The following story incorporates trademarks and copyrighted concepts from Studios Gainax and Khara, respectively, along with references to the the works of John Milius, L. Sprague De Camp and, of course, Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian.
One day when he was young Shinji Ikari did an unusual thing, which was to take a chance. He was walking home from school to his uncle's house, but he didn't want to go there. The old man had little time for him, and all his home amounted to was a sleeping mat, an old chest of drawers, and a lamp. He had no television, and nothing to read but school books. The only thing that he could do for himself was play the cello, and that only when the old man would permit it. He practiced at the instrument only because he began when he was young, and only because no one had ever truly told him to stop, only to delay from time to time. On a normal day he would have proceeded directly home to begin his homework, but today was different.
Today a girl had told him no.
To Shinji, his fellow human beings were mysterious creatures, distant and frightening. He existed ever on the periphery of things, watching the others, observing but never interacting, never invited to play or participate. As young boys often are, he found himself drawn to that most mysterious and forbidding segment of the humans species, the young girl. It was after watching for several days that he elected to ask Aika, a pretty girl with freckles, to join him on his walk home.
Of course, she'd said no, and so rather than proceed home as normal, he decided to take the long and circuitous route that dejected boys often took when in a situation such as his, that being one that went nowhere. He found himself on a gentle upward grind and not being in particularly impressive physical shape, found himself quite winded. As he walked by the side of the road, his gaze wandered through the trees, gazing after strange shapes carved in shadow by the oncoming sunset. He paid so little attention that he in fact tripped.
For a while, he could only lay, dazed and defeated, in the dust. He rolled onto his back, shrugged off his backpack, and sat up. He'd tripped on a box that lay half-buried in the ground under an gnarled old tree that rose in twisted forks and held no leaves. Hanging from the tree was the tatters of a wooden sign, no doubt a forgotten marker left to bear the name of someone who'd died in Second Impact. They were as common as the leaves on the trees.
He tugged at the box, and fell on his backside again in the process of yanking it free. It was an old valise, half rotted, made of soft tanned leather and green felt. The lid was unsecured, the latches long ago having fallen off, and flopped in his hands when he lifted it. He was surprised to find inside the case a number of strange books. Most of them were large and heavy, as big as his textbooks. The titles were in English, a language over which he had little grasp, despite its prominence in his school curriculum.
Each book was adorned with a realistically painted image of a hugely muscled man with long black hair. Here he was nearly naked, holding a sword in one hand and a heft axe in the other, a woman in similar states of undress clinging to his leg, looking up in awe. Elsewhere he wore a shirt of chainmail and a horned helmet and swung a double headed axe at a monstrous ape that loomed over a ghostly pale woman. The largest book of all was almost as big as Shinji's torso and must have weighed thirty pounds, perhaps more. He could not read the title. The cover was dominated by the hunched form, photographed in black and white, of a man so heavily muscled he appeared inhuman.
Shinji opened the book and stared in awe. Long passages at the beginning were in English. He giggled in spite of himself at pictures of a fat man lifting a heavy barbell over his head with one hand. As he flipped further into the book, his laughter retreated, replaced by awe. The man from the cover was in many of the pictures, radiating an inhuman strength that disarmed Shinji. Here he pulled a massive barbell from the floor, and there he pressed it from his chest or curled it to his shoulders. There were other men, some larger, some smaller. As he looked over the pictures, he realized something incredible, something magical.
These were not just pictures. These were instructions.
He looked at the covers of the other books, at a massive two-page spread of the man from the cover of the big book. He was posed in such a way that his muscles expanded hugely, and though beyond him Shinji could see thousands of people in some sort of stadium, he dominated them all with his sheer presence, the raw power he exuded from his body. Shinji trembled as he flipped through the book. Lists, something about food, the word "routine" over and over again.
He shuddered. This was something people could do. Something he could do. He had never loved exercise, always looking on it as a waste of time, and yet… and yet he could not deny the power that this man wielded, even in images. He realized he had no choice. He bowed to the broken wooden sign, dumped his textbooks on the ground, and stuffed everything he'd found in his backpack, saving only the English dictionary. The rest he tucked under his arm and headed for home.
His uncle made no mention of his load as he entered the house, ran upstairs, and slammed the door without speaking to the man or inquiring after food. He locked the door, fell into his battered old desk, and began to work at one of the smaller books, chosen at random.
He had to puzzle out some words phonetically. C-O-N-A-N. The rest he translated, with some difficulty. He was unsure he'd captured the nuances, but the meaning swept through him as he read what he'd transcribed on the thin piece of paper that lay beneath the title of the first book: The Conquering Sword of Conan.
He picked up one of the other books, and as he did, a DVD fell out. He picked it up gingerly and studied it for a moment. He gasped. The picture printed on the front was the man from the big book, dressed as 'Conan', he was sure of it. Better yet, it was in Japanese!
