The Mecha Monogatari, Chapter IV
Posted by Doug on November 16, 2008
Seki did not complain about having to ride pillion with Hijū a second time; in fact, he seemed fascinated with her old hyper sport bike. Of course, Hijū insisted he wear a helmet and aside from burning a circle of rubber into the pavement outside the A Company’s hangars, she drove significantly less recklessly. The helmet did not fit the boy well—it was one of Hijū’s that she had worn all of three times, and, ominously, it was severely scratched on the right-hand side.
As they rode, Hijū, shouting to be heard over the bike’s 1,340 cc engine, explained the operation of a motorcycle. “Your right side handles all your acceleration and deceleration, and your left side changes gears. Your throttle is here in the right grip—” She twisted the grip towards herself a little, causing the engine to rev noisily as the bike lurched forwards in a brief burst of acceleration. “—and the front brakes are the lever. The right foot pedal is the rear brakes, but I don’t use them much. The front brakes slow you down faster.”
“When you use them, that is,” Seki replied.
Hijū just grinned. “The clutch is the left-hand lever, and your left foot switches gears. Pull the clutch, tap the lever down, and let out the clutch real easy, and you dropped a gear.” She quickly demonstrated, slowing and shifting down into second gear. “Going up a gear works pretty much the same—just pull the lever up with your toe.”
“Can I drive it?” Seki asked.
“Not a chance.” Hijū’s reply was unequivocal. “This bike is way too much for a newbie like you—it’ll do zero to a hundred in two and a half seconds. I’ve had it up to two hundred fifty kph; it can do three hundred. Sorry, Seki-kun, but there’s no way I’d let someone who’s never rode a bike before even try it. You’d move on for sure.”
Seki was silent for the rest of the ride to Benkei’s apartment, and Hijū could tell that her refusal had disappointed him greatly. She liked Seki—he reminded her of her younger half-brother Kazuki, who was about the same age. Last summer when he had visited, Kazuki had pestered Hijū incessantly to let him ride her bike, and was very upset when she had told him no. This next summer, I’ll show Kazuki how to ride, she pledged. And as for Seki-kun…
Parking the bike out front of the apartment complex, Hijū cut the engine and as they dismounted, she turned to face Seki. “But you know, Tsubasa owns a bike. It’s just a little sport bike—I think it has a 500 cc engine. That’s the kind of bike you learn on, not a monster like this. I’ll talk him into letting us borrow it sometime.”
“That would be cool,” Seki said, still a little disappointed, but obviously heartened by Hijū’s compromise.
“Yeah, so tomorrow, once Shōta’s done torturing you, take the subway to Ikebukuro and buy yourself a good helmet you like,” Hijū said. “Get a full-coverage one, like that one, and make sure that it isn’t going to come off unexpectedly. Don’t be surprised if it sets you back fifteen to twenty thousand yen.”
“Twenty thousand?” Seki said. He took the helmet Hijū had loaned him off and examined it closely. “That’s a lot.”
“Yeah, well that head of yours is worth a lot more, so you’re going to protect it,” Hijū said. “You haven’t blown all your money, have you?”
“No,” Seki said, and then noted, “You don’t wear a helmet.”
Hijū straightened up and fixed Seki with a supremely confident gaze. “That’s because I’m just that damn good.”
Seki held up Hijū’s helmet so she could see the grisly scratch marks on its side, and raised his eyebrow as if to say, Oh, really?
Whoops. “That wasn’t me,” Hijū lied. “Don’t argue! If you want me to show you how to ride, you’re going to wear a helmet.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Seki said, utterly unconvinced.
Hijū led the way into the apartment building, and used the key Benkei had given her to let them into his suite the third floor. It was a spacious apartment, well-lit, very bourgeois, and immaculately clean. “Come on in,” Hijū said, kicking off her athletic shoes.
“Are you sure this is going to be okay?” Seki asked. As he removed his shoes, he arranged them neatly at the entrance.
“Yeah, I called Shōta earlier and told him,” Hijū said. “He was all for the idea. Here, you can use this spare bedroom. We might need to move some stuff around, though.”
