Makoto Fujimoto grew up in California, but with a difference–his California is part of the United States of Japan. After Germany and Japan won WWII, the United States fell under their control. Growing up in this world, Mac plays portical games, haphazardly studies for the Imperial Exam, and dreams of becoming a mecha pilot. Only problem: Mac’s grades are terrible. His only hope is to pass the military exam and get into the prestigious mecha pilot training program at Berkeley Military Academy.
When his friend Hideki’s plan to game the test goes horribly wrong, Mac washes out of the military exam too. Perhaps he can achieve his dream by becoming a civilian pilot. But with tensions rising between the United States of Japan and Nazi Germany and rumors of collaborators and traitors abounding, Mac will have to stay alive long enough first…
The follow-up to United States of Japan, Peter Tieryas’ action-packed alternate history novel Mecha Samurai Empire is available September 18th from Ace Books.
I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of Japan
And to the Empire
For which it stands,
Under the Emperor, indivisible,
With order and justice for all.
I don’t know why people say time heals all wounds. Time only aggravates mine.
My maternal grandparents were Japanese citizens who lived in Kyoto and immigrated to San Francisco during the early 1900s. My paternal grandparents were ethnic Koreans who moved to Los Angeles shortly after the Empire’s victory in 1948. There were more opportunities in the United States of Japan then, especially since the Empire was rebuilding so many of the cities that were in ruins. My parents met during the 1974 Matsuri, a festival at a Shinto shrine in Irvine. My father served as a mecha technician and worked on the maintenance of their armor plating. My mother was an officer who worked as a navigator aboard the mecha Kamoshika. She recognized my dad at the shrine for the work he did on their BP generator. They each picked out an o-mikuji from the o-mikuji box, wondering what fortunes those little strips of paper foretold. By pure coincidence, both of their messages read that a momentous event would occur that day and alter their destinies forever. After sharing jokes and chiding each other about destiny and politics in the corps, they agreed to go to their favorite ramen shop for dinner.
I was born two years later.
My earliest memory with them is at a mecha factory in Long Beach. The armored legs were bigger than most buildings I’d seen. By the time I was three, I was waging wars against the Nazis with mecha toys my dad had built for me. He’d made me a special jimbaori, and I loved the way the old samurai surcoats gave my mechanical warriors a regal bearing. Neither of my parents got to pilot an actual mecha even though both wished they could. Maybe they’d have gotten the chance if they’d had more time.
The greatest threat during their lives wasn’t the Germans but American terrorists who called themselves George Washingtons. The George Washingtons were rumored to be so ruthless, they’d cut off the ears of our soldiers to wear as necklaces. In 1978, hundreds of the terrorists launched themselves at the city hall in San Diego and killed thousands of our citizens. Three months later, they carried out another attack, killing many innocent civilians in the Gaslamp Quarter, including the wife of an important general.
Mom and Dad were ordered to the front in early 1980. They came back home to visit every few months, but neither of them spoke much during their years of service. My father spent most of his time brooding, and the only time I saw even a hint of affection from my mother was when she’d be humming military songs to herself. The last memory I have of them is the morning they left. They told me they’d see me in three months. I still remember the bright colors of the jacketlike haoris they wore over their kimonos and how attracted I was to the golden embroidery. We ate our breakfast in silence. My eggs were too salty, my anchovies were hard, and the pickled tsukemono smelled funny. They usually left without saying much. But that morning, my mom stopped as she was about to leave, came back inside, and gave me a kiss on the forehead.
Nineteen eighty-four was a bloody year. Lots of kids in the Empire became orphans that year. I was no exception. My parents were killed in two separate battles four days apart.
The corporal who came to tell me wept as he spoke. Mom had saved his life in battle, so he had taken the news very hard. “Your mother loved nashis,” he told me, having brought a box full of the sweet Asian pears. “She used to cut them up into small pieces to share with her whole unit, and she’d always save one piece just to show she was thinking of you.”
Concepts like life and death were hard for me to grasp at that age. Even as he told me stories about my parents, I kept on wondering when he’d go away and my parents would return. It took me a full year to realize they were never coming back, and by then, I was living with a stingy “guardian” who’d been ordered by the government to adopt me, as I had no surviving family members. His primary business had been construction with the hotels in Tijuana and San Diego, but the revolt had put an end to all that. My adoptive father insisted that my adoptive mother measure the amount of rice she was scooping for me. If I left even a little bit of food on my plate, I’d get a severe scolding for “wasting food,” which both my adoptive brothers did without a second thought.
Knowing my parents had served aboard mechas, I glorified them. I swore I would grow up to be a mecha pilot protecting the Empire against its enemies. My adoptive parents called it a pipe dream and sent me away as soon as I was eligible for boarding school, in Granada Hills within the California Province, where I’ve been for nearly a decade.
Now, with my high-school graduation coming in a few months, I practice almost every day on the mecha simulations. Like most kids who grew up in the eighties, I play portical games. The mecha simulations take place inside arcade booths that re-create visuals captured from real-life footage, with surround sound that makes the experience immersive. I wear haptic controls and drive the mecha with a simplified interface that simulates piloting. While I engage in many battles, the one I go back to most often is the fight in San Diego in which my mother was killed.
The Kamoshika was an older Kaneda-class mecha, larger but less deadly than the Torturer-class mechas that were slowly replacing them. Samurai Titan was their nickname because they were so massive. The Kamoshika was essentially a mountain-sized warrior with robotic joints and a face mask protecting its bridge in the head.
It’d been called in to investigate suspicious activity by the George Washingtons. A rebel leader calling herself Abigail Adams led a surprise attack that decimated one of our battalions. The lieutenant colonel in charge of the security station had sent an SOS before communications were cut.
