The Mecha Monogatari, Chapter I
Posted by Doug on October 23, 2008
Hijū sat in the cockpit of her titan, synchronized with the system just enough that she could accept the visual inputs from the titan’s optical sensors while she ate her ice cream. It was chocolate, and despite it being in a box that had once held a name-brand ice cream, it was not store-bought but homemade by the widowed lady who lived in the apartment downstairs from Hijū’s, who simply reused the cartons. Hijū knew that her uniforms were starting to get a little tight, but she wasn’t terribly worried. She rarely got terribly worried about anything, even though she risked her life in battle on a fairly regular basis. Being three or four kilograms over the ‘ideal’ weight was not even worth thinking about.
“Hijū” was not her name but her shikona, her ‘stage name,’ the name she was known as in the community of titan pilots. Her real name was Nagaoka Misaki: a family name inherited from her father’s family, a personal name selected by her mother because it sounded pretty. Very few people called her either, anymore. Only the most renowned pilots had shikona. Any pilot could have a nickname, but to be known by a shikona was one of the highest honors. She was Hijū, the Soaring Eagle who launched herself off of a skyscraper to gain the element of surprise in a pitched battle versus a pair of elite Eschatos during a battle in the Ibaraki prefecture four years ago, when she was only nineteen.
Through the titan’s eyes she watched a replay of the data from her last engagement three weeks ago, not far from here, in the Ōta ward. It was a fairly dull battle—she had only destroyed three Hoplite-types and one Viking-type, all at long range. Long-range battles were relatively easy, as the Atlas-class titans that the Rikujō Jieitai fielded had a distinct edge at engagements between one and two thousand meters, especially against the Viking-types, which preferred to close in and attack in melee.
Hijū held the rank of ittō rikui in the Rikujō Jieitai, and in addition to serving here at the Shinjuku Defense Station as a pilot with the 29th Battalion’s A Company, she was stationed as an assistant instructor at the Takagi Miharu Academy here in Tōkyō, responsible for preparing the new pilots to face the Eschatos. Viking-types were easy to destroy at long range, but if they got within striking range of their ten-meter-long axes, they were devastating. An Atlas could be cleaved in two with one swing of a Viking’s axe. Hijū intended on spending a little more time on close-quarters engagements; even as she watched the long-range battle unfold a second time, she was thinking about what it would have been like if the Vikings had been a lot closer, and how she could work that into a training scenario on the simulators.
And as she thought, she ate her ice cream.
A stern voice disturbed her contemplations: “Nagaoka-ichii, that is not regulation-issue attire.”
Even though she was a little startled, it took only a thought for Hijū to switch her visual input from the battle recording to one of her titan’s external cameras, and then she saw the instructor to whom she was an assistant to, Hayashi Shōta santō rikusa, more commonly known by his shikona, Benkei. In his early thirties, he was an intimidating figure, standing almost two meters tall and powerfully built. Wearing his full dress uniform, replete with the platinum gray shoulder-braids, a chestful of medals, and beret, Benkei stood in front of her open cockpit, his hands on his hips. “It is completely inappropriate for an officer to be wearing civilian clothes while performing official duties!”
Hijū desynchronized, so she could see Benkei with her own eyes instead of the titan’s, and then looked down at herself. She was wearing what she usually wore when she wasn’t at the Academy: a white tank top with an anime character emblazoned on the front, a pair of blue-lensed sunglasses hanging from the neck, faded blue jeans, and her favorite athletic shoes (which were showing considerable wear and tear). Her Rikujō Jieitai ID badge was clipped to one of the belt loops at the waist of her jeans. “Stuff it, Shōta,” she laughed. “What are you all dressed up for?”
“Iwata-kun’s wedding, remember?” Benkei said.
Iwata had been the lead technician for Benkei’s titan, before Benkei had become asynchronous. Hijū shook her head disapprovingly. “Doesn’t he know what they say about getting married being bad luck?”
“Never mind that,” Benkei said. “I need you to do something for me. One of our students for next term has arrived early, and they don’t know what to do with him down there.”