The spare bedroom had been converted into a personal gym, and was filled with a weight bench and a half-dozen other pieces of exercise equipment. A dry-erase board bore cryptic lists of weights, all written with a precise hand. As Seki set his possessions down next to the door, he asked, “So, Shōta-san is into working out?”
“Oh, yeah,” Hijū said, sitting down cross-legged on the weight bench. “Every day, he’s in here at least an hour, and then he runs six kilometers. You’re going to be joining him tomorrow morning.”
“So that’s what you meant by ‘torture’ earlier,” Seki said.
Hijū nodded. “Oh, and another thing—don’t call him Shōta. I can call him that because I’m me. Call him by his shikona, Benkei, with no honorific suffix.”
Seki sat on the stationary bicycle. “He’s a pilot, too?”
“Yeah. Well, he was: he’s asynchronous now. He served with the 117th out of Nyūzen, Toyama for five years, and the 28th out of Fukushima for three and a half. Credited with six elite kills, recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun, and about twenty or thirty other medals,” Hijū explained. “He’s been teaching at the Academy for four years now, same as me.”
“An elite kill?” Seki asked.
“An elite Eschatos,” Hijū said. “Most Eschatos are controlled either by an AI or by remote control—we’re still not sure which—but some actually have pilots, and those pilots are tough. Plus, their Eschatos are often heavily modified, like the one they call the White Demon of Khabarovsk.”
“Khabarovsk—is that in Russia?” Seki asked.
“Yeah, on the other side of the Sea of Japan, west of Sakhalin,” Hijū confirmed. “The White Demon’s machine is very similar externally to a standard Matador-type Eschatos, except its performance specs are much higher, fifty to a hundred percent higher across the board, and he’s painted his machine solid white, with red forearms done so they look like they have blood all over them.”
“I heard about him on the news,” Seki said. “He was spotted in a battle in Hokkaidō two or three months ago.”
“Yeah, Asahikawa,” Hijū said, a sadness quelling her usual exuberance. Three of her Academy classmates, Higa Momoko, Nozawa Kenta, and Ōtsuki Saika, had died at Asahikawa. Higa had been Hijū’s roommate, her best friend in the world. They had always been in trouble together, especially for their frequent violations of the Academy dress code.
The White Demon was at Asahikawa, but he wasn’t the one who had killed Hijū’s friends. It had been the six-armed Omega Asura, an Eschatos an order of magnitude more powerful and devastating than even the strongest elite Eschatos pilot. Most Rikujō Jieitai pilots who died did so at the hands of an Omega like Asura or Lucifer.
But ultimately, it did not matter who or how. Hijū’s friends were gone.
“Hijū, are you okay?” Seki asked.
Hijū realized she must have been in her reverie for some time, and brought her attention back to the present. Wiping her eyes lest tears should form, she stood and pointed to Seki’s bags. “You’ve got a Class A uniform in there, right?”
“Hai,” Seki said.
“Put it on,” Hijū said.
“Because I said to,” Hijū said. “Hurry up.”
Hijū left the exercise/bedroom to allow Seki his privacy, and waited in the living room, flipping idly through the issues of The Gray Tops Newsletter that Benkei had left on the coffee table. The Gray Tops Newsletter was the more-or-less official magazine of the Rikujō Jieitai Titan Corps, not readily available outside of the military. The July 2016 issue, now almost three months old, featured a story on the newest revisions to the Youth Military Service Act of 1972, which granted all conscripted personnel of the Jieitai eligibility to vote, regardless of age. This of course would include the vast majority of titan pilots, who were sometimes conscripted at the age of twelve.
The revision was championed by the legendary Suetomi Yōji nitō rikusa, renowned throughout Japan (indeed, throughout the world) as Kishin, the Fierce God. The sole survivor of the Seven Gray Knights, Kishin was the only pilot to defeat an Omega single-handed, when, six years ago, he piloted his Hyperion-class titan against the Omega Seraphim in the forests of Aomori.
Many considered it improper for Kishin, as a military officer, to be so involved in politics, but as Kishin once said, “I don’t care about what’s proper. I care about what’s right.” He was a national hero, recipient of the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum, an exemplar for titan pilots wherever the war against the Eschatos was still being fought.
Not how I imagined him, Hijū thought, looking at a picture of Kishin standing with a group of Jieitai generals and Diet Councillors. Kishin’s appearance belied his reputation: he was just so unremarkably ordinary it was hard to believe that this was really one of the greatest war heroes of all time. If it weren’t for his uniform, festooned with small rectangular ribbons representing the scores of medals and decorations he had received, he could easily be mistaken for a common salaryman.
And he has no sense of style. Hijū shook her head. What’s up with that moustache? This isn’t the nineteen-forties, and he isn’t a movie star. How could his wife let him go out in public like that? Oh, wait, he’s still single, isn’t he. Surely he has a girlfriend, though. National hero or not, somebody needs to tell him that moustache looks totally wrong on him. Then again, Hijū thought with a smile, if it was me, I doubt I’d be able to tell him. He is Kishin, after all. At least his sunglasses are cool, if a bit retro.
Seki stepped out into the living room, now wearing his full dress uniform. Hijū nodded approvingly. Seki had obviously learned how to pack his luggage well—the uniform showed no signs of wrinkles. And the boy did look rather impressive in it. “Looking good, Seki-kun. Let’s go.”
Blushing a little at the unexpected compliment, Seki asked, “Where are we going?”
“First, my place,” Hijū said as they exited Benkei’s apartment. As she locked the door behind them, she continued, “I need to get my uniform.”
“What for?” Seki asked.
“You’ll see,” Hijū said, and when Seki frowned at that, she smiled mischievously. “Patience, Seki-kun, patience.”
It took about three minutes by motorcycle to get from Benkei’s apartment to Hijū’s. “Ah, don’t mind the mess,” Hijū said, grinning sheepishly, as they walked into her apartment. It was a 1LDK, much smaller than Benkei’s, and instead of Western-style furniture, hers was more traditional, with, for example, a futon-covered kotatsu in the center of the living room.
Also unlike Benkei’s apartment, Hijū’s place was a wreck. In the entryway, at least a dozen pairs of shoes were scattered about. The living room had clothes strewn everywhere—uniforms, civilian clothes, underwear, even a half-inside-out wetsuit. The kotatsu was covered in empty takeout boxes, instant ramen bowls, microwave dinner trays, and cans of Coca-Cola and Kirin Ichiban, as well as an arsenal of remote controls and video game controllers. There were precariously balanced towers of CD, DVD, and BD cases, and the floor was a minefield of books, magazines, and opened mail.
Arrayed around the room were a myriad of representations of Harō Kiti: clothes, posters, stuffed dolls, two alarm clocks, a lunch box, all emblazoned with the Sanrio mascot. There was even a wooden clothes hangar topped with Harō Kiti’s little head, all but concealed underneath the clothes that hung from it.
Seeing Seki’s eyes wide with surprise and, it seemed, more than a little embarrassment, Hijū gave him a playful push. “Sit down. It’ll take me a few minutes to get my uniform together. Turn on the PlayStation if you like.”
“Cool—a PS5,” Seki said, “What games do you have?”
“Mostly racing games,” Hijū said. She entered her bedroom in search of her uniform, tossing her leather jacket in the general vicinity of the chair at her computer desk. Raising her voice so Seki could hear her in the other room, she said, “I’ve got Gran Turismo 7 somewhere. Just bought it last month. There’s also a steering wheel you can use under the stack of magazines there. It works a lot better than the standard controller.”
“I found the case, but the disc isn’t inside,” Seki said. “Instead it’s a CD—Legends of Enka: the Greatest Hits of the Aughties.”
Hijū found her class A uniform jacket, but it was, predictably, horribly wrinkled. “Is it in the PlayStation?”
“Where’s the power button?” Seki asked.
“It’s in standby mode. Just tap the top of the PlayStation twice and it’ll wake up,” Hijū said, returning to the living room to set up her iron. “Have you seen an iron?”
“Next to the basketball,” Seki said. As Seki activated the game console, he asked, “Where’s the controller to the TV?”
“Look under the kotatsu.” Hijū collected the iron and set up the board.
