There’s an exercise called an iso push-up. You lift your body like you would in an ordinary push-up, then you hold that position.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds. You can feel your arms and abs trembling, and eventually you lose your sense of time. After you’ve counted something like the thousandth sheep jumping a fence, you’ll beg to be doing ordinary push-ups, anything but this. Your arms aren’t designed to be pillars. Muscles and joints are there to flex and bend. Flex and bend. Sounds nice just thinking about it. But you can’t think about it, or you’ll feel even worse. You’re pillars, hear me? Pillars! Nice strong pillars.
Muscle isn’t really all that important for a Jacket jockey. Whether a person’s grip is thirty kilos or seventy, as soon as they put on that Jacket, they’ll have 370 kilos of force in the palm of their hands. What a Jacket jockey needs is endurance and control-the ability to hold one position without twitching a muscle.
Iso push-ups are just the thing for that. Wall sitting isn’t half bad, either.
Some claimed iso push-ups had become the favoured form of discipline in the old Japan Self-Defence Force after they banned corporal punishment. I had a hard time believing the practice had survived long enough to be picked up by the Armoured Infantry Division-the JSDF had joined the UDF before I was even born. But whoever thought of it, I hope he died a slow, painful death.
“NINETY-EIGHT!” we all cried out.
Staring into the ground, we barked desperately in time with the drill sergeant, sweat streaming into our eyes.
Our shadows were crisp and clear under the scorching sun. The company’s flag snapped and fluttered high above the field. The wind that buffeted the training grounds reeked of salt and left a briny layer of slime on our skin.
There, motionless in the middle of that gargantuan training field, 141 men from the 17th Company of the Armoured Infantry Division held their iso push-ups. Three platoon leaders stood, as motionless as their men, one in front of each platoon. Our captain watched over the scene with a grimace from the shade of the barracks tent. Sitting beside him was a brigadier general from the General Staff Office. The general who’d opened his mouth and started this farce was probably off sipping green tea in an air-conditioned office. Cocksucker.
A general was a being from the heavens above. A being perched on a gilded throne, higher than me, higher than Yonabaru, higher than Ferrell, higher than the lieutenant in charge of our platoon, the captain in charge of our company, the lieutenant colonel in charge of our battalion; higher than the colonel in charge of our regiment, higher even than the base commander. The generals were the gods of Flower Line and all who trained, slept, and shat within its walls. So high, they seemed distant and unreal.
Generals didn’t steal liquor. They were early to bed, early to rise, always brushing their teeth after every meal, never skipping a morning shave-goddamned messiahs. Generals went into battle facing death with their chins held high, calm as you please. Hell, all they had to do was sit back in Nagano drawing up their battle plans. One order from them and us mortals on the front lines would move like pawns across a chessboard to our grisly fates. I’d like to see just one of them here with us in the mud. We had our own rules down here. Which is probably why they stayed away. Hell, if one of them showed, I’d see to it a stray bullet put them on the KIA list. This was the least damning thought running through my head, any one of which would have been enough to send me to a firing squad.
The brass in the tent weren’t the only spectators around to watch our torture.
The guys in 4th Company were really laughing it up. A while back we beat them in an intramural rugby match by more than thirty points, so I guess they felt this was some sort of twisted payback. The liquor we’d swiped was for them too, so this display of solidarity was touching. What a bunch of assholes. If they got into trouble on Kotoiushi, I sure as hell wasn’t going to bail them out.
The U.S. Spec Ops and some journalist embedded in their squad had gathered around the field to watch us from a safe distance. Maybe they didn’t do iso push-ups where they came from, but whatever the reason, they were pointing their fat fingers at us and laughing. The breeze coming off the water picked up their voices and dumped them on us. Even at this distance, the commentary was loud and grating. Fingernails on a chalkboard grating. Oh, man. Is that a camera? Is he seriously taking pictures? All right, that’s it, motherfucker. You’re next on my KIA list.
Pain and fatigue racked my body. My blood pumped slow as lead.
This was getting old. Counting my dream, this was the second time I’d endured this particular session of PT. Not just PT, iso push-ups. In training they taught us that even when you’re in excruciating pain- especially when you’re in pain-the best thing to do was to find some sort of distraction, something else to focus on other than the burning in your muscles and the sweat streaking down your forehead. Careful not to move my head, I looked around out of the corner of one eye.