“Did he come straight from candidate school?” Hijū finished the last of the ice cream, and then pitched the empty box in the general direction of a trash can. It missed by two meters.
Benkei shrugged. “Must have. I’d go handle it myself, but I gotta go to the wedding. I’m almost late as it is.”
“Sure I can handle it,” Hijū said, extracting herself from the titan’s cockpit. “You could have just called me, you know.”
“Your techs were routing all your phone calls to my office,” Benkei growled. “I got my own voice mail a half-dozen times.”
“Oh,” Hijū giggled. “Any important calls?”
“Yeah, from me,” Benkei said. “And that Yamasaki guy called…five times. Why don’t you just tell him to leave you alone?”
“I can’t do that. He’s just too sweet,” Hijū said.
“You ever going to go out with him?” Benkei asked.
Hijū did not even have to think for a second. “No way.”
Benkei just chuckled, shaking his head. “Whatever. Just go square this student away at the Academy, okay?”
“No problem,” Hijū replied.
Benkei left in his sports car, and Hijū retrieved her cellphone from her technicians and grabbed her dark brown leather jacket before heading to the Academy on her motorcycle, an eight-year-old hyper sport model with striking gold paint. She knew the roads between the defense station where her titan was hangared and the Academy well, and paid little heed of traffic signs and gave no consideration at all to the speed limits. She did not wear a helmet, either; the only protective gear she wore was her sunglasses.
The Takagi Miharu Titan Academy was a sprawling complex that looked more like a college campus than a military academy. Hijū parked her bike in a no-parking zone in front of the main building, and headed inside. Outside the admissions office, there was a boy in his early teens, wearing a Rikujō Jieitai uniform with the insignia of a pilot candidate; no doubt this was the student who had arrived early. He was sitting ramrod-straight in a chair in the hallway, his duffel bag at his side, a longer bag of the type used to carry shinai for kendō practice leaning against the wall. A manila envelope held in his hand obviously contained his transfer documents.
Hijū walked up to him. He was a good-looking kid, strikingly handsome, she thought, although his jet-black hair just did not look quite right, especially with his gray eyes. Clipping her sunglasses to the neck of her tank top, she asked him, “You the one causing all the fuss?”
The boy stood before speaking. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t realize there would be a problem.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Hijū said. “Lemme see your transfer papers.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the boy said. “I’m not allowed to hand these papers over to anyone except—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Hijū said, holding up her hand to silence his protest. “First, do not call me ma’am ever again. Second, I am a duly authorized officer of the Rikujō Jieitai.” Hijū turned her side to the boy and pulled her jacket back a bit so he could clearly see her ID badge. “Nagaoka Misaki ittō rikui of the 29th Battalion, C Company. But call me Hijū.”
Realizing her rank, the boy snapped to attention. “I’m sorry, m… Hijū-ichii.”
“Don’t salute, and it’s just Hijū, without a suffix,” she said, holding her hand out for the transfer documents again, and this time, the boy handed them over. Hijū pulled out the papers and glanced over the top sheet. “Seki Akira, huh? Okay, Seki-bōzu, wait here.”
Hijū could tell he did not like being called bōzu, but he did not say anything.
She went into the admissions office, blew right past the clerks working up front, and barged straight into the back office. Miyakawa Tomohiro santō rikusa, a pudgy man in his thirties who was in charge of admissions, instantly began yelling. “Damn you, Hijū-ishii! I’m busy in here!”
Nonplussed, Hijū sat down on the edge of Miyakawa-sansa’s desk, knowing it would set him off even more. “So, what’s the problem with this Seki kid?”
Miyakawa-sansa jumped to his feet and shook his finger at her. “Get off my desk this instant!”
“Come on, Tomo-kun, let’s try to stay focused, okay?” Hijū said, flipping through the pages of Seki’s transfer documents. “All the paperwork is here, and it’s all good, so why not just admit him?”