Seki leaned over to check. “Not there.”
Hijū tried to remember where she had left the TV controller, but was interrupted by the sound of her doorbell. Yamasaki-san, Hijū knew. Since she had reclaimed her cellphone from her technicians earlier, she had ignored a dozen phone calls from him already. “There’s a power button on the right side of the TV, under my sweatshirt,” she told Seki as she went to the door.
Indeed, it was her next-door neighbor, twenty-six-year-old accounts receivable clerk Yamasaki Hideyuki. “Good afternoon, Hijū-san,” he said.
“Hi, Yamasaki-san,” Hijū said. Between Yamasaki’s jitteriness and the fact that he was holding something behind his back, Hijū knew that he intended to ask her out on a date, an invitation Hijū would not accept.
“Ah, is everything okay?” Yamasaki asked. “You haven’t been answering your phone.”
“No, everything is fine,” Hijū said. “We got a new class coming in at the Academy soon, and I’ve been busy working on getting everything caught up for when the term starts next Monday.”
From behind Hijū came the sound of a videogame—Seki had gotten the TV turned on. Hijū recognized the game’s music, and it wasn’t Gran Turismo 7 but one of the Biohazard games. Where did I put that game? she wondered, but then she noticed Yamasaki peering past her, a look of extreme curiosity on his face.
Although she did not dislike Yamasaki, Hijū did not feel any need or desire to explain anything to him. She closed the door a little, so that he could not see much past her. “So, what do you need?”
Stiff with fear, Yamasaki presented what he had been holding behind his back, a pair of concert tickets. “W…well, I won the raffle at the office party last week, and I got these tickets to see Hikawa Kiyoshi Saturday…”
Hijū’s interest perked up at this: Hikawa Kiyoshi, the ‘Prince of Enka,’ was one of her favorites; she had a poster of him from back when he was in his late twenties in her bedroom. The concert in question had been sold out for months, and for a moment, Hijū was tempted.
No, if I go out with him, he’ll never leave me alone, Hijū thought. I don’t have time for a boyfriend—I can worry about stuff like that after I go asynchronous. And get through college. Besides, he’s just so…so not my type. “That’s really sweet of you, Yamasaki-san, but really, I can’t.” Seeing Yamasaki deflate dejectedly, Hijū felt bad for him. At least he didn’t spend his own money on those tickets. “Sorry. This isn’t a really good time for me, with classes starting up next week and all.”
Crushed by the rejection, Yamasaki feigned a smile. “Oh, it’s okay. I shouldn’t have sprung this on you so suddenly. Well, I guess I’ll see you later. Let me know if you become free, okay?”
Hijū had no intention of that. “Sure. Bai bai.” As Yamasaki began to walk away, she shut the door and sighed wearily. Returning to the living room, she saw Seki trying to carefully remove a BD case from the middle of one her meter-high stacks of discs. “Still can’t find Gran Turismo?”
Seki looked up and shook his head, and in doing so, unbalanced the stack, which toppled over, sending discs clattering across the tatami. Horrified, Seki apologized, “I’m sorry, Hijū, I didn’t mean to—”
Hijū waved his apology aside. “Don’t worry about it. It happens all the time. Just stack the back up over here, okay? I gotta get my uniform ironed.”
As Hijū ironed her uniform, Seki diligently began restacking the toppled tower of disc cases, and then began playing the Biohazard game that Hijū had left in the PlayStation, occasionally asking which buttons on the controller did what.
Once Hijū got her uniform presentable, she went into her bedroom to change, only to find that the waist of her Class A uniform skirt was uncomfortably tight. She had no other, so it had to do. Fortunately, she would only be wearing it for an hour or two.
When she emerged, fully decked out in her Class A uniform replete with the platinum gray beret, Seki’s jaw dropped. “You look like a completely different person.”
“I am a completely different person, Seki ittō rikushi,” Hijū declared imperiously. “You are in the presence of a superior officer! Stand at attention, mister!”
Confused, Seki stood, dropping the game controller, and saluted. “Hai!”
