It started with the bright white light of her tablet, the notification a signal flare arcing against a starless sky.
Groaning, she tapped the blocky red letters and closed her eyes. He’s forgotten about the time difference again.
Ren settled back into the covers, the comforter warm and soft against her chin. She felt sleep embrace her, but the call light cleaved through the darkness.
He meant to call someone else.
She pressed the red letters and rolled onto her back. Anxiety gnawed at her, ground away her desire for sleep and Ren found herself grabbing the tablet and tapping away until her father’s face was there, washed with worry and fear.
“What’s wrong?” Ren asked, and a dozen possibilities turn over in her mind. Her mother, her siblings, his job. But Occam’s Razor has no place in war. There is no room for simplicity among hatred.
“An attack,” her father said. She slid her fingers against a slender glass tab and activates a wider, brighter screen across from the bed. Ren saw images her mind refused to reconcile.
Her country. The iconic snow-topped mountain. A mushroom cloud. Cherry blossoms fluttering in a radioactive breeze.
She slid her fingers again. Light left the room, save for her father’s face, small and weak with its own darkness.
“But you are not in Tokyo,” Ren choked, knowing what he would say.
“It is not just Tokyo.”
“Tell me,” she demanded. She listened as he explained what the news outlets will spend weeks covering in detail, with bold, colorful interactive maps and graphics: analysts standing in the middle of renderings of Kyoto Ground Zero and Tokyo Ground Zero, anchors charting the bombings across Kyushu and Shikoku. Damage dealt by China, all pretense of positive relations smoldering.
With her father, it was black and white. He stayed home, sick with flu, and he could not get in touch with her mother and sisters. He has tried to use the locator app, but — and he would not look at her as the words spilled out in a sob — no user connection.
“Leave,” Ren said.
“It’s too late.”
“They’ll come,” Ren insisted, though she isn’t sure who “they” are and when and how they will arrive. “Someone will come. International aid, survivors’ camps — ”
“Ren,” her father met her eyes. Across a war zone that did not exist yesterday, across an ocean, they saw each other for what they are: a father and his favorite daughter, a dying man and a survivor.
“No,” she said. Her jaw trembled, oscillating between rage and mourning.
“I called to say goodbye.”
They spoke for another half hour, until the signal ended — tragically? Mercifully? Ren can never decide.
Ren looked around the room, Spartan with its single large screen. She felt like a caged animal, breathing stale air and circling, ready to attack. When she unlatched the door she felt cool freedom, tears drying into streaks of salt on her cheeks like war paint.
Ren tallied her losses. She tallied the losses of those who could not.
The recruiting office buzzed with jingoistic rhetoric, electric currents of pride and racism pulsing around her. Ren wanted to shake the men, women, and children who glared at her.
She remembers learning about the internment camps during World War II and how magazines published ways to tell Chinese and Japanese people apart. There were buttons with big bold letters: I AM CHINESE.
Ren considered making one of her own, one that might light up with flashing neon letters, lowercase in the style of the microblogs and pop journo sites: i am japanese-american!
Or better: i hurt, too <appropriate emoji>!
But not what she felt, never the words she wanted to scream at them as they stared and hated and judged: I lost something, and you want only to gain.
When her turn came, she signed on the line and enlisted like the others.
The campus sprawls over forty acres, though Lieutenant Colonel Chisholm assures them additional funding has been approved to purchase more land, build more facilities, remodel staff quarters. Nervous chuckles ripple from the new recruits, men and women responsible for the success of the Academy and its progeny, like this place is a living organism.
They walk into the main building, a massive umbrella sculpture of fabric and seams welcoming them in shades of orange and vermillion.
The heart of the Academy, Ren thinks. It feels like her own: ripped open and inverted, rearranged into something macabre. It beats not to sustain life, but to avenge the dead. Vessels that once constricted and pumped blood have been fashioned into spikes pulsing poison.
Ren tastes bile and the room swims before her, the heart of the Academy throbbing, pounding in the atrium. She hears the blood rushing in her ears and it sounds like the drums of war. She breathes long and deep until she feels weightless, drained of the fever that boils her blood and makes her see red and hatred everywhere.
Temper your rage.
“I like your hair. Not many women going for the traditional crew cut.” Desh’s mouth spreads in a delicate grin. It’s different from the too-wide garish smiles the others have given her, the words of a compliment betrayed by the ticks of the disingenuous. Ren decides to trust this man, even though her CO warned otherwise.
“Thanks, but I think I went too extreme. It needs to grow out. And I kind of miss my bun.”
“Did they tell you why I was here?”
“Reporter for pop journo site New New Republic,” Ren says.
“I’m writing about the success of the Academy, getting perspectives from different people in the trenches. We’ll give everyone pseudonyms. Lieutenant Colonel’s orders,” Desh says. “Tell me some things about you. Give me a sense of Specialist Ren Mori.”
“I manufacture murder,” Ren says, “and I try to live with that choice.”
Ren looks at Desh, who has sad, dark eyes like her father did. She continues.
“Some days are easier than others.”
Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe