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Exclusive: Mecha Samurai Empire chapter excerpt and interview with author Peter Tieryas

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Sep 10, 2018

That epic thundering you hear is not some distant storm or the garbage man rattling the cans outside, it's the imminent arrival of visual effects artist Peter Tieryas' (United States of Japan) new alt-history sci-fi novel, Mecha Samurai Empire.

Ace Books is primed to power up its marketing machine and unleash this gripping novel on Sept. 18, and its presence will be heavily felt when it invades book stores and online retailers next week. Think of Mecha Samurai Empire as an adrenalized fusion of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle and Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim as rampaging robots prowl a very different America, where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won World War II and now lord over the spoils of war with vicious metallic fighting vehicles bearing the bold colors of their respective nations.

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In this follow-up book existing in the same universe as United States of Japan, the former LucasArts employee's coming-of-age story centers around war orphan Makoto “Mac” Fujimoto. Our brave hero grew up in occupied California dreaming of piloting one of the mighty giant mechas for the Japanese military. 

But without the proper test scores to enter the prestigious mecha pilot training program at Berkeley Military Academy, his hopes are slim. After his friend foolishly tries to cheat the entrance exam, they’re both banned from taking the test. So Mac sets his future on civilian training, but as tensions between Japan and Germany quickly heat up, he might not live long enough to see the fruits of his lofty ambitions.

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(Credit: John Liberto)

SYFY WIRE scored an exclusive chapter excerpt below, as well as an interview with Tieryas to educate readers on what bash-em-up battles are in store, his Asian influences in this semi-sequel to United States of Japan, and what brings him back to the alternative history realm.

Can you power up a preview of Mecha Samurai Empire's plot?

Peter Tieryas: Huge imperial mechas fight massive Nazi biomechs in a titanic struggle for survival. In between their battles, the mecha cadets explore the strange culture of this alternate history where tempura shrimp burgers and treks to the Asian-influenced Las Vegas result in a cultural fusion that’s both eerily familiar and welcomingly alien. Think of it as a metroidvania of science fiction, alternate history, dating romcom, and literary RPG-hood with the characters leveling up after each act.

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What is it about alternative history that appeals to you and keeps you dipping into that creative well?

My answer to this would have been a lot different a few years ago, but in light of the current political climate, one of the main goals of this particular alternate history is to remind people that Nazis are evil incarnate. I don’t mean just for people of color like myself because even those who fit the “Aryan ideal” were subject to imprisonment and torture depending on the whims of the Nazi leaders in charge. I’ve studied Nazis for the past few years and seeing the trend of current day politics, am reminded of a quote by Hegel: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Alternate history let me dig deeper into questions about America by juxtaposing the two realities. Some of the tougher questions I asked have more meaning in a separate context, as in torture, violence, and war.

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Do you have any favorite mecha properties in movies, comics, video games? 

For me, mechas are only as interesting as the pilots behind them and what they represent to the various parties vying for their control. In that sense, the property that most inspired my approach to mechas is easily the Metal Gear series by Hideo Kojima. While the big mechas are important in the games, it’s the characters that always stand out and give the conflict deeper importance. In the PS1 Metal Gear Solid, I remember Gray Fox sacrificing himself for Snake, and the fist-to-fist fight with Liquid aboard Rex as they raged battle over genetics and personal destiny.

The other huge, and obvious, inspiration is The Man in the High Castle. When I learned Philip K. Dick wanted to do a sequel to his alternate history novel, but found it too emotionally and mentally taxing to do so, I decided I wanted to do a spiritual sequel, just focused on the Asian side.

Have there been any rumblings from Hollywood on any kind of adaptation?

In all seriousness, this book was actually first published in Japan in April of this year and both Mecha and the other standalone book, United States of Japan, have been immensely popular there. So some really interesting things are going on in that front, though I’m forbidden from speaking about anything just yet. Please stay tuned!

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Here's a thrilling Chapter 5 excerpt from Mecha Samurai Empire, courtesy of Penguin/Random House and Ace Books:

The pounding sound wakes us up. I recognize the sound of a light mecha. It’s a Crab class, a six-legged beast used by the Rams for security. Each Crab fits five of us, and there are a total of five Crabs in the field. We’re not allowed inside the first few days, but it hovers over us as motivation. No one slacks off that week, and everyone is doing their best during exercises.

I gaze over at the Crab every chance I get. I haven’t studied its specs as closely as the bipedal mechas, but in many ways, it looks like one of our supertanks, only with six legs rather than tracks. In its stationary pose, the limbs are folded up, jointed at the shoulder (which has a flex-armored skirt), merus, leg, and tip just like a crab. Rather than claws, though, it has a 120mm cannon that can be swapped for other compatible armaments.

There are also missile launchers to the side of the hull as well as two auxiliary gun turrets. While it doesn’t have the bumpy spines of a crab, it has shocks to protect itself. Entry is from the cupola hatch, and there are detachable wheels on the limbs of the Crabs to ease transportation. If I’m correct, the circular orifice just above the missile launcher is an experimental heat gun that propels a concentrated laser to melt opposition. I don’t know how powerful it is, but there’s an Amitani logo, usually a sign of excellence. The Crabs are colored desert tan for camouflage, though I’m sure they come in different colors depending on location of deployment.

We’re given company-issued porticals, and they have training tutorials on them ready for our perusal. The program details the basics of Crab control through a simulation. We’re required to spend two hours every day practicing on the portical to prepare for actual driving. I steer, and the back four legs follow. I can take individual control of any leg at any time. But the automated kinematics are sufficient ninety-nine percent of the time.

“Then why do we need to learn how to use the rest of the legs?” Wren asks Sensei.

“Because winning battles is about that last one percent when you’re under fire and some stray missiles blow up your automation. Fifteen kilometers everyone for asking such a stupid question!”

We would be angry at Wren if each of us hadn’t at one point or another caused the whole company to run. The only thing is, the sun is blazing in all its glory, and I wish it would take a break. Amaterasu, don’t you need sleep?

It’s another week of baby steps as we switch between the roles. One day I’m pilot, the next, navigator, and after that, communications officer. Munitions requires making sure the cannons don’t overheat, which doesn’t happen often as they are self-regulating. Since the weapons are customizable, the majority of my work is selecting the best weapons before the battle based on intelligence reports. Engineering is the most difficult position and the one I struggle most with. It’s still all simulated, and when we finally go aboard, we don’t actually get to drive the Crab ourselves. It’s one of Sensei’s assistants who takes the controls as we watch. It’s more spacious than I’d thought, looking at it from the outside, even though Spider complains, “I feel cramped in here.”

When the Crab turns on, the first thing it does is uncurl its legs, raising the hull. The interior actually has an independent stabilizer to try to keep it steady despite the motion of the legs. When our instructor speeds the Crab’s motions, we’re surprised at how fast it moves. It’s almost like a roach scurrying at quick speeds. Maneuverability is where it excels, able to turn quickly, traversing uneven terrain with ease.

There are manual gauges, but those are for backup. Everything is overlaid on an interface from a portical display we wear over our eyes to obtain visuals from exterior sensors. That way, there’s no direct opening, and the hull is technically impenetrable. There is an optional periscope for emergencies.

“A good pilot with good reconnaissance can single-handedly defeat a battalion of tanks,” Sensei tells us. “It’s been done twice in Afghanistan and once on the Quiet Border.”

I gather from the constant simulation tests that Sensei and her assistants are determining where each of us is most adept. At the end of the week, we’re split into groups of five, and I’m with Spider, Wren, and Botan, who still beats everyone at cards. Our final crew member is Olympia, who’s of Mongolian descent, though I haven’t interacted with her much. She’s a very fast runner, which is why Sensei gave her “Olympia” as a nickname.

“Cream!” Sensei calls.

I hope for pilot but would be happy with navigator. Even munitions officer would be great.

“Communications,” she says.

Communications? My job is to get orders and relay them. It’s almost a redundant position because, technically, anyone else can do it.

“Is there a problem, Cream?” Sensei asks.

“I didn’t join RAMDET to become a communications officer.”

“You got a problem, quit.”

Chieko and Spider both get pilot. Wren and Olympia are the gunners on my Crab, handling left/right-rear/front cannons as needed. Olympia will also cover engineering. Botan acts as navigator to check the terrain via sensors. I take over communications and assist everyone as needed.

When we’re on board, I’m frustrated by my situation. I sit in my chair, check messages. There aren’t any. Spider laughs at me.

“What?” I ask, irked by his levity.

“You realize what happens if a pilot gets hurt or misses their mission for whatever reason?”

“No.”

“Someone has to take their spot. Navigator and munitions are too important to be reassigned. It’s the communications officer who drives. Not saying you’re going to get a chance with me piloting, but don’t knock the position.”

“Trying not to,” I reply.

“Getting to be a pilot is more about politics than skill, man. If some high-ranking officer likes you, your chances are better than if you’re the best pilot in the universe. If you want to get anywhere, you got to learn that part of the business.”

“This isn’t a business. We’re soldiers.”

“We’re not soldiers. We’re glorified security guards,” Spider says. “Not trying to burst your bubble, but you got to be real with yourself.”

Spider is a good pilot. The first steps on the Crab mecha feel very stable, and he has an intuitive knack for the controls. They’ve built up several obstacle courses a few kilometers from camp. The largest is an urban environment full of empty houses we have to pilot through. There are about fifty buildings in total. Many of them are hollow and could be easily knocked over. The whole purpose is not to.

The Crab mechas use a smaller Bradlium Particle Generator (BPG) for power and, like most mechas, have solar panels that are hidden under the armor and can be used in emergencies. I wait by my communications post for messages that don’t come. The only thing that gives me motivation is that at night, anyone can pilot the Crab mecha for training purposes.

I take full advantage of that.

Spider agrees to be my “chaperone.” “The weight takes some getting used to, and you can adjust sensitivity,” Spider tells me. “Some people like it light and easy. I like it a little heavier.”

I take the pilot’s seat. It is fully adjustable and spins in all degrees. It even turns into an ejection pod if needed. I put on the goggles, try to fit the gloves and boots, which are tight but grow to my proportions once I’m in position. The goggles, using the visual data from the exterior of the mecha, makes the walls of the bridge disappear. I am floating in the air. The interface is simplified compared to the bigger bipedal mechas. Motion can be controlled through a digitized wheel, tank controls, or directional pad, depending on preference. I select the directional pad, which shows arrow keys I command for motion.

“Take a few steps forward,” Spider tells me. “Just put your hands out in front of you.”

I do, causing the Crab to take steps. I increase speed and play with the acceleration. Depending on how I move my gloves, it will step in that direction. If I move both my arms left, then the crab will veer left. Sensors will automatically avoid collisions with any objects.

“Visuals can be deceiving, kid,” Spider tells me. “All the pros rely on the GLS.” The geographic location service. “No matter how good your eyes are, up in the bridge, you might measure size and distance wrong. That means death out there, or worse, civilian property damage. Nothing gets you kicked out faster than costing the RAMs extra money.”

The GLS creates a 3D representation of the surrounding terrain and displays it interactively on a first-person grid. It’s not perfect, and you still require a navigator to analyze best courses, but, because you can adjust the angles in real time, it’s the most accurate way of judging the layout of the land. I have the option of overlaying the GLS on the actual view. Any discrepancies are relayed to the camera, and I can change focal length and aperture manually, though auto adjustments generally tend to work the best. The camera’s metadata is automatically accounted for.

I crawl around the buildings several times. I get a feel for the independent elbow control between the leg and tip, as well as the ability to adjust the limb length, which causes an increase (or decrease) in speed. The neural interface has a one-to-one correspondence with the simulations. The biggest difference is that in sims, you don’t feel resistance or the sudden twists and turns rocking your head. The internal stabilizer does a good job keeping it steady, and no matter how bumpy the ride, it tries to keep everything level. Even when I climb a hill at a forty-five-degree angle, the bridge rotates to stay straight. But that doesn’t take away the g-force when I hit the acceleration and the massive Crab uses all six legs to sprint.

Two hours later, I’m still experimenting with different configurations when Spider says, “Let’s call it a night, kid.”

“I’m not tired.”

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t burn yourself out.”

He’s right. It’s exhausting work to continually adjust controls as well as stay mentally focused. Even with all the training we’ve done, my legs and arms are fatigued. He leaves me on board. Against his advice, I practice until the sun rises.

It’s a race. Our five Crabs stand in a line on a field. The finish line is twelve kilometers ahead. “Losers run thirty kilometers,” Sensei announces before we board. “Anyone who touches the mecha next to them is automatically disqualified.”

“Who you betting on?” Wren asks Botan.

“Chieko,” Botan replies. “Want to wager?”

Wren, Olympia, and I say, “Spider.”

“This is on future wages,” Botan reminds us.

“Don’t make us lose money,” Wren says to Spider.

“I put ten thousand yen on Chieko,” Spider jokes in response.

“Oh c’mon!” Wren protests.

Sensei signals for the race to start. Spider moves his hands forward, accelerating our Crab. But Chieko has already taken the lead. Spider pushes the accelerator, shifting armor plates, adjusting individual lengths of the limbs, trying his best to catch up. But no matter what he does, Chieko just keeps on increasing her distance from the four other Crabs. Spider curses, pushes the accelerator even farther, doing quick hand motions. We decrease the gap for a bit.

“Our BPS is overheating,” Botan warns him. “If we continue at this rate—”

Spider shuts the engine down. Ahead of us, Chieko has won.

“How was she so much faster than us?” Wren asks.

Spider appears baffled. “I have no idea.” He turns to Botan. “Do you know?”

She shrugs with a facetious grin for victory. “No idea.”

“How’d you know she’d win?”

“Intuition.”

When we assemble on the ground, Sensei congratulates Chieko while the rest of us run thirty kilometers. I notice Spider holding his forearms, massaging them.

After the run, a bunch of us approach Chieko.

“How were you so much faster than the rest of us?”

“I manually controlled each of the legs,” she replies. “And I used boosters.”

“How’d you learn to do that?”

“In the sim.”

“Can you teach us?”

“Of course,” she replies.

Spider isn’t in the group, so I go to look for him in case he’s interested. He’s back in our bunk and has wrapped his hands in ice packs.

“You okay?” I ask him.

He startles and initially tries to hide the ice packs. When he sees it’s me, he says, “I’m good. My hands just ain’t as good as they used to be.” He opens his hands, flexes his fingers. “Our bodies can handle only so much, and then they just don’t work anymore. I know you’re eager to learn. You’re young and excited, I get it. But there’s a reason why you don’t see many older mecha pilots. Take care of your health, kid, ’cause no one else will.”

Back aboard the Crab, eight of us stuff ourselves into the bridge. Chieko gives us a quick demonstration, turning off the manual inverse kinematics on the legs and controlling them directly. There’s a lot more involved than the simple glove controls that we’re used to, continually rotating, counter-rotating, and using boosters to increase distance and speed. It’s much harder than any of us anticipated, though the speed edge makes sense since the manual structure is optimized in a way the automated one isn’t.

What’s surprising to me is that the controls remind me an awful lot of Cat Odyssey, which I point out to the group.

My comment elicits groans.

“Portical games are not like controlling mechas.”

“I’m not saying it’s identical, but they’re similar,” I state.