The American journalist was snapping pictures, a visitor’s pass dangling from his neck. Say cheese! He was a brawny fellow. You could line him up with any of those U.S. Special Forces guys and you’d never know the difference. He’d look more at home on a battlefield than I would, that’s for sure.
I got the same vibe from those Special Forces guys that I got from Sergeant Ferrell. Pain and suffering were old friends to men like them. They walked up to the face of danger, smiled, and asked what took him so long to get there. They were in a whole ’nother league from a recruit like me.
In the middle of the testosterone display, the lone woman stuck out like a sore pinky. She was a tiny little thing standing off by herself a short distance from the rest of the squad. Seeing her there beside the rest of her super-sized squad, something seemed out of whack.
Anne of Green Gables Goes to War.
I figure the book would be a spin-off set around World War I. Mongolia makes a land grab, and there’s Anne, machine gun tucked daintily under one arm. Her hair was the color of rusted steel, faded to a dull red. Some redheads conjured up images of blood, fire, deeds of valor. Not her. If it weren’t for the sand-colored shirt she was wearing, she’d have looked like some kid who’d come to the base on a field trip and gotten herself lost.
The others were fanned out around this girl who barely came up to their chests like awed, medieval peasants gawking at nobility.
Suddenly it hit me. That’s Rita!
It had to be. It was the only way to explain how this woman, who couldn’t have looked less like a Jacket jockey if she had been wearing a ball gown, was in the company of the spec ops. Most women who suited up looked like some sort of cross between a gorilla and an uglier gorilla. They were the only ones who could cut it on the front lines in the Armored Infantry.
Rita Vrataski was the most famous soldier in the world. Back when I signed up for the UDF, you couldn’t go a day without seeing the news feeds sing her praises. Stories titled “A Legendary Commando,” “Valkyrie Incarnate,” that sort of thing. I’d even heard Hollywood was gonna make a movie about her, but I was already in the UDF by the time it came out, so I never saw it.
About half of all the Mimic kills humanity had ever made could be attributed to battles her squad had fought in. In less than three years, they’d slaughtered as many Mimics as the whole UDF put together had in the twenty years before. Rita was a savior descended from on high to help turn the odds in this endless, losing battle.
That’s what they said, anyway.
We all figured she was part of some propaganda squad they were using to make inroads into enemy territory. A front for some secret weapon or new strategy that really deserved the credit. Sixty percent of soldiers were men. That figure shot up to 85 percent when you started talking about the Jacket jockeys who were out bleeding on the front lines. After twenty years fighting an enemy whose identity we didn’t even know, losing ground day by day, we grunts didn’t need another muscle-bound savior who grunted and sweat and had hamburger for brains just like we did. Yeah, if it were me calling the shots in the General Staff Office, I’d have picked a woman too.
Wherever the U.S. Spec Ops were deployed, morale soared. The UDF had been beaten to the cliff’s edge, but they were finally able to start moving back from the brink. After finishing the war in North America, they moved on to Europe and then North Africa. Now they’d come to Japan, where the enemy was knocking on the door of the main island of Honshu.
The Americans called Rita the Full Metal Bitch, or sometimes just Queen Bitch. When no one was listening, we called her Mad Wargarita.
Rita’s Jacket was as red as the rising sun. She thumbed her nose at the lab coats who’d spent sleepless months refining the Jackets’ polymer paint to absorb every last radar wave possible. Her suit was gunmetal red-no, more than that, it glowed. In the dark it would catch the faintest light, smoldering crimson. Was she crazy? Probably.
Behind her back they said she painted her suit with the blood of her squad. When you stand out like that on the battlefield, you tend to draw more than your share of enemy fire. Others said she’d stop at nothing to make her squad look good, that she even took 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 into any hell and come back unscathed. They had a million stories.
Your rank and file soldier ended up with a lot of time on his hands, and listening to that sort of talk, passing it on, embellishing it-that was just the sort of thing he needed to kill time and to keep the subject off dead comrades. Rita had been a Jacket jockey eating and sleeping on the same base as me, but I’d never seen her face until that moment. We might have resented the special treatment she got, if we’d had the chance to think about it.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the line of her hair-she wore it short-as it bobbed in the wind. There was a graceful balance to her features. You might even have called her beautiful. She had a thin nose, a sharp chin. Her neck was long and white where most Jacket jockeys didn’t even have necks. Her chest, however, was completely flat, at odds with the images of Caucasian women you saw plastered on the walls of every barracks cell. Not that it bothered me.