Scowling, Hijū walked up to Seki, who stood motionless, his eyes fixed forward as Hijū, doing her best drill sergeant impersonation, moved within a handsbreadth of him. He was tall for his age, 176 or 177 centimeters, she reckoned, and Hijū, at 160 centimeters, had to tilt her head back to see his face as his line of sight passed cleanly over her head. She needled him with the most intense, discomfiture-inducing gaze she could manage.
Of course, she could not maintain the intensity for long, and after only a few seconds she could contain herself no more. Laughing, she poked Seki in the ribs with her elbow. “Relax, Seki-kun. So, do you think I’d pass inspection?”
Relaxing a little, it was Seki’s turn to scrutinize Hijū. “No,” he said after a short pause. “Your blouse is wrinkled, your ribbons aren’t in the proper order, and, um…” Seki seemed too embarrassed to continue. “…never mind.”
“Just say it,” Hijū prodded.
Seki swallowed nervously. “Your skirt is too short. Regulations say it has to come down even with your knee.”
Hijū nodded. Seki was technically correct, but… “Pilots enjoy considerable leeway with how they wear their uniforms—like our berets. They’re still not official-issue. I wear my decorations with the ones I’m most proud of on top, and the shorter skirt is the trend these days among female pilots. The regular uniform skirt is just so frumpy.”
Seki nodded. “And the wrinkled blouse?”
“Oh, I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that,” Hijū said. “Let’s go. I want to get back before Shōta gets back into town.”
Together, they left the apartment, but instead of heading to the parking area where Hijū’s motorcycle was, she led them the other direction, towards the street. “We’re not taking your motorcycle?” Seki asked.
“In this skirt?” Hijū asked. “Are you kidding?”
“Oh,” Seki said.
They took the subway to Itabashi, and along the way, Hijū tried to steer the conversation towards Seki’s interest in kendō. “So, you said the Niten Ichi style? That’s where you use two swords, right?”
Seki nodded. “I usually hold my daitō in my left hand high, with my shōtō in my right in front of me, like this. That way I can parry with the shōtō and strike with the daitō.” Holding imaginary swords, Seki swung his arms, illustrating his point. “I might have made sho-dan…” he began, but then his voice trailed off. If I hadn’t been conscripted, Seki did not need to say.
“You might yet,” Hijū said. “So, why not just use two daitō?”
“I probably could—I’m ambidextrous—but very few kendōka are strong enough to use a daitō one-handed with either hand, and so it isn’t taught much, except for some strength-training drills,” Seki said. “Besides, the shōtō is quicker. Daitō in your strong hand for your primary attacks, shōtō in your weak hand for defense and close-up attacks. Of course, I can switch hands, and still fight at a hundred percent either way. That really helped me keep my opponents off-balance during the tournaments. They’d see me fight one match in a right-handed stance, and be expecting that, only for me to come out using a left-handed stance.”
“You ever meet anyone at competitions named Akiyama? Akiyama Kenji or Keiji, something like that?” Hijū asked. “It probably would have been your first year of junior high.”
Seki shook his head. “I don’t think so. Who is he?”
“A pilot. His shikona is Ichigiri,” Hijū said. “He’s a kendōka, uses one of the single-sword styles.”
“I’ve heard about Ichigiri in the news,” Seki said. “Didn’t he take a sword off of an Eschatos and fight off a bunch more of them after he ran out of ammunition for his rifle?”
Hijū nodded. “Yep. That’s him. But come to think of it, I think he was from Ōsaka, so it’s unlikely you would have met.”
“So what’s he like?” Seki asked.
“I dunno,” Hijū said. “I’ve never met him. I only know him by reputation.”
“What unit is he with?” Seki asked.
“Well, he was with the 102nd in Saga when they faced off against Lucifer,” Hijū said. “He survived, but I’m not sure what unit he got sent off to.”
“Have you ever fought an Omega?” Seki asked.
Hijū nodded gravely. “Tarasque, back in 2010, when I was in Sendai with the 79th Battalion, under Komainu.” And just like Asura, Tarasque had taken a handful of Hijū’s friends away from her, and almost killed her, too—her titan had to be dug out from the ruins of a collapsed office tower after she had spent thirty-eight hours trapped beneath it. Tarasque had been defeated that day, beat back to the sea and forced to retreat, but the victory was a bittersweet one, like all the Titan Corps’ victories seemed to be.