Chieko tells me, “You’re right. I used to play Cat Odyssey all the time. Escape mode. That’s how I figured this method out.”

This surprises everyone.

“Rogue199 designed the controls for Odyssey and the mecha interfaces too, so it makes sense,” I reply. It’s not an exact match, but it’s close enough. It makes sense too as the military and the gaming divisions are so closely connected. I realize portical games are a way of training a populace how to use weapons of war without their even being aware of it. “I didn’t know you were into Cat Odyssey,” I say.

“My ex-boyfriend and I played all the time. He sucked, though, which I have to admit, was a deal breaker.”

“I’m learning how to play Cat Odyssey on my free time,” Wren suddenly volunteers.

We all laugh.

I practice Chieko’s technique over the next two weeks. The Crab’s specialty is mobility, which is why they’ve gained favor over tanks. Tanks are limited in their ability to change direction. With the Crab, I can be going max speed in one direction, then do a one-eighty turn right away, just by changing the limb direction, which is easily done with the reversible joints.

“The one-eighty is tricky until you get the hang of it,” Spider says on one of our evening training sessions. “The mistake most pilots make is that they slow down before they activate the reverse. You lose energy and time that way. Let me show you.”

He pilots the mecha straight into a building and I swear we’re going to crash. But just a second before we do, he swirls his arms around on the controls, and in a smooth motion, we’re running the opposite way. The Crab legs, bending one direction, are now bending the other way. The bridge is still facing the same direction, but the visual interface in the goggles are pointing forward, so his actual position on the bridge is irrelevant. Eventually, the hull rotates to match but so casually for it not to be noticeable.

“How’d you do that?” I ask.

“It’s all about anticipation and timing. You have to trigger the inverse kinematics at the right time. Try it slowly first.”

I march the Crab forward and trigger the inverse. But rather than the fluid steps I’m hoping for, the Crab stalls and comes to a halt, the elbows locking in place. If not for the autostabilizers, I would have tumbled.

Spider laughs. “You’ll get the hang of it. Things like this are important. I know the RAMs, and one of their most important functions is rescue ops. A good Crab pilot can get in and out before anyone even knows what hit them. My brother’s a RAM out in the Russian Territories. He’s always rescuing knuckleheads who get in trouble.”

“Didn’t know you had a brother.”

“He’s a knucklehead too. A damn good pilot. But he liked drinking too much, got into too many brawls. He joined the RAMs hoping he’d get another shot at entering one of the military academies.”

Just like me. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s been at it seven years and still hasn’t had his shot.”

“Seven years?” I say, astounded and disappointed.

“He’s wasting his time,” Spider replies. “He believes if you have spirit, you can overcome all obstacles. But he doesn’t get that sometimes, you can want something desperately and still fail.”

“You want to get into one of the academies and become a pilot?”

“Hell no. I just want a decent-paying job that doesn’t have me sitting at a desk all day. Plus, we get to travel all over the world. What about you, kid?”

“I want to get into BEMA.”

He laughs, then sees my intent expression and apologizes. “You’re serious?”

“Yes,” I say, chagrined.

“You’re a fast learner, but getting into BEMA is more than just skills.”

“You said it needs politics.”

Spider nods. “My brother is a good man. But he punched out a sergeant over beers. He’s never going to get into the mecha corps.”

He reminds me I’ve done worse. “I—I broke the arm of the lieutenant who was testing me for my exam.”

“A lieutenant?” he asks. I explain what happened during my exam. “There you go,” Spider says.

“You think I have no chance?”

Spider shakes his head. “Probably not. But you never know.” His tone in that last part isn’t convincing.

We spend the next few weeks practicing movement. Sensei teaches us how to use a leash program on our porticals to drive the Crab.

“This is useful in instances where the bridge may be inaccessible. The auxiliary portical can control the Crab, and if that’s not damaged, the leash can be effectively used. The only problem is the interface is hard to use because it’s a much smaller screen,” she says.

Ironically, while others struggle, Chieko and I excel. The UI is a more complicated version of the one we played on Cat Odyssey. We even race via the porticals after hours, and though she beats me, I come in a few seconds behind her.

“Not bad,” Chieko tells me.

When Sensei sees a few of us enjoying the controls, she warns us, “Don’t treat this like a game. Right now you’re relaxed, but under fire, everything changes.”

Weapon tests are minimal, and we fire only blank shells from the Crab mechas. Even that’s handled by munitions, and despite my hopes, we never get to try the heat gun. We do get personal pistol practice on the ranges, but it’s nothing we haven’t done in high school for the basic military training everyone gets their junior year.

Sensei shows us the self-destruct mechanism, which requires three layers of coding and approval from the entire crew. If they’re not available, there are overrides, but they’re to be used only in extreme situations.

“Technically, you can use the leash, set off the self-destruct, and control it from afar,” Sensei says. “This is for extreme cases only, so you can use the Crab in a type of kamikaze run without having to sacrifice the people inside.”

I get very little sleep, practicing on the Crab mecha every chance I get. The only other people I see out there at night are Chieko and Wren, who are both practicing as well. We often meet afterward and share notes. Wren has uncovered a trick where, “You can start on the wheels, build up acceleration, then jump, which’ll give you a short burst.”

“What good is that?” Chieko asks.

“What if you had to use the bathroom really badly and that minute makes all the difference?” Wren postulates.

“I do agree they need potty pots on board.”

“You don’t know how badly I had to pee yesterday,” Wren confesses.

“Did not want to know that,” I say.

“One of the guys farted during training, and we couldn’t get the smell out of the Crab for an hour,” Chieko says.

“I actually farted today, but no one noticed,” Wren says.

“Thank you for sharing that,” I tell him.

“Good night!” Chieko says.

Wren and I head for our barracks.

“It’s finally graduation time,” he says.

“What?”

“Did you forget what tomorrow is? Our training is done.”

I can’t believe it.

“We survived,” he says, expressing my sentiment perfectly.

We do basic exercises for the first half of the day. In the evening, we get called into the mess hall. Sensei is standing in front. There are barrels to either side of her. I wonder if we’re going to have to haul those around all day for our parting exercise. Her arms are crossed behind her back.

“I’ve pushed all twenty-six of you hard. You may dislike me. Hell, you may hate me. But it’s because I know what it takes to be a soldier and survive. I barely survived San Diego. I don’t want any of you to suffer the way I did.” I think back on Minako’s story about Sensei’s being kept alive as bait by the GWs. “The only way is preparation, and even that sometimes won’t be enough. I’ve lost compatriots who were much worthier than I.” There’s a vulnerability in her voice that surprises all of us. “We have one training mission to go on, followed by a final mock battle between the Crab tanks. The weapons will be digitized, but you’ll be aboard the Crabs for the fight. Think of it as a final exam before you officially graduate and complete your basic training. After that, you’ll be deployed throughout the world. For my part, it was an honor to train all of you,” she says, and bows to us.

It’s a moving gesture, and everyone starts clapping.

She puts her hand up to belay us. “We’ll have a chance for a bigger celebration following your official graduation ceremony. I’ve brought beers for everyone. Don’t overdo it. Take tomorrow to rest. The day after, we’ll head to Texarkana Fortress for the training mission. It’s simple convoy duty. I don’t anticipate any difficulties. For anyone traveling to the German Americas for the first time, do not be surprised by anything you see. Do not, and I repeat, do not apply your moral and ethical standards to them.”

We’ve all heard the tales of how inhumanely the Nazis treat their people and the massive prison complexes they have—there’s even one the size of a city—but I don’t know much about what it’s actually like living there. I try to imagine what Griselda’s life must have been like in the Reich.