Playing the sim again, I watch as our forces disconnect all electricity to that region of the city. Our soldiers switch to infrared mode, but it’s like shadow dancing as they tiptoe their way across a blackened San Diego. The terrorists fire flare guns into the sky, causing bright orbs to reveal the presence of the mecha. There is a frenzied commotion as the GWs prepare for what is designed as the ultimate trap.
They’ve gathered twenty-two Neptune Tactical Missile Launchers they obtained from the Nazis (even though the Germans would later claim they were stolen) along with five Panzer Maus IX Super-tanks. When the Kamoshika arrives at the scene, there is a simultaneous barrage. The pilot realizes it’s an ambush and has a split second when he can choose to flee. But it’s in an area full of civilians, and the Kamoshika has a sizable military escort that would be helpless against the Panzers and their biomorphs if it made a tactical retreat. It decides to stand its ground and fight, absorbing all the punishment it can. Its endeavor to protect those behind it is not very successful. I watch in slow motion as the armored suit gets incinerated and the BP generator gets exposed, resulting in total meltdown.
This is one of those battles that can’t be won in the simulation. If I choose to escape, a great portion of our armed forces gets eliminated and the civilian death toll is catastrophic. If I take the brunt of the blast and fight as hard as I can against the remaining terrorists, I die and leave a young me bereaved.
All these years since the battle, I still struggle with the nightmare scenario that haunted my childhood.
For some kids, academic achievement comes naturally. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. I work all night, but my grades are only a little above average. I know that won’t cut it.
On the main island, the most prestigious military school is the Imperial Japanese Army Academy (Rikugun Shikan Gakko), and the principal way to get accepted is completion of a rigorous three-year course at one of the preparatory schools called Rikugun Yonen Gakko. That, or you show exemplary service as an enlisted soldier and are younger than twenty-five years of age.
If the entrance admission were based on my grades alone, my chances of getting into the top school in the USJ, Berkeley Military Academy (BEMA), would be nonexistent. It’s not as if I have a rich family who can buy my way in, either. The only path open to me is to get a good score on the military supplement to the weeklong imperial exams, then hope I can obtain a military recommendation from someone important who notices my test results. It’s something I pray to the Emperor for every day because I know I have only a one percent chance of success. Fortunately, the academy isn’t looking just for good potential soldiers. They want the best gaming minds to interface with the portical controls on their most advanced machinery. There is historical precedent. The most prominent was one of the best mecha pilots, a cadet with the code name Kujira. She too had average grades and did poorly on the general imperial exams. But her military simulation scores are the best in recorded academy history, and she is a legend as one of our most decorated pilots.
That’s partly why I’ve spent almost every night for the past two years playing the mecha simulations at the Gogo Arcade and why I’m here a week before we’re taking the test. My best friend, Hideki, is also here. Unlike me, he doesn’t want to be a pilot but rather a game designer, as he loves portical games and hopes to get into the gaming division at Berkeley, BEMAG. Both are extremely difficult positions to aspire to.
“I heard the new Cat Odyssey is on the floor,” Hideki tells me.
Even though I can download samples of all games to my portical, many of the new titles have exclusive deals with arcades, so you can play the full version only if you’re physically present.
Cat Odyssey is a series I’ve been playing since I was eight. It’s one of the most popular games in the Empire and shows the history of our Great Pacific War against the Americans from the perspective of a cat. The cat can gain knowledge points that translate to greater powers and acquired abilities, like climbing higher plateaus and dropping down with minimal damage. Part of its allure is its uncannily real visuals, photographic in its depiction of the late 1940s (different iterations take place in different years). The developers took two years to make sure the latest part maintained graphic fidelity to the past, including the deployment of the first mechas, which were originally symbolic figures. They were built by the military as embodiments of the Empire, clad in samurai armor, launching tactical weapons at our American foes but unable to do much else.
I prepare myself for disappointment in case the game doesn’t live up to my expectations. But I’m also playing because some of the endurance levels are said to be designed by Rogue199, the alias for the top developer at Taiyo Tech. She’s the mastermind behind many of the actual mecha simulations for the exam. I want to try it for a few hours to see whether there’s anything that can give me an extra edge on the test. Hideki thinks it’s a fool’s quest, but I’ve never been one to shy away from futile pursuits.
Hideki’s biological family had been in America for several generations, but they’d originally come over from Europe. He doesn’t know much about it, though, since his parents were killed in San Diego and he was adopted by a man who worked as an exterminator. His adoptive dad earned a good living hunting roaches, but Hideki was embarrassed about his profession. At school, Hideki made up stories about his real parents, narratives that would shift depending on his mood, the tales ranging from the exotically grand to the stupendously impossible. He created so many pasts, I think he stopped remembering which were true and which were fictional. He ran away from home multiple times before his guardian shipped him off to live with his aunt here in Granada Hills—which is where I met him. (Honestly, it took me a while before I figured out this much.) We became best friends because of our mutual passion for portical games.
Mac, he calls me, which is short for Makoto. Everyone in the Empire has a Japanese name, no matter their ethnicity. Most also have a nickname in the dominant language of their region. Mine is the name of one of my favorite USJ boxers. “There it is.”
A whole section of the arcade is devoted to Cat Odyssey. All ninety-eight stalls are occupied by gamers. Fortunately, one of our friends saved us a spot.
She’s Griselda Beringer, an exchange student from the Reich city of Hamburg. Taller than each of us, she’s ethnically half-German, half-Japanese. Her hair is blond, and she has sharp green eyes. She is studying engineering and shares our love for gaming. Her specialty is flight and driving simulations. She’s especially good with the Zero sims, beating everyone I’ve seen dogfight against her in the Pacific War re-creations. Unlike us, she doesn’t have to take the imperial exams (German university exams are later), so she can game until her fingers get tired. It’s just the three of us tonight because all our friends are studying for the weeklong exam, which I know is what I should be doing too. I just want to play the new Cat Odyssey.
