Chutes and Ladders
Emily lay quietly in her rack – the clock they shared showed 0439, and its red eyes blinked back at her. Lettering on the back of an old photo she’d tucked up against the wall above her head shook in the general agitation of the bulkhead. She reached it down and held it out before her face in the dim illumination of CJ’s nightlight. “It’s not over yet,” it read. “Sorry, kiddo.” A finger slipped along one edge and she mouthed the final words: “You can count on me. C.”
Three pictures mattered to her, two of which she’d salvaged from the charred remains of the home she’d grown up in. Those images of her not-yet-recognized mother sustained her childhood, and she kept those back at Michael’s house in Virginia. But this one, a gift from Connie, had become the shoulder she rested on in the darkest moments since, too precious to lose, and too important not to keep near. A sealed plastic bag kept it dry – her one concession to the hazards of shipboard life – but it had been in enough uniform pockets to round off two of the corners.
She flipped it over and let her eyes roam across the fading colors on the other side. The jungle-camo green of the men’s fatigues had gone mostly grey, but Connie’s hair was still blond, tied back in a severe pony-tail. There she stood, on a wooden dock in Okinawa or maybe Manila, next to a single-engine seaplane, with three men. Two of them looked directly at the camera, perhaps surprised, but with faces too stony to show it, and a third man stood further back, shaded by the wing, glowering at something behind Connie. And how had someone even be able to take such a picture – this thought had always perplexed her. Was it a friend? But these people weren’t the sort to make friends, not even with each other. Or just an accident? However it had happened, she was sure Connie had demanded the camera, no doubt hissing a not-so-veiled threat on the photographer’s life.
The man in the middle always commanded Emily’s attention, her father, as secretive a figure as she’d ever met. He’d raised her under a foggy incognito, kept her hidden even from herself, kept her safe, and been killed before he could complete the task. Gazing at the only photographic image of him she’d ever seen comforted her; and next to him the tall blonde brought a different sort of reassurance, since she knew well enough what lengths Connie would go to on her behalf, to keep Li Li and Stone safe, and what she’d already risked to keep her alive, too. The man in the shadow also caught her eye, though she sometimes shuddered even to think of him, her uncle David, inhumanly cruel and determined to destroy her, until in one final confrontation she’d hacked a broad gash across his chest with a katana and stripped his life away. If only his face didn’t haunt her so, resembling her father’s as closely as it did.
The third man was a mystery to her. She’d never asked Connie about him, and would never show the photo to anyone else. Tall, with wavy red hair, or maybe dirty blond. Other than the fatigues, and the duffle bag over his shoulder, you wouldn’t think he was military, or any of them for that matter, except perhaps Connie. The hand he’d draped over her father’s shoulder suggested some sort of intimacy, even if she could hardly fathom what it could really mean. Emily slipped the photo back into its temporary hiding place, swung her legs onto the floor, taking care not to wake Kiku, and slipped into some shorts and running shoes.
Sleep had never been a problem for Emily before, and in the ordinary sense of the word it wasn’t really a problem now. The intermittent roar coming from the flight deck could not be covered by the white noise of whatever fan assembly pushed cool air into their berth, and the vibrations caused by the screws would come through the floor and the walls no matter what. But she still slept soundly enough – in fact, that was the problem. The dreams didn’t come.
It probably didn’t help that shipboard life put such a crimp in her exercise regimen. Running laps on the flight deck in the odd, quiet hours quickly grew tedious, and she’d devised an elaborate route below decks, up and down ladders, tumbling through open hatches, and weaving in and out of the helos and Harriers stored on the hangar deck. She got yelled at occasionally, and sometimes had to retreat to the treadmills lined up in the second deck training room intermittently reserved for the Marines. She didn’t mind the company, though most of her platoon preferred not to exercise surrounded by the ‘huge’ guys who treated the weight room as their personal domain. Durant had seen to it that none of them would hassle her, though his solicitude wasn’t really necessary.
“You lifting today, LT?” asked Lance Corporal Stallings. The big grin he wore gave some balance to his “high-and-tight” haircut. It didn’t look that bad, but flashing his teeth at least distracted from the pointy effect it otherwise produced on top of his over-developed trapezius muscles. “Because I can spot you, if you need.”
“No, thanks, Tarot,” Emily said, between jerks on the pull-up bar. “That’s not really my thing.”
The peculiar quality of Marine nicknames never ceased to amuse her, and especially that they typically bore no obvious connection to the physical appearance of whoever’d earned them. Only someone who knew how bad a poker player Stallings was – and the pouty look he’d get on his face when fortune frowned on him, as he saw it, since he’d never quite understood how anything but malign chance could be responsible for his losses – to such a person it might make sense to call him Tarot.
Did they have a nickname for her, one they hadn’t the nerve to utter in her presence? On her first billet, at Camp Schwab on Okinawa, a Gunnery Sergeant had called her Canine, and then immediately apologized.
“It’s because of the tournament, you know, the one at Quantico,” he’d offered as explanation. “We all saw the video.”
“What video, Gunny?” she demanded, though she already knew what he meant. Footage like that spreads quickly, she knew well enough, maybe not on the Marine Family Network, though for all she knew some wise-guy had probably sent it along the MCEN.
“You know, LT,” he said, too carried away with the excitement of his news to notice her changing mood. “When you stabbed that guy in the neck with his own knife, the entire company wanted to call you Vampire, and then it became Elvira… and then it eventually just became Canine… I mean, for the teeth.”
Emily didn’t say anything about it then, though her displeasure must have been obvious, and eventually it died out. At least, no one else ever said it to her face again.
“What’d she say?” Cpl Siegersen hissed a bit too loudly not to catch her ear, though she figured it would be best not to notice. The big, quiet Swede everyone knew as Racket had been bursting to tell her something from the moment he’d seen her in the training room a few days earlier. At first, they’d dubbed him Nike after someone informed the platoon that the first syllable of his name meant victory, and this eventually became Tennis, probably folding in a reference to the pontoon-sized tennis shoes he wore. “Did you ask her?”
“Quiet, you big oaf,” Stallings hissed back. “She’ll hear you.”
“Okay, guys,” she said, still hanging from the chin-up bar. “Spill. What’s so damned exciting?”
“Sorry, LT, sir… uh, ma’am,” Siegersen said, tripping over every other word, and staring at his shoes.
“Eyes, Corporal,” she growled. “Marines make eye contact.”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s just that Tarot’s got a video he wants to ask you about.”
Emily frowned and turned away.
“It’s not bad, ma’am,” Tarot said. “I got it from a buddy at Pendleton. He says it’s all over the net.”
When she turned back, not knowing what to say, she expected the worst. But what she saw playing on the screen Tarot held out for her did not feature her stabbing Jiao Long through the neck, and a red fountain blooming behind her – she’d seen enough of that video. Instead, the scene that had the Jarheads so worked up must have been taken that night in Roppongi. She smiled at the sight of Durant and Ishikawa singing duets in the street like Sonny and Cher.
“You thought it was gonna be nasty?”
“Like when you took down that little guy from the Jietai,” Siegersen added. “The whole MEU’s already seen that one, too.”
Of course, to Siegersen, everyone must seem little, Emily thought.
“We were thinking of calling the sergeant Pavarotti,” Stallings added. “How do you think he’ll take it?”
“You’ll have to take that up with him,” she said, and started for the door.
“And the guys want to call you Ninja,” Siegersen called after her.
Of course they do. Yet another reminder that she hadn’t escaped the violence she’d left in her wake, it reduced her to standing in the passageway, just out of their sight, head pressed against a bulkhead. Warfighters, they liked to call themselves, especially before a mission, though few of them had actually killed an enemy close up – she was grateful they’d been spared that – but they’d endured hardships and shivered in the expectation of death for purposes not entirely their own. Their fascination with her was based on the very thing she wished to forget about herself, since why else would they have anything but disdain for her, ‘a tiny slip of a girl’ in their midst. Sure, she could carry a fully loaded pack, and meet the rest of the infantry standards (barely), but no Marine would imagine having any use for her in combat judging solely from appearances.
“I gotta get some better sleep,” she grumbled, and pushed herself off the bulkhead. “Too late to run on the flight deck.”
“Watch it there, Lieutenant,” a familiar voice said, and she stepped back into a broad chest. “You okay, Em?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, turning to look up into Perry’s warm eyes. If only she could curl up in his arms. But proprieties had to be observed.
“Were those clowns giving you a hard time? Maybe I should sort ’em out.”
“Nah,” she said, pulling him back. “It’s just Tarot and Racket. They don’t mean any harm.”
“I have no idea why you put up with those muscleheads, Em.”