People start sharing beers. There’s general cheer, singing, and joyous proclamations. There’s actually real food. We’ve made it. I’ve made it. Wren gives me a warm hug, lifting me up. Everyone hugs one another. Botan gulps down beer like it was sugar water. Poet spouts bad haikus about the joy of endurance. Chieko arm wrestles anyone who challenges her and beats them handily. Spider reflects on the different beers he’s enjoyed throughout the world. I wish Griselda were here so I could celebrate with her.

After the festivities, I head to the barracks. I’m not too drunk, though I feel a light buzz after two cups of beer. It’s breezy outside, and I try to identify some of the stars. I spot Chieko and Wren running off together, holding hands. All of us suspected they were interested in each other, but this is the first time I see it for certain. I’m happy for them.

The loose sketch of celestial bodies above resembles the constellation, Ohitsuji, and another series of stars has to be Ryouken. I notice someone waiting for me. It’s Sensei.

“You’ve been working hard,” she says.

“I want to learn as much as I can.”

“You’ve done a good job coming back from your injury.”

As it’s one of the first compliments I’ve heard from her, I’m delighted. “Thank you, Sensei. For everything.”

“You have a solid future in the RAMs. This also came for you. I don’t know the contents, but I’ll be honest. I recommended you. I think you’d make a good officer. I don’t know what their final decision was.”

She hands me a portical with a sealed message. I enter my personal code, curious who it is. It’s from BEMA.

I skip the opening salutations, speed past the notes about the request from Colonel Tachibana, and get to the point. “After a thorough reevaluation of your application, we have determined that we cannot offer you a place in the forthcoming class at BEMA.”

I don’t know if it’s the alcohol or my shock, but I stumble. I have to lean against the wall to stabilize myself.

Sensei sees my expression, understands, and assures me, “You’ll get other opportunities,” putting her hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you,” I weakly reply. My legs feel like they’re going to give out under me.

“We’ll talk more in the morning. Good night.” She leaves, and I feel embarrassed she was present for my second rejection.

I sit on the ground and pick up dirt with my hands, letting it slide through my fingers. How stupid of me to think they would change their decision. It was naive to even entertain the idea that I could get into BEMA after how badly I did on the test. Spider was right. I don’t have the right connections. I feel like that dirt, recycled and tossed back out.

Most of us spend the next day resting. Botan has exploited everyone’s enthusiasm for the forthcoming graduation to wrangle together some Hanafuda card games. I spend most of the day feeling despondent. Our Crabs are being transported to the trains for our mission, so I can’t lose myself in one of them. Even running does little to wipe away my feeling of dejection. I went through all of this training in the hopes of improving my chances for BEMA. Now that the door is shut again, I wonder what it was all for.

Another part of me goes into a state of denial. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe they got me mixed up with someone else, and I was supposed to get accepted, but they sent the wrong message. I ask permission to check the portical again and read the letter from beginning to end ten times. No mistake.

I’m furious and want to meet the panel who made the decision, inquire of them directly even though I know it’s pointless. I failed the test and got average grades. What else could I have expected? A few hours later, I’m running myself into mental knots that leave me weary. Meanwhile, Botan has won the first week’s pay of everyone who played.

Everyone’s too loud, and I feel aggravated by their complaints.

Suddenly, Chieko punches me in the shoulder.

“What’s that for?” I yell at her.

“I hate this moping. What the hell’s wrong with you?” she demands.

“We should be celebrating, man!” Wren says.

“Don’t tell me you lost all your money to her,” Chieko says to me, pointing at Botan.

I don’t know if I should tell them the truth and am about to. Spider’s arrival seals my silence as I couldn’t stand it if he knew he was right when he told me earlier that I had no chance. “Sorry, still a little hungover from last night,” I lie.

“You barely drank!” Chieko yells. and laughs.

Spider says, “Best cure for a hangover is food. You get enough to eat?”

“I’m fine,” I state. “Just need some sleep.”

But when I get to my mat, all I can think about is the rejection.