“We can’t admit him yet!” Miyakawa-sansa said. “New students aren’t supposed to start showing up until Friday. We don’t even have any rooms available in the dormitories yet! He should have just gone home and stayed with his family until then! Stupid brat probably had a fight with his parents and—”
“Did you even look at his file?” Hijū asked sharply. Miyakawa-sansa was silenced by her suddenly serious tone. “He’s an orphan, Tomo-kun. Lived his whole life at an orphanage in Setagaya. He doesn’t have any family to go back to.”
“I didn’t notice,” Miyakawa-sansa said, his voice quiet now. He looked at the door Hijū had come in through; no doubt the boy had heard him shout all the way out in the hallway. “But we don’t have any place here yet, and the regulations say he can’t even be properly admitted until Wednesday, at the very earliest.”
“Then I’ll take him off your hands,” Hijū said.
Miyakawa-sansa’s expression turned stern again. “What are you planning on doing?”
“I’m going to put him up at Shōta’s place,” Hijū said.
“You mean Benkei-sansa? You can’t do that,” Miyakawa-sansa said.
“Why not?” Hijū asked.
Miyakawa-sansa was silent. He did not have any reason available why Hijū could not do that. “Okay. I’ll send him back by on Wednesday,” Hijū said with a smile. “Ciao, Tomo-kun.”
Hijū returned to the hallway where the boy waited, his expression like that of stone. He had heard Miyakawa-sansa’s outburst. Hijū handed him his documents back. “Come on, grab your stuff. We’re leaving.”
Seki picked up his bags and followed her without a word. Hijū could not stand uncomfortable silences, and so she started the conversation. “So, you into kendō?”
“Yes,” Seki said.
Hijū hoped that this conversation would not be one where the boy said only the absolute minimum number of words. That would be almost as bad as an uncomfortable silence. “What style? Yagyū Shinkage?”
“Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū,” Seki replied. “I took second place at the Tōkyō prefectural tournament last year.”
“Nice.” Hijū was impressed—the Tōkyō prefecture was huge, and prefecture-wide tournaments, even junior high school tournaments, would no doubt have some fierce competition. For Seki to have placed second was a considerable accomplishment. “You must have spent every waking moment training.”
Seki nodded. “I think it was the Niten Ichi style. No one seemed to be able to block both my shinai.”
“Except for the guy who got first place, huh? What style did he use?” Hijū asked.
Seki thought for a second. “I’m not sure. Maybe Kashima Shinden. It was a single-sword style.”
“Well, don’t stop practicing just because you’re a pilot,” Hijū said. “Statistics have shown that pilots who were avid martial artists perform much better than those who weren’t.”
In the parking lot, Hijū mounted her bike, and put her sunglasses back on. “Take off your ugly cap, and hop on.”
Seki hesitated, and then removed his uniform cap, looking at it quizzically before putting it in his duffel bag. He tightened up the shoulder straps of his bags and sat down behind Hijū. “What should I hold on to?”
“Me,” Hijū said. “Don’t be shy.” Seki put his arms around her waist gingerly as Hijū started the bike’s engine. “And you’re going to want to hold on tight,” Hijū shouted back at him. “Just don’t crush me, okay?”
“I’ve never rode on a—” Seki began to say, but then Hijū, grinning from ear to ear, popped the transmission into gear and hit the throttle. A cloud of smoke billowed up from the bike’s rear tire as it turned them sideways, and then when the tire finally got some traction, they took off like a rocket, the bike’s front tire popping off the ground almost a meter.
Hijū loved giving people rides on her motorcycle, but for some reason, nobody ever wanted to ride with her a second time.
A little over four minutes later, they arrived at the Shinjuku Defense Station. The guards at the front gate recognized her and barely got the barrier raised before she raced through at over a hundred kilometers per hour. Hijū pulled into her reserved parking space, hitting the brakes so suddenly she could feel the back tire pop off the ground a little. Once they were stationary, Hijū turned to look back at Seki, and for the first time she noticed that the roots of his wind-disheveled hair were gray: he dyed his hair jet-black. “You know, Seki-bōzu, it just occurred to me that you probably would have wanted a helmet, huh?”