“They’re just big kids.” She withdrew her hand from his and hoped he wouldn’t fuss. “Anyway, I have to finish my workout.” Already halfway down the passageway, looking to find a clear space to run in, and to put some distance between herself and those unhappy reflections, she squeezed past a knot of sailors and squirted up a ladder to the first deck.
“Good,” Perry said, following after, but clearing a much wider path. “Because there’s something you’ll want to see in the hangar bay.”
Emily glowered back at him and turned up another ladder, and stood by the hatch nearest the port elevator.
Not much smaller than a football field, the hangar bay of the Bonhomme Richard, a Wasp-class LHD-6, felt cavernous with the Harrier squadron out on exercises, and the SH-60 Seahawks on the flight deck, preparing for another practice anti-submarine sweep. More than a couple dozen Phrogs with their rotors folded back crowded the area by the ramp leading down to the Lower V. When Emily saw the crowd gathered in a dense pack by the starboard elevator, she thought of running up the ramp to the flight deck. But Perry’s gentle hand turned her shoulder in the other direction.
“This is what Theo wanted you to see.”
“What? Another PT session? I think I’ve seen enough of those.”
“Not like this one, you haven’t,” Perry said.
On closer examination, the grunting and yelling came not from the crowd, but from the Chinese platoon, arranged in three lines, shirtless, taking turns swinging at each other’s midsections with what looked like 2x4s. Capt Diao observed from the side, nodding occasionally at his second-in-command, a stout, muscular man named Yan.
“Holy crap,” Emily said.
“I know. That’s gotta hurt.”
“Oh, I was just wondering where they got the lumber from. Do you think they brought it on board with them?”
“Man, these guys are tough,” Durant said, having sidled up next to her. His grin indicated something less than sincerity, which was easier to read, his nose finally having found its former dimensions, more or less.
“It’s just a lot of scar tissue,” she said.
“Maybe so,” Perry said. “But it teaches them that they can take a hit.”
“But think what their bodies will be like in twenty years.”
“If they live that long,” Durant snorted.
At a signal from Capt Diao, his men lined up for some sort of exercise, or maybe a demonstration, pulling pads on head and hands. By this time, Kano and his men had found their way up to the hangar bay. Tsukino stood off to one side, sneering at the proceedings, or perhaps at her.
Emily found much to admire in the style of wu shu the Chinese had made their study, and which Yan especially seemed so very proficient in. “It’s some form of the White Crane,” she muttered.
“Might as well call it the Blue Duck style,” Durant whispered.
Emily glowered at him. “Don’t you see? It’s an ancient precursor of the Shotokan you practice.” Perry nodded his agreement. “The elbow blocks are distinctive, like a signature.”
“And painful,” he said.
“And beautiful,” she said.
Just as their training involved more brutality than anyone watching had expected, the sparring competition that followed seemed more violent than could possibility be productive. Fierce, low leg-sweeps, striking the ankles and shins, coupled with quick feints to the face and neck, designed to provoke an attack and create an opening for elbow strikes.
Yan summoned one man after another to face him, dispatching each one in a few deft moves. The brevity of each match seemed a sort of blessing, since it prevented more serious injuries, though several men came away bruised and bent, and Emily winced to see it. Tsukino’s eye caught hers in a furtive, angry glance, as if expecting her to do something, to take up a challenge that had not been explicitly offered.
As fierce as Yan seemed, she knew that a greater ferocity had entered the ring when Diao himself stepped forward. Calm and placid as his face appeared, she felt nothing behind his eyes, even when he turned to look directly at her. Blank, impassive, almost indifferent to her presence… almost, but not quite entirely. Did she detect a smoldering resentment there, the sort that can hide behind a smile, and a rage that dares not give itself away? Or was this merely her own recriminations, magnified perhaps in the vast echo chamber of a floating metal sarcophagus?
“Holy crap,” Durant blurted out, when Diao blocked a furious combination with the point of his elbow and a sharp blow to Yan’s ankle. “Does he really want to do that to his own men?” Before he even had a chance to stumble out of range, Diao had hit him with three paired strikes, the first two more like slaps than punches, snaked artfully over and under ineffective blocks, not forceful enough to disable, but sufficient to set up the haymakers that followed.
When Diao turned to find her eyes, Emily knew she should no longer provide an audience for this display of martial prowess, and began to work her way over to the forward elevator. A breeze ruffled her hair as it came in through the huge door, beyond which the lift platform opened on to the ocean, and which provided much of the light on the scene. She wanted to let herself drift across the panorama of the South China Sea, to skip across the white tops of waves, or plunge beneath them and let her lungs feel the weight of the water as the five sets of screws of the Amphibious Squadron twisted and churned above her. If only the reverie would actually carry her away from this moment.
