomorrow? They postpone the attack?”
“No, man. It’s always been tomorrow. But our secret mission to get hammered starts tonight at nineteen hundred hours. We drink ourselves blind and wake up with a helluva hangover in the morning. A plan not even HQ could fuck up.”
Wait. We’d broken into the PX last night. I remembered the whole thing. I was nervous about it being my first battle, so I’d decided to duck out a bit early. I had come back to my bunk and started reading that mystery novel. I even remembered helping Yonabaru up to his bed when he came staggering in from partying with the ladies.
Unless-unless I had dreamed that too?
Yonabaru smirked. “You don’t look so good, Keiji.”
I picked the novel up off my bed. I’d brought it along to read in my spare time, but I’d been so busy drilling formation that it had stayed stuffed in the bottom of my bag. I remember thinking how appropriately ironic it was that I hadn’t had any time to start reading it until the day before I was probably going to die. I opened the book to the last page I’d read. The American detective who was supposed to be an expert on the Orient was discussing the finer points of green tea, just like I remembered. If today was the day before the battle, when had I read the book? Nothing was making any sense.
“Listen. There’s nothin’ to tomorrow’s operation.”
I blinked. “Nothin’ to it, huh?”
“Just get yourself home without shooting anyone in the back, and you’ll be fine.”
I grunted in reply.
Yonabaru curled his hand into a gun and pointed his index finger at his head. “I’m serious. Sweat it too much, you’ll turn into a feedhead-end up losing your mind before they even get a chance to blow your brains out.”
The guy I’d replaced had gone a little haywire, so they pulled him from the front lines. They say he started picking up comm feeds about how humanity was doomed. Not the kind of shit you want heavily armed UDF Jacket jockeys listening to. We might not lose as many to that as we do to the enemy, but it’s not pretty either way. In battle, unless you’re sound of body and mind, you’re a liability. I’d only just arrived on the front lines-hadn’t even seen any action-and already I was having hallucinations. Who knows what warning lights were going off in my head.
“You ask me, anyone come out of battle not actin’ a little funny has a screw or three loose.” Yonabaru grinned.
“Hey, no scarin’ the fresh meat,” I protested. I wasn’t actually scared, but I was growing increasingly confused.
“Just look at Ferrell! Only way to make it is to lose whatever it is that makes you human. A sensitive, caring indiv’dual like myself ain’t cut out for fightin’, and that’s the truth.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with the sergeant.”
“Ain’t a question of right or wrong. It’s about having a heart made of tungsten and muscles so big they cut off the blood to your brain.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Next you’ll be tellin’ us that Mad Wargarita is just another grunt like the rest of us.”
“Yeah, well, the thing with her is-” and so the conversation went on, back and forth like we always did. Our badmouthing of Rita was just hitting its stride when the sergeant showed up.
Sergeant Ferrell Bartolome had been around longer than anyone else in our platoon. He’d lived through so many battles, he was more than soldier, he was the glue that kept our company together. They said if you stuck him in a centrifuge, he’d come out 70 percent big brother, 20 percent ball-busting drill sergeant, and 10 percent steel-reinforced carbon. He scowled at me, then looked at Yonabaru, who was hastily bundling up our liquor confessions. His scowl deepened. “You the soldier who broke into the PX?”
“Yeah, that’s me,” my friend confessed without a trace of guilt.
The men on the surrounding beds ducked under their sheets with all the speed of cockroaches scattering in the light, porn magazines and playing cards forgotten. They’d seen the look on the sergeant’s face.
I cleared my throat. “Did security, uh… run into some kind of trouble?”
Ferrell’s forehead knotted as though he were balancing a stack of armored plating on his head. I had a strong feeling of deja vu. All this happened in my dream! Something had gone down, unrelated, at the exact time Yonabaru and his buddies were breaking into the PX. Security had gone on alert, and the robbery had come to light ahead of schedule. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Just, uh, a lucky guess.”
Yonabaru leaned out over the edge of his bunk. “What kind of trouble?”