Seki seemed a little pale, but he did not seem very shaken up, like most of Hijū’s other passengers had. In fact, he seemed like he had enjoyed it. He slowly released his grip around Hijū’s waist and dismounted the bike. “I’m okay. But, please don’t call me bōzu. It just sounds so…childish.”
“Okay, Seki-kun,” Hijū said, lowering the kickstand and sliding off the bike with practiced ease. “Come on in to the hangar.”
Hijū led the way to where her titan was, and as she approached, her quartet of technicians came up to her, their curiosity piqued by Hijū’s young companion. “Hey, kumichō,” the sole male technician called out, “Who’s the kid?”
“One of my new students,” Hijū said, and then handled the introductions. The male technician was Iijima Tsubasa rikushichō, and was in charge of Hijū’s weapons systems. The three female technicians were Arata Mami nitō rikusō, Fujikawa Yōko rikushichō, and Shigeki Haruka ittō rikushi. Arata-nisō was the oldest at twenty-five years old, and she was the lead technician. Fujikawa-shichō was twenty, and in charge of the titan’s armor and defensive systems. Shigeki-isshi was also twenty, and handled all the software and synchronicity interfaces.
“I thought they weren’t supposed to start showing up until Friday,” Iijima-shichō said.
Hijū just shrugged.
Arata-nisō came forward and grabbed Seki’s arm. “He’s so cute, Misaki—can I keep him?”
As everyone else had a chuckle over that, Hijū looked at Seki and saw he was not paying attention to any of them. He was staring up at Hijū’s titan, which towered over them like a giant made of steel. “Sure, Mami. Just be sure to feed and water him, okay?”
Seki’s attention snapped back to what they were saying, and he gave Hijū an incredulous look.
“Yes!” Arata-nisō said. “Okay, Seki-bōzu, let’s go—”
Hijū slapped Arata-nisō in the back of the head, and not particularly gently either. “Hey, don’t call him bōzu like some little kid. He’s going to be a pilot soon—show some respect!”
“Yeah, nisō!” Shigeki-isshi agreed. “You should call him Seki-isshi.”
Seki, his arm still trapped in Arata-nisō’s vice-like grip, pointed out the contradictory nature of Hijū’s declarations: “So it’s okay for her to treat me like a pet, but not okay for her to call me bōzu?”
Again the adults laughed, and Hijū just winked at him mischeivously.
Arata-nisō led Seki away, promising him cookies, while Shigeki-isshi and Fujikawa-shichō followed, taking his bags, leaving Hijū and Iijima-shichō standing there at the base of the titan. “You’re cruel, kumichō,” Iijima-shichō said. “Arata-nisō is going to smother him with the ‘oneesan’ routine.”
“He’ll survive,” Hijū said, and then, her voice low and conspiratorial: “He’s going to be one of the greats, Tsubasa. I saw his file: his synchronicity index is twenty-five point three three seven.”
Iijima-shichō’s eyes narrowed. “That’s not possible. That’s higher than yours, and you’ve been in the show for almost nine years now.”
Hijū nodded. She had never seen a pilot trainee that had an index over sixteen before. When she had completed the Academy, her index had been only fourteen point five eight zero; during her last actual combat sortie three weeks ago, she had rated a twenty-one point three eight one. The higher a pilot’s synchronicity index, the better they could operate a titan.
Of course, it was also well known that the higher a pilot’s index, the more likely they would die before their career as a pilot ended due to asynchronicity. For average pilots, the odds of them dying, either in combat or due to suicide, totaled about forty percent. For pilots with exceptionally high indexes like Seki’s, the odds of dying increased to about seventy percent.
Shikata ga nai, people would say. It can’t be helped. There was nothing anyone could do to change things. Only a select few youths can pilot the titans, and only the titans can stand against the Eschatos; thus, the nation sent children, some as young as twelve, into battle to fight and die. Shikata ga nai.
Hijū hated that phrase.