“How is it?” I ask Griselda, who’s been playing it for the last hour.
She shrugs, intentionally noncommittal to tease me.
“That good?” I say.
She moves aside so I can start. I open my portical, flip out the triangular edges, and use the kikkai field to connect to the game. The display on the stall is hooked into my portical, which I can use as my controller with custom configurations that remain constant. My saved data profiles from my treks through previous iterations of the feline journey come through.
I get dropped into old Los Angeles. Much of the city is in ruins, firebombed by our air force. The Americans are killing anyone they can find of Japanese descent and, incidentally, everyone who appears Asian. They are barbaric in the way they treat foreigners. My cat avatar, Soseki (I know it’s a bit of a cliché when it comes to avatar names), stealthily makes her way through the city alleys. They’ve increased the number of polygonal facets and rewritten the fur system so that it generates cylindrical meshes rather than the usual field of flat planes masquerading as fur. The attention to detail is remarkable.
Much of my gear from my previous save file also transfers over. The Susano Cape lets me traverse water. The Fujin Boot gives my cat the ability to do a double jump in the air. A Tanuki suit grants me a spell to change into a stone statue, which makes me invulnerable to hostiles. With my equipment in place, all of Los Angeles is open for me. Stories based on real-life accounts play out. Many of my missions involve helping those suffering under American rule and assisting USJ soldiers where I can. There is a sense of helplessness that pervades, punctuated by melancholy but catchy music. Orchestral and digitized versions of all the music play in the background, and I opt for the retro-styled beats that are similar to the earlier Odyssey games. Kawada composes all the music in the series. I frequently put myself to sleep listening to his tracks.
I am on my fifteenth mission when Griselda and Hideki pull me away.
“What’s going on?” I ask, annoyed by the interruption.
“You’ve been playing for four hours. Let’s grab something to eat.”
I have to check the clock to make sure they’re not lying to me. They’re not.
There’s a café in the arcade. Hideki orders okonomiyaki with spicy sausages, squid, and pepper jack cheese. Griselda orders a taco with chicken skewers and curry-topped goat nachos. I can’t stop thinking about what to do next and order a watermelon burger salad. It’s a cheap bowl filled with ground beef, fruit, and spinach that’s light, so I can focus on my game without bathroom breaks.
“How are you liking the game?” Griselda asks as she hands me a fork.
“So far, beating expectations,” I reply, taking a bite of my salad. “What are you at?”
“Beating some punks in dogfighting,” she says. “They didn’t heat the curry nachos today!” she exclaims after taking a bite.
“They were stingy with the sausages today too,” Hideki says about his pizza-pancake monstrosity, which takes up a quarter of our table.
Griselda flags down a waiter, and explains, “These nachos are too cold, and the chips are soggy.”
“Can I get some more sausages on mine?” Hideki asks the waiter, who looks similar in age to us.
The waiter apologizes, bows, and takes both plates away.
Griselda notes, “I sometimes think too many of us Germans mistake your politeness for weakness.”
“What do you mean?”
“There was so much disdain in his bow. Don’t you think?”
“Sometimes, a bow can be the ultimate form of disrespect,” I note.
“How can you tell when it is?”
“Depends on the angle and facial expression. Like I could be way down here,” I say, and lower myself. “And I could be making the worst expression, and you’d have no idea.” I raise myself back up and have my face contorted and my tongue sticking out.
“Not sure if you’re being disrespectful or just an idiot,” Hideki says with a laugh. “What you gotta do is let out a small fart when you bow. They might not know you’re being disrespectful. But they’ll smell it.”
Griselda glowers at Hideki. “That is a horrible suggestion. Which is why I’m going to take you up on it next time I have to bow to one of those gaming idiots who challenges me, thinking they can take my money.”
The waiter brings back the food and has added fishcake balls as a token of his apology. Griselda puts her hands together, simpers, and says in as cute a voice as she can muster, “Itadakimasu,” before taking a bite of her nachos, then putting her thumb up in approval.
I honestly don’t know why she always says that before eating.
I’ve explained to her our customs are different here versus the main island and that no one says that here in the USJ. Much of our culture, and even many of our expressions, would be unfamiliar in Tokyo, and vice versa. While we’re all members of the Empire, it doesn’t mean we’re a uniform bunch who mimic one another. The citizens in Tokyo are different from those in Taiko City, Vancouver, Dallas Tokai, Sydney, and Los Angeles.
Right after the end of the Great Pacific War, Nakahara, the Minister of Language, believed different languages inherently had within them unique structures of thinking that would give the Empire flexibility and growth that wouldn’t be possible if the local dialects were eliminated. While Japanese is the official imperial language throughout the Empire and required learning, within our governed areas, we are encouraged to speak the local dialect. That’s why we speak English in the USJ.
But Griselda likes to fuse on a whim, picking and choosing what she wants to imitate.
“Is it better?” Hideki asks.
“Definitely crispier,” she replies, taking a loud, scrumptious bite.
Hideki is about to say something but gets a call, a portical game track humming. Based on his immediate pickup and cooing voice, I can tell it’s his girlfriend, Sango. He leaves to talk with her privately. She’s a year older than he and works at a literary bar to pay her bills so she can get another chance at the exams—her scores weren’t high enough to get into the university she wanted the first time around.
“You know what I’m most looking forward to?” Griselda asks me.
I shake my head.
“Home. I haven’t been back to Konigsbarg,” she says, pronouncing Konigsberg with her local accent, “in two years. I miss the veal meatballs. They put in a little touch of white pepper and anchovies. There’s nothing like them anywhere else. You should visit after graduation. I can show you around the city, and we can take a train to Berlin and visit the Adolph Hitler Plaza and the Fuehrer’s Tomb.”
The idea of visiting Hitler’s tomb, knowing all that he’s done against the Empire, isn’t that appealing to me. Before I can respond, Hideki gets back and is all smiles.