Whoever had looked at her and thought up the name Full Metal Bitch needed to have his head checked. She was closer to a puppy than a bitch. I suppose even in a litter of pit bulls there’s room for one sweet one in the bunch.
If, in my dream, the shell of that red Jacket had popped open and she’d climbed out, I would have shit my bunk. I’d seen her face and Jacket plenty on the news feeds, but they never gave you a good idea of what she really looked like in person. I had always pictured Rita Vrataski as tall and ruthless, with a knockout body and an air of total self-confidence.
Then our eyes met.
I looked away immediately, but it was already too late. She started walking toward me. She moved with purpose, one foot planted firmly on the ground before the other moved-a relentless, unstoppable force. But her steps were small, the net result being a harried, flustered gait. I’m not sure I’d ever seen anyone walk quite like that 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!
The muscles in my arms started to tremble. Then, purposefully, she walked away. Somehow she’d heard my prayer, making a ninety-degree turn right in front of me and heading toward the brigadier general where he sat under the tent. She snapped a perfunctory salute. Not so sloppy as to be insulting, but not so stiff you could hear anything cracking, either. A fitting salute for the Full Metal Bitch.
The brigadier general cast a doubtful glance at Rita. Rita was a sergeant major. In the military hierarchy, the difference between a brigadier general and a sergeant major was about the same as the difference between a four-course meal at a snooty restaurant and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Recruits like me were strictly fast food, complete with an oversized side of fries. But it wasn’t that simple. It never was. Rita was U.S. military, the linchpin of the upcoming operation, and one of the most important soldiers on the face of the planet. Rank aside, it was hard to say which one of them really held more power.
Rita stood in silence. The brigadier general was the first to speak.
“Sir, would it be possible for me to join the PT, sir.”
The same high voice from my dream, speaking in perfectly intoned Burst.
“You have a major operation coming up tomorrow.”
“So do they, sir. My squad has never participated in this form of PT, sir. I believe my participation could be vital in ensuring the successful coordination and execution of tomorrow’s joint operation.”
The general was at a loss for words. The U.S. Special Forces around the field started to whoop and cheer.
“Request permission to participate in the PT, sir,” she said.
“Sir, thank you, sir!”
She flashed a quick salute. Doing an about-face, she slipped among the rows of men staring intently into the ground.
She chose a spot beside me and started her iso push-up. I could feel the heat coming off her body through the chilly air between us.
I didn’t move. Rita didn’t move. The sun hung high in the sky, showering its rays over us, slowly roasting our skin. A drop of sweat formed in my armpit, then traced its way slowly to the ground. Sweat had started to bead on Rita’s skin too. Fuck! I felt like a chicken crammed into the same oven as the Christmas turkey.
Rita’s lips made the subtlest of movements. A low voice only I could hear.
“Do I have something on my face?”
“You’ve been staring at me for a while now.”
“I thought maybe there was a laser bead on my forehead.”
“Sorry. There wasn’t-it’s nothing.”
“Oh. All right.”
“Shit-for-brains Kiriya! You’re slipping!” the lieutenant barked. I quickly extended my arm back into position. Beside me, Rita Vrataski, with the disinterested expression of someone who’d never had a need for human contact her entire life, continued her iso push-up.
PT ended less than an hour later. The general, the taste of bile in his mouth forgotten, returned to the barracks without further instructions. The 17th Company had spent a productive pre-battle afternoon.
It hadn’t played out the way I remembered it. In my dream, I never made eye contact with Rita, and she hadn’t joined in the PT. Maybe I was reading too much into things, but I’d say she did it just to piss the general off. It took a Valkyrie reborn to throw a monkey wrench into a disciplinary training session planned with military precision and get away with it. Then again, her antenna may just have picked up something that made her want to see what this weird iso push-up thing was all about. Maybe she had just been curious.
One thing was for sure, though. Rita Vrataski wasn’t the bitch everyone made her out to be.