Meanwhile Diao had finished with Yan, who limped off, and pairs of men now faced him, 2x4s in hand, and Emily found herself standing near a knot of the Jietai, including Dice, Moon and Kano.
“Do you think they have permission to win?” Dice asked.
“Even if they do, I doubt they’d really hit him with one of those things,” Kano said. “Would you?”
Emily glanced back at the ring just as Diao waved in the last pair, and tried to ignore Dice’s carping. What were they watching? His form might not have been flawless, but his speed and intensity was extreme. Can’t they see it? She scanned the crowd and saw the same expression everywhere, on the Jietai, on the Marines – they seemed entranced by Diao’s skill, even cheered when he disarmed one man and threw the other out of the makeshift ring. He landed on the bare floor and struggled to pick himself up. All the while, Diao’s face remained impassive, even indifferent to his men, to the crowd, to everything but her, or so it seemed.
“Can’t they see how horrible this is, how ugly he is? He’s little more than a feral beast.” The thought echoed inside her, and triggered a second, more painful reflection: “Is that how I look to people? Am I that ugly.”
She shivered and turned to see Moon pushing Dice out of his way. Diao had finished with his own men, and now glowered a challenge at the crowd, and the movement must have caught her eye.
“Yame, Tsukino-san,” she cried out almost before she realized that sounds were coming out of her mouth, and Kano snarled at her. Moon merely scowled and stepped into the ring.
“This is none of your affair.” – Emily stepped back when Kano warded her off with a gesture – “You have no authority over my men. And why do you even care?”
The question froze her. She did care – not just about another human being’s suffering, but Moon in particular. A glance around the hangar showed her the other faces she ought to care about more, Perry standing a few feet away surrounded by Marines whose attention was glued to Diao’s every move… even Tarot and Racket. She spied them, lingering in the back, even Tarot and Racket had found their way to the hangar deck, and the gleam in their eyes, the puppyish admiration for a shiny, new sensation, she knew how easily it could place them in harm’s way. At first, they’d overestimate Diao’s abilities, but soon enough their own boyish exuberance would egg them on, until they’d want to try their luck against him… and that’s exactly what it would be, luck, bad luck.
“He has no chance. He’ll get hurt,” she said.
“Do not cheat him of the chance to regain his honor.”
Moon had already exchanged a few strikes and blocks with Diao, and with Dice cheering him on, his spirits were running high. His technique looked crisp by comparison when Diao slapped at his ankle with a low kick and swung a slow hook wide at his head. An easy arm-block allowed Moon to step through the kick and strike hard and fast at his chest and face. It looked like a decisive move…
But Emily saw something else. In a flash, all that had been impenetrable in Diao became transparent. She saw, as if she were looking through his eyes, and Moon, lunging forward, confident in his strength and skill, she recognized him more as prey than an opponent. The feral cast of the view through Diao’s eyes bathed everything and everyone in the hangar bay in a lurid yellow light, and she knew what that meant, what must be coming. Diao’s elbow block – fiercer than anything he’d done so far – would buckle Moon’s wrist. She savored the pain that would scorch his face, and in the instant of his recoil, her hands, Diao’s hands, would seize the wrist, twisting and punching through the back of his elbow and kicking through the opposite knee. Moon would crumple, screaming, to the floor, broken, mangled and then she’d silence him for good with a sharp kick to the throat.
“Ii-ye,” Emily gasped. “Yamete… kudasai.” But it was too late to stop him, and he stepped into the trap. A hard elbow block caught him on the knuckles – even through the glove, the pain buckled his wrist – and, before he could react, Diao had already struck him several times, in the face, the arms, chest and groin. He stumbled back and fell to his knees, and Diao loomed over him, ready to deliver a finishing blow.
“Enough,” Perry shouted, and inserted himself between the two men. Dice and Kano helped Moon up and pulled him away as Emily looked on. Diao tilted his head in her direction and smiled.
“You knew,” Kano said, a few moments later, while Dice and Perry tended to Moon. “Even before it happened.” Emily shook her head. “How did you know?”
She stared at him, without anger or resentment. “I only knew what I would have done.” It hurt more than she expected to make such an admission, especially when she glanced over at Tarot and Racket.