“How’s Sango?” I ask.
“I wasn’t talking to her,” he replies. Usually, he’ll elaborate, but he has a cryptic smile.
Griselda says, “Your portical ring is lame.”
“You’re just snobby about game music.”
“Snobby means I’m just saying it to say it. Mahler and Wagner are on a different level from your portical game composers,” Griselda affirms.
“They’re melodramatic, way too long, and put me to sleep every time.”
“What do you think?” Griselda asks me.
“I think I want to listen to some Cat Odyssey tracks,” I reply.
“Why do you despise portical musicians?” Hideki questions her. “They write songs that are moving and memorable.”
Griselda pulls out a chip covered in cheese. “The ‘great despisers are the great reverers,’” she quotes, taking a loud bite. “I revere music, which is why I’m so picky about it.”
They debate for a bit. My mind is on Odyssey. They sense it and release me with a laugh.
I return to late 1940s Los Angeles. Soseki has to make some tough choices. There’s rampant speculation that the American cats are getting desperate and are willing to do anything to defeat the Empire’s cats. I scout Los Angeles for clues about my enemy while getting used to the new cat quadruped controls, which are more complex than in previous games. A part of me wonders if these controls in any way mimic actual quad mechas.
Griselda taps me on the shoulder. “My cousin locked himself out of his apartment, so I’m going to head home. Don’t meow yourself to death.”
“Meow?” I reply.
It’s seven in the morning before I reach the next part of the quest. Hideki picks up a bowl of instant ramen and gets me the spicy seafood flavor I love. My teachers tell me I shouldn’t eat so much ramen because that’s what gives me all my pimples and my belly. But I’d rather be pimply and cart a little extra weight than give up my favorite noodles.
I have only an hour left before I have to head to school. But I want to finish up my current quest. I can catch up on sleep in math since our teacher doesn’t care what we do in class as long as we show up.
I enter an area where humans are blocking off access to restaurant trash. I’m required to defeat them so I can get the goods I need to feed my community. But my opponents are too fast, and I can’t combat them quickly enough. Even my special attacks fail to distract them, and one of the humans knocks me off my feet. They approach with knives and evil grins. I realize they’re going to eat me. I try to escape, but the screen goes blank after I get hit too many times.
“Fifth life over,” the screen tells me. I get nine lives, and as soon as I lose the ninth, I have to create a brand-new profile and surrender my cat soul to portical oblivion.
Hideki yells at me, “You suck, man! Can’t you beat those garbagemen?” He’s been watching my game.
“This part is impossible at my level. I should have powered up more.”
“You were just too slow. You need to work on your finger reflexes. At that speed, they’re going to eat you up for the official simulation.”
It makes me wonder if Rogue199 designed these cat battles with mecha combat in mind.
The special mecha simulation test, also heavily designed by Rogue199, is the exam the Berkeley Military Academy’s board is most interested in. The field test is based on one of our most deadly conflicts, the Dallas Incident of 1972.
Dallas Tokai was under attack by an unknown enemy, and the extent of the conflict was unknown to USJ Command. They sent three quad mechas, thinking it was a local incident. But the Germans had dispatched a legion of their biomechs. Of the three quad mechas that reported, only one returned. That was because the pilot fled the scene while the other two stayed behind to fight as they’d determined it was more important that one escape with the combat data the USJ could use to fight other biomechs. It was an honorable action that was forgiven by command, but she still felt disgraced for leaving her companions behind and put a knife through her throat.
For anyone who takes the test, the performance is judged by a panel. Since the parameters for the test change every time, it’s not so much seeing whether you succeed but rather testing the creativity in the way you respond. I’ve heard there are people who’ve failed to escape but been admitted to the Berkeley Military Academy, which raises my hopes. In the test, I’ll handle the main load of the simulation, though I’m required to bring one person as my wingmate. That person acts as a backup and gets a much simpler setup, which is why I’m relieved to have Hideki. I’ve never met anyone with quicker fingers. Except maybe Griselda. But she’s not allowed since she isn’t part of the Empire, and Hideki would never forgive me if I asked anyone else.
“Hate to break it to you, but there’s no way you’re getting into BEMA if you play that bad,” Hideki tells me.
I know he’s right, and that’s a big reason why I’ve been playing the sims here. But even those are said to be insufficient comparisons to the actual test, as there’s no official way to prepare for it. I sincerely hope that mastering the controls on Cat Odyssey is actually a good way to warm up for the test. “You shouldn’t have tried to fight the humans head-on,” he admonishes me, doing the small head shake he always does when he gets in his lecturing mood.
“What else was I supposed to do?”
“Change the battlefield or avoid the fight.”
“My community needed food,” I protest.
“And now you’re dead, so they won’t get it anyway.”
I’m too tired to argue with him, so I nod, and say, “We should get going.”
We’ve avoided corporal punishment for most of the year by being on time to class. Depending on the mood our homeroom teacher is, we can get it really bad or escape with just a few slaps. Hideki took a terrible beating last year when the teacher broke one of his ribs. He had a hard time breathing for half a year, anger in every breath as he swore, “I will get out of here and make them all regret the way they’ve treated us.”
It became the mantra by which he lived.
We all wear blue uniforms to school. The boys wear coats, buttoned white shirts, ties, and a whole lot of monotony. Swap out our pants for long skirts, and you have the female uniforms. We do our best to differentiate ourselves with custom straps on our bags and bright bands, but if anyone wears something that diverges too much from the standard, it gets confiscated.
After we arrive at school, we leave our shoes in small lockers and put on slippers. We head to the second floor, where our homeroom is located. Once the school bell rings, we stand up, put our right hands over our hearts, and state in unison: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of Japan and to the Empire for which it stands, one nation under the Emperor, indivisible, with order and justice for all.”