“What happened?” Seki asked.
Hijū could appreciate his enthusiasm, but she did not feel like telling the story just then. “Oh, be quiet and enjoy the ride.”
They were silent for the rest of the trip.
After they got off the subway in Itabashi, Hijū led Seki through the city to a small Shintō shrine. Upon entering the shrine’s courtyard, they washed their hands and rinsed their mouths at the temizuya, and as they approached one of the smaller shrines off to the side, they were greeted by the kannushi, a thin man in his sixties, who was shorter than Hijū. “Welcome back, Hijū-chan.”
“Iguchi-sensei, hi,” Hijū said. “It’s a surprise to see you here this late. We’re just going to visit the shrine.”
“By all means, feel free,” Iguchi said. “Is this one of your new students?”
“Yeah. Iguchi-sensei, this is Seki Akira ittō rikushi,” Hijū introduced him. “Seki-kun, this is Iguchi Masayuki. He’s the kannushi of this shrine.”
Seki bowed respectfully.
“Seki-kun, was it?” Iguchi said, furrowing his brow. “You seem familiar. Have you been here before? Perhaps with an older brother?”
“No, sir,” Seki replied. “Not that I know of.”
“Hmmm.” Iguchi turned his attention back to Hijū. “I’m glad you didn’t bring him by earlier. Matsuri-chan would have been all over him. Fortunately, I’ve already sent her home for the day.”
Iguchi and Hijū chuckled. Yoshimoto Matsuri was a high school girl who worked here at the shrine part-time as a miko, and she was boy-crazy. Of course, Seki knew none of this, and just stood there, smiling politely. “Yeah, I’ve had quite enough of that today.”
“Ah, so you’ve met Mami-chan?” Iguchi said knowingly.
“Arata Mami nisō?” Seki asked. “Yes.”
Iguchi nodded, smiling. “Well, I won’t take up any more of your time. Excuse me.”
As Iguchi headed back towards the main shrine, Hijū directed Seki towards the smaller one. The shutters were closed, and Hijū clapped her hands twice and bowed deeply before opening it.
Enshrined here was an old-style pilot’s helmet, the type that was used back when the Rikujō Jieitai had first started using the Hyperion-class titans, all but split in two, the right side twisted up like a deformed wing. Most grotesquely, the helmet was encrusted with the dark red stains of dried blood. It was painfully obvious that the last person to wear this helmet was no longer alive.
Hijū heard Seki inhale sharply, but she did not turn to face him. Instead, she sat seiza-style in front of the enshrined helmet, clapped twice again, and then bowed. Somberly, her hands folded in a gesture of prayer, she explained, “Iguchi-sensei used to be a pilot, too. Thirty years ago, he built this shrine and dedicated it to all the pilots who had moved on defending this country. I come here from time to time to pray for them. This is our world. We are the latter-day samurai, Seki-kun, and the way of the warrior—”
“—is found in death,” Seki finished softly.
Of course Seki would know the Hagakure. Hijū nodded. “The odds either of us will live to see our twenty-fifth birthday are only about fifty-fifty at best. Every time we take the stage, it could be our last. And even if we survive, we will have to live with the memories of all those who didn’t. Memories of our friends and loved ones.” Like Momoko. Hijū felt a tear rolling down her cheek, and brushed it aside. “It’s just so sad.”
Seki clapped his hands and bowed, and then reached for his wallet. “Where is the offering box?”
Hijū shook her head. “There is no offering box for this shrine. There’s nothing the living can do to help the dead. All we can do is live and keep fighting, so that their sacrifices were not in vain. As far as donations, I just write Iguchi-sensei a check two or three times a year, to help keep up the place. If you want to donate, you can just put it in the box at the main shrine.”
“I will on the way out,” Seki said, and Hijū could tell he meant it. The young pilot-to-be then took his place by Hijū’s side in front of the shrine, and then, sitting seiza-style, he clapped twice, bowed, and joined Hijū in prayer for the kami of those who had moved on before them.