Of course, he had no DVD player, but his uncle did, on the television in the living room. He waited, working at his translations, until the old man slept. He crept down the stairs in the dark of night, pressed the DVD into the player, and hit the play button. He jumped to turn down the volume and felt a pang of energy surge through his belly as he heard a roll of drums through the television's tinny speakers.
Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
He watched. There was a boy! A young boy, like himself, with a kindly father, like he never had. Terrible men came to the boy's village, and his mother, they… they…
Shinji choked down his sobs and feebly wiped at his tears, watching the lonely boy strain at a grain wheel. His jaw dropped as he saw the head of the boy droop, and the face of a mighty warrior rise in his place. The time seemed to flow from him as the images seared themselves into his mind, the words swept through his brain. When the credits rolled, he was shocked to realize that it was four in the morning, and he took the DVD and crept back upstairs, terrified he would wake his uncle.
That night he crept into bed and found fitful sleep, whispering to himself of the Riddle of Steel.
He set his alarm for the next morning at four. He had none of the machines pictured in the book, and wouldn't know how to use them without reading the English passages, but he could see how some of the exercises worked. He was not strong, but his slight frame was light enough that he could begin with what he'd translated as a "push-up", and that was what his uncle found him doing.
"Three," he grunted, panting, "four, five…"
His uncle stood in the door. "Waste of time, boy. Do your schoolwork."
"Six, seven, eight…"
"Did you hear me?"
His uncle laughed at him, actually laughed, and he flopped on the floor. The old man waved a dismissive hand at him, and wandered on. Shinji lay panting into the floor, beginning to question the wisdom of dumping his textbooks for the treasure he'd found.
"What is the riddle of steel?" he asked the carpet.
That day on his way home from school, he passed by a shop in town, one he had never visited before. He spent his meager allowance, all he'd be saving for weeks hoping to treat Aika if she'd favored him, and bought a simple pull-up bar, one that would fit in the door of his room. That night he managed to perform three strict repetitions before he nearly fell on the floor, the muscles in his back screaming.
The next day he did four.
A month later, he left his cello behind and walked out of the music shop with perhaps a third of its value in hand, but it was enough. The owner of the store was kind enough to drive him home in a battered old van. He hadn't bought much; the bar he'd purchased and the weight plates would add up to one hundred pounds all together, almost as much as he himself weighed. His uncle was amused, but didn't object, when the man from the shop helped Shinji set up his equipment in the disused old shed behind their little house. By now he had enough of the book puzzled out to begin a simple routine. For total body strength he would clean, press, and then squat the bar, empty at first, then do some rows and curls, and finish up with chair dips, pushups and pullups in his room. The first day made him quiver, and the next day he hurt so bad he could barely move. He was tempted to see if he could get his money back.
He chose not to.
He was a little disappointed after two months when he removed his shirt and studied himself in the mirror. He'd had two ghostly lines of abdominal muscles before he started, but his uncle said that was because he was skinny, and they'd fade into pudge as he grew up. Nevertheless, they were still there, and he felt a tightness around his shoulders, his chest and back that was quite pleasant, and he was sure his profile was a little squarer, his torso ever so slightly wider.
He had already bought more weight when the letter from his father came, and was soon to need yet another set of plates, his first pair of 22.5 KG discs. A man in a dark suit and dark sunglasses delivered it by hand, putting it in Shinji's grasp himself. He kept it, still sealed, for an entire day, turning it over and over in his hands. He held it as he rested between sets, his chest heaving from the exertion.
On the evening of the second day he peeled back the top of the enevelope and slipped the letter out, only to find it disappointing. He'd hoped his father would at least offer a token inquiry about his condition, even after he'd run away the last time they visited Mothers' grave together. Instead he found a piece of paper that looked like it had been used for something else, with the word "COME" scrawled across the middle of it in block letters. There was a photograph of a woman, too. Briefly, he wondered at her relationship to Father. Had he remarried? Shinji nearly balled up the letter and threw it away at the thought.
The next day he told the man from the shop he was leaving, never to return. The man shook his hand, complimented him on his progress, and paid him more than a fair price for his used equipment. Packing was simple. He had only a few spare school uniforms, his underclothes, his SDAT, and a new suitcase full of books that he could now easily lift and walk with in one hand.
There was something else, wrapped up securely in a cardboard tube. The poster had been expensive to find and expensive to ship, and he never put it up in his uncle's house.
His uncle did not say goodbye, and Shinji barely took notice. He stood patiently at the train station as the sun rose, watching the heat shimmer over the tracks. The train came on, a giant metal serpent, and when it opened its glassy jaws he stepped inside gladly, a smile on his lips. He was not sure what he would find in Tokyo-3, but he knew one thing with certainty.
That which did not kill him would only make him stronger.