An image of the Emperor in a dragon mask appears as a holograph in front of our classroom. We bow in respect for a full minute after we’ve recited the pledge. We spend another minute mentally thanking the Emperor for all he’s done for our people. A shortened version of the song, “Star Spangled Sun,” plays as tribute to all of those who’ve suffered and still fight to establish the Empire in all its glory. Hakko ichiu is the aim, having all the world under one roof.
Our homeroom class has twenty-eight students. We stay in the same room, and the teachers change with each new class, though there are electives that require some of us to walk to different rooms in the afternoon.
At lunch, Hideki asks what I’m doing. I lift up my portical and point to the commentary on the Imperial Rescript on Education (Kyoiku ni Kansuru Chokugo) for the exams. “Have fun,” he says nonchalantly, joining some of the seniors going off campus for lunch.
Griselda meets with her German contingent, who stick together during the forty-five-minute break. I head for some benches outside, lie down, and read the commentary, focused on the middle of the Rescript, discussing the maintenance of the prosperity of the Imperial Throne.
Across from me, also reading, is Noriko Tachibana. She is not only one of the smartest students in our year, but is from a family of prestigious imperial officers. Her grandfather flew Zeros, and both her parents were heroes in our proxy wars in Afghanistan. Noriko is at the top of our class. She also juggles numerous extra-S curricular activities like ice-skating, at which she is excellent, and is president of half a dozen academic clubs on campus. I’ve always admired her. She is reading a book—something by Fumiko Enchi. Noriko is of African descent, and her grandparents fought for the Empire against the horrors the Nazis were perpetrating.
“Hi, Mac,” she says to me when she notices my gaze.
“Hi, Nori.” I wave at her. She’s in our homeroom, and we’d been previously assigned together on three projects in which she took charge, leading us to get the top score.
“Did you know cats and dogs can see ultraviolet, but humans can’t?”
“I didn’t,” I confess.
“All mecha sensors detect visual wavelengths beyond the human eye,” she says. “Good luck on the test next week.”
“You too,” I say, and feel dumb because she doesn’t need luck— she always gets the highest score.
If she’s annoyed, she doesn’t show it and instead goes back to reading.
Right as lunch ends, an announcement on the speaker system informs us, “Please assemble in the field for an important meeting.”
All two thousand students line up outside, separated by homerooms. As seniors, we’re in the middle section up front. The flag bearer is holding the imperial flag, and the three next to her are carrying our school banner. Up front, the principal is very active, explaining something with overly exaggerated politeness to two officers. They nod in affirmation, and the principal points at us. Eventually, he introduces them on the speaker.
“This is Colonel Kita and Lieutenant Yukimura. They are heroes of the second San Diego Conflict and have honored us with their company.”
Colonel Kita is a tall woman with red hair and two sheathed swords on her belt. The lieutenant has a metal arm under his uniform and wears a beret rather than the traditional cap.
“Next week is an important week for all of you,” Colonel Kita states. “Many of you will have your futures determined by your imperial examination scores. There is no greater glory than serving your country through military service. I have served for two decades, and it is always humbling to realize the great responsibility thrust upon us. Not only are we protecting the United States of Japan, but we are preserving order and a way of life that is in harmony with the universe. How many of you plan on taking the military supplemental exams?”
A quarter of the students raise their hands. She asks the other students to applaud those who are striving to enter the military.
That’s when the ground shakes. I feel a flutter in my chest.
Could it be? The second tremor confirms it, and there are awed
gasps as we see the figure coming closer.
It is a mecha, shaped like a huge suit of samurai armor. Even though it’s bigger than the tallest building in Granada Hills, it’s much smaller than the Korosu class. From the looks of it, it’s a reconnaissance mecha, quick, stealthy, and hard to detect when it doesn’t want to be found. It’s sleek and has chest plates designed to deflect sensors or absorb their waves when that is impossible.
“This is the Taka,” the colonel says. “I have a crew of fourteen of the finest soldiers in the mecha corps. We have been serving together for the past three years, and we’ll be giving demonstrations for select cadets.”
The Taka stops right outside the school. Over the gate, I see the shin guard, the retractable knees, the searchlights in the hips, all culminating in the main armor shaped like a classical samurai’s haramaki-do. The separated plates are usually there to hide weapons and circuitry, as well as for ventilation purposes in case there is any overheating during combat. The reconnaissance mechas handle heat very well, though, and the purpose of the detached plates might be for a refractory effect, which is only rumored at, never confirmed. Some of the prototype mechas reportedly have a type of camouflage, similar to that on our cars, which makes them practically transparent when they need to be.
I’ve battled digital mechas in the simulation multiple times. But seeing them in real life is indescribable. I wonder if my parents felt the same sense of awe every time they got on board a mecha.
The two officers personally inspect us, walking down the aisles, asking each of us our names, and, “Which section are you testing for?”
Some answer navy, gaming division, etc. Eight students in my homeroom state their intent to apply for the mecha corps, which elicits pride in the officers. The colonel and lieutenant even know Noriko and greet her by name.
“Based on all we’ve heard, you’ll make your parents proud,” the colonel says.
“I hope so, ma’am,” Nori replies.
“I’ll personally be reviewing your sim test next week.”
They finally get to me, and the lieutenant asks, “Which unit are you aiming for?”
“Mecha corps,” I proudly answer, excited at the chance to meet a mecha pilot in person.
They both hesitate. Lieutenant Yukimara says firmly, “Our corps is one of the most difficult units to get into. Are you prepared?”
The lieutenant looks me up and down. “You don’t look like you’re in shape. Do you think we take just anyone in the corps?”
Based on his expression, the lieutenant is about to say something even harsher, but the colonel stops him. They move to the next student. I look down at my stomach. I’ve tried to control my eating, exercise as much as I can. But it’s been a tough year, and the best way to make myself feel better is a combination of coconut coffee, strawberry shortcake with chocolate crumbs, and shrimp chips.