“Someone stepped in a knee-deep pile of pig shit. Now that may not have anything to do with you, but nevertheless, at oh-ninehundred, you’re going to assemble at the No. 1 Training Field in your fourth-tier equipment for Physical Training. Pass the word to the rest of those knuckleheads you call a platoon.”
“You gotta be kidding! We’re goin’ into battle tomorrow, and you’re sending us off for PT?”
“That’s an order, Corporal.”
“Sir, reporting to the No. 1 Training Field at oh-nine-hundred in full fourth-tier equipment, sir! But, uh, one thing, Sarge. We been doin’ that liquor raid for years. Why give us a hard time about it now?”
“You really want to know?” Ferrell rolled his eyes. I swallowed hard.
“Nah, I already know the answer.” Yonabaru grinned. He always seemed to be grinning. “It’s because the chain of command around here is fucked to hell.”
“You’ll find out for yourself.”
Ferrell took three regulation-length paces and stopped.
“C’mon, not even a hint?” Yonabaru called from where he was taking cover behind the metal bed frame and bundled confessions.
“The general’s the one with his panties in a bunch about the rotten excuse for security we have on this base, so don’t look at me, and don’t look at the captain, either. In fact, you might as well just shut up and do what you’re told for a change.”
I sighed. “He’s not gonna have us out there weaving baskets, is he?”
Yonabaru shook his head. “Maybe we can all do a group hug. Fucking asshole.”
I knew where this ended. I’d dreamed all this, too.
After their defeat a year and a half ago at the Battle of Okinawa Beach, the Japanese Corps made it a matter of honor to recapture a little island perched off the coast of the Boso Peninsula, a place named Kotoiushi. With a foothold there, the Mimics were only a stone’s throw away from Tokyo. The Imperial Palace and central government retreated and ruled from Nagano, but there wasn’t any way to relocate the economic engine that was Japan’s largest city.
The Defense Ministry knew that Japan’s future was riding on the outcome of this operation, so in addition to mustering twentyfive thousand Jackets, an endless stream of overeager generals had been pooling in this little base on the Flower Line that led down Boso Peninsula. They’d even decided to allow Americans, Special Operators, into the game; the U.S. hadn’t been invited to the party at Okinawa.
The Americans probably didn’t give a damn whether or not Tokyo was reduced to a smoking wasteland, but letting the industrial area responsible for producing the lightest, toughest, composite armor plating fall to the Mimics was out of the question. Seventy percent of the parts that went into a state-of-the-art Jacket came from China, but the suits still couldn’t be made without Japanese technology. So convincing the Americans to come hadn’t been difficult.
The catch was that with foreign troops came tighter security. Suddenly there were checks on things like missing alcohol that base security would have turned a blind eye to before. When the brass found out what had been going on, they were royally pissed.
“How’s that for luck? I wonder who fucked up.”
“It ain’t us. I knew the Americans would be watchin’ over their precious battalion like hawks. We were careful as a virgin on prom night.”
Yonabaru let out an exaggerated moan. “Ungh, my stomach… Sarge! My stomach just started hurtin’ real bad! I think it’s my appendix. Or maybe I got tetanus back when I hurt myself training. Yeah, that’s gotta be it!”
“I doubt it will clear up before tonight, so just make sure you stay hydrated. It won’t last until tomorrow, hear me?”
“Oh, man. It really hurts.”
“Kiriya. See that he drinks some water.”
Ignoring Yonabaru’s continued performance, Ferrell walked out of the barracks. As soon as his audience was gone, Yonabaru sat up and made a rude gesture in the direction of the door. “He’s really got a stick up his ass. Wouldn’t understand a good joke if it came with a fucking manual. Ain’t no way I’m gonna be like that when I get old. Am I right?”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck. Today is turnin’ to shit.”
It was all playing out how I remembered.
The 17th Armored would spend the next three hours in PT. Exhausted, we would listen to some commissioned officer, his chest bristling with medals, lecture us for another half hour before being dismissed. I could still hear him threatening to pluck the hairs off our asses one by one with Jacket-augmented fingers.
My dream was looking less like one by the minute.