The review is finished an hour later, and we’re allowed to approach the Taka. It is even more marvelous up close. The officers take Noriko and three other students into the mecha. I feel a pang of envy, but it also motivates me to work harder, so I’ll get my chance one day. When I’m back in my apartment thirty minutes later, I read up everything I can on reconnaissance mechas.
I share my small room with three others. I’m on the bunk bed in the upper-left side. We have concrete floors, which makes them too cold to walk on without socks. We don’t have climate control, so on some nights when it gets too hot, I’ll sleep on the ground to cool myself. Someone let a fly in, and it’s buzzing around. My three other roommates are out, probably studying at the library. I have several messages from Hideki, asking me to meet him at a nearby café to study. A part of me wants to start my new life on Cat Odyssey. But I promised no more gaming until after the exam. I message Hideki and tell him I’ll meet him there. I exit my apartment, go to the communal bathroom to wash up, and leave my building. The security guard is busy watching a dating show on his portical where people dress up as animals and spend time in zoos so people can gawk at them.
Hideki is at Penny’s, which is just two kilometers away. I pass by several carts selling udon and other nightly snacks for students. The smell of fish broth and tempura wafts past me, making me hungry. War orphans like me are given weekly stipends as part of a fund for children of veterans who passed away in battle. We’re also granted generous discounts on everything.
Penny’s Café is next to ten other coffee shops. The façade is a gigantic copper penny with the face of Abraham Lincoln, an old American warlord who savagely crushed a rebellion started by the southern half of the United States. Inside, the walls are covered with coins from foreign nations that joined the Empire, including a whole lot of American pennies.
Hideki is studying on his portical. Griselda is with some friends, but she waves at me when I enter and comes over.
I order a cup of coconut coffee and shrimp chips, then feel guilty as I recall the conversation with the officers. I’ll work on losing weight after the exam since I’ve read that caffeine is supposed to boost memory and I need a boost badly, as I have to memorize a million details about generals and battle dates. 1948, July 4, the USA becomes the USJ. 1950, September 9, Germany and Japan establish the Unity Zone (UZ) at Texas (though it would come to be called the Quiet Border by both sides). 1958, Germany launches a sneak attack on Texas, and a group of our mechas known as the Twelve Disciples stops them. I read about the Nazi attempt to create their own mechas and their desire to inject a biological component to them, resulting in the monstrosities known initially as the biomorphs and more recently as the biomechs. There are too many dates to remember.
“The mecha today was cool,” Hideki says. “You really think you’re going to get to pilot one?”
I tell the two of them about my short exchange with the officer.
Griselda smiles mischievously.
“What?” I ask.
“At least you made an impression.”
“A bad one,” I say.
She pokes me in my stomach. “They have a point. You wanna jog with me every morning?”
“I would if I could wake up.”
“Discipline,” she says. “I jog even if I haven’t slept the night before. Soldiers need to be in tip-top shape always.”
“After the exam, I’ll join you every morning.”
“I hate running,” Hideki groans. “No way I’m waking up at five in the morning to run.”
“You run at five every morning?” I ask her.
She nods. “Early bird rules all the worms.”
“Half the worms,” Hideki objects.
She laughs, eats one of her chocolates, specially branded as the United Chocolates of Japan from the best chocolate makers in the world, Menkes. “That one chocolate pretty much nullified jogging the last three mornings.”
“Was it worth it?” I ask her.
“Absolutely,” she answers. “Want one?”
I get to studying with Hideki after drinking some milk chocolate. Some students have turned on the popular show, Drink Don’t Die, which is a competition to get as drunk as possible and brave dangerous obstacle courses.
“Look at this guy!” Griselda says to us.
We watch her screen. A man is sucking his thumb and rolling on the ground, acting like a baby and screaming at everyone around him. All three of us laugh at his preposterous performance as we switch the camera angles, zoom in and out, then rate his likability factor.
The show cuts away, and broadcasters inform us they’ve arrested three new members of the National Revolutionaries of America (NARA). They’re a fringe terrorist group who believe America should become independent again. A city official thanks the local police, and broadcasters reveal they were trying to perpetrate an attack at a sumo-wrestling match. Griselda and Hideki are annoyed that their show has been interrupted.
I remember a few years ago I was at the Gogo Arcade when the George Washingtons released their game, the USA. Gamers took interest for a short time, but the controls were too clunky, and the whole scenario, where America won the Pacific War, was too implausible to take seriously. I’ve been reading and rereading that history for the exam, so I know we had all the resources of Asia and Europe behind us. Plus, we had nuclear weapons. What could the American forces do? Still, USA became popular just because it was forbidden and for a while, it was all the rage until the Liquid Gear games came out a few months later to critical acclaim (I was addicted to each game) and Cat Odyssey after that.
We notice there is a commotion in the room. Everyone is staring at their porticals. On the wall display, there is footage of a huge fire. Someone turns up the volume.
“—from the Rio Grande. There are still unconfirmed reports that—” I don’t wait for the broadcaster. I flip open my portical and read the California Nippon News.
“Attack on the Texas Sonic Line,” the headline reads.
One of our trains has been attacked, and there are only eleven survivors, but they’re not expected to make it through the night. No one knows who the culprits are. Footage from a security recording of the explosion plays. The bullet train, or Shinkansen, is going at the speed of sound when, suddenly, birds scatter from a tree. I don’t see anything that could have caused the motion, but then, the second car in the train is crushed down as though something hammered it. The back of the train slams into the second car, and a pileup ensues as the rest of the train derails. The earlier arrest of the NARA members makes me wonder if the two events are somehow connected.
“They should require all the terrorists they capture to go on Drink Don’t Die,” Griselda grumbles.
Try as hard as I can, it’s hard for me to get back to studying. I have this terrible habit of imagining people’s last moments as they die. Those people in the train were most likely on their porticals, having no idea their lives were going to be snuffed out. Maybe dining on a bento box, some of the older generation listening to an old Enka ballad, then blink and gone.
“Excuse me, everyone.” The manager of the café is at the central platform and bows. “I’m very sorry. The local police have requested all public places close immediately and that students return home as quickly as possible.” This would feel less surreal if he wasn’t wearing a big penny hat and a baldric of pennies over his shoulder.
We pack our stuff and walk out. Griselda lives in the opposite direction from us, and I offer to walk her home.
“Who says USJ men aren’t chivalrous?” she asks. She holds both our arms, and says, “But I should actually be offering to walk both of you home as you’ll need my protection in case the bad guys attack.”
“What’s that mean?” Hideki asks.
She puts both her fists up. “It means I’d love to punch out some of those terrorists. Stick and move, Mac, stick and move. You don’t know how much destruction they’re causing in the Reich.” She grins at both of us. “Don’t worry about me. Just get yourselves home safely. Jaa ne.”
She skips away.
“Want to play Cat Odyssey tonight?” Hideki asks.
“But the Gogo Arcade—”
I wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway.
It’s almost morning, and I’ve made headway with multiple quests. I’m about to log off when three older gamers approach me, and say, “Time to quit the game and make room for the pros.”
I’m about to tell them I’m almost done, but they shut off my game before I can save my progress. “What the hell?” I exclaim. “I didn’t save yet.”
“You got a problem, kid?”
“It’s time for school. Get out of here.”
They’re too big for me to challenge, but I’m still pissed they didn’t let me save my game. Before I can say anything, Hideki pulls me away.
I want to protest, but Hideki asks me to give him my portical, which I do. He connects it to his own, hands it back to me a minute later. Behind us, the three have started their game of Cat Odyssey. Hideki asks me to activate a program. I recognize it as a type of kikkai disruptor, which locks onto the portical links of the three who took over my stall.
“Push the button,” he tells me.
I do, and a surge hits their porticals, disrupting their connections. They can’t connect with the arcade. I hear them yelling, frustrated.
“How long does it last?”
“Could be permanent, could be a few days, depending on their skill level.” Hideki laughs. “I developed it because too many people tried to bully me off my games.”
“You use it a lot?”
“All the time. I’ve put it on your portical, so you can use it whenever you want. Best thing is, it works on any portical.” He demonstrates on a few others and laughs when he sees that mayhem ensues.
We head for school but arrive at the subway station a minute late. The train has already taken off. We wait on a bench. Hideki falls asleep on my shoulder and snores. I wake him when spit from his mouth is about to drop onto my shoulder.
“Why you wake me up?” Hideki asks, irritated.
“You were snoring.”
He rubs his face, gets the discharge out of his eyes with his middle finger. “I just had this dream that I was in a city full of prehistoric supermosquitoes that hunted everyone down so they could suck their blood.”
“Sounds juicy,” I mutter back.
The train arrives, and we hop aboard. On the portical displays on the subway walls, California Nippon News gives updates on the Rio Grande situation. I’m relieved to see Colonel Yamaoka, one of our war heroes from San Diego.
“It’s still too early to determine what happened,” he states. “We’re investigating, but we won’t be giving any updates until we know what happened.”
“Is there a link to the NARA?” a reporter asks.
“At the moment, we’re not sure.”
“Is there a possibility this could mean the reemergence of the George Washingtons?”
Colonel Yamaoka shakes his head, and the gesture carries gravity as he helped us vanquish them. “Intelligence reports indicate that the last of the George Washingtons were eliminated in the second San Diego Conflict.”
“Has there been any comment from the German embassy?”
The Rio Grande is located at the Quiet Border, where our two empires meet.
“They’ve expressed their condolences and have offered their assistan—”
All of a sudden, the train comes to a stop. I look around and see fear in everyone’s eye, the same impulse that’s swelling up inside me. Is something happening? Are we under attack? I want to get out, break the window if I can escape. But there’s nowhere to go. One man yells, “Why aren’t we moving?”
My throat feels acutely dry. The news broadcaster is still de-S scribing the Rio Grande. It would be so unfair if this is the way things end.
The train stutters, then continues as though nothing happened. All of us hold our breaths, unsure what’s going on. When we actually arrive at the next stop, I breathe in relief, grateful that I’m alive.
I wake Hideki up. “Are we there yet?” he asks.
“One stop away,” I answer. I feel stupidly nervous about the train. “Do you mind if we walk the rest of the way?”
He shrugs. “Sure.”
We arrive at school fifteen minutes late, causing us to miss the morning pledge. I feel bad and am ready to apologize on both our behalves. Our homeroom teacher, Joshuyo-san, is waiting.
“Why are you tardy today?” he angrily demands.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I say and bow. “It was my fault. There was a problem on the subway, and—”
“Hideki! Why are you late?” our teacher asks, ignoring my answer.
“Because we decided to walk instead of taking the subway,” Hideki truthfully answers, which surprises me. There is a hint of insolence in his voice, which our teacher immediately catches. Ever since Joshuyo-san beat him last year for tardiness, there’s been a palpable tension between the two.
“I wanted fresh air.”
“You wanted fresh air?” He nods and seems accepting until he strikes both of us in the mouth with his fist. “This is your last week before the imperial exam, and you want fresh air! What would your parents think? They sacrificed their lives in San Diego so you could live!” he yells in front of the whole class. “Hands out!” He is going to make an example out of us. “Hands out!”
We raise our hands, palms up. Our teacher uses a thick metal stick and beats down as hard as he can. I yell out loud, knowing he wants to hear us cry. When it comes to Hideki, there is a loud slap.
But Hideki doesn’t make a noise. The teacher doesn’t like that and strikes his hands again. This time, Hideki smirks at him. Has he lost his mind? Joshuyo-san is furious, and asks, “Do you find this amusing?”
“No, sir,” Hideki replies.
Our teacher strikes Hideki’s face with the ruler, but Hideki refuses to stop smirking. Joshuyo-san throttles his neck and throws
him to the ground.
“I will beat you until you learn respect,” he says.
Hideki tries to kick the teacher away, which infuriates him more. There is nothing that riles him up more than resistance. He flings his arms at Hideki. It’s pointless fighting against the teacher—what rights and protections do we have as orphans? I want to urge Hideki to let it pass, but he’s having none of it.
“What about respect for my parents?” Hideki protests. “Our parents made the ultimate sacrifice, and this is the way you treat us! We’re the ones who have to pay because of their stupid decision to die for the Empire!”
I can feel years of frustration flooding out of him as I too wonder about their decision. I admire Hideki’s guts for standing up for himself, even if I know what’s coming. Our homeroom teacher’s face has turned apoplectic, and his fists come down hard on Hideki. All Hideki has to do is pretend to be penitent, ask for forgiveness, and it’d be over. But he refuses and gets a flurry of kicks as his penance.
Hideki is gasping, pain printed on his face. But he won’t give in and seems to be daring the teacher to beat him to death. I can’t stand it anymore. I get up and rush to block the teacher.
“Joshuyo-san, please,” I plead, trying to stop him.
“Get your hands off me!” he roars, and punches me in the shoulder. “You think you’re so tough!”
“No, sir,” I say. “I’m sorry, sir.”
His fury is being redirected toward me as he pushes me against the wall. He punches my belly and throws me to the ground. It will hurt, but I know that as long as I keep apologizing— His shoe comes directly at my mouth, and my teeth shake at the impact. I can smell blood coating my gums. I fight against tears. I won’t cry in front of him again as I did in past beatings.
“I’m sorry, sir, it’s my fault, sir,” I repeat several times.
I can only hope his anger will abate. But he’s just getting more violent. “Neither of you deserve the mercy the Empire has shown you!”
“Joshuyo-san!” Griselda calls out.
Our teacher looks up at her. “What is it?” He is more attentive to her as she’s an international exchange student.
“I’m not feeling well. Permission to go to the nurse’s office.”
“You have permission!” he orders.
“I need help getting there, sir,” she says, and bows. “Sumimasen.”
He’s about to order someone to help her, but we both get up and escort her.
“Thanks for saving us,” I tell her, when we get outside the class.
“Why’d you get here so late?” she asks. “You know how he is about that.”
“I got nervous,” I say, and explain about the train stop.
Hideki’s face is covered with blood, and he states, “I’ll be outside.”
He leaves without waiting for our reply. I escort Griselda to the nurse for her “visit.” She reminds me, “It’s only a few more weeks, and you can wave bye to this school forever.”
I leave and find Hideki in the main field. He’s smoking defiantly, a snarl forming with every puff.
“Why didn’t you just apologize?” I ask.
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“That’s not the point.”
“It is,” he says.
“All he cares about is our showing up on time, so he doesn’t lose face,” I explain, hoping to make it seem less personal. “Keep good general attendance, and he gets his bonus.”
“All our pain so he can get a thousand extra yen? For what? His girlfriend? His dog?”
When he puts it like that, it sounds so dehumanizing.
“I have something I want to ask you,” he says. “Don’t get upset.”
“Why would I get upset?”
He pulls on the lower half of his cheek with his fingers, his instinctive gesture when he is getting serious. “I’m sick of this life, and I know I’m not going to do well on the exams. I’ve failed all the preliminary tests. If I fail this time, they’re going to force me to wait another year to retake the exam. I can’t take this kind of treatment anymore.”
“We just gotta study hard for the next week, and we’re going to rock the mecha sim test next week.”
Hideki shakes his head. “Who are you kidding?” He sighs. “I’ve always dreamt of making games. You’ve always wanted to be a mecha pilot. What if I told you there was a guaranteed way to make it happen?”
“There are no guarantees.”
“Be realistic. We both know there’s no way in the world you’re getting into BEMA. And that means you’re not going to pilot a mecha.”
“Thanks for your confidence.”
“Don’t be naive,” he says. “Even with another year, our scores will probably get worse. I’ve seen how much Sango struggles to pay her bills. She knows her score isn’t going up since she has no time to study.”
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“We have a chance if we use this,” Hideki says, holding up his portical.
I don’t see anything special about it. “What is that?”
“It’s a program I found on the kikkai. An adaptor to feed into the test.”
“Any adaptor you use will be tracked by the school,” I say. Schools lock down on students during exam week, taking their porticals away to prevent any form of cheating. “There’s no way you’re going to get it past the encryption, either.”
“This guy I met has a way.”
“I can’t talk about it yet. I just want to know, do you want in?”
“Wait, what are you saying?” I ask.
“Do you want a guaranteed way of accessing all the answers for the exam?”
I can’t believe he’s seriously suggesting this. “Are you joking?”
“Never been more serious.”
“What’s this guy want in return?” I ask.
“Nothing?” I laugh skeptically. Someone offers to help us cheat and doesn’t want anything back? My internal alarms were suspicious before and are blaring now.
“Well, something, but later, down the line.”
“What’s that something?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care.” He puts out the last part of his cigarette. “You don’t have to decide now. Just think about it and let me know later this week.”
“What if we get caught?”
“It won’t be any different if we fail.”
“I’ve already made my decision. Think about it and tell me if you’re in or not,” he says, cutting me off. “See you later.” He bolts.
What would I do if I failed the exam and didn’t get into any university? That I don’t have an alternative scares me.
Excerpted from Mecha Samurai Empire, copyright © Peter Tieryas, 2018